Their Prison-House

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Their Prison-House  (1899) 
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
From English Illustrated, Vol 21, 1899. Also included in Those Other Days (1912)

For years Mr. Rupert, junior partner in the "firm" had barely answered his respectful "Good Morning." What had made him carelessly and without explanation offer this strange kindness? The man's brain had grown misty through many years of mechanical work. There was something there—a thought without substance, or was it a fear?...



HE was pale-faced, round-shouldered, and anæmic, a creature obviously deficient in vitality, with the hall-mark of servitude stamped very clearly upon his commonplace features, and the patience of Job shining in his hollow-set brown eyes. In every respect he was entirely out of touch with his environment; one could only wonder what had brought him so far from his accustomed haunts. His shabby yet respectable black clothes, his well-frayed linen, and the ink-stains still lingering upon his finger-nails—these things bespoke his occupation as plainly as though he had stood there among the bracken with a ledger under his arm and a pen behind his ear.

For by some strange chance he had wandered far from the city, and found his way into a very world of sunshine; over his head it came streaming through the delicate interlacings of those gently waving green elm-leaves—a rich golden flood, warm, yet very soft and sweet, there in the deep shade. He had thrown himself, after a moment's silent absorption, upon a grassy bank; his limbs stretched out over the mossy earth, his recumbent form the very personification of absolute yet awkward ease. His eyes began slowly to blink and then to close: the murmurous drone of bees at work and the pleasant heat had made him sleepy. It was really the country into which he had roamed; there were birds and insects everywhere, as well as wild flowers and sunshine: the perfume-laden air was all alive with them, just now a bumble-bee had balanced himself upon that stiff blade of grass yonder—hear him now, buzzing away in the bracken behind; what a lazy, sense-lulling noise! A brown tortoiseshell butterfly came floating in from the flower-lined hedgerow alongside the cornfield, and a beetle whose curved shell-like back was as black as night crept out from behind that piece of grey boulder where the honeysuckle hung down in long odoriferous wreaths. To one born in the country these are all common things enough, but to him, a city clerk, a counting-house machine whose life had been spent upon an office-stool, and whose walks were ever upon the stone pavements of a Babylonic wilderness—to him they were all new and full of wonder. It was many a year since he had seen an uncaged singing-bird so close as the bright-eyed linnet who had perched himself only a few yards away upon that slender hawthorn twig, calling with shrill, sweet notes to his mate, whose far-off chirping sounded like a weaker echo of his own more musical note. And what air—how bright and pure, how smokeless! Was the sky ever really so blue as that over Tooley Street, he wondered? Surely not! And those little fleecy, white clouds—surely they never floated like that over Bermondsey! Listen! There in his ears, like the soft music of the sea, came the gentle rushing of a summer breeze, rustling amongst the bending corn, whose tops were full even to bursting. His eyes closed of their own accord, he could not keep them open any longer; a sort of Nirvana of dreamless repose crept over his brain, a day-sleep from which he was suddenly awakened by the sharp snapping of a twig close at hand. He sat up, vaguely alarmed! Yonder, in the lowest fork of that elm-tree, sat the wanton disturber of his drowsiness. It was—yes, he decided that it must be, a squirrel!. He had never seen one before but it could be nothing else. What bright little black eyes, and what a tail! Off he scampered up into the deeper recesses of the thick-leaved hazel-bush beyond. The man regretted his disappearance and sighed.

He was awake now and beginning to feel lonely. He drew out his watch, a time-worn Waterbury, with a little black cord attached, and he sighed. Surely she would not be long now! He was impatient to think that she should be losing, for his sake, one moment of this wonderful morning. Cooking! He was quite content to live without it for these few halcyon days; they would so soon be over, and then—God only knew when they would come again! For the door of his prison-house had been opened quite by chance: it was surely nothing but a whim of Mr. Rupert's to lend his uncle-clerk this little Surrey cottage and to insist upon a week's holiday for him! Good-natured! Of course it was good-natured; but, all the same, it was a whim. The man fell to wondering—wondering whence had come to him this unexpected kindness. For years Mr. Rupert, junior partner in the "firm" had barely answered his respectful "Good Morning." What had made him carelessly and without explanation offer this strange kindness? The man's brain had grown misty through many years of mechanical work. There was something there—a thought without substance, or was it a fear? he pressed his hand to his forehead and sighed.

He stood up to look for her, drawing in, as he clambered a few yards higher up the hillside, a long breath of that most delicate of perfumes—the scent of sun-warmed heather, carried on the bosom of a south wind. Yonder through the trees he could see purple streaks of it upon the downs, and here and there clumps of yellow gorse, stretching right to the borders of that dark belt of pine woods; it was all very beautiful.

