Book: Expensive Halo
The Expensive Halo
A Fable Without Moral
by Josephine Tey
First published 1931
It had been raining all day, but now a wild red sunset flooded the town with uncanny light, so that the dripping black buildings stood glorified and the hurrying crowds turned their heads, half-consciously, in uneasy wonder at the magnificent west.
Mary Ellis stood by the kitchen table in the basement window, and the light, reflected from the wet pavement, shone round her with a mild radiance very different from the disturbing crimson of the angry sky. It lit her grey hair to a halo, and made her intent, secret-smiling face that of a saint at her devotions. She was icing a cake. And as she piped the pink sugar in careful preordained scrolls on the white plateau, her mind was filled with a radiance which no sunset could produce. By the cake lay a cardboard box containing twenty-four little candles. She had had to buy twenty-four because they were sold by the box. But the little Marsden girl could have the other three. There was no use in keeping them, because never again would she put candles on a cake. Not until she had a grandchild, and that might be never. She hoped Gareth wouldn’t think it babyish of her to do it this once. Babyish people often had an eager nose for babyishness in others. She hadn’t made a birthday cake for many years now. The habit had been dropped during the war, when there was nothing to make a cake with. And somehow, afterwards, people were less overtly sentimental. Symbols counted less. The children had had treats on their birthdays, but there had been no cake with little candles. It was a practical age.
She laid aside the piping-bag and looked at her work with her still, secret smile. A cake for Gareth’s birthday: that’s all it was. But it was, too, the crowning of her own life, and she felt it in all her being. To-morrow her baby was twenty-one; the baby she had not wanted; the baby they had said she would never rear: and it seemed as if her whole existence had been but a preparation for this moment. Her five other children had each in turn achieved their majority and there had been congratulation and pleasure in each event. But to-morrow Gareth would be twenty-one, and her spirit rose up and overflowed in her at the thought.
She chose from the box the more perfect of the candles (it would not matter to the Marsden baby that her three were a little chipped), and began to set them in the cake, carefully because of the still-soft icing. It was strange that the baby whose coming she had resented so passionately should be more a part of her now than he had been to those months before his birth. Even his name was hers. Alfred had said that the baby was to have a Biblical name, like the others. No child of his should have other than a Biblical name. Always on previous occasions, she had agreed for the sake of peace, but this time she had fought him, weak, determined and furious. Now that the puny brat was there she felt that for once it should be hers to do as she liked with. She had borne it, suffered for it, and she should mime it. It should be called Gareth. Gareth was the name of the hero in a book which she had been reading, and the word had sung itself through her head during those awful hours. She did not like the name particularly, but that did not matter. All that mattered was that it should be a name of her own choosing and that it should have no Biblical associations.
And Alfred had given in. She had been surprised at the time but too relieved and weary to marvel long. Afterwards she had discovered that the doctor had spoken to Alfred as one man very rarely speaks to another. He had, in his own phrase, put the fear of God in Alfred, and to Alfred, that intimate of God, it was a new sensation. Alfred had agreed that Mary should choose the name.
And he had, of course, changed his doctor. But as there were no more babies that had not mattered very greatly.
Because he was hers in a sense that the others had never been, the sickly, wailing baby had been taken to her heart. When they tried to warn her that he might never make old bones her lips tightened in the little movement with which all her children were familiar, and her chin lifted, Fools! Of course he would live. He was hers, wasn’t he? The only one to be wholly hers. She would see to it that he lived. And it seemed that her son had inherited her spirit, for he not only lived but, in spite of his many illnesses, throve. Her hand hesitated a moment and she smiled at a passing vision of Gareth at the age of seven; a battered little figure, with thin scarred knees, red hair damp and tumbled, one eye dark where a black eye was coming, and the other eye faintly green where a black eye was going. She had marvelled often at the eager spirit which was housed in his shoggly body. When anyone trailed a coat it was Gareth, her sickly baby, who was there to step on it.
There was a tap on the kitchen door, and a girl’s head appeared; a brown head with laughing eyes. Mary glanced round and went on with her work.
“It’s you, Molly,” she said in her calm way. But there was welcome in the words.
Molly came in and closed the door. “I just slipped in for a minute. Is it done?”
There was silence in the room while the two women hung over the cake. Mary turned it slowly round so that the girl could view it adequately. “It’s lovely!” the girl said, “just lovely”; and they went on looking at it in the silence. The face of each was rapt, and in the quiet they were in complete communion. To both of them the thing was not an erection of cake and sugar, but a symbol.
“He hasn’t come back yet?” Molly asked, still enjoying the white perfection of the cake.
“So you don’t know if he’s got it?”
“No, but he may be in any minute.”
“In that case, I’m off. If he’s got it I’ll hear about it soon enough, and if he hasn’t he won’t want me here.”
Mary turned to her with a smile in her grey eyes. “You put in the last one,” she said, and held out a little pink candle.
Molly took it quite solemnly, and, as gravely as though she were laying a foundation stone, pressed the candle down into the bead of sugar waiting for its reception. The circle was perfect.
“There!” she said, and looked a moment longer. Then “He’ll be sick!” she said, and ran laughing from the room. Her light footsteps pattered on the stairs and died away. Mary lifted the cake on its stand, carried it into the pantry, and locked it away in a cupboard. As she took out the key the front door banged. Only two people banged the front door: Gareth and Sara: and it was too early for Sara.
Mary wanted to run to the door and read the news in his face: to embrace him whether it was good or bad. Instead, she turned again to the table, brushing the crumbs of icing on to a plate and putting spoons and knife into a bowl of hot water. She had never “spoiled” any of her children. When they thought of her at all they thought of her as a stern mother. She heard the clatter of his descent and turned to greet him, her heart thumping like a girl’s. The door was opened by something between a kick and a shove and he stood on the threshold.
“Well, I’ve got it,” he said. He tried to make his voice sound casual, as if getting one’s first real job were an everyday affair, but triumph radiated from him.
“Isn’t that fine!” was all she said, but he evidently found no anti-climax in her reception.
“Not bad!” he said, and came over to the table, into the reflected light of the sunset. He was going to be twenty-one to-morrow, but he looked eighteen. Small-boned, slight, with sloping shoulders, and something of the appealing immaturity of a lamb in his make-up. His red-fair hair was water-waved over the top of his narrow head; large freckles were sprinkled over his pale skin, and darkish blue eyes looked out from folded eyelids. The eyelids and a slight sag of the flesh by the corners of the mouth suggested ill-health, and the cheek-bones under the eyes were flattened, a peculiarity which gave the face a worn, exhausted look. Something in the slant of the eyelids and the flattened cheek-bones caused the eyes in repose to have a tortured, searching expression which was entirely misleading. Both his pale mouth and his delicate chin lacked modelling, but his nose jutted at a brave and satisfying angle from his perpendicular forehead, redeeming the face from mediocrity and making it in profile curiously beautiful. In his rapt moments Gareth looked like a tortured saint; medieval and stained-glass. When he came alive he became suddenly a street urchin; individual and impudent.
“The pay’s not much. Five a week. That’s about half what his last one got. But playing the fiddle for Regan is a good advertisement, you know. And he’s promised me more if I’m all right and I stay with him. I’ll be all right, of course, but I don’t know about staying with him. Anyhow, it’s a good beginning. There’s only one Regan, and he has only one violinist, and I’m it. That’s good enough for me.”
In spite of the triumph in his bearing he sounded as if he were trying to convince himself. She wanted to say: “This isn’t what you wanted. You were going to do such big things,” so that she might uncover the hurt place, and having uncovered soothe it. But if he chose to hide it she would say nothing. Her heart yearned over him.
“I always said I’d be independent before I was twenty-one, didn’t I! I wonder what father will have to say now? It’s a fine subject for a sermon, but on the other hand he can’t make it very strong any more, or I’ll just walk out. You can’t bully a chap with five pounds a week.
“You mustn’t talk like that about your father,” she said mechanically.
Her heart missed a beat at the thought of Gareth walking out of the family circle. The others had threatened often to go, but they stayed because staying was convenient for them. Convenience would not weigh with Gareth if he wanted to go. What he wanted to do he would make convenient. He had all the headstrong common-sense of his Irish grandmother. The thought of the house without Gareth was not to be borne. She pushed the dreadful idea down below the surface of her mind and covered it up. She was not going to meet trouble half-way. As a girl she had always seen trouble when it was hull-down, and rushed with all her forces to meet it. Sometimes there had been no trouble there, and she had had a bad time explaining to her reserves why they should have been so unnecessarily mobilised. Sometimes the trouble would have passed below the horizon but for her eager antagonism. And after many years, scarred and wise, she had learned that it is better to face trouble only when it is upon one.
“And, anyhow, it will soon be ten pounds a week.” His eyes shone at the prospect. No one would think that this was the boy who had agonised to play music that was music as he understood the term. The boy who had gone jobless for months because he believed in himself and his talent, and was not going to prostitute them. Was the relief so great that he was really glad about Regan’s? It must, she thought sympathetically, be wonderful not to have to struggle any longer; to turn back from the thin air and the cold and the starvation of the heights to comfort and security.
Absent-mindedly he licked his slender forefinger, picked up a crumb of icing from the table, and put it in his mouth. His eyes, bright with the thought of five pounds a week, awoke to a more immediate interest.
“What have you been making?” he demanded.
“Just a cake.”
“Iced cake, though. Where is it?”
“You can’t have a piece just now. I’ve just this minute put the finishing touches to the icing.”
“Well, let me have a look at it. Is it plum cake?”
When she had unlocked the cupboard and switched on the light so that they might see, she turned anxiously to watch him. Was he going to play down to her, be nice to her because she had been sentimental and mustn’t be let down? Or would he feel in his bones, as she did, that this was a symbol of achievement?
She saw his careless eyes grow suddenly intent. There was a little pause. “Mum!” he said, and turned to her smiling. As their eyes met his smile faded, and they looked at each other for a moment curiously over the chasm which separates one human being from another, reaching out to each other. Then with a swift movement he clipped her neck in a boyish embrace, and rubbed his cheek against hers.
“I wouldn’t exchange you for anything,” he said.
As he released her he stretched out his hand to pick off a little knob of icing.
“Don’t, Gareth!” she said sharply, the doting mother disappointing in the outraged housewife. “It isn’t set yet.”
“Oh, you’re a bully,” he said, desisting. He pushed his hands into his trousers pockets as if to keep them out of mischief. “Tea as usual? All right. I’ll be back in good time. It isn’t sausages, by any chance, I suppose?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“All right. Shan’t be long.” And he disappeared.
She knew where he was going: next door to tell Molly the news. But she knew no jealousy at the thought. Some day these two would marry. From their infancy they had wept and laughed and fought together, shielding each other in delinquencies, cursing each other in discrepancies, but always necessary to each other. When they married there would be little disturbance of the family. She would never lose Gareth to Molly, because the part of Gareth which was Molly’s had always been Molly’s. The part which was hers would never be trespassed on now.
She turned happily to put the kettle on the stove.
Tea at number seventeen Sark Street was ostensibly at half-past six on week days. In reality it was at the moment when Mr. Ellis arrived home. If the members of his family arrived before him they waited for their meal, no matter how tired and hungry they might be, until he arrived. If, on the other hand, he arrived first, tea was set on the table with the utmost dispatch, and his family, as they dribbled in, retrieved their fish or sausage from the gas oven. As children this had seemed to them the appropriate and fitting thing; they had taken it as a matter of course; not because their father was the breadwinner, but because he was Father. As one by one they became breadwinners, however, and self-respect and independence rose in them, there was muted grumbling, and Sara, always the kicker against pricks, had first uttered that unspeakable heresy: “Father’s selfishness.” Inwardly dismayed but outwardly forbidding, their mother had subdued them. Mary Ellis would allow none of her brood to criticise their father. Another woman would have snubbed them and forbidden the subject.
Mary took to cooking each person’s share as they came in and having her own tea in snatches, so that her family, exasperated and beaten, ordered her to stop it, and thereafter fetched their share from the oven with as good a grace as they could muster. The only exception to the rule was Matt, the eldest. Matt had slipped from under his father’s jurisdiction in one adroit movement by becoming a reporter on the Daily Clarion. As a newspaper man, his hours were incalculable, and no one could call him a liar when he said he was on a job. He had meals when he came in, could never go to Wednesday night prayer meeting (a fact which his baffled and angry parent assured him would inevitably lead him to hell), and very often managed to absent himself from even the Sunday meetings, an achievement which in the Ellis family was equivalent to an escape from Dartmoor together with the presentation of the freedom of the City of London.
Alfred Ellis belonged to a sect which were a kind of superior Plymouth Brethren. A very greatly superior kind, of course. They disapproved of Plymouth Brethren, and were rather hurt and scornful when any analogy was drawn between the beliefs and practices of their respective sects. But no amount of explanation seemed to convince his acquaintances and the customers who came to his shop of the essential differences between his “meeting” and all others, and Alfred Ellis was filled with contempt for the understanding of these unsaved and unenlightened. His father had been a pillar of the local Congregational church; a shrewd old man, narrow in his views but upright and fair-dealing; Mary remembered him with gratitude. He had left Alfred a half share in the grocery business round the corner (a business which was then suburban but which was now almost in town) and the house in which they were now living. Within two years Alfred, who had never liked having to consult other people, had bought his younger brother out of the business. A monarchy was more desirable than sharing a consulate. Besides, his brother and he had clashed several times over the matter of business methods. His brother, poor fool, had seemed not to realise that business and religion were two different things. There had been a ghastly night when John had told him “exactly what he thought”; among the things he thought being that their father must be turning in his grave at Alfred’s methods of making money. After that Alfred decided that John must go.
It had been a tremendous strain on the business, the buying out of John, but John had been willing to go (he said he wanted to go to Australia, where they were all descendants of convicts, so he’d always heard, and probably wouldn’t bother to preach while they sanded the sugar), and so Alfred had managed it. When their strained circumstances were revealed to her, Mary had wanted to give up the big grey house in the terrace, which had always seemed too big for themselves and their two children, and take a little one further out. But Alfred had said no; that it was a first-rate money maker, the house. They could keep lodgers. They would turn a liability into an asset. The Lord had shown them the way.
Mary had wept in secret over the thought of having strangers in her house; she had never dealt easily with strangers, and her house was somehow sacred to herself and her two tiny sons; and it seemed to her that the way the Lord had shown to Alfred was unbelievably hard and flinty. But she had one overpowering motive in her life: her children’s good. She wanted to help Alfred, of course; she still loved Alfred, because she had never analysed herself sufficiently to find out that she didn’t; but more than anything she wanted to give her children a future that they might find sufficient. So there had been long years of paying guests and child-bearing, the guests growing fewer as the growing family needed more rooms; a state of affairs with which Alfred Ellis’s superior understanding seemed strangely unable to cope; each time they had to part with a guest he had made it an occasion for loud wailing, threats of bankruptcy, and ultimate bowing to God’s will. And now, with five of her six children alive and grown-up, there remained only one guest: the Indian student on the first floor. And Mary sometimes smiled to remember how she had hated the thought of Ratan Dastur’s coming, and how she would miss that gentle Parsec when at last he would go. At the time, Alfred had forbidden her to take a heathen into the house, but when he heard that the heathen was going to pay five shillings a week more than his predecessor because for some, to Alfred, unfathomable reason he wanted more baths, Alfred had said that perhaps it was God’s will, and who were they to gainsay it. It was almost like a reward, Mary thought sometimes, that the last of her guests should be so lovable a being.
Alfred was eating his sausages when Gareth came back from talking to Molly. He had already told his wife what he thought of his son’s proposed method of making money, and had, of course, laid the blame of his future damnation on her. Hadn’t he told her when Gareth wanted to go to the Academy what the end would be? Hadn’t he? And look what had come of it! Playing vile African tunes while half-naked harlots disported themselves in shameless attitudes! Dancing to hell!
Mary had listened almost indifferently (she was so used to this by now that she could almost anticipate the phrases as they came to his tongue) and marvelled mildly for the thousandth time at the relish Alfred took in the matters of sex. Gareth’s entrance was, she knew, the signal for the tirade to begin again. She hoped that Gareth would be too pleased with himself to care. The only way to deal with Alfred was to let him talk and say nothing; let the torrent wash over you while you shut yourself inside your mind until the storm was over.
“What’s this I hear?” said Alfred, laying down his knife and fork, and glaring.
“That I’ve got five pounds a week, I hope!”
“For what? For what! For pandering to the lowest in human nature. For aiding and abetting the committing of sin. Sin, I tell you. It is sin! You are taking the wages of the devil.”
“Be quiet.” He said it quite casually but distinctly, as one does to an obstreperous child, and sat down with his plate of sausage.
“Gareth!” said his mother, aghast. “You mustn’t speak to your father like that!”
“What’s to hinder me?”
“What’s to hinder you!” shouted his father, purpling, and more surprised than he had ever been in his life before. “I should have thought common decency and gratitude would have hindered you, that’s what! Haven’t I fed and clothed you all those years? Didn’t I send you to the Academy instead of putting you to a trade like the rest of your kind. And you repay all the care and expense I’ve lavished on you by taking the deliberate way to sin. And not content with that you speak to me disrespectfully at my own table. I never thought I’d live to hear a son of mine—” He choked, partly with rage, partly on a piece of sausage.
Gareth was blithe and unimpressed. “In the first place, if you hadn’t fed and clothed me you’d have been had up by the courts. In the second place, it wasn’t you who sent me to the Academy, it was mother. If you paid for me it was sorely against your will, and you jolly well know it. I’ll pay you back that money because I’d hate to be in your debt for anything. And if you don’t like a sinner in the house I’ll relieve you of my presence any time you like.”
Alfred changed his tone. “Oh, I see! That’s the way the wind blows is it! The minute you begin to make some money you would like to pretend you owe nobody anything. You don’t want any of your five pounds a week to be claimed by the parents who have fed and clothed you. Is that it? Well, you’re making a mistake, my lad. You’ll stay here and pay your share for a change. We have put out a lot on you and we expect something in return.”
“Oh, if you don’t mind taking the wages of sin I don’t mind your having them. I said I’d pay you back. And now that I’m earning my living perhaps mum can have a new costume at last.”
“Are you insinuating that your mother is not respectably clothed?”
Gareth winked comfortingly at his distressed mother. “She doesn’t show anything she shouldn’t show, if that’s what you mean by respectable. But she hasn’t had a new coat and skirt for years. Now, perhaps she can have one.”
The venom which showed in Alfred’s stupid eyes spilled over. “Your mother can have all the clothes she wants without you prostituting the talent God gave you to play in a dance hall!”
Gareth’s pale face was suddenly drained of all colour. His eyes, which had been sparkling at this new play of baiting the family tyrant, grew hard and dead as blue stones. He caught his breath in a queer little sound, horrible to hear. His arm went back to push away his chair and he half rose, his eyes fixed on his father’s sneering face.
“Gareth!” cried his mother, in sharp appeal. Gareth hesitated, still staring at his father. And perhaps the fear on his father’s face stayed him even more than his mother’s cry. It was somehow shocking.
And then the door opened and Sara came in. Gareth sat down slowly, suddenly limp and shaken. Sara came over to the table, carrying the plate which she had fetched from the kitchen, and sat down without a word. She had not looked at any of them, and was unaware that there was any crisis. Sara was habitually wrapped up in her own thoughts. So self-absorbed was she that not even the admiring stares of men in the streets and the Underground roused her from her secret brooding.
“Had a tiring day, dear?” her mother asked, trying to bring her little world back to some semblance of normality.
She must forget what she had seen on her son’s face; must rub it out of her mind before the impression became indelible.
“Oh, just the usual.”
“Lady Nora’s trousseau finished?” Alfred shouldn’t have said that. Oh, he shouldn’t have said that!
“Yes. I don’t know why madame bothers with it. They’ll never see the money for it. Pretty dear advertisement. Pass the salt, Gareth.” She caught sight of her brother’s face. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing. I feel sick.”
“No job yet?”
“Yes,” his mother said, “he’s got a job with Regan, the conductor.”
“No! How much?”
“Not much,” she said, when she heard. She herself earned only three pounds and fifteen shillings a week, and knew what was much or little with a pitiless clarity. “You should have made him give you more.”
“I’ll have more when he’s had me a month,” Gareth said boastfully. But the jubilation had gone out of him. He was only a shell, dark and empty.
“Is that Mark I hear?” Mary asked, listening to the spatter of water in the next room.
“Yes, he’s in.” Sara’s beautiful, sullen mouth tightened in exasperation. “_Must_ he wash himself at the kitchen sink! We do have a bathroom.”
“Oh, Sara, dear!”
“Well! It’s slovenly and disgusting!” She was tired, and an immense despair overwhelmed her. “We live like pigs in the basement when we might be living in decency upstairs. All because we hang on to a paying guest that we don’t need!”
“Sara!” exclaimed her mother sharply. What was wrong with everyone to-night! “Mr. Dastur’s been with us four years. You know quite well that none of us want him to go. He’ll stay with us until he’s finished at the University.”
“And then some excuse will be found for having another one. You’ll see!”
“If you don’t control your temper, miss,” her father said, “you’ll leave the table.”
“I’m not in a temper. I only want to know why we live as we do, and why Mark—”
She stopped as the door opened. But it was not Mark, it was Matt. And with his advent the charged atmosphere became suddenly clearer. Matt had no sense of frustration to mar his outlook on life. Matt was free and content. He knew what he wanted in life, and he knew the way to get it, and his bright, watchful dark eyes were full of a careless good humour.
“‘Lo, everyone. No, I don’t want anything to eat. Just looked in for a cup of tea in passing. You won’t make it an extra on the bill, will you, Mum? It’s all right,” as Mary made as if to rise, “I’ll get a cup.” He fetched a cup and saucer from the cupboard. “They’ve got the chap who did the postman in. Yes. This afternoon. The police needed that badly. You wait and see the Morning News throwing them bouquets to-morrow. After panning them for months! Huh! Any word of a job, kid?”
“Yes, I’m going to play the fiddle for Regan. Start to-morrow.”
“Good for you! Congratulations, kid! You’ll be the famous one of the family all in a bound. Playing for Regan is first-rate advertisement, isn’t it! There isn’t a single member of the first hundred thousand who won’t know you by sight in a fortnight’s time. I say, Mark,” as his brother came in, “congratulate the kid. He’s been engaged by Regan. The dance band, you know.”
Mark’s absent-minded grey eyes woke to animation and he smiled, a little shyly, at his brother. “And will you like that?” he asked with interest. To Mark the important thing in life was neither money nor fame, but the ability to devote yourself to a job you were interested in. He spent his days in a garage attending to invalid motors, and most of his evenings in the same garage, experimenting. The world for Mark was bounded by the internal combustion engine and what it might be capable of becoming. Even on Sundays he was unmistakably a mechanic. There was a suggestion of motor oil in his untidy dark hair, and his hands, in spite of assiduous scrubbing, still looked very much as they had on Saturday evening. He lived in a world of his own, not, like Sara, because of a lack of sympathy with his surroundings, but because he did not notice his surroundings until they were pointed out to him.
Matt, who lived in no world of his own, had become aware that Sara was on the verge of tears and that Gareth looked ill and miserable for a newly-engaged violinist, and he hastened to deal with Mark’s question. “Of course he’ll like it,” he said. “It’ll be a great jape for him. You can’t do anything without advertisement nowadays, and he’ll be getting advertisement in dollops. And Regan’s good to work with, anyhow. Of course he’ll like it!” He cast round in his mind for something else to say. The kid had no right to be looking like that when he had just reached down his first job. “And when he’s made a little he can walk out and do something else. With a little money you can do anything.” Was that what the kid was sore about? Not being able to play decent stuff? Or—oh, yes, of course! That was it! Father had been holding forth again. He looked for a moment at his parent, glowering and eating his tea with a sulky ferocity at the head of the table. And he added deliberately: “With money, kid, you can be independent of everyone but yourself. Everyone, do you hear.”
Alfred glanced quickly at his eldest son, but Matt’s square face was bland. If there was a challenge there Alfred ignored it. He was afraid of Matt.
Mary was thinking: “By to-morrow this will have blown over and we can have his birthday celebration without bad feeling.” But she did not analyse the thought too closely in case the wish was father to the thought.
Sara was trying to keep back the tears which every now and then blurred the sausages, and wondering why life so suddenly seemed unbearable the minute she entered Number Seventeen. True, she did not find it happy elsewhere, but if not happy it was at least supportable. Coming along the street she had been pleased with the furious splendour of the sunset. It had satisfied something hungry in her, and she had forgotten the petty annoyance of having to wear her humping, heavy rubber boots when the rain had long since ceased to fall. But as soon as the door had closed behind her the old, obscure resentment and hopelessness had risen in a flood and submerged her. The dark hall, with its mean, ugly hatstand and lifeless atmosphere enraged her. She hated everything, and hated herself for her hatred. When she snapped at her patient mother she loathed herself for snapping and her mother for her patience. What was wrong with her? Why hadn’t she been born like Molly, content with her lot? Asking nothing of life but the things she had known since babyhood. Why had she to be like this!
When Matt rose to go, after having swallowed his tea, she debated with herself whether she should go back to town with him. He might be persuaded to go by bus, and now that the rain had stopped it would be nice to sit on top of a bus and watch the lighted streets go by; and Matt was a sensible creature and comforting to be with. He didn’t suffer from vague and enormous desires, but he had realised the impossibility, the damnable, constricting, suffocating impossibility of Seventeen Sark Street. It would be soothing to be with Matt for a little and feel the fresh air blowing. She raised her head to tell him that she would come with him, and found that the thought of’ having to climb the stairs of a bus was more than she could face. She was tired to the marrow. And what was the point of going bus-riding, anyhow? Going nowhere just to come back again. Just like the rest of life. She let him go. And presently, leaving her parents and Mark at the table (Gareth had disappeared), she climbed the dim, shabby stairs to her room at the top of the house.
In the basement of Number Seventeen was the kitchen, looking out on the street, and a living-room where the family took their meals, looking out on a square of bedraggled grass. The front sitting-room on the ground floor was occupied by Ratan Dastur, and the one behind it was the Ellises’ best room where they received visitors. On the first floor were, in front, Dastur’s bedroom and a room shared by Matt and Mark, and, behind, the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Ellis. The top floor was divided into two attics; one was Sara’s, and the other Gareth had shared with his brother Joe until Joe had married and departed to work in a motor cycle works in Coventry, leaving him in sole possession.
As Sara passed his door she noticed that Gareth was sitting on the edge of his bed staring at nothing, and there was such woebegoneness in his attitude that she hesitated, and then moved into the room. The only tender spot in Sara’s heart was reserved for her baby brother. As a small girl she had looked after him when her mother was overburdened with household affairs; washed him, dressed him, bullied him, and shielded him, until, as he grew older he had, in a natural reaction, constituted himself her protector and champion. At the age of eight he fought a boy twice his size who had said that Sara, then nearly twelve, wore second-hand clothes; and had suffered more or less in silence Sara’s exasperated shaking when she saw the state of his own garments, because she might be hurt if she heard about the clothes.
She had meant to say something cheerful, but his resentment seemed to become fused with her own, and she said bitterly: “It’s a lovely life, isn’t it! What do you think we were born for?”
“Don’t you know!” Gareth said, as one pained at an exhibition of ignorance. “To help keep father, of course.”
“I don’t know how someone hasn’t murdered father long ago. It makes me sick, sick, to think that human beings are made like that, and sick to think he’s my father. The preaching hypocrite! Was he horrid about your job?”
“Why do you think we all stay?”
“Joe didn’t,” Gareth said, going round the question.
“No, but Joe doesn’t count. He always ran away from everything. He hadn’t even the spunk to get married before he went to Coventry. Did it on the sly.”
“Father always beat him more than the rest of us.”
“Only because he was afraid of father and showed it. Hymn-bawling little coward. Of course he would get out! But why does Matt stay, and Mark, and you now?”
“Don’t know. Because of mother. I suppose. It would be awful for her if we all went. Went just to live in digs, I mean.”
“But, you know, mother is responsible for quite a lot of father’s awfulness. She’d be dreadfully hurt and all that if you said so to her, but it’s true. She’s been a door-mat for him ever since they were married. It makes me sick to see her fetching and carrying for him as if he were a king or an invalid. She thinks she’s being so noble when she does it, and all she is doing is making him into the unbearable thing he is. If mother had been another kind of woman father wouldn’t be half so awful as he is. He’d always have been a liar and a hypocrite, because he was born that way, but he wouldn’t have been so selfish or so bullying or quite so—so—oh, so ridiculous as he is. She’s made him like that.”
“I suppose she wanted a quiet life now and then.”
“She could have got it in two weeks if she had stuck up to him in the beginning. It disgusts me to see a woman kowtowing to her husband like that. That’s what mother thinks being a good wife is. I suppose. And she would think you were awful if you told her that it was much more degrading—_much_ more—than being a man’s mistress. That kind of wife loses her self-respect and ruins her husband at the same time.”
“You’ll never be that kind of wife,” Gareth said, a faint amusement showing.
“No, I won’t.” The faint amusement became reflected in her face. “Neither will Molly, you know. Molly is easy-going, but she will tell you just where you get off.”
“You can’t tell me anything I don’t know about Molly.”
“Any woman knows more about another woman than a man can ever know, silly. But I don’t suppose there is much about Molly you don’t know…Your future is all nice and simple and clear, isn’t it, Gareth? You’ll get out before long. You’ll get married and leave Seventeen with everyone’s consent and blessing. Perhaps father will even give you a fiver.”
“That’s the programme—though I’m not counting on the fiver. But I’m not in any hurry. We’re not going to marry until we’ve something decent to live on. We’re not going to pig it.”
Sara looked for a moment quizzically at his serious, freckled, childish countenance. And she smiled.
When Sara smiled one caught one’s breath. The scornful brooding loveliness melted suddenly into a shining wistfulness that squeezed one’s heart to see. One’s mind exclaimed at the unexpectedness and poignancy of it. It was a child’s smile, shy, and innocent, and utterly lovely. Even Gareth realised that Sara’s smile was a precious thing. Sara smiled so seldom.
“You’re a canny little person for an artist, aren’t you!”
“I don’t have to be a fool because I play the fiddle,” Gareth said, hoping she would keep smiling. But the smile had died away as if existence was too difficult for anything so fragile, so vulnerable. “When we have enough to buy a house somewhere just out of London we’ll get married, and you’ll come for every week-end. But I expect you’ll be married first.”
“Married!” she said, and her tone disconcerted him. “Who’m I to marry?”
“There are queues, aren’t there?”
“Maybe, but look at the queues! Who am I to marry out of that lot? Sidney Webb? And have him being facetious from morning till night. Joshing visitors when they don’t want to be joshed, and being the bright lad all over the place? Or Bert Tiller? And put up with his washing in the kitchen like Mark, and making a noise when he drank? Do you see me married to someone like that?”
“Not to those two, obviously!” Gareth said. “But some day you’ll fall for someone and you won’t care a hoot about his washing at the sink and you’ll think the noise he makes with his tea is a symphony.”
“Oh, no, I shan’t. You’re quite wrong about me. I couldn’t fall in love with anyone like that. And if by chance I did I shouldn’t marry him. I know too well what it would be like afterwards. I’ve seen too much gingerbread with the gilt off to make a fool of myself that way. You’re busy trying to believe that I’m snobbish, but you know quite well that you’re the same, Gareth. You don’t like this way of living any more than I do. You want something better, too. It surely isn’t snobbish to want to have more—more—” she searched for a word—”Oh, less of the feed-and-get-out way of living than we’ve been brought up to. You may not hate it as I do, but the only reason you don’t is because you’ve had your music always—and Molly. I haven’t had anything. The only way out for me is marriage. And I won’t marry a Webb or a Tiller.”
Gareth was silent for a moment, a little surprised at his sister’s frankness. Sara so seldom discussed her affairs with anyone. He forgot his own troubles temporarily in considering this phenomenon. Sara was so unhappy that she was driven to talk about it! And she had been right about his attitude to life at home. He had never thought about it much, but he did want more graciousness, more beauty, more space in existence than he had experienced so far. He hadn’t worried his head about it much, because at the back of his mind he knew that one day he would achieve all that he wanted of beauty, and until then, as Sara said, there was his music. But for Sara, with no certainty of power to hug deep in her soul, with no future hanging like a constant star in front of her—it must be pretty rough for Sara. Yes, he did understand.
“What about Seven A Brook Street?” he said lightly. “Isn’t that a happy hunting ground for you? If it’s a wealthy marriage you want I should have thought it would have been quite easy to bring it off that way!”
To his amazement she grew slowly crimson. “I suppose you’re joking,” she said after a pause. “I don’t want that kind of marriage any more than I want the other kind.” She tried to make it seem that her flush was due to indignation at Gareth’s suggestion, but Gareth felt that he had stubbed his toe against something in the dark.
“I’m not going to be picked out of a dress shop for my looks any more than I’m going to cook sausages for Sidney Webb to be funny about,” she said equably, her cheeks regaining their normal pallor. “And if you stay up here any longer you’ll get pneumonia and the house will be worse than ever to live in. My feet are frozen already.” She rose from where she had been propped on the bed rail and made a small tattoo with her toes on the floor. “What are you doing for the rest of the evening?”
