A Catastrophe

by H. G. Wells

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: "Tea, dear," said Mrs. Winslow, opening the door with the glass window and the white blind that communicated with the parlour. "One minute," said Winslow, and began unlocking the desk. An irritable old gentleman, very hot and red about the face, and in a heavy fur-lined cloak, came in noisily. Mrs. Winslow vanished. "Ugh!" said the old gentleman.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The little shop was not paying. The realisation came insensibly. Winslow was not the man for definite addition and subtraction and sudden discovery. He became aware of the truth in his mind gradually, as though it had always been there. A lot of facts had converged and led him there. There was that line of cretonnes--four half-pieces--untouched, save for half a yard sold to cover a stool. There were those shirtings at 4¾d.--Bandersnatch, in the Broadway, was selling them at 2¾d.--under cost, in fact. (Surely Bandersnatch might let a man live!) Those servants’ caps, a selling line, needed replenishing, and that brought back the memory of Winslow’s sole wholesale dealers, Helter, Skelter, & Grab. Why! how about their account?

Winslow stood with a big green box open on the counter before him when he thought of it. His pale grey eyes grew a little rounder; his pale, straggling moustache twitched. He had been drifting along, day after day. He went round to the ramshackle cash-desk in the corner--it was Winslow’s weakness to sell his goods over the counter, give his customers a duplicate bill, and then dodge into the desk to receive the money, as though he doubted his own honesty. His lank forefinger, with the prominent joints, ran down the bright little calendar (“Clack’s Cottons last for All Time”). “One--two--three; three weeks an’ a day!” said Winslow, staring. “March! Only three weeks and a day. It can’t be.”

“Tea, dear,” said Mrs. Winslow, opening the door with the glass window and the white blind that communicated with the parlour.

“One minute,” said Winslow, and began unlocking the desk.

An irritable old gentleman, very hot and red about the face, and in a heavy fur-lined cloak, came in noisily. Mrs. Winslow vanished.

“Ugh!” said the old gentleman. “Pocket-handkerchief.”

“Yes, sir,” said Winslow. “About what price”--

“Ugh!” said the old gentleman. “Poggit-handkerchief, quig!”

Winslow began to feel flustered. He produced two boxes.

“These, sir”--began Winslow.

“Sheed tin!” said the old gentleman, clutching the stiffness of the linen. “Wad to blow my nose--not haggit about.”

“A cotton one, p’raps, sir?” said Winslow.

“How much?” said the old gentleman over the handkerchief.

“Sevenpence, sir. There’s nothing more I can show you? No ties, braces--?”

“Damn!” said the old gentleman, fumbling in his ticket-pocket, and finally producing half a crown. Winslow looked round for his little metallic duplicate-book which he kept in various fixtures, according to circumstances, and then he caught the old gentleman’s eye. He went straight to the desk at once and got the change, with an entire disregard of the routine of the shop.

Winslow was always more or less excited by a customer. But the open desk reminded him of his trouble. It did not come back to him all at once. He heard a finger-nail softly tapping on the glass, and, looking up, saw Minnie’s eyes over the blind. It seemed like retreat opening. He shut and locked the desk, and went into the little room to tea.

But he was preoccupied. Three weeks and a day! He took unusually large bites of his bread and butter, and stared hard at the little pot of jam. He answered Minnie’s conversational advances distractedly. The shadow of Helter, Skelter, & Grab lay upon the tea-table. He was struggling with this new idea of failure, the tangible realisation, that was taking shape and substance, condensing, as it were, out of the misty uneasiness of many days. At present it was simply one concrete fact; there were thirty-nine pounds left in the bank, and that day three weeks Messrs. Helter, Skelter, & Grab, those enterprising outfitters of young men, would demand their eighty pounds.

After tea there was a customer or so--little purchases: some muslin and buckram, dress-protectors, tape, and a pair of Lisle hose. Then, knowing that Black Care was lurking in the dusky corners of the shop, he lit the three lamps early and set to, refolding his cotton prints, the most vigorous and least meditative proceeding of which he could think. He could see Minnie’s shadow in the other room as she moved about the table. She was busy turning an old dress. He had a walk after supper, looked in at the Y.M.C.A., but found no one to talk to, and finally went to bed. Minnie was already there. And there, too, waiting for him, nudging him gently, until about midnight he was hopelessly awake, sat Black Care.

