Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim - HTML preview
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Manifestly it is impossible to thrust oneself into a house where there is going to be a funeral next day, even if one has come all the way from New York and has nowhere else to go. Equally manifestly it is impossible to thrust oneself into it after the funeral till a decent interval has elapsed. But what the devil, Mr. Twist asked himself in language become regrettably natural to him since his sojourn at the front, is a decent interval?
This Mr. Twist asked himself late that night, pacing up and down the sea-shore in the warm and tranquil darkness in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, while the twins, utterly tired out by their journey and the emotions at the end of it, crept silently into bed.
How long does it take a widow to recover her composure? Recover, that is, the first beginnings of it? At what stage in her mourning is it legitimate to intrude on her with reminders of obligations incurred before she was a widow,—with, in fact, the Twinklers? Delicacy itself would shrink from doing it under a week thought Mr. Twist, or even under a fortnight, or even if you came to that, under a month; and meanwhile what was he to do with the Twinklers?
Mr. Twist, being of the artistic temperament for otherwise he wouldn't have been so sympathetic nor would he have minded, as he so passionately did mind, his Uncle Charles's teapot dribbling on to the tablecloth—was sometimes swept by brief but tempestuous revulsions of feeling, and though he loved the Twinklers he did at this moment describe them mentally and without knowing it in the very words of Uncle Arthur, as those accursed twins. It was quite unjust, he knew. They couldn't help the death of the man Dellogg. They were the victims, from first to last, of a cruel and pursuing fate; but it is natural to turn on victims, and Mr. Twist was for an instant, out of the very depth of his helpless sympathy, impatient with the Twinklers.
He walked up and down the sands frowning and pulling his mouth together, while the Pacific sighed sympathetically at his feet. Across the road the huge hotel standing in its gardens was pierced by a thousand lights. Very few people were about and no one at all was on the sands. There was an immense noise of what sounded like grasshoppers or crickets, and also at intervals distant choruses of frogs, but these sounds seemed altogether beneficent,—so warm, and southern, and far away from less happy places where in October cold winds perpetually torment the world. Even in the dark Mr. Twist knew he had got to somewhere that was beautiful. He could imagine nothing more agreeable than, having handed over the twins safely to the Delloggs, staying on a week or two in this place and seeing them every day,—perhaps even, as he had pictured to himself on the journey, being invited to stay with the Delloggs. Now all that was knocked on the head. He supposed the man Dellogg couldn't help being dead but he, Mr. Twist, equally couldn't help resenting it. It was so awkward; so exceedingly awkward. And it was so like what one of that creature Uncle Arthur's friends would do.
Mr. Twist, it will be seen, was frankly unreasonable, but then he was very much taken aback and annoyed. What was he to do with the Annas? He was obviously not a relation of theirs—and indeed no profiles could have been less alike—and he didn't suppose Acapulco was behind other parts of America in curiosity and gossip. If he stayed on at the Cosmopolitan with the twins till Mrs. Dellogg was approachable again, whenever that might be, every sort of question would be being asked in whispers about who they were and what was their relationship, and presently whenever they sat down anywhere the chairs all round them would empty. Mr. Twist had seen the kind of thing happening in hotels before to other people,—never to himself; never had he been in any situation till now that was not luminously regular. And quite soon after this with the chairs had begun to happen, the people who created these vacancies were told by the manager—firmly in America, politely in England, and sympathetically in France—that their rooms had been engaged a long time ago for the very next day, and no others were available.
The Cosmopolitan was clearly an hotel frequented by the virtuous rich. Mr. Twist felt that he and the Annas wouldn't, in their eyes, come under this heading, not, that is, when the other guests became aware of the entire absence of any relationship between him and the twins. Well, for a day or two nothing could happen; for a day or two, before his party had had time to sink into the hotel consciousness and the manager appeared to tell him the rooms were engaged, he could think things out and talk them over with his companions. Perhaps he might even see Mrs. Dellogg. The funeral, he had heard on inquiring of the hall porter was next day. It was to be a brilliant affair, said the porter. Mr. Dellogg had been a prominent inhabitant, free with his money, a supporter of anything there was to support. The porter talked of him as the taxi-driver had done, regretfully and respectfully; and Mr. Twist went to bed angrier than ever with a man who, being so valuable and so necessary, should have neglected at such a moment to go on living.
Mr. Twist didn't sleep very well that night. He lay in his rosy room, under a pink silk quilt, and most of the time stared out through the open French windows with their pink brocade curtains at the great starry night, thinking.
