by Wilkie Collins



[A Privileged Communication from a Lady in Distress.]

I HAVE such an extremely difficult subject to write about, that I really don't know how to begin. The fact is, I am a single lady--single, you will please to understand, entirely because I have refused many excellent offers. Pray don't imagine from this that I am old, Some women's offers come at long intervals, and other women's offers come close together. Mine came remarkably close together--so, of course, I cannot possibly be old. Not that I presume to describe myself as absolutely young either; so much depends on people's points of view. I have heard female children of the ages of eighteen or nineteen called young ladies. This seems to me to be ridiculous--and I have held that opinion, without once wavering from it, for more than ten years past. It is, after all, a question of feeling; and, shall I confess it? I feel so young!

Dear, dear me! this is dreadfully egotistical; and, besides, it is not in the least what I want. May I be kindly permitted to begin again?

Is there any chance of our going to, war with somebody before long? This is such a dreadful question for a lady to put, that I feel called upon to apologize and explain myself. I don't rejoice in bloodshed--I don't, indeed. The smell of gunpowder is horrible to me; and the going off of the smallest imaginable gun invariably makes me scream. But if on some future occasion we--of course, I mean the Government--find it quite impossible to avoid plunging into the horrors of war--then, what I want to know is whether my next door neighbor, Major Namby, will be taken from his home by the Horse Guards, and presented with his fit post of command in the English army? It will come out sooner or later; so there is no harm in my acknowledging at once that it would add immeasurably to my comfort and happiness if the major were ordered off on any service which would take him away from his own house.

I am really very sorry, but I must leave off beginning already, and go back again to the part before the beginning (if there is such a thing) in order to explain the nature of my objection to Major Namby, and why it would be such a great relief to me (supposing we are unfortunate enough to plunge into the horrors of war), if he happened to be one of the first officers called out for the service of his Queen and country.


I live in the suburbs, and I have bought my house. The major lives in the suburbs, next door to me, and he has bought his house. I don't object to this, of course. I merely mention it to make things straight.

Major Namby has been twice married. His first wife--dear, dear! how can I express it? Shall I say, with vulgar abruptness, that his first wife had a family? And must I descend into particulars, and add that they are four in number, and that two of them are twins? Well, the words are written; and if they will do over again for the same purpose, I beg to repeat them in reference to the second Mrs. Namby (still alive), who has also had a family, and is--no, I really cannot say, is likely to go on having one. There are certain limits in a case of this kind, and I think I have reached them. Permit me simply to state that the second Mrs. Namby has three children at present. These, with the first Mrs. Namby's four, make a total of seven. The seven are composed of five girls and two boys. And the first Mrs. Namby's family all have one particular kind of constitution, and the second Mrs. Namby's family all have another particular kind of constitution. Let me explain once more that I merely mention these little matters, and that I don't object to them.

Now pray be patient; I am coming fast to the point--I am, indeed. But please let me say a little word or two about Major Namby himself.

In the first place, I have looked out his name in the Army List, and I cannot find that he was ever engaged in battle anywhere. He appears to have entered the army, most unfortunately for his own renown, just after, instead of just before, the battle of Waterloo. He has been at all sorts of foreign stations, at the very time, in each case, when there was no military work to do--except once at some West Indian island, where he seems to have assisted in putting down a few poor unfortunate negroes who tried to get up a riot. This is the only active service that he has ever performed; so I suppose it is all owing to his being well off, and to those dreadful abuses of ours, that he has been made a major for not having done a major's work. So far as looks go, however, he is military enough in appearance to take the command of the British army at five minutes' notice. He is very tall and upright, and carries a martial cane, and wears short martial whiskers, and has an awfully loud martial voice. His face is very pink, and his eyes are extremely round and staring, and he has that singularly disagreeable-looking roll of fat red flesh at the back of his neck, between the bottom of his short gray hair and the top of his stiff black stock which seems to be peculiar to all hearty old officers who are remarkably well to do in the world. He is certainly not more than sixty years of age; and, if a lady may presume to judge of such a thing, I should say decidedly that he had an immense amount of undeveloped energy still left in him at the service of the Horse Guards.

