This eBook edition of "The Years" has been formatted to the highest digital standards and adjusted for readability on all devices. The Years traces the history of the genteel Pargiter family from the 1880s to the "present day" of the mid-1930s. Spanning through fifty years, the novel focuses on the small private details of the characters' lives. Sections take place on a single day of its titular year, and each year is defined by a particular moment in the cycle of seasons.
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It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected. Thousands of shop assistants made that remark, as they handed neat parcels to ladies in flounced dresses standing on the other side of the counter at Whiteley’s and the Army and Navy Stores. Interminable processions of shoppers in the West end, of business men in the East, paraded the pavements, like caravans perpetually marching,—so it seemed to those who had any reason to pause, say, to post a letter, or at a club window in Piccadilly. The stream of landaus, victorias and hansom cabs was incessant; for the season was beginning. In the quieter streets musicians doled out their frail and for the most part melancholy pipe of sound, which was echoed, or parodied, here in the trees of Hyde Park, here in St. James’s by the twitter of sparrows and the sudden outbursts of the amorous but intermittent thrush. The pigeons in the squares shuffled in the tree tops, letting fall a twig or two, and crooned over and over again the lullaby that was always interrupted. The gates at the Marble Arch and Apsley House were blocked in the afternoon by ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and by gentlemen in frock coats carrying canes, wearing carnations. Here came the Princess, and as she passed hats were lifted. In the basements of the long avenues of the residential quarters servant girls in cap and apron prepared tea. Deviously ascending from the basement the silver teapot was placed on the table, and virgins and spinsters with hands that had staunched the sores of Bermondsey and Hoxton carefully measured out one, two, three, four spoonfuls of tea. When the sun went down a million little gaslights, shaped like the eyes in peacocks’ feathers, opened in their glass cages, but nevertheless broad stretches of darkness were left on the pavement. The mixed light of the lamps and the setting sun was reflected equally in the placid waters of the Round Pond and the Serpentine. Diners-out, trotting over the Bridge in hansom cabs, looked for a moment at the charming vista. At length the moon rose and its polished coin, though obscured now and then by wisps of cloud, shone out with serenity, with severity, or perhaps with complete indifference. Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.
Colonel Abel Pargiter was sitting after luncheon in his club talking. Since his companions in the leather armchairs were men of his own type, men who had been soldiers, civil servants, men who had now retired, they were reviving with old jokes and stories now their past in India, Africa, Egypt, and then, by a natural transition, they turned to the present. It was a question of some appointment, of some possible appointment.
Suddenly the youngest and the sprucest of the three leant forward. Yesterday he had lunched with … Here the voice of the speaker fell. The others bent towards him; with a brief wave of his hand Colonel Abel dismissed the servant who was removing the coffee cups. The three baldish and greyish heads remained close together for a few minutes. Then Colonel Abel threw himself back in his chair. The curious gleam which had come into all their eyes when Major Elkin began his story had faded completely from Colonel Pargiter’s face. He sat staring ahead of him with bright blue eyes that seemed a little screwed up, as if the glare of the East were still in them; and puckered at the corners as if the dust were still in them. Some thought had struck him that made what the others were saying of no interest to him; indeed, it was disagreeable to him. He rose and looked out of the window down into Piccadilly. Holding his cigar suspended he looked down on the tops of omnibuses, hansom cabs, victorias, vans and landaus. He was out of it all, his attitude seemed to say; he had no longer any finger in that pie. Gloom settled on his red handsome face as he stood gazing. Suddenly a thought struck him. He had a question to ask; he turned to ask it; but his friends were gone. The little group had broken up. Elkins was already hurrying through the door; Brand had moved off to talk to another man. Colonel Pargiter shut his mouth on the thing he might have said, and turned back again to the window overlooking Piccadilly. Everybody in the crowded street, it seemed, had some end in view. Everybody was hurrying along to keep some appointment. Even the ladies in their victorias and broughams were trotting down Piccadilly on some errand or other. People were coming back to London; they were settling in for the season. But for him there would be no season; for him there was nothing to do. His wife was dying; but she did not die. She was better today; would be worse tomorrow; a new nurse was coming; and so it went on. He picked up a paper and turned over the pages. He looked at a picture of the west front of Cologne Cathedral. He tossed the paper back into its place among the other papers. One of these days—that was his euphemism for the time when his wife was dead—he would give up London, he thought, and live in the country. But then there was the house; then there were the children; and there was also … his face changed; it became less discontented; but also a little furtive and uneasy.
He had somewhere to go, after all. While they were gossiping he had kept that thought at the back of his mind. When he turned round and found them gone, that was the balm he clapped on his wound. He would go and see Mira; Mira at least would be glad to see him. Thus when he left the club he turned not East, where the busy men were going; nor West where his own house in Abercorn Terrace was; but took his way along the hard paths through the Green Park towards Westminster. The grass was very green; the leaves were beginning to shoot; little green claws, like birds’ claws, were pushing out from the branches; there was a sparkle, an animation everywhere; the air smelt clean and brisk. But Colonel Pargiter saw neither the grass nor the trees. He marched through the Park, in his closely buttoned coat, looking straight ahead of him. But when he came to Westminster he stopped. He did not like this part of the business at all. Every time he approached the little street that lay under the huge bulk of the Abbey, the street of dingy little houses, with yellow curtains and cards in the window, the street where the muffin man seemed always to be ringing his bell, where children screamed and hopped in and out of white chalk-marks on the pavement, he paused, looked to the right, looked to the left; and then walked very sharply to Number Thirty and rang the bell. He gazed straight at the door as he waited with his head rather sunk. He did not wish to be seen standing on that doorstep. He did not like waiting to be let in. He did not like it when Mrs Sims let him in. There was always a smell in the house; there were always dirty clothes hanging on a line in the back garden. He went up the stairs, sulkily and heavily, and entered the sitting-room.
