In the afternoon of the last day of April, 190-, a billowy sea of little broken clouds crowned the thin air above High Street, Kensington. This soft tumult of vapours, covering nearly all the firmament, was in onslaught round a patch of blue sky, shaped somewhat like a star, which still gleamed--a single gentian flower amongst innumerable grass. Each of these small clouds seemed fitted with a pair of unseen wings, and, as insects flight on their too constant journeys, they were setting forth all ways round this starry blossom which burned so clear with the colour of its far fixity. On one side they were massed in fleecy congeries, so crowding each other that no edge or outline was preserved; on the other, higher, stronger, emergent from their fellow-clouds, they seemed leading the attack on that surviving gleam of the ineffable. Infinite was the variety of those million separate vapours, infinite the unchanging unity of that fixed blue star.
Down in the street beneath this eternal warring of the various soft-winged clouds on the unmisted ether, men, women, children, and their familiars--horses, dogs, and cats--were pursuing their occupations with the sweet zest of the Spring. They streamed along, and the noise of their frequenting rose in an unbroken roar: "I, I--I, I!"
The crowd was perhaps thickest outside the premises of Messrs. Rose and Thorn. Every kind of being, from the highest to the lowest, passed in front of the hundred doors of this establishment; and before the costume window a rather tall, slight, graceful woman stood thinking: "It really is gentian blue! But I don't know whether I ought to buy it, with all this distress about!"
Her eyes, which were greenish-grey, and often ironical lest they should reveal her soul, seemed probing a blue gown displayed in that window, to the very heart of its desirability.
"And suppose Stephen doesn't like me in it!" This doubt set her gloved fingers pleating the bosom of her frock. Into that little pleat she folded the essence of herself, the wish to have and the fear of having, the wish to be and the fear of being, and her veil, falling from the edge of her hat, three inches from her face, shrouded with its tissue her half-decided little features, her rather too high cheek-bones, her cheeks which were slightly hollowed, as though Time had kissed them just too much.
The old man, with a long face, eyes rimmed like a parrot's, and discoloured nose, who, so long as he did not sit down, was permitted to frequent the pavement just there and sell the 'Westminster Gazette', marked her, and took his empty pipe out of his mouth.
It was his business to know all the passers-by, and his pleasure too; his mind was thus distracted from the condition of his feet. He knew this particular lady with the delicate face, and found her puzzling; she sometimes bought the paper which Fate condemned him, against his politics, to sell. The Tory journals were undoubtedly those which her class of person ought to purchase. He knew a lady when he saw one. In fact, before Life threw him into the streets, by giving him a disease in curing which his savings had disappeared, he had been a butler, and for the gentry had a respect as incurable as was his distrust of "all that class of people" who bought their things at "these 'ere large establishments," and attended "these 'ere subscription dances at the Town 'All over there." He watched her with special interest, not, indeed, attempting to attract attention, though conscious in every fibre that he had only sold five copies of his early issues. And he was sorry and surprised when she passed from his sight through one of the hundred doors.
The thought which spurred her into Messrs. Rose and Thorn's was this: "I am thirty-eight; I have a daughter of seventeen. I cannot afford to lose my husband's admiration. The time is on me when I really must make myself look nice!"
Before a long mirror, in whose bright pool there yearly bathed hundreds of women's bodies, divested of skirts and bodices, whose unruffled surface reflected daily a dozen women's souls divested of everything, her eyes became as bright as steel; but having ascertained the need of taking two inches off the chest of the gentian frock, one off its waist, three off its hips, and of adding one to its skirt, they clouded again with doubt, as though prepared to fly from the decision she had come to. Resuming her bodice, she asked:
"When could you let me have it?"
"At the end of the week, madam."
"Not till then?"
"We are very pressed, madam."
"Oh, but you must let me have it by Thursday at the latest, please."
The fitter sighed: "I will do my best."
"I shall rely on you. Mrs. Stephen Dallison, 76, The Old Square."
Going downstairs she thought: "That poor girl looked very tired; it's a shame they give them such long hours!" and she passed into the street.
