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Christine, French prostitute, escapes from wartime Ostend and sets herself up in business in London. Though a refugee, she demands no pity; she is self-sufficient, practical and realistic. Christine is savvy businesswoman, doing the best she can with the opportunities life has given her.
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The Pretty Lady
THE BIG NEST
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by The Big Nest
This Edition first published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 The Big Nest
Images and Illustrations © 2016 Stocklibrary.org
All Rights Reserved.
The piece was a West End success so brilliant that even if you belonged to the intellectual despisers of the British theatre you could not hold up your head in the world unless you had seen it; even for such as you it was undeniably a success of curiosity at least.
The stage scene flamed extravagantly with crude orange and viridian light, a rectangle of bedazzling illumination; on the boards, in the midst of great width, with great depth behind them and arching height above, tiny squeaking figures ogled the primeval passion in gesture and innuendo. From the arc of the upper circle convergent beams of light pierced through gloom and broke violently on this group of the half-clad lovely and the swathed grotesque. The group did not quail. In fullest publicity it was licensed to say that which in private could not be said where men and women meet, and that which could not be printed. It gave a voice to the silent appeal of pictures and posters and illustrated weeklies all over the town; it disturbed the silence of the most secret groves in the vast, undiscovered hearts of men and women young and old. The half-clad lovely were protected from the satyrs in the audience by an impalpable screen made of light and of ascending music in which strings, brass, and concussion exemplified the naïve sensuality of lyrical niggers. The guffaw which, occasionally leaping sharply out of the dim, mysterious auditorium, surged round the silhouetted conductor and drove like a cyclone between the barriers of plush and gilt and fat cupids on to the stage—this huge guffaw seemed to indicate what might have happened if the magic protection of the impalpable screen had not been there.
Behind the audience came the restless Promenade, where was the reality which the stage reflected. There it was, multitudinous, obtainable, seizable, dumbly imploring to be carried off. The stage, very daring, yet dared no more than hint at the existence of the bright and joyous reality. But there it was, under the same roof.
Christine entered with Madame Larivaudière. Between shoulders and broad hats, as through a telescope, she glimpsed in the far distance the illusive, glowing oblong of the stage; then the silhouetted conductor and the tops of instruments; then the dark, curved concentric rows of spectators. Lastly she took in the Promenade, in which she stood. She surveyed the Promenade with a professional eye. It instantly shocked her, not as it might have shocked one ignorant of human nature and history, but by reason of its frigidity, its constraint, its solemnity, its pretence. In one glance she embraced all the figures, moving or stationary, against the hedge of shoulders in front and against the mirrors behind—all of them: the programme girls, the cigarette girls, the chocolate girls, the cloak-room girls, the waiters, the overseers, as well as the vivid courtesans and their clientèle in black, tweed, or khaki. With scarcely an exception they all had the same strange look, the same absence of gesture. They were northern, blond, self-contained, terribly impassive. Christine impulsively exclaimed—and the faint cry was dragged out of her, out of the bottom of her heart, by what she saw:
“My god! How mournful it is!”
Lise Larivaudière, a stout and benevolent Bruxelloise, agreed with uncomprehending indulgence. The two chatted together for a few moments, each ceremoniously addressing the other as “Madame,” “Madame,” and then they parted, insinuating themselves separately into the slow, confused traffic of the Promenade.
Christine knew Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Regent Street, a bit of Oxford Street, the Green Park, Hyde Park, Victoria Station, Charing Cross. Beyond these, London, measureless as the future and the past, surrounded her with the unknown. But she had not been afraid, because of her conviction that men were much the same everywhere, and that she had power over them. She did not exercise this power consciously; she had merely to exist and it exercised itself. For her this power was the mystical central fact of the universe. Now, however, as she stood in the Promenade, it seemed to her that something uncanny had happened to the universe. Surely it had shifted from its pivot! Her basic conviction trembled. Men were not the same everywhere, and her power over them was a delusion. Englishmen were incomprehensible; they were not human; they were apart. The memory of the hundreds of Englishmen who had yielded to her power in Paris (for she had specialised in travelling Englishmen) could not re-establish her conviction as to the sameness of men. The presence of her professed rivals of various nationalities in the Promenade could not restore it either. The Promenade in its cold, prim languor was the very negation of desire. She was afraid. She foresaw ruin for herself in this London, inclement, misty and inscrutable.
