Colonel Julian and Other Stories (20 page)

‘Where will you go after this?' she said.

‘Thought you were asleep.'

‘No, awake,' she said. ‘I'm awake.'

‘Oh! here, there and everywhere,' he said. ‘Up, down and round. I take it as it comes. I go where they send me.'

‘Don't you mind where?'

‘Couldn't care less.'

She lay for a little longer, waiting. This time she did not hear any sound of the kingfisher and there was no sound from the young man except a long sigh, and then presently:

‘All I ask for is this. Lying here with nothing on my mind. Nothing to bother about. Nothing at all. I'm a lazy hound.'

Some time later she stood up to say goodbye. She saw that he was lying on his face. For one moment the slim spare body was lithe and graceful, and then he turned over. He heaved his chest against the sun and she saw the muscles of his thighs cramp and ripple as the legs thrust themselves outward, white and shadowless, in the long meadow grass.

‘I'll have to be going,' she said. ‘Goodbye.'

‘Swim made me terribly drowsy. I think I'll have a sleep,' he said. ‘Goodbye.'

She walked away up the field. She walked by the empty hot-houses, through the empty deserted gardens and past the empty house. She walked slowly, with long mannish strides, her head up. She was too far away now to hear the kingfisher, so like a small shrill echo of the tape-measure in the grass, and although her eyes were clear and quite awake, she did not seem to notice the emptiness and the silence everywhere. She was aware only of her heavy limbs on the flanks of the horse; and all along the avenue, unbearably sweet, the great scent of full summer in the limes.

The Major of Hussars

That summer we lived in the hotel on the lake below the mountains, and Major Martineau, the Major of Hussars, lived on the floor below us, in a room with a eucalyptus tree on the balcony.

The weather was very hot, and in the sunlight the lake sparkled like crusty golden glass and in the late afternoon the peaks of the Blümlisalp and the whole range of the Jungfrau glistened in the fine mountain air with fiery rosy snow. The major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for afternoons.

We used to meet the major everywhere: on the terrace, where lunch was served under a long pergola of crimson and yellow roses, and from which you got a magnificent view of the snow caps; and then under the dark shade of chestnut trees on the lake edge, where coffee was served; and then at the tram terminus, where the small yellow trams started their journeys along the hot road by the lake and then on the white steamers that came up and down the lake, calling at all the little towns with proud peeps of the funnel whistle, several times a day. At all of these places there was the major, very spruce in cool shantung and always wearing the correct set of false teeth for the time of day, looking very correct, very English, and, we thought, very alone.

It must have been at the second or third of these meetings that he told us of his wife. ‘She'll be out from England any day now.' And at the fifth or sixth that he told us of his false teeth. ‘After all, one has several suits. One has several pairs of shoes. All excellent for rest and change. Why not different
sets of teeth?' It did not occur to me then that the teeth and his wife had anything to do with each other.

Sometimes as we walked along the lake we could see a figure marching briskly towards us in the distance.

‘The major,' I would say.

‘It can't be,' my wife would say. ‘It looks much too young.'

But always, as he came nearer, we could see that it was the major, sparkling and smart and spruce with all the shine and energy of a younger man. ‘Sometimes you'd take him for a man of forty,' my wife would say.

Whenever we met on these occasions we would talk briefly of the major's wife; then of the lake, the food, the delicious summer weather, the alpine flowers, the snow on the mountains and how we loved Switzerland. The major was very fond of them all and we got the impression, gradually, that his wife was very fond of them too.

‘Ah!' he would say, ‘she will adore all this. She will simply adore it.' His correct blue eyes would sparkle delightfully.

‘And when do you expect her?'

‘Well,' he would say, ‘in point of fact she was to have been here this week. But there seems to have been some sort of hitch somewhere. Bad staff work.'

‘I hope she'll soon be able to come.'

‘Oh! any day now.'

‘Good. And oh! by the way,' I said, ‘have you been up to the Jungfrau yet? The flowers are very lovely now on the way up.'

