Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

back so that the bare throat showed defenselessly. Now he was asleep and his face undarkened by thought, one saw how very fair he really was. And she, her mournfully vigilant face pinkened by the cold river of air sent by the advancing evening through the screen of rusted-gold bracken behind her, was sitting by him, just watching.

I have often seen people grouped like that on the common outside our gates on Bank holidays. Most often the man has a handkerchief over his face to shade him from the sun, and the woman squats beside him and peers through the undergrowth to see that the children come to no harm as they play. It has sometimes seemed to me that there was a significance about it. You know when one goes into the damp, odorous coolness of a church in a Catholic country and sees the kneeling worshipers, their bodies bent stiffly and reluctantly, and yet with abandonment as though to represent the inevitable bending of the will to a purpose outside the individual person, or when under any sky one sees a mother with her child in her arms, something turns in one's heart like a sword, and one says to oneself, "If humanity forgets these attitudes there is an end to the world." But people like me, who are not artists, are never sure about people they don't know. So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere, that I knew it was the most significant, as it was the loveliest, attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do. I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this, which had given sleep to the beloved. I had known that

he was having bad nights at Baldry Court in that new room with the jade-green painted walls and the lapis-lazuli fireplace, which he found with surprise to be his instead of the remembered little room with the fishing-rods; but I had not been able. to do anything about it.

It was not fair that by the exercise of a generosity which seemed as fortuitous a possession as a beautiful voice a woman should be able to do such wonderful things for a man. For sleep was the least of her gifts to him. What she had done in leading him into the quiet magic circle out of our life, out of the splendid house which was not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent, out of the garden where the flowers took thought as to how they should grow and the wood made as formal as a pillared aisle by forestry, may be judged from my anguish in being left there alone. Indeed she had been generous to us all, for at her touch our lives had at last fallen into a pattern; she was the sober thread the interweaving of which with our scattered magnificences had somewhat achieved the design that otherwise would not appear. Perhaps even her dinginess was part of her generosity, for in order to fit into the pattern one has sometimes to forego something of one's individual beauty. That is why women like us do not wear such obviously lovely dresses as cocottes, but clothe ourselves in garments that by their slight neglect of the possibilities of beauty declare that there are such things as thrift and restraint and care for the future. And so I could believe of Margaret that her determined dwelling in places where there was not enough of anything, her continued exposure of herself to the grime of squalid living, was unconsciously deliberate. The deep internal thing that had guided Chris to forgetfulness had guided her to poverty, so that when the time came for her meeting with her lover there should be not one intimation of the beauty of suave flesh to distract him from the message of her soul. I looked upward at

[ocr errors]

this supreme act of sacrifice and glowed at her private gift to me. My sleep, though short, was now dreamless. No more did I see his body rotting into union with that brown texture of corruption which is noman's-land; no more did I see him slipping softly down the parapet into the trench; no more did I hear voices talking in a void: "Help me, old man; I 've got no legs-" "I can't, old man; I 've got no hands." They could not take him back to the army as he was. Only that morning as I went through the library he had raised an appalled face from the pages of a history of the war.

"Jenny, it can't be true that they did. that to Belgium? Those funny, quiet, stingy people!" And his soldierly knowledge was as deeply buried as this memory of that awful August. While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.

I was so grateful that I was forced to go and sit down on the rug beside her. It was an intrusion, but I wanted to be near her. She did not look surprised when she turned to me her puckered brows, but smiled through the ugly fringe of vagrant hairs the weather had plucked from under the hard rim of her hat. It was part of her loveliness that even if she did not understand an act she could accept it.

Presently she leaned over to me across his body and whispered:

"He's not cold. I put the overcoat on him as soon as he was fairly off. I've just felt his hands, and they 're as warm as toast." If I had whispered like that I should have wakened him.

Soon he stirred, groped for her hand, and lay with his cheek against the rough palm. He was awake, but liked to lie so. In a little while she shook her hand away and said:

"Get up and run along to the house and have some hot tea. You'll catch your death lying out here."

