The drawing-room was a cool, light-coloured room with lime-washed walls a yard thick; it was large, but seemed smaller than it was, because of a litter of occasional tables and Benares brassware ornaments. It smelt of chintz and dying flowers. Mrs Lackersteen was upstairs, sleeping. Outside, the servants lay silent in their quarters, their heads tethered to their wooden pillows by the death-like sleep of midday. Mr Lackersteen, in his small wooden office down the road, was probably sleeping too. No one stirred except Elizabeth, and the chokra who pulled the punkah outside Mrs Lackersteen’s bedroom, lying on his back with one heel in the loop of the rope.
Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’—these, needless to say, included her husband—and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.
In the last year of the War Mr Lackersteen, who had managed to avoid service, made a great deal of money, and just after the Armistice they moved into a huge, new, rather bleak house in Highgate, with quantities of greenhouses, shrubberies, stables and tennis courts. Mr Lackersteen had engaged a horde of servants, even, so great was his optimism, a butler. Elizabeth was sent for two terms to a very expensive boarding-school. Oh, the joy, the joy, the unforgettable joy of those two terms! Four of the girls at the school were ‘the Honourable’; nearly all of them had ponies of their own, on which they were allowed to go riding on Saturday afternoons. There is a short period in everyone’s life when his character is fixed forever; with Elizabeth, it was those two terms during which she rubbed shoulders with the rich. Thereafter her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (’lovely’ was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (’beastly’) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious. Perhaps it is in order to teach this creed that expensive girls’ schools exist. The feeling subtilized itself as Elizabeth grew older, diffused itself through all her thoughts. Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as ‘lovely’ or ‘beastly’. And unfortunately—for Mr Lackersteen’s prosperity did not last—it was the ‘beastly’ that had predominated in her life.
The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap, beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs Lackersteen was left with an income of £150 a year, which was to die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen’s management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to dedicate herself wholly to Art.
Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth’s life in Paris had not been quite like that.
Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She was so foolish with money that her income would not come near covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat. Then she found a job as visiting teacher of English to the family of a French bank manager. They called her ‘notre mees Anglaise’. The banker lived in the twelfth arrondissement, a long way from Montparnasse, and Elizabeth had taken a room in a pension near by. It was a narrow, yellow-faced house in a side street, looking out on to a poulterer’s shop, generally decorated with reeking carcasses of wild boars, which old gentlemen like decrepit satyrs would visit every morning and sniff long and lovingly. Next door to the poulterer’s was a fly-blown cafe with the sign ‘Café de l’Amitie. Bock Formidable’. How Elizabeth had loathed that pension! The patroness was an old black-clad sneak who spent her life in tiptoeing up and down stairs in hopes of catching the boarders washing stockings in their hand-basins. The boarders, sharp-tongued bilious widows, pursued the only man in the establishment, a mild, bald creature who worked in La Samaritaine, like sparrows worrying a bread-crust. At meals all of them watched each others’ plates to see who was given the biggest helping. The bathroom was a dark den with leprous walls and a rickety verdigrised geyser which would spit two inches of tepid water into the bath and then mulishly stop working. The bank manager whose children Elizabeth taught was a man of fifty, with a fat, worn face and a bald, dark yellow crown resembling an ostrich’s egg. The second day after her arrival he came into the room where the children were at their lessons, sat down beside Elizabeth and immediately pinched her elbow. The third day he pinched her on the calf, the fourth day behind the knee, the fifth day above the knee. Thereafter, every evening, it was a silent battle between the two of them, her hand under the table, struggling and struggling to keep that ferret-like hand away from her.
It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of ‘beastliness’ which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist. But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother’s studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at either. At irregular intervals she went to a ‘school’ where she produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil, Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never made till afternoon, and everywhere—in every possible place where they could be stepped on or knocked over—tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door she would burst out:
‘Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how can you? Look at the state of this room! It is so terrible to live like this!’
‘The room, dearest? What’s the matter? Is it untidy?’
‘Untidy! Mother, need you leave that plate of porridge in the middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!’
The rapt, other-wordly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.
‘None of my friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we artists. You don’t understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in our painting. You haven’t the artistic temperament, you see, dear.’
‘I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can’t bear to think of you living like this. What have you done with the scrubbing-brush?’
