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The Friendly Young Ladies
By Mary Renault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Lillian Faderman
All rights reserved.
Very quietly and carefully, hardly moving her thin young neck and round shoulders, Elsie looked round the room, first at the french windows into the garden, then at the door, measuring distances. Her calculations were instinctive, like those of a mouse; she had been making them since she could crawl. There was hardly any need to look this time; the way to the door lay flat across her father's line of vision. He was saying, "I should have supposed it was obvious to the meanest intelligence—almost anywhere, in fact, outside this household—"
Her parents' chairs were drawn up to the fire, for it was a chilly evening in March, and the Lane family always observed, punctiliously, the routine of domestic comfort. Elsie had begun her reputation for eccentricity at school by remarking suddenly, "I do think radiators are nice." She thought of radiators as she edged the pouffe on which she was sitting slowly backward, ready for a traverse behind her mother's chair to the french window.
As she moved, she remembered that her sister Leonora, in the dimly-remembered days when she lived at home, used to cross the room on occasions like this with three flying strides, slam the door, and be half-way down to the beach before there was time to say anything. Elsie had been, and still was, as incapable of following her example as she would have been of soaring through the air. She had always found herself left behind, to hear the comments and the retorts, while Leo had already joined Ted and Albert from the coast-guard cottages, and would be looking for jetsam in the caves. Elsie had not envied her Ted and Albert—she agreed with her mother in thinking them very rough and unsuitable—and she rarely remembered now to envy her her technique, it was so long ago. She was free to use her own methods; and Leo, once so terrifyingly apt to heap a family fracas with fresh fuel, was never mentioned at all. Elsie herself hardly ever thought of her.
Her mother was saying, "... be spoken to like this in my own house." It was now or never, before she noticed Elsie and added, "in front of my own child," after which it would be too late. Very softly and smoothly, with as much care as one might use to keep a lover's sleep unbroken, she closed her book, tucked it under her arm, and slid upright on her long schoolgirl's legs with their thick dragged stockings and sea-stained shoes. She was a dim, unobtrusive girl. One might conjecture that she had been afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her. She had acquired protective colouring which amounted almost to invisibility; almost, but not quite.
"Now," said her mother indignantly, but also with the air of one who scores a point, "see what you've done, Arthur, with your shouting and your bad temper. Driven poor little Elsie out of the house. And she's hardly better yet from that bad cold."
Her father had been holding The Times, his observations lobbing over the top of it like mortar-canisters over a parapet. Now he suddenly dashed it down on his knee. Thick newsprint can make a dramatic noise. Elsie stood with her fingers contracted round the door-knob: her adolescent stoop exaggerated itself into an idiot slump; her vague, half-formed features grew dull and furtive. She could feel it happening, the familiar cycle. Guilt and shame made her stomach sink. She did not reject them, any more than the young African repudiates a tabu he has broken by accident in the dark. For a moment an etiolated shoot of personality stirred in her and wondered, "What could I have done that would have been right?" but lacked vitality enough to attempt an answer. It had all happened a hundred times before. She cringed, and stared at the red Turkey carpet.
"This," shouted her father, "passes everything." He raised his eyes, meeting those of a sepia Burne-Jones on the opposite wall, a very thin lady with a lily, whose evident misery seemed to Elsie a reflection of her own. "Isn't it enough that my domestic life should be made a purgatory of nagging, without having these scenes of martyrdom staged for my benefit?" He flung The Times to the floor; Elsie gazed dully at a heading about something, or somebody, leaving the League, while a dangling thread of her mind wondered whether it referred to Geneva or football.
"Elsie," said her father, "come here."
Letting go of the door-knob reluctantly, as if it were a source of protection, Elsie took a dragging step into the room.
"Next time your mother puts you up to something of this kind, just think it over for a minute. That's all your father asks of you. I don't think it's a great deal, do you? I don't think it's altogether unreasonable? Just ask yourself what would happen if your father, in spite of being treated like a pariah in his own home—a pariah," he repeated (the word was a new acquisition) "weren't willing in spite of everything to work for you and give you your food and your clothes and your pocket-money? Just think about that for a moment, and suggest to your mother that she does the same."
