Read After My Fashion Online

Authors: John Cowper Powys

After My Fashion (30 page)

BOOK: After My Fashion
9.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Very slowly Nelly unclasped her tightly locked fingers, and turned her head towards her rival. The thought flashed through her mind,
He has been telling her about Robert
, and for the first time during this interview there was aroused in her a ferment of real vindictiveness. Out of the depths of her being this evil poison rose to the surface, corroding her more honourable indignation and turning it into bitter gall. It rose to the surface from that deep cistern of malice which is one of the unfathomable secrets of mortality.

As usually happens in these cases the cause of this particular anger was a misunderstanding. It was unfair. It was unjust. For Richard had far too much pride to breathe a word to Elise on such a matter as Canyot's relations with his wife – those picnic lunches in the painter's studio were quite unknown to the dancer.

‘He lost his money,' said Nelly. ‘The Paris people failed him. I've had to go short of things as well as he. But it's no use trying to explain. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters very much now. It's a mere incident to you of course; but incidentally it has destroyed a thing that was really beautiful – quite as beautiful I daresay as your wonderful dancing.'

Elise rose slowly to her feet at this. ‘That's the worst of you good domestic women,' she said. ‘There's always a point where you begin to scold like fish-wives.' She walked to the mantelpiece and back again, the texture of her gown hanging about her figure in clinging folds, folds that were as statuesque and classical as those that fall about the figures known as the Three Fates among the Elgin Marbles. ‘It's all sex,' she went on, standing erect in front of her visitor and looking down upon her. ‘Your anger against your husband; your anger against me. You talk of my heartlessness and cruelty. Do you suppose I
asked
your Richard to make love to me? Do you suppose I'd care a jot if he stopped making love to me tomorrow? I don't care a fig about
that
, one way or another.
That
means nothing at all with men. You ought to know it means nothing; and you would know it, only you are blinded by sex. Suppose
I
were married to him and he was playing with
you
, I might be furious; I probably should be, but I shouldn't deceive myself about it. I shouldn't use grand language about it. I should know it was all this wretched sex illusion, his unfaithfulness and my wretchedness about his unfaithfulness – both of them illusion.'

Having uttered this tirade Elise looked at Nelly as if challenging her to respond. Nelly did not even lift her eyes. She seemed to look through the goddess-like figure before her as if it had been a thing of transparent mist.

‘You have killed my happiness,' the young girl repeated. ‘You have killed it without scruple or thought. You have no human kindness in you. You are thoroughly heartless. You will always be a bad selfish woman, a woman without pity. And sooner or later your dancing will end. You will get stiff and heavy and dull. And then
perhaps you will remember the girl whose heart you killed and who came to tell you what you had done!'

She rose from her seat as she spoke and the two women stood looking at each other with that deep look of infinite understanding and infinite contempt which is one of the most characteristic achievements of nature's laws.

Elise, the artist, felt herself in this struggle weaker and less implacable than her more normal rival. And it was her sense of this advantage in the other that made her toss her proud head and burst into a bitter laugh.

‘You silly pretty child!' she cried, moving towards the door.

Nelly followed her; but when the door had been opened and she stood on the threshold, the accumulated indignation within her burst forth. ‘I'm glad I came to you,' she said bitterly. ‘I know you now for the kind of thing you are.'

‘What you really came for,' retorted the dancer, ‘was to try and persuade me to give Richard up.'

‘You can't give him up – because he's never belonged to you. You've never loved him, not one little bit! And
he
– he's only infatuated with you, as he might be with any other woman of your sort. There's no real link between you and there never can be.'

‘There's a much closer link between us than
you
can understand. But goodbye – I wish you joy of your preciouls possession.'

The dancer's eyes were blazing with anger now. But Nelly looked straight into her face. ‘It may interest you to know that Richard and I are expecting to have a child. I ought not really to have risked the shock of this interview. You can better understand now, perhaps, how impertinent and ill-bred you seem to me in coming between us just now. You talked of illusion. But it seems to me that the illusion is yours and a crude and vulgar one. It is the illusion of thinking that you could do anything worse to me than destroy my happiness.
That
you have done by your interference. But your power for evil stops there.'

Having flung this parting shot the young girl turned her back on her enemy and without waiting for the elevator ran down the two flights of stairs and walked out of the building.

