There was an empty, pensive look on Miss Curtis’s face as she stood there, solitary, by the (as yet un-blinded) shop door, the finger and thumb of her small firm hand idly twisting the pencil stuck in between the two little black buttons of her black bodice. She was looking out through the glass of the door into the street, while Miss Mavor on the further side of the shop was drawing down the other blinds—a swoop and a swish to each, in turn. Miss Mavor did everything like that.
It was the first week of a hot September. The homeward stream of people in the street outside had long since begun to ebb. A late evening sky hung over London, painting with its faint colours the glassy windows of the houses opposite, right down, Miss Curtis noticed, to the top of the first floor. Then the darker parts began. All quiet; all serene; and the close of another busy competent day.
With her set, square, capable face, its dark eyes in curious contrast to the pallor of the skin, she seemed to have fallen into a reverie. She herself with her neat handbag and her admirable umbrella would soon be returning to her lodgings. All lights out, she would open this door, shut it, lock the padlock, give it a tug and, after one look to left and right, just in case of “suspicious characters,” she would go off home. And anybody who happened to meet and look at her would know that she was a woman well able to take care of herself—or of anything else, for that matter.
Miss Curtis wasn’t proud of it, but she knew she could be relied on. And so she had got on in the world, and was still getting on. You can never tell indeed into what comfortable port a capable head will not finally conduct you if softly and steadily you follow its nose. Miss Curtis’s nose stood out straight and able. She would have made a formidable figurehead if, head and bust, she had been modelled in wood and dyed with woad and crimson for the purpose. But though, since she was now manageress of the “establishment,” and to that extent her own mistress, she could in most things have her own way, yet she was always the first to come, and tonight as on all other nights she would be the last to go. She just lived for her business; that’s what it came to.
Silly pretty little Phyllis had left the shop at least an hour before. Miss Curtis had been reminded of her by the sight of yet another belated sylph-like young woman tripping along in her champagne stockings to her own particular tryst. The child had asked her for time off—and much too soon after the last occasion. But it was difficult to say, No, even to a butterfly—when it happens to be in love. Miss Curtis had always believed in a firm hand, but not in too firm a hand. You must keep up appearances, and you must keep the rules—or discipline will suffer. But the rod of iron was not one of her fetishes, except in relation to herself.
Nobody was watching her now; the day was over, and for the moment she could let appearances take care of themselves. So every sign of competence and efficiency had gradually drained out of her features as she went on looking out into the street. Her face had become gentle, almost demure. It now resembled, quite unknown to herself, the plush-framed photograph on her mantelpiece which had been taken of her as a fat little girl in a round hat. She had sunk into the deeps as much as that, and she almost wished this pensive coloured scene might go on for ever.
But it wouldn’t. Life wasn’t like that, though you had to stand aside sometimes and have a look at it, merely in order to keep on taking your part. Otherwise the less attention you gave it the better. It was hopeless to let it interfere with your—career Still you had your melting moments—silly ones, too; even dangerous perhaps. Mere memories of them did no harm, though. They helped. They made even really silly people more intelligible—and there was scarcely a moment in Miss Curtis’s day when there wasn’t some silly person about. And they kept a firm hand flexible. Indeed there were little events in Miss Curtis’s past—though very few of them—that would now and then intrude into her mind like shy exotic animals into a highly conventional park—as though on purpose to amuse her.
Perhaps the funniest of all, the most absurd and ridiculous, yet in some ways the easiest to recall without minding much—simply because it was so absurd, so meaningless— was that few days’ holiday she had spent at the sea-side, about five years ago. Some memories are like ghosts. So was this. Miss Curtis, at any rate, never knew when it was not going to re-appear. And she was almost sure to find it in her company at this particular hour of this particular kind of day.
