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Wife. The word had a remarkable effect on him. It churned him all up. His thoughts were a chaotic jumble, and his driving on the way home matched them. He had at least three narrow shaves at cross streets before he got out of the town and for an entire mile afterwards he was on the wrong side of the road. During this period, deep as he was in confused thought, he couldn't but vaguely notice the anger on the faces of the other drivers and the variety and fury of their gesticulations, and it roused a dim wonder in him.
Wife. How arid existence had been for him up to then in regard to the affections, how knobbly the sort of kisses he had received in Clark. They weren't kisses; they were disapproving pecks. Always disapproving. Always as if he hadn't done enough, or been enough, or was suspected of not going to do or be enough.
His wife. Mr. Twist dreadfully longed to kiss somebody,--somebody kind and soft, who would let herself be adored. She needn't even love him,--he knew he wasn't the sort of man to set passion alight; she need only be kind, and a little fond of him, and let him love her, and be his very own.
His own little wife. How sweet. How almost painfully sweet. Yes. But the Annas....
When he thought of the Annas, Mr. Twist went damp. He might propose--indeed, everything pointed to his simply having got to--but wouldn't they very quickly dispose? And then what? That lawyer seemed to think all he had to do was to marry them right away; not them, of course,--one; but they were so very plural in his mind. Funny man, thought Mr. Twist; funny man,--yet otherwise so sagacious. It is true he need only propose to one of them, for which he thanked God, but he could imagine what that one, and what the other one too, who would be sure to be somewhere quite near would ... no, he couldn't imagine; he preferred not to imagine.
Mr. Twist's dampness increased, and a passing car got his mud-guard. It was a big car which crackled with language as it whizzed on its way, and Mr. Twist, slewed by the impact half across the road, then perceived on which side he had been driving.
The lane up to the inn was in its middle-day emptiness and somnolence. Where Anna-Felicitas and Elliott had been sitting cool and shaded when he passed before, there was only the pressed-down grass and crushed flowers in a glare of sun. She had gone home long ago of course. She said she was going to be very busy. Secretly he wished she hadn't gone home, and that little Christopher too might for a bit be somewhere else, so that when he arrived he wouldn't immediately have to face everybody at once. He wanted to think; he wanted to have time to think; time before four o'clock came, and with four o'clock, if he hadn't come to any conclusion about shutting up the inn--and how could he if nobody gave him time to think?--those accursed, swarming Germans. It was they who had done all this. Mr. Twist blazed into sudden fury. They and their blasted war....
At the gate stood Anna-Rose. Her face looked quite pale in the green shade of the tunnelled-out syringa bushes. She as peering out down the lane watching him approach. This was awful, thought Mr. Twist. At the very gate one of them. Confronted at once. No time, not a minute's time given him to think.
"Oh," cried out Anna-Rose the instant he pulled up, for she had waved to him to stop when he tried to drive straight on round to the stable, "she isn't with you?"
"Who isn't?" asked Mr. Twist.
Anna-Rose became paler than ever. "She has been kidnapped," she said.
"How's that?" said Mr. Twist, staring at her from the car.
"Kidnapped," repeated Anna-Rose, with wide-open horror-stricken eyes; for from her nursery she carried with her at the bottom of her mind, half-forgotten but ready to fly up to the top at any moment of panic, an impression that the chief activities and recreations of all those Americans who weren't really good were two: they lynched, and they kidnapped. They lynched you if they didn't like you enough, and if they liked you too much they kidnapped you. Anna-Felicitas, exquisite and unsuspecting, had been kidnapped. Some American's concupiscent eye had alighted on her, observed her beauty, and marked her down. No other explanation was possible of a whole morning's absence from duties of one so conscientious and painstaking as Anna-Felicitas. She never shirked; that is, she never had been base enough to shirk alone. If there was any shirking to be done they had always done it together. As the hours passed and she didn't appear, Anna-Rose had tried to persuade herself that she must have motored into Acapulco with Mr. Twist, strange and unnatural and reprehensible and ignoble as such arch shirking would have been; and now that the car had come back empty except for Mr. Twist she was convinced the worst had happened--her beautiful, her precious Columbus had been kidnapped.
"Kidnapped," she said again, wringing her hands.
Mr. Twist was horror-struck too, for he thought she was announcing the kidnapping of Mrs. Bilton. Somehow he didn't think of Anna-Felicitas; he had seen her too recently. But that Mrs. Bilton should be kidnapped seemed to him to touch the lowest depths of American criminal enterprise and depravity. At the same time though he recoiled before this fresh blow a thought did fan through his mind with a wonderful effect of coolness and silence,--"Then they'll gag her," he said.
"What?" cried Anna-Rose, as though a whip had lashed her. "Gag her?" And pulling open the gate and running out to him as one possessed she cried again, "Gag Columbus?"
"Oh that's it, is it," said Mr. Twist, with relief but also with disappointment, "Well, if it's that way I can tell you--"
He stopped; there was no need to tell her; for round the bend of the lane, walking bare-headed in the chequered light and shade as leisurely as if such things as tours of absence didn't exist, or a distracted household, or an anguished Christopher, with indeed, a complete, an extraordinary serenity, advanced Anna-Felicitas.