“Going to take Molly to the movies. You come too.”
“No, thanks. You can hold hands in peace. Thanks all the same. Tell Molly that I’ll come in and cut her frock on Sunday afternoon if that will be all right for her.”
“What! And help her down the road to hell! Do you know what you are saying? Is Jehovah to be mocked with a pair of scissors and frivolous thought on his Sabbath!”
“Oh, shut up,” said Sara amiably. “I’ve had enough of father for one day. And you don’t have any frivolous thoughts when you’re cutting out a this year’s model, take it from me!” She smiled faintly at him and went out to her room next door.
Gareth sat for a minute longer, thinking about her, and then, remembering that he would be late for the appointment with Molly, he glanced hastily at his collar in the mirror, decided that it would do, and went tumbling downstairs in his usual pell-mell fashion. He was feeling much better. Molly, anyhow, had been gloriously glad about his job, and as long as he kept his mind off his father things didn’t look so bad. At least he had five pounds a week.
Sara heard him go, and her face softened as she stood listlessly unfastening her frock in front of her dressing-table in the chilly attic. Gareth was grown-up now, but he would always be a small boy at heart. She always thought of him, and sometimes spoke of him, as her “little” brother. It wasn’t only his appearance that made one think of him as young; there was something in his lack of pose, in his unselfconsciousness, that was child-like. And delightful. He was a darling, Gareth. If one appealed to him to do a thing he did it as a matter of course. He would do anything for anyone, from matching silk to bearding a tax-collector.
She let her frock slide to the floor, picked it up, shook it out wearily and hung it on a hanger behind a curtain. Why had she talked like that to Gareth to-night? He must in some way be more grown up than she had ever suspected; there had been a real sympathy between them for those few minutes. She had had no consciousness, then, of her three years’ superiority. And why, oh why, had she blushed! If there had been any adequate reason she might have forgiven herself. But there was no reason; no reason whatever.
She took down a dressing-gown from the black iron hook at the back of the door and put it on. It was made of fine bright silk of a motley pattern which she had obtained cheaply from the workroom since it had been rejected with contumely by the customer who had originally ordered it, and who had pretended to faint with horror when she saw it in the process of being made up. (The contretemps had been settled with satisfaction to all parties since the customer had the joy of choosing all over again, Madame Laurier had charged her half as much again as she had intended to, and Sara had come by a thing of beauty.) On Sara the riot of peacock greens and blues and iris yellows looked barbarically appropriate. Every time her eye lighted on the splendour and the subtlety of them she had a moment of pleasure, and each time her eye lighted on herself in the splendour her pleasure was renewed. She was Egypt, she was Diana, she was Circe. Sara’s dressing-gown was one of the things that helped to make life bearable for Sara.
She lay down on the bed (a black iron cot with a hollow in the middle), pulled the worn quilt up over the peacock glories, and switched on the electric lamp which Mark had rigged for her last birthday. There was a library book on the table but she did not read it. She lay staring into the pool of light which the lamp made on the dingy ceiling.
If Chitterne hadn’t happened to come in that morning she wouldn’t have blushed at Gareth’s idle remark to-night. It all boiled down to that. And things were coming to a pretty pass when she felt selfconscious over a man like Chitterne. The affair must be sorted out in her mind. That blush had shocked her.
That morning made Chitterne’s third visit to Madame Laurier’s. Twice he had come with his cousin, Daphne Conyers-Munford, and waited, serene and amused, while she tried on hats; every hat in the shop, in fact, except the bird’s-nest affair which was on order for the Dowager Lady Appleby; Daphne Conyers-Munford had never been known to spare anyone trouble if she wanted something. It had been sheer chance that on the first occasion Madge Sinclair, who was “hats,” was on holiday, and Millie Burke, who was “gowns,” at lunch, and Sara had been in charge of the whole establishment in front for an hour. Chitterne and his cousin had stayed nearly the whole of that hour, and Sara had been radiant because she had sold two hats; at least she had supposed that that was why she was radiant. On the second occasion Sara had been in her proper place in the designing room behind the scenes. But Miss Munford had wanted Chitterne to see the period dress that she was going to wear at “Sandy’s rag,” and Sara had brought it. It hadn’t pleased Miss Conyers-Munford, seen limp and shapeless in Sara’s hands, so Sara had put it on for them and exhibited it in all its beauty.
That had been a month ago. And then this morning Chitterne had arrived alone and wanted “a piece of silk” to give as a present to his sister. And Sara had been summoned from her work to deal with this strange request. Chitterne had seemed to have very vague ideas as to what he wanted; all that he was certain of was that it should be beautiful and “out of the way.”
“She likes things like that,” he said. They had discussed textures and colours for nearly half an hour, and although he seemed totally ignorant of the subject, he had proved an appreciative listener, and Sara had approved of his taste. Nothing in the Laurier stock was “out of the way” enough, but Sara had known where to obtain what he wanted, and had promised to find something for him within three days. As he was going away he said: “It’s awfully sporting of you to go to all this trouble.” Sara was about to say that there was no sport in business, but thought that it might sound snubbing. She had put on her polite expression and said that she was delighted.
“Then, I say,” he said, “are you doing anything to-night?”
He said it quite nicely, almost diffidently, and for a moment Sara hesitated. This sort of thing, in spite of film plots and library novels, happened so seldom. To go out for the evening with anyone as famous and as popular as Chitterne would be making history in Brook Street; and it would be a marvellous experience. But she remembered with bitter clarity what their relations would be: a pretty shop-girl treated to a night’s entertainment by an amused if slightly infatuated male; and she revolted.
“Yes, I am,” she said politely; and visualised, with painful distinctness, what she was doing: going home by Underground to high tea in a basement room with a boring family. Queer, now that she came to think of it, that she should set such high store by herself; queer and a bit mad.
“I’m sorry. I thought perhaps you might come out and have dinner with me somewhere, and perhaps go to a show and dance.”
“That’s very nice of you, but I’m engaged to-night.”
Was he sorry for her? Or did he merely covet her? There could be only the two reasons, and she hardly knew which she resented the more.
“Well, would you come some other night this week?”
“No, thank you very much.”
“You don’t want to come, is that it?”
“Well—you put it rather bluntly.”
“Why don’t you want to?”
“Because I don’t know you.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“It’s a very good reason, I think.”
“You’re old-fashioned, aren’t you?”
More lives have been wrecked and more morals disintegrated on the word “old-fashioned” than on all the gilded temptations of the devil. Tell a woman that she is faithless and she will be flattered, tell her that she is a snob and she will be sorry for you, but tell her that she is old-fashioned and watch her rushing headlong to the devil to prove that she is no such thing! Chitterne brought out the old gibe with evident faith in its efficacy. But he did not know Sara.
“I suppose I must be,” she said sweetly, and held the door open for him.
He had gone then; more amused than abashed, it seemed. And Sara had gone back to her work, a little disgusted to find herself regretful. Was it ridiculous to be too proud to accept casual invitations?—in these days, when all society was casual and without taboo. He had been very nice and brotherly and unpresuming, and she had never been out to dinner at a smart restaurant. But she was greatly fortified by the memory of his remark about being old-fashioned. A man who said that should be slapped.
And after all that, she had blushed about him to-night! She, the worldly-wise, self-contained, hard-headed, twenty-four-year-old dress-designer of Laurier’s! It shocked her anew.
Was she flattered that he had been interested in her? Of course! Any woman is faintly flattered by the interest of even an octogenarian, and Chitterne was young, good looking, presumably a connoisseur in women’s looks since he daily met the most beautiful women in the world. He was famous as a gentleman rider, as the driver of a racing motor car, as the owner of a racing stable and stud, as an amateur boxer, as the perpetrator of various more or less astounding plays which had delighted the West End, and his name was a household word in every home in Britain where the penny Press is read. His father had been known to complain that he, the Earl of Wilmington, appeared in print as “father of the famous Chit.” (“Chit” was Chitterne’s nickname, and the penny Press is nothing if not familiar.) Sober householders shook their heads over him, much as they did over the National Debt, and opined that he had too much money and too little sense. Policemen loved him and took his bribes with the greatest goodwill. The men at the works, where he had spent three months learning motor engineering after he left Harrow, thought him a first-rate chap, his mechanic frankly worshipped him, and the great British Public were vaguely conscious that he was a decorative and Corinthian addition to the country’s rather drab present.
But Sara, lying with her brooding eyes on the dirty ceiling, decided that she had done well. She was spending the evening in her dreary attic when she might be what the girls in Brook Street called seeing life. But she was not going to be taken for granted by any young Corinthian. And that remark about being old-fashioned had certainly been taking her for granted. Kicking against the pricks, was she? Torturing herself for an idea? Well, what did it matter? The only thing that counted to her was her own opinion of herself. If that became smirched or spoiled there would be nothing left.
And she would never blush about Chitterne again. She would see to that!
Gareth hung about the railings of number Fifteen hoping that Molly would come out to meet him and save him from having to go in. He didn’t want to see Molly’s mother to-night, somehow. Mrs. Rayner knew, as well as any of them, that this job of his was a come-down; that it was capitulation not achievement. But she wouldn’t pretend as well as the others. She would smile at him, and perhaps pat him, but her small, inquisitive eyes would be probing, quizzing, full of delighted curiosity. They would be like a fork digging into him and turning over his emotions in search of the interesting bits. He liked Mrs. Rayner all right (of course he liked her, she was Molly’s mother, wasn’t she?) but there were times when the rejoicing malice in the jewel-like eyes, stuck so incongruously in the fat amiability of her face, made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want to have to face her to-night, and pretend.
Molly came running down the steps, still hatless. “You’re coming in to see mother, aren’t you, Gareth? Oh, you must, just for a minute. She hasn’t seen you to congratulate you. She’ll think it so funny if you don’t.”
“To-morrow’ll do, won’t it? I’m sick of the subject. Let’s buzz off and be by ourselves.”
“Yes, I’ve just to put my hat on. But you come in and see mother while I put it on. Then you’ll have it all over at once, and we can enjoy ourselves. Mother’s awfully pleased about it, and she’d be awfully dashed if you didn’t come in.” The Rayner household was a boarding-house, which Mrs. Rayner ran with the aid of her only daughter and a general servant known as “the housemaid.” Since she never took boarders who came in for luncheon, she managed to achieve an existence of considerable leisure, and to devote her afternoons to the bridge parties which constituted the main interest of her life. She didn’t like bridge very much because she could never understand the game, and played very badly, but she secretly considered that the playing of bridge gave “tone” to one’s social standing. She never got tired of saying: “You must come in for bridge one afternoon.” It had such a nice, casual, opulent sound, somehow. Once a month she gave a real bridge party: and for a week beforehand all her energies were concentrated in the narrow channel of considering the details: what she would give them to eat, what she would wear; what prizes she would give, what flowers she would have. And on the day itself she devoted herself from eight o’clock onwards to arranging; her bridge tea, while Molly ran the boarding-house; cooking, washing up, smoothing down the outraged (there is always someone outraged in a boarding-house), encouraging the depressed, urging on the dilatory, ordering from tradespeople, answering the front door-bell when the maid was in the attics, until, at half past six, she put a triumphant but exhausted mother to bed with a headache, and descended into the basement to see to the dinner.
To-night, as usual, Mrs. Rayner had impressed her three boarders into making a four. Gareth found them sitting round a table in front of the drawing-room fire. Molly had shoved him in and left him, so he made the best of things. He knew the boarders (two school teachers and an elderly woman who was foreign correspondent for a big business house) and they did their best to be nice about his job, but he felt the eyes of the schoolmistresses to be cold and critical. There was something vaguely antagonistic about these two; he was outside their world, and therefore something to be distrusted, if not despised. The old correspondent said: “I have a niece who plays in an orchestra in Sheffield. A very good job, it is. I am glad you have such a fine opening, Mr. Ellis.” And Mrs. Rayner sat plump and solid in her chair, her sly smile enveloping him, her eyes seeking him out. Depression rushed over him. The awfulness of the future became excruciatingly plain. He was going to play syncopated trash six nights a week and half the day for five pounds a week. It was incredible. How could he ever have thought of it. He, Gareth Ellis. Selling his soul for a mess of pottage. He wouldn’t do it. He would go to Regan to-morrow, to-night, and tell him that he had changed his mind. He hadn’t signed a contract yet. Regan would let him off.
“A nice fat cheque every week is a lot better than playing to a lot of high-brows, eh, Gareth?” He hated the woman; yes, hated her, whether she was Molly’s mother or not. Her smug Scots voice, with its complacent lilt, maddened him. He couldn’t turn his head to look at her he hated her so much. She was horrible. She would cry happily at funerals (he had seen her), but when anyone was filled with rapture she pulled out a pin and punctured them. Always when people were happy she found the little pricking word which brought doubt. He remembered bringing her his fiddle, as a small boy, and, very hot and shy, but proud, playing her his first composition. She had listened, said that it was very nice, and asked him if he had had a good school report this term. He knew the moment that his eyes met hers that the question was mere form; she knew all about his bad report. She was snubbing him. He could remember yet, feel yet, the agony of humiliation which overwhelmed him because he had gone out of his way to gain this woman’s approval. It was not that she singled him out for reprimand; she did it to everyone. The other day when Sara had been exhibiting the new hair wave for which she had been saving up these last three months, Mrs. Rayner had put a finger on her parting and said: “You have a little bald bit there. You’ll have to be careful to keep that covered.” Sara said she was a cat, but it was worse than that. She actually hated to see people happy.
The mathematics mistress fidgeted. She liked bridge because she usually won and could always tell the others why they had lost, and she did not see why she should be expected to be interested because Molly Rayner’s young man had at last got himself a job.
“I’m interrupting,” Gareth said, and turned away to where the evening paper offered a refuge. He held the paper in front of him as a shield and stared at a photograph on the wall. It was a photograph of the Duke of Bude’s country place. Mrs. Rayner, before her marriage, had been a nursery governess (the uncharitable said a nurse-maid) in the Bude household, and none of her acquaintances was allowed to forget the fact. Her walls were hung with photographs of the Bude house, children, stables, horses, gardens, park, avenue, lake and summer house, each taken from every conceivable angle. On the piano was a signed photograph of the Duchess in Court dress. Any aspersions cast on the ways of the beau monde Mrs. Rayner took as a slight to herself. If gossip was to be provided, she would do the providing; if anyone else supplied it she waited a moment for the silence to become uncomfortable, and then said quietly but finally: “I think you can take it from me that that is not true.”
It was with relief that Gareth heard Molly coming running downstairs. “Ready, Gareth!” she called from the hall, her voice young and happy and fresh; and he made his adieux and joined her.
“Let’s go to the Empire, shall we? Do you mind?” she asked, straightening the seams of her stockings.
“No, anywhere you like.”
She gave him a quick, enquiring glance. It was the look a mother bestows on an infant when it shows signs of being sick; half apprehensive, half sympathetic, wholly possessive. He was white and tired-looking, and his mouth looked as if he were going to cry. Her mother had evidently been giving with one hand and taking back with the other as usual. What a nuisance! Now she would have to smooth him out again, and she wasn’t feeling any too bright herself. However, it was her own fault for insisting on his being polite and coming in.
As they went down the street she slipped her fore-arm under his and ran her hand into his coat pocket so that she could hold his hand there. He squeezed her fingers accommodatingly, but his mind was obviously elsewhere.
“If Regan lets me off,” he was thinking, “what can I do instead?” He would have to do something; that was obvious. He couldn’t just come back and tell them that he had no job after all. But what could he do? If he gave up the job with Regan it meant giving up the thought of making his living by playing. It would be easier to give it up altogether than to play what Regan expected him to play. But what could he find to do instead?
“I say, Molly, would you marry a salesman?”
“Is this a game?”
“No. Would you marry me if I was a salesman and not a violinist?”
“I’d probably marry you if you were a dustman. But why do you want to be a salesman?”
She said it quite calmly, as if being a salesman was quite an ordinary thing for a budding Heifetz to consider, and her matter-of-factness was somehow soothing. Unconsciously, he felt a little less desperate.
“I don’t want to be anything of the sort, but—well—”
“You don’t like the job with Regan, is that it?”
“Yes. I think, perhaps, I’d rather do something that wasn’t music at all.”
“I know what you mean. But, you know, being with Regan might be good fun—if you considered it just as fun. And that’s all it is. Playing tricks with music. It isn’t as if it was going to be for long.”
She talked in her casual, considering way while they strolled to the bus stop at the end of the street. But her heart was thumping nervously. Gareth mustn’t be allowed to throw away this chance. He had lost his sense of humour, that was all, but if he didn’t recover it by to-morrow he was liable to do anything.
“And, you know, I sometimes think any job is better than no job at all. I know I can’t feel like you about music, but I think it gives you a sort of confidence in yourself if you have money in your pocket; and that’s good for you. Even if the money is only for playing silly tunes for Regan, you’ll have the nice feeling that you’re earning.”
Gareth grunted non-committally. She was right about that. That is how he had felt earlier in the evening. The glory of five pounds a week had almost obliterated the bitter feeling in his heart. Why had he let it rise again!
“It won’t be long before Dolmetsky has an opening for you, you know; and in the meantime you can have money, and see new things, and all that. You’ll meet a different kind of people, and all that. People you’ll probably never see again when you go to Dolmetsky.”
“Dolmetsky will probably not want me after I’ve been with Regan. And, anyhow, I don’t want to meet people,” Gareth said, but he sounded less convinced. The idea of treating Regan’s as a joke, as a kind of fling, had not occurred to him. He had thought of it as a stop-gap, but not as a stop-gap which might be enjoyed. “Of course, if you made some money and got known to people you might be able to start recitals or something, run a quartet or something like that, without staying in a symphony orchestra for years, mightn’t you?”
“Not if I got known to them as a fiddler in a dance band.”
“Oh, but you’re not going to stay long enough for that. Besides, we needn’t start here, when you’d made some money. We could go to America. They like discovering people in America.”
If that bus didn’t come for five minutes, she would manage it.
“And then there’s—”
Gareth listened, nodding now and again.
As she stepped on to the bus she knew that it was all right.
She sat down thankfully on the cushioned seat, and made a little inelegant whew of relief to the glass of the window. Life really was a whole-time job!
Ursula Deane’s sitting-room, on the third floor of her father’s town house, looked out on the tree-tops of a square and a far vista of higgledy-piggledy chimney pots; a typical London view which not even the rapid advance of concrete and steel skyscrapers had been able to penetrate. These casual, friendly chimney pots were the last rampart of the old London, and the Deane family was firmly entrenched behind them. Not that the Deanes had been entrenched long, as time is understood in a London square. Ursula’s grandfather, the first Lord Wilmington, had begun life as a bottle-washer in a brewery, and it had always been a secret source of amazement, as well as of satisfaction, to the old gentleman that he, Bob Deane, should find himself in the home of the Delaunays. The Delaunays, being in the beginning an acquisitive and aspiring race, had come over before the Conqueror, and when William ultimately did arrive, proved themselves so useful to him that he found it politic to forgive their almost unforgivable impertinence in being ahead of him, and to shut his eyes to the various snafflings which had taken place before his arrival. So the Delaunays dug themselves in still further, and stayed there. But eight hundred years of fighting, gaming, alliances, and litigation had thinned their blood and dissipated their substance, and the inevitable had come to pass when the Deanes, only two generations from the soil, had stepped into their shoes. Sentiment had been satisfied (and the Delaunays otherwise compensated) when Robert Deane’s son had married a Delaunay cousin. Not, perhaps, a Delaunay of the first water, but anyhow a perfectly reputable and authentic Delaunay. And now Robert Deane’s son and the Delaunay cousin reigned in his stead. And Ursula daily deplored her mother’s Delaunay stupidity and her father’s Deane stubbornness. She stood now in the window, looking out at the well of shimmering light which the square had become this frosty morning. Even the ragged brown trees had lost their dolefulness, and floated, vague jewelled patterns, in the shining haze. A glorious morning; radiant as a bride and invigorating as a cocktail. But Ursula was wondering what on earth she was going to do with it. She had ridden, alone, before breakfast, because when she came in at four o’clock that morning she had been too wide awake to go to bed. She had spent nearly two hours dawdling over her bath, where she had composed five potted biographies ŕ la Bentley, all of which had seemed very funny indeed. The best was about Bonjie, and as she had made up her mind to break off her engagement to Bonjie sometime within the next three days, she had reminded herself to present Bonjie’s biography to her set at the earliest opportunity. The biography was too good to waste, but it was also too barbed to be disseminated when she would no longer have a proprietor’s right of criticism. Philip Sidney, when urged to prosecute, said: “If he was my friend I would have done it.” And Ursula subscribed to that code. She couldn’t be rude about Bonjie the rejected, therefore the squib should be fired while yet he was an appropriate victim.
At six o’clock she had walked in the growing light to the stables, where watering and grooming had been not long in progress. She had helped the lad finish the grooming of her horse, since the morning was chilly and her blood needed stimulation, and had discussed with him meanwhile the chances of Blue Marine in the three o’clock at Derby, and the rival merits of the pictures at the Regal and the Marble Arch to which he was going to take his young lady that evening. She had ridden until eight, and had enjoyed the ride. The world at that hour had been a Whistlerian symphony in black and silver, a world deserted by all but policemen and scavengers, the one motionless and the other moribund; she had felt herself gloriously alive and potent among those half-tints. Now the world was sparkling and the hum of traffic made a gentle but exciting monotone on the bright air; and she was wondering, in a disgruntled reaction, how she was going to fill the hours until luncheon. There were a few things which she should do, and quite a number of things which she might do, but none of them seemed attractive in her present frame of mind. She decided that she might compose a letter of renunciation to Bonjie. She felt just in the mood for it, and she needn’t post it until to-morrow. She turned away from the window towards her writing-table, debating within herself whether she should tell Bonjie that she knew about his week-end with Adela, or whether she should just say that she had changed her mind. She began a letter on the blue notepaper, but decided that it looked too mournful, and she wasn’t in the least mournful over Bonjie. She tore it up and began again on a piece of orange paper so intense that one’s eyes blurred as they rested on it. She would write a note that was full and running over with pin-pricks, at which Bonjie could neither squirm nor protest without giving himself away. Her face became animated and amused at the prospect. Bonjie had earned one of her very best notes.
She could, of course, tell him by word of mouth that she was not going to marry him, but putting it down in orange and brown was much more satisfactory for all parties concerned. There would be no awkwardness, no loss of temper, no misunderstanding (by the time Bonjie had finished reading her note he would be suffering from no lack of apprehension), and the result would be perfect equanimity when next they met. There was no need to be uncivilised because one was getting rid of a fiancé.
She had got half way through very successfully and was enjoying herself, when there was a light tap on the door. It was Daphne Conyers-Munford. “Oh, it’s you!” Ursula said. “You’re disgustingly energetic. It’s only eleven.”
“I know, darling. But I couldn’t sleep, so thought I might as well get up. Those damned tablets aren’t a bit of good. I took three, and it said four was sudden death. And if it was a choice between sudden death and getting up I thought I’d get up.”
She was fair, and small, and slight, with a daintily carved face and a wide thin mouth which gave her a cat-like look. Every detail of her clothes, her make-up, and her atmosphere was the last word in the fashion of the moment. When ingénues were the rage Daphne went about in a metaphorical sun-bonnet; now that no woman would dream of looking innocent, even in her coffin, Daphne was a sleek personification of all the vices.
“What’s happening downstairs? Got the brokers in?”
“No, only mother’s charity ball. It’s to-night.”
“Oh, yes. The Jungle affair at the Grosvenor. You’d think there had been murder and rape at the very least. Coggins is positively heated looking.”
“I’m glad something makes him sweat. It’s Miss Pick I’m sorry for. Pulling that fool of a woman out of one of her messes must be like trying to get an elephant out of a quicksand.”
“Darling, don’t be so disrespectful!”
“Darling, don’t be so insincere!”
“Well, my sweet, she is your mother.”
“And, would it were not so, she is a fool.” Daphne moved languidly over to the window and took a chair in the sun. “I went round to Madelon’s to see if she could give me a treatment—my face this morning would move even Augustus John to tears—but she couldn’t take me till half-past, so I thought I’d park myself here for half an hour. Don’t mind me, darling.”
“I don’t,” said Ursula, writing.
“That was a perfectly hellish party of Connie’s, wasn’t it! Why does the woman give parties? The food was simply loathsome. Clive said the caviare tasted as if it had been spilt and then gathered up with a vacuum cleaner. I noticed that you and Tim beat it early. Where did you go?”
“The Laurel Bush.”
“Depends what you call interesting.”
“Darling, you know quite well that no one is interesting unless they’re where they shouldn’t be. The Prime Minister at Number Ten is simply dull, but the Prime Minister up someone else’s apple tree would be screamingly interesting.”
“According to that prescription there was no one interesting.”
“Was the evening completely dull, then?”
“No one slapped anyone else while we were there, anyhow.”
“Darling, are you being sarcastic, by any chance?…Good heavens, Elenor Brackett has a son!”
“It doesn’t say. And Jimmy Elder and the Goodson girl have got married. A little superfluous, don’t you think?”
Daphne turned the page. “That seems to be all the news this morning. Two murders and an article by James Douglas. It’s a dear pennyworth, isn’t it? Have you seen the Tatler? There’s a full page photograph of that Bowers woman in the most awful—”
“Oh, shut up, Daphne. I can’t think.”
Daphne put down the paper and considered her cousin’s back with interest. “What’s wrong with the telephone?” she asked.
“I thought it might be more polite to break it off by letter.”
Daphne uttered a long whistle. “_Darling!_ you’re making rather a habit of it, aren’t you?”
“A perfectly good habit.”
“But, darling! Three times! Have you quarrelled with Bonjie?”
“Oh, no, we’re the best of friends.”
“Then what on earth is the matter?”
“I hate the way he gets into his coat. So much hoisting and flapping.”
“He does make a business of things, but you’ve always known that.”
“And he seems too much interested in Adela Everett.”
“What! That—wireless mast!”
“I think she is rather pretty.”
“Oh, don’t be other-cheekish! She is a frump. Is he really falling for that?”
“Well, I don’t mind parties at her flat, but I draw the line at week-ends in Brighton.”
“Brighton!” Daphne stopped in the middle of lighting a cigarette, and sat upright. “Did you say Brighton! My God! And I always thought Bonjie had such excellent taste.”
Outside in the corridor a high-pitched, excited voice approached in a rapid crescendo, there was a sketchy knock at the door, the voice called, “May I come in, darling?” and Lady Wilmington fluttered in.
To say that Lady Wilmington was butterfly-like is to use a simile so jaded that one rebels. And yet no other word so conveys her ineffectuality, her prettiness, her air of busy futility, her restlessness, her fragility. Beside her pretty flutterings her daughter had the poise and clean lines of a sea-gull. She had, too, the artificiality of a butterfly. Nothing about Lilian Wilmington was her own creation; her home, her bank balance, and her figure were the result of others’ genius. Her hair she owed to her coiffeur, her reputation as an organiser to her secretary. The only expression of her own personality which ever became visible were the “bits” with which she insisted on embellishing creations which were the pride of their designers. She was the despair of every couturier in London and Paris. Rolland was said to have exclaimed on finishing a gown which had been his centre of existence for a month: “And if you let Wilmington see that one I shall cut my throat. She will stick a jabot of Carrickmacross on it.” If these meaningless little extras were her only symptom of originality they were at least sufficiently expressive. This morning three necklaces seduced the eye from the fine lines of her smart grey morning frock: a string of pearls, a string of pale pink coral, and an uncut emerald on a thin gold chain.
“Darling,” she burst out, “you’ve got to be a serpent. You simply must be a serpent and save my life. Oh, hullo, Daphne darling, how sweet you’re looking this morning. Darling,” she went on, to Ursula, “the most awful thing has happened. Mary Bidley has developed mumps, and the wretched girl was the middle of the serpent tableau, and now I’m stranded, because Cedric says he won’t change the tableau—he cried with rage when I suggested it, positively cried. He said it altered the whole balance and rhythm of the thing. And no one can be found to take Mary’s place. Darling, you’ve simply got to be an angel and be a serpent for to-night. It won’t last longer than two hours, I promise you. Two and a half at the most.”
“I can’t be a serpent for even five minutes. I’m going to dine and dance with Tim Grierson.”
“But you could put Tim off for once, couldn’t you, darling?”
“Why, in heaven’s name, should I? Don’t be ridiculous, mother! There must be dozens of people who’d be charmed to pose in the limelight for as long as you want them.”
Lady Wilmington sat down and wrung her hands. “But there aren’t, I tell you! You see, Mary wore that frock at the dress rehearsal yesterday, and now she has mumps, and no one will touch the frock with a barge pole. In fact, all the other serpents are busy feeling their wretched necks and waiting for symptoms. I think it’s most unfeeling of you to laugh. Here I’ve worried myself almost to a shadow trying to make this affair a success for those poor mites, and now it’s all coming to pieces! I suppose you couldn’t come, Daphne, dear?”
Daphne said, firmly, that she was engaged, but spoke fair words of comfort. “Even if one tableau isn’t perfect,” she finished, “I’m sure the show will be a great success. In any case, everyone has paid their money in advance, so the cause won’t suffer. What is it for?”
“The Charles Street Hospital for Children. Such a deserving object. Of course the money will be all right—the tickets have sold wonderfully—but think of my reputation as an organiser. What will be left of it if things come to pieces!”
“I thought the ball was for boys’ club rooms in the East End,” Ursula said.
“Boys’ club rooms? Oh, yes, so it is. It’s the sale of work in Southwark next week that’s for the hospital. So stupid of me! Ursula, it is so seldom I ask you to do anything for me that I think for once you might be prepared to make a little sacrifice. I’ve always given you everything you wanted. I’ve even given up a whole floor of my house to you for a flat. And you won’t be a serpent for an hour to please me.”
“Couldn’t you have another serpent frock, or whatever it is, rushed up,” Daphne said, “and you would have queues for it.”
“My dear, one of those serpent costumes takes two girls seven and a half days to make, working eight hours a day. We always endeavour to stimulate trade as well as support charitable objects, you know.” That was an extract from a recent speech. “The costumes are simply marvellous. Every sequin sewn on by hand.”
“But, surely,” Ursula said, “in an emergency you could have something put together that would look all right!”
“Oh, Cedric would never hear of it. He would faint at the very thought. If I insisted he would simply throw up the whole thing. He is so temperamental, and his costumes mean so much to him.”
“Why can’t Miss Pick be the serpent?”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Ursula! I can’t have Pick disporting herself in tableaux. Someone must be free to see about things when my own tableau is on.”
“What are you?” Daphne asked.
Lady Wilmington, it appeared, was Morning Sun Among The Palms. “And besides,” she said, “what should I do for the next fortnight if Miss Pick got mumps?”
Daphne choked. “Damn the smoke,” she said thickly, and extinguished her cigarette with unnatural care.
“And if I had mumps it wouldn’t matter a bit, of course,” Ursula said.
“Oh, darling, you know I didn’t mean that. Besides, you’ve always been terribly healthy. I’m sure you would never catch anything. You never even had chicken-pox as a child. Oh, dear, I wish I had never undertaken the thing. I get no thanks and very little help, and I always get the most violent indigestion with worry, and I have to struggle with people and fight my own weaknesses all at the same time. My doctor says I’m mad, but someone must organise things or there would be no organisation. I feel worn out. If it weren’t for those poor mites—I mean, those dear lads, I—”
“Surely Miss Pick can produce an extra serpent, with or without clothes! Do you mean to say the Pick has failed!”
“I haven’t seen her about it yet. That is why I came to you. Miss Pick has gone round to pacify Maisie Billings about her costume. She telephoned after the dress rehearsal to say that she would rather die than wear something that made her look like an exploding sausage. Absurd! As if Maisie Billings would ever look like anything else! I couldn’t do anything with her on the telephone, so Miss Pick’s gone round to tell her that she looks like Venus, or someone, coming out of the sea.”
“Poor Miss Pick! She does get some rotten jobs!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ursula! If she had gone round to tell her that she looked like a charwoman coming out of a bath it might be a different matter. Miss Pick didn’t have to deal with Cedric at his worst, as I had. I admire Cedric enormously, of course,” she hastened to add, “but he is a little bit difficult at times.”
There was another knock at the door, and in answer to Ursula’s invitation there entered a little round woman exactly like a dutch doll. Her circular face shone with the varnished brilliance of polished wood, a spot of crimson glowing in isolated splendour in the middle of each cheek. Her hair, dark and solid and shining, was worn in a fringe low on her forehead, and her eyes were two brown beads on either side of her amusing and quite inconsiderable nose. It was incredible that she should move and speak at the bidding of a human brain somewhere in that doll-like cranium. It was still more difficult to believe that it was to this stupid-looking amiable image that the Countess of Wilmington owed her reputation as an organiser on behalf of the more polite charities.
“So sorry, Lady Ursula,” Miss Pick said in a neat little voice that sounded as if it were being tapped out on a typewriter. “I thought I might find Lady Wilmington here, and I did so much want to see her. It’s the telephone, Lady Wilmington. The Morning News rang up to say they can insert only half the material they have been given.
“What! Oh dear! Is it that horrid little man with the pink nose?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“I’m sure it is! Just like a rabbit exactly. The brute! How dare he! What did you say?”