And here, as if to prove it, was that “blind man” again, with his black goggles and his tin and his stick and his dog, tapping and groping along the darkening pavement outside. He never failed to call its cue. No marvel in that, Occasionally, if nobody, was looking, Miss Curtis had slipped out to put a soundless penny into his tin, and he would lift his unshaven chin at her as if he still hoped he could take a look at so unexpected a patron through those awful lantern-like spectacles. Once, one summer evening, she had actually dropped a shilling into his tin. It wasn’t sentiment; she knew he wasn’t so much to be pitied as all that; but there are ways of letting yourself down, if you harden right off-But tonight—well, Miss Mavor was close upon her. “There goes that old one-eyed humbug with the dog,” she was saying, and down came her last blind. “I bet he’s got some money in the bank.”
Miss Curtis watched him absently out of sight. She didn’t reply; Miss Mavor said everything like that. As for the blind beggar’s having money in the bank, so had Miss Curtis; and a good deal more than this time five years ago. That summer indeed she had not only been actually out of a job for a few weeks, but instead of at once looking for another she had taken a holiday and just blued some of her savings. In really nice apartments, too. But then of course Miss Curtis, at her age, was never in any doubt of a job when she wanted one. She wasn’t exactly lucky; she was efficient. Yet heavens, what a fool she had been. What a silly fool—and absolutely nothing to show for it, not even to herself when the lights were out, and she was alone!
Simply because she was so efficient and looked so ungulli-ble and was so completely trustworthy, it was almost a solace now to realize that she could ever have been quite so fantastically silly—idiotic. Still, with memories of that kind silence is best. There are limits. Miss Curtis would no more have dreamed of sharing this old ghost with, say, Miss Mavor, than a crocus would dream of blossoming in the shadow of the North Pole. And the funny thing was, it was partly because it wasn’t bad enough, looked at like that. You can stand up to the other. At least Miss Curtis supposed you could.
It had been at Newhampton—a nice quiet select little place. And it hadn’t been in the horrible height of August either—the Newhampton “season”—but at the end of May, when only the idle rich can afford to enjoy, such resorts. She remembered it as clearly as if she had been reading about it the night before in a novel. For the matter of that she remembered even what she had been reading about an hour or two before she had set out that afternoon on her last solitary picnic—the picnic that had never come off. Oh dear me, how amusing!—with her broken thermos flask, her raspberry-jam sandwiches and her currant bun. After that little contretemps she had sat alone under the sand-dunes, staring at the sea—or with her eyes tight shut—for three solid hours, and then at last by a long way round had come back, sandwiches and bun still uneaten, to her lodgings.
Lying half in her first floor bedroom, in shadow, and half on its balcony, in the sun, she had spent the first part of that afternoon in a deck chair—dressed ready to go out—a rather dingy looking novel in her hand. By stooping forward a little and peeping round the brick corner of the balcony to the left she could see the placid English channel, steadfastly intent on its imitation of the colour of a baby’s eyes. A tang of salt and sea-weed and stale fish was in the air, and that queer fizz of expectation which frequents all sea-side places was in her mind.
“Mind!” Why, your veiy inside gives a little happy jump every time,even an idle boatman suggests a sail. She could even recall the exact look of the table at her mid-day meal-some dry cold tongue and stewed goose-berries and cream-though she hadn’t eaten very much of either. That done, and cleared away, there she had lolled—yes, lolled — two cushions behind her head, her legs drawn up sideways under her, but very very carefully so that neither blouse nor tailor-made skirt should suffer from creases, while she continued to devour that precious novel. Simply to make the time go by. Not think of two things at once! What utter nonsense. Yet what a silly story it had been. Even Phyllis would have turned up her nose at such a fullyton as that. Indeed Miss Curtis had never finished it and what’s more never would now. She had even forgotten to return the book to the stuffy little circulating library that had seemed such a ravishing addition to Newhampton the day after she had arrived.
That was the queerest thing of all, perhaps—why (when her own little affair—affair!—was over), a story so silly, so exaggerated, so unreal should have become positively nauseating in memory—almost as if it had been an extract from her own autobiography.
