In the country it was an ordinary day enough; one of the long reel of days that turned as the years passed from green to orange; from grass to harvest. It was neither hot nor cold, an English spring day, bright enough, but a purple cloud behind the hill might mean rain. The grasses rippled with shadow, and then with sunlight.
In London, however, the stricture and pressure of the season were already felt, especially in the West End, where flags flew; canes tapped; dresses flowed; and houses freshly painted had awnings spread and swinging baskets of red geraniums. The Parks too — St. James’s, the Green Park, Hyde Park — were making ready. Already in the morning before there was a chance of a procession, the green chairs were ranged among the plump brown flower beds with their curled hyacinths, as if waiting for something to happen; for a curtain to rise; for Queen Alexandra to come, bowing through the gates. She had a face like a flower petal, and always wore her pink carnation.
Men lay flat on the grass reading newspapers with their shirts open; on the bald scrubbed space by the Marble Arch speakers congregated; nursemaids vacantly regarded them; and mothers, squatted on the grass, watched their children play. Down Park Lane and Piccadilly vans, cars, omnibuses ran along the streets as if the streets were slots; stopped and jerked; as if a puzzle were solved, and then broken, for it was the season, and the streets were crowded. Over Park Lane and Piccadilly the clouds kept their freedom, wandering fitfully, staining windows gold, daubing them black, passed and vanished, though marble in Italy looked no more solid, gleaming in the quarries, veined with yellow, than the clouds over Park Lane.
If the bus stopped here, Rose thought, looking down over the side, she would get up. The bus stopped, and she rose. It was a pity, she thought, as she stepped onto the pavement and caught a glimpse of her own figure in a tailor’s window, not to dress better, not to look nicer. Always reach-me-downs, coats and skirts from Whiteleys. But they saved time, and the years after all — she was over forty — made one care very little what people thought. They used to say, why don’t you marry? Why don’t you do this or that, interfering. But not any longer.
She paused in one of the little alcoves that were scooped out in the bridge, from habit. People always stopped to look at the river. It was running fast, a muddy gold this morning with smooth breadths and ripples, for the tide was high. And there was the usual tug and the usual barges with black tarpaulins and corn showing. The water swirled round the arches. As she stood there, looking down at the water, some buried feeling began to arrange the stream into a pattern. The pattern was painful. She remembered how she had stood there on the night of a certain engagement, crying; her tears had fallen, her happiness, it seemed to her, had fallen. Then she had turned — here she turned — and had seen the churches, the masts and roofs of the city. There’s that, she had said to herself. Indeed it was a splendid view. . . . She looked, and then again she turned. There were the Houses of Parliament. A queer expression, half frown, half smile, formed on her face and she threw herself slightly backwards, as if she were leading an army.
“Damned humbugs!” she said aloud, striking her fist on the balustrade. A clerk who was passing looked at her with surprise. She laughed. She often talked aloud. Why not? That too was one of the consolations, like her coat and skirt, and the hat she stuck on without giving a look in the glass. If people chose to laugh, let them. She strode on. She was lunching in Hyams Place with her cousins. She had asked herself on the spur of the moment, meeting Maggie in a shop. First she had heard a voice; then seen a hand. And it was odd, considering how little she knew them — they had lived abroad — how strongly, sitting there at the counter before Maggie saw her, simply from the sound of her voice, she had felt — she supposed it was affection? — some feeling bred of blood in common. She had got up and said May I come and see you? busy as she was, hating to break her day in the middle. She walked on. They lived in Hyams Place, over the river — Hyams Place, that little crescent of old houses with the name carved in the middle which she used to pass so often when she lived down here. She used to ask herself in those far-off days Who was Hyam? But she had never solved the question to her satisfaction. She walked on, across the river.
The shabby street on the south side of the river was very noisy. Now and again a voice detached itself from the general clamour. A woman shouted to her neighbour; a child cried. A man trundling a barrow opened his mouth and bawled up at the windows as he passed. There were bedsteads, grates, pokers and odd pieces of twisted iron on his barrow. But whether he was selling old iron or buying old iron it was impossible to say; the rhythm persisted; but the words were almost rubbed out.
The swarm of sound, the rush of traffic, the shouts of the hawkers, the single cries and the general cries, came into the upper room of the house in Hyams Place where Sara Pargiter sat at the piano. She was singing. Then she stopped; she watched her sister laying the table.
“Go search the valleys,” she murmured, as she watched her, “pluck up every rose.” She paused. “That’s very nice,” she added, dreamily. Maggie had taken a bunch of flowers; had cut the tight little string which bound them, and had laid them side by side on the table; and was arranging them in an earthenware pot. They were differently coloured, blue, white and purple. Sara watched her arranging them. She laughed suddenly.
“What are you laughing at?” said Maggie absent-mindedly. She added a purple flower to the bunch and looked at it.
“Dazed in a rapture of contemplation,” said Sara, “shading her eyes with peacocks’ feathers dipped in morning dew —” she pointed to the table. “Maggie said,” she jumped up and pirouetted about the room, “three’s the same as two, three’s the same as two.” She pointed to the table upon which three places had been laid.
“But we are three,” said Maggie. “Rose is coming.” Sara stopped. Her face fell.
“Rose is coming?” she repeated.
“I told you,” said Maggie. “I said to you, Rose is coming to luncheon on Friday. It is Friday. And Rose is coming to luncheon. Any minute now,” she said. She got up and began to fold some stuff that was lying on the floor.
“It is Friday, and Rose is coming to luncheon,” Sara repeated.
