Bliss and Other Stories
" Well, that's very satisfactory on the whole— very. Poor Lottie ! Darling Anne ! How I only wish I could send them something of this," she cried, waving her letters at the brilliant, dazzling garden. " More tea, Robert ? Robert dear, more tea ? "
" No, thanks, no. It was very good," he drawled.
" Well mine wasn't. Mine was just like chopped hay. Oh, here comes the Honeymoon Couple."
Half striding, half running, carrying a basket between them and rods and lines, they came up the drive, up the shallow steps.
" My ! have you been out fishing ? " cried the American Woman.
They were out of breath, they panted : " Yes, yes, we have been out in a little boat all day. Wepage 179
have caught seven. Four are good to eat. But three we shall give away. To the children."
Mrs. Salesby turned her chair to look; the Topknots laid the snakes down. They were a very dark young couple—black hair, olive skin, brilliant eyes and teeth. He was dressed " English fashion " in a flannel jacket, white trousers and shoes. Round his neck he wore a silk scarf; his head, with his hair brushed back, was bare. And he kept mopping his forehead, rubbing his hands with a brilliant handkerchief. Her white skirt had a patch of wet; her neck and throat were stained a deep pink. When she lifted her arms big half-hoops of perspiration showed under her arm-pits ; her hair clung in wet curls to her cheeks. She looked as though her young husband had been dipping her in the sea, and fishing her out again to dry in the sun and then—in with her again—all day.
" Would Klaymongso like a fish ? " they cried. Their laughing voices charged with excitement beat against the glassed-in verandah like birds, and a strange saltish smell came from the basket.
" You will sleep well to-night," said a Topknot, picking her ear with a knitting needle while the other Topknot smiled and nodded.
The Honeymoon Couple looked at each other. A great wave seemed to go over them. They gasped, gulped, staggered a little and then came up laughing—laughing.
" We cannot go upstairs, we are too tired. We page 180 must have tea just as we are. Here—coffee. No —tea. No—coffee. Tea—coffee, Antonio ! " Mrs. Salesby turned.
" Robert! Robert! " Where was he ? He wasn't there. Oh, there he was at the other end of the verandah, with his back turned, smoking a cigarette. " Robert, shall we go for our little turn ? "
" Right." He stumped the cigarette into an ashtray and sauntered over, his eyes on the ground. " Will you be warm enough ? "
" Oh, quite."
" Sure ? "
" Well," she put her hand on his arm," perhaps " —and gave his arm the faintest pressure—" it's not upstairs, it's only in the hall—perhaps you'd get me my cape. Hanging up."
He came back with it and she bent her small head while he dropped it on her shoulders. Then, very stiff, he offered her his arm. She bowed sweetly to the people on the verandah while he just covered a yawn, and they went down the steps together.
" Vous avez voo ça!" said the American Woman.
" He is not a man," said the Two Topknots, " he is an ox. I say to my sister in the morning and at night when we are in bed, I tell her—No man is he, but an ox ! "
Wheeling, tumbling, swooping, the laughter of page 181 the Honeymoon Couple dashed against the glass of the verandah.
The sun was still high. Every leaf, every flower in the garden lay open, motionless, as if exhausted, and a sweet, rich, rank smell filled the quivering air. Out of the thick, fleshy leaves of a cactus there rose an aloe stem loaded with pale flowers that looked as though they had been cut out of butter; light flashed upon the lifted spears of the palms; over a bed of scarlet waxen flowers some big black insects " zoom-zoomed " ; a great, gaudy creeper, orange splashed with jet, sprawled against a wall.
" I don't need my cape after all," said she. " It's really too warm." So he took it off and carried it over his arm. " Let us go down this path here. I feel so well to-day—marvellously better. Good heavens—look at those children ! And to think it's November ! "
In a corner of the garden there were two brimming tubs of water. Three little girls, having thoughtfully taken off their drawers and hung them on a bush, their skirts clasped to their waists, were standing in the tubs and tramping up and down. They screamed, their hair fell over their faces, they splashed one another. But suddenly, the smallest, who had a tub to herself, glanced up and saw who was looking. For a moment she seemed overcome with terror, then clumsily she struggled and strained out of her tub, and still holding her clothes above her waist. " The Englishman I page 182The Englishman ! " she shrieked and fled away to hide. Shrieking and screaming, the other two followed her. In a moment they were gone ; in a moment there was nothing but the two brimming tubs and their little drawers on the bush.
