A Sordid Affair by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published in People, 29 November 1891.
"My dear, what a perfectly charming bodice! I mean the Louis Quinze with the
vest of white chiffon de soie."
"Ah, but do look at that skirt of old rose silk, brocaded à la
Pompadour, and trimmed with duchesse lace!"
"But you know, Alice, my favourite of them all is that satin foulard, the
grey one, gouffred at the neck. It is so lovely, I think, and exactly my
measurements, for I went in and inquired."
"Then why not have it?"
"My dear! Fifteen guineas! It was dreadful. Now, if it had been ten I might
have managed it."
The speakers were two well-dressed ladies, standing in front of one of the
largest plate-glass windows in Bond Street, and gazing up at the dense group of
slim, headless figures in prim, straight-cut, tailor-made costumes, or in
evening dresses of the many strange neutral tints which were the rage of the
moment. They had raised their voices in their excitement, and gave little
clutches at each other's wrists as they compared notes about the treasures in
front of them. Close behind them stood a plainly-clad middle-aged woman with a
sad wrinkled face, and the air of one who has found the world anything but a
playground. She had stood gazing with a very critical eye at the various
costumes, and listening with a half smile to the comments of the ladies beside
her, but at their last remark she looked earnestly at the speaker, and put her
hand out timidly towards her to attract her attention.
"If you please, ma'am," she said, "I could do that for you."
The lady looked round in surprise. "What could you do, my good woman?"
"A dress the exact same as that one at every point for ten pounds."
"You could do it?"
"Yes, ma'am. You'll excuse my speaking to you, but I could not help hearing
what you said, and I know that I could give you satisfaction. I did all Madame
Davoust's work when she was court dressmaker."
The lady looked inquiringly at her companion. "What do you say, Louise?"
"Well, my dear, if you wish such a dress. You need not pay unless you are
satisfied with it."
"No, of course not. What is your name, please?"
"Well then, Mrs. Raby, you quite understand that I shall require the dress
to be absolutely as well finished as the one in the window, material and cut
"And it must be ready by next Monday before ten o'clock."
"Very well, madam."
"And your price is ten pounds, inclusive."
"Ten pounds, madam."
"I have your solemn promise that the dress shall be the same, and that I
shall have it on Monday by ten?"
"I promise you, madam."
"Well, then, you may call this afternoon, and take your measurements. Mrs.
Clive is the name, 73, Palace Gardens." She gave a nod, and turned again to her
companion, while the dressmaker, with another very critical glance at the dress
in the window, hurried off upon her way.
A busy morning lay before her, for her foulard was to be purchased at one
shop, her linings at another, her braid and her buttons at yet another, all
down in the depths of the City, far away from West-end prices. At last, with
her arms full of brown paper parcels, she gained her 'bus, and drove out to
Brompton, where in a quiet side street of two-storeyed houses, a small brass
plate, "Mrs. Raby, costumier and dressmaker," showed where she carried on her
In the front room an assistant was whirring away upon a hand sewing machine,
running a seam down the edge of a dress, while all round her lay heaped masses
of cloth, grey strips of lining, and rolls of braid.
"Whose is that, Anna?" asked Mrs. Raby.
"It is Mrs. Summerton's." The assistant was a broad-faced, good-humoured
girl, with red hair and freckles.
"Ah, you must be very careful with it. She is most particular. The front cut
straight, and the back gored and cut on the cross."
"Yes, Mrs. Raby. It's coming out fine."
"I have a new order, a foulard dress, which must be ready by Monday. This is
the stuff, and I shall have the measurements this evening. It will take us all
our time. Is Mr. Raby in?"
"Yes, he came in half an hour ago."
"Where is he?"
"In the back room."
Mrs. Raby closed the door, and went into the next apartment. A small man,
black bearded and swarthy, was seated at a side table, stooping over a box of
colours and a small oval piece of ivory, upon which he was beginning to paint a
background. He was a peaky, irritable-looking person, with sunken cheeks, a
nervous manner, and a very large piece of blue-ribbon in his button-hole.
