A Sordid Affair

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Illustration by G.E.L. in The Sun (Baltimore) (13 october 1918)

A Sordid Affair is a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The People on 29 november 1891.


Plot summary (spoiler)

Two young ladies admire a dress in front of the window of a luxury shop. The cost is £20 but this price is too high. Mrs. Helen Raby, who heard their conversation, proposes to the young woman to craft the dress herself for half price. The young woman accepts and Mrs Raby starts the work. After a few days the dress is ready and is to be delivered the next day. When she awakes, Mrs Raby sees with horror that the dress has disappeared. Her husband, a former alcoholic, sold it to the pawnshop to pay some drinks. In order to fullfill her contract, Mrs. Raby is forced to buy the dress at full price (£20) and deliver it to the young woman. The husband comes back drunk as a skunk but his wife forgives him by love.

A Sordid Affair

The People (9 november 1891, p. 3)

"My dear, what a perfectly charming bodice! I mean the Louis Quinze with the vest of white chiffon de soie."

"Ah, but do look at that skirt of old rose silk, brocaded à la Pompadour, and trimmed with duchesse lace!"

"But you know, Alice, my favourite of them all is that satin foulard, the grey one, gouffred at the neck. It is so lovely, I think, and exactly my measurements, for I went in and inquired."

"Then why not have it?"

"My dear! Fifteen guineas! It was dreadful. Now, if it had been ten I might have managed it."

The speakers were two well-dressed ladies, standing in front of one of the largest plate-glass windows in Bond Street, and gazing up at the dense group of slim, headless figures in prim, straight-cut, tailor-made costumes, or in evening dresses of the many strange neutral tints which were the rage of the moment. They had raised their voices in their excitement, and gave little clutches at each other's wrists as they compared notes about the treasures in front of them. Close behind them stood a plainly-clad middle-aged woman with a sad wrinkled face, and the air of one who has found the world anything but a playground. She had stood gazing with a very critical eye at the various costumes, and listening with a half smile to the comments of the ladies beside her, but at their last remark she looked earnestly at the speaker, and put her hand out timidly towards her to attract her attention.

"If you please, ma'am," she said, "I could do that for you."

The lady looked round in surprise. "What could you do, my good woman?"

"A dress the exact same as that one at every point for ten pounds."

"You could do it?"

"Yes, ma'am. You'll excuse my speaking to you, but I could not help hearing what you said, and I know that I could give you satisfaction. I did all Madame Davoust's work when she was court dressmaker."

The lady looked inquiringly at her companion. "What do you say, Louise?"

"Well, my dear, if you wish such a dress. You need not pay unless you are satisfied with it."

"No, of course not. What is your name, please?"

"Mrs. Raby."

"Well then, Mrs. Raby, you quite understand that I shall require the dress to be absolutely as well finished as the one in the window, material and cut identical."

"Yes, madam."

"And it must be ready by next Monday before ten o'clock."

"Very well, madam."

"And your price is ten pounds, inclusive."

"Ten pounds, madam."

"I have your solemn promise that the dress shall be the same, and that I shall have it on Monday by ten?"

"I promise you, madam."

"Well, then, you may call this afternoon, and take your measurements. Mrs. Clive is the name, 73, Palace Gardens." She gave a nod, and turned again to her companion, while the dressmaker, with another very critical glance at the dress in the window, hurried off upon her way.

A busy morning lay before her, for her foulard was to be purchased at one shop, her linings at another, her braid and her buttons at yet another, all down in the depths of the City, far away from West-end prices. At last, with her arms full of brown paper parcels, she gained her 'bus, and drove out to Brompton, where in a quiet side street of two-storeyed houses, a small brass plate, "Mrs. Raby, costumier and dressmaker," showed where she carried on her modest business.

In the front room an assistant was whirring away upon a hand sewing machine, running a seam down the edge of a dress, while all round her lay heaped masses of cloth, grey strips of lining, and rolls of braid.

"Whose is that, Anna?" asked Mrs. Raby.

"It is Mrs. Summerton's." The assistant was a broad-faced, good-humoured girl, with red hair and freckles.

