The Red House/Chapter 11
THE ROOM FOR CONFIDENCES
CHRISTMAS in the Red House was charming. It made us feel like pictures on Christmas cards. Chloe and I flatly refused to have anything to do with the decorations. We had had enough of evergreens when we decorated our drawing-room with the loops and swags for the great house-warming party. And rather than we would touch box or yew or laurel or holly again, the Red House should go undecorated. We said so, but our tenant insisted that no decorations at Christmas would be the first step towards the downfall of the British constitution and the death-blow to the naval supremacy of England.
“Let me do it,” he said. “I've had my Christmases in such odd, out-of-the-way places—ships and ranches and diamiond-fields—I haven't put up a sprig of holly since I was a school-boy. Miss Riseborough, you'll help me, I know.”
“I know I won't,” said Yolande. “I never do things with my fingers. I'll inspect and direct and overlook, and earn the wages of superintendence, if you'll make Mary bake them—”
“Scones, I suppose,” said Chloe. “There are heaps of string in the cellarette, and don't take my best scissors—the old ones are in the table drawer.”
“How good we are growing,” I said. “Fancy you knowing where anything is.”
“We're reformed characters,” she answered, gayly. “Where are the pencils and the India rubber?”
I felt a pang. Was it possible that Chloe had any suspicion? Could she possibly guess that it was I, and not Yolande, who finished drawing her pictures for her? No, she certainly could not. And I more than half wanted to tell her my secret. Yet I could not make up my mind to part with it. I had nursed it in my heart till it had grown very dear and precious.
We left Yolande enthroned on the settle, directing the labors of our tenant, but when the gong summoned us to tea and the wages-of-superintendence-scones, we found our tenant working at one end of the wreath, and Yolande busy at the other. It was not such a very long wreath as to have needed two pairs of hands, either. To do Miss Riseborough justice, she looked very much ashamed of this lapse from the principles of a lifetime.
“My hands are very dirty,” she made haste to say, “and I think that many of the deserving poor would have been glad to add a little to their slender incomes by putting up your grimy evergreens for you; but—”
“Don't apologize,” I said. “We understand perfectly. We've infected you at last. It is nice to do things with one's hands, isn't it?”
“Not in the least. It is very tiresome and very fatiguing; but some one had to do it, it seems, and I at least could not sit by and see your tenantry ground down without a word of protest, or the holding out of a helping hand. I hope there are many, many scones, and very, very buttery. We deserve some reward.”
After tea the work was resumed, and the hall, stairs, and white parlor were all hung with shining wreaths before dinner-time.
“Yolande can work,” said Chloe to me, in confidence. “It's odd that her perverse abstention from really interesting things has not made her clumsy.”
“As if a hand the shape of hers could ever be clumsy,” I said, “any more than a hand like yours could ever grow coarse.”
“It might have done,” she said, “if you and I had gone on doing all the house-work. We ought to be very grateful to Yolande. She has practically organized the whole of our future for us. We are settled, fixed, planted—yes, that's it—we grow, ourselves, of course, but she has planted us in the right soil, with exactly the right aspect. Now our dear little characters can develop beautifully, and our hands keep pretty, and no wrinkles come in our nice, smooth foreheads. You've been a little I don't know what about Yolande. But you must own that what she undertakes she does well.”
“Even to the red-branding of suspected fruit-thieves—yes.”
Yolande was spending Christmas at the Red House, and, it being Christmas Eve, the tenant dined with us. We had a merry evening. We had lighted a huge fire in the big, empty drawing-room where the piano was; Chloe played waltzes, and Yolande danced with me and with the tenant. When the dancing was over Chloe and I sat by the fire and the others went out to look at the stars from the balcony.
“Ah, youth, youth!” I sighed.
“They will catch their deaths of cold,” said Chloe, prosaically.
I whispered: “Chloe, in a very short time those people will come through that French window with the announcement of their engagement on their lips. This is the tamest love-affair I have ever witnessed. Everything has gone far too smoothly. Yolande has fallen in love obviously, bluntly, without any of those fine shades and nice feelings which you will remember to have noted in other cases—our own, for instance. She has grown rather dull.”
