The Widow of the
They stood at the window of her boudoir in the new house which
Stephen Cheswardine had recently bought at Sneyd. The stars were
pursuing their orbits overhead in a clear dark velvet sky, except to
the north, where the industrial fires and smoke of the Five Towns had
completely put them out. But even these distant signs of rude labour
had a romantic aspect, and did not impair the general romance of the
scene. Charlie had loved her; he loved her still; and she gave him odd
minutes of herself when she could, just to keep him alive. Moreover,
there was the log fire richly crackling in the well-grate of the
boudoir; there was the feminineness of the boudoir (dimly lit), and the
soft splendour of her gown, and behind all that, pervading the house,
the gay rumour of the party. And in front of them the window-panes, and
beyond the window-panes the stars in their orbits. Doubtless it was
such influences which, despite several degrees of frost outside, gave
to Charlie Woodruff's thoughts an Italian, or Spanish, turn. He said:
“Stephen ought to have this window turned into a French window, and
build you a balcony. It could easily be done. Just the view for a
balcony. You can see Sneyd Lake from here.” (You could. People were
skating on it.)
He did not add that you could see the Sneyd Golf Links from there,
and vice versa. I doubt if the idea occurred to him, but as he
was an active member of the Sneyd Golf Club it would certainly have
presented itself to him in due season.
“What a lovely scheme!” Vera exclaimed enthusiastically.
It appealed to her. It appealed to all that was romantic in her
bird-like soul. She did not see the links; she did not see the lake;
she just saw herself in exquisite frocks, lightly lounging on the
balcony in high summer, and dreaming of her own beauty.
“And have a striped awning,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Make Stephen do it.”
“I will,” she said.
At that moment Stephen came in, with his bald head and his forty
“I say!” he demanded. “What are you up to?”
“We were just watching the skaters,” said Vera.
“And the wonders of the night,” said Charlie, chuckling
characteristically. He always laughed at himself. He was a philosopher.
He and Stephen had been fast friends from infancy.
“Well, you'd just better skate downstairs,” said Stephen. (No
romance in Stephen! He was netting a couple of thousand a year out of
the manufacture of toilet-sets, in all that smoke to the north. How
could you expect him to be romantic?)
“Charlie was saying how nice it would be for me to have a French
window here, and a marble balcony,” Vera remarked. It had not taken her
long to think of marble. “You must do it for me, Steve.”
“Bosh!” said Stephen. “That's just like you, Charlie. What an ass
“Oh, but you must!” said Vera, in that tone which meant
business, and which also meant trouble for Stephen.
“She's come,” Stephen announced curtly, determined to put
“Oh, has she?” cried Vera. “I thought you said she wouldn't.”
“She hesitated, because she was afraid. But she's come after all,”
“What fun!” Vera murmured.
And ran off downstairs back again into the midst of the black coats
and the white toilettes and the holly-clad electricity of her Christmas
The news that she had come was all over the noisy house in a
minute, and it had the astonishing effect of producing what might
roughly be described as a silence. It stopped the reckless waltzing of
the piano in the drawing-room; it stopped the cackle incident to
cork-pool in the billiard-room; it even stopped a good deal of the
whispering under the Chinese lanterns beneath the stairs and in the
alcove at the top of the stairs. What it did not stop was the
consumption of mince-pies and claret-cup in the small breakfast-room;
people mumbled about her between munches.
She, having been sustained with turkey and beer in the
kitchen, was led by the backstairs up to Vera's very boudoir, that
being the only suitable room. And there she waited. She was a woman of
about forty-five; fat, unfair (in the physical sense), and untidy. Of
her hands the less said the better. She had probably never visited a
professional coiffeur in her life. Her form was straitly confined in an
atrocious dress of linsey-woolsey, and she wore an apron that was
neither white nor black. Her boots were commodious. After her meal she
was putting a hat-pin to a purpose which hat-pins do not usually serve.
She gained an honest living by painting green leaves on yellow
wash-basins in Stephen's renowned earthenware manufactory. She spoke
the dialect of the people. She had probably never heard of Christian
Science, bridge, Paquin, Panhard, Father Vaughan, the fall of consols,
osprey plumes, nor the new theology. Nobody in the house knew her name;
even Stephen had forgotten it. And yet the whole house was agog
The fact was that in the painting-shops of the various manufactories
where she had painted green leaves on yellow wash-basins (for in all
her life she had done little else) she possessed a reputation as a
prophet, seer, oracle, fortune-teller—what you will. Polite persons
would perhaps never have heard of her reputation, the toiling millions
of the Five Towns being of a rather secretive nature in such matters,
had not the subject of fortune-telling been made prominent in the
district by the celebrated incident of the fashionable palmist. The
fashionable palmist, having thriven enormously in Bond Street, had
undertaken a tour through the provinces and had stopped several days at
Hanbridge (our metropolis), where he had an immense vogue until the
Hanbridge police hit on the singular idea of prosecuting him for an
unlawful vagabond. Stripped of twenty pounds odd in the guise of a fine
and costs, and having narrowly missed the rigours of our county jail,
that fashionable palmist and soothsayer had returned to Bond Street
full of hate and respect for Midland justice, which fears not and has a
fist like a navvy's. The attention of the Five Towns had thus been
naturally drawn to fortune-telling in general. And it was deemed that
in securing a local celebrity (quite an amateur, and therefore, it was
uncertainly hoped, on the windy side of the law) for the diversion of
his Christmas party Stephen Cheswardine had done a stylish and original
Of course no one in the house believed in fortune-telling. Oh no!
But as an amusement it was amusing. As fun, it was fun. She did her
business with tea-leaves: so the tale ran. This was not considered to
be very distinguished. A crystal, or even cards, or the anatomy of a
sacrificed fowl, would have been better than tea-leaves; tea-leaves
were decidedly lower class. And yet, despite these drawbacks, when the
question arose who should first visit the witch of Endor, there was a
“No, you go.”
“Oh! I'm not going,” (a superior laugh), etc.
At last it was decided that Jack Hall and Cissy Woodruff (Charlie's
much younger sister), the pair having been engaged to be married for
exactly three days, should make the first call. They ascended, blushing
and brave. In a moment Jack Hall descended alone, nervously playing
with the silk handkerchief that was lodged in his beautiful white
waistcoat. The witch of Endor had informed him that she never received
the two sexes together, and had expelled him. This incident greatly
enhanced the witch's reputation. Then Stephen happened to mention that
he had heard that the woman's mother, and her grandmother before her,
had been fortune-tellers. Somehow that statement seemed to strike
everybody full in the face; it set a seal on the authority of the
witch, made her genuine. And an uncanny feeling seemed to spread
through the house as the house waited for Cissy to reappear.
“She's very good,” said Cissy, on emerging. “She told me all
sorts of things.”
A group formed at the foot of the stairs.
“What did she tell you?”
“Well, she said I must expect a very important letter in a few days,
and much would depend on it, and next year there will be a big removal,
and a large lumbering piece of furniture, and I shall go a journey over
water. It's quite right, you know. I suppose the letter's from grandma;
I hope it is, anyway. And if we go to France—”
Thenceforward the witch without a name held continuous receptions in
the boudoir, and the boudoir gradually grew into an abode of mystery
and strangeness, hypnotizing the entire house. People went thither;
people came back; and those who had not been pictured to themselves
something very incantatory, and little by little they made up their
minds to go. Some thought the woman excellent, others said it was all
rot. But none denied that it was interesting. None could possibly deny
that the fortune-telling had killed every other diversion provided by
the hospitable Stephen and Vera (except the refreshments). The most
scornful scoffers made a concession and kindly consented to go to the
boudoir. Stephen went. Charlie went. Even the Mayor of Hanbridge went
(not being on the borough Bench that night).
But Vera would not go. A genuine fear was upon her. Christmases had
always been unlucky for her peace of mind. And she was highly
superstitious. Yet she wanted to go; she was burning to go, all the
while assuring her guests that nothing would induce her to go. The
party drew to a close, and pair by pair the revellers drove off, or
walked, into the romantic night. Then Stephen told Vera to give the
woman half-a-sovereign and let her depart, for it was late. And in
paying the half-sovereign to the woman Vera was suddenly overcome by
temptation and asked for her fortune. The woman's grimy simplicity, her
smiling face, the commonness of her teapot, her utter unlikeness to
anything in the first act of Macbeth, encouraged Vera to believe
in her magic powers. Vera's hand trembled as, under instructions, she
tipped the tea-leaves into the saucer.
“Ay!” said the witch, in broadest Staffordshire, running her
objectionable hand up and down the buttons of her linsey-woolsey
bodice, and gently agitating the saucer. “Theer's a widder theer.”
[There's a widow there.] “Yo'll be havin' a letter, or it mit be a
Vera wouldn't hear any more. Her one fear in life was the fear of
Stephen's death (though she did console Charlie with nice smiles
and lots of tete-a-tete), and here was this fiendish witch
directly foreseeing the dreadful event.
Every day for many days Stephen expected to have to take part in a
pitched battle about the proposed balcony. The sweet enemy, however,
did not seem to be in fighting form. It is true that she mentioned the
balcony, but she mentioned it in quite a reasonable spirit. Astounding
as the statement may appear to any personal acquaintance of Vera's,
Vera showed a capacity to perceive that there were two sides to the
question. When Stephen pointed out that balconies were unsuited to the
English climate, she almost agreed. When he said that balconies were
dangerous and that to have a safe one would necessitate the
strengthening of the wall, she merely replied, with wonderful meekness,
that she only weighed seven stone twelve. When he informed her that the
breakfast-room, already not too light, was underneath the proposed
balcony, which would further darken it, she kept an angelic silence.
And when he showed her that the view from the proposed balcony would in
any case be marred by the immense pall of Five Towns smoke to the
south, she still kept an angelic silence.
Stephen could not understand it.
Nor was this all. She became extraordinarily solicitous for his
welfare, especially in the matter of health. She wrapped him up when he
went out, and unpacked him when he came in. She cautioned him against
draughts, overwork, microbes, and dietary indiscretions. Thanks to
regular boxing exercise, his old dyspepsia had almost entirely
disappeared, but this did not prevent her from watching every mouthful
that vanished under the portals of his moustache. And she superintended
his boxing too. She made a point of being present whenever he and
Charlie boxed, and she would force Charlie to cease fighting at the
oddest moments. She was flat against having a motor-car; she compelled
Stephen to drive to the station in the four-wheeler instead of in the
high dogcart. Indeed, from the way she guarded him, he might have been
the one frail life that stood between England and anarchy.
And she was always so kind, in a rather melancholy, resigned,
No. Stephen could not understand it.
There came a time when Stephen could neither understand it nor stand
it. And he tried to worm out of her her secret. But he could not. The
fascinating little liar stoutly stuck to it that nothing was the matter
with her, and that she had nothing on her mind. Stephen knew
differently. He consulted Charlie Woodruff. She had not made a
confidant of Charlie. Charlie was exactly as much in the dark as
Stephen. Then Stephen (I regret to have to say it) took to swearing.
For instance, he swore when she hid all his thin socks and so obliged
him to continue with his thick ones. And one day he swore when, in
answer to his query why she was pale, she said she didn't know.
He thus, without expecting to do so, achieved a definite climax.
For she broke out. She ceased in half a second to be pale. She gave
him with cutting candour all that had been bottled up in her entrancing
bosom. She told him that the witch had foreseen her a widow (which was
the same thing as prophesying his death), and that she had done, and
was doing, all that the ingenuity of a loving heart could suggest to
keep him alive in spite of the prediction, but that, in face of his
infamous brutality, she should do no more; that if he chose to die and
leave her a widow he might die and leave her a widow for all she cared;
in brief, that she had done with him.
When she had become relatively calm Stephen addressed her calmly,
and even ingratiatingly.
“I'm sorry,” he said, and added, “but you know you did say that you
were hiding nothing from me.”
“Of course,” she retorted, “because I was.” Her arguments
were usually on this high plane of logic.
“And you ought not to be so superstitious,” Stephen proceeded.
“Well,” said she, with truth, “one never knows.” And she wiped away
a tear and showed the least hint of an inclination to kiss him. “And
anyhow my only anxiety was for you.”
“Do you really believe what that woman said?” Stephen asked.
“Well,” she repeated, “one never knows.”
“Because if you do, I'll tell you something.”
“What?” Vera demanded.
At this juncture Stephen committed an error of tactics. He might
have let her continue in the fear of his death, and thus remained on
velvet (subject to occasional outbreaks) for the rest of his life. But
he gave himself utterly away.
“She told me I should live till I was ninety,” said he. “So
you can't be a widow for quite half a century, and you'll be eighty
Within twenty-four hours she was at him about the balcony.
“The summer will be lovely,” she said, in reply to his argument
“Rubbish,” she said, in reply to his argument about safety.
“Who cares for your old breakfast-room?” she said, in reply to his
argument about darkness at breakfast.
“We will have trees planted on that side—big elms,” she said, in
reply to his argument about the smoke of the Five Towns spoiling the
Whereupon Stephen definitely and clearly enunciated that he should
not build a balcony.
“Oh, but you must!” she protested.
“A balcony is quite impossible,” said Stephen, with his firmest
“You'll see if it's impossible,” said she, “when I'm that widow.”
The curious may be interested to know that she has already begun to