Bliss, and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922.
". . . but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety."
Printed in Great Britain at
The Mayflower Press, Plymouth. William Brendon & Son, Ltd.
JOHN MIDDLETON MURRAY
|JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS||71|
|THE WIND BLOWS||137|
|THE MAN WITHOUT A TEMPERAMENT||172|
|MR. REGINALD PEACOCK'S DAY||194|
|SUN AND MOON||208|
|A DILL PICKLE||228|
|THE LITTLE GOVERNESS||239|
THERE was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy. When Pat swung them on top of the luggage they wobbled; the grandmother's lap was full and Linda Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for any distance. Isabel, very superior, was perched beside the new handy-man on the driver's seat. Hold-alls, bags and boxes were piled upon the floor. "These are absolute necessities that I will not let out of my sight for one instant," said Linda Burnell, her voice trembling with fatigue and excitement.
Lottie and Kezia stood on the patch of lawn just inside the gate all ready for the fray in their coats with brass anchor buttons and little round caps with battleship ribbons. Hand in hand, they stared with round solemn eyes, first at the absolute necessities and then at their mother.
"We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off," said Linda Burnell. A strange little laugh flew from her lips; she leaned back against the buttoned leather cushions and shut her eyes, her lips tremb- [Page 2] ling with laughter. Happily at that moment Mrs. Samuel Josephs, who had been watching the scene from behind her drawing-room blind, waddled down the garden path.
"Why nod leave the chudren with be for the afterdoon, Brs. Burnell? They could go on the dray with the storeban when he comes in the eveding. Those thigs on the path have to go, dod't they?"
"Yes, everything outside the house is supposed to go," said Linda Burnell, and she waved a white hand at the tables and chairs standing on their heads on the front lawn. How absurd they looked! Either they ought to be the other way up, or Lottie and Kezia ought to stand on their heads, too. And she longed to say: "Stand on your heads, children, and wait for the store-man." It seemed to her that would be so exquisitely funny that she could not attend to Mrs. Samuel Josephs.
The fat creaking body leaned across the gate, and the big jelly of a face smiled. "Dod't you worry, Brs. Burnell. Loddie and Kezia can have tea with my chudren in the dursery, and I'll see theb on the dray afterwards."
The grandmother considered. "Yes, it really is quite the best plan. We are very obliged to you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs. Children, say 'thank you' to Mrs. Samuel Josephs."
Two subdued chirrups: "Thank you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs." [Page 3]
"And be good little girls, and–come closer–" they advanced, "don't forget to tell Mrs. Samuel Josephs when you want to. . . . "
"Dod't worry, Brs. Burnell."
At the last moment Kezia let go Lottie's hand and darted towards the buggy.
"I want to kiss my granma good-bye again."
But she was too late. The buggy rolled off up the road, Isabel bursting with pride, her nose turned up at all the world, Linda Burnell prostrated, and the grandmother rummaging among the very curious oddments she had had put in her black silk reticule at the last moment, for something to give her daughter. The buggy twinkled away in the sunlight and fine golden dust up the hill and over. Kezia bit her lip, but Lottie, carefully finding her handkerchief first, set up a wail.
Mrs. Samuel Josephs, like a huge warm black silk tea cosy, enveloped her.
"It's all right, by dear. Be a brave child. You come and blay in the dursery!"
She put her arm round weeping Lottie and led her away. Kezia followed, making a face at Mrs. Samuel Josephs' placket, which was undone as usual, with two long pink corset laces hanging out of it. . . .
Lottie's weeping died down as she mounted the stairs, but the sight of her at the nursery door with [Page 4] swollen eyes and a blob of a nose gave great satisfaction to the S.J.'s, who sat on two benches before a long table covered with American cloth and set out with immense plates of bread and dripping and two brown jugs that faintly steamed.
"Hullo! You've been crying!"
"Ooh! Your eyes have gone right in."
"Doesn't her nose look funny."
"You're all red-and-patchy."
Lottie was quite a success. She felt it and swelled, smiling timidly.
"Go and sit by Zaidee, ducky," said Mrs. Samuel Josephs, "and Kezia, you sid ad the end by Boses."
Moses grinned and gave her a nip as she sat down; but she pretended not to notice. She did hate boys.
"Which will you have?" asked Stanley, leaning across the table very politely, and smiling at her. "Which will you have to begin with–strawberries and cream or bread and dripping?"
"Strawberries and cream, please," said she.
"Ah-h-h-h." How they all laughed and beat the table with their teaspoons. Wasn't that a take-in! Wasn't it now! Didn't he fox her! Good old Stan!
"Ma! She thought it was real."
Even Mrs. Samuel Josephs, pouring out the milk and water, could not help smiling. "You bustn't tease theb on their last day," she wheezed. [Page 5]
But Kezia bit a big piece out of her bread and dripping, and then stood the piece up on her plate. With the bite out it made a dear little sort of gate. Pooh! She didn't care! A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wasn't crying. She couldn't have cried in front of those awful Samuel Josephs. She sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.
After tea Kezia wandered back to their own house. Slowly she walked up the back steps, and through the scullery into the kitchen. Nothing was left in it but a lump of gritty yellow soap in one corner of the kitchen window-sill and a piece of flannel stained with a blue bag in another. The fireplace was choked up with rubbish. She poked among it but found nothing except a hair-tidy with a heart painted on it that had belonged to the servant girl. Even that she left lying, and she trailed through the narrow passage into the drawing-room. The Venetian blind was pulled down but not drawn close. Long pencil rays of sunlight shone through and the wavy shadow of a bush outside danced on the gold lines. Now it was still, now it began to flutter again, and now it came almost as far as her feet. Zoom! Zoom! a blue-bottle knocked against the ceiling; the carpet-tacks had little bits of red fluff sticking to them. [Page 6]
The dining-room window had a square of coloured glass at each corner. One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at a blue lawn with blue arum lilies growing at the gate, and then at a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence. As she looked a little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn and began to dust the tables and chairs with a corner of her pinafore. Was that really Lottie? Kezia was not quite sure until she had looked through the ordinary window.
Upstairs in her father's and mother's room she found a pill box black and shiny outside and red in, holding a blob of cotton wool.
"I could keep a bird's egg in that," she decided.
In the servant girl's room there was a stay-button stuck in a crack of the floor, and in another crack some beads and a long needle. She knew there was nothing in her grandmother's room; she had watched her pack. She went over to the window and leaned against it, pressing her hands to the pane.
Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot palms, and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane. As she stood there, the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking [Page 7] came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly. Kezia was suddenly quite, quite still, with wide open eyes and knees pressed together. She was frightened. She wanted to call Lottie and to go on calling all the while she ran downstairs and out of the house. But IT was just behind her, waiting at the door, at the head of the stairs, at the bottom of the stairs, hiding in the passage, ready to dart out at the back door. But Lottie was at the back door, too.
"Kezia!" she called cheerfully. "The storeman's here. Everything is on the dray and three horses, Kezia. Mrs. Samuel Josephs has given us a big shawl to wear round us, and she says to button up your coat. She won't come out because of asthma."
Lottie was very important.
"Now then, you kids," called the storeman. He hooked his big thumbs under their arms and up they swung. Lottie arranged the shawl "most beautifully" and the storeman tucked up their feet in a piece of old blanket.
"Lift up. Easy does it."
They might have been a couple of young ponies. The storeman felt over the cords holding his load, unhooked the brakechain from the wheel, and whistling, he swung up beside them.
"Keep close to me," said Lottie, "because otherwise you pull the shawl away from my side, Kezia."
But Kezia edged up to the storeman. He towered [Page 8] beside her big as a giant and he smelled of nuts and new wooden boxes.
It was the first time that Lottie and Kezia had ever been out so late. Everything looked different–the painted wooden houses far smaller than they did by day, the gardens far bigger and wilder. Bright stars speckled the sky and the moon hung over the harbour dabbling the waves with gold. They could see the lighthouse shining on Quarantine Island, and the green lights on the old coal hulks.
"There comes the Picton boat," said the storeman, pointing to a little steamer all hung with bright beads.
But when they reached the top of the hill and began to go down the other side the harbour disappeared, and although they were still in the town they were quite lost. Other carts rattled past. Everybody knew the storeman.
"Night O," he shouted.
Kezia liked very much to hear him. Whenever a cart appeared in the distance she looked up and waited for his voice. He was an old friend; and she and her grandmother had often been to his place to buy grapes. The storeman lived alone in a cottage that had a glasshouse against one wall built by himself. All the glasshouse was spanned and arched over with one beautiful vine. He took [Page 9] her brown basket from her, lined it with three large leaves, and then he felt in his belt for a little horn knife, reached up and snapped off a big blue cluster and laid it on the leaves so tenderly that Kezia held her breath to watch. He was a very big man. He wore brown velvet trousers, and he had a long brown beard. But he never wore a collar, not even on Sunday. The back of his neck was burnt bright red.
"Where are we now?" Every few minutes one of the children asked him the question.
"Why, this is Hawk Street, or Charlotte Crescent."
"Of course it is," Lottie pricked up her ears at the last name; she always felt that Charlotte Crescent belonged specially to her. Very few people had streets with the same name as theirs.
"Look, Kezia, there is Charlotte Crescent. Doesn't it look different?" Now everything familiar was left behind. Now the big dray rattled into unknown country, along new roads with high clay banks on either side, up steep hills, down into bushy valleys, through wide shallow rivers. Further and further. Lottie's head wagged; she drooped, she slipped half into Kezia's lap and lay there. But Kezia could not open her eyes wide enough. The wind blew and she shivered; but her cheeks and ears burned.
"Do stars ever blow about?" she asked.
"Not to notice," said the storeman. [Page 10]
"We've got a nuncle and a naunt living near our new house," said Kezia. "They have got two children, Pip, the eldest is called, and the youngest's name is Rags. He's got a ram. He has to feed it with a nenamuel teapot and a glove top over the spout. He's going to show us. What is the difference between a ram and a sheep?"
"Well, a ram has horns and runs for you."
Kezia considered. "I don't want to see it frightfully," she said. "I hate rushing animals like dogs and parrots. I often dream that animals rush at me–even camels–and while they are rushing, their heads swell e-enormous."
The storeman said nothing. Kezia peered up at him, screwing up her eyes. Then she put her finger out and stroked his sleeve; it felt hairy. "Are we near?" she asked.
"Not far off, now," answered the storeman. "Getting tired?"
"Well, I'm not an atom bit sleepy," said Kezia. "But my eyes keep curling up in such a funny sort of way." She gave a long sigh, and to stop her eyes from curling she shut them. . . . When she opened them again they were clanking through a drive that cut through the garden like a whiplash, looping suddenly an island of green, and behind the island, but out of sight until you came upon it, was the house. It was long and low built, with a pillared veranda and balcony all the way round. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden [Page 11] like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From the window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.
"Where are we?" said Lottie, sitting up. Her reefer cap was all on one side and on her cheek there was the print of an anchor button she had pressed against while sleeping. Tenderly the storeman lifted her, set her cap straight, and pulled down her crumpled clothes. She stood blinking on the lowest veranda step watching Kezia who seemed to come flying through the air to her feet.
"Ooh!" cried Kezia, flinging up her arms. The grandmother came out of the dark hall carrying a little lamp. She was smiling.
"You found your way in the dark?" said she.
But Lottie staggered on the lowest veranda step like a bird fallen out of the nest. If she stood still for a moment she fell asleep; if she leaned against anything her eyes closed. She could not walk another step.
"Kezia," said the grandmother, "can I trust you to carry the lamp?"
"Yes, my granma."
The old woman bent down and gave the bright breathing thing into her hands and then she caught up drunken Lottie. "This way." [Page 12]
Through a square hall filled with bales and hundreds of parrots (but the parrots were only on the wallpaper) down a narrow passage where the parrots persisted in flying past Kezia with her lamp.
"Be very quiet," warned the grandmother, putting down Lottie and opening the dining-room door. "Poor little mother has got such a headache."
Linda Burnell, in a long cane chair, with her feet on a hassock and a plaid over her knees, lay before a crackling fire. Burnell and Beryl sat at the table in the middle of the room eating a dish of fried chops and drinking tea out of a brown china teapot. Over the back of her mother's chair leaned Isabel. She had a comb in her fingers and in a gentle absorbed fashion she was combing the curls from her mother's forehead. Outside the pool of lamp and firelight the room stretched dark and bare to the hollow windows.
"Are those the children?" But Linda did not really care; she did not even open her eyes to see.
"Put down the lamp, Kezia," said Aunt Beryl, "or we shall have the house on fire before we are out of packing cases. More tea, Stanley?"
"Well, you might just give me five-eighths of a cup," said Burnell, leaning across the table. "Have another chop, Beryl. Tip-top meat, isn't it? Not too lean and not too fat." He turned to his wife. "You're sure you won't change your mind, Linda darling?" [Page 13]
"The very thought of it is enough." She raised one eyebrow in the way she had. The grandmother brought the children bread and milk and they sat up to table, flushed and sleepy behind the wavy steam.
"I had meat for my supper," said Isabel, still combing gently.
"I had a whole chop for my supper, the bone and all and Worcester sauce. Didn't I father?"
"Oh, don't boast, Isabel," said Aunt Beryl.
Isabel looked astounded. "I wasn't boasting, was I, Mummy? I never thought of boasting. I thought they would like to know. I only meant to tell them."
"Very well. That's enough," said Burnell. He pushed back his plate, took a toothpick out of his pocket and began picking his strong white teeth.
"You might see that Fred has a bite of something in the kitchen before he goes, will you, mother?"
"Yes, Stanley." The old woman turned to go.
"Oh, hold on half a jiffy. I suppose nobody knows where my slippers were put? I suppose I shall not be able to get at them for a month or two–what?"
"Yes," came from Linda. "In the top of the canvas hold-all marked 'urgent necessities.'"
"Well, you might get them for me, will you, mother?"
"Yes, Stanley." [Page 14]
Burnell got up, stretched himself, and going over to the fire he turned his back to it and lifted up his coat tails.
"By Jove, this is a pretty pickle. Eh, Beryl?"
Beryl, sipping tea, her elbows on the table, smiled over the cup at him. She wore an unfamiliar pink pinafore; the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up to her shoulders showing her lovely freckled arms, and she had let her hair fall down her back in a long pig-tail.
"How long do you think it will take to get straight–couple of weeks–eh?" he chaffed.
"Good heavens, no," said Beryl airily. "The worst is over already. The servant girl and I have simply slaved all day, and ever since mother came she has worked like a horse, too. We have never sat down for a moment. We have had a day."
Stanley scented a rebuke.
"Well, I suppose you did not expect me to rush away from the office and nail carpets–did you?"
"Certainly not," laughed Beryl. She put down her cup and ran out of the dining-room.
"What the hell does she expect us to do?" asked Stanley. "Sit down and fan herself with a palm-leaf fan while I have a gang of professionals to do the job? By Jove, if she can't do a hand's turn occasionally without shouting about it in return for . . . "
And he gloomed as the chops began to fight the tea in his sensitive stomach. But Linda put up a [Page 15] hand and dragged him down to the side of her long chair.
"This is a wretched time for you, old boy," she said. Her cheeks were very white, but she smiled and curled her fingers into the big red hand she held. Burnell became quiet. Suddenly he began to whistle "Pure as a lily, joyous and free"–a good sign.
"Think you're going to like it?" he asked.
"I don't want to tell you, but I think I ought to, mother," said Isabel. "Kezia is drinking tea out of Aunt Beryl's cup."
They were taken off to bed by the grandmother. She went first with a candle; the stairs rang to their climbing feet. Isabel and Lottie lay in a room to themselves, Kezia curled in her grandmother's soft bed.
"Aren't there going to be any sheets, my granma?"
"No, not to-night."
"It's tickly," said Kezia, "but it's like Indians." She dragged her grandmother down to her and kissed her under the chin. "Come to bed soon and be my Indian brave."
"What a silly you are," said the old woman, tucking her in as she loved to be tucked.
"Aren't you going to leave me a candle?"
"No. Sh–h. Go to sleep." [Page 16]
"Well, can I have the door left open?"
She rolled herself up into a round but she did not go to sleep. From all over the house came the sound of steps. The house itself creaked and popped. Loud whispering voices came from downstairs. Once she heard Aunt Beryl's rush of high laughter, and once she heard a loud trumpeting from Burnell blowing his nose. Outside the window hundreds of black cats with yellow eyes sat in the sky watching her–but she was not frightened. Lottie was saying to Isabel:
"I'm going to say my prayers in bed to-night."
"No, you can't, Lottie." Isabel was very firm. "God only excuses you saying your prayers in bed if you've got a temperature." So Lottie yielded:
Gentle Jesus meek anmile,
Look pon a little chile.
Pity me, simple Lizzie,
Suffer me to come to thee.
And then they lay down back to back, their little behinds just touching, and fell asleep.
Standing in a pool of moonlight Beryl Fairfield undressed herself. She was tired, but she pretended to be more tired than she really was–letting her clothes fall, pushing back with a languid gesture her warm, heavy hair.
"Oh, how tired I am–very tired."
She shut her eyes a moment, but her lips smiled. Her breath rose and fell in her breast like two [Page 17] fanning wings. The window was wide open; it was warm, and somewhere out there in the garden a young man, dark and slender, with mocking eyes, tiptoed among the bushes, and gathered the flowers into a big bouquet, and slipped under her window and held it up to her. She saw herself bending forward. He thrust his head among the bright waxy flowers, sly and laughing. "No, no," said Beryl. She turned from the window and dropped her nightgown over her head.
"How frightfully unreasonable Stanley is sometimes," she thought, buttoning. And then as she lay down, there came the old thought, the cruel thought–ah, if only she had money of her own.
A young man, immensely rich, has just arrived from England. He meets her quite by chance . . . . The new governor is unmarried. . . . There is a ball at Government house . . . . Who is that exquisite creature in eau de nil satin? Beryl Fairfield. . . .
"The thing that pleases me," said Stanley, leaning against the side of the bed and giving himself a good scratch on his shoulders and back before turning in, "is that I've got the place dirt cheap, Linda. I was talking about it to little Wally Bell to-day and he said he simply could not understand why they had accepted my figure. You see land about here is bound to become more and more valuable . . . in about ten years' time. . . [Page 18] of course we shall have to go very slow and cut down expenses as fine as possible. Not asleep–are you?"
"No, dear, I've heard every word," said Linda.
He sprang into bed, leaned over her and blew out the candle. "Good night, Mr. Business Man," said she, and she took hold of his head by the ears and gave him a quick kiss. Her faint far-away voice seemed to come from a deep well.
"Good night, darling." He slipped his arm under her neck and drew her to him.
"Yes, clasp me," said the faint voice from the deep well.
Pat the handy-man sprawled in his little room behind the kitchen. His sponge-bag, coat and trousers hung from the door-peg like a hanged man. From the edge of the blanket his twisted toes protruded, and on the floor beside him there was an empty cane bird-cage. He looked like a comic picture.
"Honk, honk," came from the servant girl. She had adenoids.
Last to go to bed was the grandmother.
"What. Not asleep yet?"
"No, I'm waiting for you," said Kezia. The old woman sighed and lay down beside her. Kezia thrust her head under her grandmother's arm and gave a little squeak. But the old woman only [Page 19] pressed her faintly, and sighed again, took out her teeth, and put them in a glass of water beside her on the floor.
In the garden some tiny owls, perched on the branches of a lace-bark tree, called: "More pork; more pork." And far away in the bush there sounded a harsh rapid chatter: "Ha-ha-ha . . . Ha-ha-ha."
Dawn came sharp and chill with red clouds on a faint green sky and drops of water on every leaf and blade. A breeze blew over the garden, dropping dew and dropping petals, shivered over the drenched paddocks, and was lost in the sombre bush. In the sky some tiny stars floated for a moment and then they were gone–they were dissolved like bubbles. And plain to be heard in the early quiet was the sound of the creek in the paddock running over the brown stones, running in and out of the sandy hollows, hiding under clumps of dark berry bushes, spilling into a swamp of yellow water flowers and cresses.
And then at the first beam of sun the birds began. Big cheeky birds, starlings and mynahs, whistled on the lawns, the little birds, the goldfinches and linnets and fan-tails, flicked from bough to bough. A lovely kingfisher perched on the paddock fence preening his rich beauty, and a tui sang his three notes and laughed and sang them again. [Page 20]
"How loud the birds are," said Linda in her dream. She was walking with her father through a green paddock sprinkled with daisies. Suddenly he bent down and parted the grasses and showed her a tiny ball of fluff just at her feet. "Oh, Papa, the darling." She made a cup of her hands and caught the tiny bird and stroked its head with her finger. It was quite tame. But a funny thing happened. As she stroked it began to swell, it ruffled and pouched, it grew bigger and bigger and its round eyes seemed to smile knowingly at her. Now her arms were hardly wide enough to hold it and she dropped it into her apron. It had become a baby with a big naked head and a gaping bird-mouth, opening and shutting. Her father broke into a loud clattering laugh and she woke to see Burnell standing by the windows rattling the Venetian blind up to the very top.
"Hullo," he said. "Didn't wake you, did I? Nothing much wrong with the weather this morning."
He was enormously pleased. Weather like this set a final seal on his bargain. He felt, somehow, that he had bought the lovely day, too–got it chucked in dirt cheap with the house and ground. He dashed off to his bath and Linda turned over and raised herself on one elbow to see the room by daylight. All the furniture had found a place–all the old paraphernalia, as she expressed it. Even the photographs were on the mantelpiece and [Page 21] the medicine bottles on the shelf above the washstand. Her clothes lay across a chair–her outdoor things, a purple cape and a round hat with a plume in it. Looking at them she wished that she was going away from this house, too. And she saw herself driving away from them all in a little buggy, driving away from everybody and not even waving.
Back came Stanley girt with a towel, glowing and slapping his thighs. He pitched the wet towel on top of her hat and cape, and standing firm in the exact centre of a square of sunlight he began to do his exercises. Deep breathing, bending and squatting like a frog and shooting out his legs. He was so delighted with his firm, obedient body that he hit himself on the chest and gave a loud "Ah." But this amazing vigour seemed to set him worlds away from Linda. She lay on the white tumbled bed and watched him as if from the clouds.
"Oh, damn! Oh, blast!" said Stanley, who had butted into a crisp white shirt only to find that some idiot had fastened the neck-band and he was caught. He stalked over to Linda waving his arms.
"You look like a big fat turkey," said she.
"Fat. I like that," said Stanley. "I haven't a square inch of fat on me. Feel that."
"It's rock–it's iron," mocked she.
"You'd be surprised," said Stanley, as though this were intensely interesting, "at the number of chaps at the club who have got a corporation. Young chaps, you know–men of my age." He [Page 22] began parting his bushy ginger hair, his blue eyes fixed and round in the glass, his knees bent, because the dressing-table was always–confound it–a bit too low for him. "Little Wally Bell, for instance," and he straightened, describing upon himself an enormous curve with the hairbrush. "I must say I've a perfect horror . . . "
"My dear, don't worry. You'll never be fat. You are far too energetic."
"Yes, yes, I suppose that's true," said he, comforted for the hundredth time, and taking a pearl penknife out of his pocket he began to pare his nails.
"Breakfast, Stanley." Beryl was at the door. "Oh, Linda, mother says you are not to get up yet." She popped her head in at the door. She had a big piece of syringa stuck through her hair.
"Everything we left on the veranda last night is simply sopping this morning. You should see poor dear mother wringing out the tables and the chairs. However, there is no harm done–" this with the faintest glance at Stanley.
"Have you told Pat to have the buggy round in time? It's a good six and a half miles to the office."
"I can imagine what this early start for the office will be like," thought Linda. "It will be very high pressure indeed."
"Pat, Pat." She heard the servant girl calling. But Pat was evidently hard to find; the silly voice went baa–baaing through the garden. [Page 23]
Linda did not rest again until the final slam of the front door told her that Stanley was really gone.
Later she heard her children playing in the garden. Lottie's stolid, compact little voice cried: "Ke–zia. Isa–bel." She was always getting lost or losing people only to find them again, to her great surprise, round the next tree or the next corner. "Oh, there you are after all." They had been turned out after breakfast and told not to come back to the house until they were called. Isabel wheeled a neat pramload of prim dolls and Lottie was allowed for a great treat to walk beside her holding the doll's parasol over the face of the wax one.
"Where are you going to, Kezia?" asked Isabel, who longed to find some light and menial duty that Kezia might perform and so be roped in under her government.
"Oh, just away," said Kezia. . . .
Then she did not hear them any more. What a glare there was in the room. She hated blinds pulled up to the top at any time, but in the morning it was intolerable. She turned over to the wall and idly, with one finger, she traced a poppy on the wall-paper with a leaf and a stem and a fat bursting bud. In the quiet, and under her tracing finger, the poppy seemed to come alive. She could feel the sticky, silky petals, the stem, hairy like a gooseberry skin, the rough leaf and the tight glazed bud. Things had a habit of coming alive like that. [Page 24] Not only large substantial things like furniture but curtains and the patterns of stuffs and the fringes of quilts and cushions. How often she had seen the tassel fringe of her quilt change into a funny procession of dancers with priests attending. . . . For there were some tassels that did not dance at all but walked stately, bent forward as if praying or chanting. How often the medicine bottles had turned into a row of little men with brown top-hats on; and the washstand jug had a way of sitting in the basin like a fat bird in a round nest.
"I dreamed about birds last night," thought Linda. What was it? She had forgotten. But the strangest part of this coming alive of things was what they did. They listened, they seemed to swell out with some mysterious important content, and when they were full she felt that they smiled. But it was not for her, only, their sly secret smile; they were members of a secret society and they smiled among themselves. Sometimes, when she had fallen asleep in the daytime, she woke and could not lift a finger, could not even turn her eyes to left or right because THEY were there; sometimes when she went out of a room and left it empty, she knew as she clicked the door to that THEY were filling it. And there were times in the evenings when she was upstairs, perhaps, and everybody else was down, when she could hardly escape from them. Then she could not hurry, she could not [Page 25] hum a tune; if she tried to say ever so carelessly–"Bother that old thimble"–THEY were not deceived. THEY knew how frightened she was; THEY saw how she turned her head away as she passed the mirror. What Linda always felt was that THEY wanted something of her, and she knew that if she gave herself up and was quiet, more than quiet, silent, motionless, something would really happen.
"It's very quiet now," she thought. She opened her eyes wide, and she heard the silence spinning its soft endless web. How lightly she breathed; she scarcely had to breathe at all.
Yes, everything had come alive down to the minutest, tiniest particle, and she did not feel her bed, she floated, held up in the air. Only she seemed to be listening with her wide open watchful eyes, waiting for someone to come who just did not come, watching for something to happen that just did not happen.
In the kitchen at the long deal table under the two windows old Mrs. Fairfield was washing the breakfast dishes. The kitchen window looked out on to a big grass patch that led down to the vegetable garden and the rhubarb beds. On one side the grass patch was bordered by the scullery and wash-house and over this whitewashed lean-to there grew a knotted vine. She had noticed yesterday that a [Page 25] few tiny corkscrew tendrils had come right through some cracks in the scullery ceiling and all the windows of the lean-to had a thick frill of ruffled green.
"I am very fond of a grape vine," declared Mrs. Fairfield, "but I do not think that the grapes will ripen here. It takes Australian sun." And she remembered how Beryl when she was a baby had been picking some white grapes from the vine on the back veranda of the Tasmanian house and she had been stung on the leg by a huge red ant. She saw Beryl in a little plaid dress with red ribbon tie-ups on the shoulders screaming so dreadfully that half the street rushed in. And how the child's leg had swelled! "T–t–t–t!" Mrs. Fairfield caught her breath remembering. "Poor child, how terrifying it was." And she set her lips tight and went over to the stove for some more hot water. The water frothed up in the big soapy bowl with pink and blue bubbles on top of the foam. Old Mrs. Fairfield's arms were bare to the elbow and stained a bright pink. She wore a grey foulard dress patterned with large purple pansies, a white linen apron and a high cap shaped like a jelly mould of white muslin. At her throat there was a silver crescent moon with five little owls seated on it, and round her neck she wore a watch-guard made of black beads.
It was hard to believe that she had not been in that kitchen for years; she was so much a part of [Page 27] it. She put the crocks away with a sure, precise touch, moving leisurely and ample from the stove to the dresser, looking into the pantry and the larder as though there were not an unfamiliar corner. When she had finished, everything in the kitchen had become part of a series of patterns. She stood in the middle of the room wiping her hands on a check cloth; a smile beamed on her lips; she thought it looked very nice, very satisfactory.
"Mother! Mother! Are you there?" called Beryl.
"Yes, dear. Do you want me?"
"No. I'm coming," and Beryl rushed in, very flushed, dragging with her two big pictures.
"Mother, whatever can I do with these awful hideous Chinese paintings that Chung Wah gave Stanley when he went bankrupt? It's absurd to say that they are valuable, because they were hanging in Chung Wah's fruit shop for months before. I can't make out why Stanley wants them kept. I'm sure he thinks them just as hideous as we do, but it's because of the frames," she said spitefully. "I suppose he thinks the frames might fetch something some day or other."
"Why don't you hang them in the passage?" suggested Mrs. Fairfield; "they would not be much seen there."
"I can't. There is no room. I've hung all the photographs of his office there before and after building, and the signed photos of his business [Page 28] friends, and that awful enlargement of Isabel lying on the mat in her singlet." Her angry glance swept the placid kitchen. "I know what I'll do. I'll hang them here. I will tell Stanley they got a little damp in the moving so I have put them in here for the time being."
She dragged a chair forward, jumped on it, took a hammer and a big nail out of her pinafore pocket and banged away.
"There! That is enough! Hand me the picture, mother."
"One moment, child." Her mother was wiping over the carved ebony frame.
"Oh, mother, really you need not dust them. It would take years to dust all those little holes." And she frowned at the top of her mother's head and bit her lip with impatience. Mother's deliberate way of doing things was simply maddening. It was old age, she supposed, loftily.
At last the two pictures were hung side by side. She jumped off the chair, stowing away the little hammer.
"They don't look so bad there, do they?" said she. "And at any rate nobody need gaze at them except Pat and the servant girl–have I got a spider's web on my face, mother? I've been poking into that cupboard under the stairs and now something keeps tickling my nose.
But before Mrs. Fairfield had time to look Beryl had turned away. Someone tapped on the [Page 29] window: Linda was there, nodding and smiling. They heard the latch of the scullery door lift and she came in. She had no hat on; her hair stood upon her head in curling rings and she was wrapped up in an old cashmere shawl.
"I'm so hungry," said Linda: "where can I get something to eat, mother? This is the first time I've been in the kitchen. It says 'mother' all over; everything is in pairs."
"I will make you some tea," said Mrs. Fairfield, spreading a clean napkin over a corner of the table, "and Beryl can have a cup with you."
"Beryl, do you want half my gingerbread?" Linda waved the knife at her. "Beryl, do you like the house now that we are here?"
"Oh yes, I like the house immensely and the garden is beautiful, but it feels very far away from everything to me. I can't imagine people coming out from town to see us in that dreadful jolting bus, and I am sure there is not anyone here to come and call. Of course it does not matter to you because–"
"But there's the buggy," said Linda. "Pat can drive you into town whenever you like."
That was a consolation, certainly, but there was something at the back of Beryl's mind, something she did not even put into words for herself.
"Oh, well, at any rate it won't kill us," she said dryly, putting down her empty cup and standing up [Page 30] and stretching. "I am going to hang curtains." And she ran away singing:
"How many thousand birds I see" . . . birds I see That sing aloud from every tree . . . " But when she reached the dining-room she stopped singing, her face changed; it became gloomy and sullen.
That sing aloud from every tree . . .
"One may as well rot here as anywhere else," she muttered savagely, digging the stiff brass safety-pins into the red serge curtains.
The two left in the kitchen were quiet for a little. Linda leaned her cheek on her fingers and watched her mother. She thought her mother looked wonderfully beautiful with her back to the leafy window. There was something comforting in the sight of her that Linda felt she could never do without. She needed the sweet smell of her flesh, and the soft feel of her cheeks and her arms and shoulders still softer. She loved the way her hair curled, silver at her forehead, lighter at her neck and bright brown still in the big coil under the muslin cap. Exquisite were her mother's hands, and the two rings she wore seemed to melt into her creamy skin. And she was always so fresh, so delicious. The old woman could bear nothing but linen next to her body and she bathed in cold water winter and summer. [Page 31]
"Isn't there anything for me to do?" asked Linda.
"No, darling. I wish you would go into the garden and give an eye to your children; but that I know you will not do."
"Of course I will, but you know Isabel is much more grown up than any of us."
"Yes, but Kezia is not," said Mrs. Fairfield.
"Oh, Kezia has been tossed by a bull hours ago," said Linda, winding herself up in her shawl again.
But no, Kezia had seen a bull through a hole in a knot of wood in the paling that separated the tennis lawn from the paddock. But she had not liked the bull frightfully, so she had walked away back through the orchard, up the grassy slope, along the path by the lace-bark tree and so into the spread tangled garden. She did not believe that she would ever not get lost in this garden. Twice she had found her way back to the big iron gates they had driven through the night before, and then had turned to walk up the drive that led to the house, but there were so many little paths on either side. On one side they all led into a tangle of tall dark trees and strange bushes with flat velvet leaves and feathery cream flowers that buzzed with flies when you shook them–this was the frightening side, and no garden at all. The little paths here were wet and clayey with tree roots spanned across them like the marks of big fowls' feet. [Page 32]
But on the other side of the drive there was a high box border and the paths had box edges and all of them led into a deeper and deeper tangle of flowers. The camellias were in bloom, white and crimson and pink and white striped with flashing leaves. You could not see a leaf on the syringa bushes for the white clusters. The roses were in flower–gentlemen's button-hole roses, little white ones, but far too full of insects to hold under anyone's nose, pink monthly roses with a ring of fallen petals round the bushes, cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn black as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves.
There were clumps of fairy bells, and all kinds of geraniums, and there were little trees of verbena and bluish lavender bushes and a bed of pelargoniums with velvet eyes and leaves like moths' wings. There was a bed of nothing but mignonette and another of nothing but pansies–borders of double and single daisies and all kinds of little tufty plants she had never seen before.
The red-hot pokers were taller than she; the Japanese sunflowers grew in a tiny jungle. She sat down on one of the box borders. By pressing hard at first it made a nice seat. But how dusty it was inside! Kezia bent down to look and sneezed and rubbed her nose. [Page 33]
And then she found herself at the top of the rolling grassy slope that led down to the orchard . . . . She looked down at the slope a moment; then she lay down on her back, gave a squeak and rolled over and over into the thick flowery orchard grass. As she lay waiting for things to stop spinning, she decided to go up to the house and ask the servant girl for an empty matchbox. She wanted to make a surprise for the grandmother. . . . First she would put a leaf inside with a big violet lying on it, then she would put a very small white picotee, perhaps, on each side of the violet, and then she would sprinkle some lavender on the top, but not to cover their heads.
She often made these surprises for the grandmother, and they were always most successful.
"Do you want a match, my granny?"
"Why, yes, child, I believe a match is just what I'm looking for." The grandmother slowly opened the box and came upon the picture inside.
"Good gracious, child! How you astonished me!"
"I can make her one every day here," she thought, scrambling up the grass on her slippery shoes.
But on her way back to the house she came to that island that lay in the middle of the drive, dividing the drive into two arms that met in front of the house. The island was made of grass banked [Page 34] up high. Nothing grew on the top except one huge plant with thick, grey-green, thorny leaves, and out of the middle there sprang up a tall stout stem. Some of the leaves of the plant were so old that they curled up in the air no longer; they turned back, they were split and broken; some of them lay flat and withered on the ground.
Whatever could it be? She had never seen anything like it before. She stood and stared. And then she saw her mother coming down the path.
"Mother, what is it?" asked Kezia.
Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.
"That is an aloe, Kezia," said her mother.
"Does it ever have any flowers?"
