Under the Clock

by


I

It was one of those swift and violent marriages which occur when the interested parties are so severely wounded by the arrow of love that only immediate and constant mutual nursing will save them from a fatal issue. (So they think.) Hence when Annie came from Sneyd to inhabit the house in Birches Street, Hanbridge, which William Henry Brachett had furnished for her, she really knew very little of William Henry save that he was intensely lovable, and that she was intensely in love with him. Their acquaintance extended over three months; And she knew equally little of the manners and customs of the Five Towns. For although Sneyd lies but a few miles from the immense seat of pottery manufacture, it is not as the Five Towns are. It is not feverish, grimy, rude, strenuous, Bacchic, and wicked. It is a model village, presided over by the Countess of Chell. The people of the Five Towns go there on Thursday afternoons (eightpence, third class return), as if they were going to Paradise. Thus, indeed, it was that William Henry had met Annie, daughter of a house over whose door were writ the inviting words, "Tea and Hot Water Provided."

There were a hundred and forty-two residences in Birches Street, Hanbridge, all alike, differing only in the degree of cleanliness of their window-curtains. Two front doors together, and then two bow-windows, and then two front doors again, and so on all up the street and all down the street. Life was monotonous, but on the whole respectable. Annie came of an economical family, and, previous to the wedding, she had been afraid that William Henry's ideal of economy might fall short of her own. In this she was mistaken. In fact, she was startlingly mistaken. It was some slight shock to her to be informed by William Henry that owing to slackness of work the honeymoon ought to be reduced to two days. Still, she agreed to the proposal with joy. (For her life was going to be one long honeymoon.) When they returned from the brief honeymoon, William Henry took eight shillings from her, out of the money he had given her, and hurried off to pay it into the Going Away Club, and there was scarcity for a few days. This happened in March. She had then only a vague idea of what the Going Away Club was. But from William Henry's air, and his fear lest he might be late, she gathered that the Going Away Club must be a very important institution. Brachett, for a living, painted blue Japanese roses on vases at Gimson & Nephews' works. He was nearly thirty years of age, and he had never done anything else but paint blue Japanese roses on vases. When the demand for blue Japanese roses on vases was keen, he could earn what is called "good money"--that is to say, quite fifty shillings a week. But the demand for blue Japanese roses on vases was subject to the caprices of markets--especially Colonial markets--and then William Henry had undesired days of leisure, and brought home less than fifty shillings, sometimes considerably less. Still, the household over which Annie presided was a superiorly respectable household and William Henry's income was, week in, week out, one of the princeliest in the street; and certainly Annie's window-curtains, and her gilt-edged Bible and artificial flowers displayed on a small table between the window-curtains was not to be surpassed. Further, William was "steady," and not quite raving mad about football matches; nor did he bet on horses, dogs or pigeons.

Nevertheless Annie--although, mind you, extraordinarily happy--found that her new existence, besides being monotonous, was somewhat hard, narrow and lacking in spectacular delights. Whenever there was any suggestion of spending more money than usual, William Henry's fierce chin would stick out in a formidable way, and his voice would become harsh, and in the result more money than usual was not spent. His notion of an excursion, of a wild and costly escapade, was a walk in Hanbridge Municipal Park and two shandy-gaffs at the Corporation Refreshment House therein. Now, although the Hanbridge Park is a wonderful triumph of grass-seed and terra-cotta over cinder-heaps and shard-rucks, although it is a famous exemplar to other boroughs, it is not precisely the Vale of Llangollen, nor the Lake District. It is the least bit in the world tedious, and by the sarcastic has been likened to a cemetery. And it seemed to symbolize Annie's life for her, in its cramped and pruned and smoky regularity. She began to look upon the Five Towns as a sort of prison from which she could never, never escape.

