Colonel Julian and Other Stories (13 page)

The path through the park had never been closed. In May the rhododendrons were magnificent, and on Sunday afternoons people walked across the path to admire from a distance the great fires of blossom burning floridly across the golden slopes of buttercups. No one ever left the path, even now the house was empty, and the flowers were never touched.

So it surprised her, coming back on Friday afternoon, to meet on the path a girl of twenty-two or three who had in her bare brown arms large hastily broken boughs of crimson flower, a girl with wide, honey-soft, watchful eyes: the eyes of someone who not only watches but watches to see if she, too, is being watched.

‘You know you are not supposed to gather the flowers.'

The girl, who had been looking obliquely across the park, stopped. Her face, hatless, had a slight frown against the sunlight. ‘I know. But these were given to me.'

‘Given to you?'

‘Mr. Ashton—he gave them to me.'

‘Mr. Ashton?'

‘Mr. Ashton—the caretaker. Up at the house. He knows me. He's a friend of——'

Mrs. Ashton suddenly walked on, not speaking again. She felt for a moment a spasm of pity and annoyance, but the chimes of the clock on the west gable of the house as it struck four o'clock drove away the emotion swiftly and with it all thought of the girl's brown, tender, too-watchful face.

Some weeks later her mother died. Taking the train northward, alone, to see her for a few hours before the end, she carried with her an unhappy, restless impression of the park. She thought almost ceaselessly of the house, the rooms that would not now be cleaned for days, the dust that must settle on windows and floors and furniture and stairs before she returned. Anxiety drove into the grey tired eyes a gleam of unnatural brilliance. She was less unhappy about the dying of her mother than about leaving the unused, unwanted house in which, though it was not her own, all her life and hope was centred. Going away, she scarcely thought of Albert. Coming back, she carried with her a second restless impression of something which had happened as her mother lay dying. It was the impression of her mother constantly raising herself
on the pillows and repeating Albert's name, asking again and again where he was, if he was ill, why he had not come. She had not seen her mother for three or four years, and now she realized that her mother was carrying with her into death the picture of someone she herself no longer knew. ‘Where's Albert? Is he all right? Why didn't he come? Why didn't he come?' It was the picture of a young, careless, handsome man who had a way with him and yet meant no harm.

She was relieved and glad to go back. And going back, thinking things out, turning over and over in her mind the recollection of her mother's dying affection for Albert, she resolved that things should and could be different now.

In London she turned over in her mind the words of a telegram telling Albert the time of her return, but at the last moment she found she had confused the time of one train with another, and the few minutes for the sending of the telegram were lost. On the station paper-boys were shouting the mid-afternoon results of a big meeting. She bought a paper: Ascot runners and form, Ascot results, the Gold Cup. That was enough. She laid the paper on the seat of the carriage, not opening it, until at some later station a man picked it up and took it away.

She arrived home about five o'clock. Across the park summer was brilliant and golden, and in four days moon-daisies in the hollows at the foot of the slope had thickened like a new fall of snow.

She went into the house by the servants' door, unlocking it with her key. Inside she smelled the overwarm but in some way comforting odour of dusty closed rooms. Standing at the foot of the stairs she called Albert's name:

‘Albert! Are you there? Albert!'

There was no answer; she walked two or three steps up the great stairs, one hand on the mahogany rail.

‘Albert! I'm back.'

There was again no answer. But suddenly she thought she heard a sound. It seemed like the sound of feet. She listened again. It seemed rather like the sound of feet without shoes running rapidly along one of the carpeted floors above her.

When the sound had ceased she stood for a moment longer listening, uncertain, slightly bewildered. She was tired after
the journey and perhaps, she thought, I'm hearing things. At last she turned and slowly went downstairs, taking off her gloves. The house now seemed quite silent, so silent that as she got herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and accidentally dropped a spoon in a cup the noise seemed to hammer her nerves.

