The autumn wind blew over England. It twitched the leaves off the trees, and down they fluttered, spotted red and yellow, or sent them floating, flaunting in wide curves before they settled. In towns coming in gusts round the corners, the wind blew here a hat off; there lifted a veil high above a woman’s head. Money was in brisk circulation. The streets were crowded. Upon the sloping desks of the offices near St. Paul’s, clerks paused with their pens on the ruled page. It was difficult to work after the holidays. Margate, Eastbourne and Brighton had bronzed them and tanned them. The sparrows and starlings, making their discordant chatter round the eaves of St. Martin’s, whitened the heads of the sleek statues holding rods or rolls of paper in Parliament Square. Blowing behind the boat train, the wind ruffled the channel, tossed the grapes in Provence, and made the lazy fisher boy, who was lying on his back in his boat in the Mediterranean, roll over and snatch a rope.
But in England, in the North, it was cold. Kitty, Lady Lasswade, sitting on the terrace beside her husband and his spaniel, drew the cloak round her shoulders. She was looking at the hill top, where the snuffer-shaped monument raised by the old Earl made a mark for ships at sea. There was mist on the woods. Near at hand the stone ladies on the terrace had scarlet flowers in their urns. Thin blue smoke drifted across the flaming dahlias in the long beds that went down to the river. “Burning weeds,” she said aloud. Then there was a tap on the window, and her little boy in a pink frock stumbled out, holding his spotted horse.
In Devonshire where the round red hills and the steep valleys hoarded the sea air leaves were still thick on the trees — too thick, Hugh Gibbs said at breakfast. Too thick for shooting, he said, and Milly, his wife, left him to go to his meeting. With her basket on her arm she walked down the well-kept crazy pavement with the swaying movement of a woman with child. There hung the yellow pears on the orchard wall, lifting the leaves over them, they were so swollen. But the wasps had got at them — the skin was broken. With her hand on the fruit she paused. Pop, pop, pop sounded in the distant woods. Someone was shooting.
The smoke hung in veils over the spires and domes of the University cities. Here it choked the mouth of a gargoyle; there it clung to the walls that were peeled yellow. Edward, who was taking his brisk constitutional, noted smell, sound and colour; which suggested how complex impressions are; few poets compress enough; but there must be some line in Greek or Latin, he was thinking, which sums up the contrast — when Mrs Lathom passed him and he raised his cap.
In the Law Courts the leaves lay dry and angular on the flagstones. Morris, remembering his childhood, shuffled his feet through them on his way to his chambers, and they scattered edgeways along the gutters. Not yet trodden down they lay in Kensington Gardens, and children, crunching the shells as they ran, scooped up a handful and scudded on through the mist down the avenues, with their hoops.
Racing over the hills in the country the wind blew vast rings of shadow that dwindled again to green. But in London the streets narrowed the clouds; mist hung thick in the East End by the river; made the voices of men crying “Any old iron to sell, any old iron,” sound distant; and in the suburbs the organs were muted. The wind blew the smoke — for in every back garden in the angle of the ivy- grown wall that still sheltered a few last geraniums, leaves were heaped up; keen fanged flames were eating them — out into the street, into windows that stood open in the drawing-room in the morning. For it was October, the birth of the year.
Eleanor was sitting at her writing-table with her pen in her hand. It’s awfully queer, she thought, touching the ink-corroded patch of bristle on the back of Martin’s walrus with the point of her pen, that that should have gone on all these years. That solid object might survive them all. If she threw it away it would still exist somewhere or other. But she never had thrown it away because it was part of other things — her mother for example. . . . She drew on her blotting paper; a dot with strokes raying out round it. Then she looked up. They were burning weeds in the back garden; there was a drift of smoke; a sharp acrid smell; and leaves were falling. A barrel organ was playing up the street. “Sur le pont d’Avignon” she hummed in time to it. How did it go? — the song Pippy used to sing as she wiped your ears with a piece of slimy flannel?
“Ron, ron, ron, et plon, plon plon,” she hummed. Then the tune stopped. The organ had moved further away. She dipped her pen in the ink.
“Three times eight,” she murmured, “is twenty-four,” she said decidedly; wrote a figure at the bottom of the page, swept together the little red and blue books and took them to her father’s study.
“Here’s the housekeeper!” he said good-humouredly as she came in. He was sitting in his leather armchair reading a pinkish financial paper.
“Here’s the housekeeper,” he repeated, looking up over his glasses. He was getting slower and slower, she thought; and she was in a hurry. But they got on extremely well; they were almost like brother and sister. He put down his paper and went to the writing- table.
But I wish you would hurry, Papa, she thought as she watched the deliberate way in which he unlocked the drawer in which he kept his cheque-book, or I shall be late.
“Milk’s very high,” he said, tapping the book with the gilt cow. “Yes. It’s eggs in October,” she said.
As he made out the cheque with extreme deliberation she glanced round the room. It looked like an office, with its files of papers and its deed-boxes, except that horses’ bits hung by the fireplace, and there was the silver cup he had won at polo. Would he sit there all the morning reading the financial papers and considering his investments, she wondered? He stopped writing.
“And where are you off to now?” he asked with his shrewd little smile.
“A Committee,” she said.
“A Committee,” he repeated, signing his firm heavy signature. “Well, stand up for yourself; don’t be sat on, Nell.” He entered a figure in the ledger.
“Are you coming with me this afternoon, Papa?” she said as he finished writing the figure. “It’s Morris’s case you know; at the Law Courts.”
He shook his head.
“No; I’ve got to be in the City at three,” he said.
“Then I shall see you at lunch,” she said, making a movement to go. But he held up his hand. He had something to say, but he hesitated. He was getting rather heavier in the face, she noted; there were little veins in his nose; he was getting rather too red and heavy.
“I was thinking of looking in at the Digbys’,” he said, at length. He got up and walked to the window. He looked out at the back garden. She fidgeted.
“How the leaves are falling!” he remarked.
“Yes,” she said. “They’re burning weeds.”
He stood looking at the smoke for a moment.
“Burning weeds,” he repeated, and stopped.
“It’s Maggie’s birthday,” at last he came out with it. “I thought I’d take her some little present —” He paused. He meant that he wished her to buy it, she knew.
“What would you like to give her?” she asked.
“Well,” he said vaguely, “something pretty you know — something she could wear.”
Eleanor reflected — Maggie, her little cousin; was she seven or eight?
“A necklace? A brooch? Something like that?” she asked quickly.
“Yes, something like that,” said her father, settling down in his chair again. “Something pretty, something she could wear, you know.” He opened the paper and gave her a little nod. “Thank you, my dear,” he said as she left the room.
