H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman online

. (page 1 of 31)
Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsThe Wife of Sir Isaac Harman → online text (page 1 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

E-text prepared by Juliet Sutherland, Graeme Mackreth, and the Project
Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net)




New York
The Macmillan Company

All rights reserved

Copyright, 1914,
By H. G. Wells.

Set up and electrotyped. Published September, 1914.



















The motor-car entered a little white gate, came to a porch under a thick
wig of jasmine, and stopped. The chauffeur indicated by a movement of
the head that this at last was it. A tall young woman with a big soft
mouth, great masses of blue-black hair on either side of a broad, low
forehead, and eyes of so dark a brown you might have thought them black,
drooped forward and surveyed the house with a mixture of keen
appreciation and that gentle apprehension which is the shadow of desire
in unassuming natures....

The little house with the white-framed windows looked at her with a
sleepy wakefulness from under its blinds, and made no sign. Beyond the
corner was a glimpse of lawn, a rank of delphiniums, and the sound of a

"Clarence!" the lady called again.

Clarence, with an air of exceeding his duties, decided to hear,
descended slowly, and came to the door.

"Very likely - if you were to look for a bell, Clarence...."

Clarence regarded the porch with a hostile air, made no secret that he
thought it a fool of a porch, seemed on the point of disobedience, and
submitted. His gestures suggested a belief that he would next be asked
to boil eggs or do the boots. He found a bell and rang it with the
needless violence of a man who has no special knowledge of ringing
bells. How was _he_ to know? he was a chauffeur. The bell did not so
much ring as explode and swamp the place. Sounds of ringing came from
all the windows, and even out of the chimneys. It seemed as if once set
ringing that bell would never cease....

Clarence went to the bonnet of his machine, and presented his stooping
back in a defensive manner against anyone who might come out. He wasn't
a footman, anyhow. He'd rung that bell all right, and now he must see to
his engine.

"He's rung so _loud!_" said the lady weakly - apparently to God.

The door behind the neat white pillars opened, and a little red-nosed
woman, in a cap she had evidently put on without a proper glass,
appeared. She surveyed the car and its occupant with disfavour over her
also very oblique spectacles.

The lady waved a pink paper to her, a house-agent's order to view. "Is
this Black Strands?" she shouted.

The little woman advanced slowly with her eyes fixed malevolently on the
pink paper. She seemed to be stalking it.

"This is Black Strands?" repeated the tall lady. "I should be so sorry
if I disturbed you - if it isn't; ringing the bell like that - and all.
You can't think - - "

"This is Black _Strand_," said the little old woman with a note of deep
reproach, and suddenly ceased to look over her glasses and looked
through them. She looked no kindlier through them, and her eye seemed
much larger. She was now regarding the lady in the car, though with a
sustained alertness towards the pink paper. "I suppose," she said,
"you've come to see over the place?"

"If it doesn't disturb anyone; if it is quite convenient - - "

"Mr. Brumley is _hout_," said the little old woman. "And if you got an
order to view, you got an order to view."

"If you think I might."

The lady stood up in the car, a tall and graceful figure of doubt and
desire and glossy black fur. "I'm sure it looks a very charming house."

"It's _clean_," said the little old woman, "from top to toe. Look as you

"I'm sure it is," said the tall lady, and put aside her great fur coat
from her lithe, slender, red-clad body. (She was permitted by a sudden
civility of Clarence's to descend.) "Why! the windows," she said,
pausing on the step, "are like crystal."

"These very 'ands," said the little old woman, and glanced up at the
windows the lady had praised. The little old woman's initial sternness
wrinkled and softened as the skin of a windfall does after a day or so
upon the ground. She half turned in the doorway and made a sudden
vergerlike gesture. "We enter," she said, "by the 'all.... Them's Mr.
Brumley's 'ats and sticks. Every 'at or cap 'as a stick, and every stick
'as a 'at _or_ cap, and on the 'all table is the gloves corresponding.
On the right is the door leading to the kitching, on the left is the
large droring-room which Mr. Brumley 'as took as 'is study." Her voice
fell to lowlier things. "The other door beyond is a small lavatory
'aving a basing for washing 'ands."

