"I'll tell him with pleasure. You go to bed, and I'll wait here to
tell him when he comes in."
"Supposing he's very late?"
"He won't be later than the last Tube train. I shall get home
comfortably, my love; don't you worry about me. We old women can take
care of ourselves, you know. It's ten o'clock, and you go off to bed."
"I don't know that I want to, mother."
"Shoo!" said Mrs. Amber.
When Marie was in bed, her mother went to the dining-room, established
herself in an armchair, and put a match to the fire. Her husband being
long dead, she regarded her own sacrificial days as over, and she
remained tolerably comfortable on what he had left behind him. In the
days of his life, the money had taken him away to those vague haunts
of men; but now it solaced, every penny of it, his widow. As she sat
by the kindled fire, Mrs. Amber resumed her knitting, and as she
knitted she wondered fondly what the new baby would be like; whether
it would be boy or girl, and just exactly what piece of work she had
better get in hand against its arrival.
So Osborn Kerr, arriving home not very late - it was only just after
eleven o'clock - found his mother-in-law seated alone upon his hearth,
needles flying over one of the pale blue jerseys in which little
George was to winter.
She greeted his stare of astonishment placidly, with her propitiating
smile and deceitful words:
"I thought you would be cold, Osborn, so I put a match to the fire."
"Oh, thanks," said Osborn, "thanks very much. Where's Marie?"
"She's gone to bed."
"Gone to bed, and left you here by yourself!" Then a thought assailed
him: "I say," he asked himself, "is she - is she staying behind to give
me a talking-to about anything? What've I done now?"
The question made him antagonistic, and he looked at her keenly.
"Are you - are you staying the night?" he asked; "because, if so, I'll
just take my things out of the dressing-room into our room, unless you
have done it?"
She lifted her hands. "Oh, my dear boy, I shouldn't dream of putting
you so about! It is only that I stayed to tell you a little bit of
news which Marie seemed a trifle reluctant to tell you."
She put her head on one side and looked at him smilingly. There was no
sign upon her face to tell him how anxious her heart was, nor how she
had offered up a prayer as his latchkey clicked in the lock: "Oh,
Lord, don't let him be angry; let him be very kind to Marie, for
Christ's sake! Amen."
"If there's anything Marie can't tell me herself - "
In her most propitiatory voice she said, smiling up at the young man,
"Can't you guess? I expect you do know, don't you, though Marie thinks
Osborn sat down.
"I can't possibly guess. Is it a puzzle, at this time of night?"
"It is not a puzzle," said Mrs. Amber, overflowing with feeling so
that she had to remove and wipe her glasses; "it is just the most
natural and ordinary and beautiful thing in the world."
He sat forward quickly, beginning to have some glimmer of her
"You _can't_ mean - "
"You and Marie are going to be blessed with another child."
"'Blessed'?" said Osborn, after a short pause, "'blessed'?"
"Blessed!" repeated Mrs. Amber anxiously.
"Some people," said Osborn, "have rum ideas about blessings."
"Won't you go in and see Marie and tell her you're pleased?"
"Is she awake?"
"I expect she is; most women would be," said Mrs. Amber slowly.
She began with extreme care to roll up her knitting while she awaited
his further words; she did not look at him, but glanced about the
room, as if seeking some happy idea which she could clothe in the
right and most acceptable words.
"Does she expect me to be pleased?" Osborn asked.
"Well," said Mrs. Amber confidentially, "between you and me, she
doesn't; and that's why I offered to tell you, Osborn. She didn't like
"Poor girl," said Osborn soberly.
He stared in front of him, whistling softly. "Life's queer," he
uttered abruptly; "marriage seems so gay at the beginning, and
then - all these infernal complications. There's always things nibbling
at one; they never seem to stop. When you've weathered one squall
another gets up on top of the first...."
"There must be a great deal of give-and-take in marriage," began Mrs.
Amber. "I'm as old as both of you put together, and I assure you that
everyone has to make sacrifices, and try to do their duty cheerfully,
and welcome the children whom God sends them."
A little derision curled Osborn's lips.
"I'm afraid these mere platitudes are no solid help."
Mrs. Amber murmured protestingly, but, not knowing what a platitude
was, felt she could not follow up the subject. She rose and picked up
her coat from a chair back, and wrapped herself up to face the night.
