Authors: Alec Waugh,Diane Zimmerman Umble
“. . .âSIR,' SHE SAID”
“To be a young man these days. What wouldn't I give for that! Think of the time they have. No chaperones; bachelor girls with flats and latchkeys. People say that the modern girl knows how to look after herself. I fancy that's just what she does know, from what my grandsons tell me.”
It was a man of seventy that was speaking; a plump, red-faced little man, with eyes that twinkled. He had obviously a great deal more to say upon the subject. But at that moment the tube lift shot out of its dark tunnel into the daylight of South Kensington, and the remainder of his conversation was lost in the shuffling of feet, the clattering of gates, the roar of traffic.
The train of thought was continued, however, by John Terance as he turned towards the quiet of Brompton Square. Such a point of view might be all very well, he reflected, for a man with sons and grandsons; but it was by no means comforting for one such as himself who had two daughters; the elder of whom was supporting her own flat on the weekly wage that she received for her activities in Lady Prew Catholic's dressmaking establishment in Brooke Street,
while the other in her nineteenth year had successfully presented her claim to a latchkey, an unsupervised correspondence, and a personally selected acquaintance. No, it was by no means comforting.
As he walked slowly westwards in the declining sunlight, John Terance would have served as a typical example of the middle-aged, upper middle-class family man returning to his home at the end of the day's work. He was tallish, slightly stout; he wore a dark, single-breasted coat; a bowler hat; a blue and grey spitalfield silk tie. Under his arm. he carried a couple of evening papers. His face was sallow: lined a little; tired but firm mouthed. From one glance you could picture the external conditions of his life: the degree of relative prosperity: the half-yearly grumbles over super-tax: the business lunches: the week-ends of motoring and golf: the bridge: the occasional evenings at his club: the occasional rather formal dinner parties: the bungalow taken every August at some seaside town on the South Coast, with himself joining his family for week-ends: spending a fortnight there in September as a prelude to a bachelor fortnight of golf or motoring with a business friend. A very typical figure and the thoughts that were fretting him were typical.
What was one to do about one's daughters. Unless you wanted your children to develop into cranks you had to bring them up in more or less the same way that your friends were bringing up theirs. And when the daughters of all your friends were coming back at Heaven knew what hour of the morning from Heaven knew what kind of party with young men whom their
parents had never met, you couldn't very well start keeping a check on your daughters' hours and acquaintance. You probably wouldn't get away with it if you were to try. You would only make them desperate and defiant. You just had to sit quiet and trust things to go the way you hoped they would.
“But I'ld rather be the father of sons than daughters any day,” he reflected as he walked along the left-hand side of the quiet, pleasantly proportioned square.
Against the pavement outside his house a yellow Bentley was drawn beside his wife's blue Buick. On the oak table in the hall were two strange hats. For the last twenty years there had been strange hats upon that table. His wife held constant court.
“Darlingest, I must have my beaux,” she had said. “You don't grudge me my beaux, do you? I should feel so old if I didn't have young men around me, and you wouldn't want me to feel that, would you?”
He had laughed and he had nodded his head. “Whatever I say,” he had answered, “you know quite well that you'll get your way about it.”
There had been no lack of beaux.
Before the war it had been silk hats that he had returned to find, and in the drawing-room there had been elegant stiff-collared persons and teacups and buttered toast, with Julia and Melanie brought down from the nursery to entertain their mother's guests. To-day the young men had ceased to wear silk hats, nor had they the patience or time for tea parties. They arrived at six instead of half-past four. There were homburgs and bowlers in the hall; olives and salted almonds had taken the place of buttered toast. Instead
of tea they sipped cocktails. The cocktails were shaken for them by his daughters.
As Terance climbed the stairs to the first floor drawing-room, Melanie, his younger daughter, came out into the passage. Her grey eyes were bright, and her cheeks flushed. Her hair, a circlet of brown shot-bronze drawn under her neck in a low roll, was ruffled about her ears. At the sight of her father she raised her hands.
“Angel,” she cried, “how late you are. And if I stay and gossip I'll be keeping the lad waiting an hour instead of half an hour.”
“The lad? What lad?”
“Nobody you know. The lad I'm going out with. ParamountâArthur Paramount. Rather a pet. But rather dumb. I must rush, darling. I'm hours late. You'll find Julia in there. Handle her gently, something's rattled her.” Waving her hand, she bounded three steps at a time towards her bedroom.
