The Tight Hand by Arnold Bennett
The tight hand was Mrs Garlick's. A miser, she was not the ordinary miser, being exceptional in the fact that her temperament was joyous. She had reached the thirtieth year of her widowhood and the sixtieth of her age, with cheerfulness unimpaired. The people of Bursley, when they met her sometimes of a morning coming down into the town from her singular house up at Toft End, would be conscious of pleasure in her brisk gait, her slightly malicious but broad-minded smile, and her cheerful greeting. She was always in black. She always wore one of those nodding black bonnets which possess neither back nor front, nor any clue of any kind to their ancient mystery. She always wore a mantle which hid her waist and spread forth in curves over her hips; and as her skirts stuck stiffly out, she thus had the appearance of one who had been to sleep since 1870, and who had got up, thoroughly refreshed and bright, into the costume of her original period. She always carried a reticule. It was known that she suffered from dyspepsia, and this gave real value to her reputation for cheerfulness.
Her nearness, closeness, stinginess, close-fistedness--as the quality was variously called--was excused to her, partly because it had been at first caused by a genuine need of severe economy (she having been "left poorly off" by a husband who had lived "in a large way"), partly because it inconvenienced nobody save perhaps her servant Maria, and partly because it was so picturesque and afforded much excellent material for gossip. Mrs Garlick's latest feat of stinginess was invariably a safe card to play in the conversational game. Each successive feat was regarded as funnier than the one before it.
Maria, who had a terrific respect for appearances, never disclosed her mistress's peculiarities. It was Mrs Garlick herself who humorously ventilated and discussed them; Mrs Garlick, being a philosopher, got quite as much amusement as anyone out of her most striking quality.
"Is there anything interesting in the Signal to-night?" she had innocently asked one of her sons.
"No," said Sam Garlick, unthinkingly.
"Well, then," said she, "suppose I turn out the gas and we talk in the dark?"
Soon afterwards Sam Garlick married; his mother remarked drily that she was not surprised.
It was supposed that this feat of turning out the gas when the Signal happened to fail in interest would remain unparalleled in the annals of Five Towns skin-flintry. But in the summer after her son's marriage, Mrs Garlick was discovered in the evening habit of pacing slowly up and down Toft Lane. She said that she hated sitting in the dark alone, that Maria would not have her in the kitchen, and that she saw no objection to making harmless use of the Corporation gas by strolling to and fro under the Corporation gas-lamps on fine nights. Compared to this feat the previous feat was as naught. It made Mrs Garlick celebrated even as far as Longshaw. It made the entire community proud of such an inventive miser.
Once Mrs Garlick, before what she called her dinner, asked Maria, "Will there be enough mutton for to-morrow?" And Maria had gloomily and firmly said, "No." "Will there be enough if I don't have any to-day?" pursued Mrs Garlick. And Maria had said, "Yes." "I won't have any then," said Mrs Garlick. Maria was offended; there are some things that a servant will not stand. She informed Mrs Garlick that if Mrs Garlick meant "to go on going on like that" she should leave; she wouldn't stay in such a house. In vain Mrs Garlick protested that the less she ate the better she felt; in vain she referred to her notorious indigestion. "Either you eats your dinner, mum, or out I clears!" Mrs Garlick offered her a rise of L1 a year to stay. She was already, because she would stop and most servants wouldn't, receiving L18, a high wage. She refused the increment. Pushed by her passion for economy in mutton, Mrs Garlick then offered her a rise of L2 a year. Maria accepted, and Mrs Garlick went without mutton. Persons unacquainted with the psychology of parsimoniousness may hesitate to credit this incident. But more advanced students of humanity will believe it without difficulty. In the Five Towns it is known to be true.
