A Safety Match/Chapter 9

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A HORSE TO THE WATER.


"And how is her ladyship?" inquired Mrs Carfrae.

"Her ladyship," replied Sir John Carr, "is enjoying life. What good bread-and-butter you always keep."

They were sitting in Mrs Carfrae's tiny drawing-room in Hill Street. Mrs Carfrae was a little old lady in a wheeled chair. Her face was comparatively youthful, but her hair was snowy white. She spoke with what English people, to whom the pure Highland Scots of Inverness and the guttural raucousness of Glasgow are as one, term "a Scotch accent."

"I am glad you like my bread-and-butter," she said; "but I fancy you get as good at your wife's tea-table."

"I don't often see my wife's tea-table," confessed Juggernaut. "She is out a good deal, and as a rule it is more convenient for me to have my tea sent into my study."

"Where you grumble at it, I'll be bound. I ken husbands. So her ladyship is out a good deal? Well do I mind the first time I caught her in, the besom! That was nearly three years ago. I am not a payer of calls, as you know; but I felt that I must be the very first to greet your wife, Johnny, boy. So the day after I knew you had settled in, I had myself bundled into the carriage, and off I went to Grosvenor Street. I told Maxwell to ring the bell and inquire if her ladyship was at home. The door was thrown open immediately—rather prematurely, in fact. I heard a sound like the cheep of a frightened mouse, and I saw a grand silk skirt and a pair of ankles scuttering up the staircase. I knew fine what had happened. I was her first caller: and though the child was sitting in her new drawing-room waiting for me and those like me, her courage had failed at the sound of the bell, and she was galloping up the stair out of the way when the man opened the door. Poor lassie! I did exactly the same thing at her age."

"Did you go in?"

"I did. I was determined to do it. I gripped my crutch and was out of the carriage and up the steps before the footman could answer Maxwell. I hobbled past the man—he just gaped at me like a puddock on a hot day—and got to the foot of the stair and looked up. As I expected, there was Madam, hanging over the banisters to see what sort of a caller she had hooked the first time. There was another creature beside her, with wild brown hair and eyes like saucers. They were clutching each other round the waist. When they saw me they gave a kind of horrified yelp. But I cried to them to come down, and in ten minutes we were the best of friends. They were terribly prim at first; but when they found out that I was just a clavering old wife and nothing more, they lost their grand manners. They overlaid me with questions about London, and while I was answering them the saucer-eyed one set to work cracking lumps of sugar with her teeth. The other—her ladyship—was eating jam out of an Apostle spoon. The spoon was in her mouth when a footman came in to mend the fire. She was fairly taken by surprise, and tried to push the whole concern into her mouth until the man should be gone. I thought at first she had swallowed it, but presently I saw the Apostle sticking out. And that was three years ago. Well, I have become less active since then, and I pay no more calls—wheel me a piece nearer the fire, Johnny—so I do not see so much of her ladyship as I did. Still, I am glad to hear she is enjoying life. And how is the baby?"

"The baby," replied its male parent, "looks and sounds extremely robust. He uttered several articulate words the other day, I am told."

"Can he walk?"

"He can lurch along in a slightly dissipated manner." "Good! And how does your Daphne handle all these houses and servants of yours?"

Sir John smiled.

"She was a little out of her depth at first," he said. "She had not been accustomed to cater for a large household. The extravagance of ordering at least one fresh joint a day appalled her, and it was a long time before the housekeeper could cure her of a passion for shepherd's pie. But she has a shrewd head. She soon discovered which items of domestic expenditure were reasonable and which were not. She has cut down the bills by a half, but I don't notice any corresponding falling off in the quality of the menu."

"And does she love fine clothes, and gaiety?"

"I think she found her maid rather a trial at first. She had been so accustomed not only to attiring herself but to going round and hooking up her sisters as well, that a woman who handled her like a baby rather paralysed her. She also exhibited a penchant for wearing her old clothes out—to rags, that is—in private. But I think she is getting over that now. I received her dressmaker's latest bill this morning. It reveals distinct signs of progress."

"And I hear she looks just beautiful."

