Black & White on White paper
“I’ve been round all the sales,” said Marie, “hunting and hunting. My feet are tired! But I’ve got a lovely lot of things. Look! All this washing ribbon, a penny a yard. And these caps—aren’t they the last word? Julia, aren’t they ducks? I thought I’d have my little caps all alike, flesh-pink tulle.”
“When’ll you wear them?” asked Julia hardily.
“When do other people wear them?” retorted Marie, rather confused.
“Have you ever worn things like this?”
“Well,” said Marie, “perhaps not. But I’ve been saving up two years for it, haven’t I? And if a girl can’t have pretty things in her trousseau, when can she have them?”
Julia sighed and looked. There was a little clutch at her heart, but she went on sturdily:
“All you girls going to be married! I don’t know what you expect! I know what you’ll get. You seem to think a husband’s a cross between Romeo and a fairy godmother. Well, you’ll find it’s different. You all imagine, when you say good-bye to your typewriter, or the showroom, or whatever line you’re in, to marry on an income not so very much bigger than your own, that you’re going to live in a palace and be waited upon ever afterwards. You’ll have to get up early and cook Osborn’s breakfast, shan’t you, before he goes out? And make the beds and sweep and dust? And you’re buying pink tulle caps as if you were going to breakfast in bed every day!”
“A little housework’s nothing! A girl can wear pretty things when she’s married, I suppose?”
“Oh, she can.”
“She ought to. A man has a right to expect—”
“You’ll find a man expects everything he has a right to, and a hundred per cent. more.”
“Osborn is very different from most men.”
Julia smiled, stood up, and pressed her hands over her hips to settle her skirt smoothly; she had an air of abandoning the talk as useless. Her eyes were tired and her mouth drooped.
“It isn’t as though you knew such a great deal about men, dear,” Marie added.
“I don’t want to,” said Julia.
“Surely, you must like Osborn?”
“What does it matter whether I do or don’t, since you do?”
“I can’t think how anyone can fail to like Osborn.”
“Of course you can’t.”
“Even you must own he’s the best-tempered boy living.”
“I shan’t own anything of the kind till you’ve been married three months, and he’s had some bad dinners, and late breakfasts, and has got a bit sick of the butcher’s bill. Then we’ll see.”
“Little things like these can’t matter between people who really love each other. You don’t understand.”
“It’s just these little things that take the edge off.”
Marie’s mother looked in and smiled to see her girl fingering her pretty things.
“Aren’t you two nearly ready to leave the inspection and come to tea?”
“Julia doesn’t like my caps, mum.”
“Yes, I do,” said Julia; “all I’m asking, Mrs. Amber, is, when is she going to wear them?”
Marie’s mother came in and sat down and thought.
“Ah,” she said, shaking her head and looking pinched about the lips, “I don’t know. You modern girls buy all these extraordinary things. You ape rich women; but you’ll never be able to pay the everlasting cleaners’ bills for those caps.”
“She’ll soon give up wearing them, Mrs. Amber.”
“I’m sure I shan’t,” Marie denied.
“When I was a girl,” said Mrs. Amber, smoothing her lap reminiscently, “I remember I wanted a grand trousseau. But girls lived at home more in those days; they didn’t go out typing and what not, earning money for themselves. So I couldn’t buy what I wanted and my dear mother had too much sense to buy it for me. I had strong, useful things, twelve of everything, and they’ve lasted to this day. However, Marie thinks differently and she has earned the money to act differently, so let her be happy in her own way while she can.”
“Won’t she be happy when she’s married?” Julia asked, while Marie angrily hid her treasures away in tissue paper.
“I hope so,” said Mrs. Amber; “I’m sure I hope so. But things are all so different when you’re married. You girls had better come to tea.”
Julia linked her arm strongly in Marie’s as they followed the elderly woman out. “Marie, love,” she whispered, “I’m a grouser. You know I wish you all the luck in the world and more. You know I do?”
“I have it,” said Marie, smiling. “And I hope you’ll have it, too, before long.”
