IF there was one thing that he hated more than another it was the way she had of waking him in the morning. She did it on purpose, of course. It was her way of establishing her grievance for the day, and he was not going to let her know how successful it was. But really, really, to wake a sensitive person like that was positively dangerous! It took him hours to get over it–simply hours. She came into the room buttoned up in an overall, with a handkerchief over her head–thereby proving that she had been up herself and slaving since dawn–and called in a low, warning voice: "Reginald!"
"Eh! What! What's that? What's the matter?"
"It's time to get up; it's half past eight." And out she went, shutting the door quietly after her, to gloat over her triumph, he supposed.
He rolled over in the big bed, his heart still beating in quick, dull throbs, and with every throb he felt his energy escaping him, his–his inspiration for the day stifling under those thudding blows. It seemed that she took a malicious delight in making life more difficult for him than–Heaven knows– it was, by denying him his rights as an artist, by trying to drag him down to her level. What was the matter with her? What the hell did she want? Hadn't he three times as many pupils now as when they were first married, earned three times as much, paid for every stick and stone that they possessed, and now had begun to shell out for Adrian's kindergarten? . . . And had he ever reproached her for not having a penny to her name? Never a word–never a sign! The truth was that once you married a woman she became insatiable, and the truth was that nothing was more fatal for an artist than marriage, at any rate until he was well over forty. . . . Why had he married her? He asked himself this question on an average about three times a day, but he never could answer it satisfactorily. She had caught him at a weak moment, when the first plunge into reality had bewildered and overwhelmed him for a time. Looking back, he saw a pathetic, youthful creature, half child, half wild untamed bird, totally incompetent to cope with bills and creditors and all the sordid details of existence. Well–she had done her best to clip his wings, if that was any satisfaction for her, and she could congratulate herself on the success of this early morning trick. One ought to wake exquisitely, reluctantly, he thought, slipping down in the warm bed. He began to imagine a series of enchanting scenes which ended with his latest, most charming pupil putting her bare, scented arms around his neck, and covering him with her long, perfumed hair. "Awake, my love!" . . .
As was his daily habit, while the bath water ran, Reginald Peacock tried his voice.
When her mother tends her before the laughing mirror, Looping up her laces, tying up her hair, he sang, softly at first, listening to the quality, nursing his voice until he came to the third line: Often she thinks, were this wild thing wedded . . . and upon the word "wedded" he burst into such a shout of triumph that the tooth-glass on the bathroom shelf trembled and even the bath tap seemed to gush stormy applause. Well, there was nothing wrong with his voice, he thought, leaping into the bath and soaping his soft, pink body all over with a loofah shaped like a fish. He could fill Covent Garden with it! "Wedded," he shouted again, seizing the towel with a magnificent operatic gesture, and went on singing while he rubbed as though he had been Lohengrin tipped out by an unwary Swan and drying himself in the greatest haste before that tiresome Elsa came along along . . .
Back in his bedroom, he pulled the blind up with a jerk, and standing upon the pale square of sunlight that lay upon the carpet like a sheet of cream blotting-paper, he began to do his exercises–deep breathing, bending forward and back, squatting like a frog and shooting out his legs–for if there was one thing he had a horror of it was of getting fat, and men in his profession had a dreadful tendency that way. However, there was no sign of it at present. He was, he decided, just right, just in good proportion. In fact, he could not help a thrill of satisfaction when he saw himself in the glass, dressed in a morning coat, dark grey trousers, grey socks, and a black tie with a silver thread in it. Not that he was vain–he couldn't stand vain men–no; the sight of himself gave him a thrill of purely artistic satisfaction. "Voilá tout! " said he, passing his hand over his sleek hair.
That little, easy French phrase blown so lightly from his lips, like a whiff of smoke, reminded him that someone had asked him again, the evening before, if he was English. People seemed to find it impossible to believe that he hadn't some Southern blood. True, there was an emotional quality in his singing that had nothing of the John Bull in it. . . . The door-handle rattled and turned round and round. Adrian's head popped through.
"Please, father, mother says breakfast is quite ready, please."
"Very well," said Reginald. Then, just as Adrian disappeared: "Adrian!"
"You haven't said 'good morning.'"
A few months ago Reginald had spent a week- end in a very aristocratic family, where the father received his little sons in the morning and shook hands with them. Reginald thought the practice charming, and introduced it immediately, but Adrian felt dreadfully silly at having to shake hands with his own father every morning. And why did his father always sort of sing to him instead of talk? . . .
In excellent temper, Reginald walked into the dining-room and sat down before a pile of letters, a copy of the Times, and a little covered dish. He glanced at the letters and then at his breakfast. There were two thin slices of bacon and one egg.
"Don't you want any bacon?" he asked.
"No, I prefer a cold baked apple. I don't feel the need of bacon every morning."
Now, did she mean that there was no need for him to have bacon every morning, either, and that she grudged having to cook it for him?
