Round the Red Lamp
The Curse Of Eve
Robert Johnson was an essentially commonplace man, with no feature to distinguish him
from a million others. He was pale of face, ordinary in looks, neutral in opinions, thirty
years of age, and a married man. By trade he was a gentleman's outfitter in the New
North Road, and the competition of business squeezed out of him the little character that
was left. In his hope of conciliating customers he had become cringing and pliable, until
working ever in the same routine from day to day he seemed to have sunk into a soulless
machine rather than a man. No great question had ever stirred him. At the end of this
snug century, self-contained in his own narrow circle, it seemed impossible that any of
the mighty, primitive passions of mankind could ever reach him. Yet birth, and lust, and
illness, and death are changeless things, and when one of these harsh facts springs out
upon a man at some sudden turn of the path of life, it dashes off for the moment his mask
of civilisation and gives a glimpse of the stranger and stronger face below.
Johnson's wife was a quiet little woman, with brown hair and gentle ways. His affection
for her was the one positive trait in his character. Together they would lay out the shop
window every Monday morning, the spotless shirts in their green cardboard boxes below,
the neckties above hung in rows over the brass rails, the cheap studs glistening from the
white cards at either side, while in the background were the rows of cloth caps and the
bank of boxes in which the more valuable hats were screened from the sunlight. She kept
the books and sent out the bills. No one but she knew the joys and sorrows which crept
into his small life. She had shared his exultations when the gentleman who was going to
India had bought ten dozen shirts and an incredible number of collars, and she had been
as stricken as he when, after the goods had gone, the bill was returned from the hotel
address with the intimation that no such person had lodged there. For five years they had
worked, building up the business, thrown together all the more closely because their
marriage had been a childless one. Now, however, there were signs that a change was at
hand, and that speedily. She was unable to come downstairs, and her mother, Mrs.
Peyton, came over from Camberwell to nurse her and to welcome her grandchild.
Little qualms of anxiety came over Johnson as his wife's time approached. However, after
all, it was a natural process. Other men's wives went through it unharmed, and why
should not his? He was himself one of a family of fourteen, and yet his mother was alive
and hearty. It was quite the exception for anything to go wrong. And yet in spite of his
reasonings the remembrance of his wife's condition was always like a sombre
background to all his other thoughts.
Dr. Miles of Bridport Place, the best man in the neighbourhood, was retained five months
in advance, and, as time stole on, many little packets of absurdly small white garments
with frill work and ribbons began to arrive among the big consignments of male
necessities. And then one evening, as Johnson was ticketing the scarfs in the shop, he
heard a bustle upstairs, and Mrs. Peyton came running down to say that Lucy was bad
and that she thought the doctor ought to be there without delay.