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An essay by Jenny Wren

On Bills

Title:     On Bills
Author: Jenny Wren [More Titles by Wren]

BILLS! BILLS! BILLS! Detestable sound! Obnoxious word! Why were such things ever invented? Why are they sent to destroy our peace of mind?

They always come, too, when you are expecting some interesting letter. You hurry to meet the postman, you get impatient at the length of time he takes to separate his packets (I sometimes think these men find pleasure in tantalizing you, and keep you waiting on purpose), and when he at last presents you with your long-expected missive, behold, it turns to dust and ashes in your hand--metaphorically speaking, of course.

It is a pity such a metamorphosis does not occur in reality; for the wretched oblong envelope, with the sprawly, flourishy writing, so unmistakably suggests a bill, that you--well, I do not know what _you_ do on such an occasion; _my_ letter, which I have been so anxious to obtain, is flung to the other side of the room.

How is it that bills mount up so quickly? You buy a little ribbon, a few pairs of gloves, some handkerchiefs--mere items in fact, and yet when quarter day comes round you are presented with a bill a yard long, which as your next instalment of money is fully mortgaged, is calculated to fill you with anything but extreme joy.

Why are the paths leading to destruction always so much easier of access than any other? It takes so much less time to run up a bill, it is so much simpler to say, "Will you please enter it to my account?" than to pay your money down. First the bill has to be added up, and, strange as it may seem, these shop people appear to take _hours_ over a simple addition sum. "Eight and elevenpence halfpenny if you please, ma'am." Of course you have not enough silver, and so are obliged to wait for change. Then someone has to be found to sign. Altogether it takes quite five minutes longer paying ready money; and think, how five minutes after each purchase would mount up in a day's shopping! I should say that, on an average you might call it two important hours regularly thrown away. "And a good job, too," perhaps our fathers, husbands, and brothers would say. But, then, you see, they are Philistines and do not understand.

But though we suffer somewhat at the hands of these shop people, I think in their turn they have to endure a great deal more from their customers. I have seen old ladies order nearly the whole shop out, turn over the articles, and having entirely exhausted the patience of their victims, say, "Yes--all very pretty--but I don't think I will buy any to-day, thank you," and they move off to other counters to enact the same scene over again. Selfish old things!

I was dreadfully hard up a short time ago, and of course my bills were ten times as big as usual. I had no money coming in, and could not conceive how I was to meet my debts.

It is astonishing, when you come to try it, how few paths there are open for poverty-stricken ladies to make a little money, especially when your object is to keep your difficulties a secret from your mankind. I tried every imaginable way without success. What is the good of having an expensive education, of being taught French and German--neither of which languages, by the way, when brought to the test, a girl can ever talk, or at any rate so as to be understood. What is the good of it all, I say, when you want to turn your hand to making a little money? I felt quite angry the other day when, our cook being ill, we had a woman in to take her place. Fifteen shillings a week she made! She, who had had little or nothing spent on her education, could yet make more shillings in a week than I could pence! I began to wish I had been brought up as a scullery maid.

I can paint rather well, but what are the advantages of art compared to those of cookery? Many and many a shop I went into, carrying specimens of my talent, and asking the owners if they would employ me to decorate their tambourines, bellows, &c.; But no, they all had their own especial artists, and were quite suited. It is such a dreadfully humiliating business. At the first place I could have slain the man for his impertinence in declining, and I left the shop with a haughty mien and my head in the air. But I grew accustomed to it in time, and even used to try a little persuasion, which, however, proved of no avail. One man offered to exhibit my wares (I felt quite like a peddler going his rounds), and through him I sold two tambourines. Then who so proud as I? though my profits only came to a few shillings. However small, the first taste of success is always exhilarating, though indeed my confidence did not last long, for this was my first and last experience of money-making in the painting line.