"It is no use, Helen," he said. "I can't paint until I have an order."
"But however are you to get an order if you don't show folk what you can do.
Why don't you paint me, John, and hang me up in a case outside the door."
"I want something that will look nice and attractive," said he,
She laughed good-humouredly. "Paint me as you remember me when you first met
me, then," said she.
"Ah, you were different then."
"Well, if I am, you ought to know, John, what it is that has changed me. It
has not been an easy life for me these twenty years."
"Well, I'm sure I don't know what more I can do. I've taken the ribbon to
"Yes, John, dear, you've dropped the drink, and God bless you for it."
"Six months since I had a taste."
"And aren't you the better for it, in health and happiness and everything? I
always knew that if you were to get away from those other clerks you would be
all right. Now you are a clerk no longer. You're an artist."
"Yes, but I earned my money as a clerk, and I have made none as an artist. I
don't see that I am the gainer by the change."
"Ah, I'd rather starve, dear, and have you a sober man. Besides, I can earn
enough for both while you are gradually getting a few customers."
"Oh, yes, sitters. But you must go to them or they will never come to you.
Why, look at me! I heard two ladies talking in the street, and by pushing
myself in I got a ten-pound job."
"Did you, though."
"Yes, this very morning. My stuff will cost from five to six, but there
should be four pound profit." She took a key from her pocket, unlocked a drawer
in a side table, and taking a tin box out unlocked that also.
"We have fifteen pounds here," said she, turning out a small heap of gold.
"We'll make it twenty soon, and then I think I may afford to take on another
Her husband looked wistfully at the gold. "It seems hard that you should put
away all that money, and I should go about without a half-crown in my pocket,"
"I don't want your pocket to be empty, John, but you don't need more than
sixpence. It is only putting yourself in the way of temptation."
"Well, anyway, I ought to be head in my own family. Why don't you give me
the key, and let me have the keeping of the money."
"No, no, John; it is my earning and I'll have the keeping. What you want
I'll buy for you, but what I save I must have in my own hands."
"A pretty thing, too!" He went back to his painting with a snarl, while she
very carefully locked up her small treasure again, and then returned to the
work-room. She had hardly turned her back when he sprang from his seat, rushed
to the table and took two wicked little tugs at the drawer, but all was fast,
so he slunk back, cursing under his breath, to his paints and his ivory.
That afternoon Mrs. Raby called at Palace Gardens, obtained her
measurements, and forthwith got to work with might and main upon the dress. It
was a Thursday, and she had only two and a half working days before her, but
she had given her promise, and she was a woman who would keep her word, if
flesh and blood could do it. On Saturday morning it must be ready for the
trying on, and on the Monday by ten o'clock it must be actually delivered. So
away she went cutting, and stitching, gouffring, and tabbing, and looping, and
hemming, working late, and working early, until on the second day a dozen
separate pieces were all brought together like a child's puzzle, a square
there, a triangle here, a long narrow slip down the front, and there, out of
what to a masculine eye would have seemed the merest scraps, there rose the
daintiest, neatest little dress that heart could wish, still loosely pinned
together, but taking already its ultimate outlines. In this state it was
carried to Palace Gardens, tried on, and then brought back to be finally
completed. By twelve o'clock at night it was finished, and all Sunday it stood
upon the frame in the workroom looking so fresh and neat and perfect, that the
wife, in the pride of her heart, could not forbear from running in every hour
or so, and coaxing her husband in with her, to look and to admire.
