Not many years ago a couple were living in the South of England whose name was Wotchett—Ralph and Eileen Wotchett; a curious name, derived, Ralph asserted, from a Saxon Thegn called Otchar mentioned in Domesday, or at all events—when search of the book had proved vain—on the edge of that substantial record.
He—possibly the thirtieth descendant of the Thegn—was close on six feet in height and thin, with thirsty eyes, and a smile which had fixed itself in his cheeks, so on the verge of appearing was it. His hair waved, and was of a dusty shade bordering on grey. His wife, of the same age and nearly the same height as himself, was of sanguine colouring and a Cornish family, which had held land in such a manner that it had nearly melted in their grasp. All that had come to Eileen was a reversion, on the mortgageable value of which she and Ralph had been living for some time. Ralph Wotchett also had expectations. By profession he was an architect, but perhaps because of his expectations, he had always had bad luck. The involutions of the reasons why his clients died, became insolvent, abandoned their projects, or otherwise failed to come up to the scratch were followed by him alone in the full of their maze-like windings. The house they inhabited, indeed, was one of those he had designed for a client, but the 'fat chough' had refused to go into it for some unaccountable reason; he and Eileen were only perching there, however, on the edge of settling down in some more permanent house when they came into their expectations.
Considering the vicissitudes and disappointments of their life together, it was remarkable how certain they remained that they would at last cross the bar and reach the harbour of comfortable circumstance. They had, one may suppose, expectations in their blood. The germ of getting 'something for nothing' had infected their systems, so that, though they were not selfish or greedy people, and well knew how to rough it, they dreamed so of what they had not, that they continually got rid of what they had in order to obtain more of it. If for example Ralph received an order, he felt so strongly that this was the chance of his life if properly grasped, that he would almost as a matter of course increase and complicate the project till it became unworkable, or in his zeal omit some vital calculation such as a rise in the price of bricks; nor would anyone be more surprised than he at this, or more certain that all connected with the matter had been 'fat choughs' except—himself. On such occasions Eileen would get angry, but if anyone suggested that Ralph had overreached himself, she would get still angrier. She was very loyal, and fortunately rather flyaway both in mind and body; before long she always joined him in his feeling that the whole transaction had been just the usual 'skin-game' on the part of Providence to keep them out of their expectations. It was the same in domestic life. If Ralph had to eat a breakfast, which would be almost every morning, he had so many and such imaginative ways of getting from it a better breakfast than was in it, that he often remained on the edge of it, as it were. He had special methods of cooking, so as to extract from everything a more than ordinary flavour, and these took all the time that he would have to eat the results in. Coffee he would make with a whole egg, shell and all, stirred in; it had to be left on the hob for an incomparable time, and he would start to catch his train with his first cup in his hand; Eileen would have to run after him and take it away. They were, in fact, rather like a kitten which knows it has a tail, and will fly round and round all day with the expectation of catching that desirable appendage. Sometimes indeed, by sheer perseverance, of which he had a great deal in a roundabout way, Ralph would achieve something, but, when this happened, something else, not foreseen by him, had always happened first, which rendered that accomplishment nugatory and left it expensive on his hands. Nevertheless they retained their faith that some day they would get ahead of Providence and come into their own.
In view of not yet having come into their expectations they had waited to have children; but two had rather unexpectedly been born. The babes had succumbed, however, one to preparation for betterment too ingenious to be fulfilled, the other to fulfilment, itself, a special kind of food having been treated so ingeniously that it had undoubtedly engendered poison. And they remained childless.
They were about fifty when Ralph received one morning a solicitor's letter announcing the death of his godmother, Aunt Lispeth. When he read out the news they looked at their plates a full minute without speaking. Their expectations had matured. At last they were to come into something in return for nothing. Aunt Lispeth, who had latterly lived at Ipswich in a house which he had just not built for her, was an old maid. They had often discussed what she would leave them—though in no mean or grasping spirit, for they did not grudge the 'poor old girl' her few remaining years, however they might feel that she was long past enjoying herself. The chance would come to them some time, and when it did of course must be made the best of. Then Eileen said:
"You must go down at once, Ralph!"
Donning black, Ralph set off hurriedly, and just missed his train; he caught one, however, in the afternoon, and arrived that evening in Ipswich. It was October, drizzling and dark; the last cab moved out as he tried to enter it, for he had been detained by his ticket which he had put for extra readiness in his glove, and forgotten—as if the ticket collector couldn't have seen it there, the 'fat chough!' He walked up to his Aunt's house, and was admitted to a mansion where a dinner-party was going on. It was impossible to persuade the servant that this was his Aunt's, so he was obliged to retire to a hotel and wire to Eileen to send him the right address—the 'fat choughs' in the street did not seem to know it. He got her answer the following midday, and going to the proper number, found the darkened house. The two servants who admitted him described the manner of their mistress's death, and showed him up into her room. Aunt Lispeth had been laid out daintily. Ralph contemplated her with the smile which never moved from his cheeks, and with a sort of awe in his thirsty eyes. The poor old girl! How thin, how white! It had been time she went! A little stiffened twist in her neck, where her lean head had fallen to one side at the last, had not been set quite straight; and there seemed the ghost of an expression on her face, almost cynical; by looking closer he saw that it came from a gap in the white lashes of one eye, giving it an air of not being quite closed, as though she were trying to wink at him. He went out rather hastily, and ascertaining that the funeral was fixed for noon next day, paid a visit to the solicitor.
There he was told that the lawyer himself was sole executor, and he—Ralph—residuary legatee. He could not help a feeling of exultation, for he and Eileen were at that time particularly hard pressed. He restrained it, however, and went to his hotel to write to her. He received a telegram in answer next morning at ten o'clock: 'For goodness' sake leave all details to lawyer, Eileen,' which he thought very peculiar. He lunched with the lawyer after the funeral, and they opened his Aunt's will. It was quite short and simple, made certain specific bequests of lace and jewellery, left a hundred pounds to her executor the lawyer, and the rest of her property to her nephew Ralph Wotchett. The lawyer proposed to advertise for debts in the usual way, and Ralph with considerable control confined himself to urging all speed in the application for Probate, and disposal of the estate. He caught a late train back to Eileen. She received his account distrustfully; she was sure he had put his finger in the pie, and if he had it would all go wrong. Well, if he hadn't, he soon would! It was really as if loyalty had given way in her now that their expectations were on the point of being realised.
They had often discussed his Aunt's income, but they went into it again that night, to see whether it could not by fresh investment be increased. It was derived from Norwich and Birmingham Corporation Stocks, and Ralph proved that by going into industrial concerns the four hundred a year could quite safely be made into six. Eileen agreed that this would be a good thing to do, but nothing definite was decided. Now that they had come into money they did not feel so inclined to move their residence, though both felt that they might increase their scale of living, which had lately been at a distressingly low ebb. They spoke, too, about the advisability of a small car. Ralph knew of one—a second-hand Ford—to be had for a song. They ought not—he thought—to miss the chance. He would take occasion to meet the owner casually and throw out a feeler. It would not do to let the fellow know that there was any money coming to them, or he would put the price up for a certainty. In fact it would be better to secure the car before the news got about. He secured it a few days later for eighty pounds, including repairs, which would take about a month. A letter from the lawyer next day informed them that he was attending to matters with all speed; and the next five weeks passed in slowly realising that at last they had turned the corner of their lives, and were in smooth water. They ordered among other things the materials for a fowl-house long desired, which Ralph helped to put up; and a considerable number of fowls, for feeding which he had a design which would enable them to lay a great many more eggs in the future than could reasonably be expected from the amount of food put into the fowls. He also caused an old stable to be converted into a garage. He still went to London two or three times a week, to attend to business, which was not, as a rule, there. On his way from St. Pancras to Red Lion Square, where his office was, he had long been attracted by an emerald pendant with pearl clasp, in a jeweller's shop window. He went in now to ask its price. Fifty-eight pounds—emeralds were a rising market. The expression rankled in him, and going to Hatton Garden to enquire into its truth, he found the statement confirmed. 'The chief advantage of having money,' he thought, 'is to be able to buy at the right moment.' He had not given Eileen anything for a long time, and this was an occasion which could hardly be passed over. He bought the pendant on his way back to St. Pancras, the draft in payment absorbing practically all his balance. Eileen was delighted with it. They spent that evening in the nearest approach to festivity that they had known for several years. It was, as it were, the crown of the long waiting for something out of nothing. All those little acerbities which creep into the manner of two married people who are always trying to round the corner fell away, and they sat together in one large chair, talking and laughing over the countless tricks which Providence—that 'fat chough'—had played them. They carried their light-heartedness to bed.
They were awakened next morning by the sound of a car. The Ford was being delivered with a request for payment. Ralph did not pay; it would be 'all right' he said. He stabled the car, and wrote to the lawyer that he would be glad to have news, and an advance of £100. On his return from town in the evening two days later he found Eileen in the dining-room with her hair wild and an opened letter before her. She looked up with the word: "Here!" and Ralph took the letter:
Lodgers & Wayburn, Solicitors, Ipswich
Dear Mr. Wotchett,
In answer to yours of the fifteenth, I have obtained Probate, paid all debts, and distributed the various legacies. The sale of furniture took place last Monday. I now have pleasure in enclosing you a complete and I think final account, by which you will see that there is a sum in hand of £43 due to you as residuary legatee. I am afraid this will seem a disappointing result, but as you were doubtless aware (though I was not when I had the pleasure of seeing you), the greater part of your Aunt's property passed under a Deed of Settlement, and it seems she had been dipping heavily into the capital of the remainder for some years past.
For a minute the only sounds were the snapping of Ralph's jaws, and Eileen's rapid breathing. Then she said:
"You never said a word about a Settlement. I suppose you got it muddled as usual!"
Ralph did not answer, too deep in his anger with the old woman who had left that 'fat chough' a hundred pounds to provide him—Ralph—with forty-three.
"You always believe what you want to believe!" cried Eileen; "I never saw such a man."
Ralph went to Ipswich on the morrow. After going into everything with the lawyer, he succeeded in varying the account by fifteen shillings, considerably more than which was absorbed by the fee for this interview, his fare, and hotel bill. The conduct of his Aunt, in having caused him to get it into his head that there was no Settlement, and in living on her capital, gave him pain quite beyond the power of expression; and more than once he recalled with a shudder that slightly quizzical look on her dead face. He returned to Eileen the following day, with his brain racing round and round. Getting up next morning, he said:
"I believe I can get a hundred for that car; I'll go up and see about it."
"Take this too," said Eileen, handing him the emerald pendant. Ralph took it with a grunt.
"Lucky," he muttered, "emeralds are a rising market. I bought it on purpose."
He came back that night more cheerful. He had sold the car for £65, and the pendant for £42—a good price, for emeralds were now on the fall! With the cheque for £43, which represented his expectations, he proved that they would only be £14 out on the whole business when the fowls and fowl-house had been paid for; and they would have the fowls—the price of eggs was going up. Eileen agreed that it was the moment to develop poultry-keeping. They might expect good returns. And holding up her face, she said:
"Give me a kiss, dear Ralph?"
Ralph gave it, with his thirsty eyes fixed, expectant, on something round the corner of her head, and the smile, which never moved, on his cheeks.
After all there was her reversion! They would come into it some day.
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