AUNT OLIVE IN
BY LESLIE MOORE
AUTHOR OF “THE CLOAK OF CONVENTION” AND
“THE NOTCH IN THE STICK”
HODDER & STOUGHTON
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
By George H. Doran Company
AUNT OLIVE IN
THE BEGINNING OF THE FAIRY TALE
ONCE upon a time, as the fairy tales have it, there was a certain country town. It was a sleepy little town, where few things happened. It was like a dog grown old and lazy with basking in the sun, undisturbed by motor-cars and modern rush. An occasional event like a fly, and as small and insignificant as that insect, would settle momentarily upon it. For an instant it would be roused, shake itself, and promptly go to sleep again.
The houses in the town were all alike—small, detached, and built of red brick. They were named after the shrubs and trees that grew in their gardens. There was the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, the Laurels, the Yews, the Poplars, and many others.
One May morning, when the flowers on the laburnum trees were hanging in a shower of golden rain, and the pink and white blossoms of the hawthorn bushes were filling the air with a sweet and [Pg 12]sickly scent, a single cab, drawn by a horse as sleepy as the town to which it belonged, drove up the small, clean street, and turned in at the gate marked the Poplars.
Two small children with satchels on their backs paused to peep up the drive. They saw two black boxes being hoisted by the driver on to the roof of the cab. There was nothing, one would think, of vital interest in the sight, but it proved more attractive than the thought of lesson books and school-room benches. They remained to gaze.
In a couple of moments a woman came through the front door. She was clad in a black cashmere dress of ample folds, partly hidden by a blade satin jacket, with large, loose sleeves. A wide, white linen collar adorned with a small black velvet bow surrounded her neck; a mushroom-shaped hat, also black, was tied by broad strings beneath her chin. In one hand she held a large and tightly rolled umbrella, in the other was a black satin bag drawn up by a cord. It bulged in a knobby fashion. It had evidently been stuffed to the extent of its capacities.
The woman spoke to the driver, then got into the cab. He climbed to the box, flicked his whip, turned the horse’s head, and drove once again through the gate.
The children scuttled to one side, and the cab drove up the street.
Its occupant sat upright within it, clutching tightly at the umbrella and the black satin bag. Little [Pg 13]thrills of happiness were running through her. The May wind blowing through the window fanned her face, bringing with it great puffs of scent from the hawthorn bushes. Sunshine sparkled on the roofs of the houses, birds were singing in the gardens past which she drove. It was a day alive with gladness, warm with the breath of spring, fresh with the sense of youth. And the woman within the cab, whose heart, in spite of her sixty years, was as young as the heart of a child, participated in the gladness.
She watched the people in the streets walking leisurely in the sunshine. She saw the shops with the tradesmen standing idle in the doorways. At the fishmonger’s only there was a little air of bustle, where a maid in a neat print had run in to buy a couple of soles for lunch.
The woman pulled out her watch—a huge affair in solid gold, attached to a black hair chain. For a moment she glanced at it anxiously, then returned it to its place with a little sigh of relief. The horse still trotted on its slow unhurried way. More shops were passed, then more houses. Finally the cab drew up with a little jerk.
The driver got down and opened the cab door.
“Here we are, ma’am; and twenty minutes to spare. I’ll call a porter.”
While the boxes were being taken from the cab Miss Mason opened the black satin bag. From it she extracted a ten-shilling piece.
The boxes were wheeled towards the platform.
“I’ve no change, ma’am,” said the cabby.
“That’s all right,” said Miss Mason hurriedly.
The cabby stared. “You’re very good, ma’am.”
“It’s all right,” said Miss Mason again.
Ten shillings was a small amount to give a man who had driven her a mile towards happiness. She followed the porter on to the platform.
“Victoria, second class,” she said to the man at the ticket office.
“Return or single, ma’am?” he demanded.
“Single,” said Miss Mason firmly.
She took the little piece of cardboard from him and thrust it up her glove. She loved the feeling of it. It was her passport to freedom.
She watched the boxes being labelled. They were new boxes and hitherto guiltless of station labels. When she had seen them firmly attached, and had been solemnly assured by the porter that the paste was both strong and adhesive, she turned her attention to the bookstall. After a few moments’ survey she moved away hurriedly. The pictures on the covers of some of the books distressed her, especially one of a young female with red hair and very insufficient orange attire. For a moment Miss Mason blushed. But she forgot the objectionable book in looking along the shiny rails in the direction from which the train must arrive.
The sudden ringing of a bell made her jump.
“Train’s signalled, ma’am,” said the porter. “She’ll be here in five minutes now.”
“You’ll be sure and put in my boxes,” said Miss Mason.
“Sure, ma’am. Corner seat facing the engine, did you say?”
“Y-yes; a seat somewhere,” stammered Miss Mason. The near approach of the train was making her feel nervous.
“All right. I’ll see to it. Second class I think you said.”
There was a distant whistle; next, the panting as of some great beast, and an engine with its tail of carriages steamed into sight. It drew up slowly at the platform.
“Here y’are, ma’am. Carriage all to yourself. Boxes will be in the front part of the train. Thank you kindly, ma’am. Anything I can get for you? Paper or anything? Window up or down? Will put in the boxes myself. Good morning, ma’am.”
A tip proportionate to the fare Miss Mason had paid the cabby was responsible for this burst of eloquence.
In spite of the porter’s assurance that he would see to the boxes himself, Miss Mason stood with her head through the carriage window till she had seen them actually deposited in the guard’s van. Then she sat down in the corner of the carriage.
The porter reappeared.
“They’re in, ma’am. You’re off now.”
There was a gentle vibration through the train, and the platform began to recede. The one woman left on it—a stout woman who had been seeing her daughter off on her way to service—waved a large white pocket-handkerchief. Its fluttering was the last thing Miss Mason saw as the train left the station.
She heaved a little sigh.
She found she was still clutching the large umbrella. She laid it now upon the seat beside her. She was almost too excited to think of the happiness before her. She hardly wanted to do so. It was almost too overpowering. She would realize it by degrees. At the moment there were a thousand trivial delights around her.
She examined the carriage in which she was seated. The number on the door was seven hundred and seventy-seven. Miss Mason had a secret partiality for certain numbers, seven being her favourite. She was seven years old when she had her first silk frock. It was a blue and white check frock, and her hair—Miss Mason at that time wore it in two plaits—had been tied with blue ribbons. Seventeen had been, up to date, the happiest year of her life. But more of that year anon. At twenty-seven she had been allowed the entrance of Miss Stanhope’s library. At thirty-seven she had become the owner of a kitten. At forty-seven Miss Stanhope had given [Pg 17]her the watch she now wore. At fifty-seven a favourite rose-tree had borne the most perfect flowers. Trivial enough facts to form landmarks in a life, yet they formed landmarks in Miss Mason’s.
She again looked approvingly at the number. From it she turned to a contemplation of the photographs which adorned the walls. They were the usual kind of photographs found in railway carriages—seaside promenades, ruined castles, lakes with mountains beyond. Miss Mason read the names below them with interest. She looked at the gas-globe in the roof of the carriage, with its black cover which could be drawn over it if the passengers found the light troublesome. She looked at the emergency cord which was to be pulled down to attract the attention of the guard in case of accident. She noted that the penalty for its improper use was five pounds. It seemed to Miss Mason a large sum to pay merely for pulling a little piece of string. She wondered if anyone had ever been bold enough to pull it without necessity.
After gazing at it for two minutes with a certain amount of awe, she put her arm through the padded loop by the window, and looked out at the scenery past which they were flying.
There were fields in which sheep and cows were solemnly munching the fresh grass; there were hedges covered with the fairy snow of the haw[Pg 18]thorn blossoms; there were woods of larches, oaks, and beeches, and among them the darker green of firs; there were streams rippling golden-brown past meadow banks and clumps of rushes; there were children swinging on gates and waving cap or handkerchief as the train rushed by. She saw market carts and occasionally a dogcart on roads running by the railway, and now and then a solitary cyclist, all going at a snail’s pace so it seemed compared with the rate at which she herself was travelling. They passed houses with trimly-kept gardens alive with flowers; cottages with strips of vegetable gardens where from lines attached to posts stuck among the cabbages washing was hung out to dry. The May breeze swung the clothing to and fro, ballooning it momentarily to ridiculous shapes, fluttering red petticoats, white tablecloths, and blue blouses, like the waving of coloured flags.
Again the joyous note of youth and gladness sounded in Miss Mason’s heart. She gave a queer little gruff laugh.
“Wonderful!” she thought. “Like the fairy tales I used to read when I was little. Now I’m part of the fairy tale. Can hardly believe it. Yet it’s true.”
OUTWARDLY Miss Mason was not unlike certain pictures of the fairy godmother who escorted Cinderella to the ball. Being a fairy godmother, no doubt that old lady’s heart was every bit as young as Miss Mason’s, so the similarity may very likely have extended still further.
Of the fairy godmother’s previous history there is no known record. Miss Mason’s history was the public property of the little town in which she lived. It is not unduly lengthy. It also cannot be termed exciting.
Miss Mason became an orphan at the age of five. Her mother had been a pretty Irish girl, only daughter of a penniless Irish gentleman; and not having had enough of poverty in her own home, she gave her heart to one, Dick Mason, a struggling painter, who was as ugly as he was gay and light-hearted. In spite of poverty she had seven years of such happiness as falls to the lot of few women. Then Dick was killed riding a friend’s young unbroken mare, and a month later his wife followed him; dying—if such a complaint truly exists—of a broken heart.
Their one child, Olive, was left penniless, and with only one relation in the world—a Miss Stanhope, a wealthy and eccentric cousin of her father’s, who was at this time a maiden lady of thirty.
A sense of duty as stern and uncompromising as Miss Stanhope’s own appearance induced her to offer the child a home. Duty also prompted her to look well after her physical welfare, and educate her in a style befitting a young woman of gentle birth. Miss Stanhope’s views on education were decided and not at all involved. Every lady, she averred, should be able to speak French fluently, make her own underclothes, and be conversant with the writings of the best authors. Music—which she disliked—was left outside the category. She provided the child with a French governess, who was a beautiful needlewoman. The introduction to the authors would come later.
Olive remained under Madame Dupont’s tuition for twelve years. When she was seventeen she was sent to “finish her education” at Miss Talbot’s select Academy for Young Ladies at Brighton. This year was the happiest in Olive’s life. Not only was there a daily walk on the esplanade, from whence she gazed for the first time in her life at the marvel of the sea, but also she was permitted to take drawing-lessons. She had inherited three things from her father, the [Pg 21]first being his plainness of feature, the second his youthful heart, and the third his passion for drawing.
An extremely inefficient but well-meaning young man of impeachable character visited Miss Talbot’s Academy for Young Ladies twice a week, and instructed the pupils in this art. Chalk drawings from casts were the style in vogue. It was considered an extremely advanced style. The chalk was kept in small glass tubes, it was shaken on to a pad, and applied to the paper with leather stumps, in the manner known as stippling. The poverty of the instruction, the horribly inartistic results produced, were unrecognized by Miss Mason. Chalk representations of plaster pears, apples, and floreate designs were produced by her at the rate of one a fortnight, and were laid carefully away in a large portfolio with tissue paper between to keep the chalk from rubbing.
Among the pupils at Miss Talbot’s Academy had been a girl—one Peggy O’Hea. Her father was a portrait painter of some note. Miss Talbot had hesitated at introducing this girl; daughter of a Bohemian—all artists were Bohemian in Miss Talbot’s eyes—into her select establishment, but the fact that her father was a yearly exhibitor at that most respectable institution the Royal Academy, and that her uncle was a Dean, induced Miss Talbot to overlook Bohemia. She [Pg 22]kept, however, a strict guard over Miss O’Hea’s conversation with the other pupils, a guard Peggy invariably evaded; and curled up on her bed in her nightdress, her arms clasped round her knees, she would hold forth in glowing terms regarding her father’s studio and the artists who frequented it. She had in her secret heart a distinct contempt for the chalk drawings; but she was a generous little soul, and refrained from putting her thoughts into words.
From her glowing descriptions, the word studio came to sound in Miss Mason’s ears with a note akin to magic, while no one guessed the dreams of art and artists, of the mad sweet land of Bohemia, cherished by the ugly girl who was known in the school as “that awkward Olive Mason.”
At the end of the year Miss Mason returned home, to find her presence almost hourly required by Miss Stanhope, who had developed into what is usually termed a malade imaginaire. Her only recreations were gardening, and later—when at the age of twenty-seven she was allowed free access to the library—reading. In these two occupations she was able to forget the monotony of the days.
Children who peeped through the gate on sunny mornings saw a small shrunken woman with a thin peevish face sitting on the lawn or in the veranda, according to the season, while Miss [Pg 23]Mason was busy in the flower-beds, her grey dress tucked up over a black and white striped petticoat, goloshes on her feet, a large black hat tied on her head, and gauntlet gloves covering her hands. The progress of fashion being outside the strictly limited circle of Miss Mason’s life, she had adopted a costume of her own device, which costume she found both warm and comfortable, and it never varied.
The children who peeped through the gate grew to be men and women; their children peeped in like fashion, and still the same order of things endured at the house named the Poplars.
During these years Miss Mason made one friend. It was curious, though perhaps not out of keeping with Miss Mason’s character, which was now almost as original as the garments she wore, that the friend should be a child of ten years old. She had come to live with her parents at the small town in which Miss Stanhope resided. The child’s paternal grandmother had been a friend of Miss Stanhope’s youth. That statement in itself had a flavour of respectability about it. Armed with a letter of introduction from the grandmother—Mrs. Quarly—the parents ventured to call upon Miss Stanhope. She received them graciously enough, and a week later Miss Mason was ordered to return the visit.
It was then that she met little Sybil Quarly, who promptly took an unaccountable, but very [Pg 24]strong, liking to her. In a short time Sybil learnt which were the hours spent by Miss Mason in the garden, and from that moment those hours saw a fair-haired child in short petticoats busy in the flower-beds with her. To an onlooker Miss Mason’s manner would have appeared almost surly, but Sybil, with the infallible instinct of childhood, recognized the tenderness beneath the gruff exterior. The two became fast friends.
For seven years Sybil helped Miss Mason pull up weeds, destroy slugs, bud roses, and take cuttings of carnations. She called her “Granny,” and she confided all her childish woes and griefs to her. Her parents were conventional people, also they were somewhat strict and unsympathetic. They did not in the least understand Sybil’s timid nature. Miss Mason saw, to her sorrow, that the child was being driven to subterfuge and petty untruth by an overharsh system of treatment. But she was powerless to do anything. Mrs. Quarly would have resented the smallest interference. For seven years Miss Mason gave the child all the tenderness at her disposal. At the end of that time Sybil’s parents left the little town and took her to Pangbourne.
During the next three or four years Sybil and Miss Mason kept up a fitful correspondence. From much that the girl left unsaid Miss Mason felt that she was not happy. Had she herself been gifted with the pen of a ready writer, she might [Pg 25]indirectly have sought the girl’s confidence, but neither written nor spoken words came easily to her. There were times—and those when she most longed for the power of speech—when she felt herself possessed of a dumb dog. She wrote and told Sybil that the roses were in bloom, that she had pickled a hundred and fifty slugs in salt and water after one shower of rain, that the Shirley poppies they had planted one year were spreading like weeds over the garden. She heard from Sybil that she had made a few new friends, among them one, Cecily Mainwaring, who lived in London, and that she stayed with her occasionally. Her letters, however, gave mere facts; there was no hint as to her thoughts, or whether she were happy in her new surroundings. And Miss Mason longed to ask her, yet all the time she could write of nothing but pickled slugs and the blight on rose-trees. And after four years Sybil’s letters suddenly ceased. Miss Mason wrote three times and received no answer. Then she, too, stopped writing. And thus the years, as far as Miss Mason was concerned, rolled on.
But, at last, one sunny morning when a boy and girl approached the gate they saw no one in the garden, and the blinds in the house pulled down. Old Miss Stanhope had died quietly in her sleep that morning, and after forty-three years Miss Mason had deserted the flower-beds. She was sitting in the desolate drawing-room, unable [Pg 26]yet to grasp the meaning of the one really important event which had occurred in her life since she was five years old.
Four days later Miss Stanhope’s will was read. Miss Mason had been left sole heiress to an income which amounted to something like fifteen thousand a year. No one but Miss Stanhope herself and her trustees had had the smallest conception of her wealth. The terms of the will, which appeared in the local papers, had the effect of taking every one’s breath away.
Miss Mason spoke to the lawyer regarding it.
“Can’t spend anything like that amount a year,” she said gruffly. “Don’t know how Miss Stanhope managed to. Much rather you gave me one thousand and looked after the rest. Shan’t find it easy to spend one.”
Mr. Davis stared for a moment. Then he suddenly realized—and by a marvellous leap of intelligence on his part—that Miss Mason was under the impression that he would yearly press fifteen thousand sovereigns into her palm. The question of banks and cheque-books had not presented itself to her mind.
During the next half-hour Henry Davis found himself explaining matters to Miss Mason much as he would have explained them to a child of twelve. Miss Mason grasped the situation instantly.
“Then before you go you’d better show me [Pg 27]how to draw a cheque,” she said. “Think that was your expression. I’m not imbecile, though when a woman of sixty doesn’t know the first principles of banks and cheque-books you might think she was.”
It was after Mr. Davis had left that Miss Mason gradually began to realize what Miss Stanhope’s death and her newly-acquired wealth would mean. She had lived so long in one groove that the possibility of change had never actually occurred to her. At first she had felt almost stunned. But suddenly, in a flash, she saw a new life before her. Every dream of her seventeenth year could be fulfilled. It found expression in one short sentence:
“Shall go to London and take a studio.”
THE LADY OF THE BLUE DRESS
MISS Mason was sitting in the lounge of the Wilton Hotel. Mr. Davis—the lawyer—had given her the name of this hotel, telling her that it was both quiet and comfortable.
A tiny cloud had arisen in Miss Mason’s mind. It partially eclipsed the sunshine of her morning mood. She knew vaguely what had caused it.
She had changed her dress on her arrival, donning a black satin gown made in precisely the same style as the cashmere. A lace collar took the place of the linen one. A cameo brooch, large, and set in gold as massive as her watch, superseded the black bow. Miss Mason never wore jewellery except in the evening.
She had dined excellently at a small table in a room adorned with water-colour drawings. Between the courses she had found herself admiring them. She was so intent on them that at first she did not notice the covert smiles which two girls were directing towards her table. When she did, the smiles began to make her feel uncomfortable. At first she wondered if her cap were crooked, or her brooch unpinned, but gradually it [Pg 29]dawned on her that it was just she herself who was affording them amusement.
Miss Mason had finished the last morsels of her gooseberry tart hurriedly, had swallowed her glass of light wine, and gone out into the lounge. She told herself that she was an old fool to worry over the little incident, but it had caused a vague anxiety in her mind.
She took up a number of the “Graphic” and began turning the pages. The style of the advertisements displayed within its covers had made her previously imagine the periodical to be exclusively intended for feminine perusal. She had been slightly alarmed before dinner to see a stout elderly gentleman studying it profoundly. A momentary idea took possession of her as to whether it was not her duty to go up to him and warn him regarding the nature of some of the contents, but as she saw it was the middle of the book he was studying, she concluded that someone had already given him a delicate hint regarding the advertisement pages. All the same, she could not imagine the editor of the paper to be a modest man.
One or two people had come into the lounge for coffee after dinner, but they had left it again, and, at the moment, it was deserted save for Miss Mason and one other woman.
There was something about the woman that attracted her attention. It was not merely her [Pg 30]beauty, but something in the graceful way in which she was sitting in her chair, and in her manner of speaking to the waiter who brought her coffee. Miss Mason found herself watching her. She liked the ivory whiteness of her skin, the vivid red-brown of her hair, and the expression in her eyes. Her dress, too, which was a curious deep blue, pleased her immensely.
Suddenly the woman looked up. She saw Miss Mason’s eyes fixed on her, and she smiled. There was something so frank and spontaneous about the smile that Miss Mason found herself smiling too.
“We have the place to ourselves,” said the woman. “Every one else has departed for different theatres. I should have gone myself if I hadn’t an appointment with a friend of mine.”
“Never been to a theatre in my life,” said Miss Mason. “Lack of opportunity, not prejudice.”
“If you really care to have the opportunity it is certain to present itself sooner or later,” replied the woman calmly. “It’s only a question of the intensity of wishing.”
Miss Mason leant a little forward.
“Doesn’t the opportunity sometimes arrive too late?”
The question was put almost involuntarily. It was one she had been asking herself for the [Pg 31]last three-quarters of an hour—ever since her somewhat hurried exit from the dining-room; and the question did not refer merely to the opportunity of visiting the theatre. The woman understood.
“That raises rather a fine point of question,” she replied. “Can it be fairly said that one has been given the opportunity if it is truly impossible to accept it, which I imagine ‘too late’ would signify?”
Miss Mason did not reply at once. She wanted to tell this woman about the little cloud which had covered the brightness of her sun, the insidious little doubt which had crept into her mind. Yet she hardly knew how to begin.
The woman waited. She was one of those to whom confidences are given. If she had said anything at that moment the sentence Miss Mason was slowly preparing in her mind would never have reached her lips. It came suddenly and jerkily, it was spoken, too, almost below Miss Mason’s breath.
“Isn’t one ever too old? Have waited a long time for the chance of happiness. Got it now. But perhaps I am too old.” A slow painful flush had mounted in Miss Mason’s face with the words.
The younger woman turned quickly towards her.
“Too old for happiness!” she cried, with a little laugh. “Never! If happiness has come to [Pg 32]you, welcome her with both hands; and with every kiss she gives you years will roll away from your heart. Happiness is like the spring, which wakes the world to brightness after a dreary winter.”
Miss Mason gave a little choke.
“Felt like that myself in the train this morning. Forgot I was sixty. Thought it was splendid to be alive. Was going to enjoy myself. Was so glad thinking about it thought everybody would be glad too. Can’t explain very well, but felt quite young. Thought all the young things in the world would let me watch their happiness, and I’d be happy in my own happiness and theirs. Didn’t want to interfere with them, or try to mix myself up with them. Just wanted to be a kind of onlooker. Never thought they’d stop to laugh at me—make quiet fun of me, I mean. Made me feel very old. Silly nonsense, of course. Oughtn’t to care. Am old.”
The woman looked up quickly. She had noticed the little scene in the dining-room.
“Age has nothing to do with the matter,” she replied quietly. “There is no reason why you should not enjoy yourself enormously. The dullest person I know is a young man of twenty-three, and one of the gayest is an aunt of mine who is seventy-five. Happiness is a gift of the gods, and is bestowed by them irrespective of age.”
“Think so?” said Miss Mason.
“I am sure of it.”
Again there was a silence. Then, quite suddenly, Miss Mason began to tell the woman the story of her life. She told it badly. For the last forty years at least Miss Mason had talked little. Miss Stanhope had never cared to encourage conversation other than her own. A daily and minute recital of her own imaginary ailments had sufficed her. That had been a subject which had never palled.
“And the summary of it all is,” ended Miss Mason, “that my life has been utterly narrow.” She stopped and looked at the woman. There was something half humorous, half pathetic, in the expression in her eyes.
“I think,” said the woman slowly, “that one is too ready to use the term ‘narrow’ for lives and opinions which have not covered, as we imagine, a great deal of ground. Sometimes I think ‘concentrated’ would be a better word to use for them. I know that people who have darted hither and thither from one place to another, and from one excitement to another, often talk about ‘living’ and the broadness of their lives. But I fancy that if one could go up in a kind of mental aeroplane and look down upon those lives, one might see that their grooves, though they took an intricate pattern, were possibly narrower [Pg 34]than some of those which have gone along one straight and monotonous course.”
“Think so?” said Miss Mason again. Then she smiled half-shamefacedly. “There’s one thing—in spite of all the monotony, I’ve never been able to get rid of my belief in kind of fairy tale happenings. Utterly ridiculous, of course.”
The woman laughed, a low clear laugh, which pleased Miss Mason enormously.
“Now we’re on ground with which I’m far more familiar,” she replied. “I was trying to get hold of words and expressions before which were rather outside my vocabulary, and I fear I sounded a little stilted in consequence. But fairy tales! Why life is a fairy tale. Bad fairies and wicked magicians get mixed up in it of course, or it wouldn’t be one, but there are good fairies and all kinds of unexpected and delicious happenings right through it in spite of them. There’s often, too, a long journey through a wood. You’ve been through yours. What do you hope to find on this side?”
“A studio,” said Miss Mason promptly. This woman was making it extraordinarily easy for her to tell her fairy tale. “Have wanted one ever since I was seventeen, and I think almost before that. Perhaps because my father was an artist.”
“And now you’ll take one?”
“Have come up to look for one,” said Miss Mason. “Am going to look at pictures too. There’s the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, and the Academy. Used to read about them. Later I shall go abroad. Thought I’d better get used to going about in England first. Have read a lot about pictures. Used to take in a magazine called ‘The Studio.’ Saw it advertised once and sent for it. Miss Stanhope used to make me a small allowance. She was kind really, though didn’t always understand.”
“The kindest people don’t always understand,” said the younger woman quickly. “Are you going to take an unfurnished studio? and will you have some of the furniture sent up from your old home?”
There is a curious luxury in speaking of the details of a cherished scheme, and especially to one who has never before found a sympathetic audience. This the woman knew when she put the question.
Miss Mason gave a little laugh.
“Wouldn’t ask that if you’d seen the furniture. Was so used to it it was a wonder I still went on thinking it hideous. I think it was after I’d been away from it for a year and came back to it that I knew how terrible it was. After that it remained terrible. It will all be sold. Have [Pg 36]arranged for that. Couldn’t stay with it any longer than was necessary. Don’t care what becomes of it now.”
Miss Mason was feeling so light-hearted again she was almost reckless.
“Then you’ll buy new things?” asked the woman.
“Yes. Soft colours—blues and greens. Love blue. Your dress is lovely.” The words were jerky but genuine.
“It’s my favourite colour,” said the woman.
Miss Mason looked in the direction of a mirror near her. She could see both their figures reflected in it. Again a little wistful look crept into her eyes.
“I suppose,” she said suddenly, “that it was my dress those two girls were laughing at. Perhaps it is queer. Never thought of that before. Couldn’t change now, any more than I could change my skin.”
She stopped, then looked directly at the woman.
“I suppose people will always laugh at me?” she queried. “I suppose those girls were right to laugh. I am queer.”
There was a moment’s pause. Then the woman in the blue dress spoke deliberately.
“I am going to ask you a question which may sound rather conceited,” she said. “Which would you value most—my opinion or the opinion of those two girls?”
“Yours,” said Miss Mason promptly.
“Then I am going to tell you exactly what I think, and you must forgive me if what I say sounds impertinent. I don’t think you are the least queer. I think you are quaint and original. Any artist would infinitely prefer your method of dressing than the method chosen by the older women of the present day. I think it quite possible that you will find a few people will laugh at you, for, as I’ve already said, in this fairy tale world there are bad fairies, and, worse still, stupid ones. But they don’t count, because they aren’t worth consideration, at least not as regards their opinion of our actions.” She spoke the words slowly and simply, almost as she would have spoken them to a child.
Again there was a silence.
“Where will you take your studio?” asked the woman suddenly.
“Chelsea,” said Miss Mason. “Whistler lived there.”
“Conclusive,” laughed the woman.
“Want it to be a nice studio,” said Miss Mason. “Rent won’t matter. Miss Stanhope left me a lot of money. Can’t spend it all.”
“Now the fairy tale progresses,” said the woman joyfully. “Plenty of money and fairy tale ideas are the happiest of combinations.”
Miss Mason laughed.
“Glad I met you,” she said. “Feel like I did when I came up in the train this morning.”
“Our meeting was evidently part of the fairy tale,” said the woman. “Now I must go and get my cloak. It’s five minutes to nine.”
She went towards the stairs. Miss Mason watched her ascending them.
A moment after she had left, a man came into the lounge. He was wearing a thin dark grey overcoat, and held a flat black hat in one hand. Miss Mason had never before seen an opera hat. She looked at it with interest. From it she looked at the man. He was tall and distinctly aristocratic-looking. Miss Mason noticed that he wore a small moustache and imperial.
She heard a step on the stairs. The woman in the blue dress was coming down again. She had a black satin cloak round her.
“Christopher, darling,” she cried, “is that you? I’m beautifully punctual.”
He went up to her and kissed her hand. There was something charming in the courtliness of his manner. Miss Mason, who had been momentarily shocked by the “darling,” felt it somehow explained by the subsequent action.
“One moment, and I’ll come,” said the woman.
She crossed to Miss Mason. The man waited for her.
“I shan’t be home till midnight,” she said, “and I’m leaving for Italy at an unearthly hour to-mor[Pg 39]row morning. But I am sure one day we shall meet again. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye,” said Miss Mason. “Hope you’ll enjoy yourself.” She longed to say something more, but the words failed her.
She watched her rejoin the man and leave the lounge. It seemed extraordinarily empty after her departure.
“Don’t suppose she’ll ever lack friends,” said Miss Mason to herself, “but if ever she did need one——” She left the rest of the sentence unspoken in her mind, and finding the place a little lonely went up to her own room.
It was not till she was in bed that she realized that she had no idea of the woman’s name. It also never dawned on her to ask the hotel management for it.
DAN Oldfield was standing in front of an easel on which was a minute canvas. The scene depicted thereon was a pastoral of Mesonnier-like detail. At the moment Dan was engaged in painting lilac flowers on a green and white dress. The original dress was on a lay figure before him.
The studio in which he was working was one of seven enclosed in a courtyard. Two of the studios had small gardens in front. Standing in one of the gardens it was easier to imagine oneself in the depths of the country than in the midst of London. The roll of the traffic in the King’s Road was just sufficiently remote to sound not unlike the roar of the sea.
There were lilac bushes and laburnums in the gardens. A thrush sang in one of the laburnum trees in the spring, and a robin in the winter. The robin was very tame. It had established a visiting acquaintance with all seven studios. There was a certain amount of jealousy among the inhabitants when occasionally for a week at a time, it would show a marked preference for one studio. On the whole its affections were most deeply centred on [Pg 41]studio number seven. At the moment this studio was empty.
Dan painted in the lilac flowers carefully, using extremely small brushes. Every now and then he stepped back from his work to judge of the effect. Any onlooker uneducated in the mysteries of art would have imagined the use of a magnifying glass a more desirable method to study the effect. Dan was evidently not of that opinion. He had just finished painting in the yellow heart of the thirteenth flower when the sound of the wheels of some large vehicle entering the courtyard struck upon his ears.
“What’s that!” he said carelessly, and he crossed to the window.
A large pantechnicon had drawn up opposite studio number seven. Men had already run round to open the doors at the back of the van. It was full of furniture.
“Good Lord!” ejaculated Dan.
He put his palette and brushes down on a table, and standing on a chair poked his head through the upper part of the window. A large roll of blue drugget and a dark oak easel were being carried up the small garden path. Two men were hauling a Chesterfield sofa from the van.
“Good Lord!” said Dan again.
He withdrew his head from the window, descended from the chair, and came out of his studio into the courtyard. The sunshine, which was brilliant, [Pg 42]shone on his untidy red hair. He looked like a slightly worried giant.
The Chesterfield was reposing momentarily on the stones of the courtyard. The men were wiping their foreheads. The day was warm.
“Studio let?” demanded Dan.
“Yes, sir,” was the reply. “Bringing in the furniture, sir. Nice day, but warm.”
“Who’s taken the studio?” demanded Dan.
“Can’t remember the lady’s name at the moment, sir. Elderly lady with grey hair. Saw her when——”
“An old lady!” interrupted Dan. His voice held at least three notes of disgust.
“Yes, sir, she——”
But Dan had vanished up the garden path of studio number six, had banged on the door, and entered without waiting for permission.
A man in his shirtsleeves was standing before an easel. A nude model was half sitting, half lying, on the platform.
“I say, Barnabas,” he began. Then he saw the model. “Morning, Tilly. Sorry I interrupted.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” said the man addressed, good-humouredly. “I thought it was your fairy footfall before I heard the knock. What’s the trouble? Have you stuck the Messonnier painting on an envelope in mistake for a postage stamp and put it in the pillar-box? You’d better take a rest [Pg 43]now, Tilly, while Mr. Oldfield disburdens his mind.”
The girl stretched herself in a lazy panther-like fashion, and taking a faded purple dressing-gown from the model stand flung it round herself.
“Studio number seven’s let,” said Dan.
“Well, why shouldn’t it be?” said Barnabas imperturbably. “It’s been vacant six months. It’s a pleasant studio; large, well-ventilated, drains in perfect condition, an ideal——”
“Oh, shut up, Barnabas,” said Dan. “It’s let to an old woman.”
“An old woman,” repeated Dan bitterly.
For a moment Barnabas looked utterly taken aback. Then he shook his head.
“Bad news indeed, my child. For the last five years at least we’ve been a pleasant little coterie of seven undeniable geniuses all of the male sex. Then Ashton left us. Why on earth didn’t your friend Shottover take the place? I thought you said he was going to.”
“So I thought,” replied Dan gloomily. “He’s such a vacillating ass. I told him he’d lose it if he didn’t hurry and make up his mind. Now he has lost it, and we’ve an old woman coming to plant herself among us. It isn’t that I dislike women——”
Barnabas grinned suddenly.
“What’s funny?” asked Dan.
“Your unnecessary statement, my child.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“I know. There was so remarkably little need to state the fact.”
“But,” went on Dan firmly, “I don’t like old women.”
“There are exceptions,” said Barnabas solemnly. “My paternal grandmother——”
“Bother your paternal grandmother. I tell you the studio’s let to an old woman, and they’re taking in the furniture now.”
Barnabas moved towards the door.
“Let’s have a look at it,” he said. “I wonder what her taste in studio furniture is like.”
He went out into his little garden, Dan following him. A dark oak bookcase and an oak chest were being removed from the van.
“By Jove, the ancient lady has got taste!” said Barnabas. “Genuine old stuff, or my name’s not John Kirby.”
The two stood together in the garden on the little gravel path, looking across a bed of forget-me-nots and a small fence at the working men.
Barnabas—his real name was John Kirby, but he had first been nicknamed the Comforter, and finally Barnabas, the Son of Consolation, by his fellow-artists—was a tall man who would have looked even taller if it had not been for the huge frame of the man beside him.
“I wouldn’t mind that bit of furniture myself,” said Barnabas, as a beautiful corner cupboard was unearthed from the van. “Hullo! what’s this? ‘The Winged Victory,’ by Jingo! and a pedestal. Here’s art and no mistake. Pictures, too. Here, you,” he called to the two men who were carrying them, “allow us momentarily to cast our eyes upon those treasures. Ye gods and little fishes! a Nicholson, a Pryde, two Sickerts, and a genuine Bartolozzi print. The ancient lady evidently possesses not only taste but cash—hard coin of the realm, my child.”
“Those old fogies always have tons of money,” grunted Dan.
Three large wooden packing-cases were now carried towards the studio.
“Be careful with the unpacking of those,” said the man who was evidently the chief in command. “Old blue Worcester dinner service, sir,” he explained in an aside to the two who were looking over the fence.
“Pure swank on her part,” said Barnabas sorrowfully. “What have the fleshpots of Egypt in common with the earthenware and bread and cheese of Bohemia. Why didn’t she take up her abode in the fashionable quarters of Kensington.”
“Turn a Park Lane house into a studio,” said Dan.
“Have you any idea,” asked Barnabas, addressing [Pg 46]himself to the man in command, “when the fortunate possessor of these rare and valuable articles intends to take up her residence in this charming domicile?—in other words, when does the elderly lady come in?”
“To-night, sir, about seven o’clock, I think. Our orders are to have everything ready before six, even if we had to put on extra hands. But it will be ready easily, bless you, even to the making of the beds and final sweeping, which my wife’s seeing to. There’s not above four or five hours’ work here. There ain’t none of the little whatnots and ornaments to unpack what ladies usually carries about.”
Barnabas looked at Dan.
“To-night!” he said meaningly. “And you have one of your famous parties on! To-night the old lady will sleep—if she can—lulled by the sound of hilarious laughter, the twanging of banjos, ribald songs, and all the other pleasant little noises which are an invariable accompaniment to one of your mad entertainments. Shall you be busy to-morrow?” he asked the man.
“Yes, sir; we’re moving a family into Elm Park Gardens.”
Barnabas shook his head. “That’s unfortunate. You’ll doubtless be required here. The old lady will be making a hasty exit. The old blue Worcester dinner service will be repacked less carefully—there won’t be time for care—the corner [Pg 47]cupboard and the Chesterfield sofa, to say nothing of the Winged——”
“Ass!” said Dan. “What is the use of talking rot about it. We shall have complaints from the owner of the studios about the noise we make. I know what it will be.”
“A new set of regulations à la German,” said Barnabas. “No pianos before seven or after ten. Lights out at eleven. We shall become a set of model young men who will work quietly all the week and go to church on Sundays. Hullo, here’s Jasper. Let’s tell him the pleasing tidings.”
The door of another studio had opened, and a slight, dark man with a somewhat ascetic and rather discontented-looking face came out in the sunshine.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded.
“We’re studying the preface to a little book called ‘From Wildness to Decorum,’” answered Barnabas gravely. “The first chapter will no doubt be named ‘Hints from the Ancients to Young Men—on Deportment.’”
“Do you ever talk sense?” asked Jasper. “I suppose someone has taken this studio.”
Dan imparted the information they had lately received.
“So there’s no more fun for us poor young fellows, and we’ll grow like the good artists grow,” chanted Barnabas.
“I don’t see why you should imagine that because this lady has taken the studio that she should [Pg 48]necessarily object to any of our amusements,” said Jasper seriously. “Besides, I hardly think it is kind——”
Barnabas gave a little chuckle of laughter.
“Dear child!” he said patting Jasper gently on the shoulder. “He’s learnt the first chapter of the little book by heart while we’ve been grizzling in the garden. Entirely Dan’s fault, my child. He interrupted a busy morning, thereby causing me to view the whole world, and old ladies in particular, in a pessimistic spirit. Let us be kind. We will invite the old dame to your party, Dan. We’ll sing songs suited to the ears of age. We’ll hire a harmonium for the evening, and——”
“I wish you would occasionally be serious,” interrupted Jasper half impatiently. “Of course we should have preferred a man in the studio, but I don’t see why you and Dan need be so certain that a woman’s advent will interfere with us. Do the others know?”