Always placid, her placidity at this moment had a shining quality. Still smug, she was now of a glorified smugness. If one could imagine a lily turned into a god, or a young god turned into a lily and walking down the middle of a sun-flecked Californian lane, it wouldn't be far out, thought Mr. Twist, as an image of the advancing Twinkler. The god would be so young that he was still a boy, and he wouldn't be worrying much about anything in the past or in the future, and he'd just be coming along like that with the corners of his mouth a little turned up, and his fair hair a little ruffled, and his charming young face full of a sober and abstracted radiance.
"Not much kidnapping there, I guess," said Mr. Twist with a jerk of his thumb. "And you take it from me, Anna I.," he added quickly, leaning over towards her, determined to get off to the garage before he found himself faced by both twins together, "that when next your imagination gets the jumps the best thing you can do is to hold on to it hard till it settles down again, instead of wasting your time and ruining your constitution going pale."
And he started the Ford with a bound, and got away round the corner into the yard.
Here, in the yard, was peace; at least for the moment. The only living thing in it was a cat the twins had acquired, through the services of one of the experts, as an indispensable object in a really homey home. The first thing this cat had done had been to eat the canary, which gave the twins much unacknowledged relief. It was, they thought secretly, quite a good plan to have one's pets inside each other,--it kept them so quiet. She now sat unmoved in the middle of the yard, carefully cleaning her whiskers while Mr. Twist did some difficult fancy driving in order to get into the stable without inconveniencing her.
Admirable picture of peace, thought Mr. Twist with a sigh of envy.
He might have got out and picked her up, but he was glad to manoeuvre about, reversing and making intricate figures in the dust, because it kept him longer away from the luncheon-table. The cat took no notice of him, but continued to deal with her whiskers even when his front wheel was within two inches of her tail, for though she hadn't been long at The Open Arms she had already sized up Mr. Twist and was aware that he wouldn't hurt a fly.
Thanks to her he had a lot of trouble getting the Ford into the stable, all of which he liked because of that luncheon-table; and having got it in he still lingered fiddling about with it, examining its engine and wiping its bonnet; and then when he couldn't do that any longer he went out and lingered in the yard, looking down at the cat with his hands in his pockets. "I must think," he kept on saying to himself.
"Lunchee," said Li Koo, putting his head out of the kitchen window.
"All right," said Mr. Twist.
He stooped down as though to examine the cat's ear. The cat, who didn't like her ears touched but was prepared to humour him, got out of it by lying down on her back and showing him her beautiful white stomach. She was a black cat, with a particularly beautiful white stomach, and she had discovered that nobody could see it without wanting to stroke it. Whenever she found herself in a situation that threatened to become disagreeable she just lay down and showed her stomach. Human beings in similar predicaments can only show their tact.
"Nice pussy--nice, nice pussy," said Mr. Twist aloud, stroking this irresistible object slowly, and forgetting her ear as she had intended he should.
"Lunchee get cold," said Li Koo, again putting his head out of the kitchen window. "Mis' Bilton say, Come in."
"All right," said Mr. Twist.
He straightened himself and looked round the yard. A rake that should have been propped up against the tool-shed with some other gardening tools had fallen down. He crossed over and picked it up and stood it up carefully again.
Li Koo watched him impassively from the window.
"Mis' Bilton come out," he said; and there she was in the yard door.
"Mr. Twist," she called shrilly, "if you don't come in right away and have your food before it gets all mushed up with cold I guess you'll be sorry."
"All right--coming," he called back very loud and cheerfully, striding towards her as one strides who knows there is nothing for it now but courage. "All right, Mrs. Bilton--sorry if I've kept you waiting. You shouldn't have bothered about me--"
And saying things like this in a loud voice, for to hear himself being loud made him feel more supported, he strode into the house, through the house, and out on to the verandah.
They always lunched on the verandah. The golden coloured awning was down, and the place was full of a golden shade. Beyond it blazed the garden. Beneath it was the flower-adorned table set as usual ready for four, and he went out to it, strung up to finding the Annas at the table, Anna-Felicitas in her usual seat with her back to the garden, her little fair head outlined against the glowing light as he had seen it every day since they had lived in the inn, Anna-Rose opposite, probably volubly and passionately addressing her.
And there was no one.
"Why--" he said, stopping short.
"Yes. It's real silly of them not to come and eat before everything is spoilt," said Mrs. Bilton bustling up, who had stayed behind to give an order to Li Koo. And she went to the edge of the verandah and shaded her eyes and called, "Gurls! Gurls! I guess you can do all that talking better after lunch."
He then saw that down at the bottom of the garden, in the most private place as regards being overheard, partly concealed by some arum lilies that grew immensely there like splendid weeds, stood the twins facing each other.
"Better leave them alone," he said quickly. "They'll come when they're ready. There's nothing like getting through with one's talking right away, Mrs. Bilton. Besides," he went on still more quickly for she plainly didn't agree with him and was preparing to sally out into the sun and fetch them in, "you and I don't often get a chance of a quiet chat together--"
And this, combined with the resolute way he was holding her chair ready for her, brought Mrs. Bilton back under the awning again.
