The fashion in women changes nowadays even faster than women’s fashions. At twenty, Lina M’Leod was almost painfully modern. At sixty almost obsolete!
She started off in life to be really independent. In that remote day, forty years ago, when a woman said she was going to be independent, it meant she was having no nonsense with men. She was kicking over the masculine traces, and living her own life, manless.
To-day, when a girl says she is going to be independent, it means she is going to devote her attentions almost exclusively to men; though not necessarily to “a man”.
Miss M’Leod had an income from her mother. Therefore, at the age of twenty, she turned her back on that image of tyranny, her father, and went to Paris to study art. Art having been studied, she turned her attention to the globe of earth. Being terribly independent, she soon made Africa look small; she dallied energetically with vast hinterlands of China; and she knew the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of Arizona as if she had been married to them. All this, to escape mere man.
It was in New Mexico she purchased the blue moccasins, blue bead moccasins, from an Indian who was her guide and her subordinate. In her independence she made use of men, of course, but merely as servants, subordinates.
When the war broke out she came home. She was then forty-five, and already going grey. Her brother, two years older than herself, but a bachelor, went off to the war; she stayed at home in the small family mansion in the country, and did what she could. She was small and erect and brief in her speech, her face was like pale ivory, her skin like a very delicate parchment, and her eyes were very blue. There was no nonsense about her, though she did paint pictures. She never even touched her delicately parchment face with pigment. She was good enough as she was, honest-to-God, and the country town had a tremendous respect for her.
In her various activities she came pretty often into contact with Percy Barlow, the clerk at the bank, He was only twenty-two when she first set eyes on him in 1914, and she immediately liked him. He was a stranger in the town, his father being a poor country vicar in Yorkshire. But he was of the confiding sort. He soon confided in Miss M’Leod, for whom he had a towering respect, how he disliked his step-mother, how he feared his father, was but as wax in the hands of that downright woman, and how, in consequence, he was homeless. Wrath shone in his pleasant features, but somehow it was an amusing wrath; at least to Miss M’Leod.
He was distinctly a good-looking boy, with stiff dark hair and odd, twinkling grey eyes under thick dark brows, and a rather full mouth and a queer, deep voice that had a caressing touch of hoarseness. It was his voice that somehow got behind Miss M’Leod’s reserve. Not that he had the faintest intention of so doing. He looked up to her immensely: “She’s miles above me.”
When she watched him playing tennis, letting himself go a bit too much, hitting too hard, running too fast, being too nice to his partner, her heart yearned over him. The orphan in him! Why should he go and be shot? She kept him at home as long as possible, working with her at all kinds of war-work. He was so absolutely willing to do everything she wanted: devoted to her.
But at last the time came when he must go. He was now twenty-four and she was forty-seven. He came to say good-bye, in his awkward fashion. She suddenly turned away, leaned her forehead against the wall, and burst into bitter tears. He was frightened out of his wits. Before he knew what was happening he had his arm in front of his face and was sobbing too.
She came to comfort him. “Don’t cry, dear, don’t! It will all be all right,”
At last he wiped his face on his sleeve and looked at her sheepishly. “It was you crying as did me in,” he said. Her blue eyes were brilliant with tears. She suddenly kissed him.
“You are such a dear!” she said wistfully. Then she added, flushing suddenly vivid pink under her transparent parchment skin: “It wouldn’t be right for you to marry an old thing like me, would it?”
He looked at her dumbfounded.
“No, I’m too old,” she added hastily.
“Don’t talk about old! You’re not old!” he said hotly.
“At least I’m too old for THAT,” she said sadly.
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “You’re younger than me, in most ways, I’m hanged if you’re not!”
“Are you hanged if I’m not?” she teased wistfully.
“I am,” he said. “And if I thought you wanted me, I’d be jolly proud if you married me. I would, I assure you.”
“Would you?” she said, still teasing him.
