It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected. Thousands of shop assistants made that remark, as they handed neat parcels to ladies in flounced dresses standing on the other side of the counter at Whiteley’s and the Army and Navy Stores. Interminable processions of shoppers in the West end, of business men in the East, paraded the pavements, like caravans perpetually marching — so it seemed to those who had any reason to pause, say, to post a letter, or at a club window in Piccadilly. The stream of landaus, victorias and hansom cabs was incessant; for the season was beginning. In the quieter streets musicians doled out their frail and for the most part melancholy pipe of sound, which was echoed, or parodied, here in the trees of Hyde Park, here in St. James’s by the twitter of sparrows and the sudden outbursts of the amorous but intermittent thrush. The pigeons in the squares shuffled in the tree tops, letting fall a twig or two, and crooned over and over again the lullaby that was always interrupted. The gates at the Marble Arch and Apsley House were blocked in the afternoon by ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and by gentlemen in frock coats carrying canes, wearing carnations. Here came the Princess, and as she passed hats were lifted. In the basements of the long avenues of the residential quarters servant girls in cap and apron prepared tea. Deviously ascending from the basement the silver teapot was placed on the table, and virgins and spinsters with hands that had staunched the sores of Bermondsey and Hoxton carefully measured out one, two, three, four spoonfuls of tea. When the sun went down a million little gaslights, shaped like the eyes in peacocks’ feathers, opened in their glass cages, but nevertheless broad stretches of darkness were left on the pavement. The mixed light of the lamps and the setting sun was reflected equally in the placid waters of the Round Pond and the Serpentine. Diners-out, trotting over the Bridge in hansom cabs, looked for a moment at the charming vista. At length the moon rose and its polished coin, though obscured now and then by wisps of cloud, shone out with serenity, with severity, or perhaps with complete indifference. Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.
Colonel Abel Pargiter was sitting after luncheon in his club talking. Since his companions in the leather armchairs were men of his own type, men who had been soldiers, civil servants, men who had now retired, they were reviving with old jokes and stories now their past in India, Africa, Egypt, and then, by a natural transition, they turned to the present. It was a question of some appointment, of some possible appointment.
Suddenly the youngest and the sprucest of the three leant forward. Yesterday he had lunched with . . . Here the voice of the speaker fell. The others bent towards him; with a brief wave of his hand Colonel Abel dismissed the servant who was removing the coffee cups. The three baldish and greyish heads remained close together for a few minutes. Then Colonel Abel threw himself back in his chair. The curious gleam which had come into all their eyes when Major Elkin began his story had faded completely from Colonel Pargiter’s face. He sat staring ahead of him with bright blue eyes that seemed a little screwed up, as if the glare of the East were still in them; and puckered at the corners as if the dust were still in them. Some thought had struck him that made what the others were saying of no interest to him; indeed, it was disagreeable to him. He rose and looked out of the window down into Piccadilly. Holding his cigar suspended he looked down on the tops of omnibuses, hansom cabs, victorias, vans and landaus. He was out of it all, his attitude seemed to say; he had no longer any finger in that pie. Gloom settled on his red handsome face as he stood gazing. Suddenly a thought struck him. He had a question to ask; he turned to ask it; but his friends were gone. The little group had broken up. Elkins was already hurrying through the door; Brand had moved off to talk to another man. Colonel Pargiter shut his mouth on the thing he might have said, and turned back again to the window overlooking Piccadilly. Everybody in the crowded street, it seemed, had some end in view. Everybody was hurrying along to keep some appointment. Even the ladies in their victorias and broughams were trotting down Piccadilly on some errand or other. People were coming back to London; they were settling in for the season. But for him there would be no season; for him there was nothing to do. His wife was dying; but she did not die. She was better today; would be worse tomorrow; a new nurse was coming; and so it went on. He picked up a paper and turned over the pages. He looked at a picture of the west front of Cologne Cathedral. He tossed the paper back into its place among the other papers. One of these days — that was his euphemism for the time when his wife was dead — he would give up London, he thought, and live in the country. But then there was the house; then there were the children; and there was also . . . his face changed; it became less discontented; but also a little furtive and uneasy.
He had somewhere to go, after all. While they were gossiping he had kept that thought at the back of his mind. When he turned round and found them gone, that was the balm he clapped on his wound. He would go and see Mira; Mira at least would be glad to see him. Thus when he left the club he turned not East, where the busy men were going; nor West where his own house in Abercorn Terrace was; but took his way along the hard paths through the Green Park towards Westminster. The grass was very green; the leaves were beginning to shoot; little green claws, like birds’ claws, were pushing out from the branches; there was a sparkle, an animation everywhere; the air smelt clean and brisk. But Colonel Pargiter saw neither the grass nor the trees. He marched through the Park, in his closely buttoned coat, looking straight ahead of him. But when he came to Westminster he stopped. He did not like this part of the business at all. Every time he approached the little street that lay under the huge bulk of the Abbey, the street of dingy little houses, with yellow curtains and cards in the window, the street where the muffin man seemed always to be ringing his bell, where children screamed and hopped in and out of white chalk-marks on the pavement, he paused, looked to the right, looked to the left; and then walked very sharply to Number Thirty and rang the bell. He gazed straight at the door as he waited with his head rather sunk. He did not wish to be seen standing on that door- step. He did not like waiting to be let in. He did not like it when Mrs Sims let him in. There was always a smell in the house; there were always dirty clothes hanging on a line in the back garden. He went up the stairs, sulkily and heavily, and entered the sitting-room.
Nobody was there; he was too early. He looked round the room with distaste. There were too many little objects about. He felt out of place, and altogether too large as he stood upright before the draped fireplace in front of a screen upon which was painted a kingfisher in the act of alighting on some bulrushes. Footsteps scurried about hither and thither on the floor above. Was there somebody with her? he asked himself listening. Children screamed in the street outside. It was sordid; it was mean; it was furtive. One of these days, he said to himself . . . but the door opened and his mistress, Mira, came in.
“Oh Bogy, dear!” she exclaimed. Her hair was very untidy; she was a little fluffy-looking; but she was very much younger than he was and really glad to see him, he thought. The little dog bounced up at her.
“Lulu, Lulu,” she cried, catching the little dog in one hand while she put the other to her hair, “come and let Uncle Bogy look at you.”
The Colonel settled himself in the creaking basket-chair. She put the dog on his knee. There was a red patch — possibly eczema — behind one of its ears. The Colonel put on his glasses and bent down to look at the dog’s ear. Mira kissed him where his collar met his neck. Then his glasses fell off. She snatched them and put them on the dog. The old boy was out of spirits today, she felt. In that mysterious world of clubs and family life of which he never spoke to her something was wrong. He had come before she had done her hair, which was a nuisance. But her duty was to distract him. So she flitted — her figure, enlarging as it was, still allowed her to glide between table and chair — hither and thither; removed the fire-screen and set a light, before he could stop her, to the grudging lodging-house fire. Then she perched on the arm of his chair.
“Oh, Mira!” she said, glancing at herself in the looking-glass and shifting her hair-pins, “what a dreadfully untidy girl you are!” She loosed a long coil and let it fall over her shoulders. It was beautiful gold-glancing hair still, though she was nearing forty and had, if the truth were known, a daughter of eight boarded out with friends at Bedford. The hair began to fall of its own accord, of its own weight, and Bogy seeing it fall stooped and kissed her hair. A barrel-organ had begun to play down the street and the children all rushed in that direction, leaving a sudden silence. The Colonel began to stroke her neck. He began fumbling, with the hand that had lost two fingers, rather lower down, where the neck joins the shoulders. Mira slipped onto the floor and leant her back against his knee.
Then there was a creaking on the stairs; someone tapped as if to warn them of her presence. Mira at once pinned her hair together, got up and shut the door.
The Colonel began in his methodical way to examine the dog’s ears again. Was it eczema? or was it not eczema? He looked at the red patch, then set the dog on its legs in the basket and waited. He did not like the prolonged whispering on the landing outside. At length Mira came back; she looked worried; and when she looked worried she looked old. She began hunting about under cushions and covers. She wanted her bag, she said; where had she put her bag? In that litter of things, the Colonel thought, it might be anywhere. It was a lean, poverty-stricken-looking bag when she found it under the cushions in the corner of the sofa. She turned it upside down. Pocket handkerchiefs, screwed up bits of paper, silver and coppers fell out as she shook it. But there should have been a sovereign, she said. “I’m sure I had one yesterday,” she murmured.
“How much?” said the Colonel.
It came to one pound — no, it came to one pound eight and sixpence, she said, muttering something about the washing. The Colonel slipped two sovereigns out of his little gold case and gave them to her. She took them and there was more whispering on the landing.
“Washing . . .?” thought the Colonel, looking round the room. It was a dingy little hole; but being so much older than she was it did not do to ask questions about the washing. Here she was again. She flitted across the room and sat on the floor and put her head against his knee. The grudging fire which had been flickering feebly had died down now. “Let it be,” he said impatiently, as she took up the poker. “Let it go out.” She resigned the poker. The dog snored; the barrel organ played. His hand began its voyage up and down her neck, in and out of the long thick hair. In this small room, so close to the other houses, dusk came quickly; and the curtains were half drawn. He drew her to him; he kissed her on the nape of the neck; and then the hand that had lost two fingers began to fumble rather lower down where the neck joins the shoulders.
A sudden squall of rain struck the pavement, and the children, who had been skipping in and out of their chalk cages, scudded away home. The elderly street singer, who had been swaying along the kerb, with a fisherman’s cap stuck jauntily on the back of his head, lustily chanting “Count your blessings, Count your blessings —” turned up his coat collar and took refuge under the portico of a public house where he finished his injunction: “Count your blessings. Every One.” Then the sun shone again; and dried the pavement.
“It’s not boiling,” said Milly Pargiter, looking at the tea-kettle. She was sitting at the round table in the front drawing-room of the house in Abercorn Terrace. “Not nearly boiling,” she repeated. The kettle was an old-fashioned brass kettle, chased with a design of roses that was almost obliterated. A feeble little flame flickered up and down beneath the brass bowl. Her sister Delia, lying back in a chair beside her, watched it too. “Must a kettle boil?” she asked idly after a moment, as if she expected no answer, and Milly did not answer. They sat in silence watching the little flame on a tuft of yellow wick. There were many plates and cups as if other people were coming; but at the moment they were alone. The room was full of furniture. Opposite them stood a Dutch cabinet with blue china on the shelves; the sun of the April evening made a bright stain here and there on the glass. Over the fireplace the portrait of a red-haired young woman in white muslin holding a basket of flowers on her lap smiled down on them.
Milly took a hairpin from her head and began to fray the wick into separate strands so as to increase the size of the flame.
“But that doesn’t do any good,” Delia said irritably as she watched her. She fidgeted. Everything seemed to take such an intolerable time. Then Crosby came in and said, should she boil the kettle in the kitchen? and Milly said No. How can I put a stop to this fiddling and trifling, she said to herself, tapping a knife on the table and looking at the feeble flame that her sister was teasing with a hairpin. A gnat’s voice began to wail under the kettle; but here the door burst open again and a little girl in a stiff pink frock came in.
“I think Nurse might have put you on a clean pinafore,” said Milly severely, imitating the manner of a grown-up person. There was a green smudge on her pinafore as if she had been climbing trees.
“It hadn’t come back from the wash,” said Rose, the little girl, grumpily. She looked at the table, but there was no question of tea yet.
Milly applied her hairpin to the wick again. Delia leant back and glanced over her shoulder out of the window. From where she sat she could see the front door steps.
“Now, there’s Martin,” she said gloomily. The door slammed; books were slapped down on the hall table, and Martin, a boy of twelve, came in. He had the red hair of the woman in the picture, but it was rumpled.
“Go and make yourself tidy,” said Delia severely. “You’ve plenty of time,” she added. “The kettle isn’t boiling yet.”
They all looked at the kettle. It still kept up its faint melancholy singing as the little flame flickered under the swinging bowl of brass.
“Blast that kettle,” said Martin, turning sharply away.
“Mama wouldn’t like you to use language like that,” Milly reproved him as if in imitation of an older person; for their mother had been ill so long that both sisters had taken to imitating her manner with the children. The door opened again.
“The tray, Miss . . . ” said Crosby, keeping the door open with her foot. She had an invalid’s tray in her hands.
“The tray,” said Milly. “Now who’s going to take up the tray?” Again she imitated the manner of an older person who wishes to be tactful with children.
“Not you, Rose. It’s too heavy. Let Martin carry it; and you can go with him. But don’t stay. Just tell Mama what you’ve been doing; and then the kettle . . . the kettle. . . . ”
Here she applied her hairpin to the wick again. A thin puff of steam issued from the serpent-shaped spout. At first intermittent, it gradually became more and more powerful, until, just as they heard steps on the stairs, one jet of powerful steam issued from the spout.
“It’s boiling!” Milly exclaimed. “It’s boiling!”
They ate in silence. The sun, judging from the changing lights on the glass of the Dutch cabinet, seemed to be going in and out. Sometimes a bowl shone deep blue; then became livid. Lights rested furtively upon the furniture in the other room. Here was a pattern; here was a bald patch. Somewhere there’s beauty, Delia thought, somewhere there’s freedom, and somewhere, she thought, he is — wearing his white flower. . . . But a stick grated in the hall.
“It’s Papa!” Milly exclaimed warningly.
Instantly Martin wriggled out of his father’s armchair; Delia sat upright. Milly at once moved forward a very large rose-sprinkled cup that did not match the rest. The Colonel stood at the door and surveyed the group rather fiercely. His small blue eyes looked round them as if to find fault; at the moment there was no particular fault to find; but he was out of temper; they knew at once before he spoke that he was out of temper.
“Grubby little ruffian,” he said, pinching Rose by the ear as he passed her. She put her hand at once over the stain on her pinafore.
“Mama all right?” he said, letting himself down in one solid mass into the big armchair. He detested tea; but he always sipped a little from the huge old cup that had been his father’s. He raised it and sipped perfunctorily.
“And what have you all been up to?” he asked.
He looked round him with the smoky but shrewd gaze that could be genial, but was surly now.
“Delia had her music lesson, and I went to Whiteley’s —” Milly began, rather as if she were a child reciting a lesson.
“Spending money, eh?” said her father sharply, but not unkindly.
“No, Papa; I told you. They sent the wrong sheets —”
“And you, Martin?” Colonel Pargiter asked, cutting short his daughter’s statement. “Bottom of the class as usual?”
“Top!” shouted Martin, bolting the word out as if he had restrained it with difficulty until this moment.
“Hm — you don’t say so,” said his father. His gloom relaxed a little. He put his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a handful of silver. His children watched him as he tried to single out one sixpence from all the florins. He had lost two fingers of the right hand in the Mutiny, and the muscles had shrunk so that the right hand resembled the claw of some aged bird. He shuffled and fumbled; but as he always ignored the injury, his children dared not help him. The shiny knobs of the mutilated fingers fascinated Rose.
“Here you are, Martin,” he said at length, handing the sixpence to his son. Then he sipped his tea again and wiped his moustaches.
