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It began in a woman’s club in London on a February afternoon – an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon – when Mrs Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1,000, The Times.
That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.
So entirely unaware was Mrs Wilkins that her April for that year had then and there been settled for her that she dropped the newspaper with a gesture that was both irritated and resigned, and went over to the window and stared drearily out at the dripping street.
Not for her were mediaeval castles, even those that are specially described as small. Not for her the shores in April of the Mediterranean, and the wistaria and sunshine. Such delights were only for the rich. Yet the advertisement had been addressed to persons who appreciate these things, so that it had been, anyhow, addressed too to her, for she certainly appreciated them; more than anybody knew; more than she had ever told. But she was poor. In the whole world she possessed of her own only ninety pounds, saved from year to year, put by carefully pound by pound, out of her dress allowance. She had scraped this sum together at the suggestion of her husband as a shield and refuge against a rainy day. Her dress allowance, given her by her father, was £100 a year, so that Mrs Wilkins’s clothes were what her husband, urging her to save, called modest and becoming and her acquaintance to each other, when they spoke of her at all, which was seldom for she was very negligible, called a perfect sight.
Mr Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift, except that branch of it which got into his food. He did not call that thrift, he called it bad housekeeping. But for the thrift which, like moth, penetrated into Mrs Wilkins’s clothes and spoilt them, he had much praise. ‘You never know,’ he said, ‘when there will be a rainy day, and you may be very glad to find you have a nest-egg. Indeed we both may.’
Looking out of the club window into Shaftesbury Avenue – hers was an economical club, but convenient for Hampstead, where she lived, and for Shoolbred’s where she shopped – Mrs Wilkins, having stood there some time very drearily, her mind’s eye on the Mediterranean in April, and the wistaria, and the enviable opportunities of the rich, while her bodily eye watched the really extremely horrible sooty rain falling steadily on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses, suddenly wondered whether perhaps this was not the rainy day Mellersh – Mellersh was Mr Wilkins – had so often encouraged her to prepare for, and whether to get out of such a climate and into the small mediaeval castle wasn’t perhaps what Providence had all along intended her to do with her savings. Part of her savings, of course; perhaps quite a small part. The castle, being mediaeval, might also be dilapidated, and dilapidations were surely cheap. She wouldn’t in the least mind a few of them, because you didn’t pay for dilapidations which were already there; on the contrary – by reducing the price you had to pay they really paid you. But what nonsense to think of it . . .
She turned away from the window with the same gesture of mingled irritation and resignation with which she had laid down The Times, and crossed the room towards the door with the intention of getting her mackintosh and umbrella and fighting her way into one of the overcrowded omnibuses and going to Shoolbred’s on her way home and buying some soles for Mellersh’s dinner – Mellersh was difficult with fish and liked only soles, except salmon – when she beheld Mrs Arbuthnot, a woman she knew by sight as also living in Hampstead and belonging to the club, sitting at the table in the middle of the room on which the newspapers and magazines were kept, absorbed, in her turn, in the first page of The Times.
Mrs Wilkins had never yet spoken to Mrs Arbuthnot, who belonged to one of the various church sets, and who analysed, classified, divided and registered the poor; whereas she and Mellersh, when they did go out, went to the parties of impressionist painters, of whom in Hampstead there were many. Mellersh had a sister who had married one of them and lived up on the Heath, and because of this alliance Mrs Wilkins was drawn into a circle which was highly unnatural to her, and she had learned to dread pictures. She had to say things about them, and she didn’t know what to say. She used to murmur, ‘Marvellous,’ and feel that it was not enough. But nobody minded. Nobody listened. Nobody took any notice of Mrs Wilkins. She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties. Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation was reluctant; she was shy. And if one’s clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs Wilkins, who recognized her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?
Also she was always with Wilkins, that clean-shaven, fine-looking man, who gave a party, merely by coming to it, a great air. Wilkins was very respectable. He was known to be highly thought of by his senior partners. His sister’s circle admired him. He pronounced adequately intelligent judgments on art and artists. He was pithy; he was prudent; he never said a word too much, nor, on the other hand, did he ever say a word too little. He produced the impression of keeping copies of everything he said; and he was so obviously reliable that it often happened that people who met him at these parties became discontented with their own solicitors, and after a period of restlessness extricated themselves and went to Wilkins.
Naturally Mrs Wilkins was blotted out. ‘She,’ said his sister, with something herself of the judicial, the digested, and the final in her manner, ‘should stay at home.’ But Wilkins could not leave his wife at home. He was a family solicitor, and all such have wives and show them. With his in the week he went to parties, and with his on Sundays he went to church. Being still fairly young – he was thirty-nine – and ambitious of old ladies, of whom he had not yet acquired in his practice a sufficient number, he could not afford to miss church, and it was there that Mrs Wilkins became familiar, though never through words, with Mrs Arbuthnot.
