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Chapter 29

RETURN OF THE LITTLE MODEL


That same afternoon in High Street, Kensington, "Westminister," with his coat-collar raised against the inclement wind, his old hat spotted with rain, was drawing at a clay pipe and fixing his iron-rimmed gaze on those who passed him by. It had been a day when singularly few as yet had bought from him his faintly green-tinged journal, and the low class of fellow who sold the other evening prints had especially exasperated him. His single mind, always torn to some extent between an ingrained loyalty to his employers and those politics of his which differed from his paper's, had vented itself twice since coming on his stand; once in these words to the seller of "Pell Mells": "I stupulated with you not to come beyond the lamp-post. Don't you never speak to me again--a-crowdin' of me off my stand"; and once to the younger vendors of the less expensive journals, thus: "Oh, you boys! I'll make you regret of it--a-snappin' up my customers under my very nose! Wait until ye're old!" To which the boys had answered: "All right, daddy; don't you have a fit. You'll be a deader soon enough without that, y'know!"

It was now his time for tea, but "Pell Mell" having gone to partake of this refreshment, he waited on, hoping against hope to get a customer or two of that low fellow's. And while in black insulation he stood there a timid voice said at his elbow--

"Mr. Creed!"

The aged butler turned, and saw the little model.

"Oh," he said dryly, "it's you, is it?" His mind, with its incessant love of rank, knowing that she earned her living as a handmaid to that disorderly establishment, the House of Art, had from the first classed her as lower than a lady's-maid. Recent events had made him think of her unkindly. Her new clothes, which he had not been privileged to see before, while giving him a sense of Sunday, deepened his moral doubts.

"And where are you living now?" he said in tones incorporating these feelings.

"I'm not to tell you."

"Oh, very well. Keep yourself to yourself."

The little model's lower lip drooped more than ever. There were dark marks beneath her eyes; her face was altogether rather pinched and pitiful.

"Won't you tell me any news?" she said in her matter-of-fact voice.

The old butler gave a strange grunt.

"Ho!" he said. "The baby's dead, and buried to-morrer."

"Dead!" repeated the little model.

"I'm a-goin' to the funeral--Brompton Cemetery. Half-past nine I leave the door. And that's a-beginnin' at the end. The man's in prison, and the woman's gone a shadder of herself."

The little model rubbed her hands against her skirt.

"What did he go to prison for?"

"For assaultin' of her; I was witness to his battery."

"Why did he assault her?"

Creed looked at her, and, wagging his head, answered:

"That's best known to them as caused of it."

The little model's face went the colour of carnations.

"I can't help what he does," she said. "What should I want him for--a man like that? It wouldn't be him I'd want!" The genuine contempt in that sharp burst of anger impressed the aged butler.

"I'm not a-sayin' anything," he said; "it's all a-one to me. I never mixes up with no other people's business. But it's very ill-convenient. I don't get my proper breakfast. That poor woman--she's half off her head. When the baby's buried I'll have to go and look out for another room before he gets a-comin' out."

"I hope they'll keep him there," muttered the little model suddenly.

"They give him a month," said Creed.

"Only a month!"

The old butler looked at her. 'There's more stuff' in you,' he seemed to say, 'than ever I had thought.'

"Because of his servin' of his country," he remarked aloud.

"I'm sorry about the poor little baby," said the little model in her stolid voice.

"Westminister" shook his head. "I never suspected him of goin' to live," he said.

The girl, biting the finger-tip of her white cotton glove, was staring out at the traffic. Like a pale ray of light entering the now dim cavern of the old man's mind, the thought came to Creed that he did not quite understand her. He had in his time had occasion to class many young persons, and the feeling that he did not quite know her class of person was like the sensation a bat might have, surprised by daylight.

Suddenly, without saying good-bye to him, she walked away.

'Well,' he thought, looking after her, 'your manners ain't improved by where you're living, nor your appearance neither, for all your new clothes.' And for some time he stood thinking of the stare in her eyes and that abrupt departure.

Through the crystal clearness of the fundamental flux the mind could see at that same moment Bianca leaving her front gate.

Her sensuous exaltation, her tremulous longing after harmony, had passed away; in her heart, strangely mingled, were these two thoughts: 'If only she were a lady!' and, 'I am glad she is not a lady!'

Of all the dark and tortuous places of this life, the human heart is the most dark and tortuous; and of all human hearts none are less clear, more intricate than the hearts of all that class of people among whom Bianca had her being. Pride was a simple quality when joined with a simple view of life, based on the plain philosophy of property; pride was no simple quality when the hundred paralysing doubts and aspirations of a social conscience also hedged it round. In thus going forth with the full intention of restoring the little model to her position in the household, her pride fought against her pride, and her woman's sense of ownership in the man whom she had married wrestled with the acquired sentiments of freedom, liberality, equality, good taste. With her spirit thus confused, and her mind so at variance with itself, she was really acting on the simple instinct of compassion.

