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H.E.Bates THE KIMONO

 

It was the second Saturday of August, 1911, when I came to

London for the interview with Kersch and Co. I was just twenty-

five. The summer had been almost tropical.

 

There used to be a train in those days that got into St

Pancras, from the North, about ten in the morning. I came by it

from Nottingham, left my bag in the cloakroom and went

straight down to the City by bus. The heat of London was

terrific, a white dust heat, thick with the smell of horse dung. I

had put on my best suit, a blue serge, and it was like a suit of

gauze. The heat seemed to stab at me through it.

 

Kersch and Co. were very nice. They were electrical engineers.

I had applied for a vacancy advertised by them. That morning I

was on the short list and Mr Alexander Kersch, the son, was

very nice to me. We talked a good deal about Nottingham and I

asked him if he knew the Brownsons, who were prominent Con-

gregationalists there, but he said no. Everyone in Nottingham,

almost, knew the Brownsons, but I suppose it did not occur to

me in my excitement that Kersch was a Jew. After a time he

offered me a whisky and soda, but I refused. I had been brought

up rather strictly, and in any case the Brownsons would not have

liked it. Finally, MrKersch asked me if I could be in London

over the week-end. I said yes, and he asked me at once to come

in on Monday morning. I knew then that the job was as good as

settled and I was trembling with excitement as I shook hands

and said good-bye.

 

I came out of Kersch and Co. just before twelve o'clock. Their

offices were somewhere off Cheapside. I forget the name of the

street. I only remember, now, how yery hot it was. There was

something un-English about it. It was a terrific heat, fierce and

white. And I made up my mind to go straight back to St Pan-

cras and get my bag and take it to the hotel the Brownsons had

recommended to me. It was so hot that I didn't want to eat. I

felt that if I could get my room and wash and rest it would be

 

enough. I could eat later. I would go up West and do myself

rather well.

 

Pa Brownson had outlined the position of the hotel so well,

both in conversation and on paper, that when I came out of St

Pancras with my bag I felt I knew the way to the street as well as

if it had been in Nottingham. I turned east and then north and

went on turning left and then right, until finally I came to the

place where the street with the hotel ought to have been. It

wasn't there. I couldn't believe it. I walked about a bit, always

coming back to the same place again in case I should get lost.

Then I asked a baker's boy where Midhope Street was and he

didn't know. I asked one or two more people, and they didn't

know either. 'Wade's Hotel,' I would say, to make it clearer, but

it was no good. Then a man said he thought I should go back

towards St Pancras a bit, and ask again, and I did.



 

It must have been about two o'clock when I knew that I was

pretty well lost. The heat was shattering. I saw one or two other

hotels but they looked a bit low class and I was tired and

desperate.

 

Finally I set my bag down in the shade and wiped my face.

The sweat on me was filthy. I was wretched. The Brownsons had

been so definite about the hotel and I knew that when I got back

they would ask me if I liked it and all about it. Hilda

would want to know about it too. Later on, if I got the Kersch

job, we should be coming up to it for our honeymoon.

 

At last I picked up my bag again. Across the street was a little

sweet shop and cafe showing ices. I went across to it. I felt I had

to have something.

 

In the shop a big woman with black hair was tinkering with

the ice-cream mixer. Something had gone wrong. I saw that at

once. It was just my luck.

 

'I suppose it's no use asking for an ice?' I said.

 

'Well, if you wouldn't mind waiting.'

 

'How long?'

 

'As soon as ever I get this nut fixed on and the freezer going

again. We've had a breakdown.'

 

'All right. You don't mind if I sit down?' I said.

 

She said no, and I sat down and leaned one elbow on the tea-

table, the only one there was. The woman went on tinkering with

the freezer. She was a heavy woman, about fifty, a little swarthy,

 

and rather masterful to look at. The shop was stifling and filled

with a sort of yellowish-pink shade cast by the sun pouring

through the shop blind.

 

'I supposed it's no use asking you where Midhope Street is ?' I

said.

