Man and Maid/The stranger who might have been observed

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III
THE STRANGER WHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN OBSERVED

There he goes—isn’t he simply detestable!” She spoke suddenly, after a silence longer than was usual to her; she was tired, and her voice was a note or two above its habitual key. She blushed, a deep pink blush of intense annoyance, as the young man passed down the long platform among the crowd of city men and typewriting girls, patiently waiting for the belated train to allow them to go home from work.

“Oh, do you think he heard? Oh, Molly—I believe he did!”

“Nonsense!” said Molly briskly, “of course he didn’t. And I must say I don’t think he’s so bad. If he didn’t look so sulky he wouldn’t be half bad, really. If his eyebrows weren’t tied up into knots, I believe he’d look quite too frightfully sweet for anything.”

“He’s exactly like that Polish model we had last week. Oh, Molly, he’s coming back again.”

Again he passed the two girls. His expression was certainly not amiable.

“How long have you known him?” Molly asked.

“I don’t know him. I tell you I only see him on the platform at Mill Vale. He and I seem to be the only people—the only decent people—who’ve found out the new station. He goes up by the 9.1 every day, and so do I. And the train’s always late, so we have the platform and the booking office to ourselves. And there we sit, or stand, or walk, morning after morning like two stuck pigs in a trough of silence.”

“Don’t jumble your metaphors, though you very nearly carried it off with the trough, I own. Stuck pigs don’t walk—in troughs, or anywhere else.”

“Well, you know what I mean——

“But what do you want the wretched man to do? He can’t speak to you: it wouldn’t be proper——

“Proper—why not? We’re human beings, not wild beasts. At least, I’m a human being.”

“And he’s a beast—I see.”

“I wish I were a man,” said Nina. “There he is again. His nose goes up another half inch every time he passes me. What’s he got to be so superior about? If I were a man I’d certainly pass the time of day with a fellow-creature if I were condemned to spend from ten to forty minutes with it six days out of the seven.”

“I expect he’s afraid you’d want to marry him. My brother Cecil says men are always horribly frightened about that.”

“Your brother Cecil!” said Nina scornfully. “Yes; that’s just the sort of thing anybody’s brother Cecil would say. He simply looks down on me because I go third. He only goes second himself, too. Here’s the train——

The two Art students climbed into their third-class carriage, and their talk, leaving Nina’s fellow-traveller, washed like a babbling brook about the feet of great rocks, busied itself with the old Italian Masters, painting as a mission, and the aims of Art—presently running through flatter country and lapping round perspective, foreshortening, tones, values high lights and the preposterous lisp of the anatomy lecturer.

Arrived at Mill Vale the Slade students jumped from their carriage to meet a wind that swept grey curtains of rain across the bleak length of the platform.

“And we haven’t so much as a rib of an umbrella between us,” sighed Molly, putting her white handkerchief over the “best” hat which signalised her Saturday to Monday with her friend. “You’re right: that man is a pig. There he goes with an umbrella big enough for all three of us. Oh, it’s too bad! He’s putting it down—he’s running. He runs rather well. He’s exactly like the cast of the Discobolus in the Antique Room.”

“Only his manners have not that repose that stamps the cast. Come on—don’t stand staring after him like that. We’d better run, too.”

“He’ll think we’re running after him. Oh, bother——

A moment of indecision, and Nina had turned her skirt over her head, and the two ran home to the little rooms where Nina lived—in the house of an old servant. Nina had no world of relations—she was alone. In the world of Art she had many friends, and in the world of Art she meant to make her mark. For the present she was content to make the tea, and then to set feet on the fender for a cosy evening.

“Did you see him coming out of church?” Nina asked next day. “He looked sulkier than ever.”

“I can’t think why you bother about him,” said the other girl. “He’s not really interesting. What do you call him?”

“Nothing.”

“Why, everything has a name, even a pudding. I made a name for him at once. It is ‘the stranger who might have been observed——’”

They laughed. After the early dinner they went for a walk. None of your strolls, but a good steady eight miles. Coming home, they met the stranger: and then they talked about him again. For, fair reader, I cannot conceal from you that there are many girls who do think and talk about young men, even when they have not been introduced to them. Not really nice girls like yourself, fair reader—but ordinary, commonplace girls who have not your delicate natures, and who really do sometimes experience a fleeting sensation of interest even in the people whose names they don’t know.

