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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Stripped of her clothing, the child showed the lovely shape of a six-year-old. Just past the dimpled roundnesses of babyhood, the little body stood slim and straight, legs and knees closely met, the skin white as the sand into which the small feet dug, pink toe faultlessly matched to toe.
She was going to bathe.
The tide was out. The alarming, ferocious surf, which at flood came hurtling over the reef, swallowing up the beach, had withdrawn, baring the flat brown coral rocks: far off against their steep brown edges it sucked and gurgled lazily. In retreating, it had left many lovely pools in the reef, all clear as glass, some deep as rooms, grown round their sides with weeds that swam like drowned hair, and hid strange sea-things.
Not to these pools might the child go; nor did she need to prick her soles on the coral. Her bathing-place was a great sandy-bottomed pool that ran out from the beach, and at its deepest came no higher than her chin.
Naked to sun and air, she skipped and frolicked with the delight of the very young, to whom clothes are still an encumbrance. And one of her runs led her headlong into the sea. No toe-dipping tests were necessary here; this water met the skin like a veil of warm silk. In it she splashed and ducked and floated; her hair, which had been screwed into a tight little knob, loosening and floating with her like a nimbus. Tired of play, she came out, trickling and glistening, and lay down in the sand, which was hot to the touch, first on her stomach, then on her back, till she was coated with sand like a fish bread-crumbed for frying. This, for the sheer pleasure of plunging anew, and letting the silken water wash her clean.
At the sight, the two middle-aged women who sat looking on grew restless. And, the prank being repeated, the sand-caked little body vanishing in the limpid water to bob up shining like ivory, the tips of their tongues shot out and surreptitiously moistened their lips. These were dry, their throats were dry, their skins itched; their seats burned from pressing the hot sand.
And suddenly eyes met and brows were lifted in a silent question. Shall we? Dare we risk it?
For no living thing but themselves moved on the miles of desolate beach; not a neighbour was within coo-ee; their own shack lay hid behind a hill.
Straightway they fell to rolling up their work and stabbing it with their needles.
Then they, too, undressed.
Tight, high bodices of countless buttons went first, baring the massy arms and fat-creased necks of a plump maturity. Thereafter bunchy skirts were slid over hips and stepped out of. Several petticoats followed, the undermost of red flannel, with scalloped edges. Tight stiff corsets were next squeezed from their moorings and cast aside: the linen beneath lay hot and damply crushed. Long white drawers unbound and, leg by leg, disengaged, voluminous calico chemises appeared, draped in which the pair sat down to take off their boots — buttoned boots — and stockings, their feet emerging red and tired-looking, the toes misshapen, and horny with callosities. Erect again, they yet coyly hesitated before the casting of the last veil, once more sweeping the distance for a possible spy. Nothing stirring, however, up went their arms, dragging the balloon-like garments with them; and, inch by inch, calves, thighs, trunks and breasts were bared to view.
At the prospect of getting water playmates, the child had clapped her hands, hopping up and down where she stood. But this was the first time she had watched a real grown-up undress; she was always in bed and asleep when they did it. Now, in broad daylight, she looked on unrebuked, wildly curious; and surprise soon damped her joy. So this was what was underneath! Skirts and petticoats down, she saw that laps were really legs; while the soft and cosy place you put your head on, when you were tired . . .
And suddenly she turned tail and ran back to the pool. She didn’t want to see.
But your face was the one bit of you you couldn’t put under water. So she had to.
Two fat, stark-naked figures were coming down the beach.
They had joined hands, as if to sustain each other in their nudity . . . or as if, in shedding their clothes, they had also shed a portion of their years. Gingerly, yet in haste to reach cover, they applied their soles to the tickly sand: a haste that caused unwieldy breasts to bob and swing, bellies and buttocks to wobble. Splay-legged they were, from the weight of these protuberances. Above their knees, garters had cut fierce red lines in the skin; their bodies were criss-crossed with red furrows, from the variety of strings and bones that had lashed them in. The calves of one showed purple-knotted with veins; across the other’s abdomen ran a deep, longitudinal scar. One was patched with red hair, one with black.
In a kind of horrid fascination the child stood and stared . . . as at two wild outlandish beasts. But before they reached her she again turned, and, heedless of the prickles, ran seawards, out on the reef.
This was forbidden. There were shrill cries of: “Naughty girl! Come back!”
Draggingly the child obeyed.
They were waiting for her, and, blind to her hurt, took her between them and waded into the water. When this was up to their knees, they stooped to damp napes and crowns, and sluice their arms. Then they played. They splashed water at each other’s great backsides; they lay down and, propped on their elbows, let their legs float; or, forming a ring, moved heavily round to the tune of: RING-A-RING-A-ROSY, POP DOWN A POSY! And down the child went, till she all but sat on the sand. Not so they. Even with the support of the water they could bend but a few inches; and wider than ever did their legs splay, to permit of their corpulences being lowered.
But the sun was nearing meridian in a cloudless sky. Its rays burnt and stung. The child was sent running up the beach to the clothes-heaps, and returned, not unlike a depressed Amor, bearing in each hand a wide, flower-trimmed, dolly-varden hat, the ribbons of which trailed the sand.
These they perched on their heads, binding the ribbons under their chins; and thus attired waded out to the deep end of the pool. Here, where the water came a few inches above their waists, they stood to cool off, their breasts seeming to float on the surface like half-inflated toy balloons. And when the sand stirred up by their feet had subsided, their legs could be seen through the translucent water oddly foreshortened, with edges that frayed at each ripple.
But a line of foam had shown its teeth at the edge of the reef. The tide was on the turn; it was time to go.
Waddling up the beach they spread their petticoats, and on these stretched themselves out to dry. And as they lay there on their sides, with the supreme mass of hip and buttock arching in the air, their contours were those of seals — great mother-seals come lolloping out of the water to lie about on the sand.
The child had found a piece of dry cuttlefish, and sat pretending to play with it. But she wasn’t really. Something had happened which made her not like any more to play. Something ugly. Oh, never . . . never . . . no, not ever now did she want to grow up. SHE would always stop a little girl.
Miss Ethel marched ahead carrying the candle, and so cupping it with her hand that the light fell full on her round, horn-rimmed spectacles, making these look like gigantic eyes.
“I’m sorry, girls,” said she, throwing open a door, “this is the best I can do for you — every other room’s full. But I know you won’t mind turning in together. May’s such a shrimp that you can put her between you and never know she’s there.”
Dutifully the three who followed at her heels chorused: “Oh, not at all,” “We shall manage,” “Very good of you to have us, Miss Ethel,” as instructed by their respective Mammas.
But once the door had shut on their hostess they gathered round the bed — a narrow half-tester — in which they were expected to lie three in a row, and let their real feelings out.
“The old toad! Playing us such a scurvy trick!”
“On such a hot night, tool”
“And when she wrote she’d have heaps of room!”
“It’s those Waugh girls from Bendigo that ‘ve done it. THEIR father’s a judge! But anything’s good enough for us.”
“I wish I hadn’t come,” piped Patty, the youngest, a short, fat girl of eleven.
“Oh, you! — with your bulk you’re safe for the lion’s share. But what did the old hag mean by her cheek about me?” snapped May, who had come to the age of desiring roundnesses. “A shrimp, indeed!”
“Don’t know I’m sure,” said thirteen-year-old Tetta, not quite truthfully. (May’s was just a case of the “girls from Bendigo” over again.) Tetta was getting rid of her clothes at top speed, peeling off her stockings, leaving one here, one there, her combinations on the floor where they fell. Then, holding her nightdress like a sail above her, she shot her arms into the sleeves, and was ready for bed while Patty was still conscientiously twisting a toothbrush round her gums, and May had got no further than loosening the buttons of her frock.
“Tetta! — you haven’t done your teeth . . . or anything.”
“Don’t want to. And I’m giving my teeth a rest. A dentist told some one I know it wore teeth out if you were always brushing them,” gave back Tetta easily.
The “Lazy Liar!” this evoked was cut through by her shrill: “Oh Lord, girls, FEATHERS!” as she stooped to examine the build of the bed. A further discovery, however, Tetta kept to herself. This was that the bed had a distinct slope, out from the centre and down at the sides — she tried each in turn. And having let a few seconds elapse, for fear the others had noticed her wrigglings, she said mildly: “Look here, Mabs, if you like I’ll take the middle. I don’t mind being a bit crushed.”
“Oh, no, you don’t!” retorted May suspiciously, suspending her hair-brush. “I know what it means, my dear . . . when you’re so willing to oblige.” May was ratty with herself for being behind-hand — even that stupid Pat had raced her. But to go to bed PROPERLY meant almost as much work as getting up in the morning.
“Well, for goodness’ sake, put some biff into it. The mean bit of candle she’s given us won’t last for ever.
