- BOOK III THE CHINA SHOP
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WHEN the letter was done an extra flatness overpowered Angelina. She never, normally, had an excess of speech, and St. Mary of Egypt from afar, from that land, pensive yet flashing, where Saints dwelt for ever, had in one mood vitalised and silenced her. It was an effort to reply even at random to the politely suspicious remarks of the landlady when she laid the cloth for dinner. This landlady was beginning to wonder why Julius did not return, and why no letters came for or from him. His absence and his silence had exceeded the terms of a young married tiff. But for the fact that her weekly bill was paid punctually she might, already, have looked askance at Angelina. But it did not suit her to be rigorous. Here was a winter lodger. There were things she could not understand. Why, for instance, had Mrs. Pole, who was a lady born and bred (this any one could see with half an eye), allowed that woman Mrs. Chope to kiss her and call her Angy. The trained nurse and the landlady had talked this over more than once.
When Angelina went to bed the south-west gale had spent itself, and rain was splashing outside. It was a wild rain; she put her head out of the window and snuffed up the salt of the sea.
Next day was fair and warm, so roguishly blue that it might have been June, and not November.
She went after breakfast to the beach. This she did every day, and the various moods of the Channel were her only companions. They made society. She was dulled and calm; wordless, without much imagination, without any humour. She was at peace, and felt that this sort of thing could comfortably go on for ever. She asked no change, nor sought any larger ripple than those out at sea. She went and sat upon the shingle in the sun, drinking deep the salty draughts of perfect consolation which each wave dribbled out. It was a very baby sea this morning: beloved consoling sea, and more to her than any man had been! It was so smooth that it | | 278 had a look of silvered oil upon the surface. A few miles inland, over the fertile flats, hills were filmy. Tamarisk trees fringing the golden beach were just little green wraiths.
It approached you, this perfect beauty of land and sea; it lifted you, cradled and soothed you. She was irate with a man who came galloping along the stretch of sand upon a bright brown horse. He gave too definite a touch of colour. He spoke of activities; he was riotously masculine in his appearance. When he flashed out of sight, leaving the scene demurely feminine once more, Angelina leaned her shoulder at the white breakwater and was nearly asleep. The sound of surf, as the tide receded, the sound of larks as they sprang in the green fields, made lullaby.
If the tide had been coining in instead of going out, if it had lifted her up, she would hardly have resisted. She was exhausted by the eloquence of the day before; and, if she had a tangible feeling left, it was shame of that letter lying in Kitty's gay shell-box. She was in that sedative mood which overtakes lonely women who have been loved. They grow withered of heart in this mood.
Feet on the shingle aroused her as once they had before, and, looking up, there, again, was Cicely, and this time in deep mourning.
"Good luck!" she said glibly. "I've found you. I told Bob I should."
Angelina stood up. She was blinking.
"Where is Robert?" she asked shamefacedly. "I don't want to see him."
"He isn't keen on seeing you," was Cicely's dry answer. "I left him at Horsham. I bet him half-a-crown you were still here, and he bet five bob you weren't. He swore you'd gone off again with Julius. He said he knew you well enough for that."
She sat on the top of the breakwater in the sun, swinging her foot nervously.
"Sit down, and pull yourself together, Angelina. I've got something to say."
Angelina sat down. She moved like a big child; moved in a stately, stupid way.
"You look a regular owl," said Cicely. "Buck up."| | 279
Angelina said, staring at her black dress:
"Is Julius dead? Have you come to tell me that?" Her pale eyes still looked sleepy.
"Julius! Didn't I say Bob thought you were off with him? Haven't heard of him. Wouldn't wear black for him. Didn't he come back? Then he did chuck you?"
"Chuck! Oh, I don't know," Angelina was vague.
Cicely shook her arm. "Look here, don't be mooney any more. What's up? Julius is a bad lot. There isn't any doubt of it. Where did all his money go else, for gambling isn't the only thing a man can do. Forget him. You've lost your good name through him."