She saw her marshalling the children of the poor into pews. She would come in at the head of the procession from the Sunday School exactly five minutes before the choir, and get her boys and girls neatly fitted into their allotted seats, and down on their little knees in their preliminary prayer, and up again on their feet just as, to the swelling organ, the vestry door opened, and the choir and clergy, big with the litanies and commandments they were presently to roll out, emerged. She had a sad face, yet she was evidently efficient. The combination used to make Mrs Wilkins wonder, for she had been told by Mellersh, on days when she had only been able to get plaice, that if one were efficient one wouldn’t be depressed, and that if one does one’s job well one becomes automatically bright and brisk.
About Mrs Arbuthnot there was nothing bright and brisk, though much in her way with the Sunday School children that was automatic; but when Mrs Wilkins, turning from the window, caught sight of her in the club she was not being automatic at all, but was looking fixedly at one portion of the first page of The Times, holding the paper quite still, her eyes not moving. She was just staring; and her face, as usual, was the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna.
Obeying an impulse she wondered at even while obeying it, Mrs Wilkins, the shy and the reluctant, instead of proceeding as she had intended to the cloakroom and from thence to Shoolbred’s in search of Mellersh’s fish, stopped at the table and sat down exactly opposite Mrs Arbuthnot, to whom she had never yet spoken in her life.
It was one of those long, narrow refectory tables, so that they were quite close to each other.
Mrs Arbuthnot, however, did not look up. She continued to gaze, with eyes that seemed to be dreaming, at one spot only of The Times.
Mrs Wilkins watched her a minute, trying to screw up courage to speak to her. She wanted to ask her if she had seen the advertisement. She did not know why she wanted to ask her this, but she wanted to. How stupid not to be able to speak to her. She looked so kind. She looked so unhappy. Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Shoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same . . .
Suddenly Mrs Wilkins found herself leaning across the table. ‘Are you reading about the mediaeval castle and the wistaria?’ she heard herself asking.
Naturally Mrs Arbuthnot was surprised; but she was not half so much surprised as Mrs Wilkins was at herself for asking.
Mrs Arbuthnot had not yet to her knowledge set eyes on the shabby, lank, loosely-put-together figure sitting opposite her, with its small freckled face and big grey eyes almost disappearing under a smashed-down wet-weather hat, and she gazed at her a moment without answering. She was reading about the mediaeval castle and the wistaria, or rather had read about it ten minutes before, and since then had been lost in dreams – of light, of colour, of fragrance, of the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks . . .
‘Why do you ask me that?’ she said in her grave voice, for her training of and by the poor had made her grave and patient.
Mrs Wilkins flushed and looked excessively shy and frightened. ‘Oh, only because I saw it too, and I thought perhaps – I thought somehow—’ she stammered.
Whereupon Mrs Arbuthnot, her mind being used to getting people into lists and divisions, from habit considered, as she gazed thoughtfully at Mrs Wilkins, under what heading, supposing she had to classify her, she could most properly be put.
‘And I know you by sight,’ went on Mrs Wilkins, who, like all the shy, once she was started plunged on, frightening herself to more and more speech by the sheer sound of what she had said last in her ears. ‘Every Sunday – I see you every Sunday in church—’
‘In church?’ echoed Mrs Arbuthnot.
‘And this seems such a wonderful thing – this advertisement about the wistaria – and—’
Mrs Wilkins, who must have been at least thirty, broke off and wriggled in her chair with the movement of an awkward and embarrassed schoolgirl.
‘It seems so wonderful,’ she went on in a kind of burst, ‘and – it is such a miserable day . . .’
And then she sat looking at Mrs Arbuthnot with the eyes of an imprisoned dog.
‘This poor thing,’ thought Mrs Arbuthnot, whose life was spent in helping and alleviating, ‘needs advice.’
She accordingly prepared herself patiently to give it.
‘If you see me in church,’ she said, kindly and attentively, ‘I suppose you live in Hampstead too?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs Wilkins. And she repeated, her head on its long thin neck drooping a little as if the recollection of Hampstead bowed her, ‘Oh yes.’
‘Where?’ asked Mrs Arbuthnot, who, when advice was needed, naturally first proceeded to collect the facts.
But Mrs Wilkins, laying her hand softly and caressingly on the part of The Times where the advertisement was, as though the mere printed words of it were precious, only said, ‘Perhaps that’s why this seems so wonderful.’
‘No – I think that’s wonderful anyhow,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, forgetting facts and faintly sighing.
‘Then you were reading it?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, her eyes going dreamy again.
‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful?’ murmured Mrs Wilkins.