Nobody was there; he was too early. He looked round the room with distaste. There were too many little objects about. He felt out of place, and altogether too large as he stood upright before the draped fireplace in front of a screen upon which was painted a kingfisher in the act of alighting on some bulrushes. Footsteps scurried about hither and thither on the floor above. Was there somebody with her? he asked himself listening. Children screamed in the street outside. It was sordid; it was mean; it was furtive. One of these days, he said to himself … but the door opened and his mistress, Mira, came in.
“Oh Bogy, dear!” she exclaimed. Her hair was very untidy; she was a little fluffy-looking; but she was very much younger than he was and really glad to see him, he thought. The little dog bounced up at her.
“Lulu, Lulu,” she cried, catching the little dog in one hand while she put the other to her hair, “come and let Uncle Bogy look at you.”
The Colonel settled himself in the creaking basket-chair. She put the dog on his knee. There was a red patch—possibly eczema—behind one of its ears. The Colonel put on his glasses and bent down to look at the dog’s ear. Mira kissed him where his collar met his neck. Then his glasses fell off. She snatched them and put them on the dog. The old boy was out of spirits today, she felt. In that mysterious world of clubs and family life of which he never spoke to her something was wrong. He had come before she had done her hair, which was a nuisance. But her duty was to distract him. So she flitted—her figure, enlarging as it was, still allowed her to glide between table and chair—hither and thither; removed the fire-screen and set a light, before he could stop her, to the grudging lodging-house fire. Then she perched on the arm of his chair.
“Oh, Mira!” she said, glancing at herself in the looking-glass and shifting her hairpins, “what a dreadfully untidy girl you are!” She loosed a long coil and let it fall over her shoulders. It was beautiful gold-glancing hair still, though she was nearing forty and had, if the truth were known, a daughter of eight boarded out with friends at Bedford. The hair began to fall of its own accord, of its own weight, and Bogy seeing it fall stooped and kissed her hair. A barrel-organ had begun to play down the street and the children all rushed in that direction, leaving a sudden silence. The Colonel began to stroke her neck. He began fumbling, with the hand that had lost two fingers, rather lower down, where the neck joins the shoulders. Mira slipped onto the floor and leant her back against his knee.
Then there was a creaking on the stairs; someone tapped as if to warn them of her presence. Mira at once pinned her hair together, got up and shut the door.
The Colonel began in his methodical way to examine the dog’s ears again. Was it eczema? or was it not eczema? He looked at the red patch, then set the dog on its legs in the basket and waited. He did not like the prolonged whispering on the landing outside. At length Mira came back; she looked worried; and when she looked worried she looked old. She began hunting about under cushions and covers. She wanted her bag, she said; where had she put her bag? In that litter of things, the Colonel thought, it might be anywhere. It was a lean, poverty-stricken-looking bag when she found it under the cushions in the corner of the sofa. She turned it upside down. Pocket handkerchiefs, screwed up bits of paper, silver and coppers fell out as she shook it. But there should have been a sovereign, she said. “I’m sure I had one yesterday,” she murmured.
“How much?” said the Colonel.
It came to one pound—no, it came to one pound eight and sixpence, she said, muttering something about the washing. The Colonel slipped two sovereigns out of his little gold case and gave them to her. She took them and there was more whispering on the landing.
“Washing … ?” thought the Colonel, looking round the room. It was a dingy little hole; but being so much older than she was it did not do to ask questions about the washing. Here she was again. She flitted across the room and sat on the floor and put her head against his knee. The grudging fire which had been flickering feebly had died down now. “Let it be,” he said impatiently, as she took up the poker. “Let it go out.” She resigned the poker. The dog snored; the barrel organ played. His hand began its voyage up and down her neck, in and out of the long thick hair. In this small room, so close to the other houses, dusk came quickly; and the curtains were half drawn. He drew her to him; he kissed her on the nape of the neck; and then the hand that had lost two fingers began to fumble rather lower down where the neck joins the shoulders.
A sudden squall of rain struck the pavement, and the children, who had been skipping in and out of their chalk cages, scudded away home. The elderly street singer, who had been swaying along the kerb, with a fisherman’s cap stuck jauntily on the back of his head, lustily chanting “Count your blessings, Count your blessings—” turned up his coat collar and took refuge under the portico of a public house where he finished his injunction: “Count your blessings. Every One.” Then the sun shone again; and dried the pavement.
“It’s not boiling,” said Milly Pargiter, looking at the tea-kettle. She was sitting at the round table in the front drawing-room of the house in Abercorn Terrace. “Not nearly boiling,” she repeated. The kettle was an old-fashioned brass kettle, chased with a design of roses that was almost obliterated. A feeble little flame flickered up and down beneath the brass bowl. Her sister Delia, lying back in a chair beside her, watched it too. “Must a kettle boil?” she asked idly after a moment, as if she expected no answer, and Milly did not answer. They sat in silence watching the little flame on a tuft of yellow wick. There were many plates and cups as if other people were coming; but at the moment they were alone. The room was full of furniture. Opposite them stood a Dutch cabinet with blue china on the shelves; the sun of the April evening made a bright stain here and there on the glass. Over the fireplace the portrait of a red-haired young woman in white muslin holding a basket of flowers on her lap smiled down on them.
Milly took a hairpin from her head and began to fray the wick into separate strands so as to increase the size of the flame.
“But that doesn’t do any good,” Delia said irritably as she watched her. She fidgeted. Everything seemed to take such an intolerable time. Then Crosby came in and said, should she boil the kettle in the kitchen? and Milly said No. How can I put a stop to this fiddling and trifling, she said to herself, tapping a knife on the table and looking at the feeble flame that her sister was teasing with a hairpin. A gnat’s voice began to wail under the kettle; but here the door burst open again and a little girl in a stiff pink frock came in.
“I think Nurse might have put you on a clean pinafore,” said Milly severely, imitating the manner of a grown-up person. There was a green smudge on her pinafore as if she had been climbing trees.
“It hadn’t come back from the wash,” said Rose, the little girl, grumpily. She looked at the table, but there was no question of tea yet.
Milly applied her hairpin to the wick again. Delia leant back and glanced over her shoulder out of the window. From where she sat she could see the front door steps.