All the time as she sat having her cup of tea and for long afterwards, as she went upstairs to open the windows and as she looked with a kind of tired horror at the sun-brown bloom of dust that in four days had settled everywhere, she kept recalling this imagined sound of shoeless feet. As she opened the windows she gazed with abstract eyes across the park, golden and white in the June evening sun. Once or twice the wind stirred with a muffled ripple of sound the drooping leaves of acacias or flapped a single flat leaf of the grape-vine against the wall of the house. Hearing it, she would catch for a second or two an echo of the other sound, telling herself that perhaps after all it was nothing but the sound of evening wind and that she was tired and was imagining things.

So after a time she forgot it and about eight o'clock Albert came home. Upstairs, already wiping the dust from sills and pictures, she heard his voice. As it called, almost shouted, ‘Hey, come on down! Come on down!' it struck her as strangely unlike the voice of the Albert she knew. It was the voice of someone strongly excited by anticipation.

She went hurriedly to the head of the stairs and stood looking down. Albert, below, almost in the position and place she herself had been standing an hour or two before, stood looking up, one hand clutching the stair-rail, eyes partially blinded by drink and excitement. His face seemed to flatten as he saw her. He straightened up and seemed suddenly, with the shock of seeing her, to be suspended slightly above the staircase.

It seemed a long time before he spoke, and during that time she noticed something else. Both hands were full of money; the green and brown notes were crumpled in his fingers, which at first had been rigidly clutched and were now loose with astonishment.

At last she knew that whatever he had had to say and whatever had driven him to shout excitedly up the stairs had nothing to do with her. She began to go slowly downstairs.

‘Got back all right then?' he said. She did not answer. She was aware only of having forgotten all the things she had wanted to say.

As she went farther downstairs he spoke again, trying this time to smile. ‘Everything all right, eh? Good journey, eh?'

Again she did not answer. He leaned heavily back against the stair-rail, shirt gaping from the top of his trousers, the money still in his hands, his fogged watery eyes heavily searching for her.

She looked away. ‘All right, be bloody proud, be bloody proud!' he said. ‘Go on!'

She walked on downstairs. He tried to move away as she passed, and fell over. His head struck the foot of the stairpost, and the shock of the blow seemed to wake him up.

‘Just because you've been to a bloody funeral you needn't come back looking like one!'

He got to his feet, shouting. Some of the money had fallen from his hands. He staggered wildly about, fell down again, and groped about on all fours, grabbing floppily at the notes, overbalancing, helpless, looking like a pale ape.

And suddenly, watching him hopelessly crawling about among the scattered money, she, too, felt hopeless; hopelessly and irrevocably sorry for him. The emotion drove her like anger through the passages into the kitchen at the back of the house. She felt determined not to give way to it. In the kitchen she stood grasping the edge of the table. She heard him stagger clumsily along passages, shouting with incoherent fury, breaking in at the door at last.

‘You want a first-class bloody row—all right, all right, you can have one. A bloody show-down. You come home from a funeral and look like one, don't you? All right, all right. But what about me? I won forty quid on the Gold Cup. Forty quid! Damn-all, ain't it? Nothing. Bloody flea-bite. Nothing! You don't care, do you? Do you? You wouldn't care if it was a bloody thousand.'

As she stood there with her hands still grasping the table she was aware no longer of feeling sorry. She was still not listening; but now it was not out of abstraction or anger or a desire simply to shut herself off from him. It was because of something she saw.

She stared at it across the kitchen as if she were staring simply into space. On the floor, in the far corner, stood a tray. On it were two cups, a pair of knives and forks, two plates, a teapot. On the plates the remains of bacon-fat lay congealed in a greasy pool. In the saucers lay cigarette-ends and the remains of unwanted bread.

3

The impression of that evening, the hallucination of the running shoeless feet upstairs, the look of flattened shock on Albert's face, the breakfast tray that might have been for two persons but might just as easily have been for one person for two mornings, remained with her all summer. The feet, the tray, the attitude of Albert were three pieces of a painful puzzle of which the fourth was still missing. On the hot wall of the house grapes formed in pale-green bunches; yuccas opened their ivory towers of bells; summer burned the short grass of the park until it was like a threadbare carpet, the colour of trampled straw.

