AND Mrs. Skittleworth told the tale at a place called the Arts and Crafts, which, when you think of it, was unnecessary; Mrs. Skittleworth herself being all the arts and most of the crafts known to civilization.
She was then practising a few of them on the center divan opposite the entrance, where the fountain plays and the unhappy little pot-palms live. In the first place it was her sworn duty to keep an evasive eye upon a Miss Dormil, who was to be most strictly deprived of the comfort and society of a gentleman called Evans – Richard Evans – who had specially come to the Arts and Crafts to meet the young lady, who was under the chaperonage of Mrs. Skittleworth, according to the manners and customs of the British, who are barbarians. Now since Mrs. Skittleworth had conveyed Miss Dormil wholly and solely to meet Mr. Evans, and since she had to pretend that she saw neither him nor the girl, nor both together, or something equally logical, and since she uneasily suspected that Mrs. Dormil might at any moment arrive and drive the daughter home, and particularly since neither man nor maid seemed to have any idea of the lapse of time, you will understand that Mrs. Skittleworth’s attention was distracted from the door whereat she expected Skittleworth every minute to appear in the company of a man whom she most urgently desired to avoid.
I believe that I had the honor to supply the Missing Link, for on my wandering appearance her face brightened as a general’s when reinforcements pour past to battle. “There is a man,” she said, ‘an Unutterable Man. He will arrive with Tom in ten minutes. I shall immediately introduce you to him with smirks and grins. You will more immediately talk. Talk about anything you understand least, but overwhelm him with your conversation as you value my friendship. Then I shall escape with Tom, catch Miss Dormil, drive the Evans boy into the stained-glass alcove – Good gracious! I hope he hasn’t taken the girl there already! – and return to meet, under Providence, the very respectable Mrs. Dormil, who will ask the Unutterable Man to dinner. He is always hungry and … he has dined there before. Then you must transfer yourself to the Evans boy, and while we are all eating our artful afternoon tea and the craftful crumpet in the lunch-place you must escape with him secretly. There ought to be two ways out of every place of appointment.’ She poised for breath.
She was used to delivering orders with much clearness, and I gathered from the pucker between her eyebrows that she was in anxiety. Her theory that men do not marry their mothers-in-law, though many mothers-in-law think otherwise, was perpetually leading her into secondhand Comédie-Française embarrassments. All earth and Skittleworth – who at heart is just as bad – could not restrain her from helping forward the most undesirable match ever lighted among her circle of acquaintance. On the Other Side of the World, where I first had the honor of meeting her, this weakness did not alarm; in England – which, it must always be remembered, is the habitation of heathen the worse for being imperfectly converted – she was misunderstood. But all young maidens loved her. And I said: ‘I hear and obey – on one condition.’
‘On no conditions. You want me to tell you something. I refuse beforehand.’ ‘Very well, I shall begin to walk. I shall walk down Regent Street for hours and hours, and into the Mile End Road and when Mrs. Dormil comes to thank you for giving her dear Clara, who is so artistic, such a delightful afternoon, the Evans boy will hang in the background pulling pieces out of his gloves and Mrs. Dormil will not love you any more. Seriously, you went to the Theater of the Patent Deviltries’ ‘No! Inner Sepulcher. Inner Sepulcher!’ said Mrs. Skittleworth, with a shudder. ‘So glad we didn’t invite you.’
‘So am I,’ I said icily. ‘You made a box party, and by all accounts you all behaved abominably. You dropped opera-glasses on the heads of the bald, you conducted yourselves in such a manner that the entire house stopped to look at you, and you, overcome by shame, left at the end of the first act – weeping.’ ‘This,’ said Mrs. Skittleworth pensively, ‘is the hand of Mrs. Bletchley. She told you that at tea. What else did you learn?’
‘The trouble is that I could learn no more. Not one of your guests would speak. Geissler, who can babble about founders’ shares by the hour, was dumb. Skittleworth told me that I had better refer to you. I haven’t seen Miss Dormil to speak to, and the Evans boy declares that it was a most enjoyable evening, but that you all left because the play was dull. The Professor’s Zoetrope is not dull. It’s the best play in London. What was the catastrophe? Everybody is wanting to talk about it, and no one knows anything. Six people have kept a secret for ten days – surely that’s long enough. Tell, and I’ll carry the Evans boy off through the roof if I can’t smuggle him out any other way.’
