Read an Excerpt
Eye of the Storm
THE OLD woman's head was barely fretting against the pillow. She could have moaned slightly.
'What is it?' asked the nurse, advancing on her out of the shadow. 'Aren't you comfortable, Mrs Hunter?'
'Not at all. I'm lying on corks. They're hurting me.'
The nurse smoothed the kidney-blanket, the macintosh, and stretched the sheet. She worked with an air which was not quite professional detachment, nor yet human tenderness; she was probably something of a ritualist. There was no need to switch on a lamp: a white light had begun spilling through the open window; there was a bloom of moonstones on the dark grove of furniture.
'Oh dear, will it never be morning?' Mrs Hunter got her head as well as she could out of the steamy pillows.
'It is,' said the nurse; 'can't you can't you feel it?' While working around this almost chrysalis in her charge, her veil had grown transparent; on the other hand, the wings of her hair, escaping from beneath the lawn, could not have looked a more solid black.
'Yes. I can feel it. It is morning.' The old creature sighed; then the lips, the pale gums opened in the smile of a giant baby. 'Which one are you?' she asked.
'De Santis. But I'm sure you know. I'm the night nurse.'
'Yes. Of course.'
Sister de Santis had taken the pillows and was shaking them up, all but one; in spite of this continued support, Mrs Hunter looked pretty flat.
'I do hope it's going to be one of my good days,' she said. 'I do want to sound intelligent. And look - presentable.'
'You will if you want to.' Sister de Santis replaced the pillows. 'I've never known you not rise to an occasion.'
'My will is sometimes rusty.'
'Dr Gidley's coming in case. I rang him last night. We must remember to tell Sister Badgery.'
'The will doesn't depend on doctors.'
Though she might have been in agreement, it was one of the remarks Sister de Santis chose not to hear. 'Are you comfortable now, Mrs Hunter?'
The old head lay looking almost embalmed against the perfect structure of pillows; below the chin a straight line of sheet was pinning the body to the bed. 'I haven't felt comfortable for years,' said the voice. 'And why do you have to go? Why must I have Badgery?'
'Because she takes over at morning.'
A burst of pigeons' wings was fired from somewhere in the garden below.
'I hate Badgery.'
'You know you don't. She's so kind.'
'She talks too much - on and on about that husband. She's too bossy.'
'She's only practical. You have to be in the daytime.' One reason why she herself preferred night duties.
'I hate all those other women.' Mrs Hunter had mustered her complete stubbornness this morning. 'It's only you I love, Sister de Santis.' She directed at the nurse that milky stare which at times still seemed to unshutter glimpses of a terrifying mineral blue.
Sister de Santis began moving about the room with practised discretion.
'At least I can see you this morning,' Mrs Hunter announced. 'You can't escape me. You look like some kind of big lily.'
The nurse could not prevent herself ducking her veil.
'Are you listening to me?'
Of course she was: these were the moments which refreshed them both.
'I can see the window too,' Mrs Hunter meandered. 'And something - a sort of wateriness - oh yes, the looking-glass. Allgood signs! This is one of the days when I can see better. I shall see them!'
'Yes. You'll see them.' The nurse was arranging the hairbrushes; the ivory brushes with their true-lovers' knots in gold and lapis lazuli had a fascination for her.
'The worst thing about love between human beings,' the voice was directed at her from the bed, 'when you're prepared to love them they don't want it; when they do, it's you who can't bear the idea.'
'You've got an exhausting day ahead,' Sister de Santis warned; 'you'd better not excite yourself.'
'I've always excited myself if the opportunity arose. I can't stop now - for anyone.'
Again there was that moment of splintered sapphires, before the lids, dropping like scales, extinguished it.
'You're right, though. I shall need my strength.' The voice began to wheedle. 'Won't you hold my hand a little, dear Mary - isn't it? de Santis?'
Sister de Santis hesitated enough to appease the spirit of her training. Then she drew up a little mahogany tabouret upholstered in a faded sage. She settled her opulent breasts, a surprise in an otherwise austere figure, and took the skin and bone of Mrs Hunter's hand.
Thus placed they were exquisitely united. According to the light it was neither night nor day. They inhabited a world of trust, to which their bodies and minds were no more than entrance gates. Of course Sister de Santis could not answer truthfully for her patient's mind: so old and erratic, often feeble since the stroke; but there were moments such as this when they seemed to reach a peculiar pitch of empathy. The nurse might have wished to remain clinging to their state of perfection if she had not evolved, in the course of her working life, a belief - no, it was stronger: a religion - of perpetual becoming. Because she was handsome in looks and her bearing suggested authority, those of her colleagues who detected in her something odd and reprehensible would not have dared call it 'religious'; if they laughed at her, it was not to her face. Even so, itcould have been the breath of scorn which had dictated her choice of the night hours in which to patrol the intenser world of her conviction, to practise not only the disciplines of her professed vocation, but the rituals of her secret faith.
Then why Mrs Hunter? those less dedicated or more rational might have suggested, and Mary de Santis failed to explain; except that this ruin of an over-indulged and beautiful youth, rustling with fretful spite when not bludgeoning with a brutality only old age is ingenious enough to use, was also a soul about to leave the body it had worn, and already able to emancipate itself so completely from human emotions, it became at times as redemptive as water, as clear as morning light.
This actual morning old Mrs Hunter opened her eyes and said to her nurse, 'Where are the dolls?'
'Where you left them, I expect.' Because her inept answer satisfied neither of them, the nurse developed a pained look.
'But that's what they always say! Why don't they bring them?' Mrs Hunter protested.
The nurse could only bite her lip; the hand had been dragged away from hers.
'Of course you know about the dolls. Don't say I didn't tell you.' The old woman was threatening to become vindictive. 'We were living beside the - oh, some - some geographical river. My father had given me a hundred dolls. Think of it - a hundred! Some of them I didn't look at because they didn't interest me, but some I loved to distraction.'
Suddenly Mrs Hunter turned her head with such a doll's jerk Sister de Santis held her breath.
'You know it isn't true,' the old child complained. 'It was Kate Nutley had the dolls. She was spoilt. I had two - rather battered ones. And still didn't love them equally.'
Sister de Santis was troubled by the complexities of a world she had been forced to re-enter too quickly.
'I tore the leg off one,' Mrs Hunter admitted; her recovered calm was enviable.
'Didn't they mend it?' the nurse dared inquire.
'I can't remember.' Mrs Hunter gave a little whimper. 'And have to remember everything today. People try to catch you out - accuse you - of not - not loving them enough.'
She was staring at the increasing light, if not glaring, frightfully.
'And look my best. Bring me my looking-glass, Nurse.'
Sister de Santis fetched the glass: it was of that same ivory set as the brushes with lovers' knots in gold and lapis lazuli. Holding it by its fluted handle she tilted the glass for her patient to look. The nurse was glad she could not see the reflection: reflections can be worse than faces.
Mrs Hunter was panting. 'Somebody must make me up.'
'Sister Badgery will see to that.'
'Oh, Badgery! She's awful. If only little Manhood were here - she knows how to do it properly. She's the one I like.'
'Sister Manhood won't be here till lunch.'
'Why can't somebody telephone her?'
'She'll still be asleep. And later she'll probably have some shopping to do.'
Mrs Hunter was so upset she let her head drop on the pillow: tears gushed surprisingly out of the half-closed eyes.
Sister de Santis heard her own voice sound more placid than she felt. 'If you rest your mind you'll probably look far more beautiful as your natural self. And that is how they'll want to see you.'
But the old woman fully closed her eyes. 'Not now. Why, my lashes are gone - my complexion. I can feel the freckles, even on my eyelids, without having to look for them.'
'I'm sure you're exaggerating, Mrs Hunter.' Small comfort; but the nurse's feet were aching, nor had her mind, her eyes, adjusted themselves to daylight: the withdrawal of darkness had left her puffy and moth-like.
When she noticed her patient staring at her too obsessively. 'I'd like you to bring me something to drink. And something else - ' putting out a hand at its oldest and feeblest, 'I want you to forgiveme, Mary. Will you?' stroking no longer with bones, but the tips of feathers.
The sensation experienced by Sister de Santis was scarcely sensual; nor did it lift her to that state of disembodiment they sometimes enjoyed together. It was disturbing, though.
For her own protection the nurse ignored half the request, while agreeing too heartily to the other. 'All right! What do you fancy?'
'Nothing milky.' Mrs Hunter made a smacking sound with her lips, because those two glutinous strips did not release each other easily. 'Something cold and pure,' she added after rejecting pap.
Sister de Santis had to relent; she had to look; and at once added to the caress of feathers, there were the eyes, some at least of their original mineral fire burning through the film with which age and sickness had attempted to obscure it. 'I'd like a glass of water,' Mrs Hunter said.
Sister de Santis was reduced to feeling embarrassed and lumpish. 'It'll be cold,' she promised, 'from the fridge. I can't answer for its purity. It's what the Water Board provides.'
As she left the room, a glare from furniture and a bedpan scarcely covered by a towel, sprang at the high priestess, stripping her of the illusions of her office, the night thoughts, speculations of a mystical turn few had ever guessed at, and certainly, thank God, no one shared, except, perhaps, one malicious old woman. In her daytime form, Mary de Santis of thumping bust and pronounced calves, might have been headed for basket-ball.
Left alone, which after all was how she wanted to be, with due respect to poor broody faithful de Santis, Mrs Hunter lay with her eyes closed listening to her house, her thoughts, her life. All around her clocks were ticking, not to mention that muffled metronome which might have been her heart. In some ways it was an advantage to be what they refer to as 'half blind'. She had always seen too clearly, it seemed: opaque friends had been alarmed by it; a husband and lovers had resented; worst of all, the children - they could have done murder. She scrabbled after the handkerchief a nurse hadhidden; so she cried without it. I've never seen you cry, Elizabeth, unless you wanted something. Alfred would lower his chin as though riding at an armoured opponent. And she would raise hers, accepting the challenge. It hadn't occurred to me. But must be right if you've noticed. Opposing a husband with the weapon of her profile: she had perfect nostrils, so they told her; she had also seen for herself in the glass. Only Alfred had not told her; was it out of delicacy? His friends all referred to him as 'Bill'. Most of his life he had spent trying to disguise himself as one of the costive, crutch-heavy males who came to discuss wool and meat: so slow and ponderous, like rams dragging their sex through a stand of lucerne. There were also the would-be cuddly fe-males making up to 'Bill', unaware how immaculate he was.
Mrs Hunter laughed.
You know, Betty, you are the only one who has never called me by a friendly name. Not 'Bill': just to attempt it made her feel she was shaking her jowls like a bloodhound. How can I? When 'Alfred' is the name you've been given. I mean it's your NAME - as mine is 'Elizabeth'. She raised her voice and drew down her mouth to produce a dimple she held in reserve; but on this occasion it failed to persuade him.
Though he had never accused her of being cold, others had suggested that she was: satellite spinsters hopeful of prolonging schoolgirl crushes; wives in need of a receptacle in which to pour an accumulation of injustices; a man like Athol Shreve (she had only done it as an essay in sensuality; the hair alone disgusted her); that young Norwegian - no, or had he? (wasn't his subject fish?) - on the Warmings' island.
Not everyone is an island: they loved 'Bill', while admiring Elizabeth Hunter. It is the children who are the most forbidding, the least hospitable of islands, though you can light a fire if you know how to scrape together the wherewithal.
She sucked the corner of a pillowslip remembering the children. What were their names? Dor-o-thy? And Bsl? Bas-il! Words of love at the time, ugly and pretentious in the end.
Mrs Hunter fell into a snooze trying to remember something elseshe had discovered, not in any hairy embrace, or under threat by wet-kissing females, or children's butterfly-flickers alternating with denunciations. Falling into her light snooze she would have liked to experience a state of mind she knew existed, but which was too subtle to enter except by special grace.
The night nurse made her way down through what was technically her employer's house, an ugly, ostentatious one. She must remember that. It would be easier now that daylight was cracking the curtains. She must remember her framed certificate hanging beside her father's diploma; she must remember her thirty-two years of nursing (she would be fifty in a couple of months). In Mrs Hunter's house, furniture choked even the landings and the passages: presses and consoles and cabinets which could not be crammed into the rooms. Carpets, once rich and uniformly springy, were thinning in patches the owner would not see, and those who did, ignored; because what was the use? they expected her to die.
On the half-landing the nurse jerked at a curtain and let in more of the abrasive light. It fairly clashed with a vase of honesty standing in a niche: the silver medals on dry stems seemed to twitter as her hand withdrew. Dust hung in the light, like scentless incense, in spite of Mrs Cush: with a person operatun on er own only two mornuns a week a speck of dust can be expected.
Something walked over Sister de Santis's grave, and she shivered. That is how they explain it, she ought to remember, not let her conscience get her down for having seen herself, that instant, laying the damp pledgets on the freckly eyelids after the last tremor had subsided. Remember, rather, that a disagreeable case drains less out of you - or so some of her colleagues maintained.
The nurse continued down the stairs, holding on to the rail as though in need of support. By night she floated, unassisted, whether up or down, her stiff white skirt barely brushing the protective hedge, its tangle of iron branches loaded with Hesperian fruit. Doubts seldom arose at night, because love and usage will invest the most material house with numinous forms and purposes, fromamongst which an initiate's thoughts will soar like multi-coloured invocations.
Whereas this morning, as she descended deeper into this stuffy well, Sister de Santis was unreasonably pursued by faint faecal whiffs, by the insinuating stench of urine from an aged bladder; while the light itself, or iron thorns, or old transparent fingernails, scratched at her viciously.
She would have to remember that no patient is entirely vicious or unreasonable.
It must have been fifteen years ago that Mr Wyburd gave warning, 'I ought to tell you, Miss de Santis, you're taking on what I would call a difficult case.'
The solicitor made a pyramid out of his hands, fingertip to fingertip, almost too conventionally legal. She tried to calculate his age: not old, but old enough (probably born with an elderly manner). His skin was beginning to dry out, leaving behind a relief of veins on the formal hands. On the little finger of one hand was a signet ring, its stone a matching blue for the veins.
'Not exactly capricious - I'd rather say "changeable",' he emphasized in his careful voice.
While eyeing the nurse, he could have been wondering whether he might trust her with his reputation as well as the care of one of his more important clients. This was only for an instant, though: he was too respectful of the professions.
Outwardly as placid as her acquaintances accused her of being, Sister de Santis had sat forward, mentally at least, to take a better look at the difficulties, the caprices, with which the solicitor was threatening her. Something about the situation made her tingle, though a wordless mumbling, and her slow, creamy smile, conveyed disbelief.
A handsome woman: sluggish, but reliable. Her references were excellent; a colonel had left her an annuity.
Mr Wyburd coughed. 'Mrs Hunter was something of a beauty in her day. Oh, she still has her looks. She is much admired. Manyhave depended on her - for opinions and advice.' Mr Wyburd laughed; he dismantled his hands and hid them under the desk. 'She enjoys a battle of wits, too!'
