Tony Bicket, replete, was in vein that fine afternoon; his balloons left him freely, and he started for home in the mood of a conqueror.
Victorine, too, had colour in her cheeks. She requited the story of his afternoon with the story of hers. A false tale for a true — no word of Danby and Winter, the gentleman with the sliding smile, of the Grand Marnier, or ‘the altogether.’ She had no compunction. It was her secret, her surprise; if, by sitting in or out of ‘the altogether,’ not yet decided, she could make their passage money — well, she should tell him she had won it on a horse. That night she asked:
“Am I so very thin, Tony?” more than once. “I do so want to get fat.”
Bicket, still troubled that she had not shared that lunch, patted her tenderly, and said he would soon have her as fat as butter — he did not explain how.
They dreamed together of blue butterflies, and awoke to chilly gaslight and a breakfast of cocoa and bread-and-butter. Fog! Bicket was swallowed up before the eyes of Victorine ten yards from the door. She returned to the bedroom with anger in her heart. Who would buy balloons in a fog? She would do anything rather than let Tony go on standing out there all the choking days! Undressing again, she washed herself intensively, in case —! She had not long finished when her landlady announced the presence of a messenger boy. He bore an enormous parcel entitled “Mr. Bicket.”
There was a note inside. She read:
“DEAR BICKET — Here are the togs. Hope they’ll be useful. — Yours, MICHAEL MONT.”
In a voice that trembled she said to the boy:
“Thank you, it’s O. K. Here’s twopence.”
When his rich whistle was heard writhing into the fog, she flung herself down before the ‘togs’ in ecstasy. The sexes were divided by tissue paper. A blue suit, a velour hat, some brown shoes, three pairs of socks with two holes in them, four shirts only a little frayed at the cuffs, two black-and-white ties, six collars, not too new, some handkerchiefs, two vests beautifully thick, two pairs of pants, and a brown overcoat with a belt and just two or three nice little stains. She held the blue suit up against her arms and legs, the trousers and sleeves would only need taking-in about two inches. She piled them in a pyramid, and turned with awe to the spoil beneath the tissue paper. A brown knitted frock with little clear yellow buttons — unsoiled, uncreased. How could anybody spare a thing like that! A brown velvet toque with a little tuft of goldeny-brown feathers. She put it on. A pair of pink stays ever so little faded, with only three inches of bone above the waist, and five inches of bone below, pink silk ribbons, and suspenders — a perfect dream. She could not resist putting them on also. Two pairs of brown stockings; brown shoes; two combinations, a knitted camisole. A white silk jumper with a hole in one sleeve, a skirt of lilac linen that had gone a little in the wash; a pair of pallid pink silk pants; and underneath them all an almost black-brown coat, long and warm and cosy, with great jet buttons, and in the pocket six small handkerchiefs. She took a deep breath of sweetness — geranium!
Her mind leaped forward. Clothed, trousseaued, fitted out — blue butterflies — the sun! Only the money for the tickets wanting. And suddenly she saw herself with nothing on standing before the gentleman with sliding eyes. Who cared! The money!
For the rest of the morning she worked feverishly, shortening Tony, mending the holes in his socks, turning the fray of his cuffs. She ate a biscuit, drank another cup of cocoa — it was fattening, and went for the hole in the white silk jumper. One o’clock. In panic she stripped once more, put on a new combination, pair of stockings, and the stays, then paused in superstition. No! Her own dress and hat — like yesterday! Keep the rest until —! She hastened to her ‘bus, overcome alternately by heat and cold. Perhaps he would give her another glass of that lovely stuff. If only she could go swimmy and not care for anything!
She reached the studio as two o’clock was striking, and knocked. It was lovely and warm in there, much warmer than yesterday, and the significance of this struck her suddenly. In front of the fire was a lady with a little dog.
“Miss Collins — Mrs. Michael Mont; she’s lending us her Peke, Miss Collins.”
The lady — only her own age, and ever so pretty — held out her hand. Geranium! This, then, was she whose clothes —!
She took the hand, but could not speak. If this lady were going to stay, it would be utterly impossible. Before her — so pretty, so beautifully covered — oh! no!
“Now, Ting, be good, and as amusing as you can. Goodbye, Aubrey! Good luck to the picture! Good-bye, Miss Collins; it ought to be wonderful.”
Gone! The scent of geranium fading; the little dog snuffling at the door. The sliding gentleman had two glasses in his hands.
‘Ah!’ thought Victorine, and drank hers at a gulp.
“Now, Miss Collins, you don’t mind, do you! You’ll find everything in there. It’s really nothing. I shall want you lying on your face just here with your elbows on the ground and your head up and a little turned this way; your hair as loose as it can be, and your eyes looking at this bone. You must imagine that it’s a faun or some other bit of all right. The dog’ll help you when he settles down to it. F-a-u-n, you know, not f-a-w-n.”
“Yes,” said Victorine faintly.
“Have another little tot?”
He brought it.
“I quite understand; but you know, really, it’s absurd. You wouldn’t mind with a doctor. That’s right. Look here, I’ll put this little cow-bell on the ground. When you’re in position, give it a tinkle, and I’ll come out. That’ll help you.”
“You ARE kind.”
“Not at all — it’s natural. Now will you start in? The light won’t last for ever. Fifteen bob a day, we said.”
