Fleur’s body, indeed, was at the moment in one of those difficult positions which continually threaten the spirit of compromise. It was in fact in Wilfrid’s arms; sufficiently, at least, to make her say:
“No, Wilfrid — you promised to be good.”
It was a really remarkable tribute to her powers of skating on thin ice that the word ‘good’ should still have significance. For eleven weeks exactly this young man had danced on the edge of fulfilment, and was even now divided from her by two clenched hands pressed firmly against his chest, and the word ‘good’; and this after not having seen her for a fortnight.
When she said it, he let her go, with a sort of violence, and sat down on a piece of junk. Only the sense of damnable iteration prevented him from saying: “It can’t go on, Fleur.” She knew that! And yet it did! This was what perpetually amazed him. How a poor brute could hang on week after week saying to her and to himself: “Now or never!” when it wasn’t either. Subconsciousness, that, until the word ‘now’ had been reached, Fleur would not know her own mind, alone had kept him dancing. His own feelings were so intense that he almost hated her for indecision. And he was unjust. It was not exactly indecision. Fleur wanted the added richness and excitement which Wilfrid’s affection gave to life, but without danger and without loss. How natural! His frightful passionateness was making all the trouble. Neither by her wish, nor through her fault, was he passionate! And yet — it was both nice and proper to inspire passion; and, of course, she had the lurking sense that she was not ‘in the mode’ to cavil at a lover, especially since life owed her one.
Released, she smoothed herself and said: “Talk of something sensible; what have you been writing?”
Fleur read. Flushing and biting her lips, she said:
“It’s frightfully bitter.”
“It’s frightfully true. Does HE ever ask you now whether you see me?”
“I don’t know.”
“What would you answer if he did?”
Fleur shrugged her shoulders.
Desert said quietly: “Yes, that’s your attitude. It can’t last, Fleur.” He was standing by the window. She put the sheets down on his desk and moved towards him. Poor Wilfrid! Now that he was quiet she was sorry.
He said suddenly: “Stop! Don’t move! HE’S down there in the street.”
Recoiling, she gasped: “Michael! Oh! But how — how could he have known?”
Desert said grimly: “Do you only know him as little as that? Do you suppose he’d be there if he knew you were here?”
“Why IS he there, then?”
“He probably wants to see me. He looks as if he couldn’t make up his mind. Don’t get the wind up, he won’t be let in.”
Fleur sat down; she felt weak in the legs. The ice seemed suddenly of an appalling thinness — the water appallingly cold.
“Has he seen you?” she said.
The thought flashed through him: ‘If I were a blackguard, I could force her hand, by moving one step and crooking my finger.’ Pity one wasn’t a blackguard — at all events, not to that point — things would be so much simpler!
“Where is he now?” asked Fleur.
In profound relief, she sighed out:
“But it’s queer, isn’t it, Wilfrid?”
“You don’t suppose he’s easy in his mind, do you?”
Fleur bit her lips. He was jeering, because she didn’t or couldn’t really love either of them. It was unjust. She COULD have loved — she HAD loved! Wilfrid and Michael — they might go to the deuce!
“I wish I had never come here,” she said suddenly: “and I’ll never come again!”
He went to the door, and held it open.
“You are right.”
Fleur stood quite still, her chin on the collar of her fur, her clear-glancing eyes fixed on his face, her lips set and mutinous.
“You think I’m a heartless beast,” she said slowly. “So I am — now. Good-bye!”
He neither took her hand nor spoke, he only bowed. His eyes were very tragic. Trembling with mortification, Fleur went out. She heard the door closed, while she was going down the stairs. At the bottom she stood uncertain. Suppose Michael had come back! Almost opposite was that gallery where she had first met him and — Jon. Slip across in there! If he were still hovering round the entrance of the little street, she could tell him with a good conscience where she had been. She peeped. Not in sight! Swiftly she slid across into the doorway opposite. They would be closing in a minute — just on four o’clock! She put down a shilling and slipped in. She must see — in case! She stood revolving — one-man show, the man — Claud Brains! She put down another shilling for a catalogue, and read as she went out. “No. 7. Woman getting the wind up.” It told her everything; and with a lighter heart she skimmed along, and took a taxi. Get home before Michael! She felt relieved, almost exhilarated. So much for skating on thin ice! It wasn’t good enough. Wilfrid must go. Poor Wilfrid! Well, he shouldn’t have sneered — what did he know of her? Nobody knew anything of her! She was alone in the world. She slipped her latch-key into the hall door. No Michael. She sat down in the drawing-room before the fire, and took up Walter Nazing’s last. She read a page three times. It meant no more with every reading — it meant less; he was the kind of author who must be read at a gallop, and given away lest a first impression of wind in the hair be lost in a sensation of wind lower down; but Wilfrid’s eyes came between her and the words. Pity! Nobody pitied her; why, then, should she pity them? Besides, pity was ‘pop,’ as Amabel would say. The situation demanded cast-iron sense. But Wilfrid’s eyes! Well — she wouldn’t be seeing them again! Beautiful eyes when they smiled or when — so much more often — they looked at her with longing, as now between her and the sentence: “Solemnly and with a delicious egoism he more than awfully desired her who snug and rosy in the pink shell of her involuted and so petulant social periphrasis —” Poor Wilfrid! Pity was ‘pop,’ but there was pride! Did she choose that he should go away thinking that she had ‘played him up’ just out of vanity, as Walter Nazing said American women did? Did she? Would it not be more in the mode, really dramatic — if one ‘went over the deep end,’ as they said, just once? Would that not be something they could both look back on — he in the East he was always talking of, she in this West? The proposition had a momentary popularity in that organism called Fleur too finely proportioned for a soul according to the theory which Michael was thinking over. Like all popularities, it did not last. First: Would she like it? She did not think she would; one man, without love, was quite enough. Then there was the danger of passing into Wilfrid’s power. He was a gentleman, but he was passionate; the cup once sipped, would he consent to put it down? But more than all was a physical doubt of the last two or three weeks which awaited verification, and which made her feel solemn. She stood up and passed her hands all over her, with a definite recoil from the thought of Wilfrid’s hands doing the same. No! To have his friendship, his admiration, but not at that price. She viewed him, suddenly, as a bomb set on her copper floor; and in fancy ran and seized and flung him out into the Square — poor Wilfrid! Pity was ‘pop!’ But one might be sorry for ONESELF, losing him; losing too that ideal of modern womanhood expounded to her one evening by Marjorie Ferrar, pet of the ‘panjoys,’ whose red-gold hair excited so much admiration: “My ambition — old thing — is to be the perfect wife of one man, the perfect mistress of another, and the perfect mother of a third, all at once. It’s perfectly possible — they do it in France.”
But was it really so perfectly possible — even if pity WAS posh? How be perfect to Michael, when the slightest slip might reveal to him that she was being perfect to Wilfrid; how be perfect to Wilfrid, when every time she was perfect to Michael would be a dagger in Wilfrid’s heart? And if — if her physical doubt should mature into certainty, how be perfect mother to the certainty, when she was either torturing two men, or lying to them like a trooperess? Not so perfectly possible as all that! ‘If only I were all French!’ thought Fleur . . . .
The clicking door startled her — the reason that she was not all French was coming in. He looked very grey, as if he had been thinking too much. He kissed her, and sat down moodily before the fire.
“Have you come for the night, Dad?”
“If I may,” murmured Soames. “Business.”
“Anything unpleasant, ducky?”
Soames looked up as if startled.
“Unpleasant? Why should it be unpleasant?”
“I only thought from your face.”
Soames grunted. “This Ruhr!” he said. “I’ve brought you a picture. Chinese!”
“Oh, Dad! How jolly!”
“It isn’t,” said Soames; “it’s a monkey eating fruit.”
“But that’s perfect! Where is it — in the hall?”
Stripping the coverings off the picture, Fleur brought it in, and setting it up on the jade-green settee, stood away and looked at it. The large white monkey with its brown haunting eyes, as if she had suddenly wrested its interest from the orange-like fruit in its crisped paw, the grey background, the empty rinds all round — bright splashes in a general ghostliness of colour, impressed her at once.
“But, Dad, it’s a masterpiece — I’m sure it’s of a frightfully good period.”
“I don’t know,” said Soames. “I must look up the Chinese.”
“But you oughtn’t to give it to me, it must be worth any amount. You ought to have it in your collection.”
“They didn’t know its value,” said Soames, and a faint smile illumined his features. “I gave three hundred for it. It’ll be safer here.”
“Of course it’ll be safe. Only why safer?”
Soames turned towards the picture.
“I can’t tell. Anything may come of this.”
“Of what, dear?”
“Is ‘old Mont’ coming in to-night?”
“No, he’s at Lippinghall still.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter — he’s no good.”
Fleur took his hand and gave it a squeeze.
Soames’ tickled heart quivered. Fancy her wanting to know what was troubling him! But his sense of the becoming, and his fear of giving away his own alarm, forbade response.
“Nothing you’d understand,” he said. “Where are you going to hang it?”
“There, I think; but we must wait for Michael.”
Soames grumbled out:
“I saw him just now at your aunt’s. Is that the way he attends to business?”
‘Perhaps,’ thought Fleur, ‘he was only on his way back to the office. Cork Street IS more or less between! If he passed the end of it, he would think of Wilfrid, he might have been wanting to see him about books.’
“Oh, here’s Ting! Well, darling!”
The Chinese dog, let in, as it were, by Providence, seeing Soames, sat down suddenly with snub upturned and eyes brilliant. “The expression of your face,” he seemed to say, “pleases me. We belong to the past and could sing hymns together, old man.”
“Funny little chap,” said Soames; “he always knows me.”
Fleur lifted him. “Come and see the new monkey, ducky.”
“Don’t let him lick it.”
Held rather firmly by his jade-green collar and confronted by an inexplicable piece of silk smelling of the past, Ting-a-ling raised his head higher and higher to correspond with the action of his nostrils, and his little tongue appeared, tentatively savouring the emanation of his country.
