- BOOK II THE JANNAWAY PERIOD
- CHAPTER III
|chapter 4 >||chapter 11 >>|
"THAT odd-looking young man has been walking about near the pillar box, up and down, up and down, for nearly half-an-hour," said Mrs. Chope crisply, to Mrs. Peachey. She betrayed a sporting manner.
These two ladies were alone in the elegant drawing-room of an old house near the corner of West Street, Brighton. All the furniture which had been in the St. Paul's Churchyard drawing-room and which the little Angelina had reverenced, was here, and there were other things of the latest order: things that, vaguely, Mrs. Peachey called aesthetic. She and Mrs. Chope, inseparable friends and wistfully up-to-date in their ideas, had been affected by the aesthetic movement of the time; without knowing what it meant or why it was. They felt dimly that these new and, to them, rather distasteful theories, concerning furnishing and the way to dress yourself, were doomed to be the fashion. They had seen Patience at the Theatre Royal and they had heard Oscar Wilde lecture at the Pavilion. There was, therefore, more than a hint of sage green in the room, and Mrs. Chope was wearing a dress of the new colour, terra-cotta. It was trimmed with black watered silk, for there was an idea that this new colour wanted toning down with black. Hortense said so, and she was supreme. Terra-cotta, crushed strawberry and dim greens had taken the place of those more robust magentas, deep clarets and courageous violets which Mrs. Chope had once affected; for she was always in the fashion, and she had long emerged from the temporary eclipse of her bereavement. Not only that, but she had recovered from the social slur of this second marriage, and very rarely referred to "poor Chope," but boasted of her first husband, the wealthy and rashly speculative Mr. Mellison.
70altered vastly since the eighteen-eighties. It stood almost on the sea-front and on the east side of the street; it was, in fact, very near where Sweeting's shop afterwards stood. Angelina seemed fated to have a home adjacent to Sweetings, either visibly present or mystically to come! Moreover, there was for her, and had been from the first, a sweet home touch to West Street, for, at stated hours through the day, the bell of St. Paul's rung for service. Sometimes she would go up the tunnel-like passage leading from West Street and kneel at the back in emptiness and gloom through a week-day Evensong. On Sundays she went to St. Bartholomews, the hulking brick church in Ann Street. Mrs. Peachey strongly disapproved of that church, but she had learnt that it was idle to try and control Angelina. Blanche was her girl. So on Sundays, as a family, they parted company: Mrs. Peachey and Blanche went to Holy Trinity, Ship Street, declaring the sermons to be eloquent, Angelina went to Ann Street, and Mrs. Chope went to St. Nicholas. She persisted in speaking of the Vicar of St. Nicholas as the Vicar of Brighton; for this was the old parish church, and when Mrs. Peachey's house was built, in or about the year 1810, West Street was not a place for cheap eating-houses; not a crowded thoroughfare down which the river of trippers flows easily to the sea, but a dignified country road leading to the fields amidst which this parish church stood. Mrs. Chope, who had known Brighton at the time of her first marriage, when she and her husband would drive down in their own carriage and put up at the "Ship," deplored the decay of West Street, and she was so glad that they lived at the corner and practically on the sea-front.
Mrs. Chope was a giddy, elderly woman who did nothing but chatter and read Ouida's novels. She only looked forty-five, upon casual glancing, but a close inspection made a bigger total. She had an injudicious habit of reminiscence; odd in a person otherwise so sage. Once when talking of the Crimean War she had said that the winter of 1854 was very mild, "I might have worn muslins, really, and I remember the mugginess of the weather so well, because my dear husband, Mr. Mellison, was laid up with quinsy on the Ash Wednesday."
71to Blanche—to whom she now said most things—"Laura Chope will never see sixty again; yet she wears wonderfully."
Mrs. Peachey was barely forty, yet the two women were excellent companions. Mrs. Chope's spirit was about ten years younger than Mrs. Peachey's, whatever their respective parish registers might have betrayed.
There are many giddy elderly women with golden hair—Mrs. Chope's was perhaps a touch too yellow, and that, again, was where she failed in perfect prudence—but there could only be one Laura Chope; for she diffused an air not only of personal mystery, but of a really paradoxical vulgarity. When she was in a bad temper, or when she was in a good one and completely off guard she would talk, as Mrs. Peachey to her favourite daughter said, "like a regular fishwife." But Mrs. Peachey had heard or had read somewhere that the old Duchess of Newmarket had sworn like a trooper; so Mrs. Chope's occasional lapse into slang might, after all, be merely a mark of good breeding.
Mrs. Chope stood by the window vivaciously watching the young man by the pillar box. Mrs. Peachey was turning over a fashion paper.
"Blanche ought to wear blue," she said in a worried way, "I don't think that the present fashions are very suitable for dance dresses, but anything would be better than those horrid plain skirts. I do hope they will never come in. I shouldn't feel decent without a front drapery and a back."
"We used to wear plain skirts, you know."
Mrs. Chope spoke over her shoulder; she was obsessed by that young man across the road.
"So we did, but then we had crinolines."