On the hall table, between a silver salver laden with visiting- cards — some with their corners turned down, some large, some small — and a piece of purple plush with which the Colonel polished his top hat — lay a thin foreign envelope with “England” marked in large letters in the corner. Eleanor, running down the stairs in a hurry, swept it into her bag as she passed. Then she ran at a peculiar ambling trot down the Terrace. At the corner she stopped and looked anxiously down the road. Among the other traffic she singled out one bulky form; mercifully, it was yellow; mercifully she had caught her bus. She hailed it and climbed on top. She sighed with relief as she pulled the leather apron over her knees. All responsibility now rested with the driver. She relaxed; she breathed in the soft London air; she heard the dull London roar with pleasure. She looked along the street and relished the sight of cabs, vans and carriages all trotting past with an end in view. She liked coming back in October to the full stir of life after the summer was over. She had been staying in Devonshire with the Gibbses. That’s turned out very well, she thought, thinking of her sister’s marriage to Hugh Gibbs, seeing Milly with her babies. And Hugh — she smiled. He rode about on a great white horse, breaking up litters. But there are too many trees and cows and too many little hills instead of one big one, she thought. She did not like Devonshire. She was glad to be back in London, on top of the yellow bus, with her bag stuffed with papers, and everything beginning again in October. They had left the residential quarter; the houses were changing; they were turning into shops. This was her world; here she was in her element. The streets were crowded; women were swarming in and out of shops with their shopping baskets. There was something customary, rhythmical about it, she thought, like rooks swooping in a field, rising and falling.
She, too, was going to her work — she turned her watch on her wrist without looking at it. After the Committee, Duffus; after Duffus, Dickson. Then lunch; and the Law Courts . . . then lunch and the Law Courts at two-thirty, she repeated. The bus trundled along the Bayswater Road. The streets were becoming poorer and poorer.
Perhaps I oughtn’t to have given the job to Duffus, she said to herself — she was thinking of Peter Street where she had built houses; the roof was leaking again; there was a bad smell in the sink. But here the omnibus stopped; people got in and out; the omnibus went on again — but it’s better to give the work to a small man, she thought, looking at the huge plate-glass windows of one of the large shops, instead of going to one of those big firms. There were always small shops side by side with big shops. It puzzled her. How did the small shops manage to make a living? she wondered. But if Duffus, she began — here the omnibus stopped; she looked up; she rose “— if Duffus thinks he can bully me,” she said as she went down the steps, “he’ll find he’s mistaken.”
She walked quickly up the cinder path to the galvanised iron shed in which the meeting took place. She was late; there they were already. It was her first meeting since the holidays, and they all smiled at her. Judd even took his toothpick out of his mouth — a sign of recognition that flattered her. Here we all are again, she thought, taking her place and laying her papers on the table.
But she meant “them”, not herself. She did not exist; she was not anybody at all. But there they all were — Brocket, Cufnell, Miss Sims, Ramsden, Major Porter and Mrs Lazenby. The Major preaching organisation; Miss Sims (ex-mill hand) scenting condescension; Mrs Lazenby, offering to write to her cousin Sir John, upon which Judd, the retired shopkeeper, snubbed her. She smiled as she took her seat. Miriam Parrish was reading letters. But why starve yourself, Eleanor asked as she listened. She was thinner than ever.
She looked round the room as the letters were read. There had been a dance. Festoons of red and yellow paper were slung across the ceiling. The coloured picture of the Princess of Wales had loops of yellow roses at the corners; a sea-green ribbon across her breast, a round yellow dog on her lap, and pearls slung and knotted over her shoulders. She wore an air of serenity, of indifference; a queer comment upon their divisions, Eleanor thought; something that the Lazenbys worshipped; that Miss Sims derided; that Judd looked at cocking his eyebrows, picking his teeth. If he had had a son, he had told her, he would have sent him to the Varsity. But she recalled herself. Major Porter had turned to her.
“Now, Miss Pargiter,” he said, drawing her in, because they were both of the same social standing, “you haven’t given us your opinion.”
She pulled herself together and gave him her opinion. She had an opinion — a very definite opinion. She cleared her throat and began.
The smoke blowing through Peter Street had condensed, between the narrowness of the houses, into a fine grey veil. But the houses on either side were clearly visible. Save for two in the middle of the street, they were all precisely the same — yellow-grey boxes with slate tents on top. Nothing whatever was happening; a few children were playing in the street, two cats turned something over in the gutter with their paws. Yet a woman leaning out of the windows searched this way, that way, up and down the street as if she were raking every cranny for something to feed on. Her eyes, rapacious, greedy, like the eyes of a bird of prey, were also sulky and sleepy, as if they had nothing to feed their hunger upon. Nothing happened — nothing whatever. Still she gazed up and down with her indolent dissatisfied stare. Then a trap turned the corner. She watched it. It stopped in front of the houses opposite which, since the sills were green, and there was a plaque with a sunflower stamped on it over the door, were different from the others. A little man in a tweed cap got out and rapped at the door. It was opened by a woman who was about to have a baby. She shook her head; looked up and down the street; then shut the door. The man waited. The horse stood patiently with the reins drooping and its head bent. Another woman appeared at the window, with a white many-chinned face, and an under lip that stood out like a ledge. Leaning out of the window side by side the two women watched the man. He was bandy-legged; he was smoking. They passed some remark about him together. He walked up and down as if he were waiting for somebody. Now he threw away his cigarette. They watched him. What would he do next? Was he going to give his horse a feed? But here a tall woman wearing a coat and skirt of grey tweed came round the corner hastily; and the little man turned and touched his cap.
“Sorry I’m late,” Eleanor called out, and Duffus touched his cap with the friendly smile that always pleased her.
“That’s all right, Miss Pargiter,” he said. She always hoped that he did not feel that she was the ordinary employer.
“Now we’ll go over it,” she said. She hated the job, but it had to be done.
The door was opened by Mrs Toms, the downstairs lodger.
Oh dear, thought Eleanor, observing the slant of her apron, another baby coming, after all I told her.
They went from room to room of the little house, Mrs Toms and Mrs Grove following after. There was a crack here; a stain there. Duffus had a foot-rule in his hand with which he tapped the plaster. The worst of it is, she thought, as she let Mrs Toms do the talking, that I can’t help liking him. It was his Welsh accent largely; he was a charming ruffian. He was as supple as an eel, she knew; but when he talked like that, in that sing-song, which reminded her of Welsh valleys. . . . But he had cheated her at every point. There was a hole you could poke your finger through in the plaster.
“Look at that, Mr Duffus, there —” she said, stooping and poking her finger. He was licking his pencil. She loved going to his yard with him and seeing him size up planks and bricks; she loved his technical words for things, his little hard words.
“Now we’ll go upstairs,” she said. He seemed to her like a fly struggling to haul itself up out of a saucer. It was touch and go with small employers like Duffus; they might haul themselves up and become the Judds of their day and send their sons to the Varsity; or on the other hand they might fall in and then — He had a wife and five children; she had seen them in the room behind the shop, playing with reels of cotton on the floor. And she always hoped that they would ask her in. . . . But here was the top floor where old Mrs Potter lay bedridden. She knocked; she called out in a loud cheerful voice, “May we come in?”
There was no answer. The old woman was stone deaf; so in they went. There she was, as usual, doing nothing whatever, propped up in the corner of her bed.
“I’ve brought Mr Duffus to look at your ceiling,” Eleanor shouted.
The old woman looked up and began plucking with her hands like a large tousled ape. She looked at them wildly, suspiciously.