"She does. I must admit that."

"Then,"—the old lady raised herself a little in her chair, and settled her spectacles with her unparalysed hand, "what is the trouble, Johnny Carr?"

Juggernaut laid down his tea-cup with a slight clatter.

"I was not aware," he said curtly, "that there was any trouble."

Mrs Carfrae surveyed him long and balefully over her spectacles.

"Johnny Carr," she observed dispassionately, "I have known you ever since you could roar for your bottle, and I have never had any patience with you either then or since. You are a dour, dreich, thrawn, camstearie creature. You have more money than you can spend, grand health, and a young and beautiful wife. But you are not happy. You come here to tell me so, and when I ask you to begin, you say there is nothing! Well, I will tell you what the matter is. There is some trouble between you and your Daphne."

Considerable courage is required to inform a man to his face that all is not well between him and his wife; but courage was a virtue that Elspeth Carfrae had never lacked. Juggernaut experienced no feeling of resentment or surprise that this old lady should have instantaneously sized up a situation which he himself had been investigating in a groping and uncertain fashion for nearly three years. Life is a big book of problems, and while man is content to work them out figure by figure, taking nothing for granted which cannot be approved by established formulæ, woman has an exasperating habit of skipping straight to the solution in a manner which causes the conscientious and methodical male to suspect her of peeping at the answers at the end of the book.

"Perhaps you had not realised that," pursued Mrs Carfrae. "Men are apt to be slow in the uptake," she added indulgently.

"I fail to see where you get your data from," replied Juggernaut. "I have not been particularly communicative on the subject. In fact, I don't remember telling you a single—"

Mrs Carfrae subjected him to a withering glare.

"If all that women knew," she observed frostily, "was what men had told them, I wonder how many of us would be able to spell our own names. No, laddie, you have told me nothing: that's true enough. But I know fine why you came here to-day. You are worried. You and Daphne are getting on splendidly. The match has been a great success. You have a son and heir. But—you are not happy; and it is about your Daphne that you are not happy."

Juggernaut gazed into the fire.

"You are right," he said. "I confess that my marriage has not been so uplifting as I had hoped. I daresay it is my own fault. As you point out, I am—well, all the Caledonian adjectives you heaped upon me just now: all that and a good deal more. I have the reputation of being a harsh man, and I hate it. I hoped, when I married that child, that she would pull me out of my rigid, undeviating way of life, and broaden my sympathies a little. I looked forward to a little domesticity." His dark face coloured slightly. "I may be an ogre, but I have my soft side, as you know."

"None better," said the old lady gently.

"Well, somehow," continued Juggernaut, "my marriage has not made the difference to me that I had hoped. We two have had our happy hours together, but we don't seem to progress beyond a certain point. We are amiability itself. If I ask Daphne to see to anything about the house, she sees to it; if she asks me to go with her to a tea-fight, I go. But that seems to be about the limit. I can't help thinking that marriage would not have survived so long as an institution if there had been no more behind it than that. I was under the impression that it made two one. At present we are still two—very decidedly two; and—and——"

"And being you, it just maddens you not to be able to get your money's worth," said Mrs Carfrae calmly. "Now, John Carr, just listen to me. First of all, have you had any trouble with her?"

"Trouble?"

"Yes. Any direct disagreement with her?"

"Never. Stop—we had one small breeze."

Mrs Carfrae wagged a forefinger.

"You have been bullying her, monster!"

"Heavens, no!"

"Well, tell me the story."

"Six months ago," said Juggernaut, "she came to me and asked for money—much as a child asks for toffee—with a seraphic smile and an ingratiating rub up against my chair. I asked her what it was for."

"Quite wrong!" said Mrs Carfrae promptly.

"But surely—" began Juggernaut, the man of business up in arms at once.

"You should have begun by taking out your cheque-book and saying, 'How much?'" continued his admonitress. "Then she would have called you a dear, or some such English term of affection, and recognising you as her natural confidant would have told you everything. After that you might have improved the occasion. As it was, you just put her back up, and she dithered."

