In Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, there is a mouse-trap, a cunningly devised contrivance in which many a timid little mouse is caught. You will find them in other streets than this. They are set in exactly the same way, the same alluring bait, the same doors that open with so generous an admission of innocence, the same doors that close with so final and irrevocable a snap.
I have never watched the other ones at work. But I have seen four mice caught at different times in Henrietta Street. Therefore, it is about the mouse-trap in Henrietta Street that I feel qualified to speak.
One of these little mice I knew well. I knew her by name, where she lived—the little hole in this great labyrinth of London down which she vanished when the day’s work was done, or when any one frightened her little wits and made her scamper home for safety. She even came once and sat in my room, just on the edge of an armchair, taking tea and cake in that frightened way, eyes ever peering, head ever on the alert, as mice will eat their food.
So you will see I knew a good deal about her. It was through no accident of chance that I saw her walk into the trap. I had heard that such an event was likely. I was on the lookout for it.
During the day-time, she waited at the tables in an A.B.C. shop. Don’t ask me what they paid her for it. I marvel at the wage for manual labour when sometimes I am compelled to do a little job for myself. I wonder why on earth the woman comes to tidy my rooms for ten shillings a week. But she does. What is more, I find myself on the very point of abusing her when she breaks a piece of my Lowestoft china, coming with tears in her eyes to tell me of it.
Whatever it was they paid this little mouse of a child, she found it a sufficient inducement to come there day after day, week after week, with just that one short, marvellous evening in the six days and the whole of the glorious seventh in which to do what she liked.
I suppose it would have gone on like that for ever. She would have continued creeping in and out amongst the tables, her body on tip-toe, her voice on tip-toe, the whole personality of her almost overbalancing itself as it worked out its justification on the very tip of its toes.
She would have continued waiting on her customers, writing her little checks in a wholly illegible handwriting, which only the girl at the desk could read. She would have continued supplying me with the three-pennyworth of cold cod steak for my kitten until I should have been ordering five cold cod steaks for the entire family that was bound to come. All these things would have gone on just the same, had not the tempter come to lure her into the mouse-trap in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.
I saw him one morning, a dandy-looking youth from one of the hosier’s shops in the Strand near by. He was having lunch—a cup of coffee and some stewed figs and cream. Taste is a funny thing. And she was serving him. She had served him. He was already hustling the food into his mouth as he talked to her. But it was more than talking. He was saying things with a pair of large calf eyes and she was laughing as she listened.
I would sooner see a woman serious than see her laugh; that is, if some one else were making love to her. For when she is serious there are two ways about it; but when she laughs there is only time for one.
When she saw me, the little mouse came at once to the counter and took down the piece of cold cod steak without a word. As she handed me the bag and the little paper check, she said—
“How’s the kitten to-day?”
Then I knew she felt guilty, and was trying to distract my mind from what she knew I had seen.
“Why are you ashamed of talking to the young man?” I asked.
“I’m not,” said she.
“Did you notice his eyes?” said I.
She looked at me for a moment, quite frightened, then she scampered away into a corner and began wetting her pencil with her lips and scribbling things. When the young man tapped his coffee-cup, she pretended not to hear. But as soon as I stepped out into the street, I turned round and saw her hurrying back to his table.
You guess how it went along. He asked her to marry him—then—there—at once. You might have known he was a man of business.
She told me all about it when she came on one of those short evenings, and nibbled a little piece of cake as she sat on the edge of my chair.
He wanted to marry her at once, but he was earning only eighteen shillings a week and, as far as I could see, spent most of that on neckties, socks and hair oil. He would no doubt begin to save it directly they were married; but eighteen shillings was not enough to keep them both.
“He’d better wait, then,” said I.
“He’s so afraid he’d lose me,” she whispered.
“And would he?” I asked.
She picked up a crumb from the floor, seeming thereby to suggest that it was not in the nature of her to waste anything.
“Then I suppose you’ll be married in secret and go on just the same?”
She nodded her head.
“Where does he propose you should be married?”
“At the registry office in Henrietta Street.”
“The mouse-trap,” said I.
“No; the registry office,” she replied.
“And when’s it to be?” I asked.
“My next evening after this.”
Well, it came to that next evening. I got permission from a firm of book-buyers to occupy a window opposite. And there I observed that little parlour tragedy which you can see in the corner of any old wainscotted room if only you keep quiet long enough.
It did not happen successfully that first time. For half an hour he walked her up and down Henrietta Street. I saw my publisher come out of his door, little dreaming of the comedy that was being played as he passed them by. And every time they stopped outside the Registry Office windows, she stood and read the notices of soldiers deserted the army, of children that were lost, while he talked of the great things that life was offering to them both just inside those varnished doors.
After a time they walked away and I came out from my hiding-place. Something must have upset her, I thought, and I went across to look at the notices in the window. There was nothing to frighten her there; yet she had scampered away home to that little hole in Clapham, and there vanished out of sight.
But it came at last. It came the very next of her short evenings. I was on the lookout again. I saw them march up to the door. No hesitation this time. He must have been eloquent indeed to have led her so surely as that.
