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Authors: John Cowper Powys

After My Fashion (29 page)

BOOK: After My Fashion
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At any rate he was able in that hour, as he had never been able before, to gather up into some sort of perspective his former life in Paris, his marriage to Nelly, and his love affair with the dancer.
I
will make this night
, he thought, as he passed the illuminated front of the Greenwich Village Theater,
a new start for my poem. I will
get some of that young fellow's fancies into it. And I will tell Elise
that she was right and I was wrong
.

Two days later, after Richard had left for the office, Nelly was called up on the telephone by Catharine Gordon who told her that she and Ivan were at the hospital and that Roger Lamb was dead.

Catharine informed her that Karmakoff was taking her down to Atlantic City to get a breath of sea air, and that she had already spoken to Richard ‘over the phone'.

Nelly got a queer startled sensation from Catharine's words which had ended with incoherent emotion. She stood for a few minutes by her kitchen tap, fumbling with the breakfast things and mechanically putting into the water some plates which she had already washed. An infinite sadness invaded her heart. It seemed incredible that this self-possessed boy, who had talked to them so quietly in that very room only forty-eight hours ago, was now as far divided from her as her own father.

The news about Atlantic City was a shock to her too. She wondered
if Karmakoff and Catharine had secretly got married. If not – was this naïve passionate creature self-possessed enough to risk the sort of transient affair which such an excursion suggested?

Nelly had come to feel a maternal tenderness for the erratic young girl; and though Ivan was no pleasure hunter, she could hardly imagine him committing himself to any lifelong attachment.

She did not go so far as to accuse Karmakoff of exploiting the girl's emotional agitation over Lamb's death to his own amorous advantage; but she wished Catharine had come straight to her from the hospital instead of going off like this.

But perhaps it was only for the day. There were plenty of late trains back from the famous resort and, after all, it was likely enough, in the easy moral atmosphere in which they lived, that all the harm that could happen had happened already.

She turned with a heart full of vague forebodings to her housework in the little apartment. She could not quite explain to herself the sort of melancholy which descended upon her. It seemed something more than the boy's death, more than Richard's unfaithfulness, more than Catharine's danger, more than her natural apprehensions about her own future. She reverted to each one of these matters, trying to get at the secret of what she felt, but it escaped her each time. It seemed to be something impersonal, a sort of universal misery in things, a kind of freemasonry of tragedy into which, by the medium of her own distress, she had been formally admitted. Whatever it was, it seemed to grow upon her as the morning went on, gathering in intensity and volume, as if actual vibrations of misery were rolling, wave after wave, over her brain. She had felt something like this once before, during the war; but she had got rid of that by digging frantically in her father's garden. Here, in a New York apartment, there was no garden to dig in. It was about half-past eleven. She was already vaguely beginning to wonder whether she had the spirit to cook herself any lunch when the telephone rang. Lifting the receiver she was surprised to hear her husband's voice.

Richard hated telephoning. This was the first time, as it happened, that these two had ever talked together in this way.

She was still more surprised when she heard him say that he thought of following Ivan and Catharine down to Atlantic City and spending the night there. She was indeed so startled by the tone of his voice, which sounded abrupt and strange out of the receiver,
that she could do nothing but say ‘yes – yes – yes—' without any comment. He must have been anxious enough to avoid any comment, for he rang off suddenly in the end, having told her that the train he intended to take left at three o'clock.

Nelly sat down on the nearest chair, nonplussed, puzzled, bewildered, indignant. Had the death of Roger Lamb affected Richard as much as Catharine? But why Atlantic City? There were surely other places, country places in New Jersey, he could have rushed off to? Had Lamb's death driven them all crazy? Surely Karmakoff and Catharine didn't want him down there with them? And then, all in a moment, it dawned upon her that he was using the two lovers merely as a clumsy excuse, as an awkward blind, for his own devices. What he was really up to, no doubt, was going down there with Elise Angel! Lamb's death had made him restless and defiant, as it had made these others restless and defiant, and he had resolved to follow their example and take some wilful plunge. It was curious that that boy's death, instead of lifting them all into a calmer, clearer state of mind, seemed to have driven them into fiercer acts of self-assertion than they had ever dared to risk before!

The girl felt almost tempted, as she sat on the high chair by the table resting her chin in her hands, to attribute all these feverish movements to some influence of Roger Lamb emanating from the invisible world.

Was this capricious and chaste spirit trying to communicate to them all some utterly subversive doctrine of human relations, some secret of the abyss that contradicted all the normal traditions? Was the real law of the system of things nothing less simple than that every living person should fight unscrupulously for his own hand?

She rose to her feet and moved to the window. The little street below her was quiet enough; but from the great neighbouring thoroughfare came the roar of the motor-lorries carrying their merchandise from the warehouses and wharfs of the downtown quarter to the uptown department stores.

Along with that harsh persistent rumble, the very beating of the bold heart of the adventurous city, came a sort of challenge to her courage. Dared she too, as these others had done, shake off the fatalism of the Old World and strike resolutely and swiftly for what she wanted?

She turned from the window and looked at the clock on the
mantelpiece. It was only a quarter to twelve. Richard's train did not leave for three hours yet.

She stood in the middle of the room biting her lip and pondering deeply. Then with a sudden start she rushed into her bedroom and began putting on her outdoor shoes and her best hat.

A great and desperate resolution had formed itself in her mind. She would go and see Elise Angel.

The effort with which she prepared for this daring move was the most extreme she had ever made. It was like the effort required by an unarmed hunter who walks straight up to a crouching tiger, seeking to dominate it with his eyes.

She was out of the house by the time the chimes in the Metropolitan Tower sounded twelve o'clock. She took the subway at Houston Street and sat bolt upright in the crowded car, her lips tightly compressed and her heart violently beating. What she felt in her inmost soul was that she was fighting for her unborn child, and this thought gave her a defiant courage.

She got out at Columbus Circle and proceeded to walk resolutely eastwards, skirting the southern edge of Central Park.

She was not oblivious to the aggressive newness of everything round her and the crushing challenge of the huge hotels and the portentous apartment houses.

Through the iron railings she could see great blocks of huge grey stone emerging from the midst of enbrowned grass and melancholy shrubs.

It was as if the skeleton bones of the primitive rock basis of all this grandiose architecture were insisting upon its own share in this orgy of triumphant matter. Nelly felt as though all this iron and marble and stone were consciously piling itself up against her frail human weakness. She touched the park railings with one of her hands and a stain of dusty rust came off upon her glove. Never had she felt so entirely alone in the world. She experienced a sickening sensation of nostalgia, of longing for her Sussex hills. Tears came into her eyes as she thought of her father, unable to help her, however desperately she called for help. The longing for home grew so intense as she moved on, between the rocks of the park and the mountainous buildings that she was conscious of a definite pain in the pit of her stomach, something quite distinct from the sense she had of bearing the burden of her child.

But in spite of her weakness she moved steadily on; and when she came to the great hotels that surrounded the flamboyant gilded statue, the most unsympathetic spot on the face of the globe, she found herself able to cross the pretentious avenue and turn northwards along it without losing her self-control.

Compared with this terrible centre of uptown fashion, how warm and friendly and human and mellow was that unassuming Greenwich Village which she had left!

She had never till this moment realized what the prodding thrust of unmitigated newness, armed with the arrogance of wealth, is able to do to the frail human heart into which it drives its wedge.

She turned eastwards at length, out of the great avenue with its palatial enormities, into a comparatively quiet street that seemed to her to possess something of the massive reticence of London.

    

It was a quarter to one when Nelly finally arrived at the door of the apartment house where her rival lived.

She was by this time so physically exhausted that a sort of obstinate recklessness took the place of her former agitation.

She rang the bell and asked to see Miss Angel.

‘What name?' demanded the braided official.

Nelly had one second of hesitation and then she said quietly, ‘Mrs Richard Storm.'

She had a moment of faintness while the man clicked at his telephone board and talked to the apartment overhead; but a few moments' rest on a polished bench and a drastic effort of her will saved her from collapse.

