SOUNDS IN THE NIGHT
Michael had never heard Fleur cry, and to see her, flung down across the bed, smothering her sobs in the quilt, gave him a feeling akin to panic. She stopped at his touch on her hair, and lay still.
“Buck up, darling!” he said, gently. “If you aren’t one, what does it matter?”
She struggled up, and sat cross-legged, her flushed face smudged with tears, her hair disordered.
“Who cares what one is? It’s what one’s labelled.”
“Well, we’ve labelled her ‘Traitress.’”
“As if that made it better! We all talk behind people’s backs. Who minds that? But how can I go on when everybody is sniggering and thinking me a lion-hunting snob? She’ll cry it all over London in revenge. How can I have any more evenings?”
Was it for her career, or his, that she was sorrowing? Michael went round to the other side of the bed and put his arms about her from behind.
“Never mind what people think, my child. Sooner or later one’s got to face that anyway.”
“It’s you who aren’t facing it. If I’m not thought nice, I can’t BE nice.”
“Only the people who really know one matter.”
“Nobody knows one,” said Fleur, sullenly. “The fonder they are, the less they know, and the less it matters what they think.”
Michael withdrew his arms.
She sat silent for so long that he went back to the other side of the bed to see if he could tell anything from her face resting moodily on her hands. The grace of her body thus cramped was such that his senses ached. And since caresses would only worry her, they ached the more.
“I hate her,” she said, at last; “and if I can hurt her, I will.”
He would have liked to hurt the ‘pet of the Panjoys’ himself, but it did not console him to hear Fleur utter that sentiment; it meant more from her than from himself, who, when it came to the point, was a poor hand at hurting people.
“Well, darling,” he said, “shall we sleep on it?”
“I said I wouldn’t have any more evenings; but I shall.”
“Good!” said Michael; “that’s the spirit.”
She laughed. It was a funny hard little sound in the night. And with it Michael had to remain discontented.
All through the house it was a wakeful night. Soames had the three o’clock tremors, which cigars and the fresh air wherein he was obliged to play his golf had subdued for some time past. He was disturbed, too, by that confounded great clock from hour to hour, and by a stealthy noise between three and four, as of some one at large in the house.
This was, in fact, Francis Wilmot. Ever since his impulsive denial that Soames was a liar, the young man had been in a peculiar state of mind. As Soames surmised, he too had overheard Marjorie Ferrar slandering her hostess; but in the very moment of his refutation, like Saul setting forth to attack the Christians, he had been smitten by blindness. Those blue eyes, pouring into his the light of defiance, had finished with a gleam which seemed to say: ‘Young man, you please me!’ And it haunted him. That lissome nymph—with her white skin and red-gold hair, her blue eyes full of insolence, her red lips full of joy, her white neck fragrant as a pine-wood in sunshine—the vision was abiding. He had been watching her all through the evening; but it was uncanny the way she had left her image on his senses in that one long moment, so that now he got no sleep. Though he had not been introduced, he knew her name to be Marjorie Ferrar, and he thought it ‘fine.’ Countryman that he was and with little knowledge of women—she was unlike any woman he had known. And he had given her the lie direct! This made him so restless that he drank the contents of his water-bottle, put on his clothes, and stole down-stairs. Passing the Dandie, who stirred as though muttering: ‘Unusual! But I know those legs!’ he reached the hall, where a milky glimmer came in through the fanlight. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down on the marble coat-sarcophagus. It cooled his anatomy, so that he got off it, turned up the light, saw a telephone directory resting beside him, and mechanically sought the letter ‘F.’ There she was! “Ferrar, Marjorie, 3, River Studios, Wren Street.” Switching off the light, he slipped back the door-chain, and stole out. He knew his way to the river, and went towards it.
It was the hour when sound, exhausted, has trailed away, and one can hear a moth pass. London, in clear air, with no smoke going up, slept beneath the moon. Bridges, towers, water, all silvered, had a look as if withdrawn from man. Even the houses and the trees enjoyed their moony hour apart, and seemed to breathe out with Francis Wilmot a stanza from “The Ancient Mariner”:
‘O Sleep, it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given,
She sent the gentle sleep from heaven
That slid into my soul!’
He turned at random to the right along the river. Never in his life had he walked through a great city at the dead hour. Not a passion alive, nor a thought of gain; haste asleep, and terrors dreaming; here and there would be one turning on his bed; perchance a soul passing. Down on the water lighters and barges lay shadowy and abandoned, with red lights burning; the lamps along the Embankment shone without purpose, as if they had been freed. Man was away. In the whole town only himself up and doing—what? Natively shrewd and resourceful in all active situations, the young Southerner had little power of diagnosis, and certainly did not consider himself ridiculous wandering about like this at night, not even when he suddenly felt that if he could ‘locate’ her windows, he could go home and sleep. He passed the Tate Gallery and saw a human being with moonlit buttons.
“Pardon me, officer,” he said, “but where is Wren Street?”
“Straight on and fifth to the right.”
Francis Wilmot resumed his march. The ‘moving’ moon was heeling down, the stars were gaining light, the trees had begun to shiver. He found the fifth turning, walked down ‘the block,’ and was no wiser; it was too dark to read names or numbers. He passed another buttoned human effigy and said:
“Pardon me, officer, but where are River Studios?”
“Comin’ away from them; last house on the right.”
Francis Wilmot retraced his steps. There it was, then—by itself, back from the street. He stood before it and gazed at dark windows. She might be behind any one of them! Well! He had ‘located’ her; and, in the rising wind, he turned and walked home. He went up-stairs stealthily as he had come down, past the Dandie, who again raised his head, muttered: ‘Still more unusual, but the same legs!’ entered his room, lay down, and fell asleep like a baby.