“No, I promised my mother to brush my hair twenty times every night and morning, and I’m not going to break my word for anyone,” said May dourly; and pounded away with upraised arm. At which young Patty, who in her efforts to come in second had rather scamped the prescribed “folding” of her clothes, suffered a pang of conscience, and turned back to refold them. But Tetta thought: though she brushed it a hundred times it would never be anything but bristly. Yes, that was just what it was like the bristles in a brush.
Now she and Pat lay stretched out, a sheet drawn over them, a hump of feathers between. Oh, it was a shabby pretence at a “double”— why, there was really hardly room for two. And when at last May came to join them — she had gargled her throat and cleaned her nails (just as if she was going to a party)— the rumpus began.
For Tetta said: “Blow out the candle first.” This stood on the dressing-table, and it would have fallen to her, who lay on that side, to rise and extinguish it. May, the goose, doing as she was told, had then to climb over and in between them in the dark. There was a moment of wild confusion: dozens of legs, a whole army of them, seemed to be trampling and kicking in an attempt to sort themselves out. Tetta had taken a grip of the head-curtain, and so kept her balance, but Patty, unprepared, found nothing to hold to on the bare side of the bed, and, as May finally and determinedly squeezed herself in, slid to the floor with a cry and a thump.
“You pig!” from Tetta. “You did that on purpose.”
“Well, what next I wonder! . . . after you two had taken all the room. Anyhow, now you’ll just HAVE to get up and make a light again.”
Grumblingly Tetta swung out her feet and groped her unknown way. “Now where has that table gone to? Oh, DAMN!” For, coming suddenly and unexpectedly upon it, her elbow caught the candlestick and sent this flying. There was a crash; and the candle could be heard rolling over the bare boards.
“Now you’ve done it, you clumsy ass! Ten to one old Ethel ‘ll come pouncing in on us.”
“If I get a bit of china in my foot it’ll be me who pounces.” Tetta was on her knees, cautiously fumbling for the matches. These found and one struck, the candle was recovered; but the candlestick lay in fragments.
“Spill some grease on the floor and stick the candle to it,” suggested May.
With some difficulty Tetta contrived this hold, clutching her nightgown to her out of reach of the flame. Then she crossed to the other side of the bed to see to Patty, who still lay where she had fallen, snivelling over a bruised arm and a hefty bump on the forehead.
As there was no butter handy, Tetta poured water into the basin, soaked a sponge and held it to the wounded place, to keep it from swelling — and over this the floor got rather wet and messy, for the half-burnt, guttering candle, some three inches high, shed its meagre circlet Of light only on the opposite side of the room — then prodded the bruised arm to try for a broken bone. Patty was QUITE sure she had.
“Nonsense, Pat, it’s only been your funny-bone,” and Tetta rose to her feet.
But the sight of May sprawling meanwhile at her ease in the centre of the bed was too much for her. “It’s all your greedy fault, pushing and shoving like that so that you can lie on your back. Well, you can’t! There’s only one way to lie and that’s spoons — on our same sides. Now then, Pat!”
But Pat whimpered, if she had to sleep on the outside she’d never sleep at all, she’d always be expecting the whole night to fall out again. She’d rather lie on the floor.
“Well, why not? That’s quite a good idea,” struck in May brightly. “Then we should all have room.”
“I wouldn’t, Pat,” said Tetta emphatically, with another glance at May’s luxurious recumbency. “At least not if you don’t want tarantulas crawling over you in the night . . . and perhaps centipedes, too. There’s sure to be squads about this dirty old house.”
Before she finished speaking, Patty had leapt on to the bed, her bare feet drawn up out of danger’s way.
“Now then Mabs milady, shunt! You’ve just GOT to let her in the middle. Are you ready?”— and with the same breath Tetta puffed out the candle and sprang to secure what little space was left.
With due care they arranged themselves, back fitted to front; and for a few seconds, tightly wedged though they were, it seemed as if there might be peace.
Then May said: “My mother always says it’s dangerous to go to sleep on your left-hand side. It makes your heart swell up. And you could die in the night.”
There was a faint squeal from Patty. “Here, let me . . . I’m not going to”— and the bed rocked under her determined efforts to turn to her right.
“Well, if she does, we’ve all got to. ARE you ready?” sighed Tetta once more.
Gingerly and in unison they heaved.
But: “Tetta, you’ve taken every bit of sheet!” from May.
“You have!” And the sheet, reduced to a rope, was tugged violently to and fro. “If you think I’m going to lie with my back all bare. . . . It’s bad enough to have it hanging out over the edge.”
“The answer to that is, you shouldn’t have such a big behind.”
“It’s not! I haven’t!” cried May, justly indignant. “It’s not a scrap bigger than your own. Now if you had Pat’s running into you, you MIGHT talk! Her’s is simply enormous; it reaches down to my legs.”
“Oh, it DOESN’T!” wailed Patty, on the verge of tears again. “It’s NOT true — it’s NOT enormous.”
“Oh, shut up, you blubberer! What’s it matter if it is?” snapped Tetta, losing patience. “And anyhow the Turks admire them.” But the Turks were heathens, and Patty was not consoled. She lay chewing over her injuries, to which another was now added: “It’s no good . . . I simply can’t . . . I’m suffocating,” she said in a weak voice. “My head’s right down in the crack between the pillows. I haven’t ANY of my own.”
“Here, take half mine,” said Tetta, and shoved it towards her. May, who liked a pillow to herself, gave hers a hasty pull, which over-shot the mark. Down and out it slid, she, attempting a rescue, after it. “Ooh! I’m standing in water. The whole floor’s swimming.”
Said Tetta when order was once more restored: “The only thing to do ‘ll be to hold on. Here. Pat, you put your arm over me and round my stomach, and May hers round you. That’s it.”
In her case it answered. But May, seeking an extra firm grip, was unlucky enough to let her fingers stray on Patty’s front, and this was too much for the fat girl, who was ticklish. She began to squirm, and the more May tried to hold her fast the more she wriggled, screwing herself up, defending her middle with arms and elbows, fighting with her knees, all to the accompaniment of a shrill and unconquerable giggle.
The result was that May and Tetta found themselves standing one on each side of the bed.
“You’ll have to take the fool round her bally neck.”
“Well, then I shall probably strangle her in her sleep,” said May darkly as she climbed in again.
They linked themselves anew, and once more there was a brief spell of drowsy silence.
But it was, oh, such a hot night, and before long, out of the heat and the darkness, May’s voice was heard in a distracted: “But Pat! . . . you’re all wet.”
“I’m not, oh, I’m NOT!” tragically protested the one thus accused. Called abruptly back from a half-slumber, her mind in its confusion had jumped to the day of infant peccadilloes.
“Idiot! I didn’t mean that. But we’re simply sticking together like melting jellies.”
“And oh, I do want a drink so, dreadfully badly! I think I’ll die soon if I don’t have one,” moaned Patty.
“That comes of being so fat. — Fetch her one, Mabs,” ordered Tetta, stifling the girlish equivalent of an oath, as she applied yet another match to the stub of candle.
But May tilted the jug in vain. “I believe yes, you HAVE! . . . you’ve used up every drop. Well, Tetta Riley, if you don’t deserve to come to want some day!”
“There couldn’t have been more than a cupful to start with. I suppose the tank’s going dry. Besides, who cleaned their teeth I’d like to know? — Well, Pat, there’s nothing else for it, you’ll have to suck the sponge.”
And this Patty did, to the encouraging remark from Tetta that it was only her own dirt she was eating.
But the problem of sleep had become a very real one. And the night seemed to grow hotter with every minute that passed.
Here Tetta had a new idea: they should try one of them lying crossways at the foot. Yes . . . that was all very well . . . but which? And over this there ensued a wordy dispute. Patty was too fat; she’d stick out too much . . . besides being so hot to put your feet against. Tetta, on the other hand, or so she argued, was too tall: “My head’d hang over one side, my legs the other.” No, it must be May or no one, and sourly and unwillingly the victim dragged herself to the bottom of the bed and lay athwart it. But she couldn’t possibly sleep without a pillow . . . what was she to. do for a pillow?
“Why, make a bundle of your clothes and ram them under your head.”
“My clothes? That I’ve got to wear to-morrow? All crumpled and creased? Think I see myself!”
“Oh very well then, take mine! Thank the Lord I’m not such a darned old fad as you.” And by the last flicker of the dying candle, Tetta darted round the room, redeeming her scattered undergarments, her skirt, her petticoat . . . and not omitting her prickly suspenders.
“There. Now turn over so that you face the foot.”
“No, I mustn’t do that. It’d mean lying on my left side.”
“What tommy-rot! Not if you put your blinking head the other way round!” cried Tetta in exasperation.
But this May could not be got to see; or else she would not see it; and, by now both dog-tired and half-silly for want of sleep, they barked and bit their way through what gradually deteriorated into a kind of geometrical wrangle, and ended by Tetta snarling: “It’s easy to see YOU’VE never done any Euclid!”