“Now, there’s Martin,” she said gloomily. The door slammed; books were slapped down on the hall table, and Martin, a boy of twelve, came in. He had the red hair of the woman in the picture, but it was rumpled.
“Go and make yourself tidy,” said Delia severely. “You’ve plenty of time,” she added. “The kettle isn’t boiling yet.”
They all looked at the kettle. It still kept up its faint melancholy singing as the little flame flickered under the swinging bowl of brass.
“Blast that kettle,” said Martin, turning sharply away.
“Mama wouldn’t like you to use language like that,” Milly reproved him as if in imitation of an older person; for their mother had been ill so long that both sisters had taken to imitating her manner with the children. The door opened again.
“The tray, Miss…” said Crosby, keeping the door open with her foot. She had an invalid’s tray in her hands.
“The tray,” said Milly. “Now who’s going to take up the tray?” Again she imitated the manner of an older person who wishes to be tactful with children.
“Not you, Rose. It’s too heavy. Let Martin carry it; and you can go with him. But don’t stay. Just tell Mama what you’ve been doing; and then the kettle … the kettle….”
Here she applied her hairpin to the wick again. A thin puff of steam issued from the serpent-shaped spout. At first intermittent, it gradually became more and more powerful, until, just as they heard steps on the stairs, one jet of powerful steam issued from the spout.
“It’s boiling!” Milly exclaimed. “It’s boiling!”
They ate in silence. The sun, judging from the changing lights on the glass of the Dutch cabinet, seemed to be going in and out. Sometimes a bowl shone deep blue; then became livid. Lights rested furtively upon the furniture in the other room. Here was a pattern; here was a bald patch. Somewhere there’s beauty, Delia thought, somewhere there’s freedom, and somewhere, she thought, he is—wearing his white flower…. But a stick grated in the hall.
“It’s Papa!” Milly exclaimed warningly.
Instantly Martin wriggled out of his father’s armchair; Delia sat upright. Milly at once moved forward a very large rose-sprinkled cup that did not match the rest. The Colonel stood at the door and surveyed the group rather fiercely. His small blue eyes looked round them as if to find fault; at the moment there was no particular fault to find; but he was out of temper; they knew at once before he spoke that he was out of temper.
“Grubby little ruffian,” he said, pinching Rose by the ear as he passed her. She put her hand at once over the stain on her pinafore.
“Mama all right?” he said, letting himself down in one solid mass into the big armchair. He detested tea; but he always sipped a little from the huge old cup that had been his father’s. He raised it and sipped perfunctorily.
“And what have you all been up to?” he asked.
He looked round him with the smoky but shrewd gaze that could be genial, but was surly now.
“Delia had her music lesson, and I went to Whiteley’s—” Milly began, rather as if she were a child reciting a lesson.
“Spending money, eh?” said her father sharply, but not unkindly.
“No, Papa; I told you. They sent the wrong sheets—”
“And you, Martin?” Colonel Pargiter asked, cutting short his daughter’s statement. “Bottom of the class as usual?”
“Top!” shouted Martin, bolting the word out as if he had restrained it with difficulty until this moment.
“Hm—you don’t say so,” said his father. His gloom relaxed a little. He put his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a handful of silver. His children watched him as he tried to single out one sixpence from all the florins. He had lost two fingers of the right hand in the Mutiny, and the muscles had shrunk so that the right hand resembled the claw of some aged bird. He shuffled and fumbled; but as he always ignored the injury, his children dared not help him. The shiny knobs of the mutilated fingers fascinated Rose.
“Here you are, Martin,” he said at length, handing the sixpence to his son. Then he sipped his tea again and wiped his moustaches.
“Where’s Eleanor?” he said at last, as if to break the silence.
“It’s her Grove day,” Milly reminded him.
“Oh, her Grove day,” muttered the Colonel. He stirred the sugar round and round in the cup as if to demolish it.
“The dear old Levys,” said Delia tentatively. She was his favourite daughter; but she felt uncertain in his present mood how much she could venture.
He said nothing.
“Bertie Levy’s got six toes on one foot,” Rose piped up suddenly. The others laughed. But the Colonel cut them short.
“You hurry up and get off to your prep., my boy,” he said, glancing at Martin, who was still eating.
“Let him finish his tea, Papa,” said Milly, again imitating the manner of an older person.
“And the new nurse?” the Colonel asked, drumming on the edge of the table. “Has she come?”
“Yes…” Milly began. But there was a rustling in the hall and in came Eleanor. It was much to their relief; especially to Milly’s. Thank goodness, there’s Eleanor she thought, looking up—the soother, the maker-up of quarrels, the buffer between her and the intensities and strifes of family life. She adored her sister. She would have called her goddess and endowed her with a beauty that was not hers, with clothes that were not hers, had she not been carrying a pile of little mottled books and two black gloves. Protect me, she thought, handing her a teacup, who am such a mousy, downtrodden inefficient little chit, compared with Delia, who always gets her way, while I’m always snubbed by Papa, who was grumpy for some reason. The Colonel smiled at Eleanor. And the red dog on the hearthrug looked up too and wagged his tail, as if he recognised her for one of those satisfactory women who give you a bone, but wash their hands afterwards. She was the eldest of the daughters, about twenty-two, no beauty, but healthy, and though tired at the moment, naturally cheerful.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I got kept. And I didn’t expect—” She looked at her father.
“I got off earlier than I thought,” he said hastily. “The meeting—” he stopped short. There had been another row with Mira.
“And how’s your Grove, eh?” he added.
“Oh, my Grove—” she repeated; but Milly handed her the covered dish.
“I got kept,” Eleanor said again, helping herself. She began to eat; the atmosphere lightened.
“Now tell us, Papa,” said Delia boldly—she was his favourite daughter—“what you’ve been doing with yourself. Had any adventures?”
The remark was unfortunate.
“There aren’t any adventures for an old fogy like me,” said the Colonel surlily. He ground the grains of sugar against the walls of his cup. Then he seemed to repent of his gruffness; he pondered for a moment.