Nevertheless, the next time he was home on leave she married him, very quietly, but very definitely. He was a young lieutenant. They stayed in her family home, Twybit Hall, for the honeymoon. It was her house now, her brother being dead. And they had a strangely happy month. She had made a strange discovery: a man.
He went off to Gallipoli, and became a captain. He came home in 1919, still green with malaria, but otherwise sound. She was in her fiftieth year. And she was almost white-haired; long, thick, white hair, done perfectly, and perfectly creamy, colourless face, with very blue eyes.
He had been true to her, not being very forward with women. But he was a bit startled by her white hair. However, he shut his eyes to it, and loved her. And she, though frightened and somewhat bewildered, was happy. But she was bewildered. It always seemed awkward to her, that he should come wandering into her room in his pyjamas when she was half dressed, and brushing her hair. And he would sit there silent, watching her brush the long swinging river of silver, of her white hair, the bare, ivory-white, slender arm working with a strange mechanical motion, sharp and forcible, brushing down the long silvery stream of hair. He would sit as if mesmerised, just gazing. And she would at last glance round sharply, and he would rise, saying some little casual thing to her and smiling to her oddly with his eyes. Then he would go out, his thin cotton pyjamas hitching up over his hips, for he was a rather big-built fellow. And she would feel dazed, as if she did not quite know her own self any more. And the queer, ducking motion of his silently going out of her door impressed her ominously, his curious cat head, his big hips and limbs.
They were alone in the house, save for the servants. He had no work. They lived modestly, for a good deal of her money had been lost during the war. But she still painted pictures. Marriage had only stimulated her to this. She painted canvases of flowers, beautiful flowers that thrilled her soul. And he would sit, pipe in fist, silent, and watch her. He had nothing to do. He just sat and watched her small, neat figure and her concentrated movements as she painted. Then he knocked out his pipe and filled it again.
She said that at last she was perfectly happy. And he said that he was perfectly happy. They were always together. He hardly went out, save riding in the lanes. And practically nobody came to the house.
But still, they were very silent with one another. The old chatter had died out. And he did not read much. He just sat still, and smoked, and was silent. It got on her nerves sometimes, and she would think as she had thought in the past, that the highest bliss a human being can experience is perhaps the bliss of being quite alone, quite, quite alone.
His bank firm offered to make him manager of the local branch, and, at her advice, he accepted. Now he went out of the house every morning and came home every evening, which was much more agreeable. The rector begged him to sing again in the church choir: and again she advised him to accept. These were the old grooves in which his bachelor life had run. He felt more like himself.
He was popular: a nice, harmless fellow, everyone said of him. Some of the men secretly pitied him. They made rather much of him, took him home to luncheon, and let him loose with their daughters. He was popular among the daughters too: naturally, for if a girl expressed a wish, he would instinctively say: “What! Would you like it? I’ll get it for you.” And if he were not in a position to satisfy the desire, he would say: “I only wish I could do it for you. I’d do it like a shot.” All of which he meant.
At the same time, though he got on so well with the maidens of the town, there was no coming forward about him. He was, in some way, not wakened up. Good-looking, and big, and serviceable, he was inwardly remote, without self-confidence, almost without a self at all.
The rector’s daughter took upon herself to wake him up. She was exactly as old as he was, a smallish, rather sharp-faced young woman who had lost her husband in the war, and it had been a grief to her. But she took the stoic attitude of the young: You’ve got to live, so you may as well do it! She was a kindly soul, in spite of her sharpness. And she had a very perky little red-brown Pomeranian dog that she had bought in Florence in the street, but which had turned out a handsome little fellow. Miss M’Leod looked down a bit on Alice Howells and her pom, so Mrs. Howells felt no special love for Miss M’Leod —“Mrs. Barlow, that is!” she would add sharply. “For it’s quite impossible to think of her as anything but Miss M’Leod!”
