The White Peacock/Part 1, Chapter 3
|←Dangling the Apple|| The White Peacock (1911)
A Vendor of Visions
|London: William Heinemann pages 32-48|
A VENDOR OF VISIONS
The Sunday following Lettie’s visit to the mill, Leslie came up in the morning, admirably dressed, and perfected by a grand air. I showed him into the dark drawing-room, and left him. Ordinarily he would have wandered to the stairs, and sat there calling to Lettie; to-day he was silent. I carried the news of his arrival to my sister, who was pinning on her brooch.
“And how is the dear boy?” she asked.
“I have not inquired,” said I.
She laughed, and loitered about till it was time to set off for church before she came downstairs. Then she also assumed the grand air and bowed to him with a beautiful bow. He was somewhat taken aback and had nothing to say. She rustled across the room to the window, where the white geraniums grew magnificently. “I must adorn myself,” she said.
It was Leslie’s custom to bring her flowers. As he had not done so this day, she was piqued. He hated the scent and chalky whiteness of the geraniums. So she smiled at him as she pinned them into the bosom of her dress, saying:
“They are very fine, are they not?”
He muttered that they were. Mother came downstairs, greeted him warmly, and asked him if he would take her to church.
“If you will allow me,” said he.
“You are modest to-day,” laughed mother.
“To-day!” he repeated.
“I hate modesty in a young man,” said mother—“Come, we shall be late.” Lettie wore the geraniums all day—till evening. She brought Alice Gall home to tea, and bade me bring up “Mon Taureau,” when his farm work was over.
The day had been hot and close. The sun was reddening in the west as we leaped across the lesser brook. The evening scents began to awake, and wander unseen through the still air. An occasional yellow sunbeam would slant through the thick roof of leaves and cling passionately to the orange clusters of mountain-ash berries. The trees were silent, drawing together to sleep. Only a few pink orchids stood palely by the path, looking wistfully out at the ranks of red-purple bugle, whose last flowers, glowing from the top of the bronze column, yearned darkly for the sun.
We sauntered on in silence, not breaking the first hush of the woodlands. As we drew near home we heard a murmur from among the trees, from the lover’s seat, where a great tree had fallen and remained mossed and covered with fragile growth. There a crooked bough made a beautiful seat for two.
“Fancy being in love and making a row in such a twilight,” said I as we continued our way. But when we came opposite the fallen tree, we saw no lovers there, but a man sleeping, and muttering through his sleep. The cap had fallen from his grizzled hair, and his head leaned back against a profusion of the little wild geraniums that decorated the dead bough so delicately. The man’s clothing was good, but slovenly and neglected. His face was pale and worn with sickness and dissipation. As he slept, his grey beard wagged, and his loose unlovely mouth moved in indistinct speech. He was acting over again some part of his life, and his features twitched during the unnatural sleep. He would give a little groan, gruesome to hear and then talk to some woman. His features twitched as if with pain, and he moaned slightly.
The lips opened in a grimace showing the yellow teeth behind the beard. Then he began again talking in his throat, thickly, so that we could only tell part of what he said. It was very unpleasant. I wondered how we should end it. Suddenly through the gloom of the twilight-haunted woods came the scream of a rabbit caught by a weasel. The man awoke with a sharp “Ah!”—he looked round in consternation, then sinking down again wearily, said, “I was dreaming again.”
“You don’t seem to have nice dreams,” said George.
The man winced, then looking at us said, almost sneering:
“And who are you?”
We did not answer, but waited for him to move. He sat still, looking at us.
“So!” he said at last, wearily, “I do dream. I do, I do.” He sighed heavily. Then he added, sarcastically; “Were you interested?”
“No,” said I. “But you are out of your way surely. Which road did you want?”
“You want me to clear out,” he said.
“Well,” I said laughing in deprecation. “I don’t mind your dreaming. But this is not the way to anywhere.”
“Where may you be going then?” he asked.
“I? Home,” I replied with dignity.
“You are a Beardsall?” he queried, eyeing me with bloodshot eyes.
“I am!” I replied with more dignity, wondering who the fellow could be.
