A Fragment of Life – 2a

All day long a fierce and heavy heat had brooded over the City, and as Darnell neared home he saw the mist lying on all the damp lowlands, wreathed in coils about Bedford Park to the south, and mounting to the west, so that the tower of Acton Church loomed out of a grey lake. The grass in the squares and on the lawns which he overlooked as the ‘bus lumbered wearily along was burnt to the colour of dust. Shepherd’s Bush Green was a wretched desert, trampled brown, bordered with monotonous poplars, whose leaves hung motionless in air that was still, hot smoke. The foot passengers struggled wearily along the pavements, and the reek of the summer’s end mingled with the breath of the brickfields made Darnell gasp, as if he were inhaling the poison of some foul sick-room.

He made but a slight inroad into the cold mutton that adorned the tea-table, and confessed that he felt rather ‘done up’ by the weather and the day’s work.

‘I have had a trying day, too,’ said Mary. ‘Alice has been very queer and troublesome all day, and I have had to speak to her quite seriously. You know I think her Sunday evenings out have a rather unsettling influence on the girl. But what is one to do?’

‘Has she got a young man?’

‘Of course: a grocer’s assistant from the Goldhawk Road–Wilkin’s, you know. I tried them when we settled here, but they were not very satisfactory.’

‘What do they do with themselves all the evening? They have from five to ten, haven’t they?’

‘Yes; five, or sometimes half-past, when the water won’t boil. Well, I believe they go for walks usually. Once or twice he has taken her to the City Temple, and the Sunday before last they walked up and down Oxford Street, and then sat in the Park. But it seems that last Sunday they went to tea with his mother at Putney. I should like to tell the old woman what I really think of her.’

‘Why? What happened? Was she nasty to the girl?’

‘No; that’s just it. Before this, she has been very unpleasant on several occasions. When the young man first took Alice to see her–that was in March–the girl came away crying; she told me so herself. Indeed, she said she never wanted to see old Mrs. Murry again; and I told Alice that, if she had not exaggerated things, I could hardly blame her for feeling like that.’

‘Why? What did she cry for?’

‘Well, it seems that the old lady–she lives in quite a small cottage in some Putney back street–was so stately that she would hardly speak. She had borrowed a little girl from some neighbour’s family, and had managed to dress her up to imitate a servant, and Alice said nothing could be sillier than to see that mite opening the door, with her black dress and her white cap and apron, and she hardly able to turn the handle, as Alice said. George (that’s the young man’s name) had told Alice that it was a little bit of a house; but he said the kitchen was comfortable, though very plain and old-fashioned. But, instead of going straight to the back, and sitting by a big fire on the old settle that they had brought up from the country, that child asked for their names (did you ever hear such nonsense?) and showed them into a little poky parlour, where old Mrs. Murry was sitting “like a duchess,” by a fireplace full of coloured paper, and the room as cold as ice. And she was so grand that she would hardly speak to Alice.’

‘That must have been very unpleasant.’

‘Oh, the poor girl had a dreadful time. She began with: “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Dill. I know so very few persons in service.” Alice imitates her mincing way of talking, but I can’t do it. And then she went on to talk about her family, how they had farmed their own land for five hundred years–such stuff! George had told Alice all about it: they had had an old cottage with a good strip of garden and two fields somewhere in Essex, and that old woman talked almost as if they had been country gentry, and boasted about the Rector, Dr. Somebody, coming to see them so often, and of Squire Somebody Else always looking them up, as if they didn’t visit them out of kindness. Alice told me it was as much as she could do to keep from laughing in Mrs. Murry’s face, her young man having told her all about the place, and how small it was, and how the Squire had been so kind about buying it when old Murry died and George was a little boy, and his mother not able to keep things going. However, that silly old woman “laid it on thick,” as you say, and the young man got more and more uncomfortable, especially when she went on to speak about marrying in one’s own class, and how unhappy she had known young men to be who had married beneath them, giving some very pointed looks at Alice as she talked. And then such an amusing thing happened: Alice had noticed George looking about him in a puzzled sort of way, as if he couldn’t make out something or other, and at last he burst out and asked his mother if she had been buying up the neighbours’ ornaments, as he remembered the two green cut-glass vases on the mantelpiece at Mrs. Ellis’s, and the wax flowers at Miss Turvey’s. He was going on, but his mother scowled at him, and upset some books, which he had to pick up; but Alice quite understood she had been borrowing things from her neighbours, just as she had borrowed the little girl, so as to look grander. And then they had tea–water bewitched, Alice calls it–and very thin bread and butter, and rubbishy foreign pastry from the Swiss shop in the High Street–all sour froth and rancid fat, Alice declares. And then Mrs. Murry began boasting again about her family, and snubbing Alice and talking at her, till the girl came away quite furious, and very unhappy, too. I don’t wonder at it, do you?’

‘It doesn’t sound very enjoyable, certainly,’ said Darnell, looking dreamily at his wife. He had not been attending very carefully to the subject-matter of her story, but he loved to hear a voice that was incantation in his ears, tones that summoned before him the vision of a magic world.

‘And has the young man’s mother always been like this?’ he said after a long pause, desiring that the music should continue.

‘Always, till quite lately, till last Sunday in fact. Of course Alice spoke to George Murry at once, and said, like a sensible girl, that she didn’t think it ever answered for a married couple to live with the man’s mother, “especially,” she went on, “as I can see your mother hasn’t taken much of a fancy to me.” He told her, in the usual style, it was only his mother’s way, that she didn’t really mean anything, and so on; but Alice kept away for a long time, and rather hinted, I think, that it might come to having to choose between her and his mother. And so affairs went on all through the spring and summer, and then, just before the August Bank Holiday, George spoke to Alice again about it, and told her how sorry the thought of any unpleasantness made him, and how he wanted his mother and her to get on with each other, and how she was only a bit old-fashioned and queer in her ways, and had spoken very nicely to him about her when there was nobody by. So the long and the short of it was that Alice said she might come with them on the Monday, when they had settled to go to Hampton Court–the girl was always talking about Hampton Court, and wanting to see it. You remember what a beautiful day it was, don’t you?’

‘Let me see,’ said Darnell dreamily. ‘Oh yes, of course–I sat out under the mulberry tree all day, and we had our meals there: it was quite a picnic. The caterpillars were a nuisance, but I enjoyed the day very much.’ His ears were charmed, ravished with the grave, supernal melody, as of antique song, rather of the first made world in which all speech was descant, and all words were sacraments of might, speaking not to the mind but to the soul. He lay back in his chair, and said–‘Well, what happened to them?’

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