On the sitting-room table tea was spread; the room was red in the firelight; and the flat was so high up in the block that the street noises scarcely ascended to it. The girls sat down on the hearthrug, and Mrs. Amber seated herself before her tea tray and flicked away a tear.
“A week to-day,” she said, “I shall be the loneliest old thing in London. I shall be all by myself in this flat when Marie’s gone.”
There were five cups and saucers on the tray, and in a moment the door-bell rang, and Marie sprang up to answer it. “That’s Osborn!” she cried in a flutter.
She returned demurely between two young men, one of them holding her hand captive.
Osborn had brought his friend Desmond Rokeby to talk over details of the great event next week. He kissed Mrs. Amber on the cheek, and turned to Julia with a certain diffidence. “Miss Winter,” he said, with a nervous laugh, “I’ve brought Rokeby. You’ve met him? Rokeby, Miss Winter’s going to be Marie’s bridesmaid, you know, and you’re going to be mine, so….”
The little joke was received with laughter by Mrs. Amber, Marie and Desmond; Julia only smiled and Rokeby thought, “What a dour young female! What a cold douche! What a perishing mistake!”
He sat down beside her on the chesterfield; the couch was small and Julia, close beside him, cold and hard as a rock. He turned from a glance at her profile to contemplate the bride-elect, and saw in her all that the modern young man wishes to find in a girl, the sparkle of spirit, yet the feminine softness; a frou-frou of temperament as well as of frills; a face of childlike clarity set with two gay eyes; hair dressed to tempt and cajole; a little figure of thin frailty that gave her a beautiful delicacy of appearance; little, modish, manicured hands.
She had such pretty arts; she fluttered about small domestic duties with a delight dainty to see. She set a man imagining how desirable it would be to build a nest for this delicate dear bird, and take her to it, and live deliciously ever afterwards. This is what Osborn Kerr imagined while—like Rokeby—he watched her. He had never seen her other than pretty and dainty, than happy and gay; he could not conceive of her otherwise. He had not the faintest doubt of being able to keep her so, in that nest which he had built for two on the other side of town. Whenever it was possible, in the teacup passing, he tried to touch her hand; he longed for her to look at him; he wanted her all to himself.
A week seemed over-long to wait.
Mrs. Amber watched him with a resigned and kindly eye. She was sighing a little, kindly and resignedly, in her mind, and thinking how alike men were in their courting. And presently, while Julia and Desmond conversed with a formal hostility on the chesterfield, and the lovers snatched brief moments for communication in lovers’ code, she said:
“Osborn, another present came to-day; it’s in the dining-room; Marie ought to show it to you.”
“Will you, Marie?” asked the young man, while his heart leapt, and the pulses in his head seemed singing like larks on a summer morning.
“Would you care to see it?” she replied, with a studied sedateness which Osborn found unutterably sweet, and which did not in the least deceive the watching mother.
And in a moment the two were alone, it seemed in another world. This new world was compassed by the walls of the slip of an apartment called the dining-room, but which was kitchen as well, for there were no maids in the flat. The top of the oak dresser had been cleared of its bits of blue china and pewter to make way for the array of wedding gifts, and they were presented bravely. Perhaps among the display was the last received of which Mrs. Amber spoke, but whether it was, or was not, neither Marie nor Osborn cared.
They were alone.
There had pressed upon them, hard and perpetually, during the eighteen months of their engagement, the many difficulties with which opportunity is cautiously guarded by its custodians. They met in restaurants, in parks, and in the homes of either, and seldom could they be alone; and because they were superior people, not of the class which loves unashamedly in the public places if it has nowhere else to love, they restrained themselves. It was a long and hard probation, lightened sometimes, some rare and precious times, by such moments as now occurred. As soon as the kitchen-dining-room door closed behind them like the portals of sanctuary, Osborn held out his arms and Marie went to them. She rested there while Osborn kissed her with hard, devouring kisses which made her murmur little pleased protests.
All the while she was thinking, “A week to-day!” Her eyes travelled to the clock. “At six o’clock, a week this afternoon, I shall be Mrs. Kerr. We shall be at the hotel, unpacking.”
