Introduction by Sam Reese.
We tend to imagine the short story as a neat, trim form. Well-organised. Self-contained. Katherine Mansfield’s 'Prelude,' however, begins in a chaotic tangle of figures, objects, and voices. “There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy,” we are told, without the least introduction to who these girls might be. Before we have time to come to grips with a grandmother, let alone another sibling, Isabel, Mansfield sends us reeling, through the tension that emanates from the girls’ mother, Linda Burnell. She “could not possibly have held a lump of a child on her [lap] for any distance,” we learn, and in the process, we feel her mixture of exasperation and apprehension at the coming journey. Yet all this swirl of thought, emotion, and action is balanced with a clarity of voice and sure narrative control that allows us to picture each of the Burnell family perfectly. It is this ability to balance a tapestry of voices and responses that makes Mansfield such a touchstone for me, as both a writer and reader of short fiction.
Mansfield’s use of multiple voices and perspectives in 'Prelude' is particularly striking because, with such limited space, most writers of short fiction tend to focalise their narrative through a single character. It has become something of a trope of short story criticism to contrast the form’s narrow focus on individuals with the novel’s ability to represent communities and relationships. But in 'Prelude,' Mansfield gives the lie to this neat division. The story has no single centre, but constellates a series of characters, each with their own circumstances, worries, and hopes. How does she manage this, without losing control of the overall narrative? Through free-indirect discourse: the weaving of individual character’s voices into the third-person narration, so that we seem to glance, briefly, into their mind, before pulling back to see the larger picture. So as Kezia and Lottie are left behind with their teasing neighbours, while the rest of the family head on to a new house, we are given a brief flash of insight into their emotions. When Kezia bites into a piece of bread, we are told that “with the bite out it made a dear little sort of gate.” This could be the narrator’s observation, of course, but the following exclamations—"Pooh! She didn’t care! A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wasn’t crying”—make it clear that we are hearing Kezia’s voice. Later, when the girls reach their new home, and “a strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples,” we get a different sense: of the girls’ shared awe at their new home. In both cases, the narrator then withdraws from the girls’ thoughts, placing their emotional responses in a larger, shared context.
Mansfield does not just give us characters’ thoughts indirectly, though; at crucial moments, we also get to listen in on their thoughts. This is particularly clear in the story’s final section, where the girls’ aunt, Beryl, writes a letter that seems almost a stream of consciousness—until the narration gives way to her actual thoughts. As in many modernist short stories, Beryl seems to approach what James Joyce called the epiphany—the moment of clarity or awakening that he believed characterised a good short story ending. “Shall I ever be that Beryl for ever? Shall I?” Beryl thinks to herself, wondering “How can I? And was there ever a time where I did not have a false self?... But just as she had got that far she heard the sound of little steps running along the passage; the door handle rattled.” Beryl’s epiphany is interrupted by the arrival of Kezia. The reader is denied that moment of illumination. Rather than making the story unsatisfying, however, this failed revelation reminds us of the story’s title and recurrent motif: the prelude, the space before an action. It pulls us back to a space of possibility. Mansfield understood that, too often, an epiphany can feel overly-neat. Even gimmicky. I know that, as a reader, I am more interested in the counterweight to Joyce’s revealing. Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. Here, Mansfield directs us not to what makes Beryl different, but to what all of the Burnell women share: the sensation of standing on a precipice; the yearning to move into another stage, and the fear of what that might entail.
by Katherine Mansfield
There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy. When Pat swung them on top of the luggage they wobbled; the grandmother’s lap was full and Linda Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for any distance. Isabel, very superior, was perched beside the new handy-man on the driver’s seat. Hold-alls, bags and boxes were piled upon the floor. “These are absolute necessities that I will not let out of my sight for one instant,” said Linda Burnell, her voice trembling with fatigue and excitement.
Lottie and Kezia stood on the patch of lawn just inside the gate all ready for the fray in their coats with brass anchor buttons and little round caps with battleship ribbons. Hand in hand, they stared with round solemn eyes first at the absolute necessities and then at their mother.
“We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off,” said Linda Burnell. A strange little laugh flew from her lips; she leaned back against the buttoned leather cushions and shut her eyes, her lips trembling with laughter. Happily at that moment Mrs. Samuel Josephs, who had been watching the scene from behind her drawing-room blind, waddled down the garden path.
“Why nod leave the chudren with be for the afterdoon, Brs. Burnell? They could go on the dray with the storeban when he comes in the eveding. Those thigs on the path have to go, dod’t they?”
“Yes, everything outside the house is supposed to go,” said Linda Burnell, and she waved a white hand at the tables and chairs standing on their heads on the front lawn. How absurd they looked! Either they ought to be the other way up, or Lottie and Kezia ought to stand on their heads, too. And she longed to say: “Stand on your heads, children, and wait for the store-man.” It seemed to her that would be so exquisitely funny that she could not attend to Mrs. Samuel Josephs.
The fat creaking body leaned across the gate, and the big jelly of a face smiled. “Dod’t you worry, Brs. Burnell. Loddie and Kezia can have tea with by chudren in the dursery, and I’ll see theb on the dray afterwards.”
The grandmother considered. “Yes, it really is quite the best plan. We are very obliged to you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs. Children, say ‘thank you’ to Mrs. Samuel Josephs.”
Two subdued chirrups: “Thank you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs.”
“And be good little girls, and—come closer—” they advanced, “don’t forget to tell Mrs. Samuel Josephs when you want to. . . .”
“Dod’t worry, Brs. Burnell.”
At the last moment Kezia let go Lottie’s hand and darted towards the buggy.
“I want to kiss my granma good-bye again.”
But she was too late. The buggy rolled off up the road, Isabel bursting with pride, her nose turned up at all the world, Linda Burnell prostrated, and the grandmother rummaging among the very curious oddments she had had put in her black silk reticule at the last moment, for something to give her daughter. The buggy twinkled away in the sunlight and fine golden dust up the hill and over. Kezia bit her lip, but Lottie, carefully finding her handkerchief first, set up a wail.
Mrs. Samuel Josephs, like a huge warm black silk tea cosy, enveloped her.
“It’s all right, by dear. Be a brave child. You come and blay in the dursery!”
She put her arm round weeping Lottie and led her away. Kezia followed, making a face at Mrs. Samuel Josephs’ placket, which was undone as usual, with two long pink corset laces hanging out of it. . . .
Lottie’s weeping died down as she mounted the stairs, but the sight of her at the nursery door with swollen eyes and a blob of a nose gave great satisfaction to the S. J.’s, who sat on two benches before a long table covered with American cloth and set out with immense plates of bread and dripping and two brown jugs that faintly steamed.
“Hullo! You’ve been crying!”
“Ooh! Your eyes have gone right in.”
“Doesn’t her nose look funny.”
“You’re all red-and-patchy.”
Lottie was quite a success. She felt it and swelled, smiling timidly.
“Go and sit by Zaidee, ducky,” said Mrs. Samuel Josephs, “and Kezia, you sid ad the end by Boses.”
Moses grinned and gave her a nip as she sat down; but she pretended not to notice. She did hate boys.
“Which will you have?” asked Stanley, leaning across the table very politely, and smiling at her. “Which will you have to begin with—strawberries and cream or bread and dripping?”
“Strawberries and cream, please,” said she.
“Ah-h-h-h.” How they all laughed and beat the table with their teaspoons. Wasn’t that a take in! Wasn’t it now! Didn’t he fox her! Good old Stan!
“Ma! She thought it was real.”
Even Mrs. Samuel Josephs, pouring out the milk and water, could not help smiling. “You bustn’t tease theb on their last day,” she wheezed.
But Kezia bit a big piece out of her bread and dripping, and then stood the piece up on her plate. With the bite out it made a dear little sort of a gate. Pooh! She didn’t care! A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wasn’t crying. She couldn’t have cried in front of those awful Samuel Josephs. She sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.
After tea Kezia wandered back to their own house. Slowly she walked up the back steps, and through the scullery into the kitchen. Nothing was left in it but a lump of gritty yellow soap in one corner of the kitchen window sill and a piece of flannel stained with a blue bag in another. The fireplace was choked up with rubbish. She poked among it but found nothing except a hair-tidy with a heart painted on it that had belonged to the servant girl. Even that she left lying, and she trailed through the narrow passage into the drawing-room. The Venetian blind was pulled down but not drawn close. Long pencil rays of sunlight shone through and the wavy shadow of a bush outside danced on the gold lines. Now it was still, now it began to flutter again, and now it came almost as far as her feet. Zoom! Zoom! a blue-bottle knocked against the ceiling; the carpet-tacks had little bits of red fluff sticking to them.
The dining-room window had a square of coloured glass at each corner. One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at a blue lawn with blue arum lilies growing at the gate, and then at a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence. As she looked a little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn and began to dust the tables and chairs with a corner of her pinafore. Was that really Lottie? Kezia was not quite sure until she had looked through the ordinary window.