“Lord, no, my child,” said Barnabas. “It would take an earthquake to induce the other three to put nose beyond door or eye to window before one o’clock. If Michael isn’t at work on an illustration of a starved child, he’ll be writing an essay on ‘Humour—Some more of its more cynical aspects.’ Alan will be painting a burning cross in the centre of a crimson rose, and would regard the smallest interruption as the highest form of sacrilege, and Paul will be doing such genuine good [Pg 49]work that it would be sacrilege to interrupt him.”
There was a moment’s silence. Then Jasper spoke in the tone of one who has been giving a subject close consideration.
“You know, I don’t think we ought to let the fact that a woman has taken the studio arouse feelings of animosity in us towards her. She is bound to have a studio somewhere if she wants to paint, and why not among us? I think we should do our best to make her welcome.”
Dan swore softly beneath his breath. Jasper had moments of priggishness that were almost beyond the patience of man to endure. Except when these moods were on him he was not such a bad sort of fellow.
Barnabas choked down a little laughter and a big bit of annoyance at a gulp.
“Right oh! my child. And now I must return to my studio, or Tilly will have smoked all my cigarettes. I offered her one once, and henceforth she has looked upon them all as her own especial property. Worst of acting in a moment of ill-considered generosity. Dan, don’t be boorish any longer. I’ll leave Jasper to read you a further homily on the whole duty of man towards ancient ladies. So long, my children. Don’t trample down my forget-me-nots in your ardour.”
He gave them a cheerful nod and vanished within the studio.
His departure left a curious blank. It gave [Pg 50]something the impression felt when the sun retires behind a cloud, or the sensation we experience the first morning of work following a month’s holiday. People almost invariably felt this sensation when Barnabas left them.
The two other men still stood a few moments longer watching the unpacking of the van. Dan, however, had ceased to find the same interest in the proceedings. He could no longer grumble with a free mind. In the presence of Jasper his utterances would have taken on an air of seriousness he was far from fully intending. Besides, his proximity in this mood annoyed him. The minute lilac flowers, too, required his attention.
Jasper remembered that he also had left a model within his studio. Besides, his latest resolution—among others—was not to waste mornings unnecessarily.
The two separated. The work of removing the furniture from the van continued.
A thrush, unheeding the presence of the men, settled in the laburnum tree and began to sing. Perhaps it was an unconscious song of welcome to the woman who would that evening enter the castle of her dreams.
IT was nearly seven o’clock in the evening, and through one of the windows of the newly-furnished studio a shaft of sunlight had found its way. It formed a patch of light on the blue drugget on the floor, and caught the corner of an oak dresser on which the old Worcester dinner service was arranged.
There were two figures in the studio, though to the eyes of mortals the place would have seemed empty. The one was in a robe of white and gold, the other in a dress of dull grey. The white-robed figure was sitting in a large chair near an oak chest, on which was a Sèvres bowl. She looked as if she had come to stay. There was an irresolute appearance about the grey-clad figure.
“I can’t stay in this studio with you here,” she said.
“I know,” said the white-robed figure.
“It is my prerogative to be here,” went on the grey-clad figure. “You don’t belong to age.”
The white-robed figure smiled.
“You sit there,” said the grey-clad figure, “as if the place belonged to you.”
“It will,” said the one in white.
“You will not be able to stay,” said the grey-clad figure warningly.
“I shall stay till I am asked to leave. Then you can take my place.”
“That will be soon,” said the grey-clad figure.
“We shall see,” said the figure in white.
“I shall come back again,” said the grey-clad figure, but the words lacked confidence.
“When you are asked,” said the figure in white.
“I am going now,” said the grey-clad figure. “If I stay here any longer with you I shall lose all my personality.”
And Doubt flew through the window. She hated passing through the shaft of sunlight, but it was the only way out. But Joy remained in the studio.
The clock on the mantelpiece struck seven. Its note was like the bell of a miniature cathedral. There was the sound of wheels in the courtyard. They stopped.
The door opened and a woman in a black dress and wide mushroom hat crossed the threshold. She saw the shaft of sunlight, the oak dresser with its array of blue plates, and she looked towards the great chair by the chest. Being a mortal she did not see the figure seated in it.
But Joy came forward to welcome her.
An hour later Miss Mason was eating a supper [Pg 53]of cold chicken, salad, bread and butter, tinned peaches and cream. She was being waited on by a little flower-faced girl in a blue print dress and a quaint cap and apron. The little girl’s name was Sally.
She had been found through an advertisement, after Miss Mason had visited registry offices innumerable, and interviewed cooks fat, cooks scraggy, cooks superior, cooks untidy, cooks confident, and cooks deprecating, none of whom had pleased her. The owners of the registry offices had considered Miss Mason an impossible person.
Sally’s sole references had been that of her mother, the Sunday-school teacher, and her own fresh little face. Miss Mason had fallen in love with her on the spot.
She arrived with a parcel under her arm five minutes after Miss Mason had entered the studio. Her box was to come the next morning by the carrier.
Miss Mason finished her supper and Sally cleared the table. She then vanished into the minute kitchen, out of which was an equally minute bedroom.
Miss Mason got up from her chair and went slowly round the studio. She had spent three weeks of careful shopping. It was astonishing how quickly she had found herself going from place to place, aided by friendly policemen. Her purchases had been sent to a furniture agent who [Pg 54]was responsible for their arrangement in the studio.
It was all exactly as she had imagined it would be. There were the brown walls with the few pictures, the blue drugget on the floor, and the old Persian rugs. There was the “Winged Victory” on its straight pedestal in one corner. There was the dresser against one wall, with the blue dinner service on its shelves. There was the bookcase filled with books, the only reminder of her old life. There was the Chesterfield sofa standing at right angles to the fire-place. There was the corner cupboard, and a small cupboard with glass doors, in which were a few bits of rare old china. There was the easel. There were a few new canvases against the wall. There was a box full of oil paints. There were charcoal sticks in another box—Miss Mason had found that chalk in bottles was not the correct thing nowadays. There was a whole ream of white Michelet paper. There was a sheaf of brushes in a green earthenware jar. There was a large mahogany palette hanging on a nail. It shone smooth and polished like a mirror.
When she had been the round of the studio she sat down in the big chair and looked at the empty Sèvres bowl.
“Must buy pink roses for that to-morrow,” she said.
She leant back in the chair. The corners of her mouth were relaxed in a little tender smile. Her [Pg 55]eyes were shining. She heard the voices of men crossing the courtyard. They were laughing. She laughed a little herself. And over and over again in her heart the words of the lady in the blue dress were sounding:
“If happiness comes to you welcome her with both hands; and with every kiss she gives you years will roll away from your heart. Happiness is like the spring, which wakes the world to brightness after a dreary winter.”
Sally came back into the studio.
“Is there anything more I can do for you, ma’am?”
“No, child. You’d better get to bed. Boiled eggs for breakfast.”
“Yes, ma’am. Good night.”
“Good night.” There was a moment’s pause. Sally had reached the door.
“Got a young man?” Miss Mason’s voice was so gruff that Sally’s heart beat uncomfortably.
“Yes, ma’am; but——”
“Does he live in London?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sally was trembling a little.
“Better write to-morrow and ask him to come to tea on Sunday. Suppose there’s room in that ridiculous kitchen for you both?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am.” Sally’s voice was joyful.
“Better buy some cake to-morrow. Gingerbread, plum cake, anything you like. Don’t loiter now. Get to bed like a good girl.”
And Sally fled, feeling that Miss Mason was a winged angel in an odd disguise.
Half an hour later Miss Mason herself went to her bedroom. It was dainty and charming. The curtains before the window were white muslin, with outer curtains of white dimity and borders of tiny pink rosebuds. The quilt covering the bed was white like the curtains, it also had a border of pink rosebuds. The carpet was cream-coloured, the furniture Chippendale.
When Miss Mason was ready for bed she knelt down, her hands folded on the rosebud-covered quilt. The old petitions of childhood, still used by the woman of sixty years, failed her for the first time.
“God,” said Miss Mason softly, “I am happy, and I thank You.”
That was all.
She got into bed. For a long time she lay gazing into the darkness with open eyes. She was too happy to sleep. She had become aware of sounds she had heard at intervals during the evening almost without realizing them—singing, the twanging of banjos, the sound of laughter. Now in the darkness she heard them clearly. Her old eyes puckered at the corners into little delighted wrinkles.
Then suddenly she heard the notes of a violin. Miss Mason had no knowledge of music, but even [Pg 57]to her ignorant ears the hand was that of a master. When it stopped there was silence.
Presently she dozed. Much later she was awakened from a half-sleep by laughter, footsteps, and louder singing. The words came to her distinctly.
She lay there smiling, a queer old figure in a white nightcap, one rather bony hand beating time softly on the quilt.
“For he’s a jolly good fellow,
For he’s a jolly good fellow,
For he’s a jolly good fe-el-low,
And so say all of we.”
With a little sigh of supreme content Miss Mason uttered the one word:
THE FAUN IN THE GARDEN
BARNABAS came into his garden in the early morning sunshine. His hair was still a little wet, for he had only just had his bath. He was wearing an old Turkish dressing-gown, purple bedroom slippers, and was smoking a cigarette.
A light wind was blowing through the courtyard. It scattered the pink petals of a too full-blown la France rose upon the garden path. They chased each other round in a little mad dance, first down the path, then in circles at the foot of the statue of a little faun playing on a long thin reed. The faun looked at them with mocking, laughing eyes, while he piped to their dancing.
A thrush in the laburnum tree looked at Barnabas for a moment, but as it had already got used to the fact that he was neither a cat nor a boy with a stone handy, it began to sing a sweet full-throated song.
Barnabas fingered a la France rosebud. There were half a dozen little green blights clinging to the petals. He blew a cloud of tobacco smoke round it. The blights smiled at him, so to speak. It would require something stronger than cigarette [Pg 59]smoke to remove them from their lodging. Barnabas let go his hold on the rosebud.
“Hang it all,” he said. “I daresay they’re enjoying life and the sunshine as much as I am. They don’t seem to be hurting the roses, anyhow.”
A couple of white butterflies flew into the garden. One of them settled on the sleeve of his dressing-gown. Barnabas looked at it. It did not move, only its wings quivered a little.
“You morsel of life,” said Barnabas, “you’re enjoying yourself too.”
He felt a sudden odd remorse at the thought of other butterflies he had long ago enclosed in wide-topped bottles filled with camphor, and then pinned down on to pieces of cork. The destructive age had not lasted long with Barnabas. His love of Nature was too whole-hearted and genuine.
The door of studio number seven suddenly opened, and Sally came out in her blue print dress. She held a duster in her hand which she flapped two or three times. The butterfly flew away to perch on the shoulder of the faun.
Sally paused for a moment to sniff the morning air. She did not see Barnabas. She was feeling very happy. She was seventeen, it was eight o’clock on a June morning, and last night she had written to her young man—a stalwart coal-heaver. The letter had been written with a stubby end of pencil on a scrap of paper. The envelope into which she had put it had not stuck well. It had [Pg 60]required much pressure from Sally’s thumb. The cleanest thumb will leave a mark on an envelope if it is much rubbed on it. The envelope had looked a little dirty, and Sally had sighed. She felt, however, that the words it contained would more than make up in Jim’s eyes for the smear. Later she would ask leave to go out and buy a stamp.
Then she saw Barnabas. Her work having lain hitherto in the kitchen rather than in the upstair regions, she was not used to the appearance of young men in Turkish dressing-gowns, and she blushed.
“Morning,” said Barnabas pleasantly, smiling at the girl. She made him think of a wild-rose.
“Good morning, sir,” said Sally, and she dropped a curtsey.
Barnabas looked at her with approval.
“Where did you learn to make curtsies, child? I thought they’d gone out of fashion with Bibles, brown sugar on bread and butter, and old ladies.”
Sally dropped another curtsey from pure nervousness.
“Please, sir, mother taught me, sir. She was still-room maid in a big house before she married father. She said born ladies curtseyed to the King and Queen, and we curtseyed to the born ladies—and gentlemen,” she added.
“Then your mother, child, is not a Socialist,” said Barnabas.
“Please, sir, mother says,” said Sally seriously, [Pg 61]“that Socialism is a lot of silly talk among discontented people who’d be discontented if they had the moon to play with. She says Christ’s socialism was love and respect.”
Barnabas gave a low whistle.
“Your mother must be a very remarkable woman,” he said.
There was a moment’s pause, while Sally looked at him and at the white butterfly which had returned to perch upon his sleeve. Then a sudden spirit of mischief, born of the wind of the morning, took possession of Barnabas.
“I hope we didn’t disturb your mistress with our singing last night,” he said. There was a little glint of gay devilry in his eyes.
“Oh, no, sir,” said Sally quickly. “I asked her ten minutes ago, sir, and she said, ‘Bless you, no, child. Enjoyed it. They sounded so delightfully young and happy. Like to have that kind of lullaby every night.’”
Sally was an unconscious mimic. Barnabas got a sudden and not inaccurate mental image of Miss Mason as she spoke the words. A little pang of remorse, not unlike the pang he had experienced at the thought of the butterflies, smote him as he remembered his half-joking conversation with Dan.
“Give your mistress my compliments, and tell her I am glad we didn’t disturb her. Also that I shall do myself the pleasure of calling upon her at no very distant date.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sally, and she turned back towards the studio.
“By the way,” said Barnabas, “what is your mistress’s name?”
“Miss Mason, sir,” said Sally. She dropped a final curtsey and disappeared within the studio.
Barnabas lifted his arm with the butterfly on it, and brushed its wings lightly against his lips. Apparently it appreciated the treatment, for it remained passive.
“Is it the influence of the morning, the wings of a white butterfly, or the wild-rose face of that child?” said Barnabas.
“I fancy I am going to fall in love with Miss Mason.”
THE SIX ARTISTS OF THE COURTYARD
THAT same afternoon the five other male occupants of the studios dropped in to tea with Barnabas. They frequently did. They liked the cakes he bought at a shop in the Fulham Road, and, incidentally, they appreciated Barnabas himself. They had one and all announced their intention previously.
“Meaning me to buy cakes,” said Barnabas. And he had sent his man to the Fulham Road to make the purchases.
Barnabas poured out the tea, which was drunk out of cream-coloured cups with festoons of flowers on them. There were not enough chairs, but a couple of packing-cases had been pressed into service, and they sat round an oak table—gate-legged. Barnabas had picked it up for a mere song at a filthy little shop in a back street. He was very proud of the bargain.
The six men were curiously dissimilar in appearance and in character. One took in the outlines of that, as one took in their appearance at the first glance.
Next to Barnabas was Dan Oldfield, huge, red-haired, and untidy-looking. He was one of a large [Pg 64]family, and had begun his artistic career at a suburban art school, where he had risen to the post of pupil teacher, and later to that of assistant master. At twenty-two he had been left three hundred a year by an uncle, and had come to London to study at the Slade Schools. He was now thirty, and had never lost the idea of minute finish inculcated in him at the art school. It found expression in his tiny pictures of almost miniature-like work, pictures which the palm of one of his huge hands would have covered.
Beside Dan was Jasper Merton, sallow, clean-shaven, discontented in expression, his previous history unknown to the six studios. He painted altar pieces at low rates for high churches in poor districts, which paintings were usually the gift of benevolent and religiously-minded spinster ladies. He looked—as Barnabas had once said—as if he were wearing a hair shirt for the good of his soul, and as if the shirt were an extra-prickly one.
Beyond him was Alan Farley, who, like David of old, was “fair and of a ruddy countenance.” Nature had intended him for a cheerful soul, but art of the ultra-mystic type had taken him prisoner. He painted shadowy figures with silver stars on their brows, non-petalled roses, and purple chalices; he read Swinburne and the poems of Fiona Macleod, and talked about creative genius.
“Creative genius!” Barnabas had said to him one day. “Man, you don’t understand the first [Pg 65]principles of it. Your painting is pure slither. Do you think creation is slither? It’s travail, it’s agonizing. What does your work cost you? Nothing. An airy fancy, half an hour’s mental indigestion, and there’s a canvas covered with purples, greys, and greens. The colour’s all right, but what on earth is the thing worth? I’m not talking monetary jargon. You say that purple mass in the corner is a veiled woman, and she’s talking through opal mists to a silver star. Who on earth’s going to find that out unless you go round like a kind of animated catalogue to your own pictures. Get hold of form, man. Study it. Draw—draw—draw—till you can express ideas tangibly. Leave poetry alone for a bit till you’re honoured with the power of understanding it. You’re being mentally sensual and don’t know it. You talk of passion! Great Scot! You don’t understand the meaning of the word, nor the A B C of nature.”
And Alan had listened and taken the harangue meekly, though it had had, apparently, little effect.
Next to Alan was Paul Treherne, seated on a packing-case. He was a man well above the medium height, and with a lean-limbed look about him. He had grey eyes, sad—like his mouth, which was partly hidden by a small moustache. Fate had started him in an office, which he hated. Later she had taken him abroad, where he had lived in a tent and under the open sky, where he had experienced [Pg 66]hardships few men of his class have known, and where he had three times been face to face with death. He had looked at sunsets across open plains, and seen mountains bathed in gold and purple, and the crimson fire of tropical evenings. He had seen the blue shadows of palm trees on yellow sand; he had seen the scarlet of pomegranate flowers, the gold of oranges against azure skies, till his whole being was saturated in colour. And lastly he had returned to England at the age of twenty-seven to find in the soft greys and lilacs of smoky London an even more wonderful charm. He had then an income of eight hundred a year, four of which he gave to his widowed mother, who lived in a little house in Hampshire. He was at last able to turn to art, which he had always loved passionately, and from his knowledge of character gained through much experience of men and women, and with his wonderful sense of colour, he took to portrait painting. He now, besides his invested income, earned, at the age of thirty-seven, about six hundred a year by his brush. He sang in an untrained mellow baritone in a way that brought tears to one’s eyes.
Between Paul and Barnabas was Michael Chester, a small man, one shoulder higher than the other, and with one leg shrunken and twisted. He had had a pencil in his hand since babyhood. In illustration and line work he excelled, though his choice of subjects was morbid. His paintings of [Pg 67]the river and grey London streets were beautiful. There was something almost Whistler-ish about them. He had the heart of a true poet, and the tongue of a cynic, and he played the violin like a god. An ultra-morbidity regarding his own appearance had lost him to the world as a public violinist. Nothing would have induced him to mount a platform or enter a crowded drawing-room. The studios alone were given the benefit of his talent.
And finally, master of the ceremonies, seated on another packing-case was Barnabas—tall, brown-haired, green-eyed, and sunny hearted, outwardly indolent, and beloved of his fellow-men. He followed in the footsteps of Paul as a portrait painter, though he was apt to say it was “the devil of a way behind.”
The conversation during tea had somehow centred round a certain unconscious old lady, who was at that moment cleaning oil paints from a large mahogany palette, and looking with humorous disgust at a canvas on which were large and unsteady blobs of pink paint above a smear of green and gold. They were intended to represent pink roses in a Sèvres bowl, but had failed horribly in the intention.
The conversation had begun airily enough, five of the men taking part in it, Barnabas alone being silent. After about ten minutes it began to be slightly strained, and three of the men had more or [Pg 68]less dropped out of it. Dan had, however, continued to express his views somewhat clearly and with a certain amount of gruffness. Jasper was being annoyingly Christian-like in his attitude.
“I intend to call on the lady, at all events,” he said at last, with exasperating decision. “After what you two fellows said yesterday I felt that I at least——”
“Not you only, my child,” interrupted Barnabas good-humouredly, speaking for the first time. “We’re all going. We begin on Sunday.”
“Won’t the lady be a trifle overwhelmed?” asked Paul.
“I didn’t mean all at the same time, or on the same day,” explained Barnabas. “I intended that we should go in detachments. I thought Dan and I could begin—take the initial step, so to speak.”
“And who next?” asked Paul, smiling.
“Jasper and Alan, as Jasper’s so keen about it,” said Barnabas. “Then you and Michael.”
Michael looked at the tip of his cigarette through half-closed eyes.
“You can leave me out of the little programme,” he said. “I don’t pay calls.”
“And I’m calling on my great aunt’s stepmother on Sunday,” said Dan. “Sorry, Barnabas, but it’s a prior engagement.”
“You can send a wire to that purely fictitious person—if you know her address—and put her off,” replied Barnabas.
“I’ll be damned——” began Dan.
Jasper got up from his chair. “I will leave you five to make your own arrangements,” he said. “I shall call upon Miss Mason at five o’clock on Monday afternoon. If Alan comes with me I shall be pleased. I’ve got an engagement now. Good-bye.”
He left the studio. There was a very slight and almost unconscious movement of relief among the remaining men.
“Your language jarred on his nervous susceptibilities, Dan,” said Michael. “And he thinks our attitude altogether unchristian.”
“Wish he’d get himself fixed up in one of the panels of his own altarpieces, and carried off to the highest church in London,” said Dan. “It would be much the best place for him.”
“I’ll not call with him,” said Alan firmly. “If I do make a martyr of myself it will be by myself or with one of you others.”
There was a silence. Then quite suddenly Barnabas told them of Miss Mason’s little speech to Sally. Somehow he had been unable to mention it in Jasper’s presence.
Again there was a pause. Then Dan laughed.
“You’re confoundedly sentimental, Barnabas, my son. I suppose I’ll have to send that wire.”
Michael smiled, a queer twisted smile.
“Barnabas has a curious faculty for keeping silence till the crucial moment,” he said. “He then [Pg 70]makes some little trivial remark which invariably manages to upset all our preconceived notions.”
“He is,” said Paul, “as Dan says, a pure sentimentalist.”
The atmosphere had lightened. Jasper’s departure and Barnabas’ little speech had had a curious effect upon it. A mental fog had previously crept into the studio. It often found its way into the rooms Jasper entered. Sometimes he seemed to leave it behind, but it generally came to find him, creeping thin and ghostlike through the keyhole, through the cracks in the doors, through the chinks in the windows, settling thickly round him, and casting its gloom over the room and the other occupants.
And the gods of Joy and Laughter, who cannot breathe in such an atmosphere, would silently depart. Now, however, they had found their way back, slipping easily and gladly into the place they loved.
When, half an hour later, Michael limped down the garden path with Paul, he nodded in the direction of studio number seven.
“Shall we say Tuesday afternoon for our call?” he asked carelessly.
Paul had a momentary feeling of surprise. He did not show it.
“Right,” he replied equally carelessly.
And the little faun laughed to hear them, and piped a madder dance still to the rose-petals which had whirled below his pedestal at intervals throughout the day.
A MAN’S CONSCIENCE
JASPER Merton was a man who had been born with a curious kind of conscience. He was perpetually looking at it, dusting it, and seeing that it kept in what he considered perfect working order. In reality it only worked spasmodically and at unexpected intervals. He possessed, also, an enormous amount of that quality which is generally termed artistic sensitiveness, but which is most frequently a polite and pretty name for selfishness. He see-sawed between conscience and—it must be given its right name—selfishness, in a manner which made his life not only uncomfortable to himself, but almost equally uncomfortable to others.
He had, too, a skeleton which he kept in a cupboard, in other words, in a small—a very small—house in Chiswick. That skeleton was a woman. She was his wife, and a secret.
None of his fellow-artists had ever dreamt of asking him if he were married. It never dawned on them to ask a man, who was apparently a bachelor and who obviously disliked the company of [Pg 72]women, such a question; and he had no near relations to trouble their heads about him.
He was twenty-three when he married her, and she was eighteen. She was a slight, fair-haired girl with blue eyes and a lovable nature. He had worshipped her to the whole extent of his selfish disposition. At the end of a year a child had been born to them. It had lived two years—a toddling blue-eyed mite with fair hair like its mother. It had little caressing ways and soft baby cooings of laughter.
But one day the laughter had ceased, and from the nursery had come sounds of a child in anguish. A basin of boiling water had been left on the table by a careless nurse, and pulled over by a pair of small, clutching hands. A week of horror had followed. The child had lived for four days in agony, even drugs could not soothe its pain, or quiet the terrible sobbing voice. Jasper had fled from the house.
When he had returned his wife had met him white and tearless.
“My baby’s at peace, thank God,” she had said. And then she had laughed. She had not slept except from momentary exhaustion for four nights and days.
Later in the evening he had found her drunk in the dead child’s room. He had carried her from it and locked the door.
In the morning she had come to him and had [Pg 73]tried to speak. His look of disgust had made speech impossible.
“Jasper——” she had said brokenly.
“I—I can’t say anything,” he had stammered. And he had gone from her.
When he had returned in the evening it was to find her again drunk. This time in the dining-room.
That was the beginning. He had never been able to hide his disgust, his love had been killed. Conscience, which held the word Duty before him, spelling it with a capital, told him to make the best of things; his sensitiveness shrank from the woman as from something loathsome.
After the child’s funeral she had pulled herself partially together, and he had never found her in the same condition again. But she had lost all her old charm. She grew listless in manner, slovenly and untidy in dress. Now and then she would look at him with the eyes of a dumb thing asking for help. He never saw her eyes. He had avoided looking at them. The sight of her—her untidy hair, her neglected dress—had offended his sensitive taste. Little by little they had drifted mentally further apart. Finally they had separated. Even the separation had been gradual. First he had taken his small house in Chiswick and the studio in Chelsea, living at home, and going daily to his work. She had known what the outcome would be, but had said nothing. Later [Pg 74]he had begun to sleep at the studio, returning only for the week-end. He had spoken of the distance, making it an excuse.
And now there was only occasional visits, prompted entirely by conscience. He had left the studio to pay one of these visits that afternoon. An extraordinary priggishness of manner towards his fellow-men was an invariable preface to them.
As the tram bore him into the suburbs he gave a little shiver of disgust. The commonplace ugliness of the houses was an eyesore to him. He pictured the inhabitants as dull, well-meaning, ultra-respectable—leading a carpet-slipper, roast-beef, little-music-in-the-evenings—kind of life. He thought of the men as all old and fat, or young and conceited; of the women as thin and careworn, or flashy and bejewelled. His mental pictures were either extremely commonplace or extremely tawdry.
Suddenly his conscience began to fidget. It was becoming uncomfortable. What right had he to feel like that, it said. They were every bit as good as he was. Who was he to sit in judgment on his fellow-men?
He put the mental pictures aside. He said a little prayer for charity. Then he looked at his conscience again, and satisfied himself that he had swept away the dust specks which had caused it a momentary uneasiness.
But he never thought of the poetry that might [Pg 75]be hidden away in the lives passed within those ugly walls, nor listened for the old, old tunes of love and sorrow, hope and fear, birth and death, that were played for them as they were played for those who dwelt in infinitely more picturesque surroundings. And if he had heard the music he would probably have said that the metre was out of time, the notes old and cracked, or thin and tuneless.
At last he left the tram and turned up a side street. The houses in it were small, red brick, and each of a pattern exactly like the other. They stood a little way back from the pavement, separated from it by a low brick wall on top of which was an ugly iron railing. Each of the tiny plots of ground in front of the houses was divided from the neighbouring plot by more iron railings. Some of the plots were merely gravel, others grass, while a few had blossomed out into flower-beds gay with flowers.
He turned into one of the gravel plots and went up four steps to the front door. He rang the bell. His face was perfectly expressionless. It was like the face of a man who is self-hypnotized.
“Your mistress in?” he said to the untidy woman who answered the door.
“Yes, sir. Will you come into the sitting-room? I’ll tell ’er.”
Jasper went into the sitting-room. He stood on the hearthrug in the attitude of a stranger. The tea-things had not been cleared away, they were [Pg 76]still on the table, which was covered with a white cloth showing various grease spots. The tea-things themselves were on a black tin tray with the enamel scratched off in two or three places. There was a loaf of bread on the table, a pat of soft-looking butter on a plate, a pot of strawberry jam from which the spoon had fallen making a red smear on the cloth, and a remnant of stale cake.
The furniture in the room was not ugly, but the whole place had a desolate look. A French novel in a yellow paper cover lay open face downwards on a small table near the hearthrug. Jasper picked it up, glanced at the title, and put it down again with a little movement of disgust.
The door opened and a woman came in. She was wearing a loose and rather shabby brown dress; her hair, which was really a beautiful pale gold, looked unbrushed and uncared for. She wore it parted and in an untidy knot at the nape of her neck. The only neat thing about her were her hands, which were small hands, the nails polished and manicured.
“Oh, it’s you, Jasper,” she said, and she sat down. She did not even offer to shake hands.
“How do you do, Bridget,” he said gravely.
She laughed. “Is that a gentle reminder to me of my manners, or a query as to my health? I’m all right, thanks.”
Jasper stood irresolute. This nonchalant attitude [Pg 77]of his wife pained him. She was usually more apathetic.
“Won’t you sit down,” she said politely, “that is if you wish to stay for your usual hour.”
Jasper put his hat and stick on the sofa and sat down on a chair near the table. His eye fell on the tray.
“Why don’t you get a new one,” he said half irritably, “or at least cover it with a tea-cloth? I hate these black, scratched things. I don’t keep you short of money.”
She glanced towards the offending article.
“You don’t often see it, do you?” she queried. “I’m used to it; besides, I haven’t an artistic eye. Emma shall take it away if it displeases you.”
She rang the bell, and the woman who had opened the front door appeared.
“Take away the tea-things,” said Bridget carelessly. “Mr. Merton doesn’t like to see them.”
The woman piled the things on to the tray, and gathered the cloth in a bundle under one arm. She left the room with them.
There was a silence.
“Well,” said Bridget encouragingly, “five minutes of the hour have gone.”
Jasper moved impatiently. “I don’t know what is the matter with you this evening, Bridget. I don’t know you in this mood.”
She raised her eyebrows with a slightly mocking expression.
“Do you ever notice my moods? That is news to me. I was waiting for the usual lectures.”
Jasper frowned. “I don’t want to lecture you. I don’t come here to lecture you. I have only sometimes asked you to keep your hair tidy and wear becoming dresses. There’s nothing in the way of a lecture about that.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s hardly worth while to trouble, is it? No one sees me but you, and then only four times a year.”
“Your own self-respect——” he began.
She looked at him.
“I lost that,” she said quietly, “long ago.”
“It is never too late,” he said. There was now a touch of priggishness in his manner. Conscience had given him a little push.
“Isn’t it?” she said. “I think it is. You showed me that.”
“I?” Jasper was frankly amazed.
“I don’t understand what you mean. I tried to help you. I’ve begged you again and again to dress decently, to care for your appearance. I——”
“You left me.” The words were perfectly quiet. They were the mere statement of a fact.
“I—I—— Our life together was a misery,” he stammered. “I tried for two years to help you. I——”
“How did you try to help me?” she asked. “By talking calm platitudes through a kind of moral disinfectant sheet—which you held between us, unable, for all your high faluting words, to keep the disgust out of your voice, the loathing out of your eyes. I had offended your fastidious taste—yes, I know I had seemed horrible, that I was horrible; but how ten thousand times more horrible do you think I felt to myself? And yet I knew I had some excuse.”
“Excuse,” he said sternly, strong in his moral self-righteousness, “excuse for lying drunk in the room with our dead child.” He shuddered. The memory of the sight filled him with horror.
She put her hand over her eyes. It was shaking.
“Listen,” she said, “you shall have the truth for once, though I am not speaking it in justification of myself. Have you ever thought of those four days and nights of torture, when every cry of anguish my baby uttered was like a red-hot needle piercing my heart and brain? Have you thought that there were moments when I felt in my wild misery that I must fly from the sound of them, but that her baby-hands were seeking mine, her voice calling in vain to me to help her. You shudder? You shuddered then and fled. The sensitiveness of your nature could not stand the sight and sounds of agony. When at last it ceased, and reason told me my baby [Pg 80]was at peace, I still heard her voice. The doctor had sent me to bed. I could not rest. I got up. I saw you. You went to your own room to weep. I had gone through the agony alone. I was to go through the grief alone. I was faint when I took the brandy. I did not know it would affect me as it did. I was worn out, and it went to my head. I heard her voice again. I thought it real that time. I stumbled upstairs to the room where you found me. In the morning I remembered what had happened. I loathed myself. I came to you and saw the same loathing in your eyes. The next few days I drank purposely to gain oblivion, and I hated myself for doing it more than you can ever have hated me. But one night I thought I saw my baby——” she paused. “I never took the stuff again, though there were moments when I longed for it. I wanted to ask your help, to tell you what I had suffered. I could not. I saw the look in your eyes. It kept awake in me the memory of that—that day. Only at night, in the darkness, I forgot it. I could feel my baby in my arms, her hair against my lips——”
For a moment there was a dead silence: Jasper broke it.
“I did not understand,” he said. It was an admission on his part. At the time she did not realize it.
“Of course you did not,” she said, and a trace [Pg 81]of weariness had found its way into her voice. “You would never understand what offended your taste. For a crime alone you might find excuse, provided it was sufficiently picturesque. For mere sordidness there is none in your eyes. You said it was not too late. I say it is. For years your refinement and your conscience have been at war. You have not had the moral courage to leave me, nor the manhood to help me—to help me to regain the self-respect I lost seven years ago. I am tired at last of you, tired of these perfunctory visits. They can end.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jasper.
“Simply that I don’t want to see you again. You can’t get a divorce—I have at least been faithful to you; there is not even cause for a legal separation——”
“Bridget!” he cried, shocked. “I have never wanted——”
She held up her hand.
“Please don’t protest, Jasper. Actions speak a good deal louder than words. You have hated these four yearly visits quite as much as I have. Your conscience has ordered you to make them. You have kept it quiet by a quarterly journey to Chiswick. Your refinement has shrunk more each time from the sight of me. The fact that Duty alone was urging you to it has made it more difficult for you. Now it is I who say they must cease.”
“You are my wife,” he said stubbornly.
She laughed. “You always had little sense of humour, Jasper, and now I think that little must have died. You don’t understand what I mean? That shows it is quite—quite dead. I am now going to take all responsibility off your shoulders by refusing to see you again.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I shall go away where you cannot find me.”
For a moment he was silent.
“How can you live if I don’t know where you are?” he asked. “You have no money of your own. I must send you some.”
“I know you have considered it your duty to make me an allowance,” she replied, “and in my candid opinion that is still your duty. If, however, you persist in coming to see me I shall make it impossible for you to send me money by going away where you will be unable to find me. I can work. It might be better for me to do so. You can decide.”
“I shall send you the money,” he said stubbornly.
“And not attempt to see me—you promise?”
“You force me into giving the promise. I can’t let my wife work for her living, or starve.”
She got up from her chair.
“Very well, then, that is understood. I’ve taken you by surprise this afternoon. I think I have [Pg 83]surprised myself. At present you resent my interference with your conscience. Later you will feel the relief. Now, though your hour is not yet up, it would be wiser if we said good-bye.”
He got to his feet. The whole interview had been so unexpected he was feeling a little dazed.
“Good-bye, Jasper.” She held out her hand.
“Good-bye, Bridget.” Then Conscience—the officious—spoke. Jasper bent forward to kiss his wife.
She drew back.
“Isn’t that rather ridiculous?” she asked, with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Jasper flushed. He hated anything approaching ridicule. He had taken her word-slashings quietly. They had not yet even fully penetrated his plate-armour of self-righteousness.
“Just as you like,” he said. “I only thought that as I was not seeing you again——”
“Three months or a lifetime! It doesn’t make much difference to us, does it?”
He met her eyes. Beneath the look in them his own fell. For the first time in his life he experienced something like genuine shame, not the little meretricious prickings of conscience with which he was wont to bewail his small or imaginary sins. To his great short-comings he was blind.
“You hate me?” he asked.
“No,” she said shortly, “for a wonder, I don’t. Good-bye.”
He went to the door, opened it, and passed out. A second later she heard the iron gate clang to, and his receding steps on the pavement.
She stood for a moment listening, then turned towards the hearth. She put her hand up to the mantelpiece and gripped it hard.
“If only he had helped me,” she said. “God, why didn’t you let me die with my baby?”
MISS Mason was sitting in her studio at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. She was reading a small, red-covered book, within whose pages was enshrined a brief account of the life and work of Whistler.
At intervals she looked up from her reading to glance round the studio and smile. It was her dream incarnate. She had waited forty-three years for its birth. She realized now that she had always wanted it, had always believed in it. All through the old days in the rose-beds, when she had pruned the trees, when she had grafted new buds, when she had watched the flowers expanding, she had dreamt of this studio. Only at moments it had looked real; generally it was far off and shadowy, but always it had been before her, and something had whispered to her heart, “Wait; one day it will come.”
And now it was no faint shadowy dream, but a living reality, and it would bring more glorious realities in its train. Nothing could be too wonderful to happen in the castle of her dreams.
Again she looked round the studio, and again [Pg 86]she smiled. She would have liked to sing for happiness, only her voice was too gruff and cracked. She would have liked to dance for joy, only her old legs were too stiff. But she minded neither of these things, for her heart was beating to a little gay secret tune in which joy and thankfulness were woven in delicious harmony.
From behind the door that led to the tiny kitchen she heard murmured sounds and an occasional deep laugh. Sally’s scrappy little note had been answered by the appearance of Jim in his Sunday-best, shining from the washtub, redolent of yellow soap, every trace of his black weekday occupation removed. They were now cooing like a pair of young turtle-doves in a cage.
Suddenly Miss Mason was startled by a knock.
A moment later the door which led from the studio to the little vestibule opened, and Sally announced:
“Mr. Kirby and Mr. Oldfield.”
Miss Mason’s heart fluttered. It is an odd emotion, and now nearly out of fashion. It belonged to the days of “Cranford,” “Evelina,” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Now all emotions are big and passionate, or calm and well-controlled. There are few gentle excitements left.
In spite of the fluttering, Miss Mason rose to her feet, a quiet dignified old figure.
“I am very pleased to see you,” she said, and [Pg 87]she gave them each her hand with the air of a queen. “Sally,” she said, “bring tea.”
