Rawdon was the sort of man who said, privately, to his men friends, over a glass of wine after dinner: “No woman shall sleep again under my roof!”
He said it with pride, rather vaunting, pursing his lips. “Even my housekeeper goes home to sleep.”
But the housekeeper was a gentle old thing of about sixty, so it seemed a little fantastic. Moreover, the man had a wife, of whom he was secretly rather proud, as a piece of fine property, and with whom he kept up a very witty correspondence, epistolary, and whom he treated with humorous gallantry when they occasionally met for half an hour. Also he had a love affair going on. At least, if it wasn’t a love affair, what was it? However!
“No, I’ve come to the determination that no woman shall ever sleep under my roof again — not even a female cat!”
One looked at the roof, and wondered what it had done amiss. Besides, it wasn’t his roof. He only rented the house. What does a man mean, anyhow, when he says “my roof”? MY roof! The only roof I am conscious of having, myself, is the top of my head. However, he hardly can have meant that no woman should sleep under the elegant dome of his skull. Though there’s no telling. You see the top of a sleek head through a window, and you say: “By Jove, what a pretty girl’s head!” And after all, when the individual comes out, it’s in trousers.
The point, however, is that Rawdon said so emphatically — no, not emphatically, succinctly: “No woman shall ever again sleep under my roof.” It was a case of futurity. No doubt he had had his ceilings whitewashed, and their memories put out. Or rather, repainted, for it was a handsome wooden ceiling. Anyhow, if ceilings have eyes, as walls have ears, then Rawdon had given his ceilings a new outlook, with a new coat of paint, and all memory of any woman’s having slept under them — for after all, in decent circumstances we sleep under ceilings, not under roofs — was wiped out for ever.
“And will you neither sleep under any woman’s roof?”
That pulled him up rather short. He was not prepared to sauce his gander as he had sauced his goose. Even I could see the thought flitting through his mind, that some of his pleasantest holidays depended on the charm of his hostess. Even some of the nicest hotels were run by women.
“Ah! Well! That’s not quite the same thing, you know. When one leaves one’s own house one gives up the keys of circumstance, so to speak. But, as far as possible, I make it a rule not to sleep under a roof that is openly, and obviously, and obtrusively a woman’s roof!”
“Quite!” said I with a shudder. “So do I!”
Now I understood his mysterious love affair less than ever. He was never known to speak of this love affair: he did not even write about it to his wife. The lady — for she was a lady — lived only five minutes’ walk from Rawdon. She had a husband, but he was in diplomatic service or something like that, which kept him occupied in the sufficiently-far distance. Yes, far enough. And, as a husband, he was a complete diplomat. A balance of power. If he was entitled to occupy the wide field of the world, she, the other and contrasting power, might concentrate and consolidate her position at home.
She was a charming woman, too, and even a beautiful woman. She had two charming children, long-legged, stalky, clove-pink-half-opened sort of children. But really charming. And she was a woman with a certain mystery. She never talked. She never said anything about herself. Perhaps she suffered; perhaps she was frightfully happy, and made THAT her cause for silence. Perhaps she was wise enough even to be beautifully silent about her happiness. Certainly she never mentioned her sufferings, or even her trials: and certainly she must have a fair handful of the latter, for Alec Drummond sometimes fled home in the teeth of a gale of debts. He simply got through his own money and through hers, and, third and fatal stride, through other people’s as well. Then something had to be done about it. And Janet, dear soul, had to put her hat on and take journeys. But she never said anything of it. At least, she did just hint that Alec didn’t QUITE make enough money to meet expenses. But after all, we don’t go about with our eyes shut, and Alec Drummond, whatever else he did, didn’t hide his prowess under a bushel.
Rawdon and he were quite friendly, but really! None of them ever talked. Drummond didn’t talk, he just went off and behaved in his own way. And though Rawdon would chat away till the small hours, HE never “talked”. Not to his nearest male friend did he ever mention Janet save as a very pleasant woman and his neighbour: he admitted he adored her children. They often came to see him.
