"What, what? You said 'Marge'—not 'marriage'—your sister Marge? You should speak more clearly. Get nearer the receiver—age plays havoc with the hearing. Fine woman, Marge, and you can tell her I said so. Great spirit. Plenty of courage. Always admired courage. If I were a young man and back on earth again, I might do worse, what, what?"
And then I am sorry to say he changed the subject abruptly. He went on:
"What's this about King Edward potatoes? Stuff and nonsense! I knew all about potatoes. Grew them at Windsor. Kew too. Wrote an article about them. Why can't they name a potato after me? What?"
Here Chlorine interposed: "Do you wish for another three minutes, sir, or have you finished?"
I hoped he would say, "Don't cut us off," but, possibly from habits of economy, he did not. I have not given his name, for fear of being thought indiscreet, but possibly those who are deeply read in history may guess it.
It is the greatest tribute but one that I have ever received, and I think brings me very nearly up to the level of my Great Example. If I could only feel that for once I had done that, I could fold my little hands and be content.
But it is not quite the greatest tribute of all. The greatest is my own self-estimate of me myself. It demands and shall receive a chapter all to itself. Wipe your feet, take off your hat, assume a Sunday expression, and enter upon it reverently.
After all, the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us is not to be desired. In your case for certain it would cause you the most intense depression. Even in my own case I doubt if it would give me the same warm, pervading glow of satisfaction that obtain from a more Narcissan procedure.
By the way, ought one to say "self-estimate" or "self-esteem"? What a silly girl I am! I quite forgot.
More trouble. Determined to give an estimate of myself based on the best models, I turned to the pages of my Great Example, and ran into the following sentence:
"I do not propose to treat myself like Mr. Bernard Shaw in this account."
Does this mean that she does not propose to treat herself as if she were Mr. Bernard Shaw? It might. Does it mean that she does not propose to treat herself as Mr. Bernard Shaw treats her? It is not impossible.
What one wants it to mean is: "I do not propose to treat myself as Mr. Bernard Shaw treats himself." But if she had meant that, she would have said it.
I backed away cautiously, and, a few lines further on, fell over her statement that she has a conception of beauty "not merely in poetry, music, art and nature, but in human beings." No doubt. And I have a conception of slovenly writing not merely in her autobiography, but in its seventeenth chapter.
I had not gone very much further in that same chapter before I was caught in the following thicket:
"I have got china, books, whips, knives, matchboxes, and clocks given me since I was a small child."
If these things were given her since she was a small child, they might have been given her on the day she wrote—in which case it would not have been remarkable that she still possessed them. The nearest way out of the jungle would be to substitute "when" for "since." But it is incredible that she should have thought of two ways of saying the same thing, let them run into one another, and sent "The Sunday Times" the mess resulting from the collision.
She must be right. Mr. Balfour said she was the best letter-writer he knew. With generous reciprocity she read Mr. Balfour's books and realized without external help "what a beautiful style he wrote."
And for goodness sake don't ask me how you write a style. You do it in precisely the same way that you cook a saucepan—that is, by the omission of the word "in."
Yet one more quotation from the last column of the last extract:
"If I had to confess and expose one opinion of myself which might differentiate me a little from other people, I should say it was my power of love coupled with my power of criticism."
No, never mind. The power of love is not an opinion; and in ending a sentence it is just as well to remember how you began it. But I absolutely refuse to let my simple faith be shaken. She records the bones that she has broken, but John Addington Symonds told her that she retained "l'oreille juste." Her husband said she wrote well, and he must know. Besides, am I to be convinced in my penultimate chapter that anything can be wrong with the model I have followed? Certainly not. It would be heartbreaking.
Besides, the explanation is quite simple. When she wrote that last instalment in "The Sunday Times," the power of criticism had gone to have the valves ground in.
I will now ask your kind attention for my estimate of me, Marge Askinforit, by myself.
There is just one quality which I claim to have in an even greater degree than my prototype. She is unlike real life—no woman was ever like what any woman supposes herself to be—but I am far more unlike real life. I have more inconsistency, more self-contradiction, more anachronism, more impossibility. In fact, I sometimes feel as if some fool of a man were just making me up as he went along.
And the next article? Yes, my imagination.
I have imagination of a certain kind. It has nothing to do with invention or fancy. It is not a mental faculty at all. It is not physical. Neither is it paralysis, butterscotch, or three spades re-doubled. I should so much like to give some idea of it if I had any. Perhaps an instance will help.