Mary de Santis smiled what was intended as appreciation. She must have looked rather stupid, she felt, but it was necessary to disguise her feelings: her excitement and expectations. Before each new case she hoped that she might prove herself afresh, but never so much as in combat with this vision of fragmented beauty. So she looked, still smiling, over the solicitor's shoulder, at the immaculately folded documents tied with identical ribbons of a disinfectant pink: she was fascinated by these too, by their mystic anonymity.
Mr Wyburd approached something which might be giving him trouble. 'As I mentioned, Mrs Hunter is suffering from - you could hardly call it a breakdown - a slight nervous upset. Her daughter recently returned to France - where she has lived since her marriage to a Frenchman.' More than ever Mr Wyburd hesitated to disgorge. 'I can hardly refer to this gentleman as her "husband". You might say he "re-married" after a form of divorce. Which Dorothy Hunter's adopted faith won't allow her to recognize.'
The solicitor and the nurse were united in suitable gravity over these biographical details.
It comforted him to decide that Sister de Santis was in some ways probably obtuse: no disadvantage in a relationship with Elizabeth Hunter; nor should it weaken her sense of vocation. The solicitor caught a glimpse of the veil hovering behind her timeless hat, which his daughters might have referred to as 'frumpish'.
'When am I expected, Mr Wyburd?'
In the fifteen years since first acquaintance with Elizabeth Hunter, Mary de Santis had been sent for intermittently, sometimes to fulfil the needs of friendship, on several occasions to help dramatize a minor illness, and, finally, to officiate at the great showdown. In the circumstances, Sisters Badgery and Manhood, Mrs Lippmann and Mrs Cush, accepted lesser rank in the hierarchy without damage to their self-importance. None of them questioned theefficiency of their superior, while some even sensed an authority of the spirit which gave her deeper access to the heart of the creature round whom they revolved, and to whom they were all, more or less, dedicated.
Until this morning, here was the archpriestess, a heavy woman clumping down the stairs, stumbling on the last of them. In her present condition her clumsiness was doubly irritating, and to look down and find the rod had broken free, the runner come adrift. On a day of such importance the incident made Sister de Santis perspire. She could feel a trickling down her back; the pores in her nose must be looking exaggerated; night had tossed her out, a crumpled, grubby stickiness.
If she had not been so mild, something which might have passed for rage made her snatch at curtains as she passed, unlatch fastenings, heave at windows: the air surrounding her was thick as flannel. Without real justification, she could have pounced on the housekeeper if the opportunity had occurred, but Mrs Lippmann would still be in bed: it was her one fault, her only luxury. (Half my life, or before I am myself a servant, Miss de Santis, I am coming home while the maid is still only rising.)
So whether you liked it or not, the house too, was in your charge a little longer, unless this great gilded mirror swallowed its once shadowy familiar, together with a crunch of Meissen, and splintering of marquetry.
Bad enough the mirrors, worse the portraits. Bound for the pantry, Sister de Santis could not resist the drawing-room. Whether the portraits were of any value she had never been able to judge, only guess they must have cost a lot of money. Beyond this, and their ephemeral elegance, their fashionable truthlessness, they had that certain pathos of the possessions of the very rich. In spite of his curving lashes, his golden cheeks, Basil might have been a nasty little boy, Dorothy a plain sour girl, without a splendour of varnish and the protection of their gilded frames. The fall of diamonds from Elizabeth Hunter's wrists and shoulders might have drowned the dutiful or innocent in a wave of admiration. But Mary de Santiswas unimpressed by jewels. Only the face was real, through no virtue of the painter's, she had decided long ago, or rather, the face transcended a vulgarity of superficial, slippery paint, to reveal a correspondence, as will some of the semi-precious stones, or flowers, or phrases of music, or passages of light.
It was the children who finally routed the nurse by reminding her of a desiccated carcase, blotched with brown, streaked with yellow, scarred by knives: the body from which they had sprung to force their purposes on life. This morning the portraits of Mrs Hunter's children made Sister de Santis shudder. (I love all kiddies; don't you love the kiddies, Sister? At least Sister Badgery never waited for anyone else's opinion.)
Sister de Santis did not stop to draw the curtains in the dining-room, but hurried through its brown-velvet hush, past the portrait of Alfred Hunter ('Bill' to his friends). Mr Hunter's portrait was smaller than his wife's; it must have cost considerably less: even so, a lot of money, if you read the signature in the corner. For a man of wealth Mr Hunter looked rather diffident: he probably disappointed the painter, except by writing out his cheque. The nurse moderated her pace, walking with the reverence accorded to those you have not known in their lifetime, but might have. Out of respect, she endowed Mr Hunter with virtues she could remember in her father.
I wanted very badly to love my husband, Sister, even after I knew I didn't - or couldn't enough. Mrs Hunter's admissions had been embarrassing at first: you had to persuade yourself you were not overhearing.
Sister de Santis pushed the baize which would admit her to the pantry. The door sighed like a human being; it might have felt like one too, if she had allowed herself to think so.
She had half filled a little crystal jug from the pantry fridge when she heard a thumping in the kitchen beyond. She went in. It was the housekeeper throwing her arms around while getting herself into an apron. Her face hidden by the bib, her contortions looked grotesque: she was still probably stupefied by sleep.
'Early for you, isn't it?' the night nurse remarked while the housekeeper was still submerged.
'Ach, but I'm so - nervös!' As she struggled free the effect was even more grotesque: the stiffened lips in the stone face might have been designed as an escape in times of downpour. 'So nervous!' she gasped. 'It's the visitors. And Mr Wyburd expected to breakfast.'
'Mr Wyburd will cope with the visitors.'
'Yes, but it is still so very early. And I do not easily leave my bett. Übrigens,' it cheered Mrs Lippmann to realize, 'aren't you later than usual, Sister?'
'Out of shameful curiosity.'
The housekeeper returned at once to looking racked; the knuckles she was clenching appeared to have aged sooner than her face, mock-youthful in almost all its conscious expressions. 'Oh, this is always the frightful hour! Why you cannot stay every morning, Miss de Santis, till Sister Badgery shows herself? Diese Badgery kann nie nie pünktlich kommen - never! What if she should roll out of bett while I am all alone with her? Or what if she have another stroke?' Mrs Lippmann began a series of laments which led her to the core of tragedy, sounds which shocked Badgery and Manhood, but which Sister de Santis's foreign blood made it easier for her to accept.
Foreignness alone did not always help her comfort this small unhappy Jewess. 'Probably nothing of what you imagine will happen,' was the best she could offer this morning. 'By the way, Mrs Lippmann, we never talk about the stroke. In any case, it was only a very slight one: a blood vessel broke somewhere behind one of her eyes.'
Although corrected, Mrs Lippmann seemed elated by this hint of conspiracy over medical matters: she danced a few steps across the considerable kitchen, jiggling her buttocks, wagging her head, before coming to a standstill, every piece of her anatomy exaggeratedly taut.
'That is so! And our visitors will bring life. I am almost out of myself to see them. Auch ein wirklicher Künstler! I have made the betts. I have put flowers as she wishes.'
'You needn't have put the flowers.'
'But while she is in her chair she may ask somebody to wheel her in.'
'She wouldn't see.'
'Mrs Hunter will see through a wall if she is determined to.'
'What I should have said was: your flowers will be wasted on the visitors. They're not staying - not in the house.'
'But I have made the betts! That was her order.'
'They're not staying.'
'Somebody must tell her.'
'Mr Wyburd must. He's had plenty of practice at that sort of thing.' On realizing that she had neglected her duty, Sister de Santis frowned at the little jug she was holding.
Mrs Lippmann's eyebrows reached towards each other like glistening, palpitating caterpillars. 'I will never understand why Anglo-Saxons reject the warm of the family.'
'They're afraid of being consumed. Families can eat you.'
'Something will always consume: if not the family, then it's the incinerators,' Mrs Lippmann moaned.
All the way up the stairs the glass clinked against the jug Sister de Santis was carrying carefully on a salver. Like all the silver in the house, the salver bore someone else's arms.
When she arrived at the bedside she saw that her patient had fallen asleep: the parted lips were sucked back repeatedly against the gums; the chalky claws, hooked into the hem of the sheet, were lifted by a regular breathing.
Sister de Santis stood the salver so expertly on the bedside table there was not a single clink of crystal, not the slightest jarring of silver.
'I'm not asleep, you know, Sister,' Mrs Hunter's voice informed. 'The worst symptom of my - condition - I practically hardly ever sleep.'
Sister de Santis filled the glass. When she had raised her patient's shoulders, the neck worked; the lips reached out, and supped uglily at the water. The lips suggested some lower form of life, asea creature perhaps, extracting more than water from water. As humanity was not what one got from Elizabeth Hunter, one should not have felt disillusioned.
By the time she had done her duty the silver sun set in the rosewood bed had started duelling with the actual one. Sister de Santis took brief refuge in what Sister Badgery liked to refer to as the Nurses' Retiring Room, but which was really a wardrobe in which were hoarded most of the dresses Mrs Hunter had bought in her lifetime. Seated in front of the mirror Mary de Santis unpinned her hair. What, she tried to remember, had she expected, ever? Her face, inside the dark, streaming hair, continued haunting the looking glass.
Whether asleep or awake - in fact her life had become one long waking sleep - Mrs Hunter slipped back into the dream she had left. She found it easy enough to resume these waking dreams of which her life was constituted; sometimes she could even manipulate the deep dreadful dreams which belonged to the sleep she would not admit to.
Now the water her dutiful, but possibly sulking nurse had brought her, helped her return to this other, shallower kind of experience or dream. They were walking, she and Kate Nutley, their arms full of dolls, beside this great river. No, it wasn't: it was the shallow and often drought-stricken stream which meandered through everybody's place, through Salkelds', Nutleys' and Hunters' that is, a brown ribbon ruffling over stones, under willows. At its best the river was all joyous motion, though in its less pleasing backwaters scum formed, and sometimes a swollen sheep floated. Elizabeth, never Kate, had to prod the bloated sheep. When they had reached a certain point where the water swirled deeper round a bend, Elizabeth Salkeld and Kate Nutley halted. Elizabeth started throwing in the dolls. Some of them bobbed on the surface of the water; the limbs of others grew soggy and dragged them under. Kate began to cry. She was a serious child, as well as a simple soul, Elizabeth sensed from the beginning.Why are you crying when you've got so many? And isn't it interesting to see what happens? Kate had a habit of sniffling: I wasn't crying for the dolls, but for what happened to my sister. Don't you know about it? Elizabeth grunted to hide her shame; the Salkelds lowered their voices more than most parents in the district, and she hadn't yet found out what had happened to Lilian, Kate's elder sister. Kate was ready to explain, Lilian ran away with someone, a Russian or something. Oh, you knew about that! And now she has been murdered. How could they be sure? People you know don't get murdered. But Kate seemed to have grown up all of a sudden: she was even more serious than before. They found Lilian's body on the banks of some great river - in China, or Siberia. So there was this other river! The blood was drying on her neck. Kate could not tell any more because she was crying again. But Elizabeth Salkeld could not cry for Kate's sister Lilian galloping wildly towards her death on the banks of the great Asiatic river. By comparison, their own shallow life, their stagnant days, were becoming unbearable. Elizabeth Salkeld could have slapped her friend for not hearing the thud of hooves, or seeing the magnificence of Lilian's full gallop. Instead, she whipped the water with a willow switch.
'Horrid little girl I was!' Mrs Hunter muttered. 'Most children are horrid except in theory.'
She also knew she had no desire to die however stagnant her life became: she only hoped she would be allowed to experience again that state of pure, living bliss she was now and then allowed to enter. How, she wasn't sure. It could depend on Sister de Santis; she needed Mary to hold her hand.
When she opened her eyes, and started groping for her little handbell, to accuse her nurse of abandoning her, there was another figure, taller and thinner, standing in the doorway, but so misty she could not guess, except that, she fancied, she could smell a man.
'Is it you, darling?' she tried out. 'What a long time I've been waiting.'
A dry silence told her she had given herself away.
Then a voice, 'It is I - Wyburd.' He had hesitated from wonderinghow to compose his reply; his grandchildren, sometimes even his daughters, laughed at his correct grammar.
'Oh, it is! I suppose I'm glad to see you, Arnold. I knew you were coming. Of course I'm glad!' She put on a bit more than the voice you use for the solicitor, because Arnold Wyburd was: a bit more than the solicitor; he couldn't very well help it after all this time.
Keemis is sending up the papers with Arnold Wyburd the junior partner, so that we make sure nobody else grabs the block you have your eye on. This was the year Elizabeth and Alfred ('Bill') Hunter had looked at each other and finally admitted. Alfred looked at her longer than she at him because he was the more honest, she granted even then: not that she was dis-honest; she only lacked his purity of heart. The point is, Alfred, you must allow me to give our children what we owe them; here there is no life; and what about their education? Mention of education always stirred Alfred to action. So they were buying the block in Sydney, at Centennial Park, and the young cove was bringing the agreement for signature. Elizabeth Hunter had found Arnold Wyburd an agreeable young fellow, harmless anyway. It was the evening after he had gone. They were strolling up and down the veranda. Alfred was looking at her cleavage: she was wearing a rather lovely though simple dress of white lace which collaborated in a delicious cool with a breeze sweeping down off the hills. She realized she would have to allow Alfred tonight: she could hear by his breathing he expected it; but he was so kind, and the evenings at 'Kudjeri' interminable.
And now this old man Arnold Wyburd had approached her bed - well, not old, not as old as herself, nobody else was as old as that but oldish. He smelled old. He sounded dry. He had taken her hand, and she was touching paper, delicate tissue, against her own. She might have played a little with the hand if she could have been bothered.
'Everything under control?' the solicitor inquired in a loud though slightly tremulous voice.
It was the sort of thing men always ask; and Arnold in that old woman's voice. Perhaps Lal had been the man; anyway, between them, they had got a couple of girls.
'Suffering, I'm sorry to say, from her rheumatic pains.'
'Didn't know she had any.'
'For years. Only on and off, though.'
'Then she ought to be thankful. "On and off" is nothing. I've been racked by arthritis, without pause, for years.'
Remember to give him a present for Lal: the plainest woman ever; freckles. (Mrs Hunter put her hands to her face, to touch.) Lal had pouches under her eyes even as a girl.
The solicitor cleared his throat. 'I've got a disappointment for you, a very slight one however.'
'Don't - tell me.'
She had opened her eyes. Arnold Wyburd decided not to look at them.
'Basil has been delayed in Bangkok. He'll be here this evening.'
'Why - why? Bangkok!' Mrs Hunter's mouth was working past grief towards abuse. 'Basil knew better than anybody how to - disappoint,' she gasped. 'I wonder whether he would have disappointed me as an actor.'