Yes, I must say I like a crinoline—I think he's going away, and I don't wonder—they are much nicer than the dress improvers we have now. But I tell you what, Emily—now he's come back again—a steel run right round the bottom of the foundation of the skirt keeps it out beautifully from the feet and is excellent for dancing. We might speak about it to Madame Hortense when the girls go for their fitting."
72really settled on trimmings yet, and the Pavilion ball is on Monday week. I don't see how she is to get the things done, myself."
"Yes, she will. You trust Hortense," Mrs. Chope spoke abstractedly. "I should like to know who he's waiting for."
She was nearly sixty; at least, you would have supposed so from the events that she remembered, although she only looked forty-five. She retained the liveliest interest in dress and flamboyant fiction; she had a keen eye for any flirtation. As to what, in her Cheapside days she used to speak of as "my music," she no longer exercised this talent. Angelina and Blanche were grown up and had finished lessons. Mrs. Peachey assured her of a home, and she had ingeniously hit upon a way of keeping herself in pocket-money. The late Mr. Chope had died without leaving her a penny, but she had a great deal of nice furniture which had belonged to the Mellison family, and when she came with Mrs. Peachey to Brighton they had not been in the West Street house a week before she discovered a dear little cottage to be let in South Street, only round the corner. Its backyard, in fact, was divided by a wall from the fair-sized garden which belonged to Mrs. Peachey. Later on, Mrs. Chope had a door knocked through this wall.
It was a pretty cottage in a humble way; just a fisherman's cottage, one unaccountably left standing. It went back to the time when Brighton was a tiny hamlet. There was a neat door in the middle, with a small window on each side. This meant two parlours; a tiny wash-house was behind. There were shutters to the windows and a front garden with a wooden railing. Mrs. Chope rented the cottage at once, taking it on a long lease and at a low rent. She had the shutters and the railings painted what she buoyantly called a "good green." Grass was sown in the patch of garden. She had the inside papered and painted, not according to her own taste, which remained of the 1860's, and would have been expressed in brightly flowered papers with a satin stripe, but according to the new art canons of the day. When it was done she thought it looked dingy, and we have now learned that she was right, but she knew it would appeal to the genteel taste. She was sharp and she had mastered the secret of commercial
73success. She gave people what they wanted. Then she moved in her good furniture and she imported a few bits of eccentric needlework from the Art Shop in East Street, just to give a home touch. Also she made various domestic changes in the kitchen and elsewhere; these improvements she described generically as "conveniences." Genteel people would have conveniences, even if they went without everything else. So the fisherman's cottage, once primitive enough, was baited with many little artful dodges meant to entrap the genteel. Mrs. Chope made her appeal to this dry section of humanity only, and when she placed the house in the hands of a local agent she was very particular about the tenants that she meant to take. She resolutely refused all children and pet animals generally.
She managed to let the cottage nearly all the year round, for it made a strong appeal to the refined yet penurious instincts of spinsters and widows with a small income and with perhaps a valued family servant who would appreciate the "conveniences." The widow of a prominent haberdasher from Worthing occupied it now. She had been recommended to a bracing climate.
By her artistic green cottage, Mrs. Chope was not only able to dress herself, but to put by for her old age, since she might outlive Emily Peachey and she expected no mercy either from Blanche or Angelina. The girls did not like her. She remained to them the music mistress. Once Angelina had enraged her so that she had shouted suddenly, "You cheeky little hussy. For two pins I'd smack your face."
Mrs. Peachey had been irate and had also been horrified; for her superior friend stood suddenly betrayed as nothing better than a street virago. This was one of Mrs. Chope's lapses. She accounted for it later on—an explanation that was almost an apology—by saying that she had caught slang of the late Mr. Mellison, who had unfortunately associated so much with low people who bred horses.
But Mrs. Peachey did not forget, and Angelina henceforth treated her old music mistress, with a contemptuous, rather amused, tolerance. Angelina was very haughty and very hard to manage. It was not a well-assorted household, and it never had been. Mrs. Peachey said frequently to Mrs.
74Chope, "We shall never have any peace, my dear, until that girl is off our hands."
They all wanted Angelina to get married, and she wanted it herself; that is, she wanted anything that would deliver her from them.
Mrs. Chope now stood in the window of the West Street house watching the young man who loitered round the pillar box. He was so peculiar looking that lie might be a theatrical, she thought. The drama had a great fascination for her, and she went to the Theatre Royal whenever they were playing anything worth seeing. Usually, she went alone, since Mrs. Peachey did not approve of the theatre either for herself or her girls. She had gone to see Patience and taken them also, because she regarded it in the light of an educational influence.
It was a big window and you obtained a beautiful view. This was a November afternoon and the height of the season. Sunset laid a broad red finger across the face of the responsive sea. Along the King's Road passed a procession of carriages, and richly dressed women vibrated along the pavements, moving in a glitter of colour, sun tinging their gowns and faces. The young man was short and thick set. He had a large head and little legs. These legs peeped out from the chocolate-brown coat the wore—coats they then called a Newmarket.