“The ceiling, Mr Duffus,” said Eleanor. She pointed to a yellow stain on the ceiling. The house had only been built five years; and yet everything wanted repairing. Duffus threw open the window and leant out. Mrs Potter clutched hold of Eleanor’s hand, as if she suspected that they were going to hurt her.
“We’ve come to look at your ceiling,” Eleanor repeated very loudly. But the words conveyed nothing. The old woman went off into a whining plaint; the words ran themselves together into a chant that was half plaint, half curse. If only the Lord would take her. Every night, she said, she implored Him to let her go. All her children were dead.
“When I wake in the morning . . . ” she began.
“Yes, yes, Mrs Potter,” Eleanor tried to soothe her; but her hands were firmly grasped.
“I pray Him to let me go,” Mrs Potter continued.
“It’s the leaves in the gutter,” said Duffus, popping his head in again.
“And the pain —” Mrs Potter stretched out her hands; they were knotted and grooved like the gnarled roots of a tree.
“Yes, yes,” said Eleanor. “But there’s a leak; it’s not only the dead leaves,” she said to Duffus.
Duffus put his head out again.
“We’re going to make you more comfortable,” Eleanor shouted to the old woman. Now she was cringing and fawning; now she had pressed her hand to her lips.
Duffus drew his head in again.
“Have you found out what’s wrong?” Eleanor said to him sharply. He was entering something in his pocket-book. She longed to go. Mrs Potter was asking her to feel her shoulder. She felt her shoulder. Her hand was still grasped. There was medicine on the table; Miriam Parrish came every week. Why do we do it? she asked herself as Mrs Potter went on talking. Why do we force her to live? she asked, looking at the medicine on the table. She could stand it no longer. She withdrew her hand.
“Good-bye, Mrs Potter,” she shouted. She was insincere; she was hearty. “We’re going to mend your ceiling,” she shouted. She shut the door. Mrs Groves waddled in advance of her to show her the sink in the scullery. A wisp of yellow hair hung down behind her dirty ears. If I had to do this every day of my life, Eleanor thought, as she followed them down into the scullery, I should become a bag of bones like Miriam; with a string of beads. . . . And what’s the use of that? she thought, stooping to smell the sink in the scullery.
“Well, Duffus,” she said, facing him when the inspection was over, with the smell of drains still in her nose. “What d’you propose to do about it?”
Her anger was rising; it was his fault largely. He had swindled her. But as she stood facing him and observed his little underfed body, and how his bow tie had worked up over his collar, she felt uncomfortable.
He shuffled and squirmed; she felt that she was going to lose her temper.
“If you can’t make a good job of it,” she said curtly, “I shall employ somebody else.” She adopted the tone of the Colonel’s daughter; the upper middle-class tone that she detested. She saw him turn sullen before her eyes. But she rubbed it in.
“You ought to be ashamed of it,” she told him. He was impressed she could see. “Good morning,” she said briefly.
The ingratiating smile was not produced for her benefit again, she observed. But you have to bully them or else they despise you, she thought as Mrs Toms let her out, and once more she observed the slant in her apron. A crowd of children stood round staring at Duffus’s pony. But none of them, she noticed, dared stroke the pony’s nose.
She was late. She gave one look at the sunflower on the terra- cotta plaque. That symbol of her girlish sentiment amused her grimly. She had meant it to signify flowers, fields in the heart of London; but now it was cracked. She broke into her usual ambling trot. The movement seemed to break up the disagreeable crust; to jolt off the grasp of the old woman’s hand that was still on her shoulder. She ran; she dodged. Shopping women got in her way. She dashed into the road waving her hand among the carts and horses. The conductor saw her, curved his arm round her and hauled her up. She had caught her bus.
She trod on the toe of a man in the corner, and pitched down between two elderly women. She was panting slightly; her hair was coming down; she was red with running. She cast a glance at her fellow-passengers. They all looked settled, elderly, as if their minds were made up. For some reason she always felt that she was the youngest person in an omnibus, but today, since she had won her scrap with Judd, she felt that she was grown up. The grey line of houses jolted up and down before her eyes as the omnibus trundled along the Bayswater Road. The shops were turning into houses; there were big houses and little houses; public houses and private houses. And here a church raised its filigree spire. Underneath were pipes, wires, drains. . . . Her lips began moving. She was talking to herself. There’s always a public house, a library and a church, she was muttering.
The man on whose toe she had trodden sized her up; a well-known type; with a bag; philanthropic; well nourished; a spinster; a virgin; like all the women of her class, cold; her passions had never been touched; yet not unattractive. She was laughing. . . . Here she looked up and caught his eye. She had been talking aloud to herself in an omnibus. She must cure herself of the habit. She must wait till she brushed her teeth. But luckily the bus was stopping. She jumped out. She began to walk quickly up Melrose Place. She felt vigorous and young. She noticed everything freshly after Devonshire. She looked down the long many-pillared vista of Abercorn Terrace. The houses, with their pillars and their front gardens, all looked highly respectable; in every front room she seemed to see a parlourmaid’s arm sweep over the table, laying it for luncheon. In several rooms they were already sitting down to luncheon; she could see them between the tent-shaped opening made by the curtains. She would be late for her own luncheon, she thought as she ran up the front steps and fitted her latch-key in the door. Then, as if someone were speaking, words formed in her mind. “Something pretty, something to wear.” She stopped with her key in the lock. Maggie’s birthday; her father’s present; she had forgotten it. She paused. She turned, she ran down the steps again. She must go to Lamley’s.
Mrs Lamley, who had grown stout these last years, was masticating a mouthful of cold mutton in the back room when she saw Miss Eleanor through the glass door.
“Good morning, Miss Eleanor,” she began, coming out.
“Something pretty, something to wear,” Eleanor panted. She was looking very well — quite brown after her holiday, Mrs Lamley noticed.
“For my niece — I mean cousin. Sir Digby’s little girl,” Eleanor brought out.
Mrs Lamley deprecated the cheapness of her goods.
There were toy boats; dolls; twopenny gold watches — but nothing nice enough for Sir Digby’s little girl. But Miss Eleanor was in a hurry.
“There,” she said, pointing to a card of bead necklaces. “That’ll do.”
It looked a little cheap, Mrs Lamley thought; reaching down a blue necklace with gold spots, but Miss Eleanor was in such a hurry that she wouldn’t even have it wrapped in brown paper.
“I shall be late as it is, Mrs Lamley,” she said, with a genial wave of her hand; and off she ran.
Mrs Lamley liked her. She always seemed so friendly. It was such a pity she didn’t marry — such a mistake to let the younger sister marry before the elder. But then she had the Colonel to look after, and he was getting on now, Mrs Lamley concluded, going back to her mutton in the back shop.
“Miss Eleanor won’t be a minute,” said the Colonel as Crosby brought in the dishes. “Leave the covers on.” He stood with his back to the fireplace waiting for her. Yes, he thought, I don’t see why not. “I don’t see why not,” he repeated, looking at the dish-cover. Mira was on the scene again; the other fellow had turned out, as he knew he would, a bad egg. And what provision was he to make for Mira? What was he to do about it? It had struck him that he would like to put the whole thing before Eleanor. Why not after all? She’s not a child any longer, he thought; and he didn’t like this business of — of — shutting things up in drawers. But he felt some shyness at the thought of telling his own daughter.