 

'Midhope Street/ she said. She put her tongue in her cheek, in

thought. 'Midhope Street, I ought to know that/

 

'Or Wade's Hotel.'

 

'Wade's Hotel,' she said. She wriggled her tongue between her

teeth. They were handsome teeth, very white. 'Wade's Hotel.

No. That beats me.' And then : 'Perhaps my daughter will know.

I'll call her.'

 

She straightened up to call into the back of the shop. But a

second before she opened her mouth the girl herself came in. She

looked surprised to see me there.

 

'Oh, here you are, Blanche ! This gentleman here is looking for

Wade's Hotel.'

 

'I'm afraid I'm lost,' I said.

 

'Wade's Hotel,' the girl said. She too stood in thought, run-

ning her tongue over her teeth, and her teeth too were very

white, like her mother's. 'Wade's Hotel. I've seen that some-

where. Surely?'

 

'Midhope Street.' I said.

 

'Midhope Street.'

 

No, she couldn't remember. She had on a sort of kimono,

loose, with big orange flowers all over it. I remember thinking it

was rather fast. For those days it was. It wouldn't be now. And

somehow, because it was so loose and brilliant, I couldn't take

my eyes off it. It made me uneasy, but it was an uneasiness in

which there was pleasure as well, almost excitement. I remember

thinking she was really half undressed. The kimono had no neck

and no sleeves. It was simply a piece of material that wrapped

over her, and when suddenly she bent down and tried to fit the

last screw on to the freezer the whole kimono fell loose and I

could see her body.

 

At the same time something else happened. Her hair fell over

her shoulder. It was the time of very long hair, the days when

girls would pride themselves that they could sit on their pig

tails, but hers was the longest hair I had ever seen. It was like

thick jet-black cotton-rope. And when she bent down over the

 

 

freezer the pig-tail of it was so long that the tip touched the

ice.

 

'I'm so sorry/ the girl said. 'My hair's always getting me into

trouble/

 

'It's all right. It just seems to be my unlucky day, that's all.'

 

'I'm so sorry.'

 

'Will you have a cup of tea?' the woman said. 'Instead of the

ice ? Instead of waiting ? '

 

'That's it, Mother. Get him some tea. You would like tea,

wouldn't you?'

 

'Very much.'

 

So the woman went through the counter-flap into the back of

the shop to get the tea. The girl and I, in the shop alone, stood

and looked at the freezer. I felt queer in some way, uneasy. The

girl had not troubled to tighten up her kimono. She let it hang

loose, anyhow, so that all the time I could see part of her

shoulder and now and then her breasts. Her skin was very white,

and once when she leaned forward rather farther than usual I

could have sworn that she had nothing on at all underneath.

 

'You keep looking at my kimono,' she said. 'Do you like it?'

 

'It's very nice,' I said. 'It's very nice stuff.'

 

'Lovely stuff. Feel of it. Go on. Just feel of it.'

 

I felt the stuff. For some reasons, perhaps it was because I had

had no food, I felt weak. And she knew it. She must have known

it. 'It's lovely stuff. Feel it. I made it myself.' She spoke sweetly

and softly, in invitation. There was something electric about her.

I listened quite mechanically. From the minute she asked me to

feel the stuff of her kimono I was quite helpless. She had me, as

it were, completely done up in the tangled maze of the orange

and green of its flowers and leaves.

 

'Are you in London for long? Only to-day?'

 

'Until Monday.'

 

'I suppose you booked your room at the hotel?'

 

'No. I didn't book it. But I was strongly recommended there.'

 

'I see.'

 

That was all, only 'I see.' But in it there was something quite

maddening. It was a kind of passionate veiled hint, a secret

invitation.

 

'Things were going well,' I said, 'until I lost my way.'

 

'Oh?'

 

'I came up for an interview and I got the job. At least I think

I got the job.'

 

'A bit of luck. I hope it's a good one ? '

 

'Yes/ I said. 'It is. Kersch and Co. In the City/

 

'Kersch and Co ?' she said. 'Not really ?Kersch and Co. ? '

 

'Yes/ I said. 'Why, do you know them?'