“I told you,” said Maggie. “I was in a shop. I was buying stuff. And somebody”— she paused to make her fold more accurately —“came out from behind a counter and said, ‘I’m your cousin. I’m Rose,’ she said. ‘Can I come and see you? Any day, any time,’ she said. So I said,” she put the stuff on a chair, “lunch.”
She looked round the room to see that everything was in readiness. Chairs were missing. Sara pulled up a chair.
“Rose is coming,” she said, “and this is where she’ll sit.” She placed the chair at the table facing the window. “And she’ll take off her gloves; and she’ll lay one on this side, one on that. And she’ll say, I’ve never been in this part of London before.’”
“And then?” said Maggie, looking at the table.
“You’ll say ‘It’s so convenient for the theatres.’”
“And then?” said Maggie.
“And then she’ll say rather wistfully, smiling, putting her head on one side, ‘D’you often go to the theatre, Maggie?’”
“No,” said Maggie. “Rose has red hair.”
“Red hair?” Sara exclaimed. “I thought it was grey — a little wisp straggling from under a black bonnet,” she added.
“No,” said Maggie. “She has a great deal of hair; and it’s red.”
“Red hair; red Rose,” Sara exclaimed. She spun round on her toe.
“Rose of the flaming heart; Rose of the burning breast; Rose of the weary world — red, red Rose!”
A door slammed below; they heard footsteps mounting the stairs. “There she is,” said Maggie.
The steps stopped. They heard a voice saying, “Still further up? On the very top? Thank you.” Then the steps began mounting the stairs again.
“This is the worst torture . . . ” Sara began, screwing her hands together and clinging to her sister, “that life . . . .”
“Don’t be such an ass,” said Maggie, pushing her away, as the door opened.
Rose came in.
“It’s ages since we met,” she said, shaking hands.
She wondered what had made her come. Everything was different from what she expected. The room was rather poverty-stricken; the carpet did not cover the floor. There was a sewing-machine in the corner, and Maggie too looked different from what she had looked in the shop. But there was a crimson-and-gilt chair; she recognised it with relief.
“That used to stand in the hall, didn’t it?” she said, putting her bag down on the chair.
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“And that glass —” said Rose, looking at the old Italian glass blurred with spots that hung between the windows, “wasn’t that there too?”
“Yes,” said Maggie, “in my mother’s bedroom.”
There was a pause. There seemed to be nothing to say.
“What nice rooms you’ve found!” Rose continued, making conversation. It was a large room and the door-posts had little carvings on them. “But don’t you find it rather noisy?” she continued.
The man was crying under the window. She looked out of the window. Opposite there was a row of slate roofs, like half-opened umbrellas; and, rising high above them, a great building which, save for thin black strokes across it, seemed to be made entirely of glass. It was a factory. The man bawled in the street underneath.
“Yes, it’s noisy,” said Maggie. “But very convenient.”
“Very convenient for the theatres,” said Sara, as she put down the meat.
“So I remember finding,” said Rose, turning to look at her, “when I lived here myself.”
“Did you live here?” said Maggie, beginning to help the cutlets.
“Not here,” she said. “Round the corner. With a friend.”
“We thought you lived in Abercorn Terrace,” said Sara.
“Can’t one live in more places than one?” Rose asked, feeling vaguely annoyed, for she had lived in many places, felt many passions, and done many things.
“I remember Abercorn Terrace,” said Maggie. She paused. “There was a long room; and a tree at the end; and a picture over the fireplace, of a girl with red hair?”
Rose nodded. “Mama when she was young,” she said.
“And a round table in the middle?” Maggie continued.
“And you had a parlourmaid with very prominent blue eyes?”
“Crosby. She’s still with us.”
They ate in silence.
“And then?” said Sara, as if she were a child asking for a story.
“And then?” said Rose. “Well then”— she looked at Maggie, thinking of her as a little girl who had come to tea.
She saw them sitting round a table; and a detail that she had not thought of for years came back to her — how Milly used to take her hair-pin and fray the wick of the kettle. And she saw Eleanor sitting with her account books; and she saw herself go up to her and say: “Eleanor, I want to go to Lamley’s.”
Her past seemed to be rising above her present. And for some reason she wanted to talk about her past; to tell them something about herself that she had never told anybody — something hidden. She paused, gazing at the flowers in the middle of the table without seeing them. There was a blue knot in the yellow glaze she noticed.
“I remember Uncle Abel,” said Maggie. “He gave me a necklace; a blue necklace with gold spots.”
“He’s still alive,” said Rose.
They talked, she thought, as if Abercorn Terrace were a scene in a play. They talked as if they were speaking of people who were real, but not real in the way in which she felt herself to be real. It puzzled her; it made her feel that she was two different people at the same time; that she was living at two different times at the same moment. She was a little girl wearing a pink frock; and here she was in this room, now. But there was a great rattle under the windows. A dray went roaring past. The glasses jingled on the table. She started slightly, roused from her thoughts about her childhood, and separated the glasses.
“Don’t you find it very noisy here?” she said.
“Yes. But very convenient for the theatres,” said Sara.
Rose looked up. She had repeated herself. She thinks me an old fool, Rose thought, making the same remark twice over. She blushed slightly.
What is the use, she thought, of trying to tell people about one’s past? What is one’s past? She stared at the pot with the blue knot loosely tied in the yellow glaze. Why did I come, she thought, when they only laugh at me? Sally rose and cleared away the plates.
“And Delia —” Maggie began as they waited. She pulled the pot towards her, and began to arrange the flowers. She was not listening; she was thinking her own thoughts. She reminded Rose, as she watched her, of Digby — absorbed in the arrangement of a bunch of flowers, as if to arrange flowers, to put the white by the blue, were the most important thing in the world.