“Not very long now,” said Osborn between his kisses. “Soon we’ll be alone as much as we like. We’ll be able to shut our own door on everybody. Won’t it be priceless?”
Marie thought it would. She fingered his coat lapels with her modish hands, and smiled with downcast eyelashes. In happy procession her dreams paraded by. She flitted a glance up at Osborn’s face for a moment and looked down again. He was good-looking; he was the best-looking man she knew; his clothes were so good; his voice was so charming; he had no mean streak like some men; he was all gold. He was generous. Even while he had been spending all his bank balance, and more, on that nest for her at the other side of town, it had been delightful to be taken out by him to the nicest restaurants, hear chic dinners and good wines ordered with a thrilling lavishness. Many girls must envy her.
“A lot of fellows will envy me,” Osborn murmured even while Marie thought her thoughts.
She protested again with soft words and the procession of dreams went by. The little home—how charming it would be! The chintz that matched her two best trousseau frocks, the solidity and polish of her dining-room chairs, the white paint and pale spring colours of her sitting-room, how ravishing it all was! The conveniences of the kitchen, the latest household apparatus, would they not make the keeping of the perfect flat a sort of toy occupation for a pretty girl’s few serious moments? In spite of Julia, all would be easy and sweet. In a kimono and one of those pink caps one could cook a breakfast without soiling one’s fingers. Osborn would like to see his wife look beautiful behind the coffeepot. She would manage splendidly. The income, of course, would seem small to some women, muddleheads, but she could manage. She could make the most darling clothes, bake cakes like a confectioner’s. Osborn would be surprised.
She must have a pink pinafore, a smocked one.
What would it be like, the first few days together?
“Come and sit down,” Osborn begged, and he drew her to the one big chair, into which they both squeezed. “I love you,” he said, “oh, I do love you! And we can trust old Rokeby to look after your mother and Julia. What a terror the girl is!”
“She hates men,” said Marie, with a pouting mouth.
“Then they will hate her and I don’t wonder,” the young man replied scornfully.
“Don’t let us talk about Julia.”
“No, let’s talk about us. I bought the clock, darling.”
“The clock! Did they knock down the price?”
“No, they didn’t,” said Osborn, “but you wanted it and that was good enough for me.”
Her eyes sparkled. “You shouldn’t be extravagant on my account.”
“Let me kiss you,” said Osborn, “that’s all I want. You liked the old clock, and it will look ripping in the hall, won’t it?”
“We shall be all oak now.”
“Say you’re pleased, then, you beautiful.”
“I am. I did want that clock. A grandfather clock—I don’t know—there’s something about it.”
“As for the price, sweetheart, why bother? It’ll only add a few more instalments to the whole bally lump. It will be all right. I’ll get a rise soon—married man, you know! Responsibilities, you know! Expenses!”
“Mother’s starting us with every kind of saucepan and broom and brush you can think of.”
“Osborn, it will be an awf’ly smart flat.”
“It will, with you in it.”
“No, but really. Everyone will admire it. I mean everyone to admire. We’ll have some little dinner-parties, won’t we?”
“Will we, Cook?”
“I shall make the sweets beforehand, and we’ll have chafing-dish or casserole things. That sort of dinner. It’s quite smart, Osborn. And dessert’s easy. Julia’s giving us finger bowls, tip-top ones—real cut-glass.”
“We’re starting awf’ly well, Osborn.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? We love each other; nothing ever goes wrong when people love each other. You’ll be glad enough to give up the office, too, won’t you?”
“I know you will. I hate to have you in a City office, with any bounder staring at you. When you’re Mrs. Kerr only I can stare.”
“I like your confidence!”
“But I shall make up for everyone. I shall stare all the time.”
“Shall you want to go to the club every evening?”
“I shan’t ever want to go to the club.”
