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It was only a fortnight after this that the inn was ready to be opened, and it was only during the first days of this fortnight that the party in the shanty had to endure any serious discomfort. The twins didn't mind the physical discomfort at all; what they minded, and began to mind almost immediately, was the spiritual discomfort of being at such close quarters with Mrs. Bilton. They hardly noticed the physical side of that close association in such a lovely climate, where the whole of out-of-doors can be used as one's living-room; and their morning dressing, a difficult business in the shanty for anybody less young and more needing to be careful, was rather like the getting up of a dog after its night's sleep--they seemed just to shake themselves, and there they were.
They got up before Mrs. Bilton, who was, however, always awake and talking to them while they dressed, and they went to bed before she did, though she came up with them after the first night and read aloud to them while they undressed; so that as regarded the mysteries of Mrs. Bilton's toilette they were not, after all, much in her way. It was like caravaning or camping out: you managed your movements and moments skilfully, and if you were Mrs. Bilton you had a curtain slung across your part of the room, in case your younger charges shouldn't always be asleep when they looked as if they were.
Gradually one alleviation was added to another, and Mrs. Bilton forgot the rigours of the beginning. Li Koo arrived, for instance, fetched by a telegram, and under a tent in the eucalyptus grove at the back of the house set up an old iron stove and produced, with no apparent exertion, extraordinarily interesting and amusing food. He went into Acapulco at daylight every morning and did the marketing. He began almost immediately to do everything else in the way of housekeeping. He was exquisitely clean, and saw to it that the shanty matched him in cleanliness. To the surprise and gratification of the twins, who had supposed it would be their lot to go on doing the housework of the shanty, he took it over as a matter of course, dusting, sweeping, and tidying like a practised and very excellent housemaid. The only thing he refused to do was to touch the three beds in the upper chamber. "Me no make lady-beds," he said briefly.
Li Koo's salary was enormous, but Mr. Twist, with a sound instinct, cared nothing what he paid so long as he got the right man. He was, indeed, much satisfied with his two employees, and congratulated himself on his luck. It is true in regard to Mrs. Bilton his satisfaction was rather of the sorrowful sort that a fresh ache in a different part of one's body from the first ache gives: it relieved him from one by substituting another. Mrs. Bilton overwhelmed him; but so had the Annas begun to. Her overwhelming, however, was different, and freed him from that other worse one. He felt safe now about the Annas, and after all there were parts of the building in which Mrs. Bilton wasn't. There was his bedroom, for instance. Thank God for bedrooms, thought Mr. Twist. He grew to love his. What a haven that poky and silent place was; what a blessing the conventions were, and the proprieties. Supposing civilization were so far advanced that people could no longer see the harm there is in a bedroom, what would have become of him? Mr. Twist could perfectly account for Bruce D. Bilton's death. It wasn't diabetes, as Mrs. Bilton said; it was just bedroom.
Still, Mrs. Bilton was an undoubted find, and did immediately in those rushed days take the Annas off his mind. He could leave them with her in the comfortable certitude that whatever else they did to Mrs. Bilton they couldn't talk to her. Never would she know the peculiar ease of the Twinkler attitude toward subjects Americans approach with care. Never would they be able to tell her things about Uncle Arthur, the kind of things that had caused the Cosmopolitan to grow so suddenly cool. There was, most happily for this particular case, no arguing with Mrs. Bilton. The twins couldn't draw her out because she was already, as it were, so completely out. This was a great thing, Mr. Twist felt, and made up for any personal suffocation he had to bear; and when on the afternoon of Mrs. Bilton's first day the twins appeared without her in the main building in search of him, having obviously given her the slip, and said they were sorry to disturb him but they wanted his advice, for though they had been trying hard all day, remembering they were ladies and practically hostesses, they hadn't yet succeeded in saying anything at all to Mrs. Bilton and doubted whether they ever would, he merely smiled happily at them and said to Anna-Rose, "See how good comes out of evil"--a remark that they didn't like when they had had time to think over it.
But they went on struggling. It seemed so unnatural to be all alone all day long with someone and only listen. Mrs. Bilton never left their side, regarding it as proper and merely fulfilling her part of the bargain, in these first confused days when there was nothing for ladies to do but look on while perspiring workmen laboured at apparently producing more and more chaos, to become thoroughly acquainted with her young charges. This she did by imparting to them intimate and meticulous information about her own life, with the whole of the various uplifts, as she put it, her psyche had during its unfolding experienced. There was so much to tell about herself that she never got to inquiring about the twins. She knew they were orphans, and that this was a good work, and for the moment had no time for more.
The twins were profoundly bored by her psyche, chiefly because they didn't know what part of her it was, and it was no use asking for she didn't answer; but they listened with real interest to her concrete experiences, and especially to the experiences connected with Mr. Bilton. They particularly wished to ask questions about Mr. Bilton, and find out what he had thought of things. Mrs. Bilton was lavish in her details of what she had thought herself, but Mr. Bilton's thoughts remained impenetrable. It seemed to the twins that he must have thought a lot, and have come to the conclusion that there was much to be said for death.
The Biltons, it appeared, had been the opposite of the Clouston-Sacks, and had never been separated for a single day during the whole of their married life. This seemed to the twins very strange, and needing a great deal of explanation. In order to get light thrown on it the first thing they wanted to find out was how long the marriage had lasted; but Mrs. Bilton was deaf to their inquiries, and having described Mr. Bilton's last moments and obsequies--obsequies scheduled by her, she said, with so tender a regard for his memory that she insisted on a horse-drawn hearse instead of the more fashionable automobile conveyance, on the ground that a motor hearse didn't seem sorry enough even on first speed--she washed along with an easy flow to descriptions of the dreadfulness of the early days of widowhood, when one's crepe veil keeps on catching in everything--chairs, overhanging branches, and passers-by, including it appeared on one occasion a policeman. She inquired of the twins whether they had ever seen a new-made widow in a wind. Chicago, she said, was a windy place, and Mr. Bilton passed in its windiest month. Her long veil, as she proceeded down the streets on the daily constitutional she considered it her duty toward the living to take, for one owes it to one's friends to keep oneself fit and not give way, was blown hither and thither in the buffeting cross-currents of that uneasy climate, and her walk in the busier streets was a series of entanglements. Embarrassing entanglements, said Mrs. Bilton. Fortunately the persons she got caught in were delicacy and sympathy itself; often, indeed, seeming quite overcome by the peculiar poignancy of the situation, covered with confusion, profuse in apologies. Sometimes the wind would cause her veil for a few moments to rear straight up above her head in a monstrous black column of woe. Sometimes, if she stopped a moment waiting to cross the street, it would whip round the body of any one who happened to be near, like a cord. It did this once about the body of the policeman directing the traffic, by whose side she had paused, and she had to walk round him backwards before it could be unwound. The Chicago evening papers, prompt on the track of a sensation, had caused her friends much painful if only short-lived amazement by coming out with huge equivocal headlines:
WELL-KNOWN SOCIETY WIDOW AND POLICEMAN CAUGHT TOGETHER
and beginning their description of the occurrence by printing her name in full. So that for the first sentence or two her friends were a prey to horror and distress, which turned to indignation on discovering there was nothing in it after all.
The twins, their eyes on Mrs. Bilton's face, their hands clasped round their knees, their bodies sitting on the grass at her feet, occasionally felt as they followed her narrative that they were somehow out of their depth and didn't quite understand. It was extraordinarily exasperating to them to be so completely muzzled. They were accustomed to elucidate points they didn't understand by immediate inquiry; they had a habit of asking for information, and then delivering comments on it.
This condition of repression made them most uncomfortable. The ilex tree in the field below the house, to which Mrs. Bilton shepherded them each morning and afternoon for the first three days, became to them, in spite of its beauty with the view from under its dark shade across the sunny fields to the sea and the delicate distant islands, a painful spot. The beauty all round them was under these conditions exasperating. Only once did Mrs. Bilton leave them, and that was the first afternoon, when they instantly fled to seek out Mr. Twist; and she only left them then--for it wasn't just her sense of duty that was strong, but also her dislike of being alone--because something unexpectedly gave way in the upper part of her dress, she being of a tight well-held-in figure, depending much on its buttons; and she had very hastily to go in search of a needle.
After that they didn't see Mr. Twist alone for several days. They hardly indeed saw him at all. The only meal he shared with them was supper, and on finding the first evening that Mrs. Bilton read aloud to people after supper, he made the excuse of accounts to go through and went into his bedroom, repeating this each night.
The twins watched him go with agonized eyes. They considered themselves deserted; shamefully abandoned to a miserable fate.