Would she come soon, he wondered? He wanted her to see the squirrel, and to listen with him to that low music from the cornfield. He knew how she loved all these strange country sounds and sights, and he grudged every moment that she was not there with him enjoying them. What could she be doing, he wondered, to keep her so long; he sighed as he remembered what a conscientious pleasure she seemed to take in keeping that strange little thatched cottage, with its red tiles and queer diamond-framed windows, as clean and trim as she somehow managed to keep their six-roomed "villa" in Bermondsey! Only here there was something to reward her for her pains—their own little home, alas! at its best was miserably, depressingly ugly. A wave of bitterness rose up from the bottom of the man's heart: this touch of nature had done him the unkindness of loosening for a moment the bonds of his shackledom. The scales dropped from his eyes; he stood face to face with his misery, and thought of their home, his and hers. It was in a hot, dirty back street, close to the river, and opposite a piece of waste ground, where squalid children made a weary pretence at play, and where the filth and rubbish of generations seemed to have accumulated. Twenty-nine shillings a week will not go very far in London—and then there were debts to pay off. Never mind how they had come by them; they were honourable debts. If it had been only himself—well, he could have borne all this and more; for nature had given to him some touch of that marvellous unselfishness which sends many a man tottering through the world with a patience almost Christlike, and the burdens of other men heaped upon his bowed shoulders. But there was Edith! She had been used to different things. God had never meant her for a drudge! She read poetry—how he wished that he could understand it!—and she loved pretty things. Ah, if only he could get them for her! Sometimes he had seen her stand at the window of their little front room, and shiver from head to foot as she looked out across the filthy street to the desolation beyond. He wondered—what a black, chill thought!—had he sinned in marrying her? Had she understood how miserable a creature a city clerk is, and always must be, how hopeless his limitations, how slowly, shilling by shilling, his wages creep up, as his hair grows greyer, and his figure more bent? If God had only given him muscle instead of those wretched smatterings of brain power! He saw himself suddenly as he was, saw whither he was drifting—the decadence of his faint shadow of manhood, the closing in of the iron walls! There was a sob in his throat; it was a moment of rare revolt. God! what chance had he! The same little cycle of work day by day, the same walk to the office, the same walk back! The daily pitiful struggle for respectability with his rusty black clothes, patched and mended, and his hat ironed almost bare of all nap. Every day had been hammered into almost the exact similitude of the day that preceded and the day that followed it. Life and hope must narrow continually; it is habit which crushes. Did she understand these things, he wondered? God only knew! He wished pitifully that she would come; the music in the cornfields was growing fainter, and the squirrel had vanished from sight.

At last! He could see her white gown on the other side of the hedge. There was someone with her, a gentleman. It was Mr. Rupert! What was he doing away from his house full of guests, and—he was actually carrying their lunch, neatly done up in a brown paper parcel! The man rubbed his eyes—yes! it was quite true—he was not dreaming! How earnestly they were talking, too! Now he had taken her book—it was a volume of poetry, and he was marking something in it with a pencil. The man took an uneasy step forward—should he go and meet them? No. He would stay where he was, he would be ill at ease with Mr. Rupert. They came nearer; she seemed to be quoting from the book in her hand, and he was silent. They reached the gate; again the man moved, then hesitated; he would not go, he would wait! They were talking as equals; it would be hateful to have to call Mr. Rupert "Sir" before her. They lingered there for a moment; he was leaning against the gate looking at her. How beautiful she was! He began to speak—how plainly the words travelled through that still air!

"I wonder, Mrs. Spearmain, if I might venture to make a very daring personal remark; it is half a question, too. Perhaps I should call it an enigma."

"I think that you had better not!"

The man scarcely recognised the woman's voice: it sounded to him strained, suppressed, unnatural! Her eyes seemed to be avoiding her companion's; she was looking steadfastly across the cornfields. What did she see upon the hills yonder? Perhaps she, too, was listening to that faint, sweet music.

"Nevertheless I must," he persisted quietly; "and I rely upon you for a faithful answer. Why did you marry David Spearmain?"

The summer heat had gone; the man who listened was suddenly cold! His brain was in a whirl; he wanted to cry out, but there was a weight upon his lips. He was forced to listen!

The woman faced her questioner; her head was thrown proudly back, but her lips were quivering, and she was very pale.

