Virginia Bodoin had a good job: she was head of a department in a certain government office, held a responsible position, and earned, to imitate Balzac and be precise about it, seven hundred and fifty pounds a year. That is already something. Rachel Bodoin, her mother, had an income of about six hundred a year, on which she had lived in the capitals of Europe since the effacement of a never very important husband.
Now, after some years of virtual separation and “freedom”, mother and daughter once more thought of settling down. They had become, in course of time, more like a married couple than mother and daughter. They knew one another very well indeed, and each was a little “nervous” of the other. They had lived together and parted several times. Virginia was now thirty, and she didn’t look like marrying. For four years she had been as good as married to Henry Lubbock, a rather spoilt young man who was musical. Then Henry let her down: for two reasons. He couldn’t stand her mother. Her mother couldn’t stand him. And anybody whom Mrs Bodoin could not stand she managed to sit on, disastrously. So Henry had writhed horribly, feeling his mother-inlaw sitting on him tight, and Virginia, after all, in a helpless sort of family loyalty, sitting alongside her mother. Virginia didn’t really want to sit on Henry. But when her mother egged her on, she couldn’t help it. For ultimately, her mother had power over her; a strange FEMALE power, nothing to do with parental authority. Virginia had long thrown parental authority to the winds. But her mother had another, much subtler form of domination, female and thrilling, so that when Rachel said: Let’s squash him! Virginia had to rush wickedly and gleefully to the sport. And Henry knew quite well when he was being squashed. So that was one of his reasons for going back on Vinny. — He called her Vinny, to the superlative disgust of Mrs Bodoin, who always corrected him: My daughter VIRGINIA—
The second reason was, again to be Balzacian, that Virginia hadn’t a sou of her own. Henry had a sorry two hundred and fifty. Virginia, at the age of twenty-four, was already earning four hundred and fifty. But she was earning them. Whereas Henry managed to earn about twelve pounds per annum, by his precious music. He had realized that he would find it hard to earn more. So that marrying, except with a wife who could keep him, was rather out of the question. Vinny would inherit her mother’s money. But then Mrs Bodoin had the health and muscular equipment of the Sphinx. She would live forever, seeking whom she might devour, and devouring him. Henry lived with Vinny for two years, in the married sense of the words: and Vinny felt they WERE married, minus a mere ceremony. But Vinny had her mother always in the background; often as far back as Paris or Biarritz, but still, within letter reach. And she never realized the funny little grin that came on her own elvish face when her mother, even in a letter, spread her skirts and calmly sat on Henry. She never realized that in spirit she promptly and mischievously sat on him too: she could no more have helped it than the tide can help turning to the moon. And she did not dream that he felt it, and was utterly mortified in his masculine vanity. Women, very often, hypnotize one another, and then, hypnotized, they proceed gently to wring the neck of the man they think they are loving with all their hearts. Then they call it utter perversity on his part, that he doesn’t like having his neck wrung. They think he is repudiating a heart-felt love. For they are hypnotized. Women hypnotize one another, without knowing it.
In the end, Henry backed out. He saw himself being simply reduced to nothingness by two women, an old witch with muscles like the Sphinx, and a young, spell-bound witch, lavish, elvish and weak, who utterly spoilt him but who ate his marrow.
Rachel would write from Paris: My dear Virginia, as I had a windfall in the way of an investment, I am sharing it with you. You will find enclosed my cheque for twenty pounds. No doubt you will be needing it to buy Henry a suit of clothes, since the spring is apparently come, and the sunlight may be tempted to show him up for what he is worth. I don’t want my daughter going around with what is presumably a street-corner musician, but please pay the tailor’s bill yourself, or you may have to do it over again later. — Henry got a suit of clothes, but it was as good as a shirt of Nessus, eating him away with subtle poison.
So he backed out. He didn’t jump out, or bolt, or carve his way out at the sword’s point. He sort of faded out, distributing his departure over a year or more. He was fond of Vinny, and he could hardly do without her, and he was sorry for her. But at length he couldn’t see her apart from her mother. She was a young, weak, spendthrift witch, accomplice of her tough-clawed witch of a mother.
Henry made other alliances, got a good hold on elsewhere, and gradually extricated himself. He saved his life, but he had lost, he felt, a good deal of his youth and marrow. He tended now to go fat, a little puffy, somewhat insignificant. And he had been handsome and striking-looking.
The two witches howled when he was lost to them. Poor Virginia was really half crazy, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She had a violent recoil from her mother. Mrs Bodoin was filled with furious contempt for her daughter: that she should let such a hooked fish slip out of her hands! that she should allow such a person to turn her down! —“I don’t quite see my daughter seduced and thrown over by a sponging individual such as Henry Lubbock,” she wrote. “But if it has happened, I suppose it is somebody’s fault —”
There was a mutual recoil, which lasted nearly five years. But the spell was not broken. Mrs Bodoin’s mind never left her daughter, and Virginia was ceaselessly aware of her mother, somewhere in the universe. They wrote, and met at intervals, but they kept apart in recoil.
The spell, however, was between them, and gradually it worked. They felt more friendly. Mrs Bodoin came to London. She stayed in the same quiet hotel with her daughter: Virginia had had two rooms in an hotel for the past three years. And, at last, they thought of taking an apartment together.
