- chapter: A SPIRIT OF MIRTH CHAPTER I NEW YEAR'S EVE
|chapter 2 >||chapter 33 >>|
In Heav'n yclep'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth."
A SPIRIT OF MIRTH
NEW YEAR'S EVE
WITHOUT, a cold, biting, wintry wind, which seemed to hurry up and down the narrow street as if it were imprisoned between the houses.
Within, the warm, close atmosphere of a house in which several fires were burning and no windows open.
Without, the fitful gleam of a hazy moon, drifting through grey clouds, and the glimmer of the street lamps, like smaller moons dropped on earth.
Within, a steady glow from the hearth on the ground floor, a twinkle of a smaller fire in the room above, and the tiny winking light of a lowered gas-jet at the top.
Without, the sound of the sighing wind and the flick of rain against the windows.
Within, an occasional burst of talk from the kitchen in the basement, when the door was opened on the dark staircase, and the unending jingle-jangle-thump-thump-thump of somebody playing on an old piano.
It was an ordinary, dull, shabby house in Airy Street, turning off Edgware Road. Rarely was a street so misnamed. All the cold winds, fogs and smells of the neighbourhood seemed to drift into Airy Street, but fresh air itself was strangely absent.
Mrs Simmons said that the street was "an extree-ordinary place for smuts," and it gave that impression to strangers. The houses looked smutty; smuts gathered, like moths, round the gas-lamps, and even when the
2 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHpillar-post was repainted every year its vivid scarlet was spoilt in a day with big, clinging smuts.
It was a street of lodgings; every house had its little card of Furnished Apartments displayed in the ground-floor window or in the dingy half circle of glass over the front door. There were trades and professions of all descriptions represented, from the round red lamp of a doctor's surgery at one end of the street to the rickety square one, painted with the two words, "Chimney Sweep," at the other.
There were several dressmakers, two piano-tuners, a professor of the violin and banjo, a photographer, who was never known to have any sitters; a metal-worker, who had enraged the postman by substituting for the number of his house the words " Ye Denne "on a small copper plate; an outfitter, a watchmaker, an insurance agent, and any number of music teachers.
Many of the houses were simply adorned with the name of the owner on a brass plate, his lodgers having to content themselves with much smaller plates fixed over their respective bells.
This was the case at No. 77, where the single word "Simmons," nearly worn away, was to be seen on an old plate over the knob in the centre of the door. A caller, unknown to Simmons, rightly came to the conclusion that the knocker above was reserved for the master of the house, as the three small bells were each appropriated by other people. On the bottom one was a well-polished little plate showing the name "Miss Sapio"; over the next the two words " Dovey, Cornet"; and over the third the somewhat puzzling inscription, "Eddy Moore, the Human Eel."
Mr and Mrs Simmons occupied the basement and ground floor. Miss Sapio, who was a professional lady earning a fair salary, was an ideal lodger for the drawing-room suite. Mr and Mrs Dovey could just manage to hang on, as it were, by the skin of their teeth, to the two
3 NEW YEAR'S EVErooms above. Mr Eddy Moore, or the Human Eel, was in sole possession of the top set, consisting of a small sitting-room, a bedroom behind it, and an attic, or box-room, with one tiny pane of glass looking out upon the upper windows and crowded chimneys of the neighbouring houses.
On this particular night, when the wind rushed backwards and forwards in Airy Street whining to escape, and the jingle-jangle-thump-thump-thump of Mr Simmons's piano had been going from nine o'clock till nearly midnight, Mr Eddy Moore's apartments were absolutely silent and nearly dark.
The fire in his sitting-room had died away, but his supper was neatly arranged on the one small table; bread and cheese, an old decanter holding a small quantity of brandy, a bottle of soda-water, a mince-pie, and two slices of cold plum pudding.
There was a bunch of holly in a small vase placed in the centre of the table. His tobacco jar, with a canary on top of the lid, its yellow china plumage dulled by age, was ready to his hand on the mantelpiece, with his pipe and a box of matches. His old brown slippers had been placed to warm inside the fender before the fire went out.
The gas was turned as low as possible. The second room—his bedroom—was in darkness. A thin shaft of light crept under the partially closed door of the attic.
Such a tiny shaft of light! It was almost too feeble to be seen at first, failing to throw any brightness on the gloomy walls; but weary feet, climbing the stairs, would instantly have trodden into the faint path it made across the floor. Tired eyes, thus attracted, would have instinctively turned towards the nearly closed door. Any human being, if only for an idle minute, would have wondered what was to be seen within the room—a student, bending over his books and working late into the last hours of the dying year; or a woman, watching the bedside of one who suffered; or a beggarly miser, counting his silver and pence with untiring greed?
