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Authors: Richard Church

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BOOK: The Dangerous Years
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She finished this speech with an emphasis that left the air confused with a hundred broken questions. Mary could say nothing. She got up, returned to the tea-tray, and poured herself another cup, which she sipped thoughtfully.

“Well, darling,” she said at last, after Joan had subsided into a sulky silence, “the only thing is to take some active steps. We cannot leave the matter thus. Do you mean that you have agreed to part? And if so, on what terms? I am not prepared to believe this is the last word. I had a letter from John too for my birthday—by the way, thank you both for the present, which I've not yet opened, owing to our preoccupation. He says nothing about so serious a decision.”

“Of course not. He never will. He has a genius for skating round reality—unless it's made of limestone and is stuck fifteen thousand feet above sea-level.”

“Oh well, love, we are all made in different moulds. What you need now is a complete change. So do I. Dr. Batten has written from Paris, as usual on my birthday, asking me to go over. I've never done so, since that first year after your father was killed, or rather when the war ended; though for me the war
end when he was killed in 1915. I know it sounds weak and selfish. But I've tried to make up for it since, and to cancel out my own feelings.”

“That's the trouble, Mother. All this abnegation and arid self-control! But it looks as though I am in for a course of it now. How else am I to carry on?”

So the talk went on, between mother and daughter, neither of them able to express herself fully, or to bring under control the flood of emotions and disconnected memories released under the clash of words and events. The evening drew toward bed-time, and after Mary had inspected the gift sent that day from The Stores, and both she and Joan had had baths and sipped cups of cocoa and nibbled at biscuits, they parted for the night, having agreed to accept Dr. Batten's invitation, concluding that nobody would be more surprised than he. Mary added, as they parted for the night, that she could barely remember what the doctor looked like. She faintly recollected a thin man in uniform, with a face heavily lined each side of a wide mouth, the eyes sunken under a lined brow, and lank hair. “He stooped,” she said, pausing with her hand on the door-knob, as though it were a handle to the past. “It looked so odd with a man in uniform.”

“Well, you will see what time has done to him, Mother. But I must first finish off my last job for the Professor, before he goes off to America. That will take a few days. But we need a little time, surely, to pack our things?”

They agreed, and parted. Mary noticed that the cat had followed Joan into her room, and was not turned out again.

Chapter Three
A Long-Standing Invitation

Joan's work for her Professor took a week, but during that time her mother got busy, arranging for the departure and an indefinite stay abroad. This activity was deliberately maintained to prevent her from worrying about Joan's marriage and the threat to it. Mary thought John Boys rather an adorable person, with his childlike enthusiasms, his utter lack of self-consciousness, and his old-fashioned attitude toward women. He always made her feel frail and helpless, and she found that a relief from the part which she had forced herself to play in the lonely drama of her widowhood. For she never succeeded in disguising the fact that her life
lonely, in spite of her devotion to Joan, and her activities and good works locally and in London. It was as though she were conducting herself through a glass screen, or over the telephone. Everything, and everyone, stood at a slight remove from flesh and blood contact. She did not care to examine that matter more intimately.

The cottage in the wood was left to the care of Milly, who would keep the place aired and clean, and could be depended upon. Nothing to worry about there. Mother and daughter found themselves in the boat-train at ten o'clock one calm morning in mid-December, rushing through Kent, too excited by travel-fever to be able to see what they were looking at through the windows of the
compartment. Winter sunshine touched the coloured landscape, flashing on oast-caps, ponds, and the wires in the hop gardens. Flights of rooks rose from the fields as the train disturbed them. The travellers looked furtively at the surface of the sea as the train ran alongside it through Folkestone Warren. But all was calm, even glassy, with the sun burnishing the water to blue steel, under the tempering of a slight mist.

Both of them were quiet during the crossing. They walked the deck, their heads protected in silk handkerchiefs against the breeze. Gulls skated on air round the boat, darting down from time to time into the great blocks of glassy water thrown aside by the vessel. The Channel appeared to be empty, and both shores were soon lost behind the mist.

At last, but sooner than they anticipated, the coast of France grew from a smudge to a solid, and took shape in cliff, downside, beaches, and the approach to Calais Harbour.

“I've not seen it for over eleven years,” said Mary sadly. She was realising that she was about to step ashore on the ground where her husband lay. Was something missing in her, she asked herself, that she had not been again to visit his grave in the well-tended cemetery? But the regularity of the tiny graves, the sameness of them, had filled her heart with a dreadful sense of futility that had almost made her cry out against God. She had not dared to go again.

Joan took her arm, as they stood waiting at the gangway, amid the cries of porters, and the excitement of a party of skiers on their way to the Alps, young folk perilously encumbered with the tools of their pastime.

“This is your suggestion, darling,” said Joan. “So we've got to enjoy ourselves, or all the effort and money will be wasted.”

Mary looked swiftly at her daughter, surprised by this touch of perceptiveness. It cheered her, and it also made her feel guilty at having given way to so gloomy a reminiscence, when the girl must surely be needing all her attention. She obeyed Joan's gesture, which sent her first down the gangway. They found their reservations on the train, and sat down to luncheon, which began as soon as the train moved.

The winter afternoon gradually faded over northern France, but a wind had sprung up, whistling round the carriages and clearing away the mist. Darkness beyond the windows was pinned by diamonds of light from farmhouses, and Amiens and Chantilly glittered in the night. Joan fell asleep, but Mary could not lose herself. She watched her daughter's face, the handsome oval of her chin, touched with a petulance by sleep; the fair hair disordered by travel. “I wonder if she is too strong-minded for him?” she asked herself suddenly; and her thoughts turned to the husband, somewhere in the Pennines, his climbing-boots ringing on the rocks, his rucksack light with a mass of papers concerned with problems in physics, the by-product of Lord Rutherford's research work at Cambridge.

But Paris was approaching, and Joan was wakened by that apprehensiveness latent in all travellers' minds. The two women tidied themselves, collected their luggage, and stood in the corridor watching the lights of the city. At the barrier of the platform in the Gare du Nord, they were instantly approached by two men, one in advance of the other.

“I recognised you, Mrs. Winterbourne,” said a quiet voice, “we don't need to re-introduce ourselves.” Mary shook hands with Dr. Batten, and presented her daughter, who towered above the stooping figure whom she could not see distinctly under the gloomy station lights. She was aware of a surprisingly small hand that gripped hers
firmly; and of a pair of sharp eyes that could not be dimmed even in that dismal setting.

He said nothing to her, merely stood for a moment with her hand in his. Then he turned, and his companion, who had been lingering in the background, came forward. “My brother, Colonel Tom Batten,” said the doctor. Mary greeted the stranger, looking at him vaguely, for it was useless to try to register any impression in this gloom. Nor did she detect a trace of irony in the doctor's voice. She noticed only that he out-topped his brother, being a head taller than the Amazonian Joan, who was struggling with him about the luggage.

The doctor did the talking as he led the way to the car. The other three were shy, and the women tired.

“We've put you into an hotel only a stone's-throw from home, Mrs. Winterbourne. Our flat is almost wholly a professional headquarters, and no place to invite you to stay in, as you will see. But you are dining with us to-night, if that is agreeable. You did meet my wife? There are two children now, a boy and a girl, both bilingual monsters, aged nine and seven. They would not add to the comfort of visitors. I fear we are negligent parents. But their uncle, who has been here for some time, is licking them into shape with army discipline.”

The colonel chuckled, and took the suitcase from Mary, to stow it into the boot of the car. She saw his face clearly as he laughed, the scar down one cheek, the slightly drawn lip that side, the grey eyes and slight expression of bewilderment. Joan saw him too, but she diagnosed the expression as shiftiness.

The colonel drove, timing himself expertly with the Paris traffic, so that the passengers' terror was gradually lulled, as he tore down the Boulevard de Sébastopol, past the front of the Palais de Justice, up the Boulevard St. Michel, to draw up at a small hotel close to the Raspail Métro station.

“While you get yourselves installed,” said the doctor, “we will put the car away and my brother will come back for you. Take your time. We dine at all hours, but to-night the meal is planned for eight o'clock. That gives you an hour.”

