Miss Mapp/Chapter III
DIVA was sitting at the open drawing-room window of her house in the High Street, cutting with a pair of sharp nail scissors into the old chintz curtains which her maid had told her no longer “paid for the mending.” So, since they refused to pay for their mending any more, she was preparing to make them pay, pretty smartly too, in other ways. The pattern was of little bunches of pink roses peeping out through trellis work, and it was these which she had just begun to cut out. Though Tilling was noted for the ingenuity with which its more fashionable ladies devised novel and quaint effects in their dress in an economical manner, Diva felt sure, ransack her memory though she might, that nobody had thought of this before.
The hot weather had continued late into September and showed no signs of breaking yet, and it would be agreeable to her and acutely painful to others that just at the end of the summer she should appear in a perfectly new costume, before the days of jumpers and heavy skirts and large woollen scarves came in. She was preparing, therefore, to take the light white jacket which she wore over her blouse, and cover the broad collar and cuffs of it with these pretty roses. The belt of the skirt would be similarly decorated, and so would the edge of it, if there were enough clean ones. The jacket and skirt had already gone to the dyer’s, and would be back in a day or two, white no longer, but of a rich purple hue, and by that time she would have hundreds of these little pink roses ready to be tacked on. Perhaps a piece of the chintz, trellis and all, could be sewn over the belt, but she was determined to have single little bunches of roses peppered all over the collar and cuffs of the jacket and, if possible, round the edge of the skirt. She had already tried the effect, and was of the opinion that nobody could possibly guess what the origin of these roses was. When carefully sewn on they looked as if they were a design in the stuff.
She let the circumcised roses fall on to the window-seat, and from time to time, when they grew numerous, swept them into a cardboard box. Though she worked with zealous diligence, she had an eye to the movements in the street outside, for it was shopping-hour, and there were many observations to be made. She had not anything like Miss Mapp’s genius for conjecture, but her memory was appallingly good, and this was the third morning running on which Elizabeth had gone into the grocer’s. It was odd to go to your grocer’s every day like that: groceries twice a week was sufficient for most people. From here on the floor above the street she could easily look into Elizabeth’s basket, and she certainly was carrying nothing away with her from the grocer’s, for the only thing there was a small bottle done up in white paper with sealing wax, which, Diva had no need to be told, certainly came from the chemist’s, and was no doubt connected with too many plums.
Miss Mapp crossed the street to the pavement below Diva’s house, and precisely as she reached it, Diva’s maid opened the door into the drawing-room, bringing in the second post, or rather not bringing in the second post, but the announcement that there wasn’t any second post. This opening of the door caused a draught, and the bunches of roses which littered the window-seat rose brightly in the air. Diva managed to beat most of them down again, but two fluttered out of the window. Precisely then, and at no other time, Miss Mapp looked up, and one settled on her face, the other fell into her basket. Her trained faculties were all on the alert, and she thrust them both inside her glove for future consideration, without stopping to examine them just then. She only knew that they were little pink roses, and that they had fluttered out of Diva’s window.…
She paused on the pavement, and remembered that Diva had not yet expressed regret about the worsted, and that she still “popped” as much as ever. Thus Diva deserved a punishment of some sort, and happily, at that very moment she thought of a subject on which she might be able to make her uncomfortable. The street was full, and it would be pretty to call up to her, instead of ringing her bell, in order to save trouble to poor overworked Janet. (Diva only kept two servants, though of course poverty was no crime.)
“Diva darling!” she cooed.
Diva’s head looked out like a cuckoo in a clock preparing to chime the hour.
“Hullo!” she said. “Want me?”
“May I pop up for a moment, dear?” said Miss Mapp. “That’s to say if you’re not very busy.”
“Pop away,” said Diva. She was quite aware that Miss Mapp said “pop” in crude inverted commas, so to speak, for purposes of mockery, and so she said it herself more than ever. “I’ll tell my maid to pop down and open the door.”
While this was being done, Diva bundled her chintz curtains together and stored them and the roses she had cut out into her work-cupboard, for secrecy was an essential to the construction of these decorations. But in order to appear naturally employed, she pulled out the woollen scarf she was knitting for the autumn and winter, forgetting for the moment that the rose-madder stripe at the end on which she was now engaged was made of that fatal worsted which Miss Mapp considered to have been feloniously appropriated. That was the sort of thing Miss Mapp never forgot. Even among her sweet flowers. Her eye fell on it the moment she entered the room, and she tucked the two chintz roses more securely into her glove.
“I thought I would just pop across from the grocer’s,” she said. “What a pretty scarf, dear! That’s a lovely shade of rose-madder. Where can I have seen something like it before?”
This was clearly ironical, and had best be answered by irony. Diva was no coward.
“Couldn’t say, I’m sure,” she said.
Miss Mapp appeared to recollect, and smiled as far back as her wisdom-teeth. (Diva couldn’t do that.)
“I have it,” she said. “It was the wool I ordered at Heynes’s, and then he sold it you, and I couldn’t get any more.”
