A Fragment of Life – Ia

Edward Darnell awoke from a dream of an ancient wood, and of a clear well rising into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat; and as his eyes opened he saw the sunlight bright in the room, sparkling on the varnish of the new furniture. He turned and found his wife’s place vacant, and with some confusion and wonder of the dream still lingering in his mind, he rose also, and began hurriedly to set about his dressing, for he had overslept a little, and the ‘bus passed the corner at 9.15. He was a tall, thin man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and in spite of the routine of the City, the counting of coupons, and all the mechanical drudgery that had lasted for ten years, there still remained about him the curious hint of a wild grace, as if he had been born a creature of the antique wood, and had seen the fountain rising from the green moss and the grey rocks.

The breakfast was laid in the room on the ground floor, the back room with the French windows looking on the garden, and before he sat down to his fried bacon he kissed his wife seriously and dutifully. She had brown hair and brown eyes, and though her lovely face was grave and quiet, one would have said that she might have awaited her husband under the old trees, and bathed in the pool hollowed out of the rocks.

They had a good deal to talk over while the coffee was poured out and the bacon eaten, and Darnell’s egg brought in by the stupid, staring servant-girl of the dusty face. They had been married for a year, and they had got on excellently, rarely sitting silent for more than an hour, but for the past few weeks Aunt Marian’s present had afforded a subject for conversation which seemed inexhaustible. Mrs. Darnell had been Miss Mary Reynolds, the daughter of an auctioneer and estate agent in Notting Hill, and Aunt Marian was her mother’s sister, who was supposed rather to have lowered herself by marrying a coal merchant, in a small way, at Turnham Green. Marian had felt the family attitude a good deal, and the Reynoldses were sorry for many things that had been said, when the coal merchant saved money and took up land on building leases in the neighbourhood of Crouch End, greatly to his advantage, as it appeared. Nobody had thought that Nixon could ever do very much; but he and his wife had been living for years in a beautiful house at Barnet, with bow-windows, shrubs, and a paddock, and the two families saw but little of each other, for Mr. Reynolds was not very prosperous. Of course, Aunt Marian and her husband had been asked to Mary’s wedding, but they had sent excuses with a nice little set of silver apostle spoons, and it was feared that nothing more was to be looked for. However, on Mary’s birthday her aunt had written a most affectionate letter, enclosing a cheque for a hundred pounds from ‘Robert’ and herself, and ever since the receipt of the money the Darnells had discussed the question of its judicious disposal. Mrs. Darnell had wished to invest the whole sum in Government securities, but Mr. Darnell had pointed out that the rate of interest was absurdly low, and after a good deal of talk he had persuaded his wife to put ninety pounds of the money in a safe mine, which was paying five per cent. This was very well, but the remaining ten pounds, which Mrs. Darnell had insisted on reserving, gave rise to legends and discourses as interminable as the disputes of the schools.

At first Mr. Darnell had proposed that they should furnish the ‘spare’ room. There were four bedrooms in the house: their own room, the small one for the servant, and two others overlooking the garden, one of which had been used for storing boxes, ends of rope, and odd numbers of ‘Quiet Days’ and ‘Sunday Evenings,’ besides some worn suits belonging to Mr. Darnell which had been carefully wrapped up and laid by, as he scarcely knew what to do with them. The other room was frankly waste and vacant, and one Saturday afternoon, as he was coming home in the ‘bus, and while he revolved that difficult question of the ten pounds, the unseemly emptiness of the spare room suddenly came into his mind, and he glowed with the idea that now, thanks to Aunt Marian, it could be furnished. He was busied with this delightful thought all the way home, but when he let himself in, he said nothing to his wife, since he felt that his idea must be matured. He told Mrs. Darnell that, having important business, he was obliged to go out again directly, but that he should be back without fail for tea at half-past six; and Mary, on her side, was not sorry to be alone, as she was a little behindhand with the household books. The fact was, that Darnell, full of the design of furnishing the spare bedroom, wished to consult his friend Wilson, who lived at Fulham, and had often given him judicious advice as to the laying out of money to the very best advantage. Wilson was connected with the Bordeaux wine trade, and Darnell’s only anxiety was lest he should not be at home.