“Hearts Aname”: that was the title. And its author had chosen for his hero a man positively made and designed for victories over the inflammable sex. Nothing very original in that, perhaps. He was always most beautifully dressed, either in plus fours or for the evening, and with one glance of his piercing blue eyes, with one befondlement, and with the iciest sang froid he broke hearts wherever he went, never even turning aside to glance at the remains. And yet so far as Miss Curtis could see he never got the least bit of pleasure out of any heart in any condition—green, ripe, or rotten. It was merely a habit. He was just a Don Juan. On the other hand he was a Don Juan who had made a slip—before the story opened. For an Italian Countess had somehow succeeded in marrying him in spite of his efforts (even then apparent), to practise the part of Henry VIII without incurring its responsibilities. Poor hysterical racked drugged creature, by Chapter XXIII she had long ago of course lost every shred of belief or faith in him. And yet she had continued to hope (though nothing the author could say persuaded Miss Curtis that the Countess had really hoped) he would some day turn over a new leaf, one, that is, that would not be merely tantamount to turning over a new lady love. As if such men had any leaves to turn!
The little “night-orbed” Countess had had her wits about her too. She had remained an angler long after she had caught her fish—or rather had been caught by her fish. But in Chapter XXIV she had begun doing what Miss Curtis had often noticed ladies, especially titled ladies, often do in novels—she had decided to win back her husband by means of her charms. That was odd, too. The author kept on talking about the Countess’s charms, but even Miss Curtis had sufficient sympathy with her promiscuous husband to agree that they, weren’t very conspicuous. Perhaps this was because she was so foreign. Whether or not, Miss Curtis couldn’t have supposed that anyone—even an Italian Countess, could be of her own sex and yet be so—so shameless. In a sort of stupid way, too. She had positively no reserve. She said things to her husband even when she knew he didn’t care that you couldn’t possibly say to anybody if you remembered you were ever going to be alone again. She entreated him, she besought him—that was the word—to be kinder, to return to her, to remember all her sacrifices. “Oh,” she would cry, grovelling at his feet, her sultry lambent eyes raining tears down her pale olive cheeks, “Oh, how I love youl How I love you!” And then in the same breath those very same eyes would be snapping crackers at him, “Oh, how I hate you! How I hate you!” Remarks like that of course are like holding the candle of your life in the middle and asking any Don Juan to burn it up at both ends.
And then had come Chapter XXV. In a desperate effort to retrieve her husband’s affections the Countess had sent to Paris for the most seductive of new confections in ivory silk with jewels to match that Worth could supply— for she had still managed somehow to cling to the remnant of her pre-nuptial fortune. Miss Curtis had not cared much for the look of this “model” as it appeared in print. Perhaps that was because the book had been written by a man. But how silly of him not to ask his wife or his sister or his mother or a female friend what she thought of it. Anyhow the Countess had sent for it, and it had come, and there it lay, in its original package where her maid had put it—on her own little bed in her own little bedroom. And the Night of Nights was still to come. Alas, when that night did come her husband, morally speaking, had put even himself beyond the pale—though what the Countess thought of it Miss Curtis was never to discover. Miss Curtis had got thus far and no further. The wretched man, that is, at his wits’ end to convince his last lady of his good intentions— though “lady” was perhaps hardly the word to use for her— had given the milliner’s box precisely as it stood and with all its contents, and without even seeing if they would fit, to that last lady and—well, that was the end of it.
For at this point Miss Curtis had let the book fall back into her lap, had folded her hands on its open pages and— realizing that she must set off now if she was to set off at all— with a long-drawn shuddering sigh of relief, expectation, dread and sheer physical fatigue, all in one, had stared vacantly out at the windows on the other side of the street. She would read what came after in bed that night.
But she didn’t read anything in bed that night. She had lain (though not for nearly so many hours as she imagined next morning), staring into the dark, and every now and then softly laughing; and in a way she had never laughed since, and would never, if she could help it, laugh again.