This was a spiteful thrust; for May had failed at close of term to get her remove, and so to reach a class in which she, too, would have been held capable of writing QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM. And ordinarily, for decency’s sake, you did not allude to her misfortune. But to-night bonds were loosed.
After this a silence fell . . . but not the silence of peace. May, galled to the quick, lay revolving a means of revenge.
Presently to ejaculate: “Oh, Tetta . . . oh, your feet! . . . take them away . . . oh, PUH!”
“What the . . . what in the name of Christmas do you mean by that? When I have had two baths today! day!”
“Then all I can say is, your SHOES must be high!”
In answer to this, involuntarily, but very fiercely, the libelled foot shot out in a straight kick. It landed on May’s nose — the soft and gristly part that is so tender. With a scream May sat up and clapped her hands to it, and now, thoroughly hurt and unnerved, fell to sobbing: “Oh, my nose, my nose! You’ve broken it, you beast — you dirty beast! It’s bleeding I can feel the blood dripping from it.”
Yet another of the precious matches went in verifying this. True enough a few drops of blood WERE oozing, and the upper lip had had a nasty jab against the top teeth. Once more the sponge was requisitioned, and its last remaining moisture squeezed from
In compensation for her injuries May now demanded to be allowed to occupy Tetta’s place at the head of the bed.
“Wait. First I’m going to find out what the time is. We seem to have been here for years. It must surely be nearly morning now;” and with this, Tetta opened the door and crept on tiptoe into the passage, where a clock hung.
Returning, she said hoarsely and dramatically: “Look here, you two, it’s not even half-past twelve yet! There’s still six blooming hours before we can get up . . . can possibly get up. And the candle’s done, and there’s no more water, and only two matches left. I’m fed up to the neck . . . I can’t stick it a minute longer. I’m going out.”
“Going out? What do you mean?”
“Where to? What for?”
“What do you think? On the verandah, of course. To get cool. This room’s as hot as . . . yes, as hot as HELL . . . when you come back into it.”
“Tetta Riley! . . . your language! If only my mother could hear you!”
“Oh, bing, bang and bung your mother! I’m sick of the very sound of her.”
“I’ll tell her every word you’ve said.”
“Oh, go to — to Sunday School!”
“I do. And I will. And I’ll tell them, too. And you can just GET out on your old verandah, and stop there. It’ll be jolly good riddance to bad rubbish.”
“I’m going. But you’re coming, too. Think I mean to leave you two snoring here while I kick my heels outside? Oh, no, my dears, not me! Up you get and double-quick! Both of you.”
And meekly, without a further word, the two so commanded obeyed. For when Tetta, the easy-going, spoke like this — in what was known as her “strong-minded” voice — they were her humblest servants. Nor did they resent her mastery. Patty the sheep invariably trotted tail-down after her elders; but May, for all her spirit, was at heart Tetta’s devoted crony; and as a rule each made a friendly allowance for the other’s failings: a slommicky laziness on the one hand, an ultra-prim exactitude on the other.
Now, at Tetta’s direction, skirts were slipped over night-dresses, jackets buttoned on top. And turning their backs on the hideously crumpled battlefield of the bed, they spread a blanket on the verandah’s edge, laid pillows and bolster on this, and stretched themselves out, three in a row, with a sheet atop of them.
Oh! the relief it was, to escape from those fondly clinging feathers, those steep, sloping sides. Hard the boards might be, as hard as your own bones, but they were at least dead level. Besides that, you were free from the heat of your neighbour’s body, and could toss and turn as you chose.
The sweetness, too, of the summer-night air, after the shut-upness of the stuffy room. Pat, who had staggered tipsily in her companions’ wake, drew but a couple of full breaths and was fast asleep. May, correctly arranged on her right side, took longer: privately, she thought what they were doing not quite NICE, and wondered what her mother would say when told of it.
But Tetta lay wakeful. For one thing, it was so light. Not from the moon, for there wasn’t any; it was the stars that did it. The sky was as thick with stars as . . . well, she who lived on the seaboard had never seen anything like this bush sky: it was just as if some one had taken diamonds by the handful, no, the bucketful, and flung them out without caring — hundreds and thousands of diamonds, all sharp and white and glittering, with hardly an inch of space between, and what there was, gone a pale dove-grey.
“Oh, gosh, what tons! I never knew there WERE so many stars, did you?”
But there was no reply. So she just lay there, with her hands clasped under her neck, and stared up at the sky till her eyes smarted. And then something else came into her head — a familiar thought, and one she often amused herself with. It had to do with her own identity. Did there, she was given to wondering, somewhere or anywhere on earth exist a replica of herself? Was there, hidden away in some corner of the globe, another girl called Tetta Riley, thirteen years old, with a stub nose with freckles on it, and all her other little funniosities, who had grown up as she grew up, and who felt and thought like her? Herself, finding it hard to believe in her own uniqueness, she was inclined to think there might, there must be; and when, as now, she had nothing better to do, she would send her mind round the world in a fanciful search after her second self. To-night, in face of this starry splendour, she let it stray to what she believed to be “other worlds,” as well, chasing her thought among the stars and planets and the Milky Way, leaping from star to star . . . over gaps of palest grey . . . till her head spun, her eyes dazzled; and sleep, descending, gathered her too into the fold.
Peggy’s hair was so thick that she had to wear it in two plaits instead of one; so long that when she sat down and let these fall over her shoulders, their ends curled up in her lap. Nell, whose own hair hung lank and short about her neck, was never tired of playing with them, pushing a finger in and out between twists so sleek and smooth that they felt like a rope come alive.
The two girls were in their favourite place, the hay-loft. For here, if you pulled the ladder up after you, nobody could follow you; though you could see what was going on in the yard below: the men with the horses and carts, or customers taking a short cut to the shop. But you were quite safe from the other girls; and that was what she and Peg wanted — to be alone together. The others teased so that it made you simply furious. F’r instance, once when Peggy said she’d ever so much rather have had fair hair than dark, and she, Nell, cried out at her, the other girls pulled faces, and winked, and turned their eyes up to heaven till you could have killed them.
Here, she and Peg sat with their behinds burrowed into the hay, most comfortable, and all alone.
To-day was rather a special day; for Nell had something in her blazer-pocket so secret and important that it almost burned her through the stuff. This was a present for Peggy, and . . . well, now the moment to give it had come, she was feeling just a teeny bit uneasy. How dreadful if Peg didn’t like it — after all the trouble she had had to buy it. Her pocket-money — she got threepence a week, got it honestly, not like one girl they knew, who sometimes sneaked a threepenny-bit from her father’s till, under the old bookkeeper’s nose. Well, for three whole weeks now, she, Nell, hadn’t spent a penny of HER threepence (instead of at once blueing it on chocs; she’d almost forgotten what they tasted like) and with her savings she’d bought Peggy . . . a hair-slide. Ninepence-halfpenny the exact price was, and she’d been fairly stuck how to raise the extra halfpenny without waiting another week. In the end, there had been nothing for it but to pinch a stamp from her father’s desk, and sell it.
This slide was now in her pocket, neatly wrapped in fine tissue paper. But the longer it stayed there the more unsure she grew. The point was, it was intended for a place on Peggy’s head . . . well, for the one piece of her that wasn’t QUITE as pretty as the rest. This was at the back of her neck where the plaits went off, each on its own side. They seemed to leave such a big gap of white skin showing . . . perhaps because they were so dark themselves. Peggy of course didn’t know this — you couldn’t see yourself behind — but she, Nell, did; and every time the patch caught her eye, it gave her a slight stab that there should be ANYTHING about Peg that wasn’t quite perfect. Once, too, she’d heard Madge Brennan make a simply horrid remark about people who went bald very young. Peggy didn’t understand; but she did, and bled for her. It was then she’d made up her mind to get the slide.
Another worrying thing was that she’d been lured away from the plain, useful one she had gone into the shop meaning to buy, and had taken one set with . . . diamonds. Not REAL diamonds, of course; but they looked just like it. And now she was afraid Peggy might think it too showy for everyday. And not know how to explain it either to her dreadfully big family of brothers and sisters, most of them older than her. They said such rude things sometimes. And her mother, too. One evening when she, Nell, had been waiting in the rightaway, hoping yes, truly, only HOPING Peggy would be allowed out again after tea, the mother, a great big fat woman with an apron over her stomach, had opened the window and called out: “Now then, Nellie Mackensen, just you be off! I won’t have you always hanging about here at mealtimes.” As if she wanted their old tea! Her own mother said Peggy’s mother was cross because there were so many of them and she’d so much to do. But it did make you rather wonder what she’d say to the diamonds. (Perhaps she’d throw them out of the window.) Oh dear, things were most frightfully complicated. It would have’ been much better, she saw it now, if she’d bought, say, a nice little diary-book, that Peggy could have carried in her pocket.