"Yes, Kezia," and Linda smiled down at her, and half shut her eyes. "Once every hundred years."
On his way home from the office Stanley Burnell stopped the buggy at the Bodega, got out and bought a large bottle of oysters. At the Chinaman's shop next door he bought a pineapple in the pink of condition, and noticing a basket of fresh black [Page 35] cherries he told John to put him a pound of those as well. The oysters and the pine he stowed away in the box under the front seat, but the cherries he kept in his hand.
Pat, the handy-man, leapt off the box and tucked him up again in the brown rug.
"Lift yer feet, Mr. Burnell, while I give yer a fold under," said he.
"Right! Right! First rate!" said Stanley. "You can make straight for home now."
Pat gave the grey mare a touch and the buggy sprang forward.
"I believe this man is a first-rate chap," thought Stanley. He liked the look of him sitting up there in his neat brown coat and brown bowler. He liked the way Pat had tucked him in, and he liked his eyes. There was nothing servile about him–and if there was one thing he hated more than another it was servility. And he looked as if he was pleased with his job–happy and contented already.
The grey mare went very well; Burnell was impatient to be out of the town. He wanted to be home. Ah, it was splendid to live in the country–to get right out of that hole of a town once the office was closed; and this drive in the fresh warm air, knowing all the while that his own house was at the other end, with its garden and paddocks, its three tip-top cows and enough fowls and ducks to keep them in poultry, was splendid too.
As they left the town finally and bowled away up [Page 36] the deserted road his heart beat hard for joy. He rooted in the bag and began to eat the cherries, three or four at a time, chucking the stones over the side of the buggy. They were delicious, so plump and cold, without a spot or bruise on them.
Look at those two, now–black one side and white the other–perfect! A perfect little pair of Siamese twins. And he stuck them in his button-hole. . . . By Jove, he wouldn't mind giving that chap up there a handful–but no, better not. Better wait until he had been with him a bit longer.
He began to plan what he would do with his Saturday afternoons and his Sundays. He wouldn't go to the club for lunch on Saturday. No, cut away from the office as soon as possible and get them to give him a couple of slices of cold meat and half lettuce when he got home. And then he'd get a few chaps out from town to play tennis in the afternoon. Not too many–three at most. Beryl was a good player, too. . . . He stretched out his right arm and slowly bent it, feeling the muscle . . . . A bath, a good rub-down, a cigar on the veranda after dinner. . . .
On Sunday morning they would go to church–children and all. Which reminded him that he must hire a pew, in the sun if possible and well forward so as to be out of the draught from the door. In fancy he heard himself intoning extremely well: "When thou did overcome the Sharpness of Death Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven [Page 37] to all Believers." And he saw the neat brass-edged card on the corner of the pew–Mr. Stanley Burnell and family. . . . The rest of the day he'd loaf about with Linda. . . . Now they were walking about the garden; she was on his arm, and he was explaining to her at length what he intended doing at the office the week following. He heard her saying: "My dear, I think that is most wise. . . . " Talking things over with Linda was a wonderful help even though they were apt to drift away from the point.
Hang it all! They weren't getting along very fast. Pat had put the brake on again. Ugh! What a brute of a thing it was. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach.
A sort of panic overtook Burnell whenever he approached near home. Before he was well inside the gate he would shout to anyone within sight: "Is everything all right?" And then he did not believe it was until he heard Linda say: "Hullo! Are you home again?" That was the worst of living in the country–it took the deuce of a long time to get back. . . . But now they weren't far off. They were on the top of the last hill; it was a gentle slope all the way now and not more than half a mile.
Pat trailed the whip over the mare's back and he coaxed her: "Goop now. Goop now."
It wanted a few minutes to sunset. Everything stood motionless bathed in bright, metallic light [Page 38] and from the paddocks on either side there streamed the milky scent of ripe grass. The iron gates were open. They dashed through and up the drive and round the island, stopping at the exact middle of the veranda.
"Did she satisfy yer, sir?" said Pat, getting off the box and grinning at his master.
"Very well indeed, Pat," said Stanley.
Linda came out of the glass door; her voice rang in the shadowy quiet. "Hullo! Are you home again?"
At the sound of her his heart beat so hard that he could hardly stop himself dashing up the steps and catching her in his arms.
"Yes, I'm home again. Is everything all right?"
Pat began to lead the buggy round to the side gate that opened into the courtyard.
"Here, half a moment," said Burnell. "Hand me those two parcels." And he said to Linda, "I've brought you back a bottle of oysters and a pineapple," as though he had brought her back all the harvest of the earth.
They all went into the hall; Linda carried the oysters in one hand and the pineapple in the other. Burnell shut the glass door, threw his hat down, put his arms round her and strained her to him, kissing the top of her head, her ears, her lips, her eyes.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" said she. "Wait a moment. Let me put down these silly things," and [Page 39] she put the bottle of oysters and the pine on a little carved chair. "What have you got in your button-hole–cherries?" She took them out and hung them over his ear.
"Don't do that, darling. They are for you."
So she took them off his ear again. "You don't mind if I save them. They'd spoil my appetite for dinner. Come and see your children. They are having tea."
The lamp was lighted on the nursery table. Mrs. Fairfield was cutting and spreading bread and butter. The three little girls sat up to table wearing large bibs embroidered with their names. They wiped their mouths as their father came in ready to be kissed. The windows were open; a jar of wild flowers stood on the mantelpiece, and the lamp made a big soft bubble of light on the ceiling.
"You seem pretty snug, mother," said Burnell, blinking at the light. Isabel and Lottie sat one on either side of the table, Kezia at the bottom–the place at the top was empty.
"That's where my boy ought to sit," thought Stanley. He tightened his arm round Linda's shoulder. By God, he was a perfect fool to feel as happy as this!
"We are, Stanley. We are very snug," said Mrs. Fairfield, cutting Kezia's bread into fingers.
"Like it better than town–eh, children?" asked Burnell.
"Oh, yes," said the three little girls, and Isabel [Page 40] added as an afterthought: "Thank you very much indeed, father dear."
"Come upstairs," said Linda. "I'll bring your slippers."
But the stairs were too narrow for them to go up arm in arm. It was quite dark in the room. He heard her ring tapping on the marble mantelpiece as she felt for the matches.
"I've got some, darling. I'll light the candles."
But instead he came up behind her and again he put his arms round her and pressed her head into his shoulder.
"I'm so confoundedly happy," he said.
"Are you?" She turned and put her hands on his breast and looked up at him.
"I don't know what has come over me," he protested.
It was quite dark outside now and heavy dew was falling. When Linda shut the window the cold dew touched her finger tips. Far away a dog barked. "I believe there is going to be a moon," she said.
At the words, and with the cold wet dew on her fingers, she felt as though the moon had risen–that she was being strangely discovered in a flood of cold light. She shivered; she came away from the window and sat down upon the box ottoman beside Stanley.
. . . . .
In the dining-room, by the flicker of a wood fire, Beryl sat on a hassock playing the guitar. She had bathed and changed all her clothes. Now she wore [Page 41] a white muslin dress with black spots on it and in her hair she had pinned a black silk rose.
Nature has gone to her rest, love,
See, we are alone.
Give me your hand to press, love,
Lightly within my own.
She played and sang half to herself, for she was watching herself playing and singing. The firelight gleamed on her shoes, on the ruddy belly of the guitar, and on her white fingers . . . .
"If I were outside the window and looked in and saw myself I really would be rather struck," thought she. Still more softly she played the accompaniment–not singing now but listening.
. . . . "The first time that I ever saw you, little girl–oh, you had no idea that you were not alone–you were sitting with your little feet upon a hassock, playing the guitar. God, I can never forget. . . . " Beryl flung up her head and began to sing again:
Even the moon is aweary . . .
But there came a loud bang at the door. The servant girl's crimson face popped through.
"Please, Miss Beryl, I've got to come and lay."
"Certainly, Alice," said Beryl, in a voice of ice. She put the guitar in a corner. Alice lunged in with a heavy black iron tray.
"Well, I have had a job with that oving," said she. "I can't get nothing to brown."
"Really!" said Beryl. [Page 42]
But no, she could not stand that fool of a girl. She ran into the dark drawing-room and began walking up and down. . . . Oh, she was restless, restless. There was a mirror over the mantel. She leaned her arms along and looked at her pale shadow in it. How beautiful she looked, but there was nobody to see, nobody.
"Why must you suffer so?" said the face in the mirror. "You were not made for suffering. . . . Smile!"
Beryl smiled, and really her smile was so adorable that she smiled again–but this time because she could not help it.
"Good morning, Mrs. Jones."
"Oh, good morning, Mrs. Smith. I'm so glad to see you. Have you brought your children?"
"Yes, I've brought both my twins. I have had another baby since I saw you last, but she came so suddenly that I haven't had time to make her any clothes yet. So I left her. . . . How is your husband?"
"Oh, he is very well, thank you. At least he had an awful cold but Queen Victoria–she's my godmother, you know–sent him a case of pineapples and that cured it im–mediately. Is that your new servant?"
"Yes, her name's Gwen. I've only had her two days. Oh, Gwen, this is my friend, Mrs. Smith." [Page 43]
"Good morning, Mrs. Smith. Dinner won't be ready for about ten minutes."
"I don't think you ought to introduce me to the servant. I think I ought to just begin talking to her."
"Well, she's more of a lady-help than a servant and you do introduce lady-helps, I know, because Mrs. Samuel Josephs had one."
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter," said the servant carelessly, beating up a chocolate custard with half a broken clothes peg. The dinner was baking beautifully on a concrete step. She began to lay the cloth on a pink garden seat. In front of each person she put two geranium leaf plates, a pine needle fork and a twig knife. There were three daisy heads on a laurel leaf for poached eggs, some slices of fuchsia petal cold beef, some lovely little rissoles made of earth and water and dandelion seeds, and the chocolate custard which she had decided to serve in the pawa shell she had cooked it in.
"You needn't trouble about my children," said Mrs. Smith graciously. "If you'll just take this bottle and fill it at the tap–I mean at the dairy."
"Oh, all right," said Gwen, and she whispered to Mrs. Jones: "Shall I go and ask Alice for a little bit of real milk?"
But someone called from the front of the house and the luncheon party melted away, leaving the charming table, leaving the rissoles and the poached [Page 44] eggs to the ants and to an old snail who pushed his quivering horns over the edge of the garden seat and began to nibble a geranium plate.
"Come round to the front, children. Pip and Rags have come."
The Trout boys were the cousins Kezia had mentioned to the storeman. They lived about a mile away in a house called Monkey Tree Cottage. Pip was tall for his age, with lank black hair and a white face, but Rags was very small and so thin that when he was undressed his shoulder blades stuck out like two little wings. They had a mongrel dog with pale blue eyes and a long tail turned up at the end who followed them everywhere; he was called Snooker. They spent half their time combing and brushing Snooker and dosing him with various awful mixtures concocted by Pip, and kept secretly by him in a broken jug covered with an old kettle lid. Even faithful little Rags was not allowed to know the full secret of these mixtures.. .. Take some carbolic tooth powder and a pinch of sulphur powdered up fine, and perhaps a bit of starch to stiffen up Snooker's coat. . . . But that was not all; Rags privately thought that the rest was gun-powder. . . . And he never was allowed to help with the mixing because of the danger. . . . "Why, if a spot of this flew in your eye, you would be blinded for life," Pip would say, stirring the mixture with an iron spoon. "And there's always the chance–just the chance, mind you–of it [Page 45] exploding if you whack it hard enough. . . . Two spoons of this in a kerosene tin will be enough to kill thousands of fleas." But Snooker spent all his spare time biting and snuffling, and he stank abominably.
"It's because he is such a grand fighting dog," Pip would say. "All fighting dogs smell."
The Trout boys had often spent the day with the Burnells in town, but now that they lived in this fine house and boncer garden they were inclined to be very friendly. Besides, both of them liked playing with girls–Pip, because he could fox them so, and because Lottie was so easily frightened, and Rags for a shameful reason. He adored dolls. How he would look at a doll as it lay asleep, speaking in a whisper and smiling timidly, and what a treat it was to him to be allowed to hold one. . . .
"Curve your arms round her. Don't keep them stiff like that. You'll drop her," Isabel would say sternly.
Now they were standing on the veranda and holding back Snooker, who wanted to go into the house but wasn't allowed to because Aunt Linda hated decent dogs.
"We came over in the bus with mum," they said, "and we're going to spend the afternoon with you. We brought over a batch of our gingerbread for Aunt Linda. Our Minnie made it. It's all over nuts." [Page 46]
"I skinned the almonds," said Pip. "I just stuck my hand into a saucepan of boiling water and grabbed them out and gave them a kind of pinch and the nuts flew out of the skins, some of them as high as the ceiling. Didn't they, Rags?"
Rags nodded. "When they make cakes at our place," said Pip, "we always stay in the kitchen, Rags and me, and I get the bowl and he gets the spoon and the egg-beater. Sponge cake's the best. It's all frothy stuff, then."
He ran down the veranda steps to the lawn, planted his hands on the grass, bent forward, and just did not stand on his head.
"That lawn's all bumpy," he said. "You have to have a flat place for standing on your head. I can walk round the monkey tree on my head at our place. Can't I, Rags?"
"Nearly," said Rags faintly.
"Stand on your head on the veranda. That's quite flat," said Kezia.
"No, smarty," said Pip. "You have to do it on something soft. Because if you give a jerk and fall over, something in your neck goes click, and it breaks off. Dad told me."
"Oh, do let's play something," said Kezia.
"Very well," said Isabel quickly, "we'll play hospitals. I will be the nurse and Pip can be the doctor and you and Lottie and Rags can be the sick people."
Lottie didn't want to play that, because last time [Page 47] Pip had squeezed something down her throat and it hurt awfully.
"Pooh," scoffed Pip. "It was only the juice out of a bit of mandarin peel."
"Well, let's play ladies," said Isabel. "Pip can be the father and you can be all our dear little children."
"I hate playing ladies," said Kezia. "You always make us go to church hand in hand and come home and go to bed."
Suddenly Pip took a filthy handkerchief out of his pocket. "Snooker! Here, sir," he called. But Snooker, as usual, tried to sneak away, his tail between his legs. Pip leapt on top of him, and pressed him between his knees.
"Keep his head firm, Rags," he said, and he tied the handkerchief round Snooker's head with a funny knot sticking up at the top.
"Whatever is that for?" asked Lottie.
"It's to train his ears to grow more close to his head–see?" said Pip. "All fighting dogs have ears that lie back. But Snooker's ears are a bit too soft."
"I know," said Kezia. "They are always turning inside out. I hate that."
Snooker lay down, made one feeble effort with his paw to get the handkerchief off, but finding he could not, trailed after the children, shivering with misery. [Page 48]
Pat came swinging along; in his hand he held a little tomahawk that winked in the sun.
"Come with me," he said to the children, "and I'll show you how the kings of Ireland chop the head off a duck."
They drew back–they didn't believe him, and besides, the Trout boys had never seen Pat before.
"Come on now," he coaxed, smiling and holding out his hand to Kezia.
"Is it a real duck's head? One from the paddock?"
"It is," said Pat. She put her hand in his hard dry one, and he stuck the tomahawk in his belt and held out the other to Rags. He loved little children.
"I'd better keep hold of Snooker's head if there's going to be any blood about," said Pip, "because the sight of blood makes him awfully wild." He ran ahead dragging Snooker by the handkerchief.
"Do you think we ought to go?" whispered Isabel. "We haven't asked or anything. Have we?"
At the bottom of the orchard a gate was set in the paling fence. On the other side a steep bank led down to a bridge that spanned the creek, and once up the bank on the other side you were on the fringe of the paddocks. A little old stable in the first paddock had been turned into a fowl-house. The fowls had strayed far away across the paddock [Page 49] down to a dumping ground in a hollow, but the ducks kept close to that part of the creek that flowed under the bridge.
Tall bushes overhung the stream with red leaves and yellow flowers and clusters of blackberries. At some places the stream was wide and shallow, but at others it tumbled into deep little pools with foam at the edges and quivering bubbles. It was in these pools that the big white ducks had made themselves at home, swimming and guzzling along the weedy banks.
Up and down they swam, preening their dazzling breasts, and other ducks with the same dazzling breasts and yellow bills swam upside down with them.
"There is the little Irish navy," said Pat, "and look at the old admiral there with the green neck and the grand little flagstaff on his tail."
He pulled a handful of grain from his pocket and began to walk towards the fowl-house, lazy, his straw hat with the broken crown pulled over his eyes.
"Lid. Lid–lid–lid–lid–" he called.
"Qua. Qua–qua–qua–qua–" answered the ducks, making for land, and flapping and scrambling up the bank they streamed after him in a long waddling line. He coaxed them, pretending to throw the grain, shaking it in his hands and calling to them until they swept round him in a white ring. [Page 50]
From far away the fowls heard the clamour and they too came running across the paddock, their heads thrust forward, their wings spread, turning in their feet in the silly way fowls run and scolding as they came.
Then Pat scattered the grain and the greedy ducks began to gobble. Quickly he stooped, seized two, one under each arm, and strode across to the children. Their darting heads and round eyes frightened the children–all except Pip.
"Come on, sillies," he cried, "they can't bite. They haven't any teeth. They've only got those two little holes in their beaks for breathing through."
"Will you hold one while I finish with the other?" asked Pat. Pip let go of Snooker. "Won't I? Won't I? Give us one. I don't mind how much he kicks."
He nearly sobbed with delight when Pat gave the white lump into his arms.
There was an old stump beside the door of the fowl-house. Pat grabbed the duck by the legs, laid it flat across the stump, and almost at the same moment down came the little tomahawk and the duck's head flew off the stump. Up the blood spurted over the white feathers and over his hand.
When the children saw the blood they were frightened no longer. They crowded round him and began to scream. Even Isabel leaped about crying: "The blood! The blood!" Pip forgot all about his duck. He simply threw it away from [Page 51] him and shouted, "I saw it. I saw it," and jumped round the wood block.
Rags, with cheeks as white as paper, ran up to the little head, put out a finger as if he wanted to touch it, shrank back again and then again put out a finger. He was shivering all over.
Even Lottie, frightened little Lottie, began to laugh and pointed at the duck and shrieked: "Look, Kezia, look."
"Watch it!" shouted Pat. He put down the body and it began to waddle–with only a long spurt of blood where the head had been; it began to pad away without a sound towards the steep bank that led to the stream . . . . That was the crowning wonder.
"Do you see that? Do you see that?" yelled Pip. He ran among the little girls tugging at their pinafores.
"It's like a little engine. It's like a funny little railway engine," squealed Isabel.
But Kezia suddenly rushed at Pat and flung her arms round his legs and butted her head as hard as she could against his knees.
"Put head back! Put head back!" she screamed.
When he stooped to move her she would not let go or take her head away. She held on as hard as she could and sobbed: "Head back! Head back!" until it sounded like a loud strange hiccup.
"It's stopped. It's tumbled over. It's dead," said Pip. [Page 52]
Pat dragged Kezia up into his arms. Her sun-bonnet had fallen back, but she would not let him look at her face. No, she pressed her face into a bone in his shoulder and clasped her arms round his neck.
The children stopped screaming as suddenly as they had begun. They stood round the dead duck. Rags was not frightened of the head any more. He knelt down and stroked it now.
"I don't think the head is quite dead yet," he said. "Do you think it would keep alive if I gave it something to drink?"
But Pip got very cross: "Bah! You baby." He whistled to Snooker and went off.
When Isabel went up to Lottie, Lottie snatched away.
"What are you always touching me for, Isabel?"
"There now," said Pat to Kezia. "There's the grand little girl."
She put up her hands and touched his ears. She felt something. Slowly she raised her quivering face and looked. Pat wore little round gold ear-rings. She never knew that men wore ear-rings. She was very much surprised.
"Do they come on and off?" she asked huskily.
Up in the house, in the warm tidy kitchen, Alice, the servant girl, was getting the afternoon tea. She was "dressed." She had on a black stuff dress that [Page 53] smelt under the arms, a white apron like a large sheet of paper, and a lace bow pinned on to her hair with two jetty pins. Also her comfortable carpet slippers were changed for a pair of black leather ones that pinched her corn on her little toe something dreadful. . . .
It was warm in the kitchen. A blow-fly buzzed, a fan of whity steam came out of the kettle, and the lid kept up a rattling jig as the water bubbled. The clock ticked in the warm air, slow and deliberate, like the click of an old woman's knitting needle, and sometimes–for no reason at all, for there wasn't any breeze–the blind swung out and back, tapping the window.
Alice was making water-cress sandwiches. She had a lump of butter on the table, a barracouta loaf, and the cresses tumbled in a white cloth.
But propped against the butter dish there was a dirty, greasy little book, half unstitched, with curled edges, and while she mashed the butter she read:
"To dream of black-beetles drawing a hearse is bad. Signifies death of one you hold near or dear, either father, husband, brother, son, or intended. If beetles crawl backwards as you watch them it means death from fire or from great height such as flight of stairs, scaffolding, etc.
"Spiders. To dream of spiders creeping over you is good. Signifies large sum of money in near future. Should party be in family way an easy confinement may be expected. But care should be [Page 54] taken in sixth month to avoid eating of probable present of shell fish. . . . "
How many thousand birds I see.
Oh, life. There was Miss Beryl. Alice dropped the knife and slipped the Dream Book under the butter dish. But she hadn't time to hide it quite, for Beryl ran into the kitchen and up to the table, and the first thing her eye lighted on were those greasy edges. Alice saw Miss Beryl's meaning little smile and the way she raised her eyebrows and screwed up her eyes as though she were not quite sure what that could be. She decided to answer if Miss Beryl should ask her: "Nothing as belongs to you, Miss." But she knew Miss Beryl would not ask her.
Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they'd been expressed. Really, they kept her alive in places where she'd been that chivvied she'd been afraid to go to bed at night with a box of matches on the chair in case she bit the tops off in her sleep, as you might say.
"Oh, Alice," said Miss Beryl. "There's one extra to tea, so heat a plate of yesterday's scones, please. And put on the Victoria sandwich as well as the coffee cake. And don't forget to put little [Page 55] doyleys under the plates–will you? You did yesterday, you know, and the tea looked so ugly and common. And, Alice, don't put on that dreadful old pink and green cosy on the afternoon teapot again. That is only for the mornings. Really, I think it ought to be kept for the kitchen–it's so shabby, and quite smelly. Put on the Japanese one. You quite understand, don't you?"
Miss Beryl had finished.
That sing aloud from every tree . . .she sang as she left the kitchen, very pleased with her firm handling of Alice.
Oh, Alice was wild. She wasn't one to mind being told, but there was something in the way Miss Beryl had of speaking to her that she couldn't stand. Oh, that she couldn't. It made her curl up inside, as you might say, and she fair trembled. But what Alice really hated Miss Beryl for was that she made her feel low. She talked to Alice in a special voice as though she wasn't quite all there; and she never lost her temper with her–never. Even when Alice dropped anything or forgot anything important Miss Beryl seemed to have expected it to happen.
"If you please, Mrs. Burnell," said an imaginary Alice, as she buttered the scones, "I'd rather not take my orders from Miss Beryl. I may be only a common servant girl as doesn't know how to play the guitar, but . . . " [Page 56]
This last thrust pleased her so much that she quite recovered her temper.
"The only thing to do," she heard, as she opened the dining-room door, "is to cut the sleeves out entirely and just have a broad band of black velvet over the shoulders instead. . . . "
The white duck did not look as if it had ever had a head when Alice placed it in front of Stanley Burnell that night. It lay, in beautifully basted resignation, on a blue dish–its legs tied together with a piece of string and a wreath of little balls of stuffing round it.
It was hard to say which of the two, Alice or the duck, looked the better basted; they were both such a rich colour and they both had the same air of gloss and strain. But Alice was fiery red and the duck a Spanish mahogany.
Burnell ran his eye along the edge of the carving knife. He prided himself very much upon his carving, upon making a first-class job of it. He hated seeing a woman carve; they were always too slow and they never seemed to care what the meat looked like afterwards. Now he did; he took a real pride in cutting delicate shaves of cold beef, little wads of mutton, just the right thickness, and in dividing a chicken or a duck with nice precision . . . . [Page 57]
"Is this the first of the home products?" he asked, knowing perfectly well that it was.
"Yes, the butcher did not come. We have found out that he only calls twice a week."
But there was no need to apologise. It was a superb bird. It wasn't meat at all, but a kind of very superior jelly. "My father would say," said Burnell, "this must have been one of those birds whose mother played to it in infancy upon the German flute. And the sweet strains of the dulcet instrument acted with such effect upon the infant mind . . . Have some more, Beryl? You and I are the only ones in this house with a real feeling for food. I'm perfectly willing to state, in a court of law, if necessary, that I love good food."
Tea was served in the drawing-room, and Beryl, who for some reason had been very charming to Stanley ever since he came home, suggested a game of crib. They sat at a little table near one of the open windows. Mrs. Fairfield disappeared, and Linda lay in a rocking-chair, her arms above her head, rocking to and fro.
"You don't want the light–do you, Linda?" said Beryl. She moved the tall lamp so that she sat under its soft light.
How remote they looked, those two, from where Linda sat and rocked. The green table, the polished cards, Stanley's big hands and Beryl's tiny ones, all seemed to be part of one mysterious movement. Stanley himself, big and solid, in his dark suit, took [Page 58] his ease, and Beryl tossed her bright head and pouted. Round her throat she wore an unfamiliar velvet ribbon. It changed her, somehow–altered the shape of her face–but it was charming, Linda decided. The room smelled of lilies; there were two big jars of arums in the fireplace.
"Fifteen two–fifteen four–and a pair is six and a run of three is nine," said Stanley, so deliberately, he might have been counting sheep.
"I've nothing but two pairs," said Beryl, exaggerating her woe because she knew how he loved winning.
The cribbage pegs were like two little people going up the road together, turning round the sharp corner, and coming down the road again. They were pursuing each other. They did not so much want to get ahead as to keep near enough to talk–to keep near, perhaps that was all.
But no, there was always one who was impatient and hopped away as the other came up, and would not listen. Perhaps the white peg was frightened of the red one, or perhaps he was cruel and would not give the red one a chance to speak. . . .
In the front of her dress Beryl wore a bunch of pansies, and once when the little pegs were side by side, she bent over and the pansies dropped out and covered them.
"What a shame," said she, picking up the pansies. "Just as they had a chance to fly into each other's arms." [Page 59]
"Farewell, my girl," laughed Stanley, and away the red peg hopped.
The drawing-room was long and narrow with glass doors that gave on to the veranda. It had a cream paper with a pattern of gilt roses, and the furniture, which had belonged to old Mrs. Fairfield, was dark and plain. A little piano stood against the wall with yellow pleated silk let into the carved front. Above it hung an oil painting by Beryl of a large cluster of surprised-looking clematis. Each flower was the size of a small saucer, with a centre like an astonished eye fringed in black. But the room was not finished yet. Stanley had set his heart on a Chesterfield and two decent chairs. Linda liked it best as it was. . . .
Two big moths flew in through the window and round and round the circle of lamplight.
"Fly away before it is too late. Fly out again."
Round and round flew; they seemed to bring the silence and the moonlight in with them on their silent wings. . . .
"I've two kings," said Stanley. "Any good?"
"Quite good," said Beryl.
Linda stopped rocking and got up. Stanley looked across. "Anything the matter, darling?"
"No, nothing. I'm going to find mother."
She went out of the room and standing at the foot of the stairs she called, but her mother's voice answered her from the veranda.
The moon that Lottie and Kezia had seen from [Page 60] the storeman's wagon was full, and the house, the garden, the old woman and Linda–all were bathed in dazzling light.
"I have been looking at the aloe," said Mrs. Fairfield. "I believe it is going to flower this year. Look at the top there. Are those buds, or is it only an effect of light?"
As they stood on the steps, the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.
"Do you feel it, too," said Linda, and she spoke to her mother with the special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or from some hollow cave–"Don't you feel that it is coming towards us?"
She dreamed that she was caught up out of the cold water into the ship with the lifted oars and the budding mast. Now the oars fell striking quickly, quickly. They rowed far away over the top of the garden trees, the paddocks and the dark bush beyond. Ah, she heard herself cry: "Faster! Faster!" to those who were rowing.
How much more real this dream was than that they should go back to the house where the sleeping children lay and where Stanley and Beryl played cribbage.
"I believe those are buds," said she. "Let us go [Page 61] down into the garden, mother. I like that aloe. I like it more than anything here. And I am sure I shall remember it long after I've forgotten all the other things."
She put her hand on her mother's arm and they walked down the steps, round the island and on to the main drive that led to the front gates.
Looking at it from below she could see the long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves, and at the sight of them her heart grew hard. . . . She particularly liked the long sharp thorns. . . . Nobody would dare to come near the ship or to follow after.
"Not even my Newfoundland dog," thought she, "that I'm so fond of in the daytime."
For she really was fond of him; she loved and admired and respected him tremendously. Oh, better than anyone else in the world. She knew him through and through. He was the soul of truth and decency, and for all his practical experience he was awfully simple, easily pleased and easily hurt. . . .
If only he wouldn't jump at her so, and bark so loudly, and watch her with such eager, loving eyes. He was too strong for her; she had always hated things that rush at her, from a child. There were times when he was frightening–really frightening. When she just had not screamed at the top of her voice: "You are killing me." And at those times she had longed to say the most coarse, hateful things. . . . [Page 62]
"You know I'm very delicate. You know as well as I do that my heart is affected, and the doctor has told you I may die any moment. I have had three great lumps of children already. . . . "
Yes, yes, it was true. Linda snatched her hand from mother's arm. For all her love and respect and admiration she hated him. And how tender he always was after times like those, how submissive, how thoughtful. He would do anything for her; he longed to serve her. . . . Linda heard herself saying in a weak voice:
"Stanley, would you light a candle?"
And she heard his joyful voice answer: "Of course I will, my darling." And he leapt out of bed as though he were going to leap at the moon for her.
It had never been so plain to her as it was as this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that. . . .
She hugged her folded arms and began to laugh silently. How absurd life was–it was laughable, simply laughable. And why this mania of hers to keep alive at all? For it really was a mania, she thought, mocking and laughing.
"What am I guarding myself for so preciously? I shall go on having children and Stanley will go on [Page 63] making money and the children and the gardens will grow bigger and bigger, with whole fleets of aloes in them for me to choose from."
She had been walking with her head bent, looking at nothing. Now she looked up and about her. They were standing by the red and white camellia trees. Beautiful were the rich dark leaves spangled with light and the round flowers that perch among them like red and white birds. Linda pulled a piece of verbena and crumpled it, and held her hands to her mother.
"Delicious," said the old woman. "Are you cold, child? Are you trembling? Yes, your hands are cold. We had better go back to the house."
"What have you been thinking about?" said Linda. "Tell me."
"I haven't really been thinking of anything. I wondered as we passed the orchard what the fruit trees were like and whether we should be able to make much jam this autumn. There are splendid healthy currant bushes in the vegetable garden. I noticed them to-day. I should like to see those pantry shelves thoroughly well stocked with our own jam. . . . "
"My DARLING NAN,
Don't think me a piggy wig because I haven't written before. I haven't had a moment, [Page 64] dear, and even now I feel so exhausted that I can hardly hold a pen.
Well, the dreadful deed is done. We have actually left the giddy whirl of town, and I can't see how we shall ever go back again, for my brother-in-law has bought this house 'lock, stock and barrel,' to use his own words.
In a way, or course, it is an awful relief, for he has been threatening to take a place in the country ever since I've lived with them–and I must say the house and garden are awfully nice–a million times better than that awful cubby-hole in town.
But buried, my dear. Buried isn't the word.
We have got neighbours, but they are only farmers–big louts of boys who seem to be milking all day, and two dreadful females with rabbit teeth who brought us some scones when we were moving and said they would be pleased to help. But my sister who lives a mile away doesn't know a soul here, so I am sure we never shall. It's pretty certain nobody will ever come out from town to see us, because though there is a bus it's an awful old rattling thing with black leather sides that any decent person would rather die than ride in for six miles.
Such a life. It's a sad ending for poor little B. I'll get to be a most awful frump in a year or two and come and see you in a mackintosh and a sailor hat tied on with a white china silk motor veil. So pretty. [Page 65]
Stanley says that now we are settled–for after the most awful week of my life we really are settled–he is going to bring out a couple of men from the club on Saturday afternoons for tennis. In fact, two are promised as a great treat to-day. But, my dear, if you could see Stanley's men from the club . . . rather fattish, the type who look frighfully indecent without waistcoats–always with toes that turn in rather–so conspicuous when you are walking about a court in white shoes. And they are pulling up their trousers every minute–don't you know–and whacking at imaginary things with their rackets.
I used to play with them at the club last summer, and I am sure you will know the type when I tell you that after I'd been there about three times they all called me Miss Beryl. It's a dreary world. Of course mother simply loves the place, but then I suppose when I am mother's age I shall be content to sit in the sun and shell peas into a basin. But I'm not–not–not.
What Linda thinks about the whole affair, per usual, I haven't the slightest idea. Mysterious as ever. . . .
My dear, you know that white satin dress of mine. I have taken the sleeves out entirely, put bands of black velvet across the shoulders and two big red poppies off my dear sister's chapeau. It is a great success, though when I shall wear it I do not know." [Page 66]
Beryl sat writing this letter at a little table in her room. In a way, of course, it was all perfectly true, but in another way it was all the greatest rubbish and she didn't believe a word of it. No, that wasn't true. She felt all those things, but she didn't really feel them like that.
It was her other self who had written that letter. It not only bored, it rather disgusted her real self.
"Flippant and silly," said her real self. Yet she knew that she'd send it and she'd always write that kind of twaddle to Nan Pym. In fact, it was a very mild example of the kind of letter she generally wrote.
Beryl leaned her elbows on the table and read it through again. The voice of the letter seemed to come up to her from the page. It was faint already, like a voice heard over the telephone, high, gushing, with something bitter in the sound. Oh, she detested it to-day.
"You've always got so much animation," said Nan Pym. "That's why men are so keen on you." And she had added, rather mournfully, for men were not at all keen on Nan, who was a solid kind of girl, with fat hips and a high colour–"I can't understand how you can keep it up. But it is your nature, I suppose."
What rot. What nonsense. It wasn't her nature at all. Good heavens, if she had ever been her real self with Nan Pym, Nannie would have jumped out of the window with surprise. . . . My dear, you [Page 67] know that white satin of mine. . . . Beryl slammed the letter-case to.
She jumped up and half unconsciously, half consciously she drifted over to the looking-glass.
There stood a slim girl in white–a white serge skirt, a white silk blouse, and a leather belt drawn in very tightly at her tiny waist.
Her face was heart-shaped, wide at the brows and with a pointed chin–but not too pointed. Her eyes, her eyes were perhaps her best feature; they were such a strange uncommon colour–greeny blue with little gold points in them.
She had fine black eyebrows and long lashes–so long, that when they lay on her cheeks you positively caught the light in them, someone or other had told her.
Her mouth was rather large. Too large? No, not really. Her underlip protruded a little; she had a way of sucking it in that somebody else had told her was awfully fascinating.
Her nose was her least satisfactory feature. Not that it was really ugly. But it was not half as fine as Linda's. Linda really had a perfect little nose. Hers spread rather–not badly. And in all probability she exaggerated the spreadiness of it just because it was her nose, and she was so awfully critical of herself. She pinched it with a thumb and first finger and made a little face. . . .
Lovely, lovely hair. And such a mass of it. It had the colour of fresh fallen leaves, brown and red [Page 68] with a glint of yellow. When she did it in a long plait she felt it on her backbone like a long snake. She loved to feel the weight of it dragging her head back, and she loved to feel it loose, covering her bare arms. "Yes, my dear, there is no doubt about it, you really are a lovely little thing."
At the words her bosom lifted; she took a long breath of delight, half closing her eyes.
But even as she looked the smile faded from her lips and eyes. Oh, God, there she was, back again, playing the same old game. False–false as ever. False as when she'd written to Nan Pym. False even when she was alone with herself, now.
