It was a summer evening; the sun was setting; the sky was blue still, but tinged with gold, as if a thin veil of gauze hung over it, and here and there in the gold-blue amplitude an island of cloud lay suspended. In the fields the trees stood majestically caparisoned, with their innumerable leaves gilt. Sheep and cows, pearl white and parti-coloured, lay recumbent or munched their way through the half transparent grass. An edge of light surrounded everything. A red-gold fume rose from the dust on the roads. Even the little red brick villas on the high roads had become porous, incandescent with light, and the flowers in cottage gardens, lilac and pink like cotton dresses, shone veined as if lit from within. Faces of people standing at cottage doors or padding along pavements showed the same red glow as they fronted the slowly sinking sun.
Eleanor came out of her flat and shut the door. Her face was lit up by the glow of the sun as it sank over London, and for a moment she was dazzled and looked out over the roofs and spires that lay beneath. There were people talking inside her room, and she wanted to have a word with her nephew alone. North, her brother Morris’s son, had just come back from Africa, and she had scarcely seen him alone. So many people had dropped in that evening — Miriam Parrish; Ralph Pickersgill; Antony Wedd; her niece Peggy, and on top of them all, that very talkative man, her friend Nicholas Pomjalovsky, whom they called Brown for short. She had scarcely had a word with North alone. For a moment they stood in the bright square of sunshine that fell on the stone floor of the passage. Voices were still talking within. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s so nice to see you,” she said. “And you haven’t changed . . . ” She looked at him. She still saw traces of the brown-eyed cricketing boy in the massive man, who was so burnt, and a little grey too over the ears. “We sha’n’t let you go back,” she continued, beginning to walk downstairs with him, “to that horrid farm.”
He smiled. “And you haven’t changed either,” he said.
She looked very vigorous. She had been in India. Her face was tanned with the sun. With her white hair and her brown cheeks she scarcely looked her age, but she must be well over seventy, he was thinking. They walked downstairs arm-in-arm. There were six flights of stone steps to descend, but she insisted upon coming all the way down with him, to see him off.
“And North,” she said, when they reached the hall, “you will be careful. . . . ” She stopped on the doorstep. “Driving in London,” she said, “isn’t the same as driving in Africa.”
There was his little sports car outside; a man was going past the door in the evening sunlight crying “Old chairs and baskets to mend.”
He shook his head; his voice was drowned by the voice of the man crying. He glanced at a board that hung in the hall with names on it. Who was in and who was out was signified with a care that amused him slightly, after Africa. The voice of the man crying “Old chairs and baskets to mend,” slowly died away.
“Well, good-bye, Eleanor,” he said turning. “We shall meet later.” He got into his car.
“Oh, but North —” she cried, suddenly remembering something she wanted to say to him. But he had turned on the engine; he did not hear her voice. He waved his hand to her — there she stood at the top of the steps with her hair blowing in the wind. The car started off with a jerk. She gave another wave of her hand to him as he turned the corner.
Eleanor is just the same, he thought: more erratic perhaps. With a room full of people — her little room had been crowded — she had insisted upon showing him her new shower-bath. “You press that knob,” she had said, “and look —” Innumerable needles of water shot down. He laughed aloud. They had sat on the edge of the bath together.
But the cars behind him hooted persistently; they hooted and hooted. What at? he asked. Suddenly he realised that they were hooting at him. The light had changed; it was green now, he had been blocking the way. He started off with a violent jerk. He had not mastered the art of driving in London.
The noise of London still seemed to him deafening, and the speed at which people drove was terrifying. But it was exciting after Africa. The shops even, he thought, as he shot past rows of plate- glass windows, were marvellous. Along the kerb, too, there were barrows of fruit and flowers. Everywhere there was profusion; plenty. . . . Again the red light shone out; he pulled up.
He looked about him. He was somewhere in Oxford Street; the pavement was crowded with people; jostling each other; swarming round the plate-glass windows which were still lit up. The gaiety, the colour, the variety, were amazing after Africa. All these years, he thought to himself, looking at a floating banner of transparent silk, he had been used to raw goods; hides and fleeces; here was the finished article. A dressing-case, of yellow leather fitted with silver bottles, caught his eye. But the light was green again. On he jerked.
He had only been back ten days, and his mind was a jumble of odds and ends. It seemed to him that he had never stopped talking: shaking hands; saying How-d’you-do? People sprang up everywhere; his father; his sister; old men got up from armchairs and said, You don’t remember me? Children he had left in the nursery were grown- up men at college; girls with pigtails were now married women. He was still confused by it all; they talked so fast; they must think him very slow, he thought. He had to withdraw into the window and say, “What, what, what do they mean by it?”
For instance, this evening at Eleanor’s there was a man there with a foreign accent who squeezed lemon into his tea. Who might he be, he wondered? “One of Nell’s dentists,” said his sister Peggy, wrinkling her lip. For they all had lines cut; phrases ready-made. But that was the silent man on the sofa. It was the other one he meant — squeezing lemon in his tea. “We call him Brown,” she murmured. Why Brown if he’s a foreigner, he wondered. Anyhow they all romanticized solitude and savagery —“I wish I’d done what you did,” said a little man called Pickersgill — except this man Brown, who had said something that interested him. “If we do not know ourselves, how can we know other people?” he had said. They had been discussing dictators; Napoleon; the psychology of great men. But there was the green light —“go”. He shot on again. And then the lady with the ear-rings gushed about the beauties of Nature. He glanced at the name of the street on the left. He was going to dine with Sara but he had not much notion how to get there. He had only heard her voice on the telephone saying, “Come and dine with me — Milton Street, fifty-two, my name’s on the door.” It was near the Prison Tower. But this man Brown — it was difficult to place him at once. He talked, spreading his fingers out with the volubility of a man who will in the end become a bore. And Eleanor wandered about, holding a cup, telling people about her shower- bath. He wished they would stick to the point. Talk interested him. Serious talk on abstract subjects. “Was solitude good; was society bad?” That was interesting; but they hopped from thing to thing. When the large man said, “Solitary confinement is the greatest torture we inflict,” the meagre old woman with the wispy hair at once piped up, laying her hand on her heart, “It ought to be abolished!” She visited prisons, it seemed.
“Where the dickens am I now?” he asked, peering at the name on the street corner. Somebody had chalked a circle on the wall with a jagged line in it. He looked down the long vista. Door after door, window after window, repeated the same pattern. There was a red-yellow glow over it all, for the sun was sinking through the London dust. Everything was tinged with a warm yellow haze. Barrows full of fruit and flowers were drawn up at the kerb. The sun gilded the fruit; the flowers had a blurred brilliance; there were roses, carnations and lilies too. He had half a mind to stop and buy a bunch to take to Sally. But the cars were hooting behind him. He went on. A bunch of flowers, he thought, held in the hand would soften the awkwardness of meeting and the usual things that had to be said. “How nice to see you — you’ve filled out,” and so on. He had only heard her voice on the telephone, and people changed after all these years. Whether this was the right street or not, he could not be sure; he filtered slowly round the corner. Then stopped; then went on again. This was Milton Street, a dusky street, with old houses, now let out as lodgings; but they had seen better days.
“The odds on that side; the evens on this,” he said. The street was blocked with vans. He hooted. He stopped. He hooted again. A man went to the horse’s head, for it was a coal-cart, and the horse slowly plodded on. Fifty-two was just along the row. He dribbled up to the door. He stopped.
A voice pealed out across the street, the voice of a woman singing scales.
“What a dirty,” he said, as he sat still in the car for a moment — here a woman crossed the street with a jug under her arm —“sordid,” he added, “low-down street to live in.” He cut off his engine; got out, and examined the names on the door. Names mounted one above another; here on a visiting-card, here engraved on brass — Foster; Abrahamson; Roberts; S. Pargiter was near the top, punched on a strip of aluminium. He rang one of the many bells. No one came. The woman went on singing scales, mounting slowly. The mood comes, the mood goes, he thought. He used to write poetry; now the mood had come again as he stood there waiting. He pressed the bell two or three times sharply. But no one answered. Then he gave the door a push; it was open. There was a curious smell in the hall; of vegetables cooking; and the oily brown paper made it dark. He went up the stairs of what had once been a gentleman’s residence. The banisters were carved; but they had been daubed over with some cheap yellow varnish. He mounted slowly and stood on the landing, uncertain which door to knock at. He was always finding himself now outside the doors of strange houses. He had a feeling that he was no one and nowhere in particular. From across the road came the voice of the singer deliberately ascending the scale, as if the notes were stairs; and here she stopped indolently, languidly, flinging out the voice that was nothing but pure sound. Then he heard somebody inside, laughing.
That’s her voice, he said. But there is somebody with her. He was annoyed. He had hoped to find her alone. The voice was speaking and did not answer when he knocked. Very cautiously he opened the door and went in.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sara was saying. She was kneeling at the telephone talking; but there was nobody there. She raised her hand when she saw him and smiled at him; but she kept her hand raised as if the noise he had made caused her to lose what she was trying to hear.
“What?” she said, speaking into the telephone. “What?” He stood silent, looking at the silhouettes of his grandparents on the mantelpiece. There were no flowers, he observed. He wished he had brought her some. He listened to what she was saying; he tried to piece it together.
“Yes, now I can hear. . . . Yes, you’re right. Someone has come in. . . . Who? North. My cousin from Africa. . . . ”
That’s me, North thought. “My cousin from Africa.” That’s my label.
“You’ve met him?” she was saying. There was a pause. “D’you think so?” she said. She turned and looked at him. They must be discussing him, he thought. He felt uncomfortable.
“Good-bye,” she said, and put down the telephone.
“He says he met you tonight,” she said, going up to him and taking his hand. “And liked you,” she added, smiling.
“Who was that?” he asked, feeling awkward; but he had no flowers to give her.
“A man you met at Eleanor’s,” she said.
“A foreigner?” he asked.
“Yes. Called Brown,” she said, pushing up a chair for him.
He sat down on the chair she had pushed out for him, and she curled up opposite with her foot under her. He remembered the attitude; she came back in sections; first the voice; then the attitude; but something remained unknown.
“You’ve not changed,” he said — the face he meant. A plain face scarcely changed; whereas beautiful faces wither. She looked neither young nor old; but shabby; and the room, with the pampas grass in a pot in the corner, was untidy. A lodging-house room tidied in a hurry he guessed.
“And you —” she said, looking at him. It was as if she were trying to put two different versions of him together; the one on the telephone perhaps and the one on the chair. Or was there some other? This half knowing people, this half being known, this feeling of the eye on the flesh, like a fly crawling — how uncomfortable it was, he thought; but inevitable, after all these years. The tables were littered; he hesitated, holding his hat in his hand. She smiled at him, as he sat there, holding his hat uncertainly.
“Who’s the young Frenchman,” she said, “with the top hat in the picture?”
“What picture?” he asked.
“The one who sits looking puzzled with his hat in his hand,” she said. He put his hat on the table, but awkwardly. A book fell to the floor.
“Sorry,” he said. She meant, presumably, when she compared him to the puzzled man in the picture, that he was clumsy; he always had been.
“This isn’t the room where I came last time?” he asked.
He recognised a chair — a chair with gilt claws; there was the usual piano.
“No — that was on the other side of the river,” she said, “when you came to say good-bye.”
He remembered. He had come to her the evening before he left for the war; and he had hung his cap on the bust of their grandfather — that had vanished. And she had mocked him.
“How many lumps of sugar does a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Rat-catchers require?” she had sneered. He could see her now dropping lumps of sugar into his tea. And they had quarrelled. And he had left her. It was the night of the raid, he remembered. He remembered the dark night; the searchlights that slowly swept over the sky; here and there they stopped to ponder a fleecy patch; little pellets of shot fell; and people scudded along the empty blue shrouded streets. He had been going to Kensington to dine with his family; he had said good-bye to his mother; he had never seen her again.
The voice of the singer interrupted. “Ah — h-h, oh-h-h, ah — h-h, oh — h-h,” she sang, languidly climbing up and down the scale on the other side of the street.
“Does she go on like that every night?” he asked. Sara nodded. The notes coming through the humming evening air sounded slow and sensuous. The singer seemed to have endless leisure; she could rest on every stair.
And there was no sign of dinner, he observed; only a dish of fruit on the cheap lodging-house tablecloth, already yellowed with some gravy stain.
“Why d’you always choose slums —” he was beginning, for children were screaming in the street below, when the door opened and a girl came in carrying a bunch of knives and forks. The regular lodging- house skivvy, North thought; with red hands, and one of those jaunty white caps that girls in lodging-houses clap on top of their hair when the lodger has a party. In her presence they had to make conversation. “I’ve been seeing Eleanor,” he said. “That was where I met your friend Brown.. ..”
The girl made a clatter laying the table with the knives and forks she held in a bunch.
“Oh, Eleanor,” said Sara. “Eleanor —” But she watched the girl going clumsily round the table; she breathed rather hard as she laid it.
“She’s just back from India,” he said. He too watched the girl laying the table. Now she stood a bottle of wine among the cheap lodging-house crockery.
“Gallivanting round the world,” Sara murmured.
“And entertaining the oddest set of old fogies,” he added. He thought of the little man with the fierce blue eyes who wished he had been in Africa; and the wispy woman with beads who visited prisons it seemed.
“ . . . and that man, your friend —” he began. Here the girl went out of the room, but she left the door open, a sign that she was about to come back.
“Nicholas,” said Sara, finishing his sentence. “The man you call Brown.”
There was a pause. “And what did you talk about?” she asked.
He tried to remember.
“Napoleon; the psychology of great men; if we don’t know ourselves how can we know other people . . . ” He stopped. It was difficult to remember accurately what had been said even one hour ago.
“And then,” she said, holding out one hand and touching a finger exactly as Brown had done, “— how can we make laws, religions, that fit, that fit, when we don’t know ourselves?”
“Yes! Yes!” he exclaimed. She had caught his manner exactly; the slight foreign accent; the repetition of the little word “fit”, as if he were not quite sure of the shorter words in English.
“And Eleanor,” Sara continued, “says . . . ‘Can we improve — can we improve ourselves?’ sitting on the edge of the sofa?”
“Of the bath,” he laughed, correcting her.
“You’ve had that talk before,” he said. That was precisely what he was feeling. They had talked before. “And then,” he continued, “we discussed. . . . ”
But here the girl burst in again. She had plates in her hand this time; blue-ringed plates, cheap lodging-house plates: “— society or solitude; which is best,” he finished his sentence.
Sara kept looking at the table. “And which,” she asked, in the distracted way of someone who with their surface senses watches what is being done, but at the same time thinks of something else “— which did you say? You who’ve been alone all these years,” she said. The girl left the room again. “— among your sheep, North.” She broke off; for now a trombone player had struck up in the street below, and as the voice of the woman practising her scales continued, they sounded like two people trying to express completely different views of the world in general at one and the same time. The voice ascended; the trombone wailed. They laughed.
“ . . . Sitting on the verandah,” she resumed, “looking at the stars.”
He looked up: was she quoting something? He remembered he had written to her when he first went out. “Yes, looking at the stars,” he said.
“Sitting on the verandah in the silence,” she added. A van went past the window. All sounds were for the moment obliterated.
“And then . . . ” she said as the van rattled away — she paused as if she were referring to something else that he had written.
“— then you saddled a horse,” she said, “and rode away!”
She jumped up, and for the first time he saw her face in the full light. There was a smudge on the side of her nose.
“D’you know,” he said, looking at her, “that you’ve a smudge on your face?”
She touched the wrong cheek.
“Not that side — the other,” he said.
She left the room without looking in the glass. From which we deduce the fact, he said to himself, as if he were writing a novel, that Miss Sara Pargiter has never attracted the love of men. Or had she? He did not know. These little snapshot pictures of people left much to be desired, these little surface pictures that one made, like a fly crawling over a face, and feeling, here’s the nose, here’s the brow.
He strolled to the window. The sun must be setting, for the brick of the house at the corner blushed a yellowish pink. One or two high windows were burnished gold. The girl was in the room, and she distracted him; also the noise of London still bothered him. Against the dull background of traffic noises, of wheels turning and brakes squeaking, there rose near at hand the cry of a woman suddenly alarmed for her child; the monotonous cry of a man selling vegetables; and far away a barrel organ was playing. It stopped; it began again. I used to write to her, he thought, late at night, when I felt lonely, when I was young. He looked at himself in the glass. He saw his sunburnt face with the broad cheek bones and the little brown eyes.
The girl had been sucked down into the lower portion of the house. The door stood open. Nothing seemed to be happening. He waited. He felt an outsider. After all these years, he thought, everyone was paired off; settled down; busy with their own affairs. You found them telephoning, remembering other conversations; they went out of the room; they left one alone. He took up a book and read a sentence.
“A shadow like an angel with bright hair . . . ”
Next moment she came in. But there seemed to be some hitch in the proceedings. The door was open; the table laid; but nothing happened. They stood together, waiting, with their backs to the fireplace.
“How strange it must be,” she resumed, “coming back after all these years — as if you’d dropped from the clouds in an aeroplane,” she pointed to the table as if that were the field in which he had landed.
“On to an unknown land,” said North. He leant forward and touched a knife on the table.
“— and finding people talking,” she added.
“— talking, talking,” he said, “about money and politics,” he added, giving the fender behind him a vicious little kick with his heel.
Here the girl came in. She wore an air of importance derived apparently from the dish she carried, for it was covered with a great metal cover. She raised the cover with a certain flourish. There was a leg of mutton underneath. “Let’s dine,” said Sara.
“I’m hungry,” he added.
They sat down and she took the carving-knife and made a long incision. A thin trickle of red juice ran out; it was underdone. She looked at it.
“Mutton oughtn’t to be like that,” she said. “Beef — but not mutton.”
They watched the red juice running down into the well of the dish.
“Shall we send it back,” she said, “or eat it as it is?”
“Eat it,” he said. “I’ve eaten far worse joints than this,” he added.
“In Africa . . . ” she said, lifting the lids of the vegetable dishes. There was a slabbed-down mass of cabbage in one oozing green water; in the other, yellow potatoes that looked hard.
“ . . . in Africa, in the wilds of Africa,” she resumed, helping him to cabbage, “in that farm you were on, where no one came for months at a time, and you sat on the verandah listening —”
“To sheep,” he said. He was cutting his mutton into strips. It was tough.
“And there was nothing to break the silence,” she went on, helping herself to potatoes, “but a tree falling, or a rock breaking from the side of a distant mountain —” She looked at him as if to verify the sentences that she was quoting from his letters.
“Yes,” he said. “It was very silent.”
“And hot,” she added. “Blazing hot at midday: an old tramp tapped on your door . . .?”
He nodded. He saw himself again, a young man, and very lonely.
“And then —” she began again. But a great lorry came crashing down the street. Something rattled on the table. The walls and the floor seemed to tremble. She parted two glasses that were jingling together. The lorry passed; they heard it rumbling away in the distance.
“And the birds,” she went on. “The nightingales, singing in the moonlight?”
He felt uncomfortable at the vision she called up. “I must have written you a lot of nonsense!” he exclaimed. “I wish you’d torn them up — those letters!”
“No! They were beautiful letters! Wonderful letters!” she exclaimed, raising her glass. A thimbleful of wine always made her tipsy, he remembered. Her eyes shone; her cheeks glowed.
“And then you had a day off,” she went on, “and jolted along a rough white road in a springless cart to the next town —”
“Sixty miles away,” he said.
“And went to a bar; and met a man from the next — ranch?” She hesitated as if the word might be the wrong one.
“Ranch, yes, ranch,” he confirmed her. “I went to the town and had a drink at the bar —”
“And then?” she said. He laughed. There were some things he had not told her. He was silent.
“Then you stopped writing,” she said. She put her glass down.
“When I forgot what you were like,” he said, looking at her.
“You gave up writing too,” he said.
“Yes, I too,” she said.
The trombone had moved his station and was wailing lugubriously under the window. The doleful sound, as if a dog had thrown back its head and were baying the moon, floated up to them. She waved her fork in time to it.
“Our hearts full of tears, our lips full of laughter, we passed on the stairs”— she dragged her words out to fit the wail of the trombone —“we passed on the stair-r-r-r-s”— but here the trombone changed its measure to a jig. “He to sorrow, I to bliss,” she jigged with it, “he to bliss and I to sorrow, we passed on the stair-r-r-s.”
She set her glass down.
“Another cut off the joint?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” he said, looking at the rather stringy disagreeable object which was still bleeding into the well. The willow-pattern plate was daubed with gory streaks. She stretched her hand out and rang the bell. She rang; she rang a second time. No one came.
“Your bells don’t ring,” he said.
“No,” she smiled. “The bells don’t ring, and the taps don’t run.” She thumped on the floor. They waited. No one came. The trombone wailed outside.
“But there was one letter you wrote me,” he continued as they waited. “An angry letter; a cruel letter.”
He looked at her. She had lifted her lip like a horse that is going to bite. That, too, he remembered.
“Yes?” she said.
“The night you came in from the Strand,” he reminded her.
Here the girl came in with the pudding. It was an ornate pudding, semi-transparent, pink, ornamented with blobs of cream.
“I remember,” said Sara, sticking her spoon into the quivering jelly, “a still autumn night; the lights lit; and people padding along the pavement with wreaths in their hands?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “That was it.”
“And I said to myself,” she paused, “this is Hell. We are the damned?” He nodded.
She helped him to pudding.
“And I,” he said, as he took his plate, “was among the damned.” He stuck his spoon into the quivering mass that she had given him.
“Coward; hypocrite, with your switch in your hand; and your cap on your head —” He seemed to quote from a letter that she had written him. He paused. She smiled at him.
“But what was the word — the word I used?” she asked, as if she were trying to remember.
“Poppycock!” he reminded her. She nodded.
“And then I went over the bridge,” she resumed, raising her spoon half-way to her mouth, “and stopped in one of those little alcoves, bays, what d’you call ’em? — scooped out over the water, and looked down —” She looked down at her plate.
“When you lived on the other side of the river,” he prompted her.
“Stood and looked down,” she said, looking at her glass which she held in front of her, “and thought; Running water, flowing water, water that crinkles up the lights; moonlight; starlight —” She drank and was silent.
“Then the car came,” he prompted her.
“Yes; the Rolls-Royce. It stopped in the lamplight and there they sat —”
“Two people,” he reminded her.