'He has a great following. Lal saw him, you remember, when she took Marjorie and Heather over to London. I believe they saw him in Macbeth. Marjorie read somewhere that only the greatest actors can manage the part of Macbeth: the others don't have the voice for it. Very taxing, it appears.'
Arnold's snippet of information, however dry, might have fed her pride if she had not felt temporarily quenched. For the moment she loathed herself so intensely she wished Arnold Wyburd would leave.
Sensing something of her wishes, though not enough, he had moved across to one of the windows overlooking the park. Summer had left the grass yellow, the lake shrunken; only the columns had succeeded in keeping up appearances of a sort: rising out of acivic embroidery of cannas and agapanthus, they continued offering their job lot of European statuary.
Why had he never lost a sense of inferiority in his relationship with Mrs Hunter? He should have disliked; instead he had not shed his admiration, first for his client's wife, then for the widow. There was Lal of course to heal the wounds: in so many ways a splendid woman, Mrs Hunter; we must forgive the faults, even if she won't let us forget them.
He turned round, possibly to offer further consolation for the delay in Basil's arrival: Dorothy will be here on time according to the last check with the airport. But she was again lying with her mouth open, not quite snoring, sucking at air, at life.
Ohhh she was moaning deep down while standing outside one of the many envelopes of flesh she could remember wearing. She was looking at her sleeping husband. He certainly wasn't dead, only unaware of the other lives she was leading beside him in his house while engaged in the practical business of bottling fruit and pickling onions - if the cook allowed it - when she was not supervising or sacking governesses, or chivvying maids. He liked her to ride through the paddocks with him. Even when they rode out together, he was not aware that she had never been the person he thought her to be. Not even when his full calf in its leather legging brushed so close the stirrup-irons clashed. She used to wear that old velour with stains round the band, which heightened the deception. As cattle seethed past with a sound of scuffed buckram; or ewes milled or scampered; or rams plodded, coughing and panting. She was once photographed holding a ram by the horns, smoothing a ribbon on his prize shoulders. More than anything the rams helped break what should have been an interminable marriage.
Oh darling she moaned she moaned; from now on she was going to love him. Having known him as the Hunter boy, 'Bill', Alfred, kind husband, the Juggernaut of stifling nights under a mosquito net, there should have been no situation they could not embrace equally: when their mere bodies prevented that, or so itseemed, as he groped, stroked, fumbled, looking for some kind of confirmation through his hands, before thrusting up inside her to reach the secret she was keeping from him.
The wool men and cattle experts who came to ask his advice approached the presence in a spirit of blustering servility. She only realized how small he was as he lay wilted and sweating, rather fatty about the shoulders, his exhausted lungs still battering at her practically pulverized breasts. At his most masterful his toes would be gripping the sheets on either side of her long legs, as though he had found the purchase to impress her more deeply than ever before. Once, she remembered, she had felt, not his sweat, his tears trickling down the side of her neck, till he started coughing, and tore himself away from her: their skins sounded like sticking plaster. She tried to make herself, and finally did, ask what had upset him. His 'luck', in everything, was more than he deserved; however indistinct the answer, that was what it amounted to.
At least she had given him their children. She must remember that, re-create their faces: fluctuating on the dark screen, Dorothy's little mask, never quite transparent nor yet opaque, not unlike those silver medals on the dried stems of honesty; and Basil the Superb, who preferred to perform for strangers or gullible innocents like Lal Wyburd. Their children. Hardly Alfred's, except by the accident of blood.
So she must make amends. She was not ungenerous with her long cool body for which he had paid so largely: it was no fault of his he had not been in time to save her father's life. Tragedy and the elasticity of awakened flesh brought them close in those early years. So they believed. What else she could give was more than she knew. She began going out of her way to avoid him, hoping to find in solitude insight into a mystery of which she was perhaps the least part. It was easy enough to excuse herself from riding round the paddocks with him: household matters; a child ill; endless simple and convincing reasons. But she continued hemmed in, not only by the visible landscape of hills and scrub, but by the landscape of her mind. I am superficial and frivolous, she blurted hopelessly; thereis no evidence, least of all these children, that I am not barren. By the light of spring the surrounding hills had glittered like jewels, in the more brutal summer blaze they were smelted into heaps of blue metal: either way they looked dead. Her own state of mind appalled her increasingly.
How much of it he guessed, let alone understood, she had not been able to decide; he could not have been so insensitively male not to be hurt. He was: hadn't she on one occasion felt his tears? Otherwise he hid his feelings with a delicacy which must have made her behaviour appear more shocking: not exactly selfish, as some no doubt had seen it, though nobody had dared accuse her, simply because she had dared them to and they were afraid of her. Maids had accused, silently: maids are more candid in the thoughts their eyes reflect, from overhearing telephone conversations and living through one's headaches and colds. Friends can be held at bay with social conventions - and by maids. In any case the women, if not too stupid, were saving you up against the necessity of a future alliance. Men friends were either too dense to see, or too honourable to comment: like Arnold Wyburd, who must have seen more than most. Arnold was an honourable man, as opposed to his wife, who was an honest woman. You hardly ever saw Lal; but when you did, the flat replies, together with a certain tension of manner, implied judgment.
Lal Wyburd would naturally have interpreted as selfishness every floundering attempt anybody made to break out of the straitjacket and recover a sanity which must have been theirs in the beginning, and might be theirs again in the end. That left the long stretch of the responsible years, when you were lunging in your madness after love, money, position, possessions, while an inkling persisted, sometimes even a certainty descended: of a calm in which the self had been stripped, if painfully, of its human imperfections.
Mrs Hunter sighed, and the solicitor at the window turned to look. The Plantagenet attitude she had preserved for so long under the sheet was breaking up.
'That is something Lal Wyburd would never understand: she's too normal,' she said, or moaned.
With his wife in the foreground of his thoughts, his client's uncanny intrusion started the solicitor stuttering. 'Wuh-what is it? Are you in pain? Can I do something - tuh-turn you, or something?' when he wasn't normally a stutterer, and would have liked to express, however rustily, some degree of tenderness.
As for Mrs Hunter, she did not seem to find it necessary to reply: her mouth was again firmly adapted to her gums.
So he continued standing at the window, still the junior in a firm whose senior partner had died many years ago.
In the park, morning had solidified by now. Autumn at its blandest had infused an almost convincing life into dead grass and exhausted leaves. Anonymous figures strayed along the banks of the ornamental lakes, or walked more purposefully to work. A girl on a livery stable hack just missed becoming unseated when her nag shied at a tussock.
As a young man Arnold Wyburd had fancied himself in a boater with striped band; he had started wearing, or liked to think he was 'sporting', a blue blazer with brass buttons. He had given up because, frankly, it was not what people expected of him. Suddenly he found himself head of a family, married to Lal Pennecuick, a thoroughly sensible, not pretty, but pleasing young woman, with whom he got the two little girls they had christened Marjorie and Heather. Nowadays he saw less of Lal, but that was understandable since grandchildren claimed so much of her attention, and in any case there seemed more to get through since they themselves had begun slowing up.
In spite of the encroachment of family, very satisfying in its way, and the equally satisfying, if exhausting demands of a restricted, though respectable practice, he and Lal continued meeting every night in bed. Probably both were at their happiest discussing the events of the day. He could trust Lal's discretion, and would sometimes report on the more reprehensible whims of his most respected clients; while she was equally frank in some of herdisclosures, such as the symptoms of meanness she was discovering in their son-in-law Oscar Hawkins, and Heather's menopausal troubles. If he had not revealed his secret passion for Marjorie's middle daughter, Jenny, it was because a sense of being disloyal to the other grandchildren prevented him.
Arnold Wyburd hardly allowed himself to hear what could only be a slow, soft fart from the direction of his client's bed; he could not remember ever having heard a woman break wind before. Whether Mrs Hunter herself heard, it was impossible to tell: she appeared too engrossed in sleep or thought.
Actually she no longer attached much importance to her own physical behaviour, unless it hurt her. Didn't care for smells, though: those dreadfully increasing accidents. But they gave the nurses something to do.
And solicitors? What did Arnold Wyburd do? It was doubtful whether his morning consisted of much more than reading the Herald at that old-fashioned office. Lucky there were the nurses and Mrs Lippmann for him to pay. Otherwise she had to invent little jobs for him, like looking up retired housemaids to see whether they were in need of financial assistance, or inquiring about the arrival of aeroplanes.
Was his arrival at 'Kudjeri' with the deeds to the block of land Alfred bought for her in Sydney, and on which she was determined to die - none of those convalescent homes, and certainly not the Thingummy Village, thank you - was the occasion of the deeds her first sight of the young Arnold? She could not remember any other. He looked so thin and prissy, white too, beside the coarser, ruddier Alfred. He was everything she felt a solicitor ought to be. Because he looked so hot in his dark and incongruous city clothes, she told him to take his coat off, but he said he wouldn't.
Then, after giving the matter a reasonable amount of thought, he changed his mind. In moving the coat from the sofa to the back of a chair she detected a faint smell of moist warmth, hardly perspiration: certainly unlike the tom-cat stench of male sweat.
(Why does all this come back when I can't always remember what I've had for lunch, or if I've had it? The past has been burnt into me, I suppose - like they do with cattle.)
Was Arnold already married? Oh yes, he must have been. There was some formal talk about children at dinner that night. Yes. The worthy Lal had produced her first, and was expecting another. After dinner Dorothy and Basil came in: Dorothy still looking thin after her bronchitis that winter (the official reason why Alfred proposed to build a house in Sydney); Basil on the other hand never had an illness, and not a nerve in his body. The children had not taken to Mr Wyburd: not surprisingly he bored them. Later on, Dorothy developed a passion for his wife. On the few occasions when they all met she wouldn't leave Lal alone, putting her arms round that freckled neck, wanting to cuddle - quite laughable. Even Basil used to talk to Mrs Wyburd, at an age when he had started sulking at everybody else; wanted to drag the solicitor's wife into corners to tell her about his ambitions. One was thankful for his civility.
But Arnold was rigid in the company of children, with almost everybody. That night at 'Kudjeri' he had lit her cigarette, and his hand trembled. She held his wrist, to steady him, and was surprised at its sinewiness. Perhaps she could teach him courage. Yes, that was something she could give to them all - perhaps; she had never been afraid.
It was an excruciating evening. Alfred fell asleep after telling about the rams and the Gimcrack mare slipping her foal the night before. That young Arnold Wyburd, unhappy in his comfortable shirtsleeves, sat watching you toss your ankle as you tried to think of a topic which might break the agony. (Lal shortened her skirt only after everybody had forgotten skirts were short.) Next morning he left and you didn't see him: there was no reason why you should; Alfred's driving him into Gogong in the Bentley, to catch the train, was attention enough.
(All country evenings were boring. People only become religious about them after escaping and forgetting the details. Funny youshould remember that sinewiness in Arnold's smooth, hairless wrist.)
When the house was built - the spiteful, and those in any way radically inclined, liked to refer to it as a 'mansion', which it wasn't: only four reception, and as many bedrooms, not counting the maids' quarters - you decided not to give gossip a chance by moving in too enthusiastically. Besides, this was starting from scratch, unlike 'Kudjeri', with all those inherited monstrosities. At Moreton Drive there were cabinet-makers, decorators and so forth to make patience a virtue. Delay and an unfashionable address should have silenced most tongues. People still talked, however, the babbling, frivolous ones. Why, Elizabeth, won't you be cutting yourself off living at Centennial Park? Coming from the bush to settle, practically - in the bush! We've never known anyone live in Moreton Drive. She could only answer, Now you will know somebody, won't you? It was certainly very sandy, almost dune wherever houses had not been built; the branches of bottlebrush rattled when winds blew, which was permanently. Bad for the garden and the hair. But she would show the trivial members of her acquaintance.
She had faith in her own originality and taste; everybody admitted those were among her virtues. She was not interested in possessions for the sake of possessions, but could not resist beautiful and often expensive objects. To those who accused her of extravagance she used to reply, They'll probably become more valuable; not that she was materialistic, not for a moment. Her argument was: if I can't take your breath away, if I can't awaken you from the stupor of your ugly houses, I've failed. She did honestly want to make her acquaintances as drunk as she with sensuousness.
Oh, she would screw her eyeballs deeper into her skull today, knowing she would never again see her long drawing-room, its copper and crimson and emerald melting together behind the bronze curtains drawn against the afternoon sun.
You see, she said, you can't say it's extravagant if it's beautiful - now can you? Standing on the stairs. Flinging out her arms to embrace this work of art her house; not forgetting her husband, her children, and a couple of servants she had as audience. If she overdid itslightly it was because she had something of the actress in her. (They used to say of Basil later, you can see where he gets it from.)
Only now it is Alfred speaking, Don't over-excite yourself, Betty, every one of us is full of admiration. Poor dear Alfred, she could have eaten him at times, from gratitude. When gentle devotion was what he would have liked. She was always trying to include him in what she was doing. Come and see your room - the study - which I hope you'll use - when you come down to be with us - I hope you'll make a habit of it, darling - because we'll miss you, shan't we? Dorothy? Dragging Alfred, and Alfred alone, by the hand, its skin coarsened by joining in the work at 'Kudjeri' - to jolly the men - a square, undemonstrative hand, trying manfully to return her enthusiasm with curious little encouraging pressures. (Their whole married life they had spent trying to encourage each other's uninteresting interests.) What am I going to study in this study? He laughed after a fashion. If I ever use it.
And yet, Alfred read, she discovered: he had accumulated a whole library of unexpected books, used ones, you could tell by the stains on them and crumbs between the pages. So she had found out in the painful months at the end when they were together again at 'Kudjeri'.
Earlier, when he would come down and ask them to put him up at Moreton Drive, he took to film-going. Though what Dad saw in the pictures he sat through, Basil could not imagine. It made him laugh in his in-between voice (his lovely pure little treble had broken). Basil was at his most horrid, exploiting harshness under cover of his beauty: like a still-ripening plum, he would have shrivelled the. mouth if you had bitten into him. But he was right about those crude films; after tagging along to one or two, you could only conclude that poor Alfred interpreted them to suit himself, laughing when there was nothing to laugh at, crying - you suspected - at a common actress in corkscrew curls bringing her illegitimate baby to be christened in the parish church patronized by the young man's family. Admittedly, you did sniffle slightly yourself - against your better judgment. Or because Alfred was trying to get hold of your hand and press his thigh against yours.(Imagine if the lights went up and anyone you knew was at the 'pictures'!)
Mrs Hunter's eyelids might have been turned to walnut-shells if tears had not started oozing from beneath them: out of old, mottled, dammed-up eyes.
Even during the phase after the (unofficial) separation, she never withheld herself when he came down to Sydney from 'Kudjeri'. She was determined to show her gratitude and repay him in affection for what amounted to her freedom. (He, too, must appreciate that affection is much less bumpy going than passion.) She used to make some sign, cough a shade too dramatically, or slam a drawer, or remark in an unnaturally high voice, Those Wyburds of yours - do you think she knows how to treat him? and Alfred would come to her, on bare feet, from the next room, and immediately they would drop their disguises. If he had still been alive she hoped he would remember with as much delight as she the pleasures of this calmer, therapeutic relationship.