Virginia was now over thirty. She was still thin and odd and elvish, with a very slight and piquant cast in one of her brown eyes, and she still had her odd, twisted smile, and her slow, rather deep-toned voice, that caressed a man like the stroking of subtle finger-tips. Her hair was still a natural tangle of curls, a bit dishevelled. She still dressed with a natural elegance which tended to go wrong and a tiny bit sluttish. She still might have a hole in her expensive and perfectly new stockings, and still she might have to take off her shoes in the drawing-room, if she came to tea, and sit there in her stockinged-feet. True, she had elegant feet: she was altogether elegantly shaped. But it wasn’t that. It was neither coquetry nor vanity. It was simply that, after having gone to a good shoemaker and paid five guineas for a pair of perfectly simple and natural shoes, made to her feet, the said shoes would hurt her excruciatingly, when she had walked half a mile in them, and she would simply have to take them off, even if she sat on the kerb to do it. It was a fatality. There was a touch of the gamin in her very feet, a certain sluttishness that wouldn’t let them stay properly in nice proper shoes. She practically always wore her mother’s old shoes. — Of course I go through life in mother’s old shoes. If she died and left me without a supply, I suppose I should have to go in a bathchair, she would say, with her odd twisted little grin. She was so elegant, and yet a slut. It was her charm, really.
Just the opposite of her mother. They could wear each other’s shoes and each other’s clothes, which seemed remarkable, for Mrs Bodoin seemed so much the bigger of the two. But Virginia’s shoulders were broad, if she was thin, she had a strong frame, even when she looked a frail rag.
Mrs Bodoin was one of those women of sixty or so, with a terrible inward energy and a violent sort of vitality. But she managed to hide it. She sat with perfect repose, and folded hands. One thought: What a calm woman! Just as one may look at the snowy summit of a quiescent volcano, in the evening light, and think: What peace!
It was a strange MUSCULAR energy which possessed Mrs Bodoin, as it possesses, curiously enough, many women over fifty, and is usually distasteful in its manifestations. Perhaps it accounts for the lassitude of the young.
But Mrs Bodoin recognized the bad taste in her energetic coevals, so she cultivated repose. Her very way of pronouncing the word, in two syllables: re-pose, making the second syllable run on into the twilight, showed how much suppressed energy she had. Faced with the problem of iron-grey hair and black eyebrows, she was too clever to try dyeing herself back into youth. She studied her face, her whole figure, and decided that it was POSITIVE. There was no denying it. There was no wispiness, no hollowness, no limp frail blossom-on-a-bending-stalk about her. Her figure, though not stout, was full, strong, and cambré. Her face had an aristocratic arched nose, aristocratic, who-the-devil-are-you grey eyes, and cheeks rather long but also rather full. Nothing appealing or youthfully skittish here.
Like an independent woman, she used her wits, and decided most emphatically not to be either youthful or skittish or appealing. She would keep her dignity, for she was fond of it. She was positive. She liked to be positive. She was used to her positivity. So she would just BE positive.
She turned to the positive period; to the eighteenth century, to Voltaire, to Ninon de l’Enclos and the Pompadour, to Madame la Duchesse and Monsieur le Marquis. She decided that she was not much in the line of la Pompadour or la Duchesse, but almost exactly in the line of Monsieur le Marquis. And she was right. With hair silvering to white, brushed back clean from her positive brow and temples, cut short, but sticking out a little behind, with her rather full, pink face and thin black eyebrows plucked to two fine, superficial crescents, her arching nose and her rather full insolent eyes she was perfectly eighteenth-century, the early half. That she was Monsieur le Marquis rather than Madame la Marquise made her really modern.
Her appearance was perfect. She wore delicate combinations of grey and pink, maybe with a darkening iron-grey touch, and her jewels were of soft old coloured paste. Her bearing was a sort of alert repose, very calm, but very assured. There was, to use a vulgarism, no getting past her.
She had a couple of thousand pounds she could lay hands on. Virginia, of course, was always in debt. But, after all, Virginia was not to be sniffed at. She made seven hundred and fifty a year.
Virginia was oddly clever, and not clever. She didn’t REALLY know anything, because anything and everything was interesting to her for the moment, and she picked it up at once. She picked up languages with extraordinary ease, she was fluent in a fortnight. This helped her enormously with her job. She could prattle away with heads of industry, let them come from where they liked. But she didn’t KNOW any language, not even her own. She picked things up in her sleep, so to speak, without knowing anything about them.
And this made her popular with men. With all her curious facility, they didn’t feel small in front of her, because she was like an instrument. She had to be prompted. Some man had to set her in motion, and then she worked, really cleverly. She could collect the most valuable information. She was very useful. She worked with men, spent most of her time with men, her friends were practically all men. She didn’t feel easy with women.
Yet she had no lover, nobody seemed eager to marry her, nobody seemed eager to come close to her at all. Mrs Bodoin said: I’m afraid Virginia is a one-man woman. I am a one-man woman. So was my mother, and so was my grandmother. Virginia’s father was the only man in my life, the only one. And I’m afraid Virginia is the same, tenacious. Unfortunately, the man was what he was, and her life is just left there.
Henry had said, in the past, that Mrs Bodoin wasn’t a one-man woman, she was a no-man woman, and that if she could have had her way, everything male would have been wiped off the face of the earth, and only the female element left.
