As the wood caught the city of London was lit up for a second; on other side_f the fire there were trees. Of the faces which came out fresh and vivid a_hough painted in yellow and red, the most prominent was a girl's face. By _rick of the firelight she seemed to have no body. The oval of the face an_air hung beside the fire with a dark vacuum for background. As if dazed b_he glare, her green-blue eyes stared at the flames. Every muscle of her fac_as taut. There was something tragic in her thus staring—her age betwee_wenty and twenty-five.
A hand descending from the chequered darkness thrust on her head the conica_hite hat of a pierrot. Shaking her head, she still stared. A whiskered fac_ppeared above her. They dropped two legs of a table upon the fire and _cattering of twigs and leaves. All this blazed up and showed faces far back, round, pale, smooth, bearded, some with billycock hats on; all intent; showe_oo St. Paul's floating on the uneven white mist, and two or three narrow, paper-white, extinguisher-shaped spires.
The flames were struggling through the wood and roaring up when, goodnes_nows where from, pails flung water in beautiful hollow shapes, as of polishe_ortoiseshell; flung again and again; until the hiss was like a swarm of bees; and all the faces went out.
"Oh Jacob," said the girl, as they pounded up the hill in the dark, "I'm s_rightfully unhappy!"
Shouts of laughter came from the others—high, low; some before, others after.
The hotel dining-room was brightly lit. A stag's head in plaster was at on_nd of the table; at the other some Roman bust blackened and reddened t_epresent Guy Fawkes, whose night it was. The diners were linked together b_engths of paper roses, so that when it came to singing "Auld Lang Syne" wit_heir hands crossed a pink and yellow line rose and fell the entire length o_he table. There was an enormous tapping of green wine-glasses. A young ma_tood up, and Florinda, taking one of the purplish globes that lay on th_able, flung it straight at his head. It crushed to powder.
"I'm so frightfully unhappy!" she said, turning to Jacob, who sat beside her.
The table ran, as if on invisible legs, to the side of the room, and a barre_rgan decorated with a red cloth and two pots of paper flowers reeled ou_altz music.
Jacob could not dance. He stood against the wall smoking a pipe.
"We think," said two of the dancers, breaking off from the rest, and bowin_rofoundly before him, "that you are the most beautiful man we have eve_een."
So they wreathed his head with paper flowers. Then somebody brought out _hite and gilt chair and made him sit on it. As they passed, people hung glas_rapes on his shoulders, until he looked like the figure-head of a wrecke_hip. Then Florinda got upon his knee and hid her face in his waistcoat. Wit_ne hand he held her; with the other, his pipe.
"Now let us talk," said Jacob, as he walked down Haverstock Hill between fou_nd five o'clock in the morning of November the sixth arm-in-arm with Timm_urrant, "about something sensible."
The Greeks—yes, that was what they talked about—how when all's said and done, when one's rinsed one's mouth with every literature in the world, includin_hinese and Russian (but these Slavs aren't civilized), it's the flavour o_reek that remains. Durrant quoted Aeschylus—Jacob Sophocles. It is true tha_o Greek could have understood or professor refrained from pointing out—Neve_ind; what is Greek for if not to be shouted on Haverstock Hill in the dawn?
Moreover, Durrant never listened to Sophocles, nor Jacob to Aeschylus. The_ere boastful, triumphant; it seemed to both that they had read every book i_he world; known every sin, passion, and joy. Civilizations stood round the_ike flowers ready for picking. Ages lapped at their feet like waves fit fo_ailing. And surveying all this, looming through the fog, the lamplight, th_hades of London, the two young men decided in favour of Greece.
"Probably," said Jacob, "we are the only people in the world who know what th_reeks meant."
They drank coffee at a stall where the urns were burnished and little lamp_urnt along the counter.
Taking Jacob for a military gentleman, the stall-keeper told him about his bo_t Gibraltar, and Jacob cursed the British army and praised the Duke o_ellington. So on again they went down the hill talking about the Greeks.
A strange thing—when you come to think of it—this love of Greek, flourishin_n such obscurity, distorted, discouraged, yet leaping out, all of a sudden, especially on leaving crowded rooms, or after a surfeit of print, or when th_oon floats among the waves of the hills, or in hollow, sallow, fruitles_ondon days, like a specific; a clean blade; always a miracle. Jacob knew n_ore Greek than served him to stumble through a play. Of ancient history h_new nothing. However, as he tramped into London it seemed to him that the_ere making the flagstones ring on the road to the Acropolis, and that i_ocrates saw them coming he would bestir himself and say "my fine fellows,"
for the whole sentiment of Athens was entirely after his heart; free, venturesome, high-spirited…. She had called him Jacob without asking hi_eave. She had sat upon his knee. Thus did all good women in the days of th_reeks.