This undeveloped energy--and here, at length, I come to the point--not having any employment in the right direction, has run wild in the wrong direction, and has driven the major to devote the whole of his otherwise idle time to his domestic affairs. He manages his children instead of his regiment, and establishes discipline in the servants' hall instead of in the barrack-yard. Have I any right to object to this? None whatever, I readily admit. I may hear (most unwillingly) that Major Namby has upset the house by going into the kitchen and objecting to the smartness of the servants' caps; but as I am not, thank Heaven, one of those unfortunate servants, I am not called on to express my opinion of such unmanly meddling, much as I scorn it. I may be informed (entirely against my own will) that Mrs. Namby's husband has dared to regulate, not only the size and substance, but even the number, of certain lower and inner articles of Mrs. Namby's dress, which no earthly consideration will induce me particularly to describe; but as I do not (I thank Heaven again) occupy the degraded position of the major's wife, I am not justified in expressing my indignation at domestic prying and pettifogging, though I feel it all over me, at this very moment, from head to foot. What Major Namby does and says inside his own house is his business, and not mine. But what he does and says outside his own house, on the gravel-walk of his front garden--under my own eyes and close to my own ears, as I sit at work at the window--is as much my affair as the major's, and more; for it is I who suffer by it.

Pardon me a momentary pause for relief, a momentary thrill of self-congratulation. I have got to my destination at last--I have taken the right literary turning at the end of the preceding paragraph; and the fair high-road of plain narrative now spreads engagingly before me.

My complaint against Major Namby is, in plain terms, that he transacts the whole of his domestic business in his front garden. Whether it arises from natural weakness of memory, from total want of a sense of propriety, or from a condition of mind which is closely allied to madness of the eccentric sort, I cannot say--but the major certainly does sometimes partially, and sometimes entirely, forget his private family matters, and the necessary directions connected with them, while he is inside the house; and does habitually remember them, and repair all omissions, by bawling through his windows, at the top of his voice, as soon as he gets outside the house. It never seems to occur to him that he might advantageously return indoors, and there mention what he has forgotten in a private and proper way. The instant the lost idea strikes him--which it invariably does, either in his front garden or in the roadway outside his house--he roars for his wife, either from the gravel-walk or over the low wall; and (if I may use so strong an expression) empties his mind to her in public, without appearing to care whose ears he wearies, whose delicacy he shocks, or whose ridicule he invites. If the man is not mad, his own small family fusses have taken such complete possession of all his senses, that he is quite incapable of noticing anything else, and perfectly impenetrable to the opinions of his neighbors. Let me show that the grievance of which I complain is no slight one, by giving a few examples of the general persecution that I suffer, and the occasional shocks that are administered to my delicacy, at the coarse hands of Major Namby.

We will say it is a fine warm morning. I am sitting in my front room, with the window open, absorbed over a deeply interesting book. I hear the door of the next house bang; I look up, and see the major descending the steps into his front garden.

He walks--no, he marches--half-way down the front garden path, with his head high in the air, and his chest stuck out, and his military cane fiercely flourished in his right hand. Suddenly he stops, stamps with one foot, knocks up the hinder part of the brim of his extremely curly hat with his left hand, and begins to scratch at that singularly disagreeable-looking roll of fat red flesh in the back of his neck (which scratching, I may observe, in parenthesis, is always a sure sign, in the case of this horrid man, that a lost domestic idea has suddenly come back to him). He waits a moment in the ridiculous position just described, then wheels round on his heel, looks up at the first-floor window, and instead of going back into the house to mention what he has forgotten, bawls out fiercely from the middle of the walk:


I hear his wife's voice--a shockingly shrill one; but what can you expect of a woman who has been seen over and over again in a slatternly striped wrapper as late as two o'clock in the afternoon?--I hear his wife's voice answer from inside the house:

"Yes, dear."