“So it was,” said Diva. “Upset you a bit. There was the wool in the shop. I bought it.”
“Yes, dear; I see you did. But that wasn’t what I popped in about. This coal-strike, you know.”
“Got a cellar full,” said Diva.
“Diva, you’ve not been hoarding, have you?” asked Miss Mapp with great anxiety. “They can take away every atom of coal you’ve got, if so, and fine you I don’t know what for every hundredweight of it.”
“Pooh!” said Diva, rather forcing the indifference of this rude interjection.
“Yes, love, pooh by all means, if you like poohing!” said Miss Mapp. “But I should have felt very unfriendly if one morning I found you were fined—found you were fined—quite a play upon words—and I hadn’t warned you.”
Diva felt a little less poohish.
“But how much do they allow you to have?” she asked.
“Oh, quite a little: enough to go on with. But I daresay they won’t discover you. I just took the trouble to come and warn you.”
Diva did remember something about hoarding; there had surely been dreadful exposures of prudent housekeepers in the papers which were very uncomfortable reading.
“But all these orders were only for the period of the war,” she said.
“No doubt you’re right, dear,” said Miss Mapp brightly. “I’m sure I hope you are. Only if the coal strike comes on, I think you’ll find that the regulations against hoarding are quite as severe as they ever were. Food hoarding, too. Twemlow—such a civil man—tells me that he thinks we shall have plenty of food, or anyhow sufficient for everybody for quite a long time, provided that there’s no hoarding. Not been hoarding food, too, dear Diva? You naughty thing: I believe that great cupboard is full of sardines and biscuits and bovril.”
“Nothing of the kind,” said Diva indignantly. “You shall see for yourself”—and then she suddenly remembered that the cupboard was full of chintz curtains and little bunches of pink roses, neatly cut out of them, and a pair of nail scissors.
There was a perfectly perceptible pause, during which Miss Mapp noticed that there were no curtains over the window. There certainly used to be, and they matched with the chintz cover of the window seat, which was decorated with little bunches of pink roses peeping through trellis. This was in the nature of a bonus: she had not up till then connected the chintz curtains with the little things that had fluttered down upon her and were now safe in her glove; her only real object in this call had been to instil a general uneasiness into Diva’s mind about the coal strike and the danger of being well provided with fuel. That she humbly hoped that she had accomplished. She got up.
“Must be going,” she said. “Such a lovely little chat! But what has happened to your pretty curtains?”
“Gone to the wash,” said Diva firmly.
“Liar,” thought Miss Mapp, as she tripped downstairs. “Diva would have sent the cover of the window-seat too, if that was the case. Liar,” she thought again as she kissed her hand to Diva, who was looking gloomily out of the window.
As soon as Miss Mapp had gained her garden-room, she examined the mysterious treasures in her left-hand glove. Without the smallest doubt Diva had taken down her curtains (and high time too, for they were sadly shabby), and was cutting the roses out of them. But what on earth was she doing that for? For what garish purpose could she want to use bunches of roses cut out of chintz curtains?
Miss Mapp had put the two specimens of which she had so providentially become possessed in her lap, and they looked very pretty against the navy-blue of her skirt. Diva was very ingenious: she used up all sorts of odds and ends in a way that did credit to her undoubtedly parsimonious qualities. She could trim a hat with a tooth-brush and a banana in such a way that it looked quite Parisian till you firmly analysed its component parts, and most of her ingenuity was devoted to dress: the more was the pity that she had such a round-about figure that her waistband always reminded you of the equator.…
“Eureka!” said Miss Mapp aloud, and, though the telephone bell was ringing, and the postulant might be one of the servants’ friends ringing them up at an hour when their mistress was usually in the High Street, she glided swiftly to the large cupboard underneath the stairs which was full of the things which no right-minded person could bear to throw away: broken basket-chairs, pieces of brown paper, cardboard boxes without lids, and cardboard lids without boxes, old bags with holes in them, keys without locks and locks without keys and worn chintz covers. There was one—it had once adorned the sofa in the garden-room—covered with red poppies (very easy to cut out), and Miss Mapp dragged it dustily from its corner, setting in motion a perfect cascade of cardboard lids and some door-handles.
Withers had answered the telephone, and came to announce that Twemlow the grocer regretted he had only two large tins of corned beef, but—
“Then say I will have the tongue as well, Withers,” said Miss Mapp. “Just a tongue and then I shall want you and Mary to do some cutting out for me.”
The three went to work with feverish energy, for Diva had got a start, and by four o’clock that afternoon there were enough poppies cut out to furnish, when in seed, a whole street of opium dens. The dress selected for decoration was, apart from a few mildew-spots, the colour of ripe corn, which was superbly appropriate for September. “Poppies in the corn,” said Miss Mapp over and over to herself, remembering some sweet verses she had once read by Bernard Shaw or Clement Shorter or somebody like that about a garden of sleep somewhere in Norfolk.…
“No one can work as neatly as you, Withers,” she said gaily, “and I shall ask you to do the most difficult part. I want you to sew my lovely poppies over the collar and facings of the jacket, just spacing them a little and making a dainty irregularity. And then Mary—won’t you, Mary?—will do the same with the waistband while I put a border of them round the skirt, and my dear old dress will look quite new and lovely. I shall be at home to nobody, Withers, this afternoon, even if the Prince of Wales came and sat on my doorstep again. We’ll all work together in the garden, shall we, and you and Mary must scold me if you think I’m not working hard enough. It will be delicious in the garden.”