I say she was extraordinarily happy; and yet she was unhappy too. In a word, she resembled all the rest of us--she had "somehow expected something different" from what life actually gave her. She was astonished that her William Henry seemed to be so content with things as they were. Far, now, from any apprehension of his extravagance, she wished secretly that he would be a little more dashing. He did not seem to feel the truth that, though prudence is all very well, you can only live your life once, and that when you are dead you are dead. He did not seem to understand the value of pleasure. Few people in the Five Towns did seem to understand the value of pleasure. He had no distractions except his pipe. Existence was a harsh and industrious struggle, a series of undisturbed daily habits. No change, no gaiety, no freak! Grim, changeless monotony!

And once, in July, William Henry abandoned even his pipe for ten days. Work, and therefore pay, had been irregular, but that was not in itself a reason sufficient for cutting off a luxury that cost only a shilling a week. It was the Going Away Club that swallowed up the tobacco money. Nothing would induce William Henry to get into arrears with his payments to that mysterious Club. He would have sacrificed not merely his pipe, but his dinner--nay, he would have sacrificed his wife's dinner--to the greedy maw of that Club. Annie hated the Club nearly as passionately as she loved William Henry.

Then on the first of August (a Tuesday) William Henry came into the house and put down twenty sovereigns in a row on the kitchen table. He did not say much, being (to Annie's mild regret) of a secretive disposition.

Annie had never seen so much money in a row before.

"What's that?" she said weakly.

"That?" said William Henry. "That's th' going away money."

II

A flat barrow at the door, a tin trunk and two bags on the barrow, and a somewhat ragged boy between the handles of the barrow! The curtains removed from the windows, and the blinds drawn! A double turn of the key in the portal! And away they went, the ragged boy having previously spit on his hands in order to get a grip of the barrow. Thus they arrived at Hanbridge Railway Station, which was a tempest of traffic that Saturday before Bank Holiday. The whole of the Five Towns appeared to be going away. The first thing that startled Annie was that William Henry gave the ragged boy a shilling, quite as much as the youth could have earned in a couple of days in a regular occupation. William Henry was also lavish with a porter. When they arrived, after a journey of ten minutes, at Knype, where they had to change for Liverpool, he was again lavish with a porter. And the same thing happened at Crewe, where they had to change once more for Liverpool. They had time at Crewe for an expensive coloured drink. On the long seething platform William Henry gave Annie all his money to keep.

"Here, lass!" he said. "This'll be safer with you than with me."

She was flattered.

When it came in, the Liverpool train was crammed to the doors. And two hundred people pumped themselves into it, as air is forced into a pneumatic tyre. The entire world seemed to be going to Liverpool. It was uncomfortable, but it was magnificent. It was joy, it was life. The chimneys and kilns of the Five Towns were far away. And Annie, though in a cold perspiration lest she might never see her tin trunk again, was feverishly happy. At Liverpool William Henry demanded silver coins from her. She had a glimpse of her trunk. Then they rattled and jolted and whizzed in an omnibus to Prince's Landing Stage. And William Henry demanded more coins from her. A great ship awaited them. Need it be said that Douglas was their destination? The deck of the great ship was like a market-place. Annie had never seen such a thing. They climbed up into the market-place among the shouting, gesticulating crowd. There was a real shop, at which William Henry commanded her to buy a hat-guard. The hat-guard cost sixpence. At home sixpence was sixpence, and would buy seven pounds of fine mealy potatoes; but here sixpence was nothing--certainly it was not more than a halfpenny. They wandered and found other shops. Annie could not believe that all those solid shops and the whole market-place could move. And she was not surprised, a little later, to see Prince's Landing Stage sliding away from the ship, instead of the ship sliding away from Prince's Landing Stage. Then they went underground, beneath the market-place, and Annie found marble halls, colossal staircases, bookshops, trinket shops, highly-decorated restaurants, glittering bars, and cushioned drawing-rooms. They had the most exciting meal in the restaurant that Annie had ever had; also the most expensive; the price of it indeed staggered her; still, William Henry did not appear to mind that one meal should exceed the cost of two days living in Birches Street. Then they went up into the market-place again, and lo! the market-place had somehow of itself got into the middle of the sea!