"And it isn't as if he didn't like reading aloud," whispered Anna-Rose, bewildered and indignant as she remembered the "Ode to Dooty."
"Perhaps he's one of those people who only like it if they do it themselves," Anna-Felicitas whispered back, trying to explain his base behaviour.
And while they whispered, Mrs. Bilton with great enjoyment declaimed--she had had a course of elocution lessons during Mr. Bilton's life so as to be able to place the best literature advantageously before him--the diary of a young girl written in prison. The young girl had been wrongfully incarcerated, Mrs. Bilton explained, and her pure soul only found release by the demise of her body. The twins hated the young girl from the first paragraph. She wrote her diary every day till her demise stopped her. As nothing happens in prisons that hasn't happened the day before, she could only write her reflections; and the twins hated her reflections, because they were so very like what in their secret moments of slush they were apt to reflect themselves. Their mother had had a horror of slush. There had been none anywhere about her; but it is in the air in Germany, in people's blood, everywhere; and though the twins, owing to the English part of them, had a horror of it too, there it was in them, and they knew it,--genuine German slush.
They felt uncomfortably sure that if they were in prison they would write a diary very much on these lines. For three evenings they had to listen to it, their eyes on Mr. Twist's door. Why didn't he come out and save them? What happy, what glorious evenings they used to have at the Cosmopolitan, spent in intelligent conversation, in a decent give and take--not this button-holing business, this being got into a corner and held down; and alas, how little they had appreciated them! They used to get sleepy and break them off and go to bed. If only he would come out now and talk to them they would sit up all night. They wriggled with impatience in their seats beneath the épanchements of the young girl, the strangely and distressingly familiar épanchements. The diary was published in a magazine, and after the second evening, when Mrs. Bilton on laying it down announced she would go on with it while they were dressing next morning, they got up very early before Mrs. Bilton was awake and crept out and hid it.
But Li Koo found it and restored it.
Li Koo found everything. He found Mrs. Bilton's outdoor shoes the third morning, although the twins had hidden them most carefully. Their idea was that while she, rendered immobile, waited indoors, they would zealously look for them in all the places where they well knew that they weren't, and perhaps get some conversation with Mr. Twist.
But Li Koo found everything. He found the twins themselves the fourth morning, when, unable any longer to bear Mrs. Bilton's voice, they ran into the woods instead of coming in to breakfast. He seemed to find them at once, to walk unswervingly to their remote and bramble-filled ditch.
In order to save their dignity they said as they scrambled out that they were picking flowers for Mrs. Bilton's breakfast, though the ditch had nothing in it but stones and thorns. Li Koo made no comment. He never did make comments; and his silence and his ubiquitous efficiency made the twins as fidgety with him as they were with Mrs. Bilton for the opposite reason. They had an uncomfortable feeling that he was rather like the liebe Gott,--he saw everything, knew everything, and said nothing. In vain they tried, on that walk back as at other times, to pierce his impassivity with genialities. Li Koo--again, they silently reflected, like the liebe Gott--had a different sense of geniality from theirs; he couldn't apparently smile; they doubted if he even ever wanted to. Their genialities faltered and froze on their lips.
Besides, they were deeply humiliated by having been found hiding, and were ashamed to find themselves trying anxiously in this manner to conciliate Li Koo. Their dignity on the walk back to the shanty seemed painfully shrunk. They ought never to have condescended to do the childish things they had been doing during the last three days. If they hadn't been found out it would, of course, have remained a private matter between them and their Maker, and then one doesn't mind so much; but they had been found out, and by Li Koo, their own servant. It was intolerable. All the blood of all the Twinklers, Junkers from time immemorial and properly sensitive to humiliation, surged within them. They hadn't felt so naughty and so young for years. They were sure Li Koo didn't believe them about the ditch. They had a dreadful sensation of being led back to Mrs. Bilton by the ear.
If only they could sack Mrs. Bilton!
This thought, immense and startling, came to Anna-Rose, who far more than Anna-Felicitas resented being cut off from Mr. Twist, besides being more naturally impetuous; and as they walked in silence side by side, with Li Koo a little ahead of them, she turned her head and looked at Anna-Felicitas. "Let's give her notice," she murmured, under her breath.
Anna-Felicitas was so much taken aback that she stopped in her walk and stared at Anna-Rose's flushed face.
She too hardly breathed it. The suggestion seemed fantastic in its monstrousness. How could they give anybody so old, so sure of herself, so determined as Mrs. Bilton, notice?