A voice said timidly behind her: "Westminister, marm?"
"That's the poor old creature," thought Cecilia Dallison, "whose nose is so unpleasant. I don't really think I--" and she felt for a penny in her little bag. Standing beside the "poor old creature" was a woman clothed in worn but neat black clothes, and an ancient toque which had once known a better head. The wan remains of a little bit of fur lay round her throat. She had a thin face, not without refinement, mild, very clear brown eyes, and a twist of smooth black hair. Beside her was a skimpy little boy, and in her arms a baby. Mrs. Dallison held out two-pence for the paper, but it was at the woman that she looked.
"Oh, Mrs. Hughs," she said, "we've been expecting you to hem the curtains!"
The woman slightly pressed the baby.
"I am very sorry, ma'am. I knew I was expected, but I've had such trouble."
Cecilia winced. "Oh, really?"
"Yes, m'm; it's my husband."
"Oh, dear!" Cecilia murmured. "But why didn't you come to us?"
"I didn't feel up to it, ma'am; I didn't really--"
A tear ran down her cheek, and was caught in a furrow near the mouth.
Mrs. Dallison said hurriedly: "Yes, yes; I'm very sorry."
"This old gentleman, Mr. Creed, lives in the same house with us, and he is going to speak to my husband."
The old man wagged his head on its lean stalk of neck.
"He ought to know better than be'ave 'imself so disrespectable," he said.
Cecilia looked at him, and murmured: "I hope he won't turn on you!"
The old man shuffled his feet.
"I likes to live at peace with everybody. I shall have the police to 'im if he misdemeans hisself with me!... Westminister, sir?" And, screening his mouth from Mrs. Dallison, he added in a loud whisper: "Execution of the Shoreditch murderer!"
Cecilia felt suddenly as though the world were listening to her conversation with these two rather seedy persons.
"I don't really know what I can do for you, Mrs. Hughs. I'll speak to Mr. Dallison, and to Mr. Hilary too."
"Yes, ma'am; thank you, ma'am."
With a smile which seemed to deprecate its own appearance, Cecilia grasped her skirts and crossed the road. "I hope I wasn't unsympathetic," she thought, looking back at the three figures on the edge of the pavement--the old man with his papers, and his discoloured nose thrust upwards under iron-rimmed spectacles; the seamstress in her black dress; the skimpy little boy. Neither speaking nor moving, they were looking out before them at the traffic; and something in Cecilia revolted at this sight. It was lifeless, hopeless, unaesthetic.
"What can one do," she thought, "for women like Mrs. Hughs, who always look like that? And that poor old man! I suppose I oughtn't to have bought that dress, but Stephen is tired of this."
She turned out of the main street into a road preserved from commoner forms of traffic, and stopped at a long low house half hidden behind the trees of its front garden.
It was the residence of Hilary Dallison, her husband's brother, and himself the husband of Bianca, her own sister.
The queer conceit came to Cecilia that it resembled Hilary. Its look was kindly and uncertain; its colour a palish tan; the eyebrows of its windows rather straight than arched, and those deep-set eyes, the windows, twinkled hospitably; it had, as it were, a sparse moustache and beard of creepers, and dark marks here and there, like the lines and shadows on the faces of those who think too much. Beside it, and apart, though connected by a passage, a studio stood, and about that studio--of white rough-cast, with a black oak door, and peacock-blue paint--was something a little hard and fugitive, well suited to Bianca, who used it, indeed, to paint in. It seemed to stand, with its eyes on the house, shrinking defiantly from too close company, as though it could not entirely give itself to anything. Cecilia, who often worried over the relations between her sister and her brother-in-law, suddenly felt how fitting and symbolical this was.
But, mistrusting inspirations, which, experience told her, committed one too much, she walked quickly up the stone-flagged pathway to the door. Lying in the porch was a little moonlight-coloured lady bulldog, of toy breed, who gazed up with eyes like agates, delicately waving her bell-rope tail, as it was her habit to do towards everyone, for she had been handed down clearer and paler with each generation, till she had at last lost all the peculiar virtues of dogs that bait the bull.
