By FRANK SWINNERTON
TO MARTIN SECKER
INTRODUCTION BY H.G. WELLS
"'But do I see afore me, him as I ever sported with in his times of happy infancy? And may I—may I?'
"This May I, meant might he shake hands?"
—DICKENS, Great Expectations.
I do not know why I should be so overpoweringly reminded of the immortal, if at times impossible, Uncle Pumblechook, when I sit down to write a short preface to Mr. Swinnerton's Nocturne. Jests come at times out of the backwoods of a writer's mind. It is part of the literary quality that behind the writer there is a sub-writer, making a commentary. This is a comment against which I may reasonably expostulate, but which nevertheless I am indisposed to ignore.
The task of introducing a dissimilar writer to a new public has its own peculiar difficulties for the elder hand. I suppose logically a writer should have good words only for his own imitators. For surely he has chosen what he considers to be the best ways. What justification has he for praising attitudes he has never adopted and commending methods of treatment from which he has abstained? The reader naturally receives his commendations with suspicion. Is this man, he asks, stricken with penitence in the flower of his middle-age? Has he but just discovered how good are the results that the other game, the game he has never played, can give? Or has he been disconcerted by the criticism of the Young? The Fear of the Young is the beginning of his wisdom. Is he taking this alien-spirited work by the hand simply to say defensively and vainly: "I assure you, indeed, I am not an old fogy; I quite understand it." (There it is, I fancy, that the Pumblechook quotation creeps in.) To all of which suspicions, enquiries and objections, I will quote, tritely but conclusively: "In my Father's house are many Mansions," or in the words of Mr. Kipling:
"There are five and forty ways Of composing tribal lays And every blessed one of them is right."
Indeed now that I come to think it over, I have never in all my life read a writer of closely kindred method to my own that I have greatly admired; the confessed imitators give me all the discomfort without the relieving admission of caricature; the parallel instances I have always wanted to rewrite; while, on the other hand, for many totally dissimilar workers I have had quite involuntary admirations. It isn't merely that I don't so clearly see how they are doing it, though that may certainly be a help; it is far more a matter of taste. As a writer I belong to one school and as a reader to another—as a man may like to make optical instruments and collect old china. Swift, Sterne, Jane Austen, Thackeray and the Dickens of Bleak House were the idols of my youthful imitation, but the contemporaries of my early praises were Joseph Conrad, W.H. Hudson, and Stephen Crane, all utterly remote from that English tradition. With such recent admirations of mine as James Joyce, Mr. Swinnerton, Rebecca West, the earlier works of Mary Austen or Thomas Burke, I have as little kindred as a tunny has with a cuttlefish. We move in the same medium and that is about all we have in common.
This much may sound egotistical, and the impatient reader may ask when I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton, to which the only possible answer is that I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton as fast as I can and that all this leads as straightly as possible to a definition of Mr. Swinnerton's position. The science of criticism is still crude in its classification, there are a multitude of different things being done that are all lumped together heavily as novels, they are novels as distinguished from romances, so long as they are dealing with something understood to be real. All that they have in common beyond that is that they agree in exhibiting a sort of story continuum. But some of us are trying to use that story continuum to present ideas in action, others to produce powerful excitements of this sort or that, as Burke and Mary Austen do, while others again concentrate upon the giving of life as it is, seen only more intensely. Personally I have no use at all for life as it is, except as raw material. It bores me to look at things unless there is also the idea of doing something with them. I should find a holiday, doing nothing amidst beautiful scenery, not a holiday, but a torture. The contemplative ecstacy of the saints would be hell to me. In the—I forget exactly how many—books I have written, it is always about life being altered I write, or about people developing schemes for altering life. And I have never once "presented" life. My apparently most objective books are criticisms and incitements to change. Such a writer as Mr. Swinnerton, on the contrary, sees life and renders it with a steadiness and detachment and patience quite foreign to my disposition. He has no underlying motive. He sees and tells. His aim is the attainment of that beauty which comes with exquisite presentation. Seen through his art, life is seen as one sees things through a crystal lens, more intensely, more completed, and with less turbidity. There the business begins and ends for him. He does not want you or any one to do anything.
Mr. Swinnerton is not alone among recent writers in this clear, detached objectivity. We have in England a writer, Miss Dorothy Richardson, who has probably carried impressionism in fiction to its furthest limit. I do not know whether she will ever make large captures of the general reader, but she is certainly a very interesting figure for the critic and the amateur of fiction. In Pointed Roofs and Honeycomb, for example, her story is a series of dabs of intense superficial impression; her heroine is not a mentality, but a mirror. She goes about over her facts like those insects that run over water sustained by surface tension. Her percepts never become concepts. Writing as I do at the extremest distance possible from such work, I confess I find it altogether too much—or shall I say altogether too little?—for me. But Mr. Swinnerton, like Mr. James Joyce, does not repudiate the depths for the sake of the surface. His people are not splashes of appearance, but living minds. Jenny and Emmy in this book are realities inside and out; they are imaginative creatures so complete that one can think with ease of Jenny ten years hence or of Emmy as a baby. The fickle Alf is one of the most perfect Cockneys—a type so easy to caricature and so hard to get true—in fiction. If there exists a better writing of vulgar lovemaking, so base, so honest, so touchingly mean and so touchingly full of the craving for happiness than this that we have here in the chapter called After the Theatre, I do not know of it. Only a novelist who has had his troubles can understand fully what a dance among china cups, what a skating over thin ice, what a tight-rope performance is achieved in this astounding chapter. A false note, one fatal line, would have ruined it all. On the one hand lay brutality; a hundred imitative louts could have written a similar chapter brutally, with the soul left out, we've loads of such "strong stuff" and it is nothing; on the other side was the still more dreadful fall into sentimentality, the tear of conscious tenderness, the redeeming glimpse of "better things" in Alf or Emmy that would at one stroke have converted their reality into a genteel masquerade. The perfection of Alf and Emmy is that at no point does a "nature's gentleman" or a "nature's lady" show through and demand our refined sympathy. It is only by comparison with this supreme conversation that the affair of Keith and Jenny seems to fall short of perfection. But that also is at last perfected, I think, by Jenny's final, "Keith.... Oh, Keith!..."
Above these four figures again looms the majestic invention of "Pa." Every reader can appreciate the truth and humour of Pa, but I doubt if any one without technical experience can realise how the atmosphere is made and completed and rounded off by Pa's beer, Pa's needs, and Pa's accident, how he binds the bundle and makes the whole thing one, and what an enviable triumph his achievement is.
But the book is before the reader and I will not enlarge upon its merits further. Mr. Swinnerton has written four or five other novels before this one, but none of them compare with it in quality. His earlier books were strongly influenced by the work of George Gissing; they have something of the same fatigued greyness of texture and little of the artistic completeness and intense vision of Nocturne. He has also made two admirable and very shrewd and thorough studies of the work and lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and George Gissing. Like these two, he has had great experience of illness. He is a young man of so slender a health, so frequently ill, that even for the most sedentary purposes of this war, his country will not take him. It was in connection with his Gissing volume, for which I possessed some material he needed, that I first made his acquaintance. He has had something of Gissing's restricted and grey experiences, but he has nothing of Gissing's almost perverse gloom and despondency. Indeed he is as gay a companion as he is fragile. He is a twinkling addition to any Christmas party, and the twinkle is here in the style. And having sported with him "in his times of happy infancy," I add an intimate and personal satisfaction to my pleasant task of saluting this fine work that ends a brilliant apprenticeship and ranks Swinnerton as Master. This is a book that will not die. It is perfect, authentic, and alive. Whether a large and immediate popularity will fall to it I cannot say, but certainly the discriminating will find it and keep it and keep it alive. If Mr. Swinnerton were never to write another word I think he might count on this much of his work living, as much of the work of Mary Austen, W.H. Hudson, and Stephen Crane will live, when many of the more portentous reputations of to-day may have served their purpose in the world and become no more than fading names.
PART ONE: EVENING
I. SIX O'CLOCK
II. THE TREAT
IV. THE WISH
PART TWO: NIGHT
V. THE ADVENTURE
VI. THE YACHT
IX. WHAT FOLLOWED
PART THREE: MORNING
XI. AFTER THE THEATRE
CHAPTER I: SIX O'CLOCK
Six o'clock was striking. The darkness by Westminster Bridge was intense; and as the tramcar turned the corner from the Embankment Jenny craned to look at the thickly running water below. The glistening of reflected lights which spotted the surface of the Thames gave its rapid current an air of such mysterious and especially sinister power that she was for an instant aware of almost uncontrollable terror. She could feel her heart beating, yet she could not withdraw her gaze. It was nothing: no danger threatened Jenny but the danger of uneventful life; and her sense of sudden yielding to unknown force was the merest fancy, to be quickly forgotten when the occasion had passed. None the less, for that instant her dread was breathless. It was the fear of one who walks in a wood, at an inexplicable rustle. The darkness and the sense of moving water continued to fascinate her, and she slightly shuddered, not at a thought, but at the sensation of the moment. At last she closed her eyes, still, however, to see mirrored as in some visual memory the picture she was trying to ignore. In a faint panic, hardly conscious to her fear, she stared at her neighbour's newspaper, spelling out the headings to some of the paragraphs, until the need of such protection was past.