“Don't talk so loud,” said Chloe.
“As for him,” I went on, “happiness exudes from him like—like turpentine from the pine-tree, or oil from the skin of the castor, or beaver.”
“I suppose when we're old we shall never talk nonsense,” she said. “I almost think you're getting too old for it now. Castor, indeed!”
“No, I'm not. Yes, we shall. We shall never grow old, because we shall always talk nonsense. Don't you think it would be nice and kind and thoughtful of us to go up to the loafery and leave them this room? I know she'll have an awful cold if she stays out there much longer. It's a terrible thing to celebrate your betrothal by a cold in the head.”
So we spoke out into the starlit twilight of the balcony, and begged to be excused, and then we crept up-stairs and raked together the red embers of our loafery fire, and put logs on and crouched happily in low chairs on the hearthrug of our very own fire. Chloe knitted and I smoked happily and quietly till it seemed that we must no longer delay to go down and speed our parting tenant. It was, in fact, eleven o'clock. I was just knocking out my pipe on the hob when a light tap on the door mingled with my own tapping, and Yolande's face looked round the door.
“Come in!” we said, “come in!” But we wondered, because Yolande had never, since the day when in our pride we first showed it to her, crossed the threshold of that room. Now she came in and closed the door softly.
“He's gone,” she said. “He asked me to say good-night to you for him.”
She came across the room and sat down on the hearth-rug at Chloe's feet. She leaned her arm on Chloe's knee and laid her face upon the arm.
“This is the room of all rooms for confidences,” she said, after a silence. “That's why I thought I might come in just this once. I've got something to tell you—”
Chloe and I successfully avoided each other's eyes.
“Shall I go away?” I said, clumsily.
“Don't be silly,” she said. “It's nothing so very important, after all. Only I am afraid it will surprise you a little. I am rather surprised myself. As a matter of fact, I had never been so surprised in my life. It was not at all what I expected myself to do. What do you think I am going to be idiot enough to do?”
We said, with as good an appearance of perfect ignorance as we could command, that we were sure we did not know.
“I'm going to be married,” she said. “There!”
It was difficult to express congratulatory surprise—so difficult that we failed utterly. Chloe threw her arms round Yolande's neck and began to laugh softly.
“You dear, silly, clever, blind, darling mole,” she said. “Did you really think we were quite blind too—Len and I, who love you? My dear, we've known it from the very first, almost, and long before you did, I expect.”
“Known what?” said Yolande, in a suddenly changed voice; but she returned Chloe's kisses.
“Why, everything, my pretty, clever, foolish child,” said Chloe. “We've been watching over you and loving you all the time, like two old birds with a young one who is just learning to fly.”
“Oh, you have, have you?” said Miss Riseborough, softly.
“Yolande, you don't mind our being glad, and saying so? It's all been so beautifully simple and straightforward and idyllic; none of those horrible romantic complications that one expects from a Girton girl's love-affairs.”
“Oh, it has, has it?” Yolande's voice was softer than ever. I felt in my bones that for some reason Chloe's gentle enthusiasm did not please.
“I will go and put up the shutters,” I said, for I felt that I was out of place in this confidence.
“No, don't,” said Yolande, with a curious stiffness in her voice. “Do you really mean, Chloe, that you have been imagining that—”
“That the tenant worshipped the ground under your pretty feet?” said my wife. “Well, yes.”
“You are strangely mistaken,” Yolande said, very deliberately. “I am going to marry a man you have never seen.”
“Then I must offer you more formal and less well-informed congratulations,” said I. “What is his name?”
There was a slight pause.
“Percival Forbes,” she said.
Our tenant's name was something quite different. A silence followed that none of us knew how to break. Chloe spoke first.
“My dear girl, how annoying you must have thought us. I am so sorry. I wish I hadn't said—I don't know what it was I did say.”
“It's all right,” said Yolande, in an odd, stifled voice; “but really, if you want romance—”
“Yolande, I don't understand you to-night.” Chloe was making horseshoes in her forehead. “Tell us what you wish to tell us. I am afraid of you. I don't like to ask you anything.”
“Why should you, when it's so beautifully tame and idyllic? But I'll tell you a story if you like.”