“I met old Burke at the Club; asked me to bring one of you to dinner; Robin’s back, on leave,” he said.
He drank up his tea. Some drops fell on his little pointed beard. He took out his large silk handkerchief and wiped his chin impatiently. Eleanor, sitting on her low chair, saw a curious look first on Milly’s face, then on Delia’s. She had an impression of hostility between them. But they said nothing. They went on eating and drinking until the Colonel took up his cup, saw there was nothing in it, and put it down firmly with a little chink. The ceremony of tea-drinking was over.
“Now, my boy, take yourself off and get on with your prep.,” he said to Martin.
Martin withdrew the hand that was stretched towards a plate.
“Cut along,” said the Colonel imperiously. Martin got up and went, drawing his hand reluctantly along the chairs and tables as if to delay his passage. He slammed the door rather sharply behind him. The Colonel rose and stood upright among them in his tightly buttoned frock-coat.
“And I must be off too,” he said. But he paused a moment, as if there was nothing particular for him to be off to. He stood there very erect among them, as if he wished to give some order, but could not at the moment think of any order to give. Then he recollected.
“I wish one of you would remember,” he said, addressing his daughters impartially, “to write to Edward…. Tell him to write to Mama.”
“Yes,” said Eleanor.
He moved towards the door. But he stopped.
“And let me know when Mama wants to see me,” he remarked. Then he paused and pinched his youngest daughter by the ear.
“Grubby little ruffian,” he said, pointing to the green stain on her pinafore. She covered it with her hand. At the door he paused again.
“Don’t forget,” he said, fumbling with the handle, “don’t forget to write to Edward.” At last he had turned the handle and was gone.
They were silent. There was something strained in the atmosphere, Eleanor felt. She took one of the little books that she had dropped on the table and laid it open on her knee. But she did not look at it. Her glance fixed itself rather absent-mindedly upon the farther room. The trees were coming out in the back garden; there were little leaves—little ear-shaped leaves on the bushes. The sun was shining, fitfully; it was going in and it was going out, lighting up now this, now—
“Eleanor,” Rose interrupted. She held herself in a way that was oddly like her father’s.
“Eleanor,” she repeated in a low voice, for her sister was not attending.
“Well?” said Eleanor, looking at her.
“I want to go to Lamley’s,” said Rose.
She looked the image of her father, standing there with her hands behind her back.
“It’s too late for Lamley’s,” said Eleanor.
“They don’t shut till seven,” said Rose.
“Then ask Martin to go with you,” said Eleanor.
The little girl moved off slowly towards the door. Eleanor took up her account-books again.
“But you’re not to go alone, Rose; you’re not to go alone,” she said, looking up over them as Rose reached the door. Nodding her head in silence, Rose disappeared.
She went upstairs. She paused outside her mother’s bedroom and snuffed the sour-sweet smell that seemed to hang about the jugs, the tumblers, the covered bowls on the table outside the door. Up she went again, and stopped outside the schoolroom door. She did not want to go in, for she had quarrelled with Martin. They had quarrelled first about Erridge and the microscope and then about shooting Miss Pym’s cats next door. But Eleanor had told her to ask him. She opened the door.
“Hullo, Martin—” she began.
He was sitting at a table with a book propped in front of him, muttering to himself—perhaps it was Greek, perhaps it was Latin.
“Eleanor told me—” she began, noting how flushed he looked, and how his hand closed on a bit of paper as if he were going to screw it into a ball. “To ask you…” she began, and braced herself and stood with her back against the door.
Eleanor leant back in her chair. The sun now was on the trees in the back garden. The buds were beginning to swell. The spring light of course showed up the shabbiness of the chair-covers. The large armchair had a dark stain on it where her father had rested his head, she noticed. But what a number of chairs there were—how roomy, how airy it was after that bedroom where old Mrs Levy—But Milly and Delia were both silent. It was the question of the dinner-party, she remembered. Which of them was to go? They both wanted to go. She wished people would not say, “Bring one of your daughters.” She wished they would say, “Bring Eleanor,” or “Bring Milly,” or “Bring Delia,” instead of lumping them all together. Then there could be no question.
“Well,” said Delia abruptly, “I shall…”
She got up as if she were going somewhere. But she stopped. Then she strolled over to the window that looked out onto the street. The houses opposite all had the same little front gardens; the same steps; the same pillars; the same bow windows. But now dusk was falling and they looked spectral and insubstantial in the dim light. Lamps were being lit; a light glowed in the drawing-room opposite; then the curtains were drawn, and the room was blotted out. Delia stood looking down at the street. A woman of the lower classes was wheeling a perambulator; an old man tottered along with his hands behind his back. Then the street was empty; there was a pause. Here came a hansom jingling down the road. Delia was momentarily interested. Was it going to stop at their door or not? She gazed more intently. But then, to her regret, the cabman jerked his reins, the horse stumbled on; the cab stopped two doors lower down.
“Someone’s calling on the Stapletons,” she called back, holding apart the muslin blind. Milly came and stood beside her sister, and together, through the slit, they watched a young man in a top-hat get out of the cab. He stretched his hand up to pay the driver.
“Don’t be caught looking,” said Eleanor warningly. The young man ran up the steps into the house; the door shut upon him and the cab drove away.
But for the moment the two girls stood at the window looking into the street. The crocuses were yellow and purple in the front gardens. The almond trees and privets were tipped with green. A sudden gust of wind tore down the street, blowing a piece of paper along the pavement; and a little swirl of dry dust followed after. Above the roofs was one of those red and fitful London sunsets that make window after window burn gold. There was a wildness in the spring evening; even here, in Abercorn Terrace the light was changing from gold to black, from black to gold. Dropping the blind, Delia turned, and coming back into the drawing-room, said suddenly:
“Oh my God!”
Eleanor, who had taken her books again, looked up disturbed.
“Eight times eight…” she said aloud. “What’s eight times eight?”
