CHAPTER XVI

Heavy drinking amongst women (continued)— A terrible scene in my studio — A midnight visitor — A fortunate interruption — My friend the doctor — Extraordinary dénouement — Effect of drink on different women — A curious incident — The bell on the leg of the table

IN London in those days one could not shut one's eyes to the fact that there was a lot of heavy drinking, amongst women especially, nor was this confined to the "fast" set only, for I knew of several homes which had been practically broken up through it. There were not the counter-attractions and easy methods of getting about that exist nowadays, and this may perhaps account for what was almost a national canker twenty-five years ago, and of the existence of which one was continually reminded.

I shall never forget as long as I live a terrible scene which took place once in my studio. Although it happened many years ago, every incident of it remains clear in my memory, and as the people concerned in it are both dead, I have no hesitation in relating it here.

I was sitting up rather later than usual finishing a drawing with the light full on in the studio, and therefore any one could see from outside that I was in, when there was a ring at the bell. It was rather an unusual thing to get visitors at nearly I o'clock in the morning, so I went down to open the door, wondering who on earth it could be.

To my surprise I saw it was a very pretty model I knew, who had sat for me once or twice. Naturally — as a lonely bachelor — I was delighted to see her, so without any hesitation I asked her upstairs. She did not require much persuasion, and when we got into the studio, I saw she was in evening dress, very decolletée, with a cloak thrown over her shoulders. With a sort of grunt of contentment she flopped into an armchair, and, looking round the place, expressed her pleasure in somewhat peculiar language, considering how little I knew her, at finding me in.

Then without further parley she asked me to give her a drink, as she felt positively parched, she said. The tone in which she asked for it still further astonished me, for it seemed more like an order than a polite request, However, I took no notice of it and produced a bottle of brandy, which, as it unfortunately happened, I had in the studio.

Something in her manner roused my suspicion; it struck me she had been drinking, so I determined to keep my eye on the bottle and not let her have too much, as I didn't want any unpleasantness if I could help it. But she forestalled me; seizing a glass she helped herself so liberally that she fairly made me gasp. I handed her the water bottle as I had no soda. "Water!" she exclaimed scornfully. "Who wants water?" "I want something to buck me up, and water won't do it. Well, here goes, good luck! " and with that she drank off in one gulp half a tumbler of neat brandy.

I looked on positively speechless. She was always such a nice, quiet girl when sitting for me, that it was a revelation, this unexpected side of her character. There was not much time for reflection.

The strong, raw liquor seemed to have an instantaneous effect on her, and I at once realized that unless I could mollify her there was going to be trouble, so I started a conversation on casual subjects in the hope that she would not notice that there was still some brandy left; but her thirst was unslaked. Without hesitation she said she wanted some more, so I gently hinted that it was very fiery brandy, and she ought not to drink it undiluted.

That started the ball rolling. "Not drink it plain," she reiterated; was I so stingy that I grudged her a little drop of brandy, because if so, she would pay me for it, she could afford it, and taking her purse out of her bosom, she emptied its contents out on the table, and told me in insolent tones "to help myself."

In vain did I try to pacify her. She was rapidly getting worse, and with much volubility began accusing me of all manner of awful things. It was no use attempting to check her, so I tried another scheme and treated it as though I thought it a good joke on her part, and that she was only pretending to be drunk. But nothing would stop her flow of diabolical language.

Then she turned her attention to my paintings, one in particular in a fine frame coming in for special abuse, as there was a girl painted in it for which she had not sat. I hope never to have to listen again to such invectives from a woman, and all the time I was on tenterhooks in case she got up and put something through the canvas, or started smashing things in the studio.

Here was a pretty predicament indeed! What could I do? To go out and fetch Harris from next door to give me a hand in silencing her was out of the question. I dared not leave her in the place alone for an instant. In the meantime she was gradually working herself into a positive frenzy, and I realized it was a madwoman I had to deal with. "I have been waiting for this," she at length exclaimed, springing up from her chair, as I made some remark intended to be of a pacific nature; "and I'll show you what sort of girl I am."