But the passage of summer, marked by such things, once more had no effect on her. It never fully occurred to her that somewhere in that great shut-up house, in which the rooms were themselves like smaller houses and the passages like empty streets leading to them, another person might be living or coming and going at intervals without her knowing. Time was still dust, which gathered all too rapidly about her and must be as rapidly swept away.

But if there was no change in herself and her own fearful attitude to the way time always seemed to be hunting her down, there was a change in Albert. With part of the forty pounds he had bought himself a shotgun and now he went out shooting across the park in the mornings, bringing back an occasional rabbit or a pair of pigeons. Gun under his arm, black spaniel at his heels and spotted muffler knotted at his neck, he had the air of what she knew he loved and wanted to be: the good sport, the gentleman of leisure. But the change was not in this. It was in the fact that he was doing some sort of spare-time work in the evenings.

She was very glad about this. The fact that he was working
for someone else, a retired civil engineer named Hardy who lived on the other side of the village, doing maintenance and running repairs on a heavy Austin saloon and the house dynamo lighting system, did not matter. She did not even trouble to ask how he had come by such a job. Work itself was a great virtue.

So things, she felt, were all right now: almost all right. She almost forgot about the sound of feet in the house; she did not think of the girl carrying the crimson rhododendrons. She thought more and more of the boarding-house which she and Albert would one day take by the sea, she doing the cooking and superintending the house, Albert with his excellent genteel butler's manners smoothing down the guests. She knew that this, finally, was all that mattered.

Her hopes drove her to do one day something she had never even contemplated doing before. She took a day's holiday and went to the sea. For nearly ten years, once a week, she had deposited a little money in a post-office account. That day she wrote down on a torn envelope the amount to her credit, a hundred and ninety-three pounds, adding her savings certificates to it, bringing the total to three hundred and forty pounds, and as she went along in the train she made calculations.

She had always fancied a boarding-house on the seafront. Of course, it was aiming high, but that was how she had always fancied it: brass curtain-rods, brass door-plate, white walls, and in the hall a white umbrella stand. Three and a half guineas a week during the season, three guineas for winter and permanent guests; room for about twenty people; reasonable, respectable, pleasant, good. Everything would be shining and clean as an altar; the steps would be done with whiting every morning and the sun would shine with a pure sparkling sea-light on white walls and polished brasses.

All that day she wandered about looking at boarding-houses, going from house-agent to house-agent. The town was filled with boisterous visitors and as she looked at crowded streets and promenade, bobbing swimmers in the sun-white sea, rows of boarding-houses and hotels, she felt that she had reached a turning-point in her life. But few boarding-houses were waiting to change hands, and it was only in the late afternoon that
she found a small white-painted house, one street back from the sea, but high up, so that from the attic you could see the masts of coasters and fishing-smacks lying in the harbour beyond the roofs of the promenade hotels. She stood outside this house for a long time, looking at it, comparing the brass-plate, the white walls, the hang of the green chenille curtains with those of the house she had always imagined. Then finally she went in.

When she came out again she carried with her more figures written on the torn envelope. The boarding-house had for many years been run by two sisters; now one was dead and the other had begun to feel she could not carry on. After an hour's conversation with her, Ellen Ashton knew that now, if she wanted it, the boarding-house could be her own.

As she travelled home across flat marshes feathered with grey willows and fawn tufts of reed she felt very happy. But as she went into the house across the park she remembered how once before she had rushed into it, full of brave solutions. She was not making that mistake again. She knew now where Albert was. From the seaside town she had brought ox-tongue and cold sausage, a piece of fresh Cheddar cheese, and four ripe peaches. She spread a clean cloth on the kitchen table. She set out the supper things and every few moments came back to move some article or another into a different place. She hurried into the garden and gathered a lettuce, an onion or two, and a bunch of marigolds. She mixed a salad in a glass bowl and put the orange flowers in a bright blue china vase.

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