Mr. Coombes was sick of life. He walked away from his unhappy home, and, sick not only of his own existence, but of everybody else’s, turned aside down Gaswork Lane to avoid the town, and, crossing the wooden bridge that goes over the canal to Starling’s Cottages, was presently alone in the damp pinewoods and out of sight and sound of human habitation. He would stand it no longer. He repeated aloud with blasphemies unusual to him that he would stand it no longer.
He was a pale-faced little man, with dark eyes and a fine and very black moustache. He had a very stiff, upright collar slightly frayed, that gave him an illusory double chin, and his overcoat (albeit shabby) was trimmed with astrachan. His gloves were a bright brown with black stripes over the knuckles, and split at the finger ends. His appearance, his wife had said once in the dear, dead days beyond recall, --before he married her, that is, --was military. But now she called him-- It seems a dreadful thing to tell of between husband and wife, but she called him “a little grub.” It wasn’t the only thing she had called him, either.
The row had arisen about that beastly Jennie again. Jennie was his wife’s friend, and, by no invitation of Mr. Coombes, she came in every blessed Sunday to dinner, and made a shindy all the afternoon. She was a big, noisy girl, with a taste for loud colours and a strident laugh; and this Sunday she had outdone all her previous intrusions by bringing in a fellow with her, a chap as showy as herself. And Mr. Coombes, in a starchy, clean collar and his Sunday frock-coat, had sat dumb and wrathful at his own table, while his wife and her guests talked foolishly and undesirably, and laughed aloud. Well, he stood that, and after dinner (which, “as usual,” was late), what must Miss Jennie do but go to the piano and play banjo tunes, for all the world as if it were a week-day! Flesh and blood could not endure such goings on. They would hear next door, they would hear in the road, it was a public announcement of their disrepute. He had to speak.
He had felt himself go pale, and a kind of rigour had affected his respiration as he delivered himself. He had been sitting on one of the chairs by the window--the new guest had taken possession of the arm-chair. He turned his head. “Sun Day!” he said over the collar, in the voice of one who warns. “Sun Day!” What people call a “nasty” tone it was.
Jennie had kept on playing, but his wife, who was looking through some music that was piled on the top of the piano, had stared at him. “What’s wrong now?” she said; “can’t people enjoy themselves?”
“I don’t mind rational ‘njoyment, at all,” said little Coombes, “but I ain’t a-going to have week-day tunes playing on a Sunday in this house.”
“What’s wrong with my playing now?” said Jennie, stopping and twirling round on the music-stool with a monstrous rustle of flounces.
Coombes saw it was going to be a row, and opened too vigorously, as is common with your timid, nervous men all the world over. “Steady on with that music-stool!” said he; “it ain’t made for ‘eavy weights.”
“Never you mind about weights,” said Jennie, incensed. “What was you saying behind my back about my playing?”
“Surely you don’t ‘old with not having a bit of music on a Sunday, Mr. Coombes?” said the new guest, leaning back in the arm-chair, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke and smiling in a kind of pitying way. And simultaneously his wife said something to Jennie about “Never mind ‘im. You go on, Jinny.”
“I do,” said Mr. Coombes, addressing the new guest.
“May I arst why?” said the new guest, evidently enjoying both his cigarette and the prospect of an argument. He was, by the bye, a lank young man, very stylishly dressed in bright drab, with a white cravat and a pearl and silver pin. It had been better taste to come in a black coat, Mr. Coombes thought.
“Because,” began Mr. Coombes, “it don’t suit me. I’m a business man. I ‘ave to study my connection. Rational ‘njoyment”--
“His connection!” said Mrs. Coombes scornfully. “That’s what he’s always a-saying. We got to do this, and we got to do that”--
“If you don’t mean to study my connection,” said Mr. Coombes, “what did you marry me for?”
“I wonder,” said Jennie, and turned back to the piano.
“I never saw such a man as you,” said Mrs. Coombes. “You’ve altered all round since we were married. Before”--
Then Jennie began at the tum, tum, tum again.
“Look here!” said Mr. Coombes, driven at last to revolt, standing up and raising his voice. “I tell you I won’t have that.” The frock-coat heaved with his indignation.
“No vi’lence, now,” said the long young man in drab, sitting up.
“Who the juice are you?” said Mr. Coombes fiercely.