Elsie had left school a year ago, after failing in the School Certificate Examination. The mistresses, one after another, had told her that her homework was thoughtless and showed no signs of concentration at all, and had pointed out what a disappointment this must be to her parents; a prophecy regularly fulfilled when her reports came through. All this accumulated guilt formed a steady reserve, ready to add itself to the guilt of any given moment. Where would she be, indeed? Hypnotized, she pictured herself trudging through the rain into the gates of a large, dark factory, wearing a man's cloth cap, or maybe a shawl. The factory was drawn from imagination; her travels had been few.
"Well, Elsie?" said her father.
When things of this sort happened, if there was time to see them coming beforehand, Elsie was accustomed to pray, "Please, God, don't let them ask me to say anything." Her tongue seemed to be swelling inside her mouth. Perhaps, even now, if she waited a moment ...
"Arthur," cried her mother, "how can you browbeat the poor child like this? It isn't my fault she can't bear to be in the same room with you. Never mind, darling; tomorrow morning when your father goes out we'll do something nice all by ourselves."
Her mother's voice trembled. Elsie edged to the door-knob, and clutched it again. If only she had said something in time. She could not think what, but there must have been something. She had made her father angry, and now she had made her mother cry.
"This attitude," said her father, "is just what I expected. This is the kind of pernicious malice I see going on every day. Don't be surprised when it bears fruit. We already have one daughter outside the pale of decent society. If a second finds her way into the demi-monde, believe me, it won't astonish me."
"Arthur!" Her mother's voice shrank to a kind of whispering scream. "How can you be so wicked? Saying such a thing in front of a young girl." She rose, clutching her knitting; several stitches dropped off the needle and began to run, which, to Elsie, seemed somehow to make everything more terrifying. She began to sob. "If only one of my children had been a boy. He wouldn't have stood by to see his mother insulted in her own home."
"If I'd had a son," shouted her father, "I shouldn't be subjected day by day to this petty conspiracy of women."
A cold moistness was making Elsie's hand stick to the knob. Her memory had enhanced the horror of the moment with a recollection of the worst thing that had ever happened at home. It must have been quite nine years ago, but it seemed like yesterday. Elsie herself, small enough then to hide sometimes, had crawled just in time under the table; but Leo had been standing in exactly the same spot where her sister stood now. She had been about Elsie's own age; but suddenly, as Elsie peeped, her familiar thin brown face and dark tumbled hair had looked different, and one had had the feeling that a third grown-up, more frightening than either of the others, had come into the room. With her feet apart, and her fists pushed down into her shabby tweed pockets, she had said, unbelievably, "If I were a man I wouldn't be here. And I bloody well wish I were." A silence had followed, beside which the preceding storm had seemed like child's play; and in the silence, Leo had walked out, without even slamming the door.
Merely to think of it made the present seem almost ordinary.
Then her father said, "That will do, Elsie. You had better run away now," in the voice of one wronged beyond the degree to which words can give relief; and, though it was a method of closing discussions which he not infrequently employed, Elsie had a feeling that he remembered too. Since there was always a possibility that he might even yet follow it with "But remember, before you go ..." she went instantly, negotiating the door without grace, but with the most efficient silence and speed, and not forgetting to turn the handle firmly, because once she had been ordered back to do it, and, becoming on the strength of this a theme of renewed debate, had had to remain for another quarter of an hour.
Before she was half-way along the passage she could hear their voices rising again, and this decided her against going upstairs to get her coat. One day she had done this, to be met on her way down by her mother, who had left the room in the interval and was anxious to tell her why. Reflecting on this, Elsie felt herself to be unnatural, heartless and wicked: but she was used to feeling inferior and inadequate and, indeed, expected it.
It was rather colder than she had thought; that year's spring had begun mildly even for Cornwall, the morning had been still and warm and the sea turquoise blue under a delicately faded sky. But the sun had gone in, and now it was after four. A damp, heavy wind was blowing sluggishly from the sea, and swirls of mist, like clammy steam, hung on the brambles beside the lane. Already they looked soggy, and a film of moisture was covering the rough stone fences and darkening the earth that bound them together.
Elsie crossed her arms over her thin, immature bosom, partly for warmth, partly to protect the book she had brought away with her. Slowly and unwillingly she admitted to herself that it was too cold to sit and read. Perhaps if she hurried and kept warm, the sun would come out presently. She knew it would be setting in less than an hour, but continued to nourish the hope, obstinately, without examining the reason, which was that it happened to be, at the moment, the only hope she had.