Thanks to this pleasant plan, there was not much opportunity for Withers and Mary to be idle.…
Just about the time that this harmonious party began their work, a far from harmonious couple were being just as industrious in the grand spacious bunker in front of the tee to the last hole on the golf links. It was a beautiful bunker, consisting of a great slope of loose, steep sand against the face of the hill, and solidly shored up with timber. The Navy had been in better form to-day, and after a decisive victory over the Army in the morning and an indemnity of half-a-crown, its match in the afternoon, with just the last hole to play, was all square. So Captain Puffin, having the honour, hit a low, nervous drive that tapped loudly at the timbered wall of the bunker, and cuddled down below it, well protected from any future assault.
“Phew! That about settles it,” said Major Flint boisterously. “Bad place to top a ball! Give me the hole?”
This insolent question needed no answer, and Major Flint drove, skying the ball to a prodigious height. But it had to come to earth sometime, and it fell like Lucifer, son of the morning, in the middle of the same bunker.… So the Army played three more, and, sweating profusely, got out. Then it was the Navy’s turn, and the Navy had to lie on its keel above the boards of the bunker, in order to reach its ball at all, and missed it twice.
“Better give it up, old chap,” said Major Flint. “Unplayable.”
“Then see me play it,” said Captain Puffin, with a chewing motion of his jaws.
“We shall miss the tram,” said the Major, and, with the intention of giving annoyance, he sat down in the bunker with his back to Captain Puffin, and lit a cigarette. At his third attempt nothing happened; at the fourth the ball flew against the boards, rebounded briskly again into the bunker, trickled down the steep, sandy slope and hit the Major’s boot.
“Hit you, I think,” said Captain Puffin. “Ha! So it’s my hole, Major!”
Major Flint had a short fit of aphasia. He opened and shut his mouth and foamed. Then he took a half-crown from his pocket.
“Give that to the Captain,” he said to his caddie, and without looking round, walked away in the direction of the tram. He had not gone a hundred yards when the whistle sounded, and it puffed away homewards with ever-increasing velocity.
Weak and trembling from passion, Major Flint found that after a few tottering steps in the direction of Tilling he would be totally unable to get there unless fortified by some strong stimulant, and turned back to the Club-house to obtain it. He always went dead-lame when beaten at golf, while Captain Puffin was lame in any circumstances, and the two, no longer on speaking terms, hobbled into the Club-house, one after the other, each unconscious of the other’s presence. Summoning his last remaining strength Major Flint roared for whisky, and was told that, according to regulation, he could not be served until six. There was lemonade and stone ginger-beer.… You might as well have offered a man-eating tiger bread and milk. Even the threat that he would instantly resign his membership unless provided with drink produced no effect on a polite steward, and he sat down to recover as best he might with an old volume of Punch. This seemed to do him little good. His forced abstemiousness was rendered the more intolerable by the fact that Captain Puffin, hobbling in immediately afterwards, fetched from his locker a large flask full of the required elixir, and proceeded to mix himself a long, strong tumblerful. After the Major’s rudeness in the matter of the half-crown, it impossible for any sailor of spirit to take the first step towards reconciliation.
Thirst is a great leveller. By the time the refreshed Puffin had penetrated half-way down his glass, the Major found it impossible to be proud and proper any longer. He hated saying he was sorry (no man more) and wouldn’t have been sorry if he had been able to get a drink. He twirled his moustache a great many times and cleared his throat—it wanted more than that to clear it—and capitulated.
“Upon my word, Puffin, I’m ashamed of myself for—ha!—for not taking my defeat better,” he said. “A man’s no business to let a game ruffle him.”
Puffin gave his alto cackling laugh.
“Oh, that’s all right, Major,” he said. “I know it’s awfully hard to lose like a gentleman.”
He let this sink in, then added:
“Have a drink, old chap?”
Major Flint flew to his feet.
“Well, thank ye, thank ye,” he said. “Now where’s that soda water you offered me just now?” he shouted to the steward.
The speed and completeness of the reconciliation was in no way remarkable, for when two men quarrel whenever they meet, it follows that they make it up again with corresponding frequency, else there could be no fresh quarrels at all. This one had been a shade more acute than most, and the drop into amity again was a shade more precipitous.
Major Flint in his eagerness had put most of his moustache into the life-giving tumbler, and dried it on his handkerchief.
“After all, it was a most amusing incident,” he said. “There was I with my back turned, waiting for you to give it up, when your bl— wretched little ball hit my foot. I must remember that. I’ll serve you with the same spoon some day, at least I would if I thought it sportsmanlike. Well, well, enough said. Astonishing good whisky, that of yours.”
