Whitsuntide Bank Holiday was producing its seasonal invasion of Hampstead Heath, and among the ascending swarm were two who meant to make money in the morning and spend it in the afternoon.
Tony Bicket, with balloons and wife, embarked early on the Hampstead Tube.
“You’ll see,” he said, “I’ll sell the bloomin’ lot by twelve o’clock, and we’ll go on the bust.”
Squeezing his arm, Victorine fingered, through her dress, a slight swelling just above her right knee. It was caused by fifty-four pounds fastened in the top of her stocking. She had little feeling, now, against balloons. They afforded temporary nourishment, till she had the few more pounds needful for their passage-money. Tony still believed he was going to screw salvation out of his blessed balloons: he was ‘that hopeful — Tony,’ though their heads were only just above water on his takings. And she smiled. With her secret she could afford to be indifferent now to the stigma of gutter hawking. She had her story pat. From the evening paper, and from communion on ‘buses with those interested in the national pastime, she had acquired the necessary information about racing. She even talked of it with Tony, who had street-corner knowledge. Already she had prepared chapter and verse of two imaginary coups; a sovereign made out of stitching imaginary blouses, invested on the winner of the Two Thousand Guineas, and the result on the dead-heater for the Jubilee at nice odds; this with a third winner, still to be selected, would bring her imaginary winnings up to the needed sixty pounds odd she would so soon have saved now out of ‘the altogether.’ This tale she would pitch to Tony in a week or two, reeling off by heart the wonderful luck she had kept from him until she had the whole of the money. She would slip her forehead against his eyes if he looked at her too hard, and kiss his lips till his head was no longer clear. And in the morning they would wake up and take their passages. Such was the plan of Victorine, with five ten-pound and four one-pound notes in her stocking, attached to the pink silk stays.
‘Afternoon of a Dryad’ had long been finished, and was on exhibition at the Dumetrius Gallery, with other works of Aubrey Greene. Victorine had paid a shilling to see it; had stood some furtive minutes gazing at that white body glimmering from among grass and spikey flowers, at the face, turned as if saying: “I know a secret!”
“Bit of a genius, Aubrey Greene — that face is jolly good!” Scared, and hiding the face, Victorine had slipped away.
From the very day when she had stood shivering outside the studio of Aubrey Greene she had been in full work. He had painted her three times — always nice, always polite, quite the gentleman! And he had given her introductions. Some had painted her in clothes, some half-draped, some in that ‘altogether,’ which no longer troubled her, with the money swelling her stocking and Tony without suspicion. Not every one had been ‘nice’; advances had been made to her, but she had nipped them in the bud. It would have meant the money quicker, but — Tony! In a fortnight now she could snap her fingers at it all. And often on the way home she stood by that plate-glass window, before the fruits, and the corn, and the blue butterflies . . .
In the packed railway carriage they sat side by side, Bicket, with tray on knee, debating where he had best stand.
“I fyvour the mokes,” he said at last, “up by the pond. People’ll have more money than when they get down among the swings and cocoanuts; and you can go and sit in a chair by the pond, like the seaside — I don’t want you with me not till I’ve sold out.”
Victorine pressed his arm.
Along the top and over on to the heath to north and south the holiday swarms surged, in perfect humour, carrying paper bags. Round the pond children, with thin, grey-white, spindly legs, were paddling and shrilly chattering, too content to smile. Elderly couples crawled slowly by, with jutting stomachs, and faces discoloured by the unaccustomed climb. Girls and young men were few, for they were dispersed already on the heath, in search of a madder merriment. On benches, in chairs of green canvas or painted wood, hundreds were sitting, contemplating their feet, as if imagining the waves of the sea. Now and again three donkeys would start, urged from behind, and slowly tittup their burdens along the pond’s margin. Hawkers cried goods. Fat dark women told fortunes. Policemen stood cynically near them. A man talked and talked and took his hat round.
Tony Bicket unslung his tray. His cockney voice, wheedling and a little husky, offered his coloured airs without intermission. This was something like! It was brisk! And now and again he gazed through the throng away across the pond, to where Victorine would be seated in a canvas chair, looking different from every one — he knew.
“Fine balloons — fine balloons! Six for a bob! Big one, Madam? Only sixpence. See the size! Buy, buy! Tyke one for the little boy!”
No ‘aldermen’ up here, but plenty in the mood to spend their money on a bit of brightness!
At five minutes before noon he snapped his tray to — not a bally balloon left! With six Bank Holidays a week he would make his fortune! Tray under arm, he began to tour the pond. The kiddies were all right, but — good Lord — how thin and pale! If he and Vic had a kid — but not they — not till they got out there! A fat brown kid, chysin’ blue butterflies, and the sun oozin’ out of him! Rounding the end of the pond, he walked slowly along the chairs. Lying back, elegant, with legs crossed, in brown stockings showing to the knees, and neat brown shoes with the flaps over — My! she looked a treat — in a world of her own, like that! Something caught Bicket by the throat. Gosh! He wanted things for her!
“Well, Vic! Penny!”
“I was thinkin’ of Australia.”
“Ah! It’s a gaudy long wait. Never mind — I’ve sold the bally lot. Which shall we do, go down among the trees, or get to the swings, at once?”
“The swings,” said Victorine.
The Vale of Health was in rhapsodic mood. The crowd flowed here in a slow, speechless stream, to the cries of the booth-keepers, and the owners of swings and cocoanuts. “Roll — bowl — or pitch! Now for the milky ones! Penny a shy! . . . Who’s for the swings? . . . Ices . . . Ices . . . Fine bananas!”