And then she noticed a man looking at her, and she was herself again and the universe was itself again. She had a sensation of warmth and heavenly reassurance, just as though she had drunk an anisette or a crême de menthe. Her features took on an innocent expression; the characteristic puckering of the brows denoted not discontent, but a gentle concern for the whole world and also virginal curiosity. The man passed her. She did not stir. Presently he emerged afresh out of the moving knots of promenaders and discreetly approached her. She did not smile, but her eyes lighted with a faint amiable benevolence—scarcely perceptible, doubtful, deniable even, but enough. The man stopped. She at once gave a frank, kind smile, which changed all her face. He raised his hat an inch or so. She liked men to raise their hats. Clearly he was a gentleman of means, though in morning dress. His cigar had a very fine aroma. She classed him in half a second and was happy. He spoke to her in French, with a slight, unmistakable English accent, but very good, easy, conversational French—French French. She responded almost ecstatically:
“Ah, you speak French!”
She was too excited to play the usual comedy, so flattering to most Englishmen, of pretending that she thought from his speech that he was a Frenchman. The French so well spoken from a man’s mouth in London most marvellously enheartened her and encouraged her in the perilous enterprise of her career. She was candidly grateful to him for speaking French.
He said after a moment:
“You have not at all a fatigued air, but would it not be preferable to sit down?”
A man of the world! He could phrase his politeness. Ah! There were none like an Englishman of the world. Frenchmen, delightfully courteous up to a point, were unsatisfactory past that point. Frenchmen of the south were detestable, and she hated them.
“You have not been in London long?” said the man, leading her away to the lounge.
She observed then that, despite his national phlegm, he was in a state of rather intense excitation. Luck! Enormous luck! And also an augury for the future! She was professing in London for the first time in her life; she had not been in the Promenade for five minutes; and lo! the ideal admirer. For he was not young. What a fine omen for her profound mysticism and superstitiousness!
Her flat was in Cork Street. As soon as they entered it the man remarked on its warmth and its cosiness, so agreeable after the November streets. Christine only smiled. It was a long, narrow flat—a small sitting-room with a piano and a sideboard, opening into a larger bedroom shaped like a thick L. The short top of the L, not cut off from the rest of the room, was installed as a cabinet de toilette, but it had a divan. From the divan, behind which was a heavily curtained window, you could see right through the flat to the curtained window of the sitting-room. All the lights were softened by paper shades of a peculiar hot tint between Indian red and carmine, giving a rich, romantic effect to the gleaming pale enamelled furniture, and to the voluptuous engravings after Sir Frederick Leighton, and the sweet, sentimental engravings after Marcus Stone, and to the assorted knicknacks. The flat had homogeneity, for everything in it, except the stove, had been bought at one shop in Tottenham Court Road by a landlord who knew his business. The stove, which was large, stood in the bedroom fireplace, and thence radiated celestial comfort and security throughout the home; the stove was the divinity of the home and Christine the priestess; she had herself bought the stove, and she understood its personality—it was one of your finite gods.
“Will you take something?” she asked, the hostess.
Whisky and a siphon and glasses were on the sideboard.
“Oh no, thanks!”
“Not even a cigarette?” Holding out the box and looking up at him, she appealed with a long, anxious glance that he should honour her cigarettes.
“Thank you!” he said. “I should like a cigarette very much.”
She lit a match for him.
“But you—do you not smoke?”
“Try one of mine—for a change.”
He produced a long, thin gold cigarette-case, stuffed with cigarettes.
She lit a cigarette from his.
“Oh!” she cried after a few violent puffs. “I like enormously your cigarettes. Where are they to be found?”
“Look!” said he. “I will put these few in your box.” And he poured twenty cigarettes into an empty compartment of the box, which was divided into two.
“Not all!” she protested.
“But I say NO!” she insisted with a gesture suddenly firm, and put a single cigarette back into his case and shut the case with a snap, and herself returned it to his pocket. “One ought never to be without a cigarette.”
“You understand life.... How nice it is here!” He looked about and then sighed.
“But why do you sigh?”
“Sigh of content! I was just thinking this place would be something else if an English girl had it. It is curious, lamentable, that English girls understand nothing—certainly not love.”
“As for that, I’ve always heard so.”
“They understand nothing. Not even warmth. One is cold in their rooms.”
“As for that—I mean warmth—one may say that I understand it; I do.”
“You understand more than warmth. What is your name?”