"It's the most extraordinary thing," said Mrs. Chope, half turning to the sofa, upon which Mrs. Peachey sat rustling the pages of the fashion paper, "but he's so familiar; as if I'd seen him before somewhere. I wish you'd come and look."
"How silly you are!" Mrs. Peachey appeared out of temper, yet she arose from the sofa, for Mrs. Chope did as she chose with her. "What on earth do I care for any young man, and I don't see why you should!"
She stared through the window, looking across the way at the old inn where, so they said, Charles II had found refuge on his way to France, and away from that to the red pillar box. The young man in the Newmarket coat had taken out his watch. Mrs. Peachey's blue eyes, faded and muddled in colour, coldly virtuous in expression, took fire for a moment—and only a moment.
"Why, I know who he is," she said, returning to the sofa and her coloured fashion plates. "Fancy you not recognising him, Laura; you, with your sharp eye! It's young Mr. Jannaway; the Honourable Freddy Jannaway. There's a caricature of him in Treacher's window at the bottom of North Street; we looked at it only yesterday on the way to Hortense."
"Of course we did. That man! Why, he is so like that wretch, the out-of-work boot-finisher, who murdered the old gentleman on the way to the Devil's Dyke last June that he was twice arrested before they caught the real murderer and very properly hanged him. Anybody else would have taken an action against the police, but Freddy Jannaway was proud of it. He's a perfect fool—these rich young men so often are. It seems a pity, but I suppose Nature knows best, and if you have too much of one thing you generally go short in another. The world couldn't keep its balance else."
Mrs. Chope was a philosopher in her light feminine way. She continued to stare at the lingering young man.
"Fancy my not recognising him! And you did at once. I can't leave this window till I see what happens. They say he is secretly married to Gracie Gooch, the actress." She spoke with a smack, for she relished this.
"Then he can't be waiting for her. A man doesn't meet his wife at a pillar box. I wish you'd come and tell me what you think of this skirt. It's kilted right up to the waist and then there are little panniers. It would suit Angelina, because she's so tall."
"A man when he's married doesn't meet anybody at a pillar box, unless it is his wife. She sees to that. Yes, Angelina would look lovely in panniers."
"Anybody would think, to hear you two, that poor Angelina was a donkey," said a blithe, thin voice by the door, and Blanche came in.
This was the sort of little joke that Blanche could make. She was a short, plump girl, dressed in the height of fashion, but without distinction. The best efforts of Madame Hortense were wasted on Blanche. From the point of elegance her own shop girls looked more aristocratic. She had along jacket trimmed expensively with bands of brown bear—on collar,
76cuffs, down the fronts and round the bottom. Her closely kilted skirt, of the sort they called a fishwife, had alternate stripes of brown and amber, so that as she moved it gave a wasp-like effect. Her golden hair was cut short; this was a craze of the moment, and Blanche indulged all crazes. It curled up prettily here and there round a black velvet jockey cap. She had a rather impudent, pretty face, like a fresh, flat rose.
Mrs. Chope stared. She was fond of studying these two girls, Blanche and Angelina, from a love making and a novel-reading point of view. Just at present, she was in the middle of Ouida's Friendship. She always had what Mrs. Peachey disdainfully called a "trashy yellow-back" lying about on the drawing-room table. Blanche, she was thinking, would marry soon. Probably she would marry one of the young officers she would meet at the ball. They had managed to get invited to the ball of the 17th Lancers at the Pavilion. This regiment was stationed at the barracks in Lewes Road. She would get married and go to India; the Lancers were ordered there. That would be the very thing for her, with her pertness and her popular qualities. As to Angelina, you could not prophesy, for there did not seem any easy military or AngloIndian touches to her. Angelina was going to be a trouble, to herself and other people. There were, thought Mrs. Chope, two or three yellow-backs to the history of Angelina. You couldn't say what that girl would do or where she would end.
"A donkey, oh, my dear. I didn't mean that of your sister," said Mrs. Peachey—for she had not even Blanche's elementary idea of humour. "Come and look. Panniers are to be all the fashion, and they suit tall girls so well."
Blanche sat down on the sofa and turned over the leaves of the fashion book. Her mother was looking at her with all her heart. There were two fairly strong emotions in Mrs. Peachey's rather diluted composition: she had hated Grandmamma Peachey and she adored her elder daughter. As to her husband, she had been neutral, and the fact of her constantly nagging him proved nothing, for there is a type of quite well meaning and limited woman who nags her husband by instinct; until she loses him.
"They are rather nice," said Blanche of the panniers, "but I should look a balloon in them. Call Angelina down and see what she thinks."
Mrs. Chope, still in the window and with her back to the sofa, said suddenly:
"Well, he isn't married to Gracie Gooch, as the papers said. It is a scandalous paper, that thing in the red cover that you will buy Blanche; I wonder it isn't put a stop to."
"You always read it, anyhow," Blanche giggled and jumped up to join her.
"Where is Gracie Gooch, and who isn't she married to?"