 

'Know them? Of course I know them. Everybody knows them.

That is a bit of luck for you.'

 

And really I was flattered. She knew Kersch and Co. !

She knew that it was a good thing. I think I was more pleased

because of the attitude of the Brownsons. Kersch and Co. didn't

mean anything to the Brownsons. It was just a name. They had

been rather cold about it. I think they would have liked me to

get the job, but they wouldn't have broken their hearts if I

hadn't. Certainly they hadn't shown any excitement.

 

'Kersch and Co./ the girl said again. 'That really is a bit of

luck.'

 

Then the woman came in with the tea. 'Would you like any-

thing to eat?'

 

'Well, I've had no dinner.'

 

'Oh! No wonder you look tired. I'll get you a sandwich. Is

that all right?'

 

'Thank you.'

 

So the woman went out to get the sandwich, and the girl and I

stayed in the shop again, alone.

 

'It's a pity you booked your room at the hotel,' she said.

 

'I haven't booked it/ I said.

 

'Oh ! I thought you said you'd booked it. Oh !My fault. You

haven't booked it ? '

 

'No. Why?'

 

'We take people in here/ she said. 'Over the cafe. It's not

central of course. But then we don't charge so much.'

 

I thought of the Brownsons. 'Perhaps I ought to go to

the hotel/ I said.

 

'We charge three and six/ she said. 'That isn't much, is it?'

 

'Oh, no!'

 

'Why don't you just come up and see the room?' she

said. 'Just come up.'

 

'Well—'

 

'Come up and see it. It won't eat you.'

 

 

She opened the rear door of the shop and in a moment I was

going upstairs behind her. She was not wearing any stockings.

Her bare legs were beautifully strong and white. The room was

over the cafe. It was a very good room for three and six. The

new wall-paper was silver-leaved and the bed was white and

looked cool.

 

And suddenly it seemed silly to go out into the heat again and

wander about looking for Wade's Hotel when I could stay where

I was.

 

Well, what do you think of it?' she said.

 

'I like it/ She sat down on the bed. The kimono was drawn

up over her legs and where it parted at her knees I could see her

thighs, strong and white and softly disappearing into the shadow

of the kimono. It was the day of long rather prim skirts and I

had never seen a woman's legs like that. There was nothing

between Hilda and me beyond kissing. All we had done was to

talk of things, but there was nothing in it. Hilda always used to

say that she would keep herself for me.

 

The girl hugged her knees. I could have sworn she had noth-

ing on under the kimono.

 

'I don't want to press you/ she said, 'but I do wish you'd stay.

You'd be our first let.'

 

Suddenly a great wave of heat came up from the street outside,

the fierce, horse-smelling, dust-white heat of the earlier day, and

I said:

 

'All right. I'll stay.'

 

'Oh, you angel!'

 

The way she said that was so warm and frank that I did not

know what to do. I simply smiled. I felt curiously weak with

pleasure. Standing there, I could smell suddenly not only

the heat but the warmth of her own body. It was sweetish and

pungent, the soft odour of sweat and perfume. My heart was

racing.

 

Then suddenly she got up and smoothed the kimono over her

knees and thighs.

 

'My father has just died, you see,' she said. 'We are trying this

for a living. You'll give us a start.'

 

Somehow it seemed too good to be true.

 

II

 

I know now that it was. But I will say more of that later, when

the time comes.

 

That evening I came down into the shop again about six

o'clock. I had had my tea and unpacked my things and rested. It

was not much cooler, but I felt better. I was glad I had stayed.

 

The girl, Blanche, was sitting behind the counter, fanning her-

self with the broken lid of a sweet-box. She had taken off her

kimono and was wearing a white gauzy dress with a black sash.

I was disappointed. I think she must have seen that, because she

pouted a bit when I looked at her. In turn I was glad she pouted.

It made her lips look full-blooded and rich and shining. There

was something lovely about her when she was sulky.

 

'Going out?' she said.