Not that the other hadn't been necessary, desirable: the purposeful is necessary. And their children were purposeful. She would still dream of the barbs he had planted in her womb.
But was Arnold Wyburd necessary?
Scarcely saw him at first after the move to Moreton Drive. Old Keemis was too possessive: an old, reputed masher, in silk hat and thin white ribbon of a necktie pushed through what looked like a wedding ring. Married to Millicent, a person you never set eyes on: an invalid, it was said. The old man was very correct in his behaviour: sucked peppermints, for instance, to disguise his breath. She would have preferred the full blast of tobacco which lingered under the peppermint. Flowers for her birthday from Keemis: yellow roses; at Christmas the box of French liqueur chocolates. Archie Keemis was a man who made life seem everlasting: then he went and died in Pitt Street, on Cup Day, on his way to the club. Her grief for this old man who hadn't meant all that much to her was as spontaneous as any she had experienced. Must have been the suddenness, the shock, the removal of something solid and dependable. An almostsolidly male funeral watched her while pretending not to. She was glad she had thought to wear a veil. They were watching to see what 'Bill' Hunter's wife had meant to their solicitor. And Millicent Keemis was not there. The wife's absence, however invalid she may have been, made your presence more calculable to men who believed in their powers of calculation. (Honest affection, she had found, often appears more dubious than outright infidelity: probably no one - well, almost no one, had guessed at her consummated flings; there had been other, unconsummated ones of course, because you can be unfaithful, mentally unfaithful, with a jewel, a house, a child, a woman - couldn't have gone all the way with a woman, or not farther than a hand's flirt. Who had said - some forgotten brute - Her only genuine adulteries are those she commits with herself? She must try to remember.
Not Archie Keemis: whatever his reputation as a ladykiller, he had always been respectful. Too old. Too honourable. So was his junior, Arnold Wyburd. It was Archie who suggested she should make a will - only a couple of weeks before they picked him up dead in Pitt Street. (Dead: she used to shy away from the word, saw it as a stone; then it becomes an idea rather, hovering round the body like mist, straying through the skull in unravelled snatches of thought, but never frightening, or personal.) And here was Archie, incredibly, asking her to confess to a belief in her own death now that she had property to leave: the house in Moreton Drive was hers; her jewels; the stocks Alfred had settled on her after they married. She had never thought about it. Might have enjoyed a sense of importance if it had not been for a slight uneasiness in her stomach. The document itself was ludicrous: the laborious phrases he insisted on wrapping round her simple wishes. His serious courtliness made her smile as she sat twisting her rings, looking at everything there was to look at in that dusty office; she always enjoyed seeing what there was to see. To save her the trouble of a trip to the city - which she made every day in her little electric brougham, even when there was scarcely a pretext - he said he would bring out the draft for her approval.
Then they telephoned to say Mr Keemis was off-colour: he hadn't come to the office today; Mr Wyburd would bring the draft after lunch.
Arnold Wyburd was dressed in grey on this occasion: a great improvement on that hot black he wore for 'Kudjeri'. When she came in he was standing looking out the window. She surprised herself thinking she would like to touch the lines of this back, to slide her arms round the waist, and up, till her hands met on the other side, knotted on his chest; to fit herself closely to this splendid, slender, still unconscious, grey form.
Though he must have been conscious. If he did not turn immediately, she began to sense he was postponing their facing each other. She could feel herself flush, jaws clenching to prevent what was still only a warmth in her throat from gushing out as something more reprehensible. It was a warm, not a hot day, a scent of daphne from the bed outside. When he could no longer put off turning, it was not his eyes she was drawn to, it was the drops of perspiration lying in the saucer of a temple.
They were making sounds at each other, of welcome, of apology: social sounds, by one interpretation. He was carrying the folded will, the guarantee of her eventual death. She half noticed the stiff paper was tied with a ribbon: the ribbon gave it a coquettish air.
You mustn't be afraid, she said; it would have sounded more surprising if it had not been part of a plan or theory, she suspected, which had started evolving already at 'Kudjeri' as she held his white though sinewy wrist to steady a wavering flame. She began elaborating - Mrs Hunter laughed to remember, You must realize I'm much older than you - that I married late: I was thirty-two - that there's nothing to be afraid of. The irrelevance of it all made it sound strangely idiotic, even now. Must have decided in the beginning Arnold was a stupid young man. Herself doubtfully cool; but coolness prevailed: at least it must have impressed him more than Lal Pennecuick and the two little girls, Marjorie and Whatever. You hadn't forgotten your own Dorothy and Basil: they were out walking in the park with Nanny. Nora - you knew her habits - would have returned to herinterrupted novelette; Gertrude, by now in her basket chair, is snoring off a lunch of scones and tea.
This was the extent of the coolness which spread also to Arnold Wyburd: never could a mouth have grown more familiar in a shorter time.
'Oh dear!' Mrs Hunter was momentarily so racked by guilt, the elderly solicitor at the bedroom window again wondered whether he should advance to the bedside and try in some way to share whatever she was suffering.
Making love by daylight: it was the first time as far as she could remember; and yes, it must certainly be the first time Arnold Wyburd had taken off his clothes in public. It appeared easier after the shoes. Her bed felt so deliciously cold it made her shiver; it had never looked so blinding. She closed her eyes, out of modesty as well, and in this way hoped to make it easier for Arnold to find the courage she had promised herself to inspire in him. Only it seemed, in the end, that Arnold was not in need of inspiration. His heavy breathing exploded her theory. So she opened her eyes to his white, practically hairless, sinewy body. As he surfaced for breath, it was Arnold's eyes which were closed. To shut her out because she wasn't Lal? At least she could say, with eyes open or shut, he wasn't Alfred; this was neither love, nor the more satisfactory affection. On her part it was only desire, and on Arnold's a kind of dissolved frustration. She was so relieved she almost laughed. But he can't have felt the least tremor: he was too deeply concentrated; and she lulled him deeper and deeper, it seemed, and deeper. At his climax, she took his head with her hands, and tried to press into his mouth the admiration with which she was running over: that he had succeeded in leaping a barrier - and with her help.
When Arnold Wyburd dashed her off, disengaged himself entirely, and stubbed his toe on a caster. Never forgive myself Mrs Hunter a position of trust so many others involved. Poor man. But we don't love each other Arnold and I am the one to blame I don't love you but I loved it it is something which had to which you will forget and I shall remember with pleasure. Too foolish of her to suggest that they wereonly half-absolved. She would always remember his braces, his suspenders, trying to impress an enormity on her. Men are at their most priggish managing braces or suspenders. Ah well, better a priggish solicitor than a lecherous one, she supposed.
She could not remember how Arnold Wyburd got away. Didn't telephone for a cab; must have walked to the tramstop. When she went downstairs, in time for the children's return from the park, she found the draft will. She wished it had been the final version. She drove herself in next morning, in the electric brougham, and handed over the approved draft to some young woman at Keemis & Wyburd's office: Arnold did not appear; and poor Archie was at home preparing for his fall in Pitt Street.
'Who's for brekkie?' Too much a clattering scratching clucking: too rude an interruption to thought and stillness.
'Who are you?' Mrs Hunter asked.
'I'm your nurse - Sister Badgery. And here's a nice coddled egg!'
'I was hoping you'd be the other one - Mary. She hasn't walked out on me - has she?'
'She's downstairs enjoying a cup of coffee. Sister's off duty now. She only stayed on this morning in hopes of catching a glimpse of the - your daughter.'
'Oh, yes. They never met. De Santis came to me that other time - just after I'd returned from some island - after Dorothy had flown back to France in one of her huffs.'
'Here's the lovely egg, dear! Open mouth, Mrs Hunter!'
Mrs Hunter pointed her chin. 'I haven't been interested in breakfast - not since I married. I like a good luncheon - "dinner" they seemed to call it nowadays - nothing heavy at night.' After which her gums closed down.
'Just a tiny spoonful!' Mrs Hunter could feel Sister Badgery's bone spoon trying to prise her lips open. 'I'm sure you don't want to disappoint me. Or Mr Wyburd here. There's no one has your interests at heart so much as Mr Wyburd.'
'Oh, my solicitor. Yes. Have you met him?'
Sister Badgery's arrival with the hateful egg had confused MrsHunter: she was terrified her mind might crumble before Dorothy came, let alone Basil, who was delayed.
'Oh yes, we know each other. Don't we, Mr Wyburd?' Sister Badgery winked, and moistened her already glistening teeth.
He knew her too well. She had shaken her head at him on sidling into the room with the tray, reminding him of a white Leghorn: inquisitive, ostentatiously industrious, silly, easily outraged. She would look in at the office on Fridays after duty and he handed her her envelope. (This had been ordained by Mrs Hunter for all her staff, not as a nuisance to him, but to ensure personal relationships for them.) Sister Badgery would sit a while to air her pretensions, based on her training at the Royal Prince Alfred and a curtailed marriage to a retired tea planter from Ceylon.
Over just visibly reluctant lips Mr Wyburd murmured, 'Sister Badgery and I are old friends.'
Mrs Hunter swallowed her third mouthful of nauseating egg, some of which, she could feel, had dribbled on to her chin, and Badgery would be too flattered by Arnold to notice. 'Mr Wyburd,' she succeeded in ejecting the words, 'should be having his own breakfast. It's been arranged. I hope it's a man's breakfast, Arnold. Foreign women don't understand that a man's strength - hinges - on his breakfast.'
Sister Badgery laughed at the joke; the things on the tray clattered.
'I don't doubt it will be an adequate breakfast,' Mr Wyburd said, and Sister Badgery renewed her laughter as though he too had made a joke.
'I don't know why you didn't go sooner,' Mrs Hunter was hectoring: foolishness in a dependent would turn her lungs to leather in an instant.
'You were having such a good sleep,' he protested; 'I didn't want to disturb it.'
'I wasn't sleeping - only thinking. I hope Mrs Lippmann has cooked you a chop - or a dish of devilled kidneys. Alfred used to take cold chops whenever he went mustering or drafting. Horrid! But that's what the men like. Take him - show him, Sister!'
'I'm sure Mr Wyburd knows the way. I dare say he could show me corners of this house I never ever knew existed.' Sister Badgery laughed some more, and Mr Wyburd went downstairs exceedingly humiliated.
'Now you can put away that wretched egg. There are things you must do for me - urgently.'
'Really? But the coffee. You've forgotten your coffee, Mrs Hunter.'
She had too. 'Did you put the brandy in it?'
'Oh dear, yes, my life wouldn't be worth much, would it? if I forgot the brandy.'
Mrs Hunter groped for and took the cup, her lips feeling for the lip. She found, and strength returned in a delirious stream, through the funnel of her mouth, right down to her chilly toes.
Sister Badgery watched this old blind puppy with approval, even affection. She did not approve of drink, only of Mrs Hunter's brandy. She admired the rich, and enjoyed working for them because it gave her a sense of security, of connection, however vicarious. To her friends she would refer to wealthy patients always by their first names; she knew intimately strangers she had read about in gossip columns: they were no longer strangers if you read about them often enough.
Mrs Hunter was supping her brandied coffee; soon she would grow muzzy, and sleep.
'I want you to make me up, Sister,' she spluttered through a last mouthful, 'for my daughter's arrival.'
'Make you up? You know I can't. In all my life nothing but good soap and water ever touched my face.'
'I was afraid of that.' She sounded more resigned than bitter. 'If only it were little Manhood: she could do it for me.'
'I don't doubt. Sister Manhood comes of a different background.'
'So what? She came off a banana farm. And you're an engine driver's daughter.'
'My father was an engineer employed by the State Government.My three brothers are public servants, and two of them elders of the Presbyterian Church.' Mrs Hunter did not care as much as Sister Badgery. 'I had a very strict upbringing. Even when I started my nurse's training at P.A., my father expected a full account of my leisure activities. As for Sister Manhood - she was out dancing around with any young resident doctor who asked her. I know that for a fact. Oh, I have nothing against Sister Manhood. Believe me! She's a charming girl - so full of vitality. I'm actually fond of Sister Manhood, and only wish she wouldn't touch up so much; it gives strangers a wrong impression.'
Mrs Hunter said, 'I like to feel I have been made up. It fills me with - an illusion - of beauty. Of course I may never have been beautiful: even in my heyday I was never absolutely sure - only of what was reflected in other people's eyes - and I can no longer see distinctly.'
'Sorry, dear, I can't be of any help when it comes to cosmetics.' Sister Badgery was slightly remorseful as she took the cup from the old thing's hands. 'Anything else I can do for you?'
The nurse stood holding her breath: bad enough if it were the bedpan, but to hoist her patient on to the commode almost always ricked her back.
'Yes. There is something,' Mrs Hunter said. 'My jewel case. Then I shan't feel completely naked.'
Sister Badgery began swishing about. The jewels played such a part in their owner's life they increased the self-importance of any member of her household assisting at the ceremony.
Mrs Lippmann had once ventured to suggest, 'She shouldn't be allowed to flash her jewels at whoever comes: at the electrician, if you please, and window cleaners!' But the housekeeper was notoriously jealous.
'Poor old soul, they're what she's got to show,' Sister Badgery replied, 'and what she loves.'
'Someone might steal - or murder her for them.'
'They mightn't dare.'
Mrs Lippmann agreed they might not.
Now when she had brought the case Sister Badgery asked, 'Hadn't I better open it for you?'
'No, thank you.' The catch responded less quickly to more agile fingers: she knew its tricks. She knew every inch of the mangy, velvet-covered box.
Sister Badgery who thought she could recognize each, or almost every jewel - that was the peculiar part: not everything had been revealed - and who knew by heart the stories attached, though again not all, for the stories would breed others, was regularly entranced at the unveiling; but this morning felt provoked that Mrs Hunter should have scrabbled through the velvet trays and got herself into half-a-dozen rings behind her back.
'Aren't you well! Aren't you active today!' The nurse was genuinely impressed. 'It's your daughter's arrival.'
'Oh, the tale of jewels!' Mrs Hunter knew her acolytes must often have caught her out telling her once blazing, if now extinct, beads.
Whatever her own feelings Sister Badgery would never be caught out in any popish act: no one would guess how she adored, for instance, this pigeon's-blood ruby, or that she was capable of worshipping an ancient idol for its treasure.
To deflect the wrath of her forebears by a display of down-to-earth professional skill, the nurse announced, 'We'll prop you up a step or two, shall we? Whoopsy-dey, Mrs Hunter!' as she hoisted.
And there was the idol propped against the pillows, the encrusted fingers outspread as though preparing to play a complicated scale on the hem of the sheet.
To introduce a touch of warmth, the nurse inquired, 'Would you like your maribou jacket, dear? Or the woolly stole, perhaps?'