Upstairs in her father’s and mother’s room she found a pill box black and shiny outside and red in, holding a blob of cotton wool.
“I could keep a bird’s egg in that,” she decided.
In the servant girl’s room there was a stay-button stuck in a crack of the floor, and in another crack some beads and a long needle. She knew there was nothing in her grandmother’s room; she had watched her pack. She went over to the window and leaned against it, pressing her hands against the pane.
Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot palms, and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane. As she stood there, the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly. Kezia was suddenly quite, quite still, with wide open eyes and knees pressed together. She was frightened. She wanted to call Lottie and to go on calling all the while she ran downstairs and out of the house. But IT was just behind her, waiting at the door, at the head of the stairs, at the bottom of the stairs, hiding in the passage, ready to dart out at the back door. But Lottie was at the back door, too.
“Kezia!” she called cheerfully. “The storeman’s here. Everything is on the dray and three horses, Kezia. Mrs. Samuel Josephs has given us a big shawl to wear round us, and she says to button up your coat. She won’t come out because of asthma.”
Lottie was very important.
“Now then, you kids,” called the storeman. He hooked his big thumbs under their arms and up they swung. Lottie arranged the shawl “most beautifully” and the storeman tucked up their feet in a piece of old blanket.
“Lift up. Easy does it.”
They might have been a couple of young ponies. The storeman felt over the cords holding his load, unhooked the brakechain from the wheel, and whistling, he swung up beside them.
“Keep close to me,” said Lottie, “because otherwise you pull the shawl away from my side, Kezia.”
But Kezia edged up to the storeman. He towered beside her big as a giant and he smelled of nuts and new wooden boxes.
It was the first time that Lottie and Kezia had ever been out so late. Everything looked different—the painted wooden houses far smaller than they did by day, the gardens far bigger and wilder. Bright stars speckled the sky and the moon hung over the harbour dabbling the waves with gold. They could see the lighthouse shining on Quarantine Island, and the green lights on the old coal hulks.
“There comes the Picton boat,” said the storeman, pointing to a little steamer all hung with bright beads.
But when they reached the top of the hill and began to go down the other side the harbour disappeared, and although they were still in the town they were quite lost. Other carts rattled past. Everybody knew the storeman.
“Night O,” he shouted.
Kezia liked very much to hear him. Whenever a cart appeared in the distance she looked up and waited for his voice. He was an old friend; and she and her grandmother had often been to his place to buy grapes. The storeman lived alone in a cottage that had a glasshouse against one wall built by himself. All the glasshouse was spanned and arched over with one beautiful vine. He took her brown basket from her, lined it with three large leaves, and then he felt in his belt for a little horn knife, reached up and snapped off a big blue cluster and laid it on the leaves so tenderly that Kezia held her breath to watch. He was a very big man. He wore brown velvet trousers, and he had a long brown beard. But he never wore a collar, not even on Sunday. The back of his neck was burnt bright red.
“Where are we now?” Every few minutes one of the children asked him the question.
“Why, this is Hawk Street, or Charlotte Crescent.”
“Of course it is,” Lottie pricked up her ears at the last name; she always felt that Charlotte Crescent belonged specially to her. Very few people had streets with the same name as theirs.
“Look, Kezia, there is Charlotte Crescent. Doesn’t it look different?” Now everything familiar was left behind. Now the big dray rattled into unknown country, along new roads with high clay banks on either side, up steep, steep hills, down into bushy valleys, through wide shallow rivers. Further and further. Lottie’s head wagged; she drooped, she slipped half into Kezia’s lap and lay there. But Kezia could not open her eyes wide enough. The wind blew and she shivered; but her cheeks and ears burned.
“Do stars ever blow about?” she asked.
“Not to notice,” said the storeman.
“We’ve got a nuncle and a naunt living near our new house,” said Kezia. “They have got two children, Pip, the eldest is called, and the youngest’s name is Rags. He’s got a ram. He has to feed it with a nenamuel teapot and a glove top over the spout. He’s going to show us. What is the difference between a ram and a sheep?”
“Well, a ram has horns and runs for you.”
Kezia considered. “I don’t want to see it frightfully,” she said. “I hate rushing animals like dogs and parrots. I often dream that animals rush at me—even camels—and while they are rushing, their heads swell e-enormous.”
The storeman said nothing. Kezia peered up at him, screwing up her eyes. Then she put her finger out and stroked his sleeve; it felt hairy. “Are we near?” she asked.
“Not far off, now,” answered the storeman. “Getting tired?”
“Well, I’m not an atom bit sleepy,” said Kezia. “But my eyes keep curling up in such a funny sort of way.” She gave a long sigh, and to stop her eyes from curling she shut them. . . . When she opened them again they were clanking through a drive that cut through the garden like a whip lash, looping suddenly an island of green, and behind the island, but out of sight until you came upon it, was the house. It was long and low built, with a pillared verandah and balcony all the way round. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From a window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.
“Where are we?” said Lottie, sitting up. Her reefer cap was all on one side and on her cheek there was the print of an anchor button she had pressed against while sleeping. Tenderly the storeman lifted her, set her cap straight, and pulled down her crumpled clothes. She stood blinking on the lowest verandah step watching Kezia who seemed to come flying through the air to her feet.
“Ooh!” cried Kezia, flinging up her arms. The grandmother came out of the dark hall carrying a little lamp. She was smiling.
“You found your way in the dark?” said she.
But Lottie staggered on the lowest verandah step like a bird fallen out of the nest. If she stood still for a moment she fell asleep, if she leaned against anything her eyes closed. She could not walk another step.
“Kezia,” said the grandmother, “can I trust you to carry the lamp?”
“Yes, my granma.”
The old woman bent down and gave the bright breathing thing into her hands and then she caught up drunken Lottie. “This way.”
Through a square hall filled with bales and hundreds of parrots (but the parrots were only on the wall-paper) down a narrow passage where the parrots persisted in flying past Kezia with her lamp.
“Be very quiet,” warned the grandmother, putting down Lottie and opening the dining-room door. “Poor little mother has got such a headache.”
Linda Burnell, in a long cane chair, with her feet on a hassock, and a plaid over her knees, lay before a crackling fire. Burnell and Beryl sat at the table in the middle of the room eating a dish of fried chops and drinking tea out of a brown china teapot. Over the back of her mother’s chair leaned Isabel. She had a comb in her fingers and in a gentle absorbed fashion she was combing the curls from her mother’s forehead. Outside the pool of lamp and firelight the room stretched dark and bare to the hollow windows.
“Are those the children?” But Linda did not really care; she did not even open her eyes to see.
“Put down the lamp, Kezia,” said Aunt Beryl, “or we shall have the house on fire before we are out of the packing cases. More tea, Stanley?”
“Well, you might just give me five-eighths of a cup,” said Burnell, leaning across the table. “Have another chop, Beryl. Tip-top meat, isn’t it? Not too lean and not too fat.” He turned to his wife. “You’re sure you won’t change your mind, Linda darling?”
“The very thought of it is enough.” She raised one eyebrow in the way she had. The grandmother brought the children bread and milk and they sat up to table, flushed and sleepy behind the wavy steam.
“I had meat for my supper,” said Isabel, still combing gently.
“I had a whole chop for my supper, the bone and all and Worcester sauce. Didn’t I, father?”
“Oh, don’t boast, Isabel,” said Aunt Beryl.
Isabel looked astounded. “I wasn’t boasting, was I, Mummy? I never thought of boasting. I thought they would like to know. I only meant to tell them.”
“Very well. That’s enough,” said Burnell. He pushed back his plate, took a tooth-pick out of his pocket and began picking his strong white teeth.
“You might see that Fred has a bite of something in the kitchen before he goes, will you, mother?”
“Yes, Stanley.” The old woman turned to go.
“Oh, hold on half a jiffy. I suppose nobody knows where my slippers were put? I suppose I shall not be able to get at them for a month or two—what?”
“Yes,” came from Linda. “In the top of the canvas hold-all marked ‘urgent necessities.’”
“Well you might get them for me will you, mother?”
Burnell got up, stretched himself, and going over to the fire he turned his back to it and lifted up his coat tails.
“By Jove, this is a pretty pickle. Eh, Beryl?”
Beryl, sipping tea, her elbows on the table, smiled over the cup at him. She wore an unfamiliar pink pinafore; the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up to her shoulders showing her lovely freckled arms, and she had let her hair fall down her back in a long pig-tail.
“How long do you think it will take to get straight—couple of weeks—eh?” he chaffed.
“Good heavens, no,” said Beryl airily. “The worst is over already. The servant girl and I have simply slaved all day, and ever since mother came she has worked like a horse, too. We have never sat down for a moment. We have had a day.”
Stanley scented a rebuke.
“Well, I suppose you did not expect me to rush away from the office and nail carpets—did you?”
“Certainly not,” laughed Beryl. She put down her cup and ran out of the dining-room.
