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A delicate business - What Ethelbertha might have said - What she did say - What Mrs. Harris said - What we told George - We will start on Wednesday - George suggests the possibility of improving our minds-Harris and I are doubtful - Which man on a tandem does the most work? - The opinion of the man in front - Views of the man behind-How Harris lost his wife - The luggage question - The wisdom of my late Uncle Podger - Beginning of story about a man who had a bag.
I opened the ball with Ethelbertha that same evening. I commenced by being purposely a little irritable. My idea was that Ethelbertha would remark upon this. I should admit it, and account for it by over brain pressure. This would naturally lead to talk about my health in general, and the evident necessity there was for my taking prompt and vigorous measures. I thought that with a little tact I might even manage so that the suggestion should come from Ethelbertha herself. I imagined her saying: "No, dear, it is change you want; complete change. Now be persuaded by me, and go away for a month. No, do not ask me to come with you. I know you would rather that I did, but I will not. It is the society of other men you need. Try and persuade George and Harris to go with you. Believe me, a highly strung brain such as yours demands occasional relaxation from the strain of domestic surroundings. Forget for a little while that children want music lessons, and boots, and bicycles, with tincture of rhubarb three times a day; forget there are such things in life as cooks, and house decorators, and next-door dogs, and butchers' bills. Go away to some green corner of the earth, where all is new and strange to you, where your over-wrought mind will gather peace and fresh ideas. Go away for a space and give me time to miss you, and to reflect upon your goodness and virtue, which, continually present with me, I may, human-like, be apt to forget, as one, through use, grows indifferent to the blessing of the sun and the beauty of the moon. Go away, and come back refreshed in mind and body, a brighter, better man - if that be possible - than when you went away."
But even when we obtain our desires they never come to us garbed as we would wish. To begin with, Ethelbertha did not seem to remark that I was irritable; I had to draw her attention to it. I said:
"You must forgive me, I'm not feeling quite myself to-night."
She said: "Oh! I have not noticed anything different; what's the matter with you?"
"I can't tell you what it is," I said; "I've felt it coming on for weeks."
"It's that whisky," said Ethelbertha. "You never touch it except when we go to the Harris's. You know you can't stand it; you have not a strong head."
"It isn't the whisky," I replied; "it's deeper than that. I fancy it's more mental than bodily."
"You've been reading those criticisms again," said Ethelbertha, more sympathetically; "why don't you take my advice and put them on the fire?"
"And it isn't the criticisms," I answered; "they've been quite flattering of late - one or two of them."
"Well, what is it?" said Ethelbertha; "there must be something to account for it."
"No, there isn't," I replied; "that's the remarkable thing about it; I can only describe it as a strange feeling of unrest that seems to have taken possession of me."
Ethelbertha glanced across at me with a somewhat curious expression, I thought; but as she said nothing, I continued the argument myself.
"This aching monotony of life, these days of peaceful, uneventful felicity, they appal one."
"I should not grumble at them," said Ethelbertha; "we might get some of the other sort, and like them still less."
"I'm not so sure of that," I replied. "In a life of continuous joy, I can imagine even pain coming as a welcome variation. I wonder sometimes whether the saints in heaven do not occasionally feel the continual serenity a burden. To myself a life of endless bliss, uninterrupted by a single contrasting note, would, I feel, grow maddening. I suppose," I continued, "I am a strange sort of man; I can hardly understand myself at times. There are moments," I added, "when I hate myself."
Often a little speech like this, hinting at hidden depths of indescribable emotion has touched Ethelbertha, but to-night she appeared strangely unsympathetic. With regard to heaven and its possible effect upon me, she suggested my not worrying myself about that, remarking it was always foolish to go half-way to meet trouble that might never come; while as to my being a strange sort of fellow, that, she supposed, I could not help, and if other people were willing to put up with me, there was an end of the matter. The monotony of life, she added, was a common experience; there she could sympathise with me.