"Then he isn't dead. Who is?"
"His mother. I'm jolly glad. I believe Bob is, only he's too decent to say so. She never got over the shock of you going off with Julius. He was her son, so she felt to blame. She didn't care for him, and she hated you; what she couldn't swallow was being in the wrong. Her son was a rotter. When the house in Normandy got burnt down——"
"Burnt down! Our house?"
"Antony's house," said Cicely markedly. "I came to tell you that, and something else; you'll jump and wriggle."
There was a look of rough compassion on her hard face.
"My hook's got to go through your gills," she continued, staring out to sea, "yet I'll land you in the right basket, old girl."
"Is our house burned with all the china?"
"Antony has lost his house and china. Some was saved, but precious little. The caretaker had an epileptic daughter, and left her alone. I suppose the fool set light to it out of mischief. They are only monkeys and mad monkeys, these people with fits. My mother-in-law recommended that caretaker to you; there was the rub. She had botched again, once with Julius, once with the epileptic. And she had always been in the right. She'd been a model. People came to her for advice and they took it. She went to bed the day the house was burned. She died a fortnight afterwards. There's an urn on the family vault, and it ought to be made of blue china."
Cicely laughed. She was sorry for Angelina, and more | | 280 sorry for Antony; yet she was glad to be rid of her very weighty mother-in-law. Antony's fire had helped.
"What did Antony do?" asked Angelina.
She still looked dull, yet, slowly, the memory of that house in Normandy was waking her up. She began, once more, to suffer. She recalled the graceful dignity of it, and recalled her seven years there. Perhaps she was, for the first time, half regretting that Julius Pole had come. Would it have been better to have missed that love, so magic and so brief? Would it have been better to be, in reality, Mrs. Antony ffinch? She felt as she had felt before:
"I make a fool of myself; I have that fatal faculty."
Cicely was looking at her.
She said impressively: "I'm not done yet. Listen, Angelina. Don't stare so, and don't let your face go to bits. There'll be plenty of real blubbering later on. Antony's had a stroke. He's paralysed. The doctors don't give any hope of a recovery."
"Antony is paralysed!"
"Yes, your husband. Go and nurse Antony; that's your job. Stick to it. Be a respectable married woman again, and think yourself jolly lucky to get the chance. Some don't."
"Who has been nursing him?"
Angelina sounded suspicious.
"Trained nurses, so far. But he hasn't got much money, poor chap. He hadn't even insured the china. What a fool! Did you know? There was nothing much in that Rajah business, no pickings. I've been staying in London. We thought once that he was dying, and I wanted to wire to you, but Bob wouldn't."
"You've been with Antony? You had the control and the decision? It was in your power to send for me or to keep me away? How dared you, Cicely?"
Angelina flashed up, then flickered down. She hung her proud head, she looked woebegone, cringing almost. Then she added, in melancholy tones:
"I haven't any right to go to him. He won't see me Yet I would do anything in this world but one thing. I can't forget Julius."| | 281
"Remember Julius as much as you like, although he isn't worth it. But keep him off your tongue and out of your eyes. You won't be the only wife, by a long chalk, who plays that game," said Cicely, with some intuition.
"He won't see me, and I haven't any right. You don't understand. Didn't Antony tell you anything?"
"About Julius? All the world knew that; our world. But if Antony chooses to take you back that's nobody's business but his own."
"He won't see me," repeated Angelina, desolately.
"He says he won't," confirmed Cicely. "He must say that, for even if he's paralysed, poor beggar, he must keep up a pose of being proud. That's a man all over. He said the sight of you would kill him."
"So it would. I know Antony."
"Fudge! If you'd known him you'd never have chucked him. I can't understand women who want two men," Cicely was coarsely sympathetic; tears glittered in her flat eyes.