"She did, so far as I understand the expression. But, finding that I was firm—"

"Oh, man, man, how can a great grown creature like you bear to be firmhard, you mean, of course—with a wild unbroken lass like that? Well, go on. You were firm. And what did her poor ladyship say she wanted the money for?"

"For her young cub of a brother," said Juggernaut briefly.

"A wealthy young wife daring to want to help her own brother! Monstrous!" observed Mrs Carfrae.

"I think you are unjust to me in this matter. Listen! When I married Daphne I was aware that she would want to finance her entire family: in fact, it was one of the inducements to marrying me which I laid before her. For that purpose, to save her the embarrassment of constantly coming to me for supplies, I settled upon her a private allowance of—what do you think?"

"Out with it! No striving after effect with me, my man!" was the reply of his unimpressionable audience.

"I gave her a thousand a year," said Juggernaut.

"That should have been sufficient," said Mrs Carfrae composedly. "But do not be ostentatious about it. You could well afford the money."

"Well, she had spent most of that year's allowance in six months," continued Juggernaut, disregarding these gibes—"on her father's curate, the younger children's education, and so forth—and she wanted more."

"What age is this brother?"

"Twenty, I think. He is up at Cambridge, and wants to get into the Army as a University candidate. At present he appears to be filling in his time philandering with a tobacconist's daughter. The tobacconist's bill for moral and intellectual damage came to five hundred pounds. Before writing the cheque, I stipulated—"

"You would!" said the old lady grimly.

"—That I should be permitted to make a few investigations on my own behalf. Young Vereker is a handsome, fascinating rascal, with about as much moral fibre as a Yahoo. He was a good deal franker in his admissions to me than he had been to his sister—"

"Ay, I once heard you cross-examining a body," confirmed Mrs Carfrae.

"—And on the completion of my inquiries I paid the money down on the nail. It was the only thing to do."

"Did you tell Daphne the whole story?"

"No. I should hate to dispel her illusions. She loves her brothers and sisters."

"There is no need to excuse yourself, John Carr. I knew fine that you would not tell her. Instead, you glowered at her, and read her a lecture about extravagance and improvidence. She tried to look prim and penitent, but danced down the stair the moment she got the door shut behind her. Now, mannie, listen to me. This is no light charge you have taken on yourself—to rule a wild, shy, impulsive taupie like that. You cannot contain the like with bit and bridle, mind. I have been one myself, and I know. There is just one thing to do. She must learn to love you, or the lives of the pair of you will go stramash!"

Juggernaut's old friend concluded this homily with tremendous emphasis, and there was a long silence. Then the man drew his chair a little closer.

"How can I teach her?" he asked humbly. "I have no finesse, no attractiveness. Do you think I—I am too old for her?"

"Old? Toots! I was nineteen when I married on my Andy, and he was thirty-nine. For the first few years after we married I called him 'Daddy' to his face. After that I found that I was really old enough to be the man's mother; so I called him 'Sonny.' But that is a digression. I will tell you how to teach her. Do not be monotonous. It's no use just to be a good husband to her: any gowk can be that. Do not let your affection run on in a regular, dutiful stream: have a spate occasionally! Get whirled off your feet by her, and let her see it. Prepare some unexpected ploy for her. Carry her off to dine somewhere on the spur of the moment—just your two selves. Stop her suddenly on the staircase in a half-light, and give her a hug."

"She'd never stand it!" cried Juggernaut in dismay. "And I could never do it," he added apprehensively.

"You do it, my callant," said Mrs Carfrae with decision, "and she'll stand it right enough! She may tell you not to be foolish, but she will not make a point of coming down by the back stair in future for all that. And let her see that with you she comes first in everything. What a crow she will have to herself when she realises that a feckless unbusinesslike piece like herself has crept right into the inmost place in the heart of a man whose gods used to be hard work and hard words and hard knocks! She'll just glory in you!