He sat a few moments looking at me. It was getting dark in the wood. Then he took up an ebony stick with a gold head, and rose. The stick seemed to catch at my imagination. I watched it curiously as we walked with the old man along the path to the gate. We went with him into the open road. When we reached the clear sky where the light from the west fell full on our faces, he turned again and looked at us closely. His mouth opened sharply, as if he would speak, but he stopped himself, and only said “Good-bye—Good-bye.”
“Shall you be all right?” I asked, seeing him totter.
“Yes—all right—good-bye, lad.”
He walked away feebly into the darkness. We saw the lights of a vehicle on the high-road: after a while we heard the bang of a door, and a cab rattled away.
“Well—whoever’s he?” said George laughing.
“Do you know,” said I, “it’s made me feel a bit rotten.”
“Ay?” he laughed, turning up the end of the exclamation with indulgent surprise.
We went back home, deciding to say nothing to the women. They were sitting in the window seat watching for us, mother and Alice and Lettie.
“You have been a long time!” said Lettie. “We’ve watched the sun go down—it set splendidly—look—the rim of the hill is smouldering yet. What have you been doing?”
“Waiting till your Taurus finished work.”
“Now be quiet,” she said hastily, and—turning to him, “You have come to sing hymns?”
“Anything you like,” he replied.
“How nice of you, George!” exclaimed Alice, ironically. She was a short, plump girl, pale, with daring, rebellious eyes. Her mother was a Wyld, a family famous either for shocking lawlessness, or for extreme uprightness. Alice, with an admirable father, and a mother who loved her husband passionately, was wild and lawless on the surface, but at heart very upright and amenable. My mother and she were fast friends, and Lettie had a good deal of sympathy with her. But Lettie generally deplored Alice’s outrageous behaviour, though she relished it—if “superior” friends were not present. Most men enjoyed Alice in company, but they fought shy of being alone with her.
“Would you say the same to me?” she asked.
“It depends what you’d answer,” he said, laughingly.
“Oh, you’re so bloomin’ cautious. I’d rather have a tack in my shoe than a cautious man, wouldn’t you Lettie?”
“Well—it depends how far I had to walk,” was Lettie’s reply—“but if I hadn’t to limp too far——”
Alice turned away from Lettie, whom she often found rather irritating.
“You do look glum, Sybil,” she said to me, “did somebody want to kiss you?”
I laughed—on the wrong side, understanding her malicious feminine reference—and answered:
“If they had, I should have looked happy.”
“Dear boy, smile now then,”—and she tipped me under the chin. I drew away.
“Oh, Gum—we are solemn! What’s the matter with you? Georgy—say something—else I’s’ll begin to feel nervous.”
“What shall I say?” he asked, shifting his feet and resting his elbows on his knees. “Oh, Lor!” she cried in great impatience. He did not help her, but sat clasping his hands, smiling on one side of his face. He was nervous. He looked at the pictures, the ornaments, and everything in the room; Lettie got up to settle some flowers on the mantel-piece, and he scrutinised her closely. She was dressed in some blue foulard stuff, with lace at the throat, and lace cuffs to the elbow. She was tall and supple; her hair had a curling fluffiness very charming. He was no taller than she, and looked shorter, being strongly built. He too had a grace of his own, but not as he sat stiffly on a horse-hair chair. She was elegant in her movements.
After a little while mother called us in to supper.
“Come,” said Lettie to him, “take me in to supper.”
He rose, feeling very awkward.
“Give me your arm,” said she to tease him. He did so, and flushed under his tan, afraid of her round arm half hidden by lace, which lay among his sleeve.
When we were seated she flourished her spoon and asked him what he would have. He hesitated, looked at the strange dishes and said he would have some cheese. They insisted on his eating new, complicated meats.
“I’m sure you like tantafflins, don’t you Georgie?” said Alice, in her mocking fashion. He was not sure. He could not analyse the flavours, he felt confused and bewildered even through his sense of taste! Alice begged him to have salad.
“No, thanks,” said he. “I don’t like it.”
“Oh, George!” she said, “How can you say so when I’m offering it you.”
