James Payn.

Halves, a novel (Volume 3) online

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aunt who is touchy about the honour of the



There was once a Mr. Bates, but lie was
only known as Mrs. Bates' husband. She was
an heiress by the will of her grandfather,
who had been knighted by George lY. (when
His Majesty was in a state of intoxication,
but the thing held for all that), and, besides,
she had a will of her own. " When I have
said I shall do anything, I always do it,*'
was her boast ; and she really did do it.
'' If you say ' Nothink,' instead of ' Nothing,'
again, child, I'll throw you out of window,"
she once observed to a Httle vulgar boy whom
she was teaching in the Sunday-school ; and
he did say " NotJwik" again, and was thrown


out accordingly. Througli tliis circumstance,
he became a cripple, and a pensioner of the
family for life ; but the important fact, that
Mrs. Bates always kept her word, was
maintained in its integrity. She was a liberal
mistress, and not easily " put out,'' providing
everything was done in her own way, and
exactly as she liked it ; but if she once said
'' Go ! " to any man -jack of them, he went.
Sometimes, being irritated, she would say
'' Go ! " to the whole domestic staff, and then
they all went. This was not always con-
venient, for Mrs. Bates was hospitable, and
gave frequent dinner-parties, a species of
entertainment which, without cook or butler,
is difficult to make a success. Still, they
always came off on the day appointed. It
is even said that on one occasion she apolo-
gised for the absence of Mr. Bates upon the
ground of a sudden telegram from London,
when he was not from home at all, but
engaged in bringing up the dishes from the
kitchen, and handing them to the parlour-


maid outside the dining-room. Nobody-

would have missed him, had she not drawn
attention to his absence ; and her doing so
excited suspicion in one of the company,
who cauo^ht sis^ht of him throuojh a crack in
the door. The duties of hospitality were
sacred with her, and she would have sacrificed
anything to them, or, at all events, much
more than Mr. Bates. The poor man had
indeed very little to recommend him ; so far
from his o-randfather having: been knicfhted,
he had never possessed one. So ancient was
his :^miily, said the cynics, that even his
father was lost in the mists of antiquity ;
and not a soul in Oxford could discover
what he had been himself before he had be-
come Mrs. Bates' husband. She resided in
a beautiful house in the environs of that
respectable university, and gave better dinners
than the heads of houses. Without some
such qualification, it would have been im-
possible for her, linked as she was with the
unknown Bates, to have got into society at



all. The collegiate circle are exceedingly-
exclusive as to the people they "know/'
One vice-chancellor (as you may have heard)
did not even know of the existence of Mr.
Thackeray, and refused permission to him
to read his lectures to the undergraduates,
under the impression that he travelled with
some sort of acrobatic entertainment. The
nobility alone, and the dead languages, are
reckoned worth their attention. Under such
circumstances, Mr. Bates would have been
held by most wives as an insurmountable
barrier to their getting into the best circles ;
for, in addition to the disadvantage of so
little being known of his ancestors, there
was so much to be concealed in himself, and
so much that could not be concealed. He
stammered beyond anybody that I ever
heard (or tried to hear), and when at last
he made himself intelligible, there was often
cause to regret it. For not only had he
the utmost difficulty in saying anything ;
it was seldom the right thing, after all ; it


was almost always the ^long tiling. His
apologies, too, were sometimes worse than
his offences, since they showed a complete
ignorance of the usages of society : he always
knew lohen he had erred, if he happened to
catch his wife's eye, but he did not know
where he had erred.

Upon the momentous occasion of Mrs.
Abner, wife of the Dean of Christchurch,
coming to call for the first time, he had
almost turned that social victory into defeat
— ^wrecked ever}i:hing, as it were, in sight
of port — by his rude behaviour. He was
smoking in the garden when that lady and
his wife came out into it, and he continued
to smoke notwithstanding the august presence
in which he found himself It was true that
in her good-nature the visitor had said :
'^ Pray, don't throw away your cigar, Mi.
Bates" (for she had caught Mrs. Bates*
glance at him) ; but for all that, he should
have done so. At all events, he should
not have replied to her gracious permission :

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*' Nun — nun — not if I know it." He thought
her a very foolish woman to have supposed
him capable of such an act of extravagance.
Nor was this the worst. Like Mr. Jefferson
Brick, he expectorated freely. This outrage
on the proprieties was too much for his
wife's patience.