‘Did anyone tell you it was Tom’s fault?’ began Mrs. Skittleworth cautiously, one eye on the door and another on the ironwork exhibits.
‘They said Singleton gave the party – and so -‘
‘He did not. It was that man Geissler – the Chicago Jew. Ugh! Tom and he cluck like new laid hens over their offensive founders’ shares, whatever those may be. Things that grow up in a night out of nothing and are sold by telegraph.
I hate Geissler. I could never send him anything at dinner without hoping that the fat, or the drumstick, or the stuffing would choke him, and then I would never send for the doctor. Geissler found a box in the Inner Sepulcher. I know the shameful story now, but it almost reconciled me to the man for the moment. The very best box in the Inner Sepulcher – a five-guinea box that could have seated hordes – positive hordes. Do you know that he got it for twenty-five shillings? That was his ineffable meanness.’
‘But a Chicago Jew is not always mean,’ I adventured.
‘Then he was a Levantine dragoman. I thank you for that. His father hauled Cook’s tourists up and down the Pyramids for pence. And the worst of it is that he doesn’t look like a Jew, and he ought to. We provided the dinner – he the box.’
‘Mrs. Eva van Agnew and Geissler, both in one cab – two; Tom and I – four; and Miss Dormil and the Evans boy – six. That was all. I never allow a fortuitous concourse of atoms at my table; and, besides, we have no extra leaf in it. I had immense trouble in cajoling Mrs. Dormil to let her daughter go alone. She wished to assist. Heaven knows, I despise her as honorably as I despise most women; but when she strips for festivities, I always think that she should be ‘hidden from the wise and prudent and’ – how does it go? She makes me feel very undressed with draughts blowing all over me. And, you know, you can’t say: ‘Won’t you put a counterpane over your shoulders, you dear fat thing?’ So they dined, and I was glad, because I knew neither of the young people would remember what they ate – they were in that stage; and Geissler was talking founders’ shares to Tom, and Eva van Agnew was trying to talk to me and watch Geissler at the same time. Geissler wouldn’t throw a word to her. There must have been a quarrel in the cab.’
‘But why were you so concerned about Miss Dormil and the Evans boy?’ ‘Because he had inflicted himself upon me four twilights out of the seven. He would arrive at half-past four and stay till half-past six, telling me that Miss Dormil was an angel and he was a ruffian, and did I think Mrs. Dormil could be brought to overlook his unworthiness? I liked it – I own I liked it immensely, even when he repeated himself for the twentieth time, and used to smash my drawing-room ornaments trying to make clear the intensity of his feelings. Oh, it’s a relief to catch a young man devoid of nerves, and the less honorable emotions, who does not talk cheap French novels, and knows exactly what he wants, and is humble about it. He confessed all his little sins in the past to me, and I know exactly how his future is going to be arranged, and therefore I assist him in the present. And so we dined, and then we bundled off -Tom and I and the children in the brougham, and Eva and the Israelite, whom I will never forgive, in a hansom; and we saw the play and came away early. Isn’t that enough for you?’
‘You went in the brougham and the hansom – yes. And what happened after that?’ I continued, unregarding.
‘You won’t believe what I tell you.’
‘You are speaking.’
‘But even I – consider dear Mother Dormil, and do watch the entrance, please – may tell a fib.’
‘Never without a motive.’
‘Yes – that was the horror of it. It was so – without motive. So purposeless – so cruel; and yet there was a brassy vulgarity about it all that I can’t explain. Try to understand that I am telling you what happened as accurately as I can. We were late for the farce, of course, and the overture was beginning. Of all horrors, it was the Bronze Horse overture’. ‘That’s only tinny – not terrifying, surely.’
