He stood at the hall door turning the ring, turning the heavy signet ring upon his little finger while his glance travelled coolly, deliberately, over the round tables and basket chairs scattered about the glassed-in verandah. He pursed his lips—he might have been going to whistle—but he did not whistle—only turned the ring—turned the ring on his pink, freshly washed hands.
Over in the corner sat The Two Topknots, drinking a decoction they always drank at this hour—something whitish, greyish, in glasses, with little husks floating on the top—and rooting in a tin full of paper shavings for pieces of speckled biscuit, which they broke, dropped into the glasses and fished for with spoons. Their two coils of knitting, like two snakes, slumbered beside the tray.
The American Woman sat where she always sat against the glass wall, in the shadow of a great creeping thing with wide open purple eyes that pressed—that flattened itself against the glass, hungrily watching her. And she knoo it was there—she knoo it was looking at her just that way. She played up to it; she gave herself little airs. Sometimes she even pointed at it, crying: “Isn’t that the most terrible thing you’ve ever seen! Isn’t that ghoulish!” It was on the other side of the verandah, after all . . . and besides it couldn’t touch her, could it, Klaymongso? She was an American Woman, wasn’t she Klaymongso, and she’d just go right away to her Consul. Klaymongso, curled in her lap, with her torn antique brocade bag, a grubby handkerchief, and a pile of letters from home on top of him, sneezed for reply.
The other tables were empty. A glance passed between the American and the Topknots. She gave a foreign little shrug; they waved an understanding biscuit. But he saw nothing. Now he was still, now from his eyes you saw he listened. “Hoo-e-zip-zoo-oo!” sounded the lift. The iron cage clanged open. Light dragging steps sounded across the hall, coming towards him. A hand, like a leaf, fell on his shoulder. A soft voice said: “Let’s go and sit over there—where we can see the drive. The trees are so lovely.” And he moved forward with the hand still on his shoulder, and the light, dragging steps beside his. He pulled out a chair and she sank into it, slowly, leaning her head against the back, her arms falling along the sides.
“Won’t you bring the other up closer? It’s such miles away.” But he did not move.
“Where’s your shawl?” he asked.
“Oh!” She gave a little groan of dismay. “How silly I am, I’ve left it upstairs on the bed. Never mind. Please don’t go for it. I shan’t want it, I know I shan’t.”
“You’d better have it.” And he turned and swiftly crossed the verandah into the dim hall with its scarlet plush and gilt furniture—conjuror’s furniture—its Notice of Services at the English Church, its green baize board with the unclaimed letters climbing the black lattice, huge “Presentation” clock that struck the hours at the half-hours, bundles of sticks and umbrellas and sunshades in the clasp of a brown wooden bear, past the two crippled palms, two ancient beggars at the foot of the staircase, up the marble stairs three at a time, past the life-size group on the landing of two stout peasant children with their marble pinnies full of marble grapes, and along the corridor, with its piled-up wreckage of old tin boxes, leather trunks, canvas hold-alls, to their room.
The servant girl was in their room, singing loudly while she emptied soapy water into a pail. The windows were open wide, the shutters put back, and the light glared in. She had thrown the carpets and the big white pillows over the balcony rails; the nets were looped up from the beds; on the writing table there stood a pan of fluff and match-ends. When she saw him her small impudent eyes snapped and her singing changed to humming. But he gave no sign. His eyes searched the glaring room. Where the devil was the shawl!
“Vous desirez, Monsieur?” mocked the servant girl.
No answer. He had seen it. He strode across the room, grabbed the grey cobweb and went out, banging the door. The servant girl’s voice at its loudest and shrillest followed him along the corridor.
“Oh, there you are. What happened? What kept you? The tea’s here, you see. I’ve just sent Antonio off for the hot water. Isn’t it extraordinary? I must have told him about it sixty times at least, and still he doesn’t bring it. Thank you. That’s very nice. One does just feel the air when one bends forward.”
“Thanks.” He took his tea and sat down in the other chair. “No, nothing to eat.”
“Oh do! Just one, you had so little at lunch and it’s hours before dinner.”