She was the accidental daughter of a daughter of joy. The mother, as frequently happens in these cases, dreamed of perfect respectability for her child and kept Christine in the country far away in Paris, meaning to provide a good dowry in due course. At forty-two she had not got the dowry together, nor even begun to get it together, and she was ill. Feckless, dilatory and extravagant, she saw as in a vision her own shortcomings and how they might involve disaster for Christine. Christine, she perceived, was a girl imperfectly educated—for in the affair of Christine’s education the mother had not aimed high enough—indolent, but economical, affectionate, and with a very great deal of temperament. Actuated by deep maternal solicitude, she brought her daughter back to Paris, and had her inducted into the profession under the most decent auspices. At nineteen Christine’s second education was complete. Most of it the mother had left to others, from a sense of propriety. But she herself had instructed Christine concerning the five great plagues of the profession. And also she had adjured her never to drink alcohol save professionally, never to invest in anything save bonds of the City of Paris, never to seek celebrity, which according to the mother meant ultimate ruin, never to mix intimately with other women. She had expounded the great theory that generosity towards men in small things is always repaid by generosity in big things—and if it is not the loss is so slight! And she taught her the fundamental differences between nationalities. With a Russian you had to eat, drink and listen. With a German you had to flatter, and yet adroitly insert, “Do not imagine that I am here for the fun of the thing.” With an Italian you must begin with finance. With a Frenchman you must discuss finance before it is too late. With an Englishman you must talk, for he will not, but in no circumstances touch finance until he has mentioned it. In each case there was a risk, but the risk should be faced. The course of instruction finished, Christine’s mother had died with a clear conscience and a mind consoled.
Said Christine, conversational, putting the question that lips seemed then to articulate of themselves in obedience to its imperious demand for utterance:
“How long do you think the war will last?”
The man answered with serenity: “The war has not begun yet.”
“How English you are! But all the same, I ask myself whether you would say that if you had seen Belgium. I came here from Ostend last month.” The man gazed at her with new vivacious interest.
“So it is like that that you are here!”
“But do not let us talk about it,” she added quickly with a mournful smile.
“No, no!” he agreed.... “I see you have a piano. I expect you are fond of music.”
“Ah!” she exclaimed in a fresh, relieved tone. “Am I fond of it! I adore it, quite simply. Do play for me. Play a boston—a two-step.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“But you play. I am sure of it.”
“And you?” he parried.
She made a sad negative sign.
“Well, I’ll play something out of The Rosenkavalier.”
“Ah! But you are a musician!” She amiably scrutinised him. “And yet—no.”
Smiling, he, too, made a sad negative sign.
“The waltz out of The Rosenkavalier, eh?”
“Oh, yes! A waltz. I prefer waltzes to anything.”
As soon as he had played a few bars she passed demurely out of the sitting-room, through the main part of the bedroom into the cabinet de toilette. She moved about in the cabinet de toilette thinking that the waltz out of The Rosenkavalier was divinely exciting. The delicate sound of her movements and the plash of water came to him across the bedroom. As he played he threw a glance at her now and then; he could see well enough, but not very well because the smoke of the shortening cigarette was in his eyes.
She returned at length into the sitting-room, carrying a small silk bag about five inches by three. The waltz finished.
“But you’ll take cold!” he murmured.
“No. At home I never take cold. Besides—”
Smiling at him as he swung round on the music-stool, she undid the bag, and drew from it some folded stuff which she slowly shook out, rather in the manner of a conjurer, until it was revealed as a full-sized kimono. She laughed.
“Is it not marvellous?”
“That is what I wear. In the way of chiffons it is the only fantasy I have bought up to the present in London. Of course, clothes—I have been forced to buy clothes. It matches exquisitely the stockings, eh?”
She slid her arms into the sleeves of the transparency. She was a pretty and highly developed girl of twenty-six, short, still lissom, but with the fear of corpulence in her heart. She had beautiful hair and beautiful eyes, and she had that pucker of the forehead denoting, according to circumstances, either some kindly, grave preoccupation or a benevolent perplexity about something or other.
She went near him and clasped hands round his neck, and whispered:
“Your waltz was adorable. You are an artist.”
And with her shoulders she seemed to sketch the movements of dancing.
After putting on his thick overcoat and one glove he had suddenly darted to the dressing-table for his watch, which he was forgetting. Christine’s face showed sympathetic satisfaction that he had remembered in time, simultaneously implying that even if he had not remembered, the watch would have been perfectly safe till he called for it. The hour was five minutes to midnight. He was just going. Christine had dropped a little batch of black and red Treasury notes on to the dressing-table with an indifferent if not perhaps an impatient air, as though she held these financial sequels to be a stain on the ideal, a tedious necessary, a nuisance, or simply negligible.
She kissed him goodbye, and felt agreeably fragile and soft within the embrace of his huge, rough overcoat. And she breathed winningly, delicately, apologetically into his ear:
“Thou wilt give something to the servant?” Her soft eyes seemed to say, “It is not for myself that I am asking, is it?”
He made an easy philanthropic gesture to indicate that the servant would have no reason to regret his passage.
He opened the door into the little hall, where the fat Italian maid was yawning in an atmosphere comparatively cold, and then, in a change of purpose, he shut the door again.