" How — very — extraordinary ! " said she. " What made them so frightened ? Surely they were much too young to . . ." She looked up at him. She thought he looked pale—but wonderfully handsome with that great tropical tree behind him with its long, spiked thorns.
For a moment he did not answer. Then he met her glance, and smiling his slow smile, " Tres rum! " said he.
Tres rum ! Oh, she felt quite faint. Oh, why should she love him so much just because he said a thing like that. Tres rum ! That was Robert all over. Nobody else but Robert could ever say such a thing. To be so wonderful, so brilliant, so learned, and then to say in that queer, boyish voice. . . . She could have wept.
" You know you're very absurd, sometimes," said she.
" I am," he answered. And they walked on.
But she was tired. She had had enough. She did not want to walk any more.
" Leave me here and go for a little constitutional, won't you ? I'll be in one of these long chairs. What a good thing yoitVe got my cape ; you won't have to go upstairs for a rug. Thank you, Robert, page 183I shall look at that delicious heliotrope. . . . You won't be gone long ? "
" No—no. You don't mind being left ? "
" Silly ! I want you to go. I can't expect you to drag after your invalid wife every minute. . . . How long will you be ? "
He took out his watch. " It's just after half-past four. I'll be back at a quarter past five."
" Back at a quarter past five," she repeated, and she lay still in the long chair and folded her hands.
He turned away. Suddenly he was back again. " Look here, would you like my watch ? " And he dangled it before her.
" Oh ! " She caught her breath. " Very, very much." And she clasped the watch, the warm watch, the darling watch in her fingers. " Now go quickly."
The gates of the Pension Villa Excelsior were open wide, jammed open against some bold geraniums. Stooping a little, staring straight ahead, walking swiftly, he passed through them and began climbing the hill that wound behind the town like a great rope looping the villas together. The dust lay thick. A carriage came bowling along driving towards the Excelsior. In it sat the General and the Countess ; they had been for his daily airing. Mr. Salesby stepped to one side but the dust beat up, thick, white, stifling like wool. The Countess just had time to nudge the General.
" There he goes," she said spitefully.page 184
But the General gave a loud caw and refused to look.
" It is the Englishman," said the driver, turning round and smiling. And the Countess threw up her hands and nodded so amiably that he spat with satisfaction and gave the stumbling horse a cut.
On—on—past the finest villas in the town, magnificent palaces, palaces worth coming any distance to see, past the public gardens with the carved grottoes and statues and stone animals drinking at the fountain, into a poorer quarter. Here the road ran narrow and foul between high lean houses, the ground floors of which were scooped and hollowed into stables and carpenters' shops. At a fountain ahead of him two old hags were beating linen. As he passed them they squatted back on their haunches, stared, and then their " A-hak-kak-kak ! " with the slap, slap, of the stone on the linen sounded after him.
He reached the top of the hill; he turned a corner and the town was hidden. Down he looked into a deep valley with a dried up river bed at the bottom. This side and that was covered with small dilapidated houses that had broken stone verandahs where the fruit lay drying, tomato lanes in the garden, and from the gates to the doors a trellis of vines. The late sunlight, deep, golden, lay in the cup of the valley ; there was a smell of charcoal in the air. In the gardens the men were cutting grapes. He watched a man standing in the greenish page 185shade, raising up, holding a black cluster in one hand, taking the knife from his belt, cutting, laying the bunch in a flat boat-shaped basket. The man worked leisurely, silently, taking hundreds of years over the job. On the hedges on the other side of the road there were grapes small as berries, growing wild, growing among the stones. He leaned against a wall, filled his pipe, put a match to it. . . .