'Thank you. The stole.' Mrs Hunter barely breathed: physical exertion had exhausted her.
Sister Badgery draped the stole; she could not have treated a saint with greater reverence, though she did not believe in saints, not, at any rate, those Roman Catholic ones: ugh!
'Wouldn't you like me to choose you a necklace seeing as it's a great occasion?'
'Not a necklace. Not before luncheon. Not for Dorothy.'
Sister Badgery accepted reproof. 'Gordon gave me an amethyst pendant.'
'My husband. Don't you remember me telling you?'
'I ought to.'
'Well, Gordon gave me this pendant. It's in exquisite taste. I wear it still - only when I visit friends, or to the Nurses' and Residents' Ball.'
Though Mrs Hunter had never distinctly seen Sister Badgery's neck, she imagined it thin, white, and well-soaped: fitting support for the amethyst pendant.
'Perhaps I never told you - ' Sister Badgery was treading familiar ground, 'I met Mr Badgery - Gordon - on my way to the Temple of the Tooth. I was visiting Ceylon for pleasure - between cases, that is. What did you say, dear? Mrs Hunter?'
Mrs Hunter was not coaxed into repeating, but they used to call them 'the Fishing Fleet': the Australian women who went up to cast their nets in Ceylon waters; instead she confessed to a weakness of her own. 'For years I kept the children's baby teeth in a bottle. Then one day, for some reason, I threw them out.'
'I was telling you about my trip to Kandy. My friends' car got a puncture, and a tea planter who happened to be passing fetched a native to do the necessary. The planter was Mr Badgery. He kindly invited us to take refreshments - which was how everything started. Shortly after, he retired from tea and followed me by P. & O. to Sydney.'
'He died, didn't he?' As if you didn't know; but his widow liked to be asked.
'Yes, he died. But not before we were married. That was when he gave me the amethyst pendant.'
Mrs Hunter wondered momentarily whether she should give Mrs Badgery something from her jewel box; it was easier to givepresents than to waste emotions you were storing up against some possible cataclysm: as time ran on you did not know what you might have to face.
'What is this weird ring I've never seen before?' Sister Badgery was asking. 'The one on your right thumb.'
The old girl was lolling there, her smouldering fingers scarcely part of her, and on that thumb a nest of plaited gold surrounding what might have been a cross, but out of plumb; the whole effect was thoroughly heathen.
'That is an Ethiopian ring,' Mrs Hunter explained. 'It's the only thing ever sent me by my son apart from letters asking for money.'
Sister Badgery sucked her teeth. 'And Sir Basil a great man! That's what the papers tell us.'
'I suppose, when they're not being great, great men are as weak as the insignificant ones.'
Because of a tone of perversity and sadness, Sister Badgery changed the subject. 'I expect your daughter Dorothy has lots of exquisite jewels: a lady in her position.'
'She came off badly when he left her though she was the innocent one. Still, she did manage to extract a jewel or two from her husband's atrocious family.'
Sister Badgery was delighted to hear of this material success. She brought a brush and began stroking her patient's hair.
'I don't believe you know my daughter's name.'
'Well, "Dorothy", isn't it? I'm no good at those foreign names.'
'I shall teach you,' said Mrs Hunter, her lips inflating as though she were tasting a delicious food, her nostrils filling with what could have been a subtle perfume. '"Princesse de Lascabanes" '; she laid on the French pretty thick for Sister Badgery's benefit. 'Let me hear you say it.'
The nurse obliged after a fashion. 'But what shall I call her?' the voice whined despairingly.
'Nothing more elaborate than "Madame".'
'"Mad-damm, mad-damm," ' Sister Badgery breathed in imitation, and a more sonorous variant, '"Ma-darm!"'
Mrs Hunter sensed she had got her nurse under control, which was where she wanted her; she also suspected Sister Badgery would refer to 'Princess Dorothy' to please herself and impress her friends.
"'Mad-damm, ma-darm"!' Happier for its new accomplishment the voice went clucking in and out the golden morning.
Mrs Hunter was so soothed by clocks and brandy it seemed unlikely that anybody would arrive; if they did, it might even be undesirable: her life was too closely charted.
'Open mouth! Mrs Hunter?' It was that Badgery again. 'Whatever happens, we must take our temp, mustn't we?'
What did they call it? Dettol? Cool, anyway. Sterilizing. Was it better this way: to be sterilized out of existence? I don't mind dying, Dr Gidley, but I do expect my nurses to protect me against worse than death: such as the visitants you do not conjure up for yourself, worst of all the tender ones.
'Shall I be strong enough, I wonder?'
Holding her patient's wrist, Sister Badgery found it unnecessary to answer: the pulse was remarkably strong.
When they were both shocked, if not positively alarmed, by an interruption to their celebration.
The door opened.
'Sister, can she be seen?' It was Mr Wyburd in something too loud for a whisper and less than his usual grammar. 'The princess has arrived. Her daughter.'
As if this were not enough, a second figure was pushing rustling past the one at the door: for Mrs Hunter it was sound perfume joy despair; whereas Sister Badgery saw a tall thin hatless woman, somewhere around fifty (to be on the kind side) her dress unsurprising except for its simplicity and the pearls bounding about around her neck, and on her bosom, as she half ran half staggered.
A princess shouldn't run, the nurse recovered herself enough to disapprove; and she shouldn't have a horse face.
But Dorothy floundered, imperviously, on. 'O mon Dieu, aidez-moi !' she gasped, before assuming another of her selves, or voices, to utter, 'Mother!' and lower, 'Mum!'
Then, by act of special grace, a blind was drawn over the expression the intruder was wearing for this old mummy propped up in bed, a thermometer sticking out of its mouth; if life were present, it was the life generated by jewels with which the rigid claws were loaded.
The princess fell against the bed, groping through the scents of Dettol and baby powder, to embrace, deeper than her mother, her own childhood.
Rejecting the thermometer with her mouth lucky it didn't break off Mrs Hunter was smiling, whether in bliss or fright it was difficult to tell.
Till she giggled through her flux of tears, 'Too much excitement! I think I've wet myself.'
Madame de Lascabanes had felt her anxiety, together with a morbid craving for acceptance, turn to rage, as she endured the humiliations of the airport.
The man said, looking through her passport, "'Princess Dorothy de Lascabanes", eh? French subject. Born at Gogong, Australie. Waddayerknow!'
The princess glared back along the ridge of her white nose. Her rather flat breasts were heaving beneath the uncomplicated little dress she had chosen for the journey: her faithful old Chanel; how would she manage when it wore out?
'What business is it of yours where I was born?' The unaccustomed language was making her spit.
'Only reading what's in the passport.'
'I should have thought my birthplace beside the point in the circumstances.' The rustiness of her English made it sound ruder, which was what she had intended after all.
'That's what comes of offerun friendship. But we won't hold it against yer, lady. Welcome to yer native land!' The man laughed, and handed back the passport.
'I'll report,' she began; but to whom? and for what?
She was by now more humiliated by her own ill temper than bywhat had been only questionable insolence in the passport official.
It might have been worse at the customs if she had not clenched her jaws, after deciding to answer any questions as briefly and coldly as she knew how: French economy in fact.
The surly youth in an official's uniform who began stirring up the two bags packed by herself with such practical ingenuity, immediately put her to the test. Again, in rummaging through the case in which she carried her make-up, her tissues and so forth, as well as a few jewels, he provoked, but failed to draw her; not even when running his hands through the jewels with a cynical air of estimating their value. (They were certainly an impressive lot: some, gently lustrous, others, by the grubby airport light, imperiously brilliant. Her spoils. If she had not been so well-informed in the details of Hubert's private life, she might have lost the battle for the jewels; but cette créature vulgaire, cette infecte Australienne simply knew too much for her former belle-mère, the old Princesse Etienne, to launch a successful offensive.)
At least the customs official's lack of respect was not expressed in words; she might not have borne it otherwise. Silently she hid her gall as he silently poured a few of her sleeping pills into his hand; and when he left his fingerprints on her books, as he scuffed up the pages, always ferretting, almost breaking the spine of her precious Chartreuse de Parme.
He only opened his mouth to mumble, while sticking a plastic strip on her violated luggage, 'Bet you get a good read out of some of these French books of yours.'
For a moment she regretted insisting that nobody should meet her, and that she had avoided travelling by the line she thought Basil most likely to choose. All she could do now was ignore, lower her discreetly smeared eyelids, dust down the coat she was carrying (her rather mature Persian lamb) and stalk behind the barrow on which her bags were being wheeled away. The briefest glance at her own reflection ought to restore her confidence if it were to falter. As it did. And her impeccable reflection let her down.
Dorothy Hunter's misfortune was to feel at her most French in Australia, her most Australian in France. Sometimes she wished she had been born a Finn: she might not have felt so strongly about it. She had only met a couple of Finns; but Australians here they were, teeming around her, the older men like mattresses from which the hair was bursting out, or those younger, more disturbing ones, hipless, and over-articulated; the women, either in loud summery shifts, apparently with nothing underneath, or else imprisoned in a rigid armature of lace, shrieked at one another monotonously out of unhealed wounds. Some of the women looked as though they would expect to die in hats.
The Princesse de Lascabanes pushed her way between the bodies, using her hands united in an attitude of prayer inside the lumped-up coat she was carrying. Protected by this fur buckler, Madame de Lascabanes shoved on, to arrive beside the queue of infiltrating taxis, where she overtipped (one of the principles of 'poverty') the unsuspecting, decent man her porter or whatever he was: she had all but forgotten her native language.
As she entered the cab she was on the verge of crying; in fact she did drop a tear or two after bumping her head and giving the address, 'The Queen Victoria Club.'
After very little correspondence the princess had been elected an honorary member of this irreproachable institution to which she now intended to drive. Go to Mother's later in the day, after resting. She was too écoeurée at the moment to risk being dragged under by the emotional demands of a domineering old woman. Carried along an impersonal expressway from the airport she would not allow herself to think of Mother, least of all 'Mummy'. Were you really rapace as your belle-mère had insisted? Were you a SNOB? as every second Australian seemed to accuse: the bursting mattresses, the hipless Gary Coopers of your youth, not forgetting the fe-males, blue-glaring out of their wounded leather.
Dorothy Hunter might have had a good cry if, on opening the wrong bag, she could have found her tissues. I have never managed to escape being this thing Myself.
Instead she addressed the driver's neck, 'Voyez ' coughing for her lapse, 'I've changed my mind. Take me to Moreton Drive, will you?' adding, strangely, superfluously, 'To my mother's house.'
The driver did not seem to find it odd. 'Been away long?'
'Oh, years years!' She heard a wheeze from deep down in her reply; and coughed again.
But felt fulfilled: it was like the sensation of settling yourself inside a cotton frock, between licks at an ice-cream horn, while voices droned on about weather, the wool clip, and the come-and-go of relatives.
'Dear dear! Aren't we unfortunate? These terrible accidents!' Sister Badgery had hurried to the bedside to disengage her patient from a too emotional embrace; intent on professional duties, her least concern was a princess.
While Mrs Hunter, curled on her side in something like a foetal position, was grinning up at her daughter. 'Don't worry, Dorothy. It's not as bad as you might imagine. There's the macintosh.' Relief drifted over her face as the water spread inside her bed: for the moment she would not have to think of what to talk about to this stranger; better disgraced by the body than by the mind.
She sighed and said, 'You'll have to go into the nursery, Kate, play with the dolls though mine aren't as good as yours;' then listened cunningly for the sound of Kate's boots tapping across the boards.
Kate Nutley was altogether too simple. Betty Salkeld had never cared for her friend, any more than for Kate's glace buttonboots; the Nutleys were wealthier than the Salkelds.
Dorothy Hunter was rent as the nurse dragged the sheet back too quickly and her own babyhood was exposed. Its smell of pitiful flannel and the painful prickling of a rash invaded her far more ruthlessly than the memory of that adult ordeal: the trek through a chain of icy salons to the cabinets at Lunegarde; the door which wouldn't open at first and which wouldn't shut on the screech of urine, while the belle-mère snored, and Oncle Amédée slit the nightand the newspapers with his scissors, cutting out reports of incidents which might be interpreted as Communist conspiracy.
Confused by this collision between her still passive babyhood and some of the most painful steps she had taken in what remained a gawky-schoolgirl marriage, she was relieved to hear a man's voice. 'We'd better leave them to it. I dare say they'll fetch you when everything's in order.' She had forgotten the solicitor.
Arnold Wyburd led her out along the passage towards the landing. He was the sort of person you take for granted: a nice bore; so reasonable and honest there is no need to be on your guard against him. She felt remorseful for never having sent a New Year card to the one who had managed their affairs all these years. He appeared dry enough not to look for sentimental attentions from a client. Or so she hoped.
On the other hand, he had known her as her other self: Dorothy Hunter.
He was so kind she might have been recovering from an illness. 'I expect you'll want to potter about the house quietly by yourself.'
The Princesse de Lascabanes was restored to health, when it should have been Dorothy Hunter.
'Yes,' she replied, returning his kindness with a kind smile. 'Isn't it ridiculous of me I'm dying to see my old room!' She settled her pearls with a practised hand. 'I believe rooms actually mean more to me than people.' That was not entirely true, and she hoped it had not sounded shocking to somebody as good as the solicitor.
Looking at her he suspected her of having more of her mother than they credited her with: a horse-faced version of Elizabeth Hunter.
'They got your room ready for you, if you care to change your mind.'
'Oh, no,' she said in her highest voice, 'I couldn't impose to that extent on the housekeeper person. And besides, they have a room for me at the club. Wasn't it civil of them to make me an honorary member for my visit?'
They looked at each other. Perhaps he did not consider it a visit; he saw her gummed up in the web of nostalgic associations and forced to witness the great conjuring trick to which her mother must soon lend herself. A gust of renewed panic made her determined to cling to her not altogether satisfactory life in Paris: the underfurnished apartment at Passy; a pretence of meals prepared by herself over a leaking gas stove; her art of making expensive dresses continue to look expensive; the rationed sympathy of practical friends (her folly had been to value the friendship of those who respect rentes). All this might change of course, but how quickly? Her flight to the bedside could decide. She had never been a skilled beggar, perhaps because it was only late in life that there had been any need to beg; the alternate solution was something she must not think about, though she often did in terrifying detail.
Making a great effort, and still at a considerable distance, Madame de Lascabanes inquired, 'How is dear Mrs Wyburd?' At once she hoped her smile allied to the borrowed adjective would not strike the solicitor as fulsome; and come to think of it, she did have a genuine affection for his wife; in fact, as a child she had loved Lal.
'Thank you. She's keeping pretty well. We hope you'll come to see her.'
'That will be charming charming.' Doubly stupid: the words she used half the time were not her own; but one skates more smoothly shod with platitudes. 'See the children and grandchildren.'
The solicitor was so far encouraged as to launch into Wyburd history; but stopped when he saw she was not interested.