“You do not know how I knew you could not have been in London very long,” he said confidentially.
“Because I saw you in Paris one night in July—at the Marigny Theatre.”
“Not at the Marigny.”
“Yes. The Marigny.”
“It is true. I recall it. I wore white and a yellow stole.”
“Yes. You stood on the seat at the back of the Promenade to see a contortionist girl better, and then you jumped down. I thought you were delicious—quite delicious.”
“Thou flatterest me. Thou sayest that to flatter me.”
“No, no. I assure you I went to the Marigny every night for five nights afterwards in order to find you.”
“But the Marigny is not my regular music-hall. Olympia is my regular music-hall.”
“I went to Olympia and all the other halls, too, each night.”
“Ah, yes! Then I must have left Paris. But why, my poor friend, why didst thou not speak to me at the Marigny? I was alone.”
“I don’t know. I hesitated. I suppose I was afraid.”
“So to-night I was terribly content to meet you. When I saw that it was really you I could not believe my eyes.”
She understood now his agitation on first accosting her in the Promenade. The affair very pleasantly grew more serious for her. She liked him. He had nice eyes. He was fairly tall and broadly built, but not a bit stout. Neither dark nor blond. Not handsome, and yet ... beneath a certain superficial freedom, he was reserved. He had beautiful manners. He was refined, and he was refined in love; and yet he knew something. She very highly esteemed refinement in a man. She had never met a refined woman, and was convinced that few such existed. Of course he was rich. She could be quite sure, from his way of handling money, that he was accustomed to handling money. She would swear he was a bachelor merely on the evidence of his eyes.... Yes, the affair had lovely possibilities. Afraid to speak to her, and then ran round Paris after her for five nights! Had he, then, had the lightning-stroke from her? It appeared so. And why not? She was not like other girls, and this she had always known. She did precisely the same things as other girls did. True. But somehow, subtly, inexplicably, when she did them they were not the same things. The proof: he, so refined and distinguished himself, had felt the difference. She became very tender.
“To think,” she murmured, “that only on that one night in all my life did I go to the Marigny! And you saw me!”
The coincidence frightened her—she might have missed this nice, dependable, admiring creature for ever. But the coincidence also delighted her, strengthening her superstition. The hand of destiny was obviously in this affair. Was it not astounding that on one night of all nights he should have been at the Marigny? Was it not still more astounding that on one night of all nights he should have been in the Promenade in Leicester Square?... The affair was ordained since before the beginning of time. Therefore it was serious.
“Ah, my friend!” she said. “If only you had spoken to me that night at the Marigny, you might have saved me from troubles frightful—fantastic.”
He had confided in her—and at the right moment. With her human lore she could not have respected a man who had begun by admitting to a strange and unproved woman that for five days and nights he had gone mad about her. To do so would have been folly on his part. But having withheld his wild secret, he had charmingly showed, by the gesture of opening and then shutting the door, that at last it was too strong for his control. Such candour deserved candour in return. Despite his age, he looked just then attractively, sympathetically boyish. He was a benevolent creature. The responsive kindliness of his enquiring “How?” was beyond question genuine. Once more, in the warm and dark-glowing comfort of her home, the contrast between the masculine, thick rough overcoat and the feminine, diaphanous, useless kimono appealed to her soul. It seemed to justify, even to call for, confidence from her to him.
The Italian woman behind the door coughed impatiently and was not heard.
In July she had gone to Ostend with an American. A gentleman, but mad. One of those men with a fixed idea that everything would always be all right and that nothing really and permanently uncomfortable could possibly happen. A very fair man, with red hair, and radiating wrinkles all round his eyes—phenomenon due to his humorous outlook on the world. He laughed at her because she travelled with all her bonds of the City of Paris on her person. He had met her one night, and the next morning suggested the Ostend excursion. Too sudden, too capricious, of course; but she had always desired to see the cosmopolitanism of Ostend. Trouville she did not like, as you had sand with every meal if you lived near the front. Hotel Astoria at Ostend. Complete flat in the hotel. Very chic. The red-haired one, the rouquin, had broad ideas, very broad ideas, of what was due to a woman. In fact, one might say that he carried generosity in details to excess. But naturally with Americans it was necessary to be surprised at nothing. The rouquin said steadily that war would not break out. He said so until the day on which it broke out. He then became a Turk. Yes, a Turk. He assumed rights over her, the rights of protection, but very strange rights. He would not let her try to return to Paris. He said the Germans might get to Paris, but to Ostend, never—because of the English! Difficult to believe, but he had locked her up in the complete flat. The Ostend season had collapsed—pluff—like that. The hotel staff vanished almost entirely. One or two old fat Belgian women on the bedroom floors—that seemed to be all. The rouquin was exquisitely polite, but very firm. In fine, he was a master. It was astonishing what he did. They were the sole remaining guests in the Astoria. And they remained because he refused to permit the management to turn him out. Weeks passed. Yes, weeks. English forces came to Ostend. Marvellous. Among nations there was none like the English. She did not see them herself. She was ill. The rouquin had told her that she was ill when she was not ill, but lo! the next day she was ill—oh, a long time. The rouquin told her the news—battle of the Marne and all species of glorious deeds. An old fat Belgian told her a different kind of news. The stories of the fall of Liége, Namur, Brussels, Antwerp. The massacres at Aerschot, at Louvain. Terrible stories that travelled from mouth to mouth among women. There was always rape and blood and filth mingled. Stories of a frightful fascination ... unrepeatable! Ah!
