If you take the Underground Railway to Whitechapel Road (the East station), and from there take one of the yellow tramcars that start from that point, and go down the Commercial Road, past the George, in front of which starts—or used to stand—a high flagstaff, at the base of which sits—or used to sit—an elderly female purveyor of pigs’ trotters at three-ha’pence apiece, until you come to where a railway arch crosses the road obliquely, and there get down and turn to the right up a narrow, noisy street leading to the river, and then to the right again up a still narrower street, which you may know by its having a public-house at one corner (as is in the nature of things) and a marine store-dealer’s at the other, outside which strangely stiff and unaccommodating garments of gigantic size flutter ghost-like in the wind, you will come to a dingy railed-in churchyard, surrounded on all sides by cheerless, many-peopled houses. Sad-looking little old houses they are, in spite of the tumult of life about their ever open doors. They and the ancient church in their midst seem weary of the ceaseless jangle around them. Perhaps, standing there for so many years, listening to the long silence of the dead, the fretful voices of the living sound foolish in their ears.
Peering through the railings on the side nearest the river, you will see beneath the shadow of the soot-grimed church’s soot-grimed porch—that is, if the sun happen, by rare chance, to be strong enough to cast any shadow at all in that region of grey light—a curiously high and narrow headstone that once was white and straight, not tottering and bent with age as it is now. There is upon this stone a carving in bas-relief, as you will see for yourself if you will make your way to it through the gateway on the opposite side of the square. It represents, so far as can be made out, for it is much worn by time and dirt, a figure lying on the ground with another figure bending over it, while at a little distance stands a third object. But this last is so indistinct that it might be almost anything, from an angel to a post.
And below the carving are the words (already half obliterated) that I have used for the title of this story.
Should you ever wander of a Sunday morning within sound of the cracked bell that calls a few habit-bound, old-fashioned folk to worship within those damp-stained walls, and drop into talk with the old men who on such days sometimes sit, each in his brass-buttoned long brown coat, upon the low stone coping underneath those broken railings, you might hear this tale from them, as I did, more years ago than I care to recollect.
But lest you do not choose to go to all this trouble, or lest the old men who could tell it you have grown tired of all talk, and are not to be roused ever again into the telling of tales, and you yet wish for the story, I will here set it down for you.
But I cannot recount it to you as they told it to me, for to me it was only a tale that I heard and remembered, thinking to tell it again for profit, while to them it was a thing that had been, and the threads of it were interwoven with the woof of their own life. As they talked, faces that I did not see passed by among the crowd and turned and looked at them, and voices that I did not hear spoke to them below the clamour of the street, so that through their thin piping voices there quivered the deep music of life and death, and my tale must be to theirs but as a gossip’s chatter to the story of him whose breast has felt the press of battle.
* * * * *
John Ingerfield, oil and tallow refiner, of Lavender Wharf, Limehouse, comes of a hard-headed, hard-fisted stock. The first of the race that the eye of Record, piercing the deepening mists upon the centuries behind her, is able to discern with any clearness is a long-haired, sea-bronzed personage, whom men call variously Inge or Unger. Out of the wild North Sea he has come. Record observes him, one of a small, fierce group, standing on the sands of desolate Northumbria, staring landward, his worldly wealth upon his back. This consists of a two-handed battle-axe, value perhaps some forty stycas in the currency of the time. A careful man, with business capabilities, may, however, manipulate a small capital to great advantage. In what would appear, to those accustomed to our slow modern methods, an incredibly short space of time, Inge’s two-handed battle-axe has developed into wide lands and many head of cattle; which latter continue to multiply with a rapidity beyond the dreams of present-day breeders. Inge’s descendants would seem to have inherited the genius of their ancestor, for they prosper and their worldly goods increase. They are a money-making race. In all times, out of all things, by all means, they make money. They fight for money, marry for money, live for money, are ready to die for money.
In the days when the most saleable and the highest priced article in the markets of Europe was a strong arm and a cool head, then each Ingerfield (as “Inge,” long rooted in Yorkshire soil, had grown or been corrupted to) was a soldier of fortune, and offered his strong arm and his cool head to the highest bidder. They fought for their price, and they took good care that they obtained their price; but, the price settled, they fought well, for they were staunch men and true, according to their lights, though these lights may have been placed somewhat low down, near the earth.
Then followed the days when the chief riches of the world lay tossed for daring hands to grasp upon the bosom of the sea, and the sleeping spirit of the old Norse Rover stirred in their veins, and the lilt of a wild sea-song they had never heard kept ringing in their ears; and they built them ships and sailed for the Spanish Main, and won much wealth, as was their wont.
Later on, when Civilisation began to lay down and enforce sterner rules for the game of life, and peaceful methods promised to prove more profitable than violent, the Ingerfields became traders and merchants of grave mien and sober life; for their ambition from generation to generation remains ever the same, their various callings being but means to an end.
A hard, stern race of men they would seem to have been, but just—so far as they understood justice. They have the reputation of having been good husbands, fathers, and masters; but one cannot help thinking of them as more respected than loved.
They were men to exact the uttermost farthing due to them, yet not without a sense of the thing due from them, their own duty and responsibility—nay, not altogether without their moments of heroism, which is the duty of great men. History relates how a certain Captain Ingerfield, returning with much treasure from the West Indies—how acquired it were, perhaps, best not to inquire too closely—is overhauled upon the high seas by King’s frigate. Captain of King’s frigate sends polite message to Captain Ingerfield requesting him to be so kind as to promptly hand over a certain member of his ship’s company, who, by some means or another, has made himself objectionable to King’s friends, in order that he (the said objectionable person) may be forthwith hanged from the yard-arm.