“What the hell does she expect us to do?” asked Stanley. “Sit down and fan herself with a palm leaf fan while I have a gang of professionals to do the job? By Jove, if she can’t do a hand’s turn occasionally without shouting about it in return for . . .”
And he gloomed as the chops began to fight the tea in his sensitive stomach. But Linda put up a hand and dragged him down to the side of her long chair.
“This is a wretched time for you, old boy,” she said. Her cheeks were very white but she smiled and curled her fingers into the big red hand she held. Burnell became quiet. Suddenly he began to whistle “Pure as a lily, joyous and free”—a good sign.
“Think you’re going to like it?” he asked.
“I don’t want to tell you, but I think I ought to, mother,” said Isabel. “Kezia is drinking tea out of Aunt Beryl’s cup.”
They were taken off to bed by the grandmother. She went first with a candle; the stairs rang to their climbing feet. Isabel and Lottie lay in a room to themselves, Kezia curled in her grandmother’s soft bed.
“Aren’t there going to be any sheets, my granma?”
“No, not to-night.”
“It’s tickly,” said Kezia, “but it’s like Indians.” She dragged her grandmother down to her and kissed her under the chin. “Come to bed soon and be my Indian brave.”
“What a silly you are,” said the old woman, tucking her in as she loved to be tucked.
“Aren’t you going to leave me a candle?”
“No. Sh—h. Go to sleep.”
“Well, can I have the door left open?”
She rolled herself up into a round but she did not go to sleep. From all over the house came the sound of steps. The house itself creaked and popped. Loud whispering voices came from downstairs. Once she heard Aunt Beryl’s rush of high laughter, and once she heard a loud trumpeting from Burnell blowing his nose. Outside the window hundreds of black cats with yellow eyes sat in the sky watching her—but she was not frightened. Lottie was saying to Isabel:
“I’m going to say my prayers in bed to-night.”
“No you can’t, Lottie.” Isabel was very firm. “God only excuses you saying your prayers in bed if you’ve got a temperature.” So Lottie yielded:
Gentle Jesus meek anmile, Look pon a little chile. Pity me, simple Lizzie Suffer me to come to thee.
And then they lay down back to back, their little behinds just touching, and fell asleep.
Standing in a pool of moonlight Beryl Fairfield undressed herself. She was tired, but she pretended to be more tired than she really was—letting her clothes fall, pushing back with a languid gesture her warm, heavy hair.
“Oh, how tired I am—very tired.”
She shut her eyes a moment, but her lips smiled. Her breath rose and fell in her breast like two fanning wings. The window was wide open; it was warm, and somewhere out there in the garden a young man, dark and slender, with mocking eyes, tip-toed among the bushes, and gathered the flowers into a big bouquet, and slipped under her window and held it up to her. She saw herself bending forward. He thrust his head among the bright waxy flowers, sly and laughing. “No, no,” said Beryl. She turned from the window and dropped her nightgown over her head.
“How frightfully unreasonable Stanley is sometimes,” she thought, buttoning. And then, as she lay down, there came the old thought, the cruel thought—ah, if only she had money of her own.
A young man, immensely rich, has just arrived from England. He meets her quite by chance. . . . The new governor is unmarried. . . . There is a ball at Government house. . . . Who is that exquisite creature in eau de nil satin? Beryl Fairfield. . . .
“The thing that pleases me,” said Stanley, leaning against the side of the bed and giving himself a good scratch on his shoulders and back before turning in, “is that I’ve got the place dirt cheap, Linda. I was talking about it to little Wally Bell to-day and he said he simply could not understand why they had accepted my figure. You see land about here is bound to become more and more valuable . . . in about ten years’ time . . . of course we shall have to go very slow and cut down expenses as fine as possible. Not asleep—are you?”
“No, dear, I’ve heard every word,” said Linda.
He sprang into bed, leaned over her and blew out the candle.
“Good night, Mr. Business Man,” said she, and she took hold of his head by the ears and gave him a quick kiss. Her faint far-away voice seemed to come from a deep well.
“Good night, darling.” He slipped his arm under her neck and drew her to him.
“Yes, clasp me,” said the faint voice from the deep well.
Pat the handy man sprawled in his little room behind the kitchen. His sponge-bag coat and trousers hung from the door-peg like a hanged man. From the edge of the blanket his twisted toes protruded, and on the floor beside him there was an empty cane bird-cage. He looked like a comic picture.
“Honk, honk,” came from the servant girl. She had adenoids.
Last to go to bed was the grandmother.
“What. Not asleep yet?”
“No, I’m waiting for you,” said Kezia. The old woman sighed and lay down beside her. Kezia thrust her head under the grandmother’s arm and gave a little squeak. But the old woman only pressed her faintly, and sighed again, took out her teeth, and put them in a glass of water beside her on the floor.
In the garden some tiny owls, perched on the branches of a lace-bark tree, called: “More pork; more pork.” And far away in the bush there sounded a harsh rapid chatter: “Ha-ha-ha . . . Ha-ha-ha.”
Dawn came sharp and chill with red clouds on a faint green sky and drops of water on every leaf and blade. A breeze blew over the garden, dropping dew and dropping petals, shivered over the drenched paddocks, and was lost in the sombre bush. In the sky some tiny stars floated for a moment and then they were gone—they were dissolved like bubbles. And plain to be heard in the early quiet was the sound of the creek in the paddock running over the brown stones, running in and out of the sandy hollows, hiding under clumps of dark berry bushes, spilling into a swamp of yellow water flowers and cresses.
And then at the first beam of sun the birds began. Big cheeky birds, starlings and mynahs, whistled on the lawns, the little birds, the goldfinches and linnets and fan-tails flicked from bough to bough. A lovely kingfisher perched on the paddock fence preening his rich beauty, and a tui sang his three notes and laughed and sang them again.
“How loud the birds are,” said Linda in her dream. She was walking with her father through a green paddock sprinkled with daisies. Suddenly he bent down and parted the grasses and showed her a tiny ball of fluff just at her feet. “Oh, Papa, the darling.” She made a cup of her hands and caught the tiny bird and stroked its head with her finger. It was quite tame. But a funny thing happened. As she stroked it began to swell, it ruffled and pouched, it grew bigger and bigger and its round eyes seemed to smile knowingly at her. Now her arms were hardly wide enough to hold it and she dropped it into her apron. It had become a baby with a big naked head and a gaping bird-mouth, opening and shutting. Her father broke into a loud clattering laugh and she woke to see Burnell standing by the windows rattling the Venetian blind up to the very top.
“Hullo,” he said. “Didn’t wake you, did I? Nothing much wrong with the weather this morning.”
He was enormously pleased. Weather like this set a final seal on his bargain. He felt, somehow, that he had bought the lovely day, too—got it chucked in dirt cheap with the house and ground. He dashed off to his bath and Linda turned over and raised herself on one elbow to see the room by daylight. All the furniture had found a place—all the old paraphernalia—as she expressed it. Even the photographs were on the mantelpiece and the medicine bottles on the shelf above the wash-stand. Her clothes lay across a chair—her outdoor things, a purple cape and a round hat with a plume in it. Looking at them she wished that she was going away from this house, too. And she saw herself driving away from them all in a little buggy, driving away from everybody and not even waving.
Back came Stanley girt with a towel, glowing and slapping his thighs. He pitched the wet towel on top of her hat and cape, and standing firm in the exact centre of a square of sunlight he began to do his exercises. Deep breathing, bending and squatting like a frog and shooting out his legs. He was so delighted with his firm, obedient body that he hit himself on the chest and gave a loud “Ah.” But this amazing vigour seemed to set him worlds away from Linda. She lay on the white tumbled bed and watched him as if from the clouds.
“Oh, damn! Oh, blast!” said Stanley, who had butted into a crisp white shirt only to find that some idiot had fastened the neck-band and he was caught. He stalked over to Linda waving his arms.
“You look like a big fat turkey,” said she.
“Fat. I like that,” said Stanley. “I haven’t a square inch of fat on me. Feel that.”
“It’s rock—it’s iron,” mocked she.
“You’d be surprised,” said Stanley, as though this were intensely interesting, “at the number of chaps at the club who have got a corporation. Young chaps, you know—men of my age.” He began parting his bushy ginger hair, his blue eyes fixed and round in the glass, his knees bent, because the dressing table was always—confound it—a bit too low for him. “Little Wally Bell, for instance,” and he straightened, describing upon himself an enormous curve with the hairbrush. “I must say I’ve a perfect horror . . .”
“My dear, don’t worry. You’ll never be fat. You are far too energetic.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose that’s true,” said he, comforted for the hundredth time, and taking a pearl pen-knife out of his pocket he began to pare his nails.
“Breakfast, Stanley.” Beryl was at the door. “Oh, Linda, mother says you are not to get up yet.” She popped her head in at the door. She had a big piece of syringa stuck through her hair.
“Everything we left on the verandah last night is simply sopping this morning. You should see poor dear mother wringing out the tables and the chairs. However, there is no harm done——” this with the faintest glance at Stanley.