However, Mrs Bodoin thought that it was now time to make a move. So she and Virginia took a quite handsome apartment in one of the old Bloomsbury Squares, fitted it up and furnished it with extreme care, and with some quite lovely things, got in a very good man, an Austrian, to cook, and they set up married life together, mother and daughter.
At first it was rather thrilling. The two reception-rooms, looking down on the dirty old trees of the square garden, were of splendid proportions, and each with three great windows coming down low, almost to the level of the knees. The chimney-piece was late eighteenth-century. Mrs Bodoin furnished the rooms with a gentle suggestion of Louis Seize merged with Empire, without keeping to any particular style. But she had, saved from her own home, a really remarkable Aubusson carpet. It looked almost new, as if it had been woven two years ago, and was startling, yet somehow rather splendid, as it spread its rose-red borders and wonderful florid array of silver-grey and gold-grey roses, lilies and gorgeous swans and trumpeting volutes away over the floor. Very aesthetic people found it rather loud, they preferred the worn, dim yellowish Aubusson in the big bedroom. But Mrs Bodoin loved her drawing-room carpet. It was positive, but it was not vulgar. It had a certain grand air in its floridity. She felt it gave her a proper footing. And it behaved very well with her painted cabinets and grey-and-gold brocade chairs and big Chinese vases, which she liked to fill with big flowers: single Chinese peonies, big roses, great tulips, orange lilies. The dim room of London, with all its atmospheric colour, would stand the big, free, fisticuffing flowers.
Virginia, for the first time in her life, had the pleasure of making a home. She was again entirely under her mother’s spell, and swept away, thrilled to her marrow. She had had no idea that her mother had got such treasures as the carpets and painted cabinets and brocade chairs up her sleeve: many of them the débris of the Fitzpatrick home in Ireland, Mrs Bodoin being a Fitzpatrick. Almost like a child, like a bride, Virginia threw herself into the business of fixing up the rooms. “Of course, Virginia, I consider this is YOUR apartment,” said Mrs Bodoin. “I am nothing but your dame de compagnie, and shall carry out your wishes entirely, if you will only express them.”
Of course Virginia expressed a few, but not many. She introduced some wild pictures bought from impecunious artists whom she patronized. Mrs Bodoin thought the pictures positive about the wrong things, but as far as possible, she let them stay: looking on them as the necessary element of modern ugliness. But by that element of modern ugliness, wilfully so, it was easy to see the things that Virginia had introduced into the apartment.
Perhaps nothing goes to the head like setting up house. You can get drunk on it. You feel you are creating something. Nowadays it is no longer the “home”, the domestic nest. It is “my rooms”, or “my house”, the great garment which reveals and clothes “my personality”. Mrs Bodoin, deliberately scheming for Virginia, kept moderately cool over it, but even she was thrilled to the marrow, and of an intensity and ferocity with the decorators and furnishers, astonishing. But Virginia was just all the time tipsy with it, as if she had touched some magic button on the grey wall of life, and with an Open Sesame! her lovely and coloured rooms had begun to assemble out of fairyland. It was far more vivid and wonderful to her than if she had inherited a duchy.
The mother and daughter, the mother in a sort of faded russet crimson and the daughter in silver, began to entertain. They had, of course, mostly men. It filled Mrs Bodoin with a sort of savage impatience to entertain women. Besides, most of Virginia’s acquaintances were men. So there were dinners and well-arranged evenings.
It went well, but something was missing. Mrs Bodoin wanted to be gracious, so she held herself rather back. She stayed a little distant, was calm, reposed, eighteenth-century, and determined to be a foil to the clever and slightly-elvish Virginia. It was a pose, and alas, it stopped something. She was very nice with the men, no matter what her contempt of them. But the men were uneasy with her: afraid.
What they all felt, all the men guests, was that FOR THEM, nothing really happened. Everything that happened was between mother and daughter. All the flow was between mother and daughter. A subtle, hypnotic spell encompassed the two women, and try as they might, the men were shut out. More than one young man, a little dazzled, BEGAN to fall in love with Virginia. But it was impossible. Not only was he shut out, he was, in some way, annihilated. The spontaneity was killed in his bosom. While the two women sat, brilliant and rather wonderful, in magnetic connection at opposite ends of the table, like two witches, a double Circe turning the men not into swine — the men would have liked that well enough — but into lumps.
It was tragic. Because Mrs Bodoin wanted Virginia to fall in love and marry. She really wanted it, and she attributed Virginia’s lack of forthcoming to the delinquent Henry. She never realized the hypnotic spell, which of course encompassed her as well as Virginia, and made men just an impossibility to both women, mother and daughter alike.
At this time, Mrs Bodoin hid her humour. She had a really marvellous faculty of humorous imitation. She could imitate the Irish servants from her old home, or the American women who called on her, or the modern lady-like young men, the asphodels, as she called them: “Of course you know the asphodel is a kind of onion! Oh yes, just an over-bred onion”: who wanted, with their murmuring voices and peeping under their brows, to make her feel very small and very bourgeois. She could imitate them all with a humour that was really touched with genius. But it was devastating. It demolished the objects of her humour so absolutely, smashed them to bits with a ruthless hammer, pounded them to nothing so terribly, that it frightened people, particularly men. It frightened men off.