I used to search the sale and exchange columns of the papers, and found once that someone wanted music transposed. I wrote directly offering my services, and charging a shilling per piece or song. For a wonder I was successful, for the person answered, asking for a specimen of my skill, which she was pleased to say would do very well.

How her letters used to amuse me! She must have been a rather incapable singing mistress I think. Her letters though properly spelt were written in an uneducated hand, and she addressed me as if I were a servant. She used to give me very little time in which to transpose her songs, and insisted on their being finished when she wanted them. Sometimes I was quite tired out, for copying music is not a thing to be done in a hurry.

Somehow, our negotiations did not last long. Whether I grew careless, or she found others to do the work cheaper, I do not know, but she suddenly withdrew her custom, and I have never heard from her since.

My next venture was tale writing. Who has not tried this most unsatisfactory method? It is a tremendously anxious time when your first effort is sent out. What a lot of money you expect to obtain for it! You do not intend to be unprepared, so you spend every penny in your mind beforehand. Then there is the honor and glory of it! You will hear everyone talking of the cleverly written tale and wondering who is the gifted author!

What made me more hopeful was the possession of a cousin, who was very successful in this line. Indeed, she has reached the three-volume stage by now, and is beginning to be quite well known. I have lost my interest in her, however, since she took me and my family off in one of her books. It is such an easy thing to do. You only have to find out a person's peculiarities--and everyone has a peculiarity!--and overdraw them a little. My sisters and I, I remember, figured as three brainless, fast girls, which would only have amused us had she left the rest of the family alone. It is a foolish thing to do, for besides nearly always giving offence it is not by any means an evidence of good taste.

It is much more difficult to write a tale than some people think; you get in such hopeless tangles sometimes. People you kill off in the first chapter, you sadly need in the last. Then, when you are finishing up, there are so many people to get rid of, that you are obliged to dispatch them in a bunch with an explosion, or something equally probable--three or four strangers as a rule, who have never seen each other before, but who considerately assemble in one place to meet their doom. Then the last pages will never fit in with the first. Your meek but lovely heroine at the beginning has been transformed into a beautiful vixen as you near the end, and is quite unrecognizable. The worst parts of all are the sensational ones. You think you have worked your hero up to a pitch of fiery eloquence, while his _fiancee_ is dying in agony close by, and when you complacently turn to read over the passage, you find his words imply no more sorrow than they would at the death of a relative from whom he had expectations, or--a mother-in-law!

It is rather a difficult matter in a large family to keep your actions a secret. Obtuse as most men are, with things going on right under their eyes, it is not easy to baffle them when once their curiosity is roused. And yet curiosity is always imputed exclusively to women! Though Eve _was_ the first to taste the apple, Adam had no intention of being behindhand. I know a man who always manages to get down to breakfast five minutes before the rest of his family, for the purpose of examining the correspondence all round.

Fortunately I managed to escape from these inquisitive eyes, for I met the postman myself when he brought back my first tale. It was returned with the Editor's "compliments and thanks," coupled with the regret that he could not make use of my contribution.

I don't know that I ever felt such keen disappointment as when that tale came back from its first visit. I had hoped so much from it, and had been so confident of its success. It depressed me for some time, and it was long before I ventured upon anything in the literary way again. But habit is second nature, they say, so after that and other tales had been the round of all the magazines and returned to their ancestral home, decidedly the worse for their outings (change of air evidently does not agree with MSS.), they affected me no more than the receipt of a tradesman's circular. In fact I grew quite to welcome them as old friends, and no one would have been more astonished than I had they been converted into L s. d.

Apparently I am not cut out for literary work. I have not sufficient imagination, nor am I sceptical enough for this fanciful and scientific age. The world only cares for impossible adventures and magic stories, or stories which undermine their religion or upset it altogether, and I am not clever enough for this.

Of course, in my pecuniary need I did not neglect to employ a "chancellor of the exchequer," as Miss. Mathers calls her; a "wardrobe keeper," as she terms herself. Indeed, I employed two or three, and so had plenty of opportunities of observing the type.