At this moment there shook out into the air a wavering, quavering, dolefu_amentation which seemed to lack strength to unfold itself, and yet flagge_n; at the sound of which doors in back streets burst sullenly open; workme_tumped forth.
Florinda was sick.
Mrs. Durrant, sleepless as usual, scored a mark by the side of certain line_n the Inferno.
Clara slept buried in her pillows; on her dressing-table dishevelled roses an_ pair of long white gloves.
Still wearing the conical white hat of a pierrot, Florinda was sick.
The bedroom seemed fit for these catastrophes—cheap, mustard-coloured, hal_ttic, half studio, curiously ornamented with silver paper stars, Welshwomen'_ats, and rosaries pendent from the gas brackets. As for Florinda's story, he_ame had been bestowed upon her by a painter who had wished it to signify tha_he flower of her maidenhood was still unplucked. Be that as it may, she wa_ithout a surname, and for parents had only the photograph of a tombston_eneath which, she said, her father lay buried. Sometimes she would dwell upo_he size of it, and rumour had it that Florinda's father had died from th_rowth of his bones which nothing could stop; just as her mother enjoyed th_onfidence of a Royal master, and now and again Florinda herself was _rincess, but chiefly when drunk. Thus deserted, pretty into the bargain, wit_ragic eyes and the lips of a child, she talked more about virginity tha_omen mostly do; and had lost it only the night before, or cherished it beyon_he heart in her breast, according to the man she talked to. But did sh_lways talk to men? No, she had her confidante: Mother Stuart. Stuart, as th_ady would point out, is the name of a Royal house; but what that signified, and what her business way, no one knew; only that Mrs. Stuart got posta_rders every Monday morning, kept a parrot, believed in the transmigration o_ouls, and could read the future in tea leaves. Dirty lodging-house wallpape_he was behind the chastity of Florinda.
Now Florinda wept, and spent the day wandering the streets; stood at Chelse_atching the river swim past; trailed along the shopping streets; opened he_ag and powdered her cheeks in omnibuses; read love letters, propping the_gainst the milk pot in the A.B.C. shop; detected glass in the sugar bowl; accused the waitress of wishing to poison her; declared that young men stare_t her; and found herself towards evening slowly sauntering down Jacob'_treet, when it struck her that she liked that man Jacob better than dirt_ews, and sitting at his table (he was copying his essay upon the Ethics o_ndecency), drew off her gloves and told him how Mother Stuart had banged he_n the head with the tea-cosy.
Jacob took her word for it that she was chaste. She prattled, sitting by the fireside, of famous painters. The tomb of her father was mentioned.
Wild and frail and beautiful she looked, and thus the women of the Greeks were, Jacob thought; and this was life; and himself a man and Florinda chaste.
She left with one of Shelley's poems beneath her arm. Mrs. Stuart, she said, often talked of him.
Marvellous are the innocent. To believe that the girl herself transcends al_ies (for Jacob was not such a fool as to believe implicitly), to wonde_nviously at the unanchored life—his own seeming petted and even cloistered i_omparison—to have at hand as sovereign specifics for all disorders of th_oul Adonais and the plays of Shakespeare; to figure out a comradeship al_pirited on her side, protective on his, yet equal on both, for women, though_acob, are just the same as men—innocence such as this is marvellous enough, and perhaps not so foolish after all.
For when Florinda got home that night she first washed her head; then at_hocolate creams; then opened Shelley. True, she was horribly bored. What o_arth was it ABOUT? She had to wager with herself that she would turn the pag_efore she ate another. In fact she slept. But then her day had been a lon_ne, Mother Stuart had thrown the tea-cosy;—there are formidable sights in th_treets, and though Florinda was ignorant as an owl, and would never learn t_ead even her love letters correctly, still she had her feelings, liked som_en better than others, and was entirely at the beck and call of life. Whethe_r not she was a virgin seems a matter of no importance whatever. Unless, indeed, it is the only thing of any importance at all.
Jacob was restless when she left him.
All night men and women seethed up and down the well-known beats. Late home- comers could see shadows against the blinds even in the most respectabl_uburbs. Not a square in snow or fog lacked its amorous couple. All play_urned on the same subject. Bullets went through heads in hotel bedroom_lmost nightly on that account. When the body escaped mutilation, seldom di_he heart go to the grave unscarred. Little else was talked of in theatres an_opular novels. Yet we say it is a matter of no importance at all.
What with Shakespeare and Adonais, Mozart and Bishop Berkeley—choose whom yo_ike—the fact is concealed and the evenings for most of us pass reputably, o_ith only the sort of tremor that a snake makes sliding through the grass. Bu_hen concealment by itself distracts the mind from the print and the sound. I_lorinda had had a mind, she might have read with clearer eyes than we can.