She had run upstairs from Mr. Stone's room, and now walked fast, lest that instinct, the most physical, perhaps, of all--awakened by sights and sounds, and requiring constant nourishment--should lose its force.

Rapidly, then, she made her way to the grey street in Bayswater where Cecilia had told her that the girl now lived.

The tall, gaunt landlady admitted her.

"Have you a Miss Barton lodging here?" Bianca asked.

"Yes," said the landlady, "but I think she's out."

She looked into the little model's room.

"Yes," she said; "she's out; but if you'd like to leave a note you could write in here. If you're looking for a model, she wants work, I believe."

That modern faculty of pressing on an aching nerve was assuredly not lacking to Bianca. To enter the girl's room was jabbing at the nerve indeed.

She looked round her. The mental vacuity of that little room! There was not one single thing--with the exception of a torn copy of Tit-Bits--which suggested that a mind of any sort lived there. For all that, perhaps because of that, it was neat enough.

"Yes," said the landlady, "she keeps her room tidy. Of course, she's a country girl--comes from down my way." She said this with a dry twist of her grim, but not unkindly, features. "If it weren't for that," she went on, "I don't think I should care to let to one of her profession."

Her hungry eyes, gazing at Bianca, had in them the aspirations of all Nonconformity.

Bianca pencilled on her card:

"If you can come to my father to-day or tomorrow, please do."

"Will you give her this, please? It will be quite enough."

"I'll give it her," the landlady said; "she'll be glad of it, I daresay. I see her sitting here. Girls like that, if they've got nothing to do--see, she's been moping on her bed...."

The impress of a form was, indeed, clearly visible on the red and yellow tasselled tapestry of the bed.

Bianca cast a look at it.

"Thank you," she said; "good day."

With the jabbed nerve aching badly she came slowly homewards.

Before the garden gate the little model herself was gazing at the house, as if she had been there some time. Approaching from across the road, Bianca had an admirable view of that young figure, now very trim and neat, yet with something in its lines--more supple, perhaps, but less refined--which proclaimed her not a lady; a something fundamentally undisciplined or disciplined by the material facts of life alone, rather than by a secret creed of voluntary rules. It showed here and there in ways women alone could understand; above all, in the way her eyes looked out on that house which she was clearly longing to enter. Not 'Shall I go in?' was in that look, but 'Dare I go in?'

Suddenly she saw Bianca. The meeting of these two was very like the ordinary meeting of a mistress and her maid. Bianca's face had no expression, except the faint, distant curiosity which seems to say: 'You are a sealed book to me; I have always found you so. What you really think and do I shall never know.'

The little model's face wore a half-caught-out, half-stolid look.

"Please go in," Bianca said; "my father will be glad to see you."

She held the garden gate open for the girl to pass through. Her feeling at that moment was one of slight amusement at the futility of her journey. Not even this small piece of generosity was permitted her, it seemed.

"How are you getting on?"

The little model made an impulsive movement at such an unexpected question. Checking it at once, she answered:

"Very well, thank you; that is, not very---"

"You will find my father tired to-day; he has caught a chill. Don't let him read too much, please."

The little model seemed to try and nerve herself to make some statement, but, failing, passed into the house.

Bianca did not follow, but stole back into the garden, where the sun was still falling on a bed of wallflowers at the far end. She bent down over these flowers till her veil touched them. Two wild bees were busy there, buzzing with smoky wings, clutching with their black, tiny legs at the orange petals, plunging their black, tiny tongues far down into the honeyed centres. The flowers quivered beneath the weight of their small dark bodies. Bianca's face quivered too, bending close to them, nor making the slightest difference to their hunt.

Hilary, who, it has been seen, lived in thoughts about events rather than in events themselves, and to whom crude acts and words had little meaning save in relation to what philosophy could make of them, greeted with a startled movement the girl's appearance in the corridor outside Mr. Stone's apartment. But the little model, who mentally lived very much from hand to mouth, and had only the philosophy of wants, acted differently. She knew that for the last five days, like a spaniel dog shut away from where it feels it ought to be, she had wanted to be where she was now standing; she knew that, in her new room with its rust-red doors, she had bitten her lips and fingers till blood came, and, as newly caged birds will flutter, had beaten her wings against those walls with blue roses on a yellow ground. She remembered how she had lain, brooding, on that piece of red and yellow tapestry, twisting its tassels, staring through half-closed eyes at nothing.