As the car proceeded over the bridge, grinding its way through the still rolling echoes of the striking hour, it seemed part of an endless succession of such cars, all alike crowded with homeward-bound passengers, and all, to the curious mind, resembling ships that pass very slowly at night from safe harbourage to the unfathomable elements of the open sea. It was such a cold still night that the sliding windows of the car were almost closed, and the atmosphere of the covered upper deck was heavy with tobacco smoke. It was so dark that one could not see beyond the fringes of the lamplight upon the bridge. The moon was in its last quarter, and would not rise for several hours; and while the glitter of the city lay behind, and the sky was greyed with light from below, the surrounding blackness spread creeping fingers of night in every shadow.
The man sitting beside Jenny continued to puff steadfastly at his pipe, lost in the news, holding mechanically in his further hand the return ticket which would presently be snatched by the hurrying tram-conductor. He was a shabby middle-aged clerk with a thin beard, and so he had not the least interest for Jenny, whose eye was caught by other beauties than those of assiduous labour. She had not even to look at him to be quite sure that he did not matter to her. Almost, Jenny did not care whether he had glanced sideways at herself or not. She presently gave a quiet sigh of relief as at length the river was left behind and the curious nervous tension—no more lasting than she might have felt at seeing a man balancing upon a high window-sill—was relaxed. She breathed more deeply, perhaps, for a few instants; and then, quite naturally, she looked at her reflection in the sliding glass. That hat, as she could see in the first sure speedless survey, had got the droops. "See about you!" she said silently and threateningly, jerking her head. The hat trembled at the motion, and was thereafter ignored. Stealthily Jenny went back to her own reflection in the window, catching the clearly-chiselled profile of her face, bereft in the dark mirror of all its colour. She could see her nose and chin quite white, and her lips as part of the general colourless gloom. A little white brooch at her neck stood boldly out; and that was all that could be seen with any clearness, as the light was not directly overhead. Her eyes were quite lost, apparently, in deep shadows. Yet she could not resist the delight of continuing narrowly to examine herself. The face she saw was hardly recognisable as her own; but it was bewitchingly pale, a study in black and white, the kind of face which, in a man, would at once have drawn her attention and stimulated her curiosity. She had longed to be pale, but the pallor she was achieving by millinery work in a stuffy room was not the marble whiteness which she had desired. Only in the sliding window could she see her face ideally transfigured. There it had the brooding dimness of strange poetic romance. You couldn't know about that girl, she thought. You'd want to know about her. You'd wonder all the time about her, as though she had a secret.... The reflection became curiously distorted. Jenny was smiling to herself.
As soon as the tramcar had passed the bridge, lighted windows above the shops broke the magic mirror and gave Jenny a new interest, until, as they went onward, a shopping district, ablaze with colour, crowded with loitering people, and alive with din, turned all thoughts from herself into one absorbed contemplation of what was beneath her eyes. So absorbed was she, indeed, that the conductor had to prod her shoulder with his two fingers before he could recover her ticket and exchange it for another. "'Arf asleep, some people!" he grumbled, shoving aside the projecting arms and elbows which prevented his free passage between the seats. "Feyuss please!" Jenny shrugged her shoulder, which seemed as though it had been irritated at the conductor's touch. It felt quite bruised. "Silly old fool!" she thought, with a brusque glance. Then she went silently back to the contemplation of all the life that gathered upon the muddy and glistening pavements below.
In a few minutes they were past the shops and once again in darkness, grinding along, pitching from end to end, the driver's bell clanging every minute to warn carts and people off the tramlines. Once, with an awful thunderous grating of the brakes, the car was pulled up, and everybody tried to see what had provoked the sense of accident. There was a little shouting, and Jenny, staring hard into the roadway, thought she could see as its cause a small girl pushing a perambulator loaded with bundles of washing. Her first impulse was pity—"Poor little thing"; but the words were hardly in her mind before they were chased away by a faint indignation at the child for getting in the tram's way. Everybody ought to look where they were going. Ev-ry bo-dy ought to look where they were go-ing, said the pitching tramcar. Ev-ry bo-dy.... Oh, sickening! Jenny looked at her neighbour's paper—her refuge. "Striking speech," she read. Whose? What did it matter? Talk, talk.... Why didn't they do something? What were they to do? The tram pitched to the refrain of a comic song: "Actions speak louder than words!" That kid who was wheeling the perambulator full of washing.... Jenny's attention drifted away like the speech of one who yawns, and she looked again at her reflection. The girl in the sliding glass wouldn't say much. She'd think the more. She'd say, when Sir Herbert pressed for his answer, "My thoughts are my own, Sir Herbert Mainwaring." What was it the girl in One of the Best said? "You may command an army of soldiers; but you cannot still the beating of a woman's heart!" Silly fool, she was. Jenny had felt the tears in her eyes, burning, and her throat very dry, when the words had been spoken in the play; but Jenny at the theatre and Jenny here and now were different persons. Different? Why, there were fifty Jennys. But the shrewd, romantic, honest, true Jenny was behind them all, not stupid, not sentimental, bold as a lion, destructively experienced in hardship and endurance, very quick indeed to single out and wither humbug that was within her range of knowledge, but innocent as a child before any other sort of humbug whatsoever. That was why she could now sneer at the stage-heroine, and could play with the mysterious beauties of her own reflection; but it was why she could also be led into quick indignation by something read in a newspaper.
Tum-ty tum-ty tum-ty tum, said the tram. There were some more shops. There were straggling shops and full-blazing rows of shops. There were stalls along the side of the road, women dancing to an organ outside a public-house. Shops, shops, houses, houses, houses ... light, darkness.... Jenny gathered her skirt. This was where she got down. One glance at the tragic lady of the mirror, one glance at the rising smoke that went to join the general cloud; and she was upon the iron-shod stairs of the car and into the greasy roadway. Then darkness, as she turned along beside a big building into the side streets among rows and rows of the small houses of Kennington Park.
It was painfully dark in these side streets. The lamps drew beams such a short distance that they were as useless as the hidden stars. Only down each street one saw mild spots starting out of the gloom, fascinating in their regularity, like shining beads set at prepared intervals in a body of jet. The houses were all in darkness, because evening meals were laid in the kitchens: the front rooms were all kept for Sunday use, excepting when the Emeralds and Edwins and Geralds and Dorises were practising upon their mothers' pianos. Then you could hear a din! But not now. Now all was as quiet as night, and even doors were not slammed. Jenny crossed the street and turned a corner. On the corner itself was a small chandler's shop, with "Magnificent Tea, per 2/- lb."; "Excellent Tea, per 1/8d. lb"; "Good Tea, per 1/4d. lb." advertised in great bills upon its windows above a huge collection of unlikely goods gathered together like a happy family in its tarnished abode. Jenny passed the dully-lighted shop, and turned in at her own gate. In a moment she was inside the house, sniffing at the warm odour-laden air within doors. Her mouth drew down at the corners. Stew to-night! An amused gleam, lost upon the dowdy passage, fled across her bright eyes. Emmy wouldn't have thanked her for that! Emmy—sick to death herself of the smell of cooking—would have slammed down the pot in despairing rage.
In the kitchen a table was laid; and Emmy stretched her head back to peer from the scullery, where she was busy at the gas stove. She did not say a word. Jenny also was speechless; and went as if without thinking to the kitchen cupboard. The table was only half-laid as usual; but that fact did not make her action the more palatable to Emmy. Emmy, who was older than Jenny by a mysterious period—diminished by herself, but kept at its normal term of three years by Jenny, except in moments of some heat, when it grew for purposes of retort,—was also less effective in many ways, such as in appearance and in adroitness; and Jenny comprised in herself, as it were, the good looks of the family. Emmy was the housekeeper, who looked after Pa Blanchard; Jenny was the roving blade who augmented Pa's pension by her own fluctuating wages. That was another slight barrier between the sisters. Nevertheless, Emmy was quite generous enough, and was long-suffering, so that her resentment took the general form of silences and secret broodings upon their different fortunes. There was a great deal to be said about this difference, and the saying grew more and more remote from explicit utterance as thought of it ground into Emmy's mind through long hours and days and weeks of solitude. Pa could not hear anything besides the banging of pots, and he was too used to sudden noises to take any notice of such a thing; but the pots themselves, occasionally dented in savage dashes against each other or against the taps, might have heard vicious apostrophes if they had listened intently to Emmy's ejaculations. As it was, with the endurance of pots, they mutely bore their scars and waited dumbly for superannuation. And every bruise stood to Emmy when she renewed acquaintance with it as mark of yet another grievance against Jenny. For Jenny enjoyed the liberties of this life while Emmy stayed at home. Jenny sported while Emmy was engaged upon the hideous routine of kitchen affairs, and upon the nursing of a comparatively helpless old man who could do hardly anything at all for himself.