*'Mr. Bates, how dai^e you, before Mrs.

"But how was I to nun — nun — know
she was going to do it ?"

He thought it was a question of pre-

Mrs. Abner only laughed (the dean had
married beneath him, it was rumoured, for
she had a strong sense of humour), and
generously overlooked this solecism in

The Bateses were asked to dinner at " the
Lodge" — not the porter's lodge, where they
ought to have been, but the dean's residence —
and when Mrs. Bates sent their host and
hostess an invitation in return, it was


accepted. This was a triumph almost
beyond expectation. If Queen Victoria was
to write to mi/ wife : " 111 look in to lunch,
on Friday," we should experience scarcely
a greater degree of pleasurable surprise. In
our case, it would not, perhaps, be wholly
unmixed with alarm ; but to such terrors
Mrs. Bates was a total stranger. That
indomitable woman had a just confidence
in her cook and her cellar ; and if she could
only have got rid of her husband for the
day, she would have been wholly without
apprehension for the success of the entertain-
ment. But Mrs. Abner had taken quite a
fancy to the poor little stuttering man, so
his wife did not venture to make away with
him. She had dignity (as well as will)
enough for two, and so long as that could
be maintained, she felt that her social posi-
tion was secured. The dean himself should
acknowledge in his heart that he might
have made choice of one more fitting to
adorn his station than he had done, if he


had met Antonia Bates when she was still
in her maiden pride. As matters were, his
misfortune was irreparable, but it would be
agreeable to cause him to regret it. There
was something, however, that this magnifi-
cent woman set greater store by than even
the success of her dinner-party — namely, her
position as mistress of her own house ; and
the day before the entertainment came off,
a domestic difficulty occurred, and the whole
household received its conge. She said " Go 1"
and they all went with their month's wages.
The pecuniary expenditure was nothing to
her, but the absence of all hands on so
special an occasion was indeed deplorable.
*'Let justice be done though the skies fall,"
is an excellent motto ; but unless a cook
and butler fell with the skies, or from them,
what was poor Mrs. Bates to do now ?

I cannot give a stronger proof of her
forlorn condition than the simple statement
that when the cook volunteered to remain
over the next day — " as a conveniency," as


she expressed it — that Mrs. Bates accepted
her offer. We have often heard of Principle
giving way to Place, but no person ever
made a oreater sacrifice of it than did Mrs.
Bates when she allowed that cook to Jceej)
her place for twenty-four hours. '' I would
rather have cooked the dinner myself than
have given in," she exclaimed, and burst
into tears ; but she felt that her guests, and
the dean especially, would not have been
of that opinion. Even his friends allowed
that the best way of insinuating one's self
into that dignitary's good graces was through
his palate. Even as it was, there was a
butler to be supplied, a matter by no means
so easy at that season, when Oxford was at
its gayest time, and everybody was giving
dinner-parties. However, the cook knew of
s, young man, she said, of the "name of
Chorley," in every way desirable ; and the
services of this person were accordingly en-
gaged. Mrs. Bates, it is true, didn't much
like the look of him ; thought him nervous


and undecided in his movements ; but the
cook, who was thoroughly competent to teach
him his duties, promised to rehearse them
with him before dinner, so that nothing
should go amiss. The guests arrived in due
course ; they were very few, but uncommonly
choice, and being on the same social plane,
got on together in the drawing-room very

Taking advantage of this, Mrs. Bates
slipped quietly downstairs for a last look at
the table before they went to dinner : I don't
say at present what she found, but only ob-
serve that it was lucky she did find it, and
in time ; then she slipped back again, pale
but resolute, and presently the dinner was
announced, and they trooped downstairs.

The dean said grace, his best grace,
beginning '' Bountiful Creator," for he saw
that there was turtle soup, and then sat
down, but only for an instant. The male
guests instantly rose up again, with indications
of embarrassment and pain.


" The cliu-chu-cliairs are as hot as the
dickens ! " exclaimed Mr. Bates.

