The Woman (Milne)
Royal Warwick Regiment
It was April, and in his little bedroom in the Muswell Hill boarding-house, where Mrs. Morrison (assisted, as you found out later, by Miss Gertie Morrison) took in a few select paying guests, George Crosby was packing. Spring came in softly through his open window; it whispered to him tales of green hedges and misty woods and close-cropped rolling grass. "Collars," said George, trying to shut his ears to it, "handkerchiefs, ties—I knew I'd forgotten something: ties." He pulled open a drawer. "Ties, shirts—where's my list?—shirts, ties." He wandered to the window and looked out. Muswell Hill was below him, but he hardly saw it. Three weeks," he murmured. Heaven for three weeks, and it hasn't even begun yet." There was the splendour of it. It hadn't begun; it didn't begin till to-morrow. He went back in a dream to his packing. "Collars," he said, "shirts, ties—ties——"
Miss Gertie Morrison had not offered to help him this year. She had not forgotten that she had put herself forward the year before, when George had stammered and blushed (he found blushing very easy in the Muswell Hill boarding-house), and Algy Traill, the humorist of the establishment, had winked and said, "George, old boy, you're in luck; Gertie never packs for me." Algy had continued the joke by smacking his left hand with his right, and saying in an undertone, "Naughty boy, how dare you call her Gertie?" and then in a falsetto voice: "Oh, Mr. Crosby, I'm sure I never meant to put myself forward!" Then Mrs. Morrison from her end of the table called out——
But I can see that I shall have to explain the Muswell Hill ménage to you. I can do it quite easily while George is finishing his packing. He is looking for his stockings now, and that always takes him a long time, because he hasn't worn them since last April, and they are probably under the bed.
Well, Mrs. Morrison sits at one end of the table and carves. Suppose it is Tuesday evening. "Cold beef or hash, Mr. Traill?" she asks, and Algy probably says "Yes, please," which makes two of the boarders laugh. These are two pale brothers called Fossett, younger than you who read this have ever been, and enthusiastic admirers of Algy Traill. Their great ambition is to paint the town red one Saturday night. They have often announced their intention of doing this, but so far they do not seem to have left their mark on London to any extent. Very different is it with their hero and mentor. On Boat-race night four years ago Algy Traill was actually locked up—and dismissed next morning with a caution. Since then he has often talked as if he were a Cambridge man; the presence of an Emmanuel lacrosse blue in the adjoining cell having decided him in the choice of a university.
Meanwhile his hash is getting cold. Let us follow it quickly. It is carried by the servant to Miss Gertie Morrison at the other end of the table, who slaps in a helping of potatoes and cabbage. "What, asparagus again?" says Algy, seeing the cabbage. "We are in luck." Mrs. Morrison throws up her eyes at Mr. Ransom on her right, as much as to say, "Was there ever such a boy?" and Miss Gertie threatens him with the potato spoon, and tells him not to be silly. Mr. Ransom looks approvingly across the table at Traill. He has a feeling that the Navy, the Empire, and the Old Country are in some way linked up with men of the world such as Algy, or that (to put it in another way) a Radical Nonconformist would strongly disapprove of him. It comes to the same thing; you can't help liking the fellow. Mr. Ransom is wearing an M.C.C. tie; partly because the bright colours make him look younger, partly because unless he changes something for dinner he never feels quite clean, you know. In his own house he would dress every night. He is fifty; tall, dark, red-faced, black-moustached, growing stout; an insurance agent. It is his great sorrow that the country is going to the dogs, and he dislikes the setting of class against class. The proper thing to do is to shoot them down.
Opposite him, and looking always as if he had slept in his clothes, is Mr. Owen-Jones—called Mr. Joen-Owns by Algy. He argues politics fiercely across Mrs. Morrison. "My dear fellow," he cries to Ransom, "you're nothing but a reactionary!"—to which Ransom, who is a little doubtful what a reactionary is, replies, "All I want is to live at peace with my neighbours. I don't interfere with them; why should they interfere with me?" Whereupon Mrs. Morrison says peaceably, "Live and let live. After all, there are two side to every question—a little more hash, Mr. Owen-Jones?"
