The Bond/Part 1/Chapter 7
THE dinner, with this unpromising beginning, was, in fact, a sad failure. Mary, perhaps fatigued from her efforts at lunch, had not risen to the sudden occasion, and the steak was overdone. Mrs. Boulter was very much in the foreground, and to make matters worse, Erhart the sculptor, who had provided himself with a standing invitation to the house, dropped in. On him, at least, the excellent old whisky was not lost, but Basil's guest, the Englishman, declined it, and even the mild lure of the Chianti. A guest who is given a bad dinner, and will drink nothing but water, is a trying person. Basil was plainly nervous, and therefore more voluble than usual, and Erhart provoked as much controversy as possible, according to his wont. He even argued with Mrs. Boulter on women's rights, while she hurled the Constitution, the Pilgrim Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, and the doctrine of natural right at him. In reply he quoted large extracts from a recently published German work, in which women were disposed of as "too low in the moral scale even to be criminals," and were denied souls, on the basis of the facts that the soul resides in the memory, and that women have no memory. At this proposition two crimson spots rose to Mrs. Boulter's cheeks, and she demanded the name and presumable dwelling place of the author, but, on learning that he had committed suicide at the age of twenty-four, she ejaculated in stern triumph: "Exactly what I should have expected! Beware how you give currency to his ideas."
"Do you expect me to commit suicide?" rejoined Erhart, his long blonde face wrinkling in a sarcastic smile. "No, madam, I intend to live to make the statue of the first Woman-President. She will wear knee-breeches, and, for the occasion, a Roman toga. Her pedestal will be composed of a sewing-machine and an overturned cradle, with the motto, 'Per aspera ad nauseam.'"
At this point Teresa interfered and suppressed Erhart, and Basil began to talk to the Englishman, whose name Teresa had not made out, about the East, with which apparently the latter had some official connection. So far he had said very little, and seemed to contemplate with an amused and slightly astonished air the incongruous company in which he found himself. He was a man of an unusual type, evidently not of unmixed English blood, above the medium height, lean and delicately made, dark, and with a curious colour in which grey predominated over brown. His dark eyes were very observant, his dress was meticulously careful, his manner quiet, and especially so by contrast with that of three out of the other four at the table. Teresa alone had anything approaching his own inexpressive repose. She was as unmoved as though the dinner had turned out well, and the talk had gone smoothly, and as little talkative herself. Basil, on whom the social burden seemed to rest, fidgetted distinctly under it, and drank more of the old whisky than he might have done otherwise. He and Teresa exchanged the sort of cheerful glances which masked on his part a grievance and on hers a calm perception that he was unreasonable. True, the evening was spoilt, but why allow a little passing discomfort to disturb one's whole moral being? An uncomfortable social situation was, however, a positive torment to Basil. By as much as he expanded and glowed when he was at ease, by the extent of his possible charm, was to be measured the effect on him of this sort of mishap. Teresa reflected about him, while talk went on disjointedly, and arrived at a feeling of keen liking for him; she saw something lovable even in the way he hurled himself into his coat, and departed with the Englishman; for, when the latter had declined coffee and liqueurs, it was already rather late for his theatre.
Aunt Sophy soon went away, and Erhart was left on Teresa's hands. They drank their coffee before the open fire in the drawing-room, Teresa thinking about the volume of the Arabian Nights, to which she would get back as soon as he went, and listening absently to his unfavourable remarks about the English. At last he said abruptly:
"You are bored—I shall go. I'm sorry I came to-night. You are bored with most people, aren't you? And you are almost always bored with me. … I suppose I did not behave well to-night?"
"I'm tired—that's all. But you were horridly rude to my aunt," said Teresa.
"Well, how can I help it? She is such an awful fool, you know. She knows nothing about anything. What do women expect when they take that tone, anyway? They are just as much insulted when you're polite to them; they think it's condescension. I don't know what they want—except a chance to lecture us. And that they can do much better in private. Hasn't your aunt got a husband?"
"She had one," said Teresa, with a glimmering smile. "But he vanished. The combination of lectures and boarding-house life was too much for him. He evaporated."