"I said it was a south wind."

"Yes, dear."

"It isn't a south wind."

"Lor', dear!"

"It's southeast. I won't have Georgina taken out to-day." (Georgina is one of the first Mrs. Namby's family, and they are all weak in the chest.) "Where's nurse?"

"Here, sir!"

"Nurse, I won't have Jack allowed to run. Whenever that boy perspires, he catches cold. Hang up his hoop. If he cries, take him into my dressing-room and show him the birch rod. Matilda!"

"Yes, dear."

"What the devil do they mean by daubing all that grease over Mary's hair? It's beastly to see it--do you hear?--beastly! Where's Pamby?" (Pamby is the unfortunate work-woman who makes and mends the family linen.)

"Here, sir."

"Pamby, what are you about now?"

No answer. Pamby, or somebody else, giggles faintly. The major flourishes his cane in a fury.

"Why the devil don't you answer me? I give you three seconds to answer me, or leave the house. One--two--three. Pamby! what are you about now?"

"If you please, sir, I'm doing something--"


"Something particular for baby, sir."

"Drop it directly, whatever it is. Matilda! how many pair of trousers has Katie got?"

"Only three, dear."


"Yes, sir."

"Shorten all Miss Katie's trousers directly, including the pair she's got on. I've said, over and over again, that I won't have those frills of hers any lower down than her knees. Don't let me see them at the middle of her shins again. Nurse!"

"Yes, sir."

"Mind the crossings. Don't let the children sit down if they're hot. Don't let them speak to other children. Don't let them get playing with strange dogs. Don't let them mess their things. And, above all, don't bring Master Jack back in a perspiration. Is there anything more, before I go out?"

"No, sir."

"Matilda! Is there anything more?"

"No, dear."

"Pamby! Is there anything more?"

"No, sir."

Here the domestic colloquy ends, for the time being. Will any sensitive person--especially a person of my own sex--please to imagine what I must suffer, as a delicate single lady, at having all these family details obtruded on my attention, whether I like it or not, in the major's rasping martial voice, and in the shrill answering screams of the women inside? It is bad enough to be submitted to this sort of persecution when one is alone; but it is far worse to be also exposed to it--as I am constantly--in the presence of visitors, whose conversation is necessarily interrupted, whose ears are necessarily shocked, whose very stay in my house is necessarily shortened, by Major Namby's unendurably public way of managing his private concerns.

Only the other day, my old, dear, and most valued friend, Lady Malkinshaw, was sitting with me, and was entering at great length into the interesting story of her second daughter's unhappy marriage-engagement, and of the dignified manner in which the family ultimately broke it off. For a quarter of an hour or so our interview continued to be delightfully uninterrupted. At the end of that time, however, just as Lady Malkinshaw, with the tears in her eyes, was beginning to describe the effect of her daughter's dreadful disappointment on the poor dear girl's mind and looks, I heard the door of the major's house bang as usual; and, looking out of the window in despair, saw the major himself strut half-way down the walk, stop, scratch violently at his roll of red flesh, wheel round so as to face the house, consider a little, pull his tablets out of his waistcoat-pocket, shake his head over them, and then look up at the front windows, preparatory to bawling as usual at the degraded female members of his household. Lady Malkinshaw, quite ignorant of what was coming, happened at the same moment to be proceeding with her pathetic story in these terms:

"I do assure you my poor dear girl behaved throughout with the heroism of a martyr. When I had told her of the vile wretch's behavior, breaking it to her as gently as I possibly could; and when she had a little recovered, I said to her--"