“Well, I’m afraid there isn’t anything we can do. We’re not paying for the space, so we have to take what they give us, I’m afraid. He said they wanted the space for an obituary notice.”
“Obituary notice! I don’t believe it, not a word of it. If anyone had died we’d have heard of it. Anyone of importance, I mean. You can’t trust those rabbity people. He was just being contrary. Oh, dear, what a life! What did Lady Billings say?”
“Oh, it’s all right about Lady Billings. She’s quite pacified.”
“How did you do it, Miss Pick,” Ursula asked.
“I said Lady Louis Mountbatten wore a frock almost exactly like that last month at the Pole Star Ball.”
“I hope Lady Louis won’t sue you!”
“Oh, it’s a perfectly sweet costume really, Lady Ursula. It just doesn’t suit Lady Billings.”
Lady Wilmington felt that this was a reflection on her organisation. “Not suit her! Why not?”
“I suppose some women just haven’t the art of wearing clothes, poor things,” Miss Pick said smoothly.
It was amply to be understood that Lady Wilmington was not one of those. She was mollified.
“Well, thank goodness that’s settled. Now you come downstairs and see if you can think of some way out of the awful muddle we’re in. Cedric Byron’s walking round and round the library with his eyes shut, tearing his hair, and I dare not go near him without some kind of solution. You see, Mary Bidley—”
She drew Miss Pick out of the room in the suction of her wake, and her high explaining voice died away into the vast spaces of the house.
“Poor Pick!” Ursula said, having expelled her breath expressively.
“Oh, I don’t know. It must be some consolation to be the power behind a throne, you know.”
“That’s not being the power behind a throne. It’s Atlas keeping a world up.” She damped the envelope lying on her desk and sealed it. “Well, that’s that!” she said.
“You’re very light-hearted about it. You know, darling, I believe you’re just tired of Bonjie.”
“Of course I am! Why do you think I’m breaking it off?”
“Well, you did mention the Everett girl.”
“It’s always best to have a scrap of paper to go to war about.”
“You’re not seriously intrigued with Tim Grierson, are you?”
“Good Heavens, no! That God-and-the-Regiment type bores me to tears.”
“They last better than the Cedric Byrons, though.”
“Who wants anything to last? You talk like a housewife buying calico!” She yawned and looked out at the shining square with a faint distaste. “I think I shall go down to Bleasham for a day or two.”
“What on earth for? I thought you loathed cubbing!”
“There might be something refreshing in having to make way for a hound, you know.”
“Darling, I call that morbid! Do pull yourself together. As soon as things are becoming really interesting you want to rush off and do something else. I can’t imagine why.”
“Shall I tell you? It’s because I have no spiritual home. My spirit, poor thing, lives in its boxes. A week with the crowd who babble about planes and curves and rhythms makes me fly to the crowd who talk about sprains and curbs and spavins, and three days with them sends me ricocheting on to another kind. I find them all attractive on the first day but even the best of them cease to be amusing on the fifth. And I’ve tried them all.”
“You’ve never tried politics.”
“My worst enemies have never accused me of being a half-wit.”
“Well, I manage to amuse myself without rushing away from things, and where is my spiritual home!”
“Darling, you are in a bad way this morning! Let’s go out and do something.”
“I thought you were due at Madelon’s.”
“Oh, yes, so I am. What a bore. I don’t feel in the least like having my face slapped about now. I’ll telephone and cancel it—it will always save a guinea—and we can do something amusing instead.”
“With pleasure, but what?”
“We might look in at Lidiard’s new show at the Grafton.”
“I refuse to spend a morning like this pretending to a man like that that his Euclid nightmares mean anything.”
“But, darling, he’s going to be the rage of the winter!”
“Yes, I can see that.” Her voice was crisp and dry as a biscuit.
“Well, we might go and shop.”
“Oh, anything. I can’t buy anything because I’m broke again, and there isn’t a shop in the West End that would give me any more credit at the moment. But you could buy something.”
“I don’t see much fun in buying something I don’t want.”
“It would be nice for me to watch, and good for industry.”
“I don’t feel philanthropic this morning.”
“Then it’s your turn to suggest now.”
“We might walk.”
“Yes, I know it’s queer, but we might do it. Just walk without any object. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and just enjoy the morning.”
“If it will make you feel better, darling, I don’t mind even doing that.”
Ursula rang for her maid and fetched a hat and coat from her bedroom. “I’m going down to Bleasham to-night, Florence,” she said, arranging her hair with the aid of the mirror in her bag. “Pack a suitcase for three days. The new blue frock and two others. And the brown tweed. I’ll wear the mustard. Tell Cork that I’ll drive myself down between tea and dinner sometime, and ask him to give a look to the Cadillac before then.”
“And what about poor Tim’s dinner?” Daphne asked.
“Oh, he’ll get someone else. Think of all the superfluous women there are.”
“Darling, you know quite well that they’re superfluous only because no one would dream of taking them out to dinner. That doesn’t help Tim at all.”
“I’ll telephone to him at lunch time. He’s on duty till then.”
As they went down the wide shallow stairs of the last flight, Lady Wilmington hurried out of the library with a pile of papers and scraps of material in her hand and a light of triumph on her face. There was even a faint shine on her nose. She paused as she saw them. “It’s all right about the serpent, darling. Oh, hullo, Daphne darling, how sweet you’re looking this morning. But I saw you already, didn’t I! Stupid of me. Darling, Cedric’s had a brain wave. Instead of the serpent in the middle of the tableau he’s going to have a symbolic figure: The Spirit of the Apple Tree. The apple and the serpent, you see.”
“But they don’t have apples in the jungle!”
“Of course they do. Apples grow wild, don’t they! We used to have some at Bleasham when I was a girl.”
“And who is going to be the spirit of the Apple Tree?” Daphne asked.
“Cedric thinks Ellen Bideford would be ideal. He says she has that air of virginal depravity that he wants. So clever, don’t you think?”
“Is it?” Ursula said. “Actionable, I should say.” But her mother had disappeared into the room which she called her office, and which, before she had been overtaken by charitable impulses, had been her husband’s refuge.
They moved across the high dark hall and out into the sunlight.
The road by the park was filled with long glancing shafts of light as the cars flashed past. Where the two lines of movement crossed, directly in front of one’s eyes, there was a little intermittent explosion of brilliance, which made a stimulating, irregular rhythm in the smooth melody of those straight speeding lines. And now and again a great rosy fire-ball of a bus thundered past. There was apparently no break in the continuity. As far as one could see in either direction were the lines of trees, the line of white houses, and the swift unbroken lines of traffic.
But there was a policeman opposite the park gates. Ursula, with a complete faith in her own personality born of experience, stepped off the pavement without hesitation. Her faith was justified. The policeman flung himself at the traffic, and, Moses-like, created a passage. The traffic parted, congealed, and froze, and Ursula Deane crossed to the other side matter-of-factly. That was as it should be. If she, Ursula, wanted to cross a street it was fitting that the traffic should wait. She smiled at the officer and bade him good-morning. He saluted her, and wondered whom she was sleeping with at the moment. She took her fun where she found it, so he’d always heard. As he met her eyes squarely he wondered if all that were true. You couldn’t believe all you heard, of course. They said she was cold, too. Led you a dance. The two things didn’t go, now he came to think of it. He waved an acquiescent arm at the traffic. Anyhow, she’d be worth a man’s while. Not like that other little bitch with the peroxide hair.
The park was a great space of sunlight. Even the path under their feet was shimmering and immaterial.
“It’s like swimming in light, not walking,” Ursula said.
“We ought to have brought a couple of prams,” Daphne said, eyeing the young matrons promenading their progeny. It was fashionable at the moment to push one’s own perambulator in the park and compare notes on time-tables and feeding. There was comparison, too, of babies, but since each mother was convinced of the superiority of her own child there was no serious outbreak of ill-will.
“We haven’t qualified,” Ursula said.
“That’s easy. Even rabbits do it. Darling, do look at Pauline with her twins! Fancy reproducing Benny Richner in duplicate. Deplorable taste.”
But Ursula was wondering why she should be so far removed from these perambulator pushers. She had caught herself regarding them with a good-natured contempt. Why? Because this maternity fashion was a refuge for the brainless ones who had found the effort of being amusing a strain, for the lazy ones who had at last found a reason for being cow-like in peace, for the acquisitive ones who wheedled more out of their partners as mothers of sons than they ever could as popular gadabouts? Was that it? But there was Angela Lister; she was not brainless, and she evidently liked being with her two brats this sunny morning! But then Angela was in love with her husband. Ursula tried to picture herself as the mother of Bonjie’s children, and failed. Curious that she had never thought of that before. There was no one, now she came to think of it, never had been anyone, who had appealed to her as a possible father of her children. The men who had attracted her, even the men she had been engaged to, had appealed to her as lovers, and possibly as husbands. The thought that her children might be reproductions of any of them had not occurred to her. And looking them over in a retrospective review she found the idea curiously revolting. Had they been such poor things, then; these men who had been so amusing, such good companions? She had certainly found them insufficient after a time, but she had always taken it for granted that her critical attitude had been the reaction natural to the death of their physical attraction for her. Had it, perhaps, been the other way about? Had their physical attractions proved insufficient because she had unconsciously asked more from them than they were able to give? In her inmost heart she had always stood apart from her lovers; stood and looked on at them. She realised it now. She had never wanted to forget herself in any of them. Perhaps she had never been in love?
That was a really amusing thought! If none of the sensations she had so far experienced had been love, what on earth was love?
Tim Grierson’s children, now she thought of it, would be nice ones. Straight, lithe, fine-boned little Saxons. But Tim was so dull, so devastatingly dull. A dear, and all that, but dull.
They walked for nearly an hour under the brown trees and across the dry, pale, shining grass, Daphne uttering a thin stream of gossip and comment, astringent as the morning, Ursula lost in nebulous webs of thought, and came again to the traffic.
“It’s only one o’clock,” Ursula said. “What shall we do till luncheon. You’re going to Julia’s, too, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I don’t mind what we do as long as we do it sitting.”
“To listen to you,” Ursula remarked, “you’d never think you could do a five-mile point at a cracking pace and pull up without having turned a hair.”
“I can do anything sitting.” Daphne rubbed one slim shin with the other heel. “Easily foundered, that’s what I am. Over-breeding. We should have a bottle-washer in the family like you. It’s no use going to Julia’s yet, because she won’t be at home, and you can never get a cocktail there when she isn’t. Mean little beast. Let’s have coffee somewhere.”
Grosvenor Street was “up,” and as Daphne, stepping daintily over the uneven pavement narrowed by the wooden barriers, picked her way round the corner into Bond Street, she ran her head into a man’s waistcoat.
“Oh, darling,” she said, readjusting her hat to its correct angle, “I hope I haven’t hurt your incipient corporation! The public would never forgive me if anything happened to you.”
His little dark eyes laughed at her.
“The public might be glad if you eliminated the corporation. Me, too. It would save me such a lot on corsets, to say nothing of turkish baths, and all those things you read about in the advertisements.”
But he said it complacently. There was little sign of embonpoint under the carefully fitted black overcoat.
“José,” Ursula said, “you’re holding up the traffic, and Daphne is dying on her feet because we’ve been walking in the park. If she doesn’t sit down immediately she’ll probably faint into that trench.”
“Where are you going now, then?”
“We’re going to have coffee somewhere. Come too, and help carry Daphne.”
“I should like that, very much. But I can’t, unfortunately. There are seven men waiting for me right now. Tell you what, though. How would you like to come along with me and hear my latest? No one’s heard it yet. Not a soul. The boys think it’s a winner, and I know it is. Put off the coffee and come along. I’ll give you a couple of chairs. You don’t want coffee this hour of the morning. Come on. What about it?”
“Where is your—whatever it is?” Daphne asked. “Rehearsal rooms? Leicester Square.”
Daphne shrieked. “But that is hours away at this time of day!”
“Not with me driving. I was going for my car when you butted into me. It’s just down here. Come?”
“We’ll come,” said Daphne, “because of those two chairs. Don’t imagine anyone wants to hear your ridiculous little tune. We’ll all be maddened with it in a week’s time, so I don’t see why we should rush to encounter it.”
“Yes, my tunes do have clinging ways, don’t they?” He led them back, retrieved his car from the mews, and they sat reluctantly admiring while he made good his boast about the excellence of his driving. The insinuativeness, the opportunism, of his methods was an education. Daphne, in the intervals, wondered what he was worth (in the monetary sense) and Ursula admired the eloquence of the tilt of the hat over his black bullet head.
José Regan had an ancestry as cosmopolitan as it was useful. His passport gave his nationality as American, and it certainly was in America that he had learned his business. (I say business because that is how José himself thought of it. He never talked about art.) But he had been so long in England and liked the country so well that when he said “we” he usually meant England. His paternal grandfather had come from Ireland and married a German-American. His mother was the daughter of a Mexican and an Italian-Swiss. In looks he favoured his mother’s people, but he had all the Irish respect for money as money, and all the Swiss faculty for making it. He was a man still young, rather short and well-built, with a square, good-humoured face and shrewd black eyes. There was something dogged about the way his neck grew up from his shoulders. No one had ever seen him in a temper, but then, no one argued with him long enough to test him. One didn’t argue with Regan, somehow.
On the second floor of the Leicester Square building he led them into an office. It was a strangely business-like office for a musician; a place of filing cabinets and duplicators. And the secretary, tapping away at a typewriter in the window, was a man.
“Good-morning, Mr. Regan,” the man said, and handed him a little bundle of telegrams. He glanced with restrained curiosity at the women, and went on with his work.
Regan read the telegrams, sorted them into two lots, and set them down beside the secretary. “No,” he said, laying a short forefinger on one pile. “Yes,” he said, laying it on the other.
“Very good, Mr. Regan.”
“And choke the Rigsby crowd off if you have to use six forms to do it.”
“Very good, Mr. Regan.”
Between the office and the faint sounds of musical instruments being tested was a short corridor.
“Why do you have a man secretary?” Daphne asked as he led them down it.
“Oh, less trouble,” Regan said; and Ursula thought: “He’s pluming himself on the way women make fools of themselves over him.”
“Are women so troublesome?” Daphne said. “You know it was you who invited us. We didn’t want to come.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that. I mean a man is more useful in flinging out all the people who come here with tunes that are going to make their fortunes. If I had a girl secretary there’d be an army camped on the stairs.”
He opened a door, and the noise of instruments and men’s voices came out to them in a rush. The rehearsal room was long and bare and light; a queer birthplace for the seductive melodies which nightly helped to thicken the air of Raoul’s. There seemed to be nothing in the room except a few chairs and the instruments. At the far end the wall was lined with cabinets for sheet music. It was like a hospital board-room without the oil portraits.
“A chair for the visitors, boys,” Regan said as he forged in, and the men stopped talking, laid down whatever they happened to be holding, and hastened to grab a chair. The pianist got to Ursula first (it was noticeable that all of them made first for Ursula) because he happened to have been sitting on a chair at the moment, but the trombone player made it almost a dead heat. Over their arguing heads Ursula could see Regan talking to someone by the window. So one, at least, hadn’t bothered about a chair for her. She wondered a little.
“You know you can’t play if you sit on any chair but your own, Hal,” the trombone player was saying. “Lady Ursula must have mine,” and Hal was forced to admit the truth of the argument. So Ursula had the trombone-player’s chair, and the trombone-player seemed to feel that he had done a very good morning’s work.
From where they sat, she and Daphne, at the side of the band, Ursula could see down into the square and watch the taxis and the pedestrians hurrying about. And suddenly the activities of everyone looked pathetic and comical. Why were all these people rushing to and fro? Why were Regan and his men up here labouring over worthless little melodies that would be forgotten to-morrow? And would it be any better if they were labouring over Beethoven? Not a bit. It was all futile. All human activity was futile. People filled up their lives with silly things because if they didn’t they began to ask questions to which there was no answer. They fooled themselves into thinking that some things mattered, and that helped them to go through life with some kind of philosophy. That girl there, jumping out of the taxi’s path, and that taxi-driver—if you asked them why they hurried they would say “to earn their bread.” But it wasn’t that. There were other importances in their lives, like silk stockings, and what the neighbours thought, and things like that. Luncheon with Julia, and that taxi-driver’s early morning rising, and Regan’s enthusiasm about the new tune: they were all dope. Something to fill one’s days. Only savages could lie and do nothing but think. That was because they had a faith. No question pushed itself into their minds. They had no doubt of the worth of existence. That hurrying world down there was a world gone mad. Mad. A world that had wakened up from a dream and was afraid to face the truth.
Regan’s pipe-opener came to an end. He turned to them and said: “Now that we’ve got warmed up, listen to this.”
It was a good tune; a wheedling, teasing, wistful thing. Regan’s face was lighted with an almost holy joy, and the men played with the enthusiasm of belief. Ursula, looking them over, became aware that there was something wrong with the pattern which she knew so well. There was a bright fair head that was new. Regan had a new violinist.
She looked with interest at the new-comer. Her first thought was: “How quaint!” A pale slip of a boy with red hair. What a successor to the flamboyant Tavender! A rather pathetic-looking little wretch. What on earth would the habitués of Raoul’s think of that. He was completely absorbed in reading the music, which appeared to be strange to him. His face had an anxious expression, and now and then his lips moved uncertainly, as if he were counting. Counting! Regan’s violinist. It was an entrancing sight. He could play, though; his fiddle sounded suddenly out of the welter of sound, mocking, laughing, enticing. Yes, he could play. His eyes lifted in swift enquiry to Regan and she was startled to find them so dark. Daphne was dancing with complete abandon behind the band, and Regan was grinning with satisfaction, and egging her on. The pianist, finding that hands and feet were insufficient to express himself burst into song, and still found time to make two hands do the work of four. “Oh, well done, Hal!” shouted Regan, “keep it up!” But the boy with the bright hair remained aloof and anxious. And so they came to the last chorus. And then, at some particularly frivolous achievement of Hal’s, a spasm of intense amusement shot into the boy’s face. He raised his eyebrows at Hal in a grimace of appreciative laughter, his mouth turning upward at the corners abruptly, like a clown’s. Ursula could not have been more surprised if Correggio’s St. Sebastian had put out his tongue. She had been feeling sympathetic to him, had even been engaged in feeling sorry for him; and she felt fooled. She considered him doubtfully. Which was the real person: the intense devoté, or the laughing gamin?
The tune ended with a sob from the trombone and an expiring sigh from the piano, both full of the mock emotion which was the motif of the tune.
“You’ve got a winner, boss,” said Hal, suddenly as still and nonchalant as though he cared for none of these things.
“Oh, marvellous! Simply too marvellous!” called Daphne, flushed and breathless.
But José was looking at Ursula.
“It’s too good, José. It’s pearls before swine. To those people at Raoul’s it will be only another dance tune.”
“And isn’t it?”
“What is it called?”
“‘Leaning on my window.’”
“I think it should be called ‘Laughing up my sleeve.’”
Regan looked at her for a moment, curiously. “You are hardly canny,” he said.
“Never mind Ursula,” Daphne called. “Play it again. It’s simply adorable!”
“I’ll play it for you to-night,” Regan said. “I’m afraid we’ve got to work now.”
Ursula thought: “Only Regan would have refused.” “Are you going to turn us out now?” she asked. “Do let us stay a little longer.”
“Oh, stay as long as you like. Delighted. We don’t mind. Only it won’t be exciting, you know.” He turned away again to the men, and Daphne, the excitement faded out of her, came up looking at her watch. She had quite forgotten that she had ever been tired, but she was acutely conscious that she was hungry. Now that she had heard the new thing she had lost interest.
“Darling, have you forgotten that we’re lunching at Julia’s?”
“There’s plenty of time.”
“There isn’t. It’s ten to two now.”
“Oh, sit down and wait a moment or two.”
“But darling, you know quite well that the hors d’oeuvres is the only thing that is ever eatable at Julia’s. And Connie Markham is going to be there. If we don’t get in ahead of her we might as well not go at all. She picks out all the nice bits and leaves the rest.”
“Oh, run along then, and I’ll come later.”
But Daphne had no intention of paying for a taxi if she need not. “I had no idea you were stuck on Regan,” she said viciously. Ursula laughed at her, and she sighed and sat down. The band were playing again. Ursula sat and watched the childish, earnest face of the violinist, and forgot about time. Daphne moaned now and then, but the thought of the taxi fare kept her quiescent. It was not until Regan called a breathing-space that Ursula rose, and Regan came out through the office with them, while his men stretched and sighed and took out cigarette cases.
“I see you have a new violinist,” Ursula said.
“Oh, yes. Ellis. Nice kid.”
“He’s very young, isn’t he?”
“Not as young as he looks. He’s twenty-one. And he’s extraordinarily good. He shouldn’t be doing dance work at all, really. But I’m keeping him humble at the moment, so don’t say I said that.”
“Well, when you were getting a new one you might have got a good-looking one and not something that looks as if he had been wrung out,” Daphne said. “Tavender was simply adorable. I used to go night after night just to look at him, and Clive got the address of his tailor. Things didn’t look so marvellous on Clive, though, unfortunately.”
“It’s not the slightest good going to Julia’s now,” she said, as they went down the narrow stairs.
And Ursula, who was feeling happy, and a little guilty because of Daphne’s hungry condition, agreed and they crossed the square to Toselli’s. There, while Daphne was gloating over the menu and extracting the latest gossip from Toselli, she made three telephone calls.
The first was to Julia, to whom she told the appropriate untruths. “Darling, we are so sorry…”
The second was to Tim Grierson. “We were going to the Laurel Bush to-night, weren’t we? Well, let’s go to Raoul’s instead, darling…No, only that Regan has a brand new tune…That is sweet of you, darling. Table for a quarter to nine? All right. ‘Voir!”
The third was to her maid. She had changed her mind about going down to Bleasham, so Florence needn’t pack. She would wear the new Rolland model for dinner.
“Well, I always say that no life’s a hard life when you haven’t to get up in the morning,” said Mrs. Marsden, who had been told that the attics could be done last instead of first to-day because Gareth was still asleep. “I don’t care ‘ow late it might be before I was to stop work at night, so as I could lie and snooze in the mornings.” She said it as one speaks of a vision of heaven. “The only time in me life I didn’t ‘ave to get up in the morning was when I was in ‘orspital with scarlet fever. Thirteen, I was. And then they woke yer at five to wash yer face. Time we ‘ad a noo banister brush, eh?”
It was now half-past nine and the day was already old for Mrs. Marsden. She had given breakfast to her out-of-work husband and three-year-old baby, tidied her two-roomed home, prepared a meal for Marsden to take at mid-day, washed and dressed the child and taken it along to her sister’s to be cared for until she called for it on her way home, and walked a further mile and a quarter to the Ellis household, where she would stay until the mid-day dinner things were cleared up, about three o’clock. She was twenty-five, and looked nearly forty. She had been married for five years to a man of her own age, who had never in those five years kept a job longer than was necessary to qualify for the dole. He had had a job when they married, specially for the occasion, and had given it up a week later. Mrs. Marsden talked about him with a weary tolerance, as one talks of an old corn. She had four absorbing interests in life: contraception, the price of boiling beef, the rent money, and the Duchess of York. For her child she seemed to have no great affection; it stood in her mind for a detachable part of her husband, a part for which he refused to be responsible. She did her duty by it, and took a sort of melancholy pride in the fact that it was well-dressed and clean, but to her it was merely another responsibility, not an outlet for emotion. What emotion she possessed was reserved for the Duchess; and Mrs. Marsden could tell you what the Duchess liked in the way of table decoration, what her toilet set was made of, what she had for breakfast, what she had said to the Duke when he was late for her tea-party (very funny, that was; to think of her telling off her husband just as if she was an ordinary woman), what the little princesses wore underneath, and at what hour they went to bed. The only occasions on which she had forgotten her duty to her family were those on which it had been possible to see the Duchess in the flesh. That had happened twice; the first time she had got a cold in the head through having wet feet, and the second time she had ruined a pair of stockings by getting them torn on the railings. But it had been worth it.
“I suppose he sees a lot of the nobs at that place? He’s lucky, isn’t he, getting a billet like that!”
“Well—it isn’t just what he wanted to do, Mrs. Marsden.”
“Oh, I should worry! ‘E’s a real boy, that boy of yours, Mrs. Ellis, not one of them long drinks of water that play on Sundays.” This, presumably, with memories of Albert Hall placards. “‘E’s no ninny in a velvet suit, Gareth isn’t. I’ll bet ‘e’ll come to like playing with Regan just as if ‘e was born to it. I should worry!”
“You’ll be quiet upstairs, then, won’t you? I do want him to get all the sleep he can. He’s always needed a lot of sleep ever since he was a baby.”
“Oh, you spoil that boy,” Mrs. Marsden said indulgently. But she wound a duster round the wooden part of her broom, and Mary, watching out of the corner of her eye, was amused to think that her paint-work was going to be saved after all those years merely because Gareth was not to be wakened.
But Gareth was not asleep. Of a winter morning the cold in the attics of Number Seventeen was so intense that only a swoon would have kept one insensible to it, and although it was still only September the days were frosty. Gareth had drawn his chilly toes nearer and nearer to the rest of him, until his thin knees were directly under his chin. The discomfort and the hopelessness of this impasse had finally forced him to face the world he had been trying to ignore. As he opened his eyes on the dreary grey room he felt that there was something nice that he wanted to remember. As his eyes lighted on his violin case he remembered what it was. It was Regan’s.
And suddenly it struck him as rather amusing that he should be recalling with pleasure his first night in the service of Mammon. But it was so. There was no use denying it. He had enjoyed it; every minute of it. And he was looking forward to to-night. It was a world he knew nothing of, Regan’s world, and it was amusing and full of colour. Molly had been right; he was going to enjoy his “fling.”
He had gone to that first rehearsal in a queer mixture of shyness and what can only be described as “uppishness.” He was a little afraid of his new colleagues, and at the same time contemptuous of them. They had been very kind to the new-comer, putting him at his ease, and showing no open curiosity about him, throwing out bits of information with friendly casualness. His shyness had been replaced by that brotherly feeling which exists between members of a trade, and his feeling of superiority had begun to wilt. It disappeared entirely when he heard Hal play. Hal had “amused” himself while waiting for Regan, and Gareth, listening through the hubbub to Hal communing with Bach, was shocked. Gareth, who was not without humour, had no illusions about his own talent; he had never imagined himself a genius. He had wanted to play music by the masters because that is what he happened to like, not because it was the appropriate vehicle for genius. But here at the piano was a far greater master of his instrument than he would ever be. And he was Regan’s pianist. Gareth began to feel almost humble; a state of mind which was very good for him.
He had learned, incidentally, that Tavender, his predecessor, had “walked out on Regan, contract and all,” because Regan had objected to his passion for feminine admiration. “You keep your eyes for music, young Ellis,” they said; and Gareth had laughed, and felt pleasantly superior to the poor fool Tavender, who had let his eyes wander. At eleven o’clock that night he remembered Tavender with less superiority. He had caught the eye of the girl who had come that morning to rehearsal; she was dancing with a tall fair man, and his glance had lingered on them a moment because they made such a perfect couple; she had met his eyes and she had smiled at him. A friendly, involuntary smile it had been. Gareth was so startled that he had not smiled back, and before her own smile faded she had danced away in the crowd. At the back of his mind as he played he kept thinking about that smile. Why should she smile at him? And a smile like that; not coquettish or provocative, but merely a smile of greeting, as one glad to see a friend. Perhaps she had mistaken him for someone else. Or perhaps she remembered him from that morning and had forgotten that she didn’t know him. But it had been a very personal smile. If it had meant anything at all it had meant: “Why, there you are!” Unconsciously he watched for her to come round again; but when she did she was talking to the good-looking man as though she had never had another thought in the world. And Gareth had not seen her again (her table was behind a projection) until when they were packing up he saw her talking to Regan. They were only a few yards away, and Gareth, wrapping up his fiddle, could hear quite distinctly.
“Come and have some bacon and eggs with us, José.”
“I should love to, but there is my beauty sleep to be considered. You may not need one, but I do.”
“Eggs are very good for the complexion, and bacon is a wonderful tonic for the muscles.”
“But half an hour in bed is better. The boys are expected to go straight to bed, and I can’t expect them to do something if I don’t do it myself, can I?”
“Oh, but you’re going to bring Mr. Ellis too. I want to meet him.”
Mr. Ellis! So she knew his name. And she wanted to meet him!
“Now look here, Lady Ursula”—José’s tone was one of good-humoured expostulation—”I don’t want another Tavender in the band.”
“I don’t think there is any danger of that. Really, José, you are maddening. If you don’t come I shall never invite you again.”
“You don’t call this an invitation, do you? It’s a press-gang.”
“Come on. Raoul is looking daggers at us. His corns are hurting and he wants to get his shoes off. That’s what that fixed smile means. We’re going down to The Laurel Bush.”
And they had gone. He had been in a slight panic to begin with, wondering what he should say to her; he couldn’t say clever things. But as he went down the narrow dark street alongside her, scared of the shining creature at his elbow but a little pleased to be singled out by anyone so famous, he found that she didn’t expect him to make epigrams. She had asked about himself, and they had chatted about music. She had talked about music quite sensibly, as a musician might, with none of the gush and ecstasies that he had come to expect from women on the subject. She didn’t talk about “that perfectly adorable thing of So-and-So.’” She was interested when she learned that he had been a protégé of Dolmetsky.
“Funny old dear, Dolmetsky, isn’t he? I travelled in a train with him once—we were going to stay at the same house—and he swore all the time because the creak the window made was in the wrong key. I don’t suppose he approves of your playing for José!”
“He doesn’t know yet.”
“Why aren’t you playing for him now?” He noticed that she asked questions directly, in a way that Sark Street would consider rude; Sark Street hinted and suggested for their information.
“There’s no vacancy at the moment. When a man gets a job with Dolmetsky he settles down for life.”
“What will he do when he knows about Regan?”
“Kill me, probably.”
They had sat at right angles to each other at the bench-like table under the staring yellow lights of The Laurel Bush, and had talked to each other, while José and Captain Grierson and the Conyers-Munford girl and a man called Clive Something had drowned their voices with argument on a hypothetical National Theatre and whether the Conyers-Munford girl could possibly be allowed to eat Irish stew at one in the morning. Gareth decided that she was lovelier than anyone he had ever seen. Lovelier than Sara, and he knew that Sara was beautiful. No photograph of her had ever done her justice. He had seen lots. You couldn’t pick up a paper without seeing a photograph of Lady Ursula Deane. Her make-up was more obvious than Sara’s; Sara had to be discreet in her aids to beauty because of father; but her face was more alive than Sara’s, and although her mouth, like Sara’s, had a scornful curve, there was a wealth of laughter in her eyes. It had been wonderful to sit so near her that he could watch the changing expressions in those eyes.
Gareth, made reckless by the memory, turned over in the freezing sheets. His cold upper cheek came to rest in the warm hollow where his head had been. He savoured the exquisiteness of the sensation for a moment with closed eyes. But the recollection of last night still sent little pricks of exultation through him. The pricks multiplied, until he was a sort of catherine wheel of emotions. He kicked aside the blankets and leaped into the grey day. With one arm through his dressing-gown sleeve he undid his violin. As he lifted it out he shoved his arm through the other. He began to play, walking up and down on the hard carpet with bare feet.
His mother, four flights below, heard the faint sounds, and laid down the pastry roller to put the kettle on. Twenty minutes later she appeared in the doorway with a breakfast tray. But Gareth had by that time remembered he was cold. He was half dressed, and fighting with his collar in a mood that held little of rapture. It annoyed him that his mother should have gone to all the trouble of bringing up a tray when she could have found out first that he was getting up.
“What did you do that for!” he asked testily.
“I thought when you were playing that you weren’t coming down yet. But it doesn’t matter. I can put it in the oven for a little. You won’t be long.”
“Oh, won’t I!” he said, wrenching at his collar.
“Let me do that,” she said, and he submitted as if he had been a baby. He noticed that she had made toast, and felt apologetic.
“You were very late last night. I heard you come in. Did you have a good sleep?”
“How did you get on?” The question was off hand, but her eyes watched him fearfully.
“Oh, not bad,” he said cheerfully.
He debated with himself for a moment whether he should tell her about the supper at The Laurel Bush, about meeting Lady Ursula and that crowd. There was no reason why he shouldn’t tell her, and yet something held him back. He wanted to tell her because it was, in a way, a feather in his cap. But it was also something which for some reason he wanted to hug to himself. He decided that he would not tell any of them.
“Oh, not half bad!” he said joyously.
“You can tell me all about it when you come down. It’s cold up here.”
She picked up the tray and carried it away, smiling, relieved. He hadn’t hated it after all. Things were going to be all right.
As Mary made her happy way downstairs, Ursula was lying watching the firelight flicker on her bedroom wall and wondering what she was going to do about Gareth Ellis. It was the first time that she had ever paused to examine a line of action. But then! Was she really going to make a fool of herself over this boy? What in heaven’s name was there in him to attract her? His talent? She had known some of the greatest musicians in the world. His looks? He was what Daphne had said: like something that had been wrung out. He was a painfully ordinary little suburban fiddler, with a cockney accent and badly waved hair. What on earth made her interested in him!
