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The Nutmeg Tree
By Margery Sharp
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1937 Margery Sharp
All rights reserved.
Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual; for on this particular summer morning the bathroom, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia's clothes, a single-bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag. The customary echo was therefore lacking; and if the ceiling now and then trembled, it was not because of Julia's song, but because the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had not yet finished removing the hired furniture.
On the other side of the door an occasional shuffling of feet showed that the two broker's men had not even one chair to sit on.
Thus beleaguered, Julia sang. With every breath she drew in a generous diaphragmful of verbena-scented steam, and let it out again in the form of equally generous chest-notes. She did this not out of defiance, nor to keep her spirits up, but because at that time of the morning song was natural to her. The belligerence of her tones was due simply to the belligerence of the melody: her choice of the melody was due simply to the fact that she had received, the night before, a letter from France.
So Julia sang, until in the pause before the reprise a weary voice sounded huskily through the door.
"Ain't you done yet, mum?" demanded the voice.
"No," said Julia.
"But you bin in an hour 'n' 'arf already!" protested the voice.
Julia turned on the hot tap. She could stay in a bath almost indefinitely, and had often, during her periodic attempts at slimming, lain parboiled for two or three hours. But nothing — as was now plainly to be seen — had ever slimmed Julia. At thirty-seven, — only five feet, three inches in height, — she had a thirty-eight-inch bust, a thirty-one waist, and forty-one hips; and though these three vital points were linked by extremely agreeable curves, Julia nevertheless hankered after a fashionable toothpick silhouette. She hankered, but not consistently. Her comfortable flesh refused to be martyred. It regarded orange juice as an appetizer, not as a staff of life; and as a result there lay Julia, — recumbent in her cloud of steam, rosy-pink with heat, — looking like the presiding goddess of some baroque ceiling.
The door rattled.
"If you break in," called Julia, turning off the tap, "I'll have you up for assault!"
A dead silence showed that the threat had taken effect. There was a muffled consultation; then a second voice, even wearier than the first, resumed the argument.
"It's only five pound, mum," pleaded the voice. "We don't want to give no trouble —"
"Then go away," retorted Julia.
"We can't, mum. It's our duty. If you'll just let us take the stuff — or better still, pay us the five pound —"
"I haven't got five pounds," said Julia truthfully; and for the first time her brow clouded. She hadn't got one pound: she possessed exactly seven-and-eightpence, and she had to leave for France in the morning. For perhaps five minutes she lay and pondered, considering, one after the other, all those persons from whom she had borrowed money in the past. She thought also of those to whom she had lent; but one set was as hopeless as the other. With real regret, she thought of the late Mr. Macdermot. And at last she thought of Mr. Lewis.
"Hey!" called Julia. "You know that antique-shop at the end of the road?"
The bailiffs consulted.
"We know a pawnbroker's, mum. Name of Lewis."
"That's it," admitted Julia, "but it's an antique-shop as well. One of you nip along and fetch Mr. Lewis here. He'll pay you."
They consulted again; but after waiting (upright) for two hours, they were ready to clutch at a straw. Julia heard the tread of departing feet, and the shuffle of the feet that remained. Then she dried her hands, lit a cigarette, and reached out to the coffee table for a letter with a French stamp.
Though it had arrived only the previous night, she already knew it by heart.
My dear Mother, —
It seems strange that you won't know my writing. I am sending this through the Bank, and unless you are abroad you ought to get it almost at once. Could you come out here and see me? It is a long way, but a beautiful place, high up on the edge of Haute Savoie, and we shall be here till October. But I would like you to come (if you can) at once. Grandmother also invites you, to stay as long as you like. As you may know, she and Sir William Waring are now my trustees. The point is [here the small, neat writing grew suddenly larger] that I want to get married, and Grandmother objects. I know there are all sorts of legal complications, but after all you are my mother, and you ought to be consulted. If you can come, the best way is by the 11:40 P.M. from Paris to Ambérieu, where a car will meet you. I do hope it will be possible.
Your affectionate daughter, —
From a girl of twenty, in love, to her mother, the letter was hardly expansive; but Julia understood. Because of a variety of circumstances, she had not seen her daughter for sixteen years; and the bare fact that that daughter now remembered and appealed to her was so exquisitely touching that even now, on rereading the letter for the twentieth time, Julia dropped a tear or two into the bath. But they were tears of sentiment, not of sorrow; at the thought of a trip to France, of a love affair to be handled, her spirits soared. "CATCHING TRAIN THURSDAY ALL LOVE MOTHER," she had wired back; and only then had she remembered her unusually disastrous economic situation. She had no money, no proper wardrobe, and a creditor about to foreclose. But none of these things mattered, when Susan wanted her. Susan wanted her, Susan was unhappy, and to Susan she would go....
