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The Piano-Tuner by Barry Pain

 

CHAPTER I

Miss Caterham was forty-five, and said so, and looked it. She wore black cashmere in the afternoon, and black silk in the evening. She was methodical, and professed a hatred of all nonsense. She liked to take care of everything and to avoid using it. Also, though fundamentally kind-hearted, she was firm even to the point of obstinacy. Her ideas were old-fashioned, and she had only hatred and contempt for any other ideas. She kept fowls and understood them completely. She also kept her orphan niece, Ruth Caterham, and understood her less completely. Indisputably she loved the fowls much less than she loved her niece, but the fowls had comparatively the greater liberty. She maintained a decent, upper-middle-class state in a Georgian house, on the confines of a little town that thoroughly respected her. It was not a suburb. It was too far from London for that. The best trains took forty minutes. Miss Caterham was rather acidulated about suburban people.

There, from time to time, she entertained the brother of Ruth's deceased mother. She loved him, and abhorred his opinions. So far as might be, she kept him in order. His name was George Maniways, and he was in Parliament, and his politics were of the wrong colour. “You and the other enemies of England,” Miss Caterham would say, in addressing him. She would probably have quarrelled with him, frequently, but for the fact that it takes two to make a quarrel, and Mr Maniways was too lazy to play up properly. His temper was so good as to be almost pusillanimous. He was almost the only male who ever entered her house, except in a menial capacity. She had been compelled to allow Ruth to accept the Sotherings' dance and Lady Rochisen's. But when young Bruce Sothering wrote to ask if he might call, she replied that they were just going away, but that she would write on her return. She did not write on her return. And she cannot have forgotten it, for Ruth reminded her twice. Rather a difficult woman, Miss Caterham.

The day being hot, George had arrayed his long and meagre body in white flannel. The conformation of his large grey moustache and his apologetic blue eyes gave him the appearance of rather a meek kind of walrus—one that would feed from the hand and do trust-and-paid-for. He reposed himself after luncheon in a large deck-chair on the veranda. He held between his teeth an amber tube with a cigarette in it. He had a box of matches in one hand, and intended to light the cigarette when he felt more rested. In the meantime he nursed a straw hat, and watched Miss Caterham's wise and just restraint of a climbing geranium. Miss Caterham, in the intervals of her work, watched George, with a glance which indicated rapidly increasing displeasure. The fire kindled, and at last she spake with her tongue.

“I am extremely sorry, George, but I simply cannot stand it any longer. Will you kindly either light that cigarette or throw it away.”

“I was just about to light it, Jane. This weather, especially after luncheon, invests one's actions with a certain amount of deliberation.”

“If you showed as much deliberation about your words, George, as you do about your actions, it would be better for everybody.”

George's astonishment was such that he let out the match which he had just lit. “Oh, really, Jane, I wasn't conscious of having said anything particular.”

“It's not what you said now, it's what you said at luncheon. If you don't strike another match and light that cigarette, I shall have to go.”

George followed his instructions obediently. “At luncheon?” he said meditatively. “Don't seem to remember having said anything particular at luncheon either. While I'm here, I'm always careful to avoid politics.”

“So long as you follow blindly the foes of your own country, that is just as well. The treacherous and unpatriotic duffers, with whom you have chosen to ally yourself——”

“Yes,” said George. “You're perfectly right. It's much better to avoid politics. But what did I say at luncheon?”

“Ruth was there.”

“She was. Very charming she looked. I'm proud to be her uncle.”

“I have the charge of her education, and the formation of her moral character, and I considered what you said to be most unwise. Praise is nearly always bad, and it is specially injudicious to praise a child's beauty to her face.”

“Oh, that's it, is it? Well, Ruth ain't exactly a child, you know. She's eighteen.”

“Only just eighteen, and I'm not sure that that does not make it worse. I've always been careful to guard against anything of the kind. I do not wish my niece to grow up vain and self-conscious.”

“Oh, she's all right,” said George feebly.

“Far from it. She is wilful, and there is nothing I hate so much as wilfulness. I must have my own way, and I cannot be opposed in my views by you or by Ruth. Also, it is quite untrue that she is beautiful. She is nice-looking enough, but her mouth is certainly a little too large, and she has permitted the sun to ruin her complexion—in spite of my advice. I must request you, George, to abstain from saying anything of the kind again.”

George refused an invitation to inspect a new fowl-run, and said that he preferred to sit and think over things. Amongst other thoughts, it occurred to him that his niece did not in all probability have much of a time. Where he sat, he could hear faintly the sound of the piano in the drawing-room. It was obviously something of Grieg's, and appallingly difficult. He was glad that he had not got to play it, and was merely an audience. He had chosen the better part. After all, Ruth had her music to occupy her, and she played tennis with the Vicarage girls, and what else could she want? He was just dropping off to sleep when the cessation of the music roused him again. A moment later his niece stood before him.

She was a tall girl, and carried herself well. Most people would have agreed with her uncle's estimation of her looks. She wore no hat, and her face was certainly slightly tanned.

“Uncle George,” she said, “I want you to do something.”

“Not tennis,” said George sleepily. “Nothing violent. After tea, perhaps, when it's cooler.”

“That's not it at all. Now listen. When you're at the House, you have tea on the Terrace sometimes, don't you?”