"He's violent about you, so he loves you still, Angelina. I've been sitting with him every day and——"
"It wasn't your place to sit with him."
"Then come and sit with him yourself."
"But if I go, and if I kill him?"
Angelina stood up; she was swaying in the sun.
"I won't rile you by saying you're going to faint, for that's almost as bad as being an epileptic," said Cicely grimly. "Come and pack your bag. I've got a motor waiting. I hired it at the station. You can be in London early this afternoon if we catch the express. Suppose you do kill Antony, poor devil, it may be a jolly good job for him. I don't see what he's got to live for. He's a log. He always will be." She impatiently wiped her eyes.
"When two women get together, they're bound to make fools of themselves," she grunted, and glanced at Angelina's dry face.
"She'll cry buckets by and by, if she hasn't already," thought Cicely. "And serve her right. She deserves it."
They walked up the beach together and into the lane. Angelina was thinking of the composed and fragrant house in Normandy. She was thinking of big Antony stretched | | 282 helpless upon some strange bed. She could see him, looking heavy, looking sulky.
Cicely, noting that fine mouth of many compressed agonies, was thinking that it paid a woman to keep straight. The price for playing pranks was two high: putting chastity only at that!
She did not envy Angelina. If Antony died she would never forgive herself, and if he lived, he would lead her a dog's life. Cicely was sorry for Antony ffinch, yet she saw through him. There was a touch of the bully there. He would make a pretty little hell for Angelina.
She had been a confounded fool and Julius was a scamp.
She was sorry for Angelina and disgusted with her. Once things were arranged; when she had returned to Antony and had been forgiven, Cicely did not wish to see either of them. She sincerely wished that they would not settle near Horsham, for, socially, that would be most uncomfortable.
It was no good blinking at an unsavoury fact. Angelina had gone off the lines. Once a woman did that you could never feel the same again. You would not feel sure of her. And how about your own husband?
They reached the yellow lodging-house at the end of the lane. Cicely's hired motor was throbbing at the open gate.
"Just pitch a few things into a bag," she said heartily, "and we'll be off."
Half an hour later they were in the express for Victoria.
Cicely took Angelina to the Nursing Home where Antony lay helpless. She and Robert had been generous; for the present they were paying all charges. But Cicely said nothing of this.
She left Angelina at the door, and at the last she gripped her hand.
"Don't you play the giddy goat," she said. "It doesn't do to be a bad woman. Nobody can afford it. Julius ought to hang himself."
She went off down the sunny street; this was a sweet day even in London. She was glad to have done what she could to reclaim Angelina, but she was also glad to get away; her blunt words merely expressed her conviction. Angelina was bad. She met Bob at Piccadilly Circus in time for a cup of tea—at a bright place with a band. They took the next | | 283 train to Horsham. Bob kept patting her knee in the taxi as they glided to Victoria.
"You are an old dear," he said fervently, and said it more than once.
This, nowadays, was his way of wooing. He had forgotten his finer mood: when he was impassioned by Angelina. He was ashamed of having been in love with her, for she was queer. Lady Johns had adopted her, yet nobody knew who her grandfather was. Her father had been a man of science. He was satisfied with Cicely. He said to her when they were in the train:
"Did you tell Angelina that Percy Lascelles had diddled Antony out of what money he had left?"
"No. I forgot. Antony will tell her."
Cicely sounded sleepy; she had travelled a great deal to-day. They had a compartment to themselves. She put her head on Bob's shoulder: not sentimentally at all, but because it was comfortable.
"What the deuce will they do?" he speculated. "They won't have a penny."
"Antony may still have a little, and Angelina's got £70 a year.
"Suppose it's £150 at the best. A couple can't live on that."
"Antonv may die," returned Cicely. "That would be the best thing. Then Angelina could marry Julius. It would all be respectable, and they could live down the past."
"Umph!" said his brother, staring at the Surrey Hills.
"We don't stop at Dorking, Cissy, so you needn't move."
