Author of "I Have Only Myself to Blame," etc.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
PAGE I HAVEN 9 To Clarence Day, Jr.
II TWO PARIS EPISODES 21 To Anthony Asquith I: THE STORY OF A COAT II: BALLOONS
III COURTSHIP 27
IV "DO YOU REMEMBER...?" 29 To Leslie Hartley
V THE MARTYR 37 To H.G. Wells
VI A MOTOR 53 To Alice Longworth
VII THE MASTERPIECE 60 To Harold Child
VIII TEA TIME 67 To Sylvester Gates
IX THE END 78
X MISUNDERSTOOD 83 To John Maynard Keynes
XI COUNTERPOINT 92 To the Marchese Giovanni Visconti Venosta
XII VILLEGIATURA 102 To Marcel Proust
XIII AULD LANG SYNE 132 To Harold Nicolson
XIV TWO TAXI DRIVES 147 To Paul Morand I: SUNSHINE II: LAMPS
XV A TOUCH OF SPRING 155 To W.Y. Turner
XVI FIDO AND PONTO 161
[To CLARENCE DAY, JR.]
"You should only," we are told, "wear white in early youth and old age. It is very becoming with a fresh complexion or white hair. When you no longer feel as young as you were, other colours are more flattering. Also, you should avoid bright lights and worry."
Here, the beauty specialist reminds you of the specialist who says in winter, "Avoid wet feet and germs." In spite of both, we are still subjected to sunshine and anxiety and rain and microbes.
But there are risks which the would-be young can and should avoid. Surely Miss Wilcox ought to have known better than to flop down on the grass with an effort and a bump, clasping (with some difficulty) her knees because Vera, who is sixteen, slim and lithe, with the gawky grace of a young colt, had made such an obvious success of the operation!
It is better not to sit on the grass after thirty when sprawling at all is difficult, let alone sprawling gracefully.
Poor Miss Wilcox! At seventeen she had been a pretty, bouncing girl with bright blue eyes, bright pink cheeks and brighter yellow hair. All the young men of the neighbourhood had kissed her in conservatories or bushes and to each in turn, she had answered, "Well, I never!"
Then an era of intellectual indifference to the world set in. She read Milton in a garret and ate very little. When addressed, she gave the impression of being suddenly dragged down from some sublime pinnacle of thought. This was the period of absent-mindedness, of untidiness, of unpunctuality, for she was convinced that these three ingredients compose the spiritual life. But it was not a success. True, her cheeks lost their roses, but without attaining an interesting transparent whiteness and her figure became angular, rather than thin. Cold food, ugly clothes and enforced isolation began to lose their charms and Miss Wilcox abandoned the intellectual life.
She discovered that men were her only interest—probably she had always known it. Even the curate, who was like a curate on the stage, was glorified into an adventurous possibility from the mere fact that he belonged to that strange, tropical species—the other sex.
Unfortunately, Miss Wilcox, who was practical and orderly, knew just "what men liked in a woman." It was, it appeared, necessary to be bright—relentlessly bright, with a determined, irrelevant cheerfulness which no considerations of appropriateness could check and it was necessary to have "something to say for yourself" which in Miss Wilcox's hands, meant a series of pert tu quoques of the "you're another" variety. Her two other axioms, "Don't let them see that you care for them" and "feed the beasts," were alas! never put to the test as no man had ever considered the possibility of being loved by Miss Wilcox and the feeding stage had, in consequence, never been reached.
Nevertheless, in defence of her theses, Miss Wilcox was rough-toughed in public, while in private, she studied recipes and articles on cooking. As hope gradually began to give way to experience, Miss Wilcox came to the conclusion that she frightened men off. They regarded her, she imagined, as cold and indifferent and unapproachable. "I don't cheapen myself," she would say, forgetting her conservatory days. In her heart of hearts, she imagined herself in humble surrender, laying her strong personality at the feet of a still stronger one and being gently lifted up on to a pedestal. It was curious, she thought, that her wonderful, unique gift of tenderness should go unperceived. But how is one to show that one is tender? It is so difficult for a maiden lady, living alone. She saw visions of a huge man with whimsical, smiling eyes, who after seeing her two or three times would call at her cottage. He would stand in the door and simply say, "Ellen," and she would put her head on his shoulder and cry gently while he stroked her hair. "Does my loving you make you sad, little one?" he would say, and she would answer, "No, no, they are tears of happiness."
Miss Wilcox thought it would be delightful to be called "little one." And then, rather nervously and tremulously, she would murmur, "I am afraid I am not very beautiful," and he would laugh a deep, joyous laugh and say, "To me, you are the most beautiful woman in the world."
But it never happened. Even the chinless curate, whose voice without consonants gave the effect of an intoning bumble-bee, never took advantage of her suggestions (frequently repeated) that he should drop in to tea.
She tried to learn lawn-tennis and chess, but driving a ball into a net and studying problems in the Sunday papers becomes very monotonous. It was extraordinary how little provision life seemed to have made for superior people with fastidious tastes, whereas an empty head and a pretty face conquers the world! Miss Wilcox was very proud of the epigram, "empty heads and pretty faces." She used it frequently, more in sorrow than in anger. Vera was an excellent example. She was incapable of "conducting a conversation," she never read a book, but simply because her eyes sparkled and somehow or other, she always reminded you of a Shepperson drawing, she was invariably surrounded by a host of adorers. She was indifferent to the axioms, "boys will be boys" and "gentlemen are different." In her philosophy, "girls would be boys" and the difference between the sexes was simply one of what you might and might not do.
"A positive savage," Miss Wilcox would explain and then, "You should be more womanly, dear; men like a womanly woman." And Vera's eyes would sparkle maliciously, for men undoubtedly did like Vera.
I do not know at what moment in life, if ever, we realise that we are neither George Sands nor Juliets. Of course, if we are not beautiful, we recognise early that beauty is nothing. What are features? The only thing that matters is to have charm and expression. Then comes that horrible gnawing doubt of our own magnetism. Is it possible that, though we are not lovely, we are not irresistible either? That we will have to go through life belonging neither to the triumphantly beautiful nor to the triumphantly ugly? Miss Wilcox knew that she was not exactly clever. But after all, what is prettiness and "men don't like clever women." So she consoled herself with the thought that though her manner "permitted no liberties," the warm tenderness of her true nature must be apparent to the really discerning.
Poor Miss Wilcox! She had tried brightness and common-sense, Milton and lawn-tennis, the arch and the aloof. She would have liked to have been seductive and a little wicked, but she had found it easier to be dignified and very good. Easier but no more satisfactory. Evidently charm was a strange, mysterious thing, for which there was no recipe. A dangerous force governing many things and subject to no law.
Every one was kind to Miss Wilcox. Lady Mary (Vera's mother) was always asking her to picnics and lawn-tennis, parties and festivities of all sorts. On these occasions, Sir Harry invariably chaffed her about the curate, little knowing that his foolish jokes were a source of exquisite and almost guilty pleasure to her. Was it, she wondered, altogether fair to let him think that Mr. Simpson loved her? But she did enjoy it so much, the nervous agonising sense of expectancy and then the sudden hot blush. "Their little secret," Sir Harry called it and though, of course, it was very wicked of her to let him continue under a misapprehension, it was so difficult to clear the matter up, as, the more she protested, the more confused she became, the more he was bound to think that there was something in it.
Poor Miss Wilcox, battling with her conscience when Mr. Simpson's passion was an invention of Vera's to whom old maids and curates were simply stage properties. Vera with her long legs and her laughing eyes and her happy, unimaginative youth—how was she to know that the Simpsons of life stand for romance and mystery and longings unachieved? To some people the impossible is impossible. One fine day they wake up in the morning knowing that they will never hold the moon in their hands and with the certainty, perfect peace descends on them.
Miss Wilcox was not like that. She couldn't settle down to decorating the church and organising village entertainments. She woke up every morning sure that something was going to happen and went to bed every night dissatisfied in proportion to her confidence.
And then, quite close together, two things did happen. Miss Wilcox was left a small fortune and Vera became engaged to be married.
The wedding, of course, was a great dramatic event. The preparations engulfed everybody. What flowers should the triumphal arches be made of and were the fair or the dark bridesmaids to be considered in the bridesmaids' dresses? Miss Wilcox gave her advice freely and tied cards on to presents but she felt unaccountably depressed. This, of course, was because dear little Vera whom she had known since a child, whom she had loved as a child, was leaving them and plunging into this strange, unknown adventure. What an uncertain thing marriage, what an elusive thing happiness! At nights she would dream of white satin figures shrouded in white tulle veils, of shy, passionate bridegrooms and shy, radiant brides. Sometimes she would see Vera's face and sometimes her own and often in the morning, she would find her pillow wet. "It will be you and Simpson next," Sir Harry teased her. But somehow the remark no longer pleased her and she no longer blushed.