Captain Ingerfield returns polite answer to Captain of King’s frigate that he (Captain Ingerfield) will, with much pleasure, hang any member of his ship’s company that needs hanging, but that neither the King of England nor any one else on God Almighty’s sea is going to do it for him. Captain of King’s frigate sends back word that if objectionable person be not at once given up he shall be compelled with much regret to send Ingerfield and his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. Replies Captain Ingerfield, “That is just what he will have to do before I give up one of my people,” and fights the big frigate—fights it so fiercely that after three hours Captain of King’s frigate thinks it will be good to try argument again, and sends therefore a further message, courteously acknowledging Captain Ingerfield’s courage and skill, and suggesting that, he having done sufficient to vindicate his honour and renown, it would be politic to now hand over the unimportant cause of contention, and so escape with his treasure.
“Tell your Captain,” shouts back this Ingerfield, who has discovered there are sweeter things to fight for than even money, “that the Wild Goose has flown the seas with her belly full of treasure before now, and will, if it be God’s pleasure, so do again, but that master and man in her sail together, fight together, and die together.”
Whereupon King’s frigate pounds away more vigorously than ever, and succeeds eventually in carrying out her threat. Down goes the Wild Goose, her last chase ended—down she goes with a plunge, spit foremost with her colours flying; and down with her goes every man left standing on her decks; and at the bottom of the Atlantic they lie to this day, master and man side by side, keeping guard upon their treasure.
Which incident, and it is well authenticated, goes far to prove that the Ingerfields, hard men and grasping men though they be—men caring more for the getting of money than for the getting of love—loving more the cold grip of gold than the grip of kith or kin, yet bear buried in their hearts the seeds of a nobler manhood, for which, however, the barren soil of their ambition affords scant nourishment.
The John Ingerfield of this story is a man very typical of his race. He has discovered that the oil and tallow refining business, though not a pleasant one, is an exceedingly lucrative one. These are the good days when George the Third is king, and London is rapidly becoming a city of bright night. Tallow and oil and all materials akin thereto are in ever-growing request, and young John Ingerfield builds himself a large refining house and warehouse in the growing suburb of Limehouse, which lies between the teeming river and the quiet fields, gathers many people round about him, puts his strong heart into his work, and prospers.
All the days of his youth he labours and garners, and lays out and garners yet again. In early middle age he finds himself a wealthy man. The chief business of life, the getting of money, is practically done; his enterprise is firmly established, and will continue to grow with ever less need of husbandry. It is time for him to think about the secondary business of life, the getting together of a wife and home, for the Ingerfields have ever been good citizens, worthy heads of families, openhanded hosts, making a brave show among friends and neighbours.
John Ingerfield, sitting in his stiff, high-backed chair, in his stiffly, but solidly, furnished dining-room, above his counting-house, sipping slowly his one glass of port, takes counsel with himself.
What shall she be?
He is rich, and can afford a good article. She must be young and handsome, fit to grace the fine house he will take for her in fashionable Bloomsbury, far from the odour and touch of oil and tallow. She must be well bred, with a gracious, noble manner, that will charm his guests and reflect honour and credit upon himself; she must, above all, be of good family, with a genealogical tree sufficiently umbrageous to hide Lavender Wharf from the eyes of Society.
What else she may or may not be he does not very much care. She will, of course, be virtuous and moderately pious, as it is fit and proper that women should be. It will also be well that her disposition be gentle and yielding, but that is of minor importance, at all events so far as he is concerned: the Ingerfield husbands are not the class of men upon whom wives vent their tempers.
Having decided in his mind what she shall be, he proceeds to discuss with himself who she shall be. His social circle is small. Methodically, in thought, he makes the entire round of it, mentally scrutinising every maiden that he knows. Some are charming, some are fair, some are rich; but no one of them approaches near to his carefully considered ideal.
He keeps the subject in his mind, and muses on it in the intervals of business. At odd moments he jots down names as they occur to him upon a slip of paper, which he pins for the purpose on the inside of the cover of his desk. He arranges them alphabetically, and when it is as complete as his memory can make it, he goes critically down the list, making a few notes against each. As a result, it becomes clear to him that he must seek among strangers for his wife.
He has a friend, or rather an acquaintance, an old school-fellow, who has developed into one of those curious social flies that in all ages are to be met with buzzing contentedly within the most exclusive circles, and concerning whom, seeing that they are neither rare nor rich, nor extraordinarily clever nor well born, one wonders “how the devil they got there!” Meeting this man by chance one afternoon, he links his arm in his and invites him home to dinner.
So soon as they are left alone, with the walnuts and wine between them, John Ingerfield says, thoughtfully cracking a hard nut between his fingers—
“Will, I’m going to get married.”
“Excellent idea—delighted to hear it, I’m sure,” replies Will, somewhat less interested in the information than in the delicately flavoured Madeira he is lovingly sipping. “Who’s the lady?”
“I don’t know, yet,” is John Ingerfield’s answer.
His friend glances slyly at him over his glass, not sure whether he is expected to be amused or sympathetically helpful.
“I want you to find one for me.”
Will Cathcart puts down his glass and stares at his host across the table.
“Should be delighted to help you, Jack,” he stammers, in an alarmed tone—“’pon my soul I should; but really don’t know a damned woman I could recommend—’pon my soul I don’t.”