"It's a perfectly delightful hall," said the lady. "So low and
wide-looking. And everything so bright - and lovely. Those long, Italian
pictures! And how charming that broad outlook upon the garden beyond!"

"You'll think it charminger when you see the garding," said the little
old woman. "It was Mrs. Brumley's especial delight. Much of it - with 'er
own 'ands."

"We now enter the droring-room," she proceeded, and flinging open the
door to the right was received with an indistinct cry suggestive of the
words, "Oh, _damn_ it!" The stout medium-sized gentleman in an artistic
green-grey Norfolk suit, from whom the cry proceeded, was kneeling on
the floor close to the wide-open window, and he was engaged in lacing up
a boot. He had a round, ruddy, rather handsome, amiable face with a sort
of bang of brown hair coming over one temple, and a large silk bow under
his chin and a little towards one ear, such as artists and artistic men
of letters affect. His profile was regular and fine, his eyes
expressive, his mouth, a very passable mouth. His features expressed at
first only the naïve horror of a shy man unveiled.

Intelligent appreciation supervened.

There was a crowded moment of rapid mutual inspection. The lady's
attitude was that of the enthusiastic house-explorer arrested in full
flight, falling swiftly towards apology and retreat. (It was a
frightfully attractive room, too, full of the brightest colour, and with
a big white cast of a statue - a Venus! - in the window.) She backed over
the threshold again.

"I thought you was out by that window, sir," said the little old woman
intimately, and was nearly shutting the door between them and all the
beginnings of this story.

But the voice of the gentleman arrested and wedged open the closing

"I - - Are you looking at the house?" he said. "I say! Just a moment,
Mrs. Rabbit."

He came down the length of the room with a slight flicking noise due to
the scandalized excitement of his abandoned laces. The lady was reminded
of her not so very distant schooldays, when it would have been
considered a suitable answer to such a question as his to reply, "No, I
am walking down Piccadilly on my hands." But instead she waved that pink
paper again. "The agents," she said. "Recommended - specially. So sorry
if I intrude. I ought, I know, to have written first; but I came on an

By this time the gentleman in the artistic tie, who had also the
artistic eye for such matters, had discovered that the lady was young,
delightfully slender, either pretty or beautiful, he could scarcely tell
which, and very, very well dressed. "I am glad," he said, with
remarkable decision, "that I was not out. _I_ will show you the house."

"'Ow _can_ you, sir?" intervened the little old woman.

"Oh! show a house! Why not?"

"The kitchings - you don't understand the range, sir - it's beyond you.
And upstairs. You can't show a lady upstairs."

The gentleman reflected upon these difficulties.

"Well, I'm going to show her all I can show her anyhow. And after that,
Mrs. Rabbit, you shall come in. You needn't wait."

"I'm thinking," said Mrs. Rabbit, folding stiff little arms and
regarding him sternly. "You won't be much good after tea, you know, if
you don't get your afternoon's exercise."

"Rendez-vous in the kitchen, Mrs. Rabbit," said Mr. Brumley, firmly, and
Mrs. Rabbit after a moment of mute struggle disappeared discontentedly.

"I do not want to be the least bit a bother," said the lady. "I'm
intruding, I know, without the least bit of notice. I _do_ hope I'm not
disturbing you - - " she seemed to make an effort to stop at that, and
failed and added - "the least bit. Do please tell me if I am."

"Not at all," said Mr. Brumley. "I hate my afternoon's walk as a
prisoner hates the treadmill."

"She's such a nice old creature."

"She's been a mother - and several aunts - to us ever since my wife died.
She was the first servant we ever had."

"All this house," he explained to his visitor's questioning eyes, "was
my wife's creation. It was a little featureless agent's house on the
edge of these pine-woods. She saw something in the shape of the
rooms - and that central hall. We've enlarged it of course. Twice. This
was two rooms, that is why there is a step down in the centre."

"That window and window-seat - - "

"That was her addition," said Mr. Brumley. "All this room
is - replete - with her personality." He hesitated, and explained further.
"When we prepared this house - we expected to be better off - than we
subsequently became - and she could let herself go. Much is from Holland
and Italy."