"You don't know I long," said Ethelbertha, "to get away occasionally, even from you; but I know it can never be, so I do not brood upon it."
I had never heard Ethelbertha speak like this before; it astonished and grieved me beyond measure.
"That's not a very kind remark to make," I said, "not a wifely remark."
"I know it isn't," she replied; "that is why I have never said it before. You men never can understand," continued Ethelbertha, "that, however fond a woman may be of a man, there are times when he palls upon her. You don't know how I long to be able sometimes to put on my bonnet and go out, with nobody to ask me where I am going, why I am going, how long I am going to be, and when I shall be back. You don't know how I sometimes long to order a dinner that I should like and that the children would like, but at the sight of which you would put on your hat and be off to the Club. You don't know how much I feel inclined sometimes to invite some woman here that I like, and that I know you don't; to go and see the people that I want to see, to go to bed when _I_ am tired, and to get up when _I_ feel I want to get up. Two people living together are bound both to be continually sacrificing their own desires to the other one. It is sometimes a good thing to slacken the strain a bit."
On thinking over Ethelbertha's words afterwards, have come to see their wisdom; but at the time I admit I was hurt and indignant.
"If your desire," I said, "is to get rid of me - "
"Now, don't be an old goose," said Ethelbertha; "I only want to get rid of you for a little while, just long enough to forget there are one or two corners about you that are not perfect, just long enough to let me remember what a dear fellow you are in other respects, and to look forward to your return, as I used to look forward to your coming in the old days when I did not see you so often as to become, perhaps, a little indifferent to you, as one grows indifferent to the glory of the sun, just because he is there every day."
I did not like the tone that Ethelbertha took. There seemed to be a frivolity about her, unsuited to the theme into which we had drifted. That a woman should contemplate cheerfully an absence of three or four weeks from her husband appeared to me to be not altogether nice, not what I call womanly; it was not like Ethelbertha at all. I was worried, I felt I didn't want to go this trip at all. If it had not been for George and Harris, I would have abandoned it. As it was, I could not see how to change my mind with dignity.
"Very well, Ethelbertha," I replied, "it shall be as you wish. If you desire a holiday from my presence, you shall enjoy it; but if it be not impertinent curiosity on the part of a husband, I should like to know what you propose doing in my absence?"
"We will take that house at Folkestone," answered Ethelbertha, "and I'll go down there with Kate. And if you want to do Clara Harris a good turn," added Ethelbertha, "you'll persuade Harris to go with you, and then Clara can join us. We three used to have some very jolly times together before you men ever came along, and it would be just delightful to renew them. Do you think," continued Ethelbertha, "that you could persuade Mr. Harris to go with you?"
I said I would try.
"There's a dear boy," said Ethelbertha; "try hard. You might get George to join you."
I replied there was not much advantage in George's coming, seeing he was a bachelor, and that therefore nobody would be much benefited by his absence. But a woman never understands satire. Ethelbertha merely remarked it would look unkind leaving him behind. I promised to put it to him.
I met Harris at the Club in the afternoon, and asked him how he had got on.
He said, "Oh, that's all right; there's no difficulty about getting away."
But there was that about his tone that suggested incomplete satisfaction, so I pressed him for further details.
"She was as sweet as milk about it," he continued; "said it was an excellent idea of George's, and that she thought it would do me good."
"That seems all right," I said; "what's wrong about that?"
"There's nothing wrong about that," he answered, "but that wasn't all. She went on to talk of other things."
"I understand," I said.
"There's that bathroom fad of hers," he continued.
"I've heard of it," I said; "she has started Ethelbertha on the same idea."
"Well, I've had to agree to that being put in hand at once; I couldn't argue any more when she was so nice about the other thing. That will cost me a hundred pounds, at the very least."
"As much as that?" I asked.
"Every penny of it," said Harris; "the estimate alone is sixty."
I was sorry to hear him say this.
"Then there's the kitchen stove," continued Harris; "everything that has gone wrong in the house for the last two years has been the fault of that kitchen stove."
"I know," I said. "We have been in seven houses since we were married, and every kitchen stove has been worse than the last. Our present one is not only incompetent; it is spiteful. It knows when we are giving a party, and goes out of its way to do its worst."
"WE are going to have a new one," said Harris, but he did not say it proudly. "Clara thought it would be such a saving of expense, having the two things done at the same time. I believe," said Harris, "if a woman wanted a diamond tiara, she would explain that it was to save the expense of a bonnet."
"How much do you reckon the stove is going to cost you?" I asked. I felt interested in the subject.
"I don't know," answered Harris; "another twenty, I suppose. Then we talked about the piano. Could you ever notice," said Harris, "any difference between one piano and another?"
"Some of them seem to be a bit louder than others," I answered; "but one gets used to that."
"Ours is all wrong about the treble," said Harris. "By the way, what IS the treble?"
"It's the shrill end of the thing," I explained; "the part that sounds as if you'd trod on its tail. The brilliant selections always end up with a flourish on it."
"They want more of it," said Harris; "our old one hasn't got enough of it. I'll have to put it in the nursery, and get a new one for the drawing-room."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"No," said Harris; "she didn't seem able to think of anything else."
"You'll find when you get home," I said, "she has thought of one other thing."
"What's that?" said Harris.
"A house at Folkestone for the season."
"What should she want a house at Folkestone for?" said Harris.
"To live in," I suggested, "during the summer months."
"She's going to her people in Wales," said Harris, "for the holidays, with the children; we've had an invitation."
"Possibly," I said, "she'll go to Wales before she goes to Folkestone, or maybe she'll take Wales on her way home; but she'll want a house at Folkestone for the season, notwithstanding. I may be mistaken - I hope for your sake that I am - but I feel a presentiment that I'm not."
"This trip," said Harris, "is going to be expensive."
"It was an idiotic suggestion," I said, "from the beginning."
"It was foolish of us to listen to him," said Harris; "he'll get us into real trouble one of these days."
"He always was a muddler," I agreed.
"So headstrong," added Harris.
We heard his voice at that moment in the hall, asking for letters.
"Better not say anything to him," I suggested; "it's too late to go back now."
"There would be no advantage in doing so," replied Harris. "I should have to get that bathroom and piano in any case now."
He came in looking very cheerful.
"Well," he said, "is it all right? Have you managed it?"
There was that about his tone I did not altogether like; I noticed Harris resented it also.
"Managed what?" I said.
"Why, to get off," said George.
I felt the time was come to explain things to George.
"In married life," I said, "the man proposes, the woman submits. It is her duty; all religion teaches it."
George folded his hands and fixed his eyes on the ceiling.
"We may chaff and joke a little about these things," I continued; "but when it comes to practice, that is what always happens. We have mentioned to our wives that we are going. Naturally, they are grieved; they would prefer to come with us; failing that, they would have us remain with them. But we have explained to them our wishes on the subject, and - there's an end of the matter."
George said, "Forgive me; I did not understand. I am only a bachelor. People tell me this, that, and the other, and I listen."
I said, "That is where you do wrong. When you want information come to Harris or myself; we will tell you the truth about these questions."
George thanked us, and we proceeded with the business in hand.
"When shall we start?" said George.
"So far as I am concerned," replied Harris, "the sooner the better."
His idea, I fancy, was to get away before Mrs. H. thought of other things. We fixed the following Wednesday.
"What about route?" said Harris.
"I have an idea," said George. "I take it you fellows are naturally anxious to improve your minds?"
I said, "We don't want to become monstrosities. To a reasonable degree, yes, if it can be done without much expense and with little personal trouble."
"It can," said George. "We know Holland and the Rhine. Very well, my suggestion is that we take the boat to Hamburg, see Berlin and Dresden, and work our way to the Schwarzwald, through Nuremberg and Stuttgart."
"There are some pretty bits in Mesopotamia, so I've been told," murmured Harris.