I remember that I once said to the Dean of Belial that I thought the naming of a Highland hotel "The Light Brigade" showed a high degree of imagination.
"Half a moment," said the Dean. "I think I know that one. No—can't get it. Why was the hotel called that?"
"Because of its terrific charges."
"Yes," he said wearily. "I've heard it. But"—more brightly—"can you tell me why a Highland regiment was called 'The Black Watch'?"
"I can, Massa Johnson. Because there's a 'b' in both."
"Wrong again. It's because there's an 'e' in each."
I gave him a half-nelson to the jaw and killed him, and the entire company then sung "Way down upon de Swannee Ribber," with harmonium accompaniment, thus bringing the afternoon performance to a close. The front seats were half empty, but then it was late in the season, and looked like rain, and—
Certainly, I can stop if you like. But you do see what I mean, don't you? The imagination is something that runs away with you. If I were to let mine get away with me, it would knock this old autobiography all to splinters.
But I do not appear to have the kind of imagination that makes me know what will hurt people's feelings. If I love people I always tell them what their worst faults are, and repeat what everybody says about them behind their back. That ought to make people say: "Thank you, Marge, for your kind words. They will help me to improve myself." It has not happened yet. It is my miraculous power of criticism that causes the trouble. Whenever I let it off the lead it seems to bite somebody; a muzzle has been suggested.
The other day I said to Popsie Bantam: "You're quite right to bob your hair, Popsie. When you have not got enough of anything, always try to persuade people that you want less. But your rouge-et-noir make-up is right off the map. If you could manage to get some of the colours in some of the right places, people would laugh less. And I can never quite decide whether it's your clothes that are all wrong, or if it's just your figure. I wish you'd tell me. Anyhow, you should try for a job at a photographer's—you're just the girl for a dark-room."
Really, that's all I said—just affectionate, lambent, helpful criticism, with a little Tarragon in it. Yet next day when I met her on the staircase she said she didn't want to talk to me any more. So I heaved her over the balustrade and she had a forty-foot drop on to the marble below. I am too impulsive—I have always said so. Rather a pathetic touch was that she died just as the ambulance reached the hospital. I have lost quite a lot of nice friends in this way.
With the exception of a few teeny-weeny murders, I do not think I have done anything in my life that I regret. And even the murders—such as they were—were more the fault of my circumstances than of myself. If, as I have always wished, I had lived alone on a desert island, I should never have killed anybody at all. But when you go into the great world (basement entrance) and have a bad night, or the flies are troublesome, you do get a feeling of passionate economy; you realize that there are people you can do without, and you do without them. This is the whole truth about a little failing of which my detractors have made the most. Calumny and exaggeration have been carried to such an extent that more than once I have been accused of being habitually irritable.
My revered model wrote that she had always been a collector "of letters, old photographs of the family, famous people and odds and ends." I have not gone quite as far as this.
I have collected odds, and almost every autumn I roam over the moors and fill a large basket with them, but I have never collected ends.
I do want to collect famous people, but for want of a little education I have not been able to do it. I simply do not know whether it is best to keep them in spirits of wine, or to have them stuffed in glass cases—like the canaries and the fish that you could not otherwise believe in. I have been told that really the best way is to press them between the leaves of some very heavy book, such as an autobiography, but I fancy they lose much of their natural brilliance when treated in this way.
Another difficulty is that the ordinary cyanide bottles that you buy at the naturalist's, though excellent for moths, are not really large enough to hold a full-sized celebrity. At the risk of being called a sentimentalist, I may say that I do not think I could kill famous people by any method that was not both quick and painless. If anything like cruelty were involved in their destruction, I would sooner not collect them at all, but just make a study of them in their wild state.
I am only a poor little girl, and I can find nothing whatever on the subject in any reference book in the public reading-room. I need expert advice. There is quite a nice collection of famous—and infamous—people near Baker Street Station, but I am told these are only simulacra. That would not suit me at all. I am far too genuine, downright, and truthful to put up with anything less than the real thing.
There must be some way of doing it. I should like to have a stuffed M.P. in a glass case at each end of the mantelpiece in my little boudoir. They need not be of the rarest and most expensive kinds. A pretty Labour Member with his mouth open and a rustic background, and a Coalitionist lightly poised on the fence, would please me.
It would be so interesting to display one's treasures when people came to tea.
"Never seen a real leader-writer?" I should say. "They're plentiful locally, but mostly come out at night, and so many people miss them. It is not of the least use to put treacle on the trees. The best way is to drive a taxi slowly down Fleet Street about one in the morning and look honest. That's how I got the big leader-writer in the hall. Just press his top waistcoat button and he'll prove that the lost election was a moral victory.