 

'Yes/ I said. 'I thought of going up West and celebrating over

Kersch and Co.'

 

'Celebrating ? By yourself ? '

 

'Well/ I said. Tm alone. There's no one else.'

 

'Lucky you/

 

I knew what she meant in a moment. 'Well/ I said, almost in

a joke, 'why don't you come?'

 

'Me?' she said, eyes wide open. 'You don't mean it. Me?'

 

'I do/ I said. 'I do mean it.'

 

She got up. 'How long can you wait? I'll just change my dress

and tell mother.'

 

'No hurry at all/ I said, and she ran upstairs.

 

I have said nothing about how old she was. In the kimono she

looked about twenty, and in the white dress about the same age,

perhaps a little younger. When she came down again that even-

ing she looked nearer twenty-six or twenty-seven. She looked

big and mature. She had changed from the white dress into a

startling yellow affair with a sort of black coatee cut away at the

hips. It was so flashy that I felt uneasy. It was very tight too :

the skirt so tight that I could see every line of her body, the

bodice filled tight in turn with her big breasts. I forget what her

hat was like. I rather fancy I thought it was rather silly.

But later she took it off.

 

'Well, where shall we go ?' she said.

 

'I thought of going up West and eating and perhaps dropping

in to hear some music.'

 

'Music. Isn't that rather dull?'

'Well, a play then.'

 

'I say/ she said, 'don't let's go up West. Let's go down to the

East End instead. We can have some fun. It'll do you good to

see how the Jews live. If you're going to work for a firm of Jews

you ought to know something about them. We might have some

Jewish food. I know a nice place.'

 

So we took a bus and went. In the Mile End Road we had a

meal. I didn't like it. The food didn't smell very nice. It was

spiced and strong and rather strange to eat. But Blanche liked it.

Finally she said she was thirsty. 'Let's go out of here and have

a drink somewhere else,' she said. 'I know a place where you can

get beautiful wine, cheap.' So we went from that restaurant to

another. We had some cheese and a bottle of wine - asti, I think

it was. The place was Italian. The evening was stifling and

everywhere people were drinking heavily and fanning themselves

limply against the heat. After the wine I began to feel rather

strange. I wasn't used to it and I hardly knew what I was doing.

The cheese was rather salt and made me thirsty. I kept drinking

almost unconsciously and my lips began to form syllables

roundly and loosely. I kept staring at Blanche and thinking of

her in the kimono. She in turn would stare back and we played a

kind of game, carrying on a kind of conversation with glances,

burning each other up, until at last she said :

 

'What's you name? You haven't told me yet.'

 

'Arthur,' I said. 'Arthur Lawson.'

 

'Arthur.'

 

The way she said it set my heart on fire. I just couldn't say

anything: I simply sat looking at her. There was an intimacy

then, at that moment, in the mere silences and glances between

us, that went far beyond anything I had known with Hilda.

 

Then she saw something on the back of the menu that made

her give a little cry.

 

'Oh, there's a circus ! Oh, let's go ! Oh, Arthur, you must take

me.'

 

So we went there too. I forget the name of the theatre and

really, except for some little men and women with wizened bird

faces and beards, there is nothing I remember except one thing.

In the middle of the show was a trapeze act. A girl was swinging

backwards and forwards across the stage in readiness to somer-

 

sault and the drum was rolling to rouse the audience to excite-

ment. Suddenly the girl shouted 'I can't do it!' and let loose.

She crashed down into the stalls and in a minute half the

audience were standing up in a pandemonium of terror.

 

'Oh ! Arthur, take me out.'

 

We went out directly. In those days women fainted more often

and more easily than they do now, and I thought Blanche would

faint too. As we came out into the street she leaned against me

heavily and clutched my arm.

 

Til get a cab and take you home/ I said.

 

'Something to drink first.'

 

I was a bit upset myself. We had a glass of port in a public

house. It must have been about ten o'clock. Before long, after the

rest and the port, Blanche's eyes were quite bright again.

