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By Margery Sharp
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1944 Margery Sharp
All rights reserved.
Thinking of Cluny Brown, Mr. Porritt, a successful plumber, allowed himself to be carried past his 'bus stop and in consequence missed the Sunday dinner awaiting him at his sister's. It was not much loss. The food would be all right, for Addie had her virtues, but she was too much of a harper. At the moment she was harping on Cluny Brown.
Paying an extra penny, Mr. Porritt got off the 'bus at Notting Hill Gate. There was still ample time to return to Marble Arch and proceed as usual down the Edgware Road, but a spirit of independence moved him to turn instead into Kensington Gardens. He hadn't been inside the Gardens for more than a year — not, in fact, since the day of his wife's funeral, when he went on a long dogged tramp through all the London parks getting his mind used to the fact that Mrs. Porritt was no more. It took some doing — they had been married twenty-six years and never a hard word; but somewhere along the road Arnold Porritt came to an interim agreement with Providence. He would go on as before, doing his duty as a plumber, and his duty by Cluny Brown, and if at the last he and his Floss were not reunited, he would make trouble. Mr. Porritt was a man with a strong sense of justice.
The day, for February, was uncommonly mild. Hardy persons sat on seats outside the Orangery, their faces to the sun, their backs to brickwork that had faced the sun for three centuries; it was always warmer there than anywhere else in the Gardens. After circling the lawn Mr. Porritt too set his foot upon this terrace; since no bench was entirely vacant, he chose one accommodating a solitary lady. To Mr. Porritt's eye she was no longer young, and could never have been attractive; the glancing eye of the lady noted Mr. Porritt as definitely quaint; and each would have been extremely surprised to learn the other's opinion.
The lady had a book on her knee, but Mr. Porritt had left his paper in the 'bus, and was thus defenceless against the well-known effects of proximity in a public park. Within five minutes the desire to confide in a stranger became irresistible. He uttered a preliminary cough, and remarked that it was uncommon mild for the time of year.
"Deliciously," said the lady. Her voice, and that one word, assured Mr. Porritt she was a lady, a fact which her hat and make-up had caused him to doubt.
"Makes me wish my niece was here," said Mr. Porritt.
"Yes, children love the Gardens," agreed the lady affably.
"She's no child," said Mr. Porritt.
The lady gave him an encouraging look. She was waiting for a young man who she intended should become her lover, and thought it would be rather piquant to be discovered in conversation with any one so quaint, so unexpected, so altogether out-of-her-picture as Mr. Porritt. Even as she smiled fragments of dialogue were forming in her mind — "But people always talk to me!" she would say. "I feel like that man in Kipling who sat still and let the animals run over him." Or was Kipling just a little bit — dating? "Like that man in the jungle" perhaps — and leave his provenance vague....
"She's twenty," pursued Mr. Porritt. "An orphan. My wife's sister's. Sometimes I don't rightly know how to handle her."
"Twenty is a difficult age."
"She ain't exactly difficult. It's more —" Mr. Porritt frowned. He pondered, he cogitated, groping as he had so often done before after the root of the trouble. Cluny Brown was good-tempered, willing, as much sense as most girls —
"Is she pretty?"
"Plain as a boot."
Mr. Porritt, who thought he had answered this question already, merely shook his head; and the lady smiled. She was plain herself, but no one could call her unattractive. (Mr. Porritt could have, of course, but the question was not likely to arise.)
"Then perhaps she has an inferiority complex?"
"Not her," said Mr. Porritt. He knew nothing about complexes, but any idea of inferiority was so wide of the mark that it suddenly showed up, by contrast, the very thing he had been after. "The trouble with young Cluny," said Mr. Porritt, "is she don't seem to know her place."
At last it was out, Cluny Brown's crime; and her uncle could never have put into words — not even to a stranger, not even in a park — the uneasiness it caused him. To know one's place was to Arnold Porritt the basis of all civilized, all rational life: keep to your class, and you couldn't go wrong. A good plumber, backed by his Union, could look a Duke in the eye; and a good dustman, backed by his Union, could look Mr. Porritt in the eye. Dukes of course had no Union, and it was Mr. Porritt's impression that they were lying pretty low.
"But what is her place?" asked the lady, looking amused.
Mr. Porritt thought this a remarkably foolish question: any one looking at him, he considered, should at once recognize his niece's place. But he had a fine answer ready, a proper bomb-shell, which he was by no means unwilling to explode.
"I'll tell you where it ain't: it ain't the Ritz," said Mr. Porritt; and astonished himself all over again. For that was what young Cluny had done, only a day or two before: she had gone and had tea at the Ritz, all on her own, to see what it was like. Two-and-a-tanner it cost her, and not even bloater-paste. Told him herself, making no secret of her daftness, no idea, it seemed, she'd done anything out of the way. Mr. Porritt was pleased to see that his new acquaintance (for all her daftness) looked properly taken aback. "And that's Cluny all over," he finished, in gloomy triumph. "Just no idea what's what."