And then, one day she couldn't bear it any more. Without saying a word to any one she went to London. A thick orange fog greeted her, a wonderful, mysterious fog, creating immense prehistoric silhouettes, a fog which freed you from old accustomed sights and sounds so that your individuality seemed at last to be released and to belong exclusively to you.
Gratefully Miss Wilcox accepted this gift of privacy. London belonged to her, there were no prying eyes. Slowly she walked along the pavement peering into shop windows. It was difficult to see anything. At last she distinguished a blur of gold and jewels. She walked on and then back again. She stood still. Her heart was in her mouth. Resolutely she pushed the door open. The brightness blinded her, the sudden warmth made her feel dizzy. Weakly she sat on a chair. A sympathetic salesman asked her if he could do anything for her. "No, thank you," she murmured faintly, "if I might sit here a moment."
Gradually she recovered and walked out again. The fog was thicker than ever. The traffic had stopped. People bumped into her with muttered apologies. Hesitatingly, wearily, she walked along. At last, she reached another jeweller's. Firmly, quickly she walked in. How was she to ask for what she wanted?
"What can I do for you, Madam?"
She looked up like a frightened animal.
"I've lost my wedding ring," she stammered. "It was a broad gold one. I—I don't want my husband to discover it."
How easy it was after all.
The salesman was very sympathetic. She looked at a great number of rings, toying with them in voluptuous hesitation. She enjoyed fingering them. At last she chose one. The gold band on her finger frightened her. It made her feel a strange, different person, rather disreputable and quite unlike herself.
Miss Wilcox went to the Ritz. It was, she felt, a place where married ladies without husbands would be neither noticed nor commented on. There is, after all, nothing so very unusual in a wedding ring and Miss Wilcox's appearance did not arouse idle and libelous speculations. But still, she felt safer at the Ritz—there is something so conspicuous about a quiet hotel.
The next day the fog had been cleared away and the sun, emerging after a day's rest, sparkled with refreshed gaiety. Miss Wilcox, in deep mourning, went out to buy new black clothes—lovely they were, intentionally, not accidentally black, filmy chiffons, rippling crepe-de-chines, demure cashmeres, severe, perfect tailleurs. Here and there touches of snowy crepe gave a relief suitable to deep unhappiness and her widow's cap, low on the forehead, was the softest and most nun-like frame to her face. Seeing herself in the glass, Miss Wilcox blushed with pleasure.
"My husband was so fond of clothes," she murmured to the vendeuse with a break in her voice, "and he always said that nothing became a woman like black."
* * * * *
There is a little village on the Seine. An old grey church nestles among the huddling houses. A platoon of poplars guards the river, and little pink almond bushes spring out of patches of violets. Miss Wilcox, calling herself Mrs. Demarest, lives in a charming old house surrounded by box hedges, paved paths lead through beds of old-fashioned sweet-scented flowers, stocks and wall flowers and mignonette and moss roses, lavender, myrtle, thyme and sweet geranium. Mr. Demarest, it appears, could not bear the wonderful new varieties of huge, smell-less blooms.
Miss Wilcox has never gone out of mourning, though she sometimes wears grey and mauve. Her gracious sweetness has made her much beloved in the village where her gentle presence is loved and honoured. She can often be seen bringing soup to some old invalid, or taking flowers to the church she loves to decorate. Her charity and her piety are revered by all. Sometimes in the evening she plays a game of cards with her neighbours or chess with the cure. It is known that a rich man from the adjoining town proposed marriage to her, but she continues to mourn her late husband with profound devoted fidelity. She is too unselfish to force her grief on to others, but every one knows that her heart is broken. Sometimes she talks of her sorrow—very gently, very uncomplainingly, and there are always flowers in front of the photograph of her husband on her writing table. He must have been a magnificent man—huge, with whimsical smiling eyes. Every one in the village feels as if they had known him. They have heard so much about him. He had only seen Miss Wilcox three times when he walked into her cottage. Standing in the doorway—"Ellen," he said, and she went to him—
"I suppose I knew it was for always," she explains gently. "It has been a short always on earth—but so happy, so very happy."
All the girls of the village go to Mrs. Demarest before they marry. Her wise counsel and the radiant memory of her happiness lights them on their way.
"I have had everything," she says, "and now I have found peace."
It is the severity of suffering bravely borne. She has called her house "Haven."
TWO PARIS EPISODES
[To ANTHONY ASQUITH]
I: THE STORY OF A COAT
"Le Printemps a brule cette nuit." The news greeted me when I was called. It had no special significance, but spread through my semi-consciousness into meaningless patterns. Then I woke up. "Comme c'est terrible," I said, "quelle chance que ca s'est fait la nuit!" I saw visions of leaping flames and angry reds reflected in the sky.
Then I remembered. It was at the Printemps that I had chosen my divine coat. They had promised faithfully to send it me to-day. The loveliest coat in the world—"fumee de Londres," the salesman had called it, and in fact, it was the colour of the purple-grey smoke that ascends in solid spirals from factory chimneys. There were stripes too of silvery grey chenil which made a play-ground for lights and shadows. In shape it was like an old print of a coachman driving a four-in-hand, long with a flapping cape, and the lining was the colour of the sky when the sun has set.
I saw my coat giving new life to the dying flames. Tongues of fire were darting down the lines of silvery grey chenil, greedily eating up the smoky back-ground. Finally, a mass of ashes—purple-grey like their victim—was carried by the wind into the unknown. All day long my coat became more and more beautiful. The texture was solid smoke and the stripes were shafts of moonlight. How it shimmered through the mirage of my regrets.
When I got home that afternoon I found a cardboard box. The inspector of the Printemps, knowing that I was leaving for England, had brought me a coat from the reserve stock which was not kept in the shop. Infinitely touched, my heart overflowing with gratitude, I wrote a love letter to the Printemps.
Then I looked at my coat. The silvery stripes turned out to be black and white, giving a grey effect. The texture of the back-ground was not purple smoke, but rather scratchy wool. Evidently it was no longer the coat of my sad dreams. In becoming once more "la creation" of the Printemps it had ceased to be the creation of my imagination. Resurrection is a dangerous thing.
My coat which was once a legend is a reality again. It has travelled from fairy-land to life. Now it is a symbol. Isn't this the story of the Life of Christ?
All my life I have loved balloons—all balloons—the heavy English sort, immense and round, that have to be pushed about, and the gay, light, gas-filled French ones that soar into the air the moment you let go of them. How well I remember when I was little, the colossal effort of blowing up the dark red, floppy India rubber until it got brighter and brighter and more and more transparent, though it always stayed opaque enough to hold the promise of still greater bigness. And then the crucial moment when ambition demanded an extra puff and a catastrophe became ever more imminent.
And now, when I suddenly see a huge bunch of wonderful bloated tropical grapes, overpowering some old woman in the street, I feel so happy! In Paris, of course, they are quite different—balloons have much too much flavour to be international—they are smaller and lighter in colour and gayer and more reckless—they always look as if they were out on a spree, just waiting to break loose from the long string by which they are tied, in a huge multi-coloured sunshade, to a stick. There is something very independent about French balloons—you feel you couldn't make a pet of one.
But I am telling you things you know already, instead of getting on with my story.
It was the sort of spring day when all the buds look like feathers and the sun has been bathing in milk. I was walking down the Champs Elysees, sniffing secret violets in the air and feeling as joyous as if the world were entirely full of primroses and larks and light-hearted passers-by whom I would never see again. In the distance a barrel organ became more and more distinct and as I drew nearer and the noise grew louder, I wanted to dance and sing. It was in tune with my mood. A symbol of the crescendo of living.
And then, in the distance, I saw Cousin Emily crawling towards me like a black beetle with her half-shut eyes that see everything except beauty and innocence. Though I avoided her and the day was as lovely as ever, I had become conscious that the world was inhabited and that there were people who didn't whistle—or want to whistle—in the streets.
