“We’re on the rocks this time, Leah, smashin’ for all we’re worth. How we can win clear beats me.”
With hands which had never earned a shilling thrust into pockets empty even of that coin, Jim Kaimes stretched out his long legs and surveyed his neat boots as he made this cryptic speech. His habit of expressing himself in a parabolic fashion was confusing to his friends. But five years of marital squabbling had schooled his wife into ready comprehension, and she usually responded without comment. On this occasion, however, the subject under discussion irritated even her healthy nerves, and she replied irrelevantly.
“Really, Jim, I wish you would talk English.”
“Huh! Never knew I was talking Choctaw.”
“You might be, for all the sense an ordinary person can make of it.”
“Ah-a-a!” said Jim, with the clumsy affection of a bear; “but you’re not an ordinary person, Leah. I’m the common or garden ass, that can’t straighten things. Now you can.”
“For want of a husband I suppose I must.”
“Come now, Leah. Am I not your husband?”
“Oh yes!” she answered, with a flick of her handkerchief across a pair of scornful lips: “my husband, not a husband.”
“What’s the difference?”
“As if I could waste time in explaining. We have more serious matters to talk about than your want of brains.”
“Serious enough,” assented the man, sulkily; “but you know how to deal with trouble, Leah.”
“I ought to,” retorted his wife, with a shrug, “considering the experience I have had since marrying you. I wish I hadn’t.”
“So do I,” confessed Jim; then mended his speech with a dim sense of having overstepped the mark: “No, by Jupiter, I don’t mean that. You an’ I get on very well, considerin’ each swings on a private hook. You are not a bad sort, Leah, and I’m a–a–a–well, you know what I am.”
“Not a diplomatist, certainly. Isn’t this praise a trifle obvious? You don’t mean it, do you?”
She looked at him wistfully, but her candid husband soon stopped any sentimental illusions she may have momentarily entertained. “Oh yes, I mean it in a sort of way. An’ good temper on both sides will help us to push through the business quicker.”
“You mean the Bankruptcy Court,” snapped his wife.
“Perhaps I mean the Divorce Court,” was his tart reply, but she was quite ready with an answer.
“On your own part, then; you can’t say a word against me.”
“Who said I could? You’ve got the one virtue that gives its name to the rest, and think yourself an angel.”
“I had your assurance that I was an angel–once.”
“No doubt. It’s the sort of thing a man has to say to the woman he is engaged to.”
“And never says to the woman he is married to!”
“Marriage isn’t all honey, Leah, and—-“
“Heavens!” Lady Jim addressed the ceiling; “as if I required telling. But compared with other women, Jim, I am not—-“
“I never said you were,” interrupted Kaimes, crossly. “I’d screw your neck if you went on like other women.”
“Upon my word, Jim, I would admire you more if you did attempt something of that sort.”
“Sorry I can’t oblige you; but I’m a gentleman and bear an honoured name.”
“An honoured name!”
“Sneerin’ won’t alter facts, Leah. The name of Kaimes has always been honoured—-“
“Till you dragged it through the mud,” interrupted Leah, in her turn. “The old Duke is all right, and Frith’s a kind man, if somewhat dull. But you–oh heavens! to think that such a Saul should be amongst the prophets.”
Jim, not understanding the scriptural allusion, thought he was being chaffed, a liberty which his bovine pride resented by two minutes of sulky silence. Moreover, he dreaded his wife’s formidable tongue, the lash of which could cut through even his tough hide.
“How are we goin’ to get through the business at this rate?” was his next contribution to the conversation. “You don’t remember that I’ve to meet a fellow at the club to see about a bet. An’ I haven’t got one shillin’ to rattle against another,” declared Jim, pathetically.
“Well,” was the sharp reply, “I have to shop this afternoon with but one miserable sovereign in my purse.”
Lord Jim opened his sleepy blue eyes. “I say, you couldn’t—-?”
“No,” said his wife, decisively. “I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, and I can’t and I shan’t. Perhaps you’ll read the paper and let me think.”
“All right,” said Kaimes, reaching for the Sporting Times. “I want to see the bettin’ on Podaskas.”
“Betting will be your ruin.”
“Has been,” corrected Jim, chuckling; then reverted to his early metaphor: “We’re on the rocks this time, Leah, and no mistake.”