“Here she is,” he said abruptly to Crosby, who stood waiting mutely behind him.
No, no, he said to himself with sudden conviction, as Eleanor came in. I can’t do it. For some reason when he saw her he realised that he could not tell her. And after all, he thought, seeing how bright-cheeked, how unconcerned she looked, she has her own life to live. A spasm of jealousy passed through him. She’s got her own affairs to think about, he thought as they sat down.
She pushed a necklace across the table towards him.
“Hullo, what’s that?” he said, looking at it blankly.
“Maggie’s present, Papa,” she said. “The best I could do. . . . I’m afraid it’s rather cheap.”
“Yes; that’ll do very nicely,” he said, glancing at it absentmindedly. “Just what she’ll like,” he added, shoving it to one side. He began to carve the chicken.
She was very hungry; she was still rather breathless. She felt a little “spun round,” as she put it to herself. What did you spin things round on? she wondered, helping herself to bread sauce — a pivot? The scene had changed so often that morning; and every scene required a different adjustment; bringing this to the front; sinking that to the depths. And now she felt nothing; hungry merely; merely a chicken-eater; blank. But as she ate, the sense of her father imposed itself. She liked his solidity, as he sat opposite her munching his chicken methodically. What had he been doing, she wondered. Taking shares out of one company and putting them in another? He roused himself.
“Well, how was the Committee?” he asked. She told him, exaggerating her triumph with Judd.
“That’s right. Stand up to ’em, Nell. Don’t let yourself be sat on,” he said. He was proud of her in his own way; and she liked him to be proud of her. At the same time she did not mention Duffus and Rigby Cottages. He had no sympathy with people who were foolish about money, and she never got a penny interest: it all went on repairs. She turned the conversation to Morris and his case at the Law Courts. She looked at her watch again. Her sister-in-law Celia had told her to meet her at the Law Courts at two-thirty sharp.
“I shall have to hurry,” she said.
“Ah, but these lawyer chaps always know how to spin things out,” said the Colonel. “Who’s the Judge?”
“Sanders Curry,” said Eleanor.
‘Then it’ll last till Domesday,” said the Colonel.
“Which Court’s he sitting in?” he asked.
Eleanor did not know.
“Here, Crosby —” said the Colonel. He sent Crosby for The Times. He began opening and turning the great sheets with his clumsy fingers as Eleanor swallowed her tart. By the time she had poured out coffee he had found out in which court the case was being heard.
“And you’re going to the City, Papa?” she said as she put down her cup.
“Yes. To a meeting,” he said. He loved going to the City, whatever he did there.
“Odd it should be Curry who’s trying the case,” she said, rising. They had dined with him not long ago in a dreary great house somewhere off Queen’s Gate.
“D’you remember that party?” she said, getting up. “The old oak?” Curry collected oak chests.
“All shams I suspect,” said her father. “Don’t hurry,” he expostulated. “Take a cab, Nell — if you want any change —” he began, fumbling with his curtailed fingers for silver. As she watched him Eleanor felt the old childish feeling that his pockets were bottomless silver mines from which half-crowns could be dug eternally.
“Well, then,” she said, taking the coins, “we shall meet at tea.”
“No,” he reminded her, “I’m going round by the Digbys’.”
He took the necklace in his large hairy hand. It looked a little cheap, Eleanor was afraid.
“And what about a box for this, eh?” he asked.
“Crosby, find a box for the necklace,” said Eleanor. And Crosby, suddenly radiating importance, hurried off to the basement.
“It’ll be dinner then,” she said to her father. That’ll mean, she thought with relief, that I needn’t be back for tea.
“Yes, dinner,” he said. He held a spill of paper in his hand which he was applying to the end of his cigar. He sucked. A little puff of smoke rose from the cigar. She liked the smell of cigars. She stood for a moment and drew it in.
“And give my love to Aunt Eugénie,” she said. He nodded as he puffed at his cigar.
It was a treat to take a hansom — it saved fifteen minutes. She leant back in the corner, with a little sigh of content, as the flaps clicked above her knees. For a minute her mind was completely vacant. She enjoyed the peace, the silence, the rest from exertion as she sat there in the corner of the cab. She felt detached, a spectator, as it trotted along. The morning had been a rush; one thing on top of another. Now, until she reached the Law Courts, she could sit and do nothing. It was a long way; and the horse was a plodding horse, a red-coated hairy horse. It kept up its steady jog-trot all down the Bayswater Road. There was very little traffic; people were still at luncheon. A soft grey mist filled up the distance; the bells jingled; the houses passed. She ceased to notice what houses they were passing. She half shut her eyes, and then, involuntarily, she saw her own hand take a letter from the hall table. When? That very morning. What had she done with it? Put it in her bag? Yes. There it was, unopened; a letter from Martin in India. She would read it as they drove along. It was written on very thin paper in Martin’s little hand. It was longer than usual; it was about an adventure with somebody called Renton. Who was Renton? She could not remember. “We started at dawn,” she read.
She looked out of the window. They were being held up by traffic at the Marble Arch. Carriages were coming out of the Park. A horse pranced; but the coachman had him well in hand.
She read again: “I found myself alone in the middle of the jungle. . . . ”
But what were you doing? she asked.
She saw her brother; his red hair; his round face; and the rather pugnacious expression which always made her afraid that he would get himself into trouble one of these days. And so he had, apparently.
“I had lost my way; and the sun was sinking,” she read.
“The sun was sinking . . . ” Eleanor repeated, glancing ahead of her down Oxford Street. The sun shone on dresses in a window. A jungle was a very thick wood, she supposed; made of stunted little trees; dark green in colour. Martin was in the jungle alone, and the sun was sinking. What happened next? “I thought it better to stay where I was.” So he stood in the midst of little trees alone, in the jungle; and the sun was sinking. The street before her lost its detail. It must have been cold, she thought, when the sun sank. She read again. He had to make a fire. “I looked in my pocket and found that I had only two matches . . . The first match went out.” She saw a heap of dry sticks and Martin alone watching the match go out. “Then I lit the other, and by sheer luck it did the trick.” The paper began to burn; the twigs caught; a fan of fire blazed up. She skipped on in her anxiety to reach the end . . . —“once I thought I heard voices shouting, but they died away.”
“They died away!” said Eleanor aloud.
They had stopped at Chancery Lane. An old woman was being helped across the road by a policeman; but the road was a jungle.
“They died away,” she said. “And then?”
“ . . . I climbed a tree . . . I saw the track . . . the sun was rising. . . . They had given me up for dead.”
The cab stopped. For a moment Eleanor sat still. She saw nothing but stunted little trees, and her brother looking at the sun rising over the jungle. The sun was rising. Flames for a moment danced over the vast funereal mass of the Law Courts. It was the second match that did the trick, she said to herself as she paid the driver and went in.
“Oh, there you are!” cried a little woman in furs, who was standing by one of the doors.
“I had given you up. I was just going in.” She was a small cat- faced woman, worried, but very proud of her husband.
