All through December balloons had been slack — hardly any movement about them, even in Christmas week, and from the Bickets Central Australia was as far as ever. The girl Victorine, restored to comparative health, had not regained her position in the blouse department of Messrs. Boney Blayds & Co. They had given her some odd sewing, but not of late, and she had spent much time trying to get work less uncertain. Her trouble was — had always been — her face. It was unusual. People did not know what to make of a girl who looked like that. Why employ one who without qualification of wealth, rank, fashion, or ability (so far as they knew) made them feel ordinary? For — however essential to such as Fleur and Michael — dramatic interest was not primary in the manufacture or sale of blouses, in the fitting-on of shoes, the addressing of envelopes, making-up of funeral wreaths, or the other ambitions of Victorine. Behind those large dark eyes and silent lips, what went on? It worried Boney Blayds & Co., and the more wholesale firms of commerce. The lurid professions — film-super, or mannequin — did not occur to one, of self-deprecating nature, born in Putney.
When Bicket had gone out of a morning with his tray and his balloons not yet blown up, she would stand biting her finger, as though to gnaw her way to some escape from this hand-to-mouth existence which kept her husband thin as a rail, tired as a rook, shabby as a tailless sparrow, and, at the expense of all caste feeling, brought them in no more than just enough to keep them living under a roof. It had long been clear to them both that there was no future in balloons, just a cadging present. And there smouldered in the silent, passive Victorine a fierce resentment. She wanted better things for herself, for him, chiefly for him.
On the morning when the mark was bumping down, she was putting on her velveteen jacket and toque (best remaining items of her wardrobe), having taken a resolve. Bicket never mentioned his old job, and his wife had subtly divined some cause beyond the ordinary for his loss of it. Why not see if she could get him taken back? He had often said: “Mr. Mont’s a gent and a sort o’ socialist; been through the war, too; no high-and-mighty about HIM.” If she could ‘get at’ this phenomenon! With the flush of hope and daring in her sallow cheeks, she took stock of her appearance from the window-glasses of the Strand. Her velveteen of jade-green always pleased one who had an eye for colour, but her black skirt — well, perhaps the wear and tear of it wouldn’t show if she kept behind the counter. Had she brass enough to say that she came about a manuscript? And she rehearsed with silent lips, pinching her accent: “Would you ask Mr. Mont, please, if I could see him; it’s about a manuscript.” Yes! and then would come the question: “What name, please?” “Mrs. Bicket?” Never! “Miss Victorine Collins?” All authoresses had maiden names. Victorine — yes! But Collins! It didn’t sound like. And no one would know what her maiden name had been. Why not choose one? They often chose. And she searched. Something Italian, like — like — Hadn’t their landlady said to them when they came in: “Is your wife Eyetalian?” Ah! Manuelli! That was certainly Italian — the ice-cream man in Little Ditch Street had it! She walked on practising beneath her breath. If only she could get to see this Mr. Mont!
She entered, trembling. All went exactly as foreseen, even to the pinching of her accent, till she stood waiting for them to bring an answer from the speaking tube, concealing her hands in their very old gloves. Had Miss Manuelli an appointment? There was no manuscript.
“No,” said Victorine, “I haven’t sent it yet. I wanted to see him first.” The young man at the counter was looking at her hard. He went again to the tube, then spoke.
“Will you wait a minute, please — Mr. Mont’s lady secretary is coming down.”
Victorine inclined her head towards her sinking heart. A lady secretary! She would never get there now! And there came on her the sudden dread of false pretences. But the thought of Tony standing at his corner, ballooned up to the eyes, as she had spied out more than once, fortified her desperation.
A girl’s voice said: “Miss Manuelli? Mr. Mont’s secretary, perhaps you could give me a message.”
A fresh-faced young woman’s eyes were travelling up and down her. Pinching her accent hard, she said: “Oh! I’m afraid I couldn’t do that.”
The travelling gaze stopped at her face. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll see if he can see you.”
Alone in a small waiting-room, Victorine sat without movement, till she saw a young man’s face poked through the doorway, and heard the words:
“Will you come in?”
She took a deep breath, and went. Once in the presence, she looked from Michael to his secretary and back again, subtly daring his youth, his chivalry, his sportsmanship, to refuse her a private interview. Through Michael passed at once the thought: ‘Money, I suppose. But what an interesting face!’ The secretary drew down the corners of her mouth and left the room,
“Well, Miss — er — Manuelli?”
“Not Manuelli, please — Mrs. Bicket; my husband used to be here.”
“What!” The chap that had snooped ‘Copper Coin!’ Phew! Bicket’s yarn — his wife — pneumonia! She looked as if she might have had it.
“He often spoke of you, sir. And, please, he hasn’t any work. Couldn’t you find room for him again, sir?”
Michael stood silent. Did this terribly interesting-looking girl know about the snooping?
“He just sells balloons in the street now; I can’t bear to see him. Over by St. Paul’s he stands, and there’s no money in it; and we do so want to get out to Australia. I know he’s very nervy, and gets wrong with people. But if you COULD take him back here . . . .”
No! she did not know!