“She married an Irishman,” she said aloud.
Maggie took a blue flower and placed it beside a white flower.
“And Edward?” she asked.
“Edward . . . ” Rose was beginning, when Sally came in with the pudding.
“Edward!” she exclaimed, catching the word.
“Oh blasted eyes of my deceased wife’s sister — withered prop of my defunct old age . . . ” She put down the pudding. “That’s Edward,” she said. “A quotation from a book he gave me. ‘My wasted youth — my wasted youth’ . . . ” The voice was Edward’s; Rose could hear him say it. For he had a way of belittling himself, when in fact he had a very good opinion of himself.
But it was not the whole of Edward. And she would not have him laughed at; for she was very fond of her brother and very proud of him.
“There’s not much of ‘my wasted youth’ about Edward now,” she said.
“I thought not,” said Sara, taking her place opposite.
They were silent. Rose looked at the flower again. Why did I come? she kept asking herself. Why had she broken up her morning, and interrupted her day’s work, when it was clear to her that they had not wished to see her?
“Go on, Rose,” said Maggie, helping the pudding. “Go on telling us about the Pargiters.”
“About the Pargiters?” said Rose. She saw herself running along the broad avenue in the lamplight.
“What could be more ordinary?” she said. “A large family, living in a large house . . . ” And yet she felt that she had been herself very interesting. She paused. Sara looked at her.
“It’s not ordinary,” she said. “The Pargiters —” She was holding a fork in her hand, and she drew a line on the table-cloth. “The Pargiters,” she repeated, “going on and on and on”— here her fork touched a salt-cellar —“until they come to a rock,” she said; “and then Rose”— she looked at her again: Rose drew herself up slightly, “— Rose claps spurs to her horse, rides straight up to a man in a gold coat, and says ‘Damn your eyes!’ Isn’t that Rose, Maggie?” she said, looking at her sister as if she had been drawing her picture on the table-cloth.
That is true, Rose thought as she took her pudding. That is myself. Again she had the odd feeling of being two people at the same time.
“Well, that’s done,” said Maggie, pushing away her plate. “Come and sit in the armchair, Rose,” she said.
She went over to the fireplace and pulled out an armchair, which had springs like hoops, Rose noticed, in the seat.
They were poor, Rose thought, glancing round her. That was why they had chosen this house to live in — because it was cheap. They cooked their own food — Sally had gone into the kitchen to make the coffee. She drew her chair up beside Maggie’s.
“You make your own clothes?” she said, pointing to the sewing- machine in the corner. There was silk folded on it.
“Yes,” said Maggie, looking at the sewing-machine.
“For a party?” said Rose. The stuff was silk, green, with blue rays on it.
“Tomorrow night,” said Maggie. She raised her hand with a curious gesture to her face, as if she wanted to conceal something. She wants to hide herself from me, Rose thought, as I want to hide myself from her. She watched her; she had got up, had fetched the silk and the sewing-machine, and was threading the needle. Her hands were large and thin and strong, Rose noticed.
“I never could make my own clothes,” she said, watching her arrange the silk smoothly under the needle. She was beginning to feel at her ease. She took off her hat and threw it on the floor. Maggie looked at her with approval. She was handsome, in a ravaged way; more like a man than a woman.
“But then,” said Maggie, beginning to turn the handle rather cautiously, “you did other things.” She spoke in the absorbed tones of someone who is using their hands.
The machine made a comfortable whirring sound as the needle pricked through the silk.
“Yes, I did other things,” said Rose, stroking the cat that had stretched itself against her knee, “when I lived down here.”
“But that was years ago,” she added, “when I was young. I lived here with a friend,” she sighed, “and taught little thieves.”
Maggie said nothing; she was whirring the machine round and round.
“I always liked thieves better than other people,” Rose added after a time.
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“I never liked being at home,” said Rose. “I liked being on my own much better.”
“Yes,” said Maggie.
Rose went on talking.
It was quite easy to talk, she found; quite easy. And there was no need to say anything clever; or to talk about one’s self. She was talking about the Waterloo Road as she remembered it when Sara came in with the coffee.
“What was that about clinging to a fat man in the Campagna?” she asked, setting her tray down.
“The Campagna?” said Rose. “There was nothing about the Campagna.”
“Heard through a door,” said Sara, pouring out the coffee, “talk sounds very odd.” She gave Rose her cup.
“I thought you were talking about Italy; about the Campagna, about the moonlight.”
Rose shook her head. “We were talking about the Waterloo Road,” she said. But what had she been talking about? Not simply about the Waterloo Road. Perhaps she had been talking nonsense. She had been saying the first thing that came into her head.
“All talk would be nonsense, I suppose, if it were written down,” she said, stirring her coffee.
Maggie stopped the machine for a moment and smiled.
“And even if it isn’t,” she said.
“But it’s the only way we have of knowing each other,” Rose protested. She looked at her watch. It was later than she thought. She got up.
“I must go,” she said. “But why don’t you come with me?” she added on the spur of the moment.
Maggie looked up at her. “Where?” she said.
Rose was silent. “To a meeting,” she said at length. She wanted to conceal the thing that interested her most; she felt extraordinarily shy. And yet she wanted them to come. But why? she asked herself, as she stood there awkwardly waiting. There was a pause.
“You could wait upstairs,” she said suddenly. “And you’d see Eleanor; you’d see Martin — the Pargiters in the flesh,” she added. She remembered Sara’s phrase, “the caravan crossing the desert,” she said.