What had that creature in the glass to do with her, and why was she staring? She dropped down to one side of her bed and buried her face in her arms.
"Oh," she cried, "I am so miserable–so frightfully miserable. I know that I'm silly and spiteful and vain; I'm always acting a part. I'm never my real self for a moment." And plainly, plainly, she saw her false self running up and down the stairs, laughing a special trilling laugh if they had visitors, standing under the lamp if a man came to dinner, so that he should see the light on her hair, pouting and pretending to be a little girl when she was asked to play the guitar. Why? She even kept it up for Stanley's benefit. Only last night when he was reading the paper her false self had stood beside him and leaned against his shoulder on pur- [Page 69] pose. Hadn't she put her hand over his, pointing out something so that he should see how white her hand was beside his brown one.
How despicable! Despicable! Her heart was cold with rage. "It's marvellous how you keep it up," said she to the false self. But then it was only because she was so miserable–so miserable. If she had been happy and leading her own life, her false life would cease to be. She saw the real Beryl–a shadow . . . a shadow. Faint and unsubstantial she shone. What was there of her except the radiance? And for what tiny moments she was really she. Beryl could almost remember every one of them. At those times she had felt: "Life is rich and mysterious and good, and I am rich and mysterious and good, too." Shall I ever be that Beryl for ever? Shall I? How can I? And was there ever a time when I did not have a false self? . . . But just as she had got that far she heard the sound of little steps running along the passage; the door handle rattled. Kezia came in.
"Aunt Beryl, mother says will you please come down? Father is home with a man and lunch is ready."
Botheration! How she had crumpled her skirt, kneeling in that idiotic way.
"Very well, Kezia." She went over to the dressing-table and powdered her nose.
Kezia crossed too, and unscrewed a little pot of [Page 70] cream and sniffed it. Under her arm she carried a very dirty calico cat.
When Aunt Beryl ran out of the room she sat the cat up on the dressing-table and stuck the top of the cream jar over its ear.
"Now look at yourself," she said sternly.
The calico cat was so overcome by the sight that it toppled over backwards and bumped and bumped on to the floor. And the top of the cream jar flew through the air and rolled like a penny in a round on the linoleum–and did not break.
But for Kezia it had broken the moment it flew through the air, and she picked it up, hot all over, and put it back on the dressing-table.
Then she tiptoed away, far too quickly and airily. . . . [Page 71]
I DO not know why I have such a fancy for this little café. It's dirty and sad, sad. It's not as if it had anything to distinguish it from a hundred others–it hasn't; or as if the same strange types came here every day, whom one could watch from one's corner and recognize and more or less (with a strong accent on the less) get the hang of.
But pray don't imagine that those brackets are a confession of my humility before the mystery of the human soul. Not at all; I don't believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux–packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle. . . .
Not but what these portmanteaux can be very fascinating. Oh, but very! I see myself standing in front of them, don't you know, like a Customs official.
"Have you anything to declare? Any wines, spirits, cigars, perfumes, silks?" [Page 72]
And the moment of hesitation as to whether I am going to be fooled just before I chalk that squiggle, and then the other moment of hesitation just after, as to whether I have been, are perhaps the most thrilling instants in life. Yes, they are, to me.
But before I started that long and rather far-fetched and not frightfully original digression, what I meant to say quite simply was that there are no portmanteaux to be examined here because the clientele of this café, ladies and gentlemen, does not sit down. No, it stands at the counter, and it consists of a handful of workmen who come up from the river, all powdered over with white flour, lime or something, and a few soldiers, bringing with them thin, dark girls with silver rings in their ears and market baskets on their arms.
Madame is thin and dark, too, with white cheeks and white hands. In certain lights she looks quite transparent, shining out of her black shawl with an extraordinary effect. When she is not serving she sits on a stool with her face turned, always, to the window. Her dark-ringed eyes search among and follow after the people passing, but not as if she was looking for somebody. Perhaps, fifteen years ago, she was; but now the pose has become a habit. You can tell from her air of fatigue and hopelessness that she must have given them up for the last ten years, at least. . . . [Page 73]
And then there is the waiter. Not pathetic–decidedly not comic. Never making one of those perfectly insignificant remarks which amaze you so coming from a waiter (as though the poor wretch were a sort of coffee-pot and a wine bottle and not expected to hold so much as a drop of anything else). He is grey, flat-footed, and withered, with long, brittle nails that set your nerves on edge while he scrapes up your two sous. When he is not smearing over the table or flicking at a dead fly or two, he stands with one hand on the back of a chair, in his far too long apron, and over his other arm the three-cornered dip of dirty napkin, waiting to be photographed in connexion with some wretched murder. "Interior of Café where Body was Found." You've seen him hundreds of times.
Do you believe that every place has its hour of the day when it really does come alive? That's not exactly what I mean. It's more like this. There does seem to be a moment when you realize that, quite by accident, you happen to have come on to the stage at exactly the moment you were expected. Everything is arranged for you–waiting for you. Ah, master of the situation ! You fill with important breath. And at the same time you smile, secretly, slyly, because Life seems to be opposed to granting you these entrances, seems indeed to be engaged in snatching them from you and making them impossible, keeping you in the [Page 74] wings until it is too late, in fact. . . . Just for once you've beaten the old hag.
I enjoyed one of these moments the first time I ever came in here. That's why I keep coming back, I suppose. Revisiting the scene of my triumph, or the scene of the crime where I had the old bitch by the throat for once and did what I pleased with her.
Query: Why am I so bitter against Life? And why do I see her as a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick?
Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.
Anyhow, the "short winter afternoon was drawing to a close," as they say, and I was drifting along, either going home or not going home, when I found myself in here, walking over to this seat in the corner.
I hung up my English overcoat and grey felt hat on that same peg behind me, and after I had allowed the waiter time for at least twenty photographers to snap their fill of him, I ordered a coffee.
He poured me out a glass of the familiar, purplish stuff with a green wandering light playing over it, and shuffled off, and I sat pressing my hands against the glass because it was bitterly cold outside.
Suddenly I realized that quite apart from myself, I was smiling. Slowly I raised my head and saw [Page 75] myself in the mirror opposite. Yes, there I sat, leaning on the table, smiling my deep, sly smile, the glass of coffee with its vague plume of steam before me and beside it the ring of white saucer with two pieces of sugar.
I opened my eyes very wide. There I had been for all eternity, as it were, and now at last I was coming to life. . . .
It was very quiet in the café. Outside, one could just see through the dusk that it had begun to snow. One could just see the shapes of horses and carts and people, soft and white, moving through the feathery air. The waiter disappeared and reappeared with an armful of straw. He strewed it over the floor from the door to the counter and round about the stove with humble, almost adoring gestures. One would not have been surprised if the door had opened and the Virgin Mary had come in, riding upon an ass, her meek hands folded over her big belly. . . .
That's rather nice, don't you think, that bit about the Virgin? It comes from the pen so gently; it has such a "dying fall." I thought so at the time and decided to make a note of it. One never knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off a paragraph. So, taking care to move as little as possible because the "spell" was still unbroken (you know that?), I reached over to the next table for a writing pad.
No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel [Page 76] of pink blotting-paper, incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a little dead kitten, which I've never felt.
I sat–but always underneath, in this state of expectation, rolling the little dead kitten's tongue round my finger and rolling the soft phrase round my mind while my eyes took in the girls' names and dirty jokes and drawings of bottles and cups that would not sit in the saucers, scattered over the writing pad.
They are always the same, you know. The girls always have the same names, the cups never sit in the saucers; all the hearts are stuck and tied up with ribbons.
But then, quite suddenly, at the bottom of the page, written in green ink, I fell on to that stupid, stale little phrase: Je ne parle pas francais.
There ! it had come–the moment–the geste! and although I was so ready, it caught me, it tumbled me over; I was simply overwhelmed. And the physical feeling was so curious, so particular. It was as if all of me, except my head and arms, all of me that was under the table, had simply dissolved, melted, turned into water. Just my head remained and two sticks of arms pressing on to the table. But, ah! the agony of that moment! How can I describe it? I didn't think of anything. I didn't even cry out to myself. Just for one moment I was not. I was Agony, Agony, Agony.
Then it passed, and the very second after I was [Page 77] thinking: "Good God! Am I capable of feeling as strongly as that? But I was absolutely unconscious! I hadn't a phrase to meet it with! I was overcome! I was swept off my feet! I didn't even try, in the dimmest way, to put it down!"
And up I puffed and puffed, blowing off finally with: "After all I must be first-rate. No second-rate mind could have experienced such an intensity of feeling so . . . purely."
The waiter has touched a spill at the red stove and lighted a bubble of gas under a spreading shade. It is no use looking out of the window, Madame; it is quite dark now. Your white hands hover over your dark shawl. They are like two birds that have come home to roost. They are restless, restless. . . . You tuck them, finally, under your warm little armpits.
Now the waiter has taken a long pole and dashed the curtains together. "All gone," as children say.
And besides, I've no patience with people who can't let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing's gone, it's gone. It's over and done with. Let it go then ! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It's always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it's changed. Why, that's even true of a hat you chase after; and I don't mean superficially [Page 78] –I mean profoundly speaking . . . I have made it a rule of my life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy, and no one who intends to be a writer can afford to indulge in it. You can't get it into shape; you can't build on it; it's only good for wallowing in. Looking back, of course, is equally fatal to Art. It's keeping yourself poor. Art can't and won't stand poverty.
Je ne parle pas francais. Je ne parle pas francais. All the while I wrote that last page my other self has been chasing up and down out in the dark there. It left me just when I began to analyse my grand moment, dashed off distracted, like a lost dog who thinks at last, at last, he hears the familiar step again.
"Mouse! Mouse! Where are you? Are you near? Is that you leaning from the high window and stretching out your arms for the wings of the shutters? Are you this soft bundle moving towards me through the feathery snow? Are you this little girl pressing through the swing-doors of the restaurant? Is that your dark shadow bending forward in the cab? Where are you? Where are you? Which way must I turn? Which way shall I run? And every moment I stand here hesitating you are farther away again. Mouse! Mouse!"
Now the poor dog has come back into the café, his tail between his legs, quite exhausted. [Page 79]
"It was a . . . false . . . alarm. She's nowhere . . . to . . . be seen."
"Lie down then! Lie down! Lie down!"
My name is Raoul Duquette. I am twenty-six years old and a Parisian, a true Parisian. About my family–it really doesn't matter. I have no family; I don't want any. I never think about my childhood. I've forgotten it. In fact, there's only one memory that stands out at all. That is rather interesting because it seems to me now so very significant as regards myself from the literary point of view. It is this.
When I was about ten our laundress was an African woman, very big, very dark, with a check handkerchief over her frizzy hair. When she came to our house she always took particular notice of me, and after the clothes had been taken out of the basket she would lift me up into it and give me a rock while I held tight to the handles and screamed for joy and fright. I was tiny for my age, and pale, with a lovely little half-open mouth–I feel sure of that.
One day when I was standing at the door, watching her go, she turned round and beckoned to me, nodding and smiling in a strange secret way. I never thought of not following. She took me into a little outhouse at the end of the passage, caught me up in her arms and began kissing me. Ah, those [Page 80] kisses! Especially those kisses inside my ears that nearly deafened me.
When she set me down she took from her pocket a little round fried cake covered with sugar, and I reeled along the passage back to our door.
As this performance was repeated once a week it is no wonder that I remember it so vividly. Besides, from that very first afternoon, my childhood was, to put it prettily, "kissed away." I became very languid, very caressing, and greedy beyond measure. And so quickened, so sharpened, I seemed to understand everybody and be able to do what I liked with everybody.
I suppose I was in a state of more or less physical excitement, and that was what appealed to them. For all Parisians are more than half–oh, well, enough of that. And enough of my childhood, too. Bury it under a laundry basket instead of a shower of roses and passons oultre.
I date myself from the moment that I became the tenant of a small bachelor flat on the fifth floor of a tall, not too shabby house, in a street that might or might not be discreet. Very useful, that. . . . There I emerged, came out into the light, and put out my two horns with a study and a bedroom and a kitchen on my back. And real furniture planted in the rooms. In the bedroom a wardrobe with a long glass, a big bed covered with a yellow puffed-up quilt, a bed table with a marbled top, and a toilet [Page 81] set sprinkled with tiny apples. In my study–English writing table with drawers, writing chair with leather cushions, books, arm-chair, side table with paper-knife and lamp on it, and some nude studies on the walls. I didn't use the kitchen except to throw old papers into.
Ah, I can see myself that first evening, after the furniture men had gone and I'd managed to get rid of my atrocious old concierge–walking about on tip-toe, arranging and standing in front of the glass with my hands in my pockets, and saying to that radiant vision: "I am a young man who has his own flat. I write for two newspapers. I am going in for serious literature. I am starting a career. The book that I shall bring out will simply stagger the critics. I am going to write about things that have never been touched before. I am going to make a name for myself as a writer about the submerged world. But not as others have done before me. Oh, no! Very naively, with a sort of tender humour and from the inside, as though it were all quite simple, quite natural. I see my way quite perfectly. Nobody has ever done it as I shall do it because none of the others have lived my experiences. I'm rich–I'm rich."
All the same I had no more money than I have now. It's extraordinary how one can live without money. . . . I have quantities of good clothes, silk underwear, two evening suits, four pairs of patent leather boots with light uppers, all sorts [Page 82] of little things, like gloves and powder boxes and a manicure set, perfumes, very good soap, and nothing is paid for. If I find myself in need of right-down cash–well, there's always an African laundress and an outhouse, and I am very frank and bon enfant about plenty of sugar on the little fried cake afterwards. . . .
And here I should like to put something on record. Not from any strutting conceit, but rather with a mild sense of wonder. I've never yet made the first advances to any woman. It isn't as though I've known only one class of woman–not by any means. But from little prostitutes and kept women and elderly widows and shop girls and wives of respectable men, and even advanced modern literary ladies at the most select dinners and soirées (I've been there), I've met invariably with not only the same readiness, but with the same positive invitation. It surprised me at first. I used to look across the table and think "Is that very distinguished young lady, discussing le Kipling with the gentleman with the brown beard, really pressing my foot?" And I was never really certain until I had pressed hers.
Curious, isn't it? I don't look at all like a maiden's dream. . . .
I am little and light with an olive skin, black eyes with long lashes, black silky hair cut short, tiny square teeth that show when I smile. My hands are supple and small. A woman in a bread shop once [Page 83] said to me: "You have the hands for making fine little pastries." I confess, without my clothes I am rather charming. Plump, almost like a girl, with smooth shoulders, and I wear a thin gold bracelet above my left elbow.
But, wait! Isn't it strange I should have written all that about my body and so on? It's the result of my bad life, my submerged life. I am like a little woman in a café who has to introduce herself with a handful of photographs. "Me in my chemise, coming out of an eggshell. . . . Me upside down in a swing, with a frilly behind like a cauliflower. . . . " You know the things.
If you think what I've written is merely superficial and impudent and cheap you're wrong. I'll admit it does sound so, but then it is not all. If it were, how could I have experienced what I did when I read that stale little phrase written in green ink, in the writing-pad? That proves there's more in me and that I really am important, doesn't it? Anything a fraction less than that moment of anguish I might have put on. But no! That was real.
"Waiter, a whisky."
I hate whisky. Every time I take it into my mouth my stomach rises against it, and the stuff they keep here is sure to be particularly vile. I only ordered it because I am going to write about an Englishman. We French are incredibly old- [Page 84] fashioned and out of date still in some ways. I wonder I didn't ask him at the same time for a pair of tweed knickerbockers, a pipe, some long teeth, and a set of ginger whiskers.
"Thanks, mon vieux. You haven't got perhaps a set of ginger whiskers?"
"No, monsieur," he answers sadly. "We don't sell American drinks."
And having smeared a corner of the table he goes back to have another couple of dozen taken by artificial light.
Ugh! The smell of it! And the sickly sensation when one's throat contracts.
"It's bad stuff to get drunk on," says Dick Harmon, turning his little glass in his fingers and smiling his slow, dreaming smile. So he gets drunk on it slowly and dreamily and at a certain moment begins to sing very low, very low, about a man who walks up and down trying to find a place where he can get some dinner.
Ah! how I loved that song, and how I loved the way he sang it, slowly, slowly, in a dark, soft voice:
There was a man
Walked up and down
To get a dinner in the town . . .
It seemed to hold, in its gravity and muffled measure, all those tall grey buildings, those fogs, those endless streets, those sharp shadows of policemen that mean England. [Page 85]
And then–the subject! The lean, starved creature walking up and down with every house barred against him because he had no "home." How extraordinarily English that is. . . . I remember that it ended where he did at last "find a place" and ordered a little cake of fish, but when he asked for bread the waiter cried contemptuously, in a loud voice: "We don't serve bread with one fish ball."
What more do you want? How profound those songs are ! There is the whole psychology of a people; and how un-French–how un-French!
"Once more, Dick, once more!" I would plead, clasping my hands and making a pretty mouth at him. He was perfectly content to sing it for ever.
There again. Even with Dick. It was he who made the first advances.
I met him at an evening party given by the editor of a new review. It was a very select, very fashionable affair. One or two of the older men were there and the ladies were extremely comme il faut. They sat on cubist sofas in full evening dress and allowed us to hand them thimbles of cherry brandy and to talk to them about their poetry. For, as far as I can remember, they were all poetesses.
It was impossible not to notice Dick. He was the only Englishman present, and instead of circulating gracefully round the room as we all did, [Page 86] he stayed in one place leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets, that dreamy half smile on his lips, and replying in excellent French in his low, soft voice to anybody who spoke to him.
"Who is he?"
"An Englishman. From London. A writer. And he is making a special study of modern French literature."
That was enough for me. My little book, False Coins, had just been published. I was a young serious writer who was making a special study of modern English literature.
But I really had not time to fling my line before he said, giving himself a soft shake, coming right out of the water after the bait, as it were: "Won't you come and see me at my hotel? Come about five o'clock and we can have a talk before going out to dinner."
I was so deeply, deeply flattered that I had to leave him then and there to preen and preen myself before the cubist sofas. What a catch! An Englishman, reserved, serious, making a special study of French literature. . . .
That same night a copy of False Coins with a carefully cordial inscription was posted off, and a day or two later we did dine together and spent the evening talking.
Talking–but not only of literature. I discovered to my relief that it wasn't necessary to keep to the [Page 87] tendency of the modern novel, the need of a new form, or the reason why our young men appeared to be just missing it. Now and again, as if by accident, I threw in a card that seemed to have nothing to do with the game, just to see how he'd take it. But each time he gathered it into his hands with his dreamy look and smile unchanged. Perhaps he murmured: "That's very curious." But not as if it were curious at all.
That calm acceptance went to my head at last. It fascinated me. It led me on and on till I threw every card that I possessed at him and sat back and watched him arrange them in his hand.
"Very curious and interesting . . . "
By that time we were both fairly drunk, and he began to sing his song very soft, very low, about the man who walked up and down seeking his dinner.
But I was quite breathless at the thought of what I had done. I had shown somebody both sides of my life. Told him everything as sincerely and truthfully as I could. Taken immense pains to explain things about my submerged life that really were disgusting and never could possibly see the light of literary day. On the whole I had made myself out far worse than I was–more boastful, more cynical, more calculating.
And there sat the man I had confided in, singing to himself and smiling. . . . It moved me so that [Page 88] real tears came into my eyes. I saw them glittering on my long silky lashes–so charming.
After that I took Dick about with me everywhere, and he came to my flat, and sat in the armchair, very indolent, playing with the paper-knife. I cannot think why his indolence and dreaminess always gave me the impression he had been to sea. And all his leisurely slow ways seemed to be allowing for the movement of the ship. This impression was so strong that often when we were together and he got up and left a little woman just when she did not expect him to get up and leave her, but quite the contrary, I would explain: "He can't help it, Baby. He has to go back to his ship." And I believed it far more than she did.
All the while we were together Dick never went with a woman. I sometimes wondered whether he wasn't completely innocent. Why didn't I ask him? Because I never did ask him anything about himself. But late one night he took out his pocket-book and a photograph dropped out of it. I picked it up and glanced at it before I gave it to him. It was of a woman. Not quite young. Dark, handsome, wild-looking, but so full in every line of a kind of haggard pride that even if Dick had not stretched out so quickly I wouldn't have looked longer.
"Out of my sight, you little perfumed fox-terrier of a Frenchman," said she. [Page 89]
(In my very worst moments my nose reminds me of a fox-terrier's.)
"That is my Mother," said Dick, putting up the pocket-book.
But if he had not been Dick I should have been tempted to cross myself, just for fun.
This is how we parted. As we stood outside his hotel one night waiting for the concierge to release the catch of the outer door, he said, looking up at the sky: "I hope it will be fine tomorrow. I am leaving for England in the morning."
"You're not serious."
"Perfectly. I have to get back. I've some work to do that I can't manage here."
"But–but have you made all your preparations?"
"Preparations?" He almost grinned. "I've none to make."
"But–enfin, Dick, England is not the other side of the boulevard."
"It isn't much farther off," said he. "Only a few hours, you know." The door cracked open.
"Ah, I wish I'd known at the beginning of the evening!"
I felt hurt. I felt as a woman must feel when a man takes out his watch and remembers an appointment that cannot possibly concern her, except that its claim is the stronger. "Why didn't you tell me?" [Page 90]
He put out his hand and stood, lightly swaying upon the step as though the whole hotel were his ship, and the anchor weighed.
"I forgot. Truly I did. But you'll write, won't you? Good night, old chap. I'll be over again one of these days."
And then I stood on the shore alone, more like a little fox-terrier than ever. . . .
"But after all it was you who whistled to me, you who asked me to come! What a spectacle I've cut wagging my tail and leaping round you, only to be left like this while the boat sails off in its slow, dreamy way. . . . Curse these English! No, this is too insolent altogether. Who do you imagine I am? A little paid guide to the night pleasures of Paris? . . . No, monsieur. I am a young writer, very serious, and extremely interested in modern English literature. And I have been insulted–insulted."
Two days after came a long, charming letter from him, written in French that was a shade too French, but saying how he missed me and counted on our friendship, on keeping in touch.
I read it standing in front of the (unpaid for) wardrobe mirror. It was early morning. I wore a blue kimono embroidered with white birds and my hair was still wet; it lay on my forehead, wet and gleaming.
"Portrait of Madame Butterfly," said I, "on hearing of the arrival of ce cher Pinkerton. " [Page 91]
According to the books I should have felt immensely relieved and delighted. " . . . Going over to the window he drew apart the curtains and looked out at the Paris trees, just breaking into buds and green. . . . Dick! Dick! My English friend!"
I didn't. I merely felt a little sick. Having been up for my first ride in an aeroplane I didn't want to go up again, just now.
That passed, and months after, in the winter, Dick wrote that he was coming back to Paris to stay indefinitely. Would I take rooms for him? He was bringing a woman friend with him.
Of course I would. Away the little fox-terrier flew. It happened most usefully, too; for I owed much money at the hotel where I took my meals, and two English people requiring rooms for an indefinite time was an excellent sum on account.
Perhaps I did rather wonder, as I stood in the larger of the two rooms with Madame, saying "Admirable," what the woman friend would be like, but only vaguely. Either she would be very severe, flat back and front, or she would be tall, fair, dressed in mignonette green, name–Daisy, and smelling of rather sweetish lavender water.
You see, by this time, according to my rule of not looking back, I had almost forgotten Dick. I even [Page 92] got the tune of his song about the unfortunate man a little bit wrong when I tried to hum it. . . .
I very nearly did not turn up at the station after all. I had arranged to, and had, in fact, dressed with particular care for the occasion. For I intended to take a new line with Dick this time. No more confidences and tears on eyelashes. No, thank you!
"Since you left Paris," said I, knotting my black silver-spotted tie in the (also unpaid for) mirror over the mantel-piece, "I have been very successful, you know. I have two more books in preparation, and then I have written a serial story, Wrong Doors, which is just on the point of publication and will bring me in a lot of money. And then my little book of poems," I cried, seizing the clothes-brush and brushing the velvet collar of my new indigo-blue overcoat, "my little book–Left Umbrellas –really did create," and I laughed and waved the brush, "an immense sensation!"
It was impossible not to believe this of the person who surveyed himself finally, from top to toe, drawing on his soft grey gloves. He was looking the part; he was the part.
That gave me an idea. I took out my notebook, and still in full view, jotted down a note or two. . . . How can one look the part and not be the part? Or be the part and not look it? Isn't looking– [Page 93] being? Or being–looking? At any rate who is to say that it is not? . . .
This seemed to me extraordinarily profound at the time, and quite new. But I confess that something did whisper as, smiling, I put up the notebook: "You literary? you look as though you've taken down a bet on a racehorse!" But I didn't listen. I went out, shutting the door of the flat with a soft, quick pull so as not to warn the concierge of my departure, and ran down the stairs quick as a rabbit for the same reason.
But ah! the old spider. She was too quick for me. She let me run down the last little ladder of the web and then she pounced. "One moment. One little moment, Monsieur," she whispered, odiously confidential. "Come in. Come in." And she beckoned with a dripping soup ladle. I went to the door, but that was not good enough. Right inside and the door shut before she would speak.
There are two ways of managing your concierge if you haven't any money. One is–to take the high hand, make her your enemy, bluster, refuse to discuss anything; the other is–to keep in with her, butter her up to the two knots of the black rag tying up her jaws, pretend to confide in her, and rely on her to arrange with the gas man and to put off the landlord.
I had tried the second. But both are equally [Page 94] detestable and successful. At any rate whichever you're trying is the worse, the impossible one.
It was the landlord this time. . . . Imitation of the landlord by the concierge threatening to toss me out. . . . Imitation of the concierge by the concierge taming the wild bull. Imitation of the landlord rampant again, breathing in the concierge's face. I was the concierge. No, it was too nauseous. And all the while the black pot on the gas ring bubbling away, stewing out the hearts and livers of every tenant in the place.
"Ah!" I cried, staring at the clock on the mantelpiece, and then, realizing that it didn't go, striking my forehead as though the idea had nothing to do with it. "Madame, I have a very important appointment with the director of my newspaper at nine-thirty. Perhaps tomorrow I shall be able to give you . . . "
Out, out. And down the metro and squeezed into a full carriage. The more the better. Everybody was one bolster the more between me and the concierge. I was radiant.
"Ah! pardon, Monsieur!" said the tall charming creature in black with a big full bosom and a great bunch of violets dropping from it. As the train swayed it thrust the bouquet right into my eyes. "Ah! pardon, Monsieur!"
But I looked up at her, smiling mischievously.
"There is nothing I love more, Madame, than flowers on a balcony." [Page 95]
At the very moment of speaking I caught sight of the huge man in a fur coat against whom my charmer was leaning. He poked his head over her shoulder and went white to the nose; in fact his nose stood out a sort of cheese green.
"What was that you said to my wife?"
Gare Saint Lazare saved me. But you'll own that even as the author of False Coins, Wrong Doors, Left Umbrellas, and two in preparation, it was not too easy to go on my triumphant way.
At length, after countless trains had steamed into my mind, and countless Dick Harmons had come rolling towards me, the real train came. The little knot of us waiting at the barrier moved up close, craned forward, and broke into cries as though we were some kind of many-headed monster, and Paris behind us nothing but a great trap we had set to catch these sleepy innocents.
Into the trap they walked and were snatched and taken off to be devoured. Where was my prey?
"Good God!" My smile and my lifted hand fell together. For one terrible moment I thought this was the woman of the photograph, Dick's mother, walking towards me in Dick's coat and hat. In the effort–and you saw what an effort it was–to smile, his lips curled in just the same way and he made for me, haggard and wild and proud. [Page 96]
What had happened? What could have changed him like this? Should I mention it?
I waited for him and was even conscious of venturing a fox-terrier wag or two to see if he could possibly respond, in the way I said: "Good evening, Dick! How are you, old chap? All right?"
"All right. All right." He almost gasped. "You've got the rooms?"
Twenty times, good God! I saw it all. Light broke on the dark waters and my sailor hadn't been drowned. I almost turned a somersault with amusement.
It was nervousness, of course. It was embarrassment. It was the famous English seriousness. What fun I was going to have! I could have hugged him.
"Yes, I've got the rooms," I nearly shouted. "But where is Madame?"
"She's been looking after the luggage," he panted. "Here she comes, now."
Not this baby walking beside the old porter as though he were her nurse and had just lifted her out of her ugly perambulator while he trundled the boxes on it.
"And she's not Madame," said Dick, drawling suddenly.
At that moment she caught sight of him and hailed him with her minute muff. She broke away from her nurse and ran up and said something, very [Page 97] quick, in English; but he replied in French: "Oh, very well. I'll manage."
But before he turned to the porter he indicated me with a vague wave and muttered something. We were introduced. She held out her hand in that strange boyish way Englishwomen do, and standing very straight in front of me with her chin raised and making–she too–the effort of her life to control her preposterous excitement, she said, wringing my hand (I'm sure she didn't know it was mine), Je ne parle pas Francais.
"But I'm sure you do," I answered, so tender, so reassuring, I might have been a dentist about to draw her first little milk tooth.
"Of course she does." Dick swerved back to us. "Here, can't we get a cab or taxi or something? We don't want to stay in this cursed station all night. Do we?"
This was so rude that it took me a moment to recover; and he must have noticed, for he flung his arm round my shoulder in the old way, saying: "Ah, forgive me, old chap. But we've had such a loathsome, hideous journey. We've taken years to come. Haven't we?" To her. But she did not answer. She bent her head and began stroking her grey muff; she walked beside us stroking her grey muff all the way.
"Have I been wrong?" thought I. "Is this simply a case of frenzied impatience on their part? Are they merely 'in need of a bed,' as we say? [Page 98] Have they been suffering agonies on the journey? Sitting, perhaps, very close and warm under the same travelling rug?" and so on and so on while the driver strapped on the boxes. That done–
"Look here, Dick. I go home by metro. Here is the address of your hotel. Everything is arranged. Come and see me as soon as you can."
Upon my life I thought he was going to faint. He went white to the lips.
"But you're coming back with us," he cried. "I thought it was all settled. Of course you're coming back. You're not going to leave us." No, I gave it up. It was too difficult, too English for me.
"Certainly, certainly. Delighted. I only thought, perhaps . . . "
"You must come!" said Dick to the little fox-terrier. And again he made that big awkward turn towards her.
"Get in, Mouse."
And Mouse got in the black hole and sat stroking Mouse II and not saying a word.
Away we jolted and rattled like three little dice that life had decided to have a fling with.
I had insisted on taking the flap seat facing them because I would not have missed for anything those occasional flashing glimpses I had as we broke through the white circles of lamplight. [Page 99]
They revealed Dick, sitting far back in his corner, his coat collar turned up, his hands thrust in his pockets, and his broad dark hat shading him as if it were a part of him–a sort of wing he hid under. They showed her, sitting up very straight, her lovely little face more like a drawing than a real face–every line was so full of meaning and so sharp cut against the swimming dark.
For Mouse was beautiful. She was exquisite, but so fragile and fine that each time I looked at her it was as if for the first time. She came upon you with the same kind of shock that you feel when you have been drinking tea out of a thin innocent cup and suddenly, at the bottom, you see a tiny creature, half butterfly, half woman, bowing to you with her hands in her sleeves.
As far as I could make out she had dark hair and blue or black eyes. Her long lashes and the two little feathers traced above were most important.
She wore a long dark cloak such as one sees in old-fashioned pictures of Englishwomen abroad. Where her arms came out of it there was grey fur–fur round her neck, too, and her close-fitting cap was furry.
"Carrying out the mouse idea," I decided.
Ah, but how intriguing it was–how intriguing! Their excitement came nearer and nearer to me, while I ran out to meet it, bathed in it, flung myself [Page 100] far out of my depth, until at last I was as hard put to it to keep control as they. But what I wanted to do was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion–like a clown. To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out of the window and cry: "We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen, one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous," to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof, and dive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet.
I watched myself do all this, you understand, and even managed to applaud in a private way by putting my gloved hands gently together, while I said to Mouse: "And is this your first visit to Paris?"
"Yes, I've not been here before."
"Ah, then you have a great deal to see."
And I was just going to touch lightly upon the objects of interest and the museums when we wrenched to a stop.
Do you know–it's very absurd–but as I pushed open the door for them and followed up the stairs to the bureau on the landing I felt somehow that this hotel was mine.
There was a vase of flowers on the window sill of the bureau and I even went so far as to re-arrange [Page 101] a bud or two and to stand off and note the effect while the manageress welcomed them. And when she turned to me and handed me the keys (the garcon was hauling up the boxes) and said: "Monsieur Duquette will show you your rooms"–I had a longing to tap Dick on the arm with a key and say, very confidentially: "Look here, old chap. As a friend of mine I'll be only too willing to make a slight reduction . . . "
Up and up we climbed. Round and round. Past an occasional pair of boots (why is it one never sees an attractive pair of boots outside a door?). Higher and higher.
"I'm afraid they're rather high up," I murmured idiotically. "But I chose them because . . . "
They so obviously did not care why I chose them that I went no further. They accepted everything. They did not expect anything to be different. This was just part of what they were going through–that was how I analysed it.
"Arrived at last." I ran from one side of the passage to the other, turning on the lights, explaining.
"This one I thought for you, Dick. The other is larger and it has a little dressing-room in the alcove."
My "proprietary" eye noted the clean towels and covers, and the bed linen embroidered in red cotton. I thought them rather charming rooms, sloping, full of angles, just the sort of rooms one would [Page 102] expect to find if one had not been to Paris before.
Dick dashed his hat down on the bed.
"Oughtn't I to help that chap with the boxes?" he asked–nobody.
"Yes, you ought," replied Mouse, "they're dreadfully heavy."
And she turned to me with the first glimmer of a smile: "Books, you know." Oh, he darted such a strange look at her before he rushed out. And he not only helped, he must have torn the box off the garcon's back, for he staggered back, carrying one, dumped it down, and then fetched in the other.
"That's yours, Dick," said she.
"Well, you don't mind it standing here for the present, do you?" he asked, breathless, breathing hard (the box must have been tremendously heavy). He pulled out a handful of money. "I suppose I ought to pay this chap."
The garcon, standing by, seemed to think so too.
"And will you require anything further, Monsieur?"
"No! No! " said Dick impatiently.
But at that Mouse stepped forward. She said, too deliberately, not looking at Dick, with her quaint clipped English, accent: "Yes, I'd like some tea. Tea for three."
And suddenly she raised her muff as though her hands were clasped inside it, and she was telling the pale, sweaty garcon by that action that she was at [Page 103] the end of her resources, that she cried out to him to save her with "Tea. Immediately!"
This seemed to me so amazingly in the picture, so exactly the gesture and cry that one would expect (though I couldn't have imagined it) to be wrung out of an Englishwoman faced with a great crisis, that I was almost tempted to hold up my hand and protest.
"No! No! Enough. Enough. Let us leave off there. At the word–tea. For really, really, you've filled your greediest subscriber so full that he will burst if he has to swallow another word."
It even pulled Dick up. Like someone who has been unconscious for a long long time he turned slowly to Mouse and slowly looked at her with his tired, haggard eyes, and murmured with the echo of his dreamy voice: "Yes. That's a good idea." And then: "You must be tired, Mouse. Sit down."
She sat down in a chair with lace tabs on the arms; he leaned against the bed, and I established myself on a straight-backed chair, crossed my legs, and brushed some imaginary dust off the knees of my trousers. (The Parisian at his ease.)
There came a tiny pause. Then he said: "Won't you take off your coat, Mouse?"
"No, thanks. Not just now."
Were they going to ask me? Or should I hold [Page 104] up my hand and call out in a baby voice: "It's my turn to be asked."
No, I shouldn't. They didn't ask me.
The pause became a silence. A real silence.
" . . . Come, my Parisian fox-terrier! Amuse these sad English! It's no wonder they are such a nation for dogs."