“Two people. Yes,” she said. “He was smoking a cigar. An upper- class Englishman with a big nose, in a dress suit. And she, sitting beside him, in a fur-trimmed cloak, took advantage of the pause under the lamplight to raise her hand”— she raised her hand — “and polish that spade, her mouth.”
She swallowed her mouthful.
“And the peroration?” he prompted her.
She shook her head.
They were silent. North had finished his pudding. He took out his cigarette-case. Save for a dish of rather fly-blown fruit, apples and bananas, there was no more to eat apparently.
“We were very foolish when we were young, Sal,” he said, as he lit his cigarette, “writing purple passages . . . ”
“At dawn with the sparrows chirping,” she said, pulling the plate of fruit towards her. She began peeling a banana, as if she were unsheathing some soft glove. He took an apple and peeled it. The curl of apple-skin lay on his plate, coiled up like a snake’s skin, he thought; and the banana-skin was like the finger of a glove that had been ripped open.
The street was now quiet. The woman had stopped singing. The trombone-player had moved off. The rush hour was over and nothing went down the street. He looked at her, biting little bits off her banana.
When she came to the fourth of June, he remembered, she wore her skirt the wrong way round. She was crooked in those days too; and they had laughed at her — he and Peggy. She had never married; he wondered why not. He swept up the broken coils of apple-peel on his plate.
“What does he do,” he said suddenly, “— that man who throws his hands out?”
“Like this?” she said. She threw her hands out.
“Yes,” he nodded. That was the man — one of those voluble foreigners with a theory about everything. Yet he had liked him — he gave off an aroma; a whirr; his flexible supple face worked amusingly; he had a round forehead; good eyes; and was bald.
“What does he do?” he repeated.
“Talks,” she replied, “about the soul.” She smiled. Again he felt an outsider; so many talks there must have been between them; such intimacy.
“About the soul,” she continued, taking a cigarette. “Lectures,” she added, lighting it. “Ten and six for a seat in the front row,” she puffed her smoke out. “There’s standing room at half a crown; but then,” she puffed, “you don’t hear so well. You only catch half the lesson of the Teacher, the Master,” she laughed.
She was sneering at him now; she conveyed the impression that he was a charlatan. Yet Peggy had said that they were very intimate — she and this foreigner. The vision of the man at Eleanor’s changed slightly like an air ball blown aside.
“I thought he was a friend of yours,” he said aloud.
“Nicholas?” she exclaimed. “I love him!”
Her eyes certainly glowed. They fixed themselves upon a salt cellar with a look of rapture that made North feel once more puzzled.
“You love him . . . ” he began. But here the telephone rang.
“There he is!” she exclaimed. “That’s him! That’s Nicholas!”
She spoke with extreme irritation.
The telephone rang again. “I’m not here!” she said. The telephone rang again. “Not here! Not here! Not here!” she repeated in time to the bell. She made no attempt to answer it. He could stand the stab of her voice and the bell no longer. He went over to the telephone. There was a pause as he stood with the receiver in his hand.
“Tell him I’m not here!” she said.
“Hullo,” he said, answering the telephone. But there was a pause. He looked at her sitting on the edge of her chair, swinging her foot up and down. Then a voice spoke.
“I’m North,” he answered the telephone. “I’m dining with Sara. . . . Yes, I’ll tell her. . . . ” He looked at her again. “She is sitting on the edge of her chair,” he said, “with a smudge on her face, swinging her foot up and down.”
Eleanor stood holding the telephone. She smiled, and for a moment after she had put the receiver back stood there, still smiling, before she turned to her niece Peggy who had been dining with her.
“North is dining with Sara,” she said, smiling at the little telephone picture of two people at the other end of London, one of whom was sitting on the edge of her chair with a smudge on her face.
“He’s dining with Sara,” she said again. But her niece did not smile, for she had not seen the picture, and she was slightly irritated because, in the middle of what they were saying, Eleanor suddenly got up and said, “I’ll just remind Sara.”
“Oh, is he?” she said casually.
Eleanor came and sat down.
“We were saying —” she began.
“You’ve had it cleaned,” said Peggy simultaneously. While Eleanor telephoned, she had been looking at the picture of her grandmother over the writing-table.
“Yes,” Eleanor glanced back over her shoulder. “Yes. And do you see there’s a flower fallen on the grass?” she said. She turned and looked at the picture. The face, the dress, the basket of flowers all shone softly melting into each other, as if the paint were one smooth coat of enamel. There was a flower — a little sprig of blue — lying in the grass.
“It was hidden by the dirt,” said Eleanor. “But I can just remember it, when I was a child. That reminds me, if you want a good man to clean pictures —”
“But was it like her?” Peggy interrupted.
Somebody had told her that she was like her grandmother: and she did not want to be like her. She wanted to be dark and aquiline: but in fact she was blue-eyed and round-faced — like her grandmother.
“I’ve got the address somewhere,” Eleanor went on.
“Don’t bother — don’t bother,” said Peggy, irritated by her aunt’s habit of adding unnecessary details. It was age coming on, she supposed: age that loosened screws and made the whole apparatus of the mind rattle and jingle.
“Was it like her?” she asked again.
“Not as I remember her,” said Eleanor, glancing once more at the picture. “When I was a child perhaps — no, I don’t think even as a child. What’s so interesting,” she continued, “is that what they thought ugly — red hair for instance — we think pretty; so that I often ask myself,” she paused, puffing at her cheroot, “‘What is pretty?’”
“Yes,” said Peggy. “That’s what we were saying.”
For when Eleanor suddenly took it into her head that she must remind Sara of the party, they had been talking about Eleanor’s childhood — how things had changed; one thing seemed good to one generation, another to another. She liked getting Eleanor to talk about her past; it seemed to her so peaceful and so safe.
“Is there any standard, d’you think?” she said, wishing to bring her back to what they were saying.
“I wonder,” said Eleanor absentmindedly. She was thinking of something else.
“How annoying!” she exclaimed suddenly. “I had it on the tip of my tongue — something I want to ask you. Then I thought of Delia’s party: then North made me laugh — Sally sitting on the edge of her chair with a smudge on her nose; and that’s put it out of my head.” She shook her head.
“D’you know the feeling when one’s been on the point of saying something, and been interrupted; how it seems to stick here,” she tapped her forehead, “so that it stops everything else? Not that it was anything of importance,” she added. She wandered about the room for a moment. “No, I give it up; I give it up,” she said, shaking her head.
“I shall go and get ready now, if you’ll call a cab.”
She went into the bedroom. Soon there was the sound of running water.
Peggy lit another cigarette. If Eleanor were going to wash, as seemed likely from the sounds in the bedroom, there was no need to hurry about the cab. She glanced at the letters on the mantelpiece. An address stuck out on the top of one of them —“Mon Repos, Wimbledon.” One of Eleanor’s dentists, Peggy thought to herself. The man she went botanising with on Wimbledon Common perhaps. A charming man. Eleanor had described him. “He says every tooth is quite unlike every other tooth. And he knows all about plants. . . . ” It was difficult to get her to stick to her childhood.
She crossed to the telephone; she gave the number. There was a pause. As she waited she looked at her hands holding the telephone. Efficient, shell-like, polished but not painted, they’re a compromise, she thought, looking at her finger-nails, between science and . . . But here a voice said “Number, please,” and she gave it.
Again she waited. As she sat where Eleanor had sat she saw the telephone picture that Eleanor had seen — Sally sitting on the edge of her chair with a smudge on her face. What a fool, she thought bitterly, and a thrill ran down her thigh. Why was she bitter? For she prided herself upon being honest — she was a doctor — and that thrill she knew meant bitterness. Did she envy her because she was happy, or was it the croak of some ancestral prudery — did she disapprove of these friendships with men who did not love women? She looked at the picture of her grandmother as if to ask her opinion. But she had assumed the immunity of a work of art; she seemed as she sat there, smiling at her roses, to be indifferent to our right and wrong.
“Hullo,” said a gruff voice, which suggested sawdust and a shelter, and she gave the address and put down the telephone just as Eleanor came in — she was wearing a red-gold Arab cloak with a silver veil over her hair.
“One of these days d’you think you’ll be able to see things at the end of the telephone?” Peggy said, getting up. Eleanor’s hair was her beauty, she thought; and her silver-washed dark eyes — a fine old prophetess, a queer old bird, venerable and funny at one and the same time. She was burnt from her travels so that her hair looked whiter than ever.
“What’s that?” said Eleanor, for she had not caught her remark about the telephone. Peggy did not repeat it. They stood at the window waiting for the cab. They stood there side by side, silent, looking out, because there was a pause to fill up, and the view from the window, which was so high over the roofs, over the squares and angles of back gardens to the blue line of hills in the distance served, like another voice speaking, to fill up the pause. The sun was setting; one cloud lay curled like a red feather in the blue. She looked down. It was queer to see cabs turning corners, going round this street and down the other, and not to hear the sound they made. It was like a map of London; a section laid beneath them. The summer day was fading; lights were being lit, primrose lights, still separate, for the glow of the sunset was still in the air. Eleanor pointed at the sky.
“That’s where I saw my first aeroplane — there between those chimneys,” she said. There were high chimneys, factory chimneys, in the distance; and a great building — Westminster Cathedral was it? — over there riding above the roofs.
“I was standing here, looking out,” Eleanor went on. “It must have been just after I’d got into the flat, a summer’s day, and I saw a black spot in the sky, and I said to whoever it was — Miriam Parrish, I think, yes, for she came to help me to get into the flat — I hope Delia, by the way, remembered to ask her —” . . . that’s old age, Peggy noted, bringing in one thing after another.
“You said to Miriam —” she prompted her.
“I said to Miriam, ‘Is it a bird? No, I don’t think it can be a bird. It’s too big. Yet it moves.’ And suddenly it came over me, that’s an aeroplane! And it was! You know they’d flown the Channel not so very long before. I was staying with you in Dorset at the time: and I remember reading it out in the paper, and someone — your father, I think — said: ‘The world will never be the same again!”
“Oh, well —” Peggy laughed. She was about to say that aeroplanes hadn’t made all that difference, for it was her line to disabuse her elders of their belief in science, partly because their credulity amused her, partly because she was daily impressed by the ignorance of doctors — when Eleanor sighed.
“Oh dear,” she murmured.
She turned away from the window.
Old age again, Peggy thought. Some gust blew open a door: one of the many millions in Eleanor’s seventy-odd years; out came a painful thought; which she at once concealed — she had gone to her writing-table and was fidgeting with papers — with the humble generosity, the painful humility of the old.
“What, Nell —?” Peggy began.
“Nothing, nothing,” said Eleanor. She had seen the sky; and that sky was laid with pictures — she had seen it so often; any one of which might come uppermost when she looked at it. Now, because she had been talking to North, it brought back the war; how she had stood there one night, watching the searchlights. She had come home, after a raid; she had been dining in Westminster with Renny and Maggie. They had sat in a cellar; and Nicholas — it was the first time she had met him — had said that the war was of no importance. “We are children playing with fireworks in the back garden” . . . she remembered his phrase; and how, sitting round a wooden packing-case, they had drunk to a new world. “A new world — a new world!” Sally had cried, drumming with her spoon on top of the packing-case. She turned to her writing-table, tore up a letter and threw it away.
“Yes,” she said, fumbling among her papers, looking for something. “Yes — I don’t know about aeroplanes, I’ve never been up in one; but motor cars — I could do without motor cars. I was almost knocked down by one, did I tell you? In the Brompton Road. All my own fault — I wasn’t looking. . . . And wireless — that’s a nuisance — the people downstairs turn it on after breakfast; but on the other hand — hot water; electric light; and those new —” She paused. “Ah, there it is!” she exclaimed. She pounced upon some paper that she had been hunting for. “If Edward’s there tonight, do remind me — I’ll tie a knot in my handkerchief. . . . ”
She opened her bag, took out a silk handkerchief, and proceeded solemnly to tie it into a knot . . . “to ask him about Runcorn’s boy.”
The bell rang.
“The taxi,” she said.
She glanced about to make sure that she had forgotten nothing. She stopped suddenly. Her eye had been caught by the evening paper, which lay on the floor with its broad bar of print and its blurred photograph. She picked it up.
“What a face!” she exclaimed, flattening it out on the table.
As far as Peggy could see, but she was short-sighted, it was the usual evening paper’s blurred picture of a fat man gesticulating.
“Damned —” Eleanor shot out suddenly, “bully!” She tore the paper across with one sweep of her hand and flung it on the floor. Peggy was shocked. A little shiver ran over her skin as the paper tore. The word “damned” on her aunt’s lips had shocked her.
Next moment she was amused; but still she had been shocked. For when Eleanor, who used English so reticently, said “damned” and then “bully,” it meant much more than the words she and her friends used. And her gesture, tearing the paper. .. What a queer set they are, she thought, as she followed Eleanor down the stairs. Her red-gold cloak trailed from step to step. So she had seen her father crumple The Times and sit trembling with rage because somebody had said something in a newspaper. How odd!
And the way she tore it! she thought, half laughing, and she flung out her hand as Eleanor had flung hers. Eleanor’s figure still seemed erect with indignation. It would be simple, she thought, it would be satisfactory, she thought, following her down flight after flight of stone steps, to be like that. The little knob on her cloak tapped on the stairs. They descended rather slowly.
“Take my aunt,” she said to herself, beginning to arrange the scene into an argument she had been having with a man at the hospital, “take my aunt, living alone in a sort of workman’s flat at the top of six flights of stairs . . . ” Eleanor stopped.
“Don’t tell me,” she said, “that I left the letter upstairs — Runcorn’s letter that I want to show Edward, about the boy?” She opened her bag. “No: here it is.” There it was in her bag. They went on downstairs.
Eleanor gave the address to the cabman and sat down with a jerk in her corner. Peggy glanced at her out of the corner of her eye.
It was the force that she had put into the words that impressed her, not the words. It was as if she still believed with passion — she, old Eleanor — in the things that man had destroyed. A wonderful generation, she thought, as they drove off. Believers . . .
“You see,” Eleanor interrupted, as if she wanted to explain her words, “it means the end of everything we cared for.”
“Freedom?” said Peggy perfunctorily.
“Yes,” said Eleanor. “Freedom and justice.”
The cab drove off down the mild respectable little streets where every house had its bow window, its strip of garden, its private name. As they drove on, into the big main street, the scene in the flat composed itself in Peggy’s mind as she would tell it to the man in the hospital. “Suddenly she lost her temper,” she said, “took the paper and tore it across — my aunt, who’s over seventy.” She glanced at Eleanor to verify the details. Her aunt interrupted her.
“That’s where we used to live,” she said. She waved her hand towards a long lamp-starred street on the left. Peggy, looking out, could just see the imposing unbroken avenue with its succession of pale pillars and steps. The repeated columns, the orderly architecture, had even a pale pompous beauty as one stucco column repeated another stucco column all down the street.
“Abercorn Terrace,” said Eleanor; “ . . . the pillar-box,” she murmured as they drove past. Why the pillar-box? Peggy asked herself. Another door had been opened. Old age must have endless avenues, stretching away and away down its darkness, she supposed, and now one door opened and then another.
“Aren’t people —” Eleanor began. Then she stopped. As usual, she had begun in the wrong place.
“Yes?” said Peggy. She was irritated by this inconsequence.
“I was going to say — the pillar-box made me think,” Eleanor began; then she laughed. She gave up the attempt to account for the order in which her thoughts came to her. There was an order, doubtless; but it took so long to find it, and this rambling, she knew, annoyed Peggy, for young people’s minds worked so quickly.
“That’s where we used to dine,” she broke off, nodding at a big house at the corner of a square. “Your father and I. The man he used to read with. What was his name? He became a Judge. . . . We used to dine there, the three of us. Morris, my father and I. . . . They had very large parties in those days. Always legal people. And he collected old oak. Mostly shams,” she added with a little chuckle.
“You used to dine . . . ” Peggy began. She wished to get her back to her past. It was so interesting; so safe; so unreal — that past of the ‘eighties; and to her, so beautiful in its unreality.
“Tell me about your youth . . . ” she began.
“But your lives are much more interesting than ours were,” said Eleanor. Peggy was silent.
They were driving along a bright crowded street; here stained ruby with the light from picture palaces; here yellow from shop windows gay with summer dresses, for the shops, though shut, were still lit up, and people were still looking at dresses, at flights of hats on little rods, at jewels.
When my Aunt Delia comes to town, Peggy continued the story of Eleanor that she was telling her friend at the hospital, she says, We must have a party. Then they all flock together. They love it. As for herself, she hated it. She would far rather have stayed at home or gone to the pictures. It’s the sense of the family, she added, glancing at Eleanor as if to collect another little fact about her to add to her portrait of a Victorian spinster. Eleanor was looking out of the window. Then she turned.
“And the experiment with the guinea-pig — how did that go off?” she asked. Peggy was puzzled.
Then she remembered and told her.
“I see. So it proved nothing. So you’ve got to begin all over again. That’s very interesting. Now I wish you’d explain to me . . . ” There was another problem that puzzled her.
The things she wants explained, Peggy said to her friend at the Hospital, are either as simple as two and two make four, or so difficult that nobody in the world knows the answer. And if you say to her, “What’s eight times eight?”— she smiled at the profile of her aunt against the window — she taps her forehead and says . . . but again Eleanor interrupted her.
“It’s so good of you to come,” she said, giving her a little pat on the knee. (But did I show her, Peggy thought, that I hate coming?)
“It’s a way of seeing people,” Eleanor continued. “And now that we’re all getting on — not you, us — one doesn’t like to miss chances.”
They drove on. And how does one get that right? Peggy thought, trying to add another touch to the portrait. “Sentimental” was it? Or, on the contrary, was it good to feel like that . . . natural . . . right? She shook her head. I’m no use at describing people, she said to her friend at the Hospital. They’re too difficult. . . . She’s not like that — not like that at all, she said, making a little dash with her hand as if to rub out an outline that she had drawn wrongly. As she did so, her friend at the Hospital vanished.
She was alone with Eleanor in the cab. And they were passing houses. Where does she begin, and where do I end? she thought. . . . On they drove. They were two living people, driving across London; two sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies; and those sparks of life enclosed in two separate bodies are at this moment, she thought, driving past a picture palace. But what is this moment; and what are we? The puzzle was too difficult for her to solve it. She sighed.
“You’re too young to feel that,” said Eleanor.
“What?” Peggy asked with a little start.
“About meeting people. About not missing chances of seeing them.”
“Young?” said Peggy. “I shall never be as young as you are!” She patted her Aunt’s knee in her turn. “Gallivanting off to India . . . ” she laughed.
“Oh, India. India’s nothing nowadays,” said Eleanor. “Travel’s so easy. You just take a ticket; just get on board ship.. .. But what I want to see before I die,” she continued, “is something different. . . . ” She waved her hand out of the window. They were passing public buildings; offices of some sort. “ . . . another kind of civilisation. Tibet, for instance. I was reading a book by a man called — now what was he called?”
She paused, distracted by the sights in the street. “Don’t people wear pretty clothes nowadays?” she said, pointing to a girl with fair hair and a young man in evening dress.
“Yes,” said Peggy perfunctorily, looking at the painted face and the bright shawl; at the white waistcoat and the smoothed back hair. Anything distracts Eleanor, everything interests her, she thought.
“Was it that you were suppressed when you were young?” she said aloud, recalling vaguely some childish memory; her grandfather with the shiny stumps instead of fingers; and a long dark drawing-room. Eleanor turned. She was surprised.
“Suppressed?” she repeated. She so seldom thought about herself now that she was surprised.
“Oh, I see what you mean,” she added after a moment. A picture — another picture — had swum to the surface. There was Delia standing in the middle of the room; Oh my God! Oh my God! she was saying; a hansom cab had stopped at the house next door; and she herself was watching Morris — was it Morris? — going down the street to post a letter. . . . She was silent. I do not want to go back into my past, she was thinking. I want the present.
“Where’s he taking us?” she said, looking out. They had reached the public part of London; the illuminated. The light fell on broad pavements; on white brilliantly lit-up public offices; on a pallid, hoary-looking church. Advertisements popped in and out. Here was a bottle of beer: it poured: then stopped: then poured again. They had reached the theatre quarter. There was the usual garish confusion. Men and women in evening dress were walking in the middle of the road. Cabs were wheeling and stopping. Their own taxi was held up. It stopped dead under a statue: the lights shone on its cadaverous pallor.
“Always reminds me of an advertisement of sanitary towels,” said Peggy, glancing at the figure of a woman in nurse’s uniform holding out her hand.
Eleanor was shocked for a moment. A knife seemed to slice her skin, leaving a ripple of unpleasant sensation; but what was solid in her body it did not touch, she realised after a moment. That she said because of Charles, she thought, feeling the bitterness in her tone — her brother, a nice dull boy who had been killed.
“The only fine thing that was said in the war,” she said aloud, reading the words cut on the pedestal.
“It didn’t come to much,” said Peggy sharply.
The cab remained fixed in the block.
The pause seemed to hold them in the light of some thought that they both wished to put away.
“Don’t people wear pretty clothes nowadays?” said Eleanor, pointing to another girl with fair hair in a long bright cloak and another young man in evening dress.
“Yes,” said Peggy briefly.
But why don’t you enjoy yourself more? Eleanor said to herself. Her brother’s death had been very sad, but she had always found North much the more interesting of the two. The cab threaded its way through the traffic and passed into a back street. He was stopped now by a red light. “It’s nice, having North back again,” Eleanor said.
“Yes,” said Peggy. “He says we talk of nothing but money and politics,” she added. She finds fault with him because he was not the one to be killed; but that’s wrong, Eleanor thought.
“Does he?” she said. “But then . . . ” A newspaper placard, with large black letters, seemed to finish her sentence for her. They were approaching the square in which Delia lived. She began to fumble with her purse. She looked at the metre which had mounted rather high. The man was going the long way round.
“He’ll find his way in time,” she said. They were gliding slowly round the square. She waited patiently, holding her purse in her hand. She saw a breadth of dark sky over the roofs. The sun had sunk. For a moment the sky had the quiet look of the sky that lies above fields and woods in the country.
“He’ll have to turn, that’s all,” she said. “I’m not despondent,” she added, as the taxi turned. “Travelling, you see: when one has to mix up with all sorts of other people on board ship, or in one of those little places where one has to stay — off the beaten track —” The taxi was sliding tentatively past house after house —“You ought to go there, Peggy,” she broke off; “you ought to travel: the natives are so beautiful you know; half naked: going down to the river in the moonlight; — that’s the house over there —” She tapped on the window — the taxi slowed down. “What was I saying? I’m not despondent, no, because people are so kind, so good at heart. . . . So that if only ordinary people, ordinary people like ourselves.. .”