The supreme crisis, to which the foregoing is a mere prelude, in the affairs of Mrs Garlick and Maria, was occasioned by the extraordinary performances of the Mayor of Bursley. This particular mayor was invested with the chain almost immediately upon the conclusion of a great series of revival services in which he had conspicuously figured. He had an earthenware manufactory half-way up the hill between Bursley and its loftiest suburb, Toft End, and the smoke of his chimneys and kilns was generally blown by a favourable wind against the windows of Mrs Garlick's house, which stood by itself. Mrs Garlick made nothing of this. In the Five Towns they think no more of smoke than the world at large used to think of small-pox. The smoke plague is exactly as curable as the small-pox plague. It continues to flourish, not because smokiness is cheaper than cleanliness--it is dearer--but because a greater nuisance than smoke is the nuisance of a change, and because human nature in general is rather like Mrs Garlick: its notion of economy is to pay heavily for the privilege of depriving itself of something--mutton or cleanliness.
However, this mayor was different. He had emerged from the revival services with a very tender conscience, and in assuming the chain of office he assumed the duty of setting an example. It was to be no excuse to him that in spite of bye-laws ten thousand other chimneys and kilns were breathing out black filth all over the Five Towns. So far as he could cure it the smoke nuisance had to be cured, or his conscience would know the reason why! So he sat on the borough bench and fined himself for his own smoke, and then he installed gas ovens. The town laughed, of course, and spoke of him alternately as a rash fool, a hypocrite, and a mere pompous ass. In a few months smoke had practically ceased to ascend from the mayoral manufactory. The financial result to the mayor was such as to encourage the tenderness of consciences. But that is not the point. The point is that Mrs Garlick, re-entering her house one autumn morning after a visit to the market, paused to look at the windows, and then said to Maria:
"Maria, what have you to do this afternoon?"
Now Mrs Garlick well knew what Maria had to do.
"I'm going to change the curtains, mum."
"Well, you needn't," said Mrs Garlick. "It's made such a difference up here, there being so much less smoke, that upon my word the curtains will do another three months quite well!"
"Well, mum, I never did!" observed Maria, meaning that so shocking a proposal was unprecedented in her experience. Yet she was thirty-five.
"Quite well!" said Mrs Garlick, gaily.
Maria said no more. But in the afternoon Mrs Garlick, hearing sounds in the drawing-room, went into the drawing-room and discovered Maria balanced on a pair of steps and unhooking lace curtains.
"Maria," said she, "what are you doing?"
Maria answered as busy workers usually do answer unnecessary questions from idlers.
"I should ha' thought you could see, mum," she said tartly, insolently, inexcusably.
One curtain was already down.
"Put that curtain back," Mrs Garlick commanded.
"I shall put no curtain back!" said Maria, grimly; her excited respiration shook the steps. "All to save the washing of four pair o' curtains! And you know you beat the washerwoman down to tenpence a pair last March! Three and fo'pence, that is! For the sake o' three and fo'pence you're willing for all Toft End to point their finger at these 'ere windows."
"Put that curtain back," Mrs Garlick repeated haughtily.
She saw that she had touched Maria in a delicate spot--her worship of appearances. The mutton was simply nothing to these curtains. Nevertheless, as there seemed to be some uncertainty in Maria's mind as to who was the mistress of the house, Mrs Garlick's business was to dispel that uncertainty. It may be said without exaggeration that she succeeded in dispelling it. But she did not succeed in compelling Maria to re-hang the curtain. Maria had as much force of character as Mrs Garlick herself. The end of the scene, whose details are not sufficiently edifying to be recounted, was that Maria went upstairs to pack her box, and Mrs Garlick personally re-hung the curtain. One's dignity is commonly an expensive trifle, and Mrs Garlick's dignity was expensive. To avoid prolonging the scene she paid Maria a month's wages in lieu of notice--L1, 13s, 4d. Then she showed her the door. Doubtless (Mrs Garlick meditated) the girl thought she would get another rise of wages. If so, she was finely mistaken. A nice thing if the servant is to decide when curtains are to go to the wash! She would soon learn, when she went into another situation, what an easy, luxurious place she had lost by her own stupid folly! Three and fourpences might be picked up in the street, eh? And so on.
After Maria's stormy departure Mrs Garlick regained her sense of humour and her cheerfulness; but the inconveniences of being without Maria were important.