She looked at Sara. She was balancing herself on the arm of a chair, sipping her coffee and swinging her foot up and down.
“Shall I come?” she asked, vaguely, still swinging her foot up and down.
Rose shrugged her shoulders. “If you like,” she said.
“But should I like it?” Sara continued, still swinging her foot. “ . . . this meeting? What do you think, Maggie?” she said, appealing to her sister. “Shall I go, or shan’t I? Shall I go, or shan’t I?” Maggie said nothing.
Then Sara got up, went to the window and stood there for a moment humming a tune. “Go search the valleys; pluck up every rose,” she hummed. The man was passing; he was crying “Any old iron? Any old iron?” She turned round with a sudden jerk.
“I’ll come,” she said, as if she had made up her mind. “I’ll fling on my clothes and come.”
She sprang up and went into the bedroom. She’s like one of those birds at the Zoo, Rose thought, that never flies but hops rapidly across the grass.
She turned to the window. It was a depressing little street, she thought. There was a public house at the corner. The houses opposite looked very dingy, and it was very noisy. “Any old iron to sell?” the man was crying under the window, “any old iron?” Children were screaming in the road; they were playing a game with chalk-marks on the pavement. She stood there looking down on them.
“Poor little wretches!” she said. She picked up her hat and ran two bonnet-pins sharply through it. “Don’t you find it rather unpleasant,” she said, giving her hat a little pat on one side as she looked in the looking-glass, “coming home late at night sometimes with that public house at the corner?”
“Drunken men, you mean?” said Maggie.
“Yes,” said Rose. She buttoned the row of leather buttons on her tailor-made suit and gave herself a little pat here and there, as if she were making ready.
“And now what are you talking about?” said Sara, coming in carrying her shoes. “Another visit to Italy?”
“No,” said Maggie. She spoke indistinctly because her mouth was full of pins. “Drunken men following one.”
“Drunken men following one,” said Sara. She sat down and began to put on her shoes.
“But they don’t follow me,” she said. Rose smiled. That was obvious. She was sallow, angular and plain. “I can walk over Waterloo Bridge at any hour of the day or night,” she continued, tugging at her shoelaces, “and nobody notices.” The shoe-lace was in a knot; she fumbled with it. “But I can remember,” she continued, “being told by a woman — a very beautiful woman — she was like —”
“Hurry up,” Maggie interrupted. “Rose is waiting.”
“ . . . Rose is waiting — well, the woman told me, when she went into Regent’s Park to have an ice”— she stood up, trying to fit her shoe on to her foot, “— to have an ice, at one of those little tables under the trees, one of those little round tables laid with a cloth under the trees”— she hopped about with one shoe off and one shoe on —“the eyes, she said, came through every leaf like the darts of the sun; and her ice was melted. . . . Her ice was melted!” she repeated, tapping her sister on the shoulder as she twirled round on her toe.
Rose held out her hand. “You’re going to stay and finish your dress?” she said. “You won’t come with us?” It was Maggie she wanted to come.
“No, I won’t come,” said Maggie, shaking hands. “I should hate it,” she added, smiling at Rose with a candour that was baffling.
Did she mean me? thought Rose as she went down the stairs. Did she mean that she hated me? When I liked her so much?
In the alley that led into the old square off Holborn an elderly man, battered and red-nosed, as if he had weathered out many years at street corners, was selling violets. He had his pitch by a row of posts. The bunches, tightly laced, each with a green frill of leaves round the rather withered flowers, lay in a row on the tray; for he had not sold many.
“Nice vilets, fresh vilets,” he repeated automatically as the people passed. Most of them went by without looking. But he went on repeating his formula automatically. “Nice vilets, fresh vilets,” as if he scarcely expected any one to buy. Then two ladies came; and he held out his violets, and he said once more “Nice vilets, fresh vilets.” One of them slapped down two coppers on his tray; and he looked up. The other lady stopped, put her hand on the post, and said, “Here I leave you.” Upon which the one who was short and stout, struck her on the shoulder and said, “Don’t be such an ass!” And the tall lady gave a sudden cackle of laughter, took a bunch of violets from the tray as if she had paid for it; and off they walked. She’s an odd customer, he thought — she took the violets though she hadn’t paid for them. He watched them walking round the square; then he began muttering again, “Nice vilets, sweet vilets.”
“Is this the place where you meet?” said Sara as they walked along the square.
It was very quiet. The noise of the traffic had ceased. The trees were not in full leaf yet, and pigeons were shuffling and crooning on the tree tops. Little bits of twig fell on the pavement as the birds fidgeted among the branches. A soft air puffed in their faces. They walked on round the square.
“That’s the house over there,” said Rose, pointing. She stopped when she reached a house with a carved doorway, and many names on the door-post. The windows on the ground floor were open; the curtains blew in and out, and through them they could see a row of heads, as if people were sitting round a table, talking.
Rose paused on the door-step.
“Are you coming in,” she said, “or aren’t you?”
Sara hesitated. She peered in. Then she brandished her bunch of violets in Rose’s face and cried out, “All right!” she cried. “Ride on!”
Miriam Parrish was reading a letter. Eleanor was blackening the strokes on her blotting-paper. I’ve heard all this, I’ve done all this so often, she was thinking. She glanced round the table. People’s faces even seemed to repeat themselves. There’s the Judd type there’s the Lazenby type, and there’s Miriam, she thought, drawing on her blotting-paper. I know what he’s going to say, I know what she’s going to say, she thought, digging a little hole in the blotting-paper. Here Rose came in. But who’s that with her, Eleanor asked? She did not recognise her. Whoever it was was waved by Rose to a seat in the corner, and the meeting went on. Why must we do it? Eleanor thought, drawing a spoke from the hole in the middle. She looked up. Someone was rattling a stick along the railings and whistling; the branches of a tree swung up and down in the garden outside. The leaves were already unfolding. . . . Miriam put down her papers; Mr Spicer rose.