She was though, she was: she remembered a picnic smelling of trampled grass when she had stuck her face in a freckled neck and thought she would have liked Mrs Wyburd as mother; till Basil stole the solicitor's wife, as Basil stole everybody. I've been reading Lady Windermere's Fan don't tell my mother Mrs Wyburd. Basil always impressed and nobody ever seemed to guess when he was being dishonest. Have you Basil and is there a particular part you think you'd like to play? Fancy Mrs Wyburd lapping it up; or was she too, dishonest in her way? Oh no nothing big interesting enough inLady Windermere I'll only ever want the great roles Lear particularly. Mrs Wyburd seriously saying you'll have to wait a long time for that but I expect you'll play it in the end if that's what you've decided. She hated Mrs Wyburd almost as much as she hated her brother, who never looked in her direction unless to make faces or persuade her she was a fool.
'There'll be a number of business matters we'll have to discuss. Not these first days of course,' the solicitor was reminding her. 'You're not in any hurry now that you're here.'
Why did he have to take that for granted? She looked at him suspiciously.
'Your brother's delayed did you know? at Bangkok. He'll arrive this evening, according to the telegram.'
'How extraordinary!' She adopted the tone used in social intercourse. 'Bangkok! Where I changed planes. I didn't run into him,' she added, and giggled on realizing the inanity of her remark.
She was glad the solicitor was old enough to be her father, equally glad he was not nearly as old as her mother. She wished she had known her father better; probably her mother had not allowed it: Mother was the mouthpiece through which they addressed one another (even Basil fell for that) all so helpless how would you manage I wonder if I weren't here?
Dorothy Hunter, long-legged and shy, almost of the same shoulder height as the solicitor, confessed with an abruptness which surprised him, 'Some day I want to talk to you about my father.'
He became as abrupt, expressed the opinion that Alfred Hunter had been a fine man, and announced that he ought to be going along to the office to see what was happening there.
Which of them had made the break it was difficult to decide, but the Princesse de Lascabanes was at liberty to shut herself up in Dorothy Hunter's room.
It was very little changed, it seemed at first: a chaste, girl's room, fairly narrow and predominantly white. There was the glass in which she had tried massaging her face into a more desirable shape. The cupboards opened on naphthalene and emptiness. Still arrangedon shelves, books she remembered, some of them anyway: The Forest Lovers; Salammbô; A Man of Property; Winnie-the-Pooh; Confessions of an English Opium Eater (a grey book when she had hoped for purple).
Across the bed was arranged a rug she could not remember from her own reign of chintz; it was made from, probably, some kind of native fur: bumpy, humble, yet soft, soothing to the cheek, seducing the body, surprisingly, through dress and two-way stretch. She wallowed in it, hardly bothering to imagine what a sight she must look sprawled on the fur cover and enjoying it with every part of her; when normally she was not a sensual woman.
Even in the early days, while her marriage was still officially considered a success, she might have dismissed sexual love if it had not been for the sense of gratitude a rare climax produced in her. So she loved a husband almost old enough to be her father; she admired while fearing the cynic and dandy in this man so expensively acquired; at times she admitted to herself she found him physically luscious, the skin tones and the whorled rosettes of the nipples faintly seen through the monogrammed shirts she bought him at Sulka. But she dreaded many of his replies, the quirk at the corner of his mouth, one eyebrow lifted noticeably higher than the other. No, I am not laughing, my darling, only interested to find Australians can behave as perversely as anybody else. She brooded badly. Criticism made her squint: the sun might have been striking at her as she jogged homeward on Taffy under the dusty casuarinas; when here she was in her white, actual skin, the formal helmet of her lacquered hair, and the sapphire brooch the old princess had surrendered during the engagement as a gesture towards notre petite Australienne.
She had never been theirs, alas. She was not la petite Australienne, not even, perhaps, an Australian, except on damp piercing nights at Lunegarde, or in moments of expatriate despair alone in the Paris apartment. Sometimes Dorothy Hunter suspected she existed only in the novels of Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert, the plays of Racine.
Naturellement la littérature française est un héritage considérable. She would have liked to encounter someone whose attitude to books was passionate rather than dutifully respectful. Could it be that her French 'family', her 'husband', saw in her fossicking through their literary cupboards a form of immorality? They knew the prodigious cupboards were there, but preferred to keep them closed, anyway to foreigners.
So she too had closed, whether in the Paris apartment where she and Hubert led their more intimate life, or in their wing at Lunegarde, from which they took part in the family rituals of the Lascabanes. (So much for theory; in fact neither of them participated, though each withdrew differently.)
Mon fils adore la chasse, the belle-mère had dared her daughter-in-law to misunderstand.
Almost all evenings at Lunegarde seemed to close in mist. Wherever a fire was lit, it smoked. The old princess rattled with bronchitis laying out her patience, as you waited for the guns to return: first the sound of men's voices as logical as typewriters along the paths, then their boots in corridors of stone. Should you run to greet? The belle-mère at her patience did not look up, but was watching to see the wrong thing done. So you chafed your gooseflesh, till here he was, kissing the hand you offered, winking for some sacrilege he hoped to provoke you into committing, but in which he most likely would not take part, in his mother's salon, amongst the painted furniture, the faded tapestries, and mould. By contrast, Hubert smelled of thyme, woodsmoke, healthy exertion, and perhaps you imagined blood. At least the bundles of bloodied feathers and dangling fur were carried into the court to be sorted, some for the vaulted kitchen, inferior stuff for the cottages.
Once Dorothy de Lascabanes had slipped on the cobbles in the dark, on a patch of what she afterwards identified as blood, and grazed her knee. She bound the knee; she would not tell not even when she was dying, probably, of blood poisoning.
There was a lot she hid, and her secretive air was sometimesmistaken for worldliness. Elle est admirable, vous savez votre femme, said the aunts, cousins, and the few friends, equally glacial and exalted, who foregathered at Lunegarde. She soon realized to what extent she was admirable: that money may be overlooked provided there is enough of it; and that a talking dog offers temporary social distraction. Though a few of them liked to try out their English, the majority preferred her to risk her French, which remained bad enough to pass for amusing, eccentric, even chic, along with the exotic 'Dor-rô-ti'. She had, too, the gift for entertaining aged men, which most young girls fail to discover in themselves, and prettier, more assured women do not think of squandering. Mainly by listening and applying an invisible ointment, she revived in her ancients an illusion of youth. They appreciated what they saw as kindness, when she wasn't kind, or not very. Protected by the armour of a happy marriage she might have snubbed the lot of them. Instead, after Hubert left her, she clumsily rejected the four or five creaking boars and arthritic tortoises from whom she might have chosen a lover if that had been her fancy.
The name she had acquired remained her compensation, as well as a recurring reflexion of the marriage in which she had failed to please. Most desolating were those evenings the belle-mère had envisaged for them: when Dor-rô-ti and Hubert wish to be alone. Herself in a state of sick tension, he with glittering eye and a mock flamboyance, they fled the little huggermugger salon the family used for comfort; while the belle-mère continued laying out her patience, Oncle Amédée pasting in his cuttings, Tante Eulalie (the Hon. Mrs Scrymgeour-Talbot: he deserted me my dear during the male menopause) devoting herself to astrological research, and Tante Daisy de Pougues to the sinuses which tortured her, but for which she lived. Every eye in the room was paying attention from beneath disinterested lids; doubtless after the door had closed the assembly would start listening instead, down reverberating corridors, through panelling in which more than the beetle ticked.
In their own quarters, a cupboard had been equipped as a kitchen. Le Butagaz, the old princess explained, est si commode et vraimentpas cher. The will to succeed made a plausible cook of the bride, though on nights of dreadful anticipation her omelette truffée was inclined to stick; there was a manque de liaison about her sauces; there was the suicidal smell of Butagaz. While Hubert did not seem to care: tu es si gentille ma chère petite de te donner tant de peine. What should have been proof of her serious intentions he was only concerned with reducing to bed level: by lip flattery, by hand, by every dishonest means. Worse than his indifference his lechery: ton omelette bien baveuse m'inspire this time Dorothy we shall do things more interestingly. When her most rigid submission was a torment, except in half languorous, half surprised, and wholly grateful retrospect. But to behave 'interestingly' was beyond her capacity: non Hubert je ne veux je ne peux pas.
Sometimes falling asleep her prince farted as though in disgust.
Perhaps she had never loved Hubert: that would explain everything; she had only almost drowned in admiration, for his title, his flesh tones, his insolent assurance, his French-ness, and the white sideburns rising to slicks of still black hair, in which the lights would begin to glow after he had drenched it with eau de Portugal and slashed rather than brushed it into shape.
Mon fils adore la chasse; if the old princess had dared her daughter-in-law to misinterpret, la Cousine Marie-Ange had taken it upon herself to keep his second wife informed. For there had been a first (nobody had hidden her: far from it) la pauvre Madeleine cette fille si douce qui est morte en couches on n'a pas pu sauver l'enfant non plus. (Classic interlude in the life of a man who happens actually to be your husband.) Hubert was desolated. (Why not? Why not?) The teeth of Marie-Ange, yellow-looking and brittle, still tasted her cousin's grief: the more touching in that Hubert was by nature such a coureur de jupons et pas difficile! The cousin had a laugh to match what she saw as the less savoury peccadilloes. But you understand Dor-rô-ti I only tell you out of frankness and amitié. A woman can so much better hold her husband if she understands his mœurs.
Marie-Ange herself remained unmarried. The aigrette she wore in her perennial hat was shuddering with expectation the day shebrought the Australian news of the American, une personne très commune née à Cincinnati le pere a fait fortune dans le margarine. The cousin's lips were shining, not with margarine, but the superior unctuousness of best Norman butter. Comme je vous plains ma pauvre amie. The hot black glove fingering your cold skin. Mais ça ne durera peut-être pas vous savez bien qu'Hubert a toujours eu besoin de distractions on a même raconté qu'il avait tâté des garçons. The cousin could hardly restrain her spit. Il parait qu'il a eu une aventure avec un gondolier l'année passée ...
Grinding her cheek into the soft unidentifiable fur (remember to ask Mother) Dorothy Hunter tried to invoke the Spirit of Games, who might have coached her, though too late, in holding a scabrous husband's interest.
When somebody started knocking on her thoughts. 'Mad-damm? Ma-darm?' Must be that boiled nurse.
'Yes?' Her own voice depressed her in one syllable.
'Mrs Hunter madam is ready to receive you in her room.' The nurse sounded as though she must be smiling the other side of the closed door she was addressing so elaborately.
'Tell her I'm coming. Thank you. I'll be there. Thank you, Nurse.' Or was it 'Sister'?
Beyond the window of her girlhood a landscape was returning: under the skyline of convents and araucarias, a geometry of concrete and brick she could not remember ever having seen before. She stood a moment wondering whether it gave her further cause for resentment.
On closing the door of her refuge behind her, Dorothy Hunter followed the beaten track, along the landing, down the passage, to her mother's bedroom. She was glad she had the de Lascabanes pearls for company. Faced with making any kind of rational comment, she could only hope for inspiration, which almost never came. In her best moments she did not act: necessity started working in her; but now a part she had learnt, after long and exacting rehearsal, possessed her as she entered the room, and she repeatedautomatically, 'I must hand it to you, darling! Isn't she miraculous, Sister?' In the French tongue, it might have sounded more convincing.
For the mummy's head balanced on the pillows, the structure of bones arranged beneath the sheet, denied the human miracle; though the spirit was preparing to tilt, the princess uneasily sensed.
'I think your daughter Princess Dorothy means: what a wonderful old lady we all find you.'
'Wonderful old lady ugh!' Mrs Hunter ground her gums together. 'Wonderful old bagpipes!'
'What is it you said, darling?' Dorothy trembled in making contact with this thing: her mother's wrist.
Mrs Hunter had not decided how to reply to her poor her Dorothy daughter, when she was led yes, positively led, in a direction she had not foreseen.
'That day I went with your father to see Mrs Mrs Hewlett. She was living at Wilberforce? Yes, there was a river which used to flood, but the Hewletts were on higher ground. Your father was drinking his cocktail, when a bird flew and settled on his shoulder. It wasa a what was it, Dorothy?'
'A canary?' The princess had seated herself in a lopsided chair the nurse had drawn up for her.
'I don't know. I ought to remember. Today I can't. I almost can. Yesterday we had cabbage, and it was nasty: she had put something in it cumm coomm?'
'I don't know, Mummy. Tell me about the bird, though. Was it a songbird?' The daughter had leant forward, neck anxiously stretched, herself an expectant swan; she wanted their reunion to be a success.
'Oh you know of course it was a lovebird!'
The Princesse de Lascabanes exposed her teeth in a giggle, becoming the schoolgirl who was never long absent from her.
The nurse suggested sotto voce, 'May I tempt you to a drop of this?' At the same time she was pouring something opaque out of aglass jug. 'It's so refreshing. It's your mother's favourite: barley water.'
'Thank you, Nurse.'
'You know I don't. You force it on me,' the patient protested.
'Thank you. Yes, Sister, I'd adore a glass of barley water. Tell me, Mummy, about Mrs Hewlett's lovebird.'
'That's what I'm telling. It settled on Alfred's shoulder climbed down his arm on to a finger of the hand which was disengaged and up again. I can see it distinctly.' Mrs Hunter was in fact looking straight ahead, intently, into and through the misted glass. 'Mrs Hewlett was so afraid for her bird she had a gardener stationed outside the window with a gun.'
'Really? Whatever for?'
'You won't let me tell you. She was afraid the bird might fly out the window into the orchard and that a cat might be waiting in the long grass to pounce.'
'Now who would have thought a gardener with a gun! Can't have done too much gardening, waiting for cats to pounce on the boodgy. Can he, Miss Dorothy mad dam?'
Dorothy sipped her barley water. Nobody really expected her to give an opinion, just as they will ask, but don't expect, an opinion from a child. This, and the cool innocent stuff she was drinking, made the princess feel fulfilled rather than bored.
'All the same it's a most unusual story,' Sister Badgery allowed.
While Mrs Hunter drifted on another plane, outside her skull probably, where vision cleared, above the orchard grass.
'Mrs Hewlett loved her lovebird. That's why she went to such trouble. And was a bit jealous, I think the bird flirting like that with Alfred.'
'And what happened, Mother? Did the bird fly out the window?'
'No.' The eyes staring, thoughts exploring even deeper into the past. 'Not on that occasion. They say it did at some oh, later date.'
'I bet it gave Mrs Hewlett an anxious time. Did they manage to catch it, Mrs Hunter? Or did the cat?'
'No. I believe the gardener shot the bird.'
'Oh, ma-darm! Look let me take it: you're spilling your barley water.'
'I can't I won't believe it, Mother. Do you, really?'
'They found his body on the river bank the blood still fresh in his neck feathers.'
Mrs Hunter thought she no longer believed in the situation herself, though Dorothy apparently did: she was appropriating the death of Mrs Hewlett's lovebird as something she might have prevented personally; that is the way all good myths are born.