Captain Puffin helped himself to rather more than half of what now remained in the flask.
“Help yourself, Major,” he said.
“Well, thank ye, I don’t mind if I do,” he said, reversing the flask over the tumbler. “There’s a good tramp in front of us now that the last tram has gone. Tram and tramp! Upon my word, I’ve half a mind to telephone for a taxi.”
This, of course, was a direct hint. Puffin ought clearly to pay for a taxi, having won two half-crowns to-day. This casual drink did not constitute the usual drink stood by the winner, and paid for with cash over the counter. A drink (or two) from a flask was not the same thing.… Puffin naturally saw it in another light. He had paid for the whisky which Major Flint had drunk (or owed for it) in his wine-merchant’s bill. That was money just as much as a florin pushed across the counter. But he was so excessively pleased with himself over the adroitness with which he had claimed the last hole, that he quite overstepped the bounds of his habitual parsimony.
“Well, you trot along to the telephone and order a taxi,” he said, “and I’ll pay for it.”
“Done with you,” said the other.
Their comradeship was now on its most felicitous level again, and they sat on the bench outside the club-house till the arrival of their unusual conveyance.
“Lunching at the Poppits’ to-morrow?” asked Major Flint.
“Yes. Meet you there? Good. Bridge afterwards, I suppose.”
“Sure to be. Wish there was a chance of more red-currant fool. That was a decent tipple, all but the red-currants. If I had had all the old brandy that was served for my ration in one glass, and all the champagne in another, I should have been better content.”
Captain Puffin was a great cynic in his own misogynistic way.
“Camouflage for the fair sex,” he said. “A woman will lick up half a bottle of brandy if it’s called plum-pudding, and ask for more, whereas if you offered her a small brandy and soda, she would think you were insulting her.”
“Bless them, the funny little fairies,” said the Major.
“Well, what I tell you is true, Major,” said Puffin. “There’s old Mapp. Teetotaller she calls herself, but she played a bo’sun’s part in that red-currant fool. Bit rosy, I thought her, as we escorted her home.”
“So she was,” said the Major. “So she was. Said good-bye to us on her doorstep as if she thought she was a perfect Venus Ana—Ana something.”
“Anno Domini,” giggled Puffin.
“Well, well, we all get long in the tooth in time,” said Major Flint charitably. “Fine figure of a woman, though.”
“Eh?” said Puffin archly.
“Now none of your sailor-talk ashore, Captain,” said the Major, in high good humour. “I’m not a marrying man any more than you are. Better if I had been perhaps, more years ago than I care to think about. Dear me, my wound’s going to trouble me to-night.”
“What do you do for it, Major?” asked Puffin.
“Do for it? Think of old times a bit over my diaries.”
“Going to let the world have a look at them some day?” asked Puffin.
“No, sir, I am not,” said Major Flint. “Perhaps a hundred years hence—the date I have named in my will for their publication—someone may think them not so uninteresting. But all this toasting and buttering and grilling and frying your friends, and serving them up hot for all the old cats at a tea-table to mew over—Pah!”
Puffin was silent a moment in appreciation of these noble sentiments.
“But you put in a lot of work over them,” he said at length. “Often when I’m going up to bed, I see the light still burning in your sitting-room window.”
“And if it comes to that,” rejoined the Major, “I’m sure I’ve often dozed off when I’m in bed and woken again, and pulled up my blind, and what not, and there’s your light still burning. Powerful long roads those old Romans must have made, Captain.”
The ice was not broken, but it was cracking in all directions under this unexampled thaw. The two had clearly indicated a mutual suspicion of each other’s industrious habits after dinner.… They had never got quite so far as this before: some quarrel had congealed the surface again. But now, with a desperate disagreement just behind them, and the unusual luxury of a taxi just in front, the vernal airs continued blowing in the most spring-like manner.
“Yes, that’s true enough,” said Puffin. “Long roads they were, and dry roads at that, and if I stuck to them from after my supper every evening till midnight or more, I should be smothered in dust.”
“Unless you washed the dust down just once in a while,” said Major Flint.
“Just so. Brain-work’s an exhausting process; requires a little stimulant now and again,” said Puffin. “I sit in my chair, you understand, and perhaps doze for a bit after my supper, and then I’ll get my maps out, and have them handy beside me. And then, if there’s something interesting in the evening paper, perhaps I’ll have a look at it, and bless me, if by that time it isn’t already half-past ten or eleven, and it seems useless to tackle archæology then. And I just—just while away the time till I’m sleepy. But there seems to be a sort of legend among the ladies here, that I’m a great student of local topography and Roman roads, and all sorts of truck, and I find it better to leave it at that. Tiresome to go into long explanations. In fact,” added Puffin in a burst of confidence, “the study I’ve done on Roman roads these last six months wouldn’t cover a threepenny piece.”
Major Flint gave a loud, choking guffaw and beat his fat leg.