Next morning they saw him at the station. The 9.1 took the bit in its teeth, and instead of being, as usual, the 9.30 something, became merely the 9.23. So for some twenty odd minutes the stranger not only might have been, but was, observed by four bright and critical eyes. I don’t mean that my girls stared, of course. Perhaps you do not know that there are ways of observing strangers other than by the stare direct. He looked sulkier than ever: but he also had eyes. Yet he, too, was far from staring, so far that the indignant Nina broke out in a distracted whisper: “There! you see! I’m not important enough for him even to perceive my existence. I’m always expecting him to walk on me. I wonder whether he’d apologise when he found I wasn’t the station door-mat?”

The stranger shrugged his shoulders all to himself in his second-class carriage when the train had started.

“‘Simply detestable!’ But how one talks prose without knowing it, all along the line! How can I ever have come enough into her line of vision to be distinguished by an epithet! And why this one? Detestable!”

The epithet, however distinguishing, seemed somehow to lack charm.

At Cannon Street Station the stranger looked sulkier than Nina had ever seen him. She said so, adding: “Than I’ve ever seen him? Oh—I’m wandering. He looks sulkier than I’ve ever seen any one—sulkier than I’ve ever dreamed possible. Pig——

Through the week, painting at the school and black and white work in the evenings filled Nina’s mind to the exclusion even of strangers who might, in more leisured moments, seem worthy of observation. She was aware of the sulky one on platforms, of course, but talking about him to Molly was more amusing somehow than merely thinking of him. When it came to thinking, the real, the earnest things of life—the Sketch Club, the chance of the Melville Nettleship Prize, the intricate hideousness of bones and muscles—took the field and kept it, against strangers and acquaintances alike.

Saturday, turning this week’s scribbled page to the fair, clear page of next week, brought the stranger back to her thoughts, and to eyes now not obscured by close realities.

He passed her on the platform, with a dozen bunches of violets in his hands.

Outside, on the railway bridge, the red and green lamps glowed dully through deep floods of yellow fog. The platform was crowded, the train late. When at last it steamed slowly in, the crowd surged towards it. The third-class carriages were filled in the moment. Nina hurried along the platform peering into the second-class carriages. Full also.

Then the guard opened the way for her into the blue-cloth Paradise of a first-class carriage; and, just as the train gave the shudder of disgust which heralds its shame-faced reluctant departure, the door opened again, and the guard pushed in another traveller—the “stranger who might——” of course. The door banged, the train moved off with an air of brisk determination. A hundred yards from the platform it stopped dead.

There were no other travellers in that carriage. When the train had stood still for ten minutes or so, the stranger got up and put his head out of the window. At that instant the train decided to move again. It did it suddenly, and, exhausted by the effort, stopped after half a dozen yards’ progress with so powerful a turn of the brake that the stranger was flung sideways against Nina, and his elbow nearly knocked her hat off.

He raised his own apologetically—but he did not speak even then.

“The wretch!” said Nina hotly; “he might at least have begged my pardon.”

The stranger sat down again, and began to read the Spectator. Nina had no papers. The train moved on an inch or two, and the reddening yellow of the fog seemed like a Charity blanket pressed against each window. Three of the bunches of violets shook and vibrated and slipped, the train moved again and they fell on the floor of the carriage. Nina watched their trembling in an agony of irritation induced by the fog, the delay, and the persistent silence of her companion. When the flowers fell, she spoke.

“You’ve dropped your flowers,” she said. Again a bow, a silent bow, and the flowers were picked up.

“Oh, I’m desperate!” Nina said inwardly. “He must be mad—or dumb—or have a vow of silence—I wonder which?”

The train had not yet reached the next station, though it had left the last nearly an hour before.

“Which is it? Mad, dumb, or a monk? I will find out. Well, it’s his own fault; he shouldn’t be so aggravating. I’m going to speak to him. I’ve made up my mind.”

In the interval between decision and action the train in a sudden brief access of nervous energy got itself through a station, and paused a furlong down the line exhausted by the effort.

The stranger had put down his Spectator and was gazing gloomily out at the fog.

Nina drew a deep breath, and said—at least she nearly said: “What a dreadful fog!”