Whereupon they all began talking at once. The new guest said he was Jennie’s “intended,” and meant to protect her, and Mr. Coombes said he was welcome to do so anywhere but in his (Mr. Coombes’) house; and Mrs. Coombes said he ought to be ashamed of insulting his guests, and (as I have already mentioned) that he was getting a regular little grub; and the end was, that Mr. Coombes ordered his visitors out of the house, and they wouldn’t go, and so he said he would go himself. With his face burning and tears of excitement in his eyes, he went into the passage, and as he struggled with his overcoat--his frock-coat sleeves got concertinaed up his arm--and gave a brush at his silk hat, Jennie began again at the piano, and strummed him insultingly out of the house. Tum, tum, tum. He slammed the shop door so that the house quivered. That, briefly, was the immediate making of his mood. You will perhaps begin to understand his disgust with existence.
As he walked along the muddy path under the firs, --it was late October, and the ditches and heaps of fir needles were gorgeous with clumps of fungi, --he recapitulated the melancholy history of his marriage. It was brief and commonplace enough. He now perceived with sufficient clearness that his wife had married him out of a natural curiosity and in order to escape from her worrying, laborious, and uncertain life in the workroom; and, like the majority of her class, she was far too stupid to realise that it was her duty to co-operate with him in his business. She was greedy of enjoyment, loquacious, and socially-minded, and evidently disappointed to find the restraints of poverty still hanging about her. His worries exasperated her, and the slightest attempt to control her proceedings resulted in a charge of “grumbling.” Why couldn’t he be nice--as he used to be? And Coombes was such a harmless little man, too, nourished mentally on Self-Help, and with a meagre ambition of self-denial and competition, that was to end in a “sufficiency.” Then Jennie came in as a female Mephistopheles, a gabbling chronicle of “fellers,” and was always wanting his wife to go to theatres, and “all that.” And in addition were aunts of his wife, and cousins (male and female), to eat up capital, insult him personally, upset business arrangements, annoy good customers, and generally blight his life. It was not the first occasion by many that Mr. Coombes had fled his home in wrath and indignation, and something like fear, vowing furiously and even aloud that he wouldn’t stand it, and so frothing away his energy along the line of least resistance. But never before had he been quite so sick of life as on this particular Sunday afternoon. The Sunday dinner may have had its share in his despair--and the greyness of the sky. Perhaps, too, he was beginning to realise his unendurable frustration as a business man as the consequence of his marriage. Presently bankruptcy, and after that-- Perhaps she might have reason to repent when it was too late. And destiny, as I have already intimated, had planted the path through the wood with evil-smelling fungi, thickly and variously planted it, not only on the right side, but on the left.
A small shopman is in such a melancholy position, if his wife turns out a disloyal partner. His capital is all tied up in his business, and to leave her, means to join the unemployed in some strange part of the earth. The luxuries of divorce are beyond him altogether. So that the good old tradition of marriage for better or worse holds inexorably for him, and things work up to tragic culminations. Bricklayers kick their wives to death, and dukes betray theirs; but it is among the small clerks and shopkeepers nowadays that it comes most often to a cutting of throats. Under the circumstances it is not so very remarkable--and you must take it as charitably as you can--that the mind of Mr. Coombes ran for a while on some such glorious close to his disappointed hopes, and that he thought of razors, pistols, bread-knives, and touching letters to the coroner denouncing his enemies by name, and praying piously for forgiveness. After a time his fierceness gave way to melancholia. He had been married in this very overcoat, in his first and only frock-coat that was buttoned up beneath it. He began to recall their courting along this very walk, his years of penurious saving to get capital, and the bright hopefulness of his marrying days. For it all to work out like this! Was there no sympathetic ruler anywhere in the world? He reverted to death as a topic.
He thought of the canal he had just crossed, and doubted whether he shouldn’t stand with his head out, even in the middle, and it was while drowning was in his mind that the purple pileus caught his eye. He looked at it mechanically for a moment, and stopped and stooped towards it to pick it up, under the impression that it was some such small leather object as a purse. Then he saw that it was the purple top of a fungus, a peculiarly poisonous-looking purple: slimy, shiny, and emitting a sour odour. He hesitated with his hand an inch or so from it, and the thought of poison crossed his mind. With that he picked the thing, and stood up again with it in his hand.
The odour was certainly strong--acrid, but by no means disgusting. He broke off a piece, and the fresh surface was a creamy white, that changed like magic in the space of ten seconds to a yellowish-green colour. It was even an inviting-looking change. He broke off two other pieces to see it repeated. They were wonderful things these fungi, thought Mr. Coombes, and all of them the deadliest poisons, as his father had often told him. Deadly poisons!