“Have you told Pat to have the buggy round in time? It’s a good six and a half miles to the office.”
“I can imagine what this early start for the office will be like,” thought Linda. “It will be very high pressure indeed.”
“Pat, Pat.” She heard the servant girl calling. But Pat was evidently hard to find; the silly voice went baa—baaing through the garden.
Linda did not rest again until the final slam of the front door told her that Stanley was really gone.
Later she heard her children playing in the garden. Lottie’s stolid, compact little voice cried: “Ke—zia. Isa—bel.” She was always getting lost or losing people only to find them again, to her great surprise, round the next tree or the next corner. “Oh, there you are after all.” They had been turned out after breakfast and told not to come back to the house until they were called. Isabel wheeled a neat pramload of prim dolls and Lottie was allowed for a great treat to walk beside her holding the doll’s parasol over the face of the wax one.
“Where are you going to, Kezia?” asked Isabel, who longed to find some light and menial duty that Kezia might perform and so be roped in under her government.
“Oh, just away,” said Kezia. . . .
Then she did not hear them any more. What a glare there was in the room. She hated blinds pulled up to the top at any time, but in the morning it was intolerable. She turned over to the wall and idly, with one finger, she traced a poppy on the wall-paper with a leaf and a stem and a fat bursting bud. In the quiet, and under her tracing finger, the poppy seemed to come alive. She could feel the sticky, silky petals, the stem, hairy like a gooseberry skin, the rough leaf and the tight glazed bud. Things had a habit of coming alive like that. Not only large substantial things like furniture, but curtains and the patterns of stuffs and the fringes of quilts and cushions. How often she had seen the tassel fringe of her quilt change into a funny procession of dancers with priests attending. . . . For there were some tassels that did not dance at all but walked stately, bent forward as if praying or chanting. How often the medicine bottles had turned into a row of little men with brown top-hats on; and the washstand jug had a way of sitting in the basin like a fat bird in a round nest.
“I dreamed about birds last night,” thought Linda. What was it? She had forgotten. But the strangest part of this coming alive of things was what they did. They listened, they seemed to swell out with some mysterious important content, and when they were full she felt that they smiled. But it was not for her, only, their sly secret smile; they were members of a secret society and they smiled among themselves. Sometimes, when she had fallen asleep in the daytime, she woke and could not lift a finger, could not even turn her eyes to left or right because THEY were there; sometimes when she went out of a room and left it empty, she knew as she clicked the door to that THEY were filling it. And there were times in the evenings when she was upstairs, perhaps, and everybody else was down, when she could hardly escape from them. Then she could not hurry, she could not hum a tune; if she tried to say ever so carelessly—“Bother that old thimble”—THEY were not deceived. THEY knew how frightened she was; THEY saw how she turned her head away as she passed the mirror. What Linda always felt was that THEY wanted something of her, and she knew that if she gave herself up and was quiet, more than quiet, silent, motionless, something would really happen.
“It’s very quiet now,” she thought. She opened her eyes wide, and she heard the silence spinning its soft endless web. How lightly she breathed; she scarcely had to breathe at all.
Yes, everything had come alive down to the minutest, tiniest particle, and she did not feel her bed, she floated, held up in the air. Only she seemed to be listening with her wide open watchful eyes, waiting for someone to come who just did not come, watching for something to happen that just did not happen.
In the kitchen at the long deal table under the two windows old Mrs. Fairfield was washing the breakfast dishes. The kitchen window looked out on to a big grass patch that led down to the vegetable garden and the rhubarb beds. On one side the grass patch was bordered by the scullery and wash-house and over this whitewashed lean-to there grew a knotted vine. She had noticed yesterday that a few tiny corkscrew tendrils had come right through some cracks in the scullery ceiling and all the windows of the lean-to had a thick frill of ruffled green.
“I am very fond of a grape vine,” declared Mrs. Fairfield, “but I do not think that the grapes will ripen here. It takes Australian sun.” And she remembered how Beryl when she was a baby had been picking some white grapes from the vine on the back verandah of their Tasmanian house and she had been stung on the leg by a huge red ant. She saw Beryl in a little plaid dress with red ribbon tie-ups on the shoulders screaming so dreadfully that half the street rushed in. And how the child’s leg had swelled! “T—t—t—t!” Mrs. Fairfield caught her breath remembering. “Poor child, how terrifying it was.” And she set her lips tight and went over to the stove for some more hot water. The water frothed up in the big soapy bowl with pink and blue bubbles on top of the foam. Old Mrs. Fairfield’s arms were bare to the elbow and stained a bright pink. She wore a grey foulard dress patterned with large purple pansies, a white linen apron and a high cap shaped like a jelly mould of white muslin. At her throat there was a silver crescent moon with five little owls seated on it, and round her neck she wore a watch guard made of black beads.
It was hard to believe that she had not been in that kitchen for years; she was so much a part of it. She put the crocks away with a sure, precise touch, moving leisurely and ample from the stove to the dresser, looking into the pantry and the larder as though there were not an unfamiliar comer. When she had finished, everything in the kitchen had become part of a series of patterns. She stood in the middle of the room wiping her hands on a check cloth; a smile beamed on her lips; she thought it looked very nice, very satisfactory.
“Mother! Mother! Are you there?” called Beryl.
“Yes, dear. Do you want me?”
“No. I’m coming,” and Beryl rushed in, very flushed, dragging with her two big pictures.
“Mother, whatever can I do with these awful hideous Chinese paintings that Chung Wah gave Stanley when he went bankrupt? It’s absurd to say that they are valuable, because they were hanging in Chung Wah’s fruit shop for months before. I can’t make out why Stanley wants them kept. I’m sure he thinks them just as hideous as we do, but it’s because of the frames,” she said spitefully. “I suppose he thinks the frames might fetch something some day or other.”
“Why don’t you hang them in the passage?” suggested Mrs. Fairfield; “they would not be much seen there.”
“I can’t. There is no room. I’ve hung all the photographs of his office there before and after building, and the signed photos of his business friends, and that awful enlargement of Isabel lying on the mat in her singlet.” Her angry glance swept the placid kitchen. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll hang them here. I will tell Stanley they got a little damp in the moving so I have put them in here for the time being.”
She dragged a chair forward, jumped on it, took a hammer and a big nail out of her pinafore pocket and banged away.
“There! That is enough! Hand me the picture, mother.”
“One moment, child.” Her mother was wiping over the carved ebony frame.
“Oh, mother, really you need not dust them. It would take years to dust all those little holes.” And she frowned at the top of her mother’s head and bit her lip with impatience. Mother’s deliberate way of doing things was simply maddening. It was old age, she supposed, loftily.
At last the two pictures were hung side by side. She jumped off the chair, stowing away the little hammer.
“They don’t look so bad there, do they?” said she. “And at any rate nobody need gaze at them except Pat and the servant girl—have I got a spider’s web on my face, mother? I’ve been poking into that cupboard under the stairs and now something keeps tickling my nose.”
But before Mrs. Fairfield had time to look Beryl had turned away. Someone tapped on the window: Linda was there, nodding and smiling. They heard the latch of the scullery door lift and she came in. She had no hat on; her hair stood up on her head in curling rings and she was wrapped up in an old cashmere shawl.
“I’m so hungry,” said Linda: “where can I get something to eat, mother? This is the first time I’ve been in the kitchen. It says ‘mother’ all over; everything is in pairs.”
“I will make you some tea,” said Mrs. Fairfield, spreading a clean napkin over a corner of the table, “and Beryl can have a cup with you.”
“Beryl, do you want half my gingerbread?” Linda waved the knife at her. “Beryl, do you like the house now that we are here?”
“Oh yes, I like the house immensely and the garden is beautiful, but it feels very far away from everything to me. I can’t imagine people coming out from town to see us in that dreadful jolting bus, and I am sure there is not anyone here to come and call. Of course it does not matter to you because——”
“But there’s the buggy,” said Linda. “Pat can drive you into town whenever you like.”
That was a consolation, certainly, but there was something at the back of Beryl’s mind, something she did not even put into words for herself.
“Oh, well, at any rate it won’t kill us,” she said dryly, putting down her empty cup and standing up and stretching. “I am going to hang curtains.” And she ran away singing:
How many thousand birds I see That sing aloud from every tree . . .
“. . . birds I see That sing aloud from every tree. . . .” But when she reached the dining-room she stopped singing, her face changed; it became gloomy and sullen.
“One may as well rot here as anywhere else,” she muttered savagely, digging the stiff brass safety-pins into the red serge curtains.
The two left in the kitchen were quiet for a little. Linda leaned her cheek on her fingers and watched her mother. She thought her mother looked wonderfully beautiful with her back to the leafy window. There was something comforting in the sight of her that Linda felt she could never do without. She needed the sweet smell of her flesh, and the soft feel of her cheeks and her arms and shoulders still softer. She loved the way her hair curled, silver at her forehead, lighter at her neck, and bright brown still in the big coil under the muslin cap. Exquisite were her mother’s hands, and the two rings she wore seemed to melt into her creamy skin. And she was always so fresh, so delicious. The old woman could bear nothing but linen next to her body and she bathed in cold water winter and summer.