He caught her hand again. It was evident that for some reason the moment was charged with ecstasy for them both.

It seemed as though there was a softer air in this small clearing than anywhere else in the world. I stood up, with my back against a birch and said negligently, knowing now that nothing could really threaten them:

"There is a doctor coming at half-past four who wants to see you both."

It cast no shadow on their serenity. He smiled upward, still lying on his back, and hailed me, "Hallo, Jenny." But she made him get up and help her to fold the rug.

"It's not right to keep a doctor waiting in these times," she declared, "so overworked they are, poor men, since the war." As I led the way up through the woods to the house I heard her prove her point by an illustrative anecdote about something that had happened down her road. I heard, too, their footsteps come to a halt for a space. I think her gray eyes had looked at him so sweetly that he had been constrained to take her in his arms.

CHAPTER VI

I FELT, I remember with the little perk of self-approbation with which one remembers any sort of accurate premonition even if its fulfilment means disaster, a cold hand close round my heart as we turned the corner of the house and came on Dr. Gilbert Anderson. I was startled, to begin with, by his unmedical appearance. He was a little man with winking blue eyes, a flushed and crumpled forehead, a little gray mustache that gave him the profile of an amiable cat, and a lively taste in spotted ties, and he lacked that appetiteless look which is affected by distinguished practitioners. He was at once more comical and more suggestive of power than any other doctor I had ever seen, and this difference was emphasized by his unexpected occupation. A tennis-ball which he had discovered somewhere had roused his sporting instincts, and he was trying at what range it was possible to kick it between two large stones which he had placed close together in front of the steps. up to the house. It was his chubby ab

sorption in this amusement which accounted for his first moment of embarrassment.

"Nobody about in there; we professional men get so little fresh air," he said bluffly, and blew his nose in a very large handkerchief, from the folds of which he emerged with perfect self-possession. "You," he said to Chris, with a naïve adoption of the detective tone, "are the patient." He rolled his blue eye on me, took a good look, and, as he realized I did not matter, shook off the unnecessary impression like a dog coming out of water. He faced Margaret as though she were the nurse in charge of the case and gave her a brisk little nod. "You 're Mrs. Grey. I shall want to talk to you later. Meantime-this man. I'll come back." He indicated by a windmill gesture that we should go into the house, and swung off with Chris.

She obeyed; that sort of woman always does what the doctor orders. But I delayed for a moment to stare after this singular specialist, to sidetrack my foreboding by pronouncing him a bounder, to wish, as my foreboding persisted, that like a servant I could give notice because there was "always something happening in the house."

Then, as the obedient figure at the top of the stairs was plainly shivering under its shoddy clothes in the rising wind that was polishing the end of the afternoon to brightness, I hastened to lead her into the hall. We stood about uneasily in its gloaming. Margaret looked round her and said in a voice flattened by the despondency she evidently shared with me:

"It is nice to have everything ready that people can want and everything in its place. I used to do it at Monkey Island Inn. It was not grand like this, of course, but our visitors always came back a second time." Abstractedly and yet with keen joy she fingered the fine work of the table-leg.

There was a noise above us like the fluttering of doves. Kitty was coming downstairs in a white serge dress against which her hands were rosy; a woman with such

lovely little hands never needed to wear flowers. By her kind of physical discipline she had reduced her grief to no more than a slight darkening under the eyes, and for this moment she was glowing. I knew it was because she was going to meet a new man and anticipated the kindling of admiration in his eyes, and I smiled, contrasting her probable prefiguring of Dr. Anderson with the amiable rotundity we had just encountered. Not that it would have made any difference if she had seen him. Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.

"The doctor 's talking to Chris outside," I said.

"Ah," breathed Kitty. I found, though the occasion was a little grim, some entertainment in the two women's faces, so mutually intent, so differently fair, the one a polished surface that reflected light, like a mirror hung opposite a window, the other a lamp grimed by the smoke of careless use, but still giving out radiance from its burning oil. Margaret was smiling wonderingly up at this prettiness, but Kitty seemed to be doing some brainwork.