The major's rasping voice sounded louder than ever as he bawled out that dreadful name, just at the wrong moment. Lady Malkinshaw started as if she had been shot. I put down the window in despair; but the glass was no protection to our ears--Major Namby can roar through a brick wall. I apologized--I declared solemnly that my next-door neighbor was mad--I entreated Lady Malkinshaw to take no notice, and to go on. That sweet woman immediately complied. I burn with indignation when I think of what followed. Every word from the Namby's garden (which I distinguish below by parentheses) came, very slightly muffled by the window, straight into my room, and mixed itself up with her ladyship's story in this inexpressibly ridiculous and impertinent manner:

"Well," my kind and valued friend proceeded, "as I was telling you, when the first natural burst of sorrow was over, I said to her--"

"Yes, dear Lady Malkinshaw?" I murmured, encouragingly.

"I said to her--"

("By jingo, I've forgotten something! Matilda! when I made my memorandum of errands, how many had I to do?")

"'My dearest, darling child,' I said--"

("Pamby! how many errands did your mistress give me to do?")

"I said, 'My dearest, darling child--' "

("Nurse! how many errands did your mistress give me to do?")

"'My own love,' I said--"

("Pooh! pooh! I tell you, I had four errands to do, and I've only got three of 'em written down. Check me off, all of you--I'm going to read my errands.")

"'Your own proper pride, love,' I said, 'will suggest to you--' "

("Gray powder for baby.")

--"'the necessity of making up your mind, my angel, to--' "

("Row the plumber for infamous condition of back-kitchen sink.")

--"'to return all the wretch's letters, and--' "

("Speak to the haberdasher about patching Jack's shirts.")

--"'all his letters and presents, darling. You need only make them up into a parcel, and write inside--' "

("Matilda! is that all?")

--" 'and write inside--' "

("Pamby! is that all?")

--" 'and write inside--' "

("Nurse! is that all?")

" 'I have my mother's sanction for making one last request to you. It is this--' "

("What have the children got for dinner today?")

--" 'it is this: Return me my letters, as I have returned yours. You will find inside--' "

("A shoulder of mutton and onion sauce? And a devilish good dinner, too.")

The coarse wretch roared out those last shocking words cheerfully, at the top of his voice. Hitherto Lady Malkinshaw had preserved her temper with the patience of an angel; but she began--and who can wonder?--to lose it at last.

"It is really impossible, my dear," she said, rising from her chair, "to continue any conversation while that very intolerable person persists in talking to his family from his front garden. No! I really cannot go on--I cannot, indeed,"

Just as I was apologizing to my sweet friend for the second time, I observed, to my great relief (having my eye still on the window), that the odious major had apparently come to the end of his domestic business for that morning, and had made up his mind at last to relieve us of his presence. I distinctly saw him put his tablets back in his pocket, wheel round again on his heel, and march straight to the garden gate. I waited until he had his hand on the lock to open it, and then, when I felt that we were quite safe, I informed dear Lady Malkinshaw that my detestable neighbor had at last taken himself off, and, throwing open the window again to get a little air, begged and entreated her to oblige me by resuming her charming narrative.

"Where was I?" inquired my distinguished friend.

"You were telling me what you recommended your poor darling to write inside her inclosure," I answered.

"Ah, yes--so I was. Well, my dear, she controlled herself by an admirable effort, and wrote exactly what I told her. You will excuse a mother's partiality, I am sure; but I think I never saw her look so lovely--so mournfully lovely, I should say--as when she was writing those last lines to the man who had so basely trifled with her. The tears came into my eyes as I looked at her sweet pale cheeks; and I thought to myself--"

("Nurse, which of the children was sick, last time, after eating onion sauce?")

He had come back again--the monster had come back again, from the very threshold of the garden gate--to shout that unwarrantably atrocious question in at his nursery window!

Lady Malkinshaw bounced off her chair at the first note of his horrible voice, and changed toward me instantly--as if it had been my fault-in the most alarming and unexpected manner. Her ladyship's face became awfully red; her ladyship's head trembled excessively; her ladyship's eyes looked straight into mine with an indescribable fierceness.

