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Bliss and Other Stories

[section]

Suddenly —dreadfully —she wakes up. What has happened ? Something dreadful has happened. No — nothing has happened. It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble. Leaves flutter past the window, up and away; down in the avenue a whole newspaper wags in the air like a lost kite and falls, spiked on a pine tree. It is cold. Summer is over—it is autumn—everything is ugly. The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets —their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind. A white dog on three legs yelps past the gate. It is all over ! What is ? Oh, everything ! And she begins to plait her hair with shaking fingers, not daring to look in the glass. Mother is talking to grandmother in the hall.

" A perfect idiot! Imagine leaving anything out on the line in weather like this. . . . Now my best little Teneriffe-work teacloth is simply in ribbons. What is that extraordinary smell ? It's the porridge burning. Oh, heavens—this wind ! " page 138She has a music lesson at ten o'clock. At the thought the minor movement of the Beethoven begins to play in her head, the trills long and terrible like little rolling drums. . . . Marie Swain-son runs into the garden next door to pick the " chrysanths " before they are ruined. Her skirt flies up above her waist; she tries to beat it down, to tuck it between her legs while she stoops, but it is no use—up it flies. All the trees and bushes beat about her. She picks as quickly as she can, but she is quite distracted. She doesn't mind what she does—she pulls the plants up by the roots and bends and twists them, stamping her foot and swearing.

" For heaven's sake keep the front door shut! Go round to the back," shouts someone. And then she hears Bogey :

" Mother, you're wanted on the telephone. Telephone, Mother. It's the butcher."

How hideous life is—revolting, simply revolting. . . . And now her hat-elastic's snapped. Of course it would. She'll wear her old tarn and slip out the back way. But Mother has seen.

" Matilda. Matilda. Come back im-me-diately ! What on earth have you got on your head ? It looks like a tea cosy. And why have you got that mane of hair on your forehead."

" I can't come back, Mother. I'll be late for my lesson."

" Come back immediately ! " page 139She won't. She won't. She hates Mother. "Go to hell," she shouts, running down the road.

In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. There is a loud roaring sound from the trees in the gardens, and standing at the bottom of the road outside Mr. Bullen's gate she can hear the sea sob: " Ah! . . . Ah ! . . . Ah-h !" But Mr. Bullen's drawing-room is as quiet as a cave. The windows are closed, the blinds half pulled, and she is not late. The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell's "To an Iceberg." Mr. Bullen looks over at her and half smiles.

" Sit down," he says. " Sit over there in the sofa corner, little lady."

How funny he is. He doesn't exactly laugh at you . . . but there is just something. . . . Oh, how peaceful it is here. She likes this room. It smells of art serge and stale smoke and chrysanthemums . . . there is a big vase of them on the mantelpiece behind the pale photograph of Rubinstein . . . à mon ami Robert Bullen. . . . Over the black glittering piano hangs " Solitude "— a dark tragic woman draped in white, sitting on a rock, her knees crossed, her chin on her hands.

" No, no ! " says Mr. Bullen, and he leans over the other girl, put his arms over her shoulders and plays the passage for her. The stupid—she's blushing ! How ridiculous ! page 140Now the-girl-before-her has gone ; the front door slams. Mr. Bullen comes back and walks up and down, very softly, waiting for her. What an extraordinary thing. Her fingers tremble so that she can't undo the knot in the music satchel. It's the wind. . . . And her heart beats so hard she feels it must lift her blouse up and down. Mr. Bullen does not say a word. The shabby red piano seat is long enough for two people to sit side by side. Mr. Bullen sits down by her.

" Shall I begin with scales," she asks, squeezing her hands together. " I had some arpeggios, too."

But he does not answer. She doesn't believe he even hears . . . and then suddenly his fresh hand with the ring on it reaches over and opens Beethoven.

" Let's have a little of the old master," he says.

But why does he speak so kindly—so awfully kindly—and as though they had known each other for years and years and knew everything about each other.

He turns the page slowly. She watches his hand —it is a very nice hand and always looks as though it had just been washed.

" Here we are," says Mr. Bullen.

Oh, that kind voice—Oh, that minor movement. Here come the little drums. . . .

" Shall I take the repeat ? "

" Yes, dear child."

His voice is far, far too kind. The crotchets and page 141 quavers are dancing up and down the stave like little black boys on a fence. Why is he so . . . She will not cry—she has nothing to cry about. . . .

" What is it, dear child ? "

Mr. Bullen takes her hands. His shoulder is there—just by her head. She leans on it ever so little, her cheek against the springy tweed.

" Life is so dreadful," she murmurs, but she does not feel it's dreadful at all. He says something about " waiting" and " marking time " and " that rare thing, a woman," but she does not hear. It is so comfortable ... for ever . . .

Suddenly the door opens and in pops Marie Swainson, hours before her time.

" Take the allegretto a little faster," says Mr. Bullen, and gets up and begins to walk up and down again.

" Sit in the sofa corner, little lady," he says to Marie.