‘The Virgin?' the major would say. ‘Oh! not yet. I'm leaving all the conquest of that sort of thing till my wife gets here,' and he would laugh very heartily at the joke he made.

‘It's just as well,' I said.

But the next day, on the steamer, we saw the major making a conquest of the girl who brought the coffee. She had a beautiful Swiss head, with dark coiled hair, and she was wearing a very virginal Bernese bodice in black and white and a skirt striped in pink and blue. She was very young and she laughed very much at whatever it was the major was saying to her. On the voyage the major drank eight cups of coffee and ate four ham rolls. There was so much ham in the rolls that it hung
over the side like pink spaniel's ears, and the major had a wonderful time with his afternoon false teeth, his best pair, champing it in.

‘The major is conquering the Jungfrau,' I said.

‘You take a low view of life,' my wife said. ‘He's alone and he's simply being friendly.'

‘Queer how he doesn't notice us today.'

The major, in fact, did not notice us; he did not notice us in fact for two days, and I wondered if I had said something to offend him. But when at last we met him again under the chestnut tree at noon, with a glass of lager at his table in the shade, he seemed more friendly, more sparkling and more cheerful than ever. The yellow beer, the light shantung suit and the gleaming white teeth were all alight with the trembling silver reflections that sprang from the sunlight on the water.

‘Any news of your wife?' we said.

‘Coming today!'

We said we were very pleased. ‘What time?'

‘Coming by the afternoon boat. Gets in at three.'

He looked at the lake, the roses on the terrace, the blue-grey eucalyptus tree shining on the balcony of his room and then at the vast snows towering and glistening beyond the lake. ‘I can't tell you how she will adore all this,' he said. ‘I can't tell you.'

‘I'm sure she will,' we said. ‘You must be very excited.'

‘Just like a kid with a toy!' he said. ‘You see, I came out first to arrange it all. Choose the place. Choose the hotel. Choose everything. She doesn't know what she's coming to. You see? It's all going to be a great surprise for her.'

‘Don't forget you have to conquer the Jungfrau,' I said. ‘The soldanella are wonderful above the Scheidegg now.'

‘Of course,' he said. ‘Well, I must go. Perhaps you'd join us for an
apéritif
about six? I do very much want you to meet her.'

We said we would be delighted and he went singing away up to the hotel.

‘Your remark about the Jungfrau was very pointed,' my wife said.

‘I saved it with the soldanella,' I said.

‘Anyway, be careful what you say tonight,' she said.

From the lower terrace we could watch the steamers come and go. The afternoon was very hot and we stayed under the dark shade of the chestnut trees to watch the three o'clock boat come in. Among the hotel porters with their green and plum-coloured and scarlet and brown caps and uniforms the major stood out, in cool spruce shantung, as a very English, very conspicuous visitor on the quay.

When the white steamer came up the lake at last, tooting in the hot afternoon air, the major had taken up his stand in front of all the porters, by the water's edge. I got up and leaned on the railings of the terrace to get a better view.

The steamer came swinging in with a ring of engine-room bells, with six or seven passengers waiting by the gangway.

‘There she is,' I said.

‘Where?' My wife had come to stand beside me.

‘The lady with the green case,' I said. ‘Standing by the captain. She looks about the major's age and about as English.'

‘She looks rather nice—yes,' my wife said, ‘it could be.'

The steamer bounced lightly against the quay and the gangway came down. The hotel porters adjusted their caps and the passengers began to come ashore. In his eagerness the major almost blocked the gangway.

To my astonishment the lady with the green case came down the gangway and went straight past the major, and the porter from the
Hôtel du Lac
raised his green and gold cap and took the case away from her. The major was looking anxiously up the gangway for the figure of his wife, but in less than two minutes all the passengers had come down. When the steamer moved away again the major was standing on the quay alone, still staring anxiously and still waiting for the wife who had not come.

