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Chapter Six (B)

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« on: July 28, 2023, 12:34:57 pm »

When Lady Winkle had finished her drink, she took Orvil to his room and kissed him good-night, and asked if he had everything he needed. She then shut herself into her own room.

Sir Robert still sat in the living-room, drinking weak whisky-and-soda and reading Mary Webb.

Orvil heard the gentle sounds of Lady Winkle undressing. Soft things fell on chairs or on the bed. He heard the rhythmic sucking noise of a hair-brush being plied. He imagined Lady Winkle putting a little bird’s nest of dead hair into the hole in the silver cover of an Edwardian hair-tidy. He saw her unlace a fantastic pair of corsets which reached from her knees to her armpits. The eyes, through which the laces passed, were like miniature brass-bound portholes, the laces themselves like small hawsers.

To stop himself from picturing this nightmarish enlargement of things, Orvil looked round his room in a search for some reality on which to fix his mind. He concentrated on an ‘Adam’ mirror; old, imitation, once gilt, now painted white, the white paint chipping off, some of the plaster knocked from the spidery wreaths showing the wire skeleton underneath. It too seemed horrible. Orvil turned away and began to undress.

There were lumps in the bed. He lay in the dark, half enjoying the slight throb from the bite on his leg, but hating his surroundings. Voices came up from the street. He felt that he would never get to sleep.

Suddenly the light was switched on, and then off again immediately. But in that moment Orvil had seen Sir Robert standing in the doorway in a dressing-gown of alternate peacock velvet and yellow satin stripes. From one of his ears dangled the curious bag which he would later fix over his moustache, and on his feet were those silvered, gilded and coloured morocco slippers which can be bought in the Burlington Arcade. Evidently he always undressed in the sitting-room before going in to sleep with his wife.

Orvil heard him slink across the room and open his wife’s door. He heard them talking together in undertones. There even seemed to be some slight argument; but Orvil shut his ears to it obstinately, crossed his arms like an Egyptian mummy, then turned over on to his stomach and waited for sleep.
. . .

At breakfast they had eggs baked with butter in little blue earthenware ramekins. Constance, looking plump and rather pale, brought these in from the kitchen, one after another. Lady Winkle made the coffee in her own machine. She bestowed a special care and attention on each huge breakfast cup. Guy was told to watch the toast in the electric toaster, but the puppy took up so much of his attention that the bread came out with large black bars, like scarecrow fingers, across it.

Orvil breathed more freely when Sir Robert got up to go to the golf club. He turned his head and looked about the room. He gazed again at the case of miniatures. All the little faces seemed to be watching intently the progress of the breakfast.

It was going to be very hot; there was a hum and lull of heat from the open windows; little balls of sweat pushed up through the powder on Lady Winkle’s face. As she sipped her coffee she said once more, “I must have my drinks absolutely boiling, whatever the weather’s like!”

She had come to the table in her dressing-gown. It was not as flamboyant or as beautiful as her husband’s. It had greyish curtain lace round the neck and was of pale larkspur quilted sateen. At one time or another Lady Winkle had spilt things down the front.

She got up and went to her room to dress. Guy also left the table and began to cut up the rump steak which he had bought for his puppy with his own money. He sprinkled cat-biscuit on top of the deep red pieces, imagining it to be more delicate and appetizing than the ordinary puppy shapes. But the puppy took no notice of the biscuit. Before gobbling each piece of meat, it shook it until all the biscuit had fallen off. Guy became very stern. He spoke in his assumed voice again and threatened to beat the puppy 'within an inch of its life.’

Orvil went to his room and made the bed quickly, straightening the clothes and tucking them in; then he dried a few forks and knives and plates with Constance in the kitchen. Most of the work was already done, so Orvil sat on the kitchen table and listened to Constance’s stories of life in Paris during the Terror. She described aristocrats who painted their faces and applied patches in becoming places before mounting the steps of the guillotine. Her eyes glowed. She loved these fancy stories.

At half-past ten they decided to go down to the beach to bathe. It was now so hot that Orvil took off his jacket and carried it over his arm. Guy looked at him disapprovingly and still went on sweating in his own jacket.