Speaking the word "Miranda!" Mrs. Stephen Dallison tried to pat this daughter of the house. The little bulldog withdrew from her caress, being also unaccustomed to commit herself....
Mondays were Blanca's "days," and Cecilia made her way towards the studio. It was a large high room, full of people.
Motionless, by himself, close to the door, stood an old man, very thin and rather bent, with silvery hair, and a thin silvery beard grasped in his transparent fingers. He was dressed in a suit of smoke-grey cottage tweed, which smelt of peat, and an Oxford shirt, whose collar, ceasing prematurely, exposed a lean brown neck; his trousers, too, ended very soon, and showed light socks. In his attitude there was something suggestive of the patience and determination of a mule. At Cecilia's approach he raised his eyes. It was at once apparent why, in so full a room, he was standing alone. Those blue eyes looked as if he were about to utter a prophetic statement.
"They have been speaking to me of an execution," he said.
Cecilia made a nervous movement.
"To take life," went on the old man in a voice which, though charged with strong emotion, seemed to be speaking to itself, "was the chief mark of the insensate barbarism still prevailing in those days. It sprang from that most irreligious fetish, the belief in the permanence of the individual ego after death. From the worship of that fetish had come all the sorrows of the human race."
Cecilia, with an involuntary quiver of her little bag, said:
"Father, how can you?"
"They did not stop to love each other in this life; they were so sure they had all eternity to do it in. The doctrine was an invention to enable men to act like dogs with clear consciences. Love could never come to full fruition till it was destroyed."
Cecilia looked hastily round; no one had heard. She moved a little sideways, and became merged in another group. Her father's lips continued moving. He had resumed the patient attitude which so slightly suggested mules. A voice behind her said: "I do think your father is such an interesting man, Mrs. Dallison."
Cecilia turned and saw a woman of middle height, with her hair done in the early Italian fashion, and very small, dark, lively eyes, which looked as though her love of living would keep her busy each minute of her day and all the minutes that she could occupy of everybody else's days.
"Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace? Oh! how do you do? I've been meaning to come and see you for quite a long time, but I know you're always so busy."
With doubting eyes, half friendly and half defensive, as though chaffing to prevent herself from being chaffed, Cecilia looked at Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace, whom she had met several times at Bianca's house. The widow of a somewhat famous connoisseur, she was now secretary of the League for Educating Orphans who have Lost both Parents, vice-president of the Forlorn Hope for Maids in Peril, and treasurer to Thursday Hops for Working Girls. She seemed to know every man and woman who was worth knowing, and some besides; to see all picture-shows; to hear every new musician; and attend the opening performance of every play. With regard to literature, she would say that authors bored her; but she was always doing them good turns, inviting them to meet their critics or editors, and sometimes--though this was not generally known--pulling them out of the holes they were prone to get into, by lending them a sum of money--after which, as she would plaintively remark; she rarely saw them more.
She had a peculiar spiritual significance to Mrs. Stephen Dallison, being just on the borderline between those of Bianca's friends whom Cecilia did not wish and those whom she did wish to come to her own house, for Stephen, a barrister in an official position, had a keen sense of the ridiculous. Since Hilary wrote books and was a poet, and Bianca painted, their friends would naturally be either interesting or queer; and though for Stephen's sake it was important to establish which was which, they were so very often both. Such people stimulated, taken in small doses, but neither on her husband's account nor on her daughter's did Cecilia desire that they should come to her in swarms. Her attitude of mind towards them was, in fact, similar-a sort of pleasurable dread-to that in which she purchased the Westminster Gazette to feel the pulse of social progress.
Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace's dark little eyes twinkled.
"I hear that Mr. Stone--that is your father's name, I think--is writing a book which will create quite a sensation when it comes out."
Cecilia bit her lips. "I hope it never will come out," she was on the point of saying.
"What will it be called?" asked Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace. "I gather that it's a book of Universal Brotherhood. That's so nice!"