“Well, if that’s not the best joke I’ve heard for many a long day,” he said. “There I’ve been in the house opposite you these last two years, seeing your light burning late night after night, and thinking to myself, ‘There’s my friend Puffin still at it! Fine thing to be an enthusiastic archæologist like that. That makes short work of a lonely evening for him if he’s so buried in his books or his maps—Mapps, ha! ha!—that he doesn’t seem to notice whether it’s twelve o’clock or one or two, maybe!’ And all the time you’ve been sitting snoozing and boozing in your chair, with your glass handy to wash the dust down.”
Puffin added his falsetto cackle to this merriment.
“And, often I’ve thought to myself,” he said, “‘There’s my friend the Major in his study opposite, with all his diaries round him, making a note here, and copying an extract there, and conferring with the Viceroy one day, and reprimanding the Maharajah of Bom-be-boo another. He’s spending the evening on India’s coral strand, he is, having tiffin and shooting tigers and Gawd knows what—’”
The Major’s laughter boomed out again.
“And I never kept a diary in my life!” he cried. “Why there’s enough cream in this situation to make a dishful of meringues. You and I, you know, the students of Tilling! The serious-minded students who do a hard day’s work when all the pretty ladies have gone to bed. Often and often has old—I mean has that fine woman, Miss Mapp, told me that I work too hard at night! Recommended me to get earlier to bed, and do my work between six and eight in the morning! Six and eight in the morning! That’s a queer time of day to recommend an old campaigner to be awake at! Often she’s talked to you, too, I bet my hat, about sitting up late and exhausting the nervous faculties.”
Major Flint choked and laughed and inhaled tobacco smoke till he got purple in the face.
“And you sitting up one side of the street,” he gasped, “pretending to be interested in Roman roads, and me on the other pulling a long face over my diaries, and neither of us with a Roman road or a diary to our names. Let’s have an end to such unsociable arrangements, old friend; you bring your Roman roads and the bottle to lay the dust over to me one night, and I’ll bring my diaries and my peg over to you the next. Never drink alone—one of my maxims in life—if you can find someone to drink with you. And there were you within a few yards of me all the time sitting by your old solitary self, and there was I sitting by my old solitary self, and we each thought the other a serious-minded old buffer, busy on his life-work. I’m blessed if I ever heard of two such pompous old frauds as you and I, Captain! What a sight of hypocrisy there is in the world, be sure! No offence—mind: I’m as bad as you, and you’re as bad as me, and we’re both as bad as each other. But no more solitary confinement of an evening for Benjamin Flint, as long as you’re agreeable.”
The advent of the taxi was announced, and arm in arm they limped down the steep path together to the road. A little way off to the left was the great bunker which, primarily, was the cause of their present amity. As they drove by it, the Major waggled his red hand at it.
“Au reservoir,” he said. “Back again soon!”
It was late that night when Miss Mapp felt that she was physically incapable of tacking on a single poppy more to the edge of her skirt, and went to the window of the garden-room where she had been working, to close it. She glanced up at the top story of her own house, and saw that the lights in the servants’ rooms were out: she glanced to the right and concluded that her gardener had gone to bed: finally, she glanced down the street and saw with a pang of pleasure that the windows of the Major’s house showed no sign of midnight labour. This was intensely gratifying: it indicated that her influence was at work in him, for in response to her wish, so often and so tactfully urged on him, that he would go to bed earlier and not work so hard at night, here was the darkened window, and she dismissed as unworthy the suspicion which had been aroused by the red-currant fool. The window of his bedroom was dark too: he must have already put out his light, and Miss Mapp made haste over her little tidyings so that she might not be found a transgressor to her own precepts. But there was a light in Captain Puffin’s house: he had a less impressionable nature than the Major and was in so many ways far inferior. And did he really find Roman roads so wonderfully exhilarating? Miss Mapp sincerely hoped that he did, and that it was nothing else of less pure and innocent allurement that kept him up…. As she closed the window very gently, it did just seem to her that there had been something equally baffling in Major Flint’s egoistical vigils over his diaries; that she had wondered whether there was not something else (she had hardly formulated what) which kept his lights burning so late. But she would now cross him—dear man—and his late habits, out of the list of riddles about Tilling which awaited solution. Whatever it had been (diaries or what not) that used to keep him up, he had broken the habit now, whereas Captain Puffin had not. She took her poppy-bordered skirt over her arm, and smiled her thankful way to bed. She could allow herself to wonder with a little more definiteness, now that the Major’s lights were out and he was abed, what it could be which rendered Captain Puffin so oblivious to the passage of time, when he was investigating Roman roads. How glad she was that the Major was not with him…. “Benjamin Flint!” she said to herself as, having put her window open, she trod softly (so as not to disturb the slumberer next door) across her room on her fat white feet to her big white bed. “Good-night, Major Benjy,” she whispered, as she put her light out.