There’s no other way, I suppose, she thought, taking up her pencil again. She made a note as Mr Spicer spoke. She found that her pencil could take notes quite accurately while she herself thought of something else. She seemed able to divide herself into two. One person followed the argument — and he’s putting it very well, she thought; while the other, for it was a fine afternoon, and she had wanted to go to Kew, walked down a green glade and stopped in front of a flowering tree. Is it a magnolia? she asked herself, or are they already over? Magnolias, she remembered, have no leaves, but masses of white blossom. . . . She drew a line on the blotting-paper.
Now Pickford . . . she said, looking up again. Mr Pickford spoke. She drew more spokes; blackened them. Then she looked up, for there was a change in the tone of voice.
“I know Westminster very well,” Miss Ashford was saying.
“So do I!” said Mr Pickford. “I’ve lived there for forty years.”
Eleanor was surprised. She had always thought he lived at Ealing. He lived at Westminster, did he? He was a clean-shaven, dapper little man, whom she had always seen in her mind’s eye running to catch a train with a newspaper under his arm. But he lived at Westminster, did he? That was odd, she thought.
Then they went on arguing again. The cooing of the pigeons became audible. Take two coos, take two coos, tak . . . they were crooning. Martin was speaking. And he speaks very well, she thought . . . but he shouldn’t be sarcastic; it puts people’s backs up. She drew another stroke.
Then she heard the rush of a car outside; it stopped outside the window. Martin stopped speaking. There was a momentary pause. Then the door opened and in came a tall woman in evening dress. Everybody looked up.
“Lady Lasswade!” said Mr Pickford, getting up and scraping back his chair.
“Kitty!” Eleanor exclaimed. She half rose, but she sat down again. There was a little stir. A chair was found for her. Lady Lasswade took her place opposite Eleanor.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologised, “to be so late. And for coming in these ridiculous clothes,” she added, touching her cloak. She did look strange, dressed in evening dress in the broad daylight. There was something shining in her hair.
“The Opera?” said Martin as she sat down beside him.
“Yes,” she said briefly. She laid her white gloves in a businesslike way on the table. Her cloak opened and showed the gleam of a silver dress beneath. She did look odd compared with the others; but it’s very good of her to come, Eleanor thought, looking at her, considering she’s going on to the Opera. The meeting began again.
How long has she been married? Eleanor wondered. How long is it since we broke the swing together at Oxford? She drew another stroke on the blotting-paper. The dot was now surrounded with strokes.
“ . . . and we discussed the whole matter perfectly frankly,” Kitty was saying. Eleanor listened. That’s the manner I like, she thought. She had been meeting Sir Edward at dinner. . . . It’s the great ladies’ manner, Eleanor thought . . . authoritative, natural. She listened again. The great ladies’ manner charmed Mr Pickford; but it irritated Martin, she knew. He was pooh-poohing Sir Edward and his frankness. Then Mr Spicer was off again; and Kitty had joined in. Now there was Rose. They were all at loggerheads. Eleanor listened. She became more and more irritated. All it comes to is: I’m right and you’re wrong, she thought. This bickering merely wasted time. If we could only get at something, something deeper, deeper, she thought, prodding her pencil on the blotting-paper. Suddenly she saw the only point that was of any importance. She had the words on the tip of her tongue. She opened her mouth to speak. But just as she cleared her throat, Mr Pickford swept his papers together and rose. Would they pardon him? he said. He had to be at the Law Courts. He rose and went.
The meeting dragged on. The ash-tray in the middle of the table became full of cigarette-stumps; the air became thick with smoke; then Mr Spicer went; Miss Bodham went; Miss Ashford wound a scarf tightly round her neck, snapped her attaché-case to, and strode out of the room. Miriam Parrish took off her pince-nez and fixed them to a hook that was sewn onto the front of her dress. Everybody was going; the meeting was over. Eleanor got up. She wanted to speak to Kitty. But Miriam intercepted her.
“About coming to see you on Wednesday,” she began.
“Yes,” said Eleanor.
“I’ve just remembered I’ve promised to take a niece to the dentist,” said Miriam.
“Saturday would suit me just as well,” said Eleanor.
Miriam paused. She pondered.
“Would Monday do instead?” she said.
“I’ll write,” said Eleanor with an irritation that she could never conceal, saint though Miriam was, and Miriam fluttered away with a guilty air as if she were a little dog caught stealing.
Eleanor turned. The others were still arguing.
“You’ll agree with me one of these days,” Martin was saying.
“Never! Never!” said Kitty, slapping her gloves on the table. She looked very handsome; at the same time rather absurd in her evening dress.
“Why didn’t you speak, Nell?” she said, turning on her.
“Because —” Eleanor began, “I don’t know,” she added, rather feebly. She felt suddenly shabby and dowdy compared with Kitty, who stood there in full evening dress with something shining in her hair.
“Well,” said Kitty, turning away. “I must be off. But can’t I give anyone a lift?” she said, pointing to the window. There was her car.
“What a magnificent car!” said Martin, looking at it, with a sneer in his voice.
“It’s Charlie’s,” said Kitty rather sharply.
“What about you, Eleanor?” she said, turning to her.
“Thanks,” said Eleanor: “— one moment.”