Victorine saw him slide away behind a screen, and looked at the little cow-bell. Fifteen bob! And fifteen bob! And fifteen bob! Many, many fifteen bobs before —! But not more times of sitting than of Tony’s standing from foot to foot, offering balloons. And as if wound up by that thought, she moved like clockwork off the dais, into the model’s room. Cosy in there, too; warm, a green silk garment thrown on a chair. She took off her dress. The beauty of the pink stays struck her afresh. Perhaps the gentleman would like — no, that would be even worse —! A noise reached her — from Ting-a-ling complaining of solitude. If she delayed, she never would —! Stripping hastily, she stood looking at herself in a glass. If only that slim, ivory-white image could move out on to the dais and she could stay here! Oh! It was awful — awful! She couldn’t — no! she couldn’t. She caught up her final garment again. Fifteen bob! But fifteen bob! Before her eyes, wild and mournful, came a vision: Of a huge dome, and a tiny Tony, with little, little balloons in a hand held out! Something cold and steely formed over her heart as icicles form on a window. If that was all they would do for him, she would do better! She dropped the garment; and, confused, numb, stepped forth in the ‘altogether.’ Ting-a-ling growled at her above his bone. She reached the cow-bell and lay down on her face as she had been told, with feet in the air, crossed. Resting her chin on one hand, she wagged the bell. It made a sound like no bell she had ever heard; and the little dog barked — he did look funny!
“Perfect, Miss Collins! Hold that!”
Fifteen bob! and fifteen bob!
“Just point those left toes a bit more. That’s right! The flesh tone’s perfect! My God, why must one walk before one runs! Drawing’s a bore, Miss Collins; one ought to draw with a brush only; a sculptor draws with a chisel, at least when he’s a Michelangelo. How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” came from lips that seemed to Victorine quite far away.
“I’m thirty-two. They say our generation was born so old that it can never get any older. Without illusions. Well! I never had any beliefs that I can remember. Had you?”
Victorine’s wits and senses were astray, but it did not matter, for he was rattling on:
“We don’t even believe in our ancestors. All the same, we’re beginning to copy them again. D’you know a book called ‘The Sobbing Turtle’ that’s made such a fuss? — sheer Sterne, very well done; but sheer Sterne, and the author’s tongue in his cheek. That’s it in a nutshell, Miss Collins — our tongues are in our cheeks — bad sign. Never mind; I’m going to out-Piero Cosimo with this. Your head an inch higher, and that curl out of your eye, please. Thanks! Hold that! By the way, have you Italian blood? What was your mother’s name, for instance?”
“Ah! You can never tell with Browns. It may have been Brune — or Bruno — but very likely she was Iberian. Probably all the inhabitants of Britain left alive by the Saxons were called Brown. As a fact, that’s all tosh, though. Going back to Edward the Confessor, Miss Collins — a mere thirty generations — we each of us have one thousand and seventy-four million, five hundred and seventy-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-four ancestors, and the population of this island was then well under a million. We’re as inbred as racehorses, but not so nice to look at, are we? I assure you, Miss Collins, you’re something to be grateful for. So is Mrs. Mont. Isn’t she pretty? Look at that dog?”
Ting-a-ling, indeed, with forelegs braced, and wrinkled nose, was glaring, as if under the impression that Victorine was another bone.
“He’s funny,” she said, and again her voice sounded far away. Would Mrs. Mont lie here if he’d asked her? SHE would look pretty! But SHE didn’t need the fifteen bob!
“Comfortable in that position?”
In alarm, she murmured:
“Oh! yes, thank you!”
“Oh! yes, thank you!”
“That’s good. Just a little higher with the head.”
Slowly in Victorine the sense of the dreadfully unusual faded. Tony should never know. If he never knew, he couldn’t care. She could lie like this all day — fifteen bob, and fifteen bob! It was easy. She watched the quick, slim fingers moving, the blue smoke from the cigarette. She watched the little dog.
“Like a rest? You left your gown; I’ll get it for you.”
In that green silk gown, beautifully padded, she sat up, with her feet on the floor over the dais edge.
“Cigarette? I’m going to make some Turkish coffee. You’d better walk about.”
“You’re out of a dream, Miss Collins. I shall have to do a Mathew Maris of you in that gown.”
The coffee, like none she had ever tasted, gave her a sense of well-being. She said:
“It’s not like coffee.”
Aubrey Greene threw up his hands.
“You have said it. The British are a great race — nothing will ever do them in. If they could be destroyed, they must long ago have perished of their coffee. Have some more?”
“Please,” said Victorine. There was such a little in the cup.
She lay down, and let the gown drop off.
“That’s right! Leave it there — you’re lying in long grass, and the green helps me. Pity it’s winter; I’d have hired a glade.”
Lying in long grass — flowers, too, perhaps. She did love flowers. As a little girl she used to lie in the grass, and make daisy-chains, in the field at the back of her grandmother’s lodge at Norbiton. Her grandmother kept the lodge. Every year, for a fortnight, she had gone down there — she had liked the country ever so. Only she had always had something on. It would be nicer with nothing. Were there flowers in Central Australia? With butterflies there must be! In the sun — she and Tony — like the Garden of Eden! . . .
“Thank you, that’s all for today. Half a day — ten bob. To-morrow morning at eleven. You’re a first-rate sitter, Miss Collins.”
Putting on the pink stays, Victorine had a feeling of elation. She had done it! Tony should never know! The thought that he never would gave her pleasure. And once more divested of the ‘altogether,’ she came forth.
Aubrey Greene was standing before his handiwork.
“Not yet, Miss Collins,” he said; “I don’t want to depress you. That hip-bone’s too high. We’ll put it right tomorrow. Forgive my hand, it’s all chalk. Au revoir! Eleven o’clock. And we shan’t need this chap. No, you don’t!”
For Ting-a-ling was showing signs of accompanying the larger bone. Victorine passed out smiling.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54