For Miss Curtis in less than a week at Newhampton had fallen in love. She had fallen in love with a stranger sitting at a window at the other end of the esplanade. Not that she had ever confessed this in so many raw unrecall-able words, even to herself. Not even at the time, when she had been at least five years younger. Five!—more like fifty. But one can know and never say; and if she had not been in love, why had the mere shadow of that homeward-bound, cadaverous blind man in the street made her feel slightly sick? And why, whenever the opportunity came, did she find herself staring like this out of the glass of the door into the darkening street if it were not something of a pleasure to feel a little sick like that?
Well, it didn’t much matter now. She had long ago recovered her balance and could recall without a single pang every little incident that had followed the final putting aside of that utterly fatuous novel. Stories like that were of course known as “sensational.” But life! Why the mere packing up of her sandwiches and her bun, her little talk with her landlady as she filled her flask with tea, the last glance at herself in the painted looking-glass between the photographs and the texts over the chimney-piece in her landlady’s sitting-room, the mere catching up of her gloves, as with a whisk of her tailor-made skirt she turned aside and with chin a little raised, Moused shoulders a little squared, she once more faced an experience which had become the very elixir of her existence—what did it all amount to but proof that writers of novels only dabble in tinctures while the essence for ever escapes them! You don’t have to be a clay-coloured little Countess with Southern blood in your veins to find that outl
Miss Curtis had met her landlady again at the foot of the stairs, and had caught the far-away little cockcrow in her own heart at sight of the faded old eyes “taking her in.” Probably they were no longer merely faded now—she had never seen the old woman since then, had only written that once, and then no more. And yet the house must be still there, sunning itself in the breezes, and may be somebody else’s card with Apartments in silver letters in the sitting-room window. Things went on whatever your idea of them might be. She remembered even what her landlady had said —just a few words. She had told her to enjoy herself while she was young—as had Solomon the Wise in other terms, and had added: “What’s the sea-side for but to lay, as you might say, in that direction?”
Mrs. Evans’s sea-side, as Miss Curtis had heard two or three times on the very evening of her arrival, had lain so little in that direction that only once during her long married and widowed life at Newhampton had she ventured out to the end of the pier. And then she hadn’t been able to see “much in it what they fancy.” But you mustn’t of course judge of good counsel by, the counsellor. Miss Curtis had smiled at the old woman, with her head on one side, as though, if you want to look as nice as you possibly can, it is as well to practise doing so at every opportunity.
And mention had been made of an egg—a nice fresh egg for her supper; she remembered that too, though not the egg itself. “There’s always a nice fresh egg” — they were her landlady’s very words; and Miss Curtis had replied with the utmost gaiety and aplomb that if there weren’t, why, there wouldn’t be any more chickens and therefore there wouldn’t be any more eggs. And they had both of them laughed. As a matter of fact on that occasion it hadn’t seemed to matter the least bit in the world whether or not she was ever going to eat anything again as long as she lived. But she had none the less assured the old woman she would adore an egg—”As you boil them, you know!” and had then sallied out into the hot air down the sleepy street, and turned off towards the blue, bright, salty, sea-sweet esplanade.
There, she had paused. She had not only paused, but seated herself in one of the little glass and cast-iron shelters and gazed out at the far-away flurry of smoke of a small steamer that was steadily pushing its way round the extreme edge of the world, bound, like Miss Curtis, for some unknown port. And she tried and tried in vain to take stock of herself.
Wasn’t it really and truly worse than ridiculous, almost as silly as that black-eyed, painted-up, feather-witted little Italian Countess herself, and much, after all, in the same way, to be sitting there actually, out of breath, almost unable to breathe, simply in expectation of seeing a strange man? And not in the open, mind, but seated at a balconied window similar to but rather more spacious than the one she had just left, and gazing, as she was now, out to sea? The crisis had come so suddenly too. One glimpse at that lonely face and shoulders and she was never, never to forget him, though she was to get over him, so to speak.