And one felt about Rawdon, he was making a mystery of something. And that was rather irritating. He went every day to see Janet, and of course we saw him going: going or coming. How can one help but see? But he always went in the morning, at about eleven, and did not stay for lunch: or he went in the afternoon, and came home to dinner. Apparently he was never there in the evening. Poor Janet, she lived like a widow.
Very well, if Rawdon wanted to make it so blatantly obvious that it was only platonic, purely platonic, why wasn’t he natural? Why didn’t he say simply: “I’m very fond of Janet Drummond, she is my very dear friend?” Why did he sort of curl up at the very mention of her name, and curdle into silence: or else say rather forcedly: “Yes, she is a charming woman. I see a good deal of her, but chiefly for the children’s sake. I’m devoted to the children!” Then he would look at one in such a curious way, as if he were hiding something. And after all, what was there to hide? If he was the woman’s friend, why not? It could be a charming friendship. And if he were her lover, why, heaven bless me, he ought to have been proud of it, and showed just a glint, just an honest man’s glint.
But no, never a glint of pride or pleasure in the relation either way. Instead of that, this rather theatrical reserve. Janet, it is true, was just as reserved. If she could, she avoided mentioning his name. Yet one knew, sure as houses, she felt something. One suspected her of being more in love with Rawdon than ever she had been with Alec. And one felt that there was a hush put upon it all. She had had a hush put upon her. By whom? By both the men? Or by Rawdon only? Or by Drummond? Was it for her husband’s sake? Impossible! For her children’s? But why! Her children were devoted to Rawdon.
It had now become the custom for them to go to him three times a week, for music. I don’t mean he taught them the piano. Rawdon was a very refined musical amateur. He had them sing, in their delicate girlish voices, delicate little songs, and really he succeeded wonderfully with them; he made them so true, which children rarely are, musically, and so pure and effortless, like little flamelets of sound. It really was rather beautiful, and sweet of him. And he taught them MUSIC, the delicacy of the feel of it. They had a regular teacher for the practice.
Even the little girls, in their young little ways, were in love with Rawdon! So if their mother were in love too, in her ripened womanhood, why not?
Poor Janet! She was so still, and so elusive: the hush upon her! She was rather like a half-opened rose that somebody had tied a string round, so that it couldn’t open any more. But why? Why? In her there was a real touch of mystery. One could never ASK her, because one knew her heart was too keenly involved: or her pride.
Whereas there was, really, no mystery about Rawdon, refined and handsome and subtle as he was. He HAD no mystery: at least, to a man. What HE wrapped himself up in was a certain amount of mystification.
Who wouldn’t be irritated to hear a fellow saying, when for months and months he has been paying a daily visit to a lonely and very attractive woman — nay, lately even a twice-daily visit, even if always before sundown — to hear him say, pursing his lips after a sip of his own very moderate port: “I’ve taken a vow that no woman shall sleep under my roof again!”
I almost snapped out: “Oh, what the hell! And what about your Janet?” But I remembered in time, it was not MY affair, and if he wanted to have his mystifications, let him have them.
If he meant he wouldn’t have his wife sleep under his roof again, that one could understand. They were really very witty with one another, he and she, but fatally and damnably married.
Yet neither wanted a divorce. And neither put the slightest claim to any control over the other’s behaviour. He said: “Women live on the moon, men on the earth.” And she said: “I don’t mind in the least if he loves Janet Drummond, poor thing. It would be a change for him, from loving himself. And a change for her, if somebody loved her —”
Poor Janet! But he wouldn’t have her sleep under his roof, no, not for any money. And apparently he never slept under hers — if she could be said to have one. So what the deuce?
Of course, if they were friends, just friends, all right! But then in that case, why start talking about not having a woman sleep under your roof? Pure mystification!