There was something different in her look at Hilary. It had lost some of its childish devotion; it was bolder, as if she had lived and felt, and brushed a good deal more down off her wings during those few days.

"Mrs. Dallison told me to come," she said. "I thought I might. Mr. Creed told me about him being in prison."

Hilary made way for her, and, following her into Mr. Stone's presence, shut the door.

"The truant has returned," he said.

Hearing herself called so unjustly by that name, the little model gushed deeply, and tried to speak. She stopped at the smile on Hilary's face, and gazed from him to Mr. Stone and back again, the victim of mingled feelings.

Mr. Stone was seen to have risen to his feet, and to be very slowly moving towards his desk. He leaned both arms on his papers for support, and, seeming to gather strength, began sorting out his manuscript.

Through the open window the distant music of a barrel-organ came drifting in. Faint, and much too slow, was the sound of the waltz it played, but there was invitation, allurement, in that tune. The little model turned towards it, and Hilary looked hard at her. The girl and that sound together-there, quite plain, was the music he had heard for many days, like a man lying with the touch of fever on him.

"Are you ready?" said Mr. Stone.

The little model dipped her pen in ink. Her eyes crept towards the door, where Hilary was still standing with the same expression on his face. He avoided her eyes, and went up to Mr. Stone.

"Must you read to-day, sir?"

Mr. Stone looked at him with anger.

"Why not?" he said.

"You are hardly strong enough."

Mr. Stone raised his manuscript.

"We are three days behind;" and very slowly he began dictating: "'Bar-ba-rous ha-bits in those days, such as the custom known as War---'" His voice died away; it was apparent that his elbows, leaning on the desk, alone prevented his collapse.

Hilary moved the chair, and, taking him beneath the arms, lowered him gently into it.

Noticing that he was seated, Mr. Stone raised his manuscript and read on: "'---were pursued regardless of fraternity. It was as though a herd of horn-ed cattle driven through green pastures to that Gate, where they must meet with certain dissolution, had set about to prematurely gore and disembowel each other, out of a passionate devotion to those individual shapes which they were so soon to lose. So men--tribe against tribe, and country against country--glared across the valleys with their ensanguined eyes; they could not see the moonlit wings, or feel the embalming airs of brotherhood.'"

Slower and slower came his sentences, and as the last word died away he was heard to be asleep, breathing through a tiny hole left beneath the eave of his moustache. Hilary, who had waited for that moment, gently put the manuscript on the desk, and beckoned to the girl. He did not ask her to his study, but spoke to her in the hall.

"While Mr. Stone is like this he misses you. You will come, then, at present, please, so long as Hughs is in prison. How do you like your room?"

The little model answered simply: "Not very much."

"Why not?"

"It's lonely there. I shan't mind, now I'm coming here again."

"Only for the present," was all Hilary could find to say.

The little model's eyes were lowered.

"Mrs. Hughs' baby's to be buried to-morrow," she said suddenly.

"Where?"

"In Brompton Cemetery. Mr. Creed's going."

"What time is the funeral?"

The girl looked up stealthily.

"Mr. Creed's going to start at half-past nine."

"I should like to go myself," said Hilary.

A gleam of pleasure passing across her face was instantly obscured behind the cloud of her stolidity. Then, as she saw Hilary move nearer to the door, her lip began to droop.

"Well, good-bye," he said.

The little model flushed and quivered. 'You don't even look at me,' she seemed to say; 'you haven't spoken kindly to me once.' And suddenly she said in a hard voice:

"Now I shan't go to Mr. Lennard's any more."

"Oh, then you have been to him!"

Triumph at attracting his attention, fear of what she had admitted, supplication, and a half-defiant shame--all this was in her face.

"Yes," she said.

Hilary did not speak.

"I didn't care any more when you told me I wasn't to come here."

Still Hilary did not speak.

"I haven't done anything wrong," she said, with tears in her voice.

"No, no," said Hilary; "of course not!"

The little model choked.

"It's my profession."

"Yes, yes," said Hilary; "it's all right."

"I don't care what he thinks; I won't go again so long as I can come here."

Hilary touched her shoulder.

"Well, well," he said, and opened the front door.

The little model, tremulous, like' a flower kissed by the sun after rain, went out with a light in her eyes.

The master of the house returned to Mr. Stone. Long he sat looking at the old man's slumber. "A thinker meditating upon action!" So might Hilary's figure, with its thin face resting on its hand, a furrow between the brows, and that painful smile, have been entitled in any catalogue of statues.


John Galsworthy