Pa was in his bedroom,—the back room on the ground-floor, chosen because he could not walk up the stairs, but must have as little trouble in self-conveyance as possible,—staggeringly making his toilet for the meal to come, sitting patiently in front of his dressing-table by the light of a solitary candle. He would appear in due course, when he was fetched. He had been a strong man, a runner and cricketer in his youth, and rather obstreperously disposed; but that time was past, and his strength for such pursuits was as dead as the wife who had suffered because of its vagaries. He could no longer disappear on the Saturdays, as he had been used to do in the old days. His chair in the kitchen, the horse-hair sofa in the sitting-room, the bed in the bedroom, were the only changes he now had from one day's end to another. Emmy and Jenny, pledges of a real but not very delicate affection, were all that remained to call up the sorrowful thoughts of his old love, and those old times of virility, when Pa and his strength and his rough boisterousness had been the delight of perhaps a dozen regular companions. He sometimes looked at the two girls with a passionless scrutiny, as though he were trying to remember something buried in ancient neglect; and his eyes would thereafter, perhaps at the mere sense of helplessness, fill slowly with tears, until Emmy, smothering her own rough sympathy, would dab Pa's eyes with a harsh handkerchief and would rebuke him for his decay. Those were hard moments in the Blanchard home, for the two girls had grown almost manlike in abhorrence of tears, and with this masculine distaste had arisen a corresponding feeling of powerlessness in face of emotion which they could not share. It was as though Pa had become something like an old and beloved dog, unable to speak, pitied and despised, yet claiming by his very dumbness something that they could only give by means of pats and half-bullying kindness. At such times it was Jenny who left her place at the table and popped a morsel of food into Pa's mouth; but it was Emmy who best understood the bitterness of his soul. It was Emmy, therefore, who would snap at her sister and bid her get on with her own food; while Pa Blanchard made trembling scrapes with his knife and fork until the mood passed. But then it was Emmy who was most with Pa; it was Emmy who hated him in the middle of her love because he stood to her as the living symbol of her daily inescapable servitude in this household. Jenny could never have felt that she would like to kill Pa. Emmy sometimes felt that. She at times, when he had been provoking or obtuse, so shook with hysterical anger, born of the inevitable days in his society and in the kitchen, that she could have thrown at him the battered pot which she carried, or could have pushed him passionately against the mantelpiece in her fierce hatred of his helplessness and his occasional perverse stupidity. He was rarely stupid with Jenny, but giggled at her teasing.
Jenny was taller than Emmy by several inches. She was tall and thin and dark, with an air of something like impudent bravado that made her expression sometimes a little wicked. Her nose was long and straight, almost sharp-pointed; her face too thin to be a perfect oval. Her eyes were wide open, and so full of power to show feeling that they seemed constantly alive with changing and mocking lights and shadows. If she had been stouter the excellent shape of her body, now almost too thick in the waist, would have been emphasised. Happiness and comfort, a decrease in physical as in mental restlessness, would have made her more than ordinarily beautiful. As it was she drew the eye at once, as though she challenged a conflict of will: and her movements were so swift and eager, so little clumsy or jerking, that Jenny had a carriage to command admiration. The resemblance between the sisters was ordinarily not noticeable. It would have needed a photograph—because photographs, besides flattening the features, also in some manner "compose" and distinguish them—to reveal the likenesses in shape, in shadow, even in outline, which were momentarily obscured by the natural differences of colouring and expression. Emmy was less dark, more temperamentally unadventurous, stouter, and possessed of more colour. She was twenty-eight or possibly twenty-nine, and her mouth was rather too hard for pleasantness. It was not peevish, but the lips were set as though she had endured much. Her eyes, also, were hard; although if she cried one saw her face soften remarkably into the semblance of that of a little girl. From an involuntary defiance her expression changed to something really pathetic. One could not help loving her then, not with the free give and take of happy affection, but with a shamed hope that nobody could read the conflict of sympathy and contempt which made one's love frigid and self-conscious. Jenny rarely cried: her cheeks reddened and her eyes grew full of tears; but she did not cry. Her tongue was too ready and her brain too quick for that. Also, she kept her temper from flooding over into the self-abandonment of angry weeping and vituperation. Perhaps it was that she had too much pride—or that in general she saw life with too much self-complacency, or that she was not in the habit of yielding to disappointment. It may have been that Jenny belonged to that class of persons who are called, self-sufficient. She plunged through a crisis with her own zest, meeting attack with counter-attack, keeping her head, surveying with the instinctive irreverence and self-protective wariness of the London urchin the possibilities and swaying fortunes of the fight. Emmy, so much slower, so much less self-reliant, had no refuge but in scolding that grew shriller and more shrill until it ended in violent weeping, a withdrawal from the field entirely abject. She was not a born fighter. She was harder on the surface, but weaker in powers below the surface. Her long solitudes had made her build up grievances, and devastating thoughts, had given her a thousand bitter things to fling into the conflict; but they had not strengthened her character, and she could not stand the strain of prolonged argument. Sooner or later she would abandon everything, exhausted, and beaten into impotence. She could bear more, endure more, than Jenny; she could bear much, so that the story of her life might be read as one long scene of endurance of things which Jenny would have struggled madly to overcome or to escape. But having borne for so long, she could fight only like a cat, her head as it were turned aside, her fur upon end, stealthily moving paw by paw, always keeping her front to the foe, but seeking for escape—until the pride perilously supporting her temper gave way and she dissolved into incoherence and quivering sobs.
It might have been said roughly that Jenny more closely resembled her father, whose temperament in her care-free, happy-go-lucky way she understood very well (better than Emmy did), and that while she carried into her affairs a necessarily more delicate refinement than his she had still the dare-devil spirit that Pa's friends had so much admired. She had more humour than Emmy—more power to laugh, to be detached, to be indifferent. Emmy had no such power. She could laugh; but she could only laugh seriously, or at obviously funny things. Otherwise, she felt everything too much. As Jenny would have said, she "couldn't take a joke." It made her angry, or puzzled, to be laughed at. Jenny laughed back, and tried to score a point in return, not always scrupulously. Emmy put a check on her tongue. She was sometimes virtuously silent. Jenny rarely put a check on her tongue. She sometimes let it say perfectly outrageous things, and was surprised at the consequences. For her it was enough that she had not meant to hurt. She sometimes hurt very much. She frequently hurt Emmy to the quick, darting in one of her sure careless stabs that shattered Emmy's self-control. So while they loved each other, Jenny also despised Emmy, while Emmy in return hated and was jealous of Jenny, even to the point of actively wishing in moments of furtive and shamefaced savageness to harm her. That was the outward difference between the sisters in time of stress. Of their inner, truer, selves it would be more rash to speak, for in times of peace Jenny had innumerable insights and emotions that would be forever unknown to the elder girl. The sense of rivalry, however, was acute: it coloured every moment of their domestic life, unwinking and incessant. When Emmy came from the scullery into the kitchen bearing her precious dish of stew, and when Jenny, standing up, was measured against her, this rivalry could have been seen by any skilled observer. It rayed and forked about them as lightning might have done about two adjacent trees. Emmy put down her dish.
"Fetch Pa, will you!" she said briefly. One could see who gave orders in the kitchen.
Jenny found her father in his bedroom, sitting before the dressing-table upon which a tall candle stood in an equally tall candlestick. He was looking intently at his reflection in the looking-glass, as one who encounters and examines a stranger. In the glass his face looked red and ugly, and the tossed grey hair and heavy beard were made to appear startlingly unkempt. His mouth was open, and his eyes shaded by lowered lids. In a rather trembling voice he addressed Jenny upon her entrance.
"Is supper ready?" he asked. "I heard you come in."
"Yes, Pa," said Jenny. "Aren't you going to brush your hair? Got a fancy for it like that, have you? My! What a man! With his shirt unbuttoned and his tie out. Come here! Let's have a look at you!" Although her words were unkind, her tone was not, and as she rectified his omissions and put her arm round him Jenny gave her father a light hug. "All right, are you? Been a good boy?"
"Yes ... a good boy...." he feebly and waveringly responded. "What's the noos to-night, Jenny?"
Jenny considered. It made her frown, so concentrated was her effort to remember.
"Well, somebody's made a speech," she volunteered. "They can all do that, can't they! And somebody's paid five hundred pounds transfer for Jack Sutherdon ... is it Barnsley or Burnley?... And—oh, a fire at Southwark.... Just the usual sort of news, Pa. No murders...."
"Ah, they don't have the murders they used to have," grumbled the old man.
"That's the police, Pa." Jenny wanted to reassure him.
"I don't know how it is," he trembled, stiffening his body and rising from the chair.
"Perhaps they hush 'em up!" That was a shock to him. He could not move until the notion had sunk into his head. "Or perhaps people are more careful.... Don't get leaving themselves about like they used to."
Pa Blanchard had no suggestion. Such perilous ideas, so frequently started by Jenny for his mystification, joggled together in his brain and made there the subject of a thousand ruminations. They tantalised Pa's slowly revolving thoughts, and kept these moving through long hours of silence. Such notions preserved his interest in the world, and his senile belief in Magic, as nothing else could have done.
Together, their pace suited to his step, the two moved slowly to the door. It took a long time to make the short journey, though Jenny supported her father on the one side and he used a stick in his right hand. In the passage he waited while she blew out his candle; and then they went forward to the meal. At the approach Pa's eyes opened wider, and luminously glowed.