She sat down again. There was a little pink flush in her cheeks. For forty-three years she had spoken to no man of her own class except the vicar and doctor. The interview with Mr. Davis being purely on business did not count.
Barnabas and Dan put their caps on the oak chest beside the Sèvres bowl which was filled with the pink roses with whose portraiture Miss Mason had so sadly failed. Then they sat down.
There was a moment’s pause. Even Barnabas’ mental picture of Miss Mason—a picture supplied by Sally’s unconscious imitation of her—had not quite come up to the quaintness of the reality. He felt that he had suddenly stepped back at least a century. There was about the atmosphere a hint of potpourri and long ago half-forgotten days that are laid up in lavender. There was a completeness about the whole thing—from the oak dresser with its blue plates, the Sèvres bowl and the pink roses, to the woman in her voluminous black dress, wide white collar, and abundant grey hair covered with the finest of old lace caps—a completeness that only an artist could fully realize, though most people would have felt.
She was so extraordinarily ugly too. No ordinary commonplace plainness of feature, but downright ugliness, yet without the smallest trace of repulsiveness in it. It was a fascinating [Pg 88]kind of ugliness, and the eyes in the ugly face—they alone were really beautiful—shone like bits of red-brown amber. It is a colour rarely seen.
Barnabas broke the silence.
“Your studio,” he said, “is charming. Dan and I watched the furniture coming in on Thursday morning. If it is not impertinent of me, may I congratulate you on it?”
“Glad you like it,” said Miss Mason. “It’s the first studio I’ve ever seen, but it’s the kind I always wanted. Have always pictured studios in my mind like this one.”
“You’re lucky in your mental images,” said Dan. “If you saw ours——” he broke off and shrugged his shoulders.
“But perhaps,” said Miss Mason anxiously, “yours is the real thing, and mine——”
“Yours,” said Barnabas, “is the dream to which we aspire, and to which we cannot achieve. When you see ours—and we hope you will honour us with your presence—you will realize how very far short of our aspirations they must fall.”
“But,” said Miss Mason almost wistfully, “you paint real pictures in them.”
“Try to do so,” said Dan gruffly, “and a few of us succeed. Even in that most of us fail as we fail in our furniture. Paul and Michael are our geniuses.”
“Paul and Michael?” queried Miss Mason.
“Mr. Treherne and Mr. Chester,” explained [Pg 89]Barnabas. “They live in studios numbers one and three respectively. Jasper Merton has number five, Alan Farley number four, Dan number two, and mine is number six, next door to you.”
“The garden with the faun,” said Miss Mason.
“The garden with the faun,” replied Barnabas. And then he got up to move a table for Sally, who had come in with the tea-things, blue willow china on a tray covered with the daintiest of damask cloths. She brought in more dishes with cakes and bread and butter, and a copper kettle which was singing its heart out on a little spirit lamp. Then she left the room.
Miss Mason warmed the teapot and the tea-cups, measured the tea, and filled the teapot with boiling water. Then she took up the sugar-tongs.
“Sugar?” she asked.
“One lump each,” said Barnabas.
She put the little cubes into the cups, poured in milk and tea, and handed the cups to the men.
“Help yourselves,” she said. Then she looked up and smiled.
“Am quite delighted to see you,” she said, “but you’ll have to do the talking. Don’t suppose I’ve spoken more than six words a day for the last twenty years, till the last three weeks. Then it has been entirely about furniture. I’ve got out of the way of conversation.”
“Barnabas will supply the need,” said Dan. [Pg 90]“He has the biggest flow of conversation I’ve ever met. Only it’s largely nonsense.”
“Should like nonsense,” said Miss Mason. “Never talked nonsense in my life.”
“No?” queried Barnabas politely, his eyes twinkling.
Then they all three laughed. And in the laugh Miss Mason forgot that she was trying to hide her shyness, for it suddenly disappeared, and there was nothing left to hide. She forgot that she had never set eyes on the men till ten minutes ago. She was no longer a hostess trying to feel at ease with strangers. She was just a happy woman talking to two happy men, the difference in age forgotten. Such a magic god is laughter.
And before an hour was over Miss Mason felt that she knew all about them. Not the things in which some people consider the knowledge of their fellow-men to consist—their father’s profession, their mother’s family, their relationship to various grandees, the towns in which they have lived, the schools at which they have been educated, the number of their brothers and their sisters, all of which, if you come to think of it, are pure accidents, and have nothing to do with the man himself.
It was none of these things Miss Mason learnt. She found out that Barnabas had a universal love for nature and his fellow-men, in fact, for everything alive; and that his heart was as [Pg 91]sunny as his laugh. And that Dan’s rather gruff manner hid a heart as tender as a woman’s. There were a thousand minor characteristics she would discover by and by, but these were the salient facts, and showed the true man.
When they said good-bye it was with a promise from her to visit their studios, and with an assurance from them that the other four men were going to call on her.
They did—Jasper Merton the next day alone; Paul, Alan, and Michael on the Tuesday. Barnabas and Dan had broken the ice for her, and Miss Mason received them with little trepidation. Having come once they came again.
And not one of them guessed in what a curious way the influence of the quaint old lady was to be woven into the lives of at least three of them. For the Three Fates, who sit all day long spinning in three great black chairs, are strange and ancient dames, and they saw in Miss Mason a kindred spirit. In fact, they laughed to think of her likeness to them as she sat in the carved oak chair in her studio with her knitting in her hands.
And Miss Mason took one and all of the six artists of the courtyard to her heart and loved them spontaneously as a mother loves her sons. But Jasper she guessed was unhappy, and she was sorry for him, and she was a tiny bit afraid of Michael’s tongue and Alan she did not quite [Pg 92]understand, and Paul she was as proud of as if he were truly her son, and Dan gave her a delightful feeling of being protected, he was so big, but Barnabas—though she loved them all—took the first place in her heart.
THE CASA DI CORLEONE
“CHRISTOPHER, darling,” said the Duchessa di Corleone in honeyed accents, “I want you to find an artist for me.”
“By all means,” replied Christopher. “Where did you lose him?”
“My dear Christopher,” said the Duchessa, “he is not lost, because he has never been found. You are to find him—a pleasant, clever, interesting artist.”
She was sitting in the drawing-room of her house on the Embankment. The windows looked on to the river which she loved. The room was full of flowers which she also loved. She arranged them herself in a room off the dining-room, and carried them upstairs in her arms like children. Every one who loves and arranges flowers knows that in their transit from one place to another the whole carefully-careless effect of their arrangement may be spoiled. Therefore from the moment of entering the strings that tied the great bundles fresh from Covent Garden, to the moment of placing the vases in the drawing-room, no hand but the [Pg 94]Duchessa’s touched the flowers. And there was no flower in existence whose colour could jar in the room which was a harmony in pale lavender. To have to exclude a flower on account of its colour would have been to Sara di Corleone like shutting the door on a child because its face was ugly. And being the very essence of womanhood she could have done neither.
“And when the artist is found,” queried Christopher, “may I ask what are your intentions towards him? I have a conscience, Sara, though you may not realize the fact, and if you wish to inmesh the young man in your silken toils merely for the pleasure of seeing him wriggle, then I fear duty will oblige me to refrain from helping you in your search.”
Sara smiled. “I want him,” she said, “to paint my portrait.”
“It sounds dangerous—for the artist,” said Christopher. “May I further ask to whom the portrait is to be presented?”
“To the Casa di Corleone on the banks of Lake Como,” said Sara quietly.
Christopher looked enquiring.
“You have never seen the place,” said Sara, “but I have told you about it.”
“You have,” said Christopher.
“One day,” pursued Sara, “you must come with me to see it. Then I think you will understand. I want you to see the courtyard with its [Pg 95]orange trees and fountains, the little naked marble fauns and the nymphs who stand among them glistening in the sunlight. I want you to see the rooms full of shadows and great patches of sunshine; and the gallery with its pictured men and women of the house of Corleone, the dark-eyed haughty women—beauties every one of them—the gay young men and the courtly old ones. I want my portrait to be among them.”
“Yes,” said Christopher.
“It isn’t conceit,” said Sara. “At least I don’t think it is. I love that place, Christopher. It seems as if it belongs to me—had always belonged to me; I mean, long before I knew Giuseppe. I want to think that in the years to come my picture will be hanging there, looking down into the old hall, and that when the door is open I shall catch a glimpse of the courtyard bathed in sunlight, see the gleam of golden oranges and white marble figures, and hear the plashing of the fountain. It’s just a fancy.”
“A fancy,” said Christopher, with a little gesture, “as charming as yourself.”
Sara laughed. “Christopher, I love you. And you ought to have lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth, or, better still, at the Court of France.”
“I appreciate your affection,” said Christopher. “One day when we are both in a mad mood we will run away together, and pick oranges from the trees in the courtyard of Casa di Corleone. [Pg 96]And we will play at ball with them across the fountain—golden balls tossed through a shower of silver. The idea appeals to me.”
“I am glad Casa di Corleone is mine,” said Sara, “though mine with reservations.”
“There was no entail on the estate?” asked Christopher.
“No; I don’t understand the ins and outs of the matter, but it was my husband’s to do with as he pleased.”
“It was thoughtful of the Duca to leave it to you,” said Christopher. “He might have turned it into a home for stray dogs. There are a good many in Italy, aren’t there?”
Sara had scarcely heard him.
“I liked Giuseppe,” she said pensively. “But,” she added, “better when he was alive. I feel slightly irritable now when I think of him. I dislike feeling irritable. It is a prickly sensation and doesn’t suit me.”
“The will?” asked Christopher.
“Exactly. The will.”
“But,” asked Christopher, “you are not thinking of again entering the holy bonds of matrimony?”
“Nothing,” Sara assured him, “is further from my thoughts. But—if I wanted to!—Think of it, Christopher! I lose every centesimo—every single centesimo and Casa di Corleone. [Pg 97]Fancy parting with it! Besides, there is that ridiculous letter.”
She looked at him, mock-tragedy in her eyes.
“I never heard of any letter,” said Christopher.
“Didn’t you?” she asked. “It was almost the most provoking thing Giuseppe did. It roused my curiosity—I am curious. Christopher—with one hand, and took away every possibility of my satisfying it with the other. I can quote the last phrases of the will verbatim.”
She leant back in her chair, her eyes half-closed, and spoke slowly.
“And I further decree that if my wife Sara Mary di Corleone, née de Courcy, shall again enter the married state, that she shall immediately forfeit all the money and estates herein willed to her, and shall have no further claim upon them whatsoever. And that they shall, in the case of her marriage, pass into the possession of my nephew, Antonio di Corleone. And I leave in the hands of my executors—before herein named—a letter, sealed and addressed to my wife the above Sara Mary di Corleone, née de Courcy, which letter, in the event of her marriage, shall be given into her hands one hour precisely after the ceremony has taken place. In the event of her demise without re-marriage, the said letter shall be destroyed unopened by and in the [Pg 98]presence of the executors above-named. Written by me this fourteenth day of January,” etc., etc.
Sara opened her eyes and sat up again.
“It was all signed and witnessed just a year before he died. It’s all horribly correct. Fixed up as firmly as yards of red tape can tie it. And if I marry I lose every centesimo and my beloved Casa di Corleone, and if I don’t marry I shall never see the inside of that letter. Did you ever know such a trying situation for a luxury-loving and curious woman in your life?”
“I fancy,” said Christopher, “that the curiosity does not trouble you greatly.”
“It does not,” she confessed. “But the will! You must allow that is annoying. It puts my mind and my affections in a kind of mental strait-jacket. Every time I see a charming man——”
“Me, for instance,” said Christopher.
“No, mercifully not you,” said Sara. “We are one of the few exceptions that prove the generally accepted rule of the non-existence of platonic friendship between men and women. You are the most delightful combination of friend and father-confessor that ever existed, without—Heaven be praised—a trace of the lover. Where was I before you interrupted?”
“Looking at a charming man,” said Christopher.
“Oh, yes. Whenever I see a charming man [Pg 99]I have to tell myself to be careful, to run no risk of my heart getting in the smallest degree involved. I call up mental pictures of coffers upon coffers—thousands of them—crammed with centesimi. I shut my eyes and see the courtyard, the oranges, and the marble fauns, then I open them and look at the charming man and feel more secure. But I daren’t run the tiniest risk for fear of the consequences. I can’t—” she almost wailed the words, “I can’t even flirt.”
“As your father-confessor,” said Christopher, “I am glad to hear it.”
“But think,” she protested, “what I lose.”
“I think,” said Christopher, “what the man would lose, and have a fellow-feeling for him.”
“You’re very unsympathetic,” said Sara.
“On the contrary, I am very sympathetic—towards the man, who, but for the late Duca’s will, might be wriggling, as I said before, in your silken toils.”
There was a silence.
“Christopher,” said Sara, suddenly and quite seriously, “do you think I shall ever marry again?”
“I most certainly hope you will,” replied Christopher.
“And lose Casa di Corleone and the coffers of centesimi!” she exclaimed. Then again she was back to the serious mood. “Why do you hope so, Christopher?”
For a moment Christopher was silent. Then he spoke.
“Because, my dear, I know you and your capabilities. One day you will realize the gift you have in your possession, and in giving it away you will be one of the happiest women on God’s earth.”
She looked at the fire.
“I wonder,” she mused. “I didn’t give very much to Giuseppe.”
“You liked him,” smiled Christopher.
“He was a dear,” said Sara. “He was extraordinarily considerate, and we were always beautifully polite to each other. But——”
“Exactly,” said Christopher. “But—— One day a force will take you prisoner. Gifts will be showered on you, and you will shower gifts, and that little word of three letters, which stands for so much, will have no place in your vocabulary.”
“And I shall give up everything?” she queried below her breath.
“You will give up everything, because you will have gained everything,” he said.
“How do you know all this?” she asked.
Christopher lifted his shoulders the tiniest fraction.
“There is some knowledge,” he said, “which is born in one, and of which one need no experience in this incarnation. Probably I brought [Pg 101]mine with me from the experience of ages long ago.”
Again there was a silence.
Outside there was a clack of horses’ hoofs, the roll of carriages, the hoot of taxis, all the sounds of London to which one grows so accustomed that one hears them even less than one hears the humming of insects in a sunny garden. And away below the window was the river, gliding grey and noiseless to the sea.
It was a November day with a hint of fog in the atmosphere. A fire was burning in the room in which the two were sitting, and great yellow chrysanthemums like patches of sunlight were in bowls set on the tables.
And in the silence the woman was looking almost for the first time into her heart with a kind of wonder for what she might find hidden there. And the man, whose nature was one of queer self-analysis, was marvelling that his feeling towards the woman near him held nothing but strong affection and a curious interest in her vivid and unusual personality. Perhaps the cause lay in the fact that he had known her from childhood, and seen her gradual development. She had never flashed unexpected and meteor-like across his path.
Suddenly she looked up at him with one of her individual smiles—a smile that lit up her eyes before it found its way to her lips.
“We have wandered a long way from my request,” she said.
“To find an artist for you?” said Christopher. “Oh, I know a man.”
“Yes?” she asked, all interest. “What is he like?”
“Clever,” said Christopher, “pleasant, and—yes, I think you’ll find him interesting. I think those were your three requirements.”
“What is his name?”
“His name,” said Christopher, “is Paul Treherne, and he lives at a studio about ten minutes’ walk from here.”
“Paul Treherne,” she said slowly, dwelling on the words. “I like that name. Is he as nice as his name?”
“I shall leave you to judge,” replied Christopher.
“You had better bring him to see me,” she said. “To-morrow at tea-time will do. You can ring me up in the morning and tell me if he is coming.”
“Very well.” He glanced towards the clock on the mantelpiece, a beautiful little French clock. The hands pointed to half-past three.
“I must go,” he said. “I’ve an appointment at my club. I’ll go round to the studio first.” He got up from his chair.
“Then you can telephone from the club,” [Pg 103]said Sara. “I am not going out again till this evening.”
“Very well.” He held out his hand.
“I hope he will be able to come,” said Sara. “I like his name.”
“You are not to fall in love with him,” said Christopher warningly, “or let him fall in love with you.”
“I wonder,” said Sara.
“Remember Casa di Corleone and the golden oranges.”
“I thought,” she said, “that one day I was to forget them.”
THERE comes a day in the lives of some of us when everything appears as if it were pursuing its ordinary and normal course. We get up in the morning and go through the usual routine—bath, dressing, breakfast, all the little accustomed trivialities which have happened thousands of times in our lives already, and which will doubtless happen thousands of times again. We feel gay or dull as we have felt thousands of times before, and we think, or we don’t think, of the various occupations that will go to make up our day, and we never guess that before sunset we shall have our hand on a door—a door that when opened is to lead the way into clouds of sorrow, or gild our life suddenly with the radiant light of joy. So silently do the fates work, so secret do they keep their intentions from us.
Paul got up that morning as usual at seven o’clock. He had his usual cold bath, which most people would have found uncomfortably chilly on a November morning, but in which Paul found merely a refreshing sting. He rubbed himself dry [Pg 105]while humming an air from “The Arcadians,” and then put on his clothes. He went into his studio and found his usual breakfast of coffee and rolls ready for him. While he ate it he looked into a neat brown pocket-book to refresh his memory as to his engagements for the day.
A small girl was coming to sit for him at ten o’clock. Her name was Marjorie Arnold. She was possessed of personality and a fascinating dimple. He had caught the personality, but the dimple had hitherto eluded him. It was extremely fleeting in its appearance. He hoped to catch it and place it on canvas that morning.
There was only one other entry for the day—“4.15. C.C.” It meant that Christopher Charlton was coming for him that afternoon, and would take him to call on the Duchessa di Corleone, who desired to have her portrait painted.
He felt a certain amount of interest as to the Duchessa’s appearance, but it was only an interest he had felt dozens of times before concerning possible commissions. Christopher had said she was good-looking. So were a good many people who were no use to Paul as subjects. He painted only those who interested him. From the others—and there were many—he politely evaded accepting commissions. He was very much an artist, was Paul. And for this reason partly his income was considerably below the amount his genius warranted. The other reason was that there were [Pg 106]many people who did not consider his portraits to be likenesses.
At ten o’clock the child appeared with the nurse, who was dismissed for a couple of hours, and armed with brushes and palette Paul set to work to catch the fleeting dimple.
The child—she was five years old—was in a solemn mood. Smiles, and with them the dimple, had temporarily vanished. She was a quaint little thing with red hair and freckles, and a fascinating ugliness generally termed the beauté de diable.
Paul told her half a dozen stories, including “The Three Bears”, “The Frog Prince”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Stute Little Fish.” But neither the squeakiness of the little bear, the faithlessness of the princess, nor the sufferings of the whale when the shipwrecked mariner danced hornpipes in his inside had any effect on the dimple.
“Suppose,” said Paul at last, “that you tell me a story.”
The face was even more solemn.
“I don’t know one.”
“Make up one,” suggested Paul.
There was the ghost of a smile, then solemnity. The flash of hope Paul had experienced died away.
“Onst upon a time,” she began gravely, “vere was a little dog an’ a little duck. An’ vey grewed wings, an’ vey flewed up an’ up an’ up to heaven to God.”
There was a pause for effect.
“What a height,” said Paul admiringly, watching her face. “What happened next?”
“When vey got vere,” went on the voice solemnly, “you bet vey wanted to see round. But God said, ‘Not to-day, I guess I’m busy. It’s my last day up here.’ It was. ’Cos ve next day—God died. Isn’t vat a nice story?”
No trace of a dimple. Paul was exasperated.
“Not a bit a nice story,” he said sternly. “And God couldn’t die.”
She put her head on one side and looked at him.
“Well, not weally, of course. But ve little dog an’ ve little duck had never seen anybody die, an’ vey wanted to. So God showed them.” She was laughing at him now in childish triumph, a very imp of mischief.
“Eureka!” cried Paul. And his brush flew to the canvas. Such are the trials and triumphs of portrait painters.
“Come and look at it,” said Paul after ten minutes.
She scrambled down from the chair and platform and came round. A small mocking face of pure wickedness looked at her from the canvas. Her own.
“Do you see it?” said Paul, pointing at it with his brush. “And but for your profane little story there would never have been exactly that expression on your face. We wait for our moments, we artists, and we catch them—sometimes. And [Pg 108]now,” he continued, “you can have a stick of chocolate and brown your face up to the eyebrows with it. I have finished your portrait, and therefore done with you. I don’t care what happens to you now.”
That was Paul. During the time of painting he sought for intimate knowledge of his subjects. Every tiniest characteristic, every fleeting expression, were noted and stored up in his memory. He could almost have told you their life history from his minute observation of faces. He knew his subjects as few of their intimate friends knew them. He guessed their hidden secrets with a power that was almost uncanny—secrets known only to their own souls—and put the secrets on his canvas. And it was for this reason that many people did not consider the portraits to be likenesses. He painted the real person, not merely the mask they wore to the world at large.
This fact had been particularly emphasized in his portrait of a certain statesman—one Lord St. Aubyn. The statesman has nothing to do with the rest of this story, but the incident as far as Paul is concerned is interesting.
St. Aubyn was a man who was much before the public, and no less than five portraits of him had been commissioned by different societies as a token of their personal gratitude. Four of these, but for the individuality of technique, might have been replicas [Pg 109]one of the other, and gave instant satisfaction alike to donors and public.
They showed a man with regular features and deep-set eyes, leaning to the accepted military type, a resolute mouth, and a certain air of distinction and command. One felt that a sculptor of the “classic convention” would have expressed the type even more admirably. Reserve was there, but with no hint of mystery or evasion; intellectuality, but little imagination.
The fifth portrait by Paul was, one would have said, of another man. It was a picture that seemed alive with a strange and slightly repellent magnetism, for the eyes smiled at a stranger with a baffling mockery; they seemed to invite and yet defy his judgment—to taunt him with his impotence and read the soul behind them.
It had been received on exhibition with a storm of outspoken criticism; while the Benevolent Trustees who had commissioned it, though refraining from audible dissatisfaction, had maintained so eloquent a silence at their private view, glancing at each other with liftings of eyebrows and pursing of lips, that Paul had flung round upon them and relieved their embarrassment by declaring the contract to be null and void. No reasons were asked for or given; the action was taken as a tacit admission of failure. Yet Paul himself had seemed not ill-satisfied, and had met the chaff which had [Pg 110]greeted him from many of his circle with equanimity.
Landor, one of the circle, whose portrait of St. Aubyn in the previous Academy had been hailed as a most masterly piece of work, had ventured a serious protest.
“My dear fellow,” he had said one evening, “you’re letting your imagination play tricks with you. It’s becoming an absolute disease. I made a most careful study of the man—made him give me innumerable sittings, and I pledge you my word that I put everything into the face that I could find. You had three sittings, and God only knows what you’ve put there.”
Paul had smoked for a few moments in silence.
“Perhaps you’ve hit it,” he had said. “I’ve nothing to say against your ‘Portrait of a rising Statesman.’ It’s a fine piece of work. But you know all about the Factories Sanitation Amendment Act, and I can read Sub-section Ten in your handling of the chin. Now I don’t read the papers, and I know nothing of the man. I tried to get at him and he shut the door in my face. Yet something came through the keyhole and the cracks by the hinges, and I have painted that. And, as you say, God only knows what I’ve put in his face; I don’t. And in spite of that—or perhaps because of it—what I’ve put there happens to be the truth.”
“But what have you done with the picture?” Landor had asked. “The Benevolent refused it, didn’t they?”
“Now you’re getting coarse,” had been Paul’s reply. “We agreed to differ as to its suitability.”
“Then where is it?”
“In St. Aubyn’s study, I believe,” had been the careless reply.
“He bought it, then?”
“I gave it to him.”
Landor had looked at Paul, and had refrained from putting further questions. There had been an expression in Paul’s face which might have made them appear an impertinence.
The gift of the picture had come about in rather a curious way.
Paul never let his sitters see unfinished work, and St. Aubyn had left town immediately after the third sitting, and had not returned till the exhibition was over. Then he had gone to Paul’s studio and had seen the picture. He had made one remark, but that was eloquent.
“How did you find out?” he had said.
Paul had looked at him, and the next moment the mask had been on again, and he had been talking business.
“You’ve sold this portrait, haven’t you?” he had asked.
“Unfortunately not,” Paul had replied. “It [Pg 112]seems to give offence to your numerous admirers.”
“Then, if you will allow me, I should like to become the purchaser,” had been the reply.
Paul had looked at him.
“It’s not for sale,” he had said.
St. Aubyn had bowed and taken up his hat without so much as looking disappointed.
“But I’ll send it round to your house to-morrow,” Paul had said.
St. Aubyn had refused. He had talked polite platitudes regarding the value of the work.
“Now you’re talking Stock Exchange,” Paul had told him. “The latest marked quotation is absolutely nil. No one will look at it. As a piece of property it is worthless. As a revelation——” he had stopped.
St. Aubyn had smiled. “I deal in revelations—professionally,” he said.
That had told Paul the secret he had already guessed.
“What a head-line for the evening papers,” he had said whimsically. “‘A Peer’s Secret! Threatened Exposure by Eminent Artist!’ But I’m not a blackmailer, and I don’t take hush-money. The picture is yours or no one’s.”
They had argued a little more. At last St. Aubyn had taken it.
“And about the inscription?” It had been Paul’s parting shot. “From a painter to a——?”
St. Aubyn had shaken his head.
“Experience is against endorsements, however cryptic, on secret documents,” he had said. “Sooner or later the cipher is sure to be read.”
And he had gone away, leaving Paul the sole possessor of his secret, a secret which Paul had summed up in one brief sentence addressed to a Chinese idol on his mantelpiece.
“The man, God help him, is a poet.”
A month later he had received a small volume of poems addressed in a hand in which he had already received three short notes agreeing to sittings. The verses—true poetry—were written under a nom de plume. What St. Aubyn’s reason was for keeping his poetical talent a secret from the world Paul never knew. The volume came to him in silence from the author; he respected the silence, attempting no word of thanks. And the secret his insight had wrested from the man went with other secrets somewhere away in the hidden recesses of his mind, while his work alone absorbed him.
He never pursued his knowledge of men and women further. It sufficed—or seemed to suffice him—to portray that knowledge on canvas, and leave it for those to read who had the heart to do so. As he had passed before among men and women of varied nationalities, making no real friends, so he passed now among varied types, noting them, painting them, and dismissing them, still making no friend. The lonely reserve he had [Pg 114]gained in his wanderings pursued him now. He could not throw it off. Barnabas and Dan were nearer true friendship with him than any, and more because they had silently accepted him for their friend than from any advance on his part. It seemed that he could make none. The solitude of the plains, the loneliness of big spaces, seemed to have claimed his spirit.
And so he painted portraits, from statesmen to small girls, gaining intimate knowledge of them, while no one yet had learnt to know the real Paul.
It was very much later in the day, long after Marjorie had departed led by an indignant nurse muttering to herself regarding the carelessness of “them artists,” for not only Marjorie’s face, but her best white dress was covered with various smears of brown chocolate—it was long after this that Paul looked once more at his pocket-book. He looked at it to make sure that the hour Christopher would arrive for him was four-fifteen, and not four o’clock. The former was there plainly inscribed, written by Paul with a small gold pencil.
There were just two entries for that day—Friday, November 27th, “M.A. 10 o’clock” and “4.15 o’clock. C.C.” Little did Paul think as he looked at it that he would treasure that small page as one would treasure one’s passage to heaven.
Christopher arrived at the studio punctually to the second, and found Paul ready for him. The [Pg 115]two turned into Oakley Street and came down towards the Embankment. It was already past sunset, and the houses and river were shrouded in a soft mist. They reached the house near Swan Walk and went up the steps.
“The Duchessa di Corleone at home?” asked Christopher of the footman who opened the door.
“Will you come this way, sir,” was the answer, and he led them up the wide shallow stairs. He threw open a door.
Paul saw a room of pale lavenders, with the chrysanthemums like patches of sunlight. A woman rose from a chair by the fire and came forward to greet them. The window was behind her as she came forward, and the room being in twilight he could not see her face distinctly, but he saw the outlines of her graceful figure, and caught the glint of her red-brown hair.
She held out her hand.
“It is very charming of you to come and see me, Mr. Treherne,” she said. “Pietro, the lights.”
Paul heard the sound of three or four tiny clickings near the door, and the room became full of a soft mellow light. Had the light been a trifle brighter, or her voice a shade less natural, the whole thing might have verged on the theatrical. As it was, it was simply a revelation to Paul as, for the first time, he saw the Duchessa di Corleone.
She stood before him smiling—a smile that just lit up her eyes and trembled on her mouth. He [Pg 116]saw that her skin was smooth like ivory, that her lips were crimson like wine beneath oiled silk, that her hair was the colour of a chestnut newly wrested from its sheath.
All this Paul saw almost without realizing it. For suddenly his heart heard a tune—one that is played silently throughout the ages, and to most of us the hearing of the tune comes slowly and gradually, a note at a time. But to a few—as to Paul—it comes suddenly, played in full melody. He felt vaguely that he had been waiting for that tune all his life, listening for it on the plains, in the silence of the night under the stars.
But he merely bowed and said in the most ordinary and conventional voice in the world:
“It was very good of you to ask me to come and see you.”
For Paul did not yet know the meaning of the tune. In his lonely life he had never before even heard an imitation of it. And because the music was very strange and very beautiful he listened to it with something like awe.
And then he heard Christopher’s voice.
“I ought to have told you, Sara, that Mr. Treherne is an artist of strange moods, and that sometimes he refuses—in the most polite and diplomatic way, of course—to accept commissions.”
The Duchessa looked at Paul.
“I don’t think Mr. Treherne will refuse to paint my portrait. At least I hope not.”
“I shall be honoured to paint it,” Paul replied.
The words were conventional. Since he intended to accept the commission it was very nearly the only phrase he could have used, yet there was something in his utterance of the words that seemed just to lift them from the commonplace. Perhaps it was the direct way in which he spoke them. Paul had generally a very direct manner of speech.
Anyhow, Sara glanced at him, and an indefinable something in his eyes caused an odd little movement in her heart. The room in which they were sitting seemed suddenly brighter, the chrysanthemums a more beautiful colour, the logs on the fire more than usually crackly and pleasant. For so it is that two people who are complete strangers to each other sometimes meet and in some subtle way, and without realizing it at the time, the whole world has altered for them. And the invisible gods laughed softly, and the grim old fates smiled, and drew two threads of their weaving, which had hitherto had nothing to do with each other, a little closer together.
Before Paul left the house on the Embankment it was arranged that the Duchessa should come to his studio the following morning at eleven o’clock for her first sitting.
PRINCESS PIPPA AWAKES
MISS Mason threw a large shovelful of coal on to the fire, then turned to Barnabas, who was sitting astride on a chair, his arms resting on its back, and looking at her with a slight twinkle of amusement in his eyes.
“It’s all very well for you to smile, Barnabas,” she said energetically, “but if my model hadn’t failed me, do you suppose for one moment that I should allow you to be sitting there wasting my morning, and incidentally wasting your own?”
“No waste, dear Aunt Olive,” said Barnabas imperturbably. He had calmly given her the title one day, and it had been adopted by the five other artists of the courtyard. It had pleased Miss Mason immensely, though she occasionally pretended to look upon it as an impertinence. “No waste, dear Aunt Olive. The enormous benefit I invariably derive from your conversation is of incalculably greater advantage to me than the time I should otherwise spend in dabbing paint on canvas. The canvas is always destroyed at the end of two hours, unless the subject happens to be a commission. [Pg 119]Your conversation abides for ever engraven on my memory.”
“Barnabas, you’re a fool,” retorted Miss Mason. “Besides, if you were not here I should paint a still life.”
“Oranges against a green or blue earthenware jar—I know,” said Barnabas sorrowfully. “Dear aunt, cui bono? You have dozens of oranges already on canvas, to say nothing of the blue and green jars. You could paint them in your sleep. Why make another representation of them?”
“Don’t mock at my work,” said Miss Mason severely. “You have a lifetime before you, and can afford to waste mornings. I cannot. Remember my age.”
“I’ll try to do so, since you wish it,” returned Barnabas. “It is, however, the one thing I invariably forget.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Mason. “However, if you won’t go, where is my knitting? I can’t sit entirely idle.”
She took a bundle of white woolwork from a side table. Two steel knitting-needles were stuck into it. She sat down in the big oak chair by the fire, and in a moment the needles were clicking busily. She looked more like one of the three Fates than ever. And somewhere away in a back street a scrap of humanity must have heard the clicking needles, and a thread of white wool must have stretched out invisibly to draw it towards the [Pg 120]hands that held them. Though at the moment Miss Mason knitted serenely unconscious of the fact.
Barnabas watched her in silence.
“For the poor?” he asked politely, after a couple of minutes.
“Babies,” said Miss Mason shortly. “They get little enough welcome, poor mites; but knowing that a white jacket with a bit of blue ribbon run through it is waiting for them, helps the mothers to look forward to their advent with a certain degree of pleasure. It’s curious, the effect of little things.”
“I should hardly have thought——” began Barnabas.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” interrupted Miss Mason. “You’ve never had a baby. Neither have I, for the matter of that.”
She looked up and caught Barnabas’ eyes fixed on her.
“Barnabas, you’re disgraceful!” she exclaimed. “I never know what I say when I begin to talk to you.”
“Therein lies the charm of your conversation,” he assured her. “It is always so unpremeditated.”
“Huh!” said Miss Mason, and she returned to her knitting.
She looked exactly the same as she had looked six months previously, except that there was a new and curious radiance about her eyes. They looked [Pg 121]as if they were absorbing happiness, and giving it forth again in actual light. Also her black dress had given place to a grey one.
The style being unprocurable at any modern shop, she had engaged a sewing-woman to make it for her. The woman was firmly persuaded that Miss Mason was quite mad, but finding her an extremely generous customer, she was perfectly ready to seam grey cashmere into any pattern Miss Mason might require. She had once gone so far as to announce that the costume was picturesque. Something in her manner as she made the statement had annoyed Miss Mason.
“Picturesque! Nothing of the kind!” Miss Mason had retorted. “It is serviceable and comfortable, and suited to a woman of my age. Some women of sixty make fools of themselves in a couple of yards of silk nineteen inches wide. I make a fool of myself in twelve yards of cashmere forty inches wide. That’s all the difference. But I prefer my own folly.” And the sewing-woman had retired crestfallen.
“I saw Paul yesterday,” remarked Barnabas after a moment.
“I like him,” said Miss Mason succinctly.
“So do I,” returned Barnabas. “He is so refreshingly clean. He always looks as if he had just completed a toilette in which baths, aromatic soap, and hair-brushes had played an important part.”
“Yet he manages to escape looking shiny,” said Miss Mason.
“We all take baths,” went on Barnabas thoughtfully; “at least, I hope so. But with the majority of people one has to take the fact of their scrupulous cleanliness more on faith than by sight. With Paul it is so extraordinarily apparent.”
“What is he doing at the moment?” asked Miss Mason.
“Painting the portrait of a certain Duchessa di Corleone. I happened to see the lady leaving the studio. She is remarkably beautiful. Paul has the devil’s own luck. I have to spend my time painting middle-aged women with hair groomed by their maids till they look like barbers’ blocks, or pink-cheeked girls with a perpetual smile.”
“Don’t paint them if you dislike doing it,” said Miss Mason.
“Dear Aunt Olive, I must.”
“No such thing. You have an excellent private income.”
“I grant you that. It is, however, not the point. I am a portrait painter. It is my métier. To be a portrait painter one must paint portraits. The two things are inseparable.”
“Paint models, then,” said Miss Mason. “Choose your subject.”
“It is not the same thing,” replied Barnabas gravely. “A model who is paid for sitting does not rank with a creature who pays one to immortalize [Pg 123]their material features on canvas. To say I have a model coming to sit for me this morning is nothing. To say the Lady Mayoress of So-and-So comes to my study at eleven o’clock this morning is quite another matter. At first your fellow-artists say, ‘Pure swank on his part.’ But when eleven o’clock arrives, and with it the Lady Mayoress in a gold coach with four horses and velvet-breeched lackeys with cocked hats—why, then the whole thing assumes totally different proportions. I am regarded in a new light. I become a person of importance among my fellow-men. I gaze upon a double chin, boot-button eyes, and a smile that won’t come off, enduring mental torture thereby, in order that later I may strut from my studio with an air of swagger, and hear myself spoken of as ‘John Kirby, the portrait painter.’ And once more I ask you, how can one attain to the distinction of portrait painter if one does not paint portraits?”
“Barnabas, you’re ridiculous,” said Miss Mason. “You talk of nothing seriously, not even your art which you love. But if you could be serious for ten minutes, I’d like to ask you about a scheme I have in my mind.”
There was a little hesitancy in the last words. Barnabas looked up quickly.
“I’m attending,” he said gravely.
“You know,” said Miss Mason quietly, “that for a woman who spends as little as I do I am very rich.”
Barnabas nodded. “I thought you must have a good bit of money,” he said, glancing round the studio.
Miss Mason followed the direction of his glance.
“That was rather—what you would call a splurge—on my part,” said Miss Mason. “Fact is, I have about fifteen thousand a year. If I spend two in the year it will be all I shall do.”
“Yes,” said Barnabas gravely.
“Of course,” went on Miss Mason, growing gruffer as she became more in earnest, “I’ve told you how much I care for art. Suppose I inherited the love of it from my father. See now, it’s little use loving it if one doesn’t get the chance to work when one’s young—I mean as far as one’s own creation is concerned. Get a lot of pleasure dabbing paint on canvas, making pictures of oranges, and drawing charcoal heads. But the time’s past for me to do anything serious in that line. Glad you’re honest enough not to contradict me. Been thinking, though, that there must be others who would like the chance. Care so much myself, would like to help them.” She stopped.
“A ripping idea,” said Barnabas warmly.
“Thought,” went on Miss Mason, “that if five thousand pounds a year went for that purpose it’d be something—give twenty would-be artists the chance, anyhow. Each would-be artist to have an income of two hundred and fifty pounds for five [Pg 125]years while they are studying—longer if you thought well. Then another to take their place. Want them to be people who’d really care. Love the work. Want you to help me. Don’t rush the matter. If you can find the right people let me know. You’re a young man. Would like to appoint you as my executor in the scheme. You could carry on the work. Would like, though, to see it started.” Miss Mason looked anxiously at Barnabas. The little speech had cost her a great effort. It was the outcome of the thought of many weeks.