She had muddled her things up. She had left her gloves somewhere. Had she brought an umbrella, or hadn’t she? She felt flustered and dowdy, as if she were a schoolgirl suddenly. There was the magnificent car waiting, and the chauffeur held the door open with a rug in his hand.
“Get in,” said Kitty. And she got in and the chauffeur put the rug over her knees.
“We’ll leave them,” said Kitty, with a wave of her hand, “caballing.” And the car drove off.
“What a pig-headed set they are!” said Kitty, turning to Eleanor.
“Force is always wrong — don’t you agree with me? — always wrong!” she repeated, drawing the rug over her knees. She was still under the influence of the meeting. Yet she wanted to talk to Eleanor. They met so seldom; she liked her so much. But she was shy, sitting there in her absurd clothes, and she could not jerk her mind out of the rut of the meeting in which it was running.
“What a pig-headed set they are!” she repeated. Then she began:
“Tell me. . . . ”
There were many things that she wanted to ask; but the engine was so powerful; the car swept in and out of the traffic so smoothly; before she had time to say any of the things she wanted to say Eleanor had put her hand out because they had reached the Tube station.
“Would he stop here?” she said, rising.
“But must you get out?” Kitty began. She had wanted to talk to her. “I must, I must,” said Eleanor. “Papa’s expecting me.” She felt like a child again beside this great lady and the chauffeur, who was holding the door open.
“Do come and see me — do let us meet again soon, Nell,” said Kitty, taking her hand.
The car started on again. Lady Lasswade sat back in her corner. She wished she saw more of Eleanor, she thought; but she never could get her to come and dine. It was always “Papa’s expecting me” or some other excuse, she thought rather bitterly. They had gone such different ways, they had lived such different lives, since Oxford. . . . The car slowed down. It had to take its place in the long line of cars that moved at a foot’s pace, now stopping dead, now jerking on, down the narrow street, blocked by market carts, that led to the Opera House. Men and women in full evening dress were walking along the pavement. They looked uncomfortable and self-conscious as they dodged between costers’ barrows, with their high piled hair and their evening cloaks; with their button- holes and their white waistcoats, in the glare of the afternoon sun. The ladies tripped uncomfortably on their high-heeled shoes; now and then they put their hands to their heads. The gentlemen kept close beside them as though protecting them. It’s absurd, Kitty thought; it’s ridiculous to come out in full evening dress at this time of day. She leant back in her corner. Covent Garden porters, dingy little clerks in their ordinary working clothes, coarse-looking women in aprons stared in at her. The air smelt strongly of oranges and bananas. But the car was coming to a standstill. It drew up under the archway; she pushed through the glass doors and went in.
She felt at once a sense of relief. Now that the daylight was extinguished and the air glowed yellow and crimson, she no longer felt absurd. On the contrary, she felt appropriate. The ladies and gentlemen who were mounting the stairs were dressed exactly as she was. The smell of oranges and bananas had been replaced by another smell — a subtle mixture of clothes and gloves and flowers that affected her pleasantly. The carpet was thick beneath her feet. She went along the corridor till she came to her own box with the card on it. She went in and the whole Opera House opened in front of her. She was not late after all. The orchestra was still tuning up; the players were laughing, talking and turning round in their seats as they fiddled busily with their instruments. She stood looking down at the stalls. The floor of the house was in a state of great agitation. People were passing to their seats; they were sitting down and getting up again; they were taking off their cloaks and signalling to friends. They were like birds settling on a field. In the boxes white figures were appearing here and there; white arms rested on the ledges of boxes; white shirt-fronts shone beside them. The whole house glowed — red, gold, cream-coloured, and smelt of clothes and flowers, and echoed with the squeaks and trills of the instruments and with the buzz and hum of voices. She glanced at the programme that was laid on the ledge of her box. It was Siegfried — her favourite opera. In a little space within the highly decorated border the names of the cast were given. She stooped to read them; then a thought struck her and she glanced at the royal box. It was empty. As she looked the door opened and two men came in; one was her cousin Edward; the other a boy, a cousin of her husband’s.
“They haven’t put it off?” he said as he shook hands. “I was afraid they might.” He was something in the Foreign Office; with a handsome Roman head.
They all looked instinctively at the royal box. Programmes lay along the edge; but there was no bouquet of pink carnations. The box was empty.
“The doctors have given him up,” said the young man, looking very important. They all think they know everything, Kitty thought, smiling at his air of private information.
“But if he dies?” she said, looking at the royal box, “d’you think they’ll stop it?”
The young man shrugged his shoulders. About that he could not be positive apparently. The house was filling up. Lights winked on ladies’ arms as they turned; ripples of light flashed, stopped, and then flashed the opposite way as they turned their heads.
But now the conductor pushed his way through the orchestra to his raised seat. There was an outburst of applause; he turned, bowed to the audience; turned again, all the lights sank down; the overture had begun.
Kitty leant back against the wall of the box; her face was shaded by the folds of the curtain. She was glad to be shaded. As they played the overture she looked at Edward. She could only see the outline of his face in the red glow; it was heavier than it used to be; but he looked intellectual, handsome and a little remote as he listened to the overture. It wouldn’t have done, she thought; I’m much too . . . she did not finish the sentence. He has never married, she thought; and she had. And I’ve three boys. I’ve been in Australia, I’ve been in India. . . . The music made her think of herself and her own life as she seldom did. It exalted her; it cast a flattering light over herself, her past. But why did Martin laugh at me for having a car? she thought. What’s the good of laughing? she asked.