But, after all–why should I? It was not my "job," as they would say. Nevertheless, I made a vivacious little bound at Mouse.
"What a pity it is that you did not arrive by daylight. There is such a charming view from these two windows. You know, the hotel is on a corner and each window looks down an immensely long, straight street."
"Yes," said she.
"Not that that sounds very charming," I laughed. "But there is so much animation–so many absurd little boys on bicycles and people hanging out of windows and–oh, well, you'll see for yourself in the morning. . . . Very amusing. Very animated."
"Oh, yes," said she.
If the pale, sweaty garcon had not come in at that moment, carrying the tea-tray high on one hand as if the cups were cannon-balls and he a heavy weight lifter on the cinema. . . .
He managed to lower it on to a round table.
"Bring the table over here," said Mouse. The [Page 105] waiter seemed to be the only person she cared to speak to. She took her hands out of her muff, drew off her gloves, and flung back the old-fashioned cape.
"Do you take milk and sugar?"
"No milk, thank you, and no sugar."
I went over for mine like a little gentleman. She poured out another cup.
"That's for Dick."
And the faithful fox-terrier carried it across to him and laid it at his feet, as it were.
"Oh, thanks," said Dick.
And then I went back to my chair and she sank back in hers.
But Dick was off again. He stared wildly at the cup of tea for a moment, glanced round him, put it down on the bed-table, caught up his hat, and stammered at full gallop: "Oh, by the way, do you mind posting a letter for me? I want to get it off by tonight's post. I must. It's very urgent. . . ." Feeling her eyes on him, he flung: "It's to my mother." To me: "I won't be long. I've got everything I want. But it must go off tonight. You don't mind? It . . . it won't take any time."
"Of course I'll post it. Delighted."
"Won't you drink your tea first?" suggested Mouse softly.
. . . Tea? Tea? Yes, of course. Tea. . . . A cup of tea on the bed-table . . . . In his racing [Page 106] dream he flashed the brightest, most charming smile at his little hostess.
"No, thanks. Not just now."
And still hoping it would not be any trouble to me he went out of the room and closed the door, and we heard him cross the passage.
I scalded myself with mine in my hurry to take the cup back to the table and to say as I stood there: "You must forgive me if I am impertinent . . . if I am too frank. But Dick hasn't tried to disguise it–has he? There is something the matter. Can I help?"
(Soft music. Mouse gets up, walks the stage for a moment or so before she returns to her chair and pours him out, oh, such a brimming, such a burning cup that the tears come into the friend's eyes while he sips–while he drains it to the bitter dregs. . . . )
I had time to do all this before she replied. First she looked in the teapot, filled it with hot water, and stirred it with a spoon.
"Yes, there is something the matter. No, I'm afraid you can't help, thank you." Again I got that glimmer of a smile. "I'm awfully sorry. It must be horrid for you."
Horrid, indeed! Ah, why couldn't I tell her that it was months and months since I had been so entertained?
"But you are suffering," I ventured softly, as though that was what I could not bear to see. [Page 107]
She didn't deny it. She nodded and bit her under-lip and I thought I saw her chin tremble.
"And there is really nothing I can do?" More softly still.
She shook her head, pushing back the table, and jumped up.
"Oh, it will be all right soon," she breathed, walking over to the dressing-table and standing with her back towards me. "It will be all right. It can't go on like this."
"But of course it can't," I agreed, wondering whether it would look heartless if I lit a cigarette; I had a sudden longing to smoke.
In some way she saw my hand move to my breast pocket, half draw out my cigarette case, and put it back again, for the next thing she said was: "Matches . . . in . . . candestick. I noticed them."
And I heard from her voice that she was crying.
"Ah! thank you. Yes. Yes. I've found them." I lighted my cigarette and walked up and down, smoking.
It was so quiet it might have been two o'clock in the morning. It was so quiet you heard the boards creak and pop as one does in a house in the country. I smoked the whole cigarette and stabbed the end into my saucer before Mouse turned round and came back to the table.
"Isn't Dick being rather a long time?" [Page 108]
"You are very tired. I expect you want to go to bed," I said kindly. (And pray don't mind me if you do, said my mind.)
"But isn't he being a very long time?" she insisted.
I shrugged. "He is, rather."
Then I saw she looked at me strangely. She was listening.
"He's been gone ages," she said, and she went with little light steps to the door, opened it, and crossed the passage into his room.
I waited. I listened too, now. I couldn't have borne to miss a word. She had left the door open. I stole across the room and looked after her. Dick's door was open, too. But–there wasn't a word to miss.
You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet room–a long comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not only puts one's grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah! how good that is.
It was over at last. I heard someone move and tiptoed away.
It was Mouse. She came back. She felt her way into the room carrying a letter for me. But it wasn't in an envelope; it was just a sheet of paper and she held it by the corner as though it was still wet.
Her head was bent so low–so tucked in her furry [Page 109] collar that I hadn't a notion–until she let the paper fall and almost fell herself on to the floor by the side of the bed, leaned her cheek against it, flung out her hands as though the last of her poor little weapons was gone and now she let herself be carried away, washed out into the deep water.
Flash! went my mind. Dick has shot himself, and then a succession of flashes while I rushed in, saw the body, head unharmed, small blue hole over temple, roused hotel, arranged funeral, attended funeral, closed cab, new morning coat. . . .
I stooped down and picked up the paper and would you believe it–so ingrained is my Parisian sense of comme il faut – I murmured "pardon" before I read it.
"MOUSE, MY LITTLE MOUSE,
It's no good. It's impossible. I can't see it through. Oh, I do love you. I do love you, Mouse, but I can't hurt her. People have been hurting her all her life. I simply dare not give her this final blow. You see, though she's stronger than both of us, she's so frail and proud. It would kill her–kill her, Mouse. And, oh God, I can't kill my mother! Not even for you. Not even for us. You do see that–don't you.
It all seemed so possible when we talked and planned, but the very moment the train started it was all over. I felt her drag me back to her– [Page 110] calling. I can hear her now as I write. And she's alone and she doesn't know. A man would have to be a devil to tell her and I'm not a devil, Mouse. She mustn't know. Oh, Mouse, somewhere, somewhere in you don't you agree? It's all so unspeakably awful that I don't know if I want to go or not. Do I? Or is Mother just dragging me? I don't know. My head is too tired. Mouse, Mouse–what will you do? But I can't think of that, either. I dare not. I'd break down. And I must not break down. All I've got to do is–just to tell you this and go. I couldn't have gone off without telling you. You'd have been frightened. And you must not be frightened. You won't–will you? I can't bear–but no more of that. And don't write. I should not have the courage to answer your letters and the sight of your spidery handwriting–
Forgive me. Don't love me any more. Yes. Love me. Love me. Dick."
What do you think of that? Wasn't that a rare find? My relief at his not having shot himself was mixed with a wonderful sense of elation. I was even–more than even with my "that's very curious and interesting" Englishman. . . .
She wept so strangely. With her eyes shut, with her face quite calm except for the quivering eyelids. The tears pearled down her cheeks and she let them fall. [Page 111]
But feeling my glance upon her she opened her eyes and saw me holding the letter.
"You've read it?"
Her voice was quite calm, but it was not her voice any more. It was like the voice you might imagine coming out of a tiny, cold sea-shell swept high and dry at last by the salt tide. . . .
I nodded, quite overcome, you understand, and laid the letter down.
"It's incredible! incredible! " I whispered.
At that she got up from the floor, walked over to the washstand, dipped her handkerchief into the jug, and sponged her eyes, saying: "Oh, no. It's not incredible at all." And still pressing the wet ball to her eyes she came back to me, to her chair with the lace tabs, and sank into it.
"I knew all along, of course," said the cold, salty little voice. "From the very moment that we started. I felt it all through me, but I still went on hoping"–and here she took the handkerchief down and gave me a final glimmer–"as one so stupidly does, you know."
"As one does."
"But what will you do? You'll go back? You'll see him?"
That made her sit right up and stare across at me.
"What an extraordinary idea!" she said, more coldly than ever. "Of course I shall not dream [Page 112] of seeing him. As for going back–that is quite out of the question. I can't go back."
"But . . ."
"It's impossible. For one thing all my friends think I am married."
I put out my hand–"Ah, my poor little friend."
But she shrank away. (False move.)
Of course there was one question that had been at the back of my mind all this time. I hated it.
"Have you any money?"
"Yes, I have twenty pounds–here," and she put her hand on her breast. I bowed. It was a great deal more than I had expected.
"And what are your plans?"
Yes, I know. My question was the most clumsy, the most idiotic one I could have put. She had been so tame, so confiding, letting me, at any rate spiritually speaking, hold her tiny quivering body in one hand and stroke her furry head–and now, I'd thrown her away. Oh, I could have kicked myself.
She stood up. "I have no plans. But–it's very late. You must go now, please."
How could I get her back? I wanted her back. I swear I was not acting then.
"Do you feel that I am your friend," I cried. "You will let me come tomorrow, early? You will let me look after you a little–take care of you a little? You'll use me just as you think fit?" [Page 113]
I succeeded. She came out of her hole . . . timid . . . but she came out.
"Yes, you're very kind. Yes. Do come tomorrow. I shall be glad. It makes things rather difficult because"–and again I clasped her boyish hand–"je ne parle pas francais. "
Not until I was half-way down the boulevard did it come over me–the full force of it.
Why, they were suffering . . . those two . . . really suffering. I have seen two people suffer as I don't suppose I ever shall again. . . .
Of course you know what to expect. You anticipate, fully, what I am going to write. It wouldn't be me, otherwise.
I never went near the place again.
Yes, I still owe that considerable amount for lunches and dinners, but that's beside the mark. It's vulgar to mention it in the same breath with the fact that I never saw Mouse again.
Naturally, I intended to. Started out–got to the door–wrote and tore up letters–did all those things. But I simply could not make the final effort.
Even now I don't fully understand why. Of course I knew that I couldn't have kept it up. That had a great deal to do with it. But you would have thought, putting it at its lowest, curiosity couldn't have kept my fox-terrier nose away . . . [Page 114]
Je ne parle pas francais. That was her swan song for me.
But how she makes me break my rule. Oh, you've seen for yourself, but I could give you countless examples.
. . . Evenings, when I sit in some gloomy café, and an automatic piano starts playing a "mouse" tune (there are dozens of tunes that evoke just her) I begin to dream things like . . .
A little house on the edge of the sea, somewhere far, far away. A girl outside in a frock rather like Red Indian women wear, hailing a light, barefoot boy who runs up from the beach.
"What have you got?"
"A fish." I smile and give it to her.
. . . The same girl, the same boy, different costumes–sitting at an open window, eating fruit and leaning out and laughing.
"All the wild strawberries are for you, Mouse. I won't touch one."
. . . A wet night. They are going home together under an umbrella. They stop on the door to press their wet cheeks together.
And so on and so on until some dirty old gallant comes up to my table and sits opposite and begins to grimace and yap. Until I hear myself saying: "But I've got the little girl for you, mon vieux. So little . . . so tiny." I kiss the tips of my fingers [Page 115] and lay them upon my heart. "I give you my word of honour as a gentleman, a writer, serious, young, and extremely interested in modern English literature."
I must go. I must go. I reach down my coat and hat. Madame knows me. "You haven't dined yet?" she smiles.
"No, not yet, Madame." [Page 116]
ALTHOUGH Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss–absolute bliss!–as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? . . .
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being "drunk and disorderly" ? How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?
"No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean," she thought, running up the steps and feeling in her bag for the key–she'd forgotten it, as usual–and rattling the letter-box. "It's not what I mean, because–Thank you, Mary"–she went into the hall. "Is nurse back?" [Page 117]
"And has the fruit come?"
"Yes, M'm. Everything's come."
"Bring the fruit up to the dining-room, will you? I'll arrange it before I go upstairs."
It was dusky in the dining-room and quite chilly. But all the same Bertha threw off her coat; she could not bear the tight clasp of it another moment, and the cold air fell on her arms.
But in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place–that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply. She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror–but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.
Mary brought in the fruit on a tray and with it a glass bowl, and a blue dish, very lovely, with a strange sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk.
"Shall I turn on the light, M'm?"
"No, thank you. I can see quite well."
There were tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink. Some yellow pears, smooth as silk, some white grapes covered with a silver bloom and a big cluster of purple ones. These last she had [Page 118] bought to tone in with the new dining-room carpet. Yes, that did sound rather far-fetched and absurd, but it was really why she had bought them. She had thought in the shop: "I must have some purple ones to bring the carpet up to the table." And it had seemed quite sense at the time.
When she had finished with them and had made two pyramids of these bright round shapes, she stood away from the table to get the effect–and it really was most curious. For the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air. This, of course, in her present mood, was so incredibly beautiful. . . . She began to laugh.
"No, no. I'm getting hysterical." And she seized her bag and coat and ran upstairs to the nursery.
Nurse sat at a low table giving Little B her supper after her bath. The baby had on a white flannel gown and a blue woollen jacket, and her dark, fine hair was brushed up into a funny little peak. She looked up when she saw her mother and began to jump.
"Now, my lovey, eat it up like a good girl," said nurse, setting her lips in a way that Bertha knew, and that meant she had come into the nursery at another wrong moment.
"Has she been good, Nanny?"
"She's been a little sweet all the afternoon," [Page 119] whispered Nanny. "We went to the park and I sat down on a chair and took her out of the pram and a big dog came along and put its head on my knee and she clutched its ear, tugged it. Oh, you should have seen her."
Bertha wanted to ask if it wasn't rather dangerous to let her clutch at a strange dog's ear. But she did not dare to. She stood watching them, her hands by her side, like the poor little girl in front of the rich girl with the doll.
The baby looked up at her again, stared, and then smiled so charmingly that Bertha couldn't help crying:
"Oh, Nanny, do let me finish giving her her supper while you put the bath things away.
"Well, M'm, she oughtn't to be changed hands while she's eating," said Nanny, still whispering. "It unsettles her; it's very likely to upset her."
How absurd it was. Why have a baby if it has to be kept–not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle–but in another woman's arms?
"Oh, I must!" said she.
Very offended, Nanny handed her over.
"Now, don't excite her after her supper. You know you do, M'm. And I have such a time with her after!"
Thank heaven! Nanny went out of the room with the bath towels.
"Now I've got you to myself, my little precious," said Bertha, as the baby leaned against her. [Page 120]
She ate delightfully, holding up her lips for the spoon and then waving her hands. Sometimes she wouldn't let the spoon go; and sometimes, just as Bertha had filled it, she waved it away to the four winds.
When the soup was finished Bertha turned round to the fire. "You're nice–you're very nice!" said she, kissing her warm baby. "I'm fond of you. I like you."
And indeed, she loved Little B so much–her neck as she bent forward, her exquisite toes as they shone transparent in the firelight–that all her feeling of bliss came back again, and again she didn't know how to express it–what to do with it.
"You're wanted on the telephone," said Nanny, coming back in triumph and seizing her Little B.
Down she flew. It was Harry.
"Oh, is that you, Ber? Look here. I'll be late. I'll take a taxi and come along as quickly as I can, but get dinner put back ten minutes–will you? All right?"
"Yes, perfectly. Oh, Harry!"
What had she to say? She'd nothing to say. She only wanted to get in touch with him for a moment. She couldn't absurdly cry: "Hasn't it been a divine day!"
"What is it?" rapped out the little voice. [Page 121]
"Nothing. Entendu," said Bertha, and hung up the receiver, thinking how much more than idiotic civilisation was.
They had people coming to dinner. The Norman Knights–a very sound couple–he was about to start a theatre, and she was awfully keen on interior decoration, a young man, Eddie Warren, who had just published a little book of poems and whom everybody was asking to dine, and a "find" of Bertha's called Pearl Fulton. What Miss Fulton did, Bertha didn't know. They had met at the club and Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.
The provoking thing was that, though they had been about together and met a number of times and really talked, Bertha couldn't make her out. Up to a certain point Miss Fulton was rarely, wonderfully frank, but the certain point was there, and beyond that she would not go.
Was there anything beyond it? Harry said "No." Voted her dullish, and "cold like all blonde women, with a touch, perhaps, of anaemia of the brain." But Bertha wouldn't agree with him; not yet, at any rate.
"No, the way she has of sitting with her head a little on one side, and smiling, has something behind it, Harry, and I must find out what that something is." [Page 122]
"Most likely it's a good stomach," answered Harry.
He made a point of catching Bertha's heels with replies of that kind . . . "liver frozen, my dear girl," or "pure flatulence," or "kidney disease," . . . and so on. For some strange reason Bertha liked this, and almost admired it in him very much.
She went into the drawing-room and lighted the fire; then, picking up the cushions, one by one, that Mary had disposed so carefully, she threw them back on to the chairs and the couches. That made all the difference; the room came alive at once. As she was about to throw the last one she surprised herself by suddenly hugging it to her, passionately, passionately. But it did not put out the fire in her bosom. Oh, on the contrary!
The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal. Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers, seemed to lean upon the dusk. A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver. [Page 123]
"What creepy things cats are!" she stammered, and she turned away from the window and began walking up and down. . . .
How strong the jonquils smelled in the warm room. Too strong? Oh, no. And yet, as though overcome, she flung down on a couch and pressed her hands to her eyes.
"I'm too happy–too happy!" she murmured.
And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.
Really–really–she had everything. She was young. Harry and she were as much in love as ever, and they got on together splendidly and were really good pals. She had an adorable baby. They didn't have to worry about money. They had this absolutely satisfactory house and garden. And friends–modern, thrilling friends, writers and painters and poets or people keen on social questions–just the kind of friends they wanted. And then there were books, and there was music, and she had found a wonderful little dressmaker, and they were going abroad in the summer, and their new cook made the most superb omelettes. . . .
"I'm absurd. Absurd!" She sat up; but she felt quite dizzy, quite drunk. It must have been the spring.
Yes, it was the spring. Now she was so tired she could not drag herself upstairs to dress. [Page 124]
A white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings. It wasn't intentional. She had thought of this scheme hours before she stood at the drawing-room window.
Her petals rustled softly into the hall, and she kissed Mrs. Norman Knight, who was taking off the most amusing orange coat with a procession of black monkeys round the hem and up the fronts.
" . . . Why! Why! Why is the middle-class so stodgy–so utterly without a sense of humour! My dear, it's only by a fluke that I am here at all–Norman being the protective fluke. For my darling monkeys so upset the train that it rose to a man and simply ate me with its eyes. Didn't laugh–wasn't amused–that I should have loved. No, just stared–and bored me through and through."
"But the cream of it was," said Norman, pressing a large tortoiseshell-rimmed monocle into his eye, "you don't mind me telling this, Face, do you?" (In their home and among their friends they called each other Face and Mug.) "The cream of it was when she, being full fed, turned to the woman beside her and said: 'Haven't you ever seen a monkey before?'"
"Oh, yes!" Mrs. Norman Knight joined in the laughter. "Wasn't that too absolutely creamy?"
And a funnier thing still was that now her coat was off she did look like a very intelligent monkey– [Page 125] who had even made that yellow silk dress out of scraped banana skins. And her amber ear-rings: they were like little dangling nuts.
"This is a sad, sad fall!" said Mug, pausing in front of Little B's perambulator. "When the perambulator comes into the hall–" and he waved the rest of the quotation away.
The bell rang. It was lean, pale Eddie Warren (as usual) in a state of acute distress.
"It is the right house, isn't it?" he pleaded.
"Oh, I think so–I hope so," said Bertha brightly.
"I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn't get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the lit-tle wheel . . . "
He shuddered, taking off an immense white silk scarf. Bertha noticed that his socks were white, too–most charming.
"But how dreadful!" she cried.
"Yes, it really was," said Eddie, following her into the drawing-room. "I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi."
He knew the Norman Knights. In fact, he was going to write a play for N.K. when the theatre scheme came off.
"Well, Warren, how's the play?" said Norman Knight, dropping his monocle and giving his eye [Page 126] a moment in which to rise to the surface before it was screwed down again.
And Mrs. Norman Knight: "Oh, Mr. Warren, what happy socks?"
"I am so glad you like them," said he, staring at his feet. "They seem to have got so much whiter since the moon rose." And he turned his lean sorrowful young face to Bertha. "There is a moon, you know."
She wanted to cry: "I am sure there is–often–often!"
He really was a most attractive person. But so was Face, crouched before the fire in her banana skins, and so was Mug, smoking a cigarette and saying as he flicked the ash: "Why doth the bridegroom tarry?"
"There he is, now."
Bang went the front door open and shut. Harry shouted: "Hullo, you people. Down in five minutes." And they heard him swarm up the stairs. Bertha couldn't help smiling; she knew how he loved doing things at high pressure. What, after all, did an extra five minutes matter? But he would pretend to himself that they mattered beyond measure. And then he would make a great point of coming into the drawing-room, extravagantly cool and collected.
Harry had such a zest for life. Oh, how she appreciated it in him. And his passion for fighting–for seeking in everything that came up against [Page 127] him another test of his power and of his courage–that, too, she understood. Even when it made him just occasionally, to other people, who didn't know him well, a little ridiculous perhaps. . . . For there were moments when he rushed into battle where no battle was. . . . She talked and laughed and positively forgot until he had come in (just as she had imagined) that Pearl Fulton had not turned up.
"I wonder if Miss Fulton has forgotten?"
"I expect so," said Harry. "Is she on the 'phone?"
"Ah! There's a taxi, now." And Bertha smiled with that little air of proprietorship that she always assumed while her women finds were new and mysterious. "She lives in taxis."
"She'll run to fat if she does," said Harry coolly, ringing the bell for dinner. "Frightful danger for blonde women."
"Harry–don't!" warned Bertha, laughing up at him.
Came another tiny moment, while they waited, laughing and talking, just a trifle too much at their ease, a trifle too unaware. And then Miss Fulton, all in silver, with a silver fillet binding her pale blonde hair, came in smiling, her head a little on one side.
"Am I late?"
"No, not at all," said Bertha. "Come along." And she took her arm and they moved into the dining-room. [Page 128]
What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan–fan–start blazing–blazing–the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?
Miss Fulton did not look at her; but then she seldom did look at people directly. Her heavy eyelids lay upon her eyes and the strange half-smile came and went upon her lips as though she lived by listening rather than seeing. But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them–as if they had said to each other: "You too?"–that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful red soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.
And the others? Face and Mug, Eddie and Harry, their spoons rising and falling–dabbing their lips with their napkins, crumbling bread, fiddling with the forks and glasses and talking.
"I met her at the Alpha show–the weirdest little person. She'd not only cut off her hair, but she seemed to have taken a dreadfully good snip off her legs and arms and her neck and her poor little nose as well."
"Isn't she very liée with Michael Oat?"
"The man who wrote Love in False Teeth? "
"He wants to write a play for me. One act. One man. Decides to commit suicide. Gives all the reasons why he should and why he shouldn't. And just as he has made up his mind either to do it or not to do it–curtain. Not half a bad idea." [Page 129]
"What's he going to call it–'Stomach Trouble' ?"
"I think I've come across the same idea in a lit-tle French review, quite unknown in England."
No, they didn't share it. They were dears–dears–and she loved having them there, at her table, and giving them delicious food and wine. In fact, she longed to tell them how delightful they were, and what a decorative group they made, how they seemed to set one another off and how they reminded her of a play by Tchekof!
Harry was enjoying his dinner. It was part of his–well, not his nature, exactly, and certainly not his pose–his–something or other–to talk about food and to glory in his "shameless passion for the white flash of the lobster" and "the green of pistachio ices–green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptian dancers."
When he looked up at her and said: "Bertha, this is a very admirable soufflée! " she almost could have wept with child-like pleasure.
Oh, why did she feel so tender towards the whole world tonight? Everything was good–was right. All that happened seemed to fill again her brimming cup of bliss.
And still, in the back of her mind, there was the pear tree. It would be silver now, in the light of poor dear Eddie's moon, silver as Miss Fulton, who sat there turning a tangerine in her slender [Page 130] fingers that were so pale a light seemed to come from them.
What she simply couldn't make out–what was miraculous– was how she should have guessed Miss Fulton's mood so exactly and so instantly. For she never doubted for a moment that she was right, and yet what had she to go on? Less than nothing.
"I believe this does happen very, very rarely between women. Never between men," thought Bertha. "But while I am making the coffee in the drawing-room perhaps she will 'give a sign' "
What she meant by that she did not know, and what would happen after that she could not imagine.
While she thought like this she saw herself talking and laughing. She had to talk because of her desire to laugh.
"I must laugh or die."
But when she noticed Face's funny little habit of tucking something down the front of her bodice–as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there, too–Bertha had to dig her nails into her hands–so as not to laugh too much.
It was over at last. And: "Come and see my new coffee machine," said Bertha.
"We only have a new coffee machine once a fortnight," said Harry. Face took her arm this time; Miss Fulton bent her head and followed after. [Page 131]
The fire had died down in the drawing-room to a red, flickering "nest of baby phoenixes," said Face.
"Don't turn up the light for a moment. It is so lovely." And down she crouched by the fire again. She was always cold . . . "without her little red flannel jacket, of course," thought Bertha.
At that moment Miss Fulton "gave the sign."
"Have you a garden?" said the cool, sleepy voice.
This was so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey. She crossed the room, pulled the curtains apart, and opened those long windows.
"There!" she breathed.
And the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed–almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.
How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?
For ever–for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: "Yes. Just that." Or did Bertha dream it? [Page 132]
Then the light was snapped on and Face made the coffee and Harry said: "My dear Mrs. Knight, don't ask me about my baby. I never see her. I shan't feel the slightest interest in her until she has a lover," and Mug took his eye out of the conservatory for a moment and then put it under glass again and Eddie Warren drank his coffee and set down the cup with a face of anguish as though he had drunk and seen the spider.
"What I want to do is to give the young men a show. I believe London is simply teeming with first-chop, unwritten plays. What I want to say to 'em is: 'Here's the theatre. Fire ahead.'"
"You know, my dear, I am going to decorate a room for the Jacob Nathans. Oh, I am so tempted to do a fried-fish scheme, with the backs of the chairs shaped like frying-pans and lovely chip potatoes embroidered all over the curtains."
"The trouble with our young writing men is that they are still too romantic. You can't put out to sea without being seasick and wanting a basin. Well, why won't they have the courage of those basins?"
"A dreadful poem about a girl who was violated by a beggar without a nose in a lit-tle wood. . . . "
Miss Fulton sank into the lowest, deepest chair and Harry handed round the cigarettes.
From the way he stood in front of her shaking the silver box and saying abruptly: "Egyptian? Turkish? Virginian? They're all mixed up," [Page 133] Bertha realised that she not only bored him; he really disliked her. And she decided from the way Miss Fulton said: "No, thank you, I won't smoke," that she felt it, too, and was hurt.
"Oh, Harry, don't dislike her. You are quite wrong about her. She's wonderful, wonderful. And, besides, how can you feel so differently about someone who means so much to me. I shall try to tell you when we are in bed tonight what has been happening. What she and I have shared."
At those last words something strange and almost terrifying darted into Bertha's mind. And this something blind and smiling whispered to her: "Soon these people will go. The house will be quiet–quiet. The lights will be out. And you and he will be alone together in the dark room–the warm bed. . . . "
She jumped up from her chair and ran over to the piano.
"What a pity someone does not play!" she cried. "What a pity somebody does not play."
For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband. Oh, she'd loved him–she'd been in love with him, of course, in every other way, but just not in that way. And equally, of course, she'd understood that he was different. They'd discussed it so often. It had worried her dreadfully at first to find that she was so cold, but after a time it had not [Page 134] seemed to matter. They were so frank with each other–such good pals. That was the best of being modern.
But now–ardently! ardently! The word ached in her ardent body! Was this what that feeling of bliss had been leading up to? But then, then– "My dear," said Mrs. Norman Knight, "you know our shame. We are the victims of time and train. We live in Hampstead. It's been so nice."
"I'll come with you into the hall," said Bertha. "I loved having you. But you must not miss the last train. That's so awful, isn't it?"
"Have a whisky, Knight, before you go?" called Harry.
"No, thanks, old chap."
Bertha squeezed his hand for that as she shook it.
"Good night, good-bye," she cried from the top step, feeling that this self of hers was taking leave of them for ever.
When she got back into the drawing-room the others were on the move.
" . . . Then you can come part of the way in my taxi."
"I shall be so thankful not to have to face another drive alone after my dreadful experience."
"You can get a taxi at the rank just at the end of the street. You won't have to walk more than a few yards."
"That's a comfort. I'll go and put on my coat." [Page 135]
Miss Fulton moved towards the hall and Bertha was following when Harry almost pushed past.
"Let me help you."
Bertha knew that he was repenting his rudeness–she let him go. What a boy he was in some ways–so impulsive–so–simple.
And Eddie and she were left by the fire.
"I wonder if you have seen Bilks' new poem called Table d'Hôte," said Eddie softly. "It's so wonderful. In the last Anthology. Have you got a copy? I'd so like to show it to you. It begins with an incredibly beautiful line: 'Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?'"
"Yes," said Bertha. And she moved noiselessly to a table opposite the drawing-room door and Eddie glided noiselessly after her. She picked up the little book and gave it to him; they had not made a sound.
While he looked it up she turned her head towards the hall. And she saw . . . Harry with Miss Fulton's coat in his arms and Miss Fulton with her back turned to him and her head bent. He tossed the coat away, put his hands on her shoulders and turned her violently to him. His lips said: "I adore you," and Miss Fulton laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile. Harry's nostrils quivered; his lips curled back in a hideous grin while he whispered: "Tomorrow," and with her eyelids Miss Fulton said: "Yes."
"Here it is," said Eddie. "'Why Must it Always [Page 136] be Tomato Soup?' It's so deeply true, don't you feel? Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal."
"If you prefer," said Harry's voice, very loud, from the hall, "I can phone you a cab to come to the door."
"Oh, no. It's not necessary," said Miss Fulton, and she came up to Bertha and gave her the slender fingers to hold.
"Good-bye. Thank you so much."
"Good-bye," said Bertha.
Miss Fulton held her hand a moment longer.
"Your lovely pear tree!" she murmured.
And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.
"I'll shut up shop," said Harry, extravagantly cool and collected.
"Your lovely pear tree–pear tree–pear tree!"
Bertha simply ran over to the long windows.
"Oh, what is going to happen now?" she cried.
But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still. [Page 137]
SUDDENLY–dreadfully–she wakes up. What has happened? Something dreadful has happened. No–nothing has happened. It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble. Leaves flutter past the window, up and away; down in the avenue a whole newspaper wags in the air like a lost kite and falls, spiked on a pine tree. It is cold. Summer is over–it is autumn–everything is ugly. The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets–their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind. A white dog on three legs yelps past the gate. It is all over! What is? Oh, everything! And she begins to plait her hair with shaking fingers, not daring to look in the glass. Mother is talking to grandmother in the hall.
"A perfect idiot! Imagine leaving anything out on the line in weather like this. . . . Now my best little Teneriffe-work teacloth is simply in ribbons. What is that extraordinary smell? It's the porridge burning. Oh, heavens–this wind!" [Page 138]
She has a music lesson at ten o'clock. At the thought the minor movement of the Beethoven begins to play in her head, the trills long and terrible like little rolling drums. . . . Marie Swainson runs into the garden next door to pick the "chrysanths" before they are ruined. Her skirt flies up above her waist; she tries to beat it down, to tuck it between her legs while she stoops, but it is no use–up it flies. All the trees and bushes beat about her. She picks as quickly as she can, but she is quite distracted. She doesn't mind what she does–she pulls the plants up by the roots and bends and twists them, stamping her foot and swearing.
"For heaven's sake keep the front door shut! Go round to the back," shouts someone. And then she hears Bogey:
"Mother, you're wanted on the telephone. Telephone, Mother. It's the butcher."
How hideous life is–revolting, simply revolting. . . . And now her hat-elastic's snapped. Of course it would. She'll wear her old tam and slip out the back way. But Mother has seen.
"Matilda. Matilda. Come back im-me-diately! What on earth have you got on your head? It looks like a tea cosy. And why have you got that mane of hair on your forehead."
"I can't come back, Mother. I'll be late for my lesson."
"Come back immediately!" [Page 138]
She won't. She won't. She hates Mother. "Go to hell," she shouts, running down the road.
In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. There is a loud roaring sound from the trees in the gardens, and standing at the bottom of the road outside Mr. Bullen's gate she can hear the sea sob: "Ah! . . . Ah! . . . Ah-h!" But Mr. Bullen's drawing-room is as quiet as a cave. The windows are closed, the blinds half-pulled, and she is not late. The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell's "To an Iceberg." Mr. Bullen looks over at her and half smiles.
"Sit down," he says. "Sit over there in the sofa corner, little lady."
How funny he is. He doesn't exactly laugh at you . . . but there is just something. . . . Oh, how peaceful it is here. She likes this room. It smells of art serge and stale smoke and chrysanthemums . . . there is a big vase of them on the mantelpiece behind the pale photograph of Rubinstein . . . á mon ami Robert Bullen. . . . . Over the black glittering piano hangs "Solitude"–a dark tragic woman draped in white, sitting on a rock, her knees crossed, her chin on her hands.
"No, no!" says Mr. Bullen, and he leans over the other girl, puts his arms over her shoulders and plays the passage for her. The stupid–she's blushing! How ridiculous! [Page 140]
Now the-girl-before-her has gone; the front door slams. Mr. Bullen comes back and walks up and down, very softly, waiting for her. What an extraordinary thing. Her fingers tremble so that she can't undo the knot in the music satchel. It's the wind. . . . And her heart beats so hard she feels it must lift her blouse up and down. Mr. Bullen does not say a word. The shabby red piano seat is long enough for two people to sit side by side. Mr. Bullen sits down by her.
"Shall I begin with scales?" she asks, squeezing her hands together. "I had some arpeggios, too."
But he does not answer. She doesn't believe he even hears . . . and then suddenly his fresh hand with the ring on it reaches over and opens Beethoven.
"Let's have a little of the old master," he says.
But why does he speak so kindly–so awfully kindly–and as though they had known each other for years and years and knew everything about each other.
He turns the page slowly. She watches his hand–it is a very nice hand and always looks as though it had just been washed.
"Here we are," says Mr. Bullen.
Oh, that kind voice–Oh, that minor movement. Here come the little drums. . . .
"Shall I take the repeat?"
"Yes, dear child."
His voice is far, far too kind. The crotchets and [Page 141] quavers are dancing up and down the stave like little black boys on a fence. Why is he so . . . She will not cry–she has nothing to cry about. . . .
"What is it, dear child?"
Mr. Bullen takes her hands. His shoulder is there–just by her head. She leans on it ever so little, her cheek against the springy tweed.
"Life is so dreadful," she murmurs, but she does not feel it's dreadful at all. He says something about "waiting" and "marking time" and "that rare thing, a woman," but she does not hear. It is so comfortable . . . for ever . . .
Suddenly the door opens and in pops Marie Swainson, hours before her time.
"Take the allegretto a little faster," says Mr. Bullen, and gets up and begins to walk up and down again.
"Sit in the sofa corner, little lady," he says to Marie.
The wind, the wind. It's frightening to be here in her room by herself. The bed, the mirror, the white jug and basin gleam like the sky outside. It's the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep.. . . Does Mother imagine for one moment that she is going to darn all those stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes? She's not. No, Mother. I do not see why I should. . . . The wind–the wind! There's a funny smell of [Page 142] soot blowing down the chimney. Hasn't anyone written poems to the wind? . . . "I bring fresh flowers to the leaves and showers." . . . What nonsense.
"Is that you, Bogey?"
"Come for a walk round the esplanade, Matilda. I can't stand this any longer."
"Right-o. I'll put on my ulster. Isn't it an awful day!" Bogey's ulster is just like hers. Hooking the collar she looks at herself in the glass. Her face is white, they have the same excited eyes and hot lips. Ah, they know those two in the glass. Good-bye, dears; we shall be back soon.
"This is better, isn't it?"
"Hook on," says Bogey.
