The Red House/Chapter 8
A GARDEN hung with soft-tinted Chinese lanterns glowing amid gleams of green leaf-lights and deeps of black leaf-shadow; a company of aunts and uncles placated by food, drink, and the servile attentions of nephews and nieces; a silvery atmosphere of peace, shot with faint streaks of something almost approaching a modified approval; a host and hostess weary, though not wholly exhausted—yet counting the moments till the last uncle, having consumed the ultimate whiskey, should depart in the last of the cabs—and the rest of us—Chloe, Yolande, and I—should be left to look back on the party and “talk it over.”
And now, on this almost pastoral stage, where uncles were all but in tune to pipe, and aunts not far from the mood when one wreathes one's crook with flowers, intrudes a harsh shriek from the darkness of the farther garden, to be followed by the unspeakably dramatic entrance of a man and a woman stained with—well, it looked like blood, exactly.
The woman, as I have said, was Yolande; the man, whom she led familiarly, yet with a certain ferocity, by the hand, was a perfect stranger. His eyes were closed and his face was stained with crimson. It dripped still from his head and ears on to the flannels which earlier in the evening must have been pearly white.
Every aunt shuddered, every uncle winced. Uncle Bletherthwaite so far forgot himself as to mutter, “Good God!” which, in the “presence of ladies,” was more from him than a good round damn might be from the lighter brethren.
The nephews and nieces crowded round, cousins drew cautiously near, and as soon as it had been inferred from my attitude in respect to Yolande that she at least was no stranger to me, the semicircle of aunts and uncles closed up about us. Uncle Reginald told me afterwards that he feared the worst just then, for none of them recognized Yolande under her new crimson disguise. As Uncle Reginald said, “They none of them knew her from Adam.” He added, “By Jove! just for the moment I forgot my morals, and I was sorry for you, my boy—I was indeed.”
I do not seek to know what he meant. Chloe was very angry when I told her.
And now there was a breathless silence. It was like the scene in Kipling's His Wedded Wife.
I broke the silence. I shook Yolande, and said, I fear not too amiably, “My dear girl, what on earth is it?”
“Lend me your handkerchief,” she said, irrelevantly; and, taking it, wiped scarlet dews from her brow and hands. “Oh, let me get away. And take him away and clean him, won't you? It's all got into his eyes.”
She dropped the hand of the stranger, and would have fled, but Aunt George barred the way.
“After this scene we've just seen,” she said, “I think it's due to your company to explain.”
The flannelled man got at his handkerchief.
“Jove! it does sting,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. “I can't get my eyes open. Won't somebody take me where there's a tap and put me under it?”
He had a pleasant voice, but it did not soften the aunts and uncles. Curiosity had taken the place of terror.
“Asking for taps like this,” said Uncle Bletherthwaite, “is no excuse for this unwarrantable intrusion into the midst of a family gathering. This young person—”
“A member of the family gathering,” I urged.
Then Yolande detached herself from me, gave her face a final scrub, and spoke sweetly: “Oh, please don't be alarmed. There were some pails of red stuff put aside for the fruit trees, and this gentleman, who lives next door, unfortunately came in contact with them; and I had remembered the pails were there, and was just going to attend to them” (“In that dress!” said Aunt George, with a sniff), “and I brought him in to be washed. I think I myself will also wash. Good-night. I am so sorry to have alarmed you.”
She passed the cordon of relations and fled, her last words a whisper to me:
“Their carriages are beginning to come. Leave Chloe to get rid of them. That man must be washed, or he'll die or be blind, or something.”
So I took him to the bath-room and left him with the hot tap and the cold tap, and the hip-bath and the foot-bath and the long bath, and the hand-basin and the soap and a pile of towels, and some clothes of mine. And all seemed inadequate. I did not believe he would ever be his right color again.
Then, Heaven be praised! there were cabs and trains, and the house-warming party melted away, Aunt George protesting to the last against Yolande's explanation as a mere excuse for “goings-on,” and Uncle Bletherthwaite feverishly anxious, even through the cab window, as to the nature of the crimson dressing designed for our fruit trees. At long last the last lingering cab-borne cousin left our gates, and Chloe and I turned to each other in the empty hall. A pale and cautious Yolande in a white wrapper peered down the stairs.