And while her reasonable worldly mind behaved with such commendable lucidity, she herself was remembering with a queer tenderness the way his mouth moved irresolutely when he spoke, the little hollow below his cheek bone, his funny, adorable freckles, the way his long eyes, so unexpectedly dark, slid round to her in appreciation before he smiled at what she had said, his thin boy’s hands, his cheeky shyness. A dozen times, while her mind recited his impossibilities, she went down that street with him, slim and silent at her side. He had not been more than an inch taller than she. She had been able to look straight across at his profile, half-hidden between his upturned collar and the brim of his black soft hat. And she had been filled with an eager happiness that was strange and lovely.
Her mind, resenting her inattention, brought her up with a jab. Look here: it said, what do you want with him? A lover? But she could not imagine Gareth as her lover. A husband? That was merely funny. Then what?
She stared at the firelight patterns and could find no answer. All she knew was that she wanted to go on thinking of Gareth; that she wanted to see him again more than she had ever wanted to see anyone.
It was supremely ridiculous.
“Take away the damned tray, Florence, it’s hurting my knees.”
But she said it gaily, and Florence looked at her in approval. Not many mistresses would look as nice as Lady Ursula after coming home in the small hours. Glad to be rid of that Somers person, she supposed. Oh, Florence had seen it coming, that she had, and Lady Ursula would be well rid of him when she broke it off. She had heard things in the kitchen about Mr. Bonamy Reginald Somers that made your hair curl. And Mrs. Maitland, the housekeeper, had told her some more. No one had been able to see why Lady Ursula liked him, except that he had a lot of back-chat. But she hadn’t stood for him long. They said she was changeable, but why not own up when you’d made a mistake. People were nasty about her just because they hadn’t her courage. They tried to keep their mistakes down instead of putting them up and getting them out of their system, and that spoiled their judgement as well as their lives. Lady Ursula wouldn’t be like that. She’d give Mr. Somers the sack, and that would leave the way free for Captain Grierson, who was a nice gentleman and very suitable. Not much wonder that she was looking happy this morning.
Florence tweaked the lemon silk sheet out of its creases and moved the unopened letters insinuatingly nearer on the embroidered counterpane. She never ceased to marvel at the indifferent way the gentry treated their letters. When she got a letter she couldn’t wait to open it.
“Was the ball a success, Florence?”
“So they do say, my lady.”
“Everyone come safely back?”
“Her ladyship got in about four, and Miss Pick she got in about half an hour later. Mr. Byron was with her.”
“Cedric Byron! What for?”
“Well, it seemed there was an accident to one of the costumes, and he was feeling bad about it. Miss Pick was bucking him up, like.”
“Florence! An accident! And you said it was a success. How could you? Poor Mr. Byron.”
Florence grinned at the tone. “It seems the accident was the success of the evening, my lady. There was one tableau that had the middle dress all beads. Very long it was, and Lady Eames—it was her who was wearing it—stepped on the hem, and before anyone knew that was happening beads began to run everywhere and go scooting over the floor. It was at the beginning of the procession part it happened, and by the time she got to the end of the ball-room there was hardly any frock left, and everyone was bursting themselves laughing.”
“Poor—darling—Cedric!” said Ursula with joy. “I never did trust these hand-made things myself. A good machine seam is what I swear by.”
“Florence! What heresy! You who sew my things so beautifully.”
“Oh, my sewing’s all right, but I wouldn’t trust anyone else’s. Not for anything important.” It was understood that Florence meant important not in the matter of decoration but of decency. She flicked at the hearth with a brush, and went away to answer a knock on the sitting-room door, and Ursula heard her talking to Chitterne.
“Come in, Chit!” she called, and he came in, tall and shining and well-soaped looking. “My God! Dressed, even to the hair on the shoulder!” she said, leaning over as he sat down on the edge of the bed and picking off a hair.
“If it’s a hair, it’s a mare’s,” he said. “I’ve just come up from Newmarket. Been out on the Heath since six.”
“Newmarket! When did you go down?”
He looked faintly embarrassed. “I had an urgent call to see a filly last night.”
“Darling, you do hate fancy dress balls, don’t you!”
“Well, so do you!”
“Yes, but I don’t have urgent calls. I say that I’m not going, and that’s that.”
“Ah, but I haven’t got your delicious gift of indifference to people’s feelings.”
“You haven’t my moral courage, you mean. As soon as things begin to be difficult you resign.”
“Depends what the things are. If I wanted something enough I wouldn’t resign.”
“But you’ve never wanted anything enough. That’s how you got your reputation for good-nature. That’s why you’re popular, darling, and I’m merely notorious.”
“You wait. I’ll surprise you one of these days. Before long, perhaps.”
“What is it? Going into a monastery?”
He grinned. “Not exactly. What I came to say was that Double Bass is, God willing, going to win the Duke of York’s. I’m doing a commission this morning while the price is decent. Do you want to have anything on? If you do, I’ll do it with mine.”
“That is really lovely of you, Bobby. Fancy being philanthropic at this hour of the morning!”
“Oh, that’s not philanthropy, it’s pure caution. I don’t want two commissions coming from the family at the same time. Laury will expect one from me because it’s my horse, but if you made a bet so early in the proceedings that would be obviously inspired, and begin to spoil the market.”
“You might have avoided the danger altogether.”
“By not telling me that Double Bass was a good thing.”
“I may be canny, but I’m not a cad.”
“No, darling.” She looked at him quizzically. “I sometimes think you’re a saint. Slightly damaged in the firing, but made from the authentic clay. A ‘seconds’ saint, as it were. I’ll have a pony on Double Bass, please.”
“No, to win. I never liked consolation prizes.”
“Right-ho.” He made a note of it, shut his notebook with a snap, and frowned at the weather. “It was wonderful on the Heath this morning, and look at it now! When I go to the country I wonder why anyone stays in town. And yet, d’you know, after a week I’m always glad to come back.”
“Do you feel like that, too? That’s my special bugbear. We haven’t any roots, that’s what’s wrong with us.”
“Perhaps. But there’s nothing to hinder us growing some, I suppose.”
“You might. You’re an eminently reasonable soul. You ask less of people than I do…When you go down would you put that letter,” she indicated an envelope lying on the table by her bed, “into the box?”
“Goodness, have you taken to writing the fellow!” he said as he picked up the envelope and saw the address.
“Only to tell him that I’m not going to marry him. I wrote it yesterday and I think it might be posted now.”
“Oh? Well, I never did care much for the chap.”
“Didn’t you, Chit? I never knew that.”
“You never asked me. Well…” He prepared to go.
“Are you going to Gatwick this afternoon?”
“No, I’m going along to Stuart’s to see if those chairs that Billy was talking about are worth buying.”
“Darling, you’re almost too all round, aren’t you!” He flung a cushion at her. “Would you like to take me to dinner at Raoul’s? Tim’s on duty to-night.”
“Sorry. I’m engaged.”
“Oh, put it off. Give the public an eyeful for once. ‘At the next table to me at the famous Raoul’s were the best-looking brother and sister in Society. It is so rare to see a brother and sister dining together that one—’”
“Can’t be done. It’s a matter of my soul’s good. You wouldn’t come between a man and his salvation, would you?”
“My dear, most men’s salvation is a pint of beer, or something like that. But if you won’t, you won’t.”
“Get some of the others to take you. Choose the first six in the running and go with all of them. That will be nice for the Press. You might start a new fashion for bodyguards. As a fashion it would have the advantage of remaining exclusive. You can’t buy a bodyguard at the stores.”
“Oh, go away.”
“I’ll probably be going to Newbury on Friday, if you would like to come.”
“Oh, Friday! Who knows what will have happened by Friday? But I’ll file the invitation for reference.”
“So long, then. Not a word to anyone about Double Bass!”
“Not a word.”
“That’s one thing you’ve always been as good as a man at. Keeping a secret.”
“A prize specimen of the left-hander! Good-bye. I hope your ‘soul’s good’ proves amenable.”
He made a face at her and shut the door.
She lay for a little trying to make Gareth’s face materialise between her and the shadowed ceiling. But Chitterne’s irruption had broken the spell.
“Turn on the bath, Florence,” she called, and began to open her letters.
Tea at Seventeen Sark Street was over. Mr. Ellis had opened the evening paper, settled himself comfortable in “his” chair (the only really comfortably one in the room) and would for the next half-hour cease to examine the consciences of his children while he absorbed the fascinating details of the latest murder. When he had finished he would re-live the pleasant sensations which these details roused in him by holding forth to his wife on the iniquity of the world, while she sat mending his shirts. It annoyed him sometimes that his wife had to get up so often to see about the cooking of Dastur’s supper; it stopped him in the middle of his best periods quite often.
Mrs. Ellis was, at the moment, in the kitchen washing up the tea things, and Sara, who usually helped to wash up, was crying on the dark stairs of the second flight, having been too discouraged and weary to climb any further. She had had a row with her mother. The tablecloth at tea had not been over clean, and she had been outspoken about it. Her mother had pointed out that if she had to wash the tablecloths she mightn’t be so particular. “But you don’t have to wash them!” she had cried. “That’s what I’m complaining about. Between us all we surely make enough to pay for the laundry of more than two cloths a week.” She had tried to hit at her father, and had merely hurt her mother. She might have known that her father wouldn’t see any reason why her mother shouldn’t do the washing at home. He had held forth about the “good home that was provided for her” and her “thanklessness.” Her father had never been able to be relevant. He had a mind like an idiot’s; a silly, theatrical mind. She had answered back, had wrangled with him, conscious all the time of the angry, discouraged look on her mother’s face. Sara hated a row. She felt unclean after one. It was a betrayal of something in herself; she loathed herself for having taken part in one. This was the second time this week that she had lost hold of herself. She must be getting run down. When things got on top of you it usually meant that you were run down. That week at Brighton in May was a long time away. And it was still a long time to those three days at Christmas. Perhaps she should try a tonic of some sort. But it was very hard to spend your money on tonics when it was so difficult to keep yourself in silk stockings, even at trade prices.
She hated the thought of her mother washing up by herself in the kitchen. But each time the impulse to go and apologise was born in her it was killed by resentment of her mother’s feeble acceptance of her father’s tyranny and meanness. Torn between two emotions, and absorbed in her own problem, she was startled to hear footsteps at the top of the first flight of stairs. She lingered a moment. If it was her mother she would make friends and at least have that off her chest.
But it was Ratan Dastur. As she turned to fly he switched on the light and it was too late.
“Hullo, Mr. Dastur!” she said, turning to precede him upstairs so that her face was hidden.
“Hullo, Miss Sara!”
“You do come in quietly.”
“Did I startle you? I am sorry.”
“No, I was only thinking.”
They came to the landing outside his door and he paused. “You are not happy,” he said. “Can I do anything?”
He said it so simply that her habitually formidable defences fell.
“It’s nothing,” she said with a watery smile. “It’s only that I’m tired, and I’ve had a row with mother, and I went away without washing up, and now I can’t bring myself to go back and wash up after all.”
“Let me go!” he said instantly. “I have never washed up dishes, and I would love to wash up for your mother. She does everything for me. Everything. I would be very happy to help her with the dishes.”
“Oh, no, please! Mother would have a fit if you appeared in the kitchen.”
“But I have many times been in the kitchen.”
“Yes, I know, but not like that. It’s awfully nice of you, but it wouldn’t do. You’re a dear to suggest it.”
“Oh, but I would like to. Please, I would. To do something for your mother—and you. It would give me great happiness.”
“Well, you have done something. You’ve made up my mind for me. I’m going down now to finish the dishes myself.” She paused. “You know, you’re such a dear that you make me ashamed.” She stood a moment looking into the eager brown eyes, so like those of a friendly dog, smiled her swift rare smile, and ran away downstairs.
She came into the kitchen in a breeze, and said a muffled “Sorry, Mother” as she took a dish towel from the rail.
“That’s all right, dear,” her mother said. “I’m glad you came back, but there’s not many dishes to-night, so you run away and have a rest.”
“Oh, don’t give me too much credit. If I didn’t come someone else was going to.”
“I told him I had stamped washing up, and he wanted to come down and help you. I couldn’t very well explain why it wouldn’t be helping you at all, so I came instead. One row is quite enough for one night.”
She could not see her mother’s face, but there was a long, eloquent silence.
Mary Ellis was thinking: “It was clever of her to remind me of that. The one thing I couldn’t find an excuse for him in. He can be awful, there’s no denying it.” And her thoughts went back to that time a year ago, when, after she had nursed Ratan Dastur through a bad attack of influenza, he had taken to bringing her flowers. It had touched her that he should want, in his inarticulate way, to thank her. Because he was shy he did not always give the flowers to her personally; sometimes he would slip down while she was working in the sitting-room and leave the flowers on the table inside the kitchen door. And it was there that Alfred had found a bunch of lilies one day, and asked where they had come from. Dastur brought them, she explained; and had been reduced to stunned dismay at the outbreak which the harmless information had provoked from her husband. He would have no man bringing flowers to his wife! She must have been encouraging him or he would never have done it. She ought to have stopped it the minute it started. She was a married woman and should know her place. Encouraging a man—an Indian, a savage, a black man!—to bring her flowers!
He shouted and raved like a madman. He grabbed the poor lilies, strode through the kitchen and deposited them in the ash bin, ramming the lid on with unchristian and uneconomical violence. She was to have no more of these carryings-on, did she hear? It was to cease from this minute. She was to understand that.
“But, Alfred!” she said, too amazed to find words easily, “he’s only a boy, a child. Don’t be ridiculous.”
But to call Alfred ridiculous was to call down lightning. He finished up a further tirade by saying that she was to tell Dastur that very day that he was to bring her no more flowers, no more presents of any sort.
“I can’t do that,” she said quietly.
He had banged the table and shouted that she had promised before God to obey him, might he remind her. She was to tell that man at once that he was to stop it. It should never have been allowed to begin. It was her fault for encouraging him and she must stop it.
She had grown angry too, then. If he felt like that he could tell Dastur himself. She was not going to have a hand in anything so disgusting and ridiculous.
She knew he wouldn’t. He would make her life a misery, but he would not speak to Dastur about it. At least she would be spared that; his moral cowardice would for once prove a blessing.
But life had been a misery. For nearly three months she had borne it; neither concealing nor flaunting the flowers which the innocent Dastur still brought her; while Alfred got even by processes of his own: indulging in outbreaks of rage when they were alone, sulking when the children were present so that they questioned her and she had to find excuses, docking her housekeeping money by ten shillings a week under the pretext of a bad run of business. In the previous two years she had saved four pounds out of her inadequate housekeeping allowance (only she knew how she had done it) and the whole of that sum went during those miserable weeks. Any appeal to her family meant her own humiliation; she could not do that. And then, at the end of three months, she had done the thing she had always regretted and despised herself for. She had told Dastur that he mustn’t spend any more money on her; told him cheerfully and naturally and kindly, but told him. He had said at once: “Have I done something wrong?”
It was when she was still hot and sore with shame at having given in, at perhaps having hurt the boy, that she had made her second mistake. She had told Sara; had poured it all out to her. She had needed so desperately to tell another woman, to have a woman’s sympathy. And there was no woman among her friends to whom she could tell a thing like that. Only her daughter. She had been richly comforted at the time (it had been lovely, the unaccustomed feel of Sara’s young arms tight round her), but afterwards she realised that she shouldn’t have done it. Sara had always been antagonistic to her father. Now it seemed that her antagonism had turned to an active hatred.
Sara finished drying the last dish, and said: “I think I’ll go to the movies for a little. It’s only half-past seven. If father asks say I’ve gone for a walk.”
Her mother shook her head in reproof, smiling a little sadly at this daughter who was hers and yet so far away from her. Sara, seeing the smile, hesitated on the way to the door.
“Father only did one good thing in his life,” she said, “and that was marrying you.”
She blew her mother a kiss and went upstairs, feeling better now that she and her mother were friends again. If only she had a little more pride where her father was concerned! They talked about economic compulsion, but that was no excuse. There was no need for any woman to be to any man what her mother was to her father.
She flung on a coat and hat, and went out of the house quietly. If her father didn’t know she had gone out it might save her mother having to tell fibs. To Mr. Ellis a cinema was, if not the mouth of Hell, at least a very flourishing suburb of it. Outside it was damp and fresh-smelling; the frost and the mist of the day had gone; there was a soft west wind, and stars very wet and bright in a very black sky. Down the street the lamps were reflected on the pavement in golden smears. It was almost too good a night to go and sit in a stuffy picture house, but she must sit somewhere; she had stood more or less all day, and her one ambition at the moment was to sit down somewhere where she would not have to consider other people, and where she might forget herself for a little.
As she approached the corner she saw a familiar figure under the street lamp; it was Sidney Webb. He was with another man and as she quickened her steps a little she hoped that the presence of the other man would prevent Sidney from offering to be her escort; Sidney was so thick-skinned that nothing short of a gun would persuade him that he was superfluous, and she was too tired to argue. She almost prayed, as she came up to them, that the other man would keep him occupied. But as she drew level Sidney moved in front of her.
“Hullo, Sara! Off for a walk?”
“No, I’m going to the movies.”
“Let me detain you for just a moment, dear lady.” He swung his hat on again with a flourish, and, flinging out his arm in a burlesque gesture, said: “May I present my friend, Lord Chitterne?”
There was a pause.
“How do you do?” said Chitterne.
“How do you do?” Sara said in a small voice. Her thoughts had suddenly stopped. This night was proving too much for her. Her mind felt like cotton-wool, where the thoughts stuck and refused to come to the surface. It was a nightmare sensation. Perhaps in a minute she would waken and find that it was a nightmare. The inconsequence of all this was the inconsequence of a dream; Sidney Webb and Chitterne and the street lamps. There were nearly always street lamps in her nightmares.
“Where is your picture house?” Chitterne said in the pause.
“About two streets away.”
“May I walk down with you?”
“Well, fair lady, I shall take my leave. Urgent private affairs require my presence elsewhere. See you later.” And with another flourish Sidney took his departure. Chitterne and Sara turned and walked along the street in silence.
After a little he said: “I say, you have no excuse for being sore with me now, you know. I’ve been introduced.”
“But I’m not sore with you. It’s only that you surprised me.”
“What surprised you? My good detective work?”
“How did you get to know Sidney?”
“Oh, I didn’t have to get to know Sidney. I’ve known Sidney a long time. We worked together now and then in the motoring shop where I completed my education. Perhaps it would be more correct to say where I began my education.”
“How did you connect him with me?”
“Do you remember running into him at Bond Street station about six o’clock two nights ago?”
“Yes. We went down to the trains together.”
“I happened to be standing at the bookstall.”
“Oh?” Her tone sounded a little disappointed. It hadn’t been so miraculous after all.
“Yes, just luck. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that my detective work was so slight.”
“It was easier than one would think.”
“It was up to that moment. The work started after that. You’ve no idea what a time I had trying to persuade Webb to introduce me to you. I had to convince him that my attentions were strictly honourable. And even then he wanted a lot of bringing up to the fence. It was awfully sporting of him to do it, you know. He’s rather keen on you himself, isn’t he? As it is, I’m only on probation. If I don’t behave myself he’s going to knock me out.” His voice sank away into a silent laugh. “If I show any signs of insulting you, I wish you’d warn me in time. I should hate to be knocked out by Sidney.” There was another silence. “What are we going to see? The world’s greatest love story? Or the world’s greatest thrill? It’s always one or the other, isn’t it?”
“But you’re not coming with me! I’ve got a date.”
“Oh, no, you haven’t. You’re going alone. Sidney told me a lot about your horrible habits. I’ve been ‘checking up on you,’ you see.”
The picture was called Divine Barriers, but they never found out what it meant since the film appeared to have nothing to do with the title. It was an English society drama as viewed by an American producer. The hero was, they understood, a famous thruster in a famous hunt, and they were given the hunt in full. There was also a “hunt breakfast,” where the whole field sat down to a large meal in a palatial room hung with French chandeliers. The unbroken ranks of top hats would have gladdened the heart of any provincial Master, but the effect was a little dimmed by the cavalry breeches which the producer had presumably had had over from a war film and could not find it in his heart to waste.
The suburban audience of tired women and pipe-smoking men knew as little of hunting as the American producer, and so they accepted the film in silence, except when now and then a more than usually glaring improbability roused them to a murmur of amusement. Chitterne was so much taller than Sara that he could watch her without turning his head, merely by looking down on her, and so he saw little of the picture. She was particularly lovely to-night, he thought; that exhausted, colourless look left the beauty of her features in startling relief. Her eyes looked as though she had been crying; and his heart contracted at the thought of Sara crying. The thought of Sara in that gloomy house in that gloomy street was intolerable. But he must go gently. She couldn’t be rushed; he had learned that from Webb. She had a mind of her own, Sidney had opined; half proud, half resentful of Sara’s mind. One would have to convince Sara’s mind as well as her heart, it seemed. Sidney had almost hinted that she hadn’t a heart; but girls who hadn’t hearts didn’t cry.
When the lights went up she said: “Are you patient, or interested, or bored, or asleep, or what?”
“You’re so still.”
“I’m just pleased with myself.”
“What a disgusting condition, and how I envy you!”
“Aren’t you ever pleased with yourself?”
“No. I haven’t anything to be pleased about. I’m all wrong. I’m a misfit.”
As soon as she said it her pride revolted. She shouldn’t have said that; he might think she was touting for sympathy. “At least I feel like that to-night,” she added, “because so many people were unreasonable to-day. Two of the staff and four customers being unreasonable in one day is too much for anyone. Sorry to talk shop.”
“I’ve never been able to see why it was bad form to talk shop. Except in an institution, you know, where there is a danger that the inmates won’t be able to talk about anything else. Army messes, and places like that. Outside, where you are meeting strangers continually, surely shop is the most interesting thing a person can talk about—the thing they know best. What do you do when a woman has tried on everything in the shop and is still unsatisfied? I’ve always wondered.”
“I bring her the thing she tried on first and I say: ‘Of course you might care for this. It’s rather out of the common, of course, and not everyone’s model, but—’ And she usually forgets that she ever saw it before, decides that she’s out of the common, and that it suits her beautifully.”
“You know,” he said seriously, “I couldn’t do it! I’d bash them over the head with the hand mirror and call a taxi to take away the body.”
She smiled, and the joy he felt at having made Sara smile was as great as he had ever known. As great as pulling in to the pits at Brooklands knowing that he had broken a record; as great as seeing a horse he had bred canter home ahead of a good field.
At half-past nine she said that she must go, and he took her back to the corner of the street where he had met her. She would not allow him to come to the door. Her father, it appeared, was queer. He was not even to be told that she had been to the cinema, or there would be a row. Chitterne had not imagined that any of that kind were still living, but the expression on Sara’s face when she talked about him left one in no doubt.
“I say, you look as if some fresh air would do you good,” he said. “Wouldn’t you let me take you somewhere on Saturday afternoon? That’s your half day, isn’t it? We could go to the coast somewhere and get some sea air. Will you?”
“We’ll ask Sidney and another girl, if you like.”
She expressed in a grimace both her distaste for Sidney’s company and her appreciation of the motive behind his suggestion. “No, all right. I’ll come. Thank you.”
They shook hands and parted.
Chitterne went away to see if he could get some dinner somewhere. He had forgotten all about food. And Sara slipped into Number Seventeen, and in the cold light of a naked electric examined the tweed she had made for herself last spring to see if it would possibly do to wear on Saturday.
He was waiting for her, fifteen minutes after noon, round the corner in Davies Street. He had been rather astonished to find what a sweat he had been in about the weather. For the last two days he had been haunted by the awful thought that it might be wet on Saturday. So persistent, so obsessing, had been the fear, that even he, the least analytical of men, had been forced to observe it and marvel. It was something new for Chit to find himself in a sweat about anything. His anxiety had not been for himself; after all, if it was wet they could be indoors somewhere together; but he didn’t want Sara to miss her day in the country. He had felt like smashing up something this morning in sheer relief at sight of the sunlight. “Where would you like to go?” he asked as he climbed in beside her.
“I don’t know. I don’t know many places. I thought you’d decide.”
“Well, you specify what you would like and I’ll supply it.”
“I’d like something that wasn’t just like every other place. Something that isn’t just another edition of Brighton.”
So he took her to Rye; and was pleased and touched by her joy in it. To Chitterne its artificiality, its air of preciousness and preservation was “amusing,” but to Sara it was a fairy tale. From the moment that she saw it, a rosy hill above the green levels of the marsh, Chitterne was aware that he had a rival; it had been a mistake to take her there. She explored every corner of the town, ecstatic and indefatigable, and Chitterne accompanied her, a little jealous of Rye but gloating secretly over the brightness of Sara’s eyes, her happiness and self-forgetfulness.
“You know,” she said, turning round to look at him striding with his indifferent gait over the cobbles a pace or two behind her, “you’re a size too big for this place.”
“One good kick would send it all out to sea,” he said. “Aren’t you ready for tea?”
“Oh, just let’s see what’s down here.” And he followed her, smiling and wordless. She had been surprised to find him so quiet. She had unconsciously expected a person with his highly-coloured reputation to be highly-coloured, if not even parti-coloured, in private. Chitterne had not been in the least “dashing,” he was not even “breezy”; he was just quiet, and very efficient, and very thoughtful.
There was a blazing fire on the inn hearth, and they had the place to themselves. It was a little late in the year for golfers, and the Americans had all gone home. They sat in the shadows, with their toes to the fire, while the strip of pale sunlight on the floor by the open door shortened and faded and died. She sat facing the window, and he marvelled a little at the contrast between the elegant sophistication of her appearance and the enchanting simplicity of her spirit. She looked as if she should view life from the weary eminence of a throne, and she viewed it like an eager child. He was sub-consciously aware of the significance of the attitude of the inn-keeper and the waitress towards her. Chitterne, in his twenty-seven years, had entertained all kinds of women from all strata of society, and he was aware, without examining the knowledge, that the inn people accepted her as his natural companion. From all those subtle shades of manner which their kind employ to customers they used the one they would have used to Ursula. Her clothes were fashionable and well cut, of course; but clothes alone would not have produced that tribute. There was an aloofness in her beauty, a stillness, something that was almost scorn.
They talked about her people.
“When they started with Matthew and Mark why didn’t they go on with Luke and John?”
“They did, but Luke died, and when John arrived father remembered that the brother he had quarrelled with was called John. The fact that he hated his brother was much more important than that a disciple was called John, so ‘John’ was called Joseph. I think even calling him Joseph didn’t make father forget that he was John by rights. He gave him a much worse time than the rest of us.”
“You don’t like your father much, do you!”
“Like him! If I told you about him you would simply think I was making it up.”
“But he preaches, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, once a week, and as often as they will allow him to on Sundays.”
“The other members of the meeting. They like to have a chance of preaching too, you see. But father is a bully there just as he is at home, so we have to put up with him about every third Sunday. It’s awful to have to sit there and listen to him. He talks such nonsense, and he loves himself so.”
“But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to, surely?”
“Yes, of course. We all have to go as long as we stay in his house. And we stay for the sake of mother, more or less.”
“I think Mark sounds interesting.”
“You say that because he’s a mechanic. Yes, Mark’s all right, but the youngest one is the nicest.”
“What’s his name?”
“Gareth. He’s a dear. He’s mother’s favourite, too. She thinks we don’t know, but we all do, of course. Only Gareth’s such a decent sort that none of us mind.”
“I’m not awfully well up in the Bible—I used to spend my time in chapel reading the wrong bits—but I don’t remember a Gareth.”
“No, I don’t think there is one. Mother sort of liked him on sight, I think, and she chose his name. He’s a sort of changeling, Gareth. He’s the only fair one in the family.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s the violinist in Regan’s dance band.”
“But—but that chap’s name’s Tavender.”
“It might have been once upon a time, but Gareth’s been it for a week now. It was rather funny, really. We were all waiting for him to commit suicide—he had wanted to be a sort of Kreisler, you see, and playing ‘Waiting for you at twilight’ and things like that was against his principles. But he seems to be as happy as a lord. Are lords happy, by the way?”
“Either that or tight, it seems.”
When the sunlight had faded out of the doorway and the buttered muffins were all gone, they went out once again to hang over the wall and watch the sunset over the levels far below. Over the high pale-green sky to the west were scattered every kind of cloud that has ever been seen: pale pink fluffy bunches, mustard-yellow woolly things like the chickens in Easter eggs, long greasy black trails like the smoke from railway engines, lumps of sentimental mauve from celluloid Christmas cards, shreds of flaming gold like clippings from a dressmaker’s shears, grey, delicate wisps like torn veils; all separate and distinct, like a lot of samples thrown across the heavens. Below was the silver windings of the Rother going to sea, and on either side the wide sands purpling in the fading light. It was very quiet and windless; by the river a man hammered at a boat, and two children called to each other in thin excited cries like those of a sea bird. The sounds came through the evening air very small and distinct, like things seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
Sara was thinking: “Just now mother will be preparing tea and the street will be beginning to get dark.” But she found it difficult to believe in the existence of Sark Street. In a world as lovely as this the thought of it was incongruous, grotesque. What had her father’s hypocrisies to do with this wide quiet, so rich with colour, so rich with content? If only she could stay here; stay in the quiet and not have to wrestle any more with life; be alone and not have to worry about her relations to people, be at peace and forget her own vague longings and fretfulness.
“I’ve never seen anything lovelier than this,” she said aloud.
“No, it is good, isn’t it? But there’s lots of this in England. I know a place further west in Sussex, in the downs, that is just as good as this. Let’s go there to-morrow.”
“To-morrow! Oh, I couldn’t. There’d be too much explanation. You see, to-day I’m supposed to be out with one of the girls in Brook Street. I’ve sometimes gone out on a Saturday with one or two of them. But that explanation wouldn’t do for Sunday.”
“But why couldn’t you say you were coming with me to-day? I’m not an ogre!”
“Because father would make a row, and because mother would be worried. Father would make a row on principle; he always objects to my going out with anyone, even people like Sidney, that he knows. And mother would worry because she would be suspecting the worst all the time. She wouldn’t understand that anyone like you would take a shop-girl out for the day just for kindness. It’s much better to tell a few fibs than have all that happen.” There was a pause. “Don’t think I don’t hate telling them. I do. I loathe it. But I should loathe it far more if my day to-day was going to be all ruined by a beastly, degrading row when I got home. It may be degrading to have to fib about it, but not as degrading as having something as—as lovely as this spoiled by having a lot of dirt thrown over it.”
He relented. “Then you have enjoyed it.”
“Come somewhere to-morrow, then, even if you have to tell a few fibs about it.”
“No amount of fibs would be any good to-morrow. I’ve got to go to evening meeting. Nothing but pneumonia or sudden death would excuse me from that.”
“It isn’t often I hear anyone call on the Lord so heartfeltly. You’d be a great success at the meetings.”
“Well, you know, Sara, it’s hardly credible. A tyranny like that in these days. You’re all grown up and earning money. You can surely please yourselves in what you do!”
“Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. You couldn’t understand it unless you had been brought up with it. There is a limit to one’s capacity for rows, you know. There comes a time when you’re only too ready to sacrifice something for a quiet life. We’re all sort of keeping the peace until we can get out honourably. We’d all go now if it weren’t for mother. She’s a victim too, but she has to stay, and it would be sort of walking out on her if we all went. Joe ran away, practically—he married a girl he had been too frightened to tell father he was engaged to—but he was always the no-account one anyhow. Don’t let’s talk about all that. It’s spoiling this.”
“But won’t they know about me indirectly. Sidney might tell them.”
“Oh, no, he won’t. I’ve seen Sidney.”
He smiled. “I’m afraid you’re a practised deceiver.”
“Of course I am. Everyone brought up in a house like ours is a past master at that. It’s inevitable.” After a moment she turned to look at him where he leaned smoking against the wall. “I promise never to tell you anything that isn’t true,” she said.
“I suppose it is time we went.”
“There’s no hurry. We can have dinner somewhere on the way up to town.”
“No, I’m afraid we can’t. I must get home at a normal hour. I mean, at an hour I’d have got home at if I’d been out with Stella or one of the others. I think we’d better go.” She stood for a moment looking down on the river and the flats and the darkening channel under the brilliant sky, as if she were gathering them all in a last embrace. “Thank you for the nice party,” she said, and turned away.
“Darling, who is Ursula’s latest?” Julia Strange said, collapsing on the couch beside Daphne, and meeting her excellent teeth through a sandwich with an incisive snap which would have done credit to a crocodile.
“Latest? I don’t know what you mean,” said Daphne, who hated Julia and had been given the wrong kind of cocktail.
“Oh, darling, don’t be sniffy and pretend you don’t know. Connie Markham said she saw them at the Wigmore Hall together, at Jan Vek’s recital, you know. Too frightfully artistic, she said he was. I said if it was the Wigmore Hall she saw them at he must be still on the lunging rein. And then Connie turned peevish, of course, and shut up like a clam. Connie is too silly over music! And between you and me, darling, she doesn’t know a scherzo from a sonata. But I didn’t mind. I knew you’d know all about it. Now, darling, tell Julia. Who is he, and what does he do, if anything, and where did she pick him up?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s not the slightest use making a mystery of it, darling. You can’t possibly hide a thing like that for more than three days at the very outside. And anyhow, Ursula never bothers to hide her affaires. If anything, darling, you know she flaps them in your face like a flag. So don’t imagine you’re being loyal to her or any Joan of Arc nonsense of that sort, because it’s quite redundant.”