She was flattered. Mr. Twist had not yet spoken to her in quite that tone. He had always been the gentleman, but never yet the eager gentleman. Now he was unmistakably both.
She came back and sat down, and so with a sigh of thankfulness immediately did he, for here was an unexpected respite,--while Mrs. Bilton talked he could think. Fortunately she never noticed if one wasn't listening. For the first time since he had known her he gave himself up willingly to the great broad stream that at once started flowing over him, on this occasion with something of the comfort of warm water, and he was very glad indeed that anyhow that day she wasn't gagged.
While he ate, he kept on furtively looking down the garden at the two figures facing each other by the arum lilies. Whenever Mrs. Bilton remembered them and wanted to call them in, as she did at the different stages, of the meal,--at the salad, at the pudding--he stopped her. She became more and more pleased by his evident determination to lunch alone with her, for after all one remains female to the end, and her conversation took on a gradual tinge of Mr. Bilton's views about second marriages. They had been liberal views; for Mr. Bilton, she said, had had no post-mortem pettiness about him, but they were lost on Mr. Twist, whose thoughts were so painfully preoccupied by first marriage.
The conclusions he came to during that trying meal while Mrs. Bilton talked, were that he would propose first to Anna-Rose, she being the eldest and such a course being accordingly natural, and, if she refused, proceed at once to propose to Anna-Felicitas. But before proceeding to Anna-Felicitas, a course he regarded with peculiar misgiving, he would very earnestly explain to Anna-Rose the seriousness of the situation and the necessity, the urgency, the sanity of her marrying him. These proposals would be kept on the cool level of strict business. Every trace of the affection with which he was so overflowing would be sternly excluded. For instance, he wasn't going to let himself remember the feel of Christopher's little head the afternoon before when he patted it to comfort her. Such remembrances would be bound to bring a warmth into his remarks which wouldn't be fair. The situation demanded the most scrupulous fairness and delicacy in its treatment, the most careful avoidance of taking any advantage of it. But how difficult, thought Mr. Twist, his hand shaking as he poured himself out a glass of iced water, how difficult when he loved the Annas so inconveniently much.
Mrs. Bilton observed the shaking of his hand, and felt more female than ever.
Still, there it was, this situation forced upon them all by the war. Nobody could help it, and it had to be faced with calmness, steadfastness and tact. Calmness, steadfastness and tact, repeated Mr. Twist, raising the water to his mouth and spilling some of it.
Mrs. Bilton observed this too, and felt still more female.
Marriage was the quickest, and really the only, way out of it. He saw that now. The lawyer had been quite right. And marriage, he would explain to the Annas, would be a mere formal ceremony which after the war they--he meant, of course, she--could easily in that land of facile and honourable divorce get rid of. Meanwhile, he would point out, they--she, of course; bother these twins--would be safely American, and he would undertake never to intrude love on them--her--unless by some wonderful chance, it was wanted. Some wonderful chance ... Mr. Twist's spectacles suddenly went dim, and he gulped down more water.
Yes. That was the line to take: the austere line of self-mortification for the Twinkler good. One Twinkler would be his wife--again at the dear word he had to gulp down water--and one his sister-in-law. They would just have to agree to this plan. The position was too serious for shilly-shallying. Yes. That was the line to take; and by the time he had got to the coffee it was perfectly clear and plain to him.
But he felt dreadfully damp. He longed for a liqueur, for anything that would support him....
"Is there any brandy in the house?" he suddenly flung across the web of Mrs. Bilton's words.
"Brandy, Mr. Twist?" she repeated, at this feeling altogether female, for what an unusual thing for him to ask for,--"You're not sick?"
"With my coffee," murmured Mr. Twist, his mouth very slack, his head drooping. "It's nice...."
"I'll go and see," said Mrs. Bilton, getting up briskly and going away rattling a bunch of keys.
At once he looked down the garden. Anna-Felicitas was in the act of putting her arm round Anna-Rose's shoulder, and Anna-Rose was passionately disengaging herself. Yes. There was trouble there. He knew there would be.
He gulped down more water.
Anna-Felicitas couldn't expect to go off like that for a whole morning and give Anna-Rose a horrible fright without hearing about it. Besides, the expression on her face wanted explaining,--a lot of explaining. Mr. Twist didn't like to think so, but Anna-Felicitas's recent conduct seemed to him almost artful. It seemed to him older than her years. It seemed to justify the lawyer's scepticism when he described the twins to him as children. That young man Elliott--
But here Mr. Twist started and lost his thread of thought, for looking once more down the garden he saw that Anna-Felicitas was coming towards the verandah, and that she was alone. Anna-Rose had vanished. Why had he bothered about brandy, and let Mrs. Bilton go? He had counted, somehow, on beginning with Anna-Rose....
He seized a cigarette and lit it. He tried vainly to keep his hand steady. Before the cigarette was fairly plight there was Anna-Felicitas, walking in beneath the awning.
"I'm glad you're alone," she said, "for I want to speak to you."
And Mr. Twist felt that his hour had come.
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