His wife cast a look of scorn on the pink-and-white face she had once thought handsome. And, indeed, Kaimes was good-looking in a heavy Saxon way. Tall and muscular, with the strength of a bull and the manners of a bear, he was precisely the sort of brutal athlete to attract women. They flocked round him like bees, and gave him more honey than was good for him. He accepted their endearments with the complacent vanity of an egotist, and took little trouble to please even the prettiest, whereupon he was adored the more.
Leah, with her elbows on the breakfast-table, stared at Jim’s well-brushed head bending over the pink sheets, and asked herself, for the hundredth time, why she had married him. Physically he resembled a splendid Hercules, but in another sense the likeness was not a speaking one. He satisfied her eyes, and in no other way gave her pleasure. When he talked, he babbled vainly about himself and his doings, to the exclusion of any topic likely to interest other people. Possessed of that easy good-nature which refuses nothing, which costs nothing, Jim Kaimes was looked upon as “a good fellow,” a title which covers a multitude of the minor sins. Jim would have been meritorious as a cave-man, and pre-historically perfect. As a civilised being he left very much to be desired.
The subject was neither agreeable nor inexhaustible, and Leah rose with a shrug of her shapely shoulders. Jim looked up.
“Well?” he asked encouragingly.
“Nothing!” said his wife, curtly, and moved to the window.
Here she leaned against the sash and looked at the narrow grey street which was such a good address to impress tradesmen, and so expensive to live in. Not that the question of rent troubled the pair. They paid none, and would have been as much insulted, if visited on quarter-day, as an Irish tenant. The Duke of Pentland at the time of their marriage had presented them with the furnished “10, Curzon Street,” but hampered with certain restrictions. They could not sell it, or even mortgage it, nor could money be raised on the furniture. The Duke paid all rates and taxes, and saw to all repairs. Beyond dwelling in this very desirable residence, and calling it publicly their home, Lord and Lady Jim had no interest in it whatsoever. Both thought it was ridiculous that they could not turn the Curzon Street house into money, when they needed ready cash so badly.
And life was so hard to people of their standing and tastes. Leah came of a bankrupt family, and had brought nothing to Jim but her own clever, beautiful self. She considered the two thousand a year which the Duke allowed his second son opulence, until she learned what delightful things money could buy. Then Jim used a large amount of the quarterly payments on his own account, and tradesmen would not give her the delightful things without money. She certainly had bills in nearly every shop in Bond Street and out of it, but even bills had to be paid in the long run. The post brought a good many, and brought also lawyers’ letters, not pleasant to read. Between them, this happy pair had mortgaged their income, and the money they had obtained was all gone. Now they had no income and many bills. What was to be done? This problem Jim had set Leah to solve, but clever as she knew herself to be, the solution was beyond her.
“Can’t you borrow, Jim?” she asked, turning gloomily from the window.
“Perhaps a fiver,” was the prompt response; “every one’s as mean as mean. I’ve tried ’em all. And you?”
Leah shook her head.
“Twenty pounds, for all my asking.”
“There’s your godmother, old Lady Canvey,” suggested Jim. “She’s as rich as Dives.”
“And, like Dives, won’t give a penny to this Lazarus. She smiles, and talks epigrams, and preaches, but as to helping—-” Leah shrugged her shoulders again.
The action drew her husband’s attention to a very magnificent figure which was loudly admired. Jim had admired it himself before he had got used to seeing it in the breakfast-room. Now it struck him that this attraction might be turned into money.
“You’re a ripping woman in the way of looks,” he said, throwing down the newspaper; “if you went on the stage–eh?”
“As the fairy queen?” inquired his wife, scornfully: “that’s about all I’m suited for. I know the things I can’t do, Jim, and acting is one. Besides, think of what the Duke would say.”
Jim yawned, and lighted a cigarette.
“He can’t say more than he has said,” he remarked, lazily. “‘Sides, I never go to hear him preach, now.”
“No; you send me.”
“Why not? The Duke loves a pretty woman. You can twist him round your little finger.”
“I can’t twist any money out of him,” said Lady Jim, irritably.
“More’s the pity. We’re on the rocks—-“
“You’ve said that twice already.”
