Hand in hand the youthful lovers sauntered along the esplanade. It was a night in midsummer; a wispy moon had set, and the stars glittered. The dark mass of the sea, at flood, lay tranquil, slothfully lapping the shingle.
“Come on, let’s make for the usual,” said the boy.
But on nearing their favourite seat they found it occupied. In the velvety shade of the overhanging sea-wall, the outlines of two figures were visible.
“Oh, blast!” said the lad. “That’s torn it. What now, Baby?”
“Why, let’s stop here, Pincher, right close up, till we frighten ’em off.”
And very soon loud, smacking kisses, amatory pinches and ticklings, and skittish squeals of pleasure did their work. Silently the intruders rose and moved away.
But the boy stood gaping after them, open-mouthed.
“Well, I’m DAMNED! If it wasn’t just two hanged women!”
* * *
Retreating before a salvo of derisive laughter, the elder of the girls said: “We’ll go out on the break-water.” She was tall and thin, and walked with a long stride.
Her companion, shorter than she by a bobbed head of straight flaxen hair, was hard put to it to keep pace. As she pegged along she said doubtfully, as if in self-excuse: “Though I really ought to go home. It’s getting late. Mother will be angry.”
They walked with finger-tips lightly in contact; and at her words she felt what was like an attempt to get free, on the part of the fingers crooked in hers. But she was prepared for this, and held fast, gradually working her own up till she had a good half of the other hand in her grip.
For a moment neither spoke. Then, in a low, muffled voice, came the question: “Was she angry last night, too?”
The little fair girl’s reply had an unlooked-for vehemence. “You know she wasn’t!” And, mildly despairing: “But you never WILL understand. Oh, what’s the good of . . . of anything!”
And on sitting down she let the prisoned hand go, even putting it from her with a kind of push. There it lay, palm upwards, the fingers still curved from her hold, looking like a thing with a separate life of its own; but a life that was ebbing.
On this remote seat, with their backs turned on lovers, lights, the town, the two girls sat and gazed wordlessly at the dark sea, over which great Jupiter was flinging a thin gold line. There was no sound but the lapping, sucking, sighing, of the ripples at the edge of the breakwater, and the occasional screech of an owl in the tall trees on the hillside.
But after a time, having stolen more than one side-glance at her companion, the younger seemed to take heart of grace. With a childish toss of the head that set her loose hair swaying, she said, in a tone of meaning emphasis: “I like Fred.”
The only answer was a faint, contemptuous shrug.
“I tell you I LIKE him!”
“No it isn’t . . . that’s just where you’re wrong, Betty. But you think you’re so wise. Always.”
“I know what I know.”
“Or imagine you do! But it doesn’t matter. Nothing you can say makes any difference. I like him, and always shall. In heaps of ways. He’s so big and strong, for one thing: it gives you such a safe sort of feeling to be with him . . . as if nothing could happen while you were. Yes, it’s . . . it’s . . . well, I can’t help it, Betty, there’s something COMFY in having a boy to go about with — like other girls do. One they’d eat their hats to get, too! I can see it in their eyes when we pass; Fred with his great long legs and broad shoulders — I don’t nearly come up to them — and his blue eyes with the black lashes, and his shiny black hair. And I like his tweeds, the Harris smell of them, and his dirty old pipe, and the way he shows his teeth — he’s got TOPPING teeth — when he laughs and says ‘ra-THER!’ And other people, when they see us, look . . . well I don’t quite know how to say it, but they look sort of pleased; and they make room for us and let us into the dark corner-seats at the pictures, just as if we’d a right to them. And they never laugh. (Oh, I can’t STICK being laughed at! — and that’s the truth.) Yes, it’s so comfy, Betty darling . . . such a warm cosy comfy feeling. Oh, WON’T you understand?”
“Gawd! why not make a song of it?” But a moment later, very fiercely: “And who is it’s taught you to think all this? Who’s hinted it and suggested it till you’ve come to believe it? . . . believe it’s what you really feel.”
“She hasn’t! Mother’s never said a word . . . about Fred.”
“Words? — why waste words? . . . when she can do it with a cock of the eye. For your Fred, that!” and the girl called Betty held her fingers aloft and snapped them viciously. “But your mother’s a different proposition.”
“I think you’re simply horrid.”
To this there was no reply.