"Lastly, do not be discouraged if you have no success to begin with. At all costs you must keep on smiling. A dour, bleak man is no fit companion for a young girl who has always lived a sheltered sunny life. He just withers her. She may last for a while, and do her duty by him, but in time he'll break her heart. Aye, keep on smiling, Johnny, even if she hurts you. She will hurt you often. Young girls are like that. It takes time for a woman to realise that a man is just about twice as sensitive as herself in certain matters, and she will not make allowances for him at first. But until she does—and she will, if you give her time—keep on smiling! If you keep on long enough you will get your reward. Make the effort, my man! I have had to make efforts in my time—"

"I know that," said Juggernaut.

"—And the efforts have been the making of me. For one thing, I have acquired a sense of proportion. When we are young and lusty, our knowledge of perspective is so elementary that in our picture of life our own Ego fills the foreground to the exclusion of all else; with this result, that we get no view of the countless interesting and profitable things that lie behind. My Ego is kept in better order these days, I assure you. It gets just a good comfortable place in the picture and no more. If Elspeth Carfrae stirs from that, or comes creeping too far forward so as to block out other things, she hears from me!"

"Does she always obey you?" asked Juggernaut.

"She got far beyond my control once," admitted the old lady. "I mind when my Andy went from me, she swelled and swelled until she blotted out everything—earth, sea, and sky. But she has been back in her place these twenty years, and there she shall bide. There is no great selfish Ego blocking the view now when I sit and look out upon my section of the world. You have no idea how interesting it is to study your friends' troubles instead of your own, John. The beauty of it is that you need not worry over them: you just watch them—unconcernedly."

The Scots have their own notion of what constitutes an excursion into the realms of humour, and Juggernaut, knowing this, made no attempt to controvert his hostess's last statement.

"Not that I grudged my Andy," continued the old lady presently. "No wife worthy of the name could grudge her man to his country when he died as Andy died. But my only son—that was my own fault, maybe. I would not put him into the Army like his father, thinking to keep him safer that way; and he died of pneumonia at seven-and-twenty, an East End curate. Then my Lintie. But I have no need to be talking of Lintie to you, John Carr. You mind her still, Daphne or no Daphne. Then"—she indicated her paralysed shoulder—"this! But I keep on smiling. Perhaps that is why people are so kind to me. Perhaps if I did not smile they would not seek my company so freely. I suppose they see something in me, that they come and listen to me havering. When I first settled down here by myself in this little house many kind people called. I never thought to see them twice; but they come again and again. Maybe it is because English people have a notion that the Scots tongue is 'so quaint'! They seem to find something exhilarating in hearing fish called fush. Not that I call it any such thing, but they think I do. Anyhow, they come. Some of them bring their troubles with them, and go away without them. When they do that I know that it was worth while to keep a smiling face all these years. So smile yourself, Johnny Carr! And some day, when your Daphne comes and puts her head on your shoulder and tells you all that is troubling her, you will know that you have won through. And when that happens come and call me. I like to hear when my methods succeed."

"I will remember," said Juggernaut gravely. "Good-bye."

Mrs Carfrae watched his broad back through the doorway.

"But I doubt you will both have to be worse before you are better," she added to herself.


An hour later Lady Carr, a radiant vision of glinting hair and rustling skirts, on her way upstairs to dress for dinner, encountered her husband coming down. There was a half light. Sir John paused.

"Are you dining anywhere to-night, Daphne?" he said.

Daphne, her youthful shrewdness uneradicated by three years of adult society, replied guardedly:

"Are you trying to pull my leg? If I say 'No,' will you tell me that in that case I shall be very hungry by bedtime, or something? I suppose that old chestnut has just got round to your club. Have you been electing Noah an honorary member?"

"I was about to suggest," said Juggernaut perseveringly, "that we should go and dine at the Savoy together."

Daphne dimpled into a delighted smile.

"You dear! And we might go on somewhere afterwards. What would you like me to wear?"

She preened herself in anticipation.

"Oh, anything," said Juggernaut absently.

He was regarding his wife in an uncertain and embarrassed fashion.

Suddenly he drew a deep breath, and took a step down towards her. Then, with equal suddenness, he turned on his heel and retired upstairs rather precipitately in the direction of his dressing-room.

It was as well that Mrs Carfrae was not present.