Like most things in life, that seem to mean anything, it had all happened so instantly, so absolutely unforeseeably. Miss Curtis had been merely walking briskly along by herself—off to the sand-dunes, as usual, and a little absent in mind—and without in the least knowing why, as she came to the flagstaff, she had lifted her eyes and looked straight up across at him. And there he was—up there on the other side of the street as if he had been waiting for her for month, There was something extraordinarily gentlemanly in his appearance—gentlemanly in the real sense. This was one of the first things she had noticed afterwards when she was back in her rooms again. And though he had been smiling, smiling straight out across at her, it was impossible to have taken the least offence at such boldness. It wasn’t boldness. It was as natural as a child who likes the look of a stranger— of any, sex—and of course doesn’t mind showing it. There wasn’t in fact the least little symptom of the cheeky, of the fast, in that smile. It was quiet, and far-away; lonely— that was the word.
And taken at a disadvantage like this, Miss Curtis had only been able to gaze blankly back. She was perfectly certain of that. And then after what had seemed an interminable exchange of secrets, she had rapidly lowered her head, averted her face, and hastened on to the dunes.
There, oddly enough, she had eaten up the whole of her tea at least half an hour before its usual time. A most curious thing—that just that first look from a stranger should have given her an appetite like a schoolgirl’s at a birthday party, and that the next should have taken it almost completely away. For there had been a next. More than one. She simply couldn’t help herself. The following afternoon she had no more been able to resist marching steadily along past the striped bathing-machines and the boats, with the sea-wash in her ears, and the marvellous vivacity of it all tingling her senses, and she herself openly bound—she didn’t deny it —for that shallow bow-window and its occupant, than she could stop herself yawning when she was tired.
And the one gnawing anxiety that followed was not that she ever scanned that window in vain, but that nothing else ever happened at all. There the young man would be—not in the least too young, of course—with that marvellous quiet dark face of his which she knew now by heart if ever woman can, yet with precisely the same remote welcoming smile on its features. That; and nothing more.
As for herself—and Miss Curtis had never minded acknowledging this the least little bit—why should she?—the third time she had, quite definitely, smiled back. She had raised her square face—and she knew she wasn’t so bad-looking—and friendly, welcoming, all-hospitable, had given him smile for smile, and so openly that if they had met in the street, it couldn’t else but have resulted in his raising his hat! And he, not in the least shocked—she wasn’t such an idiotic judge of character as all that—had simply smiled on; a smile not exactly wistful, not exactly melancholy or sad, but as if its owner were in search of something of which he was only vaguely aware.
But why vaguely? Why vaguely? If only Miss Curtis hadn’t been a little short-sighted, or had had the courage to wear pince-nez—which she did not consider suited her—she might have been able to explore that question more closely. All that she knew for certain was that—day after day and after she had first smiled back—-that dark pale handsome romantic face was always turned in her direction when she came stepping along the sandy esplanade, and that it always wore the same look of genuine expectation, if not exactly of increasing interest. Of all this she was sure. And it had almost in her own phrase worn the inside out of her—the joy and expectation and waiting and doubting and longing of the whole thing.
And what if it had? Wasn’t every sea-side resort fre-quented by pale dark piratical creatures, or fresh curly-haired fair ones, on the look-out for conquests? And much older ones, too, and much worse. But far from bothering about them, Miss Curtis had never paid any more attention to the species than she had to the Dad-and-Mum-and-three-little-nippers kind of tripper at Easter or in August, or to the young lovers on the beach. This young man at the window hadn’t the faintest resemblance to such buccaneers. Obviously he wasn’t even a visitor. lie didn’t even wear clothes different from the clothes you wear in London; just dark blue or dark grey, so far as she could see, and always, unless her short sight misled her, as nicely finished off as if he had just left the hands of a valet.
At first her beaut had sunk at the thought that he was perhaps a “resident.” Residents of course never take the smallest notice of mere visitors. Far from it. Except on Sundays at church-time or when they go shopping they don’t even appear on the esplanade, and if they do, they, take good care to show that they are used to it and not much enjoying it. Why merely living at the sea-side should make you so haughty and exclusive Miss Curtis had never troubled to consider. Besides this young man at the window—he must be a little under thirty, she supposed— wasn’t haughty and he was obviously not absolutely exclusive. Perhaps then he couldn’t be a resident. But if he were neither a resident nor a visitor, what on earth could he be? And if he was a resident would he ever come out?