I tried to think of larks and primroses, but my thoughts were dragged back to thick, half-drawn red curtains, black woolen shawls and silver photograph frames. Then I had an idea. "I will buy a balloon," I thought. My spirits rose and my heart leapt. Should I buy a green one like a bad emerald, or a red one like wine and water, or a thick bright yellow one? White was charming too, and sailed up into the sky like a tight, round cloud—
I reached the Galleries Lafayette.
"Des ballons, s'il vous plait. Joujoux," I added. I was told to go straight on, to turn to the right and the left, to go up three steps and down three steps—but my mind wandered as it always does when I am listening to directions that I have to follow. By an unseemly scramble I got into an over-crowded lift. I seemed to be treading on children and reclining on tight, upholstered bosoms. At random, I chose the third floor and found myself among a forest of lamps. Desperately determined not to risk another struggle for the lift, I tried to find the staircase. At last, after endless enquiries and—it seemed—going back five steps for every three I had gone forward, I reached the toy department. Breathless, bedraggled, hot and exhausted, I clutched the arm of the first saleswoman I saw. "Des ballons, Madame," I gasped.
She looked at me with contempt, "Les ballons, ca ne se vend pas, ca se donne."
For a moment I was awed by the aristocratic magnificence of balloons. How superb, how reckless! Very humbly I appealed to her,
"Pouvez-vous, voulez-vous me donner un ballon?"
"Les ballons, ca ne se donne pas apres cinq heures," she said.
I didn't press her. How could I? By how many thousands of years of tradition might not the habits of balloons have been fixed? Their lives were evidently strangely and remotely unlike our lives. Wearily I walked downstairs, not snubbed but humbled and a little awed.
* * * * *
Half an hour later I was walking down the Champ Elysees sniffing at the secret violets in the air. I had forgotten Cousin Emily and the world was full of primroses and larks and light-hearted passers-by. Suddenly, at the other side of the street I saw a bursting sunshade of balloons, emerald and ruby, transparent white and thick, solid yellow, a birthday bouquet from a Titan to his lady. Reverently, lovingly, I looked at them, my heart full of joy, but I did not cross the street.
"I do love yachting," she said, "to see the sea change from aquamarines and diamonds to sapphires and emeralds, with thick unexpected streaks of turquoise. To sail away into the unknown, away from your own life——"
She was looking dreamily in front of her to the blue beyond the mimosa.
"The sea is jolly," he said.
"To feel that you are leaving land behind you and your friends and your relations and your duties and what are called your pleasures. To be free," she murmured.
"There's nothing like horses," he said. "Their very smell does you good. An hour's gallop before breakfast in summer, a twenty minutes' run with the hounds in winter——"
A week later they were engaged to be married. I wondered whether he would take to yachting or she to riding or both to golf.
I didn't see them for five years. And then, I met her at Melton. She had taken a house for the winter. "So he won," I reflected to myself.
"Have you done much yachting lately?" I asked her.
"Yachting?" she said, "why it's my idea of hell. I'm the worst sailor in the world. A sea as calm as a pond finishes me."
"How is your husband?" I murmured weakly. "Is he coming down here to hunt?"
"Tommy?" she laughed. "Why he's never known a horse from a cow."
"DO YOU REMEMBER——?"
[To LESLIE HARTLEY]
There are so many delightful things about being a bride besides actual happiness, little peaks of pleasure that gradually sink into the level of existence, unimportant, all-important things that never come again. To begin with, there is your wedding ring which keeps glistening up at you, unexpectedly making such an absurd difference, not only to the look of your hand but to everything else, as well. And there are your trunks, shiny and untravelled, with glaring new initials almost shouting at you, so very unlike other people's battered luggage with half obliterated labels sprawling over it.
And trousseau clothes are quite unlike other clothes—not prettier, often uglier—but different. Your shoes and stockings match, not yet having begun that uneven race which, starting from the same mole, ends with a fawn-colored shoe and a grey blue stocking. Your hats go with your dresses and your sunshades with both. You have an appropriate garment for all occasions, instead of always being—as you once were and soon will become again—short of something. Altogether, there is no other word for it—you are equipped.
And then you feel exhilarated and responsible—your jewels are still new and so is the strange, beautifully embroidered monogram on your handkerchiefs and underclothes. Also, for the first time in your life, you have a jet evening dress with a train and your maid calls you "Madam."
Lucy was extremely pleased about all of these things. She was pleased, too, to have married a foreigner, to be sailing away into a new milieu, where she would be surrounded by the strange exciting faces of her husband's friends. It would be delightful to have nothing to do, but make yourself liked, to be automatically disentangled from all of your own complicated, complicating relationships with nothing around you but a new world to conquer. And how thrilled and curious every one must be about her. What sort of a woman had succeeded in catching dear old Tony! Tony, who was so delightfully, so essentially, a man's man. There had been Vivian, of course, but no one quite knew the rights and the wrongs of that and it was over anyway. Tony was so deuced unsusceptible (Lucy prided herself on being able to think in English), unsophisticated, too, about women, but with a sense of self-preservation like an animal's. And now he had gone and married an American and a Bostonian. Americans, one knew, were heiresses and Bostonians were blue-stockings. The lady, it appeared, was not very rich, but of course, Tony would never have married for money. It was all very puzzling.
And then, Lucy imagined herself walking into a room full of strange, curious faces and some one murmured, "That is Tony's wife," and every one looked up. She was wearing a shimmering, silvery blue dress and she was looking her very, very best. An old lady told her that she ought still to be in school and a young man told her that she was a jolly lucky woman and Tony a jolly lucky man, by Jove.
Lucy was sure that that was the way Englishmen talked.
And on their way home, people agreed that they could understand any man's falling in love with her. Tony talked a lot about his men friends. Women meant nothing to him. He had, Lucy knew, once been engaged to a woman—Vivian, she had been called—rumour had woven a pattern of legends about it, but he had never seemed anxious to discuss it. People said he had behaved badly—but how was one to tell? Those things were always so complicated. Usually, every one ended by behaving badly. At any rate, the girl had made a brilliant marriage, which might or might not mean a broken heart. It was, Lucy thought tenderly, so characteristic of Tony to have sown such legitimate wild oats. An engagement contracted and broken off in gusty fits of honour.
"You look very lovely," he smiled at her.
She was shimmering in silvery blue, her eyes like cloudy star sapphires, her hair like primroses and ashes.
In the motor she leant against him, a discreet gentle pressure. She always gave you a feeling of delicately intertwined reticencies and avowals, a faint New England flavouring which she had never lost.
"I do hope they'll like me," she murmured.
Dinner was a great success. Lucy loved her neighbours and her neighbours loved her, while secretly congratulating themselves on having always been right about Boston (which they had never visited and of which they knew nothing).
After dinner a few guests trickled in for the tiny dance that was to follow. It was all very much as Lucy had imagined it, old ladies delighted by her youth, old men delighted by her prettiness. Every one saying that she was very un-American (by which they meant unlike the Americans they had known).
Then, suddenly, a hushed silence grabbed hold of all the various conversations. Tony got up. His hostess was saying, "I want to present Mrs. Everill." Some one in a corner gave a little suppressed laugh, Lucy looked.
She saw a thin, dark woman with charming irregular features and a figure which looked as if it had been put into her black velvet dress with a shoehorn, and she heard her say in a low voice which somehow seemed to creep inside shut parts of you, "Tony and I are very old friends." They were coming straight to her and then, next thing she knew was that voice again, saying, "Mrs. Everill, you must forgive me if I say that, for the moment, you are to me, just Tony's wife. But, of course, I know that to be that you must be a great many other things besides."
Lucy knew that every one was looking at them, not at her, Lucy, the bride (and she had been so proud and happy—childishly happy—to be a bride), not at Tony, not even at Lady Dynevor, but at them, at the situation. It seemed to Lucy so indecent, so vulgar.
"You will love Lucy, Vivian," Tony said quietly, and Lucy looked up at the charming, gracious apparition so dominant, with her beautifully friendly manner. Her eyes looked as if she could never find the bottom, as if tears were just going to well up and drown them.
"Of course I shall," she said, and there was a little edge on her voice, as if it were going to break. That was the feeling she gave you, Lucy thought, of being on the brink of something, a tenseness like the moment when the conductor's baton is raised before you have been released by the music.
"How ill you look," Tony was saying. Vivian laughed,
"You always said that, do you remember——?"
Conversation was buzzing again. Lucy turned to her neighbour. Through what he was saying, she could hear Tony—"your white velvet dress—do you remember...?"
She got up to dance. The room seemed to whirl round her while she stood quite still.