Barnabas met her look. “There’s nothing I should like better than to help you in the scheme,” he said warmly. “It’s fine. By Jingo! Twenty men to have their chance every five years. Think of it!”
“Am ready to include women too,” said Miss Mason, “as long as”—she continued, getting gruffer than ever—“they aren’t giving up other duties to it. Might find some women glad to have a chance too. Would have liked it myself. You go about among people. Can let me know later. Don’t rush it.”
“It’s fine,” said Barnabas again. “Aunt Olive, you’re a brick!”
The boyish compliment brought the colour to Miss Mason’s cheeks.
“Glad you like the idea,” she said.
A sudden gust of wind tore round the studio, and a torrential shower, half of sleet, half of hail, beat down upon the skylight.
“Abominable weather!” said Miss Mason, clicking her knitting-needles furiously. She did not even now guess how near to her the scrap of humanity had been drawn by the thread of white wool.
“We have much for which to be thankful,” began Barnabas piously, “a blazing fire, a roof——”
His further reflections were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“See who it is, will you?” said Miss Mason. “Sally is busy. If it is a beggar send him or her away. I don’t encourage them.”
Barnabas grinned broadly, knowing the untruth of the statement. He heaved himself off the chair and went towards the door.
There was a moment’s parley. Then he returned, followed by a small and weird figure. Its sex was indistinguishable. A man’s coat frayed and torn reached to the top of a pair of patched boots many sizes too large for the feet they covered, a man’s slouched hat hid nearly the whole of the face.
“It says it is a model,” announced Barnabas. “Its language is a mixture of French and broken English.”
Miss Mason let her knitting fall.
“A model!” she exclaimed, looking at the odd creature.
The figure in the old coat saw the fire. It made an instant dart towards it.
“Ah!” The sigh was one of intense satisfaction. The hands, hidden by the frayed coat-sleeves, were held out towards the leaping flames.
“You’re cold?” asked Miss Mason quickly.
The figure nodded its head.
“Who sent you to me?” she demanded.
“Personne. But I know Keetie Jenkins ’as been model for you. She tell me you ask ’er when you bring ze baby ze white jacket. Mrs. Jenkins ’as taken Keetie away, so I tink I do instead of Keetie.”
“Huh,” grunted Miss Mason. “Haven’t seen you yet. So the Jenkinses have gone, have they? That accounts for Kitty failing me this morning. They might have taken the trouble to let me know.”
The small figure by the fire raised its head quickly. Miss Mason and Barnabas had a glimpse of a pointed chin and a scarlet mouth.
“Mrs. Jenkins she is too un’appy. You see Georgie ’e is dead.”
“Georgie! Never heard of him. Who was he?” demanded Miss Mason.
“’Er little boy.” The reply came seriously. “’E die of doing too many lessons. Mrs. Jenkins say Keetie not die zat way. She ’as gone to ze country, where ze ’spectors not so ’ticular, she say.”
“A unique death,” remarked Barnabas gravely. “I don’t fancy many little boys die of that complaint. Have you ever posed before?”
“Mais, oui.” The head was nodded vigorously. “Sall I pose for you?”
“Don’t know what you’re like yet,” said Miss Mason.
“There is a proverb, O infant,” supplemented Barnabas, “which instructs one never to buy a pig in a poke. Acting on that principle, it is impossible for us to decide on a model attired as you are. Therefore——” he broke off.
“Oh, my tings,” she nodded gravely. “I take zem off.”
The figure tossed the slouched hat on to a chair. It was followed by the coat and the boots, which later were kicked off, disclosing bare feet small and well-arched.
There stood before them a slip of a girl-child, in a faded green frock, black hair cut square on the forehead and at the nape of the neck, after the fashion of some mediæval page, the face white, with pointed chin and geranium-coloured mouth, eyes grey with pupils large and very black. She might have been about nine years old.
She raised her hands to the back of her neck, unfastening mysterious strings. Before Miss Mason was aware of her intention, she slid suddenly out of her clothes and stood on the hearthrug before them, naked as the day on which she was born.
“Bien?” she queried.
Miss Mason gave a faint shriek.
“Barnabas, turn your back and leave the studio [Pg 129]at once. I never paint a nude model. It is against all my principles to do so. Put on your clothes again at once, child. Barnabas, stop laughing. I know you’re perfectly brazen on the subject. Remember, in spite of my age, I’m an unmarried woman.”
Barnabas picked up a piece of scarlet silk drapery from the model stand and flung it round the child, who was looking from him to Miss Mason in astonishment. When she was enveloped in its folds he spoke.
“Miss Mason, my child, is not used to seeing little girls in their birthday attire. It surprised her. She has a penchant for petticoats and frocks, to say nothing of stockings. She might, however, be persuaded to paint you draped as you now are. You look, by the way, uncommonly like a scarlet poppy.”
The child looked gravely at Barnabas.
“She not paint se altogezzer?” she demanded.
“Precisely. She does not paint what the immortal Trilby termed ‘the altogether,’ which phrase you have just made your own.”
The child nodded her head.
“Mais, oui. Some peoples zey do not. I hear Monsieur Thiery say one time it toute à fait extraordinaire zat some peoples ’shamed to look at ze greatest ’andiwork of God. I did not know, me, zat ze peoples who live in ze vrais ateliers zey tink it shame.”
“We all have our little prejudices,” said Barnabas [Pg 130]lightly. “Naked little girls is apparently one of Miss Mason’s.”
He smiled whimsically at that lady.
“Shall we paint this infant?” he asked her. “Can the woolly jackets be put on one side, and may I fetch my palette?”
“If you like,” said Miss Mason shortly. “It’s nice of you not to laugh at my prejudices, Barnabas.”
“There are moments when I rather like them,” he assured her. And he vanished from the studio.
When he returned it was to find Miss Mason kneeling by a low chair on which the child was seated. The red silk was off the shoulders, and Miss Mason was sponging an ugly bruise on the child’s back. She turned her head as Barnabas entered.
“Look at this,” she said in a low, indignant voice.
“Who did it?” asked Barnabas.
“Some brute she calls Mrs. Higgins.” Miss Mason’s voice augured ill for that lady, had she been at hand.
“Mrs. ’iggins drunk,” said the child patiently. “She often drunk. Ver’ drunk last night.”
Miss Mason put some ointment on the bruise, and covered it with a piece of soft linen. Then she wrapped the red silk again round the child. She sat down in the big chair and drew the child to her.
“Now, little one,” she said, speaking in French, “tell us all about it.”
“Oh!” cried the child rapturously, “you speak French.” Her face had gone crimson with excitement.
“Tell us everything,” said Miss Mason.
It came then, an odd little story, scrappily told. Her name was Pippa. She had lived in Paris with Madame Barbin. Madame Barbin washed clothes till they were white—oh, but very white. Pippa had posed for artists. She loved Madame Barbin, but she had died—a year, perhaps two years, ago. Madame Fournier had taken care of her then. She did not like Madame Fournier, who was cross. Then Madame Fournier had brought her in a ship to England. Perhaps that was a year ago. Anyhow, it was cold weather. They had lived in different houses, and finally at Mrs. Higgins’ house, and Pippa had posed for different artists in London. Some time in the summer, Madame Fournier had gone away, leaving Pippa with Mrs. Higgins. She had not come back. Mrs. Higgins was angry—very angry, according to Pippa. She beat her occasionally, but not always very badly. Bruises were likely to be seen on one who poses for “the altogether.” Lately, however, Mrs. Higgins had been too angry to remember that fact. Hence the bruises of the previous evening. In reply to further questioning it was found that Pippa knew no one she had ever called father or mother. There were only Madame Barbin, Madame Fournier, Mrs. Higgins, and the names of quite a good many well-known artists [Pg 132]for whom she had posed. She also stated that she washed herself every morning, though Mrs. Higgins said it was “un’ealthy.” And she washed and dried her underclothes when Mrs. Higgins was away at the public-houses, where she spent most of her time.
“Yes,” Miss Mason nodded. “The child is clean, at all events.”
And then suddenly at the end of the recital, Pippa swayed a little sideways, and if Barnabas had not sprung forward she would have fallen on the hearthrug. As it was, she lay in his arms, her face dead white against the scarlet folds of silk. In a word, Pippa had fainted.
Barnabas laid her flat on the hearthrug and opened the door and windows. Miss Mason fetched brandy and a large cut-glass bottle of smelling-salts, which she held to the child’s nose, making a curious clucking sound with her tongue, and lamenting that there were no feathers handy to burn. But presently, in spite of the lack of feathers, Pippa opened her eyes.
Then Barnabas put a question.
“When did you last have food?” he asked, watching her.
Pippa put up a small hand to her forehead and pushed back the dark hair.
“Yesterday,” she said feebly. “Bread and treacle”—she rolled the r’s in a funny way—“at dinner-time.”
“And nothing since then!” cried Miss Mason in horror. “Oh! that Mrs. Higgins!”
But Barnabas was already in the kitchen issuing commands to Sally.
“Bread, Sally, quick. Cut it in small pieces and put them in a saucepan with lots of milk. Is there a good fire? Yes. Ever made bread and milk in your life before?” And Sally flew round.
Ten minutes later Barnabas and Miss Mason were feeding a small famished girl, who was looking at them as if they were gods from another world, and at the bread and milk as if it were the nectar and ambrosia they had brought with them.
And when the blue basin was empty Barnabas lifted Pippa in his arms, and guided by Miss Mason, carried her into the inner room, and laid her like a little broken poppy in Miss Mason’s bed. Together they tucked her in, and saw the white eyelids close slowly over the great grey eyes.
Then they went out into the studio. And Barnabas threw the man’s coat and hat, and the old boots into a corner. The other garments he put on the model stand.
“I shall come back by and by,” he said, “and see how the small creature is getting on.”
He looked in twice during the day to find that she was still asleep. It was after sunset when he came the third time, and it was to find her sitting near the fire eating a delicious brown egg and slices of bread and butter, while Miss Mason was telling [Pg 134]her that most entrancing of fairy tales—“The Sleeping Beauty.”
Barnabas sat down and waited. Every now and then he looked at the child with a puzzled expression in his eyes. Suddenly he threw back his head. He very nearly whistled. Something that had eluded him had been discovered.
The egg and the story were finished. There came a silence.
The child’s eyes wandered round the studio. They lighted on the faded green dress lying on the model stand. A queer little look of sadness that should be foreign to a child’s face crept back into her eyes.
She slid down from her chair, and stood solemnly before Miss Mason.
“I tank you bof ver’ much,” she said, with a quaint air of courtesy. “But now I put on zem tings and go back to Mrs. ’iggins.”
She smiled a brave little smile, sadder than any tears or protests.
Barnabas felt a sudden odd grip at his throat. Miss Mason spoke suddenly and firmly.
“No,” she said, “you are not going back to Mrs. Higgins.”
The child looked at her with wondering eyes.
“You mean——?” she said.
“That you are going to stay here with me,” said Miss Mason decisively. “Barnabas, you must help me to arrange it.”
The child’s face quivered.
“Oh!” she cried, with a laugh that held a sob, “I tink I like dat Princess. She sleep and sleep, and she wake up when ze Prince kiss her, and ze world all ver’ ’appy. And I so ’appy just all ze same, wisout no Prince kiss me.”
And then Barnabas did a queer thing. He put his arm round the child and kissed her lips.
AT THE WORLD’S END
BARELY half an hour after Miss Mason’s sudden decision Barnabas set out for a small and rather unwholesome street somewhere in the direction of the World’s End. It was given by Pippa as the locality in which Mrs. Higgins had her residence.
It was not entirely on Miss Mason’s account that Barnabas was anxious to make further enquiries regarding the child. As he walked along the King’s Road, with its pavement slippery and muddy from the feet of many passers-by, his mind travelled back to memories which Pippa’s face had awakened in him.
They were memories some fourteen or fifteen years old, of the time when he was a young art student. A scene he had almost forgotten came clearly back to him. He saw a big class-room full of easels and men working and smoking. He saw himself, very young, very full of enthusiasm, yet at the moment very full of despair. He saw himself looking with disgust at his own somewhat feeble attempt to reproduce on canvas the figure of the nude model who was standing on the platform before [Pg 137]him. He saw the master coming near, and heard his words. They were few but sarcastic. He had felt that the whole room was listening to them. First an insane desire to sink into the floor had overwhelmed him, then a feeling that he had better take his canvas and brushes and fling them into the river. It had been mere presumption on his part to dream of art as a career. He had seen the other figures in the room through a kind of hazy blur. The voice of the master as he went from easel to easel had come to him as through cotton-wool. He did not notice that almost equally sarcastic remarks were being levelled at the other canvases, and were being received by their owners with indifference or with good-humoured laughter. He had heard the door close presently as the master left the room. Then he heard a voice at his elbow—a curiously musical voice:
“It’s a pity Saltby looks upon sarcasm in the light of instruction in art. He can paint quite decently himself, but he has no more notion of teaching than a tom cat.”
Barnabas remembered that he had turned to look at the speaker, and had seen a dark foreign-looking man standing beside him. The man had looked at him sharply.
“That fellow has worried you,” he said. “They’re just calling rest. Come along out and have a smoke.”
Barnabas remembered following him into the corridor. [Pg 138]He remembered the curious feeling of restful strength the man had given him as they walked up and down together.
“I’m going to give you a bit of advice,” he had said suddenly. “Remember this, that the opinion of one man, even if he happens to be your master, counts for nothing. The moment you touch any art—painting, sculpture, music, or literature—you’re laying yourself open to criticism, and you’ll find any amount of it adverse. Don’t let it discourage you. If you’ve got the inner conviction that you can do something, forge ahead and do it. Don’t be damped by adverse criticism. If you can learn from it, learn; but don’t let it kill the germ of belief in yourself.”
“But can’t one be mistaken in the belief that one can do something?” Barnabas remembered asking.
“If you are mistaken you’ll find it out for yourself,” the man had replied earnestly. “My dear boy, the men who can’t, and never will, do anything are those who are so cocksure of themselves that they are impervious to sarcasm and every adverse criticism under the sun. It simply doesn’t hurt them. It does hurt us. It touches us on the raw. But we’ve got to go on. You felt like chucking the whole thing just now. I’ll be bound it wasn’t exactly that your self-vanity was wounded, but because you felt that it had been utterly presumptuous of you ever to have attempted to lift your eyes to the Immortal Goddess. My dear boy, she loves [Pg 139]men to look at her and worship her, from however far off. It’s those who say they are paying her homage, but who all the time are looking at and worshipping themselves, for whom she has no use. Go on worshipping her. Keep big ideas before you and one day you may get near the foot of her throne. It’s not given to many to touch her knees. But to worship at the foot of the throne is something. Why, even to look at her from afar is worth years of struggle. Saltby keeps one eye on her I grant, but he keeps the other on himself, and it makes him the damned conceited and sarcastic ass he is….”
Barnabas seemed to hear the voice distinctly, to feel the magnetism of the man who had spoken the words so many years ago.
He remembered later in the evening hearing two students speaking of the man.
“Kostolitz is a weird chap,” one had said; “mad as a hatter.”
“Spends half his time like a tramp,” said the other, “going around the country and writing poetry, and the other half in sculpting. Every now and then he takes it into his head to come in here and draw a bit. He says it freshens him up to see beginners on their way to fame.”
Barnabas remembered that Kostolitz had come to him at the end of the morning and had suggested their walking back to Chelsea together. It had been the beginning of their friendship.
The man’s face came persistently before him this evening as he pursued his way towards the World’s End.
Other little speeches of his returned to his mind. “I love colour,” he seemed to hear him saying, “but I can’t work in paints. They aren’t my medium. I want to get to the solid. Give me a lump of clay and I’m happy. It’s nonsense to say there’s only colour in actual coloured things. There is colour in everything—words, music, thoughts—the world’s steeped in colour if you can only see it. Why, man, it may seem odd to you, but people even give me the sense of colour. Perhaps it’s the old Eastern idea of auras, I don’t know. Anyhow, that idea is too mixed up with spiritualism and closed rooms to appeal to me. Give me the open air, the sunshine, flowers, and singing birds. I can believe in fairies, gnomes, the People of the Wind, and the People of the Trees, anything that is of the Spirit of Nature. There they sit together—Nature and Art—the two great goddesses, bless them; and men try to separate Art from Nature. They can’t, man, I tell you they can’t.”
Barnabas could almost see the man’s eyes—passionate grey eyes—fixed on him as he remembered the words. And it was the memory of those eyes that Pippa’s eyes had awakened in him, and with their memory had brought the other scenes before him. The memory had awakened as he had [Pg 141]watched her listening entranced to the story of “The Sleeping Beauty.” He had seen the eyes of his friend Kostolitz looking at him from the small pale face, and suddenly he had seen the whole wonderful likeness the child bore to the man. Kostolitz was dead, had been dead now many years. Had he left behind him this scrap of humanity, holding perhaps a spirit as poetical and intense as his own, to battle with the world? If it were so, for the sake of that friendship, it must be protected. And something told Barnabas that he was not mistaken in his belief.
He turned now into the small dark street. He found the house whose number Pippa had given him, and knocked on the door. It was opened by a large, slatternly woman with a watery eye.
“That you, Pippa?” she exclaimed. “’Ere, you come in, and I’ll give you somethink staying hout like this.”
Then she saw Barnabas. Visions of N.S.P.C.C. inspectors rose suddenly before her mind. Mrs. Higgins quailed inwardly.
“Well?” she asked, and her voice was truculent because her spirit was quaking, “and wot can I do for you, sir?”
“Am I,” asked Barnabas suavely, “addressing Mrs. Higgins?”
“That’s my nime,” replied the lady, arms akimbo.
“I believe,” continued Barnabas, still suavely, [Pg 142]“that you have had charge of a child—a little girl named Pippa.”
“I ’ave,” said Mrs. Higgins defiantly, “and a more hungrateful, huntruthful, little baggage I hain’t never set heyes on. Hif you ’ave hanythink to say about ’er, per’aps you’ll kindly step hinside.”
Barnabas stepped into the small passage. It was ill-smelling, redolent of dirt and boiled cabbage. Mrs. Higgins herself breathed gin. She was, however, at the moment tolerably sober.
“I understand,” said Barnabas, “that she came here with a Madame Fournier.”
Mrs. Higgins blazed. “She did. A French ’uzzy wot took and disappeared last June, leaving me with ’er child. Friend’s child she called it. I know them gimes. Just about as much a friend’s child as Madame ’ad a right to ’er title or ’er ring wot she wore so conspikus, I’ll be bound. Leaving me with the child on me ’ands, wot I kep’ from charity, and never so much has a penny piece to pay for ’er keep but wot she gets from them hartists as she goes to.”
“Then the child,” asked Barnabas, “is no relation of yours?”
“Relation of mine!” cried Mrs. Higgins indignantly and virtuously. “Do yer think hif she belonged to me as I’d allow ’er to be standing naked fer men to look at. I’m a respectable woman, I am, I thanks the Halmighty.” Mrs. Higgins ended with a loud sniff.
Barnabas suddenly felt a sensation of almost physical nausea. He seemed to hear Kostolitz’s voice begging him to leave the place, to get away from the filth of the atmosphere, and above all never to let the child return to it.
“Then,” said Barnabas decisively, “you will no doubt be glad to be relieved from the burden of maintaining her. She will not return here, and she will be provided for.”
Mrs. Higgins gasped at the suddenness of the statement. She felt something like dismay. She saw Pippa’s earnings, which had added largely to her weekly income, disappearing in the distance.
“And ’ow about the hexpense I’ve been put to!” she exclaimed. “Yer don’t feed a growing child for six months fer nothink, and me as kind to ’er as hif I’d been ’er own mother.” Mrs. Higgins began to sob here, moved to tears by the memory of her own tenderness.
Barnabas’ mouth set grimly.
“I think, Mrs. Higgins,” he remarked, “that the less you say about your treatment of the child the better. As far as her keep is concerned her own earnings have no doubt paid you more than adequately for the food you have given her. As however you will lose them in the future——”
He pulled two sovereigns from his pocket.
“Take these,” he said briefly, “and good evening.”
He turned from the house leaving Mrs. Higgins [Pg 144]gaping and astonished. It is a mercy when the Mrs. Higginses of the world can be thus easily disposed of.
Barnabas walked away down the street, marvelling at the fact that man had originally been created by God in His own image.
He went straight back to studio number seven, where he found Miss Mason anxiously awaiting him. He sat down and gave her a brief account of his search and its results, omitting, however, a description of the dirt and smells.
“And so,” he ended, smiling, “you mean to keep this waif?”
“I couldn’t let her go,” said Miss Mason. “Did you see her eyes?”
Barnabas had. But the look in them had hurt him too much for him to care to think about it. So he merely said lightly:
“Where is she now?”
“Asleep on half a dozen cushions and among blankets on the floor of my room. She has had a bath and been wrapped again in that red silk. She’ll have to live in it till I can get her some more clothes. I’ve burnt the others, and put the hat, coat, and boots in the dust hole. In spite of her poor little attempts at cleanliness, one never knows.”
“One does not,” said Barnabas grimly, thinking of the house she had come from. “May I smoke?” he asked.
“Certainly,” said Miss Mason. She liked the scent of tobacco in her studio. She felt it to be part and parcel of Bohemia.
There was a long silence.
Miss Mason was thinking of the child lying asleep in the next room. She had an odd feeling that the Fates had sent Pippa directly to her that she might in a way atone to herself for her own lonely childhood by making this morsel of humanity happy. She had already begun to weave the dreams that are woven by fairy godmothers.
And Barnabas’ thoughts had again travelled back to his friend Kostolitz, and the thoughts made his eyes grave and a little sad.
“I am going over to Paris to-morrow,” he said suddenly, breaking the silence.
“Yes?” queried Miss Mason.
“You know that oil-portrait that hangs by my mantelpiece?” he asked. “Doesn’t a likeness strike you?”
Miss Mason looked up. She felt suddenly a little anxious.
“Of course,” she said slowly. “I never thought of it before. It’s the image of Pippa.”
“I saw it when I came back into the studio and found her at tea.”
There was a pause.
“Who is the portrait?” asked Miss Mason.
“A man I knew long ago,” said Barnabas. [Pg 146]“His name was Philippe Kostolitz. He was a strange man—an Hungarian. He was a true vagabond, yet certainly of good birth. I knew nothing of his people, if he had any. He was half gipsy and wholly artist. The statue of the little faun in my garden is his work. He gave it to me. We were great friends.”
“Ah,” said Miss Mason softly. “And where is he now?”
Barnabas made a swift sign of the cross. He had been baptized a Catholic, and in spite of his present rather Pagan views regarding life he had retained this beautiful custom. There was an innate instinct of reverence in Barnabas.
“In Paradise I hope. He was killed nine years ago in a railway accident. It was a horribly prosaic ending for a man whose whole nature was the essence of poetry.”
Miss Mason was silent. After a moment she spoke.
“Then you think that Pippa——” she broke off. She was looking straight at Barnabas.
“I don’t know,” he said bluntly. “The likeness is extraordinary. In Paris I might find out something from the artists for whom she posed. I know one or two of them personally.”
“Thank you,” said Miss Mason. “The journey, of course, will be my affair.”
“That,” said Barnabas, “is pure nonsense. If Pippa—you see, Kostolitz was my friend.”
“But I wish it,” said Miss Mason. And something in her voice made Barnabas give way.
Ten minutes or so later he left the studio.
Before Miss Mason put out her light that night she went across to the heap of cushions and blankets and looked at Pippa. She touched her cheek gently with one wrinkled hand. It was long before Miss Mason slept. She lay awake listening to the regular sound of the child’s breathing.
The morning, with the variability of English weather, broke still and sunny, a touch of frost in the air.
Barnabas looked in at Miss Mason’s studio before he left for Paris.
He found that lady sitting in her chair knitting. Pippa was curled up on the hearthrug, the red silk tightly swathing her slim body. A pair of shoes and stockings of Sally’s, many sizes too big for her, covered her feet. She was watching Miss Mason with the eyes of an adoring puppy.
She scrambled to her feet as she saw Barnabas.
“Ah!” she cried, a note of great pleasure in her voice. “It is ze so sunny Monsieur. I wis you good morning.”
Barnabas came over and stood on the hearthrug.
“I’m just off,” he said.
“I knew you’d look in,” said Miss Mason. “I waited for you before going out to buy garments.”
“Going away?” asked Pippa, looking at him [Pg 148]with troubled eyes. She had had experience of people who went away and did not return.
“Only for a few days, and mainly on business which concerns you, little one,” he replied.
Pippa gave a relieved sigh.
“Come back ver’ quick,” she said. And then suddenly: “What is your name?”
He laughed. “You must call me Barnabas,” he said.
She nodded her head. “Monsieur Barnabas,” she said slowly. Then she turned to Miss Mason “What sall I call you?” she asked.
A sudden little tender thought sprang into Miss Mason’s mind. She put it aside.
“You can call me,” she said rather gruffly, “Aunt Olive.”
Again the child nodded her head. “Aunt Oleeve and Monsieur Barnabas, c’est bon.” She looked an odd little elfin figure as she stood there watching them.
“I must be off,” said Barnabas. “I’ve no time to lose.”
Pippa came to the door with him.
“Bon voyage,” she cried, waving her hand. And then suddenly she saw the marble faun in the next garden.
“Ah!” she cried. “Quel beau petit garçon!” She darted down one path and up another.
The last thing Barnabas saw, as he looked back before leaving the courtyard, was a poppy-coloured [Pg 149]figure standing in the wintry sunshine beside a white marble faun. The child had her arms familiarly round the faun’s neck.
He painted that picture later when the days were warmer. It was a picture that was to travel far away from England, and it was to keep alive in the heart of a woman the memory of a secret—a secret of three weeks of glorious happiness and a strange regret—a secret known only to herself and to three other living people.
AND so Barnabas departed to Paris in the attempt to find some clue regarding the scrap of humanity which the Fates had led to Miss Mason’s studio. It was not that Miss Mason cared in the smallest degree what her parentage was. She was just a lonely little soul needing love, and so Miss Mason had taken her into her arms and into her big heart. Dan had once said of Miss Mason, and only shortly after making her acquaintance:
“I veritably believe that woman has the biggest hands, the biggest feet, and the biggest heart of any woman in Christendom.” And the more he knew of her the more convinced he felt of the truth of his statement.
But even a big heart is not entirely sufficient guarantee for taking possession of a small girl. One can no more pick one up and keep it than one can pick up a valuable ornament and place it on one’s mantelpiece. At any rate, if one did there would always be the uncomfortable feeling that the rightful owner might one day walk casually up to it and say:
“That is mine.”
Barnabas understood this, and therefore he had gone off to Paris to see if there were any likelihood of a rightful owner turning up one day to claim Pippa. It was wiser that Miss Mason should not get too attached to her possession before he had made sure on that point. Also there was the memory of Philippe Kostolitz.
But while he was gone Miss Mason petted the child to her heart’s content, bought dainty undergarments and charming frocks, and played that delightful game of “mother,” which is a game all women have played throughout eternity at some time in their lives, even if it is only played with a rag doll wrapped in a shawl.
And while she was playing, and while Pippa was enjoying the game almost as much as she was and revelling in frilly petticoats, long black stockings, buckled shoes, and soft green frocks—green seemed to belong to her, for some reason, as a matter of course—the other five artists of the courtyard were living their lives, painting their pictures, smoking their pipes, and being happy or miserable according to their moods.
And it is perhaps safe to say, though a great pity to have to say it, that Jasper’s mood of the last six months had been one of utter depression.
At first, when he had walked away from the ugly little house in Chiswick, he had felt—in spite of the shock he had received at Bridget’s unexpected attitude towards him—a certain exultation [Pg 152]in the thought that duty would never compel him to take that route again. He told himself that he rejoiced in his freedom, but after a day or so he had found it necessary to emphasize that point to himself with a certain degree of insistence. Phrases she had used began to return to his mind at odd moments. In the midst of painting an angel’s wing, or trying to concentrate on the beatific expression of some saint’s face, he would suddenly hear her voice:
“I wanted to ask your help, to tell you what I had suffered. I could not.”
And again, when painting some piece of flame-coloured drapery, he would hear the words:
“How did you try to help me? By talking calm platitudes through a kind of moral disinfectant sheet which you held between us——”
And yet again, as he tried for the strength of courage in the face of the warrior angel, he would hear her saying:
“You have not had the manhood to help me.”
It angered him that she should come between him and his work. He had loved it. He had felt a kind of mystical joy in it, in the knowledge that his work would adorn the houses of God, and that the saints he painted would look down upon the altar where the priest commemorated the Great Sacrifice. Sometimes in his more intense moments he had fancied himself an incarnation of one of the old painters who [Pg 153]portrayed for sheer love of God dancing saints garlanded with flowers. He did not know that his own work lacked that child-like joy, and that its asceticism was hard and cold.
But now the memory of the house in Chiswick, which he used to banish easily from his thoughts, came again and again before his mind to prevent him working. He began to leave his studio and go for long walks, only returning when it was too dark to paint. And his fellow-artists wondered what possessed him, and would have welcomed one of his priggish speeches rather than this moody silence.
And Alan Farley, the other artist who fancied himself a mystic, painted a few pictures when the inspiration was upon him, pictures which remained to adorn his own studio walls, as they were incomprehensible to any one but himself and to one other—a girl, Aurora Castleton, in whom Alan found a kindred soul. They frequented each other’s studios, and talked of “the true spirit,” and “the deeper meaning,” and “the virtue of symbolism,” and lamented that the public were too blind to realize the inner beauty which they were kindly interpreting for them on canvas. They found, however, a great deal of consolation and pleasure in each other’s society. And a Small Boy with drooping wings sat mournfully in a corner and heard them talk, knowing that he alone could give them the true key to the [Pg 154]meaning of Beauty—a key that the most ignorant could understand. But they refused to look at him. Even his arrows were useless, for the cloak of High Art with which the two had surrounded themselves seems to be the one thing that is impervious to them.
And Dan plodded on with his Messonier-like paintings and missed Barnabas a good deal, in spite of the fact that he had been gone barely three days. And Michael did wonderful line work, and wrote little cynical essays for a small magazine that scoffed at love as sentimental.
But Paul was absorbed in his portrait of the Duchessa, and in the wonderful music his heart heard, the meaning of which was beginning to dawn on his soul.
The Duchessa had given him her own ideas regarding the portrait the first morning she had come to the studio. She had told him about the Casa di Corleone, and the courtyard with the golden oranges and marble fauns and nymphs, and the gallery where her portrait was to hang.
“I want it,” she had said, “to be a wee bit—just the weest bit in the world—flaunting. The women of the House of Corleone are haughty and disdainful. They are too proud to show their feelings. If they ever loved the courtyard and the sunshine, they would have scorned to show it. They have scorned me often for loving it. I have seen—you may laugh at me if you like—their [Pg 155]lips curl when my heart has danced for joy as I have stood in the gallery and watched the sunlight stream through the big hall door. I can’t hang there meekly accepting their scorn. I want to defy them. They may think the place theirs, and be calmly satisfied in their possession of it, and they may look upon me as an alien. But it is mine, mine, mine. I want them to know it—not aggressively, you realize—but with just the tiniest bit of assurance that there’s no mistake at all.”
And Paul had responded to her mood as a violin responds to the master-hand that draws the bow across its strings. He had sketched her in on the canvas almost as she had spoken the words, standing there with her head just a trifle thrown back, a little gleam of fascinating devilry in her eyes.
They had nearly come to loggerheads regarding her dress, however. She wished it to be scarlet, in contrast to the black dresses and sombre colours of the haughty ladies already in the gallery. Paul wished it to be blue. In the end she had had her will. It was not often that Sara, Duchessa di Corleone, failed in accomplishing it.
Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Sara was her vivid magnetism. Every separate burnished hair of her head seemed to possess it. Her eyes possessed it, her smile possessed it, her voice—a low contralto—possessed it. Her presence [Pg 156]dominated a room the moment she entered it, even if she did not speak a word, and Sara possessed a curious gift for silences. They were sudden and unaccountable silences, more disconcerting and full of magnetism than speech. She lapsed into them often with Paul. They came as a sudden and odd interruption to her flow of sparkling talk. She had a trick of making the most ordinary words sparkle. Water, after all, is only water, but it can look very different in sunshine from beneath a grey sky.
And perhaps for the first time Paul found himself at a loss to read the character she presented to him. Probably because he could not appreciate it sufficiently calmly. The music in his heart distracted him, and the tune was clearer and sweeter when she was near. He knew its meaning now, and it filled him with happiness and pain—happiness because it is the most beautiful music in the world to those who hear it, and pain because it somehow seemed to emphasize his own loneliness. And because he had always been lonely a certain feeling had come to him of being not wanted. It was not exactly diffidence, not the outcome of shyness, but merely a certainty that he made no difference to the scheme of happiness in others; in fact, that it probably worked more easily without him. He could not imagine himself as essential to anyone, and never in his wildest dreams could he [Pg 157]have imagined himself as essential to the woman who had suddenly become the centre of his universe.
One evening Barnabas returned and walked into Miss Mason’s studio. He came right over to the fire and sat down.
“Well?” she said, looking at him very anxiously. The game of “mother” can gain an extraordinary fascination in a very few days.
“I have found out one thing,” said Barnabas, “that is a curious coincidence at all events. The child’s real name is Philippa.”
“Ah,” said Miss Mason slowly.
“I went to different studios,” went on Barnabas, “but the artists knew nothing beyond the fact that the child had lived with Madame Barbin. Then I went to the houses she had tenanted. The neighbours told me she was a kind old soul, and two of them at least averred that they remembered the advent of Pippa to the house when a baby of a few weeks old. They declare that an English lady brought her to Madame Barbin, and that Madame Barbin received money for the child’s keep. Madame Fournier was a relation of Madame Barbin’s—a niece, they believed. They did not know where her home was beyond that it was somewhere in Brittany. She came occasionally to visit Madame Barbin, and was with her when she died. Their theory is that Madame [Pg 158]Fournier took possession of the child in order to receive the allowance made for her. It was sent to Madame Barbin, and she returned a receipt and statement that the child was alive and well. That, at least, is the neighbour’s story. But they had no notion from whom the money came. The people who sent it must certainly have trusted Madame Barbin implicitly. According to the neighbours, she deserved the trust. Madame Fournier no doubt took on the job and abandoned the child as soon as she could conveniently do so. To receive the money without having to provide for the child has evidently appealed to her mind as a method of procedure more advantageous to herself.”
“And how did you find out that the child’s real name was Philippa?” asked Miss Mason.
“A woman named Madame Paulet volunteered the information,” said Barnabas. “She told me that Madame Barbin had said that the child had first been christened Philippa according to the rites of the English Church. But being a devout Catholic, Madame Barbin evidently didn’t trust to an English baptism. She had the child re-baptized. I saw the priest who performed the ceremony. She was then, he said, about two months old. Madame Barbin had told him that she did not know the name of the child’s parents. She [Pg 159]received money quarterly for her maintenance. She did tell him the name of the woman who sent it, but as it was told under the seal of confession he couldn’t have given it to me even if he had remembered it. But he had forgotten.”
There was a short silence.
“Then,” said Mason slowly, “Pippa is a Catholic.”
“Yes,” said Barnabas. “You are sorry?”
“I am old-fashioned,” said Miss Mason. “But after all it is the same God we worship.”
“And if,” said Barnabas, “she is Philippe’s child, as I believe, he would be glad. He was a devout Catholic with a strange mixture of Paganism. I believe that for him the altars of Pan and Christ were built side by side.”
Miss Mason looked at Barnabas with a little twinkle in her eyes.
“You’ll have to take her to church,” she said.
Barnabas laughed. “You think that after all there may be some advantage in her baptism?”
Again there was a silence. Then Barnabas spoke.
“If Philippe were her father, and I can’t help feeling sure of it, he must have died some months before her birth. Possibly before he knew that she was even thought of.”
And then Miss Mason put a question, one [Pg 160]which had been in the minds of both of them throughout that conversation at least, but, being a woman, it was she who voiced it.
“I wonder,” she said quietly, “who was her mother?”
“Exactly,” said Barnabas.
And because he had loved Philippe Kostolitz he said no more. But his eyes again grew sad. For Barnabas held very straight views on some subjects, and he dreaded lest the whiteness of his friend’s honour had been in the smallest degree smirched.
A QUESTION OF COLOUR
PIPPA became part of the life of the six artists of the courtyard, and they all wondered, if they ever thought about the matter at all, however they had managed to get on without her.
She seemed to belong in some special way to Barnabas. That fact was one of mutual recognition. Michael found himself stopping suddenly in the middle of his cynical little speeches when she was present. It is impossible to be cynical with a child’s eyes fixed on one, drinking in every word. Dan kept her supplied with chocolates, and gave her a grey kitten. Jasper painted her a picture of the Blessed Virgin. It was the first painting he had done for weeks past without the memory of the house in Chiswick coming as an interruption to his thoughts. The picture, too, held a tenderness not seen in his previous paintings. Paul, for a wonder, allowed her to see his unfinished work, and found amusement in her naïve criticisms. One criticism—to be related presently—was somewhat of a revelation. Alan studied her deeply, saying that the innocent unfolding of a child’s mind was one of the greatest [Pg 162]marvels of creation. Her remarks on colour honestly interested him. And in them Barnabas felt more than ever convinced that she was the child of his friend Philippe Kostolitz.
She used to announce quite gravely that people were like colours. Miss Mason she designated as “couleur de rose.” Barnabas himself she said was gold “all sparkling like sunshine.” Paul she insisted was like the purple light that fell across the river at night. Dan was green like the leaves of chrysanthemum foliage. Alan was the colour of the sea. Michael was grey and red. And she refused to assign any colour to Jasper. But when coaxed by Barnabas she confessed it was because he was quite grey, and no pretty colour at all.
One day about the middle of February Pippa lunched with Paul. He announced that he wished her to see the portrait of the Duchessa di Corleone. The Duchessa herself, who had been away since Christmas, was coming for what would probably be a last sitting at two o’clock that afternoon.