“Well—I’ve only had it once,” said he, “and that was when I was working with Flint, and he gave us fat bacon and bits of lettuce soaked in vinegar—‘ ’Ave a bit more salit,’ he kept saying, but I’d had enough.”
“But all our lettuce,” said Alice with a wink, “is as sweet as a nut, no vinegar about our lettuce.” George laughed in much confusion at her pun on my sister’s name.
“I believe you,” he said, with pompous gallantry.
“Think of that!” cried Alice. “Our Georgie believes me. Oh, I am so, so pleased!”
He smiled painfully. His hand was resting on the table, the thumb tucked tight under the fingers, his knuckles white as he nervously gripped his thumb. At last supper was finished, and he picked up his serviette from the floor and began to fold it. Lettie also seemed ill at ease. She had teased him till the sense of his awkwardness had become uncomfortable. Now she felt sorry, and a trifle repentant, so she went to the piano, as she always did to dispel her moods. When she was angry she played tender fragments of Tschaïkowsky, when she was miserable, Mozart. Now she played Handel in a manner that suggested the plains of heaven in the long notes, and in the little trills as if she were waltzing up the ladder of Jacob’s dream like the damsels in Blake’s pictures. I often told her she flattered herself scandalously through the piano; but generally she pretended not to understand me, and occasionally she surprised me by a sudden rush of tears to her eyes. For George’s sake, she played Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” knowing that the sentiment of the chant would appeal to him, and make him sad, forgetful of the petty evils of this life. I smiled as I watched the cheap spell working. When she had finished, her fingers lay motionless for a minute on the keys, then she spun round, and looked him straight in the eyes, giving promise of a smile. But she glanced down at her knee.
“You are tired of music,” she said.
“No,” he replied, shaking his head.
“Like it better than salad?” she asked with a flash of raillery.
He looked up at her with a sudden smile, but did not reply. He was not handsome; his features were too often in a heavy repose; but when he looked up and smiled unexpectedly, he flooded her with an access of tenderness.
“Then you’ll have a little more,” said she, and she turned again to the piano. She played soft, wistful morsels, then suddenly broke off in the midst of one sentimental plaint, and left the piano, dropping into a low chair by the fire. There she sat and looked at him. He was conscious that her eyes were fixed on him, but he dared not look back at her, so he pulled his moustache.
“You are only a boy, after all,” she said to him quietly. Then he turned and asked her why.
“It is a boy that you are,” she repeated, leaning back in her chair, and smiling lazily at him.
“I never thought so,” he replied seriously.
“Really?” she said, chuckling.
“No,” said he, trying to recall his previous impressions.
She laughed heartily, saying:
“You’re growing up.”
“How?” he asked.
“Growing up,” she repeated, still laughing.
“But I’m sure I was never boyish,” said he.
“I’m teaching you,” said she, “and when you’re boyish you’ll be a very decent man. A mere man daren’t be a boy for fear of tumbling off his manly dignity, and then he’d be a fool, poor thing.”
He laughed, and sat still to think about it, as was his way.
“Do you like pictures?” she asked suddenly, being tired of looking at him.
“Better than anything,” he replied.
“Except dinner, and a warm hearth and a lazy evening,” she said.
He looked at her suddenly, hardening at her insult, and biting his lips at the taste of this humiliation. She repented, and smiled her plaintive regret to him.
“I’ll show you some,” she said, rising and going out of the room. He felt he was nearer her. She returned, carrying a pile of great books.
“Jove—you’re pretty strong!” said he.
“You are charming in your compliment,” she said.
He glanced at her to see if she were mocking.
“That’s the highest you could say of me, isn’t it?” she insisted.
“Is it?” he asked, unwilling to compromise himself.
“For sure,” she answered—and then, laying the books on the table, “I know how a man will compliment me by the way he looks at me”—she kneeled before the fire. “Some look at my hair, some watch the rise and fall of my breathing, some look at my neck, and a few,—not you among them,—look me in the eyes for my thoughts. To you, I’m a fine specimen, strong! Pretty strong! You primitive man!”
He sat twisting his fingers; she was very contrary.
“Bring your chair up,” she said, sitting down at the table and opening a book. She talked to him of each picture, insisting on hearing his opinion. Sometimes he disagreed with her and would not be persuaded. At such times she was piqued.
