Butson saw plainly enough, but for the present cared not at all. He had won his game, and for a little time unwonted plenty and comfort satisfied him. Though he was not insensible that this was a place wherein he must do something more to make himself absolute master.
Uncle Isaac got the news on Tuesday evening, when he came for supper. For a week or ten days he had been little seen at Harbour Lane, because of an urgent job involving overtime, a thing not to be neglected in these lean years. He had suspected nothing, moreover, supposing Butson to be so often attracted to Nan’s by the mere prospect of supper.
Now, when he was told, he was near as astonished as Johnny had been. He sat at random—fortunately on a chair—and opened mouth and eyes. But ere his p. 180mouth closed he had resolved on his own course. The thing was done, and past undoing.
He sprang to his feet, and seized one of Butson’s hands—the nearest—in both his own. “Mr. Butson!” he said: “Butson! Me ole friend ’Enery—me dearest ’opes an’ wishes is rewarded. Nan, you’re done most dootiful the confidentialest o’ my intentions. For what was my confidential intentions? ’Ere, I says, confidential to meself, ’ere is my niece, a young woman as I wish every possible good fortun’ to, though I sez it meself: a very sootable young woman o’ some little property with two children an’ a business. Two children an’ a business was my reflection. What’s more, ’ere’s my very respected friend Butson—than which none more so—fash’nable by ’abit an’ connexions, with no children an’ no business. Them considerations bein’ thus what follers? What’s the cause an’ pediment to ’oly matrimony? Far be it from me, sez I, to dictate. But I’ll take ’im in to tea, any’ow. An’ I’ll do whatever else is ne’ssry. Yus, I’ll do it, sez I, as is my dooty. I’ll work it if it’s mortal possible. Whether grateful or not I’ll do it. An’ I done it.”
Uncle Isaac punched his left palm with his right fist, and looked from husband to wife, with the eye of the righteous defying censure. Nan flushed and smiled, and indeed she was relieved. No consideration of her unaccustomed secrecy had given her more doubt than p. 181that it must shut her off from Uncle Isaac’s advice; loss enough in itself, and probably an offence to him.
“This,” Uncle Isaac went on, taking his chair once more and drawing it up to the table: “this is a great an’ ’appy occasion, an’ as sich it should be kep’ up. Nan, is there sich a thing as a drop o’ sperrits in the ’ouse?”
There was most of a small jar of whisky—the first purchase Mr. Butson had caused on his change of condition. It was brought, with tumblers, and Uncle Isaac celebrated the occasion with full honours and much fragmentary declamation. He drank the health of bride and bridegroom, first separately and then together. He drank the health of the family, completed and adorned by the addition of Butson. He drank success to the shop; long life to all the parties concerned; happiness to each of them. And a certain forgetfulness ensuing, he began his toast-list afresh, in conscientious precaution lest something had been omitted.
“See there, Bess; see there, me gal,” he exclaimed, with some thickness of utterance, turning to Bessy (whose one desire was to remain unnoticed), and making a semicircular swing of the arm in Butson’s direction. “Yer father! Noo s-stepfather! Local p’rentis! As a cripple an’ a burden it’s your dooty to be grateful for the c-circumstance. Bein’ a widderer o’ long ex-experience p. 182meself I’m grateful for s-surroundin’ priv’leges, which it is your dooty t’ respeck. See? Dooty t’ respeck an’ obey; likewise honour. ’C-cos if shillun don’ ’speck an’ ’bey whash good C-catechism? Eh?” Uncle Isaac’s voice grew loud and fierce. “Whash become C-catechishm I say? Nullavoid. Ca’chishm’s nullavoid.” . . . Here, pausing to look round at Mr. and Mrs. Butson, he lost his argument altogether, and stared owlishly at the wall. . . . “’Owsomedever, the ’casion bein’ the state an’ pediment o’ ’oly matrimony, ’cordin’ to confidential ’tentions, nothin’ remains but ashk you all join me ’n drinkin’—d-drinkin’—er—er—lil’ drop more.”
Uncle Isaac subsided with his face on the table, and his eyes closed. So that it grew necessary for Mr. Butson to shake him and bring him to a perpendicular. Whereupon, being duly invested with his hat, he was safely set in his way on the narrow pavement of Harbour Lane.
Twice or thrice more Uncle Isaac came to supper, though he was dimly aware that his visits were in some way less successful than had been their wont; insomuch that he took nothing home with him for breakfast, nor even went so far as to hint his desire, in Butson’s presence. For Butson welcomed him not at all, and his manner grew shorter at each meeting, and this with full intent. Because Mr. Butson perceived that, as first step toward being master in his own house, he must get rid of Uncle Isaac.
Mere curtness of manner—even gruffness—would never drive Uncle Isaac from his prey. It operated only to make him more voluble, more strenuously blandiloquent. Till one evening after supper, as he lay back in his chair sucking noisily at lips and teeth, he resolved to venture a step in the matter of the lapsed grants in aid of breakfast. Johnny and Bessy were out of the house (they went out more often now), Nan was serving in the shop, and Mr. Butson sat with his back partly turned, and smoked, in uncivil silence.
“Ah!” quoth Uncle Isaac, with a side-glance at his p. 184ungracious host, “that’s a uncommon nice tin o’ spiced beef we just ’ad a cut auf. Uncommon.”
Mr. Butson made no answer.
“It’s a great credit to your business instinks, that tin o’ spiced beef. I almost wish I ’ad took another slice or so, now.” As a fact, Uncle Isaac had not been offered a further helping—perhaps because he had already taken three. “I almost wish I ’ad. . . . Never mind. It’ll do another time. . . . Come now, I’ve ’alf a mind to get Nan to wrop it up for my breakfast!”
The suggestion was made as of a novel and striking idea, but Mr. Butson showed no flash of enthusiasm. He swung his chair slowly round on one leg till he faced Uncle Isaac. Then he put his cigar carefully on the mantelpiece and said:—“Look ’ere, Mr. Mundy!”
The sudden severity of the voice drew Uncle Isaac’s eyes from the ceiling and his feet from under the table simultaneously.
“Look ’ere, Mr. Mundy! You’re bin so very kind as to celebrate this ’ere weddin’ o’ mine with four good ’eavy suppers an’ about a pint o’ whisky at my expense. I’m very grateful for that, an’ I won’t trouble you no more. See? This is the end o’ the celebration. I’m goin’ to eat my supper in future, me an’ my wife, p. 185without your assistance; an’ breakfast too. Understand?”
Uncle Isaac’s feet retreated under his chair, and his eyes advanced to an alarming protrusion.
“See what I mean?” Butson went on, with growing offence in his voice. “Jest you buy yer own suppers an’ eat ’em at ’ome, or else go without.”
Speech was denied Uncle Isaac. He blinked and choked. What did it mean? Was it a dream? Was he Uncle Isaac, respected and deferred to, the man of judgment and influence, and was he told, thus outrageously, to buy his own supper?
“Yus,” said Butson, as though in answer to his thoughts. “I mean it!”
Whereat Uncle Isaac, with a gasp and a roll of the eyes, found his tongue. “Mr. Butson!” he said, in a voice of dignified but grieved surprise. “Mr. Butson! I—I think I must ’a ’eard wrong. Otherwise I might put it as you may be sorry for sich words.”
“P’raps,” remarked Butson, cynically laconic.
“In which case,” replied Uncle Isaac the adroit, “it is freely took as auffered, an’ nothin’ more need be said atween of friends after sich ’ansome apologies give an’ took, and reconciliation resooms its ’armony accordin’.”
Butson glared. “G-r-r-r!” he growled. “Apologies! What I say I mean. You’ve done very well at cheap p. 186suppers an’ what not ’ere, and to-night you’ve ’ad yer last. I’m master ’ere now. An’ you can git out as soon as ye like.”
“Git out. Y’ought to be ashamed o’ yourself,” cried the disinterested Butson indignantly, “comin cadgin’ suppers!”
“Git out? Me? Suppers? Why, ’Enery Butson, I brought you ’ere out o’ the gutter! Out o’ the gutter, an’ fed ye!”
“Ah—a lot you fed me, and mighty anxious to do it, wasn’t ye? You clear out o’ ’ere!”
“O I’ll go! an’ I’ll see about countermandin’ a paper or two ’fore I go to bed, too. An’ my small property—”
“Yer small property!” put in Butson, with slow scorn. “Yer small property! Where is it? What is it? . . . Want to know my opinion o’ you? You’re a old ’umbug. That’s what you are. A old ’umbug.”
