Authors: Dodie Smith
|The book of life begins with a man and a woman in a garden.|
|It ends with Revelations.|
| || |
|– Oscar Wilde,|
A Woman of No Importance
After she had unpacked in the old hotel bedroom Jill leaned out of one of its two tall windows and came face to face with a lion. It was a gilded lion, presumably made of plaster, and she had seen it on entering the hotel less than an hour ago. Still, its sudden proximity startled her. Then she smiled, both at her own absurdity and in response to its ferocious grin, looked past it, and located the pillared portico of the theatre. It stood, as she had dimly
, on the opposite side of the gracefully curving street, only a short walk away. Soon she would stroll along and call for Miles. He had gone straight there from the station, ostensibly just to look at his dressing room; but with a new play about to open he was liable to hang around
– a habit which, she suspected, must have annoyed some directors, though none of them had felt they could ask their star performer to get out from under foot. He
would undoubtedly want to spend the evening watching the scenery going up and being lit, so she was determined to get him back in time for an early dinner. But there was no hurry; it wasn’t yet six. She continued to look out on Spa Street basking in the August sunshine.
It must be twelve years since she had last seen it. She and the least important members of the company had then stayed at a cheap boarding house in the new, ugly part of the beautiful old town, quite a long walk from the theatre. Had it rained every day of that dreary week? Certainly her last memory of Spa Street was of seeing it in a downpour, looking utterly gloomy. And not only the rain had been responsible for the gloom. The chestnuts, then, had been as high as the houses, their branches touching the upper storeys. The shop windows were so shadowed that most of them had their lights on even in the morning. She had appreciated the beauty of the street but found the total effect infinitely sad.
Now the chestnuts had been pollarded; some years ago, she guessed, as the new shoots were already tall enough to make a good balance with the sturdy trunks – not that one could see the shoots, because the foliage was so thick. The trees were now of uniform height and almost uniform shape; fat trunks were surmounted by fat, rounded foliage. They were charming and also somehow comic, reminding her of Miles’s shaving brush, with its bulbous ivory handle and domed brush of badger hair. She glanced through the open bathroom door – yes, the proportions were just the same. A whole street with a double row of shaving brushes,
absurd perhaps but undoubtedly cheerful. And one could now see the houses clearly; they were, she judged, almost uniformly eighteenth century.
She would call for Miles now, but first she would get out of her town suit; the day was much warmer than when she had left London. She changed into a grey linen dress and then went downstairs by way of a corridor, subduedly resplendent with dark red carpet, and a handsome oak staircase. Nothing in this solid old hotel seemed to have been spoilt. She was glad she had remembered it and brought Miles here, instead of going to the new station hotel with most of the company.
Spa Street seemed almost deserted, surprisingly so, with a Festival Week approaching. But she had gathered it was to be only a small festival, mainly of local interest, its
the opening of the rejuvenated old theatre;
its dressing rooms, she trusted the rejuvenation had extended back-stage. The shops certainly looked
and their displays were attractive but there was nothing she wanted; a pity, rather, as spending money here would be like making a present to that ill-dressed girl under a dripping umbrella who, when window-gazing here, had wanted almost everything. Poor wretch, with those two quite awful years ahead of her before she married Miles. But one could, it seemed, while basking in one’s happy present, be a little wistful for one’s unhappy past … and not merely wistful for one’s youth. Young Jill Morrison, with all her miseries, would not have found Mrs Miles Quentin’s particular brand of contentment enviable. Well, young Jill,
as always, would have been wrong. Having decided this, her successor continued to stroll along … contentedly.
She had almost reached the theatre when she saw, opposite to it, a café that she instantly remembered. Here she had several times drunk that solace of life on tour, morning coffee, and once bought a quarter of a pound of superb chocolates which had done duty as lunch. It occurred to her now that a box of chocolates would make a good first-night present for the little boy in the play. On Monday morning she would have to cope with telegrams for all the company and flowers for all the women, so it would be as well to buy the chocolates now; the café was still open. She went in.
Through an archway she could see the white-alcoved tea room, almost empty by now though the smell of toast lingered. The only customer besides herself in the front shop was a slight, dark-haired man who was talking across the counter to the elderly assistant. He broke off the conversation as Jill entered, as if releasing the assistant to serve her. Jill smiled her thanks and approached the counter, on which were several boxes of chocolates, one of which had a view of Spa Street, including the theatre, on its lid. She picked the box up.
‘I’m sorry, madam,’ said the assistant, ‘but this gentleman’s just bespoken that for his little daughter’s birthday tomorrow.’
Jill hastily put the box down. ‘And you haven’t another like it, or anything which has the theatre on it? I need a present for a little boy who’ll be playing there.’
‘Then of course he must have this box,’ said the man, smiling. ‘It wouldn’t mean a thing to my daughter; she’s known Spa Street all her life. In fact, she might prefer a plain box; her taste is sometimes austere. But I think I’ll take this one.’ He chose a box with a black cat on the lid. ‘The cat has a distinct look of her.’
‘Well, if you’re sure you don’t mind,’ said Jill.
‘Absolutely. I only need a token present, really. She likes money for her real present, to spend on books. You’re Mrs Miles Quentin, aren’t you? I was introduced to you once, in a theatre foyer, but you wouldn’t remember. I’m Geoffrey Thornton.’
‘Why, of course.’ She didn’t recall meeting him but she could, now, place him. ‘This is your constituency, isn’t it? I saw you on television, the night of your victory.’
‘Hardly a victory. This is one of the safest seats in England.’
‘But he did increase the majority,’ said the assistant, beaming.
‘A case of local boy makes good. My grandmother lived for seventy years up in Queen’s Crescent and I was a regular visitor.’