 

Soon after that we took the cab and drove home. 'Let me lean

against you,' she said. I took her and held her. 'That's it,' she

said. 'Hold me. Hold me tight.' It was so hot in the cab that I

could hardly breathe and I could feel her face hot and moist too.

'You're so hot,' I said. She said it was her dress. The

velvetcoatee was too warm. 'I'll change it as soon as I get home,'

she said. 'Then we'll have a drink. Some ice-cream in lemonade.

That'll be nice.'

 

In the cab I looked down at her hair. It was amazingly black.

I smiled at it softly. It was full of odours that were warm and

voluptuous. But it was the blackness of it that was so wonderful

and so lovely.

 

'Why do they call you Blanche? I said. 'When you're so black.

Blanche means white.'

 

'How do you know I'm not white underneath?' she said.

 

I could not speak. No conversation I had ever had with

a woman had ever gone within miles of that single sentence. I sat

dazed, my heart racing. I did not know what to do. 'Hold

me tight,' she said. I held her and kissed her.

 

I got out of the cab mechanically. In the shop she went

straight upstairs. I kept thinking of what she had said. I was wild

with a new and for me a delicious excitement. Downstairs the

shop was in darkness and finally I could not wait for her to come

down again. I went quietly upstairs to meet her.

 

She was coming across the landing as I reached the head of

the stairs. She was in the kimono, in her bare feet.

 

'Where are you?' she said softly. 'I can't see you.' She came a

second later and touched me.

 

'Just let me see if mother has turned your bed back/ she

whispered.

 

She went into my bedroom. I followed her. She was leaning

over the bed. My heart was racing with a sensation of great long-

ing for her. She smoothed the bed with her hands and, as she did

so, the kimono, held no longer, fell right apart.

 

And as she turned again I could see, even in the darkness, that

she had nothing on underneath it at all.

 

ill

 

On the following Monday morning I saw Kersch and Co.

again and in the afternoon I went back to Nottingham. I had

been given the job.

 

But curiously, for a reason I could not explain, I was no longer

excited. I kept thinking of Blanche. I suppose, what with my en-

gagement to Hilda Brownson and so on, I ought to have been

uneasy and a little conscience-stricken. I was uneasy, but it was a

mad uneasiness and there was no conscience at all in it. I felt

reckless and feverish, almost desperate. Blanche was the first

woman I had known at all on terms of intimacy, and it shattered

me. All my complacent values of love and women were smashed.

I had slept with Blanche on Saturday night and again on Sunday

and the effect on me was one of almost catastrophic ecstasy.

 

That was something I had never known at all with Hilda: I

had never come near it. I am not telling this, emphasising the

physical side of it and singling out the more passionate implica-

tions of it, merely for the sake of telling it. I want to make clear

that I had undergone a revolution: a revolution brought about,

too, simply by a kimono and a girl's bare body underneath it.

And since it was a revolution that changed my whole life it seems

to me that I ought to make the colossal effect of it quite clear,

now and for always.

 

I know, now, that I ought to have broken it off with Hilda at

once. But I didn't. She was so pleased at my getting the Kersch

job that to have told her would have been as cruel as tak-

ing away a doll from a child. I couldn't tell her.

 

 

A month later we were married. My heart was simply not in it.

I wasn't there. All the time I was thinking of and, in imagina-

tion, making love to Blanche. We spent our honeymoon at

Bournemouth in September.Kersch and Co. had been very nice

and the result was that I was not to take up the new appointment

until the twenty-fifth of the month.

 

I say appointment. It was the word the Brownsons always

used. From the very first they were not very much in love with

my going to work in London at all and taking Hilda with me. I

myself had no parents, but Hilda was their only child. That put

what seemed to me a snobbish premium on her. They set her on

a pedestal. My job was nothing beside Hilda. They began to dic-

tate what we should do and how and where we ought to live, and

finallyMrsBrownson suggested that we all go to London and

choose the flat in which we were to live. I objected. Then Hilda

cried and there was an unpleasant scene in which Pa Brownson

said that he thought I was unreasonable and that all Mrs

Brownson was trying to do was to ensure that I could give Hilda

as good a home as she had always had. He said something else

about God guiding us as He had always guided them. We must

put our trust in God. But God or no God, I was determined

that if we were going to live in a flat in London the Brownsons

shouldn't choose it. I would choose it myself. Because even

then I knew where, if it was humanly possible, I wanted it to

be.