"Of course, we know all about Boston, Mrs. Everill," her partner was saying, "it produces beans and Cabots and blue-stockings—and brides," he added, smiling.
Tony and Vivian were still sitting on their sofa. As she passed, she heard Vivian laugh, "Do you remember?"
The evening seemed to Lucy interminable. Tony was very good. He did his duty very nobly, dancing with every one, even his wife.
At half-past one they went home.
"How charming Lady Dynevor is," Lucy murmured.
"Charming?" Tony looked puzzled. "Vivian?"
It obviously seemed to him an almost grotesquely irrelevant, inadequate word. And then, feeling that something was expected of him, "She is a wonderful woman, loyal, faithful, a real friend."
"She is very pretty," Lucy said.
"Pretty, is she? I hadn't noticed it." Again he seemed puzzled, as if it were really too difficult to connect up these absurd adjectives with Vivian. Then an idea occurred to him.
"You're not jealous, sweetheart, are you?"
"No," she lied.
"Vivian is—well, Vivian," he explained, making matters worse. And Lucy knew that if she had said "beautiful, fascinating, majestic," if she had used all the superlatives in the world, they would have seemed to him equally irrelevant and inadequate. But Tony was very much in love with his wife and she knew it and soon, in his tender, whimsical, loving, teasing way, he had made her perfectly happy again.
She was standing in front of her dressing-table, her cendre hair—shadows shot with sunlight—falling like a waterfall over her shoulders. With one hand she was combing it, with the other she fingered a bundle of snapshots taken on their honeymoon—lovely snapshots, full of sunshine and queer, characteristic positions and expressions. They might, she thought, have been taken by a loving detective.
Tony came in.
"Do you remember," she said—and then, suddenly, with a wave of misery, she realised it. The phrase did not belong to her.
[To H.G. WELLS]
I, myself, have always liked Delancey Woburn. To begin with, there is something so endearing about the way he displays his defects, never hiding them or tidying them away or covering them up. There they are for all the world to see, a reassuring shop window full of frank shortcomings. Besides, I never can resist triumphant vitality. Delancey is overflowing with joie de vivre, with curiosity, with a certainty of imminent adventure. If you say to him, "I saw a policeman," his face lights up and so it would if you said "I saw a dog," or a cat, or a donkey-cart. To him policemen and dogs and cats and donkey-carts are always just about to do something dramatic or absurd or unexpected. Nor is he discouraged by unfailing regularity in their behaviour. Faith is "the evidence of things not seen."
And then, too, he is so very welcoming. Not, of course, that he makes you feel you are the only person in the world because a world with only one other person in it would be inconceivably horrible to him, but he does make you quite sure that he is most frightfully glad to see you—all the gladder because it is such a surprise. Delancey always makes a point of being surprised. Also, though he is invariably in a hurry—being in a hurry is one of the tributes he pays to life—he as invariably turns round and walks with you, in your direction, to convince himself that having met you in Jermyn Street is an altogether unexpected and delightful adventure. And he never feels, as I always do, that a five minutes' conversation is a stupid, embarrassing thing, too long for mere civility and too short for anything else. The five minutes are filled to the brim and off he rushes again, leaving me just a little more tired and leisurely from the contact. Delancey is the life and soul of a party—or perhaps I should say the life and body. He likes eating and drinking and talking to women and talking to men and smoking and telling a story. And if he does address his neighbour a little as if she were a meeting at a bye-election, open air, he at any rate never addresses her as if she were a duty and no one had ever wanted to kiss her.
To Delancey all women have had lovers and husbands and children and religious conversions and railway accidents. Old maids and clergymen's wives adore him.
I don't know what it was that made him write originally. Perhaps it was his name—Delancey Woburn sounds like the author—or the hero—of a serial. Or it may have been that his exuberant desire for self-expression had burst through the four walls of practical professions. He had, I believe, considered the stage and the church. Journalism would have seemed to me the obvious outlet but he preferred literature. "Creation is such fun," he would explain, beaming. And, of course, he was tremendously successful. Delancey was designed on a pattern of success.
That was one of the obvious defects I was talking about. Delancey has missed his failures. He has fought and been defeated but he has never longed and been frustrated. In his case, romance is realism. He has only known happy endings.
Naturally he is not an interesting writer. How could he be? And, naturally, he is a successful one. How could he help it? Delancey writes for magazines in England and America. I, myself, never read magazines, but occasionally he sends me one and every twenty stories (I think it is twenty) become a book. The English ones were about scapegraces and irresistible ne'er-do-wells, ancestral homes with frayed carpets and faded hangings in which penniless woman-haters (the last of a noble line) sit and brood, living alone with equally gruff, woman-hating family retainers. Sometimes, too, there was an absent-minded dreamer, and villainous business men worked indefatigably in the interests of their own ultimate frustration.
But this, of course, would never do for America where there isn't a market for ne'er-do-wells, frayed carpets inspire no glamour, and dreamers who before the war were despised as harmless, are now damned as dangerous. No, America must have her special line and no one better than Delancey knew how to mix the fragrance of true love with the flavour of Wall Street and serve at the right temperature.
He wasn't proud of his writing—or, rather, he wasn't proud of it with every one. In his heart of hearts, what he wanted was not the applause of the public, but the faith of a coterie, to be a martyr, misunderstood by the many, worshipped by the few. A Bloomsbury hero, a Chelsea King! "We confess that as a writer Mr. Delancey Woburn is altogether too rarefied for our taste. His work is far too impregnated by the stamp of a tiny clique of rather self-conscious superintellectuals. Reading his books, we feel as if we had suddenly entered a room full of people who know one another very well. In other words, we feel out of it."
What would not Delancey have given for a review that began like that! Instead of which the best that he could hope for in "shorter notices" would be an announcement that "Mr. Woburn's many admirers will no doubt find his last book eminently to their taste. He provides a lavish supply of the features they are accustomed to look for in his work."
Poor Delancey, his stories did sell so well! And there was his flat in Grafton Street with the beautiful new taffetas curtains and the cigars that had just arrived from Havana, with his own initials on.
So from week to week he put off becoming an artist and one year (after a four-month love affair and two lacquer cabinets) he made a lecture tour in America.
"Was it a success?" I asked wearily (Delancey's success is always such a terribly foregone conclusion).
"Tremendous," he beamed. "I was careful to be a little dull because then they think they're learning something." But he was out of love, the flat was overcrowded, money continued to pour in and he knew terribly well that he was not making a contribution to contemporary literature.
He had always assured me at intervals that some day he would write his "real book" but I think it was after his tour in America that the dream became a project. He burst in to tell me about it. Delancey always begins things with a sudden noisy rush.
"Charlotte," he said, "I have made up my mind."
"It sounds very momentous," I teased. He decided years ago that I was grave, fastidious, whimsical, aloof and (I suspect) a little faded. I have long given up fighting my own battle (to be known) because I realise that Delancey never revises the passports given to old ideas. There is always, to him, something a little bit sacred about the accepted. "I can't go on with it any longer," he explained.
"Go on with what?"
"My damned stories."
"How ungrateful you are," I murmured, thinking of the lacquer cabinets, "you have a market, you can command a price. Each of your love affairs is more magnificently studded with flowers than the last——"
"Be quiet," he said. "I came to you because I knew that you would understand."
"You are trying to blackmail me."
"Do be serious," he pleaded. "I am going to give all that up. I have determined to settle down and dedicate myself entirely to my book."
"But," I expostulated, "have you thought of the yearning Saturday Evening Post, of the deserted Strand?"
"I have thought of everything," he said, "I shall be sacrificing 5,000 pounds a year, but what is 5,000 pounds a year?"
I thought of the taffetas curtains and the cigars, but I answered quite truthfully.
"I don't know."
"You see, Charlotte," he dropped the noble for the confidential, "I have got things to say, things that are vital to me. I couldn't put them in my other work. How could I? It would have seemed—you will think me ridiculous—a kind of prostitution."
"Yes," I said.
"But they were clamouring for expression all the time. And I have kept them down till I couldn't keep them down any longer. Of course, I know my book won't be a success—a popular success, I mean—but it won't have been written for the multitude but for the few—the people who really care, who really understand. It may be even thought," there was exultation in his voice, "dull."
"Well," I said, "I think it is very brave of you—and quite right. Truly I do."
"I think I shall take a tiny cottage in a fishing village in Devonshire," Delancey was as usual seeing things pictorially—bare white-washed walls, blue and white linen curtains and a pot of wall flowers.