Gracie Gooch had been the Lady Jane in Patience, and she was getting rather fat for that part. Yet she remained a beautiful woman, and as to-day, in the November sunset, she moved along the glittering pavements of the King's Road, everybody turned to look after her.
"There she is," Mrs. Chope pointed, "in the long sealskin coat with the band of old gold plush round her turban. Look at her mouth! It's like a piece of string laid crooked across her face. What a mouth! It spoils her. Can you see, Blanche, how she walks with her eyes downcast?"
"I see," the girl's flat, charming face was close at the window pane. "They say that every time she looks up some unfortunate man falls down dead."
"My dear," said Mrs. Peachey from the sofa, where, again, she sat deserted, "what dreadful things you do say."
"What man do you mean?" whispered Blanche to Mrs. Chope.
"The one by the pillar box. He's been hanging about for ever so long. It is the Honourable Freddy Jannaway, and they said he had secretly married Gracie Gooch, but she walked by him without looking up. He didn't turn his head, so they can't be. It is all moonshine."
"I know him well by sight; everybody does. He's in the shop window——"
"Yes, your mother remembered that."
"With that lean Russian girl that everybody says is so wicked, and with the man who sells sweets, who is the image of Disraeli, and the old bathing woman, and the musician who conducts the concerts at the Dome and all of them," gabbled
78Blanche. "He is for ever up and down East Street, and he's awfully taken with Angelina."
"Oh, is he," Mrs. Chope's shrewd eyes seemed to click. Now she had hold of something; a yellow-back was realised in life.
But Mrs. Peachey from the sofa said sternly:
Her face was hard—yet it was for Angelina.
"There she is coming downstairs, Mamma. You can ask her yourself. She can't deny it."
The door opened again and Angelina came in. Mrs. Chope thought:
"What a contrast between two girls! Would anybody ever take them for sisters? One might be the ladies' maid."
She grinned to herself at this, and she imagined them as old women. Blanche would grow muddled in colour and feature as her mother was. Angelina would be exactly like her Grandmamma Peachey, and it was a pity she was of such a pronounced nutcracker type. That fine nose and firm chin would nearly meet. But when you were quite an old woman what did it matter?
Angelina's hair, contrary to fashion, in supreme disregard of it, was plaited in thick tails and twisted round her head. Such a haughty head and held perhaps too high!
"You don't know that man, do you, Angelina?" asked her mother in a deadly way. "Over there by the pillar box. Have you been doing anything disgraceful? Go and look at him."
"That is just like you, Mamma; to imply too much," was the sweetly insolent answer, given with a smile. "I don't suppose——"
"Never mind what you suppose. Go to the window, I say."
Mrs. Peachey had a manner of treating her girls as children, although Angelina was eighteen and Blanche two years older. Behind her voice there still ran the ridiculous threat of "you shall be sent to bed if you oppose me."
79Three pairs of eyes were focussed. He had now put his watch away and was helplessly sucking the knob of his stick.
Angelina burst out laughing; young, sweet laughing, yet with both menace and sophistry in it.
"Yes," she said quite naturally, "he's waiting for me. Isn't it funny? I didn't dare go out this afternoon. No, to tell the truth, I had not meant to go out this afternoon, because of course I never intended to meet him, but afterwards I forgot about him and have been reading in my room."
She spoke as if to make an appointment at a pillar box with a strange young man was the most usual thing in the world for any carefully bred girl.
"Waiting for you!"
Mrs. Peachey's three words, indignantly isolate, seemed to thud from her mouth to the floor.
"Yes; it's the ugly Jannaway man——"
"We are well aware of that, thank you."
"Don't be so absurdly dignified, Mamma," the girl walked from the window, but her sister and Mrs. Chope still stood there; the young man had attained an even greater importance.
Angelina sat down. She smiled indiscriminately on the three of them; the smile that indulges but does not stoop to propitiate; the smile you fling to an inferior.
"He has bothered my life out lately; Blanche knows that; followed me about, you know. I suppose he thinks me good looking."
"You look hideous when you smile like that; yes, and wicked too," snapped her mother, and she was trembling. With every reason, she was alarmed and angered. Angelina provoked all that was bad in the poor woman; that finely contemptuous face aroused in her a proper sense of grievance, and she lived afresh those past years when she had suffered, and without deserving it, all the caprice of wicked old Grandmamma Peachey.
"So one afternoon in East Street," drawled the girl, still neither shifting her smile nor tempering it, "I let him come up and speak to me. It was what he had been wanting, and it delighted him. I was interested too. He wanted to buy me all sorts of things and at once; most generous. There was a little silver brooch like a bird; that and a filagree
80bracelet. I could have had both. It was a great temptation. I told him to be at the pillar box to-day at three and there he is. I had to do something to get rid of him."
She slightly turned her disdainful head towards the window, where Blanche and Mrs. Chope, listening eagerly, stood. Flaming sunset warmed her cold outlines, and dancing across her face tried to stir its perfect composure.
"It is past four now. What patience!" she said.
"Pull down the blinds, Laura," Mrs. Peachey spoke as she could speak now and then to a friend who was also a dependant. "It is nearly dark, thank goodness. Blanche, come away."