The rouquin had informed her one day that the Belgian Government had come to Ostend. Proof enough, according to him, that Ostend could not be captured by the Germans! After that he had said nothing about the Belgian Government for many days. And then one day he had informed her casually that the Belgian Government was about to leave Ostend by steamer. But days earlier the old fat woman had told her that the German staff had ordered seventy-five rooms at the Hôtel des Postes at Ghent. Seventy-five rooms. And that in the space of a few hours Ghent had become a city of the dead.... Thousands of refugees in Ostend. Thousands of escaped virgins. Thousands of wounded soldiers. Often, the sound of guns all day and all night. And in the daytime occasionally, a sharp sound, very loud; that meant that a German aeroplane was over the town—killing ... Plenty to kill. Ostend was always full, behind the Digue, and yet people were always leaving—by steamer. Steamers taken by assault. At first there had been formalities, permits, passports. But when one steamer had been taken by assault—no more formalities! In trying to board the steamers people were drowned. They fell into the water and nobody troubled—so said the old woman. Christine was better; desired to rise. The rouquin said No, not yet. He would believe naught. And now he believed one thing, and it filled his mind—that German submarines sank all refugee ships in the North Sea. Proof of the folly of leaving Ostend. Yet immediately afterwards he came and told her to get up. That is to say, she had been up for several days, but not outside. He told her to come away, come away. She had only summer clothes, and it was mid-October. What a climate, Ostend in October! The old woman said that thousands of parcels of clothes for refugees had been sent by generous England. She got a parcel; she had means of getting it. She opened it with pride in the bedroom of the flat. It contained eight corsets and a ball-dress. A droll race, all the same, the English. Had they no imagination? But, no doubt, society women were the same everywhere. It was notorious that in France....
Christine went forth in her summer clothes. The rouquin had got an old horse-carriage. He gave her much American money—or, rather, cheques—which, true enough, she had since cashed with no difficulty in London. They had to leave the carriage. The station square was full of guns and women and children and bundles. Yes, together with a few men. She spent the whole night in the station square with the rouquin, in her summer clothes and his overcoat. At six o’clock in the evening it was already dark. A night interminable. Babies crying. One heard that at the other end of the square a baby had been born. She, Christine, sat next to a young mother with a baby. Both mother and baby had the right arm bandaged. They had both been shot through the arm with the same bullet. It was near Aerschot. The young woman also told her.... No, she could not relate that to an Englishman. Happily it did not rain. But the wind and the cold! In the morning the rouquin put her on to a fishing-vessel. She had nothing but her bonds of the City of Paris and her American cheques. The crush was frightful. The captain of the fishing-vessel, however, comprehended what discipline was. He made much money. The rouquin would not come. He said he was an American citizen and had all his papers. For the rest, the captain would not let him come, though doubtless the captain could have been bribed. As they left the harbour, with other trawlers, they could see the quays all covered with the disappointed, waiting. Somebody in the boat said that the Germans had that morning reached—She forgot the name of the place, but it was the next village to Ostend on the Bruges road. Thus Christine parted from the rouquin. Mad! Always wrong, even about the German submarines. But chic. Truly chic.
What a voyage! What adventures with the charitable people in England! People who resembled nothing else on earth! People who did not understand what life was.... No understanding of that which it is—life! In fine ...! However, she should stay in England. It was the only country in which one could have confidence. She was trying to sell the furniture of her flat in Paris. Complications! Under the emergency law she was not obliged to pay her rent to the landlord; but if she removed her furniture then she would have to pay the rent. What did it matter, though? Besides, she might not be able to sell her furniture after all. Remarkably few women in Paris at that moment were in a financial state to buy furniture. Ah no!
“But I have not told you the tenth part!” said Christine.
“Terrible! Terrible!” murmured the man.