"Cluny?" repeated the lady.
"Cluny Brown. Short for Clover," explained Mr. Porritt. He paused, to see whether a tall young man, just then approaching, meant to sit down on their seat. But the lady (who had observed the new-comer a moment in advance) leaned forward with increasing animation.
"Do you know," she said rapidly, "I think your niece sounds exceptionally charming. You mustn't suppress her, you must help her to develop. She may be a really special personality."
Then she turned with a start, and saw the young man smiling down on them, and Mr. Porritt at once realized it was time to take himself off.
"Who the hell was that?" asked the young man, sitting down.
The lady made a comical face.
"I haven't the faintest idea. People always talk to me in parks. I feel like that man in the jungle who sat still and let the animals run over him."
"One of these days you'll find yourself assaulted."
"My dear, you know I only attract the respectable."
They both laughed. The young man looked after the diminishing figure of Mr. Porritt and shook his head.
"The old rip! Did he tell you his wife doesn't understand him?"
"Not at all. I've been hearing all about his niece, a young person named Cluny Brown, short for Clover, who went to tea at the Ritz."
"Darling, you're wonderful!" said the young man. "What a line! But why the Ritz?"
"Because she doesn't know her place."
"How shocking. Shocking Cluny Brown! I'd like to meet her."
This being out of the question, the lady was able to say that she would too; and then feeling that Cluny had been talked of long enough, and was even becoming a nuisance, demanded to be taken to lunch.
It was half past two when Mr. Porritt walked into his brother-in-law Trumper's house in Portobello Road. The open front-door, and a trowel stuck in a border, showed that Trumper had started a bit of gardening and given it up. Within, the narrow hall smelt strongly of linoleum and brasspolish, and Mr. Porritt, sniffing appreciatively, did his sister justice. She knew how to keep a house. Neat as a new pin. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Mr. Porritt hung up his cap and went into the front room, and there sat Trumper, shirt-sleeved, reading the News of the World.
"Got here," said Mr. Porritt.
"Thought you'd bin run over," said Trumper.
"Wrong 'bus," explained Mr. Porritt.
"Had your dinner?"
"Snack," said Mr. Porritt.
He sat down and removed his boots, placing them neatly on the lower shelf of a bamboo whatnot. The top of the whatnot bore a chenille mat, a brass tray, a brass pot, in the pot a fine rubber plant; the whole standing just where it ought, plumb in the centre of the bow-window.
"You left a trowel outside," said Mr. Porritt.
"Aye," agreed Trumper. "Where's young Cluny?"
"No, she read a piece in the paper," said Mr. Porritt; and remembered his own paper left in the 'bus. He now wanted it, because this was his time and place for a good read. It was also Trumper's time and place, and the minute he finished Addie started in, and it was wonderful how nothing annoyed people more than taking their Sunday paper. Mr. Porritt remembered a very striking illustration of this from his own experience: it was when his wife's sister turned up with the infant Cluny, and her husband dead, poor chap, and nothing for it but to take them in and give them a home; and both he and Floss agreed on it, glad and willing, and Cluny's mother behaved just as she ought, except for one thing: she would take the Sunday paper before Mr. Porritt had done with it. He never said a word, but just that one habit so irritated him that he gradually took a dislike to her. For a while he even bought two papers: it was worse. She wanted to read them in bits, piece here and piece there, swapping and muddling the sheets until you couldn't even find the football. And yet she was a nice woman in her way, and when she died, of pneumonia, Mr. Porritt felt sorrier than he expected....
"I see Eden's gone and resigned," observed Trumper. "I s'pose he knows what he's at."
"If you ask me, we'll have trouble with Mussolini yet," said Mr. Porritt, "and that Hitler. I don't trust 'em."
"Nor me. What this country ought to ha' done —"
In another moment they would have been embarked on a good, meaty, masculine conversation; but the door opened, and in bounced Addie. She was four years junior to her husband, and five to Mr. Porritt, but one would never have guessed it, because she didn't hold with making yourself look young. She held with looking neat and clean and hard-wearing, and in this she perfectly succeeded.
"There you are!" she exclaimed — running her eye over her brother as though to make sure that he was all there indeed. "What happened?"
"Wrong 'bus," explained Mr. Porritt.
"Had your dinner?"
"Snack," said Mr. Porritt.
"No," said Mr. Porritt patiently. "She read a piece in the paper, about how it rested the nerves and toned the system to stay a day in bed eating oranges."
For a second Addie Trumper stared, speechless. Her jaw tightened. Her eyes snapped. Both her husband and her brother unconsciously braced themselves.
"My stars!" cried Addie Trumper. "Who does she think she is?"