"But she was christened Suzanne!" thought Julia suddenly; and was still staring at the signature when she was brought back to the present by the welcome sound of Mr. Lewis' voice.
"My dear Julia!" he shouted. "What is all this that you fetch me for? You are not really drowning yourself? This man —"
"He's a bailiff," called Julia. "They're both bailiffs. Send them away."
After a few moments the heavy footsteps retreated, the lighter ones returned.
"Now, Julia, what is it? These men —"
"Have they gone?"
"Gone and glad to," replied Mr. Lewis. "They are very modest men, my dear, and so am I. But they haven't gone farther than the stairs."
"Can they hear us?"
"They can hear me if I shout for help. They seem to think that there is stuff in there besides the usual fittings."
"There is," said Julia. "That's what I want you for. There's stuff in here I've got to sell — good stuff — and you've always been a sport to me, Joe, so I'm giving you first chance. There's a real lacquer table, and a new mattress, and a genuine antique grandfather clock, and a lovely dinner service, and a picture of a stag that's a real painting. I'll take thirty quid for the lot."
"Not from me you won't," said Mr. Lewis.
Julia sat up with a splash.
"Of all the old Jews! Why, the stag's worth that alone, and I didn't mean to include it. I'm offering you the table and the clock and a new mattress and a dinner service, and dirt cheap at that."
"Well, let me look at 'em," said Mr. Lewis patiently.
"Of course you can't look at them. I'm in the bath."
"You mean you want me to buy blind?"
"That's it," agreed Julia. "Have a flutter."
Mr. Lewis reflected. He was a man who liked to get everything cut and dried.
"You mean you will sell me, for thirty pounds, stuff I haven't even seen, which is probably worth twenty-five bob, and which already belongs to whatever fool has been giving you credit?"
"That's right," said Julia cheerfully, "except that it's worth more like sixty, and I only owe five. What's your favourite tune?"
"The Blue Danube," said Mr. Lewis.
Julia sang it.
Half an hour passed. The men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had taken themselves and the hired furniture away. A man from the Gas Company had come and cut off the gas. But the bailiffs remained, and so did Mr. Lewis; for even through a bolted door Julia's personality triumphed. When she was tired of singing she entertained them with anecdotes of her early life on the stage; when she ran out of anecdotes she imitated film stars, and so successfully that the grandfather clock, chiming for noon, took them all by surprise.
"That the genuine antique?" asked Mr. Lewis with interest.
"Yes," said Julia, returning promptly to business. "Now listen, Joe: I've got to go to France first thing in the morning. I've got to have ten pounds for my return fare, and a fiver for these toughs. That's fifteen quid, and I haven't a rag to my back. Make it eighteen-ten, and I'll throw in the stag."
"Fourteen," said Mr. Lewis.
"Seventeen," said Julia. "Be a sport!"
"Be a sport, guv'nor!" echoed the bailiffs — now definitely on Julia's side.
Mr. Lewis felt himself weaken. A coffee table, a dinner service, a mattress, and a grandfather clock — it all depended on the clock. The chimes had been good ones, and if it looked like an antique to Julia it would probably look like an antique to most people. It might even be an antique, and old grandfathers fetched a lot of money....
Julia had known what she was about when she appealed to his gambling instincts.
"Sixteen-ten," said Mr. Lewis. "Take it or leave it."
"Done!" said Julia; and at last got out of the bath.CHAPTER 2
The first time Julia had seen her future husband by daylight was on a spring morning in 1916, when she woke at about half-past ten to find him still sleeping at her side. She knew his name, Sylvester Packett, and that he was a first lieutenant in the Gunners; and in spite of the fact that for six consecutive nights he had danced with her from twelve till four in the morning, that was all she did know. He was the most silent boy she had ever met; not even champagne loosened his tongue; and she had regretfully (but philosophically) come to the conclusion that he danced with her simply because he couldn't sleep. Boys got like that, in 1916; she wouldn't be a bit surprised if he'd come back with her the night before just to see if he could get some sleep that way. ... Julia, at eighteen, considered this idea without either surprise or rancour: it was simply, like so many other things, the War.
"Poor boy!" said Julia under her breath; for she was easily sentimental, and cried over a casualty list whenever she saw one. The young man stirred in his sleep, sighed, and slept again. He had four more days' leave, and if only he stayed with her — thought Julia — he should sleep like that every single night....
Sylvester Packett stayed. He wanted to be down in Suffolk, but in Suffolk he couldn't sleep, and with Julia he could. It was unfortunate, but it was the War. He stayed for four more days, and at the end of that time was swallowed back into France.
Julia wept when he went. Her affection had been at least disinterested, for she refused all gifts except a Gunner brooch. But it was also ephemeral; save for one awkward and unexpected circumstance, she would never have thought of him again.
At the beginning of August, after a five-hour chorus rehearsal for "Pretty Louise," Julia fainted. When her friends had brought her round, and after she had taken expert advice, she went home and wrote to Sylvester.
There was nothing of the blackmailer about her. The letter said simply that she was going to have a baby, and she was sure it was his, and if he could lend her a hand she would be very much obliged, but if not he wasn't to worry. "With love and best wishes, Julia." In answer she received the shock of her life.
He came home and married her.
He did it during a forty-eight-hour leave, and never in her life did Julia pass a more uncomfortable two days. What with relief and gratification her spirits, never low, had soared to an unexampled pitch; but he managed to damp them. He was no longer silent, but he was deadly. He talked to her for hours on end about a dreary-sounding place in Suffolk — an old, old house called Barton, in an old garden, in a village ten miles from a railway station, where his people had apparently lived, without either a car or a telephone, for hundreds and hundreds of years. He would actually have taken her there, but for lack of time; yet when Julia, happy in her escape and anxious to console, projected a visit for his next leave, he at once bit on the knuckle of his thumb and changed the subject. He behaved, in fact, as though the future had ceased to affect him. He wouldn't even buy shirts. To cheer him up Julia insisted on dining at the Ritz and going to a musical comedy; but even these measures were useless.
And if the evening was a failure, the wedding night was a flop.
Julia spent it alone. All night long her husband sat up writing a letter. It was addressed to his people, but not directly; the Bank had instructions, he said, to forward it at the proper time. When this letter was read, it was found to consist of detailed instructions for the bringing-up of his unborn child, to which he referred throughout as "the boy." The boy was to be born at Barton, and to receive the name of Henry Sylvester. He was to remain at Barton till the age of nine, then to go to a preparatory school for Winchester. After Winchester, on making his choice between the Army and Medicine, he was to proceed to either Sandhurst or Cambridge. If undecided, he was to choose the Army. "But on no account," wrote his father, with unsuspected dryness, "is he to become an Army Doctor."
Such was the main outline; there were also provisions for a pony — "which must be exchanged as soon as the boy outgrows it; there is nothing worse for a child than to feel his feet trailing on the ground" — and for coaching in cricket during the summer holidays. At twelve the boy was to be given his father's old 20-bore; at eighteen, the Purdey 12: his grandfather would teach him how to handle them. All these things, and many others, had been thought of, pondered over, and put down on paper; with corrections, interlinings and much copying-out; for in this long, detailed and comprehensive document, far more than in his official will, was embodied the last testament of Sylvester Packett.
There was a brief codicil: —
I never told anybody, but there is usually a tit's nest in the old pump at the bottom of the orchard. Also a bulfinch's in the red May tree at the corner of the big field. Tell him the great thing in blowing is to go slow. You will of course never take more than one egg.
Your loving father, —
Two months later he was killed at Ypres; and the child born at Barton was a girl.
She was christened Suzanne Sylvester. The first name was chosen by Julia as both patriotic (being French) and pretty; and the Packetts let her have her way. They were unbelievably good to her. As the mother of their grandchild (even of the wrong sex) they accepted her with open arms. Affectionately, unquestioningly, she was installed as the daughter of the house. All they asked was that she and the child should stay there and be happy.
And Julia tried. For nineteen months the lay figure of young Mrs. Packett did the flowers, paid calls, went to church, and played with the baby whenever the nurse allowed. Night after night this lay figure sat at dinner with its father- and mother-in-law; every night, for an hour afterwards, it played easy classics on the drawing-room piano. At such mild festivities as the neighbourhood afforded it played the same pieces on the pianos of its hosts. All its evening dresses had backs to them, and two had long sleeves.
Excerpted from The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp. Copyright © 1937 Margery Sharp. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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