A week later he came to see me again.
"When are you off to Devonshire?" I asked.
"I have decided to stay here," he answered, "there is a roar of life in London, a vibrating pulse, a muffled thunder." I began to be afraid that Delancey's book would be very bad indeed. It was, it appeared, to be a novel. "Not exactly a novel," he explained, "a large canvas with figures moving on a back-ground of world conditions." I thought of "War and Peace" and was silent. It doesn't matter being silent with Delancey because he doesn't notice it.
"I want," he said, "to picture the very earth in the agonies of labour giving birth to a new world." Later, the theme was (to my secret relief) narrowed down to England.
"I have changed my motif a little," he said. "I simply want to portray the quicksilver of after-war conditions—England in transition." At this time Delancey seemed to me the least little tiny bit depressed. The income he was sacrificing rose (in his conversation) from 5,000 to 7,000 pounds. He dined out less, avoided his club and Christie's. Also, he kept out of love. For ten years, Delancey had always been in love. Managed by him, it was a delightful state, ably presided over by head waiters and florists. It made, he once explained to me, all the difference to walking into a room.
But everything was changed now. The masterpiece was a jealous god. Jealous and, I sometimes thought, apt to be a little tiresome. It had to be referred to so very deferentially, with such carefully serious respect. Also, it cast a shadow of gravity over Delancey—Delancey who was never meant to be a high priest, but rather a young man in white flannels, with a cigarette in his mouth, punting a young girl with a red sunshade—like an illustration to one of his own stories.
Friendship is a difficult, dangerous job. It is also (though we rarely admit it) extremely exhausting. But never have my patience and endurance been more severely tested than during the year of Delancey's masterpiece. He finally decided that in the foreground, there was to be the clash of two human souls and in the background, the collision of two worlds—the old (pre-War) and the new. In fact, a partie carree of conflicts.
"You with your love of form," he explained to me, "will appreciate the care I have given to the structure. It is," he added, "difficult to mould vast masses of material."
As the months went by I began to be horribly afraid that Delancey's novel would be very, very long indeed. And even if nobody read it through, not even a reviewer, I should have to without skipping a word or a comma.
"The sentences," Delancey told me, "are rather long. I find the semicolon very useful for cumulative effects." A vast array of words policed by semi-colons. I felt a little dizzy. Would they be able to keep order?
"Of course," he continued, "the interest is very largely psychological, but I regard the book mainly as a document—a social document. The fiction of to-day is the history of to-morrow."
This seemed conclusive. The book could not have less than 700 pages. A social document with psychological interest and a double conflict. Why, it would be short at that. And then, one day, when Delancey's book had become to me a form of eternity, he arrived, breathless with excitement.
"To all intents and purposes, it's finished," he gasped.
"Thank God," I murmured faintly.
"It will be an awful loss to me," he stated mournfully.
"It isn't dead yet," I said with feeble jocularity.
"It is sad to see your children leave you. To watch them step out into a cold, inhospitable world," he went on.
"A warm, welcoming world," I amended dishonestly. "You haven't told me what it is called yet."
"It isn't called anything. I want you to be its god-mother, Charlotte. What about 'Whither'?"
"Too like a pamphlet," I was glad to be on firm ground again.
"I thought about 'Fate's Laboratory,' but it isn't very rhythmical, is it?"
"Not very," I agreed.
"The question mark after the 'Whither' would look nice on the cover," he reflected regretfully.
I brightened. This was the old Delancey. The Delancey of the Saturday Evening Post and the Strand, of the taffetas curtains and the cottage in Devonshire. By my sudden glow of gladness I realised how much I had missed him. But I couldn't say, "Dear, dear Delancey, please be your old self and never, never, whatever you do, write another 'good' book," so I confessed that a question mark would look very nice, but that I still thought that "Whither" sounded rather like a religious tract.
"Well, we must think it over," he said.
A week later, he announced to me in a tone which indicated clearly that my opinion was only wanted if it was approval, "I have decided to call my book 'Transition.'"
"I always like single word titles," I said.
"No one will read it," he said. "One bares one's soul to the public and they throw stones at it. But at any rate, now I can hold my head high."
I didn't laugh, but it was the effort of a lifetime. Dear Delancey was so very absurd as a self-made martyr. It was somehow impossible for him to give an impression of having been persecuted for righteousness' sake. His shiny, rosy face had never looked rounder, his trousers had never been more perfect or his shoes more polished. And there were still the same little outbursts of childish prosperity, his watch, his tie-pin, his links were all redolent of a vitality that had ever been just the least little bit blatant.
"Delancey," I said, "I want you to have just the sort of success you want for yourself."
"Thank you," he said, wondering if I knew what I was talking about.
And then, one day, a proof copy of Delancey's book arrived. I looked at the paper cover. It was bright orange with "Transition" slanting upwards in immense black letters. "Very arresting," I could hear the publisher saying. Gingerly I unwrapped it. Underneath, it was sober black linen, with bright blue lettering still on the cross. I sat with it in my hands, feeling limp and will-less. But, at last, I pulled myself together. I read the dedication, "To those who died." I saw that there were 600 pages, big pages crowded with words. And then, saying to myself, "It is no good putting it off," I began to read. Delancey's book was certainly not at all like his stories. It was very nearly rather a good book and it was quite extraordinarily dull. The social structure played a role of deadly relentless magnitude. It began (before the War) as an immense iron scaffolding and ended sprawling in the foreground, torn up by the roots. In the clutches of this gigantic monster, the two chief characters not unnaturally reduced by comparison with their surroundings to the proportion of pygmies in their turn, worked from happiness to the self-conscious misery which is the only true state of grace.
"I have chosen a man and a woman, neither of them in any way exceptional," wrote Delancey in the preface and though this was undoubtedly so, they seemed to me truer to fiction than to life. No, the merits of the book had nothing to do with the characters, they lay in the descriptions of the English countryside, of village life, of London traffic, of the Armistice, of an Albert Hall meeting. There was a close observation of detail and that pictorial sense which is Delancey's one gift and which he relentlessly suppressed whenever he could, nevertheless forced its way out here and there. The canvas seemed to me immense. Politicians and preachers, workers and capitalists, artists and philistines, "good" women and prostitutes, soldiers and conscientious objectors jostled one another in the melee. Bloomsbury, Westminster, Chelsea and Mayfair each had its appointed place, while race-courses and night-clubs alternated with mining villages and methodist chapels. But, unlike Delancey's other stories, the soldiers had no V.C.'s and the workers didn't touch their caps. My eyes ached and my brain tired as I read on, but I forced myself forward with the thought that no one else in the world would reach the end.
Then the reviews began. I felt a little nervous but one seemed more glowing than the last. Finally, a notice appeared two columns long entitled "A Social Document" which ended with the words, "We venture to predict that this book will be read 100 years hence as a truer picture of the England of to-day than most of the histories that are being written." Delancey was frightfully pleased, naturally. With child-like joy he showed me cuttings from intellectual literary papers. His book was even mentioned in a leading article and formed the topic of a sermon.
"Think of reaching a pulpit," he exclaimed exultantly. "Of course, I know I've lost my old public but I've found my soul."
"People talk to me of their work now," he told me another time; "in old days, they never thought me one of themselves. I was a story teller, not an artist."
And then it was that an extraordinary thing happened—"Transition" began to sell. It was quoted and talked about until the snowball of fame, steadily gathering momentum, started rolling down-hill to the general public. The sales went up and up and up. The circulation reached 100,000 and soon after, 150,000. Why people bought it and whether they read it, I don't know, but Sydney (the heroine) and Mark Allison (the hero) became household words and soon they were used as generic terms—a Sydney, or an Allison, without so much as an inverted comma!
Delancey hardly ever came to see me. I imagine he was in a very divided state of mind! He had so dreadfully wanted to be an intellectual, to be able to rail at the base imbecile public in exquisitely select Bloomsbury coteries, he had so resolutely determined to be a martyr, to sacrifice himself on the altar of pure art, and somehow Mr. T.S. Eliot and martyrdom were as far off as ever. After all, he had given up 5,000 pounds a year and V.C.'s and happy endings. Was it his fault if he was making more money than ever and the inner circles of the unread elect seemed more firmly closed than ever?
