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The Tee-To-Tum by Robert Smythe Hichens

I

Jack Burnham was quite determined not to marry Mrs Lorton, and if there was one thing in the world upon which she had rigidly set her heart it was upon refusing him. There were several things about her which he deliberately disliked. In the first place, she was a widow, and he always had an uneasy suspicion that widows, like dynamite, were mysteriously dangerous. Then her Christian name was Harriet, and she never took afternoon tea. The former of these two facts indicated, according to his ideas, that her parents were people of bad taste, the latter that she possessed notions that were against nature. Also, she was well informed, and knew it. This condition of the mind, he considered, should be the blessed birthright of the male sex, and he looked upon her as an usurper. She didn't wear mourning, which implied that she was forgetful—of dead husbands. Then—well, that was about all he had against her, and it was quite enough.

As for her, the whole nature of her protested eloquently against the way he waxed his moustache, against the colour of his brown hair, and of his brown boots, against his lounging gait, and his opinion of Mr Gladstone. He had a certain arrogance about him, when with her, which arose in truth from his fear of her intellectual prowess. This led her to dub him intolerably conceited. She desired to humble him, and considered that she could best do so by refusing his offer of marriage. But she must first persuade him to propose. That was the difficulty.

They were constantly meeting in London. You always constantly meet your enemies in London. And, when they met, they always devoted a great deal of time to the advancement of the tacit and polite quarrel between them. They argued with one another in Hyde Park on fine mornings, and were really disgusted with one another at dinner parties and “At Homes.” He thought her fast—at balls; and she had once considered him blatant—at a Marlborough House garden party. This last fact, indeed, put the coping stone to the feud between them, for Mrs Lorton expressed her opinion to a friend, and Burnham, of course, got to know of it. To be thought blatant at Marlborough House was really intolerable. One might as well be pronounced to have had a heathen air at Lambeth Palace.

Distinctly, Jack Burnham and Harriet Lorton were acutely antagonistic.

Yet, there must surely have been some strange, unknown link of sympathy between them, for they both caught the influenza on the same day—it was a Sunday morning—and both permitted it to develop into double pneumonia.

After all, spar as we may, are we not all brothers and sisters?

The double pneumonia ought to have drawn them together; but, as he lived in Piccadilly and she in Queen's Gate, and each was thoroughly self-centred—nothing produces egoism so certainly as influenza—neither knew of the illness of the other.

Providence denied to both that subtle joy, and they got to the mutton chop and chipped potato stage of convalescence in childlike ignorance of each other's misfortune.

There must certainly have been a curious community of mind between them, for both their doctors ordered them to Margate, and they both took rooms at Westgate. Now a similar taste in seaside places is undoubtedly an excellent foundation for eternal friendship. Let the world crumble in atoms, two people who both like Westgate will still find something to talk about amid the confusion occasioned by the dissolution of kingdoms.

Jack Burnham arrived at the St Mildred's Hotel on a Thursday, with his man.

Harriet Lorton came on the following Friday, with her maid.

Neither had any notion of the other's proceedings until they met back to back, as you shall presently hear.

II

In ordinary circumstances of health and vigour, Burnham and Mrs Lorton possessed dispositions of quite singular vivacity, looked upon life as a fairly good, if rather practical joke, and were fully disposed to consider happiness their métier. Being modern, they sometimes concealed their original gaiety, as if it were original sin, and pretended to a cruel cynicism; yet at heart, it must be confessed, they were as lively as poor children playing in the street. But when they went to Westgate, influenza had had its fill of them, and the infinite pathos of the world, and of all that is therein, appealed to them with a seizing vitality. Burnham, on the Thursday, was moved to tears at Birchington Station by the sight of a mother and eleven children missing the last train to Margate. Harriet Lorton, on the following Friday, had hysterics at Victoria, when she perceived a young lady drop a cage containing a grey parrot, and smash the bird's china bath upon the platform. The fact that the parrot had been actually taking its bath at the moment, and was left by the misfortune in much confusion and no water, struck her so poignantly as nearly to break her heart. She wept in a first-class carriage all the way down, and arrived at Westgate, towards ten o'clock, in a state of complete collapse.

Mr Burnham was in bed drinking a cup of soup at this time. He heard the luggage being carried up, but did not suspect whose it was. Nevertheless, the ravages of disease led him to consider the slight noise and bustle a personal insult, and he lay awake most of the night brooding upon the wrongs of which he, erroneously, believed himself to be the victim.

It was on the next morning that the two invalids met back to back in a shelter with glass partitions upon the lawn.

Mrs Lorton, smothered in wraps, had taken up her position on the bench that faces Westgate without noticing a bowed and ulstered figure, shod in brown boots, sitting in a haggard posture on the reciprocal bench that faces the sea. Nobody was about, for it was not the season, and Mrs Lorton began slowly to weep on account of the loneliness. It struck her disordered fancy as so personal. Creation was sending her to Coventry. At her back the tears ran over Burnham's handsome countenance. He was staring at the sea, and thinking of all the people who had been drowned in water since the days of the Deluge. He wondered how many there were, and cried copiously, considering himself absolutely alone and free to give vent to his feelings, which struck him as splendidly human.