"I'll bet he did. What a woman! You might as well marry a high-pressure cylinder. She's a typical American."
"She would be proud to hear you say so. She considers the American woman the crowning triumph of civilisation."
Erhart made a profane exclamation. "Then civilisation might as well come to an end. It would, too, if it depended on the American woman. She would have no children, she would starve out the men, and then what? A lot of Kilkenny cats, they would eat one another. A tough meal your aunt would make, too! I believe she's made of whalebone and gutta-percha."
"You like women made of butter and jam, don't you?"
"Oh, heavens, I don't like any kind of women," said Erhart, getting up to go. "At least any show kind. They ought to be kept behind the veil. Tell your aunt that, from me."
He lingered a moment, moving about with his oddly beautiful hands the small pieces of porcelain on the mantelpiece, then said: "I'm sorry I have bored you. But I'm not sorry I was rude to your aunt."
"Oh—rudeness is the most boring thing, I think," murmured Teresa. "I hate quarrelling, especially at meals."
"You call all discussion quarrelling! What would you have? Everybody bowing and scraping and agreeing with one another? …"
"Oh, I'm not going to discuss with you!" said Teresa, laughing, and he finally took himself off, with a look of pique on his cold Northern face. Teresa yawned, got herself a cigarette and her volume of Arabian Nights, and made herself comfortable in a long chair between lamp and fire.
But she did not begin reading immediately. She lay thinking vaguely of the incidents of the day. She was tired, and her thoughts had the incoherence of dreams. Gerald Dallas and Miss Carruthers were oddly mixed up in them. She remembered a visit she had paid Miss Carruthers, when the old maid had taken her up into a bedroom, and showed her a curious collection of treasures—rolls upon rolls of silk and chiffon, boxes of lace, of long delicate gloves, and silk stockings, jewelled hair ornaments, and filmy scarves. All these, were dimly destined to the adornment of a pathetic, withered person, and yet would probably never be worn; for something prevented Miss Carruthers from actually appearing in them. She usually wore drabs and faded yellows in public, but her passion for the accumulation of these frivolities of a pretty woman's toilette furnished the main pleasure of her life. The emerald and pearl pendant had now doubtless been added to her hoard. Aunt Sophy would have held her sternly responsible; Aunt Sophy knew exactly where to draw the line of moral responsibility. She had drawn it in Gerald's case, too, with unhesitating hand. Anyone who wanted to be decent could be; and decency was an exact quantity. It took no account of kinks in the brain, of perverted instincts like poor Miss Carruthers'—of physical obsessions stronger than the will. If you were afflicted in any such way you ought to be "shut up." But how much pleasure and colour would be taken out of life if all except rigidly rectilinear and decent people were shut up!
Even Aunt Sophy herself—probably now seated in her solitary room at the boarding-house, before a desk loaded with papers on Woman Suffrage—Aunt Sophy had deserted her husband. Teresa wondered if she never regretted the domestic atmosphere, even though her boarding-house was an elegant one, and she was called a paying guest. But after all a domestic atmosphere pervaded by Aunt Sophy must almost itself suggest the paying guest. And her favourite phrase about the vanished Mr. Boulter had been: "Your uncle can be more disagreeable than any man that ever lived." Aunt Sophy thought marriage a hideous state of bondage. Teresa's cheerful view of it always astonished her, but she said, "Just wait, my dear. It isn't in the first year that you learn to know a man."
Poor Aunt Sophy! But she should not have married a disagreeable man. Marriage was very simple. You married a person you liked, and did just as you liked, exactly as before; and the person adored you, and even if be lost bis temper sometimes over a beefsteak, or a missing shirt, he was still the most charming person in the world.
Teresa smiled, looking into the fire, which had sunk together into a red core of coals. It struck her that bed would be a more comfortable place to read. Basil objected to her reading in bed, but all the same she had had an electric light hung just over her pillow, and she quoted Charles Lamb to prove to him that it was the only place to read in. When she had arranged herself luxuriously under this light, in her quiet room, where the roar of the city ascended only as a muffled bass, she unbraided her long braids, and, with the book propped on her knees, she slowly brushed the dark ripples of hair out to their ends, and began to read:
"Il y avait, dans la ville de Baghdad, un homme qui était célibataire et aussi portefaix.
"Un jour d'entre les jours, pendant qu'il était dans le souk, nonchalamment appuyé sur sa hotte, voici que devant lui s'arrêta une femme enveloppée de son ample voile en étoffe de Moussoul, en son parsemée de paillettes d'or et doublée de brocart. Elle souleva un peu son petit voile de visage et, d'en dessous, alors, apparurent des yeux noirs avec de longs cils et quelles pau- pières! Et elle était svelte et fin d'extrémités, parfaite des qualites. …"
She read on and on, for an hour; then her eyelids dropped, her head sank on the pillow, and she slept, still holding the book. …
The latchkey turning in the lock woke her. She heard Basil stop outside her door, and speak her name in a low voice. She answered, and he came in.
"What are you doing—reading at this time of night?" he asked, frowning slightly, and looking pale.
"Why, what time of night is it?" said Teresa sleepily.
"Oh, late—after two. Look here, you promised me you wouldn't——"
"No, I didn't. Where have you been, you dissipated wretch, tell me that!"
"Oh, nowhere in particular. I met some fellows, and we sat around talking——"
"Well, a little——"
"A good deal, I imagine. I thought you said you wouldn't——"
"Well, I wouldn't want to knock about at night, if you'd make it comfortable at home. …"
Teresa made no reply, and after a moment he went out. She braided her hair in the two long braids, turned out the electric light, and lay looking at the window, vaguely lit by reflections from the street.
Basil came back, as she had known he would; wrapped in his blue dressing-gown, he sat down on the side of her bed, and began:
"You must admit you spoiled the dinner to-night."
"No—did I?" said Teresa sleepily.
"You know you did! Not only your aunt—perhaps that was an accident—but I've asked you a dozen times to get another cook, and yet you will keep——"
"Oh, Basil, you think cooks grow on blackberry bushes! You must admit she gave us a delicious lunch, and it's rather a trial to have three other guests shot in unexpectedly for dinner——"
"You're so soft about her! If you gave her a good hauling over now and then she might do better——"
"Basil, you're an idealist."
"Yes, that's right, joke about it! Much you care how things go on, and whether I'm uncomfortable or not. You don't care a damn for me, that's the truth. To-day you wouldn't come and pose to oblige me, you preferred to spend the afternoon with Dallas——"
"I had an engagement with him."
"You might have come afterwards."
"I couldn't. I was feeling too ill."
"Ill? What made you ill?"
"He did—Gerald. He told me he was going to get drunk."
"He did! By Jove, poor old Gerald—I began to think he might be going to run straight after all. But now he'll go it, once he's broken out. Poor devil!"
"What—will he do?" asked Teresa faintly.
"Do! He'll drink whisky till he's blind drunk, and then, when he's got his breath, he'll begin again. He'll keep it up for a week, very likely, and then somebody'll pick him up out of the gutter, and he'll be sick and sorry for a month."
"What horrid idiots men are," said Teresa.
"Perhaps they are, but they're not so egotistic as women," said Basil stiffly, recollecting his grievance.
He sat silent for a moment, moving his shoulders nervously. Teresa smiled in the darkness. He did not want to go to bed with that grievance. He was tired of it. She was silent, too, wickedly.
"Good-night!" he said abruptly, getting up.
She let him get to the door, then she called him back.
"Oh, come here a minute, I want to ask you something."
"Well, what is it?" He stood still.
"Come here, can't you?"
"Can't you ask from there?"
"No. Come here, I tell you."
He approached with dignity, and sat down on the extreme edge of the bed.
"Well, hurry up, I'm cold."
His tone was aggressive, but Teresa read beneath it. She reached up and put one bare arm round his neck, and murmured:
"Silly old thing!"
He made an effort to hold his position. "You won't do a thing I ask you to! You won't even stop reading, though you're spoiling your eyes. … You don't care anything about me, that's the real truth! If you did, you——"
She drew his head down and kissed him.
"Idiot!" she murmured.
His arms went round her, caught her up, held her close.
"How I love you!" he said angrily.