There was silence for some time; she was half asleep. Then Pole said:
"What a blessed muddle some people do make of things. I wonder why. If Antony gets better, shall we ask them down?"
"Good gracious, no! Think how people would talk. They might cut Angelina. You've done all you can, Bob. They must look after themselves. You've made yourself responsible at the Nursing Home for six weeks. That gives them time to turn round."| | 284
She tucked her head more snugly into his shoulder, and her strident voice became dim as she continued:
"You can't help them with money after that. Antony would take it; he wouldn't care a cent so long as he got it. He'd forget to ask where it came from. But Angelina is proud."
"Dash it! She wasn't too proud to go off with Ju——"
"Duffer!" she put up her paw and patted his mouth, "that is nothing to do with her pocket. And shut up, I want a snooze."
She dropped off, she even snored a little. Pole put his arm tight round her. He sat thinking what a decent thing a happy marriage was. In their case everything was propitious. Cicely was a trump and she had a little tin.
The lofty room where Antony lay was vague with filtered sunlight. This, with the hum of the street outside, made Angelina dizzy as she stood within the open door. The nurse had shut it, and she announced mechanically as she went away:
"Mrs. ffinch, sir."
Cicely had stipulated for this, she had declared it better that Antony should not be prepared. Perhaps in her heart of hearts she half hoped that the shock would kill Antony, and so be done with it. For he was certainly in the way.
Yet these are thoughts which women of the ostrich breed do not put into words. They merely feel them and they piously pray against them on Sunday mornings.
Antony was lying flat and he was set high in the bed. He did not move. Angelina realised with horror that perhaps he could not.
She felt as if she had always known that this would be; this was the secret of the shadow which overhung the house in Normandy, and the secret of that petulant " people get on my nerves" of his. He had been doomed, the horror of this was astir in him. Antony had never been as other men were. His churlishness, those queer, mad glances of his, those weakly, violent moods; beyond everything, his limpness and his failure to make a career—all were allowed for and accounted for by this awful fact—he was paralysed. He came of an | | 285 effete stock. Angelina knew now by intuition all that Lady Johns had known for years as fact. Her intense terror for him, her superb compassion and her keen remorse, made up a feeling which, so she believed, was the strongest that she had ever known, or could know. Other facts and other people were wiped out. Her own stock of psychological ideas for the last few weeks, how cheap they were beside this grim reality! That life by the sea alone—fanciful! The three months with Julius—childish, a fairy tale! Here was a live tragedy, here was hard work left to do. She found an absorbing occupation: something apart from imagination. It was definite and crude. She had got to nurse Antony. She must nurse him and work for him, since they were almost beggars. There was no time for embroidering ideas about your own feelings.
All this tore through her brain in the second or so while she stared at him, and before she went slowly forward; it was an effort to push through that queer mist of heaviness which always enveloped Antony.
When she got to the bed she fell down beside it and stretched out her hands, sobbing. She only said his name:
He turned sullenly to look at her and his face, appearing more massive than ever and yet queerly faded, darkened. He marked the proud, forlorn quiver of her face.
"Why did they let you in?" he asked in a brutally insulting way." "You haven't any right to come, no more than any woman in the street."
He spoke with difficulty and he expressed everything.
"Nobody else has any right at all. There is only me—for you."
She snatched his hand; she wildly fondled it.
"Oh, my dear," she sobbed, "my dear. Antony, don't you think that this, to find you so, drives everything else and everybody else clean out of my head? I only remember our seven years together in Normandy. It all comes back. It blots out the rest. I can see it. I can see us moving about it."
"Yes, and it's gone," said Antony in his new, guttural way.
"I know. Cicely told me. But we are here. I'll never | | 286 leave you again. I swear that. You are the one man in the world."
Never had he known her so vehement, so enwrapped. Never once, in seven years and more, had she let herself go. Never before had lie seen that light in her eyes. And now it was all too late.