They cannot walk fast enough. Their heads bent, their legs just touching, they stride like one eager person through the town, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade. It is dusky–just getting dusky. The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.
"Come on! Come on! Let's get near."
Over by the breakwater the sea is very high. They pull off their hats and her hair blows across her mouth, tasting of salt. The sea is so high that the waves do not break at all; they thump against the rough stone wall and suck up the weedy, [Page 143] dripping steps. A fine spray skims from the water right across the esplanade. They are covered with drops; the inside of her mouth tastes wet and cold.
Bogey's voice is breaking. When he speaks he rushes up and down the scale. It's funny–it makes you laugh–and yet it just suits the day. The wind carries their voices–away fly the sentences like narrow ribbons.
It is getting very dark. In the harbour the coal hulks show two lights–one high on a mast, and one from the stern.
"Look, Bogey. Look over there."
A big black steamer with a long loop of smoke streaming, with the portholes lighted, with lights everywhere, is putting out to sea. The wind does not stop her; she cuts through the waves, making for the open gate between the pointed rocks that leads to . . . It's the light that makes her look so awfully beautiful and mysterious. . . . They are on board leaning over the rail arm in arm.
" . . . Who are they?"
" . . . Brother and sister."
"Look, Bogey, there's the town. Doesn't it look small? There's the post office clock chiming for the last time. There's the esplanade where we walked that windy day. Do you remember? I cried at my music lesson that day–how many years ago ! Good-bye, little island, good-bye. . . . " [Page 144]
Now the dark stretches a wing over the tumbling water. They can't see those two any more. Good-bye, good-bye. Don't forget. . . . But the ship is gone, now.
The wind–the wind. [Page 145]
WHEN she opened the door and saw him standing there she was more pleased than ever before, and he, too, as he followed her into the studio, seemed very very happy to have come.
"No. Just going to have tea."
"And you are not expecting anybody?"
"Nobody at all."
"Ah! That's good."
He laid aside his coat and hat gently, lingeringly, as though he had time and to spare for everything, or as though he were taking leave of them for ever, and came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.
Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light. Still, as it were, they tasted on their smiling lips the sweet shock of their greeting. Their secret selves whispered:
"Why should we speak? Isn't this enough?"
"More than enough. I never realized until this moment . . . "
"How good it is just to be with you. . . . "
"Like this. . . . " [Page 146]
"It's more than enough."
But suddenly he turned and looked at her and she moved quickly away.
"Have a cigarette? I'll put the kettle on. Are you longing for tea?"
"No. Not longing."
"Well, I am."
"Oh, you." He thumped the Armenian cushion and flung on to the sommier. "You're a perfect little Chinee."
"Yes, I am," she laughed. "I long for tea as strong men long for wine."
She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade, pulled the curtains, and drew up the tea table. Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered. He sat up clasping his knees. It was delightful–this business of having tea–and she always had delicious things to eat–little sharp sandwiches, short sweet almond fingers, and a dark, rich cake tasting of rum–but it was an interruption. He wanted it over, the table pushed away, their two chairs drawn up to the light, and the moment came when he took out his pipe, filled it, and said, pressing the tobacco tight into the bowl: "I have been thinking over what you said last time and it seems to me. . . . "
Yes, that was what he waited for and so did she. Yes, while she shook the teapot hot and dry over the spirit flame she saw those other two, him, leaning back, taking his ease among the cushions, and her, [Page 147] curled up en escargot in the blue shell arm-chair. The picture was so clear and so minute it might have been painted on the blue teapot lid. And yet she couldn't hurry. She could almost have cried: "Give me time." She must have time in which to grow calm. She wanted time in which to free herself from all these familiar things with which she lived so vividly. For all these gay things round her were part of her–her offspring–and they knew it and made the largest, most vehement claims. But now they must go. They must be swept away, shooed away–like children, sent up the shadowy stairs, packed into bed, and commanded to go to sleep–at once–without a murmur!
For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn't as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter–nor did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals. No, they were eager, serious travellers, absorbed in understanding what was to be seen and discovering what was hidden–making the most of this extraordinary absolute chance which made it possible for him to be utterly truthful to her and for her to be utterly sincere with him.
And the best of it was they were both of them old enough to enjoy their adventure to the full [Page 148] without any stupid emotional complication. Passion would have ruined everything; they quite saw that. Besides, all that sort of thing was over and done with for both of them–he was thirty-one, she was thirty–they had had their experiences, and very rich and varied they had been, but now was the time for harvest–harvest. Weren't his novels to be very big novels indeed? And her plays. Who else had her exquisite sense of real English Comedy? . . .
Carefully she cut the cake into thick little wads and he reached across for a piece.
"Do you realize how good it is," she implored. "Eat it imaginatively. Roll your eyes if you can and taste it on the breath. It's not a sandwich from the hatter's bag–it's the kind of cake that might have been mentioned in the Book of Genesis. . . . And God said: 'Let there be cake. And there was cake. And God saw that it was good.'"
"You needn't entreat me," said he. "Really you needn't. It's a queer thing but I always do notice what I eat here and never anywhere else. I suppose it comes of living alone so long and always reading while I feed . . . my habit of looking upon food as just food . . . something that's there, at certain times . . . to be devoured . . . to be . . . not there." He laughed. "That shocks you. Doesn't it?"
"To the bone," said she.
"But–look here–" He pushed away his cup [Page 149] and began to speak very fast. "I simply haven't got any external life at all. I don't know the names of things a bit–trees and so on–and I never notice places or furniture or what people look like. One room is just like another to me–a place to sit and read or talk in–except," and here he paused, smiled in a strange naive way, and said, "except this studio." He looked round him and then at her; he laughed in his astonishment and pleasure. He was like a man who wakes up in a train to find that he has arrived, already, at the journey's end.
"Here's another queer thing. If I shut my eyes I can see this place down to every detail–every detail. . . . Now I come to think of it–I've never realized this consciously before. Often when I am away from here I revisit it in spirit– wander about among your red chairs, stare at the bowl of fruit on the black table–and just touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy's head."
He looked at it as he spoke. It stood on the corner of the mantelpiece; the head to one side down-drooping, the lips parted, as though in his sleep the little boy listened to some sweet sound. . . .
"I love that little boy," he murmured. And then they both were silent.
A new silence came between them. Nothing in the least like the satisfactory pause that had followed their greetings– the "Well, here we are together again, and there's no reason why we shouldn't go on from just where we left off last [Page 150] time." That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn't they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores. But into this unfamiliar pool the head of the little boy sleeping his timeless sleep dropped–and the ripples flowed away, away–boundlessly far–into deep glittering darkness.
And then both of them broke it. She said: "I must make up the fire," and he said: "I have been trying a new . . . " Both of them escaped. She made up the fire and put the table back, the blue chair was wheeled forward, she curled up and he lay back among the cushions. Quickly! Quickly! They must stop it from happening again.
"Well, I read the book you left last time."
"Oh, what do you think of it?"
They were off and all was as usual. But was it? Weren't they just a little too quick, too prompt with their replies, too ready to take each other up? Was this really anything more than a wonderfully good imitation of other occasions? His heart beat; her cheek burned and the stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn't time to glance back. And just as she had got so far it happened again. They faltered, wavered, broke down, were silent. Again they were conscious of the boundless, questioning dark. Again, there they [Page 151] were–two hunters, bending over their fire, but hearing suddenly from the jungle beyond a shake of wind and a loud, questioning cry . . . .
She lifted her head. "It's raining," she murmured. And her voice was like his when he had said: "I love that little boy."
Well. Why didn't they just give way to it–yield–and see what will happen then? But no. Vague and troubled though they were, they knew enough to realize their precious friendship was in danger. She was the one who would be destroyed–not they–and they'd be no party to that.
He got up, knocked out his pipe, ran his hand through his hair, and said: "I have been wondering very much lately whether the novel of the future will be a psychological novel or not. How sure are you that psychology qua psychology has got anything to do with literature at all?"
"Do you mean you feel there's quite a chance that the mysterious non-existent creatures–the young writers of to-day–are trying simply to jump the psycho-analyst's claim?"
"Yes, I do. And I think it's because this generation is just wise enough to know that it is sick and to realize that its only chance of recovery is by going into its symptoms–making an exhaustive study of them–tracking them down–trying to get at the root of the trouble."
"But oh," she wailed. "What a dreadfully dismal outlook." [Page 152]
"Not at all," said he. "Look here . . . " On the talk went. And now it seemed they really had succeeded. She turned in her chair to look at him while she answered. Her smile said: "We have won." And he smiled back, confident: "Absolutely."
But the smile undid them. It lasted too long; it became a grin. They saw themselves as two little grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness.
"What have we been talking about?" thought he. He was so utterly bored he almost groaned.
"What a spectacle we have made of ourselves," thought she. And she saw him laboriously–oh, laboriously–laying out the grounds and herself running after, puffing here a tree and there a flowery shrub and here a handful of glittering fish in a pool. They were silent this time from sheer dismay.
The clock struck six merry little pings and the fire made a soft flutter. What fools they were–heavy, stodgy, elderly–with positively upholstered minds.
And now the silence put a spell upon them like solemn music. It was anguish–anguish for her to bear it and he would die–he'd die if it were broken. . . . And yet he longed to break it. Not by speech. At any rate not by their ordinary maddening chatter. There was another way for them to speak to each other, and in the new way he wanted to murmur: "Do you feel this too? Do you understand it at all?" . . . [Page 153]
Instead, to his horror, he heard himself say: "I must be off; I'm meeting Brand at six."
What devil made him say that instead of the other? She jumped–simply jumped out of her chair, and he heard her crying: "You must rush, then. He's so punctual. Why didn't you say so before?"
"You've hurt me; you've hurt me! We've failed!" said her secret self while she handed him his hat and stick, smiling gaily. She wouldn't give him a moment for another word, but ran along the passage and opened the big outer door.
Could they leave each other like this? How could they? He stood on the step and she just inside holding the door. It was not raining now.
"You've hurt me–hurt me," said her heart. "Why don't you go? No, don't go. Stay. No–go!" And she looked out upon the night.
She saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, on the other side of the road the huge bare willows and above them the sky big and bright with stars. But of course he would see nothing of all this. He was superior to it all. He–with his wonderful "spiritual" vision!
She was right. He did see nothing at all. Misery! He'd missed it. It was too late to do anything now. Was it too late? Yes, it was. A cold snatch of hateful wind blew into the garden. [Page 154] Curse life! He heard her cry "au revoir" and the door slammed.
Running back into the studio she behaved so strangely. She ran up and down lifting her arms and crying: "Oh! Oh! How stupid! How imbecile! How stupid!" And then she flung herself down on the sommier thinking of nothing–just lying there in her rage. All was over. What was over? Oh–something was. And she'd never see him again–never. After a long long time (or perhaps ten minutes) had passed in that black gulf her bell rang a sharp quick jingle. It was he, of course. And equally, of course, she oughtn't to have paid the slightest attention to it but just let it go on ringing and ringing. She flew to answer.
On the doorstep there stood an elderly virgin, a pathetic creature who simply idolized her (heaven knows why) and had this habit of turning up and ringing the bell and then saying, when she opened the door: "My dear, send me away!" She never did. As a rule she asked her in and let her admire everything and accepted the bunch of slightly soiled looking flowers–more than graciously. But to-day . . .
"Oh, I am so sorry," she cried. "But I've got someone with me. We are working on some wood-cuts. I'm hopelessly busy all evening."
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all, darling," said the good friend. "I was just passing [Page 155] and I thought I'd leave you some violets." She fumbled down among the ribs of a large old umbrella. "I put them down here. Such a good place to keep flowers out of the wind. Here they are," she said, shaking out a little dead bunch.
For a moment she did not take the violets. But while she stood just inside, holding the door, a strange thing happened. Again she saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, the willows, the big bright sky. Again she felt the silence that was like a question. But this time she did not hesitate. She moved forward. Very softly and gently, as though fearful of making a ripple in that boundless pool of quiet she put her arms round her friend.
"My dear," murmured her happy friend, quite overcome by this gratitude. "They are really nothing. Just the simplest little thrippenny bunch."
But as she spoke she was enfolded–more tenderly, more beautifully embraced, held by such a sweet pressure and for so long that the poor dear's mind positively reeled and she just had the strength to quaver: "Then you really don't mind me too much?"
"Good night, my friend," whispered the other. "Come again soon."
"Oh, I will. I will."
This time she walked back to the studio slowly, and standing in the middle of the room with half-shut eyes she felt so light, so rested, as if she had [Page 156] woken up out of a childish sleep. Even the act of breathing was a joy. . . .
The sommier was very untidy. All the cushions "like furious mountains" as she said; she put them in order before going over to the writing-table.
"I have been thinking over our talk about the psychological novel," she dashed off, "it really is intensely interesting." . . . And so on and so on.
At the end she wrote: "Good night, my friend. Come again soon." [Page 157]
EIGHT o'clock in the morning. Miss Ada Moss lay in a black iron bedstead, staring up at the ceiling. Her room, a Bloomsbury top-floor back, smelled of soot and face powder and the paper of fried potatoes she brought in for supper the night before.
"Oh, dear," thought Miss Moss, "I am cold. I wonder why it is that I always wake up so cold in the mornings now. My knees and feet and my back–especially my back; it's like a sheet of ice. And I always was such a one for being warm in the old days. It's not as if I was skinny–I'm just the same full figure that I used to be. No, it's because I don't have a good hot dinner in the evenings."
A pageant of Good Hot Dinners passed across the ceiling, each of them accompanied by a bottle of Nourishing Stout. . . .
"Even if I were to get up now," she thought, "and have a sensible substantial breakfast . . . "A pageant of Sensible Substantial Breakfasts followed the dinners across the ceiling, shepherded by an enormous, white, uncut ham. Miss Moss shuddered and disappeared under the bedclothes. Suddenly, in bounced the landlady. [Page 158]
"There's a letter for you, Miss Moss."
"Oh," said Miss Moss, far too friendly, "thank you very much, Mrs. Pine. It's very good of you, I'm sure, to take the trouble."
"No trouble at all," said the landlady. "I thought perhaps it was the letter you'd been expecting."
"Why," said Miss Moss brightly, "yes, perhaps it is." She put her head on one side and smiled vaguely at the letter. "I shouldn't be surprised."
The landlady's eyes popped. "Well, I should, Miss Moss," said she, "and that's how it is. And I'll trouble you to open it, if you please. Many is the lady in my place as would have done it for you and have been within her rights. For things can't go on like this, Miss Moss, no indeed they can't. What with week in week out and first you've got it and then you haven't, and then it's another letter lost in the post or another manager down at Brighton but will be back on Tuesday for certain–I'm fair sick and tired and I won't stand it no more. Why should I, Miss Moss, I ask you, at a time like this, with prices flying up in the air and my poor dear lad in France? My sister Eliza was only saying to me yesterday–'Minnie,' she says, 'you're too soft-hearted. You could have let that room time and time again,' says she, 'and if people won't look after themselves in times like these, nobody else will,' she says. 'She may have had a College [Page 159] eddication and sung in West End concerts,' says she, 'but if your Lizzie says what's true,' she says, 'and she's washing her own wovens and drying them on the towel rail, it's easy to see where the finger's pointing. And it's high time you had done with it,' says she."
Miss Moss gave no sign of having heard this. She sat up in bed, tore open her letter, and read:
Yours to hand. Am not producing at present, but have filed photo for future ref.
BACKWASH FILM CO."
This letter seemed to afford her peculiar satisfaction; she read it through twice before replying to the landlady.
"Well, Mrs. Pine, I think you'll be sorry for what you said. This is from a manager, asking me to be there with evening dress at ten o'clock next Saturday morning."
But the landlady was too quick for her. She pounced, secured the letter.
"Oh, is it! Is it indeed! " she cried.
"Give me back that letter. Give it back to me at once, you bad, wicked woman," cried Miss Moss, who could not get out of bed because her nightdress was slit down the back. "Give me back my [Page 160] private letter." The landlady began slowly backing out of the room, holding the letter to her buttoned bodice.
"So it's come to this, has it?" said she. "Well, Miss Moss; if I don't get my rent at eight o'clock tonight, we'll see who's a bad, wicked woman–that's all." Here she nodded, mysteriously. "And I'll keep this letter." Here her voice rose. "It will be a pretty little bit of evidence! " And here it fell, sepulchral, "My lady."
The door banged and Miss Moss was alone. She flung off the bed clothes, and sitting by the side of the bed, furious and shivering, she stared at her fat white legs with their great knots of greeny-blue veins.
"Cockroach! That's what she is. She's a cockroach!" said Miss Moss. "I could have her up for snatching my letter–I'm sure I could." Still keeping on her nightdress she began to drag on her clothes.
"Oh, if I could only pay that woman, I'd give her a piece of my mind that she wouldn't forget. I'd tell her off proper." She went over to the chest of drawers for a safety-pin, and seeing herself in the glass she gave a vague smile and shook her head. "Well, old girl," she murmured, "you're up against it this time, and no mistake" But the person in the glass made an ugly face at her.
"You silly thing," scolded Miss Moss. "Now what's the good of crying: you'll only make your [Page 161] nose red. No, you get dressed and go out and try your luck–that's what you've got to do."
She unhooked her vanity bag from the bedpost, rooted in it, shook it, turned it inside out.
"I'll have a nice cup of tea at an A B C to settle me before I go anywhere," she decided. "I've got one and thrippence–yes, just one and three."
Ten minutes later, a stout lady in blue serge, with a bunch of artificial "parmas" at her bosom, a black hat covered with purple pansies, white gloves, boots with white uppers, and a vanity bag containing one and three, sang in a low contralto voice:
Sweet-heart, remember when days are forlorn
It al-ways is dar-kest before the dawn.
But the person in the glass. made a face at her, and Miss Moss went out. There were grey crabs all the way down the street slopping water over grey stone steps. With his strange, hawking cry and the jangle of the cans the milk boy went his rounds. Outside Brittweiler's Swiss House he made a splash, and an old brown cat without a tail appeared from nowhere, and began greedily and silently drinking up the spill. It gave Miss Moss a queer feeling to watch–a sinking–as you might say.
But when she came to the A B C she found the door propped open; a man went in and out carrying trays of rolls, and there was nobody inside except a [Page 162] waitress doing her hair and the cashier unlocking the cash-boxes. She stood in the middle of the floor but neither of them saw her.
"My boy came home last night," sang the waitress.
"Oh, I say–how topping for you!" gurgled the cashier.
"Yes, wasn't it," sang the waitress. "He brought me a sweet little brooch. Look, it's got 'Dieppe' written on it."
The cashier ran across to look and put her arm round the waitress' neck.
"Oh, I say–how topping for you."
"Yes, isn't it," said the waitress. "O-oh, he is brahn. 'Hullo,' I said, 'hullo, old mahogany.'"
"Oh, I say," gurgled the cashier, running back into her cage and nearly bumping into Miss Moss on the way. "You are a treat! " Then the man with the rolls came in again, swerving past her.
"Can I have a cup of tea, Miss?" she asked.
But the waitress went on doing her hair. "Oh," she sang, "we're not open yet." She turned round and waved her comb at the cashier.
"Are we, dear?"
"Oh, no," said the cashier. Miss Moss went out.
"I'll go to Charing Cross. Yes, that's what I'll do," she decided. "But I won't have a cup of tea. [Page 163] No, I'll have a coffee. There's more of a tonic in coffee. . . . Cheeky, those girls are! Her boy came home last night; he brought her a brooch with 'Dieppe' written on it." She began to cross the road. . . .
"Look out, Fattie; don't go to sleep!" yelled a taxi driver. She pretended not to hear.
"No, I won't go to Charing Cross," she decided. "I'll go straight to Kig and Kadgit. They're open at nine. If I get there early Mr. Kadgit may have something by the morning's post. . . . I'm very glad you turned up so early, Miss Moss. I've just heard from a manager who wants a lady to play. . . . I think you'll just suit him. I'll give you a card to go and see him. It's three pounds a week and all found. If I were you I'd hop round as fast as I could. Lucky you turned up so early . . . "
But there was nobody at Kig and Kadgit's except the char-woman wiping over the "lino" in the passage.
"Nobody here yet, Miss," said the char.
"Oh, isn't Mr. Kadgit here? " said Miss Moss, trying to dodge the pail and brush. "Well, I'll just wait a moment, if I may."
"You can't wait in the waiting-room, Miss. I 'aven't done it yet. Mr. Kadgit's never 'ere before 'leven-thirty Saturdays. Sometimes 'e don't come at all." And the char began crawling towards her.
"Dear me–how silly of me," said Miss Moss. "I forgot it was Saturday." [Page 164]
"Mind your feet, please, Miss," said the char. And Miss Moss was outside again.
That was one thing about Beit and Bithems; it was lively. You walked into the waiting-room, into a great buzz of conversation, and there was everybody; you knew almost everybody. The early ones sat on chairs and the later ones sat on the early ones' laps, while the gentlemen leaned negligently against the wails or preened themselves in front of the admiring ladies.
"Hello," said Miss Moss, very gay. "Here we are again!"
And young Mr. Clayton, playing the banjo on his walking-stick sang: "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."
"Mr. Bithem here yet?" asked Miss Moss, taking out an old dead powder puff and powdering her nose mauve.
"Oh, yes, dear," cried the chorus. "He's been here for ages. We've all been waiting here for more than an hour."
"Dear me!" said Miss Moss. "Anything doing, do you think?"
"Oh, a few jobs going for South Africa," said young Mr. Clayton. "Hundred and fifty a week for two years, you know."
"Oh!" cried the chorus. "You are weird, Mr. Clayton. Isn't he a cure? Isn't he a scream, dear? Oh, Mr. Clayton, you do make me laugh. Isn't he a comic? " [Page 165]
A dark mournful girl touched Miss Moss on the arm.
"I just missed a lovely job yesterday," she said. "Six weeks in the provinces and then the West End. The manager said I would have got it for certain if only I'd been robust enough. He said if my figure had been fuller, the part was made for me." She stared at Miss Moss, and the dirty dark red rose under the brim of her hat looked, somehow, as though it shared the blow with her, and was crushed, too.
"Oh, dear, that was hard lines," said Miss Moss trying to appear indifferent. "What was it–if I may ask?"
But the dark, mournful girl saw through her and a gleam of spite came into her heavy eyes.
"Oh, no good to you, my dear," said she. "He wanted someone young, you know–a dark Spanish type–my style, but more figure, that was all."
The inner door opened and Mr. Bithem appeared in his shirt sleeves. He kept one hand on the door ready to whisk back again, and held up the other.
"Look here, ladies–" and then he paused, grinned his famous grin before he said–"and bhoys." The waiting-room laughed so loudly at this that he had to hold both hands up. "It's no good waiting this morning. Come back Monday; I'm expecting several calls on Monday." [Page 166]
Miss Moss made a desperate rush forward. "Mr. Bithem, I wonder if you've heard from . . . "
"Now let me see," said Mr. Bithem slowly, staring; he had only seen Miss Moss four times a week for the past–how many weeks? "Now, who are you?"
"Miss Ada Moss."
"Oh, yes, yes; of course, my dear. Not yet, my dear. Now I had a call for twenty-eight ladies today, but they had to be young and able to hop it a bit–see? And I had another call for sixteen–but they had to know something about sand-dancing. Look here, my dear, I'm up to the eyebrows this morning. Come back on Monday week; it's no good coming before that." He gave her a whole grin to herself and patted her fat back. "Hearts of oak, dear lady," said Mr. Bithem, "hearts of oak!"
At the North-East Film Company the crowd was all the way up the stairs. Miss Moss found herself next to a fair little baby thing about thirty in a white lace hat with cherries round it.
"What a crowd!" said she. "Anything special on?"
"Didn't you know, dear?" said the baby, opening her immense pale eyes. "There was a call at nine-thirty for attractive girls. We've all been waiting for hours. Have you played for this company before?" Miss Moss put her head on one side. "No, I don't think I have." [Page 167]
"They're a lovely company to play for," said the baby. "A friend of mine has a friend who gets thirty pounds a day. . . . Have you arcted much for the fil -lums?"
"Well, I'm not an actress by profession," confessed Miss Moss. "I'm a contralto singer. But things have been so bad lately that I've been doing a little."
"It's like that, isn't it, dear?" said the baby.
"I had a splendid education at the College of Music," said Miss Moss, "and I got my silver medal for singing. I've often sung at West End concerts. But I thought, for a change, I'd try my luck . . . "
"Yes, it's like that, isn't it, dear?" said the baby.
At that moment a beautiful typist appeared at the top of the stairs.
"Are you all waiting for the North-East call?"
"Yes! " cried the chorus.
"Well, it's off. I've just had a phone through."
"But look here! What about our expenses?" shouted a voice.
The typist looked down at them, and she couldn't help laughing.
"Oh, you weren't to have been paid. The North-East never pay their crowds."
There was only a little round window at the Bitter Orange Company. No waiting-room–[Page 168] nobody at all except a girl, who came to the window when Miss Moss knocked, and said: "Well?"
"Can I see the producer, please?" said Miss Moss pleasantly. The girl leaned on the window-bar, half-shut her eyes, and seemed to go to sleep for a moment. Miss Moss smiled at her. The girl not only frowned; she seemed to smell something vaguely unpleasant; she sniffed. Suddenly she moved away, came back with a paper, and thrust it at Miss Moss.
"Fill up the form!" said she. And banged the window down.
"Can you aviate–high-dive–drive a car–buck-jump–shoot?" read Miss Moss. She walked along the street asking herself those questions. There was a high, cold wind blowing; it tugged at her, slapped her face, jeered; it knew she could not answer them. In the Square Gardens she found a little wire basket to drop the form into. And then she sat down on one of the benches to powder her nose. But the person in the pocket mirror made a hideous face at her, and that was too much for Miss Moss; she had a good cry. It cheered her wonderfully.
"Well, that's over," she sighed. "It's one comfort to be off my feet. And my nose will soon get cool in the air. . . . It's very nice in here. Look at the sparrows. Cheep. Cheep. How close they come. I expect somebody feeds them. No, [Page 169] I've nothing for you, you cheeky little things. . . . " She looked away from them. What was the big building opposite–the Café de Madrid? My goodness, what a smack that little child came down! Poor little mite! Never mind–up again. . . . By eight o'clock tonight . . . Café de Madrid. "I could just go in and sit there and have a coffee, that's all," thought Miss Moss. "It's such a place for artists too. I might just have a stroke of luck. . . . A dark handsome gentleman in a fur coat comes in with a friend, and sits at my table, perhaps. 'No, old chap, I've searched London for a contralto and I can't find a soul. You see, the music is difficult; have a look at it.'" And Miss Moss heard herself saying: "Excuse me, I happen to be a contralto, and I have sung that part many times. . . . Extraordinary! 'Come back to my studio and I'll try your voice now.' . . . Ten pounds a week. . . . Why should I feel nervous? It's not nervousness. Why shouldn't I go to the Café de Madrid? I'm a respectable woman–I'm a contralto singer. And I'm only trembling because I've had nothing to eat today. . . . 'A nice little piece of evidence, my lady.' . . . Very well, Mrs. Pine. Café de Madrid. They have concerts there in the evenings. . . . 'Why don't they begin?' The contralto has not arrived. . . . 'Excuse me, I happen to be a contralto; I have sung that music many times.'"
It was almost dark in the café. Men, palms, red [Page 170] plush seats, white marble tables, waiters in aprons, Miss Moss walked through them all. Hardly had she sat down when a very stout gentleman wearing a very small hat that floated on the top of his head like a little yacht flopped into the chair opposite hers.
"Good evening!" said he.
Miss Moss said, in her cheerful way: "Good evening!"
"Fine evening," said the stout gentleman.
"Yes, very fine. Quite a treat, isn't it?" said she.
He crooked a sausage finger at the waiter–"Bring me a large whisky"–and turned to Miss Moss. "What's yours?"
"Well, I think I'll take a brandy if it's all the same."
Five minutes later the stout gentleman leaned across the table and blew a puff of cigar smoke full in her face.
"That's a tempting bit o' ribbon! " said he.
Miss Moss blushed until a pulse at the top of her head that she never had felt before pounded away.
"I always was one for pink," said she.
The stout gentleman considered her, drumming with her fingers on the table.
"I like 'em firm and well covered," said he.
Miss Moss, to her surprise, gave a loud snigger.
Five minutes later the stout gentleman heaved [Page 171] himself up. "Well, am I goin' your way, or are you comin' mine?" he asked.
"I'll come with you, if it's all the same," said Miss Moss. And she sailed after the little yacht out of the café. [Page 172]
HE stood at the hall door turning the ring, turning the heavy signet ring upon his little finger while his glance travelled coolly, deliberately, over the round tables and basket chairs scattered about the glassed-in veranda. He pursed his lips–he might have been going to whistle–but he did not whistle–only turned the ring–turned the ring on his pink, freshly washed hands.
Over in the corner sat The Two Topknots, drinking a decoction they always drank at this hour–something whitish, greyish, in glasses, with little husks floating on the top–and rooting in a tin full of paper shavings for pieces of speckled biscuit, which they broke, dropped into the glasses and fished for with spoons. Their two coils of knitting, like two snakes, slumbered beside the tray.
The American Woman sat where she always sat against the glass wall, in the shadow of a great creeping thing with wide open purple eyes that pressed–that flattened itself against the glass, [Page 173] hungrily watching her. And she knoo it was there–she knoo it was looking at her just that way. She played up to it; she gave herself little airs. Sometimes she even pointed at it, crying: "Isn't that the most terrible thing you've ever seen! Isn't that ghoulish!" It was on the other side of the veranda, after all . . . and besides it couldn't touch her, could it, Klaymongso? She was an American Woman, wasn't she, Klaymongso, and she'd just go right away to her Consul. Klaymongso, curled in her lap, with her torn antique brocade bag, a grubby handkerchief, and a pile of letters from home on top of him, sneezed for reply.
The other tables were empty. A glance passed between the American and the Topknots. She gave a foreign little shrug; they waved an understanding biscuit. But he saw nothing. Now he was still, now from his eyes you saw he listened. "Hoo-e-zip-zoo-oo!" sounded the lift. The iron cage clanged open. Light dragging steps sounded across the hall, coming towards him. A hand, like a leaf, fell on his shoulder. A soft voice said: "Let's go and sit over there–where we can see the drive. The trees are so lovely." And he moved forward with the hand still on his shoulder, and the light, dragging steps beside his. He pulled out a chair and she sank into it, slowly, leaning her head against the back, her arms falling along the sides. [Page 174]
"Won't you bring the other up closer? It's such miles away." But he did not move.
"Where's your shawl?" he asked.
"Oh!" She gave a little groan of dismay. "How silly I am, I've left it upstairs on the bed. Never mind. Please don't go for it. I shan't want it, I know I shan't."
"You'd better have it." And he turned and swiftly crossed the veranda into the dim hall with its scarlet plush and gilt furniture–conjuror's furniture–its Notice of Services at the English Church, its green baize board with the unclaimed letters climbing the black lattice, huge "Presentation" clock that struck the hours at the half-hours, bundles of sticks and umbrellas and sunshades in the clasp of a brown wooden bear, past the two crippled palms, two ancient beggars at the foot of the staircase, up the marble stairs three at a time, past the life-size group on the landing of two stout peasant children with their marble pinnies full of marble grapes, and along the corridor, with its piled-up wreckage of old tin boxes, leather trunks, canvas holdalls, to their room.
The servant girl was in their room, singing loudly while she emptied soapy water into a pail. The windows were open wide, the shutters put back, and the light glared in. She had thrown the carpets and the big white pillows over the balcony rails; the nets were looped up from the beds; on the writing-table there stood a pan of fluff and [Page 175] match-ends. When she saw him her small, impudent eyes snapped and her singing changed to humming. But he gave no sign. His eyes searched the glaring room. Where the devil was the shawl!
"Vous desirez, Monsieur? " mocked the servant girl.
No answer. He had seen it. He strode across the room, grabbed the grey cobweb and went out, banging the door. The servant girl's voice at its loudest and shrillest followed him along the corridor.
"Oh, there you are. What happened? What kept you? The tea's here, you see. I've just sent Antonio off for the hot water. Isn't it extraordinary? I must have told him about it sixty times at least, and still he doesn't bring it. Thank you. That's very nice. One does just feel the air when one bends forward."
"Thanks." He took his tea and sat down in the other chair. "No, nothing to eat."
"Oh do! Just one, you had so little at lunch and it's hours before dinner."
Her shawl dropped off as she bent forward to hand him the biscuits. He took one and put it in his saucer.
"Oh, those trees along the drive," she cried. "I could look at them for ever. They are like the most exquisite huge ferns. And you see that one with the grey-silver bark and the clusters of cream-coloured flowers, I pulled down a head of [Page 176] them yesterday to smell, and the scent"–she shut her eyes at the memory and her voice thinned away, faint, airy–"was like freshly ground nutmegs." A little pause. She turned to him and smiled. "You do know what nutmegs smell like–do you Robert?"
And he smiled back at her. "Now how am I going to prove to you that I do?"
Back came Antonio with not only the hot water–with letters on a salver and three rolls of paper.
"Oh, the post! Oh, how lovely! Oh, Robert, they mustn't be all for you! Have they just come, Antonio?" Her thin hands flew up and hovered over the letters that Antonio offered her, bending forward.
"Just this moment, Signora," grinned Antonio. "I took-a them from the postman myself. I made-a the postman give them for me."
"Noble Antonio!" laughed she. "There–those are mine, Robert; the rest are yours."
Antonio wheeled sharply, stiffened, the grin went out of his face. His striped linen jacket and his flat gleaming fringe made him look like a wooden doll.
Mr. Salesby put the letters into his pocket; the papers lay on the table. He turned the ring, turned the signet ring on his little finger and stared in front of him, blinking, vacant.
But she–with her teacup in one hand, the [Page 177] sheets of thin paper in the other, her head tilted back, her lips open, a brush of bright colour on her cheek-bones, sipped, sipped, drank . . . drank.
"From Lottie," came her soft murmur. "Poor dear . . . such trouble . . . left foot. She thought . . . neuritis . . . Doctor Blyth . . . flat foot . . . massage. So many robins this year . . . maid most satisfactory . . . Indian Colonel . . . every grain of rice separate . . . very heavy fall of snow." And her wide lighted eyes looked up from the letter. "Snow, Robert! Think of it!" And she touched the little dark violets pinned on her thin bosom and went back to the letter.
. . . Snow. Snow in London. Millie with the early morning cup of tea. "There's been a terrible fall of snow in the night, sir." "Oh, has there, Millie?" The curtains ring apart, letting in the pale, reluctant light. He raises himself in the bed; he catches a glimpse of the solid houses opposite framed in white, of their window boxes full of great sprays of white coral . . . . In the bathroom–overlooking the back garden. Snow–heavy snow over everything. The lawn is covered with a wavy pattern of cat's-paws; there is a thick, thick icing on the garden table; the withered pods of the laburnum tree are white tassels; only here and there in the ivy is a dark leaf showing. . . . Warming his back at the dining-room fire, the paper drying over a chair. Millie with the bacon. [Page 178] "Oh, if you please, Sir, there's two little boys come as will do the steps and front for a shilling, shall I let them?" . . . And then flying lightly, lightly down the stairs–Jinnie. "Oh, Robert, isn't it wonderful! Oh, what a pity it has to melt. Where's the pussy-wee?" "I'll get him from Millie." . . . "Millie, you might just hand me up the kitten if you've got him down there." "Very good, sir." He feels the little beating heart under his hand. "Come on, old chap, your missus wants you." "Oh, Robert, do show him the snow–his first snow. Shall I open the window and give him a little piece on his paw to hold? . . . "
"Well, that's very satisfactory on the whole–very. Poor Lottie! Darling Anne! How I only wish I could send them something of this," she cried, waving her letters at the brilliant, dazzling garden. "More tea, Robert? Robert dear, more tea?"
"No, thanks, no. It was very good," he drawled.
"Well, mine wasn't. Mine was just like chopped hay. Oh, here comes the Honeymoon Couple."