"Is there dumplings?" he quivered, seeming to tremble with excitement.
"One for you, Pa!" cried Emmy from the kitchen. Pa gave a small chuckle of joy. His progress was accelerated. They reached the table, and Emmy took his right arm for the descent into a substantial chair. Upon Pa's plate glistened a fair dumpling, a glorious mountain of paste amid the wreckage of meat and gravy. "And now, perhaps," Emmy went on, smoothing back from her forehead a little streamer of hair, "you'll close the door, Jenny...."
It was closed with a bang that made Pa jump and Emmy look savagely up.
"Sorry!" cried Jenny. "How's that dumpling, Pa?" She sat recklessly at the table.
To look at the three of them sitting there munching away was a sight not altogether pleasing. Pa's veins stood out from his forehead, and the two girls devoted themselves to the food as if they needed it. There was none of the airy talk that goes on in the houses of the rich while maids or menservants come respectfully to right or left of the diners with decanters or dishes. Here the food was the thing, and there was no speech. Sometimes Pa's eyes rolled, sometimes Emmy glanced up with unconscious malevolence at Jenny, sometimes Jenny almost winked at the lithograph portrait of Edward the Seventh (as Prince of Wales) which hung over the mantelpiece above the one-and-tenpenny-ha'penny clock that ticked away so busily there. Something had happened long ago to Edward the Seventh, and he had a stain across his Field Marshal's uniform. Something had happened also to the clock, which lay upon its side, as if kicking in a death agony. Something had happened to almost everything in the kitchen. Even the plates on the dresser, and the cups and saucers that hung or stood upon the shelves, bore the noble scars of service. Every time Emmy turned her glance upon a damaged plate, as sharp as a stalactite, she had the thought: "Jenny's doing." Every time she looked at the convulsive clock Emmy said to herself: "That was Miss Jenny's cleverness when she chucked the cosy at Alf." And when Emmy said in this reflective silence of animosity the name "Alf" she drew a deep breath and looked straight up at Jenny with inscrutable eyes of pain.
The stew being finished, Emmy collected the plates, and retired once again to the scullery. Now did Jenny show afresh that curiosity whose first flush had been so ill-satisfied by the meat course. When, however, Emmy reappeared with that most domestic of sweets, a bread pudding, Jenny's face fell once more; for of all dishes she most abominated bread pudding. Under her breath she adversely commented.
"Oh lor!" she whispered. "Stew and b.p. What a life!"
Emmy, not hearing, but second sighted on such matters, shot a malevolent glance from her place. In an awful voice, intended to be a trifle arch, she addressed her father.
"Bready butter pudding, Pa?" she inquired. The old man whinnied with delight, and Emmy was appeased. She had one satisfied client, at any rate. She cut into the pudding with a knife, producing wedges with a dexterous hand.
"Hey ho!" observed Jenny to herself, tastelessly beginning the work of laborious demolition.
"Jenny thinks it's common. She ought to have the job of getting the meals!" cried Emmy, bitterly, obliquely attacking her sister by talking at her. "Something to talk about then!" she sneered with chagrin, up in arms at a criticism.
"Well, the truth is," drawled Jenny.... "If you want it ... I don't like bread pudding." Somehow she had never said that before, in all the years; but it seemed to her that bread pudding was like ashes in the mouth. It was like duty, or funerals, or ... stew.
"The stuff's got to be finished up!" flared Emmy defiantly, with a sense of being adjudged inferior because she had dutifully habituated herself to the appreciation of bread pudding. "You might think of that! What else am I to do?"
"That's just it, old girl. Just why I don't like it. I just hate to feel I'm finishing it up. Same with stew. I know it's been something else first. It's not fresh. Same old thing, week in, week out. Finishing up the scraps!"
"Proud stomach!" A quick flush came into Emmy's cheeks; and tears started to her eyes.
"Perhaps it is. Oh, but Em! Don't you feel like that yourself.... Sometimes? O-o-h!..." She drawled the word wearily. "Oh for a bit more money! Then we could give stew to the cat's-meat man and bread to old Thompson's chickens. And then we could have nice things to eat. Nice birds and pastry ... and trifle, and ices, and wine.... Not all this muck!"
"Muck!" cried Emmy, her lips seeming to thicken. "When I'm so hot.... And sick of it all! You go out; you do just exactly what you like.... And then you come home and...." She began to gulp. "What about me?"
"Well, it's just as bad for both of us!" Jenny did not think so really; but she said it. She thought Emmy had the bread and butter pudding nature, and that she did not greatly care what she ate as long as it was not too fattening. Jenny thought of Emmy as born for housework and cooking—of stew and bread puddings. For herself she had dreamed a nobler destiny, a destiny of romance, of delicious unknown things, romantic and indescribably exciting. She was to have the adventures, because she needed them. Emmy didn't need them. It was all very well for Emmy to say "What about me!" It was no business of hers what happened to Emmy. They were different. Still, she repeated more confidently because there had been no immediate retort:
"Well, it's just as bad for both of us! Just as bad!"
"'Tisn't! You're out all day—doing what you like!"
"Oh!" Jenny's eyes opened with theatrical wideness at such a perversion of the facts. "Doing what I like! The millinery!"
"You are! You don't have to do all the scraping to make things go round, like I have to. No, you don't! Here have I ... been in this ... place, slaving! Hour after hour! I wish you'd try and manage better. I bet you'd be thankful to finish up the scraps some way—any old way! I'd like to see you do what I do!"
Momentarily Jenny's picture of Emmy's nature (drawn accommodatingly by herself in order that her own might be differentiated and exalted by any comparison) was shattered. Emmy's vehemence had thus the temporary effect of creating a fresh reality out of a common idealisation of circumstance. The legend would re-form later, perhaps, and would continue so to re-form as persuasion flowed back upon Jenny's egotism, until it crystallised hard and became unchallengeable; but at any rate for this instant Jenny had had a glimmer of insight into that tamer discontent and rebelliousness that encroached like a canker upon Emmy's originally sweet nature. The shock of impact with unpleasant conviction made Jenny hasten to dissemble her real belief in Emmy's born inferiority. Her note was changed from one of complaint into one of persuasive entreaty.
"It's not that. It's not that. Not at all. But wouldn't you like a change from stew and bread pudding yourself? Sometimes, I mean. You seem to like it all right." At that ill-considered suggestion, made with unintentional savageness, Jenny so worked upon herself that her own colour rose high. Her temper became suddenly unmanageable. "You talk about me being out!" she breathlessly exclaimed. "When do I go out? When! Tell me!"
"O-o-h! I like that! What about going to the pictures with Alf Rylett?" Emmy's hands were, jerking upon the table in her anger. "You're always out with him!"
"Me? Well I never! I'm not. When—"
They were interrupted unexpectedly by a feeble and jubilant voice.
"More bready butter pudding!" said Pa Blanchard, tipping his plate to show that he had finished.
"Yes, Pa!" For the moment Emmy was distracted from her feud. In a mechanical way, as mothers sometimes, deep in conversation, attend to their children's needs, she put another wedge of pudding upon the plate. "Well, I say you are," she resumed in the same strained voice. "And tell me when I go out! I go out shopping. That's all. But for that, I'm in the house day and night. You don't care tuppence about Alf—you wouldn't, not if he was walking the soles off his boots to come to you. You never think about him. He's like dirt, to you. Yet you go out with him time after time...." Her lips as she broke off were pursed into a trembling unhappy pout, sure forerunner of tears. Her voice was weak with feeling. The memory of lonely evenings surged into her mind, evenings when Jenny was out with Alf, while she, the drudge, stayed at home with Pa, until she was desperate with the sense of unutterable wrong. "Time after time, you go."
"Sorry, I'm sure!" flung back Jenny, fairly in the fray, too quick not to read the plain message of Emmy's tone and expression, too cruel to relinquish the sudden advantage. "I never guessed you wanted him. I wouldn't have done it for worlds. You never said, you know!" Satirically, she concluded, with a studiously careful accent, which she used when she wanted to indicate scorn or innuendo, "I'm sorry. I ought to have asked if I might!" Then, with a dash into grimmer satire: "Why doesn't he ask you to go with him? Funny his asking me, isn't it?"
Emmy grew violently crimson. Her voice had a roughness in it. She was mortally wounded.
"Anybody'd know you were a lady!" she said warmly.
"They're welcome!" retorted Jenny. Her eyes flashed, glittering in the paltry gaslight. "He's never ... Emmy, I didn't know you were such a silly little fool. Fancy going on like that ... about a man like him. At your age!"
Vehement glances flashed between them. All Emmy's jealousy was in her face, clear as day. Jenny drew a sharp breath. Then, obstinately, she closed her lips, looking for a moment like the girl in the sliding window, inscrutable. Emmy, also recovering herself, spoke again, trying to steady her voice.
"It's not what you think. But I can't bear to see you ... playing about with him. It's not fair. He thinks you mean it. You don't!"
"Course I don't. I don't mean anything. A fellow like that!" Jenny laughed a little, woundingly.