"Tell Marie you're pleased," she coaxed.
"But she knows I'm not," said Osborn gloomily, "and neither will she
be. One child on our income is enough. It would be different if we had
plenty of money, but we haven't. Why, a family in this flat! This flat
with two bedrooms! Imagine it! When God sends these blessings, as you
infer He does, He should build rooms for 'em. _I_ can't."
"Oh, don't!" Mrs. Amber implored, "don't! I'm not superstitious,
but - " she looked around her and shuddered - "but you ought not to say
such things. It isn't right. People must make sacrifices."
"Don't say it all over again."
She went with her waddling gait, agitatedly, to the door.
"Good night," she said. "Be very, very kind to Marie, won't you?"
"I don't need anyone to tell me how to treat my own wife," he replied
"Oh, Osborn, don't be offended."
"I'm not offended," he said shortly. "Good night, and thanks for
staying in, and lighting the fire and all that."
He did not remain to watch her slow progress down the stone stairs,
but closed the door and went back to the fire. He pulled out his pipe,
filled and lighted it. There descended upon him that feeling of
hopeless exasperation which many a young man has felt in many such a
situation. When one married did one's liabilities never cease? Did
they never even remain stationary, allowing a man to settle his course
and keep to it, in spite of the boredom involved? Would life be always
just a constant ringing of the changes on paying the rent, paying the
instalment on the furniture, paying the doctor, paying the nurse,
paying to go for one anxious week to Littlehampton? Wasn't there some
All a man appeared able to do was to escape for furtive minutes from
his chains, to steal furtive shillings from his obligations and spend
A lot of men seemed to keep sane under the most unfavourable
When Osborn had sucked his pipe to the very last draw, he got up with
a heavy sigh, stretched himself, took the coal off the fire to effect
the minute saving, and went to undress. He wondered whether Marie
really was still awake.
She was, and she was lying wide-eyed and watchful for him. As he
opened the door cautiously he heard the rustle of her head moving on
the pillow, and then the movement of her whole body turning towards
him. Her anxiety filled the air with the sense of one poignant
question: "Do you know?"
In answer to her unspoken inquiry he went at once to her side, and
laid his hand upon her head, where the hair, smoothly parted for the
night, looked sleek and innocent like a little girl's.
"Your mother told me," he began; then he bent and kissed her. "I'm
awf'ly sorry. I s'pose we've got to make the best of it, old thing. I
will if you will. It's the very devil, isn't it?"
"Yes," she sighed.
The second baby came in the middle of a blazing summer, unheralded by
the hopes, by the buds and blossoms of loving thought, which had
opened upon the first child's advent. Marie was remorsefully tender
over it, but Osborn continued to be one long uninterrupted sigh. The
doctor and nurse seemed to him voracious, greedy creatures seeking for
his life-blood. His second child was born at midnight. He came in one
day at 6.30 with the fear in his heart men know round and about these
agitating times, and found that fear was justified. The nurse had
already been sent for, the doctor had looked in once, and the
grandmother, fierce and tearful, was putting the first baby to bed.
She put it to bed in Osborn's dressing-room, intimating that he would
be responsible for it during the night for the next three weeks,
He could not bear it. He went in and kissed the silent, stone-white
Marie, looked resentfully at George, answered his mother-in-law at
random, and hurried out again. He was shivering. He remembered too
well now that day which, too easily, he had forgotten.
He neither ate nor drank; he walked the Heath madly. He told himself
that not for hundreds of precious pounds would he wait in that flat,
wait for the sounds of anguish which would inevitably rise and echo
about those circumscribed walls. The July sun went down; the moon rose
up and found him still walking; still fearing and wondering.
He supposed he was a coward; he could not help it.
It was after twelve o'clock when at last he went home. He went because
he suddenly remembered they had left George in his charge, and while
there was little he could do for Marie, he could at least be faithful
to that trust. He came back shivering as he had gone out; and as he
fitted his latchkey with cold fingers into the lock he heard the
newborn infant's wail.
The nurse looked out into the corridor at the sound of his entrance;
she raised her finger, enjoining silence, and smiled. She was the same
nurse who had helped to usher baby George into the world, and who had
been so serenely certain that they would send for her again.
