Just about that moment Bicket re-entered his sitting-room and deposited his tray. All the morning under the shadow of St. Paul’s he had re-lived Bank Holiday. Exceptionally tired in feet and legs, he was also itching mentally. He had promised himself a refreshing look from time to time at what was almost like a photo of Vic herself. And he had lost the picture! Yet he had taken nothing out of his pockets — just hung his coat up. Had it joggled out in the crush at the station, or had he missed his pocket opening and dropped it in the carriage? And he had wanted to see the original, too. He remembered that the Gallery began with a ‘D,’ and at lunch-time squandered a penny-halfpenny to look up the names. Foreign, he was sure — the picture being naked. ‘Dumetrius?’ Ah!
Back at his post, he had a bit of luck. ‘That alderman,’ whom he had not seen for months, came by. Intuition made him say at once: “Hope I see you well sir. Never forgotten your kindness.”
The ‘alderman,’ who had been staring up as if he saw a magpie on the dome of St. Paul’s, stopped as though attacked by cramp.
“Kindness?” he said; “what kindness? Oh! balloons! They were no good to me!”
“No, sir, I’m sure,” said Bicket humbly.
“Well, here you are!” muttered the ‘alderman’; “don’t expect it again.”
Half-a-crown! A whole half-crown! Bicket’s eyes pursued the hastening form. “Good-luck!” he said softly to himself, and began putting up his tray. “I’ll go home and rest my feet, and tyke Vic to see that picture. It’ll be funny lookin’ at it together.”
But she was not in. He sat down and smoked a fag. He felt aggrieved that she was out, this the first afternoon he had taken off. Of course she couldn’t stay in all day!
Still —! He waited twenty minutes, then put on Michael’s suit and shoes.
‘I’ll go and see it alone,’ he thought. ‘It’ll cost half as much. They charge you sixpence, I expect.’
They charged him a shilling — a shilling! One fourth of his day’s earnings, to see a picture! He entered bashfully. There were ladies who smelled of scent and had drawling voices but not a patch on Vic for looks. One of them, behind him, said:
“See! There’s Aubrey Greene himself! And that’s the picture they’re talking of —‘Afternoon of a Dryad.’”
They passed him and moved on. Bicket followed. At the end of the room, between their draperies and catalogues, he glimpsed the picture. A slight sweat broke out on his forehead. Almost life-size, among the flowers and spiky grasses, the face smiled round at him — very image of Vic! Could some one in the world be as like her as all that? The thought offended him, as a collector is offended finding the duplicate of an unique possession.
“It’s a wonderful picture, Mr. Greene. What a type!”
A young man without hat, and fair hair sliding back, answered:
“A find, wasn’t she?”
“Oh! perfect! the very spirit of a wood nymph; so mysterious!”
The word that belonged to Vic! It was unholy. There she lay for all to look at, just because some beastly woman was made like her! A kind of rage invaded Bicket’s throat, caused his checks to burn; and with it came a queer physical jealousy. That painter! What business had he to paint a woman so like Vic as that — a woman that didn’t mind lyin’ like that! They and their talk about cahryscuro and paganism, and a bloke called Leneardo! Blast their drawling and their tricks! He tried to move away, and could not, fascinated by that effigy, so uncannily resembling what he had thought belonged to himself alone. Silly to feel so bad over a ‘coincidence,’ but he felt like smashing the glass and cutting the body up into little bits. The ladies and the painter passed on, leaving him alone before the picture. Alone, he did not mind so much. The face was mournful-like, and lonely, and — and teasing, with its smile. It sort of haunted you — it did! ‘Well!’ thought Bicket, ‘I’ll get home to Vic. Glad I didn’t bring her, after all, to see herself-like. If I was an alderman, I’d buy the blinkin’ thing, and burn it!’
And there, in the entrance-lobby, talking to a ‘dago,’ stood — his very own ‘alderman!’ Bicket paused in sheer amazement.
“It’s a rithing name, Mr. Forthyte,” he heard the Dago say: “hith prithes are going up.”
“That’s all very well, Dumetrius, but it’s not everybody’s money in these days — too highly-finished, altogether!”
“Well, Mr. Forthyte, to YOU I take off ten per thent.”
“Take off twenty and I’ll buy it.”
That Dago’s shoulders mounted above his hairy ears — they did; and what a smile!
“Mithter Forthyte! Fifteen, thir!”
“Well, you’re doing me; but send it round to my daughter’s in South Square — you know the number. When do you close?”
“Day after tomorrow, thir.”
So! The counterfeit of Vic had gone to that ‘alderman,’ had it? Bicket uttered a savage little sound, and slunk out.
He walked with a queer feeling. Had he got unnecessary wind up? After all, it wasn’t her. But to know that another woman could smile that way, have frizzy-ended short black hair, and be all curved the same! And at every woman’s passing face he looked — so different, so utterly unlike Vic’s!
When he reached home she was standing in the middle of the room, with her lips to a balloon. All around her, on the floor, chairs, table, mantelpiece, were the blown-out shapes of his stock; one by one they had floated from her lips and selected their own resting-places: puce, green, orange, purple, blue, enlivening with their colour the dingy little space. All his balloons blown up! And there, in her best clothes, she stood, smiling, queer, excited.
“What in thunder!” said Bicket.
Raising her dress, she took some crackling notes from the top of her stocking, and held them out to him.
“See! Sixty-four pounds, Tony! I’ve got it all. We can go.”
“I had a brain wave — went to that Mr. Mont who gave us the clothes, and he’s advanced it. We can pay it back, some day. Isn’t it a marvel?”
Bicket’s eyes, startled like a rabbit’s, took in her smile, her excited flush, and a strange feeling shot through all his body, as if THEY were taking HIM in! She wasn’t like Vic! No! Suddenly he felt her arms round him, felt her moist lips on his. She clung so tight, he could not move. His head went round.
“At last! At last! Isn’t it fine? Kiss me, Tony!”
Bicket kissed; his vertigo was real, but behind it, for the moment stifled, what sense of unreality! . . .
Was it before night, or in the night, that the doubt first came — ghostly, tapping, fluttering, haunting — then, in the dawn, jabbing through his soul, turning him rigid. The money — the picture — the lost paper — that sense of unreality! This story she had told him! Were such things possible? Why should Mr. Mont advance that money? She had seen him — that was certain; the room, the secretary — you couldn’t mistake her description of that Miss Perren. Why, then, feel this jabbing doubt? The money — such a lot of money! Not with Mr. Mont — never — he was a gent! Oh! Swine that he was, to have a thought like that — of Vic! He turned his back to her and tried to sleep. But once you got a thought like that — sleep? No! Her face among the balloons, the way she had smothered his eyes and turned his head — so that he couldn’t think, couldn’t go into it and ask her questions! A prey to dim doubts, achings, uncertainty, thrills of hope, and visions of ‘Austrylia,’ Bicket arose haggard.
“Well,” he said, over their cocoa and margarined bread: “I must see Mr. Mont, that’s certain.” And suddenly he added: “Vic?” looking straight into her face.
She answered his look — straight, yes, straight. Oh! he was a proper swine! . . .
When he had left the house Victorine stood quite still, with hands pressed against her chest. She had slept less than he. Still as a mouse, she had turned and turned the thought: ‘Did I take him in? Did I?’ And if not — what? She took out the notes which had bought — or sold? — their happiness, and counted them once more. And the sense of injustice burned within her. Had she wanted to stand like that before men? Hadn’t she been properly through it about that? Why, she could have had the sixty pounds three months ago from that sculptor, who was wild about her; or — so he said! But she had stuck it; yes, she had. Tony had nothing against her really — even if he knew it all. She had done it for him — Well! mostly — for him selling those balloons day after day in all weathers! But for her, they would still be stuck, and another winter coming, and unemployment — so they said in the paper — to be worse and worse! Stuck in the fogs and the cold, again! Ugh! Her chest was still funny sometimes; and he always hoarse. And this poky little room, and the bed so small that she couldn’t stir without waking him. Why should Tony doubt her? For he did — she had felt it, heard it in his “Vic?” Would Mr. Mont convince him? Tony was sharp! Her head drooped. The unfairness of it all! Some had everything to their hand, like that pretty wife of Mr. Mont’s! And if one tried to find a way and get out to a new chance — then — then — this! She flung her hair back. Tony MUST believe — he should! If he wouldn’t, let him look out. She had done nothing to be ashamed of! No, indeed! And with the longing to go in front and lead her happiness along, she got out her old tin trunk, and began with careful method to put things into it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54