“Where’s Eleanor?” he said at last, as if to break the silence.
“It’s her Grove day,” Milly reminded him.
“Oh, her Grove day,” muttered the Colonel. He stirred the sugar round and round in the cup as if to demolish it.
“The dear old Levys,” said Delia tentatively. She was his favourite daughter; but she felt uncertain in his present mood how much she could venture.
He said nothing.
“Bertie Levy’s got six toes on one foot,” Rose piped up suddenly. The others laughed. But the Colonel cut them short.
“You hurry up and get off to your prep., my boy,” he said, glancing at Martin, who was still eating.
“Let him finish his tea, Papa,” said Milly, again imitating the manner of an older person.
“And the new nurse?” the Colonel asked, drumming on the edge of the table. “Has she come?”
“Yes . . . ” Milly began. But there was a rustling in the hall and in came Eleanor. It was much to their relief; especially to Milly’s. Thank goodness, there’s Eleanor she thought, looking up — the soother, the maker-up of quarrels, the buffer between her and the intensities and strifes of family life. She adored her sister. She would have called her goddess and endowed her with a beauty that was not hers, with clothes that were not hers, had she not been carrying a pile of little mottled books and two black gloves. Protect me, she thought, handing her a teacup, who am such a mousy, downtrodden inefficient little chit, compared with Delia, who always gets her way, while I’m always snubbed by Papa, who was grumpy for some reason. The Colonel smiled at Eleanor. And the red dog on the hearthrug looked up too and wagged his tail, as if he recognised her for one of those satisfactory women who give you a bone, but wash their hands afterwards. She was the eldest of the daughters, about twenty-two, no beauty, but healthy, and though tired at the moment, naturally cheerful.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I got kept. And I didn’t expect —” She looked at her father.
“I got off earlier than I thought,” he said hastily. “The meeting —” he stopped short. There had been another row with Mira.
“And how’s your Grove, eh?” he added.
“Oh, my Grove —” she repeated; but Milly handed her the covered dish.
“I got kept,” Eleanor said again, helping herself. She began to eat; the atmosphere lightened.
“Now tell us, Papa,” said Delia boldly — she was his favourite daughter —“what you’ve been doing with yourself. Had any adventures?”
The remark was unfortunate.
“There aren’t any adventures for an old fogy like me,” said the Colonel surlily. He ground the grains of sugar against the walls of his cup. Then he seemed to repent of his gruffness; he pondered for a moment.
“I met old Burke at the Club; asked me to bring one of you to dinner; Robin’s back, on leave,” he said.
He drank up his tea. Some drops fell on his little pointed beard. He took out his large silk handkerchief and wiped his chin impatiently. Eleanor, sitting on her low chair, saw a curious look first on Milly’s face, then on Delia’s. She had an impression of hostility between them. But they said nothing. They went on eating and drinking until the Colonel took up his cup, saw there was nothing in it, and put it down firmly with a little chink. The ceremony of tea-drinking was over.
“Now, my boy, take yourself off and get on with your prep.,” he said to Martin.
Martin withdrew the hand that was stretched towards a plate.
“Cut along,” said the Colonel imperiously. Martin got up and went, drawing his hand reluctantly along the chairs and tables as if to delay his passage. He slammed the door rather sharply behind him. The Colonel rose and stood upright among them in his tightly buttoned frock-coat.
“And I must be off too,” he said. But he paused a moment, as if there was nothing particular for him to be off to. He stood there very erect among them, as if he wished to give some order, but could not at the moment think of any order to give. Then he recollected.
“I wish one of you would remember,” he said, addressing his daughters impartially, “to write to Edward. . . . Tell him to write to Mama.”
“Yes,” said Eleanor.
He moved towards the door. But he stopped.
“And let me know when Mama wants to see me,” he remarked. Then he paused and pinched his youngest daughter by the ear.
“Grubby little ruffian,” he said, pointing to the green stain on her pinafore. She covered it with her hand. At the door he paused again.
“Don’t forget,” he said, fumbling with the handle, “don’t forget to write to Edward.” At last he had turned the handle and was gone.
They were silent. There was something strained in the atmosphere, Eleanor felt. She took one of the little books that she had dropped on the table and laid it open on her knee. But she did not look at it. Her glance fixed itself rather absent-mindedly upon the farther room. The trees were coming out in the back garden; there were little leaves — little ear-shaped leaves on the bushes. The sun was shining, fitfully; it was going in and it was going out, lighting up now this, now —
“Eleanor,” Rose interrupted. She held herself in a way that was oddly like her father’s.
“Eleanor,” she repeated in a low voice, for her sister was not attending.
“Well?” said Eleanor, looking at her.
“I want to go to Lamley’s,” said Rose.
She looked the image of her father, standing there with her hands behind her back.
“It’s too late for Lamley’s,” said Eleanor.
“They don’t shut till seven,” said Rose.
“Then ask Martin to go with you,” said Eleanor.
The little girl moved off slowly towards the door. Eleanor took up her account-books again.
“But you’re not to go alone, Rose; you’re not to go alone,” she said, looking up over them as Rose reached the door. Nodding her head in silence, Rose disappeared.
She went upstairs. She paused outside her mother’s bedroom and snuffed the sour-sweet smell that seemed to hang about the jugs, the tumblers, the covered bowls on the table outside the door. Up she went again, and stopped outside the schoolroom door. She did not want to go in, for she had quarrelled with Martin. They had quarrelled first about Erridge and the microscope and then about shooting Miss Pym’s cats next door. But Eleanor had told her to ask him. She opened the door.
“Hullo, Martin —” she began.
He was sitting at a table with a book propped in front of him, muttering to himself — perhaps it was Greek, perhaps it was Latin.
“Eleanor told me —” she began, noting how flushed he looked, and how his hand closed on a bit of paper as if he were going to screw it into a ball. “To ask you . . . ” she began, and braced herself and stood with her back against the door.
Eleanor leant back in her chair. The sun now was on the trees in the back garden. The buds were beginning to swell. The spring light of course showed up the shabbiness of the chair-covers. The large armchair had a dark stain on it where her father had rested his head, she noticed. But what a number of chairs there were — how roomy, how airy it was after that bedroom where old Mrs Levy — But Milly and Delia were both silent. It was the question of the dinner-party, she remembered. Which of them was to go? They both wanted to go. She wished people would not say, “Bring one of your daughters.” She wished they would say, “Bring Eleanor,” or “Bring Milly,” or “Bring Delia,” instead of lumping them all together. Then there could be no question.
“Well,” said Delia abruptly, “I shall . . . ”
She got up as if she were going somewhere. But she stopped. Then she strolled over to the window that looked out onto the street. The houses opposite all had the same little front gardens; the same steps; the same pillars; the same bow windows. But now dusk was falling and they looked spectral and insubstantial in the dim light. Lamps were being lit; a light glowed in the drawing-room opposite; then the curtains were drawn, and the room was blotted out. Delia stood looking down at the street. A woman of the lower classes was wheeling a perambulator; an old man tottered along with his hands behind his back. Then the street was empty; there was a pause. Here came a hansom jingling down the road. Delia was momentarily interested. Was it going to stop at their door or not? She gazed more intently. But then, to her regret, the cabman jerked his reins, the horse stumbled on; the cab stopped two doors lower down.
“Someone’s calling on the Stapletons,” she called back, holding apart the muslin blind. Milly came and stood beside her sister, and together, through the slit, they watched a young man in a top- hat get out of the cab. He stretched his hand up to pay the driver.
“Don’t be caught looking,” said Eleanor warningly. The young man ran up the steps into the house; the door shut upon him and the cab drove away.
But for the moment the two girls stood at the window looking into the street. The crocuses were yellow and purple in the front gardens. The almond trees and privets were tipped with green. A sudden gust of wind tore down the street, blowing a piece of paper along the pavement; and a little swirl of dry dust followed after. Above the roofs was one of those red and fitful London sunsets that make window after window burn gold. There was a wildness in the spring evening; even here, in Abercorn Terrace the light was changing from gold to black, from black to gold. Dropping the blind, Delia turned, and coming back into the drawing-room, said suddenly:
“Oh my God!”
Eleanor, who had taken her books again, looked up disturbed.
“Eight times eight . . . ” she said aloud. “What’s eight times eight?”
Putting her finger on the page to mark the place, she looked at her sister. As she stood there with her head thrown back and her hair red in the sunset glow, she looked for a moment defiant, even beautiful. Beside her Milly was mouse-coloured and nondescript.
“Look here, Delia,” said Eleanor, shutting her book, “you’ve only got to wait . . . ” She meant but she could not say it, “until Mama dies.”
“No, no, no,” said Delia, stretching her arms out. “It’s hopeless. . . . ” she began. But she broke off, for Crosby had come in. She was carrying a tray. One by one with an exasperating little chink she put the cups, the plates, the knives, the jam-pots, the dishes of cake and the dishes of bread and butter, on the tray. Then, balancing it carefully in front of her, she went out. There was a pause. In she came again and folded the table-cloth and moved the tables. Again there was a pause. A moment or two later back she came carrying two silk-shaded lamps. She set one in the front room, one in the back room. Then she went, creaking in her cheap shoes, to the window and drew the curtains. They slid with a familiar click along the brass rod, and soon the windows were obscured by thick sculptured folds of claret-coloured plush. When she had drawn the curtains in both rooms, a profound silence seemed to fall upon the drawing-room. The world outside seemed thickly and entirely cut off. Far away down the next street they heard the voice of a street hawker droning; the heavy hooves of van horses clopped slowly down the road. For a moment wheels ground on the road; then they died out and the silence was complete.
Two yellow circles of light fell under the lamps. Eleanor drew her chair up under one of them, bent her head and went on with the part of her work that she always left to the last because she disliked it so much — adding up figures. Her lips moved and her pencil made little dots on the paper as she added eights to sixes, fives to fours.
“There!” she said at last. “That’s done. Now I’ll go and sit with Mama.”
She stooped to pick up her gloves.
“No,” said Milly, throwing aside a magazine she had opened, “I’ll go . . . ”
Delia suddenly emerged from the back room in which she had been prowling.
“I’ve nothing whatever to do,” she said briefly. “I’ll go.”
She went upstairs, step by step, very slowly. When she came to the bedroom door with the jugs and glasses on the table outside, she paused. The sour-sweet smell of illness slightly sickened her. She could not force herself to go in. Through the little window at the end of the passage she could see flamingo-coloured curls of cloud lying on a pale-blue sky. After the dusk of the drawing- room, her eyes dazzled. She seemed fixed there for a moment by the light. Then on the floor above she heard children’s voices — Martin and Rose quarrelling.
“Don’t then!” she heard Rose say. A door slammed. She paused. Then she drew in a deep breath of air, looked once more at the fiery sky, and tapped on the bedroom door.
The nurse rose quietly; put her finger to her lips, and left the room. Mrs Pargiter was asleep. Lying in a cleft of the pillows with one hand under her cheek, Mrs Pargiter moaned slightly as if she wandered in a world where even in sleep little obstacles lay across her path. Her face was pouched and heavy; the skin was stained with brown patches; the hair which had been red was now white, save that there were queer yellow patches in it, as if some locks had been dipped in the yolk of an egg. Bare of all rings save her wedding ring, her fingers alone seemed to indicate that she had entered the private world of illness. But she did not look as if she were dying; she looked as if she might go on existing in this borderland between life and death for ever. Delia could see no change in her. As she sat down, everything seemed to be at full tide in her. A long narrow glass by the bedside reflected a section of the sky; it was dazzled at the moment with red light. The dressing-table was illuminated. The light struck on silver bottles and on glass bottles, all set out in the perfect order of things that are not used. At this hour of the evening the sick- room had an unreal cleanliness, quiet and order. There by the bedside was a little table set with spectacles, prayer-book and a vase of lilies of the valley. The flowers, too, looked unreal. There was nothing to do but to look.
She stared at the yellow drawing of her grandfather with the high light on his nose; at the photograph of her Uncle Horace in his uniform; at the lean and twisted figure on the crucifix to the right.
“But you don’t believe in it!” she said savagely, looking at her mother sunk in sleep. “You don’t want to die.”
She longed for her to die. There she was — soft, decayed but everlasting, lying in the cleft of the pillows, an obstacle, a prevention, an impediment to all life. She tried to whip up some feeling of affection, of pity. For instance, that summer, she told herself, at Sidmouth, when she called me up the garden steps. . . . But the scene melted as she tried to look at it. There was the other scene of course — the man in the frock-coat with the flower in his button-hole. But she had sworn not to think of that till bedtime. What then should she think of? Grandpapa with the white light on his nose? The prayer-book? The lilies of the valley? Or the looking-glass? The sun had gone in; the glass was dim and reflected now only a dun-coloured patch of sky. She could resist no longer.
“Wearing a white flower in his button-hole,” she began. It required a few minutes’ preparation. There must be a hall; banks of palms; a floor beneath them crowded with people’s heads. The charm was beginning to work. She became permeated with delicious starts of flattering and exciting emotion. She was on the platform; there was a huge audience; everybody was shouting, waving handkerchiefs, hissing and whistling. Then she stood up. She rose all in white in the middle of the platform; Mr Parnell was by her side.
“I am speaking in the cause of Liberty,” she began, throwing out her hands, “in the cause of Justice. . . . ” They were standing side by side. He was very pale but his dark eyes glowed. He turned to her and whispered. . . .
There was a sudden interruption. Mrs Pargiter had raised herself on her pillows.
“Where am I?” she cried. She was frightened and bewildered, as she often was on waking. She raised her hand; she seemed to appeal for help. “Where am I?” she repeated. For a moment Delia was bewildered too. Where was she?
“Here, Mama! Here!” she said wildly. “Here, in your own room.”
She laid her hand on the counterpane. Mrs Pargiter clutched it nervously. She looked round the room as if she were seeking someone. She did not seem to recognise her daughter.
“What’s happening?” she said. “Where am I?” Then she looked at Delia and remembered.
“Oh, Delia — I was dreaming,” she murmured half apologetically. She lay for a moment looking out of the window. The lamps were being lit, and a sudden soft spurt of light came in the street outside.
“It’s been a fine day . . . ” she hesitated, “for . . . ” It seemed as if she could not remember what for.
“A lovely day, yes, Mama,” Delia repeated with mechanical cheerfulness.
“ . . . for . . . ” her mother tried again.
What day was it? Delia could not remember.
“ . . . for your Uncle Digby’s birthday,” Mrs Pargiter at last brought out.
“Tell him from me — tell him how very glad I am.”
“I’ll tell him,” said Delia. She had forgotten her uncle’s birthday; but her mother was punctilious about such things.
“Aunt Eugénie —” she began.
But her mother was staring at the dressing-table. Some gleam from the lamp outside made the white cloth look extremely white.
“Another clean table-cloth!” Mrs Pargiter murmured peevishly. “The expense, Delia, the expense — that’s what worries me —”
“That’s all right, Mama,” said Delia dully. Her eyes were fixed upon her grandfather’s portrait; why, she wondered, had the artist put a dab of white chalk on the tip of his nose?
“Aunt Eugénie brought you some flowers,” she said.