Percy was really more at ease at the rectory, where the pom yapped and Mrs. Howells changed her dress three or four times a day, and looked it, than in the semi-cloisteral atmosphere of Twybit Hall, where Miss M’Leod wore tweeds and a natural knitted jumper, her skirts rather long, her hair done up pure silver, and painted her wonderful flower pictures in the deepening silence of the daytime. At evening she would go up to change, after he came home. And though it thrilled her to have a man coming into her room as he dressed, snapping his collar-stud, to tell her something trivial as she stood bare-armed in her silk slip, rapidly coiling up the rope of silver hair behind her head, still, it worried her. When he was there, he couldn’t keep away from her. And he would watch her, watch her, watch her as if she was the ultimate revelation. Sometimes it made her irritable. She was so absolutely used to her own privacy. What was he looking at? She never watched HIM. Rather she looked the other way. His watching tried her nerves. She was turned fifty. And his great silent body loomed almost dreadful.
He was quite happy playing tennis or croquet with Alice Howells and the rest. Alice was choir-mistress, a bossy little person outwardly, inwardly rather forlorn and affectionate, and not very sure that life hadn’t let her down for good. She was now over thirty — and had no one but the pom and her father and the parish — nothing in her really intimate life. But she was very cheerful, busy, even gay, with her choir and school work, her dancing, and flirting, and dressmaking.
She was intrigued by Percy Barlow. “How CAN a man be so nice to EVERYBODY?” she asked him, a little exasperated. “Well, why not?” he replied, with the odd smile of his eyes. “It’s not why he shouldn’t, but how he manages to do it! How can you have so much good-nature? I HAVE to be catty to some people, but you’re nice to EVERYBODY.”
“Oh, am I!” he said ominously.
He was like a man in a dream, or in a cloud. He was quite a good bank-manager, in fact very intelligent. Even in appearance, his great charm was his beautifully-shaped head. He had plenty of brains, really. But in his will, in his body, he was asleep. And sometimes this lethargy, or coma, made him look haggard. And sometimes it made his body seem inert and despicable, meaningless.
Alice Howells longed to ask him about his wife. “DO you love her? CAN you really care for her?” But she daren’t. She daren’t ask him one word about his wife. Another thing she couldn’t do, she couldn’t persuade him to dance. Never, not once. But in everything else he was pliable as wax.
Mrs. Barlow — Miss M’Leod — stayed out at Twybit all the time. She did not even come in to church on Sunday. She had shaken off church, among other things. And she watched Percy depart, and felt just a little humiliated. He was going to sing in the choir! Yes, marriage was also a humiliation to her. She had distinctly married beneath her.
The years had gone by: she was now fifty-seven, Percy was thirty-four. He was still, in many ways, a boy. But in his curious silence, he was ageless. She managed him with perfect ease. If she expressed a wish, he acquiesced at once. So now it was agreed he should not come to her room any more. And he never did. But sometimes she went to him in his room, and was winsome in a pathetic, heart-breaking way.
She twisted him round her little finger, as the saying goes. And yet secretly she was afraid of him. In the early years he had displayed a clumsy but violent sort of passion, from which she had shrunk away. She felt it had nothing to do with her. It was just his indiscriminating desire for Woman, and for his own satisfaction. Whereas she was not just unidentified Woman, to give him his general satisfaction. So she had recoiled, and withdrawn herself. She had put him off. She had regained the absolute privacy of her room.
He was perfectly sweet about it. Yet she was uneasy with him now. She was afraid of him; or rather, not of him, but of a mysterious something in him. She was not a bit afraid of HIM, oh no! And when she went to him now, to be nice to him, in her pathetic winsomeness of an unused woman of fifty-seven, she found him sweet-natured as ever, but really indifferent. He saw her pathos and her winsomeness. In some way, the mystery of her, her thick white hair, her vivid blue eyes, her ladylike refinement still fascinated him. But his bodily desire for her had gone, utterly gone. And secretly, she was rather glad. But as he looked at her, looked at her, as he lay there so silent, she was afraid, as if some finger were pointed at her. Yet she knew, the moment she spoke to him, he would twist his eyes to that good-natured and “kindly” smile of his.