Angelina laughed again: laughter mingling with the rattle of Venetian blinds as Mrs. Chope obeyed.
"How you would like to add, Mamma, 'Angelina, bread and water for a week.' But you can't, anymore. I am eighteen."
"I can turn you out of doors if you don't behave yourself."
"Oh, but you won't. Don't be silly again," she was indulgent and a little weary. "Let me look at the fashions and decide what trimmings I'll have. That's nice."
She was on the sofa by her mother, and by good fortune, she indicated the skirt with the panniers. Blanche said, joining them:
"That's the very one she thought of for you, wasn't it, Mummy?"
Mrs. Chope, reflective and also irate, for the lash of Angelina's arrogance frequently cut into her back also, was watching the three.
Presently she also came to the sofa, and they buried alive the memory of the young man at the pillar box with airy dance frock fabrics.
Yet Angelina, throughout, maintained her air of elegant scorn: that manner of indulging them all, and yet in her true self being far enough and for ever away. This arrogance might perhaps be delightful to any young man, but it was insufferable to a woman. Mrs. Chope kept biting her lip and tossing her head; Mrs. Peachey's bad-tempered, narrow face contracted.
81they separated to dress for dinner. They lived a very elegant life. Mrs. Peachey had the social ambition, and Mrs. Chope had the necessary knowledge; so that they managed excellently and had a regular circle of what Mrs. Peachey called "good people" as friends. She wished to marry her girls well: but, well or ill, certainly Angelina should marry before she was out of her teens.
Mrs. Peachey to her intimates, nowadays, spoke of living on her "jointure," and she also referred impressively to her late husband's "chemical and experimental pursuits in science." The memory of the shop in St. Paul's Churchyard she, with Blanche, was trying hard to forget, but Angelina loyally loved it, and she preserved in perfect parity her sense of its atmosphere. A sense of the particular atmosphere, which represented a space of time, was very strong with her, and, just as she remembered that old bow-windowed shop and stately house in St. Paul's Churchyard—with all the feeling for the Misses Hopkins Academy and the sound of the Cathedral bell and the afternoon shoppers streaming down Cheapside—so she knew now that, in later life, she would conserve and idealise the memory of these Brighton days that made her present.
There were the sunny mornings in summer-time, although, summer or winter, Brighton airs seemed always sharp and blue. Windows would be wide open, Blanche practising gaily on the grand piano in the drawing-room on the first floor, Mrs. Chope clattering up and down stairs in her high-heeled shoes. Out of doors, there was that feeling of jollity and holiday-making; down on the beach they were tootling The Sailor's Wife the Sailor's Star shall be before they launched the pleasure yacht, the Skylark, which took the trippers out. It was all, to Angelina, a little emotionally naked and, best, she loved the autumn afternoons; as this one had been: when the King's Road was splendid with a sense of furs, of high-stepping carriage-horses and dowagers; when East Street, with its pretty shops, wore a wicked, warm glitter. Afternoons as these made you feel reckless, lawless and a queen.
82adored herself, not as Angelina Peachey, but as some abstract work of art. She wore a black velvet hat, and round the brim of it curved a sumptuous peacock-coloured feather: the exquisite breast of some tropical bird. Mrs. Chope had produced this and presented it. She had a store of beautiful things which, so she said, had belonged to her mother-in-law, old Mrs. Mellison, who had been a General's wife and a famous Anglo-Indian beauty.
As the girls went down East Street these November afternoons in the gathering dusk, idle young men would peer into their charming faces. Freddy Jannaway was not the only one, although he had proved the most daring. They were excellent foils to each other: Blanche with her flaxen curls and bright pink cheeks; with her impudent little air—yet modulated—of the barmaid; Angelina with her cold dignity—of the distant star. Blanche won more easy admiration; for, already, thoughtless men stood in awe of Angelina.
These two pretty sisters became very well known to the loafing young men of the time, who meant no particular harm to any one, yet wanted to enjoy themselves—in their own way. Brighton was nothing but a very large village in those days, that is, its total of houses was more than a village, but human feeling was exactly the same. There was the same friendly gossip and innocent scandal that combines to make the charm and the social danger of villages. The Peachey sisters, shopping in East Street of an afternoon, divided honours with other pretty girls behind those white curtains in the milliners' shops, girls of a lower social rank. The young men caught tantalising glimpses of little milliners when the white curtains fluttered and they took a bonnet off the stand for a customer's inspection. After shop hours, they could, if they chose, make closer acquaintance with these girls; for most of them were perfectly willing to be taken on the New Pier or to the Aquarium, particularly on a Saturday evening. Angelina and Blanche, of course, were different: this was a constellation in another firmament; yet the Honourable Freddy Jannaway had essayed to scale the highest heavens.
83She would remember, perhaps most, her solitary attendances at the church in Ann Street; for the service reminded her of Kitty and of her own saint, St. Mary of Egypt. She still loved the Saints, but, just now, she was too busy to attend to them. Later on, it might be different. The letter which, years ago, she had written to St. Mary of Egypt was locked away in the childish box covered with bright sea-shells which Kitty had given her. Sometimes she looked at it and strangely smiled.
