One morning a very young cherry-tree that Mary herself had planted in the garden was doing the must delightful things — it was pushing out leaves and tight pink buds along the whole length of its childish branches. Stephen made a note of it in her diary: ‘Today Mary’s cherry-tree started to blossom.’ This is why she never forgot the date on which she received Martin Hallam’s letter.
The letter had been redirected from Morton; she recognized Puddle’s scholastic handwriting. And the other writing — large, rather untidy but with strong black down-strokes and firmly crossed t’s — she stared at it thoughtfully, puckering her brows, Surely that writing, too, was familiar? Then she noticed a Paris postmark in the corner — that was strange. She tore open the envelope.
Martin wrote very simply: Stephen, my dear. After all these years I am sending you a letter, just in case you have not completely forgotten the existence of a man called Martin Hallam.
‘I’ve been in Paris for the past two months. I had to come across to have my eye seen to; I stopped a bullet with my head here in France — it affected the optic nerve rather badly. But the point is: if I Ely over to England as I’m thinking of doing, may I come and see you? I’m a very poor hand at expressing myself — can’t do it at all when I put pen to paper — in addition to which I’m feeling nervous because you’ve become such a wonderful writer. But I do want to try and make you understand how desperately I’ve regretted our friendship — that perfect early friendship of ours seems to me now a thing well worth regretting. Believe me or not I’ve thought of it for years; and the fault was all mine for not understanding. I was just an ignorant cub in those days. Well, anyhow, please will you see me, Stephen? I’m a lonely sort of fellow, so if you’re kind-hearted you’ll invite me to motor down to Morton, supposing you’re there; and then if you like me, we’ll take up our friendship just where it left off. We’ll pretend that we’re very young again, walking over the hills and jawing about life. Lord, what splendid companions we were in those early days — like a couple of brothers!
‘Do you think it’s queer that I’m writing all this? It does seem queer, yet I’d have written it before if I’d ever come over to stay in England; but except when I rushed across to join up, I’ve pretty well stuck to British Columbia. I don’t even know exactly where you are, for I’ve not met a soul who knows you for ages. I heard of your father’s death of course, and was terribly sorry — beyond that I’ve heard nothing; still, I fancy I’m quite safe in sending this to Morton.
‘I’m staying with my aunt, the Comtesse de Mirac; she’s English, twice married and once more a widow. She’s been a perfect angel to me. I’ve been staying with her ever since I came to Paris. Well, my dear, if you’ve forgiven my mistake — and please say you have, we were both very young — then write to me at Aunt Sarah’s address, and if you write don’t forget to put “Passy”. The posts are so erratic in France, and I’d hate to think that they’d lost your letter. Your very sincere friend, MARTIN HALLAM.’
Stephen glanced through the window. Mary was in the garden still admiring her brave little cherry-tree; in a minute or two she would feed the pigeons — yes, she was starting to cross the lawn to the shed in which she kept pigeon-mixture — but presently she would be coming in. Stephen sat down and began to think quickly.
Martin Hallam — he must be about thirty-nine. He had fought in the war and been badly wounded — she had thought of him during that terrible advance, the smitten trees had been a reminder . . . He must often have been very near her then; he was very near now, just out at Passy, and he wanted to see her; he offered his friendship.
She closed her eyes the better to consider, but now her mind must conjure up pictures. A very young man at the Antrims’ dance — oh, but very young — with a bony face that glowed when he talked of the beauty of trees, of their goodness . . . a tall, loose-limbed young man who slouched when he walked, as though from much riding. The hills . . . winter hills rust-coloured by bracken . . . Martin touching the ancient thorns with kind fingers. ‘Look, Stephen — the courage of these old fellows!’ How clearly she remembered his actual words after all these years, and her own she remembered; ‘You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had except Father — our friendship’s so wonderful somehow . . . ’ And his answer: ‘I know, a wonderful friendship.’ A great sense of companionship, of comfort — it had been so good to have him beside her; she had liked his quiet and careful voice, and his thoughtful blue eyes that moved rather slowly. He had filled a real need that had always been hers and still was, a need for the friendship of men — how very completely Martin had filled it, until . . . But she resolutely closed her mind, refusing to visualize that last picture. He knew now that it had been a ghastly mistake — he understood — he practically said so. Could they take up their friendship where they had left it? If only they could . . .
She got up abruptly and went to the telephone on her desk. Glancing at his letter, she rang up a number.
‘Hallo — yes?’
She recognized his voice at once.
‘Is that you, Martin? It’s Stephen speaking.’
Stephen . . . oh, I’m so glad! But where on earth are you?’ ‘At my house in Paris-35, Rue Jacob.’
‘But I don’t understand, I thought . . .
‘Yes, I know, but I’ve lived here for ages — since before the war. I’ve just got your letter, sent back from England. Funny isn’t it? Why not come to dinner to-night if you’re free — eight o’clock.’
‘I say! May I really?’
‘Of course . . . come and dine with my friend and me.’ ‘What number?’
‘Thirty-five — 3 5, Rue Jacob.’