In that soft bed, so rosy and so silken as to have been worthy of the relaxations of, at least, a prima donna, he looked like some lean and alien bird nesting temporarily where he had no business to. He hadn't thought of buying silk pyjamas when the success of his teapot put him in the right position for doing so, because his soul was too simple for him to desire or think of anything less candid to wear in bed than flannel, and he still wore the blue flannel pyjamas of a careful bringing up. In that beautiful bed his pyjamas didn't seem appropriate. Also his head, so frugal of hair, didn't do justice to the lace and linen of a pillow prepared for the hairier head of, again at least, a prima donna. And finding he couldn't sleep, and wishing to see the stars he put on his spectacles, and then looked more out of place than ever. But as nobody was there to see him,—which, Mr. Twist sometimes thought when he caught sight of himself in his pyjamas at bedtime, is one of the comforts of being virtuously unmarried,—nobody minded. His reflections were many and various, and they conflicted with and contradicted each other as the reflections of persons in a difficult position who have Mr. Twist's sort of temperament often do. Faced by a dribbling teapot, an object which touched none of the softer emotions, Mr. Twist soared undisturbed in the calm heights of a detached and concentrated intelligence, and quickly knew what to do with it; faced by the derelict Annas his heart and his tenderness got in the ways of any clear vision.
About three o'clock in the morning, when his mind was choked and strewn with much pulled-about and finally discarded plans, he suddenly had an idea. A real one. As far as he could see, a real good one. He would place the Annas in a school.
Why shouldn't they go to school? he asked himself, starting off answering any possible objections. A year at a first-rate school would give them and everybody else time to consider. They ought never to have left school. It was the very place for luxuriant and overflowing natures like theirs. No doubt Acapulco had such a thing as a finishing school for young ladies in it, and into it the Annas should go, and once in it there they should stay put, thought Mr. Twist in vigorous American, gathering up his mouth defiantly.
Down these lines of thought his relieved mind cantered easily. He would seek out a lawyer the next morning, regularize his position to the twins by turning himself into their guardian, and then get them at once into the best school there was. As their guardian he could then pay all their expenses, and faced by this legal fact they would, he hoped, be soon persuaded of the propriety of his paying whatever there was to pay.
Mr. Twist was so much pleased by his idea that he was able to go to sleep after that. Even three months' school—the period he gave Mrs. Dellogg for her acutest grief— would do. Tide them over. Give them room to turn round in. It was a great solution. He took off his spectacles, snuggled down into his rosy nest, and fell asleep with the instantaneousness of one whose mind is suddenly relieved.
But when he went down to breakfast he didn't feel quite so sure. The twins didn't look, somehow, as though they would want to go to school. They had been busy with their luggage, and had unpacked one of the trunks for the first time since leaving Aunt Alice, and in honour of the heat and sunshine and the heavenly smell of heliotrope that was in the warm air, had put on white summer frocks.
Impossible to imagine anything cooler, sweeter, prettier and more angelically good than those two Annas looked as they came out on to the great verandah of the hotel to join Mr. Twist at breakfast. They instantly sank into the hotel consciousness. Mr. Twist had thought this wouldn't happen for a day or two, but he now perceived his mistake. Not a head that wasn't turned to look at them, not a newspaper that wasn't lowered. They were immediate objects of interest and curiosity, entirely benevolent interest and curiosity because nobody yet knew anything about them, and the wives of the rich husbands—those halves of the virtuous-rich unions which provided the virtuousness— smiled as they passed, and murmured nice words to each other like cute and cunning. Mr. Twist, being a good American, stood up and held the twins' chairs for them when they appeared. They loved this; it seemed so respectful, and made them feel so old and looked-up to. He had done it that night in New York at supper, and at all the meals in the train in spite of the train being so wobbly and each time they had loved it. "It makes one have such self-respect," they agreed, commenting on this agreeable practice in private.
They sat down in the chairs with the gracious face of the properly treated, and inquired, with an amiability and a solicitous politeness on a par with their treatment how Mr. Twist had slept. They themselves had obviously slept well, for their faces were cherubic in their bland placidity, and already after one night wore what Mr. Twist later came to recognize as the Californian look, a look of complete unworriedness.
