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IV

A Night-Piece



There came a night when the husband was alone in that street
waiting. He can do nothing for you now, little nursery
governess, you must fight it out by yourself; when there are
great things to do in the house the man must leave. Oh, man,
selfish, indelicate, coarse-grained at the best, thy woman's hour
has come; get thee gone.

He slouches from the house, always her true lover I do believe,
chivalrous, brave, a boy until to-night; but was he ever unkind
to her? It is the unpardonable sin now; is there the memory of
an unkindness to stalk the street with him to-night? And if not
an unkindness, still might he not sometimes have been a little
kinder?

Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to
be a little kinder than is necessary?

Poor youth, she would come to the window if she were able, I am
sure, to sign that the one little unkindness is long forgotten,
to send you a reassuring smile till you and she meet again; and,
if you are not to meet again, still to send you a reassuring,
trembling smile.

Ah, no, that was for yesterday; it is too late now. He wanders
the streets thinking of her tonight, but she has forgotten him.
In her great hour the man is nothing to the woman; their love is
trivial now.

He and I were on opposite sides of the street, now become
familiar ground to both of us, and divers pictures rose before me
in which Mary A---- walked. Here was the morning after my only
entry into her house. The agent had promised me to have the
obnoxious notice-board removed, but I apprehended that as soon as
the letter announcing his intention reached her she would remove
it herself, and when I passed by in the morning there she was on
a chair and a foot-stool pounding lustily at it with a hammer.
When it fell she gave it such a vicious little kick.

There were the nights when her husband came out to watch for the
postman. I suppose he was awaiting some letter big with the fate
of a picture. He dogged the postman from door to door like an
assassin or a guardian angel; never had he the courage to ask if
there was a letter for him, but almost as it fell into the box he
had it out and tore it open, and then if the door closed
despairingly the woman who had been at the window all this time
pressed her hand to her heart. But if the news was good they
might emerge presently and strut off arm in arm in the direction
of the pork emporium.

One last picture. On summer evenings I had caught glimpses of
them through the open window, when she sat at the piano singing
and playing to him. Or while she played with one hand, she flung
out the other for him to grasp. She was so joyously happy, and
she had such a romantic mind. I conceived her so sympathetic
that she always laughed before he came to the joke, and I am sure
she had filmy eyes from the very start of a pathetic story.

And so, laughing and crying, and haunted by whispers, the little
nursery governess had gradually become another woman, glorified,
mysterious. I suppose a man soon becomes used to the great
change, and cannot recall a time when there were no babes
sprawling in his Mary's face.

I am trying to conceive what were the thoughts of the young
husband on the other side of the street. "If the barrier is to
be crossed to-night may I not go with her? She is not so brave
as you think her. When she talked so gaily a few hours ago, O my
God, did she deceive even you?"

Plain questions to-night. "Why should it all fall on her? What
is the man that he should be flung out into the street in this
terrible hour? You have not been fair to the man."

Poor boy, his wife has quite forgotten him and his trumpery love.
If she lives she will come back to him, but if she dies she will
die triumphant and serene. Life and death, the child and the
mother, are ever meeting as the one draws into harbour and the
other sets sail. They exchange a bright "All's well" and pass
on.

But afterward?

The only ghosts, I believe, who creep into this world, are dead
young mothers, returned to see how their children fare. There is
no other inducement great enough to bring the departed back.
They glide into the acquainted room when day and night, their
jailers, are in the grip, and whisper, "How is it with you, my
child?" but always, lest a strange face should frighten him, they
whisper it so low that he may not hear. They bend over him to
see that he sleeps peacefully, and replace his sweet arm beneath
the coverlet, and they open the drawers to count how many little
vests he has. They love to do these things.

What is saddest about ghosts is that they may not know their
child. They expect him to be just as he was when they left him,
and they are easily bewildered, and search for him from room to
room, and hate the unknown boy he has become. Poor, passionate
souls, they may even do him an injury. These are the ghosts that
go wailing about old houses, and foolish wild stories are
invented to explain what is all so pathetic and simple. I know
of a man who, after wandering far, returned to his early home to
pass the evening of his days in it, and sometimes from his chair
by the fire he saw the door open softly and a woman's face
appear. She always looked at him very vindictively, and then
vanished. Strange things happened in this house. Windows were
opened in the night. The curtains of his bed were set fire to.
A step on the stair was loosened. The covering of an old well in
a corridor where he walked was cunningly removed. And when he
fell ill the wrong potion was put in the glass by his bedside,
and he died. How could the pretty young mother know that this
grizzled interloper was the child of whom she was in search?