What she was going to do, I don't know, for at that moment there came a loud ring at the bell, and that stopped her and gave me time to collect my wits. "Sit down and keep still," I said peremptorily. "We don't want any scenes here — you understand?" Curiously enough she obeyed me.

I hurried down to the door to see who it was, and wondering if it was another woman visitor, when, to my inexpressible relief, I saw it was a great friend of mine, a doctor; a very good fellow who often used to drop in and have a smoke with me. I was positively trembling with excitement after my nerve-racking experience, and was overjoyed to see him, as he was perhaps the best man I could have found to help me out of my difficulty.

In as few words as possible I hastily told him what had occurred, and asked if he would lend me a hand to get her out of the studio. He was a very big and powerful man, and loved anything where his strength would be of service. "Lend you a hand, Jules, my boy? Of course I will," he replied with a grin. "Lead the way upstairs and let's have a look at the lady." So up I went, my friend following slowly, so as not to spoil the effect.

The sight that met my eyes was the most repulsive one I ever saw. In the few minutes I had been downstairs at the door she had got hold of the brandy bottle and quite finished its contents, and was leaning against the table to steady herself. Her hair all disheveled, and with eyes glaring round like those of a wild beast, she was a horrible spectacle of depravity.

"What the hell do you mean by leaving me like this?" she yelled. "Don't you know how to behave to a lady when you've got one in your bloody studio." "A friend has dropped in to see me," I replied with assurance, for I knew there was nothing further to fear from her. "To hell with you and your friends!" she just had time to vociferate, when my friend mounted the last step, and entering the studio, faced her.

What followed then was more like a scene on the stage than something in real life. To my utter amazement he gave an exclamation of surprise on seeing her, and exclaimed hoarsely, "What! You here?" There was a deep silence for a moment, the two stood facing each other. The woman seemed as though absolutely petrified with horror. Her senses appeared to have suddenly returned to her. Then my friend, without taking any notice of me, walked slowly towards her, and, looking her straight in the eyes, said in slow, deliberate tones, "So you've started again, have you? Well, you know what is in store for you this time. I'm not going to give you another chance." He was livid with rage and hatred. Going up to the woman, he seized her roughly by the arm with a grip which I knew well. "Come along, out of this," he said, with the abruptness of a policeman.

Then the woman, to my utter stupefaction, flung herself on the ground and clung to his knees, shrieking, "No, no, Jim, not that. For God's sake give me another chance for the sake of old times. Don't put me back there. I'll never touch the drink again in future. I swear, by God, Jim, I won't." She was quite sane now, as if by magic. I should never have believed such a change possible in so few minutes. But he would not listen to her entreaties. Without loosening his hold on her arm he said grimly, "I don't intend to give you another opportunity, my lady. You've got to come with me, and if you don't come quietly, I'll have to make you, so don't let's have any nonsense about it. Come on, out of this." The woman, evidently realizing that her entreaties were of no avail, burst into a fit of hysterical weeping, and allowed herself to be taken down the stairs, or rather forced to go down, because the stairway was very narrow, and there was not room for two people abreast.

Meanwhile I was standing looking on helplessly, judging intuitively that it was best not to interfere, as I knew nothing whatever about the woman or the rights or wrongs of the case, though I guessed there was something behind it all that justified him in doing what he was doing. Looking through the studio window I saw him still gripping her by the arm, leading her through the garden to the street, then call a four-wheeler from the rank close by, put her into it, and drive away.

I heard no more of the incident until two days afterwards, when he called on me, and the mystery was cleared up. To my surprise I learned that he knew that she had been a model, and that the woman was his wife. They had been married about four years; but he had had an awful time of it owing to her drinking propensities. On several occasions, he told me, she had disgraced him by getting locked up for disorderly conduct. Matters had got so bad that at last in sheer self-defense, as she was ruining his practice, he had had to have her put in a home for inebriates, and it was only a few days previously, on her taking a solemn vow that she would give up drinking, that he consented to her coming out. But he had then given her distinctly to understand that if it ever happened again he would have her put in an asylum for an indefinite period, as there was no doubt it was a form of lunacy which required a long seclusion, if it could be cured at all.