“What on earth has Joan of Arc to do with it?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, darling.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use words you don’t know the meaning of, and I wish you wouldn’t eat sandwiches in my face.”
“If you think you’re going to distract me by being rude, darling, you’re frightfully off the mark. I want to know about Ursula’s new one, and I’m going to find out.”
“Well, why don’t you go and ask her?”
“You might at least tell me if he’s here. I’ve looked them all over several times, but none seems to have that co-respondent look that Ursula goes in for. And none of them looks the Wigmore Hall kind except Riscoe, and it can’t be Riscoe because no musician ever goes to hear another play.” Her big bright brown eyes darted over the scattered figures in Ursula’s lamp-lit sitting-room in search of one she might have missed.
It was between five and six o’clock; and the usual motley collection of notabilities; notorieties and nonentities were gathered in Ursula’s big room, whiling away an hour until they should depart to get ready for the evening’s entertainment.
It was a delightful room to come into on an October evening; pale-coloured and gracious, warm with firelight and sweet with the scent of white lilac. A year or two previously, when the craze for Victorian things had been at its height, the room had been the finest museum of atrocities in London. People still talked with amused appreciation of it. “_Do_ you remember Ursula’s wallpaper?” they would say. “With the chrysanthemums as big as cabbages! My dear, wasn’t it a triumph!” But Ursula had tired of the joke as soon as the last antimacassar had been collected, and the crowd had helped her smash it all up one glorious night, when they had all been drinking enough to bring them to the god-like state of being indifferent to consequences. There was still a slight inequality in one corner of the ceiling where Cedric Byron had offered up the aspidistras on an altar made of the green-and-crimson woollen crochet doileys from under the plant pots all piled into a chafing-dish. Peter Ridson, the novelist, had recited an impromptu ode (which to his chagrin he could not recall next morning) while he poured a libation of neat brandy over the sacrifice; and Daphne, having performed a ritual dance which was the apotheosis of burlesque, put a taper to it. The result had been very satisfactory as a spectacle, if rather bad for the ceiling. And next day the decorators had come in, and the Victorian drawing-room gave place to the present room, in which bare straight lines, and cool colours were a natural reaction. The carpets, chairs and curtains were now a dove grey, the wall panelled in cream and without pictures, and here and there were cushions of plain silk, each one of an enchanting colour: blue or yellow or rose or green or flame; colours as clear and pure as the hue of stones at the bottom of a brook. They were completely unrelated, like beads run from a broken string, but the eye found each with a new delight. Peter Hudson, on viewing the new decorations for the first time; said that at last the room had been allowed to express Ursula herself instead of a fashion. It just was Ursula: cold as a nun, but given to purple patches.
“You know, my chief objection to Ursula,” Julia said, popping the last piece of sandwich into her mouth with a snap, “is that she’s always one ahead of everyone. As soon as you think you’ve caught up with her you find she’s on ahead again. It can’t be anyone we know or Connie would have recognised him.”
“Peter!” Daphne called across the width of the room to Hudson who was talking to Ursula at the rear window and shaking a container, “bring me something that tastes like a cocktail. That last thing was only fit for a mothers’ meeting.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, darling?” Julia was beginning to be a little frayed.
“I’ve never had enough. Thank you, darling,” this to Clive Forrester, who had brought her cocktail. “Now if you want to exercise that famous Foreign Office tact, for God’s sake take Julia away and give her another sandwich to keep her tongue busy. She thinks she’s Mata Hari.”
“Hallucinations so early in the day?” asked Hudson, sitting down in the place Julia vacated. “It’s you who should be having hallucinations, you know.”
“Not me. I have a head like teak. I say, Peter, you’re a great friend of Grandison’s, aren’t you?”
“The editor, you mean?”
“Yes. Aren’t you great friends?”
“Well, he would say so if I didn’t.”
“Be an angel and remind him that he promised me a contract for six articles.”
“Grandison would promise anyone anything after dinner.”
“Indeed he wouldn’t! It took me half an hour to bring him to the point. And now he seems to have forgotten all about it.”
“What were the articles going to be about?”
“Oh, anything. Drink, if you like.”
“That’s an idea! I didn’t know you could write.”
“I can’t. Not even my name on a cheque at the moment.”
“All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
“You are a lamb, Peter. When Lola gets divorced I’ll send you a little something to help pay the damages.”
Peter glanced across the room to where Lola Kennet, thin and dark and angular, like some rather wicked insect, was talking to Wilmer, the trainer.
“You’re post-dating the cheque rather, aren’t you?”
“Not a bit of it. George Kennet may be a fool about Lola, but he’s not an everlasting fool. What’s Wilmer doing here?”
“On his way home from Kempton. Wants to pump Ursula about Double Bass’s chance to-morrow, I suppose.”
“He seems to have forgotten it,” Daphne said maliciously, watching the trainer’s absorption in Lola.
“Oh, no, he hasn’t,” Peter said serenely. “That’s camouflage. Wilmer’s an adept at it. He’s never been known to look rattled in his life.”
“I suppose we’ve all come for something,” Daphne said, her mind taking a new flight on the wings of the spirit in her glass. “_I_ came for a drink. What did you come for?”
“I came because Lola didn’t want to go home yet.”
“And Clive came because I should be here, and because, he likes to be seen at the proper place at the proper time. Why did Mark Welby come, do you think?”
“He’s hoping Ursula will go into partnership with him in a flower shop he’s thinking about.”
“Green carnations, I suppose! He needn’t waste his time. Ursula’s strongest complex is being an individual. She hates being a partner.”
“Why is Julia here?” Peter asked, liking the game.
“The usual, of course. Snooping.”
“Well, we all do it. What does she want to find out at the moment?”
“Who Bonjie’s successor is.”
“And who is he?”
“He’s a Russian refugé. Ursula picked up in the Berwick Market. She was so fascinated by the fact that he wasn’t a prince that she carried him off there and then and gave him a meal. Ridoffsky’s his name. He doesn’t dance, and he’s never washed dishes for a living, and he hasn’t lost a fortune in Russia, and altogether he’s absolutely unique. The only drawback is that he doesn’t talk English, and Russian is so difficult to learn.”
“Did you tell Julia that one? I don’t wonder she was looking peeved.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with it. It’s quite a good one, if Ursula chooses to be interested in someone, I don’t see why the whole world should come rushing round like flies to treacle.”
“You mean you don’t see why she shouldn’t tell you.”
“Your psychology’s marvellous, isn’t it, darling?”
“Well, I’m a novelist, aren’t I?”
“So your publishers say. Did you read the notices of Cedric’s exhibition, by the way?”
“Cedric bribed the critics with champagne,” Clive said, overhearing. “They were so tight they couldn’t see, and couldn’t admit it. So they had to say everything was marvellous in case they said something more than ordinarily foolish.”
“Did you hear that he got the Duchess of Bride to fork out for the expenses of the gallery?” Mark said from the fireplace, where he was draped about the mantelpiece.
“Are you talking about Cedric Byron?” Lola asked, ceasing her efforts to make Peter Hudson jealous. “So that’s why he put Ellen Bideford into that serpent tableau at the Jungle Ball! I wondered what he had in his eye when he chose Ellen. It was so patently not Ellen!”
‘There was a little laugh.
“Darling, did you see her at Raoul’s last night with Freddie Owen?” Julie said. “In a frock that looked like a telephone cover that someone had sat on.”
“What does she spend her money on?” someone asked.
“Cocaine,” Lola said.
“Oh, is she trying that now?”
“I expect she finds it difficult to get a kick out of anything at this late stage,” Mark said. “Yes. Saturated solution,” agreed Peter.
“You should have seen Freddie holding her as if he had picked something out of the garbage can!”
“That shouldn’t worry Freddie,” someone said, and there was another little laugh.
“Do we never say anything nice about anyone?” Ursula said.
At the tone of her voice there was a pause of astonishment.
“Darling, you haven’t been saved, or anything have you?” Lola exclaimed.
“A soap box, please!” cried Mark. “Any gentleman provide a soap box?”
“I shouldn’t, really, Ursula, you know. Hyde Park corner isn’t your style.”
“What is my style?”
“More Borgia than Booth,” Daphne said.
Ursula glanced across at her. “Cheap alliteration!” she said, but she smiled. They saw the smile, and the conversation gathered itself together and flowed on in its usual groove. For a moment they had almost thought that Ursula was serious.
But the interruption in the tenor of their thoughts, slight though it had been, allowed memories of outside affairs to seep in, and one by one they began to take their departure, casually, with a shouted word of farewell or a mere gesture of leave-taking.
Ursula, watching them go with an aloofness which was now conscious where it had once been inherent, considered them with a good-natured cynicism. Amusing, were they? Some of them. But what more? What more? Surely there must be something in themselves, below that mask of clothes and prattle and savoir faire.
There was Peter Hudson; he had made a reputation with his work; but that belonged to what she thought of as the mask; that was all in the shop window; what was Peter Hudson like himself? Would you rely on him in an emergency? He would be very efficient and kind, of course; and afterwards the incident would be found imbedded in one of his novels. And they were all like that, weren’t they? Their standards were as pitilessly selfish as if they were a panicking mob tramping their fellows under their feet. And they had not the excuse of panic. The only person on whom her mind in its new mood rested with anything resembling approbation was Wilmer. He at least was honest (as horsemen go) hard-working, healthy, self-respecting; all the good dull virtues she had always professed to find so boring. But Wilmer, although she knew him well, could hardly be called a friend of hers. She had never belonged to a set, certainly; her tastes were too catholic for that; but Wilmer was outside her general daily round. She couldn’t take any credit for Wilmer.
When her guests had drained away the residue proved to be Daphne, firmly entrenched on the sofa, and Clive Forrester looking wistfully at Daphne and longing to go.
Something in the wriggle of Daphne’s shoulders against the cushion indicated that she was settling down for a further session. Clive became desperate.
“I say, Daphne, I’ll have to go, I’m afraid. I’ve got to go to that Roumanian dinner, and it’s at seven-thirty.”
“But aren’t you coming?”
“No, I’m going to have another cocktail and talk to Ursula.”
“You may have six other cocktails, but you’re not going to talk to Ursula,” Ursula said. “She’s going to rest till dinner.”
“Darling, I had no idea you were so decrepit! Have you gone through all the ritual? ‘Place the mirror in a good light and dispassionately examine the countenance. Are there faint lines round the eyes? Is there a slight sag in the flesh at the corners of the—’”
“I say, Daphne, I know seven-thirty is an ungodly hour to have dinner, but it isn’t my fault. Do let me see you home before I have to go and climb into a boiled shirt.”
“Oh, Clive, darling, do go away. You’re exhausting.”
Clive got to his feet (he made a queer straight-up-and-down effect when he stood, rather like a perambulating column) and regarded her more in sorrow than in anger. “Well, I shan’t see you till to-morrow night.”
“But, Daphne! We’re going to dine and dance to-morrow. You promised!”
“Oh, yes, so I did. But I may be dead of cholera by that time.”
“You can only get cholera if—”
“If you argue any more, Clive, she’ll call it off here and now. I should beat it if I were you.” Clive beat it.
“Fancy having that for your steady!” Daphne said elegantly as the door shut behind him.
“Well, have your cocktail. There are glasses and a shaker behind you.”
“I don’t want a cocktail. What I want is a little information. Who is the man you’re keeping up your sleeve?”
“I!” Ursula turned from throwing a cigarette-end into the fire, and stared. “I’m not in the habit of keeping things up my sleeve.”
“I know you’re not. That’s why I’m wondering.” She eyed Ursula through narrowed lids.
“I’d rather be shot straight away without the third degree business.”
“Well, tell me: who were you at the Wigmore Hall with yesterday?”
“The Ellis boy.”
“What! That funny little boy with the red hair?”
“That’s the one. Is that the man I’m supposed to be keeping up my sleeve?”
“Oh, darling!” Daphne laughed a laugh of pure amusement, clear and ringing, a rare demonstration on her part. “Oh, darling, I apologise! It’s all Julia’s fault. Give Julia an inch and she’ll make an ‘ell of a lot. And there’s no one else on the tapis?”
“No one else.”
“That sounds convincing enough! I think I’ll catch Clive on the doorstep if I hurry. No use paying for a taxi when there is someone handy to do it for one. ‘Bye, darling. Did you count whatsisname’s freckles, by the way? As big as sixpences, aren’t they!”
“Now, if she meets him on the stairs,” Ursula thought, amused, “she will be given furiously to think again.” And she wondered whether in that case Daphne would have the nerve to come back for another cocktail. She thought that she probably would. Daphne had nerve for anything.
But it was a quarter of an hour later that Florence opened the door and said that there was a Mr. Ellis downstairs; should she show him up? And presently Florence ushered him in. He stood shyly, a few steps inside the room, his hat still in his hand, his dark overcoat unbuttoned and his violin case tucked under his left arm. “A funny little boy with red hair”: Ursula thought, as she went to meet him. That is how a stranger saw him. And to her he was so dear and so lovely that her heart melted into a warm liquid place in her breast at the very memory of him.
“Throw your hat and coat down over there somewhere, and come over to the fire.”
“I’m afraid I’m late,” he said. He did not tell her that he had wasted almost ten minutes walking round the square trying to get up sufficient courage to ring the bell.
“Just a little, but I’m glad you are. It gave me more time to get rid of the tea-time crowd. Are you cold? What kind of cocktail do you like?”
“Oh, I won’t have anything, thank you.”
“But you must have something!”
“I’d rather not now, please. Perhaps after I’ve played.”
She had said: “Play the things you like best,” but he hesitated. He had been told at college that his taste was outré to the point of being bizarre, and to-night he wanted to play something that might please her. She was his hostess, and—oh, well, he just wanted to please her. He asked her what kind of music she liked.
“Anything except variations on a theme,” she said.
“Don’t you like variations?”
“I hate them. They’re like—like fretwork. Niggling.”
He laughed aloud. “You should have a debate with Dolmetsky,” he said. “They’re his passion.” He played some very safe Mozart, an elegie by Faure, and a Sarasate jota. At first he was selfconscious, but presently he forgot her. On his face came that intent look which had first charmed her at Regan’s rehearsal. When he looked like that, unconscious of anything but his music, he seemed suddenly defenceless against the world, like a person asleep, and one was moved to the same impersonal tenderness as one is on watching someone asleep; he had discarded the shell of artificiality which we wear in our awareness of the world, and had become an absorbed child, his being laid bare for any passer-by to view. His raptness had none of the self-induced trance of the platform performer; it was the grave, self-forgetting interest of a child; Ursula had seen the same look on the face of a small boy building bricks alone in a nursery.
His head was silhouetted against the blue of the uncurtained window, and the lamplight shone down on it and made it a flame. It was a completely stained-glass effect; a young saint and martyr on a blue background. It was a beautiful blue, the window; but sad, unsatisfying. A rush of pity flooded her love for him; he was young and vulnerable, and life was bitter, and someday he must die. The cruelty, oh, the cruelty of it! A log fell, and the bitter tonic scent drowned the sweetness of the lilacs. She mocked at herself. She was being maudlin. She, Ursula Deane. Gareth was not in the least the fragile and defenceless martyr. He was a young wretch who had not hesitated to make fun of Jan Vek; he was a still-growing boy with a very healthy appetite for food. It was the fragility which had first made her notice him certainly, but it was the young wretch who had forced her interest that morning at Regan’s. Funny to think that if he had not grimaced at the pianist she might never have thought any more about him. Or—would she?
He finished playing, and she was so enthusiastic that he said: “If you are so fond of music why don’t you go to the opera?”
“Opera gives me giggles. But how do you know I don’t?”
“Well, I’ve seen your people there often, but I’ve never seen you. They go a lot, don’t they?”
“You mean mother goes and father is taken. Mother goes because the opera is the only place in London nowadays where you can wear a diamond fender without looking a fool. It’s either that or entertaining your husband’s political party, and the opera is much cheaper and less exhausting.”
Gareth looked amused. “You’re exaggerating, aren’t you? They must like it to go so often.”
“My dear man, mother doesn’t know ‘Rule Britannia’ from ‘God Save The King,’ and father’s favourite instrument is a gong. You’re too trusting, you know. Don’t imagine when you are a big pot and a crowded hall is listening breathless to your playing that all these people came to hear you. Everyone will be there because everyone else is, and they’ll be breathless only because they’re afraid they’re going to sneeze in the pianissimo passages.”
“I wish you didn’t dislike us so much.”
“Some of my best friends are musicians. It’s the crowd who hang round them I can’t bear. Perhaps camp followers are always a despicable bunch. Even a prostitute is better than a pimp, I suppose. Play me some more. When you play so well it must be hellish to play dance stuff.”
“Oh, it might be worse,” Gareth said airily. “And after all, there are lots of people like me. Look at Hal. It isn’t any use grumbling. After all, very few people are able to make their living doing the thing they like best. And I can always do the thing I like best for nothing in my spare time. Not many people can say that.”
“But you are far too philosophical! No one gets anywhere by being philosophical. You should be resentful and kick and make a row. Then people take notice of you.”
Gareth grinned. “Yes, they have you ejected.”
“You look as if you would make an ideal martyr.”
“Do I? It’s the last thing I should like to be. I used to have ideas, of course, about playing nothing that wasn’t music, but I soon gave that up. I found the only place where I could play the things I wanted was the street, and—well, I’m not a martyr.”
“But if you really—” Ursula began, and stopped. That had been a knock on the door. It was Lady Wilmington.
Watching her mother cross to them Ursula thought that her mother was just the type of woman who is murdered and no one can think why.
“Oh, darling! So sorry to interrupt. I didn’t know you had visitors. But I had to see you for a moment. I know you’ll think I’m a plague, darling, but I can’t help it.”
“Mother, this is Gareth Ellis, the violinist.”
“How do you do, Mr. Ellis? I’ve heard such a lot about you. Delighted to meet you. I expect you are a very busy man, Mr. Ellis, with your concerts and things, but perhaps some day you’ll find time to play for one of my charities. Now don’t say no! I know it is asking a lot to expect you to play for us, but it is always for such a deserving object. We’re having a concert next Friday in aid of the Society for the Promotion of Better Understanding Between nations, you know. And we are so hard up for really first-rate performers—although Madame Buffel has consented to sing for us. Now do you think you can come and play just for five minutes or so?”
“Mother, you can hardly expect a musician whose normal fee is fifty guineas to go and play at a wretched little charity concert for love!”
“But I don’t expect it! Don’t be ridiculous, Ursula! I’ve heard all about your wonderful talent, Mr. Ellis, and I shouldn’t dream of asking you to give us your services. But perhaps, since the object is so very splendid you could see your way to giving half your fee, perhaps, to the cause. I think the organising fund would run to twenty-five guineas if you would be really noble and come for that.”
“I expect Mr. Ellis will make the sacrifice. Mr. Ellis is nothing if not noble,” Ursula said.
“Then shall I say ten minutes’ performance?”
“Oh,—er—fifteen, if you like,” Gareth began, “but, you know—”
“Then that’s settled. Thank you a thousand times! I do so want this concert to be a success. Janet Goddridge ran it last year and they made only three hundred. Of course, she’s hopeless at organising anything, perfectly hopeless. So charming of you to help me. And now, Ursula. Darling, would you come and judge the dresses at the Children’s Ball? Cedric is so hoping you will!
“Why me? I don’t know anything about dresses?”
“No, but Cedric says you’re the only person in London who won’t care a tinker’s curse what people think of your decisions.”
“How nice of him! But then, Cedric is always complimentary when he wants something.”
“It would mean such a lot off my shoulders if you would, darling.”
“All right, I will,” she said.
Her mother’s surprise was almost touching. “You will! Oh, darling, how sweet of you! You know, I didn’t dare hope you would, I promised Cedric I’d ask you but I didn’t think you’d say yes. It is sweet of you. It must be your music, Mr. Ellis. I see you’ve been playing.”
“I’m the savage breast, you see,” Ursula said to Gareth.
“Oh, darling! You know I didn’t mean that. Well, I must fly. A thousand thanks, Mr. Ellis. Au revoir till next Friday.”
“I say,” Gareth said as the door closed behind her, “why did you—what made you—”
“Are you backing out of your engagement?”
“No, but, you know, those people who are running the concert, they’ll find out that I’m not famous, and then what will happen?”
“Oh, no, they won’t. No one will dare to say they never heard of you in case they drop a brick. And by the time the affair is over you’ll be well on the way to being famous, if you play as you played to-night.”
“Yes, but the committee who pay the twenty-five guineas. They’ll ask questions surely?”
“Mother is the committee, and the rest would as soon think of resigning as questioning anything that mother may do. That is how she is allowed to run round being idiotic. And once they hear you there won’t be any need of questions.”
“I say, it’s awfully good of you to—!” But she stopped him. “Play me something else. It’s early yet.”
As he played the atmosphere, stirred up and troubled by Lady Wilmington’s hysterical animation and urgency, grew slowly still again. Ursula could almost feel it settling; like dew. The scent of the lilac came out as scents do on a still evening. He played something she did not know. At the beginning it promised to be simple, like the expression of a faith. But presently she found that phrases which one had expected to be acquiescent floated away instead in strange wild aspirations. It was not a statement; it was a crying voice in a wilderness. The music was full of unexpected intervals, and yet the melody was there for even the most obtuse to hear; only it was not the melody one expected. It sang and it cried in the still room; and it ended in two little short notes that had in them all the hopelessness of human endeavour, all the gladness of being able to aspire.
There was an appreciable pause when he finished. “I’ve never heard that before,” Ursula said. “It’s very modern, isn’t it? What is it?”
“It’s called ‘Moth to a Star,” Gareth said, his head bent over to listen to the string he was tuning, so that his face was hidden.
“Whose is it?”
There was another pause, and she looked at his bent head with a new interest.
“It’s your own, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Is it as bad as that!”
“You know very well that it isn’t bad.”
“Did you like it, then?”
“You say that as if you meant it.”
“Of course I mean it! I shouldn’t say so if I didn’t.”
“If you didn’t,” Gareth said, suddenly impish, “you would say that you simply loved it. I was terribly afraid you were going to say you adored it.”
“Are you accusing me of hypocrisy?”
“That’s not hypocrisy; just conventionality.”
“Good God!” Ursula said, “have I lived to hear someone call me conventional to my teeth!” They smiled at each other.
“How long is it since you composed that thing?” she asked as she poured out two cocktails.
“The day before yesterday.” There was moment’s silence, and he hurried on as if anxious to break it. “At least, the night before last. All my best ideas come through the night.”
“And do you get up there and then to play? How awful for your family!”
“Oh, no. It happens in my head. The family don’t suffer.”
“Tell me about your family.”
Gareth drank his cocktail, and described without much interest the members of his family. The household at Sark Street had not for him the evil fascination of hatred that it held for Sara.
“Is your sister pretty?”
“Yes, I think she is.”
“What does she do? Anything?”
“Are you very good friends?”
“Yes. She’s not very—what do you call it—demonstrative. But she’s always stuck up for me when things got hot. She’s an awfully good sort. She once took a spanking for me—without my knowing, of course.”
“How funny!—Bobby—that’s Chitterne, you know—once did that for me. What had you done?”
“Let the cat into the kitchen.”
“I put tadpoles in the nursery bath.”
“Was that a dreadful thing to do?”
“Heinous. My nurse thought nature nasty. My thirst for knowledge was always being frustrated when I was small. Perhaps that is why I have such a passion for experiment now that I am grown-up. Do you and your sister still do things together?”
“Well, now that we’re both working it’s different. But she and Molly are very good friends.”
“Who is Molly?”
“The girl I’m going to marry.”
There was a little silence.
“Oh? You’re engaged to be married?”
“Why didn’t you tell me so thrilling a piece of information before?” Ursula’s tone was light, but her voice sounded like water dripping in a shallow dish.
“What interest could it have held for you? And it isn’t thrilling. We’ve been engaged ever since we were in our teens.”
There was a slight pause. Gareth set down his glass. “I must go,” he said, and got to his feet. “No, don’t go. I apologise. That was a horrid thing to say. It was—cheap.”
“Time’s getting on. I must go.”
“I’ve apologised for being petty. I can’t do more. Don’t be angry.”
“I’m not. Why should I be?”
“Then stop looking like John Knox and bring me another cocktail.”
Gareth crossed over to her, moving stiffly as if it were only by a deliberate effort of the will that he made his limbs move. He took her glass and carried it to the table.
“You know,” Ursula said, “you’re inclined to take things au grand sérieux.”
“I don’t know any French, but I suppose you mean I haven’t a sense of humour.”
“I don’t mean that at all. I mean that you take some things too seriously.”
“Some things are serious.”
“As what, for instance?”
“Earning your living. And being in love.”
“That is a very life-is-real-life-is-earnest point of view for an artist to take!”
“If you don’t take something seriously you don’t get any kick out of life. If nothing matters to you what pep is there in existence?”
“Yes. Wilde said something like that—a little more elegantly—last century. But it was just about as true as all the other would-be clever things he said. It’s a mistake to take anything seriously. You only get hurt. Give me my cocktail.”
He poured out the cocktail, and having poured out too much, carried the glass over to her with an inelegant and infantile care, putting his heels down first and breathing deeply.
“You know, I don’t believe you’re hard—hard—” He paused, anxious about the liquid. “Boiled—? Hearted—? Don’t leave me in suspense!”
“I’ve filled it too full. I don’t believe you’re really cynical. It’s what you said just now. You’re afraid you’ll get hurt.”
“And what would hurt me?”
“Oh, life, I suppose.”
“Then you admit it hurts?”
“Oh, sometimes, of course. But that isn’t any reason for being cynical about it. The things that hurt most are often the things you wouldn’t have missed for the world. Don’t you believe in anything?”
“Nothing I can think of at the moment.”
“You don’t believe that there can be something—oh, something utterly lovely, if you know what I mean, in life?”
“Nothing taken to bits is lovely. And I’ve always been a taker to bits. What do you find lovely in life?”
“I don’t know. To-day—and to-morrow coming.”
“My dear!” she said, her voice suddenly tender, “how I envy you!” Then, after a second, “Tell me about your fiancée. Is she fair or dark?”
“Sort of medium.”
“Yes.” He had given her the cocktail and was standing beside her, looking down at her. “No. No, she isn’t like you,” he said slowly, as if the words were pulled out of him. “She isn’t beautiful. She doesn’t talk the way you do. Or—or do anything like you. Her eyes don’t laugh the way yours do, and her mouth doesn’t—doesn’t—”
Gareth leaned over and kissed her on the mouth. He did it without expression, as if a compulsion outside him had bent his body over to her. As he straightened himself realisation woke in him. “I’m sorry,” he said stupidly.
“You should never apologise for kissing a woman. It’s adding insult to injury. You’ve spilt my cocktail.”
“I’m terribly sorry!” Gareth said desperately. “Really, I’m terribly sorry!”
“It doesn’t matter. I hate the frock anyhow.”
“I didn’t mean the frock.”
“Well, you should have meant the frock.” She looked up at him in the process of rubbing the stain, and laughed. “My dear Gareth, don’t look so abashed. One would think you had never kissed anyone but your mother and your fiancée!”
“If it weren’t for the practical demonstration I shouldn’t believe it. You’ll have to take a course. I should speak to Molly, if I were you.”
“Don’t laugh at me!” Gareth burst out. “Don’t laugh at me—please! I can’t bear it. I adore you. I can’t think of anything but you since that first night at Raoul’s. I worship you, and you just think of me as a poor little beast of a musician who amuses you because he’s different. I can’t bear it. I wrote that thing for you, and hoped that that would get it off my chest, but it just goes on getting worse. Every time I see you it gets worse. At the concert yesterday I couldn’t think of anything but you. I knew you were just being nice to me. I knew I was a fool, but I couldn’t help it. And I didn’t want to help it, somehow, because it was so wonderful being with you. It was something that might never happen again. I’ve never known anyone like you. I never meant to kiss you, or to say all the things I’m saying now. I know I’m crazy, and I’m going before you throw me out.”
“Gareth, my dear—” she said, rising.
“Oh, don’t be kind to me, for God’s sake. That would be the last—”
“Gareth, be quiet.” She caught him by the shoulders as he was turning away, and swung him round to face her. “Listen to me. You are the loveliest thing that ever happened in my life. If anything could make me believe in the essential decency of things it would be you. Don’t you think I have felt all that too? Why, these last days the whole world has been different. I’ve even suffered fools gladly because you happen to be alive. When I walked into Regan’s that morning, and saw you, something happened to me that never happened before. And everything has been—new, ever since. I’ve done all the old boring things and found them beautiful, just because somewhere in London you were doing something too.”
“Ursula! It’s not true.”
“No? Do you think I’m being unmaidenly and immodest just for fun!”
“Do you mean—? Do you actually mean—”
His voice died away. It would be like blasphemy to say it aloud.
“Yes, I mean just that. Are you going to make a better job of it this time?”
Gareth’s arms went round her in a queer movement which had in it something that was almost resignation. It was as if a swimmer who had believed himself drowning saw rescue at hand and found it difficult to drag himself back to the realisation of life. But as his mouth met hers again the world not only swung back, but into a new perspective altogether. A new-born dazzling world it seemed to him, with Ursula in his arms.
They sat down side by side, Ursula smiling, Gareth serious. “Ursula,” he said, “you won’t mind if I stick Ursula into everything I say, will you? It’s so wonderful to be able to say it. Ursula, I adore you. When can I see you again?”
“Breakfast-time to-morrow, if you like.”
“No, but seriously.”
“Well, if you don’t like the breakfast offer I can’t see you for ages and ages. Not till tea time.”
“Here if you like.”
“No; you come out with me somewhere.” He hesitated. “The worst of it is there are so few places where—”
“No, but there’s always the top of a bus.”
“Bus tops are not what they were.”
“Well, there are those outside pieces that trams have at the back. If it comes to that, I don’t mind kissing you in the middle of Piccadilly.”
“Oh, you suggest a place.”
“Let’s go to a Lyons Corner House and practice looking vacantly at each other.”
“Be serious. It’s time I went.”
“How can I be serious when you love me?”
“That’s terribly serious.”
“No, just incredibly lovely. Do let’s sit stolidly in a Lyons and look as if we’d quarrelled over the mid-day joint.”
“It will be Saturday. There’s no joint on a Saturday.”
“You know everything.”
“I know that!”
“Well, I’ll meet you at Borodin’s, in Buckingham Palace Road. We won’t see anyone we know there, so we can be as abandoned as we like. Half-past four.”
“Not till then?”
“No. I’m going to lunch with a lot of fools. It makes me feel quite Christian when I think how charitable I’m going to be to them. Play ‘Moth to a Star’ once more for me before you go.”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t feel a bit like that now, you see. I’ll write you another one. I shall go away and write it now. I feel it coming on.”
“You talk as if it were a fit.”
Gareth grinned. “It is, rather.”
“Are you going to publish ‘Moth to a Star’?”
Gareth stared a little. “No one would publish it,” he said. “It isn’t dance music.”
“But it’s good!”
“You don’t know music publishers!” he said grimly.
“No, but they don’t know me. You let me have the manuscript, and I’ll talk to them. You haven’t enough impudence, that’s what is wrong with you. I have lots. There are such a lot of things I am going to do for you, Gareth!”
“I don’t like you to say that,” he said abruptly.
“There is so little I can do for you.”
“But it makes me so happy to do things for you. Don’t you like that?”
“Not when I can’t do anything in return.”
“But you repay me by just being alive.”
“That’s no credit to me!”
“Silly!” She skated away from the thin place.
“Then let’s say there are such a lot of things we are going to do together. Have you ever seen the sun rise on the South Downs?”
He shook his head.
“Well, I’ll show you that. What will you show me?”
“We could go to Boulogne for the day and eat snails.”
“Oh, lovely! What else?”
“I shall take you to the hardest seat at Covent Garden and teach you to like opera.”
“Even opera would be bearable with you, but don’t expect me to be solemn about it. I wish it were spring.”
“I have the most insane desire to sit hand in hand on a bank of daisies.”
“Oh, Ursula, how I love you!”
“I think I’m a little mad, but you have no idea how wonderful it is to think you know all there is to know about life, and then to come across something glorious that you never imagined existed.”
“What amazes me is that I went about London all those years and didn’t know you were there,” Gareth said. “I feel I ought to have known you were there, somehow.”
“My difficulty is to believe you are here now. It’s all much too good to be true, Gareth. Aren’t you afraid that something will happen, and we’ll find that—that we’ve only been having an anaesthetic or something?”
“And you know,” Gareth said, still following his own train of thought, “I’ve seen your photograph in the papers often, and just turned the page over. That’s funny, isn’t it?”
“It’s more than funny. It’s incredible. I shall have to change my photographer.”
“You laugh at everything. I think that’s why I love you. It isn’t what photographers like in you that makes me love you, Ursula. It isn’t the way your hair grows, or the shape of your mouth, or anything like that. It’s just you. I never met anyone like you.”
“I suppose I’ve got to go. It’s late, isn’t it?”
“I expect it is, but I feel so young that I think time must be just beginning.”
“You look about six when you smile like that.”