Cecilia made a movement of annoyance. "Who told you?"
"Ah!" said Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace, "I do think your sister gets such attractive people at her At Homes. They all take such interest in things."
A little surprised at herself, Cecilia answered "Too much for me!"
Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace smiled. "I mean in art and social questions. Surely one can't be too interested in them?"
Cecilia said rather hastily:
"Oh no, of course not." And both ladies looked around them. A buzz of conversation fell on Cecilia's ears.
"Have you seen the 'Aftermath'? It's really quite wonderful!"
"Poor old chap! he's so rococo...."
"There's a new man.
"She's very sympathetic.
"But the condition of the poor....
"Is that Mr. Balladyce? Oh, really.
"It gives you such a feeling of life.
The voice of Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace broke through: "But do please tell me who is that young girl with the young man looking at the picture over there. She's quite charming!"
Cecilia's cheeks went a very pretty pink.
"Oh, that's my little daughter."
"Really! Have you a daughter as big as that? Why, she must be seventeen!"
"What is her name?"
"Thyme," said Cecilia, with a little smile. She felt that Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace was about to say: 'How charming!'
Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace saw her smile and paused. "Who is the young man with her?"
"My nephew, Martin Stone."
"The son of your brother who was killed with his wife in that dreadful Alpine accident? He looks a very decided sort of young man. He's got that new look. What is he?"
"He's very nearly a doctor. I never know whether he's quite finished or not."
"I thought perhaps he might have something to do with Art."
"Oh no, he despises Art."
"And does your daughter despise it, too?"
"No; she's studying it."
"Oh, really! How interesting! I do think the rising generation amusing, don't you? They're so independent."
Cecilia looked uneasily at the rising generation. They were standing side by side before the picture, curiously observant and detached, exchanging short remarks and glances. They seemed to watch all these circling, chatting, bending, smiling people with a sort of youthful, matter-of-fact, half-hostile curiosity. The young man had a pale face, clean-shaven, with a strong jaw, a long, straight nose, a rather bumpy forehead which did not recede, and clear grey eyes. His sarcastic lips were firm and quick, and he looked at people with disconcerting straightness. The young girl wore a blue-green frock. Her face was charming, with eager, hazel-grey eyes, a bright colour, and fluffy hair the colour of ripe nuts.
"That's your sister's picture, 'The Shadow,' they're looking at, isn't it?" asked Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace. "I remember seeing it on Christmas Day, and the little model who was sitting for it--an attractive type! Your brother-in-law told me how interested you all were in her. Quite a romantic story, wasn't it, about her fainting from want of food when she first came to sit?"
Cecilia murmured something. Her hands were moving nervously; she looked ill at ease.
These signs passed unperceived by Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace, whose eyes were busy.
"In the F.H.M.P., of course, I see a lot of young girls placed in delicate positions, just on the borders, don't you know? You should really join the F.H.M.P., Mrs. Dallison. It's a first-rate thing--most absorbing work."
The doubting deepened in Cecilia's eyes.
"Oh, it must be!" she said. "I've so little time."
Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace went on at once.
"Don't you think that we live in the most interesting days? There are such a lot of movements going on. It's quite exciting. We all feel that we can't shut our eyes any longer to social questions. I mean the condition of the people alone is enough to give one nightmare!"
"Yes, yes," said Cecilia; "it is dreadful, of course.
"Politicians and officials are so hopeless, one can't look for anything from them."
Cecilia drew herself up. "Oh, do you think so?" she said.
"I was just talking to Mr. Balladyce. He says that Art and Literature must be put on a new basis altogether."
"Yes," said Cecilia; "really? Is he that funny little man?"
"I think he's so monstrously clever."
Cecilia answered quickly: "I know--I know. Of course, something must be done."
"Yes," said Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace absently, "I think we all feel that. Oh, do tell me! I've been talking to such a delightful person--just the type you see when you go into the City--thousands of them, all in such good black coats. It's so unusual to really meet one nowadays; and they're so refreshing, they have such nice simple views. There he is, standing just behind your sister."
