The Widow of the Balcony by Arnold Bennett
They stood at the window of her boudoir in the new house which Stephen Cheswardine had recently bought at Sneyd. The stars were pursuing their orbits overhead in a clear dark velvet sky, except to the north, where the industrial fires and smoke of the Five Towns had completely put them out. But even these distant signs of rude labour had a romantic aspect, and did not impair the general romance of the scene. Charlie had loved her; he loved her still; and she gave him odd minutes of herself when she could, just to keep him alive. Moreover, there was the log fire richly crackling in the well-grate of the boudoir; there was the feminineness of the boudoir (dimly lit), and the soft splendour of her gown, and behind all that, pervading the house, the gay rumour of the party. And in front of them the window-panes, and beyond the window-panes the stars in their orbits. Doubtless it was such influences which, despite several degrees of frost outside, gave to Charlie Woodruff's thoughts an Italian, or Spanish, turn. He said:
"Stephen ought to have this window turned into a French window, and build you a balcony. It could easily be done. Just the view for a balcony. You can see Sneyd Lake from here." (You could. People were skating on it.)
He did not add that you could see the Sneyd Golf Links from there, and vice versa. I doubt if the idea occurred to him, but as he was an active member of the Sneyd Golf Club it would certainly have presented itself to him in due season.
"What a lovely scheme!" Vera exclaimed enthusiastically.
It appealed to her. It appealed to all that was romantic in her bird-like soul. She did not see the links; she did not see the lake; she just saw herself in exquisite frocks, lightly lounging on the balcony in high summer, and dreaming of her own beauty.
"And have a striped awning," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Make Stephen do it."
"I will," she said.
At that moment Stephen came in, with his bald head and his forty years.
"I say!" he demanded. "What are you up to?"
"We were just watching the skaters," said Vera.
"And the wonders of the night," said Charlie, chuckling characteristically. He always laughed at himself. He was a philosopher. He and Stephen had been fast friends from infancy.
"Well, you'd just better skate downstairs," said Stephen. (No romance in Stephen! He was netting a couple of thousand a year out of the manufacture of toilet-sets, in all that smoke to the north. How could you expect him to be romantic?)
"Charlie was saying how nice it would be for me to have a French window here, and a marble balcony," Vera remarked. It had not taken her long to think of marble. "You must do it for me, Steve."
"Bosh!" said Stephen. "That's just like you, Charlie. What an ass you are!"
"Oh, but you must!" said Vera, in that tone which meant business, and which also meant trouble for Stephen.
"She's come," Stephen announced curtly, determined to put trouble off.
"Oh, has she?" cried Vera. "I thought you said she wouldn't."
"She hesitated, because she was afraid. But she's come after all," Stephen answered.
"What fun!" Vera murmured.
And ran off downstairs back again into the midst of the black coats and the white toilettes and the holly-clad electricity of her Christmas gathering.
The news that she had come was all over the noisy house in a minute, and it had the astonishing effect of producing what might roughly be described as a silence. It stopped the reckless waltzing of the piano in the drawing-room; it stopped the cackle incident to cork-pool in the billiard-room; it even stopped a good deal of the whispering under the Chinese lanterns beneath the stairs and in the alcove at the top of the stairs. What it did not stop was the consumption of mince-pies and claret-cup in the small breakfast-room; people mumbled about her between munches.
She, having been sustained with turkey and beer in the kitchen, was led by the backstairs up to Vera's very boudoir, that being the only suitable room. And there she waited. She was a woman of about forty-five; fat, unfair (in the physical sense), and untidy. Of her hands the less said the better. She had probably never visited a professional coiffeur in her life. Her form was straitly confined in an atrocious dress of linsey-woolsey, and she wore an apron that was neither white nor black. Her boots were commodious. After her meal she was putting a hat-pin to a purpose which hat-pins do not usually serve. She gained an honest living by painting green leaves on yellow wash-basins in Stephen's renowned earthenware manufactory. She spoke the dialect of the people. She had probably never heard of Christian Science, bridge, Paquin, Panhard, Father Vaughan, the fall of consols, osprey plumes, nor the new theology. Nobody in the house knew her name; even Stephen had forgotten it. And yet the whole house was agog concerning her.