“Six! My dear man! I am exactly—How long is it since you said you loved me? I am exactly as old as that.”
“If I go now, promise that you won’t be any older when I see you at tea-time to-morrow.
“I won’t be a minute older. I’m only alive when you’re there.”
Gareth went home by bus, although it took much longer than the Underground, because he felt that he wanted the lights and the traffic as an obbligato to the things which were singing in his head. He had a vague feeling that if he had to endure the sepulchral atmosphere and mummified figures of the Underground to-night he would burst. All the way home the exultation in him span itself into music; mad, lovely music, as triumphant as the buses which charged past within a foot of his nose, as dancing as the lights, as full of power and radiance as the tall buildings, flood-lit against the sky. So that it was not until he stepped off the bus at the corner of Sark Street that he remembered Molly.
Ursula had never forgotten her for one moment; from the time that Gareth’s little careless sentence had hit her with the force of a bullet, Molly had never ceased to be somewhere in her mind. But Gareth had been so carried away that the world he knew had ceased to exist for him; he had almost forgotten his own identity. Now he remembered it with a shock. He was Gareth Ellis, and he had been unfaithful to Molly. Not unfaithful in the modern sense, but unfaithful nevertheless.
“What!” said his other self. “Unfaithful because you happen to have kissed another woman! Don’t be silly!” But he knew it wasn’t that. He was unfaithful because Ursula filled his whole being to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. Molly, kind pleasant little Molly, was a pale shadow in the background. He might have kissed many women without disturbing by a hair’s breadth the small throne that was Molly’s; but if he had never kissed Ursula at all he would still have been hopelessly unfaithful to Molly. He had never felt for Molly, never felt for anyone, what he felt for Ursula. In those first days after he met her, when to let his thoughts dwell on her had been an exquisite joy, he had stilled the vague pricks of conscience by telling himself that he could worship Ursula with impunity both to himself and to Molly, since she was a star so far from his orbit that his admiration of her was no more harmful (and much more helpful) than going to church and praying to God. He had taken to walking through the square in the mornings on the way to rehearsal, not so that he might see her but because it gave him a heady satisfaction to tread the same pavement which she trod. He would remind himself as he came nearer to the magic fifty yards in front of her house how quiet the square was and how few people walked on that piece of pavement, so that his feet might be resting exactly where hers had been the last to tread. He did not glance at the house. He felt nearer to her without that. The sight of the actual stones of her habitation, forbidding and palatial, emphasised the barriers between them, and so he went past with his eyes on the pavement, feeling her nearness as a sort of charm, walking in her footsteps with a lifting of the heart.
His adoration of her had, up to that point, been bearable; it had been merely a something which gave life a radiance it had never before possessed. There had been no hunger in it, no sense of frustration, no pain; it had been an iridescent happiness to him, waking and sleeping. Then he had had supper with her again, in company with Regan and Tim Grierson, and they had talked about Jan Vek, and she had asked him to go with her to the Wigmore Hall next afternoon to hear him play. He had sat beside her and tried to keep his thoughts on the music, but it had been hopeless. Why listen to Jan Vek indulging in mere virtuosity when he himself was taking part in a miracle? When Ursula Deane was here beside him, his sole companion for a whole afternoon, his companion by her own choice. It had made him a little light-headed. He was ruder about Jan Vek than he meant to be, partly because he felt so superior to Jan Vek, partly because he was still nervous and a little shy with Ursula. But she had laughed and seemed to like his lack of reverence for Jan Vek. She herself was irreverent by nature; most of her opinions, he noticed, were barbed. “I like rebels,” she said, apropos of something; and he thought that she looked a rebel herself He could see her in one of those red caps they wore in the French Revolution, leading an army to storm something. At least, that is what she was like when she was animated; when she was still she might equally be an aristo, contemptuous of the guillotine. She was aristo first, really; she was contemptuous before she was rebellious.
When they were parting after the concert to keep their separate appointments, she had said: “When will you come and play for me? To-morrow?” and with his heart thumping furiously he had said that he would. “Come about six, then,” she had said. “I shall get rid of the crowd by that time, and we can have the place to ourselves.” That “we” had stayed with him for the next twenty-four hours as a talisman.
And now, walking down Sark Street, he was facing the truth. He was in love with Ursula Deane, and (incredible, oh! incredible) she was in love with him. She had said so. And what was he going to do about Molly? He had no idea. What did one do in a situation like that?
What worried him most was that he wanted so dreadfully to tell Molly about Ursula. Not because he was feeling guilty, but because he had always told Molly everything, and it was strange and disconcerting not to be able to tell her this.
Downstairs at Number Seventeen he found Sara still at table although it was after half-past seven.
“Is this early breakfast or late tea?” he asked. Sara said that she had been working late in Brook Street.
“Keep that for your husband,” he said, and noticed, with the perception which his own happiness had wakened in him, that Sara looked happy too.
Their mother came in with Gareth’s tea.
“What on earth kept you, Gareth! I thought you were never coming,” she said with the testiness of a person who has been anxious without cause.
“Oh, Regan’s a slave driver,” Gareth said, and reached for the salt.
“Keep that for your wife,” Sara said.
Her mother shook her head at her and went away again to the kitchen, where she was cooking Ratan Dastur’s supper. Brother and sister ate in silence for a little, until Gareth, catching sight of his sister’s face in an unguarded moment, said abruptly: “What are you hugging to yourself?”
“Me?” Sara looked up in exaggerated surprise. “Nothing.”
“That extra work in Brook Street seems to have had a queerly refreshing effect!”
“I really was detained in Brook Street, you know. Only it was an argument that kept me, not work.”
“The inadvisability of tariffs, I suppose,” Gareth said, still unbelieving.
“No, just where we should go to-morrow.”
“And where are you going? Epping?”
Sara hesitated a moment. “Secret?” she asked, in the formula of their childhood.
“Cross my heart,” Gareth said, taking the oath.
Gareth stopped chewing and stared at her. “Who with?” he said at length.
“A man I met at the shop. If you ever let it come out here that I was at Kempton, I’ll never forgive you, Gareth.”
“I don’t think you need have said that! Have I ever squeaked?”
“No, I know you haven’t. But this is awfully important.”
“I say, Sara, you’ll watch your step, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes, I can take care of myself.”
“Is he—is he all right?”
“One of the best.”
He grinned at her. “Well, you’re critical enough to be a connoisseur, so I suppose you must be fairly safe. Going to see the Duke of York’s?”
“Yes. How did you know it was the Duke of York’s to-morrow?”
“You don’t have to live with your head in sheet music because you play the fiddle,” Gareth said. “I’m glad you’re having some fun at last. Happier now?”
“Yes, awfully happy.”
There was something in the sound of her voice as she said that which caused his smile to fade. “I say, Sara, it isn’t serious, is it?”
“Not a bit. Neither marriage nor the other thing, so keep calm. I’m only having a good time for once in my life. It will probably never happen again, so I’m taking it while it’s there. He happens to be decent and that makes it possible, see? Just an enormous piece of luck, that’s all.”
Her words touched an echoing chord somewhere in Gareth. That was how he was feeling. Strange that the same thing should have happened to Sara. He wondered whether Sara was in love with her man the way he was in love with Ursula. It didn’t seem possible, somehow. Sara was always cold to men. And no one could love anyone as he loved Ursula.
“Well, good luck!” he said. “Don’t get kicked by a horse and taken to hospital. That would give the game away!”
Sara remembered her brother’s warning as she leaned against the rail and watched in a sort of dream the horses go by; so near that she could touch them, so beautiful that they made a sore place round her heart, so satisfying that she felt that all her life she had been waiting for this. It would be an anti-climax if a pair of those dainty heels flashed into the sunlight and half-killed her.
“What are you amused about?” asked Chitterne who never missed any expression on Sara’s face.
Sara told him.
“I’m a little jealous of Gareth,” Chitterne said.
“Of Gareth!” she said, amazed, turning to look at him.
“Yes; your voice changes completely when you talk about him.”
“But what nonsense! We’re a very ordinary brother and sister. We used to be a lot together, because I was the only girl in the family and he was the baby, but since we grew up we don’t see very much of each other. We’re an unrelated family, if you know what I mean.”
“Most families are nowadays. I think they probably always were, only until now they didn’t have the freedom to make it obvious. No one imagines nowadays that you have to like your family just because they happen to be your family. That is why I noticed the way you speak of your brother, I suppose. I say, I want to go and see my bookie. Would you like to come along, or will you wait here?”
Sara said that she would go and powder her nose, on which the excitement of the first race had produced something which was nearly a shine. He escorted her to the cloakroom in the stand, and promised to be waiting for her there in ten minutes’ time. Sara spent five minutes repairing the ravages of emotion and fresh air, and another five watching the women who came and went across the drawing-room, preening themselves in the large mirrors with a lack of selfconsciousness and a pitilessness of self-criticism which no mere man could ever equal. Sara separated the social sheep from the goats with the unerringness of a West End dressmaker. The great majority were the regular racing crowd to be seen in any Club stand clean cut, well mannered, confident, expensively and quietly tailored; but there was a liberal sprinkling of fussily dressed females, much befurred, with fancy shoes and an air of benevolent opulence. “I never op anywhere without a spare pair of garters, dearie,” one was confiding to her companion. Another in a rich Glasgow voice with gaps where the T’s should have been was discussing the fitness of a colt: “He looks fa’ to me, bu’ Sco’s runnin.’ him an’ Sco’ shud know.” Wondering a little at such touching faith in the unknown Scott, Sara went out again to the landing. On one hand the stairs descended to the back of the stand; on the other was the balcony. There was no sign of Chitterne at the bottom of the stairs yet, so she moved into the balcony. A few women who were not sufficiently interested in selling races to appear in the paddock before the handicap sat about on chairs, and before them, in the October sunlight, spread a little bit of the England one remembers with affection in distant places; a bit of England which not wars, nor the ridicule of the intellectual, nor the fanaticism of the reformer can destroy. Just over the horizon somewhere was London, but here in the Thames valley it was as quiet and clear as though London had never existed. The noise of the Ring was flung into the shining afternoon with no more disturbance than the cawing of rooks would have made. The green of field and course and the smudgy browns of the distant trees were painted in flat washes like a hunting print; the white rails floated in brightness. In the distance, two horses shrouded in clothing were being led back to their quarters after the first race; their movements were leisured and fastidious; they passed into the trees and disappeared. The first of the horses for the second race began to canter down the course from the paddock to the starting-gate; flashes of colour and flurry of hoofs. The crowd on the lawn began to thicken.
Everything that was England was down there between the stands and the far trees; and every type of man that made her was down there in the crowd: saint and scallywag; and all the courage, optimism, and philosophy which are common to both. Dip into the crowd blindfold and you could pick out anything from a botanist to a pavement-artist.
Kempton Park. But it might have been any English racecourse on a Saturday afternoon.
Sara turned to the stairs again. Chit was there this time, but he was talking to someone: a little rosy-cheeked man with tightish trousers and grey hair. She supposed that he was giving instructions to his trainer or to the head lad. She paused half-way down, and stood watching the procession of people who passed her on their way into the stand. Chitterne had his back to her and was unaware that she was waiting, but she caught the eye of the rosy man several times; his eyes had the childish clearness which the eyes of sailors and horsemen have. Chit was evidently bringing the conversation to an end, and as they moved apart she went down the remaining steps to meet him. But before the farewell was concluded Chit had hailed a man who was hurrying past and, running a few steps after him, pulled out a Racing-up-to-Date and engaged him in talk. This left Sara awkwardly facing the trainer man, high and dry; it was difficult to turn back up the steps and still more impossible to walk past Chit and his acquaintance.
The little man lifted his hat in an abrupt, grumpy way. “Are you with Chitterne?” he asked. “He won’t be a minute. He always gets a little heated when he has a horse running. Very silly, of course; but natural. Natural.”
“Do you think that Double Bass is going to win?”
“Probably. Very probably. Have you had a good bet?”
“Lord Chitterne put a pound on for me at five to one.”
The little man pursed his lips in an amused fashion. “A pound! Chitterne must be saving.”
“That is all I would allow him put on for me,” Sara said, a little stiffly. Chitterne might be good friends with his trainer, but it was rather impossible of the man to criticise him to a stranger. “Have you seen the horse? No? Let me take you over now. Nice colt. Very. That is where Chitterne is going when he has finished the little argument. He’ll follow.”
A little surprised, but without words for polite refusal, she was led past the arguing couple. “We’re going over to the boxes,” the little man said to Chitterne as they passed, and Chitterne, after gaping for a moment, grinned broadly, said “Right-ho” and went on talking.
The paddock was deserted, since nearly everyone was watching the running of the second race, but away by the far boundary there were signs of activity where the runners for the Duke of York’s Handicap were being made ready for the race. As they crossed to them the little man asked Sara if she was interested in horses, and Sara explained that this was her first race meeting and that she knew nothing at all about horses.
“Commendable frankness. Most commendable. I wish more people would admit the fact. You must be the only person in this square mile who isn’t an authority on horseflesh. Personally I prefer pigs. I find pigs very interesting. Breed ‘em.”
Sara thought this a little strange, but she supposed that even trainers have their hobbies. She noticed that the waterproof which he wore in spite of the sunny afternoon was shabby and frayed at the wrists. Perhaps he wasn’t the trainer; just the head lad, or something. He didn’t talk like a lad, but perhaps he had come down in the world; been a trainer and failed, or something like that. He was a “character,” but she liked him.
There were six or seven horses in the space of grass before them, and the little man nodded at them.
“Which would you have, you who don’t know anything about them?”
Sara considered for a little and then chose a bay filly. “The one by the primrose rug,” she said.
“I thought you didn’t know anything about horses?”
“Have I chosen a good one? I had an Irish grandmother, but I expect it is just a fluke.”
“Have a second choice, then.”
This time she chose a brown colt.
Before her companion could remark on her choice Chitterne appeared. “I didn’t know you knew each other,” he said.
“We don’t, officially,” the little man said. “You left us stranded together, and we picked each other up.”
“Allow me to make amends. Father, this is Sara Ellis. Sara came down with me to help my luck. Have you been showing her Double Bass?”
“Miss Ellis has a marvellous eye for a horse. Either that or it’s black art. She says she doesn’t know a horse from a wheelbarrow. And first she chooses Wilmer’s filly, and then Double Bass.”
“Oh, is the black one Double Bass?” Sara said, glad to have something to talk about, in her confusion.
Chitterne said, yes, but they called that colour brown in a horse.
They moved nearer to see Double Bass saddled, standing in an attentive little group just far enough away not to upset the colt, who laid back his ears at any attempt at familiarity. The trainer and two lads were busy with the paraphernalia: saddle, surcingle, girth, number sheet, bucket, sponge, blanket and rug. Everything was done with the nicety, the unhurrying expedition, of a surgical operation. It was very quiet there; the sun warmed Sara’s back, gilded the high-lights on Double Bass’s dark coat, and illuminated the brown, shrewd faces of the men. The air was full of the sweet smell of crushed grass, the brave smell of leather and horses. She was very happy. She forgot that she had taken Lord Wilmington for a stable lad, forgot that she was Sara Ellis and must go back to Seventeen Sark Street to-night; forgot everything but that she was there among the horses in the sunlight with these two men whom she liked and who liked her.
But presently people began to come from the stands; men and women whom she did not know clustered round Chit to inspect the horse. She was amused to notice that Lord Wilmington had been right: they were all authorities. Double Bass was voted to be nearly everything that a horse might be; too sloping in the fetlock, too upright in the shoulder, not well let down, inclined to be over at the knee, a bit on the leg, inclined to be back at the knee, sluggish, excitable, not bred for speed, not bred to stay. Chitterne took it all smiling, his father with a bored gravity; but Sara began to feel a little desolate and out of it all. The extravagant praises of the women roused first contempt and then antagonism in her. “Fools!” she thought, listening to their high, over-accented, insincere accents; and despised herself for being led into feeling anything at all for them. Why should she care that both Chit and his father were surrounded and that no one spoke to her; it was not done willingly; people came and went so rapidly that introductions were not possible; it was contemptible of her to be thin-skinned. But she felt a little desolate.
And then a very smart little American girl who was standing at her elbow gazing at Double Bass said to her: “Say, tell me something to say about him. Everyone seems to know the language but me.” And Sara laughed and felt better. The crowd of acquaintances faded away when they went back to the stands to see the parade, and she found herself once more between Chit and his father. Daphne Conyers-Munford, who had made one of the admiring crowd, paused as she passed, to say: “Where’s Ursula?”
“Don’t know,” Chitterne said. “She was coming, but something else turned up.” The Munford girl cast a mildly curious glance at Sara, but her main interest seemed to lie in the betting book which she was clutching.
At the mention of Chitterne’s sister the out-of-it feeling revived unreasonably in Sara; she was depressed and a little weary. And very angry with herself. Not even the glittering line of horses walking down the course in front of the stands could take her mind away from the argument she was having with herself. Why should she expect to feel at home with these people? And (the next moment) why shouldn’t she? They were just human beings like herself. She didn’t look their inferior, why should she feel it? Her resentment of them was merely inferiority complex. It was she who was wrong, not they. She was probably tired. It was Saturday afternoon, and she had had a rush to get away, and she had been standing about ever since she arrived.
The horses were coloured specks fading into the distance. Presently they disappeared, and people devoted themselves to consolidating their positions on the stands, or ran about in last minute attempts to back their choice at a reasonable price. Sara stole a glance at Chitterne, and was ashamed of her pettiness. There was nothing mean or small or carping about Chit. But then, perhaps life had always been so easy for him that he had found nothing to sour him. Would Chit have been “big” if he had been brought up in Sark Street?
For the first part of the race the horses were not visible from the stands. Then they appeared, a small patch of colour in the distance, indistinguishable except to an expert. Sara stared with caught breath at this scrap of motley hurling itself so smoothly yet so impetuously across the landscape. Presently its advance was no longer smooth; one could see the horses galloping, pick out the jockeys. The group opened out a little; grew larger with incredible swiftness. They were coming, they were almost here. Sara looked for Double Bass but could not see him; there were several dark horses and the colours were such a muddle. At the distance, however, she could see plainly. There were three horses in front, and a gap between them and the rest of the field. The crowd had begun to call the names of the horses, shouting in a growing excitement until the names had merged into a continuous roar. Sara recognised the horses now. One was the filly she had chosen in the paddock, one was Double Bass, and the other was a roan. “Oh, please let Chit’s horse win!” she prayed with a fervour she had never used at the meetings. The filly was in front on the rails, with the roan and Double Bass together a length behind. The filly’s jockey was riding her, but the boy on Double Bass was sitting still. The roan had started to roll, but was still game. The filly, unbalanced by her jockey’s vigorous methods and tiring rapidly, hung away from the rails for a moment. Double Bass’s jockey moved, and Double Bass shot into the gap on the rails. The crowd yelled their admiration and fear. A quick recovery on the filly’s part and Double Bass would be finished. But he had done it. They were level now, neck and neck. For one moment Sara wanted the filly to win; she was such a gallant thing, struggling there, and she had chosen her out of the lot. But she forgot all about the filly as Double Bass went sailing past the post a clear length ahead, as easily as if he were taking part in an exercise canter.
It was a popular victory. The horse had been thoroughly exposed and well backed, and where the crowd was concerned Chitterne was a person almost as well known and popular as the Prince of Wales. They looked on Chitterne, as they looked on the Prince of Wales, as a personal possession. It was almost like having a horse of their own win. There was vociferous rejoicing in the cheaper stands, and much back-clapping in the enclosure as the proud owner went down to meet Double Bass.
It was nearly half an hour later that Chitterne’s car slid out of its privileged position in the ranked car park; a position which his money and his popularity invariably gained him, and which he took, as he took the rest of life, as a matter of course. Healths had been drunk, bets collected, congratulations said, and now they were alone together again and the daylight was beginning to fade. The glow had gone out of everything except Chitterne’s face, which was still radiant. As they came out of the gates he swung the car away from town, and she asked where they were going.
“My luck’s in to-day,” he said. “I’m going to put it to one last test.”
“But where are we going?”
“Up the river to have a meal somewhere,” he said, and refused to say more.
They had tea at a window which overlooked the river, misty now in the twilight, and the rosy lamp on the checked cloth challenged the dusk with its optimism. Over tea Chitterne talked about the doings of the afternoon, and the future of Double Bass, but when he had lighted her cigarette he said: “I say, I want to ask you something. Now don’t say no straight away as soon as I’ve put the proposition to you. Take a little time and think it over.”
“Yes?” she said, a little sadly. This was the end, then. There would be no more afternoons in Sussex, and teas by inn fires. No more of the companionship she had come to find so precious. The relationship had been untenable, she supposed; this had been bound to come. But the time had been so short. The happiest time of her life; perhaps the only really happy time she would ever have. She looked across at Chitterne’s earnest grey eyes watching her over the lamp, and a pang shot through her. It would be awful not to see him any more. Awful.
“Will you marry me, Sara?”
“_Marry_ you!” She stared at him.
“Don’t say a word!” he warned. “I told you not to say no straight away. Count a hundred before you say anything.” He gave her a quick, eager smile. “I know I’m the most notorious riotous liver in Britain, but ninety-nine point nine per cent of that isn’t true. Just newspaper stuff. If you believed all you read in the papers you’d be justified in thinking that I’m a bit mental. I’m not really a madcap, you know. I’m quite dependable privately. If you married me I’d never let you down. I promise you that. I’ve been in love with several women in my life—at least, I thought I was in love with them—but I stopped when I came to you. You’re the only person I’ve ever felt like spending the rest of my life with, and the thought that perhaps you won’t say yes just takes my breath away with terror. I didn’t mean to ask you to-day. I meant to give you a long time to get used to me, but my luck is so wonderful to-day that it seemed criminal to waste it.”
“But it’s quite impossible,” she gasped. “Quite. I’m not the kind of wife you want.”
“I’m the best judge of that, surely.”
“Oh no, you’re not. You’re no judge at all at this moment. You’re in love with me, and all you know just now is that you want me.”
“As my wife,” he said smoothly.
“Yes, I know, but you’re not thinking of the kind of wife I might be. You don’t know anything about me. Not a thing.”
“Oh, yes, I do. You forget my long conclave with Sidney Webb. I knew a tremendous amount about you before I ever met you. Inside information it was, too. I wish you could have heard Sidney’s unsolicited testimonial. I fell in love with you when I saw you in the shop. I’d been in love with you for weeks when I met Sidney. It isn’t many men who fall in love with an unknown girl and have a testimonial like Sidney’s presented to them about her. I decided then that I wanted to marry you. Now if you’re going to say no, just don’t. Say nothing, and think it over.”
“But you’ve got to understand. Thinking it over won’t alter anything. Won’t make it any more possible. We belong to two different worlds. I should be no good in yours. I don’t know how to entertain or run a big house, or any of the things you would expect your wife to know. It would be a dreadful failure.”
“Darling, you’re making difficulties. There’s no such thing as entertaining. You tell the housekeeper how many are coming, and when they come you say ‘How interesting!’ until they go, and that’s that.”
“But I don’t want that kind of life!” she cried. “I don’t understand it. I should have nothing in common with the people you know.”
“Sara,” he leaned over and caught her hand. “Sara,” he said seriously, “do you care for me at all? That’s what I want to know.”
“I care for you a great deal.”
“I—don’t know. I’ve never been awfully in love. But if what I feel for you is love then it is all I ever want.”
Chitterne sat a moment looking at her, gave a big sigh, and released her hand. “That’s all right then,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to know. I feel like a chap who’s been reprieved at the last moment.”
“But I can’t marry you, Chit. I can’t. It would be a hopeless failure.”
“Why? We’ve been very happy together, haven’t we? We were just made for each other, and you know it.”
“Yes, but if I married you there wouldn’t be just us. There would be other people to consider. It isn’t you I’m afraid of, Chit, it’s the life you lead. If I married you I should have to lead a life I don’t understand, a life I should probably be a failure in because I should hate it in my heart. When I marry I don’t want an establishment. I want a small home full of things I’ve bought myself, where one or two people drop in now and then because they want to see me not because they’re looking for a meal, and where I shouldn’t have to say ‘How interesting!’ when I’m not interested.” “And” she mentally added, “where I won’t be an interloper.” Unconsciously her almost morbid pride was bolstered by the memory of the lonely feeling of the afternoon. She was not going to be the skeleton in any family, much as she cared for Chit.
She sat listening to herself talking, and marvelled. Chit had asked her to marry him, and she was refusing! He had opened a way out of Seventeen for her, and she wasn’t taking it. Someone who wasn’t herself was doing the reasoning for her, but she knew that the other person was right, and so she sat still and let them talk. To-night in the attic at Seventeen she would probably call herself a fool, but she would have done the right thing.
“But we could have a home like that. We can have any kind of home you like!”
“That’s just it! It would be make-believe. Nothing can alter the fact that you’re rich and the heir to your father and that you know half London, and have nothing to do but amuse yourself. Think of your people and mine! Think of—oh, it’s impossible, I tell you!”
They argued long, but he could not move her from the belief that his marriage to her would be a failure. “You’d be disappointed in me, Chit, and I couldn’t bear that.”
“Well,” he said at length, “do what I said at first—though I said it for a different reason; I never thought you’d take this line! Think it over. There’s no need to decide yet. You’ll find presently that all the difficulties you are imagining are just shadows. As long as you don’t disapprove of me personally nothing in all the world matters.”
As they went out to the car he suggested that she should come to the celebration dinner that night, and meet some of his friends; but she could not come. There would be too many explanations at home.
“Why can’t I come and meet your people?” he asked reasonably. “Then there would be no need for mystery when we went out together.”
“Wouldn’t there! You don’t know father. Even if I was going to marry you father would expect me to be in by eight, and make a row if I was five minutes late.”
“But you are going to marry me,” he said, and kissed her for the first time. “Some day,” he amended as he let in the clutch. “I’m going to be like old Whatsisname and serve my seven years for you, if necessary.”
It was the beginning of November, and Ursula was giving a party. Lady Wilmington had gone to the country to assist in the organisation of a charity ball where everyone was going to be some kind of fish, and her husband had gone to earth in a remote part of the house with a bottle of port and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which, with the Daily Telegraph and the Pig Breeder, was his usual literary fare. The party was a more elaborate affair than Ursula’s usual entertainments, which had, even the most forethought of them, an air of informality, a charade-like spontaneity. This was what Ursula called a Coggins party; that is, one at which all the servants from Coggins downwards assisted, and the guests had the run of the house instead of being confined to Ursula’s flat. There was a definite programme of “turns,” and there would be dancing afterwards in the ball-room. Ursula “received” her guests instead of greeting their arrival with a gesture from the middle distance.
“Darling,” said Daphne, who had been in Cannes for a fortnight with a married sister, “you do it beautifully. I feel I ought to have a train. You might have borrowed some of your mother’s armour, though. That breastplate thing with the ruby lion on it would have been frightfully impressive. Oh, darling!” clutching Ursula’s arm as a memory struck her, “I almost forgot. Is it true?”
“On an odd chance I’d say not. But what are you talking about specially?”
“That Chit’s sold his horses?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But, darling, has he gone mad?”
“I don’t know. He talks about justifying his existence. He’s going to work.”
“Work!” shrieked Daphne. “What at?”
“He’s got a job on the Morning News.”
“Darling, you’re not serious.”
“Quite. And so is he, apparently.”
“But, darling, Chit doesn’t imagine that he’s going to turn out every day to a job of that sort, does he?”
“He does. He says he’s going to prove to himself that he can do it. He’s going to earn his bread for a change, he says.”
“But the Morning News! Why couldn’t he train horses or something like that, if he wanted a job.”
“He said that was no good. Said that would be just amusing himself. He wants to work at something that feels like work. Mother wept, and spoiled six-months-worth of face lifting in ten minutes. She wanted him to sell cars if he felt he must do something idiotic. Bobby said he’d be damned if he’d stand round all day in a lavender tie and hope, and she told him not to be wanton, and wept afresh. Father said: ‘Commendable. Very commendable,’ and ran away to his pigs in Berkshire.”
“Darling, you don’t sound very upset about it.”
“I’m not. Why should I be? It won’t do Chit any harm and will probably do him a lot of good.”
“But what’s at the bottom of it all? I think it’s simply ridiculous. He isn’t turning socialist, is he?”
“I haven’t seen any signs of it.”
“Then it’s a girl.”
“You’re growing positively astute, Daphne.”
“I suppose that she earns her living and he feels he has to show her that he can too.”
“Solomon, Cheiro, and Joanna Southcott rolled into one!”
“I do think you might have written and told me all about this when I was being bored stiff listening to Hermione complaining about her husband’s habits. Who is she?”
“I never can be bothered to write letters. I don’t know her name but she works in a dressmaking shop. You’ll see her to-night. Chit asked if he might bring her.”
“I hope I don’t die suddenly, or anything, before she comes. Are they engaged? I mean, do we bless them, or what?”
“Oh, goodness, no. She’s refused him, I think.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Daphne said mildly. It was beyond the bounds of possibility that anyone had refused Chit. “I must say you’ve got a damned dull crowd. What are all the bishops here for?”
There weren’t any bishops, but there were more august “names” in the party than Ursula usually bothered to collect. They were all friends of hers, but many of them were not the type of friend who can be rung up on the telephone at eight-thirty and asked to a party at nine.
“I want them to hear Gareth Ellis play. People have been talking about him ever since that rotten little charity concert of mother’s. I think if they hear him once again they’ll really begin to notice him.”
“Darling, you’re overdoing it. You’re not in love with the creature, are you? Why didn’t you get your mother to give a show for him? I know she gives ghastly shows, but it’s all the Ellis boy needs. How is he here to-night, anyhow? Has he left Regan already?”
“No, I’ve begged him off with Regan.”
Daphne said something unprintable.
“No, I just asked him nicely. How do you do, Herr Stüwe? So good of you to come! Yes, I know it isn’t often you go to anything so low as parties. But I hope you won’t be bored. I have one or two amusing things for you, and at least one interesting one. No, I won’t tell you. You’ll recognise it when it comes.”
It was when Gareth was playing that Chitterne and Sara arrived. As they came up the brightly lit, deserted stairs, she said nervously: “Why is everything so quiet?” Then, as they came to the wide-open double doors they heard the sound of the violin in the silence. They paused there, looking over the heads of the seated guests to the player.
“Why, it’s Gareth!” Sara said, and Chitterne turned to look at her, surprised.
“Didn’t you know?”
“No. You said once that your sister liked him, but I didn’t know that he was playing here to-night!”
“Secretive little devil.”
“Not really. I haven’t told him about you, you know. It’s just the usual family—in separate compartments.”
They ceased whispering and listened. Ursula could see them from where she sat, half way down the room, and felt a moment’s pleased surprise at sight of this girl of Chit’s, standing so still and aloof in the doorway. Ursula had been an assured beauty too long to cherish any pangs of jealousy at sight of another’s beauty, and she appreciated with the detachedness of a connoisseur the way Sara’s creamy skin contrasted with her dark hair, the poise of neck and head, the lines of her body under the beautifully cut, jewel-less, dull-red frock. But most of all she appreciated her air. Then she forgot her. Presently she would go over and be nice to her. Meanwhile nothing mattered but the fact that Gareth was playing.
Gareth was playing, as an encore, the thing that had sung itself in his head the night that Ursula had said she loved him. Ursula could not see Stüwe’s face from where she sat, but his head had not moved since Gareth began to play. Did that augur boredom or extreme attention? She knew now what anxious mothers went through when their brats were reciting “Casabianca” at school prize-givings. She would never be funny about them again.
Gareth’s last triumphant chord flung itself into the silence like a challenge, and as the clapping burst out she saw Stüwe get to his feet and plough his way through the throng of people and chairs, straight to Gareth. With a little happy sigh she turned away. It was all right, then: he had been interested. She could safely leave them alone for a little. If Stüwe wanted to talk to Gareth only God could prevent him, and all those enthusiastic females must wait. She went over to meet Chitterne.
“This is Sara,” Chitterne said, and Ursula made herself charming. She was so happy that she would have been charming to her worst enemy, and afterwards she never remembered what she had said, but Chit looked so pleased that she was sure she was saying the right thing. Afterwards she had an impression that Chit had tried to get a word in, to tell her something, but she had been too excited to listen. In any case it couldn’t have been important.
Then Tim Grierson came up and she went away to dance with him. Everyone was either dancing or eating (except Gareth and Stüwe, two black figures away in the distance, half-hidden by the grand piano); Ursula had calculated to a nicety how long they would sit still and yet be entertained. Now the younger crowd were foxtrotting in the ball-room, and the august were sampling the dishes at the buffet.
“I say, Ursula,” Tim said, as they danced, “do you think me an awful stick?”
“Of course not, darling! I think you’re adorable.” Tim sighed. “Why the sigh?”
“I know when you say it like that it doesn’t mean anything. Funny, isn’t it? that I shouldn’t like you to call me darling.”
“Just because I use it to other people!”
“No. Because I’ve noticed when you like a person abnormally you never call them darling. Calling a person darling nowadays seems to be the equivalent of an admission of antipathy.”
“What nonsense. I like you enormously, darling.”
“But not enough. I meant to ask you to marry me, to-night, but I knew it was no good as soon as I saw you.”