But she hadn’t. And the slide was there. Faint-heartedly she drew it forth.
Peggy, who had been talking all the time — Peg’s pretty mouth was always either talking or laughing — spotted the little parcel at once and said: “Hullo, what’s that — For me? A present for me? Truly? Let’s see! Oh, Nell, you dear! . . . a brooch . . . just exactly what I’ve wanted.”
Nell felt herself go red as a beetroot. “Well, no, not a BROOCH, Peg,” she said in a small voice. “It’s a . . . it’s for your hair . . . behind . . . a hair-slide.”
Peggy’s enthusiasm fizzled out. “A slide?” she echoed disappointedly. “But — what for? Wherever could I wear a slide?”
The fatal moment had come. Nell swallowed hard. “Why, I thought . . . you see, I thought it would look most awfully nice, Peg, if you . . . put it on at the back . . . I mean on your neck where the hair leaves off.”
But all Peggy said, and as disbelievingly as before, was: “On my NECK? Gracious! I should never be able to make it stick. Besides, every time I move my head it ‘ud run into me.”
“Then you don’t like it?”
“Oh, yes, it’s all right. But whatever made you think of a slide, Nell?” pressed Peggy, and reflected peevishly: just fancy going and buying a thing like that, when there are such squads of things I really do want.
Nell’s voice was abject with apology as she replied: “Well, you know, Peg darling, I’ve always meant to give you something — something private . . . for yourself . . . from me. And — But oh, you don’t like it, I can see you don’t,” and her lips began to tremble.
“Of course I do, silly! But what I’m asking you is, WHY a hair-slide?” persisted Peggy, with a doggedness of which only she was capable.
There was nothing for it: the truth had to come out. “Well . . . I don’t think you know, Peg, but — well, just at the back of you . . . where there isn’t any more hair . . . just there, it sometimes looks so bare.”
Now it was Peggy’s turn to crimson. Very angrily. “WHAT? So that’s it, is it? I suppose what you mean to say is I’m going bald?”
“Oh no, no, indeed I don’t . . I DON’T . . . mean ANYthing like that.”
“Well, I don’t believe you. And I think you’re simply horrid.”
“I DON’T! It wasn’t me at all. It was Madge Brennan — I heard her . . . say something. And I thought . . . oh, I thought . . .” But here Nell fairly broke down and put her knuckles to her eyes.
“WHO? Madge Brennan? That pig-eyed sausage? Said that about me? That I was getting bald? Well, of all the FILTHY cheek!” And, everything else forgotten over the personal injury, Peggy went off into one of her hard white rages, when you might as well have tried to melt a stone. “Oh, I’ll pay her out for it, I’ll pay her out!”
Nell’s cheeks were beginning to get a gloss on them with tears. “Oh, now . . . you’re so mad . . . you can only think about her. And when I haven’t spent a penny — I mean I haven’t tasted a choc — not for donkey’s years. I’ve done nothing but save and save. But you don’t care . . . you don’t care a bit.”
But Peggy had been too badly stung to resist stinging in her turn. “Well, if you must know, I think it was perfectly ridiklous doing all that, just to buy something so — so RUDE. Why not find out first what I really wanted? — instead of listening to Madge Brennan. That’s not how to give a present . . . to somebody you make out to be fond of. Oh, I say, hang it, don’t bellow like that!” For Nell had flung herself face-downwards in the hay, and was sobbing convulsively. All her money gone; and Peggy offended and furious. She hadn’t meant to say one word about the baldness: it had just been dragged out of her. “And now you’ll never, never forgive me!”
“Rot. Though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to like you QUITE so much again. As for this, of course I’ll keep it; but it’ll have to stay in a drawer. I’d sooner be hung than wear it, as long as THAT putty-faced Jane’s about!” said Peggy, and gave the slide such a vicious jerk that it fell to the floor. But even as she spoke she was wondering if, since she had prepared the way for its disappearance, she couldn’t exchange it on the sly for something else. What about a nice silk handkerchief, with a coloured border, to be worn in the breast-pocket of her blazer?
“But not altogether, Peg? — you won’t leave off caring altogether?” wept the gift-giver, callous now to any but the deeper issue. “For oh, I do love you so.”
“No, of course, not altogether.” But Peggy wasn’t really thinking what she said; for she didn’t stop to swallow before she added, in a kind of stiff, iron voice: “I shall make my mother buy me a hair-restorer right away.”
(Oh, why hadn’t SHE thought of this?) “But you don’t need it, truly you don’t, Peg, it’s as thick as thick . . . all over,” moaned Nell, now only too eager to perjure herself. “It’s just the loveliest hair that ever was.”
“Oh, get out! You only SAY that: you don’t mean it.”
“Honest Injun I do! And I wouldn’t tell you a lie. For I love you better than anybody in the world.”
“More than your mother? Or father?”
“Much more. And there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you, word of honour there isn’t!”
“Well, then, I tell you what. You take this thing back where you got it, and make them give you something, else instead.”
At the cruel suggestion Nell’s heart dropped to her boots. “Oh, Peg!” she wailed, feebly, imploringly.
“There you are! Didn’t I say it was all words?”
“No, it isn’t . . . I . . . I WILL do it!” (Though her little-girl courage shrivelled to the size of a pea, at the thought of facing Mr. Massey the draper over his counter: he had a long angry kind of black beard, and great round spectacles, that gave him enormous fish eyes.) “But then . . . oh, Peg, then you will like me again, won’t you? — as much as before. And like to come up here. You do, don’t you? You’d rather be here than ANYwhere else?”
“Well, do it first, and then I’ll say. But listen! That’s somebody calling. Oh, Nell, it’s Rex — the new man. Come on, let’s go. He jumps us.”
A bass voice shouted: “Now then, you two, what are you up to up there? Oblige me by letting that ladder down at once!”
They hastened to obey, lowering the ladder by its ropes. Then themselves crawled through the trapdoor and climbed down backwards, Peggy leading, fastidiously mindful of her skirts. But when they reached the last rung, some way short of the ground, they faced about to meet two long arms, two big hairy hands, which, gripping each twelve-year-old securely round the middle, swung her high before setting her on her feet. Carelessly now the short skirts fluttered and ballooned.
“Oh, Rex, one more — JUST one!” coaxed Peggy. And up again she flew.
But at the sight of Nell’s swollen eyes and blistery-looking cheeks, the man rubbed the tip of his nose with a finger.
“Hullo! what have you been doing to her? Quarrelling, eh?”
Peggy made her sauciest face, wrinkling her nose, sticking out her chin, showing the tip of her little pink tongue. “Who asks no questions gets told no lies!”
“Eh? What? What’s that?” and with a laugh Rex dived to catch her. She skipped from his reach, there was a chase, a scuffle, and then for the third time up she went. “There! — that’s for you, you little flirt, you!”
Deftly twisting the curls that served her in place of hair-ribbons, Peggy turned, once she and Nell were out of earshot, and said, in her most innocent tones: “I can’t think WHY he called me a flirt, can you?”
Now the correct answer, the wished-for and expected answer was: because you are one. But, though Nell knew this quite well, and at any other time would have given it, partly to please Peg, partly because it made her happy to see Peg happy, to-day she was too numb to care. So her only reply was a flat and toneless: “No.”
Deeply aggrieved, Peggy threw her a side-glance which stood for: oh, very well, my lady! and at once ran on, glibly and enthusiastically: “I DO like Rex, don’t you? — better than any of the other men. He’s got such positively gorgeous eyes — they look as if they could never stop laughing. He’s so strong, too; just like a lion — I believe he could fight lions with his hands. (I say, DID you see the hairs on them?) And when he jumps you, it makes you feel as if you’re never going to come down again — and don’t want to. — Well, I must hop it, or I’ll be late for tea. Now, don’t FORGET— what you promised.‘bye.”
“‘bye,” said Nell limply, and went on walking by herself, heavy of heart and leg. Oh yes, she liked Rex, too, he was so kind and jolly you couldn’t help it; even though she didn’t show off before him, or put on airs so’s to make him notice her. But Peggy — well, there were times . . . and this was one of them . . . when she felt that she didn’t love Peg a bit — no, not the least little tiny bit. Love her? She SIMPLY HATED her.
It was no use, she simply could not sleep. She had tried lying all sorts of ways: with the blanket pulled over her or the blanket off; with her knees doubled up to her chin or stretched so straight that her feet nearly touched the bottom of the bed; on her back with her hands under her neck, or with her face burrowed in the pillow. Nothing helped. Going on in her she could still feel the bumps and lurches of the coach in which she had ridden most of that day. Then the log that had been smouldering in the brick fireplace burnt away in the middle, and collapsed with a crash; and the two ends, rolling together, broke into flames again. These threw shadows which ran about the ceiling, and up and down the white walls, like strange animals.