Putting her finger on the page to mark the place, she looked at her sister. As she stood there with her head thrown back and her hair red in the sunset glow, she looked for a moment defiant, even beautiful. Beside her Milly was mouse-coloured and nondescript.
“Look here, Delia,” said Eleanor, shutting her book, “you’ve only got to wait…” She meant but she could not say it, “until Mama dies.”
“No, no, no,” said Delia, stretching her arms out. “It’s hopeless….” she began. But she broke off, for Crosby had come in. She was carrying a tray. One by one with an exasperating little chink she put the cups, the plates, the knives, the jam-pots, the dishes of cake and the dishes of bread and butter, on the tray. Then, balancing it carefully in front of her, she went out. There was a pause. In she came again and folded the table-cloth and moved the tables. Again there was a pause. A moment or two later back she came carrying two silk-shaded lamps. She set one in the front room, one in the back room. Then she went, creaking in her cheap shoes, to the window and drew the curtains. They slid with a familiar click along the brass rod, and soon the windows were obscured by thick sculptured folds of claret-coloured plush. When she had drawn the curtains in both rooms, a profound silence seemed to fall upon the drawing-room. The world outside seemed thickly and entirely cut off. Far away down the next street they heard the voice of a street hawker droning; the heavy hooves of van horses clopped slowly down the road. For a moment wheels ground on the road; then they died out and the silence was complete.
Two yellow circles of light fell under the lamps. Eleanor drew her chair up under one of them, bent her head and went on with the part of her work that she always left to the last because she disliked it so much—adding up figures. Her lips moved and her pencil made little dots on the paper as she added eights to sixes, fives to fours.
“There!” she said at last. “That’s done. Now I’ll go and sit with Mama.”
She stooped to pick up her gloves.
“No,” said Milly, throwing aside a magazine she had opened, “I’ll go…”
Delia suddenly emerged from the back room in which she had been prowling.
“I’ve nothing whatever to do,” she said briefly. “I’ll go.”
She went upstairs, step by step, very slowly. When she came to the bedroom door with the jugs and glasses on the table outside, she paused. The sour-sweet smell of illness slightly sickened her. She could not force herself to go in. Through the little window at the end of the passage she could see flamingo-coloured curls of cloud lying on a pale-blue sky. After the dusk of the drawing-room, her eyes dazzled. She seemed fixed there for a moment by the light. Then on the floor above she heard children’s voices—Martin and Rose quarrelling.
“Don’t then!” she heard Rose say. A door slammed. She paused. Then she drew in a deep breath of air, looked once more at the fiery sky, and tapped on the bedroom door.
The nurse rose quietly; put her finger to her lips, and left the room. Mrs Pargiter was asleep. Lying in a cleft of the pillows with one hand under her cheek, Mrs Pargiter moaned slightly as if she wandered in a world where even in sleep little obstacles lay across her path. Her face was pouched and heavy; the skin was stained with brown patches; the hair which had been red was now white, save that there were queer yellow patches in it, as if some locks had been dipped in the yolk of an egg. Bare of all rings save her wedding ring, her fingers alone seemed to indicate that she had entered the private world of illness. But she did not look as if she were dying; she looked as if she might go on existing in this borderland between life and death for ever. Delia could see no change in her. As she sat down, everything seemed to be at full tide in her. A long narrow glass by the bedside reflected a section of the sky; it was dazzled at the moment with red light. The dressing-table was illuminated. The light struck on silver bottles and on glass bottles, all set out in the perfect order of things that are not used. At this hour of the evening the sickroom had an unreal cleanliness, quiet and order. There by the bedside was a little table set with spectacles, prayer-book and a vase of lilies of the valley. The flowers, too, looked unreal. There was nothing to do but to look.
She stared at the yellow drawing of her grandfather with the high light on his nose; at the photograph of her Uncle Horace in his uniform; at the lean and twisted figure on the crucifix to the right.
“But you don’t believe in it!” she said savagely, looking at her mother sunk in sleep. “You don’t want to die.”
She longed for her to die. There she was—soft, decayed but everlasting, lying in the cleft of the pillows, an obstacle, a prevention, an impediment to all life. She tried to whip up some feeling of affection, of pity. For instance, that summer, she told herself, at Sidmouth, when she called me up the garden steps…. But the scene melted as she tried to look at it. There was the other scene of course—the man in the frock-coat with the flower in his button-hole. But she had sworn not to think of that till bedtime. What then should she think of? Grandpapa with the white light on his nose? The prayer-book? The lilies of the valley? Or the looking-glass? The sun had gone in; the glass was dim and reflected now only a dun-coloured patch of sky. She could resist no longer.
“Wearing a white flower in his button-hole,” she began. It required a few minutes’ preparation. There must be a hall; banks of palms; a floor beneath them crowded with people’s heads. The charm was beginning to work. She became permeated with delicious starts of flattering and exciting emotion. She was on the platform; there was a huge audience; everybody was shouting, waving handkerchiefs, hissing and whistling. Then she stood up. She rose all in white in the middle of the platform; Mr Parnell was by her side.
“I am speaking in the cause of Liberty,” she began, throwing out her hands, “in the cause of Justice….” They were standing side by side. He was very pale but his dark eyes glowed. He turned to her and whispered….
There was a sudden interruption. Mrs Pargiter had raised herself on her pillows.
“Where am I?” she cried. She was frightened and bewildered, as she often was on waking. She raised her hand; she seemed to appeal for help. “Where am I?” she repeated. For a moment Delia was bewildered too. Where was she?
“Here, Mama! Here!” she said wildly. “Here, in your own room.”
She laid her hand on the counterpane. Mrs Pargiter clutched it nervously. She looked round the room as if she were seeking someone. She did not seem to recognise her daughter.
“What’s happening?” she said. “Where am I?” Then she looked at Delia and remembered.
“Oh, Delia—I was dreaming,” she murmured half apologetically. She lay for a moment looking out of the window. The lamps were being lit, and a sudden soft spurt of light came in the street outside.
“It’s been a fine day…” she hesitated, “for…” It seemed as if she could not remember what for.