“Tim! You’re not becoming occult or anything, are you? It won’t do you any good in the army.”
“No; you see, when I came you looked so—so—radiant’s the word, and then when you spoke it was in the kind way you’d talk to your lap-dog.”
“If I had one. That’s one thing I’ve never done.”
“I knew then that it wasn’t me you were radiant about.”
There was a little silence, and then Ursula said in a gentler tone: “I don’t think I’m the marrying kind, Tim.”
“You don’t know till you try.”
“Like everything proverbial, that is just nonsense. People with any intelligence know most things before they try.”
“But even intelligent people must be surprised sometimes. I suppose you wouldn’t consider being engaged to me just to see what it felt like?”
“It wouldn’t be any good, Tim darling. We don’t laugh at the same things, and that would be fatal.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything. If you said a loud ha-ha in the wrong place I should probably murder you.”
“I shouldn’t mind.”
“Pale hands I loved, and all that sort of thing? No, Tim, really. It would be carrying a hobby to an excess to break off a fourth engagement, and that’s all that would come of our being engaged. Daphne said the other day that no man liked being treated like a ninepin, which was the way I treated them. What makes you so keen to be another ninepin!”
“You know very well.”
“Poor Timothy Andrew Grierson,” she said gently.
He looked a little surprised. “You’re more sympathetic to-night than I’ve ever known you.”
“Am I such a hard female?”
“No, not hard, but you’re always so—so sure of yourself.”
“I used to be,” she said reflectively.
Sara was dancing with Chitterne and praising his sister to him. “I expected she’d be cold but polite. The frozen mitt in the velvet glove, you know. But she was just everyday and nice.”
“Oh, no one can be ruder than Ursula when she wants to be, but she is never rude gratuitously. She asked you, you know.”
“I say,” Sara said presently, “perhaps you’d better not tell your sister that I’m Gareth’s sister, ‘m?”
“Why, in heaven’s name, not?”
“Well, you know, she’s been very nice to me, but she can’t really approve of me, and she does approve of Gareth. If she knew about me she might stop being nice to Gareth.”
“I don’t know that that would be a tragedy for anyone,” Chit said, a little dryly.
“But she might be very useful to Gareth just at the beginning of his career,” Sara said, not following his thought.
“You mercenary little wretch!”
“I wouldn’t like to spoil anything for Gareth,” she said earnestly.
“By this time he’s probably told Ursula all about you. He must have seen you.”
“He’s probably seen me, but I think he’ll say nothing in case he’s spoiling something for me. We’ve always hung together. He must be just as surprised to see me as I was to see him.”
“My head’s beginning to buzz,” Chitterne said. “The plot is thickening beyond all decency. Let’s have a cocktail.”
But Sara would not have a cocktail, even a mild one. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not very fond of cocktails.”
“Darling!” he said, smiling at her. “Then I’ll have one.”
“I haven’t had many so far.”
“Oh, Chit, you have!”
“Don’t you want me to have another one?”
“I don’t mind, if you really want one so badly.”
“I don’t suppose I do want it badly,” he said, reflectively. “Just habit. You’re reforming me, aren’t you!”
At the end of the third dance Ursula went back to the drawing-room to look for Gareth and Stüwe. They had surely had a sufficiently long tęte-ŕ-tęte. But they were not there.
“Have you seen Herr Stüwe, Coggins?” she asked.
“Herr Stüwe has gone, my lady.”
“Yes, my lady. He went some time ago, and Mr. Ellis with him. Mr. Ellis left this note for your ladyship.”
The “note” was a scrap of the lined, semi-transparent paper used in pocket diaries. On it in pencil Gareth had written: “Is he mad? Anyhow, I’m going quietly.”
Ursula laughed outright. “Coggins, I adore you!” she said, and pushed the tiny piece of paper down the bosom of her frock.
Coggins bowed accommodatingly, and Ursula went back to dance on air for the rest of the evening. She had looked forward like a child to dancing with Gareth, to having Gareth alone for a little after the party, but her disappointment didn’t matter if Stüwe felt like that about him. Nothing mattered but Gareth.
Sara let herself in with her mother’s latch-key. She had shown her mother Ursula’s invitation, and begged for her co-operation. She would have liked to tell her mother the whole truth; all about Chit, everything. But she knew that the mention of Chit would excite her mother’s alarm and produce a lecture about keeping her place, and no latch-key. So she let it be understood that Ursula was inviting her because she had seen her so often in the shop and wanted to give her some pleasure. Mary Ellis was touched that someone who was almost a stranger should have cared for her daughter sufficiently to invite her to her party, and sympathised with Sara’s eagerness to go, but she was no fool. She handled the invitation thoughtfully, and said: “You’re telling me the truth about this, Sara?”
Sara had said: “Certainly,” and thought: “It’s your own fault if I’ve left something out.” But she had been grateful and a little moved by her mother’s willingness in planning the evasions which were to make the party possible for her. Her father was to be left under the impression that she was in bed; she often went early to bed, where she could read in peace; and there would be no overt lies on her mother’s part. At ten o’clock she would say as usual: “Will you turn the latch in the door, Father?” And the latch would be turned by her unsuspecting parent and opened by Sara with her mother’s latch-key when she came home.
It was strange to be sneaking into her own home in the middle of the night. She had never done this before, and she found it pleasant and exciting. She understood the fascinations of burglary now. She wondered if her mother was lying awake listening for creaks on the stairs. But of course she was! She could not imagine her mother going to sleep when anything in the least out of the ordinary was happening to any of her children. She might be a strict mother, but she was terribly fond of all of them. It must have been difficult, all those years, torn between father and them. In the warmth of her gratitude Sara loved her mother consciously. As she crossed the hall and crept up the first flight of stairs, she remembered some of the many times when her mother had come to the rescue and lifted her out of the childish hells which her father had lit for her. There was the time when she had been chosen to dance at a drill display at school. She had had to have special shoes for it. But her father, although the shoes were called drill shoes in his hearing and not dance ones, had refused to produce the money for them. It was “unhealthy vanity,” “posturing with their bodies before the crowd,” “encouraging them to think more about their bodies than their souls”; and much more on the same theme. She was to tell her mistress that she couldn’t have the shoes, and that would be an end of it. Like many another sensitive child in a similar position, Sara had contemplated suicide. Even now, all those years after, she could feel the sick despair rush over her as if it were yesterday. But her mother had bought the shoes for her with money she had saved out of the housekeeping allowance, and Sara had danced, not quite as happily as she might have, perhaps (the glory had been smirched) but secure in the knowledge that her mother would shield her if her father heard about it. She had implicit faith in her mother.
She was climbing the stairs in the dark lest the light should shine below her parents’ door. They might think that it was Gareth, or Matt, but she didn’t want anyone coming out to investigate. She was still several steps from the landing when she heard her parents’ door open.
It opened gently, almost surreptitiously, and her first thought was that it was her mother slipping out to see that she was safe.
“It’s me, mum,” she whispered.
The light was switched on, dazzling her; and directly in front of her at the top of the stairs stood her father.
“I thought as much!” he said; and at the triumph in his silly, wheezing voice she realised that he had somehow suspected and had been lying awake all those hours, gloating over the prospect of her discomfiture. “I thought as much, my lady! Where have you been? Eh? Where have you been, and who were you with? Sneaking into a God-fearing house at this hour of the night! Answer me, where have you been?”
He was a ludicrous sight, standing there in his nightshirt, his spindly shanks bare, and the brown waisted overcoat he wore to business flaring jauntily from the apologetic and depressed folds of the under-garment. His skinny, chicken neck looked even more chicken-like without the whited wall of semi-clerical collar which fenced it in the daytime. Sara’s heart was beating fast with shock and involuntary surrender to her old childish terror of him. But her mind stood aloof, and marvelled that this scarecrow figure should have had the power to make six persons’ lives a misery all those years.
“What clothes are these you’ve got on? Eh? Where did you get these clothes? Where did you get the money to buy that sort of thing? What are you thinking of; a daughter of mine, parading herself in the raiment of the devil!” The sight of his daughter’s shining figure standing out against the drab, varnished wallpaper of the staircase seemed to madden him.
Sara clutched more tightly the sleeves of her tissue coat (the coat she had made with such love and joy) and clenched her teeth. Let him rave; she would not be drawn.
And rave he did, his voice growing higher and higher, his vocabulary becoming momentarily more biblical—and disgusting. At the sound of his raised voice her mother appeared, and tried to interfere in her defence, but she was greeted with a new tirade. Hadn’t he told her to stay where she was? Hadn’t he? He would have a talk with her presently. She was every bit as bad as this wanton here. Who had given the girl the key, eh? This was why she couldn’t produce it to-night! She was a traitor in the house, a traitor to her marriage vows. She was—
“Hush, Father, oh hush, please!” Mary said. “Mr. Dastur must be hearing every word. You’re shaming us all!”
“Shaming you! You should have thought of that before bringing shame on my house! Letting your daughter go out dressed like a street-woman. Traipsing about London when God-fearing folk are behind locked doors, and sneaking in like a thief with her guilt thick on her.”
His wife took hold of his arm. “Father, I know where Sara was, and it’s all quite harmless. I allowed her to go, and I shouldn’t have allowed her if it wasn’t harmless.”
He shook her off. “_You_ allowed her! What right have you to allow her to do anything, I’d like to know! I’m master in this house, and no one will indulge the flesh and consort with the devil while they live in my house!”
A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in Sara. He was really too ridiculous, gesticulating away there at the top of the stairs. “You’ve no idea how funny you look,” she said. “I wish you could see yourself.” She pointed a forefinger, unsteady with laughter, at his shirt tails.
He choked for a moment, words deserting him. Before Sara could move he had descended the steps between them. He clutched at the collar of her coat, and wrenched it down, exposing her bare arms and neck.
“You Jezebel! You wanton Jezebel!” His wheezy voice in its anger was like the scream of escaping steam. “Showing your body for any man to look at! Get out of my house this minute! Get out! And never let me see your face again. To think that I brought you up in the fear of God and you repay me by—by—Get out, I tell you, and never set foot in this house again!”
“I will, with the greatest willingness,” Sara said. Her hysteria had dropped from her at her father’s touch. She was trembling violently and struggling with a feeling of nausea.
“Alfred,” her mother said, and although she said the word quietly he turned to her. “Alfred, take care. If Sara goes, I go. There aren’t any babies to keep me now.”
He stared a moment. “Don’t be ridiculous! You have your duty to me. You’re my wife, and you’ll oblige me by keeping it in mind. You go back to bed where I told you to stay. I’ll talk to you presently.”
“I haven’t any duty to you if you order Sara out of the house because she has been to a harmless party that her mother knew about. You’re self-love is making you crazy, Alfred. I warn you I shall go with Sara if she goes.”
Sara felt someone behind her, and out of the dark pit of the ground floor came Gareth’s surprised pale face.
“What on earth’s all this about?”
“It’s only father receiving the returned jezebel,” Sara said.
Gareth slipped an arm round her waist and gave it a comforting squeeze. “You mean bully,” he said cheerfully, “can’t I take Sara to a party without you cutting up rough about it! We’ve stood a lot too much from you all those years, and this is about the limit. Now don’t say anything insulting to me, or I’ll just walk out. And if you try to thrash me it won’t be a thrashing but a free fight, and I know who’ll get the worst of it. I’m not fourteen now! You’ve had your own way a darn sight too long, and this is the finish, see?”
Alfred Ellis spluttered incoherencies, but they sounded more baffled than angry; and his eyes kept going uncertainly to his wife.
“I am surrounded with enemies in mine own house,” he finished, with a theatrical gesture of despair. “The Lord chastened me when he gave me children forward and deceiving. Why didn’t you tell me that you had been out with your brother, girl? Eh? Why?”
“Why should I? Let me pass. I’m going to bed, and in the morning I’ll see about getting rooms somewhere.”
“Oh, is it as bad as that?” Gareth said.
“Yes, he’s ordered me out.”
“I’ll come too,” Gareth said promptly. “Where shall we go? Hampstead’s rather nice.”
“When I told you to go I didn’t know you had been out with your brother. That makes a difference.”
“It may to you,” Sara said, as they passed, “but not to me. I’ve had more than enough of Seventeen.”
She paused to throw her arms round her mother’s neck and whisper: “Don’t worry, mum, we won’t go. But make it hot for him.” And she and Gareth climbed the flight to their attic, leaving their parents staring after them, their father still spluttering, their mother still and quiet except for her twisting hands.
“Somewhere where we can have a view of London might be nice, don’t you think? A bit far out after Camden Town, but it might be worth it. And with our combined screws we could manage quite a nice place.” Gareth kept it up until they were out of ear-shot.
At her door he stopped with a “whew!”
“Poor Sis!” he said, looking at her tired face, and added: “Isn’t he a swine!”
“There are times when I don’t think he’s quite sane,” she said uncertainly.
“Don’t you worry! No one who can make the money he makes selling groceries is anything but sane. You been out on the razzle? That’s something new for you!”
So he didn’t know that she had been at the Deanes’! She debated with herself for a moment whether to tell him everything or nothing. Years of bitter training in the advisability of telling the minimum made her decide to say nothing; to leave her relations with Chit and her knowledge of his friendship with Ursula a secret. If he wanted to tell her about Ursula’s taking him up he would tell her himself. She would not butt in where she was not wanted.
“Yes, Mum knew about it and let me have her key, and this is how it turned out. It was lovely, and he’s made it all beastly.”
“What can you expect? Look at the mess he makes of God! Are you feeling all right now? You don’t look very chippy.”
“Yes, I’m all right. You’re very happy to-night, aren’t you?” Perhaps he would tell her now.
“I’m sitting on top of the world, and terrified I’ll slide off,” he said. But that was all.
Sara, disappointed and a little wondering (Why shouldn’t he tell her?) said good night and turned to her room.
It was almost a week later that Sara began to suspect that Gareth’s happiness might have strange foundations. She had gone next door, to the Rayners’, with a remnant of silk which she had bought on Molly’s behalf. It was after dinner and Mrs. Rayner, foiled of her bridge by the defection of the schoolmistresses, was considering patterns of coats and wondering delightfully which would suit her best. She still thought of herself as slim, and found it difficult to discard a style she liked because she was “a little too plump for it.” Sara asked where Molly was.
“Up in her bedroom, I think. She’s always in her bedroom nowadays. Headaches, she says. When I was her age I never had headaches. What do you think of this for line? Rather nice, don’t you think? I like that flare there.”
“Yes, it’s nice. But I think you want something that gives you more height. Flares are very shortening.”
“Do you think?” She had great faith in Sara’s taste; Sara designed dresses for some of the best people in Britain. But that phrase about giving her height lingered unpleasantly in her ears. Automatically her mind flung out a sentence with a sting to it.
“We haven’t seen very much of your brother lately.”
“No, he’s kept on the go. Regan rehearses at all hours of the day. Even meals are nothing to him when he’s rehearsing. Gareth eats when he can, and we hardly see him at all.”
She knew this to be truth, but she also knew Mrs. Rayner; and she wondered at the back of her mind what the woman had meant to convey. She had never liked Gareth much—surely the only person in the world who didn’t!—and she had always passively disapproved of Molly’s engagement to him. (Mr. Ellis was in trade, and their religion was of a distinctly low brand; not much better than Hyde Park really.)
“I’ll go up to Molly’s room with the silk, then. I want to explain about the flaw in it. That’s why it’s so cheap.”
“A great bargain it seems, my dear. I only hope she’ll be able to get the width out of it without showing the flaw anywhere.”
Molly had the attic at the back of the house which corresponded with Gareth’s at Number Seventeen. In fact, in times of stress they had painfully communicated with each other by means of a home-made morse rapped out on the dividing wall with a hair brush. As Sara came to the door she heard something that sounded like the distant whine of a vacuum sweeper, and wondered that the housewife Molly should reverse the day’s proceedings so drastically. But as she paused by the door she realised that the sound was too small for anything like that. It was a human being crying.
Her first impulse was to go away at once. Sara hated being mixed up in emotions, either her own or another’s. Tears moved her not to pity but to embarrassment and exasperation. But there was something in the sound of the crying, an abandonment of despair, that kept her rooted to the spot. She could not go away without doing something. She retreated down the last flight of stairs, and came up again whistling “Leaning on my window” at the top of her breath and drumming with her feet on the stairs. “Mol-lie!” she called, and beat a tattoo on the door.
After a moment there was a muffled “Come in” and she breezed in with a bonhomie which she hoped Molly would be in no fit state to criticise; bonhomie was so definitely not her habit. “Well, I’ve got the stuff for you. I think it’s a huge bargain—five and eleven the yard. But there’s a small flaw at the end of the first yard that will have—I say, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” said Molly. She was sitting in a collapsed heap on the edge of her bed, and a hollow on the pillow showed where she had been lying. “At least, nothing to worry about. Only one of my beastly headaches.”
“I never knew you had any.”
“I hadn’t until just lately. They’re awful. ‘Spose I must go and see a doctor.” She avoided Sara’s eye. “Thanks awfully for getting me the silk. It looks lovely. It’s just what—”
“Look here, Molly, I don’t believe you’d howl your eyes red like that for a headache. What’s really wrong? I wish you’d tell me.”
There was a pause as if Molly was on the point of being frank, but she evidently decided against it. “There isn’t anything really. It’s only that I’m tired—I’m sick of this house and the work and everything, and I’ve got a blazing headache. That’s all.”
And from that point Sara could not move her. She went away very thoughtful. She had never associated Molly with strong emotions of any sort. She was such an equable person. That was why she was such an ideal partner for Gareth. When Gareth was up in the clouds Molly stood underneath to break his fall, and when Gareth was down in the depths she hauled him up, shook him, brushed him, and generally “set him to rights”. What could be worrying Molly to this extent? Gareth? But she had said that she had had no row with Gareth. So what explanation was left?
She went home marvelling, to help her mother as usual with the tea things. Several times she was on the point of asking her mother what could be wrong with Molly; her mother and Molly were closer in some ways than Molly and her own mother were. But each time the reluctance to interfere in other people’s business restrained her. As she stood working beside her mother, it occurred to her that her mother, too, was looking unhappy and weary. Father, probably, in her case. But it was a little distressing that when she herself was so happy because Chit loved her the other members of her family should seem so down on their luck.
“Why so gloomy, Mum?” she said. “Mrs. Marsden broken an egg-cup?”
But her mother did not smile. “I’m a bit worried,” she said; and then, as if she could no longer contain her trouble: “_terribly_ worried, Sara. And I don’t know where to turn for help.” She lifted her hands, dripping, out of the water and leaned against the sink in a helpless way that was new and alarming in Mary Ellis.
“What is it, Mum? Don’t worry. Is it money? I have heaps. I was saving for a frock I’ve decided not to have.”
“It isn’t money, dear. It’s Gareth.”
“Gareth! Good heavens, what’s wrong with him? I thought he was on top of the world!”
“Yes. Yes, in a way that’s what’s wrong. I was so glad when he took that job, so glad that he was happy about it. I was afraid he’d be miserable in it, and I was so glad, so relieved, when he seemed so pleased after all. I never thought, it never occurred to me at the time, that he might meet people who’d—who’d—turn his head.”
“Oh, Mother, what nonsense! Gareth is about the levellest-headed kid I know. Look at all the praise he got at the Academy, and all he ever cared about was sausages for tea!”
“I don’t mean that way. I mean—Oh, dearie, don’t you see! He’s met some girl there, and he’s just crazy about her. He hasn’t more than passed the time of day with Molly for more than a fortnight now. Not that he’s been nasty to her. Just avoiding her. He avoids me too. You and Gareth have always been such good friends that I wonder you don’t notice it. He’s avoiding you too.”
“But what is there to notice? What makes you think that?”
“I don’t think; I know. Twice the post’s brought a note from her. He couldn’t hide what he felt about it. He’s just a baby about things like that. He tried to pretend they were notes anyone might get, but he couldn’t do it. He isn’t happy either. Not really happy. He doesn’t sleep at nights—I wonder you don’t hear him pacing the floor. I expect he’s thinking about Molly.”
“Mother,” Sara begged, although the memory of Ursula was vivid in her mind (of course it was Ursula; no one could be within hail of her without falling in love with her) “aren’t you exaggerating? Aren’t you afraid of that happening, and so you exaggerate little things till you think that it must have happened?”
“Sara, dear, if you weren’t so wrapped up in yourself you’d have seen what was the matter long ago. Mollie going about looking like a ghost, and Gareth avoiding everyone and going about looking strung up the way he is!”
“Has Molly said anything?”
“No. We’ve been pretending to each other that there was nothing wrong. I was hoping, you see, that it might all come right without anything happening. Sometimes, before, I’ve worried myself nearly sick over things and then found that there was nothing to worry about at all.” She smiled, a little wanly. “When he was at the Academy, I remember, he took to shutting himself in his room for hours at a time, and I was very worried. He kept one of his drawers locked, too, and I imagined all sorts of things. And then one day he forgot to lock it, and I found a bottle of stuff for taking off freckles, and that was all, and I felt so relieved and foolish. But oh, Sara, this time I’m so afraid. I’ve had real trouble in plenty in my life, but I’ve never been so afraid of one as I am of this. Perhaps I’m growing too old to shake off things the way I used to. Everything seemed settled so nicely—just like a dream coming true; Gareth and Molly happy and all their lives in front of them. It was the one thing I felt I had achieved properly in my life, if you know what I mean. You haven’t been happy the way I’d like you to have been, and the other boys have been restless and looking for more than I could give them. But I gave Gareth what he wanted—his music—and he didn’t want anything else but Molly, and Molly was there for him, and I felt, somehow, that I’d justified my life because these two were happy. And now”—her voice shook and she finished almost in a whisper—”it all seems to be coming to pieces.”
Sara comforted her awkwardly. It was seldom that her self-contained mother sought help or consolation from her; and at the back of her mind was the certainty, the sickening certainty, that her mother was right. Gareth was in love with Ursula Deane. And, what was more important, and infinitely more dismaying, Ursula Deane was interested in him.
Sara went to bed and lay awake, thinking about Gareth. She lay awake the next night, too, having in the meantime talked to Gareth and learned all she wanted to know, and in the middle of the night she came to a decision.
It is not wise to come to a decision in the middle of the night. One’s decisions at that hour have a clarity, a quality of logic, which consorts ill with the daytime atmosphere of muddle and conventionality in which they are to be put to the test. But sometimes, once in a long while, one of these midnight decisions has luck in the testing.
Florence was explaining to Ursula why she would never desert her, and Ursula was tidying up the little lacquer secretaire in her bedroom. Florence was thinking of marrying one Ernest, who attended to the grosser wants of Captain Grierson, and she had been hoping (vainly) for some hint that there might be a combined establishment in the near future.
“Of course, I’d never leave you in the lurch, my lady. I don’t forget if it hadn’t been for you I’d still be in the scullery.”
“If it hadn’t been for your funny face, you mean. I could never have let it waste its cuteness on the kitchen air.”
She swept a heap of torn paper into the waste-paper basket.
“You like to put it like that, my lady, but I’m grateful all the same. It altered my life a whole lot when you sent me to be trained. Altered my whole life, it did.”
“Come, it wasn’t as drastic as that!”
“You don’t know, my lady,” Florence said darkly. “When I was in the scullery I was mad keen on the coalman that used to come from Robertses. Sort of engaged, we were. Just funny to look back on now, that is.”
“I suppose you don’t even see a coalman when you meet one nowadays.”
“Oh, it wasn’t just because I’d done well for myself. I’m not a snob, my lady, say what you like. It was mostly because I forgot all about him. just clean forgot him. Funny, isn’t it? I don’t even remember what colour his eyes were. And I used nearly to suffocate with my heart beating when I’d hear his boots on the area steps!”
Ursula paused with her hand over the waste-paper-basket, as if something had arrested her attention. Then she dropped the pieces in with an impatient movement.
“There’s someone prowling about in the sitting-room, Florence,” she said with unwonted testiness. “See who it is and don’t stand chattering there.”
It was Lady Wilmington.
“Hullo, darling. So glad to find you, I was afraid you might have gone out. Such a fine morning and you’re so energetic these days. I’ve had a letter from William, the dear creature.” She caught sight of herself in a mirror. “Heavens, what a face! Lend me your lipstick, darling. And I wanted to see you about it. Is yours carmine darling, I always forget? It’s an invitation. Florence, your cap isn’t on straight.”
“Would you mind beginning at the beginning again?” Ursula said mildly. “And leave Florence alone. She’s my maid, not yours, and I like the rakish way she wears her caps.”
“Well, well, my sweet. I only thought she might like to know. I should be grateful to anyone who told me I had a smut on my nose.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You’d hate them, like the rest of us. What about Uncle William?”
“He’s taking the yacht to the eastern Mediterranean for the winter and he wants us both to go.”
“Company, of course.”
“Well, father bores me sometimes, but his brother bores me all the time.”
“Oh, darling, William is a sweet thing!”
“You’re going, I see.”
“Well, my dear, it would be nice. You know, it will be almost like doing a rest cure, and much less expensive. It might even save me a face-lifting. I should most certainly need one before May if I spent the winter in town. Besides, I think we should be nice to William. I always think it must have been such a disappointment to him when your father got better that time. He’s a nice thing, William. I’m very fond of him. Don’t you think it would be nice for you to have a month or two in the Aegean Islands, darling?”
“I’d as soon go to St. Kilda.”
“But you won’t be vegetating, darling. There are all those fascinating risky places to go to along the coast.”
“I’ve been. They’re about as fascinating as porridge. Besides, I’m going for a voyage on my own.”
“Down the river to Greenwich and back. It costs ninepence, I believe.”
“Don’t be silly, darling. You won’t be bored on the Foreland, I promise you. There’s quite an amusing party, on the whole.”
“Party? This is the first I’ve heard of a party.”
“Darling, they’d need someone aboard if it was only for ballast.”
“And who are the ballast?”
“There’s Lilian Muncaster, Babs Buckley, Teddy Lunn, and George Osborne.”
“And—? You’ve left it an odd number.”
“Oh, there’s young Torbridge.”
There was an expressive silence.
“He isn’t nearly as idiotic as he looks, darling,” Lady Wilmington said pleadingly.
“I wondered why you showed such an unusual eagerness for my company!”
“And Torbridge Abbey really is a wonderful place.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Mother.”
“I don’t want to seem brutal, darling, but it is time you showed some signs of settling down. All these engagements aren’t doing you any good. People are beginning to look askance. And you know there wasn’t anything really wrong with Bonjie!”
“When I think of Bonjie now,” Ursula said slowly, “I get sick at the stomach.”
“Darling, don’t be so coarse. It’s just that you’re hard to please. You ask too much of people. And Torbridge is a very nice boy, if not very bright.”
“Thank Uncle William for me but tell him that nothing—_nothing_—would induce me to leave town this winter.”
“Darling, aren’t you ever going to settle down?”
“Dying to be rid of me? Well, I’m seriously thinking of it.”
“But I warn you, when I settle down I may settle with a bump.”
“Darling, I expect that means you have something dreadful up your sleeve. But I suppose you’ll go your own way whatever I say. I only hope it isn’t an organ-grinder, or something like that. It’s bad enough to have one of my children trying to break my heart, without having the other doing it too. You know, I think if Chitterne hadn’t gone to Fleet Street he wouldn’t have got all those stupid ideas of equality. The Press is riddled with socialism, just riddled. I expect it’s having to work at nights. If Chitterne wanted to work he should have taken a farm and worked like a gentleman.”
“I think Fleet Street is doing him a lot of good. Besides, he wants to make his own living, and there’s no money in farming nowadays.”
“No money in farming! What nonsense! I met a man at dinner the other night who had sold his to a golf-club for thirty thousand. What are you laughing at? Darling, I hope you won’t do anything scandalous while I am away.”
“That would be the best time to do it, surely. When are you going?”
“The end of next week, I think. Do you think I look better in navy blue or grey? I must get a couple of coats and skirts.”
“As long as you don’t wear a yachting cap I’m sure you’ll look all right in either.”
“Darling, you know I never wear a yachting cap! So ageing! never forget Janet Goddridge at Cowes last year. Such a sight. It must have been the chauffeur’s. The cap, I mean. I’ll have them both navy blue, I think. The coats and skirts, I mean. It shows up the skin best. Au revoir, darling. I think it’s scandalously mean of you not to give young Torbridge a chance.”
When she had gone Florence returned, furtively assuring herself that her cap was straight, to say that there was a young lady from Laurier’s waiting in the sitting-room with patterns for the blouse part of the cinnamon suit.
“All right. Tell her I’ll be in in a minute,” said Ursula, who had come across Stüwe’s note, written on the night of the party, and was smiling over it again. It was an atrociously written document, executed on cheap hotel notepaper, and liberally sprinkled with German letters among the English. He thanked his dear lady for the surprise, which had indeed been a good one. The little boy could play not too badly at all. It did not take the skin off one’s soul to listen to him, and that could not be said for many people. Presently, when he had worked harder, he might even be a little good. But that was immaterial. He would never be a master.
What was important was that he could compose music that was his own and no one else’s. He was quite original and did not know it, and as such his price was above rubies. “I have talked to him long in my room here. I go back to Germany to-morrow and I have wanted to take him with me, but he is horrified at the thought of leaving London. You English! I do not know how you have conquered the world!”
She folded up the untidy scrawl, and locked it away in one of the pigeon-holes. Then she went through to the sitting-room to consider the question of the cinnamon suit. Perhaps it had been a mistake to have the cinnamon? Cinnamon was so—
“Good morning. I hope you have brought every possible pattern? I want the blouse part to match the—Hul-lo!” She stopped, staring at Sara. “It’s you! How funny! Are you at Laurier’s then? How is it I’ve never run across you?”
“I’m in the workroom mostly, you see. I cut and design. I don’t usually see customers in front. And when you come, Madame usually does the fitting herself. But to-day I asked Madame if I might see you myself about the stuff for the suit. I wanted to speak to you, and I thought that this would be a good way of seeing you without everyone knowing.”
“I see. I’m glad you came. I was hoping you’d come to tea with me one day, so that we might get to know each other better.”
“That’s awfully nice of you.” Sara appeared awkward and ill at ease. “Will you settle about the stuff before I talk to you?”
“You sound very serious. Chit hasn’t been running amok, has he?”
“Oh, no. Chit’s all right.”
“Is something else the matter, then?”
“Will you decide about the material first? You see, I’m supposed to be on business.”
They discussed the patterns which she had brought, and after a little argument Sara persuaded her to take the one which she (Sara) thought would look best in the end.
“Well, that’s that. Do sit down. Will you have a cocktail or something?”
Sara said no, that she felt braver without.
“Brave! What do you want bucking up about?”
“You see, I’ve come to talk about Gareth.”
“Yes. I’m Gareth’s sister.”
“_You_ are.” The antagonism which had shown itself on Ursula’s face at the mention of Gareth’s name faded into delight. “What a funny world! My dear, how nice. But why on earth didn’t you tell me before? Why hasn’t Chit told me? Didn’t he know? But he must have known!”
“Yes, Chit knew, of course. He wanted to tell you, but I asked him not to. You see, I knew you wouldn’t approve very much of me, and I was afraid that if you knew Gareth was my brother you might stop taking an interest in him and being nice to him. I thought that you could do such a lot for Gareth if you were interested in him, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for him.”
“Is that all! Well, you did me two injustices. I don’t disapprove of you. I think Chit is nearly as lucky as he thinks he is, and a lot more than he deserves to be. And in the second place it would take more than a sister to make me drop Gareth. If that’s all that’s worrying you, cheer up, and come to tea with me next Saturday.”
“But that’s not it. That’s not it at all,” Sara said, distressed. “It’s something quite different. When I first found out that Gareth knew you I thought you were just taking him up because you admired his playing. He does play well, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Then I found that you were—well, that you were seriously interested in him.”
“That I was in love with him, in fact.”
“Yes, and that he’s in love with you.”
“Well, what difference does that make?”
“It makes this difference; that before, you were helping him, and now you’re ruining him.”
“Ruining? What do you mean?”
“Just what I say. You’re taking away everything he has and giving him nothing worth while in return.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. My dear Sara! I can do more for Gareth than he ever dreamed of achieving. I can make him famous.”
“And then what?”
“What do you mean?”
“What will you do with him when he is famous?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You know quite well that nothing interests you for long. You know quite well that Gareth is just another affaire to you. What is going to become of him when you are tired of him? You’ll have taken away the things that make him happy now, you’ll have made him like things he can’t go on having, he’ll be all alone when you’ve finished with him. What good will it be to him then that a few hundred people know his name?”
“It is you who don’t understand. I’m not having an affaire, as you call it, with Gareth. I love him.”
“So does Molly.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Ursula lightly, but disconcerted.
“Molly would have made him happy all his life. She knows him and understands him. And you’re taking Molly away from him. What do you think you can do for him that will make up for that?”
“Surely I can do all that Molly could for him, and much more!”
“When you talk about doing things for him you think only of things like pushing him on the world, and making love, and things like that. Things you like doing yourself. Would you do things you didn’t like for him, that’s the question. Would you put up with his tantrums? You haven’t seen Gareth in a tantrum yet, have you?”
“Well, Gareth’s a darling, but he’s no angel. When he came in tired and touchy and said something silly that he didn’t mean in the least, you’d just walk away somewhere and enjoy yourself and leave him to it.”