However, it was all right; Darnell took a tram along the Goldhawk Road, and walked the rest of the way, and was delighted to see Wilson in the front garden of his house, busy amongst his flower-beds.

‘Haven’t seen you for an age,’ he said cheerily, when he heard Darnell’s hand on the gate; ‘come in. Oh, I forgot,’ he added, as Darnell still fumbled with the handle, and vainly attempted to enter. ‘Of course you can’t get in; I haven’t shown it you.’

It was a hot day in June, and Wilson appeared in a costume which he had put on in haste as soon as he arrived from the City. He wore a straw hat with a neat pugaree protecting the back of his neck, and his dress was a Norfolk jacket and knickers in heather mixture.

‘See,’ he said, as he let Darnell in; ‘see the dodge. You don’t turn the handle at all. First of all push hard, and then pull. It’s a trick of my own, and I shall have it patented. You see, it keeps undesirable characters at a distance–such a great thing in the suburbs. I feel I can leave Mrs. Wilson alone now; and, formerly, you have no idea how she used to be pestered.’

‘But how about visitors?’ said Darnell. ‘How do they get in?’

‘Oh, we put them up to it. Besides,’ he said vaguely, ‘there is sure to be somebody looking out. Mrs. Wilson is nearly always at the window. She’s out now; gone to call on some friends. The Bennetts’ At Home day, I think it is. This is the first Saturday, isn’t it? You know J. W. Bennett, don’t you? Ah, he’s in the House; doing very well, I believe. He put me on to a very good thing the other day.’

‘But, I say,’ said Wilson, as they turned and strolled towards the front door, ‘what do you wear those black things for? You look hot. Look at me. Well, I’ve been gardening, you know, but I feel as cool as a cucumber. I dare say you don’t know where to get these things? Very few men do. Where do you suppose I got ’em?’

‘In the West End, I suppose,’ said Darnell, wishing to be polite.

‘Yes, that’s what everybody says. And it is a good cut. Well, I’ll tell you, but you needn’t pass it on to everybody. I got the tip from Jameson–you know him, “Jim-Jams,” in the China trade, 39 Eastbrook–and he said he didn’t want everybody in the City to know about it. But just go to Jennings, in Old Wall, and mention my name, and you’ll be all right. And what d’you think they cost?’

‘I haven’t a notion,’ said Darnell, who had never bought such a suit in his life.

‘Well, have a guess.’

Darnell regarded Wilson gravely.

The jacket hung about his body like a sack, the knickerbockers drooped lamentably over his calves, and in prominent positions the bloom of the heather seemed about to fade and disappear.

‘Three pounds, I suppose, at least,’ he said at length.

‘Well, I asked Dench, in our place, the other day, and he guessed four ten, and his father’s got something to do with a big business in Conduit Street. But I only gave thirty-five and six. To measure? Of course; look at the cut, man.’

Darnell was astonished at so low a price.

‘And, by the way,’ Wilson went on, pointing to his new brown boots, ‘you know where to go for shoe-leather? Oh, I thought everybody was up to that! There’s only one place. “Mr. Bill,” in Gunning Street,–nine and six.’

They were walking round and round the garden, and Wilson pointed out the flowers in the beds and borders. There were hardly any blossoms, but everything was neatly arranged.

‘Here are the tuberous-rooted Glasgownias,’ he said, showing a rigid row of stunted plants; ‘those are Squintaceæ; this is a new introduction, Moldavia Semperflorida Andersonii; and this is Prattsia.’

‘When do they come out?’ said Darnell.

‘Most of them in the end of August or beginning of September,’ said Wilson briefly. He was slightly annoyed with himself for having talked so much about his plants, since he saw that Darnell cared nothing for flowers; and, indeed, the visitor could hardly dissemble vague recollections that came to him; thoughts of an old, wild garden, full of odours, beneath grey walls, of the fragrance of the meadowsweet beside the brook.

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