He had been a sorry helpmate to her. It was not work which had placed those
marks of care upon his face. As a clerk in the wholesale cocoa firm, he had for
years been having some three pounds a week, but of the three it was seldom that
one found its way to his wife, who planned, and worked, and managed as only a
devoted woman can. At last she had herself turned to business, and had made
herself independent of him, or, rather, had made him dependent upon her. A long
course of secret drunkenness had ended in a raging attack of delirium tremens,
which could not be concealed from his employers, and which brought about his
instant dismissal from his situation. But it was no misfortune in the eyes of
his wife. She had long made up her mind that his weak nature was not to be
reformed while he was surrounded by temptation. Now, at last, she had him to
herself. Some occupation must be found for him which would hold him within her
influence. It was always with others that she laid the blame, never with him,
for her eyes were blind to the shattered irritable wreck, and could only see
the dark-haired bashful lad who had told her twenty years ago how he loved her.
Could she keep out those evil influences, all would yet be well. Her woman's
wit was set to do it. He had long had some leanings towards art, so now she
bought him paints and paper and all that an artist could require. She had
prayed and argued until he had taken the blue ribbon, and for six whole months
she had stood between him and danger, shutting off what was evil, encouraging
the little that was good, like some tender gardener watching over a sickly
plant. And now at last all seemed bright before her. Her husband had forsworn
his fatal habits. She had saved a little money, and there was a prospect of
saving more. Soon she might hope for a second assistant, and even spend a few
pounds in advertisements. As she went into her work-room for the last time that
Sunday night, holding out the lamp in her work-worn hand, and looked at the
delicate tint and dainty curves, it seemed to her that the long struggle was at
last drawing to an end, and that the evening would be mellow if the day had
She slept heavily that night, for she had worked almost continuously until
the dress was finished. It was nearly eight o'clock when she woke. Her husband
was not lying by her side. His clothes and boots were gone. She smiled to think
how completely she had overslept herself, and, rising, she dressed, hurriedly
putting on her outdoor things so that she might be ready to start immediately
after breakfast to keep her appointment. As she descended the stair she noticed
that the work-room door was open. She entered with a sudden strange sinking at
the heart. The new dress had disappeared.
Mrs. Raby sat down on a packing case, and sank her face in her hands. The
blow was so sudden, so unexpected! But she was a practical woman, and there was
no use in sitting groaning. She walked through the house. Her husband, as she
expected, was nowhere to be seen. Then she wrote a short note to the assistant,
left it on the workroom table, and leaving the door upon the latch, set out
upon her hopeless and piteous chase.
Just round the corner, in the Brompton Road, was a pawnbroker's shop, and
into it she hastened. A heavy, red-bearded man, who was reading the morning
paper in the corner, cocked his eye at her as she entered.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"Would you kindly tell me, sir, if any one has been here this morning to
pledge a grey dress?"
The pawnbroker called to his assistant, a young, pasty-faced man, who
emerged from among the countless suits of clothes and piles of miscellaneous
things which blocked the shop.
"There was some one here with a grey dress, Alec, was there not?" he
"Yes, sir! that was the one that you thought might be a police matter."
"Ah, yes, of course. A small, dark man, with black hair?"
"That's it, sir."
"He was here at quarter-past seven, just after opening time. I wasn't down
yet, but my assistant told me that the dress was a very good and new one, and
that the man's manner was just a bit suspicious."
"You didn't take it, then?"
"You don't know where he went?"
The red-bearded man plunged back into his morning paper, and the woman
hurried on upon her quest. Should she turn up the street or down. The sight of
a distant glimmer of gilt balls decided her, and she found herself in another
office. They had seen nothing there either of her husband or of the dress.
She paused irresolute outside the door. Then she reflected that if her
husband had come up the road he would certainly have come there. He must have
turned down then. She entered the first pawnbroker's in that direction, and
there was the grey foulard dress hanging up upon a hook right in front of her.
She gave a cry ofjoy at the sight of it. It was not yet nine, and there was
time to keep her appointment.
"That's my dress," she gasped.
The pawnbroker gazed at her curiously. "It was pawned this morning, ma'am,
by a small, dark man."
"Yes, sir, that was my husband. How much did he get on it?"
"Three pound, five."