“You must see a good many: I wish you’d look out for one that you could recommend.”
“Certainly I will, my dear Jack!” answers the other, in a relieved voice. “Never thought about ’em in that way before. Daresay I shall come across the very girl to suit you. I’ll keep my eyes open and let you know.”
“I shall be obliged to you if you will,” replies John Ingerfield, quietly; “and it’s your turn, I think, to oblige me, Will. I have obliged you, if you recollect.”
“Shall never forget it, my dear Jack,” murmurs Will, a little uneasily. “It was uncommonly good of you. You saved me from ruin, Jack: shall think about it to my dying day—’pon my soul I shall.”
“No need to let it worry you for so long a period as that,” returns John, with the faintest suspicion of a smile playing round his firm mouth. “The bill falls due at the end of next month. You can discharge the debt then, and the matter will be off your mind.”
Will finds his chair growing uncomfortable under him, while the Madeira somehow loses its flavour. He gives a short, nervous laugh.
“By Jove,” he says: “so soon as that? The date had quite slipped my memory.”
“Fortunate that I reminded you,” says John, the smile round his lips deepening.
Will fidgets on his seat. “I’m afraid, my dear Jack,” he says, “I shall have to get you to renew it, just for a month or two,—deuced awkward thing, but I’m remarkably short of money this year. Truth is, I can’t get what’s owing to myself.”
“That’s very awkward, certainly,” replies his friend, “because I am not at all sure that I shall be able to renew it.”
Will stares at him in some alarm. “But what am I to do if I hav’n’t the money?”
John Ingerfield shrugs his shoulders.
“You don’t mean, my dear Jack, that you would put me in prison?”
“Why not? Other people have to go there who can’t pay their debts.”
Will Cathcart’s alarm grows to serious proportions. “But our friendship,” he cries, “our—”
“My dear Will,” interrupts the other, “there are few friends I would lend three hundred pounds to and make no effort to get it back. You, certainly, are not one of them.”
“Let us make a bargain,” he continues. “Find me a wife, and on the day of my marriage I will send you back that bill with, perhaps, a couple of hundred added. If by the end of next month you have not introduced me to a lady fit to be, and willing to be, Mrs. John Ingerfield, I shall decline to renew it.”
John Ingerfield refills his own glass and hospitably pushes the bottle towards his guest—who, however, contrary to his custom, takes no notice of it, but stares hard at his shoe-buckles.
“Are you serious?” he says at length.
“Quite serious,” is the answer. “I want to marry. My wife must be a lady by birth and education. She must be of good family—of family sufficiently good, indeed, to compensate for the refinery. She must be young and beautiful and charming. I am purely a business man. I want a woman capable of conducting the social department of my life. I know of no such lady myself. I appeal to you, because you, I know, are intimate with the class among whom she must be sought.”
“There may be some difficulty in persuading a lady of the required qualifications to accept the situation,” says Cathcart, with a touch of malice.
“I want you to find one who will,” says John Ingerfield.
Early in the evening Will Cathcart takes leave of his host, and departs thoughtful and anxious; and John Ingerfield strolls contemplatively up and down his wharf, for the smell of oil and tallow has grown to be very sweet to him, and it is pleasant to watch the moonbeams shining on the piled-up casks.
Six weeks go by. On the first day of the seventh John takes Will Cathcart’s acceptance from its place in the large safe, and lays it in the smaller box beside his desk, devoted to more pressing and immediate business. Two days later Cathcart picks his way across the slimy yard, passes through the counting-house, and enters his friend’s inner sanctum, closing the door behind him.
He wears a jubilant air, and slaps the grave John on the back. “I’ve got her, Jack,” he cries. “It’s been hard work, I can tell you: sounding suspicious old dowagers, bribing confidential servants, fishing for information among friends of the family. By Jove, I shall be able to join the Duke’s staff as spy-in-chief to His Majesty’s entire forces after this!”
“What is she like?” asks John, without stopping his writing.
“Like! My dear Jack, you’ll fall over head and ears in love with her the moment you see her. A little cold, perhaps, but that will just suit you.”
“Good family?” asks John, signing and folding the letter he has finished.
“So good that I was afraid at first it would be useless thinking of her. But she’s a sensible girl, no confounded nonsense about her, and the family are poor as church mice. In fact—well, to tell the truth, we have become most excellent friends, and she told me herself frankly that she meant to marry a rich man, and didn’t much care whom.”
“That sounds hopeful,” remarks the would-be bridegroom, with his peculiar dry smile: “when shall I have the pleasure of seeing her?”
“I want you to come with me to-night to the Garden,” replies the other; “she will be in Lady Heatherington’s box, and I will introduce you.”
So that evening John Ingerfield goes to Covent Garden Theatre, with the blood running a trifle quicker in his veins, but not much, than would be the case were he going to the docks to purchase tallow—examines, covertly, the proposed article from the opposite side of the house, and approves her—is introduced to her, and, on closer inspection, approves her still more—receives an invitation to visit—visits frequently, and each time is more satisfied of the rarity, serviceableness, and quality of the article.