The cloud lifted from him. That beautiful white hand of his, the hand she knew and which always remained strange, held hers now with more intensity than it had ever shown. In this big, dim room, with its air of pillows and weakness and its faint smell of medicines, they climbed to a plateau which through seven years of mating they had not reached.
Anything like marriage was forever over. Angelina knew that, but Antony's heart, even now in his calamity, beat with a true bridegroom throb.
"You mean this," he asked solemnly. "You are not deceiving me again? I am the one man, mind. How"—he dropped to wailing—"can I trust you, Angelina?"
"Trust me!" the tears ran down her cheeks; "there is only you."
"That is true? Your oath for that? You'll marry me when I get better? You'll be my wife, really my wife; without a thought of anybody else? Only in that way can the memory of that damned hour—our last—in Normandy, be wiped out. Look"—he was wailing again—"what you've brought me to! And yet I forgive you."
He was flushed. That look in his brightly blue eye she distrusted.
She looked at that great man upon the bed: a shallow form, and the wreck of Antony. Spokes of sunlight pierced the blind and settled at his chestnut beard, making it warm. He was almost handsome—for one who could love him.
She patted the white, strange hand.
"When you get better we will settle what we'll do," she said steadily. "I will never leave you. I swear that. Didn't I say so just now?"
"You did. But how can I believe you. Where is he?"
"Julius! He went away."
Antony burst out laughing: the ugliest laughter of his life.| | 287
"I might have guessed that. They always go away. But I didn't. So you come crawling back."
He was hopeless. She began steadily to fight, as so often she had fought, against the problem of their nature.
They were inherently divergent, and about Antony there was always a manner of staginess. The real man she had not known. The harmony of a perfect companionship she had lost for ever. With the zeal of a housemaid using a broom she swept Julius Pole out of her head, and, turning full to the bed upon which Antony lay, she answered him softly: "I came because Cicely fetched me. She knew where I was, at a place by the sea in Sussex. She had seen me there before. She said that you were paralysed and that Normandy was burned down. I would not have come if you had been well and prosperous, for I didn't wish to have anything more to do with men. I was happy as I was. I did not wish to even dream of men."
She said this simply, seeming anxious that Antony should know the facts. She imposed her own calm upon him, and he asked quite civilly:
"Did she also tell you that I had lost the money Percy Lascelles got me to invest? All my capital is gone!"
"She did not tell me. I never trusted Lascelles. I said so to you at the time."
"That is feminine. It recalls our life in Normandy—married domesticity," said Antony, gibing again. "I told you so, I told you so. Every wife says that—and I almost welcome it. Are you going to be my wife?"
"We'll talk about that later on. After seven years, nearly eight, there is no great hurry."
She smiled on him, perhaps caustically; he thought he detected that superior curl of the thin lip which he had always hated. Anyway, her brief fire of just now had died down. It was out; had that been a last flicker. Yet why should he regret? And who was he to demand fire of any woman now? Yet no other man should have it.
He half turned himself and lay looking at her in a sombre way. It broke her heart. She laid her hands on his. They sat regarding each other in the yearning manner of a man and a woman who have very little hope left.| | 288
"I've only got, in all the world a few bits of china and a few bits of furniture," he muttered. "It is stored for the present. By the usual irony, they managed to save from the fire my most indifferent stuff; early-Victorian rubbish—you'd think twice before you burned it."
"People are beginning to collect furniture like that," said Angelina luminously. "Let me think. Don't talk. I have an idea."
"Never mind. Later on you shall know. In Normandy, if I suggested anything you never approved."
When she said this she reflected privately that his constant flabbiness would weaken, if it could, any scheme. And she had one. It had come in a flash; it was so clear and shining that she believed it to be Heaven sent. She had an inward delight in this sudden scheme, and she kept saying to herself with secret jubilation, "Why not, why not?" She thought that she saw Fortune.
