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Authors: Elizabeth Bowen

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BOOK: The Death of the Heart
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“It isn’t in my bag,” said Portia unwarily.

So Portia went home to tea with Lilian and, in spite of a qualm, enjoyed herself very much. They ate crumpets on the rug in front of the drawingroom fire. Their cheeks scorched, but a draught crept under the door. Lilian, heaping coals of fire, brought down, untied from a ribbon three letters the ‘cello mistress had written to her during the holidays. She also told Portia how, one day at school when she had a headache, Miss Heber had rubbed with magnetic fingers Lilian’s temples and the nape of her neck. “When I have a headache I always think of her still.”

“If you’ve got a headache today, then ought you to wash your hair?”

“I ought not to, but I want it nice for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? What are you doing then?”

“Confidentially, Portia, I don’t know what may happen.

Lilian had all those mysterious tomorrows: yesterdays made her sigh, but were never accounted for. She belonged to a junior branch of emotional society, in which there is always a crisis due. Preoccupation with life was not, clearly, peculiar to Lilian: Portia could see it going on everywhere. She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair—motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight. The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing—everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes. She could not believe there was not a plan of the whole set-up in every head but her own. Accordingly, so anxious was her research that every look, every movement, every object had a quite political seriousness for her: nothing was not weighed down by significance. In her home life (her new home life) with its puzzles, she saw dissimulation always on guard; she asked herself humbly for what reason people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant. She felt most certain to find the clue when she felt the frenzy behind the clever remark.

Outdoors, the pattern was less involuted, very much simplified. She enjoyed being in the streets—unguarded smiles from strangers, the permitted frown of someone walking alone, lovers’ looks, as though they had solved something, and the unsolitary air with which the old or the wretched seemed to carry sorrow made her feel people that at least knew each other, if they did not yet know her, if she did not yet know them. The closeness she felt to Eddie, since this morning (that closeness one most often feels in a dream) was a closeness to life she had only felt, so far, when she got a smile from a stranger across a bus. It seemed to her that while people were very happy, individual persons were surely damned. So, she shrank from that specious mystery the individual throws about himself, from Anna’s smiles, from Lilian’s tomorrows, from the shut-in room, the turned-in heart.

Portia turned over records and re-wound the gramophone on the shut seat, and Stravinsky filled the bathroom while Lilian shampooed her hair. Lilian turbaned herself in a bath towel, and Portia carried the gramophone back to the fire again. Before Lilian’s cascade of hair, turned inside out and scented in the heat, was quite dry, it had struck seven; Portia said she would have to be going home.

“Oh, they won’t bother. You rang up Matchett, didn’t you?”

“You said I could, but somehow I never did.”

As Portia let herself into Windsor Terrace, she heard Anna’s voice in the study, explaining something to Thomas. There came a pause while they listened to her step, then the voices went on. She stole over that white stone floor, with the chill always off, and made for the basement staircase. “Matchett?” she called down, in a tense low voice. The door at the foot of the stairs was open: Matchett came out of the little room by the pantry and stood looking up at Portia, shading her eyes. She said: “Oh, it’s you!”

“I hope you didn’t wonder.”

“I had your tea for you.”

“Lilian made me go back with her.”

“Well, that was nice for you,” said Matchett didactically. “You haven’t had your tea there for some time.”

“But part of the time I was miserable. I might have been having tea with you.”

“ 

Miserable!
’ ”
 Matchett echoed, with her hardest inflection. “That Lilian is someone your own age. However, you did ought to have telephoned. She’s that one with the head of hair?”

“Yes. She was washing it.”

“I like to see a head of hair, these days.”

“But what I wanted was, to make toast with you.”

“Well, you can’t do everything, can you?”

“Are they out for dinner? Could you talk to me while I have my supper, Matchett?”

“I shall have to see.”

Portia turned and went up. A little later, she heard Anna’s bath running, and smelled bath essence coming upstairs. After Portia had shut her door, she heard the reluctant step of Thomas turn, across the landing, into his dressing room: he had got to put on a white tie.

V

EDDIE’S
present position, in Quayne and Merrett’s, made his frequentation of Anna less possible. She saw this clearly—when Thomas, more or less at her instance, got Merrett to agree to take Eddie on, she had put it to Eddie, as nicely as possible, that in future they would be seeing less of each other. For one thing—and leave it at that, why not?—Eddie would be quite busy: the firm expected work. However, this did not dispose of him. He felt grateful (at first) to Thomas, but not to Anna. No doubt she was kind, and no doubt he needed a job—badly needed a job: he had been on his beam ends—but in popping him like this into Quayne and Merrett’s was she using the firm as an oubliette? Suspiciousness made him send her frequent bunches of flowers, and post her, during his first few weeks at work, a series of little letters that seemed blameless, but at the same time parodied what he ought to feel. He wrote that this new start had made a new man of him, that no one would ever know how down he had been, that no one would ever know how he now felt,
etc.

For some years, a number of people had known how Eddie felt. Before Anna had ever met him (he had been a friend of a cousin of hers, at Oxford) she had been told about his cosmic black moods, which were the things he was principally noted for. Her cousin knew no one else who went on like that, and did not believe that anyone 
else did, either. Denis, her cousin, and Eddie belonged about that time to a circle in which it was important tc be unique. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of his relations with Eddie; he was like a bright little cracker that, pulled hard enough, goes off with a loud bang. He had been the brilliant child of an obscure home, and came up to Oxford ready to have his head turned. There he was taken up, played up, played about with, taken down, let down, finally sent down for one idiotic act. His appearance was charming: he had a proletarian, animal, quick grace. His manner, after a year of trying to get the pitch, had become bold, vivid and intimate. He became a quite frank
arriviste
—at the same time, the one thing no one, so far, knew about Eddie was quite how he
felt
about selling himself. His apparent rushes of Russian frankness proved, when you came to look back at them later, to have been more carefully edited than you had known at the time. All Anna’s cousin’s friends, who found Eddie as clever as a monkey, regarded his furies, his denunciations (sometimes) of the whole pack of them as Eddie’s most striking turn—at the same time, something abstract and lasting about the residue of his anger had been known, once or twice, to command respect.