‘I’ll be there on the actual stroke of eight!’
‘That’s right — good-bye, Martin.’
‘Good-bye, and thanks, Stephen.’
She hung up the receiver and opened the window.
Mary saw her and called: ‘Stephen, please speak to David. He’s just bitten off and swallowed a crocus! Oh, and do come here: the scyllas are out, I never saw anything like their blueness. I think I shall go and fetch my birds, it’s quite warm in the sun over there by the wall. David, stop it; will you get off that border!’
David wagged a bald but ingratiating tail. Then he thrust out his nose and sniffed at the pigeons. Oh, hang it all, why should the coming of spring be just one colossal smell of temptation! And why was there nothing really exciting that a spaniel might do and yet remain lawful?
Sighing, he turned amber eyes of entreaty first on Stephen, and then on his goddess, Mary.
She forgave him the crocus and patted his head. ‘Darling, you get more than a pound of raw meat for your dinner; you mustn’t be so untruthful. Of course you’re not hungry — it was just pure mischief.’
He barked trying desperately hard to explain. ‘It’s the spring; it’s got into my blood, oh, Goddess! Oh, Gentle Purveyor of all Good Things, let me dig till I’ve rooted up every damned crocus; just this once let me sin for the joy of life, for the ancient and exquisite joy of sinning!’
But Mary shook her head. ‘You must be a nice dog; and nice dogs never look at white fantail pigeons, or walk on the borders, or bite off the flowers — do they, Stephen?’
Stephen smiled. ‘I’m afraid they don’t, David.’ Then she said: ‘Mary, listen — about this evening. I’ve just heard from a very old friend of mine, a man called Hallam that I knew in England. He’s in Paris; it’s too queer. He wrote to Morton and his letter has been sent back by Puddle. I’ve rung him up, and he’s coming to dinner. Better tell Pauline at once, will you, darling?’
But Mary must naturally ask a few questions. What was he like? Where had Stephen known him? — she had never mentioned a man called Hallam — where had she known him, in London or at Morton?
And finally: ‘How old were you when you knew him?’
‘Let me think — I must have been just eighteen.’
‘How old was he?’
‘Twenty-two — very young — I only knew him for quite a short time; after that he went back to British Columbia. But I liked him so much — we were very great friends — so I’m hoping that you’re going to like him too, darling.’
‘Stephen, you are strange. Why haven’t you told me that you once had a very great friend — a man? I’ve always thought that you didn’t like men.’
‘On the contrary, I like them very much. But I haven’t seen Martin for years and years. I’ve hardly ever thought about him until I got his letter this morning. Now, sweetheart, we don’t want the poor man to starve — you really must go off and try to find Pauline.’
When she had gone Stephen rubbed her chin with thoughtful and rather uncertain fingers.
He came. Amazing how little he had changed. He was just the same clean-shaven, bony-faced Martin, with the slow blue eyes and the charming expression, and the loose-limbed figure that slouched from much riding; only now there were a few faint lines round his eyes, and the hair had gone snow-white on his temples. Just beside the right temple was a deep little scar — it must have been a near thing, that bullet.
He said: ‘My dear, it is good to see you.’ And he held Stephen’s hand in his own thin brown ones.
She felt the warm, friendly grip of his fingers, and the years dropped away. ‘I’m so glad you wrote, Martin.’
‘So am I. I can’t tell you how glad I am. And all the time we were both in Paris, and we never knew. Well, now that I’ve found you, we’ll cling like grim death, if you don’t mind, Stephen.’
As Mary came into the room they were laughing.
She looked less tired, Stephen thought with satisfaction, or perhaps it was that her dress became her — she was always at her best in the evening.
Stephen said quite simply: ‘This is Martin, Mary.’
They shook hands, and as they did so they smiled. Then they stared at each other for a moment, almost gravely.
He proved to be wonderfully easy to talk to. He did not seem surprised that Mary Llewellyn was installed as the mistress of Stephen’s home; he just accepted the thing as he found it. Yet he let it be tacitly understood that he had grasped the exact situation.
After dinner Stephen inquired about his sight: was it badly injured? His eyes looked so normal. Then he told them the history of the trouble at full length, going into details with the confidence displayed by most children and lonely people.
He had got his knock-out in 1918. The bullet had grazed the optic nerve. At first he had gone to a base hospital, but as soon as he could he had come to Paris to be treated by a very celebrated man. He had been in danger of losing the sight of the right eye; it had scared him to death, he told them. But after three months he had had to go home; things had gone wrong on some of his farms owing to the mismanagement of a bailiff. The oculist had warned him that the trouble might recur, that he ought to have remained under observation. Well, it had recurred about four months ago. He had got the wind up and rushed back to Paris. For three weeks he had lain in a darkened room, not daring to think of the possible verdict. Eyes were so tiresomely sympathetic: if the one went the other might easily follow. But, thank God, it had proved to be less serious than the oculist had feared. His sight was saved, but he had to go slow, and was still under treatment. The eye would have to be watched for some time; so here he was with Aunt Sarah at Passy.