Lady Winkle sat on the beach with the puppy, while Constance and Guy and Orvil bathed. Constance, who could not swim well, practised her breast-stroke religiously. As she struck out, she seemed to be counting in her mind, or praying. Her absorption annoyed Guy. He came up behind her and splashed her; then, when she took no notice, he got on to her back and ducked her. As she came up gasping and spluttering, her eyes shut, Orvil saw the greenish shadowed valley between her big white breasts. The sight shocked him. He thought of Aphra in the grotto. He saw a hairless white camel in the desert. He was riding on its back, between the humps. They were not really humps but Constance’s breasts, or miniature volcanoes with holes at the top, out of which poured clouds of milky-white smoke, and sometimes long, thin, shivering tongues of fire . . .

Orvil came back to the beach at Hastings. He decided to leave the water and to go and lie by Lady Winkle in the sun. He took a Pack-a-Cake biscuit out of Constance’s paper bag and lay face downwards on his towel. Lady Winkle roused him by asking him to accompany her on her daily shopping expedition into the town.

Orvil got up at once and went to the wooden hut to dress. When he came out he found Lady Winkle making a trumpet of her hands and shouting weakly and delicately to Constance in the water.

“Do make them hear, Orvil dear,” she said exhaustedly. “Tell them we’re going into the town, but will be back to lunch.”

Orvil shouted and then followed Lady Winkle up the stone steps. They did not talk very much until they were well into the town. This silence made Orvil realize that Lady Winkle had manoeuvred this walk alone with him, that she had some special thing to say to him. He carried her shopping basket and waited. As they approached a cafe, Lady Winkle said, “Shall we go in and have something hot to drink, Orvil dear?”

Orvil was appalled; he was already sticky with heat, in spite of having bathed.

“Do you think I could have something cold?” he suggested; “an ice-cream or lemonade?”

“Of course, dear,” Lady Winkle said.

They turned into the shop and sat at the back, almost in the dark. Still Lady Winkle did not speak. She sipped her coffee and watched Orvil dig his spoon into the pink-and-white marbled ball of ice-cream. The hot drink brought out an almost perfectly graded string of little sweat beads along her upper lip, and there was a delicate dew, like melted butter, round her eyes.

There was a little silence. Lady Winkle darted a look at Orvil, then rushed on in a changed voice. It was a theatrical yet an anguished voice.

“I’m so terribly afraid that he may turn out to be like my people. You know, my father more or less drank himself to death, and my brother has just been had up for assaulting a policeman. It’s frightful; they’re all supposed to drink---only the men, not the girls,” she added hastily. “It’s spoilt their lives. I don’t know what I’d do if Guy went the same way when he grew older.”

Orvil was startled, shocked, excited. He thought that Lady Winkle’s picture of Guy as a probable drunkard was ludicrous and too melodramatic, but he felt very much for Lady Winkle in her trouble, and wanted to charm away her fears. What she had said about her father and brother excited him. He saw the old man drinking bottle after bottle of port, then falling down dead under the table. The brother he saw running down St. James’s Street, roaring and singing with a bottle in his hand. At the palace gates the policeman who tried to stop him was knocked on the head with the bottle and deluged in red wine. Long green glass splinters stuck into his skull . . .

“But surely,” Orvil said to Lady Winkle in a very scientific voice, “drinking’s not really hereditary at all. My father’s very fond of whisky-and-soda but I hate it, and my eldest brother, Charles, who doesn’t mind what he does, never seems to get drunk. He says beer is filth.”

“Oh dear, I’m so terrified,” said Lady Winkle. “I know Guy has the seeds of it in him; I can see it. You must help, Orvil. He often listens to you. I want you to see a lot of him when you both grow up. He wouldn’t get into a drinking set then. You’re so sensible.”

Orvil felt solemn. He was flattered by Lady Winkle’s trust and belief in him, and he wanted to help her; but he knew in his heart that he would see very little of Guy in the years to come.

Lady Winkle paid the bill and they got up to go. As they walked back to the flat, Lady Winkle told Orvil about the song she had once written. She seemed happier, now that she had spoken of her worry. The song had been about a young and attractive girl who went out to India and yet could not find a husband. It described how she went to a ball and stood ‘a looker-on.’ Each verse ended with this refrain; “I stand and wait, a looker-on.” Lady Winkle had taken this song to a music publisher but had unfortunately had no success. She had written no more songs, but she still cherished this one and thought about it sometimes.

At lunch Constance told Orvil that her grandmother had asked them all to tea that afternoon.

“She’s very old, nearly ninety,” said Constance, “and her mind wanders sometimes and she goes vague. Perhaps you’d rather not come; but if you can face it, I think she’d rather enjoy seeing you.”

Orvil murmured that he too would enjoy seeing the grandmother.