"What's the matter with him?" Savagely, Emmy betrayed herself again. She was trembling from head to foot, her mind blundering hither and thither for help against a quicker-witted foe. "It's only you he's not good enough for," she said passionately. "What's the matter with him?"
Jenny considered, her pale face now deadly white, all the heat gone from her cheeks, though the hard glitter remained in her eyes, cruelly indicating the hunger within her bosom.
"Oh, he's all right in his way," she drawlingly admitted. "He's clean. That's in his favour. But he's quiet ... he's got no devil in him. Sort of man who tells you what he likes for breakfast. I only go with him ... well, you know why, as well as I do. He's all right enough, as far as he goes. But he's never on for a bit of fun. That's it: he's got no devil in him. I don't like that kind. Prefer the other sort."
During this speech Emmy had kept back bitter interruptions by an unparalleled effort. It had seemed as though her fury had flickered, blazing and dying away as thought and feeling struggled together for mastery. At the end of it, however, and at Jenny's declared preference for men of devil, Emmy's face hardened.
"You be careful, my girl," she prophesied with a warning glance of anger. "If that's the kind you're after. Take care you're not left!"
"Oh, I can take care," Jenny said, with cold nonchalance. "Trust me!"
Later, when they were both in the chilly scullery, washing up the supper dishes, they were again constrained. Somehow when they were alone together they could not quarrel: it needed the presence of Pa Blanchard to stimulate them to retort. In his rambling silences they found the spur for their unkind eloquence, and too often Pa was used as a stalking-horse for their angers. He could hardly hear, and could not follow the talk; but by directing a remark to him, so that it cannoned off at the other, each obtained satisfaction for the rivalry that endured from day to day between them. Their hungry hearts, all the latent bitternesses in their natures, yearning for expression, found it in his presence. But alone, whatever their angers, they were generally silent. It may have been that their love was strong, or that their courage failed, or that the energy required for conflict was not aroused. That they deeply loved one another was sure; there was rivalry, jealousy, irritation between them, but it did not affect their love. The jealousy was a part of their general discontent—a jealousy that would grow more intense as each remained frustrate and unhappy. Neither understood the forces at work within herself; each saw these perversely illustrated in the other's faults. In each case the cause of unhappiness was unsatisfied love, unsatisfied craving for love. It was more acute in Emmy's case, because she was older and because the love she needed was under her eyes being wasted upon Jenny—if it were love, and not that mixture of admiration and desire with self-esteem that goes to make the common formula to which the name of love is generally attached. Jenny could not be jealous of Emmy as Emmy was jealous of Jenny. She had no cause; Emmy was not her rival. Jenny's rival was life itself, as will be shown hereafter: she had her own pain.
It was thus only natural that the two girls, having pushed Pa's chair to the side of the kitchen fire, and having loaded and set light to Pa's pipe, should work together in silence for a few minutes, clearing the table and washing the supper dishes. They were distant, both aggrieved; Emmy with labouring breath and a sense of bitter animosity, Jenny with the curled lip of one triumphant who does not need her triumph and would abandon it at the first move of forgiveness. They could not speak. The work was done, and Emmy was rinsing the washing basin, before Jenny could bring herself to say awkwardly what she had in her mind.
"Em," she began. "I didn't know you ... you know." A silence. Emmy continued to swirl the water round with the small washing-mop, her face averted. Jenny's lip stiffened. She made another attempt, to be the last, restraining her irritation with a great effort. "If you like I won't ... I won't go out with him any more."
"Oh, you needn't worry," Emmy doggedly said, with her teeth almost clenched. "I'm not worrying about it." She tried then to keep silent; but the words were forced from her wounded heart. With uncontrollable sarcasm she said: "It's very good of you, I'm sure!"
"Em!" It was coaxing. Jenny went nearer. Still there was no reply. "Em ... don't be a silly cat. If he'd only ask you to go once or twice. He'd always want to. You needn't worry about me being ... See, I like somebody else—another fellow. He's on a ship. Nowhere near here. I only go with Alf because ... well, after all, he's a man; and they're scarce. Suppose I leave off going with him...."
Both knew she had nothing but kind intention, as in fact the betrayal of her own secret proved; but as Jenny could not keep out of her voice the slightest tinge of complacent pity, so Emmy could not accept anything so intolerable as pity.
"Thanks," she said in perfunctory refusal; "but you can do what you like. Just what you like." She was implacable. She was drying the basin, her face hidden. "I'm not going to take your leavings." At that her voice quivered and had again that thread of roughness in it which had been there earlier. "Not likely!"
"Well, I can't help it, can I!" cried Jenny, out of patience. "If he likes me best. If he won't come to you. I mean, if I say I won't go out with him—will that put him on to you or send him off altogether? Em, do be sensible. Really, I never knew. Never dreamt of it. I've never wanted him. It's not as though he'd whistled and I'd gone trotting after him. Em! You get so ratty about—"
"Superior!" cried Emmy, gaspingly. "Look down on me!" She was for an instant hysterical, speaking loudly and weepingly. Then she was close against Jenny; and they were holding each other tightly, while Emmy's dreadful quiet sobs shook both of them to the heart. And Jenny, above her sister's shoulder, could see through the window the darkness that lay without; and her eyes grew tender at an unbidden thought, which made her try to force herself to see through the darkness, as though she were sending a speechless message to the unknown. Then, feeling Emmy still sobbing in her arms, she looked down, laying her face against her sister's face. A little contemptuous smile appeared in her eyes, and her brow furrowed. Well, Emmy could cry. She couldn't. She didn't want to cry. She wanted to go out in the darkness that so pleasantly enwrapped the earth, back to the stir and glitter of life somewhere beyond. Abruptly Jenny sighed. Her vision had been far different from this scene. It had carried her over land and sea right into an unexplored realm where there was wild laughter and noise, where hearts broke tragically and women in the hour of ruin turned triumphant eyes to the glory of life, and where blinding streaming lights and scintillating colours made everything seem different, made it seem romantic, rapturous, indescribable. From that vision back to the cupboard-like house in Kennington Park, and stodgy Alf Rylett, and supper of stew and bread and butter pudding, and Pa, and this little sobbing figure in her arms, was an incongruous flight. It made Jenny's mouth twist in a smile so painful that it was almost a grimace.
"Oh lor!" she said again, under her breath, as she had said it earlier. "What a life!"
CHAPTER II: THE TREAT
Gradually Emmy's tearless sobs diminished; she began to murmur broken, meaningless ejaculations of self-contempt; and to strain away from Jenny. At last she pushed Jenny from her, feverishly freeing herself, so that they stood apart, while Emmy blew her nose and wiped her eyes. All this time they did not speak to each other, and when Emmy turned blindly away Jenny mechanically took hold of the kettle, filled it, and set it to boil upon the gas. Emmy watched her curiously, feeling that her nose was cold and her eyes were burning. Little dry tremors seemed to shake her throat; dreariness had settled upon her, pressing her down; making her feel ashamed of such a display of the long secret so carefully hoarded away from prying glances.
"What's that for?" she miserably asked, indicating the kettle.
"Going to steam my hat," Jenny said. "The brim's all floppy." There was now only a practical note in her voice. She, too, was ashamed. "You'd better go up and lie down for a bit. I'll stay with Pa, in case he falls into the fire. Just the sort of thing he would do on a night like this. Just because you're upset."
"I shan't go up. It's too cold. I'll sit by the fire a bit."
They both went into the kitchen, where the old man was whistling under his breath.
"Was there any noos on the play-cards?" he inquired after a moment, becoming aware of their presence. "Emmy—Jenny."
"No, Pa. I told you. Have to wait till Sunday. Funny thing there's so much more news in the Sunday papers: I suppose people are all extra wicked on Saturdays. They get paid Friday night, I shouldn't wonder; and it goes to their heads."
"Silly!" Emmy said under her breath. "It's the week's news."
"That's all right, old girl," admonished Jenny. "I was only giving him something to think about. Poor old soul. Now, about this hat: the girls all go on at me.... Say I dress like a broker's-man. I'm going to smarten myself up. You never know what might happen. Why, I might get off with a Duke!"
Emmy was overtaken by an impulse of gratitude.
"You can have mine, if you like," she said. "The one you gave me ... on my birthday." Jenny solemnly shook her head. She did not thank her sister. Thanks were never given in that household, because they were a part of "peliteness," and were supposed to have no place in the domestic arena.
"Not if I know it!" she humorously retorted. "I made it for you, and it suits you. Not my style at all. I'll just get out my box of bits. You'll see something that'll surprise you, my girl."