It was in the late, dark months of this year that she missed the blue moccasins. She had hung them on a nail in his room. Not that he ever wore them: they were too small. Nor did she: they were too big. Moccasins are male footwear, among the Indians, not female. But they were of a lovely turquoise-blue colour, made all of little turquoise beads, with little forked flames of dead-white and dark-green. When, at the beginning of their marriage, he had exclaimed over them, she had said: “Yes! Aren’t they a lovely colour! So blue!” And he had replied: “Not as blue as your eyes, even then.”
So, naturally, she had hung them up on the wall in his room, and there they had stayed. Till, one November day, when there were no flowers, and she was pining to paint a still-life with something blue in it — oh, so blue, like delphiniums! — she had gone to his room for the moccasins. And they were not there. And though she hunted, she could not find them. Nor did the maids know anything of them.
So she asked him: “Percy, do you know where those blue moccasins are, which hung in your room?” There was a moment’s dead silence. Then he looked at her with his good-naturedly twinkling eyes, and said: “No, I know nothing of them.” There was another dead pause. She did not believe him. But being a perfect lady, she only said, as she turned away: “Well then, how curious it is!” And there was another dead pause. Out of which he asked her what she wanted them for, and she told him. Whereon the matter lapsed.
It was November, and Percy was out in the evening fairly often now. He was rehearsing for a “play” which was to be given in the church schoolroom at Christmas. He had asked her about it. “Do you think it’s a bit infra dig., if I play one of the characters?” She had looked at him mildly, disguising her real feeling. “If you don’t feel PERSONALLY humiliated,” she said, “then there’s nothing else to consider.” And he had answered: “Oh, it doesn’t upset ME at all.” So she mildly said: “Then do it, by all means.” Adding at the back of her mind: If it amuses you, child! — but she thought, a change had indeed come over the world, when the master of Twybit Hall, or even, for that matter, the manager of the dignified Stubb’s Bank, should perform in public on a schoolroom stage in amateur theatricals. And she kept calmly aloof, preferring not to know any details. She had a world of her own.
When he had said to Alice Howells: “You don’t think other folk’ll mind — clients of the bank and so forth — think it beneath my dignity?” she had cried, looking up into his twinkling eyes: “Oh, you don’t have to keep YOUR dignity on ice, Percy — any more than I do mine.”
The play was to be performed for the first time on Christmas Eve: and after the play, there was the midnight service in church. Percy therefore told his wife not to expect him home till the small hours, at least. So he drove himself off in the car.
As night fell, and rain, Miss M’Leod felt a little forlorn. She was left out of everything. Life was slipping past her. It was Christmas Eve, and she was more alone than she had ever been. Percy only seemed to intensify her aloneness, leaving her in this fashion.
She decided not to be left out. She would go to the play too. It was past six o’clock, and she had worked herself into a highly nervous state. Outside was darkness and rain: inside was silence, forlornness. She went to the telephone and rang up the garage in Shrewbury. It was with great difficulty she got them to promise to send a car for her: Mr. Slater would have to fetch her himself in the two-seater runabout: everything else was out.
She dressed nervously, in a dark-green dress with a few modest jewels. Looking at herself in the mirror, she still thought herself slim, young-looking and distinguished. She did not see how old-fashioned she was, with her uncompromising erectness, her glistening knob of silver hair sticking out behind, and her long dress.
It was a three-mile drive in the rain, to the small country town. She sat next to old Slater, who was used to driving horses and was nervous and clumsy with a car, without saying a word. He thankfully deposited her at the gate of St. Barnabas’ School.
It was almost half-past-seven. The schoolroom was packed and buzzing with excitement. “I’m afraid we haven’t a seat left, Mrs. Barlow!” said Jackson, one of the church sidesmen, who was standing guard in the school porch, where people were still fighting to get in. He faced her in consternation. She faced him in consternation. “Well, I shall have to stay somewhere, till Mr. Barlow can drive me home,” she said. “Couldn’t you put me a chair somewhere?”
