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"And has my presence made any difference to you?" he asked.
Joyce knew the futility of fencing, as everybody does who knows a crisis is inevitable. But until the end of the world everybody will continue to fence.
"Of course it has," she said. "I was just going to speak of that and thank you for it all."
He drew himself quite close to her.
"There is just one way, and no more in which you can thank me," he said, "and it is by letting me offer for your acceptance all my services and all my devotion."
The fire, the authentic primal need was there, and though she shrank from it, though instinctively she hated it, she could refuse it neither with respect nor sympathy. She could not interrupt him, either: what he had to say must come: it was his bare right to speak.
He took up her hand, and clasped it with both of his, enclosing it, as it were, in a damp dark cavern. At that, without being able to help it, she drew back a little.
"O stop: don't," she said.
He seemed not to hear.
"I offer you much more than I knew was mine to offer last June," he said. "You were so right, Joyce, to refuse me. But it is so different now. You have woke in me, or created in me, a power for love which I did not know was mine. Surely you know that. You created it: it is yours. Take it, for what you made is me."
He paused a moment; then seemed suddenly to realize that he had said all that could be said… A little wind drove upwards from the plain below, fluttering the papers which had held their sandwiches. Joyce hated herself for noticing that. Then she tried to withdraw her hand.
"Oh I am so sorry, so sorry," she said. "It is quite impossible, more impossible than ever. I mean – I don't know what I mean. But I can't."
She knew very well what she meant when she said "more impossible than ever." And mixed with her regret which was wholly genuine, was a sort of nausea of her soul… Once more she felt she knew who had spoken to her father of Charles. The motive, too, was as clear as the sunshine. She loathed this continued contact. But it only lasted a second more. The tone of her reply would have carried conviction to the most ardent of lovers. He dropped her hand.
"I have done," he said.
He got up, and walked a few paces away, and stood there with his back to her. A quantity of disconnected pictures went through the blank impassivity of his mind. He remembered the look of the green packet of tickets for their passage down the Nile to-morrow, which he had seen on his table before he went out this morning. He heard Philip's voice say, "Take care of my little Joyce!" He felt himself licking the envelope which contained Mr. Ward's cheque for five thousand pounds. He had the vision of another cheque for ten thousand and one hundred pounds. He saw the sketch of Joyce that had stood beneath the lamp in her room on the evening the chimneys smoked at the Mill House. He heard himself console Charles for the "queer note" Philip Wroughton had written him.Collectively, these presented their whole case, his whole connection with the Wroughtons, succinctly and completely. And the curtain fell on them.
He went back to Joyce, who was sitting by the side of the fluttering paper with her head in her hands.
"What would you like to do?" he said. "Shall we take our ride into the desert or go home?"
Joyce got up.
"Oh, let us go home," she said. "Please call Mohammed. And do realize I am sorry, I am very sorry."
But there was nothing in him now that could respond to or help the girl's evident distress. It seemed that the wonderful flower that grew out of him had been plucked… Only the soil out of which it grew remained, and that was exactly what it had always been.
That night when Lady Crowborough went up to bed, she was not surprised to hear Joyce's tap on her door a moment afterwards. She had felt the constraint that had hung over dinner like a thunder-cloud, though Philip, flushed with victory at the ideal disposition in the packing of his underclothing which had occurred to him as he dozed or slept, – he thought "slept," – before dinner, had been unconscious of all else.
"Come in, my dear," she said, "and tell me all that's happened."
"Oh, Granny, he has proposed again," said Joyce.
"Lor', my dear, do you think I didn't guess that? And you needn't trouble to tell me that you refused him. Well, Joyce, I can't say I'm sorry, though I suppose he's rich and agreeable enough, for I never could stand stout white men myself. Give me one of my cigarettes, dear, and sit down and have a talk. There's nothing I enjoy more than a cigarette and a talk about love just before going to bed. Gives such pleasant dreams."
Joyce could not help giggling. But she knew well the golden heart that beat behind these surprising flippancies.
"But I'm sorry, Granny," she said, "but – but I'm afraid I'm not sorry enough."
"No, my dear," said this astute old lady, "if you were sorry enough you'd say 'yes' instead of 'no.' Let me see, this is the second go, isn't it?"
"Well, then I hope this time that you made it plain. The man whom you don't mean to have gets tedious if he goes on. I used to tell them so."
Joyce had come here to do much more than merely announce the event to her grandmother. There was so much more she wanted to say, but she felt it would be easier if it came out in answer to questions. Probably Grannie was wise enough to ask the right questions…
"I think I made it plain," she said. "I said it was quite impossible: more impossible than ever."