Yet they ought to have been worried. Mr. Twist had been terribly worried up to the moment in the night when he got his great idea, and he was worried again, now that he saw the twins, by doubts. They didn't look as though they would easily be put to school. His idea still seemed to him magnificent, a great solution, but would the Annas be able to see it? They might turn out impervious to it; not rejecting it, but simply non-absorbent. As they slowly and contentedly ate their grape-fruit, gazing out between the spoonfuls at the sea shining across the road through palm trees, and looking unruffled itself, he felt it was going to be rather like suggesting to two cherubs to leave their serene occupation of adoring eternal beauty and learn lessons instead. Still, it was the one way out, as far as Mr. Twist could see, of the situation produced by the death of the man Dellogg. "When you've done breakfast," he said, pulling himself together on their reaching the waffle stage, "we must have a talk.""When we've done breakfast," said Anna-Rose, "we must have a walk." "Down there," said Anna-Felicitas, pointing with her spoon. "On the sands. Round the curve to where the pink hills begin."
"Mr. Dellogg's death," said Mr. Twist, deciding it was necessary at once to wake them up out of the kind of happy somnolescence they seemed to be falling into, "has of course completely changed—"
"How unfortunate," interrupted Anna-Rose, her eyes on the palms and the sea and the exquisite distant mountains along the back of the bay, "to have to be dead on a day like this.""It's not only his missing the fine weather that makes it unfortunate," said Mr. Twist. "You mean," said Anna-Rose, "it's our missing him." "Precisely," said Mr. Twist.
"Well, we know that," said Anna-Felicitas placidly. "We knew it last night, and it worried us," said Anna-Rose. "Then we went to sleep and it didn't worry us. And this morning it still doesn't.""No," said Mr. Twist dryly. "You don't look particularly worried, I must say." "No," said Anna-Felicitas, "we're not. People who find they've got to heaven aren't usually worried, are they." "And having got to heaven," said Anna-Rose, "we've thought of a plan to enable us to stay in it." "Oh have you," said Mr. Twist, pricking up his ears. "The plan seemed to think of us rather than we of it," explained Anna-Felicitas. "It came and inserted itself, as it were, into our minds while we were dressing." "Well, I've thought of a plan too," said Mr. Twist firmly, feeling sure that the twins' plan would be the sort that ought to be instantly nipped in the bud. He was therefore greatly astonished when Anna-Rose said, "Have you? Is it about schools?" He stared at her in silence. "Yes," he then said slowly, for he was very much surprised. "It is." "So is ours," said Anna-Rose. "Indeed," said Mr. Twist. "Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "We don't think much of it, but it will tide us over." "Exactly," said Mr. Twist, still more astonished at this perfect harmony of ideas. "Tide us over till Mrs. Dellogg is—-" began Anna-Rose in her clear little voice that carried like a flute to all the tables round them.
Mr. Twist got up quickly. "If you've finished let us go out of doors," he said; for he perceived that silence had fallen on the other tables, and attentiveness to what AnnaRose was going to say next."Yes. On the sands," said the twins, getting up too.
On the sands, however, Mr. Twist soon discovered that the harmony of ideas was not as complete as he had supposed; indeed, something very like heated argument began almost as soon as they were seated on some rocks round the corner of the shore to the west of the hotel and they became aware, through conversation, of the vital difference in the two plans.
The Twinkler plan, which they expounded at much length and with a profusion of optimistic detail, was to search for and find a school in the neighbourhood for the daughters of gentlemen, and go to it for three months, or six months, or whatever time Mrs. Dellogg wanted to recover in.
Up to this point the harmony was complete, and Mr. Twist could only nod approval. Beyond it all was confusion, for it appeared that the twins didn't dream of entering a school in any capacity except as teachers. Professors, they said; professors of languages and literatures. They could speak German, as they pointed out, very much better than most people, and had, as Mr. Twist had sometimes himself remarked, an extensive vocabulary in English. They would give lessons in English and German literature. They would be able to teach quite a lot about Heine, for instance, the whole of whose poetry they knew by heart and whose sad life in Paris—"It's no good running on like that," interrupted Mr. Twist. "You're not old enough." Not old enough? The Twinklers, from their separate rocks, looked at each other in surprised indignation.
"Not old enough?" repeated Anna-Rose. "We're grown up. And I don't see how one can be more than grown up. One either is or isn't grown up. And there can be no doubt as to which we are."And this the very man who so respectfully had been holding their chairs for them only a few minutes before! As if people did things like that for children.
"You're not old enough I say," said Mr. Twist again, bringing his hand down with a slap on the rock to emphasize his words. "Nobody would take you. Why, you've got perambulator faces, the pair of you—""Perambulator—?" "And what school is going to want two teachers both teaching the same thing, anyway?" And he then quickly got out his plan, and the conversation became so heated that for a time it was molten.