"And that beautiful old writing-desk with the little single rose in a

"She put it there. She even in a sense put the flower there. It is
renewed of course. By Mrs. Rabbit. She trained Mrs. Rabbit."

He sighed slightly, apparently at some thought of Mrs. Rabbit.

"You - you write - - " the lady stopped, and then diverted a question that
she perhaps considered too blunt, "there?"

"Largely. I am - a sort of author. Perhaps you know my books. Not very
important books - but people sometimes read them."

The rose-pink of the lady's cheek deepened by a shade. Within her pretty
head, her mind rushed to and fro saying "Brumley? Brumley?" Then she had
a saving gleam. "Are you _George_ Brumley?" she asked, - "_the_ George

"My name _is_ George Brumley," he said, with a proud modesty. "Perhaps
you know my little Euphemia books? They are still the most read."

The lady made a faint, dishonest assent-like noise; and her rose-pink
deepened another shade. But her interlocutor was not watching her very
closely just then.

"Euphemia was my wife," he said, "at least, my wife gave her to me - a
kind of exhalation. _This_" - his voice fell with a genuine respect for
literary associations - "was Euphemia's home."

"I still," he continued, "go on. I go on writing about Euphemia. I have
to. In this house. With my tradition.... But it is becoming
painful - painful. Curiously more painful now than at the beginning. And
I want to go. I want at last to make a break. That is why I am letting
or selling the house.... There will be no more Euphemia."

His voice fell to silence.

The lady surveyed the long low clear room so cleverly prepared for life,
with its white wall, its Dutch clock, its Dutch dresser, its pretty
seats about the open fireplace, its cleverly placed bureau, its
sun-trap at the garden end; she could feel the rich intention of living
in its every arrangement and a sense of uncertainty in things struck
home to her. She seemed to see a woman, a woman like herself - only very,
very much cleverer - flitting about the room and making it. And then this
woman had vanished - nowhither. Leaving this gentleman - sadly left - in
the care of Mrs. Rabbit.

"And she is dead?" she said with a softness in her dark eyes and a fall
in her voice that was quite natural and very pretty.

"She died," said Mr. Brumley, "three years and a half ago." He
reflected. "Almost exactly."

He paused and she filled the pause with feeling.

He became suddenly very brave and brisk and businesslike. He led the way
back into the hall and made explanations. "It is not so much a hall as a
hall living-room. We use that end, except when we go out upon the
verandah beyond, as our dining-room. The door to the right is the

The lady's attention was caught again by the bright long eventful
pictures that had already pleased her. "They are copies of two of
Carpaccio's St. George series in Venice," he said. "We bought them
together there. But no doubt you've seen the originals. In a little old
place with a custodian and rather dark. One of those corners - so full of
that delightful out-of-the-wayishness which is so characteristic, I
think, of Venice. I don't know if you found that in Venice?"

"I've never been abroad," said the lady. "Never. I should love to go. I
suppose you and your wife went - ever so much."

He had a transitory wonder that so fine a lady should be untravelled,
but his eagerness to display his backgrounds prevented him thinking that
out at the time. "Two or three times," he said, "before our little boy
came to us. And always returning with something for this place. Look!"
he went on, stepped across an exquisite little brick court to a lawn of
soft emerald and turning back upon the house. "That Dellia Robbia
placque we lugged all the way back from Florence with us, and that stone
bird-bath is from Siena."

"How bright it is!" murmured the lady after a brief still appreciation.
"Delightfully bright. As though it would shine even if the sun didn't."
And she abandoned herself to the rapture of seeing a house and garden
that were for once better even than the agent's superlatives. And within
her grasp if she chose - within her grasp.

She made the garden melodious with soft appreciative sounds. She had a
small voice for her size but quite a charming one, a little live bird of
a voice, bright and sweet. It was a clear unruffled afternoon; even the
unseen wheel-barrow had very sensibly ceased to creak and seemed to be
somewhere listening....