“Isn’t there anything for me to do?” asked Linda.
“No, darling. I wish you would go into the garden and give an eye to your children; but that I know you will not do.”
“Of course I will, but you know Isabel is much more grown up than any of us.”
“Yes, but Kezia is not,” said Mrs. Fairfield.
“Oh, Kezia has been tossed by a bull hours ago,” said Linda, winding herself up in her shawl again.
But no, Kezia had seen a bull through a hole in a knot of wood in the paling that separated the tennis lawn from the paddock. But she had not liked the bull frightfully, so she had walked away back through the orchard, up the grassy slope, along the path by the lace bark tree and so into the spread tangled garden. She did not believe that she would ever not get lost in this garden. Twice she had found her way back to the big iron gates they had driven through the night before, and then had turned to walk up the drive that led to the house, but there were so many little paths on either side. On one side they all led into a tangle of tall dark trees and strange bushes with flat velvet leaves and feathery cream flowers that buzzed with flies when you shook them—this was the frightening side, and no garden at all. The little paths here were wet and clayey with tree roots spanned across them like the marks of big fowls’ feet.
But on the other side of the drive there was a high box border and the paths had box edges and all of them led into a deeper and deeper tangle of flowers. The camellias were in bloom, white and crimson and pink and white striped with flashing leaves. You could not see a leaf on the syringa bushes for the white clusters. The roses were in flower—gentlemen’s button-hole roses, little white ones, but far too full of insects to hold under anyone’s nose, pink monthly roses with a ring of fallen petals round the bushes, cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn black as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves.
There were clumps of fairy bells, and all kinds of geraniums, and there were little trees of verbena and bluish lavender bushes and a bed of pelagoniums with velvet eyes and leaves like moths’ wings. There was a bed of nothing but mignonette and another of nothing but pansies—borders of double and single daisies and all kinds of little tufty plants she had never seen before.
The red-hot pokers were taller than she; the Japanese sunflowers grew in a tiny jungle. She sat down on one of the box borders. By pressing hard at first it made a nice seat. But how dusty it was inside! Kezia bent down to look and sneezed and rubbed her nose.
And then she found herself at the top of the rolling grassy slope that led down to the orchard. . . . She looked down at the slope a moment; then she lay down on her back, gave a squeak and rolled over and over into the thick flowery orchard grass. As she lay waiting for things to stop spinning, she decided to go up to the house and ask the servant girl for an empty match-box. She wanted to make a surprise for the grandmother. . . . First she would put a leaf inside with a big violet lying on it, then she would put a very small white picotee, perhaps, on each side of the violet, and then she would sprinkle some lavender on the top, but not to cover their heads.
She often made these surprises for the grandmother, and they were always most successful.
“Do you want a match, my granny?”
“Why, yes, child, I believe a match is just what I’m looking for.”
The grandmother slowly opened the box and came upon the picture inside.
“Good gracious, child! How you astonished me!”
“I can make her one every day here,” she thought, scrambling up the grass on her slippery shoes.
But on her way back to the house she came to that island that lay in the middle of the drive, dividing the drive into two arms that met in front of the house. The island was made of grass banked up high. Nothing grew on the top except one huge plant with thick, grey-green, thorny leaves, and out of the middle there sprang up a tall stout stem. Some of the leaves of the plant were so old that they curled up in the air no longer; they turned back, they were split and broken; some of them lay flat and withered on the ground.
Whatever could it be? She had never seen anything like it before. She stood and stared. And then she saw her mother coming down the path.
“Mother, what is it?” asked Kezia.
Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.
“That is an aloe, Kezia,” said her mother.
“Does it ever have any flowers?”
“Yes, Kezia,” and Linda smiled down at her, and half shut her eyes. “Once every hundred years.”
On his way home from the office Stanley Burnell stopped the buggy at the Bodega, got out and bought a large bottle of oysters. At the Chinaman’s shop next door he bought a pineapple in the pink of condition, and noticing a basket of fresh black cherries he told John to put him a pound of those as well. The oysters and the pine he stowed away in the box under the front seat, but the cherries he kept in his hand.
Pat, the handy-man, leapt off the box and tucked him up again in the brown rug.
“Lift yer feet, Mr. Burnell, while I give yer a fold under,” said he.
“Right! Right! First-rate!” said Stanley. “You can make straight for home now.”
Pat gave the grey mare a touch and the buggy sprang forward.
“I believe this man is a first-rate chap,” thought Stanley. He liked the look of him sitting up there in his neat brown coat and brown bowler. He liked the way Pat had tucked him in, and he liked his eyes. There was nothing servile about him—and if there was one thing he hated more than another it was servility. And he looked as if he was pleased with his job—happy and contented already.
The grey mare went very well; Burnell was impatient to be out of the town. He wanted to be home. Ah, it was splendid to live in the country—to get right out of that hole of a town once the office was closed; and this drive in the fresh warm air, knowing all the while that his own house was at the other end, with its garden and paddocks, its three tip-top cows and enough fowls and ducks to keep them in poultry, was splendid too.
As they left the town finally and bowled away up the deserted road his heart beat hard for joy. He rooted in the bag and began to eat the cherries, three or four at a time, chucking the stones over the side of the buggy. They were delicious, so plump and cold, without a spot or a bruise on them.
Look at those two, now—black one side and white the other—perfect! A perfect little pair of Siamese twins. And he stuck them in his button-hole. . . . By Jove, he wouldn’t mind giving that chap up there a handful—but no, better not. Better wait until he had been with him a bit longer.
He began to plan what he would do with his Saturday afternoons and his Sundays. He wouldn’t go to the club for lunch on Saturday. No, cut away from the office as soon as possible and get them to give him a couple of slices of cold meat and half a lettuce when he got home. And then he’d get a few chaps out from town to play tennis in the afternoon. Not too many—three at most. Beryl was a good player, too. . . . He stretched out his right arm and slowly bent it, feeling the muscle. . . . A bath, a good rub-down, a cigar on the verandah after dinner. . . .
On Sunday morning they would go to church—children and all. Which reminded him that he must hire a pew, in the sun if possible and well forward so as to be out of the draught from the door. In fancy he heard himself intoning extremely well: “When thou did overcome the Sharpness of Death Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all Believers.” And he saw the neat brass-edged card on the corner of the pew—Mr. Stanley Burnell and family. . . . The rest of the day he’d loaf about with Linda. . . . Now they were walking about the garden; she was on his arm, and he was explaining to her at length what he intended doing at the office the week following. He heard her saying: “My dear, I think that is most wise.” . . . Talking things over with Linda was a wonderful help even though they were apt to drift away from the point.
Hang it all! They weren’t getting along very fast. Pat had put the brake on again. Ugh! What a brute of a thing it was. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach.
A sort of panic overtook Burnell whenever he approached near home. Before he was well inside the gate he would shout to anyone within sight: “Is everything all right?” And then he did not believe it was until he heard Linda say: “Hullo! Are you home again?” That was the worst of living in the country—it took the deuce of a long time to get back. . . . But now they weren’t far off. They were on the top of the last hill; it was a gentle slope all the way now and not more than half a mile.
Pat trailed the whip over the mare’s back and he coaxed her: “Goop now. Goop now.”
It wanted a few minutes to sunset. Everything stood motionless bathed in bright, metallic light and from the paddocks on either side there streamed the milky scent of ripe grass. The iron gates were open. They dashed through and up the drive and round the island, stopping at the exact middle of the verandah.
“Did she satisfy yer, Sir?” said Pat, getting off the box and grinning at his master.
“Very well indeed, Pat,” said Stanley.
Linda came out of the glass door; her voice rang in the shadowy quiet. “Hullo! Are you home again?”
At the sound of her his heart beat so hard that he could hardly stop himself dashing up the steps and catching her in his arms.
“Yes, I’m home again. Is everything all right?”
Pat began to lead the buggy round to the side gate that opened into the courtyard.
“Here, half a moment,” said Burnell. “Hand me those two parcels.” And he said to Linda, “I’ve brought you back a bottle of oysters and a pineapple,” as though he had brought her back all the harvest of the earth.
They went into the hall; Linda carried the oysters in one hand and the pineapple in the other. Burnell shut the glass door, threw his hat down, put his arms round her and strained her to him, kissing the top of her head, her ears, her lips, her eyes.
“Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” said she. “Wait a moment. Let me put down these silly things,” and she put the bottle of oysters and the pine on a little carved chair. “What have you got in your button-hole—cherries?” She took them out and hung them over his ear.
“Don’t do that, darling. They are for you.”
So she took them off his ear again. “You don’t mind if I save them. They’d spoil my appetite for dinner. Come and see your children. They are having tea.”