“A lovely day, yes, Mama,” Delia repeated with mechanical cheerfulness.
“… for…” her mother tried again.
What day was it? Delia could not remember.
“… for your Uncle Digby’s birthday,” Mrs Pargiter at last brought out.
“Tell him from me—tell him how very glad I am.”
“I’ll tell him,” said Delia. She had forgotten her uncle’s birthday; but her mother was punctilious about such things.
“Aunt Eugénie—” she began.
But her mother was staring at the dressing-table. Some gleam from the lamp outside made the white cloth look extremely white.
“Another clean table-cloth!” Mrs Pargiter murmured peevishly. “The expense, Delia, the expense—that’s what worries me—”
“That’s all right, Mama,” said Delia dully. Her eyes were fixed upon her grandfather’s portrait; why, she wondered, had the artist put a dab of white chalk on the tip of his nose?
“Aunt Eugénie brought you some flowers,” she said.
For some reason Mrs Pargiter seemed pleased. Her eyes rested contemplatively on the clean table-cloth that had suggested the washing bill a moment before.
“Aunt Eugénie…” she said. “How well I remember”—her voice seemed to get fuller and rounder—“the day the engagement was announced. We were all of us in the garden; there came a letter.” She paused. “There came a letter,” she repeated. Then she said no more for a time. She seemed to be going over some memory.
“The dear little boy died, but save for that…” She stopped again. She seemed weaker tonight, Delia thought; and a start of joy ran through her. Her sentences were more broken than usual. What little boy had died? She began counting the twists on the counterpane as she waited for her mother to speak.
“You know all the cousins used to come together in the summer,” her mother suddenly resumed. “There was your Uncle Horace….”
“The one with the glass eye,” said Delia.
“Yes. He hurt his eye on the rocking-horse. The aunts thought so much of Horace. They would say…” Here there was a long pause. She seemed to be fumbling to find the exact words.
“When Horace comes … remember to ask him about the dining-room door.”
A curious amusement seemed to fill Mrs Pargiter. She actually laughed. She must be thinking of some long-past family joke, Delia supposed, as she watched the smile flicker and fade away. There was complete silence. Her mother lay with her eyes shut; the hand with the single ring, the white and wasted hand, lay on the counterpane. In the silence they could hear a coal click in the grate and a street hawker droning down the road. Mrs Pargiter said no more. She lay perfectly still. Then she sighed profoundly.
The door opened, and the nurse came in. Delia rose and went out. Where am I? she asked herself, staring at a white jug stained pink by the setting sun. For a moment she seemed to be in some borderland between life and death. Where am I? she repeated, looking at the pink jug, for it all looked strange. Then she heard water rushing and feet thudding on the floor above.
“Here you are, Rosie,” said Nurse, looking up from the wheel of the sewing-machine as Rose came in.
The nursery was brightly lit; there was an unshaded lamp on the table. Mrs C., who came every week with the washing, was sitting in the armchair with a cup in her hand. “Go and get your sewing, there’s a good girl,” said Nurse as Rose shook hands with Mrs C., “or you’ll never be done in time for Papa’s birthday,” she added, clearing a space on the nursery table.
Rose opened the table drawer and took out the boot-bag that she was embroidering with a design of blue and red flowers for her father’s birthday. There were still several clusters of little pencilled roses to be worked. She spread it on the table and examined it as Nurse resumed what she was saying to Mrs C. about Mrs Kirby’s daughter. But Rose did not listen.
Then I shall go by myself, she decided, straightening out the boot-bag. If Martin won’t come with me, then I shall go by myself.
“I left my work-box in the drawing-room,” she said aloud.
“Well, then, go and fetch it,” said Nurse, but she was not attending; she wanted to go on with what she was saying to Mrs C. about the grocer’s daughter.
Now the adventure has begun, Rose said to herself as she stole on tiptoe to the night nursery. Now she must provide herself with ammunition and provisions; she must steal Nurse’s latchkey; but where was it? Every night it was hidden in a new place for fear of burglars. It would be either under the handkerchief-case or in the little box where she kept her mother’s gold watch-chain. There it was. Now she had her pistol and her shot, she thought, taking her own purse from her own drawer, and enough provisions, she thought, as she hung her hat and coat over her arm, to last a fortnight.
She stole past the nursery, down the stairs. She listened intently as she passed the schoolroom door. She must be careful not to tread on a dry branch, or to let any twig crack under her, she told herself, as she went on tiptoe. Again she stopped and listened as she passed her mother’s bedroom door. All was silent. Then she stood for a moment on the landing, looking down into the hall. The dog was asleep on the mat; the coast was clear; the hall was empty. She heard voices murmuring in the drawing-room.
She turned the latch of the front door with extreme gentleness, and closed it with scarcely a click behind her. Until she was round the corner she crouched close to the wall so that nobody could see her. When she reached the corner under the laburnum tree she stood erect.
“I am Pargiter of Pargiter’s Horse,” she said, flourishing her hand, “riding to the rescue!”
She was riding by night on a desperate mission to a besieged garrison, she told herself. She had a secret message—she clenched her fist on her purse—to deliver to the General in person. All their lives depended upon it. The British flag was still flying on the central tower—Lamley’s shop was the central tower; the General was standing on the roof of Lamley’s shop with his telescope to his eye. All their lives depended upon her riding to them through the enemy’s country. Here she was galloping across the desert. She began to trot. It was growing dark. The street lamps were being lit. The lamplighter was poking his stick up into the little trap-door; the trees in the front gardens made a wavering network of shadow on the pavement; the pavement stretched before her broad and dark. Then there was the crossing; and then there was Lamley’s shop on the little island of shops opposite. She had only to cross the desert, to ford the river, and she was safe. Flourishing the arm that held the pistol, she clapped spurs to her horse and galloped down Melrose Avenue. As she ran past the pillar-box the figure of a man suddenly emerged under the gas lamp.
“The enemy!” Rose cried to herself. “The enemy! Bang!” she cried, pulling the trigger of her pistol and looking him full in the face as she passed him. It was a horrid face: white, peeled, pock-marked; he leered at her. He put out his arm as if to stop her. He almost caught her. She dashed past him. The game was over.