George has just remembered that his stockings are under the bed, so I must hurry on. As it happens, the rest of the boarders do not interest me much. There are two German clerks and one French clerk, whose broken English is always amusing, and somebody with a bald, dome-shaped head who takes in Answers every week. Three years ago he had sung "Annie Laurie" after dinner one evening, and Mrs. Morrison still remembers sometimes to say, "Won't you sing something, Mr. ——?" whatever his name was, but he always refuses. He says that he has the new number of Answers to read.
There you are; now you know everybody. Let us go upstairs again to George Crosby.
Is there anything in the world jollier than packing up for a holiday? If there is, I do not know it. It was the hour (or two hours or three hours) of George's life. It was more than that; for days beforehand he had been packing to himself; sorting out his clothes, while he bent over the figures at his desk, making and drawing up lists of things that he really mustn't forget. In the luncheon hour he would look in at hosiers' windows and nearly buy a blue shirt because it went so well with his brown knickerbocker suit. You or I would have bought it; it was only five and sixpence. Every evening he would escape from the drawing-room—that terrible room—and hurry upstairs to his little bedroom, and there sit with his big brown kit-bag open before him ... dreaming. Every evening he had meant to pack a few things just to begin with: his tweed suit and stockings and nailed shoes, for instance; but he was always away in the country, following the white path over the hills, as soon as ever his bag was between his knees. How he ached to take his body there too ... it was only three weeks to wait, two weeks, a week, three days—to-morrow! To-morrow—he was almost frightened to think of it lest he should wake up.
Perhaps you wonder that George Crosby hated the Muswell Hill boarding-house; perhaps you don't. For my part I agree with Mrs. Morrison that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that as Mr. —— (I forget his name: the dome-shaped gentleman) once surprised us by saying, "There is good in everybody if only you can find it out." At any rate there is humour. I think if George had tried to see the humorous side of Mrs. Morrison's select guests he might have found life tolerable. And yet the best joke languishes after five years.
I had hoped to have gone straight ahead with this story, but I shall have to take you back five years; it won't be for long. Believe me, no writer likes this diving back into the past. He is longing to get to the great moment when Rosamund puts her head on George's shoulder and says—but we shall come to that. What I must tell you now, before my pen runs away with me, is that five years ago George was at Oxford with plenty of money in his pocket, and a vague idea in his head that he would earn a living somehow when he went down. Then his only near relation, his father, died ... and George came down with no money in his pocket, and the knowledge that he would have to earn his living at once. He knew little of London east of the Savoy, where he had once lunched with his father; I doubt if he even knew the Gaiety by sight. When his father's solicitor recommended a certain Islington boarding-house as an establishment where a man of means could be housed and fed for as little as thirty shillings a week, and a certain firm in Fenchurch Street as another establishment where a man of gifts could earn as much as forty shillings a week, George found out where Islington and Fenchurch Street were, and fell mechanically into the routine suggested for him. That he might have been happier alone, looking after himself, cooking his own meals or sampling alone the cheaper restaurants, hardly occurred to him. Life was become suddenly a horrible dream, and the boarding-house was just a part of it.
However, three years of Islington was enough for him. He pulled himself together ... and moved to Muswell Hill.
There, we have him back at Muswell Hill now, and I have not been long, have I? He has been two years with Mrs. Morrison. I should like to say that he is happy with Mrs, Morrison, but he is not. The terrible thing is that he cannot get hardened to it. He hates Muswell Hill; he hates Traill and the Fossetts and Ransom; he hates Miss Gertie Morrison. The whole vulgar, familiar, shabby, sociable atmosphere of the place he hates. Some day, perhaps, he will pull himself together and move again. There is a boarding-house at Finsbury Park he has heard of....
If you had three weeks' holiday in the year, three whole weeks in which to amuse yourself as you liked, how would you spend it? Algy Traill went to Brighton in August; you should have seen him on the pier. The Fossett Brothers adorned Weymouth, the Naples of England. They did good, if slightly obvious, work on the esplanade in fairly white flannels. This during the day; eight-thirty in the evening found them in the Alexandra Gardens—dressed. It is doubtful if the Weymouth boarding-house would have stood it at dinner, so they went up directly afterwards and changed. Mr. Ransom spent August at Folkestone, where he was understood to have a doubtful wife. She was really his widowed mother. You would never have suspected him of a mother, but there she was in Folkestone, thinking of him always, and only living for the next August. It was she who knitted him the M.C.C. tie; he had noticed the colours in a Piccadilly window.