The fact was that in the painting-shops of the various manufactories where she had painted green leaves on yellow wash-basins (for in all her life she had done little else) she possessed a reputation as a prophet, seer, oracle, fortune-teller--what you will. Polite persons would perhaps never have heard of her reputation, the toiling millions of the Five Towns being of a rather secretive nature in such matters, had not the subject of fortune-telling been made prominent in the district by the celebrated incident of the fashionable palmist. The fashionable palmist, having thriven enormously in Bond Street, had undertaken a tour through the provinces and had stopped several days at Hanbridge (our metropolis), where he had an immense vogue until the Hanbridge police hit on the singular idea of prosecuting him for an unlawful vagabond. Stripped of twenty pounds odd in the guise of a fine and costs, and having narrowly missed the rigours of our county jail, that fashionable palmist and soothsayer had returned to Bond Street full of hate and respect for Midland justice, which fears not and has a fist like a navvy's. The attention of the Five Towns had thus been naturally drawn to fortune-telling in general. And it was deemed that in securing a local celebrity (quite an amateur, and therefore, it was uncertainly hoped, on the windy side of the law) for the diversion of his Christmas party Stephen Cheswardine had done a stylish and original thing.
Of course no one in the house believed in fortune-telling. Oh no! But as an amusement it was amusing. As fun, it was fun. She did her business with tea-leaves: so the tale ran. This was not considered to be very distinguished. A crystal, or even cards, or the anatomy of a sacrificed fowl, would have been better than tea-leaves; tea-leaves were decidedly lower class. And yet, despite these drawbacks, when the question arose who should first visit the witch of Endor, there was a certain hesitation.
"No, you go."
"Oh! I'm not going," (a superior laugh), etc.
At last it was decided that Jack Hall and Cissy Woodruff (Charlie's much younger sister), the pair having been engaged to be married for exactly three days, should make the first call. They ascended, blushing and brave. In a moment Jack Hall descended alone, nervously playing with the silk handkerchief that was lodged in his beautiful white waistcoat. The witch of Endor had informed him that she never received the two sexes together, and had expelled him. This incident greatly enhanced the witch's reputation. Then Stephen happened to mention that he had heard that the woman's mother, and her grandmother before her, had been fortune-tellers. Somehow that statement seemed to strike everybody full in the face; it set a seal on the authority of the witch, made her genuine. And an uncanny feeling seemed to spread through the house as the house waited for Cissy to reappear.
"She's very good," said Cissy, on emerging. "She told me all sorts of things."
A group formed at the foot of the stairs.
"What did she tell you?"
"Well, she said I must expect a very important letter in a few days, and much would depend on it, and next year there will be a big removal, and a large lumbering piece of furniture, and I shall go a journey over water. It's quite right, you know. I suppose the letter's from grandma; I hope it is, anyway. And if we go to France--"
Thenceforward the witch without a name held continuous receptions in the boudoir, and the boudoir gradually grew into an abode of mystery and strangeness, hypnotizing the entire house. People went thither; people came back; and those who had not been pictured to themselves something very incantatory, and little by little they made up their minds to go. Some thought the woman excellent, others said it was all rot. But none denied that it was interesting. None could possibly deny that the fortune-telling had killed every other diversion provided by the hospitable Stephen and Vera (except the refreshments). The most scornful scoffers made a concession and kindly consented to go to the boudoir. Stephen went. Charlie went. Even the Mayor of Hanbridge went (not being on the borough Bench that night).
But Vera would not go. A genuine fear was upon her. Christmases had always been unlucky for her peace of mind. And she was highly superstitious. Yet she wanted to go; she was burning to go, all the while assuring her guests that nothing would induce her to go. The party drew to a close, and pair by pair the revellers drove off, or walked, into the romantic night. Then Stephen told Vera to give the woman half-a-sovereign and let her depart, for it was late. And in paying the half-sovereign to the woman Vera was suddenly overcome by temptation and asked for her fortune. The woman's grimy simplicity, her smiling face, the commonness of her teapot, her utter unlikeness to anything in the first act of Macbeth, encouraged Vera to believe in her magic powers. Vera's hand trembled as, under instructions, she tipped the tea-leaves into the saucer.
"Ay!" said the witch, in broadest Staffordshire, running her objectionable hand up and down the buttons of her linsey-woolsey bodice, and gently agitating the saucer. "Theer's a widder theer." [There's a widow there.] "Yo'll be havin' a letter, or it mit be a talligram--"
Vera wouldn't hear any more. Her one fear in life was the fear of Stephen's death (though she did console Charlie with nice smiles and lots of tete-a-tete), and here was this fiendish witch directly foreseeing the dreadful event.