Worried and flustered, he went worrying and flustering the other people in charge. The schoolroom was simply packed solid. But Mr. Simmons, the leading grocer, gave up his chair in the front row to Mrs. Barlow, whilst he sat in a chair right under the stage, where he couldn’t see a thing. But he could see Mrs. Barlow seated between his wife and daughter, speaking a word or two to them occasionally, and that was enough.
The lights went down: The Shoes of Shagput was about to begin. The amateur curtains were drawn back, disclosing the little amateur stage with a white amateur back-cloth daubed to represent a Moorish courtyard. In stalked Percy, dressed as a Moor, his face darkened. He looked quite handsome, his pale grey eyes queer and startling in his dark face. But he was afraid of the audience — he spoke away from them, stalking around clumsily. After a certain amount of would-be funny dialogue, in tripped the heroine, Alice Howells, of course. She was an Eastern houri, in white gauze Turkish trousers, silver veil, and — the blue moccasins. The whole stage was white, save for her blue moccasins, Percy’s dark-green sash, and a negro boy’s red fez.
When Mrs. Barlow saw the blue moccasins, a little bomb of rage exploded in her. This, of all places! The blue moccasins that she had bought in the western deserts! The blue moccasins that were not so blue as her own eyes! HER blue moccasins! On the feet of that creature, Mrs. Howells.
Alice Howells was not afraid of the audience. She looked full at them, lifting her silver veil. And of course she saw Mrs. Barlow, sitting there like the Ancient of Days in judgment, in the front row. And a bomb of rage exploded in HER breast too.
In the play, Alice was the wife of the grey-bearded old Caliph, but she captured the love of the young Ali, otherwise Percy, and the whole business was the attempt of these two to evade Caliph and negro-eunuchs and ancient crones, and get into each other’s arms. The blue shoes were very important: for while the sweet Lelia wore them, the gallant Ali was to know there was danger. But when she took them off, he might approach her.
It was all quite childish, and everybody loved it, and Miss M’Leod might have been quite complacent about it all, had not Alice Howells got her monkey up, so to speak. Alice with a lot of make-up, looked boldly handsome. And suddenly bold she was, bold as the devil. All these years the poor young widow had been “good”, slaving in the parish, and only even flirting just to cheer things up, never going very far and knowing she could never get anything out of it, but determined never to mope.
Now the sight of Miss M’Leod sitting there so erect, so coolly “higher plane”, and calmly superior, suddenly let loose a devil in Alice Howells. All her limbs went suave and molten, as her young sex, long pent up, flooded even to her finger-tips. Her voice was strange, even to herself, with its long, plaintive notes. She felt all her movements soft and fluid, she felt herself like living liquid. And it was lovely. Underneath it all was the sting of malice against Miss M’Leod, sitting there so erect, with her great knob of white hair.
Alice’s business, as the lovely Leila, was to be seductive to the rather heavy Percy. And seductive she was. In two minutes, she had him spellbound. He saw nothing of the audience. A faint, fascinated grin came on to his face, as he acted up to the young woman in the Turkish trousers. His rather full, hoarse voice changed and became clear, with a new, naked clang in it. When the two sang together, in the simple banal duets of the play, it was with a most fascinating intimacy. And when, at the end of Act One, the lovely Leila kicked off the blue moccasins, saying: “Away, shoes of bondage, shoes of sorrow!” and danced a little dance all alone, barefoot, in her Turkish trousers, in front of her fascinated hero, his smile was so spellbound that everybody else was spellbound too.
Miss M’Leod’s indignation knew no bounds. When the blue moccasins were kicked across the stage by the brazen Alice, with the words: “Away, shoes of bondage, shoes of sorrow!” the elder woman grew pink with fury, and it was all she could do not to rise and snatch the moccasins from the stage, and bear them away. She sat in speechless indignation during the brief curtain between Act One and Act Two. Her moccasins! Her blue moccasins! Of the sacred blue colour, the turquoise of heaven.