“Are they gone? Oh, give him lemons—many lemons; I've got it all off my face with that. My hands are past praying for.”
Our strangely introduced guest was still splashing and laughing and—well, grumbling—to himself over the lemons when Yolande rejoined us in the drawing-room.
“He'll be ages yet,” she said. “You don't know what it is to get off. And he's simply soaked through and through.”
“Yolande,” I said, sternly, “I have borne enough; this ensanguined masquerade requires, as Uncle Bletherthwaite says, some explanation more convincing—”
“Oh, bother!” she cried. “I am a dog, and an outcast, and an abject idiot—and I'll tell you everything.” She fell a dejected heap into the easy-chair where Aunt George had sat so upright during the minuet and the cachucha. “I know you'll scorn me forever. But ‘a fault that's owned is half atoned,’ and I'll own my fault. It was only my only and always fault—I have but the one, you know—being too jolly clever by half. I'll never try to do anything again.”
“Tell us quickly, before he gets clean,” Chloe pleaded. “Who is he? What was it? How did it happen? Quick—before he bursts upon us with his clean face.”
“There's no hurry,” said Yolande, gloomily, twisting her reddened fingers tightly together. “You needn't be afraid of seeing his face clean yet awhile. Well, when you talked about the fruit-thief, I thought to myself, if one could only mark the thief thoroughly, it would be as good as catching him, because you could wire to all the police stations, ‘Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, a Pink-spotted Fruit-stealer!’ I thought I was quite clever, and really I was a mere lunatic.”
I had never seen Yolande so near tears.
“It was a good idea,” said Chloe, perfunctorily sympathetic; “and so you took that pink dye—”
“Yes. I hid two pails of it, one among the currant-bushes and one under the quince-tree. And then when we were in the garden I saw a flash, and I knew some one had struck a match—to see where the peaches were, I thought. Really, of course, it must have been this wretched man lighting his hateful pipe. So I stole away, and I got the big brass garden syringe.”
“It was a good idea,” said Chloe, with more conviction. “Well?”
“Well—oh, then I stalked him; and even when I was close to him I never knew he was just a human being in flannels. I thought he was playing ghost, and I said to myself, ‘All the better to mark you on, my friend!’ Oh, it was funny.” She began to laugh shakily. “There was I creeping along with my syringe full charged, and the pail in my other hand—held well out, because of my gown—and he, poor soul, sauntering along in the shadows of the nut-walk, thinking nothing less than that some one was advancing with his pink doom. When he was a couple of yards off I fired a volley—slap in his face—and turned to run. He swore—but I forgive him that. My pail caught in a bough, and went over his feet, for he jumped towards the noise; he is not a coward. He caught hold of my dress, in the dark (he's torn a yard out at the gathers, but it doesn't matter; the dress was ruined anyway), and as soon as I had heard his voice, even though it was swearing—I knew what I'd done, and I said: ‘It's all a mistake. I'm Yolande Riseborough. Can't you see?’ for he was staggering about. And then I saw he couldn't, and I said: ‘Come and be cleaned. Give me your hand.’ And so I brought him in, and on the way we tumbled over the other pail. And nous voici—”
“You know him, then?”
“Know him? Any one would have known him, when it was too late. Oh, my broken heart! What will you do to me when you know? He'll never stay—”
“If you play at sphinxes another moment I shall slap you. Who is it?”
“It's your new tenant. That's all,” said Yolande, with what is termed the calmness of despair. “You know, permission to walk in the garden was given as one of the extra attractions of the cottage. I'll never try to be clever again. I got you the tenant—cotton-broking lineage, and Coutts's bank, and all—and now I've squirted him with red dye out of a brass garden syringe, and he will never forgive it; and I wish I was dead.”