She moved now with a very different step from the one with which she had approached the place. Some curious power of battle seemed to possess her, quite different from anything she had felt
before. She emerged into the great gaudy avenue with her nerves strung-up and her heart bitter and hard.

There was a child leaning over the stone fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel whose appearance made her, for a moment, recall what she herself had once been; a flicker of faint amusement crossed her face as she thought of those early days and how far she had travelled since then. Had all this happened in Sussex, she thought, would she have had the courage to fight so fiercely for her own hand as she was prepared to do now? Was she too, like the rest, acquiring a new spirit in this New World?

She paused and looked at the watch on her wrist. It was nearly two o'clock. She remembered that her husband's train left at three. From where did these Atlantic City trains start? The Pennsylvania Station! Yes, that was it. She had seen someone off from that very place only a few weeks ago.

She mounted to the top of one of the green buses, and then left it at Thirty-third Street for a cross-town car.

Walking down the stately arcade of the grandest of all railway stations, she paused at the top of the great flight of granite steps leading into the enormous concourse.

She was impressed, even in the midst of her agitated thoughts, by the superb magnificence of that imperial architecture. The feelings that passed through her must have resembled those of some unhappy Celtic captive, conveyed with her unborn child into the forum of the classical city. In spite of herself she was conscious of a sort of exultation as she looked at these huge columns and embossed roof. Something in the tremendousness of that weight of primitive stone, measured and carved in such grand outlines, lifted her above herself and beyond herself. Here at any rate was a beauty and nobility that had something in common with her Sussex Downs.

What amazing cooperation between brain and hand had been needed to produce a thing like this! She found herself thinking suddenly of an argument in support of Karmakoff's theories; an argument based on the difference between this building and the vulgar individualistic palaces on the avenue she had just left!

She lifted her head and tried to read the time by the huge clock which hung above her; but she was too close beneath it for the great hands to be intelligible. She felt as if she had indeed reached some
fulcral or pivotal point in space where time issued its mandates but was itself obliterated by some formidable super-time.

She looked at her own watch. It was twenty-five minutes past two. The thought struck her, how living and human a thing a timepiece was, whether large or small, and how terribly like little goblins – so nice or so hateful – these ‘ones' and ‘twos' and ‘threes' and all the rest of them were!

Suddenly she remembered she had had no lunch. After hesitating for a moment between the spacious restaurant on one side and the lunch counter on the other, she hurriedly entered the latter place. Seating herself on one of the revolving stools she ordered a cup of coffee and a roll. She was not sufficiently accustomed to this kind of public feeding to be quite at her ease. The long counters were not crowded; but to her English fancy every eye there was regarding her with a questioning stare, and the Negro who waited upon her embarrassed her by his Southern affability.

She kept her eye on the clock while she ate, anxious to make sure she caught her husband before he went past the barrier to his train; and at twenty minutes to three she paid her bill and ran down the granite steps.

It was only when she reached the iron gates marked atlantic city express that she realized how vague her notions were as to what she would do when her husband did appear.

She had come here blindly to see him, just as blindly and instinctively as she had gone to see Elise. In neither case had she formulated any project. In both cases a vague fighting spirit had driven her on.

Would Elise be with him when he came to the train? She had not precisely thought of
that
, though she had suspected that they were going down there together. But how could the dancer escape from her engagement at the theatre?
That
, again, was an aspect of the affair that she had not considered.

Without losing sight of the iron barrier, whose gate was already opened now, Nelly ran quickly to a newspaper stand and possessed herself of an
Evening Post
.

Returning to her place of observation she rapidly turned over the pages of this paper until she came to the theatre announcements.

She had no difficulty in finding the theatre notice she wanted and the first thing that met her eyes was the phrase, ‘Change of Programme‘.
The name of Elise Angel was not mentioned at all! Hurriedly she scanned the opera and concert notices. Yes! there it was. Beginning next Saturday at the Morgan Hall,' a series of Classical Dances by the famous Elise Angel from Paris'. So the woman was just now entirely free, and that was the reason why Richard was hurrying down to Atlantic City!

As the full force of this discovery dawned upon her she realized how far she had been from actually grasping the situation in its true meaning. She had, after all, only half believed it. She had, after all, really expected to find her husband
alone
here – and either to persuade him not to go, or to go down with him herself.

It was now suddenly borne in upon her that he was actually coming, with Elise, here to this barrier, to go off together to the great pleasure place.

