The tiny study at Alexandra House was bright with flowers, although it was November. The flowers had been the gift of one of Harriet Nelson’s youthful admirers, Rosie Wilmot, an art student. The room was littered with a mass of futilities, including torn music and innumerable signed photographs. The guilty smell of cigarette smoke hung on the air, although the window had been opened.
Harriet, plump and pretty, with her red hair and blue eyes, lolled ungracefully in the wicker arm-chair; her thick ankles stretched out in front of her. On a low stool, sufficiently near these same ankles to express humbleness of spirit, crouched Rosie Wilmot.
‘Chérie,’ Harriet was saying with an exaggerated Parisian accent, ‘you are a naughty child to spend your money on flowers for me!’
‘But, darling, you know how I loved buying them!’
Rosie’s sallow cheeks flushed at her own daring. Her long brown neck rose up from a band of Liberty embroidery, like the stem of a carefully coloured meerschaum. She rubbed her forehead nervously with a paint-stained hand, fixing her irritatingly intense eyes the while on Harriet’s placid face.
Harriet stretched out an indolent hand. ‘There, there,’ she said soothingly, ‘I’m very pleased indeed with the flowers; come and be kissed.’
Milly raised scoffing eyes to the ceiling. She made her mouth into a round O, and proceeded to blow smoke rings.
‘Let me know when it’s all over,’ she said derisively, ‘and then we’ll boil the kettle.’
‘You can boil it now’, said Harriet, waving Rosie back to her footstool.
They proceeded to make tea and toast bread in front of the fire. Milly fetched some rather weary butter and a pot of ‘Gentleman’s Relish’ from the bedroom, and Rosie produced her contribution in the shape of a bag of Harriet’s favourite cream puffs. She had gone without lunch for two days in order to afford this offering, but as Harriet’s strong teeth bit into the billowy cream which oozed out over her chin, Rosie’s heart swelled with pleasure; she had her reward.
‘Méchante enfant!’ exclaimed Harriet, shaking her finger, ‘you mustn’t spend your money like this!’
At that moment the door opened and Joan and Elizabeth walked into the room.
‘Good Lord, you!’ exclaimed Milly in amazement.
They laughed and came forward, waiting to be introduced.
‘Oh, yes; Harriet, this is my sister Joan, and this is Miss Rodney.’ Harriet nodded casually.
‘This is Rosie Wilmot, Joan; Rosie, Miss Rodney.’
Rosie shook hands with a close, intense grip. Her eyes interrogated the new-comers as though they alone held the answer to the riddle of her Universe. Milly dragged up the only remaining chair for Elizabeth.
‘You can squat on the floor, Joan’, she said, throwing her sister a cushion. ‘That’s right. And now, what on earth are you doing here?’
It was Elizabeth who answered. ‘We’ve come up for a fortnight. We’re staying with the woman who has my flat.’
‘But why? Has anything happened?’
‘No, of course not. We just thought it would be rather fun.’
Milly whistled softly; however, she refrained from further comment. Harriet was examining Joan. Joan fidgeted; this self-possessed young woman made her feel at a disadvantage.
‘You’re musical too?’ inquired the singer, still staring.
‘Oh, no, not a bit; I don’t know one note from another.’
‘Tiens! Then what do you do?’
Joan hesitated. ‘At the present moment, nothing.’
Harriet turned to Elizabeth. ‘And you?’ she inquired. ‘I feel sure you must do something; you look it.’
‘I? Oh, I teach Joan.’
Milly fidgeted with the tea things; the unexpected arrivals necessitated more hot water. Her sister’s sudden appearance with Elizabeth made her vaguely uneasy. How on earth had these two managed to escape, and what did this escape portend? Would it, could it possibly affect her in any way? And they seemed so calm about it; Joan apparently took it as a matter of course that she should come up to London for a fortnight’s spree. Milly felt incapable of boiling the kettle again; she poured out some tepid tea and handed it to her sister.
‘Is Mother all alone?’ she inquired.
Joan smiled at the implied reproach. ‘No, we’ve got a very good maid at the moment, though goodness only knows how long she’ll stay.’
Milly was silent; what could she say? Joan’s manner was utterly unconcerned, and in any case, why shouldn’t she come up to London for a bit; everyone else did. She felt a little ashamed of herself; hadn’t she always been the one to rage against the injustice of their existence, to encourage insubordination? And she owed her own freedom entirely to Joan; Joan had stuck by her like a brick.
‘I’m jolly glad you’ve come’, she said, squeezing her sister’s hand. ‘Jolly glad!’
Through the open window drifted the sound of innumerable pianos, string instruments and singing; a queer, discordant blur that crystallized every now and then into stray cadences, shrill arpeggios, or snatches of operatic airs. The distorted melody of some familiar ballad would now and then be wafted through the misty atmosphere from the adjacent College. ‘My dearest heart’, sang a loud young voice, only to be submerged again under the wave of other sounds that constantly ebbed and flowed. This queer, almost painful inharmony struck Joan as symbolic. It awed her, as the immense machinery of some steel works she had once seen as a child had awed her. Then, she had been frightened to tears as the great wheels spun and ground, whirring their straining belts. And now as she listened to this other sound she was somehow reminded of her childish terror, of the pistons and valves and wheels and belts that had throbbed and ground and strained. Here was no steel and iron, it is true, but here was a vast machine none the less. Only its parts were composed of flesh and blood, of striving, living human beings, and the sound they produced was such pitiable discord!