Every day for many days Stephen expected to have to take part in a pitched battle about the proposed balcony. The sweet enemy, however, did not seem to be in fighting form. It is true that she mentioned the balcony, but she mentioned it in quite a reasonable spirit. Astounding as the statement may appear to any personal acquaintance of Vera's, Vera showed a capacity to perceive that there were two sides to the question. When Stephen pointed out that balconies were unsuited to the English climate, she almost agreed. When he said that balconies were dangerous and that to have a safe one would necessitate the strengthening of the wall, she merely replied, with wonderful meekness, that she only weighed seven stone twelve. When he informed her that the breakfast-room, already not too light, was underneath the proposed balcony, which would further darken it, she kept an angelic silence. And when he showed her that the view from the proposed balcony would in any case be marred by the immense pall of Five Towns smoke to the south, she still kept an angelic silence.
Stephen could not understand it.
Nor was this all. She became extraordinarily solicitous for his welfare, especially in the matter of health. She wrapped him up when he went out, and unpacked him when he came in. She cautioned him against draughts, overwork, microbes, and dietary indiscretions. Thanks to regular boxing exercise, his old dyspepsia had almost entirely disappeared, but this did not prevent her from watching every mouthful that vanished under the portals of his moustache. And she superintended his boxing too. She made a point of being present whenever he and Charlie boxed, and she would force Charlie to cease fighting at the oddest moments. She was flat against having a motor-car; she compelled Stephen to drive to the station in the four-wheeler instead of in the high dogcart. Indeed, from the way she guarded him, he might have been the one frail life that stood between England and anarchy.
And she was always so kind, in a rather melancholy, resigned, wistful fashion.
No. Stephen could not understand it.
There came a time when Stephen could neither understand it nor stand it. And he tried to worm out of her her secret. But he could not. The fascinating little liar stoutly stuck to it that nothing was the matter with her, and that she had nothing on her mind. Stephen knew differently. He consulted Charlie Woodruff. She had not made a confidant of Charlie. Charlie was exactly as much in the dark as Stephen. Then Stephen (I regret to have to say it) took to swearing. For instance, he swore when she hid all his thin socks and so obliged him to continue with his thick ones. And one day he swore when, in answer to his query why she was pale, she said she didn't know.
He thus, without expecting to do so, achieved a definite climax.
For she broke out. She ceased in half a second to be pale. She gave him with cutting candour all that had been bottled up in her entrancing bosom. She told him that the witch had foreseen her a widow (which was the same thing as prophesying his death), and that she had done, and was doing, all that the ingenuity of a loving heart could suggest to keep him alive in spite of the prediction, but that, in face of his infamous brutality, she should do no more; that if he chose to die and leave her a widow he might die and leave her a widow for all she cared; in brief, that she had done with him.
When she had become relatively calm Stephen addressed her calmly, and even ingratiatingly.
"I'm sorry," he said, and added, "but you know you did say that you were hiding nothing from me."
"Of course," she retorted, "because I was." Her arguments were usually on this high plane of logic.
"And you ought not to be so superstitious," Stephen proceeded.
"Well," said she, with truth, "one never knows." And she wiped away a tear and showed the least hint of an inclination to kiss him. "And anyhow my only anxiety was for you."
"Do you really believe what that woman said?" Stephen asked.
"Well," she repeated, "one never knows."
"Because if you do, I'll tell you something."
"What?" Vera demanded.
At this juncture Stephen committed an error of tactics. He might have let her continue in the fear of his death, and thus remained on velvet (subject to occasional outbreaks) for the rest of his life. But he gave himself utterly away.
"She told me I should live till I was ninety," said he. "So you can't be a widow for quite half a century, and you'll be eighty yourself then."
Within twenty-four hours she was at him about the balcony.
"The summer will be lovely," she said, in reply to his argument about climate.
"Rubbish," she said, in reply to his argument about safety.
"Who cares for your old breakfast-room?" she said, in reply to his argument about darkness at breakfast.
"We will have trees planted on that side--big elms," she said, in reply to his argument about the smoke of the Five Towns spoiling the view.
Whereupon Stephen definitely and clearly enunciated that he should not build a balcony.
"Oh, but you must!" she protested.
"A balcony is quite impossible," said Stephen, with his firmest masculinity.
"You'll see if it's impossible," said she, "when I'm that widow."
The curious may be interested to know that she has already begun to plant trees.