The Piano Tuner by Barry Pain
Miss Caterham was forty-five, and said so, and looked it. She wore black
cashmere in the afternoon, and black silk in the evening. She was
methodical, and professed a hatred of all nonsense. She liked to take
care of everything and to avoid using it. Also, though fundamentally
kind-hearted, she was firm even to the point of obstinacy. Her ideas
were old-fashioned, and she had only hatred and contempt for any other
ideas. She kept fowls and understood them completely. She also kept her
orphan niece, Ruth Caterham, and understood her less completely.
Indisputably she loved the fowls much less than she loved her niece, but
the fowls had comparatively the greater liberty. She maintained a
decent, upper-middle-class state in a Georgian house, on the confines of
a little town that thoroughly respected her. It was not a suburb. It was
too far from London for that. The best trains took forty minutes. Miss
Caterham was rather acidulated about suburban people.
There, from time to time, she entertained the brother of Ruth's deceased
mother. She loved him, and abhorred his opinions. So far as might be,
she kept him in order. His name was George Maniways, and he was in
Parliament, and his politics were of the wrong colour. "You and the
other enemies of England," Miss Caterham would say, in addressing him.
She would probably have quarrelled with him, frequently, but for the
fact that it takes two to make a quarrel, and Mr Maniways was too lazy
to play up properly. His temper was so good as to be almost
pusillanimous. He was almost the only male who ever entered her house,
except in a menial capacity. She had been compelled to allow Ruth to
accept the Sotherings' dance and Lady Rochisen's. But when young Bruce
Sothering wrote to ask if he might call, she replied that they were just
going away, but that she would write on her return. She did not write on
her return. And she cannot have forgotten it, for Ruth reminded her
twice. Rather a difficult woman, Miss Caterham.
The day being hot, George had arrayed his long and meagre body in white
flannel. The conformation of his large grey moustache and his apologetic
blue eyes gave him the appearance of rather a meek kind of walrus—one
that would feed from the hand and do trust-and-paid-for. He reposed
himself after luncheon in a large deck-chair on the veranda. He held
between his teeth an amber tube with a cigarette in it. He had a box of
matches in one hand, and intended to light the cigarette when he felt
more rested. In the meantime he nursed a straw hat, and watched Miss
Caterham's wise and just restraint of a climbing geranium. Miss
Caterham, in the intervals of her work, watched George, with a glance
which indicated rapidly increasing displeasure. The fire kindled, and at
last she spake with her tongue.
"I am extremely sorry, George, but I simply cannot stand it any longer.
Will you kindly either light that cigarette or throw it away."
"I was just about to light it, Jane. This weather, especially after
luncheon, invests one's actions with a certain amount of deliberation."
"If you showed as much deliberation about your words, George, as you do
about your actions, it would be better for everybody."
George's astonishment was such that he let out the match which he had
just lit. "Oh, really, Jane, I wasn't conscious of having said anything
"It's not what you said now, it's what you said at luncheon. If you
don't strike another match and light that cigarette, I shall have to
George followed his instructions obediently. "At luncheon?" he said
meditatively. "Don't seem to remember having said anything particular at
luncheon either. While I'm here, I'm always careful to avoid politics."
"So long as you follow blindly the foes of your own country, that is
just as well. The treacherous and unpatriotic duffers, with whom you
have chosen to ally yourself——"
"Yes," said George. "You're perfectly right. It's much better to avoid
politics. But what did I say at luncheon?"
"Ruth was there."
"She was. Very charming she looked. I'm proud to be her uncle."
"I have the charge of her education, and the formation of her moral
character, and I considered what you said to be most unwise. Praise is
nearly always bad, and it is specially injudicious to praise a child's
beauty to her face."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Well, Ruth ain't exactly a child, you know. She's
"Only just eighteen, and I'm not sure that that does not make it worse.
I've always been careful to guard against anything of the kind. I do not
wish my niece to grow up vain and self-conscious."
"Oh, she's all right," said George feebly.
"Far from it. She is wilful, and there is nothing I hate so much as
wilfulness. I must have my own way, and I cannot be opposed in my views
by you or by Ruth. Also, it is quite untrue that she is beautiful. She
is nice-looking enough, but her mouth is certainly a little too large,
and she has permitted the sun to ruin her complexion—in spite of my
advice. I must request you, George, to abstain from saying anything of
the kind again."
George refused an invitation to inspect a new fowl-run, and said that he
preferred to sit and think over things. Amongst other thoughts, it
occurred to him that his niece did not in all probability have much of a
time. Where he sat, he could hear faintly the sound of the piano in the
drawing-room. It was obviously something of Grieg's, and appallingly
difficult. He was glad that he had not got to play it, and was merely an
audience. He had chosen the better part. After all, Ruth had her music
to occupy her, and she played tennis with the Vicarage girls, and what
else could she want? He was just dropping off to sleep when the
cessation of the music roused him again. A moment later his niece stood
She was a tall girl, and carried herself well. Most people would have
agreed with her uncle's estimation of her looks. She wore no hat, and
her face was certainly slightly tanned.
"Uncle George," she said, "I want you to do something."
"Not tennis," said George sleepily. "Nothing violent. After tea,
perhaps, when it's cooler."
"That's not it at all. Now listen. When you're at the House, you have
tea on the Terrace sometimes, don't you?"
