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CHAPTER XX

Not far from the dark-haloed indeterminate limbo where dwelt that
bugbear of Charles Courtier, the great Half-Truth Authority, he
himself had a couple of rooms at fifteen shillings a week. Their
chief attraction was that the great Half-Truth Liberty had
recommended them. They tied him to nothing, and were ever at his
disposal when he was in London; for his landlady, though not bound by
agreement so to do, let them in such a way, that she could turn
anyone else out at a week's notice. She was a gentle soul, married
to a socialistic plumber twenty years her senior. The worthy man had
given her two little boys, and the three of them kept her in such
permanent order that to be in the presence of Courtier was the
greatest pleasure she knew. When he disappeared on one of his
nomadic missions, explorations, or adventures, she enclosed the whole
of his belongings in two tin trunks and placed them in a cupboard
which smelled a little of mice. When he reappeared the trunks were
reopened, and a powerful scent of dried rose-leaves would escape.
For, recognizing the mortality of things human, she procured every
summer from her sister, the wife of a market gardener, a consignment
of this commodity, which she passionately sewed up in bags, and
continued to deposit year by year, in Courtier's trunks.

This, and the way she made his toast--very crisp--and aired his
linen--very dry, were practically the only things she could do for a
man naturally inclined to independence, and accustomed from his
manner of life to fend for himself.

At first signs of his departure she would go into some closet or
other, away from the plumber and the two marks of his affection, and
cry quietly; but never in Courtier's presence did she dream of
manifesting grief--as soon weep in the presence of death or birth, or
any other fundamental tragedy or joy. In face of the realities of
life she had known from her youth up the value of the simple verb
'sto--stare-to stand fast.'

And to her Courtier was a reality, the chief reality of life, the
focus of her aspiration, the morning and the evening star.

The request, then five days after his farewell visit to Mrs. Noel--
for the elephant-hide trunk which accompanied his rovings, produced
her habitual period of seclusion, followed by her habitual appearance
in his sitting-room bearing a note, and some bags of dried rose--
leaves on a tray. She found him in his shirt sleeves, packing.

"Well, Mrs. Benton; off again!"

Mrs. Benton, plaiting her hands, for she had not yet lost something
of the look and manner of a little girl, answered in her flat, but
serene voice:

"Yes, sir; and I hope you're not going anywhere very dangerous this
time. I always think you go to such dangerous places."

"To Persia, Mrs. Benton, where the carpets come from."

"Oh! yes, sir. Your washing's just come home."

Her, apparently cast-down, eyes stored up a wealth of little details;
the way his hair grew, the set of his back, the colour of his braces.
But suddenly she said in a surprising voice:

"You haven't a photograph you could spare, sir, to leave behind? Mr.
Benton was only saying to me yesterday, we've nothing to remember him
by, in case he shouldn't come back."

"Here's an old one."

Mrs. Benton took the photograph.

"Oh!" she said; "you can see who it is." And holding it perhaps too
tightly, for her fingers trembled, she added:

"A note, please, sir; and the messenger boy is waiting for--an
answer."

While he read the note she noticed with concern how packing had
brought the blood into his head....

When, in response to that note, Courtier entered the well-known
confectioner's called Gustard's, it was still not quite tea-time, and
there seemed to him at first no one in the room save three middle-
aged women packing sweets; then in the corner he saw Barbara. The
blood was no longer in his head; he was pale, walking down that
mahogany-coloured room impregnated with the scent of wedding-cake.
Barbara, too, was pale.

So close to her that he could count her every eyelash, and inhale the
scent of her hair and clothes to listen to her story of Miltoun, so
hesitatingly, so wistfully told, seemed very like being kept waiting
with the rope already round his neck, to hear about another person's
toothache. He felt this to have been unnecessary on the part of
Fate! And there came to him perversely the memory of that ride over
the sun-warmed heather, when he had paraphrased the old Sicilian
song: 'Here will I sit and sing.' He was a long way from singing
now; nor was there love in his arms. There was instead a cup of tea;
and in his nostrils the scent of cake, with now and then a whiff of
orange-flower water.

"I see," he said, when she had finished telling him: "'Liberty's a
glorious feast!' You want me to go to your brother, and quote Bums?
You know, of course, that he regards me as dangerous."

"Yes; but he respects and likes you."

"And I respect and like him," answered Courtier.

One of the middle-aged females passed, carrying a large white card-
board box; and the creaking of her stays broke the hush.

"You have been very sweet to me," said Barbara, suddenly.

Courtier's heart stirred, as if it were turning over within him; and
gazing into his teacup, he answered

"All men are decent to the evening star. I will go at once and find
your brother. When shall I bring you news?"

"To-morrow at five I'll be at home."

And repeating, "To-morrow at five," he rose.


Looking back from the door, he saw her face puzzled, rather
reproachful, and went out gloomily. The scent of cake, and orange-
flower water, the creaking of the female's stays, the colour of
mahogany, still clung to his nose and ears, and eyes; but within him
it was all dull baffled rage. Why had he not made the most of this
unexpected chance; why had he not made desperate love to her? A
conscientious ass! And yet--the whole thing was absurd! She was so
young! God knew he would be glad to be out of it. If he stayed he
was afraid that he would play the fool. But the memory of her words:
"You have been very sweet to me!" would not leave him; nor the
memory of her face, so puzzled, and reproachful. Yes, if he stayed
he would play the fool! He would be asking her to marry a man double
her age, of no position but that which he had carved for himself, and
without a rap. And he would be asking her in such a way that she
might possibly have some little difficulty in refusing. He would be
letting himself go. And she was only twenty--for all her woman-of-
the-world air, a child! No! He would be useful to her, if possible,
this once, and then clear out!




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
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