‘Wait! I had arranged things beautifully. Tom and I and Eva and Geissler were to sit in front, and the children at the back, because they were tall and wanted to talk. You know when you are absolutely certain of seeing a thing, you carry the outline of it in your mind’s eye so that it looks real, don’t you? When we trooped in, I was quite certain that I saw the stage, and so on, because a stage is naturally what you expect to see from the best box in the theatre. We banged the chairs about – they were horribly dusty – and then I heard the Evans boy saying ‘Good God!’ under his breath. Tom put his hand on my wrist, and drove my pet bracelet into the bone. ‘Don’t jump or scream,’ he said. ‘Look!” ‘A headless woman in a vacant chair, or a red dog, or something nice and magaziny. Mrs. Skittleworth, please don’t,’ I whimpered, because Mrs. Skittleworth is much above that sort of entertainment.
‘I knew you would,’ she answered. ‘And now I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you. We looked out of the box at the stage, and at the house, and there was nothing whatever to be seen! Do you understand that? – Nothing whatever to be seen.’
‘And what was it like?’ I said with intense interest.
‘It was awful. It was unspeakable. It was Chaos – raving, mad, howling Chaos! Have you ever been under chloroform, and do you know that die-away-and-away darkness when a train goes into a tunnel, through your head, and all the doors are being slammed, just before you lose consciousness? It was most like that feeling. But it wasn’t. The darkness – the absolute blankness was in your head and your eyes, and yet you were staring into it – staring with your soul as well as your eyes. And then, through it all, we heard the rustle of the house, and the music of the Bronze Horse. That tune is the most diabolical one in the world.’
‘Then you could hear?’
‘We could hear everything. That was a further horror. We could hear the people getting into their places below, and the crickle of the fans. You know what a hot house the Inner Sepulcher is. We could hear the rumble of traffic outside sometimes, but we could not see any single thing except ourselves in heaven above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth.’
‘And what happened?’
‘I don’t quite remember. I think we must have all waited – I know I did – for the darkness to clear away. I felt as though I had been hit on the head, but would be all right presently if people took no notice and stood off from me, and, above all things, gave me air – plenty of air. Tom’s hand on mine prevented me from making an absolute exhibition of myself. You know how Ashdown frizzes my hair for functions – I was frizzed all over my head very prettily, and I friz through my frizzes; and while I was staring and feeling, oh! so deathly sick, I was distinctly conscious that my hair was tightening – Ashdown had frizzed it too well for it to stand on end – tightening and dragging my eyebrows up and up, so that I must have looked like an Aunt Sally at a fair.’
Mrs. Skittleworth laughed hysterically, and fluttered her very small hands. A lean, unshorn, toadstool-colored young gentleman in a blue cloak which would have been useless on horseback or in a high wind, a dead-leaf silk throat-wrap, and a sort of football jersey that was doing duty as a shirt, threw himself down on the divan and curled his legs into esoteric attitudes. Mrs. Skittleworth shook the quaver out of her voice, jumped three notes on the piano, and began as one in the middle of things generally. ‘And so, you know, they invented a sort of combination garment for the lower classes – to save washing. It’s very effective if it isn’t worn too long, especially at the wristbands and round the neck, but then they provide a clout called a belcher to wear there, and you can get them for one and sevenpence halfpenny in Westbourne Grove. And they come here and do a lot of good, and they are called Socialists. Of course the uniform confuses the sexes. If it’s a he, for instance, it’s wearing its petticoats where it shouldn’t, you know, and if it’s a she it wouldn’t wear a silk hat. But perhaps it’s an exhibit, and if we ask it…’ The young gentleman rose and regarded us with unholy eyes from the lunch balcony. ‘A woman who cannot be vulgar on occasions does not know the meaning of True Deportment,’ said Mrs. Skittleworth. ‘You should hear Mrs. Dormil bullying her governess. And where were we? Oh, yes, in that darkness of terror. I think we must have been there for years and years before we heard the rustle of the curtain and the servants’ opening dialogue in the Zoetrope. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, but it occurred to me that I had been standing up for untold ages in the face of the house. So I sat down and Tom began patting my hand in an absent-minded way and saying: ‘Poor little woman!’ I remembered then that when I was fearfully ill and delirious on the Other Side of the World – no, I won’t say how many years ago – Tom used to sit by my bed for days and weeks doing exactly the same thing; and whenever I would half come to life I was conscious of one hand being patted and ‘poored.’ I knew endearment of that sort was not in place on the box-edge; but I couldn’t take my hand away for all the world. I wanted Tom as I have never wanted him in my life – not even when they all thought I was dying. And the dear boy patted my hand – bless him! He was as white as a sheet. Then I began to think of mother, exactly as a Frenchwoman would. I wondered where she was, and if this hideous darkness was her portion in the other world, and I wanted to step into it and find out and drag her in across the edge of the box. I reflected that I should fall on somebody’s head in the attempt, and I laughed aloud horribly in the one pathetic scene in the Zoetrope, where the Professor tells the little lodging-house servant the story of his life and his broken love-tale, and she cries and mops her face with the duster. And then I jumped, for I knew all the house was looking at me, and that upset the opera-glass, and I heard it fall and hit somebody below, and there was a scuffle, and every eye in everybody’s head, I knew, was fixed on our unhappy, unhappy box. That was the incident of laughing and throwing glasses about that Mrs. Bletchley makes so much of.