Only one trivial matter marred their easy explorations; - his boots
remained unlaced. No propitious moment came when he could stoop and lace
them. He was not a dexterous man with eyelets, and stooping made him
grunt and his head swim. He hoped these trailing imperfections went
unmarked. He tried subtly to lead this charming lady about and at the
same time walk a little behind her. She on her part could not determine
whether he would be displeased or not if she noticed this slight
embarrassment and asked him to set it right. They were quite long
leather laces and they flew about with a sturdy negligence of anything
but their own offensive contentment, like a gross man who whistles a
vulgar tune as he goes round some ancient church; flick, flock, they
went, and flip, flap, enjoying themselves, and sometimes he trod on one
and halted in his steps, and sometimes for a moment she felt her foot
tether him. But man is the adaptable animal and presently they both
became more used to these inconveniences and more mechanical in their
efforts to avoid them. They treated those laces then exactly as nice
people would treat that gross man; a minimum of polite attention and all
the rest pointedly directed away from him....

The garden was full of things that people dream about doing in their
gardens and mostly never do. There was a rose garden all blooming in
chorus, and with pillar-roses and arches that were not so much growths
as overflowing cornucopias of roses, and a neat orchard with shapely
trees white-painted to their exact middles, a stone wall bearing
clematis and a clothes-line so gay with Mr. Brumley's blue and white
flannel shirts that it seemed an essential part of the design. And then
there was a great border of herbaceous perennials backed by delphiniums
and monkshood already in flower and budding hollyhocks rising to their
duty; a border that reared its blaze of colour against a hill-slope dark
with pines. There was no hedge whatever to this delightful garden. It
seemed to go straight into the pine-woods; only an invisible netting
marked its limits and fended off the industrious curiosity of the

"This strip of wood is ours right up to the crest," he said, "and from
the crest one has a view. One has two views. If you would care - - ?"

The lady made it clear that she was there to see all she could. She
radiated her appetite to see. He carried a fur stole for her over his
arm and flicked the way up the hill. Flip, flap, flop. She followed

"This is the only view I care to show you now," he said at the crest.
"There was a better one beyond there. But - it has been defiled.... Those
hills! I knew you would like them. The space of it! And ... yet - - .
This view - lacks the shining ponds. There are wonderful distant ponds.
After all I must show you the other! But you see there is the high-road,
and the high-road has produced an abomination. Along here we go. Now.
Don't look down please." His gesture covered the foreground. "Look right
over the nearer things into the distance. There!"

The lady regarded the wide view with serene appreciation. "I don't see,"
she said, "that it's in any way ruined. It's perfect."

"You don't see! Ah! you look right over. You look high. I wish I could
too. But that screaming board! I wish the man's crusts would choke

And indeed quite close at hand, where the road curved about below them,
the statement that Staminal Bread, the True Staff of Life, was sold only
by the International Bread Shops, was flung out with a vigour of yellow
and Prussian blue that made the landscape tame.

His finger directed her questioning eye.

"_Oh!_" said the lady suddenly, as one who is convicted of a stupidity
and coloured slightly.

"In the morning of course it is worse. The sun comes directly on to it.
Then really and truly it blots out everything."

The lady stood quite silent for a little time, with her eyes on the
distant ponds. Then he perceived that she was blushing. She turned to
her interlocutor as a puzzled pupil might turn to a teacher.

"It really is very good bread," she said. "They make it - - Oh! most
carefully. With the germ in. And one has to tell people."

Her point of view surprised him. He had expected nothing but a docile
sympathy. "But to tell people _here_!" he said.

"Yes, I suppose one oughtn't to tell them here."

"Man does not live by bread alone."

She gave the faintest assent.

"This is the work of one pushful, shoving creature, a man named Harman.
Imagine him! Imagine what he must be! Don't you feel his soul defiling
us? - this summit of a stupendous pile of - dough, thinking of nothing
but his miserable monstrous profits, seeing nothing in the delight of
life, the beauty of the world but something that attracts attention,
draws eyes, something that gives him his horrible opportunity of getting
ahead of all his poor little competitors and inserting - _this!_ It's the
quintessence of all that is wrong with the world; - squalid, shameless
huckstering!" He flew off at a tangent. "Four or five years ago they
made this landscape disease, - a knight!"