So she hid it. She hid it. But there it was, up her sleeve, her merciless, hammer-like humour, which just smashed its object on the head and left him brained. She tried to disown it. She tried to pretend, even to Virginia, that she had the gift no more. But in vain; the hammer hidden up her sleeve hovered over the head of every guest, and every guest felt his scalp creep, and Virginia felt her inside creep with a little, mischievous, slightly idiotic grin, as still another fool male was mystically knocked on the head. It was a sort of uncanny sport.
No, the plan was not going to work: the plan of having Virginia fall in love and marry. Of course the men WERE such lumps, such oeufs farcies. There was one, at least, that Mrs Bodoin had real hopes of. He was a healthy and normal and very good-looking boy of good family, with no money, alas, but clerking to the House of Lords and very hopeful, and not very clever, but simply in love with Virginia’s cleverness. He was just the one Mrs Bodoin would have married for herself. True, he was only twenty-six, to Virginia’s thirty-one. But he had rowed in the Oxford eight, and adored horses, talked horses adorably, and was simply infatuated by Virginia’s cleverness. To him Virginia had the finest mind on earth. She was as wonderful as Plato, but infinitely more attractive, because she was a woman, and winsome with it. Imagine a winsome Plato with untidy curls and the tiniest little brown-eyed squint and just a hint of woman’s pathetic need for a protector, and you may imagine Adrian’s feeling for Virginia. He adored her on his knees, but he felt he could protect her.
“Of course he’s just a very nice BOY!” said Mrs Bodoin. “He’s a boy, and that’s all you can say. And he always will be a boy. But that’s the very nicest kind of man, the only kind you can live with: the eternal boy. Virginia, aren’t you attracted to him?”
“Yes, Mother! I think he’s an awfully nice BOY, as you say,” replied Virginia, in her rather slow, musical, whimsical voice. But the mocking little curl in the intonation put the lid on Adrian. Virginia was not marrying a nice BOY! She could be malicious too, against her mother’s taste. And Mrs Bodoin let escape her a faint gesture of impatience.
For she had been planning her own retreat, planning to give Virginia the apartment outright, and half of her own income, if she would marry Adrian. Yes, the mother was already scheming how best she could live with dignity on three hundred a year, once Virginia was happily married to that most attractive if slightly brainless BOY.
A year later, when Virginia was thirty-two, Adrian, who had married a wealthy American girl and been transferred to a job in the legation at Washington in the meantime, faithfully came to see Virginia as soon as he was in London, faithfully kneeled at her feet, faithfully thought her the most wonderful spiritual being, and faithfully felt that she, Virginia, could have done wonders with him, which wonders would now never be done, for he had married in the meantime.
Virginia was looking haggard and worn. The scheme of a ménage à deux with her mother had not succeeded. And now, work was telling on the younger woman. It is true, she was amazingly facile. But facility wouldn’t get her all the way. She had to earn her money, and earn it hard. She had to slog, and she had to concentrate. While she could work by quick intuition and without much responsibility, work thrilled her. But as soon as she had to get down to it, as they say, grip and slog and concentrate, in a really responsible position, it wore her out terribly. She had to do it all off her nerves. She hadn’t the same sort of fighting power as a man. Where a man can summon his old Adam in him to fight through his work, a woman has to draw on her nerves, and on her nerves alone. For the old Eve in her will have nothing to do with such work. So that mental responsibility, mental concentration, mental slogging wear out a woman terribly, especially if she is head of a department, and not working FOR somebody.
So poor Virginia was worn out. She was thin as a rail. Her nerves were frayed to bits. And she could never forget her beastly work. She would come home at teatime speechless and done for. Her mother, tortured by the sight of her, longed to say: Has anything gone wrong, Virginia? Have you had anything particularly trying at the office today? — But she learned to hold her tongue, and say nothing. The question would be the last straw to Virginia’s poor overwrought nerves, and there would be a little scene which, despite Mrs Bodoin’s calm and forbearance, offended the elder woman to the quick. She had learned, by bitter experience, to leave her child alone, as one would leave a frail tube of vitriol alone. But of course, she could not keep her MIND off Virginia. That was impossible. And poor Virginia, under the strain of work and the strain of her mother’s awful ceaseless mind, was at the very end of her strength and resources.
Mrs Bodoin had always disliked the fact of Virginia’s doing a job. But now she hated it. She hated the whole government office with violent and virulent hate. Not only was it undignified for Virginia to be tied up there, but it was turning her, Mrs Bodoin’s daughter, into a thin, nagging, fearsome old maid. Could anything be more utterly English and humiliating to a well-born Irishwoman?
After a long day attending to the apartment, skilfully darning one of the brocade chairs, polishing the Venetian mirrors to her satisfaction, selecting flowers, doing certain shopping and housekeeping, attending perfectly to everything, then receiving callers in the afternoon, with never-ending energy, Mrs Bodoin would go up from the drawing-room after tea and write a few letters, take her bath, dress with great care — she enjoyed attending to her person — and come down to dinner as fresh as a daisy, but far more energetic than that quiet flower. She was ready now for a full evening.
She was conscious, with gnawing anxiety, of Virginia’s presence in the house, but she did not see her daughter till dinner was announced. Virginia slipped in, and away to her room unseen, never going into the drawing-room to tea. If Mrs Bodoin heard her daughter’s key in the latch, she quickly retired into one of the rooms till Virginia was safely through. It was too much for poor Virginia’s nerves even to catch sight of anybody in the house, when she came in from the office. Bad enough to hear the murmur of visitors’ voices behind the drawing-room door.