"Why am I thus insulted?" inquired Lady Malkinshaw, with a slow and dignified sternness which froze the blood in my veins. "What do you mean by it?" continued her ladyship, with a sudden rapidity of utterance that quite took my breath away.

Before I could remonstrate with my friend for visiting her natural irritation on poor innocent me; before I could declare that I had seen the major actually open his garden gate to go away, the provoking brute's voice burst in on us again.

"Ha! yes," we heard him growl to himself, in a kind of shameless domestic soliloquy. "Yes, yes, yes--Sophy was sick, to be sure. Curious. All Mrs. Namby's stepchildren have weak chests and strong stomachs. All Mrs. Namby's own children have weak stomachs and strong chests. I have a strong stomach and a strong chest. Pamby!"

"I consider this," continued Lady Malkinshaw, literally glaring at me, in the fullness of her indiscriminate exasperation--"I consider this to be unwarrantable and unlady-like. I beg to know--"

"Where's Bill?" burst in the major, from below, before her ladyship could add another word. "Matilda! Nurse! Pamby! where's Bill? I didn't bid Bill good-by--hold him up at the window, one of you!"

"My dear Lady Malkinshaw," I remonstrated, "why blame me? What have I done?"

"Done!" repeated her ladyship. "Done!!!-- all that is most unfriendly, most unwarrantable, most unlady-like--"

"Ha, ha, ha-a-a-a!" roared the major, shouting her ladyship down, and stamping about the garden in fits of fond, paternal laughter. "Bill, my boy, how are you? There's a young Turk for you! Pull up his frock--I want to see his jolly legs--"

Lady Malkinshaw screamed, and rushed to the door. I sank into a chair, and clasped my hands in despair.

"Ha, ha, ha-a-a-a!"What calves the dog's got! Pamby, look at his calves. Aha! bless his heart, his legs are the model of his father's! The Namby build, Matilda--the Namby build, every inch of him. Kick again, Bill--kick out, like mad. I say, ma'am! I beg your pardon, ma'am--"

Ma'am? I ran to the window. Was the major, actually daring to address Lady Malkinshaw, as she passed, indignantly, on her way out, down my front garden? He was! The odious monster was pointing out his--his, what shall I say?--his undraped offspring to the notice of my outraged visitor.

"Look at him, ma'am. If you're a judge of children, look at him. There's a two-year-older for you! Ha, ha, ha-a-a-a! Show the lady your legs, Bill--kick out for the lady, you dog, kick out!""


I can write no more: I have done great violence to myself in writing so much. Further specimens of the daily outrages inflicted on me by my next-door neighbor (though I could add them by dozens) could do but little more to illustrate the intolerable nature of the grievance of which I complain. Although Lady Malkinshaw's naturally fine sense of justice suffered me to call and remonstrate the day after she left my house; although we are now faster friends than ever, how can I expect her ladyship to visit me again, after the reiterated insults to which she was exposed on the last occasion of her esteemed presence under my roof? How can I ask my niece--a young person who has been most carefully brought up--to come and stay with me, when I know that she will be taken into the major's closest domestic confidence on the first morning of her arrival, whether she likes it or not? Of all the dreary prospects stretching before all the single ladies in the world, mine seems the most hopeless. My neighbors can't help me, and I can't help myself, The law of the land contains no provision against the habitual management of a wife and family in a front garden. Private remonstrance, addressed to a man so densely impenetrable to a sense of propriety as the major, would only expose me to ridicule and perhaps to insult. I can't leave my house, for it exactly suits me, and I have bought it. The major can't leave his house, for it exactly suits him, and he has bought it. There is actually no remedy possible but the forcible removal of my military neighbor from his home; and there is but one power in the country which is strong enough to accomplish that removal--the Horse Guards, infuriated by the horrors of war .

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