Miss Gertie went to Cliftonville—not Margate.
And where did George go? The conversation at dinner that evening would have given us a clue; or perhaps it wouldn't.
"So you're off to-morrow," Mrs. Morrison had said. "Well, I'm sure I hope you'll have a nice time. A little sea air will do you good."
"Where are you going, Crosby?" asked Ransom, with the air of a man who means to know.
George looked uncomfortable.
"I'm not quite sure," he said awkwardly. "I'm going a sort of walking- tour, you know; stopping at inns and things. I expect it—er—will depend a bit, you know."
"Well, if you should happen to stop at Sandringham," said Algy, "give them all my love, old man, won't you?"
"Then you won't have your letters sent on?" asked Mrs. Morrison.
"Oh no, thanks. I don't suppose I shall have any, anyhow."
"If you going on a walking-tour," said Owen-Jones, "why don't you try the Welsh mountains?"
"I always wonder you don't run across to Paris," said the dome-shaped gentleman suddenly. "It only takes——" He knew all the facts, and was prepared to give them, but Algy interrupted him with a knowing whistle.
"Paris, George, aha! Place me among the demoiselles, what ho! I don't think. Naughty boy!"
Crosby's first impulse (he had had it before) was to throw his glass of beer at Algy's face. The impulse died down, and his resolve hardened to write about the Finsbury Park boarding-house at once. He had made that resolution before, too. Then his heart jumped as he remembered that he was going away on the morrow. He forgot Traill and Finsbury Park, and went off into his dreams. The other boarders discussed walking-tours and holiday resorts with animation.
Gertie Morrison was silent. She was often silent when Crosby was there, and always when Crosby's affairs were being discussed. She knew he hated her, and she hated him for it. I don't think she knew why he hated her. It was because she lowered his opinion of women.
He had known very few women in his life, and he dreamed dreams about them. They were wonderful creatures, a little higher than the angels, and beauty and mystery and holiness hung over them. Some day he would meet the long-desired one, and (miracle) she would love him, and they would live happy ever afterwards at—— He wondered sometimes whether an angel would live happy ever afterwards at Bedford Park. Bedford Park seemed to strip the mystery and the holiness and the wonder from his dream. And yet he had seen just the silly little house at Bedford Park that would suit them; and even angels, if they come to earth, must live somewhere. She would walk to the gate every morning, and wave him good-bye from under the flowering laburnum—for I need not say that it was always spring in his dream. That was why he had his holiday in April, for it must be spring when he found her, and he would only find her in the country.... Another reason was that in August Miss Morrison went to Cliftonville (not Margate), and so he had a fortnight in Muswell Hill without Miss Morrison.
For it was difficult to believe in the dreams when Gertie Morrison was daily before his eyes. There was a sort of hard prettiness there, which might have been beauty, but where were the mystery and the wonder and the holiness? None of that about the Gertie who was treated so familiarly by the Fossetts and the Traills and their kind, and answered them back so smartly. "You can't get any change out of Gertie," Traill often said on these occasions. Almost Crosby wished you could. He would have had her awkward, bewildered, indignant, overcome with shame; it distressed him that she was so lamentably well-equipped for the battle. At first he pitied her, then he hated her. She was betraying her sex. What he really meant was that she was trying to topple over the beautiful image he had built.
I know what you are going to say. What about the girl at the A B C shop who spilt his coffee over his poached egg every day at one thirty-five precisely? Hadn't she given his image a little push too? I think not. He hardly saw her as a woman at all. She was a worker, like himself; sexless. In the evenings perhaps she became a woman ... wonderful, mysterious, holy ... I don't know; at any rate he didn't see her then. But Miss Morrison he saw at home; she was pretty and graceful and feminine; she might have been, not the woman—that would have been presumption on his part—but a woman ... and then she went and called Algy Traill "a silly boy," and smacked him playfully with a teaspoon! Traill, the cad-about-town, the ogler of women! No wonder the image rocked.
