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Authors: Richard Church

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“No, not now. He was not supported by his wife in his decision to leave the Army.
She
left him. And she is a Catholic, so there is no question of freeing him.”

Mary did not question further. She sat staring into space, her face blank. Then she shivered, drew her bedjacket round her, turned her head, and spoke slowly, meditatively.

“That makes life unsatisfactory for him. I can appreciate the loneliness of it, especially to-night, for I find these headaches very discouraging. Solitude is all very well when one is in perfect health, but …”

“You have your daughter?”

“Only temporarily—I hope.”

“You hope?”

“Well, for her sake. You see, her marriage is running into deep waters at the moment. And I'm so fond of both of them. Neither is at fault, you understand. Her husband is a scientist at Cambridge; but I think I have told you in my yearly letters, have I not?”

The doctor did not reply. He sat looking at her
curiously, trying to probe the melancholy that had settled over her features. It almost obscured their beauty, though he decided that nothing could wholly succeed in that. Her hair, untidy from contact with the pillow, her face devoid of make-up, her neck and shoulders glimpsed through the loosely-knitted jacket: he studied these lovely attributes and instantly turned his mind to the daughter.

“Yes. She is obviously in a defensive mood. Is that characteristic?”

“Maybe; though I am too close to her to be able to judge accurately. Certainly she is a person with emphasis in her attitude to life, and to other people. She believes in calling a spade a spade: but that may be due to her rather austere and academic education. She has been taught to think, and sometimes I feel that she believes nothing else is necessary.”

“Really? I am surprised. I should have said she is an over-emotional young woman—and that from this point of view she has a grievance.”

Mary was startled. Was then the situation so obvious? No, this friend was specially concerned, and specially equipped to observe. She felt him watching her now. Perhaps he had spoken so abruptly in order to break down her reticence, her shyness of him. He was not easy to know at first sight.

“You are very penetrating, Dr. Batten.”

He smiled again.

“Forgive me, Mrs. Winterbourne. After all, we have known each other for many years; and I have been aware that this girl, my old friend's daughter, was growing up and developing into a personality of some kind. It had to be so. Would you expect me to be quite indifferent?”

“It is very kind of you.”

She instantly regretted that remark.

“You try to say that conventionally,” he muttered sadly. Leaving his place at the bed-end, he walked about
the room, his hands clasped in front of him. Then he approached her suddenly, and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Look, my dear,” he said, “why not surrender to your defencelessness. We are all defenceless. It is part of the oblation of living, even the strongest and most wilful of us. That girl of yours. I see her father in her. I knew him well enough, you see. The years at Cambridge, before we went our diverse ways, then the life in the Territorials and our club. He certainly was an emphatic character. Perhaps that is why he liked the law of the jungle in the City. He could hit out there. I can imagine him shouting on the floor of the Stock Exchange.”

“Well, Dr. Batten, he shouted to some purpose. He did very well there. And that has made my widowhood a well-bolstered one, from that point of view.”

“Yes; a lively contrast to my brother Tom, the regular soldier. That seems odd, don't you think? He is tentative in all things. You see it at once, I suggest? Over-sensitive, I should say; unless I have illusions about him, as you say you may have about your daughter.”

“We are talking about them both as though they were children. Why is that? Surely Joan is a firm enough character to make herself a place in life? But the fact is, Dr. Batten, she has not managed to make her marriage a complete thing. And she accuses her husband, poor John Boys. I wonder what you would think of him? He is walking along the Pennines at the moment. And that is part of her grievance. He is always walking in the worst of weather, or climbing among the most dangerous rocks, all for the good of his muscles. He might be a reincarnation of one of Alexander's Macedonians. But in spite of all this, he is devoted to Joan, and as faithful as a bloodhound.”

“A Macedonian! That's good! Was he in those parts during the war?”

“No, they kept him at Cambridge, doing research work
on ballistics, whatever that may be. Now he works on something even more abstract. But he never got over the sense of guilt in not going to the war. He has to take it out of himself physically by living a hair-shirt sort of life. And that is where Joan comes in—or rather, goes out.”

