Something Childish, and other stories, by Katherine Mansfield

Carnation

On those hot days Eve — curious Eve — always carried a flower. She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie’s neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal.

“Roses are delicious, my dear Katie,” she would say, standing in the dim cloak room, with a strange decoration of flowery hats on the hat pegs behind her —“but carnations are simply divine! They taste like — like — ah well!” And away her little thin laugh flew, fluttering among those huge, strange flower heads on the wall behind her. (But how cruel her little thin laugh was! It had a long sharp beak and claws and two bead eyes, thought fanciful Katie.)

To-day it was a carnation. She brought a carnation to the French class, a deep, deep red one, that looked as though it had been dipped in wine and left in the dark to dry. She held it on the desk before her, half shut her eyes and smiled.

“Isn’t it a darling?” said she. But —

“Un peu de silence, s’il vous plaît,” came from M. Hugo. Oh, bother! It was too hot! Frightfully hot! Grilling simply!

The two square windows of the French Room were open at the bottom and the dark blinds drawn half way down. Although no air came in, the blind cord swung out and back and the blind lifted. But really there was not a breath from the dazzle outside.

Even the girls, in the dusky room, in their pale blouses, with stiff butterfly-bow hair ribbons perched on their hair, seemed to give off a warm, weak light, and M. Hugo’s white waistcoat gleamed like the belly of a shark.

Some of the girls were very red in the face and some were white. Vera Holland had pinned up her black curls à la japonaise with a penholder and a pink pencil; she looked charming. Francie Owen pushed her sleeves nearly up to the shoulders, and then she inked the little blue vein in her elbow, shut her arm together, and then looked to see the mark it made; she had a passion for inking herself; she always had a face drawn on her thumb nail, with black, forked hair. Sylvia Mann took off her collar and tie, took them off simply, and laid them on the desk beside her, as calm as if she were going to wash her hair in her bedroom at home. She had a nerve! Jennie Edwards tore a leaf out of her notebook and wrote “Shall we ask old Hugo–Wugo to give us a thrippenny vanilla on the way home!!!” and passed it across to Connie Baker, who turned absolutely purple and nearly burst out crying. All of them lolled and gaped, staring at the round clock, which seemed to have grown paler, too; the hands scarcely crawled.

“Un peu de silence, s’il vous plaît,” came from M. Hugo. He held up a puffy hand. “Ladies, as it is so ‘ot we will take no more notes today, but I will read you,” and he paused and smiled a broad, gentle smile, “a little French poetry.”

“Go — od God!” moaned Francie Owen.

M. Hugo’s smile deepened. “Well, Mees Owen, you need not attend. You can paint yourself. You can ‘ave my red ink as well as your black one.”

How well they knew the little blue book with red edges that he tugged out of his coat tail pocket! It had a green silk marker embroidered in forget-me-nots. They often giggled at it when he handed the book round. Poor old Hugo–Wugo! He adored reading poetry. He would begin, softly and calmly, and then gradually his voice would swell and vibrate and gather itself together, then it would be pleading and imploring and entreating, and then rising, rising triumphant, until it burst into light, as it were, and then — gradually again, it ebbed, it grew soft and warm and calm and died down into nothingness.

The great difficulty was, of course, if you felt at all feeble, not to get the most awful fit of the giggles. Not because it was funny, really, but because it made you feel uncomfortable, queer, silly, and somehow ashamed for old Hugo–Wugo. But — oh dear — if he was going to inflict it on them in this heat . . .!

“Courage, my pet,” said Eve, kissing the languid carnation.

He began, and most of the girls fell forward, over the desks, their heads on their arms, dead at the first shot. Only Eve and Katie sat upright and still. Katie did not know enough French to understand, but Eve sat listening, her eyebrows raised, her eyes half veiled, and a smile that was like the shadow of her cruel little laugh, like the wing shadows of that cruel little laugh fluttering over her lips. She made a warm, white cup of her fingers — the carnation inside. Oh, the scent! It floated across to Katie. It was too much. Katie turned away to the dazzling light outside the window.

Down below, she knew, there was a cobbled courtyard with stable buildings round it. That was why the French Room always smelled faintly of ammonia. It wasn’t unpleasant; it was even part of the French language for Katie — something sharp and vivid and — and — biting!

Now she could hear a man clatter over the cobbles and the jing-jang of the pails he carried. And now Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! as he worked the pump, and a great gush of water followed. Now he was flinging the water over something, over the wheels of a carriage, perhaps. And she saw the wheel, propped up, clear of the ground, spinning round, flashing scarlet and black, with great drops glancing off it. And all the while he worked the man kept up a high bold whistling, that skimmed over the noise of the water as a bird skims over the sea. He went away — he came back again leading a cluttering horse.

Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! came from the pump. Now he dashed the water over the horse’s legs and then swooped down and began brushing.

She saw him simply — in a faded shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bare, all splashed with water — and as he whistled, loud and free, and as he moved, swooping and bending, Hugo–Wugo’s voice began to warm, to deepen, to gather together, to swing, to rise — somehow or other to keep time with the man outside (Oh, the scent of Eve’s carnation!) until they became one great rushing, rising, triumphant thing, bursting into light, and then —

The whole room broke into pieces.

“Thank you, ladies,” cried M. Hugo, bobbing at his high desk, over the wreckage.

And “Keep it, dearest,” said Eve. “Souvenir tendre,” and she popped the carnation down the front of Katie’s blouse.

(1917)

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mansfield/katherine/something/chapter20.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09