- CHAPTER V
|<< chapter 04||< prologue||chapter 06 >||chapter 13 >>|
BUTTIFANT one day in June went down to Dulwich to spend a week-end with his mother. The house at Dulwich, perfect in its equipment and always in want of something, for which he must pay, amused him, although he could never say why. He loved and admired his mother. But was he going to keep on at cheap black and white work—cheap in conception, rich in pay—all his life so that he might keep his delightful mother? She was no joke to keep. He wondered what her particular demand would be to-day! And the boys at boarding school were no joke to keep.
He walked along thinking of his water-colours and thinking of Jane, who did not fit in with his enthusiasms. She told him bluntly, laughing, open-mouthed, in his quiet white face, that she could paint better water-colours herself, if only she had time to go into the country and look at trees and cows and birds and cottages and things. Jane robustly believed that she could do anything if only she had time. She twitted him with a holiday in Cornwall that she would take some day; and the canvases she would bring back.
He thought of Jane forlornly and tenderly; with a vast longing. He ached to take care of her; he wanted to pay for her. How happy he could be were | | 146 he walking towards a house—any sort of house and anywhere—with Jane as its mistress and his wife. If Jane trod upon his artistic corns, he would just laugh and cuddle her up. He would take pens and manuscript paper clean out of the house; she should not write a single line. As to a typewriter! Not one of those infernal machines should tap within a mile of their dwelling.
It was a delicious summer afternoon. The gardens in Dulwich were gay. Women were frivolously dressed and they all seemed to be laughing. Jane was up there in South Square, working with such superbly vulgar enthusiasm: working for herself and for Vaguener; putting by for her old age. She was not thirty, yet she already had the full terror of the forties. She was so pitifully nervous for the future; she had scraped together a few hundreds; her voice wavered if she referred to her investments. Her idea was to save a thousand and buy an annuity for two pounds a week when she was sixty. The terror about money made one of Jane's infrequent subtleties.
Buttifant turned in at his mother's gate, he opened the door. He could tell by the manner of the maid he met in the hall that something was afoot. His mother's servant was smart and well trained; she wore the nicest thing in caps. Mrs. Buttifant ran her little house elegantly.
"Is my mother in the drawing-room?" asked Buttifant.
"Yes, sir, with a gentleman."
He wondered what gentleman and why; for they had very few friends, he and his mother.
He went into the drawing-room and he saw her on | | 147 sofa, with the pretty old mahogany table in front of her and the tea things set out.
She had few possessions but they were beautiful: with a fastidious beauty that reminded Buttifant of Becca Marshall—a rareness in both cases, not to be comprehended by persons of the Jane sort. Jane, if she could see his mother's drawing-room, would shout criticisms: she would good-temperedly offer to bring it up to date, for no room was complete without the latest fandangle-dum!
Buttifant saw, in addition to the family furniture, the family silver and the family china. He loved the look of his mother's Rockingham cups; their buff and green—the curly shape of the teapot and big sugar bowl—soothed him. They seemed to rest his eyes: he judged things and people by the effect on his eyes, which were his sensitive part and always tired. Yet he had a passion for Jane, with her misapplied violence of attire!
His mother was handsome, in a handsome setting. She was fat and—as Jane surmised—she was uncorseted. Her gently voluptuous outlines made her principal charm. Yet she was charming altogether, so her son thought. He loved her dear double chin and the tiny little wrinkling of her throat—for she was no longer young. He loved her brown eyes with their serious deep sweetness—which meant nothing; for she was selfish and shallow. She appealed to Buttifant, just as Jane appealed. He had a trick of pouring deep feeling into flimsy phials.
He walked across the room admiring her. Then he turned his head to look at the stout and stumpy middle-aged man who sat near her. And he realised, with a son's | | 148 shock, that this stranger admired her infinitely more than he did. Whoever he was, he loved and reverenced her. His face expressed that he was suffering from an affair of long standing.
"Arnold, you dear boy! I didn't expect you for hours. I thought the black and white work would keep you to that tiresome easel until dusk. Let me introduce Commander Attfield. You don't remember him, but he has a perfect recollection of you. Haven't you, William?"
She was smiling and fat and unperturbed; a little more fluent than usual. And that was all. As the men shook hands, she took up her Rockingham teapot, with the delicate handle and the lumpy gilt knob on the lid. She poured with a steady hand.
"Last time I saw you," Commander Attfield looked narrowly at Arnold, "you were in long clothes. I was your godfather—almost."
He laughed; a jolly sea laugh. Yet it was rueful.
"We would have asked you to be a godfather if we'd known in time that you'd consent." Arnold's mother regarded the Commander with calm open affection.