"Sometimes. Whisky-and-soda sometimes. What do you want?"
"You can ask people to come and have tea on the Terrace, can't you?
Well, you've got to ask me. Next Tuesday, please. And you've got to
persuade Aunt Jane to let me go, too."
"I'm not so sure about that," said George. "I've just been getting into
a row about you. I'm not at all sure that I'm not a bad influence, and
that any proposal of mine would not be vetoed."
"You can do it all right," said the girl decisively, "if you go the
right way about it. Say that it's historical. I mean that your silly old
House of Commons is historical. It would have a great educational value
for me. You could show me where Chatham stood when he made his last
grand speech, and fell down in the middle of it."
"That happened to be in another place, to wit, the House of Lords."
"It's all the same. And rub it in a bit about Burke—she's keen on
Burke. Keep up a good strong educational line, and Aunt Jane will be
glad to let me go."
"Very well. I'll do what I can. Next Tuesday at four o'clock. Tell me
what time your train gets to Euston, and I'll meet it."
Ruth looked away from him, and appeared to be addressing one of the
pillars of the veranda. "I don't think you need meet it. In fact, I'd
rather you didn't. I know my way about London very well. You just wait
at the House of Commons. And if I'm not there by a quarter past four,
don't worry. It will only mean that I've changed my mind and gone
George whistled. "Well I never," he said. "And what might you be up to?"
"I'd much rather you didn't ask about it."
"Well, at any rate, who is he?"
George did not in the least suppose that there was any "he" in the case,
and was rather surprised that Ruth blushed.
"There," said Ruth, "I told you not to ask. Now I suppose you won't do
"Reverting to the original question, who is he?"
"Well, you've always said that all men are equal, haven't you?"
"In one sense, yes. All men are not equally desirable as companions for
"He is the man who came to tune the piano last week. You always said
class distinctions were all rot. We are going to see some pictures
together, and then he's going to give me tea—at least, he was. But now
I suppose you won't let us, though he's quite nice really. But at any
rate you'll have to promise not to sneak about it to Aunt Jane."
"Promise for promise. Will you promise not to marry a piano-tuner?"
Ruth burst out laughing. "Rather," she said. "Absolutely."
Like most lazy and good-tempered men, George could show a good deal of
energy and decision, when the occasion arose. He began work that night,
after Ruth had gone up to bed.
"You're not such a careful housekeeper as you used to be, Jane."
This was quite untrue, and he knew it to be untrue. He also knew that it
would make Jane angry.
"Perhaps," she said, "you will tell me, George, what prompts you to make
such a perfectly senseless remark. One of the glasses on the
dinner-table to-night was not properly polished. I have already spoken
about it. But I'm quite positive you never noticed it."
"No," said George. "I noticed that your piano was out of tune. Why don't
you have it done regularly?"
"Everything in this house is done regularly. The piano is tuned once
every three months. In this case you're more particularly in the wrong,
because it had an extra tuning last week. Ruth thought it wanted it, and
wrote to Brinswoods to send a man."
"That man ought to get the sack," said George with confidence. "What was
"My dear George, how on earth should I know? Piano-tuners don't have
names. They have sherry and a biscuit. They are just the piano-tuner. It
was Ruth who showed him what was required—I never even saw him. And she
was quite satisfied with what he had done. I think you must own that
Ruth is a better judge in musical questions than yourself."
"Very likely," said George, and changed the subject. The newspaper
provided him with a topic. A young lady had just eloped with her
father's chauffeur. A young lady, moreover, who had been most strictly
brought up. He remembered other instances. Miss Caterham seemed uneasy.
"But Ruth is not in the least like that," she said.
"Of course not. Who's thinking about Ruth? Besides, she's not brought up
in that silly way. She sees plenty of society, plenty of young men of
her own class, and is not likely to make a mistake."
"Ruth has been brought up with the greatest care, and I hope with
wisdom. Where you go so wrong about Ruth, George, is in regarding her as
a mere child. She is eighteen. You are inclined to forget that."
George took the rebuke meekly. Miss Caterham continued: "I have always
been intending to make some slight changes in view of her age. She has
already been to two dances."
"You don't want to overdo it," said the subtile George. "You needn't be
in the least nervous about Ruth."
Before returning to London next day, George had a few moments of serious
conversation with Ruth. At least, George was perfectly serious. Ruth
rather presented the appearance of an amused person with a secret. Her
Uncle George gave her six invitations, and she accepted all of them.
"But will Aunt Jane stand it?" she asked.
"I think," said George, "that your aunt will make no difficulties."
Ruth went to tea on the Terrace. Ruth went to theatres and concerts. On
three occasions she met Mr Bruce Sothering.
And when, a few days later, she announced her engagement to Mr Bruce
Sothering, she met with the heartiest congratulations from her uncle,
and with no serious opposition from her aunt. And in the ordinary course
of events, Mr Bruce Sothering came to see Miss Caterham.
Miss Caterham would have been interested if she could have heard what
they said about it in the kitchen.
"I'm making no mistake at all," said the parlour-maid. "I don't care how
rich he is or how well connected. That Mr Bruce Sothering is the young
man who came to tune the piano last time. It's not a question of a
"But why?" said the cook.
"Hintrigue," said the butler darkly.