And Mrs Bodoin would wonder: How is she? How is she to-night? I wonder what sort of a day she’s had? — And this thought would roam prowling through the house, to where Virginia was lying on her back in her room. But the mother would have to consume her anxiety till dinner-time. And then Virginia would appear, with black lines under her eyes, thin, tense, a young woman out of an office, the stigma upon her: badly dressed, a little acid in humour, with an impaired digestion, not interested in anything, blighted by her work. And Mrs Bodoin, humiliated at the very sight of her, would control herself perfectly, say nothing but the mere smooth nothings of casual speech, and sit in perfect form presiding at a carefully-cooked dinner thought out entirely to please Virginia. Then Virginia hardly noticed what she ate.
Mrs Bodoin was pining for an evening with life in it. But Virginia would lie on the couch and put on the loudspeaker. Or she would put a humorous record on the gramophone, and be amused, and hear it again, and be amused, and hear it again, six times, and six times be amused by a mildly funny record that Mrs Bodoin now knew off by heart. “Why, Virginia, I could repeat that record over to you, if you wished it, without your troubling to wind up that gramophone.”— And Virginia, after a pause in which she seemed not to have heard what her mother said, would reply, “I’m sure you could, mother”. And that simple speech would convey such volumes of contempt for all that Rachel Bodoin was or ever could be or ever had been, contempt for her energy, her vitality, her mind, her body, her very existence, that the elder woman would curl. It seemed as if the ghost of Robert Bodoin spoke out of the mouth of the daughter, in deadly venom. — Then Virginia would put on the record for the seventh time.
During the second ghastly year, Mrs Bodoin realized that the game was up. She was a beaten woman, a woman without object or meaning any more. The hammer of her awful female humour, which had knocked so many people on the head, all the people, in fact, that she had come into contact with, had at last flown backwards and hit herself on the head. For her daughter was her other self, her alter ego. The secret and the meaning and the power of Mrs Bodoin’s whole life lay in the hammer, that hammer of her living humour which knocked everything on the head. That had been her lust and her passion, knocking everybody and everything humorously on the head. She had felt inspired in it: it was a sort of mission. And she had hoped to hand on the hammer to Virginia, her clever, unsolid but still actual daughter, Virginia. Virginia was the continuation of Rachel’s own self. Virginia was Rachel’s alter ego, her other self.
But, alas, it was a half-truth. Virginia had had a father. This fact, which had been utterly ignored by the mother, was gradually brought home to her by the curious recoil of the hammer. Virginia was her father’s daughter. Could anything be more unseemly, horrid, more perverse in the natural scheme of things? For Robert Bodoin had been fully and deservedly knocked on the head by Rachel’s hammer. Could anything, then, be more disgusting than that he should resurrect again in the person of Mrs Bodoin’s own daughter, her own alter ego Virginia, and start hitting back with a little spiteful hammer that was David’s pebble against Goliath’s battle-axe!
But the little pebble was mortal. Mrs Bodoin felt it sink into her brow, her temple, and she was finished. The hammer fell nerveless from her hand.
The two women were now mostly alone. Virginia was too tired to have company in the evening. So there was the gramophone or loudspeaker, or else silence. Both women had come to loathe the apartment. Virginia felt it was the last grand act of bullying on her mother’s part, she felt bullied by the assertive Aubusson carpet, by the beastly Venetian mirrors, by the big overcultured flowers. She even felt bullied by the excellent food, and longed again for a Soho restaurant and her two poky shabby rooms in the hotel. She loathed the apartment: she loathed everything. But she had not the energy to move. She had not the energy to do anything. She crawled to her work, and for the rest, she lay flat, gone.
It was Virginia’s worn-out inertia that really finished Mrs Bodoin. That was the pebble that broke the bone of her temple: “To have to attend my daughter’s funeral, and accept the sympathy of all her fellow-clerks in her office, no, that is a final humiliation which I must spare myself. No! If Virginia must be a lady-clerk, she must be it henceforth on her own responsibility. I will retire from her existence.”
Mrs Bodoin had tried hard to persuade Virginia to give up her work and come and live with her. She had offered her half her income. In vain. Virginia stuck to her office.
Very well! So be it! — The apartment was a fiasco, Mrs Bodoin was longing, longing to tear it to pieces again. One last and final blow of the hammer! —“Virginia, don’t you think we’d better get rid of this apartment, and live around as we used to? Don’t you think we’ll do that?”—“But all the money you’ve put into it? And the lease for ten years!” cried Virginia, in a kind of inertia. —“Never mind! We had the pleasure of making it. And we’ve had as much pleasure out of living in it as we shall ever have. Now we’d better get rid of it — quickly — don’t you think?”
Mrs Bodoin’s arms were twitching to snatch the pictures off the walls, roll up the Aubusson carpet, take the china out of the ivory-inlaid cabinet there and then, at that very moment.
“Let us wait till Sunday before we decide,” said Virginia.
“Till Sunday! Four days! As long as that? Haven’t we already decided in our own minds?” said Mrs Bodoin.
“We’ll wait till Sunday, anyhow,” said Virginia.
The next evening, the Armenian came to dinner. Virginia called him Arnold, with the French pronunciation, Arnault. Mrs Bodoin, who barely tolerated him, and could never get his name, which seemed to have a lot of bouyoums in it, called him either the Armenian, or the Rahat Lakoum, after the name of the sweetmeat, or simply The Turkish Delight.
