At the corner of Oxford Circus Rosabel bought a bunch of violets, and that was practically the reason why she had so little tea — for a scone and a boiled egg and a cup of cocoa at Lyons are not ample sufficiency after a hard day’s work in a millinery establishment. As she swung on to the step of the Atlas ‘bus, grabbed her skirt with one hand and clung to the railing with the other, Rosabel thought she would have sacrificed her soul for a good dinner — roast duck and green peas, chestnut stuffing, pudding with brandy sauce — something hot and strong and filling. She sat down next to a girl very much her own age who was reading Anna Lombard in a cheap, paper-covered edition, and the rain had tear-spattered the pages. Rosabel looked out of the windows; the street was blurred and misty, but light striking on the panes turned their dullness to opal and silver, and the jewellers’ shops seen through this, were fairy palaces. Her feet were horribly wet, and she knew the bottom of her skirt and petticoat would be coated with black, greasy mud. There was a sickening smell of warm humanity — it seemed to be oozing out of everybody in the ‘bus — and everybody had the same expression, sitting so still, staring in front of them. How many times had she read these advertisements —“Sapolio Saves Time, Saves Labour”—“Heinz’s Tomato Sauce”— and the inane, annoying dialogue between doctor and judge concerning the superlative merits of “Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline.” She glanced at the book which the girl read so earnestly, mouthing the words in a way that Rosabel detested, licking her first finger and thumb each time that she turned the page. She could not see very clearly; it was something about a hot, voluptuous night, a band playing, and a girl with lovely, white shoulders. Oh, Heavens! Rosabel stirred suddenly and unfastened the two top buttons of her coat . . . she felt almost stifled. Through her half-closed eyes the whole row of people on the opposite seat seemed to resolve into one fatuous, staring face . . .
And this was her corner. She stumbled a little on her way out and lurched against the girl next her. “I beg your pardon,” said Rosabel, but the girl did not even look up. Rosabel saw that she was smiling as she read.
Westbourne Grove looked as she had always imagined Venice to look at night, mysterious, dark, even the hansoms were like gondolas dodging up and down, and the lights trailing luridly — tongues of flame licking the wet street — magic fish swimming in the Grand Canal. She was more than glad to reach Richmond Road, but from the corner of the street until she came to No. 26 she thought of those four flights of stairs. Oh, why four flights! It was really criminal to expect people to live so high up. Every house ought to have a lift, something simple and inexpensive, or else an electric staircase like the one at Earl’s Court — but four flights! When she stood in the hall and saw the first flight ahead of her and the stuffed albatross head on the landing, glimmering ghost-like in the light of the little gas jet, she almost cried. Well, they had to be faced; it was very like bicycling up a steep hill, but there was not the satisfaction of flying down the other side . . .
Her own room at last! She closed the door, lit the gas, took off her hat and coat, skirt, blouse, unhooked her old flannel dressing-gown from behind the door, pulled it on, then unlaced her boots — on consideration her stockings were not wet enough to change. She went over to the wash-stand. The jug had not been filled again today. There was just enough water to soak the sponge, and the enamel was coming off the basin — that was the second time she had scratched her chin.
It was just seven o’clock. If she pulled the blind up and put out the gas it was much more restful — Rosabel did not want to read. So she knelt down on the floor, pillowing her arms on the window-sill . . . just one little sheet of glass between her and the great wet world outside!
She began to think of all that had happened during the day. Would she ever forget that awful woman in the grey mackintosh who had wanted a trimmed motor-cap —“something purple with something rosy each side”— or the girl who had tried on every hat in the shop and then said she would “call in tomorrow and decide definitely.” Rosabel could not help smiling; the excuse was worn so thin . . .
But there had been one other — a girl with beautiful red hair and a white skin and eyes the colour of that green ribbon shot with gold they had got from Paris last week. Rosabel had seen her electric brougham at the door; a man had come in with her, quite a young man, and so well dressed.
“What is it exactly that I want, Harry?” she had said, as Rosabel took the pins out of her hat, untied her veil, and gave her a hand-mirror.
“You must have a black hat,” he had answered, “a black hat with a feather that goes right round it and then round your neck and ties in a bow under your chin, and the ends tuck into your belt — a decent-sized feather.”
The girl glanced at Rosabel laughingly. “Have you any hats like that?”
They had been very hard to please; Harry would demand the impossible, and Rosabel was almost in despair. Then she remembered the big, untouched box upstairs.
“Oh, one moment, Madam,” she had said. “I think perhaps I can show you something that will please you better.” She had run up, breathlessly, cut the cords, scattered the tissue paper, and yes, there was the very hat — rather large, soft, with a great, curled feather, and a black velvet rose, nothing else. They had been charmed. The girl had put it on and then handed it to Rosabel.
“Let me see how it looks on you,” she said, frowning a little, very serious indeed.
Rosabel turned to the mirror and placed it on her brown hair, then faced them.
“Oh, Harry, isn’t it adorable,” the girl cried, “I must have that!” She smiled again at Rosabel. “It suits you, beautifully.”