Uncle Isaac grew furious and purple. “’Umbug?” he said. “’Umbug? Them words to me, as saved ye from starvation? ’Umbug yerself. You an’ yer connexions, an’ mayors an’ what not! Why, ye dunno yer own trade! I wouldn’t trust ye to grind a cawfy-mill!”
With that the shop-door opened, and Nan stood between them. She had heard high voices, and at the first cessation of custom she came to see. “Uncle! p. 187Henry! What is it?” she asked, with alarm in her face.
“This is what it is,” said Butson, now near as purple as Uncle Isaac. “This ’ere uncle o’ yours, Mrs. Butson, or whatever ’e is, ain’t comin’ ’ere cadgin’ ’is grub any more; not so long as I got a say in it ’e ain’t. See? So now you better say good-bye to ’im if ye want to, ’cos ’e’s goin’, quick.”
“O yus,” said Uncle Isaac, speaking to his niece, but glaring at Butson, “I’m goin’, Mrs. Butson. An’ much better may you be for it. After what I done for you an’ all. Sort o’ gratitood I might ’a’ expected!”
“O uncle!” exclaimed the distracted Nan. “Why, whatever’s the matter? I know you’ve always been very good. Henry! What’s it all about?”
“About puttin’ a end to this ’ere bloodsuckin’, that’s all!”
“Bloodsuckin’!” exclaimed Uncle Isaac. “Yus, you know somethin’ about that! Pity ye don’t know yer trade ’alf as well! Then p’raps you’d earn yer livin’, ’stead o’ spongin’ on people an’ deloodin’ a fool of a woman to keep ye lazy!”
“Go on! go on!” commanded Butson, with increasing wrath.
“No, uncle, stop a minute,” entreated poor Nan. “Don’t, Henry, don’t let’s quarrel!”
p. 188“O yus, I’ll go. P’raps you’d like to call the p’lice?”
Butson caught breath at the word, and something crossed his face like a chance reflection from a white screen. But he repeated, “Go on!” with a gesture toward the door.
“Yus, yus!” said Uncle Isaac, with his hat on his head. “I’m goin’! An’ not sorry neither. Ho! You’re a bright sort for a local p’rentis, you are!” (Uncle Isaac may have been at odds with the phrase in loco parentis). “A uncommon neat pattern!” And he walked out into the dark street, a small model of offended dignity.
“O Henry,” cried Nan in tears, “what have you done?”
“I’ve done,” answered Butson, reaching for his cigar, “jist what I meant to do. That’s all. ’Cos it suited me. See?”
Nan felt the coarse overbearance of his stare, and dropped her gaze beneath it. And with that misgiving fell upon her: the shadow her punishment flung before it.
Mr. Henry Butson had fallen on good fortune. No more would he endure the humiliation of begging a job of an unsympathetic gaffer. In future his life would be one of ease, free from ignoble exertion and unshamed by dungaree overalls. And he made it so. For a little while, his wife seemed to indulge in an absurd expectation that he would resume his search for occupation of one sort or another. Once she even hinted it, but he soon demolished that fancy, and in terms that prevented any more hints. He had little patience with such foolishness, indeed. The matter was simple enough. Why did a man work? Merely to get shelter and food and clothes and comfort, and hair-oil, whatever he wanted to drink and smoke, and his necessary pocket-money. A man who could get these things without working would be a fool to work; more, he would behave inhumanly to his fellow man by excluding him from a job. As for himself, he got what he needed easily enough, without the trouble of even taking down the shop-shutters: a vulgar act repellent to his nature.