Chloe stroked her hair timidly, and I, in sheer embarrassment, refilled my pipe.
“Imagine a young woman, tolerably well educated and very cocksure about everything. She meets a man, and they like each other. Then they quarrel—oh, never mind what about—and the man goes to India, and she is very sorry. And then he writes that he is coming back, and will she see him on Christmas Day? And she says yes—and to-morrow is Christmas Day. And all this time they've both been perfectly miserable. Is that more romantic—and involved?”
“Much,” said Chloe, with conviction.
“But I don't like it so well, Yolande,” I said, “because there is more to the story. May I hit out straight from the shoulder?—as you said to Chloe once. Do you remember?”
“Strike here,” she said, remembering, and with a smile that seemed to me unmeaning she folded her hands over her heart.
“Well, then,” I said, “this is, as you say, the room for confidences. It is the Palace of Truth.”
“Not quite,” said Yolande, still smiling.
“Well, it's jolly well going to be,” I said, in some irritation. “You must own, dear and foolish lady, that our mistake was natural. You have walked and talked, played chess, bicycled, gone to foot-ball matches, and remodelled your whole nature to please the tenant, and now—”
“Remodelled my nature? How hateful! But I haven't.”
“He at least will not be satisfied to know that all this was merely done to pass the time while you waited for your other lover—”
“This is hitting without the gloves,” said Yolande; “but go on. It amuses me.”
“It oughtn't to,” I said; “it won't amuse him. I like the tenant, and I think you've behaved atrociously to him. Now, forgive me for easing my mind, and let's never recur to the subject again.”
“But,” said Yolande, in a small, meek voice, “he is engaged to another girl—her name is Jane—and he happens to be his brother.”
“And even so,” I said, “if ever I saw true love in a man's eyes I've seen it in his when he looked at you. Jane, indeed! And all your interest in sport—the thing you used to hate most?”
Yolande was silent a moment. Then she said: “Len, I haven't been scolded like this for years. I didn't know you cared enough about me to do it.”
“You don't know how much we do care,” said my wife, gently. “But, Len, what is the use?”
“Suppose,” said Yolande, slowly, “one had quarrelled with the other one—the one in India—because he would hunt and one thought it cruel. Don't you think one might have tried to learn to like sport, for his sake?”
“I've said my say,” said I, “and I hope you've forgiven me. Our tenant may be engaged to fifty girls, but it's you he loves—”
“Yes,” she said, softly. “Yes.” Then she flashed a dazzling, illuminating smile at us and put her chin in the air in the prettiest, proudest way. “Yes, I think it is.”
I think I may be pardoned for taking Yolande by the shoulders and shaking her as she held out to Chloe's eyes a trembling left hand on which shone the gold signet ring which I had noted a hundred times on our tenant's finger.
“Then why did you say it was so flat and unromantic, and drive me to inventing a romance for you? It was all your fault, Chloe. No, there isn't any man in India. There isn't any man at all but the one—there never has been. Now you're not to crow over me and say you told me so, for it's all quite different from what you think. We shall start on a basis of mutual esteem—no, you needn't laugh—and I will never sew a button on for him or make him a pudding as long as I live. Good-night. Thank you for your scolding, Len. I don't think I ever enjoyed anything so much in my life.”
“I'll come and put you to bed,” said Chloe. “It's all Len's fault. If he hadn't been here I should never have put your dear, foolish back up. But I never thought you could have told such wicked stories. I am blind, and stupid, but I have wit enough left to unhook your gown and brush your hair. Come!”
When they had gone I turned idly to the table. There lay an unfinished drawing of my wife's—a child with an impossibly foreshortened arm carrying a jug in two dimensions, on a head like a deformed cocoanut. I looked at it for a little while and then set to work. The sketch was spirited, and I had a certain pleasure in working it out, a pleasure so engrossing that I did not hear the door open, and my heart leaped like a fish with a pike after it as two hands fell on my shoulders, and I knew that my secret was discovered—that henceforth not Yolande, not the ghost, but I myself must carry the praise or blame due to the finisher of Chloe's pictures. I turned my head and kissed the hand that lay on my left shoulder, the hand with my wedding-ring on it. She ruffled my hair with the other hand, and, “Thank you, dear,” she said, simply.