There is no time like the present for a rash resolve. Why not here and now? thought Mr. Coombes. He tasted a little piece, a very little piece indeed--a mere crumb. It was so pungent that he almost spat it out again, then merely hot and full-flavoured. A kind of German mustard with a touch of horse-radish and--well, mushroom. He swallowed it in the excitement of the moment. Did he like it or did he not? His mind was curiously careless. He would try another bit. It really wasn’t bad--it was good. He forgot his troubles in the interest of the immediate moment. Playing with death it was. He took another bite, and then deliberately finished a mouthful. A curious tingling sensation began in his finger-tips and toes. His pulse began to move faster. The blood in his ears sounded like a mill-race. “Try bi’ more,” said Mr. Coombes. He turned and looked about him, and found his feet unsteady. He saw and struggled towards a little patch of purple a dozen yards away. “Jol’ goo’ stuff,” said Mr. Coombes. “E--lomore ye’.” He pitched forward and fell on his face, his hands outstretched towards the cluster of pilei. But he did not eat any more of them. He forgot forthwith.
He rolled over and sat up with a look of astonishment on his face. His carefully brushed silk hat had rolled away towards the ditch. He pressed his hand to his brow. Something had happened, but he could not rightly determine what it was. Anyhow, he was no longer dull--he felt bright, cheerful. And his throat was afire. He laughed in the sudden gaiety of his heart. Had he been dull? He did not know; but at anyrate he would be dull no longer. He got up and stood unsteadily, regarding the universe with an agreeable smile. He began to remember. He could not remember very well, because of a steam roundabout that was beginning in his head. And he knew he had been disagreeable at home, just because they wanted to be happy. They were quite right; life should be as gay as possible. He would go home and make it up, and reassure them. And why not take some of this delightful toadstool with him, for them to eat? A hatful, no less. Some of those red ones with white spots as well, and a few yellow. He had been a dull dog, an enemy to merriment; he would make up for it. It would be gay to turn his coat-sleeves inside out, and stick some yellow gorse into his waistcoat pockets. Then home--singing--for a jolly evening.
After the departure of Mr. Coombes, Jennie discontinued playing, and turned round on the music-stool again. “What a fuss about nothing,” said Jennie.
“You see, Mr. Clarence, what I’ve got to put up with,” said Mrs. Coombes.
“He is a bit hasty,” said Mr. Clarence judicially.
“He ain’t got the slightest sense of our position,” said Mrs. Coombes; “that’s what I complain of. He cares for nothing but his old shop; and if I have a bit of company, or buy anything to keep myself decent, or get any little thing I want out of the housekeeping money, there’s disagreeables. ‘Economy, ‘ he says; ‘struggle for life, ‘ and all that. He lies awake of nights about it, worrying how he can screw me out of a shilling. He wanted us to eat Dorset butter once. If once I was to give in to him--there!”
“Of course,” said Jennie.
“If a man values a woman,” said Mr. Clarence lounging back in the arm-chair, “he must be prepared to make sacrifices for her. For my own part,” said Mr. Clarence, with his eye on Jennie, “I shouldn’t think of marrying till I was in a position to do the thing in style. It’s downright selfishness. A man ought to go through the rough-and-tumble by himself, and not drag her”--
“I don’t agree altogether with that,” said Jennie. “I don’t see why a man shouldn’t have a woman’s help, provided he doesn’t treat her meanly, you know. It’s meanness”--
“You wouldn’t believe,” said Mrs. Coombes. “But I was a fool to ‘ave ‘im. I might ‘ave known. If it ‘adn’t been for my father, we shouldn’t have had not a carriage to our wedding.”
“Lord! he didn’t stick out at that?” said Mr. Clarence, quite shocked.
“Said he wanted the money for his stock, or some such rubbish. Why, he wouldn’t have a woman in to help me once a week if it wasn’t for my standing out plucky. And the fusses he makes about money--comes to me, well, pretty near crying, with sheets of paper and figgers. ‘If only we can tide over this year, ‘ he says, ‘the business is bound to go.’ ‘If only we can tide over this year, ‘ I says; ‘then it’ll be, if only we can tide over next year. I know you, ‘ I says. ‘And you don’t catch me screwing myself lean and ugly. Why didn’t you marry a slavey?’ I says, ‘if you wanted one--instead of a respectable girl, ‘ I says.”