 

In the end I went to London by myself. I talked round Hilda,

and Hilda talked round her mother, and her mother, I suppose,

talked round her father. At any rate I went. We decided on a flat

at twenty-five shillings a week if we could get it. It was then

about the twentieth of September.

 

I went straight from St Pancras to Blanche. It was a lovely

day, blue and soft. It was a pain for me merely to be alive. I got

to the shop just as Blanche was going out. We almost bumped

into each other.

 

'Arthur!'

 

The way she said it made me almost sick with joy. She had on

a tight fawn costume and a little fussy brown hat. 'Arthur! I

was just going out. You just caught me. But mother can go in-

stead. Oh ! Arthur.' Her mother came out of the back room and

in a minute Blanche had taken off her hat and costume and her

 

 

mother had gone out instead of her, leaving us alone in the shop.

 

We went straight upstairs. There was no decision, no asking,

no consent in it at all. We went straight up out of a tremendous

equal passion for each other. We were completely in unison, in

desire and act and consummation and everything. Someone came

in the shop and rang the bell loudly while we were upstairs, but

it made no difference. We simply existed for each other. There

was no outside world. She seemed to me then amazingly rich and

mature and yet sweet. She was like a pear, soft and full- juiced

and overflowing with passion. Beside her Hilda seemed like an

empty eggshell.

 

I stayed with the Hartmans that night and the next. There

were still three days to go before the Kersch job began. Then I

stayed another night. I telegraphed Hilda, "Delayed. Returning

certain to-morrow.'

 

I never went. I was bound, heart and soul, to Blanche Hart-

man. There was never any getting away from it. I was so far gone

that it was not until the second day of that second visit that I

noticed the name Hartman at all.

 

'I'm going to stay here,' I said to Blanche. 'Lodge here and live

with you. Do you want me?'

 

'Arthur, Arthur.'

 

'My God/ I said. 'Don't.' I simply couldn't bear the repetition

of my name. It awoke every sort of fierce passion in me.

 

Then after a time I said: 'There's something I've got to tell

you.'

 

'I know,' she said. 'About another girl. It doesn't matter. I

don't want to hear. I could tell you about other men.'

 

'No, but listen,' I said. 'I'm married.' I told her all about

Hilda.

 

'It doesn't matter,' she said. 'It makes no difference. You

could be a Mormon and it wouldn't matter.'

 

And after that, because it mattered nothing to her, it mattered

nothing to me. There is no conscience in passion. When I did

think of Hilda and the Brownsons it was like the squirt of a

syphon on to a blazing furnace. I really had no conscience at all.

I walked out of one life into another as easily as from one room

into another.

 

The only difficulty was Kersch and Co. It was there that Hilda

would inquire for me as soon as I failed to turn up.

 

 

Actually I got out of the Kersch difficulty as easily as I got out

of the rest. I didn't go back there either.

 

IV

 

I went on living with Blanche until the war broke out. I got

another job. Electrical engineers were scarcer in those days.

Then, as soon as the war broke out, I joined up.

 

In a way it was almost a relief. Passion can go too far and one

can have too much of it. I was tired out by a life that was too

full of sublimity. It was not that I was tired of Blanche. She re-

mained as irresistible to me as when I had first seen her in the

green and orange kimono. It was only that I was tired of the

constant act of passion itself. My spirit, as it were, had gone stale

and I needed rest.

 

The war gave it me. As soon as I came home for my first leave

I knew it was the best thing that could have happened to

me. Blanche and I went straight back to the almost unearthly

plane of former intimacy. It was the old almost catastrophic

ecstasy.

