The Probation of James Wrench


"There are two sorts of men as gets hen-pecked," remarked Henry--I forgot how the subject had originated, but we had been discussing the merits of Henry VIII., considered as a father and a husband,--"the sort as likes it and the sort as don't, and I wouldn't be too cocksure that the sort as does isn't on the whole in the majority.

"You see," continued Henry argumentatively, "it gives, as it were, a kind of interest to life which nowadays, with everything going smoothly, and no chance of a row anywhere except in your own house, is apt to become a bit monotonous. There was a chap I got to know pretty well one winter when I was working in Dresden at the Europaischer Hof: a quiet, meek little man he was, a journeyman butcher by trade; and his wife was a dressmaker, a Schneiderin, as they call them over there, and ran a fairly big business in the Praguer Strasse. I've always been told that German husbands are the worst going, treating their wives like slaves, or, at the best, as mere upper servants. But my experience is that human nature don't alter so much according to distance from London as we fancy it does, and that husbands have their troubles same as wives all the world over. Anyhow, I've come across a German husband or two as didn't carry about with him any sign of the slave driver such as you might notice, at all events not in his own house; and I know for a fact that Meister Anton, which was the name of the chap I'm telling you about, couldn't have been much worse off, not even if he'd been an Englishman born and bred. There were no children to occupy her mind, so she just devoted herself to him and the work-girls, and made things hum, as they say in America, for all of them. As for the girls, they got away at six in the evening, and not many of them stopped more than the first month. But the old man, not being able to give notice, had to put up with an average of eighteen hours a day of it. And even when, as was sometimes the case, he managed to get away for an hour or two in the evening for a quiet talk with a few of us over a glass of beer, he could never be quite happy, thinking of what was accumulating for him at home. Of course everybody as knew him knew of his troubles--for a scolding wife ain't the sort of thing as can be hid under a bushel,--and was sorry for him, he being as amiable and good-tempered a fellow as ever lived, and most of us spent our time with him advising him for his good. Some of the more ardent would give him recipes for managing her, but they, being generally speaking bachelors, their suggestions lacked practicability, as you might say. One man bored his life out persuading him to try a bucket of cold water. He was one of those cold-water enthusiasts, this fellow; took it himself for everything, and always went to a hydropathic establishment for his holidays. Rumour had it that Meister Anton really did try this experiment on one unfortunate occasion--worried into it, I suppose, by the other chap's persistency. Anyhow, we didn't see him again for a week, he being confined to his bed with a chill on the liver. And the next suggestion made to him he rejected quite huffily, explaining that he had no intention of putting any fresh ideas into his wife's head.

"She wasn't a bad woman, mind you--merely given to fits of temper. At times she could be quite pleasant: but when she wasn't life with her must have been exciting. He had stood it for about seven years; and then one day, without a word of warning to anyone, he went away and left her. As she was quite able to keep herself, this seemed to be the best arrangement possible, and everybody wondered why he had never thought of it before, I did not see him again for nine months, until I ran against him by pure chance on the Koln platform, where I was waiting for a train to Paris. He told me they had made up all their differences by correspondence, and that he was then on his way back to her. He seemed quite cheerful and expectant.

"'Do you think she's really reformed?' I says. 'Do you think nine months is long enough to have taught her a lesson?' I didn't want to damp him, but personally I have never known but one case of a woman being cured of nagging, and that being brought about by a fall from a third-story window, resulting in what the doctors called permanent paralysis of the vocal organs, can hardly be taken as a precedent.

"'No,' he answers, 'nor nine years. But it's been long enough to teach me a lesson.'

"'You know me,' he goes on. 'I ain't a quarrelsome sort of chap. If nobody says a word to me, I never says a word to anybody; and it's been like that ever since I left her, day in and day out, all just the same. Up in the morning, do your bit of work, drink your glass of beer, and to bed in the evening; nothing to excite you, nothing to rouse you. Why, it's a mere animal existence.'

"He was a rum sort of chap, always thought things out from his own point of view as it were."

"Yes, a curious case," I remarked to Henry; "not the sort of story to put about, however. It might give women the idea that nagging is attractive, and encourage them to try it upon husbands who do not care for that kind of excitement."

"Not much fear of that," replied Henry. "The nagging woman is born, as they say, not made; and she'll nag like the roses bloom, not because she wants to, but because she can't help it. And a woman to whom it don't come natural will never be any real good at it, try as she may. And as for the men, why we'll just go on selecting wives according to the old rule, so that you never know what you've got till it's too late for you to do anything but make the best or the worst of it, according as your fancy takes you.

"There was a fellow," continued Henry, "as used to work with me a good many years ago now at a small hotel in the City. He was a waiter, like myself--not a bad sort of chap, though a bit of a toff in his off-hours. He'd been engaged for some two or three years to one of the chambermaids. A pretty, gentle-looking little thing she was, with big childish eyes, and a voice like the pouring out of water. They are strange things, women; one can never tell what they are made of from the taste of them. And while I was there, it having been a good season for both of them, they thought they'd risk it and get married. They did the sensible thing, he coming back to his work after the week's holiday, and she to hers; the only difference being that they took a couple of rooms of their own in Middleton Row, from where in summer-time you can catch the glimpse of a green tree or two, and slept out.

"The first few months they were as happy as a couple in a play, she thinking almost as much of him as he thought of himself, which must have been a comfort to both of them, and he as proud of her as if he made her himself. And then some fifteenth cousin or so of his, a man he had never heard of before, died in New Zealand and left him a fortune.

"That was the beginning of his troubles, and hers too. I don't say it was enough to buy a peerage, but to a man accustomed to dream of half- crown tips it seemed an enormous fortune. Anyhow, it was sufficient to turn his head and give him ideas above his station. His first move, of course, was to chuck his berth and set fire to his dress suit, which, being tolerably greasy, burned well. Had he stopped there nobody could have blamed him. I've often thought myself that I would willingly give ten years of my life, provided anybody wanted them, which I don't see how they should, to put my own behind the fire. But he didn't. He took a house in a mews, with the front door in a street off Grosvenor Square, furnished it like a second-class German restaurant, dressed himself like a bookmaker, and fancied that with the help of a few shady City chaps and a broken-down swell or two he had gathered round him, he was fairly on the road to Park Lane and the House of Lords.

"And the only thing that struck him as being at all in his way was his wife. In her cap and apron, or her Sunday print she had always looked as dainty and fetching a little piece of goods as a man could wish to be seen out with. Dressed according to the advice of his new-found friends, of course she looked like nothing else so much as a barn-yard chicken in turkey-cock's feathers. He was shocked to find that her size in gloves was seven-and-a-quarter, and in boots something over four, and that sort of thing naturally irritates a woman more even than finding fault with her immortal soul. I guess for about a year he made her life pretty well a burden for her, trying to bring her up to the standard of the Saturday- to-Monday-at-Brighton set with which he had surrounded himself, or which, to speak more correctly, had got round him. She'd a precious sight more gumption than he had ever possessed, and if he had listened to her instead of insisting upon her listening to him it would have been better for him. But there are some men who think that if you have a taste for champagne and the ballet that proves you are intended by nature for a nob, and he was one of them; and any common-sense suggestion of hers only convinced him of her natural unfitness for an exalted station.

"He grumbled at her accent, which, seeing that his own was acquired in Lime-house and finished off in the Minories, was just the sort of thing a fool would do. And he insisted on her reading all the society novels as they came out--you know the sort I mean,--where everybody snaps everybody else's head off, and all the proverbs are upside down; people leave them about the hotels when they've done with them, and one gets into the habit of dipping into them when one's nothing better to do. His hope was that she might, with pains, get to talk like these books. That was his ideal.

"She did her best, but of course the more she got away from herself the more absurd she became; and the rubbish and worse that he had about him would ridicule her more or less openly. And he, instead of kicking them out into the mews--which could have been done easily without Grosvenor Square knowing anything about it, and thereby having its high-class feelings hurt--he would blame her when they had all gone, just as if it was her fault that she was the daughter of a respectable bootmaker in the Mile End Road instead of something more likely than not turned out of the third row of the ballet because it couldn't dance, and didn't want to learn.

"He played a bit in the City, and won at first, and that swelled his head worse than ever. It also brought him a good deal of sympathy from an Italian Countess, the sort you find at Homburg, and that generally speaking is a widow. Her chief sorrow was for society--that in him was losing an ornament. She explained to him how an accomplished and experienced woman could help a man to gain admittance into the tiptop circles, which, according to her, were just thirsting for him. As a waiter, he had his share of brains, and it's a business that requires more insight than perhaps you'd fancy, if you don't want to waste your time on a rabbit-skin coat and a paste ring, and give the burnt sole to the real gent. But in the hands of this swell mob he was, of course, just the young man from the country; and the end of it was that he played the game down pretty low.

"She--not the Countess, I shouldn't like you to have that idea, but his wife--came to be pretty friendly with my missus later on, and that's how I got to know the details. He comes to her one day looking pretty sheepish-like, as one can well believe, and maybe he'd been drinking a bit to give himself courage.

"'We ain't been getting along too well together of late, have we, Susan?' says he.

"'We ain't seen much of one another,' she answers; 'but I agree with you, we don't seem to enjoy it much when we do.'

"'It ain't your fault,' says he.

"'I'm glad you think that,' she answers; 'it shows me you ain't quite as foolish as I was beginning to think you.'

"'Of course, I didn't know when I married you,' he goes on, 'as I was going to come into this money.'

"'No, nor I either,' says she, 'or you bet it wouldn't have happened.'

"'It seems to have been a bit of a mistake,' says he, 'as things have turned out.'

"'It would have been a mistake, and more than a bit of a one in any case,' answers she.

"'I'm glad you agree with me,' says he; 'there'll be no need to quarrel.'

"'I've always tried to agree with you,' says she. 'We've never quarrelled yet, and that ought to be sufficient proof to you that we never shall.'

"'It's a mistake that can be rectified,' says he, 'if you are sensible, and that without any harm to anyone.'

"'Oh!' says she, 'it must be a new sort of mistake, that kind.'

"'We're not fitted for one another,' says he.

"'Out with it,' says she. 'Don't you be afraid of my feelings; they are well under control, as I think I can fairly say by this time.'

"'With a man in your own station of life,' says he, 'you'd be happier.'

"'There's many a man I might have been happier with,' replies she. 'That ain't the thing to be discussed, seeing as I've got you.'

"'You might get rid of me,' says he.

"'You mean you might get rid of me,' she answers.

"'It comes to the same thing,' he says.

"'No, it don't,' she replies, 'nor anything like it. I shouldn't have got rid of you for my pleasure, and I'm not going to do it for yours. You can live like a decent man, and I'll go on putting up with you; or you can live like a fool, and I shan't stand in your way. But you can't do both, and I'm not going to help you try.'

"Well, he argued with her, and he tried the coaxing dodge, and he tried the bullying dodge, but it didn't work, neither of it.

"'I've done my duty by you,' says she, 'so far as I've been able, and that I'll go on doing or not, just as you please; but I don't do more.'

"'We can't go on living like this,' says he, 'and it isn't fair to ask me to. You're hammering my prospects.'

"'I don't want to do that,' says she. 'You take your proper position in society, whatever that may be, and I'll take mine. I'll be glad enough to get back to it, you may rest assured.'

"'What do you mean?' says he.

"'It's simple enough,' she answers. 'I was earning my living before I married you, and I can earn it again. You go your way, I go mine.'

"It didn't satisfy him; but there was nothing else to be done, and there was no moving her now in any other direction whatever, even had he wanted to. He offered her anything in the way of money--he wasn't a mean chap,--but she wouldn't touch a penny. She had kept her old clothes--I'm not sure that some idea of needing them hadn't always been in her head,--applied for a place under her former manager, who was then bossing a hotel in Kensington, and got it. And there was an end of high life so far as she was concerned.

"As for him, he went the usual way. It always seems to me as if men and women were just like water; sooner or later they get back to the level from which they started--that is, of course, generally speaking. Here and there a drop clings where it climbs; but, taking them on the whole, pumping-up is a slow business. Lord! I have seen them, many of them, jolly clever they've thought themselves, with their diamond rings and big cigars. 'Wait a bit,' I've always said to myself, 'there'll come a day when you'll walk in and be glad enough of your chop and potatoes again with your half-pint of bitter.' And nine cases out of ten I've been right. James Wrench followed the course of the majority, only a little more so: tried to do others a precious sight sharper than himself, and got done; tried a dozen times to scramble up again, each time coming down heavier than before, till there wasn't another spring left in him, and his only ambition victuals. Then, of course, he thought of his wife--it's a wonderful domesticator, ill luck--and wondered what she was doing.

"Fortunately for him, she'd been doing well. Her father died and left her a bit, just a couple of hundred or so, and with this and her own savings she started with a small inn in a growing town, and had sold out again three years later at four times what she had paid for it. She had done even better than that for herself. She had developed a talent for cooking--that was a settled income in itself,--and at this time was running a small hotel in Brighton, and making it pay to a tune that would have made the shareholders of some of its bigger rivals a bit envious could they have known.

"He came to me, having found out, I don't know how--necessity smartens the wits, I suppose,--that my missis still kept up a sort of friendship with her, and begged me to try and arrange a meeting between them, which I did, though I told him frankly that from what I knew his welcome wouldn't be much more enthusiastic than what he'd any right to expect. But he was always of a sanguine disposition; and borrowing his fare and an old greatcoat of mine, he started off, evidently thinking that all his troubles were over.

"But they weren't exactly. The Married Women's Property Act had altered things a bit, and Master James found himself greeted without any suggestion of tenderness by a business-like woman of thirty-six or thereabouts, and told to wait in the room behind the bar till she could find time to talk to him.

"She kept him waiting there for three-quarters of an hour, just sufficient time to take the side out of him; and then she walks in and closes the door behind her.

"'I'd say you hadn't changed hardly a day, Susan,' says he, 'if it wasn't that you'd grown handsomer than ever.'

"I guess he'd been turning that over in his mind during the three-quarters of an hour. It was his fancy that he knew a bit about women.

"'My name's Mrs. Wrench,' says she; 'and if you take your hat off and stand up while I'm talking to you it will be more what I'm accustomed to.'

"Well, that staggered him a bit; but there didn't seem anything else to be done, so he just made as if he thought it funny, though I doubt if at the time he saw the full humour of it.

"'And now, what do you want?" says she, seating herself in front of her desk, and leaving him standing, first on one leg and then on the other, twiddling his hat in his hands.

"'I've been a bad husband to you, Susan,' begins he.

"'I could have told you that,' she answers. 'What I asked you was what you wanted.'

"'I want for us to let bygones be bygones,' says he.

"'That's quite my own idea,' says she, 'and if you don't allude to the past, I shan't.'

"'You're an angel, Susan,' says he.

"'I've told you once,' answers she, 'that my name's Mrs. Wrench. I'm Susan to my friends, not to every broken-down tramp looking for a job.'

"'Ain't I your husband?' says he, trying a bit of dignity.

"She got up and took a glance through the glass-door to see that nobody was there to overhear her.

"'For the first and last time,' says she, 'let you and me understand one another. I've been eleven years without a husband, and I've got used to it. I don't feel now as I want one of any kind, and if I did it wouldn't be your sort. Eleven years ago I wasn't good enough for you, and now you're not good enough for me.'

"'I want to reform,' says he.

"'I want to see you do it,' says she.

"'Give me a chance,' says he.

"'I'm going to,' says she; 'but it's going to be my experiment this time, not yours. Eleven years ago I didn't give you satisfaction, so you turned me out of doors.'

"'You went, Susan,' says he; 'you know it was your own idea.'

"'Don't you remind me too much of the circumstances,' replies she, turning on him with a look in her eyes that was probably new to him, 'I went because there wasn't room for two of us; you know that. The other kind suited you better. Now I'm going to see whether you suit me,' and she sits herself again in her landlady's chair.

"'In what way?' says he.

"'In the way of earning your living,' says she, 'and starting on the road to becoming a decent member of society.'

"He stood for a while cogitating.

"'Don't you think,' says he at last, 'as I could manage this hotel for you?'

"'Thanks,' says she; 'I'm doing that myself.'

"'What about looking to the financial side of things,' says he, 'and keeping the accounts? It's hardly your work.'

"'Nor yours either,' answers she drily, 'judging by the way you've been keeping your own.'

"'You wouldn't like me to be head-waiter, I suppose?' says he. 'It would be a bit of a come-down.'

"'You're thinking of the hotel, I suppose,' says she. 'Perhaps you are right. My customers are mostly an old-fashioned class; it's probable enough they might not like you. You had better suggest something else.'

"'I could hardly be an under-waiter,' says he.

"'Perhaps not,' says she; 'your manners strike me as a bit too familiar for that.'

"Then he thought he'd try sarcasm.

"'Perhaps you'd fancy my being the boots,' says he.

"'That's more reasonable,' says she. 'You couldn't do much harm there, and I could keep an eye on you.'

"'You really mean that?' says he, starting to put on his dignity.

"But she cut him short by ringing the bell.

"'If you think you can do better for yourself,' she says, 'there's an end of it. By a curious coincidence the place is just now vacant. I'll keep it open for you till to-morrow night; you can turn it over in your mind.' And one of the page boys coming in she just says 'Good-morning,' and the interview was at an end.

"Well, he turned it over, and he took the job. He thought she'd relent after the first week or two, but she didn't. He just kept that place for over fifteen months, and learnt the business. In the house he was James the boots, and she Mrs. Wrench the landlady, and she saw to it that he didn't forget it. He had his wages and he made his tips, and the food was plentiful; but I take it he worked harder during that time than he'd ever worked before in his life, and found that a landlady is just twice as difficult to please as the strictest landlord it can be a man's misfortune to get under, and that Mrs. Wrench was no exception to the rule.

"At the end of the fifteen months she sends for him into the office. He didn't want telling by this time; he just stood with his hat in his hand and waited respectful like.

"'James,' says she, after she had finished what she was doing, 'I find I shall want another waiter for the coffee-room this season. Would you care to try the place?'

"'Thank you, Mrs. Wrench,' he answers; 'it's more what I've been used to, and I think I'll be able to give satisfaction.'

"'There's no wages attached, as I suppose you know,' continues she; 'but the second floor goes with it, and if you know your business you ought to make from twenty-five to thirty shillings a week.'

"Thank you, Mrs. Wrench; that'll suit me very well,' replies he; and it was settled.

"He did better as a waiter; he'd got it in his blood, as you might say; and so after a time he worked up to be head-waiter. Now and then, of course, it came about that he found himself waiting on the very folks that he'd been chums with in his classy days, and that must have been a bit rough on him. But he'd taken in a good deal of sense since then; and when one of the old sort, all rings and shirt-front, dining there one Sunday evening, started chaffing him, Jimmy just shut him up with a quiet: 'Yes, I guess we were both a bit out of our place in those days. The difference between us now is that I have got back to mine,' which cost him his tip, but must nave been a satisfaction to him.

"Altogether he worked in that hotel for some three and a half years, and then Mrs. Wrench sends for him again into the office.

"'Sit down, James,' says she.

"'Thank you, Mrs. Wrench,' says James, and sat.

"'I'm thinking of giving up this hotel, James,' says she, 'and taking another near Dover, a quiet place with just such a clientele as I shall like. Do you care to come with me?'

"'Thank you,' says he, 'but I'm thinking, Mrs. Wrench, of making a change myself.'

"'Oh,' says she, 'I'm sorry to hear that, James. I thought we'd been getting on very well together.'

"'I've tried to do my best, Mrs. Wrench,' says he, 'and I hope as I've given satisfaction.'

"'I've nothing to complain of, James,' says she.

"'I thank you for saying it,' says he, 'and I thank you for the opportunity you gave me when I wanted it. It's been the making of me.'

"She didn't answer for about a minute. Then says she: 'You've been meeting some of your old friends, James, I'm afraid, and they've been persuading you to go back into the City.'

"'No, Mrs. Wrench,' says he; 'no more City for me, and no more neighbourhood of Grosvenor Square, unless it be in the way of business; and that couldn't be, of course, for a good long while to come.'

"'What do you mean by business?' asks she.

"'The hotel business,' replies he. 'I believe I know the bearings by now. I've saved a bit, thanks to you, Mrs. Wrench, and a bit's come in from the wreck that I never hoped for.'

"'Enough to start you?' asks she.

"'Not quite enough for that,' answers he. 'My idea is a small partnership.'

"'How much is it altogether?' says she, 'if it's not an impertinent question.'

"'Not at all,' answers he. 'It tots up to 900 pounds about.'

"She turns back to her desk and goes on with her writing.

"'Dover wouldn't suit you, I suppose?' says she without looking round.

"'Dover's all right,' says he, 'if the business is a good one.'

"'It can be worked up into one of the best things going,' says she, 'and I'm getting it dirt cheap. You can have a third share for a thousand pounds, that's just what it's costing, and owe me the other hundred."

"'And what position do I take?' says he.

"'If you come in on those terms,' says she, 'then, of course, it's a partnership.'

"He rose and came over to her. 'Life isn't all business, Susan,' says he.

"'I've found it so mostly,' says she.

"'Fourteen years ago,' says he, 'I made the mistake; now you're making it.'

"'What mistake am I making?' says she.

"'That man's the only thing as can't learn a lesson,' says he.

"'Oh,' says she, 'and what's the lesson that you've learnt?'

"'That I never get on without you, Susan,' says he.

"'Well,' says she, 'you suggested a partnership, and I agreed to it. What more do you want?'

"'I want to know the name of the firm,' says he.

"'Mr. and Mrs. Wrench,' says she, turning round to him and holding out her hand. 'How will that suit you?'

"'That'll do me all right,' answers he. 'And I'll try and give satisfaction,' adds he.

"'I believe you,' says she.

"And in that way they made a fresh start, as it were."


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