The cat never came out of the bag. But one evening I distinctly heard it mewing inside its sack, and I even believe I saw a claw through the canvas.
It was in November — everything much as usual — myself pricking my ears to hear if the rain had stopped, and I could go home, because I was just a little bored about “cornemuse” music. I had been having dinner with Rawdon, and listening to him ever since on his favourite topic: not, of course, women, and why they shouldn’t sleep under his roof, but fourteenth-century melody and windbag accompaniment.
It was not late — not yet ten o’clock — but I was restless, and wanted to go home. There was no longer any sound of rain. And Rawdon was perhaps going to make a pause in his monologue.
Suddenly there was a tap at the door, and Rawdon’s man, Hawken, edged in. Rawdon, who had been a major in some fantastic capacity during the war, had brought Hawken back with him. This fresh-faced man of about thirty-five appeared in the doorway with an intensely blank and bewildered look on his face. He was really an extraordinarily good actor.
“A lady, sir!” he said, with a look of utter blankness.
“A what?” snapped Rawdon.
“A lady!”— then with a most discreet drop in his voice: “Mrs. Drummond, sir!” He looked modestly down at his feet.
Rawdon went deathly white, and his lips quivered.
“Mrs. Drummond! Where?”
Hawken lifted his eyes to his master in a fleeting glance.
“I showed her into the dining-room, there being no fire in the drawing-room.”
Rawdon got to his feet and took two or three agitated strides. He could not make up his mind. At last he said, his lips working with agitation:
“Bring her in here.”
Then he turned with a theatrical gesture to me.
“What this is all about, I DON’T know,” he said.
“Let me clear out,” said I, making for the door.
He caught me by the arm.
“No, for God’s sake! For God’s sake, stop and see me through!”
He gripped my arm till it really hurt, and his eyes were quite wild. I did not know my Olympic Rawdon.
Hastily I backed away to the side of the fire — we were in Rawdon’s room, where the books and piano were — and Mrs. Drummond appeared in the doorway. She was much paler than usual, being a rather warm-coloured woman, and she glanced at me with big reproachful eyes, as much as to say: You intruder! You interloper! For my part, I could do nothing but stare. She wore a black wrap, which I knew quite well, over her black dinner-dress.
“Rawdon!” she said, turning to him and blotting out my existence from her consciousness. Hawken softly closed the door, and I could FEEL him standing on the threshold outside, listening keen as a hawk.
“Sit down, Janet,” said Rawdon, with a grimace of a sour smile, which he could not get rid of once he had started it, so that his face looked very odd indeed, like a mask which he was unable either to fit on or take off. He had several conflicting expressions all at once, and they had all stuck.
She let her wrap slip back on her shoulders, and knitted her white fingers against her skirt, pressing down her arms, and gazing at him with a terrible gaze. I began to creep to the door.
Rawdon started after me.
“No, don’t go! Don’t go! I specially want you not to go,” he said in extreme agitation.
I looked at her. She was looking at him with a heavy, sombre kind of stare. Me she absolutely ignored. Not for a second could she forgive me for existing on the earth. I slunk back to my post behind the leather armchair, as if hiding.
“Do sit down, Janet,” he said to her again. “And have a smoke. What will you drink?”
“Nothanks!” she said, as if it were one word slurred out. “Nothanks.”
And she proceeded again to fix him with that heavy, portentous stare.
He offered her a cigarette, his hand trembling as he held out the silver box.
“Nothanks!” she slurred out again, not even looking at the box, but keeping him fixed with that dark and heavy stare.
He turned away, making a great delay lighting a cigarette, with his back to her, to get out of the stream of that stare. He carefully went for an ash-tray, and put it carefully within reach — all the time trying not to be swept away on that stare. And she stood with her fingers locked, her straight, plump, handsome arms pressed downwards against her skirt, and she gazed at him.
He leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece abstractedly for a moment — then he started suddenly, and rang the bell. She turned her eyes from him for a moment, to watch his middle finger pressing the bell-button. Then there was a tension of waiting, an interruption in the previous tension. We waited. Nobody came. Rawdon rang again.
“That’s very curious!” he murmured to himself. Hawken was usually so prompt. Hawken, not being a woman, slept under the roof, so there was no excuse for his not answering the bell. The tension in the room had now changed quality, owing to this new suspense. Poor Janet’s sombre stare became gradually loosened, so to speak. Attention was divided. Where was Hawken? Rawdon rang the bell a third time, a long peal. And now Janet was no longer the centre of suspense. Where was Hawken? The question loomed large over every other.
“I’ll just look in the kitchen,” said I, making for the door.
“No, no. I’ll go,” said Rawdon.
But I was in the passage — and Rawdon was on my heels. The kitchen was very tidy and cheerful, but empty; only a bottle of beer and two glasses stood on the table. To Rawdon the kitchen was as strange a world as to me — he never entered the servants’ quarters. But to me it was curious that the bottle of beer was empty, and both the glasses had been used. I knew Rawdon wouldn’t notice.
“That’s very curious!” said Rawdon: meaning the absence of his man.
At that moment we heard a step on the servants’ stairs, and Rawdon opened the door to reveal Hawken descending with an armful of sheets and things.
“What are you doing?”
“Why! —” and a pause. “I was airing the clean laundry, like — not to waste the fire last thing.”
Hawken descended into the kitchen with a very flushed face and very bright eyes and rather ruffled hair, and proceeded to spread the linen on chairs before the fire.
“I hope I’ve not done wrong, sir,” he said in his most winning manner. “Was you ringing?”
“Three times! Leave that linen and bring a bottle of the fizz.”
“I’m sorry, sir. You can’t hear the bell from the front, sir.”
It was perfectly true. The house was small, but it had been built for a very nervous author, and the servants’ quarters were shut off, padded from the rest of the house.
Rawdon said no more about the sheets and things, but he looked more peaked than ever.
We went back to the music-room. Janet had gone to the hearth, and stood with her hand on the mantel. She looked round at us, baffled.
“We’re having a bottle of fizz,” said Rawdon. “Do let me take your wrap.”
“And where was Hawken?” she asked satirically.
“Oh, busy somewhere upstairs.”
“He’s a busy young man, that!” she said sardonically. And she sat uncomfortably on the edge of the chair where I had been sitting.
When Hawken came with the tray, she said:
“I’m not going to drink.”
Rawdon appealed to me, so I took a glass. She looked inquiringly at the flushed and bright-eyed Hawken, as if she understood something.
The manservant left the room. We drank our wine, and the awkwardness returned.
“Rawdon!” she said suddenly, as if she were firing a revolver at him. “Alec came home to-night in a bigger mess than ever, and wanted to make love to me to get it off his mind. I can’t stand it any more. I’m in love with you, and I simply can’t stand Alec getting too near to me. He’s dangerous when he’s crossed — and when he’s worked up. So I just came here. I didn’t see what else I could do.”
She left off as suddenly as a machine-gun leaves off firing. We were just dazed.
“You are quite right,” Rawdon began, in a vague and neutral tone . . . .
“I am, am I not?” she said eagerly.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll go round to the hotel to-night, and you can stay here.”
“Under the kindly protection of Hawken, you mean!” she said, with quiet sarcasm.
“Why! — I could send Mrs. Betts, I suppose,” he said.
Mrs. Betts was his housekeeper.
“You couldn’t stay and protect me yourself?” she said quietly.
“I! I! Why, I’ve made a vow — haven’t I, Joe?”— he turned to me — “not to have any woman sleep under my roof again.”— He got the mixed sour smile on his face.
She looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then lapsed into silence. Then she said:
“Sort of monastery, so to speak!”
And she rose and reached for her wrap, adding:
“I’d better go, then.”
