I am a single lady—single, you will please to understand, entirely because I have refused many excellent offers. Pray don’t imagine from this that I am old. Some women’s offers come at long intervals, and other women’s offers come close together. Mine came remarkably close together—so, of course, I cannot possibly be old. Not that I presume to describe myself as absolutely young, either; so much depends on people’s points of view. I have heard female children of the ages of eighteen or nineteen called young ladies. This seems to me to be ridiculous—and I have held that opinion, without once wavering from it, for more than ten years past. It is, after all, a question of feeling; and—shall I confess it?—I feel so young!
I live in the suburbs, and I have bought my house. The major lives in the suburbs, next door to me, and he has bought his house. I don’t object to this, of course. I merely mention it to make things straight.
Major Namby has been twice married. His first wife—dear, dear! how can I express it? Shall I say, with vulgar abruptness, that his first wife had a family? And must I descend into particulars, and add that they are four in number, and that two of them are twins? Well, the words are written; and if they will do over again for the same purpose, I beg to repeat them in reference to the second Mrs. Namby (still alive), who also had a family, and is—no, I really cannot say, is likely to go on having one. There are certain limits in a case of this kind, and I think I have reached them. Permit me simply to state that the second Mrs. Namby has three children at present. These, with the first Mrs. Namby’s four, make a total of seven. The seven are composed of five girls and two boys. And the first Mrs. Namby’s family all have one particular kind of constitution, and the second Mrs. Namby’s family all have another particular kind of constitution. Let me explain once more that I merely mention these little matters, and that I don’t object to them.
My complaint against Major Namby is, in plain terms, that he transacts the whole of his domestic business in his front garden. Whether it arises from natural weakness of memory, from total want of a sense of propriety, or from a condition of mind which is closely allied to madness of the eccentric sort, I cannot say, but the major certainly does sometimes partially and sometimes entirely forget his private family matters, and the necessary directions connected with them, while he is inside the house, and does habitually remember them, and repair all omissions, by bawling through his windows at the top of his voice, as soon as he gets outside the house. It never seems to occur to him that he might advantageously return indoors, and there mention what he has forgotten, in a private and proper way. The instant the lost idea strikes him, which it invariably does either in his front garden or in the roadway outside his house, he roars for his wife, either from the gravel walk, or over the low wall, and (if I may use so strong an expression) empties his mind to her in public, without appearing to care whose ears he wearies, whose delicacy he shocks, or whose ridicule he invites. If the man is not mad, his own small family fusses have taken such complete possession of all his senses that he is quite incapable of noticing anything else, and perfectly impenetrable to the opinions of his neighbours. Let me show that the grievance of which I complain is no slight one, by giving a few examples of the general persecution that I suffer, and the occasional shocks that are administered to my delicacy, at the coarse hands of Major Namby.
We will, say it is a fine warm morning. I am sitting in my front room, with the window open, absorbed over a deeply interesting book. I hear the door of the next house bang; I look up, and see the major descending the steps into his front garden.
He walks—no, he marches—half-way down the front garden path, with his head high in the air, and his chest stuck out, and his military cane fiercely flourished in his right hand. Suddenly he stops, stamps with one foot, knocks up the hinder part of the brim of his extremely curly hat with his left hand, and begins to scratch at that singularly disagreeable-looking roll of fat red flesh in the back of his neck (which scratching, I may observe, in parentheses, is always a sure sign, in the case of this horrid man, that a lost domestic idea has suddenly come back to him). He waits a moment in the ridiculous position just described, then wheels around on his heel, looks up at the first-floor window, and, instead of going back into the house to mention what he has forgotten, bawls out fiercely from the middle of the walk:
I hear his wife’s voice—a shockingly shrill one; but what can you expect of a woman who has been seen, over and over again, in a slatternly, striped wrapper as late as two o’clock in the afternoon?—I hear his wife’s voice answer from inside the house:
“I said it was a south wind.”
“It isn’t a south wind.”
“It’s a sou’east. I won’t have Georgina taken out to-day. (Georgina is one of the first Mrs. Namby’s family, and they are all weak in the chest.) Where’s nurse?”
“Nurse, I won’t have Jack allowed to run. Whenever that boy perspires, he catches cold. Hang up his hoop. If he cries, take him into my dressing-room, and show him the birch rod. Matilda!”
“What the devil do they mean by daubing all that grease over Mary’s hair! It’s beastly to see it—do you hear?—beastly! Where’s Pamby?” Pamby is the unfortunate work-woman who makes and mends the family linen.
“Pamby, what are you about now?”
No answer. Pamby or somebody else giggles faintly. The major flourishes his cane in a fury.
“Why the devil don’t you answer me? I give you three seconds to answer me, or leave the house. One—two—three. Pamby, what are you about now?”
“If you please, sir, I’m doing something—”
“Something particular for baby, sir.”
“Drop it directly, whatever it is. Nurse!”
“Mind the crossings. Don’t let the children sit down if they are hot. Don’t let them speak to the other children. Don’t let them get playing with strange dogs. Don’t let them mess their things. And above all, don’t bring Master Jack back in a perspiration. Is there anything more before I go out?”
“Matilda, is there anything more?”
“Pamby, is there anything more?”
Here the domestic colloquy ends for the time being. Will any sensitive person—especially a person of my own sex—please to imagine what I must suffer as a delicate single lady, at having all these family details obtruded on my attention, whether I like it or not, in the major’s rasping martial voice and in the shrill answering screams of the women inside? It is hard enough to endure this sort of persecution when one is alone; but it is far worse to be exposed to it—as I am constantly—in the presence of visitors, whose conversation is necessarily interrupted, whose ears are necessarily shocked, whose very stay in my house is necessarily shortened by Major Namby’s public way of managing his private concerns.
Only the other day, my old, dear, and most valued friend Lady Malkinshaw was sitting with me, and was entering at great length into the interesting story of her second daughter’s unhappy marriage engagement, and of the dignified manner in which the family ultimately broke it off. For a quarter of an hour or so our interview continued to be delightfully uninterrupted. At the end of that time, however, just as Lady Malkinshaw, with the tears in her eyes, was beginning to describe the effects of her daughter’s dreadful disappointment on the poor girl’s mind and looks, I heard the door of the major’s house bang as usual, and, looking out of the window in despair, saw the major himself strut half-way down the walk, stop, scratch violently at his roll of red flesh, wheel round so as to face the house, consider a little, pull his tablets out of his waistcoat pocket, shake his head over them, and then look up at the front windows, preparatory to bawling as usual at the degraded female members of his household. Lady Malkinshaw, quite ignorant of what was coming, happened, at the same moment, to be proceeding with her pathetic story in these terms:
“I do assure you, my poor dear girl behaved throughout with the heroism of a martyr when I had told her of the vile wretch’s behaviour, breaking it to her as gently as I possibly could; and when she had a little recovered, I said to her—”
The major’s rasping voice sounded louder than ever as he bawled out that dreadful name, just at the wrong moment. Lady Malkinshaw started as if she had been shot. I put down the window in despair; but the glass was no protection to our ears—Major Namby can roar through a brick wall. I apologized—I declared solemnly that my next-door neighbour was mad—I entreated Lady Malkinshaw to take no notice, and to go on. That sweet woman immediately complied. I burn with indignation when I think of what followed. Every word from the Nambys’ garden (which I distinguish below by parentheses) came, very slightly muffled by the window, straight into my room, and mixed itself up with her ladyship’s story in this inexpressibly ridiculous and impertinent manner:
“Well,” my kind and valued friend proceeded, “as I was telling you, when the first natural burst of sorrow was over, I said to her—”
“Yes, dear Lady Malkinshaw,” I murmured, encouragingly.
“I said to her—”
(“By jingo, I’ve forgotten something! Matilda! when I made my memorandum of errands, how many had I to do?”)
“‘My dearest, darling child,’ I said—”
(“Pamby! how many errands did your mistress give me to do?”)
“I said: ‘My dearest, darling child—’”
(“Nurse! how many errands did your mistress give me to do?”)
“‘My own love,’ I said—”
(“Pooh! Pooh! I tell you, I had four errands to do, and I’ve only got three of ’em written down. Check me off, all of you—I’m going to read my errands.”)
“‘Your own proper pride, love,’ I said, ‘will suggest to you—’”
(“Grey powder for baby.”)
“‘—the necessity of making up your mind, my angel, to—’”
(“Row the plumber for infamous condition of back kitchen sink.”)
“‘—to return all the wretch’s letters, and—’”
(“Speak to the haberdasher about patching Jack’s shirts.”)
“‘—all his letters and presents, darling. You need only make them up into a parcel, and write inside—’”
(“Matilda! is that all?”)
“‘—and write inside—’”
(“Pamby! is that all?”)
“‘—and write inside—’”
(“Nurse! is that all?”)
“‘—I have my mother’s sanction for making one last request to you. It is this—’”
(“What have the children got for dinner today?”)
“‘—it is this: Return me my letters, as I have returned yours. You will find inside—’”
(“A shoulder of mutton and onion sauce? And a devilish good dinner, too.”)
The coarse wretch roared out those last shocking words cheerfully, at the top of his voice. Hitherto, Lady Malkinshaw had preserved her temper with the patience of an angel; but she began—and who can wonder?—to lose it at last.
“It is really impossible, my dear,” she said, rising from her chair, “to continue any conversation while that very intolerable person persists in talking to his family from his front garden. No! I really cannot go on—I cannot indeed.”
Just as I was apologizing to my sweet friend for the second time, I observed, to my great relief (having my eye still on the window), that the odious major had apparently come to the end of his domestic business for that morning, and had made up his mind at last to relieve us of his presence. I distinctly saw him put his tablets back in his pocket, wheel round again on his heel, and march straight to the garden gate. I waited until he had his hand on the lock to open it; and then, when I felt that we were quite safe, I informed dear Lady Malkinshaw that my detestable neighbour had at last taken himself off, and, throwing open the window again to get a little fresh air, begged and entreated her to oblige me by resuming the charming conversation.
“Where was I!” inquired my distinguished friend.
“You were telling me what you recommended your poor darling to write inside her enclosure,” I answered.
“Ah, yes—so I was. Well, my dear, she controlled herself by an admirable effort, and wrote exactly what I told her. You will excuse a mother’s partiality, I am sure—but I think I never saw her look so lovely—so mournfully lovely—I should say, as when she was writing those last lines to the man who had so basely trifled with her. The tears came into my eyes as I looked at her sweet pale cheeks; and I thought to myself—”
(“Nurse! Which of the children was sick, last time, after eating onion sauce?”)
He had come back again. The monster had come back again, from the garden gate, to shout that unwarrantable, atrocious question in at his nursery window!
Lady Malkinshaw bounced off her chair at the first note of his horrible voice, and changed toward me instantly—as if it had been my fault—in the most alarming and most unexpected manner. Her ladyship’s face became awfully red; her ladyship’s head trembled excessively; her ladyship’s eyes looked straight into mine with an indescribable fierceness.
“Why am I thus insulted?” enquired Lady Malkinshaw, with a slow and dignified sternness which froze the blood in my veins. “What do you mean by it?” continued her ladyship, with a sudden rapidity of utterance that quite took my breath away.
Before I could remonstrate with my friend for visiting her natural irritation on poor innocent me; before I could declare that I had seen the major actually open his garden gate to go away, the provoking brute’s voice burst in on us again.
“Ha, yes!” we heard him growl to himself in a kind of shameless domestic soliloquy. “Yes, yes, yes—Sophy was sick, to be sure. Curious. All Mrs. Namby’s step-children have weak chests and strong stomachs. All Mrs. Namby’s own children have weak stomachs and strong chests. I have a strong stomach and a strong chest. Pamby!”
“I consider this,” continued Lady Malkinshaw, literally glaring at me, in the fullness of her indiscriminate exasperation. “I consider this to be unwarrantable and unladylike, I beg to know—”
“Where’s Bill?” burst in the major from below, before she could add another word. “Matilda! Nurse! Pamby! Where’s Bill? I didn’t bid Bill goodbye—hold him up at the window, one of you!”
“My dear Lady Malkinshaw,” I remonstrated, “why blame me? What have I done?”
“Done!” repeated her ladyship. “Done! All that is most unfriendly, most unwarrantable, most unladylike, most—”
“Ha! ha! ha-a-a!” roared the major, shouting her ladyship down, and stamping about the garden in fits of fond paternal laughter. “Bill, my boy, how are you? There’s a young Turk for you! Pull up his frock—I want to see his jolly legs—”
Lady Malkinshaw screamed and rushed to the door. I sank into a chair, and clasped my hands in despair.
“Ha! ha! ha-a-a-a! What calves the dog’s got! Pamby! Look at his calves! Aha! Bless his heart, his legs are the model of his father’s! The Namby build, Matilda! The Namby build, every inch of him. Kick again, Bill—kick out like mad. I say, ma’am! I beg your pardon, ma’am!—”
“Ma’am!” I ran to the window. Was the major actually daring to address Lady Malkinshaw, as she passed indignantly, on her way out, down my front garden? He was! The odious monster was pointing out his—his, what shall I say?—his undraped offspring to the notice of my outraged visitor.
“Look at him, ma’am. If you’re a judge of children, look at him. There’s a two-year-older for you! Ha! ha! ha-a-a-a! Show the lady your legs. Bill—kick out for the lady, you dog, kick out!”
William Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) was a writer. He was best known for his novels including The Woman in White and The Moonstone.