The service at that church thrilled her, and when they sang the Sursum Corda she wanted to shout. There was a particular hymn which they sang as a Processional on Easter Day, beginning, "Come sons and daughters, let us sing." Her feeling, as it had been then, she knew that she would never forget; for it expressed a permanent mood—the mood of her spirit. Still she was in no sense mawkishly religious, nor ever likely to be.
When the Peachey household, on that afternoon when the Honourable Freddy Jannaway waited so fruitlessly by the pillar box, separated to dress for dinner, Blanche gravitated naturally to Angelina's room, and Mrs. Peachey went to Mrs. Chope. They each wanted a little chat—some tête-à-tête with a contemporary.
Mrs. Peachey said, sitting down at once with what Mrs. Chope called a "flump":
"We must get Angelina off our hands. She is becoming more than I can stand."
"Yes. She is a bit of a handful," agreed the bosom friend, and she seemed disinclined for anything in the nature of a lengthy talk.
She remained standing. The truth was that she objected to take her hair down—or more exactly, take it off—before Mrs. Peachey. When you get to a certain age, there are delicate reserves and gentle hypocrisies even between the best of friends. The knowledge of this and perhaps a certain felinity made Mrs. Peachey say now, and, staring as she spoke, at her friend's corn-tinted tresses:
"Don't let me hinder you, my dear; go on with your dressing. I can talk just the same."
84yourself yet and so you won't stay long. Yes, you certainly ought to marry Angelina, if you can. You ought to get her off your hands."
They both spoke as if Mrs. Peachey's palms were tarred and Angelina stood for feathers.
"Once a girl is married, there's an end of her," said Mrs. Peachey—but Mrs. Chope only laughed.
This laugh grated on the mother and so did her friend's next words.
"An end! Very often it is only the beginning; it all depends on the girl."
"I'm speaking of good girls, respectable girls—girls properly brought up."
"My dear, it doesn't make any difference; it is in the blood. The fact of their being well brought up, well educated and that sort of thing only makes them more dangerous. You ought to know that, if anybody in this world does."
"I don't see why," returned Mrs. Peachey stubbornly.
She knew that Laura Chope was referring to Grandmamma Peachey and implying that Angelina inherited a dangerous coquetry, but she was not going to admit this. She execrated the memory of her husband's mother, but she proposed to remain loyal to his family.
"If Angelina was married to some good man," she said, "she would settle down."
"She might, for very often those sort of girls make the best wives. Yet she ought to sow her wild oats first. I don't see"—Mrs. Chope's laugh was a touch strident—"why young men should do all the farming and, as a matter of fact, they don't. Look at her with that Jannaway fool this afternoon."
"Don't mention it. She ought to be whipped," said poor Mrs. Peachey, whose utter and vinegarish virtue was her dominant trait.
"She's past whipping, past any control at all. You've got to realise that. I wouldn't worry, if I was you, for, as likely as not, she'll pick up some one at the Pavilion Ball—and I never could do my front hair with any one looking on, so I think you'd better go away."
85was assailed by an uncomfortable sense of easy virtue. Sometimes she felt that her friend's ethics of propriety fell far short of her own: in brief, she might be living with an improper person. She shut herself into her own bedroom and got into an evening dress, cut square at the neck. She betrayed an air of gloomy resolve.
She would get Angelina off her hands.
She was quite used to dressing for dinner. She had adapted herself; yet always under the tutelage of her friend Mrs. Chope. She even said frequently to her girls, and discreetly under her breath, "We should never have lived over the shop remember, but for your dear Papa's health, and be sure you never mention it to any one"; Angelina's smile when her mother said this was always diabolical, and poor Mrs. Peachey would flush, in her spotty way; she invariably conveyed a sense of the suppressed rash.
As to her own birth, she presumed to give herself airs upon this, and Angelina was forced to endure them because she was ignorant of the true facts. In plain truth, Mrs. Peachey's father had been a tenant farmer near Hatfield. He was dead years ago, so his daughter felt perfectly safe in saying that his "estate" joined the Marquis of Salisbury's.
Blanche, in Angelina's room, was sitting airily upon the bed, swinging her foot in its pointed shoe.
"What a lark!" she said. "And you never told me about it, Angy."
"Come now! About Freddy Jannaway."
"Oh!" Angelina wore her white dressing jacket, and she now took the last hairpins out of her head. Black hair fell in two tails, heavily savage, far below her waist.
"Oh!" she said again; and said it with a dangerous concentration.
Then she wheeled round from the looking-glass and surveyed Blanche's wide pink grin.
She was thinking scornfully:
"It is like a clock face. It is like a silly full moon!"
86was both cruel and distant. Blanche felt like a servant who had taken a liberty.
"You needn't look as if you meant to hit me with that hair-brush. You did let him come up and speak to you. You can't deny it. And it wasn't proper, it wasn't dignified, it was just like a shop-girl. I don't believe Mamma will ever make a lady of you."