At this time, Delancey avoided me, but I heard that "Transition" was to be dramatised and that the film rights had been bought. How the endless chaotic mass, loosely held together by semi-colons, was to be moulded into a drama or a movie was quite beyond my imagination, but evidently some enterprising people had decided to call their play "Transition." "Delancey must," I reflected, "be getting very rich indeed." But still he didn't come near me, until one day I sent for him. He looked, I thought, just a tiny bit care-worn. The all conquering light had gone out of his eye. His boots were a little dusty and he wore no tie-pin. He had, I suppose, become rich beyond the symptoms of prosperity.
"Well," I smiled at him to reassure him.
"It has all been very surprising, hasn't it?" he said with an embarrassed expression.
I didn't know whether to say "yes" or "no," that I was glad or that I was sorry.
"But it doesn't alter the quality of your book," I consoled him.
He brightened, "No," he said, "it doesn't; I am glad you said that."
We talked about other things, music and old furniture and people. He had, he said, thought of buying a house in Chelsea. It was, I realised, not exactly the entry he had planned but I encouraged the idea. There was, I explained, nothing like the Thames.
And so we rambled on till he took his leave. But five minutes after his departure I heard the bell ring. Delancey burst back into the room,
"I forgot to tell you," he said, "that 185,000 copies of 'Transition' have sold."
[To ALICE LONGWORTH]
There is a special quality about a December sunset. The ruffles of red gold gradually untightening, the congested mauve islands on a transparent sea of green, the ultimate luminous primrose dissolving into violet powder and then the cold biting night lit up by strange patches of colour that have somehow been forgotten in the sky.
Eve was walking home, her quick, defiant movements challenging the evening, her head bent slightly forward, her chin almost touching her muff, while her eyes shone and her cheeks glowed and her lithe figure seemed almost to be cutting through the icy air.
"This is happiness," she thought exultantly, "this bitter winter stimulus—I feel so light—as if my heart and mind were empty—only my body is quivering with life—the pure life of physical fitness. Why think, or feel, or look forward?" She doubled her pace until her feet seemed to be skimming the road. "I feel like a duck and drake," she laughed to herself. "Nothing matters, nothing, while there is still frost in the world."
And then she saw a little motor waiting on the other side of the road. She stopped dead and her heart stopped with her.
"There is no reason why it should be his. Hundreds of people have motors like that."
Resolutely she took a step forward. "I can't see from here, and I won't go and look," she added as she crossed over.
And then, shutting her eyes:
"Jerry," she said to herself, trying to kill his ghost with his name.
The evening air had become damp and penetrating. It made her throat feel sore and she choked a little as she breathed it.
Gingerly she approached the motor to make sure. What an absurd phrase! Why, a leap of her heart would have announced its presence, even had her eyes been shut.
She knew its every detail, the sound the gears made changing, the feel of the seat, the way the hood went up. And, above all, the little clock, ticking its warning by day, regular and relentless, while at night its bright prying eyes reminded her of all the things she wanted to forget. "It is my conscience," she would say, "and fate and mortality. It symbolises all the limitations of life. It is the frontier to happiness, the defeat of peace."
"Go on," he had said, "and you will end by forgetting it."
It was what he had called her habit of talking things "away."
How often she had slipped into his motor after him, sliding along the shiny leather, nestling happily against him, explaining that there was no draught, that the rain was not coming in, that her feet were as warm as toast. How often he had steered slowly with one hand, while her fingers crept into the palm of the other. And then he had turned off the engine and they had sat there together silent and alone, cut off from the world. How she had loved his motor! Surreptitiously she would caress it with her hand, stroking the cool shiny leather, and seeing him looking at her, she would say, "I think my purse must have fallen behind the seat." It had become to her a child and a mother, a refuge and an adventure, an island cut off from all the wretched necessities of existence, associated only with her and with him. It was a much better kingdom than a room; for a room is full of paraphernalia and impedimenta, with books and photographs, and the envelopes of letters to remind you of people and things that you want to forget. After all she could not sweep her house clear of her life, empty it of the necessary and the superfluous of her ties and her duties and her responsibilities.
But his motor—his little gasping uncomfortable motor—that was really and truly hers, because it was his. Here was her throne and his altar.
No wonder she sometimes stroked it a little, when it was too dark for him to ask her what she was doing.
And now, now some one else crept in after him, slid towards him on the shiny leather, murmured that her feet were as warm as toast, that there was no draught, and of course the rain didn't come in....
Or did she say, "Do you think there is something the matter with your motor to-day? It seems a little asthmatic?"
Eve looked at the house. She could see brightness shining behind the curtains. She could imagine a glowing fire and a faint smell of warm roses. Who was the woman? What were they doing? Sitting on either side of the fireplace drowsily intimate, smiling a little perhaps and hardly talking, conscious only of the cold outside and the warm room and one another....
Eve shivered. Almost unconsciously she fingered the mud guard. "A room is a horrible unprivate thing," she said. "People walk in and out of it, any one, and there are books and photographs and letters. It is a market place, not a sanctuary,—whereas you...." She looked at the little motor. It was too dark to see anything, but every line of it was branded on her heart.
"No one will ever love you as I did," she said to it and slowly, wearily, dragging one foot after another, she walked away into the cold raw night.
* * * * *
"Nothing in the world like winter air to make you feel fit," Bob said to himself as he swung himself along the road at a tremendous pace.
"Jove, what a sunset!" he added, looking up at the red gold ruffles slowly untightening. He reflected that there is nothing in the world like health. Live cleanly and the high thinking will look after itself—or at least won't matter. Physical condition, there's nothing like it. Love and that sort of thing all very well in its way, but a cold bath in the morning and plenty of exercise.... He began to whistle, and then—because he did feel most frightfully well—to run.
"Run a mile without being out of breath," he thought complacently, and then—because he hadn't meant to—("wasn't even thinking of her," he grumbled to Providence)—he found himself outside her door. And in the road there was a motor, a little coral coloured motor. He looked at it in dismay and then he looked at the house. He saw it was lit up and he imagined the room he knew so well. The crimson damask curtains and the creamy walls, the glowing fire and the red roses, the roses he had sent for her. Probably she would be sitting on that white fur rug on the floor, her arms clasped round her knees, her red hair as bright as the red hot coals, her dark eyes dreamy and half closed.
"Damn him, I wonder who he is," and he started examining the motor.
"It's not very new," he thought, "the varnish is all off and those shiny leather seats are damned cold and slippery, draughty too, I should say; hood doesn't close properly. Must let in the rain like a leaking boat."
He put his hand on the mud guard. "Bent," he said. He felt a little cheered. But then, looking at the glowing house, he grew disconsolate again.
"Wonder what they're doing," he grumbled to himself. "Jabbering away, I'll be bound. Never was much of a hand at talking myself. Wonder who the deuce he is."
And then he looked contemptuously at the little motor.
"Damned if I couldn't do her better than that," he said. "God, how cold it is."
Irresolutely he moved away. Then he began to run, but the raw air caught his throat and he felt out of breath.
"Not as young as I was," he thought as he walked away into the damp night.
[To HAROLD CHILD]
He sat in front of his writing-table with a blank sheet of paper in front of him—a creamy, virginal sheet, inviting and elusive. "A few black smudges and the whole of life might be there," he thought, "concentrated but limited with four corners and no boundaries." He thought of the untouched whiteness of the paper violated by a masterpiece—or a love letter. He didn't want to think of love letters. He had written such hundreds, and for four years now they had all been to the same person. His fidelity had been due, he supposed, to the fact that to him she was almost more an idea than an individual, a legend that he had created. She was his faith, his religion, his shrine. She was on a pedestal from which she shed a pale gold light—silvery gold—of serenity won through suffering. He saw her very seldom, but when he was with her she reminded him of a catch in the voice. It was as if her life had reached breaking point and for one moment she would give him as divine gift a little poignant stumble before she regained the sure foothold of her calm courage. It was these precious moments that gave a burning spirit to his image of her. The legend had a soul.
But to-day he didn't want to think of her. He wanted to work. The word made him smile a little. There had been a time when ideas had seized hold of him and driven him recklessly wherever they wanted him to go. Then he had made form his fetish and it had become his prison. Now he had lost both his abandon and his rigidity and with each, a certain driving force had been taken away from him. He would sit in front of his table and remember that all the masterpieces of the world are contained in the alphabet and it would prevent him from writing. And then he would think of her and that would mean writing to her or writing for her. In a sense, everything he wrote was "To her." He remembered the first time that he had dared to write her a letter without a beginning. His pen had trembled in his hand. And yet it is the way all borderland letters begin, whether the frontier is between acquaintanceship and friendship, or between friendship and love. For there are moments in life when if you can't say "My own Blessed," you can say nothing—omission is the substitute for the absolute. Only with her, formality was a flavouring of intimacy, a curious fragrance like a faint clinging of unseen pot-pourri. And so, for a long time after he had sent her his first endless, beginningless out-pouring, her letters had begun, "Dear Mr. ——" and had ended very tidily, with a signature at the bottom of a page.