She was spending the night with Alice, and they had had a fire “just for luxury,” and had sat by it for nearly an hour before going to bed. It would be her last chance of anything like that, Alice said: in schools, you never had fires, and all lights went out to the minute. And their talk had been fearfully interesting. For Alice was in love — she was over seventeen — and had told her about it just as if she was grown up, too; looking into the fire with ever such a funny little smile, and her blue eyes quite small behind their thick, curly lashes.
“Oh, don’t you wish we could see into the future, Trix? And what it’s going to bring us?”
But though she said yes, she wasn’t sure if she did, really; she liked surprises better. Besides, all the last part of the time Alice talked, she had been screwing up her courage to put a question. But she hadn’t managed to get it out. And that was one reason why now she couldn’t sleep.
With a fresh toss, she sighed gustily. And, where her tumblings and fidgetings had failed, this sound called her companion back from the downy meadows.
“What’s the matter, child? Aren’t you asleep yet?”
“No, I simply can’t.”
Alice sat up in bed, and shook her hair back from her face. “You’re over-excited. Try a drink of water.”
“I have. I’ve drunk it all up.”
“Then you must be hungry.”
“Well, yes, I am perhaps . . . a little.”
“Come on then, let’s forage.” And throwing back the sheet, the elder girl slid her feet to the floor.
One tall white figure, one short, they opened the door and stepped out on the verandah.
Here it was almost as bright as day; for the moon hung like a round cheese in the sky, and drenched everything with its light. Barefoot they pattered, the joins in the verandah floor-boards, which had risen, cutting into their soles. Had they to pass open windows, dark holes in which people lay sleeping, Alice laid a finger on her lips. From one of these came the sound of snores — harsh snores of the chromatic kind, which went up the scale and down, over and over again, without a pause.
Turning a corner, they stepped off the verandah and took a few steps on hard pebbly ground. Inside the pantry, which was a large outhouse, there were sharp contrasts of bluish-white moonlight and black shadows.
Swiftly Alice skimmed the familiar shelves. “Here’s lemon cheese-cakes . . . and jam tarts . . . and ginger-snaps . . . and pound cake. But I can’t start you on these, or you’d be sick.” And cutting a round off a home-made loaf, she spread it thickly with dairy butter, topped by a layer of quince jelly. “There, that’s more wholesome.”
Oh, had anything ever tasted so delicious? as this slice eaten at dead of night. Perched on an empty, upturned kerosene-tin, the young girl munched and munched, holding her empty hand outspread below, lest the quivering jelly glide over the crust’s edge.
Alice took a cheese-cake and sat down on a lidded basket. “I say, DID you hear Father? Oh, Trix, wouldn’t it be positively too awful if one discovered AFTERWARDS, one had married a man who snored?”
The muncher made no answer: the indelicacy of the question stunned her: all in the dark as she was, she felt her face flame. And yet . . . was this not perhaps the very chance she had been waiting for? If Alice could say such a thing, out loud, without embarrassment. . . . Hastily squeezing down her last tit-bit — she felt it travel, over-large, the full length of her gullet — she licked her jellied fingers clean and took the plunge.
“Dallie, there’s something I . . . I want to ask you something . . . something I want to know.”
“Fire away!” said Alice, and went on nibbling at the pastry-edging that trimmed her tartlet.
“Yes. But . . . well, I don’t quite . . . I mean I . . .
“Like that, is it? Wait a tick,” and rather more rapidly than she had intended, Alice bolted her luscious circle of lemon-cheese, picked up her basket and planted it beside the tin. “Now then.”
Shut away in this outhouse, the young girl might have cried her words aloud. But leaning over till she found the shell of her friend’s ear, she deposited them safely inside. Alice, who was ticklish, gave an involuntary shudder. But as the sense of the question dawned on her, she sat up very stiff and straight, and echoed perturbed: “HOW? Oh, but Kid, I’m not sure — not at all sure — whether you ought to know. At your age!” said seventeen to thirteen.
“But I must, Dallie.”
“But why, my dear?”
“Because of something Ruth said.”
“Oh, Ruth!” said Alice scornfully. “Trust Ruth for saying the wrong thing. What was it?”
“Why, that . . . now I was growing up . . . was as good as grown up . . . I must take care, for . . . for fear. . . . But, Dallie, how can I? . . . if I don’t know?” This last question came out with a rush, and with a kind of click in the throat.
“Well, well! I always have felt sorry for you children, with no mother but only Ruth to bring you up — and she for ever prinking before her glass. But you know you’ll be perfectly safe at school, Trix. They’ll look after you, never fear!”
But there was more to, come.
It was Ella, it seemed, Ella Morrison, who was two years older than her, who’d begun it. She’d said her mother said now she mustn’t let the boys kiss her any more.
“And you have, eh?”
Trixie’s nod was so small that it had to be guessed at. Haltingly, word by word, the story came out. It had been at Christmas, at a big party, and they were playing games. And she and some others, all boys, had gone off to hide from the rest, and they’d climbed into the hay-loft, Harry MacGillivray among them; and she rather liked Harry, and he liked her, and the other boys knew it and had teased them. And then they said he wasn’t game to kiss her and dared him to. And she didn’t want him to, not a bit . . . or only a teeny weeny bit . . . and anyhow she wasn’t going to let him, there before them all. But the other boys grabbed her, and one held her arms and another her legs and another her neck, so: that he could. And he did — three times — hard. She’d been as angry as anything; she’d hit them all round. But only angry. Afterwards, though . . . when Ellie told her what her mother had said . . . and now Ruth. . ..
But she got no further; for Alice had thrown back her head and was shaking with ill-repressed laughter.,‘Oh, you babe . . . you blessed infant, you! Why, child, there was no more harm in that than . . . well, than in this!” And pulling the girl to her she kissed her soundly, some half-dozen times, with scant pause between. An embarrassing embrace, from which Trixie made uneasy haste to free herself; for Alice was plump, and her nightgown thin.
“No, you can make your little mind easy,” continued the elder girl on recovering her breath. “Larking’s all that was and couldn’t hurt a fly. IT’S WHAT LARKING LEADS TO,” said Alice, and her voice sank, till it was hollow with mystery.
“What does it?”
“Ah!” said Alice in the same sepulchral tone. “You asked me just now how babies came. Well, THAT’S HOW, my dear.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Come, you’ve read your Bible, haven’t you? The Garden of Eden, and so on? And male and female created He them?”
“But. . .”
“Well, Trix, in MY opinion, you ought to be content with that . . . in the meanwhile. Time enough for more when . . . well, when you’re married, my dear.” Not for the world would Alice have admitted her own lack of preciser knowledge, or have uncovered to the day her private imaginings of the great unknown.
“But suppose I . . . Not EVERY lady gets married, Dallie! And than I’d never know.”
“And wouldn’t need to. But I don’t think there’s much fear of that, Trix! You’re not the stuff old maids are made of,” said Alice sturdily, welcoming the side issue.
Affectionately Trixie snuggled up to her friend. This tribute was most consoling. (How awful should nobody want you, you remain unchosen!) All the same she did not yield; a real worm for knowledge gnawed in her. “Still, I don’t quite see . . . truly I don’t, Dallie . . . how you CAN ‘take care,’ if you don’t know how.”
At this outlandish persistence Alice drew a heavy sigh. “But, child, there’s surely something in you . . . at least if there isn’t there ought to be . . . that tells you what’s skylarking and what isn’t? Just you think of undressing. Suppose you began to take your clothes off in front of somebody, somebody who was a stranger to you, wouldn’t something in you stop you by saying: it isn’t done, it’s not NICE?”
“Gracious, yes!” cried Trixie hotly. “I should think so indeed!” (Though she could not imagine herself BEGINNING.) But here, for some reason, what Alice had said about a husband who snored came back to her, and got tangled up with the later question. “But, Dallie, you have to . . . do that, take your clothes off . . . haven’t you? . . . if you . . . sleep in the same bed with somebody,” was what she wanted to say, but the words simply would not come out.
Alice understood. “But ONLY if you’re married, Trixie! And then, it’s different. Then everything’s allowed, my dear. If once you’re married, it doesn’t matter what you do.”
“Oh, doesn’t it?” echoed Trixie feebly, and her cheeks turned so hot that they scorched. For at Alice’s words horrid things, things she was ashamed even to think, came rushing into her mind, upsetting everything she had been taught or told since she was a little child. But SHE wouldn’t be like that, no, never, no matter how much she was married; there would always be something in HER that would say “don’t, it’s not nice.”
A silence followed, in which she could hear her own heart beating. Then, out of a kind of despair, she asked: “Oh, WHY are men and women, Dallie? Why have they got to be?”