Her shawl dropped off as she bent forward to hand him the biscuits. He took one and put it in his saucer.
“Oh, those trees along the drive,” she cried, “I could look at them for ever. They are like the most exquisite huge ferns. And you see that one with the grey-silver bark and the clusters of cream coloured flowers, I pulled down a head of them yesterday to smell and the scent”—she shut her eyes at the memory and her voice thinned away, faint, airy—“was like freshly ground nutmegs.” A little pause. She turned to him and smiled. “You do know what nutmegs smell like—do you, Robert?”
And he smiled back at her. “Now how am I going to prove to you that I do?”
Back came Antonio with not only the hot water—with letters on a salver and three rolls of paper.
“Oh, the post! Oh, how lovely! Oh, Robert, they mustn’t be all for you! Have they just come, Antonio?” Her thin hands flew up and hovered over the letters that Antonio offered her, bending forward.
“Just this moment, Signora,” grinned Antonio. “I took-a them from the postman myself. I made-a the postman give them for me.”
“Noble Antonio!” laughed she. “There—those are mine, Robert; the rest are yours.”
Antonio wheeled sharply, stiffened, the grin went out of his face. His striped linen jacket and his flat gleaming fringe made him look like a wooden doll.
Mr. Salesby put the letters into his pocket; the papers lay on the table. He turned the ring, turned the signet ring on his little finger and stared in front of him, blinking, vacant.
But she—with her teacup in one hand, the sheets of thin paper in the other, her head tilted back, her lips open, a brush of bright colour on her cheek-bones, sipped, sipped, drank . . . drank. . . .
“From Lottie,” came her soft murmur. “Poor dear . . . such trouble . . . left foot. She thought . . . neuritis . . . Doctor Blyth . . . flat foot . . . massage. So many robins this year . . . maid most satisfactory . . . Indian Colonel . . . every grain of rice separate . . . very heavy fall of snow.” And her wide lighted eyes looked up from the letter. “Snow, Robert! Think of it!” And she touched the little dark violets pinned on her thin bosom and went back to the letter.
. . . Snow. Snow in London. Millie with the early morning cup of tea. “There’s been a terrible fall of snow in the night, Sir.” “Oh, has there, Millie?” The curtains ring apart, letting in the pale, reluctant light. He raises himself in the bed; he catches a glimpse of the solid houses opposite framed in white, of their window boxes full of great sprays of white coral. . . . In the bathroom—overlooking the back garden. Snow—heavy snow over everything. The lawn is covered with a wavy pattern of cat’s paws; there is a thick, thick icing on the garden table; the withered pods of the laburnum tree are white tassels; only here and there in the ivy is a dark leaf showing. . . . Warming his back at the dining-room fire, the paper drying over a chair. Millie with the bacon. “Oh, if you please, Sir, there’s two little boys come as will do the steps and front for a shilling, shall I let them?” . . . And then flying lightly, lightly down the stairs—Jinnie. “Oh, Robert, isn’t it wonderful! Oh, what a pity it has to melt. Where’s the pussy-wee?” “I’ll get him from Millie” . . . “Millie, you might just hand me up the kitten if you’ve got him down there.” “Very good, Sir.” He feels the little beating heart under his hand. “Come on, old chap, your Missus wants you.” “Oh, Robert, do show him the snow—his first snow. Shall I open the window and give him a little piece on his paw to hold? . . .”
“Well, that’s very satisfactory on the whole—very. Poor Lottie! Darling Anne! How I only wish I could send them something of this,” she cried, waving her letters at the brilliant, dazzling garden. “More tea, Robert? Robert dear, more tea?”
“No, thanks, no. It was very good,” he drawled.
“Well mine wasn’t. Mine was just like chopped hay. Oh, here comes the Honeymoon Couple.”
Half striding, half running, carrying a basket between them and rods and lines, they came up the drive, up the shallow steps.
“My! have you been out fishing?” cried the American Woman.
They were out of breath, they panted: “Yes, yes, we have been out in a little boat all day. We have caught seven. Four are good to eat. But three we shall give away. To the children.”