But she stopped. That seemed a dull beginning. If she said that he would think she was commonplace, and she had that sustaining inward consciousness, mercifully vouchsafed even to the dullest of us, of being really rather nice, and not commonplace at all. But what should she say? If she said anything about the colour of the fog and Turner or Whistler, it might be telling, but it would be of the shop shoppy. If she began about books—the Spectator suggested this—she would stand as a prig confessed. If she spoke of politics she would be an ignorant impostor soon exposed. If—— But Nina took out her watch and resolved: “When the little hand gets to the quarter I will speak. Whatever I say, I’ll say something.”

And when the big hand did get to the quarter Nina did speak.

“Why shouldn’t we talk?” she said.

He looked at her; and he seemed to be struggling silently with some emotion too deep for words.

“It’s so silly to sit here like mutes,” Nina went on hurriedly—a little frightened, now she had begun, but more than a little determined not to be frightened. “If we were at a dance we shouldn’t know any more of each other than we do now—and you’d have to talk then. Why shouldn’t we now?”

Then the stranger spoke, and at the first sentence Nina understood exactly what reason had decided the stranger that they should not talk. Yet now they did. If this were a work of fiction I shouldn’t dare to pretend that the train took more than two hours to get to Mill Vale. But in a plain record of fact one must speak the truth. The train took exactly two hours and fifty minutes to cover the eleven miles between London and Mill Vale. After that first question and reply Nina and the stranger talked the whole way.

He walked with her to the door of her lodging, and she offered him her hand without that moment of hesitation which would have been natural to any heroine, because she had debated the question of that handshake all the way from the station, and made up her mind just as they reached the church, a stone’s throw from her home. When the door closed on her he went slowly back to the churchyard to lay his violets on a grave. Nina saw them there next day when she came out of church. She saw him too, and gave him a bow and a very small smile, and turned away quickly. The bow meant: “You see I’m not going to speak to you. You mustn’t think I want to be always talking to you.” The smile meant: “But you mustn’t think I’m cross. I’m not—only——

In the hot, stuffy “life-room” at the Slade next day Molly teased with ill-judged bread-crumbs an arm hopelessly ill drawn, and chattered softly to Nina, who in the Saturday solitude had drawn her easel behind her friend’s “donkey.” “It’s all very well here when you first come in, but when once you are warm, oh dear, how warm you are! Why do models want such boiling rooms? Why can’t they be soaked in alum or myrrh or something to harden their silly skins so that they won’t mind a breath of decent air? And I believe the model’s deformed—she certainly is from where I am. Oh, look at my arm! I ask you a little—look at the beastly thing. Foreshortened like this it looks like a fillet of veal with a pound of sausages tied on to it for a hand. Oh, my own and only Nina—save the sinking ship!”

“It ought to go more like that,” Nina said with indicative brush, “and don’t keep on rubbing out so fiercely. You’ll get paralysed with bread—it’s a disease, you know. I heard Tonks telling you so only the other day——

“It’s rather a good phrase: I wonder where he got it? He was rather nice that day,” said Molly. “Oh, this arm! It’s no good—I believe the model’s moved—I tell you I must.” More bread. Nina re-absorbed in her canvas. “Yours is coming well. What’s the matter with you to-day? You’re very mousy. Has the ‘stranger who might’ been scowling more than usual? Or have you got a headache? I’m sure this atmosphere’s enough to make you. Did you see him this morning? Have you fainted at his feet yet? Has he relented in the matter of umbrellas? I’m sure he can’t have passed the whole week without some act of grumpiness.”

Nina leaned back and looked through half-shut eyes at the model’s beautiful form and stupid face.

“I went down in the same carriage with him on Thursday,” she said slowly.

“You did? Did he rush into the third class, where angels like himself ought to fear to tread?”

“There was a fog. Thirds all full, and seconds too. The guard bundled us both in, and the train started—and it took three or four hours to get down.”

“Any one else in the carriage?”

“Not so much as a mouse.”

“What did you do?”

“Do? What could I do? We sat in opposite corners as far as we could get from each other, exchanging occasional glances of mutual detestation for about an hour and a half. He knocked me down and walked on me once, and took his hat off very politely and beg-pardoningly, but he never said a word. He didn’t even say he thought I was the door-mat. And then some cabbages of his fell off the seat.”