For some reason Mrs Pargiter seemed pleased. Her eyes rested contemplatively on the clean table-cloth that had suggested the washing bill a moment before.
“Aunt Eugénie . . . ” she said. “How well I remember”— her voice seemed to get fuller and rounder —“the day the engagement was announced. We were all of us in the garden; there came a letter.” She paused. “There came a letter,” she repeated. Then she said no more for a time. She seemed to be going over some memory.
“The dear little boy died, but save for that . . . ” She stopped again. She seemed weaker tonight, Delia thought; and a start of joy ran through her. Her sentences were more broken than usual. What little boy had died? She began counting the twists on the counterpane as she waited for her mother to speak.
“You know all the cousins used to come together in the summer,” her mother suddenly resumed. “There was your Uncle Horace. . . . ”
“The one with the glass eye,” said Delia.
“Yes. He hurt his eye on the rocking-horse. The aunts thought so much of Horace. They would say . . . ” Here there was a long pause. She seemed to be fumbling to find the exact words.
“When Horace comes . . . remember to ask him about the dining-room door.”
A curious amusement seemed to fill Mrs Pargiter. She actually laughed. She must be thinking of some long-past family joke, Delia supposed, as she watched the smile flicker and fade away. There was complete silence. Her mother lay with her eyes shut; the hand with the single ring, the white and wasted hand, lay on the counterpane. In the silence they could hear a coal click in the grate and a street hawker droning down the road. Mrs Pargiter said no more. She lay perfectly still. Then she sighed profoundly.
The door opened, and the nurse came in. Delia rose and went out. Where am I? she asked herself, staring at a white jug stained pink by the setting sun. For a moment she seemed to be in some borderland between life and death. Where am I? she repeated, looking at the pink jug, for it all looked strange. Then she heard water rushing and feet thudding on the floor above.
“Here you are, Rosie,” said Nurse, looking up from the wheel of the sewing-machine as Rose came in.
The nursery was brightly lit; there was an unshaded lamp on the table. Mrs C., who came every week with the washing, was sitting in the armchair with a cup in her hand. “Go and get your sewing, there’s a good girl,” said Nurse as Rose shook hands with Mrs C., “or you’ll never be done in time for Papa’s birthday,” she added, clearing a space on the nursery table.
Rose opened the table drawer and took out the boot-bag that she was embroidering with a design of blue and red flowers for her father’s birthday. There were still several clusters of little pencilled roses to be worked. She spread it on the table and examined it as Nurse resumed what she was saying to Mrs C. about Mrs Kirby’s daughter. But Rose did not listen.
Then I shall go by myself, she decided, straightening out the boot- bag. If Martin won’t come with me, then I shall go by myself.
“I left my work-box in the drawing-room,” she said aloud.
“Well, then, go and fetch it,” said Nurse, but she was not attending; she wanted to go on with what she was saying to Mrs C. about the grocer’s daughter.
Now the adventure has begun, Rose said to herself as she stole on tiptoe to the night nursery. Now she must provide herself with ammunition and provisions; she must steal Nurse’s latchkey; but where was it? Every night it was hidden in a new place for fear of burglars. It would be either under the handkerchief-case or in the little box where she kept her mother’s gold watch-chain. There it was. Now she had her pistol and her shot, she thought, taking her own purse from her own drawer, and enough provisions, she thought, as she hung her hat and coat over her arm, to last a fortnight.
She stole past the nursery, down the stairs. She listened intently as she passed the schoolroom door. She must be careful not to tread on a dry branch, or to let any twig crack under her, she told herself, as she went on tiptoe. Again she stopped and listened as she passed her mother’s bedroom door. All was silent. Then she stood for a moment on the landing, looking down into the hall. The dog was asleep on the mat; the coast was clear; the hall was empty. She heard voices murmuring in the drawing-room.
She turned the latch of the front door with extreme gentleness, and closed it with scarcely a click behind her. Until she was round the corner she crouched close to the wall so that nobody could see her. When she reached the corner under the laburnum tree she stood erect.
“I am Pargiter of Pargiter’s Horse,” she said, flourishing her hand, “riding to the rescue!”
She was riding by night on a desperate mission to a besieged garrison, she told herself. She had a secret message — she clenched her fist on her purse — to deliver to the General in person. All their lives depended upon it. The British flag was still flying on the central tower — Lamley’s shop was the central tower; the General was standing on the roof of Lamley’s shop with his telescope to his eye. All their lives depended upon her riding to them through the enemy’s country. Here she was galloping across the desert. She began to trot. It was growing dark. The street lamps were being lit. The lamplighter was poking his stick up into the little trap- door; the trees in the front gardens made a wavering network of shadow on the pavement; the pavement stretched before her broad and dark. Then there was the crossing; and then there was Lamley’s shop on the little island of shops opposite. She had only to cross the desert, to ford the river, and she was safe. Flourishing the arm that held the pistol, she clapped spurs to her horse and galloped down Melrose Avenue. As she ran past the pillar-box the figure of a man suddenly emerged under the gas lamp.
“The enemy!” Rose cried to herself. “The enemy! Bang!” she cried, pulling the trigger of her pistol and looking him full in the face as she passed him. It was a horrid face: white, peeled, pock- marked; he leered at her. He put out his arm as if to stop her. He almost caught her. She dashed past him. The game was over.
She was herself again, a little girl who had disobeyed her sister, in her house shoes, flying for safety to Lamley’s shop.
Fresh-faced Mrs Lamley was standing behind the counter folding up the newspapers. She was pondering among her twopenny watches, cards of tools, toy boats and boxes of cheap stationery something pleasant, it seemed; for she was smiling. Then Rose burst in. She looked up enquiringly.
“Hullo, Rosie!” she exclaimed. “What d’you want, my dear?”
She kept her hand on the pile of newspapers. Rose stood there panting. She had forgotten what she had come for.
“I want the box of ducks in the window,” Rose at last remembered.
Mrs Lamley waddled round to fetch it.
“Isn’t it rather late for a little girl like you to be out alone?” she asked, looking at her as if she knew she had come out in her house shoes, disobeying her sister.
“Good-night, my dear, and run along home,” she said, giving her the parcel. The child seemed to hesitate on the doorstep: she stood there staring at the toys under the hanging oil lamp; then out she went reluctantly.
I gave my message to the General in person, she said to herself as she stood outside on the pavement again. And this is the trophy, she said, grasping the box under her arm. I am returning in triumph with the head of the chief rebel, she told herself, as she surveyed the stretch of Melrose Avenue before her. I must set spurs to my horse and gallop. But the story no longer worked. Melrose Avenue remained Melrose Avenue. She looked down it. There was the long stretch of bare street in front of her. The trees were trembling their shadows over the pavement. The lamps stood at great distances apart, and there were pools of darkness between. She began to trot. Suddenly, as she passed the lamp-post, she saw the man again. He was leaning with his back against the lamp-post, and the light from the gas lamp flickered over his face. As she passed he sucked his lips in and out. He made a mewing noise. But he did not stretch his hands out at her; they were unbuttoning his clothes.
She fled past him. She thought that she heard him coming after her. She heard his feet padding on the pavement. Everything shook as she ran; pink and black spots danced before her eyes as she ran up the door-steps, fitted her key in the latch and opened the hall door. She did not care whether she made a noise or not. She hoped somebody would come out and speak to her. But nobody heard her. The hall was empty. The dog was asleep on the mat. Voices still murmured in the drawing-room.
“And when it does catch,” Eleanor was saying, “it’ll be much too hot.”
Crosby had piled the coals into a great black promontory. A plume of yellow smoke was sullenly twining round it; it was beginning to burn, and when it did burn it would be much too hot.
“She can see Nurse stealing the sugar, she says. She can see her shadow on the wall,” Milly was saying. They were talking about their mother.
“And then Edward,” she added, “forgetting to write.”
“That reminds me,” said Eleanor. She must remember to write to Edward. But there would be time after dinner. She did not want to write; she did not want to talk; always when she came back from the Grove she felt as if several things were going on at the same time. Words went on repeating themselves in her mind — words and sights. She was thinking of old Mrs Levy, sitting propped up in bed with her white hair in a thick flop like a wig and her face cracked like an old glazed pot.
“Them that’s been good to me, them I remember . . . them that’s ridden in their coaches when I was a poor widder woman scrubbing and mangling —” Here she stretched out her arm, which was wrung and white like the root of a tree. “Them that’s been good to me, them I remember . . . ” Eleanor repeated as she looked at the fire. Then the daughter came in who was working for a tailor. She wore pearls as big as hen’s eggs; she had taken to painting her face; she was wonderfully handsome. But Milly made a little movement.
“I was thinking,” said Eleanor on the spur of the moment, “the poor enjoy themselves more than we do.”
“The Levys?” said Milly absent-mindedly. Then she brightened.
“Do tell me about the Levys,” she added. Eleanor’s relations with “the poor”— the Levys, the Grubbs, the Paravicinis, the Zwinglers and the Cobbs — always amused her. But Eleanor did not like talking about “the poor” as if they were people in a book. She had a great admiration for Mrs Levy, who was dying of cancer.
“Oh, they’re much as usual,” she said sharply. Milly looked at her. Eleanor’s “broody” she thought. The family joke was, “Look out. Eleanor’s broody. It’s her Grove day.” Eleanor was ashamed, but she always was irritable for some reason when she came back from the Grove — so many different things were going on in her head at the same time: Canning Place; Abercorn Terrace; this room; that room. There was the old Jewess sitting up in bed in her hot little room; then one came back here, and there was Mama ill; Papa grumpy; and Delia and Milly quarrelling about a party. . . . But she checked herself. She ought to try to say something to amuse her sister.
“Mrs Levy had her rent ready, for a wonder,” she said. “Lily helps her. Lily’s got a job at a tailor’s in Shoreditch. She came in all covered with pearls and things. They do love finery — Jews,” she added.
“Jews?” said Milly. She seemed to consider the taste of the Jews; and then to dimiss it.
“Yes,” she said. “Shiny.”
“She’s extraordinarily handsome,” said Eleanor, thinking of the red cheeks and the white pearls.
Milly smiled; Eleanor always would stick up for the poor. She thought Eleanor the best, the wisest, the most remarkable person she knew.
“I believe you like going there more than anything,” she said. “I believe you’d like to go and live there if you had your way,” she added, with a little sigh.
Eleanor shifted in her chair. She had her dreams, her plans, of course; but she did not want to discuss them.
“Perhaps you will, when you’re married?” said Milly. There was something peevish yet plaintive in her voice. The dinner-party; the Burkes’ dinner-party, Eleanor thought. She wished Milly did not always bring the conversation back to marriage. And what do they know about marriage? she asked herself. They stay at home too much, she thought; they never see anyone outside their own set. Here they are cooped up, day after day. . . . That was why she had said, “The poor enjoy themselves more than we do.” It had struck her coming back into that drawing-room, with all the furniture and the flowers and the hospital nurses. . . . Again she stopped herself. She must wait till she was alone — till she was brushing her teeth at night. When she was with the others she must stop herself from thinking of two things at the same time. She took the poker and struck the coal.
“Look! What a beauty!” she exclaimed. A flame danced on top of the coal, a nimble and irrelevant flame. It was the sort of flame they used to make when they were children, by throwing salt on the fire. She struck again, and a shower of gold-eyed sparks went volleying up the chimney. “D’you remember,” she said, “how we used to play at firemen, and Morris and I set the chimney on fire?”
“And Pippy went and fetched Papa,” said Milly. She paused. There was a sound in the hall. A stick grated; someone was hanging up a coat. Eleanor’s eyes brightened. That was Morris — yes; she knew the sound he made. Now he was coming in. She looked round with a smile as the door opened. Milly jumped up.
Morris tried to stop her.
“Don’t go —” he began.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I shall go. I shall go and have a bath,” she added on the spur of the moment. She left them.
Morris sat down in the chair she had left empty. He was glad to find Eleanor alone. Neither of them spoke for a moment. They watched the yellow plume of smoke, and the little flame dancing nimbly, irrelevantly, here and there on the black promontory of coals. Then he asked the usual question:
She told him; there was no change: “except that she sleeps more,” she said. He wrinkled his forehead. He was losing his boyish look, Eleanor thought. That was the worst of the Bar, everyone said; one had to wait. He was devilling for Sanders Curry; and it was dreary work, hanging about the Courts all day, waiting.
“How’s old Curry?” she asked — old Curry had a temper.
“A bit liverish,” said Morris grimly.
“And what have you been doing all day?” she asked.
“Nothing in particular,” he replied.
“Still Evans v. Carter?”
“Yes,” he said briefly.
“And who’s going to win?” she asked.
“Carter, of course,” he replied.
Why “of course” she wanted to ask? But she had said something silly the other day — something that showed that she had not been attending. She muddled things up; for example, what was the difference between Common Law and the other kind of law? She said nothing. They sat in silence, and watched the flame playing on the coals. It was a green flame, nimble, irrelevant.
“D’you think I’ve been an awful fool,” he asked suddenly. “With all this illness, and Edward and Martin to be paid for — Papa must find it a bit of a strain.” He wrinkled his brow up in the way that made her say to herself that he was losing his boyish look.
“Of course not,” she said emphatically. Of course it would have been absurd for him to go into business; his passion was for the Law.
“You’ll be Lord Chancellor one of these days,” she said. “I’m sure of it.” He shook his head, smiling.
“Quite sure,” she said, looking at him as she used to look at him when he came back from school and Edward had all the prizes and Morris sat silent — she could see him now — bolting his food with nobody making a fuss of him. But even while she looked, a doubt came over her. Lord Chancellor, she had said. Ought she not to have said Lord Chief Justice? She never could remember which was which: and that was why he would not discuss Evans v. Carter with her.
She never told him about the Levys either, except by way of a joke. That was the worst of growing up, she thought; they couldn’t share things as they used to share them. When they met they never had time to talk as they used to talk — about things in general — they always talked about facts — little facts. She poked the fire. Suddenly a blare of sound rang through the room. It was Crosby applying herself to the gong in the hall. She was like a savage wreaking vengeance upon some brazen victim. Ripples of rough sound rang through the room. “Lord, that’s the dressing-bell!” said Morris. He got up and stretched himself. He raised his arms and held them for a moment suspended above his head. That’s what he’ll look like when he’s the father of a family, Eleanor thought. He let his arms fall and left the room. She sat brooding for a moment; then she roused herself. What must I remember? she asked herself. To write to Edward, she mused, crossing over to her mother’s writing-table. It’ll be my table now, she thought, looking at the silver candlestick, the miniature of her grandfather, the tradesmen’s books — one had a gilt cow stamped on it — and the spotted walrus with a brush in its back that Martin had given his mother on her last birthday.
Crosby held open the door of the dining-room as she waited for them to come down. The silver paid for polishing, she thought. Knives and forks rayed out round the table. The whole room, with its carved chairs, oil paintings, the two daggers on the mantel-piece, and the handsome sideboard — all the solid objects that Crosby dusted and polished every day — looked at its best in the evening. Meat-smelling and serge-curtained by day, it looked lit up, semi- transparent in the evening. And they were a handsome family, she thought as they filed in — the young ladies in their pretty dresses of blue and white sprigged muslin; the gentlemen so spruce in their dinner jackets. She pulled the Colonel’s chair out for him. He was always at his best in the evening; he enjoyed his dinner; and for some reason his gloom had vanished. He was in his jovial mood. His children’s spirits rose as they noted it.