‘Used to come in here for ice creams when he was a school boy,’ said the assistant.
‘And we had a nice little arrangement about credit.’
‘They ended up on his grandmother’s account.’
Waiting while the chocolates were packed, Jill and Thornton talked casually. He, too, was staying at the Lion – ‘Not as many bathrooms as at the station hotel but the
food’s better.’ He spoke of the Festival – ‘I shouldn’t think there’ll ever be another. It’s going to cost the town a packet.’ He enquired about the play, to which he and his daughters would be coming on the first night – ‘And I hope you and your husband will be at the Civic Reception afterwards. The Assembly Rooms are worth seeing.’ Jill said they were looking forward to it. (Miles would groan but Miles would go – and end by enjoying himself.) She mentioned having played at the theatre – ‘That is, I was an overworked assistant-stage manager – I never acted except as an understudy. I was only too glad to retire when I married Miles.’
‘I admire his work very much,’ said Thornton, and spoke of performances he had seen Miles give. While she listened with pleasure, she decided that Thornton looked rather older than he had seemed on television; perhaps excitement at winning the by-election had then lent him a touch of boyishness. She now assessed him as being perhaps forty. He had clean-cut, regular features and was quite good-looking but in a most unspectacular way. His eyes, even when smiling, were somehow shadowy; indeed, his whole personality seemed to her a little muted, veiled. Being slim, he looked tall, but she guessed him to be not more than five foot ten; his eyes were only an inch or so above her own eye level.
The chocolates, packed and paid for, were handed across the counter. Thornton, taking both boxes, asked if she was going back to the hotel. She decided she was. It was still, perhaps, rather early to rout Miles out of the
theatre, and she quite liked talking to this courteous, under-stated man who was the first Member of Parliament she had ever met. For that matter, how seldom did she meet
unconnected with the theatre.
As they strolled back along Spa Street she told him that the pollarded chestnuts had reminded her of shaving brushes. He laughed and said it was a perfect comparison – ‘But, believe me, the pollarding was no laughing matter. My grandmother said it would kill her – and then lived on five years, to reach the age of ninety. I’ll admit the poor trees did look wretched for a year or two.’
‘I love them now,’ said Jill. ‘What a charming town this is.’
‘To me, it’s the most delightful of all English spa towns; not as fine as Bath but so much more intimate. Everything here is on such a delicate scale.’
She commented on the quietness of the street.
‘That’s because all through traffic has to use the bypass and no parking’s allowed here. Cars have to set people down at shops and then go to the car park – which exists by courtesy of a Blitz that knocked some houses down but obligingly left the screening chestnuts. Our shops are doing the Festival proud, aren’t they?’
‘They certainly are.’ She glanced at a window full of very floral hats. ‘Will people here buy those – and wear them?’
‘They will indeed. Mainly old ladies, but they’ll look prettier in them than without them, old ladies being apt to have thinning hair. Do you ever wear a hat?’
‘Only when occasion positively demands it. Then I wear one with a brim wide enough to balance my height. I strive for something with what’s known as “a good line”. The young eye it with derision and old gentlemen go into ecstasies over it. Such hats are hard to find now.’
‘You can find them here. Shall I show you where? It’s only just across the road.’
She went willingly, faintly surprised that he should be interested in hats. He took her into a narrow, glass-roofed arcade of very small two-storeyed shops. They walked on old flagstones to the far end and as they approached it he said, ‘Perhaps they’ll let me down today, but they usually have one superb hat in the window. This was where my grandmother bought her hats. She was a beautiful woman who dressed beautifully until the end of her life. I came here with her to choose a hat when she was eighty-nine.’
‘They haven’t let you down,’ said Jill.
The hat, alone in its grandeur, was poised on an
hat-stand against grey velvet curtains. It was of black straw, trimmed only by a black velvet ribbon. What constituted its elegance? The relation of the large brim to the small crown? (How she loathed large, top-heavy crowns.) The slight droop of the brim, which looked so casual but wasn’t? The exact placing of the ribbon?
She asked, ‘Is
doomed to be worn by an old lady?’
‘Almost certainly, unless you buy it.’
‘I’m not sure I have the arrogance. Unless one
an old lady – oh, I can see her so clearly: tall but rather bent, in
dress – unless one’s old enough, well, not to compete, that’s a beauty’s hat.’
‘I’ll only say I think you could wear it.’
‘Well, thank you. But I wasn’t fishing. It’s just that I was so excessively plain as a girl that I’ve never got used to being just a little less plain. I seemed to improve when my hair turned grey.’
‘Not exactly grey, is it? More like dark hair lightly powdered. I’ve seen the same effect in eighteenth-century portraits.’
‘No doubt it’ll soon get on with its job of turning white, but it’s been this peculiar dust-colour for years now. I must bring Miles to look at that hat.’
They walked back along the arcade, their footsteps sounding on the flagstones, and out into Spa Street. They were now only two chestnuts from the Lion. They recrossed the road and went in.
Thornton, glancing into the lounge, said, ‘My daughters are there. Have you time to meet them?’
‘Yes, I’d like to.’
He left the chocolates at the desk and escorted her in. Two girls rose with an alacrity which suggested extreme courtesy. The elder – Jill guessed her to be about seventeen – was unusually pretty, with wide-apart blue eyes and straight fair hair falling to her shoulders. The younger girl was small and dark, and obviously the daughter of whom Thornton had said the cat on the chocolate box had a look. The line of her mouth and the slant of her eyes were
, even two little quirks in her short hair were suggestive
of cats’ ears. There was no resemblance to a starry-eyed kitten, only to a small, thin, and highly alert young cat. The girls were dressed with fashionable teenage casualness and yet managed to look both tidy and scrupulously clean.