He had dedicated his first novel to her,—"To Mrs. ——" The dedication had pleased him. It was so immensely full of reserve and respect and the possibility of other things. A little, locked box of a dedication. It had pleased her, too. "It is a lovely dedication," she had said with that smile she had, which was like a peeping glimmer of sunshine on a grey day.
He had always gone on dedicating his books to her. His collection of poems had been called "To Jane"—which was not her name, but his name for her—a deep, clear name, resolute and courageous, calm and direct and sure. A still name. He wondered if any one had ever given to another human being as much as he had given her. Or perhaps it was no longer a question of giving. Everything came from her and belonged to her. She was the womb of his thoughts and feelings. She was his roots in life and his blossoming. She was the only fixed point in the chaotic muddle of things, giving a certain reality to the world simply by being in it.
He hardly ever saw her. He couldn't bring himself to force his way through the labyrinthine tangle of circumstances that surrounded her. It was as if by doing so, he could only reach her mud-spattered and chipped and bedraggled, an unworthy, battered object. And so he preferred her to live in his heart, warming and watering his imagination, glowing in cold, dark places, gilding the tips of his fancies, fertilising his soul. He hardly wanted her outside in the physical world. But when she was with him, he felt a deep serenity, an absolute harmony of life. Questions and questionings seemed remote and frivolous, the useless paraphernalia of empty lives. There came, with her, a fullness, a sense of completion.
He sat and thought of her and gradually he shut his eyes and imagined her coming into the room. Her movements would be very slow and deliberate and a little tired, as if gently, almost imperceptibly, she were laying down the burden of her life and allowing herself, just for a few moments, the luxurious restfulness of fatigue. Slowly she would pull off her long, clinging gloves and he would hold his breath with joy as she unsheathed her marvelous arms and hands. And then very tenderly, he would lift them to his lips, one by one, laying them down on her lap again where he could see them. And they would smile at one another—a faint smile hers would be, seen as it were, through the veils of her exquisite reticencies. And then because she knew it made him happy, she would take off her hat and release the shimmer of her silvery gold hair, a halo made of sunshine and moonlight, inextricably interwoven. She always gave him a feeling of gold and silver and luminous whiteness, a steady radiance that illuminated without blinding. And perhaps she would sink her head back into a cushion and shut her eyes with a little grateful sigh to these moments of respite, and he would watch her, proud beyond measure to be able to give her these little patches of peace. And between them there would be a fullness of silence. Sometimes she would talk a little with a low, clear, echoless voice like a note without a pedal. A still voice—monotonous, people called it—with almost imperceptible modulations which seemed gradually deeply significant as your ear became attuned to them, like a dim room in which you are able to see everything when your eye is accustomed to the light.
It was one of the altogether satisfying things about her, this abundant treasure of intimacy which could not be guessed at or even suspected by the ordinary passer-by. "That is the woman with the lovely hair? I never know what to talk to her about," he had heard people say, and exultantly, reverently, he had pressed her image to his heart. She never talked much. Seeing her in imagination to-day, he saw her leaning back, everything about her drooping and relaxed, her arms, her hands, her feet—they had all abdicated—only from the depths of her infinite tiredness she was smiling faintly and her smile was the dedication of this moment to him. Every now and then she would ask him a question and he would answer—rather shortly—or she would make a statement which he would seal with a monosyllable. There were never any comments between them. In the absoluteness of their understanding, explanations and amplifications had become impossible.
And she would get up slowly, giving herself a little shake to wake herself up into reality while he gave her her hat, her hat-pins, her veil, her gloves, her bag, one by one, and taking her hands, he would kiss them first on the backs and then on the palms and then give them too back to her.
And she would say, "Thank you," and look slowly all round the room, as she always did, wanting to take it away with her without one detail missing, for it was to this room that her soul retreated in its moments of unbearable loneliness.
With difficulty, she would make her way to the door and rather hurriedly, because she knew it was a weakness—she who was so deliberate and so strong—she would say, "Write to me," and then she would open and shut the door herself because she liked to take away the picture of him standing in the middle of his sanctuary—her sanctuary....
* * * * *
He opened his eyes. The room was so full of her that he took a deep breath, breathing the certainty of her into his soul. And he seemed to hear the words, "Write to me." He smiled very tenderly. He loved her to have this one little wish—she was so far above and beyond concrete manifestations—she who had such a deep contempt for imprisoning forms. And he remembered her once looking at a cheque and saying, "The figures, after all, are a limitation." And suddenly in front of him he saw the blank sheet of paper. "She shall have the most wonderful love-letter ever written by man to woman," he said to himself and at the very bottom of the page, he put one initial. Then very tenderly he folded it up and addressed it, remembering that it was thus that his first novel had been dedicated—"To Mrs. ——." "The difference is," he thought, "that this is a masterpiece."
[To SYLVESTER GATES]
She lay on a sofa covered with white marabou, her head sunk deep into a billowy morass of lace-coloured satin and lace-coloured lace. She could see her pointed toes emerging and her arm dangling over the edge as if she had forgotten it. On her finger was a huge emerald ring, a splotch of creme de menthe spilt on the whiteness of her hand. She felt entrenched and anchored in an altogether strong position, so fixed that all advances would have to be made to her. This gave to her voice and to her gestures an indolent melodious security.
As the door opened she turned her eyes round slowly, suppressing all eagerness.
"Mortimer!" She wondered if disappointment could be as easily controlled as joy. "How nice of you to come and see me!"
"Are you glad—really?" He was kissing her hand with an unnecessary mixture of shyness and intensity.
"How intolerably literal people in love are," she thought petulantly; "always forcing significance into everything."
"Of course," she said, smiling lazily.
"It is good of you to let me come like this." How she hated his humility, but—"I like you to," she murmured, automatically kind.
"How lovely you look! Lovelier than ever before—as lovely as ever before." And then, "I love you."
"Do you think so?" She seemed amused and sceptical.
"Do you doubt it?" He clutched her wrist.
"Not if you put it like that."
"You are laughing at me," he recognised sadly.
"Forgive me." She put her hand on his, lightly, caressingly, her voice gentle and tender.
"But you do know it, don't you?" He was very insistent.
("Does he think that I am blind and deaf and that no one has ever loved me before?" she wondered irritably.)
"I think you think so," she prevaricated.
"I know," he was firm. "I shall love you always."
"Nonsense." She was tart with realism. "Why do you fly in the face of all experience with meaningless generalisations?"
"I have never said it before."
"Then how can you know?"
He hated her barrister mood.
"Elaine, aren't you glad I love you?"
"Of course." She closed her eyes wearily. They talked of other things and she remembered how intelligent he was. It had been—during these last months—very easy to forget. But though her interest was concentrated, his attention was on other things.
"Elaine," he blurted, "are you going to the country to-morrow?"
"I don't know."
"When will you know?"
"I have no idea!"
"But when shall I see you again?"
"I can't tell."
"Elaine, please do put me out of my misery."
"Very well then—I shan't see you again this week."
"I am sorry I bothered you; don't punish me. I promise not to ask any more questions, but please let me know when you come back. Even if you only ring me up on the telephone I shall have heard your voice!"
"You're not angry with me, are you?"
"Why should I be?"
"I thought perhaps you were."
There was a pause. "Is there anything amusing about being loved?" she thought; "what patient women the great coquettes of the world must have been! How I wish I were a crisp intelligent old maid, with a talent perhaps for gardening or books on the Renaissance!"
"How tired you look!" He had taken her hand and was pressing it with funny little jerky grasps. "I wish you belonged to me; I wouldn't let you spend yourself on every Tom, Dick and Harry."
"It is so difficult to know," she murmured, "who is Tom, who is Dick, or who is Harry!"
"When I think of the way your divine sympathy is imposed upon—the way your friends take advantage of you!"
"But I like being taken advantage of."
"People's selfishness makes me sick. Look at your white face and your drooping eyelids, and your tired little smiles."
"I am sorry."
"Sorry! Good God! My beloved, do take care of yourself, please. Promise me not to see any one after I leave; go to bed and pull the blinds."
"But I am expecting Bill."