"Give her notice?" she repeated.
A chill ran down Anna-Felicitas's spine. Give Mrs. Bilton notice! It was a great, a breath-taking idea, magnificent in its assertion of independence, of rights; but it needed, she felt, to be approached with caution. They had never given anybody notice in their lives, and they had always thought it must be a most painful thing to do--far, far worse than tipping. Uncle Arthur usedn't to mind it a bit; did it, indeed, with gusto. But Aunt Alice hadn't liked it at all, and came out in a cold perspiration and bewailed her lot to them and wished that people would behave and not place her in such a painful position.
Mrs. Bilton couldn't be said not to have behaved. Quite the contrary. She had behaved too persistently; and they had to endure it the whole twenty-four hours. For Mrs. Bilton had no turn, it appeared, in spite of what she had said at Los Angeles, for solitary contemplation, and after the confusion of the first night, when once she had had time to envisage the situation thoroughly, as she said, she had found that to sit alone downstairs in the uncertain light of the lanterns while the twins went to bed and Mr. Twist wouldn't come out of his room, was not good for her psyche; so she had followed the twins upstairs, and continued to read the young girl's diary to them during their undressing and till the noises coming from their beds convinced her that it was useless to go on any longer. And that morning, the morning they hid in the ditch, she had even done this while they were getting up.
"It isn't to be borne," said Anna-Rose under her breath, one eye on Li Koo's ear which, a little in front of her, seemed slightly slanted backward and sideways in the direction of her voice. "And why should it be? We're not in her power."
"No," said Anna-Felicitas, also under her breath and also watching Li Koo's ear, "but it feels extraordinarily as if we were."
"Yes. And that's intolerable. And it forces us to do silly baby things, wholly unsuited either to our age or our position. Who would have thought we'd ever hide from somebody in a ditch again!" Anna-Rose's voice was almost a sob at the humiliation.
"It all comes from sleeping in the same room," said Anna-Felicitas. "Nobody can stand a thing that doesn't end at night either."
"Of course they can't," said Anna-Rose. "It isn't fair. If you have to have a person all day you oughtn't to have to have the same person all night. Some one else should step in and relieve you then. Just as they do in hospitals."
"Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Mr. Twist ought to. He ought to remove her forcibly from our room by marriage.
"No he oughtn't," said Anna-Rose hastily, "because we can remove her ourselves by the simple process of giving her notice."
"I don't believe it's simple," said Anna-Felicia again feeling a chill trickling down her spine.
"Of course it is. We just go to her very politely and inform her that the engagement is terminated on a basis of mutual esteem but inflexible determination."
"And suppose she doesn't stop talking enough to hear?"
"Then we'll hand it to her in writing."
The rest of the way they walked in silence, Anna-Rose with her chin thrust out in defiance, Anna-Felicitas dragging her feet along with a certain reluctance and doubt.
Mrs. Bilton had finished her breakfast when they got back, having seen no sense in letting good food get cold, and was ready to sit and chat to them while they had theirs. She was so busy telling them what she had supposed they were probably doing, that she was unable to listen to their attempted account of what they had done. Thus they were saved from telling humiliating and youthful fibs; but they were also prevented, as by a wall of rock, from getting the speech through to her ear that Anna-Rose, trembling in spite of her defiance, had ready to launch at her. It was impossible to shout at Mrs. Bilton in the way Mr. Twist, when in extremity of necessity, had done. Ladies didn't shout; especially not when they were giving other ladies notice. Anna-Rose, who was quite cold and clammy at the prospect of her speech, couldn't help feeling relieved when breakfast was over and no opportunity for it had been given.
"We'll write it," she whispered to Anna-Felicitas beneath the cover of a lively account Mrs. Bilton was giving them, à propos of their being late for breakfast, of the time it took her, after Mr. Bilton's passing, to get used to his unpunctuality at meals.
That Mr. Bilton, who had breakfasted and dined with her steadily for years, should suddenly leave off being punctual freshly astonished her every day, she said. The clock struck, yet Mr. Bilton continued late. It was poignant, said Mrs. Bilton, this way of being reminded of her loss. Each day she would instinctively expect; each day would come the stab of recollection. The vacancy these non-appearances had made in her life was beyond any words of hers. In fact she didn't possess such words, and doubted if the completest dictionary did either. Everything went just vacant, she said. No need any more to hurry down in the morning, so as to be behind the coffee pot half a minute before the gong went and Mr. Bilton simultaneously appeared. No need any more to think of him when ordering meals. No need any more to eat the dish he had been so fond of and she had found so difficult to digest, Boston baked beans and bacon; yet she found herself ordering it continually after his departure, and choking memorially over the mouthfuls--"And people in Europe," cried Mrs Bilton, herself struck as she talked by this extreme devotion, "say that American women are incapable of passion!"
