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Chapter XIX

Commencement of my life's afternoon. My father's eight sisters-in-law return to Wales. Astounding attitude of my mother. Physical effect thereof on myself. I move to Stoke Newington. Further parochial activities. Simeon Whey obtains a living. I move to Hornsey and become a Churchwarden. Complete decline of Ezekiel Stool. Birth of my son. A happy augury.

Yes, I fell down; Nature could stand no more; and a discerning Providence, relenting at last, mercifully granted me a moment's oblivion while my mother's eight sisters swept over me. But I was never to be the same man again; and I have always regarded that unconscious moment as definitely conducting me into what has happily proved the long afternoon of my life. For it must not be thought that I am repining, or that, looking back over the intervening years, I am anything but grateful for that final ordeal, through which my character was required to pass. On the contrary - post tenebras lux* - as I have often remarked to my wife and her sisters, I can only thank Heaven that I was considered worthy of so prolonged and fierce a discipline.

Nor do I propose, as I now turn, in this the final chapter of my book, to the quiet contemplation of the fruitful activities with which my later life has been concerned - nor do I propose, I say, to linger unduly over the tragic incidents just recorded. Defeated in their object by what I have since been informed was the rupture of an important cerebral artery, my father's eight murderesses - for such, in fact, they were - were obliged to return again to Llanpwhllanpwh, though not until they had compelled me, on pain of attending his funeral, to purchase their tickets out of my father's estate.

Much more difficult, however, was the problem of my mother, who had thus unexpectedly survived her husband, and for whom I was therefore obliged, as I had promised my father, to make some sort of provision. This was the more harassing, too, in that my father's savings had been practically obliterated by his law costs, thereby reducing my own inheritance to the bare sum for which he had been insured. Further diminished by an iniquitous taxation, the settlement of bills, and the expenses of his interment, I was thus faced, in respect of my mother, with a singularly annoying predicament - and this at the very moment when my attention was fully occupied with the details of my wedding. Great was my satisfaction, therefore, when my fiancée, with an intelligence as welcome as it was unexpected, suggested that my mother should continue her previous functions in the house that we had procured at Stoke Newington. She would thus not only be assured of food and shelter, but would enjoy the additional satisfaction of enabling us to dispense, in our new home, with the paid services of a cook.

`A good idea,' I cried, `an excellent idea,' and I remember Tact's pleasure when I gave her a kiss. So astounding, however, was my mother's reception of the plan that I was obliged to sit down for several minutes, while the scene recurred to me in the form of a nightmare on at least three occasions during the following fortnight.

`No,' said my mother. `I'm very sorry, Augustus. But my future arrangements won't permit of it.'

I stared at her.

`Your future arrangements?' I said.

`Yes,' she replied. `I'm going to take a holiday.'

It was then that I sat down.

`Take a holiday?' I asked.

`Yes, a holiday,' she said. `Don't you think it's time?'

`But, my dear mother,' I said, `what do you want a holiday for?'

`Why, just to see,' she replied, `what it's like.'

I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.

`But, my dear mother,' I said, `I can't consent to that.'

She folded her hands, not very agreeably.

`Then I'm afraid,' she said, `that I shall have to go without.'

I looked at her.

`Go without?' I asked. `But you can't. You haven't any money.'

She smiled a little.

`Oh, yes, I have,' she said. `Quite sufficient for my purpose.

I bent forward for a moment, struggling for breath.

`Sufficient for your purpose?' I asked. `But where did you get it?'

`Oh, I've always saved a bit,' she said, `and taken good advice, and I bought an annuity yesterday morning.'

`An annuity?' I repeated. `You've saved enough for that?'

`Yes, and a little more,' she said, `to play about with.'

`But, my dear mother,' I said, `what did you save it out of?'

`Out of my housekeeping money,' she said. `I made it rather a hobby.'

I rose to my feet again.

`Then what it amounts to,' I said, `is that you've been robbing my poor father.'

`I think not,' she said, `though you can consult Mr Balfour Whey, of course. But you must remember that I've had no wages.

`Wages?' I cried. `But you weren't a servant.'

`No, that's true,' she said. `I was only a wife.'

`And a mother,' I reminded her. `You seem to forget that.'

`Not at all,' she replied. `I remember it distinctly.'

I looked at her sternly.

`Then am I to understand,' I asked, `that you entirely refuse to accept my offer?'

`Yes, I'm afraid so,' she said. `I'm going to Paris, and then to a little place on the Riviera.'

I resumed my seat rather heavily.

`To Paris?' I said. `But you don't know the language.'

`Pas trop,' she said, `mais ça suffit. And besides, I shall be staying with Emily Smith.'

Totally unmanned, I wiped my forehead.

`But I thought she was in service,' I said, `in Aberdeen.'

My mother smiled again.

`Oh, no,' she replied. `She's running an hotel near Bordighera.'

Then, as the room rocked, I clutched at the arms of my chair.

`I'm feeling unwell,' I said. `I'm going to be sick.'

`Yes, I was afraid,' said my mother, `that you might be. You oughtn't to have eaten quite so much dinner.'

Thus with a heartlessness only the more incredible in view of the atmosphere with which she had been surrounded, my mother withdrew from her son's life, needless to say never to reenter it; and we were consequently obliged to procure a professional cook at a not inconsiderable monthly wage.