"Bill will be all the better for not getting what he wants for once."
"But supposing he doesn't want it?"
"I don't understand."
The door opened.
"Bill!" She put out her left hand, all her features lit up with a quiet luminous radiance. His eyes were smiling, but his mouth was grave.
"Elaine!" He said it as if it were a very significant remark, and, though he hadn't meant to, he caressed her name with his voice.
"Mortimer thinks I ought to go to bed and send you away."
"But you won't?"
"Probably not." She was bubbling over with gaiety. "I am very weak-minded."
The two men were not looking at one another, but currents of hostility flowed between them. Bill had not fought for Elaine's love; it had come to him with a strange inevitability. He had no fear of losing it and no particular desire to keep it, but the thought that you possess something that some one else passionately covets is always exhilarating. He would never have admitted it—he could never have admitted it, but she was to him like an object dangled on a watch chain—not obtrusively displayed but a possession recognised by everybody and taken for granted by him. Only he never seemed bored because he was never tired of mobilising his own charms. And in herself, she delighted him—it was only in her relations with him that she got on his nerves. He loved to see her with other men exercising the divine arts of her irresistibility, her every smile, her every gesture, the intonations of her voice, the turn of her head, her bubbling brilliance, her cool indifference, the ice of her intellect, the glow of her sympathy, each contributing to the masterpiece of her coquetry. But with him she was not even a coquette—jerky, passionate, nervous, humble, exacting, dull—she tired him to death.
"Well, I must be going." Mortimer spoke doubtfully. There was a pause. Then Elaine pulled herself together.
"I have so much to do."
"It was so nice of you to come and see me."
"It was so nice of you to let me come. Please remember your promise to let me know when you come back."
"Of course." He was gone.
Wearily she shut her eyes. "Do you remember the time when Mortimer was charming?"
"Indeed I do; he was quite delightful till he fell in love with you. He is really a warning against loving."
"You hardly heed it, do you?" Her voice was very bitter. How he hated the entry of the acidulated tragic into all their talks.
"Perhaps not." He felt guilty, knowing how much he was hurting her. "After all you cannot ask me to model myself on the man who bores you most in the world."
She smiled. "What a good reason for not loving me!"
"The best!" He was smiling his enchanting, flattering smile at her—the smile that always seemed to draw you into the Holy of Holies of his confidence.
"I may be going away to-morrow," she said.
"But I shall be back on Thursday. Shall we dine together that night?"
"I am dining with a Russian friend of mine who is passing through London."
"Friday I am going to the country for the week-end."
"Then it will have to be Monday."
"Yes, I am afraid so."
"Afraid that you will have to dine with me?"
"How civil you are!"
There was a pause. She wished she could keep all the acid out of her voice. He thought how tiresome women were, always wanting to know just what you were going to do.
"Bill," she said, holding out her hand, which he took rather perfunctorily. He felt like a dog that knows exactly which trick follows what word of command, but as, from force of habit, he invariably became lover-like when he was absent-minded, he stroked her arm with a significant caressing gesture that filled her with joy.
"Are you glad I love you?" she murmured.
"There is an intelligent woman," he thought, "who has had hundreds of men in love with her, making a demand for verbal assurances that can't possibly add anything to her peace of mind. Either they are true and superfluous, or they are false and transparently unconvincing."
"Bill," she said, reading his thoughts, "you can't understand my wanting mere words, can you?"
"No," he said, "not you, who know so exactly what they mean."
"Nevertheless, they are sometimes vaguely comforting and reassuring—a sort of local anaesthetic." He loved her insight, her curious layers of detachment.
"Bill," she murmured, "I haven't seen you for ages."
"Not since two this morning."
"I don't count a ball; besides I was too tired to stop dancing."
"You danced like an angel and your eyes were shining with ecstasy, lighting hopes all round, though of course I knew you didn't know your partner from the parquet—if he happened to be as good as the floor."
"You love watching me, don't you? much better than seeing me." How he wished she weren't always right.
"Remember what a wonderful drama you are, Elaine."
"A drama in which you have played lead. But you only liked the first act—the Comedy Act, and you won't even enjoy the curtain as much as you think, because always there will be the nasty certainty of its some day going up again, and then you won't even be in the wings."
How diabolically clear-sighted she was!
"Bill, dearest," she held out her hand, "you are reaching the moment when you long to be the third person. You want a little rest. You have come to the point in the life of every lover when he prefers the husband to the wife."
But this was more than he could stand. A horrible shadow was being cast over his future, romance was shrinking before his eyes. Frightened, he bent down and kissed her. "Darling," he murmured, nestling his face in her neck, "what nonsense you talk."
Love, passion, romance, fidelity—all were vindicated by this deliberate act.
Her doubts, her certainties, subsided, vanished—hypnotised with happiness. "I was teasing," she lied.
"I must go," he said.
"Not just this moment, please; five more minutes."
"It will be just as difficult then."
"But I shall have had five more minutes."
"How practical you are!"
"I will write to you."
"And I shall try and be back in time for tea Thursday, then I shall see you, in spite of your stupid Russian."
"If I can get away."
"Can't you bring him to dine with me?"
"I'm afraid not; he has asked some one else."
"Shall I have some forms printed with 'I miss you, bless you,' for you to sign and send me each day."
"Well, at any rate, I shall have you properly on Monday."
"And please make a great effort about Thursday."
She drew him down to her, holding his face in her hands.
"It is silly to love at my time of life," she said; "I am too young. It is like wearing a lovely new dress to climb mountains in."
"You will always be young," he said; "you are eternal."
It was his considered view; he wished she weren't. Kissing her a little absently he walked to the door; then because he had always done so, he walked back.
"Bless you," he said. It was perfunctory and final. The shutting of the door turned out the light in her eyes.
"How tired I am!" she thought, and then—"Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday."
He knew that nothing could ever possibly happen to him again and so he sat on his sofa waiting—for death, he supposed, having excluded every other possibility. He didn't want to die, he didn't want to do anything, to eat or drink or feel or think—above all, he didn't want to move. He had shut his eyes trying to shut out the room. Every bit of it was saturated in her, everything had been consecrated—contaminated, it seemed to him now—by her touch. There wasn't a patch of carpet or chintz that didn't belong to her intimately and exclusively. Every object in the room seemed to pose her and add to the interminable picture gallery of his memory. He opened his eyes and saw an uncut pencil. Here, at any rate, was something new and independent—neutral territory, unsharpened it was an unloaded pistol and he wanted to shoot. At her? He was bound to miss. His bitterness was no medium through which to recapture her magic and without it he would merely be forcing a lay figure to perform vulgar and meaningless antics. And if he tore her to bits, it would be an indictment of himself, not of his gentlemanliness, that had long ceased to mean anything to him—but of his taste. Wearily, he shut his eyes. It was no good thinking when your mind had become a circle—a very small circle. He remembered something she had once said, "The future looks like the present, stretching interminably ahead in the shadow of the past." She had always understood everything, so she didn't deserve to be forgiven anything.
The front door bell rang and at once, he felt sick and faint. A ring still excited him as much as it had done in the days when it might have been hers. It was a ridiculous state of nerves that he had never been able to get out of.
A moment later she was in the room.
An absolute limpness had come over him. If his life had depended on it, he couldn't have lifted his hand. The surface of his mind examined every detail of her—the intense whiteness of her face and the severe blackness of her clothes, the fact that she wore no jewel of any sort, not even a ring—except, of course, her wedding-ring. He had never seen it before and it seemed a gaudy splash of colour out of harmony with the rest of her.
She took off her hat and laid it on the table. Then she walked to the window, touching the things she passed with a little caressing gesture. He noticed that she picked up the unpointed pencil and he felt a little desolate feeling, as if he had lost his only friend.
Suddenly, she turned round, "I am leaving England to-morrow," she said.
He shivered at her velvety voice, as he would have shivered had his hand touched suede. "Well," his voice was too natural to be natural, "you don't want to say good-bye to me again, do you?"
"Is there such a thing as 'good-bye,'" she mused; "won't this room always be a part of my life? Can one end anything? A chapter, a paragraph, a sentence even? Doesn't everything one has ever done go on living in spite of subsequent events?"
Relentlessly he brought her down from her generalisations.
"You have ended my life," he said.
"Oh, no." She was sitting beside him on the sofa. Gently and tentatively she put her hand on his. "Take it away," he said roughly, miserably, conscious that he was behaving like a hero of melodrama, and then more quietly, "can't you spare me anything?"