It appeared that the night she had come to me he had had to dine out, and on returning discovered she was not in the house. Immediately suspecting that she had had a relapse, he had started searching for her in every likely place, even the police stations in the West End, and it was by the merest chance that he happened to notice the light in my studio as he drove past, and it must have been a sort of telepathy that made him stop his cab and ring my bell. In spite of all her entreaties and protestations, he added, he had adhered to his resolve to rid himself of her this time, once and for all, and he had concluded the necessary arrangements for her being taken into an asylum at once, as she was on the verge of insanity.

She died a few weeks later, a raving lunatic, I subsequently learned. For a long while afterwards the memory of this awful experience haunted me, and I don't think I should have been in a hurry to open the street door had there been a ring at the bell late at night.

Ever since then the sight of a woman drinking even a liqueur of brandy arouses in me feelings of disgust.

There is no doubt there was a lot of tippling on the sly amongst women of all classes in those days, for it was not an uncommon thing to hear of men having trouble with their wives on this account. I often used to think how surprised Frenchmen must have been at some of the sights that were of constant occurrence in this respect, for across the Channel drinking amongst women is unknown, and the whole time I lived in France I can safely assert I never once saw a drunken woman, nor did I ever hear of one.

The way the drink affected different women was in itself a curious study. Of course I don't refer to the "Have a drop of gin, dear" class — they were too well known to need referring to; but to those who could afford to indulge their particular fancy, such as brandy and soda, or Eau de Cologne, on the quiet. Many a time at nice houses did I meet ladies who were, perhaps, not actually drunk, but decidedly fuddled — otherwise there was no possible explanation for their idiotic behavior.

As a rule the delinquents were women well over the age when they might still call themselves young, from thirty and upwards, in fact, from the commencement of the period when they began to realize they were getting passée, mostly vain women who sought consolation for lost beauty or for some fancy grievance, and when under the influence of a "little drop too much" would become obsessed with all sorts of weird notions.

These were the worst of the whole lot, and probably caused more mischief than all the out-and-out drunkards together. Woe betide the man who even unwittingly rubbed them the wrong way. I came across several of this category at different times, whilst living in the Wood, and knowing their character, was always on my best behavior, and treated them with the utmost deference for fear of incurring their enmity. But once a woman is inclined to be hysteric through drink there is no knowing what she may do or say.

A friend of mine told me once of a curious incident that happened to him, and which I have always thought of in this connection. He was a well-to-do, elderly bachelor, and lived in a charming house not far from Finchley Road, where he used to dispense a good deal of hospitality when he was in London. I may add that being a man of means, and also sybaritical tastes, he had everything arranged in his rooms with a view to comfort and elegance.

One day he was entertaining a friend of his and his wife, whom he had never met before, to lunch. At the end of the repast, just as they were about to commence smoking, the man said he had brought a very special cigar with him for my friend, and getting up from the table went out of the room to fetch it from his case in his overcoat pocket.

It is necessary to mention here that the luncheon table was oval, and that my friend was seated at the head of it, with the lady on his right hand, and her husband facing her. As a rule, when alone, he usually sat where the lady was seated, as he had an electric bell fitted to the leg of the table, so that he could ring for the servants without disturbing himself by getting up.

Whilst the husband was out of the room my friend wanted the coffee brought in, so he reached down his hand at the side of the table to ring the bell. To his horror, the lady started back in her chair, exclaiming, "No, no, don't; my husband will be back directly!" Here was an awkward predicament. What he ought to do or say he hadn't the slightest idea. It flashed across his mind that it was either a case of deliberately putting himself in the wrong or making an enemy of the woman for life. Providentially for him the husband re-entered the room at that moment, and saved the situation.




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