The box proved to contain a large number of "bits" of all sizes and kinds—fragments of silk (plain and ribbed), of plush, of ribbon both wide and narrow; small sprays of marguerites, a rose or two, some poppies, and a bunch of violets; a few made bows in velvet and silk; some elastic, some satin, some feathers, a wing here and there ... the miscellaneous assortment of odds-and-ends always appropriated (or, in the modern military slang, "won") by assistants in the millinery. Some had been used, some were startlingly new. Jenny was more modest in such acquirements than were most of her associates; but she was affected, as all such must be, by the prevailing wind. Strangely enough, it was not her habit to wear very smart hats, for business or at any other time. She would have told you, in the event of any such remark, that when you had been fiddling about with hats all day you had other things to do in the evenings. Yet she had good taste and very nimble fingers when occasion arose. In bringing her box from the bedroom she brought also from the stand in the passage her drooping hat, against which she proceeded to lay various materials, trying them with her sure eye, seeking to compose a picture, with that instructive sense of cynosure which marks the crafty expert. Fascinated, with her lips parted in an expression of that stupidity which is so often the sequel to a fit of crying, Emmy watched Jenny's proceedings, her eyes travelling from the hat to the ever-growing heap of discarded ornaments. She was dully impressed with the swift judgment of her sister in consulting the secrets of her inner taste. It was a judgment unlike anything in her own nature of which she was aware, excepting the measurement of ingredients for a pudding.
So they sat, all engrossed, while the kettle began to sing and the desired steam to pour from the spout, clouding the scullery. The only sound that arose was the gurgling of Pa Blanchard's pipe (for he was what is called in Kennington Park a wet smoker). He sat remembering something or pondering the insufficiency of news. Nobody ever knew what he thought about in his silences. It was a mystery over which the girls did not puzzle, because they were themselves in the habit of sitting for long periods without speech. Pa's broodings were as customary to them as the absorbed contemplativeness of a baby. "Give him his pipe," as Jenny said; "and he'll be quiet for hours—till it goes out. Then there's a fuss! My word, what a racket! Talk about a fire alarm!" And on such occasions she would mimic him ridiculingly, to diminish his complaints, while Emmy roughly relighted the hubble-bubble and patted her father once more into a contented silence. Pa was to them, although they did not know it, their bond of union. Without him, they would have fallen apart, like the outer pieces of a wooden boot-tree. For his sake, with all the apparent lack of sympathy shown in their behaviour to him, they endured a life which neither desired nor would have tolerated upon her own account. So it was that Pa's presence acted as a check and served them as company of a meagre kind, although he was less interesting or expansive than a little dog might have been.
When Jenny went out to the scullery carrying her hat, after sweeping the scraps she had declined back into the old draper's cardboard box which amply contained such treasures and preserved them from dust, Emmy, now quite quiet again, continued to sit by the fire, staring at the small glowing strip that showed under the door of the kitchen grate. Every now and then she would sigh, wearily closing her eyes; and her breast would rise as if with a sob. And she would sometimes look slowly up at the clock, with her head upon one side in order to see the hands in their proper aspect, as if she were calculating.
From the scullery came the sound of Jenny's whistle as she cheerily held the hat over the steam. Pa heard it as something far away, like a distant salvationists' band, and pricked up his ears; Emmy heard it, and her brow was contracted. Her expression darkened. Jenny began to hum:
"'Oh Liza, sweet Liza, If you die an old maid you'll have only yourself to blame ...'"
It was like a sudden noise in a forest at night, so poignant was the contrast of the radiating silences that succeeded. Jenny's voice stopped sharply. Perhaps it had occurred to her that her song would be overheard. Perhaps she had herself become affected by the meaning of the words she was so carelessly singing. There was once more an air of oblivion over all things. The old man sank back in his chair, puffing slowly, blue smoke from the bowl of the pipe, grey smoke from between his lips. Emmy looked again at the clock. She had the listening air of one who awaits a bewildering event. Once she shivered, and bent to the fire, raking among the red tumbling small coal with the bent kitchen poker. Jenny began to whistle again, and Emmy impatiently wriggled her shoulders, jarred by the noise. Suddenly she could bear no longer the whistle that pierced her thoughts and distracted her attention, but went out to the scullery.
"How are you getting on?" she asked with an effort.
"Fine. This gas leaks. Can't you whiff it? Don't know which one it is. Pa all right?"
"Yes, he's all right. Nearly finished?"
"Getting on. Tram nearly ran over a kid to-night. She was wheeling a pram full of washing on the line. There wasn't half a row about it—shouting and swearing. Anybody would have thought the kid had laid down on the line. I expect she was frightened out of her wits—all those men shouting at her. There, now I'll lay it on the plate rack over the gas for a bit.... Look smart, shan't I! With a red rose in it and a red ribbon...."
"Not going to have those streamers, or any lace, are you?"
"Not likely. You see the kids round here wearing them; but the kids round here are always a season late. Same with their costumes. They don't know any better. I do!"
Jenny was cheerfully contemptuous. She knew what was being worn along Regent Street and in Bond Street, because she saw it with her own eyes. Then she came home and saw the girls of her own district swanking about like last year's patterns, as she said. She couldn't help laughing at them. It made her think of the tales of savages wearing top hats with strings of beads and thinking they were all in the latest European fashion. That is the constant amusement of the expert as she regards the amateur. She has all the satisfaction of knowing better, without the turmoil of competition, a fact which distinguishes the superior spirit from the struggling helot. Jenny took full advantage of her situation and her knowledge.
"Yes, you know a lot," Emmy said dryly.
"Ah, you've noticed it?" Jenny was not to be gibed at without retort. "I'm glad."
"So you think," Emmy added, as though she had not heard the reply.
There came at this moment a knock at the front door. Emmy swayed, grew pale, and then slowly reddened until the colour spread to the very edges of her bodice. The two girls looked at one another, a deliberate interchange of glances that was at the same time, upon both sides, an intense scrutiny. Emmy was breathing heavily; Jenny's nostrils were pinched.
"Well," at last said Jenny, drawlingly. "Didn't you hear the knock? Aren't you going to answer it?" She reached as she spoke to the hat lying upon the plate rack above the gas stove, looking fixedly away from her sister. Her air of gravity was unchanged. Emmy, hesitating, made as if to speak, to implore something; but, being repelled, she turned, and went thoughtfully across the kitchen to the front door. Jenny carried her hat into the kitchen and sat down at the table as before. The half-contemptuous smile had reappeared in her eyes; but her mouth was quite serious.
Pa Blanchard had worked as a boy and man in a large iron foundry. He had been a very capable workman, and had received as the years went on the maximum amount (with overtime) to be earned by men doing his class of work. He had not been abstemious, and so he had spent a good deal of his earnings in what is in Kennington Park called "pleasure"; but he had also possessed that common kind of sense which leads men to pay money into sick and benefit clubs. Accordingly, his wife's illness and burial had, as he had been in the habit of saying, "cost him nothing." They were paid by his societies. Similarly, when he had himself been attacked by the paralytic seizure which had wrecked his life, the societies had paid; and now, in addition to the pension allowed by his old employers, he received a weekly dole from the societies which brought his income up to fifty shillings a week. The pension, of course, would cease upon his death; but so long as life was kept burning within him nothing could affect the amounts paid weekly into the Blanchard exchequer. Pa was fifty-seven, and normally would have had a respectable number of years before him; his wants were now few, and his days were carefully watched over by his daughters. He would continue to draw his pensions for several years yet, unless something unexpected happened to him. Meanwhile, therefore, his pipe was regularly filled and his old pewter tankard appeared at regular intervals, in order that Pa should feel as little as possible the change in his condition.
Mrs. Blanchard had been dead ten years. She had been very much as Emmy now was, but a great deal more cheerful. She had been plump and fresh-coloured, and in spite of Pa Blanchard's ways she had led a happy life. In the old days there had been friends and neighbours, now all lost in course of removals from one part of London to another, so that the girls were without friends and knew intimately no women older than themselves. Mrs. Blanchard, perhaps in accord with her cheerfulness, had been a complacent, selfish little woman, very neat and clean, and disposed to keep her daughters in their place. Jenny had been her favourite; and even so early had the rivalry between them been established. Besides this, Emmy had received all the rebuffs needed to check in her the same complacent selfishness that distinguished her mother. She had been frustrated all along, first by her mother, then by her mother's preference for Jenny, finally (after a period during which she dominated the household after her mother's death) by Jenny herself. It was thus not upon a pleasant record of personal success that Emmy could look back, but rather upon a series of chagrins of which each was the harder to bear because of the history of its precursors. Emmy, between eighteen and nineteen at the time of her mother's death, had grasped her opportunity, and had made the care of the household her lot. She still bore, what was a very different reading of her ambition, the cares of the household. Jenny, as she grew up, had proved unruly; Pa Blanchard's illness had made home service compulsory; and so matters were like to remain indefinitely. Is it any wonder that Emmy was restive and unhappy as she saw her youth going and her horizons closing upon her with the passing of each year? If she had been wholly selfish that fact would have been enough to sour her temper. But another, emotionally more potent, fact produced in Emmy feelings of still greater stress. To that fact she had this evening given involuntary expression. Now, how would she, how could she, handle her destiny? Jenny, shrewdly thinking as she sat with her father in the kitchen and heard Emmy open the front door, pondered deeply as to her sister's ability to turn to account her own sacrifice.