Half striding, half running, carrying a basket between them and rods and lines, they came up the drive, up the shallow steps.
"My! have you been out fishing?" cried the American Woman. They were out of breath, they panted: "Yes, yes, we have been out in a little boat all day. We [Page 179] have caught seven. Four are good to eat. But three we shall give away. To the children."
Mrs. Salesby turned her chair to look; the Topknots laid the snakes down. They were a very dark young couple–black hair, olive skin, brilliant eyes and teeth. He was dressed "English fashion" in a flannel jacket, white trousers and shoes. Round his neck he wore a silk scarf; his head, with his hair brushed back, was bare. And he kept mopping his forehead, rubbing his hands with a brilliant handkerchief. Her white skirt had a patch of wet; her neck and throat were stained a deep pink. When she lifted her arms big half-hoops of perspiration showed under her arm-pits; her hair clung in wet curls to her cheeks. She looked as though her young husband had been dipping her in the sea and fishing her out again to dry in the sun and then–in with her again–all day.
"Would Klaymongso like a fish?" they cried. Their laughing voices charged with excitement beat against the glassed-in veranda like birds and a strange, saltish smell came from the basket.
"You will sleep well tonight," said a Topknot, picking her ear with a knitting needle while the other Topknot smiled and nodded.
The Honeymoon Couple looked at each other. A great wave seemed to go over them. They gasped, gulped, staggered a little and then came up laughing–laughing.
"We cannot go upstairs, we are too tired. We [Page 180] must have tea just as we are. Here–coffee. No–tea. No–coffee. Tea–coffee, Antonio!" Mrs. Salesby turned.
"Robert! Robert!" Where was he? He wasn't there. Oh, there he was at the other end of the veranda, with his back turned, smoking a cigarette. "Robert, shall we go for our little turn?"
"Right." He stumped the cigarette into an ash-tray and sauntered over, his eyes on the ground. "Will you be warm enough?"
"Well," she put her hand on his arm, "perhaps"–and gave his arm the faintest pressure–"it's not upstairs, it's only in the hall–perhaps you'd get me my cape. Hanging up."
He came back with it and she bent her small head while he dropped it on her shoulders. Then, very stiff, he offered her his arm. She bowed sweetly to the people of the veranda while he just covered a yawn, and they went down the steps together.
"Vous avez voo ca! " said the American Woman.
"He is not a man," said the Two Topknots, "he is an ox. I say to my sister in the morning and at night when we are in bed, I tell her–No man is he, but an ox!"
Wheeling, tumbling, swooping, the laughter of [Page 181] the Honeymoon Couple dashed against the glass of the veranda.
The sun was still high. Every leaf, every flower in the garden lay open, motionless, as if exhausted, and a sweet, rich, rank smell filled the quivering air. Out of the thick, fleshy leaves of a cactus there rose an aloe stem loaded with pale flowers that looked as though they had been cut out of butter; light flashed upon the lifted spears of the palms; over a bed of scarlet waxen flowers some black insects "zoom-zoomed"; a great, gaudy creeper, orange splashed with jet, sprawled against the wall.
"I don't need my cape after all," said she. "It's really too warm." So he took it off and carried it over his arm. "Let us go down this path here. I feel so well today–marvellously better. Good heavens–look at those children! And to think it's November!"
In a corner of the garden there were two brimming tubs of water. Three little girls, having thoughtfully taken off their drawers and hung them on a bush, their skirts clasped to their waists, were standing in the tubs and tramping up and down. They screamed, their hair fell over their faces, they splashed one another. But suddenly, the smallest, who had a tub to herself, glanced up and saw who was looking. For a moment she seemed overcome with terror, then clumsily she struggled and strained out of her tub, and still holding her clothes above her waist, "The Englishman! [Page 182] The Englishman!" she shrieked and fled away to hide. Shrieking and screaming the other two followed her. In a moment they were gone; in a moment there was nothing but the two brimming tubs and their little drawers on the bush.
"How–very–extraordinary!" said she. "What made them so frightened? Surely they were much too young to . . . " She looked up at him. She thought he looked pale–but wonderfully handsome with that great tropical tree behind him with its long, spiked thorns.
For a moment he did not answer. Then he met her glance, and smiling his slow smile, "Très rum!" said he.
Très rum! Oh, she felt quite faint. Oh, why should she love him so much just because he said a thing like that. Très rum! That was Robert all over. Nobody else but Robert could ever say such a thing. To be so wonderful, so brilliant, so learned, and then to say in that queer, boyish voice . . . She could have wept.
"You know you're very absurd, sometimes," said she.
"I am," he answered. And they walked on.
But she was tired. She had had enough. She did not want to walk any more.
"Leave me here and go for a little constitutional, won't you? I'll be in one of these long chairs. What a good thing you've got my cape; you won't have to go upstairs for a rug. Thank you, Robert, [Page 183] I shall look at that delicious heliotrope. . . . You won't be gone long?"
"No–no. You don't mind being left?"
"Silly! I want you to go. I can't expect you to drag after your invalid wife every minute . . . . How long will you be?"
He took out his watch. "It's just after half-past four. I'll be back at a quarter-past five."
"Back at a quarter-past five," she repeated, and she lay still in the long chair and folded her hands.
He turned away. Suddenly he was back again. "Look here, would you like my watch?" And he dangled it before her.
"Oh!" She caught her breath. "Very, very much." And she clasped the watch, the warm watch, the darling watch in her fingers. "Now go quickly."
The gates of the Pension Villa Excelsior were open wide, jammed open against some bold geraniums. Stooping a little, staring straight ahead, walking swiftly, he passed through them and began climbing the hill that wound behind the town like a great rope looping the villas together. The dust lay thick. A carriage came bowling along driving towards the Excelsior. In it sat the General and the Countess; they had been for his daily airing. Mr. Salesby stepped to one side but the dust beat up, thick, white, stifling like wool. The Countess just had time to nudge the General.
"There he goes," she said spitefully. [Page 184]
But the General gave a loud caw and refused to look.
"It is the Englishman," said the driver, turning round and smiling. And the Countess threw up her hands and nodded so amiably that he spat with satisfaction and gave the stumbling horse a cut.
On–on–past the finest villas in the town, magnificent palaces, palaces worth coming any distance to see, past the public gardens with the carved grottoes and statues and stone animals drinking at the fountain, into a poorer quarter. Here the road ran narrow and foul between high lean houses, the ground floors of which were scooped and hollowed into stables and carpenters' shops. At a fountain ahead of him two old hags were beating linen. As he passed them they squatted back on their haunches, stared, and then their "A-hak-kak-kak!" with the slap, slap, of the stone on the linen sounded after him.
He reached the top of the hill; he turned a corner and the town was hidden. Down he looked into a deep valley with a dried-up river bed at the bottom. This side and that was covered with small dilapidated houses that had broken stone verandas where the fruit lay drying, tomato lanes in the garden and from the gates to the doors a trellis of vines. The late sunlight, deep, golden, lay in the cup of the valley; there was a smell of charcoal in the air. In the gardens the men were cutting grapes. He watched a man standing in the greenish [Page 185] shade, raising up, holding a black cluster in one hand, taking the knife from his belt, cutting, laying the bunch in a flat boat-shaped basket. The man worked leisurely, silently, taking hundreds of years over the job. On the hedges on the other side of the road there were grapes small as berries, growing among the stones. He leaned against a wall, filled his pipe, put a match to it. . . .
Leaned across a gate, turned up the collar of his mackintosh. It was going to rain. It didn't matter, he was prepared for it. You didn't expect anything else in November. He looked over the bare field. From the corner by the gate there came the smell of swedes, a great stack of them, wet, rank coloured. Two men passed walking towards the straggling village. "Good day!" "Good day!" By Jove! he had to hurry if he was going to catch that train home. Over the gate, across a field, over the stile, into the lane, swinging along in the drifting rain and dusk .. . . Just home in time for a bath and a change before supper. . . . In the drawing-room; Jinnie is sitting pretty nearly in the fire. "Oh, Robert, I didn't hear you come in. Did you have a good time? How nice you smell! A present?" "Some bits of blackberry I picked for you. Pretty colour." "Oh, lovely, Robert! Dennis and Beaty are coming to supper." Supper–cold beef, potatoes in their jackets, claret, household bread. They are gay– [Page 186] everybody's laughing. "Oh, we all know Robert," says Dennis, breathing on his eyeglasses and polishing them. "By the way, Dennis, I picked up a very jolly little edition of . . . "
A clock struck. He wheeled sharply. What time was it. Five? A quarter past? Back, back the way he came. As he passed through the gates he saw her on the look-out. She got up, waved and slowly she came to meet him, dragging the heavy cape. In her hand she carried a spray of heliotrope.
"You're late," she cried gaily. "You're three minutes late. Here's your watch, it's been very good while you were away. Did you have a nice time? Was it lovely? Tell me. Where did you go?"
"I say–put this on," he said, taking the cape from her. "Yes, I will. Yes, it's getting chilly. Shall we go up to our room?"
When they reached the lift she was coughing. He frowned.
"It's nothing. I haven's been out too late. Don't be cross." She sat down on one of the red plush chairs while he rang and rang, and then, getting no answer, kept his finger on the bell.
"Oh, Robert, do you think you ought to?"
"Ought to what?"
The door of the salon opened. "What is that? [Page 187] Who is making that noise?" sounded from within. Klaymongso began to yelp. "Caw! Caw! Caw!" came from the General. A Topknot darted out with one hand to her ear, opened the staff door, "Mr. Queet! Mr. Queet!" she bawled. That brought the manager up at a run.
"Is that you ringing the bell, Mr. Salesby? Do you want the lift? Very good, sir. I'll take you up myself. Antonio wouldn't have been a minute, he was just taking off his apron–" And having ushered them in, the oily manager went to the door of the salon. "Very sorry you should have been troubled, ladies and gentlemen." Salesby stood in the cage, sucking in his cheeks, staring at the ceiling and turning the ring, turning the signet ring on his little finger. . . .
Arrived in their room he went swiftly over to the washstand, shook the bottle, poured her out a dose and brought it across.
"Sit down. Drink it. And don't talk." And he stood over her while she obeyed. Then he took the glass, rinsed it and put it back in its case. "Would you like a cushion?"
"No, I'm quite all right, come over here. Sit down by me just a minute, will you, Robert? Ah, that's very nice." She turned and thrust the piece of heliotrope in the lapel of his coat. "That," she said, "is most becoming." And then she leaned her head against his shoulder and he put his arm round her. [Page 188]
"Robert–" her voice like a sigh–like a breath.
They sat there for a long while. The sky flamed, paled; the two white beds were like two ships . . . . At last he heard the servant girl running along the corridor with the hot-water cans, and gently he released her and turned on the light.
"Oh, what time is it? Oh, what a heavenly evening. Oh, Robert, I was thinking while you were away this afternoon . . . "
They were the last couple to enter the dining-room. The Countess was there with her lorgnette and her fan, the General was there with his special chair and the air cushion and the small rug over his knees. The American Woman was there showing Klaymongso a copy of the Saturday Evening Post . . . "We're having a feast of reason and a flow of soul." The Two Topknots were there feeling over the peaches and the pears in their dish of fruit and putting aside all they considered unripe or overripe to show to the manager, and the Honeymoon Couple leaned across the table, whispering, trying not to burst out laughing.
Mr. Queet, in everyday clothes and white canvas shoes, served the soup, and Antonio, in full evening dress, handed it round.
"No," said the American Woman, "take it away, Antonio. We can't eat soup. We can't eat anything mushy, can we, Klaymongso?" [Page 189]
"Take them back and fill them to the rim!" said the Topknots, and they turned and watched while Antonio delivered the message.
"What is it? Rice? Is it cooked?" The Countess peered through her lorgnette. "Mr. Queet, the General can have some of this soup if it is cooked."
"Very good, Countess."
The Honeymoon Couple had their fish instead.
"Give me that one. That's the one I caught. No, it's not. Yes, it is. No, it's not. Well, it's looking at me with its eye, so it must be. Tee! Hee! Hee!" Their feet were locked together under the table.
"Robert, you're not eating again. Is anything the matter?"
"No. Off food, that's all."
"Oh, what a bother. There are eggs and spinach coming. You don't like spinach, do you. I must tell them in future . . . "
An egg and mashed potatoes for the General.
"Mr. Queet! Mr. Queet!"
"The General's egg's too hard again."
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
"Very sorry, Countess. Shall I have you another cooked, General?"
. . . They are the first to leave the dining-room. She rises, gathering her shawl and he stands aside, waiting for her to pass, turning the ring, turning [Page 190] the signet ring on his little finger. In the hall Mr. Queet hovers. "I thought you might not want to wait for the lift. Antonio's just serving the finger bowls. And I'm sorry the bell won't ring, it's out of order. I can't think what's happened."
"Oh, I do hope . . . " from her.
"Get in," says he.
Mr. Queet steps after them and slams the door . . . .
. . . "Robert, do you mind if I go to bed very soon? Won't you go down to the salon or out into the garden? Or perhaps you might smoke a cigar on the balcony. It's lovely out there. And I like cigar smoke. I always did. But if you'd rather . . . "
"No, I'll sit here."
He takes a chair and sits on the balcony. He hears her moving about in the room, lightly, lightly, moving and rustling. Then she comes over to him. "Good night, Robert."
"Good night." He takes her hand and kisses the palm. "Don't catch cold."
The sky is the colour of jade. There are a great many stars; an enormous white moon hangs over the garden. Far away lightning flutters–flutters like a wing–flutters like a broken bird that tries to fly and sinks again and again struggles.
The lights from the salon shine across the garden path and there is the sound of a piano. And once the American Woman, opening the French window to let Klaymongso into the garden, cries: [Page 191] "Have you seen this moon?" But nobody answers.
He gets very cold sitting there, staring at the balcony rail. Finally he comes inside. The moon–the room is painted white with moonlight. The light trembles in the mirrors; the two beds seem to float. She is asleep. He sees her through the nets, half sitting, banked up with pillows, her white hands crossed on the sheet, her white cheeks, her fair hair pressed against the pillow, are silvered over. He undresses quickly, stealthily and gets into bed. Lying there, his hands clasped behind his head . . .
. . . In his study. Late summer. The virginia creeper just on the turn . . . .
"Well, my dear chap, that's the whole story. That's the long and the short of it. If she can't cut away for the next two years and give a decent climate a chance she don't stand a dog's–h'm–show. Better be frank about these things." "Oh, certainly . . . . " "And hang it all, old man, what's to prevent you going with her? It isn't as though you've got a regular job like us wage earners. You can do what you do wherever you are–" "Two years." "Yes, I should give it two years. You'll have no trouble about letting this house, you know. As a matter of fact . . . "
. . . He is with her. "Robert, the awful thing is–I suppose it's my illness–I simply feel I could [Page 192] not go alone. You see–you're everything. You're bread and wine, Robert, bread and wine. Oh, my darling–what am I saying? Of course I could, of course I won't take you away. . . . "
He hears her stirring. Does she want something?
Good Lord! She is talking in her sleep. They haven't used that name for years.
"Boogles. Are you awake?"
"Yes, do you want anything?"
"Oh, I'm going to be a bother. I'm so sorry. Do you mind? There's a wretched mosquito inside my net–I can hear him singing. Would you catch him? I don't want to move because of my heart."
"No, don't move. Stay where you are." He switches on the light, lifts the net. "Where is the little beggar? Have you spotted him?"
"Yes, there, over by the corner. Oh, I do feel such a fiend to have dragged you out of bed. Do you mind dreadfully?"
"No, of course not." For a moment he hovers in his blue and white pyjamas. Then, "got him," he said.
"Oh, good. Was he a juicy one?"
"Beastly." He went over to the washstand and dipped his fingers in water. "Are you all right now? Shall I switch off the light?"
"Yes, please. No. Boogles! Come back here [Page 193] a moment. Sit down by me. Give me your hand." She turns his signet ring. "Why weren't you asleep? Boogles, listen. Come closer. I sometimes wonder–do you mind awfully being out here with me?"
He bends down. He kisses her. He tucks her in, he smooths the pillow.
"Rot!" he whispers. [Page 194]
IF there was one thing that he hated more than another it was the way she had of waking him in the morning. She did it on purpose, of course. It was her way of establishing her grievance for the day, and he was not going to let her know how successful it was. But really, really, to wake a sensitive person like that was positively dangerous! It took him hours to get over it–simply hours. She came into the room buttoned up in an overall, with a handkerchief over her head–thereby proving that she had been up herself and slaving since dawn–and called in a low, warning voice: "Reginald!"
"Eh! What! What's that? What's the matter?"
"It's time to get up; it's half past eight." And out she went, shutting the door quietly after her, to gloat over her triumph, he supposed.
He rolled over in the big bed, his heart still beating in quick, dull throbs, and with every throb he felt his energy escaping him, his–his inspiration for the day stifling under those thudding blows. It seemed that she took a malicious delight in making life more difficult for him than–Heaven knows– [Page 195] it was, by denying him his rights as an artist, by trying to drag him down to her level. What was the matter with her? What the hell did she want? Hadn't he three times as many pupils now as when they were first married, earned three times as much, paid for every stick and stone that they possessed, and now had begun to shell out for Adrian's kindergarten? . . . And had he ever reproached her for not having a penny to her name? Never a word–never a sign! The truth was that once you married a woman she became insatiable, and the truth was that nothing was more fatal for an artist than marriage, at any rate until he was well over forty. . . . Why had he married her? He asked himself this question on an average about three times a day, but he never could answer it satisfactorily. She had caught him at a weak moment, when the first plunge into reality had bewildered and overwhelmed him for a time. Looking back, he saw a pathetic, youthful creature, half child, half wild untamed bird, totally incompetent to cope with bills and creditors and all the sordid details of existence. Well–she had done her best to clip his wings, if that was any satisfaction for her, and she could congratulate herself on the success of this early morning trick. One ought to wake exquisitely, reluctantly, he thought, slipping down in the warm bed. He began to imagine a series of enchanting scenes which ended with his latest, most charming pupil putting her bare, [Page 196] scented arms around his neck, and covering him with her long, perfumed hair. "Awake, my love!" . . .
As was his daily habit, while the bath water ran, Reginald Peacock tried his voice.
When her mother tends her before the laughing mirror,he sang, softly at first, listening to the quality, nursing his voice until he came to the third line:
Looping up her laces, tying up her hair,
Often she thinks, were this wild thing wedded . . .and upon the word "wedded" he burst into such a shout of triumph that the tooth-glass on the bathroom shelf trembled and even the bath tap seemed to gush stormy applause.
Well, there was nothing wrong with his voice, he thought, leaping into the bath and soaping his soft, pink body all over with a loofah shaped like a fish. He could fill Covent Garden with it! "Wedded," he shouted again, seizing the towel with a magnificent operatic gesture, and went on singing while he rubbed as though he had been Lohengrin tipped out by an unwary Swan and drying himself in the greatest haste before that tiresome Elsa came along along . . .
Back in his bedroom, he pulled the blind up with a jerk, and standing upon the pale square of sunlight that lay upon the carpet like a sheet of cream blotting-paper, he began to do his exercises–deep [Page 197] breathing, bending forward and back, squatting like a frog and shooting out his legs–for if there was one thing he had a horror of it was of getting fat, and men in his profession had a dreadful tendency that way. However, there was no sign of it at present. He was, he decided, just right, just in good proportion. In fact, he could not help a thrill of satisfaction when he saw himself in the glass, dressed in a morning coat, dark grey trousers, grey socks, and a black tie with a silver thread in it. Not that he was vain–he couldn't stand vain men–no; the sight of himself gave him a thrill of purely artistic satisfaction. "Voilá tout! " said he, passing his hand over his sleek hair.
That little, easy French phrase blown so lightly from his lips, like a whiff of smoke, reminded him that someone had asked him again, the evening before, if he was English. People seemed to find it impossible to believe that he hadn't some Southern blood. True, there was an emotional quality in his singing that had nothing of the John Bull in it. . . . The door-handle rattled and turned round and round. Adrian's head popped through.
"Please, father, mother says breakfast is quite ready, please."
"Very well," said Reginald. Then, just as Adrian disappeared: "Adrian!"
"You haven't said 'good morning.'"
A few months ago Reginald had spent a week- [Page 198] end in a very aristocratic family, where the father received his little sons in the morning and shook hands with them. Reginald thought the practice charming, and introduced it immediately, but Adrian felt dreadfully silly at having to shake hands with his own father every morning. And why did his father always sort of sing to him instead of talk? . . .
In excellent temper, Reginald walked into the dining-room and sat down before a pile of letters, a copy of the Times, and a little covered dish. He glanced at the letters and then at his breakfast. There were two thin slices of bacon and one egg.
"Don't you want any bacon?" he asked.
"No, I prefer a cold baked apple. I don't feel the need of bacon every morning."
Now, did she mean that there was no need for him to have bacon every morning, either, and that she grudged having to cook it for him?
"If you don't want to cook the breakfast," said he, "why don't you keep a servant? You know we can afford one, and you know how I loathe to see my wife doing the work. Simply because all the women we have had in the past have been failures, and utterly upset my regime, and made it almost impossible for me to have any pupils here, you've given up trying to find a decent woman. It's not impossible to train a servant–is it? I mean, it doesn't require genius?"
"But I prefer to do the work myself; it makes [Page 199] life so much more peaceful. . . . Run along, Adrian darling, and get ready for school."
"Oh no, that's not it!" Reginald pretended to smile. "You do the work yourself, because, for some extraordinary reason, you love to humiliate me. Objectively, you may not know that, but, subjectively, it's the case." This last remark so delighted him that he cut open an envelope as gracefully as if he had been on the stage. . . .
"DEAR MR. PEACOCK,
I feel I cannot go to sleep until I have thanked you again for the wonderful joy your singing gave me this evening. Quite unforgettable. You make me wonder, as I have not wondered since I was a girl, if this is all. I mean, if this ordinary world is all. If there is not, perhaps, for those of us who understand, divine beauty and richness awaiting us if we only have the courage to see it. And to make it ours . . . The house is so quiet. I wish you were here now that I might thank you in person. You are doing a great thing. You are teaching the world to escape from life!
Yours, most sincerely,
P.S.–I am in every afternoon this week. . . . "
The letter was scrawled in violet ink on thick, handmade paper. Vanity, that bright bird, lifted [Page 200] its wings again, lifted them until he felt his breast would break.
"Oh well, don't let us quarrel," said he, and actually flung out a hand to his wife.
But she was not great enough to respond.
"I must hurry and take Adrian to school," said she. "Your room is quite ready for you."
Very well–very well–let there be open war between them! But he was hanged if he'd be the first to make it up again!
He walked up and down his room, and was not calm again until he heard the outer door close upon Adrian and his wife. Of course, if this went on, he would have to make some other arrangement. That was obvious. Tied and bound like this, how could he help the world to escape from life? He opened the piano and looked up his pupils for the morning. Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, and Miss Marian Morrow. They were charming, all three.
Punctually at half past ten the door-bell rang. He went to the door. Miss Betty Brittle was there, dressed in white, with her music in a blue silk case.
"I'm afraid I'm early," she said, blushing and shy, and she opened her big blue eyes very wide. "Am I?"
"Not at all, dear lady. I am only too charmed," said Reginald. "Won't you come in?"
"It's such a heavenly morning," said Miss [Page 201] Brittle. "I walked across the park. The flowers were too marvellous."
"Well, think about them while you sing your exercises," said Reginald, sitting down at the piano. "It will give your voice colour and warmth."
Oh, what an enchanting idea! What a genius Mr. Peacock was. She parted her pretty lips, and began to sing like a pansy.
"Very good, very good, indeed," said Reginald, playing chords that would waft a hardened criminal to heaven. "Make the notes round. Don't be afraid. Linger over them, breathe them like a perfume."
How pretty she looked, standing there in her white frock, her little blonde head tilted, showing her milky throat.
"Do you ever practise before a glass?" asked Reginald. "You ought to, you know; it makes the lips more flexible. Come over here."
They went over to the mirror and stood side by side.
But she broke down, and blushed more brightly than ever. "Oh," she cried, "I can't. It makes me feel so silly. It makes me want to laugh. I do look so absurd!"
"No, you don't. Don't be afraid," said Reginald, but laughed, too, very kindly. "Now, try again!" [Page 202]
The lesson simply flew, and Betty Brittle quite got over her shyness.
"When can I come again?" she asked, tying the music up again in the blue silk case. "I want to take as many lessons as I can just now. Oh, Mr. Peacock, I do enjoy them so much. May I come the day after tomorrow?"
"Dear lady, I shall be only too charmed," said Reginald, bowing her out.
Glorious girl! And when they had stood in front of the mirror, her white sleeve had just touched his black one. He could feel–yes, he could actually feel a warm glowing spot, and he stroked it. She loved her lessons. His wife came in.
"Reginald, can you let me have some money? I must pay the dairy. And will you be in for dinner tonight?"
"Yes, you know I'm singing at Lord Timbuck's at half past nine. Can you make me some clear soup, with an egg in it?"
"Yes. And the money, Reginald. It's eight and sixpence."
"Surely that's very heavy–isn't it?"
"No, it's just what it ought to be. And Adrian must have milk."
There she was–off again. Now she was standing up for Adrian against him.
"I have not the slightest desire to deny my child a proper amount of milk," said he. "Here is ten shillings." [Page 203]
The door-bell rang. He went to the door.
"Oh," said the Countess Wilkowska, "the stairs. I have not a breath." And she put her hand over her heart as she followed him into the music-room. She was all in black, with a little black hat with a floating veil–violets in her bosom.
"Do not make me sing exercises, today," she cried, throwing out her hands in her delightful foreign way. "No, today, I want only to sing songs. . . . And may I take off my violets? They fade so soon."
"They fade so soon–they fade so soon," played Reginald on the piano.
"May I put them here?" asked the Countess, dropping them in a little vase that stood in front of one of Reginald's photographs.
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed!"
She began to sing, and all was well until she came to the phrase: "You love me. Yes, I know you love me!" Down dropped his hands from the keyboard, he wheeled round, facing her.
"No, no; that's not good enough. You can do better than that," cried Reginald ardently. "You must sing as if you were in love. Listen; let me try and show you." And he sang.
"Oh, yes, yes. I see what you mean," stammered the little Countess. "May I try it again?"
"Certainly. Do not be afraid. Let yourself go. Confess yourself. Make proud surrender! " he called above the music. And she sang. [Page 204]
"Yes; better that time. But I still feel you are capable of more. Try it with me. There must be a kind of exultant defiance as well–don't you feel?" And they sang together. Ah! now she was sure she understood. "May I try once again?"
"You love me. Yes, I know you love me."
The lesson was over before that phrase was quite perfect. The little foreign hands trembled as they put the music together.
"And you are forgetting your violets," said Reginald softly.
"Yes, I think I will forget them," said the Countess, biting her underlip. What fascinating ways these foreign women have!
"And you will come to my house on Sunday and make music?" she asked.
"Dear lady, I shall be only too charmed! " said Reginald.
Weep ye no more, sad fountainssang Miss Marian Morrow, but her eyes filled with tears and her chin trembled.
Why need ye flow so fast?
"Don't sing just now," said Reginald. "Let me play it for you." He played so softly.
"Is there anything the matter?" asked Reginald. "You're not quite happy this morning."
No, she wasn't; she was awfully miserable.
"You don't care to tell me what it is?"
It really was nothing particular. She had those [Page 205] moods sometimes when life seemed almost unbearable.
"Ah, I know," he said; "if I could only help!"
"But you do; you do! Oh, if it were not for my lessons I don't feel I could go on."
"Sit down in the arm-chair and smell the violets and let me sing to you. It will do you just as much good as a lesson."
Why weren't all men like Mr. Peacock?
"I wrote a poem after the concert last night–just about what I felt. Of course, it wasn't personal. May I send it to you?"
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed!"
By the end of the afternoon he was quite tired and lay down on a sofa to rest his voice before dressing. The door of his room was open. He could hear Adrian and his wife talking in the dining-room.
"Do you know what that teapot reminds me of, Mummy? It reminds me of a little sitting-down kitten."
"Does it, Mr. Absurdity?"
Reginald dozed. The telephone bell woke him.
"Ænone Fell is speaking. Mr. Peacock, I have just heard that you are singing at Lord Timbuck's tonight. Will you dine with me, and we can go on together afterwards?" And the words of his reply dropped like flowers down the telephone.
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed."
What a triumphant evening! The little dinner tête-à-tête with Ænone Fell, the drive to Lord [Page 206] Timbuck's in her white motor-car, when she thanked him again for the unforgettable joy. Triumph upon triumph! And Lord Timbuck's champagne simply flowed.
"Have some more champagne, Peacock," said Lord Timbuck. Peacock, you notice–not Mr. Peacock–but Peacock, as if he were one of them. And wasn't he? He was an artist. He could sway them all. And wasn't he teaching them all to escape from life? How he sang! And as he sang, as in a dream he saw their feathers and their flowers and their fans, offered to him, laid before him, like a huge bouquet.
"Have another glass of wine, Peacock."
"I could have any one I liked by lifting a finger," thought Peacock, positively staggering home.
But as he let himself into the dark flat his marvellous sense of elation began to ebb away. He turned up the light in the bedroom. His wife lay asleep, squeezed over to her side of the bed. He remembered suddenly how she had said when he had told her he was going out to dinner: "You might have let me know before!" And how he had answered: "Can't you possibly speak to me without offending against even good manners?" It was incredible, he thought, that she cared so little for him–incredible that she wasn't interested in the slightest in his triumphs and his artistic career. When so many women in her place would have given their eyes. . . . Yes, he knew it. . . . [Page 207] Why not acknowledge it? . . . And there she lay, an enemy, even in her sleep. . . . Must it ever be thus? he thought, the champagne still working. Ah, if we only were friends, how much I could tell her now! About this evening; even about Timbuck's manner to me, and all that they said to me and so on and so on. If only I felt that she was here to come back to–that I could confide in her–and so on and so on.
In his emotion he pulled off his evening boot and simply hurled it in the corner. The noise woke his wife with a terrible start. She sat up, pushing back her hair. And he suddenly decided to have one more try to treat her as a friend, to tell her everything, to win her. Down he sat on the side of the bed, and seized one of her hands. But of all those splendid things he had to say, not one could he utter. For some fiendish reason, the only words he could get out were: "Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed !" [Page 208]
IN the afternoon the chairs came, a whole big cart full of little gold ones with their legs in the air. And then the flowers came. When you stared down from the balcony at the people carrying them the flower pots looked like funny awfully nice hats nodding up the path.
Moon thought they were hats. She said: "Look. There's a man wearing a palm on his head." But she never knew the difference between real things and not real ones.
There was nobody to look after Sun and Moon. Nurse was helping Annie alter Mother's dress which was much-too-long-and-tight-under-the-arms and Mother was running all over the house and telephoning Father to be sure not to forget things. She only had time to say: "Out of my way, children!"
They kept out of her way–at any rate Sun did. He did so hate being sent stumping back to the nursery. It didn't matter about Moon. If she got tangled in people's legs they only threw her up and shook her till she squeaked. But Sun was too heavy for that. He was so heavy that the fat man [Page 209] who came to dinner on Sundays used to say: "Now, young man, let's try to lift you." And then he'd put his thumbs under Sun's arms and groan and try and give it up at last saying: "He's a perfect little ton of bricks!
Nearly all the furniture was taken out of the dining-room. The big piano was put in a corner and then there came a row of flower pots and then there came the goldy chairs. That was for the concert. When Sun looked in a white faced man sat at the piano–not playing, but banging at it and then looking inside. He had a bag of tools on the piano and he had stuck his hat on a statue against the wall. Sometimes he just started to play and then he jumped up again and looked inside. Sun hoped he wasn't the concert.
But of course the place to be in was the kitchen. There was a man helping in a cap like a blancmange, and their real cook, Minnie, was all red in the face and laughing. Not cross at all. She gave them each an almond finger and lifted them up on to the flour bin so that they could watch the wonderful things she and the man were making for supper. Cook brought in the things and he put them on dishes and trimmed them. Whole fishes, with their heads and eyes and tails still on, he sprinkled with red and green and yellow bits; he made squiggles all over the jellies, he stuck a collar on a ham and put a very thin sort of a fork in it; he dotted almonds and tiny round biscuits on [Page 210] the creams. And more and more things kept coming.
"Ah, but you haven't seen the ice pudding," said Cook. "Come along." Why was she being so nice, thought Sun as she gave them each a hand. And they looked into the refrigerator.
Oh! Oh! Oh! It was a little house. It was a little pink house with white snow on the roof and green windows and a brown door and stuck in the door there was a nut for a handle.
When Sun saw the nut he felt quite tired and had to lean against Cook.
"Let me touch it. Just let me put my finger on the roof," said Moon, dancing. She always wanted to touch all the food. Sun didn't.
"Now, my girl, look sharp with the table," said Cook as the housemaid came in.
"It's a picture, Min," said Nellie. "Come along and have a look." So they all went into the dining-room. Sun and Moon were almost frightened. They wouldn't go up to the table at first; they just stood at the door and made eyes at it. It wasn't real night yet but the blinds were down in the dining-room and the lights turned on–and all the lights were red roses. Red ribbons and bunches of roses tied up the table at the corners. In the middle was a lake with rose petals floating on it.
"That's where the ice pudding is to be," said Cook. [Page 211]
Two silver lions with wings had fruit on their backs, and the salt cellars were tiny birds drinking out of basins.
And all the winking glasses and shining plates and sparkling knives and forks–and all the food. And the little red table napkins made into roses. . . .
"Are people going to eat the food?" asked Sun.
"I should just think they were," laughed Cook, laughing with Nellie. Moon laughed, too; she always did the same as other people. But Sun didn't want to laugh. Round and round he walked with his hands behind his back. Perhaps he never would have stopped if Nurse hadn't called suddenly: "Now then, children. It's high time you were washed and dressed." And they were marched off to the nursery.
While they were being unbuttoned Mother looked in with a white thing over her shoulders; she was rubbing stuff on her face.
"I'll ring for them when I want them, Nurse, and then they can just come down and be seen and go back again," said she.
Sun was undressed first, nearly to his skin, and dressed again in a white shirt with red and white daisies speckled on it, breeches with strings at the sides and braces that came over, white socks and red shoes.
"Now you're in your Russian costume," said Nurse, flattening down his fringe.
"Am I?" said Sun. [Page 212]
"Yes. Sit quiet in that chair and watch your little sister."
Moon took ages. When she had her socks put on she pretended to fall back on the bed and waved her legs at Nurse as she always did, and every time Nurse tried to make her curls with a finger and a wet brush she turned round and asked Nurse to show her the photo of her brooch or something like that. But at last she was finished too. Her dress stuck out, with fur on it, all white; there was even fluffy stuff on the legs of her drawers. Her shoes were white with big blobs on them.
"There you are, my lamb," said Nurse. "And you look like a sweet little cherub of a picture of a powder-puff!" Nurse rushed to the door. "Ma'am, one moment."
Mother came in again with half her hair down.
"Oh," she cried. "What a picture!"
"Isn't she," said Nurse.
And Moon held out her skirts by the tips and dragged one of her feet. Sun didn't mind people not noticing him–much. . . .
After that they played clean tidy games up at the table while Nurse stood at the door, and when the carriages began to come and the sound of laughter and voices and soft rustlings came from down below she whispered: "Now then, children, stay where you are." Moon kept jerking the table cloth so that it all hung down her side and Sun hadn't any–and then she pretended she didn't do it on purpose. [Page 213]
At last the bell rang. Nurse pounced at them with the hair brush, flattened his fringe, made her bow stand on end, and joined their hands together.
"Down you go!" she whispered.
And down they went. Sun did feel silly holding Moon's hand like that but Moon seemed to like it. She swung her arm and the bell on her coral bracelet jingled.
At the drawing-room door stood Mother fanning herself with a black fan. The drawing-room was full of sweet smelling, silky, rustling ladies and men in black with funny tails on their coats–like beetles. Father was among them, talking very loud, and rattling something in his pocket.