She vanished once more into Marie's room.
Osborn crept along the corridor and took off his boots; he was tired
out, but still he felt no hunger. Had he been hungry he would have
somehow thought it an act of criminal grossness to forage for food.
There was none to attend to him, for Mrs. Amber, having waited to
reassure herself of her daughter's safety, had been obliged to take
the last Tube train home since there was not room for her at the flat.
He was about to undress when the nurse came along the corridor and
tapped at his door.
He knew what she had come for. Once again, with that air of las√©
cheerfulness she summoned him to his wife's bedside, and once again he
stood there looking down upon Marie as she lay there, quiet and worn.
Her quietness was the most striking thing about her. She looked at him
steadily and remotely, as if he were a stranger, but with less
interest; there was even a little hostility about her regard. It
seemed a long while ago since he had fallen beside her bed and wept
with her over the catastrophic forces of Nature; they were both ages
older; as if a fog had drifted between them, their hearts were
obscured from each other. Generations and generations of battle, so
old as to be timeless, marked the ground between them.
He spoke hesitatingly, saying:
"How do you feel, dear?"
"I'm - glad it's over."
"You managed to escape?"
He looked at her hastily, a little red creeping over his pallid face.
She spoke almost as to a deserter. "I couldn't have done any good," he
She smiled and closed her eyes, as though against him. It was not a
natural smile, it drew her lips tight.
"What could I do?" he asked her pleadingly.
She opened her eyes again and looked at him in that remote and quiet
"Men are queer. If you had been suffering, I would never have run
He wanted to expostulate, to explain how different such a case would
be; how, as a matter of course, a wife's place was beside her husband
in good and ill, most particularly ill - but he did not find the heart
to do it. She looked so fatigued and was so deadly quiet. He felt at a
loss, and looked around vaguely till his eye lighted on the cot.
There, beneath the muslin and ribbon which had at last been crisply
laundered, lay a burden, now minute, but about to cling and grow like
an Old Man of the Sea.
"How's the baby?" he asked, tiptoeing to it.
"It's a girl," said Marie; "I expect you've been told."
He had not been told, having made no inquiry. Here again the
story-books which had informed him of romantic life in his very young
days had been at fault; they made such an idealised picture of all
that had just taken place, and they told about the joy in the heart of
a man and the ecstasy in the heart of a woman. Osborn looked down upon
a tiny, red and crumpled face.
"I expect she'll grow up as pretty as her mother," he said with an
effort, "but now she's - she's curious, isn't she?"
With what relief he hailed the return of the nurse? It was so late
that she was stern and cross and cold with him as she shut him out.
Little George awoke at the sounds, cautious though they were, of his
father's undressing, and, crying for mummie, could not be consoled
until lifted out, and wildly and clumsily petted and lied to, and
cajoled. Even then he did not trust this daddy who was such a stranger
in the house; who was only jolly by fits and starts when they all woke
up in the pink room in the mornings; who hid behind a paper at
breakfast, and who, going away in a hurry directly afterwards, only
returned after George was asleep, or simulating sleep under threat of
a slapping. The baby missed his mother's loving arms and cried
miserably, hunched uncomfortably in Osborn's. But at last he must
sleep through sheer drowsiness, and they both went to bed. In the
morning Osborn dressed him before he went away, and was called upon to
make himself generally useful, and made to memorise a string of
The nurse would have no nonsense. She demanded and he complied.
He cursed her within himself. What a pack!
During those days once more Desmond was good to him, sheltering him at
his club, inviting him to play golf, or to run out into the country
with him in his two-seater. Once they took George because the nurse
was so firmly decided that they should do so, and they stayed out past
his bedtime, and tired him out, and made him furious.
"It's a gay life!" said Osborn to Rokeby, "a gay life, what?"
Marie sent the nurse away at the end of three weeks, and tackled her
increased household alone. She was unable to nurse the baby, and the
doctor ordered it to be fed upon the patent food which George used to
have, so she was obliged to ask Osborn to increase the housekeeping
They discussed long and seriously the ways and means to the increase
and the amount of it. "Half a crown," was her reiteration; "on half a
crown I'd do it somehow."
And he asked: "Yes! But where's the half-crown to come from?"
"You must find it," she said at last.