This idea, properly carried out, would certainly pay. The situation was already saved.
Antony lay watching the intelligent workings of her face. He watched contemptuously. It was new to mark that business sharpness upon Angelina. She had been so composed and proud, so aloof from detail.
She sat thinking; he lay watching. Without her effort they must in future nearly starve.
"Better run me into some Home for Incurables. We have friends with influence and it could be managed. Then you could go back to Pole."
He laughed again. Angelina called out keenly: "Don't, don't. I am forgetting him. Be as kind to me as you can and I will do what I can for you." The lofty disdain of her face scorched him.
"Pretty bargaining, certainly! But I'm not in a state to oppose anything. What is your idea?"
"I must get it into shape. Wait a little while."
She studied Antony's greyed skin and then swept a glance round the room.
"Don't you have a drink or—or anything?" she asked helplessly. She was no nurse.| | 289
"Yes, barley water. In that jug with a cover. Get it. I ought to have had it half an hour ago. Why didn't the nurse come?"
He spoke with the fixed and grandiose pettishness of a permanent invalid. Angelina poured out the barley water and brought it to the bed. She slipped her arm under his head as he drank. All of this seemed to be in a dream; at any moment she felt that she might wake and find herself flat upon the yellow shingle, sung to by the sea.
"Shove the pillow down my back," said Antony. "Wipe my mouth, for I can't do it myself. You don't seem to care."
He looked at her searchingly—at her composure and her striking beauty. Tragedy had left her untouched.
"But I do care."
"You don't ask how it happened or—or—anything," he said, cobbling up his words.
"You will tell me about it by and by, and about the Rajah and your travelling," she said with a stretched smile, and putting the empty glass on the round table near. She sat on the end of the bed. Antony's lightened expression showed that this pleased him.
"We shall have a great deal to tell each other," she added.
"Yes; and some things not to be told," he gurgled back. His brilliant eyes glared.
"There is something you do not know. Mrs. Chope is dead. She has left me her furniture. You remember Mrs. Chope?"
"I remember!" he sounded disgusted. "Have you got her lovely mahogany? And there was some china."
"Yes, it is all mine. I must go to Brighton and see after it. The cottage is let, but only by the month. I could turn the people out."
"Do you mean that we will go there?"
"I didn't mean that."
"But the sea air would do me good," he whimpered.
She saw from time to time how shattered he was—mind and body.
She returned tenderly, as you'd speak to a child:
"Yes, you shall have sea air directly you can be moved, but not, perhaps, at that cottage. Brighton is too noisy."| | 290
"Are you going to stay with me here until I can be moved? You've sworn not to leave me, remember that."
He sounded threatening; his bright glance beseeching.
"I'll only leave you for a day or two, just while I go to Brighton and look after the cottage, and make up my mind what is best to be done. It is all part of my plan, and you shall know directly it is in working order. Do you think they could give me a bed here to-night? I'll start early to-morrow."
"No doubt they could, if you can pay. I can't!" Antony sounded crazy. "Pole is standing treat for this."
"I'll pay of course."
She got up from the bed. This sick man and this sick room, this gaunt atmosphere, were smothering her. She must get out in clean air to think and recover.
"You ought to go to sleep, Antony," she said. "I'll ring for the nurse and then I'll go for a little walk."
"Where are you going? St. Paul's Churchyard?"
"My shop! I hadn't thought of it."
"You don't care where it is so long as it is away from me, my dear," Antony said forlornly. "I always bored you. I got upon your nerves, as other people got on mine. Do you think I didn't see it?"
He rolled his head sleepily and his lids, which had become wrinkled, drew over his piercing eyes. With his head flung back, the chestnut beard peaked and the eyes hidden, he looked an old man. So flat as he was, such a rigid outline under the bedclothing—well, he might have been already dead!
Angelina shuddered. When the nurse came in she slipped out. Antony had not moved.
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