“Sure they weren’t thistles?”

“Vegetables of some sort. And I said: ‘You’ve dropped your——whatever they were.’ And he just bowed again in a thank-you-very-much-but-I’m-sure-I-don’t-know-what-business-it-is-of-yours sort of way. Do leave that bread alone.”

Molly, lost in the interest of the recital, was crumbling the bread as though the floor of the life-room were the natural haunt of doves and sparrows.

“Well?” she said.

“Well?” said Nina.

“Why ever didn’t you ask him to put the window up, or down, or something? I would have—just to hear if he has a voice.”

“It wouldn’t have been any good. He’d just have bowed again, and I’d had enough bows to last a long time. No: I just said straight out that we were a couple of idiots to sit there gaping at each other with our tongues out, and why on earth shouldn’t we talk?”

“You never did!”

“Or words to that effect, anyhow. And then he said——

A long pause.

“What?”

“He told me why he never spoke to strangers.”

“What a slap in the face! You poor——

“Oh, he didn’t say it like that, you silly idiot. And it was quite a good reason.”

“What was it?”

No answer.

“Tell me exactly what he said.”

“He said, ‘I—I—I——’ At any rate, I’m satisfied, and I rather wish we hadn’t called him pigs and beasts, and things like that.”

“Well?”

“That’s all.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me the reason? Oh, very well—you leave it to my guessing? Of course it’s quite evident he’s hopelessly in love with you, and never ventured to speak for fear of betraying his passion. But, encouraged by your advances——

“Molly, go on with that arm, and don’t be a vulgar little donkey.”

Molly obeyed. Presently: “Cross-patch,” she said.

“I’m not,” said Nina, “but I want to work, and I like you best when you’re not vulgar.”

“You’re very rude.”

“No: only candid.”

Molly’s wounded pride, besieged by her curiosity, held out for five minutes. Then: “Did you talk to him much?”

“Heaps.”

“All the way down?”

No answer.

“Is he nice?”

Silence.

“Is he clever?”

“I want to work.”

“Well, what I want to know is, and then I’ll let you alone—what did you talk about? Tell me that, and I won’t ask another question.”

“We talked,” said Nina deliberately, taking a clean brush, “we talked about your brother Cecil. No, I shan’t tell you what we said, or why we talked about him, or anything. You’ve had your one question, now shut up.”

“Nina,” said Molly calmly, “if I didn’t like you so much I should hate you.”

“That certainty about the other has always been the foundation of our mutual regard,” said Nina calmly.

Then they laughed, and began to work in earnest.

The next time Molly mentioned the “stranger who might have been observed” Nina laughed, and said: “The subject is forbidden; it makes you vulgar.”

“And you disagreeable.”

“Then it’s best to avoid it. Best for you and best for me.”

“But do you ever see him now?”

“On occasion. He still travels by the 9.1, and I still have the use of my eyes.”

“Does he ever talk to you like he did that Thursday?”

“No—never. And I’m not going to talk about him to you, so it’s no good. Your turn to choose a subject. You won’t? Then it becomes my turn. What a long winter this is! We seem to have taken years to get from November to February!”

The time went more quickly between February and May. It was when the country was wearing its full dress of green and the hawthorn pearls were opening into baby-roses in the hedgerows that it was Nina’s fortune to be put, by the zealous indiscretion of a mistaken porter, into an express train for Beechwood—the wrong station—the wrong line.

The “stranger who might have been observed,” on this occasion was not observed, but observer. He saw and recognised the porter’s error, hesitated a moment, and then leaped into a carriage just behind hers. So that when, after a swift journey made eventful by agonised recognition of the fleeting faces of various stations where she might have changed and caught her own train, Nina reached Beechwood, the stranger’s hand was ready to open the door for her.

“There’s no train for ages,” he said in tones deliberate, almost hesitating. “Shall we walk home? It’s only six miles.”

“But you—aren’t you going somewhere here?”

“No—I—I—I saw the porter put you in—and I thought—at least—anyway you will walk, won’t you?”

They walked. When they reached Beechwood Common, he said: “Won’t you take my arm?” And she took it. Her hands were ungloved; the other hand was full of silver may and bluebells. The sun shot level shafts of gold between the birch trees across the furze and heather.