If all John Ingerfield requires for a wife is a beautiful social machine, surely here he has found his ideal. Anne Singleton, only daughter of that persistently unfortunate but most charming of baronets, Sir Harry Singleton (more charming, it is rumoured, outside his family circle than within it), is a stately graceful, high-bred woman. Her portrait, by Reynolds, still to be seen above the carved wainscoting of one of the old City halls, shows a wonderfully handsome and clever face, but at the same time a wonderfully cold and heartless one. It is the face of a woman half weary of, half sneering at the world. One reads in old family letters, whereof the ink is now very faded and the paper very yellow, long criticisms of this portrait. The writers complain that if the picture is at all like her she must have greatly changed since her girlhood, for they remember her then as having a laughing and winsome expression.
They say—they who knew her in after-life—that this earlier face came back to her in the end, so that the many who remembered opening their eyes and seeing her bending down over them could never recognise the portrait of the beautiful sneering lady, even when they were told whom it represented.
But at the time of John Ingerfield’s strange wooing she was the Anne Singleton of Sir Joshua’s portrait, and John Ingerfield liked her the better that she was.
He had no feeling of sentiment in the matter himself, and it simplified the case that she had none either. He offered her a plain bargain, and she accepted it. For all he knew or cared, her attitude towards this subject of marriage was the usual one assumed by women. Very young girls had their heads full of romantic ideas. It was better for her and for him that she had got rid of them.
“Ours will be a union founded on good sense,” said John Ingerfield.
“Let us hope the experiment will succeed,” said Anne Singleton.
But the experiment does not succeed. The laws of God decree that man shall purchase woman, that woman shall give herself to man, for other coin than that of good sense. Good sense is not a legal tender in the marriage mart. Men and women who enter therein with only sense in their purse have no right to complain if, on reaching home, they find they have concluded an unsatisfactory bargain.
John Ingerfield, when he asked Anne Singleton to be his wife, felt no more love for her than he felt for any of the other sumptuous household appointments he was purchasing about the same time, and made no pretence of doing so. Nor, had he done so, would she have believed him; for Anne Singleton has learned much in her twenty-two summers and winters, and knows that love is only a meteor in life’s sky, and that the true lodestar of this world is gold. Anne Singleton has had her romance and buried it deep down in her deep nature and over its grave, to keep its ghost from rising, has piled the stones of indifference and contempt, as many a woman has done before and since. Once upon a time Anne Singleton sat dreaming out a story. It was a story old as the hills—older than some of them—but to her, then, it was quite new and very wonderful. It contained all the usual stock material common to such stories: the lad and the lass, the plighted troth, the richer suitors, the angry parents, the love that was worth braving all the world for. One day into this dream there fell from the land of the waking a letter, a poor, pitiful letter: “You know I love you and only you,” it ran; “my heart will always be yours till I die. But my father threatens to stop my allowance, and, as you know, I have nothing of my own except debts. Some would call her handsome, but how can I think of her beside you? Oh, why was money ever let to come into the world to curse us?” with many other puzzling questions of a like character, and much severe condemnation of Fate and Heaven and other parties generally, and much self-commiseration.
Anne Singleton took long to read the letter. When she had finished it, and had read it through again, she rose, and, crushing it her hand, flung it in the fire with a laugh, and as the flame burnt up and died away felt that her life had died with it, not knowing that bruised hearts can heal.
So when John Ingerfield comes wooing, and speaks to her no word of love but only of money, she feels that here at last is a genuine voice that she can trust. Love of the lesser side of life is still left to her. It will be pleasant to be the wealthy mistress of a fine house, to give great receptions, to exchange the secret poverty of home for display and luxury. These things are offered to her on the very terms she would have suggested herself. Accompanied by love she would have refused them, knowing she could give none in return.
But a woman finds it one thing not to desire affection and another thing not to possess it. Day by day the atmosphere of the fine house in Bloomsbury grows cold and colder about her heart. Guests warm it at times for a few hours, then depart, leaving it chillier than before.
For her husband she attempts to feel indifference, but living creatures joined together cannot feel indifference for each other. Even two dogs in a leash are compelled to think of one another. A man and wife must love or hate, like or dislike, in degree as the bond connecting them is drawn tight or allowed to hang slack. By mutual desire their chains of wedlock have been fastened as loosely as respect for security will permit, with the happy consequence that her aversion to him does not obtrude itself beyond the limits of politeness.
Her part of the contract she faithfully fulfils, for the Singletons also have their code of honour. Her beauty, her tact, her charm, her influence, are devoted to his service—to the advancement of his position, the furtherance of his ambition. Doors that would otherwise remain closed she opens to him. Society, that would otherwise pass by with a sneer, sits round his table. His wishes and pleasures are hers. In all things she yields him wifely duty, seeks to render herself agreeable to him, suffers in silence his occasional caresses. Whatever was implied in the bargain, that she will perform to the letter.
He, on his side, likewise performs his part with businesslike conscientiousness—nay, seeing that the pleasing of her brings no personal gratification to himself—not without generosity. He is ever thoughtful of and deferential to her, awarding her at all times an unvarying courteousness that is none the less sincere for being studied. Her every expressed want is gratified, her every known distaste respected. Conscious of his presence being an oppression to her, he is even careful not to intrude it upon her oftener than is necessary.
At times he asks himself, somewhat pertinently, what he has gained by marriage—wonders whether this social race was quite the most interesting game he could have elected to occupy his leisure—wonders whether, after all, he would not have been happier over his counting-house than in these sumptuous, glittering rooms, where he always seems, and feels himself to be, the uninvited guest.
The only feeling that a closer intimacy has created in him for his wife is that of indulgent contempt. As there is no equality between man and woman, so there can be no respect. She is a different being. He must either look up to her as superior to himself, or down upon her as inferior. When a man does the former he is more or less in love, and love to John Ingerfield is an unknown emotion. Her beauty, her charm, her social tact—even while he makes use of them for his own purposes, he despises as the weapons of a weak nature.