They pushed through the swing doors into the Court where the case was being tried. It seemed dark and crowded at first. Men in wigs and gowns were getting up and sitting down and coming in and going out like a flock of birds settling here and there on a field. They all looked unfamiliar; she could not see Morris. She looked about her, trying to find him.
“There he is,” Celia whispered.
One of the barristers in the front row turned his head. It was Morris; but how odd he looked in his yellow wig! His glance passed over them without any sign of recognition. Nor did she smile at him; the solemn sallow atmosphere forbade personalities; there was something ceremonial about it all. From where she sat she could see his face in profile; the wig squared his forehead, and gave him a framed look, like a picture. Never had she seen him to such advantage; with such a brow, with such a nose. She glanced round. They all looked like pictures; all the barristers looked emphatic, cut out, like eighteenth-century portraits hung upon a wall. They were still rising and settling, laughing, talking. . . . Suddenly a door was thrown open. The usher demanded silence for his lordship. There was silence; everybody stood up; and the Judge came in. He made one bow and took his seat under the Lion and the Unicorn. Eleanor felt a little thrill of awe run through her. That was old Curry. But how transformed! Last time she had seen him he was sitting at the head of a dinner-table; a long yellow strip of embroidery went rippling down the middle; and he had taken her, with a candle, round the drawing-room to look at his old oak. But now, there he was, awful, magisterial, in his robes.
A barrister had risen. She tried to follow what the man with a big nose was saying; but it was difficult to pick it up now. She listened, however. Then another barrister rose — a chicken-breasted little man, wearing gold pince-nez. He was reading some document; then he too began to argue. She could understand parts of what he was saying; though how it bore on the case she did not know. When was Morris going to speak, she wondered? Not yet apparently. As her father had said, these lawyer chaps knew how to spin things out. There had been no need to hurry over luncheon; an omnibus would have done just as well. She fixed her eyes on Morris. He was cracking some joke with the sandy man next to him. Those were his cronies, she thought; this was his life. She remembered his passion for the Bar as a boy. It was she who had talked Papa round; one morning she had taken her life in her hand and gone to his study . . . but now, to her excitement, Morris himself got up.
She felt her sister-in-law stiffen with nervousness and clasp her little bag tightly. Morris looked very tall, and very black and white as he began. One hand was on the edge of his gown. How well she knew that gesture of Morris’s, she thought — grasping something, so that you saw the white scar where he had cut himself bathing. But she did not recognise the other gesture — the way he flung his arm out. That belonged to his public life, his life in the Courts. And his voice was unfamiliar. But every now and then as he warmed to his speech, there was a tone in his voice that made her smile; it was his private voice. She could not help half turning to her sister-in-law as if to say, How like Morris! But Celia was looking with absolute fixity ahead of her at her husband. Eleanor, too, tried to fix her mind upon the argument. He spoke with extraordinary clearness; he spaced his words beautifully. Suddenly the Judge interrupted:
“Do I understand you to hold, Mr Pargiter . . .?” he said in urbane yet awful tones; and Eleanor was thrilled to see how instantly Morris stopped short; how respectfully he bent his head as the Judge spoke.
But will he know the answer? she thought, as if he were a child, shifting in her seat with nervousness lest he might break down. But he had the answer at his finger-ends. Without hurry or flutter he opened a book; found his place; read out a passage, upon which old Curry nodded, and made a note in the great volume that lay open in front of him. She was immensely relieved.
“How well he did that!” she whispered. Her sister-in-law nodded; but she still grasped her bag tightly. Eleanor felt that she could relax. She glanced round her. It was an odd mixture of solemnity and licence. Barristers kept coming in and out. They stood leaning against the wall of the Court. In the pale top light all their faces looked parchment-coloured; all their features seemed cut out. They had lit the gas. She gazed at the Judge himself. He was now lying back in his great carved chair under the Lion and the Unicorn, listening. He looked infinitely sad and wise, as if words had been beating upon him for centuries. Now he opened his heavy eyes, wrinkled his forehead, and the little hand that emerged frailly from the enormous cuff wrote a few words in the great volume. Then again he lapsed with half-shut eyes into his eternal vigil over the strife of unhappy human beings. Her mind wandered. She leant back against the hard wooden seat and let the tide of oblivion flow over her. Scenes from her morning began to form themselves; to obtrude themselves. Judd at the Committee; her father reading the paper; the old woman plucking at her hand; the parlourmaid sweeping the silver over the table; and Martin lighting his second match in the jungle. . . .
She fidgeted. The air was fuggy; the light dim; and the Judge now that the first glamour had worn off, looked fretful; no longer immune from human weakness, and she remembered with a smile how very gullible he was, there in that hideous house in Queen’s Gate, about old oak. “This I picked up at Whitby,” he had said. And it was a sham. She wanted to laugh; she wanted to move. She rose and whispered:
Her sister-in-law made a little murmur, perhaps of protest. But Eleanor made her way as silently as she could through the swing doors, out into the street.
The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her. It was as if something had broken loose — in her, in the world. She seemed, after her concentration, to be dissipated, tossed about. She wandered along the Strand, looking with pleasure at the racing street; at the shops full of bright chains and leather cases; at the white-faced churches; at the irregular jagged roofs laced across and across with wires. Above was the dazzle of a watery but gleaming sky. The wind blew in her face. She breathed in a gulp of fresh wet air. And that man, she thought, thinking of the dark little Court and its cut-out faces, has to sit there all day, every day. She saw Sanders Curry again, lying back in his great chair, with his face falling in folds of iron. Every day, all day, she thought, arguing points of law. How could Morris stand it? But he had always wanted to go to the Bar.
Cabs, vans and omnibuses streamed past; they seemed to rush the air into her face; they splashed the mud onto the pavement. People jostled and hustled and she quickened her pace in time with theirs. She was stopped by a van turning down one of the little steep streets that led to the river. She looked up and saw the clouds moving between the roofs, dark clouds, rain-swollen; wandering, indifferent clouds. She walked on.
Again she was stopped at the entrance to Charing Cross station. The sky was wide at that point. She saw a file of birds flying high, flying together; crossing the sky. She watched them. Again she walked on. People on foot, people in cabs were being sucked in like straws round the piers of a bridge; she had to wait. Cabs piled with boxes went past her.
She envied them. She wished she were going abroad; to Italy, to India. . . . Then she felt vaguely that something was happening. The paper boys at the gates were dealing out papers with unusual rapidity. Men were snatching them and opening them and reading them as they walked on. She looked at a placard that was crumpled across a boy’s legs. “Death” was written in very large black letters.
Then the placard blew straight, and she read another word: “Parnell.”
“Dead” . . . she repeated. “Parnell.” She was dazed for a moment. How could he be dead — Parnell? She bought a paper. They said so. . . .
“Parnell is dead!” she said aloud. She looked up and saw the sky again; clouds were passing; she looked down into the street. A man pointed at the news with his forefinger. Parnell is dead he was saying. He was gloating. But how could he be dead? It was like something fading in the sky.
She walked slowly along towards Trafalgar Square, holding the paper in her hand. Suddenly the whole scene froze into immobility. A man was joined to a pillar; a lion was joined to a man; they seemed stilled, connected, as if they would never move again.