“That’s a pretty frock you’re wearing,” he said to Delia as he sat down.
“This old one?” she said, patting the blue muslin.
There was an opulence, an ease and a charm about him when he was in a good temper that she liked particularly. People always said she was like him; sometimes she was glad of it — tonight for instance. He looked so pink and clean and genial in his dinner-jacket. They became children again when he was in this mood, and were spurred on to make family jokes at which they all laughed for no particular reason.
“Eleanor’s broody,” said her father, winking at them. “It’s her Grove day.”
Everybody laughed; Eleanor had thought he was talking about Rover, the dog, when in fact he was talking about Mrs Egerton, the lady. Crosby, who was handing the soup, crinkled up her face because she wanted to laugh too. Sometimes the Colonel made Crosby laugh so much that she had to turn away and pretend to be doing something at the sideboard.
“Oh, Mrs Egerton —” said Eleanor, beginning her soup.
“Yes, Mrs Egerton,” said her father, and went on telling his story about Mrs Egerton, “whose golden hair was said by the voice of slander not to be entirely her own.”
Delia liked listening to her father’s stories about India. They were crisp, and at the same time romantic. They conveyed an atmosphere of officers dining together in mess jackets on a very hot night with a huge silver trophy in the middle of the table.
He used always to be like this when we were small, she thought. He used to jump over the bonfire on her birthday, she remembered. She watched him flicking cutlets dexterously on to plates with his left hand. She admired his decision, his common sense. Flicking the cutlets on to plates, he went on —
“Talking of the lovely Mrs Egerton reminds me — did I ever tell you the story of old Badger Parkes and —”
“Miss —” said Crosby in a whisper, opening the door behind Eleanor’s back. She whispered a few words to Eleanor privately.
“I’ll come,” said Eleanor, getting up.
“What’s that — what’s that?” said the Colonel, stopping in the middle of his sentence. Eleanor left the room.
“Some message from Nurse,” said Milly.
The Colonel, who had just helped himself to cutlets, held his knife and fork in his hand. They all held their knives suspended. Nobody liked to go on eating.
“Well, let’s get on with our dinner,” said the Colonel, abruptly attacking his cutlet. He had lost his geniality. Morris helped himself tentatively to potatoes. Then Crosby reappeared. She stood at the door, with her pale-blue eyes looking very prominent.
“What is it, Crosby? What is it?” said the Colonel.
“The Mistress, sir, taken worse, I think, sir,” she said with a curious whimper in her voice. Everybody got up.
“You wait. I’ll go and see,” said Morris. They all followed him out into the hall. The Colonel was still holding his dinner napkin. Morris ran upstairs; in a moment he came down again.
“Mama’s had a fainting-fit,” he said to the Colonel. “I’m going to fetch Prentice.” He snatched his hat and coat and ran down the front steps. They heard him whistling for a cab as they stood uncertainly in the hall.
“Finish your dinner, girls,” said the Colonel peremptorily. But he paced up and down the drawing-room, holding his dinner napkin in his hand.
“It has come,” Delia said to herself; “it has come!” An extraordinary feeling of relief and excitement possessed her. Her father was pacing from one drawing-room to the other; she followed him in; but she avoided him. They were too much alike; each knew what the other was feeling. She stood at the window looking up the street. There had been a shower of rain. The street was wet; the roofs were shining. Dark clouds were moving across the sky; the branches were tossing up and down in the light of the street lamps. Something in her was tossing up and down too. Something unknown seemed to be approaching. Then a gulping sound behind her made her turn. It was Milly. She was standing by the mantelpiece under the picture of the white-robed girl with the flower-basket, and the tears slid slowly down her cheeks. Delia moved towards her; she ought to go up to her and put her arms round her shoulders; but she could not do it. Real tears were sliding down Milly’s cheeks. But her own eyes were dry. She turned to the window again. The street was empty — only the branches were tossing up and down in the lamplight. The Colonel paced up and down; once he knocked against a table and said “Damn!” They heard steps moving about in the room upstairs. They heard voices murmuring. Delia turned to the window.
A hansom came trotting down the street. Morris jumped out directly the cab stopped. Dr. Prentice followed him. He went straight upstairs and Morris joined them in the drawing-room.
“Why not finish your dinner?” the Colonel said gruffly, coming to a halt and standing upright before them.
“Oh, after he’s gone,” said Morris irritably.
The Colonel resumed his pacing.
Then he stopped his pacing, and stood with his hands behind him in front of the fire. He had a braced look as if he were holding himself ready for an emergency.
We’re both acting, Delia thought to herself, stealing a glance at him, but he’s doing it better than I am.
She looked out of the window again. The rain was falling. When it crossed the lamplight it glanced in long strips of silver light.
“It’s raining,” she said in a low voice, but nobody answered her.
At last they heard footsteps on the stairs and Dr. Prentice came in. He shut the door quietly but said nothing.
“Well?” said the Colonel, facing up to him.
There was a prolonged pause.
“How d’you find her?” said the Colonel.
Dr. Prentice moved his shoulders slightly.
“She’s rallied,” he said. “For the moment,” he added.
Delia felt as if his words struck her violently a blow on the head. She sank down on the arm of a chair.
So you’re not going to die, she said, looking at the girl balanced on the trunk of a tree; she seemed to simper down at her daughter with smiling malice. You’re not going to die — never, never! she cried clenching her hands together beneath her mother’s picture.
“Now, shall we get on with our dinner?” said the Colonel, taking up the napkin which he had dropped on the drawing-room table.
It was a pity — the dinner was spoilt, Crosby thought, bringing up the cutlets from the kitchen again. The meat was dried up, and the potatoes had a brown crust on top of them. One of the candles was scorching its shade too, she observed as she put the dish down in front of the Colonel. Then she shut the door on them, and they began to eat their dinner.
All was quiet in the house. The dog slept on its mat at the foot of the stairs. All was quiet outside the sickroom door. A faint sound of snoring came from the bedroom where Martin lay asleep. In the day nursery Mrs C. and the nurse had resumed their supper, which they had interrupted when they heard sounds in the hall below. Rose lay asleep in the night nursery. For some time she slept profoundly, curled round with the blankets tight twisted over her head. Then she stirred and stretched her arms out. Something had swum up on top of the blackness. An oval white shape hung in front of her dangling, as if it hung from a string. She half opened her eyes and looked at it. It bubbled with grey spots that went in and out. She woke completely. A face was hanging close to her as if it dangled on a bit of string. She shut her eyes; but the face was still there, bubbling in and out, grey, white, purplish and pock-marked. She put out her hand to touch the big bed next hers. But it was empty. She listened. She heard the clatter of knives and the chatter of voices in the day nursery across the passage. But she could not sleep.
She made herself think of a flock of sheep penned up in a hurdle in a field. She made one of the sheep jump the hurdle; then another. She counted them as they jumped. One, two, three, four — they jumped over the hurdle. But the fifth sheep would not jump. It turned round and looked at her. Its long narrow face was grey; its lips moved; it was the face of the man at the pillar-box, and she was alone with it. If she shut her eyes there it was; if she opened them, there it was still.
She sat up in bed and cried out, “Nurse! Nurse!”
There was dead silence everywhere. The clatter of knives and forks in the next room had ceased. She was alone with something horrible. Then she heard a shuffling in the passage. It came closer and closer. It was the man himself. His hand was on the door. The door opened. An angle of light fell across the wash- stand. The jug and basin were lit up. The man was actually in the room with her . . . but it was Eleanor.
“Why aren’t you asleep?” said Eleanor. She put down her candle and began to straighten the bedclothes. They were all crumpled up. She looked at Rose. Her eyes were very bright and her cheeks were flushed. What was the matter? Had they woken her, moving about downstairs in Mama’s room?
“What’s been keeping you awake?” she asked. Rose yawned again; but it was a sigh rather than a yawn. She could not tell Eleanor what she had seen. She had a profound feeling of guilt; for some reason she must lie about the face she had seen.
“I had a bad dream,” she said. “I was frightened.” A queer nervous jerk ran through her body as she sat up in bed. What was the matter? Eleanor wondered, again. Had she been fighting with Martin? Had she been chasing cats in Miss Pym’s garden again?
“Have you been chasing cats again?” she asked. “Poor cats,” she added; “they mind it just as much as you would,” she said. But she knew that Rose’s fright had nothing to do with the cats. She was grasping her finger tightly; she was staring ahead of her with a queer look in her eyes.
“What was your dream about?” she asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Rose stared at her; she could not tell her; but at all costs Eleanor must be made to stay with her.
“I thought I heard a man in the room,” she brought out at last. “A robber,” she added.
“A robber? Here?” said Eleanor. “But Rose, how could a robber get into your nursery? There’s Papa, there’s Morris — they would never let a robber come into your room.”
“No,” said Rose. “Papa would kill him,” she added. There was something queer about the way she twitched.
“But what are you all doing?” she said restlessly. “Haven’t you gone to bed yet? Isn’t it very late?”
“What are we all doing?” said Eleanor. “We’re sitting in the drawing-room. It’s not very late.” As she spoke a faint sound boomed through the room. When the wind was in the right direction they could hear St. Paul’s. The soft circles spread out in the air: one, two, three, four — Eleanor counted eight, nine, ten. She was surprised that the strokes stopped so soon.
“There, it’s only ten o’clock, you see,” she said. It had seemed to her much later. But the last stroke dissolved in the air. “So now you’ll go to sleep,” she said. Rose clutched her hand.
“Don’t go, Eleanor; not yet,” she implored her.
“But tell me, what’s frightened you?” Eleanor began. Something was being hidden from her, she was sure.
“I saw . . . ” Rose began. She made a great effort to tell her the truth; to tell her about the man at the pillar-box. “I saw . . . ” she repeated. But here the door opened and Nurse came in.
“I don’t know what’s come over Rosie tonight,” she said, bustling in. She felt a little guilty; she had stayed downstairs with the other servants gossiping about the mistress.
“She sleeps so sound generally,” she said, coming over to the bed.
“Now, here’s Nurse,” said Eleanor. “She’s coming to bed. So you won’t be frightened any more, will you?” She smoothed down the bed-clothes and kissed her. She got up and took her candle.
“Good-night, Nurse,” she said, turning to leave the room.
“Good-night, Miss Eleanor,” said Nurse, putting some sympathy into her voice; for they were saying downstairs that the mistress couldn’t last much longer.
“Turn over and go to sleep, dearie,” she said, kissing Rose on the forehead. For she was sorry for the little girl who would so soon be motherless. Then she slipped the silver links out of her cuffs and began to take the hairpins out of her hair, standing in her petticoats in front of the yellow chest of drawers.
“I saw,” Eleanor repeated, as she shut the nursery door. “I saw . . . ” What had she seen? Something horrible, something hidden. But what? There it was, hidden behind her strained eyes. She held the candle slightly slanting in her hand. Three drops of grease fell on the polished skirting before she noticed them. She straightened the candle and walked down the stairs. She listened as she went. There was silence. Martin was asleep. Her mother was asleep. As she passed the doors and went downstairs a weight seemed to descend on her. She paused, looking down into the hall. A blankness came over her. Where am I? she asked herself, staring at a heavy frame. What is that? She seemed to be alone in the midst of nothingness; yet must descend, must carry her burden — she raised her arms slightly, as if she were carrying a pitcher, an earthenware pitcher on her head. Again she stopped. The rim of a bowl outlined itself upon her eyeballs; there was water in it; and something yellow. It was the dog’s bowl, she realised; that was the sulphur in the dog’s bowl; the dog was lying curled up at the bottom of the stairs. She stepped carefully over the body of the sleeping dog and went into the drawing-room.
They all looked up as she came in; Morris had a book in his hand but he was not reading; Milly had some stuff in her hand but she was not sewing; Delia was lying back in her chair, doing nothing whatever. She stood there hesitating for a moment. Then she turned to the writing-table. “I’ll write to Edward,” she murmured. She took up the pen, but she hesitated. She found it difficult to write to Edward, seeing him before her, when she took up the pen, when she smoothed the notepaper on the writing-table. His eyes were too close together; he brushed up his crest before the looking-glass in the lobby in a way that irritated her. ‘Nigs’ was her nickname for him. “My dear Edward,” she began to write, choosing ‘Edward’ not ‘Nigs’ on this occasion.
Morris looked up from the book he was trying to read. The scratching of Eleanor’s pen irritated him. She stopped; then she wrote; then she put her hand to her head. All the worries were put on her of course. Still she irritated him. She always asked questions; she never listened to the answers. He glanced at his book again. But what was the use of trying to read? The atmosphere of suppressed emotion was distasteful to him. There was nothing that anybody could do, but there they all sat in attitudes of suppressed emotion. Milly’s stitching irritated him, and Delia lying back in her chair doing nothing as usual. There he was cooped up with all these women in an atmosphere of unreal emotion. And Eleanor went on writing, writing, writing. There was nothing to write about — but here she licked the envelope and dabbed down the stamp.
“Shall I take it?” he said, dropping his book.
He got up as if he were glad to have something to do. Eleanor went to the front door with him and stood holding it open while he went to the pillar-box. It was raining gently, and as she stood at the door, breathing in the mild damp air, she watched the curious shadows that trembled on the pavement under the trees. Morris disappeared under the shadows round the corner. She remembered how she used to stand at the door when he was a small boy and went to a day school with a satchel in his hand. She used to wave to him; and when he got to the corner he always turned and waved back. It was a curious little ceremony, dropped now that they were both grown up. The shadows shook as she stood waiting; in a moment he emerged from the shadows. He came along the street and up the steps.
“He’ll get that tomorrow,” he said —“anyhow by the second post.”
He shut the door and stooped to fasten the chain. It seemed to her, as the chain rattled, that they both accepted the fact that nothing more was going to happen tonight. They avoided each other’s eyes; neither of them wanted any more emotion tonight. They went back into the drawing-room.
“Well,” said Eleanor, looking round her, “I think I shall go to bed. Nurse will ring,” she said, “if she wants anything.”
“We may as well all go,” said Morris. Milly began to roll up her embroidery. Morris began to rake out the fire.
“What an absurd fire —” he exclaimed irritably. The coals were all stuck together. They were blazing fiercely.
Suddenly a bell rang.
“Nurse!” Eleanor exclaimed. She looked at Morris. She left the room hurriedly. Morris followed her.
But what’s the good? Delia thought to herself. It’s only another false alarm. She got up. “It’s only Nurse,” she said to Milly, who was standing up with a look of alarm on her face. She can’t be going to cry again, she thought, and strolled off into the front room. Candles were burning on the mantelpiece; they lit up the picture of her mother. She glanced at the portrait of her mother. The girl in white seemed to be presiding over the protracted affair of her own deathbed with a smiling indifference that outraged her daughter.
