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Chapter 19

BIANCA


In her studio that afternoon Blanca stood before her picture of the little model--the figure with parted pale-red lips and haunting, pale-blue eyes, gazing out of shadow into lamplight.

She was frowning, as though resentful of a piece of work which had the power to kill her other pictures. What force had moved her to paint like that? What had she felt while the girl was standing before her, still as some pale flower placed in a cup of water? Not love--there was no love in the presentment of that twilight figure; not hate--there was no hate in the painting of her dim appeal. Yet in the picture of this shadow girl, between the gloom and glimmer, was visible a spirit, driving the artist on to create that which had the power to haunt the mind.

Blanca turned away and went up to a portrait of her husband, painted ten years before. She looked from one picture to the other, with eyes as hard and stabbing as the points of daggers.

In the more poignant relationships of human life there is a point beyond which men and women do not quite truthfully analyse their feelings--they feel too much. It was Blanca's fortune, too, to be endowed to excess with that quality which, of all others, most obscures the real significance of human issues. Her pride had kept her back from Hilary, till she had felt herself a failure. Her pride had so revolted at that failure that she had led the way to utter estrangement. Her pride had forced her to the attitude of one who says "Live your own life; I should be ashamed to let you see that I care what happens between us." Her pride had concealed from her the fact that beneath her veil of mocking liberality there was an essential woman tenacious of her dues, avid of affection and esteem. Her pride prevented the world from guessing that there was anything amiss. Her pride even prevented Hilary from really knowing what had spoiled his married life--this ungovernable itch to be appreciated, governed by ungovernable pride. Hundreds of times he had been baffled by the hedge round that disharmonic nature. With each failure something had shrivelled in him, till the very roots of his affection had dried up. She had worn out a man who, to judge from his actions and appearance, was naturally long-suffering to a fault. Beneath all manner of kindness and consideration for each other--for their good taste, at all events, had never given way--this tragedy of a woman, who wanted to be loved, slowly killing the power of loving her in the man, had gone on year after year. It had ceased to be tragedy, as far as Hilary was concerned; the nerve of his love for her was quite dead, slowly frozen out of him. It was still active tragedy with Bianca, the nerve of whose jealous desire for his appreciation was not dead. Her instinct, too, ironically informed her that, had he been a man with some brutality, a man who had set himself to ride and master her, instead of one too delicate, he might have trampled down the hedge. This gave her a secret grudge against him, a feeling that it was not she who was to blame.

Pride was Bianca's fate, her flavour, and her charm. Like a shadowy hill-side behind glamorous bars of waning sunlight, she was enveloped in smiling pride--mysterious; one thinks, even to herself. This pride of hers took part even in her many generous impulses, kind actions which she did rather secretly and scoffed at herself for doing. She scoffed at herself continually, even for putting on dresses of colours which Hilary was fond of. She would not admit her longing to attract him.

Standing between those two pictures, pressing her mahl-stick against her bosom, she suggested somewhat the image of an Italian saint forcing the dagger of martyrdom into her heart.

That other person, who had once brought the thought of Italy into Cecilia's mind--the man Hughs--had been for the last eight hours or so walking the streets, placing in a cart the refuses of Life; nor had he at all suggested the aspect of one tortured by the passions of love and hate: For the first two hours he had led the horse without expression of any sort on his dark face, his neat soldier's figure garbed in the costume which had made "Westminister" describe him as a "dreadful foreign-lookin' man." Now and then he had spoken to the horse; save for those speeches, of no great importance, he had been silent. For the next two hours, following the cart, he had used a shovel, and still his square, short face, with little black moustache and still blacker eyes, had given no sign of conflict in his breast. So he had passed the day. Apart from the fact, indeed, that men of any kind are not too given to expose private passions to public gaze, the circumstances of a life devoted from the age of twenty onwards to the service of his country, first as a soldier, now in the more defensive part of Vestry scavenger, had given him a kind of gravity. Life had cloaked him with passivity--the normal look of men whose bread and cheese depends on their not caring much for anything. Had Hughs allowed his inclinations play, or sought to express himself, he could hardly have been a private soldier; still less, on his retirement from that office with an honourable wound, would he have been selected out of many others as a Vestry scavenger. For such an occupation as the lifting from the streets of the refuses of Life--a calling greatly sought after, and, indeed, one of the few open to a man who had served his country--charm of manner, individuality, or the engaging quality of self-expression, were perhaps out of place.

He had never been trained in the voicing of his thoughts, and, ever since he had been wounded, felt at times a kind of desperate looseness in his head. It was not, therefore, remarkable that he should be liable to misconstruction, more especially by those who had nothing in common with him, except that somewhat negligible factor, common humanity. The Dallisons had misconstrued him as much as, but no more than, he had misconstrued them when, as "Westminister" had informed Hilary, he "went on against the gentry." He was, in fact, a ragged screen, a broken vessel, that let light through its holes. A glass or two of beer, the fumes of which his wounded head no longer dominated, and he at once became "dreadful foreign." Unfortunately, it was his custom, on finishing his work, to call at the "Green Glory." On this particular afternoon the glass had become three, and in sallying forth he had felt a confused sense of duty urging him to visit the house where this girl for whom he had conceived his strange infatuation "carried on her games." The "no-tale-bearing" tradition of a soldier fought hard with this sense of duty; his feelings were mixed when he rang the bell and asked for Mrs. Dallison. Habit, however, masked his face, and he stood before her at "attention," his black eyes lowered, clutching his peaked cap.

Blanca noted curiously the scar on the left side of his cropped black head.