One on each side of her, we were doing our best to console, when the bath-room door opened. We heard it. I flew into the corridor, pushed by four fair hands. I intercepted my partially washed tenant. I made him a speech of manly apology. Important as his tenancy was to me, I did not, even then, grovel before him. I was getting on fairly well with the speech when my tenant began to laugh—one of the jolliest laughs I ever heard. And from the drawing-room Chloe's laugh and Yolande's joined in it. So that in a few moments I had presented my tenant to my wife, and we were all talking at once, explaining and expounding, while I struggled with the wire of the last but two of the bottles of Asti.
My tenant was young; Chloe considered him handsome. He certainly had a well-shaped head and extremely merry blue eyes. He was at home with us at once. Stiffness of demeanor is difficult to maintain in the immediate sequence of events such as had introduced us.
Three courses were open to him, as Mr. Gladstone used to say. He might have stormed, raged, threatened, and retired; he might have retired, frigidly polite; in either case following up the retirement by a notice of the termination of the tenancy. Or he might have laughed and made the best of it, and of us. This he had done. I liked the man, and I almost forgave him for being able to play the guitar—a most effeminate accomplishment, and one I never could acquire, for all Chloe's teaching—when I heard that he had learned it in the Philippines during the war. I detest and distrust sudden intimacies, but it was impossible to treat this man as a stranger. By dyeing—or being accessory to the dyeing of—a new acquaintance crimson, you skip a hundred mile-stones on the road to friendship. But it might be a hazardous experiment. Anyway, it was not till the small hours were growing out of all knowledge, and beginning to take notice, that we parted from our tenant. A second, and much better, supper had risen for us, phœnix-like, from the ashes of the first; we had sung songs, told travellers' tales, made jokes, and when at last I saw the injured tenant to his door there were hints of gray in the east.
When I came back, Chloe and Yolande, candle-bearing, had paused on the stairs for a last word.
“He's wonderful,” I said. “The right sort.”
“One of our kind—yes,” said Chloe; “some people are, don't you know, and some aren't; quite nice people, too, sometimes, curiously enough. And people who aren't very clever are, now and then. Besides that, he's charming—isn't he, Yolande?”
Yolande stifled a yawn, and said she supposed he was all right.
“What a night of adventures for us!” I said, “and, oh, my only hat! what a night for him!”
“He may think himself lucky,” said Yolande. “How angel-good you were to him, Chloe! Goodnight.”
“Do you think it was a success—the real party?” asked Chloe, anxiously. “They couldn't believe that about the fruit and the dye.”
“It was true,” said Yolande, “so I suppose they couldn't. Oh yes, it's all right; give them something to talk about for months. It was a splendid party, Chloe, though I didn't have anything to do with it. I'll never put my finger into any one else's pie again!”
She held up her pink-dyed fingers with a rather rueful laugh.
“Oh yes, you will,” I said, “for the pie's our good! You see, this was such a very pink pie—and, besides, it was just that sort of an unimportant detail that doesn't suit your genius. But it's taught—”
“Taught me a lesson? Yes, rub it in!”
“No; it's taught us our tenant. I think he's worth learning. I'm glad we know him. Goodnight.”
So ended our house-warming.
It was an extravagant entertainment, but the thought of the new tenant's rent upheld us through the gloomy work of paying the bills; and the price for my stories, as for Chloe's pictures, was rising steadily. I now had only to begin a story, and, if Yolande were staying with us, it found itself finished, and finished well, without my help. And I could not disguise from myself that my stories met now with a reception far more flattering than ever awaited them in the old days. My articles I was still allowed to write on “my own unaided hook,” and I rejoiced in this till the editor of the Weekly Wilderness sent me an amiable letter congratulating me on the style of certain tales which he had had the pleasure of reading in the magazines and weeklies, over my signature, and suggesting that my articles would be none the worse for a little of the “pathetic sort of thing” as well as the “light ironic touch” which he had noticed in the stories. Then I showed Chloe the letter, and said several things. Among others I swore that I would not be interfered with any more in my work.
“I know she means it kindly,” I said. “I know it's done entirely to serve us and help us, and it's most kind and charitable, and I simply won't stand it. I'm not going to go on being complimented on other people's work.”
