The flames had fairly caught.
“There’s St. Paul’s!” some one cried.
As the wood caught the city of London was lit up for a second; on other sides of the fire there were trees. Of the faces which came out fresh and vivid as though painted in yellow and red, the most prominent was a girl’s face. By a trick of the firelight she seemed to have no body. The oval of the face and hair hung beside the fire with a dark vacuum for background. As if dazed by the glare, her green-blue eyes stared at the flames. Every muscle of her face was taut. There was something tragic in her thus staring — her age between twenty and twenty-five.
A hand descending from the chequered darkness thrust on her head the conical white hat of a pierrot. Shaking her head, she still stared. A whiskered face appeared above her. They dropped two legs of a table upon the fire and a scattering of twigs and leaves. All this blazed up and showed faces far back, round, pale, smooth, bearded, some with billycock hats on; all intent; showed too St. Paul’s floating on the uneven white mist, and two or three narrow, paper-white, extinguisher-shaped spires.
The flames were struggling through the wood and roaring up when, goodness knows where from, pails flung water in beautiful hollow shapes, as of polished tortoiseshell; flung again and again; until the hiss was like a swarm of bees; and all the faces went out.
“Oh Jacob,” said the girl, as they pounded up the hill in the dark, “I’m so frightfully unhappy!”
Shouts of laughter came from the others — high, low; some before, others after.
The hotel dining-room was brightly lit. A stag’s head in plaster was at one end of the table; at the other some Roman bust blackened and reddened to represent Guy Fawkes, whose night it was. The diners were linked together by lengths of paper roses, so that when it came to singing “Auld Lang Syne” with their hands crossed a pink and yellow line rose and fell the entire length of the table. There was an enormous tapping of green wine-glasses. A young man stood up, and Florinda, taking one of the purplish globes that lay on the table, flung it straight at his head. It crushed to powder.
“I’m so frightfully unhappy!” she said, turning to Jacob, who sat beside her.
The table ran, as if on invisible legs, to the side of the room, and a barrel organ decorated with a red cloth and two pots of paper flowers reeled out waltz music.
Jacob could not dance. He stood against the wall smoking a pipe.
“We think,” said two of the dancers, breaking off from the rest, and bowing profoundly before him, “that you are the most beautiful man we have ever seen.”
So they wreathed his head with paper flowers. Then somebody brought out a white and gilt chair and made him sit on it. As they passed, people hung glass grapes on his shoulders, until he looked like the figure-head of a wrecked ship. Then Florinda got upon his knee and hid her face in his waistcoat. With one hand he held her; with the other, his pipe.
“Now let us talk,” said Jacob, as he walked down Haverstock Hill between four and five o’clock in the morning of November the sixth arm-in-arm with Timmy Durrant, “about something sensible.”
The Greeks — yes, that was what they talked about — how when all’s said and done, when one’s rinsed one’s mouth with every literature in the world, including Chinese and Russian (but these Slavs aren’t civilized), it’s the flavour of Greek that remains. Durrant quoted Aeschylus — Jacob Sophocles. It is true that no Greek could have understood or professor refrained from pointing out — Never mind; what is Greek for if not to be shouted on Haverstock Hill in the dawn? Moreover, Durrant never listened to Sophocles, nor Jacob to Aeschylus. They were boastful, triumphant; it seemed to both that they had read every book in the world; known every sin, passion, and joy. Civilizations stood round them like flowers ready for picking. Ages lapped at their feet like waves fit for sailing. And surveying all this, looming through the fog, the lamplight, the shades of London, the two young men decided in favour of Greece.
“Probably,” said Jacob, “we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant.”
They drank coffee at a stall where the urns were burnished and little lamps burnt along the counter.
Taking Jacob for a military gentleman, the stall-keeper told him about his boy at Gibraltar, and Jacob cursed the British army and praised the Duke of Wellington. So on again they went down the hill talking about the Greeks.
A strange thing — when you come to think of it — this love of Greek, flourishing in such obscurity, distorted, discouraged, yet leaping out, all of a sudden, especially on leaving crowded rooms, or after a surfeit of print, or when the moon floats among the waves of the hills, or in hollow, sallow, fruitless London days, like a specific; a clean blade; always a miracle. Jacob knew no more Greek than served him to stumble through a play. Of ancient history he knew nothing. However, as he tramped into London it seemed to him that they were making the flagstones ring on the road to the Acropolis, and that if Socrates saw them coming he would bestir himself and say “my fine fellows,” for the whole sentiment of Athens was entirely after his heart; free, venturesome, high-spirited. . . . She had called him Jacob without asking his leave. She had sat upon his knee. Thus did all good women in the days of the Greeks.