“For the kiss?”
“For that and everything—for all the trouble you've taken with my silly drawings. I'm glad I caught you at it, you dear, industrious beaver. I've wanted to tell you—oh, for such a long time!—how clever you are, and how much better you draw than I do!”
“But you thought it was Yolande—you know you did,” I said, turning in my chair so that my arm could go round her as she stood.
“I know you thought I did,” she said, “and I never could understand how you could think me so silly. Why, Yolande couldn't begin to do the drawings you've done! My silly boy, do you suppose I haven't got heaps and heaps of your old drawings put away? Did you really think that I shouldn't know your touch anywhere?”
“I did; I was a fool, dear. And you're a darling. But I ought to quarrel with you. Good wives don't have secrets from their husbands, madam. Why did you pretend you didn't know?”
“It wasn't my secret,” she said, blinking at me in surprise. “It was your secret. And you were so fond of it, I couldn't bear to take it from you. And I always thought you'd tell me some day. Wouldn't you have? Why didn't you? I gave you lots of chances. Don't you remember—when I asked what you wanted the India rubber for, and when I said it didn't matter which of us did the work?”
“You said that about Yolande and the ghost and the writing,” I reminded her.
“Did I? Well the principle's the same, isn't it?” You see how good and kind I am. I'm not a bit angry with you for keeping secrets from me. If I'd kept a secret like that from you you'd have been frightfully cross, wouldn't you?”
“Ferocious. But then you couldn't,” I said, confidently. “And you really like the drawings?”
“You know,” she said; “and I'm so awfully pleased to see how clever you are. Len, I like you to be able to do some things better than me.”
“I think I could talk better grammar,” I said, “if I tried very hard indeed, with both hands and all my might.”
“It was very nice and funny to see you nursing your dear little-big secret, and all the time it was mine, too.”
“Madam,” I said, “you have deceived and betrayed me. I will go and put up the shutters and forget my wrongs in sleep. Oh, by-the-way—Yolande?”
We had both forgotten her.
“She is very happy. I must have talked like a tract or an aunt to have driven her to such extremes. But it is all exactly as I said, perfectly simple and idyllic, and the happiest thing in the world—almost—”
“Almost,” said I. “And when are they to be married?”
“Oh, almost directly. There's nothing to wait for. They are going to take on the other cottage and run a covered way across the garden, and have their kitchen and dining-room and her study there and his study and their sitting-room in the other one. They've arranged it all in the most delightfully practical and prosaic way. And she'll want her furniture. They are to have separate studies, and always knock at each other's study doors, and neither is to be offended if the other says: ‘You can't come in. I don't want you!’”
I laughed. “And the pupils?”
“Oh, that's all over. She won't have any more pupils. She's going to write a book on the Higher Education of Women.”
“And she wants her furniture? Well, we have the furniture that was in the cellar, and we can go about, by-and-by, and pick up beautiful odd things here and there. We can afford to now.”
“I wish you'd tell me one thing, Len,” said my wife.
“Do you really like writing or drawing best?”
“We make a good bit of money by both,” I said. “I think we must give Yolande a very, very beautiful wedding-present—with our best love—and the ghost's!”
She frowned a little.
“Yes, but quite apart from the money, which do you like doing best? Do tell me. Tell me straight out!”
“Well, then,” I said, “I've got rather fond of drawing; I suppose because it's not my work, but yours. As Yolande says, we are incurably prone to do anything rather than our own proper work.”
“Yes,” she said, “we are. Go and put up the shutters now, Len, and don't be hours about it, or I shall fancy you have met a burglar.”
“My father met a burglar once,” I said. “He heard a row and went down, and when he didn't come back my mother thought he might have been overpowered, so she took the bedroom poker and went down to his assistance.”
“I should have gone with him,” said Chloe. “Well?”
“Well, she went down very softly, and there was a light in the kitchen, and there was the burglar in the arm-chair, telling a piteous tale, and my father making cocoa for him over the spirit-lamp!”
“He was a darling,” said Chloe, “and so are you; but we're out of cocoa. You must give the burglar bottled beer instead. I'll stay here till you come back.”