But there they were, in Act Two, on the feet of the bold Alice. It was becoming too much. And the love-scenes between Percy and the young woman were becoming nakedly shameful. Alice grew worse and worse. She was worked up now, caught in her own spell, and unconscious of everything save of him, and the sting of that other woman, who presumed to own him. Own him? Ha-ha! For he was fascinated. The queer smile on his face, the concentrated gleam of his eyes, the queer way he leaned forward from his loins towards her, the new, reckless, throaty twang in his voice — the audience had before their eyes a man spellbound and lost in passion.
Miss M’Leod sat in shame and torment, as if her chair was red-hot. She too was fast losing her normal consciousness, in the spell of rage. She was outraged. The second Act was working up to its climax. The climax came. The lovely Leila kicked off the blue shoes: “Away, shoes of bondage, away!” and flew barefoot to the enraptured Ali, flinging herself into his arms. And if ever a man was gone in sheer desire, it was Percy, as he pressed the woman’s lithe form against his body, and seemed unconsciously to envelop her, unaware of everything else. While she, blissful in his spell, but still aware of the audience and of the superior Miss M’Leod, let herself be wrapped closer and closer.
Miss M’Leod rose to her feet and looked towards the door. But the way out was packed, with people standing holding their breath as the two on the stage remained wrapped in each other’s arms, and the three fiddles and the flute softly woke up. Miss M’Leod could not bear it. She was on her feet, and beside herself. She could not get out. She could not sit down again.
“Percy!” she said, in a low clear voice. “Will you hand me my moccasins?”
He lifted his face like a man startled in a dream, lifted his face from the shoulder of his Leila. His gold-grey eyes were like softly-startled flames. He looked in sheer horrified wonder at the little white-haired woman standing below.
“Eh?” he said, purely dazed
“Will you please hand me my moccasins!”— and she pointed to where they lay on the stage.
Alice had stepped away from him, and was gazing at the risen viper of the little elderly woman on the tip of the audience. Then she watched him move across the stage, bending forward from the loins in his queer mesmerised way, pick up the blue moccasins, and stoop down to hand them over the edge of the stage to his wife, who reached up for them.
“Thank you!” said Miss M’Leod, seating herself, with the blue moccasins in her lap.
Alice recovered her composure, gave a sign to the little orchestra, and began to sing at once, strong and assured, to sing her part in the duet that closed the Act. She knew she could command public opinion in her favour.
He too recovered at once, the little smile came back on his face, he calmly forgot his wife again as he sang his share in the duet. It was finished. The curtains were pulled to. There was immense cheering. The curtains opened, and Alice and Percy bowed to the audience, smiling both of them their peculiar secret smile, while Miss M’Leod sat with the blue moccasins in her lap.
The curtains were closed, it was the long interval. After a few moments of hesitation, Mrs. Barlow rose with dignity, gathered her wrap over her arm, and with the blue moccasins in her hand, moved towards the door. Way was respectfully made for her.
“I should like to speak to Mr. Barlow,” she said to Jackson, who had anxiously ushered her in, and now would anxiously usher her out.
“Yes, Mrs. Barlow.”
He led her round to the smaller class-room at the back, that acted as dressing-room. The amateur actors were drinking lemonade, and chattering freely. Mrs. Howells came forward, and Jackson whispered the news to her. She turned to Percy.
“Percy, Mrs. Barlow wants to speak to you. Shall I come with you?”
“Speak to me? Aye, come on with me.”
The two followed the anxious Jackson into the other half-lighted class-room, where Mrs. Barlow stood in her wrap, holding the moccasins. She was very pale, and she watched the two butter-muslin Turkish figures enter, as if they could not possibly be real. She ignored Mrs. Howells entirely.
“Percy,” she said, “I want you to drive me home.”
“Drive you home!” he echoed.
“Why — when?” he said, with vague bluntness.
“Now — if you don’t mind —”
“What — in this get-up?” He looked at himself.
“I could wait while you changed.”