So in their big, cold mansion John Ingerfield and Anne, his wife, sit far apart, strangers to one another, neither desiring to know the other nearer.
About his business he never speaks to her, and she never questions him. To compensate for the slight shrinkage of time he is able to devote to it, he becomes more strict and exacting; grows a harsher master to his people, a sterner creditor, a greedier dealer, squeezing the uttermost out of every one, feverish to grow richer, so that he may spend more upon the game that day by day he finds more tiresome and uninteresting.
And the piled-up casks upon his wharves increase and multiply; and on the dirty river his ships and barges lie in ever-lengthening lines; and round his greasy cauldrons sweating, witch-like creatures swarm in ever-denser numbers, stirring oil and tallow into gold.
Until one summer, from its nest in the far East, there flutters westward a foul thing. Hovering over Limehouse suburb, seeing it crowded and unclean, liking its fetid smell, it settles down upon it.
Typhus is the creature’s name. At first it lurks there unnoticed, battening upon the rich, rank food it finds around it, until, grown too big to hide longer, it boldly shows its hideous head, and the white face of Terror runs swiftly through alley and street, crying as it runs, forces itself into John Ingerfield’s counting-house, and tells its tale. John Ingerfield sits for a while thinking. Then he mounts his horse and rides home at as hard a pace as the condition of the streets will allow. In the hall he meets Anne going out, and stops her.
“Don’t come too near me,” he says quietly. “Typhus fever has broken out at Limehouse, and they say one can communicate it, even without having it oneself. You had better leave London for a few weeks. Go down to your father’s: I will come and fetch you when it is all over.”
He passes her, giving her a wide berth, and goes upstairs, where he remains for some minutes in conversation with his valet. Then, coming down, he remounts and rides off again.
After a little while Anne goes up into his room. His man is kneeling in the middle of the floor, packing a valise.
“Where are you to take it?” she asks.
“Down to the wharf, ma’am,” answers the man: “Mr. Ingerfield is going to be there for a day or two.”
Then Anne sits in the great empty drawing-room, and takes her turn at thinking.
John Ingerfield finds, on his return to Limehouse, that the evil has greatly increased during the short time he has been away. Fanned by fear and ignorance, fed by poverty and dirt, the scourge is spreading through the district like a fire. Long smouldering in secret, it has now burst forth at fifty different points at once. Not a street, not a court but has its “case.” Over a dozen of John’s hands are down with it already. Two more have sunk prostrate beside their work within the last hour. The panic grows grotesque. Men and women tear their clothes off, looking to see if they have anywhere upon them a rash or a patch of mottled skin, find that they have, or imagine that they have, and rush, screaming, half-undressed, into the street. Two men, meeting in a narrow passage, both rush back, too frightened to pass each other. A boy stoops down and scratches his leg—not an action that under ordinary circumstances would excite much surprise in that neighbourhood. In an instant there is a wild stampede from the room, the strong trampling on the weak in their eagerness to escape.
These are not the days of organised defence against disease. There are kind hearts and willing hands in London town, but they are not yet closely enough banded together to meet a swift foe such as this. There are hospitals and charities galore, but these are mostly in the City, maintained by the City Fathers for the exclusive benefit of poor citizens and members of the guilds. The few free hospitals are already over-crowded and ill-prepared. Squalid, outlying Limehouse, belonging to nowhere, cared for by nobody, must fight for itself.
John Ingerfield calls the older men together, and with their help attempts to instil some sense and reason into his terrified people. Standing on the step of his counting-house, and addressing as many of them as are not too scared to listen, he tells them of the danger of fear and of the necessity for calmness and courage.
“We must face and fight this thing like men,” he cries, in that deep, din-conquering voice that has served the Ingerfields in good stead on many a steel-swept field, on many a storm-struck sea; “there must be no cowardly selfishness, no faint-hearted despair. If we’ve got to die we’ll die; but please God we’ll live. Anyhow, we will stick together, and help each other. I mean to stop here with you, and do what I can for you. None of my people shall want.”
John Ingerfield ceases, and as the vibrations of his strong tones roll away a sweet voice from beside him rises clear and firm:—
“I have come down to be with you also, and to help my husband. I shall take charge of the nursing and tending of your sick, and I hope I shall be of some real use to you. My husband and I are so sorry for you in your trouble. I know you will be brave and patient. We will all do our best, and be hopeful.”
He turns, half expecting to see only the empty air and to wonder at the delirium in his brain. She puts her hand in his, and their eyes meet; and in that moment, for the first time in their lives, these two see one another.
They speak no word. There is no opportunity for words. There is work to be done, and done quickly, and Anne grasps it with the greed of a woman long hungry for the joy of doing. As John watches her moving swiftly and quietly through the bewildered throng, questioning, comforting, gently compelling, the thought comes to him, Ought he to allow her to be here, risking her life for his people? followed by the thought, How is he going to prevent it? For in this hour the knowledge is born within him that Anne is not his property; that he and she are fellow hands taking their orders from the same Master; that though it be well for them to work together and help each other, they must not hinder one another.
As yet John does not understand all this. The idea is new and strange to him. He feels as the child in a fairy story on suddenly discovering that the trees and flowers has he passed by carelessly a thousand times can think and talk. Once he whispers to her of the labour and the danger, but she answers simply, “They are my people too, John: it is my work”; and he lets her have her way.