All the heavy sorrow of the world lay on her puckered brow, and floated in her dark glistening eyes. Then she smiled, sadly but with courage.
“I will come to see you again,” said the man comfortingly. “Are you here in the afternoons?”
“Every afternoon, naturally.”
“Well, I will come—not to-morrow—the day after to-morrow.”
Already, long before, interrupting the buttoning of his collar, she had whispered softly, persuasively, clingingly, in the classic manner:
“Thou art content, chéri? Thou wilt return?”
And he had said: “That goes without saying.”
But not with quite the same conviction as he now used in speaking definitely of the afternoon of the day after to-morrow. The fact was, he was moved; she too. She had been right not to tell the story earlier, and equally right to tell it before he departed. Some men, most men, hated to hear any tale of real misfortune, at any moment, from a woman, because, of course, it diverted their thoughts.
In thus departing at once the man showed characteristic tact. Her recital left nothing to be said. They kissed again, rather like comrades. Christine was still the vessel of the heavy sorrow of the world, but in the kiss and in their glances was an implication that the effective, triumphant antidote to sorrow might be found in a mutual trust. He opened the door. The Italian woman, yawning and with her hand open, was tenaciously waiting.
Alone, carefully refolding the kimono in its original creases, Christine wondered what the man’s name was. She felt that the mysterious future might soon disclose a germ of happiness.
G.J. Hoape—He was usually addressed as “G.J.” by his friends, and always referred to as “G.J.” by both friends and acquaintances—woke up finally in the bedroom of his flat with the thought:
“To-day I shall see her.”
He inhabited one of the three flats at the extreme northern end of the Albany, Piccadilly, W.I. The flat was strangely planned. Its shape as a whole was that of a cube. Imagine the cube to be divided perpendicularly into two very unequal parts. The larger part, occupying nearly two-thirds of the entire cubic space, was the drawing-room, a noble chamber, large and lofty. The smaller part was cut horizontally into two storeys. The lower storey comprised a very small hall, a fair bathroom, the tiniest staircase in London, and G.J.’s very small bedroom. The upper storey comprised a very small dining-room, the kitchen, and servants’ quarters.
The door between the bedroom and the drawing room, left open in the night for ventilation, had been softly closed as usual during G.J.’s final sleep, and the bedroom was in absolute darkness save for a faint grey gleam over the valance of the window curtains. G.J. could think. He wondered whether he was in love. He hoped he was in love, and the fact that the woman who attracted him was a courtesan did not disturb him in the least.
He was nearing fifty years of age. He had casually known hundreds of courtesans in sundry capitals, a few of them very agreeable; also a number of women calling themselves, sometimes correctly, actresses, all of whom, for various reasons which need not be given, had proved very unsatisfactory. But he had never loved—unless it might be, mildly, Concepcion, and Concepcion was now a war bride. He wanted to love. He had never felt about any woman, not even about Concepcion, as he felt about the woman seen for a few minutes at the Marigny Theatre and then for five successive nights vainly searched for in all the chief music-halls of Paris. (A nice name, Christine! It suited her.) He had given her up—never expected to catch sight of her again; but she had remained a steadfast memory, sad and charming. The encounter in the Promenade in Leicester Square was such a piece of heavenly and incredible luck that it had, at the moment, positively made him giddy. The first visit to Christine’s flat had beatified and stimulated him. Would the second? Anyhow, she was the most alluring woman—and yet apparently of dependable character!—he had ever met. No other consideration counted with him.
There was a soft knock; the door was pushed, and wavy reflections of the drawing-room fire played on the corner of the bedroom ceiling. Mrs. Braiding came in. G.J. had known it was she by the caressing quality of the knock. Mrs. Braiding was his cook and the wife of his “man”. It was not her place to come in, but occasionally, because something had happened to Braiding, she did come in. She drew the curtains apart, and the day of Vigo Street, pale, dirty, morose, feebly and perfunctorily took possession of the bedroom. Mrs. Braiding, having drawn the curtains, returned to the door and from the doorway said:
“Breakfast is practically ready, sir.”
G.J. perceived that this was one of her brave, resigned mornings. Since August she had borne the entire weight of the war on her back, and sometimes the burden would overpower her, but never quite. G.J. switched on the light, arose from his bed, assumed his dressing-gown, and, gazing with accustomed pleasure round the bedroom, saw that it was perfect.
He had furnished his flat in the Regency style of the first decade of the nineteenth century, as matured by George Smith, “upholder extraordinary to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales”. The Pavilion at Brighton had given the original idea to G.J., who saw in it the solution of the problem of combining the somewhat massive dignity suitable to a bachelor of middling age with the bright, unconquerable colours which the eternal twilight of London demands.