She was conscious of being closely scrutinised once more before the doctor spoke.

“I see. Yes, that is a big consideration. It is perhaps difficult for some men to realise that, to see it from the woman's point of view. It is these sex romantics, these idealists who cause the misunderstandings—and that is putting it mildly. The trouble is not so common in France, perhaps. But I would not generalise. Poor Joan!”

“I hope I don't make the situation appear morbid?”

“Not at all. It is frequent enough, I can assure you as a doctor. The fact is, that she wants children. Has she left him before, or threatened to?”

“I've not cared to enquire. I had thought all was going well. They have much in common, surrounded by the life of the university. Joan does history research work for her Professor, and belongs to a dozen societies. It is not a matter of having nothing to do. I should have thought that was all she wanted.…”

“You would not really care to believe that, my dear? Am I right? You are not happy to believe it either. I suspect that you are very wholly a woman—though you may have wanted to forget the fact, under the deprivations of your life, and the way fortune has driven you.”

They contemplated each other shyly. Mary felt her face flushed; but the headache was draining away, and she grew almost reckless in consequence.

“I have had to adapt myself to circumstances,” she said. She knew he was studying her lips, and she could not disguise the luxurious recollection that plumped them. She decided to change the subject.

“But discussing our children's temperaments makes me
want to ask about your little son. Joan tells me that he is unusually gifted?”

She saw Dr. Batten flinch, and decided to press the point, if only in retaliation for his intrusion into her private emotions.

“That must make you very proud?”

“It makes me very anxious, Mrs. Winterbourne.” He was retreating, with evasive action.

“Why, is he not healthy?”

“He's as firm as a rock: a completely normal physique. A quiet fellow, perhaps; but he has all the usual interests of a boy of nine. That is what I want to preserve. And I am being assailed from all sides. Everybody who hears him at the piano urges me instantly to send him to a famous master, to divert him into that one activity. My brother even suggests that we shall let him appear in public. Tom believes in himself as a business administrative, and he sees himself as manager for the boy prodigy. That is the last thing I intend.”

He was quite detached as he explained the situation; cool and unemphatic. Mary had the sensation of touching rock.

“But I would like you to observe for yourself, Mrs. Winterbourne. You will have an opportunity on Christmas Day, for we intend to have an English festival, and shall be hurt if you and Joan cannot come. That is two days from now. We always make this an occasion for patriotic demonstration. One or two folk from the Embassy, and some of the odd bodies living in Paris. You will be welcome among them, two new faces; for it is strange how remote Paris can become from home. No one would believe it who has not lived here.”

Before Mary could either refuse or accept—though there was no question of refusal—Joan opened the door. She stood surprised, then snatched off her beret and shook the rain from it.

“A professional visit, Dr. Batten?” she cried. “Is it very serious?”

He watched her remove her coat, and shake that too, the drops flying across the room and touching the bed. He felt one on his cheek, and quietly wiped it with his hand.

“Yes. It might have become quite serious, Joan,” he said. “Quite serious.”

“What
does
he mean, Mother?” said the young woman.

“That is only his bedside manner, my dear,” replied her mother, still inclined to be indulgent toward the world, under the release from pain. “I should have called it a graveside manner.”

The doctor laughed.

“Ah, good! good! And you are coming to help us bury her on Christmas Day—under holly and mistletoe, and a headstone of Christmas pudding!”

Joan saw him out, and returned.

“Are we going, then? I suppose we must.”

“It is impossible to refuse, Joan. And he wants me to look at that child.”

“What
do
you mean?” said the girl sharply, almost jealously.

Mary was surprised by this vehemence.

“Oh, nothing at all. Only he told me about the efforts of people to exploit the child, as he called it. But I should think it just as well to take advantage of an outstanding gift. What harm can it do?”

“And he refuses?”

Mary nodded. She was almost grateful to see Joan so interested in some matter outside her own troubles.