“Sometimes. Whisky-and-soda sometimes. What do you want?”

“You can ask people to come and have tea on the Terrace, can't you? Well, you've got to ask me. Next Tuesday, please. And you've got to persuade Aunt Jane to let me go, too.”

“I'm not so sure about that,” said George. “I've just been getting into a row about you. I'm not at all sure that I'm not a bad influence, and that any proposal of mine would not be vetoed.”

“You can do it all right,” said the girl decisively, “if you go the right way about it. Say that it's historical. I mean that your silly old House of Commons is historical. It would have a great educational value for me. You could show me where Chatham stood when he made his last grand speech, and fell down in the middle of it.”

“That happened to be in another place, to wit, the House of Lords.”

“It's all the same. And rub it in a bit about Burke—she's keen on Burke. Keep up a good strong educational line, and Aunt Jane will be glad to let me go.”

“Very well. I'll do what I can. Next Tuesday at four o'clock. Tell me what time your train gets to Euston, and I'll meet it.”

Ruth looked away from him, and appeared to be addressing one of the pillars of the veranda. “I don't think you need meet it. In fact, I'd rather you didn't. I know my way about London very well. You just wait at the House of Commons. And if I'm not there by a quarter past four, don't worry. It will only mean that I've changed my mind and gone somewhere else.”

George whistled. “Well I never,” he said. “And what might you be up to?”

“I'd much rather you didn't ask about it.”

“Well, at any rate, who is he?”

George did not in the least suppose that there was any “he” in the case, and was rather surprised that Ruth blushed.

“There,” said Ruth, “I told you not to ask. Now I suppose you won't do it.”

“Reverting to the original question, who is he?”

“Well, you've always said that all men are equal, haven't you?”

“In one sense, yes. All men are not equally desirable as companions for my niece.”

“He is the man who came to tune the piano last week. You always said class distinctions were all rot. We are going to see some pictures together, and then he's going to give me tea—at least, he was. But now I suppose you won't let us, though he's quite nice really. But at any rate you'll have to promise not to sneak about it to Aunt Jane.”

“Promise for promise. Will you promise not to marry a piano-tuner?”

Ruth burst out laughing. “Rather,” she said. “Absolutely.”

CHAPTER II

Like most lazy and good-tempered men, George could show a good deal of energy and decision, when the occasion arose. He began work that night, after Ruth had gone up to bed.

“You're not such a careful housekeeper as you used to be, Jane.”

This was quite untrue, and he knew it to be untrue. He also knew that it would make Jane angry.

“Perhaps,” she said, “you will tell me, George, what prompts you to make such a perfectly senseless remark. One of the glasses on the dinner-table to-night was not properly polished. I have already spoken about it. But I'm quite positive you never noticed it.”

“No,” said George. “I noticed that your piano was out of tune. Why don't you have it done regularly?”

“Everything in this house is done regularly. The piano is tuned once every three months. In this case you're more particularly in the wrong, because it had an extra tuning last week. Ruth thought it wanted it, and wrote to Brinswoods to send a man.”

“That man ought to get the sack,” said George with confidence. “What was his name?”

“My dear George, how on earth should I know? Piano-tuners don't have names. They have sherry and a biscuit. They are just the piano-tuner. It was Ruth who showed him what was required—I never even saw him. And she was quite satisfied with what he had done. I think you must own that Ruth is a better judge in musical questions than yourself.”

“Very likely,” said George, and changed the subject. The newspaper provided him with a topic. A young lady had just eloped with her father's chauffeur. A young lady, moreover, who had been most strictly brought up. He remembered other instances. Miss Caterham seemed uneasy.

“But Ruth is not in the least like that,” she said.

“Of course not. Who's thinking about Ruth? Besides, she's not brought up in that silly way. She sees plenty of society, plenty of young men of her own class, and is not likely to make a mistake.”

“Ruth has been brought up with the greatest care, and I hope with wisdom. Where you go so wrong about Ruth, George, is in regarding her as a mere child. She is eighteen. You are inclined to forget that.”

George took the rebuke meekly. Miss Caterham continued: “I have always been intending to make some slight changes in view of her age. She has already been to two dances.”

“You don't want to overdo it,” said the subtile George. “You needn't be in the least nervous about Ruth.”

Before returning to London next day, George had a few moments of serious conversation with Ruth. At least, George was perfectly serious. Ruth rather presented the appearance of an amused person with a secret. Her Uncle George gave her six invitations, and she accepted all of them.

“But will Aunt Jane stand it?” she asked.

“I think,” said George, “that your aunt will make no difficulties.”

Ruth went to tea on the Terrace. Ruth went to theatres and concerts. On three occasions she met Mr Bruce Sothering.

And when, a few days later, she announced her engagement to Mr Bruce Sothering, she met with the heartiest congratulations from her uncle, and with no serious opposition from her aunt. And in the ordinary course of events, Mr Bruce Sothering came to see Miss Caterham.

Miss Caterham would have been interested if she could have heard what they said about it in the kitchen.

“I'm making no mistake at all,” said the parlour-maid. “I don't care how rich he is or how well connected. That Mr Bruce Sothering is the young man who came to tune the piano last time. It's not a question of a likeness.”

“But why?” said the cook.

“Hintrigue,” said the butler darkly.