There was a pause. He turned and looked at Alice Howells, and Alice Howells looked at him. The two women saw each other out of the corners of their eyes: but it was beneath notice. He turned to his wife, his black face ludicrously blank, his eyebrows cocked.
“Well, you see,” he said, “it’s rather awkward. I can hardly hold up the third Act while I’ve taken you home and got back here again, can I?”
“So you intend to play in the third Act?” she asked with cold ferocity.
“Why, I must, mustn’t I?” he said blankly.
“Do you WISH to?” she said, in all her intensity.
“I do, naturally. I want to finish the thing up properly,” he replied, in the utter innocence of his head; about his heart he knew nothing.
She turned sharply away.
“Very well!” she said. And she called to Jackson, who was standing dejectedly near the door: “Mr Jackson, will you please find some car or conveyance to take me home?”
“Aye! I say, Mr. Jackson,” called Percy in his strong, democratic voice, going forward to the man. “Ask Tom Lomas if he’ll do me a good turn and get my car out of the rectory garage, to drive Mrs. Barlow home. Aye, ask Tom Lomas! And if not him, ask Mr. Pilkington — Leonard. The key’s there. You don’t mind, do you? I’m ever so much obliged —”
The three were left awkwardly alone again.
“I expect you’ve had enough with two acts,” said Percy soothingly to his wife. “These things aren’t up to your mark. I know it. They’re only child’s play. But, you see, they please the people. We’ve got a packed house, haven’t we?”
His wife had nothing to answer. He looked so ludicrous, with his dark-brown face and butter-muslin bloomers. And his mind was so ludicrously innocent. His body, however, was not so ridiculously innocent as his mind, as she knew when he turned to the other woman.
“You and I, we’re more on the nonsense level, aren’t we?” he said, with the new, throaty clang of naked intimacy in his voice. His wife shivered.
“Absolutely on the nonsense level,” said Alice, with easy assurance.
She looked into his eyes, then she looked at the blue moccasins in the hand of the other woman. He gave a little start, as if realising something for himself.
At that moment Tom Lomas looked in, saying heartily: “Right you are, Percy! I’ll have my car here in half a tick. I’m more handy with it than yours.”
“Thanks, old man! You’re a Christian.”
“Try to be-especially when you turn Turk! Well —” He disappeared.
“I say, Lina,” said Percy in his most amiable democratic way, “would you mind leaving the moccasins for the next act? We s’ll be in a bit of a hole without them.”
Miss M’Leod faced him and stared at him with the full blast of her forget-me-not blue eyes, from her white face.
“Will you pardon me if I don’t?” she said.
“What!” he exclaimed. “Why? Why not? It’s nothing but play, to amuse the people. I can’t see how it can hurt the MOCCASINS. I understand you don’t quite like seeing me make a fool of myself. But, anyhow, I’m a bit of a born fool. What?”— and his blackened face laughed with a Turkish laugh. “Oh, yes, you have to realise I rather enjoy playing the fool,” he resumed. “And, after all, it doesn’t really hurt YOU, now does it? Shan’t you leave us those moccasins for the last act?”
She looked at him, then at the moccasins in her hand. No, it was useless to yield to so ludicrous a person. The vulgarity of his wheedling, the commonness of the whole performance! It was useless to yield even the moccasins. It would be treachery to herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I’d so much rather they weren’t used for this kind of thing. I never intended them to be.” She stood with her face averted from the ridiculous couple.
He changed as if she had slapped his face. He sat down on top of the low pupils’ desk and gazed with glazed interest round the class-room. Alice sat beside him, in her white gauze and her bedizened face. They were like two rebuked sparrows on one twig, he with his great, easy, intimate limbs, she so light and alert. And as he sat he sank into an unconscious physical sympathy with her. Miss M’Leod walked towards the door.
“You’ll have to think of something as’ll do instead,” he muttered to Alice in a low voice, meaning the blue moccasins. And leaning down, he drew off one of the grey shoes she had on, caressing her foot with the slip of his hand over its slim, bare shape. She hastily put the bare foot behind her other, shod foot.