Well, he would be away from the Traills and the Morrisons and the Fossetts for three weeks. It was April, the best month of the year. He was right in saying that he was not quite sure where he was going, but he could have told Mrs. Morrison the direction. He would start down the line with his knapsack and his well-filled kit-bag. By-and-by he would get out—the name of the station might attract him, or the primroses on the banks—leave his bag, and, knapsack on shoulder, follow the road. Sooner or later he would come to a village; he would find an inn that could put him up; on the morrow the landlord could drive in for his bag. ... And then three weeks in which to search for the woman.
A south wind was blowing little baby clouds along a blue sky; lower down, the rooks were talking busily to each other in the tall elms which lined the church; and, lower down still, the foxhound puppy sat himself outside the blacksmith's and waited for company. If nothing happened in the next twenty seconds he would have to go and look for somebody.
But somebody was coming. From the door of "The Dog and Duck" opposite, a tall, lean, brown gentleman stepped briskly, in his hand a pair of shoes. The foxhound puppy got up and came across the road sideways to him. "Welcome, welcome," he said effusively, and went round the tall, lean, brown gentleman several times.
"Hallo, Duster," said the brown gentleman; "coming with me to-day?"
"Come along," said the foxhound puppy excitedly. "Going with you? I should just think I am! Which way shall we go?"
"Wait a moment. I want to leave these shoes here."
Duster followed him into the blacksmith's shop. The blacksmith thought he could put some nails in; gentlemen's shoes and horses' shoes, he explained, weren't quite the same thing. The brown gentleman admitted the difference, but felt sure that the blacksmith could make a job of anything he tried his hand at. He mentioned, which the blacksmith knew, that he was staying at "The Dog and Duck" opposite, and gave his name as Carfax.
"Come along," said Duster impatiently.
"Good morning," said the brown gentleman to the blacksmith. "Lovely day, isn't it?... Come along, old boy."
He strode out into the blue fresh morning. Duster all round him. But when they got to the church—fifty yards, no more—the foxhound puppy changed his mind. He had had an inspiration, the same inspiration which came to him every day at this spot. He stopped.
"Let's go back," he said.
"Not coming to-day?" laughed the brown gentleman. "Well, good-bye."
"You see, I think I'd better wait here, after all," said the foxhound puppy apologetically. "Something might happen. Are you really going on? Well—you'll excuse me, won't you?"
He ambled back to his place outside the blacksmith's shop. The tall, lean, brown gentleman, who called himself Carfax, walked on briskly with spring in his heart. Above him the rooks talked and talked; the hedges were green; and there were little baby clouds in the blue sky.
Shall I try to deceive you for a page or two longer, or shall we have the truth out at once? Better have the truth. Well, then—the gentleman who called himself Carfax was really George Crosby. You guessed? Of course you did. But if you scent a mystery you are wrong.
It was five years ago that Crosby took his first holiday. He came to this very inn, "The Dog and Duck," and when they asked him his name he replied "Geoffrey Carfax." It had been an inspiration in the train. To be Geoffrey Carfax for three weeks seemed to cut him off more definitely from the Fenchurch Street office and the Islington boarding-house. George Crosby was in prison, working a life sentence; Geoffrey Carfax was a free man in search of the woman. Romance might come to Geoffrey, but it could never come to George. They were two different persons; then let them be two different persons. Besides, glamour hung over the mere act of giving a false name. George had delightful thrills when he remembered his deceit; and there was one heavenly moment of panic, on the last day of his first holiday, when (to avoid detection) he shaved off his moustache. He was not certain what the punishment was for calling yourself Geoffrey Carfax when your real name was George Crosby, but he felt that with a clean-shaven face he could laugh at Scotland Yard. The downward path, however, is notoriously an easy one. In subsequent years he let himself go still farther. Even the one false name wouldn't satisfy him now; and if he only looked in at a neighbouring inn for a glass of beer, he would manage to let it fall into his conversation that he was Guy Colehurst or Gervase Crane or—he had a noble range of names to choose from, only limited by the fact that "G. C." was on his cigarette-case and his kit-bag. (His linen was studiously unmarked, save with the hieroglyphic of his washerwoman—a foolish observation in red cotton which might mean anything.)