“It’s a nice monkey, isn’t it, darling?”
“No,” said Ting-a-ling, rather clearly. “Put me down!”
Restored to the floor, he sought a patch where the copper came through between two rugs, and licked it quietly.
“Mr. Aubrey Greene, ma’am!”
“H’m!” said Soames.
The painter came gliding and glowing in; his bright hair slipping back, his green eyes sliding off.
“Ah!” he said, pointing to the floor. “That’s what I’ve come about.”
Fleur followed his finger in amazement.
“Ting!” she said severely, “stop it! He will lick the copper, Aubrey.”
“But how perfectly Chinese! They do every thing we don’t.”
“Dad — Aubrey Greene. My father’s just brought me this picture, Aubrey — isn’t it a gem?”
The painter stood quite still, his eyes ceased sliding off, his hair ceased slipping back.
“Phew!” he said.
Soames rose. He had waited for the flippant; but he recognised in the tone something reverential, if not aghast.
“By George,” said Aubrey Greene, “those eyes! Where did you pick it up, sir?”
“It belonged to a cousin of mine — a racing man. It was his only picture.”
“Good for him! He must have had taste.”
Soames stared. The idea that George should have had taste almost appalled him.
“No,” he said, with a flash of inspiration: “What he liked about it was that it makes you feel uncomfortable.”
“Same thing! I don’t know where I’ve seen a more pungent satire on human life.”
“I don’t follow,” said Soames dryly.
“Why, it’s a perfect allegory, sir! Eat the fruits of life, scatter the rinds, and get copped doing it. When they’re still, a monkey’s eyes are the human tragedy incarnate. Look at them! He thinks there’s something beyond, and he’s sad or angry because he can’t get at it. That picture ought to be in the British Museum, sir, with the label: ‘Civilisation, caught out.’”
“Well, it won’t be,” said Fleur. “It’ll be here, labelled ‘The White Monkey.’”
“Cynicism,” said Soames abruptly, “gets you nowhere. If you’d said ‘MODERNITY caught out’—”
“I do, sir; but why be narrow? You don’t seriously suppose this age is worse than any other?”
“Don’t I?” said Soames. “In my belief the world reached its highest point in the ‘eighties, and will never reach it again.”
The painter stared.
“That’s frightfully interesting. I wasn’t born, and I suppose you were about my age then, sir. You believed in God and drove in DILIGENCES.”
DILIGENCES! The word awakened in Soames a memory which somehow seemed appropriate.
“Yes,” he said, “and I can tell you a story of those days that you can’t match in these. When I was a youngster in Switzerland with my people, two of my sisters had some black cherries. When they’d eaten about half a dozen they discovered that they all had little maggots in them. An English climber there saw how upset they were, and ate the whole of the rest of the cherries — about two pounds — maggots, stones and all, just to show them. That was the sort of men they were then.”
“Gee! He must have been gone on them.”
“No,” said Soames, “not particularly. His name was Powley; he wore side whiskers.”
“Talking of God and diligences; I saw a hansom yesterday.”
‘More to the point if you’d seen God,’ thought Soames, but he did not say so; indeed, the thought surprised him, it was not the sort of thing he had ever seen himself.
“You mayn’t know it, sir, but there’s more belief now than there was before the war — they’ve discovered that we’re not all body.”
“Oh!” said Fleur. “That reminds me, Aubrey. Do you know any mediums? Could I get one to come here? On our floor, with Michael outside the door, one would know there couldn’t be any hanky. Do the dark seance people ever go out? — they’re much more thrilling they say.”
“Spiritualism!” said Soames. “H’mph!” He could not in half an hour have expressed himself more clearly.
Aubrey Greene’s eyes slid off to Ting-a-ling. “I’ll see what I can do, if you’ll lend me your Peke for an hour or so tomorrow afternoon. I’d bring him back on a lead, and give him every luxury.”
“What do you want him for?”
“Michael sent me a most topping little model today. But, you see, she can’t smile.”
“Yes. Something quite new; and I’ve got a scheme. Her smile’s like sunlight going off an Italian valley; but when you tell her to, she can’t. I thought your Peke could make her, perhaps.”
“May I come and see?” said Fleur.
“Yes, bring him tomorrow; but, if I can persuade her, it’ll be in the ‘altogether.’”
“Oh! Will you get me a seance, if I lend you Ting?”
“H’mph!” said Soames again. Seances, Italian sunlight, the ‘altogether!’ It was time he got back to Elderson, and what was to be done now, and left this fiddling while Rome burned.
“Good-bye, Mr. Greene,” he said; “I’ve got no time.”
“Quite, sir,” said Aubrey Greene.
“Quite!” mimicked Soames to himself, going out.
Aubrey Greene took his departure a few minutes later, crossing a lady in the hall who was delivering her name to the manservant.
Alone with her body, Fleur again passed her hands all over it. The ‘altogether’— was a reminder of the dangers of dramatic conduct.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54