Within a moment Alf Rylett appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, Emmy standing behind him until he moved forward, and then closing the door and leaning back against it. His first glance was in the direction of Jenny, who, however, did not rise as she would ordinarily have done. He glanced quickly at her face and from her face to her hands, so busily engaged in manipulating the materials from which she was to re-trim her hat. Then he looked at Pa Blanchard, whom he touched lightly and familiarly upon the shoulder. Alf was a rather squarely built young man of thirty, well under six feet, but not ungainly. He had a florid, reddish complexion, and his hair was of a common but unnamed colour, between brown and grey, curly and crisp. He was clean-shaven. Alf was obviously one who worked with his hands: in the little kitchen he appeared to stand upon the tips of his toes, in order that his walk might not be too noisy. That fact might have suggested either mere nervousness or a greater liking for life out of doors. When he walked it was as though he did it all of a piece, so that his shoulders moved as well as his legs. The habit was shown as he lunged forward to grip Jenny's hand. When he spoke he shouted, and he addressed Pa as a boy might have done who was not quite completely at his ease, but who thought it necessary to pretend that he was so.
"Good evening, Mr. Blanchard!" he cried boisterously. "Sitting by the fire, I see!"
Pa looked at him rather vacantly, apparently straining his memory in order to recognise the new-comer. It was plain that as a personal matter he had no immediate use for Alf Rylett; but he presently nodded his head.
"Sitting by the fire," he confirmed. "Getting a bit warm. It's cold to-night. Is there any noos, Alf Rylett?"
"Lots of it!" roared Alf, speaking as if it had been to a deaf man or a foreigner. "They say this fire at Southwark means ten thousand pounds damage. Big factory there—gutted. Of course, no outside fire escapes. As usual. Fully insured, though. It'll cost them nothing. You can't help wondering what causes these fires when they're heavily insured. Eh? Blazing all night, it was. Twenty-five engines. Twenty-five, mind you! That shows it was pretty big, eh? I saw the red in the sky, myself. 'Well,' I thought to myself, 'there's somebody stands to lose something,' I thought. But the insurance companies are too wide to stand all the risk themselves. They share it out, you know. It's a mere flea-bite to them. And ... a ... well then there's a ... See, then there's a bigamy case."
"Hey?" cried Pa sharply, brightening. "What's that about?"
"Nothing much. Only a couple of skivvies. About ten pound three and fourpence between the pair of them. That was all he got." Pa's interest visibly faded. He gurgled at his pipe and turned his face towards the mantelpiece. "And ... a ... let's see, what else is there?" Alf racked his brains, puffing a little and arching his brows at the two girls, who seemed both to be listening, Emmy intently, as though she were repeating his words to herself. He went on: "Tram smash in Newcastle. Car went off the points. Eleven injured. Nobody killed...."
"I don't call that much," said Jenny, critically, with a pin in her mouth. "Not much more than I told him an hour ago. He wants a murder, or a divorce. All these little tin-pot accidents aren't worth printing at all. What he wants is the cross-examination of the man who found the bones."
It was comical to notice the change on Alf at Jenny's interruption. From the painful concentration upon memory which had brought his eyebrows together there appeared in his expression the most delighted ease, a sort of archness that made his face look healthy and honest.
"What's that you're doing?" he eagerly inquired, forsaking Pa, and obviously thankful at having an opportunity to address Jenny directly. He came over and stood by the table, in spite of the physical effort which Emmy involuntarily made to will that he should not do so. Emmy's eyes grew tragic at his intimate, possessive manner in speaking to Jenny. "I say!" continued Alf, admiringly. "A new hat, is it? Smart! Looks absolutely A1. Real West End style, isn't it? Going to have some chiffong?"
"Sit down, Alf." It was Emmy who spoke, motioning him to a chair opposite to Pa. He took it, his shoulder to Jenny, while Emmy sat by the table, looking at him, her hands in her lap.
"How is he?" Alf asked, jerking his head at Pa. "Perked up when I said 'bigamy,' didn't he!"
"He's been very good, I will say," answered Emmy. "Been quiet all day. And he ate his supper as good as gold." Jenny's smile and little amused crouching of the shoulders caught her eye. "Well, so he did!" she insisted. Jenny took no notice. "He's had his—mustn't say it, because he always hears that word, and it's not time for his evening ... Eight o'clock he has it."
"What's that?" said Alf, incautiously. "Beer?"
"Beer!" cried Pa. "Beer!" It was the cry of one who had been malignantly defrauded, a piteous wail.
"There!" said both the girls, simultaneously. Jenny added: "Now you've done it!"
"All right, Pa! Not time yet!" But Emmy went to the kitchen cupboard as Pa continued to express the yearning that filled his aged heart.
"Sorry!" whispered Alf. "Hold me hand out, naughty boy!"
"He's like a baby with his titty bottle," explained Emmy. "Now he'll be quiet again."
Alf fidgeted a little. This contretemps had unnerved him. He was less sure of himself.
"Well," he said at last, darkly. "What I came in about ... Quarter to eight, is it? By Jove, I'm late. That's telling Mr. Blanchard all the news. The fact is, I've got a couple of tickets for the theatre down the road—for this evening, I thought ... erum ..."
"Oh, extravagance!" cried Jenny, gaily, dropping the pin from between her lips and looking in an amused flurry at Emmy's anguished face opposite. It was as though a chill had struck across the room, as though both Emmy's heart and her own had given a sharp twist at the shock.
"Ah, that's where you're wrong. That's what cleverness does for you." Alf nodded his head deeply and reprovingly. "Given to me, they were, by a pal o' mine who works at the theatre. They're for to-night. I thought—"
Jenny, with her heart beating, was stricken for an instant with panic. She bent her head lower, holding the rose against the side of her hat, watching it with a zealous eye, once again to test the effect. He thought she was coquetting, and leaned a little towards her. He would have been ready to touch her face teasingly with his forefinger.
"Oh," Jenny exclaimed, with a hurried assumption of matter of fact ease suddenly ousting her panic. "That's very good. So you thought you'd take Emmy! That was a very good boy!"
"I thought ..." heavily stammered Alf, his eyes opening in a surprised way as he found himself thus headed off from his true intention. He stared blankly at Jenny, until she thought he looked like the bull on the hoardings who has "heard that they want more." Emmy stared at her also, quite unguardedly, a concentrated stare of agonised doubt and impatience. Emmy's face grew pinched and sallow at the unexpected strain upon her nerves.
"That was what you thought, wasn't it?" Jenny went on impudently, shooting a sideways glance at him that made Alf tame with helplessness. "Poor old Em hasn't had a treat for ever so long. Do her good to go. You did mean that, didn't you?"
"I ..." said Alf. "I ..." He was inclined for a moment to bluster. He looked curiously at Jenny's profile, judicial in its severity. Then some kind of tact got the better of his first impulse. "Well, I thought one of you girls ..." he said. "Will you come, Em? Have to look sharp."
"Really?" Emmy jumped up, her face scarlet and tears of joy in her eyes. She did not care how it had been arranged. Her pride was unaroused; the other thought, the triumph of the delicious moment, was overwhelming. Afterwards—ah, no no! She would not think. She was going. She was actually going. In a blur she saw their faces, their kind eyes....
"Good boy!" cried Jenny. "Buck up, Em, if you're going to change your dress. Seats! My word! How splendid!" She clapped her hands quickly, immediately again taking up her work so as to continue it. Into her eyes had come once more that strange expression of pitying contempt. Her white hands flashed in the wan light as she quickly threaded her needle and knotted the silk.
CHAPTER III: ROWS
After Emmy had hurried out of the room to change her dress, Alf stood, still apparently stupefied at the unscrupulous rush of Jenny's feminine tactics, rubbing his hand against the back of his head. He looked cautiously at Pa Blanchard, and from him back to the mysterious unknown who had so recently defeated his object. Alf may or may not have prepared some kind of set speech of invitation on his way to the house. Obviously it is a very difficult thing, where there are two girls in a family, to invite one of them and not the other to an evening's orgy. If it had not previously occurred to Alf to think of the difficulty quite as clearly as he was now being made to do, that must have been because he thought of Emmy as imbedded in domestic affairs. After all, damn it, as he was thinking; if you want one girl it is rotten luck to be fobbed off with another. Alf knew quite well the devastating phrase, at one time freely used as an irresistible quip (like "There's hair" or "That's all right, tell your mother; it'll be ninepence") by which one suggested disaster—"And that spoilt his evening." The phrase was in his mind, horrible to feel. Yet what could he have done in face of the direct assault? "Must be a gentleman." He could hardly have said, before Emmy: "No, it's you I want!" He began to think about Emmy. She was all right—a quiet little piece, and all that. But she hadn't got Jenny's cheek! That was it! Jenny had got the devil's own cheek, and this was an example of it. But this was an unwelcome example of it. He ruminated still further; until he found he was standing on one foot and rubbing the back of his head, just like any stage booby.
"Oh, damn!" he cried, putting his raised foot firmly on the ground and bringing his wandering fist down hard into the open palm of his other hand.
"Here, here!" protested Jenny, pretending to be scandalised. "That's not the sort of language to use before Pa! He's not used to it. We're awfully careful what we say when Pa's here!"
"You're making a fool of me!" spluttered Alf, glaring at her. "That's about the size of it!"