‘The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere. Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it’ll be all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.’
Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of sketching paper with a Conte crayon while Elizabeth worked.
‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply everything. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother’s friends were women of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest, Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de l’Elysee and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatter, the Graphic, the Sporting and Dramatic.
Ah, what joys were pictured there! ‘Hounds meeting on the lawn of Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.’ ‘The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian, Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft’s this summer.’ ‘Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain “Tuppy” Benacre.’
Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever getting back to the decent world again?
It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect—‘braininess’ was her word for it— tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people—people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes—were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow ideas—Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.
When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying that a letter would follow.
Mrs Lackersteen had reflected for some time over the letter, her pen between her lips, looking down at the page with her delicate triangular face like a meditative snake.
‘I suppose we must have her out here, at any rate for a year. what a bore! However, they generally marry within a year if they’ve any looks at all. What am I to say to the girl, Tom?’
‘Say? Oh, just say she’ll pick up a husband out here a damn sight easier than at home. Something of that sort, y’know.’
‘My dear Tom! What impossible things you say!’
Mrs Lackersteen wrote:
|Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a great deal of the time. I’m afraid you will find it dreadfully dull after the delights of Paris. But really in some ways these small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds herself quite a queen in the local society. The unmarried men are so lonely that they appreciate a girl’s society in a quite wonderful way, etc., etc.|
Elizabeth spent thirty pounds on summer frocks and set sail immediately. The ship, heralded by rolling porpoises, ploughed across the Mediterranean and down the Canal into a sea of staring, enamel-like blue, then out into the green wastes of the Indian Ocean, where flocks of flying fish skimmed in terror from the approaching hull. At night the waters were phosphorescent, and the wash of the bow was like a moving arrowhead of green fire. Elizabeth ‘loved’ the life on board ship. She loved the dancing on deck at nights, the cocktails which every man on board seemed anxious to buy for her, the deck games, of which, however, she grew tired at about the same time as the other members of the younger set. It was nothing to her that her mother’s death was only two months past. She had never cared greatly for her mother, and besides, the people here knew nothing of her affairs. It was so lovely after those two graceless years to breathe the air of wealth again. Not that most of the people here were rich; but on board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich. She was going to love India, she knew. She had formed quite a picture of India, from the other passengers’ conversation; she had even learned some of the more necessary Hindustani phrases, such as ‘idher ao’, ‘jaldi’, ‘sahiblog’, etc. In anticipation she tasted the agreeable atmosphere of Clubs, with punkahs flapping and barefooted white-turbaned boys reverently salaaming; and maidans where bronzed Englishmen with little clipped moustaches galloped to and fro, whacking polo balls. It was almost as nice as being really rich, the way people lived in India.
They sailed into Colombo through green glassy waters, where turtles and black snakes floated basking. A fleet of sampans came racing out to meet the ship, propelled by coal-black men with lips stained redder than blood by betel juice. They yelled and struggled round the gangway while the passengers descended. As Elizabeth and her friends came down, two sampan-wallahs, their prows nosing against the gangway, besought them with yells.
‘Don’t you go with him, missie! Not with him! Bad wicked man he, not fit taking missie!’
‘Don’t you listen him lies, missie! Nasty low fellow! Nasty low tricks him playing. Nasty native tricks!’
‘Ha, ha! He is not native himself! Oh no! Him European man, white skin all same, missie! Ha ha!’
‘Stop your bat, you two, or I’ll fetch one of you a kick,’ said the husband of Elizabeth’s friend—he was a planter. They stepped into one of the sampans and were rowed towards the sun-bright quays. And the successful sampan-wallah turned and discharged at his rival a mouthful of spittle which he must have been saving up for a very long time.
This was the Orient. Scents of coco-nut oil and sandalwood, cinnamon and turmeric, floated across the water on the hot, swimming air. Elizabeth’s friends drove her out to Mount Lavinia, where they bathed in a lukewarm sea that foamed like Coca-Cola. She came back to the ship in the evening, and they reached Rangoon a week later.