"How do you do, Mrs. Grey?" she said, suddenly shaking out her cordiality as one shakes out a fan. "It 's very kind of you. Won't you go up-stairs and take off your things?"

"No, thank you," answered Margaret, shyly, "I shall have to go away so soon."

"Ah, do!" begged Kitty, prettily.

It was, of course, that she did not want Margaret to meet the specialist in those awful clothes; but I did not darken the situation by explaining that this disaster had already happened. Instead, I turned to Margaret an expression which conveyed

that this was an act of hospitality the refusal of which we should find wounding, and to that she yielded, as I knew she would. She followed me up-stairs and along the corridors very slowly, like a child paddling in a summer sea. She enjoyed the feeling of the thick carpet underfoot; she looked lingeringly at the pictures on the wall; occasionally she put out a finger to touch a vase as if by that she made its preciousness more her own. Her spirit, I could see, was as deeply concerned about Chris as was mine; but she had such faith in life that she retained serenity enough to enjoy what beauty she came across in her period of waiting. Even her enjoyment was indirectly generous. When she came into my room the backward flinging of her head and her deep "Oh!" recalled to me what I had long forgotten, how fine were its proportions, how clever the grooved arch above the window, how like the evening sky my blue curtains.

"And the lovely things you have on your dressing-table," she commented. "You must have very good taste." The charity that changed my riches to a merit! As I helped her to take off her raincoat and reflected that Kitty would not be pleased when she saw that the removal of the garment disclosed a purple blouse of stuff called moirette that servants use for petticoats, she exclaimed softly Kitty's praises. "I know I should n't make personal remarks, but Mrs. Baldry is lovely. She has three circles round her neck. I've only two." It was a touching betrayal that she possessed that intimate knowledge of her own person which comes to women who have been loved. I could not for the life of me have told you how many circles there were round my neck. Plainly discontented with herself in the midst of all this fineness, she said diffidently, "Please, I would like to do my hair." So I pulled the arm-chair up to the dressingtable, and leaned on its back while she, sitting shyly on its very edge, unpinned her two long braids, so thick, so dull.

"You 've lovely hair," I said.

"I used to have nice hair," she mourned, "but these last few years I've let myself

go." She made half-hearted attempts to smooth the straggling tendrils on her temples, but presently laid down her brush and clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I hope that man 's not worrying Chris," she said.

There was no reassurance ready, so I went to the other side of the room to put her hat down on a chair, and stayed for a moment to pat its plumes and wonder if nothing could be done with it. But it was, as surgeons say, an inoperable case. So I just gloomed at it and wished I had not let this doctor interpose his plumpness between Chris and Margaret, who since that afternoon seemed to me as not only a woman whom it was good to love, but, as a patron saint must appear to a Catholic, as an intercessory being whose kindliness could be daunted only by some special and incredibly malicious decision of the Supreme Force. I was standing with eyes closed and my hands abstractedly stroking the hat that was the emblem of her martyrdom, and I was thinking of her in a way that was a prayer to her, when 1 heard her sharp cry. That she, whose essence was a patient silence, should cry out sharply, startled me strangely. I turned.

She was standing up, and in her hand she held the photograph of Oliver that I keep on my dressing-table. It is his last photograph, the one taken just a week before he died.

"Who is this?" she asked.

"The only child Chris ever had. He died five years ago."

"Five years ago?"
Why did it matter so?
"Yes," I said.

"He died five years ago, my Dick." Her eyes grew great. "How old was he?" "Just two."

"My Dick was two." We both were breathing hard. "Why did he die?"

"We never knew. He was the loveliest boy, but delicate from his birth. At the end he just faded away, with the merest cold."

"So did my Dick-a chill. We thought he would be up and about the next day, and he just-"

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]
« AnkstesnisTęsti »