“Well now, really’!” said Alice, startled and sincerely shocked. “I hope to goodness you’re not going to turn irreligious, and begin criticising what God has done and how He’s made us?”
“Of course not! I know everything He does is right,” vowed Trixie, the more hotly because she couldn’t down the naughty thought: if He’s got all that power, then I don’t see why He couldn’t have arranged things differently, let them happen without . . . well, without all this bother . . . and so many things you weren’t supposed to know . . . and what you were allowed to, so . . . so unpleasant. Yes, it WAS unpleasant, when you thought of undressing . . . and the snores . . . and — and everything.
And then quite suddenly and disconcertingly came a memory of Alice sitting looking into the fire, telling about her sweetheart. She had never known before that Alice was so pretty, with dimples round her mouth, and her eyes all shady. Oh, could it mean that . . . yes, it must: Alice simply didn’t MIND.
Almost as if this thought had passed to her, Alice said: “Just you wait till you fall in love, Trix, and then it’ll be different — as different as chalk from cheese. Then you’ll be only too glad, my dear, that we’re not all the same — all men or all women. Love’s something that goes right through you, child, I couldn’t even begin to describe it — and you wouldn’t understand it if I did — but once you’re in love, you can’t think of anything else, and it gives you such a strange feeling here that it almost chokes you!”— and laying one hand over the other on the place where she believed her heart to be, Alice pressed hard. “Why, only to be in the same room with him makes you happy, and if you know he’s feeling the same, and that he likes to look at you and to hold your hand — oh, Trix, it’s just Heaven!”
I do believe she’d even like him snoring, thought Trixie in dismay. (But perhaps it was only OLD men who snored.) Confused and depressed, she could not think of anything to reply. Alice did not speak again either, and there was a long silence, in which, though it was too dark to see her, Trixie guessed she would have the same funny little smile round her mouth and the same funny half-shut eyes, from thinking about George. Oh dear! what a muddle everything was.
“But come!” cried Alice, starting up from her dreams. “To bed and to sleep with you, young woman, or we shall never get you up in time for the morning coach. Help yourself to a couple of cheese-cakes . . . we can eat them as we go.”
Tartlets in hand, back they stole along the moon-blanched verandah; back past the row of dark windows, past the chromatic snores — to Trixie’s ears these had now a strange and sinister significance — guided by a moon which, riding at the top of the sky, had shrunk to the size of a pippin.
It was December and a scorching afternoon: a north wind blew; and the pale wind-streaked sky, the little verandahed houses, the glaring roads, the very air itself, all were white with heat and dust. In comparison the bathroom struck cool, being windowless, and lit only by a raised skylight. A good-sized room, it was really made for bathing in, was made to get wet, a concrete floor sloping towards a drain in one corner. Except for a large hanging mirror and a wooden table, it held nothing but a huge old zinc bath, the sides of which were streaked rust-brown from the tide-marks of the many waters that had filled it. Over the broad end hung a shower-ring. This dripped without ceasing, drops forming continuously on its under-surface, gathering volume, depending perilously, then falling on the zinc with a toneless thud. The water that oozed out when the large old-fashioned cock opened was not unlike muddied milk, and for the most part lukewarm. But it gushed freely, making up by abundance for its tepidness and want of clarity.
To-day it ran very red, for a storm overnight had churned up the mud bottom of the reservoir.
Four half-grown girls had come dancing into the room, and eight hands were busy; for all four had cried as one: “A bath! Let us have a bath!”
And while the water raced and sang, shoes were kicked off and clothes fell, a bit here, an oddment there, in their owners’ haste to be rid of encumbrances.
First ready was a fattish little blonde; though, as the eldest of the party, she had set to work more sedately than the rest. But, in her hurry to reach the water, one of the four had pulled a knot, and a brown and a red head were bent over it.
Meanwhile, Blonde sat on the side of the bath, swinging one leg. Her skin was of a delicate transparency, through which the veins showed blue as forget-me-nots. A wonderful prong, running down the chest, forked and lost itself in the whiteness of the barely-hinted breasts. Round her throat were two lines that might have been scored by a thumb-nail in wet clay; and below the ribs were two more — the lines of sitting beauty — deeply indented and wavy, like the lines carved by ripples on the sea-shore.
The knot unravelled, Red Head was out of her clothes in a twinkling, and now advanced, shoulders hunched, arms crossed and hugging their uppers. While she stood waiting for the tide to rise, rubbing the sole of one foot up and down the other leg, she made her brown-haired little companion, the youngest of the four, and still skinny and straight as a boy, look very dark; for, in Red Hair, the promise of a pale face powdered with freckles was fulfilled: her skin was white as milk from top to toe, and velvety as rose-petals to the touch.
Last came the knot-puller — a tall, slim, brown-eyed creature with a sallow face, flushed pink at the moment from heat and hurry, and a head of short golden curls. Against the others she stood out for the richness of her colouring; her skin was the shade of old, old ivory, tinting to amber, to a dusky gold, in all crevices: where the curls met her neck, and in the hollows of her armpits. Her young breasts — at this moment laid flat, for she was stretching with the abandon of a cat, both hands clasped tight behind her neck — ended in rings the colour of blue grapes dashed with sepia.
By now the bath was full to the brim. And while the four still lingered, chattering, twittering, exulting in their freedom, there was the sound of a heavy foot in the passage outside. And the room had three doors, none of which locked. Whrr! Like a herd of startled wild things, all made for the water at once, a phalanx of cream, white, and dusky legs whisking over the side with incredible rapidity. Amber came off worst: she was too tall; crouching did not help her. So she lay at full length, the others half-leaning, half-sitting on her, to keep her down. But the threatened intrusion passed; and with a fresh run of giggles and trills the bathers rose to their feet. — The water that trickled down their skins left visible traces, like tears on a grimy face.
Then the shower was pulled. Amber and Brownie stood under it, holding their heads to the gush and hiss, Amber raising an arm to screen her eyes, the little one pressing her face against her companion’s ribs. And, bristling and stinging, the shower flew off at right-angles, squirting madly out into the room. Blonde and Red Head dodged and scuttled. Then it was their turn. Blonde would not wet her hair; she leant her head and shoulders far back, stretching her lined throat, meeting the brunt of the water on her chest; or, stooping forward, let it hammer down the ridgeway of her spine.
Next, all tried to get under water at the same time. The result was wildest confusion; for the one below kicked, and splashed, and rolled over three slippery bodies, in her efforts to come to the surface. — Taking Blonde by the toes, the others floated her up and down.
An elderly woman looked in: the bathers gathered water in their joined palms and pelted her, in a perpendicular shower. Then they played at leaping. The game was: to go to the end of the room and take a running jump over the side, to see who could splash highest. Red Head was awkward, slipped and fell face downwards, to be half-drowned by the one who came after. This led to a free fight. The weapons were a big and little sponge: inflated to their fullest, they were hurled against any portion of a body that offered; and tireless hands, which scooped and flung, tweaked and slapped. The walls ran water, the concrete floor was a-swim with it.
In the midst of these gambols, a clock struck five. Like ghosts surprised by the dawn, the four were out of the bath in a trice and a-scramble for the towels that hung behind a door. There was a hasty rubbing down of sides and fronts; towels seesawed over backs, knees bent, curly toes wriggled dry. Grasped in two hands garments were poised for a moment high in air, then dropped into place, blotting out faces in the transit. And soon, of all that had lain bare, no more was visible than four damp-ringed, motley-coloured heads. — Though the long glass had given back in full the madcap riot of the bath, none had troubled to cast so much as a look at her naked self. Clothed, it was otherwise: here a sodden mass of curls was twitched and fingered, there the sit of a frock stroked into place.
Now a voice was heard calling — an urgent voice, that brooked no delay. Without a further backward glance each in turn followed the summons, vanishing swiftly. Four times the door opened and shut; till the room was empty. The splashed walls and swimming floor drained dry; the bath-water gurgled off; and the mirror’s surface lay blank, no conjurer being at hand to call to life the lovely shapes that slumbered in its depth.
The way he helped her into the boat was delicious, simply delicious: it made her feel like a grown-up lady to be taken so much care of — usually, people didn’t mind how you got in and out of things, as you were only thirteen. And before he let her step off the landing he took her strap of books from her — those wretched schoolbooks, which stamped her, but which she hadn’t known how to get rid of: her one chance of going for a row was secretly, on her way home from school. But he seemed to understand, without being told, how she despised them, and he put them somewhere in the boat where they wouldn’t get wet, and yet she didn’t need to see them. (She wondered what he had done with his own.)
He was so NICE; everything about him was nice: his velvety brown eyes and white teeth; his pink cheeks and fair hair. And when he took his coat off and sat down, and rolled up his sleeves and spanned his wrists on the oars, she liked him better still: he looked so strong . . . almost as if he could have picked the boat up and carried it. He wasn’t at all forward either (she hated cheeky boys:) when he had to touch her hand he went brick red, and jumped his own hand away as quick as he could.
With one stroke they were off and gliding downstream . . . oh, so smoothly! It made her think of floating in milk . . . though the water was REALLY brown and muddy-looking. Soon they would be quite away from the houses and the little back-gardens and allotments that ran down to the water, and out among the woods, where the river twisted like a snake, and the trees hung over the edge and dipped their branches in . . . most romantically. Then perhaps he would say something. He hadn’t spoken yet; he was too busy rowing, making great sweeps with the oars, and not looking at her . . . or only taking a peep now and then, to see if she saw. Which she did, and her heart thumped with pleasure. Perhaps, as he was so clever at it, he’d be a sailor when he was a man and go to sea. But that would mean him travelling far away, and she might never see him again. And though she’d only known him for a fortnight, and at first he hadn’t liked to speak, but had just stood and made eyes at her when they met going home from school, she felt she simply couldn’t bear it if he did.
To hide her feelings, she hung one hand over the side of the boat and let it trail, through the water — keeping it there long after it was stone cold, in the hope that he would notice it and say something. But he didn’t.
The Boy was thinking: I wonder if I dare tell her not to . . . her little hand . . . all wet like that, and cold. I should like to take it in both mine, and rub it dry, and warm it. HOW pretty she is, with all that fuzzy-wuzzy hair, and the little curls on her forehead. And how long her eyelashes are when she looks down. I wish I could make her look up . . . look at me. But how? Why, say something, of course. But what? Oh, if ONLY I could think of something! What does one? What would Jim say, if he wanted to make his girl look at him?
But nothing came.
Here, however, the hand was jerked from the water to kill a gnat that had settled on the other.
This was his cue. He parted hastily with his saliva.
“I say! Did it sting?”
She suppressed the no that was on her lips. “Well . . . yes . . . I think it did, rather.” And doubling her bony little schoolgirl fingers into her palm, she held out the back of the hand for his inspection.
Steadying the oars, the Boy leant forward to look, leant so far that, for a wild moment, she believed he was going to kiss the place, and half instinctively, half from an equally strong impulse to “play him,” drew it away. But he did not follow it up: at the thought of a kiss, which HAD occurred to him, shyness lamed him anew. So nothing came of this either.
And we’ve only half an hour, thought the Girl distractedly. If he doesn’t say something . . . soon . . . there won’t be any time left. And then it will all have been for nothing.
She, too, beat her brains. “The trees . . . aren’t they pretty? — the way they hang right down in the water.” (Other couples stopped under these trees, she’d seen them, and lay there in their boats; or even went right in behind the weeping willows.)
But his sole response was: “Good enough.” And another block followed.
Oh, he saw quite well what she was aiming at: she wanted him to pull in to the bank and ship his oars, so that they could do a bit of spooning, she lying lazy in the stern. But at the picture a mild panic seized him. For, if he couldn’t find anything to say even when he was rowing, it would be ten times harder when he sat with his hands before him and nothing to do. His tongue would stick to the roof of his mouth, dry as a bone, and then she’d see for sure how dull he was. And never want to go out with him again. No, thank you, not for him!
But talk wasn’t everything — by gum, it wasn’t! He might be a rotten hand at speechifying, but what he could DO, that he’d jolly well show her! And under this urge to display his strength, his skill, he now fell to work in earnest. Forward swung the oars, cleanly carving the water, or lightly feathering the surface; on flew the boat, he driving to and fro with his jaws grimly set and a heightened colour, the muscles standing out like pencils on his arms. Oh, it was a fine thing to be able to row so well, and have a girl, THE girl, sitting watching you. For now her eyes hung on him, mutely adoring, spurring him on to ever bolder strokes.
And then a sheerly dreadful thing happened. So lost was he in showing his mastery, in feeding on her looks, that he failed to keep his wits about him. And, coming to a place where the river forked, he took the wrong turning, and before he knew it they were in a part where you were not supposed to go — a bathing-place for men, much frequented by soldiers.
A squeal from the Girl roused him; but then it was too late: they had shot in among a score of bathers, whose heads bobbed about on the surface like so many floating footballs. And instantly her shrill cry was taken up and echoed and re-echoed by shouts, and laughter, and rude hullos, as the swimmers scattered before the oars. Coarse jokes were bandied, too, at the unwarranted intrusion. Hi! wasn’t there nowhere else he could take his girl? Or was she coming in, too? Off with her togs then!
Crimson with mortification at his blunder, at the fool he had made of himself (before her), the Boy savagely strove to turn the boat and escape. But the heads — there seemed to be hundreds of them — deliberately blocked his way. And while he manoeuvred, the sweat trickling down his forehead, a pair of arms and shoulders reared themselves from the water, and two hands grasped the side of the boat. It rocked; and the Girl squealed anew, shrinking sideways from the nearness of the dripping, sunburnt flesh.
“Come on, missie, pay toll!”
The Boy swore aloud.
But even worse was to come. On one bank, a square of wooden palisades had been built out round a stretch of water and a wooden bath-house, where there were cabins for the men to strip in, platforms to jump from, ropes strung for those who could not swim. But in this fence was a great gap, where some of the palings had fallen down. And in his rage and confusion the Boy had the misfortune to bring the boat right alongside it; and then . . . then. . . . Inside the enclosure, out of the cabins, down the steps, men were running, jumping, chasing, leap-frogging . . . every one of them as naked as on the day he was born.
For one instant the Girl raised her eyes — one only . . . but it was enough. She saw. And he saw that she saw.
And now, to these two young creatures, it seemed as if the whole visible world — themselves, boat, river, trees and sky — caught fire, and blazed up in one gigantic blush. Nothing existed for them any more but this burning redness. Nor could they escape; there they had to sit, knee to knee, face to face, and scorch, and suffocate; the blood filling their eyes till they could scarcely see, mounting to their hair-roots, making even their finger-tips throb and tingle.
Gritting his teeth, the Boy rowed like a machine that had been wound up and was not to be stopped. The Girl sat with drooped head — it seemed to have grown strangely heavy — and but a single wish: to get out and away . . . where he could not see her. For all was over between them — both felt that. Something catastrophic had happened, rudely shattering their frail young dreams; breaking down his boyish privacy, pitching her headlong into a reality for which she was in no wise prepared.
If it had been hard beforehand to find things to say, it was now impossible. And on the way home no sound was to be heard but the dip of the oars, the water’s cluck and gurgle round the boat. At the landing-place, she got out by herself, took from him, without looking up, her strap of books, and said a brief good-bye; keeping to a walking pace till she had turned the corner, then breaking into a run, and running for dear life . . . as if chased by some grotesque nightmare-shape which she must leave far, far behind her . . . even in thought.
“For men must work”
She was ready at last, the last bow tied, the last strengthening pin in place, and they said to her — Auntie Cha and Miss Biddons — to sit down and rest while Auntie Cha “climbed into her own togs”: “Or you’ll be tired before the evening begins.” But she could not bring herself to sit, for fear of crushing her dress — it was so light, so airy. How glad she felt now that she had chosen muslin, and not silk as Auntie Cha had tried to persuade her. The gossamer like stuff seemed to float around her as she moved, and the cut of the dress made her look so tall and so different from everyday that she hardly recognised herself in the glass; the girl reflected there — in palest blue, with a wreath of corn-flowers in her hair — might have been a stranger. Never had she thought she was so pretty . . . nor had Auntie and Miss Biddons either; though all they said was: “Well, Dolly, you’ll DO.” and: “Yes, I think she will be a credit to you.” Something hot and stinging came up her throat at this: a kind of gratitude for her pinky-white skin, her big blue eyes and fair curly hair, and pity for those girls who hadn’t got them. Or an Auntie Cha either, to dress them and see that everything was “just so.”
Instead of sitting, she stood very stiff and straight at the window, pretending to watch for the cab, her long white gloves hanging loose over one arm so as not to soil them. But her heart was beating pit-a-pat. For this was her first real grown-up ball. It was to be held in a public hall, and Auntie Cha, where she was staying, had bought tickets and was taking her.
True, Miss Biddons rather spoilt things at the end by saying: “Now mind you don’t forget your steps in the waltz. One, two, together; four, five, six.” And in the wagonette, with her dress filling one seat, Auntie Cha’s the other, Auntie said: “Now, Dolly, remember not to look too SERIOUS. Or you’ll frighten the gentlemen off.”
But she was only doing it now because of her dress: cabs were so cramped, the seats so narrow.
Alas! in getting out a little accident happened. She caught the bottom of one of her flounces — the skirt was made of nothing else — on the iron step, and ripped off the selvedge. Auntie Cha said: “My DEAR, how clumsy!” She could have cried with vexation.