Cecilia by a nervous gesture indicated that she recognized the personality alluded to. "Oh, yes," she said; "Mr. Purcey. I don't know why he comes to see us."
"I think he's so delicious!" said Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace dreamily. Her little dark eyes, like bees, had flown to sip honey from the flower in question--a man of broad build and medium height, dressed. with accuracy, who seemed just a little out of his proper bed. His mustachioed mouth wore a set smile; his cheerful face was rather red, with a forehead of no extravagant height or breadth, and a conspicuous jaw; his hair was thick and light in colour, and his eyes were small, grey, and shrewd. He was looking at a picture.
"He's so delightfully unconscious," murmured Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace. "He didn't even seem to know that there was a problem of the lower classes."
"Did he tell you that he had a picture?" asked Cecilia gloomily.
"Oh yes, by Harpignies, with the accent on the 'pig.' It's worth three times what he gave for it. It's so nice to be made to feel that there is still all that mass of people just simply measuring everything by what they gave for it."
"And did he tell you my grandfather Carfax's dictum in the Banstock case?" muttered Cecilia.
"Oh yes: 'The man who does not know his own mind should be made an Irishman by Act of Parliament.' He said it was so awfully good."
"He would," replied Cecilia.
"He seems to depress you, rather!"
"Oh no; I believe he's quite a nice sort of person. One can't be rude to him; he really did what he thought a very kind thing to my father. That's how we came to know him. Only it's rather trying when he will come to call regularly. He gets a little on one's nerves."
"Ah, that's just what I feel is so jolly about him; no one would ever get on his nerves. I do think we've got too many nerves, don't you? Here's your brother-in-law. He's such an uncommon-looking man; I want to have a talk with him about that little model. A country girl, wasn't she?"
She had turned her head towards a tall man with a very slight stoop and a brown, thin, bearded face, who was approaching from the door. She did not see that Cecilia had flushed, and was looking at her almost angrily. The tall thin man put his hand on Cecilia's arm, saying gently: "Hallo Cis! Stephen here yet?"
Cecilia shook her head.
"You know Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace, Hilary?"
The tall man bowed. His hazel-coloured eyes were shy, gentle, and deep-set; his eyebrows, hardly ever still, gave him a look of austere whimsicality. His dark brown hair was very lightly touched with grey, and a frequent kindly smile played on his lips. His unmannerised manner was quiet to the point of extinction. He had long, thin, brown hands, and nothing peculiar about his dress.
"I'll leave you to talk to Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace," Cecilia said.
A knot of people round Mr. Balladyce prevented her from moving far, however, and the voice of Mrs. Smallpeace travelled to her ears.
"I was talking about that little model. It was so good of you to take such interest in the girl. I wondered whether we could do anything for her."
Cecilia's hearing was too excellent to miss the tone of Hilary's reply:
"Oh, thank you; I don't think so."
"I fancied perhaps you might feel that our Society---hers is an unsatisfactory profession for young girls!"
Cecilia saw the back of Hilary's neck grow red. She turned her head away.
"Of course, there are many very nice models indeed," said the voice of Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace. "I don't mean that they are necessarily at all--if they're girls of strong character; and especially if they don't sit for the--the altogether."
Hilary's dry, staccato answer came to Cecilia's ears: "Thank you; it's very kind of you."
"Oh, of course, if it's not necessary. Your wife's picture was so clever, Mr. Dallison--such an interesting type."
Without intention Cecilia found herself before that picture. It stood with its face a little turned towards the wall, as though somewhat in disgrace, portraying the full-length figure of a girl standing in deep shadow, with her arms half outstretched, as if asking for something. Her eyes were fixed on Cecilia, and through her parted lips breath almost seemed to come. The only colour in the picture was the pale blue of those eyes, the pallid red of those parted lips, the still paler brown of the hair; the rest was shadow. In the foreground light was falling as though from a street-lamp.
Cecilia thought: "That girl's eyes and mouth haunt me. Whatever made Blanca choose such a subject? It is clever, of course--for her."
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