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Authors: Katherine Mansfield

The Aloe (7 page)

BOOK: The Aloe
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But no, Kezia had seen a bull through a hole in a notch of wood in the high paling fence that separated the tennis lawn from the paddock, but she had not liked the bull frightfully and so she had walked away back through the orchard up the grassy slope along the path by the lace bark tree and so into the spread tangled garden. She did not believe that she would ever not get lost in this garden. Twice she had found her way to the big iron gates they had driven through last night and she had begun to walk up the drive that led to the house, but there were so many little paths on either side — on one side they all led into a tangle of tall dark trees and strange bushes with flat velvety leaves and feathery cream flowers that buzzed with flies when you shook them – this was a frightening side and no garden at all. The little paths were wet and clayey with tree roots spanned across them, “like big fowls feet” thought Kezia. But on the other side of the drive there was a high box border and the paths had box edgings and all of them led into a deeper and deeper tangle of flowers. It was summer. The camellia trees were in flower, white and crimson and pink and white striped with flashing leaves – you could not see a leaf on the syringa bushes for the white clusters. All kinds of roses – gentlemen’s button hole roses, little white ones but far too full of insects to put under anybody’s nose, pink monthly roses with a ring of fallen petals round the bushes, cabbage roses on thick fat stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark that they seemed to turn black as they fell and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright red leaves. Kezia knew the name of that kind: it was her grandmother’s favourite. There were clumps of fairy bells and cherry pie and all kinds of geraniums and there were little trees of verbena and bluish lavender bushes and a bed of pelagoniums with velvet eyes and leaves like moth’s wings. There was a bed of nothing but mignonette and another of nothing but pansies – borders of double and single daisies, all kinds of little tufty plants.

The red hot pokers were taller than she; the Japanese sunflowers grew in a tiny jungle. She sat down on one of the box borders. By pressing hard at first it made a very pleasant springy seat but how dusty it was inside – She bent down to look and sneezed and rubbed her nose. And then she found herself again at the top of the rolling grassy slope that led down to the orchard and beyond the orchard to an avenue of pine trees with wooden seats between bordering one side of the tennis court. . . She looked at the slope a moment; then she lay down on her back gave a tiny squeak and rolled over and over into the thick flowery orchard grass. As she lay still waiting for things to stop spinning round she decided to go up to the house and ask the servant girl for an empty match-box. She wanted to make a surprise for the grandmother. First she would put a leaf inside with a big violet lying on it – then she would put a very small little white picotee perhaps, on each side of the violet and then she would sprinkle some lavender on the top, but not to cover their heads. She often made these surprises for the grandmother and they were always most successful: “Do you want a match, my Granny?” “Why, yes, child. I believe a match is the very thing I am looking for –” The Grandmother slowly opened the box and came upon the picture inside. “Good gracious child! how you astonished me!” “Did I – did I really astonish you?” Kezia threw up her arms with joy. “I can make her one every day here” she thought, scrambling up the grass slope on her slippery shoes. But on her way to the house she came to the island that lay in the middle of the drive, dividing the drive into two arms that met in front of the house. The island was made of grass banked up high. Nothing grew on the green top at all except one round plant with thick grey-green thorny leaves and out of the middle there sprang up a tall stout stem. Some of the leaves of this plant were so old that they curved up in the air no longer, they turned back – they were split and broken – some of them lay flat and withered on the ground – but the fresh leaves curved up in to the air with their spiked edges; some of them looked as though they had been painted with broad bands of yellow. Whatever could it be? She had never seen anything like it before – She stood and stared. And then she saw her Mother coming down the path with a red carnation in her hand – “Mother what is it?” asked Kezia. Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves its towering fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from it might have had claws and not roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the big blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it. “That is an aloe, Kezia,” said Linda. “Does it ever have any flowers.” “Yes my child” said her Mother and she smiled down at Kezia, half shutting her eyes, “once every hundred years.”