“Well?” said Paul, standing near the luncheon table while Pippa gazed upon the portrait, “what do you think of it?”
Pippa wrinkled up her forehead.
“I don’t know,” she said slowly, and she came across to the table looking at Paul with perplexed eyes.
“Evidently,” said Paul, a trifle disappointed, “it doesn’t meet with your approval.”
“I don’t know,” said Pippa again, still looking puzzled. And then she saw the luncheon table. “Chicken and meringues”—she rolled the “r” in her funny way—“how lovely!”
“The lunch,” said Paul, “unquestionably appeals to you far more than the portrait.”
Pippa did not reply. But during the meal she kept looking from the portrait to Paul, as if she might find in his face some explanation of her perplexity.
They were drinking their coffee, which Pippa loved, when Paul’s man announced the Duchessa.
The whole atmosphere of the studio seemed suddenly to sparkle with her entrance. Paul sprang to his feet. There was a light in his eyes of which the meanest intelligence might have recognized the interpretation.
“I am punctual to the moment,” she said. “And how are you? It is six weeks since we’ve met.” Then she saw Pippa.
“And who,” she asked, “is this?”
“Pippa,” said Paul gravely, “may I introduce you to the Duchessa di Corleone.”
Pippa held out her hand.
“Pippa?” queried the Duchessa, with the tiniest and most adorable lift of her eyebrows.
“Just Pippa,” said Paul.
Sara sat down. “Finish your coffee,” she said. “And may I have a cup?”
Paul seized the kettle. It was the first time she would have partaken of food or drink in his studio. It marked, in his mind, an epoch.
“Don’t make fresh coffee,” she begged.
“It is a pleasure,” he said. “It is one of the few achievements of which I am justly proud.”
Pippa was gazing at the Duchessa with wide grey eyes. The perplexity in them had vanished.
“Well, Pippa,” asked Sara, “and what do you think of my portrait?”
“I know now,” said Pippa firmly. “Ze couleur is wrong.”
Paul, who was stirring the coffee in a jug, paused a moment to look at her.
“The colour?” he queried.
Pippa nodded. “The picture,” she said, “is red. She”—Pippa looked at the Duchessa—“is blue. Oh, but very blue, like—like zat.” She pointed towards a sapphire vase on Paul’s mantelpiece.
Paul and Sara looked at each other. There was the tiniest—just the very tiniest—look of triumph in Paul’s eyes.
Sara laughed outright. “Mr. Treherne,” she said, “aren’t you longing to say ‘I told you so’?”
“I think,” replied Paul, “Pippa has said it for me.”
Sara turned to Pippa.
“Then,” she said, “it is the colour of the dress that is wrong?”
Again Pippa nodded.
“Sometimes ze dresses zey not matter,” she said thoughtfully, “but for you ze real—oh, but it hurt.” She clasped her hands against her heart with a little tragic gesture.
“What’s to be done?” asked Sara as Paul handed her the coffee.
“Re-paint the dress, and the whole portrait if necessary,” he replied promptly.
“Oh, but the time, and your trouble!” cried Sara. “I couldn’t think of it. Besides, it was my own fault,” she added contritely.
It struck neither of them as odd that they should so implicitly accept Pippa’s criticism.
“I shall only,” said Paul, “be doing what I originally wished to do, if you will forgive me for saying so. The question is whether you will be too bored with further sittings?”
A faint rose-colour stole over the ivory of the Duchessa’s face.
“On the contrary,” she said lightly, “I shall be very happy. I have”—she paused the merest fraction of a second—“not been bored at all.”
She drank her coffee and put down the cup. Pippa got up from her chair. She knew the moment to make herself scarce. Long acquaintance [Pg 166]with studios and the work of artists had taught her.
She held out her hand to the Duchessa.
“I like you,” she said. “I like you ver’ much. Please come to tea wis me one day—you and Monsieur Paul.”
“But,” said the Duchessa, “Christopher is coming for me at half-past three.”
Paul’s face, which had been very gay, fell suddenly. Christopher’s name troubled him. He was on such delightfully—for him—easy terms with the Duchessa.
“But bring Monsieur Christopher too,” said Pippa calmly.
The Duchessa looked at Paul.
“But where does she live?” she asked. “And may we accept this invitation wholesale?”
“By all means,” Paul assured her. “Pippa lives in studio number seven with Miss Mason, don’t you, Pippa? And we all invade that studio at any hour. Miss Mason ties up cuts, finds new servants for us when our old ones get out of hand, administers hot concoctions of her own brewing when any of us have colds, in short, mothers us all round. And Pippa gives us excellent advice as to the colour of our socks and ties. We really don’t care to think of what we were before Aunt Olive and Pippa took us in hand.”
“So you will come?” said Pippa, standing near the door.
Paul went over to open it for her.
“Yes, we’ll come,” he said.
“The Duchessa, you, and Monsieur Christopher,” said Pippa gaily.
“Oh, yes,” said Paul, an odd inflexion in his voice, “no doubt Monsieur Christopher will come too.”
He held the door open, and Pippa went out.
Then he came back to the Duchessa. She had heard the inflexion in his voice, and a little light of comprehension had sprung to her eyes.
“Ah!” she breathed softly to herself. Then she looked up at Paul.
“And now,” she said, “are you ready for the metamorphosis—to re-paint me as a blue lady?”
THE LADY OF THE BLUE DRESS AGAIN
AND so it was that Pippa’s impulsive invitation brought the lady of the blue dress once more into Miss Mason’s surroundings.
And with her advent came one of the brightest threads which the Fates were using to weave into the hitherto sombre pattern of her life. For there is never any knowing what the Fates will do. For years the woof of their weaving may be utterly grey, but if the warp has kept firm and strong they may suddenly take the brightest colours—a very crazy patchwork of them—and weave them into the most intricate and curious pattern imaginable. And because the strength of the warp of this life pleased them, they were now choosing the most fantastically coloured threads in the weaving of the woof.
Pippa told Miss Mason of the invitation she had issued, and then went to wash her hands and brush her hair. There was no need to change her dress. She had already put on her prettiest frock to lunch with Paul.
Just before half-past three there was a knock at the door. Pippa looked up expectant. But it was only Barnabas.
“Hullo!” he said, coming in and seeing the tea-things on the table—Sally would be occupied with hot cakes at the last moment—“you’re expecting company.”
“The Duchessa di Corleone, Monsieur Paul, and Monsieur Christopher,” Pippa told him.
“Shall I be in the way?” asked Barnabas, looking at Miss Mason, “or may I stay?”
“You are never in the way,” said Miss Mason decisively.
Pippa sat down near him and slid one hand into his. And Miss Mason looked at them, and thought that only a year ago, and perhaps at that very hour, she had been sitting in a stiff drawing-room furnished with hideous chairs and ornamented with wax flowers under glass shades, listening to a long and minute account of Miss Stanhope’s ill-health, sleeplessness, and want of appetite. And because the contrast was so very great, her eyes grew a trifle misty with unshed happy tears, and she said a little prayer, that was certainly more Catholic than her distinctly Broad Church views realized, for Miss Stanhope’s present welfare.
And then suddenly voices were heard outside the studio, a woman’s voice which Miss Mason seemed to recognize, and a man laughing.
The next moment Sally opened the door. Her eyes were round with awe.
“The Duchess——” the next words were indistinguishable—“Mr. Charlton, and Mr. Treherne,” [Pg 170]she gasped. Already in her mind she was telling Jim that she had had the honour of ushering a real live Duchess into the studio.
The Duchessa di Corleone came into the room. Then she gave a little exclamation of astonishment and went forwards with outstretched hands.
“My fairy godmother!” she cried. And she was nearer truth than she had any idea as she spoke the words.
“The lady in the blue dress!” said Miss Mason, her face radiant with pleasure.
“So you two know each other,” said Paul.
“We met—when was it—last May?” said Sara. “May I introduce Mr. Charlton.” And the man whom Miss Mason had seen in the lounge of the Wilton Hotel bowed.
“It is,” said the Duchessa when she was seated, and after Barnabas had been introduced, “quite the most unexpected and delightful meeting. It was not till I was on my way to Italy that I remembered I had never asked your name.” And then she told the others of their first meeting.
“And has it all,” she asked, “been just as delightful as I prophesied?”
“More delightful,” said Miss Mason promptly. She was looking at Christopher. She remembered the “Christopher, darling,” and her mind, woman-like, was keen on the secret of a romance.
Sara saw her glance. By a flash of intuition she guessed something of what was passing in [Pg 171]Miss Mason’s mind. It gave her an opportunity she had been looking for during the last hour and a half.
“Christopher came to fetch me that evening to take me to an At Home, I remember. He is an extraordinarily useful person. I have known him since I was ten years old.”
The words were addressed to Miss Mason. They were intended for another occupant of the studio.
“I remember,” said Christopher, “our first meeting. It was, I think, unique.”
“In what way?” asked Paul.
“The Duchessa and her parents,” said Christopher, “had taken a house in Devonshire, at Salcombe, as a matter of fact, where I then lived. My mother, being of a hospitable turn of mind, and also of opinion that young men should make themselves generally useful, sent me across the road to enquire of Captain and Mrs. de Courcy if I could be of any assistance to them. I went. I found the Duchessa seated on the veranda on an overturned flower-pot. She was engaged in teaching ‘nap’ to three small boys who had come in from the next door garden, also with hospitable intentions. I found Mrs. de Courcy disentangling silver forks from among her evening frocks; they had been packed among them for safety——”
“Mamma was always under the impression that everybody was going to steal everything,” interjected the Duchessa.
“Captain de Courcy,” went on Christopher, “was extracting tin-tacks from the kitchen coal-scuttle, into which they had been upset by the Duchessa in her frantic questing for playing-cards.”
“And did you,” asked Miss Mason grimly, “assist him?”
“I extracted two tacks,” continued Christopher reminiscently. “Then I heard the Duchessa laugh. Have you ever heard her? I went out on to the veranda. First I looked at her, then I turned another flower-pot upside down and sat upon it. I tried to instruct her in a few of the correct rules of ‘nap.’ She cheated, I remember, abominably. She has, in fact, cheated throughout her life.”
“Indeed, I have not,” said Sara indignantly. There was a dimple at the corner of her mouth.
“You have,” said Christopher calmly. “You have cheated the Fates every time they dealt the cards of fortune against you. It’s a trick many of us would give our eyes to learn. They deal her black cards, heigh presto! the Duchessa has changed them to red ones. They deal her low dull cards—the Duchessa holds aces and Kings, particularly,” ended Christopher severely, “Kings!”
“Christopher,” said Sara sweetly, “is given to exaggeration.” She was first the tiniest bit annoyed. Christopher’s last word savoured [Pg 173]somewhat of an accusation of flirting. No woman cares to be accused of that pastime before a man in whom she is feeling—well, certainly more than just a careless interest. Besides, the music Paul had been hearing during the last ten weeks had begun to reach the Duchessa’s ears, though as yet quite faintly. The slight implication of flirting came as a discord to the tune it was playing.
“The late Duca di Corleone might certainly be termed a King,” protested Christopher, “while the Casa di Corleone and the coffers of centesimi are most assuredly many aces.”
“Yes,” agreed the Duchessa. “You, however, said ‘particularly Kings.’”
“My mistake,” said Christopher politely. “I should have said particularly aces.”
The Duchessa made a little gracious gesture of forgiveness. Paul had been stroking a small grey kitten—gift of Dan to Pippa—during the little conversation, and was apparently entirely engrossed in the kitten. But he had heard every word, and Christopher’s intimacy with the Duchessa was seen by him in a new and far more satisfactory light.
“But now,” said the Duchessa, addressing herself to Miss Mason, “I want to hear everything you have been doing since last May.”
Miss Mason glanced around the studio.
“Got a studio,” she said.
“And also,” said Barnabas, “she has adopted six nephews and one niece.”
“Me,” said Pippa, who was gazing at the Duchessa with fascinated eyes.
Sara smiled. She looked at Paul and Barnabas.
“I imagine,” she said, “that these are two of the nephews. Where are the others?”
“In their studios,” said Barnabas. “Aunt Olive doesn’t keep all her nephews on the premises. They are the six artists of the courtyard.”
“Oh,” said Sara, with a low laugh, “then you, too, have a magic courtyard.”
“Where is yours?” asked Pippa.
And the Duchessa told her, bringing the sunshine of Italy and the gleam of golden oranges into the studio, bathing it in their light and colour. And Paul listened as he listened always when she spoke, loving the sound of her voice and the magic of her words.
Suddenly as she ended they heard the sound of a violin. It came from across the courtyard and through the partly open window.
“Hush!” said the Duchessa, and she raised her head listening.
When the last sad notes had died away, she looked across at Paul.
“Who is it?” she asked softly, her eyes full of tears, for the sad bitterness of a troubled heart had wailed through the music.
“Michael Chester,” said Paul quietly.
“And why,” asked the Duchessa, “is he not taking London by storm?”
“Because,” said Paul, “he is a cripple.”
“Ah!” said the Duchessa. She had no need to ask more, for the music had told her the rest.
After a time she left, promising to come again. As she went into the courtyard with Paul and Christopher she looked towards the window from whence the sounds of the violin had proceeded.
“I wonder,” she said, “if one day he will play for me.”
THE DUCHESSA ENTERS A KINGDOM
FEBRUARY gave place to a stormy March, which ushered itself in angry and tempestuous. By the end of the month it was tired of its anger, and throughout April was like a child promising with smiles and tears to be good. In May it fulfilled its promise. The month was all sunshine, with soft winds and blue skies. The parks were alive with flowers, women donned their brightest dresses, and London looked like a great living nosegay.
And with the spring the Music of the Heart was playing so loudly for the Duchessa that she wondered Paul could not hear it too, and many times she longed to bid him listen.
The portrait was finished, and was in her drawing-room till later in the year when she would take it with her to Italy, where it would hang in the gallery like a great glowing sapphire among the sombre and haughty ladies of the House of Corleone.
She saw Paul from time to time. He came to her flat, and she went to his studio. And Michael had been persuaded to come and play for her. [Pg 177]And having come once he was ready to come again. He made music sad and gay, and in her presence it lost much of its bitterness. Only when he was alone bitterness returned, and with it a desperate and pathetic note of yearning. For with the beauty of the Duchessa Michael realized more terribly that he was not as other men, though with the curious instinct possessed by the man-creature of hurting himself, he loved to be near her and look at her. And in his heart he laughed cynically at Paul, seeing that he had but to put out his hand and grasp the wonderful jewel of her love. But having been lonely all his own life he understood better than anyone Paul’s hesitation, even while he laughed.
And one day when the morning sunshine was more radiant than ever, and the whole earth seemed singing the Benedicite, Sara wandered across one of the bridges that span the river and found herself in Battersea Park. And the lilacs were a mass of purple flowers, and the laburnums hanging in showers of golden rain, and the tulips were flaunting their gaudy colours, and the birds singing full-throated songs of joy.
She sat down on a bench near a great bed of golden tulips and looked at them. And the colour took her back to Italy, and the courtyard of Casa di Corleone and the golden oranges, and she knew now the truth of Christopher’s statement that one day she would be ready to forget them. And [Pg 178]a little prayer rose up in her heart, a prayer that perhaps hundreds of women were praying at that moment before flower-decked altars, but which Sara addressed to the bed of golden tulips.
“Ah, Madonna Santa,” she prayed, in the language she had learned to love, “let him tell me.”
And then she looked up and saw Paul coming towards her.
“I knew I should find you here,” he said quietly, and he sat down beside her.
And the tulips became a mass of blurred gold, and the Music of the Heart rang so loudly in her ears that for the moment the song of the birds was drowned.
“I have waited a long time,” said Paul, “but I cannot wait any longer. I love you, Sara.”
She turned towards him, and there was an adorable little sob of happiness in her voice.
“But, Paul, dear,” she said, “why didn’t you tell me long ago?”
And Paul put both his arms round her, and knew that his loneliness was ended.
There are some hours which pass like moments, so swiftly are they borne on the wings of joy. And in those hours Paul and Sara told each other a hundred little things they had quite possibly said many times before, but which had suddenly taken on a new meaning and a great tenderness. But for the most part they were silent, listening [Pg 179]to the Music of the Heart, which was playing now in the completest harmony.
At last, however, they grew alive to the fact that the morning was very far advanced, and that they were both hungry. For, with joy be it said, both Paul and Sara were most delightfully human.
As she got up from the bench Sara looked at the bed of tulips.
“I want one of those,” she said.
Regardless of the little square board which forbade the foot of man to desecrate the grass with his tread, Paul went across to the flower-bed. He returned with a great golden tulip on a long pale green stem. He gave it to her. She looked down into the shining petal-chalice.
“I shall always love yellow tulips now,” she said.
Together they set off homewards, the Duchessa carrying the flower like a queen carrying a golden-headed sceptre.
And verily she was a queen, for she had that morning entered her kingdom—the kingdom of a man’s heart.
Of course, she went back to lunch with him at the studio, and equally, of course, there happened to be no food but bread and cheese and tomatoes. She refused to be taken to a restaurant, and Paul’s man was sent out to buy spaghetti, with [Pg 180]which and the tomatoes and cheese Sara made a true Italian dish, cooking it on a gas stove.
And it was when they had eaten that and were drinking their coffee, in the making of which Paul excelled, that Sara suddenly exclaimed:
“Now I shall know what is in the letter.”
And then she had to tell Paul about the late Duca’s will and the letter. Paul listened.
“But, dearest,” he said, when she had ended, “do you realize what you are giving up? I am a poor man, and you will lose everything.”
But Sara replied in the words of Christopher:
“On the contrary, Paul, dear, I gain everything.”
And Paul took her hand and kissed it.
After that they talked about the future. No one was to be told of their happiness yet, except Christopher and Paul’s mother. They would keep it a secret known only to those four. In June Sara was going to Italy, when she would take her portrait and leave it in the gallery. In July she would return for Paul to claim her completely.
“But at least I shall know,” she ended, “that my portrait is in the gallery, and that I love the place ten thousand times more than those haughty ladies who will now, I suppose, look upon it as entirely their own.”
“And loving it like that you give it up?” said Paul.
“For you,” answered the Duchessa softly.
BARNABAS SCHEMES WITH CUPID
AND while the Music of the Heart was making incessant melody for Paul and the Duchessa, the Small Boy with drooping wings was still sitting disconsolate in the corner of Aurora’s studio. His arrows being useless he had tried whispering secrets to her, but delightful whispers of flower-scented nights, country lanes aglow with wild roses, kisses, and even cuddling babies fell on deaf ears. She heard nothing but the call of the false goddess whom she had erected in the place of the glorious goddess who sits so near to Nature.
One day early in June Aurora was in a particularly dissatisfied mood. The model, Tilly, who posed not only for Barnabas, but for many other studios, had been distinctly rude that afternoon.
Aurora had found inspiration lacking, and had told Tilly she could go. It had been the signal for a tirade on Tilly’s part. She had spoken her mind freely, with contemptuous words regarding artists who achieved nothing, and whose pictures, even when completed, were so incomprehensible that they could find no place in any gallery. [Pg 182]Aurora had told Tilly not to come near her studio again. But her words had held a sting which hurt. Aurora was near tears.
Then she remembered that Alan was coming to tea that afternoon and bringing Barnabas with him. She dried her tears on her painting-apron and put the kettle on the hob.
And perhaps it was the suspicion of tears that Barnabas saw when he and Alan arrived, or perhaps it was an imploring whisper from the discordant Boy, or perhaps it was merely the sunshine and his own exuberant spirits, but, at any rate, he had, what the Boy considered, a heaven-born inspiration.
“I think,” he said suddenly, addressing himself to the square patch of blue seen through skylight, “that studios are distinctly stuffy this weather. Let’s all go and paint out of doors a bit—be vagabond artists.” The thought of Kostolitz came into his mind with the words.
“Permanently?” asked Alan, “or by the day?”
“Oh, for about three weeks or so,” said Barnabas. “You, Aurora, Dan, and me. I’ll make Dan come too. I’ll hire a coster cart and donkey to carry our painting materials, a few provisions, and a small tent for Aurora to sleep in. We three can sleep in the open. Let’s,” ended Barnabas slyly, “study Art in Nature.”
“The symbolism of Nature,” murmured Alan dreamily.
“Or Nature without the symbolism,” said Aurora. “I’m tired of symbolism.” Her voice was almost petulant.
The Small Boy in the corner perked up. Barnabas grinned gently.
“To-day,” he announced, “is Tuesday. Let us start on Thursday.”
“Yes,” said Aurora firmly, “I want to get away from everything.” Her eyes took in the studio and her own High Art productions in a comprehensive sweep. “For a time,” she added, seeing that Alan was looking reproachful.
Barnabas promulgated a few further ideas on the subject, and they all three studied a large cycling map of Aurora’s which had small country lanes plainly marked on it.
“Bring the map,” said Barnabas, as he rose to take his leave. “And Thursday, remember, at my studio, at ten o’clock.”
He went round to see Miss Mason that evening to tell her of the plan. Pippa, in a purple dressing-gown, listened entranced. She had been given a quarter of an hour’s grace from bed on account of Barnabas’ arrival.
“So,” ended Barnabas, “on Thursday at ten o’clock we start off to study Nature. I’ve already hired a donkey and cart. To-morrow I buy a tent and a few other things.”
Pippa gave a huge sigh.
“How lovely!” she said. “Just you, and [Pg 184]Monsieur Dan, and Monsieur Alan, and Mademoiselle Aurora. Just you four. I s’pose ze tent will be quite tiny. Only just big enough for Mademoiselle Aurora. Not a teeny bit more room in it. Not even enough room for Mimsi”—Mimsi was the grey kitten—“and most certainly not enough room for—for me.”
Barnabas laughed. He looked at Miss Mason. The idea conveyed by Pippa in this flagrant hint had occurred to him.
Pippa heard something in the laugh that made her heart beat hopefully.
“I am,” she said reflectively, “not very big. Or,” she continued, “a cart would be a very nice ting to sleep in. I wonder what it feels like to sleep in a cart.”
“Time you went to bed,” said Miss Mason grimly.
Pippa got up reluctantly. “Bon soir, Monsieur Barnabas,” she said, with a little sigh. “I wonder if Mademoiselle Aurora can darn holes in men’s socks. Madame Barbin taught me to darn—oh, but to darn very beautifully. Much walking will no doubt make many holes.”
Barnabas telegraphed a question to Miss Mason.
“You’d get tired walking,” said Miss Mason gruffly.
Pippa looked dubious. “I am not ver’ ’eavy. I could perhaps ride in ze cart just sometimes. [Pg 185]Besides,” she ended hopefully, “it is ver’ good to be tired. One sleep well at night.”
“Well, go to bed and sleep well now,” said Miss Mason.
Pippa sighed again heavily.
“Good night, Aunt Oleeve, good night, Monsieur Barnabas.” She went away sorrowfully.
“Do you think she might come?” said Barnabas. “I’d take great care of her.”
“You’ll tire her out, and she’ll be a trouble to you,” said Miss Mason. She was hating the thought of parting with the child.
“Not a bit,” said Barnabas. “The question is, will you spare her?”
Miss Mason laughed.
“You’ve a genius for hitting the truth full on the head, Barnabas. I suppose I must. She’d adore it, and the open air life would be excellent for her.”
And so it was arranged. And the tour in the donkey-cart was to be fraught with a curious little incident which was to lead infinitely further than anyone could imagine.
Thursday dawned bright and sunny under a cloudless sky.
The donkey-cart was outside Barnabas’ studio, and Pippa in a green dress and rough straw hat trimmed with daisies was feeding the animal with [Pg 186]sugar. She had instantly christened him Pegasus, for though he was not a winged horse he was most unquestionably a magic steed.
Painting materials, a hamper of provisions, and the tent were packed into the cart. Pippa climbed in. Seated on the luggage she held the reins. Barnabas took hold of the bridle.
The men were in tweed knickerbocker suits and soft felt hats. Aurora was in a blue serge skirt, a white blouse, scarlet tie, and a blue sun-bonnet. She felt that the attire was suited to the part of a vagabond.
The other three artists of the courtyard were there watching them and offering advice. Paul, in his own happiness, felt in entire sympathy with their gaiety. Jasper and Michael felt somehow rather out of things.
“You ought to have had the cart meet you somewhere,” said Miss Mason. “You’ll be mobbed.”
“Not a bit of it,” said Barnabas cheerfully. “Dan’s size is protection enough for the lot of us. Good-bye, Aunt Olive. Ta-ta, you fellows. We’re off to study Nature. We’ll write our comments to you and post the letters at country post offices.”
Pippa flicked the whip and Pegasus walked gravely out of the courtyard. And the little faun in the garden played a gay tune on his pipe. The [Pg 187]youthful spirits of the departing cavalcade appealed to him.
And Miss Mason went back to her studio, and for the first time since a year ago she felt a little lonely, for both Barnabas and Pippa had gone, and the Duchessa di Corleone was on her way to Italy with the portrait.
But the Fates had another thread in readiness, and she was not to feel lonely long.
THE INTERFERENCE OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER
PIPPA had been wont to haunt Jasper’s studio a good deal. His pictured saints appealed to her imagination. She loved the brilliance of their robes and the gold of their backgrounds.
Colour appealed to her, as already seen, enormously, though she had no power with brush or pencil herself. If she was ever to find expression for the thoughts and fancies which filled her brain she would possibly one day find it in writing. Beauty of language already moved her profoundly, and she would listen by the hour to anyone reading poetry aloud.
Jasper missed the child almost more than Miss Mason did. He seemed to have nothing to fill up the gap she left in his life, and his old restlessness in a measure returned. He took to dropping in at Miss Mason’s studio at odd hours, in order, so it seemed, to talk about Pippa, though he would often sit moody and silent. He would stare at the picture of Pippa wrapped in scarlet silk, her arms round the faun’s neck, which picture Barnabas had painted about a month previously, and which now hung in Miss Mason’s studio.
And one evening after looking at it for a long time he made a sudden remark—a remark that seemed forced from him.
“If Stella had lived she would have been nearly the same age as Pippa.”
Miss Mason looked up quickly.
“Who,” she asked, “was Stella?”
“My little girl,” said Jasper shortly.
“Ah,” said Miss Mason. And then she added quietly, “and your wife died too?”
“No,” said Jasper, “she is alive.”
There was a silence. The studio window was wide open, and the evening sunlight was streaming in. From one of the trees in the garden a thrush was singing a song of love and happiness.
“Perhaps,” said Miss Mason suddenly, “you would care to tell me about it.”
And Jasper told her. He told her the whole story, omitting nothing; though, wonderful to relate, making no excuses for himself.
“I suppose,” he ended, “that Bridget lost all interest in life, and I was always wanting her to be something she had lost the power of being. And I got disheartened because she could not adapt herself to my pattern.”
For a moment Miss Mason did not reply. She did not care to say that it had been largely Jasper’s fault that his wife had lost interest in life. After a moment she spoke slowly.
“I think,” she said, “it is always dangerous to [Pg 190]try and cut people to our own pattern. We are so terribly apt to cut the cords of love first.”
“I know,” said Jasper, “and now it is, as she said, too late.”
“It is never too late,” said Miss Mason energetically. “Why don’t you go and see her?”
“I gave her my word of honour that I would not.”
“Pooh!” said Miss Mason. “It is sometimes infinitely more honourable to break one’s word than to keep it. This is a case in point. Do you still care for your wife?”
Jasper hesitated. “I care for my memory of her as she was when I first married her—before the child died. I know after that at first I was disgusted. But that passed, especially later when I saw less of her. Then at the bottom of my heart I wanted to get back to the old footing. Somehow it seemed impossible. Before I saw her I felt I loved her, but the sight of her untidiness and the sordidness of the surroundings killed it. It would be killed again if I saw her now. It’s no use pretending otherwise.”
“Why don’t you take her out of her surroundings then?” asked Miss Mason.
Jasper looked up quickly. “It’s no use,” he said. “I love her now, but if I went down there the feeling would die away. When I see her slovenly and untidy it seems to kill my affection. I can’t help it. Even when I was a child I could [Pg 191]not eat the food I most liked if it were served in a careless fashion. I have honestly tried to fight the feeling. It is, however, part of my physical nature, and I can’t rid myself of it.” Jasper’s voice was quite humble and genuine.
Miss Mason’s brain was working rapidly. “I suppose Chiswick is rather a commonplace neighbourhood,” she remarked. “Foolish of you to choose it in the first instance. Where did you say the house was?” The question was put indifferently.
Jasper mentioned the street and number. Miss Mason appeared hardly to have heard it. She seemed engrossed in her own thoughts.
Jasper stayed a little longer in the studio. It was, in a sense, a comfort to have spoken of the story, and yet it had brought the memory of the last seven years almost too vividly before his mind.
When he got up to go Miss Mason held out her hand.
“Good night,” she said. “Don’t feel too miserable. Things often turn out better than one expects.”
And when he had gone she sat a long time in her big chair, her brain full of the wildest and most exciting plans, in which she was establishing herself as proxy to the Fates. And the Fates laughed, and gave the threads of two lives temporarily into her hands for her own weaving.
The next morning Miss Mason told Sally to order a taxi to be at the studio at eleven o’clock.
“If I’m not taken there quickly,” she said to herself, “my courage will fail me, and I shall come home again.”
And she went over in her mind many sentences she had been carefully preparing during the long hours of a sleepless night.
One of them began rather like an old-fashioned letter. “My dear Mrs. Merton, I have ventured to call upon you in order to discuss a matter I am sure you must have very much at heart, namely, the welfare of your husband Jasper Merton.” She had repeated it a good many times to make sure she had it verbatim.
There were other phrases such as, “Pardon what may appear an unwarrantable interference on my part.” And, “The mutual interest we both must feel in one for whom you have a wifely love, and I the affection of friendship.”
She felt she had them all glibly on her tongue, when the hoot of the taxi outside the studio warned her of its arrival.
“If I am not back to lunch, Sally,” said Miss Mason, with the air of one embarking on some dangerous enterprise from which she might never return, “run out and buy a chop for yourself, and we can have the steak this evening. And give Mimsi a piece of boiled whiting and a saucerful of milk.”
She got into the taxi, tightly clutching her black satin bag, and sat down in one corner. It was the first time she had driven in a taxi, and she felt a trifle nervous. But for her desire to arrive at her destination before she had time to change her mind about going, she would undoubtedly have taken a four-wheeler.
The speed of the vehicle seemed excessive, but as other taxis passed them going at an even greater rate, she made up her mind to hope for the best. She did, however, put up a small mental prayer for safety.
In spite of the rate at which they were travelling they seemed a long time in getting to their destination. At last Miss Mason began to feel uneasy. She had heard of people being kidnapped and murdered on account of their money, and though she had only put ten shillings worth of silver and one sovereign in her purse, the chauffeur might think her worth infinitely more.
She decided to ask him how much further they had to go. She noticed a long tube hanging from the front window. It was no doubt a whistle. She took it up and blew gently down it. There was no sound. She collected the whole force of her lungs and blew violently. The chauffeur, feeling a sudden and unpleasant draught at the back of his neck, looked round. He saw Miss Mason purple in the face from her efforts, and [Pg 194]the speaking tube at her lips. Fearing apoplexy he stopped the taxi and came to the door.
“Wot is it, mum?” he asked.
“I only wanted to know if we were near the address I gave you?” she said breathlessly. “I think this whistle must be out of order, I can’t make it sound.”
The chauffeur grunted. “That ain’t no bloomin’ whistle-pipe. That there’s a speakin’ toob,” he remarked scornfully. “Be at Oxford Road in five minutes now.”
He shut the door with a bang and climbed back to his seat.
“Whistle!” he said to himself. “Whistle! Thought there was a bloomin’ draught. The old party must ’ave fair busted ’erself.”
Miss Mason sank back in her corner and began to repeat the sentences in a rapid whisper.
In less than five minutes the taxi stopped before a small house divided from the pavement by a gravel plot.
The chauffeur got down and opened the taxi door.
“’Ere y’are, mum,” he said.
Miss Mason got out, paid the man, crossed the gravel plot, and mounted the steps. Her heart was beating uncomfortably fast.
“Is Mrs. Merton at home?” she asked of Emma, who opened the door.
“Yes’m. Will you come inside’m?” She showed Miss Mason into the dismal little parlour. “What name shall I say, ’m?”
“Mrs. Merton won’t know my name,” said Miss Mason desperately. “But ask her if she will speak to me for a few moments.”
Emma left the room breathing heavily as she moved, and Miss Mason sat very upright on the little sofa, her hands still clutching the black satin bag. Her eyes took in the whole room. She saw the dingy and torn tablecloth, the rather dirty chintz covers to the chairs, and the distinctly dirty muslin curtains to the windows. A mantel-border which covered the chimney-piece had come unnailed at one side, and was hanging in an untidy festoon. The carpet was faded, and crumbs scattered from the last meal were below one of the chairs. There was a large Japanese fan in the fender before the empty grate; its edges were broken and torn. It was also considerably fly-marked. Miss Mason could understand Jasper’s feelings very well. She saw what the place must mean to a man of his fastidious instincts. It might be that he was largely to blame that it had ever reached such a state, but having reached it it was almost unavoidable that he should shrink from it.
A step on the stairs made her start. She clutched more tightly at the bag and began [Pg 196]murmuring “unwarrantable intrusion,” “mutual interest,” in a spasmodic fashion, her eyes fixed on the door.
Suddenly it opened, and a woman in a rather soiled white dress came into the room. She made Miss Mason think of a faded lily.
The woman looked with something like amazement at the odd figure in the mushroom hat, grey dress, and wide white linen collar, seated on the sofa clutching a black satin bag.
Miss Mason got to her feet. “My dear,” she began, but the rest of the sentence was lost. “I’m downright nervous,” said Miss Mason, with one of her gruff little laughs, “and you’ll think me an interfering old fool, but I was bound to come.”
Bridget looked at her. “There isn’t,” she said with a note of anxiety in her voice, “anything wrong with Jasper?”
“Oh, no,” said Miss Mason quickly, “but I was talking to him last night.”
“Ah!” said Bridget.
“And——” said Miss Mason, and stopped. It seemed entirely impossible now to put her ideas into words. It is one thing to have marvellous and fairy tale schemes in one’s mind, and plan all kinds of wonderful arrangements during the magic hours of the night. It is quite another to find words for them in broad daylight and in a rather sordid little parlour, especially when they seemed to resolve themselves into the rather impertinent [Pg 197]statement that Jasper would love his wife if she brushed her hair. It is hardly a suggestion one can make in cold blood to a complete stranger. “I just came,” ended Miss Mason helplessly.
She looked through the window wondering how she could best make her escape, and wishing with all her heart that she had kept the taxi.
It was Bridget herself who came to the rescue.
“I suppose,” she said slowly, “that Jasper told you our story—it’s a sordid little story, isn’t it—and you wanted to help?”
Miss Mason nodded. Something in Bridget’s eyes made her own fill with tears. She forgot her desire to run away. She felt that she was near a dumb animal in pain.
“Tell me,” said Bridget, “what Jasper told you?”
Very stumblingly Miss Mason gave her some idea of the conversation. She wanted her to know the truth, yet dreaded to hurt her more than necessary.
“Then Jasper does care a little,” said Bridget wonderingly. “But all this——” She looked round the dingy room. “What was your idea when you came to me?” she asked simply.
“Great interference on my part, no doubt,” said Miss Mason gruffly. “Began to make up a plan. Thought if he was to see you again in a pretty room and a pretty frock——” she stopped.
Bridget glanced down at her own dress. [Pg 198]“Yes?” she said again. She had reddened slightly.
“Can tell me to go if you like,” said Miss Mason. “Had no business to come. But thought—— My dear. I just planned to take you to a pretty room and bring Jasper to you.”
Bridget looked at her. “I don’t know who you are,” she said impulsively, “nor anything about you. But you are a dear.”
“Then you’re not angry?” asked Miss Mason.
“I want,” said Bridget, in a muffled voice, “to cry. But I’m not going to. What were your plans? I’m sure you’d made some.”
And then Miss Mason unfolded all the schemes she had planned during the night hours. They were of a little flat somewhere in Chelsea not too far from the studios. The drawing-room was to be furnished in shades of brown and cream, and it was to be filled with roses in slender glass vases and china bowls. And there was to be a woman among the flowers, and Jasper coming in to find her.
“But I haven’t the money for that,” said Bridget. “And I can’t ask Jasper for any more.”
“But I have,” said Miss Mason bluntly. “My dear, I’m an old woman. Is it worth while to you, for your husband’s sake, to give me the pleasure of arranging it?”
Bridget bit her lip. She tried to speak, but no words would come.
“Don’t try to say anything,” said Miss Mason.
“I—I——” began Bridget. And, somehow, the next moment she was down on her knees by Miss Mason, who was soothing her with little odd articulations and pattings as she had soothed Pippa one night when she had awakened from a bad dream.
“I’m sorry,” said Bridget at last, sitting up and pushing back her hair from her face, “but it’s all been so lonely. At times I’ve felt that just for something to do I could be bad—really bad, you know. Anything for excitement, and to forget my own thoughts. At first I used to hate myself. Then I tried to hate Jasper, but I didn’t—I didn’t. I—I loved him all the time. You see, he gave me my baby. But I was so lonely and miserable I wanted to be wicked, only I remembered my baby, and——”
“I know, my dear,” said Miss Mason.
“Have you been lonely?” asked Bridget.
“Utterly lonely, my dear, for fifty-five years at least, ever since my parents died. And only women can understand the loneliness of women. Men have their pipes, and they can always swear a little, which must at times be an enormous help.”
“But you’re not lonely now?” asked Bridget.
Miss Mason smiled, a little glad smile. “My dear, I am so utterly happy now that I long for every one else to be happy. It was that that made me so sorry for you and Jasper, and made me [Pg 200]want to come and see you. And now I want you to come and have some luncheon with me somewhere—you’ll have to tell me where—and then we’ll go and look at flats.”
Bridget got up from the floor.
“It’s all too wonderful,” she said, “and I don’t know that I’ve the right to let you help me.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Mason gruffly. “Might just as well say I’ve no right to ask you to give me the pleasure of doing a little thing like this; but I’m going to ask you, all the same. Now go and put on a hat.”