His dome bed was yellow as to its upper works, with crimson valances above and yellow valances below. The yellow-lined crimson curtains (of course never closed) had green cords and tassels, and the counterpane was yellow. This bed was a modest sample of the careful and uncompromising reconstitution of a period which he had everywhere carried out in his abode.
The drawing-room, with its moulded ceiling and huge recessed window, had presented an admirable field for connoisseurship. Here the clash of rich primary colours, the perpendiculars which began with bronze girls’ heads and ended with bronze girls’ feet or animals’ claws, the vast flat surfaces of furniture, the stiff curves of wood and a drapery, the morbid rage for solidity which would employ a candelabrum weighing five hundredweight to hold a single wax candle, produced a real and imposing effect of style; it was a style debased, a style which was shedding the last graces of French Empire in order soon to appeal to a Victoria determined to be utterly English and good; but it was a style. And G.J. had scamped no detail. Even the pictures were hung with thick tasselled cords of the Regency. The drawing-room was a triumph.
Do not conceive that G.J. had lost his head about furniture and that his notion of paradise was an endless series of second-hand shops. He had an admirable balance; and he held that a man might make a faultless interior for himself and yet not necessarily lose his balance. He resented being called a specialist in furniture. He regarded himself as an amateur of life, and, if a specialist in anything, as a specialist in friendships. Yet he was a solitary man (liking solitude without knowing that he liked it), and in the midst of the perfections which he had created he sometimes gloomily thought: “What in the name of God am I doing on this earth?”
He went into the drawing-room, and there, by the fire and in front of a formidable blue chair whose arms developed into the grinning heads of bronze lions, stood the lacquered table consecrated to his breakfast tray; and his breakfast tray, with newspaper and correspondence, had been magically placed thereon as though by invisible hands. And on one arm of the easy-chair lay the rug which, because a dressing-gown does not button all the way down, he put over his knees while breakfasting in winter. Yes, he admitted with pleasure that he was “well served”. Before eating he opened the piano—a modern instrument concealed in an ingeniously confected Regency case—and played with taste a Bach prelude and fugue.
His was not the standardised and habituated kind of musical culture which takes a Bach prelude and fugue every morning before breakfast with or without a glass of Lithia water or fizzy saline. He did, however, customarily begin the day at the piano, and on this particular morning he happened to play a Bach prelude and fugue.
And as he played he congratulated himself on not having gone to seek Christine in the Promenade on the previous night, as impatience had tempted him to do. Such a procedure would have been an error in worldliness and bad from every point of view. He had wisely rejected the temptation.
In the deep blue arm-chair, with the rug over his knees and one hand on a lion’s head, he glanced first at the opened Times, because of the war. Among the few letters was one with the heading of the Reveille Motor Horn Company Ltd.
G.J. like his father, had been a solicitor. When he was twenty-five his father, a widower, had died and left him a respectable fortune and a very good practice. He sold half the practice to an incoming partner, and four years later he sold the other half of the practice to the same man. At thirty he was free, and this result had been attained through his frank negative answer to the question, “The law bores me—is there any reason why I should let it continue to bore me?” There was no reason. Instead of the law he took up life. Of business preoccupations naught remained but his investments. He possessed a gift for investing money. He had helped the man who had first put the Reveille Motor Horn on the market. He had had a mighty holding of shares in the Reveille Syndicate Limited, which had so successfully promoted the Reveille Motor Horn Company Limited. And in the latter, too, he held many shares. The Reveille Motor Horn Company had prospered and had gone into the manufacture of speedometers, illuminating outfits, and all manner of motor-car accessories.
On the outbreak of war G.J. had given himself up for lost. “This is the end,” he had said, as a member of the sore-shaken investing public. He had felt sick under the region of the heart. In particular he had feared for his Reveille shares. No one would want to buy expensive motor horns in the midst of the greatest war that the world, etc., etc.
Still the Reveille Company, after sustaining the shock, had somehow continued to do a pretty good business. It had patriotically offered its plant and services to the War Office, and had been repulsed with contumely and ignominy. The War Office had most caustically intimated to the Reveille Company that it had no use and never under any conceivable circumstances could have any use whatever for the Reveille Company, and that the Reveille Company was a forward and tedious jackanapes, unworthy even of an articulate rebuff. Now the autograph letter with the Reveille note-heading was written by the managing director (who represented G.J.’s interests on the Board), and it stated that the War Office had been to the Reveille Company, and implored it to enlarge itself, and given it vast orders at grand prices for all sorts of things that it had never made before. The profits of 1915 would be doubled, if not trebled—perhaps quadrupled. G.J. was relieved, uplifted; and he sniggered at his terrible forebodings of August and September. Ruin? He was actually going to make money out of the greatest war that the world, etc. etc. And why not? Somebody had to make money, and somebody had to pay for the war in income tax. For the first time the incubus of the war seemed lighter upon G.J. And also he need feel no slightest concern about the financial aspect of any possible developments of the Christine adventure. He had a very clear and undeniable sensation of positive happiness.
