Penelope's English Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter XIV. Love and lavender.
How well I remember our last evening in Dovermarle Street!
At one of our open windows behind the potted ferns and blossoming hydrangeas sat Salemina, Bertie Godolphin, Mrs. Beresford, the Honourable Arthur, and Francesca; at another, as far off as possible, sat Willie Beresford and I. Mrs. Beresford had sanctioned a post-prandial cigar, for we were not going out till ten, to see, for the second time, an act of John Hare's Pair of Spectacles.
They were talking and laughing at the other end of the room; Mr. Beresford and I were rather quiet. (Why is it that the people with whom one loves to be silent are also the very ones with whom one loves to talk?)
The room was dim with the light of a single lamp; the rain had ceased; the roar of Piccadilly came to us softened by distance. A belated vendor of lavender came along the sidewalk, and as he stopped under the windows the pungent fragrance of the flowers was wafted up to us with his song.
'Who'll buy my pretty lavender? Sweet lavender, Who'll buy my pretty lavender? Sweet bloomin' lavender.'
The tune comes to me laden with odours. Is it not strange that the fragrances of other days steal in upon the senses together with the sights and sounds that gave them birth?
Presently a horse and cart drew up before an hotel, a little further along, on the opposite side of the way. By the light of the street lamp under which it stopped we could see that it held a piano and two persons beside the driver. The man was masked, and wore a soft felt hat and a velvet coat. He seated himself at the piano and played a Chopin waltz with decided sentiment and brilliancy; then, touching the keys idly for a moment or two, he struck a few chords of prelude and turned towards the woman who sat beside him. She rose, and, laying one hand on the corner of the instrument, began to sing one of the season's favourites, 'The Song that reached my Heart.' She also was masked, and even her figure was hidden by a long dark cloak the hood of which was drawn over her head to meet the mask. She sang so beautifully, with such style and such feeling, it seemed incredible to hear her under circumstances like these. She followed the ballad with Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga,' which rang out into the quiet street with almost hopeless pathos. When she descended from the cart to undertake the more prosaic occupation of passing the hat beneath the windows, I could see that she limped slightly, and that the hand with which she pushed back the heavy dark hair under the hood was beautifully moulded. They were all mystery that couple; not to be confounded for an instant with the common herd of London street musicians. With what an air of the drawing-room did he of the velvet coat help the singer into the cart, and with what elegant abandon and ultra-dilettantism did he light a cigarette, reseat himself at the piano, and weave Scots ballads into a charming impromptu! I confess I wrapped my shilling in a bit of paper and dropped it over the balcony with the wish that I knew the tragedy behind this little street drama.
Willie Beresford was in a royal mood that night. You know the mood, in which the heart is so full, so full, it overruns the brim. He bought the entire stock of the lavender seller, and threw a shilling to the mysterious singer for every song she sung. He even offered to give--himself--to me! And oh! I would have taken him as gladly as ever the lavender boy took the half-crown, had I been quite, quite sure of myself! A woman with a vocation ought to be still surer than other women that it is the very jewel of love she is setting in her heart, and not a sparkling imitation. I gave myself wholly, or believed that I gave myself wholly, to art, or what I believed to be art. And is there anything more sacred than art?-- Yes, one thing!
It happened something in this wise.
The singing had put us in a gentle mood, and after a long peroration from Mr. Beresford, which I do not care to repeat, I said very softly (blessing the Honourable Arthur's vociferous laughter at one of Salemina's American jokes), "But I thought perhaps it was Francesca. Are you quite sure?"
He intimated that if there were any fact in his repertory of which he was particularly and absolutely sure it was this special fact.
"It is too sudden," I objected. "Plants that blossom on shipboard-"
"This plant was rooted in American earth, and you know it, Penelope. If it chanced to blossom on the ship, it was because it had already budded on the shore; it has borne transplanting to a foreign soil, and it grows in beauty and strength every day: so no slurs, please, concerning ocean-steamer hothouses."
"I cannot say yes, yet I dare not say no; it is too soon. I must go off into the country quite by myself and think it over."
"But," urged Mr. Beresford, "you cannot think over a matter of this kind by yourself. You'll continually be needing to refer to me for data, don't you know, on which to base your conclusions. How can you tell whether you're in love with me or not if- (No, I am not shouting at all; it's your guilty conscience; I'm whispering.) How can you tell whether you're in love with me, I repeat, unless you keep me under constant examination?"
"That seems sensible, though I dare say it is full of sophistry; but I have made up my mind to go into the country and paint while Salemina and Francesca are on the Continent. One cannot think in this whirl. A winter season in Washington followed by a summer season in London,--one wants a breath of fresh air before beginning another winter season somewhere else. Be a little patient, please. I long for the calm that steals over me when I am absorbed in my brushes and my oils."
"Work is all very well," said Mr. Beresford with determination, "but I know your habits. You have a little way of taking your brush, and with one savage sweep painting out a figure from your canvas. Now if I am on the canvas of your heart,--I say 'if' tentatively and modestly, as becomes me,--I've no intention of allowing you to paint me out; therefore I wish to remain in the foreground, where I can say 'Strike, but hear me,' if I discover any hostile tendencies in your eye. But I am thankful for small favours (the 'no' you do not quite dare say, for instance), and I'll talk it over with you to- morrow, if the British gentry will give me an opportunity, and if you'll deign to give me a moment alone in any other place than the Royal Academy."
"I was alone with you to-day for a whole hour at least."
"Yes, first at the London and Westminster Bank, second in Trafalgar Square, and third on the top of a 'bus, none of them congenial spots to a man in my humour. Penelope, you are not dull, but you don't seem to understand that I am head over-"
"What are you two people quarrelling about?" cried Salemina. "Come, Penelope, get your wrap. Mrs. Beresford, isn't she charming in her new Liberty gown? If that New York wit had seen her, he couldn't have said, 'If that is Liberty, give me Death!' Yes, Francesca, you must wear something over your shoulders. Whistle for two four- wheelers, Dawson, please."