“I'm not surprised.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, of course. It is that brother of his behind it. I know from what the child said to me, that this wicked
uncle wants to put the boy on the concert halls. It would probably ruin the child for life.”

“So the doctor told me,” said Mary dryly. “I should think there is a great deal of unnecessary nonsense in that attitude. There have been gifted children before this one. Too much fuss is made about susceptibilities, maybe, especially in these special cases of abnormally endowed children. Nature usually compensates by making them little monsters of selfishness or conceit, so that they go through life quite well protected.”

Joan looked at her mother sceptically.

“I see you have thought it all out. Maybe you doubt the value of this particular gift.”

“Oh, Joan, that is hardly fair. I am not entirely indifferent to music. I like to listen occasionally, and for not too long at a time.”

“Yes, that may explain it. An odd little failing in you, darling; for you are so open to influences in every way—the most responsive person I have ever known.”

The daughter put her arms round her mother, who had got out of bed and was struggling with a dressing-gown. Mary drew herself up stiffly.

“I don't understand you in the least,” she said, tying the belt round her waist, and thus outlining her still graceful figure, now being used as a caryatid to support the monumental dignity built up during the long widowhood.

Chapter Nine
Christmas Day

It appeared that the Battens made almost a national occasion of Christmas Day. The doctor let the Parisian world know that he could not be consulted during that one day of the year. He arranged for a French colleague to do his round of visits, and left the professional side of life at that. The flat was transformed into a fair imitation of an old English country house, with the double doors between the three main rooms thrown open. A fir tree was introduced into the drawing-room, decorated with tiny electric lights, and the customary imitation snow, glitters and stars. The twigs drooped under the weight of small parcels; and stacked round the tub were larger objects, most of them too indeterminate in shape to be parcelled.

The small middle room was laid with refreshments and drinks; a rich display enhanced with all the ritual of the English feast; holly, paper-chains, mistletoe, balloons. The dining-room was almost filled by the expanded table, laid for the afternoon feast; a noble sight, with candlesticks reflected in the mahogany, wine-glasses glittering, cutlery shining, crackers crisp beside the plates, napkins folded mitre-wise.

The weather, happily, had cleared, and Christmas morning shone with a springlike geniality. The two English ladies decided to take a good walk before presenting
themselves at the Rue Boissonade. A faint, horizontal sunlight played across the streets, touching every surface with a delicious
pointillisme
, a very present justification for the artifices of Seurat's painting. Workaday affairs and traffic abounded, a contradiction of this exquisite background.

“We ought to take some contributions, Joan,” said Mary, as they stood waiting on the platform of the Vavin Métro, having made up their minds, while walking those few yards down the boulevard, to go to the Right Bank.

They got out at the Châtelet, and strolled along the Rue de Rivoli, lingering at the shop windows.

“I don't think we should overdo it, Mother,” Joan had said, after Mary had loaded her with parcels. “After all, we hardly know these good people.”

“I had not realised that, Joan. I feel as though we have gone right into the family. An odd sensation, for people so stiff as I suspect we must be. But do you know, I feel that I must do something slightly extravagant. What was it? The doctor is so quiet, but one is conscious of his power. Or is Mrs. Batten the source of this strange influence, quietly emanating in the background? It must be one or other of them, for the children mean nothing to me yet. The boy, I thought, wanted a good bath, and his hair brushing vigorously.”

Joan looked at her sideways, over the barricade of parcels. She was unduly animated, and the girl believed, with a twinge of dismay, that the charming figure might have been mistaken for the younger of the two.

“Well, I suppose we had better go and submit ourselves to the family magic,” she said dryly. The carefree day had even affected her spirits. It was with surprise that she realised this would be the first Christmas, since her marriage, that she had not spent with John. She tried to picture him now, striding along a knife-edge of rock
somewhere in the Peak District, or in Lakeland, his mind intent on one thing, the mechanics of his pedestrian progress.

BOOK: The Dangerous Years
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