At this moment there shook out into the air a wavering, quavering, doleful lamentation which seemed to lack strength to unfold itself, and yet flagged on; at the sound of which doors in back streets burst sullenly open; workmen stumped forth.
Florinda was sick.
Mrs. Durrant, sleepless as usual, scored a mark by the side of certain lines in the Inferno.
Clara slept buried in her pillows; on her dressing-table dishevelled roses and a pair of long white gloves.
Still wearing the conical white hat of a pierrot, Florinda was sick.
The bedroom seemed fit for these catastrophes — cheap, mustard-coloured, half attic, half studio, curiously ornamented with silver paper stars, Welshwomen’s hats, and rosaries pendent from the gas brackets. As for Florinda’s story, her name had been bestowed upon her by a painter who had wished it to signify that the flower of her maidenhood was still unplucked. Be that as it may, she was without a surname, and for parents had only the photograph of a tombstone beneath which, she said, her father lay buried. Sometimes she would dwell upon the size of it, and rumour had it that Florinda’s father had died from the growth of his bones which nothing could stop; just as her mother enjoyed the confidence of a Royal master, and now and again Florinda herself was a Princess, but chiefly when drunk. Thus deserted, pretty into the bargain, with tragic eyes and the lips of a child, she talked more about virginity than women mostly do; and had lost it only the night before, or cherished it beyond the heart in her breast, according to the man she talked to. But did she always talk to men? No, she had her confidante: Mother Stuart. Stuart, as the lady would point out, is the name of a Royal house; but what that signified, and what her business way, no one knew; only that Mrs. Stuart got postal orders every Monday morning, kept a parrot, believed in the transmigration of souls, and could read the future in tea leaves. Dirty lodging-house wallpaper she was behind the chastity of Florinda.
Now Florinda wept, and spent the day wandering the streets; stood at Chelsea watching the river swim past; trailed along the shopping streets; opened her bag and powdered her cheeks in omnibuses; read love letters, propping them against the milk pot in the A.B.C. shop; detected glass in the sugar bowl; accused the waitress of wishing to poison her; declared that young men stared at her; and found herself towards evening slowly sauntering down Jacob’s street, when it struck her that she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews, and sitting at his table (he was copying his essay upon the Ethics of Indecency), drew off her gloves and told him how Mother Stuart had banged her on the head with the tea-cosy.
Jacob took her word for it that she was chaste. She prattled, sitting by the fireside, of famous painters. The tomb of her father was mentioned. Wild and frail and beautiful she looked, and thus the women of the Greeks were, Jacob thought; and this was life; and himself a man and Florinda chaste.
She left with one of Shelley’s poems beneath her arm. Mrs. Stuart, she said, often talked of him.
Marvellous are the innocent. To believe that the girl herself transcends all lies (for Jacob was not such a fool as to believe implicitly), to wonder enviously at the unanchored life — his own seeming petted and even cloistered in comparison — to have at hand as sovereign specifics for all disorders of the soul Adonais and the plays of Shakespeare; to figure out a comradeship all spirited on her side, protective on his, yet equal on both, for women, thought Jacob, are just the same as men — innocence such as this is marvellous enough, and perhaps not so foolish after all.
For when Florinda got home that night she first washed her head; then ate chocolate creams; then opened Shelley. True, she was horribly bored. What on earth was it ABOUT? She had to wager with herself that she would turn the page before she ate another. In fact she slept. But then her day had been a long one, Mother Stuart had thrown the tea-cosy; — there are formidable sights in the streets, and though Florinda was ignorant as an owl, and would never learn to read even her love letters correctly, still she had her feelings, liked some men better than others, and was entirely at the beck and call of life. Whether or not she was a virgin seems a matter of no importance whatever. Unless, indeed, it is the only thing of any importance at all.
Jacob was restless when she left him.
All night men and women seethed up and down the well-known beats. Late home-comers could see shadows against the blinds even in the most respectable suburbs. Not a square in snow or fog lacked its amorous couple. All plays turned on the same subject. Bullets went through heads in hotel bedrooms almost nightly on that account. When the body escaped mutilation, seldom did the heart go to the grave unscarred. Little else was talked of in theatres and popular novels. Yet we say it is a matter of no importance at all.
What with Shakespeare and Adonais, Mozart and Bishop Berkeley — choose whom you like — the fact is concealed and the evenings for most of us pass reputably, or with only the sort of tremor that a snake makes sliding through the grass. But then concealment by itself distracts the mind from the print and the sound. If Florinda had had a mind, she might have read with clearer eyes than we can. She and her sort have solved the question by turning it to a trifle of washing the hands nightly before going to bed, the only difficulty being whether you prefer your water hot or cold, which being settled, the mind can go about its business unassailed.
