Fleur was still gracefully concealing most of what Michael called ‘the eleventh baronet,’ now due in about two months’ time. She seemed to be adapting herself, in mind and body, to the quiet and persistent collection of the heir. Michael knew that, from the first, following the instructions of her mother, she had been influencing his sex, repeating to herself, every evening before falling asleep, and every morning on waking the words: “Day by day, in every way, he is getting more and more male,” to infect the subconscious which, everybody now said, controlled the course of events; and that she was abstaining from the words: “I WILL have a boy,” for this, setting up a reaction, everybody said, was liable to produce a girl. Michael noted that she turned more and more to her mother, as if the French, or more naturalistic, side of her, had taken charge of a process which had to do with the body. She was frequently at Mapledurham, going down in Soames’ car, and her mother was frequently in South Square. Annette’s handsome presence, with its tendency to black lace was always pleasing to Michael, who had never forgotten her espousal of his suit in days when it was a forlorn hope. Though he still felt only on the threshold of Fleur’s heart, and was preparing to play second fiddle to ‘the eleventh baronet,’ he was infinitely easier in mind since Wilfrid had been gone. And he watched, with a sort of amused adoration, the way in which she focussed her collecting powers on an object that had no epoch, a process that did not date.
Personally conducted by Aubrey Greene, the expedition to view his show at the Dumetrius Gallery left South Square after an early lunch.
“Your Dryad came to me this morning, Aubrey,” said Michael in the cab. “She wanted me to ask you to put up a barrage if by any chance her husband blows round to accuse you of painting his wife. It seems he’s seen a reproduction of the picture.”
“Umm!” murmured the painter: “Shall I, Fleur?”
“Of course you must, Aubrey!”
Aubrey Greene’s smile slid from her to Michael.
“Well, what’s his name?”
Aubrey Greene fixed his eyes on space, and murmured slowly:
“An angry young husband called Bicket
Said: ‘Turn yourself round and I’ll kick it;
You have painted my wife
In the nude to the life,
Do you think, Mr. Greene, it was cricket?’”
“Chuck it!” said Michael, “I’m serious. She’s a most plucky little creature. She’s made the money they wanted, and remained respectable.”
“So far as I’m concerned, certainly.”
“Well, I should think so.”
“You’re not a vamp, Aubrey!”
“As a matter of fact, she excited my aesthetic sense.”
“Much that’d save her from some aesthetes!” muttered Michael.
“Also, she comes from Putney.”
“There you have a real reason. Then, you WILL put up a barrage if Bicket blows in?”
Aubrey Greene laid his hand on his heart. “And here we are!”
For the convenience of the eleventh baronet Michael had chosen the hour when the proper patrons of Aubrey Greene would still be lunching. A shock-headed young man and three pale-green girls alone wandered among the pictures. The painter led the way at once to his masterpiece; and for some minutes they stood before it in a suitable paralysis. To speak too soon in praise would never do; to speak too late would be equally tactless; to speak too fulsomely would jar; to mutter coldly: “Very nice — very nice indeed!” would blight. To say bluntly: “Well, old man, to tell you the truth, I don’t like it a little bit!” would get his goat.
At last Michael pinched Fleur gently, and she said:
“It really is charming, Aubrey; and awfully like — at least —”
“So far as one can tell. But really, old man, you’ve done it in once. I’m afraid Bicket will think so, anyway.”
“Dash that!” muttered the painter. “How do you find the colour values?”
“Jolly fine; especially the flesh; don’t you think so, Fleur?”
“Yes; only I should have liked that shadow down the side a little deeper.”
“Yes?” murmured the painter: “Perhaps!”
“You’ve caught the spirit,” said Michael. “But I tell you what, old man, you’re for it — the thing’s got meaning. I don’t know what the critics will do to you.”
Aubrey Greene smiled. “That was the worst of her. She led me on. To get an idea’s fatal.”
“Personally, I don’t agree to that; do you, Fleur?”
“Of course not; only one doesn’t say so.”
“Time we did, instead of kow-towing to the Cafe C’rillon. I say, the hair’s all right, and so are the toes — they curl as you look at ’em.”
“And it IS a relief not to get legs painted in streaky cubes. The asphodels rather remind one of the flowers in Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks,’ Aubrey.”
“The whole thing’s just a bit Leonardoish, old man. You’ll have to live that down.”
“Oh! Aubrey, my father’s seen it. I believe he’s biting. Something you said impressed him — about our white monkey, d’you remember?”
Aubrey Greene threw up his hands. “Ah! That white monkey — to have painted that! Eat the fruit and chuck the rinds around, and ask with your eyes what it’s all about.”
“A moral!” said Michael: “Take care, old man! Well! Our taxi’s running up. Come along, Fleur; we’ll leave Aubrey to his conscience.”
Once more in the cab, he took her arm. “That poor little snipe, Bicket! Suppose I’d come on YOU as he’ll come on his wife!”
“I shouldn’t have looked so nice.”
“Oh! yes; much nicer; though she looks nice enough, I must say.”
“Then why should Bicket mind, in these days of emancipation?”
“Why? Good Lord, ducky! You don’t suppose Bicket —! I mean, we emancipated people have got into the habit of thinking we’re the world — well! we aren’t; we’re an excrescence, small, and noisy. We talk as if all the old values and prejudices had gone; but they’ve no more gone, really, you know, than the rows of villas and little grey houses.”
“Why this outburst, Michael?”
“Well, darling, I’m a bit fed-up with the attitude of our crowd. If emancipation were true, one could stick it; but it’s not. There isn’t ten per cent. difference between now and thirty years ago.”
“How do you know? You weren’t alive.”
“No; but I read the papers, and talk to the man in the street, and look at people’s faces. Our lot think they’re the tablecloth, but they’re only the fringe. D’you know, only one hundred and fifty thousand people in this country have ever heard a Beethoven Symphony? How many, do you suppose, think old B. a back number? Five thousand, perhaps, out of forty-two millions. How’s that for emancipation?”
He stopped, observing that her eyelids had drooped.
“I was thinking, Michael, that I should like to change my bedroom curtains to blue. I saw the exact colour yesterday at Harton’s. They say blue has an effect on the mind — the present curtains really are too jazzy.”
The eleventh baronet!
“Anything you like, darling. Have a blue ceiling if it helps.”
“Oh, no! But I think I’ll change the carpet, too; there’s a lovely powder blue at Harton’s.”
“Then get it. Would you like to go there now? I can take the Tube back to the office.”
“Yes, I think I’d better. I might miss it.”
Michael put his head out of the window. “Harton’s, please!” And, replacing his hat, he looked at her. Emancipated! Phew!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54