"Ah, you must be very careful with it. She is most particular. The front cut straight, and the back gored and cut on the cross."

"Yes, Mrs. Raby. It's coming out fine."

"I have a new order, a foulard dress, which must be ready by Monday. This is the stuff, and I shall have the measurements this evening. It will take us all our time. Is Mr. Raby in?"

"Yes, he came in half an hour ago."

"Where is he?"

"In the back room."

Mrs. Raby closed the door, and went into the next apartment. A small man, black bearded and swarthy, was seated at a side table, stooping over a box of colours and a small oval piece of ivory, upon which he was beginning to paint a background. He was a peaky, irritable-looking person, with sunken cheeks, a nervous manner, and a very large piece of blue-ribbon in his button-hole.

"It is no use, Helen," he said. "I can't paint until I have an order."

"But however are you to get an order if you don't show folk what you can do. Why don't you paint me, John, and hang me up in a case outside the door."

"I want something that will look nice and attractive," said he, petulantly.

She laughed good-humouredly. "Paint me as you remember me when you first met me, then," said she.

"Ah, you were different then."

"Well, if I am, you ought to know, John, what it is that has changed me. It has not been an easy life for me these twenty years."

"Well, I'm sure I don't know what more I can do. I've taken the ribbon to please you."

"Yes, John, dear, you've dropped the drink, and God bless you for it."

"Six months since I had a taste."

"And aren't you the better for it, in health and happiness and everything? I always knew that if you were to get away from those other clerks you would be all right. Now you are a clerk no longer. You're an artist."

"Yes, but I earned my money as a clerk, and I have made none as an artist. I don't see that I am the gainer by the change."

"Ah, I'd rather starve, dear, and have you a sober man. Besides, I can earn enough for both while you are gradually getting a few customers."


"Oh, yes, sitters. But you must go to them or they will never come to you. Why, look at me! I heard two ladies talking in the street, and by pushing myself in I got a ten-pound job."

"Did you, though."

"Yes, this very morning. My stuff will cost from five to six, but there should be four pound profit." She took a key from her pocket, unlocked a drawer in a side table, and taking a tin box out unlocked that also.

"We have fifteen pounds here," said she, turning out a small heap of gold. "We'll make it twenty soon, and then I think I may afford to take on another assistant."

Her husband looked wistfully at the gold. "It seems hard that you should put away all that money, and I should go about without a half-crown in my pocket," said he.

"I don't want your pocket to be empty, John, but you don't need more than sixpence. It is only putting yourself in the way of temptation."

"Well, anyway, I ought to be head in my own family. Why don't you give me the key, and let me have the keeping of the money."

"No, no, John; it is my earning and I'll have the keeping. What you want I'll buy for you, but what I save I must have in my own hands."

"A pretty thing, too!" He went back to his painting with a snarl, while she very carefully locked up her small treasure again, and then returned to the work-room. She had hardly turned her back when he sprang from his seat, rushed to the table and took two wicked little tugs at the drawer, but all was fast, so he slunk back, cursing under his breath, to his paints and his ivory.

That afternoon Mrs. Raby called at Palace Gardens, obtained her measurements, and forthwith got to work with might and main upon the dress. It was a Thursday, and she had only two and a half working days before her, but she had given her promise, and she was a woman who would keep her word, if flesh and blood could do it. On Saturday morning it must be ready for the trying on, and on the Monday by ten o'clock it must be actually delivered. So away she went cutting, and stitching, gouffring, and tabbing, and looping, and hemming, working late, and working early, until on the second day a dozen separate pieces were all brought together like a child's puzzle, a square there, a triangle here, a long narrow slip down the front, and there, out of what to a masculine eye would have seemed the merest scraps, there rose the daintiest, neatest little dress that heart could wish, still loosely pinned together, but taking already its ultimate outlines. In this state it was carried to Palace Gardens, tried on, and then brought back to be finally completed. By twelve o'clock at night it was finished, and all Sunday it stood upon the frame in the workroom looking so fresh and neat and perfect, that the wife, in the pride of her heart, could not forbear from running in every hour or so, and coaxing her husband in with her, to look and to admire.