The Twinklers were shocked by his plan. More; they were outraged. Go to school? To a place they had never been to even in their suitable years? They, two independent grown-ups with £200 in the bank and nobody with any right to stop their doing anything they wanted to? Go to school now, like a couple of little suck-a-thumbs? It was Anna-Rose, very flushed and bright of eye, who flung this expression at Mr. Twist from her rock. He might think they had perambulator faces if he liked—they didn't care, but they did desire him to bear in mind that if it hadn't been for the war they would be now taking their proper place in society, that they had already done a course of nursing in a hospital, an activity not open to any but adults, and that Uncle Arthur had certainly not given them all that money to fritter away on paying for belated schooling."We would be anachronisms," said Anna-Felicitas, winding up the discussion with a firmness so unusual in her that it showed how completely she had been stirred. "Are you aware that we are marriageable?" inquired Anna-Rose icily. "And don't you think it's bad enough for us to be aliens and undesirables," asked AnnaFelicitas, "without getting chronologically confused as well?"
Mr. Twist was quiet for a bit. He couldn't compete with the Twinklers when it came to sheer language. He sat hunched on his rock, his face supported by his two fists, staring out to sea while the twins watched him indignantly. School indeed! Then presently he pushed his hat back and began slowly to rub his ear."Well, I'm blest if I know what to do with you, then," he said, continuing to rub his ear and stare out to sea.
The twins opened their mouths simultaneously at this to protest against any necessity for such knowledge on his part, but he interrupted them. "If you don't mind," he said, "I'd like to resume this discussion when you're both a little more composed.""We're perfectly composed," said Anna-Felicitas. "Less ruffled, then." "We're quite unruffled," said Anna-Rose.
"Well, you don't look it, and you don't sound like it. But as this is important I'd be glad to resume the discussion, say, to-morrow. I suggest we spend to-day exploring the neighbourhood and steadying our minds—""Our minds are perfectly steady, thank you."
"—and to-morrow we'll have another go at this question. I haven't told you all my plan yet"—Mr. Twist hadn't had time to inform them of his wish to become their guardian, owing to the swiftness with which he had been engulfed in their indignation,—"but whether you approve of it or not, what is quite certain is that we can't stay on at the hotel much longer."
"Because it's so dear?" "Oh, it isn't so much that,—the proprietor is a friend of mine, or anyhow he very well might be—"
"It looks very dear," said Anna-Rose, visions of their splendid bedroom and bathroom rising before her. They too had slept in silken beds, and the taps in their bathroom they had judged to be pure gold.
"And it's because we can't afford to be in a dear place spending money," said AnnaFelicitas, "that it's so important we should find a salaried position in a school without loss of time.""And it's because we can't afford reckless squandering that we ought to start looking for such a situation at once" said Anna-Rose.
"Not to-day," said Mr. Twist firmly, for he wouldn't give up the hope of getting them, once they were used to it, to come round to his plan. "To-day, this one day, we'll give ourselves up to enjoyment. It'll do us all good. Besides, we don't often get to a place like this, do we. And it has taken some getting to, hasn't it."He rose from his rock and offered his hand to help them off theirs. "To-day enjoyment," he said, "to-morrow business. I'm crazy," he added artfully, "to see what the country is like away up in those hills."
And so it was that about five o'clock that afternoon, having spent the whole day exploring the charming environs of Acapulco,—having been seen at different periods going over the Old Mission in tow of a monk who wouldn't look at them but kept his eyes carefully fixed on the ground, sitting on high stools eating strange and enchanting ices at the shop in the town that has the best ices, bathing deliciously in the warm sea at the foot of a cliff along the top of which a great hedge of rose-coloured geraniums flared against the sky, lunching under a grove of ilexes on the contents of a basket produced by Mr. Twist from somewhere in the car he had hired, wandering afterwards up through eucalyptus woods across the fields towards the foot of the mountains,—they came about five o'clock, thirsty and thinking of tea, to a delightful group of flowery cottages clustering round a restaurant and forming collectively, as Mr. Twist explained, one of the many American forms of hotel. "To which," he said, "people not living in the cottages can come and have meals at the restaurant, so we'll go right in and have tea."
And it was just because they couldn't get tea—any other meal, the proprietress said, but no teas were served, owing to the Domestic Help Eight Hours Bill which obliged her to do without domestics during the afternoon hours—that Anna-Felicitas came by her great idea.