 

I say almost catastrophic. Now, when I think of it, I see that

it was really catastrophic. One cannot expect a woman to feed off

the food of the gods and then suddenly, because one man among

a million is not there, to go back on a diet of nothing at all. I am

trying to be reasonable about this. I am not blaming Blanche. It

is the ecstasy between us that I am blaming. It could not have

been otherwise than catastrophic.

 

I always think it odd that I did not see the catastrophe coming

before it did. But perhaps if I had seen it coming it would have

ceased to be a catastrophe. I don't know. I only know that I

came home in 1917, unexpectedly, and found that Blanche was

carrying on with another man.

 

I always remembered that Mrs Hartman looked extraordi-

narily scared as I walked into the shop that day. She was an

assured, masterful woman and it was not at all like her to be

scared. After a minute or so I went upstairs and in my bedroom a

man was just buttoning up his waistcoat. Blanche was not there,

but I understood.

 

I was furious, but the fury did not last. Blanche shattered it.

She was a woman to whom passion was as essential as bread. She

 

reminded me of that. But she reminded me also of something

else. She reminded me that that I was not married to her.

 

'But the moral obligation !' I raged.

 

'It's no good/ she said. 'I can't help it. It's no more than kis-

sing to me. Don't be angry, honey. If you can't take me as I am

you're not bound to take me at all.'

 

And in the end she melted my fury. 'What's between us is

different from all the rest/ she said. I believed her and she

demonstrated it to me too. And I clung to that until the end of

the war.

 

But when I came home finally it had gone farther than that.

There was more than one man. They came to the shop, travellers

in the sweet-trade, demobilised young officers with cars. They

called while I was at my job.

 

I found out about it. This time I didn't say anything. I did

something instead. I gave up what the Brownsons would have

called my appointment.

 

'But what have you done that for?' Blanche said.

 

'I can't stand being tied by a job any more/ I said. 'I'll work

here. We'll develop the shop. There's money in it.'

 

'Who's going to pay for it?'

 

'I will.'

 

Just before I married Hilda I had nearly a hundred and fifty

pounds in the bank. I had had it transferred to a London branch

and it was almost all of it still there. I drew it out and in the

summer of 1919 I spent nearly £80 of it on renovating the Hart-

man's shop. Blanche was delighted. She supervised the decora-

tions and the final colour scheme of the combined shop and cafe

was orange and green.

 

'Like your kimono/ I said. 'You remember it? That old one?'

 

'Oh ! Arthur. I've got it.'

 

'Put it on/ I said.

 

She went upstairs and put it on. In about a minute I followed

her. It was like old times. It brought us together again.

 

'Tell me something/ I said. 'That first day, when I came in.

You hadn't anything on underneath, had you?'

 

'No/ she said. 'I'd just had a bath and it was all I had time to

slip on.'

 

'By God, kiss me.'

 

She kissed me and I held her very tight. Her body was thicker

 

and heavier now, but she was still lovely. It was all I asked. I was

quite happy.

 

Then something else happened. I got used to seeing men in the

shop. Most of them shot off now when they saw me, but one day

when I came back from the bank there was a man in the living-

room.

 

He was an oldish chap, with pepper and salt hair cut rather

short.

 

'Hello/ I said, 'what's eating you?' I got to be rather short

with any man I saw hanging about the place.

 

'Nothing's eating me,' he said. 'It's me who wants something

to eat.'

 

'Oh! Who are you?'

 

'My name's Hartman,' he said.

 

I looked straight at his hair. It was Blanche's father. And in a

minute I knew that he was out of prison.

 

I don't know why, but it was more of a shock to me than

Blanche's affairs with other men. Blanche and I could fight out

the question of unfaithfulness between ourselves, but the ques-

tion of a criminal in the house was different.

 

'He isn't a criminal,' Blanche said. 'He's easily led and he was

led away by others. Be kind to him, honey.'

 

Perhaps I was soft. Perhaps I had no right to do anything. It

was not my house, it was not my father. Blanche was not even

my wife. What could I possibly do but let him stay?