He looked at her for a sympathetic indignation, and then suddenly
something snapped in his brain and he understood. There wasn't an
instant between absolute innocence and absolute knowledge.

"You see," she said as responsive as though he had cried out sharply at
the horror in his mind, "Sir Isaac is my husband. Naturally ... I ought
to have given you my name to begin with. It was silly...."

Mr. Brumley gave one wild glance at the board, but indeed there was not
a word to be said in its mitigation. It was the crude advertisement of a
crude pretentious thing crudely sold. "My dear lady!" he said in his
largest style, "I am desolated! But I have said it! It isn't a pretty

A memory of epithets pricked him. "You must forgive - a certain touch
of - rhetoric."

He turned about as if to dismiss the board altogether, but she remained
with her brows very faintly knit, surveying the cause of his offence.

"It isn't a _pretty_ board," she said. "I've wondered at times.... It

"I implore you to forget that outbreak - mere petulance - because, I
suppose, of a peculiar liking for that particular view. There
are - associations - - "

"I've wondered lately," she continued, holding on to her own thoughts,
"what people _did_ think of them. And it's curious - to hear - - "

For a moment neither spoke, she surveyed the board and he the tall ease
of her pose. And he was thinking she must surely be the most beautiful
woman he had ever encountered. The whole country might be covered with
boards if it gave us such women as this. He felt the urgent need of some
phrase, to pull the situation out of this pit into which it had fallen.
He was a little unready, his faculties all as it were neglecting his
needs and crowding to the windows to stare, and meanwhile she spoke
again, with something of the frankness of one who thinks aloud.

"You see," she said, "one _doesn't_ hear. One thinks perhaps - - And
there it is. When one marries very young one is apt to take so much for
granted. And afterwards - - "

She was wonderfully expressive in her inexpressiveness, he thought, but
found as yet no saving phrase. Her thought continued to drop from her.
"One sees them so much that at last one doesn't see them."

She turned away to survey the little house again; it was visible in
bright strips between the red-scarred pine stems. She looked at it chin
up, with a still approval - but she was the slenderest loveliness, and
with such a dignity! - and she spoke at length as though the board had
never existed. "It's like a little piece of another world; so bright and
so - perfect."

There was the phantom of a sigh in her voice.

"I think you'll be charmed by our rockery," he said. "It was one of our
particular efforts. Every time we two went abroad we came back with
something, stonecrop or Alpine or some little bulb from the wayside."

"How can you leave it!"

He was leaving it because it bored him to death. But so intricate is the
human mind that it was with perfect sincerity he answered: "It will be a
tremendous wrench.... I have to go."

"And you've written most of your books here and lived here!"

The note of sympathy in her voice gave him a sudden suspicion that she
imagined his departure due to poverty. Now to be poor as an author is to
be unpopular, and he valued his popularity - with the better sort of
people. He hastened to explain. "I have to go, because here, you see,
here, neither for me nor my little son, is it Life. It's a place of
memories, a place of accomplished beauty. My son already breaks away, - a
preparatory school at Margate. Healthier, better, for us to break
altogether I feel, wrench though it may. It's full for us at least - a
new tenant would be different of course - but for _us_ it's full of
associations we can't alter, can't for the life of us change. Nothing
you see goes on. And life you know _is_ change - change and going on."

He paused impressively on his generalization.

"But you will want - - You will want to hand it over to - to sympathetic
people of course. People," she faltered, "who will understand."

Mr. Brumley took an immense stride - conversationally. "I am certain
there is no one I would more readily see in that house than yourself,"
he said.

"But - - " she protested. "And besides, you don't know me!"

"One knows some things at once, and I am as sure you
would - understand - as if I had known you twenty years. It may seem
absurd to you, but when I looked up just now and saw you for the first
time, I thought - this, this is the tenant. This is her house.... Not a
doubt. That is why I did not go for my walk - came round with you."

"You really think you would like us to have that house?" she said.

"No one better," said Mr. Brumley.

"After the board?"

"After a hundred boards, I let the house to you...."

Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsThe Wife of Sir Isaac Harman → online text (page 1 of 31)