‘Miss Angel says will you please go straight up,' announced the man presently. ‘Second floor and first door on the left.'

She entered the elevator, worked by a Negro boy, and emerging at the designated level knocked at the dancer's door. She was admitted by Thérèse and ushered straight into the luxurious sitting room with its oriental rugs and settees.

The servant closed the door behind her and she found herself alone with the owner of the apartment.

Elise rose from one of the cushioned lounges and advanced towards her with an air of regal indulgence.

‘I'm so glad to make your acquaintance, Mrs Storm,' she murmured, with the sort of inclination of the head that some barbarian
queen might have given to a casual prisoner doomed to die. ‘Please sit down. No! No! This one's much nicer. There! we'll sit together here. What a child you are; and oh! how pretty you are! I don't wonder Richard's so in love with you.'

She made a half-movement as if she would have touched Nelly's hand, but something in the face that was turned towards her cut her gesture short.

‘I came to see you,' Nelly began in a voice that sounded hard and strange, ‘because I wanted you to know exactly what you're doing, what you've done.'

‘My dear child, I've done nothing. You've come to me on a wild-goose chase. Your husband and I must have been old friends when you were in short frocks. How pretty you must have looked in those days!'

‘I came to see you,' Nelly repeated, completely disregarding her words, ‘because I wanted you to understand things; and not be able to plead ignorance of the ruin you are causing.'

Elise Angel lifted her eyebrows. ‘What a dramatic little person you are! I don't myself see this ruin you talk of.
You
don't look in the least “ruined”. And as for Richard – why he, even
you
must admit, looks a great deal better since I first picked him up. It wasn't your fault I daresay. It was simply want of money. But when I think of how wretchedly thin and miserable he was that day, and how happy he looks now, I can't say I feel as if “ruin” were the right word for what I have done.'

A look of such strange intensity flickered over Nelly's face as she opened her lips to reply to this, that the great artist by her side drew in her breath and stared at her in a sort of puzzled wonder. The girl seemed hardly to have heard what the other actually said. It was as if her look answered some unspoken word, some word that passed between them quite independently of any uttered sound. Nelly spoke again:

‘You don't really love him. I am glad of that. That clears up a great deal. If you really loved him I should feel differently to you. I don't know whether I should hate you or not, but I should feel differently.'

Elise looked at her with a deeper bewilderment than ever. There was something about Nelly's self-possession that took the situation out of her hands. As long as it had been a matter of dramatic
gesture and physical dominance she had held the lead; but the lead was taken away from her now, the girl of twenty-two seeming to represent an older, deeper experience of life.

‘So you came to me to find out
that
,' said Elise Angel.

‘I came to you so that you should know what you've done to me. You've killed something in me that can never revive. You are a successful woman, Miss Angel; you're what the world calls a genius. But you are a cruel woman and a heartless one. You are just as much a murderess as if you'd killed me. You
have
killed me, in a sense. I don't suppose you care. I know you don't care. But I wanted you to know once and for all how one person feels about you. I feel towards you as I should feel towards any other perfectly heartless criminal, towards any other person who is capable of killing things. You've killed my life, Miss Angel; though no doubt I shall go on
living
. One does, you know.' Nelly's voice had shown no sign of nervous tension as she uttered these words. There were no tears in her eyes. When she had finished she clasped her fingers tightly together and sat very straight, looking in front of her. Her attitude seemed to say, ‘I have spoken for my own satisfaction rather than for any desire to make you understand me. And
now
I may just as well sit here and think, as sit anywhere else.'

‘I suppose it's never occurred to you,' said Elise Angel, ‘that I was a friend of Richard years and years before you came on the scene. One has to judge things by their general effects. And I can't say his life with you seems to have made him so very happy. He left me full of radiant spirits to go to England; and I find him here thin, miserable, half-starved, working in a wretched office! Of course I know he has to support you; but it seems to me when a man gives his name to a woman he deserves at least to be looked after a bit.'

BOOK: After My Fashion
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