While Miss Curtis was only at Chapter XXI of “Hearts Aflame” she had ventured on in speculation even as far as that. And it was not because of any—well, whatever you like to call it—but because she couldn’t be quite certain what that smile meant, that she hadn’t quite consciously ventured further yet. Worse, she had begun to realize that though still far-away, his was a smile neither serene nor happy but a little pathetic. It was the smile of someone who is in search of something. What? Understanding? Companionship? Sympathy? Miss Curtis simply didn’t know. And if it was any of these things what ought she to do? If only—not the sexes themselves—’but the conduct of the sexes could be sometimes reversed—without any, fatal results! If only she could have marched up to the door, knocked, asked for him and said, “Well, here I am, you see. You want me? I have come. What can I do? Positively anything you ask of me.” A smile can sink as deep into one’s innermost consciousness as that!
Miss Curtis, who was at this moment quite alone—for Miss Mavor was now putting on her things—as she gazed on vacantly out into the London street, all its sunset colours now faded, didn’t care a jot now what he had wanted. The only thing that mattered was that he hadn’t wanted her. Not that she bore him any ill-will on that score. Not only would she never see him again; she would never see his like again. On his account she had given up all interest in men absolutely and for ever. Her every faculty was now centred on the practical—on her “career.” The only male creature she still had any interest in was a nephew and she was going to leave him all her savings. Besides, look at that flossy little fly-away Phyllis and the dark secretive Miss Mavor and the rest. What a stupid waste, when every hour even of their working day was merely a wait between the acts of some silly love affair. Pictures, a joy-ride, some young man always in the offing.
Miss Curtis’s affair would never have been a love affair; it would have been a life affair. She knew that, at any, rate. She knew perfectly well that if that smiling one at the window had suggested—quite simply even at their first meeting—that he wanted her to spend the rest of her life in his service, she wouldn’t have hesitated. She knew that if for some reason best known to himself, he had merely nodded his head at her, to let her know that only her dead body washed up from out of the sea next morning would be of any use to him, in she’d have gone.
That would have been a funny eventuality if you like. But are eventualities that don’t occur of the slightest importance? No smile now would ever bring Miss Curtis’s sound healthy body to any such pass as that. Old age might, but so far as she knew she was not intolerably terrified at the thought that her Sea might then be a trifle cold. Even the fact that five years ago she was already tending towards the spinsterish hadn’t seemed to matter in the least. It made the shock when it came the more amusing to recall. It was almost her last little lesson, so to speak, on the brink.
That thermos flask of tea, for example—and what an indescribable flavour it always had, as if the milk flatly refused to be on good terms with the rest of the mixture—and those raspberry-jam sandwiches! In a moment of weakness she had owned that raspberry jam was her favourite of all jams, and her landlady had remembered it!
No one really young and frivolous and silly and romantic and vain and ineffectual and gullible and untrustworthy would have taken food on such an expedition. It was not as though the face at the window would share it. She knew perfectly well that it was for her own sustenance alone— though it had quickly ceased to be. In fact the flavour of raspberry jam even as a memory was slightly indigestible, Miss Curtis was sorry her inside could betray her like that, To sit among the sand-dunes with the long grey-green nodding grasses, the faint winds stirring their tranquil surface under those sunny heavens, and the bright platter of the empty, sea—that would only have been pleasanter and pleasanter to remember. But not so the raspberry jam!