I saw him lift the spring of the trap. I saw her enter with tip-toe steps, but more full of confidence now. Then I heard the sharp snap of the door as it fell.
“They’ve caught a mouse,” said I to the book-buyer as I came downstairs.
“’Tis a good thing,” said he; “they’re the very devil for eating my bindings.”
THE WONDERFUL CITY
THE WONDERFUL CITY
THE WONDERFUL CITY
I saw a wonderful city to-day. Rows of houses there were. Domes of great buildings with their dull brown roofs lifted silently into the sky. Long streets in tireless avenues led from one cathedral to another; some with the straightness of an arrow, others twisting and turning in devious ways, yet all leading, as a well-planned street should lead, to the crowning glory of some great edifice.
By the chance of Destiny I stood above it all and looked down. It was strange that only the night before I had been dreaming that I was in the City of New York, with its vast maze of buildings leaping to the sky. In my dream I had stood wrapt in amazement. But I was silent with a greater astonishment here. For as I gazed upon it, there had come a man to my side and, seeing the direction of my eyes, he had said—
“There warn’t a trace o’ that there last night.”
“Not a trace?” said I. And I said it in amazement, for frankly I disbelieved him.
“Not a trace,” he repeated solemnly.
“All that built in one night?” I asked again.
“In one night,” said he.
“But doesn’t it astound you?” said I. I tried to lift his lethargy to the wonderment and admiration that was thrilling in my mind.
“It do seem strange,” he replied, “when yer come to think of it.”
“Well, then, come to think of it!” I exclaimed. “You can’t do better than find the world strange. Come to think of it and, finding it strange, you’ll come to believe in it!”
He stared at me with solemn eyes.
“Look at the dome of that cathedral,” I went on. “Could you set to work and, in a single night, build a vast piece of architecture like that, so many times higher than yourself?”
“That ain’t no cathedral,” said he.
“Have you ever seen a cathedral?” I asked.
“Well, then, how do you know it isn’t?”
He could give me no reply and I continued in my enthusiasm—
“Look at that street, cut through all obstacles, leading straight as though a thousand instruments of latter-day science had been used in the making of it. Look at this avenue turning to right and to left. Do you see that great cluster of buildings, a very parliament of houses, set round a vast space that would shame the great square of St. Peter’s, in Rome. Only look at the——”
I turned round and he had gone. I could see his figure retreating in the distance. Every moment he turned his head, looking round, as one who is pursued yet fears to show his cowardice by running away. He thought I was mad, I have no doubt. Every one thinks you mad when you say the moon is a dead world or the sun is a fiery furnace. To be sane, you must only remark upon the coldness of the moon, or the warmth of the sun. To be sane, you must speak of the things of this world only in terms of people’s bodies. They do not understand unless.
And so, when the man left me, I was alone, looking over the wonderful city. For an hour then, I amused myself by naming the different streets, by assigning to the various buildings the uses to which it seemed they might be put.
That huge edifice with the cupola of bronze was the Cathedral of Shadows, where prayers were said in darkness and never a lamp was lit. The street which led to its very steps, that was called the Street of Sighs. Here, in a lighter part of the city, approached to its silent doors by Tight Street, was the Bat’s Theatre, where you could hear, but never see the performance as it progressed. A little further on there was Blind Alley—a cul-de-sac, terminating in a tiny building, the Chapel of Disappointment. There was the Avenue of Progress, the Church of Whispers, the Bridge of Stones and a thousand other places, the names of which went from me no sooner than they crossed my mind.
It may be possible to build a wonderful city in a night. I only know how utterly impossible it is to name all its streets and its palaces in one day.
And then, while I was still thus employed, I saw the man returning with a jug of beer.
I nodded to the vessel which he carried in his hand.
“You don’t need to think about that,” said I, “to understand it.”
A broad grin spread across his face. He had found me sane after all. I had talked about beer in terms of bodily comfort.
“I need to drink it,” said he with a laugh.
“You do,” said I.
Then, as if to appease me for the moment e’er he passed on his way, he returned to our former subject and, with a serious voice, he said—
“When yer come to think of it,” said he, “it do seem wonderful that them moles is blind.”
“Not so blind,” said I, looking down at the wonderful city, “not so blind as those who can see.”
He thought I had gone mad again, and he walked away with his jug of beer.
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF GOD
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF GOD
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF GOD
I often wonder why God evolved a creature so antagonistic to all His laws as woman. I must tell you what I mean.
Bellwattle—she is named Bellwattle for the simple reason that one day in an inspired moment, she called her husband Cruikshank, and he replied giving her the name Bellwattle, quite foolish except between husband and wife—Bellwattle has the genuine mother’s heart for animals. Everything that crawls, walks or flies, Bellwattle loves. Some things, certainly, she loves more than others; but for all she has the deep-rooted, protective instinct. Spiders, for example, terrify her; flies and beetles she loathes, but would not kill one of them even if they crawled upon her dress. And they do.