Dorothy had sat forward again. 'But was the gardener mad?'
'Who knows? Was the Russian lover mad who murdered Lilian Nutley in Manchuria or wherever?'
Dorothy saw Sister Badgery had pursed up her lips till they were an only slightly pinker protuberance on her otherwise flat, colourless face; at the same time the veil was flicked so purposefully it suggested an attempt at semaphore. 'We're expecting Dr Gidley only as a precaution in the unusual circumstances,' she managed finally to whisper.
The person she was addressing suddenly felt most unhappy, neither the Princesse de Lascabanes, nor yet Dorothy Hunter: no more than a visitor on a chair. If she could at least have remembered Dr Gidley from out of the legion of retainers, he might have given her a sense of belonging; but she couldn't.
Mother had not heard, or had chosen to overlook her nurse's remark. 'Tell me about something, Dorothy but something. Everybody flying here and there; I want to be brought news.'
Dorothy tried, but could not for the life of her think.
'That mother-in-law of yours is she alive?'
'No, she died. I wrote you about it.'
'I thought she was probably dead.'
'She suffered from bronchitis.'
'She hadn't the will to live.'
'Not everybody has, or there would be too many of us.'
'And that other woman the one with the goitre Eulalie?'
'She died too. I told you.' Madame de Lascabanes turned in extremis to her mother's nurse. 'That was my English aunt-by-marriage. At least, she was French, but married an Englishman who left her for the Côte d'Azur.'
Sister Badgery was entranced. 'My husband was an Englishman a tea planter from Ceylon. We passed through Paris, once only, on our honeymoon to the Old Country. Gordon was a public-school man Brighton College in Sussex. D'you know it?'
The princess didn't. Sister Badgery couldn't believe: such a well-known school.
'Sister Badgery, isn't it time Mrs Lippmann gave you your tea or whatever you take Madeira. There's an excellent Madeira in the sideboard; Alfred developed a taste for it.'
'You know I never touch a drop of anything strong.'
'I want to talk to my daughter Mrs Hunter privately,' Mrs Hunter said.
She knew from the sound of the knife-edged skirt that she had offended her nurse. That made two presents she would have to give: Mrs Wyburd and Mrs Badgery.
When the nurse had closed the door the princess felt imprisoned, not only in the room, but in her own body. In her state of foreboding she reached out for the glass of barley water Sister Badgery had removed, and tried to find comfort in sips of that mawkish stuff. She could see herself in one of the looking-glasses with which her blind mother still kept herself surrounded. If the princess had not been so terrified of what the next moment could hold, she might have noticed that her own eyes were deep and lustrous: beautiful in fact; but in the circumstances her mind could only flutter through imagined eventualities.
Actually Mrs Hunter was enjoying the luxury of being alone and perfectly silent with somebody she loved. (They did love each other, didn't they? You could never be sure about other people; sometimes you found they had hated you all their lives.) This state of perfect stillness was not unlike what she enjoyed in her relationship with Sister de Santis, though in essence it was different; with thenight nurse she was frequently united in a worship of something too vast and selfless to describe even if your mind had been completely compos whatever it is. This other state of unity in perfect stillness, which she hoped she was beginning to enjoy with Dorothy, she had experienced finally with Alfred when she returned to 'Kudjeri' to nurse him in his last illness. There were moments when their minds were folded into each other without any trace of the cross-hatching of wilfulness or desire to possess. Yet at the same time all the comfort of touch was present in their absorption. At least that was the way you had felt, and believed, or hoped for the same in someone else.
Mrs Hunter coughed out of delicacy for the feelers extended in the direction of her silent daughter.
Dorothy said, after swallowing, 'I do think, darling, they ought to get you another carpet. This one is threadbare in places, particularly at the door.'
Mrs Hunter gasped and frowned. 'I haven't noticed.' Then she recovered herself. 'They haven't told me.' She began easing one or two of her encrusting rings. 'I expect they've worked it out that I'm going to die that it wouldn't be worth while.'
Dorothy was making those pained sounds.
'But I shan't die or anyway, not till I feel like it. I don't believe anybody dies who doesn't want to unless by thunderbolts.'
'Nobody wants to suggest you're going to die, Mother.'
'Then why does everybody come flying from the ends of the earth?'
'Because you've been ill. Weren't you?' Dorothy was kicking at one of the legs of the bed: an awkward and useless gesture on the part of her otherwise flawless foot; she had never given up those classic Pinet shoes, and only the perverse would have denied she had been right in flouting fashion; again, only the perverse would have caught sight of the lubberly schoolgirl the Pinet shoes and her little Chanel camouflaged. 'You can't say you weren't ill,' she repeated through lips grown heavy with the sulks as she continued kicking at the bed.
Mother said, 'Stop doing it, Dorothy, please. I don't want my furniture ruined. You must learn to control your feelings.'
The Princesse de Lascabanes knew that her eyes were threatening to overflow: because the great, the constant grudge had been against her over-controlled feelings; when the showdown came, hadn't he even accused her of being 'frigid'?
'I can only well, I'd like to explain your flying out here as lack of emotional control,' Mother was still bashing. 'I expect they told you I had a stroke. In that case, you were misinformed. I only had a very slight what was hardly a stroke at all.'
Dorothy Hunter plunged her hands as deep as she could into the bowels of the dusty old uncomfortable chair; she would stick it out.
'In any case you flew to make sure you'd see me die or to ask me for money if I didn't. Basil too.'
'Oh God, Mother, don't you allow for the possibility of human affection?' The outraged daughter snatched back her hands from out of the depths of the chair: what her mother had said was the more cruel for being partly true. 'I can't answer for Basil. I never see him. Basil is capable of anything.' That was so unquestionably true it did away with her own spasm of shame by drowning it in a wave of loathing.
No, it didn't; she detested lies: most of all those half-lies she was sometimes driven to tell.
'You're so unfair!' A whinge developed through a moan into a downright blub.
It was only now that Mrs Hunter felt they had reached the point at which they might become one. At the same time she was chastened, as well as impressed, by the emotional outburst it was in her power to cause.
There was no need to call Dorothy to her: their impulses answered each other. Here was that still skinny, perpetually tormented little girl screwing up the sheet by the handfuls, laying her head beside yours on the pillow. You were soon crying together, though softly, deliciously.
'Anyway it did you good,' Mrs Hunter said when their self-indulgence could no longer be excused.
'What did?' Dorothy exchanged her lumped-up position, half on the bed, for a less embarrassing, more comfortable attitude; while the Princesse de Lascabanes started administering a series of flat pats to her coiffure in one of the distant looking-glasses: she wasn't consoled by her own reflection, nor by her mother's implication that she had benefited by a 'good cry'.
'Well, I mean the air of Sydney,' Mrs Hunter selected out of the air. 'Isn't that why we came here? Your bronchitis. To escape from those severe winters at Gogong, after the burning hot summers.'
Knowing this was the official reason, Dorothy replied, 'Actually I can't remember much about the bronchitis. I expect I was too young.'
'Basil will remember,' Mrs Hunter said; it must have sounded complacent because she herself detected it. 'Basil remembers the least detail.'
'Basil is a genius.' Dorothy no longer resented it; in her wrung-out condition it would have been too exacting; now she only passively despised.
'I remember how quickly you revived in this balmy Sydney air. You never had bronchitis again.' In fact, it was herself who had bloomed like a different flower on the same plant; how exotic, how naked her body felt when the southerly began to blow at the end of a sticky summer's day, caressing her inside her dresses.
'The Sydney climate was always unreliable: changeable, treacherous,' the princess insisted feelingly. 'That's why the people are like they are.'
'Oh, but they are so kind, hospitable out-giving.' Mrs Hunter came at it as though she were reading from a brochure of moral touristry.
Then perhaps because it was not clear who had won, Mother asked, 'In the winter in Paris do you wear woollen vests, Dorothy?'
'No,' the princess replied. 'Because indoors there are the thesalamandres. And when I go out I wear my fur coat. Fur boots too,' she added for good measure; her argument would have satisfied any reasonable Frenchwoman.
'But wool is best, Dorothy. And steak. My advice to any girl living on her own is to order steak when she is invited out by men.
'Bien saignant!' Dorothy de Lascabanes laughed a rackety laugh. 'But I'm no longer invited out, Mother, by men. Or not very often.'
Mrs Hunter appeared not to believe it, anyway of herself: she closed her mouth so abruptly; then she opened it and said, 'There's this man what's his name? Athol Something. I don't like him. We met at some dinner party. Athol Shreve? After we came to live in this house. I definitely don't like him. He's in business, or something awful politics.'
Dorothy wondered whether she could stick it out.
'You haven't told me about your flight. Did they feed you properly, darling?' Mrs Hunter flickered her eyelids in the shallows of social intercourse.
Madame de Lascabanes was only too glad to accept the invitation. 'Yes. I saw to that: I travelled Air France. The food is frightfully civilized: none of your Qantas plastic.'
'Oh, but darling Qantas the best in the world!'
The mother heard her daughter give what she interpreted as a French sniff: the French were so certain of their values, and here was Dorothy, always knotted to the point of strangulation, aspiring to be what she was not, because of that parvenu prince.
Mrs Hunter saw him: the groove in the lower lip, above the cleft chin, beneath the pink-shaded restaurant lights. She had ordered tournedos Lulu Watier. After the first shock of mutual disapproval, she felt that she and Hubert were enjoying each other. Alfred said, 'Out with us, the food is plainer. We don't feel the need to titillate our palates by dolling it up with a lot of seasoning and fancy sauces.' He might have worsened the situation if she hadn't kicked him under the table.
They had gone over for the wedding because the old princess insisted she could not travel out to ce pays si lointain et inconnu. It was the first occasion the mountain hadn't come to Elizabeth Hunter: she couldn't very well believe it; nor that she would overlook the fact that her little Dorothy was being received into the Roman Catholic Church. But you did: at the nuptial mass there was your plain little girl in the dress by Lanvin tissé expres à la main à Lyon, and none of it could disguise the fact that you were prostituting your daughter to a prince, however desirably suave and hung with decorations. For one instant, out of the chanting and the incense, Elizabeth Hunter experienced a kind of spiritual gooseflesh. (Ridiculous when you came to think you had never felt in any way religious, except occasionally at puberty, on clear mornings, down along the river bank. No, there had been other, later, more secret occasions.) Then she was carried on by the sea of words ebbing and flowing round her child's head. Her child! The eyes of several elderly Frenchmen were directed at the mother of the bride, from out of their aura of distinction and smell of mothballs. And the eyes of that priest standing on the altar steps. She had never met a priest's eyes, let alone felt them penetrate her: cold eyes can burn the deepest. She was glad of Alfred's shoulder: her rock, if not always, at least when necessary.
'Considering how uncomplicated Alfred was, it is surprising he never seemed surprised at anything that happened,' Mrs Hunter said. 'The Bullivants, Dorothy will you be seeing the Bullivants?'
'Why should I?'
'But Cherry was your great friend. And the Bullivants took you to Paris that that time Daddy decided to send you. He had such faith in Charles and Violet a reliable wing to protect you in foreign parts.'
'Are you blaming the Bullivants?'
'I'm not blaming anybody.'
'I'm relieved. It's only I who was to blame.'
Mrs Hunter thought she detected a masochistic tone of voice; she wondered whether she might take advantage of it.
'Well, I expect you'll see Cherry. She's married to a nice man. So I'm told I haven't seen him: a stockbroker or something. They live up the North Shore. That can't be helped. Cherry's happy.'
An ambulance was screeching down Anzac Parade, or was it a fire engine? Madame de Lascabanes had not yet learnt to distinguish between the different Sydney emergencies.
'Dorothy, dear, I've been trying to understand why you shouldn't settle down in this house. Comfort each other. An excellent cook. Of course I had to take her in hand pass on what I know Mrs Lippmann. Have you met my housekeeper?' Dorothy was palpitating.
'In your old room. Practically as you left it. One has to respect what other people are essentially even when they try to destroy themselves. But I offer you your room your latchkey financial security if only you will realize that badly heated Paris apartment is so so pernicious.'
Dorothy de Lascabanes had flown to her mother's bedside to pronounce an ultimatum, a brutal one if necessary, and here she was, her head literally so heavy she had to support it with her hands. 'I don't know, Mummy!' she muttered from behind her wrists.
'Think it over, darling. Nothing can be decided in you know I would never let you want and for that reason.'
They had lapsed. Both of them. The princess might have been sunk in a lake of mercury, but Mrs Hunter was probably born of that substance.
'Tell me, Dorothy because you haven't told me-about your flight from Paris. Was the weather?'
In Madame de Lascabanes's experience most old people were deeply involved with the weather: an involvement which expressed itself superficially in a lament for rheumatics and colds, whereas on another level the hostile natural elements were charged with supernatural terrors, even if these were rationally laughed away or curtained off behind an apparently thick skin.
So it was no surprise when Mrs Hunter inquired almost fearfully, 'Was it rough?'
'No. That is, it wasn't most of the way. Except for one patch over the Bay of Bengal. Yes. Then it was.'
Again Madame de Lascabanes found herself guarding with one hand her pearls, with the other her coiffure. She need not be ashamed, of course, because Mother could not see. In any case the old thing was lost in what appeared a state of exhilarated anticipation rather than fear.
'It became so bumpy, so terribly rough, I was frightened more than I have ever been. I got beyond the stage of thinking how late the storm would make us in Sydney. I went on to visions of crashing in the sea. When a man sitting beside me gave me a sort of courage.
'How?' Mrs Hunter had closed her eyes again; her question was followed by one of those waking snores; after which her mouth remained open as though expecting to receive some life-restoring draught.
'Simply by what he told me,' the princess replied, her private smile breaking up her face into something related to beauty.
'What?' Mrs Hunter snored back inexorably.
Madame de Lascabanes had been congratulating herself that none of the polyglot passengers surrounding her wished to tell their life stories. The sounds of flight made by the laborious machine gave cover, she liked to think, to her own more obsessive thoughts. On the whole, when travelling, she preferred anonymous company, till on this occasion the storm they entered whipped her nerves to screeching point.
Once or twice before now she had glanced, no more than formally, hardly out of interest, at the elderly man beside her on the aisle: neither French, nor English, she guessed; White Russian? the profile was not sufficiently irregular or blurred; too self-contained, probably materialistic. When, to kill time, her neighbour started ruffling the leaves of his passport, again she glanced not exactly inquisitive perhaps also to kill time. He was a Dutchman, she saw on the page.
This was to some extent a consolation: at least to her Australian soul steeped in the ethos of the white, the clean; though her French self grew bored and snooty. It was only after the storm took hold of them in earnest, and fear united the disparate halves of her entity, that she truly began to appreciate the Dutchman's presence.