‘Wonderful,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot. Her face, which had lit up, faded into patience again. ‘Very wonderful,’ she said. ‘But it’s no use wasting one’s time thinking of such things.’
‘Oh, but it is,’ was Mrs Wilkins’s quick, surprising reply; surprising because it was so much unlike the rest of her – the characterless coat and skirt, the crumpled hat, the undecided wisp of hair straggling out. ‘And just the considering of them is worth while in itself – such a change from Hampstead – and sometimes I believe – I really do believe – if one considers hard enough one gets things.’
Mrs Arbuthnot observed her patiently. In what category would she, supposing she had to, put her?
‘Perhaps,’ she said, leaning forward a little, ‘you will tell me your name. If we are to be friends’ – she smiled her grave smile – ‘as I hope we are, we had better begin at the beginning.’
‘Oh yes – how kind of you. I’m Mrs Wilkins,’ said Mrs Wilkins. ‘I don’t expect,’ she added, flushing, as Mrs Arbuthnot said nothing, ‘that it conveys anything to you. Sometimes it – it doesn’t seem to convey anything to me either. But’ – she looked round with a movement of seeking help – ‘I am Mrs Wilkins.’
She did not like her name. It was a mean, small name, with a kind of facetious twist, she thought, about its end like the upward curve of a pugdog’s tail. There it was, however. There was no doing anything with it. Wilkins she was and Wilkins she would remain; and though her husband encouraged her to give it on all occasions as Mrs Mellersh-Wilkins she only did that when he was within earshot, for she thought Mellersh made Wilkins worse, emphasizing it in the way Chatsworth on the gateposts of a villa emphasizes the villa.
When first he suggested she should add Mellersh she had objected for the above reason, and after a pause – Mellersh was much too prudent to speak except after a pause, during which presumably he was taking a careful mental copy of his coming observation – he said, much displeased, ‘But I am not a villa,’ and looked at her as he looks who hopes, for perhaps the hundredth time, that he may not have married a fool.
Of course he was not a villa, Mrs Wilkins assured him; she had never supposed he was; she had not dreamed of meaning . . . she was only just thinking . . .
The more she explained the more earnest became Mellersh’s hope, familiar to him by this time, for he had then been a husband for two years, that he might not by any chance have married a fool; and they had a prolonged quarrel, if that can be called a quarrel which is conducted with dignified silence on one side and earnest apology on the other, as to whether or no Mrs Wilkins had intended to suggest that Mr Wilkins was a villa.
‘I believe,’ she had thought when it was at last over – it took a long while – ‘that anybody would quarrel about anything when they’ve not left off being together for a single day for two whole years. What we both need is a holiday.’
‘My husband,’ went on Mrs Wilkins to Mrs Arbuthnot, trying to throw some light on herself, ‘is a solicitor. He—’ She cast about for something she could say elucidatory of Mellersh, and found: ‘He’s very handsome.’
‘Well,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot kindly, ‘that must be a great pleasure to you.’
‘Why?’ asked Mrs Wilkins.
‘Because,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, a little taken aback, for constant intercourse with the poor had accustomed her to have her pronouncements accepted without question, ‘because beauty – handsomeness – is a gift like any other, and if it is properly used—’
She trailed off into silence. Mrs Wilkins’s great grey eyes were fixed on her, and it seemed suddenly to Mrs Arbuthnot that perhaps she was becoming crystallized into a habit of exposition, and of exposition after the manner of nursemaids, through having an audience that couldn’t but agree, that would be afraid, if it wished, to interrupt, that didn’t know, that was, in fact, at her mercy.
But Mrs Wilkins was not listening; for just then, absurd as it seemed, a picture had flashed across her brain, and there were two figures in it sitting together under a great trailing wistaria that stretched across the branches of a tree she didn’t know, and it was herself and Mrs Arbuthnot – she saw them – she saw them. And behind them, bright in sunshine, were old grey walls – the mediaeval castle – she saw it – they were there . . .
She therefore stared at Mrs Arbuthnot and did not hear a word she said. And Mrs Arbuthnot stared too at Mrs Wilkins, arrested by the expression on her face, which was swept by the excitement of what she saw, and was as luminous and tremulous under it as water in sunlight when it is ruffled by a gust of wind. At this moment, if she had been at a party, Mrs Wilkins would have been looked at with interest.
They stared at each other; Mrs Arbuthnot surprised, inquiringly, Mrs Wilkins with the eyes of some one who has had a revelation. Of course. That was how it could be done. She herself, she by herself, couldn’t afford it, and wouldn’t be able, even if she could afford it, to go there all alone; but she and Mrs Arbuthnot together . . .
She leaned across the table. ‘Why don’t we try and get it?’ she whispered.
Mrs Arbuthnot became even more wide-eyed. ‘Get it?’ she repeated.