FOR THE EMPIRE
Mrs. Braiding came into the drawing-room, and he wondered, paternally, why she was so fidgety and why her tranquillising mate had not appeared. To the careless observer she was a cheerful woman, but the temple of her brightness was reared over a dark and frightful crypt in which the demons of doubt, anxiety, and despair year after year dragged at their chains, intimidating hope. Slender, small, and neat, she passed her life in bravely fronting the shapes of disaster with an earnest, vivacious, upturned face. She was thirty-five, and her aspect recalled the pretty, respected lady’s-maid which she had been before Braiding got her and knocked some nonsense out of her and turned her into a wife.
G.J., still paternally, but firmly, took her up at once.
“I say, Mrs. Braiding, what about this dish-cover?”
He lifted the article, of which the copper was beginning to show through the Sheffield plating.
“Yes sir. It does look rather impoverished, doesn’t it?”
“But I told Braiding to use the new toast-dish I bought last week but one.”
“Did you, sir? I was very happy about the new one as soon as I saw it, but Braiding never gave me your instructions in regard to it.” She glanced at the cabinet in which the new toast-dish reposed with other antique metal-work. “Braiding’s been rather upset this last few days, sir.”
“This recruiting, sir. Of course, you are aware he’s decided on it.”
“I’m not aware of anything of the sort,” said G.J. rather roughly, perhaps to hide his sudden emotion, perhaps to express his irritation at Mrs. Braiding’s strange habit of pretending that the most startling pieces of news were matters of common knowledge.
“Well, sir, of course you were out most of yesterday, and you dined at the club. Braiding attended at a recruiting office yesterday, sir. He stood three hours in the crowd outside because there was no room inside, and then he stood over two hours in a passage inside before his turn came, and nothing to eat all day, or drink either. And when his turn came and they asked him his age, he said ‘thirty-six,’ and the person was very angry and said he hadn’t any time to waste, and Braiding had better go outside again and consider whether he hadn’t made a mistake about his age. So Braiding went outside and considered that his age was only thirty-three after all, but he couldn’t get in again, not by any means, so he just came back here and I gave him a good tea, and he needed it, sir.”
“But he saw me last night, and he never said anything!”
“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Braiding admitted with pain. “I asked him if he had told you, and he said he hadn’t and that I must.”
“Where is he now?”
“He went off early, sir, so as to get a good place. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if he’s in the army by this time. I know it’s not the right way of going about things, and Braiding’s only excuse is it’s for the Empire. When it’s a question of the Empire, sir....” At that instant the white man’s burden was Mrs. Braiding’s, and the glance of her serious face showed what the crushing strain of it was.
“I think he might have told me.”
“Well, sir. I’m very sorry. Very sorry.... But you know what Braiding is.”
G.J. felt that that was just what he did not know, or at any rate had not hitherto known. He was hurt by Braiding’s conduct. He had always treated Braiding as a friend. They had daily discussed the progress of the war. On the previous night Braiding, in all the customary sedateness of black coat and faintly striped trousers, had behaved just as usual! It was astounding. G.J. began to incline towards the views of certain of his friends about the utter incomprehensibility of the servile classes—views which he had often annoyed them by traversing. Yes; it was astounding. All this martial imperialism seething in the depths of Braiding, and G.J. never suspecting the ferment! Exceedingly difficult to conceive Braiding as a soldier! He was the Albany valet, and Albany valets were Albany valets and naught else.
Mrs. Braiding continued:
“It’s very inconsiderate to you, sir. That’s a point that is appreciated by both Braiding and I. But let us fervently hope it won’t be for long, sir. The consensus of opinion seems to be we shall be in Berlin in the spring. And in the meantime, I think”—she smiled an appeal—”I can manage for you by myself, if you’ll be so good as to let me.”
“Oh! It’s not that,” said G.J. carelessly. “I expect you can manage all right.”
“Oh!” cried she. “I know how you feel about it, sir, and I’m very sorry. And at best it’s bound to be highly inconvenient for a gentleman like yourself, sir. I said to Braiding, ‘You’re taking advantage of Mr. Hoape’s good nature,’ that’s what I said to Braiding, and he couldn’t deny it. However, sir, if you’ll be so good as to let me try what I can do by myself—”
“I tell you that’ll be all right,” he stopped her.
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