She had put some money into her pocket when she left home. Now she laid four
sovereigns upon the counter.
"Please let me have it at once."
"Where's the ticket?"
"The ticket? I have none."
"Then you can't have the dress."
"But it is my dress, and here is the money. Why can I not have it?"
"I am very sorry for you, marm. But we must stick to the law. Suppose I take
your money and give you your dress, and suppose then your husband comes here
with the ticket and demands his pledge, what could I say to him? He could put
his own price on it, and I should have to pay him."
"But I promise you he won't come. Do, do, let me have the dress. I've
promised it to a customer at ten."
"I tell you that I can't, and there's an end of it," said the pawnbroker,
turning upon his heel.
It was heartbreaking to be within touch of it, and not to be allowed to take
it. And yet she could not blame the pawnbroker. She could see that he could not
act otherwise. What remained then? To find her husband. But how could she tell
in which of a hundred public-houses he was making amends for his long
abstention. She paced wildly up and down the pavement. What would this lady
think of her? She had given a promise, and a promise had always been a sacred
thing with her. Was there no way in which she could manage? And then suddenly
an idea came to her, and she ran as hard as she could back to her own house,
rushed into the back room, opened her drawer, poured her little heap of savings
into her purse, and hastened out to catch an eastward bound 'bus.
At Bond Street she got out and sped on to the window where she had first
undertaken this unhappy contract. Thank God, the dress was still unsold in the
window. She remembered that the lady had said that the measurements were
correct. In five minutes more her whole savings had gone into the till of the
wealthy retail firm, and she, with her great cardboard-box was driving at the
top of her speed to Palace Gardens.
"My dear Alice," remarked her friend, who had dropped in early that morning,
in order to criticise the costume, "you see it never does to trust people in
that class of life. She said ten o'clock, and now it is five minutes past. They
have no idea of the nature of a promise."
"No, I suppose not. Still, she is sure to come, for I have not paid her
anything yet. Ah, here she is coming up the stair, so she is not so very late
The dress was duly unpacked, and Mrs. Alice Clive put it on at once, while
her friend and the dressmaker walked slowly round her with sidelong heads,
eyeing it up and down.
"Well, dear, how do you like it. It feels very comfortable and seems to sit
well about the shoulders."
"Oh yes, I think it will do. I don't think, however, that the foulard is
quite of the same quality as that which we saw in the shop."
"I assure you, madam, that it is."
"Well, Mrs. Raby, I am sure you will acknowledge that the lace is
"No, it is precisely the same."
The lady critic shrugged her shoulders.
"At least, there is no question as to the inferiority of the cut," said she,
"I cannot refuse to believe my own eyes."
"Well, at least, it is not dear at that price," said her friend.
"It is entirely a matter of taste," the other rejoined, "but I confess that
I would rather pay fifteen guineas for the other than ten for this."
"Well, well, on the whole I am pretty well satisfied," said she, Mrs. Clive,
and paid over the ten pounds to the silent weary woman who stood before
But strange and wondrous are the ways of women, and where is the man who
shall grasp them. As she walked home, tired, footsore, the loser in time and in
money, with all her little hopes shattered to ruins, and all to be built up
once more, she saw a crowd of jeering boys at the corner of the Brompton Road,
and peeping over their shoulders, she caught a glimpse of a horrid crawling
figure, a hatless head, and a dull, vacant, leering face. In an instant she had
called a cab.
"It is my husband," said she, "he is ill. Help me to get him into the cab,
policeman. We live quite close to here."
They thrust him into a four-wheeler, and she got in beside him, holding him
up with her arms. His coat was covered with dust, and he mumbled and chuckled
like an ape. As the cab drove on, she drew his head down upon her bosom,
pushing back his straggling hair, and crooned over him like a mother over a
"Did they make fun of him, then?" she cried. "Did they call him names? He'll
come home with his little wifey, and he'll never be a naughty boy again."
Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle
while you remain upon earth?