Twilight (Frankau)/Chapter V
The few words I had with Nurse Benham the next morning cleared the air and the situation between us. The strange thing was that at first she did not notice the parcel at all, still loose and untidy in the paper in which Dr. Kennedy had enwrapped it. Not until I told her to be careful not to spill the tea over it did it strike her to wonder how it came there.
"Did Suzanne give you that?" she asked suspiciously.
"She has not been in my room since you left me."
"That's the very parcel you asked for the other night. How ever did you get hold of it?"
"After you left me I got out of bed and fetched it."
"You got out of bed!" She grew red in the face with rage or incredulity.
"Yes, twice. Once for the parcel and once for the scissors!"
She did not speak at once, standing there with her flushed face. So I went on:
"It is absurd for you to insist on me doing this or that, or leaving it undone. You are here to take care of me, not to bully and tyrannise over me."
"I am no good to you at all. I'd better go. You will take matters into your own hands. I never knew such a patient, never. One would think you'd no sense at all, that you didn't know how ill you were."
"That is no reason why I should not be allowed to get better. Believe me, the only way for that to come about is that I should be allowed to lead my own life in my own way."
"To get up in the middle of the night with the window wide open, to walk about the room in your nightgown!"
"I should not have done so, you know, if you had passed me the things when I asked you for them."
"You don't want a nurse at all," she repeated.
"Yes, I do. What I don't want is a gaoler."
I was on the sofa when Dr. Kennedy called, the papers on the table beside me. He asked eagerly what I thought of them:
"I see you have got at them. Are you disappointed, exhilarated? Are they illuminative? Tell me about them; I want so much to hear."
He had forgotten to ask how I was.
"I will tell you about them presently. I haven't read them all. Up to now they are certainly disappointing, if not dull! They are business letters, to begin with. But it is obvious she is trying to get up something like a flirtation with him."
"Oh, yes! I have watched Ella, my sister Mrs. Lovegrove, for years. She is past mistress of the art of flirtation. Sentiment and the appeal of her femininity, a note of unhappiness and the suggestion the man's friendship may assuage it..."
"Mrs. Lovegrove is a very charming woman. But Margaret Capel was not in the least like her."
"Or any other woman?"
"You have put yourself out of court. No woman is unlike any other. Your 'pale fair Margaret' admits, from the first, that Gabriel Stanton attracts her. And this at a moment when she should allow herself to be attracted by no man. When she has just gone through the horrors of the Divorce Court."
"You are not bringing that up against her?"
"I am not bringing anything up against her. But you asked me about the letters. I have only read a dozen of them, and that is how they strike me. A little dull and, on her part, flirtatious."
"I hope you won't do the book at all if you don't feel sympathetic."
"Believe me I shall be sympathetic if there is anything with which to sympathise. Do you know her early life, or history? It is hinted at, partly revealed here, but I should like to see it clearly."
"Won't she tell you herself?" He smiled. I answered his smile.
"She has left off coming since I have begun to get well. I shall have to write the book, if I write it at all, without further help. By the way, talking about getting better, I know that doctoring bores you, but I want to know how much better I am going to get? I am as weak as a rat; my legs refuse to carry me, my hand shakes when I get a pen in it. I shall get the story into my head from these papers," I added, with something of the depression that I was feeling: "But I don't see how I am to get it out again. I don't see how I shall ever have the strength to put it on paper."
"That will come. There is no hurry about that. As a matter of fact I believe letters are copyright for fourteen years. It isn't twelve yet."
It was not worth while to put him right on the copyright acts.
"You'll be going downstairs next week, you'll be at your writing-table, her writing-table in the drawing-room. You ask me about her early life. I only know her father was a wealthy American absolutely devoted to her. He married for the second time when she was fifteen or sixteen and they both concentrated on her. She was remarkable even as a child, obviously a genius, very beautiful."
"She outgrew that," I said emphatically.
"She was a very beautiful woman," he insisted. And then said more lightly, "You must remember you have only seen her ghost." The retort pleased me and I let the subject of Margaret Capel's beauty drop. She interested me less when I felt well, and notwithstanding my active night I felt comparatively well this morning. Since I could not get him to take my weakness seriously I told him my grievance against nurse.
"When she hears I am to go down next week she will have a fit. I wish for once you would use your medical authority and tell her I am on no account to be contradicted or thwarted."
"I'll tell her so if you like, but I never see her. She runs like a rabbit when I come near."