“If,” said she, “an ancient Briton in his skins came and contradicted me as you do, wouldn’t you tell him not to make an ass of himself?”
“I don’t know,” said he.
“Then you ought to,” she replied. “You know nothing.”
“How is it you ask me then?” he said.
She began to laugh.
“Why—that’s a pertinent question. I think you might be rather nice, you know.”
“Thank you,” he said, smiling ironically.
“Oh!” she said. “I know, you think you’re perfect, but you’re not, you’re very annoying.”
“Yes,” exclaimed Alice, who had entered the room again, dressed ready to depart. “He’s so blooming slow! Great whizz! Who wants fellows to carry cold dinners? Shouldn’t you like to shake him Lettie?”
“I don’t feel concerned enough,” replied the other, calmly.
“Did you ever carry a boiled pudding Georgy?” asked Alice with innocent interest, punching me slyly.
“Me!—why?—what makes you ask?” he replied, quite at a loss.
“Oh, I only wondered if your people needed any indigestion mixture—pa mixes it—1⁄1 ½ a bottle.”
“I don’t see” he began.
“Ta—ta, old boy, I’ll give you time to think about it. Good-night, Lettie. Absence makes the heart grow fonder—Georgy—of someone else. Farewell. Come along, Sybil love, the moon is shining—Good-night all, good-night!”
I escorted her home, while they continued to look at the pictures. He was a romanticist. He liked Copley, Fielding, Cattermole and Birket Foster; he could see nothing whatsoever in Girtin or David Cox. They fell out decidedly over George Clausen.
“But,” said Lettie, “he is a real realist, he makes common things beautiful, he sees the mystery and magnificence that envelops us even when we work menially. I do know and I can speak. If I hoed in the fields beside you——” This was a very new idea for him, almost a shock to his imagination, and she talked unheeded. The picture under discussion was a water colour—“Hoeing” by Clausen.
“You’d be just that colour in the sunset,” she said, thus bringing him back to the subject, “and if you looked at the ground you’d find there was a sense of warm gold fire in it, and once you’d perceived the colour, it would strengthen till you’d see nothing else. You are blind; you are only half-born; you are gross with good living and heavy sleeping. You are a piano which will only play a dozen common notes. Sunset is nothing to you—it merely happens anywhere. Oh, but you make me feel as if I’d like to make you suffer. If you’d ever been sick; if you’d ever been born into a home where there was something oppressed you, and you couldn’t understand; if ever you’d believed, or even doubted, you might have been a man by now. You never grow up, like bulbs which spend all summer getting fat and fleshy, but never wakening the germ of a flower. As for me, the flower is born in me, but it wants bringing forth. Things don’t flower if they’re overfed. You have to suffer before you blossom in this life. When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering. You wonder how I have touched death. You don’t know. There’s aways a sense of death in this home. I believe my mother hated my father before I was born. That was death in her veins for me before I was born. It makes a difference——”
As he sat listening, his eyes grew wide and his lips were parted, like a child who feels the tale but does not understand the words. She, looking away from herself at last, saw him, began to laugh gently, and patted his hand saying:
“Oh! my dear heart, are you bewildered? How amiable of you to listen to me—there isn’t any meaning in it all—there isn’t really!”
“But,” said he, “why do you say it?”
“Oh, the question!” she laughed. “Let us go back to our muttons, we’re gazing at each other like two dazed images.”
They turned on, chatting casually, till Greorge suddenly exclaimed, “There!”
It was Maurice’s “Idyll.”
“What of it?” she asked, gradually flushing. She remembered her own enthusiasm over the picture.
“Wouldn’t it be fine?” he exclaimed, looking at her with glowing eyes, his teeth showing white in a smile that was not amusement.
“What?” she asked, dropping her head in confusion.
“That—a girl like that—half afraid—and passion!” He lit up curiously.
“She may well be half afraid, when the barbarian comes out in his glory, skins and all.”
“But don’t you like it?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, saying, “Make love to the next girl you meet, and by the time the poppies redden the field, she’ll hang in your arms. She’ll have need to be more than half afraid, won’t she?”