“Very sorry, Mrs. Bicket. I remember your husband well, but we haven’t a place for him. Are YOU all right again?”
“Oh! yes. Except that I can’t get work again either.”
What a face for wrappers! Sort of Mona Lisa-ish! Storbert’s novel! Ha!
“Well, I’ll have a talk with your husband. I suppose you wouldn’t like to sit to an artist for a book-wrapper? It might lead to work in that line if you want it. You’re just the type for a friend of mine. Do you know Aubrey Greene’s work?”
“It’s pretty good — in fact, very good in a decadent way. You wouldn’t mind sitting?”
“I wouldn’t mind anything to save some money. But I’d rather you didn’t tell my husband I’d been to see you. He might take it amiss.”
“All right! I’ll see him by accident. Near St. Paul’s, you said? But there’s no chance here, Mrs. Bicket. Besides, he couldn’t make two ends meet on this job, he told me.”
“When I was ill, sir.”
“Of course, that makes a difference.”
“Well, let me write you a note to Mr. Greene. Will you sit down a minute?”
He stole a look at her while she sat waiting. Really, her sallow, large-eyed face, with its dead-black, bobbed, frizzy-ended hair, was extraordinarily interesting — a little too refined and anaemic for the public; but, dash it all! the public couldn’t always have its Reckitt’s blue eyes, corn-coloured hair, and poppy cheeks. “She’s not a peach,” he wrote, “on the main tree of taste; but so striking in her way that she really might become a type, like Beardsley’s or Dana’s.”
When she had taken the note and gone, he rang for his secretary.
“No, Miss Perren, she didn’t take anything off me. But some type, eh?”
“I thought you’d like to see her. She wasn’t an authoress, was she?”
“Far from it.”
“Well, I hope she got what she wanted.”
Michael grinned. “Partly, Miss Perren — partly. You think I’m an awful fool, don’t you?”
“I’m sure I don’t; but I think you’re too soft-hearted.”
Michael ran his fingers through his hair.
“Would it surprise you to hear that I’ve done a stroke of business?”
“Yes, Mr. Mont.”
“Then I won’t tell you what it is. When you’ve done pouting, go on with that letter to my father about ‘Duet’: ‘We are sorry to say that in the present state of the trade we should not be justified in reprinting the dialogue between those two old blighters; we have already lost money by it!’ You must translate, of course. Now can we say something to cheer the old boy up? How about this? ‘When the French have recovered their wits, and the birds begin to sing — in short, when spring comes — we hope to reconsider the matter in the light of — of’— er — what, Miss Perren?”
“‘The experience we shall have gained.’ Shall I leave out about the French and the birds?”
“Excellent! ‘Yours faithfully, Danby and Winter.’ Don’t you think it was a scandalous piece of nepotism bringing the book here at all, Miss Perren?”
“What is ‘nepotism’?”
“Taking advantage of your son. He’s never made a sixpence by any of his books.”
“He’s a very distinguished writer, Mr. Mont.”
“And we pay for the distinction. Well, he’s a good old Bart. That’s all before lunch, and mind you have a good one. That girl’s figure wasn’t usual either, was it? She’s thin, but she stands up straight. There’s a question I always want to ask, Miss Perren: Why do modern girls walk in a curve with their heads poked forward? They can’t all be built like that.”
The secretary’s cheeks brightened.
“There IS a reason, Mr. Mont.”
“Good! What is it?”
The secretary’s cheeks continued to brighten. “I don’t really know whether I can —”
“Oh! sorry. I’ll ask my wife. Only she’s quite straight herself.”
“Well, Mr. Mont, it’s this, you see: They aren’t supposed to have anything be — behind, and, of course, they have, and they can’t get the proper effect unless they curve their chests in and poke their heads forward. It’s the fashion-plates and mannequins that do it.”
“I see,” said Michael; “thank you, Miss Perren; awfully good of you. It’s the limit, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I don’t hold with it, myself.”
The secretary lowered her eyelids and withdrew.
Michael sat down and drew a face on his blotting-paper. It was not Victorine’s . . . .
Armed with the note to Aubrey Greene, Victorine had her usual lunch, a cup of coffee and a bit of heavy cake, and took the tube towards Chelsea. She had not succeeded, but the gentleman had been friendly and she felt cheered.
At the studio door was a young man inserting a key — very elegant in smoke-grey Harris tweeds, a sliding young man with no hat, beautifully brushed-back bright hair, and a soft voice.
“Model?” he said.
“Yes, sir, please. I have a note for you from Mr. Mont.”
“Michael? Come in.”
Victorine followed him in. It was ‘not half’ sea-green in there; a high room with rafters and a top light, and lots of pictures and drawings on the walls, and as if they had slipped off on to the floor. A picture on an easel of two ladies with their clothes sliding down troubled Victorine. She became conscious of the gentleman’s eyes, sea-green like the walls, sliding up and down her.
“Will you sit for anything?” he asked.
Victorine answered mechanically: “Yes, sir.”
“Do you mind taking your hat off?”
Victorine took off the toque, and shook out her hair.
“Ah!” said the gentleman. “I wonder.”
