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- Once Aboard The Lugger - 2/75 -
Mr. Christopher Marrapit is dozing in a chair upon the lawn; his darling cat, the Rose of Sharon, is sleeping on his lap; stiffly beside him sits Mrs. Major, his companion--that masterly woman.
As we approach to be introduced, it is well we should know something of Mr. Marrapit. The nervous business of adventuring into an assembly of strangers is considerably modified by having some knowledge of the first we shall meet. We feel more at home; do not rush upon subjects which are distasteful to that person, or of which he is ignorant; absorb something of the atmosphere of the party during our exchange of pleasantries with him; and, warmed by this feeling, with our most attractive charm of manner are able to push among the remainder of our new friends.
Unhappily, the friendly chatter of the neighbourhood, which should supply us with something of the character of a resident, is quite lacking at Paltley Hill in regard to Mr. Marrapit. Mr. Marrapit rarely moves out beyond the fine wall that encircles Herons' Holt, his residence; with Paltley Hill society rarely mixes. The vicar, with something of a frown, might tell us that to his divers parochial subscription lists Mr. Marrapit has consistently, and churlishly, refused to give a shilling. Professor Wyvern's son, Mr. William Wyvern, has been heard to say that Mr. Marrapit always reminded him "of one of the minor prophets--shaved." Beyond this--and how little helpful it is!--Paltley Hill society can give us nothing.
In a lower social grade of the district, however, much might be learned. In the kitchens, the cottages, and the bar-parlours of Paltley Hill, Mr. Marrapit is considerably discussed. Nicely mannered as we are, servants' gossip concerning one in our own station of life is naturally distasteful to us. At the same time it is essential to our ease on being introduced that we should know something of this gentleman. Assuring ourselves, therefore, that we shall not be prejudiced by cheap chatter, let us hear what the kitchens, the cottages, and the bar-parlours have to say.
Let it, at least, be written down; we shall know how to value such stuff.
Material for this gossip, then, is brought into the kitchens, the cottages, and the bar-parlours by Mr. Marrapit's domestic staff.
Mrs. Armitage, his cook, has given tales of his "grimness" to the cottages where her comfortable presence is welcomed on Sunday and Thursday afternoons. She believes, however, that he must be a "religious gentleman," because (so she says) "he talks like out of the Bible."
This would seem to bear out Mr. William Wyvern's allusion to the minor prophet element of his character.
It is the habit of Clara and Ada, his maids, squeezing at the gate from positions dangerous to modesty into which their ardent young men have thrust them--it is their habit, thus placed, to excuse themselves from indelicate embraces by telling alarming tales of Mr. Marrapit's "carrying on" should they be late. He is a "fair old terror," they say.
The testimony of Mr. Fletcher, his gardener, gloomy over his beer in the bar-parlours, seems to support the "stinginess" that the vicar has determined in Mr. Marrapit's character. Mr. Fletcher, for example, has lugubriously shown what has to be put up with when in the service of a man who had every inch of the grounds searched because a threepenny bit had been dropped. "It's 'ard--damn 'ard," Mr Fletcher said on that occasion. "I'm a gardener, I am; not a treasure-'unter." Murmurs of sympathy chorused endorsement of this view.
Finally there are the words of Frederick, son of Mrs. Armitage, and assistant to Fletcher, whose pleasure it is to set on end the touzled hair of the youth of Paltley Hill by obviously exaggerated stories of Mr. Marrapit's grim rule.
"'E's a tryant," Frederick has said.
Such is an epitome of the kitchen gossip concerning Mr. Marrapit; it is wholesome to be away from such tattling, and personally to approach the lawn whereon its subject sits.
This lawn, a delectable sight on this fine July afternoon, is set about with wire netting to a height of some six feet. By the energies of Mr. Fletcher and Frederick the sward is exquisitely trimmed and rolled; and their labours join with the wire netting to make the lawn a safe and pleasant exercise ground for Mr. Marrapit's cats.
Back in the days of Mr. Marrapit's first occupancy of Herons' Holt, this man was a mighty amateur breeder of cats, and a rare army of cats possessed. Regal cats he had, queenly cats, imperial neuter cats; blue cats, grey cats, orange cats, and white cats--cats for which nothing was too good, upon which too much money could not be spent nor too much love be lavished. Latterly, with tremendous wrenchings of the heart, he had disbanded this galaxy of cats. Changes in his household were partly the cause of this step. The coming of his nephew, George, had seriously upset the peaceful routine of existence which it was his delight to lead; and a reason even more compelling was the gradual alteration in his attitude towards his hobby. This man perceived that the fancier's eye with which he regarded his darlings was becoming so powerful as to render his lover's eye in danger of being atrophied. The fancier's eye was lit by the brain--delighted only in "points," in perfection of specimen; the lover's eye was fed by the heart--glowed, not with pride over breed, but with affection for cats as cats. And Mr. Marrapit realised that for affection he was coming to substitute pride--that he was outraging the animals he loved by neglecting the less admirable specimens for those perfectly moulded; that even these perfect types he was abusing by his growing craze for breeding; polygamy in cats, he came to believe, desecrated and eventually destroyed their finer feelings.