Chloe was turning over the pages of the paper in which the last but three of these stories had appeared. “But they're good, aren't they—rather good, I mean?” said she.
“They're so beastly good,” said I, “that I won't put my name to another of them. If it weren't that the whole business sounds so silly, I'd tell every single editor to-morrow, and advertise the facts in the Times as well.”
Chloe had grown quite pale.
“Oh, Len, don't!” she said; “the ghost only wants to help.”
“Yolande will be off to Italy quite soon now, with her horrid pupils. Len, dear, to please me, don't make any more fuss. You don't know how unhappy it makes me. Wait till she's gone. Perhaps the ghost won't write any more, now it knows you don't like it.”
“You mean you'll tell her to drop it?” said I. “What must she think of me for letting it go on so long? Well, my mind's made up now; I'll speak to Yolande myself—”
“No, no, no! Dear Len, don't. I'm sure the ghost won't write any more. And I can't think why you mind. Yes—I see you do—and—But I'm quite pleased when the ghost touches up my drawings, or even when it does them for me altogether. Dear ghost! Len, it doesn't matter which of us does the work.” Her voice was very small, and broken, and I felt a brute.
“It wouldn't matter which of us did the work, my pussy-kitten,” I said, “but Yolande's not one of us. She's our land-agent and our registry-office, as it is, and that ought to be enough even for her. If you don't speak to her, I shall.”
“Then I will,” said she, turning away. “Go on with your work. I'm certain no nasty ghost will come and interfere any more.”
Still raging, I sat down to the type-writer and snapped off a letter to my Weekly Wilderness editor. Then of course I went to look for Chloe. I found her crouched among the blue and green cushions on the faded green divan in the loafery, and I stayed there with her head on my shoulder till she had consented to be completely comforted. I told her that I “did not mean to be cross,” and when I had said it many times she believed it, and so did I, though it was not at all true.
After that no ghost ever laid finger on my type-writer, and I worked at it harder than ever. And my stories were not nearly so good as the ghost-ridden ones. But my drawings grew better and better, as I did more and more of them—all of which Chloe signed and sent off with a cheerful gratitude, perhaps a little too pronounced, and designed, I knew, to show me that she wasn't too proud to accept help from a ghost—or a friend.
The humiliation which stung me every time I thought of my indebtedness to a writer more expert than I drove me to this curious retaliation in Fate—or Chloe—or Yolande—or the ghost. Since Chloe could bear that my work should be supplemented and improved by another hand—a hand neither hers nor mine—it pleased me mightily to reflect that no hand but mine had ever tampered with her work, and that she did not know to whom belonged the hand whose help she accepted so lightly. I hugged myself in the knowledge that it was mine, mine, mine. An order to illustrate a child's book had thrilled her with delight. She has a pretty fancy. She can see pictures—but she cannot draw them. It was on her sketches that I always worked; and I worked hard to finish that child's book before Yolande should take flight for Italy. I found it hard to conceal from Yolande my growing irritation at the ghost's part in my stories—an irritation doubled, of course, by vexation at the weakness of my former acquiescence. It was hard to keep the word I had pledged to Chloe, hard not to have it out with Yolande. There would, I think, have been a constraint strong enough to force on a crisis of explanations but for our new tenant. He distracted us.
He called on us; he invited us to tea; he sent us tickets for the theatres. When I saw him strolling among the green of our garden—for he spent most of the time there that he could snatch from his newspaper-office—I sometimes hated to think that our garden was no longer only our own; but he was discreet. If Chloe and I set foot in the garden, he disappeared, as swiftly as though our weed-grown walks had been a wishing-carpet. But when Yolande walked alone in the garden he sometimes joined her. Of course to her the garden was merely a green space to walk in. To us—and I liked our tenant for perceiving this—the garden was something far other and far more. He dined with us—on a bottled-beer footing—more than once, and more than once we and Yolande dined with him at his cottage. On the first of these times Chloe and I could not help exchanging glances when we saw how the soft yellow of our tenant's sitting-room wall-paper suited his black-framed etchings and mezzotints. Yolande surprised the glance, and it betrayed us to her. She taxed us roundly with the crime, later on, as we sat sipping cocoa round the kitchen fire at home.