"And you've never seen my other boys, William. By the way, Arnold, I've had such good news of Reggie. He's got a scholarship. And the headmaster thinks awfully well of Bernie too."
Reginald and Bernard were his younger brothers. Buttifant looked relieved; he foresaw a lessening of school bills.
"You remember, William, how capricious I always was and that I did unexpected things?" She smiled on her visitor, who sat still, balancing his teacup on | | 149 his knee and looking at her with frank homage. "These two younger boys are years younger than Arnold. They were born after I'd given up such things-They were a great shock and a great inconvenience. Then the Dean dying soon after and with his affairs in a muddle, made it worse. We all three, the small boys and I, dumped down on Arnold. We've been a great expense, haven't we, dear? But I see the end of it."
"Well, Reginald's got a scholarship," said Arnold, looking at her in his blank quiet way and with a red spot on one white cheek.
He was wondering. He looked at the unromantic-featured sailor who was so frankly in love with his mother.
He liked the look of Commander Attfield, who was a middle-aged man of the fresh, clean type. He had clear blue eyes—that suggested a twinkle in his normal moments: he was not normal now! He had a neat white beard cut close and pointed; his complexion was ruddy, his features small and irreproachable.
"A scholarship! But that isn't the only end." Commander Attfield laughed like a boy. "Tell him, Aggie."
"I shall tell him when you've gone. And you must call me Agatha. Don't you remember I always hated abbreviations?"
"I remember—but I've thought of you as Aggie for thirty years."
"Thirty years! Good gracious!" said Arnold's mother.
Into the unbroken cream of her smooth face the colour came. She was blushing; she could still blush | | 150 and she was fifty. Arnold sat admiring her and feeling sorry for Commander Attfield—who had evidently been badly treated in the past. And he was diverted by his mother's skilful way of instantly turning their talk into a shallow social channel. She chattered away; of the people at Dulwich, of Jane up in Gray's Inn; and Jane's bad cold and Jane's tea-party in Piccadilly; and that extraordinary girl with the red hair. Did Arnold admire her? And didn't he think her mother a nice soul? And what did he make of the famous plough-boy? Had he brought down the book of Cornish stories? He forgot them last time.
She kept this up until Commander Attfield reluctantly declared he must go back to town. She looked at him.
"You'll come again soon, William?"
"I'll come to-morrow if you'll let me." He had no pride: this was his delightful lover's attribute.
"May he come, Arnold?"
"Do come," said Arnold, standing up, surveying them in his imperturbable way.
"I'll take you to the door," his mother said to her admirer.
She walked across the room, managing her overíflowing figure, looking queenly, as she always did. This was something to do with her skeleton, thought Arnold anatomically, but it was more to do with that frock she wore. Jane would have called it a horribly dowdy affair—and he had the expensive bill for it up in Gray's Inn! He must pay that bill. He would remember to draw the cheque on Monday. They went out; quite with the air of lovers. He remained, marvelling. When his mother returned, she asked him the inevitable question,| | 151
"What do you make of him?"
"Nice old chap!"
"Old!"—she winced."Yes, I suppose he is."
"Well, never mind, dear. Age is a matter of feeling; so he's under twenty-five," said Arnold.
"Yes, isn't he absurd? You can't control him. I'm sure that even Esther guesses."
Esther was the maid.
"I'm sure she does. I met her in the hall as I came in."
"She didn't say anything?"
"Say! Of course not. No maid of yours would be indiscreet. She expressed; that's all."
"It is ridiculous," Mrs. Buttifant sat down behind her tea-tray."Have another cup, do. Plenty here. Won't you? Well, I will."
"Are you going to marry him, mother?"
"I must. I ought to have done it thirty years ago. Then your father came along and I liked him ever so much better, so——"
"You threw this sailor fellow overboard?"
"I did. You'll have a great contempt for me. I threw him over although our wedding day was fixed."
"And he forgave you? He was willing to be godfather to the first brat—me—that arrived!"
"He was. Truly Christian, isn't it? It makes me feel so ashamed. It makes me grateful; and willing to do anything for him. You understand?"
"That you are going to marry him? I suppose so. When?"
"Well, he says soon—at once."
"I don't blame him. A thirty years' engagement."| | 152
"Don't say that. It sounds improper. I must marry him or people will talk, old as we are. It is such a tiresomely scurrilous world. But I don't want to marry. I would much rather have him as a paying—a very—paying guest."
"Would he be a—very—paying?"
"He is equal to anything." Her calm eyes looked more pensive than usual."He has come into a fortune; left by a relative in New Zealand. The sort of thing you read about in the paper."
"Very often it is only paper. Has he got it?"
' Years ago. And he has never married, Arnold. Quite touching! When he heard that I was a widow, he took the next boat home. I forget where he was; Burmah I think."