Bridget left the room. In a few moments she came down in a dark blue linen coat and skirt, and a black straw hat swathed with rose-coloured silk. She had brushed her hair and looked a different being.
“Can we get a four-wheeler?” asked Miss Mason. “Came in a taxi, but didn’t enjoy it.”
“There’s a train and an omnibus,” said Bridget, “that will take us to Notting Hill Gate, and we can get any amount of cabs from there.”
So for the first time in her life Miss Mason mounted to the top of an omnibus and thoroughly enjoyed it. She peered over garden walls as they passed, and did her best to look through windows, and made up a good many quite fascinating stories about the inhabitants of the houses—stories very different from the mental pictures of the very [Pg 201]same lives that Jasper had been wont to paint. In Miss Mason’s stories there was always a mother—a mother clasping the downy head of a new-born baby to her heart; a mother watching the first toddling steps of a tiny child; a mother hearing a little white-nightgowned figure lisp a childish prayer. The father in these stories—of course there was a father—took an extraordinarily back seat.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a question from Bridget.
“How did Jasper come to tell you our story?” she asked.
“We were looking at a picture of Pippa,” replied Miss Mason quietly, “and he said that little Stella would have been nearly the same age.”
Bridget nodded. For a moment she was silent. Then she spoke again. “Who,” she asked, “is Pippa?”
“My little girl,” said Miss Mason promptly. “At least, she came to me out of the Nowhere last December, and now she’s mine.”
“A Christmas gift,” said Bridget.
Miss Mason nodded. “I like to hear you say that,” she said. “I gave Pippa her first Christmas tree. It was my first for the matter of that.”
And then they fell to talking about Pippa and Stella, after the fashion of women who love children, each capping the other with a new anecdote. But after a time Miss Mason was left [Pg 202]to do most of the talking, for Bridget suddenly found her voice fail her.
“Pippa,” said Miss Mason, “has true inventive genius. One night last January I told her to say her prayers before she got into bed. She announced that she’d already said them. ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘In my baf,’ she replied, ‘much warmer.’ I couldn’t help feeling there was a good deal to be said in favour of the bathroom on a cold winter’s night. But all the same, I told her she was irreverent to say her prayers lying down. I knew she’d said them that way. She always ends her ablutions with lying full length in the water. Whereupon she remarked in an aggrieved voice, ‘Turned over on my front, anyhow.’”
“True prostration in prayer,” laughed Bridget. “I shall love Pippa.”
Already it was almost impossible to believe Bridget to be the same apathetic woman who, slovenly and untidy, had entered the dingy little parlour barely two hours previously. After lunch and on the way to some flats in Beaufort Street she was almost radiant.
“We will put things through as quickly as we can,” said Miss Mason. “I hate loitering when one has set out on a piece of business.” And in her heart she was longing to get Bridget away from the dismal surroundings of her present home without a moment’s delay. She would have liked to take her to her own studio, only there was [Pg 203]no second bedroom, and also Jasper would have seen her.
After a little search Miss Mason decided on a flat she thought would do. It was on the third floor, and consisted of a dining-room, a drawing-room, four bedrooms, a servant’s room, a bathroom, and kitchen.
“What do you think of it?” asked Miss Mason. “It’s for you to say as you’ll be living in it.”
“It’s heavenly,” said Bridget ecstatically, “but really there are an unnecessary number of rooms.”
“Not at all,” said Miss Mason firmly. “I hope you’ll be here a long time, and—one never knows,” she ended significantly. Which little speech caused Bridget to blush crimson.
“The rent,” said Miss Mason, “is my affair for the first year, at all events, till you’ve got rid of the house in Chiswick. And the furniture will be my wedding present, as I didn’t happen to know you when the ceremony took place.”
And Bridget, her eyes full of happy tears, put her arms round Miss Mason and kissed her.
THE HEART OF NATURE
DURING the next three weeks the two conspirators were wildly busy. Money is a key which smooths many difficulties, and the path before them was triumphantly easy.
Jasper found Miss Mason a little hard to understand during these days. She had a way of looking at him and then giving vent to odd little chuckles of laughter. He hoped she was not becoming childish.
She received several letters from the donkey tourists. One, received about the tenth day, told her that another of her schemes was on the way to be started.
“We are,” wrote Barnabas, “enjoying ourselves immensely. The weather is glorious, and Pegasus a model of well-behaved donkeyness. He certainly deserves wings, even though he hasn’t got them. But I heard Pippa telling him in a consoling voice the other day that when he reached heaven he’d be provided with a pair of beautiful white ones. I fancy she sees in herself a female Bellerophon soaring aloft and through golden streets on a grey donkey. If the golden [Pg 205]streets are anything like as beautiful as the country lanes through which we are driving we shall be happy. I wish you could see them—the lanes, I mean. They are a bower of fairy delight. Wild roses, honeysuckle, and meadow-sweet seem to vie with each other in filling the warm air with perfume. Larks—I never knew before that the world held so many—sing to us from heaven, the sweetest feathered choristers. Last night a nightingale sang to us in the light of a full moon. It was the first Pippa had heard. There was something almost terrifying in her rapture. She feels almost too keenly. She is, however, absolutely in her element, and if I had ever felt any real doubt about her being the child of Kostolitz I should only have needed to see her out here to convince me. At times she finds the most adorable bits of language in which to express her emotions. But then it is always some little thing like the colour of a flower-chalice or the glint of the kingfisher’s blue. We saw one the other day. It skimmed up a bit of transparent water and perched on a piece of stick in midstream. Pippa and I watched it, holding our breath. All at once something—I don’t know what—startled it. There was a streak of iridescent colour and it had gone. But it left us both with the joyous feeling of discovery. The bird is too rare and too beautiful to leave one entirely unmoved. Pippa could talk of that [Pg 206]incident. It is the bigger aspects of Nature that hold her dumb. We came to a wood one evening—pines, straight and solemn as the aisles of a cathedral, the setting sun slanting down the long spaces. Pippa’s face was a marvel. She just put her hand up to her throat and held it there as if it ached with the beauty of the thing, and then she made the sign of the Cross. It was holy ground, though there had been no priestly ceremonial to proclaim it so. Only the wind was there to whisper a benediction, and the trees themselves were like priests scattering the incense of their fragrant breath. The very memory of it brings thoughts of poetry to my mind. But again to Pippa. She’s yours, and I want you to know her as I’m seeing her now, for it’s the essence of her—the spirit of Kostolitz I’m seeing. A long line of cawing rooks, whether at sunset or against the blue sky, affects her strangely. It seems to make her unutterably sad. Temporarily only, I am glad to say, for she is the gayest of children, and delights in the smallest of pleasures—namely, a pennyworth of bull’s-eyes and sticks of pink-and-white striped stuff which we buy from extremely minute shops, whose windows are crammed below with apples—foreign, of course—and nuts. Above the apples and nuts are rows of glass bottles full of pear-drops, lemon-drops, peppermints, and barley-sugar, also sugar candy the real article, rough and scrunchly on a string. [Pg 207]And somewhere in the window, very inconspicuous, is a slit through which one can drop letters—the sweetstuff shop is always the post office. But sweets evidently take decided precedence over such minor considerations as letters and postage stamps. There is always a garden leading up to the shop, and it is always crammed with flowers, the stiff old-fashioned kind—sweet-williams, stocks, marigolds, mignonette, asters, and such-like. There are bushes, too, of lavender, and lad’s-love. I painted one of them, but somehow did not hit it off. I’ve made another sketch, though, of a pond, a willow, meadow-sweet, and blue hills, which pleases me quite a lot. In fact, I was so absorbed in it that I lost Pippa. You needn’t be anxious, because she is found again, and with her something you wanted, namely, the first candidate for your School of a Wonderful Chance. I had just finished my sketch, and having come back to the practicalities of life realized that Pippa had been absent for two hours. When lo! and behold she appeared, and with her a loose-limbed fellow of about twenty. When he fills out he will rival Dan in size—but that is beside the mark.
“‘Barnabas,’ she cried—ceremony and with it the Monsieur has lapsed into disuse in the open air—‘do look at ze lovely little figure ’e ’as made. ‘Is name is Andrew McAndrew.’ And she rolled her r’s with gusto. Well, it is pleasant to think [Pg 208]that Pippa should be the one to find your first candidate, and it is curious to think it is one who, if I am not much mistaken, will one day be a great sculptor. The little figure of a young girl, made from the clay of the river, was to my mind simply a marvel. I learnt his story. I’ll not give it in the broad Scotch in which he told it, for it would take you your whole time to make it out. He lived in London—Bayswater way—with a widowed mother, whom he supports by typing in a stuffy little office which he loathes, though he has not been without hope that ‘Aiblins the gud Lorrd would find a way out for him one o’ these days.’ Whenever he has any spare time he models in clay, which mercifully is an inexpensive material. He has at the moment a week’s holiday, during which he is tramping the country, sleeping under a hedge or at the foot of a hayrick, eating bread and cheese like any tramp, and enjoying himself finely—as we are. Pippa, it appears, watched him at work, herself hidden, like the fairy she is, in a mass of meadow-sweet. Suddenly she appeared from among it, and they entered into a conversation which must have been curious, conducted in a broad Scotch on his side, and in broken English on hers—though her English is progressing rapidly. Anyhow, she made him understand she was out with a party of artists. He was all agog to meet us, and she [Pg 209]brought him along. He will join us for the next three days, instead of making his way again in the direction of London as he had intended, and we’ve arranged between us to send him back by train. As soon as I’m at my studio again he will look me up, and I’ll bring him along to see you. I’ve given him no inkling of the Wonderful Chance before him. That is for you to do. But he’s one of the right ones for it and no mistake. You won’t mind if we keep on the tour till the end of June, will you? Cupid is sitting gaily in the donkey-cart alongside Pippa, and though Aurora and Alan don’t quite realize his presence yet, they soon will discover him, and will no doubt bring him back as a permanent guest to London. That, of course, was my main idea when I proposed the tour. High Art, thank goodness, is getting wan and pale. She had almost her death-blow the other day when Aurora made a daisy-chain with which she adorned Alan, and he fell into a pond dabbling after tadpoles for Pippa. We fished him out and wrapped him in a rug, while we spread his clothes in a buttercup field to dry. The warmth of their gold was enough to dry them, let alone the sun. I heard Cupid chuckling, the rogue! We miss you a lot, and the best thing we have to look forward to on our return is your welcome….”
Miss Mason put down the letter with a little sigh of happiness. Her heart felt nearly as warm and sunny as the buttercup field.
Then she set out to meet Bridget at Storey’s in Kensington High Street.
Exactly three weeks after Miss Mason’s peregrination to Chiswick she put a request to Jasper.
“I want,” she said, in as careless a voice as she could assume, “to call on a friend of mine this afternoon, and I want you to come with me.”
Jasper looked dismayed. “I should be delighted,” he said mendaciously, “only calling isn’t a bit in my line.”
“It’s quite near at hand,” said Miss Mason; “only at a flat in Beaufort Street, and I particularly want you to meet my friend.”
“Very well,” said Jasper, suppressing a sigh.
“We’ll start,” said Miss Mason, “at half-past three.”
At the hour appointed Jasper appeared.
“You had better call a taxi,” said Miss Mason. She felt it impossible to walk. She would have run all the way, a proceeding which would have undoubtedly have astonished Jasper.
As the taxi drew up at the door of a block of flats in Beaufort Street, a woman looked for a moment from a window. As she saw the two figures get out she drew back into the room. Her [Pg 211]heart was beating so loudly she could almost hear it.
Miss Mason rang the bell of the flat.
“Your mistress at home?” she said to the dapper little maid who opened the door.
“Yes’m. What name ’m?”
“Miss Mason and Mr. Merton,” said Miss Mason firmly.
They went into the bright little passage, and the maid threw open the door of the drawing-room.
“Miss Mason and Mr. Merton,” she announced.
A woman in a pale green dress came forward to meet them.
“Jasper,” she said, with a little shaky laugh, and she held out both her hands.
“Bride!” he exclaimed, and it was nearly seven years since she had heard that name.
Miss Mason went quickly from the room, and closed the door softly behind her.
It was nearly an hour before they realized her absence. Then Bridget started up from the sofa.
“Aunt Olive!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Jasper, isn’t she a dear! I must go round and find her.”
“She’ll be back at her studio by now,” said Jasper calmly.
“I’d quite forgotten her,” said Bridget contritely. “Oughtn’t we to go——”
“Presently,” said Jasper. “Come back to me now. I want you. Aunt Olive will understand.”
THE RING OF EROS
FAR away from London Pippa was swinging on a gate. Her dress had become rather faded from much sunshine, and her straw hat had been baked quite brown. She had it well pulled down to shade her eyes, so that it hid the upper part of her face.
An hour ago Pippa had been crying, and for the reason that the purple-shadowed landscape had refused to be interpreted on canvas through the medium of paints and brushes and her own little brown right hand. Barnabas at her earnest request had lent her the materials. It was not the first time she had tried with them. He had watched her in silence as she messed away with the paints. Suddenly she flung the canvas face downwards on the grass and burst into tears.
“What is it, Kiddy?” asked Barnabas, putting his arm round her.
“It’s all out vere,” she said, nodding towards the sunny landscape, “and I can see it, and I want to tell it to myself and ozzer peoples, like you tell your pictures, and I can’t—oh, I can’t.” [Pg 213]She rubbed her tear-stained face up and down on Barnabas’ coat-sleeve in an access of despair.
“But, childie,” expostulated Barnabas, “one can’t ‘tell pictures,’ as you say, all in a moment. One has to learn.”
Pippa shook her head. “Not me,” she said. “I shall never learn. I can’t ever tell pictures. And it’s all here,” she put her hand to her heart, “and I want to say it so badly.”
For a minute Barnabas was silent. Then he spoke.
“Once,” he said, “there was a boy who saw that the world was very beautiful and he wanted to tell his own beautiful thoughts about it to himself and to other people. One day he heard a man playing the violin. And the man made the violin speak so that in its music it said the most wonderful things. It told about the moon shining on a sleeping sea, and the secrets the little waves whispered to the shore. It told of silver streams whose banks were starred with primroses, and it told of great forests where the trees were standing dark and still in the purple night waiting for the first rosy flush of dawn. It told of the laughter of little children, and the songs young mothers sing to their babies. All these things the music of the violin told, and the boy listened, and said to himself, ‘I will play the violin, for I know now the way I can tell my thoughts to the world.’”
Pippa was listening entranced. “Had he got a violin?” she asked.
“No,” said Barnabas, “but someone gave him a violin, and he had lessons, and he practised for many hours, but the violin would not speak his thoughts in the way he wished it to. And one day the great violinist he had first heard play came to the house. He listened to the boy playing but he didn’t say very much. You see, he was a big man, and the big men never discourage the little men. Remember that, Pippa, my child. Well, when the boy had finished playing, the Master just wagged his shaggy great head to and fro and said, ‘Um, um, um. The lad’s got something to say, but——’ and then he went away. But he came again to see the boy. And that time he didn’t ask him to play, but he just sat talking to him. And while he talked the boy was playing with a piece of clay, for he was very fond of making figures out of it.”
“Like Andrew,” said Pippa.
“Yes, like Andrew. Well, while the Master talked the boy went on doing something with the clay, and suddenly the Master saw that it was a likeness of himself the boy had made. ‘Let’s have a look at that, boy,’ he said. The boy, feeling very shy and crimson, pushed it over to him. The Master stared at it for a minute, then he thumped his hand down on the table. ‘Du lieber Gott!’ he exclaimed in a huge big voice [Pg 215]that made the boy tremble, ‘I knew the boy had something to say, and behold,’ he pointed at the clay, ‘here is the language in which he shall say it. My son,’ he went on, ‘you have the ear to hear the language of music, and you have the heart to understand it, but you have not the hand to make it speak yourself. In it you understand the thoughts of others, but in this earth you shall tell your own. If you live you will be a great man.’ And he held out his hand to the boy, who took it and kissed it, because he was so very happy. It’s a true story,” ended Barnabas, “because the boy himself told me, only he was a man when he told the story.”
Pippa nodded her head up and down. “I like dat,” she said. “One day p’raps I find a language. What was ze boy’s name?”
“The boy’s name,” said Barnabas, “was Philippe Kostolitz, and he made the little faun which you love, and which is in my garden.”
“Oh!” said Pippa, with a delighted sigh. Her tears were completely forgotten. Twenty minutes later she was swinging on the gate.
Barnabas was sitting in the shadow of a hedge near her, painting a buttercup field and a copse of birches beyond. Dan was lying flat on his back smoking. Andrew had gone back to London. And Aurora and Alan were off on some business of their own. Pegasus, tethered to a long rope, was contentedly eating thistles.
Pippa watched the birds and butterflies, which were many, and the by-passers, which were few, as she swung. An old man passed and called good afternoon in a cheery voice. A trap with a hard-worked young doctor in it drove by, and he smiled as he saw Pippa. Then there came a cart driven by a man, and with a boy of about fifteen sitting on the tail-board, his legs swinging. He made a grimace at Pippa as he passed, and Pippa—be it told with sorrow—put out her tongue at him. There was something of the gamin about Pippa which was never wholly eradicated. And after the boy there passed a young gipsy woman carrying a baby. Pippa gave her a three-penny bit. The woman looked hard at her.
“Ah,” she said, “there’s some of our blood in your veins, and you have the sad eyes and the lucky smile of those who are born to many happenings. The Lord keep you, little lady.” And she passed on her way. And after she had gone there were only the birds and butterflies for quite a long time.
Suddenly Pippa heard the distant hoot of a motor-car. Barnabas, who had finished his painting, came to the gate and leant over it with her. The motor hove in sight, a great crimson Mercedes, travelling fast.
Pippa waved her hand as it passed. The occupants of the car, a man and a woman, saw [Pg 217]the child, and the gaiety of the sunshine being in their hearts they waved in response. The woman, who was swathed in a purple motor veil, waved an ungloved hand. Pippa saw the flash of diamonds on it. Also as she waved something fell, but the car rounded a bend in the lane and was out of sight almost before Pippa and Barnabas realized it.
Pippa scrambled over the gate. There was something lying in the dust, which she picked up. She came back slowly to Barnabas.
“Look,” she said, “what a queer, pretty ring.”
A ruby was set in it, on which was engraved a little figure of Eros holding a circle and trident. The stone and its setting was undoubtedly very ancient. The ring itself probably Georgian.
She held it out to Barnabas. He took it from her.
“Ah,” he said slowly, and he looked from it in the direction the car had vanished.
He had seen the ring before on the hand of Philippe Kostolitz.
“May I keep it?” asked Pippa.
“No, little thief,” said Barnabas. “The owner will miss it and perhaps come back for it. In any case we shall have to try and find out who she is, and return it.”
And he slipped the ring into his coat-pocket.
AN OLD MAN IN A GARDEN
IT is strange how a name long unspoken and unheard, once coming again within one’s ken, comes again and again before one, and in the most unlikely and unexpected ways.
For over nine years Barnabas had not chanced to hear his friend’s name mentioned, and now there was first Pippa and her wonderful likeness to him, and then the incident of the ring, both of which had served to remind him vividly and bring the name before him. But the third incident was to be a good deal stranger, in fact it was to savour somewhat of the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”
They stopped for their noon halt one day in the shade of a small coppice. A little beyond it they could see the roof and chimneys of a house surrounded by a high wall. Before settling down to lunch Barnabas strolled towards it and walked round the wall. There was no means of seeing over, and the only entrance was through a small green wooden door, which was shut. Ivy grew up the wall outside, and had Barnabas felt disposed he might have climbed up by it and [Pg 219]peered over. It was, however, too hot for such exertion. Also if there were anyone in the garden and he were seen, his position would have been, to say the least of it, undignified. He strolled back to the copse and to the lunch which the others had unpacked.
“Where ’ave you been?” asked Pippa.
Barnabas nodded in the direction of the house. “Down there,” he said.
“What’s inside?” demanded Pippa.
“Don’t know,” said Barnabas, attacking the leg of a chicken; “couldn’t see over.”
Pippa’s eyes became far off and dreamy. “Quel domage! You couldn’t climb, ze wall ver’ much too ’igh?”
“It wasn’t the question of the height of the wall, but my dignity,” returned Barnabas. “What would I have looked like if I’d been caught?”
“Funny,” smiled Pippa, her eyes dancing with amusement.
“I’ve no desire to look funny,” said Barnabas. “Toss me over that bottle of cider, like a good child, and look out for flying corks. I do my best, but this weather makes the stuff too fizzy for anything.”
Pippa tossed the bottle and retired gravely behind Barnabas while he manipulated the cork. Then she returned to her seat near him.
“I do wonder what’s inside,” she said.
“Cider,” said Barnabas, pouring it into a glass.
“Not the bottle, méchant, the wall,” announced Pippa.
“Oh, the wall! I don’t know; nothing, I daresay.”
“An Ogre,” said Aurora. She and Alan and Dan had been too busy feeding to enter into the conversation before.
Pippa elevated her chin. “Je ne suis pas une bébé, moi. I know, but quite well, vere are no Ogres.”
“Lions, then, Miss Curiosity,” suggested Alan.
Pippa turned her shoulder towards him. “Imbécile, it is not a menagerie, but I have no interest in it, moi. If you wish to discover you can go and look for yourself.” And she proceeded to eat chicken delicately and haughtily with her fingers, disdaining further mention of the house within the wall.
After lunch they all lay down in the shade of the trees and went to sleep, lulled by the sleepy, liquid note of the wood-pigeons, and the humming of bees.
Barnabas was the first to awaken. When he did he discovered that Pippa was absent. He came out of the copse and looked down the little lane that ran between the trees on one side and a stretch of moorland on the other. To the left [Pg 221]it would come out on the main road, to the right it led to the wall-enclosed house.
Seeing no sign of the child, and not caring to coo-ee to her on account of disturbing the sleepers, he went down towards the house, thinking it more than likely, from her remarks at lunch, that she had gone to investigate the place herself.
“Daughter of Eve,” said Barnabas to himself, as he strolled down the sunny lane, watching the butterflies flitting over the moorland.
He reached the garden wall and had strolled round two sides of it when he suddenly came to a standstill, arrested by the sound of Pippa’s voice from inside the garden.
He paused to listen. He could hear her words distinctly. She was narrating to some one the story of Philippe Kostolitz which he had told her only a couple of days previously.
“And so,” Pippa ended, in her clear voice, “I am looking for my language. What is yours?” There was a note of shameless coaxing in the words.
“That,” returned a deep voice.
“What, ze garden?” came Pippa’s reply.
Barnabas put one foot on a stout branch of ivy, and clinging to another branch above him, heaved himself noiselessly to the top of the wall.
Then he saw Pippa. She was seated on a garden bench, her hat in her hands, and on the bench beside her was an old man. His beard, long and snow-white, reached almost to his waist. His hair, also snow-white and very thick, glistened in the sunlight, for his head was uncovered. His clothes, Barnabas saw, were dark and well-cut, and his voice was peculiarly melodious and refined.
“Well, upon my word!” ejaculated Barnabas, quite forgetting that he was speaking aloud.
The old man looked up. “Ah,” he said, with a quaint smile, “so you, too, have found the ivy route.”
“You don’t mean to say Pippa climbed up here?” exclaimed Barnabas, absolutely forgetful of his own rather curious position.
“But I did,” cried Pippa joyfully, “and he saw me, and asked me to come in and see ze garden. But did you ever see such a garden?”
“Never!” said Barnabas enthusiastically, surveying it from his post of vantage.
Smooth lawns with close-clipped edges, and flower-beds a mass of colour met his eye. There were larkspurs tall and slender, from sapphire blue to turquoise. There were great tree lupins, there were roses of every shade and shape imaginable. There were crimson and blue salvias, scarlet and white phloxes, borders of African marigolds—a blaze of orange; and there was a great bed of hollyhocks, among whose silken [Pg 223]flowers butterflies innumerable were hovering. In the middle of the lawn was a marble basin full of crystal water, on whose edge white pigeons were preening themselves, and a couple of gorgeous peacocks spread tails of waking eyes to the sun.
“Will you not,” said the old man courteously, “follow Pippa’s example and enter the garden by the door? You will find it unfastened.”
Barnabas slithered down off the wall and came round to the green door. He felt as if he were suddenly walking into a fairy tale garden in which nothing that might happen would surprise him.
The old man came forward to meet him.
“I hope,” he said courteously, “that the child’s absence has not caused you anxiety. I found a pleasure in her conversation, and forgot that time was passing.”
“Not at all,” Barnabas assured him. “I had only just missed her. I came to look for her, and heard her voice. Forgive my unceremonious appearance.”
The old man smiled. “It was as delightful as her own,” he said.
There was a little silence. Barnabas looked towards the house. It was Elizabethan in structure, with walls stained to a variety of different colours by wind, sun, rain, and time. Roses wreathed the latticed windows, and up one [Pg 224]side of the house a great wistaria climbed, covering part of the roof and losing itself among the chimney-stacks.
“Will you come inside?” said the old man. “There is something I would like the child to see.”
Barnabas assented. The three sleepers in the coppice were forgotten. The fascination of the place and the old man’s strange and courtly personality was upon him.
The old man had led the way into the house. They went into a square hall, dark and cool. The floor was of inlaid wood highly polished, the walls oak and hung with pictures. They passed through the hall, and the old man led the way through an arched doorway and down two steps into a room which to the mind of Barnabas belonged most assuredly to the ancient stories of the “Arabian Nights.” In shape it was circular, and hung with draperies of a curious deep blue, like the colour of the sky at night. The floor was also polished and covered with a few old Persian rugs. There was an oak table at the far side of the room, three large oak chairs, and a kind of divan covered in sapphire-blue silk and worked with tiny crescent moons and stars.
But the arresting note of the room lay in a marble statue on a pedestal. It would be hard to say wherein exactly the extraordinary fascination [Pg 225]of it lay. But Barnabas looked at it almost spellbound. The old man motioned to them to sit down, and seated himself.
“That statue,” he said, “was given me by a friend of mine. He used to pass many months with me at a time. He loved the quietude of these surroundings as I love them. At the back of the house I had a studio built for him where he worked. When he was not working he sat in the garden. He loved it. He used to say he loved the flowers both in sunlight and in moonlight, or drenched in tears of rain. He said the Spirit of the Garden moved among them. That was the Figure he made of Her. Look at it well,” he went on, with a grave earnestness. “Is it not wonderful?”
“Wonderful!” echoed Barnabas from his heart.
“It is to me,” said the old man quietly, “a perfect embodiment of an inspiration. So much is often lost. First the inspiration-flash has to become articulate—to be shaped in the brain—before the hand even starts to fashion it. It loses enormously in the process. To me that is one of the few things that has not lost. It is the first inspiration-flash embodied in marble. It has never been exhibited. My friend had a curious dislike to exhibiting his work. He was a strange man.”
He lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Pippa was lying back in her chair, her hands tucked [Pg 226]under her chin—a usual attitude of hers. She was gazing at the statue with wide grey eyes. Barnabas had a certain presentiment of a name that would shortly be mentioned.
“Would you like to see the place where he worked?” asked the old man suddenly.
Barnabas got up from his chair. Pippa came across to him and slid her hand into his. Her imagination was vividly at work.
They left the circular room and went down a passage. The old man took a key from his pocket and unlocked a door.
“This is the place,” he said.
It was a large room, well lighted. There were plaster casts of heads on various shelves, and several plaster plaques hanging on the walls. At one side of the studio Barnabas saw the plaster figure of a little faun. It was the same as the marble faun in his garden. Pippa did not notice it. She was gazing at a figure, enveloped in an old sheet, which was on a stand in the middle of the room.
“It was the last piece of work he started here,” said the old man, pointing to it. “It has remained just as he left it. Nothing has been moved. I dust the place myself. No one ever entered it but my friend and I and the workmen he employed. They were always foreigners, and came from a distance. But now no one enters but I. You are the first to come into the place.”
“And,” said Barnabas, speaking in a low voice, “you brought us in here because of Pippa?”
Pippa had wandered to the far side of the room.
“How did you know?” asked the old man.
“Because Philippe Kostolitz was also my friend.”
“Ah!” said the old man softly. “And where,” he asked, “did you find the child?”
“She came to us,” said Barnabas, “out of the Nowhere.”
The old man smiled. “Planted there I fancy by Philippe.” Then their eyes met. “So you saw the likeness too?”
“I did,” said Barnabas.
“That was the reason,” said the old man, “that I liked to talk to her. She reminded me of him. He came and went from here as he chose. It was on one of his tramps that he wandered in. The door in the wall is never locked. I found him looking at the butterflies among my hollyhocks. He was a lad of twenty at that time. It is twenty-five years ago.”
“Yes?” said Barnabas.
“Pippa’s voice,” went on the old man, “is charming. I liked to hear it. She has a way of looking up at one when she talks that reminds me of our friend. She told me a delightful little story about a sculptor.”
“The story,” said Barnabas, “was true. And the sculptor was Philippe Kostolitz.”
“Truly,” said the old man, “I might have guessed it.”
And again he lapsed into silence. Suddenly he roused himself.
“But you will have fruit and cake and something to drink,” he said. “I was forgetting my manners.”
“We have only just lunched,” said Barnabas.
“But fruit,” the old man insisted, “at least fruit. I hold the Eastern ideas of hospitality. Those to whom I feel friendly must eat in my house.”
He led the way back into the hall and signed to them to sit down. Then he clapped his hands three times. An Indian, brown as mahogany, in loose trousers, white shirt, and turban, answered the summons. He salaamed, his face as impassive as a mask.
The old man said something to him in a language neither Barnabas nor Pippa understood, though Barnabas guessed it to be Hindustanee.
“He has served me,” said the old man, “for fifteen years. He is faithful as a dog.”
“Do you live here always?” asked Barnabas.
“I have lived here,” said the old man, “for thirty years. Up till the age of forty I travelled far. Then I came here to peace—my thoughts, my flowers, and my books. I have a few friends who come to see me, and they are always welcome.”
He mentioned three or four names. Among them Barnabas recognized the name of a famous statesmen and a well-known singer.
The Indian returned with a tray, on which was a dish of strawberries, some wafer biscuits, a glass of milk, and two empty tumblers, and three small decanters, which he placed on a table.
The old man helped Pippa to strawberries and gave her the glass of milk. Then from the three decanters he mixed a drink for Barnabas and himself.
“Excellent!” said Barnabas as he tasted it.
“My own brewing,” said the old man.
While they ate the fruit he talked to them of his travels. Each little narrative he told was well-turned and concise, the language he chose was poetical.
All at once he got up and went into an inner room. He came back with the most exquisite little Russian icon. He gave it to Pippa.
“Will you have it,” he asked, “in memory of your visit here?”
Pippa was covered with rosy blushes of delight.
“Mais, je vous rémerce mille fois,” she said. “Barnabas, isn’t it beautiful, but, oh, very beautiful?”
“It’s very good of you,” said Barnabas. “You’ve given a great deal of pleasure.” And then quite suddenly, and for the first time, he remembered the three sleepers in the wood, who [Pg 230]doubtless had long ago awakened. He signed to Pippa, who got up. The old man took them into the garden. At the green door he held out his hand.
“Will you come again and see me?” he said. “I live, as you see, alone among my flowers. Ali looks after my bodily needs, and I have a man who helps me in my garden. I do not, as a rule, see people—beyond the few friends I mentioned to you. But it would give me great pleasure if you will come. My name is Adam Gray, and my house is called The Close.”
And Barnabas promised that one day they would come again.
So they left the enchanted garden and went up the lane among the butterflies.
“I feel as if I’d been dreaming,” said Pippa thoughtfully.
“Exactly, my dear,” said Barnabas. “It’s what we’ve both been doing—dreaming a very fantastic Arabian Night’s dream, which nobody would believe if we told it to them.”
And then from afar an extremely wakeful Dan saw them and hailed them in wrathful accents.
“Where on earth have you two been?” he cried. “We’ve been hunting for you for the last hour and a half.”
“We’ve been in a fairy tale,” said Barnabas, as he reached him, “where clocks and watches are not admitted, and where turbaned Indians [Pg 231]bring red, white, and green drinks in cut-glass decanters, which when mixed together is drink fit for the gods. Now let me help you to harness Pegasus. And if you’ll leave off staring I’ll tell you about it, only Pippa knows you won’t believe it.”
Miss Mason, in her studio in London, received a registered packet from Barnabas. She opened it, and found inside a letter and a curious signet ring.
“We are on our way home,” wrote Barnabas. “Cupid has triumphed and is holding the reins of Pegasus. Pippa, Dan, and I are taking back seats. Kisses and moonlight—there’s a full moon—predominate, and I saw Aurora hugging a rosy-cheeked baby in a cottage garden. High Art gave one groan and expired. She has never, never moved again. The call of wedding bells is bringing us back to London. You may expect us on Friday. I am enclosing a ring which was dropped from a passing motor-car. Fortunately I saw the number. It was a London car. I am advertising for the owner of the ring in various London papers, and have given your studio as the address to which to apply, though I gave my own name. Therefore I send you the ring. You will, of course, take the name and address of the claimant. Dan and I will be glad to be home again. Though Nature in her present sunny [Pg 232]mood is extraordinarily entrancing, there is a good deal to be said in favour of spring mattresses….”
Miss Mason looked at the ring, turning it curiously in her hand. Then she put it away in a little carved box which she locked.
“IFEEL,” said Barnabas, “that some one ought to pat me on the back. I set out to do something, and I did it. It is a pleasant sensation.”
“Unaccustomed?” asked Miss Mason, with mock sarcasm.
They were both in her studio the day following the return of the donkey-party. They were awaiting the appearance of Andrew McAndrew, to whom Barnabas had written to come to the studio at four o’clock. Pippa had been taken by Jasper to call upon his wife.
Miss Mason had announced Bridget’s advent to Beaufort Street to the assembled party the previous evening. They had taken the announcement without undue surprise. Their minds were too big and straightforward to dream of questioning. Since Jasper had chosen to keep the fact of his marriage secret it was entirely his own affair. They merely rejoiced that he was now, as Miss Mason told them, unfeignedly happy.
“Aurora,” continued Barnabas, “has gone down to stay with her own people for three weeks, [Pg 234]while the banns are being called. She left this morning, and Alan is writing to her at the moment. Their pet names for each other are Sweetest and Boysie. I suppose the pendulum was bound to swing pretty far in the direction of rank sentimentality. It’ll steady again presently.”
“You swung it,” said Miss Mason dryly.
“And I’m proud of the fact,” said Barnabas.
There was a knock at the door.
“If that’s Mr. McAndrew,” said Miss Mason, relapsing into her gruffest manner, “you’ll have to do the talking, because I can’t.”
“Mr. McAndrew,” said Sally, opening the door.
Andrew came in, a great loose-limbed fellow, with mouse-coloured hair, and oddly earnest eyes in a snub-nosed, wide-mouthed face.
“Awfully glad to see you, McAndrew,” said Barnabas warmly. “Let me introduce you to Miss Mason.”
The two shook hands and Andrew sat down. His glance wandered round the studio till it reached the “Winged Victory.” His eyes rested on it with pleasure as on some familiar friend.
“Ay,” he said, “but yon’s a fine bit o’ wor-rk.”
“You’re fond of sculpture,” said Miss Mason shortly.
“’Deed,” said Andrew, “I like it weel.”
“Do you do anything yourself in that way?” asked Miss Mason.
Andrew shook his head. “I’ll no be havin’ the [Pg 235]time,” he said, “for mair than juist dabblin’ wi’ a bit o’ clay.”
“Would you like to give your time to the work?” asked Miss Mason.
“’Deed an’ I wad.” There was a simple earnestness about the words infinitely more convincing than any lengthy assurance of the fact.
“Well,” said Miss Mason gruffly, “let’s have some tea.”
During the meal Barnabas did most of the talking, Andrew replying in short sentences. Miss Mason was practically silent. When it was finished Miss Mason looked across at Barnabas.
“Better tell Mr. McAndrew our idea,” she said.
So, very straightforwardly, Barnabas told Andrew Miss Mason’s scheme for the Wonderful Chance. When he had ended Andrew looked at him with an expression of dumb happiness in his eyes.
“You’ll be meanin’——?” he said. “You were thinkin’ to offer the chance to me?”
“If you care to take it,” said Barnabas. “What do you think?”
“I’m maist obleeged,” said Andrew, and he lapsed into silence.
“Very well, then,” said Miss Mason gruffly, “it’s settled. Mr. Kirby will make all arrangements with you.” And she too became silent.
It was not at all the kind of interview Barnabas had intended. He felt Miss Mason to be almost [Pg 236]tiresomely gruff, and his protégé almost ungrateful.
At last Andrew heaved himself out of his chair.
“I’ll be leavin’,” he said. He held out his hand to Miss Mason. “I’m maist obleeged,” he said again.
“That’s all right,” said Miss Mason gruffly.
Barnabas went out into the little garden with Andrew.
“Miss Mason doesn’t mean to be abrupt,” he said. “It’s merely her manner. She finds it difficult to express——”
Andrew turned on him. “Man, d’ye think I dinna ken. D’ye think ‘I’m maist obleeged’ told juist all that was in ma heart. I cud e’en ha’ knelt an’ ha’ kissed the hem o’ her skir-rt. An’ gin I had I’d ha’ been sobbin’ like a wee bit wean.” Andrew swallowed once or twice fiercely.
Then he saw the little faun.
“Ay,” he said, “yon’s bonny. I wad like fine to make a figure to stand in t’ auld lady’s garden, but aiblins she like it a wee bit draipit.”
“Charity,” laughed Barnabas, “colossal and in many robes.”
“Huh!” said Andrew scornfully, “it’s ha’ gran’ figure o’ Charity I was thinkin’ o’, but juist a wee figure o’ smilin’ Love wi’ his hands held oot to draw folk to his hearrt.”
And a year later such a little figure did stand—not in the garden—but in a corner of Miss Mason’s studio.
When Andrew had gone Barnabas went back into the studio.
“We disappointed you,” said Miss Mason. “That boy’s no more good at expressing his feelings than I am.”