With compressed lips and lowering brow the young man thought it out.
"I give you all I can - "
"And I take as little as I can."
"I'm sick of these discussions about money."
"It seems as if we were sick of the whole thing, doesn't it?"
Being a woman, she dared not confirm verbally those reckless words;
their very recklessness caused her to fear. If they _were_ sick
of the whole thing - well, what about it? What were they to do? They
were in it, weren't they, up to their necks? Of two people who
mutually recognised the plight, only one must foam and rage and
stutter out unpalatable truths about it; it was for the other to pour
on the oil, to deceive and pretend and propitiate and cajole, to try
to keep things running and the creaking machinery at work.
Because - what else remained to do?
But when Osborn rapped out: "It seems as if we were sick of the whole
thing, doesn't it?" though she would not confirm this in words, her
silence confirmed it, her silence and her look. They made him hesitate
and catch his breath.
"Well?" he asked.
"I'm not going to say such things."
"But you know they're true, don't you?" he asked in despair.
"You ought to think, as I do, that the babies are worth it all."
"When two people begin telling each other what they _ought_ to
do, they're reaching the limit."
"You've often told me what I ought to do."
"I don't know what's coming to women."
"Rubbish!" said Osborn. "Women have no power to revolt, and no reason
"It's true we've no power; that's what keeps most of us quiet."
"I wish it would keep you quiet."
"You see, I can't help it, can I? Keeping quiet doesn't ask you for
this other half-crown, and I've got to ask you. I can't help it."
"I daresay not," he admitted reluctantly. "But - "
"Can I have it?" she asked doggedly.
"Oh, take it!" he flared, flung half-a-crown on the table, rose, and
went out. She sat for a while looking at the half-crown, then she took
it in her hand, and wanted to pitch it into the street for the first
beggar to profit by, but, remembering that she was a beggar too, she
Osborn entered into further discussion of the matter in a reasonable
"Half-a-crown a week's six pound ten a year. Sure you can't manage
"How do you mean?"
"Well, lots of women have to - to - manage."
"There's a limit even to management."
"I suppose there is. Very well."
"You mean I'm to have it?"
"Thank you very much, dear," said Marie very slowly after a while.
"You don't seem in a particular hurry to say it."
"Why should I say it?"
"What! when I've just arranged to give you six pound ten - "
"To feed your daughter."
"Oh, well - "
"Anyway, I _have_ said it. I've said 'Thank you very much,'
haven't I? Do you want me to show more gratitude?"
"It beats me to think what's come over women."
They sat on either side of their hearth looking at one another in
"If you cared to let me make out a budget, Osborn," she said suddenly,
"I think we could arrange it all better. So much for everything, you
"Oh, yes, I know! I know all about it, thanks! If you want to dole out
my pocket-money, my dear, I'm off.... I'm completely off it! No, thank
you. I'll keep my hands on my own income."
"I only meant - "
"Women never seem satisfied," said Osborn wrathfully.
As he looked at her sitting there, thin and fair and reserved as she
never used to be, with the sheen of her glossy hair almost vanished,
and all of her pretty insouciance gone, he saw no more the gay girl,
the wifely comrade, whom he had married. In her place sat the
immemorial hag, the married man's bane, the blood-sucker, the enemy,
She had taken from him a sum equivalent to twice his weekly
The sacrifice of _all_ his tobacco would not provide for that red
and crumpled baby lying in its fine basket. He took that as a
comparison, with no intention of sacrificing his tobacco; but it just
gave one the figures involved.
As if feeling through her reserve the gist of his thoughts, she
"Poor old Osborn!" she said.
"You can stretch an income, and stretch it," said Osborn, "but it
isn't eternally elastic, you know."
"_Don't_ I know it!"
"Well, all I ask you to do," said Osborn, "is to remember it."
Then life went round as before, except that a great anxiety as to
meeting the weekly bills fell upon Marie. Sometimes they were a
shilling up and sometimes a shilling down. The day when the greasy
books fell through the letter-box into the hall was a day to add a
grey hair to the brightest head.