Her thoughts were broken into by the consciousness that eyes were upon her; she turned to meet Harriet Nelson’s stare.
Harriet smiled and tapped Rosie’s shoulder. ‘Go and find me a handkerchief, in my drawer’, she ordered.
The girl went with alacrity, and Joan was motioned to the vacant footstool.
She protested: ‘Oh, but surely this is Miss Wilmot’s place.’
‘Never mind that, sit down; I want to talk to you.’
Joan obeyed unwillingly.
‘Now tell me about your life. Milly mentions you so seldom, I had no idea she had such an interesting sister; tell me all about yourself; you live with your friend Miss — Miss — Rodney, is that her name? Is she nice? She looks terribly severe.’
‘Oh, no, I don’t live with Miss Rodney; I live with my mother at Seabourne.’
‘You live there all the year round? Quelle horreur! Why don’t you come to London?’
‘Well, you see —’ began Joan uncomfortably. But at this stage they were interrupted. For some moments Rosie had been standing motionless in the doorway, the clean handkerchief crushed in her hand. Her smouldering eyes had taken in the situation at a glance, and it seemed to her catastrophic. She stood now, paling and flushing by turns, biting her under-lip. Her thin neck was extended and shot forward; the attitude suggested an eagle about to attack. Harriet saw her there well enough, but appeared to notice nothing unusual and continued to talk to Joan. In fact her voice grew slightly louder and more intimate in tone. Rosie drew a quick breath; it was noisy and Harriet looked up impatiently; then her eyes fell to the crushed handkerchief.
‘Give it to me, do!’ she exclaimed.
Rosie took a step forward as if to obey, but instead she raised her arm and hurled the crumpled linen ball straight at Harriet, then snatching up her coat she fled from the room. Joan jumped up, Elizabeth looked embarrassed and Milly laughed loudly; but Harriet only shrugged her plump shoulders.
‘Nom d’un nom!’ she murmured softly. ‘Poor Rosie grows insupportable!’
The situation was somewhat relieved by a knock on the door. ‘Can I come in?’ inquired a pleasant, deep voice.
Cassy Ryan looked from one to another of the group gathered near the tea-table. Her soft brown eyes and over-red lips suggested her Jewish origin. She was a tall girl and as yet only graciously ample.
She turned to Milly. ‘I’ve only come for a moment; I want you to try the violin obbligato over with me tomorrow, Milly; I’m not sure of that difficult passage.’
She hummed the passage softly in her splendid contralto voice. ‘It won’t take you long; you don’t mind, do you?’
‘Rather not!’ said Milly, introducing her to Joan and Elizabeth.
Cassy turned to Harriet. ‘What’s the matter with Rosie?’ she inquired. ‘I met her on the stairs just now looking as mad as a hatter.’
‘Oh, she’s only in one of her tantrums; she’s furious with me at the moment.’
Cassy shook her head. ‘Poor kid, she’s half daft at times, I think. You oughtn’t to tease her, Harriet.’
‘Bon Dieu!’ exclaimed Harriet, flushing with temper. ‘I shall forbid her to come here at all if she goes on making these scenes.’ She pressed a hand to her throat. ‘It makes my throat ache; I don’t believe I’ve a soupcon of voice left.’
She stood up and deliberately tried an ascending scale, while the rest sat silent. Up and up soared the pure, sexless voice, the voice of an undreamt-of choir-boy or an angel; and then, just as the last height was reached, it hazed, it faltered, it failed to attain.
‘There you are!’ screamed Harriet, forgetting in her agitation how perfectly she could speak French. ‘What did I tell you? I knew it! That’s Rosie’s fault, damn her! Damn her! She’s probably upset my voice for days to come, and I’ve got that rehearsal with Stanford tomorrow; my God, it’s too awful!’
She paused to try her voice once more, but with the same result. ‘Where’s my inhaler?’ she demanded of the room in general.
Milly winked at Cassy as she went into Harriet’s bedroom. ‘Here it is, on your washstand’, she called.
Harriet began feverishly to boil up the kettle; she appeared to have completely forgotten Joan and Elizabeth; she spoke in whispers now, addressing all her stifled remarks to Cassy. Milly brought in the inhaler and a bottle of drops; they filled it from the kettle and proceeded to count out the tincture. Harriet sat down heavily with her knees apart; she gripped the ridiculous china bottle in both hands and, applying her lips to the fat glass mouthpiece, proceeded to evoke a series of bubbling, gurgling noises.
Milly drew her sister aside. ‘You two had better go’, she whispered. ‘Don’t try to say good-bye to her; she’s in one of her panics, she won’t notice your going.’
Cassy smiled across at Elizabeth with a finger on her lips; her eyes were full of amusement as she glanced in the direction of her friend. Years afterwards when the names of Cassy Ryan and Harriet Nelson had become famous, when these two old friends and fellow students would be billed together on the huge sheets advertising oratorio or opera, Joan, seeing an announcement of the performance in the papers, would have a sudden vision of that little crowded sitting-room, with Harriet hunched fatly in the wicker arm-chair, the rotund inhaler clasped to her bosom.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:02