With a smile Terance's eyes followed her. Nineteen; it was incredible that that should be all she was; that so little real experience was at the back of so much apparent sophistication. Nineteen. How different from the girlhoods that his young years remembered. His sister and his sister's friends. Their long frocks; their stiff corseted figures; their narrow waists; their wide-brimmed straw hats perched forward on their foreheads. Their blushes and their giggles. Their scurryings into corners to confide their secrets to one another. They had thought themselves so dashing, too; so modern and so emancipated with their free-wheel bicycles. You would almost think
that Melanie with her short hair, her display of calf and knee, her figure that seemed to be composed of boneless indiarubber, belonged to another sex. “Heaven knows where we shall have got to by the nineteen-fifties,” Terance thought as he walked into the L-shaped drawing-room.
At its far and narrow end Julia was lounging in the window-seat. She was wearing a tailor-made costume that ordinarily accentuated her extreme good looks, its close lines emphasising her slender figure, its black tint throwing up the pale yellow of her hair, the pale blue of her eyes, the soft redness of her mouth. But to-day its dark slimness made her look colourless and insignificant. Her shoulders were a little bowed; there was a dark line beneath her eyes, a dark furrow between them on her forehead; a petulant droop at the corners of her mouth. “Melanie's right,” thought Terance. “Something's rattled her. Over-working or over-playing,” he decided as he turned towards the fireplace, where a young, fresh-coloured, extremely nice-looking man was seated on a footstool at his wife's feet, talking up at her.
Above them, over the mantelpiece, was the portrait painted twenty-five years back by Sargent that had made the beauty of Faith Terance famous. It was a lovely thing: a head and shoulders; the proud head with its dusky high-banded wave of hair turned sideways, so that it was half in profile that you saw the soft half-parted mouth; the grey abstracted eyes; the cheeks full and olive-tinted. It was one of those pictures that seem to reveal not so much a single mood as an entire nature. You looked at it, and you felt that
you had known that woman all your life: that you knew exactly how she would look when she was angry, when she was happy, when she was sad, when she was amused: yet, knowing that, knew at the same time that you would never know her: that she would always be secret and apart; that that would be her power and her fascination. You felt yourself in the presence of a mystery. The picture seemed a direct transcript from suspended life. Another moment you felt and that proud head would have lifted and turned towards you, those grey eyes levelled on you their abstracted gaze; those soft lips parted into speech. Felt it just as surely as you knew that the woman in the russet-coloured frock in the high-backed Empire chair would in another moment be answering the eager comments of the boy beside her. The picture might indeed have been a mirrored reflection of that woman. For looking from the picture to his wife Terance could not believe that it was a quarter of a century since that unfaltering brush had limned those flawless features.
As Terance came towards her she lifted her head and smiled.
“John,” she said, “you don't know Frank Savile. But you'll remember the Vospers. You'll remember my telling you about them: about their house on Long Island. Mr. Savile has come over with a letter from them.”
She spoke in a slow, drawled voice that an American pitch cadenced slightly. “You remember, don't you?” Her husband shook his head.
“I've never begun to be able to keep count of all the friends and relations you've got over there. I find
it hard enough to remember the people that I have met, let alone those I haven't. But I hope that isn't going to prevent me seeing quite a lot of Mr. Savile now.”
The young American laughed: he was tall, clean-skinned, broad-shouldered; his hair copper-coloured with a glint of gold in it. His laugh that was friendly and boyish was more a grin than anything.
“It's certainly not going to be my fault if you don't. I'm on a vacation here with a whole lot of spare time to be put in. I've been persuading Mrs. Terance and your young daughter to come out with me on Wednesday. You'll join us, won't you?”
Terance shook his head.
“Wednesday's a night on which I shan't be able to leave the telephone five minutes.”
“That's too bad. Some other night then?”
“I'll love to.”
“Fine. We'll have a whale of a time some place.”
There was a welcoming openness about his smile.
“A nice fellow that,” said Terance when they were alone.
Julia made no reply. The moment that young Savile had left the room she had flung herself limply into an arm-chair.
“You look tired,” her father said.
“I am tired. What else would you expect me to be after listening for seven hours to the chatter of maddening women who don't know their own minds? Heavens, but I shall be glad when Ascot and Lord's and all the rest of it is over.”
She spoke fretfully, irritably as though she had a grievance against life.
Her father refrained from the obvious retort. “It is your own choice,” he might have said. “Nobody forced you to work in a dress shop for forty-five hours a week. Nobody wanted you to. It was you who insisted on your freedom; insisted not only on keeping your own hours and having your own friends, but on running your own flat where you could entertain those friends. You never felt free in your parents' house, you said. And when I told you that I was not going to spend an extra two hundred a year on what I considered, and still consider, a perfectly unnecessary extravagance, you said that very well, you would go and earn four pounds a week yourself. Which you have done, and which I respect you for. But there's no sense in your starting to grumble now. You've got a perfectly comfortable home to come back to the moment that you choose.” That was the obvious retort. But John Terance had the common sense not to make it. Besides, Julia had changed the subject.