"You are not professional enough for her taste, there are too few examinations and prescriptions. How is my unsatisfactory lung, by the way? Give a guess, something scientific to retail. I must keep Ella informed."
"There has not been time for the physical signs to have cleared up yet. I'll listen if you like, but after seeing all those specialists I should have thought you were tired of saying '99'."
"They varied it sometimes. '999' seems to be the latest wheeze."
"I wish you had not left off seeing Margaret," he sighed.
"It is a pity," I laughed at him. "You should not have dropped giving me the morphia so soon."
"You wouldn't have it."
"It was dulling my brain. I felt myself growing stupid and more stupid."
"You only had one-quarter grain twice a day for the inside of a week, and there was atropin in it. If it had really had a deadening effect upon you you would not have refused it, but just gone on. Not that I believe anything would ever dull your brain."
I wished Ella could have heard him, it would have confirmed her in her folly and made for my amusement. He left shortly after paying me that remarkable compliment, but stopped on his way out to speak to Benham. The immediate effect of his words was to make her silent and perhaps sullen for a few hours. After which, but still under protest, she gave me whatever I asked for, and began to be more like other nurses in the time she took off duty for exercise, sleep, and meals. She even yawned in my face on the rare occasions when I summoned her in the night. I tried to chaff her back into good humour, but without much success.
"Do you find me any worse for having got out of leading strings?" I asked her. "Have pencils and MS. paper sent up my temperature?"
"You are not out of the wood yet," she retorted angrily.
"No, but I am enjoying its unbrageous rest," I returned. "Reading my papers in the shadows."
"That's right. Mind you go on keeping up my spirits." She did smile then, but she was obviously dissatisfied, both with me and Dr. Kennedy. I was taking no drugs, doing a little more each day, in the way of moving about. And yet I could not call myself convalescent. My legs were stiff and my back heavy. I had no feeling of returning vigour. What little I did I forced myself to do. I had hardly the energy to finish the letters. Had it not been for Dr. Kennedy I don't believe, at this stage, I should have finished them! Although the next two or three set me thinking, and I was again visualising the writers. Not that Gabriel Stanton betrayed himself in his letters, as Margaret did in hers. I had to reconcile him with the donnish master of Greek roots, whom I had met and been ignored by, in Greyfriars' Square. This was his answer to her last effusion.
No. 13. 118 Greyfriars' Square,
19th February, 1902.
Dear Mrs. Capel:—
I have read your letter ten—twenty times; my business day was filled and transformed by it. Now it is midnight and I am alone in the stillness of my room, the routine of the day and the evening over, and my brain, not always very quick, alight with the wonderment of your words, and my restless anxiety to respond. Don't, I implore you, belittle the possibility of friendship!
Surely the value of it is only proved by its needs?
May I not say that in this crisis in your life friendship may be much to you. Can I hope that my privilege may be to fill the need?
You have been so splendidly frank and outspoken. I have suffered all my life from a sort of stupid reticence, probably cowardly. But to-night, and to you, I want to throw off the habit of years and not miss, before it is too late, the luxury of being natural.
Well, I am hot with hatred that you should have been hurt, and yet I am happy that you have told me of your wounds. Tonight I pray that it may be given to me to heal them.
I am writing this because I must—though conventionally the shortness of our acquaintance does not justify me. But I have been conventional so long—circumstance has ruled and limited my doings. And tonight it comes to me that chance and fate are, or should be, greater than environment. The Gods only rarely offer gifts, and the blackness and blankness of despair follow their refusal. So I cling to the hope that they have now offered me a precious gift, and that in spite of all your pain—all the past which now so embitters you, to me may come the chance in some small way of proving to you that in friendship there is healing, and in sympathy and understanding, at least the hope of forgetfulness.
I shall hardly dare to read over what I have written, for I should either be conscious that it is inadequate to express what I have wanted to say to you—or that I have presumed too much in writing what is in my mind.
Look upon those Musicians as playing a prelude, not to a dream but to a happier future, and then my pleasure in the little gift will be enormously increased.
It has been a sort of joke in my family that I am over-cautious and too deliberate, but for to-night at least in these still quiet hours I mean to conquer this, and go out to post this letter myself; just as I have written it, with no alteration; yet with confidence in the kindness you have already shown me.
And I shall see you at dinner on Thursday.