She crossed into Trafalgar Square. Birds chattered shrilly somewhere. She stopped by the fountain and looked down into the large basin full of water. The water rippled black as the wind ruffled it. There were reflections in the water, branches and a pale strip of sky. What a dream, she murmured; what a dream . . . But someone jostled her. She turned. She must go to Delia. Delia had cared. Delia had cared passionately. What was it she used to say — flinging out of the house, leaving them all for the Cause, for this man? Justice, Liberty? She must go to her. This would be the end of all her dreams. She turned and hailed a cab.
She leant over the flaps of the cab looking out. The streets they were driving through were horribly poor; and not only poor, she thought, but vicious. Here was the vice, the obscenity, the reality of London. It was lurid in the mixed evening light. Lamps were being lit. Paper-boys were crying, Parnell . . . Parnell. He’s dead, she said to herself, still conscious of the two worlds; one flowing in wide sweeps overhead, the other tip-tapping circumscribed upon the pavement. But here she was . . . She held up her hand. She stopped the cab opposite a little row of posts in an alley. She got out and made her way into the Square.
The sound of the traffic was dulled. It was very silent here. In the October afternoon, with dead leaves falling, the old faded Square looked dingy and decrepit and full of mist. The houses were let out in offices, to societies, to people whose names were pinned up on the door-posts. The whole neighbourhood seemed to her foreign and sinister. She came to the old Queen Anne doorway with its heavy carved eyebrows and pressed the bell at the top of six or seven bells. Names were written over them, sometimes only on visiting-cards. Nobody came. She pushed the door open and went in; she mounted the wooden stairs with carved banisters, that seemed to have been degraded from their past dignity. Jugs of milk with bills under them stood in the deep window-seats. Some of the panes were broken. Outside Delia’s door, at the top, there was a milk-jug too, but it was empty. Her card was fixed by a drawing- pin to a panel. She knocked and waited. There was no sound. She turned the handle. The door was locked. She stood for a moment listening. A little window at the side gave on to the square. Pigeons crooned on the tree-tops. The traffic hummed far off; she could just hear paperboys crying death . . . death . . . death. The leaves were falling. She turned and went downstairs.
She strolled along the streets. Children had chalked the pavement into squares; women leant from the upper windows, raking the street with a rapacious, dissatisfied stare. Rooms were let out to single gentlemen only. There were cards in them which said “Furnished Apartments” or “Bed and Breakfast.” She guessed at the life that went on behind those thick yellow curtains. This was the purlieus in which her sister lived, she thought, turning; she must often come back this way at night alone. Then she went back to the Square and climbed the stairs and rattled at the door again. But there was no sound within. She stood for a moment watching the leaves fall; she heard the paper-boys crying and the pigeons crooning in the tree-tops. Take two coos, Taffy; take two coos, Taffy; tak . . . Then a leaf fell.
The traffic at Charing Cross thickened as the afternoon wore on. People on foot, people in cabs were being sucked in at the gates of the station. Men swung along at a great pace as if there were some demon in the station who would be enraged if they kept him waiting. But even so they paused and snatched a paper as they passed. The clouds parting and massing let the light shine and then veiled it. The mud, now dark brown, now liquid gold, was splashed up by the wheels and hooves, and in the general churn and uproar the shrill chatter of the birds on the eaves was silenced. The hansoms jingled and passed; jingled and passed. At last among all the jingling cabs came one in which sat a stout red-faced man holding a flower wrapped in tissue-paper — the Colonel.
“Hi!” he cried as the cab passed the gates; and drove one hand through the trap-door in the roof. He leant out and a paper was thrust up at him.
“Parnell!” he exclaimed, as he fumbled for his glasses. “Dead, by Jove!”
The cab trotted on. He read the news two or three times over. He’s dead, he said, taking off his glasses. A shock of something like relief, of something that had a tinge of triumph in it, went through him as he leant back in the corner. Well, he said to himself, he’s dead — that unscrupulous adventurer — that agitator who had done all the mischief, that man. .. Some feeling connected with his own daughter here formed in him; he could not say exactly what, but it made him frown. Anyhow he’s dead now, he thought. How had he died? Had he killed himself? It wouldn’t be surprising. . . . Anyhow he was dead and that was an end of it. He sat holding the paper crumpled in one hand, the flower wrapped in tissue paper in the other, as the cab drove down Whitehall. . . . One could respect him, he thought, as the cab passed the House of Commons, which was more than could be said for some of the other fellows . . . and there’d been a lot of nonsense talked about the divorce case. He looked out. The cab was driving near a certain street where he used to stop and look about him years ago. He turned and glanced down a street to the right. But a man in public life can’t afford to do those things, he thought. He gave a little nod as the cab passed on. And now she’s written to ask me for money, he thought. The other chap had turned out, as he knew he would, a bad egg. She’d lost all her looks, he was thinking; she had grown very stout. Well, he could afford to be generous. He put on his glasses again and read the City news.
It would make no difference, Parnell’s death, coming now, he thought. Had he lived, had the scandal died down — he looked up. The cab was going the long way round as usual. “Left!” he shouted, “Left!” as the driver, as they always did, took the wrong turning.
In the rather dark basement at Browne Street, the Italian manservant was reading the paper in his shirt sleeves, when the housemaid waltzed in carrying a hat.
“Look what she’s given me!” she cried. To atone for the mess in the drawing-room, Lady Pargiter had given her a hat. “Ain’t I stylish?” she said, pausing in front of the glass with the great Italian hat that looked as if it were made of spun glass on one side of her head. And Antonio had to drop his paper and catch her round the waist from sheer gallantry, since she was no beauty, and her action was merely a parody of what he remembered in the hill towns of Tuscany. But a cab stopped in front of the railings; two legs stood still there, and he must detach himself, put on his jacket and go upstairs to answer the bell.
He takes his time, the Colonel thought, as he stood on the door- step waiting. The shock of the death had been absorbed almost; it still swept round in his system; but did not prevent him from thinking, as he stood there, that they had had the bricks re- pointed; but how had they money to spare, with the three boys to educate, and the two little girls? Eugénie was a clever woman of course; but he wished she would get a parlourmaid instead of these Italian dagoes who always seemed to be swallowing macaroni. Here the door opened, and as he went upstairs he thought he heard, from somewhere in the background, a shout of laughter.
He liked Eugénie’s drawing-room, he thought, as he stood there waiting. It was very untidy. There was a litter of shavings from something that was being unpacked on the floor. They had been to Italy, he remembered. A looking-glass stood on the table. It was probably one of the things she had picked up there: the sort of thing that people did pick up in Italy; an old glass, covered with spots. He straightened his tie in front of it.
But I prefer a glass in which one can see oneself, he thought, turning away. There was the piano open; and the tea — he smiled — with the cup half full as usual; and branches stuck about the room, branches of withering red and yellow leaves. She liked flowers. He was glad he had remembered to bring her his usual gift. He held the flower wrapped in tissue paper in front of him. But why was the room so full of smoke? A gust blew in. Both windows in the back room were open, and the smoke was blowing in from the garden. Were they burning weeds, he wondered? He walked to the window and looked out. Yes, there they were — Eugénie and the two little girls. There was a bonfire. As he looked, Magdalena, the little girl who was his favourite, tossed a whole armful of dead leaves. She jerked them as high as she could, and the fire blazed up. A great fan of red flame flung out.