Lady Crowborough in the dusk allowed herself to beam all over her face.
"And what did you mean by that, my dear?" she said. "To me it sounds as if there was nobody else last June, but somebody else now."
"Oh, Grannie, it means just that," said Joyce in a whisper.
"And was it any of my flirts in Cairo?" asked Lady Crowborough, who liked a little joking even when her heart was most entirely tender and sympathetic. Quite truly, she believed it "helped things out" to grin over them.
"No, not in Cairo," she said.
"Then it was that flirt of mine down at the Mill House, who's going to paint my picture," she exclaimed. "Don't deny it, my dear. A nice boy, too, though he ain't got a penny. However, we'll talk about the pennies afterwards. Now do you think he fancies you at all? Don't be so silly, Joyce, hiding your face like that."
"Yes, Grannie, I think he does. I can't be sure, you know I – I haven't had any experience."
"Lor', my dear, what do you want with experience over that sort o' thing?" asked Lady Crowborough. "And if you're too modest to say, I'll say it for you. He does like you and you know it. I saw him, the wretch, looking at you in the right way. So I don't understand what all the fuss is about. You like him, and he likes you. Eh?"
The cleverest of grandmothers could not guess the further confidence that Joyce wanted to make. She had to open it herself.
"But – but there's a difficulty, Grannie," she said. "Somebody has told father that he's not – not nice, that he isn't the sort of person he would like me to know. Father wouldn't let him come down to see his copy of the Reynolds while we were there because of that. And I feel sure I know who it is who told him that, and why he said it."
"That Craddock?" asked Lady Crowborough quickly.
"Yes: and I can't believe it is true. I don't believe it. Oh, Grannie, dear, what a comfort you are."
Lady Crowborough's shrewd little face entirely ceased to beam.
"And I don't believe it either, my dear," she said. "He seemed as decent a young fellow as I ever saw. But you can leave that to me. I'll find out, if it was your Craddock who said it first of all. It's only your suspicion as yet, Joyce, and whatever you do, my dear, don't you go through life suspecting anybody, and then not doing him the justice to find out if you're right. And then after that we must find out if there's any truth in it, and what the truth is."
"Oh, but will you, can you?" asked Joyce.
"Yes, my dear, unless I die in the night, which God forbid. I'll Craddock him! And here am I doing just the same as you, and treating your suspicions as true before I know. Lor, but it does seem likely, don't it? And now about what has happened to-day? Are you going to tell your father or is he?"
"Mr. Craddock thought we had better say nothing about it at present," said Joyce. "I expect he is quite right. He said he thought father would be very much upset. That was as we rode back. Oh, Grannie, fancy saying that! I think he meant it as a sort of final appeal. Or perhaps he meant it quite nicely. I'm sure Father wanted me to marry him. But that didn't seem a good enough reason."
Lady Crowborough began to beam again.
"Not with your Mr. Lathom waiting for you," she said. "Well, now, my dear, you must let me go to bed. I'm glad you told me all about it, and I can tell you now I should have thought very poorly of you if you had accepted this Mr. Craddock. Did he kiss you, my dear?"
Joyce again felt an inward bubble of laughter.
"No, thank goodness," she said.
"That's a good thing. You wait till you get back to town. There's somebody there – bless me, how I keep getting ahead. Now send me my maid, Joyce, and don't give way, my dear. And when I say my prayers I'm not sure I shan't give thanks that you ain't going to be Mrs. Craddock. I don't like the man and I don't like the name, and that's sufficient."
In spite of this distaste, Lady Crowborough did Craddock the justice to admit that he behaved very well next day. His invaluable gift for "switching off" stood him in good stead, his manner was perfectly normal again, and sitting on the deck of the northward going steamer after lunch he talked to her about the Exhibition of old Masters at Burlington House, which was now open.
"There are a dozen fine Reynolds there," he said, "but none finer, I think, than the one that used to be at the Mill House."
Lady Crowborough affected a very skilful carelessness.
"But what prices for a bit of canvas and a daub of paint," she said. "I can't see a bit of difference between it and the copy. That was a nice young fellow who did it too. I was sorry that you had to give so bad a report of him to my son."
Craddock hardly paused. He assumed that Philip had said something to his mother about it, and though he would not have chosen that his name should have been mentioned as informant, he felt it was useless to deny it. Nor did he wish to: jealousy, impotent and bitter, took hold of him.
