previous
next



  ― 57 ―

(x)

“I'VE been talking with your husband—why didn't you dine with us, cruel fair—as the poets say, the silly fools. How I hate poets! Why don't you ever take a bite with us? We get on very well, but we're a little heavy together, like brandy and cheese. Is it because you're sick of food by the time you've ordered it? I've heard my mother say that.”

“I seldom order it.”

“I thought the stranger within your gates might have transformed you to a model housewife. What a damnable thing—Venus into Dorcas! Still, you know, it would give you something to do with your time.”

Again she was silent.

“Oho! There's something in the way. Now what?” But he did not wait for her answer. “Is there anyone I could kick for you?”

She laughed, and spoke at last.

“It does me good to have you here.”

“I know that. I'm little Ferdinand of all the tracts come alive. ‘O mamma, pray put that ugly bottle down!’ I take my duties seriously, it's a mission I'm on; to restore you to that society, of which you ought to be the jewel and ornament. Let's plan the campaign together.”

“How about making your fortune? I thought that was what had brought you here.”

“I'll make yours instead, lend myself lustre that way.


  ― 58 ―
Where's pencil and paper? Here we are. Now! Programme of Social Activities, (a) domestic, (b) in social circles. Lord, lord, those social circles! How I pity you, being obliged to shine in them. Lux in tenebris—and the darkness did not comprehend it. All the same, it is your duty.”

He looked up suddenly from his absurd task. She was seated in a chair backed by sunset. The noble shape of her head could be seen against red feathers of cloud, dark, calmly brooding. By strong daylight the skin showed thickened and blotched, the whites of the eyes were not clear, and the whole scheme of her beauty appeared half-spoiled, like a great drawing sketched upon some spongy substance. Withdrawal of light gave back this beauty again by lending it mystery. Adare said impulsively:

“You are the loveliest creature ever I saw in my life, I believe—except a mare I once had that died of the strangles.”

He laughed at his own conclusion. She did not, making almost passionate answer.

“No, no. I know there's nothing left, nothing—”

“Don't you ever take a look in your glass?”

“There are no glasses here.”

That was true. Nowhere in the house had he seen one, except the round small mirror he shaved by, and he now perceived the reason; she could not bear to be reminded of the passing of a beauty that had been sterile, that would light no memories; of which, in this new


  ― 59 ―
country, no man would say when she died, “Ah, but Henrietta Considine was the loveliest thing!” Adare was touched with pity. He whipped off his dark green coat, and holding it behind the French window within whose opening stood her chair, made a mirror impromptu, in which as she turned she could see something of her head's outline against the ghosts of cloud.

“Can you see yourself? Enough to convince? I tell you what we'll do, we'll drive together into Sydney to-morrow, and cause a nice scandal, and I'll buy you the biggest looking-glass I can find. It's to stand for your conscience. Every day you must look in it, and say to yourself, Sister Hattie, Sister Hattie, do you see anybody coming? And every day you must answer, I see myself, myself, myself coming back hell-for-leather to make me like I was when I was young.”

He took away his coat, swung it on to his shoulders, and when he viewed her again found her head sunk, and her hands at her eyes. She was crying; indeed his own outburst had made a kind of clot come in his throat. He took refuge from emotion in talk, and seizing the pencil again began to make calculations aloud.

“We haven't got far with our plan yet. Activities Domestic; yes, those must be considered first. What the devil does a woman find to do in a house? I have it—back to the beginning of our conversation. One, you must order the dinner yourself.”

He set this down, neatly.

“Two, you must take up your needle. I disallow your


  ― 60 ―
knotted sheep. Embroidery will not do, there is no reclaiming virtue in embroidery, it is frivolous, old ladies in mouldy castles do miles of it, for which nobody's the better. The new world demands something sterner. Socks! Not flocks. I'll give you one of mine to start on, and your husband, I dare say he'll wear out a pair or two to oblige you. Task domestic Number Two.”

He set it down.