“How beautiful it is!” she said.

“We’ve known each other three months,” said he.

“But I’ve seen you every day, and we’ve talked for hours and hours in those everlasting trains,” she said, as if in excuse.

“I’ve seen you every day for longer than that; the first time was on the 3rd of October.”

“Fancy remembering that!”

“I have a good memory.”

A silence.

Nina broke it, to say again: “How pretty!” She knew she had said it before, or something like it, but she could think of nothing else—and she wanted to say something.

He put his hand over hers as it lay on his arm. She looked up at him quickly.

“Well?” he said, stopping to look down into her eyes and tightening his clasp on her hand. “Are you sorry you came to Beechwood?”

“No——

“Then be glad. My dear, I wish you could ever be as glad as I am.”

Then they walked on, still with his hand on hers.

Nina and Molly sat on a locker swinging their feet and eating their lunch in the Slade corridor next day. Nina was humming softly under her breath.

“What are you so happy for all of a sudden?” Molly asked. “Your sketch-club things are the worst I’ve ever seen, and the Professor was down on you like a hundred of bricks this morning.”

“I’m not happy,” said Nina, turning away what seemed to Molly a new face.

“What is it, then?”

“Nothing. Oh yes—by the way, I’m going to be married.”

“Not really?”

“Check this unflattering display of incredulity—I am.”

“Really and truly? And you never told me a thing. I hate slyness and secretiveness. Nina, who is it? Do I know him?”

Nina named a name.

“Never even heard of him. But where did you meet him? It really is rather deceitful of you.”

“I always meant to tell you, only there was nothing to tell till yesterday except——

“Except everything,” said Molly. “Well, tell me now.”

Nina jumped up and shook the bath-bun crumbs off her green muslin pinafore.

“Promise not to be horrid, and I will.”

“I won’t—I promise I won’t.”

“Then it’s—it’s him—the ‘stranger who might’—you know. And I really should have told you, though there wasn’t anything to tell, only—don’t laugh.”

“I’m not. Can’t you see I’m not? Only what?”

“Well, when I spoke to him that day in the train, I said, ‘Why shouldn’t we talk?’ And he said, ‘I—I—I—be—be—be—because I stammer so.’ And he did. You never heard anything like it. It was awful. He took hours to get out those few words, and I didn’t know where to look. And I felt such a brute because of the things we’d said about him, that I had no sense left; and I told him straight out how I’d wondered he never even said he wondered how late the train was when we were waiting for the 9.1, and I was glad it was stammering and not disagreeableness. And then I said I wasn’t glad he stammered, but so sorry; and he was awfully nice about it, and I told him about that man who cured your brother Cecil of stammering, and he went to him at once: and he’s almost all right now.”

“Good gracious!” said Molly. “Are you sure—but why didn’t he get cured long ago?”

“He had a mother: she stammered frightfully—after the shock of his father’s death, or something, and he got into the way of it from her. And—anyway he didn’t. I think it was so as not to hurt his mother’s feelings, or something. I don’t quite understand. And he said it didn’t seem to matter when she was dead. And he’s an artist. He sells his pictures too, and he teaches. He has a studio in Chelsea.”

“It all sounds a little thin; but if you’re pleased, I’m sure I am.”

“I am,” said Nina.

“But what did he say when he asked you?”

“He didn’t ask me,” said Nina.

“But surely he said he’d loved you since the first moment he saw you?”

Nina had to admit it.

“Then you see I wasn’t such a vulgar little donkey after all.”

“Yes, you were. You hadn’t any business even to think such things, much less say them. Why, even I didn’t dare to think it for—oh—for ever so long. But I’ll forgive it—and if it’s good it shall be a pretty little bridesmaid, it shall.”

“When is it to be?” asked Molly, still adrift in a sea of wonder.

“Oh, quite soon, he says. He says we’re only wasting time by waiting. You see we’re both alone.”

But Molly, looking wistfully at her friend’s transfigured face, perceived sadly that it was she who was alone, not they.

And the thought of the red-haired Pierrot with whom she had danced nine times at the Students’ Fancy Dress dance, an indiscretion hitherto her dearest memory, now offered no solid consolation.

Nina went away, singing softly under her breath. Molly sighed and followed slowly.