"That is a question which you should not have asked," she said coldly. "It is——"

"No business of mine, vou would say," he interrupted impatiently. "Quite true! Yet answer me."

"I will not!" she murmured passionately.

He smiled down at her with a slow, curious smile.

"Then I am answered," he said. "I am content!"

She turned upon him, and to the man who listened her finger-nails appeared to be buried in the wood of the gate!

"I was penniless, alone, wretched! He nursed my father, he was good to me, he is always good to me! I—I love him!"

It seemed strange to him, a pale, scared figure standing like a ghost in the shadow of the elm-tree, that the sun was shining still so brightly. There was a cold weight upon his heart, a mist before his eyes: her voice had faltered in the middle of that last sentence!

"Forgive me," her companion said softly, "but it is not possible; you and he are of different worlds. He is a complete human automaton—a mere machine; he has neither ambition nor imagination—he has not the capacity for either. You have them both! You have education and sensibility; you were never meant for such a life with such a man! It is sapping your days away; in the end it would drive you mad—but the end will not come."

The rich, warm colour had flooded her cheeks; she drew a step farther away from him.

"What do you mean?" she faltered.

"I mean that you will leave him," he answered slowly. "It is inevitable; you cannot help it; you owe it to yourself. Nature never meant you to be a drudge!"

"There are worse things," she murmured.

Then he stooped down and whispered something in her ear, bending eagerly towards her, and with a sudden fire in his eyes.

She left him at once without a word; he remained there, vexed and irresolute. Her movement had been so quick and determined that he had been powerless to detain her. The man saw her coming towards him, and though her face was as pale as the white poppy which he had plucked a few moments before, there was a spot of colour burning in her cheeks and a strained look under her eyes. He stole farther away, back into the little tangled wood, and threw himself upon the ground with a faint moan. Where he was now, the sound of the wind rustling amid the corn-tops came muffled and vague, and the sunlight was not. The linnet's song had ceased, and there was a deeper chill in the air than befitted a summer day. When she found him it seemed as though he had been asleep.

She was silent; so was he. Was it his fancy, or was she really kinder, more tender than usual? He tried to talk to her, but there was a seal upon his lips; he wanted to tell her of the squirrel, to take her down to the hedgerow and bid her listen to that sweet, sad music among the breeze-swept corn, to show her the linnet's nest, and to give her the honeysuckle he had plucked from the flower-wreathed hedge. Hut he could do none of these things, for he was stricken with a sudden dumbness, and there was a strange aching in his heart. There were things dawning upon him which he had never understood! Was that indeed his death sentence which he had heard pronounced? Presently she said something to him; she was looking away through the trees, and her tone was dull and unemotional.

"David," she said, "would you mind very much if I asked you to do something which will seem odd to you?"

"What is it?" he asked.

"I want to go back! I do not want to stay here any longer."

"We will go to-night," he answered quietly. "There is a train at six o'clock."

She looked at him in quick wonderment; she had expected incredulity, questions—he asked her none, he was content to go! All these beautiful sounds and sights, then, had failed to penetrate for one moment the hard husk of his materialism! Perhaps even he was pining for his worm-eaten desk and his musty ledger. Was it her fault that a shade of contempt passed across her face—that her own sense of despair grew deeper? But the man saw it, and his heart was near breaking.


Bermondsey was very hot, and there was a fetid smell from the piled-up nastiness of that wretched plot of waste ground. He went back to his desk, back to the endless grapplings with endless columns of figures, back to his part in the building up of other men's fortunes. Day by day he left home at half-past eight to the moment, turned the same corners and crossed the same streets, looking even into the faces of the same crowd of hurrying fellow-creatures. His coat was a little more rusty, and the nape of his hat had quite gone now. Sometimes he fancied that there were more grey hairs too—only yesterday one of his fellow-slaves had alluded to a stoop which had lately bent his shoulders. He was still a reliable machine; he made no mistakes, and his work was as neat as ever. Only sometimes in the dinner-hour (he was permitted the privilege of eating his sandwich upon the counting-house stool) or in the dead of night, when the woman by his side slept, he allowed himself the strange luxury of thought. He looked out into the vague shadows of their bare little bed-chamber, and he fancied that he could hear the low rustling of a summer wind in the elm-tree tops, and feel the sun warming his bones and brightening up the whole sad world. He heard the chirping of linnets, the clear song of a distant lark, and the deep, low humming of a whole world of insects, making strange minor music in the sunlit air. The squirrel came out from his leafy chamber and talked to him like an old friend; a black-headed chaffinch sat on a hawthorn twig and sang him a little song. Then a city clock, loud-tongued and brazen, chimed the hour, and his fanciful world faded away before that grim note of reality. He fell back upon the pillow, with lips tightly pressed together, lest that smothered groan might wake the girl who slept so calmly by his side.