He had had one or two nights lately in that company, but this was much worse. First came Messrs. Helter, Skelter, & Grab, and their demand for eighty pounds--an enormous sum when your original capital was only a hundred and seventy. They camped, as it were, before him, sat down and beleaguered him. He clutched feebly at the circumambient darkness for expedients. Suppose he had a sale, sold things for almost anything? He tried to imagine a sale miraculously successful in some unexpected manner, and mildly profitable, in spite of reductions below cost. Then Bandersnatch Limited, 101, 102, 103, 105, 106, 107 Broadway, joined the siege, a long caterpillar of frontage, a battery of shop fronts, wherein things were sold at a farthing above cost. How could he fight such an establishment? Besides, what had he to sell? He began to review his resources. What taking line was there to bait the sale? Then straightway came those pieces of cretonne, yellow and black, with a bluish-green flower; those discredited skirtings, prints without buoyancy, skirmishing haberdashery, some despairful four-button gloves by an inferior maker--a hopeless crew. And that was his force against Bandersnatch, Helter, Skelter, & Grab, and the pitiless world behind them. Whatever had made him think a mortal would buy such things? Why had he bought this and neglected that? He suddenly realised the intensity of his hatred for Helter, Skelter, & Grab’s salesman. Then he drove towards an agony of self-reproach. He had spent too much on that cash-desk. What real need was there of a desk? He saw his vanity of that desk in a lurid glow of self-discovery. And the lamps? Five pounds! Then suddenly, with what was almost physical pain, he remembered the rent.

He groaned and turned over. And there, dim in the darkness, was the hummock of Mrs. Winslow’s shoulders. That set him off in another direction. He became acutely sensible of Minnie’s want of feeling. Here he was, worried to death about business, and she sleeping like a little child. He regretted having married, with that infinite bitterness that only comes to the human heart in the small hours of the morning. That hummock of white seemed absolutely without helpfulness, a burden, a responsibility. What fools men were to marry! Minnie’s inert repose irritated him so much that he was almost provoked to wake her up and tell her that they were “Ruined.” She would have to go back to her uncle; her uncle had always been against him: and as for his own future, Winslow was exceedingly uncertain. A shop assistant who has once set up for himself finds the utmost difficulty in getting into a situation again. He began to figure himself “crib-hunting” again, going from this wholesale house to that, writing innumerable letters. How he hated writing letters! “Sir, --Referring to your advertisement in the Christian World.” He beheld an infinite vista of discomfort and disappointment, ending--in a gulf.

He dressed, yawning, and went down to open the shop. He felt tired before the day began. As he carried the shutters in, he kept asking himself what good he was doing. The end was inevitable, whether he bothered or not. The clear daylight smote into the place, and showed how old and rough and splintered was the floor, how shabby the second-hand counter, how hopeless the whole enterprise. He had been dreaming these past six months of a bright little shop, of a happy couple, of a modest but comely profit flowing in. He had suddenly awakened from his dream. The braid that bound his decent black coat--it was a little loose--caught against the catch of the shop door, and was torn loose. This suddenly turned his wretchedness to wrath. He stood quivering for a moment, then, with a spiteful clutch, tore the braid looser, and went in to Minnie.

“Here,” he said, with infinite reproach; “look here! You might look after a chap a bit.”

“I didn’t see it was torn,” said Minnie.

“You never do,” said Winslow, with gross injustice, “until things are too late.”

Minnie looked suddenly at his face. “I’ll sew it now, Sid, if you like.”

“Let’s have breakfast first,” said Winslow, “and do things at their proper time.”

He was preoccupied at breakfast, and Minnie watched him anxiously. His only remark was to declare his egg a bad one. It wasn’t; it was a little flavoury, --being one of those at fifteen a shilling, --but quite nice. He pushed it away from him, and then, having eaten a slice of bread and butter, admitted himself in the wrong by resuming the egg.

“Sid,” said Minnie, as he stood up to go into the shop again, “you’re not well.”

“I’m well enough.” He looked at her as though he hated her.

“Then there’s something else the matter. You aren’t angry with me, Sid, are you, about that braid? Do tell me what’s the matter. You were just like this at tea yesterday, and at supper-time. It wasn’t the braid then.”

“And I’m likely to be.”

She looked interrogation. “Oh, what is the matter?” she said.

It was too good a chance to miss, and he brought the evil news out with dramatic force. “Matter?” he said. “I done my best, and here we are. That’s the matter! If I can’t pay Helter, Skelter & Grab eighty pounds, this day three week”--Pause. “We shall be sold up! Sold up! That’s the matter, Min! SOLD UP!”

“Oh, Sid!” began Minnie.

He slammed the door. For the moment he felt relieved of at least half his misery. He began dusting boxes that did not require dusting, and then reblocked a cretonne already faultlessly blocked. He was in a state of grim wretchedness; a martyr under the harrow of fate. At anyrate, it should not be said he failed for want of industry. And how he had planned and contrived and worked! All to this end! He felt horrible doubts. Providence and Bandersnatch--surely they were incompatible! Perhaps he was being “tried”? That sent him off upon a new tack, a very comforting one. That martyr pose, the gold-in-the-furnace attitude, lasted all the morning.

At dinner--”potato pie”--he looked up suddenly, and saw Minnie’s face regarding him. Pale she looked, and a little red about the eyes. Something caught him suddenly with a queer effect upon his throat. All his thoughts seemed to wheel round into quite a new direction.

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