 

That summer we did quite well with the new cafe. We made

a profit of nine and very often ten or eleven pounds a week.

Hartman came home in May. In July things began to get worse.

Actually, with the summer at its height, they ought to have been

better. But the takings dropped to six and even five pounds.

Blanche and her mother kept saying that they couldn't under-

stand it.

 

But I could. Or at least I could after a long time. It was Hart-

man. He was not only sponging on me, but robbing the till too.

All the hard-earned savings of the shop were being boozed away

by Hartman.

 

I wanted to throw him out. But Blanche and her mother

wouldn't hear of it. 'He's nothing but a damned scoundrel/ I

shouted.

 

'He's my father/ Blanche said.

 

That was the beginning of it. I date the antagonism between

us and also the estrangement between us from that moment. It

was never the same afterwards. I could stand Blanche being

nothing more or less than a whore, but it was the thought of the

old man and the thought of my own stupidity and folly that en-

raged me and finally almost broke me up.

 

Perhaps I shouldn't have written the word whore, and I

wouldn't have done if it wasn't for the fact that, as I sit here, my

heart is really almost broken.

 

I am sitting in what used to be my bedroom. We have changed

it into a sitting-room now. We ought to have it done up. We

haven't had new paper on it for seven or eight years.

 

I am just fifty. I think Blanche is just about fifty, too. She is

out somewhere. It's no use thinking where. Passion is still as

essential to her as bread. It means no more to her and I have

long since given up asking where she goes. And somehow - and

this is the damnable part of it all -I am still fond of her, but

gently and rather foolishly now. What I feel for her most is

regret. Not anger and not passion. I couldn't keep up with her

pace. She long since outdistanced me in the matter of emotions.

 

Mrs Hartman is dead. I am sorry. She was likeable and though

sometimes I didn't trust her I think she liked me. Hartman still

hangs on. I keep the till-money locked up, but somehow he picks

the locks, and there it is. He's too clever for me and I can't prove

it. I feel as if, now, I am in a prison far more complete than any

Hartman was ever in. It is a bondage directly inherited from that

first catastrophic passion for Blanche. It's that, really, that I

can't escape. It binds me irrevocably. I know that I shall never

escape.

 

Last night, for instance, I had a chance to escape. I know of

course that I'm a free man and that I am not married to Blanche

and that I could walk out now and never come back. But this

was different.

 

Hilda asked for me. I was in the shop, alone, just about six

o'clock. I was looking at the paper. We don't get many people in

the cafe now, but I always have the evening paper, in case. This

district has gone down a lot and the cafe of course has gone

 

 

down with it. We don't get the people in that we did. And as I

was reading the paper the wireless was on. At six o'clock, the

dance band ended and in another moment or two someone was

saying my name.

 

'Will Arthur Lawson, last heard of in London twenty-five

years ago, go at once to the Nottingham Infirmary, where his

wife, Hilda Lawson, is dangerously ill.'

 

That was all. No one but me, in this house I mean, heard it.

Afterwards no one mentioned it. Round here they think my

name is Hartman. It was as though it had never happened.

 

But it was for me all right. When I heard it I stood stunned,

as though something had struck me. I almost died where I stood,

at the foot of the stairs.

 

Then after a bit I got over it enough to walk upstairs to the

sitting-room. I did not know quite what I was doing. I felt faint

and I sat down. I thought it over. After a minute I could see that

there was no question of going. If it had been Blanche - yes. But

not Hilda. I couldn't face it. And I just sat there and thought

not of what I should do but what I might have done.

 

I thought of that hot day in 1911, and the Kersch job and how

glad I was to get it. I thought about Hilda. I wondered what she

looked like now and what she had done with herself for twenty-

five years and what she had suffered. Finally I thought of that

catastrophic ecstasy with Blanche, and then of the kimono. And

I wondered how things might have gone if the Hartmans' ice-

cream freezer had never broken and if Blanche had been dressed

as any other girl would have been dressed that day.

 

And thinking and wondering, I sat there and cried like a

child.

 

 


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 3631


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