The thing dropped into the dark as a stone into water.
‘But why in the world didn’t you all get up and run out, or complain or – or do something?’
‘After the affair of the opera-glass? Mrs. Skittleworth’s party romping in a box, dropping glasses, laughing, and then running out like children in a country church when they’ve tipped hymn-books from the gallery? Never! I may be introduced to the other world against my will, but I know my duty to this, as long as I am in it. I was praying for the first act to end, for I was afraid I could not stand the tension!’
‘And the others?’
‘You may well ask. I looked round when my own feelings were a little under control. What a blessed thing is a British education! All the Jew that ever cheated in Israel came out in Geissler’s face. He was on the right of the box, half standing up in his chair and gripping the edge with both hands till the plush plumped up in red gores between his fingers. He was not looking at the stage, but into the darkness, and I was more than conscious that he must be staring fiendishly at the opposite box. Staring like a maniac. I felt that those stares were returned. Oh, I felt pins and needles all over, so sure I was that we were being watched while we were smitten with blindness! Complain? How could we complain? Can you go to an attendant at a theater and say, ‘We can’t see out of this box’ – a five-guinea box on the grand tier – the best in the house? If there is one place whence you ought to see all that is to be seen” – Mrs. Skittleworth nearly broke down at this point – ‘it’s a box. I’ll never take a box again. Give me stalls, or the gallery, where you are in touch with your neighbor and all see ghosts together.’
‘Was there a ghost, then?’
‘No, no, no – only their country: the room they had just left. Geissler may have seen some. He looked hideous – as though he were being burned alive. His shoulders were cramped up to the back of his head; but I don’t think he was afraid. He seemed to be in pain. Thinking of founders’ shares possibly. Eva made the most painful exhibition of us all. Promise you won’t tell, of course. Her place was empty, and she was down on the floor of the box – mercifully out of sight – her face hidden in a coat thrown over a chair. She had pressed herself into one corner like a frightened rabbit, and was praying. A box isn’t a place to pray in. At least, not when the house is full. You know Eva’s High Church – extremely so; and even in her agony she was intoning. I stooped down and tried to take one of her hands, and said: ‘Hush, dear, hush! think of your dress!’ but she only went on bleating, ‘Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from they ways I – I – like lost sheep,’ over and over again. She was kneeling on that little cheap silk of hers, and nothing in the wide world will ever get the dust out of it again; and she had bundled my heavy white ‘cloud’ over her head to shut out the dark, and she looked just like a lost sheep. I might as well have spoken to one. I am very sorry for Eva.’
‘And the others?’
‘They had arrived at a most complete understanding, and that nearly made me scream. I felt that I was responsible for everything – Chaos included. Clara was in the Evans boy’s arms, totally and completely, at the back of the box to the left; and to this day I cannot tell why all the house didn’t see them. They must have fancied it was the Day of Judgement. They were murmuring things that you very seldom hear from dress coats and evening frocks, and I honestly believe they never saw the darkness after they had explained themselves.’
‘Poor Mrs. Dormil!’