Before the end of the voyage they had tea at threepence a cup. Annie reflected that the best "Home and Colonial" tea cost eighteenpence a pound, and that a pound would make two hundred and twenty cups. Similarly with the bread and butter which they ate, and the jam! But it was glorious. Not the jam (which Annie could have bettered), but life! Particularly as the sea was smooth! Presently she descried a piece of chalk sticking up against the horizon, and it was Douglas lighthouse.

III

There followed six days of delirium, six days of the largest conceivable existence. The holiday-makers stopped in a superb boarding-house on the promenade, one of about a thousand superb boarding-houses. The day's proceedings began at nine o'clock with a regal breakfast, partaken of at a very long table which ran into a bow window. At nine o'clock, in all the thousand boarding-houses, a crowd of hungry and excited men and women sat down thus to a very long table, and consumed the same dishes, that is to say, Manx herrings, and bacon and eggs, and jams. Everybody ate as much as he could. William Henry was never content with less than two herrings, two eggs, about four ounces of bacon, and as much jam as would render a whole Board school sticky. And in four hours after that he was ready for an enormous dinner, and so was she; and in five hours after that they neither of them had the slightest disinclination for a truly high and complex tea. Of course, the cost was fabulous. Thirty-five shillings per week each. Annie would calculate that, with thirty boarders and extras, the boarding-house was taking in money at the rate of over forty pounds a week. She would also calculate that about a hundred thousand herrings and ten million little bones were swallowed in Douglas each day.

But the cost of the boarding-house was as naught. It was the flowing out of coins between meals that deprived Annie of breath. They were always doing something. Sailing in a boat! Rowing in a boat! Bathing! The Pier! Sand minstrels! Excursions by brake, tram and train to Laxey, Ramsey, Sulby Glen, Port Erin, Snaefell! Morning shows! Afternoon shows! Evening shows! Circuses, music-halls, theatres, concerts! And then the public balls, with those delicious tables in corners, lighted by Chinese lanterns, where you sat down and drew strange liquids up straws. And it all meant money. There were even places in Douglas where you couldn't occupy a common chair for half a minute without paying for it. Each night Annie went to bed exhausted with joy. On the second night she counted the money in her bag, and said to William Henry:

"How much money do you think we've spent already? Just--"

"Don't tell me, lass!" he interrupted her curtly. "When I want to know, I'll ask ye."

And on the fifth evening of this heaven he asked her:

"What'n ye got left?"

She informed him that she had five pounds and twopence left, of which the boarding-house and tips would absorb four pounds.

"H'm!" he replied. "It's going to be a bit close."

On the seventh day they set sail. The dream was not quite over, but it was nearly over. On the ship, when the porter had been discharged, she had two and twopence, and William Henry had the return tickets. Still, this poverty did not prevent William Henry from sitting down and ordering a fine lunch for two (the sea being again smooth). Having ordered it, he calmly told his wife that he had a sovereign in his waistcoat pocket. A sovereign was endless riches. But it came to an end during a long wait for the Five Towns train at Crewe. William Henry had apparently decided to finish the holiday as he had begun it. And the two and twopence also came to an end, as William Henry, suddenly remembering the children of his brother, was determined to buy gifts for them on Crewe platform. At Hanbridge man and wife had sixpence between them. And the boy with the barrow, who had been summoned by a postcard, was not visible. However, a cab was visible. William Henry took that cab.

"But, Will--"

"Shut up, lass!" he stopped her.

They plunged into the smoke and squalor of the Five Towns, and reached Birches Street with pomp, while Annie wondered how William Henry would contrive to get credit from a cabman. The entire street would certainly gather round if there should be a scene.

"Just help us in with this trunk, wilt?" said William Henry to the cabman. This, with sixpence in his pocket!

Then turning to his wife, he whispered:

"Lass, look under th' clock on th' mantelpiece in th' parlour. Ye'll find six bob."

He explained to her later that prudent members of Going Away Clubs always left money concealed behind them, as this was the sole way of providing against a calamitous return. The pair existed on the remainder of the six shillings and on credit for a week. William Henry became his hard self again. The prison life was resumed. But Annie did not mind, for she had lived for a week at the rate of a thousand a year. And in a fortnight William Henry began grimly to pay his subscriptions to the next year's Going Away Club.


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