“WHY have you such a down on her? What’s she ever done to you? . . . except not get ratty when I stay out late with Fred. And I don’t see how you can expect . . . being what she is . . . and with nobody but me — after all she IS my mother . . . you can’t alter that. I know very well — and you know, too — I’m not TOO putrid-looking. But”— beseechingly —“I’m NEARLY twenty-five now, Betty. And other girls . . . well, she sees them, every one of them, with a boy of their own, even though they’re ugly, or fat, or have legs like sausages — they’ve only got to ogle them a bit — the girls, I mean . . . and there they are. And Fred’s a good sort — he is, really! — and he dances well, and doesn’t drink, and so . . . so why SHOULDN’T I like him? . . . and off my own bat . . . without it having to be all Mother’s fault, and me nothing but a parrot, and without any will of my own?”
“Why? Because I know her too well, my child! I can read her as you’d never dare to . . . even if you could. She’s sly, your mother is, so sly there’s no coming to grips with her . . . one might as well try to fill one’s hand with cobwebs. But she’s got a hold on you, a strangle-hold, that nothing ‘ll loosen. Oh! mothers aren’t fair — I mean it’s not fair of nature to weigh us down with them and yet expect us to be our own true selves. The handicap’s too great. All those months, when the same blood’s running through two sets of veins — there’s no getting away from that, ever after. Take yours. As I say, does she need to open her mouth? Not she! She’s only got to let it hang at the corners, and you reek, you drip with guilt.”
Something in these words seemed to sting the younger girl. She hit back. “I know what it is, you’re jealous, that’s what you are! . . . and you’ve no other way of letting it out. But I tell you this. If ever I marry — yes, MARRY! — it’ll be to please myself, and nobody else. Can, you imagine me doing it to oblige her?”
“If I only think what it would be like to be fixed up and settled, and able to live in peace, without this eternal dragging two ways . . . just as if I was being torn in half. And see Mother smiling and happy again, like she used to be. Between the two of you I’m nothing but a punch-ball. Oh, I’m fed up with it! . . . fed up to the neck. As for you . . . And yet you can sit there as if you were made of stone! Why don’t you SAY something? BETTY! Why won’t you speak?”
But no words came.
“I can FEEL you sneering. And when you sneer I hate you more than any one on earth. If only I’d never seen you!”
“Marry your Fred, and you’ll never need to again.”
“I will, too! I’ll marry him, and have a proper wedding like other girls, with a veil and bridesmaids and bushels of flowers. And I’ll live in a house of my own, where I can do as I like, and be left in peace, and there’ll be no one to badger and bully me — Fred wouldn’t . . . ever! Besides, he’ll be away all day. And when he came back at night, he’d . . . I’d . . I mean I’d ——” But here the flying words gave out; there came a stormy breath and a cry of: “Oh, Betty, Betty! . . . I couldn’t, no, I couldn’t! It’s when I think of THAT . . . Yes, it’s quite true! I like him all right, I do indeed, but only as long as he doesn’t come too near. If he even sits too close, I have to screw myself up to bear it”— and flinging herself down over her companion’s lap, she hid her face. “And if he tries to touch me, Betty, or even takes my arm or puts his round me. . . . And then his face . . . when it looks like it does sometimes all wrong . . . as if it had gone all wrong — oh! then I feel I shall have to scream — out loud. I’m afraid of him . . . when he looks like that. Once . . . when he kissed me . . . I could have died with the horror of it. His breath . . .his breath . . . and his mouth — like fruit pulp — and the black hairs on his wrists . . . and the way he looked — and . . . and everything! No, I can’t, I can’t . . . nothing will make me . . . I’d rather die twice over. But what am I to do? Mother’ll NEVER understand. Oh, why has it got to be like this? I want to be happy, like other girls, and to make her happy, too . . . and everything’s all wrong. You tell me, Betty darling, you help me, you’re older . . . you KNOW . . . and you can help me, if you will . . . if you only will!” And locking her arms round her friend she drove her face deeper into the warmth and darkness, as if, from the very fervour of her clasp, she could draw the aid and strength she needed.
Betty had sat silent, unyielding, her sole movement being to loosen her own arms from her sides and point her elbows outwards, to hinder them touching the arms that lay round her. But at this last appeal she melted; and gathering the young girl to her breast, she held her fast. — And so for long she continued to sit, her chin resting lightly on the fair hair, that was silky and downy as an infant’s, and gazing with sombre eyes over the stealthily heaving sea.
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59