Therefore--and the coming of his nephew George quickened his determination--Mr. Marrapit dispersed his stud (the word had become abhorrent to him), keeping only four exquisite favourites, of which the Rose of Sharon--that perfect orange cat, listed when shown at the prohibitive figure of 1000 pounds, envy and despair of every cat-lover in Great Britain and America--was apple of his eye, joy of his existence.
It was the resolve to keep but these four exquisite creatures that encompassed the arrival in Mr. Marrapit's household of Mrs. Major, now seated beside him upon the lawn--that masterly woman. The fine cat- house was pulled down, the attendant dismissed. A room upon the ground floor, having a southern aspect, was set apart as bed-chamber and exclusive apartment for the four favourites, and Mr. Marrapit sought about for some excellent person into whose care they might be entrusted. Their feeding, their grooming, constant attention to their wants and the sole care of their chamber, should be this person's duties, and it was not until a point some way distant in this history that Mr. Marrapit ceased daily to congratulate himself upon his selection.
Mrs. Major, that masterly woman, was a distressed gentlewoman. The death of her husband, a warehouse clerk, by acute alcoholic poisoning, seems to have given her her first chance of displaying those strong qualities which ultimately became her chief characteristic. And she was of those to whom plan of action comes instantly upon the arrival of opportunity. With lightning rapidity this woman welded chance and action; with unflagging energy and with dauntless perseverance used the powerful weapon thus contrived.
The case of her husband's death may be instanced. Her hysterical distress on the day of the funeral (a matter that would have considerably surprised the late Mr. Major) was exchanged on the following morning for acute physical distress resulting from the means by which, overnight, she had tried to assuage her grief. Noticing, as she dressed, the subdued and martyrlike air that her face wore, noticing also her landlady's evident sympathy with the gentle voice and manner which her racking head caused her to adopt, Mrs. Major saw at once the valuable aid to her future which the permanent wearing of these characteristics might be. From that moment she took up the role of distressed gentlewoman--advertised by tight-fitting black, by little sighs, and by precise, subdued voice,--and in this guise sought employment at an Agency. The agency sent her to be interviewed by Mr. Marrapit. Ushered into the study, she, in a moment of masterly inspiration, murmured "The sweet! Ah, the sweet!" when viciously scratched by the Rose of Sharon, and upon those words walked directly in to Mr. Marrapit's heart.
He required a lady--a _lady_ (Mrs. Major smiled deprecatingly) who should devote herself to his cats. Did Mrs. Major like cats? Ah, sir, she adored cats; her late husband--Words, at the recollection, failed her. She faltered; touched an eye with her handkerchief; wanly smiled with the resigned martyrdom of a true gentlewoman.
As so-often in this life, the unspoken word was more powerful than mightiest eloquence. Mr. Marrapit is not to be blamed for the inference he drew. He pictured the dead Mr. Major a gentleman sharing with his wife a passion for cats; by memory of which fond trait his widow's devotion to the species would be yet further enhanced, would be hallowed.
There is the further thought in this connection that once more, as so often in this life, the unspoken word had saved the lie direct. Once only, in point of fact, had Mrs. Major seen her late husband directly occupied with a cat, and the occasion had been the cause of their vacating their lodgings in Shepherd's Bush precisely thirty minutes later. Mr. Major, under influence of his unfortunate malady, with savage foot had sped the landlady's cat down a flight of stairs; and the landlady had taken the matter in peculiarly harsh spirit.
All this, however, lay deeply hidden beneath Mrs. Major's unspoken word. The vision of a gentle Mr. Major that Mr. Marrapit conjured sealed the liking he had immediately taken to Mrs. Major, and thus was she installed.
The masterly woman, upon this July afternoon, desisted from her crocheting; observed in the dozing figure beside her signs of movement; turned to it, ready for speech.
This she saw. From the reluctant rays of a passing sun a white silk handkerchief protected a nicely polished head--a little bumpy, fringed with soft white hair. Beneath the head a long face, sallow of hue; in either cheek a pit; between them a dominating nose carrying eyeglasses. A long, spare body in an alpaca coat; long thin legs; brown morocco slippers without heels--upon the lap the peerless Rose of Sharon.
"Time for the Rose to go in," Mrs. Major softly suggested.
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