"What a picture!" cried the ladies. "Oh, the ducks! Oh, the lambs! Oh, the sweets! Oh, the pets!"
All the people who couldn't get at Moon kissed Sun, and a skinny old lady with teeth that clicked said: "Such a serious little poppet," and rapped him on the head with something hard.
Sun looked to see if the same concert was there, but he was gone. Instead, a fat man with a pink head leaned over the piano talking to a girl who held a violin at her ear.
There was only one man that Sun really liked. He was a little grey man, with long grey whiskers, who walked about by himself. He came up to Sun and rolled his eyes in a very nice way and said: "Hullo, my lad." Then he went away. But soon [Page 214] he came back again and said: "Fond of dogs?" Sun said: "Yes." But then he went away again and though Sun looked for him everywhere he couldn't find him. He thought perhaps he'd gone outside to fetch in a puppy.
"Good night, my precious babies," said Mother, folding them up in her bare arms. "Fly up to your little nest."
Then Moon went and made a silly of herself again. She put up her arms in front of everybody and said: "My Daddy must carry me."
But they seemed to like it, and Daddy swooped down and picked her up as he always did.
Nurse was in such a hurry to get them to bed that she even interrupted Sun over his prayers and said: "Get on with them, child, do." And the moment after they were in bed and in the dark except for the nightlight in its little saucer.
"Are you asleep?" asked Moon.
"No," said Sun. "Are you?"
"No," said Moon.
A long while after Sun woke up again. There was a loud, loud noise of clapping from downstairs, like when it rains. He heard Moon turn over.
"Moon, are you awake?"
"Yes, are you?"
"Yes. Well, let's go and look over the stairs."
They had just got settled on the top step when the drawing-room door opened and they heard the party cross over the hall into the dining-room. [Page 215] Then that door was shut; there was a noise of "pops" and laughing. Then that stopped and Sun saw them all walking round and round the lovely table with their hands behind their backs like he had done. Round and round they walked, looking and staring. The man with the grey whiskers liked the little house best. When he saw the nut for a handle he rolled his eyes like he did before and said to Sun: "Seen the nut?"
"Don't nod your head like that, Moon."
"I'm not nodding. It's you."
"It is not. I never nod my head."
"O–oh, you do. You're nodding it now."
"I'm not. I'm only showing you how not to do it."
When they woke up again they could only hear Father's voice very loud, and Mother, laughing away. Father came out of the dining-room, bounded up the stairs, and nearly fell over them.
"Hullo!" he said. "By Jove, Kitty, come and look at this."
Mother came out. "Oh, you naughty children," said she from the hall.
"Let's have 'em down and give 'em a bone," said Father. Sun had never seen him so jolly.
"No, certainly not," said Mother.
"Oh, my Daddy, do! Do have us down," said Moon.
"I'm hanged if I won't," cried Father. "I won't [Page 216] be bullied. Kitty–way there." And he caught them up, one under each arm.
Sun thought Mother would have been dreadfully cross. But she wasn't. She kept on laughing at Father.
"Oh, you dreadful boy!" said she. But she didn't mean Sun.
"Come on, kiddies. Come and have some pickings," said this jolly Father. But Moon stopped a minute.
"Mother–your dress is right off one side."
"Is it?" said Mother. And Father said "Yes" and pretended to bite her white shoulder, but she pushed him away.
And so they went back to the beautiful dining-room. But–oh! oh! what had happened. The ribbons and the roses were all pulled untied. The little red table napkins lay on the floor, all the shining plates were dirty and all the winking glasses. The lovely food that the man had trimmed was all thrown about, and there were bones and bits and fruit peels and shells everywhere. There was even a bottle lying down with stuff coming out of it on to the cloth and nobody stood it up again.
And the little pink house with the snow roof and the green windows was broken–broken–half melted away in the centre of the table.
"Come on, Sun," said Father, pretending not to notice. [Page 217]
Moon lifted up her pyjama legs and shuffled up to the table and stood on a chair, squeaking away.
"Have a bit of this ice," said Father, smashing in some more of the roof.
Mother took a little plate and held it for him; she put her other arm round his neck.
"Daddy. Daddy," shrieked Moon. "The little handle's left. The little nut. Kin I eat it?" And she reached across and picked it out of the door and scrunched it up, biting hard and blinking.
"Here, my lad," said Father.
But Sun did not move from the door. Suddenly he put up his head and gave a loud wail.
"I think it's horrid–horrid–horrid! " he sobbed.
"There, you see! "said Mother. "You see!"
"Off with you," said Father, no longer jolly. "This moment. Off you go!"
And wailing loudly, Sun stumped off to the nursery. [Page 218]
HE really was an impossible person. Too shy altogether. With absolutely nothing to say for himself. And such a weight. Once he was in your studio he never knew when to go, but would sit on and on until you nearly screamed, and burned to throw something enormous after him when he did finally blush his way out–something like the tortoise stove. The strange thing was that at first sight he looked most interesting. Everybody agreed about that. You would drift into the café one evening and there you would see, sitting in a corner, with a glass of coffee in front of him, a thin dark boy, wearing a blue jersey with a little grey flannel jacket buttoned over it. And somehow that blue jersey and the grey jacket with the sleeves that were too short gave him the air of a boy that has made up his mind to run away to sea. Who has run away, in fact, and will get up in a moment and sling a knotted handkerchief containing his nightshirt and his mother's picture on the end of a stick, and walk out into the night and be drowned. . . . Stumble over the wharf edge on his way to the ship, even. . . . He had black close-cropped hair, grey eyes with long [Page 219] lashes, white cheeks and a mouth pouting as though he were determined not to cry. . . . How could one resist him? Oh, one's heart was wrung at sight. And, as if that were not enough, there was his trick of blushing. . . . Whenever the waiter came near him he turned crimson–he might have been just out of prison and the waiter in the know. . . .
"Who is he, my dear? Do you know?"
"Yes. His name is Ian French. Painter. Awfully clever, they say. Someone started by giving him a mother's tender care. She asked him how often he heard from home, whether he had enough blankets on his bed, how much milk he drank a day. But when she went round to his studio to give an eye to his socks, she rang and rang, and though she could have sworn she heard someone breathing inside, the door was not answered. . . . Hopeless!"
Someone else decided that he ought to fall in love. She summoned him to her side, called him "boy," leaned over him so that he might smell the enchanting perfume of her hair, took his arm, told him how marvellous life could be if one only had the courage, and went round to his studio one evening and rang and rang. . . . Hopeless.
"What the poor boy really wants is thoroughly rousing," said a third. So off they went to café's and cabarets, little dances, places where you drank something that tasted like tinned apricot juice, but [Page 220] cost twenty-seven shillings a bottle and was called champagne, other places, too thrilling for words, where you sat in the most awful gloom, and where someone had always been shot the night before. But he did not turn a hair. Only once he got very drunk, but instead of blossoming forth, there he sat, stony, with two spots of red on his cheeks, like, my dear, yes, the dead image of that rag-time thing they were playing, like a "Broken Doll." But when she took him back to his studio he had quite recovered, and said "good night" to her in the street below, as though they had walked home from church together. . . . Hopeless.
After heaven knows how many more attempts–for the spirit of kindness dies very hard in women–they gave him up. Of course, they were still perfectly charming, and asked him to their shows, and spoke to him in the café but that was all. When one is an artist one has no time simply for people who won't respond. Has one?
"And besides I really think there must be something rather fishy somewhere . . . don't you? It can't all be as innocent as it looks! Why come to Paris if you want to be a daisy in the field? No, I'm not suspicious. But –"
He lived at the top of a tall mournful building overlooking the river. One of those buildings that look so romantic on rainy nights and moonlight nights, when the shutters are shut, and the heavy door, and the sign advertising "a little apartment [Page 221] to let immediately" gleams forlorn beyond words. One of those buildings that smell so unromantic all the year round, and where the concierge lives in a glass cage on the ground floor, wrapped up in a filthy shawl, stirring something in a saucepan and ladling out tit-bits to the swollen old dog lolling on a bead cushion. . . . Perched up in the air the studio had a wonderful view. The two big windows faced the water; he could see the boats and the barges swinging up and down, and the fringe of an island planted with trees, like a round bouquet. The side window looked across to another house, shabbier still and smaller, and down below there was a flower market. You could see the tops of huge umbrellas, with frills of bright flowers escaping from them, booths covered with striped awning where they sold plants in boxes and clumps of wet gleaming palms in terra-cotta jars. Among the flowers the old women scuttled from side to side, like crabs. Really there was no need for him to go out. If he sat at the window until his white beard fell over the sill he still would have found something to draw. . . .
How surprised those tender women would have been if they had managed to force the door. For he kept his studio as neat as a pin. Everything was arranged to form a pattern, a little "still life" as it were–the saucepans with their lids on the wall behind the gas stove, the bowl of eggs, milk jug and teapot on the shelf, the books and the lamp [Page 222] with the crinkly paper shade on the table. An Indian curtain that had a fringe of red leopards marching round it covered his bed by day, and on the wall beside the bed on a level with your eyes when you were lying down there was a small neatly printed notice: GET UP AT ONCE.
Every day was much the same. While the light was good he slaved at his painting, then cooked his meals and tidied up the place. And in the evenings he went off to the café, or sat at home reading or making out the most complicated list of expenses headed: "What I ought to be able to do it on," and ending with a sworn statement. . . "I swear not to exceed this amount for next month. Signed, Ian French."
Nothing very fishy about this; but those far-seeing women were quite right. It wasn't all.
One evening he was sitting at the side window eating some prunes and throwing the stones on to the tops of the huge umbrellas in the deserted flower market. It had been raining – the first real spring rain of the year had fallen–a bright spangle hung on everything, and the air smelled of buds and moist earth. Many voices sounding languid and content rang out in the dusky air, and the people who had come to close their windows and fasten the shutters leaned out instead. Down below in the market the trees were peppered with new green. What kind of trees were they? he wondered. And now came the lamplighter. He [Page 223] stared at the house across the way, the small, shabby house, and suddenly, as if in answer to his gaze, two wings of windows opened and a girl came out on to the tiny balcony carrying a pot of daffodils. She was a strangely thin girl in a dark pinafore, with a pink handkerchief tied over her hair. Her sleeves were rolled up almost to her shoulders and her slender arms shone against the dark stuff.
"Yes, it is quite warm enough. It will do them good," she said, puffing down the pot and turning to someone in the room inside. As she turned she put her hands up to the handkerchief and tucked away some wisps of hair. She looked down at the deserted market and up at the sky, but where he sat there might have been a hollow in the air. She simply did not see the house opposite. And then she disappeared.
His heart fell out of the side window of his studio, and down to the balcony of the house opposite–buried itself in the pot of daffodils under the half-opened buds and spears of green.. . . That room with the balcony was the sitting-room, and the one next door to it was the kitchen. He heard the clatter of the dishes as she washed up after supper, and then she came to the window, knocked a little mop against the ledge, and hung it on a nail to dry. She never sang or unbraided her hair, or held out her arms to the moon as young girls are supposed to do. And she always wore the same [Page 224] dark pinafore and the pink handkerchief over her hair. . . . Whom did she live with? Nobody else came to those two windows, and yet she was always talking to someone in the room. Her mother, he decided, was an invalid. They took in sewing. The father was dead. . . . He had been a journalist–very pale, with long moustaches, and a piece of black hair falling over his forehead.
By working all day they just made enough money to live on, but they never went out and they had no friends. Now when he sat down at his table he had to make an entirely new set of sworn statements. . . . Not to go to the side window before a certain hour: signed, Ian French. Not to think about her until he had put away his painting things for the day: signed, Ian French.
It was quite simple. She was the only person he really wanted to know, because she was, he decided, the only other person alive who was just his age. He couldn't stand giggling girls, and he had no use for grown-up women. . . . She was his age, she was–well, just like him. He sat in his dusky studio, tired, with one arm hanging over the back of his chair, staring in at her window and seeing himself in there with her. She had a violent temper; they quarrelled terribly at times, he and she. She had a way of stamping her foot and twisting her hands in her pinafore . . . furious. And she very rarely laughed. Only when she told him about an absurd little kitten she once had who [Page 225] used to roar and pretend to be a lion when it was given meat to eat. Things like that made her laugh. . . . But as a rule they sat together very quietly; he, just as he was sitting now, and she with her hands folded in her lap and her feet tucked under, talking in low tones, or silent and tired after the day's work. Of course, she never asked him about his pictures, and of course he made the most wonderful drawings of her which she hated, because he made her so thin and so dark. . . . But how could he get to know her? This might go on for years. . . .
Then he discovered that once a week, in the evenings, she went out shopping. On two successive Thursdays she came to the window wearing an old-fashioned cape over the pinafore, and carrying a basket. From where he sat he could not see the door of her house, but on the next Thursday evening at the same time he snatched up his cap and ran down the stairs. There was a lovely pink light over everything. He saw it glowing in the river, and the people walking towards him had pink faces and pink hands.
He leaned against the side of his house waiting for her and he had no idea of what he was going to do or say. "Here she comes," said a voice in his head. She walked very quickly, with small, light steps; with one hand she carried the basket, with the other she kept the cape together. . . . What could he do? He could only follow. . . . First she went into [Page 226] the grocer's and spent a long time in there, and then she went into the butcher's where she had to wait her turn. Then she was an age at the draper's matching something, and then she went to the fruit shop and bought a lemon. As he watched her he knew more surely than ever he must get to know her, now. Her composure, her seriousness and her loneliness, the very way she walked as though she was eager to be done with this world of grown-ups all was so natural to him and so inevitable.
"Yes, she is always like that," he thought proudly. "We have nothing to do with–these people."
But now she was on her way home and he was as far off as ever. . . . She suddenly turned into the dairy and he saw her through the window buying an egg. She picked it out of the basket with such care–a brown one, a beautifully shaped one, the one he would have chosen. And when she came out of the dairy he went in after her. In a moment he was out again, and following her past his house across the flower market, dodging among the huge umbrellas and treading on the fallen flowers and the round marks where the pots had stood. . . . Through her door he crept, and up the stairs after, taking care to tread in time with her so that she should not notice. Finally, she stopped on the landing, and took the key out of her purse. As she put it into the door he ran up and faced her. [Page 227]
Blushing more crimson than ever, but looking at her severely he said, almost angrily: "Excuse me, Mademoiselle, you dropped this."
And he handed her an egg. [Page 228]
AND then, after six years, she saw him again. He was seated at one of those little bamboo tables decorated with a Japanese vase of paper daffodils. There was a tall plate of fruit in front of him, and very carefully, in a way she recognized immediately as his "special" way, he was peeling an orange.
He must have felt that shock of recognition in her for he looked up and met her eyes. Incredible! He didn't know her! She smiled; he frowned. She came towards him. He closed his eyes an instant, but opening them his face lit up as though he had struck a match in a dark room. He laid down the orange and pushed back his chair, and she took her little warm hand out of her muff and gave it to him.
"Vera!" he exclaimed. "How strange. Really, for a moment I didn't know you. Won't you sit down? You've had lunch? Won't you have some coffee?"
She hesitated, but of course she meant to.
"Yes, I'd like some coffee." And she sat down opposite him.
"You've changed. You've changed very much," he said, staring at her with that eager, lighted look. [Page 229] "You look so well. I've never seen you look so well before."
"Really?" She raised her veil and unbuttoned her high fur collar. "I don't feel very well. I can't bear this weather, you know."
"Ah, no. You hate the cold. . . . "
"Loathe it." She shuddered. "And the worst of it is that the older one grows . . . "
He interrupted her. "Excuse me," and tapped on the table for the waitress. "Please bring some coffee and cream." To her: "You are sure you won't eat anything? Some fruit, perhaps. The fruit here is very good."
"No, thanks. Nothing."
"Then that's settled." And smiling just a hint too broadly he took up the orange again. "You were saying–the older one grows–"
"The colder," she laughed. But she was thinking how well she remembered that trick of his–the trick of interrupting her–and of how it used to exasperate her six years ago. She used to feel then as though he, quite suddenly, in the middle of what she was saying, put his hand over her lips, turned from her, attended to something different, and then took his hand away, and with just the same slightly too broad smile, gave her his attention again. . . . Now we are ready. That is settled.
"The colder!" He echoed her words, laughing too. "Ah, ah. You still say the same things. And there is another thing about you that is not changed [Page 230] at all–your beautiful voice–your beautiful way of speaking." Now he was very grave; he leaned towards her, and she smelled the warm, stinging scent of the orange peel. "You have only to say one word and I would know your voice among all other voices. I don't know what it is–I've often wondered–that makes your voice such a–haunting memory. . . . Do you remember that first afternoon we spent together at Kew Gardens? You were so surprised because I did not know the names of any flowers. I am still just as ignorant for all your telling me. But whenever it is very fine and warm, and I see some bright colours–it's awfully strange–I hear your voice saying: 'Geranium, marigold, and verbena.' And I feel those three words are all I recall of some forgotten, heavenly language. . . . You remember that afternoon?"
"Oh, yes, very well." She drew a long, soft breath, as though the paper daffodils between them were almost too sweet to bear. Yet, what had remained in her mind of that particular afternoon was an absurd scene over the tea table. A great many people taking tea in a Chinese pagoda, and he behaving like a maniac about the wasps–waving them away, flapping at them with his straw hat, serious and infuriated out of all proportion to the occasion. How delighted the sniggering tea drinkers had been. And how she had suffered.
But now, as he spoke, that memory faded. His was the truer. Yes, it had been a wonderful [Page 231] afternoon, full of geranium and marigold and verbena, and–warm sunshine. Her thoughts lingered over the last two words as though she sang them.
In the warmth, as it were, another memory unfolded. She saw herself sitting on a lawn. He lay beside her, and suddenly, after a long silence, he rolled over and put his head in her lap.
"I wish," he said, in a low, troubled voice, "I wish that I had taken poison and were about to die–here now!"
At that moment a little girl in a white dress, holding a long, dripping water lily, dodged from behind a bush, stared at them, and dodged back again. But he did not see. She leaned over him.
"Ah, why do you say that? I could not say that."
But he gave a kind of soft moan, and taking her hand he held it to his cheek.
"Because I know I am going to love you too much–far too much. And I shall suffer so terribly, Vera, because you never, never will love me."
He was certainly far better looking now than he had been then. He had lost all that dreamy vagueness and indecision. Now he had the air of a man who has found his place in life, and fills it with a confidence and an assurance which was, to say the least, impressive. He must have made money, too. His clothes were admirable, and at that moment he pulled a Russian cigarette case out of his pocket. [Page 232]
"Won't you smoke?"
"Yes, I will." She hovered over them. "They look very good."
"I think they are. I get them made for me by a little man in St. James's Street. I don't smoke very much. I'm not like you–but when I do, they must be delicious, very fresh cigarettes. Smoking isn't a habit with me; it's a luxury–like perfume. Are you still so fond of perfumes? Ah, when I was in Russia . . . "
She broke in: "You've really been to Russia?"
"Oh, yes. I was there for over a year. Have you forgotten how we used to talk of going there?"
"No, I've not forgotten."
He gave a strange half laugh and leaned back in his chair. "Isn't it curious. I have really carried out all those journeys that we planned. Yes, I have been to all those places that we talked of, and stayed in them long enough to–as you used to say, 'air oneself' in them. In fact, I have spent the last three years of my life travelling all the time. Spain, Corsica, Siberia, Russia, Egypt. The only country left is China, and I mean to go there, too, when the war is over."
As he spoke, so lightly, tapping the end of his cigarette against the ash-tray, she felt the strange beast that had slumbered so long within her bosom stir, stretch itself, yawn, prick up its ears, and suddenly bound to its feet, and fix its longing, hungry stare upon those far away places. But all [Page 233] she. said was, smiling gently: "How I envy you."
He accepted that. "It has been," he said, "very wonderful–especially Russia. Russia was all that we had imagined, and far, far more. I even spent some days on a river boat on the Volga. Do you remember that boatman's song that you used to play?"
"Yes." It began to play in her mind as she spoke.
"Do you ever play it now?"
"No, I've no piano."
He was amazed at that. "But what has become of your beautiful piano?"
She made a little grimace. "Sold. Ages ago."
"But you were so fond of music," he wondered.
"I've no time for it now," said she.
He let it go at that. "That river life," he went on, "is something quite special. After a day or two you cannot realize that you have ever known another. And it is not necessary to know the language–the life of the boat creates a bond between you and the people that's more than sufficient. You eat with them, pass the day with them, and in the evening there is that endless singing."
She shivered, hearing the boatman's song break out again loud and tragic, and seeing the boat floating on the darkening river with melancholy trees on either side. . . . "Yes, I should like that," said she, stroking her muff. [Page 234]
"You'd like almost everything about Russian life," he said warmly. "It's so informal, so impulsive, so free without question. And then the peasants are so splendid. They are such human beings–yes, that is it. Even the man who drives your carriage has–has some real part in what is happening. I remember the evening a party of us, two friends of mine and the wife of one of them, went for a picnic by the Black Sea. We took supper and champagne and ate and drank on the grass. And while we were eating the coachman came up. 'Have a dill pickle,' he said. He wanted to share with us. That seemed to me so right, so–you know what I mean?"
And she seemed at that moment to be sitting on the grass beside the mysteriously Black Sea, black as velvet, and rippling against the banks in silent, velvet waves. She saw the carriage drawn up to one side of the road, and the little group on the grass, their faces and hands white in the moonlight. She saw the pale dress of the woman outspread and her folded parasol, lying on the grass like a huge pearl crochet hook. Apart from them, with his supper in a cloth on his knees, sat the coachman. "Have a dill pickle," said he, and although she was not certain what a dill pickle was, she saw the greenish glass jar with a red chili like a parrot's beak glimmering through. She sucked in her cheeks; the dill pickle was terribly sour. . . .
"Yes, I know perfectly what you mean," she said. [Page 235]
In the pause that followed they looked at each other. In the past when they had looked at each other like that they had felt such a boundless understanding between them that their souls had, as it were, put their arms round each other and dropped into the same sea, content to be drowned, like mournful lovers. But now, the surprising thing was that it was he who held back. He who said:
"What a marvellous listener you are. When you look at me with those wild eyes I feel that I could tell you things that I would never breathe to another human being."
Was there just a hint of mockery in his voice or was it her fancy? She could not be sure.
"Before I met you," he said, "I had never spoken of myself to anybody. How well I remember one night, the night that I brought you the little Christmas tree, telling you all about my childhood. And of how I was so miserable that I ran away and lived under a cart in our yard for two days without being discovered. And you listened, and your eyes shone, and I felt that you had even made the little Christmas tree listen too, as in a fairy story."
But of that evening she had remembered a little pot of caviare. It had cost seven and sixpence. He could not get over it. Think of it–a tiny jar like that costing seven and sixpence. While she ate it he watched her, delighted and shocked.
"No, really, that is eating money. You could not [Page 236] get seven shillings into a little pot that size. Only think of the profit they must make. . . . " And he had begun some immensely complicated calculations. . . . But now good-bye to the caviare. The Christmas tree was on the table, and the little boy lay under the cart with his head pillowed on the yard dog.
"The dog was called Bosun," she cried delightedly.
But he did not follow. "Which dog? Had you a dog? I don't remember a dog at all."
"No, no. I meant the yard dog when you were a little boy." He laughed and snapped the cigarette case to.
"Was he? Do you know I had forgotten that. It seems such ages ago. I cannot believe that it is only six years. After I had recognized you today–I had to take such a leap–I had to take a leap over my whole life to get back to that time. I was such a kid then." He drummed on the table. "I've often thought how I must have bored you. And now I understand so perfectly why you wrote to me as you did–although at the time that letter nearly finished my life. I found it again the other day, and I couldn't help laughing as I read it. It was so clever–such a true picture of me." He glanced up. "You're not going?"
She had buttoned her collar again and drawn down her veil.
"Yes, I am afraid I must," she said, and [Page 237] managed a smile. Now she knew that he had been mocking.
"Ah, no, please," he pleaded. "Don't go just for a moment," and he caught up one of her gloves from the table and clutched at it as if that would hold her. "I see so few people to talk to nowadays, that I have turned into a sort of barbarian," he said. "Have I said something to hurt you?"
"Not a bit," she lied. But as she watched him draw her glove through his fingers, gently, gently, her anger really did die down, and besides, at the moment he looked more like himself of six years ago. . . .
"What I really wanted then," he said softly, "was to be a sort of carpet–to make myself into a sort of carpet for you to walk on so that you need not be hurt by the sharp stones and mud that you hated so. It was nothing more positive than that–nothing more selfish. Only I did desire, eventually, to turn into a magic carpet and carry you away to all those lands you longed to see."
As he spoke she lifted her head as though she drank something; the strange beast in her bosom began to purr . . .
"I felt that you were more lonely than anybody else in the world," he went on, "and yet, perhaps, that you were the only person in the world who was really, truly alive. Born out of your time," he murmured, stroking the glove, "fated."
Ah, God! What had she done! How had she [Page 238] dared to throw away her happiness like this. This was the only man who had ever understood her. Was it too late? Could it be too late? She was that glove that he held in his fingers. . . .
"And then the fact that you had no friends and never had made friends with people. How I understood that, for neither had I. Is it just the same now?"
"Yes," she breathed. "Just the same. I am as alone as ever."
"So am I," he laughed gently, "just the same." Suddenly with a quick gesture he handed her back the glove and scraped his chair on the floor. "But what seemed to me so mysterious then is perfectly plain to me now. And to you, too, of course. . . . It simply was that we were such egoists, so self-engrossed, so wrapped up in ourselves that we hadn't a corner in our hearts for anybody else. Do you know," he cried, naive and hearty, and dreadfully like another side of that old self again, "I began studying a Mind System when I was in Russia, and I found that we were not peculiar at all. It's quite a well-known form of . . . "
She had gone. He sat there, thunder-struck, astounded beyond words. . . . And then he asked the waitress for his bill.
"But the cream has not been touched," he said. "Please do not charge me for it." [Page 239]
OH, dear, how she wished that it wasn't night-time. She'd have much rather travelled by day, much much rather. But the lady at the Governess Bureau said: "You had better take an evening boat and then if you get into a compartment for 'Ladies Only' in the train you will be far safer than sleeping in a foreign hotel. Don't go out of the carriage; don't walk about the corridors and be sure to lock the lavatory door if you go there. The train arrives at Munich at eight o'clock, and Frau Arnholdt says that the Hotel Grunewald is only one minute away. A porter can take you there. She will arrive at six the same evening, so you will have a nice quiet day to rest after the journey and rub up your German. And when you want anything to eat I would advise you to pop into the nearest baker's and get a bun and some coffee. You haven't been abroad before, have you?" "No." "Well, I always tell my girls that it's better to mistrust people at first rather than trust them, and it's safer to suspect people of evil intentions rather than good [Page 240] ones. . . . It sounds rather hard but we've got to be women of the world, haven't we?"
It had been nice in the Ladies' Cabin. The stewardess was so kind and changed her money for her and tucked up her feet. She lay on one of the hard pink-sprigged couches and watched the other passengers, friendly and natural, pinning their hats to the bolsters, taking off their boots and skirts, opening dressing-cases and arranging mysterious rustling little packages, tying their heads up in veils before lying down. Thud, thud, thud, went the steady screw of the steamer. The stewardess pulled a green shade over the light and sat down by the stove, her skirt turned back over her knees, a long piece of knitting on her lap. On a shelf above her head there was a water-bottle with a tight bunch of flowers stuck in it. "I like travelling very much," thought the little governess. She smiled and yielded to the warm rocking.
But when the boat stopped and she went up on deck, her dress-basket in one hand, her rug and umbrella in the other, a cold, strange wind flew under her hat. She looked up at the masts and spars of the ship, black against a green glittering sky, and down to the dark landing-stage where strange muffled figures lounged, waiting; she moved forward with the sleepy flock, all knowing where to go to and what to do except her, and she felt afraid. Just a little–just enough to wish–oh, to wish that it was daytime and that one of those [Page 241] women who had smiled at her in the glass, when they both did their hair in the Ladies' Cabin, was somewhere near now. "Tickets, please. Show your tickets. Have your tickets ready." She went down the gangway balancing herself carefully on her heels. Then a man in a black leather cap came forward and touched her on the arm. "Where for, Miss?" He spoke English–he must be a guard or a stationmaster with a cap like that. She had scarcely answered when he pounced on her dress-basket. "This way," he shouted, in a rude, determined voice, and elbowing his way he strode past the people. "But I don't want a porter." What a horrible man! "I don't want a porter. I want to carry it myself." She had to run to keep up with him, and her anger, far stronger than she, ran before her and snatched the bag out of the wretch's hand. He paid no attention at all, but swung on down the long dark platform, and across a railway line. "He is a robber." She was sure he was a robber as she stepped between the silvery rails and felt the cinders crunch under her shoes. On the other side–oh, thank goodness!–there was a train with Munich written on it. The man stopped by the huge lighted carriages. "Second class?" asked the insolent voice. "Yes, a Ladies' compartment." She was quite out of breath. She opened her little purse to find something small enough to give this horrible man while he tossed her dress-basket into the rack of an empty carriage [Page 242] that had a ticket, Dames Seules, gummed on the window. She got into the train and handed him twenty centimes. "What's this?" shouted the man, glaring at the money and then at her, holding it up to his nose, sniffing at it as though he had never in his life seen, much less held, such a sum. "It's a franc. You know that, don't you? It's a franc. That's my fare!" A franc! Did he imagine that she was going to give him a franc for playing a trick like that just because she was a girl and travelling alone at night? Never, never! She squeezed her purse in her hand and simply did not see him–she looked at a view of St. Malo on the wall opposite and simply did not hear him. "Ah, no. Ah, no. Four sous. You make a mistake. Here, take it. It's a franc I want." He leapt on to the step of the train and threw the money on to her lap. Trembling with terror she screwed herself tight, tight, and put out an icy hand and took the money–stowed it away in her hand. "That's all you're going to get," she said. For a minute or two she felt his sharp eyes pricking her all over, while he nodded slowly, pulling down his mouth: "Ve-ry well. Trrrès bien." He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into the dark. Oh, the relief! How simply terrible that had been! As she stood up to feel if the dress-basket was firm she caught sight of herself in the mirror, quite white, with big round eyes. She untied her "motor veil" and unbuttoned her green cape. [Page 243] "But it's all over now," she said to the mirror face, feeling in some way that it was more frightened than she.
People began to assemble on the platform. They stood together in little groups talking; a strange light from the station lamps painted their faces almost green. A little boy in red clattered up with a huge tea-wagon and leaned against it, whistling and flicking his boots with a serviette. A woman in a black alpaca apron pushed a barrow with pillows for hire. Dreamy and vacant she looked–like a woman wheeling a perambulator–up and down, up and down–with a sleeping baby inside it. Wreaths of white smoke floated up from somewhere and hung below the roof like misty vines. "How strange it all is," thought the little governess, "and the middle of the night, too." She looked out from her safe corner, frightened no longer but proud that she had not given that franc. "I can look after myself–of course I can. The great thing is not to–" Suddenly from the corridor there came a stamping of feet and men's voices, high and broken with snatches of loud laughter. They were coming her way. The little governess shrank into her corner as four young men in bowler hats passed, staring through the door and window. One of them, bursting with the joke, pointed to the notice Dames Seules and the four bent down the better to see the one little girl in the corner. Oh dear, they were in the carriage next door. [Page 244] She heard them tramping about, and then a sudden hush followed by a tall thin fellow with a tiny black moustache who flung her door open. "If mademoiselle cares to come in with us," he said, in French. She saw the others crowding behind him, peeping under his arm and over his shoulder, and she sat very straight and still. "If mademoiselle will do us the honour," mocked the tall man. One of them could be quiet no longer; his laughter went off in a loud crack. "Mademoiselle is serious," persisted the young man, bowing and grimacing. He took off his hat with a flourish, and she was alone again.
"En voiture. En voi-ture! " Someone ran up and down beside the train. "I wish it wasn't night-time. I wish there was another woman in the carriage. I'm frightened of the men next door." The little governess looked out to see her porter coming back again–the same man making for her carriage with his arms full of luggage. But–but what was he doing? He put his thumb nail under the label Dames Seules and tore it right off, and then stood aside squinting at her while an old man wrapped in a plaid cape climbed up the high step. "But this is a ladies' compartment." "Oh no, Mademoiselle, you make a mistake. No, no I assure you. Merci, Monsieur." "En voi-turre! " A shrill whistle. The porter stepped off triumphant and the train started. For a moment or two big tears brimmed her eyes and through them she saw [Page 245] the old man unwinding a scarf from his neck and untying the flaps of his Jaeger cap. He looked very old. Ninety at least. He had a white moustache and big gold-rimmed spectacles with little blue eyes behind them and pink wrinkled cheeks. A nice face–and charming the way he bent forward and said in halting French: "Do I disturb you, Mademoiselle? Would you rather I took all these things out of the rack and found another carriage?" What! that old man have to move all those heavy things just because she . . . "No, it's quite all right. You don't disturb me at all." "Ah, a thousand thanks." He sat down opposite her and unbuttoned the cape of his enormous coat and flung it off his shoulders.
The train seemed glad to have left the station. With a long leap it sprang into the dark. She rubbed a place in the window with her glove but she could see nothing–just a tree outspread like a black fan or a scatter of lights, or the line of a hill, solemn and huge. In the carriage next door the young men started singing "Un, deux, trois." They sang the same song over and over at the tops of their voices.
"I never could have dared to go to sleep if I had been alone," she decided. "I couldn't have put my feet up or even taken off my hat." The singing gave her a queer little tremble in her stomach and, hugging herself to stop it, with her arms crossed under her cape, she felt really glad to have the old [Page 246] man in the carriage with her. Careful to see that he was not looking she peeped at him through her long lashes. He sat extremely upright, the chest thrown out, the chin well in, knees pressed together, reading a German paper. That was why he spoke French so funnily. He was a German. Something in the army, she supposed–a Colonel or a General–once, of course, not now; he was too old for that now. How spick and span he looked for an old man. He wore a pearl pin stuck in his black tie and a ring with a dark red stone on his little finger; the tip of a white silk handkerchief showed in the pocket of his double-breasted jacket. Somehow, altogether, he was really nice to look at. Most old men were so horrid. She couldn't bear them doddery–or they had a disgusting cough or something. But not having a beard–that made all the difference–and then his cheeks were so pink and his moustache so very white. Down went the German paper and the old man leaned forward with the same delightful courtesy: "Do you speak German, Mademoiselle?" "Ja, ein wenig, mehr als Franzosisch," said the little governess, blushing a deep pink colour that spread slowly over her cheeks and made her blue eyes look almost black. "Ach, so!" The old man bowed graciously. "Then perhaps you would care to look at some illustrated papers." He slipped a rubber band from a little roll of them and handed them across. "Thank you very much." She was very fond of [Page 247] looking at pictures, but first she would take off her hat and gloves. So she stood up, unpinned the brown straw and put it neatly in the rack beside the dress-basket, stripped off her brown kid gloves, paired them in a tight roll and put them in the crown of the hat for safety, and then sat down again, more comfortably this time, her feet crossed, the papers on her lap. How kindly the old man in the corner watched her bare little hand turning over the big white pages, watched her lips moving as she pronounced the long words to herself, rested upon her hair that fairly blazed under the light. Alas! how tragic for a little governess to possess hair that made one think of tangerines and marigolds, of apricots and tortoiseshell cats and champagne! Perhaps that was what the old man was thinking as he gazed and gazed, and that not even the dark ugly clothes could disguise her soft beauty. Perhaps the flush that licked his cheeks and lips was a flush of rage that anyone so young and tender should have to travel alone and unprotected through the night. Who knows he was not murmuring in his sentimental German fashion: "Ja, es ist eine Tragoedie! Would to God I were the child's grandpapa!"