Mother and daughter found themselves in two small, communicating rooms at the side, overlooking the large Cimetière du Sud. They could hear the traffic rumbling along the Boulevard Raspail past the front of the hotel, the noise rushing up the side road, the Rue Edgar Quinet, in momentary bursts of activity.

“This will do, won't it?” said Joan, who liked being high up, and in a new building where everything was clean. “The colonel's not very communicative, is he?”

They began to unpack and hang up their clothes, coming and going between the two rooms as they changed into dinner dresses and coats. A maid interrupted, and offered her services most pleasantly. They purred with a sense of comfort in the super-heated atmosphere.

“Monsieur is below,” said the maid, adding, to their amusement, “but it isn't important,” as she filled the wardrobes and stacked the suitcases on top of them.

Joan spoke French readily, for her research work had brought her over to Paris frequently since she had taken her degree and married. Mary, after eleven years, was quite at a loss.

“I've become a rustic, Joan,” she said. “It will keep you busy, shepherding me around.”

“Unless the colonel relieves me of the task,” said Joan.

They both laughed, and went down by the lift to the lounge, where Colonel Batten sat reading the Paris
Daily Mail
, horn-rimmed spectacles half-way down his nose.

It was a sensitive nose, with finely-cut nostrils over a trim moustache, as Mrs. Winterbourne noticed. She saw, too, his neat figure when he jumped up and lowered the
newspaper. His grey hair was cut short. The only odd thing about him was the scar down his right cheek, and the point where it just touched the lip, to rob his mouth of expression, and thus adding to the slightly enigmatic character of his grey eyes.

There was nothing enigmatic, however, about his glance of admiration, and his quiet courtesy, as he looked at Mary, and bowed slightly, as though he had caught something of French ceremony as between man and woman.

“Have I hurried you?” he asked. And she realised that this was the first opportunity he had given them to hear his voice. Or so it seemed. It was a pleasing voice, more that of an actor than a soldier; modulated and touched with an overtone of emotional promise. It caught Mary's interest instantly. She smiled without replying.

“There's no hurry really. I'm at a loose end to-day—resting a bit, you know. Actually, I'm staying in the hotel here. Luke's flat is no place for selfish comfort lovers. He's something of an oracle, or a witch-doctor, here in Paris. All the local hospitals overflow into his quarters, for he's a consultant to most of them, when it's a question of chest troubles. He started this special interest during the war, with gas cases. Ghastly business, that. It has killed soldiering—as a trade, I mean. And those tanks, too. It goes beyond all bounds of humanity. And I'm not being a sentimentalist, longing for the good old times. War is war. But there has to be a set of rules somewhere, so that we know how to draw the line.”

Having once started, he lost all shyness, and rattled away cheerfully while guiding the women across the boulevard, up it for a few yards, and then down a turning to the left, called the Rue Boissonade.

“This is a sick quarter. Nothing but hospitals behind here. Luke loves to be on the spot. And Vivienne, that's his wife, my sister-in-law, a grand woman, is just as keen. She was a nurse during the war. And by heavens, she is
still one. The parable of the Good Samaritan pales beside their story. But here we are. They are on the first floor. Not much to look at from outside. Get's a bit monotonous, all this heavy Hausmann stuff, great blocks of pseudomagnificence. But we go right through, across the courtyard. That makes for quietness; something to be desired, in Paris!”

“Are you here for long?” asked Joan, abruptly, as they climbed the stone stairs.

He looked at her sharply, and hesitated.

“Well; I'm not very sure, at the moment. It depends on various things.”

“I see. It's not just a holiday?”

Colonel Batten looked appealingly at Joan's mother, and she at once felt that the girl was being importunate. She must come to the rescue.

But there was no time to do so. The door opened, and an elderly maid ushered them in. She was a grave woman, more like a nun than a domestic. Her gold-rimmed spectacles examined them benevolently, but severely. She ignored the colonel. “Madam is with Doctor in the consulting-room, and asks you to excuse her for a moment.”

BOOK: The Dangerous Years
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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