With two babies to dress, she rose earlier; she swept and dusted and
cooked quicker; she sent Osborn off to his work as punctually as
before; she wheeled two infants instead of one out in the grey
perambulator to the open-air market. And there her bargaining became
sharp, thin and shrewish. She fought the merchants smartly, and
sometimes she won and sometimes they. During the day Grannie Amber
usually came in and lent a hand about the babies' bedtime. At 6.30
Osborn came home, a little peevish until after dinner. After dinner he
went out again if the new baby cried or if anything went wrong. Once a
quarter the demand for the rent came upon him like a fresh blow; once
a month he paid the furniture instalment; once a week he gave up, like
life-blood, thirty-two and sixpence to her whose palm was always
"It's a gay life!" he often said with a twisted smile, "A gay life,
Grannie Amber was afraid - she did not know exactly why - that, the year
following the second baby's arrival, Osborn would forget Marie's
birthday, and she was anxious that it should not be forgotten. Though
she herself had, early in her married life, grown tired and quiet, had
early learned to bargain shrewishly with the merchants of the cheaper
foods and, after the first three years, had always had her birthdays
forgotten; though she had been perfectly willing and ready to urge her
daughter into the life domestic, upon a small income, yet regrets took
her and sighs, all of perfect resignation, when she saw the darkness
under Marie's eyes, when she stood by in the market and heard her hard
chaffering, when she noted the worried crinkles come to stay in her
brow. So that, resolving that Osborn should not forget, natural as it
would have been for him, in her judgment, to do so, she trailed his
wife's birthday across his path a fortnight before the actual day,
wishing in her thoughtfulness to give him the chance to save from two
weeks' salary for some gift.
She sewed in his presence and, as she sewed, entered into a full
explanation of her work: "This little skirt, Osborn, is for Marie's
birthday. I hope I'll get it done in time; there's only a fortnight,
as you know."
He did not know; the fact had slipped his memory in the ceaseless
dream of other liabilities due; but as he looked at Grannie Amber, and
the purple silk petticoat which she was finely sewing, he assumed a
perfect memory of the occasion.
He answered: "I was just going to ask Marie what she'd like for it."
"There are a lot of things she'd like," Mrs. Amber began.
That same evening, when Grannie Amber had rolled up the purple
petticoat into her workbag and departed, he asked Marie, as they sat
together over the fire:
"What would you like for your birthday, my dear?"
A great pleasure shone in her face as she gazed at him.
"Osborn," she stammered, "can you afford to give me a present at all?"
"I should hope so," he replied.
An eagerness, which he had not seen there for a long while, invaded
her face; it was an eagerness of pleasure at his remembrance, at his
wish to be kind and to give her happiness. About the gift she was not
so precious; she hoped it would be small, and she said, almost
"I'd rather you chose, dear."
"I'd been thinking," said Osborn, who had thought of it during dinner,
"that you might like to be taken out. How would that do for a present?
Of course I'd like to do both - to take you out _and_ give you a
swagger gift - but we know it can't be done, don't we?"
"Of course. Of course, my dear."
"You'd like to go out to dinner? And perhaps we could go somewhere
"The dinner will be enough, Osborn. Oh! it will be lovely!"
"Righto!" he said. "I - I do wish I could take you out oftener, but you
know - "
"Of course I know, Osborn."
She thought with excitement of the charming few hours which they would
snatch from routine, together, a fortnight hence. She spoke of it to
Mrs. Amber, carelessly, with a high-beating heart and secret,
delicious thrills: "We're dining out on my birthday, mother, if you
won't mind spending the evening here in case the children wake."
"Oh, duck!" cried Mrs. Amber, "oh, my love! I'll be delighted. Mind
you enjoy yourselves very much and don't hurry home. Grandmothers are
made to be useful."
Nearly every spare minute of every day during those intervening weeks
Marie spent in renovating a frock. She had vast ideas, but no money
except a few shillings hoarded only a woman knows how, in spite of the
pressing claims of the greasy books. Her wedding frock, four years
old, emerged from the tissue paper where it had lain these many
months, yellowed and soiled, in dire need of the cleaner's
ministrations or the dyer's art. Marie could not afford the cleaner,
and did not dare the wash-tub and soap, but she bought one of those
fourpenny-ha'penny dyes with which impecunious women achieve amazing
results, wherewith she dyed the frock, and the bath, and her own hands
a shade of blue satisfactory at least by artificial light. Under it
she would wear the purple petticoat, whose flounces would cause the