‘You must see my Aunt Sarah, you two; she’s a darling. She’s my father’s sister. I know you’ll like her. She’s become very French since her second marriage, a little too Faubourg St. Germain perhaps, but so kind — I want you to meet her at once. She’s quite a well-known hostess at Passy.’
They talked on until well after twelve o’clock — very happy they were together that evening, and he left with a promise to ring them up on the following morning about lunch with Aunt Sarah. ‘Well,’ said Stephen, ‘what do you think of my friend?’
‘I think he’s most awfully nice,’ said Mary.
Aunt Sarah lived in the palatial house that a grateful second husband had left her. For years she had borne with his peccadilloes, keeping her temper and making no scandal. The result was that everything he possessed apart from what had gone to her stepson — and the Comte de Mirac had been very wealthy — had found its way to the patient Aunt Sarah. She was one of those survivals who look upon men as a race of especially privileged beings. Her judgment of women was more severe, influenced no doubt by the ancien régime, for now she was even more French than the French whose language she spoke like a born Parisian.
She was sixty-five, tall, had an aquiline nose, and her iron-grey hair was dressed to perfection; for the rest she had Martin’s slow blue eyes and thin face, though she lacked his charming expression. She bred Japanese spaniels, was kind to young girls who conformed in all things to the will of their parents, was particularly gracious to good-looking men, and adored her only surviving nephew. In her opinion he could do no wrong, though she wished he would settle down in Paris. As Stephen and Mary were her nephew’s friends, she was predisposed to consider them charming, the more so as the former’s antecedents left little or nothing to be desired, and her parents had shown great kindness to Martin. He had told his aunt just what he wished her to know and not one word more about the old days at Morton. She was therefore quite unprepared for Stephen.
Aunt Sarah was a very courteous old dame, and those who broke bread at her table were sacred, at all events while they remained her guests. But Stephen was miserably telepathic, and before the déjeuner was half-way through she was conscious of the deep antagonism that she had aroused in Martin’s Aunt Sarah. Not by so much as a word or a look did the Comtesse de Mirac betray her feelings; she was gravely polite, she discussed literature as being a supposedly congenial subject, she praised Stephen’s books, and asked no questions as to why she was living apart from her mother. Martin could have sworn that these two would be friends — but good manners could not any more deceive Stephen.
And true it was that the Comtesse de Mirac saw in Stephen the type that she most mistrusted, saw only an unsexed creature of pose, whose cropped head and whose dress were pure affectation; a creature who aping the prerogatives of men, had lost all the charm and grace of a woman. An intelligent person in nearly all else, the Comtesse would never have admitted of inversion as a fact in nature. She had heard things whispered, it is true, but had scarcely grasped their full meaning. She was innocent and stubborn; and this being so, it was not Stephen’s morals that she suspected, but her obvious desire to ape what she was not — in the Comtesse’s set, as at county dinners, there was firm insistence upon sex-distinction.
On the other hand, she took a great fancy to Mary, whom she quickly discovered to be an orphan. In a very short time she had learnt quite a lot about Mary’s life before the war and about her meeting with Stephen in the Unit; had learnt also that she was quite penniless — since Mary was eager that everyone should know that she owed her prosperity entirely to Stephen.
Aunt Sarah secretly pitied the girl who must surely be living a dull existence, bound, no doubt, by a false sense of gratitude to this freakish and masterful-looking woman — pretty girls should find husbands and homes of their own, and this one she considered excessively pretty. Thus it was that while Mary in all loyalty and love was doing her best to extol Stephen’s virtues, to convey an impression of her own happiness, of the privilege it was to serve so great a writer by caring for her house and her personal needs, she was only succeeding in getting herself pitied. But as good luck would have it, she was blissfully unconscious of the sympathy that her words were arousing; indeed, she was finding it very pleasant at Aunt Sarah’s hospitable house in Passy.
As for Martin, he had never been very subtle, and just now he must rejoice in a long-lost friendship — to him it appeared a delightful luncheon. Even after the guests had said good-bye, he remained in the very highest of spirits, for the Comtesse was capable of unexpected tact, and while praising Mary’s prettiness and charm, she was careful in no way to disparage Stephen.
‘Oh, yes, undoubtedly a brilliant writer, I agree with you, Martin.’ And so she did. But books were one thing and their scribes another; she saw no reason to change her opinion with regard to this author’s unpleasant affectation, while she saw every reason to be tactful with her nephew.
On the drive home Mary held Stephen’s hand. ‘I enjoyed myself awfully, didn’t you? Only —’ and she frowned; ‘only will it last? I mean, we mustn’t forget Lady Massey. But he’s so nice, and I liked the old aunt . . . ’
Stephen said firmly: Of course it will last.’ Then she lied. ‘I enjoyed it very much too.’
And even as she lied she came to a resolve which seemed so strange that she flinched a little, for never before since they had been lovers, had she thought of this girl as apart from herself. Yet now she resolved that Mary should go to Passy again — but should go without her. Sitting back in the car she half closed her eyes; just at that moment she did not want to speak lest her voice should betray that flinching to Mary.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55