The cab drew up at a house whose windows were lit up. Peggy leant forward and opened the door. She jumped out and paid the driver. Eleanor bundled out after her. “No, no, no, Peggy,” she began.
“It’s my cab. It’s my cab,” Peggy protested.
“But I insist on paying my share,” said Eleanor, opening her purse.
“That’s Eleanor,” said North. He left the telephone and turned to Sara. She was still swinging her foot up and down.
“She told me to tell you to come to Delia’s party,” he said.
“To Delia’s party? Why to Delia’s party?” she asked.
“Because they’re old and want you to come,” he said, standing over her.
“Old Eleanor; wandering Eleanor; Eleanor with the wild eyes . . . ” she mused. “Shall I, shan’t I, shall I, shan’t I?” she hummed, looking up at him. “No,” she said, putting her feet to the ground, “I shan’t.”
“You must,” he said. For her manner irritated him — Eleanor’s voice was still in his ears.
“I must, must I?” she said, making the coffee.
“Then,” she said, giving him his cup and picking up the book at the same time, “read until we must go.”
She curled herself up again, holding her cup in her hand.
It was still early, it was true. But why, he thought as he opened the book again and turned over the pages, won’t she come? Is she afraid? he wondered. He looked at her crumpled in her chair. Her dress was shabby. He looked at the book again, but he could hardly see to read. She had not lit the lamp.
“I can’t see to read without a light,” he said. It grew dark soon in this street; the houses were so close. Now a car passed and a light slid across the ceiling.
“Shall I turn on the light?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I’ll try to remember something.” He began to say aloud the only poem he knew by heart. As he spoke the words out into the semi-darkness they sounded extremely beautiful, he thought, because they could not see each other, perhaps.
He paused at the end of the verse.
“Go on,” she said.
He began again. The words going out into the room seemed like actual presences, hard and independent; yet as she was listening they were changed by their contact with her. But as he reached the end of the second verse —
Society is all but rude —
To this delicious solitude . . .
he heard a sound. Was it in the poem or outside of it, he wondered? Inside, he thought, and was about to go on, when she raised her hand. He stopped. He heard heavy footsteps outside the door. Was someone coming in? Her eyes were on the door.
“The Jew,” she murmured.
“The Jew?” he said. They listened. He could hear quite distinctly now. Somebody was turning on taps; somebody was having a bath in the room opposite.
“The Jew having a bath,” she said.
“The Jew having a bath?” he repeated.
“And tomorrow there’ll be a line of grease round the bath,” she said.
“Damn the Jew!” he exclaimed. The thought of a line of grease from a strange man’s body on the bath next door disgusted him.
“Go on —” said Sara: “Society is all but rude,” she repeated the last lines, “to this delicious solitude.”
“No,” he said.
They listened to the water running. The man was coughing and clearing his throat as he sponged.
“Who is this Jew?” he asked.
“Abrahamson, in the tallow trade,” she said.
“Engaged to a pretty girl in a tailor’s shop,” she added.
They could hear the sounds through the thin walls very distinctly.
He was snorting as he sponged himself.
“But he leaves hairs in the bath,” she concluded.
North felt a shiver run through him. Hairs in food, hairs on basins, other people’s hairs made him feel physically sick.
“D’you share a bath with him?” he asked.
He made a noise like “Pah!”
“‘Pah.’ That’s what I said,” she laughed. “‘Pah!’— when I went into the bathroom on a cold winter’s morning —‘Pah!’— she threw her hand out —”‘Pah!’” She paused.
“And then —?” he asked.
“And then,” she said, sipping her coffee, “I came back into the sitting-room. And breakfast was waiting. Fried eggs and a bit of toast. Lydia with her blouse torn and her hair down. The unemployed singing hymns under the window. And I said to myself —” she flung her hand out, “‘Polluted city, unbelieving city, city of dead fish and worn-out frying-pans’— thinking of a river’s bank, when the tide’s out,” she explained.
“Go on,” he nodded.
“So I put on my hat and coat and rushed out in a rage,” she continued, “and stood on the bridge, and said, ‘Am I a weed, carried this way, that way, on a tide that comes twice a day without a meaning?’”
“Yes?” he prompted her.
“And there were people passing; the strutting; the tiptoeing; the pasty; the ferret-eyed; the bowler-hatted, servile innumerable army of workers. And I said, ‘Must I join your conspiracy? Stain the hand, the unstained hand,’”— he could see her hand gleam as she waved it in the half-light of the sitting-room, “’— and sign on, and serve a master; all because of a Jew in my bath, all because of a Jew?’”
She sat up and laughed, excited by the sound of her own voice which had run in to a jog-trot rhythm.
“Go on, go on,” he said.
“But I had a talisman, a glowing gem, a lucent emerald”— she picked up an envelope that lay on the floor —“a letter of introduction. And I said to the flunkey in peach-blossom trousers, ‘Admit me, sirrah,’ and he led me along corridors piled with purple till I came to a door, a mahogany door, and knocked; and a voice said, ‘Enter.’ And what did I find?” She paused. “A stout man with red cheeks. On his table three orchids in a vase. Pressed into your hand, I thought, as the car crunches the gravel by your wife at parting. And over the fireplace the usual picture —”
“Stop!” North interrupted her. “You have come to an office,” he tapped the table. “You are presenting a letter of introduction — but to whom?”
“Oh, to whom?” she laughed. “To a man in sponge-bag trousers. ‘I knew your father at Oxford,’ he said, toying with the blotting- paper, ornamented in one corner with a cartwheel. But what do you find insoluble, I asked him, looking at the mahogany man, the clean-shaven, rosy-gilled, mutton-fed man —”
“The man in a newspaper office,” North checked her, “who knew your father. And then?”
“There was a humming and a grinding. The great machines went round; and little boys popped in with elongated sheets; black sheets; smudged; damp with printer’s ink. ‘Pardon me a moment,’ he said, and made a note in the margin. But the Jew’s in my bath, I said — the Jew . . . the Jew —” She stopped suddenly and emptied her glass.
Yes, he thought, there’s the voice; there’s the attitude; and the reflection in other people’s faces; but then there’s something true — in the silence perhaps. But it was not silent. They could hear the Jew thudding in the bathroom; he seemed to stagger from foot to foot as he dried himself. Now he unlocked the door, and they heard him go upstairs. The pipes began to give forth hollow gurgling sounds.
“How much of that was true?” he asked her. But she had lapsed into silence. The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole.
The house was quiet now, save for the sound of the bath water running away. A watery pattern fluctuated on the ceiling. The street lamps jiggering up and down outside made the houses opposite a curious pale red. The uproar of the day had died away; no carts were rattling down the street. The vegetable-sellers, the organ- grinders, the woman practising her scales, the man playing the trombone, had all trundled away their barrows, pulled down their shutters, and closed the lids of their pianos. It was so still that for a moment North thought he was in Africa, sitting on the verandah in the moonlight; but he roused himself. “What about this party?” he said. He got up and threw away his cigarette. He stretched himself and looked at his watch. “It’s time to go,” he said. “Go and get ready,” he urged her. For if one went to a party, he thought, it was absurd to go just as people were leaving. And the party must have begun.
“What were you saying — what were you saying, Nell?” said Peggy, in order to distract Eleanor from paying her share of the cab, as they stood on the doorstep. “Ordinary people — ordinary people ought to do what?” she asked.
Eleanor was still fumbling with her purse and did not answer.
“No, I can’t allow that,” she said. “Here, take this —”
But Peggy brushed aside the hand, and the coins rolled on the doorstep. They both stooped simultaneously and their heads collided.
“Don’t bother,” said Eleanor as a coin rolled away. “It was all my fault.” The maid was holding the door open.
“And where do we take our cloaks off?” she said. “In here?”
They went into a room on the ground floor which, though an office, had been arranged so that it could be used as a cloak-room. There was a looking-glass on the table: and in front of it trays of pins and combs and brushes. She went up to the glass and gave herself one brief glance.
“What a gipsy I look!” she said, and ran a comb through her hair. “Burnt as brown as a nigger!” Then she gave way to Peggy and waited.
“I wonder if this was the room . . . ” she said.
“What room?” said Peggy abstractedly: she was attending to her face.
“ . . . where we used to meet,” said Eleanor. She looked about her. It was still used as an office apparently; but now there were house-agents’ placards on the wall.
“I wonder if Kitty’ll come tonight,” she mused.
Peggy was gazing into the glass and did not answer.
“She doesn’t often come to town now. Only for weddings and christenings and so on,” Eleanor continued.
Peggy was drawing a line with a tube of some sort round her lips.
“Suddenly you meet a young man six-foot-two and you realise this is the baby,” Eleanor went on.
Peggy was still absorbed in her face.
“D’you have to do that fresh every time?” said Eleanor.
“I should look a fright if I didn’t,” said Peggy. The tightness round her lips and eyes seemed to her visible. She had never felt less in the mood for a party.
“Oh, how kind of you . . . ” Eleanor broke off. The maid had brought in a sixpence.
“Now, Peggy,” said she, proffering the coin, “let me pay my share.”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Peggy, brushing away her hand.
“But it was my cab,” Eleanor insisted. Peggy walked on. “Because I hate going to parties,” Eleanor continued, following her, still holding out the coin, “on the cheap. You don’t remember your grandfather? He always said, ‘Don’t spoil a good ship for a ha’porth of tar.’ If you went shopping with him,” she went on as they began mounting the stairs, “‘Show me the very best thing you’ve got,’ he’d say.”
“I remember him,” said Peggy.
“Do you?” said Eleanor. She was pleased that anyone should remember her father. “They’ve lent these rooms, I suppose,” she added as they walked upstairs. Doors were open. “That’s a solicitor’s,” she said, looking at some deed-boxes with white names painted on them.
“Yes, I see what you mean about painting — making-up,” she continued, glancing at her niece. “You do look nice. You look lit-up. I like it on young people. Not for myself. I should feel bedizened — bedizzened? — how d’you pronounce it? And what am I to do with these coppers if you won’t take them? I ought to have left them in my bag downstairs.” They mounted higher and higher. “I suppose they’ve opened all these rooms,” she continued — they had now reached a strip of red carpet —“so that if Delia’s little room gets too full — but of course the party’s hardly begun yet. We’re early. Everybody’s upstairs. I hear them talking. Come along. Shall I go first?”
A babble of voices sounded behind a door. A maid intercepted them.
“Miss Pargiter,” said Eleanor.
“Miss Pargiter!” the maid called out, opening the door.
“Go and get ready,” said North. He crossed the room and fumbled with the switch.
He touched the switch, and the electric light in the middle of the room came on. The shade had been taken off, and a cone of greenish paper had been twisted round it.
“Go and get ready,” he repeated. Sara did not answer. She had pulled a book towards her and pretended to read it.
“He’s killed the king,” she said. “So what’ll he do next?” She held her finger between the pages of the book and looked up at him; a device, he knew, to put off the moment of action. He did not want to go either. Still, if Eleanor wanted them to go — he hesitated, looking at his watch.
“What’ll he do next?” she repeated.
“Comedy,” he said briefly, “Contrast,” he said, remembering something he had read. “The only form of continuity,” he added at a venture.
“Well, go on reading,” she said, handing him the book.
He opened it at random.
“The scene is a rocky island in the middle of the sea,” he said. He paused.
Always before reading he had to arrange the scene; to let this sink; that come forward. A rocky island in the middle of the sea, he said to himself — there were green pools, tufts of silver grass, sand, and far away the soft sigh of waves breaking. He opened his mouth to read. Then there was a sound behind him; a presence — in the play or in the room? He looked up.
“Maggie!” Sara exclaimed. There she was standing at the open door in evening dress.
“Were you asleep?” she said, coming into the room. “We’ve been ringing and ringing.”
She stood smiling at them, amused, as if she had wakened sleepers.
“Why d’you trouble to have a bell when it’s always broken?” said a man who stood behind her.
North rose. At first he scarcely remembered them. The surface sight was strange on top of his memory of them, as he had seen them years ago.
“The bells don’t ring, and the taps don’t run,” he said, awkwardly. “Or they don’t stop running,” he added, for the bath water was still gurgling in the pipes.
“Luckily the door was open,” said Maggie. She stood at the table looking at the broken apple peel and the dish of fly-blown fruit. Some beauty, North thought, withers; some, he looked at her, grows more beautiful with age. Her hair was grey; her children must be grown up now, he supposed. But why do women purse their lips up when they look in the glass? he wondered. She was looking in the glass. She was pursing her lips. Then she crossed the room, and sat down in the chair by the fireplace.
“And why has Renny been crying?” said Sara. North looked at him. There were wet marks on either side of his large nose.
“Because we’ve been to a very bad play,” he said, “and should like something to drink,” he added.
Sara went to the cupboard and began clinking glasses. “Were you reading?” said Renny, looking at the book which had fallen on the floor.
“We were on a rocky island in the middle of the sea,” said Sara, putting the glasses on the table. Renny began to pour out whisky.
Now I remember him, North thought. Last time they had met was before he went to the war. It was in a little house in Westminster. They had sat in front of the fire. And a child had played with a spotted horse. And he had envied them their happiness. And they had talked about science. And Renny had said, “I help them to make shells,” and a mask had come down over his face. A man who made shells; a man who loved peace; a man of science; a man who cried. . . .
“Stop!” cried Renny. “Stop!” Sara had spurted the soda water over the table.
“When did you get back?” Renny asked him, taking his glass and looking at him with eyes still wet with tears.
“About a week ago,” he said.
“You’ve sold your farm?” said Renny. He sat down with his glass in his hand.
“Yes, sold it,” said North. “Whether I shall stay, or go back,” he said, taking his glass and raising it to his lips, “I don’t know.”
“Where was your farm?” said Renny, bending towards him. And they talked about Africa.
Maggie looked at them drinking and talking. The twisted cone of paper over the electric light was oddly stained. The mottled light made their faces look greenish. The two grooves on each side of Renny’s nose were still wet. His face was all peaks and hollows; North’s face was round and snub-nosed and rather blueish about the lips. She gave her chair a little push so that she got the two heads in relation side by side. They were very different. And as they talked about Africa their faces changed, as if some twitch had been given to the fine network under the skin and the weights fell into different sockets. A thrill ran through her as if the weights in her own body had changed too. But there was something about the light that puzzled her. She looked round. A lamp must be flaring in the street outside. Its light, flickering up and down, mixed with the electric light under the greenish cone of mottled paper. It was that which. . . . She started; a voice had reached her.
“To Africa?” she said, looking at North.
“To Delia’s party,” he said. “I asked if you were coming. . . . ” She had not been listening.
“One moment . . . ” Renny interrupted. He held up his hand like a policeman stopping traffic. And again they went on, talking about Africa.
Maggie lay back in her chair. Behind their heads rose the curve of the mahogany chair back. And behind the curve of the chair back was a crinkled glass with a red lip; then there was the straight line of the mantelpiece with little black-and-white squares on it; and then three rods ending in soft yellow plumes. She ran her eye from thing to thing. In and out it went, collecting, gathering, summing up into one whole, when, just as she was about to complete the pattern, Renny exclaimed:
“We must — we must!”
He had got up. He had pushed away his glass of whisky. He stood there like somebody commanding a troop, North thought; so emphatic was his voice, so commanding his gesture. Yet it was only a question of going round to an old woman’s party. Or was there always, he thought, as he too rose and looked for his hat, something that came to the surface, inappropriately, unexpectedly, from the depths of people, and made ordinary actions, ordinary words, expressive of the whole being, so that he felt, as he turned to follow Renny to Delia’s party, as if he were riding to the relief of a besieged garrison across a desert?
He stopped with his hand on the door. Sara had come in from the bedroom. She had changed; she was in evening dress; there was something odd about her — perhaps it was the effect of the evening dress estranging her?
“I am ready,” she said, looking at them.
She stooped and picked up the book that North had let fall.
“We must go —” she said, turning to her sister.
She put the book on the table; she gave it a sad little pat as she shut it.
“We must go,” she repeated, and followed them down the stairs.
Maggie rose. She gave one more look at the cheap lodging-house room. There was the pampas grass in its terra-cotta pot; the green vase with the crinkled lip; and the mahogany chair. On the dinner table lay the dish of fruit; the heavy sensual apples lay side by side with the yellow spotted bananas. It was an odd combination — the round and the tapering, the rosy and the yellow. She switched off the light. The room now was almost dark, save for a watery pattern fluctuating on the ceiling. In this phantom evanescent light only the outlines showed; ghostly apples, ghostly bananas, and the spectre of a chair. Colour was slowly returning, as her eyes grew used to the darkness, and substance. . . . She stood there for a moment looking. Then a voice shouted:
“I’m coming!” she cried, and followed them down the stairs.
“And your name, miss?” said the maid to Peggy as she hung back behind Eleanor.
“Miss Margaret Pargiter,” said Peggy.
“Miss Margaret Pargiter!” the maid called out into the room.
There was a babble of voices; lights opened brightly in front of her, and Delia came forward. “Oh, Peggy!” she exclaimed. “How nice of you to come!”
She went in; but she felt plated, coated over with some cold skin. They had come too early — the room was almost empty. Only a few people stood about, talking too loudly, as if to fill the room. Making believe, Peggy thought to herself as she shook hands with Delia and passed on, that something pleasant is about to happen. She saw with extreme clearness the Persian rug and the carved fireplace, but there was an empty space in the middle of the room.
What is the tip for this particular situation? she asked herself, as if she were prescribing for a patient. Take notes, she added. Do them up in a bottle with a glossy green cover, she thought. Take notes and the pain goes. Take notes and the pain goes, she repeated to herself as she stood there alone. Delia hurried past her. She was talking, but talking at random.
“It’s all very well for you people who live in London —” she was saying. But the nuisance of taking notes of what people say, Peggy went on as Delia passed her, is that they talk such nonsense . . . such complete nonsense, she thought, drawing herself back against the wall. Here her father came in. He paused at the door; put his head up as if he were looking for someone, and advanced with his hand out.
And what’s this? she asked, for the sight of her father in his rather worn shoes had given her a direct spontaneous feeling. This sudden warm spurt? she asked, examining it. She watched him cross the room. His shoes always affected her strangely. Part sex; part pity, she thought. Can one call it “love”? But she forced herself to move. Now that I have drugged myself into a state of comparative insensibility, she said to herself, I will walk across the room boldly; I will go to Uncle Patrick, who is standing by the sofa picking his teeth, and I will say to him — what shall I say?
A sentence suggested itself for no rhyme or reason as she crossed the room: “How’s the man who cut his toes off with the hatchet?”
“How’s the man who cut his toes off with the hatchet?” she said, speaking the words exactly as she thought them. The handsome old Irishman bent down, for he was very tall, and hollowed his hand, for he was hard of hearing.
“Hacket? Hacket?” he repeated. She smiled. The steps from brain to brain must be cut very shallow, if thought is to mount them, she noted.
“Cut his toes off with the hatchet when I was staying with you,” she said. She remembered how when she last stayed with them in Ireland the gardener had cut his foot with a hatchet.
“Hacket? Hacket?” he repeated. He looked puzzled. Then understanding dawned.
“Oh, the Hackets!” he said. “Dear old Peter Hacket — yes.” It seemed that there were Hackets in Galway, and the mistake, which she did not trouble to explain, was all to the good, for it set him off, and he told her stories about the Hackets as they sat side by side on the sofa.
A grown woman, she thought, crosses London to talk to a deaf old man about the Hackets, whom she’s never heard of, when she meant to ask after the gardener who cut his toe off with a hatchet. But does it matter? Hackets or hatchets? She laughed, happily in time with a joke, so that it seemed appropriate. But one wants somebody to laugh with, she thought. Pleasure is increased by sharing it. Does the same hold good of pain? she mused. Is that the reason why we all talk so much of ill-health — because sharing things lessens things? Give pain, give pleasure an outer body, and by increasing the surface diminish them. . . . But the thought slipped. He was off telling his old stories. Gently, methodically, like a man setting in motion some still serviceable but rather weary nag, he was off remembering old days, old dogs, old memories that slowly shaped themselves, as he warmed, into little figures of country house life. She fancied as she half listened that she was looking at a faded snapshot of cricketers; of shooting parties on the many steps of some country mansion.
How many people, she wondered, listen? This “sharing,” then, is a bit of a farce. She made herself attend.
“Ah yes, those were fine old days!” he was saying. The light came into his faded eyes.
She looked once more at the snapshot of the men in gaiters, and the women in flowing skirts on the broad white steps with the dogs curled up at their feet. But he was off again.
“Did you ever hear from your father of a man called Roddy Jenkins who lived in the little white house on the right-hand side as you go along the road?” he asked. “But you must know that story?” he added.
“No,” she said, screwing up her eyes as if she referred to the files of memory. “Tell me.”
And he told her the story.
I’m good, she thought, at fact-collecting. But what makes up a person — (she hollowed her hand), the circumference — no, I’m not good at that. There was her Aunt Delia. She watched her moving quickly about the room. What do I know about her? That she’s wearing a dress with gold spots; has wavy hair, that was red, is white; is handsome; ravaged; with a past. But what past? She married Patrick. . . . The long story that Patrick was telling her kept breaking up the surface of her mind like oars dipping into water. Nothing could settle. There was a lake in the story too, for it was a story about duck-shooting.
She married Patrick, she thought, looking at his battered weather- worn face with the single hairs on it. Why did Delia marry Patrick? she wondered. How do they manage it — love, childbirth? The people who touch each other and go up in a cloud of smoke: red smoke? His face reminded her of the red skin of a gooseberry with the little stray hairs. But none of the lines on his face was sharp enough, she thought, to explain how they came together and had three children. They were lines that came from shooting; lines that came from worry; for the old days were over, he was saying. They had to cut things down.
“Yes, we’re all finding that,” she said perfunctorily. She turned her wrist cautiously so that she could read her watch. Fifteen minutes only had passed. But the room was filling with people she did not know. There was an Indian in a pink turban.
“Ah, but I’m boring you with these old stories,” said her uncle, wagging his head. He was hurt, she felt.
“No, no, no!” she said, feeling uncomfortable. He was off again, but out of good manners this time, she felt. Pain must outbalance pleasure by two parts to one, she thought; in all social relations. Or am I the exception, the peculiar person? she continued, for the others seemed happy enough. Yes, she thought, looking straight ahead of her, and feeling again the stretched skin round her lips and eyes tight from the tiredness of sitting up late with a woman in childbirth, I’m the exception; hard; cold; in a groove already; merely a doctor.
Getting out of grooves is damned unpleasant, she thought, before the chill of death has set in, like bending frozen boots. . . . She bent her head to listen. To smile, to bend, to make believe you’re amused when you’re bored, how painful it is, she thought. All ways, every way’s painful, she thought; staring at the Indian in the pink turban.
“Who’s that fellow?” Patrick asked, nodding his head in his direction.
“One of Eleanor’s Indians I expect,” she said aloud, and thought, If only the merciful powers of darkness would obliterate the external exposure of the sensitive nerve and I could get up and. . . . There was a pause.
“But I mustn’t keep you here, listening to my old stories,” said Uncle Patrick. His weather-beaten nag with the broken knees had stopped.
“But tell me, does old Biddy still keep the little shop,” she asked, “where we used to buy sweets?”
“Poor old body —” he began. He was off again. All her patients said that, she thought. Rest — rest — let me rest. How to deaden; how to cease to feel; that was the cry of the woman bearing children; to rest, to cease to be. In the Middle Ages, she thought, it was the cell; the monastery; now it’s the laboratory; the professions; not to live; not to feel; to make money, always money, and in the end, when I’m old and worn like a horse, no, it’s a cow . . . — for part of old Patrick’s story had imposed itself upon her mind: “ . . . for there’s no sale for the beasts at all,” he was saying, “no sale at all. Ah, there’s Julia Cromarty —” he exclaimed, and waved his hand, his large loose-jointed hand, at a charming compatriot.
She was left sitting alone on the sofa. For her uncle rose and went off with both hands outstretched to greet the bird-like old woman who had come in chattering.
She was left alone. She was glad to be alone. She had no wish to talk. But next moment somebody stood beside her. It was Martin. He sat down beside her. She changed her attitude completely.
“Hullo, Martin!” she greeted him cordially.
“Done your duty by the old mare, Peggy?” he said. He referred to the stories that old Patrick always told them.
“Did I look very glum?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, glancing at her, “not exactly enraptured.”
“One knows the end of his stories by now,” she excused herself, looking at Martin. He had taken to brushing his hair up like a waiter’s. He never looked her fully in the face. He never felt entirely at his ease with her. She was his doctor; she knew that he dreaded cancer. She must try to distract him from thinking, Does she see any symptoms?
“I was wondering how they came to marry,” she said. “Were they in love?” She spoke at random to distract him.
“Of course he was in love,” he said. He looked at Delia. She was standing by the fireplace talking to the Indian. She was still a very handsome woman, with her presence, with her gestures.
“We were all in love,” he said, glancing sideways at Peggy. The younger generation were so serious.
“Oh, of course,” she said, smiling. She liked his eternal pursuit of one love after another love — his gallant clutch upon the flying tail, the slippery tail of youth — even he, even now.
“But you,” he said, stretching his feet out, hitching up his trousers, “your generation I mean — you miss a great deal. .. you miss a great deal,” he repeated. She waited.
“Loving only your own sex,” he added.
He liked to assert his own youth in that way, she thought; to say things that he thought up to date.
“I’m not that generation,” she said.
“Well, well, well,” he chuckled, shrugging his shoulder and glancing at her sideways. He knew very little about her private life. But she looked serious; she looked tired. She works too hard, he thought.
“I’m getting on,” said Peggy. “Getting into a groove. So Eleanor told me tonight.”
Or was it she, on the other hand, who had told Eleanor she was “suppressed”? One or the other.
“Eleanor’s a gay old dog,” he said. “Look!” He pointed.
There she was, talking to the Indian in her red cloak.
“Just back from India,” he added. “A present from Bengal, eh?” he said, referring to the cloak.
“And next year she’s off to China,” said Peggy.
“But Delia —” she asked; Delia was passing them. “Was she in love?” (What you in your generation called “in love,” she added to herself.)
He wagged his head from side to side and pursed his lips. He always liked his little joke, she remembered.
“I don’t know — I don’t know about Delia,” he said. “There was the cause, you know — what she called in those days The Cause.” He screwed his face up. “Ireland, you know. Parnell. Ever heard of a man called Parnell?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Peggy.
“And Edward?” she added. He had come in; he looked very distinguished, too, in his elaborate, if conscious simplicity.
“Edward — yes,” said Martin. “Edward was in love. Surely you know that old story — Edward and Kitty?”
“The one who married — what was his name? — Lasswade?” Peggy murmured as Edward passed them.
“Yes, she married the other man — Lasswade. But he was in love — he was very much in love,” Martin murmured. “But you,” he gave her a quick little glance. There was something in her that chilled him. “Of course, you have your profession,” he added. He looked at the ground. He was thinking of his dread of cancer, she supposed. He was afraid that she had noted some symptom.
“Oh, doctors are great humbugs,” she threw out at random.
“Why? People live longer than they used, don’t they?” he said. “They don’t die so painfully anyhow,” he added.
“We’ve learnt a few little tricks,” she conceded. He stared ahead of him with a look that moved her pity.
“You’ll live to be eighty — if you want to live to be eighty,” she said. He looked at her.
“Of course I’m all in favour of living to be eighty!” he exclaimed. “I want to go to America. I want to see their buildings. I’m on that side, you see. I enjoy life.” He did, enormously.
He must be over sixty himself, she supposed. But he was wonderfully got up; as sprig and spruce as a man of forty, with his canary-coloured lady in Kensington.
“I don’t know,” she said aloud.
“Come, Peggy, come,” he said. “Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy — here’s Rose.”
Rose came up. She had grown very stout.
“Don’t you want to be eighty?” he said to her. He had to say it twice over. She was deaf.
“I do. Of course I do!” she said when she understood him. She faced them. She made an odd angle with her head thrown back, Peggy thought, as if she were a military man.
“Of course I do,” she said, sitting down abruptly on the sofa beside them.
“Ah, but then —” Peggy began. She paused. Rose was deaf, she remembered. She had to shout. “People hadn’t made such fools of themselves in your day,” she shouted. But she doubted if Rose heard.
“I want to see what’s going to happen,” said Rose. “We live in a very interesting world,” she added.
“Nonsense,” Martin teased her. “You want to live,” he bawled in her ear, “because you enjoy living.”
“And I’m not ashamed of it,” she said. “I like my kind — on the whole.”
“What you like is fighting them,” he bawled.
“D’you think you can get a rise out of me at this time o’ day?” she said, tapping him on the arm.
Now they’ll talk about being children; climbing trees in the back garden, thought Peggy, and how they shot somebody’s cats. Each person had a certain line laid down in their minds, she thought, and along it came the same old sayings. One’s mind must be crisscrossed like the palm of one’s hand, she thought, looking at the palm of her hand.
“She always was a spitfire,” said Martin, turning to Peggy.
“And they always put the blame on me,” Rose said. “he had the school-room. Where was I to sit? ‘Oh, run away and play in the nursery!’” she waved her hand.
“And so she went into the bathroom and cut her wrist with a knife,” Martin jeered.
“No, that was Erridge: that was about the microscope,” she corrected him.
It’s like a kitten catching its tail, Peggy thought; round and round they go in a circle. But it’s what they enjoy, she thought; it’s what they come to parties for. Martin went on teasing Rose.
“And where’s your red ribbon?” he was asking.
Some decoration had been given her, Peggy remembered, for her work in the war.
“Aren’t we worthy to see you in your war paint?” he teased her.
“This fellow’s jealous,” she said, turning to Peggy again. “He’s never done a stroke of work in his life.”
“I work — I work,” Martin insisted. “I sit in an office all day long —”
“Doing what?” said Rose.
Then they became suddenly silent. That turn was over — the old- brother-and-sister turn. Now they could only go back and repeat the same thing over again.
“Look here,” said Martin, “we must go and do our duty.” He rose. They parted.
“Doing what?” Peggy repeated, as she crossed the room. “Doing what?” she repeated. She was feeling reckless; nothing that she did mattered. She walked to the window and twitched the curtain apart. There were the stars pricked in little holes in the blue- black sky. There was a row of chimney-pots against the sky. Then the stars. Inscrutable, eternal, indifferent — those were the words; the right words. But I don’t feel it, she said, looking at the stars. So why pretend to? What they’re really like, she thought, screwing up her eyes to look at them, is little bits of frosty steel. And the moon — there it was — is a polished dish- cover. But she felt nothing, even when she had reduced moon and stars to that. Then she turned and found herself face to face with a young man she thought she knew but could not put a name to. He had a fine brow, but a receding chin and he was pale, pasty.
“How-d’you-do?” she said. Was his name Leacock or Laycock?
“Last time we met,” she said, “was at the races.” She connected him, incongruously, with a Cornish field, stone walls, farmers and rough ponies jumping.
“No, that’s Paul,” he said. “My brother Paul.” He was tart about it. What did he do, then, that made him superior in his own esteem to Paul?
“You live in London?” she said.
“You write?” she hazarded. But why, because he was a writer — she remembered now seeing his name in the papers — throw your head back when you say “Yes”? She preferred Paul; he looked healthy; this one had a queer face; knit up; nerve-drawn; fixed.
“Poetry?” she said.
“Yes.” But why bite off that word as if it were a cherry on the end of a stalk? she thought. There was nobody coming; they were bound to sit down side by side, on chairs by the wall.
“How do you manage, if you’re in an office?” she said. Apparently in his spare time.
“My uncle,” he began. “ . . . You’ve met him?”
Yes, a nice commonplace man; he had been very kind to her about a passport once. This boy, of course, though she only half listened, sneered at him. Then why go into his office? she asked herself. My people, he was saying . . . hunted. Her attention wandered. She had heard it all before. I, I, I— he went on. It was like a vulture’s beak pecking, or a vacuum-cleaner sucking, or a telephone bell ringing. I, I, I. But he couldn’t help it, not with that nerve-drawn egotist’s face, she thought, glancing at him. He could not free himself, could not detach himself. He was bound on the wheel with tight iron hoops. He had to expose, had to exhibit. But why let him? she thought, as he went on talking. For what do I care about his “I, I, I”? Or his poetry? Let me shake him off then, she said to herself, feeling like a person whose blood has been sucked, leaving all the nerve-centres pale. She paused. He noted her lack of sympathy. He thought her stupid, she supposed.
“I’m tired,” she apologised. “I’ve been up all night,” she explained. “I’m a doctor —”
The fire went out of his face when she said “I.” That’s done it — now he’ll go, she thought. He can’t be “you”— he must be “I.” She smiled. For up he got and off he went.
She turned round and stood at the window. Poor little wretch, she thought; atrophied, withered; cold as steel; hard as steel; bald as steel. And I too, she thought, looking at the sky. The stars seemed pricked haphazard in the sky, except that there, to the right over the chimney-pots, hung that phantom wheel-barrow — what did they call it? The name escaped her. I will count them, she thought, returning to her notebook, and had begun one, two, three, four . . . when a voice exclaimed behind her: “Peggy! Aren’t your ears tingling?” She turned. It was Delia of course, with her genial ways, her imitation Irish flattery: “— because they ought to be,” said Delia, laying a hand on her shoulder, “considering what he’s been saying”— she pointed to a grey-haired man —“what praises he’s been singing of you.”
Peggy looked where she pointed. There was her teacher over there, her master. Yes, she knew he thought her clever. She was, she supposed. They all said so. Very clever.
“He’s been telling me —” Delia began. But she broke off.
“Just help me open this window,” she said. “It’s getting hot.”
“Let me,” said Peggy. She gave the window a jerk, but it stuck, for it was old and the frames did not fit.
“Here, Peggy,” said somebody, coming behind her. It was her father. His hand was on the window, his hand with the scar. He pushed; the window went up.
“Thanks, Morris, that’s better,” said Delia. “I was telling Peggy her ears ought to be tingling,” she began again: “‘My most brilliant pupil!’ That’s what he said,” Delia went on. “I assure you I felt quite proud. ‘But she’s my niece,’ I said. He hadn’t known it —”
There, said Peggy, that’s pleasure. The nerve down her spine seemed to tingle as the praise reached her father. Each emotion touched a different nerve. A sneer rasped the thigh; pleasure thrilled the spine; and also affected the sight. The stars had softened; they quivered. Her father brushed her shoulder as he dropped his hand; but neither of them spoke.
“D’you want it open at the bottom too?” he said.
“No, that’ll do,” said Delia. “The room’s getting hot,” she said. “People are beginning to come. They must use the rooms downstairs,” she said. “But who’s that out there?” she pointed. Opposite the house against the railings of the square was a group in evening dress.
“I think I recognise one of them,” said Morris, looking out. “That’s North, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s North,” said Peggy, looking out.
“Then why don’t they come in?” said Delia, tapping on the window.
“But you must come and see it for yourselves,” North was saying. They had asked him to describe Africa. He had said that there were mountains and plains; it was silent, he had said, and birds sang. He stopped; it was difficult to describe a place to people who had not seen it. Then curtains in the house opposite parted, and three heads appeared at the window. They looked at the heads outlined on the window opposite them. They were standing with their backs to the railings of the square. The trees hung dark showers of leaves over them. The trees had become part of the sky. Now and then they seemed to shift and shuffle slightly as a breeze went through them. A star shone among the leaves. It was silent too; the murmur of the traffic was run together into one far hum. A cat slunk past; for a second they saw the luminous green of the eyes; then it was extinguished. The cat crossed the lighted space and vanished. Someone tapped again on the window and cried, “Come in!”
“Come!” said Renny, and threw his cigar into the bushes behind him. “Come, we must.”
They went upstairs, past the doors of offices, past long windows that opened on to back gardens that lay behind houses. Trees in full leaf stretched their branches across at different levels; the leaves, here bright green in the artificial light, here dark in shadow, moved up and down in the little breeze. Then they came to the private part of the house, where the red carpet was laid; and a roar of voices sounded from behind a door as if a flock of sheep were penned there. Then music, a dance, swung out.
“Now,” said Maggie, pausing for a moment, outside the door. She gave their names to the servant.
“And you, sir?” said the maid to North, who hung behind.
“Captain Pargiter,” said North, touching his tie.
“And Captain Pargiter!” the maid called out.
Delia was upon them instantly. “And Captain Pargiter!” she exclaimed, as she came hurrying across the room. “How very nice of you to come!” she exclaimed. She took their hands at random, here a left hand, there a right hand, in her left hand, in her right hand.
“I thought it was you,” she exclaimed, “standing in the square. I thought I could recognise Renny — but I wasn’t sure about North. Captain Pargiter!” she wrung his hand, “you’re quite a stranger — but a very welcome one! Now who d’you know? Who don’t you know?”
She glanced round, twitching her shawl rather nervously.
“Let me see, there’s all your uncles and aunts; and your cousins; and your sons and daughters — yes, Maggie, I saw your lovely couple not long ago. They’re somewhere. . . . Only all the generations in our family are so mixed; cousins and aunts, uncles and brothers — but perhaps it’s a good thing.”
She stopped rather suddenly as if she had used up that vein. She twitched her shawl.
“They’re going to dance,” she said, pointing at the young man who was putting another record on the gramophone. “It’s all right for dancing,” she added, referring to the gramophone. “Not for music.” She became simple for a moment. “I can’t bear music on the gramophone. But dance music — that’s another thing. And young people — don’t you find that? — must dance. It’s right they should. Dance or not — just as you like.” She waved her hand.
“Yes, just as you like,” her husband echoed her. He stood beside her, dangling his hands in front of him like a bear on which coats are hung in a hotel.
“Just as you like,” he repeated, shaking his paws.
“Help me to move the tables, North,” said Delia. “If they’re going to dance, they’ll want everything out of the way — and the rugs rolled up.” She pushed a table out of the way. Then she ran across the room to whisk a chair against the wall.
Now one of the vases was upset, and a stream of water flowed across the carpet.
“Don’t mind it, don’t mind it — it doesn’t matter at all!” Delia exclaimed, assuming the manner of a harum-scarum Irish hostess. But North stooped and swabbed up the water.
“And what are you going to do with that pocket handkerchief?” Eleanor asked him; she had joined them in her flowing red cloak.
“Hang it on a chair to dry,” said North, walking off.
“And you, Sally?” said Eleanor, drawing back against the wall since they were going to dance. “Going to dance?” she asked, sitting down.
“I?” said Sara, yawning. “I want to sleep.” She sank down on a cushion beside Eleanor.
“But you don’t come to parties,” Eleanor laughed, looking down at her, “to sleep, do you?” Again she saw the little picture she had seen at the end of the telephone. But she could not see her face; only the top of her head.
“Dining with you, wasn’t he?” she said, as North passed them with his handkerchief.
“And what did you talk about?” she asked. She saw her, sitting on the edge of a chair, swinging her foot up and down, with a smudge on her nose.
“Talk about?” said Sara. “You, Eleanor.” People were passing them all the time; they were brushing against their knees; they were beginning to dance. It made one feel a little dizzy, Eleanor thought, sinking back in her chair.
“Me?” she said. “What about me?”
“Your life,” said Sara.
“My life?” Eleanor repeated. Couples began to twist and turn slowly past them. It was a fox-trot that they were dancing, she supposed.
My life, she said to herself. That was odd, it was the second time that evening that somebody had talked about her life. And I haven’t got one, she thought. Oughtn’t a life to be something you could handle and produce? — a life of seventy odd years. But I’ve only the present moment, she thought. Here she was alive, now, listening to the fox-trot. Then she looked round. There was Morris; Rose; Edward with his head thrown back talking to a man she did not know. I’m the only person here, she thought, who remembers how he sat on the edge of my bed that night, crying — the night Kitty’s engagement was announced. Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying, Mrs. Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I’m the youngest person in this omnibus; now I’m the oldest. . . . Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people called a life? She clenched her hands and felt the hard little coins she was holding. Perhaps there’s “I” at the middle of it, she thought; a knot; a centre; and again she saw herself sitting at her table drawing on the blotting-paper, digging little holes from which spokes radiated. Out and out they went; thing followed thing, scene obliterated scene. And then they say, she thought, “We’ve been talking about you!”
“My life . . . ” she said aloud, but half to herself.
“Yes?” said Sara, looking up.
Eleanor stopped. She had forgotten her. But there was somebody listening. Then she must put her thoughts into order; then she must find words. But no, she thought, I can’t find words; I can’t tell anybody.
“Isn’t that Nicholas?” she said, looking at a rather large man who stood in the doorway.
“Where?” said Sara. But she looked in the wrong direction. He had disappeared. Perhaps she had been mistaken. My life’s been other people’s lives, Eleanor thought — my father’s; Morris’s; my friends’ lives; Nicholas’s. . . . Fragments of a conversation with him came back to her. Either I’d been lunching with him or dining with him, she thought. It was in a restaurant. There was a parrot with a pink feather in a cage on the counter. And they had sat there talking — it was after the war — about the future; about education. And he wouldn’t let me pay for the wine, she suddenly remembered, though it was I who ordered it. . . .
Here somebody stopped in front of her. She looked up. “Just as I was thinking of you!” she exclaimed.
It was Nicholas.
“Good-evening, madame!” he said, bending over her in his foreign way.
“Just as I was thinking of you!” she repeated. Indeed it was like a part of her, a sunk part of her, coming to the surface. “Come and sit beside me,” she said, and pulled up a chair.
“D’you know who that chap is, sitting by my aunt?” said North to the girl he was dancing with. She looked round; but vaguely.
“I don’t know your aunt,” she said. “I don’t know anybody here.”
The dance was over and they began walking towards the door.
“I don’t even know my hostess,” she said. “I wish you’d point her out to me.”
“There — over there,” he said. He pointed to Delia in her black dress with the gold spangles.
“Oh, that,” she said, looking at her. “That’s my hostess, is it?” He had not caught the girl’s name, and she knew none of them either. He was glad of it. It made him seem different to himself — it stimulated him. He shepherded her towards the door. He wanted to avoid his relations. In particular he wanted to avoid his sister Peggy; but there she was, standing alone by the door. He looked the other way; he conveyed his partner out of the door. There must be a garden or a roof somewhere, he thought, where they could sit, alone. She was extraordinarily pretty and young.
“Come along,” he said, “downstairs.”
“And what were you thinking about me?” said Nicholas, sitting down beside Eleanor.
She smiled. There he was in his rather ill-assorted dress-clothes, with the seal engraved with the arms of his mother the princess, and his swarthy wrinkled face that always made her think of some loose-skinned, furry animal, savage to others but kind to herself. But what was she thinking about him? She was thinking of him in the lump; she could not break off little fragments. The restaurant had been smoky she remembered.
“How we dined together once in Soho,” she said. “ . . . d’you remember?”
“All the evenings with you I remember, Eleanor,” he said. But his glance was a little vague. His attention was distracted. He was looking at a lady who had just come in; a well-dressed lady, who stood with her back to the bookcase equipped for every emergency. If I can’t describe my own life, Eleanor thought, how can I describe him? For what he was she did not know; only that it gave her pleasure when he came in; relieved her of the need of thinking; and gave her mind a little jog. He was looking at the lady. She seemed upheld by their gaze; vibrating under it. And suddenly it seemed to Eleanor that it had all happened before. So a girl had come in that night in the restaurant: had stood, vibrating, in the door. She knew exactly what he was going to say. He had said it before, in the restaurant. He is going to say, She is like a ball on the top of a fishmonger’s fountain. As she thought it, he said it. Does everything then come over again a little differently? she thought. If so, is there a pattern; a theme, recurring, like music; half remembered, half foreseen? . . . a gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible? The thought gave her extreme pleasure: that there was a pattern. But who makes it? Who thinks it? Her mind slipped. She could not finish her thought.
“Nicholas . . . ” she said. She wanted him to finish it; to take her thought and carry it out into the open unbroken; to make it whole, beautiful, entire.
“Tell me, Nicholas . . . ” she began; but she had no notion how she was going to finish her sentence, or what it was that she wanted to ask him. He was talking to Sara. She listened. He was laughing at her. He was pointing at her feet.
“ . . . coming to a party,” he was saying, “with one stocking that is white, and one stocking that is blue.”
“The Queen of England asked me to tea;” Sara hummed in time to the music; “and which shall it be; the gold or the rose; for all are in holes, my stockings, said she.” This is their love-making, Eleanor thought, half listening to their laughter, to their bickering. Another inch of the pattern, she thought, still using her half- formulated idea to stamp the immediate scene. And if this love- making differs from the old, still it has its charm; it was “love,” different from the old love, perhaps, but worse, was it? Anyhow, she thought, they are aware of each other; they live in each other; what else is love, she asked, listening to their laughter.
“ . . . Can you never act for yourself?” he was saying. “Can you never even choose stockings for yourself?”
“Never! Never!” Sara was laughing.
“ . . . Because you have no life of your own,” he said. “She lives in dreams,” he added, turning to Eleanor, “alone.”
“The professor preaching his little sermon,” Sara sneered, laying her hand on his knee.
“Sara singing her little song,” Nicholas laughed, pressing her hand.
But they are very happy, Eleanor thought: they laugh at each other.
“Tell me, Nicholas . . . ” she began again. But another dance was beginning. Couples came flocking back into the room. Slowly, intently, with serious faces, as if they were taking part in some mystic rite which gave them immunity from other feelings, the dancers began circling past them, brushing against their knees, almost treading on their toes. And then someone stopped in front of them.
“Oh, here’s North,” said Eleanor, looking up.
“North!” Nicholas exclaimed. “North! We met this evening,” he stretched out his hand to North, “— at Eleanor’s.”
“We did,” said North warmly. Nicholas crushed his fingers; he felt them separate again when the hand was removed. It was effusive; but he liked it. He was feeling effusive himself. His eyes shone. He had lost his puzzled look completely. His adventure had turned out well. The girl had written her name in his pocket-book. “Come and see me tomorrow at six,” she had said.
“Good-evening again, Eleanor,” he said, bowing over her hand. “You’re looking very young. You’re looking extraordinarily handsome. I like you in those clothes,” he said, looking at her Indian cloak.
“The same to you, North,” she said. She looked up at him. She thought she had never seen him look so handsome, so vigorous.
“Aren’t you going to dance?” she asked. The music was in full swing.
“Not unless Sally will honour me,” he said, bowing to her with exaggerated courtesy. What has happened to him? Eleanor thought. He looks so handsome, so happy. Sally rose. She gave her hand to Nicholas.
“I will dance with you,” she said. They stood for a moment waiting; and then they circled away.
“What an odd-looking couple!” North exclaimed. He screwed his face up into a grin as he watched them. “They don’t know how to dance!” he added. He sat down by Eleanor in the chair that Nicholas had left empty.
“Why don’t they marry?” he asked.
“Why should they?” she said.
“Oh, everybody ought to marry,” he said. “And I like him, though he’s a bit of a — shall we say ‘bounder?’” he suggested, as he watched them circling rather awkwardly in and out.
“‘Bounder’?” Eleanor echoed him.
“Oh it’s his fob, you mean,” she added, looking at the gold seal which swung up and down as Nicholas danced.
“No, not a bounder,” she said aloud. “He’s —”
But North was not attending. He was looking at a couple at the further end of the room. They were standing by the fireplace. Both were young; both were silent; they seemed held still in that position by some powerful emotion. As he looked at them, some emotion about himself, about his own life, came over him, and he arranged another background for them or for himself — not the mantelpiece and the bookcase, but cataracts roaring, clouds racing, and they stood on a cliff above a torrent. . . .
“Marriage isn’t for everyone,” Eleanor interrupted.
He started. “No. Of course not,” he agreed. He looked at her. She had never married. Why not? he wondered. Sacrificed to the family, he supposed — old Grandpapa without any fingers. Then some memory came back to him of a terrace, a cigar and William Whatney. Was not that her tragedy, that she had loved him? He looked at her with affection. He felt fond of everyone at the moment.
“What luck to find you alone, Nell!” he said, laying his hand on her knee.
She was touched; the feel of his hand on her knee pleased her.
“Dear North!” she exclaimed. She felt his excitement through her dress; he was like a dog on a leash; straining forward with all his nerves erect, she felt, as he laid his hand on her knee.
“But don’t marry the wrong woman!” she said.
“I?” he asked. “What makes you say that?” Had she seen him, he wondered, shepherding the girl downstairs?
“Tell me —” she began. She wanted to ask him, coolly and sensibly, what his plans were, now that they were alone; but as she spoke she saw his face change; an exaggerated expression of horror came over it.
“Milly!” he muttered. “Damn her!”
Eleanor glanced quickly over her shoulder. Her sister Milly, voluminous in draperies proper to her sex and class, was coming towards them. She had grown very stout. In order to disguise her figure, veils with beads on them hung down over her arms. They were so fat that they reminded North of asparagus; pale asparagus tapering to a point.
“Oh, Eleanor!” she exclaimed. For she still kept relics of a younger sister’s doglike devotion.
“Oh, Milly!” said Eleanor, but not so cordially.
“How nice to see you, Eleanor!” said Milly, with her little old- woman’s chuckle; yet there was something deferential in her manner. “And you too, North!”
She gave him her fat little hand. He noticed how the rings were sunk in her fingers, as if the flesh had grown over them. Flesh grown over diamonds disgusted him.
“How very nice that you’re back again!” she said, settling slowly down into her chair. Everything, he felt, became dulled. She cast a net over them; she made them all feel one family; he had to think of their relations in common; but it was an unreal feeling.
“Yes, we’re staying with Connie,” she said; they had come up for a cricket match.
He sunk his head. He looked at his shoes.
“And I’ve not heard a word about your travels, Nell,” she went on. They fall and fall, and cover all, he went on, as he listened to the damp falling patter of his aunt’s little questions. But he was in such a superfluity of high spirits that he could still make her words jingle. Did the tarantulas bite, she was asking him, and were the stars bright? And where shall I spend tomorrow night? he added, for the card in his waistcoat pocket rayed out of its own accord without regard for the context scenes which obliterated the present moment. They were staying with Connie, she went on, who was expecting Jimmy, who was home from Uganda . . . his mind slipped a few words, for he was seeing a garden, a room, and the next word he heard was “adenoids”— which is a good word, he said to himself, separating it from its context; wasp-waisted; pinched in the middle; with a hard, shining, metallic abdomen, useful to describe the appearance of an insect — but here a vast bulk approached; chiefly white waistcoat, lined with black; and Hugh Gibbs stood over them. North sprang up to offer him his chair.
“My dear boy, you don’t expect me to sit on that?” said Hugh, deriding the rather spindly seat that North offered him.
“You must find me something —” he looked about him, holding his hands to the sides of his white waistcoat, “more substantial.”
North pulled a stuffed seat towards him. He lowered himself cautiously.
“Chew, chew, chew,” he said as he sat down.
And Milly said, “Tut-tut-tut,” North observed.
That was what it came to — thirty years of being husband and wife — tut-tut-tut — and chew-chew-chew. It sounded like the half- inarticulate munchings of animals in a stall. Tut-tut-tut, and chew-chew-chew — as they trod out the soft steamy straw in the stable; as they wallowed in the primeval swamp, prolific, profuse, half-conscious, he thought; listening vaguely to the good-humoured patter, which suddenly fastened itself upon him.
“What d’you weigh, North?” his uncle was asking, sizing him up. He looked him up and down as if he were a horse.
“We must get you to fix a date,” Milly added, “when the boys are home.”
They were inviting him to stay with them at the Towers in September for cub-hunting. The men shot, and the women — he looked at his aunt as if she might be breaking into young even there, on that chair — the women broke off into innumerable babies. And those babies had other babies; and the other babies had — adenoids. The word recurred; but it now suggested nothing. He was sinking; he was falling under their weight; the name in his pocket even was fading. Could nothing be done about it? he asked himself. Nothing short of revolution, he thought. The idea of dynamite, exploding dumps of heavy earth, shooting earth up in a tree-shaped cloud, came to his mind, from the War. But that’s all poppy-cock, he thought; war’s poppy-cock, poppy-cock. Sara’s word “poppy-cock” returned. So what remains? Peggy caught his eye, where she stood talking to an unknown man. You doctors, he thought, you scientists, why don’t you drop a little crystal into a tumbler, something starred and sharp, and make them swallow it? Common sense; reason; starred and sharp. But would they swallow it? He looked at Hugh. He had a way of blowing his cheeks in and out, as he said tut-tut-tut and chew-chew-chew. Would you swallow it? he said silently to Hugh.
Hugh turned to him again.
“And I hope you’re going to stay in England now, North,” he said, “though I dare say it’s a fine life out there?”
And so they turned to Africa and the paucity of jobs. His exhilaration was oozing. The card no longer rayed out pictures. The damp leaves were falling. They fall and fall and cover all, he murmured to himself and looked at his aunt, colourless save for a brown stain on her forehead; and her hair colourless save for a stain like the yolk of egg on it. All over he suspected she must be soft and discoloured like a pear that has gone sleepy. And Hugh himself — his great hand was on his knee — was bound round with raw beef-steak. He caught Eleanor’s eye. There was a strained look in it.
“Yes, how they’ve spoilt it,” she was saying.
But the resonance had gone out of her voice.
“Brand-new villas everywhere,” she was saying. She had been down in Dorsetshire apparently.
“Little red villas all along the road,” she went on.
“Yes, that’s what strikes me,” he said, rousing himself to help her, “how you’ve spoilt England while I’ve been away.”
“But you won’t find many changes in our part of the world, North,” said Hugh. He spoke with pride.
“No. But then we’re lucky,” said Milly. “We have several large estates. We’re very lucky,” she repeated. “Except for Mr Phipps,” she added. She gave a tart little laugh.
North woke up. She meant that, he thought. She spoke with an acerbity that made her real. Not only did she become real, but the village, the great house, the little house, the church and the circle of old trees also appeared before him in complete reality. He would stay with them.
“That’s our parson,” Hugh explained. “Quite a good chap in his way; but high — very high. Candles — that sort of thing.”
“And his wife . . . ” Milly began.
Here Eleanor sighed. North looked at her. She was dropping off to sleep. A glazed look, a fixed expression, had come over her face. She looked terribly like Milly for a moment; sleep brought out the family likeness. Then she opened her eyes wide; by an effort of will she kept them open. But obviously she saw nothing.
“You must come down and see what you make of us,” Hugh said. “What about the first week in September, eh?” He swayed from side to side as if his benevolence rolled about in him. He was like an old elephant who may be going to kneel. And if he does kneel, how will he ever get up again, North asked himself. And if Eleanor falls sound asleep and snores, what am I going to do, left sitting here between the knees of the elephant?
He looked round for an excuse to go.
There was Maggie coming along, not looking where she was going. They saw her. He felt a strong desire to cry out, “Take care! Take care!” for she was in the danger zone. The long white tentacles that amorphous bodies leave floating so that they can catch their food, would suck her in. Yes, they saw her: she was lost.
“Here’s Maggie!” Milly exclaimed, looking up.
“Haven’t seen you for an age!” said Hugh, trying to heave himself up.
She had to stop; to put her hand into that shapeless paw. Using the last ounce of energy that remained to him, from the address in his waistcoat pocket, North rose. He would carry her off. He would save her from the contamination of family life.
But she ignored him. She stood there, answering their greetings with perfect composure as if using an outfit provided for emergencies. Oh Lord, North said to himself, she’s as bad as they are. She was glazed; insincere. They were talking about her children now.
“Yes. That’s the baby,” she was saying, pointing to a boy who was dancing with a girl.
“And your daughter, Maggie?” Milly asked, looking round.
North fidgeted. This is the conspiracy, he said to himself; this is the steam roller that smooths, obliterates; rounds into identity; rolls into balls. He listened. Jimmy was in Uganda; Lily was in Leicestershire; my boy — my girl . . . they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp, he thought, looking at Milly’s fat little paws, even Maggie, even she. For she too was talking about my boy, my girl. How then can we be civilised, he asked himself?
Eleanor snored. She was nodding off, shamelessly, helplessly. There was an obscenity in unconsciousness, he thought. Her mouth was open; her head was on one side.
But now it was his turn. Silence gaped. One has to egg it on, he thought; somebody has to say something, or human society would cease. Hugh would cease; Milly would cease; and he was about to apply himself to find something to say, something with which to feed the immense vacancy of that primeval maw, when Delia, either from the erratic desire of a hostess always to interrupt, or divinely inspired by human charity — which he could not say — came beckoning.
“The Ludbys!” she exclaimed. “The Ludbys!”
“Oh where? The dear Ludbys!” said Milly, and up they heaved and off they went, for the Ludbys, it appeared, seldom left Northumberland.
“Well, Maggie?” said North, turning to her — but here Eleanor made a little click at the back of her throat. Her head pitched forward. Sleep, now that she slept soundly, had given her dignity. She looked peaceful, far from them, rapt in the calm which sometimes gives the sleeper the look of the dead. They sat silent, for a moment, alone together, in private.
“Why — why — why —” he said at last, making a gesture as if he were plucking tufts of grass from the carpet.
“Why?” Maggie asked. “Why what?”
“The Gibbses,” he murmured. He jerked his head at them, where they stood talking by the fireplace. Gross, obese, shapeless, they looked to him like a parody, a travesty, an excrescence that had overgrown the form within, the fire within.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. She looked too. But she said nothing. Couples came dancing slowly past them. A girl stopped, and her gesture as she raised her hand, unconsciously, had the seriousness of the very young anticipating life in its goodness which touched him.
“Why —?” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the young, “when they’re so lovely —”
She too looked at the girl, who was fastening a flower that had come undone in the front of her frock. She smiled. She said nothing. Then half consciously she echoed his question without a meaning in her echo, “Why?”
He was dashed for a moment. It seemed to him that she refused to help him. And he wanted her to help him. Why should she not take the weight off his shoulders and give him what he longed for — assurance, certainty? Because she too was deformed like the rest of them? He looked down at her hands. They were strong hands; fine hands; but if it were a question, he thought, watching the fingers curl slightly, of “my” children, of “my” possessions, it would be one rip down the belly; or teeth in the soft fur of the throat. We cannot help each other, he thought, we are all deformed. Yet, disagreeable as it was to him to remove her from the eminence upon which he placed her, perhaps she was right, he thought, and we who make idols of other people, who endow this man, that woman, with power to lead us, only add to the deformity, and stoop ourselves.
“I’m going to stay with them,” he said aloud.
“At the Towers?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “For cubbing in September.”
She was not listening. Her eyes were on him. She was getting him into relation with something else he felt. It made him uneasy. She was looking at him as if he were not himself but somebody else. He felt again the discomfort that he had felt when Sally described him on the telephone.
“I know,” he said, stiffening the muscles of his face, “I’m like the picture of a Frenchman holding his hat.”
“Holding his hat?” she asked.
“And getting fat,” he added.
“ . . . Holding a hat . . . who’s holding a hat?” said Eleanor, opening her eyes.
She glanced about her in bewilderment. Since her last recollection, and it seemed only a second ago, was of Milly talking of candles in a church, something must have happened. Milly and Hugh had been there; but they were gone. There had been a gap — a gap filled with the golden light of lolling candles, and some sensation which she could not name.
She woke up completely.
“What nonsense are you talking?” she said. “North’s not holding a hat! And he’s not fat,” she added. “Not at all, not at all,” she repeated, patting him affectionately on the knee.
She felt extraordinarily happy. Most sleep left some dream in one’s mind — some scene or figure remained when one woke up. But this sleep, this momentary trance, in which the candles had lolled and lengthened themselves, had left her with nothing but a feeling; a feeling, not a dream.
“He’s not holding a hat,” she repeated.
They both laughed at her.
“You’ve been dreaming, Eleanor,” said Maggie.
“Have I?” she said. A deep gulf had been cut in the talk, it was true. She could not remember what they had been saying. There was Maggie; but Milly and Hugh had gone.
“Only a second’s nap,” she said. “But what are you going to do, North? What are your plans?” she said, speaking rather quickly.
“We musn’t let him go back, Maggie,” she said. “Not to that horrid farm.”
She wished to appear extremely practical, partly to prove that she had not slept, partly to protect the extraordinary feeling of happiness that still remained with her. Covered up from observation it might survive, she felt.
“You’ve saved enough, haven’t you?” she said aloud.
“Saved enough?” he said. Why, he wondered, did people who had been asleep always want to make out that they were extremely wide-awake? “Four or five thousand,” he added at random.
“Well, that’s enough,” she insisted. “Five per cent; six per cent —” She tried to do the sum in her head. She appealed to Maggie for help. “Four or five thousand — how much would that be, Maggie? Enough to live on, wouldn’t it?”
“Four or five thousand,” repeated Maggie.
“At five or six per cent . . . ” Eleanor put in. She could never do sums in her head at the best of times; but for some reason it seemed to her very important to bring things back to facts. She opened her bag, found a letter, and produced a stubby little pencil.
“There — work it out on that,” she said. Maggie took the paper and drew a few lines with the pencil as if to test it. North glanced over her shoulder. Was she solving the problem before her — was she considering his life, his needs? No. She was drawing, apparently a caricature — he looked — of a big man opposite in a white waistcoat. It was a farce. It made him feel slightly ridiculous.
“Don’t be so silly,” he said.
“That’s my brother,” she said, nodding at the man in the white waistcoat. “He used to take us for rides on an elephant.. ..” She added a flourish to the waistcoat.
“And we’re being very sensible,” Eleanor protested.
“If you want to live in England, North — if you want —”
He cut her short.
“I don’t know what I want,” he said.
“Oh, I see!” she said. She laughed. Her feeling of happiness returned to her, her unreasonable exaltation. It seemed to her that they were all young, with the future before them. Nothing was fixed; nothing was known; life was open and free before them.
“Isn’t that odd?” she exclaimed. “Isn’t that queer? Isn’t that why life’s a perpetual — what shall I call it? — miracle?. .. I mean,” she tried to explain, for he looked puzzled, “old age they say is like this; but it isn’t. It’s different; quite different. So when I was a child; so when I was a girl; it’s been a perpetual discovery, my life. A miracle.” She stopped. She was rambling on again. She felt rather light-headed, after her dream.
“There’s Peggy!” she exclaimed, glad to attach herself to something solid. “Look at her! Reading a book!”
Peggy, marooned when the dance started, over by the bookcase, stood as close to it as she could. In order to cover her loneliness she took down a book. It was bound in green leather; and had, she noted as she turned it in her hands, little gilt stars tooled upon it. Which is all to the good, she thought, turning it over, because then it’ll seem as if I were admiring the binding. . . . But I can’t stand here admiring the binding, she thought. She opened it. He’ll say what I’m thinking, she thought as she did so. Books opened at random always did.
“La médiocrité de l’univers m’étonne et me révolte” she read. That was it. Precisely. She read on. “ . . . la petitesse de toutes choses m’emplit de dégoût . . . ” She lifted her eyes. They were treading on her toes. “ . . . la pauvreté des êtres humains m’anéantit.” She shut the book and put it back on the shelf.
Precisely, she said.
She turned her watch on her wrist and looked at it surreptitiously. Time was getting on. An hour is sixty minutes, she said to herself; two hours are one hundred and twenty minutes. How many have I still to stay here? Could she go yet? She saw Eleanor beckoning. She put the book back on the shelf. She went towards them.
“Come, Peggy, come and talk to us,” Eleanor called out, beckoning.
“D’you know what time it is, Eleanor?” said Peggy, coming up to them. She pointed to her watch. “Don’t you think it’s time to be going?” she said.
“I’d forgotten the time,” said Eleanor.
“But you’ll be so tired tomorrow,” Peggy protested, standing beside her.
“How like a doctor!” North twitted her. “Health, health, health!” he exclaimed. “But health’s not an end in itself,” he said, looking up at her.
She ignored him.
“D’you mean to stay to the end?” she said to Eleanor. “This’ll go on all night.” She looked at the twisting couples gyrating in time to the tune on the gramophone, as if some animal were dying in a slow but exquisite anguish.
“But we’re enjoying ourselves,” said Eleanor. “Come and enjoy yourself too.”
She pointed to the floor at her side. Peggy let herself down onto the floor at her side. Give up brooding, thinking, analysing, Eleanor meant she knew. Enjoy the moment — but could one? she asked, pulling her skirts round her feet as she sat down. Eleanor bent over and tapped her on the shoulder.
“I want you to tell me,” she said, drawing her into the conversation, since she looked so glum, “you’re a doctor — you know these things — what do dreams mean?”
Peggy laughed. Another of Eleanor’s questions. Does two and two make four — and what is the nature of the universe?
“I don’t mean dreams exactly,” Eleanor went on. “Feelings — feelings that come when one’s asleep?”
“My dear Nell,” said Peggy, glancing up at her, “how often have I told you? Doctors know very little about the body; absolutely nothing about the mind.” She looked down again.
“I always said they were humbugs!” North exclaimed.
“What a pity!” said Eleanor. “I was hoping you’d be able to explain to me —” She was bending down. There was a flush on her cheek, Peggy noted; she was excited; but what was there to be excited about?
“Explain — what?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing,” said Eleanor. Now I’ve snubbed her, Peggy thought.
She looked at her again. Her eyes were bright; her cheeks were flushed, or was it only the tan from her voyage to India? And a little vein stood out on her forehead. But what was there to be excited about? She leant back against the wall. From her seat on the floor she had a queer view of people’s feet; feet pointing this way, feet pointing that way; patent leather pumps; satin slippers; silk stockings and socks. They were dancing rhythmically, insistently, to the tune of the fox-trot. And what about the cocktail and the tea, said he to me, said he to me — the tune seemed to repeat over and over again. And voices went on over her head. Odd little gusts of inconsecutive conversations reached her . . . down in Norfolk where my brother-in-law has a boat . . . Oh, a complete washout, yes I agree. . . . People talked nonsense at parties. And beside her Maggie was talking; North was talking; Eleanor was talking. Suddenly Eleanor swept her hand out.
“There’s Renny!” she was saying. “Renny, whom I never see. Renny whom I love. . . . Come and talk to us, Renny.” And a pair of pumps crossed Peggy’s field of vision and stopped in front of her. He sat down beside Eleanor. She could just see the line of his profile; the big nose; the thin cheek. And what about the cocktails and the tea, said he to me, said he to me, the music ground out; the couples danced past. But the little group on the chairs above her were talking; they were laughing.
“I know you’ll agree with me . . . ” Eleanor was saying. Through her half-shut eyes Peggy could see Renny turn towards her. She saw his thin cheek; his big nose; his nails, she noticed, were very close cut.
“Depends what you were saying . . . ” he said.
“What were we saying?” Eleanor pondered. She’s forgotten already, Peggy suspected.
“ . . . That things have changed for the better,” she heard Eleanor’s voice.
“Since you were a girl?” That she thought was Maggie’s voice.
Then a voice from a skirt with a pink bow on the hem interrupted. “ . . . I don’t know how it is but the heat doesn’t affect me as much as it used to do. . . . ” She looked up. There were fifteen pink bows on the dress, accurately stitched, and wasn’t that Miriam Parrish’s little saint-like, sheep-like head on top?
“What I mean is, we’ve changed in ourselves,” Eleanor was saying. “We’re happier — we’re freer —”
What does she mean by “happiness,” by “freedom”? Peggy asked herself, lapsing against the wall again.
“Take Renny and Maggie,” she heard Eleanor saying. And then she stopped. And then she went on again:
“D’you remember, Renny, the night of the raid? When I met Nicholas for the first time . . . when we sat in the cellar?. .. Going downstairs I said to myself, That’s a happy marriage —” There was another pause. “I said to myself,” she continued, and Peggy saw her hand laid on Renny’s knee, “If I’d known Renny when I was young. . . . ” She stopped. Does she mean she would have fallen in love with him? Peggy wondered. Again the music interrupted . . . said he to me, said he to me. . . .
“No, never . . . ” she heard Eleanor say. “No, never. . . . ” Was she saying she had never been in love, never wanted to marry? Peggy wondered. They were laughing.
“Why, you look like a girl of eighteen!” she heard North say.
“And I feel like one!” Eleanor exclaimed. But you’ll be a wreck tomorrow morning Peggy thought, looking at her. She was flushed, the veins stood out on her forehead.
“I feel . . . ” she stopped. She put her hand to her head: “as if I’d been in another world! So happy!” she exclaimed.
“Tosh, Eleanor, tosh,” said Renny.
I thought he’d say that, Peggy said to herself with some queer satisfaction. She could see his profile as he sat on the other side of her aunt’s knee. The French are logical; they are sensible, she thought. Still, she added, why not let Eleanor have her little flutter if she enjoys it?
“Tosh? What d’you mean by ‘tosh’?” Eleanor was asking. She was leaning forward; she held her hand up as if she wanted him to speak.
“Always talking of the other world,” he said. “Why not this one?”
“But I meant this world!” she said. “I meant, happy in this world — happy with living people.” She waved her hand as if to embrace the miscellaneous company, the young, the old, the dancers, the talkers; Miriam with her pink bows, and the Indian in his turban. Peggy sank back against the wall. Happy in this world, she thought, happy with living people!
The music stopped. The young man who had been putting records on the gramophone had walked off. The couples broke apart and began to push their way through the door. They were going to eat perhaps; they were going to stream out into the back garden and sit on hard sooty chairs. The music which had been cutting grooves in her mind had ceased. There was a lull — a silence. Far away she heard the sounds of the London night; a horn hooted; a siren wailed on the river. The far-away sounds, the suggestion they brought in of other worlds, indifferent to this world, of people toiling, grinding, in the heart of darkness, in the depths of night, made her say over Eleanor’s words, Happy in this world, happy with living people. But how can one be “happy”? she asked herself, in a world bursting with misery. On every placard at every street corner was Death; or worse — tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilisation; the end of freedom. We here, she thought, are only sheltering under a leaf, which will be destroyed. And then Eleanor says the world is better, because two people out of all those millions are “happy.” Her eyes had fixed themselves on the floor; it was empty now save for a wisp of muslin torn from some skirt. But why do I notice everything? she thought. She shifted her position. Why must I think? She did not want to think. She wished that there were blinds like those in railway carriages that came down over the light and hooded the mind. The blue blind that one pulls down on a night journey, she thought. Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream? But the misery of the world, she thought, forces me to think. Or was that a pose? Was she not seeing herself in the becoming attitude of one who points to his bleeding heart? to whom the miseries of the world are misery, when in fact, she thought, I do not love my kind. Again she saw the ruby-splashed pavement, and faces mobbed at the door of a picture palace; apathetic, passive faces; the faces of people drugged with cheap pleasures; who had not even the courage to be themselves, but must dress up, imitate, pretend. And here, in this room, she thought, fixing her eyes on a couple. . . . But I will not think, she repeated; she would force her mind to become a blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came.
She listened. Scraps reached her from above. “ . . . flats in Highgate have bathrooms,” they were saying. “ . . . Your mother . . . Digby. . . . Yes, Crosby’s still alive —” It was family gossip, and they were enjoying it. But how can I enjoy it? she said to herself. She was too tired; the skin round her eyes felt taut; a hoop was bound tight over her head; she tried to think herself away into the darkness of the country. But it was impossible; they were laughing. She opened her eyes, exacerbated by their laughter.
That was Renny laughing. He held a sheet of paper in his hand; his head was flung back; his mouth was wide open. From it came a sound like Ha! Ha! Ha! That is laughter, she said to herself. That is the sound people make when they are amused.
She watched him. Her muscles began to twitch involuntarily. She could not help laughing too. She stretched out her hand and Renny gave her the paper. It was folded; they had been playing a game. Each of them had drawn a different part of a picture. On top there was a woman’s head like Queen Alexandra, with a fuzz of little curls; then a bird’s neck; the body of a tiger; and stout elephant’s legs dressed in child’s drawers completed the picture.
“I drew that — I drew that!” said Renny pointing to the legs from which a long trail of ribbon depended. She laughed, laughed, laughed; she could not help laughing.
“The face that launched a thousand ships!” said North, pointing to another part of the monster’s person. They all laughed again. She stopped laughing; her lips smoothed themselves out. But her laughter had had some strange effect on her. It had relaxed her, enlarged her. She felt, or rather she saw, not a place, but a state of being, in which there was real laughter, real happiness, and this fractured world was whole; whole, and free. But how could she say it?
“Look here . . . ” she began. She wanted to express something that she felt to be very important; about a world in which people were whole, in which people were free . . . But they were laughing; she was serious. “Look here . . . ” she began again.
Eleanor stopped laughing.
“Peggy wants to say something,” she said. The others stopped talking, but they had stopped at the wrong moment. She had nothing to say when it came to the point, and yet she had to speak.
“Here,” she began again, “here you all are — talking about North —” He looked up at her in surprise. It was not what she had meant to say, but she must go on now that she had begun. Their faces gaped at her like birds with their mouths open. “. .. How he’s to live, where he’s to live,” she went on. “ . . . But what’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?”
She looked at her brother. A feeling of animosity possessed her. He was still smiling, but his smile smoothed itself out as she looked at him.
“What’s the use?” she said, facing him. “You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Make money. Write little books to make money. . . . ”
She had got it wrong. She had meant to say something impersonal, but she was being personal. It was done now however; she must flounder on now.
“You’ll write one little book, and then another little book,” she said viciously, “instead of living . . . living differently, differently.”
She stopped. There was the vision still, but she had not grasped it. She had broken off only a little fragment of what she meant to say, and she had made her brother angry. Yet there it hung before her, the thing she had seen, the thing she had not said. But as she fell back with a jerk against the wall, she felt relieved of some oppression; her heart thumped; the veins on her forehead stood out. She had not said it, but she had tried to say it. Now she could rest; now she could think herself away under the shadow of their ridicule, which had no power to hurt her, into the country. Her eyes half shut; it seemed to her that she was on a terrace, in the evening; an owl went up and down, up and down; its white wing showed on the dark of the hedge; and she heard country people singing and the rattle of wheels on a road.
Then gradually the blur became distinct; she saw the line of the bookcase opposite; the wisp of muslin on the floor; and two large feet, in tight shoes, so that the bunions showed, stopped in front of her.
For a moment nobody moved; nobody spoke. Peggy sat still. She did not want to move, or to speak. She wanted to rest, to lean, to dream. She felt very tired. Then more feet stopped, and the hem of a black skirt.
“Aren’t you people coming down to supper?” said a chuckling little voice. She looked up. It was her aunt Milly, with her husband by her side.
“Supper’s downstairs,” said Hugh. “Supper’s downstairs.” And they passed on.
“How prosperous they’ve grown!” said North’s voice, laughing at them.
“Ah, but they’re so good to people . . . ” Eleanor protested. The sense of the family again, Peggy noted.
Then the knee against which she was sheltering herself moved.
“We must go,” said Eleanor. Wait, wait, Peggy wanted to implore her. There was something she wanted to ask her; something she wanted to add to her outburst, since nobody had attacked her, and nobody had laughed at her. But it was useless; the knees straightened themselves; the red cloak elongated itself; Eleanor had risen. She was hunting for her bag or her handkerchief; she was ferreting in the cushions of her chair. As usual, she had lost something.
“I’m sorry to be such an old muddler,” she apologised. She shook a cushion; coins rolled out onto the floor. A sixpenny bit spun on its edge across the carpet, reached a pair of silver shoes on the floor and fell flat.
“There!” Eleanor exclaimed. “There! . . . But that’s Kitty! isn’t it?” she exclaimed.
Peggy looked up. A handsome elderly woman, with curled white hair and something shining in her hair was standing in the doorway looking round her, as if she had just come in and were looking for her hostess, who was not there. It was at her feet that the sixpence had fallen.
“Kitty!” Eleanor repeated. She went towards her with her hands stretched out. They all got up. Peggy got up. Yes, it was over; it was destroyed she felt. Directly something got together, it broke. She had a feeling of desolation. And then you have to pick up the pieces, and make something new, something different, she thought, and crossed the room, and joined the foreigner, the man she called Brown, whose real name was Nicholas Pomjalovsky.
“Who is that lady,” Nicholas asked her, “who appears to come into a room as if the whole world belonged to her?”
“That’s Kitty Lasswade,” said Peggy. As she stood in the door, they could not pass.
“I’m afraid I’m dreadfully late,” they heard her saying in her clear, authoritative tones. “But I’ve been to the ballet.”
That’s Kitty, is it? North said to himself, looking at her. She was one of those well-set-up rather masculine old ladies who repelled him slightly. He thought he remembered that she was the wife of one of our governors; or was it the Viceroy of India? He could see her, as she stood there, doing the honours of Government House. “Sit here. Sit there. And you, young man, I hope you take plenty of exercise?” He knew the type. She had a short straight nose and blue eyes very wide apart. She might have looked very dashing in the eighties, he thought; in a tight riding-habit; worn a small hat, with a cock’s feather in it; perhaps had an affair with an aide-de-camp; and then settled down, become dictatorial, and told stories about her past. He listened.
“Ah, but he’s not a patch on Nijinsky!” she was saying.
The sort of thing she would say, he thought. He examined the books in the bookcase. He took one out and held it upside down. One little book, and then another little book — Peggy’s taunt returned to him. The words had stung him out of all proportion to their surface meaning. She had turned on him with such violence, as if she despised him; she had looked as if she were going to burst into tears. He opened the little book. Latin, was it? He broke off a sentence and let it swim in his mind. There the words lay, beautiful, yet meaningless, yet composed in a pattern — nox est perpetua una dormienda. He remembered his master saying, Mark the long word at the end of the sentence. There the words floated; but just as they were about to give out their meaning, there was a movement at the door. Old Patrick had come ambling up, had given his arm gallantly to the widow of the Governor-General, and they were proceeding with a curious air of antiquated ceremony down the stairs. The others began to follow them. The younger generation following in the wake of the old, North said to himself as he put the book back on the shelf and followed. Only, he observed, they were not so very young; Peggy — there were white hairs on Peggy’s head — she must be thirty-seven, thirty-eight?
“Enjoying yourself, Peg?” he said as they hung back behind the others. He had a vague feeling of hostility towards her. She seemed to him bitter, disillusioned, and very critical of everyone, especially of himself.
“You go first, Patrick,” they heard Lady Lasswade boom out in her genial loud voice. “These staircases are not adapted. ..” she paused, as she advanced what was probably a rheumatic leg, “for old people who . . . ” there was another pause as she descended another step, “‘ve been kneeling on damp grass killing slugs.”
North looked at Peggy and laughed. He had not expected the sentence to end like that, but the widows of viceroys, he thought, always have gardens, always kill slugs. Peggy smiled too. But he felt uncomfortable with her. She had attacked him. There they stood, however, side by side.
“Did you see old William Whatney?” she said, turning to him.
“No!” he exclaimed. “he still alive? That old white walrus with the whiskers?”
“Yes — that’s him,” she said. There was an old man in a white waistcoat standing in the door.
“The old Mock Turtle,” he said. They had to fall back on childish slang, on childish memories, to cover their distance, their hostility.
“D’you remember . . . ” he began.
“The night of the row?” she said. “The night I let myself out of the window by a rope.”
“And we picnicked in the Roman camp,” he said.
“We should never have been found out if that horrid little scamp hadn’t told on us,” she said, descending a step.
“A little beast with pink eyes,” said North.
They could think of nothing else to say, as they stood blocked, waiting for the others to move on, side by side. And he used to read her his poetry in the apple-loft, he remembered, and as they walked up and down by the rose bushes. And now they had nothing to say to each other.
“Perry,” he said, descending another step, suddenly remembering the name of the pink-eyed boy who had seen them coming home that morning and had told on them.
“Alfred,” she added.
She still knew certain things about him, he thought; they still had something very profound in common. That was why, he thought, she had hurt him by what she had said, before the others, about his “writing little books.” It was their past condemning his present. He glanced at her.
Damn women, he thought, they’re so hard; so unimaginative. Curse their little inquisitive minds. What did their “education” amount to? It only made her critical, censorious. Old Eleanor, with all her rambling and stumbling, was worth a dozen of Peggy any day. She was neither one thing nor the other, he thought, glancing at her; neither in the fashion nor out of it.
She felt him look at her and look away. He was finding fault with something about her, she knew. Her hands? Her dress? No, it was because she criticised him, she thought. Yes, she thought as she descended another step, now I’m going to be trounced; now I’m going to be paid back for telling him he’d write “little books.” It takes from ten to fifteen minutes, she thought, to get an answer; and then it’ll be something off the point but disagreeable — very, she thought. The vanity of men was immeasurable. She waited. He looked at her again. And now he’s comparing me with the girl I saw him talking to, she thought, and saw again the lovely, hard face. He’ll tie himself up with a red-lipped girl, and become a drudge. He must, and I can’t, she thought. No, I’ve a sense of guilt always. I shall pay for it, I shall pay for it, I kept saying to myself even in the Roman camp, she thought. She would have no children, and he would produce little Gibbses, more little Gibbses, she thought, looking in at the door of a solicitor’s office, unless she leaves him at the end of the year for some other man.. .. The solicitor’s name was Alridge, she noted. But I will take no more notes; I will enjoy myself, she thought suddenly. She put her hand on his arm.
“Met anybody amusing tonight?” she said.
He guessed that she had seen him with the girl.
“One girl,” he said briefly.
“So I saw,” she said.
She looked away.
“I thought her lovely,” she said, carefully observing a tinted picture of a bird with a long beak that hung on the stairs.
“Shall I bring her to see you?” he asked.
So he cared for her opinion, did he? Her hand was still on his arm; she felt something hard and taut beneath the sleeve, and the touch of his flesh, bringing back to her the nearness of human beings and their distance, so that if one meant to help one hurt, yet they depended on each other, produced in her such a tumult of sensation that she could scarcely keep herself from crying out, North! North! North! But I mustn’t make a fool of myself again, she said to herself.
“Any evening after six,” she said aloud, carefully descending another step, and they reached the bottom of the stairs.
A roar of voices sounded from behind the door of the supper room. She withdrew her hand from his arm. The door burst open.
“Spoons! spoons! spoons!” cried Delia, brandishing her arms in a rhetorical manner as if she were still declaiming to someone inside. She caught sight of her nephew and niece. “Be an angel, North, and fetch spoons!” she cried, throwing her hands out towards him.
“Spoons for the widow of the Governor-General!” North cried, catching her manner, imitating her dramatic gesture.
“In the kitchen, in the basement!” Delia cried, waving her arm at the kitchen stairs. “Come, Peggy, come,” she said, catching Peggy’s hand in hers, “we’re all sitting down to supper.” She burst into the room where they were having supper. It was crowded. People were sitting on the floor, on chairs, on office stools. Long office tables, little typewriting tables, had been pressed into use. They were strewn with flowers, frilled with flowers. Carnations, roses, daisies, were flung down higgledy-piggledy. “Sit on the floor, sit anywhere,” Delia commanded, waving her hand promiscuously.
“Spoons are coming,” she said to Lady Lasswade, who was drinking her soup out of a mug.
“But I don’t want a spoon,” said Kitty. She tilted the mug and drank.
“No, you wouldn’t,” said Delia, “but other people do.”
North brought in a bunch of spoons and she took them from him.
“Now who wants a spoon and who doesn’t?” she said, brandishing the bunch of spoons in front of her. Some people do and some don’t, she thought.
Her sort of people, she thought, did not want spoons; the others — the English — did. She had been making that distinction between people all her life.
“A spoon? A spoon?” she said, looking round her at the crowded room with some complacency. All sorts of people were there, she noted. That had always been her aim; to mix people; to do away with the absurd conventions of English life. And she had done it tonight, she thought. There were nobles and commoners; people dressed and people not dressed; people drinking out of mugs, and people waiting with their soup getting cold for a spoon to be brought to them.
“A spoon for me,” said her husband, looking up at her.
She wrinkled her nose. For the thousandth time he had dashed her dream. Thinking to marry a wild rebel, she had married the most King-respecting, Empire-admiring of country gentlemen, and for that very reason partly — because he was, even now, such a magnificent figure of a man. “A spoon for your Uncle,” she said dryly, and sent North off with the bunch. Then she sat down beside Kitty, who was gulping her soup like a child at a school treat. She set down her mug empty, among the flowers.
“Poor flowers,” she said, taking up a carnation that lay on the table-cloth and putting it to her lips. “They’ll die, Delia — they want water.”
“Roses are cheap today,” said Delia. “Twopence a bunch off a barrow in Oxford Street,” she said. She took up a red rose and held it under the light, so that it shone, veined, semi- transparent.
“What a rich country England is!” she said, laying it down again. She took up her mug.
“What I’m always telling you,” said Patrick, wiping his mouth. “The only civilised country in the whole world,” he added.
“I thought we were on the verge of a smash,” said Kitty. “Not that it looked much like it at Covent Garden tonight,” she added.
“Ah, but it’s true,” he sighed, going on with his own thoughts. “I’m sorry to say it — but we’re savages compared with you.”
“He won’t be happy till he’s got Dublin Castle back again,” Delia twitted him.
“You don’t enjoy your freedom?” said Kitty, looking at the queer old man whose face always made her think of a hairy gooseberry. But his body was magnificent.
“It seems to me that our new freedom is a good deal worse than our old slavery,” said Patrick, fumbling with his toothpick.
Politics as usual, money and politics, North thought, overhearing them, as he went round with the last of his spoons.
“You’re not going to tell me that all that struggle has been in vain, Patrick?” said Kitty.
“Come to Ireland and see for yourself, m’lady,” he said grimly.
“It’s too early — too early to tell,” said Delia.
Her husband looked past her with the sad innocent eyes of an old sporting dog whose hunting days are over. But they could not keep their fixity for long. “Who’s this chap with the spoons?” he said, resting his eyes on North, who stood just behind them, waiting.
“North,” said Delia. “Come and sit by us, North.”
“Good-evening to you, Sir,” said Patrick. They had met already, but he had already forgotten.
“What, Morris’s son?” said Kitty, turning round abruptly. She shook hands cordially. He sat down and took a gulp of soup.
“He’s just back from Africa. He’s been on a farm there,” said Delia.
“And how does the old country strike you?” said Patrick, leaning towards him genially.
“Very crowded,” he said, looking round the room. “And you all talk,” he added, “about money and politics.” That was his stock phrase. He had said it twenty times already.
“You were in Africa?” said Lady Lasswade. “And what made you give up your farm?” she demanded. She looked him in the eyes and spoke just as he expected she would speak; too imperiously for his liking. What business is that of yours, old lady? he asked himself.
“I’d had about enough of it,” he said aloud.
“And I’d have given anything to be a farmer!” she exclaimed. That was a little out of the picture, North thought. So were her eyes; she ought to have worn a pince-nez; but she did not.
“But in my youth,” she said, rather fiercely — her hands were rather stubby, and the skin was rough, but she gardened, he remembered — “that wasn’t allowed.”
“No,” said Patrick. “And it’s my belief,” he continued, drumming on the table with a fork, “that we should all be very glad, very glad, to go back to things as they were. What’s the War done for us, eh? Ruined me for one.” He wagged his head with melancholy tolerance from side to side.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Kitty. “But speaking for myself, the old days were bad days, wicked days, cruel days . . . .” Her eyes turned blue with passion.
What about the aide-de-camp, and the hat with a cock’s feather in it? North asked himself.
“Don’t you agree with me, Delia?” said Kitty, turning to her.
But Delia was talking across her, using her rather exaggerated Irish sing-song to someone at the next table. Don’t I remember this room, Kitty thought; a meeting; an argument. But what was it about? Force . . .
“My dear Kitty,” Patrick interrupted, patting her hand with his great paw. “That’s another instance of what I’m telling you. Now these ladies have got the vote,” he said, turning to North, “are they any better off?”
Kitty looked fierce for a moment; then she smiled.
“We won’t argue, my old friend,” she said, giving him a little pat on the hand.
“And it’s just the same with the Irish,” he went on. North saw that he was bent on treading out the round of his familiar thoughts like an old broken-winded horse. “They’d be glad enough to join the Empire again, I assure you. I come of a family,” he said to North, “that has served its king and country for three hundred —”
“English settlers,” said Delia, rather shortly, returning to her soup. That’s what they quarrel about when they’re alone, North thought.
“We’ve been three hundred years in the country,” old Patrick continued, padding out his round — he laid a hand on North’s arm, “and what strikes an old fellow like me, an old fogy like me —”
“Nonsense, Patrick,” Delia struck in, “I’ve never seen you look younger. Might be fifty, mightn’t he, North?”
But Patrick shook his head.
“I shan’t see seventy again,” he said simply. “ . . . But what strikes an old fellow like me,” he continued, patting North’s arm, “is with such a lot of good feeling about,” he nodded rather vaguely at a placard that was pinned to the wall —“and nice things too,”— he referred perhaps to the flowers, but his head jerked involuntarily as he talked —“what do these fellows want to be shooting each other for? I don’t join any societies; I don’t sign any of these”— he pointed to the placard —“what d’you call ’em? manifestoes — I just go to my friend Mike, or it may be Pat — they’re all good friends of mine, and we —”
He stooped and pinched his foot.
“Lord, these shoes!” he complained.
“Tight, are they?” said Kitty. “Kick ’em off.”
Why had the poor old boy been brought over here, North wondered, and stuck into those tight shoes? He was clearly talking to his dogs. There was a look in his eyes now when he raised them again and tried to recover the drift of what he had been saying that was like the look of a sportsman who saw the birds rising in a semicircle over the wide green bog. But they were out of shot. He could not remember where he had got to. “ . . . We talk things over,” he said, “round a table.” His eyes became mild and vacant as if the engine were cut off, and his mind glided on silently.
“The English talk too,” said North perfunctorily. Patrick nodded, and looked vaguely at a group of young people. But he was not interested in what other people were saying. His mind could no longer stretch beyond its beat. His body was still beautifully proportioned; it was his mind that was old. He would say the same thing all over again, and when he had said it he would pick his teeth and sit gazing in front of him. There he sat now, holding a flower between his finger and thumb, loosely, without looking at it, as if his mind were gliding on — But Delia interrupted.
“North must go and talk to his friends,” she said. Like so many wives, she saw when her husband was becoming a bore, North thought, as he got up.
“Don’t wait to be introduced,” said Delia, waving her hand. “Do just what you like — just what you like,” her husband echoed her, beating on the table with his flower.
North was glad to go; but where was he to go now? He was an outsider, he felt again, as he glanced round the room. All these people knew each other. They called each other — he stood on the outskirts of a little group of young men and women — by their Christian names, by their nicknames. Each was already part of a little group, he felt as he listened, keeping on the outskirts. He wanted to hear what they were saying; but not to be drawn in himself. He listened. They were arguing. Politics and money, he said to himself; money and politics. That phrase came in handy. But he could not understand the argument, which was already heated. Never have I felt so lonely, he thought. The old platitude about solitude in a crowd was true; for hills and trees accept one; human beings reject one. He turned his back and pretended to read the particulars of a desirable property at Bexhill which Patrick had called for some reason “a manifesto.” “Running water in all the bedrooms,” he read. He overheard scraps of talk. That’s Oxford, that’s Harrow, he continued, recognising the tricks of speech that were caught at school and college. It seemed to him that they were still cutting little private jokes about Jones minor winning the long jump; and old Foxy, or whatever the headmaster’s name was. It was like hearing small boys at a private school, hearing these young men talk politics. “I’m right . . . you’re wrong.” At their age, he thought, he had been in the trenches; he had seen men killed. But was that a good education? He shifted from one foot to another. At their age, he thought, he had been alone on a farm sixty miles from a white man, in control of a herd of sheep. But was that a good education? Anyhow it seemed to him, half hearing their argument, looking at their gestures, catching their slang, that they were all the same sort. Public school and university, he sized them up as he looked over his shoulder. But where are the Sweeps and the Sewer-men, the Seamstresses and the Stevedores? he thought, making a list of trades that began with the letter S. For all Delia’s pride in her promiscuity, he thought, glancing at the people, there were only Dons and Duchesses, and what other words begin with D? he asked himself, as he scrutinised the placard again — Drabs and Drones?
He turned. A nice fresh-faced boy with a freckled nose in ordinary day clothes was looking at him. If he didn’t take care he would be drawn in too. Nothing would be easier than to join a society, to sign what Patrick called “a manifesto.” But he did not believe in joining societies, in signing manifestoes. He turned back to the desirable residence with its three-quarters of an acre of garden and running water in all the bedrooms. People met, he thought, pretending to read, in hired halls. And one of them stood on a platform. There was the pump-handle gesture; the wringing-wet- clothes gesture; and then the voice, oddly detached from the little figure and tremendously magnified by the loudspeaker, went booming and bawling round the hall: Justice! Liberty! For a moment, of course, sitting among knees, wedged in tight, a ripple, a nice emotional quiver, went over the skin; but next morning, he said to himself as he glanced again at the house-agents’ placard, there’s not an idea, not a phrase that would feed a sparrow. What do they mean by Justice and Liberty? he asked, all these nice young men with two or three hundred a year. Something’s wrong, he thought; there’s a gap, a dislocation, between the word and the reality. If they want to reform the world, he thought, why not begin there, at the centre, with themselves? He turned on his heel and ran straight into an old man in a white waistcoat.
“Hullo!” he said, holding out his hand.
It was his Uncle Edward. He had the look of an insect whose body has been eaten out, leaving only the wings, the shell.
“Very glad to see you back, North,” said Edward, and shook him warmly by the hand.
“Very glad,” he repeated. He was shy. He was spare and thin. He looked as if his face had been carved and graved by a multitude of fine instruments; as if it had been left out on a frosty night and frozen over. He threw his head back like a horse champing a bit; but he was an old horse, a blue-eyed horse whose bit no longer irked him. His movements were from habit, not from feeling. What had he been doing all these years? North wondered, as they stood there surveying each other. Editing Sophocles? What would happen if Sophocles one of these days were edited? What would they do then, these eaten out hollow-shelled old men?
“You’ve filled out,” said Edward, looking him up and down. “You’ve filled out,” he repeated.
There was a subtle deference in his manner. Edward, the scholar, paid tribute to North, the soldier. Yes, but they found it difficult to talk. He had the air of being stamped, North thought; he had kept something, after all, out of the hubbub.
“Shan’t we sit down?” said Edward, as if he wished to talk to him seriously about interesting things. They looked about for a quiet place. He had not frittered his time away talking to old red setters and raising his gun, North thought, glancing about him, to see if by chance there was a quiet place in the room where they could sit down and talk. But there were only two office stools empty beside Eleanor over there in the corner.
She saw them and called out, “Oh, there’s Edward! I know there was something I wanted to ask . . . ” she began.
It was a relief that the interview with the headmaster should be broken up by this impulsive, foolish old woman. She was holding out her pocket-handkerchief.
“I made a knot,” she was saying. Yes, there it was, a knot in her pocket-handkerchief.
“Now what did I make a knot for?” she said, looking up.
“It is an admirable habit to make a knot,” said Edward in his courteous, clipped way, lowering himself a little stiffly onto the chair beside her. “But at the same time it is advisable. . . . ” He stopped. That’s what I like about him, North thought, taking the other chair: he left half his sentence unfinished.
“It was to remind me —” said Eleanor putting her hand to her thick crop of white hair. Then she stopped. What is it that makes him look so calm, so carved, North thought, stealing a look at Edward, who waited with admirable serenity for his sister to remember why she had made a knot in her handkerchief. There was something final about him; he left half his sentences unfinished. He hadn’t worried himself about politics and money, he thought. There was something sealed up, stated, about him. Poetry and the past, was it? But as he fixed his eyes upon him, Edward smiled at his sister.
“Well, Nell?” he said.
It was a quiet smile, a tolerant smile.
North broke in, for Eleanor was still ruminating over her knot. “I met a man at the Cape who was a tremendous admirer of yours, Uncle Edward,” he said. The name came back to him —“Arbuthnot,” he said.
“R. K.?” said Edward. And he raised his hand to his head and smiled. It pleased him, that compliment. He was vain; he was touchy; he was — North stole a glance to add another impression — established. Glazed over with the smooth glossy varnish that those in authority wear. For he was now — what? North could not remember. A professor? A master? Somebody who had an attitude fixed on him, from which he could not relax any longer. Still, Arbuthnot, R. K., had said, with emotion, that he owed more to Edward than to any man.
“He said he owed more to you than to any man,” he said aloud.
Edward brushed aside the compliment; but it pleased him. He had a way of putting his hand to his head that North remembered. And Eleanor called him “Nigs.” She laughed at him; she preferred failures, like Morris. There she sat holding her pocket- handkerchief in her hand, smiling, ironically, covertly, at some memory.
“And what are your plans?” said Edward. “You deserve a holiday.”
There was something flattering in his manner, North thought, like a schoolmaster welcoming back to school an old boy who had won distinction. But he meant it; he doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean, North thought, and that was alarming too. They were silent.
“Delia’s got a wonderful lot of people here tonight, hasn’t she?” said Edward, turning to Eleanor. They sat looking at the different groups. His clear blue eyes surveyed the scene amiably but sardonically. But what’s he thinking, North asked himself. He’s got something behind that mask, he thought. Something that’s kept him clear of this muddle. The past? Poetry? he thought, looking at Edward’s distinct profile. It was finer than he remembered.
“I’d like to brush up my classics,” he said suddenly. “Not that I ever had much to brush,” he added, foolishly, afraid of the schoolmaster.
Edward did not seem to be listening. He was raising his eyeglass and letting it fall, as he looked at the queer jumble. There his head rested with the chin thrown up, on the back of his chair. The crowd, the noise, the clatter of knives and forks, made it unnecessary to talk. North stole another glance at him. The past and poetry, he said to himself, that’s what I want to talk about, he thought. He wanted to say it aloud. But Edward was too formed and idiosyncratic; too black and white and linear, with his head tilted up on the back of his chair, to ask him questions easily.
Now he was talking about Africa, and North wanted to talk about the past and poetry. There it was, he thought, locked up in that fine head, the head that was like a Greek boy’s head grown white; the past and poetry. Then why not prise it open? Why not share it? What’s wrong with him, he thought, as he answered the usual intelligent Englishman’s questions about Africa and the state of the country. Why can’t he flow? Why can’t he pull the string of the shower bath? Why’s it all locked up, refrigerated? Because he’s a priest, a mystery monger, he thought; feeling his coldness; this guardian of beautiful words.
But Edward was speaking to him.
“We must arrange a date,” he was saying, “next autumn.” He meant it too.
“Yes,” North said aloud, “I’d love to. . . . In the autumn. . . . ” And he saw before him a house with creeper-shaded rooms, butlers creeping, decanters, and some one handing a box of good cigars.
Unknown young men coming round with trays pressed different eatables upon them.
“How very kind of you!” said Eleanor, taking a glass. He himself took a glass of some yellow liquid. It was some kind of claret cup, he supposed. The little bubbles kept rising to the top and exploding. He watched them rise and explode.
“Who’s that pretty girl,” said Edward, inclining his head, “over there, standing in the corner, talking to the youth?”
He was benignant and urbane.
“Aren’t they lovely?” said Eleanor. “Just what I was thinking. . . . Everyone looks so young. That’s Maggie’s daughter.. .. But who’s that talking to Kitty?”
“That’s Middleton,” said Edward. “What, don’t you remember him? You must have met him in the old days.”
They chatted, basking there at their ease. Spinners and sitters in the sun, North thought, taking their ease when the day’s work is over; Eleanor and Edward each in his own niche, with his hands on the fruit, tolerant, assured.
He watched the bubbles rising in the yellow liquid. For them it’s all right, he thought; they’ve had their day: but not for him, not for his generation. For him a life modelled on the jet (he was watching the bubbles rise), on the spring, of the hard leaping fountain; another life; a different life. Not halls and reverberating megaphones; not marching in step after leaders, in herds, groups, societies, caparisoned. No; to begin inwardly, and let the devil take the outer form, he thought, looking up at a young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin. Not black shirts, green shirts, red shirts — always posing in the public eye; that’s all poppycock. Why not down barriers and simplify? But a world, he thought, that was all one jelly, one mass, would be a rice pudding world, a white counterpane world. To keep the emblems and tokens of North Pargiter — the man Maggie laughs at; the Frenchman holding his hat; but at the same time spread out, make a new ripple in human consciousness, be the bubble and the stream, the stream and the bubble — myself and the world together — he raised his glass. Anonymously, he said, looking at the clear yellow liquid. But what do I mean, he wondered — I, to whom ceremonies are suspect, and religion’s dead; who don’t fit, as the man said, don’t fit in anywhere? He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought — he looked at Eleanor, who sat with a silk handkerchief in her hands — unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives?
“Runcorn’s boy,” Eleanor suddenly ejaculated. “The son of the porter at my flat,” she explained. She had untied the knot in her handkerchief.
“The son of the porter at your flat,” Edward repeated. His eyes were like a field on which the sun rests in winter, North thought, looking up — the winter’s sun, that has no heat left in it but some pale beauty.
“Commissionaire they call him, I think,” she said.
“How I hate that word!” said Edward with a little shudder. “Porter’s good English, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I say,” said Eleanor. “The son of the Porter at my flat. . . . Well, he wants, they want him to go to college. So I said if I saw you, I’d ask you —”
“Of course, of course,” said Edward kindly.
And that’s all right, North said to himself. That’s the human voice at its natural speaking level. Of course, of course, he repeated.
“He wants to go to college, does he?” Edward went on. “What examinations has he passed, eh?”
What examinations has he passed, eh? North repeated. He repeated that too, but critically, as if he were actor and critic; he listened but he commented. He surveyed the thin yellow liquid in which the bubbles rose more slowly, one by one. Eleanor did not know what examinations he had passed. And what was I thinking? North asked himself. He felt that he had been in the middle of a jungle; in the heart of darkness; cutting his way towards the light; but provided only with broken sentences, single words, with which to break through the briar-bush of human bodies, human wills and voices, that bent over him, binding him, blinding him. . . . He listened.
“Well then, tell him to come and see me,” said Edward, briskly.
“But that’s asking too much of you, Edward?” Eleanor protested.
“That’s what I’m for,” said Edward.
That’s the right tone of voice too, North thought. Not carapaced — the words “caparison” and “carapace” collided in his mind, and made a new word that was no word. What I mean is, he added, taking a drink of his claret cup, underneath there’s the fountain; the sweet nut. The fruit, the fountain that’s in all of us; in Edward; in Eleanor; so why caparison ourselves on top? He looked up.
A big man had stopped in front of them. He bent over and very politely gave Eleanor his hand. He had to bend, for his white waistcoat enclosed so magnificent a sphere. “Alas,” he was saying in a voice that was oddly mellifluous for one of his bulk, “I’d love nothing more; but I have a meeting at ten tomorrow morning.” They were inviting him to sit down and talk. He was tittupping up and down on his little feet in front of them.
“Throw it over!” said Eleanor, smiling up at him, just as she used to smile when she was a girl with her brother’s friends, thought North. Then why hadn’t she married one of them, he wondered. Why do we hide all the things that matter? he asked himself.
“And leave my directors cooling their heels? As much as my place is worth!” the old friend was saying, and swung round on his heel with the agility of a trained elephant.
“Seems a long time since he acted in the Greek play, doesn’t it?” said Edward. “ . . . in a toga,” he added with a grin, following the well-rounded person of the great railway magnate as he went with a certain celerity, for he was a perfect man of the world, through the crowd to the door.
“That’s Chipperfield, the great railway man,” he explained to North. “A very remarkable fellow,” he went on. “Son of a railway porter.” He made little pauses between each sentence. “Done it all off his own bat. . . . A delightful house . . . Perfectly restored. . . . Two or three hundred acres, I suppose. . . . Has his shooting. . . . Asks me to direct his reading. . . . And buys old masters.”
“And buys old masters,” North repeated. The deft little sentences seemed to build up a pagoda; sparely but accurately; and through it all ran some queer breath of mockery tinged with affection.
“Shams, I should think,” Eleanor laughed.
“Well, we needn’t go into that,” Edward chuckled. Then they were silent. The pagoda floated off. Chipperfield had vanished through the door.
“How nice this drink is,” Eleanor said above his head. North could see her glass held at the level of his head on her knee. A thin green leaf floated on top of it. “I hope it’s not intoxicating?” she said, raising it.
North took up his glass again. What was I thinking last time I looked at it? he asked himself. A block had formed in his forehead as if two thoughts had collided and had stopped the passage of the rest. His mind was a blank. He swayed the liquid from side to side. He was in the middle of a dark forest.
“So, North . . . ” His own name roused him with a start. It was Edward speaking. He jerked forward. “ . . . you want to brush up your classics, do you?” Edward went on. “I’m glad to hear you say that. There’s a lot in those old fellows. But the younger generation,” he paused, “ . . . don’t seem to want ’em.”
“How foolish!” said Eleanor. “I was reading one of them the other day . . . the one you translated. Now which was it?” She paused. She never could remember names. “The one about the girl who . . . ”
“The Antigone?” Edward suggested.
“Yes! The Antigone!” she exclaimed. “And I thought to myself, just what you say, Edward — how true — how beautiful . . . .”
She broke off, as if afraid to continue.
Edward nodded. He paused. Then suddenly he jerked his head back and said some words in Greek: “[Greek text].”
North looked up.
“Translate it,” he said.
Edward shook his head. “It’s the language,” he said.
Then he shut up. It’s no go, North thought. He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. He’s afraid too, he thought, looking at the young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin who was gesticulating too emphatically. We’re all afraid of each other, he thought; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently. . . . He’s afraid of me because I’m a farmer (and he saw again his round face; high cheek-bones and small brown eyes). And I’m afraid of him because he’s clever. He looked at the big forehead, from which the hair was already receding. That’s what separates us; fear, he thought.
He shifted his position. He wanted to get up and talk to him. Delia had said, “Don’t wait to be introduced.” But it was difficult to speak to a man whom he did not know, and say: “What’s this knot in the middle of my forehead? Untie it.” For he had had enough of thinking alone. Thinking alone tied knots in the middle of the forehead; thinking alone bred pictures, foolish pictures. The man was moving off. He must make the effort. Yet he hesitated. He felt repelled and attracted, attracted and repelled. He began to rise; but before he had got on his feet somebody thumped on a table with a fork.
A large man sitting at a table in the corner was thumping on the table with his fork. He was leaning forward as if he wanted to attract attention, as if he were about to make a speech. It was the man Peggy called Brown; the others called Nicholas; whose real name he did not know. Perhaps he was a little drunk.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he repeated rather more loudly.
“What, a speech?” said Edward quizzically. He half turned his chair; he raised his eyeglass, which hung on a black silk ribbon as if it were a foreign order.
People were buzzing about with plates and glasses. They were stumbling over cushions on the floor. A girl pitched head foremost.
“Hurt yourself?” said a young man, stretching out his hand.
No, she had not hurt herself. But the interruption had distracted attention from the speech. A buzz of talk had risen like the buzz of flies over sugar. Nicholas sat down again. He was lost apparently in contemplation of the red stone in his ring; or of the strewn flowers; the white, waxy flowers, the pale, semi-transparent flowers, the crimson flowers that were so full-blown that the gold heart showed, and the petals had fallen and lay among the hired knives and forks, the cheap tumblers on the table. Then he roused himself.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he began. Again he thumped the table with his fork. There was a momentary lull. Rose marched across the room.
“Going to make a speech, are you?” she demanded. “Go on, I like hearing speeches.” She stood beside him, with her hand hollowed round her ear like a military man. Again the buzz of talk had broken out.
“Silence!” she exclaimed. She took a knife and rapped on the table.
“Silence! Silence!” She rapped again.
Martin crossed the room.
“What’s Rose making such a noise about?” he asked.
“I’m asking for silence!” she said, flourishing her knife in his face. “This gentleman wants to make a speech!”
But he had sat down and was regarding his ring with equanimity.
“Isn’t she the very spit and image,” said Martin, laying his hand on Rose’s shoulder and turning to Eleanor as if to confirm his words, “of old Uncle Pargiter of Pargiter’s Horse?”
“Well, I’m proud of it!” said Rose, brandishing her knife in his face. “I’m proud of my family; proud of my country; proud of . . . ”
“Your sex?” he interrupted her.
“I am,” she asseverated. “And what about you?” she went on, tapping him on the shoulder. “Proud of yourself, are you?”
“Don’t quarrel, children, don’t quarrel!” cried Eleanor, giving her chair a little edge nearer. “They always would quarrel,” she said, “always . . . always. . . . ”
“She was a horrid little spitfire,” said Martin, squatting down on the floor, and looking up at Rose, “with her hair scraped off her forehead . . . ”
“ . . . wearing a pink frock,” Rose added. She sat down abruptly, holding her knife erect in her hand. “A pink frock; a pink frock,” she repeated, as if the words recalled something.
“But go on with your speech, Nicholas,” said Eleanor, turning to him. He shook his head.
“Let us talk about pink frocks,” he smiled.
“ . . . in the drawing-room at Abercorn Terrace, when we were children,” said Rose. “D’you remember?” She looked at Martin. He nodded his head.
“In the drawing-room at Abercorn Terrace . . . ” said Delia. She was going from table to table with a great jug of claret cup. She stopped in front of them. “Abercorn Terrace!” she exclaimed, filling a glass. She flung her head back and looked for a moment astonishingly young, handsome, and defiant.
“It was Hell!” she exclaimed. “It was Hell!” she repeated.
“Oh come, Delia . . . ” Martin protested, holding out his glass to be filled.
“It was Hell,” she said, dropping her Irish manner, and speaking quite simply, as she poured out the drink.
“D’you know,” she said, looking at Eleanor, “when I go to Paddington, I always say to the man, ‘Drive the other way round!’”
“That’s enough . . . ” Martin stopped her; his glass was full. “I hated it too . . . ” he began.
But here Kitty Lasswade advanced upon them. She held her glass in front of her as though it were a bauble.
“What’s Martin hating now?” she said, facing him.
A polite gentleman pushed forward a little gilt chair upon which she sat down.
“He always was a hater,” she said, holding her glass out to be filled.
“What was it you hated that night, Martin, when you dined with us?” she asked him. “I remember how angry you made me . . . .”
She smiled at him. He had grown cherubic; pink and plump; with his hair brushed back like a waiter’s.
“Hated? I never hated anybody,” he protested.
“My heart’s full of love; my heart’s full of kindness,” he laughed, waving his glass at her.
“Nonsense,” said Kitty. “When you were young you hated . . . everything!” she flung her hand out. “My house . . . my friends. . . . ” She broke off with a quick little sigh. She saw them again — the men filing in; the women pinching some dress between their thumbs and fingers. She lived alone now, in the north.
“ . . . and I daresay I’m better off as I am,” she added, half to herself, “with just a boy to chop up wood.”
There was a pause.
“Now let him get on with his speech,” said Eleanor.
“Yes. Get on with your speech!” said Rose. Again she rapped her knife on the table; again he half rose.
“Going to make a speech, is he?” said Kitty, turning to Edward who had drawn his chair up beside her.
“The only place where oratory is now practised as an art . . . ” Edward began. Then he paused, drew his chair a little closer, and adjusted his glasses, “ . . . is the church,” he added.
That’s why I didn’t marry you, Kitty said to herself. How the voice, the supercilious voice, brought it back! the tree half fallen; rain falling; undergraduates calling; bells tolling; she and her mother. . . .
But Nicholas had risen. He took a deep breath which expanded his shirt front. With one hand he fumbled with his fob; the other he flung out with an oratorical gesture.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he began again. “In the name of all who have enjoyed themselves tonight. . . . ”
“Speak up! Speak up!” the young men cried who were standing in the window.
(“Is he a foreigner?” Kitty whispered to Eleanor.)
“ . . . in the name of all who have enjoyed themselves tonight,” he repeated more loudly, “I wish to thank our host and hostess. . . . ”
“Oh, don’t thank me!” said Delia brushing past them with her empty jug.
Again the speech was brought to the ground. He must be a foreigner, Kitty thought to herself, because he has no self- consciousness. There he stood holding his wine-glass and smiling.
“Go on, go on,” she urged him. “Don’t mind them.” She was in the mood for a speech. A speech was a good thing at parties. It gave them a fillip. It gave them a finish. She rapped her glass on the table.
“It’s very nice of you,” said Delia, trying to push past him, but he had laid his hand on her arm, “but don’t thank me.”
“But Delia,” he expostulated, still holding her, “it’s not what you want; it’s what we want. And it is fitting,” he continued, waving his hand out, “when our hearts are full of gratitude . . . ”
Now he’s getting into his stride, Kitty thought. I daresay he’s a bit of an orator. Most foreigners are.
“ . . . when our hearts are full of gratitude,” he repeated, touching one finger.
“What for?” said a voice abruptly.
Nicholas stopped again.
(“Who is that dark man?” Kitty whispered to Eleanor. “I’ve been wondering all the evening.”
“Renny,” Eleanor whispered. “Renny,” she repeated.)
“What for?” said Nicholas. “That is what I am about to tell you. . . . ” He paused, and drew a deep breath which again expanded his waistcoat. His eyes beamed; he seemed full of spontaneous subterraneous benevolence. But here a head popped up over the edge of the table; a hand swept up a fistful of flower petals; and a voice cried:
“Red Rose, thorny Rose, brave Rose, tawny Rose!” The petals were thrown, fan-shape, over the stout old woman who was sitting on the edge of her chair. She looked up in surprise. Petals had fallen on her. She brushed them where they had lodged upon the prominences of her person. “Thank you! Thank you!” she exclaimed. Then she took up a flower and beat it energetically upon the edge of the table. “But I want my speech!” she said, looking at Nicholas.
“No, no,” he said. “This is not a time for making speeches,” and sat down again.
“Let’s drink then,” said Martin. He raised his glass. “Pargiter of Pargiter’s Horse!” he said. “I drink to her!” He put his glass down with a thump on the table.
“Oh, if you’re all drinking healths,” said Kitty, “I’ll drink too. Rose, your health. Rose is a fine fellow,” she said, raising her glass. “But Rose was wrong,” she added. “Force is always wrong — don’t you agree with me, Edward?” She tapped him on the knee. I’d forgotten the War, she muttered half to herself. “Still,” she said aloud, “Rose had the courage of her convictions. Rose went to prison. And I drink to her!” She drank.
“The same to you, Kitty,” said Rose, bowing to her.
“She smashed his window,” Martin jeered at her, “and then she helped him to smash other people’s windows. Where’s your decoration, Rose?”
“In a cardboard box on the mantelpiece,” said Rose. “You can’t get a rise out of me at this time of day, my good fellow.”
“But I wish you had let Nicholas finish his speech,” said Eleanor.
Down through the ceiling, muted and far away, came the preliminary notes of another dance. The young people, hastily swallowing what remained in their glasses, rose and began to move off upstairs. Soon there was the sound of feet thudding, rhythmically, heavily on the floor above.
“Another dance?” said Eleanor. It was a waltz. “When we were young,” she said, looking at Kitty, “we used to dance . . . .” The tune seemed to take her words and to repeat them — when I was young I used to dance — I used to dance. . . .
“And how I hated it!” said Kitty, looking at her fingers, which were short and pricked. “How nice it is,” she said, “not to be young! How nice not to mind what people think! Now one can live as one likes,” she added, “ . . . now that one’s seventy.”
She paused. She raised her eyebrows as if she remembered something. “Pity one can’t live again,” she said. But she broke off.
“Aren’t we going to have our speech after all, Mr —?” she said, looking at Nicholas, whose name she did not know. He sat gazing benevolently in front of him, paddling his hands among the flower petals.
“What’s the good?” he said. “Nobody wants to listen.” They listened to the feet thudding upstairs, and to the music repeating, it seemed to Eleanor, when I was young I used to dance, all men loved me when I was young. . . .
“But I want a speech!” said Kitty in her authoritative manner. It was true; she wanted something — something that gave a fillip, a finish — what she scarcely knew. But not the past — not memories. The present; the future; that was what she wanted.
“There’s Peggy!” said Eleanor, looking round. She was sitting on the edge of a table, eating a ham sandwich.
“Come, Peggy!” she called out. “Come and talk to us!”
“Speak for the younger generation, Peggy!” said Lady Lasswade, shaking hands.
“But I’m not the younger generation,” said Peggy. “And I’ve made my speech already,” she said. “I made a fool of myself upstairs,” she said, sinking down on the floor at Eleanor’s feet.
“Then, North . . . ” said Eleanor, looking down on the parting of North’s hair as he sat on the floor beside her.
“Yes, North,” said Peggy, looking at him across her aunt’s knee. “North says we talk of nothing but money and politics,” she added. “Tell us what we ought to do.” He started. He had been dozing off, dazed by the music and voices. What we ought to do? he said to himself, waking up. What ought we to do?
He jerked up into a sitting posture. He saw Peggy’s face looking at him. Now she was smiling; her face was gay; it reminded him of his grandmother’s face in the picture. But he saw it as he had seen it upstairs — scarlet, puckered — as if she were about to burst into tears. It was her face that was true; not her words. But only her words returned to him — to live differently — differently. He paused. This is what needs courage, he said to himself; to speak the truth. She was listening. The old people were already gossiping about their own affairs.
“ . . . It’s a nice little house,” Kitty was saying. “An old mad woman used to live there. . . . You’ll have to come and stay with me, Nell. In the spring. . . . ”
Peggy was watching him over the rim of her ham sandwich.
“What you said was true,” he blurted out, “ . . . quite true.” It was what she meant that was true, he corrected himself; her feeling, not her words. He felt her feeling now; it was not about him; it was about other people; about another world, a new world. . . .
The old aunts and uncles were gossiping above him.
“What was the name of the man I used to like so much at Oxford?” Lady Lasswade was saying. He could see her silver body bending towards Edward.
“The man you liked at Oxford?” Edward was repeating. “I thought you never liked anyone at Oxford. . . . ” And they laughed.
But Peggy was waiting, she was watching him. He saw again the glass with the bubbles rising; he felt again the constriction of a knot in his forehead. He wished there were someone, infinitely wise and good, to think for him, to answer for him. But the young man with the receding forehead had vanished.
“ . . . To live differently . . . differently,” he repeated. Those were her words; they did not altogether fit his meaning; but he had to use them. Now I’ve made a fool of myself too, he thought, as a ripple of some disagreeable sensation went across his back as if a knife had sliced it, and he leant against the wall.
“Yes, it was Robson!” Lady Lasswade exclaimed. Her trumpet voice rang out over his head.
“How one forgets things!” she went on. “Of course — Robson. That was his name. And the girl I used to like — Nelly? The girl who was going to be a doctor?”
“Died, I think,” said Edward.
“Died, did she — died —” said Lady Lasswade. She paused for a moment. “Well, I wish you’d make your speech,” she said, turning and looking down at North.
He drew himself back. No more speech-making for me, he thought. He had his glass in his hand still. It was still half full of pale yellow liquid. The bubbles had ceased to rise. The wine was clear and still. Stillness and solitude, he thought to himself; silence and solitude . . . that’s the only element in which the mind is free now.
Silence and solitude, he repeated; silence and solitude. His eyes half closed themselves. He was tired; he was dazed; people talked; people talked. He would detach himself, generalise himself, imagine that he was lying in a great space on a blue plain with hills on the rim of the horizon. He stretched out his feet. There were the sheep cropping; slowly tearing the grass; advancing first one stiff leg and then another. And babbling — babbling. He made no sense of what they were saying. Through his half-open eyes he saw hands holding flowers — thin hands, fine hands; but hands that belonged to no one. And were they flowers the hands held? Or mountains? Blue mountains with violet shadows? Then petals fell. Pink, yellow, white with violet shadows, the petals fell. They fall and fall and cover all, he murmured. And there was the stem of a wine-glass; the rim of a plate; and a bowl of water. The hands went on picking up flower after flower; that was a white rose; that was a yellow rose; that was a rose with violet valleys in its petals. There they hung, many folded, many coloured, drooping over the rim of the bowl. And petals fell. There they lay, violet and yellow, little shallops, boats on a river. And he was floating, and drifting, in a shallop, in a petal, down a river into silence, into solitude . . . which is the worst torture, the words came back to him as if a voice had spoken them, that human beings can inflict. . . .
“Wake up, North . . . we want your speech!” a voice interrupted him. Kitty’s red handsome face was hanging over him.
“Maggie!” he exclaimed, pulling himself up. It was she who was sitting there, putting flowers into water. “Yes, it’s Maggie’s turn to speak,” said Nicholas, putting his hand on her knee.
“Speak, speak!” Renny urged her.
But she shook her head. Laughter took her and shook her. She laughed, throwing her head back as if she were possessed by some genial spirit outside herself that made her bend and rise, as a tree, North thought, is tossed and bent by the wind. No idols, no idols, no idols, her laughter seemed to chime as if the tree were hung with innumerable bells, and he laughed too.
Their laughter ceased. Feet thudded, dancing on the floor above. A siren hooted on the river. A van crashed down the street in the distance. There was a rush and quiver of sound; something seemed to be released; it was as if the life of the day were about to begin, and this were the chorus, the cry, the chirp, the stir, which salutes the London dawn.
Kitty turned to Nicholas.
“And what was your speech going to have been about, Mr . . . I’m afraid I don’t know your name?” she said.
“ . . . the one that was interrupted?”
“My speech?” he laughed. “It was to have been a miracle!” he said. “A masterpiece! But how can one speak when one is always interrupted? I begin: I say, Let us give thanks. Then Delia says, Don’t thank me. I begin again: I say, Let us give thanks to someone, to somebody . . . And Renny says, What for? I begin again, and look — Eleanor is sound asleep.” (He pointed at her.) “So what’s the good?”
“Oh, but there is some good —” Kitty began.
She still wanted something — some finish, some fillip — what she did not know. And it was getting late. She must go.
“Tell me, privately, what you were going to have said, Mr —?” she asked him.
“What I was going to have said? I was going to have said —” he paused and stretched his hand out; he touched each finger separately.
“First I was going to have thanked our host and hostess. Then I was going to have thanked this house —” he waved his hand round the room hung with the placards of the house agent, “— which has sheltered the lovers, the creators, the men and women of goodwill. And finally —” he took his glass in his hand, “I was going to drink to the human race. The human race,” he continued, raising his glass to his lips, “which is now in its infancy, may it grow to maturity! Ladies and gentlemen!” he exclaimed, half rising and expanding his waistcoat, “I drink to that!”
He brought his glass down with a thump on the table. It broke.
“That’s the thirteenth glass broken tonight!” said Delia, coming up and stopping in front of them. “But don’t mind — don’t mind. They’re very cheap — glasses.”
“What’s very cheap?” Eleanor murmured. She half opened her eyes. But where was she? In what room? In which of the innumerable rooms? Always there were rooms; always there were people. Always from the beginning of time. . . . She shut her hands on the coins she was holding, and again she was suffused with a feeling of happiness. Was it because this had survived — this keen sensation (she was waking up) and the other thing, the solid object — she saw an ink-corroded walrus — had vanished? She opened her eyes wide. Here she was; alive; in this room, with living people. She saw all the heads in a circle. At first they were without identity. Then she recognised them. That was Rose; that was Martin; that was Morris. He had hardly any hair on the top of his head. There was a curious pallor on his face.
There was a curious pallor on all their faces as she looked round. The brightness had gone out of the electric lights; the table- cloths looked whiter. North’s head — he was sitting on the floor at her feet — was rimmed with whiteness. His shirt-front was a little crumpled.
He was sitting on the floor at Edward’s feet with his hands bound round his knees, and he gave little jerks and looked up at him as if he appealed to him about something.
“Uncle Edward,” she heard him say, “tell me this . . . ”
He was like a child asking to be told a story.
“Tell me this,” he repeated, giving another little jerk. “You’re a scholar. About the classics now. Aeschylus. Sophocles. Pindar.”
Edward bent towards him.
“And the chorus,” North jerked on again. She leant towards them. “The chorus —” North repeated.
“My dear boy,” she heard Edward say as he smiled benignly down at him, “don’t ask me. I was never a great hand at that. No, if I’d had my way”— he paused and passed his hand over his forehead —“I should have been . . . ” A burst of laughter drowned his words. She could not catch the end of the sentence. What had he said — what had he wished to be? She had lost his words.
There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves. We’re only just beginning, she thought, to understand, here and there. She hollowed her hands in her lap, just as Rose had hollowed hers round her ears. She held her hands hollowed; she felt that she wanted to enclose the present moment; to make it stay; to fill it fuller and fuller, with the past, the present and the future, until it shone, whole, bright, deep with understanding.
“Edward,” she began, trying to attract his attention. But he was not listening to her; he was telling North some old college story. It’s useless, she thought, opening her hands. It must drop. It must fall. And then? she thought. For her too there would be the endless night; the endless dark. She looked ahead of her as though she saw opening in front of her a very long dark tunnel. But, thinking of the dark, something baffled her; in fact it was growing light. The blinds were white.
There was a stir in the room.
Edward turned to her.
“Who are they?” he asked her, pointing to the door.
She looked. Two children stood in the door. Delia had her hands on their shoulders as if to encourage them. She was leading them over to the table in order to give them something to eat. They looked awkward and clumsy.
Eleanor glanced at their hands, at their clothes, at the shape of their ears. “The children of the caretaker, I should think,” she said. Yes, Delia was cutting slices of cake for them, and they were larger slices of cake than she would have cut had they been the children of her own friends. The children took the slices and stared at them with a curious fixed stare as if they were fierce. But perhaps they were frightened, because she had brought them up from the basement into the drawing-room.
“Eat it!” said Delia, giving them a little pat.
They began to munch slowly, gazing solemnly round them.
“Hullo, children!” cried Martin, beckoning to them. They stared at him solemnly.
“Haven’t you got a name?” he said. They went on eating in silence. He began to fumble in his pocket.
“Speak!” he said. “Speak!”
“The younger generation,” said Peggy, “don’t mean to speak.”
They turned their eyes on her now; but they went on munching. “No school tomorrow?” she said. They shook their heads from side to side.
“Hurrah!” said Martin. He held the coins in his hand; pressed between his thumb and finger. “Now — sing a song for sixpence!” he said.
“Yes. Weren’t you taught something at school?” Peggy asked.
They stared at her but remained silent. They had stopped eating. They were a centre of a little group. They swept their eyes over the grown-up people for a moment, then, each giving the other a little nudge, they burst into song:
Etho passo tanno hai,
Fai donk to tu do,
Mai to, kai to, lai to see
Toh dom to tuh do —
That was what it sounded like. Not a word was recognisable. The distorted sounds rose and sank as if they followed a tune. They stopped.
They stood with their hands behind their backs. Then with one impulse they attacked the next verse:
Fanno to par, etto to mar,
Timin tudo, tido,
Foll to gar in, mitno to par,
Eido, teido, meido —
They sang the second verse more fiercely than the first. The rhythm seemed to rock and the unintelligible words ran themselves together almost into a shriek. The grown-up people did not know whether to laugh or to cry. Their voices were so harsh; the accent was so hideous.
They burst out again:
Chree to gay ei,
Geeray didax. . . .
Then they stopped. It seemed to be in the middle of a verse. They stood there grinning, silent, looking at the floor. Nobody knew what to say. There was something horrible in the noise they made. It was so shrill, so discordant, and so meaningless. Then old Patrick ambled up.
“Ah, that’s very nice, that’s very nice. Thank you, my dears,” he said in his genial way, fiddling with his toothpick. The children grinned at him. Then they began to make off. As they sidled past Martin, he slipped coins into their hands. Then they made a dash for the door.
“But what the devil were they singing?” said Hugh Gibbs. “I couldn’t understand a word of it, I must confess.” He held his hands to the sides of his large white waistcoat.
“Cockney accent, I suppose,” said Patrick. “What they teach ’em at school, you know.”
“But it was . . . ” Eleanor began. She stopped. What was it? As they stood there they had looked so dignified; yet they had made this hideous noise. The contrast between their faces and their voices was astonishing; it was impossible to find one word for the whole. “Beautiful?” she said, with a note of interrogation, turning to Maggie.
“Extraordinarily,” said Maggie.
But Eleanor was not sure that they were thinking of the same thing.
She gathered together her gloves, her bag and two or three coppers, and got up. The room was full of a queer pale light. Objects seemed to be rising out of their sleep, out of their disguise, and to be assuming the sobriety of daily life. The room was making ready for its use as an estate agent’s office. The tables were becoming office tables; their legs were the legs of office tables, and yet they were still strewn with plates and glasses, with roses, lilies and carnations.
“It’s time to go,” she said, crossing the room. Delia had gone to the window. Now she jerked the curtains open.
“The dawn!” she exclaimed rather melodramatically.
The shapes of houses appeared across the square. Their blinds were all drawn; they seemed fast asleep still in the morning pallor.
“The dawn!” said Nicholas, getting up and stretching himself. He too walked across to the window. Renny followed him.
“Now for the peroration,” he said, standing with him in the window. “The dawn — the new day —”
He pointed at the trees, at the roofs, at the sky.
“No,” said Nicholas, holding back the curtain. “There you are mistaken. There is going to be no peroration — no peroration!” he exclaimed, throwing his arm out, “because there was no speech.”
“But the dawn has risen,” said Renny, pointing at the sky.
It was a fact. The sun had risen. The sky between the chimneys looked extraordinarily blue.
“And I am going to bed,” said Nicholas after a pause. He turned away.
“Where is Sara?” he said, looking round him. There she was curled up in a corner with her head against a table asleep apparently.
“Wake your sister, Magdalena,” he said, turning to Maggie. Maggie looked at her. Then she took a flower from the table and tossed it at her. She half-opened her eyes. “It’s time,” said Maggie, touching her on the shoulder. “Time, is it?” she sighed. She yawned and stretched herself. She fixed her eyes on Nicholas as if she were bringing him back to the field of vision. Then she laughed.
“Nicholas!” she exclaimed.
“Sara!” he replied. They smiled at each other. Then he helped her up and she balanced herself uncertainly against her sister, and rubbed her eyes.
“How strange,” she murmured, looking round heir, “ . . . how strange. . . . ”
There were the smeared plates, and the empty wine-glasses; the petals and the bread crumbs. In the mixture of lights they looked prosaic but unreal; cadaverous but brilliant. And there against the window, gathered in a group, were the old brothers and sisters.
“Look, Maggie,” she whispered, turning to her sister, “Look!” She pointed at the Pargiters, standing in the window.
The group in the window, the men in their black-and-white evening dress, the women in their crimsons, golds and silvers, wore a statuesque air for a moment, as if they were carved in stone. Their dresses fell in stiff sculptured folds. Then they moved; they changed their attitudes; they began to talk.
“Can’t I give you a lift back, Nell?” Kitty Lasswade was saying. “I’ve a car waiting.”
Eleanor did not answer. She was looking at the curtained houses across the square. The windows were spotted with gold. Everything looked clean swept, fresh and virginal. The pigeons were shuffling on the tree tops.
“I’ve a car . . . ” Kitty repeated.
“Listen . . . ” said Eleanor, raising her hand. Upstairs they were playing “God save the King” on the gramophone; but it was the pigeons she meant; they were crooning.
“That’s wood pigeons, isn’t it?” said Kitty. She put her head on one side to listen. Take two coos, Taffy, take two coos . . . tak . . . they were crooning.
“Wood pigeons?” said Edward, putting his hand to his ear.
“There on the tree tops,” said Kitty. The green-blue birds were shuffling about on the branches, pecking and crooning to themselves.
Morris brushed the crumbs off his waistcoat.
“What an hour for us old fogies to be out of bed!” he said. “I haven’t seen the sun rise since . . . since. . . . ”
“Ah, but when we were young,” said old Patrick, slapping him on the shoulder, “we thought nothing of making a night of it! I remember going to Covent Garden and buying roses for a certain lady . . . ”
Delia smiled as if some romance, her own or another’s, had been recalled to her.
“And I . . . ” Eleanor began. She stopped. She saw an empty milk jug and leaves falling. Then it had been autumn. Now it was summer. The sky was a faint blue; the roofs were tinged purple against the blue; the chimneys were a pure brick red. An air of ethereal calm and simplicity lay over everything.
“And all the tubes have stopped, and all the omnibuses,” she said turning round. “How are we going to get home?”
“We can walk,” said Rose. “Walking won’t do us any harm.”
“Not on a fine summer morning,” said Martin.
A breeze went through the square. In the stillness they could hear the branches rustle as they rose slightly, and fell, and shook a wave of green light through the air.
Then the door burst open. Couple after couple came flocking in, dishevelled, gay, to look for their cloaks and their hats, to say good-night.
“It’s been so good of you to come!” Delia exclaimed, turning towards them with her hands outstretched.
“Thank you — thank you for coming!” she cried.
“And look at Maggie’s bunch!” she said, taking a bunch of many coloured flowers that Maggie held out to her.
“How beautifully you’ve arranged them!” she said. “Look, Eleanor!” She turned to her sister.
But Eleanor was standing with her back to them. She was watching a taxi that was gliding slowly round the square. It stopped in front of a house two doors down.
“Aren’t they lovely?” said Delia, holding out the flowers.
“The roses? Yes . . . ” she said. But she was watching the cab. A young man had got out; he paid the driver. Then a girl in a tweed travelling suit followed him. He fitted his latch-key to the door. “There,” Eleanor murmured, as he opened the door and they stood for a moment on the threshold. “There!” she repeated, as the door shut with a little thud behind them.
Then she turned round into the room. “And now?” she said, looking at Morris, who was drinking the last drops of a glass of wine. “And now?” she asked, holding out her hands to him.
The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity and peace.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56