He had been a sorry helpmate to her. It was not work which had placed those marks of care upon his face. As a clerk in the wholesale cocoa firm, he had for years been having some three pounds a week, but of the three it was seldom that one found its way to his wife, who planned, and worked, and managed as only a devoted woman can. At last she had herself turned to business, and had made herself independent of him, or, rather, had made him dependent upon her. A long course of secret drunkenness had ended in a raging attack of delirium tremens, which could not be concealed from his employers, and which brought about his instant dismissal from his situation. But it was no misfortune in the eyes of his wife. She had long made up her mind that his weak nature was not to be reformed while he was surrounded by temptation. Now, at last, she had him to herself. Some occupation must be found for him which would hold him within her influence. It was always with others that she laid the blame, never with him, for her eyes were blind to the shattered irritable wreck, and could only see the dark-haired bashful lad who had told her twenty years ago how he loved her. Could she keep out those evil influences, all would yet be well. Her woman's wit was set to do it. He had long had some leanings towards art, so now she bought him paints and paper and all that an artist could require. She had prayed and argued until he had taken the blue ribbon, and for six whole months she had stood between him and danger, shutting off what was evil, encouraging the little that was good, like some tender gardener watching over a sickly plant. And now at last all seemed bright before her. Her husband had forsworn his fatal habits. She had saved a little money, and there was a prospect of saving more. Soon she might hope for a second assistant, and even spend a few pounds in advertisements. As she went into her work-room for the last time that Sunday night, holding out the lamp in her work-worn hand, and looked at the delicate tint and dainty curves, it seemed to her that the long struggle was at last drawing to an end, and that the evening would be mellow if the day had been stormy.

She slept heavily that night, for she had worked almost continuously until the dress was finished. It was nearly eight o'clock when she woke. Her husband was not lying by her side. His clothes and boots were gone. She smiled to think how completely she had overslept herself, and, rising, she dressed, hurriedly putting on her outdoor things so that she might be ready to start immediately after breakfast to keep her appointment. As she descended the stair she noticed that the work-room door was open. She entered with a sudden strange sinking at the heart. The new dress had disappeared.

Mrs. Raby sat down on a packing case, and sank her face in her hands. The blow was so sudden, so unexpected! But she was a practical woman, and there was no use in sitting groaning. She walked through the house. Her husband, as she expected, was nowhere to be seen. Then she wrote a short note to the assistant, left it on the workroom table, and leaving the door upon the latch, set out upon her hopeless and piteous chase.

Just round the corner, in the Brompton Road, was a pawnbroker's shop, and into it she hastened. A heavy, red-bearded man, who was reading the morning paper in the corner, cocked his eye at her as she entered.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"Would you kindly tell me, sir, if any one has been here this morning to pledge a grey dress?"

The pawnbroker called to his assistant, a young, pasty-faced man, who emerged from among the countless suits of clothes and piles of miscellaneous things which blocked the shop.

"There was some one here with a grey dress, Alec, was there not?" he asked.

"Yes, sir! that was the one that you thought might be a police matter."

"Ah, yes, of course. A small, dark man, with black hair?"

"That's it, sir."

"He was here at quarter-past seven, just after opening time. I wasn't down yet, but my assistant told me that the dress was a very good and new one, and that the man's manner was just a bit suspicious."

"You didn't take it, then?"

"You don't know where he went?"

"No idea."

The red-bearded man plunged back into his morning paper, and the woman hurried on upon her quest. Should she turn up the street or down. The sight of a distant glimmer of gilt balls decided her, and she found herself in another office. They had seen nothing there either of her husband or of the dress.

She paused irresolute outside the door. Then she reflected that if her husband had come up the road he would certainly have come there. He must have turned down then. She entered the first pawnbroker's in that direction, and there was the grey foulard dress hanging up upon a hook right in front of her. She gave a cry of joy at the sight of it. It was not yet nine, and there was time to keep her appointment.