The lamp was lighted on the nursery table. Mrs. Fairfield was cutting and spreading bread and butter. The three little girls sat up to table wearing large bibs embroidered with their names. They wiped their mouths as their father came in ready to be kissed. The windows were open; a jar of wild flowers stood on the mantelpiece, and the lamp made a big soft bubble of light on the ceiling.
“You seem pretty snug, mother,” said Burnell, blinking at the light. Isabel and Lottie sat one on either side of the table, Kezia at the bottom—the place at the top was empty.
“That’s where my boy ought to sit,” thought Stanley. He tightened his arm round Linda’s shoulder. By God, he was a perfect fool to feel as happy as this!
“We are, Stanley. We are very snug,” said Mrs. Fairfield, cutting Kezia’s bread into fingers.
“Like it better than town—eh, children?” asked Burnell.
“Oh, yes,” said the three little girls, and Isabel added as an after-thought: “Thank you very much indeed, father dear.”
“Come upstairs,” said Linda. “I’ll bring your slippers.”
But the stairs were too narrow for them to go up arm in arm. It was quite dark in the room. He heard her ring tapping on the marble mantelpiece as she felt for the matches.
“I’ve got some, darling. I’ll light the candles.”
But instead he came up behind her and again he put his arms round her and pressed her head into his shoulder.
“I’m so confoundedly happy,” he said.
“Are you?” She turned and put her hands on his breast and looked up at him.
“I don’t know what has come over me,” he protested.
It was quite dark outside now and heavy dew was falling. When Linda shut the window the cold dew touched her finger tips. Far away a dog barked. “I believe there is going to be a moon,” she said.
At the words, and with the cold wet dew on her fingers, she felt as though the moon had risen—that she was being strangely discovered in a flood of cold light. She shivered; she came away from the window and sat down upon the box ottoman beside Stanley.
In the dining-room, by the flicker of a wood fire, Beryl sat on a hassock playing the guitar. She had bathed and changed all her clothes. Now she wore a white muslin dress with black spots on it and in her hair she had pinned a black silk rose.
Nature has gone to her rest, love, See, we are alone. Give me your hand to press, love, Lightly within my own.
She played and sang half to herself, for she was watching herself playing and singing. The firelight gleamed on her shoes, on the ruddy belly of the guitar, and on her white fingers. . . .
“If I were outside the window and looked in and saw myself I really would be rather struck,” thought she. Still more softly she played the accompaniment—not singing now but listening.
. . . “The first time that I ever saw you, little girl—oh, you had no idea that you were not alone—you were sitting with your little feet upon a hassock, playing the guitar. God, I can never forget. . . .” Beryl flung up her head and began to sing again:
Even the moon is aweary . . .
But there came a loud bang at the door. The servant girl’s crimson face popped through.
“Please, Miss Beryl, I’ve got to come and lay.”
“Certainly, Alice,” said Beryl, in a voice of ice. She put the guitar in a corner. Alice lunged in with a heavy black iron tray.
“Well, I have had a job with that oving,” said she. “I can’t get nothing to brown.”
“Really!” said Beryl.
But no, she could not stand that fool of a girl. She ran into the dark drawing-room and began walking up and down. . . . Oh, she was restless, restless. There was a mirror over the mantel. She leaned her arms along and looked at her pale shadow in it. How beautiful she looked, but there was nobody to see, nobody.
“Why must you suffer so?” said the face in the mirror. “You were not made for suffering. . . . Smile!”
Beryl smiled, and really her smile was so adorable that she smiled again—but this time because she could not help it.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jones.”
“Oh, good morning, Mrs. Smith. I’m so glad to see you. Have you brought your children?”
“Yes, I’ve brought both my twins. I have had another baby since I saw you last, but she came so suddenly that I haven’t had time to make her any clothes, yet. So I left her. . . . How is your husband?”
“Oh, he is very well, thank you. At least he had a nawful cold but Queen Victoria—she’s my godmother, you know—sent him a case of pineapples and that cured it im—mediately. Is that your new servant?”
“Yes, her name’s Gwen. I’ve only had her two days. Oh, Gwen, this is my friend, Mrs. Smith.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Smith. Dinner won’t be ready for about ten minutes.”
“I don’t think you ought to introduce me to the servant. I think I ought to just begin talking to her.”
“Well, she’s more of a lady-help than a servant and you do introduce lady-helps, I know, because Mrs. Samuel Josephs had one.”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter,” said the servant, carelessly, beating up a chocolate custard with half a broken clothes peg. The dinner was baking beautifully on a concrete step. She began to lay the cloth on a pink garden seat. In front of each person she put two geranium leaf plates, a pine needle fork and a twig knife. There were three daisy heads on a laurel leaf for poached eggs, some slices of fuchsia petal cold beef, some lovely little rissoles made of earth and water and dandelion seeds, and the chocolate custard which she had decided to serve in the pawa shell she had cooked it in.
“You needn’t trouble about my children,” said Mrs. Smith graciously. “If you’ll just take this bottle and fill it at the tap—I mean at the dairy.”
“Oh, all right,” said Gwen, and she whispered to Mrs. Jones: “Shall I go and ask Alice for a little bit of real milk?”
But someone called from the front of the house and the luncheon party melted away, leaving the charming table, leaving the rissoles and the poached eggs to the ants and to an old snail who pushed his quivering horns over the edge of the garden seat and began to nibble a geranium plate.
“Come round to the front, children. Pip and Rags have come.”
The Trout boys were the cousins Kezia had mentioned to the storeman. They lived about a mile away in a house called Monkey Tree Cottage. Pip was tall for his age, with lank black hair and a white face, but Rags was very small and so thin that when he was undressed his shoulder blades stuck out like two little wings. They had a mongrel dog with pale blue eyes and a long tail turned up at the end who followed them everywhere; he was called Snooker. They spent half their time combing and brushing Snooker and dosing him with various awful mixtures concocted by Pip, and kept secretly by him in a broken jug covered with an old kettle lid. Even faithful little Rags was not allowed to know the full secret of these mixtures. . . . Take some carbolic tooth powder and a pinch of sulphur powdered up fine, and perhaps a bit of starch to stiffen up Snooker’s coat. . . . But that was not all; Rags privately thought that the rest was gun-powder. . . . And he never was allowed to help with the mixing because of the danger. . . . “Why if a spot of this flew in your eye, you would be blinded for life,” Pip would say, stirring the mixture with an iron spoon. “And there’s always the chance—just the chance, mind you—of it exploding if you whack it hard enough. . . . Two spoons of this in a kerosene tin will be enough to kill thousands of fleas.” But Snooker spent all his spare time biting and snuffling, and he stank abominably.
“It’s because he is such a grand fighting dog,” Pip would say. “All fighting dogs smell.”
The Trout boys had often spent the day with the Burnells in town, but now that they lived in this fine house and boncer garden they were inclined to be very friendly. Besides, both of them liked playing with girls—Pip, because he could fox them so, and because Lottie was so easily frightened, and Rags for a shameful reason. He adored dolls. How he would look at a doll as it lay asleep, speaking in a whisper and smiling timidly, and what a treat it was to him to be allowed to hold one. . . .
“Curve your arms round her. Don’t keep them stiff like that. You’ll drop her,” Isabel would say sternly.
Now they were standing on the verandah and holding back Snooker who wanted to go into the house but wasn’t allowed to because Aunt Linda hated decent dogs.
“We came over in the bus with Mum,” they said, “and we’re going to spend the afternoon with you. We brought over a batch of our gingerbread for Aunt Linda. Our Minnie made it. It’s all over nuts.”
“I skinned the almonds,” said Pip. “I just stuck my hand into a saucepan of boiling water and grabbed them out and gave them a kind of pinch and the nuts flew out of the skins, some of them as high as the ceiling. Didn’t they, Rags?”
Rags nodded. “When they make cakes at our place,” said Pip, “we always stay in the kitchen, Rags and me, and I get the bowl and he gets the spoon and the egg beater. Sponge cake’s best. It’s all frothy stuff, then.”
He ran down the verandah steps to the lawn, planted his hands on the grass, bent forward, and just did not stand on his head.
“That lawn’s all bumpy,” he said. “You have to have a flat place for standing on your head. I can walk round the monkey tree on my head at our place. Can’t I, Rags?”
“Nearly,” said Rags faintly.
“Stand on your head on the verandah. That’s quite flat,” said Kezia.
“No, smarty,” said Pip. “You have to do it on something soft. Because if you give a jerk and fall over, something in your neck goes click, and it breaks off. Dad told me.”
“Oh, do let’s play something,” said Kezia.
“Very well,” said Isabel quickly, “we’ll play hospitals. I will be the nurse and Pip can be the doctor and you and Lottie and Rags can be the sick people.”
Lottie didn’t want to play that, because last time Pip had squeezed something down her throat and it hurt awfully.
“Pooh,” scoffed Pip. “It was only the juice out of a bit of mandarin peel.”