A crimson stain began to cover the inside of her hands; it looked melodramatic, but was in fact a film of dye from the softening covers of Beau Brocade. She wiped her palms absently on the thighs of her stockings; the book had already lost all its glaze from previous applications of salt water and rain, and was one of half a dozen she kept for reading out of doors. Elsie was a great reader of romances. Her favourite work had been The Idylls of the King, until, learning that the plots were taken from Malory, she had saved up for weeks to buy him in the Everyman edition. This head-on encounter with the mediaeval mind had been a sad shock to her; its casual masculinity found her singularly ill-prepared. For the facts of life had recently been revealed to her behind a stand of mackintoshes in the school cloakroom. She had believed them, because they had been so much too frightful for even Gladys Hunter to invent; and the thought of her parents having, for a certainty, once been involved in them (since here was Elsie herself to prove it) had been so appalling that she had gone about like a hunted creature, weighed down by the horrible secret, till even her mother noticed it and asked her, one night at bedtime, if she had anything on her mind. A murderer, who sees someone dragging the pond where the body is, could not have surpassed the emotions with which Elsie scrambled together a lie about finding her arithmetic homework too difficult; and her mother (after a scene with her father) had written to the headmistress about it, so that she had to take mathematics with a lower form and a tangible reminder of all this inward sin was held up before her four times every week. And she had only been confirmed a month before! The little red book which the bishop had given her, its exhortations against impure thought suddenly and awfully explained, accused her every time she opened her dressing-table drawer. At last she hid it away under her party petticoat, for she already knew by heart the prayers it provided for such occasions. Sometimes she found it hard to believe that anyone in the world was as wicked as she.
But that was five years ago, and even so unpleasant a discovery had lost the force of its first impact. She had now reached the age when her mother could tacitly assume that she knew the purport of warnings about being spoken to by strange men. These she received frequently, and, sometimes, an even more impressive one about a wicked woman disguised as a hospital nurse, who went up to girls shopping alone, told them that their mother had met with an accident and been taken to hospital, and, inveigling them into a taxi with the blinds pulled down, stuck a hypodermic needle into their arms. It never for a moment occurred to Elsie to reflect whether her pale melancholy face, her brown eyes like an anxious retriever's, her gawky sharp-kneed legs in their ribbed stockings, made up exactly the kind of quarry after which purveyors of vice might range. She lived under the threat of rape and seduction, and once, losing her mother in Truro, had wandered for nearly an hour sooner than ask anyone but a policeman the way.
The fact that she went nowhere, met nobody but her mother's friends, and lived in a world of her own imagination, had suspended her in the most awkward stage of adolescence for quite three superfluous years. At seventeen her mind was still like Madame Tussaud's Exhibition, with Love, represented by kings and queens in velvet, on the upper floors, and Sex, like the Chamber of Horrors, tucked away underground. Usually she could forget about the basement in rapturous contemplation of the stately tableaux above. The deepening dye from Beau Brocade (the mist was condensing into a drizzle) comforted her now. A groom from the local riding school, exercising one of the horses, cantered by, silhouetted grey against the sky, and her imagination added to him a cloak and a black mask, silver pistols, a posse of blood-hungry redcoats behind, and a sweet distraught heroine weeping for his peril in a manor over the hill. If only the clouds would lift, and she could sit down and read, she knew that she would feel better at once. But the sad rain and sodden ground wrapped her unhappiness about her and, as always at such times, extended it into an eternal future. There seemed no reason why it should not all be the same ten, or even twenty years from now. Miss Matthews at the Vicarage was, she knew, over forty, and still lived with her parents at home.
A cold, heavy water-drop ran from her hair down the inside of her collar. She began to realize that she was really wet, and, in spite of walking as fast as she could, was beginning to feel cold. She knew that she ought to go home. But if she arrived dripping, she would be noticed, and questioned, and discussed. If the rain stopped soon, and she slipped in afterwards and changed quickly, it would seem much more ordinary.
In any case, she did not want to go in yet. This evening had been a bad one. Suddenly she remembered why. It was because of what her father had said about Leo. She had guessed, she supposed, for a long time; but it had seemed so incredible that, in the absence of anything but suggestive silences, it had been easy to convince herself that she must be mistaken. Perhaps, she had said to herself, Leo had simply cheeked Father so outrageously that he had ordered her out of the house; she remembered enough of her sister to feel that this was quite likely. But surely Mother would have mentioned her sometimes (and, she thought, reproached her father with it) unless there had been something more. There was only one thing too bad to talk about.
Excerpted from The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault. Copyright © 2003 Lillian Faderman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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