The woman who took their cloaks hunted everywhere, but could only find black cotton; so the torn selvedge — there was nearly half a yard of it-had just to be cut off. This left a raw edge, and when they went into the hall and walked across the enormous floor, with people sitting all round, staring, it seemed to Dolly as if every one had their eyes fixed on it. Auntie Cha sat down in the front row of chairs beside a lady-friend; but she slid into a chair behind.
The first dance was already over, and they were hardly seated before partners began to be taken for the second. Shyly she mustered the assembly. In the cloakroom, she had expected the woman to exclaim: “What a sweet pretty frock!” when she handled it. (When all she did say was: “This sort of stuff’s bound to fray.”) And now Dolly saw that the hall was full of LOVELY dresses, some much, much prettier than hers, which suddenly began to seem rather too plain, even a little dowdy; perhaps after all it would have been better to have chosen silk.
She wondered if Auntie Cha thought so, too. For Auntie suddenly turned and looked at her, quite hard, and then said snappily: “Come, come, child, you mustn’t tuck yourself away like that, or the gentlemen will think you don’t want to dance.” So she had to come out and sit in the front; and show that she had a programme, by holding it open on her lap.
When other ladies were being requested for the third time, and still nobody had asked to be introduced, Auntie began making signs and beckoning with her head to the Master of Ceremonies — a funny little fat man with a bright red beard. He waddled across the floor, and Auntie whispered to him behind her fan. (But she heard. And heard him answer: “Wants a partner? Why, certainly.”) And then he went away and they could see him offering her to several gentlemen. Some pointed to the ladies they were sitting with or standing in front of; some showed their programmes that these were full. One or two turned their heads and looked at her. But it was no good. So he came back and said: “Will the little lady do ME the favour?” and she had to look glad and say: “With pleasure,” and get up and dance with him. Perhaps she was a little slow about it . . . at any rate Auntie Cha made great round eyes at her. But she felt sure every one would know why he was asking her. It was the lancers, too, and he swung her off her feet at the corners, and was comic when he set to partners — putting one hand on his hip and the other over his head, as if he were dancing the hornpipe — and the rest of the set laughed. She was glad when it was over and she could go back to her place.
Auntie Cha’s lady-friend had a son, and he was beckoned to next and there was more whispering. But he was engaged to be married, and of course preferred to dance with his fiancee. When he came and bowed — to oblige his mother — he looked quite grumpy, and didn’t trouble to say all of “May I have the pleasure?” but just “The pleasure?” While she had to say “Certainly,” and pretend to be very pleased, though she didn’t feel it, and really didn’t want much to dance with him, knowing he didn’t, and that it was only out of charity. Besides, all the time they went round he was explaining things to the other girl with his eyes . . . making faces over her head. She saw him, quite plainly.
After he had brought her back — and Auntie had talked to him again — he went to a gentleman who hadn’t danced at all yet, but just stood looking on. And this one needed a lot of persuasion. He was ugly, and lanky, and as soon as they stood up, said quite rudely: “I’m no earthly good at this kind of thing, you know.” And he wasn’t. He trod on her foot and put her out of step, and they got into the most dreadful muddle, right out in the middle of the floor. It was a waltz, and remembering what Miss Biddons had said, she got more and more nervous, and then went wrong herself and had to say: “I beg your pardon,” to which he said: “Granted.” She saw them in a mirror as they passed, and her face was red as red.
It didn’t get cool again either, for she had to go on sitting out, and she felt sure he was spreading it that SHE couldn’t dance. She didn’t know whether Auntie Cha had seen her mistakes, but now Auntie sort of went for her. “It’s no use, Dolly, if you don’t do YOUR share. For goodness sake, try and look more agreeable!”
So after this, in the intervals between the dances, she sat with a stiff little smile gummed to her lips. And, did any likely-looking partner approach the corner where they were, this widened till she felt what it was really saying was: “Here I am! Oh, PLEASE, take ME!”
She had several false hopes. Men, looking so splendid in their white shirt fronts, would walk across the floor and SEEM to be coming . . . and then it was always not her. Their eyes wouldn’t stay on her. There she sat, with her false little smile, and HER eyes fixed on them; but theirs always got away . . . flitted past . . . moved on. Once she felt quite sure. Ever such a handsome young man looked as if he were making straight for her. She stretched her lips, showing all her teeth (they were very good) and for an instant his eyes seemed to linger . . . really to take her in, in her pretty blue dress and the corn-flowers. And then at the, last minute they ran away — and it wasn’t her at all, but a girl sitting three seats further on; one who wasn’t even pretty, or her dress either — But her own dress was beginning to get quite tashy, from the way she squeezed her hot hands down. in her lap.
Quite the worst part of all was having to go on sitting in the front row, pretending you were enjoying yourself. It was so hard to know what to do with your eyes. There was nothing but the floor for them to look at — if you watched the other couples dancing they would think you were envying them. At first she made a show of studying her programme; but you couldn’t go on staring at a programme for ever; and presently her shame at its emptiness grew till she could bear it no longer, and, seizing a moment when people were dancing, she slipped it down the front of her dress. Now she could say she’d lost it, if anyone asked to see it. But they didn’t; they went on dancing with other girls. Oh, these men, who walked round and chose just who they fancied and left who they didn’t . . . how she hated them! It wasn’t fair . . . it wasn’t fair. And when there was a “leap-year dance” where the ladies invited the gentlemen, and Auntie Cha tried to push her up and make her go and said: “Now then, Dolly, here’s your chancel” she shook her head hard and dug herself deeper into her scat. She wasn’t going to ask them when they never asked her. So she said her head ached and she’d rather not. And to this she clung, sitting the while wishing with her whole heart that her dress was black and her hair grey, like Auntie Cha’s. Nobody expected Auntie to dance, or thought it shameful if she didn’t: she could do and be just as she liked. Yes, to-night she wished she was old . . . an old old woman. Or that she was safe at home in bed this dreadful evening, to which she had once counted the days, behind her. Even, as the night wore on, that she was dead.
At supper she sat with Auntie and the other lady, and the son and the girl came, too. There were lovely cakes and things, but she could not eat them. Her throat was so dry that a sandwich stuck in it and nearly choked her. Perhaps the son felt a little sorry for her (or else his mother had whispered again), for afterwards he said something to the girl, and then asked HER to dance. They stood up together; but it wasn’t a success. Her legs seemed to have forgotten how to jump, heavy as lead they were . . . as heavy as she felt inside . . . and she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So now he would put her down as stupid, as well.
Her only other partner was a boy younger than she was — almost a schoolboy — who she heard them say was “making a positive nuisance of himself.” This was to a VERY pretty girl called the “belle of the ball.” And he didn’t seem to mind how badly he danced (with her), for he couldn’t take his eyes off this other girl; but went on staring at her all the time, and very fiercely, because she was talking and laughing with somebody else. Besides, he hopped like a grass-hopper, and didn’t wear gloves, and his hands were hot and sticky. She hadn’t come there to dance with little boys.
They left before anybody else; there was nothing to stay for. And the drive home in the wagonette, which had to be fetched, they were so early, was dreadful: Auntie Cha just sat and pressed her lips and didn’t say a word. She herself kept her face turned the other way, because her mouth was jumping, in and out as if it might have to cry.
At the sound of wheels Miss Biddons came running to the front door with questions and exclamations, dreadfully curious to know why they were back so soon. Dolly fled to her own little room and turned the key in the lock. She wanted only to be alone, quite alone, where nobody could see her . . . where nobody would ever see her again. But the walls were thin, and as she tore off the wreath and ripped open her dress, now crushed to nothing from so much sitting, and threw them from her anywhere, anyhow, she could hear the two voices going on, Auntie Cha’s telling and telling, and winding up at last, quite out loud, with: “Well, I don’t know what it was, but the plain truth is. she didn’t TAKE!”
Oh, the shame of it! . . . the sting and the shame. Her first ball, and not to have “taken,” to have failed to “attract the gentlemen”— this was a slur that would rest on her all her life. And yet . . . and yet . . . in spite of everything, a small voice that wouldn’t be silenced kept on saying: “It wasn’t my FAULT . . . it wasn’t my fault!” (Or at least not except for the one silly mistake in the steps of the waltz.) She had tried her hardest, done everything she was told to: had dressed up to please and look pretty, sat in the front row offering her programme, smiled when she didn’t feel a bit like smiling . . . and almost more than anything she thought she hated the memory of that smile (it was like trying to make people buy something they didn’t think worth while.) For really, truly, right deep down in her, she hadn’t wanted “the gentlemen” any more than they’d wanted her: she had only had to pretend to. And they showed only too plainly they didn’t, by choosing other girls, who were not even pretty, and dancing with them, and laughing and talking and enjoying them. — And now, the many slights and humiliations of the evening crowding upon her, the long repressed tears broke through; and with the blanket pulled up over her head, her face driven deep into the pillow, she cried till she could cry no more.
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.
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University of Adelaide
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