“An’ I’ll say it again and again and again,” snapped Jim. “You don’t seem to realise the hole we’re in.”
“Don’t I?” she queried, with an emotion she would never have shown in society. “I realise that I have one sovereign; and you—-?”
“Only a fiver I intend to borrow from a sure man,” said Jim; “but I say, what’s to be done?”
“We must go through the court.”
“What’s the use of that? It’ll only settle our debts. We want ready money. I don’t care a straw about the tradesmen. Can’t we let this house?”
“No; the Duke says we can live in it as long as we like, but if we leave he’ll take it back again.”
“It’s like giving a boy half a crown and telling him not to spend it,” said Kaimes, looking round. “If we only could! It’s a jolly sort of room this, and we’d get a good rent for the house.”
The room was indeed pretty, being decorated in a Pompadour manner. Its walls were adorned with white paper, sprinkled with bunches of roses tied with fluttering blue ribbons, and the carpet bore the same dainty design. The furniture was of white wood, upholstered in brocade, also diversified with roses and azure streamers. There were many delicate water-colour pictures, a grate and fire-irons of polished brass, and electric lights in rose-tinted globes. Even the grey December light streaming in through the two windows could not make the apartment look anything but clean, and delicate, and dainty, and delightful. It was an ideal nest for a young couple. But this one had outlived the honeymoon, and cared very little for the ideal.
“A very pretty room,” said Jim, again; “and you’re the prettiest thing in it, Leah.”
She looked at him scornfully, and then glanced around. “I hate all this frippery” she said contemptuously. “Something more massive would suit me better.”
“Well, you are a kind of Cleopatra, y’ know.”
If Jim’s historical knowledge had been more accurate, he would have made a better comparison. Cleopatra, according to the latest discoveries, was small, foxy-haired, and dainty. She would have suited this Watteau-like room to perfection. But Lady Jim was as tall as any daughter of the gods, and bore herself after the imperial style of Juno, Queen of Olympus. Her hair was of a deep red, and she had a great quantity, as those who saw her pose in charity tableaux knew very well. Leah possessed the creamy complexion which usually goes with such hair, and a pair of large blue eyes, out of which her soul had never peered. They were hard eyes, shallow as those of a bird, and surveyed the world and its denizens with the inquiring expression of a cat on the look-out for titbits. Her lips were thin, and covered admirably white and regular teeth. It was a clever face, and beautiful in its serene immobility. Those who did not like Lady Jim called her a cat; but she was more like a sleek, dangerous pantheress, and woe to the victim who came under her claws. Yet she could purr very prettily on occasions.
“Well, Jim,” she said more graciously, for she was sufficiently a woman to be pleased with her husband’s grudging compliments. “Now that you have finished saying sweet things, what next?”
“This business. We’re on the—-“
“Jim, if you say that again I’ll leave you to get out of the trouble yourself. You’re my husband. Think of something.”
“I can’t–unless it’s the insurance.”
“The insurance,” said Leah, thoughtfully; “twenty thousand pounds, isn’t it, Jim?”
Her husband nodded. “Old Jarvey Peel, my godfather, had my life insured when I was a child, and arranged that his heirs should pay up the money every year to keep it in force. Then there’s accumulations of sorts. I don’t understand these stale things myself, Leah, but I know that there’s over twenty thousand.”
“Can’t you raise money on it?”
“No; the old man arranged that I should lose it if I tried that game. Lord,” said Jim, with disgust, “if I could have raised money I should have got rid of it, ages ago.”
“But how does it benefit you?” asked his wife, curiously; “if the money is paid when you are dead, you won’t have any fun. But I”–her eyes gleamed.
“Oh no, you don’t,” snapped Jim, not at all pleased at this hint; “you’d like to turn me into cash in that way, I know. But it so happens that the twenty thousand, and whatever additions may have come, will be paid to me when I’m sixty. Much fun in that, when I shan’t have teeth to crack nuts.”
“You’re over thirty now, Jim.”
“Thirty-five, and you’re only five years younger; so when we get the cash at sixty there won’t be any enjoyment left for either of us.”
“Thirty-five from sixty,” murmured Lady Jim. “Leaves how much, Jim?”