“Arnault is coming to dinner to-night, Mother.”
“Really! The Turkish Delight is coming here to dinner? Shall I provide anything special?”— Her voice sounded as if she would suggest snails in aspic.
“I don’t think so.”
Virginia had seen a good deal of the Armenian at the office, when she had to negotiate with him on behalf of the Board of Trade. He was a man of about sixty, a merchant, had been a millionaire, was ruined during the war, but was now coming on again, and represented trade in Bulgaria. He wanted to negotiate with the British Government, and the British Government sensibly negotiated with him: at first through the medium of Virginia. Now things were going satisfactorily between Monsieur Arnault, as Virginia called him, and the Board of Trade, so that a sort of friendship had followed the official relations.
The Turkish Delight was sixty, grey-haired and fat. He had numerous grandchildren growing up in Bulgaria, but he was a widower. He had a grey moustache cut like a brush, and glazed brown eyes over which hung heavy lids with white lashes. His manner was humble, but in his bearing there was a certain dogged conceit. One notices the combination sometimes in Jews. He had been very wealthy and kow-towed to, he had been ruined and humiliated, terribly humiliated, and now, doggedly, he was rising up again, his sons backing him, away in Bulgaria. One felt he was not alone. He had his sons, his family, his tribe behind him, away in the Near East.
He spoke bad English, but fairly fluent guttural French. He did not speak much, but he sat. He sat, with his short, fat thighs, as if for eternity, THERE. There was a strange potency in his fat immobile sitting, as if his posterior were connected with the very centre of the earth. And his brain, spinning away at the one point in question, business, was very agile. Business absorbed him. But not in a nervous, personal way. Somehow the family, the tribe was always felt behind him. It was business for the family, the tribe.
With the English he was humble, for the English like such aliens to be humble, and he had had a long schooling from the Turks. And he was always an outsider. Nobody would ever take any notice of him in society. He would just be an outsider, SITTING.
“I hope, Virginia, you won’t ask that Turkish-carpet gentleman when we have other people. I can bear it,” said Mrs Bodoin. “Some people might mind.”
“Isn’t it hard when you can’t choose your own company in your own house!” mocked Virginia.
“No! I don’t care. I can meet anything; and I’m sure, in the way of selling Turkish carpets, your acquaintance is very good. But I don’t suppose you look on him as a personal friend —?”
“I do. I like him quite a lot.”
“Well —! as you will. But consider your OTHER friends.”
Mrs Bodoin was really mortified this time. She looked on the Armenian as one looks on the fat Levantine in a fez who tries to sell one hideous tapestries at Port Said, or on the sea-front at Nice, as being outside the class of human beings, and in the class of insects. That he had been a millionaire, and might be a millionaire again, only added venom to her feeling of disgust at being forced into contact with such scum. She could not even squash him, or annihilate him. In scum, there is nothing to squash, for scum is only the unpleasant residue of that which was never anything but squashed.
However, she was not quite just. True, he was fat, and he sat, with short thighs, like a toad, as if seated for a toad’s eternity. His colour was of a dirty sort of paste, his black eyes were glazed under heavy lids. And he never spoke until spoken to, waiting in his toad’s silence, like a slave.
But his thick, fine white hair, which stood up on his head like a soft brush, was curiously virile. And his curious small hands, of the same soft dull paste, had a peculiar, fat, soft masculine breeding of their own. And his dull brown eye could glint with the subtlety of serpents, under the white brush of eyelash. He was tired, but he was not defeated. He had fought, and won, and lost, and was fighting again, always at a disadvantage. He belonged to a defeated race which accepts defeat, but which gets its own back by cunning. He was the father of sons, the head of a family, one of the heads of a defeated but indestructible tribe. He was not alone, and so you could not lay your finger on him. His whole consciousness was patriarchal and tribal. And somehow, he was humble, but he was indestructible.
At dinner he sat half-effaced, humble, yet with the conceit of the humble. His manners were perfectly good, rather French. Virginia chattered to him in French, and he replied with that peculiar nonchalance of the boulevards, which was the only manner he could command when speaking French. Mrs Bodoin understood, but she was what one would call a heavy-footed linguist, so when she said anything, it was intensely in English. And the Turkish Delight replied in his clumsy English, hastily. It was not his fault that French was being spoken. It was Virginia’s.
He was very humble, conciliatory, with Mrs Bodoin. But he cast at her sometimes that rapid glint of a reptilian glance as if to say: Yes! I see you! You are a handsome figure. As an objet de vertu you are almost perfect. — Thus his connoisseur’s, antique-dealer’s eye would appraise her. But then his thick white eyebrows would seem to add: But what, under holy Heaven, are you as a woman? You are neither wife nor mother nor mistress, you have no perfume of sex, you are more dreadful than a Turkish soldier or an English official. No man on earth could embrace you. You are a ghoul, you are a strange genie from the underworld! — And he would secretly invoke the holy names, to shield him.
Yet he was in love with Virginia. He saw, first and foremost, the child in her, as if she were a lost child in the gutter, a waif with a faint, fascinating cast in her brown eyes, waiting till someone would pick her up. A fatherless waif! And he was tribal father, father through all the ages.