His wife was quite aware of it ; she had
found all the hot-water plates upon the chairs
instead of in their proper places. " Chorley "
had confessed his innocence of their use, and
it being cold weather (and judging, I suppose,
from their general conformation) had put
them where she had found them.

" Dud — dud — dud — dud," continued Mr.
Bates, before she could make up her mind
what to say. She was dreadfully afraid he
was ofoins: to swear, and indeed so was
everybody, though, to do him justice, it was
only his intention to observe : " Dud — dud —
don't let this happen again, Charley."

That, by-the-by, was another cause of
annoyance to Mrs. Bates throughout the
evening ; he luould call " Chorley " Chxirley,
which seemed, and indeed ivas, a very
objectionable familiarity. However, this was
forgotten afterwards, swallowed up, as it were,
in the catastrophe that occurred in the


meantime, and which I am about to describe.
Unhappily, in consequence of the exalted
rank of the company, the cause of the heat
of the chairs could not with delicacy be ex-
plained, so that " a sense of mystery their
spirits daunted ; " one of them especially,
who was a college tutor, and mathematical,
was much exercised in his mind by the
phenomenon. However, conversation began
after a little, and went on, though with
intermittent flow, until Mrs. Abner inquired
of her host whether he had learned how the
vice-chancellor's wife was, who was said to
be threatened with dropsy.

'' Oh ! " said he, greatly to his consort's
surprise, "she is bub — bub — better."

" I wonder how he Jcnoivs/' was Mrs.
Bates' mental reflection, for her mind was
-as elastic as it was powerful, and had already
recovered the shock of the hot chairs. She
fondly hoped that no further contre-temps
was to take place that evening. In that,


however, she reckoned very literally "with-
out the host."

" Do you see much of the vice-chancellor's
family ? " inquired Mrs. Abner, returning to
the charge, and good-naturedly pleased at
helping poor Mr. Bates to make conver-

" Yes, I do. I see a good dud — dud —
deal of his wi — wi — wife. I often see her
in her buh — bub — bub "

Here he began to stammer very badly,
and the more so because every eye was
turned upon him ; the dean showed quite
an interest in the position or situation in
which ]\Ir. Bates had seen the vice-chancellor s
lady ; and the mathematical tutor whispered
to his neighbour that, wherever the place
was, it must have been of considerable

" I often see her in her bub — bub —
bath," at last stammered ^h\ Bates, and
would have said more, but for the general


expressions of reproof that burst upon him
from all sides.

**Eeally, Mr. Bates!" ejaculated the

" I don't believe it ! " exclaimed Mrs.
Bates indignantly.

'' What a quantity of water she must
displace ! " muttered the mathematical tutor.

"I see her in her bub — bub — bath-c/iair,"
cried the agonised Mr. Bates ; *' only, you
wouldn't let me fif — fif — finish the sen-

All this was bad enough, but fortunately
50 bad that there was nothing to be done
but to laugh at it. Upon the whole, the
dinner was going off very well, though not
quite as Mrs. Bates had intended it to do.
However, if her husband had made himself
ridiculous, she at least had preserved her
dignity. And Chorley had made no more
mistakes, nor would now have the opportunity
to make any. The napkins had not been


folded very neatly — lie was a mere creature
of the cook's, as it afterwards appeared, and
had never before even seen a napkin except
on a waiter's arm — but there had been
nothing to complain of except those dread-
ful hot plates. He " waited " mechanically,
as though every movement had been dictated
to him, as indeed it had — but still he did
wait, and without being the cause of waiting
in other people.

At the end of the dinner was a little
ceremony, always used in that time at Oxford
at the tables which the dean honoured by
his presence. He was wont to drink the
health of the lady of the house, and she in
her turn would drink his, and thank him
for his gracious company. Chorley filled
the glasses without mistake, and the dean
made his pretty speech ; but just as Mrs.
Bates had set down her glass, and w^as
about to open her mouth in gracious reply,
an arm was put round her neck, and a


liand, enveloped in a clean napkin, dex-
terously but firmly passed it across her

A ghastly amazement seized upon the
company, and even Chorley himself perceived
that he had outstepped his duties.