"If you don't want to cook the breakfast," said he, "why don't you keep a servant? You know we can afford one, and you know how I loathe to see my wife doing the work. Simply because all the women we have had in the past have been failures, and utterly upset my regime, and made it almost impossible for me to have any pupils here, you've given up trying to find a decent woman. It's not impossible to train a servant–is it? I mean, it doesn't require genius?"
"But I prefer to do the work myself; it makes life so much more peaceful. . . . Run along, Adrian darling, and get ready for school."
"Oh no, that's not it!" Reginald pretended to smile. "You do the work yourself, because, for some extraordinary reason, you love to humiliate me. Objectively, you may not know that, but, subjectively, it's the case." This last remark so delighted him that he cut open an envelope as gracefully as if he had been on the stage. . . .
"DEAR MR. PEACOCK, I feel I cannot go to sleep until I have thanked you again for the wonderful joy your singing gave me this evening. Quite unforgettable. You make me wonder, as I have not wondered since I was a girl, if this is all. I mean, if this ordinary world is all. If there is not, perhaps, for those of us who understand, divine beauty and richness awaiting us if we only have the courage to see it. And to make it ours . . . The house is so quiet. I wish you were here now that I might thank you in person. You are doing a great thing. You are teaching the world to escape from life!
Yours, most sincerely, ÆNONE FELL.
P.S.–I am in every afternoon this week. . . . "
The letter was scrawled in violet ink on thick, handmade paper. Vanity, that bright bird, lifted its wings again, lifted them until he felt his breast would break.
"Oh well, don't let us quarrel," said he, and actually flung out a hand to his wife.
But she was not great enough to respond.
"I must hurry and take Adrian to school," said she. "Your room is quite ready for you."
Very well–very well–let there be open war between them! But he was hanged if he'd be the first to make it up again!
He walked up and down his room, and was not calm again until he heard the outer door close upon Adrian and his wife. Of course, if this went on, he would have to make some other arrangement. That was obvious. Tied and bound like this, how could he help the world to escape from life? He opened the piano and looked up his pupils for the morning. Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, and Miss Marian Morrow. They were charming, all three.
Punctually at half past ten the door-bell rang. He went to the door. Miss Betty Brittle was there, dressed in white, with her music in a blue silk case.
"I'm afraid I'm early," she said, blushing and shy, and she opened her big blue eyes very wide. "Am I?"
"Not at all, dear lady. I am only too charmed," said Reginald. "Won't you come in?"
"It's such a heavenly morning," said Miss Brittle. "I walked across the park. The flowers were too marvellous."
"Well, think about them while you sing your exercises," said Reginald, sitting down at the piano. "It will give your voice colour and warmth."
Oh, what an enchanting idea! What a genius Mr. Peacock was. She parted her pretty lips, and began to sing like a pansy.
"Very good, very good, indeed," said Reginald, playing chords that would waft a hardened criminal to heaven. "Make the notes round. Don't be afraid. Linger over them, breathe them like a perfume."
How pretty she looked, standing there in her white frock, her little blonde head tilted, showing her milky throat.
"Do you ever practise before a glass?" asked Reginald. "You ought to, you know; it makes the lips more flexible. Come over here."
They went over to the mirror and stood side by side.
But she broke down, and blushed more brightly than ever. "Oh," she cried, "I can't. It makes me feel so silly. It makes me want to laugh. I do look so absurd!"
"No, you don't. Don't be afraid," said Reginald, but laughed, too, very kindly. "Now, try again!"
The lesson simply flew, and Betty Brittle quite got over her shyness.
"When can I come again?" she asked, tying the music up again in the blue silk case. "I want to take as many lessons as I can just now. Oh, Mr. Peacock, I do enjoy them so much. May I come the day after tomorrow?"
"Dear lady, I shall be only too charmed," said Reginald, bowing her out.
Glorious girl! And when they had stood in front of the mirror, her white sleeve had just touched his black one. He could feel–yes, he could actually feel a warm glowing spot, and he stroked it. She loved her lessons. His wife came in.
"Reginald, can you let me have some money? I must pay the dairy. And will you be in for dinner tonight?"
"Yes, you know I'm singing at Lord Timbuck's at half past nine. Can you make me some clear soup, with an egg in it?"
"Yes. And the money, Reginald. It's eight and sixpence."
"Surely that's very heavy–isn't it?"
"No, it's just what it ought to be. And Adrian must have milk."
There she was–off again. Now she was standing up for Adrian against him.
"I have not the slightest desire to deny my child a proper amount of milk," said he. "Here is ten shillings."
The door-bell rang. He went to the door.
"Oh," said the Countess Wilkowska, "the stairs. I have not a breath." And she put her hand over her heart as she followed him into the music-room. She was all in black, with a little black hat with a floating veil–violets in her bosom.