Whatever Hughs had to say was not said easily.

"I've come," he began at last in a dogged voice, "to let you know. I never wanted to come into this house. I never wanted to see no one."

Blanca could see his lips and eyelids quivering in a way strangely out of keeping with his general stolidity.

"My wife has told you tales of me, I suppose. She's told you I knock her about, I daresay. I don't care what she tells you or any o' the people that she works for. But this I'll say: I never touched her but she touched me first. Look here! that's marks of hers!" and, drawing up his sleeve he showed a scratch on his sinewy tattooed forearm. "I've not come here about her; that's no business of anyone's."

Bianca turned towards her pictures. "Well?" she said, "but what have you come about, please? You see I'm busy."

Hughs' face changed. Its stolidity vanished, the eyes became as quick, passionate, and leaping as a dark torrent. He was more violently alive than she had ever seen a man. Had it been a woman she would have felt--as Cecilia had felt with Mrs. Hughs--the indecency, the impudence of this exhibition; but from that male violence the feminine in her derived a certain satisfaction. So in Spring, when all seems lowering and grey, the hedges and trees suddenly flare out against the purple clouds, their twigs all in flame. The next moment that white glare is gone, the clouds are no longer purple, fiery light no longer quivers and leaps along the hedgerows. The passion in Hughs' face was gone as soon. Bianca felt a sense of disappointment, as though she could have wished her life held a little more of that. He stole a glance at her out of his dark eyes, which, when narrowed, had a velvety look, like the body of a wild bee, then jerked his thumb at the picture of the little model.

"It's about her I come to speak."

Blanca faced him frigidly.

"I have not the slightest wish to hear."

Hughs looked round, as though to find something that would help him to proceed; his eyes lighted on Hilary's portrait.

"Ah! I'd put the two together if I was you," he said.

Blanca walked past him to the door.

"Either you or I must leave the room."

The man's face was neither sullen now nor passionate, but simply miserable.

"Look here, lady," he said, "don't take it hard o' me coming here. I'm not out to do you a harm. I've got a wife of my own, and Gawd knows I've enough to put up with from her about this girl. I'll be going in the water one of these days. It's him giving her them clothes that set me coming here."

Blanca opened the door. "Please go," she said.

"I'll go quiet enough," he muttered, and, hanging his head, walked out.

Having seen him through the side door out into the street, Blanca went back to where she had been standing before he came. She found some difficulty in swallowing; for once there was no armour on her face. She stood there a long time without moving, then put the pictures back into their places and went down the little passage to the house. Listening outside her father's door, she turned the handle quietly and went in.

Mr. Stone, holding some sheets of paper out before him, was dictating to the little model, who was writing laboriously with her face close above her arm. She stopped at Blanca's entrance. Mr. Stone did not stop, but, holding up his other hand, said:

"I will take you through the last three pages again. Follow!"

Blanca sat down at the window.

Her father's voice, so thin and slow, with each syllable disjointed from the other, rose like monotony itself.

"'There were tra-cea-able indeed, in those days, certain rudi-men-tary at-tempts to f-u-s-e the classes....'"

It went on unwavering, neither rising high nor falling low, as though the reader knew he had yet far to go, like a runner that brings great news across mountains, plains, and rivers.

To Blanca that thin voice might have been the customary sighing of the wind, her attention was so fast fixed on the girl, who sat following the words down the pages with her pen's point.

Mr. Stone paused.

"Have you got the word 'insane'?" he asked.

The little model raised her face. "Yes, Mr. Stone."

"Strike it out."

With his eyes fixed on the trees he stood breathing audibly. The little model moved her fingers, freeing them from cramp. Blanca's curious, smiling scrutiny never left her, as though trying to fix an indelible image on her mind. There was something terrifying in that stare, cruel to herself, cruel to the girl.

"The precise word," said Mr. Stone, "eludes me. Leave a blank. Follow!... 'Neither that sweet fraternal interest of man in man, nor a curiosity in phenomena merely as phenomena....'" His voice pursued its tenuous path through spaces, frozen by the calm eternal presence of his beloved idea, which, like a golden moon, far and cold, presided glamorously above the thin track of words. And still the girl's pen-point traced his utterance across the pages: Mr. Stone paused again, and looking at his daughter as though surprised to see her sitting there, asked:

"Do you wish to speak to me, my dear?"

Blanca shook her head.

"Follow!" said Mr. Stone.

But the little model's glance had stolen round to meet the scrutiny fixed on her.

A look passed across her face which seemed to say: 'What have I done to you, that you should stare at me like this?'

Furtive and fascinated, her eyes remained fixed on Bianca, while her hand moved, mechanically ticking the paragraphs. That silent duel of eyes went on--the woman's fixed, cruel, smiling; the girl's uncertain, resentful. Neither of them heard a word that Mr. Stone was reading. They treated it as, from the beginning, Life has treated Philosophy--and to the end will treat it.

Mr. Stone paused again, seeming to weigh his last sentences.

"That, I think," he murmured to himself, "is true." And suddenly he addressed his daughter. "Do you agree with me, my dear?"

He was evidently waiting with anxiety for her answer, and the little silver hairs that straggled on his lean throat beneath his beard were clearly visible.

"Yes, Father, I agree."

"Ah!" said Mr. Stone, "I am glad that you confirm me. I was anxious. Follow!"

Bianca rose. Burning spots of colour had settled in her cheeks. She went towards the door, and the little model pursued her figure with a long look, cringing, mutinous, and wistful.


John Galsworthy