Then, on the other hand, he knew her peculiar disinterested cleverness in affairs. That, too, fascinated him: that odd, almost second-sight cleverness about business, and entirely impersonal, entirely in the air. It seemed to him very strange. But it would be an immense help to him in his schemes. He did not really understand the English. He was at sea with them. But with her, he would have a clue to everything. For she was, finally, quite a somebody among these English, these English officials.
He was about sixty. His family was established, in the East, his grandsons were growing up. It was necessary for him to live in London, for some years. This girl would be useful. She had no money, save what she would inherit from her mother. But he would risk that: she would be an investment in his business. And then the apartment. He liked the apartment extremely. He recognized the cachet, and the lilies and swans of the Aubusson carpet really did something to him. Virginia said to him: Mother gave me the apartment. — So he looked on that as safe. And finally, Virginia was almost a virgin, probably quite a virgin, and, as far as the paternal oriental male like himself was concerned, entirely virgin. He had a very small idea of the silly puppy-sexuality of the English, so different from the prolonged male voluptuousness of his own pleasures. And last of all, he was physically lonely, getting old, and tired.
Virginia of course did not know why she liked being with Arnault. Her cleverness was amazingly stupid when it came to life, to living. She said he was “quaint”. She said his nonchalant French of the boulevards was “amusing”. She found his business cunning “intriguing”, and the glint in his dark glazed eyes, under the white, thick lashes, “sheiky”. She saw him quite often, had tea with him in his hotel, and motored with him one day down to the sea.
When he took her hand in his own soft still hands, there was something so caressing, so possessive in his touch, so strange and positive in his leaning towards her, that though she trembled with fear, she was helpless. —“But you are so thin, dear little thin thing, you need repose, repose, for the blossom to open, poor little blossom, to become a little fat!” he said in his French.
She quivered, and was helpless. It certainly was quaint! He was so strange and positive, he seemed to have all the power. The moment he realized that she would succumb into his power, he took full charge of the situation, he lost all his hesitation and his humility. He did not want just to make love to her: he wanted to marry her, for all his multifarious reasons. And he must make himself master of her.
He put her hand to his lips, and seemed to draw her life to his in kissing her thin hand. “The poor child is tired, she needs repose, she needs to be caressed and cared for,” he said in his French. And he drew nearer to her.
She looked up in dread at his glinting, tired dark eyes under the white lashes. But he used all his will, looking back at her heavily and calculating that she must submit. And he brought his body quite near to her, and put his hand softly on her face, and made her lay her face against his breast, as he soothingly stroked her arm with his other hand, “Dear little thing! dear little thing! Arnault loves her so dearly! Arnault loves her! Perhaps she will marry her Arnault. Dear little girl, Arnault will put flowers in her life, and make her life perfumed with sweetness and content.”
She leaned against his breast and let him caress her. She gave a fleeting, half poignant, half vindictive thought to her mother. Then she felt in the air the sense of destiny, destiny. Oh so nice, not to have to struggle. To give way to destiny.
“Will she marry her old Arnault? Eh? Will she marry him?” he asked in a soothing, caressing voice, at the same time compulsive.
She lifted her head and looked at him: the thick white brows, the glinting, tired dark eyes. How queer and comic! How comic to be in his power! And he was looking a little baffled.
“Shall I?” she said, with her mischievous twist of a grin.
“Mais oui!” he said, with all the sang froid of his old eyes. “Mais oui! Je te contenterai, tu le verras.”
“Tu me contenteras!” she said, with a flickering smile of real amusement at his assurance. “Will you really content me?”
“But surely! I assure it you. And you will marry me?”
“You must tell mother,” she said, and hid wickedly against his waistcoat again, while the male pride triumphed in him.
Mrs Bodoin had no idea that Virginia was intimate with the Turkish Delight: she did not inquire into her daughter’s movements. During the famous dinner, she was calm and a little aloof, but entirely self-possessed. When, after coffee, Virginia left her alone with the Turkish Delight, she made no effort at conversation, only glanced at the rather short, stout man in correct dinner-jacket, and thought how his sort of fatness called for a fez and the full muslin breeches of a bazaar merchant in The Thief of Baghdad.
“Do you really prefer to smoke a hookah?” she asked him, with a slow drawl.
“What is a hookah, please?”
“One of those water-pipes. Don’t you all smoke them, in the East?”
He only looked mystified and humble, and silence resumed. She little knew what was simmering inside his stillness.
“Madame,” he said, “I want to ask you something.”
“You do? Then why not ask it?” came her slightly melancholy drawl.
“Yes! It is this. I wish I may have the honour to marry your daughter. She is willing.”
There was a moment’s blank pause. Then Mrs Bodoin leaned towards him from her distance, with curious portentousness.
“What was that you said?” she asked. “Repeat it!”
“I wish I may have the honour to marry your daughter. She is willing to take me.”
His dark, glazed eyes looked at her, then glanced away again. Still leaning forward, she gazed fixedly on him, as if spellbound, turned to stone. She was wearing pink topaz ornaments, but he judged they were paste, moderately good.
“Did I hear you say she is willing to take you?” came the slow, melancholy, remote voice.
“Madame, I think so,” he said, with a bow.
“I think we’ll wait till she comes,” she said, leaning back.
There was silence. She stared at the ceiling. He looked closely round the room, at the furniture, at the china in the ivory-inlaid cabinet.
“I can settle five thousand pounds on Mademoiselle Virginia, Madame,” came his voice. “Am I correct to assume that she will bring this apartment and its appointments into the marriage settlement?”
