At Crome all the beds were ancient hereditary pieces of furniture. Huge beds, like four-masted ships, with furled sails of shining coloured stuff. Beds carved and inlaid, beds painted and gilded. Beds of walnut and oak, of rare exotic woods. Beds of every date and fashion from the time of Sir Ferdinando, who built the house, to the time of his namesake in the late eighteenth century, the last of the family, but all of them grandiose, magnificent.
The finest of all was now Anne's bed. Sir Julius, son to Sir Ferdinando, had had it made in Venice against his wife's first lying-in. Early seicento Venice had expended all its extravagant art in the making of it. The body of the bed was like a great square sarcophagus. Clustering roses were carved in high relief on its wooden panels, and luscious putti wallowed among the roses. On the black ground-work of the panels the carved reliefs were gilded and burnished. The golden roses twined in spirals up the four pillar-like posts, and cherubs, seated at the top of each column, supported a wooden canopy fretted with the same carved flowers.
Anne was reading in bed. Two candles stood on the little table beside her, in their rich light her face, her bare arm and shoulder took on warm hues and a sort of peach-like quality of surface. Here and there in the canopy above her carved golden petals shone brightly among profound shadows, and the soft light, falling on the sculptured panel of the bed, broke restlessly among the intricate roses, lingered in a broad caress on the blown cheeks, the dimpled bellies, the tight, absurd little posteriors of the sprawling putti.
There was a discreet tap at the door. She looked up. "Come in, come in." A face, round and childish, within its sleek bell of golden hair, peered round the opening door. More childish- looking still, a suit of mauve pyjamas made its entrance.
It was Mary. "I thought I'd just look in for a moment to say good-night," she said, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Anne closed her book. "That was very sweet of you."
"What are you reading?" She looked at the book. "Rather second- rate, isn't it?" The tone in which Mary pronounced the word "second-rate" implied an almost infinite denigration. She was accustomed in London to associate only with first-rate people who liked first-rate things, and she knew that there were very, very few first-rate things in the world, and that those were mostly French.
"Well, I'm afraid I like it," said Anne. There was nothing more to be said. The silence that followed was a rather uncomfortable one. Mary fiddled uneasily with the bottom button of her pyjama jacket. Leaning back on her mound of heaped-up pillows, Anne waited and wondered what was coming.
"I'm so awfully afraid of repressions," said Mary at last, bursting suddenly and surprisingly into speech. She pronounced the words on the tail-end of an expiring breath, and had to gasp for new air almost before the phrase was finished.
"What's there to be depressed about?"
"I said repressions, not depressions."
"Oh, repressions; I see," said Anne. "But repressions of what?"
Mary had to explain. "The natural instincts of sex..." she began didactically. But Anne cut her short.
"Yes, yes. Perfectly. I understand. Repressions! old maids and all the rest. But what about them?"
"That's just it," said Mary. "I'm afraid of them. It's always dangerous to repress one's instincts. I'm beginning to detect in myself symptoms like the ones you read of in the books. I constantly dream that I'm falling down wells; and sometimes I even dream that I'm climbing up ladders. It's most disquieting. The symptoms are only too clear."
"One may become a nymphomaniac of one's not careful. You've no idea how serious these repressions are if you don't get rid of them in time."
"It sounds too awful," said Anne. "But I don't see that I can do anything to help you."
"I thought I'd just like to talk it over with you."
"Why, of course; I'm only too happy, Mary darling."
Mary coughed and drew a deep breath. "I presume," she began sententiously, "I presume we may take for granted that an intelligent young woman of twenty-three who has lived in civilised society in the twentieth century has no prejudices."
"Well, I confess I still have a few."
"But not about repressions."
"No, not many about repressions; that's true."
"Or, rather, about getting rid of repressions."
"So much for our fundamental postulate," said Mary. Solemnity was expressed in every feature of her round young face, radiated from her large blue eyes. "We come next to the desirability of possessing experience. I hope we are agreed that knowledge is desirable and that ignorance is undesirable."
Obedient as one of those complaisant disciples from whom Socrates could get whatever answer he chose, Anne gave her assent to this proposition.
"And we are equally agreed, I hope, that marriage is what it is."
"Good!" said Mary. "And repressions being what they are..."
"There would therefore seem to be only one conclusion."
"But I knew that," Anne exclaimed, "before you began."
"Yes, but now it's been proved," said Mary. "One must do things logically. The question is now..."
"But where does the question come in? You've reached your only possible conclusion--logically, which is more than I could have done. All that remains is to impart the information to someone you like--someone you like really rather a lot, someone you're in love with, if I may express myself so baldly."
"But that's just where the question comes in," Mary exclaimed. "I'm not in love with anybody."
"Then, if I were you, I should wait till you are."
"But I can't go on dreaming night after night that I'm falling down a well. It's too dangerous."
"Well, if it really is too dangerous, then of course you must do something about it; you must find somebody else."
"But who?" A thoughtful frown puckered Mary's brow. "It must be somebody intelligent, somebody with intellectual interests that I can share. And it must be somebody with a proper respect for women, somebody who's prepared to talk seriously about his work and his ideas and about my work and my ideas. It isn't, as you see, at all easy to find the right person."
"Well" said Anne, "there are three unattached and intelligent men in the house at the present time. There's Mr. Scogan, to begin with; but perhaps he's rather too much of a genuine antique. And there are Gombauld and Denis. Shall we say that the choice is limited to the last two?"
Mary nodded. "I think we had better," she said, and then hesitated, with a certain air of embarrassment.
"What is it?"
"I was wondering," said Mary, with a gasp, "whether they really were unattached. I thought that perhaps you might...you might..."
"It was very nice of you to think of me, Mary darling," said Anne, smiling the tight cat's smile. "But as far as I'm concerned, they are both entirely unattached."
"I'm very glad of that," said Mary, looking relieved. "We are now confronted with the question: Which of the two?"
"I can give no advice. It's a matter for your taste."
"It's not a matter of my taste," Mary pronounced, "but of their merits. We must weigh them and consider them carefully and dispassionately."
"You must do the weighing yourself," said Anne; there was still the trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth and round the half-closed eyes. "I won't run the risk of advising you wrongly."
"Gombauld has more talent," Mary began, "but he is less civilised than Denis." Mary's pronunciation of "civilised" gave the word a special and additional significance. She uttered it meticulously, in the very front of her mouth, hissing delicately on the opening sibilant. So few people were civilised, and they, like the first-rate works of art, were mostly French. "Civilisation is most important, don't you think?"
Anne held up her hand. "I won't advise," she said. "You must make the decision."
"Gombauld's family," Mary went on reflectively, "comes from Marseilles. Rather a dangerous heredity, when one thinks of the Latin attitude towards women. But then, I sometimes wonder whether Denis is altogether serious-minded, whether he isn't rather a dilettante. It's very difficult. What do you think?"
"I'm not listening," said Anne. "I refuse to take any responsibility."
Mary sighed. "Well," she said, "I think I had better go to bed and think about it."
"Carefully and dispassionately," said Anne.
At the door Mary turned round. "Good-night," she said, and wondered as she said the words why Anne was smiling in that curious way. It was probably nothing, she reflected. Anne often smiled for no apparent reason; it was probably just a habit. "I hope I shan't dream of falling down wells again to-night," she added.
"Ladders are worse," said Anne.
Mary nodded. "Yes, ladders are much graver."