But it did occur to Jacob, half-way through dinner, to wonder whether she had a mind.
They sat at a little table in the restaurant.
Florinda leant the points of her elbows on the table and held her chin in the cup of her hands. Her cloak had slipped behind her. Gold and white with bright beads on her she emerged, her face flowering from her body, innocent, scarcely tinted, the eyes gazing frankly about her, or slowly settling on Jacob and resting there. She talked:
“You know that big black box the Australian left in my room ever so long ago? . . . I do think furs make a woman look old. . . . That’s Bechstein come in now. . . . I was wondering what you looked like when you were a little boy, Jacob.” She nibbled her roll and looked at him.
“Jacob. You’re like one of those statues. . . . I think there are lovely things in the British Museum, don’t you? Lots of lovely things . . . ” she spoke dreamily. The room was filling; the heat increasing. Talk in a restaurant is dazed sleep-walkers’ talk, so many things to look at — so much noise — other people talking. Can one overhear? Oh, but they mustn’t overhear US.
“That’s like Ellen Nagle — that girl . . . ” and so on.
“I’m awfully happy since I’ve known you, Jacob. You’re such a GOOD man.”
The room got fuller and fuller; talk louder; knives more clattering.
“Well, you see what makes her say things like that is . . . ”
She stopped. So did every one.
“To-morrow . . . Sunday . . . a beastly . . . you tell me . . . go then!” Crash! And out she swept.
It was at the table next them that the voice spun higher and higher. Suddenly the woman dashed the plates to the floor. The man was left there. Everybody stared. Then —“Well, poor chap, we mustn’t sit staring. What a go! Did you hear what she said? By God, he looks a fool! Didn’t come up to the scratch, I suppose. All the mustard on the tablecloth. The waiters laughing.”
Jacob observed Florinda. In her face there seemed to him something horribly brainless — as she sat staring.
Out she swept, the black woman with the dancing feather in her hat.
Yet she had to go somewhere. The night is not a tumultuous black ocean in which you sink or sail as a star. As a matter of fact it was a wet November night. The lamps of Soho made large greasy spots of light upon the pavement. The by-streets were dark enough to shelter man or woman leaning against the doorways. One detached herself as Jacob and Florinda approached.
“She’s dropped her glove,” said Florinda.
Jacob, pressing forward, gave it her.
Effusively she thanked him; retraced her steps; dropped her glove again. But why? For whom? Meanwhile, where had the other woman got to? And the man?
The street lamps do not carry far enough to tell us. The voices, angry, lustful, despairing, passionate, were scarcely more than the voices of caged beasts at night. Only they are not caged, nor beasts. Stop a man; ask him the way; he’ll tell it you; but one’s afraid to ask him the way. What does one fear? — the human eye. At once the pavement narrows, the chasm deepens. There! They’ve melted into it — both man and woman. Further on, blatantly advertising its meritorious solidity, a boarding-house exhibits behind uncurtained windows its testimony to the soundness of London. There they sit, plainly illuminated, dressed like ladies and gentlemen, in bamboo chairs. The widows of business men prove laboriously that they are related to judges. The wives of coal merchants instantly retort that their fathers kept coachmen. A servant brings coffee, and the crochet basket has to be moved. And so on again into the dark, passing a girl here for sale, or there an old woman with only matches to offer, passing the crowd from the Tube station, the women with veiled hair, passing at length no one but shut doors, carved door-posts, and a solitary policeman, Jacob, with Florinda on his arm, reached his room and, lighting the lamp, said nothing at all.
“I don’t like you when you look like that,” said Florinda.
The problem is insoluble. The body is harnessed to a brain. Beauty goes hand in hand with stupidity. There she sat staring at the fire as she had stared at the broken mustard-pot. In spite of defending indecency, Jacob doubted whether he liked it in the raw. He had a violent reversion towards male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics; and was ready to turn with wrath upon whoever it was who had fashioned life thus.
Then Florinda laid her hand upon his knee.
After all, it was none of her fault. But the thought saddened him. It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.
Any excuse, though, serves a stupid woman. He told her his head ached.
But when she looked at him, dumbly, half-guessing, half-understanding, apologizing perhaps, anyhow saying as he had said, “It’s none of my fault,” straight and beautiful in body, her face like a shell within its cap, then he knew that cloisters and classics are no use whatever. The problem is insoluble.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01