Victorine wondered what.
“Just sit down on the dais, will you?”
Victorine looked about her, uncertain. A smile seemed to fly up his forehead and over his slippery bright hair.
“This is your first shot, then?”
“All the better.” And he pointed to a small platform.
Victorine sat down on it in a black oak chair.
“You look cold.”
He went to a cupboard and returned with two small glasses of a brown fluid.
“Have a Grand Marnier?”
She noticed that he tossed his off in one gulp, and did the same. It was sweet, strong, very nice, and made her gasp.
“Take a cigarette.”
Victorine took one from a case he handed, and put it between her lips. He lit it. And again a smile slid up away over the top of his head.
“You draw it in,” he said. “Where were you born?”
“In Putney, sir.”
“That’s very interesting. Just sit still a minute. It’s not as bad as having a tooth out, but it takes longer. The great thing is to keep awake.”
He took a large piece of paper and a bit of dark stuff, and began to draw.
“Tell me,” he said, “Miss —”
“Collins, sir — Victorine Collins.” Some instinct made her give her maiden name. It seemed somehow more professional.
“Are you at large?” He paused, and again the smile slid up over his bright hair: “Or have you any other occupation?”
“Not at present, sir. I’m married, but nothing else.”
For some time after that the gentleman was silent. It was interesting to see him, taking a look, making a stroke on the paper, taking another look. Hundreds of looks, hundreds of strokes. At last he said: “All right! Now we’ll have a rest. Heaven sent you here, Miss Collins. Come and get warm.”
Victorine approached the fire.
“Do you know anything about expressionism?”
“Well, it means not troubling about the outside except in so far as it expresses the inside. Does that convey anything to you?”
“Quite! I think you said you’d sit for the — er — altogether?”
Victorine regarded the bright and sliding gentleman. She did not know what he meant, but she felt that he meant something out of the ordinary.
“Altogether what, sir?”
“Oh!” She cast her eyes down, then raised them to the sliding clothes of the two ladies. “Like that?”
“No, I shouldn’t be treating you cubistically.”
A slow flush was burning out the sallow in her cheeks. She said slowly:
“Does it mean more money?”
“Yes, half as much again — more perhaps. I don’t want you to if you’d rather not. You can think it over and let me know next time.”
She raised her eyes again, and said: “Thank you, sir.”
“Righto! Only please don’t ‘sir’ me.”
Victorine smiled. It was the first time she had achieved this functional disturbance, and it seemed to have a strange effect. He said hurriedly: “By George! When you smile, Miss Collins, I see you impressionistically. If you’ve rested, sit up there again.”
Victorine went back.
The gentleman took a fresh piece of paper.
“Can you think of anything that will keep you smiling?”
She shook her head. That was a fact.
“Nothing comic at all? I suppose you’re not in love with your husband, for instance?”
“Well, try that.”
Victorine tried that, but she could only see Tony selling his balloons.
“That won’t do,” said the gentleman. “Don’t think of him! Did you ever see ‘L’apres midi d’un Faune’?”
“Well, I’ve got an idea. ‘L’apres midi d’une Dryade.’ About the nude you really needn’t mind. It’s quite impersonal. Think of art, and fifteen bob a day. Shades of Nijinsky, I see the whole thing!”
All the time that he was talking his eyes were sliding off and on to her, and his pencil off and on to the paper. A sort of infection began to ferment within Victorine. Fifteen shillings a day! Blue butterflies!
There was a profound silence. His eyes and hand slid off and on. A faint smile had come on Victorine’s face — she was adding up the money she might earn.
At last his eyes and hand ceased moving, and he stood looking at the paper.
“That’s all for today, Miss Collins. I’ve got to think it out. Will you give me your address?”
Victorine thought rapidly.
“Please, sir, will you write to me at the post office. I don’t want my husband to know that I’m — I’m —”
“Affiliated to art? Well! Name of post office?”
Victorine gave it and resumed her hat.
“An hour and a half, five shillings, thank you. And tomorrow, at half-past two, Miss Collins — not ‘sir.’”
“Yes, s — thank you.”
Waiting for her ‘bus in the cold January air, the altogether appeared to Victorine improbable. To sit in front of a strange gentleman in her skin! If Tony knew! The slow flush again burned up the sallow in her cheeks. She climbed into the ‘bus. But fifteen shillings! Six days a week — why, it would be four pound ten! In four months she could earn their passage out. Judging by the pictures in there, lots must be doing it. Tony must know nothing, not even that she was sitting for her face. He was all nerves, and that fond of her! He would imagine things; she had heard him say those artists were just like cats. But that gentleman had been very nice, though he did seem as if he were laughing at everything. She wished he had shown her the drawing. Perhaps she would see herself in an exhibition some day. But without — oh! And suddenly she thought: ‘If I ate a bit more, I’d look nice like that, too!’ And as if to escape from the daring of that thought, she stared up into the face opposite. It had two chins, was calm and smooth and pink, with light eyes staring back at her. People had thoughts, but you couldn’t tell what they were! And the smile which Aubrey Greene desired crept out on his model’s face.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54