"Dignified! What do you know about that? As to being a shop-girl, we do come out of a shop, for all Mamma's airs. And I'm proud of the shop. Can't you see that, in itself, it's a sort of ancestry?"
"Of course I can't. What nonsense! Tradespeople are not received anywhere. You are common, Angelina." Blanche spoke with a funny reflection of her mother's manner. "But never mind that. What are you going to do about him?"
"Good gracious! It was nothing; that is, it was just a little impulse." Angelina spoke with disgust and weariness. "I wish you'd go away and dress yourself, Blanche."
"So I will in a minute. What an odd girl you are! A little impulse! Why, it is dreadful to give way to impulse, for it lands you in all sorts of places. What will you do when you meet him again? We are sure to see him next time we go down East Street."
"I shan't take any notice of him, and if he takes any notice of me I shall threaten to send for a policeman. It sounds coarse, but it is the only way of dealing with these people," said Angelina, with comic royalty.
"But it isn't fair. You encouraged him and then——"
"You speak as if I had a duty to him. How absurd! And I do wish you would talk of something else. He isn't worth so much fuss; the man is an idiot. I tell you it was an impulse. It was rather"—her hard, lovely face became faintly roguish: just the most subtle dawn of a smile—"piquant; sort of tickling to my spirit, if you know what I mean."
"Of course I don't; speaking of your spirit as if it were the sole of your foot."
"Of course you wouldn't. Why do I trouble to talk to you?"
Angelina swung urbanely round to the big glass and started unplaiting her thick, black tails.
When Angelina looked like that, it meant that she was in the sulks and would not speak again. Blanche knew.
She bounced off the bed and went to the door. As she held the handle in her hand, she turned her head on her shoulder and, looking towards that impassive white figure standing before the glass, said:
"You couldn't take jewellery, of course, but you might have let him give you some almonds. There is no harm in a box of sweets."
Blanche measured Vice and Virtue by the money they cost. There was a shop in East Street where they made a speciality of these toothsome burnt almonds. Angelina might have had a big box for the asking. They could have shared them.
Angelina gave a grating laugh, but she did not trouble to speak, and surveying her own face in the glass its fierceness rather surprised her. Sometimes a queer enough girl, some one she did not know, looked out of her own pale eyes and mocked her.
The next morning at ten they had an appointment for a fitting with Hortense. She was an Englishwoman, who made no pretence to be French, except that she had converted her surname of Horton into Hortense and called herself a modiste. Mrs. Chope had introduced Mrs. Peachey to the shop, which was a dowdy-seeming one in Pool Valley, very near Brill's Baths. Mrs. Peachey's own instincts would have led her to a more popular shop and one making more show, but Mrs. Chope, who led her by the nose in all things, declared that these dowdy shops represented the acme of exclusiveness; and in this case she was right. Hortense, in her way, was certainly an artist, and she had made race gowns for Mrs. Chope when she was Mrs. Mellison.
"But we won't mention that," said Mrs. Chope to Mrs. Peachey, with an utter lack of embarrassment on the occasion of their first visit to Hortense, "for I went off owing her a long bill. Mr. Mellison was so very down on his luck that year, poor dear man. It was the year that Bucktoe won the Derby, and he was quite the wrong horse for us. She is old and half blind. She'll never recognise me."
Mrs. Peachey was shocked; domestic probity and commercial rectitude were the two gods she knew. But she said nothing, for she never argued with Laura, and she was always impressed by Laura, even in her lapses.
They went down North Street, the four of them, in the early sunlight: Mrs. Chope with her massive figure and ridiculously high-heeled shoes which made her walk in a totter, Mrs. Peachey with her genteel air of mincing ill-temper, the two girls a little behind. They stopped at Hannington's, because Mrs. Peachey wanted to look at the new mantles; she was allowed to go to Hannington for outdoor things.
In Pool Valley, Hortense herself welcomed them, and this in itself was an honour; for she was a very old woman, with an exclusive clientèle, and only received the best customers. Hers was an exclusive and yet comprehensive connection, since she made for Mrs. Fitton, Lady Langdon and the Honourable Amy Tobitt, who were undoubted aristocrats and very solid, and (in spite of her best efforts) fustily dowdy; also she made for actresses, such as Gracie Gooch and Florence Douglas; and made too, for the notorious Russian, Olga Petrovitch, who was neither aristocrat nor actress and who yet, at this time in the early' eighties, was a very noticeable figure in Brighton life. Just why she was noticeable people hardly knew, and if they suspected they forbore to say.
Mrs. Peachey and her girls were excellent customers. Hortense, a bent old woman, with a hooked nose and a small, dramatic eye, herself superintended the fitting to-day. She had been established in Pool Valley more than fifty years, and she was a repository of feminine chronicles for all that time. Blanche considered her a horrid old woman, but Angelina was fascinated. Hortense, for her part, was the slave of Angelina, since she could tell a positive beauty from a merely pretty girl. She was rich with experience: a wise old woman and not over scrupulous.
