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Title: The Doll's House
Author: Fred M. White
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eBook No.: 1200061h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Doll's House

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Central Queensland Herald, Rockhampton, Australia, 30 Jan 1936

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014


IT was a very fine establishment indeed, and, when he had time to think, John Harness was very proud of it. And when he asked his wife what she meant by calling it a doll's house, she merely smiled, and told him that he would not understand, though she had hopes that he might find illumination some day.

Three years ago, and the house at Stanhope Gate had not been thought of. Three years ago Jack Harness and his wife lived in the country, and the city and its ways was a sealed book to him. Then somebody came along with a wonderful formula in the shape of a new dye, and Harness was invited to put a thousand pounds into it, and incidentally make a huge fortune wthout interference with his present employment, which in his case generally meant shooting partridges or playing golf. Within a year Harness was passing most of his time in the City, where his money was now involved. He had known the rack of anxious days and sleepless nights; he had stood more than once on the verge of ruin. And so gradually his fortunes had gone one step back and two forward till now he was spoken of as one of the coming men, and the doll's house in Stanhope Gate was the envy of all Kitty's friends.

"What a pity you let the old place," Kitty said more than once. "I should just love to go back to it again. Sometimes I wish you would come to me and tell me that you had lost everything, and that there was just about enough to keep up the old Grange."

"What a funny girl you are," Harness said irritably. "There are thousands of women who would only be too glad to change places with you. And yet you laugh and call this a doll's house. Why?"

He lay back in his chair wearily, for he had had a long and trying day, and the shadow of the coming trouble was haunting him.

"Well, I will tell you," Kitty said. "It is so dreadfully cold and formal and artificial. It's all make believe, Jack, just like it used to be in the old nursery at home when I was giving a doll's tea-party. Now confess it, my dear old boy, don't you feel horribly lonely sometimes in this big house? Out of the men that come here can you reckon on one real friend?"

Harness shrugged his shoulders irritably.

"Do you mean that you are not happy here?" he asked.

"Ah, that is the pathetic part of it," Kitty cried. "You, the new man created in the City and grown up in three years have taken my other self—yourself—by the throat and strangled him. I was proud of your success once, I never realised that you were forging chains that grow stronger and heavier year by year. Before long you will not have the strength to break them. And not once since we came here have we been away together."

"Yes, I could do with a holiday," Harness said thoughtfully. "But I can't see my way to it just yet. I've got over a hundred thousand pounds sunk in a new valve. Three months ago I expected to make a million out of it. I knocked old Carton's concern end-ways. He came to me and asked me to compromise, but I wouldn't listen to him except on my own terms. He is a grasping old money grubber and boasts that he hasn't a friend in the world."

"I am sorry for him," Kitty said. "I wonder if in time to come people will ever speak of you as Harness the old money grubber?"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Harness muttered. "There's no room for sentiment in the City. What was I saying? I stood out for good terms and Carton refused them. I wish to goodness I hadn't been quite so firm now. I met young Edgar Ellis a day or two ago, and he was full of his latest invention. When I asked him what it was he said it was an improved valve, and that he was thinking of showing it to Carton. I managed to get a look at the blue prints, and I saw quite enough to know that if Carton gets hold of that invention my valve will be a drug on the market. The old man will fight me to a standstill. Once he gets the whip hand of me, I am done, Kitty."

Harness' voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, his face was pale now, and a little bead of moisture had gathered on his forehead.

"Is it as bad as that?" Kitty asked. "But surely, my dear boy, your course is quite obvious. Edgar Ellis is a most delightful young man, so clever and straightforward. Now, if I were in your place, I should tell him exactly how things stand and offer to take him into partnership. Like most inventors, he is poor, and will jump at the chance."

Harness smiled more or less pityingly.

"My dear child, we don't do things like that in the City. If we did we should be bankrupt in a week. Of course, my game is to pretend that I saw nothing in it, and suggest that I might possibly find some way of using it if we came to terms. I asked Ellis to come round here this evening, and he may turn up at any moment now. No, I don't mean it to be exactly a business interview, so there's no reason why you shouldn't sit here while we talk. Then you'll get some idea of how things are done."

Kitty made no reply. Her thoughts were far enough away, away in the heart of a pleasant country amongst green fields and shady woodlands, and in the background a low, rambling house, all white, with black cross beams and latticed windows peeping out from overhanging eaves. She could see the sunk rose garden with its grass paths and the battered old sundial athwart the cedar, where a work-table was laid out and a girl curiously like herself, was waiting for a man who bore an odd evasive likeness to that older man who was sitting opposite her in the doll's house. And everywhere was the air of good health and sweetness and content and the laughter that seems honour in small things and is content with the joy of today and the promise of tomorrow. Ah, well! this was all so different to the cold, artificiality of the doll's house, with the music of the birds and the bleating of the lambs in distant pastures was changed for the hoot of the horn and the sullen roar and rush of the traffic.

To get back to it; oh, to get back to it! Surely there was some way. There was no lack of money in those days, for the simple reason that so little was sought for or required. All was peace, contentment, and happiness, and life was blithe and full as the carol of the blackbird in the early mornings. They might get back to this, perhaps, someday, but nothing less than a blessed catastrophe could bring it about. A little time now and the tenants of the Grange would be on their way to India again, so that it would be possible to return there and find every stick and stone as Kitty had tearfully left it. From the bottom of her heart she was hoping that the proposed combination between greedy old age and sanguine youth would come about. "How great a fool a clever man can be sometimes," she said. "When you trusted your fellows you were happy. And they never played you false. And now you are utterly miserable because you can trust nobody. You tell me you stand on the verge of ruin. And even then you are afraid to tell Edgar Ellis the truth, because you are obsessed with the idea that he will take advantage of you. Now I should go to him and tell him the truth. I should offer him fair and liberal terms in the assurance that he will accept them eagerly. Oh, you laugh at me, but I am only speaking for your sake. If you came to me tomorrow and told me that you were insolvent, I should be glad. All I ask is enough saved from the wreck to enble us to go back to the Grange and knit up the threads of the old life once more. But that I fear will never be."

The library door opened at that moment and a young man came in. He looked eagerly from one to the other and smiled.

"Well, you two," he said cheerfully. "I always envy you when I come here. You always look so happy and comfortable—as if there was no such thing as the City and its worries."

Harness smiled in spite of himself. He was wondering what Ellis would say if he only knew the truth and if he could understand why the colour had flamed into Kitty's cheeks. For this young man held the fortunes of the doll's house in his hands, and if diplomacy failed, then the whole structure must collapse like a house of cards. Leaning back in her chair, with half-closed eyes and a strange fluttering in her heart, Kitty watched the progress of the fray. Very cleverly and skilfully Harness led up to that which was foremost in his mind, and Kitty caught herself wondering if this was the man she had promised to love and obey.

Kitty sat up presently, for down in the hall the telephone bell rang, and Harness with a gesture, intimated to his wife that she had better answer the call. A harsh voice asked if Mr. Ellis was there.

"He is in the drawing-room," Kitty said. "Shall I fetch him?"

"No occasion to do that," the harsh voice said. "A message will be quite sufficient. It is Mr. Carton speaking."

The receiver trembled in Kitty's hand. It was with an effort that she kept her voice steady. She would give Mr. Ellis a message, of course, and if Mr. Carton would kindly give it her, she would do her best to convey it correctly.

The harsh voice cut in without ceremony.

"Much obliged, I am sure. Tell Mr. Ellis I have been away all day and have only just got back. Say I have gone into the contract and accept the terms. I have just posted the cheque to the engineers in Manchester, and if Mr. Ellis will call at my offices tomorrow, at ten o'clock, I shall be obliged."

There was no more, not even a word of thanks or a good-night. And all the time that Nero had been fiddling there in the drawing-room, the doll's house had been fiercely ablaze. No doubt Carton had found out in some way where Edgar Ellis was, and had taken steps to strengthen his own position without a moment's delay. Was it too late to save the situation? Was there yet a last desperate chance of relieving the garrison? Would anything be gained by the suppression of that pregnant message?

But Kitty was by no means sure that she wanted to hold the pass. What she needed more than anything else was her husband back again as she had known him three years ago. And in any case Ellis was certain to find out. If there had been any temptation, she put it from her and went back to the drawing-room. She repeated the message word for word; she seemed to know it by heart. She saw the light of triumph flash into Ellis's eyes, and then the shade of regret on his face as he turned to Harness.

"This is a big triumph for me," he said. "I never really expected that Carton would accept my forms. When I saw him a day or two ago he seemed disposed to throw cold water on the whole thing. I suppose he heard I was here this evening and made up his mind to rush it through. Well, it's done now, and there's an end to it, but I would much rather that it had been you, Harness. To tell you the truth, I had been hoping for weeks that you would make me an offer. Your business and mine combined would have defied the world, especially as your position is so strong in the United States. But there are some men who like to work alone, and I feel that you are one of them."

"Is it too late now?" Harness asked.

"You are joking of course. I made Carton a definite offer which he has not only accepted, but has also backed it with a very large sum of money. We're going to be rivals now, but I hope we shall be none the less good friends for that."

Ellis had gone at length, leaving husband and wife facing one another across the dead ashes of the grate. Harness sat there moodily looking into the future. He glanced up presently to see that his wife's eyes were filled with tears.

"Well go on," he said bitterly; "I deserve all your reproaches. You are a better judge of Ellis than I am, and if I had followed your advice two hours ago Carton would have been standing in my place at this moment. I suppose you understand that he means to ruin me. Not that I am going to take it lying down. I'll put up as big a fight as possible, and I may come out with any luck with a few pounds to the good. But it won't be any more."

"Why should I reproach you?" Kitty asked. "I know nothing of your City ways. But I do know that there are good and honest men in the world, though you have ceased to think so. And I'm not in the least frightened, Jack. It will cause me no regret or humiliation to leave this house. Oh, if you could only understand! And, please God, some day I hope you will."

It is not to be supposed that the man in the doll's house turned his face to the wall or shrank from the fray. But the months that followed were drab and dreary ones, and night by night Harness came back with a shadow on his face that deepened day by day. There were strange stories and rumours in the City, and gradually those other women who had come eagerly at one time to help Kitty to play in the doll's house gradually relaxed their visits until they came no more. And there was one black and bitter night when Harness reeled home and collapsed in a chair, asking weakly for brandy, a thing he had never been known to touch before. There was no dinner that evening, and no longer was it possible to conceal from the curious eyes of the domestic staff the fact that disaster darkened the air.

"It's all over, Kitty," Harness explained. "Those people have beaten me to a standstill. They are having a certain amount of trouble with the United States over their patent because there is something in my specification that blocks the way. I believe that I could have compromised over that, but Ellis has been in America for months now, and I can't get at him. I swallowed my pride sufficiently to call on Carton this morning, but they told me that he had been laid up for days. I was ready to make pretty well any terms, but my lawyers said that something must be done today. So I have made an assignment of everything except the old place in the country. And there will be just enough to pay everybody. For the next few months we shall have to live on the rent for the Manor House, and even that will only last till those people go back to India. Oh, Kitty, Kitty, what a fool I've been."

He stretched out his hands to her and she laid her head upon his breast and comforted him. The thought of ruin troubled her not at all. The doll's house had crumbled in the dust, and before long all the pretty costly toys therein would go to other children of a larger growth who were eagerly making doll's houses of their own. But it mattered nothing to Kitty, for the City man was no more, and she had got her husband back at last.

She shed no tear and no blush of shame rose to her cheek as strange men pushed their way into the house without ceremony, and proceeded to label the pictures and the china and tear the velvet-pile carpets from the floors. It mattered nothing to her that the servants left in a body, and that she had to get her own simple meals. After all, there was no shadow of disgrace, and nothing that the gossips in the city could point to. Then there came another day when the house in Stanhope Street knew them no more, and they found themselves in dingy lodgings in Bloomsbury. There was no more than a hideous little sitting-room looking out on a dreary street, and for the first time in her married life Kitty thanked heaven that she had no children. It was necessary to look carefully at every sixpence, for the man who had recently controlled a big business was thankful now to draw three pounds a week from a house in the City. And when you've been accustomed to every luxury, it is a terribly difficult matter to face the problem of existence on sixty shillings every seven days. But then the cloud had lifted from Harness' brow, the stoop had gone from his shoulders, and he had learned to laugh again as he had done in the days which apparently had gone for ever. There were small pleasures and enjoyments, now at the cost of some rigid economy, but enjoyed with a wholeheartedness and zest that Kitty had never known in the gilded hours in Stanhope Street.

And so winter passed away and the spring came round, and down in the country the primroses and violets were blooming and the commons were ablaze with the golden glory of the gorse. The Manor House had been empty a few days now, and it was necessary that the place should be let without delay. Whether to let it furnished or sell all that beautiful old furniture was a problem discussed over many hours. Kitty would have preferred a little house of her own somewhere in the suburbs, but it was impossible to furnish without money, and so the important problem was left in abeyance for a moment and then something happened.

"I heard a bit of news today," Harness said as he came home tired and weary, yet smiling, from the City. "Old Carton is dead. He died at Monte Carlo over a week ago. I only heard it this morning. His general manager told me. He said they had cabled to Edgar Ellis, and that he might be back at any moment. When he comes back I am going to see him, and perhaps he will give me a good post in his firm. He owes me something, after all, seeing that his valve was inspired by mine. Ellis was always a good fellow, and without building up any great hopes, I am sanguine——"

The grimy maid of all work opened the sitting-room door and brought in a letter with an American postmark. It had been readdreased more than once, and Harness was interested to see that it was in the handwriting of the very man he was talking about. Kitty had noticed it, too, and together they read the letter.

"My Dear Harness,—I shall be home almost as soon as you get this, but I feel that I must write to you at once. I have just heard of the death of Carton by cable, and what is more to the point, I have discovered that the old man never carried out the promise he made me months ago. When I got out here I found that your patent was in my way. You claim certain things in your specification, and until the matter is settled I can do nothing here, at least I can do nothing definite for years. I proposed to Carton that we should jointly buy you out with an offer equivalent to a one quarter holding in our company. He promised me that he would see to it, and I understand that he has done nothing of the kind. He always hated you, as you know, and I suppose that was his revenge.

"Well, you have gone down unfortunately, but at the same time we cannot do without you if we are to reap anything like the volume of business which is open to us here. I renew the offer with the greatest possible pleasure. It means a very handsome income now and a large fortune in the future. With kind regards, and hoping to see you very soon, yours very sincerely,

"EDGAR ELLIS."

The letter fluttered to the ground. There was silence for a moment, then Harness caught his wife in his arms and kissed her long and tenderly on her quivering lips. There was a smile on his face and an eager gleam in his eye.

"We'll go back to the old place, Kitty," he said. "We'll go back to the Manor House tomorrow, and never leave it again. Never mind about the big fortune in future so long as we can have the wholesome country and get the old friends we could trust and love round us once again. I have had my lesson, Kit; you were right and I was wrong. And I can see that it was a mistake for us to come to London at all. Honestly, I've been a happier man on an office stool than ever I was in Stanhope Street. And if you can ever find it in your heart to forgive me——"

"Forgive you," Kitty laughed. "Haven't you given me that which I prize above everything—my husband back again?"



THE END

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