“When will you learn wisdom?” she sighed. “You know you papered that cottage yourselves.”
We owned it shamefacedly.
“Are there no poor paper-hangers out of work? I ask more in sorrow than in anger. Are there no painters in Elmhurst?”
Here Chloe plucked up a spirit and said we enjoyed doing it.
“The old defence—which is none,” said Yolande, setting down her cup on the broad fender. “How many glorious golden guineas could you two have turned at your own trades in the time it took you to do that house? Oh yes, I saw the exquisite way you'd made the patterns match, and how delicately you'd negotiated all those difficult odd corners. You are incorrigible!”
“It comes of property,” I said. “Our property is exigent. We love it, and it presumes on our affection and makes us do things for it. It's like doing things for one's own child. Mothers like to wash and dress their own babies, and they don't think it waste of time to spend hours over it—even if they might be earning money instead and keeping whole armies of competent professional nurses. Now your property—”
“Yes, I know,” Yolande interrupted; “my property's in consols—what there is of it—and I love it for itself alone. It has no sentimental claims. Don't throw it up at me. But even if I had a house and a garden and cottages and all the rest of it—”
“If you had a husband,” said Chloe, looking up suddenly from the red heart of the fire at which she had been blinking, “wouldn't you like to sew on his buttons and mend his socks?”
“Never,” cried Yolande, with energy. “You can get them done for a penny a pair, and men ought to sew on their own buttons—”
“He may divert his energies so far?”
“Yes; it's good for a man, because he never does it—or he never does it because it's good for him.”
“Pardon me,” I said, firmly. “I myself—”
“Oh, you!” she said; “but I am sleepy and stupid, and I shall never be married and sit over my own kitchen fire. Good-night, Cinderella.”
“Good-night, Fairy Godmother,” said Chloe.
I handed Yolande her brass candlestick and went back to my wife and my own fireside. When we had sat silent for a little, listening to the slow ticking of the tall clock, Chloe said, still blinking at the fire:
“That was quite true—what you said about doing things for your own—”
“Yes,” I said, “I know it was.”
“How can people let nurses do everything for their babies?”
“Yes,” I said again, “how can they?”
Her cheek was against my shoulder by this time and my face against her hair. So we sat silent another space. Then suddenly she lifted her head and said, “Len, if she ever is married, she'll be just as silly as other people.”
“Probably,” said I.
“I wonder if our tenant—”
“Of course he admires her. We all do—”
“It's absurd,” I said, with some heat, for which I can give no reason; “she hardly knows him at all.”
“That doesn't matter,” said my wife. “Have you forgotten—”
I had not forgotten. It is a joy to both of us still to remember how few times we had met before we knew, quite surely and without mistake, and so ran into each other's arms in the safe confidence and knowledge that there, for each, was the only possible home.
“But other people are different,” I said, after a while.
“Not all of them—and not so very,” said Chloe. “And I think he likes her.”
“Nonsense!” I said; “and, besides, he's not half good enough for her.”
“I knew you'd say that,” she cried, jumping up. “No, I'm not going to sit on your knee another moment.” She busied herself in lighting our candle. “I knew you'd say that. Isn't it odd? Women are so glad to think of their friends being perhaps going to be happy. But men always feel injured at the mere idea that a girl they like might marry some one else. Dogs in the manger!”
“It's not the polygamous instinct at all, my pussy-kitten,” I said. “It's only that women believe in marriage, and men don't.”
“Don't they?” said she. “Don't you?”
“But our marriage isn't at all like other marriages. Now, is it?”
“Isn't it? Oh, I hope it is! I shouldn't like to think ours was the only proper marriage. It can't be, of course. There must be heaps of people as fond of each other as we are. Don't you think so? And quite as happy.”
“Do you think so?” She had lighted the candle and was standing looking at me as I took off my boots. I stood up in my stockinged feet and put my arm round her. “Do you?” I asked again.
“No,” she said, beginning to smile and blinking softly at me, “honestly, I'm afraid I don't.”
“And I don't, either,” said I.