Mrs. Salesby turned her chair to look; the Topknots laid the snakes down. They were a very dark young couple—black hair, olive skin, brilliant eyes and teeth. He was dressed “English fashion” in a flannel jacket, white trousers and shoes. Round his neck he wore a silk scarf; his head, with his hair brushed back, was bare. And he kept mopping his forehead, rubbing his hands with a brilliant handkerchief. Her white skirt had a patch of wet; her neck and throat were stained a deep pink. When she lifted her arms big half-hoops of perspiration showed under her arm-pits; her hair clung in wet curls to her cheeks. She looked as though her young husband had been dipping her in the sea, and fishing her out again to dry in the sun and then—in with her again—all day.
“Would Klaymongso like a fish?” they cried. Their laughing voices charged with excitement beat against the glassed-in verandah like birds, and a strange saltish smell came from the basket.
“You will sleep well to-night,” said a Topknot, picking her ear with a knitting needle while the other Topknot smiled and nodded.
The Honeymoon Couple looked at each other. A great wave seemed to go over them. They gasped, gulped, staggered a little and then came up laughing—laughing.
“We cannot go upstairs, we are too tired. We must have tea just as we are. Here—coffee. No—tea. No—coffee. Tea—coffee, Antonio!” Mrs. Salesby turned.
“Robert! Robert!” Where was he? He wasn’t there. Oh, there he was at the other end of the verandah, with his back turned, smoking a cigarette. “Robert, shall we go for our little turn?”
“Right.” He stumped the cigarette into an ash-tray and sauntered over, his eyes on the ground. “Will you be warm enough?”
“Well,” she put her hand on his arm, “perhaps”—and gave his arm the faintest pressure—“it’s not upstairs, it’s only in the hall—perhaps you’d get me my cape. Hanging up.”
He came back with it and she bent her small head while he dropped it on her shoulders. Then, very stiff, he offered her his arm. She bowed sweetly to the people on the verandah while he just covered a yawn, and they went down the steps together.
“Vous avez voo ça!” said the American Woman.
“He is not a man,” said the Two Topknots, “he is an ox. I say to my sister in the morning and at night when we are in bed, I tell her—No man is he, but an ox!”
Wheeling, tumbling, swooping, the laughter of the Honeymoon Couple dashed against the glass of the verandah.
The sun was still high. Every leaf, every flower in the garden lay open, motionless, as if exhausted, and a sweet, rich, rank smell filled the quivering air. Out of the thick, fleshy leaves of a cactus there rose an aloe stem loaded with pale flowers that looked as though they had been cut out of butter; light flashed upon the lifted spears of the palms; over a bed of scarlet waxen flowers some big black insects “zoom-zoomed”; a great, gaudy creeper, orange splashed with jet, sprawled against a wall.
“I don’t need my cape after all,” said she. “It’s really too warm.” So he took it off and carried it over his arm. “Let us go down this path here. I feel so well to-day—marvellously better. Good heavens—look at those children! And to think it’s November!”
In a corner of the garden there were two brimming tubs of water. Three little girls, having thoughtfully taken off their drawers and hung them on a bush, their skirts clasped to their waists, were standing in the tubs and tramping up and down. They screamed, their hair fell over their faces, they splashed one another. But suddenly, the smallest, who had a tub to herself, glanced up and saw who was looking. For a moment she seemed overcome with terror, then clumsily she struggled and strained out of her tub, and still holding her clothes above her waist. “The Englishman! The Englishman!” she shrieked and fled away to hide. Shrieking and screaming, the other two followed her. In a moment they were gone; in a moment there was nothing but the two brimming tubs and their little drawers on the bush.
“How—very—extraordinary!” said she. “What made them so frightened? Surely they were much too young to . . .” She looked up at him. She thought he looked pale—but wonderfully handsome with that great tropical tree behind him with its long, spiked thorns.
For a moment he did not answer. Then he met her glance, and smiling his slow smile, “Très rum!” said he.
Très rum! Oh, she felt quite faint. Oh, why should she love him so much just because he said a thing like that. Très rum! That was Robert all over. Nobody else but Robert could ever say such a thing. To be so wonderful, so brilliant, so learned, and then to say in that queer, boyish voice. . . . She could have wept.