Apart from this, however, after a satisfactory wedding service, adequately conducted by the Reverend Simeon Whey, the earlier years of my matrimonial life may be passed over without particular comment. Subject to my agreement with Ezekiel, who was now deteriorating almost every day, I had obtained, as I have said, a house at Stoke Newington, within easy distance of St Gregory's Church. Here, like my father, I soon made myself a sidesman, and within three or four months of joining the congregation, I had become the means of distributing the parish magazine in Longfellow Crescent and Byron Square. From that it was but a step to auditing the accounts of the Band of Hope and the Additional Blanket Fund, and in a very few years I was perhaps the most prominent figure in the parochial life of St Gregory's. Nor must it be supposed that I had entirely severed myself from all my previous regenerative interests. From the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory Union it was true that I had deemed it better to resign, and indeed this body, lacking the support of Ezekiel, concluded its activities shortly afterwards. But I still retained my membership of the Non-Smokers' League, and for some years have been its deputy chairman, while I had had myself transferred, on moving to Stoke Newington, to the Dalston Division of the S.P.S.D.T.

Perhaps the happiest day, however, of this period of my life, and the one that finally led me to my present abode, was the October Saturday on which I heard from Simeon Whey that he had obtained the living of St Potamus, Hornsey. As this was only achieved after long years of practically ceaseless struggle, he wept in my arms, I remember, for nearly an hour, my wife and her sisters adding contributory tears.

`Nor will my happiness,' he said, `be complete - kck - until I have seen the name of Augustus Carp publicly inscribed - kck - on the church notice board, as one of the churchwardens of my parish.'

Without delay, therefore, I resolved to transfer my worship to the church presided over by my friend, and within six months I had obtained the ten years' tenancy of Wilhelmina, Nassington Park Gardens. This I have since renewed, and as sidesman, churchwarden, Sunday School superintendent and secretary of the Glee Club, no less than as President of the St Potamus Purity League, I could scarcely have done otherwise. And indeed I rather fear that were I to suggest leaving, I should be forcibly prevented by my fellow-parishioners. My wife and her sisters, too, as they have frequently told me, have never regretted leaving Camberwell, slightly disturbed, as they have occasionally been, by the acute decline of their brother Ezekiel.

They have seldom seen him, however, and then but accidentally, and as for myself I have only met him once, when I chanced to encounter him at the entrance of the Albany, where, as I understood, he then had chambers. Completely shaved and evidently massaged, he was flicking a particle of dust from his left coat-sleeve, and on catching sight of me, he surveyed me through a monocle with a thin gold chain and a tortoise-shell rim.

`Hullo, Carp,' he said. `Taxi,' and a taxi being present, I was spared from replying.

Nor have I been denied - albeit it was not until a year ago that Providence saw fit to reward my efforts - the crowning satisfaction of becoming the father of a small, but still surviving, boy; and the happiest auguries, I think, can safely be discerned in the circumstances surrounding his birth. Indeed so amazingly similar were these to those ushering in my own that I cannot do better, perhaps, than close this volume with a scene from which my readers, I hope, will derive as intense a joy as that which was conferred upon myself.

Born at half-past three on a February morning, the world having been decked with a slight snowfall, it was then that the trained nurse in attendance on the case opened the bedroom door and emerged on the landing. I had gone outside to lean over the gate, and was still leaning there when she opened the door, but Faith and Hope, with Simeon Whey's housekeeper, were standing with bowed heads at the foot of the stairs. Prone in the parlour, and stretched in uneasy attitudes, Charity and Understanding were snatching a troubled sleep, while two female members of the St Potamus Purity League were upon their knees in the back kitchen. But for the fact indeed that Charity and Understanding had slight impediments in their noses, the whole house would have been wrapped in the profoundest stillness.

Simeon Whey's housekeeper was the first to see the nurse, though she only saw her, as it were, through a mist. The nurse was the first to speak in a voice tremulous with emotion.

`Where's Mr Carp?' she said.

`He's just gone outside,' said Simeon Whey's housekeeper.

Something splashed heavily on the hall linoleum. It was a drop of moisture from the nurse's forehead.

`Tell him,' she said, `that he's the father of a son.'

Simeon Whey's housekeeper gave a great cry. I was beside her in a single leap. Always highly coloured, I have since been assured that my face seemed literally on fire. The two fellow-members of the St Potamus Purity League, accompanied by Charity and Understanding, rushed into the hall. The nurse leaned over the banisters.

`A boy,' she said. `It's a boy.'

`A boy?' I said.

`Yes, a boy,' said the nurse.

There was a moment's hush, and then Nature had its way. Unashamedly I burst into tears. Simeon Whey's housekeeper kissed me on the neck just as the two fellow-members burst into a hymn; and a moment later, Charity and Understanding burst simultaneously into the doxology. Then I recovered myself and held up my hand.

`I shall call him Augustus,' I said, `after myself'

`Or tin?' suggested Simeon Whey's housekeeper. `What about calling him tin, after the saint?'

`How do you mean tin?' I said.

`Augus-tin,' said Charity.

But I shook my head.

`No, it shall be tus,' I said. `Tus is better than tin.'

Then Charity and Understanding resumed the singing, from which the two fellow-members had been unable to desist, until after rapidly thinking, and coming to a further decision, I once again held up my hand.

`And I shall give Simeon Whey,' I said, `the first opportunity of becoming Augustus's godfather.'

Then I took a deep breath, threw back my shoulders, tilted my chin, and closed my eyes; and with the full vigour of my immense voice, I, too, joined in the doxology.

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