** Please, ma'am," explained he, simply,
"the cook told me to do it, and gave me
this here clean napkin for the very

At that moment a fiendish laugh rang
through the hall, and the front door was
slammed violently. It was the cook depart-
ing with her month's wages, and in exceed-
ingly high spirits. She had not stopped
over that dinner-party to oblige her mis-
tress for nothing, but to accomplish a great
revenge. And she had accomplished it.
One is said in sporting phrase to have
" had his eye wiped," when another man
kills the game which has escaped his gun ;
but that humiliation sinks to nothing com-


pared with what had happened to poor Mrs.
Bates. Her enemies said "she never was
the same man " again, after that glass of
wine she took with the dean.




There are some people who aver that they
have never been frightened — do not even
know what fear is, like the great Lord
Nelson. All I can say is, that if they are
telling the truth, I en^y them. If I was
a man, I suppose I should despise myself
for being a coward ; but, being a woman,
I only regret the circumstance ; and yet, I
suppose no man is courageous under all cir-
cumstances. I recollect Albert Smith, in one
of his Alpine lectures, describes how one
of the bravest of the Swiss guides exhi-
bited the utmost terror when he chanced
to be in a boat upon Lake Constance .during

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a violent storm ; it was a form of danger
totally unfamiliar to him ; if it had been
avalanches, and precipices, and slipperiness,
he would have thought nothing of it ; but
the novelty of it appalled him. I have
seen instances of this myself in cases of
sickness. Infection is one of the few dangers
of which I am not afraid, and I find (rather,
I must say, to my satisfaction) that most
men are nervous about it. Again, there are
brave men whose limbs tremble beneath them
(and it is to be wished that there were more
of them, for then the world would be less
troubled with after-dinner speeches) when-
ever they are called upon to say a few
words in public to their fellow-creatures.
This, it is true, comes under the head of
moral cowardice ; yet I don't see why it
should be held more or less contemptible
than the physical failing, for it seems to me
that both are due to what we women describe
as *' nerves." There is frequently a sort of
admiration expressed for very violent, cruel,


and worthless people who make a desperate
resistance to officers of justice. Men like
Legree, for example, in " Uncle Tom's
Cabin," who defy God and man, are thought
very highly of by some people. Why is
this ? " The polecat is an animal very difficult
to kill," says a certain philosopher of my ac-
quaintance, "but we do not sympathise with
the polecat upon that account.'' Why, then,
should we sympathise with desperadoes be-
cause they set a fancy value upon their worth-
less lives, and defend them with such pertina-
city ? "I wonder," says Thackeray, ''is it
because all men are cowards at heart, that we
set so enormous a value upon brute courage ? "
The Chinaman, plunged in vice and crime,
will go to the scaffold with a cheroot in
his mouth, quite unmoved by the prospect
of death ; the native of Japan mil dis-
embowel himself because he has received a
fancied insult ; the Ashantee bows before
the headsman with as much sang-froid as
he would exhibit in cutting his brother's


head off. The grave has no terrors for
these people. Why ? Because they are
braver than civilised beings ? Certainly not.
It is because they have never meditated
upon futurity, and are utterly without
imagination. In my opinion, fear is only
disgraceful when it causes its unhappy victim
to desert the weak and defenceless. When
General Picton ("Fighting Picton") — said
to be the bravest man of his time — per-
mitted a private slave to be tortured under
his governorship (for which he was tried
and found guilty at the Old Bailey), he
was only a little less of a coward than an
officer in India would have shown himself
to be who could have left English women
and children to be butchered by the mutineers,
and sought his own safety by flight. It
appears to me that men, who are so ready
to accuse us women of being illogical, and
carried away by our sentimental emotions,,
exhibit in this matter a great want of judg-
ment. It is not true courage which they


admire, but carelessness of death — the
attribute, as I have said, of the savage.
The Irishman who sat on the branch which
he was sawing oflf the tree was, in this
point of view, a hero.