“Well, let’s play ladies,” said Isabel. “Pip can be the father and you can be all our dear little children.”
“I hate playing ladies,” said Kezia. “You always make us go to church hand in hand and come home and go to bed.”
Suddenly Pip took a filthy handkerchief out of his pocket. “Snooker! Here, sir,” he called. But Snooker, as usual, tried to sneak away, his tail between his legs. Pip leapt on top of him, and pressed him between his knees.
“Keep his head firm, Rags,” he said, and he tied the handkerchief round Snooker’s head with a funny knot sticking up at the top.
“Whatever is that for?” asked Lottie.
“It’s to train his ears to grow more close to his head—see?” said Pip. “All fighting dogs have ears that lie back. But Snooker’s ears are a bit too soft.”
“I know,” said Kezia. “They are always turning inside out. I hate that.”
Snooker lay down, made one feeble effort with his paw to get the handkerchief off, but finding he could not, trailed after the children, shivering with misery.
Pat came swinging along; in his hand he held a little tomahawk that winked in the sun.
“Come with me,” he said to the children, “and I’ll show you how the kings of Ireland chop the head off a duck.”
They drew back—they didn’t believe him, and besides, the Trout boys had never seen Pat before.
“Come on now,” he coaxed, smiling and holding out his hand to Kezia.
“Is it a real duck’s head? One from the paddock?”
“It is,” said Pat. She put her hand in his hard dry one, and he stuck the tomahawk in his belt and held out the other to Rags. He loved little children.
“I’d better keep hold of Snooker’s head if there’s going to be any blood about,” said Pip, “because the sight of blood makes him awfully wild.” He ran ahead dragging Snooker by the handkerchief.
“Do you think we ought to go?” whispered Isabel. “We haven’t asked or anything. Have we?”
At the bottom of the orchard a gate was set in the paling fence. On the other side a steep bank led down to a bridge that spanned the creek, and once up the bank on the other side you were on the fringe of the paddocks. A little old stable in the first paddock had been turned into a fowl house. The fowls had strayed far away across the paddock down to a dumping ground in a hollow, but the ducks kept close to that part of the creek that flowed under the bridge.
Tall bushes overhung the stream with red leaves and yellow flowers and clusters of blackberries. At some places the stream was wide and shallow, but at others it tumbled into deep little pools with foam at the edges and quivering bubbles. It was in these pools that the big white ducks had made themselves at home, swimming and guzzling along the weedy banks.
Up and down they swam, preening their dazzling breasts, and other ducks with the same dazzling breasts and yellow bills swam upside down with them.
“There is the little Irish navy,” said Pat, “and look at the old admiral there with the green neck and the grand little flagstaff on his tail.”
He pulled a handful of grain from his pocket and began to walk towards the fowl-house, lazy, his straw hat with the broken crown pulled over his eyes.
“Lid. Lid—lid—lid—lid——” he called.
“Qua. Qua—qua—qua—qua——” answered the ducks, making for land, and flapping and scrambling up the bank they streamed after him in a long waddling line. He coaxed them, pretending to throw the grain, shaking it in his hands and calling to them until they swept round him in a white ring.
From far away the fowls heard the clamour and they too came running across the paddock, their heads thrust forward, their wings spread, turning in their feet in the silly way fowls run and scolding as they came.
Then Pat scattered the grain and the greedy ducks began to gobble. Quickly he stooped, seized two, one under each arm, and strode across to the children. Their darting heads and round eyes frightened the children—all except Pip.
“Come on, sillies,” he cried, “they can’t bite. They haven’t any teeth. They’ve only got those two little holes in their beaks for breathing through.”
“Will you hold one while I finish with the other?” asked Pat. Pip let go of Snooker. “Won’t I? Won’t I? Give us one. I don’t mind how much he kicks.”
He nearly sobbed with delight when Pat gave the white lump into his arms.
There was an old stump beside the door of the fowl-house. Pat grabbed the duck by the legs, laid it flat across the stump, and almost at the same moment down came the little tomahawk and the duck’s head flew off the stump. Up the blood spurted over the white feathers and over his hand.
When the children saw the blood they were frightened no longer. They crowded round him and began to scream. Even Isabel leaped about crying: “The blood! The blood!” Pip forgot all about his duck. He simply threw it away from him and shouted, “I saw it. I saw it,” and jumped round the wood block.
Rags, with cheeks as white as paper, ran up to the little head, put out a finger as if he wanted to touch it, shrank back again and then again put out a finger. He was shivering all over.
Even Lottie, frightened little Lottie, began to laugh and pointed at the duck and shrieked: “Look, Kezia, look.”
“Watch it!” shouted Pat. He put down the body and it began to waddle—with only a long spurt of blood where the head had been; it began to pad away without a sound towards the steep bank that led to the stream. . . . That was the crowning wonder.
“Do you see that? Do you see that?” yelled Pip. He ran among the little girls tugging at their pinafores.
“It’s like a little engine. It’s like a funny little railway engine,” squealed Isabel.
But Kezia suddenly rushed at Pat and flung her arms round his legs and butted her head as hard as she could against his knees.
“Put head back! Put head back!” she screamed.
When he stooped to move her she would not let go or take her head away. She held on as hard as she could and sobbed: “Head back! Head back!” until it sounded like a loud strange hiccup.
“It’s stopped. It’s tumbled over. It’s dead,” said Pip.
Pat dragged Kezia up into his arms. Her sun-bonnet had fallen back, but she would not let him look at her face. No, she pressed her face into a bone in his shoulder and clasped her arms round his neck.
The children stopped screaming as suddenly as they had begun. They stood round the dead duck. Rags was not frightened of the head any more. He knelt down and stroked it, now.
“I don’t think the head is quite dead yet,” he said. “Do you think it would keep alive if I gave it something to drink?”
But Pip got very cross: “Bah! You baby.” He whistled to Snooker and went off.
When Isabel went up to Lottie, Lottie snatched away.
“What are you always touching me for, Isabel?”
“There now,” said Pat to Kezia. “There’s the grand little girl.”
She put up her hands and touched his ears. She felt something. Slowly she raised her quivering face and looked. Pat wore little round gold ear-rings. She never knew that men wore ear-rings. She was very much surprised.
“Do they come on and off?” she asked huskily.
Up in the house, in the warm tidy kitchen, Alice, the servant girl, was getting the afternoon tea. She was “dressed.” She had on a black stuff dress that smelt under the arms, a white apron like a large sheet of paper, and a lace bow pinned on to her hair with two jetty pins. Also her comfortable carpet slippers were changed for a pair of black leather ones that pinched her corn on her little toe something dreadful. . . .
It was warm in the kitchen. A blow-fly buzzed, a fan of whity steam came out of the kettle, and the lid kept up a rattling jig as the water bubbled. The clock ticked in the warm air, slow and deliberate, like the click of an old woman’s knitting needle, and sometimes—for no reason at all, for there wasn’t any breeze—the blind swung out and back, tapping the window.
Alice was making water-cress sandwiches. She had a lump of butter on the table, a barracouta loaf, and the cresses tumbled in a white cloth.
But propped against the butter dish there was a dirty, greasy little book, half unstitched, with curled edges, and while she mashed the butter she read:
“To dream of black-beetles drawing a hearse is bad. Signifies death of one you hold near or dear, either father, husband, brother, son, or intended. If beetles crawl backwards as you watch them it means death from fire or from great height such as flight of stairs, scaffolding, etc.
“Spiders. To dream of spiders creeping over you is good. Signifies large sum of money in near future. Should party be in family way an easy confinement may be expected. But care should be taken in sixth month to avoid eating of probable present of shell fish. . . .”
How many thousand birds I see.
Oh, life. There was Miss Beryl. Alice dropped the knife and slipped the Dream Book under the butter dish. But she hadn’t time to hide it quite, for Beryl ran into the kitchen and up to the table, and the first thing her eye lighted on were those greasy edges. Alice saw Miss Beryl’s meaning little smile and the way she raised her eyebrows and screwed up her eyes as though she were not quite sure what that could be. She decided to answer if Miss Beryl should ask her: “Nothing as belongs to you, Miss.” But she knew Miss Beryl would not ask her.
Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they’d been expressed. Really, they kept her alive in places where she’d been that chivvied she’d been afraid to go to bed at night with a box of matches on the chair in case she bit the tops off in her sleep, as you might say.
“Oh, Alice,” said Miss Beryl. “There’s one extra to tea, so heat a plate of yesterday’s scones, please. And put on the Victoria sandwich as well as the coffee cake. And don’t forget to put little doyleys under the plates—will you? You did yesterday, you know, and the tea looked so ugly and common. And, Alice, don’t put that dreadful old pink and green cosy on the afternoon teapot again. That is only for the mornings. Really, I think it ought to be kept for the kitchen—it’s so shabby, and quite smelly. Put on the Japanese one. You quite understand, don’t you?”
Miss Beryl had finished.
That sing aloud from every tree . . .
she sang as she left the kitchen, very pleased with her firm handling of Alice.