“What shall Three be? I think I have it. To appear every evening at the dinner you have ordered in the morning. Yes, and eat it, too. I know how it is, you have no appetite, I know that. But that will come along. You must dress for us; you must adorn our table, not leave us to munch together like a pair of bullocks. And you must take a glass of wine with us. How long since you've had a drink in public? Well, that's undoubtedly Three.”

She had recovered from her tears he saw, looking sideways at her, and as he wrote she spoke:

“You are talking nonsense, but please go on.”

“The first time anyone has ever paid me that tribute. I used to write poetry once, did you know? Brought out—the impudence of me—a book. It even got a critique from the Scotch Reviewers. They said what you said, minus the last clause. Have I to come fifteen thousand miles to find my market?”

“Charles—that is your sister's name for you, isn't it? I will call you Charles, I think. You must believe that I am very grateful.”




  ― 61 ―

“My dear creature, I please myself by staying in this house—for I take it that's what you refer to. Indeed, if I didn't stay in this house, I should have nowhere to go. His Excellency the Governor has turned me out into the storm. You are not to thank me for your own charity, taking in an orphan.”

“But your plans—you cannot be always talking to me. You have some notion what you intend to do.”

“None.” He indicated the paper. “Unless it be this. I get the run of my teeth, goddess dear, as Milton has it, in return for the privilege of keeping you away from the bottle.”

She said, speaking with difficulty, very low:

“Charles, it isn't only that. That came—because I had lost courage. It is not the cause.”

“Cause or effect, we'll get rid of them together. We'll present you to the world, you'll burst upon it like Pygmalion's statue, and the world shall rock, or I'll know the reason why. Lack of company, lack of women to chatter and stitch with—there's your cause, I believe. But my dear, my dear! They are a very deadly set of people, all the best ones.”

“I don't want to go among them. Pray don't insist upon that; I have no inclination to society.”

“I do insist upon it. I insist upon your staggering all the wives of the Chief Thises and Thats until they go home and beat their uninteresting children.”

“Perhaps—perhaps I have staggered them already.”

“That dinner party? Pooh, it told them nothing they


  ― 62 ―
hadn't invented beforehand. There must be more dinner parties. There must be races and balls. I'll see to it. I am not persona grata at Government House, but I am personable, and a Lord's son, thank that same Lord!”

She was beginning to speak when Miss Milly came in bearing candles. (It had grown dark while they spoke, like a curtain dropping.) The sallow woman came in, peering, for the lights she carried blinded her, and gave the pair at the window a look before she set the two silver branches down. She said nothing, however; licked her finger and thumb to snuff down one of the wicks that was flaming; withdrew.

“That's a nice sort of a family nurse, curse, worse to have about.”

“She is kind to me.”

“I wonder is she. I wonder does she.”

“Does she—what?”

“I don't know.” He had been looking intently at the door, but suddenly let his eyes come back to his hostess. “I never could stomach plain women. That's why I like you. The harp that once in Tara's halls might have been strung with your hair. Or the bow of Diarmed. There's a word for what you are.”

“There is indeed. There is a word for what I am.”

“Oh, not that side of you, not the drinking and the crying and the bogy on the bed. Well, I'll change my tune. There's a word for what you were and still could be. Only I can't find it. Nobody's ever found it. There's


  ― 63 ―
a young man, a poet, not long dead, and he said beauty was truth. And there was another man asked once, what is truth; but he never got his answer, not even though he asked God. Nobody knows what they are, truth or beauty. Not even poets; not even lovers. And so that's why I can't finish my little compliment.”

“But you are not in love.”

“No, thank God. And I'm not a poet.”

There was sincerity in that answer. He had for the moment no more to say; and with the unconcern of a young animal clenched his shoulders, stretching, then walked past her chair out into the dark garden. She did not look after him. She sat awhile watching insects that the candles had drawn round them with their silent Ducdame, then stooped to pick up the paper on which Adare had scribbled, idly, the list of her domestic duties. She read it, smiled ruefully, and put it away in her dress.

previous
next