‘It wasn’t my fault. I only wished them to improve their acquaintance with each other. Am I responsible if the Powers of Darkness are leagued against me to precipitate matters? Yes, they were in each other’s arms expecting immediate translation. What I saw and said passed in a flash, though I have been so long telling it. The rest was interminable waiting for the first act to end, Eva praying on the floor, and the house rocking with laughter at the jokes, Geissler glaring into Tophet, Tom patting my hand, the children in another world – bless them! – and I playing propriety for them all. Taking an interest in the play in order to prove that I saw it all, and was as much amused as anybody, clapping when the unseen hosts clapped, and smirking when I felt it was time to smirk. I was almost obsequiously attentive to the Zoetrope, and I flatter myself that even the Bletchley woman will admit that I behaved perfectly.’
‘Mrs. Skittleworth,’ I said, in a voice broken with emotion, ‘I have long admired and respected you beyond any human being alive. I now worship you with fear and trembling. Men have won the Victoria Cross for less than that.’ Mrs. Skittleworth was graciously pleased to bow her head, always with one eye on the door. She continued:
‘Then the curtain went down, and we fled. I have a dim recollection of flying into the cloak-room screaming like a peacock: ‘My things! My things! My things!’ Eva was close behind me. We fell together into the tire-woman’s arms. Luckily she was big, and ready with her blandishments at once. She said: ‘There! there! there! Never mind. ‘Ere’s your cloak, mum’; and I answered, thickly: ‘Yes, yes, yes. Of course – of course. Too hot, too cold; very fine weather indeed.’ She gave us both the best thing available and on the spot. It proved the existence of a conspiracy. It was brandy-and-soda-strong! You should have seen Eva and me gulping it down like washerwomen, while that dear tall Clara drifted about like a saint in a holy dream, conscious that there might have been something wrong somewhere, but more conscious that things were right. ‘We skipped down the passages. We dared not run, but we skipped; and Geissler and Eva went off in separate cabs. I know he volunteered to see her home, for I caught one gesture of hers that would have made the fortune of a tragedy actress. Villain as I am convinced he is, I admire that man for his nerve. Now comes the proof of the conspiracy. Our brougham was on hand when we came out. Generally Jobbins retires to a public-house, and Tom has to prance through the puddles and drag him out personally. But he was waiting, which was a greater miracle than anything else. I spoke to him about it the next day, complimenting him on his virtue.
”Well, mum,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t ha’ kep’ the pore ‘orses ‘cept that every man of ’em in the theatre, an’ the policemen, an’ all the lot sez to me that you’d be out at the end of the fust act. And so you was, mum, an’ it was a good job I waited ‘stead o’ savin’ the pore ‘orses.’ ‘That is the only approach to an explanation that I have been able to arrive at – that, and the fact that Geissler got the box for twenty-five shillings. The entire theater staff of the Inner Sepulcher must know all about it, and yet . . . Can you believe? Do you believe? Try to speak the truth. Geissler has never given any sign of his existence to me since that night. Eva has gone out of town, and Clara and the Evans boy . . . you see. Somehow I feel as though I were responsible for everything. You do believe, don’t you?’ ‘Implicitly,’ I replied. ‘If you cannot see a thing which is in front of you, who am I to dissent? Of course I believe. You intend to take no further steps?’ ‘None whatever. I’ll never set foot in that theater again. That’s all; and Tom doesn’t like me to talk about it. Clara won’t speak either, I’m certain. She imagines it was sent from heaven to assist the Evans boy to propose to her.’
‘Poor Mrs. Dormil!’
‘Yes, and here, for my many sins, she comes, without Tom or the other man. Fly! Catch Miss Dormil and walk ostentatiously with her while I lure the old lady to the food-troughs. The Evans boy can escape unseen if he has any sense.’
But at that crisis he had not, and they both glowered at me when I found them in the stained-glass alcove; and I had to explain matters apart to the Evans boy, and he left with the air of a baffled conspirator; and though I was dying to ask Miss Dormil twenty thousand questions, she being wrapped up in her own vain imaginings, I could never get any further than:
“What do you think of the Arts and Crafts?”