4 A SPIRIT OF MIRTH
None of these things were to be seen within the room. It was bare and curtainless; the old green blind, being a little small even for the tiny pane, was framed in a narrow strip of grey light from without; the gas jet was turned almost as low as in the sitting-room; there were the shadowy outlines of several pieces of furniture—a chair, a little chest of drawers with a fixed looking-glass on top, a jug and basin on an equally diminutive washing-stand—and, facing the window, under the slope of the roof, a bedstead with knobs at each corner. The knobs looked big and black and seemed to sway about in the darkness, for they happened to stand out against the frame of the window.
On the bed was a big coverlet of black-and-white check, well tucked in, and over the tidy line of white sheet at the top was the dark shape of a head, indefinite and misty in its tangled hair.
This was Euphrosyne, wide awake.
She was lying on her back, but her knees were drawn up so that she could grasp her small feet in her hands, or vigorously rub them. A man's coat, thrown over the bed, added weight, without warmth, to the blankets and coverlet. Had she stretched to her full length there would still have been a great expanse of cold sheet beyond. She often crept into the bottom of the bed and lay there, curled up like a kitten—it was a favourite trick of hers—but on this particular night she decided, after thinking it over, that the task was too chilly to be accomplished.
Her chin pressed the bedclothes snugly against her neck, and her eyes roved slowly from object to object in the dim light. She was not in the least afraid of being alone, for her fancy filled the room with quaint companions. She saw "Florence" sitting on the one chair, dressed in white, while "Count-Countess" knelt at her feet in shining armour.
5 NEW YEAR'S EVEEuphrosyne told to herself, "Florence" being her favourite name, and "Count-Countess" an invention of her own as none of the men's names she knew sounded grand enough for a knight. The conversation between this imaginary couple, with which Euphrosyne was amusing herself at this minute, was always of a meandering, vague description, with many repetitions of "No, fair lady," and "Yes, brave knight."
From the chair she looked at the wash-stand, and recognised another favourite of fancy perched on the edge of the ewer, no other than "Winkey," a pet oyster, whom she saw in the shape of a big shell supported on tiny legs. "Winkey" began to talk, in the voice of the little girl, with "Biddy," an imaginary chicken. They resembled "Florence" and "Count-Countess" in the habit of unending, desultory conversation. "Winkey," her favourite, frequently indulged in a chuckle, while "Biddy "occasionally gave vent to a soft, but cheery, clucking.
Then she looked at the green blind and pictured a hundred faces in its creases and lines. She could see dogs and cats and people, even little groups of houses and bunches of flowers. The softest curtains of silk or lawn would have failed to interest Euphrosyne as much as the old, green linen blind.
She listened indifferently to the distant jingling of the piano till it ceased. Then she heard Miss Sapio's voice, shrill and hilarious, bidding good-night to somebody whom she called "Duckie," followed by the banging of doors.
Euphrosyne had rubbed her toes into a delicious tingle of warmth. Her eyelids drooped. "Florence" and "Count-Countess "grew indistinct. "Biddy" and "Winkey," obedient darlings of a daydream, left off chattering. She was slipping, slipping into sleep.
6 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHit with half-unconscious interest. A long, straight shadow fell on the opposite wall, and a figure, so tall that it had to stoop in entering, stepped to her side. It bent over her, stealthily, eagerly, holding its breath.
Euphrosyne leapt up in her bed.
"My daddy!" she cried, "my daddy!"
The tall figure, stooping to enable her little arms to clasp his neck, looked almost as if he had snapped in half, bending from the waist at such a sharp angle.
"I've been awake all the night," said the child, with pardonable exaggeration. "I've been waiting to have my supper with you. Take me up, daddy."
"Well—as it's New Year's Eve," answered the tall man.
He got her little winter jacket from the cupboard, while she pulled on her stockings and shoes, and, wrapping her also in the coat thrown across the bed, carried her into the sitting-room. She clutched him round the neck, and laughed, and bobbed up and down in his arms.
He put her down in the one easy chair—an old, comfortable, battered easy chair—turned up the gas, and, fetching some sticks and waste paper from a closet at the top of the stairs, quickly kindled a fire.
The embers were still hot. Then he wiped his hands on the lining of his long overcoat, unwound the muffler about his neck and sat down, opposite to the child, to change his boots.
Eddy Moore, the Human Eel, was a most peculiar-looking man; over six feet in height, well knit, but appallingly thin; colourless, with close-cropped, light brown hair; big, blue eyes, and small, delicate features. His face was cadaverous, and his bones—the sharp knees, the pointed elbows, the lean shoulders—looked as if they would cut through the cloth of his clothes, but there was at the same time a certain curving, indescribable grace in all his movements.