These women certainly vary in the way they carry on business, but very rarely do they vary in appearance. For the fattest, ugliest, oiliest old creatures to be found anywhere, commend me to a Chancellor! I pause in astonishment sometimes, and wonder how they have the strength to carry so much flesh about with them.

The first one I engaged possessed a complexion of a glowing yellow, like unto the petals of an alamander. She carried on the business in a too independent way altogether. She would take up my garments, look them over with a contemptuous sniff (what eloquence there is in a sniff!), and then begin to talk of the "ilegant costoomes she 'ad 'ad lately of Lady ----, of the 'ansome silks and furs purchased from the Countess of ----," &c.; It was cunningly and knowingly done. Immediately, as was intended, my productions began to lose value in my eyes, in contrast to her gorgeous descriptions. Finally she would state her price, and by no art or persuasion would she give way a penny afterwards.

I believe she was given to fits. Anyhow she fell very ill once when she came, and had to be given brandy to support her. I was afraid she was going to die in the house, which would have been exceedingly unpleasant, for it is a heinous breach of gentility to be found mixed up in any such transactions. We are so foolish, we have such little minds, we try to hide our doings from our neighbors, who are all going through the same experiences, and are equally desirous of concealing them from us. If all our screens were taken away what a comedy of errors would be disclosed. How surprised we should be to see everyone committing follies of which we have been so ashamed and so anxious to hide from the eyes of all!

After all the brandy had a most beneficial effect. I think it must have flown to her head; for never before had she given such large amounts. I was quite sorry to find her so well at her next advent. Her sniff was even more eloquent, and her prices had returned to their original low level. I regret now that I did not again try the brandy.

Another woman I employed was even uglier than the first. She was so wholesomely ugly. A great red full moon represented her countenance, radiant with the color of the Eiffel Tower. She was altogether a more satisfactory chancellor than the other. She always insisted on your stating your own price to begin with. "Well, what d'yer think yerself, mum?" was her invariable ejaculation, and then, hearing your reply, would break in on whatever you said by "It ain't worth more than _'arf_ that to me, mum," in the most aggrieved voice. I became used to her in time, and knowing she would halve whatever I said, used to demand double the worth of the thing. "What d'yer think yerself, mum?" You grow so tired of your opinion being thus asked. I wonder how many times she says it in a day! It is a cautious way of going about it, at any rate. If that woman ever appeared in a police court on a charge of dishonesty, and the magistrate asked her what she had to say to the charge, the answer would undoubtedly be, "Well, what d'yer think yerself, sir?"

Some of those bills are still unpaid. Quarter day is coming round again, so I expect there will be some more soon. Alas! I am an unlucky being, born under an unlucky star.

You may think it a strange notion, but I attribute all my ill-luck to spiders:

"If you wish to live and thrive,
Let a spider run alive."

I am not superstitious as a rule, but I cannot help thinking that my wholesale massacre of this obnoxious insect has something to do with my misfortunes by way of retribution.

I hate spiders! Nearly everybody has a pet aversion of some sort. I have heard people shriek at the sight of a caterpillar, and turn pale in the neighborhood of a toad. My great antipathy is a spider! Not that I object to its treatment of flies--nasty little worries, they deserve everything that happens to them. But it is the _appearance_ of a spider that is so against it. There is a shifty expression about the eye, and such a leer on the upper lip. Money spinners are not so objectionable. I can tolerate them. It is the big, almost tarantulas, from which I flee. Those creatures which start up suddenly, and run across the room close by where you are sitting; creatures so large that you can almost hear their footsteps as they pass.

A man told me once he had found a spider in his room of such enormous dimensions that he had to open the door in order that it might get out!

Overdrawn, you say? Well, it sounds a little improbable certainly; not so much on account of the unusual size of the spider as for the extraordinary consideration on the part of the man.

[The end]
Jenny Wren's essay: On Bills