“That’s dangerous!” he called out.
Eugénie pulled the children back. They were dancing with excitement. The other little girl, Sara, ducked under her mother’s arm, seized another armful of leaves and flung them again. A great fan of red flame flung out. Then the Italian servant came and mentioned his name. He tapped on the window. Eugénie turned and saw him. She held the children back with one hand and raised the other in welcome.
“Stay where you are!” she cried. “We’re coming!”
A cloud of smoke blew straight at him; it made his eyes water, and he turned and sat down in the chair by the sofa. In another second she came, hurrying towards him with both her hands stretched out. He rose and took them.
“We’re having a bonfire,” she said. Her eyes were glowing; her hair was looping down. “That’s why I’m all so blown-about,” she added, putting her hand to her head. She was untidy, but extremely handsome all the same, Abel thought. A fine large woman, growing ample, he noted as she shook hands; but it suited her. He admired that type more than the pink-and-white pretty Englishwoman. The flesh flowed over her like warm yellow wax; she had great dark eyes like a foreigner, and a nose with a ripple in it. He held out his camellia; his customary gift. She made a little exclamation as she took the flower from the tissue paper and sat down.
“How very good of you!” she said, and held it for a moment in front of her, and then did what he had often seen her do with a flower — put the stalk between her lips. Her movements charmed him as usual.
“Having a bonfire for the birthday?” he asked. . . . “No, no, no,” he protested, “I don’t want tea.”
She had taken her cup, and sipped the cold tea that was left in it. As he watched her, some memory of the East came back to him; so women sat in hot countries in their doorways in the sun. But it was very cold at the moment with the window open and the smoke blowing in. He still had his newspaper in his hand; he laid it on the table.
“Seen the news?” he asked.
She put down her cup and slightly opened her large dark eyes. Immense reserves of emotion seemed to dwell in them. As she waited for him to speak, she raised her hand as if in expectation.
“Parnell,” said Abel briefly. “He’s dead.”
“Dead?” Eugénie echoed him. She let her hand fall dramatically.
“Yes. At Brighton. Yesterday.”
“Parnell is dead!” she repeated.
“So they say,” said the Colonel. Her emotion always made him feel more matter-of-fact; but he liked it. She took up the paper.
“Poor thing!” she exclaimed, letting it fall.
“Poor thing?” he repeated. Her eyes were full of tears. He was puzzled. Did she mean Kitty O’Shea? He hadn’t thought of her.
“She ruined his career for him,” he said with a little snort.
“Ah, but how she must have loved him!” she murmured.
She drew her hand over her eyes. The Colonel was silent for a moment. Her emotion seemed to him out of all proportion to its object; but it was genuine. He liked it.
“Yes,” he said, rather stiffly. “Yes, I suppose so.” Eugénie picked up the flower again and held it, twirling it. She was oddly absentminded now and then, but he always felt at his ease with her. His body relaxed. He felt relieved of some obstruction in her presence.
“How people suffer! . . . ” she murmured, looking at the flower. “How they suffer, Abel!” she said. She turned and looked straight at him.
A great gust of smoke blew in from the other room.
“You don’t mind the draught?” he asked, looking at the window. She did not answer at once; she was twirling her flower. Then she roused herself and smiled.
“Yes, yes. Shut it!” she said with a wave of her hand. He went and shut the window. When he turned round, she had got up and was standing at the looking-glass, arranging her hair.
“We’ve had a bonfire for Maggie’s birthday,” she murmured, looking at herself in the Venetian glass that was covered with spots. “That’s why, that’s why —” she smoothed her hair and fixed the camellia in her dress. “I’m so very —”
She put her head a little on one side as if to observe the effect of the flower in her dress. The Colonel sat down and waited. He glanced at his paper.
“They seem to be hushing things up,” he said.
“You don’t mean —” Eugénie was beginning; but here the door opened and the children came in. Maggie, the elder, came first; the other little girl, Sara, hung back behind her.
“Hullo!” the Colonel exclaimed. “Here they are!” He turned round. He was very fond of children. “Many happy returns of the day to you, Maggie!” He felt in his pocket for the necklace that Crosby had done up in a cardboard box. Maggie came up to him to take it. Her hair had been brushed, and she was dressed in a stiff clean frock. She took the parcel and undid it; she held the blue-and- gold necklace dangling from her finger. For a moment the Colonel doubted whether she liked it. It looked a little garish as she held it dangling in her hand. And she was silent. Her mother at once supplied the words she should have spoken.
“How lovely, Maggie! How perfectly lovely!”
Maggie held the beads in her hand and said nothing.
“Thank Uncle Abel for the lovely necklace,” her mother prompted her.
“Thank you for the necklace, Uncle Abel,” said Maggie. She spoke directly and accurately, but the Colonel felt another twinge of doubt. A pang of disappointment out of all proportion to its object came over him. Her mother, however, fastened it round her neck. Then she turned away to her sister, who was peeping from behind a chair.
“Come, Sara,” said her mother. “Come and say how-d’you-do.”
She held out her hand partly to coax the little girl, partly, Abel guessed, in order to conceal the very slight deformity that always made him uncomfortable. She had been dropped when she was a baby; one shoulder was slightly higher than the other; it made him feel squeamish; he could not bear the least deformity in a child. It did not affect her spirits, however. She skipped up to him, whirling round on her toe, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Then she tugged at her sister’s frock, and they both rushed away into the back room laughing.
“They are going to admire your lovely present, Abel,” said Eugénie. “How you spoil them! — and me too,” she added, touching the camellia on her breast.
“I hope she liked it?” he asked. Eugénie did not answer him. She had taken up the cup of cold tea again and was sipping it in her indolent Southern manner.
“And now,” she said, leaning back comfortably, “tell me all your news.”
The Colonel, too, lay back in his chair. He pondered for a moment. What was his news? Nothing occurred to him on the spur of the moment. With Eugénie, too, he always wanted to make a little splash; she put a shine on things. While he hesitated, she began:
“We’ve been having a wonderful time in Venice! I took the children. That’s why we’re all so brown. We had rooms not on the Grand Canal — I hate the Grand Canal — but just off it. Two weeks of blazing sun; and the colours”— she hesitated —“marvellous!” she exclaimed, “marvellous!” She threw out her hand. She had gestures of extraordinary significance. That’s how she rigs things up, he thought. But he liked her for it.
He had not been to Venice for years.
“Any pleasant people there?” he asked.
“Not a soul,” she said. “Not a soul. No one except a dreadful Miss —. One of those women who make one ashamed of one’s country,” she said energetically.
“I know ’em,” he chuckled.
“But coming back from the Lido in the evening,” she resumed, “with the clouds above and the water below — we had a balcony; we used to sit there.” She paused.
“Was Digby with you?” the Colonel asked.
