The Doves' Nest and Other Stories
Wednesday came. And the flutter that Mother and Milly had felt over the visiting card extended to the whole villa. Yes, it was not too much to say that the whole villa thrilled and fluttered at the idea of having a man to lunch. Old, flat-footed Yvonne came waddling back from market with a piece of gorgonzola in so perfect a condition that when she found Marie in the kitchen she flung down her great basket, snatched the morsel up and held it, rustling in its paper, to her quivering bosom.
" J'ai trouvé un morceau de gorgonzola," she panted, rolling up her eyes as though she invited the heavens themselves to look down upon it. " J'ai un morceau de gorgonzola ici pour un prr-ince, ma fille." And hissing the word " prr-ince " like lightning, she thrust the morsel under Marie's nose. Marie, who was a delicate creature, almost swooned at the shock.
" Do you think," cried Yvonne, scornfully, " that I would ever buy such cheese pour ces dames ? Never. Never. Jamais de ma vie." Her sausage finger wagged before her nose, and she minced in a dreadful imitation of Mother's French, " We have none of us large appetites, Yvonne. We are very fond of boiled eggs and mashed potatoes and a nice, plain salad. Ah-Bah! " With a snort of contempt she flung page 95 away her shawl, rolled up her sleeves, and began unpacking the basket. At the bottom there was a flat bottle which, sighing, she laid aside.
" De quoi pour mes cors," said she.
And Marie, seizing a bottle of Sauterne and bearing it off to the dining-room murmured, as she shut the kitchen door behind her, " Et voilà pour les cors de Monsieur ! "
The dining-room was a large room panelled in dark wood. It had a massive mantelpiece and carved chairs covered in crimson damask. On the heavy, polished table stood an oval glass dish decorated with little gilt swags. This dish, which it was Marie's duty to keep filled with fresh flowers, fascinated her. The sight of it gave her a frisson. It reminded her always, as it lay solitary on the dark expanse, of a little tomb. And one day, passing through the long windows on to the stone terrace and down the steps into the garden she had the happy thought of so arranging the flowers that they would be appropriate to one of the ladies on a future tragic occasion. Her first creation had been terrible. Tomb of Mademoiselle Anderson in black pansies, lily-of-the-valley, and a frill of heliotrope. It gave her a most intense, curious pleasure to hand Miss Anderson the potatoes at lunch, and at the same time to gaze beyond her at her triumph. It was like (O ciel !), it was like handing potatoes to a corpse.page 96
The Tomb of Madame was on the contrary almost gay. Foolish little flowers, half yellow, half blue, hung over the edge, wisps of green trailed across, and in the middle there was a large scarlet rose. Coeur saignant, Marie had called it. But it did not look in the least like a coeur saignant. It looked flushed and cheerful, like Mother emerging from the luxury of a warm bath.
Milly's, of course, was all white. White stocks, little white rose-buds, with a sprig or two of dark box edging. It was Mother's favourite.
Poor innocent! Marie, at the sideboard, had to turn her back when she heard Mother exclaim, " Isn't it pretty, Milly ? Isn't it sweetly pretty ? Most artistic. So original." And she had said to Marie, " C'est tès joli, Marie. Très original."
Marie's smile was so remarkable that Milly, peeling a tangerine, remarked to Mother, " I don't think she likes you to admire them. It makes her uncomfortable."
But to-day—the glory of her opportunity made Marie feel quite faint as she seized her flower scissors. Tombeau d'un beau Monsieur. She was forbidden to cut the orchids that grew round the fountain basin. But what were orchids for if not for such an occasion ? Her fingers trembled as the scissors snipped away. They were enough ; Marie added two small sprays of palm. And back in the dining-room page 97 she had the happy idea of binding the palm together with a twist of gold thread deftly torn off the fringe of the dining-room curtains. The effect was superb. Marie almost seemed to see her beau Monsieur, very small, very small, at the bottom of the bowl, in full evening dress with a ribbon across his chest and his ears white as wax.
What surprised Milly, however, was that Miss Anderson should pay any attention to Mr. Prodger's coming. She rustled to breakfast in her best black silk blouse, her Sunday blouse, with the large, painful-looking crucifix dangling over the front. Milly was alone when Miss Anderson entered the dining-room. This was unfortunate, for she always tried to avoid being left alone with Miss Anderson. She could not say exactly why; it was a feeling. She had the feeling that Miss Anderson might say something about God, or something fearfully intimate. Oh, she would sink through the floor if such a thing happened ; she would expire. Supposing she were to say " Milly, do you believe in our Lord ? " Heavens! It simply didn't bear thinking about.
Good-morning, my dear," said Miss Anderson, and her fingers, cold, pale, like church candles, touched Milly's cheeks.
" Good-morning, Miss Anderson. May I give you some coffee ? " said Milly, trying to be natural.page 98
" Thank you, dear child," said Miss Anderson, and laughing her light, nervous laugh, she hooked on her eyeglasses and stared at the basket of rolls. " And is it to-day that you expect your guest ? " she asked.
Now why did she ask that ? Why pretend when she knew perfectly well ? That was all part of her strangeness. Or was it because she wanted to be friendly ? Miss Anderson was more than friendly ; she was genial. But there was always this something. Was she spying ? People said at school that Roman Catholics spied ... Miss Anderson rustled, rustled about the house like a dead leaf. Now she was on the stairs, now in the upstairs passage. Sometimes, at night, when Milly was feverish, she woke up and heard that rustle outside her door. Was Miss Anderson looking through the keyhole ? And one night she actually had the idea that Miss Anderson had bored two holes in the wall above her head and was watching her from there. The feeling was so strong that next time she went into Miss Anderson's room her eyes flew to the spot. To her horror a large picture hung there. Had it been there before ?...
" Guest ? " The crisp breakfast roll broke in half at the word.
" Yes, I think it is," said Milly, vaguely, and her blue, flower-like eyes were raised to Miss Anderson in a vague stare.page 99
" It will make quite a little change in our little party," said the much-too-pleasant voice. " I confess I miss very much the society of men. I have had such a great deal of it in my life. I think that ladies by themselves are apt to get a little—h'm—h'm ..." And helping herself to cherry jam, she spilt it on the cloth.
Milly took a large, childish bite out of her roll. There was nothing to reply to this. But how young Miss Anderson made her feel! She made her want to be naughty, to pour milk over her head or make a noise with a spoon.
" Ladies by themselves," went on Miss Anderson, who realised none of this, " are very apt to find their interests limited."
" Why ?" said Milly, goaded to reply. People always said that; it sounded most unfair.
" I think," said Miss Anderson, taking off her eyeglasses and looking a little dim, "it is the absence of political discussion."
" Oh, politics! " cried Milly, airily. " I hate
politics. Father always said——" But here she
pulled up short. She crimsoned. She didn't want to talk about Father to Miss Anderson.
" Oh ! Look ! Look ! A butterfly ! " cried Miss Anderson, softly and hastily. " Look, what a darling! " Her own cheeks flushed a slow red at the sight of the darling butterfly fluttering so softly over the glittering table.
That was very nice of Miss Anderson—fearfully nice of her. She must have realised that page 100 Milly didn't want to talk about Father and so she had mentioned the butterfly on purpose. Milly smiled at Miss Anderson as she never had smiled at her before. And she said in her warm, youthful voice, " He is a duck, isn't he ? I love butterflies. I think they are great lambs."