When he left Oxford, he had a good many buddies, few responsible friends: he had grown apart from his family, who, obscure and living in an obscure province, were not, anyhow, in a position to do anything for him. He came to London and got a job on a paper; in his spare time he worked off his sense of insult in a satirical novel which, when published, did him no good at all. Its readers, who were not many, were divided into those who saw no point in the book whatever, and those who did see the point, were profoundly offended and made up their minds to take it out of Eddie. What security he had rested so much on favour that he could not really afford to annoy anyone: he had shown himself, not for the first time, as one of those natures in which underground passion is, at a crisis, stronger than policy. Some weeks after the appearance of the novel, Eddie found himself unstuck from his position on the paper, whose editor, though an apparently dim man, was related to someone Eddie had put in his book. Eddie’s disillusionment, his indignation knew almost no bounds: he disappeared, saying something about enlisting. Just when people were beginning to notice, partly with relief, partly with disappointment, that he was not there, he reappeared, very cheerful, every sign of resentment polished away, staying indefinitely with a couple called the Monkshoods, in Bayswater.

Where he had got the Monkshoods nobody knew: they were said to have all been up Cader Idris together. They were a very nice couple, middle-aged, serious, childless, idealistic and full of belief in youth. They were well off, and seemed disposed to make Eddie their son—with Mrs. Monkshood, possibly, there was just a touch of something more than this. During the Monkshood period, Eddie helped his patrons with some research, went to useful parties, did a little reviewing and wrote some pamphlets, which were printed by a girl who had a press in a loft. Arts and crafts had succeeded
Sturm und Drang
.
It was at this time, when he looked like being less of a trouble, that Eddie was first brought to Anna’s house by Denis: he found his way there again with kittenlike trustfulness. All seemed to be going almost too well when a friend whose girl Eddie had taken—or had, rather, picked up and put down again—got the Monkshoods’ ear and began to make bad blood. Eddie—unconscious, though perhaps a little affected by some threat of dissolution in the air—galloped towards his doom: he brought the girl back to his room in the Monkshoods’ flat: the flat was too small for this, and the Monkshoods, already uneasy, heard more than they liked. Seeing no other way to get rid of Eddie, they gave up their flat and went to live abroad. This made a deep wound in Eddie—he had been good to the Monkshoods, filial, attentive, cheerful. Quite at a loss to understand their very cruel behaviour, he began to see in his patrons perverse cravings he must all the time have flouted unconsciously. There appeared, now, to be no one he might trust.

Anna declared to whoever was interested that the Monkshoods had treated Eddie badly: she had shared his impression that they proposed to adopt him. Up to now, he had been a pleasure at Windsor Terrace, not in any way a charge on the nerves. The morning Denis had told her, not without pleasure, the bad news, Anna sent Eddie an impulsive message. He came round and stood in her drawing room: she had been prepared to find him looking the toy of fate. His manner was, in fact, not much more than muted, and rather abstract—it showed, at the same time, a touch of savage reticence. She found he did not know, and did not apparently care, where he would eat next, or where he would sleep tonight. His young debauched face—with the high forehead, springy bronze hair, energetic eyebrows and rather too mobile mouth—looked strikingly innocent. While he and Anna talked he did not sit down but stood at a distance, as though he felt disaster set him apart. He said he expected that he would go away.

“But away where?”

“Oh, somewhere,” said Eddie, dropping his eyes. He added, in a matter-of-fact voice: “I suppose there really is something against me, Anna.”

“Nonsense,” she said fondly. “What about your people? Why not go home for a bit?”

“No, I couldn’t do that. You see, they’re quite proud of me.”

“Yes,” she said (and thought of that simple home), “I should think they were ever so proud of you.”

Eddie looked at her with just a touch of contempt.

She went on—making a little emphatic gesture. “But, I mean, you know, you will have to live. Don’t you want to get some sort of work?”

“That’s quite an idea,” said Eddie, with a little start—of which the irony was quite lost on Anna. “But look here,” he went on, “I do hate
you
to worry. I really shouldn’t have come here.”

“But I asked you to.”

“Yes, I know. You were so sweet.”

“I’m so worried about all this; I feel the Monkshoods are monsters. But perhaps it wouldn’t have worked, in the long run. I mean, your position is so much freer, now. You can make your own way—after all, you are very clever.”

“So they all say,” said Eddie, grinning at her.

“Well, we’ll just have to think. We’ve got to be realistic.”

“You’re so right,” said Eddie, glancing into a mirror.

“And listen: do keep your head, do be more conciliating. Don’t go off at the deep end and have one of your moods—you really haven’t got time. I’ve heard all about those.”

“My moods?” said Eddie, raising his eyebrows. He seemed not just taken aback, but truly surprised. Did he not know he had them? Perhaps they were really fits.

For the rest of that day, Anna had felt deeply concerned: she could not get Eddie out of her mind. Then at about six o’clock, Denis rang up to report that Eddie had just moved into his, Denis’s, flat, and was in excellent spirits. He had just had a series of articles commissioned; they were the sort of articles he could do on his head. On the strength of this, he had borrowed two pounds from Denis and gone off in a taxi to the Piccadilly tube station left luggage office to bail out his things; he had promised, also, to bring back with him several bottles of drink.

BOOK: The Death of the Heart
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