Now Bellwattle has a garden which she loves. You can see already, if you have but the mind for it, the tragic conflict which, with that love of her flowers, she must wage between her own soul and the laws of God.
For this, I must tell you, is a lovely garden—not one of those prim-set portions, with well-cut hedges and beds in orthodox array. It is an old garden that has been allowed to run to ruin and Bellwattle, possessing it in the nick of time, has planted primroses amongst the nettles; has carved a little herbaceous border where once potatoes grew. She has thrown roses here, there, and everywhere and, in soap and sugar boxes covered with glass at the bottom of the garden under the nut trees, she forces the old-fashioned flowers that we knew—you and I—in the long-ago days when sweet-william and candytuft were things to boast about and foxgloves grew like beanstalks up to heaven.
But perhaps the most glorious thing in Bellwattle’s garden, that also in which she takes the greatest pride, is her hedges of sweet pea. They grow in great walls of dazzling colour, and the bees hum about them all day long. But they are the devil and all to raise.
Now this is where the tragic conflict comes in, between the mice and the birds and the slugs and Bellwattle’s kitten and Bellwattle’s heart. It is a terrible conflict, I can tell you; for the laws of God are unalterable, and so is the heart of Bellwattle.
This, then, is what happens: Bellwattle forgot to cover the sweet pea seeds with red lead. It is just the sort of thing a woman would forget. I doubt if I could think of it myself. Then followed the natural result. A shrew-mouse got hold of one or two of them, and Bellwattle wondered why on earth God ever made shrew-mice.
“But they’re dear little things,” I told her.
“I can’t help that,” said she. “What’s the sense in making a thing that goes and eats up other things?”
Which, of course, was unanswerable.
Two days after this had happened, the kitten was seen playing with a live shrew-mouse.
“Oh, the little wretch! If I could only catch it!”
“What—the mouse?” shouted Cruikshank.
“No, no; the wretched little kitten! Look at the way she’s torturing it! Oh, I never saw such a cruel little beast in all my life!” and her face grew rosy red.
Now, Cruikshank is a dutiful husband. Moreover, he knows positively nothing about women. Perhaps that is why. When, therefore, he realised that it was the kitten who was the cruel little beast, and a sense of duty claiming him, he chased it all over the garden, picking up stones as he ran.
“Make her drop it!” cried Bellwattle.
“I will, if I can hit her,” replied Cruikshank and, like a cowboy throwing a lasso from a galloping horse, he flung a stone. The kitten was struck upon the flank and in its terror it dropped the mouse and fled. Cruikshank approached it and, he assures me, with much pride in his prowess picked up the poor little mouse by the hind leg. Then he looked up and saw Bellwattle’s face. It was white—ashen white.
“You’ve hurt her,” she said, half under her breath.
“It’s better than hurt,” said Cruikshank—“it’s dead.”
“No—the kitten—you hit it with a stone.”
“’Twas a jolly good shot,” said Cruikshank.
“I never meant you to hit her,” said Bellwattle.
Cruikshank looked disappointed. To hit a flying object whilst one is in a tornado of motion one’s self is no mean feat. Failing an appreciation of the woman herself, I am not surprised he was disappointed.
“I made her drop it, anyhow,” he said.
“You’ve frightened her out of her life and now perhaps she’ll never come back,” said Bellwattle, and in and out of the garden she went, all through the forests of rhododendra—where the kitten, I should tell you, hunts for big game—and with the gentlest, the softest, the most wooing voice in the world, she cried the kitten’s name. Cruikshank was at a loss to understand it. When he met her down one of the paths still calling, with tears in her eyes, he assures me he felt so ashamed of himself that he began, in a feeble way, calling for the kitten too. When they met again, still unsuccessful in their search, he dared not look her in the face.
Now this is only one of the conflicts that take place in Bellwattle’s soul. She worships the birds, but they eat the young shoots of the sweet peas. Then she hates them; then the kitten catches one. And now, Cruikshank tells me, he will have no hand in the matter.
“You leave it to God,” I advised.
“I do,” said he; “it’s too difficult for me.”
I believe myself it is too difficult for God.
Only the other day, in the farmyard, Bellwattle saw two cocks fighting—fighting for the supremacy of the yard. Cruikshank and I looked on, really enjoying the sport of it in our hearts, yet deadly afraid of saying so.
“Can’t you stop them?” exclaimed Bellwattle. “They’re hurting each other!”
We neither of us moved a hand.
“If you don’t, I shall have to go and do it myself,” said she.
“Much better leave it to God,” said I. “They’re settling matters that have nothing to do with you.”
But do you think logic so profound as that deterred her? Not a bit of it! Out she ran into the farmyard, throwing her arms about in the air—as women will when they wish to interfere with the laws of God.
“Shoo! shoo! shoo!” shouted Bellwattle.
And one of the cocks, at the critical moment of victory, reluctantly leaving go of its opponent’s comb, looked up with considerable annoyance into her face and shrieked back—
Cruikshank glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, and out of the corner of his mouth he whispered—
“We shan’t have any eggs to-morrow.”