“And very good for him, too.”
“No, it wouldn’t. He would just get miserable and discouraged and angry with himself and all the world. Molly wouldn’t walk away. She’d cook his supper and josh him out of it inside ten minutes. She’d make him happy, I tell you. And keep him happy. They were just made for each other.”
“I expect that is why he fell in love with me. Preordained things are apt to be dull.”
“He fell in love with you because you dazzled him. He hadn’t met anyone like you before.”
“Then it was wonderful luck for both of us. Much better than preordination.”
“You’re making fun of it! You can’t care for him if you can make fun of it.”
“I should have thought that it was the other way about. One is only serious when the thing doesn’t matter.”
“But that is nonsense! You are just trying to put me off. But I’m not going to be put off. It isn’t a thing to be flippant about. It’s Gareth’s whole future.”
“To my mind Gareth’s future never looked as rosy as it does at the moment. If it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me when I met Gareth, I don’t think I flatter myself unduly in believing that it was also the luckiest thing that happened to Gareth. Would you prefer that he spent his life struggling to get dance engagements and things like that, when he might be living in comfort, able to go anywhere and do anything that he wants to? Do you want to have him bowing all his life to a few fat women who have stopped eating long enough to applaud his rendering of ‘O Sole Mio’? What good would it be that he was comfortable in the evenings if all day he had to keep doing things he hated?”
“But he wouldn’t hate it as much as that! Gareth doesn’t hate anything very strenuously. The things that make him miserable are not the things he has to do, but the things people do to him. If he was happy at home he would be happy almost whatever he had to do.”
“And with me he will be happy on both counts.”
“For a little. He would be deliriously happy for a little, I don’t doubt that. It would be like heaven on earth. But think of the awful crash afterwards. You wouldn’t be interested in him once you were tired of him. You know you wouldn’t! You’ll wonder what you saw in him. You’ll probably think him childish, and—and common. You’ll be a little sorry for him, but you’ll want to forget him as soon as possible. And then what?”
“Do you always think so far ahead when you are planning your own existence? It must be rather exhausting.”
“I don’t think I plan mine at all. It just happens.”
“And wouldn’t you feel rather resentful if someone stepped in and tried to alter your life behind your back, as it were? That is what you are doing to Gareth?”
“Do you think I haven’t been nearly crazy with thinking before I brought myself to the point of coming here like this? Do you think I wanted to come! I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I loathe meddling in other people’s affairs. I tried all sorts of excuses with myself to get out of it. But somehow I had to come. If I didn’t there was no one else. I thought that at least I’d put it openly to you and show you what you’re doing. You probably never gave it a moment’s thought. Someone had to explain things to you, and there was only me.”
“Don’t you think Gareth can take care of himself? He isn’t a piece of merchandise to be bargained for. You’re treating him as if he were a fool.”
“No, he’s no fool. But he’s impressionable. You encouraged him, and you could discourage him.”
Ursula stared. “Are you suggesting that I should give him up?”
“Yes, that is what I’m suggesting.” Sara gripped the arms of her chair until the knuckles showed white.
“Then you’re wasting your time.”
“I knew you didn’t love him!”
“Not love him!”
“No. You’re in love with him, and you just grab what you want whether it’s going to destroy him or not.”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.”
“If you loved him what would matter to you would be his happiness, not yours.”
“But I tell you, I can make him happy.”
“For how long? For how long?”
Ursula lifted a shoulder. “Who knows? How long does any love last? As long as that.”
“You see! You know it won’t last! You know it yourself!”
“My dear girl, you didn’t expect me to say ‘for ever and ever,’ like a child, did you? Who can say how long they will love anything or anyone? I don’t think it’s any use prolonging this discussion, do you? Gareth and I are in love with each other, and we’re both happy beyond words, and I don’t see what you expect to gain from upsetting our happiness.”
“I want to keep you both from making an awful mistake. I want to keep you from ruining Gareth’s life. Don’t you see how urgent it is! If he gives up Molly he’ll be giving up something that he’ll never get back. And nothing that you can give him will take the place of it. Molly won’t sit and wait for him to come back, you know. She isn’t that sort. She’ll marry someone else inside six months just to make believe she doesn’t mind. Then when you’re tired of him and he wakens up there’ll be no one. He’ll have lost the thing he depended most on. You’ll go on to something else, but what will he do?”
“Go on to something else too, I expect. I shouldn’t worry, if I were you. It’s all so far in the future. I’ve never understood people who spend their lives saving for their funerals.”
“Look here,” Sara said, “I know you don’t want me to marry Chit, even though you were nice about it. Well, if you give up Gareth, I’ll give up Chit.” She noticed Ursula’s astonishment. “You don’t believe me? I’ll give you my word on oath that if you let Gareth go I’ll never see Chit again.”
“You talk as if I were hanging on to him!”
“But he’s in love with me.”
“Yes, but you could stop it. You must know how to disillusion people when you’re tired of them. It will hurt him a bit, but not as much as it would later on. If you do it quick he’ll still have Molly.”
Ursula gave a short, hard laugh, and sat still, considering her. “You know, you’re almost incredible. You come here with the most amazing proposition just as if you were asking two sixpenny-pieces for a shilling.”
“You think it cheek, my coming here.”
“Ill-considered, shall we say,” Ursula said after a pause.
“But I’m terribly fond of Gareth. I couldn’t bear for him to be unhappy. I’ve told you, I’ll even give up Chit if it would persuade you—”
“But do you realise what you are asking me to do? I care for Gareth more than I’ve ever cared for anyone—more than I ever thought I could care. Do you think I’m going to give him up just because you have an idea that someone else would be better for him?”
“No, not because I have an idea. I thought I might be able to make you see for yourself that it would be better. If you loved him the way you say you do, you would see.”
Ursula swung forward suddenly so that her elbows rested on her knees, her cynical attitude gone. “But I do love him, Sara. Don’t misunderstand about that. He’s a whole new world to me, a whole new possibility of existence. Something I never hoped for. I’m not just playing with him. He matters to me tremendously.”
“Yes,” Sara said slowly, after scanning her, “I think you do love him. But not enough to give him up.”
Ursula sat back again, and there was a little silence.
“You’ve never given up anything in your life, have you?” Sara said.
“Only fats and carbo-hydrates.”
“And you’ve never listened to anyone’s advice, have you?”
“Oh, yes—but never acted on it that I can remember.”
“I don’t know how to appeal to you!” Sara cried, desperately. “I don’t know what matters to you. I thought that if I offered to give up Chit, that would—that would—”
“But I don’t want you to give up Chit! I think you will be just as good for Chit as you think I shall be bad for Gareth. As a bribe that was no good. As a guarantee of good faith it was rather more valuable.”
“What can I say? Won’t you believe that I know best this once? It matters so terribly.”
Her voice shook and she reached for a handkerchief. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here and making a scene if it hadn’t been so terribly important.” She wiped her eyes hastily and surreptitiously. “I’m sorry to be such a fool, but it took such a lot of courage to come, and it all seems no use.”
“You know,” Ursula said, “considering the way you’ve pitched into me this morning, it’s amazing how I like you.”
“Like me!” Sara said drearily. “What’s the good of your liking me if I can’t persuade you—if I can’t make you see—” She twisted round abruptly in her chair and began to cry silently into her handkerchief, utterly unnerved.
Ursula watched her for a moment or two with a curious pity when she rose and crossed to the cocktail cabinet.
“I think you had better have a cocktail after all,” she said.
As she mixed the cocktail she saw in front of her, as one sees, after staring at a bright thing, its image in front of one wherever one looks, that untidy scribble of Stüwe’s. And somehow that sheet of paper was no longer a charm but an accusation. In her heart was a horrible feeling, half guilt, half terror. How much of what that girl said was true? She was hanging on to him, wasn’t she? No! what nonsense! She could give him a whole world of happiness and success. She could make his very dreams come true. But—some day she would no longer love him (Robert Deane’s grand-daughter had always faced facts) and when that incredible, inevitable moment came, what—as that girl said—would happen? Would this incipient guilty feeling have grown so large that it would shout at her? Would she really have destroyed him with her love like some melodramatic Circe? But she would have given him a career! With her position and her money he could—She saw Stüwe’s note again. Gareth didn’t need her influence and her money. She was making that an excuse. Now that Stüwe knew about him Gareth could rise by himself. She had given him that, but could she in the future ever do anything so vital for him again? Gareth’s future was with Stüwe. And that being so, her only excuse for hanging on to him was that. But surely that was justification enough. Oh, surely, surely, that was justification enough! But—if she was to be justified she must bring something; not just grab. Was what she could bring of as much worth as that Molly girl—damn her soul—could give him? Was it? Why did she feel guilty? She had gone out of her way to meet him, certainly, but she wasn’t a cradle-snatcher. Gareth was only two years younger than she was, wasn’t he? And they loved each other. A spasm of impatience shook her. What was she worrying about? What was the matter with her that she should be examining her conscience like a penitent! Why should she, Ursula Deane, who had the princes of the world at her feet, fret over the possible hurt of a little fiddler? But the fiddler was Gareth—_Gareth_. And if any harm came to Gareth through her—Oh, God, what a muddle one got into when one fell in love!
She brought the cocktail over to Sara, and stood over her for a moment, compassionately. “Don’t cry, Sara. It is I who should be crying.”
“Because in my heart of hearts I’m afraid you’re right.”
“What! Are you—? Do you—?”
“Here! Drink this.”
“But do you mean—?”
“Be quiet, and drink this.”
“I don’t much like cocktails.”
Sara blew her nose vigorously and took the cocktail.
“Go on, drink it.”
“Is it all right?” Sara asked, doubtfully. “I’ve got to go back to Brook Street, you know.”
“Oh, it’s quite a mild one.”
Sara sipped it gingerly, her stained eyes searching Ursula’s face with a pathetic hope.
“Were you ever scared stiff?” Ursula asked.
“So scared that your inside was a jelly?”
“Yes, I know the feeling.”
“That’s what I am now.”
“You! Afraid! What of?”
“That I’m going to do the right thing. Such an unheard-of thing to do!”
“You’ll never regret it if you do, never!” Sara said passionately.
“Oh, yes, I shall. That’s what’s so awful about doing the right thing. It hurts like hell at the time, and ever afterwards you think what a fool you were. You have one moment’s clear vision, and it leads you up the garden.”
“But you have the consolation of knowing that you did the decent thing!”
“The martyr’s crown? It isn’t a headgear I ever aspired to.”
“Wouldn’t even the knowledge that Gareth was happy, and that you’d done that for him, make you—”
“_Gareth_ happy!” Ursula burst out. “But we were going to be so happy together! Why did you come and spoil it all with doubts and jeremiads?”
“I came because I couldn’t help it. I hated coming. Hated it.”
“I wonder if Gareth would do as much for you as you were prepared to do for him?” Ursula said, her anger gone.
“Oh, no. But then, men don’t.”
“You’re not much of a modern woman, are you?”
“I would have been with Chit, but somehow Gareth is more like my son than my brother.”
“Why do you say ‘would have been’ about Chit?” Ursula said sharply.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking,” Sara said confused.
“You’re not going to leave Chit in the lurch, are you?”
“I don’t know…Oh, I don’t know! It’s all such a mess.”
“I don’t see much mess about it, except for me. The idea is that I freeze Gareth off, you marry Chit, I continue my rackety career, and everyone is happy. Quite simple.”
“It sounds so brutal when you put it like that.”
“It is brutal.”
“Then you won’t do it?”
“Oh, yes, I think I shall. I might as well try a halo on for once. But don’t imagine it is going to make any difference to your contract with Chit. I have a brother, too. I may not feel like a mother to him, but I quite like the creature.”
“But you know, you’ll hate me after this. And—oh, the situation would be awful impossible.”
“You’ll have to get used to impossible situations in this family. You’ve created this one, anyhow, so you’ll have to put up with it. Is that understood?”
“You know,” Sara said, with an hysterical catch in her throat, “when I came in here I was going to promise to give up Chit, and now you’re asking me to promise that I won’t!”
“And do you?”
“It’s going to be all right about Gareth, isn’t it?” Sara asked hesitating.
“All right for Gareth, you mean. Yes.”
“Then I promise. You can hate me as much as you like.”
“I probably shan’t as much as that,” Ursula said, dryly. “But look here, Sara, I can’t do it all of a sudden. That’s more than even a first-class martyr should be asked to do, and I’m the merest amateur. I must have time. Do you think you can keep the paragon Molly from getting herself engaged to anyone else for the next three weeks or so?”
“You’re a darling to do it when you feel like that about it,” Sara said, her gratitude overcoming her.
“Yes, aren’t I? I hope Gareth is worth it.”
“I know now why Gareth fell in love with you. It wasn’t just because you’re beautiful. You’re—different.”
“Thank you. I expect gratitude is affecting your retina, though.”
“I never dared to hope that I’d be able to persuade you, and I thought I’d be off my head with joy if I did. But I just feel—miserable at the mess.”
“Well, as a nation we take our pleasures sadly.”
“I wish you didn’t have to hate me like that. But I’ve earned it.”
“I’ve told you, I rather like you. But at the moment I hate the whole world, and you’re unfortunately included.”
“Then I’ll go. But I wish there was something big that I could do for you in return.”
“You can make Bobby a good wife, and keep him up to the collar.”
“That won’t be difficult. I’d like to do something that—”
There was a knock at the door, and in answer to Ursula’s invitation Daphne Conyers-Munford appeared. Ursula had a spasm of relief that Sara was standing with her back to the light, so that her face was in shadow.
“Hullo, darling,” Daphne said. “Busy?”
“Not too busy to listen to the latest scandal.”
“Darling, I wish I was sure you meant that nicely!”
“Have you met Chit’s fiancée?”
“Yes, we met at that party of Ursula’s, didn’t we?” Daphne said, shaking hands. “Let me see, your name’s—don’t tell me!—Rachel.”
“I knew it was something Biblical. Something nicely Biblical, I mean. Not Sapphira, or anything like that.”
“Well, I must get back to the workroom with these patterns, I suppose,” Sara said, anxious to get away.
“Sara’s making a suit for me. She’s just bullied me into taking the stuff I like least.”
“Congratulations, darling. No one in history has ever done that to Ursula before. Do you make clothes, then? I wish you’d have a look at my nile green frock and tell me why I look like a radish in it! I paid Jane Barr twenty-five guineas for it—at least, I owe Jane that for it—and I hate the thing.”
Sara said that she would be delighted, and took her leave. As she said good-bye to Ursula, she said: “I don’t think you’ll ever regret your decision. Good-bye and thank you.”
“I hope you’re right. Don’t forget to tell Madame that I want the suit by the end of the week.”
“I won’t. And it will be the loveliest thing you ever wore.”
“That will be a great consolation,” Ursula said, and Sara, hastily powdering her nose on the landing before facing Coggins, ached for her. It must be dreadful not to be able to have a good howl on the rare occasions when one wanted to and needed one. Ursula would have to be polite to the Mumford girl now until the Munford girl moved on somewhere. And then there would probably be someone else. It wasn’t much good having money if you couldn’t cry in peace when you wanted to.
“Is the affair settled, then?” Daphne asked, when the door had shut behind Sara.
“Oh, yes; she’s going to marry Chit.”
“You don’t seem to be particularly distressed.”
“I’m not. He might have married Betty Crawley.”
“And what would have been wrong with that? She belongs to the crowd, anyhow.”
“Yes, and she is as promiscuous as a cat. I don’t want Bobby to be a cuckold as soon as he’s a groom. That girl’s decent, and Chit’s decent. There’s more Deane than Delaunay in him. They’ll make a good couple—happy and clean-living.”
“Darling, you say the queerest things these days!”
“I expect I’m due for a change of air. I’ve been nearly two months in the one place.”
“Well, I don’t see why your needing a change of air should make you deliberately cruel. You leave that thing open,” she indicated the cocktail cabinet “and never as much as say have one.”
“I never knew you waited to be asked.”
“Perhaps I’m reforming too.”
“Yes, aren’t you reforming?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Well, all this preoccupation with the more noble attributes of the human soul—”
“Oh, that’s just natural curiosity about other people’s belongings.”
“Darling, you really are—! I don’t mind a rake—thank you, darling—but a morbid rake is really—!” She made a face at her cocktail. “It’s a horribly mild one, darling. I can hardly taste it.”
“I made it for Sara.”
Daphne sighed. “And coming along the street I was hoping for a Gunner’s Joy.”
“I was afraid you hadn’t come to see me for love!”
There was a tap at the door and Chitterne put his head in. “I say, Ursula, what was the name of the stuff the Sidgwick woman was wearing the other night? Oh, hullo, Daphne.”
“Hullo, darling. I’ve hardly seen you since you blossomed into a Press baron. D’you know, since you’ve been a gossip person you’ve never once mentioned me on your page.”
“You shouldn’t be so unmentionable.”
“Darling, nothing’s unmentionable nowadays. In print, anyhow. You mightn’t get a licence to perform me, but there’s nothing to hinder your printing me.”
“Well, I might give you a word one of these days. What would you like it to be about? Your dresses, your debts, or your devotés?”
“You can say that Cochran has asked me to be the Elaine in his Maid of Astolat.”
“I say! Has he?”
“No, but it might put the idea into his head. I’m just the type, and I could do with some money.”
“I’ll say you’re the best little gold-digger in Britain. I say, Ursula, what was that stuff called, white stuff that looked as if she had spilt the champagne down it?”
“I think Lucile calls it peau de lys.”
“How do you spell it?” Chit asked, taking out his notebook. “I wish they had taught me French at Harrow.”
“Why are you giving the Sidgwick woman a par?” Daphne asked. “She’s of no importance to anyone.”
“No, but she gave the paper some information a week or two ago, and this is a sort of quid pro quo. That’s journalism.”
“Do you like it, darling?”
“Once you get used to the rules it’s fascinating.”
“Yes, once you don’t expect the rules to be the same as cricket. I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed anything so much. And I’m a success, mark you. I’ve only been ticked off twice in the past week. Everyone is ticked off once a day on principle.”
Daphne snorted. “That’s merely because you’re a lord, darling. You needn’t apportion yourself any credit for that.”
“Being a lord in our office is a liability not an asset. I’m engaged in living it down. Excelsior, and all that. Thanks awfully, Ursula. I don’t know what my budding career would be without you. Further application will be made in due course. ‘Voir.”
“If I can’t have quality could I have quantity?” Daphne said, holding out her empty glass.
“He seems very pleased with himself. Perfectly ridiculous, of course, doing a man out of a job so that he can save his highly problematical soul. I forgot to congratulate him, by the way, but it will keep. What is Sara’s other name?”
“Ellis! No relation of your present follower, I suppose?”
“She’s Gareth’s sister.”
“No! My dear! How—complicating!”
“I don’t see why.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Rather cramps one’s style to have holy matrimony sitting heavily at one’s right hand, I should think.”
“But Gareth and I—” Ursula began, and remembered. “Oh, shut up, Daphne!”
“Talking of holy matrimony, Clive proposed to me yesterday.”
“And what did you say?”
“Mentally I said: ‘Good Lord deliver us’. Actually, I said the modern equivalent of ‘This is so sudden, George!’ Whereupon Clive said (she mimicked Clive’s heavy manner): It is a serious matter, Daphne. I don’t want to hurry you’.”
“Poor Clive? Poor me, you mean!”
“Are you going to marry him, then?”
“Well, Jane Barr was simply beastly about that bill. I’ll have to do something.”
“Couldn’t you cut down expenses?” Ursula said; while her mind said: “Don’t imagine that you can cover it up by talking about footling things; you’re going to get rid of Gareth, you’re going to choke him off!”
“That would be drastic, but not so drastic as marrying Clive.”
“My dear, I can’t. I’ve tried that often. I never save a half-crown but I celebrate the occasion by spending it. Clive is the only solution. It will be such a relief to be able to gold-dig legitimately.”
“You’ll have to blast it out of Clive.”
“Yes, he is a little tight. But with the blessing of the church I think I can manage it. Besides, he is besotted about me—as far as anything like the Nelson Column can be besotted.”
“If I didn’t think your ‘Poor Clive!’ was more contempt than pity, I should be angry with you. Clive is getting a very good bargain.”
“As long, as you keep him in that belief all will be well.”
“Oh, I’ll make it worth his while.”
“If you feel like that why didn’t you accept him on the spot?”
“Darling, would you accept anyone on the spot? Besides, at that moment, Jane’s bill didn’t look nearly as bad as Clive’s stupidity. I’m going to have a frightful time restraining myself from slapping Clive.”
“Never mind. Jane makes such delicious sleeves that they’ll keep your arms in the proper place, I expect.”
Daphne made a face at her. “At any rate, I shall be safe from one wrecker of marriages—disillusion. I know the worst about Clive.”
“But is it mutual?”
“Oh, I expect so. Since people stopped having inhibitions everyone knows everything about everyone. I don’t suppose Clive imagines I’m a plaster saint. And he was there the day Freddy Owen pulled me out of the river, so he knows what I look like in the mornings.”
“Well, my dear, if you’ve made up your mind, good luck to you!”
“And God help Clive, I suppose you mean!”
“Oh, God will do that in any case. He likes stupid people. It should be: whom the gods love are born stupid. Never to see round a corner, or two sides to a question. The comfort of it! The peace of it!”
“If it’s comfort you’re pining for, you must be ageing.”
“I’m not so much getting aged as educated.”
“Mr. Ellis is here, my lady,” Florence’s voice said behind her. “Shall I send him up?”
There was an instant’s silence which seemed to Ursula minute-long. It was as if a catastrophe which would ordinarily happen in a few seconds postponed its climax so that she could realise the imminence of disaster without any hope of preventing it. She felt as if she were standing below a cliff, and was watching it turn over, and knew that in a moment that slowly curving wall would obliterate her for ever.
“Oh, no. I can’t!” she heard herself say. “Tell him that I can’t see him till this evening.”
She knew that it was a strange, abrupt message to send to Gareth, but she could not think properly. All she knew was that she must avoid a meeting with Gareth until she had grown a little used to the situation, until she had conned her part.
“Gareth’s charms wearing thin already?” Daphne asked, amused.
“A little, perhaps,” Ursula said, her voice hard with effort.
She saw Daphne’s eyes widen at the door, and wheeled round. In the doorway stood Gareth; and Florence, unequal to the occasion when she found that he had followed her up, was disappearing, backwards into the passage with an appealing apologetic glance at her mistress.
After a pause Ursula said expressionlessly: “I didn’t know you had come up.”
“No,” he said, equally without expression.
There was a silence. Ursula felt stupid and inadequate, for once in her life unequal to a situation. She had a feeling of helplessness; a certainty that the fates were fighting against her. “Well, if you two are going to squabble, I’m going,” Daphne said. “I have enough squabbles of my own. Don’t congratulate Clive till you hear from me, darling. I’m going to keep him wondering for a day or two. Au revoir, Gareth, darling. Don’t make it too protracted. Ursula’s going out to luncheon, aren’t you, my dear?”
The door closed behind her with a little click. It sounded like the safety catch of a revolver being pressed back; an ominous sound. Ursula knew a moment’s rebellion at the sheer wantonness of things. Why had Gareth to appear this very morning of all mornings? Why had he to come in that moment out of all the possible millions of moments?
“I didn’t expect you this morning,” she said.
“You said this evening.”
“Yes. I couldn’t come this evening. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“I heard what you said. Did you mean it?”
“No, of course I didn’t!” Meaning and emotion began to come back to their even voices.
“Then why did you say it?”
“Oh, one of those silly things one is always saying.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Gareth dear. Of course one often says things one doesn’t mean in the least.”
“You told her you were tired of me. Why couldn’t you see me just now? You were going to turn me away like a beggar. Ursula, what does it mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything except that you’re making a mountain out of a mole-hill.”
“A mole-hill! When you turn me away as casually as you would a canvasser! That’s what you really think of me, isn’t it? I’ve been a fool, haven’t I?”
“Gareth, don’t. I couldn’t see you just now because—well, for a perfectly good and sufficient reason, and you’re being childish to think it of such importance.”
“Did you have a perfectly good reason for telling her that you were tired of me? And do you think that of no importance?”
“I tell you I didn’t mean it!”
“You did mean it!” Gareth cried, his self-control breaking as conviction grew. “I heard it in your voice. My charms are wearing thin, are they? God, what a fool I’ve been! What a fool! I thought you felt the way I did. I thought you were in earnest. And all the time you were just amusing yourself. And you’re tired already. How long have you been acting? Were you acting yesterday?” He paused, as if faced with a new horror. “Ursula!” he repeated with a despairing urgency, “were you acting yesterday?”
“I’ve never been acting. You’re quite wrong, I tell you.”
“I’m not wrong,” he said with renewed conviction. “I’ve been a fool. I’ve heard what you said. I’ve heard the way you talk about me behind my back. You’re just what everyone says you are—heartless and vain. You can’t explain away what you said, what I heard you say, can you?”
“I can only give you my word that it meant nothing.”
“Why should I take your word? What is there you could say? What explanation could there be? I know now where I stand. You took me up because you thought I would be a new amusement, didn’t you? A poor little beast of a musician who would dance to your piping for a little. I wasn’t your sort, and you were interested in experiments! Do you remember that? You said that yourself. And I was one of your experiments. You made me love you—no, that’s not true but you made me tell you I loved you, you let me make love to you, you even let me think that—that some day—Oh, God, Ursula, was even that just amusement for you!”
“I tell you I haven’t been amusing myself!” Why couldn’t she think? Why was she borne down by this sense of futility. She had to lose him, but she need not lose him yet; not like this. Why couldn’t she make something of the situation instead of standing there like a fool?
“I was never more in earnest over anything in my life. I loved you, Gareth!”
“_Loved_ me? Then you are tired of me!”
She realised that her moment was here.
“Oh, Gareth, how can I!”
“How can you what?” he said impatiently.
“You’re tired of me, aren’t you?”
She turned away so that she mightn’t see his face.
“Well, nothing lasts for ever, you know,” she said.
“No, not even for a month, it seems. And you call that love! It makes me sick. I took your fancy and you took me up till you were bored.” Ursula moved. “Yes, I put it crudely, don’t I? I know I haven’t any of the graces. I can’t be flippant about things that matter. My sense of humour doesn’t run to making fun of people who care for me. I haven’t any of the aristocratic qualities. I suppose that is why you tired of me so soon. If I hadn’t come in just then perhaps you would have told the Daphne woman how amusingly crude I was! I could kill you when I think what you’ve done to me. Do you realise what you’ve done? You’ve made me fall in love with someone who never existed. I was a fool, and you fooled me to the top of my bent. I didn’t fall in love with you because you were beautiful. I loved you because you were lovely—you yourself. And now I know there isn’t any you!” He paused. The courage born of his anger ebbed at the realisation of losing her. “Ursula, that hurts unbearably. It’s much worse than someone dying, to know that you never existed. I just can’t bear it. Do tell me that what you said just now meant something else. If I’ve been hasty I’m sorry. You were just fooling, weren’t you?” A silence. “Ursula!”
“You forget that I refused to see you, too.” He made an inarticulate sound. “I’m not tired of you, Gareth. But I’m going to the Mediterranean next week for most of the winter. By the time I come back I expect we shall both be interested in other things, shan’t we?”
“Ursula! What’s wrong? I don’t recognise you.”
“I hardly recognise myself,” she said in bitter amusement.
“Why are you going away? You said nothing yesterday about going away. You were planning all sorts of things that we were going to do together.”
“Yes, but I’ve been invited to join a yachting party in the Mediterranean, and I think I shall go. It sounds attractive.”
“Why are you trying to make yourself as bad as possible?” he said suspiciously.
“If you’re being disillusioned you might as well undergo the process thoroughly.”
“You don’t want me hanging round hopefully when you come back, is that it?” he said instantly. “Don’t worry. You won’t see me again. When I think of the fool I’ve been for the last month I could throw myself in the river. And when I think of you as I thought you were, I—I—” His voice died away. “I can’t believe it, Ursula. It just isn’t believable. I never believed in anyone the way I believed in you. For those last weeks life was simply wonderful because you were there. And now there’s nothing.”
“There’s your hate for me. That will occupy your emotions for a little.”
“I can’t even hate you properly. You’re just the person everyone said you were. The Ursula Deane whose photographs are so popular. The Ursula Deane who takes her fun where she finds it. If I was fool enough to provide your fun, why should I hate you? It’s myself I hate. I know now what Circe’s swine felt like—unclean.”
“Well, my Ulysses, you will have the consolation of Penelope’s arms. They will make you feel better.” She had not meant to say that. It was torn out of her.
“Leave Molly out of this! Because I’ve been a fool and a blackguard doesn’t make you free to make fun of Molly. You’re not fit to tie her shoes. You, with your—” He met her eyes squarely, and stopped. The anger fell from him. “Ursula,” he said slowly, in a kind of wonderment. “I’ll never be able to connect that other Ursula with you. She was so lovely. I suppose I should be grateful to you for showing me anything so lovely, even if it was a fake. But wakening out of a dream is always terrible. I would rather not have dreamt.”
He stood for a moment looking at her, and turned away to the door.
“No, Gareth, no!” she said suddenly. “I don’t want it to end like that! Not that way.”
He swung round on her, his anger and frustration and hurt flaming into passionate protest. “What do you want to keep on fooling me for! You’ve had your amusement, haven’t you? You’ve done what you set out to do, haven’t you? Then stop the play-acting, damn you. And I hope to God I never see you again!”
“Amen, my dear. Let me give you one last word. Don’t take anything seriously. It’s a great mistake. Believe me, I know.”
His lips parted in the little irresolute movement which she knew so well; but he changed his mind. He turned abruptly on his heel, flung out of the room, and banged the door behind him.
She stood quite still, listening to the echo of the door in her mind. She was glad that he had behaved like an angry boy. If he had been lost and pathetic in his hurt she could not have done it. He would be going down the stairs now. Out of her life. Funny to think that she should care so terribly what he thought of her. She, Ursula Deane, who had never cared what anyone thought. It was unthinkable enough to let him go out of her life, but to let him go like that, believing that of her! He would be going out of the door now. She had planned to do it gradually—to bring him to the point of admitting that perhaps they had made a mistake. But perhaps a clean cut was best after all. Razors didn’t hurt much, so they said…
She was still standing in the middle of the floor when Florence came in to say that Captain Grierson was waiting downstairs because she was going to luncheon with him.
“Tell Captain Grierson I’m very sorry but I can’t—No, wait. All right, Florence, I’m coming. Bring me my things.”
At ten minutes to seven that evening three things were happening simultaneously within the same square mile of London.
Chitterne and Sara were arguing as they stepped off a bus at the corner of Sark Street. Chitterne wanted to come home with her and be introduced to her people. It was ridiculous, he said, to make a secret of it any longer. She had a passion for secrets that amounted to a complex.
“Chit, believe me, it’s more than ever impossible to-night. You’ll have to trust me. You don’t know what my people are like, and you don’t know—oh, lots of things that have a bearing on our being engaged.”
“Tell me what they are, then. You promised you would never have any secrets from me.”
“_I_ did! When?”
“At Rye, looking over the levels, after tea.”
“I said I would never tell you a lie! And I won’t. I’ve been perfectly frank with you even to telling you that I had secrets. I can’t let you come to-night, but I’ll make you a promise. A month to-day you can come, and we’ll tell them.”
“Make it three weeks,” Chitterne said automatically. Long acquaintance with bookmakers’ offers and the prices of horses had taught him that everyone offers a price which they are willing to reduce.
“If you knew father you wouldn’t be so eager,” Sara said with a grimace. “I say a month, and when I say a thing I mean it.”
“Lord, what a bullied life I’m in for!” he said, and since there was no one in sight, kissed her. “But if I find that it’s possible before that, I’ll let you know,” she added.
Gareth was in the kitchen of Number Fifteen, where Molly was superintending the dinner while the maid set the table upstairs. The kitchen was full of the steam of cooking, and Molly, flushed and busy, paused in her activities to say: “Oh, Gareth, you would come in and talk about important things at a time like this!” But her face was radiant although her words were impatient.
She rushed at him with a saucepan which she had lifted off the stove, and as he skipped out of her way he said: “But I’ve told you! I’ve got to go to work, and I couldn’t go to Raoul’s without seeing you. I know I’ve been a beast to you, Molly, and I’m sorry. I went off my head for a little, that was all. It’s all right now, though, isn’t it? And you’ll marry me as soon as Regan lets me off, and come to Germany with me?”
Molly shoved a kettle at him. “Fill that for me, like an angel. Yes, of course I’ll marry you,” she said, snatching up a wooden spoon and lifting the lid from the soup pot. He kissed the back of her neck where the short hairs curled. “You’re a darling, Moll!” he said, and went away to fill the kettle.
Ursula, in the process of dressing for dinner, had just ordered Florence to add a whole bottle of perfume to her bath.
“But, my lady,” Florence protested, standing with the little carved flask in her hand, “it’s the Anguran, and you said we could never have any more.”
“For God’s sake, don’t argue, Florence,” Ursula said. “I always had expensive tastes.”
“Even in haloes,” she added.
Table of Contents
The Expensive Halo
A Fable Without Moral
by Josephine Tey
First published 1931