Here the curtain went up. She leant forward and looked at the stage. The dwarf was hammering at the sword. Hammer, hammer, hammer, he went with little short, sharp strokes. She listened. The music had changed. He, she thought, looking at the handsome boy, knows exactly what the music means. He was already completely possessed by the music. She liked the look of complete absorption that had swum up on top of his immaculate respectability, making him seem almost stern . . . . But here was Siegfried. She leant forward. Dressed in leopard-skins, very fat, with nut-brown thighs, leading a bear — here he was. She liked the fat bouncing young man in his flaxen wig: his voice was magnificent. Hammer, hammer, hammer he went. She leant back again. What did that make her think of? A young man who came into a room with shavings in his hair.. . when she was very young. In Oxford? She had gone to tea with them; had sat on a hard chair; in a very light room; and there was a sound of hammering in the garden. And then a boy came in with shavings in his hair. And she had wanted him to kiss her. Or was it the farm hand up at Carter’s, when old Carter had loomed up suddenly leading a bull with a ring through its nose?
“That’s the sort of life I like,” she thought, taking up her opera- glasses. “That’s the sort of person I am. . . . ” she finished her sentence.
Then she put the opera-glasses to her eyes. The scenery suddenly became bright and close; the grass seemed to be made of thick green wool; she could see Siegfried’s fat brown arms glistening with paint. His face was shiny. She put down the glasses and leant back in her corner.
And old Lucy Craddock — she saw Lucy sitting at a table; with her red nose, and her patient, kind eyes. “So you’ve done no work this week again, Kitty!” she said reproachfully. How I loved her! Kitty thought. And then she had gone back to the Lodge; and there was the tree, with a prop in the middle; and her mother sitting bolt upright. . . . I wish I hadn’t quarrelled so much with my mother, she thought, overcome with a sudden sense of the passage of time and its tragedy. Then the music changed.
She looked at the stage again. The Wanderer had come in. He was sitting on a bank in a long grey dressing-gown; and a patch wobbled uncomfortably over one of his eyes. On and on he went; on and on. Her attention flagged. She glanced round the dim red house; she could only see white elbows pointed on the ledges of boxes; here and there a sharp pinpoint of light showed as some one followed the score with a torch. Edward’s fine profile again caught her eye. He was listening, critically, intently. It wouldn’t have done, she thought, it wouldn’t have done at all.
At last the Wanderer had gone. And now? she asked herself, leaning forward. Siegfried burst in. Dressed in his leopard-skins, laughing and singing, here he was again. The music excited her. It was magnificent. Siegfried took the broken pieces of the sword and blew on the fire and hammered, hammered, hammered. The singing, the hammering and the fire leaping all went on at the same time. Quicker and quicker, more and more rhythmically, more and more triumphantly he hammered, until at last up he swung the sword high above his head and brought it down — crack! The anvil burst asunder. And then he brandished the sword over his head and shouted and sang; and the music rushed higher and higher; and the curtain fell.
The lights opened in the middle of the house. All the colour came back. The whole Opera House leapt into life again with its faces and its diamonds and its men and women. They were clapping and waving their programmes. The whole house seemed to be fluttering with white squares of paper. The curtains fell apart and were held back by tall footmen in knee-breeches. Kitty stood up and clapped. Again the curtains closed; again they parted. The footmen were almost pulled off their feet by the heavy folds that they had to hold back. Again and again they held the curtain back; and even when they had let it fall and the singers had disappeared and the orchestra were leaving their seats, the audience still stood clapping and waving their programmes.
Kitty turned to the young man in her box. He was leaning over the ledge. He was still clapping. He was shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” He had forgotten her. He had forgotten himself.
“Wasn’t that marvellous?” he said at last, turning round.
There was an odd look on his face as if he were in two worlds at once and had to draw them together.
“Marvellous!” she agreed. She looked at him with a pang of envy.
“And now,” she said, gathering her things together, “let us have dinner.”
At Hyams Place they had finished dinner. The table was cleared; only a few crumbs remained, and the pot of flowers stood in the middle of the table like a sentry. The only sound in the room was the stitching of a needle, pricking through silk, for Maggie was sewing. Sara sat hunched on the music stool, but she was not playing.
“Sing something,” said Maggie suddenly. Sara turned and struck the notes.
“Brandishing, flourishing my sword in my hand . . . ” she sang. The words were the words of some pompous eighteenth century march, but her voice was reedy and thin. Her voice broke. She stopped singing.
She sat silent with her hands on the notes. “What’s the good of singing if one hasn’t any voice?” she murmured. Maggie went on sewing.
“What did you do today?” she said at length, looking up abruptly.
“Went out with Rose,” said Sara.
“And what did you do with Rose?” said Maggie. She spoke absent- mindedly. Sara turned and glanced at her. Then she began to play again. “Stood on the bridge and looked into the water,” she murmured.
“Stood on the bridge and looked into the water,” she hummed, in time to the music. “Running water; flowing water. May my bones turn to coral; and fish light their lanthorns; fish light their green lanthorns in my eyes.” She half turned and looked round at Maggie. But she was not attending. Sara was silent. She looked at the notes again. But she did not see the notes, she saw a garden; flowers; and her sister; and a young man with a big nose who stooped to pick a flower that was gleaming in the dark. And he held the flower out in his hand in the moonlight . . . Maggie interrupted her.
“You went out with Rose,” she said. “Where to?”
Sara left the piano and stood in front of the fireplace.
“We got into a bus and went to Holborn,” she said. “And we walked along a street,” she went on; “and suddenly,” she jerked her hand out, “I felt a clap on my shoulder.” “Damned liar!” said Rose, “and took me and flung me against a public house wall!”