Hut for him there was no sleep; in those long watches of the night he sometimes forgot that he was only a machine, his heart swelled, his eyes were dim, and he knew the lull measure of his slavery. Why did she marry such a creature? Did she see his destiny, he wondered, written so pitilessly upon his plain, emotionless face, branded upon his speech, the hall-mark of his ignorance?

But when the daylight came he was himself again: With white face and leaden eyes he prepared for his daily slavery in the same slow, mechanical fashion. He made the usual remarks—he kept a little stock of them—and she answered him in the same spirit. But it was seldom that their eyes met, for the shadow was always there. She, too, he thought, seemed to be growing thinner; she read less poetry, she was always looking out with dull eyes upon a hopeless future: yet she was struggling bravely to do her duty. Every day there was a faint, wan smile, the usual inquiry as to the day's work, the weather, some other trifling word obviously prepared beforehand; and he answered her with rigid calm as he hung up his coat after carefully removing the dust from it, and exchanging it for a still shabbier garment. Sometimes they took a weary little walk, mostly on Sundays, along an endless succession of ugly streets, hounded by squalid houses, or dreary shuttered shops. There was no escape from their immediate environment, for he had no money for 'buses, and she was not strong enough to walk far. The pavements burned their feet, and their eyes were sore at the wilderness of bricks and mortar, the throngs of hideously dressed, ill-mannered neighbours, the utter absence of all things beautiful. The whole panorama was a nightmare to them. They were deep down in the hell of the poverty-stricken, and together—the man thought sometimes in those long watches of the night—together they could never escape from it. He had no increase of salary to hope for; if he had dared to ask for it there were hundreds clamouring for his bread. He would be lucky, as old age came on, if he could keep his place. For him there was no climbing out—no escape. But for her! How long would she suffer it? God only knew! Sometimes he thought that he must cry out and ask her, but the shadow was there, and he dared not. They were walking together within its dark folds, and his tongue was palsied.

Now and then, very seldom, for he was a great sportsman, Rupert Denning came to the office. He passed the white, stooping figure who never looked up at his entrance with a greeting half-contemptuous, half-pitying! Once, however, he called him into his private office. It was a day when the man was feeling worse even than usual. All night long he had lain awake, and this morning there was a livid shade in his face, and his eyes were leaden. His collar was more badly frayed than ever, and his shirt—he was bound to make it last three days—was very soiled. With his block in his hand, he took down rapidly, and without error, a letter from the young man's dictation. In the midst of it there came a pause. After a while he raised his eyes; Mr. Rupert was doing him the honour to observe him closely, his lips were slightly curled, his eyes spoke of that pity which is much akin to contempt. The clerk knew well of what his master was thinking: he was wondering what magic he, the poor machine, had used to win a lady for his wife. Ah! well, it was simple magic after all. He had nursed her dying father; night after night they two had sat with him alone, watching and tending him through an illness from the fear of which all the neighbours had fled away in horror. His savings for five years had gone to bury that poor old man—a stranger, a fellow-lodger by chance. And there were other matters, but they were not important. Rupert Denning knew of none of these things, and he might well wonder. The eyes of the two men met across the table. He was a man of the modern world, devoted to the acquisition of new sensations, absolutely without self-consciousness. The light in a poor clerk's eyes had no meaning for him; yet he was dimly made to feel the presence of something almost resembling dignity in that motionless, shadowy figure, waiting so patiently at his elbow. He coughed, and finished the dictation of his letter.

That night the man walked home a little more slowly than usual. There was a burning pain in his head, and strange lights before his eyes. He said nothing to the woman, and they went to their room at the customary hour. But while she slept a strange thing came to him. He raised himself in the bed. Ah, what a change! It was true, then! He listened. Yes, the sea-music was awake in the cornfield, and the whole world outside the wood where he was lying was flooded with the golden sunlight! He laughed softly to himself with joy. See, there was a shaft of it, right at his feet, across the brown ant-heap and that little clump of purple foxglove! How the bees were working round the honeysuckle: the air was quivering with the buzz of their wings! He was watching a beetle now; he was a dull, unlovely insect enough, but he was creeping towards that line of sunlight. Now he had reached it. What a mighty change! How his wings gleamed! They were like burnished copper; he had suddenly become a beautiful thing! And here came his friend the squirrel! He had found some nuts in a hazel-bush yonder; but why, the man wondered, holding his burning head and staring steadily in front of him, was he sitting at the foot of the bed? and why did he look so solemn? What was that through the trees? The gleam of a white dress—two figures! He listened to their voices! What was he asking her?