She played with the leaves of the book, and did not look at him.
“But,” he faltered, his eyes glowing, “it would be—rather——”
“Don’t, sweet lad, don’t!” she cried laughing.
“But I shouldn’t”—he insisted, “I don’t know whether I should like any girl I know to——”
“Precious Sir Galahad,” she said in a mock caressing voice, and stroking his cheek with her finger, “You ought to have been a monk—a martyr, a Carthusian.”
He laughed, taking no notice. He was breathlessly quivering under the new sensation of heavy, unappeased fire in his breast, and in the muscles of his arms. He glanced at her bosom and shivered.
“Are you studying just how to play the part?” she asked.
“No—but——” he tried to look at her, but failed. He shrank, laughing, and dropped his head.
“What?” she asked with vibrant curiosity.
Having become a few degrees calmer, he looked up at her now, his eyes wide and vivid with a declaration that made her shrink back as if flame had leaped towards her face. She bent down her head, and picked at her dress.
“Didn’t you know the picture before?” she said, in a low, toneless voice.
He shut his eyes and shrank with shame.
“No, I’ve never seen it before,” he said.
“I’m surprised,” she said. “It is a very common one.”
“Is it?” he answered, and this make-belief conversation fell. She looked up, and found his eyes. They gazed at each other for a moment before they hid their faces again. It was a torture to each of them to look thus nakedly at the other, a dazzled, shrinking pain that they forced themselves to undergo for a moment, that they might the moment after tremble with a fierce sensation that filled their veins with fluid, fiery electricity. She sought almost in panic, for something to say.
“I believe it’s in Liverpool, the picture,” she contrived to say.
He dared not kill this conversation, he was too self-conscious. He forced himself to reply, “I didn’t know there was a gallery in Liverpool.”
“Oh, yes, a very good one,” she said.
Their eyes met in the briefest flash of a glance, then both turned their faces aside. Thus averted, one from the other, they made talk. At last she rose, gathered the books together, and carried them off. At the door she turned. She must steal another keen moment: “Are you admiring my strength?” she asked. Her pose was fine. With her head thrown back, the roundness of her throat ran finely down to the bosom which swelled above the pile of books, held by her straight arms. He looked at her. Their lips smiled curiously. She put back her throat as if she were drinking. They felt the blood beating madly in their necks. Then, suddenly breaking into a slight trembling, she turned round and left the room.
While she was out, he sat twisting his moustache. She came back along the hall talking madly to herself in French. Having been much impressed by Sarah Bernhardt’s “Dame aux Camelias” and “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” Lettie had caught something of the weird tone of this great actress, and her raillery and mockery came out in little wild waves. She laughed at him, and at herself, and at men in general, and at love in particular. Whatever he said to her, she answered in the same mad clatter of French, speaking high and harshly. The sound was strange and uncomfortable. There was a painful perplexity in his brow, such as I often perceived afterwards, a sense of something hurting, something he could not understand.
“Well, well, well, well!” she exclaimed at last. “We must be mad sometimes, or we should be getting aged, Hein?”
“I wish I could understand,” he said plaintively.
“Poor dear!” she laughed. “How sober he is! And will you really go? They will think we’ve given you no supper, you look so sad.”
“I have supped—full” he began, his eyes dancing with a smile as he ventured upon a quotation. He was very much excited.
“Of horrors!” she cried completing it. “Now that is worse than anything I have given you.”
“Is it?” he replied, and they smiled at each other.
“Far worse,” she answered. They waited in suspense for some moments. He looked at her.
“Good-bye,” she said, holding out her hand. Her voice was full of insurgent tenderness. He looked at her again, his eyes flickering. Then he took her hand. She pressed his fingers, holding them a little while. Then ashamed of her display of feeling, she looked down. He had a deep cut across his thumb.
“What a gash!” she exclaimed, shivering, and clinging a little tighter to his fingers before she released them. He gave a little laugh.
“Does it hurt you?” she asked very gently.
He laughed again—“No!” he said softly, as if his thumb were not worthy of consideration.
They smiled again at each other, and, with a blind movement, he broke the spell and was gone.