“No, poor Digby. He took his holiday earlier, in August. He was up in Scotland with the Lasswades shooting. It does him good, you know.” There she goes, rigging thing’s up again, he thought.
But she resumed.
“Now tell me about the family. Martin and Eleanor, Hugh and Milly, Morris and . . . ” She hesitated; he suspected that she had forgotten the name of Morris’ wife.
“Celia,” he said. He stopped. He wanted to tell her about Mira. But he told her about the family: Hugh and Milly; Morris and Celia. And Edward.
“They seem to think a lot of him at Oxford,” he said gruffly. He was very proud of Edward.
“And Delia?” said Eugénie. She glanced at the paper. The Colonel at once lost his affability. He looked glum and formidable, like an old bull with his head down, she thought.
“Perhaps it will bring her to her senses,” he said sternly. They were silent for a moment. There were shouts of laughter from the garden.
“Oh those children!” she exclaimed. She rose and went to the window. The Colonel followed her. The children had stolen back into the garden. The bonfire was burning fiercely. A clear pillar of flame rose in the middle of the garden. The little girls were laughing and shouting as they danced round it. A shabby old man, something like a decayed groom to look at, stood there with a rake in his hand. Eugénie flung up the window and cried out. But they went on dancing. The Colonel leant out too; they looked like wild creatures with their hair flying. He would have liked to go down and jump over the bonfire, but he was too old. The flames leapt high — clear gold, bright red.
“Bravo!” he cried, clapping his hands. “Bravo!”
“Little demons!” said Eugénie. She was as much excited as they were, he observed. She leant out of the window and cried to the old man with the rake:
“Make it blaze! Make it blaze!”
But the old man was raking out the fire. The sticks were scattered. The flames had sunk.
The old man pushed the children away.
“Well, that’s over,” said Eugénie, heaving a sigh. She turned. Someone had come into the room.
“Oh, Digby, I never heard you!” she exclaimed. Digby stood there with a case in his hands.
“Hullo, Digby!” said Abel, shaking hands.
“What’s all this smoke?” said Digby, looking round him.
He’s aged a bit, Abel thought. There he stood in his frock coat with the top buttons undone. His coat was a little threadbare; his hair was white on top. But he was very handsome; beside him the Colonel felt large, weather-beaten and rough. He was a little ashamed that he had been caught leaning out of the window clapping his hands. He looks older, he thought, as they stood side by side; yet he’s five years younger than I am. He was a distinguished man in his way; the top of his tree; a knight and all the rest of it. But he’s not as rich as I am, he remembered with satisfaction; for he had always been the failure of the two.
“You look so tired, Digby!” Eugénie exclaimed, sitting down. “He ought to take a real holiday,” she said, turning to Abel. “I wish you’d tell him so.” Digby brushed away a white thread that had stuck to his trousers. He coughed slightly. The room was full of smoke.
“What’s all this smoke for?” he asked his wife.
“We’ve been having a bonfire for Maggie’s birthday,” she said as if excusing herself.
“Oh yes,” he said. Abel was irritated; Maggie was his favourite; her father ought to have remembered her birthday.
“Yes,” said Eugénie, turning to Abel again, “he lets everybody else take a holiday, but he never takes one himself. And then, when he’s done a full day’s work at the office, he comes back with his bag full of papers —” She pointed at the bag.
“You shouldn’t work after dinner,” said Abel. “That’s a bad habit.” Digby did look a bit off-colour, he thought. Digby brushed aside this feminine effusiveness.
“Seen the news?” he said to his brother, indicating the paper.
“Yes. By Jove!” said Abel. He liked talking politics with his brother, though he slightly resented his official airs as if he could say more but must not. And then it’s all in the papers the day after, he thought. Still they always talked politics. Eugénie lying back in her corner always let them talk; she never interrupted. But at length she got up and began tidying the litter that had fallen from the packing-case. Digby stopped what he was saying and watched her. He was looking at the glass.
“Like it?” said Eugénie, with her hand on the frame.
“Yes,” said Digby; but there was a hint of criticism in his voice. “Quite a pretty one.”
“It’s only for my bedroom,” she said quickly. Digby watched her stuffing the bits of paper into the box.
“Remember,” he said, “we’re dining with the Chathams tonight.”
“I know.” She touched her hair again. “I shall have to make myself tidy,” she said. Who were “the Chathams?” Abel wondered. Bigwigs, mandarins, he supposed half contemptuously. They moved a great deal in that world. He took it as a hint that he should go. They had come to the end of what they had to say to each other — he and Digby. He still hoped, however, that he might talk with Eugénie alone.
“About this African business —” he began, bethinking him of another question — when the children came in; they had come to say good- night. Maggie was wearing his necklace and it looked very pretty, he thought, or was it she who looked so pretty? But their frocks, their clean blue and pink frocks, were crumpled; they were smudged with the sooty London leaves that they had been holding in their arms.
“Grubby little ruffians!” he said, smiling at them. “Why d’you wear your best clothes to play in the garden?” said Sir Digby, as he kissed Maggie. He said it jokingly, but there was a hint of disapproval in his tones. Maggie made no answer. Her eyes were riveted on the camellia that her mother wore in the front of her dress. She went up and stood looking at her.
“And you — what a little sweep!” said Sir Digby, pointing to Sara.
“It’s Maggie’s birthday,” said Eugénie, holding out her arm again as if to protect the little girl.
“That is a reason, I should have thought,” said Sir Digby, surveying his daughters, “to — er — to — er — reform one’s habits.” He stumbled, trying to make his sentence sound playful; but it turned out as it generally did when he talked to the children, lame and rather pompous.
Sara looked at her father as if she were considering him.
“To — er — to — er — reform one’s habits,” she repeated. Emptied of all meaning, she had got the rhythm of his words exactly. The effect was somehow comic. The Colonel laughed; but Digby, he felt, was annoyed. He only patted Sara on the head when she came to say good-night; but he kissed Maggie as she passed him.
“Had a nice birthday?” he said, pulling her to him. Abel made it an excuse to go.
“But there is no need for you to go yet, Abel?” Eugénie protested as he held out his hand.
She kept hold of his hand as if to prevent him from going. What did she mean? Did she want him to stay, did she want him to go? Her eyes, her large dark eyes, were ambiguous.
“But you’re dining out?” he said.
“Yes,” she replied, letting his hand fall, and as she said no more there was nothing for it, he supposed — he must take himself off.
“Oh, I can find my way out alone,” he said as he left the room.
He went downstairs rather slowly. He felt depressed and disappointed. He had not seen her alone; he had not told her anything. Perhaps he never would tell anybody anything. After all, he thought as he went downstairs, slowly, heavily, it was his own affair; it didn’t matter to anybody else. One must burn one’s own smoke, he thought as he took his hat. He glanced round.
Yes . . . the house was full of pretty things. He looked vaguely at a great crimson chair with gilt claws that stood in the hall. He envied Digby his house, his wife, his children. He was getting old, he felt. All his children were grown-up; they had left him. He paused on the doorstep and looked out into the street. It was quite dark; lamps were lit; the autumn was drawing in; and as he marched up the dark windy street, now spotted with raindrops, a puff of smoke blew full in his face; and leaves were falling.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01