“You’re not going to die — you’re not going to die!” said Delia bitterly, looking up at her. Her father, alarmed by the bell, had come into the room. He was wearing a red smoking-cap with an absurd tassel.
But it’s all for nothing, Delia said silently, looking at her father. She felt that they must both check their rising excitement. “Nothing’s going to happen — nothing whatever,” she said, looking at him. But at that moment Eleanor came into the room. She was very white.
“Where’s Papa?” she said, looking round. She saw him. “Come, Papa, come,” she said, stretching out her hand. “Mama’s dying. . . . And the children,” she said to Milly over her shoulder.
Two little white patches appeared above her father’s ears, Delia noticed. His eyes fixed themselves. He braced himself. He strode past them up the stairs. They all followed in a little procession behind. The dog, Delia noticed, tried to come upstairs with them; but Morris cuffed him back. The Colonel went first into the bedroom; then Eleanor; then Morris; then Martin came down, pulling on a dressing-gown; then Milly brought Rose wrapped in a shawl. But Delia hung back behind the others. There were so many of them in the room that she could get no further than the doorway. She could see two nurses standing with their backs to the wall opposite. One of them was crying — the one, she observed, who had only come that afternoon. She could not see the bed from where she stood. But she could see that Morris had fallen on his knees. Ought I to kneel too? she wondered. Not in the passage, she decided. She looked away; she saw the little window at the end of the passage. Rain was falling; there was a light somewhere that made the raindrops shine. One drop after another slid down the pane; they slid and they paused; one drop joined another drop and then they slid again. There was complete silence in the bedroom.
Is this death? Delia asked herself. For a moment there seemed to be something there. A wall of water seemed to gape apart; the two walls held themselves apart. She listened. There was complete silence. Then there was a stir, a shuffle of feet in the bedroom and out came her father, stumbling.
“Rose!” he cried. “Rose! Rose!” He held his arms with the fists clenched out in front of him.
You did that very well, Delia told him as he passed her. It was like a scene in a play. She observed quite dispassionately that the raindrops were still falling. One sliding met another and together in one drop they rolled to the bottom of the window-pane.
It was raining. A fine rain, a gentle shower, was peppering the pavements and making them greasy. Was it worth while opening an umbrella, was it necessary to hail a hansom, people coming out from the theatres asked themselves, looking up at the mild, milky sky in which the stars were blunted. Where it fell on earth, on fields and gardens, it drew up the smell of earth. Here a drop poised on a grass-blade; there filled the cup of a wild flower, till the breeze stirred and the rain was spilt. Was it worth while to shelter under the hawthorn, under the hedge, the sheep seemed to question; and the cows, already turned out in the grey fields, under the dim hedges, munched on, sleepily chewing with raindrops on their hides. Down on the roofs it fell — here in Westminster, there in the Ladbroke Grove; on the wide sea a million points pricked the blue monster like an innumerable shower bath. Over the vast domes, the soaring spires of slumbering University cities, over the leaded libraries, and the museums, now shrouded in brown holland, the gentle rain slid down, till, reaching the mouths of those fantastic laughers, the many-clawed gargoyles, it splayed out in a thousand odd indentations. A drunken man slipping in a narrow passage outside the public house, cursed it. Women in childbirth heard the doctor say to the midwife, “It’s raining.” And the walloping Oxford bells, turning over and over like slow porpoises in a sea of oil, contemplatively intoned their musical incantation. The fine rain, the gentle rain, poured equally over the mitred and the bareheaded with an impartiality which suggested that the god of rain, if there were a god, was thinking Let it not be restricted to the very wise, the very great, but let all breathing kind, the munchers and chewers, the ignorant, the unhappy, those who toil in the furnace making innumerable copies of the same pot, those who bore red hot minds through contorted letters, and also Mrs Jones in the alley, share my bounty.
It was raining in Oxford. The rain fell gently, persistently, making a little chuckling and burbling noise in the gutters. Edward, leaning out of the window, could still see the trees in the college garden, whitened by the falling rain. Save for the rustle of the trees and the rain falling, it was perfectly quiet. A damp, earthy smell came up from the wet ground. Lamps were being lit here and there in the dark mass of the college; and there was a pale-yellowish mound in one corner where lamplight fell upon a flowering tree. The grass was becoming invisible, fluid, grey, like water.
He drew in a long breath of satisfaction. Of all the moments in the day he liked this best, when he stood and looked out into the garden. He breathed in again the cool damp air, and then straightened himself and turned back into the room. He was working very hard. His day was parcelled out on the advice of his tutor into hours and half-hours; but he still had five minutes before he need begin. He turned up the reading-lamp. It was partly the green light that made him look a little pale and thin, but he was very handsome. With his clear-cut features and the fair hair that he brushed up with a flick of his fingers into a crest, he looked like a Greek boy on a frieze. He smiled. He was thinking as he watched the rain how, after the interview between his father and his tutor — when old Harbottle had said “Your son has a chance”— the old boy had insisted upon looking up the rooms that his own father had had when his father was at college. They had burst in and found a chap called Thompson on his knees blowing up the fire with a bellows.
“My father had these rooms, sir,” the Colonel had said, by way of apology. The young man had got very red and said, “Don’t mention it.” Edward smiled. “Don’t mention it,” he repeated. It was time to begin. He turned the lamp a little higher. When the lamp was turned higher he saw his work cut out in a sharp circle of bright light from the surrounding dimness. He looked at the textbooks, at the dictionaries lying before him. He always had some doubts before he began. His father would be frightfully cut-up if he failed. His heart was set on it. He had sent him a dozen of fine old port “by way of a stirrup-cup,” so he said. But after all Marsham was in for it; then there was the clever little Jew-boy from Birmingham — but it was time to begin. One after another the bells of Oxford began pushing their slow chimes through the air. They tolled ponderously, unequally, as if they had to roll the air out of their way and the air was heavy. He loved the sound of the bells. He listened till the last stroke had struck; then pulled his chair to the table; time was up; he must work now.
A little dint sharpened between his brows. He frowned as he read. He read; and made a note; then he read again. All sounds were blotted out. He saw nothing but the Greek in front of him. But as he read, his brain gradually warmed; he was conscious of something quickening and tightening in his forehead. He caught phrase after phrase exactly, firmly, more exactly, he noted, making a brief note in the margin, than the night before. Little negligible words now revealed shade of meaning which altered the meaning. He made another note; that was the meaning. His own dexterity in catching the phrase plumb in the middle gave him a thrill of excitement. There it was, clean and entire. But he must be precise; exact; even his little scribbled notes must be clear as print. He turned to this book; then that book. Then he leant back to see, with his eyes shut. He must let nothing dwindle off into vagueness. The clocks began striking. He listened. The clocks went on striking. The lines that had graved themselves on his face slackened; he leant back; his muscles relaxed; he looked up from his books into the dimness. He felt as if he had thrown himself down on the turf after running a race. But for a moment it seemed to him that he was still running; his mind went on without the book. It travelled by itself without impediments through a world of pure meaning; but gradually it lost its meaning. The books stood out on the wall: he saw the cream-coloured panels; a bunch of poppies in a blue vase. The last of the strokes had sounded. He gave a sigh and rose from the table.
He stood by the window again. It was raining, but the whiteness had gone. Save for a wet leaf shining here and there, the garden was all dark now — the yellow mound of the flowering tree had vanished. The college buildings lay round the garden in a low couched mass, here red-stained, here yellow-stained, where lights burnt behind curtains; and there lay the chapel, huddling its bulk against the sky which, because of the rain, seemed to tremble slightly. But it was no longer silent. He listened; there was no sound in particular; but, as he stood looking out, the building hummed with life. There was a sudden roar of laughter; then the tinkle of a piano; then a nondescript clatter and chatter — of china partly; then again the sound of rain falling, and the gutters chuckling and burbling as they sucked up the water. He turned back into the room.
It had grown chilly; the fire was almost out; only a little red glowed under the grey ash. Opportunely he remembered his father’s gift — the wine that had come that morning. He went to the side table and poured himself out a glass of port. As he raised it against the light he smiled. He saw again his father’s hand with two smooth knobs instead of fingers holding the glass, as he always held the glass, to the light before he drank.
“You can’t drive a bayonet through a chap’s body in cold blood,” he remembered him saying.
“And you can’t go in for an exam. without drinking,” said Edward. He hesitated; he held the glass to the light in imitation of his father. Then he sipped. He set the glass on the table in front of him. He turned again to the Antigone. He read; then he sipped; then he read; then he sipped again. A soft glow spread over his spine at the nape of his neck. The wine seemed to press open little dividing doors in his brain. And whether it was the wine or the words or both, a luminous shell formed, a purple fume, from which out stepped a Greek girl; yet she was English. There she stood among the marble and the asphodel, yet there she was among the Morris wall-papers and the cabinets — his cousin Kitty, as he had seen her last time he dined at the lodge. She was both of them — Antigone and Kitty; here in the book; there in the room; lit up, risen, like a purple flower. No, he exclaimed, not in the least like a flower! For if ever a girl held herself upright, lived, laughed and breathed, it was Kitty, in the white and blue dress that she had worn last time he dined at the Lodge. He crossed to the window. Red squares showed through the trees. There was a party at the Lodge. Who was she talking to? What was she saying? He went back to the table.
“Oh, damn!” he exclaimed, prodding the paper with his pencil. The point broke. Then there was a tap at the door, a sliding tap, not a commanding tap, the tap of one who passes, not of one who comes in. He went and opened the door. There on the stair above loomed the figure of a huge young man who was leaning over the banisters. “Come in,” said Edward.
The huge young man came slowly down the stairs. He was very large. His eyes, which were prominent, became apprehensive at the sight of the books on the table. He looked at the books on the table. They were Greek. But there was wine after all.
Edward poured out wine. Beside Gibbs he looked what Eleanor called ‘finicky.’ He felt the contrast himself. The hand with which he lifted his glass was like a girl’s beside Gibbs’s great red paw. Gibbs’s hand was burnt bright scarlet; it was like a piece of raw meat.
Hunting was the subject they had in common. They talked about hunting. Edward leant back and let Gibbs do the talking. It was all very pleasant, listening to Gibbs, riding through these English lanes. He was talking about cubbing in September; and a raw but handy hack. He was saying, “You remember that farm on the right as you go up to Stapleys? and the pretty girl?”— he winked —“worse luck, she’s married to a keeper.” He was saying — Edward watched him gulping down his port — how he wished this damned summer were over. Then, again, he was telling the old story about the spaniel bitch. “You’ll come and stop with us in September,” he was saying when the door opened so silently that Gibbs did not hear it, and in glided another man — quite another man.
It was Ashley who came in. He was the very opposite of Gibbs. He was neither tall nor short, neither dark nor fair. But he was not negligible — far from it. It was partly the way he moved, as if chair and table rayed out some influence which he could feel by means of some invisible antennae, or whiskers, like a cat. Now he sank down, cautiously, gingerly, and looked at the table and half read a line in a book. Gibbs stopped in the middle of his sentence.
“Hullo, Ashley,” he said rather curtly. He stretched out and poured himself another glass of the Colonel’s port. Now the decanter was empty.
“Sorry,” he said, glancing at Ashley.
“Don’t open another bottle for me,” said Ashley quickly. His voice sounded a little squeaky, as if he were ill at ease.
“Oh, but we shall want some more too,” said Edward casually. He went into the dining-room to fetch it.
“Damned awkward,” he reflected as he stooped among the bottles. It meant, he reflected grimly as he chose his bottle, another row with Ashley, and he had had two rows with Ashley about Gibbs already this term.
He went back with the bottle and sat down on a low stool between them. He uncorked the wine and poured it out. They both looked at him, as he sat between them, admiringly. The vanity, which Eleanor always laughed at in her brother, was flattered. He liked to feel their eyes on him. And yet he was at his ease with both of them, he thought; the thought pleased him; he could talk hunting with Gibbs and books with Ashley. But Ashley could only talk about books, and Gibbs — he smiled — could only talk about girls. Girls and horses. He poured out three glasses of wine.
Ashley sipped gingerly, and Gibbs, with his great red hands on the glass, gulped rather. They talked about races; then they talked about examinations. Then Ashley, glancing at the books on the table, said:
“And what about you?”
“I’ve not the ghost of a chance,” said Edward. His indifference was affected. He pretended to despise examinations; but it was pretence. Gibbs was taken in by him; but Ashley saw through him. He often caught Edward out in small vanities like this; but they only served to endear him the more. How beautiful he looks, he was thinking: there he sat between them with the light falling on the top of his fair hair; like a Greek boy; strong; yet in some way, weak, needing his protection.
He ought to be rescued from brutes like Gibbs, he thought savagely. For how Edward could tolerate that clumsy brute, he thought looking at him, who always seemed to smell of beer and horses (he was listening to him) Ashley could not conceive. As he came in he had caught the tail of an infuriating sentence — of a sentence that seemed to show that they had made some plan together.
“Well, then, I’ll see Storey about that hack,” Gibbs was saying now, as if he were finishing some private talk that they had been having before he came in. A spasm of jealousy ran through Ashley. To hide it, he stretched out his hand and took up a book that lay open on the table. He pretended to read it.
He did it to insult him, Gibbs felt. Ashley, he knew, thought him a great hulking brute; the dirty little swine came in, spoilt the talk, and then began to give himself airs at Gibbs’s expense. Very well; he had been going to go; now he would stay; he would twist his tail for him — he knew how. He turned to Edward and went on talking.
“You won’t mind pigging it,” he said. “My people will be up in Scotland.”
Ashley turned a page viciously. They would be alone then. Edward began to relish the situation; he played up to it maliciously.
“All right,” he said. “But you’ll have to see I don’t make a fool of myself,” he added.
“Oh, it’ll only be cubbing,” said Gibbs. Ashley turned another page. Edward glanced at the book. It was being held upside down. But as he glanced at Ashley he caught his head against the panels and the poppies. How civilised he looked, he thought, compared with Gibbs; and how ironical. He respected him immensely. Gibbs had lost his glamour. There he was, telling the same old story of the spaniel bitch all over again. There would be a devil’s own row tomorrow, he thought, and glanced surreptitiously at his watch. It was past eleven; and he must do an hour’s work before breakfast. He swallowed down the last drops of his wine, stretched himself, yawned ostentatiously and rose.
“I’m off to bed,” he said. Ashley looked at him appealingly. Edward could torture him horribly. Edward began unbuttoning his waistcoat; he had a perfect figure, Ashley thought, looking at him, standing between them.
“But don’t you hurry” said Edward, yawning again. “Finish your drinks.” He smiled at the thought of Ashley and Gibbs finishing their drinks together.
“There’s plenty more in there if you want it.” He indicated the next room and left them.
“Let ’em fight it out together,” he thought as he shut the bedroom door. His own fight would come soon enough; he knew that from the look on Ashley’s face. He was infernally jealous. He began to undress. He put his money methodically in two heaps on either side of the looking-glass, for he was a little near about money; folded his waistcoat carefully on a chair; then glanced at himself in the looking-glass, and brushed his crest up with the half-conscious gesture that irritated his sister. Then he listened.
A door slammed outside. One of them had gone — either Gibbs or Ashley. But one, he rather thought, was still there. He listened intently. He heard someone moving about in the sitting-room. Very quickly, very firmly, he turned the key in the door. A moment later the handle moved.
“Edward!” said Ashley. His voice was low and controlled.
Edward made no answer.
“Edward!” said Ashley, rattling the handle.
The voice was sharp and appealing.
“Good-night,” said Edward sharply. He listened. There was a pause. Then he heard the door shut. Ashley was gone.
“Lord! What a row there’ll be tomorrow,” said Edward, going to the window and looking out at the rain that was still falling.
The party at the Lodge was over. The ladies stood in the doorway in their flowing gowns, and looked up at the sky from which a gentle rain was falling.
“Is that a nightingale?” said Mrs Larpent, hearing a bird twitter in the bushes. Then old Chuffy — the great Dr. Andrews — standing slightly behind her with his domed head exposed to the drizzle and his hirsute, powerful but not prepossessing countenance turned upward, gave a roar of laughter. It was a thrush, he said. The laughter was echoed back like a hyena laughing from the stone walls. Then, with a wave of the hand dictated by centuries of tradition, Mrs Larpent drew back her foot, as if she had encroached upon one of the chalk marks which decorate academic lintels and, signifying that Mrs Lathom, wife of the Divinity professor, should precede her, they passed out into the rain.
In the long drawing-room at the Lodge they were all standing up.
“I’m so glad Chuffy — Dr. Andrews — came up to your expectations,” Mrs Malone was saying in her courteous manner. As residents they called the great Doctor “Chuffy”; he was Dr. Andrews to American visitors.
The other guests had gone. But the Howard Fripps, the Americans, were staying in the house. Mrs Howard Fripp was saying that Dr. Andrews had been perfectly charming to her. And her husband, the Professor, was saying something equally polite to the Master. Kitty, the daughter, standing a little in the background, wished that they would get it over and come to bed. But she had to stand there until her mother gave the signal for them to move.
“Yes, I never knew Chuffy in better form,” her father continued, implying a compliment to the little American lady who had made such a conquest. She was small and vivacious, and Chuffy liked ladies to be small and vivacious.
“I adore his books,” she said in her queer nasal voice. “But I never expected to have the pleasure of sitting next him at dinner.”
Did you really like the way he spits when he talks? Kitty wondered, looking at her. She was extraordinarily pretty and gay. All the other women had looked dowdy and dumpy beside her, except her mother. For Mrs Malone, standing by the fireplace with her foot on the fender, with her crisp white hair curled stiffly, never looked in the fashion or out of it. Mrs Fripp, on the contrary, looked in the fashion.
And yet they laughed at her, Kitty thought. She had caught the Oxford ladies lifting their eyebrows at some of Mrs Fripp’s American phrases. But Kitty liked her American phrases; they were so different from what she was used to. She was American, a real American; but nobody would have taken her husband for an American, Kitty thought, looking at him. He might have been any professor, from any University, she thought, with his distinguished wrinkled face, his goatee beard and the black ribbon of his eyeglass crossing his shirt-front as if it were some foreign order. He spoke without any accent — at least without any American accent. Yet he too was different somehow. She had dropped her handkerchief. He stooped at once and gave it her with a bow that was almost too courteous — it made her shy. She bent her head and smiled at the Professor, rather shyly, as she took the handkerchief.
“Thank you so much,” she said. He made her feel awkward. Beside Mrs Fripp she felt even larger than usual. Her hair, of the true Rigby red, never lay smooth as it should have done; Mrs Fripp’s hair looked beautiful, glossy and tidy.
But now Mrs Malone, glancing at Mrs Fripp, said, “Well, ladies —?” and waved her hand.
There was something authoritative about her action — as if she had done it again and again; and been obeyed again and again. They moved towards the door. Tonight there was a little ceremony at the door; Professor Fripp bent very low over Mrs Malone’s hand, not quite so low over Kitty’s hand, and held the door wide open for them.
“He rather overdoes it,” Kitty thought to herself as they passed out.
The ladies took their candles and went in single file up the wide low stairs. Portraits of former masters of Katharine’s looked down on them as they mounted. The light of the candles flickered over the dark gold-framed faces as they went up stair after stair.
Now she’ll stop, thought Kitty, following behind, and ask who that is.
But Mrs Fripp did not stop. Kitty gave her good marks for that. She compared favourably with most of their visitors, Kitty thought. She had never done the Bodleian quite so quick as she had done it that morning. Indeed, she had felt rather guilty. There were a great many more sights to be seen, had they wished it. But in less than an hour of it Mrs Fripp had turned to Kitty and had said in her fascinating, if nasal, voice:
“Well, my dear, I guess you’re a bit fed-up with sights — what d’you say to an ice in that dear old bun-shop with the bow windows?”
And they had eaten ices when they ought to have been going round the Bodleian.
The procession had now reached the first landing, and Mrs Malone stopped at the door of the famous room where distinguished guests always slept when they stayed at the Lodge. She gave one look round as she held the door open.
“The bed where Queen Elizabeth did not sleep,” she said, making the usual little joke as they looked at the great four-poster. The fire was burning; the water-jug was swaddled up like an old woman with the toothache; and the candles were lit on the dressing-table. But there was something strange about the room tonight, Kitty thought, glancing over her mother’s shoulder; a dressing-gown flashed green and silver upon the bed. And on the dressing-table there were a number of little pots and jars and a large powder-puff stained pink. Could it be, was it possible, that the reason why Mrs Fripp looked so very bright and the Oxford ladies looked so very dingy was that Mrs Fripp — But Mrs Malone was saying, “You have everything you want?” with such extreme politeness that Kitty guessed that Mrs Malone too had seen the dressing-table. Kitty held out her hand. To her surprise, instead of taking it, Mrs Fripp pulled her down and kissed her.
“Thanks a thousand times for showing me all those sights,” she said. “And remember, you’re coming to stay with us in America,” she added. For she had liked the big shy girl who had so obviously preferred eating ices to showing her the Bodleian; and she had felt sorry for her too for some reason.
“Good-night, Kitty,” said her mother as she shut the door; and they touched each other perfunctorily on the cheek.
Kitty went on upstairs to her own room. She still felt the spot where Mrs Fripp had kissed her; the kiss had left a little glow on her cheek.
She shut the door. The room was very stuffy. It was a warm night, but they always shut the windows and drew the curtains. She opened the windows and drew the curtains. It was raining as usual. Arrows of silver rain crossed the dark trees in the garden. Then she kicked off her shoes. That was the worst of being so large — shoes were always too tight; white satin shoes in particular. Then she began to unhook her dress. It was difficult; there were so many hooks and all at the back; but at last the white satin dress was off and laid neatly across the chair; and then she began to brush her hair. It had been Thursday at its very worst, she reflected; sights in the morning; people for lunch; undergraduates for tea; and a dinner-party in the evening.
However, she concluded, tugging the comb through her hair, it’s over . . . it’s over.
The candles flickered and then the muslin blind, blowing out in a white balloon, almost touched the flame. She opened her eyes with a start. She was standing at the open window with a light beside her in her petticoat.
“Anybody might see in,” her mother had said, scolding her only the other day.
Now, she said, moving the candle to a table at the right, nobody can see in.
She began to brush her hair again. But with the light at the side instead of in front she saw her face from a different angle.
Am I pretty? she asked herself, putting down her comb and looking in the glass. Her cheek-bones were too prominent; her eyes were set too far apart. She was not pretty; no, her size was against her. What did Mrs Fripp think of me, she wondered?
She kissed me, she suddenly remembered with a start of pleasure, feeling again the glow on her cheek. She asked me to go with them in America. What fun that would be! she thought. What fun to leave Oxford and go to America! She tugged the comb through her hair, which was like a fuzz bush.
But the bells were making their usual commotion. She hated the sound of the bells; it always seemed to her a dismal sound; and then, just as one stopped, here was another beginning. They went walloping one over another, one after another, as if they would never be finished. She counted eleven, twelve, and then they went on thirteen, fourteen . . . clock repeating clock through the damp, drizzling air. It was late. She began to brush her teeth. She glanced at the calendar above the washstand and tore off Thursday and screwed it into a ball, as if she were saying “That’s over! That’s over!” Friday in large red letters confronted her. Friday was a good day; on Friday she had her lesson with Lucy; she was going to tea with the Robsons. “Blessed is he who has found his work” she read on the calendar. Calendars always seemed to be talking at you. She had not done her work. She glanced at a row of blue volumes, “The Constitutional History of England, by Dr. Andrews.” There was a paper slip in volume three. She should have finished her chapter for Lucy; but not tonight. She was too tired tonight. She turned to the window. A roar of laughter floated out from the undergraduates’ quarters. What are they laughing at, she wondered as she stood by the window. It sounded as if they were enjoying themselves. They never laugh like that when they come to tea at the Lodge, she thought, as the laughter died away. The little man from Balliol sat twisting his fingers, twisting his fingers. He would not talk; but he would not go. Then she blew out the candle and got into bed. I rather like him, she thought, stretching out in the cool sheets, though he twists his fingers. As for Tony Ashton, she thought, turning on her pillow, I don’t like him. He always seemed to be cross-examining her about Edward, whom Eleanor, she thought, calls ‘Nigs’. His eyes were too close together. A bit of a barber’s block, she thought. He had followed her at the picnic the other day — the picnic when the ant got into Mrs Lathom’s skirts. There he was always beside her. But she didn’t want to marry him. She didn’t want to be a Don’s wife and live in Oxford for ever. No, no, no! She yawned, turned on her pillow, and listening to a belated bell that went walloping like a slow porpoise through the thick drizzling air, yawned once more and fell asleep.
The rain fell steadily all night long, making a faint mist over the fields, chuckling and burbling in the gutters. In gardens it fell over flowering bushes of lilac and laburnum. It slipped gently over the leaden domes of libraries, and splayed out of the laughing mouths of gargoyles. It smeared the window where the Jew boy from Birmingham sat mugging up Greek with a wet towel round his head; where Dr. Malone sat up late writing another chapter in his monumental history of the college. And in the garden of the Lodge outside Kitty’s window it sluiced the ancient tree under which Kings and poets had sat drinking three centuries ago, but now it was half fallen and had to be propped up by a stake in the middle.
“Umbrella, Miss?” said Hiscock, offering Kitty an umbrella as she left the house rather later than she should have left it the following afternoon. There was a chilliness in the air which made her glad, as she caught sight of a party with white and yellow frocks and cushions bound for the river, that she was not going to sit in a boat today. No parties today, she thought, no parties today. But she was late, the clock warned her.
She strode along until she came to the cheap red villas that her father disliked so much that he would always make a round to avoid them. But as it was in one of these cheap red villas that Miss Craddock lived, Kitty saw them haloed with romance. Her heart beat faster as she turned the corner by the new chapel and saw the steep steps of the house where Miss Craddock actually lived. Lucy went up those steps and down them every day; that was her window; this was her bell. The bell came out with a jerk when she pulled it; but it did not go back again, for everything was ramshackle in Lucy’s house; but everything was romantic. There was Lucy’s umbrella in the stand; and it too was not like other umbrellas; it had a parrot’s head for a handle. But as she went up the steep shiny stairs excitement became mixed with fear: once more she had scamped her work; she had not “given her mind to it” again this week.
“She’s coming!” thought Miss Craddock, holding her pen suspended. Her nose was red-tipped; there was something owl-like about the eyes, round which there was a sallow, hollow depression. There was the bell. The pen had been dipped in red ink; she had been correcting Kitty’s essay. Now she heard her step on the stairs. “She’s coming!” she thought with a little catch of her breath, laying down the pen.
“I’m awfully sorry, Miss Craddock,” Kitty said, taking off her things and sitting down at the table. “But we had people staying in the house.”
Miss Craddock brushed her hand over her mouth in a way she had when she was disappointed.
“I see,” she said. “So you haven’t done any work this week either.”
Miss Craddock took up her pen and dipped it in the red ink. Then she turned to the essay.
“It wasn’t worth correcting,” she remarked, pausing with her pen in the air.
“A child of ten would have been ashamed of it.” Kitty blushed bright red.
“And the odd thing is,” said Miss Craddock putting down her pen when the lesson was over, “that you’ve got quite an original mind.”
Kitty flushed bright red with pleasure.
“But you don’t use it,” said Miss Craddock. “Why don’t you use it?” she added, looking at her out of her fine grey eyes.
“You see, Miss Craddock,” Kitty began eagerly, “my mother —”
“Hm . . . hm . . . hm . . . ” Miss Craddock stopped her. Confidences were not what Dr. Malone paid her for. She got up.
“Look at my flowers,” she said, feeling that she had snubbed her too severely. There was a bowl of flowers on the table; wild flowers, blue and white, stuck into a cushion of wet green moss.
“My sister sent them from the moors,” she said.
“The moors?” said Kitty. “Which moors?” She stooped and touched the little flowers tenderly. How lovely she is, Miss Craddock thought; for she was sentimental about Kitty. But I will not be sentimental, she told herself.
“The Scarborough moors,” she said aloud. “If you keep the moss damp but not too damp, they’ll last for weeks,” she added, looking at the flowers.
“Damp, but not too damp,” Kitty smiled. “That’s easy in Oxford, I should think. It’s always raining here.” She looked at the window. Mild rain was falling.
“If I lived up there, Miss Craddock —” she began, taking her umbrella. But she stopped. The lesson was over.
“You’d find it very dull,” said Miss Craddock, looking at her. She was putting on her cloak. Certainly she looked very lovely, putting on her cloak.
“When I was your age,” Miss Craddock continued, remembering her rôle as teacher, “I would have given my eyes to have the opportunities you have, to meet the people you meet; to know the people you know.”
“Old Chuffy?” said Kitty, remembering Miss Craddock’s profound admiration for that light of learning.
“You irreverent girl!” Miss Craddock expostulated. “The greatest historian of his age!”
“Well, he doesn’t talk history to me,” said Kitty, remembering the damp feel of a heavy hand on her knee.
She hesitated; but the lesson was over; another pupil was coming. She glanced round the room. There was a plate of oranges on the top of a pile of shiny exercise-books: a box that looked as if it contained biscuits. Was this her only room, she wondered? Did she sleep on the lumpy-looking sofa with the shawl thrown over it? There was no looking-glass, and she stuck her hat on rather to one side, thinking as she did so that Miss Craddock despised clothes.
But Miss Craddock was thinking how wonderful it was to be young and lovely and to meet brilliant men.
“I’m going to tea with the Robsons,” said Kitty, holding out her hand. The girl, Nelly Robson, was Miss Craddock’s favourite pupil; the only girl, she used to say, who knew what work meant.
“Are you walking?” said Miss Craddock, looking at her clothes. “It’s some way, you know. Down Ringmer Road, past the gasworks.”
“Yes, I’m walking,” said Kitty, shaking hands.
“And I will try to work hard this week,” she said, looking down on her with eyes full of love and admiration. Then she descended the steep stairs whose oilcloth shone bright with romance; and glanced at the umbrella that had a parrot for handle.
The son of the Professor, who had done it all off his own bat, “a most creditable performance”, to quote Dr. Malone, was mending the hen coops in the back garden at Prestwich Terrace — a scratched up little place. Hammer, hammer, hammer, he went, fixing a board to the rotten roof. His hands were white, unlike his father’s, and long fingered too. He had no love of doing these jobs himself. But his father mended the boots on Sunday. Down came the hammer. He went at it, hammering the long shiny nails that sometimes split the wood, or drove outside. For it was rotten. He hated hens too, imbecile fowls, a huddle of feathers, watching him out of their red beady eyes. They scratched up the path; left little curls of feather here and there on the beds, which were more to his fancy. But nothing grew there. How grow flowers like other people if one kept hens? A bell rang.
“Curse it! There’s some old woman come to tea,” he said, holding his hammer suspended; and then brought it down on the nail.
As she stood on the step, noting the cheap lace curtains and the blue and orange glass, Kitty tried to remember what it was that her father had said about Nelly’s father. But a little maid let her in. I’m much too large, Kitty thought, as she stood for a moment in the room to which the maid had admitted her. It was a small room, crowded with objects. And I’m too well dressed she thought, looking at herself in the glass over the fireplace. But here her friend Nelly came in. She was dumpy; over her large grey eyes she wore steel spectacles, and her brown holland overall seemed to increase her air of uncompromising veracity.
“We’re having tea in the back room,” she said, looking her up and down. What has she been doing? Why is she dressed in an overall? Kitty thought, following her into the room where tea had already begun.
“Pleased to see you,” said Mrs Robson formally, looking over her shoulder. But nobody seemed in the least pleased to see her. Two children were already eating. Slices of bread and butter were in their hands, but they stayed the bread and butter and stared at Kitty as she sat down.
She seemed to see the whole room at once. It was bare yet crowded. The table was too large; there were hard green-plush chairs; yet the table-cloth was coarse; darned in the middle; and the china was cheap with its florid red roses. The light was extraordinarily bright in her eyes. A sound of hammering came in from the garden outside. She looked at the garden; it was a scratched-up, earthy garden without flower-beds; and there was a shed at the end of the garden from which the sound of hammering came.
They’re all so short too, Kitty thought, glancing at Mrs Robson. Only her shoulders came above the tea things; but her shoulders were substantial. She was a little like Bigge, the cook at the Lodge, but more formidable. She gave one brief look at Mrs Robson and then began to pull off her gloves secretly, swiftly, under the cover of the table-cloth. But why does nobody talk? she thought nervously. The children kept their eyes fixed upon her with a look of solemn amazement. Their owl-like stare went up and down over her uncompromisingly. Happily before they could express their disapproval, Mrs Robson told them sharply to go on with their tea; and the bread and butter slowly rose to their mouths again.
Why don’t they say something? Kitty thought again, glancing at Nelly. She was about to speak when an umbrella grated in the hall; and Mrs Robson looked up and said to her daughter:
Next moment in trotted a little man, who was so short that he looked as if his jacket should have been an Eton jacket, and his collar a round collar. He wore, too, a very thick watch-chain, made of silver, like a schoolboy’s. But his eyes were keen and fierce, his moustache bristly, and he spoke with a curious accent.
“Pleased to see you,” he said, and gripped her hand hard in his. He sat down, tucked a napkin under his chin so that it obscured his heavy silver watch-chain under its stiff white shield. Hammer, hammer, hammer came from the shed in the garden.
“Tell Jo tea’s on the table,” said Mrs Robson to Nelly, who had brought in a dish with a cover on it. The cover was removed. Actually they were going to eat fried fish and potatoes at tea- time, Kitty remarked.
But Mr Robson had turned his rather alarming blue eyes upon her. She expected him to say, “How is your father, Miss Malone?”
But he said:
“You’re reading history with Lucy Craddock?”
“Yes,” she said. She liked the way he said Lucy Craddock, as if he respected her. So many of the Dons sneered at her. She liked feeling too, as he made her feel, that she was nobody’s daughter in particular.
“You’re interested in history?” he said, applying himself to his fish and potatoes.
“I love it,” she said. His bright blue eyes, gazing straight at her rather fiercely, seemed to make her say quite shortly what she meant.
“But I’m frightfully lazy,” she added. Here Mrs Robson looked at her rather sternly, and handed her a thick slice of bread on the point of a knife.
Anyhow their taste is awful, she said by way of revenge for the snub that she felt was intended. She focussed her eyes on a picture opposite — an oily landscape in a heavy gilt frame. There was a blue and red Japanese plate on either side of it. Everything was ugly, especially the pictures.
“The moor at the back of our house,” said Mr Robson, seeing her look at a picture.
It struck Kitty that the accent with which he spoke was a Yorkshire accent. In looking at the picture he had increased his accent.
“In Yorkshire?” she said. “We come from there too. My mother’s family I mean,” she added.
“Your mother’s family?” said Mr Robson.
“Rigby,” she said, and blushed slightly.
“Rigby?” said Mrs Robson, looking up.
“I wur-r-rked for a Miss Rigby before I married.”
What sort of wur-r-rk had Mrs Robson done? Kitty wondered. Sam explained.
“My wife was a cook, Miss Malone, before we married,” he said. Again he increased his accent as if he were proud of it. I had a great-uncle who rode in a circus, she felt inclined to say: and an Aunt who married . . . but here Mrs Robson interrupted her.
“The Hollies,” she said. “Two very old ladies; Miss Ann and Miss Matilda.” She spoke more gently.
“But they must be dead long ago,” she concluded. For the first time she leant back in her chair and stirred her tea, just as old Snap at the farm, Kitty thought, stirred her tea round and round and round.
“Tell Jo we’re not sparing the cake,” said Mr Robson, cutting himself a slice of that craggy-looking object; and Nell went out of the room once more. The hammering stopped in the garden. The door opened. Kitty, who had altered the focus of her eyes to suit the smallness of the Robson family, was taken by surprise. The young man seemed immense in that little room. He was a handsome young man. He brushed his hand through his hair as came in, for a wood shaving had stuck in it.
“Our Jo,” said Mrs Robson, introducing them. “Go and get the kittle, Jo,” she added; and he went at once as if he were used to it. When he came back with the kettle, Sam began chaffing him about a hencoop.
“It takes you a long time, my son, to mend a hencoop,” he said. There was some family joke which Kitty could not follow about mending boots and hencoops. She watched him eating steadily under his father’s banter. He was not Eton or Harrow, or Rugby or Winchester; or reading or rowing. He reminded her of Alf, the farm hand up at Carter’s, who had kissed her under the shadow of the haystack when she was fifteen, and old Carter loomed up leading a bull with a ring through its nose and said “Stop that!” She looked down again. She would rather like Jo to kiss her; better than Edward, she thought to herself suddenly. She remembered her own appearance, which she had forgotten. She liked him. Yes, she liked them all very much, she told herself; very much indeed. She felt as if she had given her nurse the slip and run off on her own.
Then the children began scrambling down off their chairs; the meal was over. She began to fish under the table for her gloves.
“These them?” said Jo, picking them up off the floor. She took them and crumpled them up in her hand.
He cast one quick sulky look at her as she stood in the doorway. She’s a stunner, he said to himself, but my word, she gives herself airs!
Mrs Robson ushered her into the little room where, before tea, she had looked in the glass. It was crowded with objects. There were bamboo tables; velvet books with brass hinges; marble gladiators askew on the mantelpiece and innumerable pictures. . . . But Mrs Robson, with a gesture that was exactly like Mrs Malone’s when she pointed to the Gainsborough that was not quite certainly a Gainsborough, was displaying a huge silver salver with an inscription.
“The salver my husband’s pupils gave him,” Mrs Robson began, pointing to the inscription. Kitty began to spell out the inscription.
“And this . . . ” said Mrs Robson, when she had done, pointing to a document framed like a text on the wall.
But here Sam, who stood in the background fiddling with his watch- chain, stepped forward and indicated with his stubby forefinger the picture of an old woman looking rather over life size in the photographer’s chair.
“My mother,” he said and stopped. He gave a queer little chuckle.
“Your mother?” Kitty repeated, stooping to look. The unwieldy old lady, posed in all the stiffness of her best clothes, was plain in the extreme. And yet Kitty felt that admiration was expected.
“You’re very like her, Mr Robson,” was all she could find to say. Indeed they had something of the same sturdy look; the same piercing eyes; and they were both very plain. He gave an odd little chuckle.
“Glad you think so,” he said. “Brought us all up. Not one of them a patch on her though.” He gave his odd little chuckle again.
Then he turned to his daughter, who had come in and was standing there in her overall.
“Not a patch on her,” he repeated, pinching Nell on the shoulder. As she stood there with her father’s hand on her shoulder under the portrait of her grandmother, a sudden rush of self-pity came over Kitty. If she had been the daughter of people like the Robsons, she thought; if she had lived in the north — but it was clear they wanted her to go. Nobody ever sat down in this room. They were all standing up. Nobody pressed her to stay. When she said that she must go, they all came out into the little hall with her. They were all about to go on with what they were doing, she felt. Nell was about to go into the kitchen and wash up the tea things; Jo was about to return to his hencoops; the children were about to be put to bed by their mother; and Sam — what was he about to do? She looked at him standing there with his heavy watch-chain, like a schoolboy’s. You are the nicest man I have ever met, she thought, holding out her hand.
“Pleased to have made your acquaintance,” said Mrs Robson in her stately way.
“Hope you’ll come again soon,” said Mr Robson, grasping her hand very hard.
“Oh, I should love to!” she exclaimed, pressing their hands as hard as she could. Did they know how much she admired them? she wanted to say. Would they accept her in spite of her hat and her gloves? she wanted to ask. But they were all going off to their work. And I am going home to dress for dinner, she thought as she walked down the little front steps, pressing her pale kid gloves in her hands.
The sun was shining again; the damp pavements gleamed; a gust of wind tossed up the wet branches of the almond trees in the villa gardens; little twigs and tufts of blossom whirled onto the pavement and stuck there. As she stood still for a second at a crossing she too seemed to be tossed aloft out of her usual surroundings. She forgot where she was. The sky, blown into a blue open space, seemed to be looking down not here upon streets and houses, but upon open country, where the wind brushed the moors, and sheep, with grey fleeces ruffled, sheltered under stone walls. She could almost see the moors brighten and darken as the clouds passed over them.
But then in two strides the unfamiliar street became the street she had always known. Here she was again in the paved alley; there were the old curiosity shops with their blue china and their brass warming-pans; and next moment she was out in the famous crooked street with all the domes and steeples. The sun lay in broad stripes across it. There were the cabs and the awnings and the book-shops; the old men in black gowns billowing; the young women in pink and blue dresses flowing; and the young men in straw hats carrying cushions under their arms. But for a moment all seemed to her obsolete, frivolous, inane. The usual undergraduate in cap and gown with books under his arm looked silly. And the portentous old men with their exaggerated features, looked like gargoyles, carved, mediaeval, unreal. They were all like people dressed up and acting parts, she thought. Now she stood at her own door and waited for Hiscock, the butler, to take his feet off the fender and waddle upstairs. Why can’t you talk like a human being? she thought, as he took her umbrella and mumbled his usual remark about the weather.
Slowly, as if a weight had got into her feet too, she went upstairs, seeing through open windows and open doors the smooth lawn, the recumbent tree and the faded chintzes. Down she sank on the edge of her bed. It was very stuffy. A bluebottle buzzed round and round; a lawn mower squeaked in the garden below. Far away pigeons were cooing — Take two coos, Taffy. Take two coos. Tak. . . . Her eyes half shut. It seemed to her that she was sitting on the terrace of an Italian inn. There was her father pressing gentians on to a rough sheet of blotting paper. The lake below lapped and dazzled. She plucked up courage and said to her father: “Father . . . ” He looked up very kindly over his spectacles. He held the little blue flower between his thumb and finger. “I want . . . ” she began slipping off the balustrade upon which she was sitting. But here a bell struck. She rose and crossed to the washing-table. What would Nell think of this, she thought, tilting up the beautifully polished brass jug and dipping her hands in the hot water. Another bell tolled. She crossed to the dressing-table. The air from the garden outside was full of murmurings and cooings. Wood shavings, she said as she took up her brush and comb — he had wood shavings in his hair. A servant passed with a pile of tin dishes on his head. The pigeons were cooing Take two coos, Taffy. Take two coos. . . . But there was the dinner bell. In a moment she had pinned her hair up, hooked her dress on, and ran down the slippery stairs, sliding her palm along the banisters as she used to do when she was a child in a hurry. And there they all were.
Her parents were standing in the hall. A tall man was with them. His gown was thrown back and one last ray of sunshine lit up his genial, authoritative face. Who was he? Kitty could not remember.
“My word!” he exclaimed, looking up at her with admiration.
“It is Kitty, isn’t it?” he said. Then he took her hand and pressed it.
“How you’ve grown!” he exclaimed. He looked at her as if he were looking not at her but at his own past.
“You don’t remember me?” he added.
“Chingachgook!” she exclaimed, recalling some childish memory.
“But he is now Sir Richard Norton,” said her mother, giving him a proud little pat on the shoulder; and they turned away, for the gentlemen were dining in Hall.
It was dull fish, Kitty thought; the plates were half cold. It was stale bread she thought, cut in meagre little squares; the colour, the gaiety of Prestwich Terrace was still in her eyes, in her ears. She granted, as she looked round, the superiority of the Lodge china and silver; and the Japanese plates and the picture had been hideous; but this dining-room with its hanging creepers and its vast cracked canvases was so dark. At Prestwich Terrace the room was full of light; the sound of hammer, hammer, hammer still rang in her ears. She looked out at the fading greens in the garden. For the thousandth time she echoed her childish wish that the tree would either lie down or stand up instead of doing neither. It was not actually raining, but gusts of whiteness seemed to blow about the garden as the wind stirred the thick leaves on the laurels.
“Didn’t you notice it?” Mrs Malone suddenly appealed to her.
“What, Mama?” Kitty asked. She had not been attending.
“The odd taste in the fish,” said her mother.
“I don’t think I did,” she said; and Mrs Malone went on talking to the butler. The plates were changed; another dish was brought in. But Kitty was not hungry. She bit one of the green sweets that were provided for her, and then the modest dinner, retrieved for the ladies from the relics of last night’s party, was over and she followed her mother into the drawing-room.
It was too big when they were alone, but they always sat there. The pictures seemed to be looking down at the empty chairs, and the empty chairs seemed to be looking up at the pictures. The old gentleman who had ruled the college over a hundred years ago seemed to vanish in the daytime, but he came back when the lamps were lit. The face was placid, solid and smiling, and singularly like Dr. Malone, who, had a frame been set round him, might have hung over the fireplace too.
“It’s nice to have a quiet evening once in a way,” Mrs Malone was saying, “though the Fripps . . . ” Her voice tailed off as she put on her spectacles and took up The Times. This was her moment of relaxation and recuperation after the day’s work. She suppressed a little yawn as she glanced up and down the columns of the newspaper.
“What a charming man he was,” she observed casually, as she looked at the births and deaths. “One would hardly have taken him for an American.”
Kitty recalled her thoughts. She was thinking of the Robsons. Her mother was talking about the Fripps.
“And I liked her too,” she said rashly. “Wasn’t she lovely?”
“Hum — m — m. A little overdressed for my taste,” said Mrs Malone dryly. “And that accent —” she went on, looking through the paper, “I sometimes hardly understood what she said.”
Kitty was silent. Here they differed; as they did about so many things.
Suddenly Mrs Malone looked up:
“Yes, just what I was saying to Bigge this morning,” she said, laying down the paper.
“What, Mama?” said Kitty.
“This man — in the leading article,” said Mrs Malone. She touched it with her finger.
“‘With the best flesh, fish and fowl in the world,’” she read, “‘we shall not be able to turn them to account because we have none to cook them’— what I was saying to Bigge this morning.” She gave her quick little sigh. Just when one wanted to impress people, like those Americans, something went wrong. It had been the fish this time. She foraged for her work things, and Kitty took up the paper.
“It’s the leading article,” said Mrs Malone. That man almost always said the very thing that she was thinking, which comforted her, and gave her a sense of security in a world which seemed to her to be changing for the worse.
“‘Before the rigid and now universal enforcement of school attendance . . .?’” Kitty read out.
“Yes. That’s it,” said Mrs Malone, opening her work-box and looking for her scissors.
“’ . . . the children saw a good deal of cooking which, poor as it was, yet gave them some taste and inkling of knowledge. They now see nothing and they do nothing but read, write, sum, sew or knit,’” Kitty read out.
“Yes, yes,” said Mrs Malone. She unrolled the long strip of embroidery upon which she was working a design of birds pecking at fruit copied from a tomb at Ravenna. It was for the spare bedroom.
The leading article bored Kitty with its pompous fluency. She searched the paper for some little piece of news that might interest her mother. Mrs Malone liked someone to talk to her or read aloud to her as she worked. Night after night her embroidery served to weave the after-dinner talk into a pleasant harmony. One said something and stitched; looked at the design, chose another coloured silk, and stitched again. Sometimes Dr Malone read poetry aloud — Pope: Tennyson. Tonight she would have liked Kitty to talk to her. But she was becoming increasingly conscious of difficulty with Kitty. Why? She glanced at her. What was wrong? she wondered. She gave her quick little sigh.
Kitty turned over the large pages. Sheep had the fluke; Turks wanted religious liberty; there was the General Election.
“Mr Gladstone —” she began.
Mrs Malone had lost her scissors. It annoyed her.
“Who can have taken them again?” she began. Kitty went down on the floor to look for them. Mrs Malone ferreted in the work-box; then she plunged her hand into the fissure between the cushion and the chair frame and brought up not only the scissors but also a little mother-of-pearl paper-knife that had been missing for ever so long. The discovery annoyed her. It proved Ellen never shook up the cushions properly.
“Here they are, Kitty,” she said. They were silent. There was always some constraint between them now.
“Did you enjoy your party at the Robsons’, Kitty?” she asked, resuming her embroidery. Kitty did not answer. She turned the paper.
“There’s been an experiment,” she said. “An experiment with electric light. ‘A brilliant light,’” she read, “‘was seen to shoot forth suddenly shooting out a profound ray across the water to the Rock. Everything was lit up as if by daylight.’” She paused. She saw the bright light from the ships on the drawing- room chair. But here the door opened and Hiscock came in with a note on a salver.
Mrs Malone took it and read it in silence.
“No answer,” she said. From the tone of her mother’s voice Kitty knew that something had happened. She sat holding the note in her hand. Hiscock shut the door.
“Rose is dead!” said Mrs Malone. “Cousin Rose.”
The note lay open on her knee.
“It’s from Edward,” she said.
“Cousin Rose is dead?” said Kitty. A moment before she had been thinking of a bright light on a red rock. Now everything looked dingy. There was a pause. There was silence. Tears stood in her mother’s eyes.
“Just when the children most wanted her,” she said, sticking the needle into her embroidery. She began to roll it up very slowly. Kitty folded The Times and laid it on a little table, slowly, so that it should not crackle. She had only seen Cousin Rose once or twice. She felt awkward.
“Fetch me my engagement book,” said her mother at last. Kitty brought it.
“We must put off our dinner on Monday,” said Mrs Malone, looking through her engagements.
“And the Lathoms’ party on Wednesday,” Kitty murmured, looking over her mother’s shoulder.
“We can’t put off everything,” said her mother sharply, and Kitty felt rebuked.
But there were notes to be written. She wrote them at her mother’s dictation.
Why is she so ready to put off all our engagements? thought Mrs Malone, watching her write. Why doesn’t she enjoy going out with me any more? She glanced through the notes that her daughter brought her.
“Why don’t you take more interest in things here, Kitty?” she said irritably, pushing the letters away.
“Mama, dear —” Kitty began, deprecating the usual argument.
“But what is it you want to do?” her mother persisted. She had put away her embroidery; she was sitting upright, she was looking rather formidable.
“Your father and I only want you to do what you want to do,” she continued.
“Mama, dear —” Kitty repeated.
“You could help your father if it bores you helping me,” said Mrs Malone. “Papa told me the other day that you never come to him now.” She referred, Kitty knew, to his history of the college. He had suggested that she should help him. Again she saw the ink flowing — she had made an awkward brush with her arm — over five generations of Oxford men, obliterating hours of her father’s exquisite penmanship; and could hear him say with his usual courteous irony, “Nature did not intend you to be a scholar, my dear,” as he applied the blotting-paper.
“I know,” she said guiltily. “I haven’t been to Papa lately. But then there’s always something —” She hesitated.
“Naturally,” said Mrs Malone, “with a man in your father’s position . . . ” Kitty sat silent. They both sat silent. They both disliked this petty bickering; they both detested these recurring scenes; and yet they seemed inevitable. Kitty got up, took the letters she had written and put them in the hall.
What does she want? Mrs Malone asked herself, looking up at the picture without seeing it. When I was her age . . . she thought, and smiled. How well she remembered sitting at home on a spring evening like this up in Yorkshire, miles from anywhere. You could hear the beat of a horse’s hoof on the road miles away. She could remember flinging up her bedroom window and looking down on the dark shrubs in the garden and crying out, “Is this life?” And in the winter there was the snow. She could still hear the snow flopping off the trees in the garden. And here was Kitty, living in Oxford, in the midst of everything.
Kitty came back into the drawing-room and yawned very slightly. She raised her hand to her face with an unconscious gesture of fatigue that touched her mother.
“Tired, Kitty?” she said. “It’s been a long day; you look pale.”
“And you look tired too,” said Kitty.
The bells came pushing forth one after another, one on top of another, through the damp, heavy air.
“Go to bed, Kitty,” said Mrs Malone. “There! It’s striking ten.”
“But aren’t you coming too, Mama?” said Kitty, standing beside her chair.
“Your father won’t be back just yet,” said Mrs Malone, putting on her spectacles again.
Kitty knew it was useless to try to persuade her. It was part of the mysterious ritual of her parents’ lives. She bent down and gave her mother the little perfunctory peck that was the only sign they ever gave each other outwardly of their affection. Yet they were very fond of each other; yet they always quarrelled.
“Good-night, and sleep well,” said Mrs Malone.
“I don’t like to see your roses fade,” she added, putting her arm round her for once in a way.
She sat still after Kitty had gone. Rose is dead, she thought — Rose who was about her own age. She read the note again. It was from Edward. And Edward, she mused, is in love with Kitty, but I don’t know that I want her to marry him, she thought, taking up her needle. No, not Edward. . . . There was young Lord Lasswade. . . . That would be a nice marriage, she thought. Not that I want her to be rich, not that I care about rank, she thought, threading her needle. No, but he could give her what she wants. . . . What was it? . . . Scope, she decided, beginning to stitch. Then again her thoughts turned to Rose. Rose was dead. Rose who was about her own age. That must have been the first time he proposed to her, she thought, the day we had the picnic on the moors. It was a spring day. They were sitting on the grass. She could see Rose wearing a black hat with a cock’s feather in it over her bright red hair. She could still see her blush and look extremely pretty when Abel rode up, much to their surprise — he was stationed at Scarborough — the day they had the picnic on the moors.
The house at Abercorn Terrace was very dark. It smelt strongly of spring flowers. For some days now wreaths had been piled one on top of another on the hall table. In the dimness — all the blinds were drawn — the flowers gleamed; and the hall smelt with the amorous intensity of a hot-house. Wreath after wreath, they kept arriving. There were lilies with broad bars of gold in them; others with spotted throats sticky with honey; white tulips, white lilac — flowers of all kinds, some with petals as thick as velvet, others transparent, paper-thin; but all white, and clubbed together, head to head, in circles, in ovals, in crosses so that they scarcely looked like flowers. Black-edged cards were attached to them, “With deep sympathy from Major and Mrs Brand”; “With love and sympathy from General and Mrs Elkin”; “For dearest Rose from Susan.” Each card had a few words written on it.
Even now with the hearse at the door the bell rang; a messenger boy appeared bearing more lilies. He raised his cap, as he stood in the hall, for men were lurching down the stairs carrying the coffin. Rose, in deep black, prompted by her nurse, stepped forward and dropped her little bunch of violets on the coffin. But it slipped off as it swayed down the brilliant sunlit steps on the slanting shoulders of Whiteleys’ men. The family followed after.
It was an uncertain day, with passing shadows and darting rays of bright sunshine. The funeral started at a walking pace. Delia, getting into the second carriage with Milly and Edward, noticed that the houses opposite had their blinds drawn in sympathy, but a servant peeped. The others, she noticed, did not seem to see her; they were thinking of their mother. When they got into the main road the pace quickened, for the drive to the cemetery was a long one. Through the slit of the blind, Delia noticed dogs playing; a beggar singing; men raising their hats as the hearse passed them. But by the time their own carriage passed, the hats were on again. Men walked briskly and unconcernedly along the pavement. The shops were already gay with spring clothing; women paused and looked in at the windows. But they would have to wear nothing but black all the summer, Delia thought, looking at Edward’s coal-black trousers.
They scarcely spoke, or only in little formal sentences, as if they were already taking part in the ceremony. Somehow their relations had changed. They were more considerate, and a little important too, as if their mother’s death had laid new responsibilities on them. But the others knew how to behave; it was only she who had to make an effort. She remained outside, and so did her father, she thought. When Martin suddenly burst out laughing at tea, and then stopped and looked guilty, she felt — that is what Papa would do, that is what I should do if we were honest.
She glanced out of the window again. Another man raised his hat — a tall man, a man in a frock-coat, but she would not allow herself to think of Mr Parnell until the funeral was over.
At last they reached the cemetery. As she took her place in the little group behind the coffin and walked up the church, she was relieved to find that she was overcome by some generalised and solemn emotion. People stood up on both sides of the church and she felt their eyes on her. Then the service began. A clergyman, a cousin, read it. The first words struck out with a rush of extraordinary beauty. Delia, standing behind her father, noticed how he braced himself and squared his shoulders.
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Pent up as she had been all these days in the half-lit house which smelt of flowers, the outspoken words filled her with glory. This she could feel genuinely; this was something that she said herself. But then, as Cousin James went on reading, something slipped. The sense was blurred. She could not follow with her reason. Then in the midst of the argument came another burst of familiar beauty. “And fade away suddenly like the grass, in the morning it is green, and groweth up; but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.” She could feel the beauty of that. Again it was like music; but then Cousin James seemed to hurry, as if he did not altogether believe what he was saying. He seemed to pass from the known to the unknown; from what he believed to what he did not believe; even his voice altered. He looked clean, he looked starched and ironed like his robes. But what did he mean by what he was saying? She gave it up. Either one understood or one did not understand, she thought. Her mind wandered.
But I will not think of him, she thought, seeing a tall man who stood beside her on a platform and raised his hat, until it’s over. She fixed her eyes upon her father. She watched him dab a great white pocket-handkerchief to his eyes and put it in his pocket; then he pulled it out and dabbed his eyes with it again. Then the voice stopped; he put his handkerchief finally in his pocket; and again they all formed up, the little group of the family, behind the coffin and again the dark people on either side rose, and watched them and let them go first and followed after.
It was a relief to feel the soft damp air blowing its leafy smell in her face again. But again now that she was out of doors, she began to notice things. She noticed how the black funeral horses were pawing the ground; they were scraping little pits with their hooves in the yellow gravel. She remembered hearing that funeral horses came from Belgium and were very vicious. They looked vicious she thought; their black necks were flecked with foam — but she recalled herself. They went straggling in ones and twos along a path until they reached a fresh mound of yellow earth heaped beside a pit; and there again she noticed how the grave-diggers stood at a little distance, rather behind, with their spades.
There was a pause; people kept on arriving and took up their positions, some a little higher, some a little lower. She observed a poor-looking shabby woman prowling on the outskirts, and tried to think whether she were some old servant, but she could not put a name to her. Her Uncle Digby, her father’s brother, stood directly opposite her, with his top-hat held like some sacred vessel between his hands, the image of grave decorum. Some of the women were crying; but not the men; the men had one pose; the women had another, she observed. Then it all began again. The splendid gust of music blew through them —“Man that is born of a woman”: the ceremony had renewed itself; once more they were grouped, united. The family pressed a little closer to the graveside and looked fixedly at the coffin which lay with its polish and its brass handles there in the earth to be buried for ever. It looked too new to be buried for ever. She stared down into the grave. There lay her mother; in that coffin — the woman she had loved and hated so. Her eyes dazzled. She was afraid that she might faint; but she must look; she must feel; it was the last chance that was left her. Earth dropped on the coffin; three pebbles fell on the hard shiny surface; and as they dropped she was possessed by a sense of something everlasting; of life mixing with death, of death becoming life. For as she looked she heard the sparrows chirp quicker and quicker; she heard wheels in the distance sound louder and louder; life came closer and closer. . . .
“We give thee hearty thanks,” said the voice, “for that it has pleased thee to deliver this our sister out of the miseries of this sinful world —”
What a lie! she cried to herself. What a damnable lie! He had robbed her of the one feeling that was genuine; he had spoilt her one moment of understanding.
She looked up. She saw Morris and Eleanor side by side; their faces were blurred; their noses were red; the tears were running down them. As for her father he was so stiff and so rigid that she had a convulsive desire to laugh aloud. Nobody can feel like that, she thought. He’s overdoing it. None of us feel anything at all, she thought: we’re all pretending.
Then there was a general movement; the attempt at concentration was over. People strolled off this way and that; there was no attempt now to form into a procession; little groups came together; people shook hands rather furtively, among the graves, and even smiled.
“How good of you to come!” said Edward, shaking hands with old Sir James Graham, who gave him a little pat on the shoulder. Ought she to go and thank him too? The graves made it difficult. It was becoming a shrouded and subdued morning party among the graves. She hesitated — she did not know what she ought to do next. Her father had walked on. She looked back. The grave-diggers had come forward; they were piling the wreaths one on top of another neatly; and the prowling woman had joined them and was stooping down to read the names on the cards. The ceremony was over; rain was falling.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14