"Thank you very much. They were very interesting." She smiled prettily handing back the papers. "But you speak German extremely well," said the old man. "You have been in Germany before, of course?" "Oh no, this is the first [Page 248] time"–a little pause, then–"this is the first time that I have ever been abroad at all." "Really! I am surprised. You gave me the impression, if I may say so, that you were accustomed to travelling." "Oh, well–I have been about a good deal in England, and to Scotland, once." "So. I myself have been in England once, but I could not learn English." He raised one hand and shook his head, laughing. "No, it was too difficult for me. . . . 'Ow-do-you-do. Please vich is ze vay to Leicestaire Squaare.'" She laughed too. "Foreigners always say . . . " They had quite a little talk about it. "But you will like Munich," said the old man. "Munich is a wonderful city. Museums, pictures, galleries, fine buildings and shops, concerts, theatres, restaurants–all are in Munich. I have travelled all over Europe many, many times in my life, but it is always to Munich that I return. You will enjoy yourself there." "I am not going to stay in Munich," said the little governess, and she added shyly, "I am going to a post as governess to a doctor's family in Augsburg." "Ah, that was it." Augsburg he knew. Augsburg–well–was not beautiful. A solid manufacturing town. But if Germany was new to her he hoped she would find something interesting there too. "I am sure I shall." "But what a pity not to see Munich before you go. You ought to take a little holiday on your way"–he smiled–"and store up some pleasant memories." "I am [Page 249] afraid I could not do that," said the little governess, shaking her head, suddenly important and serious. "And also, if one is alone . . . " He quite understood. He bowed, serious too. They were silent after that. The train shattered on, baring its dark, flaming breast to the hills and to the valleys. It was warm in the carriage. She seemed to lean against the dark rushing and to be carried away and away. Little sounds made themselves heard; steps in the corridor, doors opening and shutting–a murmur of voices–whistling. . . . Then the window was pricked with long needles of rain. . . . But it did not matter . . . it was outside . . . and she had her umbrella . . . she pouted, sighed, opened and shut her hands once and fell fast asleep.
"Pardon! Pardon!" The sliding back of the carriage door woke her with a start. What had happened? Someone had come in and gone out again. The old man sat in his corner, more upright than ever, his hands in the pockets of his coat, frowning heavily. "Ha! ha! ha!" came from the carriage next door. Still half asleep, she put her hands to her hair to make sure it wasn't a dream. "Disgraceful!" muttered the old man more to himself than to her. "Common, vulgar fellows! I am afraid they disturbed you, gracious Fräulein, blundering in here like that." No, not really. She [Page 250] was just going to wake up, and she took out her silver watch to look at the time. Half-past four. A cold blue light filled the window panes. Now when she rubbed a place she could see bright patches of fields, a clump of white houses like mushrooms, a road "like a picture" with poplar trees on either side, a thread of river. How pretty it was! How pretty and how different! Even those pink clouds in the sky looked foreign. It was cold, but she pretended that it was far colder and rubbed her hands together and shivered, pulling at the collar of her coat because she was so happy.
The train began to slow down. The engine gave a long shrill whistle. They were coming to a town. Taller houses, pink and yellow, glided by, fast asleep behind their green eyelids, and guarded by the poplar trees that quivered in the blue air as if on tiptoes, listening. In one house a woman opened the shutters, flung a red and white mattress across the window frame and stood staring at the train. A pale woman with black hair and a white woollen shawl over her shoulders. More women appeared at the doors and at the windows of the sleeping houses. There came a flock of sheep. The shepherd wore a blue blouse and pointed wooden shoes. Look! look what flowers–and by the railway station too! Standard roses like bridesmaids' bouquets, white geraniums, waxy pink ones that you would never see out of a greenhouse at home. Slower and slower. A man with a [Page 251] watering–can was spraying the platform. "A-a-a-ah!" Somebody came running and waving his arms. A huge fat woman waddled through the glass doors of the station with a tray of strawberries. Oh, she was thirsty! She was very thirsty! "A-a-a-ah!" The same somebody ran back again. The train stopped.
The old man pulled his coat round him and got up, smiling at her. He murmured something she didn't quite catch, but she smiled back at him as he left the carriage. While he was away the little governess looked at herself again in the glass, shook and patted herself with the precise practical care of a girl who is old enough to travel by herself and has nobody else to assure her that she is "quite all right behind." Thirsty and thirsty! The air tasted of water. She let down the window and the fat woman with the strawberries passed as if on purpose, holding up the tray to her. "Nein, danke," said the little governess, looking at the big berries on their gleaming leaves. "Wei viel? " she asked as the fat woman moved away. "Two marks fifty, Fräulein." "Good gracious!" She came in from the window and sat down in the corner, very sobered for a minute. Half a crown! "H-o-o-o-o-e-e-e!" shrieked the train, gathering itself together to be off again. She hoped the old man wouldn't be left behind. Oh, it was daylight–everything was lovely if only she hadn't been so thirsty. Where was the old man–oh, here [Page 252] he was–she dimpled at him as though he were an old accepted friend as he closed the door and, turning, took from under his cape a basket of the strawberries. "If Fräulein would honour me by accepting these . . . " "What, for me?" But she drew back and raised her hands as though he were about to put a wild little kitten on her lap.
"Certainly, for you," said the old man. "For myself it is twenty years since I was brave enough to eat strawberries." "Oh, thank you so very much. Danke bestens," she stammered, "sie sind so sehr schön! " "Eat them and see," said the old man, looking pleased and friendly. "You won't have even one?" "No, no, no." Timidly and charmingly her hand hovered. They were so big and juicy she had to take two bites to them–the juice ran all down her fingers–and it was while she munched the berries that she first thought of the old man as her grandfather. What a perfect grandfather he would make! Just like one out of a book!
The sun came out, the pink clouds in the sky, the strawberry clouds were eaten by the blue. "Are they good?" asked the old man. "As good as they look?"
When she had eaten them she felt she had known him for years. She told him about Frau Arnholdt and how she had got the place. Did he know the Hotel Grunewald? Frau Arnholdt would not arrive until the evening. He listened, listened until he knew as much about the affair as she did, until he [Page 253] said–not looking at her–but smoothing the palms of his brown suède gloves together: "I wonder if you would let me show you a little of Munich to-day. Nothing much–but just perhaps a picture gallery and the Englischer Garten. It seems such a pity that you should have to spend the day at the hotel, and also a little uncomfortable . . . in a strange place. Nicht wahr? You would be back there by the early afternoon or whenever you wish, of course, and you would give an old man a great deal of pleasure."
It was not until long after she had said "Yes"–because the moment she had said it and he had thanked her he began telling her about his travels in Turkey and attar of roses–that she wondered whether she had done wrong. After all, she really did not know him. But he was so old and he had been so very kind–not to mention the strawberries. . . . And she couldn't have explained the reason why she said "No," and it was her last day in a way, her last day to really enjoy herself in. "Was I wrong? Was I?" A drop of sunlight fell into her hands and lay there, warm and quivering. "If I might accompany you as far as the hotel," he suggested, "and call for you again at about ten o'clock." He took out his pocket-book and handed her a card. "Herr Regierungsrat. . . . " He had a title! Well, it was bound to be all right! So after that the little governess gave herself up to the excitement of being really abroad, to looking out [Page 254] and reading the foreign advertisement signs, to being told about the places they came to–having her attention and enjoyment looked after by the charming old grandfather–until they reached Munich and the Hauptbahnhof. "Porter! Porter!" He found her a porter, disposed of his own luggage in a few words, guided her through the bewildering crowd out of the station down the clean white steps into the white road to the hotel. He explained who she was to the manager as though all this had been bound to happen, and then for one moment her little hand lost itself in the big brown suède ones. "I will call for you at ten o'clock." He was gone.
"This way, Fräulein," said the waiter, who had been dodging behind the manager's back, all eyes and ears for the strange couple. She followed him up two flights of stairs into a dark bedroom. He dashed down her dress-basket and pulled up a clattering, dusty blind. Ugh! what an ugly, cold room–what enormous furniture! Fancy spending the day in here! "Is this the room Frau Arnholdt ordered?" asked the little governess. The waiter had a curious way of staring as if there was something funny about her. He pursed up his lips about to whistle, and then changed his mind. "Gewiss," he said. Well, why didn't he go? Why did he stare so? "Gehen Sie," said the little governess, with frigid English simplicity. His little eyes, like currants, nearly popped out of his doughy cheeks. "Gehen Sie sofort," she repeated icily. At the [Page 255] door he turned. "And the gentleman," said he, "shall I show the gentleman upstairs when he comes?"
Over the white streets big white clouds fringed with silver–and sunshine everywhere. Fat, fat coachmen driving fat cabs; funny women with little round hats cleaning the tramway lines; people laughing and pushing against one another; trees on both sides of the streets and everywhere you looked almost, immense fountains; a noise of laughing from the footpaths or the middle of the streets or the open windows. And beside her, more beautifully brushed than ever, with a rolled umbrella in one hand and yellow gloves instead of brown ones, her grandfather who had asked her to spend the day. She wanted to run, she wanted to hang on his arm, she wanted to cry every minute, "Oh, I am so frightfully happy!" He guided her across the roads, stood still while she "looked," and his kind eyes beamed on her and he said "just whatever you wish." She ate two white sausages and two little rolls of fresh bread at eleven o'clock in the morning and she drank some beer, which he told her wasn't intoxicating, wasn't at all like English beer, out of a glass like a flower vase. And then they took a cab and really she must have seen thousands and thousands of wonderful classical pictures in about a quarter of an hour! "I shall [Page 256] have to think them over when I am alone." . . . But when they came out of the picture gallery it was raining. The grandfather unfurled his umbrella and held it over the little governess. They started to walk to the restaurant for lunch. She, very close beside him so that he should have some of the umbrella too. "It goes easier," he remarked in a detached way, "if you take my arm, Fräulein. And besides it is the custom in Germany." So she took his arm and walked beside him while he pointed out the famous statues, so interested that he quite forgot to put down the umbrella even when the rain was long over.
After lunch they went to a café to hear a gypsy band, but she did not like that at all. Ugh! such horrible men were there with heads like eggs and cuts on their faces, so she turned her chair and cupped her burning cheeks in her hands and watched her old friend instead . . . . Then they went to the Englischer Garten.
"I wonder what the time is," asked the little governess. "My watch has stopped. I forgot to wind it in the train last night. We've seen such a lot of things that I feel it must be quite late." "Late!" He stopped in front of her laughing and shaking his head in a way she had begun to know. "Then you have not really enjoyed yourself. Late! Why, we have not had any ice-cream yet!" "Oh, but I have enjoyed myself," she cried, distressed, "more than I can possibly say. It [Page 257] has been wonderful! Only Frau Arnholdt is to be at the hotel at six and I ought to be there by five." "So you shall. After the ice-cream I shall put you into a cab and you can go there comfortably." She was happy again. The chocolate ice-cream melted–melted in little sips a long way down. The shadows of the trees danced on the tablecloths, and she sat with her back safely turned to the ornamental clock that pointed to twenty-five minutes to seven. "Really and truly," said the little governess earnestly, "this has been the happiest day of my life. I've never even imagined such a day." In spite of the ice-cream her grateful baby heart glowed with love for the fairy grandfather.
So they walked out of the garden down a long alley. The day was nearly over. "You see those big buildings opposite," said the old man. "The third storey–that is where I live. I and the old housekeeper who looks after me." She was very interested. "Now just before I find a cab for you, will you come and see my little 'home' and let me give you a bottle of the attar of roses I told you about in the train? For remembrance?" She would love to. "I've never seen a bachelor's flat in my life," laughed the little governess.
The passage was quite dark. "Ah, I suppose my old woman has gone out to buy me a chicken. One moment." He opened a door and stood aside for her to pass, a little shy but curious, into a [Page 258] strange room. She did not know quite what to say. It wasn't pretty. In a way it was very ugly–but neat, and, she supposed, comfortable for such an old man. "Well, what do you think of it?" He knelt down and took from a cupboard a round tray with two pink glasses and a tall pink bottle. "Two little bedrooms beyond," he said gaily, "and a kitchen. It's enough, eh?" "Oh, quite enough." "And if ever you should be in Munich and care to spend a day or two–why, there is always a little nest–a wing of a chicken, and a salad, and an old man delighted to be your host once more and many many times, dear little Fräulein!" He took the stopper out of the bottle and poured some wine into the two pink glasses. His hand shook and the wine spilled over the tray. It was very quiet in the room. She said: "I think I ought to go now." "But you will have a tiny glass of wine with me–just one before you go?" said the old man. "No, really no. I never drink wine. I–I have promised never to touch wine or anything like that." And though he pleaded and though she felt dreadfully rude, especially when he seemed to take it to heart so, she was quite determined. "No, really, please." "Well, will you just sit down on the sofa for five minutes and let me drink your health?" The little governess sat down on the edge of the red velvet couch and he sat down beside her and drank her health at a gulp. "Have you really been happy to-day?" asked the old man, turning round, so [Page 259] close beside her that she felt his knee twitching against hers. Before she could answer he held her hands. "And are you going to give me one little kiss before you go?" he asked, drawing her closer still.
It was a dream! It wasn't true! It wasn't the same old man at all. Ah, how horrible! The little governess stared at him in terror. "No, no, no!" she stammered, struggling out of his hands. "One little kiss. A kiss. What is it? Just a kiss, dear little Fräulein. A kiss." He pushed his face forward, his lips smiling broadly; and how his little blue eyes gleamed behind the spectacles! "Never–never. How can you!" She sprang up, but he was too quick and he held her against the wall, pressed against her his hard old body and his twitching knee, and though she shook her head from side to side, distracted, kissed her on the mouth. On the mouth! Where not a soul who wasn't a near relation had ever kissed her before. . . .
She ran, ran down the street until she found a broad road with tram lines and a policeman standing in the middle like a clockwork doll. "I want to get a tram to the Hauptbahnhof," sobbed the little governess. "Fräulein?" She wrung her hands at him. "The Hauptbahnhof. There–there's one now," and while he watched very much surprised, the little girl with her hat on one side, crying without a handkerchief, sprang on to the tram– [Page 260] not seeing the conductor's eyebrows, nor hearing the hochwohlgebildete Dame talking her over with a scandalised friend. She rocked herself and cried out loud and said "Ah, ah!" pressing her hands to her mouth. "She has been to the dentist," shrilled a fat old woman, too stupid to be uncharitable. "Na, sagen Sie 'mal, what toothache! The child hasn't one left in her mouth." While the tram swung and jangled through a world full of old men with twitching knees.
When the little governess reached the hall of the Hotel Grunewald the same waiter who had come into her room in the morning was standing by a table, polishing a tray of glasses. The sight of the little governess seemed to fill him out with some inexplicable important content. He was ready for her question; his answer came pat and suave. "Yes, Fräulein, the lady has been here. I told her that you had arrived and gone out again immediately with a gentleman. She asked me when you were coming back again–but of course I could not say. And then she went to the manager." He took up a glass from the table, held it up to the light, looked at it with one eye closed, and started polishing it with a corner of his apron. " . . . ?" "Pardon, Fräulein? Ach, no, Fräulein. The manager could tell her nothing–nothing." He shook his head and smiled at the brilliant glass. "Where is the [Page 261] lady now?" asked the little governess, shuddering so violently that she had to hold her handkerchief up to her mouth. "How should I know?" cried the waiter, and as he swooped past her to pounce upon a new arrival his heart beat so hard against his ribs that he nearly chuckled aloud. "That's it! that's it!" he thought. "That will show her." And as he swung the new arrival's box on to his shoulders–hoop !–as though he were a giant and the box a feather, he minced over again the little governess's words, "Gehen Sie. Gehen Sie sofort. Shall I! Shall I!" he shouted to himself. [Page 262]
FROM eight o'clock in the morning until about half past eleven Monica Tyrell suffered from her nerves, and suffered so terribly that these hours were–agonizing, simply. It was not as though she could control them. "Perhaps if I were ten years younger .. ." she would say. For now that she was thirty-three she had a queer little way of referring to her age on all occasions, of looking at her friends with grave, childish eyes and saying: "Yes, I remember how twenty years ago . . . " or of drawing Ralph's attention to the girls–real girls–with lovely youthful arms and throats and swift hesitating movements who sat near them in restaurants. "Perhaps if I were ten years younger . . ."
"Why don't you get Marie to sit outside your door and absolutely forbid anybody to come near your room until you ring your bell?"
"Oh, if it were as simple as that!" She threw her little gloves down and pressed her eyelids with her fingers in the way he knew so well. "But in the first place I'd be so conscious of Marie sitting there, Marie shaking her finger at Rudd and Mrs. [Page 263] Moon, Marie as a kind of cross between a wardress and a nurse for mental cases! And then, there's the post. One can't get over the fact that the post comes, and once it has come, who–who–could wait until eleven for the letters?"
His eyes grew bright; he quickly, lightly clasped her. "My letters, darling?"
"Perhaps," she drawled, softly, and she drew her hand over his reddish hair, smiling too, but thinking: "Heavens ! What a stupid thing to say!"
But this morning she had been awakened by one great slam of the front door. Bang. The flat shook. What was it? She jerked up in bed, clutching at the eiderdown; her heart beat. What could it be? Then, she heard voices in the passage. Marie knocked, and, as the door opened, with a sharp tearing rip out flew the blind and the curtains, stiffening, flapping, jerking. The tassel of the blind knocked–knocked against the window. "Eh-h, voilà! " cried Marie, setting down the tray and running. "C'est le vent, Madame. C'est un vent insupportable."
Up rolled the blind; the window went up with a jerk; a whitey-greyish light filled the room. Monica caught a glimpse of a huge pale sky and a cloud like a torn shirt dragging across before she hid her eyes with her sleeve.
"Marie! the curtains! Quick, the curtains!" Monica fell back into the bed and then "Ring-ting [Page 264] -a-ping-ping, ring-ting-a-ping-ping." It was the telephone. The limit of her suffering was reached; she grew quite calm. "Go and see, Marie."
"It is Monsieur. To know if Madame will lunch at Princes' at one-thirty to-day." Yes, it was Monsieur himself. Yes, he had asked that the message be given to Madame immediately. Instead of replying, Monica put her cup down and asked Marie in a small wondering voice what time it was. It was half past nine. She lay still and half closed her eyes. "Tell Monsieur I cannot come," she said gently. But as the door shut, anger–anger suddenly gripped her close, close, violent, half strangling her. How dared he. How dared Ralph do such a thing when he knew how agonizing her nerves were in the morning! Hadn't she explained and described and even–though lightly, of course; she couldn't say such a thing directly–given him to understand that this was the one unforgivable thing.
And then to choose this frightful windy morning. Did he think it was just a fad of hers, a little feminine folly to be laughed at and tossed aside? Why, only last night she had said: "Ah, but you must take me seriously, too." And he had replied: "My darling, you'll not believe me, but I know you infinitely better than you know yourself. Every delicate thought and feeling I bow to, I treasure. Yes, laugh! I love the way your lip lifts"–and he had leaned across the table–"I don't care who [Page 265] sees that I adore all of you. I'd be with you on mountain-top and have all the searchlights of the world play upon us."
"Heavens!" Monica almost clutched her head. Was it possible he had really said that? How incredible men were! And she had loved him–how could she have loved a man who talked like that. What had she been doing ever since that dinner party months ago, when he had seen her home and asked if he might come and "see again that slow Arabian smile"? Oh, what nonsense–what utter nonsense–and yet she remembered at the time a strange deep thrill unlike anything she had ever felt before.
"Coal! Coal! Coal! Old iron! Old iron! Old iron!" sounded from below. It was all over. Understand her? He had understood nothing. That ringing her up on a windy morning was immensely significant. Would he understand that? She could almost have laughed. "You rang me up when the person who understood me simply couldn't have." It was the end. And when Marie said: "Monsieur replied he would be in the vestibule in case Madame changed her mind," Monica said: "No, not verbena, Marie. Carnations. Two handfuls."
A wild white morning, a tearing, rocking wind. Monica sat down before the mirror. She was pale. The maid combed back her dark hair–combed it all back–and her face was like a mask, with pointed [Page 266] eyelids and dark red lips. As she stared at herself in the blueish shadowy glass she suddenly felt–oh, the strangest, most tremendous excitement filling her slowly, slowly, until she wanted to fling out her arms, to laugh, to scatter everything, to shock Marie, to cry: "I'm free. I'm free. I'm free as the wind." And now all this vibrating, trembling, exciting, flying world was hers. It was her kingdom. No, no, she belonged to nobody but Life.
"That will do, Marie," she stammered. "My hat, my coat, my bag. And now get me a taxi." Where was she going? Oh, anywhere. She could not stand this silent, flat, noiseless Marie, this ghostly quiet feminine interior. She must be out; she must be driving quickly–anywhere, anywhere.
"The taxi is there, Madame." As she pressed open the big outer doors of the flats the wild wind caught her and floated her across the pavement. Where to? She got in, and smiling radiantly at the cross, cold-looking driver, she told him to take her to her hairdresser's. What would she have done without her hairdresser? Whenever Monica had nowhere else to go or nothing on earth to do she drove there. She might just have her hair waved, and by that time she'd have thought out a plan. The cross, cold driver drove at a tremendous pace, and she let herself be hurled from side to side. She wished he would go faster and faster. Oh, to be free of Princes' at one-thirty, of being the [Page 267] tiny kitten in the swansdown basket, of being the Arabian, and the grave, delighted child and the little wild creature. . . . "Never again," she cried aloud, clenching her small fist. But the cab had stopped, and the driver was standing holding the door open for her.
The hairdresser's shop was warm and glittering. It smelled of soap and burnt paper and wallflower brilliantine. There was Madame behind the counter, round, fat, white, her head like a powder-puff rolling on a black satin pin-cushion. Monica always had the feeling that they loved her in this shop and understood her–the real her–far better than many of her friends did. She was her real self here, and she and Madame had often talked–quite strangely–together. Then there was George who did her hair, young, dark, slender George. She was really fond of him.
But to-day–how curious! Madame hardly greeted her. Her face was whiter than ever, but rims of bright red showed round her blue bead eyes, and even the rings on her pudgy fingers did not flash. They were cold, dead, like chips of glass. When she called through the wall-telephone to George there was a note in her voice that had never been there before. But Monica would not believe this. No, she refused to. It was just her imagination. She sniffed greedily the warm, scented air, and passed behind the velvet curtain into the small cubicle. [Page 268]
Her hat and jacket were off and hanging from the peg, and still George did not come. This was the first time he had ever not been there to hold the chair for her, to take her hat and hang up her bag, dangling it in his fingers as though it were something he'd never seen before–something fairy. And how quiet the shop was! There was not a sound even from Madame. Only the wind blew, shaking the old house; the wind hooted, and the portraits of Ladies of the Pompadour Period looked down and smiled, cunning and sly. Monica wished she hadn't come. Oh, what a mistake to have come! Fatal. Fatal. Where was George? If he didn't appear the next moment she would go away. She took off the white kimono. She didn't want to look at herself any more. When she opened a big pot of cream on the glass shelf her fingers trembled. There was a tugging feeling at her heart as though her happiness–her marvellous happiness–were trying to get free.
"I'll go. I'll not stay." She took down her hat. But just at that moment steps sounded, and, looking in the mirror, she saw George bowing in the doorway. How queerly he smiled! It was the mirror of course. She turned round quickly. His lips curled back in a sort of grin, and–wasn't he unshaved?–he looked almost green in the face.
"Very sorry to have kept you waiting," he mumbled, sliding, gliding forward.
Oh, no, she wasn't going to stay. "I'm afraid," [Page 269] she began. But he had lighted the gas and laid the tongs across, and was holding out the kimono.
"It's a wind," he said. Monica submitted. She smelled his fresh young fingers pinning the jacket under her chin. "Yes, there is a wind," said she, sinking back into the chair. And silence fell. George took out the pins in his expert way. Her hair tumbled back, but he didn't hold it as he usually did, as though to feel how fine and soft and heavy it was. He didn't say it "was in a lovely condition." He let it fall, and, taking a brush out of a drawer, he coughed faintly, cleared his throat, and said dully: "Yes, it's a pretty strong one, I should say it was."
She had no reply to make. The brush fell on her hair. Oh, oh, how mournful, how mournful! It fell quick and light, it fell like leaves; and then it fell heavy, tugging like the tugging at her heart. "That's enough," she cried, shaking herself free.
"Did I do it too much?" asked George. He crouched over the tongs. "I'm sorry." There came the smell of burnt paper–the smell she loved–and he swung the hot tongs round in his hand, staring before him. "I shouldn't be surprised if it rained." He took up a piece of her hair, when–she couldn't bear it any longer–she stopped him. She looked at him; she saw herself looking at him in the white kimono like a nun. "Is there something the matter here? Has something happened?" But George gave a half shrug and a grimace. "Oh, [Page 270] no, Madame. Just a little occurrence." And he took up the piece of hair again. But, oh, she wasn't deceived. That was it. Something awful had happened. The silence–really, the silence seemed to come drifting down like flakes of snow. She shivered. It was cold in the little cubicle, all cold and glittering. The nickel taps and jets and sprays looked somehow almost malignant. The wind rattled the window-frame; a piece of iron banged, and the young man went on changing the tongs, crouching over her. Oh, how terrifying Life was, thought Monica. How dreadful. It is the loneliness which is so appalling. We whirl along like leaves, and nobody knows–nobody cares where we fall, in what black river we float away. The tugging feeling seemed to rise into her throat. It ached, ached; she longed to cry. "That will do," she whispered. "Give me the pins." As he stood beside her, so submissive, so silent, she nearly dropped her arms and sobbed. She couldn't bear any more. Like a wooden man the gay young George still slid, glided, handed her her hat and veil, took the note, and brought back the change. She stuffed it into her bag. Where was she going now? George took a brush. "There is a little powder on your coat," he murmured. He brushed it away. And then suddenly he raised himself and, looking at Monica, gave a strange wave with the brush and said: "The truth is, Madame, since you are an [Page 271] old customer–my little daughter died this morning. A first child"–and then his white face crumpled like paper, and he turned his back on her and began brushing the cotton kimono. "Oh, oh," Monica began to cry. She ran out of the shop into the taxi. The driver, looking furious, swung off the seat and slammed the door again. "Where to?" "Princes'," she sobbed. And all the way there she saw nothing but a tiny wax doll with a feather of gold hair, lying meek, its tiny hands and feet crossed. And then just before she came to Princes' she saw a flower shop full of white flowers. Oh, what a perfect thought. Lilies-of-the-valley, and white pansies, double white violets and white velvet ribbon. . . . From an unknown friend. . . . From one who understands. . . . For a Little Girl. . . . She tapped against the window, but the driver did not hear; and, anyway, they were at Princes' already. [Page 272]
IT was his fault, wholly and solely his fault, that they had missed the train. What if the idiotic hotel people had refused to produce the bill? Wasn't that simply because he hadn't impressed upon the waiter at lunch that they must have it by two o'clock? Any other man would have sat there and refused to move until they handed it over. But no! His exquisite belief in human nature had allowed him to get up and expect one of those idiots to bring it to their room. . . . And then, when the voiture did arrive, while they were still (Oh, Heavens!) waiting for change, why hadn't he seen to the arrangement of the boxes so that they could, at least, have started the moment the money had come? Had he expected her to go outside, to stand under the awning in the heat, and point with her parasol? Very amusing picture of English domestic life. Even when the driver had been told how fast he had to drive he had paid no attention whatsoever–just smiled. "Oh," she groaned, "if she'd been a driver she couldn't have stopped smiling herself at the absurd, ridiculous way he was urged to hurry." And she sat back and imitated [Page 273] his voice: "Allez, vite, vite "–and begged the driver's pardon for troubling him. . . .
And then the station–unforgettable–with the sight of the jaunty little train shuffling away and those hideous children waving from the windows. "Oh, why am I made to bear these things? Why am I exposed to them? . . ." The glare, the flies, while they waited, and he and the stationmaster put their heads together over the time-table, trying to find this other train, which, of course, they wouldn't catch. The people who'd gathered round, and the woman who'd held up that baby with that awful, awful head. . . . "Oh, to care as I care–to feel as I feel, and never to be saved anything–never to know for one moment what it was to . . . to . . . "
Her voice had changed. It was shaking now–crying now. She fumbled with her bag, and produced from its little maw a scented handkerchief. She put up her veil and, as though she were doing it for somebody else, pitifully, as though she were saying to somebody else: "I know, my darling," she pressed the handkerchief to her eyes.
The little bag, with its shiny, silvery jaws open, lay on her lap. He could see her powder-puff, her rouge stick, a bundle of letters, a phial of tiny black pills like seeds, a broken cigarette, a mirror, white ivory tablets with lists on them that had been heavily scored through. He thought: "In Egypt she would be buried with those things." [Page 274]
They had left the last of the houses, those small straggling houses with bits of broken pot flung among the flower-beds and half-naked hens scratching round the doorsteps. Now they were mounting a long steep road that wound round the hill and over into the next bay. The horses stumbled, pulling hard. Every five minutes, every two minutes the driver trailed the whip across them. His stout back was solid as wood; there were boils on his reddish neck, and he wore a new, a shining new straw hat. . . .
There was a little wind, just enough wind to blow to satin the new leaves on the fruit trees, to stroke the fine grass, to turn to silver the smoky olives–just enough wind to start in front of the carriage a whirling, twirling snatch of dust that settled on their clothes like the finest ash. When she took out her powder-puff the powder came flying over them both.
"Oh, the dust," she breathed, "the disgusting, revolting dust." And she put down her veil and lay back as if overcome.
"Why don't you put up your parasol?" he suggested. It was on the front seat, and he leaned forward to hand it to her. At that she suddenly sat upright and blazed again.
"Please leave my parasol alone! I don't want my parasol! And anyone who was not utterly insensitive would know that I'm far, far too exhausted to hold up a parasol. And with a wind like this [Page 275] tugging at it. . . . Put it down at once," she flashed, and then snatched the parasol from him, tossed it into the crumpled hood behind, and subsided, panting.
Another bend of the road, and down the hill there came a troop of little children, shrieking and giggling, little girls with sun-bleached hair, little boys in faded soldiers' caps. In their hands they carried flowers–any kind of flowers–grabbed by the head, and these they offered, running beside the carriage. Lilac, faded lilac, greeny-white snowballs, one arum lily, a handful of hyacinths. They thrust the flowers and their impish faces into the carriage; one even threw into her lap a bunch of marigolds. Poor little mice! He had his hand in his trouser pocket before her. "For Heaven's sake don't give them anything. Oh, how typical of you! Horrid little monkeys! Now they'll follow us all the way. Don't encourage them; you would encourage beggars"; and she hurled the bunch out of the carriage with "Well, do it when I'm not there, please."
He saw the queer shock on the children's faces. They stopped running, lagged behind, and then they began to shout something, and went on shouting until the carriage had rounded yet another bend.
"Oh, how many more are there before the top of the hill is reached? The horses haven't trotted once. Surely it isn't necessary for them to walk the whole way." [Page 276]
"We shall be there in a minute now," he said, and took out his cigarette-case. At that she turned round towards him. She clasped her hands and held them against her breast; her dark eyes looked immense, imploring, behind her veil; her nostrils quivered, she bit her lip, and her head shook with a little nervous spasm. But when she spoke, her voice was quite weak and very, very calm.
"I want to ask you something. I want to beg something of you," she said. "I've asked you hundreds and hundreds of times before, but you've forgotten. It's such a little thing, but if you knew what it meant to me. . . . " She pressed her hands together. "But you can't know. No human creature could know and be so cruel." And then, slowly, deliberately, gazing at him with those huge, sombre eyes: "I beg and implore you for the last time that when we are driving together you won't smoke. If you could imagine," she said, "the anguish I suffer when that smoke comes floating across my face. . . . "
"Very well," he said. "I won't. I forgot." And he put the case back.
"Oh, no," said she, and almost began to laugh, and put the back of her hand across her eyes. "You couldn't have forgotten. Not that."
The wind came, blowing stronger. They were at the top of the hill. "Hoy-yip-yip-yip," cried the driver. They swung down the road that fell into a small valley, skirted the sea coast at the [Page 277] bottom of it, and then coiled over a gentle ridge on the other side. Now there were houses again, blue-shuttered against the heat, with bright burning gardens, with geranium carpets flung over the pinkish walls. The coastline was dark; on the edge of the sea a white silky fringe just stirred. The carriage swung down the hill, bumped, shook. "Yi-ip," shouted the driver. She clutched the sides of the seat, she closed her eyes, and he knew she felt this was happening on purpose; this swinging and bumping, this was all done–and he was responsible for it, somehow–to spite her because she had asked if they couldn't go a little faster. But just as they reached the bottom of the valley there was one tremendous lurch. The carriage nearly overturned, and he saw her eyes blaze at him, and she positively hissed, " I suppose you are enjoying this?"
They went on. They reached the bottom of the valley. Suddenly she stood up. "Cocher! Cocher! Arrêtez-vous! " She turned round and looked into the crumpled hood behind. "I knew it," she exclaimed. "I knew it. I heard it fall, and so did you, at that last bump."
"My parasol. It's gone. The parasol that belonged to my mother. The parasol that I prize more than–more than . . . " She was simply. beside herself. The driver turned round, his gay, broad face smiling. [Page 278]
"I, too, heard something," said he, simply and gaily. "But I thought as Monsieur and Madame said nothing . . . "
"There. You hear that. Then you must have heard it too. So that accounts for the extraordinary smile on your face. . . . "
"Look here," he said, "it can't be gone. If it fell out it will be there still. Stay where you are. I'll fetch it."
But she saw through that. Oh, how she saw through it! "No, thank you." And she bent her spiteful, smiling eyes upon him, regardless of the driver. "I'll go myself. I'll walk back and find it, and trust you not to follow. For"–knowing the driver did not understand, she spoke softly, gently–"if I don't escape from you for a minute I shall go mad."
She stepped out of the carriage. "My bag." He handed it to her.
"Madame prefers . . . "
But the driver had already swung down from his seat, and was seated on the parapet reading a small newspaper. The horses stood with hanging heads. It was still. The man in the carriage stretched himself out, folded his arms. He felt the sun beat on his knees. His head was sunk on his breast. "Hish, hish," sounded from the sea. The wind sighed in the valley and was quiet. He felt himself, lying there, a hollow man, a parched, withered man, as it [Page 279] were, of ashes. And the sea sounded, "Hish, hish."
It was then that he saw the tree, that he was conscious of its presence just inside a garden gate. It was an immense tree with a round, thick silver stem and a great arc of copper leaves that gave back the light and yet were sombre. There was something beyond the tree–a whiteness, a softness, an opaque mass, half-hidden–with delicate pillars. As he looked at the tree he felt his breathing die away and he became part of the silence. It seemed to grow, it seemed to expand in the quivering heat until the great carved leaves hid the sky, and yet it was motionless. Then from within its depths or from beyond there came the sound of a woman's voice. A woman was singing. The warm untroubled voice floated upon the air, and it was all part of the silence as he was part of it. Suddenly, as the voice rose, soft, dreaming, gentle, he knew that it would come floating to him from the hidden leaves and his peace was shattered. What was happening to him? Something stirred in his breast. Something dark, something unbearable and dreadful pushed in his bosom, and like a great weed it floated, rocked . . . it was warm, stifling. He tried to struggle to tear at it, and at the same moment–all was over. Deep, deep, he sank into the silence, staring at the tree and waiting for the voice that came floating, falling, until he felt himself enfolded. [Page 280]
In the shaking corridor of the train. It was night. The train rushed and roared through the dark. He held on with both hands to the brass rail. The door of their carriage was open.
"Do not disturb yourself, Monsieur. He will come in and sit down when he wants to. He likes–he likes–it is his habit. . . . Oui, Madame, je suis un peu souffrante. . . . Mes nerfs. Oh, but my husband is never so happy as when he is travelling. He likes roughing it. . . . My husband. . . . My husband. . . . "
The voices murmured, murmured. They were never still. But so great was his heavenly happiness as he stood there he wished he might live for ever.
This book has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the Celebration of Women Writers through the combined work of: Eric Eldred and Mary Mark Ockerbloom.