By one of those sudden telepathic flashes of insight which remain at present inexplicable, but to which women are more subject than men, and women in Nelly's condition most subject of all, she knew in a single moment that her husband and Elise were, at that very second, coming down the arcade.

With an instinct of desperate panic she fled across the aisle of this cathedral of commerce and slipped into the waiting room. Here, pressing her face to the glass, she watched the iron gate she had just quitted, her body cold as ice and her hands trembling.

Yes! There they were. There they came!

She drew back from the window as if she had been shot and, covering her face with her hands, sank into one of the waiting-room seats.

Here she remained absolutely motionless; her body heavy as lead, a curious dull pain in her forehead, and all her pulses numbed.

The last traveller of the three o'clock train hurried through the closing gates. The trainmen on the platform, below the iron stairs, blew their whistles … Richard and Elise, seated opposite one another in a Pullman car, sighed a mutual sigh of miserable tension, half-relief and half-remorse; while the great clock above the steps moved forward its hand, oblivious, indifferent, worked by punctual machinery.

Three days after their departure from the Pennsylvania Station Richard and Elise were walking together on the sands by the edge of the sea. He had sent a telegram to his office begging them to give him a brief holiday and promising to send them all necessary copy by mail. He had written briefly to Nelly – a letter full of half lies in which he announced that he would return with Ivan and Catharine in a few days.

His time with Elise had been a turbulent one, full of violent quarrels and passionate reconciliations. As they drifted together now, side by side along the water's edge, they were engaged in bitter recrimination.

Above them, supported on wooden trestles, stretched the famous board-walk, frequented even then, at the end of the autumn, by a gay and noisy crowd.

On the further side of the board-walk a long line of small wooden shops offered the visitors to that newfangled promenade every sort of fantastic novelty.

Richard and Elise, absorbed in their quarrel, moved along the brink of the ocean until these shops began to thin out and disappear. But even beyond where the shops ended, that immense boardwalk continued to extend its length. It was borne in upon Richard's mind that by use of its ironwork and its woodwork the American public loved to separate itself from nature and to dominate nature with a certain brutal contempt.

Not a living soul except themselves was to be seen walking upon the sand or close to the water. Directly the actual bathing season was over, during which, in their super-moral costumes, they had lain about in the hot sunshine, all the visitors to Atlantic City congregated upon those high-erected boardings and peered triumphantly at the elements in the intervals between moving-picture shows and flirtation.

Where Richard and Elise were now walking, the noises of traffic and entertainment had ceased; the high bare boards had a look quite peculiar to themselves and different from any other inanimate objects in the world.

They were curiously melancholy, these projections of woodwork,
but not melancholy in the manner in which most new human erections are depressing and sad when contrasted with so old a thing as the sea: they were full of peculiar loneliness and desolation of their own – and one not devoid of an appeal to the imagination – but it was a desolation quite different from that produced by deserts or moors or marshes. It was a negative desolation, wherein the mere absence of humanity in a place obviously built for humanity evoked something peculiarly forlorn.

Still exchanging words of cruel and wounding bitterness, such as only those who are physically attracted without being temperamentally congenial are capable of flinging at one another, the two lovers were soon out of reach of the town altogether; the famous board-walk had dwindled to a narrow plank path.

Here they found themselves in a world of more attractive melancholy. Beyond the sea bank there stretched a vast expanse of reeds and rushes, and by the edge of the sand dunes where they were now wandering grew all manner of glaucous sea growths mingled with wild purple asters.

Every now and then they might have seen a long line of wild geese, travelling at an enormous height in the air, and sending down that peculiar sound, by the creaking of their wings, which can be only expressed by the syllables
hank-hank or honk-honk
.

But they did not look up at the sky at all just then; and the lines of flying wild fowl meant nothing to them; and the vast grey plateau of the ocean meant nothing to them; and the shells upon the white sand meant nothing to them.

They were two human beings, engaged in the immemorial occupation of sticking poisoned arrows into one another's hearts. Absorbed in this delicate pastime, they were oblivious to all else in the round world.

The real cause of their disagreement was the shock to their nerves of this reckless adventure and the simple fact that being neither of them young they lacked the resilience to recover themselves.