Blanche grimaced and pouted before the long glass; Angelina maintained her stately aloofness; yet within she was jubilant, for she knew that on the night of the ball she would look beautiful, and it was her first ball.
89In truth, Mrs. Peachey was always uneasy when they came to Hortense. She was afraid of meeting Olga Petrovitch in the showroom. That would be bad for Angelina. Mrs. Chope was fertile with suggestions, and they were always good. Between Mrs. Chope and Hortense there prevailed a funny manner, as if each woman stood upon her guard. Hortense said mockingly, and adopting a suggestion, "All Your life you must have had the advantage of a good maid, madame: some one with natural taste."
When it was over and the four had been curtseyed and smiled into Pool Valley again; when the shop door was shut and Hortense, leaving business to inferiors, was settled in her own sitting-room, she burst out laughing. It was wheezy merriment, since she was near eighty and decidedly bronchial. Her widowed daughter-in-law, a practical, dull woman who lived with her and managed the business, looked up from the strip of ribbon paper on which she was making calculations for ribbon to ruche round Angelina's panniers. "What's up, mother?" she asked laconically.
They dropped all technical jargon, and discarded that elegance of manner designed to impress customers when they were alone.
"My dear, you haven't any eye or any memory. Don't you remember that woman? I spotted her at once."
Hortense left off coughing and sat upright. She looked vigilant and only middle-aged: not a bent old crone any more.
"What woman? Mrs. Peachey?"
"No, you dunderhead; Mrs. Chope, as she calls herself. Now come Florrie, you are over fifty and you must remember Mrs. Mellison."
"Mellison, Mellison," the daughter-in-law put down her strip of ribbon paper and stared, biting her stump of lead pencil until she broke the point. "Oh yes, a disagreeable old cat, awfully rich, and she lived in Royal Crescent. How I remember that house! I was very young and——"
"You were my apprentice, and it was before you had the luck to marry my son Archie," said the old woman candidly;
90was half mad, and the lady's maid twisted her round her fingers, just as she is twisting Mrs. Peachey now."
"You don't mean that——Good gracious!"
"Yes, that is what I do mean. I knew her at once and she knows that I know her," the old woman chuckled again. "She is very uncomfortable if her eye meets mine, but she needn't trouble. I am too old to rake up scandal, and I don't want to lose a good customer; not only that, but if I did, she would be clever enough to wriggle out of anything that I might say by telling a thumping good lie. She is very clever. I always respected her. She was clever up to a point and then she failed, as the clever ones do. It seems a pity, but I suppose God wants to give the fools a chance." She employed the name of God with easy profanity.
Hortense was unscrupulous and pithy; just as Mrs. Chope was. There was a certain likeness between the two.
"If she'd played her hand out the old woman would have left her half her fortune, perhaps the lot, for she hated her son. But, just as any fool might do, she ran off with him and——"
"I seem to remember that she did marry him. For fullness you want as much again and half over; the ribbon for those panniers will run into a pretty penny. It's expensive ribbon."
The daughter-in-law cared more for the taste of her trade than for the delicate flavour of old scandals.
"Marry him," Hortense laughed: it was only a bronchial rattle of the throat. "She went off with him, and six months later on I made the trousseau for his bride, who was a Jarvis; one of the banking-house, and the plainest girl I ever pinned a bodice lining to. Such shoulder blades! You could have used them for scissors! It's a funny world! I remember hearing that when his mother died he let his mistress have the furniture and the old woman's wardrobe. I wonder who Chope was and if she married him. I respect that woman; for she carries it off with such a high hand. She's got spirit if you like. And she's lived her life, every minute of it, I'll swear."
Hortense glared upon her daughter-in-law, who was spiritless, and who—unforgivable fault—was a daughter-in-law.
91Florence. I used to do all that in my head in my day and I believe I could now. Ring for the broth, I say."
As she swallowed the hot broth, warmth, the reflection of youth and the candid joy in scandal, returned to her:
"What a lovely girl that dark Peachey one is," she said.
"Oh mother, do you think so?"—the daughter-in-law's voice expressed mild surprise—"the fair one is ever so much prettier, but then I always did admire a blonde."
"The fair one! Stick a pin into her next time you fit a lining and you'll see sawdust on your finger. That dark girl, Angelina—don't they call her?—she's made of flesh and blood and fire. I shan't live to see her end, but I should like to."
"Yes, you will. She'll get married before long and we shall have the trousseau. They are good customers. We shall have a trousseau for them both I dare say."
"The end; that's only the beginning, you idiot. It does seem waste to marry that girl and finish her off. But she won't be finished; she isn't the stuff. Now and again the Almighty makes a joke. He creates a magnificent woman. They've passed through my hands, lots of 'em, goodness knows—and they'll live their life, whether they want to or not. Poor things! Very often they don't want to, but it's got to be. Take the cup away and I'll have a doze. And look here, Florence, the next time I speak of a man's mistress, don't you trouble to pull your mouth down, for it's a trick I dislike."
The little eye, still so bright with theatrical fires, glared for a moment upon the daughter-in-law's dull features, and then the crinkled lid drew over.
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