"That's my dress," she gasped.

The pawnbroker gazed at her curiously. "It was pawned this morning, ma'am, by a small, dark man."

"Yes, sir, that was my husband. How much did he get on it?"

"Three pound, five."

She had put some money into her pocket when she left home. Now she laid four sovereigns upon the counter.

"Please let me have it at once."

"Where's the ticket?"

"The ticket? I have none."

"Then you can't have the dress."

"But it is my dress, and here is the money. Why can I not have it?"

"I am very sorry for you, marm. But we must stick to the law. Suppose I take your money and give you your dress, and suppose then your husband comes here with the ticket and demands his pledge, what could I say to him? He could put his own price on it, and I should have to pay him."

"But I promise you he won't come. Do, do, let me have the dress. I've promised it to a customer at ten."

"I tell you that I can't, and there's an end of it," said the pawnbroker, turning upon his heel.

It was heartbreaking to be within touch of it, and not to be allowed to take it. And yet she could not blame the pawnbroker. She could see that he could not act otherwise. What remained then? To find her husband. But how could she tell in which of a hundred public-houses he was making amends for his long abstention. She paced wildly up and down the pavement. What would this lady think of her? She had given a promise, and a promise had always been a sacred thing with her. Was there no way in which she could manage? And then suddenly an idea came to her, and she ran as hard as she could back to her own house, rushed into the back room, opened her drawer, poured her little heap of savings into her purse, and hastened out to catch an eastward bound bus.

At Bond Street she got out and sped on to the window where she had first undertaken this unhappy contract. Thank God, the dress was still unsold in the window. She remembered that the lady had said that the measurements were correct. In five minutes more her whole savings had gone into the till of the wealthy retail firm, and she, with her great cardboard-box was driving at the top of her speed to Palace Gardens.

"My dear Alice," remarked her friend, who had dropped in early that morning, in order to criticise the costume, "you see it never does to trust people in that class of life. She said ten o'clock, and now it is five minutes past. They have no idea of the nature of a promise."

"No, I suppose not. Still, she is sure to come, for I have not paid her anything yet. Ah, here she is coming up the stair, so she is not so very late after all."

The dress was duly unpacked, and Mrs. Alice Clive put it on at once, while her friend and the dressmaker walked slowly round her with sidelong heads, eyeing it up and down.

"Well, dear, how do you like it. It feels very comfortable and seems to sit well about the shoulders."

"Oh yes, I think it will do. I don't think, however, that the foulard is quite of the same quality as that which we saw in the shop."

"I assure you, madam, that it is."

"Well, Mrs. Raby, I am sure you will acknowledge that the lace is inferior."

"No, it is precisely the same."

The lady critic shrugged her shoulders.

"At least, there is no question as to the inferiority of the cut," said she, "I cannot refuse to believe my own eyes."

"Well, at least, it is not dear at that price," said her friend.

"It is entirely a matter of taste," the other rejoined, "but I confess that I would rather pay fifteen guineas for the other than ten for this."

"Well, well, on the whole I am pretty well satisfied," said she, Mrs. Clive, and paid over the ten pounds to the silent weary woman who stood before her.

But strange and wondrous are the ways of women, and where is the man who shall grasp them. As she walked home, tired, footsore, the loser in time and in money, with all her little hopes shattered to ruins, and all to be built up once more, she saw a crowd of jeering boys at the corner of the Brompton Road, and peeping over their shoulders, she caught a glimpse of a horrid crawling figure, a hatless head, and a dull, vacant, leering face. In an instant she had called a cab.

"It is my husband," said she, "he is ill. Help me to get him into the cab, policeman. We live quite close to here."

They thrust him into a four-wheeler, and she got in beside him, holding him up with her arms. His coat was covered with dust, and he mumbled and chuckled like an ape. As the cab drove on, she drew his head down upon her bosom, pushing back his straggling hair, and crooned over him like a mother over a baby.

"Did they make fun of him, then?" she cried. "Did they call him names? He'll come home with his little wifey, and he'll never be a naughty boy again."

Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle while you remain upon earth?

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