Yours very sincerely,
A little over a fortnight passed before there was any further correspondence. Meanwhile the two must have met frequently. Her letters were often undated, and her figures even more difficult to read than her handwriting generally. The hieroglyphic over the following looks like 5, but I could not be sure. The intimacy between them must have grown apace, and yet the running away could have been nothing but a ruse. There could have been little fear of so sedate a lover as Gabriel Stanton. I found something artificial in the next letter of hers, recapitulative, as if already she had publication in her mind. Of course it is more difficult for a novelist or a playwright to be genuine and simple with a pen than it is for a person of a different avocation, but I could not help thinking how much better than Margaret Ella would have acted her part, and my sympathy began to flow more definitely toward the inexperienced gentleman, no longer young, to whom she was introducing the game of flirtation under the old name of Platonic friendship.
March 5th, 1902.
I have run away, you realise this, don't you, simply turned tail and run. That long dinner which seemed so short; the British Museum the next day, and your illuminating lecture so abruptly ended—that dreadful lunch … boiled fish and ginger beer! Ye Gods! Greek or Roman, how could you appear satisfied, eat with appetite? I sickened in the atmosphere. Thursday at the National Gallery was better. Our taste in pictures is the same if our taste in food differs. But perhaps you did not know what you were given in the refreshment room of the British Museum? I throw out this suggestion as an extenuating circumstance, for I find it difficult to forgive you that languid cod and its egg sauce. Our other two meals together were so different. That first lunch at the Café Royal was perfect in its way. As for our dinner, did I not myself superintend the ménu, curb the exuberance of the chef and my stepmother; dock the unfashionable sorbet; change Mayonnaise sauce into Hollandaise; duck and green peas into an idealised animal of the same variety, stuffed with foie gras, enriched and decorated with cherries? For you I devoted myself to the decoration of the table, interested myself in the wine list my father produced, discussed vintages with our pompous and absurd butler. I must tell you a story about that butler. You said he looked like an Archdeacon. Can you imagine an Archdeacon in the Divorce Court? No! No! No! Nothing to do with mine. Had it been I could not have written of it, the very thought sets me writhing again. Poor Burden was with the Sylvestres, you remember the case. Everybody defended and it was fought for five interminable days. The papers devoted columns to it, nothing else was discussed in the Clubs, the whole air of London―Mayfair end―was fœtid and foul with it. Burden was a witness, he had seen too much, and his evidence sent poor silly Ann Sylvestre to hide her divorced and disgraced head in Monte Carlo. And can a head properly ondulé be said to be divorced? Heavens! how my pen runs on, or away, like me. And I haven't come to the story, which now I come to think of it is not so very good. I will tell you it in Burden's own words. He applied for our situation through a registry office, and stood before my stepmother and me, hat in hand, sorrowful, but always dignified, as he answered questions.
"My last situation was with a Mrs. Solomon. I'm sorry, milady, to have to ask you to take up a character from such people. I'd always been in the best service before that… I was hallboy with the Jutes, third and then second with His Grace the Duke of Richland, first footman under the Countess Foreglass. I was five years with the Sylvestres; you know, Ma'am, he was first cousin to the Duke of Trent, near to the Throne itself, as one might say. I'd never lowered myself to an untitled family before. But after the divorce I couldn't get nothing. Ma'am, I hope you'll believe me, but from the moment I accepted Mr. Solomon's place all I was planning to do was to get out of it. They was Jews, if I may mention such a thing to you. I took ten pounds a year less than I'd had at his Lordship's, but Mr. Solomon, he said in his facetious way that being in the witness box 'ad knocked at least ten pounds off my value, an' he ground me down. But I'll have to ask you to take up my character from him. That's the worst of it, Ma'am, milady."
We had to break it to him that we were without titles, but he said sorrowfully that having been in a witness box in the divorce court made it impossible for him to stand out.
Burden and I have always been on good terms. I understand him, you see, his point of view, and his descent in the social scale when he went to live with Jews. What I was going to tell you was, that notwithstanding our friendship he resented my interference in his department when I insisted on selecting the wine for your—our—dinner party. I am almost sorry I quarrelled with him on your account. He looks at me coldly now, he is remembering my American blood, despising it. And to think I have lost the priceless regard of Burden for a man who can eat boiled and tired cod, masked with egg sauce, washed down with ginger beer!
Where was I? The sculpture at the British Museum; then the next day at the National Gallery. Our spirits kneeled there; we grew small. No, we didn't, I'm disingenuous. We said so, not meaning it in the least. After twenty minutes we forgot all about the pictures. Rumpelmayer's, St. James's Park, out to Coombe.