A sudden, ridiculous feeling of anger had seized Rosabel. She longed to throw the lovely, perishable thing in the girl’s face, and bent over the hat, flushing.
“It’s exquisitely finished off inside, Madam,” she said. The girl swept out to her brougham, and left Harry to pay and bring the box with him.
“I shall go straight home and put it on before I come out to lunch with you,” Rosabel heard her say.
The man leant over her as she made out the bill, then, as he counted the money into her hand —“Ever been painted?” he said.
“No,” said Rosabel, shortly, realising the swift change in his voice, the slight tinge of insolence, of familiarity.
“Oh, well you ought to be,” said Harry. “You’ve got such a damned pretty little figure.”
Rosabel did not pay the slightest attention. How handsome he had been! She had thought of no one else all day; his face fascinated her; she could see clearly his fine, straight eyebrows, and his hair grew back from his forehead with just the slightest suspicion of crisp curl, his laughing, disdainful mouth. She saw again his slim hands counting the money into hers . . . Rosabel suddenly pushed the hair back from her face, her forehead was hot . . . if those slim hands could rest one moment . . . the luck of that girl!
Suppose they changed places. Rosabel would drive home with him, of course they were in love with each other, but not engaged, very nearly, and she would say —“I won’t be one moment.” He would wait in the brougham while her maid took the hat-box up the stairs, following Rosabel. Then the great, white and pink bedroom with roses everywhere in dull silver vases. She would sit down before the mirror and the little French maid would fasten her hat and find her a thin, fine veil and another pair of white suède gloves — a button had come off the gloves she had worn that morning. She had scented her furs and gloves and handkerchief, taken a big muff and run down stairs. The butler opened the door, Harry was waiting, they drove away together . . . That was life, thought Rosabel! On the way to the Carlton they stopped at Gerard’s, Harry bought her great sprays of Parma violets, filled her hands with them.
“Oh, they are sweet!” she said, holding them against her face.
“It is as you always should be,” said Harry, “with your hands full of violets.”
(Rosabel realised that her knees were getting stiff; she sat down on the floor and leant her head against the wall.) Oh, that lunch! The table covered with flowers, a band hidden behind a grove of palms playing music that fired her blood like wine — the soup, and oysters, and pigeons, and creamed potatoes, and champagne, of course, and afterwards coffee and cigarettes. She would lean over the table fingering her glass with one hand, talking with that charming gaiety which Harry so appreciated. Afterwards a matinee, something that gripped them both, and then tea at the “Cottage.”
“Sugar? Milk? Cream?” The little homely questions seemed to suggest a joyous intimacy. And then home again in the dusk, and the scent of the Parma violets seemed to drench the air with their sweetness.
“I’ll call for you at nine,” he said as he left her.
The fire had been lighted in her boudoir, the curtains drawn, there were a great pile of letters waiting her — invitations for the Opera, dinners, balls, a week-end on the river, a motor tour — she glanced through them listlessly as she went upstairs to dress. A fire in her bedroom, too, and her beautiful, shining dress spread on the bed — white tulle over silver, silver shoes, silver scarf, a little silver fan. Rosabel knew that she was the most famous woman at the ball that night; men paid her homage, a foreign Prince desired to be presented to this English wonder. Yes, it was a voluptuous night, a band playing, and her lovely white shoulders . . .
But she became very tired. Harry took her home, and came in with her for just one moment. The fire was out in the drawingroom, but the sleepy maid waited for her in her boudoir. She took off her cloak, dismissed the servant, and went over to the fireplace, and stood peeling off her gloves; the firelight shone on her hair, Harry came across the room and caught her in his arms —“Rosabel, Rosabel, Rosabel” . . . Oh, the haven of those arms, and she was very tired.
(The real Rosabel, the girl crouched on the floor in the dark, laughed aloud, and put her hand up to her hot mouth.)
Of course they rode in the park next morning, the engagement had been announced in the Court Circular, all the world knew, all the world was shaking hands with her . . .
They were married shortly afterwards at St. George’s, Hanover Square, and motored down to Harry’s old ancestral home for the honeymoon; the peasants in the village curtseyed to them as they passed; under the folds of the rug he pressed her hands convulsively. And that night she wore again her white and silver frock. She was tired after the journey and went upstairs to bed . . . quite early . . .
The real Rosabel got up from the floor and undressed slowly, folding her clothes over the back of a chair. She slipped over her head her coarse, calico nightdress, and took the pins out of her hair — the soft, brown flood of it fell round her, warmly. Then she blew out the candle and groped her way into bed, pulling the blankets and grimy “honeycomb” quilt closely round her neck, cuddling down in the darkness . . .
So she slept and dreamed, and smiled in her sleep, and once threw out her arm to feel for something which was not there, dreaming still.
And the night passed. Presently the cold fingers of dawn closed over her uncovered hand; grey light flooded the dull room. Rosabel shivered, drew a little gasping breath, sat up. And because her heritage was that tragic optimism, which is all too often the only inheritance of youth, still half asleep, she smiled, with a little nervous tremor round her mouth.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53