She lived quite near, in a terrace that led down to the sea. As Orvil stood with the others on her doorstep he wondered how mad she would be. They found the grandmother with her younger son in the dining-room. The son was a short, plump clergyman; he stood over his mother, giggling. She was sitting in the bow-window, leaning back, stretching out her hands, her mouth a little open as if she were exhausted. It could be told from her eyes that she saw everything floating in a bluish mist.

When Constance took Orvil up to her and introduced him, she looked even more bewildered.

“What’s her name?” she asked. “Say it again, please, dear; I’m sure it’s a pretty one.”

The clergyman gave an insane titter. Like cats arching their backs, his black eyebrows rose on his moon face, and his lips grew wet and rosy. He wiped them with his handkerchief, then burst out again.

Orvil flushed, backed away, then stopped himself and tried to hold his hands rigid, but this made them shake even more.

“Granny, Orvil is an old school-friend of Guy’s,” Constance said severely, bending down low to the chair.

The old woman looked up into her eyes guiltily. “But it’s so difficult to tell now,” she complained. “All the girls are wearin’ pants;---and he’s got that curly hair!”

Even through his hot shame and confusion, Orvil was able to wonder where the grandmother had picked up the Americanism ‘pants’ for ‘trousers.’

Old Lady Winkle was looking round the room for sympathy in her blunder, but when no eye met hers, she rallied herself and began a perfect tea-time conversation.

Orvil shook his head nervously, feeling ignorant and at a disadvantage. It was hardly surprising that he did not know these Hoggs, since they had all been dead and buried for many years.

Seeing his eyes stray to a little picture of an early eighteenth-century child, old Lady Winkle said, “Ah, isn’t that lovely! It’s a Raeburn.”

She began to tell even more impossible stories about other things in the room. A Victorian fish-knife lying on the mantelpiece was transformed by her into a Turkish scimitar from Constantinople; an earthenware frog money-box into an extremely rare fossil.

Suddenly she jumped up from her chair and left the room. She could be heard nimbly climbing the stairs.

Constance looked at her mother in slight alarm, but Uncle Tim, the giggling clergyman, seemed to take no notice, and so Constance felt reassured. She went on talking to her uncle until Grey, the servant, came up from her basement, and putting her head round the door asked, “Where’s my Lovey?”

“I think she ran upstairs, Grey,” said Constance rather guiltily.

“What! Ran upstairs! And nobody after her, or telling me!” exclaimed Grey with extravagant horror. She soundly rated everyone, including Lady Winkle.

“Stop grinning like the Cheshire Cheese,” she rapped out, turning on the clergyman.

“‘Cat’ you mean, Grey, not ‘cheese.’ You always get your allusions wrong,” said Uncle Tim, still smiling.

Grey left the room and raced up the stairs two at a time. Constance moved towards the door, in case her help should be needed, and Orvil got up to follow her. He dreaded the idea of being left to talk with Uncle Tim.

They found old Lady Winkle sitting at her piano in the drawing-room. Behind the thick lace curtains the window was open and a hot wind blew the cut-glass drops of the early-Victorian candlesticks together, so that they tinkled and jangled like fairy scarecrows.

Lady Winkle was singing as she played. She had forgotten the professional touch of taking all rings off before beginning, and so her spidery fingers glittered, the dusty, dirty little rubies, sapphires, half-pearls and diamonds glanced and glinted, as she trilled or made mordents.

The noise that escaped from her lips fascinated Orvil. Her voice was so distorted by age that it had a special beauty of its own. Even the quavering seemed lovely and passionate. And the sprightly parts of the unknown song were cracked across and split into the most fantastic new patterns.

The hands played quite automatically, like a pianola-roll turning. They were repeating the task which they had been taught perhaps sixty or seventy years ago.

The grandmother turned on her swivel-stool and saw Grey standing over her. Desperately she looked towards Constance for protection, but Constance seemed quite powerless in the presence of Grey.

“What do you mean by coming up here, Lovey?” asked Grey with inflexible sternness. “You know it’s not allowed.”

She laughed, and taking her mistress firmly by the shoulders, she began to propel her out of the room.

The grandmother protested weakly and hopelessly.

“Can’t I go on playin’?” she pleaded. “Just let me go on playin’ a little, Grey!”

At this the grandmother burst into tears. In a few moments her creased earth-white cheeks were wet and slippery-looking.

Orvil turned away, not being able to bear the sight, and Constance went over to the window and began to pick at the lace curtain furiously.

They heard Grey talking and admonishing in the bedroom.