"Yes, a loose young fellow, I am afraid," he said. "But I am doing what I can for him, for his gift is perfectly marvellous. Indeed, I should not wonder if he is some day known among the greatest English masters. As I was saying, there are some very fine Reynolds in the Exhibition. I had the pleasure of getting hold of one or two for them. You must see it…"
"Oh, drat the Exhibition," she said.
She explained that a sudden twinge of neuralgia had visited her, and put on several veils.
One morning towards the end of March Frank Armstrong was sitting in Charles' studio with a writing-pad on the table in front of him, a sucked out pipe upside down between his lips, a corrugated forehead, rumpled hair, and an expression of the wickedest ill-humour on his face. Beside him on the floor a waste-paper basket vomited half sheets of futile manuscript, and other crumpled up and rejected pages strewed the floor. At the far end of the studio Charles was encamped, he and his manuscript on the model's stand, painting, as he had done in the portrait of his mother, from a position above the sitter. It gave an opportunity of subtle foreshadowing which was a holy joy if you could do it right, which he was quite convinced he could. An expression of vivid and absorbed content – absorbed he was by the sight of Frank wrestling with his work, and cursing and swearing at his difficulties – pervaded his face. To him, from the artistic point of view, that angry scowling countenance was a beatific vision. Frank had come earlier than he had expected that morning, bringing his work with him as desired, and Charles, half dressed only in loose shirt and flannel trousers, had hopped on to his seat immediately, for Frank with scarcely a word of greeting had sat down at once to struggle with a troublesome situation. Seated there, with his sheaf of spear-like paint-brushes, and his young and seraphic face, he looked like some modern variation of St. Sebastian. Frank had already remarked this with singular annoyance.
Charles smiled and stared and painted.
"If you could manage to put that pipe out of your mouth for five minutes, Frank," he said tentatively.
"But I couldn't."
"It doesn't matter a bit," said Charles cordially.
Frank instantly took it out, and Charles had to stop painting for a moment, for he was so entertained by the brilliance of his own guilefulness that his hand trembled. But in a moment he got to work again, and began whistling under his breath.
"Oh, do stop that row," said Frank.
The picture had been begun a month ago, and was nearing completion. At present Charles was pleased with it, which is saying a good deal. His mother on the other hand thought Mr. Armstrong was not quite such a bear as that. And Mr. Armstrong had said "You don't know much about bears." Charles' first request to paint him had met with a firm refusal. But very shortly after Frank had said,
"You can do a picture of me if you like, Charles. But on one condition only, that you let me buy it of you in the ordinary way."
This time the refusal came from the artist. But a second attempt on Frank's part met with better success.
"You don't understand about the picture," he said. "I really want it for mercantile reasons. I'll pay you whatever Mrs. Fortescue paid, and I shall think I've made an excellent bargain, just as she does. People are talking about you. You'll get double these prices next year. Then I shall sell my picture and buy some more beer and perhaps give you a tip. I'm as hard as nails about money: don't you think I'm doing you a favour. And as a word of general advice, do get rid of a little of your sickly humility. You're like Uriah Heep. Isn't he Mrs. – Mrs. Heep?"
Mrs. Lathom looked up at him very gravely.
"There is something in what you say, Master Copperfield," she observed.
This morning, after Charles' whistling had been thus peremptorily stopped, the work went on in silence for some quarter-of-an hour. Then Frank gave a great shout.
"I've got it," he said, and began scribbling and reading as he scribbled. "It isn't that you don't believe me, it's that you are able not to believe me. Yes: that's it, and the British public won't understand the least what it means, so we'll put 'Long pause.' And then they will give a great sigh as if they did. Now it's plain sailing."
His face cleared, as the pen began to move more rapidly, and when Charles looked up at him again, the St Sebastian air left him altogether.
"You are perfectly useless if you smile in that inane manner," he said.
"Perfectly useless: perfectly useless," said Frank absently.
But soon his inane smile left him: he was in difficulties again, and Charles greatly prospered.
Frank got up and yawned.
"I'm worked out," he said. "Charles, it's a dog's life. And all the time I'm not doing it for myself: there's the rub. I've been grinding here all morning, and have done a couple of pages: if I sit and grind every day like this for a couple of months perhaps I may get it done. And then I shall go with my hat in my hand, on bended knee to that old fat cross-legged Buddha, who sits there sniffing up the incense of our toil, and say 'Please, Mr. Craddock, will this do? Will you deign to accept this humble token from your worshipper?'"
"I can hear you say it," said Charles, half shutting his eyes to look at his work, and not attending to Frank.