The tall, lean, brown gentleman, then, taking the morning air was George Crosby. Between ourselves we may continue to call him George. It is not a name I like; he hated it too; but George he was undoubtedly. Yet already he was a different George from the one you met at Muswell Hill. He had had two weeks of life, and they had made him brown and clear-eyed and confident. I think I said he blushed readily in Mrs. Morrison's boarding-house; the fact was he felt always uneasy in London, awkward, uncomfortable. In the open air he was at home, ready for he knew not what dashing adventure.
It was a day of spring to stir the heart with longings and memories. Memories, half-forgotten, of all the Aprils of the past touched him for a moment, and then, as he tried to grasp them, fluttered out of reach, so that he wondered whether he was recalling real adventures which had happened, or whether he was but dreaming over again the dreams which were always with him. One memory remained. It was on such a day as this, five years ago, and almost in this very place, that he had met the woman.
Yes, I shall have to go back again to tell you of her. Five years ago he had been staying at this same inn; it was his first holiday after his sentence to prison. He was not so resigned to his lot five years ago; he thought of it as a bitter injustice; and the wonderful woman for whom he came into the country to search was to be his deliverer. So that, I am afraid, she would have to have been, not only wonderful, mysterious, and holy, but also rich. For it was to the contented ease of his early days that he was looking for release; the little haven in Bedford Park had not come into his dreams. Indeed, I don't suppose he had even heard of Bedford Park at that time. It was Islington or The Manor House; anything in between was Islington. But, of course, he never confessed to himself that she would need to be rich.
And he found her. He came over the hills on a gentle April morning and saw her beneath him. She was caught, it seemed, in a hedge. How gallantly George bore down to the rescue!
"Can I be of any assistance?" he said in his best manner, and that, I think, is always the pleasantest way to begin. Between "Can I be of any assistance?" and "With all my worldly goods I thee endow" one has not far to travel.
"I'm caught," she said. "If you could——" Observe George spiking himself fearlessly.
"I say, you really are! Wait a moment."
"It's very kind of you."
There—he has done it.
Thank you so much," she said, with a pretty smile. "Oh, you've hurt yourself!" The sweet look of pain on her face!
It's nothing," sad George nobly. And it really was nothing. One can get a delightful amount of blood and sympathy from the most insignificant scratch.
They hesitated a moment. She looked on the ground; he looked at her. Then his eyes wandered round the beautiful day, and came back to her just as she looked up.
"It is a wonderful day, isn't it?" he said suddenly.
"Yes," she breathed.
It seemed absurd to separate on such a day when they were both wandering, and Heaven had brought them together.
"I say, dash it," said George suddenly: "what are you going to do? Are you going anywhere particular?"
"Not very particular."
"Neither am I. Can't we go there together?"
"I was just going to have lunch."
"So was I. Well, there you are. It would be silly if you sat here and ate—what are yours, by the way?"
"Only mutton, I'm afraid."
"Ah, mine are beef. Well, if you sat here and ate mutton sandwiches and I sat a hundred yards farther on and ate beef ones, we should look ridiculous, shouldn't we?"
"It would be rather silly," she smiled.
So they sat down and had their sandwiches together.
"My name is Carfax," he said, "Geoffrey Carfax." Oh, George! And to a woman! However, she wouldn't tell him hers.
They spent it an hour over lunch. They wandered together for another hour. Need I tell you all the things they said? But they didn't talk of London.
"Oh, I must be going," she said suddenly. "I didn't know it was so late. No, I know my way. Don't come with me. Good-bye."
"It can't be good-bye," said George in dismay. "I've only just found you. Where do you live? Who are you?"
"Don't let's spoil it," she smiled. "It's been a wonderful day—a wonderful little piece of a day. We'll always remember it. I don't think it's meant to go on; it stops just here."
"I must see you again," said George firmly. "Will you be there to-morrow, at the same time—at the place where we met?"
"I might." She sighed. And I mightn't."
But George knew she would.
"Then good-bye," he said, holding out his hand.
"My name is Rosamund," she whispered, and fled.
He watched her out of sight, marvelling how bravely she walked. Then he started for home, his head full of strange fancies....
He found a road an hour later; the road went on and on, it turned and branched and doubled—he scarcely noticed it. The church clock was striking seven as he came into the village.
It was a wonderful lunch he took with him next day. Chicken and tongue and cake and chocolate and hard-boiled eggs. He ate it alone (by the corner of a wood, five miles from the hedge which captured her) at half-past three. That day was a nightmare. He never found the place again, though he tried all through the week remaining to him. He had no hopes after that day of seeing her, but only to have found the hedge would have been some satisfaction. At least he could sit there and sigh—and curse himself for a fool.
He went back to Islington knowing that he had had his chance and missed it. By next April he had forgotten her. He was convinced that she was not the woman. The woman had still to be found. He went to another part of the country and looked for her.
And now he was back at "The Dog and Duck" again. Surely he would find her to-day. It was the time; it must be almost the place. Would the loved one be there? He was not sure whether he wanted her to be the woman of five years ago or not. Whoever she was, she would be the one he sought. He had walked some miles; funny if he stumbled upon the very place suddenly.
Memories of five years ago were flooding his mind. Had he really been here, or had he only dreamed of it? Surely that was the hill down which he had come; surely that clump of trees on the right had been there before. And—could that be the very hedge?
And there was a woman caught in it.
George ran down the hill, his heart thumping heavily at his ribs.... She had her back towards him.
"Can I be of any assistance?" he said in his best manner. But she didn't need to be rich now; there was that little house at Bedford Park. She turned round.
It was Gertie Morrison!
Silly of him; of course, it wasn't Miss Morrison; but it was extraordinarily like her. Prettier, though.
"Why, Mr. Crosby!" she said.
It was Gertie Morrison.
"You!" he said angrily.
He was furious that such a trick should have been played upon him at this moment; furious to be reminded suddenly that he was George Crosby of Muswell Hill. Muswell Hill, the boarding-house—Good Lord! Gertie Morrison! Algy Traill's Gertie.
"Yes, it's me," she said, shrinking from him. She saw he was angry with her; she vaguely understood why.
Then George laughed. After all, she hadn't deliberately put herself in his way. She could hardly be expected to avoid the whole of England (outside Muswell Hill) until she knew exactly where George Crosby proposed to take his walk. What a child he was to be angry with her.
When he laughed, she laughed too—a little nervously.
"Let me help," he said. He scratched his fingers fearlessly on her behalf. What should he do afterwards? he wondered. His day was spoilt anyhow. He could hardly leave her.
"Oh, you've hurt yourself!" she said. She said it very sweetly, in a voice that only faintly reminded him of the Gertie of Muswell Hill.
"It's nothing," he answered, as he had answered five years ago.
They stood looking at each other. George was puzzled.
"You are Miss Morrison, aren't you?" he said. "Somehow you seem different."
"You're different from the Mr. Crosby I know."
"Am I? How?"
"It's dreadful to see you at the boarding-house." She looked at him timidly. "You don't mind my mentioning the boarding-house, do you?"
"Mind? Why should I?" (After all, he still had another week.)
"Well, you want to forget about it when you're on your holiday."
Fancy her knowing that.
"And are you on your holiday too?"
She gave a long deep sigh of content.
"Yes," she said.
He looked at her with more interest. There was colour in her face; her eyes were bright; in her tweed skirt she looked more of a country girl than he would have expected.
"Let's sit down," he said. "I thought you always went to Mar—to Cliftonville for your holiday?"
"I always go to my aunt's there in the summer. It isn't really a holiday; it's more to help her; she has a boarding-house too. And it really is Cliftonville—only, of course, it's silly of mother to mind having it called Margate. Cliftonville's much worse than Margate really. I hate it."
(This can't be Gertie Morrison, thought George. It's a dream.)
"When did you come here?"
"I've been here about ten days. A girl friend of mine lives near here. She asked me suddenly just after you'd gone—I mean about a fortnight ago. Mother thought I wasn't looking well and ought to go. I've been before once or twice. I love it."
"And do you have to wander about the country by yourself? I mean, doesn't your friend—I say, I'm asking you an awful lot of questions. I'm sorry."
"That's all right. But, of course, I love to go about alone, particularly at this time of year. You understand that."
Of course he understood it. That was not the amazing thing. The amazing thing was that she understood it.
He took his sandwiches from his pocket.
"Let's have lunch," he said. "I'm afraid mine are only beef."
"Mine are worse," she smiled. "They're only mutton."
A sudden longing to tell her of his great adventure of five years ago came to George. (If you had suggested it to him in March!)
"It's rather funny," he said, as he untied his sandwiches—"I was down here five years ago——"
"I know," she said quietly.
George sat up suddenly and stared at her.
"It was you!" he cried.
"You. Good Lord!... But your name—you said your name was— wait a moment—that's it! Rosamund!"
"It is. Gertrude Rosamund. I call myself Rosamund in the country. I like to pretend I'm not the"—she twisted a piece of grass in her hands, and looked away from him over the hill—"the horrible girl of the boarding-house."
George got on to his knees and leant excitedly over her.
"Tell me, do you hate and loathe and detest Traill and the Fossetts and Ransom as much as I do?"
"Mr. Ransom has a mother in Folkestone he's very good to. He's not really bad, you know."
"Sorry. Wash out Ransom. Traill and the Fossetts?"
"Yes. Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, yes." Her cheeks flamed as she cried it, and she clenched her hands.
George was on his knees already, and he had no hat to take off, but he was very humble.
"Will you forgive me?" he said. "I think I've misjudged you. I mean," he stammered—"I mean, I don't mean—of course, it's none of my business to judge you—I'm speaking like a prig, I—oh, you know what I mean. I've been a brute to you. Will you forgive me?"
She held out her hand, and he shook it. This had struck him, when he had seen it on the stage, as an absurdly dramatic way of making friends, but it seemed quite natural now.
"Let's have lunch," she said.
They began to eat in great content.
"Same old sandwiches," smiled George. "I say, I suppose I needn't explain why I called myself Geoffrey Carfax." He blushed a little as he said the name. "I mean, you seem to understand."
She nodded. "You wanted to get away from George Crosby; I know."
And then he had a sudden horrible recollection.
"I say, you must have thought me a beast. I brought a terrific lunch out with me the next day, and then I went and lost the place. Did you wait for me?"
Gertie would have pretended she hadn't turned up herself, but Rosamund said, "Yes, I waited for you. I thought perhaps you had lost the place."
"I say," said George, "what lots I've got to say to you. When did you recognise me again? Fancy my not knowing you."
"It was three years, and you'd shaved your moustache."
"So I had. But I could recognise people just as easily without it."
She laughed happily. It was the first joke she had heard him make since that day five years ago.
"Besides, we're both different in the country. I knew you as soon as I heard your voice just now. Never at all at Muswell Hill."
"By Jove!" said George, "just fancy." He grinned at her happily.
After lunch they wandered. It was a golden afternoon, the very after- noon they had had five years ago. Once when she was crossing a little stream in front of him, and her foot slipped on a stone, he called out, "Take care, Rosamund," and thrilled at the words. She let them pass unnoticed; but later on, when they crossed the stream again lower down, he took her hand and she said, ' Thank you, Geoffrey."
They came to an inn for tea. How pretty she looked pouring out the tea for him—not for him, for them; the two of them. She and he! His thoughts became absurd....
Towards the end of the meal something happened. She didn't know what it was, but it was this. He wanted more jam; she said he'd had enough. Well, then, he wasn't to have much, and she would help him herself.
He was delighted with her.
She helped him ... and something in that action brought back swiftly and horribly the Gertie Morrison of Muswell Hill, the Gertie who sat next to Algy and helped him to cabbage. He finished his meal in silence.
She was miserable, not knowing what had happened.
He paid the bill and they went outside. In the open air she was Rosamund again, but Rosamund with a difference. He couldn't bear things like this. As soon as they were well away from the inn he stopped. They leant against a gate and looked down into the valley at the golden sun.
"Tell me," he said, "I want to know everything. Why are you—what you are, in London?"
And she told him. Her mother had not always kept a boarding-house. While her father was alive they were fairly well off; she lived a happy life in the country as a young girl. Then they came to London. She hated it, but it was necessary for her father's business. Then her father died, and left nothing.
"So did my father," said George under his breath.
She touched his hand in sympathy.
"I was afraid that was it.... Well, mother tried keeping a boarding- house. She couldn't do it by herself. I had to help. That was just before I met you here.... Oh, if you could know how I hated it. The horrible people. It started with two boarders. Then there was one—because I smacked the other one's face. Mother said that wouldn't do. Well, of course, it wouldn't. I tried taking no notice of them. Well, that wouldn't do either. I had to put up with it; that was my life.... I used to pretend I was on the stage and playing the part of a landlady's vulgar daughter. You know what I mean; you often see it on the stage. That made it easier—it was really rather fun sometimes. I suppose I overplayed the part—made it more common than it need have been—it's easy to do that. By-and-by it began to come natural; perhaps I am like that really. We weren't anybody particular even when father was alive. Then you came—I saw you were different from the rest. I knew you despised me—quite right too. But you really seemed to hate me, I never quite knew why. I hadn't done you any harm. It made me hate you too.... It made me want to be specially vulgar and common when you were there, just to show you I didn't mind what you thought about me.... You were so superior.
"I got away in the country sometimes. I just loved that. I think I was really living for it all the time.... I always called myself Rosamund in the country.... I hate men—why are they such beasts to us always?"
"They are beasts," said George, giving his sex away cheerfully. But he was not thinking of Traill and the Fossetts; he was thinking of himself. "It's very strange," he went on; "all the time I thought that the others were just what they seemed to be, and that I alone had a private life of my own which I hid from everybody. And all the time you ... Perhaps Traill is really somebody else sometimes. Even Ransom has his secret—his mother.... What a horrible prig I've been!"
"No, no! Oh, but you were!"
"And a coward. I never even tried.... I might have made things much easier for you."
"You're not a coward."
"Yes, I am. I've just funked life. It's too much for me, I've said, and I've crept into my shell and let it pass over my head.... And I'm still a coward. I can't face it by myself. Rosamund, will you marry me and help me to be braver?"
"No, no, no," she cried, and pushed him away and laid her head on her arms and wept.
Saved, George, saved! Now's your chance. You've been rash and impetuous, but she has refused you, and you can withdraw like a gentleman. Just say "I beg your pardon," and move to Finsbury Park next month ... and go on dreaming about the woman. Not a landlady's vulgar little daughter, but——
George, George, what are you doing?
He has taken the girl in his arms! He is kissing her eyes and her mouth and her wet cheeks! He is telling her ...
I wash my hands of him.
John Lobey, landlord of "The Dog and Duck," is on the track of a mystery. Something to do with they anarchists and such-like. The chief clue lies in the extraordinary fact that on three Sundays in succession Parson has called "George Crosby; bachelor, of this parish," when everybody knows that there isn't a Crosby in the parish, and that the gentleman from London, who stayed at his inn for three weeks and comes down Saturdays—for which purpose he leaves his bag and keeps on his room—this gentleman from London, I tell you, is Mr. Geoffrey Carfax. Leastways it was the name he gave.
John Lobey need not puzzle his head over it. Geoffrey Carfax is George Crosby, and he is to be married next Saturday at a neighbouring village church, in which "Gertrude Rosamund Morrison, spinster, of this parish," has also been called three times. Mr. and Mrs. Crosby will then go up to London and break the news to Mrs. Morrison.
"Not until you are my wife," said George firmly, "do you go into that boarding-house again." He was afraid to see her there.
"You dear," said Rosamund; and she wrote to her mother that the weather was so beautiful, and she was getting so much stronger, and her friend so much wanted her to stay, that ... and so on. It is easy to think of things like that when you are in love.
On the Sunday before the wedding George told her that he had practically arranged about the little house in Bedford Park.
"And I'm getting on at the office rippingly. It's really quite interesting after all, I shall get another rise in no time."
"You dear," said Rosamund again. She pressed his hand tight and ...
But really, you know, I think we might leave them now. They have both much to learn; they have many quarrels to go through, many bitter misunderstandings to break down; but they are alive at last. And so we may say good-bye.