"Do not make me sing exercises, today," she cried, throwing out her hands in her delightful foreign way. "No, today, I want only to sing songs. . . . And may I take off my violets? They fade so soon."
"They fade so soon–they fade so soon," played Reginald on the piano.
"May I put them here?" asked the Countess, dropping them in a little vase that stood in front of one of Reginald's photographs.
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed!"
She began to sing, and all was well until she came to the phrase: "You love me. Yes, I know you love me!" Down dropped his hands from the keyboard, he wheeled round, facing her.
"No, no; that's not good enough. You can do better than that," cried Reginald ardently. "You must sing as if you were in love. Listen; let me try and show you." And he sang.
"Oh, yes, yes. I see what you mean," stammered the little Countess. "May I try it again?"
"Certainly. Do not be afraid. Let yourself go. Confess yourself. Make proud surrender! " he called above the music. And she sang.
"Yes; better that time. But I still feel you are capable of more. Try it with me. There must be a kind of exultant defiance as well–don't you feel?" And they sang together. Ah! now she was sure she understood. "May I try once again?"
"You love me. Yes, I know you love me."
The lesson was over before that phrase was quite perfect. The little foreign hands trembled as they put the music together.
"And you are forgetting your violets," said Reginald softly.
"Yes, I think I will forget them," said the Countess, biting her underlip. What fascinating ways these foreign women have!
"And you will come to my house on Sunday and make music?" she asked.
"Dear lady, I shall be only too charmed! " said Reginald.
Weep ye no more, sad fountains
Why need ye flow so fast?
sang Miss Marian Morrow, but her eyes filled with tears and her chin trembled. "Don't sing just now," said Reginald. "Let me play it for you." He played so softly.
"Is there anything the matter?" asked Reginald. "You're not quite happy this morning."
No, she wasn't; she was awfully miserable.
"You don't care to tell me what it is?"
It really was nothing particular. She had those moods sometimes when life seemed almost unbearable.
"Ah, I know," he said; "if I could only help!"
"But you do; you do! Oh, if it were not for my lessons I don't feel I could go on."
"Sit down in the arm-chair and smell the violets and let me sing to you. It will do you just as much good as a lesson."
Why weren't all men like Mr. Peacock?
"I wrote a poem after the concert last night–just about what I felt. Of course, it wasn't personal. May I send it to you?"
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed!"
By the end of the afternoon he was quite tired and lay down on a sofa to rest his voice before dressing. The door of his room was open. He could hear Adrian and his wife talking in the dining-room.
"Do you know what that teapot reminds me of, Mummy? It reminds me of a little sitting-down kitten."
"Does it, Mr. Absurdity?"
Reginald dozed. The telephone bell woke him.
"Ænone Fell is speaking. Mr. Peacock, I have just heard that you are singing at Lord Timbuck's tonight. Will you dine with me, and we can go on together afterwards?" And the words of his reply dropped like flowers down the telephone.
"Dear lady, I should be only too charmed."
What a triumphant evening! The little dinner tête-à-tête with Ænone Fell, the drive to Lord Timbuck's in her white motor-car, when she thanked him again for the unforgettable joy. Triumph upon triumph! And Lord Timbuck's champagne simply flowed.
"Have some more champagne, Peacock," said Lord Timbuck. Peacock, you notice–not Mr. Peacock–but Peacock, as if he were one of them. And wasn't he? He was an artist. He could sway them all. And wasn't he teaching them all to escape from life? How he sang! And as he sang, as in a dream he saw their feathers and their flowers and their fans, offered to him, laid before him, like a huge bouquet.
"Have another glass of wine, Peacock."
"I could have any one I liked by lifting a finger," thought Peacock, positively staggering home.
But as he let himself into the dark flat his marvellous sense of elation began to ebb away. He turned up the light in the bedroom. His wife lay asleep, squeezed over to her side of the bed. He remembered suddenly how she had said when he had told her he was going out to dinner: "You might have let me know before!" And how he had answered: "Can't you possibly speak to me without offending against even good manners?" It was incredible, he thought, that she cared so little for him–incredible that she wasn't interested in the slightest in his triumphs and his artistic career. When so many women in her place would have given their eyes. . . . Yes, he knew it. . . . Why not acknowledge it? . . . And there she lay, an enemy, even in her sleep. . . . Must it ever be thus? he thought, the champagne still working. Ah, if we only were friends, how much I could tell her now! About this evening; even about Timbuck's manner to me, and all that they said to me and so on and so on. If only I felt that she was here to come back to–that I could confide in her–and so on and so on.
In his emotion he pulled off his evening boot and simply hurled it in the corner. The noise woke his wife with a terrible start. She sat up, pushing back her hair. And he suddenly decided to have one more try to treat her as a friend, to tell her everything, to win her. Down he sat on the side of the bed, and seized one of her hands. But of all those splendid things he had to say, not one could he utter. For some fiendish reason, the only words he could get out were: "Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed !"