That Christmas Mrs. Benson invited them to dinner, and, being cookless, Mrs. Ogden accepted. Milly was delighted to escape from the dreaded ordeal of Christmas dinner at home. Her holidays were becoming increasingly distasteful. For one thing she missed the convivial student life, the companionship of people who shared her own interests and ambitions, their free and easy talk, their illicit sprees, their love affairs and the combined atmosphere of animal passion and spiritual uplift which they managed to create. She dearly loved the ceaseless activity of the College, the hurrying figures on the stairs, the muffled thud of the swing-doors. The intent, preoccupied faces of the students inspired and fascinated her; their hands seemed always to be clutching something, a violin case, a music roll. Their hands were never empty.
She felt less toleration than ever for her home, now that she had left it; the fact that she was practically free failed to soften her judgment of Seabourne; as she had felt about it in the past, so she felt now, with the added irritation that it reminded her of Mr. Thompson.
Milly was not introspective and she was not morbid. A wider experience of life had not tended to raise her standard of morality, and if she was ashamed of the episode with Mr. Thompson, it was because of the partner she had chosen rather than because of the episode itself. She was humiliated that it should have been Mr. Thompson of the circulating library, a vulgar youth without ambition, talent, or brain. The memory of those hours spent in the sand-pit lowered her self-esteem, the more so as the side of her that had rejoiced in them was in abeyance for the moment, kept in subjection by her passion for her art. She watched the students’ turbulent love affairs with critical and amused eyes. Some day, perhaps, she would have another affair of her own, but for the present she was too busy.
In her mind she divided the two elements in her nature by a well-defined gulf. Both were highly important, but different. Both were good in themselves, inasmuch as they were stimulating and pleasurable, but she felt that they could not combine in her as they so often did in her fellow students, and of this she was glad.
Her work was the thing that really counted, as she had always known; but if the day should come when her work needed the stimulus of her passions she was calmly determined that it should have it. She knew that she would be capable of deliberately indulging all that was least desirable in her nature, if thereby a jot or tittle could be gained for her music.
Her opinion of her sister was becoming unstable, viewed in the light of wider experience; she was beginning to feel that she did not understand Joan. In London Joan had seemed free, emancipated even; but back at Leaside she was dull, irritable and apparently quite hopeless, like someone suffering from a strong reaction.
It was true enough that the home-coming had been a shock to Joan; why, it is impossible to say. She had known so many similar incidents; servants had left abruptly before, especially of late years, so that familiarity should have softened the effect produced by her arrival at Leaside. But a condition of spirit, a degree of physical elation or fatigue, perhaps a mere passing mood, will sometimes predispose the mind to receive impressions disproportionately deep to their importance, and this was what had happened in Joan’s case. She had felt suddenly overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all, and as the days passed her fighting spirit weakened. It was not that she longed any less to get away with Elizabeth, but rather that the atmosphere of the house sapped her initiative as never before. All the fine, brave plans for the future, that had seemed so accessible with Elizabeth in London became nebulous and difficult to seize. The worries that flourished like brambles around Mrs. Ogden closed in around Joan too, seeming almost insurmountable when viewed in the perspective of Leaside.
Milly watched her sister curiously. ‘You look like the morning after the night before! What’s the matter, Joan?’
‘Nothing’, said Joan irritably. ‘Do let me alone!’
‘Your jaunt with Elizabeth doesn’t seemed to have cheered you up much.’
‘Oh, I’m all right.’
‘Are you really going to Cambridge, do you think, after all?’
‘Will you shut up, Milly! I’ve told you a hundred times I don’t know.’
Milly laughed provokingly, but the laugh brought on a paroxysm of coughing; and she gasped, clinging to a chair.
Joan eyed her with resentment. Milly’s cough made her unaccountably angry sometimes; it had begun to take on abnormal proportions, to loom as a menace. Her tense nerves throbbed painfully now whenever she heard it.
‘Oh, do stop coughing!’ she said, and her voice sounded exasperated. What was the matter with her? She was growing positively brutal! She fled from the room, leaving Milly to cough and choke alone.
Christmas dinner at the Bensons’ was a pleasant enough festivity. Mrs. Benson was delighted that the Ogdens had come, for Richard was at home. His stolid determination not to seek Joan out, coupled with his evident melancholy, had begun to alarm his mother. She tried to lead him on to talk about the girl, but he was not to be drawn. The situation was beyond her. If Richard was in love with Joan, why didn’t he marry her? His father couldn’t very well refuse to make him a decent allowance if he married; it was all so ridiculous, this moping about, this pandering to Joan’s fancies.
‘Marry her, my son, and discuss things afterwards’, had been Mrs. Benson’s advice.
But Richard had laughed angrily. ‘She won’t marry me, unfortunately.’
‘Then make her, for of course she’s in love with you.’
No good; Mrs. Benson could not cope with the psychology of these two. She felt that her only hope lay in propinquity, so if Richard would not go to Joan the roles must be reversed and Joan must be brought to Richard. She watched their meeting with scarcely veiled eagerness.
They shook hands without a tremor; a short, matter-of-fact clasp. Curious creatures! Mrs. Benson felt baffled, and angry with Richard; what was he thinking about? He treated Joan like another boy. No wonder the love affair was not prospering!
Elizabeth was already there when the Ogdens arrived, and she, too, watched the little comedy with some interest. She would rather have liked to talk to Richard about Cambridge, it was so long since she herself had been there, but Lawrence Benson was for ever at her elbow, quietly obtrusive. He had taken to wearing pince-nez lately. Elizabeth wished that he had not chosen the new American rimless glasses; she felt that any effort to render pince-nez decorative only accentuated their hideousness. She found herself looking at Lawrence, comparing the shine on his evening shirt front with the disconcerting shine of his glasses. He was very immaculate, with violets in his buttonhole, but he had aged. The responsibility of partnership and riches appeared to have thinned his sleek hair. Perhaps it made you old before your time to be a member of one of the largest banking firms in England — old and prim and tidy. Elizabeth wondered.
Lawrence reminded her of an expensive mahogany filing cabinet in which reposed bundles of papers tied with red tape. Everything about him was perfectly correct, from the small, expensive pearl that clasped his stiff shirt, to his black silk socks and patent leather shoes. His cufflinks were handsome but restrained, his watch-chain was platinum and gold, not too thick, his watch was an expensive repeater in the plainest of plain gold cases.
Elizabeth felt his thin, dry fingers touch her arm as he stooped over her chair. ‘You look beautiful tonight’, he murmured.
She believed him, for she knew that her simple black dress suited her because of its severity. The fashion that year was for a thousand little bows and ruches, but Elizabeth had not followed it; she had draped herself in long, plain folds, from which her fine neck and shoulders emerged triumphantly white. She was the statuesque type of woman, who would always look her best in the evening, for then the primness that crept into her everyday clothes was perforce absent. She smiled across at Joan, as though in some way Lawrence’s compliment concerned her.
They went in to dinner formally. Mr. Benson gave his arm to Mrs. Ogden, Lawrence to Elizabeth, and Richard to Joan. Milly was provided with a Cambridge friend of Richard’s, and Mrs. Benson was pompously escorted by the local vicar.
Something of Mrs. Ogden’s habit of melancholy fell away during dinner. She noticed Lawrence looking in her direction, and remembered with a faint thrill of satisfaction that although now he was obviously in love with Elizabeth, some years ago he had admired her. Joan, watching her mother, was struck afresh by her elusive prettiness that almost amounted to beauty. It had been absent of late, washed away by tears and ill-health, but tonight it seemed to be born anew, a pathetic thing, like a venturesome late rosebud that colours in the frost.
Joan’s mind went back to that long past Anniversary Day when her mother had worn a dress of soft grey that had made her look like a little dove. How long ago it seemed! It had been the last of many. It had ceased to exist owing to her father’s failing health, and now there was no money to start it again. As she watched her mother she wished that it could be reestablished, for it had given Mrs. Ogden such intense pleasure, filled her with such a harmless, if foolish, sense of importance. On Anniversary Day she had been able to rise above all her petty worries; it had been her Day, one out of the three hundred and sixty-five. Perhaps, after all, it had done much to obliterate for the time being the humiliations of her married life. Joan had never thought of this possibility before, but now she felt that hidden away under the bushel of affectations, social ambitions and snobbishness that The Day had stood for, there might well have burnt a small and feeble candle — the flame of a lost virginity.
The same diaphanous prettiness hung about her mother now, and Joan noticed that her brown hair was scarcely greyer than it had been all those years ago. She felt a sudden, sharp tenderness, a passionate sense of regret. Regret for what? She asked herself; surprised at the violence of her own emotion; but the only answer she could find was too vague and vast to be satisfactory. ‘Oh, for everything! for everything’, she murmured half aloud.
Richard looked at her. ‘Did you speak, Joan?’
‘No — at least I don’t know. Did I?’
Her eyes were on her mother’s face, watchful, tender, admiring. Mrs. Ogden looked up and met those protecting, possessive eyes, full upon her. She flushed deeply like a young girl.
Richard touched Joan’s arm. ‘Have you forgotten how to talk?’ he demanded.
She laughed. ‘You never approve of anything I say, so perhaps silence is a blessing in disguise.’
‘Oh, rot! Joan, look at my brother making an ass of himself over Elizabeth. Shall I start looking at you like that? I’m much more in love than he is, you know.’
‘Richard dear, you’re not going to propose again in the middle of dinner, are you?’
‘No; but it’s only putting off the evil day, I warn you’
He was not going to lecture her any more, he decided. Elizabeth had written him a letter which was almost triumphant in tone; Joan was making up her mind, it seemed; perhaps after all she would show some spirit. In any case he found her adorable, with her black, cropped hair, her beautiful mouth, and her queer, gruff voice. Her flanks were lean and strong like a boy’s; they suggested splendid, unfettered movement. She looked all wrong in evening dress, almost grotesque; but to Richard she appeared beautiful because symbolic of some future state — a forerunner. As he looked at her he seemed to see a vast army of women like herself, fine, splendid and fiercely virginal; strong, too, capable of gripping life and holding it against odds — the women of the future. They fascinated him, these as yet unborn women, stimulating his imagination, challenging his intellect, demanding of him an explanation of themselves.
He dropped his hand on Joan’s where it lay in her lap. ‘Have you prayed over your sword?’ he asked gravely.
She knew what he meant. ‘No’, she said. ‘I haven’t had the courage to unsheathe it yet.’
‘Then unsheathe it now and put it on the altar rails, and then get down on your knees and pray over it all night.’
Their eyes met, young, frank and curious, and in hers there was a faint antagonism.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55