When I came back she was sitting in her favorite little rocking-chair.
“Come and sit down a little longer,” she said.
“It's very late,” said I, lowering myself to the hearth-rug at her feet.
“Yes; it's Christmas Day, I know, Len. We were talking about secrets just now, and you said I could never keep one from you. Would you be very angry if I did?”
“I do not advise you to try,” I said, taking her hands in mine. They were cold, and they trembled a little.
“But suppose I have? Will you be very angry?”
“Tell me, and try.”
“It's absurd,” she said, trying to laugh. “I always thought it would be so easy to tell you, and now it is so difficult. You must tell me things first—silly things—to give me courage.”
I told her several. Then we sat silent. Presently I said: “My pussy-kitten, have you really something serious to tell me? Or is it only that you are upset over this business of Yolande? Don't worry over trifles, dearest and best, but if there is really anything you want to tell me, tell me now. It can't be anything that it would hurt me to hear.”
“I'm not at all sure about that.” She spoke with a gleam of soft mischief in her eyes. “You're very kind and trusting, Len, but—oh—seriously, I believe you'll hate me when I tell you.”
“Then tell me at once,” I said. “Don't tantalize me with this promise of a wholly new sensation.”
“Oh, if you will make fun—”
“I'm not, but I won't have you make mountains out of mole-hills. Come, show me the mole-hill and we'll trample it together. Why, silly Chloe, your hands are like ice, and how they tremble! Out with it—”
“I don't think I'll tell you at all,” she said. “You ought to be clever enough to find out. Besides, you kept a secret from me, Len, and I wasn't angry.”
Even then I didn't see.
She rose suddenly. “No, I won't tell you tonight,” she said. “You don't really want to hear it.”
I rose, too. “You will tell me to-night,” I said, holding her hands. “My dear, how can you tease me so?”
She put her arms round my neck and whispered in my ear.
“And oh,” she cried, “don't be cross! I can't bear it if you are.”
“Cross! My dear, delightful, clever, wonderful genius of a pussy-kitten! If you only knew how I've worried and wondered. And it was you all the time—you, you, you! Oh, what a fool I've been! But I've been punished for my folly. Chloe, I've come very near to hating Yolande, and all the time it was you—not Yolande or the ghost, but you, who were writing all those wonderful endings to my silly stories! Sit down on your throne and let me do you homage.” I put her back in the rocking-chair and knelt before her.
“I meant to tell you at first,” she said, “but when you thought it was Yolande, I thought it was so funny and stupid of you, because she doesn't really see half the things I put in the stories.”
“Funny and stupid, indeed,” I echoed. “You were wiser. You do see things. And tell me, Chloe, which do you like doing best—writing or drawing?”
“Why, writing, of course!” she said, “because it's not my work, but yours. Yolande was quite right.”
“Then for the future you must put your name to the stories.”
“Oh, must I?” she asked, wistfully. “I thought it would be so nice if we put both our names. And to the drawings, too. Because you do invent plots better than I do, and I can do sketches. Then it would all be our work—not just yours or mine, but ours.”
“Very well,” I said; “better than well! Ours be it. As you've said once, or more than once, it doesn't matter a straw which of us does the work, as long as it is us, and not Yolande or the ghost.”
“What about grammar now? And trying with both hands? Len, it's Christmas Day by the clock. I've got a present for you. It's a booken with pretty, pretty pikkies, but I sha'n't give it to you till it's real, live, wide-awake Christmas Day.”
“You've given me a most lovely present,” I said, “a beautiful brand-new secret of your very own. To think that my wife's an author—an author of genius! I never thought to see the day.”
“Don't peacock!” she said. “You've nothing to be so proud about. I'm as well off as you are. My husband's an artist—an artist of genius! But I knew all the time, didn't I, and you didn't, so I must be much cleverer than you, really.”
“Isn't that what I've been saying? Twenty times cleverer and a thousand times as dear.”
“I never could do sums,” she said, “but I did manage to put two and two together about the drawings, and the answer was, ‘You!’”
“One and one is a better sum,” I said, “and easier, and the answer is, ‘Us.’”
“And what about grammar now?” said she.