The Tee-To-Tum by Robert Smythe Hichens
Jack Burnham was quite determined not to marry Mrs Lorton, and if
there was one thing in the world upon which she had rigidly set her
heart it was upon refusing him. There were several things about her
which he deliberately disliked. In the first place, she was a widow,
and he always had an uneasy suspicion that widows, like dynamite, were
mysteriously dangerous. Then her Christian name was Harriet, and she
never took afternoon tea. The former of these two facts indicated,
according to his ideas, that her parents were people of bad taste, the
latter that she possessed notions that were against nature. Also, she
was well informed, and knew it. This condition of the mind, he
considered, should be the blessed birthright of the male sex, and he
looked upon her as an usurper. She didn't wear mourning, which implied
that she was forgetfulof dead husbands. Thenwell, that was about
all he had against her, and it was quite enough.
As for her, the whole nature of her protested eloquently against the
way he waxed his moustache, against the colour of his brown hair, and
of his brown boots, against his lounging gait, and his opinion of Mr
Gladstone. He had a certain arrogance about him, when with her, which
arose in truth from his fear of her intellectual prowess. This led her
to dub him intolerably conceited. She desired to humble him, and
considered that she could best do so by refusing his offer of marriage.
But she must first persuade him to propose. That was the difficulty.
They were constantly meeting in London. You always constantly meet
your enemies in London. And, when they met, they always devoted a great
deal of time to the advancement of the tacit and polite quarrel between
them. They argued with one another in Hyde Park on fine mornings, and
were really disgusted with one another at dinner parties and At
Homes. He thought her fastat balls; and she had once considered him
blatantat a Marlborough House garden party. This last fact, indeed,
put the coping stone to the feud between them, for Mrs Lorton expressed
her opinion to a friend, and Burnham, of course, got to know of it. To
be thought blatant at Marlborough House was really intolerable. One
might as well be pronounced to have had a heathen air at Lambeth
Distinctly, Jack Burnham and Harriet Lorton were acutely
Yet, there must surely have been some strange, unknown link of
sympathy between them, for they both caught the influenza on the same
dayit was a Sunday morningand both permitted it to develop into
After all, spar as we may, are we not all brothers and sisters?
The double pneumonia ought to have drawn them together; but, as he
lived in Piccadilly and she in Queen's Gate, and each was thoroughly
self-centrednothing produces egoism so certainly as
influenzaneither knew of the illness of the other.
Providence denied to both that subtle joy, and they got to the
mutton chop and chipped potato stage of convalescence in childlike
ignorance of each other's misfortune.
There must certainly have been a curious community of mind between
them, for both their doctors ordered them to Margate, and they both
took rooms at Westgate. Now a similar taste in seaside places is
undoubtedly an excellent foundation for eternal friendship. Let the
world crumble in atoms, two people who both like Westgate will still
find something to talk about amid the confusion occasioned by the
dissolution of kingdoms.
Jack Burnham arrived at the St Mildred's Hotel on a Thursday, with
Harriet Lorton came on the following Friday, with her maid.
Neither had any notion of the other's proceedings until they met
back to back, as you shall presently hear.
In ordinary circumstances of health and vigour, Burnham and Mrs
Lorton possessed dispositions of quite singular vivacity, looked upon
life as a fairly good, if rather practical joke, and were fully
disposed to consider happiness their métier. Being modern, they
sometimes concealed their original gaiety, as if it were original sin,
and pretended to a cruel cynicism; yet at heart, it must be confessed,
they were as lively as poor children playing in the street. But when
they went to Westgate, influenza had had its fill of them, and the
infinite pathos of the world, and of all that is therein, appealed to
them with a seizing vitality. Burnham, on the Thursday, was moved to
tears at Birchington Station by the sight of a mother and eleven
children missing the last train to Margate. Harriet Lorton, on the
following Friday, had hysterics at Victoria, when she perceived a young
lady drop a cage containing a grey parrot, and smash the bird's china
bath upon the platform. The fact that the parrot had been actually
taking its bath at the moment, and was left by the misfortune in much
confusion and no water, struck her so poignantly as nearly to break her
heart. She wept in a first-class carriage all the way down, and arrived
at Westgate, towards ten o'clock, in a state of complete collapse.
Mr Burnham was in bed drinking a cup of soup at this time. He heard
the luggage being carried up, but did not suspect whose it was.
Nevertheless, the ravages of disease led him to consider the slight
noise and bustle a personal insult, and he lay awake most of the night
brooding upon the wrongs of which he, erroneously, believed himself to
be the victim.
It was on the next morning that the two invalids met back to back in
a shelter with glass partitions upon the lawn.
Mrs Lorton, smothered in wraps, had taken up her position on the
bench that faces Westgate without noticing a bowed and ulstered figure,
shod in brown boots, sitting in a haggard posture on the reciprocal
bench that faces the sea. Nobody was about, for it was not the season,
and Mrs Lorton began slowly to weep on account of the loneliness. It
struck her disordered fancy as so personal. Creation was sending her to
Coventry. At her back the tears ran over Burnham's handsome
countenance. He was staring at the sea, and thinking of all the people
who had been drowned in water since the days of the Deluge. He wondered
how many there were, and cried copiously, considering himself
absolutely alone and free to give vent to his feelings, which struck
him as splendidly human.
When two people weep together one of them usually weeps louder than
the other, and, on this occasion, Burnham made the most noise. He
became, in fact, so uproariously solicitous about the drowned men and
women whom he had never known that Mrs Lorton gradually was made aware
of the presence of another mourner who was not a mute. She turned round
and beheld a back convulsed with emotion. Its grief went straight to
her heart, and, casting her own sorrow and her sense of etiquette to
the windwhich blew bracingly from the north-eastshe tapped upon the
glass screen that bisected the shelter.
Burnham took no notice. He was too deeply involved in grief. So Mrs
Lorton knocked again, with all the vigour that incipient convalescence
gave to her. This time Burnham was startled, and turned a hollow face
upon her. They stared at each other through the intervening glass for a
moment in wild surprise, the tears congealing upon their cheeks.
Beyond Burnham Mrs Lorton saw the whirling white foam of the sea.
Beyond Mrs Lorton Burnham saw the neat villas of Westgate. It struck
them both as a tremendous moment, and they trembled.
Remember that they were very weak.
At last he, conceiving naturally that she had recognised and desired
to summon him, walked slowly round to her side of the shelter, and held
out to her a wavering hand.
Good heavens! he ejaculated. The last person I
You! said Mrs Lorton. How astonishing! What on earth
He seized the opening she gave him with all the ardour of the
whole-souled influenza patient.
I have been ill, he said with a deep pathos, very, very ill. My
symptoms were most extraordinary.
He sank down heavily at her side, and continued, I doubt if any one
has endured such agony before. It began on a Sunday with
So did mine, Mrs Lorton interrupted with some show of
determination. You cannot conceive what it was like. I had pains in
every limb, every limb positively. The doctor
Of course I went straight to bed, he remarked with firmness. I
knew at once what was wrong. But mine was no ordinary case. Talk of
For nights I tossed in agony, she went on with a poignant
self-pity, so much engrossed that she never noticed the brown boots
which on other occasions had so deeply offended her. Morphia and
eucalyptus were no
He said it was pneumonia, double pneumonia, Burnham concluded
emphatically. How I came through it I shall never know. His smile at
this point was wan, and seemed to deprecate existence. I suppose there
is still some work for me to do. At the same time, I
Mine was also double! Mrs Lorton said with distinct tartness,
condemning privately his arrogance, and noticing the boots with a
strange feeling of sudden and unutterable despair.
It is all so much worse for a woman, she added vaguely, with some
idea of out-doing him, such as she had felt once or twice at dinner
parties, when her epigrams had been smarter than his.
The strong possess a greater capacity for suffering than the weak,
Burnham retorted. Medical science tells us that
Please spare me the revelations of the dissecting-room, she cried
bitterly; I am in no condition to bear them.
She glanced at him with pathetic eyes, and added, I ought to have
gone to Margate.
I ought to have gone there too, he said.
Really, you make the conversation sound like one of Maeterlinck's
plays, she rejoined. Do be more original.
The reproach cut him to the heart. He never knew why, but he felt so
much injured that he with great difficulty restrained his tears.
Women can be very brutal, he said moodily, biting his lips, and
wondering how many authors it was necessary to read in order never to
be at a disadvantage with a clever woman.
Mrs Lorton was conscious that she had hurt him, and instead of being
her nice, natural self and glorying in the fact, she experienced a
sense of profound pity that gave her quite a tightened feeling about
the left side. However, she only said, Men can be very selfisha
generality that many people consider as convincing as a bomband got
up to go.
I am staying at the St Mildred's, she remarked. It is the dull
season, so I am the only person there at present.
I beg your pardon, Burnham said, also getting upon his feet, I am
there too. My number is 12 and I have a private sitting-room. I do not
feel up to the coffee-room yet.
Mrs Lorton turned as pale as ashes with vexation. She had no private
sitting-room, and had ordered dinner in the coffee-room for that very
She felt herself at a disadvantage as they walked in a gloomy
silence towards the beach.
Three days had passed away, and Jack Burnham had found that he was,
in his own phrase, up to the coffee-room after all. In consequence,
Mrs Lorton and he dined there every evening at separate tables. A sense
of rivalryand there is no rivalry more keen than that between
contesting invalidsprevented both of them from eating as much as they
would have liked. When the widow refused a course, Burnham shook his
head at it wearily, and they rose from their meals in a state of
passionate hunger, which they solaced with captain's biscuits in the
seclusion of their bedrooms. Since they had Westgate almost to
themselves, and the weather was becoming bright and warm, they were
much out of doors; but their profound depression still continued, and
they were as morbid human beings as Max Nordau could have desired to
meet with when he was seeking for specimens of degeneration.
Their continual greedy anxiety to narrate the details of their
physical and mental sensations drove them to seek one another's
company, and soon it became an understood thing that they should sit
together on the lawn or in the winter garden during the morning, and
stroll feebly in the direction of Margate during the breezy afternoon.
These times were times of battle, of a struggle for supremacy in
symptoms that led to much heart searching and to infinite exaggeration.
Mrs Lorton, being a woman, generally got the best of it, and Burnham
entered the hotel at tea-time with set teeth, and an appalling sense of
injustice and of failure in his breast. One night at dinner, determined
to conquer or to die, he refused everything but soup; and noted, with a
grim satisfaction, that Mrs Lorton could hardly contain her chagrin at
having inadvertently devoured a cutlet and a spoonful of jelly. Indeed,
her temper was so much upset by this occurrence that she went straight
to bed on leaving the coffee-room, and sent down a message the next
morning to say that she was far too ill to venture out.
Burnham, therefore, sat in the shelter alone, cursing the craft of
woman. In the intervals between the cursings he was conscious of a
certain loneliness that seemed to be in the atmosphere. It hovered with
the seagulls above the sprightly waves, swept over the lawn hand in
hand with the wind, basked in the sunshine, and companioned him closely
upon the esplanade as he walked home to lunch. He was puzzled by it.
At lunch-time Mrs Lorton was still confined to bed, so her maid
announced. Burnham promptly began to wonder whether she was going to
die. He strolled towards Margate wondering, and found himself presently
in the sunset, gazing with tears in his eyes at the silhouette of
Margate Pier, and, mentally, placing a reverent tribute of flowers from
Covent Garden upon her early grave in Brompton Cemetery.
He also found himself, later, dropping a tear at the thought of his
own death, for of course with his weak health he could not hope to
outlive anybody for very long. Mrs Lorton's absence at dinner struck
him as more pathetic than all the misery of the travailing universe,
until he remembered that at last he could gratify his appetite, and
even accept two entrées at the hands of the waiter.
Life, if it is full of sorrows, is also full of consolations.
He ate steadily for a couple of hours, pitying himself all the time.
Next day Mrs Lorton re-appeared in a very bad temper. Her seclusion,
although it had enabled her to score several points off her rival, had
been in other respects wearisome and vexatious. She barely nodded to
Burnham, and went out towards the shelter alone. He followed furtively,
longing, as usual, for condolence, and presently saw her seat herself
facing the sea. The strained relations between them seemed to forbid
his placing himself at her side. The back-to-back posture would be more
illustrative of the exact position of affairs, and Burnham's nicety and
accuracy of mind induced him accordingly to face Westgate. Their
positions of the first day were thus reversed. She looked at the sea;
he stared at the villas. Strange turmoil of life, in which we never
know which way we shall be facing next! It struck Burnham suddenly, and
so forcibly, à propos of his and Mrs Lorton's reversal, that the
ready tears sprang to his eyes. How would it all end? Man spins about
like a tee-to-tum, bowing to all points of the compass. The time comes
when the tee-to-tum runs downand what then? Burnham was certainly run
down. That must be his excuse for what he did. He glanced behind him
through the glass screen, and saw by the motion of Mrs Lorton's back
that she was sobbing. In truth, the sight of the dancing waves had set
her thinking of all the poor people who have been drowned in water
since the beginning of things. Poor dead folk! She was trembling with
emotion, and still wept mechanically when she found Mr Burnham on her
side of the shelter proposing to her with all his might and main. He
was asking her to comfort him, to be a true woman and shield him with
her strength, to support his tottering footsteps along the rugged ways
of life, to dry his tears and stay the agonies of his shaken soul.
Your health will help my weakness, he said. Your vigour will
teach me to be strong.
It was a strange proposal, and she began to defend herself from his
imputations, stating her maladies, marshalling her symptoms of decay in
an imposing procession.
But it was no good. He had taken her unawares and got the start of
her. She felt it, and his determined weakness obtained a power over her
which she could never afterwards explain.
His influenza triumphed, for she forgot her resolution.
A wave of morbid pity for him swept over the woman in her. If he was
disorganised now, what would be his condition if she refused him?
Have I the right, she asked herself, to devote a fellow-creature
to everlasting misery?
Her influenza told her plainly that she had not.
* * * * *
People say that the marriage will really come off.
Jack Burnham announced it everywhere before Mrs Lorton got
thoroughly well, and Mrs Lorton told everybody while Jack Burnham was
still what his friends called awfully dicky.
One can but hope that their married life will be passed on the same
side of the shelter. If he persists in facing the sea, and she in
staring at the villaswell, they will live most of Ibsen's plays!
But at least they will be modern.
And so the tee-to-tum, thought of pathetically by Burnham on a
memorable occasion, spins round, and the sea and the villas are the two
aspects of life.