Although Marie had known what the answer would be—or she would not have asked the question—it made her very happy. It was delightful to hear only what one wanted to hear; to see only what one wanted to see. Life appeared as a graceful spectacle, a sort of orderly carnival refined to taste. There would, of course, be the big thrill in it—Osborn. It would be wonderful to have him coming home to her successful little dinners every evening. People didn’t want a great deal, after all; all the discontented, puling, peevish, wanting people one met must be great fools; they had made their beds and made them wrong; the great thing, the simple secret, was to make them right. A husband and wife must pull together, in everything. Pulling together would be sheer joy.
“Osborn,” she said, “how well we understand each other, don’t we?”
“I should think we do,” whispered the young man.
“Few married people seem really happy.”
“They must manage life badly, mustn’t they?”
“I remember mother and father; mother likes the idea of my getting married, but they used often to be nagging about something. Expenses, I think.”
“All that I have will be yours, you love,” said Osborn, with profound tenderness.
“But I shan’t ask for it,” said Marie, with a flash of intuition. “You don’t know how careful I can be. It won’t cost you much more than it does now; less, perhaps, because you won’t always be dining at the club.”
“But you’ll come into town and lunch with me very often, shan’t you, dearest?”
“Nearly every day.”
Osborn got out of the chair and sat on its arm; Marie remained alone in the cushioned depths, looking flushed and brilliant; and Mrs. Amber came in slowly.
“Marie, I want to show Julia your dress; or would you like to show it yourself?”
“Is it the dress?” Osborn asked, looking down on the top of Marie’s shining head.
Mrs. Amber sighed and smiled and the bride-elect sat up, sparkling.
“I’ll come, mother.”
“Let me come, too,” said Osborn.
“I’ll bring it into the sitting-room and let everyone see it, shall I, Marie?” her mother asked hastily.
She hurried away and Marie followed her to the bedroom, while Osborn stood in the doorway, looking in at the two eager women about their joyous errand. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled. It was pleasant to be involved in the bustle about the precious thing they were unwrapping from swathes of tissue paper. “Be careful, dear,” the elder woman kept saying, “there’s a pin here.” Or “Don’t hurry, or you’ll have the pleats out of place.” And Marie’s hands trembled over their task. When all the paper was removed, Mrs. Amber said importantly, “Now just lift it up; give it to me like that; I’ll carry it in,” but Marie cried: “No, I will,” and she threw the gown over her shoulder till her head emerged as from the froth of sea waves, and ran into the sitting-room with it.
Mrs. Amber’s eyes were moist with pride. “It’s a beautiful dress,” she said to Osborn, who had turned eagerly after his girl; “I want her to look sweet. Here, wouldn’t you like to take something? Here’s the shoes; I’ve got the stockings. Wouldn’t you like to carry the shoes?”
Marie was spreading out the gown on the chesterfield from which Julia and Desmond had risen to make room for it. Mrs. Amber laid the silk stockings reverently near and Osborn dangled his burden, saying gaily: “And here are Mrs. Kerr’s slippers.”
Rokeby stood back, observing. “It’s all out of my line,” he said, “but don’t think I’m not respectful; I am. What’s more, I’m fairly dazzled. I think I’ll have to get married.”
“You might do worse, old man,” replied Osborn joyfully.
Rokeby lighted another cigarette. He looked around the room and at the people in it. He had been familiar with many such interiors and situations, being the kind of man who officiated at weddings but never in the principal part. “Poor old Osborn!” he thought. “Another good man down and out!” He looked at the girl, decked by Art and Nature for her natural conquest. He did not wonder how long her radiance would endure; he thought he knew. He entertained himself by tracing the likeness to her mother, and the mother’s slimness had thickened, and her shoulders rounded; her eyes were tired, a little dour; they looked out without enthusiasm at the world, except when they rested upon her daughter. Then they became rather like the eyes of Marie looking at her wedding gown.
Osborn took Marie’s head between his hands, and kissed her eyes and mouth. “That’s for good night,” he whispered; “Rokeby and I are going home. You are the sweetest thing, and I shall dream of you all night. Promise to dream of me.”
“It’s a certainty.”
“It is?” said the young man rapturously. “I am simply too happy, then.”
“Let’s go and look at the flat to-morrow.”
“Have tea with me in town, darling, and I’ll take you.”
Mrs. Amber and Rokeby came out into the hall. Rokeby wore a very patient air, and Marie’s mother beamed with that soft and sorrowful pleasure which women have for such circumstances.
“Now say good night,” said she softly, “say good night. Good-bye, Mr. Rokeby, and we shall see you again a week to-day?”
“A week to-day.”
The two men went out and down the stairs into the street. Rokeby had his air of good-humoured and invincible patience and Osborn dreamed.
“I’ll see you right home,” said Rokeby.
“And you’ll come in, and have a drink.”
“Thanks. Perhaps I will. Haven’t you got a trousseau to show me?”
“Get out, you fool!”
“What do chaps feel like, I wonder,” said Rokeby, “when the day of judgment is so near?”
“I shan’t tell you, you damned scoffer!”
“Well, well,” said Rokeby, “I’ve seen lots of nice fellows go under this same way. It always makes me very sorry. I do all I can in the way of preventive measures, but it’s never any good, and there’s no cure. Ab-so-lutely none. There’s no real luck in the business, either, as far as I’ve seen, though of course some are luckier than others.”
“Did you mention luck?” Osborn exclaimed, from his dream. “Don’t you think I’m lucky? I say, Desmond, old thing, don’t you think I’m one of the most astonishingly lucky fellows on God’s earth?”
“You ought to know.”
“Oh, come off that silly pedestal of pretence. Cynicism’s rotten. Marriage is the only life.”
“‘Never for me!'” Rokeby quoted Julia.
“Awful girl!” said Osborn, referring to her briefly. “‘Orrid female. What?”
“Very handsome,” said Rokeby.
“Handsome! I’ve never seen it. She’s not to be compared to Marie, anyway. You haven’t answered my question. Don’t you think I’m lucky?”
“Yes, you are,” replied Rokeby sincerely, turning to look at him, “for any man to be as happy as you seem to be even for five minutes is a great big slice of luck to be remembered.”
“Marie’s a wonderful girl. She can do absolutely anything, I believe. It seems incredible that a girl with hands like hers can cook and sew, but she can. Isn’t it a wonder?”
“It sounds ripping.”
They walked on in silence, Osborn back up in his clouds. At last he awaked to say:
“Well, here we are. You’ll come in?”
“Do. I shan’t have so many more evenings of—”
“—Of loneliness, confound you! Come in!”
Rokeby followed him into his rooms, on the second floor. A good fire was burning, but they were just bachelor rooms full of hired—and cheap—furniture. As Osborn cast off his overcoat and took Rokeby’s, he glanced around expressively.
“You should see the flat. You will see it soon. All Marie’s arrangement, and absolutely charming.”
“Thanks awfully. I’ll be your first caller.”
“Well, don’t forget it. What’ll you have?”
Osborn gave Desmond one of the two armchairs by the fire, and took the other himself. Another silence fell, during which Rokeby saw Osborn smiling secretly and involuntarily to himself as he had seen other men smile. The man was uplifted; his mind soared in heaven, while his body dwelt in a hired plush chair in the sitting-room of furnished lodgings. Rokeby took his drink, contented not to interrupt; he watched Osborn, and saw the light play over his face, and the thoughts full of beauty come and go. At length, following the direction of some thought, again it was Osborn who broke the mutual quiet, exclaiming:
“I’ve never shown you her latest portrait!”
“Let’s look. I’d love to.”
The lover rose, opened the drawer of a writing-table, and took out a photograph, a very modern affair, of most artistic mounting. He handed it jealously to Desmond and was silent while the other man looked. The girl’s face, wondrously young and untroubled, frail, angelic, rose from a slender neck and shoulders swathed in a light gauze cloud. Her gay eyes gazed straight out. Rokeby looked longer than he knew, very thoughtfully, and Osborn put his hand upon the portrait, pulled it away as jealously as he had given it, and said:
“They’ve almost done her justice for once.”
“Top-hole, old man,” Rokeby replied sympathetically.
Categories: English Literature