On leaving the concert Leila and Jimmy Fort had secured a taxi; a vehicle which, at night, in wartime, has certain advantages for those who desire to become better acquainted. Vibration, sufficient noise, darkness, are guaranteed; and all that is lacking for the furtherance of emotion is the scent of honeysuckle and roses, or even of the white flowering creeper which on the stoep at High Constantia had smelled so much sweeter than petrol.
When Leila found herself with Fort in that loneliness to which she had been looking forward, she was overcome by an access of nervous silence. She had been passing through a strange time for weeks past. Every night she examined her sensations without quite understanding them as yet. When a woman comes to her age, the world-force is liable to take possession, saying:
"You were young, you were beautiful, you still have beauty, you are not, cannot be, old. Cling to youth, cling to beauty; take all you can get, before your face gets lines and your hair grey; it is impossible that you have been loved for the last time."
To see Jimmy Fort at the concert, talking to Noel, had brought this emotion to a head. She was not of a grudging nature, and could genuinely admire Noel, but the idea that Jimmy Fort might also admire disturbed her greatly. He must not; it was not fair; he was too old--besides, the girl had her boy; and she had taken care that he should know it. So, leaning towards him, while a bare-shouldered young lady sang, she had whispered:
And he had whispered back:
"Tell you afterwards."
That had comforted her. She would make him take her home. It was time she showed her heart.
And now, in the cab, resolved to make her feelings known, in sudden shyness she found it very difficult. Love, to which for quite three years she had been a stranger, was come to life within her. The knowledge was at once so sweet, and so disturbing, that she sat with face averted, unable to turn the precious minutes to account. They arrived at the flat without having done more than agree that the streets were dark, and the moon bright. She got out with a sense of bewilderment, and said rather desperately:
"You must come up and have a cigarette. It's quite early, still."
He went up.
"Wait just a minute," said Leila.
Sitting there with his drink and his cigarette, he stared at some sunflowers in a bowl--Famille Rose--and waited just ten; smiling a little, recalling the nose of the fairy princess, and the dainty way her lips shaped the words she spoke. If she had not had that lucky young devil of a soldier boy, one would have wanted to buckle her shoes, lay one's coat in the mud for her, or whatever they did in fairytales. One would have wanted--ah! what would one not have wanted! Hang that soldier boy! Leila said he was twenty-two. By George! how old it made a man feel who was rising forty, and tender on the off-fore! No fairy princesses for him! Then a whiff of perfume came to his nostrils; and, looking up, he saw Leila standing before him, in a long garment of dark silk, whence her white arms peeped out.
"Another penny? Do you remember these things, Jimmy? The Malay women used to wear them in Cape Town. You can't think what a relief it is to get out of my slave's dress. Oh! I'm so sick of nursing! Jimmy, I want to live again a little!"
The garment had taken fifteen years off her age, and a gardenia, just where the silk crossed on her breast, seemed no whiter than her skin. He wondered whimsically whether it had dropped to her out of the dark!
"Live?" he said. "Why! Don't you always?"
She raised her hands so that the dark silk fell, back from the whole length of those white arms.
"I haven't lived for two years. Oh, Jimmy! Help me to live a little! Life's so short, now."
Her eyes disturbed him, strained and pathetic; the sight of her arms; the scent of the flower disturbed him; he felt his cheeks growing warm, and looked down.
She slipped suddenly forward on to her knees at his feet, took his hand, pressed it with both of hers, and murmured:
"Love me a little! What else is there? Oh! Jimmy, what else is there?"
And with the scent of the flower, crushed by their hands, stirring his senses, Fort thought: 'Ah, what else is there, in these forsaken days?'
To Jimmy Fort, who had a sense of humour, and was in some sort a philosopher, the haphazard way life settled things seldom failed to seem amusing. But when he walked away from Leila's he was pensive. She was a good sort, a pretty creature, a sportswoman, an enchantress; but--she was decidedly mature. And here he was--involved in helping her to "live"; involved almost alarmingly, for there had been no mistaking the fact that she had really fallen in love with him.
This was flattering and sweet. Times were sad, and pleasure scarce, but--! The roving instinct which had kept him, from his youth up, rolling about the world, shied instinctively at bonds, however pleasant, the strength and thickness of which he could not gauge; or, was it that perhaps for the first time in his life he had been peeping into fairyland of late, and this affair with Leila was by no means fairyland? He had another reason, more unconscious, for uneasiness. His heart, for all his wanderings, was soft, he had always found it difficult to hurt anyone, especially anyone who did him the honour to love him. A sort of presentiment weighed on him while he walked the moonlit streets at this most empty hour, when even the late taxis had ceased to run. Would she want him to marry her? Would it be his duty, if she did? And then he found himself thinking of the concert, and that girl's face, listening to the tales he was telling her. 'Deuced queer world,' he thought, 'the way things go! I wonder what she would think of us, if she knew--and that good padre! Phew!'
He made such very slow progress, for fear of giving way in his leg, and having to spend the night on a door-step, that he had plenty of time for rumination; but since it brought him no confidence whatever, he began at last to feel: 'Well; it might be a lot worse. Take the goods the gods send you and don't fuss!' And suddenly he remembered with extreme vividness that night on the stoep at High Constantia, and thought with dismay: 'I could have plunged in over head and ears then; and now--I can't! That's life all over! Poor Leila! Me miserum, too, perhaps--who knows!'
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