Did you realise we were seeing each other every day, how much time we spent together?
Am I eighteen or twenty-eight? You've a reputation for knowing more about Greek roots than any other Englishman. Should I have run away down here if you had talked about Greek roots? I'm excited, exhausted, bewildered. For three nights sleep failed me. Nothing is so wonderful as a perfect friendship between a man of your age and a woman of mine. Why did you change your mind, or your note, so quickly yesterday? I knew all the time what was happening to us. I think there is something arrogant in your humility. I am naturally so much more outspoken than you, although my troubles have made me more fearful. You are a strange man. I think you may send me a portrait. When I try to recall you, you don't always come whole, only bits of you, inconsistent bits, a gleam of humour in your eyes, your stoop, the height that makes us so incongruous together. I like you, Gabriel Stanton, and I've run away from you; that's the truth. That disingenuous aggressive humility of yours is a subtle appeal to my sympathies. I don't want to sympathise with you overmuch, with the loneliness of your life, or anything about you. We were meeting too often, talking too freely. I curl up and want to hide when I think of some of the things we have said (I have said!!!). I know I am too impulsive.
I'm going to settle down here and start seriously on my Staffordshire Potters. I've taken the house for three months. If I had not already written the longest letter ever penned I'd describe it to you. Perhaps I'll write again if you encourage me. Think of me as a novelist out of work, using up my MS. paper. Down here everything has become unreal. You and I, but especially "us"! I want everything to be unreal, I'm not strong enough for more reality. Keep unsubstantial. I don't suppose you will understand me (I am not sure that I understand myself). But you begged me to "let myself go," "pour myself out on you." Can I take your strength and lean upon it, the tenderness you promise me and revel in it, all that I believe you are offering me, and give you nothing? I am mean, afraid of giving. It all came so quickly, so unexpectedly. I have never had a real companion. Never, never, never even as a child been wholly natural with anybody, posing always. The only daughter of a millionaire with more talent than she ought to have, a shy soul behind a brazen forehead, is in a difficult position. To undrape that shy soul of mine as you so nearly make me do, unwillingly — but it might happen — makes me shiver. That's why I ran away, I want to be isolated, to stand alone. Here is the truth again, not at the bottom of a well, but at the end of an interminable letter. I am afraid of pain, and this intimacy presages it. You cannot be all I think you. I don't want to be near enough to see your clay feet.
I am going to get some picture postcards with small space for writing; this MS. paper demoralises me.
Will you ever know what your dear wonderful letter has given me? I passed through moments of doubt, of bewildered unbelief into a golden trance of joy and hope. And as again and again I read it some of your far braver personality fills me, and I refuse to think this new spring of hope is a mere dream, and take courage and tell myself I am something to you—something in your life, and that to me, Gabriel Stanton, has come at last the chance of helping, tending, caring for against all the world if need be, such a woman as Margaret Capel.
Let me revel in this new strange happiness. You are too kind, too generous to destroy it! For it is all strange and marvellous to me—I've lived so much alone—have missed so much by circumstance and the fault of what you call my "aggressive humility." I can help you! As I write I feel I want nothing else in life. Oh! my wonderful friend, don't let us miss a relationship which on my part I swear to you shall be consecrated to your service, to your happiness in any and every way you decide or will ask. Let me come into your life, give me the chance of healing those wounds which have bruised you grievously, but can never conquer your brave spirit. You must let me help.
You have gone away, but your dear letter is with me—it is so much your letter—so much you that I am not even lonely any more. And yet I long to see you—hear you talk, be near you. Thoughts—hopes—ideas, crowd upon me tonight, things to tell you—— It is like having a new sense—I've wakened up in a new and so beautiful country. Do you wish for those weeks of solitude? Only what you wish matters. But I confess I've looked up the trains to Pineland. I will come on any day at any moment you say. There is no duty that could keep me should you say "come." Give me at least one chance of seeing you in your new home. Then I will keep away and respect your solitude if you wish it.
The joy of your letter and the golden castles I am building help the hours until I hear from you.
It is my opinion still that she only ran away in order to bring him after her, to secure a greater solitude than they could enjoy in places of public resort, or in her father's house. I don't mean that she deliberately planned what followed, but had that been her intention she could have devised no better strategy than to leave him at the point at which they had arrived without a word of farewell other than that letter. As for me, when I had finished reading it and the answer, I had recourse to the diary and MS. notes. They would, however, have been of but little use had not a second dose of codein that night brought me again in closer relation with the writer.