It was not to be supposed that Diva would act on Miss Mapp’s alarming hints that morning as to the fate of coal-hoarders, and give, say, a ton of fuel to the hospital at once, in lieu of her usual smaller Christmas contribution, without making further inquiries in the proper quarters as to the legal liabilities of having, so she ascertained, three tons in her cellar, and as soon as her visitor had left her this morning, she popped out to see Mr. Wootten, her coal-merchant. She returned in a state of fury, for there were no regulations whatever in existence with regard to the amount of coal that any householder might choose to amass, and Mr. Wootten complimented her on her prudence in having got in a reasonable supply, for he thought it quite probable that, if the coal strike took place, there would be some difficulty in month’s time from now in replenishing cellars. “But we’ve had a good supply all the summer,” added agreeable Mr. Wootten, “and all my customers have got their cellars well stocked.”
Diva rapidly recollected that the perfidious Elizabeth as among them.
“O but, Mr. Wootten,” she said, “Miss Mapp popped—dropped in to see me just now. Told me she had hardly got any.”
Mr. Wootten turned up his ledger. It was not etiquette to disclose the affairs of one client to another, but if there was a cantankerous customer, one who was never satisfied with prices and quality, that client was Miss Mapp…. He allowed a broad grin to overspread his agreeable face.
“Well, ma’am, if in a month’s time I’m short of coal, there are friends of yours in Tilling who can let you have plenty,” he permitted himself to say….
It was idle to attempt to cut out bunches of roses while her hand was so feverish, and she trundled up and down the High Street to cool off. Had she not been so prudent as to make inquiries, as likely as not she would have sent a ton of coal that very day to the hospital, so strongly had Elizabeth’s perfidious warning inflamed her imagination as to the fate of hoarders, and all the time Elizabeth’s own cellars were glutted, though she had asserted that she was almost fuelless. Why, she must have in her possession more coal than Diva herself, since Mr. Wootten had clearly implied that it was Elizabeth who could be borrowed from! And all because of a wretched piece of rose-madder worsted….
By degrees she calmed down, for it was no use attempting to plan revenge with a brain at fever-heat. She must be calm and icily ingenious. As the cooling-process went on she began to wonder whether it was worsted alone that had prompted her friend’s diabolical suggestion. It seemed more likely that another motive (one strangely Elizabethan) was the cause of it. Elizabeth might be taken for certain as being a coal-hoarder herself, and it was ever so like her to divert suspicion by pretending her cellar was next to empty. She had been equally severe on any who might happen to be hoarding food, in case transport was disarranged and supplies fell short, and with a sudden flare of authentic intuition, Diva’s mind blazed with the conjecture that Elizabeth was hoarding food as well.
Luck ever attends the bold and constructive thinker: the apple, for instance, fell from the tree precisely when Newton’s mind was groping after the law of gravity, and as Diva stepped into her grocer’s to begin her morning’s shopping (for she had been occupied with roses ever since breakfast) the attendant was at the telephone at the back of the shop. He spoke in a lucid telephone-voice.
“We’ve only two of the big tins of corned beef,” he said; and there was a pause, during which, to a psychic, Diva's ears might have seemed to grow as pointed with attention as a satyr’s. But she could only hear little hollow quacks from the other end.
“Tongue as well. Very good. I’ll send them up at once,” he added, and came forward into the shop.
“Good morning,” said Diva. Her voice was tremulous with anxiety and investigation. “Got any big tins of corned beef? The ones that contain six pounds.”
“Very sorry, ma’am. We’ve only got two, and they’ve just been ordered.”
“A small pot of ginger then, please,” said Diva recklessly. “Will you send it round immediately?”
“Yes, ma’am. The boy’s just going out.”
That was luck. Diva hurried into the street, and was absorbed by the headlines of the news outside the stationer’s. This was a favourite place for observation, for you appeared to be quite taken up by the topics of the day, and kept an oblique eye on the true object of your scrutiny…. She had not got to wait long, for almost immediately the grocer’s boy came out of the shop with a heavy basket on his arm, delivered the small pot of ginger at her own door, and proceeded along the street. He was, unfortunately, a popular and a conversational youth, who had a great deal to say to his friends, and the period of waiting to see if he would turn up the steep street that led to Miss Mapp’s house was very protracted. At the corner he deliberately put down the basket altogether and lit a cigarette, and never had Diva so acutely deplored the spread of the tobacco-habit among the juvenile population.
Having refreshed himself he turned up the steep street.
He passed the fishmonger’s and the fruiterer’s; he did not take the turn down to the dentist’s and Mr. Wyse’s. He had no errand to the Major’s house or to the Captain’s. Then, oh then, he rang the bell at Miss Mapp’s back door. All the time Diva had been following him, keeping her head well down so as to avert the possibility of observation from the window of the garden-room, and walking so slowly that the motion of her feet seemed not circular at all…. Then the bell was answered, and he delivered into Withers’ hands one, two tins of corned beef and a round ox-tongue. He put the basket on his head and came down the street again, shrilly whistling. If Diva had had any reasonably small change in her pocket, she would assuredly have given him some small share in it. Lacking this, she trundled home with all speed, and began cutting out roses with swift and certain strokes of the nail-scissors.
Now she hadnoticed that Elizabeth had paid visits to the grocer’s on three consecutive days (three consecutive days: think of it!), and given that her purchases on other occasions had been on the same substantial scale as to-day, it became a matter of thrilling interest as to where she kept these stores. She could not keep them in the coal cellar, for that was already bursting with coal, and Diva, who had assisted her (the base one) in making a prodigious quantity of jam that year from her well-stocked garden, was aware that the kitchen cupboards were like to be as replete as the coal-cellar, before those hoardings of dead oxen began. Then there was the big cupboard under the stairs, but that could scarcely be the site of this prodigious cache, for it was full of cardboard and curtains and carpets and all the rubbishy accumulations which Elizabeth could not bear to part with. Then she had large cupboards in her bedroom and spare rooms full to overflowing of mouldy clothes, but there was positively not another cupboard in the house that Diva knew of, and she crushed her temples in her hands in the attempt to locate the hiding-place of the hoard.
Diva suddenly jumped up with a happy squeal of discovery, and in her excitement snapped her scissors with so random a stroke that she completely cut in half the bunch of roses that she was engaged on. There was another cupboard, the best and biggest of all and the most secret and the most discreet. It lay embedded in the wall of the garden-room, cloaked and concealed behind the shelves of a false book-case, which contained no more than the simulacra of books, just books with titles that had never yet appeared on any honest book. There were twelve volumes of “The Beauties of Nature,” a shelf full of “Elegant Extracts,” there were volumes simply called “Poems,” there were “Commentaries,” there were “Travels” and “Astronomy” and the lowest and tallest shelf was full of “Music.” A card-table habitually stood in front of this false repository learning, and it was only last week that Diva, prying casually round the room while Elizabeth had gone to take off her gardening-gloves, had noticed a modest catch let into the wood-work. Without doubt, then, the book-case was the door of the cupboard, and with a stroke of intuition, too sure to be called a guess, Diva was aware that she had correctly inferred the storage of this nefarious hoard. It only remained to verify her conclusion, and, if possible, expose it with every circumstance of public ignominy. She was in no hurry: she could bide her time, aware that, in all probability, every day that passed would see an addition to its damning contents. Some day, when she was playing bridge and the card-table had been moved out, in some rubber when she herself was dummy and Elizabeth greedily playing the hand, she would secretly and accidentally press the catch which her acute vision had so providentially revealed to her.…
She attacked her chintz curtains again with her appetite for the pink roses agreeably whetted. Another hour’s work would give her sufficient bunches for her purpose, and unless the dyer was as perfidious as Elizabeth, her now purple jacket and skirt would arrive that afternoon. Two days’ hard work would be sufficient for so accomplished a needlewoman as herself to make these original decorations.
In the meantime, for Diva was never idle, and was chiefly occupied with dress, she got out a certain American fashion paper. There was in it the description of a tea-gown worn by Mrs. Titus W. Trout which she believed was within her dressmaking capacity. She would attempt it, anyhow, and if it proved to be beyond her, she could entrust the more difficult parts to that little dressmaker whom Elizabeth employed, and who was certainly very capable. But the costume was of so daring and splendid a nature that she feared to take anyone into her confidence about it, lest some hint or gossip—for Tilling was a gossipy place—might leak out. Kingfisher blue! It made her mouth water to dwell on the sumptuous syllables!
Miss Mapp was so feverishly occupied all next morning with the application of poppies to the corn-coloured skirt that she paid very little attention to the opening gambits of the day, either as regards the world in general, or, more particularly, Major Benjy. After his early retirement last night he was probably up with the lark this morning, and when between half-past ten and eleven his sonorous “Qui-hi!” sounded through her open window, the shock she experienced interrupted for a moment her floral industry. It was certainly very odd that, having gone to bed at so respectable an hour last night, he should be calling for his porridge only now, but with an impulse of unusual optimism, she figured him as having been at work on his diaries before breakfast, and in that absorbing occupation having forgotten how late it was growing. That, no doubt, was the explanation, though it would be nice to know for certain, if the information positively forced itself on her notice.… As she worked, (framing her lips with elaborate motions to the syllables) she dumbly practised the phrase “Major Benjy.” Sometimes in moments of gallantry he called her “Miss Elizabeth,” and she meant, when she had got accustomed to it by practice, to say “Major Benjy” to him by accident, and he would, no doubt, beg her to make a habit of that friendly slip of the tongue.… “Tongue” led to a new train of thought, and presently she paused in her work, and pulling the card-table away from the deceptive book-case, she pressed the concealed catch of the door, and peeped in.
There was still room for further small precautions against starvation owing to the impending coal-strike, and she took stock of her provisions. Even if the strike lasted quite a long time, there would now be no immediate lack of the necessaries of life, for the cupboard glistened with tinned meats, and the flour-merchant had sent a very sensible sack. This with considerable exertion she transferred to a high shelf in the cupboard, instead of allowing it to remain standing on the floor, for Withers had informed her of an unpleasant rumour about a mouse, which Mary had observed, lost in thought in front of the cupboard. “So mousie shall only find tins on the floor now,” thought Miss Mapp. “Mousie shall try his teeth on tins.” … There was tea and coffee in abundance, jars of jam filled the kitchen shelves, and if this morning she laid in a moderate supply of dried fruits, there was no reason to face the future with anything but fortitude. She would see about that now, for, busy though she was, she could not miss the shopping-parade. Would Diva, she wondered, be at her window, snipping roses out of chintz curtains? The careful, thrifty soul. Perhaps this time to-morrow, Diva, looking out of her window, would see that somebody else had been quicker about being thrifty than she. That would be fun!
The Major’s dining-room window was open, and as Miss Mapp passed it, she could not help hearing loud, angry remarks about eggs coming from inside. That made it clear that he was still at breakfast, and that if he had been working at his diaries in the fresh morning hours and forgetting the time, early rising, in spite of his early retirement last night, could not be supposed to suit his Oriental temper. But a change of habits was invariably known to be upsetting, and Miss Mapp was hopeful that in a day or two he would feel quite a different man. Further down the street was quaint Irene lounging at the door of her new studio (a converted coach-house), smoking a cigarette and dressed like a jockey.
“Hullo, Mapp,” she said. “Come and have a look round my new studio. You haven’t seen it yet. I shall give a house-warming next week. Bridge-party!”
Miss Mapp tried to steel herself for the hundredth time to appear quite unconscious that she was being addressed when Irene said “Mapp” in that odious manner. But she never could summon up sufficient nerve to be rude to so awful a mimic.…
“Good morning, dear one,” she said sycophantically. “Shall I peep in for a moment?”
The decoration of the studio was even more appalling than might have been expected. There was a German stove in the corner made of pink porcelain, the rafters and roof were painted scarlet, the walls were of magenta distemper and the floor was blue. In the corner was a very large orange-coloured screen. The walls were hung with specimens of Irene’s art, there was a stout female with no clothes on at all, whom it was impossible not to recognize as being Lucy; there were studies of fat legs and ample bosoms, and on the easel was a picture, evidently in process of completion, which represented a man. From this Miss Mapp instantly averted her eyes.
“Eve,” said Irene, pointing to Lucy.
Miss Mapp naturally guessed that the gentleman who was almost in the same costume was Adam, and turned completely away from him.
“And what a lovely idea to have a blue floor, dear,” said. “How original you are. And that pretty scarlet ceiling. But don’t you find when you’re painting that all these bright colours disturb you?”
“Not a bit: they stimulate your sense of colour.”
Miss Mapp moved towards the screen.
“What a delicious big screen,” she said.
“Yes, but don’t go behind it, Mapp,” said Irene, “or you’ll see my model undressing.”
Miss Mapp retreated from it precipitately, as from a wasp’s nest, and examined some of the studies on the wall, for it was more than probable from the unfinished picture on the easel that Adam lurked behind the delicious screen. Terrible though it all was, she was conscious of an unbridled curiosity to know who Adam was. It was dreadful to think that there could be any man in Tilling so depraved as to stand to be looked at with so little on.…
Irene strolled round the walls with her.
“Studies of Lucy,” she said.
“I see, dear,” said Miss Mapp. “How clever! Legs and things! But when you have your bridge-party, won’t you perhaps cover some of them up, or turn them to the wall? We should all be looking at your pictures instead of attending to our cards. And if you were thinking of asking the Padre, you know.…”
They were approaching the corner of the room where the screen stood, when a movement there as if Adam had hit it with his elbow made Miss Mapp turn round. The screen fell flat on the ground and within a yard of her stood Mr. Hopkins, the proprietor of the fish-shop just up the street. Often and often had Miss Mapp had pleasant little conversations with him, with a view to bringing down the price of flounders. He had little bathing-drawers on.…
“Hullo, Hopkins, are you ready?” said Irene. “You know Miss Mapp, don't you?”
Miss Mapp had not imagined that Time and Eternity combined could hold so embarrassing a moment. She did not know where to look, but wherever she looked, it should not be at Hopkins. But (wherever she looked) she could not be unaware that Hopkins raised his large bare arm and touched the place where his cap would have been, if he had had one.
“Good-morning, Hopkins,” she said. “Well, Irene darling, I must be trotting, and leave you to your—” she hardly knew what to call it—“to your work.”
She tripped from the room, which seemed to be entirely full of unclothed limbs, and redder than one of Mr. Hopkins’s boiled lobsters hurried down the street. She felt that she could never face him again, but would be obliged to go to the establishment in the High Street where Irene dealt, when it was fish she wanted from a fish-shop.… Her head was in a whirl at the brazenness of mankind, especially womankind. How had Irene started the overtures that led to this? Had she just said to Hopkins one morning: “Will you come to my studio and take off all your clothes?” If Irene had not been such a wonderful mimic, she would certainly have felt it her duty to go straight to the Padre, and, pulling down her veil, confide to him the whole sad story. But as that was out of the question, she went into Twemlow’s and ordered four pounds of dried apricots.