"We'll write it," whispered Anna-Rose to Anna-Felicitas.
"Write what?" asked Anna-Felicitas abstractedly, who as usual when Mrs. Bilton narrated her reminiscences was absorbed in listening to them and trying to get some clear image of Mr. Bilton.
But she remembered the next moment, and it was like waking up to the recollection that this is the day you have to have a tooth pulled out. The idea of not having the tooth any more, of being free from it charmed and thrilled her, but how painful, how alarming was the prospect of pulling it out!
There was one good thing to be said for Mrs. Bilton's talk, and that was that under its voluminous cover they could themselves whisper occasionally to each other. Anna-Rose decided that if Mrs. Bilton didn't notice that they whispered neither probably would she notice if she wrote. She therefore under Mrs. Bilton's very nose got a pencil and a piece of paper, and with many pauses and an unsteady hand wrote the following:
DEAR MRS. BILTON--For some time past my sister and I have felt that we aren't suited to you, and if you don't mind would you mind regarding the engagement as terminated? We hope you won't think this abrupt, because it isn't really, for we seem to have lived ages since you came, and we've been thinking this over ripely ever since. And we hope you won't take it as anything personal either, because it isn't really. It's only that we feel we're unsuitable, and we're sure we'll go on getting more and more unsuitable. Nobody can help being unsuitable, and we're fearfully sorry. But on the other hand we're inflexible.--Yours affectionately,
ANNA-ROSE and ANNA-FELICITAS TWINKLER
With a beating heart she cautiously pushed the letter across the table under cover of the breakfast débris to Anna-Felicitas, who read it with a beating heart and cautiously pushed it back.
Anna-Felicitas felt sure Christopher was being terribly impetuous, and she felt sure she ought to stop her. But what a joy to be without Mrs. Bilton! The thought of going to bed in the placid sluggishness dear to her heart, without having to listen, to be attentive, to remember to be tidy because if she weren't there would be no room for Mrs. Bilton's things, was too much for her. Authority pursuing her into her bedroom was what she had found most difficult to bear. There must be respite. There must be intervals in every activity or endurance. Even the liebe Gott, otherwise so indefatigable, had felt this and arranged for the relaxation of Sundays.
She pushed the letter back with a beating heart, and told herself that she couldn't and never had been able to stop Christopher when she was in this mood of her chin sticking out. What could she do in face of such a chin? And besides, Mrs. Bilton's friends must be missing her very much and ought to have her back. One should always live only with one's own sort of people. Every other way of living, Anna-Felicitas was sure even at this early stage of her existence, was bound to come to a bad end. One could be fond of almost anybody, she held, if they were somewhere else. Even of Uncle Arthur. Even he somehow seemed softened by distance. But for living-together purposes there was only one kind of people possible, and that was one's own kind. Unexpected and various were the exteriors of one's own kind and the places one found them in, but one always knew them. One felt comfortable with them at once; comfortable and placid. Whatever else Mrs. Bilton might be feeling she wasn't feeling placid. That was evident; and it was because she too wasn't with her own kind. With her eyes fixed nervously on Mrs. Bilton who was talking on happily, Anna-Felicitas reasoned with herself in the above manner as she pushed back the letter, instead of, as at the back of her mind she felt she ought to have done, tearing it up.
Anna-Rose folded it and addressed it to Mrs. Bilton. Then she got up and held it out to her.
Anna-Felicitas got up too, her inside feeling strangely unsteady and stirred round and round.
"Would you mind reading this?" said Anna-Rose faintly to Mrs. Bilton, who took the letter mechanically and held it in her hand without apparently noticing it, so much engaged was she by what she was saying.
"We're going out a moment to speak to Mr. Twist," Anna-Rose then said, making for the door and beckoning to Anna-Felicitas, who still stood hesitating.
She slipped out; and Anna-Felicitas, suddenly panic-stricken lest she should be buttonholed all by herself fled after her.
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