7 NEW YEAR'S EVEhe looked for any length of time at the child, then his whole face changed and softened and he became young—in an ordinary way he might have been taken for any age from twenty-five to fifty—while his blue eyes, usually vacant and sad, filled with the pleasure and pride of deep, unselfish tenderness.
Eddy Moore earned his living as a contortionist. He was engaged for the pantomime season at Drury Lane Theatre, but worked during the remainder of the year with a party of acrobatic comedians in the smaller music halls in London and the provinces. An exception from the general rule, he looked on his profession as a Human Eel with mingled satisfaction and distaste; he was proud of his actual work, but the ordinary interests of the music-hall man did not appeal to him. Temperate, intelligent, dedicated from childhood to exacting, daily physical labour, there were many undeveloped qualities and possibilities in this grotesque, silent, unlettered man.
His life had been opened and wonderfully illuminated, for three short years, by marriage with a woman who was his superior in every way, but who loved him with all the loyalty and strength of her nature. A stage-struck girl when first they met—well born, well educated, wilful, independent—Euphrosyne's mother had cut herself adrift from all her friends, shipwrecked, drowned, in the opinion of her own social world, by marrying a man who was simply an acrobat, a buffoon, the chance acquaintance of a miserable engagement in a provincial pantomime.
Had she repented of her hasty step, and the poor Human Eel proved himself the dark scoundrel her people foretold, there would probably have ensued a reconciliation with outraged uncles and aunts, but as it was, she lived and died without regret, and her people never forgave her husband for making her happy in his own way. He added to his iniquities, quite unconsciously, by ignoring his wife's family and showing no desire or intention of deserting his little daughter, whose uncommon name,
8 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHEuphrosyne, had been her mother's before her. The spelling of the word, although mastered by Eddy when he was married, had caused him trouble in the brief days of his courtship. He confused its pronunciation with Auld Lang Syne—Eu-phro-syne—and spelt it with an amazing superfluity of letters.
Sitting opposite to him now, the child's small face sparkled and gleamed with pleasure. She watched his every movement, now and again bumping up and down in her seat with her hands on the arms of the chair, unable to keep still. He asked her questions as he pulled the table closer to the fire, and got another plate, spoon and fork from the cupboard.
"Did Mrs Simmons put you to bed, Phose?"
"No, daddy!" with a vigorous shaking of her head.
"Why not?" asked her father, with a look of mild surprise and disapproval.
"Didn't come upstairs at all, daddy."
"Then who set the table for my supper?"
"Did you turn down the gas yourself, dearie?"
"Yes, standing on a chair."
"Well, I hope you were very careful, Phose, not to get yourself on fire," said Eddy Moore.
"I didn't never get myself on fire, daddy."
The Human Eel shook his head gravely. All Mrs Simmons's stories of little girls being burnt to cinders if they went near the gas had failed to frighten Phosie. Had her father ordered her not to climb on chairs to lower the lights he knew she would have obeyed him, but he never definitely told her to do, or not to do, anything. He warned her of possible dangers and trusted to her commonsense. This was not weakness on his part, but an innate reliance on her character.
Eddy emptied the pockets of his overcoat—sweets, oranges, nuts, a tin of sardines, and a box of glistening crystallized cherries.
9 NEW YEAR'S EVE
"Come along, Phosie, we'll eat our last supper in the Old Year," said the man, pushing her chair to the table. "I shall never have you sitting up so late as this again, you understand, never!"
Having asserted his parental authority—said the proper thing—Eddy Moore gave himself up to enjoyment. He devoured bread and cheese and sardines with the hunger of a man who has fasted long, but the child ate daintily, picking each cherry out of the box with delicate, deliberate fingers, and refusing both the pale plum pudding and the heavy mince pie, gifts from their landlady, Mrs Simmons.
"You must come to see the Panto later on, Phose," said her father, as he sipped his brandy-and-soda.
"I only want to see you, daddy," she answered. "But I wish you were a skeleton this year. I like skeletons better than eels. Skeletons' ribs are so funny. I used to count 'em. Eels haven't got any ribs."
"Of course skeletons are more natural and nicer for children to see," agreed Eddy. "But it gives you fine opportunities when you're an eel. It's pretty work, mine is, but it's hard, Phosie. It wears a man out. He can never do anything else.'
He pushed away his unemptied glass and turned towards the fire, locking his bony hands between his knees and staring into it. He often forgot the shortness and inexperience of the eight years of life which Euphrosyne had left behind, and talked to her as if she were a woman.
"When a boy is apprenticed, like I was, when he's only nine years old, and then goes all through the hoop—learns everything you can learn in the business—sometimes he gets to wondering whether it was worth while. He can never take a holiday, it would stiffen him up, for he's got to keep himself loose whatever happens. He never does anything fresh, he can't make much money, and what do people think of him? Nothing! Just nothing!"
10 A SPIRIT OF MIRTH
The little girl, slipping out of her chair, went on to his knee and nestled in his arms. She did not understand why he should suddenly look so sad, but she pressed her round cheek against his cadaverous face in silent sympathy.
"It's for your sake, Phosie, that I wish I belonged to some other business. I wish I was a parson, or a chemist, or a judge, or something respectable of that sort! " continued poor Eddy. "I feel I can't do the best for you. Now, if your mother had been spared—!"
He gathered the child up in his arms and carried her across the room to where a portrait hung of his dead wife. It was an old-fashioned photograph, taken on the beach at a seaside place where they had spent their honeymoon. It showed a slight, girlish figure in a frock with tight sleeves and little flounces round the skirt. She held her hat in her hand, and her thick, wavy hair was blown back from her face; it was a frank, laughing face, with straight features, a big mouth, and a very decided, square chin.
As Eddy Moore looked at it a misty light stole into his mild blue eyes. He held the child a little closer, her face still pressed against his.
"She was very pretty and cheerful," he said softly, half to himself. "She was very fond of me."
He pondered a while in his slow way, then he looked at the child.
"We wanted to have you, Phosie, but now—as it's turned out—what are you smiling about, my darling? What have I said?"
"I was smiling before," said Phosie, apologetically.
"What about?" asked her father, smiling too.
"I don't know. I just felt happy, daddy."
She held up her finger and turned her head towards the window, her soft tangle of pale brown hair sweeping across his face.
"Listen!" she said. "I can hear the bells! Listen! Do you hear them?"
He shook his head.
11 NEW YEAR'S EVE
"Not yet, Phosie."
They did not move or speak for several seconds.
"I can hear them now!" exclaimed Eddy.
"It's the New Year!" cried Phosie. "It's the New Year, and it's my birthday! It's my birthday, daddy!"
She was born on New Year's Day. Her father, for the moment, had forgotten it. He carried her to the window, raised the blind, and they looked out.
The rain had ceased and the sky was flooded with the light of the moon, breaking through hills of cloud, while the strong wind murmured in the distance, farther and farther away. The street was empty. The sound of bells clashed and pealed and echoed in the stillness of night.
Eddy and the child listened in silence. He pressed the small fingers that twined round his hand against his lips.
His thoughts were in the past. He stood alone looking out into such another night, listening—listening—to the strange sounds in his wife's room near by, torn with fear and helplessness, unmanned, at his worst and his best in the agony of love and dread. He seemed to hear once more the weak, aimless, probing cry of the new-born child, and to feel the painful, struggling sob in his own throat.
Euphrosyne looked at him wonderingly. His strange expression, as these vital minutes lived again in his memory, puzzled her. She recalled him to the present by slipping out of his arms and beginning to dance about the room, holding out the skirt of her coat to show the gay, striped pink nightdress underneath.
"Dance! Dance, daddy!" she cried.
Eddy Moore hummed a tune and emphasized the time by snapping his bony fingers as smartly as castanets. Phosie capered and kicked, dipped and whirled. They often danced together, not waltzes or polkas or other foolish checks to the inspiration of mirth, but wild, individual, original movements.
12 A SPIRIT OF MIRTH
Her father, whose long legs looked like a pair of mad, animated compasses, danced with the peculiar boneless agility of the trained contortionist. Sometimes he stooped forward to the ground and ran for a dozen steps, his feet apparently chasing his hands; then he would bend backwards till his head rested in the small of his back; once or twice, by way of a change, he would "hop the frog"—as acrobats call it—which means that he would suddenly lie down on his chest and curve his body upward and forward until his toes were locked round his own neck, when he would proceed to jump about on his hands; now and again, at Phosie's order, he would "shoulder his leg," in other words, lift his foot slowly in a straight line over his head. His face, the whole time, never lost its solemn expression.
At the end of the dance, suddenly stooping over the little girl, he swung her from side to side of the room in leaps of frenzied delight.
Her little feet hardly touched the ground; her hair flew out in a tangled mist; her lips were open with panting joy; her arms were outspread like the wings of a bird.
She seemed to fly.
Then, sinking down in the old chair by the fire, he soothed her to sleep with untiring patience. Slowly the quivering little form grew still, the bright eyes became dreamy, the hand loosened its clutch at his coat sleeve, and the laughing mouth curved into repose.
He carried her into the attic, drew off the coat and the shoes and stockings, and tucked her into her bed. Then he stooped, kissed her hair, turned out the light, and softly crept out of the room.
Thus, with laugh and dance and quiet sleep, the lonely man and his happy child opened a New Year.
|chapter 2 >||chapter 33 >>|