Maggie stitched on in silence.
“You got into a bus and went to Holborn,” she repeated mechanically after a time. “And then?”
“Then we went in to a room,” Sara continued, “and there were people — multitudes of people. And I said to myself . . . ” she paused.
“A meeting?” Maggie murmured. “Where?”
“In a room,” Sara answered. “A pale greenish light. A woman hanging clothes on a line in the back garden; and someone went by rattling a stick on the railings.”
“I see,” said Maggie. She stitched on quickly.
“I said to myself,” Sara resumed, “whose heads are those . . . ” she paused.
“A meeting,” Maggie interrupted her. “What for? What about?”
“There were pigeons cooing,” Sara went on. “Take two coos, Taffy. Take two coos . . . Tak . . . And then a wing darkened the air, and in came Kitty clothed in starlight; and sat on a chair.”
She paused. Maggie was silent. She went on stitching for a moment.
“Who came in?” she asked at length.
“Somebody very beautiful; clothed in starlight; with green in her hair,” said Sara. “Whereupon”— here she changed her voice and imitated the tones in which a middle-class man might be supposed to welcome a lady of fashion, “up jumps Mr Pickford, and says ‘Oh, Lady Lasswade, won’t you take this chair?’”
She pushed a chair in front of her.
“And then,” she went on, flourishing her hands, “Lady Lasswade sits down; puts her gloves on the table,”— she patted a cushion —“like that.”
Maggie looked up over her sewing. She had a general impression of a room full of people; sticks rattling on the railings; clothes hanging out to dry, and someone coming in with beetles’ wings in her hair.
“What happened then?” she asked.
“Then withered Rose, spiky Rose, tawny Rose, thorny Rose,” Sara burst out laughing, “shed a tear.”
“No, no,” said Maggie. There was something wrong with the story; something impossible. She looked up. The light of a passing car slid across the ceiling. It was growing too dark to see. The lamp from the public-house opposite made a yellow glare in the room; the ceiling trembled with a watery pattern of fluctuating light. There was a sound of brawling in the street outside; a scuffling and trampling as if the police were hauling someone along the street against his will. Voices jeered and shouted after him.
“Another row?” Maggie murmured, sticking her needle in the stuff.
Sara got up and went to the window. A crowd had gathered outside the public house. A man was being thrown out. There he came, staggering. He fell against a lamp-post to which he clung. The scene was lit up by the glare of the lamp over the public house door. Sara stood for a moment at the window watching them. Then she turned; her face in the mixed light looked cadaverous and worn, as if she were no longer a girl, but an old woman worn out by a life of childbirth, debauchery and crime. She stood there hunched up, with her hands clenched together.
“In time to come,” she said, looking at her sister, “people, looking into this room — this cave, this little antre, scooped out of mud and dung, will hold their fingers to their noses”— she held her fingers to her nose —“and say ‘Pah! They stink!’” She fell down into a chair.
Maggie looked at her. Curled round, with her hair falling over her face and her hands screwed together she looked like some great ape, crouching there in a little cave of mud and dung. “Pah!” Maggie repeated to herself, “They stink” . . . She drove her needle through the stuff in a spasm of disgust. It was true, she thought; they were nasty little creatures, driven by uncontrollable lusts. The night was full of roaring and cursing; of violence and unrest, also of beauty and joy. She got up, holding the dress in her hands. The folds of silk fell down to the floor and she ran her hand over them.
“That’s done. That’s finished,” she said, laying the dress on the table. There was nothing more she could do with her hands. She folded the dress up and put it away. Then the cat, which had been asleep, rose very slowly, arched its back and stretched itself to its full length.
“You want your supper, do you?” said Maggie. She went into the kitchen and came back with a saucer of milk. “There, poor puss,” she said, putting the saucer down on the floor. She stood watching the cat lap up its milk, mouthful by mouthful; then it stretched itself out again with extraordinary grace.
Sara, standing at a little distance, watched her. Then she imitated her.
“There, poor puss, there, poor puss,” she repeated. “As you rock the cradle, Maggie,” she added.
Maggie raised her arms as if to ward off some implacable destiny; then let them fall. Sara smiled as she watched her; then tears brimmed, fell and ran slowly down her cheeks. But as she put up her hand to wipe them there was a sound of knocking; somebody was hammering on the door of the next house. The hammering stopped. Then it began again — hammer, hammer, hammer.
“Upcher’s come home drunk and wants to be let in,” said Maggie. The knocking ceased. Then it began again.
Sara dried her eyes, roughly, energetically.
“Bring up your children on a desert island where the ships only come when the moon’s full!” she exclaimed.
“Or have none?” said Maggie. A window was thrown open. A woman’s voice was heard shrieking abuse at the man. He bawled back in a thick drunken voice from the doorstep. Then the door slammed.
“Now he’ll stagger against the wall and be sick,” said Maggie. They could hear heavy footsteps lurching up the stairs in the next house. Then there was silence.
Maggie crossed the room to shut the window. The great windows of the factory opposite were all lit up; it looked like a palace of glass with thin black bars across it. A glaze of yellow light lit up the lower halves of the houses opposite; the slate roofs shone blue, for the sky hung down in a heavy canopy of yellow light. Footsteps tapped on the pavement, for people were still walking in the street. Far off a voice was crying hoarsely. Maggie leant out. The night was windy and warm.
“What’s he crying?” she said.
The voice came nearer and nearer.
“Death . . .?” she said.
“Death . . .?” said Sara. They leant out. But they could not hear the rest of the sentence. Then a man who was wheeling a barrow along the street shouted up to them:
“The King’s dead!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56