“You know you’re very absurd, sometimes,” said she.
“I am,” he answered. And they walked on.
But she was tired. She had had enough. She did not want to walk any more.
“Leave me here and go for a little constitutional, won’t you? I’ll be in one of these long chairs. What a good thing you’ve got my cape; you won’t have to go upstairs for a rug. Thank you, Robert, I shall look at that delicious heliotrope. . . . You won’t be gone long?”
“No—no. You don’t mind being left?”
“Silly! I want you to go. I can’t expect you to drag after your invalid wife every minute. . . . How long will you be?”
He took out his watch. “It’s just after half-past four. I’ll be back at a quarter past five.”
“Back at a quarter past five,” she repeated, and she lay still in the long chair and folded her hands.
He turned away. Suddenly he was back again. “Look here, would you like my watch?” And he dangled it before her.
“Oh!” She caught her breath. “Very, very much.” And she clasped the watch, the warm watch, the darling watch in her fingers. “Now go quickly.”
The gates of the Pension Villa Excelsior were open wide, jammed open against some bold geraniums. Stooping a little, staring straight ahead, walking swiftly, he passed through them and began climbing the hill that wound behind the town like a great rope looping the villas together. The dust lay thick. A carriage came bowling along driving towards the Excelsior. In it sat the General and the Countess; they had been for his daily airing. Mr. Salesby stepped to one side but the dust beat up, thick, white, stifling like wool. The Countess just had time to nudge the General.
“There he goes,” she said spitefully.
But the General gave a loud caw and refused to look.
“It is the Englishman,” said the driver, turning round and smiling. And the Countess threw up her hands and nodded so amiably that he spat with satisfaction and gave the stumbling horse a cut.
On—on—past the finest villas in the town, magnificent palaces, palaces worth coming any distance to see, past the public gardens with the carved grottoes and statues and stone animals drinking at the fountain, into a poorer quarter. Here the road ran narrow and foul between high lean houses, the ground floors of which were scooped and hollowed into stables and carpenters’ shops. At a fountain ahead of him two old hags were beating linen. As he passed them they squatted back on their haunches, stared, and then their “A-hak-kak-kak!” with the slap, slap, of the stone on the linen sounded after him.
He reached the top of the hill; he turned a corner and the town was hidden. Down he looked into a deep valley with a dried up river bed at the bottom. This side and that was covered with small dilapidated houses that had broken stone verandahs where the fruit lay drying, tomato lanes in the garden, and from the gates to the doors a trellis of vines. The late sunlight, deep, golden, lay in the cup of the valley; there was a smell of charcoal in the air. In the gardens the men were cutting grapes. He watched a man standing in the greenish shade, raising up, holding a black cluster in one hand, taking the knife from his belt, cutting, laying the bunch in a flat boat-shaped basket. The man worked leisurely, silently, taking hundreds of years over the job. On the hedges on the other side of the road there were grapes small as berries, growing wild, growing among the stones. He leaned against a wall, filled his pipe, put a match to it. . . .
Leaned across a gate, turned up the collar of his mackintosh. It was going to rain. It didn’t matter, he was prepared for it. You didn’t expect anything else in November. He looked over the bare field. From the corner by the gate there came the smell of swedes, a great stack of them, wet, rank coloured. Two men passed walking towards the straggling village. “Good day!” “Good day!” By Jove! he had to hurry if he was going to catch that train home. Over the gate, across a field, over the stile, into the lane, swinging along in the drifting rain and dusk. . . . Just home in time for a bath and a change before supper. . . . In the drawing-room; Jinnie is sitting pretty nearly in the fire. “Oh, Robert, I didn’t hear you come in. Did you have a good time? How nice you smell! A present?” “Some bits of blackberry I picked for you. Pretty colour.” “Oh, lovely, Robert! Dennis and Beaty are coming to supper.” Supper—cold beef, potatoes in their jackets, claret, household bread. They are gay—everybody’s laughing. “Oh, we all know Robert,” says Dennis, breathing on his eyeglasses and polishing them. “By the way, Dennis, I picked up a very jolly little edition of . . .”