After some minutes, she came out and walked down with them to the dining-room.

“She’s been so naughty that I’ve had to put her to bed,” Grey said with quiet satisfaction. “It’s the only way to make her simmer down. That piano always brings out the worst in her. I expect one of these fine days I’ll have to lock its lid and lose the key.” Here Grey gave Lady Winkle a most outrageous wink.

“Now I expect you’re all rampaging for your teas,” she said.

She stumped down to her basement, and after some tinkling of spoons and cups, and some rattling of tin lids, she reappeared carrying a large papier-mâché tray laden with bread and butter, cakes, three large pots of jam, and a bulbous brown teapot.

She set the tray down on the edge of the dining-table and started to pour out with careless good nature. She smiled on everyone and gave off a tremendous feeling of independence.

“The visitor shall have the one with the pretties on it,” she said as she held out to Orvil a cup with an extraordinary ‘jazz’ pattern jigging all over it.

Uncle Tim, absent-mindedly or gluttonously, put two sorts of jam on his plate. Grey immediately leant forward and gave him a smart rap on the knuckles with the handle of her knife.

“Greedy!” she said. “Mr. Manners allows only one sort at a time.”

“Really, Grey, this isn’t the nursery,” Uncle Tim began quite crossly, then he dissolved into fresh smiles and giggles.

By now, Orvil felt that he was trapped in a madhouse. He could not bear Grey’s behaviour, or the cowed look on the faces of all the Winkles. Even Guy, usually so arrogant, now drummed with his fingers and looked from side to side in an unsuccessful attempt at nonchalance. He had been obliged to leave his puppy at home, as Grey would not allow dogs in the house. “Nasty sniffin’ things,” she called them. “Never know where they’ll be sniffin’ next.” It was difficult to tell whether she dropped her ‘g’s’ naturally, or whether she had caught the affectation of her mistress.

“Poor Granny,” said Constance, evidently still brooding on the scene upstairs. “I expect so many of us upset her.”

“She didn’t seem upset,” Orvil burst out; “she seemed happy, playing on her piano so beautifully.”

There was an awkward pause. Grey shut her mouth rather tightly. Lady Winkle in her nervousness felt that she must make some sort of explanation.

“She usually never leaves this room except to go up to bed, Orvil; that’s why Grey disapproved and thought it so strange.”

Uncle Tim, to change the subject, said, “Did you know, Grey, Mother thought Guy’s friend was a girl. Her eyesight must be getting worse.” He broke into a fresh stream of titters. It was too high-pitched and spluttery to be called laughter.

“Fancy her sayin’ that!” Grey exclaimed. “It’s only her naughty teasin’.---She knows all right what the difference is!”

This extraordinary remark created another complete silence. Orvil felt tortured and sullied all over. He looked at Constance beseechingly, willing her to say that it was time for them to go.

There was a faint calling from upstairs: “Grey, Grey.”

But Grey took no notice.

“Mummy darling, don’t you think we ought to go?” said Constance at last, turning to Lady Winkle. “Granny’s calling Grey; and I expect there are lots of things to do before supper-time.”

They all stood up.

“Good-bye, Grey,” said Lady Winkle. “Look after her well, won’t you,” she added earnestly.

When she said good-bye to him, she shook his hand vigorously. “I’ve taken quite a fancy to you,” she told him. “You’re a nice quiet lad. Don’t you mind what Mister Tim says; my Lovey meant no harm. Boys shouldn’t have such hair; it’s a sin.”

As soon as they were outside the door, Orvil could not help saying to Constance, “What an extraordinary woman!” He was angry to think that the grandmother was entirely at her mercy.

“She’s really very good, you know,” said Constance. “I don’t know what Granny would do without her. She’s wonderfully dependable. It’s only her manner that puts people off just at first.”

They walked to the end of the street before Constance spoke again.

“Uncle Tim is such an original,” she said at last. “The most absurd things make him giggle for hours. I hope it didn’t upset you. He’s really a sort of Peter Pan who’s never grown up.”

Constance was clearly ashamed of her uncle’s behaviour, and annoyed with him for embarrassing Orvil so painfully.

“Oh, I didn’t mind a bit,” said Orvil at once. He felt a rush of gratitude towards Constance and wanted to make her feel less anxious about her family.

They began to talk about history again. Constance described the terrible tortures inflicted on the madman Damiens; then she jumped to the Empress Dowager of China.

Orvil listened to her with interest, and felt glad, as he walked along, that one whole day of his visit had melted away.

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