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The Doves' Nest and Other Stories

Weak Heart

page 183

Weak Heart

Although it sounded all the year round, although it rang out sometimes as early as half-past six in the morning, sometimes as late as half-past ten at night, it was in the spring, when Bengel's violet patch just inside the gate was blue with flowers that that piano . . . made the passers-by not only stop talking, but slow down, pause, look suddenly—if they were men —grave, even stern, and if they were women— dreamy, even sorrowful.

Tarana Street was beautiful in the spring ; there was not a single house without its garden and trees and a plot of grass big enough to be called ' the lawn.' Over the low painted fences, you could see, as you ran by, whose daffys were out, whose wild snowdrop border was over and who had the biggest hyacinths, so pink and white, the colour of cocoanut ice. But nobody had violets that grew, that smelled in the spring sun like Bengel's. Did they really smell like that ? Or did you shut your eyes and lean over the fence because of Edie Bengel's piano ? page 184 A little wind ruffles among the leaves like a joyful hand looking for the finest flowers; and the piano sounds gay, tender, laughing. Now a cloud, like a swan, flies across the sun, the violets shine cold, like water, and a sudden questioning cry rings from Edie Bengel's piano.

. . . Ah, if life must pass so quickly, why is the breath of these flowers so sweet ? What is the meaning of this feeling of longing, of sweet trouble—of flying joy ? Goodbye ! Farewell! The young bees lie half awake on the slender dandelions, silver are the pink tipped arrowy petals of the daisies; the new grass shakes in the light. Everything is beginning again, marvellous as ever, heavenly fair. " Let me stay ! Let me stay ! " pleads Edie Bengel's piano.

It is the afternoon, sunny and still. The blinds are down in the front to save the carpets, but upstairs the slats are open and in the golden light little Mrs. Bengel is feeling under her bed for the square bonnet box. She is flushed. She feels timid, excited, like a girl. And now the tissue paper is parted, her best bonnet, the one trimmed with a jet butterfly, which reposes on top, is lifted out and solemnly blown upon.

Dipping down to the glass she tries it with fingers that tremble. She twitches her dolman round her slender shoulders, clasps her purse and before leaving the bedroom kneels down page 185 a moment to ask God's blessing on her ' goings out.' And as she kneels there quivering, she is rather like a butterfly herself, fanning her wings before her Lord. When the door is open the sound of the piano coming up through the silent house is almost frightening, so bold, so defiant, so reckless it rolls under Edie's fingers. And just for a moment the thought comes to Mrs. Bengel and is gone again, that there is a stranger with Edie in the drawing-room, but a fantastic person, out of a book, a—a—villain. It's very absurd. She flits across the hall, turns the door handle and confronts her flushed daughter. Edie's hands drop from the keys. She squeezes them between her knees, her head is bent, her curls are fallen forward. She gazes at her mother with brilliant eyes. There is something painful in that glance, something very strange. It is dusky in the drawing-room, the top of the piano is open. Edie has been playing from memory; it's as though the air still tingles.

" I'm going, dear," said Mrs. Bengel softly, so softly it is like a sigh.

" Yes, Mother," came from Edie.

" I don't expect I shall be long."

Mrs. Bengel lingers. She would very much like just a word, of sympathy, of understanding, even from Edie, to cheer her on her way.

But Edie murmurs, " I'll put the kettle on in half an hour." page 186 " Do, dear ! " Mrs. Bengel grasped at that even. A nervous little smile touched her lips. " I expect I shall want my tea."

But to that Edie makes no reply ; she frowns, she stretches out a hand, quickly unscrews one of the piano candle-sticks, lifts off a pink china ring and screws all tight again. The ring has been rattling. As the front door bangs softly after her mother Edie and the piano seem to plunge together into deep dark water, into waves that flow over both, relentless. She plays on desperately until her nose is white and her heart beats. It is her way of getting over her nervousness and her way too of praying. Would they accept her ? Would she be allowed to go ? Was it possible that in a week's time she would be one of Miss Farmer's girls, wearing a red and blue hat band, running up the broad steps leading to the big grey painted house that buzzed, that hummed as you went by ? Their pew in Church faced Miss Farmer's boarders. Would she at last know the names of the girls she had looked at so often ? The pretty pale one with red hair, the dark one with a fringe, the fair one who held Miss Farmer's hand during the sermon ? . . . But after all. . .

It was Edie's fourteenth birthday. Her father gave her a silver brooch with a bar of music, two crotchets, two quavers and a minim page 187 headed by a very twisted treble clef. Her mother gave her blue satin gloves and two boxes for gloves and handkerchiefs, hand-painted the glove box with a sprig of gold roses tying up the capital G. and the handkerchief box with a marvellously lifelike butterfly quivering on the capital H. From the aunts in . . .

There was a tree at the corner of Tarana Street and May Street. It grew so close to the pavement that the heavy boughs stretched over, and on that part of the pavement there was always a fine sifting of minute twigs.

But in the dusk, lovers parading came into its shade as into a tent. There, however long they had been together, they greeted each other again with long kisses, with embraces that were sweet torture, agony to bear, agony to end.

Edie never knew that Roddie ' loved' it, Roddie never knew that it meant anything to Edie.

Roddie, spruce, sleek with water, bumped his new bike down the wooden steps, through the gate. He was off for a spin, and looking at that tree, dark in the glow of evening, he felt the tree was watching him. He wanted to do marvels, to astonish, to shock, to amaze it.

page 188

Roddie had a complete new outfit for the occasion. A black serge suit, a black tie, a straw hat so white it was almost silver, a dazzling white straw hat with a broad black band. Attached to the hat there was a thick guard that somehow reminded one of a fishing line and the little clasp on the brim was like a fly . . . He stood at the graveside, his legs apart, his hands loosely clasped, and watched Edie being lowered into the grave—as a half-grown boy watches anything, a man at work, or a bicycle accident, or a chap cleaning a spring-carriage wheel—but suddenly as the men drew back he gave a violent start, turned, muttered something to his father and dashed away, so fast that people looked positively frightened, through the cemetery, down the avenue of dripping clay banks into Tarana Road, and started pelting for home. His suit was very tight and hot. It was like a dream. He kept his head down and his fists clenched, he couldn't look up, nothing could have made him look higher than the tops of the fences—What was he thinking of as he pressed along ? On, on until the gate was reached, up the steps, in at the front door, through the hall, up to the drawing-room.

" Edie ! " called Roddie. " Edie, old girl! "

And he gave a low strange squawk and cried " Edie ! " and stared across at Edie's piano.

But cold, solemn, as if frozen, heavily the page 189 piano stared back at Roddie. Then it answered, but on its own behalf, on behalf of the house and the violet patch, the garden, the velvet tree at the corner of May Street, and all that was delightful: " There is nobody here of that name, young man ! "