A clock struck. He wheeled sharply. What time was it. Five? A quarter past? Back, back the way he came. As he passed through the gates he saw her on the look-out. She got up, waved and slowly she came to meet him, dragging the heavy cape. In her hand she carried a spray of heliotrope.
“You’re late,” she cried gaily. “You’re three minutes late. Here’s your watch, it’s been very good while you were away. Did you have a nice time? Was it lovely? Tell me. Where did you go?”
“I say—put this on,” he said, taking the cape from her.
“Yes, I will. Yes, it’s getting chilly. Shall we go up to our room?”
When they reached the lift she was coughing. He frowned.
“It’s nothing. I haven’t been out too late. Don’t be cross.” She sat down on one of the red plush chairs while he rang and rang, and then, getting no answer, kept his finger on the bell.
“Oh, Robert, do you think you ought to?”
“Ought to what?”
The door of the salon opened. “What is that? Who is making that noise?” sounded from within. Klaymongso began to yelp. “Caw! Caw! Caw!” came from the General. A Topknot darted out with one hand to her ear, opened the staff door, “Mr. Queet! Mr. Queet!” she bawled. That brought the manager up at a run.
“Is that you ringing the bell, Mr. Salesby? Do you want the lift? Very good, Sir. I’ll take you up myself. Antonio wouldn’t have been a minute, he was just taking off his apron——” And having ushered them in, the oily manager went to the door of the salon.“Very sorry you should have been troubled, ladies and gentlemen.” Salesby stood in the cage, sucking in his cheeks, staring at the ceiling and turning the ring, turning the signet ring on his little finger. . . .
Arrived in their room he went swiftly over to the washstand, shook the bottle, poured her out a dose and brought it across.
“Sit down. Drink it. And don’t talk.” And he stood over her while she obeyed. Then he took the glass, rinsed it and put it back in its case. “Would you like a cushion?”
“No, I’m quite all right. Come over here. Sit down by me just a minute, will you, Robert? Ah, that’s very nice.” She turned and thrust the piece of heliotrope in the lapel of his coat. “That,” she said, “is most becoming.” And then she leaned her head against his shoulder, and he put his arm round her.
“Robert——” her voice like a sigh—like a breath.
They sat there for a long while. The sky flamed, paled; the two white beds were like two ships. . . . At last he heard the servant girl running along the corridor with the hot water cans, and gently he released her and turned on the light.
“Oh, what time is it? Oh, what a heavenly evening. Oh, Robert, I was thinking while you were away this afternoon . . .”
They were the last couple to enter the dining-room. The Countess was there with her lorgnette and her fan, the General was there with his special chair and the air cushion and the small rug over his knees. The American Woman was there showing Klaymongso a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. . . . “We’re having a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” The Two Topknots were there feeling over the peaches and the pears in their dish of fruit, and putting aside all they considered unripe or overripe to show to the manager, and the Honeymoon Couple leaned across the table, whispering, trying not to burst out laughing.
Mr. Queet, in everyday clothes and white canvas shoes, served the soup, and Antonio, in full evening dress, handed it round.
“No,” said the American Woman, “take it away, Antonio. We can’t eat soup. We can’t eat anything mushy, can we, Klaymongso?”
“Take them back and fill them to the rim!” said the Topknots, and they turned and watched while Antonio delivered the message.
“What is it? Rice? Is it cooked?” The Countess peered through her lorgnette. “Mr. Queet, the General can have some of this soup if it is cooked.”
“Very good, Countess.”
The Honeymoon Couple had their fish instead.
“Give me that one. That’s the one I caught. No it’s not. Yes, it is. No it’s not. Well, it’s looking at me with its eye so it must be. Tee! Hee! Hee!” Their feet were locked together under the table.
“Robert, you’re not eating again. Is anything the matter?”
“No. Off food, that’s all.”
“Oh, what a bother. There are eggs and spinach coming. You don’t like spinach, do you. I must tell them in future . . .”