George said Mesopotamia was too much out of our way, but that the Berlin-Dresden route was quite practicable. For good or evil, he persuaded us into it.
"The machines, I suppose," said George, "as before. Harris and I on the tandem, J. - "
"I think not," interrupted Harris, firmly. "You and J. on the tandem, I on the single."
"All the same to me," agreed George. "J. and I on the tandem, Harris - "
"I do not mind taking my turn," I interrupted, "but I am not going to carry George ALL the way; the burden should be divided."
"Very well," agreed Harris, "we'll divide it. But it must be on the distinct understanding that he works."
"That he what?" said George.
"That he works," repeated Harris, firmly; "at all events, uphill."
"Great Scott!" said George; "don't you want ANY exercise?"
There is always unpleasantness about this tandem. It is the theory of the man in front that the man behind does nothing; it is equally the theory of the man behind that he alone is the motive power, the man in front merely doing the puffing. The mystery will never be solved. It is annoying when Prudence is whispering to you on the one side not to overdo your strength and bring on heart disease; while Justice into the other ear is remarking, "Why should you do it all? This isn't a cab. He's not your passenger:" to hear him grunt out:
"What's the matter - lost your pedals?"
Harris, in his early married days, made much trouble for himself on one occasion, owing to this impossibility of knowing what the person behind is doing. He was riding with his wife through Holland. The roads were stony, and the machine jumped a good deal.
"Sit tight," said Harris, without turning his head.
What Mrs. Harris thought he said was, "Jump off." Why she should have thought he said "Jump off," when he said "Sit tight," neither of them can explain.
Mrs. Harris puts it in this way, "If you had said, 'Sit tight,' why should I have jumped off?"
Harris puts it, "If I had wanted you to jump off, why should I have said 'Sit tight!'?"
The bitterness is past, but they argue about the matter to this day.
Be the explanation what it may, however, nothing alters the fact that Mrs. Harris did jump off, while Harris pedalled away hard, under the impression she was still behind him. It appears that at first she thought he was riding up the hill merely to show off. They were both young in those days, and he used to do that sort of thing. She expected him to spring to earth on reaching the summit, and lean in a careless and graceful attitude against the machine, waiting for her. When, on the contrary, she saw him pass the summit and proceed rapidly down a long and steep incline, she was seized, first with surprise, secondly with indignation, and lastly with alarm. She ran to the top of the hill and shouted, but he never turned his head. She watched him disappear into a wood a mile and a half distant, and then sat down and cried. They had had a slight difference that morning, and she wondered if he had taken it seriously and intended desertion. She had no money; she knew no Dutch. People passed, and seemed sorry for her; she tried to make them understand what had happened. They gathered that she had lost something, but could not grasp what. They took her to the nearest village, and found a policeman for her. He concluded from her pantomime that some man had stolen her bicycle. They put the telegraph into operation, and discovered in a village four miles off an unfortunate boy riding a lady's machine of an obsolete pattern. They brought him to her in a cart, but as she did not appear to want either him or his bicycle they let him go again, and resigned themselves to bewilderment.
Meanwhile, Harris continued his ride with much enjoyment. It seemed to him that he had suddenly become a stronger, and in every way a more capable cyclist. Said he to what he thought was Mrs. Harris:
"I haven't felt this machine so light for months. It's this air, I think; it's doing me good."
Then he told her not to be afraid, and he would show her how fast he COULD go. He bent down over the handles, and put his heart into his work. The bicycle bounded over the road like a thing of life; farmhouses and churches, dogs and chickens came to him and passed. Old folks stood and gazed at him, the children cheered him.
In this way he sped merrily onward for about five miles. Then, as he explains it, the feeling began to grow upon him that something was wrong. He was not surprised at the silence; the wind was blowing strongly, and the machine was rattling a good deal. It was a sense of void that came upon him. He stretched out his hand behind him, and felt; there was nothing there but space. He jumped, or rather fell off, and looked back up the road; it stretched white and straight through the dark wood, and not a living soul could be seen upon it. He remounted, and rode back up the hill. In ten minutes he came to where the road broke into four; there he dismounted and tried to remember which fork he had come down.
While he was deliberating a man passed, sitting sideways on a horse. Harris stopped him, and explained to him that he had lost his wife. The man appeared to be neither surprised nor sorry for him. While they were talking another farmer came along, to whom the first man explained the matter, not as an accident, but as a good story. What appeared to surprise the second man most was that Harris should be making a fuss about the thing. He could get no sense out of either of them, and cursing them he mounted his machine again, and took the middle road on chance. Half-way up, he came upon a party of two young women with one young man between them. They appeared to be making the most of him. He asked them if they had seen his wife. They asked him what she was like. He did not know enough Dutch to describe her properly; all he could tell them was she was a very beautiful woman, of medium size. Evidently this did not satisfy them, the description was too general; any man could say that, and by this means perhaps get possession of a wife that did not belong to him. They asked him how she was dressed; for the life of him he could not recollect.
I doubt if any man could tell how any woman was dressed ten minutes after he had left her. He recollected a blue skirt, and then there was something that carried the dress on, as it were, up to the neck. Possibly, this may have been a blouse; he retained a dim vision of a belt; but what sort of a blouse? Was it green, or yellow, or blue? Had it a collar, or was it fastened with a bow? Were there feathers in her hat, or flowers? Or was it a hat at all? He dared not say, for fear of making a mistake and being sent miles after the wrong party. The two young women giggled, which in his then state of mind irritated Harris. The young man, who appeared anxious to get rid of him, suggested the police station at the next town. Harris made his way there. The police gave him a piece of paper, and told him to write down a full description of his wife, together with details of when and where he had lost her. He did not know where he had lost her; all he could tell them was the name of the village where he had lunched. He knew he had her with him then, and that they had started from there together.
The police looked suspicious; they were doubtful about three matters: Firstly, was she really his wife? Secondly, had he really lost her? Thirdly, why had he lost her? With the aid of a hotel-keeper, however, who spoke a little English, he overcame their scruples. They promised to act, and in the evening they brought her to him in a covered wagon, together with a bill for expenses. The meeting was not a tender one. Mrs. Harris is not a good actress, and always has great difficulty in disguising her feelings. On this occasion, she frankly admits, she made no attempt to disguise them.
The wheel business settled, there arose the ever-lasting luggage question.
"The usual list, I suppose," said George, preparing to write.
That was wisdom I had taught them; I had learned it myself years ago from my Uncle Podger.
"Always before beginning to pack," my Uncle would say, "make a list."
He was a methodical man.
"Take a piece of paper" - he always began at the beginning - "put down on it everything you can possibly require, then go over it and see that it contains nothing you can possibly do without. Imagine yourself in bed; what have you got on? Very well, put it down-together with a change. You get up; what do you do? Wash yourself. What do you wash yourself with? Soap; put down soap. Go on till you have finished. Then take your clothes. Begin at your feet; what do you wear on your feet? Boots, shoes, socks; put them down. Work up till you get to your head. What else do you want besides clothes? A little brandy; put it down. A corkscrew, put it down. Put down everything, then you don't forget anything."
That is the plan he always pursued himself. The list made, he would go over it carefully, as he always advised, to see that he had forgotten nothing. Then he would go over it again, and strike out everything it was possible to dispense with.
Then he would lose the list.
Said George: "Just sufficient for a day or two we will take with us on our bikes. The bulk of our luggage we must send on from town to town."
"We must be careful," I said; "I knew a man once - "
Harris looked at his watch.
"We'll hear about him on the boat," said Harris; "I have got to meet Clara at Waterloo Station in half an hour."
"It won't take half an hour," I said; "it's a true story, and - "
"Don't waste it," said George: "I am told there are rainy evenings in the Black Forest; we may he glad of it. What we have to do now is to finish this list."
Now I come to think of it, I never did get off that story; something always interrupted it. And it really was true.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER III