Book Three - Kippses

Chapter the Second

The Callers

H.G. Wells


§ 1

THE KIPPSES sat at their midday dinner-table amidst the vestiges of rhubarb pie, and discussed two post cards the one o’clock post had brought. It was a rare, bright moment of sunshine in a wet and windy day in the March that followed their marriage. Kipps was attired in a suit of brown, with a tie of fashionable green, while Ann wore one of those picturesque loose robes that are usually associated with sandals and advanced ideas. But there weren’t any sandals on Ann or any advanced ideas, and the robe had come quite recently through the counsels of Mrs. Sid. Pornick. ‘It’s Art-like,’ said Kipps, but giving way. ‘It’s more comfortable,’ said Ann. The room looked out by French windows upon a little patch of green and the Hythe parade. The parade was all shiny wet with rain, and the green-gray sea tumbled and tumbled between parade and sky.

The Kipps furniture, except for certain chromolithographs of Kipps’ incidental choice, that struck a quiet note amidst the wall-paper, had been tactfully forced by an expert salesman, and it was in a style of mediocre elegance. There was a sideboard of carved oak that had only one fault—it reminded Kipps at times of woodcarving, and its panel of bevelled glass now reflected the back of his head. On its shelf were two books from Parsons’ Library, each with a ‘place’ marked by a slip of paper; neither of the Kippses could have told you the title of either book they read, much less the author’s name. There was an ebonised overmantel set with phials and pots of brilliant colour, each duplicated by looking-glass, and bearing also a pair of Japanese jars made in Birmingham, a wedding-present from Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Pornick, and several sumptuous Chinese fans. And there was a Turkey carpet of great richness. In addition to these modern exploits of Messrs. Bunt and Bubble, there were two inactive tall clocks, whose extreme dilapidation appeal to the connoisseur; a terrestrial and a celestial globe, the latter deeply indented; a number of good old iron-moulded and dusty books; and a stuffed owl, wanting one (easily replaceable) glass eye, obtained by the exertions of Uncle Kipps. The table equipage was as much as possible like Mrs. Bindon Botting’s, only more costly, and in addition there were green and crimson wine-glasses—though the Kippses never drank wine . . . 

Kipps turned to the more legible of his two post cards again.

‘’Unavoidably prevented from seein’ me to-day,’ ’e says. I like ’is cheek. After I give ’im ’is start and everything.’

He blew.

‘’E certainly treats you a bit orf and,’ said Ann.

Kipps gave vent to his dislike of young Walshingham.

‘He’s getting too big for ’is britches,’ he said. ‘I’m beginning to wish she ’ad brought an action for breach. Ever since ’e said she wouldn’t, ’e’s seemed to think I’ve got no right to spend my own money.’

‘’E’s never liked your building the ’ouse,’ said Ann.

Kipps displayed wrath. ‘What the goodness ’as it got to do wiv ’im?’

‘Overmantel, indeed!’ he added; ‘Overmantel! . . .  ’E tries that on with me—I’ll tell ’im something ’e won’t like.’

He took up the second card. ‘Dashed if I can read a word of it. I can just make out Chit’low at the end, and that’s all.’

He scrutinised it. ‘It’s like some one in a fit writing. This here might be W-H-A-T—what. P-R-I-C-E—I got it! What price Harry now? It was a sort of saying of ’is. I expect ’e’s either done something or not done something towards starting that play, Ann.’

‘I expect that’s about it,’ said Ann.

Kipps grunted with effort. ‘I can’t read the rest,’ he said at last, ‘nohow.’

A thoroughly annoying post. He pitched the card on the table, stood up and went to the window, where Ann, after a momentary reconnaissance at Chitterlow’s hieroglyphics, came to join him.

‘Wonder what I shall do this afternoon,’ said Kipps, with his hands deep in his pockets. He produced and lit a cigarette.

‘Go for a walk, I s’pose,’ said Ann.

‘I been for a walk this morning.’

‘S’pose I must go for another,’ he added, after an interval.

They regarded the windy waste of sea for a space.

‘Wonder why it is ’e won’t see me,’ said Kipps, returning to the problem of young Walshingham. ‘It’s all lies about ’is being too busy.’

Ann offered no solution.

‘Rain again!’ said Kipps—as the lash of the little drops stung the window.

‘Oo, bother!’ said Kipps, ‘you got to do something. Look ’ere, Ann! I’ll go orf for a reg’lar tramp through the rain, up by Saltwood, round by Newington, over the camp, and so round and back, and see ’ow they’re getting on about the ’ouse. See? And look ’ere!—you get Gwendolen to go out a bit before I come back. If it’s still rainy, she can easy go round and see ’er sister. Then we’ll ’ave a bit of tea, with teacake—all buttery—see? Toce it ourselves, p’r’aps. Eh?’

‘I dessay I can find something to do in the ’ouse,’ said Ann, considering. ‘You’ll take your mackintosh and leggings, I s’pose? You’ll get wet without your mackintosh over those roads.’

‘Right-o,’ said Kipps; and went to ask Gwendolen for his brown leggings and his other pair of boots.


§ 2

Things conspired to demoralise Kipps that afternoon.

When he got outside the house everything looked so wet under the drive of the south-wester that he abandoned the prospect of the clay lanes towards Newington altogether, and turned east to Folkestone along the Seabrook digue. His mackintosh flapped about him, the rain stung his cheek; for a time he felt a hardy man. And then as abruptly the rain ceased and the wind fell, and before he was through Sandgate High Street it was a bright spring day. And there was Kipps in his mackintosh and squeaky leggings, looking like a fool!

Inertia carried him another mile to the Leas, and there the whole world was pretending there had never been such a thing as rain—ever. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; except for an occasional puddle, the asphalte paths looked as dry as a bone. A smartly dressed man, in one of those overcoats that look like ordinary cloth, and are really most deceitfully and unfairly waterproof, passed him and glanced at the stiff folds of his mackintosh. ‘Demn!’ said Kipps. His mackintosh swished against his leggings, his leggings piped and whistled over his boot-tops.

‘Why do I never get anything right?’ Kipps asked of a bright, implacable universe.

Nice old ladies passed him, refined people with tidy umbrellas, bright, beautiful, supercilious-looking children. Of course, the right thing for such a day as this was a light overcoat and an umbrella. A child might have known that. He had them at home, but how could one explain that? He decided to turn down by the Harvey monument and escape through Clifton Gardens towards the hills. And thereby he came upon Coote.

He already felt the most abject and propitiatory of social outcasts when he came upon Coote, and Coote finished him. He passed within a yard of Coote. Coote was coming along towards the Leas, and when Kipps saw him his legs hesitated about their office, and he seemed to himself to stagger about all over the footpath. At the sight of him Coote started visibly. Then a sort of rigor vitae passed through his frame, his jaw protruded and errant bubbles of air seemed to escape and run about beneath his loose skin. (Seemed, I say—I am perfectly well aware that there is really connective tissue in Coote, as in all of us, to prevent anything of the sort.) His eyes fixed themselves on the horizon and glazed. As he went by Kipps could hear his even, resolute breathing. He went by, and Kipps staggered on into a universe of dead cats and dust-heaps, rind and ashes—cut!

It was part of the inexorable decrees of Providence that almost immediately afterwards the residuum of Kipps had to pass a very, very long and observant-looking girls’ school.

Kipps recovered consciousness again on the road between Shorncliffe station and Cheriton, though he cannot remember, indeed, to this day he has never attempted to remember, how he got there. And he was back at certain thoughts suggested by his last night’s novel-reading, that linked up directly with the pariah-like emotions of these last encounters. The novel lay at home upon the chiffonier; it was one about society and politics—there is no need whatever to give the title or name the author—written with a heavy-handed thoroughness that overrode any possibility of resistance on the part of the Kipps’ mind. It had crushed all his poor edifice of ideals, his dreams of a sensible, unassuming existence, of snugness, of not caring what people said, and all the rest of it, to dust; it had reinstated, squarely and strongly again, the only proper conception of English social life. There was a character in the book who trifled with Art, who was addicted to reading French novels, who dressed in a loose, careless way, who was a sorrow to his dignified, silvery haired, politico-religious mother, and met the admonitions of bishops with a front of brass. He treated a ‘nice girl,’ to whom they had got him engaged, badly; he married beneath him—some low thing or other. And sank . . . 

Kipps could not escape the application of the case. He was enabled to see how this sort of thing looked to decent people; he was enabled to gauge the measure of the penalties due. His mind went from that to the frozen marble of Coote’s visage.

He deserved it!

That day of remorse! Later it found him upon the site of his building operations and surveying the disorder of preparation in a mood near to despair, his mackintosh over his arm.

Hardly any one was at work that day—no doubt the builders were having him in some obscure manner—and the whole place seemed a dismal and depressing litter. The builder’s shed, black lettered WILKINS, BUILDER, HYTHE, looked like a stranded thing amidst a cast-up disorder of wheelbarrows and wheeling planks, and earth, and sand, and bricks. The foundations of the walls were trenches full of damp concrete, drying in patches; the rooms—it was incredible they could ever be rooms—were shaped out as squares and oblongs of coarse wet grass and sorrel. They looked absurdly small—dishonestly small. What could you expect? Of course the builders were having him, building too small, building all wrong, using bad materials! Old Kipps had told him a wrinkle or two. The builders were having him, young Walshingham was having him, everybody was having him! They were having him and laughing at him because they didn’t respect him. They didn’t respect him because he couldn’t do things right. Who could respect him? . . . 

He was an outcast, he had no place in the society of mankind. He had had his chance in the world and turned his back on it. He had ‘behaved badly’—that was the phrase . . . 

Here a great house was presently to arise—a house to be paid for, a house neither he nor Ann could manage—with eleven bedrooms, and four disrespectful servants having them all the time!

How had it all happened exactly?

This was the end of his great fortune! What a chance he had had! If he had really carried out his first intentions and stuck to things, how much better everything might have been! If he had got a tutor—that had been in his mind originally—a special sort of tutor, to show him everything right. A tutor for gentlemen of neglected education. If he had read more and attended better to what Coote had said . . . 

Coote, who had just cut him! . . . 

Eleven bedrooms! What had possessed him? No one would ever come to see them; no one would ever have anything to do with them. Even his aunt cut him! His uncle treated him with a half-contemptuous sufferance. He had not a friend worth counting in the world! Buggins, Carshot, Pearce—shop assistants! The Pornicks—a low, Socialist lot! He stood among his foundations like a lonely figure among ruins; he stood among the ruins of his future, and owned himself a foolish and mistaken man. He saw himself and Ann living out their shameful lives in this great crazy place—as it would be—with everybody laughing secretly at them, and the eleven bedrooms and nobody approaching them—nobody nice and right, that is—for ever. And Ann!

What was the matter with Ann? She’d given up going for walks lately, got touchy and tearful, been fitful with her food. Just when she didn’t ought to. It was all a part of the judgment upon wrong-doing; it was all part of the social penalties that Juggernaut of a novel had brought home to his mind.


§ 3

He let himself in with his latch-key. He went moodily into the dining-room and got out the plans to look at them. He had a vague hope that there would prove to be only ten bedrooms. But he found there were still eleven. He became aware of Ann standing over him. ‘Look ’ere, Artie!’ said Ann.

He looked up and found her holding a number of white oblongs.

His eyebrows rose.

‘It’s Callers,’ said Ann.

He put his plans aside slowly, and took and read the cards in silence, with a sort of solemnity. Callers! then perhaps he wasn’t to be left out of the world after all. Mrs. G. Porrett Smith; Miss Porrett Smith; Miss Mabel Porrett Smith; and two smaller cards of the Rev. G. Porrett Smith. ‘Lor!’ he said. ‘Clergy!’

‘There was a lady,’ said Ann, ’and two growed-up gels—all dressed up!’

‘And ’im?’

‘There wasn’t no ‘im.’

‘Not—?’ He held out the little card.

‘No. There was a lady and two young ladies.’

‘But—these cards! Whad they go and leave these two little cards with the Rev. G. Smith on for? Not if ’e wasn’t with ’em.’

‘’E wasn’t with ’em.’

‘Not a little chap—dodgin’ about be’ind the others? And didn’t come in?’

‘I didn’t see no gentleman with them at all,’ said Ann.

‘Rum!’ said Kipps. A half-forgotten experience came back to him. ‘I know,’ he said, waving the reverend gentleman’s card, ‘’e give ’em the slip; that’s what he’d done. Gone off while they was rapping before you let ’em in. It’s a fair call any’ow.’ He felt a momentary base satisfaction at his absence. ‘What did they talk about, Ann?’

There was a pause. ‘I didn’t let ’em in,’ said Ann.

He looked up suddenly and perceived that something unusual was the matter with Ann. Her face was flushed, her eyes were red and hard. ‘Didn’t let ’em in?’

‘No! They didn’t come in at all.’

He was too astonished for words.

‘I answered the door,’ said Ann. ‘I’d been upstairs, ’namelling the floor. ’Ow was I to think about Callers, Artie? We ain’t never ’ad Callers, all the time we been ’ere. I’d sent Gwendolen out for a bref of fresh air, and there I was upstairs, ’namelling that floor she done so bad, so’s to get it done before she came back. I thought I’d ’namel that floor and then get tea, and ’ave it quiet with you, toce and all, before she came back. ’Ow was I to think about Callers?’

She paused. ‘Well,’ said Kipps, ‘what then?’

‘They came and rapped. ’Ow was I to know? I thought it was a tradesman or something. Never took my apron off, never wiped the ’namel off my ’ands—nothin’. There they was!’

She paused again. She was getting to the disagreeable part.

‘Wad they say?’ said Kipps.

‘She says, ‘Is Mrs. Kipps at home?’ See? To me.’


‘And me all painty and no cap on and nothing, neither missis nor servant like. There, Artie, I could ’a sunk through the floor with shame, I really could. I could ’ardly get my voice. I couldn’t think of nothing to say but just ‘Not at ’Ome,’ and out of ’abit like I ’eld the tray. And they give me the cards and went, and ’ow I shall ever look that lady in the face again I don’t know . . .  And that’s all about it, Artie! They looked me up and down they did, and then I shut the door on ’em.’

‘Goo!’ said Kipps.

Ann went and poked the fire needlessly with a passion-quivering hand.

‘I wouldn’t ’ave ’ad that ’appen for five pounds,’ said Kipps. ‘Clergyman and all!’

Ann dropped the poker into the fender with some éclat, and stood up and looked at her hot face in the glass.

Kipps’ disappointment grew. ‘You did ought to ’ave known better than that, Ann! You reely did.’

He sat forward, cards in hand, with a deepening sense of social disaster. The plates were laid upon the table, toast sheltered under a cover at mid-fender, the teapot warmed beside it, and the kettle, just lifted from the hob, sang amidst the coals. Ann glanced at him for a moment, then stooped with the kettle-holder to wet the tea.

‘Tcha!’ said Kipps, with his mental state developing.

‘I don’t see it’s any use getting in a state about it now,’ said Ann.

‘Don’t you! I do. See? ’Ere’s these peoples, good people, want to ’ssociate with us, and ’ere you go and slap ’em in the face!’

‘I didn’t slap ’em in the face.’

‘You do—practically. You slams the door in their face, and that’s all we see of ’em ever! I wouldn’t ’ave ’ad this ’appen not for a ten-pound note.’

He rounded his regrets with a grunt. For a while there was silence, save for the little stir of Ann’s few movements preparing tea.

‘Tea, Artie,’ said Ann, handing him a cup.

Kipps took it.

‘I put sugar once,’ said Ann.

‘Oo, dash it! Oo cares?’ said Kipps, taking an extraordinarily large additional lump with fury-quivering fingers, and putting his cup, with a slight excess of force on the recess cupboard. ‘Oo cares?’

‘I wouldn’t ’ave ’ad that ’appen,’ he said, bidding steadily against accomplished things, ‘for twenty pounds.’

He gloomed in silence through a long minute or so.

Then Ann said the fatal thing that exploded him. ‘Artie!’ she said.


‘There’s Buttud Toce down there! By your foot!’

There was a pause, husband and wife regarded one another. ‘Buttud Toce, indeed!’ he said. ‘You go and mess up them callers, and then you try and stuff me up with Buttud Toce! Buttud Toce, indeed! ’Ere’s our first chance of knowing anyone that’s at all fit to ’sociate with—Look ’ere, Ann! Tell you what it is—you got to return that call.’

‘Return that call!’

‘Yes—you got to return that call. That’s what you got to do! I know—’ He waved his arm vaguely towards the miscellany of books in the recess. ‘It’s in Manners and Rools of Good S’ity. You got to find jest ’ow many cards to leave, and you got to go and leave ’em. See?’

Ann’s face expressed terror. ‘But, Artie!’ ’Ow can I?’

‘’Ow can you?’ ’Ow could you? You got to do it, any’ow. They won’t know you—not in your Bond Street ’At! If they do, they won’t say nothing.’

His voice assumed a note of entreaty. ‘You mus’, Ann.’

‘I can’t.’

‘You mus’.’

‘I can’t, and I won’t. Anything in reason I’ll do, but face those people again I can’t—after what ’as ’appened.’

‘You won’t?’

‘No!’ . . . 

‘So there they go—orf! And we never see them again! And so it goes on! So it goes on! We don’t know nobody, and we shan’t know anybody! And you won’t put yourself out not a little bit, or take the trouble to find out anything ’ow it ought to be done.’

Terrible pause.

‘I never ought to ’ave merried you, Artie, that’s the troof.’

‘Oh, don’t go into that!’

‘I never ought to have merried you, Artie. I’m not equal to the position. If you ’adn’t said you’d drown yourself—’

She choked.

‘I don’ see why you shouldn’t try, Ann—I’ve improved.

‘Why don’t you? ’Stead of which you go sending out the servant and ’namelling floors, and then when visitors come—’

‘’Ow was I to know about y’r old visitors?’ cried Ann in a wail, and suddenly got up and fled from amidst their ruined tea, the tea of which ‘toce, all buttery,’ was to be the crown and glory.

Kipps watched her with a momentary consternation. Then he hardened his heart. ‘Ought to ’ave known better,’ he said, ‘goin’ on like that!’ He remained for a space rubbing his knees and muttering. He emitted scornfully, ‘I carn’t, an’ I won’t.’ He saw her as the source of all his shames.

Presently, quite mechanically, he stooped down and lifted the flowery china cover. ‘Ter dash ’er Buttud Toce!’ he shouted at the sight of it, and clapped the cover down again hard . . . 

When Gwendolen came back she perceived things were in a slightly unusual poise. Kipps sat by the fire in a rigid attitude, reading a casually selected volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Ann was upstairs and inaccessible—to reappear at a later stage with reddened eyes. Before the fire, and still in a perfectly assimilable condition, was what was evidently an untouched supply of richly buttered toast under a cracked cover.

‘They’ve ’ad a bit of a tiff,’ said Gwendolen, attending to her duties in the kitchen with her outdoor hat still on, and her mouth full. ‘They’re rummuns—if ever! My eye!’

And she took another piece of Ann’s generously buttered toast.


§ 4

The Kippses spoke no more that day to one another.

The squabble about cards and buttered toast was as serious to them as the most rational of differences. It was all rational to them. Their sense of wrong burnt within them; their sense of what was owing to themselves, the duty of implacability, the obstinacy of pride. In the small hours Kipps lay awake at the nadir of unhappiness, and came near groaning. He saw life as an extraordinarily desolating muddle; his futile house, his social discredit, his bad behaviour to Helen, his low marriage with Ann . . . 

He became aware of something irregular in Ann’s breathing . . . 

He listened. She was awake, and quietly and privately sobbing! . . . 

He hardened his heart, resolutely he hardened his heart. And presently Ann lay still.


§ 5

The stupid little tragedies of these clipped and limited lives!

As I think of them lying unhappily there in the darkness, my vision pierces the night. See what I can see! Above them, brooding over them, I tell you there is a monster, a lumpish monster, like some great, clumsy griffin thing, like the Crystal Palace labyrinthodon, like Coote, like the leaden goddess of the Dunciad, like some fat, proud flunkey, like pride, like indolence, like all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life. It is matter and darkness, it is the anti-soul, it is the ruling power of this land, Stupidity. My Kippses live in its shadow. Shalford and his apprenticeship system, the Hastings Academy, the ideas of Coote, the ideas of the old Kippses, all the ideas that have made Kipps what he is—all these are a part of its shadow. But for that monster they might not be groping among false ideas to hurt one another so sorely; but for that, the glowing promise of childhood and youth might have had a happier fruition; thought might have awakened in them to meet the thought of the world, the quickening sunshine of literature pierced to the substance of their souls; their lives might not have been divorced, as now they are divorced, from the apprehension of beauty that we favoured ones are given—the vision of the Grail that makes life fine for ever. I have laughed, and I laugh at these two people; I have sought to make you laugh . . . 

But I see through the darkness the souls of my Kippses as they are, as little pink strips of quivering, living stuff, as things like the bodies of little, ill-nourished, ailing, ignorant children—children who feel pain, who are naughty and muddled and suffer, and do not understand why. And the claw of this Beast rests upon them!

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