When two people weep together one of them usually weeps louder than the other, and, on this occasion, Burnham made the most noise. He became, in fact, so uproariously solicitous about the drowned men and women whom he had never known that Mrs Lorton gradually was made aware of the presence of another mourner who was not a mute. She turned round and beheld a back convulsed with emotion. Its grief went straight to her heart, and, casting her own sorrow and her sense of etiquette to the wind—which blew bracingly from the north-east—she tapped upon the glass screen that bisected the shelter.

Burnham took no notice. He was too deeply involved in grief. So Mrs Lorton knocked again, with all the vigour that incipient convalescence gave to her. This time Burnham was startled, and turned a hollow face upon her. They stared at each other through the intervening glass for a moment in wild surprise, the tears congealing upon their cheeks.

Beyond Burnham Mrs Lorton saw the whirling white foam of the sea. Beyond Mrs Lorton Burnham saw the neat villas of Westgate. It struck them both as a tremendous moment, and they trembled.

Remember that they were very weak.

At last he, conceiving naturally that she had recognised and desired to summon him, walked slowly round to her side of the shelter, and held out to her a wavering hand.

“Good heavens!” he ejaculated. “The last person I—”

“You!” said Mrs Lorton. “How astonishing! What on earth—”

He seized the opening she gave him with all the ardour of the whole-souled influenza patient.

“I have been ill,” he said with a deep pathos, “very, very ill. My symptoms were most extraordinary.”

He sank down heavily at her side, and continued, “I doubt if any one has endured such agony before. It began on a Sunday with—”

“So did mine,” Mrs Lorton interrupted with some show of determination. “You cannot conceive what it was like. I had pains in every limb, every limb positively. The doctor—”

“Of course I went straight to bed,” he remarked with firmness. “I knew at once what was wrong. But mine was no ordinary case. Talk of thumbscrews! Why—”

“For nights I tossed in agony,” she went on with a poignant self-pity, so much engrossed that she never noticed the brown boots which on other occasions had so deeply offended her. “Morphia and eucalyptus were no—”

“He said it was pneumonia, double pneumonia,” Burnham concluded emphatically. “How I came through it I shall never know.” His smile at this point was wan, and seemed to deprecate existence. “I suppose there is still some work for me to do. At the same time, I—”

“Mine was also double!” Mrs Lorton said with distinct tartness, condemning privately his arrogance, and noticing the boots with a strange feeling of sudden and unutterable despair.

“It is all so much worse for a woman,” she added vaguely, with some idea of out-doing him, such as she had felt once or twice at dinner parties, when her epigrams had been smarter than his.

“The strong possess a greater capacity for suffering than the weak,” Burnham retorted. “Medical science tells us that—”

“Please spare me the revelations of the dissecting-room,” she cried bitterly; “I am in no condition to bear them.”

She glanced at him with pathetic eyes, and added, “I ought to have gone to Margate.”

“I ought to have gone there too,” he said.

“Really, you make the conversation sound like one of Maeterlinck's plays,” she rejoined. “Do be more original.”

The reproach cut him to the heart. He never knew why, but he felt so much injured that he with great difficulty restrained his tears.

“Women can be very brutal,” he said moodily, biting his lips, and wondering how many authors it was necessary to read in order never to be at a disadvantage with a clever woman.

Mrs Lorton was conscious that she had hurt him, and instead of being her nice, natural self and glorying in the fact, she experienced a sense of profound pity that gave her quite a tightened feeling about the left side. However, she only said, “Men can be very selfish”—a generality that many people consider as convincing as a bomb—and got up to go.

“I am staying at the St Mildred's,” she remarked. “It is the dull season, so I am the only person there at present.”

“I beg your pardon,” Burnham said, also getting upon his feet, “I am there too. My number is 12 and I have a private sitting-room. I do not feel up to the coffee-room yet.”

Mrs Lorton turned as pale as ashes with vexation. She had no private sitting-room, and had ordered dinner in the coffee-room for that very evening.

She felt herself at a disadvantage as they walked in a gloomy silence towards the beach.

III

Three days had passed away, and Jack Burnham had found that he was, in his own phrase, “up to the coffee-room” after all. In consequence, Mrs Lorton and he dined there every evening at separate tables. A sense of rivalry—and there is no rivalry more keen than that between contesting invalids—prevented both of them from eating as much as they would have liked. When the widow refused a course, Burnham shook his head at it wearily, and they rose from their meals in a state of passionate hunger, which they solaced with captain's biscuits in the seclusion of their bedrooms. Since they had Westgate almost to themselves, and the weather was becoming bright and warm, they were much out of doors; but their profound depression still continued, and they were as morbid human beings as Max Nordau could have desired to meet with when he was seeking for specimens of degeneration.

Their continual greedy anxiety to narrate the details of their physical and mental sensations drove them to seek one another's company, and soon it became an understood thing that they should sit together on the lawn or in the winter garden during the morning, and stroll feebly in the direction of Margate during the breezy afternoon.

These times were times of battle, of a struggle for supremacy in symptoms that led to much heart searching and to infinite exaggeration. Mrs Lorton, being a woman, generally got the best of it, and Burnham entered the hotel at tea-time with set teeth, and an appalling sense of injustice and of failure in his breast. One night at dinner, determined to conquer or to die, he refused everything but soup; and noted, with a grim satisfaction, that Mrs Lorton could hardly contain her chagrin at having inadvertently devoured a cutlet and a spoonful of jelly. Indeed, her temper was so much upset by this occurrence that she went straight to bed on leaving the coffee-room, and sent down a message the next morning to say that she was far too ill to venture out.

Burnham, therefore, sat in the shelter alone, cursing the craft of woman. In the intervals between the cursings he was conscious of a certain loneliness that seemed to be in the atmosphere. It hovered with the seagulls above the sprightly waves, swept over the lawn hand in hand with the wind, basked in the sunshine, and companioned him closely upon the esplanade as he walked home to lunch. He was puzzled by it.

At lunch-time Mrs Lorton was still confined to bed, so her maid announced. Burnham promptly began to wonder whether she was going to die. He strolled towards Margate wondering, and found himself presently in the sunset, gazing with tears in his eyes at the silhouette of Margate Pier, and, mentally, placing a reverent tribute of flowers from Covent Garden upon her early grave in Brompton Cemetery.

He also found himself, later, dropping a tear at the thought of his own death, for of course with his weak health he could not hope to outlive anybody for very long. Mrs Lorton's absence at dinner struck him as more pathetic than all the misery of the travailing universe, until he remembered that at last he could gratify his appetite, and even accept two entrées at the hands of the waiter.

Life, if it is full of sorrows, is also full of consolations.

He ate steadily for a couple of hours, pitying himself all the time.

Next day Mrs Lorton re-appeared in a very bad temper. Her seclusion, although it had enabled her to score several points off her rival, had been in other respects wearisome and vexatious. She barely nodded to Burnham, and went out towards the shelter alone. He followed furtively, longing, as usual, for condolence, and presently saw her seat herself facing the sea. The strained relations between them seemed to forbid his placing himself at her side. The back-to-back posture would be more illustrative of the exact position of affairs, and Burnham's nicety and accuracy of mind induced him accordingly to face Westgate. Their positions of the first day were thus reversed. She looked at the sea; he stared at the villas. Strange turmoil of life, in which we never know which way we shall be facing next! It struck Burnham suddenly, and so forcibly, à propos of his and Mrs Lorton's reversal, that the ready tears sprang to his eyes. How would it all end? Man spins about like a tee-to-tum, bowing to all points of the compass. The time comes when the tee-to-tum runs down—and what then? Burnham was certainly run down. That must be his excuse for what he did. He glanced behind him through the glass screen, and saw by the motion of Mrs Lorton's back that she was sobbing. In truth, the sight of the dancing waves had set her thinking of all the poor people who have been drowned in water since the beginning of things. Poor dead folk! She was trembling with emotion, and still wept mechanically when she found Mr Burnham on her side of the shelter proposing to her with all his might and main. He was asking her to comfort him, to be a true woman and shield him with her strength, to support his tottering footsteps along the rugged ways of life, to dry his tears and stay the agonies of his shaken soul.

“Your health will help my weakness,” he said. “Your vigour will teach me to be strong.”

It was a strange proposal, and she began to defend herself from his imputations, stating her maladies, marshalling her symptoms of decay in an imposing procession.

But it was no good. He had taken her unawares and got the start of her. She felt it, and his determined weakness obtained a power over her which she could never afterwards explain.

His influenza triumphed, for she forgot her resolution.

A wave of morbid pity for him swept over the woman in her. If he was disorganised now, what would be his condition if she refused him?

“Have I the right,” she asked herself, “to devote a fellow-creature to everlasting misery?”

Her influenza told her plainly that she had not.

       * * * * *

People say that the marriage will really come off.

Jack Burnham announced it everywhere before Mrs Lorton got thoroughly well, and Mrs Lorton told everybody while Jack Burnham was still what his friends called “awfully dicky.”

One can but hope that their married life will be passed on the same side of the shelter. If he persists in facing the sea, and she in staring at the villas—well, they will live most of Ibsen's plays!

But at least they will be modern.

And so the tee-to-tum, thought of pathetically by Burnham on a memorable occasion, spins round, and the sea and the villas are the two aspects of life.

 
 
 

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