I have not written this for the purpose
of underrating that quality in which I own
myself deficient ; but I do protest against
being made out worse than I am. My sister-
in-law, for example, a woman of nearly twice
my altitude, and who weighs more than
twice my weight, is terrified at the sight
of a black-beetle, and broke through one
of my best chairs (cane-bottomed) in
standing upon it to avoid one ; yet she calls
me a coward because I can't look do^m a
steep place without turning sick and giddy.
" Why, what are you afraid of, Maria ? "
she giggles. ''Well, I am not afraid of a
black-beetle, at all events," is my reply ;
but I could answer her question, if I chose,
at much greater length.

I am afraid of a cow, for instance : very


much afraid ; all the pleasure of a country
walk through a fine landscape has been often
spoilt for me because of cattle in a field.
If I pass through them without being tossed
or gored, the recollection that I have got
to come back again remains with me for the
rest of the day. As for a bull, I would
rather never see the country than run the
chance of meeting with such a creature. A
dog is thought to be a very harmless animal
— a domestic animal — and the " friend of
man." He is not, however, the friend of
woman — or at least of a nervous woman
like me. I should be afraid to write down
how often I have been prevented from calling
at a friend's house by the presence of a little
poodle or terrier upon their door-step. I
should as soon have thought of disturbing
an adder. The Eomans (a people quite re-
markable for their courage) used, I am told,
to print Cave canem, ^'Beware of the Dog,"
upon their front doors ; but such a warning
would have been unnecessar}^ in my case.


I am always fully '' Beware " of it. Every
farniyard in the country has a dog, and that
is why I don't like farmyards. As to chains,
I don't believe in them ; and then there is
always the consideration that if the chain
should break, it would let loose upon the
world — and me — an animal made furious by
restraint, and whose imagination has been
fed upon human flesh perhajDS for years !
Another curse of the country in my eyes
are burglars. In the town there are police-
men ; it is true they are hard to find, but who
are supposed, at least, to be within hearing
of a cry for help ; one has neighbours on all
sides ; and even in the dead of night there
is always "some one about." But when
the veil of evening has fallen upon a country-
house, there is no hope of succour until

My widowed sister-in-law (the fat one)
and myself once lived in such a place a whole
summer, during which I lost more flesh than
if I had been all the time in a Turkish bath.


From sunset to sunrise I was in a perpetual
friglit, from fear of robbers ; and when the
days grew shorter, and the nights longer,,
the place became insupportable, and I fled
from it. The usual nightly programme was
as follows : My sister-in-law, who occupied
the same apartment as myself, would fall
asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow,
and leave me, as it were, alone, a prey to
my terrors. She always reminded me of
the irritating bedfellow described in ghost-
stories, who will not wake while the appa-
rition is peeping through the bed-curtains at
you, and who, when all the dreadful things
are over, cannot be persuaded that they
actually occurred. Next to ghosts them-
selves, I dislike people of this cast, and
would almost as soon have no companion
at all. If the wind was up, I at once
began to picture to myself a band of
ruffians eff"ecting a forcible entry into all
the rooms below- stairs, and giving shouts
of triumph at the ease with which they


accomplislied their purpose. We could not
afford to keep a man-servant, and even if
we had done so, I should have always
imagined him the accomplice of the burglars,
or coming upstairs upon his o^tl account
with a carving-knife concealed in a scuttle
of coals, as I had once read of in a book.
Our house pretended to no means of resist-
ance, and I always placed the plate-basket
and its contents upon the landing of the
stairs, in ho23es that the gang might take what
they came for, and go away without asking for
my money or my life — which, indeed, would
have been the same thinor • for I could never
have survived the question. Well, I used to
hear the robbers runnino^ throug^h the house
exulting or muttering their disappointment,
according as the wind blew high or low ; or
if there was no wind, I would listen, listen,
listen, in the silence, till presently there
seemed footsteps coming stealthily upstairs,
and nasty creaking boots about our bed-room
door ; at last, the handle of the door would


be softly turned, when nature gave way, and
I would shriek out frantically, " Charlotte ! "
and Charlotte would murmur " Eh ; what ?
"What's the matter ? " and drop asleep again
before I could tell her.

However, one fine night she got a pretty
fright herself; I use the word "fine" sar-
castically, for, as a matter of fact, it was
pouring wet, and so dark, that when you
looked out of window, you saw your own

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Online LibraryJames PaynHalves, a novel (Volume 3) → online text (page 9 of 10)