On the giant merry-go-round under its vast umbrella the thirty chain-hung seats were filled with girls and men. Round to the music — slowly — faster — whirling out to the full extent of the chain, bodies bent back, legs stuck forward, laughter and speech dying, faces solemn, a little lost, hands gripping the chains hard. Faster, faster; slowing, slowing to a standstill, and the music silent.
“My word!” murmured Victorine. “Come on, Tony!”
They entered the enclosure and took their seats. Victorine, on the outside, locked her feet, instinctively, one over the other, and tightening her clasp on the chains, curved her body to the motion. Her lips parted:
Faster, faster — every nerve and sense given to that motion! O-o-h! It WAS a feeling — flying round like that above the world! Faster — faster! Slower — slow, and the descent to earth.
“Tony — it’s ‘eaven!”
“Queer feelin’ in yer inside, when you’re swung right out!”
“I’d like it level with the top. Let’s go once more!”
Twice more they went — half his profit on balloons! But who cared? He liked to see her face. After that, six shies at the milky ones without a hit, an ice apiece: then arm-inarm to find a place to eat their lunch. That was the time Bicket enjoyed most, after the ginger-beer and sandwiches; smoking his fag, with his head on her lap, and the sky blue. A long time like that; till at last she stirred.
“Let’s go and see the dancin’!”
In the grass enclosure ringed by the running path, some two dozen couples were jigging to a band.
Victorine pulled at his arm. “I WOULD love a turn!”
“Well, let’s ‘ave a go,” said Bicket. “This one-legged bloke’ll ‘old my tray.”
They entered the ring.
“Hold me tighter, Tony!”
Bicket obeyed. Nothing he liked better; and slowly their feet moved — to this side and that. They made little way, revolving, keeping time, oblivious of appearances.
“You dance all right, Tony.”
“YOU dance a treat!” gasped Bicket.
In the intervals, panting, they watched over the one-legged man; then to it again, till the band ceased for good.
“My word!” said Victorine. “They dance on board ship, Tony!”
Bicket squeezed her waist.
“I’ll do the trick yet, if I ‘ave to rob the Bank. There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do for you, Vic.”
But Victorine smiled. She had done the trick already.
The crowd with parti-coloured faces, tired, good-humoured, frowsily scented, strolled over a battlefield thick-strewn with paper bags, banana peel, and newspapers.
“Let’s ‘ave our tea, and one more swing,” said Bicket; “then we’ll get over on the other side among the trees.”
Away over on the far side were many couples. The sun went very slowly down. Those two sat under a bush and watched it go. A faint breeze swung and rustled the birch leaves. There was little human sound out here. All seemed to have come for silence, to be waiting for darkness in the hush. Now and then some stealthy spy would pass and scrutinise.
“Foxes!” said Bicket. “Gawd! I’d like to rub their noses in it!”
Victorine sighed, pressing closer to him.
Some one was playing on a banjo now; a voice singing. It grew dusk, but a moon was somewhere rising, for little shadows stole out along the ground.
They spoke in whispers. It seemed wrong to raise the voice, as though the grove were under a spell. Even their whisperings were scarce. Dew fell, but they paid no heed to it. With hands locked, and cheeks together, they sat very still. Bicket had a thought. This was poetry — this was! Darkness now, with a sort of faint and silvery glow, a sound of drunken singing on the Spaniard’s Road, the whirr of belated cars returning from the north — and suddenly an owl hooted.
“My!” murmured Victorine, shivering: “An owl! Fancy! I used to hear one at Norbiton. I ‘ope it’s not bad luck!”
Bicket rose and stretched himself,
“Come on!” he said: “we’ve ‘ad a dy. Don’t you go catchin’ cold!”
Arm-inarm, slowly, through the darkness of the birch-grove, they made their way upwards — glad of the lamps, and the street, and the crowded station, as though they had taken an overdose of solitude.
Huddled in their carriage on the Tube, Bicket idly turned the pages of a derelict paper. But Victorine sat thinking of so much, that it was as if she thought of nothing. The swings and the grove in the darkness, and the money in her stocking. She wondered Tony hadn’t noticed when it crackled — there wasn’t a safe place to keep it in! What was he looking at, with his eyes so fixed? She peered, and read: “‘Afternoon of a Dryad.’ The striking picture by Aubrey Greene, on exhibition at the Dumetrius Gallery.”
Her heart stopped beating.
“Cripes!” said Bicket. “Ain’t that like you?”
“Like me? No!”
Bicket held the paper closer. “It IS. It’s like you all over. I’ll cut that out. I’d like to see that picture.”
The colour came up in her cheeks, released from a heart beating too fast now.
“‘Tisn’t decent,” she said.
“Dunno about that; but it’s awful like you. It’s even got your smile.”
Folding the paper, he began to tear the sheet. Victorine’s little finger pressed the notes beneath her stocking.
“Funny,” she said, slowly, “to think there’s people in the world so like each other.”
“I never thought there could be one like you. Charin’ Cross; we gotta change.”
Hurrying along the rat-runs of the Tube, she slipped her hand into his pocket, and soon some scraps of torn paper fluttered down behind her following him in the crush. If only he didn’t remember where the picture was!
Awake in the night, she thought:
‘I don’t care; I’m going to get the rest of the money — that’s all about it.’
But her heart moved queerly within her, like that of one whose feet have trodden suddenly the quaking edge of a bog.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54