Oh, Alice was wild. She wasn’t one to mind being told, but there was something in the way Miss Beryl had of speaking to her that she couldn’t stand. Oh, that she couldn’t. It made her curl up inside, as you might say, and she fair trembled. But what Alice really hated Miss Beryl for was that she made her feel low. She talked to Alice in a special voice as though she wasn’t quite all there; and she never lost her temper with her—never. Even when Alice dropped anything or forgot anything important Miss Beryl seemed to have expected it to happen.
“If you please, Mrs. Burnell,” said an imaginary Alice, as she buttered the scones, “I’d rather not take my orders from Miss Beryl. I may be only a common servant girl as doesn’t know how to play the guitar, but . . .”
This last thrust pleased her so much that she quite recovered her temper.
“The only thing to do,” she heard, as she opened the dining-room door, “is to cut the sleeves out entirely and just have a broad band of black velvet over the shoulders instead. . . .”
The white duck did not look as if it had ever had a head when Alice placed it in front of Stanley Burnell that night. It lay, in beautifully basted resignation, on a blue dish—its legs tied together with a piece of string and a wreath of little balls of stuffing round it.
It was hard to say which of the two, Alice or the duck, looked the better basted; they were both such a rich colour and they both had the same air of gloss and strain. But Alice was fiery red and the duck a Spanish mahogany.
Burnell ran his eye along the edge of the carving knife. He prided himself very much upon his carving, upon making a first-class job of it. He hated seeing a woman carve; they were always too slow and they never seemed to care what the meat looked like afterwards. Now he did; he took a real pride in cutting delicate shaves of cold beef, little wads of mutton, just the right thickness, and in dividing a chicken or a duck with nice precision. . . .
“Is this the first of the home products?” he asked, knowing perfectly well that it was.
“Yes, the butcher did not come. We have found out that he only calls twice a week.”
But there was no need to apologise. It was a superb bird. It wasn’t meat at all, but a kind of very superior jelly. “My father would say,” said Burnell, “this must have been one of those birds whose mother played to it in infancy upon the German flute. And the sweet strains of the dulcet instrument acted with such effect upon the infant mind. . . . Have some more, Beryl? You and I are the only ones in this house with a real feeling for food. I’m perfectly willing to state, in a court of law, if necessary, that I love good food.”
Tea was served in the drawing-room, and Beryl, who for some reason had been very charming to Stanley ever since he came home, suggested a game of crib. They sat at a little table near one of the open windows. Mrs. Fairfield disappeared, and Linda lay in a rocking-chair, her arms above her head, rocking to and fro.
“You don’t want the light—do you, Linda?” said Beryl. She moved the tall lamp so that she sat under its soft light.
How remote they looked, those two, from where Linda sat and rocked. The green table, the polished cards, Stanley’s big hands and Beryl’s tiny ones, all seemed to be part of one mysterious movement. Stanley himself, big and solid, in his dark suit, took his ease, and Beryl tossed her bright head and pouted. Round her throat she wore an unfamiliar velvet ribbon. It changed her, somehow—altered the shape of her face—but it was charming, Linda decided. The room smelled of lilies; there were two big jars of arums in the fire-place.
“Fifteen two—fifteen four—and a pair is six and a run of three is nine,” said Stanley, so deliberately, he might have been counting sheep.
“I’ve nothing but two pairs,” said Beryl, exaggerating her woe because she knew how he loved winning.
The cribbage pegs were like two little people going up the road together, turning round the sharp corner, and coming down the road again. They were pursuing each other. They did not so much want to get ahead as to keep near enough to talk—to keep near, perhaps that was all.
But no, there was always one who was impatient and hopped away as the other came up, and would not listen. Perhaps the white peg was frightened of the red one, or perhaps he was cruel and would not give the red one a chance to speak. . . .
In the front of her dress Beryl wore a bunch of pansies, and once when the little pegs were side by side, she bent over and the pansies dropped out and covered them.
“What a shame,” said she, picking up the pansies. “Just as they had a chance to fly into each other’s arms.”
“Farewell, my girl,” laughed Stanley, and away the red peg hopped.
The drawing-room was long and narrow with glass doors that gave on to the verandah. It had a cream paper with a pattern of gilt roses, and the furniture, which had belonged to old Mrs. Fairfield, was dark and plain. A little piano stood against the wall with yellow pleated silk let into the carved front. Above it hung an oil painting by Beryl of a large cluster of surprised looking clematis. Each flower was the size of a small saucer, with a centre like an astonished eye fringed in black. But the room was not finished yet. Stanley had set his heart on a Chesterfield and two decent chairs. Linda liked it best as it was. . . .
Two big moths flew in through the window and round and round the circle of lamplight.
“Fly away before it is too late. Fly out again.”
Round and round they flew; they seemed to bring the silence and the moonlight in with them on their silent wings. . . .
“I’ve two kings,” said Stanley. “Any good?”
“Quite good,” said Beryl.
Linda stopped rocking and got up. Stanley looked across. “Anything the matter, darling?”
“No, nothing. I’m going to find mother.”
She went out of the room and standing at the foot of the stairs she called, but her mother’s voice answered her from the verandah.
The moon that Lottie and Kezia had seen from the storeman’s wagon was full, and the house, the garden, the old woman and Linda—all were bathed in dazzling light.
“I have been looking at the aloe,” said Mrs. Fairfield. “I believe it is going to flower this year. Look at the top there. Are those buds, or is it only an effect of light?”
As they stood on the steps, the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.
“Do you feel it, too,” said Linda, and she spoke to her mother with the special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or from some hollow cave—“Don’t you feel that it is coming towards us?”
She dreamed that she was caught up out of the cold water into the ship with the lifted oars and the budding mast. Now the oars fell striking quickly, quickly. They rowed far away over the top of the garden trees, the paddocks and the dark bush beyond. Ah, she heard herself cry: “Faster! Faster!” to those who were rowing.
How much more real this dream was than that they should go back to the house where the sleeping children lay and where Stanley and Beryl played cribbage.
“I believe those are buds,” said she. “Let us go down into the garden, mother. I like that aloe. I like it more than anything here. And I am sure I shall remember it long after I’ve forgotten all the other things.”
She put her hand on her mother’s arm and they walked down the steps, round the island and on to the main drive that led to the front gates.
Looking at it from below she could see the long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves, and at the sight of them her heart grew hard. . . . She particularly liked the long sharp thorns. . . . Nobody would dare to come near the ship or to follow after.
“Not even my Newfoundland dog,” thought she, “that I’m so fond of in the daytime.”
For she really was fond of him; she loved and admired and respected him tremendously. Oh, better than anyone else in the world. She knew him through and through. He was the soul of truth and decency, and for all his practical experience he was awfully simple, easily pleased and easily hurt. . . .
If only he wouldn’t jump at her so, and bark so loudly, and watch her with such eager, loving eyes. He was too strong for her; she had always hated things that rush at her, from a child. There were times when he was frightening—really frightening. When she just had not screamed at the top of her voice: “You are killing me.” And at those times she had longed to say the most coarse, hateful things. . . .
“You know I’m very delicate. You know as well as I do that my heart is affected, and the doctor has told you I may die any moment. I have had three great lumps of children already. . . .”
Yes, yes, it was true. Linda snatched her hand from mother’s arm. For all her love and respect and admiration she hated him. And how tender he always was after times like those, how submissive, how thoughtful. He would do anything for her; he longed to serve her. . . . Linda heard herself saying in a weak voice:
“Stanley, would you light a candle?”
And she heard his joyful voice answer: “Of course I will, my darling.” And he leapt out of bed as though he were going to leap at the moon for her.
It had never been so plain to her as it was at this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that . . .
She hugged her folded arms and began to laugh silently. How absurd life was—it was laughable, simply laughable. And why this mania of hers to keep alive at all? For it really was a mania, she thought, mocking and laughing.
“What am I guarding myself for so preciously? I shall go on having children and Stanley will go on making money and the children and the gardens will grow bigger and bigger, with whole fleets of aloes in them for me to choose from.”
She had been walking with her head bent, looking at nothing. Now she looked up and about her. They were standing by the red and white camellia trees. Beautiful were the rich dark leaves spangled with light and the round flowers that perch among them like red and white birds. Linda pulled a piece of verbena and crumpled it, and held her hands to her mother.
“Delicious,” said the old woman. “Are you cold, child? Are you trembling? Yes, your hands are cold. We had better go back to the house.”
“What have you been thinking about?” said Linda. “Tell me.”
“I haven’t really been thinking of anything. I wondered as we passed the orchard what the fruit trees were like and whether we should be able to make much jam this autumn. There are splendid healthy currant bushes in the vegetable garden. I noticed them to-day. I should like to see those pantry shelves thoroughly well stocked with our own jam. . . .”
“MY DARLING NAN,
Don’t think me a piggy wig because I haven’t written before. I haven’t had a moment, dear, and even now I feel so exhauste