North of Mandalay the train, fuelled with wood, crawled at twelve miles an hour across a vast, parched plain, bounded at its remote edges by blue rings of hills. White egrets stood poised, motionless, like herons, and piles of drying chilis gleamed crimson in the sun. Sometimes a white pagoda rose from the plain like the breast of a supine giantess. The early tropic night settled down, and the train jolted on, slowly, stopping at little stations where barbaric yells sounded from the darkness. Half-naked men with their long hair knotted behind their heads moved to and fro in torchlight, hideous as demons in Elizabeth’s eyes. The train plunged into forest, and unseen branches brushed against the windows. It was about nine o’clock when they reached Kyauktada, where Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt were waiting with Mr Macgregor’s car, and with some servants carrying torches. Her aunt came forward and took Elizabeth’s shoulders in her delicate, saurian hands.
‘I suppose you are our niece Elizabeth? We are so pleased to see you,’ she said, and kissed her.
Mr Lackersteen peered over his wife’s shoulder in the torchlight. He gave a half-whistle, exclaimed, ‘Well, I’ll be damned!’ and then seized Elizabeth and kissed her, more warmly than he need have done, she thought. She had never seen either of them before.
After dinner, under the punkah in the drawing-room, Elizabeth and her aunt had a talk together. Mr Lackersteen was strolling in the garden, ostensibly to smell the frangipani, actually to have a surreptitious drink that one of the servants smuggled to him from the back of the house.
‘My dear, how really lovely you are! Let me look at you again.’ She took her by the shoulders. ‘I do think that Eton crop suits you. Did you have it done in Paris?’
‘Yes. Everyone was getting Eton-cropped. It suits you if you’ve got a fairly small head.’
‘Lovely! And those tortoise-shell spectacles—such a becoming fashion! I’m told that all the—er—demi-mondaines in South America have taken to wearing them. I’d no idea I had such a ravishing beauty for a niece. How old did you say you were, dear?’
‘Twenty-two! How delighted all the men will be when we take you to the Club tomorrow! They get so lonely, poor things, never seeing a new face. And you were two whole years in Paris? I can’t think what the men there can have been about to let you leave unmarried.’
‘I’m afraid I didn’t meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had to live so quietly. And I was working,’ she added, thinking this rather a disgraceful admission.
‘Of course, of course,’ sighed Mrs Lackersteen. ‘One hears the same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their living. It is such a shame! I think it’s so terribly selfish, don’t you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so many poor girls looking for husbands?’ Elizabeth not answering this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, ‘I’m sure if I were a young girl I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!’
The two women’s eyes met. There was a great deal that Mrs Lackersteen wanted to say, but she had no intention of doing more than hint at it obliquely. A great deal of her conversation was carried on by hints; she generally contrived, however, to make her meaning reasonably clear. She said in a tenderly impersonal tone, as though discussing a subject of general interest:
‘Of course, I must say this. There are cases when, if girls fail to get married it’s their own fault. It happens even out here sometimes. Only a short time ago I remember a case—a girl came out and stayed a whole year with her brother, and she had offers from all kinds of men—policemen, forest officers, men in timber firms with quite good prospects. And she refused them all; she wanted to marry into the I.C.S., I heard. Well, what do you expect? Of course her brother couldn’t go on keeping her forever. And now I hear she’s at home, poor thing, working as a kind of lady help, practically a servant. And getting only fifteen shillings a week! Isn’t it dreadful to think of such things?’
‘Dreadful!’ Elizabeth echoed.
No more was said on this subject. In the morning, after she came back from Flory’s house, Elizabeth was describing her adventure to her aunt and uncle. They were at breakfast, at the flower-laden table, with the punkah flapping overhead and the tall stork-like Mohammedan butler in his white suit and pagri standing behind Mrs Lackersteen’s chair, tray in hand.
‘And oh, Aunt, such an interesting thing! A Burmese girl came on to the veranda. I’d never seen one before, at least, not knowing they were girls. Such a queer little thing—she was almost like a doll with her round yellow face and her black hair screwed up on top. She only looked about seventeen. Mr Flory said she was his laundress.’
The Indian butler’s long body stiffened. He squinted down at the girl with his white eyeballs large in his black face. He spoke English well. Mr Lackersteen paused with a forkful of fish half- way from his plate and his crass mouth open.
‘Laundress?’ he said. ‘Laundress! I say, dammit, some mistake there! No such thing as a laundress in this country, y’know. Laundering work’s all done by men. If you ask me—’
And then he stopped very suddenly, almost as though someone had trodden on his toe under the table.