Tom Lomas poked in his head, his overcoat collar turned up to his ears.
“Car’s here,” he said.
“Right-o! Tom! I’ll chalk it up to thee, lad!” said Percy with heavy breeziness. Then, making a great effort with himself, he rose heavily and went across to the door, to his wife, saying to her, in the same stiff voice of false heartiness:
“You’ll be as right as rain with Tom. You won’t mind if I don’t come out? No! I’d better not show myself to the audience. Well — I’m glad you came, if only for a while. Good-bye then! I’ll be home after the service — but I shan’t disturb you. Good-bye! Don’t get wet now —” And his voice, falsely cheerful, stiff with anger, ended in a clang of indignation.
Alice Howells sat on the infants’ bench in silence. She was ignored. And she was unhappy, uneasy, because of the scene.
Percy closed the door after his wife. Then he turned with a looming slowness to Alice, and said in a hoarse whisper: “Think o’ that, now!”
She looked up at him anxiously. His face, in its dark pigment, was transfigured with indignant anger. His yellow-grey eyes blazed, and a great rush of anger seemed to be surging up volcanic in him. For a second his eyes rested on her upturned, troubled, dark-blue eyes, then glanced away, as if he didn’t want to look at her in his anger. Even so, she felt a touch of tenderness in his glance.
“And that’s all she’s ever cared about — her own things and her own way,” he said, in the same hoarse whisper, hoarse with suddenly-released rage. Alice Howells hung her head in silence.
“Not another damned thing, but what’s her own, her own — and her own holy way — damned holy-holy-holy, all to herself.” His voice shook with hoarse, whispering rage, burst out at last.
Alice Howells looked up at him in distress.
“Oh, don’t say it!” she said. “I’m sure she’s fond of you.”
“FOND of me! Fond of me!” he blazed, with a grin of transcendent irony. “It makes her sick to look at me. I am a hairy brute, I own it. Why, she’s never once touched me to be fond of me — never once — though she pretends sometimes. But a man knows —” and he made a grimace of contempt. “He knows when a woman’s just stroking him, good doggie! — and when she’s really a bit woman-fond of him. That woman’s never been real fond of anybody or anything, all her life — she couldn’t, for all her show of kindness. She’s limited to herself, that woman is; and I’ve looked up to her as if she was God. More fool me! If God’s not good-natured and good-hearted, then what is He —?”
Alice sat with her head dropped, realising once more that men aren’t really fooled. She was upset, shaken by his rage, and frightened, as if she too were guilty. He had sat down blankly beside her. She glanced up at him.
“Never mind!” she said soothingly. “You’ll like her again tomorrow.”
He looked down at her with a grin, a grey sort of grin. “Are you going to stroke me ‘good doggie!’ as well?” he said.
“Why?” she asked, blank.
But he did not answer. Then after a while he resumed: “Wouldn’t even leave the moccasins! And she’s hung them up in my room, left them there for years — any man’d consider they were his. And I did want this show to-night to be a success! What are you going to do about it?”
“I’ve sent over for a pair of pale-blue satin bed-slippers of mine — they’ll do just as well,” she replied.
“Aye! For all that, it’s done me in.”
“You’ll get over it.”
“Happen so! She’s curdled my inside, for all that. I don’t know how I’m going to be civil to her.”
“Perhaps you’d better stay at the rectory to-night,” she said softly.
He looked into her eyes. And in that look, he transferred his allegiance.
“YOU don’t want to be drawn in, do you?” he asked, with troubled tenderness.
But she only gazed with wide, darkened eyes into his eyes, so she was like an open, dark doorway to him. His heart beat thick, and the faint, breathless smile of passion came into his eyes again.
“You’ll have to go on, Mrs. Howells. We can’t keep them waiting any longer.”
It was Jim Stokes, who was directing the show. They heard the clapping and stamping of the impatient audience.
“Goodness!” cried Alice Howells, darting to the door.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23