Chapter Three

O
n his way home from the office Stanley Burnell stopped the buggy at the “Bodega”, got out and bought a large bottle of oysters. At the chinaman’s shop next door he bought a pineapple in the pink of condition and noticing a basket of fresh black cherries he told John to put him up a pound of those as well. The oysters and pineapple he stowed away in the box under the front seat – but the cherries he kept in his hand. Pat, the handy man, leapt off the box and tucked him up again in a brown rug. “Lift yer feet, Mr Burnell while I give her a fold under,” said he. “Right, right – first rate!” said Stanley – “you can make straight for home now.” “I believe this man is a first rate chap” thought he as Pat gave the grey mare a touch and the buggy sprang forward. He liked the look of him sitting up there in his neat dark brown coat and brown bowler – he liked the way Pat had tucked him in and he liked his eyes – There was nothing servile about him, – and if there was one thing he hated more than another in a servant it was servility – and he looked as though he were pleased with his job – happy and contented. The grey mare went very well. Burnell was impatient to be out of the town. He wanted to be home. Ah, it was splendid to live in the country – to get right out of this hole of a town once the office was closed and this long drive in the fresh warm air knowing all the time that his own house was at the other end with its garden and paddocks, its three tip top cows and enough fowls and ducks to keep them in eggs and poultry was splendid, too. As they left the town finally and bowled away up the quiet road his heart beat hard for joy – He rooted in the bag and began to eat the cherries, three or four at a time chucking the stones over the side of the buggy. They were delicious, so plump and cold without a spot or a bruise on them. Look at these two now – black one side and white the other – perfect – a perfect little pair of Siamese twins – and he stuck them in his button hole – By Jove, he wouldn’t mind giving that chap up there a handful, but no, better not! Better wait until he had been with him a bit longer. He began to plan what he would do with his Saturday afternoons and Sundays. He wouldn’t go to the Club for lunch on Saturday. No, cut away from the office as soon as possible and get them to give him a couple of slices of cold meat and half a lettuce when he got home. And then he’d get a few chaps out from town to play tennis in the afternoons. Not too many – three at most. Beryl was a good player too. He stretched out his right arm and slowly bent it, feeling the muscles. A bath, a good rub down, a cigar on the verandah after dinner. On Sunday morning they would go to church – children and all – which reminded him that he must hire a pew in the sun if possible – and well forward so as to be out of the draught from the door – In fancy he heard himself intoning, extremely well:

“When-thou-didst-overcome the sharpness of death Thou didst open the
King
dom of Heaven to
All
Believers” and he saw the neat brass edged card on the corner of the pew “Mr Stanley Burnell and Family.” The rest of the day he’d loaf about with Linda. Now she was on his arm; they were walking about the garden together and he was explaining to her at length what he intended doing at the office the week following. He heard her saying: “My dear, I think that is
most
wise.” Talking things out with Linda was a wonderful help even though they were apt to drift away from the point . . . Hang it all! They weren’t getting along very fast. Pat had put the brake on again. “He’s a bit too ready with that brake! Ugh! What a brute of a thing it is – I can feel it in the pit of my stomach.” A sort of panic overtook Burnell whenever he approached near home. Before he was well inside the gate he would shout to any one in sight, “is everything all right?” and then he did not believe it was until he heard Linda cry “Hullo, you old boy!” That was the worst of living in the country. It took the deuce of a long time to get back. But now they weren’t far off. They were on top of the last hill – it was a gentle slope all the way now and not more than half a mile. Pat kept up a constant trailing of the whip across the mare’s back and he coaxed her – “goop now goop now!” It wanted a few moments to sunset, everything stood motionless bathed in bright metallic light and from the paddocks on either side there streamed the warm milky smell of ripe hay – The iron gates were open. They dashed through and up the drive and round the island stopping at the exact middle of the verandah. “Did she satisfy yer, sir,” said Pat, getting off the box and grinning at his master. “Very well indeed Pat,” said Stanley. Linda came out of the glass door – out of the shadowy hall – her voice rang in the quiet. “Hullo, you’re home again.” At the sound of it his happiness beat up so hard and strong that he could hardly stop himself dashing up the steps and catching her in his arms – “Yes home again. Is everything all right.” “Perfect” said she. Pat began to lead the mare round to the side gate that gave onto the courtyard. “Here half a moment” said Burnell “Hand me those two parcels – will you.” And he said to Linda “I’ve brought you back a bottle of oysters and a pineapple” as though he had brought her back all the harvest of the earth. They went into the hall; Linda carried the oysters under one arm and the pineapple under the other – Burnell shut the glass door threw his hat on the hall stand and put his arms round her, straining her to him kissing the top of her head, her ears her lips – her eyes – “Oh dear Oh dear” she said “Wait a minute let me put down these
silly
things” and she put down the bottle of oysters and the pine on a little carved chair – “What have you got in your buttonhole, cherries?” – and she took them out and hung them over his ear. “No don’t do that darling. They’re for you.” So she took them off his ear and ran them through her brooch pin – “You don’t mind if I don’t eat them now. Do you? They’ll spoil my appetite for dinner – Come and see your children. They’re having tea.” The lamp was lighted on the nursery table: Mrs Fairfield was cutting and spreading bread and butter and the three little girls sat up to table wearing large bibs embroidered with their names. They wiped their mouths as their Father came in ready to be kissed. There was jam on the table too a plate of home made knobbly buns and cocoa steaming in a Dewar’s Whisky Advertisement jug – a big toby jug, half brown half cream with a picture of a man on it smoking a long clay pipe. The windows were wide open. There was a jar of wild flowers on the mantelpiece and the lamp made a big soft bubble of light on the ceiling – “You seem pretty snug Mother” said Burnell, looking round and blinking at the light and smiling at the little girls. They sat Isabel and Lottie on either side of the table, Kezia at the bottom – the place at the top was empty – “That’s where my boy ought to sit” thought Stanley – He tightened his arm round Linda’s shoulder. By God! he was a perfect fool to feel as happy as this— “We are Stanley. We are very snug,” said Mrs Fairfield, cutting Kezia’s bread and jam into fingers. “Like it better than town eh children” said Burnell. “Oh yes, Daddy” said the three little girls and Isabel added as an afterthought, “Thank you very much
indeed
Father dear.”

“Come upstairs and have a wash” said Linda – “I’ll bring your slippers.” But the stairs were too narrow for them to go up arm in arm. It was quite dark in their room – He heard her ring tapping the marble as she felt along the mantelpiece for matches. “I’ve got some darling. I’ll light the candles.” But instead, he came up behind her and caught her put his arms round her and pressed her head into his shoulder. “I’m so confoundedly happy” he said. “Are you?” She turned and put her two hands flat on his breast and looked up at him – “I don’t know what’s come over me” he protested. It was quite dark outside now and heavy dew was falling. When she shut the window the dew wet her finger tips. Far away, a dog barked. “I believe there’s going to be a moon” said she – At the words and with the wet cold dew touching her lips and cheeks she felt as though the moon had risen – that she was being bathed in cold light – she shivered she came away from the window and sat down on the box ottoman beside Stanley –

In the dining room by the flickering glow of a wood fire Beryl sat on a hassock playing the guitar. She had bathed and changed all her clothes. Now she wore a white muslin dress with big black spots on it and in her hair she had pinned a black rose –

Nature has gone to her rest love

See we are all alone

Give me your hand to press love

Lightly within my own –

She played and sang half to herself – for she was watching herself playing and singing she saw the fire light on her shoes and skirt on the ruddy belly of the guitar on her white fingers. “If I were outside the window and looked in and saw myself I really would be rather struck” she thought – Still more softly she played the accompaniment not singing – “The first time I ever saw you little girl you had no idea that you weren’t alone! You were sitting with your little feet up on a hassock playing the guitar – I can never forget –” and she flung back her head at the imaginary speaker and began to sing again

Even the moon is aweary –

But there came a loud knock at the door. The servant girl popped in her flushed face. “If you please Miss – kin I come and lay the dinner” – “Certainly Alice” said Beryl – in a voice of ice. She put the guitar in a corner – Alice lunged in with a heavy black iron tray, “Well I
ave
had a job with that oving” said she. “I can’t get nothing to brown.”

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