On the second day following, Mrs Garlick received a letter from "young Lawton," the solicitor. Young Lawton, aged over forty, was not so-called because in the Five Towns youthfulness is supposed to extend to the confines of forty-five, but because he had succeeded his father, known as "old Lawton"; it is true that the latter had been dead many years. The Five Towns, however, is not a country of change. This letter pointed out that Maria's wages were not L1, 13s. 4d. a month, but L1, 13s. 4d. a month plus her board and lodging, and that consequently, in lieu of a month's notice, Maria demanded L1, 13s. 4d. plus the value of a month's keep.
There was more in this letter than met the eye of Mrs Garlick. Young Lawton's offices were cleaned by a certain old woman; this old woman had a nephew; this nephew was a warehouseman at the Mayor's works, and lived up in Toft End, and at least twice every day he passed by Mrs Garlick's house. He was a respectful worshipper of Maria's, and it had been exclusively on his account that Maria had insisted on changing the historic curtains. Nobody else of the slightest importance ever passed in front of the house, for important people have long since ceased to live at Toft End. The subtle flattering of an unspoken love had impelled Maria to leave her situation rather than countenance soiled curtains. She could not bear that the warehouseman should suspect her of tolerating even the semblances of dirt. She had permitted the warehouseman to hear the facts of her departure from Mrs Garlick's. The warehouseman was nobly indignant, advising an action for assault and battery. Through his aunt's legal relations Maria had been brought into contact with the law, and, while putting aside as inadvisable an action for assault and battery, the lawyer had counselled a just demand for more money. Hence the letter.
Mrs Garlick called at Lawton's office, and, Mr Lawton being out, she told an office-boy to tell him with her compliments that she should not pay.
Then the County Court bailiff paid her a visit, and left with her a blue summons for L2, 8s., being four weeks of twelve shillings each.
Many house-mistresses in Bursley sympathized with Mrs Garlick when she fought this monstrous claim. She fought it gaily, with the aid of a solicitor. She might have won it, if the County Court Judge had not happened to be in one of his peculiar moods--one of those moods in which he felt himself bound to be original at all costs. He delivered a judgment sympathizing with domestic servants in general, and with Maria in particular. It was a lively trial. That night the Signal was very interesting. When Mrs Garlick had finished with the action she had two and threepence change out of a five-pound note.
Moreover, she was forced to employ a charwoman--a charwoman who had made a fine art of breaking china, of losing silver teaspoons down sinks, and of going home of a night with vast pockets full of things that belonged to her by only nine-tenths of the law. The charwoman ended by tumbling through a window, smashing panes to the extent of seventeen and elevenpence, and irreparably ripping one of the historic curtains.
Mrs Garlick then dismissed the charwoman, and sat down to count the cost of small economics. The privilege of half-dirty curtains had involved her in an expense of L9, 19s., (call it L10). It was in the afternoon. The figure of Maria crossed the recently-repaired window. Without a second's thought Mrs Garlick rushed out of the house.
"Maria!" she cried abruptly--with grim humour. "Come here. Come right inside."
Maria stopped, then obeyed.
"Do you know how much you've let me in for, with your wicked, disobedient temper?"
"I'd have you know, mum--" Maria retorted, putting her hands on the hips and forwarding her face.
Their previous scene together was as nothing to this one in sound and fury. But the close was peace. The next day half Bursley knew that Maria had gone back to Mrs Garlick, and there was a facetious note about the episode in the "Day by Day" column of the Signal. The truth was that Maria and Mrs Garlick were "made for each other." Maria would not look at the ordinary "place." The curtains, as much as remained, were sent to the wash, but as three months had elapsed the mistress reckoned that she had won. Still, the cleansing of the curtains had run up to appreciably more than a sovereign per curtain.
The warehouseman did not ask for Maria's hand. The stridency of her behaviour in court had frightened him.
Mrs Garlick's chief hobby continues to be the small economy. Happily, owing to a rise in the value of a land and a fortunate investment, she is in fairly well-to-do circumstances.
As she said one day to an acquaintance, "It's a good thing I can afford to keep a tight hand on things."