Frank jumped up onto the model stand, putting his hand on Charles' shoulder to steady himself.
"No you can't," said Frank, "because I never shall say it. Charles, I'm sure that's libellously like me. Shall I bring an action against you for it, or shall I merely topple you and the stool over onto the floor?"
"Whichever you please. It is pretty like you, you know."
Charles looked up at him.
"But not when you look like that. Why this unwonted good temper?"
"It will soon pass. I think it's because I've done a good bit of work. Oh, Lord, it will soon pass. All for Craddock, you know. I wish to heaven I could infect you with some of my detestation of him."
"Oh, do give up trying," he said. "It's no use arguing about it. Of course he's making the devil of a lot of money out of you, and it's very annoying if you look at that fact alone. But where would you have been if he hadn't put on 'Easter Eggs' for you? Sleeping beneath the church-yard sod as like as not. And I daresay he's going to make something out of me. Well, where would I have been if he hadn't bought that picture of Reggie, and come to look at my things? In the Sidney Street garret still. Instead of which – " and Charles waved a paint brush airily round his studio.
Frank relit his pipe, and began gathering up the d?bris of his rejected manuscript.
"You oughtn't to be allowed about alone," he said. "You say 'Kind man!' too much. You're like a fat baby that says 'Dada' to everybody in the railway carriage. I tell you people aren't kind men. They want to 'do' you. They want to get the most they can out of you."
"And you out of them," said Charles.
"Within limits. Kind Craddock hasn't got any limits. Besides, I don't humbug people."
"Nor does – "
"Well, he tries to. He tried to humbug me, telling me he took such an interest in me and my work. He didn't: he took an interest in the money he thought he could make out of it. Oh, it isn't only Craddock: it's everybody: it's the way the world's made. I'm not sure women aren't the worst of all. Look at the way they all took me up when 'Easter Eggs' came out. I didn't see why at first. But it's plain enough now. They thought I should make some more successes – just like Craddock, – and then I should take them to the theatre and give them dinner – "
"Oh, bosh," said Charles very loud.
"It's not bosh. The idea that fellows like you have of women is enough to make one ill. You think they are tender, and self-sacrificing, and helpless and trustful and loving. Helpless! Good Lord. An ordinary modern girl is as well able to take care of herself among men as a Dreadnought among fishing smacks. She sidles along just turning her screw and then 'Bang, Bang!' she blows them all out of the water if she doesn't want them, and sucks them in if she does, and lets down a great grappling iron from her deck and hauls them on board. And when they are married they are supposed to be clinging and devoted and absorbed in their husbands and babies. Was there ever such a misconception? Why, supposing you find a block of women on the pavement opposite a shop, you may bet ten thousand to one that that shop is a dress-maker's, or a seller of women's clothes. They stand glued to the glass like flies on fly paper, thinking how sweet they would look in that eight guinea walking dress. And when they have to move away they walk with their heads still looking at the windows, stupefied and fascinated, still gazing at some dreadful white corset trimmed with lace, or open-work stockings. And they aren't thinking how ravished their silly Dick or Harry will be to see them in that new skirt, with the foolish open-work stockings peeping out below it, they are thinking how ravishing they will look when other women see them in it, and how greenly jealous other women will be. If they were thinking of their husbands, they would be imagining how ravishing darling Dick or Harry would look in that cheviot tweed. But not they!"
"Oh, put it all into one of your rotten plays," said Charles.
"Not I, thank you. The Dreadnoughts would blow me out of the water. But I'm saying it to you for your good. You trust people too much, men and women alike. You go smiling and wagging your tail like a puppy, thinking that everybody is going to be kind and tender and unselfish. Especially foolish is your view of women. You've got a sense of chivalry, and a man with a sense of chivalry always gets left. You're just as absurd about men too: you think people are nice to you, because they like you: it is very conceited of you – "
"Oh, I was Uriah Heep not long ago," remarked Charles.
"So you are still. But the truth is that people seem to like one in order to be able to get something out of one. Who of all men in the world now is going about saying perfectly fulsome things about me? Why, that slimy Akroyd, because he is making his fortune out of me. But he tried to 'do' me all right over the play. Craddock too: I'm told he is always saying nice things about me. That's because he wants me to put my very best work into the plays I have got to write for him."
Charles remembered that Craddock had said not altogether nice things about Frank on one occasion. He often remembered that, but, as often he remembered also that they were expressly meant for his private ear. The fact lurked always in his mind, in the shadow into which he had deliberately pushed it.
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