And now, in memory, Miss Curtis had come out of the glass and oast-iron shelter to which Chapter XXV had consigned her. Indeed she had sat there only a very few minutes—to quiet down. With a glance at its one other occupant, an old gentleman, of whose countenance nothing was visible except spectacles, since he was muffled up to the eyes in shawls, she had set out once more. It had been her new rule to keep her eyes fixed firmly on the barometer under the flagstaff on the front until she was nearly opposite the balcony, and then to cast only one firm straight intent glance up at the window, before—and this was the most horrible abyss to remember—before sitting down on a neighbouring seat, a few yards further on. Yes, she could be frank with herself even about that now. She had accustomed herself to sit down on that seat in wait for him. She had definitely accustomed herself to sit there—though at first it had needed some forcing—solely with the intention of lying in wait for him; of lying in wait for him—like other women. Her one scrap of redeeming decency, being that once she was seated she never by a fraction of an inch turned her head. Indeed sitting there—horribly stiff and hot and self-conscious—she might be out of sight of him— unless of course he changed his position at the window to look. And wasn’t that perhaps the least one could expect— when at any rate one had oneself sunk so low? It was on this afternoon however she was to learn that it is actually possible in this world to sink as low as that, and nobody, no human being anyhow, be a penny the wiser and yourself to remain only—well what? Indescribably poorer? Just because you have been humbled to the dust? Because you’ve been taught your lesson? Had there been need to learn that? And supposing it had not been a lesson—a holiday task?
A slow smile had stolen into Miss Curtis’s face—not sour but extraordinarily resolute, even a little grim. But never mind all that. It was the last afternoon of her degradation she was now thinking of. Questions were useless now.
She had found him there at his window just as usual, just as immobile, and almost excruciatingly alone, as if simply, stricken with solitude. Smiling, oh yes; but—she hadn’t any doubt of it now—unm)py. It was absurd to deny it any longer. He was alone, he was desperate, he needed help. At this it seemed that an emotion of infinite understanding, of selfless abandonment, had swamped over her. She didn’t even smile back this afternoon. She only looked. But with all her self—mind, heart and soul and all these thirty years of long waiting—welling over in her eyes. It was no good mincing matters. She had felt like that: just swamped—like some clumsily-handled Sunday tripper’s rowing-boat that has landed wrong side on on the beach with a smart sea running. Every drop of blood in her body seemed at that moment to have come to a standstill. Then the gulp, the clutch at her bag; and she had sat down.
She had sat down, her back to the high pleasant house behind her and a few paces to her left, with its late Georgian greenish balconies. And there she had simply waited on and on and on. She had to now; there was no help for it; tomorrow—or the next day—she must be going back. She couldn’t blue all her savings—not to the very last stiver. Why then he must realize it; his very, intelligence would reveal it if oniy she gave him time. She would wait, and he would declare himself. To ignore her now! With a face like that, a smile so unmotived, so wistful! Perfidy like that was not possible even in this perfidious world. The bottom of things didn’t come out quite like that.
So she had sat on and on, only once stepping on, say fifty yards or so, very very slowly, her eyes on the sea, and then returning—without so much as an eyelash lifted towards the window. And as she sat down there the second time—her heart grown a little cold, her mind miserable with wrangling voices, there had presented itself in the skies opposite to her the most astonishing sunset she had ever seen.
It appeared as if the clouds must have been waiting in the wings all day for this last huge transformation scene, They were journeying, rank on rank, each to its appointed place, not only drenching heaven and earth with an enormous pomp of colour, but widening, shallowing, patterning the whole western horizon and even the zenith arched over her simple head. It was an amazingly joyful spectacle. One could hardly believe that again and again and again throughout the centuries of the earth’s solitary and peopled existence just such vast preparations as these must often have been made before—as if for the entry of some all-powerful and all merciful potentate. Yet one who never actually appeared. And it didn’t occur to Miss Curtis that, strictly speaking, the immense scene she was contemplating was hers alone; that every instant it was beginning a little further westward to some other spectator; indeed—sobering thought—that sunset was always going on for someone; and daybreak too, for that matter.
For herself that evening the two extremes seemed to have combined into one. And then, night. During those last brief minutes she had realized as she watched what it is to be in the presence of a life of infinite possibilities, crammed, brimmed with joys and anguish and responsibilities and delights that no foresight could apprehend. She was to realize too at the end of those few minutes what it is—so far as she was concerned—to see it instantaneously fade away and die, while still these lovely apparitions of the heavens burned on, in their turn too to fade away. For this life of which she had caught this marvellous glimpse had itself never even been a possibility—merely an illusion. Worse, a delusion.