"How long since he came back? You never told me."
"I have deceived you, dearest, I admit; for it seemed so utterly absurd at our age. I'm afraid he's been back three months, Arnold."
"And having tea here every day? Don't the Dulwich tongues wag?"
' You know I've never really mixed with Dulwich. He hasn't been every day. Just before you came in I promised to marry him as soon as we could. How soon—can we, Arnold?"
"He's found that out already,"said Arnold.
He looked at her, in her pretty amplitude. What a delicious mother for a man to have—and what a dead weight!
"I shall lose you,"he said."The Commander will whisk you away to what is known as foreign parts. Or he will settle in some dead relaxing place full of half-pays—say Cheltenham."| | 153
"He isn't a half-pay."His mother was gleeful."You won't have to pay a penny more either for me or the boys. You'll be able to get married yourself. But don't let it be to that vulgar Miss Vaguener."
Arnold's face went blotchy. It was pink and white like a clown's. This meant feeling. His mother knew this and so did Vaguener. Swiftly through her head ran the thought that if Arnold was really going to give her such an impossible daughter-in-law, she and Commander Attfield would be compelled to live a great deal abroad.
"I'm afraid it will have to be Miss Vaguener, mother."Her son was solemn. Underneath, he was uproariously glad. Thoughts flashed through his head. His brain was a summer storm. He could go straight back to Gray's Inn on Monday. He could say to his dear fat commonplace Jane—his cold Jane—with her touch of the shrew—' marry me.' And he would make her do it. When she had done it, he would draw her into a flaming kingdom.
"Why?"asked his mother."She isn't even a lady—and that word does mean something, still. Won't the red-haired cousin do?"
"The red-haired cousin is in love with John-Andrew. And Gabriel Best is in love with her. Love is nothing but a variety entertainment; you ought to have learnt that."
"My dear Arnold, when a woman comes to my age, she doesn't know which she's loved or when. Or even—if. I threw over William Attfield for your poor father, but I don't know now that I would throw over either for both! Is that clear?"| | 154
"Not quite. You mean that you love Attfield best?"
"Very likely. But I may not have loved either. Or perhaps it was both. I shall marry William and be very comfortable. I've only loved one man—and it is you. That is what mother's come to."
"I shall never be a mother; so you've got to let me have Jane, if she'll have me."
"Have you! Why of course."
"Not so sure."Arnold looked anxious."She's a natural celibate. With all her vanity, with all the ridiculous fuss the dear thing makes about her plain face and worse figure, Jane's a celibate. Overflowing vanity, but no mating instinct."
' You don't sound like a lover."His mother stared.
"You've been spoiled by Commander Attfield and my father. But—do think! If I can love Jane, seeing her demerits so ruthlessly, love her in spite of anything she wears, don't you see what a sound love it is!"
"The things she wears!"his mother was melodiously derisive."A chestnut brown hat and a grass green veil last time I saw her."
"Very likely. Any touches of pink about? That would be Jane."
"Arnold, you are clever! There were touches of pink. A pink and black collar on a grey coat."
"I can stand it all. I could stand red geraniums in the chestnut brown hat,"he declared robustly.
"But what on earth does love mean if——"
"Oh now you've asked a question, mother."
"She's plain and noisy and vulgar and ill dressed and yet you——"| | 155
"Want her more than anything else and mean to have her if she'll let me. She's so brave and so busy, the poor little soul. She's packed full of pathos. A cheap packing case—but riches inside! You don't sec her best side."
"She isn't a poor little soul. She is a lumpy young woman and her voice goes through my head like a hooter."
"So it does through mine."
They burst out laughing.
"We can't explain love,"Buttifant said, when they left off.
"I admit she is worthy."Mrs. Buttifant looked thoughtful."It is good of her to keep that eccentric brother. Is he really clever, Arnold?"
"I don't think so."Buttifant was frank."That's the trouble."
"Well, you see he thinks he is and perhaps Nature intended him to be, only——"
"Something's put a spoke in Nature's wheel."
"Exactly. You seem to understand."
"I felt sorry for him, Arnold, that day at the party. He was such a fish out of water. And Miss Vaguener was so strident and the plough-boy—what's his name, Gabriel Best—bragged so. Has he got a post yet?"
"Vaguener? No. I don't think he means to get one. I shall have to keep both him and Jane."
"Jane! You call her that?"
"No, I don't, only in my heart. I call her Miss Vaguener. She is most particular."
"Then she isn't what they call Bohemian. I am glad of that; for it always seems to mean getting up | | 156 late and not dressing properly for breakfast and not bothering about dusting the furniture.