"What about your pa and ma!" she inquired, gibing at him. "I've done nothing. Why don't you sit down. Of course you feel a fool, standing. I always do, when the manager sends for me. Think I'm going to get the sack." She thought he was going to bellow at her: "I hear they want more!" The mere notion of it made her smile, and Alf imagined that she was still laughing at her own manoeuvre or at her impertinent jest.
"What did you do it for?" he asked, coming to the table.
"Cause it was all floppy. What did you think? Why, the girls all talk about me wearing it so long."
"I'm not talking about that," he said, in a new voice of exasperated determination. "You know what I'm talking about. Oh, yes, you do! I'm talking about those tickets. And me. And you!"
Jenny's eyes contracted. She looked fixedly at her work. Her hands continued busy.
"Well, you're going to take Emmy, aren't you!" she prevaricated. "You asked her to go."
"No!" he said. "I'm going with her, because she's said she'll go. But it was you that asked her."
"Did I? How could I? They weren't mine. You're a man. You brought the tickets. You asked her yourself." Jenny shook her head. "Oh, no, Alf Rylett. You mustn't blame me. Take my advice, my boy. You be very glad Emmy's going. If you mean me, I should have said 'No,' because I've got to do this hat. Emmy's going to-night. You'll enjoy yourself far more."
"Oh ——!" He did not use an oath, but it was implied. "What did you do it for? Didn't you want to come yourself? No, look here, Jenny: I want to know what's going on. You've always come with me before." He glared at her in perplexity, puzzled to the depths of his intelligence by a problem beyond its range. Women had always been reported to him as a mystery; but he had never heeded.
"It's Emmy's turn, then," Jenny went on. She could not resist the display of a sisterly magnanimity, although it was not the true magnanimity, and in fact had no relation to the truth. "Poor old Em gets stuck in here day after day," she pleaded. "She's always with Pa till he thinks she's a fixture. Well, why shouldn't she have a little pleasure? You get her some chocs ... at that shop. ... You know. It'll be the treat of her life. She'll be as grateful to you for it. ... Oh, I'm very glad she's got the chance of going. It'll keep her happy for days!" Jenny, trying with all her might to set the affair straight and satisfy everybody, was appealing to his vanity to salve his vanity. Alf saw himself recorded as a public benefactor. He perceived the true sublimity of altruism.
"Yes," he said, doggedly, recovering himself and becoming a man, becoming Alf Rylett, once again. "That's all bally fine. Sounds well as you put it; but you knew as well as I did that I came to take you. I say nothing against Em. She's a good sort; but—"
Jenny suddenly kindled. He had never seen her so fine.
"She's the best sort!" she said, with animation. "And don't you forget it, Alf. Me—why, I'm as selfish as ... as dirt beside her. Look a little closer, my lad. You'll see Em's worth two of me. Any day! You think yourself jolly lucky she's going with you. That's all I've got to say to you!"
She had pushed her work back, and was looking up at him with an air of excitement. She had really been moved by a generous impulse. Her indifference to Alf no longer counted. It was swept away by a feeling of loyalty to Emmy. The tale she had told, the plea she had advanced upon Emmy's behalf, if it had not influenced him, had sent a warm thrill of conviction through her own heart. When she came thus to feel deeply she knew as if by instinct that Emmy, irritable unsatisfied Emmy, was as much superior to Alf as she herself was superior to him. A wave of arrogance swept her. Because he was a man, and therefore so delectable in the lives of two lonely girls, he was basely sure of his power to choose from among them at will. He had no such power at that moment, in Jenny's mind. He was the clay, for Emmy or herself to mould to their own advantage.
"You can think yourself jolly lucky; my lad!" she repeated. "I can tell you that much!"
Jenny leant back in her chair exhausted by her excitement. Alf reached round for the chair he had left, and brought it to the table. He sat down, his elbows on the table and his hands clasped; and he looked directly at Jenny as though he were determined to explode this false bubble of misunderstanding which she was sedulously creating. As he looked at her, with his face made keen by the strength of his resolve, Jenny felt her heart turn to water. She was physically afraid of him, not because he had any power to move her, but because in sheer bullock-like strength he was too much for her, as in tenacity he had equally an advantage. As a skirmisher, or in guerrilla warfare, in which he might always retire to a hidden fastness, baffling pursuers by innumerable ruses and doublings, Jenny could hold her own. On the plain, in face of superior strength, she had not the solid force needed to resist strong will and clear issues. Alf looked steadily at her, his reddish cheeks more red, his obstinate mouth more obstinate, so that she could imagine the bones of his jaws cracking with his determination.
"It won't do, Jen," he said. "And you know it."
Jenny wavered. Her eyes flinched from the necessary task of facing him down. Where women of more breeding have immeasurable resources of tradition behind them, to quell any such inquisition, she was by training defenceless. She had plenty of pluck, plenty of adroitness; but she could only play the sex game with Alf very crudely because he was not fine enough to be diverted by such finesse as she could employ. All Jenny could do was to play for safety in the passage of time. If she could beat him off until Emmy returned she could be safe for to-night; and if she were safe now—anything might happen another day to bring about her liberation.
"Bullying won't do. I grant that," she retorted defiantly. "You needn't think it will." She jerked her head.
"We're going to have this out," Alf went on. Jenny darted a look of entreaty at the kicking clock which lay so helplessly upon its side. If only the clock would come to her aid, forgetting the episode of the tea-cosy!
"Take you all your time," she said swiftly. "Why, the theatre's all full by now. The people are all in. They're tuning up for the overture. Look at it!" She pointed a wavering finger at the clock.
"We're going to have this out—now!" repeated Alf. "You know why I brought the tickets here. It was because I wanted to take you. It's no good denying it. That's enough. Somehow—I don't know why—you don't want to go; and while I'm not looking you shove old Em on to me."
"That's what you say," Jenny protested. Alf took no notice of her interruption. He doggedly proceeded.
"As I say, Em's all right enough. No fault to find with her. But she's not you. And it's you I wanted. Now, if I take her—"
"You'll enjoy it very much," she weakly asserted. "Ever so much. Besides, Alf,"—she began to appeal to him, in an attempt to wheedle—"Em's a real good sort.... You don't know half the things ..."
"I know all about Em. I don't need you to tell me what she is. I can see for myself." Alf rocked a little with an ominous obstinacy. His eyes were fixed upon her with an unwinking stare. It was as though, having delivered a blow with the full weight of party bias, he were desiring her to take a common-sense view of a vehement political issue.
"What can you see?" With a feeble dash of spirit, Jenny had attempted tactical flight. The sense of it made her feel as she had done, as a little girl, in playing touch; when, with a swerve, she had striven to elude the pursuer. So tense were her nerves on such occasions that she turned what is called "goosey" with the feel of the evaded fingers.
Alf rolled his head again, slightly losing his temper at the inconvenient question, which, if he had tried to answer it, might have diverted him from the stern chase upon which he was engaged. The sense of that made him doubly resolved upon sticking to the point.
"Oh, never you mind," he said, stubbornly. "Quite enough of that. Now the question is—and it's a fair one,—why did you shove Em on to me!"
"I didn't! You did it yourself!"
"Well, that's a flat lie!" he cried, slapping the table in a sudden fury, and glaring at her. "That's what that is."
Jenny crimsoned. It made the words no better that Alf had spoken truly. She was deeply offended. They were both now sparkling with temper, restless with it, and Jenny's teeth showing.
"I'm a liar, am I!" she exclaimed. "Well, you can just lump it, then. I shan't say another word. Not if you call me a liar. You've come here ..." Her breath caught, and for a second she could not speak. "You've come here kindly to let us lick your boots, I suppose. Is that it? Well, we're not going to do it. We never have, and we never will. Never! It's a drop for you, you think, to take Emmy out. A bit of kindness on your part. She's not up to West End style. That it? But you needn't think you're too good for her. There's no reason, I'm sure. You're not!... All because you're a man. Auch! I'm sick of the men! You think you've only got to whistle. Yes, you do! You think if you crook your little finger.... Oh no, my lad. That's where you're wrong. You're making a big mistake there. We can look after ourselves, thank you! No chasing after the men! Pa's taught us that. We're not quite alone. We haven't got to take—we've neither of us got to take—whatever's offered to us ... as you think. We've got Pa still!"
Her voice had risen. An unexpected interruption stopped the argument for the merest fraction of time.
"Aye," said Pa. "They've got their old Pa!" He had taken his pipe out of his mouth and was looking towards the combatants with an eye that for one instant seemed the eye of perfect comprehension. It frightened Jenny as much as it disconcerted Alf. It was to both of them, but especially to Alf, like the shock of a cold sponge laid upon a heated brow.
"I never said you hadn't!" he sulkily said, and turned round to look amazedly at Pa. But Pa had subsided once more, and was drinking with mournful avidity from his tankard. Occupied with the tankard, Pa had neither eye nor thought for anything else. Alf resumed after the baffled pause. "Yes. You've got him all right enough...." Then: "You're trying to turn it off with your monkey tricks!" he said suddenly. "But I see what it is. I was a fool not to spot it at once. You've got some other fellow in tow. I'm not good enough for you any longer. Got no use for me yourself; but you don't mind turning me over to old Em...." He shook his head. "Well, I don't understand it," he concluded miserably. "I used to think you was straight, Jen."