She was herself again, a little girl who had disobeyed her sister, in her house shoes, flying for safety to Lamley’s shop.
Fresh-faced Mrs Lamley was standing behind the counter folding up the newspapers. She was pondering among her twopenny watches, cards of tools, toy boats and boxes of cheap stationery something pleasant, it seemed; for she was smiling. Then Rose burst in. She looked up enquiringly.
“Hullo, Rosie!” she exclaimed. “What d’you want, my dear?”
She kept her hand on the pile of newspapers. Rose stood there panting. She had forgotten what she had come for.
“I want the box of ducks in the window,” Rose at last remembered.
Mrs Lamley waddled round to fetch it.
“Isn’t it rather late for a little girl like you to be out alone?” she asked, looking at her as if she knew she had come out in her house shoes, disobeying her sister.
“Good-night, my dear, and run along home,” she said, giving her the parcel. The child seemed to hesitate on the doorstep: she stood there staring at the toys under the hanging oil lamp; then out she went reluctantly.
I gave my message to the General in person, she said to herself as she stood outside on the pavement again. And this is the trophy, she said, grasping the box under her arm. I am returning in triumph with the head of the chief rebel, she told herself, as she surveyed the stretch of Melrose Avenue before her. I must set spurs to my horse and gallop. But the story no longer worked. Melrose Avenue remained Melrose Avenue. She looked down it. There was the long stretch of bare street in front of her. The trees were trembling their shadows over the pavement. The lamps stood at great distances apart, and there were pools of darkness between. She began to trot. Suddenly, as she passed the lamp-post, she saw the man again. He was leaning with his back against the lamp-post, and the light from the gas lamp flickered over his face. As she passed he sucked his lips in and out. He made a mewing noise. But he did not stretch his hands out at her; they were unbuttoning his clothes.
She fled past him. She thought that she heard him coming after her. She heard his feet padding on the pavement. Everything shook as she ran; pink and black spots danced before her eyes as she ran up the doorsteps, fitted her key in the latch and opened the hall door. She did not care whether she made a noise or not. She hoped somebody would come out and speak to her. But nobody heard her. The hall was empty. The dog was asleep on the mat. Voices still murmured in the drawing-room.
“And when it does catch,” Eleanor was saying, “it’ll be much too hot.”
Crosby had piled the coals into a great black promontory. A plume of yellow smoke was sullenly twining round it; it was beginning to burn, and when it did burn it would be much too hot.
“She can see Nurse stealing the sugar, she says. She can see her shadow on the wall,” Milly was saying. They were talking about their mother.
“And then Edward,” she added, “forgetting to write.”
“That reminds me,” said Eleanor. She must remember to write to Edward. But there would be time after dinner. She did not want to write; she did not want to talk; always when she came back from the Grove she felt as if several things were going on at the same time. Words went on repeating themselves in her mind—words and sights. She was thinking of old Mrs Levy, sitting propped up in bed with her white hair in a thick flop like a wig and her face cracked like an old glazed pot.
“Them that’s been good to me, them I remember … them that’s ridden in their coaches when I was a poor widder woman scrubbing and mangling—” Here she stretched out her arm, which was wrung and white like the root of a tree. “Them that’s been good to me, them I remember…” Eleanor repeated as she looked at the fire. Then the daughter came in who was working for a tailor. She wore pearls as big as hen’s eggs; she had taken to painting her face; she was wonderfully handsome. But Milly made a little movement.
“I was thinking,” said Eleanor on the spur of the moment, “the poor enjoy themselves more than we do.”
“The Levys?” said Milly absent-mindedly. Then she brightened.
“Do tell me about the Levys,” she added. Eleanor’s relations with “the poor”—the Levys, the Grubbs, the Paravicinis, the Zwinglers and the Cobbs—always amused her. But Eleanor did not like talking about “the poor” as if they were people in a book. She had a great admiration for Mrs Levy, who was dying of cancer.
“Oh, they’re much as usual,” she said sharply. Milly looked at her. Eleanor’s “broody” she thought. The family joke was, “Look out. Eleanor’s broody. It’s her Grove day.” Eleanor was ashamed, but she always was irritable for some reason when she came back from the Grove—so many different things were going on in her head at the same time: Canning Place; Abercorn Terrace; this room; that room. There was the old Jewess sitting up in bed in her hot little room; then one came back here, and there was Mama ill; Papa grumpy; and Delia and Milly quarrelling about a party…. But she checked herself. She ought to try to say something to amuse her sister.
“Mrs Levy had her rent ready, for a wonder,” she said. “Lily helps her. Lily’s got a job at a tailor’s in Shoreditch. She came in all covered with pearls and things. They do love finery—Jews,” she added.
“Jews?” said Milly. She seemed to consider the taste of the Jews; and then to dimiss it.
“Yes,” she said. “Shiny.”
“She’s extraordinarily handsome,” said Eleanor, thinking of the red cheeks and the white pearls.
Milly smiled; Eleanor always would stick up for the poor. She thought Eleanor the best, the wisest, the most remarkable person she knew.
“I believe you like going there more than anything,” she said. “I believe you’d like to go and live there if you had your way,” she added, with a little sigh.
Eleanor shifted in her chair. She had her dreams, her plans, of course; but she did not want to discuss them.
“Perhaps you will, when you’re married?” said Milly. There was something peevish yet plaintive in her voice. The dinner-party; the Burkes’ dinner-party, Eleanor thought. She wished Milly did not always bring the conversation back to marriage. And what do they know about marriage? she asked herself. They stay at home too much, she thought; they never see anyone outside their own set. Here they are cooped up, day after day…. That was why she had said, “The poor enjoy themselves more than we do.” It had struck her coming back into that drawing-room, with all the furniture and the flowers and the hospital nurses…. Again she stopped herself. She must wait till she was alone—till she was brushing her teeth at night. When she was with the others she must stop herself from thinking of two things at the same time. She took the poker and struck the coal.
“Look! What a beauty!” she exclaimed. A flame danced on top of the coal, a nimble and irrelevant flame. It was the sort of flame they used to make when they were children, by throwing salt on the fire. She struck again, and a shower of gold-eyed sparks went volleying up the chimney. “D’you remember,” she said, “how we used to play at firemen, and Morris and I set the chimney on fire?”
“And Pippy went and fetched Papa,” said Milly. She paused. There was a sound in the hall. A stick grated; someone was hanging up a coat. Eleanor’s eyes brightened. That was Morris—yes; she knew the sound he made. Now he was coming in. She looked round with a smile as the door opened. Milly jumped up.
Morris tried to stop her.
“Don’t go—” he began.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I shall go. I shall go and have a bath,” she added on the spur of the moment. She left them.
Morris sat down in the chair she had left empty. He was glad to find Eleanor alone. Neither of them spoke for a moment. They watched the yellow plume of smoke, and the little flame dancing nimbly, irrelevantly, here and there on the black promontory of coals. Then he asked the usual question:
She told him; there was no change: “except that she sleeps more,” she said. He wrinkled his forehead. He was losing his boyish look, Eleanor thought. That was the worst of the Bar, everyone said; one had to wait. He was devilling for Sanders Curry; and it was dreary work, hanging about the Courts all day, waiting.
“How’s old Curry?” she asked—old Curry had a temper.
“A bit liverish,” said Morris grimly.
“And what have you been doing all day?” she asked.
“Nothing in particular,” he replied.
“Still Evans v. Carter?”
“Yes,” he said briefly.
“And who’s going to win?” she asked.
“Carter, of course,” he replied.
Why “of course” she wanted to ask? But she had said something silly the other day—something that showed that she had not been attending. She muddled things up; for example, what was the difference between Common Law and the other kind of law? She said nothing. They sat in silence, and watched the flame playing on the coals. It was a green flame, nimble, irrelevant.
“D’you think I’ve been an awful fool,” he asked suddenly. “With all this illness, and Edward and Martin to be paid for—Papa must find it a bit of a strain.” He wrinkled his brow up in the way that made her say to herself that he was losing his boyish look.
“Of course not,” she said emphatically. Of course it would have been absurd for him to go into business; his passion was for the Law.
“You’ll be Lord Chancellor one of these days,” she said. “I’m sure of it.” He shook his head, smiling.
“Quite sure,” she said, looking at him as she used to look at him when he came back from school and Edward had all the prizes and Morris sat silent—she could see him now—bolting his food with nobody making a fuss of him. But even while she looked, a doubt came over her. Lord Chancellor, she had said. Ought she not to have said Lord Chief Justice? She never could remember which was which: and that was why he would not discuss Evans v. Carter with her.
She never told him about the Levys either, except by way of a joke. That was the worst of growing up, she thought; they couldn’t share things as they used to share them. When they met they never had time to talk as they used to talk—about things in general—they always talked about facts—little facts. She poked the fire. Suddenly a blare of sound rang through the room. It was Crosby applying herself to the gong in the hall. She was like a savage wreaking vengeance upon some brazen victim. Ripples of rough sound rang through the room. “Lord, that’s the dressing-bell!” said Morris. He got up and stretched himself. He raised his arms and held them for a moment suspended above his head. That’s what he’ll look like when he’s the father of a family, Eleanor thought. He let his arms fall and left the room. She sat brooding for a moment; then she roused herself. What must I remember? she asked herself. To write to Edward, she mused, crossing over to her mother’s writing-table. It’ll be my table now, she thought, looking at the silver candlestick, the miniature of her grandfather, the tradesmen’s books—one had a gilt cow stamped on it—and the spotted walrus with a brush in its back that Martin had given his mother on her last birthday.
Crosby held open the door of the dining-room as she waited for them to come down. The silver paid for polishing, she thought. Knives and forks rayed out round the table. The whole room, with its carved chairs, oil paintings, the two daggers on the mantelpiece, and the handsome sideboard—all the solid objects that Crosby dusted and polished every day—looked at its best in the evening. Meat-smelling and serge-curtained by day, it looked lit up, semi-transparent in the evening. And they were a handsome family, she thought as they filed in—the young ladies in their pretty dresses of blue and white sprigged muslin; the gentlemen so spruce in their dinner jackets. She pulled the Colonel’s chair out for him. He was always at his best in the evening; he enjoyed his dinner; and for some reason his gloom had vanished. He was in his jovial mood. His children’s spirits rose as they noted it.
“That’s a pretty frock you’re wearing,” he said to Delia as he sat down.
“This old one?” she said, patting the blue muslin.
There was an opulence, an ease and a charm about him when he was in a good temper that she liked particularly. People always said she was like him; sometimes she was glad of it—tonight for instance. He looked so pink and clean and genial in his dinner-jacket. They became children again when he was in this mood, and were spurred on to make family jokes at which they all laughed for no particular reason.
“Eleanor’s broody,” said her father, winking at them. “It’s her Grove day.”
Everybody laughed; Eleanor had thought he was talking about Rover, the dog, when in fact he was talking about Mrs Egerton, the lady. Crosby, who was handing the soup, crinkled up her face because she wanted to laugh too. Sometimes the Colonel made Crosby laugh so much that she had to turn away and pretend to be doing something at the sideboard.
“Oh, Mrs Egerton—” said Eleanor, beginning her soup.
“Yes, Mrs Egerton,” said her father, and went on telling his story about Mrs Egerton, “whose golden hair was said by the voice of slander not to be entirely her own.”
Delia liked listening to her father’s stories about India. They were crisp, and at the same time romantic. They conveyed an atmosphere of officers dining together in mess jackets on a very hot night with a huge silver trophy in the middle of the table.
He used always to be like this when we were small, she thought. He used to jump over the bonfire on her birthday, she remembered. She watched him flicking cutlets dexterously on to plates with his left hand. She admired his decision, his common sense. Flicking the cutlets on to plates, he went on—
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