Remorse in Richard made a bitter and poisonous background for new romance. Not for one single moment could he really obliterate his wife's figure – silent and upbraiding, ironical and mocking, beautiful with the beauty of youth, and bearing his child at her heart.

The very air of gallantry which the pleasure city exhaled, like the sea breath of Aphrodite, was bitter and vulgar in his nostrils. All this transitory woodwork, all these painted wooden shops and flaunted showhouses seemed thin, sad and insubstantial to his spirit. The immense waste of November waters, shot with pale white sunshine or desolately grey, seemed to reduce all these theatrical attempts at pleasure and passion to a sort of fantastic Maya or unreal illusion, a gaudy ripple upon a vast emptiness.

Too sick at heart, too cruelly torn between the two women, to enjoy the escape which now offered itself as they left the houses behind and began to breathe the unsullied breath of the Jersey coast, Richard had a strange sense, as he wrangled with his companion in one of those interminable lovers' quarrels which seem like elemental forces, that he and she were will-less automata, doomed to hurt each other for the amusement of unseen spectators.

Struggling to break loose from the exhausting logic of anger which poisoned the air about them, he stopped at last and began tracing patterns with his stick in the white sand.

He drew an ornamental
E
and a deeply indented
A
on that smooth surface. But no sooner had he done so than an angry contempt for his own sentiment made him erase both of them with a violent gesture. The dancer's face was pale and sardonic as she watched him; her red lips curved in a hard significant smile.

‘You don't know what the word
love
means,' she said suddenly.

‘I wasn't writing
love
,' he retorted childishly.' Can't you read English? I was making your initials.'

‘In sand,' she said.

‘Well! they're gone now, anyhow.'

‘It's the fact of your being English, I suppose,' she remarked, looking at him with a misery of indignation. ‘I hate all you English. Your feelings are clotted up with clods of earth – gross, thick, heavy clods of earth! Not one of you can be clear and free and honest. You worship what
is
, just because it
is
. It's worse than materialism, it is absolute deadness! And what's more you're not content until everyone's as dead as you are. Dead words, dead sentiment, dead hearts! You've no real courage in you … without courage everything becomes initials written on sand!'

Richard's face assumed the bewildered expression of a child that is beaten for an unknown fault. His superficial cynicism was swallowed
up in real trouble. He looked at her like a dumb flogged animal.

His bewilderment increased her anger.

‘These three days with you have killed my love,' she said. ‘You've done the unpardonable thing … and you've made it worse by your stupidity. It would have been far better if you'd
known
what you were doing. It has been like being tied to a corpse!'

‘I thought we'd been so happy,' he murmured.

‘That's just it,' she cried, ‘it's always
happiness, happiness, happiness
with you! Have you
no
idea of great, beautiful, terrible things that have to be paid for by the loss of all that? Happiness? My God! It means
comfort
to you – a nice, easy, complacent English comfort.'

‘It's you who are not honest,' he muttered. ‘Why can't you confess the truth? You're angry with me for quite a different reason from the one you're talking about.'

She flashed at him a look of splendid fury, a look that made her so beautiful that he was completely disarmed.

‘What reason?' she flung out.

‘Oh you know …' He hesitated. ‘What's the use of my saying it? It's you who drive me on till you force me to say these things.'

‘Tell me what you were thinking. Tell me! Quick!'

‘It was nothing,' he stammered. ‘We both think all sorts of unfair malicious things.'

‘You must tell me. I must know. What was it?'

‘It was natural enough … I daresay it's not true. I meant that you're angry with me because I felt remorseful about Nelly.'

‘Ah!' She drew in her breath and her eyes grew dark against the pallor of her skin. Of course you'd say that. Being the most ill-bred thing you could possibly say, it's characteristic of course. As it happens, it's untrue. But if it
were
true, would that let you out? Can't you see that such remorse with you is only fear for your own skin? Or are you really such a baby as to think that you can make your wife happy by holding her hand?'

‘You are very unfair,' said Richard. ‘I can't help hating to make a person suffer.'

‘We all suffer,' retorted the dancer. ‘And the worst cause of our suffering is a man like you who thinks he can carry an ointment pot about with him to heal the wounds he makes. Haven't you even got
the courage of your callousness? Haven't you even got the courage to face the fact that you are utterly and profoundly selfish? Must you go on slipping out of it and evading it and covering it up, to the very end?'

‘I don't slip out of anything,' protested Richard. ‘I wish I did!'