"In the next case? Oh, they're just a couple of little Georgian poets. They look wild, but they're quite tame really. Sprinkle an advance on account of royalties on the window-sill and they'll come for it. It used to be pretty to watch those two, pouring adulatory articles over each other. They sing chopped prose, and it seemed almost a pity to kill them; but there are plenty more.
"And that very pretty creature is an actress; if you drop an interviewer into the left hand corner of the dressing-room you will hear her say: 'I love a country life, and am never happier than when I am working in my little garden,'—insert here the photograph in the sun-bonnet—'I don't think the great public often realizes what a vast amount of——'"
But I am talking about collecting other people. I am wandering from my subject. I must collect myself.
At a very early age I caught the measles and a little later on the public eye. The latter I still hold. But I do not often lose anything except friends, and occasionally the last 'bus, and of course my situations. My great model says it is a positive punishment to her to be in one position for long at a time, and I must be something like that—I rarely keep a place much longer than a month. On the other hand, I still have quite a number of metal discs that formed the wheels of a toy railway train which I had when I was quite a child. I should have had them all, but I used some to get chocolates out of the automatic machines.
I should have liked to have appended here a list of my accomplishments, but I must positively keep room for my last chapter. So to save space I will merely give a list of the accomplishments which I have not got, or have not got to perfection.
The E flat clarionet is not really my instrument, but I will give you three guesses what is.
I skate beautifully, but not so well as I dance. However, I am saving the I's out of my autobiography for further practice.
Some people perhaps have better memories. But that's no reason why they should write to the "Sunday Times" about it.
I cannot write Chinese as fluently as English, though I might conceivably write it more correctly.
I think I have mentioned everything in which I am not perfectly accomplished. Truth and modesty make me do it.
I would conclude this estimate of myself as follows. If I had to confess and expose one opinion of myself which would record what I believe to be my differentiation from other people, it would be the opinion that I am a law unto myself and a judgment to everybody else.
TRAGIC DISAPPEARANCE OF MARGE ASKINFORIT
I sometimes think that it must have been a sense of impending autobiography which made me seek employment in the Lightning Laundry. After all, the autobiographist merely does in public what the laundry does in the decent seclusion of its works at Wandsworth or Balham.
The principal difference would appear to be that a respectable laundress does know where to draw the line.
But I admit that I had other motives in seeking a new career. My attempt to reclaim baronets in their dinner-hour had broken down completely; in spite of everything I could do, the dirty dogs would persist in eating their dinner at that time. Then again, the beautiful and imaginative essays which dear Casey wrote, under different names and with varying addresses, on my suitability for domestic service, had begun to attract too much attention; and a censorious world stigmatized as false and dishonest what was really poetical. I wanted too, a position of greater independence.
Of course, I had to learn the work. At first I was taught the leading principles of button-removal. Then I went on to the rough-edging. This consists in putting a rough edge on starched collars and cuffs with a coarse file. Afterwards I was promoted to the mixing department. This is where the completed articles are packed for delivery. It requires great quickness and a nice sense of humour. For instance, you take up a pair of socks and have to decide instantly whether you will send them both to an elderly unmarried lady, or divide them impartially between two men. Our skill in creating odd socks and stockings was gratefully recognized by the Amalgamated Hosiers' Institution, who paid the laundry an annual subsidy. A good memory was essential for the work. Every girl was required to memorize what size in collars each male client took, so that the fifteen-inch collars might be sent to the man with the seventeen-inch neck and vice-versa. As the manager said to me once: "What we are here for is to teach people self-control. The rest is merely incidental."
I did not remain very long in the mixing department. My head for figures soon earned me a place in the office. Much of it was routine work. Four times every year we had to send out the notices that owing to the increased cost of labour and materials we were reluctantly compelled to increase our prices 22-1/2 per cent. We made it 22-1/2 per cent. with the happy certainty that very few of our customers would be able to calculate the amount of the increase, and still fewer would take the trouble; this left a little room for the play of our fancy. As one of our directors—a man with a fine, scholarly head—once said to me: "Bring the larger vision into the addition of a customer's account. The only natural limit to the charge for washing a garment is the cost of the garment. Keep your eyes ever on the goal. Our present prices are but milestones on the road." He had a beautiful, ecclesiastical voice. Nobody would have guessed that he was an engineer and the inventor of the Button-pulper and Hem-render which have done so much to make our laundries what they are.
From the very first day that I took up my work in the office I became conscious that Hector, the manager, had his eye upon me. He would generally read a page or two of Keats or Shelley to us girls, before we began to make out the customers' accounts. This was all in accord with the far-seeing and generous policy of the laundry. The reading took a little time, but it filled us with the soaring spirit. It made pedantic precision and things-that-are repulsive to us. After I heard Hector read the "Ode to a Nightingale" I could not bring myself to say that two and two were four; nothing less than fourteen seemed to give me any satisfaction. Hector knew how quickly responsive and keenly sentient I was. A friend once told me that he had said of me that I made arithmetic a rhapsody. "This," I replied quietly, "means business."
It did. One Saturday afternoon I had tea with him—not on the Terrace, as the A.B.C. shop in the High Street was so much nearer. He was very wonderful. He talked continuously for two hours, and would have gone on longer. But the waitress pointed out that the charge for a cup of tea and a scone did not include a twenty-one years' lease of the chair you sat on.
He was, of course, a man of great scientific attainments. His work on the use of acids in fabric-disintegration has a reputation throughout the laundries of Europe. But he had not the habit of screaming blasphemies which my Great Example failed to convince anybody that she had discovered in Huxley. In brief, he did not conform to the unscientific idea of what a scientific man must be like. He was a cultured idealist. I will try to recall a few of the marvellous things he said that afternoon.
In reply to some remark of mine, he said with authority and conviction: "Marge, you really are."
And, indeed, I had to admit that very often I am.
He was saying that in this world gentle methods have effected more than harsh, and added this beautiful thought: "In the ordeal by laundry the soft-fronted often outlasts the starched."
Later, I led him on to speak of ambition.
"I am ambitious. That is to say, I live not in the present, but in the future. At one time I had a bicycle, but in imagination I drove a second-hand Ford; and now I possess the Ford, and in imagination I have a Rolls-Royce. I once held a subordinate position in the laundry, but in imagination I was the manager; and now I am the manager, and in imagination am asked to join the Board of Directors. As the poet Longfellow so wisely said—Excelsior. Engraved in letters of gold on the heart of the ambitious are these words: 'And the next article?' At this present moment I am having a cup of tea with by far the most brilliant and beautiful girl of my acquaintance, but in imagination——"
And it was just there that the tactless waitress interrupted us so rudely. It was in vain that I tried to lead him back to the subject. Almost his last words to me that afternoon were:
"I suppose you don't happen to know what the time is?"
Nor did I. It was just an instance of his subtle intuition. He understood me at once and without effort. Many men have made a hobby of it for years and never been within three streets of it.
The clock at the post-office gave him the information he required, and, raising his hat, he said: "Well, I must be getting on."
The whole of the man's life was in that sentence. Always, he was getting on—and always with a compulsion, as of destiny, shoving behind.
Knowing my keen appreciation of art, of which I have always been a just and unfailing critic, he took me on the following Saturday to see the pictures. It was not a good show—too many comics for my taste, and I'd seen the Charlie Chaplin one before. However, in the dim seclusion of the two-shilling seats just as the eighteenth episode of "The Woman Vampire" reached its most pathetic passage, and the girl at the piano appropriately shifted to the harmonium, Hector asked me if I would marry him.
(No, I shan't. I know I'm an autobiographer and that you have paid to come in, but there are limits. You know how shy and retiring I am. No nice girl would tell you what the man said or did on such an occasion, or how she responded. There will be no details. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself.)
But just one of Hector's observations struck me particularly: "You know, Marge, there are not many girls in the laundry I would say as much to."
That statement of preference, admitting me as it were to a small circle of the elect, meant very much to me. I could only reply that there were some men I wouldn't even allow to take me to a cinema. I asked, and was accorded, time for consideration.
I was face to face with the greatest problem of my life. There was, I know, one great drawback to my marriage with Hector. An immense risk was involved. When the end of this chapter is reached the reader will know what the risk and drawback were.
At the same time, everybody knew well that Hector was marked out for a great position. I had already, with a view to eventualities, had some discussion with one of the Directors, Mr. Cashmere, whom I have already quoted. I was a special favourite of his. But it is quite an ordinary thing in business, of course, for a Director to discuss the internal affairs of the Board with one of the Company's junior clerks.
Mr. Cashmere expressed the highest opinion of Hector, and said he had no doubt that Hector would become a Director, as a result of a complicated situation that had arisen. Two of the Directors, Mr. Serge and Mr. Angora, while remaining on the best possible social terms with the chairman, Sir Charles Cheviot, were bitterly opposed to him on questions of policy. On the other hand, though agreed on questions of policy, Mr. Serge and Mr. Angora were bitterly jealous of each other, and a rupture was imminent. Under the circumstances, Mr. Cashmere, while assuring everybody of his whole-hearted support, had a private reservation of judgment to be finally settled by the directional feline saltation.
Whichever turn the crisis took, he regarded it as certain that there would be a resignation, and that Hector would get the vacant place.
"Why," I said, "it's rather like the Government of the British Empire."
"Hush!" he said, warningly. "It is exactly like it, but in the interests of the shareholders we do not wish that to be generally known. It would destroy confidence."
I myself felt quite certain that if Hector did become a Director he would very shortly be chairman of the Board. He was a man that naturally took anything there was.
It was in my power to marry a man who would become the chairman of a Laundry Company with seventeen different branches. It was a great position. Had I any right to refuse it? If I did not take it, I felt sure that somebody else would. Was anybody else as good as I was? Truth compelled me to answer in the negative. The voice of conscience said: "Take a good thing when you see it. People have lost fortunes by opening their mouths too wide."
On the other hand there were two considerations of importance. I might possibly receive a better offer. If I had been quite sure that Hector would have taken it nicely, I would have asked him for a three months' option to see if anything better turned up, but I knew that with his sensitive nature he might be offended.
The second consideration was the terrible risk to which I have already referred. Do be patient. You will know all about it when the time comes.
I had to decide one way or the other, and—as the world knows now—I decided in favour of Hector. And immediately the storm broke.
Every old cat that I knew—and I knew some—began to give me advice. Now, nobody takes advice better than I do, when I am conscious that I need it and am sure that the advice is good. Of this I feel as sure as if such an occasion had ever actually arrived. In an International Sweet-nature Competition I would back myself for money every time.
I was told that in the dignified position which was to be mine I must give up larking about and the use of wicked words when irritated. It seemed to me that if I was to surrender all my accomplishments I might just as well never marry Hector at all. I avoid a certain freedom of speech which my great predecessor uses on a similar occasion.
Dear old Mr. Cashmere found me in almost a bad temper about it, and listened gravely to my complaint. Placing one hand on my shoulder, he said:
"Marge, I have lived long, and in the course of my life I have received much advice. My invariable rule has always been to thank for it, expressing my gratitude with some warmth and every appearance of sincerity. This is all that the adviser requires. It gives him, or her, complete satisfaction. It costs nothing. Afterwards, I proceed precisely as if no advice had been given."
That freak, Millie Wyandotte, sent me a plated toast-rack and a letter from which I extract the following:
"If you were half as extraordinary as you think you are, this would be a miserable marriage. Anybody who married it would get lost, bewildered, and annoyed, and the hymn for those at sea should be sung at the wedding ceremony. But cheer up, old girl. Really extraordinary people never think it worth while to prove that they are extraordinary, and mostly would resent being told it. You'll do. Psychologies like yours can be had from any respectable dealer at a shilling a dozen, including the box. They wear very well and give satisfaction. Here's luck."
Mr. J. A. Banting sent me a travelling-clock at one time the property of Lord Baringstoke, and a letter of such fervent piety and tender affection that it is too sacred for me to quote.
Fifty-eight rejected suitors combined to send me a hand-bag of no great intrinsic value. I cannot but think that the principle of syndication is more suited to business than to generosity.
But I will not weary the reader with a list of the numerous and costly gifts that I received. Suffice it to say that one of my brothers, an excellent judge, offered me a fiver for the lot, and said that he expected to lose money by it.
* * * * *
Immediately after the wedding ceremony the blow fell. I had foreseen the danger of disaster from the very first, and that disaster came. I can hardly bring myself to write of it.
I have spoken of my husband as Hector, but his surname was Harris—his mother was one of the Tweeds. Consequently, I had become Mrs. Harris.
The tendency of a Mrs. Harris to become mythical was first noticed by an English writer of some repute in the nineteenth century. I forget his precise name, but believe that it was Thackeray.
It was in the vestry that I seemed to hear the voice of an elderly and gin-bemused female telling me that there was no sich person. I did not cease to exist, but I became aware that I never had, and never could have, existed. I was merely mythical. Gently whispering "The Snark was a Boojum," I faded away.
The last sound I heard was the voice of Hector calling to me:
"Hullo, hullo! Are you there? Harris speaking.... Hullo, hullo.... Are you there?"
And, as not infrequently happens, there was no answer.
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Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to be true to the author's words and intent.