Anne has a true woman’s instinct for nursing, and her strong sense stands her in stead of experience. A glance into one or two of the squalid dens where these people live tells her that if her patients are to be saved they must be nursed away from their own homes; and she determines to convert the large counting-house—a long, lofty room at the opposite end of the wharf to the refinery—into a temporary hospital. Selecting some seven or eight of the most reliable women to assist her, she proceeds to prepare it for its purpose. Ledgers might be volumes of poetry, bills of lading mere street ballads, for all the respect that is shown to them. The older clerks stand staring aghast, feeling that the end of all things is surely at hand, and that the universe is rushing down into space, until, their idleness being detected, they are themselves promptly impressed for the sacrilegious work, and made to assist in the demolition of their own temple.
Anne’s commands are spoken very sweetly, and are accompanied by the sweetest of smiles; but they are nevertheless commands, and somehow it does not occur to any one to disobey them. John—stern, masterful, authoritative John, who has never been approached with anything more dictatorial than a timid request since he left Merchant Taylors’ School nineteen years ago, who would have thought that something had suddenly gone wrong with the laws of Nature if he had been—finds himself hurrying along the street on his way to a druggist’s shop, slackens his pace an instant to ask himself why and wherefore he is doing so, recollects that he was told to do so and to make haste back, marvels who could have dared to tell him to do anything and to make haste back, remembers that it was Anne, is not quite sure what to think about it, but hurries on. He “makes haste back,” is praised for having been so quick, and feels pleased with himself; is sent off again in another direction, with instructions what to say when he gets there. He starts off (he is becoming used to being ordered about now). Halfway there great alarm seizes him, for on attempting to say over the message to himself, to be sure that he has it quite right, he discovers he has forgotten it. He pauses, nervous and excited; cogitates as to whether it will be safe for him to concoct a message of his own, weighs anxiously the chances—supposing that he does so—of being found out. Suddenly, to his intense surprise and relief, every word of what he was told to say comes back to him; and he hastens on, repeating it over and over to himself as he walks, lest it should escape him again.
And then a few hundred yards farther on there occurs one of the most extraordinary events that has ever happened in that street before or since: John Ingerfield laughs.
John Ingerfield, of Lavender Wharf, after walking two-thirds of Creek Lane, muttering to himself with his eyes on the ground, stops in the middle of the road and laughs; and one small boy, who tells the story to his dying day, sees him and hears him, and runs home at the top of his speed with the wonderful news, and is conscientiously slapped by his mother for telling lies.
All that day Anne works like a heroine, John helping her, and occasionally getting in the way. By night she has her little hospital prepared and three beds already up and occupied; and, all now done that can be done, she and John go upstairs to his old rooms above the counting-house.
John ushers her into them with some misgiving, for by contrast with the house at Bloomsbury they are poor and shabby. He places her in the arm-chair near the fire, begging her to rest quiet, and then assists his old housekeeper, whose wits, never of the strongest, have been scared by the day’s proceeding, to lay the meal.
Anne’s eyes follow him as he moves about the room. Perhaps here, where all the real part of his life has been passed, he is more his true self than amid the unfamiliar surroundings of fashion; perhaps this simpler frame shows him to greater advantage; but Anne wonders how it is she has never noticed before that he is a well-set, handsome man. Nor, indeed, is he so very old-looking. Is it a trick of the dim light, or what? He looks almost young. But why should he not look young, seeing he is only thirty-six, and at thirty-six a man is in his prime? Anne wonders why she has always thought of him as an elderly person.
A portrait of one of John’s ancestors hangs over the great mantelpiece—of that sturdy Captain Ingerfield who fought the King’s frigate rather than give up one of his people. Anne glances from the dead face to the living and notes the strong likeness between them. Through her half-closed eyes she sees the grim old captain hurling back his message of defiance, and his face is the face she saw a few hours ago, saying, “I mean to stop here with you and do what I can for you. None of my people shall want.”
John is placing a chair for her at the table, and the light from the candles falls upon him. She steals another glance at his face—a strong, stern, handsome face, capable of becoming a noble face. Anne wonders if it has ever looked down tenderly at anyone; feels a sudden fierce pain at the thought; dismisses the thought as impossible; wonders, nevertheless, how tenderness would suit it; thinks she would like to see a look of tenderness upon it, simply out of curiosity; wonders if she ever will.
She rouses herself from her reverie as John, with a smile, tells her supper is ready, and they seat themselves opposite each other, an odd air of embarrassment pervading.
Day by day their work grows harder; day by day the foe grows stronger, fiercer, more all-conquering; and day by day, fighting side by side against it, John Ingerfield and Anne, his wife, draw closer to each other. On the battle-field of life we learn the worth of strength. Anne feels it good, when growing weary, to glance up and find him near her; feels it good, amid the troubled babel round her, to hear the deep, strong music of his voice.
And John, watching Anne’s fair figure moving to and fro among the stricken and the mourning; watching her fair, fluttering hands, busy with their holy work, her deep, soul-haunting eyes, changeful with the light and shade of tenderness; listening to her sweet, clear voice, laughing with the joyous, comforting the comfortless, gently commanding, softly pleading, finds creeping into his brain strange new thoughts concerning women—concerning this one woman in particular.
One day, rummaging over an old chest, he comes across a coloured picture-book of Bible stories. He turns the torn pages fondly, remembering the Sunday afternoons of long ago. At one picture, wherein are represented many angels, he pauses; for in one of the younger angels of the group—one not quite so severe of feature as her sisters—he fancies he can trace resemblance to Anne. He lingers long over it. Suddenly there rushes through his brain the thought, How good to stoop and kiss the sweet feet of such a woman! and, thinking it, he blushes like a boy.
So from the soil of human suffering spring the flowers of human love and joy, and from the flowers there fall the seeds of infinite pity for human pain, God shaping all things to His ends.
Thinking of Anne, John’s face grows gentler, his hand kinder; dreaming of him, her heart grows stronger, deeper, fuller. Every available room in the warehouse has been turned into a ward, and the little hospital is open free to all, for John and Anne feel that the whole world are their people. The piled-up casks are gone—shipped to Woolwich and Gravesend, bundled anywhere out of the way, as though oil and tallow and the gold they can be stirred into were matters of small moment in this world, not to be thought of beside such a thing as the helping of a human brother in sore strait.
All the labour of the day seems light to them, looking forward to the hour when they sit together in John’s old shabby dining-room above the counting-house. Yet a looker-on might imagine such times dull to them; for they are strangely shy of one another, strangely sparing of words—fearful of opening the flood-gates of speech, feeling the pressure of the pent-up thought.
One evening, John, throwing out words, not as a sop to the necessity for talk, but as a bait to catch Anne’s voice, mentions girdle-cakes, remembers that his old housekeeper used to be famous for the making of them, and wonders if she has forgotten the art.
Anne, answering tremulously, as though girdle-cakes were a somewhat delicate topic, claims to be a successful amateur of them herself. John, having been given always to understand that the talent for them was exceedingly rare, and one usually hereditary, respectfully doubts Anne’s capabilities, deferentially suggesting that she is thinking of scones. Anne indignantly repudiates the insinuation, knows quite well the difference between girdle-cakes and scones, offers to prove her powers by descending into the kitchen and making some then and there, if John will accompany her and find the things for her.
John accepts the challenge, and, guiding Anne with one shy, awkward hand, while holding aloft a candle in the other, leads the way. It is past ten o’clock, and the old housekeeper is in bed. At each creaking stair they pause, to listen if the noise has awakened her; then, finding all silent, creep forward again, with suppressed laughter, wondering with alarm, half feigned, half real, what the prim, methodical dame would say were she to come down and catch them.
They reach the kitchen, thanks more to the suggestions of a friendly cat than to John’s acquaintanceship with the geography of his own house; and Anne rakes together the fire and clears the table for her work. What possible use John is to her—what need there was for her stipulating that he should accompany her, Anne might find it difficult, if examined, to explain satisfactorily. As for his “finding the things” for her, he has not the faintest notion where they are, and possesses no natural aptitude for discovery. Told to find flour, he industriously searches for it in the dresser drawers; sent for the rolling-pin—the nature and characteristics of rolling-pins being described to him for his guidance—he returns, after a prolonged absence, with the copper stick. Anne laughs at him; but really it would seem as though she herself were almost as stupid, for not until her hands are covered with flour does it occur to her that she has not taken that preliminary step in all cooking operations of rolling up her sleeves.
She holds out her arms to John, first one and then the other, asking him sweetly if he minds doing it for her. John is very slow and clumsy, but Anne stands very patient. Inch by inch he peels the black sleeve from the white round arm. Hundreds of times must he have seen those fair arms, bare to the shoulder, sparkling with jewels; but never before has he seen their wondrous beauty. He longs to clasp them round his neck, yet is fearful lest his trembling fingers touching them as he performs his tantalising task may offend her. Anne thanks him, and apologises for having given him so much trouble, and he murmurs some meaningless reply, and stands foolishly silent, watching her.
Anne seems to find one hand sufficient for her cake-making, for the other rests idly on the table—very near to one of John’s, as she would see were not her eyes so intent upon her work. How the impulse came to him, where he—grave, sober, business-man John—learnt such story-book ways can never be known; but in one instant he is down on both knees, smothering the floury hand with kisses, and the next moment Anne’s arms are round his neck and her lips against his, and the barrier between them is swept away, and the deep waters of their love rush together.
With that kiss they enter a new life whereinto one may not follow them. One thinks it must have been a life made strangely beautiful by self-forgetfulness, strangely sweet by mutual devotion—a life too ideal, perhaps, to have remained for long undimmed by the mists of earth.
They who remember them at that time speak of them in hushed tones, as one speaks of visions. It would almost seem as though from their faces in those days there shone a radiance, as though in their voices dwelt a tenderness beyond the tenderness of man.
They seem never to rest, never to weary. Day and night, through that little stricken world, they come and go, bearing healing and peace, till at last the plague, like some gorged beast of prey, slinks slowly back towards its lair, and men raise their heads and breathe.
One afternoon, returning from a somewhat longer round than usual, John feels a weariness creeping into his limbs, and quickens his step, eager to reach home and rest. Anne, who has been up all the previous night, is asleep, and not wishing to disturb her, he goes into the dining-room and sits down in the easy chair before the fire. The room strikes cold. He stirs the logs, but they give out no greater heat. He draws his chair right in front of them, and sits leaning over them with his feet on the hearth and his hands outstretched towards the blaze; yet he still shivers.
Twilight fills the room and deepens into dusk. He wonders listlessly how it is that Time seems to be moving with such swift strides. After a while he hears a voice close to him, speaking in a slow, monotonous tone—a voice curiously familiar to him, though he cannot tell to whom it belongs. He does not turn his head, but sits listening to it drowsily. It is talking about tallow: one hundred and ninety-four casks of tallow, and they must all stand one inside the other. It cannot be done, the voice complains pathetically. They will not go inside each other. It is no good pushing them. See! they only roll out again.
The voice grows wearily fretful. Oh! why do they persist when they see it is impossible? What fools they all are!
Suddenly he recollects the voice, and starts up and stares wildly about him, trying to remember where he is. With a fierce straining of his will he grips the brain that is slipping away from him, and holds it. As soon as he feels sure of himself he steals out of the room and down the stairs.
In the hall he stands listening; the house is very silent. He goes to the head of the stairs leading to the kitchen and calls softly to the old housekeeper, and she comes up to him, panting and grunting as she climbs each step. Keeping some distance from her, he asks in a whisper where Anne is. The woman answers that she is in the hospital.
“Tell her I have been called away suddenly on business,” he says, speaking in quick, low tones: “I shall be away for some days. Tell her to leave here and return home immediately. They can do without her here now. Tell her to go back home at once. I will join her there.”
He moves toward the door but stops and faces round again.
“Tell her I beg and entreat her not to stop in this place an hour longer. There is nothing to keep her now. It is all over: there is nothing that cannot be done by any one. Tell her she must go home—this very night. Tell her if she loves me to leave this place at once.”
The woman, a little bewildered by his vehemence, promises, and disappears down the stairs. He takes his hat and cloak from the chair on which he had thrown them, and turns once more to cross the hall. As he does so, the door opens and Anne enters.
He darts back into the shadow, squeezing himself against the wall. Anne calls to him laughingly, then, as he does not answer, with a frightened accent:
“John,—John, dear. Was not that you? Are not you there?”
He holds his breath, and crouches still closer into the dark corner; and Anne, thinking she must have been mistaken in the dim light, passes him and goes upstairs.
Then he creeps stealthily to the door, lets himself out and closes it softly behind him.
After the lapse of a few minutes the old housekeeper plods upstairs and delivers John’s message. Anne, finding it altogether incomprehensible, subjects the poor dame to severe examination, but fails to elicit anything further. What is the meaning of it? What “business” can have compelled John, who for ten weeks has never let the word escape his lips, to leave her like this—without a word! without a kiss! Then suddenly she remembers the incident of a few moments ago, when she had called to him, thinking she saw him, and he did not answer; and the whole truth strikes her full in the heart.
She refastens the bonnet-strings she has been slowly untying, and goes down and out into the wet street.
She makes her way rapidly to the house of the only doctor resident in the neighbourhood—a big, brusque-mannered man, who throughout these terrible two months has been their chief stay and help. He meets her on her entrance with an embarrassed air that tells its own tale, and at once renders futile his clumsy attempts at acting:—
How should he know where John is? Who told her John had the fever—a great, strong, hulking fellow like that? She has been working too hard, and has got fever on the brain. She must go straight back home, or she will be having it herself. She is more likely to take it than John.
Anne, waiting till he has finished jerking out sentences while stamping up and down the room, says gently, taking no notice of his denials,—“If you will not tell me I must find out from some one else—that is all.” Then, her quick eyes noting his momentary hesitation, she lays her little hand on his rough paw, and, with the shamelessness of a woman who loves deeply, wheedles everything out of him that he has promised to keep secret.
He stops her, however, as she is leaving the room. “Don’t go in to him now,” he says; “he will worry about you. Wait till to-morrow.”
So, while John lies counting endless casks of tallow, Anne sits by his side, tending her last “case.”
Often in his delirium he calls her name, and she takes his fevered hand in hers and holds it, and he falls asleep.
Each morning the doctor comes and looks at him, asks a few questions and gives a few commonplace directions, but makes no comment. It would be idle his attempting to deceive her.
The days move slowly through the darkened room. Anne watches his thin hands grow thinner, his sunken eyes grow bigger; yet remains strangely calm, almost contented.
Very near the end there comes an hour when John wakes as from a dream, and remembers all things clearly.
He looks at her half gratefully, half reproachfully.
“Anne, why are you here?” he asks, in a low, laboured voice. “Did they not give you my message?”
For answer she turns her deep eyes upon him.
“Would you have gone away and left me here to die?” she questions him, with a faint smile.
She bends her head down nearer to him, so that her soft hair falls about his face.
“Our lives were one, dear,” she whispers to him. “I could not have lived without you; God knew that. We shall be together always.”
She kisses him, and laying his head upon her breast, softly strokes it as she might a child’s; and he puts his weak arms around her.
Later on she feels them growing cold about her, and lays him gently back upon the bed, looks for the last time into his eyes, then draws the lids down over them.
His people ask that they may bury him in the churchyard hard by, so that he may always be among them; and, Anne consenting, they do all things needful with their own hands, wishful that no unloving labour may be mingled with their work. They lay him close to the porch, where, going in and out the church, their feet will pass near to him; and one among them who is cunning with the graver’s chisel shapes the stone.
At the head he carves in bas-relief the figure of the good Samaritan tending the brother fallen by the way, and underneath the letters, “In Remembrance of John Ingerfield.”
He thinks to put a verse of Scripture immediately after; but the gruff doctor says, “Better leave a space, in case you want to add another name.”
So the stone remains a little while unfinished; till the same hand carves thereon, a few weeks later, “And of Anne, his Wife.”
Return to the Jerome K. Jerome library , or . . . Read the next short story; Portrait of a Lady