“Joe will see you home,” he said.
She faced round on me.
“Do you mind NOT seeing me home, Mr. Bradley?” she said, gazing at me.
“Not if you don’t want me,” said I.
“Hawken will drive you,” said Rawdon.
“Oh, no, he won’t!” she said. “I’ll walk. Good-night.”
“I’ll get my hat,” stammered Rawdon, in an agony. “Wait! Wait! The gate will be locked.”
“It was open when I came,” she said.
He rang for Hawken to unlock the iron doors at the end of the short drive, whilst he himself huddled into a greatcoat and scarf, fumbling for a flashlight.
“You won’t go till I come back, will you?” he pleaded to me. “I’d be awfully glad if you’d stay the night. The sheets WILL be aired.”
I had to promise — and he set off with an umbrella, in the rain, at the same time asking Hawken to take a flashlight and go in front. So that was how they went, in single file along the path over the fields to Mrs. Drummond’s house, Hawken in front, with flashlight and umbrella, curving round to light up in front of Mrs. Drummond, who, with umbrella only, walked isolated between two lights, Rawdon shining his flashlight on her from the rear from under his umbrella. I turned indoors.
So that was over! At least, for the moment!
I thought I would go upstairs and see how damp the bed in the guest-chamber was before I actually stayed the night with Rawdon. He never had guests — preferred to go away himself.
The guest-chamber was a good room across a passage and round a corner from Rawdon’s room — its door just opposite the padded service-door. This latter service-door stood open, and a light shone through. I went into the spare bedroom, switching on the light.
To my surprise, the bed looked as if it had just been left — the sheets tumbled, the pillows pressed. I put in my hands under the bedclothes, and it was warm. Very curious!
As I stood looking round in mild wonder, I heard a voice call softly: “Joe!”
“Yes!” said I instinctively, and, though startled, strode at once out of the room and through the servants’ door, towards the voice. Light shone from the open doorway of one of the servants’ rooms.
There was a muffled little shriek, and I was standing looking into what was probably Hawken’s bedroom, and seeing a soft and pretty white leg and a pretty feminine posterior very thinly dimmed in a rather short night-dress, just in the act of climbing into a narrow little bed, and, then arrested, the owner of the pretty posterior burying her face in the bed-clothes, to be invisible, like the ostrich in the sand.
I discreetly withdrew, went downstairs and poured myself a glass of wine. And very shortly Rawdon returned looking like Hamlet in the last act.
He said nothing, neither did I. We sat and merely smoked. Only as he was seeing me upstairs to bed, in the now immaculate bedroom, he said pathetically:
“Why aren’t women content to be what a man wants them to be?”
“Why aren’t they!” said I wearily.
“I thought I had made everything clear,” he said.
“You start at the wrong end,” said I.
And as I said it, the picture came into my mind of the pretty feminine butt-end in Hawken’s bedroom. Yes, Hawken made better starts, wherever he ended.
When he brought me my cup of tea in the morning, he was very soft and cat-like. I asked him what sort of day it was, and he asked me if I’d had a good night, and was I comfortable.
“Very comfortable!” said I. “But I turned you out, I’m afraid.”
“Me, sir?” He turned on me a face of utter bewilderment.
But I looked him in the eye.
“Is your name Joe?” I asked him.
“You’re right, sir.”
“So is mine,” said I. “However, I didn’t see her face, so it’s all right. I suppose you WERE a bit tight, in that little bed!”
“Well, sir!” and he flashed me a smile of amazing impudence, and lowered his tone to utter confidence. “This is the best bed in the house, this is.” And he touched it softly.
“You’ve not tried them all, surely?”
A look of indignant horror on his face!
“No, sir, indeed I haven’t.”
That day, Rawdon left for London, on his way to Tunis, and Hawken was to follow him. The roof of his house looked just the same.
The Drummonds moved too — went away somewhere, and left a lot of unsatisfied tradespeople behind.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23