"Jane goes round with a duster ever- morning—or she did until lately,"said Buttifant.
"The Vagueners are of clerical stock, as we are. Jane—I'll call her that to you—ought to be paying calls and dabbling in good works in the suburbs somewhere. The perversity of her stock——"
"Thought you said it was clerical."
"Yes; but the grandfather was an odd card. The result is that Jane is up in Gray's Inn working herself to death over abominably bad work and John-Andrew is living on the proceeds."
"Well, if you do marry her, you won't keep either him or her, Arnold. That is absurd. She makes her own income."
"She won't be allowed to make a penny. That is the glory of it,"Arnold said; seeming radiant, stirred and strange.
His mother looked at him.
"You remind me of William,"she returned placidly."How odd men are when they——"
"Get their teeth into a particular woman! Yes, don't they worry?"He smiled into her dimples and her double chin.
"You like Commander Attfield?"
"Very much. I shall like him better when you are married and I know him more. At present you see——"
"That's just it,"his mother interrupted, her delightful blush rising to her fat cheeks."I wish other people didn't see."
"Jane would see." Arnold could not get away | | 157 from this agitating topic of Jane."She'd wring a short story out of you and him."
"Horrid!"His mother appeared delicately disdainful."I can't think how those writing people can put their own feelings and other people's feelings into print: and take money for it and let all the world read."
"They are not less sensitive than you; they are only more eloquent,"her son told her stiffly.
"Don't get your neck feathers up,"she stroked him just above his collar,"I won't attack your Jane. But you do all lead an odd life, Arnold: the typewriter always going and that lazy brother, surly and appealing; and you sticking at your easel; and Mrs. Welfare, with her impudent, good-natured tongue. I shall have some more old clothes for her soon."
Arnold seemed to detach himself from Dulwich; to dissect and speculate.
"Sometimes I can't understand them,"he said. "The contrast between John-Andrew's silence and Jane's overflowing speech I find uncanny. You want to burst out of the room: get away from the two of them and breathe hard. As to Commander Attfield—you would rather talk about him, wouldn't you?—he is delightful. Good to look at; clean, healthy and well bred. He belongs, in appearance, to a rather uncommon type of middle-aged British gentleman. He is like a Dalmatian dog: one of them in every town. Middle age, with men, is a tricky time. I shall not look half so nice. I shall be parched and insignificant; bleached and browny-white. Let us continue the dog figure and say I shall be a mongrel Irish terrier!"| | 158
"Middle age! It is what you call a tricky time with women too. I have to take such a lot of trouble."His mother was plaintive.
"You take as much trouble as Jane—and with what a different result."
Her son was admiring her. She looked pleased.
Yes, I don't think I've ever degenerated into what is called a matron's style? And I have triumphed over increasing fat. But you've spent a lot of money on me."
"I have, darling."He was frank."You have meant an expensive upkeep. A house with plenty of glass; with vineries and hot-beds—that expresses you, mother."
"You've been so good."She sighed, petting him with those eloquent brown eyes.
"Have I? Commander Attfield will continue my treatment."
"I shall persuade him,"his mother looked eager,"to take a country place. You can come down and paint. You can slack off a bit. You can devote yourself to those funny water-colours."
"Are they so funny?"He looked at her attentively: he waited to hear what she would say. For she represented the ' public ' and if she could not understand his water-colours there might be hope for them in the best sense.
"Oh very. I like the black and white work best. When I go down to the Dulwich library—it isn't often, for I dislike the atmosphere of such places—it is very gratifying to find the work of my well-known son in every magazine I pick up. You are making lots of money, aren't you? If we take a country place, you mustn't bring Miss Vaguener."| | 159
"Lots of money—so far; but it may stop. Any-thing to pay for this week?"
"Only one or two little extras. And one or two little odd jobs about the garden. I saved them for you because exercise is what you want. We will go out in the garden now. I'll show you the things that want nailing up. And then that man never mows the grass really properly."
She arose, slipped her hand through his arm and looked down on him. She was taller than he was, just as Becca was taller than John-Andrew.
"You pay for dressing."He looked up at her."What is it about you that makes you always elegant? Just, now, sitting down—and so fat that you sit with your knees apart and so fat that you've got dear little bracelets of fat round your wrist like a baby—you looked a Roman Empress."
"No I didn't. Nose isn't big enough. I dislike a big nose; always goes with stupid women."
"Does it? That is one to Jane. Hers is a snub. If I can't bring her to your country place I shall be sulky, mother."
They went through the little greenhouse into the garden.
"Don't marry your Jane," she implored.
"Must—if she'll let me."
Arnold was solemn. He sounded uplifted.
|<< chapter 04||< prologue||chapter 06 >||chapter 13 >>|