There it was again, the inevitable question that Cluny Brown seemed always, and so unnaturally, to provoke. For what could be plainer than the answer? — her father a defunct lorry driver, one uncle a plumber, her late mother that plumber's sister-in-law, her other uncle a railway porter (Great Western) — how could any one doubt who Cluny was? How could there be any doubt as to who she thought she was? It was obvious. And yet if Mr. Porritt had heard that question once, he had heard it a thousand times. He even asked it of himself. And neither to himself, nor to Addie Trumper, could he give an answer.
"What young Cluny needs —" stated Mrs. Trumper, drawing breath — "I've said it before and I'll say it again — is to go into service. Good service, under a strict housekeeper. You mark my words."
But Mr. Porritt did not intend to be browbeaten.
"And I've told you, I can't spare her. I've got to have some one for the phone when I'm not there."
"What you want with a phone —!"
Mr. Porritt and Trumper exchanged brotherly glances. Of course a plumber had to have a telephone: half the calls, and all the urgent ones, came by phone. It was one of the reasons for Mr. Porritt's success — you could get hold of him. People rang up at midnight, or even later, and even if Mr. Porritt did not turn out, his solemn professional tones brought comfort, and if he said he'd be round first thing, they seldom bothered to get any one else. Of course he had to have a phone ...
"And by the same token," said Mrs. Trumper, turning on her husband, "you've left a trowel in front." Then she snatched up the News of the World and bounced out.
It was a few moments before the atmosphere settled down again. The two men lay low, like fish at the bottom of a stirred-up pond. Mr. Porritt looked apologetically at his brother-in-law, and slowly reached for his boots.
"No need to go," said Trumper kindly.
"Better," said Mr. Porritt.
"You stick to what you think's fit. Young Cluny's a help to you, you find her keep, it's no business of Addie's."
"Aye," said Mr. Porritt. He finished lacing his boots nonetheless. "But I don't mind telling you: I'm worried." He paused. There was that tea at the Ritz; there was something else, something he hadn't mentioned even to the lady in the park. "She's been followed," said Mr. Porritt.
"Twice," said Mr. Porritt, "in the past week. First time she told me of, second I saw for myself. In the High Street, outside a shop: Cluny and this fellow talking together. He made off fast enough when he saw me."
"I'll lay he did," said Trumper appreciatively.
"Cluny says she's looking in this window, looking at hats, when up this fellow comes, asks her is there anything she fancies. Cluny says no, she's just having a free laugh. Then he says, maybe if they moved along to the West End, maybe they'd find something better. That was when I come up."
"She'd never have gone."
"So she said. She said there was a piece she wanted to hear on the wireless. But what beats me is why. You wouldn't call her pretty —"
"Plain as a boot," agreed Trumper heartily. For a while they both pondered. "This other time — was it the same chap or another?"
"Another. Fellow outside the cinema."
"She shouldn't hang about so much."
"What's a lass to do?" argued Mr. Porritt defensively. "Can't she look into a shop-window? Maybe — I didn't tell you, but I was mentioning young Cluny to a lady — maybe we're treating her wrong. Maybe she didn't ought to be threaped down, but encouraged to develop, like."
"Not her," said Mr. Trumper firmly. "Whoever told you that didn't know Cluny."
This was so true that Mr. Porritt could not dispute it. But for a moment his silence was stubborn. The lady's earnestness, just before they were interrupted, had made an impression on him: his attitude towards his niece had become as it were more elastic than ever before. He was ready for some sort of action on her behalf, if need be for some sort of shake-up in the solid routine of their common life. At the back of his mind there germinated a notion that perhaps Cluny might learn to type.
"All this foolishness about oranges," added Trumper obliquely.
"She paid for 'em. And I don't mind telling you," said Mr. Porritt, in a sudden admission of weakness, "nonsense or no nonsense, worried as I am, it's a real comfort to know she's safe home in bed."
He spoke (as always) what he believed to be the truth.CHAPTER 2
That Cluny Brown was not in bed, nor even at home, was due to sheer conscientiousness, a quality for which she rarely got credit. The piece in the paper laid great stress on complete repose, drawn blinds and no phone calls. Cluny had drawn her curtains, but she couldn't stop people ringing up a plumber, and when shortly before three the bell began to go, she reluctantly (but conscientiously) swung her long legs out of bed and ran barefoot downstairs.
"Hello?" said Cluny, in her deep tones.
A man's voice answered her — urgent, curt, harsh with that sense of injury common to all in trouble with their water-supply.
"Is that the plumber's? I want some one to come round at once —"
"He's out," said Cluny.
"Can't you get hold of him?"
Cluny reflected. It wasn't the weather for burst pipes, and for no lesser calamity did she intend to disturb her uncle's Sabbath.
Excerpted from Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp. Copyright © 1944 Margery Sharp. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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