She and her sort have solved the question by turning it to a trifle of washin_he hands nightly before going to bed, the only difficulty being whether yo_refer your water hot or cold, which being settled, the mind can go about it_usiness unassailed.
But it did occur to Jacob, half-way through dinner, to wonder whether she ha_ mind.
They sat at a little table in the restaurant.
Florinda leant the points of her elbows on the table and held her chin in th_up of her hands. Her cloak had slipped behind her. Gold and white with brigh_eads on her she emerged, her face flowering from her body, innocent, scarcel_inted, the eyes gazing frankly about her, or slowly settling on Jacob an_esting there. She talked:
"You know that big black box the Australian left in my room ever so long ago?
… I do think furs make a woman look old…. That's Bechstein come in now…. I wa_ondering what you looked like when you were a little boy, Jacob." She nibble_er roll and looked at him.
"Jacob. You're like one of those statues…. I think there are lovely things i_he British Museum, don't you? Lots of lovely things …" she spoke dreamily.
The room was filling; the heat increasing. Talk in a restaurant is daze_leep-walkers' talk, so many things to look at—so much noise—other peopl_alking. Can one overhear? Oh, but they mustn't overhear US.
"That's like Ellen Nagle—that girl …" and so on.
"I'm awfully happy since I've known you, Jacob. You're such a GOOD man."
The room got fuller and fuller; talk louder; knives more clattering.
"Well, you see what makes her say things like that is …"
She stopped. So did every one.
"To-morrow … Sunday … a beastly … you tell me … go then!" Crash!
And out she swept.
It was at the table next them that the voice spun higher and higher. Suddenl_he woman dashed the plates to the floor. The man was left there. Everybod_tared. Then—"Well, poor chap, we mustn't sit staring. What a go! Did you hea_hat she said? By God, he looks a fool! Didn't come up to the scratch, _uppose. All the mustard on the tablecloth. The waiters laughing."
Jacob observed Florinda. In her face there seemed to him something horribl_rainless—as she sat staring.
Out she swept, the black woman with the dancing feather in her hat.
Yet she had to go somewhere. The night is not a tumultuous black ocean i_hich you sink or sail as a star. As a matter of fact it was a wet Novembe_ight. The lamps of Soho made large greasy spots of light upon the pavement.
The by-streets were dark enough to shelter man or woman leaning against th_oorways. One detached herself as Jacob and Florinda approached.
"She's dropped her glove," said Florinda.
Jacob, pressing forward, gave it her.
Effusively she thanked him; retraced her steps; dropped her glove again. Bu_hy? For whom? Meanwhile, where had the other woman got to? And the man?
The street lamps do not carry far enough to tell us. The voices, angry, lustful, despairing, passionate, were scarcely more than the voices of cage_easts at night. Only they are not caged, nor beasts. Stop a man; ask him th_ay; he'll tell it you; but one's afraid to ask him the way. What does on_ear?—the human eye. At once the pavement narrows, the chasm deepens. There!
They've melted into it—both man and woman. Further on, blatantly advertisin_ts meritorious solidity, a boarding-house exhibits behind uncurtained window_ts testimony to the soundness of London. There they sit, plainly illuminated, dressed like ladies and gentlemen, in bamboo chairs. The widows of busines_en prove laboriously that they are related to judges. The wives of coa_erchants instantly retort that their fathers kept coachmen. A servant bring_offee, and the crochet basket has to be moved. And so on again into the dark, passing a girl here for sale, or there an old woman with only matches t_ffer, passing the crowd from the Tube station, the women with veiled hair, passing at length no one but shut doors, carved door-posts, and a solitar_oliceman, Jacob, with Florinda on his arm, reached his room and, lighting th_amp, said nothing at all.
"I don't like you when you look like that," said Florinda.
The problem is insoluble. The body is harnessed to a brain. Beauty goes han_n hand with stupidity. There she sat staring at the fire as she had stared a_he broken mustard-pot. In spite of defending indecency, Jacob doubted whethe_e liked it in the raw. He had a violent reversion towards male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics; and was ready to turn wit_rath upon whoever it was who had fashioned life thus.
Then Florinda laid her hand upon his knee.
After all, it was none of her fault. But the thought saddened him. It's no_atastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the wa_eople look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.
Any excuse, though, serves a stupid woman. He told her his head ached.
But when she looked at him, dumbly, half-guessing, half-understanding, apologizing perhaps, anyhow saying as he had said, "It's none of my fault,"
straight and beautiful in body, her face like a shell within its cap, then h_new that cloisters and classics are no use whatever. The problem i_nsoluble.