An egg and mashed potatoes for the General.
“Mr. Queet! Mr. Queet!”
“The General’s egg’s too hard again.”
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
“Very sorry, Countess. Shall I have you another cooked, General?”
. . . They are the first to leave the dining-room. She rises, gathering her shawl and he stands aside, waiting for her to pass, turning the ring, turning the signet ring on his little finger. In the hall Mr. Queet hovers. “I thought you might not want to wait for the lift. Antonio’s just serving the finger bowls. And I’m sorry the bell won’t ring, it’s out of order. I can’t think what’s happened.”
“Oh, I do hope . . .” from her.
“Get in,” says he.
Mr. Queet steps after them and slams the door. . . .
. . . “Robert, do you mind if I go to bed very soon? Won’t you go down to the salon or out into the garden? Or perhaps you might smoke a cigar on the balcony. It’s lovely out there. And I like cigar smoke. I always did. But if you’d rather . . .”
“No, I’ll sit here.”
He takes a chair and sits on the balcony. He hears her moving about in the room, lightly, lightly, moving and rustling. Then she comes over to him. “Good night, Robert.”
“Good night.” He takes her hand and kisses the palm. “Don’t catch cold.”
The sky is the colour of jade. There are a great many stars; an enormous white moon hangs over the garden. Far away lightning flutters—flutters like a wing—flutters like a broken bird that tries to fly and sinks again and again struggles.
The lights from the salon shine across the garden path and there is the sound of a piano. And once the American Woman, opening the French window to let Klaymongso into the garden, cries: “Have you seen this moon?” But nobody answers.
He gets very cold sitting there, staring at the balcony rail. Finally he comes inside. The moon—the room is painted white with moonlight. The light trembles in the mirrors; the two beds seem to float. She is asleep. He sees her through the nets, half sitting, banked up with pillows, her white hands crossed on the sheet. Her white cheeks, her fair hair pressed against the pillow, are silvered over. He undresses quickly, stealthily and gets into bed. Lying there, his hands clasped behind his head. . . .
. . . In his study. Late summer. The Virginia creeper just on the turn. . . .
“Well, my dear chap, that’s the whole story. That’s the long and the short of it. If she can’t cut away for the next two years and give a decent climate a chance she don’t stand a dog’s—h’m—show. Better be frank about these things.” “Oh, certainly. . . .” “And hang it all, old man, what’s to prevent you going with her? It isn’t as though you’ve got a regular job like us wage earners. You can do what you do wherever you are——” “Two years.” “Yes, I should give it two years. You’ll have no trouble about letting this house you know. As a matter of fact . . .”
. . . He is with her. “Robert, the awful thing is—I suppose it’s my illness—I simply feel I could not go alone. You see—you’re everything. You’re bread and wine, Robert, bread and wine. Oh, my darling—what am I saying? Of course I could, of course I won’t take you away. . . .”
He hears her stirring. Does she want something?
Good Lord! She is talking in her sleep. They haven’t used that name for years.
“Boogles. Are you awake?”
“Yes, do you want anything?”
“Oh, I’m going to be a bother. I’m so sorry. Do you mind? There’s a wretched mosquito inside my net—I can hear him singing. Would you catch him? I don’t want to move because of my heart.”
“No, don’t move. Stay where you are.” He switches on the light, lifts the net. “Where is the little beggar? Have you spotted him?”
“Yes, there, over by the corner. Oh, I do feel such a fiend to have dragged you out of bed. Do you mind dreadfully?”
“No, of course not.” For a moment he hovers in his blue and white pyjamas. Then, “got him,” he said.
“Oh, good. Was he a juicy one?”
“Beastly.” He went over to the washstand and dipped his fingers in water. “Are you all right now? Shall I switch off the light?”
“Yes, please. No. Boogles! Come back here a moment. Sit down by me. Give me your hand.” She turns his signet ring. “Why weren’t you asleep? Boogles, listen. Come closer. I sometimes wonder—do you mind awfully being out here with me?”
He bends down. He kisses her. He tucks her in, he smoothes the pillow.
“Rot!” he whispers.