Miss Curtis was not smiling now as she stood looking out into the street. Her face had never worn an expression so assured and resolute and indomitable. What a solace is a career, what a never-wearisome refuge plenty to do! How wise, how sagacious to retire and just look on. At least so it seemed now.
At Newhampton that evening an awful moment had intervened, a moment almost appallingly ridiculous to recall. For you can’t actually remember racking pain of mind and spirit any more than you can remember bodily agony. Voices had sounded out behind her as she sat with her little bag clutched in her tailor-made lap, her whole person positively blazing with the preternatural dyes of the west. And one of those voices she was to remember—it had sounded familiar too, though she had never heard it before—to her (lying day. It was the voice of the Destroyer.
The esplanade at this moment had been all but deserted— empty. Two men—and as if a tocsin had proclaimed him she knew who one of them was—two men had come straight across from the house behind her, had passed the seat on her left about twenty, yards away, and then had turned right, and now were but a pace or two distant. She positively saw all this, as if she had eyes between her shoulder blades. And she had sat on, motionless, half-suffocated with suspense, unable for the instant to stir hand or foot.
Then, with that vast western light for help, she had looked up—straight into the unknown one’s face, straight into his eyes. And though they were fixed in her direction they had made no sign, None—just none. How could they? For though they were wide open they were veiled by a peculiar film, and even if the unknown one’s hand had not been resting on his companion’s arm, she would have realized at once that he was blind—just gravel blind.
It was curious, perhaps, that being so he could be capable —as that curiously vague gentle smile seemed to testify—of enjoying the spectacle of light and colour and refulgence, of sea, air, and sky.
But Miss Curtis had never thought it curious. She had first heard only the voice without catching the words, and then had gulped down the heart that had come into her mouth, and had so clumsily clutched at the wrong end of her bag that her thermos flask had slipped out of it, had rolled with extraordinary animation out of her lap and fallen with an incredible crash on to the asphalt beneath.
“What’s that, what’s that?” the voice had cried out, and a panic-stricken expression had transfigured the mute pale face.
“It’s all right,” the other had replied. “It’s only a lady who has dropped something.” And then as if in confidence: “As a matter of fact a bottle of tea, poor thing.”
The last words had been scarcely more than muttered. But in moments of extreme torture the senses may be exceedingly acute and the whole soul observant. They had remained fixed in Miss Curtis’s mind as finally as if they had been recorded in wax for the gramophone. But since something that seemed very much like her whole life, her whole being, her very heart itself had at this moment been shattered into bits, it wasn’t till some little time after, when the deeper wounds were numbing, that she felt the full destructiveness of that “poor thing.” To see ourselves as others see us and not through the distortions of self-deception, rapture, and romance—”Poor thing”! In the very, words with which she herself had sometimes compassionated in silence some blowzy bedraggled tripper—or worse. “And so—ad infinitum.” That, anyhow, only amused her now.
And that had been the end of it. Miss Curtis had stooped—the blood rushing to her head and staining her vision as she did so—and had picked up her broken flask. It looked a little disgusting but she had stuffed it back into her bag with her raspberry-jam sandwiches and her bun. Then she had swept her hands down over her lap almost as if she had finished a most delicious tea and wanted to get rid of the crumbs. And then she had got up and gone off on her picnic to the sand-dunes. And then. . . .
But now Miss Mavor, having finished her last few little jobs—and all lip-sticked and freshly powdered for the evening—was ready to go. Miss Curtis herself pulled down the last dark-blue blind, the blind that covered the glass of the door. And she herself turned the handle and opened that door.
“Good night, Miss Curtis,” said Miss Mavor.
“Good night,” said Miss Curtis; then turned back into the vacant and half-lighted shop to get her own neat hand-bag and admirable umbrella, and to put on her hat and coat.