“I understand,” said Barnabas lightly. “He managed though to say a bit more in the garden. By the way,” he went on, “no one has called to claim the ring yet, I suppose?”
“No,” replied Miss Mason. “It’s a queer ring.”
“Yes,” said Barnabas. But for some reason he still did not say where and when he had first seen it.
THE CRUELTY OF THE FATES
THE Duchessa di Corleone was on her way back from Italy. She had said good-bye with a little pang to the gallery, and to the courtyard with its golden oranges and marble statues, but once on her way to England the thought of Paul completely obliterated any trace of sorrow. She was joyfully ready to give up everything—the Casa di Corleone, her house on the Embankment, and her thousands a year for the man who had taken her heart into his keeping.
Throughout the journey her heart sang little songs of happiness, which had as their refrain the one word, “Paul.” The express train rushing across the country bathed in the July sun could hardly carry her with sufficient swiftness. When, at last, Calais was reached and she was on board the boat she felt happier.
With the cliffs of Dover in sight her heart was singing a Te Deum. Till that moment she had felt that some accident might happen to prevent her getting to him. Now, in less than four hours she would be in his studio.
She had written to tell him not to meet her at [Pg 239]the station. She wanted their first meeting to be alone, without the eyes of curious porters upon them.
“Just you and I together, my darling,” she wrote. “I can see the room in my mind, and you coming forward to meet me. There has not been a moment day and night when you have been absent from my thoughts. Our love transfigures everything for me. Life has become a magic book on every page of which your name is written….”
That letter had reached Paul in his studio the morning of the day Sara would arrive. And now, an hour before her arrival, he was sitting with it crumpled tightly in his hand, his eyes staring blankly before him.
The Fates had struck suddenly, dealing sorrow as they had dealt joy, silently and swiftly. That very morning he had heard of the complete failure of the Mexican bank in which his money was invested.
At first the news had stunned him. In the afternoon he had gone down to a friend in the city to make fuller enquiries. He found his worst fears realized. His income, which altogether had amounted to about fourteen hundred a year, had been suddenly reduced to less than half. In fact, to merely the six hundred or so he earned by his painting.
Paul went back to his studio and sat down [Pg 240]trying to realize what it would mean. And because he was a man whose steady grey eyes had always looked facts clearly in the face, he even took pencil and paper and jotted down certain figures. But the sum total always remained the same—his marriage with Sara had become impossible.
He never for an instant did her the wrong of thinking that his loss of income would make any difference to her love for him. He believed in her love as implicitly as he believed in his own. That, however, did not alter the one fact that marriage was out of the question. Even if he reduced his mother’s allowance by a hundred a year—which, however, he had no intention of doing—the three hundred left him would not justify him taking any woman to wife, and assuredly not a woman like the Duchessa di Corleone. He knew the impossibility of transplanting a hot-house flower to the open air of a wintry garden. The thing could not be done. No amount of care could save it; it must die.
And with the irony of fate, this news had reached him by the very same post as her letter.
He took it again from his pocket and re-read it. A spasm of pain that was almost physical pierced him. His hand tightened on the paper till it was crumpled and twisted. And in less than an hour she would be in the studio with him.
“My God,” said Paul to himself, “the Fates are very cruel!”
And then because throughout the day his first thought had been of Sara he began to plan how best to break the news to her. He determined that for a few hours at least she should not know. She should have the complete joy of the meeting unmarred. They were going out to dine together. When they returned to the studio it would be time enough to tell her. With the decision all the old quiet endurance he had learnt through days and nights of hardship came back to Paul. He would hide the knowledge of their parting in his own heart. Till he bade her good-bye that evening she should never guess what the world would really mean to them both.
Something caught at his throat and a mist swam before his eyes. He got up and began to walk quickly up and down the room. Every now and then his hand, still holding the letter, clenched tightly.
Suddenly he realized what he held. He stopped in his walk and put the letter on the table. He smoothed it out tenderly, as if it had been some living thing he had injured. He folded it and put it in his pocket-book. And once more he began his walk.
The whole place seemed full of her presence. Everything reminded him of her, the chair in which she sat, the glass at which she had been [Pg 242]wont to arrange her hat when she was sitting for him, the vases on a bookshelf, for which she insisted that he should buy flowers. There were flowers in them to-day, real crimson roses—General Jacqueminot, with its sweet old-fashioned scent. For the future they would remain empty. It would be useless to buy flowers if she was not to see them. It seemed to him as if his whole life he had been doing everything for her, and that now nothing would seem worth while. He caught at his underlip with his teeth, biting it hard. It seemed as if he were being asked to bear more than human strength could endure. Then all at once he stopped in his walk, for the hoot of a taxi near at hand struck on his ears.
A moment later he heard a light step crossing the courtyard. The door opened. She was in the doorway—radiant, living.
She was in his arms. He was holding her as if he would never let her go.
Love, so say the chroniclers—and wrongly—is blind. It is keen-sighted as an eagle, which from afar discerns objects invisible to the sight of man.
When Paul at last held Sara away from him, she looked into his eyes, and though he had hidden his sorrow deep down in his heart she saw suddenly into the depths, and her own heart momentarily [Pg 243]stood still. But also with her love and her quick woman’s instinct she saw that it was something he wished to keep hidden, and so she did not ask him then what it was he was hiding from her, but smiled at him, and in her turn hid what she had guessed.
So throughout the evening the two played a game of pretence, she knowing that they both were playing it, and he—man-like—believing that he was the sole performer.
They went to an hotel together and dined, and listened to a band which was making music, and they talked nonsensically about the food they were eating and the people they saw, and all the time her heart was crying to him to drop the terrible mask of gaiety and tell her his sorrow. But as she saw he meant to play the game she told him of her journey, and the portrait that was hanging in the gallery, and she said that she had kissed the fauns good-bye. And then quite suddenly she stopped, because she saw a look of such pain come into his eyes that for the moment she was dumb, and pretence seemed useless. But almost at once he laughed and made some little light speech; and she laughed too, and bravely, because she knew he wished it.
But when at last they were back in the studio she could play the terrible little game no longer. And he too knew that the moment had come for it to cease.
“Paul,” she said steadily, “what is it?”
“You guessed?” he asked.
“My dear,” she said, with a sad laugh, “I knew at once.”
“Then the harlequin game has been no good,” he said. And so he told her. And when he had ended there was a long silence.
Sara was the first to break it.
“There is no need for me to tell you,” she said, “that this makes no difference to our love.”
“But,” said Paul, and in spite of himself his voice was bitter, “it does to our marriage. There is no way out.”
And with the words silence again fell. And in the silence Sara felt a slow hatred of Giuseppe creep into her heart. He could have made this happiness possible to her, and he had made it impossible.
She did not dream of suggesting that they should marry in spite of everything. She knew it would be mere mockery to do so. But her heart rebelled fiercely against fate and against the late Duca di Corleone. It was the arrant selfishness of his deed that angered her. She had been his wife faithful and courteous when he was living, and in return he claimed her life when he was dead, or made a pauper of her.
She got up from her chair and began to move about the room. In mind and body she felt like [Pg 245]a caged animal beating against the bars which kept it from freedom.
She paused near the window. Paul saw her figure silhouetted against the night sky. He watched her. And suddenly her love for Paul and every fighting instinct within her rose up against the injustice of the Fates. Defiance of their decree and intense love overwhelmed her.
“There—is a way,” she said slowly. She did not turn her head. Paul saw her profile immovable against the square of grey-blue window.
He got up from his chair and came across to her. He took her hand and held it hard against his lips.
“You honour me, Beloved,” he said. “But it cannot be.”
She turned towards him then.
“Why not?” she cried almost fiercely. “We love each other. Is not that enough? Let us defy Giuseppe. Do you think I care what the world would say of me?”
“But I care,” said Paul simply.
“More than you care for me?” she asked.
“Beloved,” said Paul huskily, “it is because I love you—because you are more than the whole world to me that I cannot let there be the smallest stain upon your honour. I—my God, how I worship you!” The words came from him like a cry.
“Ah, Paul.” The bitterness in her heart had [Pg 246]melted, and with it her strength. He held her in his arms.
“Was—was I horrible?” she asked.
He kissed her lips fiercely. “You were wonderful, my darling. God knows the generosity of women. But there are some sacrifices a man cannot accept.”
“It would have been none,” she whispered.
He held her closer. “You think not now, my darling. But later—— Dearest, I could not bear to see your whiteness stained by the mud the world would throw at you.” He kissed her eyes and hair.
“What is to be the end of it?” she asked. “What must we do?”
He laughed sadly. “There is only one thing left for us to do—we must say good-bye.”
She put her arms round him. “Ah, not that, Paul—not that.”
“But listen, dearest,” he said. “We’ve got to look at things as they are. There is no profession open to me in which I am likely to make more than I can by my painting. I have lost every penny of capital. God! how sordid it seems that the lack of money should keep us apart. But there it is. It may be years before I make more, though Heaven knows I’d paint every commonplace creature in creation in return for shekels now. I hate my own fastidiousness. I’ve lost dozens of commissions and made not a [Pg 247]few enemies. It will take ages to make up for my folly. At the best it must be years before I have anything like a decent income.” He stopped. He had loathed having to speak the bare commonplace facts.
“I will wait,” she said.
“Dearest,” he said, and his voice was shaking, “it would not be fair to let you. There will be other men, rich, who——”
She interrupted by a gesture.
“Do you count my love as little as that?” she said. “Cannot you understand that there is nothing in the world for me but my love for you and your love for me. If you believe as I do that we belong to each other for time and eternity, then how can you——?” She could get no further. He stopped her with such kisses that she was frightened at his vehemence.
“Enough,” he said. “We belong to each other. One day I will claim you.”
“And till then?” she asked.
“For a time,” he said steadily, “we must not meet. It is—wiser not.”
“Because—of what I said?” she asked. The crimson colour had covered her face and neck.
“No,” he answered quietly, “but because I am only a man, and very human.”
And there was something in his voice that told her not to gainsay him.
“But at least we will write,” she said.
“It would be almost the same as seeing you. There would come a day when the sight of your writing would shake my resolve. You, if you wrote, could only tell me all that was in your heart. What use else to write? I should hear your heart calling mine, as mine will call to you. And then one day my resolution would fail. And if it did I should hate myself, and count myself unworthy to come near you again.”
“Then never, dear heart,” she whispered.
And there was a little silence too sad for words or tears. It was Sara who broke it.
“Christopher used to say,” she said, with a little shaky laugh, “that I could cheat the Fates. This time I cannot. They have dealt me a hand full of little spades, and every one of them is digging the grave of my happiness.”
“Ah, my dearest,” he said.
She disengaged herself gently from him.
“And since for a time at least we both must die,” she said, “we had better die at once. A lingering death is so painful.” Her voice shook. “Good-bye, Paul. Don’t come with me. I want to go home alone.”
Again their eyes met. And he caught her to him. She felt his body shaking.
“Paul,” she whispered.
And then he took her to the door and held it open for her. She went out through the courtyard in the twilight of the summer evening.
And the little faun, holding his pipe to his lips, made no sound, for he knew at that moment no music however tender could bring comfort to her heart.
AWAY in Yorkshire, on a fell-side, a woman was sitting on a grey stone and looking at the landscape before her.
Below her, some couple of hundred feet, ran a little brown stream, on the banks of which a man in tweed clothes was walking. He held a fishing-rod, and every now and then he paused to cast a fly upon the water with a light and dexterous hand.
The woman watched him idly. Later he would join her by a clump of trees near the stream, and they would have luncheon together. The man’s name was Luke Preston, and he was her husband. They had been married exactly a fortnight previously, and were now spending part of their honeymoon in Yorkshire.
The landscape, and particularly the sight of the distant figure by the stream, gave her a great sense of rest. In some ways Luke was like the fells around her she thought—very big, very silent, and very enduring. It was the unwavering assurance of Luke that had first attracted him to her. There was something so unswerving about [Pg 251]his point of view. It was so direct. There were never more than two ways in his mind—the right and the wrong; never more than two colours—black and white. There were no little chance bypaths, and no shades of grey admissible. Because of this some people found Luke lacking in subtlety, but to the woman he had married it constituted a strength which she found very pleasant.
All her life she had been swayed by varying moods. Actions seldom appeared to her in a light of her own opinion. They became black, white, or various shades of lighter or darker grey as they were presented to her by the minds of others. There was one episode only in her life in which she had resolutely adhered to her own determination. And that episode was one she wished to forget, or to remember only as a dream, and not as a time connected with her own waking self.
It had all happened a good many years ago, and some people have a curious faculty for disconnecting themselves mentally from their own past actions. Sybil Preston was one of these. During the years that had elapsed since the episode she had had one thing only to remind her of it—a quaint signet ring, with which she had never had the courage to part.
On the way up to Yorkshire, the very day of her wedding, she had lost it. She fancied it must have slipped from her finger as she had waved [Pg 252]to a small girl swinging on a gate. But she had not discovered her loss till the evening when they had stopped for the night at an hotel. In a sense she regretted the loss, yet on the other hand she could not help feeling it a relief. She regarded it in a way as a kind of omen—a sign that the past was banished forever, especially as the loss had occurred on the very day she had entered her new life.
The episode was known only to herself and to one other living person—a woman friend of hers. She had no smallest fear but that Cecily Mainwaring had kept silence regarding it—would always keep silence. She was a woman with extraordinary strength of character and great reserve. She had always been a staunch friend of Sybil’s. Sybil herself had sometimes marvelled that in this matter she had been able to stand firm against Cecily’s opinion; in fact, to persuade her to her own point of view regarding it. Though, to be strictly truthful, Cecily had never adopted Sybil’s point of view, she had acted contrary to her own judgment, and purely from her unswerving friendship to Sybil. They had never again referred to the matter. Sybil had seen considerably less of Cecily after it. She had never felt entirely comfortable in her presence. Cecily’s eyes were too terribly truthful. They were not unlike Luke’s eyes.
Sybil, sitting up on the moorland, heaved an enormous sigh of relief at the thought that he could never have the smallest suspicion of that episode. She knew that deceit of any kind was the one thing Luke could never forgive. She knew, however, that she was perfectly safe. She would soon be safe herself from all memory of it. To-morrow they were returning to London, and a month hence they were sailing for India. Luke was in the Indian Civil Service, and would be returning after a year’s leave. For some years at least they would be out of England, and there would be no chance of meeting Cecily, who just served to remind her of things she now wanted to forget entirely.
And then she saw her husband winding in his line and waving to her. She got up and went down the side of the fell towards him.
“Been lonely, little girl?” he asked, putting his arm round her. “I’ve got five beauties. We’ll have them for supper to-night. Now come along and have some lunch. I’m simply ravenous.”
“So am I,” laughed Sybil. “What a glorious place it is, and how delicious the air is, and how utterly happy I am.”
“Darling,” he said, and bent to kiss her.
They walked towards the clump of trees where Luke had left a knapsack containing various eatables. They were simple enough—a couple of [Pg 254]packets of sandwiches, a couple of pieces of cake, and a flask of claret. He was not the man to burden himself with unnecessary food.
Sybil sat down on the grass, leaning back against a tree-trunk.
“I wish we could stay on here,” she said. “It would be infinitely pleasanter than going back to town.”
“Infinitely,” said Luke, taking a great bite of chicken sandwich.
“Then why not write and tell your people that we can’t come, and that we’re staying on here.”
Luke laughed. “Because, darling, there is no earthly reason beyond our own inclination to prevent us going back to London. And I promised my parents that we would come to them during the last part of July. They go down to Henley in August, and their cottage is too small to take us in there.”
Sybil pouted. “Can’t you get out of it, though?” she said. “I could sprain my ankle, or break my leg, or something, and be unable to travel.”
Luke frowned. “I don’t like to hear you say that, Sybil. Of course you don’t mean it, but that you should even suggest in fun that you could make an untrue statement——”
Sybil interrupted him quickly. “Of course I didn’t mean it, Luke darling. It was only rather a stupid bit of nonsense. I wouldn’t break our [Pg 255]promise for worlds, and you know I love your people. It was just the thought of this heavenly place that tempted me. Besides, I have you to myself up here. I’m not sharing you with anyone.“
The last two sentences were the outcome of genuine affection on Sybil’s part. She was honestly devoted to her big husband. And though at times she would have preferred him to be a little less literal, his strength and assurance of purpose, as already mentioned, appealed to her enormously.
Her last two sentences, in fact her whole speech, pleased Luke. He patted her hand and looked at her with tender eyes. He loved her from the very bottom of his extremely truthful heart. He had placed her carefully on a little pedestal of his own building, and her first remark had distressed him, as it had caused her to sway a trifle unsteadily on the same pedestal.
As soon as they had finished lunch he returned to his fishing, and she strolled across some fields to a little pond in a bit of heathery moorland, where she found some sundew and a bog violet.
It was nearly seven o’clock before they went back to the little white cottage in the small village. They found that the evening post had come in, and with it a couple of letters and a London paper.
“Wonder why this has been sent?” asked Luke, opening it. “We’ve been eschewing London [Pg 256]papers since we’ve been up here. The ‘Yorkshire Post’ is quite good enough on a holiday.” He turned the pages. “Oh, it’s Talbot’s wedding”—Talbot had been his best man. “Ah, well, that kind of rigmarole will interest you far more than me. I’ve no use for other people’s weddings. I’m quite satisfied with my own. Eh! little girl?”
Sybil laughed, returned his kiss, and went upstairs to take off her hat.
Later in the evening she took up the paper, and because she had nothing else to read she studied the pages rather carefully. Suddenly an advertisement caught her eye. She read it slowly, then put down the paper. It told her that her ring had been found, and that she could get it by applying at a certain address.
For a moment she decided that she would take no notice of the advertisement. Then it occurred to her that there might be the smallest element of risk in leaving the ring in other hands. It was certainly unique, and once seen not likely to be forgotten. No doubt other people had seen and observed it long before it had come into her hands—people who had known its previous owner.
They were going back to London to-morrow. If Luke saw the advertisement he would at once recognize it as a description of the ring she had worn. She had told him that Cecily had given [Pg 257]it to her. He had mentioned it once to Cecily as her gift to Sybil. Sybil remembered the tiny trace of scorn in Cecily’s eyes at the lie, though she had not contradicted the statement.
If Luke saw the advertisement he would promptly go and fetch the ring for her, and then there was no knowing whether he would not learn something of its previous history. She knew it was ridiculous to imagine such a thing, and yet she felt that she dared run no tiniest risk.
Whoever had found the ring was advertising the fact assiduously, for the loss was now a fortnight old. They might continue to advertise. The moment she got back to London she would go to the address given by Mr. Kirby and claim the ring. And perhaps on the way out to India she would drop it overboard. She wanted to forget. Whatever Sybil’s faults and weaknesses she was genuinely in love with Luke.
She crumpled the paper in her hand, managing to tear the advertisement. She would run no risk.
Luke looked up with a big yawn.
“Read the account of the wedding?” he asked. “They were going to Biarritz, weren’t they?”
“Yes,” said Sybil.
“Ah, well, I want all I can get out of old England. I don’t have too much of her. And now, little girl, how about bed?” He heaved himself out of his chair.
“By the way,” he said suddenly, “did you read [Pg 258]the account of the exhibition of pictures at the Grafton Galleries? I see there’s a portrait exhibited there by a fellow named John Kirby.”
Sybil thought of the advertisement and her heart stood suddenly still, then began to race furiously, though she had no real notion why it was doing so.
“Do you know the man?” she asked carelessly.
“We were at school together,” said Luke. “I’ve seen him occasionally since then. He took up painting. I haven’t looked him up this time or let him know I was in England—don’t know why. If I’ve time I might look him up before I leave.”
The simple statement troubled Sybil. She felt that she must get the ring from Mr. Kirby before her husband should see him. She had no reason for feeling this, but the idea was strong upon her, though she told herself it was entirely absurd.
“You’re looking tired, little girl,” said Luke solicitously. “Hope you didn’t overwalk to-day?”
“Oh, no,” she said lightly. “I’m sleepy, that’s all. I’ll go up now and leave you to have your last pipe in the garden.”
She left the room and Luke strolled into the garden, where he smoked under the quiet stars, and sniffed the night air, and watched the light in Sybil’s room with a feeling of great content. The world, in his opinion, was an extraordinarily pleasant place.
MISS Mason was in her studio having tea. Barnabas was with her. He invariably dropped in at tea-time unless he was giving a tea-party on his own account.
Pippa had gone with Alan to look at flats. The occupation was an intense joy to her. If he had decided on all the flats on which she had set her heart he would have taken at least a dozen, and he and Aurora would have lived in one at a time during each of the twelve months of the year. Hitherto, notwithstanding Pippa’s enthusiasm regarding them, he had not found one that quite came up to his requirements. Tea being finished, Barnabas lit a cigarette.
“I must take you to call on Mrs. McAndrew soon,” said Barnabas. “She and Andrew have got a minute flat quite close to his studio. She’s a delightful old lady. You will like her, and her Scotch is, if anything, broader than Andrew’s. I’ve never seen a fellow so gloriously happy as he is. We look upon you, Aunt Olive, as a kind of fairy godmother, who has only to touch people’s [Pg 260]lives with a magic wand to ensure their happiness.”
Miss Mason laughed gruffly.
“That,” she said, “is quite the nicest thing I’ve ever had said to me. I know my own life has been a kind of glorious fairy tale lately.”
“Life,” said Barnabas, “is a fairy tale, if only one can believe it.”
“But,” said Aunt Olive, “one comes in touch with bad fairies on occasions.”
“I know,” nodded Barnabas gravely. “But I fancy there are some people who have the magic wand that can transform them into good ones.”
“It’s a comfortable belief,” said Miss Mason.
Sally opened the studio door.
“A lady to see Mr. Kirby, ma’am,” she said. “She says she has come about an advertisement of a ring.”
“At last,” said Barnabas, and he got up.
“Show her in,” said Miss Mason. And the next minute Sybil Preston entered the studio. Halfway into the room she stopped.
“Granny!” she exclaimed.
Miss Mason got up from her chair.
“Bless me!” she said in an excited voice, “it’s little Sybil Quarly. Sally, bring fresh tea at once.”
Sybil sat down by the table in a chair put for her by Barnabas.
“Of all the extraordinary things,” she laughed, [Pg 261]“that I should walk quietly into this studio and find you. It must be fifteen years since we met.”
“And eleven since I heard from you,” said Miss Mason.
Sybil flushed faintly. “I’m a shocking letter writer,” she said. “I never write letters. But indeed I had not forgotten you.”
“Of course not,” said Miss Mason. “So the ring is yours. Just fancy that through your losing it, and Mr. Kirby’s advertisement, we should meet again. I’ve got it quite safely for you.” She got up and took it from a small box. “Here it is.”
Sybil held out her hand for it. Suddenly she became aware that Barnabas was watching her.
“I believe,” she said to him, with a little nervous laugh, “that you know my husband, Luke Preston. He was speaking of you only the other day, and saying that he must look you up.”
Barnabas smiled. “What, old Luke!” he exclaimed. “Of course I knew him. We were at school together.”
“Then you are married?” said Miss Mason.
“Barely three weeks ago. We went to Yorkshire for part of our honeymoon. It was on the way up I lost my ring. We were quite rural up there, and saw no papers but the ‘Yorkshire Post.’ It was only by chance that a London paper was sent us, and I saw the advertisement, so I——”
She broke off. She had suddenly seen the picture of Pippa standing by the faun. Both figures were life-size.
“Who,” she asked, “is that?” Her eyes were dilated, her breath coming quickly.
“That is Pippa,” said Miss Mason; “a little girl I have adopted.”
Barnabas was again watching Sybil.
“She is,” he said quietly, “extraordinarily like a man I once knew, a great friend of mine—Philippe Kostolitz.”
Sybil stared at him with wide eyes. There was a trace of fear in them.
“You knew Philippe?” she said.
“Yes,” said Barnabas, still quietly.
Miss Mason’s keen old eyes looked from one to the other of them.
“And what, my dear,” she said, “did you know of him?”
Sybil gave a little sob. “He—he was my husband,” she said.
There was a dead silence in the room. Then Miss Mason put a question. It seemed forced from her:
“Did you have a child?”
Sybil bowed her head.
“Shall I go away?” asked Barnabas.
“No, stay,” said Sybil. “I suppose you guessed something the moment I came to claim the ring. Since you knew Philippe you must have known it [Pg 263]belonged to him. You had better hear the story. God knows what I am going to do now.” Her lips quivered. She looked like a piteous, frightened child.
“My dear,” said Miss Mason gently, “if there is any way in which we can help you, we will. Tell us as much as you can.”
Sybil drew a long breath. She looked at Miss Mason. She tried to forget that Barnabas was present, though she wished him to remain.
“You know,” she began, “that we went to live at Pangbourne. A year after we went there I met Philippe. He was staying with some friends near us. We saw a good bit of each other one way and another, and—and we began to care….
“My mother must have guessed it, for she suddenly began to prevent my seeing him. But one day he came straight to my father and said he loved me…. My father was furious. He said he would never hear of his daughter marrying a vagabond artist, a man who spent half his life on the roads like any tramp, and the other half in a studio messing with common clay. You know my father never did like art, and he looked on all artists with contempt. He never believed that they were gentlemen. You know, he never believed that anyone who did anything for their livelihood was one. And he couldn’t conceive it possible that the love of the work and not money was Philippe’s motive in his art. At any rate, he [Pg 264]sent Philippe away. I was quite miserable, but hadn’t the courage to gainsay him, and my mother was quite as bad….
“Six months later I was staying with some friends in Hampshire for a fortnight. I was to go on from there to another friend—Cecily Mainwaring—for a month. Cecily lives in London. One day while I was in Hampshire I was out for a walk alone, when I met Philippe….
“Oh, it’s no use my trying to tell you how glad I was to see him. When he knew I was staying at Andover he remained in the neighbourhood, and we used to meet almost daily. I’d always gone for long walks alone. We used to spend hours together in Harewood Forest, and he used to make all kinds of plans. First he wanted me to defy my parents and run away with him and marry him. But I hadn’t the courage. I said that perhaps in time they’d consent. Then he thought of another plan and begged me to consent to it. We were to be married and keep it a secret from my people. I was to spend a month with him in some little country place instead of staying with Cecily. Then I was to go home, and he was to come down and use all his influence with my parents, and if it failed we would have to tell them. He begged me so that at last I consented. At the back of my mind I thought that if my parents were still obdurate I could persuade Philippe not to tell them. At least I’d have a [Pg 265]month with him. I wasn’t nineteen, and I never though of what—what might happen….” She stopped, her face crimson.
“Yes, dear?” said Miss Mason gently.
“Philippe went away then to make arrangements, and I stayed on three days longer with my friends. I left them ostensibly to go to Cecily. I met Philippe instead…. We were married at a tiny church. He had got a special license. He didn’t like it not being his own church, but as I was a Catholic it would have been difficult to arrange that. At all events, the marriage was legal, and he thought that perhaps we’d be married again in his own church when my parents knew. But of course that didn‘t trouble me. We went to Wales together, to a little village there. Any letters that might be written to me went to Cecily. I wrote to her and told her I was on a motor tour with friends and my visit to her must be postponed; that I wasn’t sure when I could come home to her. And I asked her to keep any letters for me till I came. Cecily was quite unsuspecting, and did so.
“I was gloriously happy with Philippe. Occasionally I was frightened at what I had done, but when he was with me I only thought about him and my happiness. One day he went into Shrewsbury by train…. I was going with him, but I had such a bad headache that at the last moment I persuaded him to go alone. He was [Pg 266]to have come back at seven o’clock in the evening…. He didn’t come, and I got uneasy. I went down towards the station…. Then I heard there had been a frightful railway accident only three miles outside the station…. I went to the place…. I don’t know how I got there. Ever so many people were going…. They carried the people from the train to cottages and barns…. I found Philippe in one of them….” Sybil’s voice shook and she stopped.
“We know, dear,” said Miss Mason. “Don’t try to tell us.”
There was a little silence. At last Sybil went on:
“When I saw that he was dead I suddenly realized what I had done. I knew there was no one to stand between me and my parents’ anger…. And then men came who began to ask questions of the people present … wanting them to identify….” Again Sybil stopped.
“I ran away,” she went on pitifully. “I couldn’t bear to be asked anything. I thought perhaps no one would ever know. I thought it would be so much easier if they didn’t…. I got back to the cottage and packed a few things…. All the people were out at—at the place. We had given them an assumed name. I thought they’d never know who we were…. Of course, afterwards they knew about Philippe, I suppose, when he was identified. I saw in the papers [Pg 267]that letters were found on him…. Someone went there, a friend of his. I’ve forgotten the name….”
“I went,” said Barnabas. “It is strange that there was no mention of you. I suppose the people at the rooms where you stayed wished to keep out of being questioned, so did not come forward. However, that’s no matter now.”
“I left money to pay for our lodging,” went on Sybil, “and just ran away. I walked a long distance to another little station and took a train to Hereford. From there I went to London. I got there in the early morning. I waited about in the station till nearly lunch-time. Then I drove to Cecily’s flat. I had sent my luggage—at least most of it—to her from Andover. I’d only taken a little box and a handbag to Wales. I left the box behind at the rooms. There was nothing in it that could betray my name. I took the handbag away with me. When I saw Cecily I just said that the tour had ended unexpectedly, and that I hadn’t been well. I stayed with her a week. That week and the three weeks in Wales just made up the month I was supposed to be with her. Then I went home….
“It’s no use trying to explain what I thought, nor how wretched I was. I don’t think I quite knew myself. It didn’t seem I who was acting, but just something or somebody outside myself. If I really thought of anything it was only that [Pg 268]I could never face my parents’ anger. So all the time I was planning and thinking how best to behave that they should never know. It sounds dreadful now, but then it didn’t seem fair that I should only have three weeks’ happiness, and for that bear the whole brunt of their anger alone. I soon found that I need not fear them guessing. They never suspected that I had not been with Cecily the whole time…. As the weeks passed I began to think myself that everything that had happened had been a dream…. It wasn’t exactly that I forgot Philippe, only I tried to pretend it had never been a reality…. And then all at once I realized that it wasn’t a dream … that it never had been … and no amount of thinking could turn it into one…. I used to pass whole nights of terror wondering what I could do…. If I had only told my parents at once it would have been so much easier…. Even though they would have been terribly angry, at least I was married to Philippe…. But now I felt I could never tell them….
“At last I thought of Cecily. I wrote to ask her to let me stay with her. I went; and then I told her everything…. Cecily was very good to me. She begged and implored me to tell my people, but I wouldn’t, and I cried so much she thought I’d be ill, and at last she promised to help me and do everything I wanted…. We went over to [Pg 269]France. My father was quite willing for me to travel about with Cecily, and kept me well supplied with money. We were in France moving about in different places the whole winter. In March we took rooms at St. Germain…. It—it was there the child was born…. I wouldn’t see it…. I didn’t even want to know if it were a boy or a girl … but Cecily would tell me. She had it christened Philippa…. I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to get fond of it. The nurse thought it was just queerness on my part because I was so weak. Cecily arranged everything. Just after the nurse left, and when I was well enough to travel, she took the baby away…. I was so glad when it went. Its crying always reminded me that it was there. It made me remember, and I wanted so dreadfully to forget….
“When Cecily came back to me alone I told her we’d never speak of it again…. We never have…. I sent her money…. My father always gave me a good dress allowance. Out of that I paid for the child…. I wanted it to be in France. I couldn’t bear to think of it speaking with a common English accent….”
Barnabas, who had been looking on the ground during most of the recital, now looked up quickly. What an extraordinary anomaly the woman was. She could banish from her mind all memory of the man she had loved, she could forsake the child [Pg 270]he had given her, and yet she could not bear the thought of its learning to speak with a common accent.
“Have you,” asked Miss Mason, “any idea where the child was left?”
“In Paris,” said Sybil quickly. “Cecily told me the name of the woman when she came back. I didn’t want to know, but I wasn’t able to stop her. It was Madame Barbin.”
Miss Mason sighed. “Then,” she said, “there is no question but that the child who came to my studio last December is your daughter.”
Sybil looked at the picture. “She is exactly like Philippe,” she said. “Tell me how she came to you.”
So Miss Mason told the story.
“I must write to Cecily and tell her to stop sending money to Madame Fournier,” said Sybil when she had ended.
Again there was a long silence. It was broken by Sybil.
“What am I to do?” she said. “I never told Luke I’d been married before. He knows nothing. And now for the first time in my life I want my little girl. It’s odd, isn’t it?”
Miss Mason looked straight before her. Her face had paled a little, and her voice was not quite steady as she answered:
“You must tell him now.”
Sybil drew in her breath quickly. “I can’t do [Pg 271]that. You don’t know Luke. He’d never forgive me—never. And I love him.”
“My dear,” said Miss Mason quietly, “are you sure he wouldn’t? Remember, he loves you, and love——”
“Ah,” said Sybil, with a little laugh that was almost a sob, “you’re a woman. Men aren’t like that. At least, Luke isn’t. If he knew I had deceived him he wouldn’t love me any more.”
Miss Mason looked at Barnabas. Perhaps a man’s judgment in the matter would be of use.
“Mrs. Preston is right,” said Barnabas. “If she had told him before she married him it would have been different. Now—— You see, I know her husband.”
“But——” said Miss Mason, and stopped. She did not know what to say. For her own sake she wanted silence. Yet to her candid mind further deceit was terribly distressing.
Sybil looked from one to the other of them. She felt almost as if she were in the presence of a jury awaiting their verdict.
“May I,” said Barnabas, “say just how the situation strikes me?”
“Please do,” said Sybil quietly. She leant back a little in her chair.
“It seems to me,” said Barnabas, “that you cannot only look at the right or wrong of the matter entirely from your own point of view. There are two other people to be considered—your husband [Pg 272]and the child. Knowing Luke I fear it is a matter in which he would not forgive the deceit. He is not a man who would see any extenuating circumstances in the case. He would not even understand your having been first persuaded into a secret marriage.”
“Can you understand it?” asked Sybil quickly. There was a little flush of colour in her face.
“I can,” said Barnabas. “I can see the whole situation very clearly—your fear of your parents’ anger and Philippe’s persuasions. It would not be easy for a woman who loved Philippe to withstand him. I, who knew him, can understand that. Luke did not know him?”
“Yes?” said Sybil as he stopped. She looked at him intently. “But,” she went on, “you don’t understand the rest of my action?”
“Frankly, no,” said Barnabas. “I can’t understand your silence afterwards when it came to your desertion of his child. I have, though, no right to sit in judgment on anyone; and please understand that I’m not judging you. But I am quite sure that Luke would not take a lenient view. If he forgave at all—and I honestly doubt his forgiveness—duty would make him offer the child a home. In fact, he would probably insist on your having the child with you. But,” and Barnabas’ voice was firm, “he would never, forget. And, however strong his sense of duty, there would always be a barrier between him and the child. It [Pg 273]would not be good for her. Also there is no question but that your husband’s confidence and happiness would be destroyed.” He stopped. He felt every word he had said. He was sorry for the woman, but Luke and Pippa could not be sacrificed, and to speak now would mean the sacrifice of both their lives.
“Then——?” asked Sybil, her eyes upon the ground.
“In my opinion,” said Barnabas, “having kept silence, you owe it to your husband to keep silence still; in fact, for ever. The child has a home now, and one who cares for her. For her sake, too, I do not think you should run the risk of taking her to a home where she would be unwelcome. She is extraordinarily sensitive. She would feel it now, and more as she grows older.”
Sybil looked towards the picture. It showed the child in three-quarter face. “But I want her now,” she said. “She looks such a darling.”
Barnabas suppressed a slight movement of impatience. Sybil’s sole thought was of herself and her own wants.
“Then you are prepared,” he asked, “to tell your husband everything? To lose his confidence and his love, and kill his happiness, and, quite possibly, have him to go away from you, merely making you an allowance. For he is quite as likely—and I believe more likely—to do that than accept the charge of the child. Which do you want [Pg 274]most—your child whom you have never seen or your husband?”
“Oh, I want Luke,” said Sybil quickly. “At least, I think so.”
Barnabas felt considerably like shaking her. He was determined that if he could prevent it she should not spoil two lives. He had no belief in weak and tardy confessions that advantage no one. He made an appeal to her better self—if it existed.
“Then,” he said, “have the strength and courage to keep silence. Even if you do want your child now, have the pluck to renounce her for her sake and Luke’s. Remember, that payment of some kind is always demanded sooner or later for any debt we owe. This is your payment.”
Sybil looked silently towards Miss Mason.
“He’s right,” said Miss Mason. “I hadn’t seen things quite in that light. Also, I was afraid of having my judgment biassed by my desire to keep the child.”
Curiously enough throughout the conversation neither Miss Mason nor Barnabas had spoken of Pippa by name. Instinctively they both felt that to do so would be to suggest an intimacy to which Sybil was not entitled.
Sybil looked at the floor for a few moments without speaking. Then she raised her head.
“Very well,” she said, “I will not tell Luke. He may come to see you, Mr. Kirby. If he does [Pg 275]please don’t tell him of my visit here. But of course you won’t. And,” she went on, with a little pleading note in her voice, “please, you two, don’t despise me more than you can help. Some people seem born strong and not afraid. I’ve always been a coward. I think perhaps if my father and mother had been a little more lenient with me when I was a child it would have been different. But I was timid, and dreaded being shut up in the dark. So I used to fib to get out of punishment. And after a time I thought nothing of not speaking the truth to them. But I suppose you can’t understand that.”
“I can understand very well,” said Miss Mason. She had known the parents.
And Barnabas felt a sudden pity for the woman, who in spite of her thirty-two years looked little more than a girl. She was of the fragile flower-like beauty that would no doubt appeal to a man of the strength of Kostolitz. At the moment Barnabas himself would have protected her rather than have blamed her.
All at once Sybil spoke timidly. “Where is she?” she asked, nodding towards the picture. “Could I see her for a moment?”
Miss Mason hesitated, doubtful of the wisdom of the proceeding. “She’s out now,” she said.
Sybil gave a tiny sigh. “Well, perhaps it’s better not,” she said. “I’d have promised not to tell her. Of course, I don’t suppose anyone would [Pg 276]trust me very easily who knew everything. But truly she shall never know about me. And I’ll never tell Luke either. I see that you are right. I owe it to him now to keep silence. I’ll try to make him very happy. And—and I’ll take wanting my little girl as a punishment. I know I deserve to lose her, and I see that it is impossible for me to have her and keep Luke’s confidence. I should quite spoil his life and his belief in every one. If only I had been brave long ago I might have had my little girl and Luke too. But I will keep my word now.” She said it all like a child promising to be good.
“I know you will, my dear,” said Miss Mason gently. She was desperately sorry for Sybil, and terribly grieved at the whole situation. Yet she too saw that silence was now the only possible thing for them all. And in the end it would be happier for Sybil too. Possibly she would always now wish for her child and regret her loss. But it would be a tender regret, though sad. And she would keep Luke’s love.
And then suddenly from the courtyard they heard a child’s voice. Sybil flushed and looked at Miss Mason with pleading eyes.
“I’ll bring her,” said Barnabas. Wisdom or not, he could not have resisted Sybil’s face.
“We’ve found a flat, really and truly,” she cried, as she met Barnabas in the garden. “It is beautiful, but quite beautiful.”
“More beautiful than the others?” laughed Barnabas. “But come in now and behave pretty. Aunt Olive has a lady to tea with her.”
Pippa came into the room. Her extraordinary likeness to Kostolitz made Sybil catch her breath. For a moment she did not trust herself to speak.
“Ah!” cried Pippa, with quick recognition. “It is ze lady of ze car. Did you give her ze ring?”
Sybil held out her hand. “Yes, dear,” she said, “I’ve got it. I’m glad you found it and kept it for me.” She held the child’s hand tight. Pippa looked at her with her great grey eyes, so like the dead sculptor’s. Memories rushed over Sybil. The days in the forest, the days in the little Welsh village crowded back to her mind. She could almost hear Kostolitz’s voice, hear his gay laugh, and his words of passionate love. Her throat contracted and tears filled her eyes. Suddenly she got up.
“I’d better go now,” she said. Her voice shook a little. Then an impulse moved her. She held out the ring to Pippa. “Will you have it?” she said. “I’d like you to keep it.”
“For me?” said Pippa, her face crimson.
“May she?” said Sybil to Miss Mason.
“Yes,” said Miss Mason.
Sybil looked again at the picture of the child.
“I suppose I oughtn’t to ask,” she said, “but it [Pg 278]would remind me. I don’t want to forget now. Not that I ever shall.”
“I’ll send it to you,” said Miss Mason. “Barnabas won’t mind, will you, Barnabas? Just a gift from an old friend, you know.”
Sybil’s eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” she said. Then she bent and kissed Pippa. “Good-bye, little one.”
Barnabas went to the door with her.
“I couldn’t stay any longer,” she said. “Good-bye.”
And she went away in the sunshine, past the little faun in the next garden, and so out of the courtyard, and out of the lives she had momentarily entered.
When she had disappeared Barnabas looked at the little faun.
“It was the only way,” he said. And his heart was sad for the man who had been forgotten by the woman he had loved. And he wondered if he knew everything now. If he did he would probably understand so fully that he would forgive fully. And then Barnabas went back into the studio.
MICHAEL MAKES MUSIC
DURING August Miss Mason took Pippa down to a little seaside place in Devonshire. She chose it because its name—Hope—appealed to her.
Pippa adored it. She loved the quaint cottages, and the beach with the tarred nets spread out to dry, and the kindly fishermen who took her out in their boats, and who talked to her in a dialect she could hardly understand. But she understood their kindness, and they understood her smiles, so they got on very well together.
Barnabas came down for a fortnight, and Pippa met him at the station, a thin slip of a child, her face bronzed with the sun and sea air, and her eyes holding the hint of mystery he had seen in the eyes of Kostolitz.
They bathed together, they caught prawns in seaweedy pools in the rocks, they sat in the shadow of the cliffs and watched the sea-gulls and the white-sailed boats on the blue water.
And during these days Barnabas found in Pippa something that he had not found before—not even during the June days when they had wandered [Pg 280]through the lanes with Pegasus. He found in her Woman and Companion. She ceased to be merely Child. He saw the spirit of Kostolitz in her mysterious eyes. She showed it to him in a hundred ways—in her clear joyous love of Nature, in her fanciful imaginings and delicate thoughts, in her quick insight into everything that was beautiful. And with it all she was a child, too, with a child-like simple faith and trust that was to be her heritage throughout her life. And because there was this trait also in Barnabas they found in each other the most perfect companionship.
Miss Mason watched them together, helped them prawn, and was radiantly happy. She cared not at all for the occasional smiles her quaint figure and costume provoked from other visitors to the place. And because Pippa was enjoying herself enormously she remained at Hope throughout September as well.
The Duchessa di Corleone too had left London during August. She wandered from place to place trying to find forgetfulness and not succeeding.
In September she returned to town. She never went near the studios now, but Michael came often to see her, and used to make music for her. In it she found some consolation. And Michael loved to come to her house, though the sight of her always gave him pain.
One day after he had been playing to her, and [Pg 281]they were having tea together, he suddenly looked up at a picture of St. Michael that hung in her drawing-room.
“Queer,” he said, with a little twisted smile, “that my people should have chosen to name me after the warrior angel.” And he glanced from the strength of the pictured figure at his own shrunken limbs. His voice was so bitter that Sara could find no reply.
“Just a moment’s carelessness on the part of a nursemaid,” went on Michael. “She dropped me when I was a baby. You see the result. It makes it difficult to believe in an over-ruling Providence, doesn’t it? My guardian angel must have been peculiarly inattentive at the moment.”
“I think,” said Sara slowly, “that there are times in the life of every one when it is very difficult to have faith. Yet, if one loses it one loses all happiness.”
“I lost both long ago,” said Michael. “It’s an irony of fate to be born with an acute sense of the beautiful, and to see one’s own repulsiveness.”
Sara looked up quickly.
“But you are not repulsive,” she said.
“Bah!” said Michael. “Look at me! Women are only kind to me out of pity.”
Sara looked straight at him. “There you are quite wrong,” she said decisively. “I don’t feel the smallest pity for you in the sense you mean. [Pg 282]Your face is quite beautiful, and your music——” she stopped.
“But my body,” he said.
“Yes,” said Sara calmly, “I grant you that it is extremely trying for you to be lame, and you must often wish to be strong and big. But you need not think it makes the smallest difference in our affection for you.” She again looked steadily at him as she spoke.
Michael looked away from her. “But no woman could love me—they would shrink from me,” he said. And his face flushed hotly.
“Not at all,” said Sara. “There again you are quite wrong. I grant that there is a certain type of woman who is entirely attracted by sinews and muscles in a man. But most assuredly there are others.”
There was a silence. Then Michael spoke again. His voice was very low.
“You—you could never care?” he said.
Sara’s eyes filled with quick tears. “Not in the way you mean,” she said gently; “but not because of the morbid reason you have suggested. I—I love some one else.”
“Paul?” he asked.
Sara bowed her head.
Michael was silent. “But if you did not,” he asked suddenly, “would you have thought it horrible of me to tell you that I love you—not quietly and calmly, but—but as a man loves a woman?”
“I should have been honoured to hear it from [Pg 283]you,” said Sara.
Michael looked across at her with a strange smile.
“Thank you,” he said. “I shall not tell you how—though you know it. Nor shall I ever tell any other woman what I have told you. You will still let me come and see you?”
“You must come,” said Sara quickly. “I should miss you dreadfully if you didn’t. During these last weeks your visits have been my greatest pleasure. When I hear the front door bell ring I listen. And when I hear the pad of your crutch on the stairs I am happy, and I say to myself, ‘It is Michael.’”
It was the first time she had used his name. For a few moments Michael did not trust himself to speak. When he did his voice was light.
“I shall hate my crutch no longer,” he said, “since its sound has given you happiness. Do you know you have quite suddenly brought back faith to me. I thought it was dead. Now I will play for you again.”
THE PEACE OF THE RIVER
AFTER Michael had left, Sara went to the window and stood looking out at the trees on the Embankment. The heat of the summer had already caused their leaves to turn yellow.
Beyond them she could see the river. It always held a note of peace for her. Rivers and lakes had the power to speak to her. She loved their calm quietude, though she had seen lakes lashed to fury by the wind. But it was a different kind of anger from the anger of the sea. The cruelty of the sea hurt her—its restlessness, its turmoil, its never-ceasing demand for lives. Even when it was quiet it was treacherous. Its smiling surface was nothing but a lure, for it held terrible secrets in its heart.
But the quiet of the river always soothed her. She knew it in all its moods—under grey skies, and under blue skies, in the crimson and purple of sunset, in the amber grey and rose of dawn. She knew it at the full flood of its waters, and at ebbing tide. In all its moods she loved it, and she loved her house, yet she felt that she could not stay there much longer.
With the end of October she would go away to Italy for the winter. Everything here reminded her of Paul. She did not want to forget him, yet the sight of the streets in which they had walked together, the hotels at which they had dined, the theatres to which they had been, only served to emphasize her present loneliness.
Christopher was the only person who, till to-day, had known of her unhappiness. Ever since he first knew her, when she was ten and he was two-and-twenty, she had come to him with her joys and griefs. There was a curious faculty for sympathy in Christopher. It made him the popular barrister he was, especially with women. It was easy to tell him things. Had he been a priest he would undoubtedly have been much sought in confession. He had heard many stories, both sordid and pitiful. Somehow he seemed always able to separate the sin from the sinner. One knew instinctively that he had no scorn for the latter, any more than a doctor scorns a patient who comes to him with a disease to be cured. He had, too, been instrumental in preventing several divorces, and in giving men convicted of theft a second chance without the stigma of prison attaching to them. And curiously enough he had never been disappointed in those for whom he had pleaded for leniency. There was nothing weak about Christopher. There had been certain cases he had refused to accept—cases in which he knew the guilt to be a fact, and in which [Pg 286]justice could only be avoided by a direct wandering from the truth, even though he knew that by one of his impassioned speeches he could most probably have saved the victim from the law, and have established a great reputation for himself. In spite of his sympathy, he took a strangely impersonal view of things in general, and his sympathy, though very real, was never allowed to bias his judgment.
He agreed fully with Paul’s decision that he and Sara should not meet, and he offered a silent sympathy which Sara found very comforting. After she had once told him about the parting she had not again spoken directly of it. She could not talk of it. She could only try to live her life as best she might in the hope that one day….
But that day seemed very far off and dim.
And in his studio Paul was working with a grim, dogged determination. And every week he wrote cheerful letters to his mother, in one of which he had just said that his marriage was postponed for a time; and he never for a moment let her guess the trick fate had played him.
And so September passed, and it drew on towards the middle of October.
SOME TWISTED THREADS
“BARNABAS,” said Miss Mason one day—it was the fourteenth of October—“what’s the matter with Paul?”
She was in Barnabas’ studio when she put the question.
“Ah,” said Barnabas, “you’ve seen it too.”
“One must be blind not to see it,” said Miss Mason. “I felt something was wrong before I went away, and since I’ve been back I’ve been sure of it.”
For a moment Barnabas did not reply. “I know part,” he said after a minute, “and the rest I can guess. You know he has lost a good bit of money?”
“Humpt!” said Miss Mason. “I didn’t know. So that’s the trouble.”
“Partly,” said Barnabas. “I think the other part is the Duchessa.”
“You mean——?” said Miss Mason.
“Paul was in love with her,” said Barnabas.
Miss Mason looked at him. Then she nodded her head two or three times. She suddenly realized that the Duchessa, who used frequently to [Pg 288]come to the courtyard, had not been there during the last three weeks of July, nor during this first fortnight in October. Of August and September she had, of course, no record.
“I see,” she said.
“I think,” went on Barnabas, “that if this money loss had not intervened they would have followed the example of Aurora and Alan.”
“She cared for him then?” asked Miss Mason.
“I have never seen two people more in love with each other,” said Barnabas. “They evidently did not wish, at the moment, to make the fact public. But seeing them together, as I occasionally did, one must have been blind not to have realized it.”
“Ah,” said Miss Mason. “Then she is unhappy, too?”
“I have happened to meet her twice,” said Barnabas. “She acts very well. But the spring of life has gone.”
“But she has money,” said Miss Mason. “Surely——”
“If she marries again she loses every penny,” said Barnabas. “I learned that quite by chance one day from Charlton.”
Miss Mason made a curious sound with her tongue. It can only be described as clucking.
“The world,” she said, “can be curiously contrary at times. I’m very glad I asked you.”
Then she went back to her studio and sat down for a long time in her big arm-chair to think.
And the Three Fates watched her. For when Miss Mason sat in her chair with just that particular expression on her face, it meant that she was not over-pleased with their weaving, and that she wished to unravel and re-weave their latest pattern to a fashion more according to their mind. And the Three Fates looked at each other, and they nodded their three old heads, and waited with amusement in their eyes to see what she would do. As a matter of fact they had made this particular bit of muddle in their weaving on purpose that she might have the pleasure of putting it straight.
But it was a bit of straightening about which Miss Mason felt a trifle nervous. Her fingers itched to be at the threads, unravelling and untwisting the knots, yet somehow she felt a little frightened to begin.
It was quite three hours before she made up her mind. Then she suddenly crossed to her writing-table and wrote a letter to Mr. Davis who had rooms in Gray’s Inn. In the letter she stated that she wished to see him at eleven o’clock precisely the following morning on urgent business.
And as she folded and sealed the letter the Three Fates laughed. For Miss Mason had put her fingers on the first knot.
“It is,” said Mr. Davis, “a most unusual proceeding.”
It was twelve o’clock on the following morning. [Pg 290]He had been talking to Miss Mason for an hour, or rather she had been talking, and it was the third time that he had made the above statement.
“All the same,” said Miss Mason firmly, “it is my wish. And I understand that I have absolute control over my capital.”
“Absolute,” said Mr. Davis regretfully, looking at her with a kind of mild protest through his spectacles.
“Very well, then,” she went on, “have the deeds, or whatever you call them, drawn up immediately. I will come down to your office the day after to-morrow to sign them. I shall bring them away with me, and post them to you the moment I wish the matter put in full train. Is everything perfectly clear?”
“Perfectly,” said Mr. Davis. “Of course, if there had been trustees——”
“But there aren’t, thank goodness,” said Miss Mason. “Remember, ten o’clock Friday morning I’ll be with you.”
Mr. Davis found himself dismissed; and he left the studio wondering how a woman who eighteen months ago did not know how to fill up a cheque should suddenly have become so remarkably decided regarding business matters, and utterly refuse to listen to common-sense statements on his part.
As soon as he had gone Miss Mason wrote to Sara.
“My dear Duchessa,” she wrote, “will you do [Pg 291]an old woman a favour and come to tea with her on Friday next at four o’clock. I want to see you on a particular matter. If you are engaged on Friday will you very kindly appoint some other hour on which you can come to see me.
“Yours very sincerely,
She sent the note by Sally, telling her to wait for an answer. In half an hour Sally returned with it. Miss Mason opened it with fingers a little shaky from anxiety. She read it slowly.
“My dear Aunt Olive.—Thank you for your letter. I will be with you on Friday next at four o’clock. My love to you and Pippa. I hope you both enjoyed your holiday in Devonshire.
“Very sincerely yours,
“Sara di Corleone.”
It had cost Sara something to write that letter. It would bring back memories of joy and pain for her again to enter the courtyard.
ON Friday afternoon at half-past two Barnabas took Pippa to feed the monkeys and other animals at the Zoological Gardens. It was by Miss Mason’s special request.
During the time that elapsed between their departure and four o’clock Miss Mason was distinctly restless. She began to sew at some fine white cambric into which she was putting her most beautiful stitches. When she had returned from Hope, Bridget had told her of a Secret that was to arrive in the spring—a secret which if it was a boy was to be called Oliver, but Bridget hoped it would be Olive. She and Jasper were beamingly happy.
Miss Mason put in a few stitches, but she found it impossible to sit still. She dropped the work into a basket, got up from her chair, and began to walk up and down the room. Then she would suddenly sit down and begin to sew again.
“I’m an old fool,” she said. “I can no more help interfering than I can help breathing, and yet I’m as nervous as a cat.” And she began to watch the clock anxiously.
It had just chimed the hour in its silvery tone when Sally opened the door.
“The Duchessa di Corleone,” she said. She had learnt the name by now.
Sara came into the room. She was in a dark blue dress, and because the day was keen, though bright, she was wrapped in dark sable furs.
“My dear,” said Miss Mason, “I am quite delighted to see you. Sally, bring tea.”
Sara sat down and loosened her furs. Miss Mason looked at her. Her face was paler than even its usual worry warranted. It had lost the under-glow of warmth, and her eyes looked dark and sad.
“Did you have a good time in Devonshire?” she asked.
“Delightful,” said Miss Mason. “A few people grinned fatuously when they saw my old figure skipping over the rocks. But I said to myself, ‘The Duchessa wouldn’t see anything to laugh at,’ and so I didn’t care.”
Sara smiled. “You still remember our conversation long ago?”
“I’ve never forgotten it,” said Miss Mason emphatically. “I fancy if I had not seen you that evening I should have given up all my dreams and have gone back to the old house for the rest of my life. And what a lot I should have missed if I had.”
“And what a lot a great many people would have missed,” said Sara. “You’ve woven yourself [Pg 294]into a good many lives. Why, dozens of babies would have been minus white woolly jackets, while several bigger babies would have lost a good deal of happiness.”
“Nice of you to say so,” said Miss Mason. And she began to pour out tea.
For the next twenty minutes they talked of little things—the visit to Devonshire, the donkey-tour, the flat Aurora and Alan had taken, and Pippa at present feeding the animals at the Zoo. Sara talked lightly and even gaily. As Barnabas had said, she was a good actress. It was not till the meal was finished, then Miss Mason spoke on the subject of her heart.
“My dear,” she then said suddenly, “what is the matter?”
Sara flushed. “I can’t talk about it,” she said. She made no attempt at denial.
“I don’t really want you to tell me,” said Miss Mason, “because I know. But I think I can find a way out of the difficulty.”
Sara gave a little sad laugh. “If you can you are clever. I’ve thought and thought, and can see none.”
Miss Mason coughed. “It’s all perfectly simple, really,” she said, “only I don’t quite know how to begin to tell you. It seems to me that money is the most difficult thing in the world to talk about.” She took two envelopes from the table. “Will [Pg 295]you, my dear, read the contents of those. It seems to me the simplest way.”
Sara took the envelopes—long ones—and drew out the parchment contents. She read slowly. At first she could hardly grasp their meaning, it had been so unexpectedly presented to her.
At last she looked up. Her face was quivering.
“But—but—I simply couldn’t——”
“But, my dear, why not?” said Miss Mason. “Will you look at the whole thing reasonably. If I chose to bequeath certain sums of money to you and Paul at my death I presume you would not feel it incumbent on you to refuse them. Why shouldn’t you accept them now?”
“But——” began Sara again. And she stopped, looking from the documents she held to Miss Mason.
“I know,” said Miss Mason, “that people often feel a kind of pride about accepting money, though why on earth they should calmly take it from dead people and refuse to accept it from living ones, I can’t imagine. Of course their argument might be that dead people can’t use it themselves. That would be true. But then this special living person can’t use all hers. Let me just put things clearly to you. I have a capital that brings me in fifteen thousand a year. Five thousand a year I am devoting to a certain scheme in which Barnabas is helping me. I wish to make over sufficient capital [Pg 296]to you and Paul to bring you in two thousand five hundred a year each. That will leave me with five thousand a year for my own use. My dear, I don’t even spend that.”
“But charities——” began Sara vaguely.
“Pooh!” said Miss Mason. “I’m sick of them. If you’d written as many charitable letters as I have you’d have had enough of charities. I wrote hundreds for Miss Stanhope. She always filled in the amount she gave herself. I never knew what it was. But I can give to all the charities I want out of five thousand. Now, my dear, will you agree. Will you give me the pleasure of your acceptance and allow me a few more years on this extremely pleasant planet in which I can see your happiness, instead of waiting till I’m dead and coming then to drop a few grateful tears and white flowers on my grave. I’d infinitely prefer the former I assure you.”
Sara gave a little half-laughing sob. “I accept with all my heart,” she said, “and I don’t know how ever I am to thank you.”
Miss Mason grunted. “Now there’s another thing,” she said, “please don’t try. Do think if you can that the money just happened into the bank without any human agency. If you’re going to keep an eternal feeling of gratitude before your mind it will spoil everything. I want to be able to quarrel with you and Paul and scold you as much as I like, and if I felt that gratitude was preventing [Pg 297]you from answering me back it would destroy my whole pleasure in the proceeding. Besides, my dear, if there is any debt owing it is I who owe it. I’ve never forgotten the hope you gave me the first evening we met.”
Sara stretched out her hands with a little laugh of pure happiness. It was the first time she had laughed like that for three months.
“And I tried to sermonize a little,” she cried. “And then we got on to fairy tales, and I was happier. Oh, isn’t life a fairy tale! And if we told all the dull, prosaic people of the truly delightful and unexpected things that happen wouldn’t they say that it was all made-up, and far-fetched, and things like that. When it is just that they are too stupid to see the happenings, and too heavy and dull to look over the wall in which they have enclosed themselves. I can’t tell you how happy I am. And will you think me a pig if I run away for a little while and tell Paul?”
She got up from her chair, radiant, vital, as she had been on the day she had first entered the studio.
“My dear,” said Miss Mason, “if you hadn’t said you were going I should have sent you.”
Sara held out both her hands. “It seems,” she said, “as if I were taking it too quietly, and as if I ought to have protested more. But after everything you said I really couldn’t. It was all so absolutely true. And we’d both so much rather have you here seeing our happiness in your wonderful [Pg 298]legacy, than that we should go to a grave to thank you, and lay that white flower tenderly on the grass.”
Miss Mason gave a gruff laugh. “You can’t conceive,” she said, “what pleasure you’ve given me.” Then quite suddenly she took Sara in her arms and kissed her.
“Now, my dear,” she said as she released her, “do, for goodness’ sake, go and make that poor Paul happy.”
THE TUNE OF LOVE
PAUL had gone on bravely with his life. He knew that when Sara had gone out of his studio into the summer night she had taken something away with her, the something that was the best part of himself. But with what remained to him he had set himself to face the lonely months ahead of him. Each morning as he woke he told himself that he would work for her. It was the only thing that made work possible to him.
His joy in art had been sufficient for him until he met her. Her coming had increased it ten-thousandfold, as it had increased his whole joy in life and in beauty, giving it a meaning he had never before realized. And when she went she had taken it away, leaving him with nothing but the husk.
In spite of his courage, loneliness at times seemed as if it must overwhelm him, for now it was unlike his former loneliness. Before, he had not known what it was to have the perfect companionship of a woman. Now he had known it and lost it. And the years before him stretched very grey. He tried to see a gleam of gold in the future, but it [Pg 300]was too far off for him to perceive it by sight; he could only tell himself in faith that one day it would dawn through the greyness. But however strong the spirit may be to have faith, the flesh after all is human and weak, and his loneliness pressed hard upon him. During the last weeks, too, he had had only one commission—an uninteresting one, which he had nevertheless accepted. He would now, as he had said, have painted anyone however commonplace. But the work had not taken him in any degree out of himself.
On the afternoon of the fourteenth of October he was sitting alone in his studio. It had been a bad day for him—one of the days that come to all artists when hand and brain alike refuse to work, when inspiration is lacking, and it seems as if her light had departed for ever.
He looked round the room. There was rather a neglected appearance about it. He had given up his man as an extravagance he could not possibly afford, and he was on the look-out for a tenant for his studio, meaning to move into something much smaller. Yet, in spite of the neglected look of the studio, Paul himself was as well groomed as ever. Personal cleanliness was an ingrained characteristic of him. It belonged to him as much as it belonged to the French aristocrats who manicured their nails while waiting in the Bastille for the tumbrils that would take them to the scaffold and the embrace of the guillotine.
After a time he got up from his chair, and taking the kettle from the stove, he made some tea. As he did so he thought of the many times Sara had had tea with him since the day in Battersea Park.
Everything he did or thought reminded him of her. The tiniest and most trivial details recalled her—even a thing as insignificant as the crack in the table. He remembered seeing her run her finger along it one day when she had been sitting in the chair opposite to him, which chair was now empty. The tea-cups reminded him. He had bought them specially for her. Before that he had only possessed two cracked ones and a tumbler. Even one of the cracked ones was precious, because from it she had drunk a cup of coffee the day Pippa had lunched with him and he had decided to re-paint her dress.
“My God!” said Paul to himself, “joy was so near me, and now I must pass, at the best, years of my life alone.”
He looked across at the vases on the bookshelf. They had never held flowers since the day thirteen weeks ago when they had been full of crimson roses. They and the blue vase on the mantelpiece, to the colour of which Pippa had likened Sara, were covered with dust. Paul felt suddenly as if, in spite of his efforts, dust were settling on his heart.
And then all at once he heard a slight sound. It was a woman’s step in the courtyard. Paul [Pg 302]caught hold of the arm of his chair and gripped it hard. His face had gone quite white.
The door opened.
“Paul,” said a voice.
The next moment she was in his arms and he was sobbing like a child.
“Don’t, dear heart, don’t,” said Sara, her voice shaking.
He put her in a chair and sat down by the table.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said brokenly.
She went over to him and knelt beside him.
“But, dearest, listen,” she said, taking both his hands, “I have come to tell you of joy.”
Paul stared at her half bewildered. “What do you mean?” he said.
“Listen,” she said. “It’s all so wonderful I can hardly believe it myself. But it’s all true—true—true!”
“Tell me, quickly,” said Paul, putting his arms round her.
And as many weeks ago he had had to tell her bad news, so she now told him news of joy. She told him everything, all Miss Mason’s quaint and excellent reasons for their acceptance of this happiness with no thought of false pride to intervene.
“You will accept, Paul?” said Sara, as she finished.
Again the man’s eyes were full of tears. “Beloved, I must. My love for you would sweep away all pride. But I think with a gift offered in that [Pg 303]way one need have none. My God, it’s wonderful!”
And so she still knelt beside him, and he held her in a kind of dumb ecstasy, as if he feared to move and find it was only a dream. And the music of the Heart which had long held such a throb of pain now rose loud and glorious, filling the whole studio.
“Beloved,” said Paul at last, “let us go together and find Aunt Olive.”
So they went out into the purple dusk, in which a light wind was scattering the last few golden leaves from the trees, letting them float gently to the courtyard.
And the little faun saw them coming, and the tune he played to welcome them was the sweetest, purest Tune of Love.
A WEDDING DAY
AND so the knots the Fates had twisted were unravelled, and the threads re-woven into the beautiful pattern of joy and gladness, love and friendship.
One day Paul took Sara down to Hampshire to see his mother, a white-haired old lady with a wrinkled face and a peaceful mouth, and eyes like Paul’s. She took Sara at once to her heart.
“Dearie,” she said, “my boy has had a lonely life, and I thank God he has found a woman like you to fill it.”
And Sara in her turn loved the old lady, not only for Paul’s sake, but for her own. And she loved the little cottage where she lived, and she loved the old-fashioned garden with its box-edged paths, and flower-beds in which a few late autumn flowers still lingered. The rooms in the cottage were small, but all as dainty and clean as porcelain, and fragrant with the scent of lavender and potpourri. She showed Sara the bedrooms with their old chintz curtains before the casement windows, and the frilly dressing-tables, and white-valanced beds. They had each the effect of a [Pg 305]Dresden china Shepherdess—the tiniest bit stiff, but extraordinarily dainty. She showed her her store cupboard with its pots of jam, marmalade, and pickles, and she promised her a recipe for curing hams and another for making oat cake.
And Sara told her how to make spaghetti, and told her it was the first dish she had ever cooked for Paul. And in the evening when they went away she took with her a great bunch of Michaelmas daisies. And Mrs. Treherne kissed her and blessed her, for she knew that the next day she was to be Paul’s wife.
The reception was to be held in Miss Mason’s studio by special request from Paul and Sara. Sara felt that already the house on the Embankment was hers no longer.
There were to be few guests at the wedding—only the other artists of the courtyard, Bridget, Christopher, Andrew, and the two executors of Giuseppe’s will, who would bring with them the important letter whose secret would be at last disclosed. The journey and the fatigue of the ceremony, however quiet, would have been too much for Mrs. Treherne. Sara’s own father and mother had been dead several years. Christopher was to give away the bride, and Barnabas was to be best man.
And so the day dawned, a still, November day [Pg 306]of soft mists and a pale blue sky—a tender day full of peace and happiness.
Christopher went to the house on the Embankment to fetch Sara. She was waiting in the drawing-room for him, in a sapphire-blue dress, a large black hat, and her soft sable furs.
“Ready?” said Christopher, smiling. And they went down the stairs together.
Pietro was in the hall. His face was radiant with pleasure. Paul and Sara had arranged to keep him in their service.
“Good-bye,” said Sara. “We’ll let you know when we return to London. You will of course hand over the keys of the house to the executors when they ask for them.”
“Yes, Your Grace. Good fortune and happiness to your Grace.”
“Thank you, Pietro,” said Sara. And then she passed through the door he held open for her, and went down the steps to the taxi, Christopher following.
“Christopher,” said Sara a moment or two after they had started, “you’ve been a very good friend to me, and I’d like to thank you.”
“No occasion to do so,” said Christopher imperturbably. “The friendship has been mutual, and I hope will still continue.”
“Of course,” said Sara. “That was one thing I wanted to say to you. My love for Paul doesn’t make the least difference in my friendship for you. [Pg 307]You will be exactly the same to me, as I shall be, I hope, to you.”
“Agreed,” said Christopher, holding out his hand with a smile. But he knew that it never would be quite the same again. Her marriage with Guiseppe had made no difference, her marriage with Paul would. And with the knowledge Christopher had suddenly realized what he was losing. He was like a man who had had a jewel in a box, looking at it always in one position, and it was not till he took it in his hand to give it to another that it suddenly flashed upon him in a new light, and he saw colours and depths in it hitherto unperceived, and a longing to keep it took possession of him. But the deed was already virtually signed and witnessed, the power to keep it lost, and so he hid what he was feeling, and his manner towards her held nothing but his old courtliness, his old friendship. The pain the new knowledge had brought him must be his alone.
And as the taxi stopped at the door of the church he helped Sara to alight, and gave her his arm to lead her up the steps, and up the aisle to the other man who was waiting for her.
A GIFT FROM THE DEAD
SIGNOR Bernardo Cignolesi took his watch from his pocket and looked at Signor Manfredi Guido.
“It is, I think, the exact hour,” he said.
They were small and dapper Italians, these two, who had been appointed by the late Duca di Corleone as the executors of his will and the keepers of the letter.
The whole party was assembled in Miss Mason’s studio. The wedding was over. Paul and Sara had plighted their troth. The blessing upon them had been pronounced. And when the last words of it had died away the church had been suddenly filled with music, the notes of a violin joyous and sweet, a wedding song for the two, a song that had never before been played.
It was Michael’s tribute to them both. The organist alone had been taken into the secret, and the man, who was a very true musician, listened to the song with his eyes full of tears.
“It is Michael,” Sara had whispered. And no one had moved till the music had ceased.
But now they were all in the studio, eating wedding [Pg 309]cake and drinking champagne, which Pippa had never tasted before and which made her gasp. She was wearing a little pendant Paul had given her. It was gold and shaped like a tulip, and it held in its chalice a blue sapphire.
And it was exactly an hour from the time the blessing had been pronounced that Signor Bernardo Cignolesi said to Signor Manfredi Guido:
“I think it is the exact hour.”
And Signor Manfredi Guido took a sealed envelope from his pocket, and holding it in his hand the two crossed together to Sara, who was standing by Paul, her radiance and magnetism filling the whole place.
“Allow us,” said Signor Guido, speaking for himself and his co-executor, “to give into your possession the letter addressed to you by the late Duca di Corleone. And now permit me to kiss your hand and wish you all happiness, thanking you at the same time for your hospitality.” He raised her hand to his lips, and Signor Cignolesi followed his example. Then bowing and smiling the two dapper little men returned to their glasses of champagne.
Sara broke the seal of the envelope and drew out the paper it contained. It was a letter in the late Duca’s handwriting, and addressed to herself.
She crossed slowly to Miss Mason’s large oak chair and sat down while she read it.
“My dear,” the letter began, “if ever you read [Pg 310]this letter it will be on the day that you have given yourself into the keeping of the man you love. Therefore, will you permit me, from the regions of the peaceful dead, to offer to you my felicitations?
“It is possible that since my death there have been moments when you have thought of me, if not with anger, at least with vexation. I knew I ran the risk of incurring this sentiment on your part when I drew up my will.
“May I now give you my reasons and my excuse for my action? I will be as brief as possible:
“When you married me, my dear, you were able to bring me a certain quiet affection, a very true courtliness, and an entire faithfulness. Love had not entered your life. You did not, then, know its meaning. I was not the man to teach you. I knew it, and yet I was selfish enough to take you. My excuse is simply that I loved you. You gave me what you had then to give, and it made me happy. If I longed for more I knew it was not withheld, but simply, at the time, non-existent.
“I realized, however, what one day you would have it in your power to give. And knowing that, I determined that the best should come to you and be asked of you. Hence my will. Total surrender of all worldly possessions for love. Love seeking you for your sake alone. My dear, was I wrong? I may have been. I leave it now for you to judge me. I wanted you, because I loved you, to have the gift of love in your life.
“And now that you have it I, from the quiet regions to which I shall have attained, send my offering to you and the man of your choice. Signor Cignolesi will give you another packet. In it you will find a deed leaving you the whole and sole possessor of the Casa di Corleone on the banks of Lake Como.
“You loved it, and I loved to see you there. If the spirits of the departed are allowed to return to earth, mine will come there to see you in your happiness. And remember, my dear, that in it I shall rejoice, for I believe that the only thing that could mar the peace to which, please God, I shall attain, would be your sorrow.
“Therefore, my dear, live joyously in the Casa di Corleone. And when on sunny days you sit in the shadow of the orange trees, and your children come running to you across the courtyard, God grant that my spirit may be there to see it.
“And may His Blessing be upon you; and the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints have you in their keeping,
“Giuseppe di Corleone.”
Sara looked up. Her eyes were misty. She signed to Paul to come to her.
“Read it,” she said. “Giuseppe was a generous man, and a very true courtier.”
And when Paul had read it he kissed Sara’s [Pg 312]hand. Then he came back to the table and every one saw that he had something to say.
“My wife,” he said simply, “has just received a gift from one who we know is at peace. It is the gift of a home she loves—the Casa di Corleone. And the offering comes from the Duca di Corleone.”
He bowed his head gravely, as did all the other occupants of the studio, while Sara, Pippa, Barnabas, and the two dapper little Italians, made the sign of the cross. And so they all for a moment paid tribute to the memory of a true and generous man.
Then, of course, came a babel of congratulations, and Paul was called upon for a speech.
“Speeches,” said Paul smiling, “are not very much in my line. My wife and I thank you all very much for being here to-day, and we know that throughout our lives we can count on the true friendship of all present. There is one toast, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to propose. It is to one who has been, and is, the best friend of many of us. Ladies and gentlemen let us drink to Aunt Olive in Bohemia.”
And everybody got to their feet, and there was a good deal of applause, and a good deal of laughter, but the eyes of some of them were a little dim, as were the eyes of the old lady who sat there smiling, and thanking God in her heart for His wonderful gifts of Love and Happiness.
THE MUSIC OF TWO COURTYARDS
AND so it was that Paul and Sara did not spend their honeymoon in Paris as they had at first intended, but travelled direct through without stopping to the Casa di Corleone on the banks of Lake Como.
It was in the purple and crimson of a sunset that Paul first saw the courtyard, and the golden oranges among their dark green leaves, and the marble fauns and nymphs, and heard the plashing of the fountain. The crimson light from the sky was touching the white marble of the figures, transforming them momentarily to the warm flush of life. Sara and Paul passed between them and up the steps of the old house into the great hall where the smiling Italian servants were ready to greet them, and where from the gallery above the haughty ladies of the house of Corleone looked down upon the two, and where from among them the portrait of the now true owner of the place glowed like a great blue sapphire.
And a couple of hours later they came into the dining-room, where shaded lamps filled the place with a soft mellow light, and shed their glow on the white damask cloth, on the shining glass and silver, [Pg 314]on decanters of red wine, and on dishes of golden oranges. Soft-footed low-voiced servants waited on them. It was a magic scene, over which the gods of Love and Joy reigned supreme.
And later still, the moon rose in the night sky, bathing the lake in silver, touching the marble statues to unearthly whiteness, and finding its way through a great window where two figures stood together looking at its light upon the sleeping lake. Behind them the room was full of flickering lights and shadows from a fire of fir-cones burning on the hearth.
And at last Sara turned from the strange beauty of the scene, and saw Paul’s eyes upon her.
“Are you—content?” she asked.
“Beloved of my heart,” he said, and his arms closed round her.
And so the Music of the Heart again filled the room, playing in glorious and most perfect harmony for the two whom the Gods had blessed.
And far away in England, in a studio in another courtyard, Aunt Olive was putting a question to Barnabas, while Pippa was lying asleep in the inner room.
“Now that Paul and Sara will have reached the Casa di Corleone,” she said, “and Alan and Aurora are cooing together, and Jasper and Bridget have found happiness, I wonder what is going to become of you and Dan and Michael.”
“You want to wind us up tidily, too,” said Barnabas, smiling.
“I was just wondering,” she said.
“Well,” said Barnabas, “Michael has his music and his drawing, and, at last, an ideal which will be his throughout his life. Dan will always be what he is now—big, silent, making harmless love to all women (he has been flirting disgracefully with Bridget, and Jasper has been quite refreshingly jealous), and always he will be a staunch friend of those who need him. And I, for the next few years, will turn my whole attention to your candidates for the School of a Wonderful Chance, and later——” he stopped.
“And later?” asked Aunt Olive.
“And later,” said Barnabas, “I hope to ask you for Pippa.”
And through the half-open window the little faun heard the words. And under the stars he piped a tune of the fairy tale of life, a tune of love and laughter, whose notes reached the soul of the sculptor who had fashioned him, and hearing the music he was glad.