Absolute silence. He might as well have been on the moon. But he was a good sitter. He just sat until Virginia came in.
Mrs Bodoin was still staring at the ceiling. The iron had entered her soul finally and fully. Virginia glanced at her, but said:
“Have a whisky-and-soda, Arnault?”
He rose and came towards the decanters, and stood beside her: a rather squat, stout man with white head, silent with misgiving. There was the fizz of the syphon: then they came to their chairs.
“Arnault has spoken to you, Mother?” said Virginia.
Mrs Bodoin sat up straight, and gazed at Virginia with big, owlish eyes, haggard. Virginia was terrified, yet a little thrilled. Her mother was beaten.
“Is it true, Virginia, that you are WILLING to marry this — oriental gentleman?” asked Mrs Bodoin slowly.
“Yes, Mother, quite true,” said Virginia, in her teasing soft voice.
Mrs Bodoin looked owlish and dazed.
“May I be excused from having any part in it, or from having anything to do with your future HUSBAND— I mean having any business to transact with him?” she asked dazedly, in her slow, distinct voice.
“Why, of course!” said Virginia, frightened, smiling oddly.
There was a pause. Then Mrs Bodoin, feeling old and haggard, pulled herself together again.
“Am I to understand that your future husband would like to possess this apartment?” came her voice.
Virginia smiled quickly and crookedly. Arnault just sat, planted on his posterior, and heard. She reposed on him.
“Well — perhaps!” said Virginia. “Perhaps he would like to know that I possessed it.” She looked at him.
Arnault nodded gravely.
“And do you WISH to possess it?” came Mrs Bodoin’s slow voice. “If it your intention to INHABIT it, with your HUSBAND?” She put eternities into her long, stressed words.
“Yes, I think it is,” said Virginia. “You know you SAID the apartment was mine, Mother.”
“Very well! It shall be so. I shall send my lawyer to this — oriental gentleman, if you will leave written instructions on my writing-table. May I ask when you think of getting — MARRIED?”
“When do you think, Arnault?” said Virginia.
“Shall it be, in two weeks?” he said, sitting erect, with his fists on his knees.
“In about a fortnight, Mother,” said Virginia.
“I have heard! In two weeks! Very well! In two weeks everything shall be at your disposal. And now, please excuse me.” She rose, made a slight general bow, and moved calmly and dimly from the room. It was killing her, that she could not shriek aloud and beat that Levantine out of the house. But she couldn’t. She had imposed the restraint on herself.
Arnault stood and looked with glistening eyes round the room. It would be his. When his sons came to England, here he would receive them.
He looked at Virginia. She too was white and haggard, now. And she hung away from him, as if in resentment. She resented the defeat of her mother. She was still capable of dismissing him for ever, and going back to her mother.
“Your mother is a wonderful lady,” he said, going to Virginia and taking her hand. “But she has no husband to shelter her, she is unfortunate. I am sorry she will be alone. I should be happy if she would like to stay here with us.”
The sly old fox knew what he was about.
“I’m afraid there’s no hope of that,” said Virginia, with a return to her old irony.
She sat on the couch, and he caressed her softly and paternally, and the very incongruity of it, there in her mother’s drawing-room, amused her. And because he saw that the things in the drawing-room were handsome and valuable, and now they were his, his blood flushed and he caressed the thin girl at his side with passion, because she represented these valuable surroundings, and brought them to his possession. And he said: “And with me you will be very comfortable, very content, oh, I shall make you content, not like Madame your mother. And you will get fatter, and bloom like the rose. I shall make you bloom like the rose. And shall we say next week, hein? Shall it be next week, next Wednesday, that we marry? Wednesday is a good day. Shall it be then?”
“Very well!” said Virginia, caressed again into a luxurious sense of destiny, reposing on fate, having to make no effort, no more effort, all her life.
Mrs Bodoin moved into an hotel next day, and came into the apartment to pack up and extricate herself and her immediate personal belongings only when Virginia was necessarily absent. She and her daughter communicated by letter, as far as was necessary.
And in five days’ time Mrs Bodoin was clear. All business that could be settled was settled, all her trunks were removed. She had five trunks, and that was all. Denuded and outcast, she would depart to Paris, to live out the rest of her days.
The last day, she waited in the drawing-room till Virginia should come home. She sat there in her hat and street things, like a stranger.
“I just waited to say good-bye,” she said. “I leave in the morning for Paris. This is my address. I think everything is settled; if not, let me know and I’ll attend to it. Well, good-bye! — and I hope you’ll be VERY HAPPY!”
She dragged out the last words sinisterly; which restored Virginia, who was beginning to lose her head.
“Why, I think I may be,” said Virginia, with the twist of a smile.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Mrs Bodoin pointedly and grimly. “I think the Armenian grandpapa knows very well what he’s about. You’re just the harem type, after all.” The words came slowly, dropping, each with a plop! of deep contempt.
“I suppose I am! Rather fun!” said Virginia. “But I wonder where I got it? Not from you, Mother —” she drawled mischievously.
“I should say NOT.”
“Perhaps daughters go by contraries, like dreams,” mused Virginia wickedly. “All the harem was left out of you, so perhaps it all had to be put back into me.”
Mrs Bodoin flashed a look at her.
“You have ALL my PITY!” she said.
“Thank you, dear. You have just a bit of mine.”
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23