"Why did you marry him?"

The man moaned; there was a pain at his heart. He was on fire! What was he doing? He would wake Edith; he could not help it, the laughter would come! He waved his arms. Noble little linnet, sing away, sing away! If only he could catch that squirrel, Edith would like it so! She was out of bed now. She was trying to make him lie down; it was too bad, but he could not help laughing; how his sides ached! Her face was as white as death; she was frightened. What was she saying at the gate? A machine—a mere machine—that is what he was! Never mind, the fires were in his brain. He was free, free!


Once more their voices. The man was too weak to move. He lay still and looked out into the room; Rupert Denning was standing in the doorway with a great basket of flowers and a box under his arm. She had risen and was looking at him with a question in her face. The man heard his soft, pleasant voice.

"I do hope that you will not consider me an intruder, Mrs. Spearmain," he said. "We are all so glad to hear that the doctor gives you some hope after all. May I come in for a moment?"

She did not answer him at once, but he came in and closed the door after him.

"You are quite worn out," he continued, looking at her tenderly. "It is really too bad of you! I insist that you let me send you a nurse; it will be a pleasure to me to be allowed to serve you in any way."

The woman rose up and spoke.

"I thank you, Mr. Denning, but no one else shall nurse my husband."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"It must be as you will, of course! At least you will accept some flowers from me, and these grapes."

"I am very much obliged," she answered, "but I already have all the flowers the doctor will permit in the room, and plenty of fruit."

The sick man slowly turned his eyes. The table by his side was smothered with beautiful roses; one great red blossom had become detached and was lying upon his pillow. There was a bowl, too, full of such grapes as he had never seen before. He was bewildered; where did they come from if not from him? He, too, had seen them with surprise.

"You are very hard upon me," he said slowly. "Why do you keep up such a farce? I only desire your happiness. To give you pleasure, to atone for some of your past misery is my greatest ambition."

The man closed his eyes; the smothered groan which escaped from his lips was too faint a sound for them to hear.

"The only possible manner," the woman said, "in which you can further my happiness is to never let me see your face again. But before you go, listen! If he had died, you and your partner would have been his murderers. There are things in this world which I do not understand. People seem to accept them calmly, so I suppose they are what is called inevitable. But in God's world they will be righted somehow! You see what you have made of him! He is a human being, a better man than you, and he has as much right to live. You reap wealth from his labours and the labour of his fellows, and you keep him—like that—half-starved. While you are making a fortune you raise his salary grudgingly, shilling by shilling. You broke him upon the wheel! Oh, it is abominable!"

He listened to her quite unmoved.

"He had as much as he was worth; there are thousands who would have taken his place."

"Some day," she answered scornfully, "those thousands may be your judges! What is wrong I do not know. I have not thought of these things before, and I am an ignorant woman. But if there is a God of justice, there will be a balance struck some day between you and them."


She stopped him passionately.

"Oh, don't dare to call me by that name! Once for five minutes I let you talk to me foolishly. God knows I meant no harm! If he had died, I should have felt a murderess, for he overheard, and he said nothing. It is that and the misery of our life here which drove him mad. I have wronged him every moment. When I thought that he was content, and despised him for it, he was suffering cruelly. You gave him—what was it?—twenty-nine shillings a week? He let me think it was more; he starved himself day by day for my sake. Oh! he has been a hero, and I thank God that he will never darken your doors again."

He laughed unpleasantly as he prepared to go. "No one else will want him!"

The woman lifted up her head proudly.

"I shall want him. I could cry with joy when I think that at last I can repay a little devotion which rich men such as you could never understand. I have been left money—not a fortune, but enough to keep us, wherever we choose to live."

He looked at her thoughtfully. She was thin and haggard, but she was wonderfully beautiful.

"You are romantic," he said, "but you cannot make him anything save what he is; you can never be happy with him."

Then the man who lay upon the bed saw that she was trembling from head to foot with passion. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes flashed fire.

"Oh, you poor fool!" she cried, "haven't you the wit to see that I love him—that I have loved him all the time! Now go!"

And with that he went; and the woman, coming softly to the bedside, found the man's eyes open, and knew that he had been spared to her. She fell on her knees, and his thin wasted arms drew her face down to his; and in that moment the doors of their prison-house stood open.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.