Physically square set, his body was hard, she knew from lurching against his shoulder. The hands too, were square, hard-looking, and although no longer youthful, suggested a supple strength. At the same time she sensed an uncommon spirit, one probably prepared to overstep the physical limits most others submit to. He had something austere, monastic about him, nothing of the conventionally regimented ecclesiastic such as her mother-in-law used to collect; rather, you saw in the Dutchman some soul-ravaged, freethinking pastor.
While she was letting her thoughts wander, persuaded that his elderliness permitted her the freedom of her fantasies, the passengers were suddenly thrown as high as their safety-belts allowed.
'Ah, comme j'ai peur!' The Princesse de Lascabanes moaned and smiled, still half to herself.
'You are not frightened?' the Dutchman asked in round, correct English.
'Well, not really or just a little,' Dorothy de Lascabanes replied, to be on the side of virtue; and after she had recovered a fundamentally Anglo-Saxon tone, 'I'm only afraid we shall be late'; she coughed because her eyes were smarting.
'It is probably a typhoon,' the Dutchman composed for his new acquaintance.
'Surely not!' she answered as coldly as she could. 'It couldn't possibly reach us up here or could it? I know nothing of the habits of typhoons.'
'My experience is only of the sea.'
She did not know why hearing this should have given her so much pleasure, but she breathed more deeply, and observed his hand with fresh interest.
In the beginning he had inclined his head towards her shoulder,till discovering the angle and distance from which their voices might reach each other. Not once, even after establishing rapport, did the Dutchman turn to look at his neighbour. They were so private, at the same time so formal, Dorothy was reminded of the confessional, use of which was one of the more positive privileges she had acquired on marrying Hubert de Lascabanes. For a moment she was tempted to pour out she didn't know what no, everything, to this convenient 'priest', till persuaded by his manner that he might not have learnt any of the comforting formulas.
She was only partly wrong, though.
'Some years ago I was at sea master of a freighter,' the Dutchman was telling in his matter-of-fact, stubbornly enunciating voice, 'when a typhoon struck us, almost fatally. For several hours we were thrown and battered till suddenly calm felt the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye you know about it? the still centre of the storm where we lay at rest surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.'
The airy rubble over which the plane was bumping became so inconsiderable Madame de Lascabanes was made ashamed; she was saddened, also, to think it might never be given to her to enter the eye of the storm as described by the Dutch sea captain, though she was not unconscious of the folded wings, the forms of sea-birds afloat around them.
'Sure, we had to take another battering as the eye was moved away and the farther wall of the storm rammed us but less severe. You could tell the violence was exhausting itself.'
After that he closed his eyes. There was much she could have asked him, and perhaps would dare when he opened them. In the meantime, she sat half dreaming half thinking, her own eyes fixed on a full but tranquil vein in the back of one of this man's hands.
Actually, when he woke from his doze, he struggled out of his seat to visit the lavatory. Their paltry storm had passed, it appeared, though they were advised to keep their seat-belts fastened for the landing at Bangkok.
So she did not speak again to the Dutchman, except in mumbles.They grunted, nodded and smiled at each other, amused, it must have seemed, by some shared secret, as they shuffled out of the plane at the airport.
It was here that she joined the Australian flight. She lost her Dutchman, probably for ever.
'Is that all?' Mrs Hunter opened her eyes.
'Oh, yes. I know I had nothing special to tell. Nobody would be impressed who hadn't heard from this ordinary, yet in some way, extraordinary man. He struck me as being' - she was struggling through the wicked jungle of language 'himself the soul of calm and wisdom.'
Just then Dorothy Hunter was startled out of her memories by some of the former mineral glitter in her mother's almost extinct stare.
'Dorothy, didn't I ever tell you of my experience in a cyclone?'
Mother was daring you not to have known. She was standing at the head of the stairs, one arm outstretched, pointing, in a dress of blinding white such as had suited her best: cold and perfect in its way. And now a mere daughter, in spite of trial by marriage, the exorcism of a number of doubts, and arrival at perhaps a few mature conclusions, was frightened to the edge of panic by whatever revelation this vision of earthly authority might be threatening her with.
'No,' she protested. 'You didn't tell that is, I think I remember hearing yes, about a storm.'
Somehow she must be spared: Mother must grant her this one concession.
'If I didn't write to you at the time, I must have been too annoyed with you flying off like that in a rage.' Mrs Hunter sounded reasonable, calm, just. 'It was when the Warmings asked us to stay on their island. They had to leave in a hurry. One of the children was sick, I think. Then you rushed away. You missed a lot of excitement and made a fool of yourself.'
Mrs Hunter laughed gently; it sounded almost as though shestill had those small but exquisite teeth. 'What was the name of the professor man?'
Dorothy Hunter was frozen beyond answering. She shouldn't have been; it had happened fifteen years ago.
'Anyway, it was while I was on the island that this cyclone struck. Oh, I shall tell you when I can find the strength. I can see the birds, just as your Russian said.'
If physical strength was letting her down, her capacity for cruelty would never fail her: to drag in Edvard Pehl. At her most loving, Mother had never been able to resist the cruel thrust. To have loved her in the prime of her beauty, as many had, was like loving, or 'admiring' rather, a jewelled scabbard in which a sword was hidden: which would clatter out under the influence of some peculiar frenzy, to slash off your ears, the fingers, the tongues, or worse, impale the hearts, of those who worshipped. And yet we continued to offer ourselves, if reluctantly. As they still do, it appears: to this ancient scabbard, from which the jewels have loosened and scattered, the blind sockets filled instead with verdigris, itself a vengeful semi-jewellery, the sword still sharp in spite of age and use.
She must try to define her love for her mother: it had remained something beyond her understanding.
And the cyclone: why was it given to Elizabeth Hunter to experience the eye of the storm? That too! Or are regenerative states of mind granted to the very old to ease the passage from their earthly, sensual natures into final peace and forgiveness? Of course Mother could have imagined her state of grace amongst the resting birds, just as she had imagined Mrs Hewlett's escaped lovebird and the mad or distraught gardener. Though remembering some frightfulness the prince had forced on her mind more painfully than on her body, Dorothy de Lascabanes suspected the lovebird's murder was not an invention.
Then the knocking, and in Sister Badgery's voice, 'Mrs Hunter? Here's a lovely surprise for you, dear. Dr Gidley is paying us a visit.'
Brave or foolish, the nurse pushed the door open without waiting for encouragement, and for once her judgment seemed correct.
Her patient spoke up in the voice of a little girl who has learnt a lesson, though it could have been an unimportant one. 'It is very kind of him,' Mrs Hunter said.
'We couldn't very well not look in not as we were passing could we?' The doctor was a large young man with a fatty laugh.
'Not very well not after promising Sister de Santis on the telephone.'
The doctor ignored it, while the duty nurse pursed up her mouth, her cheeks near to bursting for the wickedness of her precocious charge.
Then she remembered, 'This is the the daughter Dr Gidley'; though her voice had a dash of acid, her eyes were radiating sunshine from behind the gold-rimmed spectacles.
'Ahhh!' The doctor recoiled, but put out his hand, sighing or hissing.
The Princess got the impression she was a rare disease he had not encountered before, and which he would have liked to look up furtively in a book; while avoiding his hand, she replied, 'How do you do, Dr Gidley?' Though recently grown up, the doctor would remain, for her at least, or at any rate for the moment, an enormous baby to whose somewhat featureless face had been added a pair of fashionable mutton-chops.
Apparently unconscious of a snub, he advanced on the bed, where he plumped his doctor's bag (humbler than himself) beside him on the carpet. 'How are we, Mrs Hunter? No strain on the Big Day?' Without waiting to hear, he took up his patient's wrist, which surprisingly she abandoned to him.
(Surely such enormous fingers would detect only a thundering pulse?)
'She's remarkable truly remarkable,' the nurse nattered sideways and superfluously to the daughter who was a princess.
The doctor frowned, and the nurse, recalled to duty, stood to attention like a frail private.
'Normal enough,' Dr Gidley finally complained out loud.
And so did Mrs Hunter. 'Normal is the last thing I am I hoped you might have gathered by now Doctor Dr Gidley.' The corners of her mouth were struggling to perfect a half-remembered technique of malice. 'Otherwise, what am I paying for? A a dia-gnosis of my ordinariness?'
Dr Gidley flopped into the nearest chair, fingers dangling in clusters between wide-open legs. 'Okay! Dictate your diagnosis, Mrs Hunter, and I'll learn it.' Mirth bumped the banana-bunches against swelling thighs.
Sister Badgery hummed with suppressed pleasure.
The strength of these two acolytes lay in their belief in the rightness of what they were doing and the wrong-thinking of others; which drew Dorothy towards her mother: at her most imperious, her most declamatory, Mother's manner had suggested that the moment her will snoozed she might collide with some passive object or suffer buffeting by a directed one. Mother and daughter were both sleepwalkers, only their approach from opposite ends of the room ensured that their meetings should become, more often than not, collisions.
Now, faced with the forces of practical optimism, they were wearing identical smiles, while the opposition continued shining with the light of their mission: to prevent a human body dying, even if it felt like doing so.
In the circumstances Mrs Hunter murmured, 'My daughter and I understand each other implicitly.'
If it were true, it ought to be kept a secret; so Dorothy muttered, and stirred in her chair, and almost put up a hand to avert an indelicacy.
While Mrs Hunter continued in her determination to hint at sweetness. 'Before you disturbed us, we were enjoying a delightful conversation. She was telling me about her voyage out.'
'Flight, Mother,' Dorothy corrected; then blushed. 'And it was not a very spectacular one.' Her expression menaced Sister Badgery and Dr Gidley with her journey's uneventfulness.
This should have consoled them, but the large young doctor looked uneasy: if he had obeyed convention he would have inquired at least about the weather, only the problem of the title prevented him addressing Mrs Hunter's daughter.
Instead he made sounds.
Mrs Hunter slightly moved her head from side to side on the pillow, apparently about to start on a singsong, though when it came, the voice was thin, high and sustained, like the fine-drawn utterance of a single violin. 'She was telling me about a charming Dutchman she met - and a hurricane which overtook them off Curaçao quite a mystical experience.'
The doctor and the nurse laughed to express their interest or hide their disbelief. Everybody but Mrs Hunter was obviously feeling uncomfortable.
Sister Badgery tried to remind her patient of the physical realities. 'Your pillows are looking lumpy, Mrs Hunter. Wait till I shake them up.'
While the nurse satisfied herself with the pillows Mrs Hunter was as much tossed by her own thoughts. 'Yes. I remember the birds - the waves shaped like small pyramids - black swans nesting between them.'
Dr Gidley accepted the swans as his excuse for leaving. 'If there's nothing we can do for you, Mrs Hunter, we shan't interrupt your reunion with your daughter.'
'Oh, but there is something! There is! I want you to give me whatever will make me sleep.'
Doctor and nurse looked at each other; then Sister Badgery said in a voice of such exaggerated kindness she might have been going to gobble someone up, 'But you do sleep, dear. You know you do beautifully.'
'I lie and and ramble around in waking. Once years ago somebody prescribed something, and when I took this pill the effect was like slipping on the sides of a smooth funnel, then through the hole, into darkness.'
She was listening very intently.
'Darkness is what I want,' she insisted. 'I'm too distracted by the figures which come and go through the grey of the other.'
She must have heard the catch on the doctor's bag, for she began to look pacified. He was dashing away at a pad, a sheet of which he tore off and gave to Sister Badgery.
'There's no reason, at your age, why you shouldn't have what makes you happy.' Dr Gidley spoke as though this moral prescription, on top of the medical one, had originated with him.
And Mrs Hunter seemed to think it might have: she was smiling up at the doctor with an expression of girlish gratitude; she might have received at least a kiss the moment before, whereas she was having to content herself with some clumsy handpatting.
When they were alone the Princesse de Lascabanes remarked, 'I'm surprised at your having a doctor of Gidley's type. I expected somebody older and more experienced Mr Wyburd as physician, if you see what I mean.'
Mrs Hunter laughed. 'I know Gidley isn't much good as a doctor, but I can tell by the feel of him he's the kind of man I might have enjoyed as a lover.' She turned slightly. 'I've shocked you, Dorothy dear.'
Dorothy said, no, she wasn't shocked; even so she was glad of the blur which separated them: she could look more closely at her mother.
'Don't think I made a practice of promiscuity. Oh, I was unfaithful once or twice but only as a sort of experiment and it did prove it wasn't worth it. For most women, I think, sexual pleasure is largely imagination. They imagine lovers while their husbands are having their way with them, but in their lovers' arms they regret what they remember of the husband's humdrum virtues.'
The princess sounded all expostulatory mirth. 'I think you're tired, Mother, and are talking utter imaginary nonsense!' She was tired, anyway.
Mrs Hunter would have liked to see Dorothy as more than the blur she appeared, to decide whether she had ever had a lover.Probably her trouble was that Hubert had been too much the lover for his wife to have experienced a husband.
'So now I'm going to leave you for my club,' the Princesse de Lascabanes announced.
'When we were expecting you for luncheon!' Mrs Hunter's recent wisdom shrivelled into a rag of skin. 'My housekeeper Mrs Lippmann - will give you a splendid luncheon in the dining-room by yourself or a snack on a tray, here with me.' Then she added, out of desperation it seemed, 'You haven't met her, have you? Well, I mean, socially. Sometimes she dances for me. Are you surprised, Dorothy, at a dancing cook?'
'By now, Mother, I am not surprised.'
Mrs Hunter could hear her daughter drawing on her gloves; in the end, stitched to the bed by steel threads, you can only persuade the past.
While they were kissing, and she was sure of escaping, Dorothy de Lascabanes decided to ask, 'That fur rug in my old room - so soft - what is it?'
'But they're protected!'
'Yes. They're protected. It was Grandfather Hunter who killed them. Alfred was gentle.' (Then she did at least recognize it as a quality in others.) 'Alfred gave me the rug as one of my wedding presents. He thought that because it was so rare we might have had it on our bed, but I asked him to let me put it away. I didn't care for it as fur. I didn't care for it. When he was ill when he was dying he remembered the platypus rug and got me to bring it out. I used to arrange it over his knees after we had sat him up in his chair that last, bitter winter at "Kudjeri". By then I don't believe we thought any more about the poor slaughtered little creatures, or if we did, they had become willing sacrifices.'
Her memory was so positive, only the silence could compete with it.
'Dorothy?' Mrs Hunter asked, to confirm that her daughter had left.
Dorothy de Lascabanes was in fact stumbling down the stairs: dreams she remembered in which she was trampling recently-hatched nestlings swam into the actual waters of the sacrificial platypus. So she trampled and lurched. In the hall she found herself pushing at what? the only opposition was a void: and guilt, tenderness, desire, lost opportunities. She must never forget Mother is an evil heartless old woman. If you did forget, Basil would remember, himself Mother's only equal at driving the knife home. Boo-hoo, poor you! if anybody ever told you they loved you you wouldn't believe that either now would you?
The thought that she still had to face her brother started her tearing at the hall door.
THE EYE OF THE STORM. Copyright © 1973 by Patrick White. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.