“Twenty-five,” replied Kaimes, after wrinkling his brow and communing with his none too quick brain. “Beastly long time to wait.”
Leah nodded. “There’s no chance of your getting it sooner?”
“Not the slightest. I can’t get a cent on it, and I can’t sell it, and I can’t use it in any way. Jarvey Peel was a silly old ass. Died worth no end of coin, and didn’t leave me a penny.”
“But if you died, Jim?”
“Drop it,” retorted Kaimes, who did not at all relish the suggestion.
“Well, but supposing you did?” insisted Leah.
“Then I ‘spose the money would be paid to you,” said Jim, kicking the hearth-rug with a gloomy face; “but don’t you make any mistake, Leah. I’m goin’ to live right on to sixty and handle the money. I can’t do much at that age, but I’ll try hard to get through the lot before I slip off.”
“And what about me?”
“Oh, you must look after yourself,” said Jim, heartlessly; “but if you can think of some scheme to get the cash now, I’ll give you half–there now. There’s nothing mean about me.”
“What’s the use of talking rubbish?” said Lady Jim, crossly; “you won’t die.”
“Not to oblige you, my dear, so don’t think it.”
“Then don’t let us talk any more of the impossible.”
“Is it impossible?” asked Kaimes, cunningly.
Leah looked at him with wide, bright eyes. “What is it?” she asked.
“I might pretend to die, you know,” said Jim, looking at her very directly; “then the cash ‘ud be paid to you, and we could share.”
“But it’s ridiculous,” cried Leah, raising her eyebrows; “you would have to give up your position and disappear.”
“Who cares? You know I never stop longer in England than I can help. As to my position, it’s all debts and duns, and squabbling with you. Oh, I’d give up the whole thing for the money!”
“You never think of me.”
“Got enough to do to think of myself,” grumbled Kaimes; “‘sides, you don’t care for me. As a widow you could have lots of fun on–on, say–five thousand.”
“That’s right, Jim, take the lion’s share to yourself.”
“Well, shouldn’t I be paying the largest price for getting the cash?”
Leah shrugged her shoulders again. “There would be very little sacrifice in it so far as you are concerned,” she said. “You’ve been three times to South America since we were married, and I presume with this money you would go there again.”
“I’d go out of your life for ever.”
“Oh, well,” she said coolly; “I could show my respect to your memory by wearing a widow’s dress. I expect I should look rather nice in a cap.”
Lord Jim was rather disgusted. Little as he loved his wife, he expected her to be devotedly attached to him, and her ready acquiescence in his disappearance annoyed him greatly.
“You’ve got no heart.”
“How clever of you to guess that! I gave it to you five years ago.”
“And took it back before the honeymoon was over.”
“Well, you see, Jim, you are so careless a man that I could not think of leaving the only heart I possess in your hands. Besides, so many women have given you their hearts that I thought you might confuse the lot.”
Lord Jim did not like this banter, and said so in a few forcible words. Then he moved to the door, casting a disgusted look at a pile of bills on Leah’s side of the table.
“What about this truck?”
“Oh, we’ll pay them out of your insurance,” laughed Lady Jim.
“Not much. I’m not going to disappear and give up everything for the benefit of a lot of measly tradesmen.”
“I wish you wouldn’t dangle grapes out of my reach,” said his wife, pettishly; “you know it’s not to be done.”
Jim plunged forward, and, gathering up the mass of papers, threw them into the fire. “Pay them in this way, then,” said he, enraged.
“I wish I could,” sighed Leah, wearily, and looked at herself in the mirror. “Do stop worrying me, Jim. I’m getting to look quite old. Are you going out?”
“Yes. We’ve wasted an hour in talking about nothing. We’re on the rocks, I tell you.”
“And so,” said Lady Jim, calmly, “you end where you began.”
Jim looked up to heaven. “And this is a wife!” said he, plaintively.
“And this,” she mocked, laying her hand on his shoulder, “is a probable bankrupt!”
“Not me. I’ll clear out first to South America.”
“Leave the insurance money to me, Jim,” called Leah, as he banged the door. “Twenty thousand pounds,” she soliloquised–“it’s worth trying for. But I might as well cry for the moon”; and she sighed, the sigh of selfishness, unexpectedly thwarted.
Categories: English Literature