‘It's because of this that your poetry is so bad,' she went on. ‘It's only your ingrained conceit that makes you think it anything but thoroughly bad. You deceive yourself far more deeply than you deceive anyone else.'

Richard's face assumed the dogged obstinate look of a much persecuted mule, and this seemed to hound her on to further malicious stabs.

‘You talk of bringing your philosophy into your poetry. My good man, you must realize once for all that your poetry is a fraud, a fake, a piece of rank charlatanism. You're the very last person to be a poet. The whole business is an elaborate edifice of humbug!'

‘If my poetry isn't real,' said Richard, ‘nothing in my existence is real.'

‘Nonsense! Stuff and nonsense! You've got a sound critical faculty. You're receptive enough. You're capable of doing very good honest literary work. But you're so ridiculously proud that you pretend that all this is nothing. You must be the great poet of the age – or you will sulk in your tent and do nothing at all.'

‘You are most frightfully unfair,' he began. ‘No one can tell for certain where their power is until they—'

‘Until they stop lying,' she interrupted. ‘Don't you understand that art is a thing connected with character?'

‘I thought it was a thing connected with imagination,' said Richard sulkily.

The great dancer fixed her eyes on a sailing ship far out to sea.

‘God knows what it is, my dear,' and she sighed deeply. ‘I only know it is a thing we seem unable to get into our life with each other. But it may be my fault quite as much as yours. I'm sorry, Richard. I'm sorry I've been bad. Shall we go back?'

He took her hand and kissed it and they began slowly retracing their steps. They were silent. With the splash of the long waves breaking beside them an infinite sadness gathered about their hearts, the kind of sadness which no argument can destroy and no hope can lift; the sadness which is of the very nature of life itself,
when the distractions of desire and curiosity are for the moment in abeyance.

They had not moved far in the direction of the town when they heard themselves called by name from one of the high ridges of sand overgrown with grass that separated them from the marshes on the left. They stopped and turned. Two figures rose from a hollow place in the sand dunes and came running down the slope towards them.

Catharine's extravagant greeting of Elise was a reminder to Richard of how small a place in the great world he himself held in comparison with his companion. Elise had never met Karmakoff; and before she condescended to notice Richard at all, the enthusiastic girl eagerly introduced him to the dancer.

    

The encounter between Elise and Ivan was like the encounter between two feline animals of the same jungle. They watched each other furtively, measuring one another's strength and weighing in the balance one another's magnetism. Her accumulated anger against Richard made the imperious dancer ready for any kind of an emotional plunge; the womanish eyes of the cynical Russian, with their strange green lights, dilated in amorous reciprocity to the furtive challenge which she gave him.

Poor impassioned Catharine had already wearied him with her unsophisticated emotion. She had irritated him, too, by queer fits of deep depression in which she had returned to her childish scruples, and incidentally she had made the situation more strained by constant references to Roger Lamb.

When the four of them moved on together towards the town, it appeared inevitable that Karmakoff and the dancer should outstrip the others – vehemently and passionately absorbed, as it seemed, in what they had to say to one another.

‘One day you'll be coming to Moscow,' Ivan remarked, among other things. ‘Our people ought to have you. You're precisely what they
must
have. They'll give you authority over our whole art movement, which owes so much to your genius already.'

‘There's nothing left now in the world except art,' sighed Elise.

‘And the only way to get anything beautiful,' added Karmakoff, ‘is to put an end to the economic struggle.'

‘Can that really be done?'

‘It can be tried.'

‘By force?'

‘Why not?'

‘But force only breeds force.'

‘Words! my dear lady. It's force when you prune a tree, but what
that
produces is fruit.'

‘It does me good to talk to you. I don't know why.'

‘I have waited long to make your acquaintance. We were destined to meet, sooner or later.'

‘You've seen my work?'

‘I've seen you nine times this season.'

‘Do you like me better when I'm Greek or when I'm Christian?'

BOOK: After My Fashion
9.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Spellbound by Kelly Jameson
The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone
Reluctant Prince by Dani-Lyn Alexander
Dark One Rising by Leandra Martin
Dying For A Chance by Allworden, Amy H.
Thankful by Shelley Shepard Gray
Jenna's Consent by Jennifer Kacey
Dead Man Walker by Duffy Brown
Eyes of the Calculor by Sean McMullen