So he rose at ten, or eleven, or twelve, as the case might be, and donned fine raiment; the most fashionable p. 190suit procurable from the most fashionable shop in Aldgate. He began at Aldgate; but in time he grew more fastidious, and went to a tailor in Leadenhall Street, a tailor whose daily task was to satisfy the tastes of the most particular among the ship-brokers’ clerks of St. Mary Axe. His toilet complete, his curls well oiled, Mr. Butson descended to a breakfast of solitary state—Nan’s had been hurried over hours ago. The rest of the day was given as occasion prompted. When the weather was fine, nothing pleased him better, nor more excellently agreed with his genteel propensities, than to go for a stroll up West. When Harbour Lane was quiet and empty (he seemed to choose such times for going out) he would slip round to the station, and by train and omnibus gain the happy region. He was careful to take with him enough money to secure some share of the polite gratifications proper to the quarter, and minutely acquainted himself with the manners and customs of all the bars in the Strand and about Piccadilly Circus. And although he was a little astonished when first he was charged eighteenpence for an American drink, he was careful not to show it, and afterwards secretly congratulated himself on the refined instinct that had pitched on so princely a beverage in the dark, so to speak. He took air, too, in Hyde Park, to the great honour of his whiskers, and much improved his manner of leaning on a rail and of sitting in a green chair. In the evening p. 191he tried, perhaps, a music hall, but always some of the bars, and arrived home at night rather late, sometimes a trifle unsteady, and usually in a bad temper. Bad temper was natural, indeed, in the circumstances; after so many hours’ indulgence in the delights of fashionable society it revolted his elegant nature to have to return at last to a vulgar little chandler’s-shop in a riverside street, where a wife in a print bodice and a white apron was sitting up for him; sometimes even crying—for nothing at all—as if the circumstances were not depressing enough for him already.
These little excursions cost money, of course, but then what was the good of keeping an ignoble little shop if you couldn’t get money out of it? And the shop did very well. Mrs. Butson and the girl—the cripple—were boiling bacon (the smell was disgusting) all day long, and they sold it as fast as it was cold. And other things sold excellently too. From the time when she took the shutters down in the morning to the time when the lad Johnny put them up at night, Mrs. Butson was unceasingly at work serving—unless she were boiling—and scarce had five minutes for her meals; and often the girl had to leave the bacon and help in the shop too. Very well—all that meant profit. The woman couldn’t make him believe that it didn’t, merely because the wretched details of trade failed to interest him. That was the way of people in that class of life—there was a p. 192touch of the miser about all of them. No matter how the money came in, they persisted in their narrow views as to spending it. And there was other income, in addition. The lad Johnny—he was almost a man to look at—brought his mother eight shillings a week at the time of the wedding, and then ten shillings, and then twelve; more, it would increase two shillings a year; but in truth his mother was unduly extravagant in buying him clothes. Still at anyrate there was something, and there might be more if only Mrs. Butson would turn the girl out to earn a little, instead of letting her waste her time reading, and confirming her in habits of idleness. And there was the rent from the cottage. This came every week by postal order from Bob Smallpiece, and since it was fitting that a husband should open letters sent his wife by a single man, Mr. Butson cashed the orders without troubling her in the matter at all.
So that indeed he was not at all wasteful, considering both his income and the society he moved in—for he was not slow in making acquaintances among the affable gentility of the bars. In fact he would have done it cheaper still but for the pestilent uncertainty of Spring Handicaps. It would seem impossible for him to put half a sovereign on any horse without dooming it to something very near the last place. The distinguished society of the bars was profoundly astonished, indeed distressed, at his ill-luck; but gave him more excellent p. 193information for future events; information, however, that brought even worse luck with it.
His wife showed no sympathy for his troubles—and of course there are vexations and disappointments (such as those of the Spring Handicaps) which are inseparable from fashionable life—but rather aggravated them with hole-and-corner snivelling, and ridiculous attempts at persuading him to a mean and inglorious way of life. She even hinted vulgar suspicion of his west-end friends, and suggested that he should associate with a long fool called Hicks, living next door—a common working man. For a long time—many months in fact—he bore it with what patience he might, retaliating only in such terms as seemed necessary to close her mouth, and to convince her of his contempt for her low habit of mind, and indeed, for herself; and when at last it grew plain that personal punching was what was needed, he was so considerate as not to punch her about the face, where marks would advertise the state of his domestic affairs; careful, also, to operate not other than quietly, when they were alone, on the same grounds of decency. And he knew that she would tell nobody, for at least she had self-respect enough for that.
Of these things Johnny knew nothing, and Bessy only a little. Both were glad that their stepfather was so much from home, and though Johnny’s sentiment p. 194toward him was a mere sullen contempt, the lad made no parade of the fact,—rather aimed indeed at keeping things quiet for his mother’s sake. But Bessy fretted in secret.