That evening we went down to the terrace for the
apéritif
with the major. ‘For goodness' sake don't make that joke about the Jungfrau,' my wife said. ‘He'll be in no mood for that.' The five o'clock steamer had come in, but the major's wife had not arrived.

‘It's his joke,' I said. ‘Not mine.'

‘You twist it round,' she said.

On the terrace the major, dressed in a dark grey suit and with his evening false teeth in, had an appearance of ebullient
gaiety. He had a peculiar taste in drinks and drank four or five glasses of Kirsch because there was no whisky and after it he did not seem so tired.

‘Met a friend in Paris,' he explained to us. ‘Amazing coincidence.' He kept waving a rather long telegram about in front of us. ‘Hadn't seen this friend for years, and then suddenly ran into her. Of course, it's only a night. She'll be here on Thursday.'

Three weeks went past, but the major's wife did not arrive. The best of the roses by that time were over on the terrace and long salmon-scarlet lines of geraniums were blooming there instead. In the beds behind the chestnut trees there were purple petunias with inter-plantings of cherry-pie and in the hot still evenings the scent of them was delicious against the cool night odour of water. ‘It's a pity for her to be missing all this,' we said.

Now when we met the major we avoided the subject of his wife. We met on several excursions to the mountains and sometimes on the steamers the major was to be seen on the first-class deck champing with his false teeth at the spaniel-eared ham sandwiches and drinking many cups of coffee. As he talked to the Swiss girl who served him he laughed quite often. But I did not think he laughed so much. I thought in a way he seemed not only less happy and less laughing, but more alone. He had stopped making explanations, and I thought he seemed like a man who had given up hoping.

And then it all began again. This time she was really coming. There had really been some awful business of a hold-up about her visa. It had taken a long time. It was all over now.

‘She'll be here on Sunday,' the major said. ‘Absolutely certain to be on the boat that gets in at three.'

The Sunday steamers were always crowded, their decks gay with Swiss families going up the lake for the day, with tourists going to Interlaken. The little landing stages at the lakeside resorts were always crowded too. There were many straw hats and Bernese bodices and much raising of caps by hotel porters.

So when the steamer arrived this time there was no picking out Mrs. Martineau. Crowds of Sunday holidaymakers stood on the steamer deck and pushed down the gangway and more
crowds stood on the quay waiting to go on board. Under the trimmed lime trees of the quayside restaurant the Sunday orchestra was playing, and people at little gay white tables were drinking coffee. It was a very simple, very laughing, very bourgeois, very noisy afternoon.

On the quay the major waited in his bright shantung suit, with his best teeth in.

‘There she is,' I said.

‘You said that last time,' my wife said.

‘You can see her waving, and the major is waving back.'

‘Several people are waving.'

‘The lady in the grey costume,' I said. ‘Not the one with the sun-glasses. The one waving the newspaper.'

At the steamer rails an amiable, greyish Englishwoman of sixty was waving in a nice undemonstrative sort of way to someone on shore. Each time she waved I thought the major waved back.

‘Anyway,' my wife said, ‘let's go round and meet her.'

We walked up through the hotel gardens and across the bridge over the stream that came down and fed the lake with green snow-water from the mountains. It was very hot. The sun-blinds in the hotel were like squares of red and white sugar candy in the sun, and in the hot scented gardens under the high white walls almost the only thing that seemed cool was the grey eucalyptus tree growing on the balcony of the major's room. I had always rather envied the major the eucalyptus tree. Even the steamer whistle seemed stifled as it peeped the boat away.

‘Now mind what you say,' my wife said. ‘No references to any Jungfrau.'

‘If she's that very English lady with the newspaper I shall like her,' I said.

Just at that moment we turned the corner of the kiosk that sold magazines and postcards of alpine flowers, and the lady with the newspaper went past us, arm in arm with another English lady carrying a wine-red parasol.

My wife did not take advantage of this situation. At that moment she became, like me, quite speechless.

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