All our notions about ghosts are wrong. It is nothing so petty
as lost wills or deeds of violence that brings them back, and we
are not nearly so afraid of them as they are of us.

One by one the lights of the street went out, but still a lamp
burned steadily in the little window across the way. I know not
how it happened, whether I had crossed first to him or he to me,
but, after being for a long time as the echo of each other's
steps, we were together now. I can have had no desire to deceive
him, but some reason was needed to account for my vigil, and I
may have said something that he misconstrued, for above my words
he was always listening for other sounds. But however it came
about he had conceived the idea that I was an outcast for a
reason similar to his own, and I let his mistake pass, it seemed
to matter so little and to draw us together so naturally. We
talked together of many things, such as worldly ambition. For
long ambition has been like an ancient memory to me, some
glorious day recalled from my springtime, so much a thing of the
past that I must make a railway journey to revisit it as to look
upon the pleasant fields in which that scene was laid. But he
had been ambitious yesterday.

I mentioned worldly ambition. "Good God!" he said with a
shudder.

There was a clock hard by that struck the quarters, and one
o'clock passed and two. What time is it now? Twenty past two.
And now? It is still twenty past two.

I asked him about his relatives, and neither he nor she had any.
"We have a friend--" he began and paused, and then rambled into a
not very understandable story about a letter and a doll's house
and some unknown man who had bought one of his pictures, or was
supposed to have done so, in a curiously clandestine manner. I
could not quite follow the story.

"It is she who insists that it is always the same person," he
said. "She thinks he will make himself known to me if anything
happens to her." His voice suddenly went husky. "She told me,"
he said, "if she died and I discovered him, to give him her
love."

At this we parted abruptly, as we did at intervals throughout the
night, to drift together again presently. He tried to tell me of
some things she had asked him to do should she not get over this,
but what they were I know not, for they engulfed him at the first
step. He would draw back from them as ill-omened things, and
next moment he was going over them to himself like a child at
lessons. A child! In that short year she had made him entirely
dependent on her. It is ever thus with women: their first
deliberate act is to make their husband helpless. There are few
men happily married who can knock in a nail.

But it was not of this that I was thinking. I was wishing I had
not degenerated so much.

Well, as you know, the little nursery governess did not die. At
eighteen minutes to four we heard the rustle of David's wings.
He boasts about it to this day, and has the hour to a syllable as
if the first thing he ever did was to look at the clock.

An oldish gentleman had opened the door and waved congratulations
to my companion, who immediately butted at me, drove me against a
wall, hesitated for a second with his head down as if in doubt
whether to toss me, and then rushed away. I followed slowly. I
shook him by the hand, but by this time he was haw-haw-hawing so
abominably that a disgust of him swelled up within me, and with
it a passionate desire to jeer once more at Mary A--

"It is little she will care for you now," I said to the fellow;
"I know the sort of woman; her intellectuals (which are all she
has to distinguish her from the brutes) are so imperfectly
developed that she will be a crazy thing about that boy for the
next three years. She has no longer occasion for you, my dear
sir; you are like a picture painted out."

But I question whether he heard me. I returned to my home.
Home! As if one alone can build a nest. How often as I have
ascended the stairs that lead to my lonely, sumptuous rooms, have
I paused to listen to the hilarity of the servants below. That
morning I could not rest: I wandered from chamber to chamber,
followed by my great dog, and all were alike empty and desolate.
I had nearly finished a cigar when I thought I heard a pebble
strike the window, and looking out I saw David's father standing
beneath. I had told him that I lived in this street, and I
suppose my lights had guided him to my window.

"I could not lie down," he called up hoarsely, "until I heard
your news. Is it all right?"

For a moment I failed to understand him. Then I said sourly:
"Yes, all is right."

"Both doing well?" he inquired.

"Both," I answered, and all the time I was trying to shut the
window. It was undoubtedly a kindly impulse that had brought him
out, but I was nevertheless in a passion with him.

"Boy or girl?" persisted the dodderer with ungentlemanlike
curiosity.

"Boy," I said, very furiously.

"Splendid," he called out, and I think he added something else,
but by that time I had closed the window with a slam.