CHAPTER XXIBut she didn't come by it at once.
They got into the car first, which was waiting for them in the scented road at the bottom of the field they had walked across, and they got into it in silence and were driven back to their hotel for tea, and her brain was still unvisited by inspiration.
They were all tired and thirsty, and were disappointed at being thwarted in their desire to sit at a little green table under whispering trees and rest, and drink tea, and had no sort of wish to have it at the Cosmopolitan. But both Mr. Twist, who had been corrupted by Europe, and the twins, who had the habits of their mother, couldn't imagine doing without it in the afternoon, and they would have it in the hotel sooner than not have it at all. It was brought to them after a long time of waiting. Nobody else was having any at that hour, and the waiter, when at last one was found, had difficulty apparently in believing that they were serious. When at last he did bring it, it was toast and marmalade and table-napkins, for all the world as though it had been breakfast.
Then it was that, contemplating this with discomfort and distaste, as well as the place they were sitting in and its rocking-chairs and marble and rugs, Anna-Felicitas was suddenly smitten by her idea.
It fell upon her like a blow. It struck her fairly, as it were, between the eyes. She wasn't used to ideas, and she stopped dead in the middle of a piece of toast and looked at the others. They stopped too in their eating and looked at her."What's the matter?" asked Anna-Rose. "Has another button come off?" At this Mr. Twist considered it wisest to turn his head away, for experience had taught him that Anna-Felicitas easily came undone. "I've thought of something," said Anna-Felicitas. Mr. Twist turned his head back again. "You don't say," he said, mildly sarcastic. "Ich gratuliere," said Anna-Rose, also mildly sarcastic.
"I've got an idea," said Anna-Felicitas. "But it's so luminous," she said, looking from one to the other in a kind of surprise. "Of course. That's what we'll do. Ridiculous to waste time bothering about schools."
There was a new expression on her face that silenced the comments rising to AnnaRose's and Mr. Twist's tongues, both of whom had tired feet and were therefore disposed to sarcasm.
Anna-Felicitas looked at them, and they looked at her, and her face continued to become visibly more and more illuminated, just as if a curtain were being pulled up. Animation and interest shone in her usually dreamy eyes. Her drooping body sat up quite straight. She reminded Anna-Rose, who had a biblically well-furnished mind, of Moses when he came down from receiving the Law on the mountain.
Anna-Felicitas dropped the piece of toast she was still holding in her fingers, and pushed back her cup. "Come out on to the rocks," she said getting up—"where we sat this morning." And she marched out, followed by the other two with the odd submissiveness people show towards any one who is thoroughly determined.
It was dark and dinner-time before they got back to the hotel. Throughout the sunset Anna-Felicitas sat on her rock, the same rock she had sat on so unsatisfactorily eight hours earlier, and expounded her idea. She couldn't talk fast enough. She, so slow and listless, for once was shaken into burning activity. She threw off her hat directly she got on to the sands, climbed up the rock as if it were a pulpit, and with her hands clasped round her knees poured out her plan, the long shafts of the setting sun bathing her in bright flames and making her more like Moses than ever,—if, that is, one could imagine Moses as beautiful as Anna-F., thought Anna-Rose, and as felicitously without his nose and beard.
It was wonderful how complete Anna-Felicitas's inspiration was. It reminded Mr. Twist of his own about the teapot. It was, of course, a far more complicated matter than that little device of his, and would have to be thought out very carefully and approached very judiciously, but the wealth of detail she was already ready with immensely impressed him. She even had a name for the thing; and it was when he heard this name, when it flashed into her talk with the unpremeditatedness of an inspiration, that Mr. Twist became definitely enthusiastic.
He had an American eye for advertisement. Respect for it was in his blood. He instantly saw the possibilities contained in the name. He saw what could be done with it, properly worked. He saw it on hoarding-on signposts, in a thousand contrivances for catching the public attention and sticking there.
The idea, of course, was fantastic, unconventional, definitely outside what his mother and that man Uncle Arthur would consider proper, but it was outside the standards of such people that life and fruitfulness and interest and joy began. He had escaped from the death-like grip of his mother, and Uncle Arthur had himself forcibly expulsed the Annas from his, and now that they were all so far away, instead of still timorously trying to go on living up to those distant sterile ideas why shouldn't they boldly go out into the light and colour that was waiting everywhere for the free of spirit?
Mr. Twist had often observed how perplexingly much there is to be said for the opposite sides of a question. He was now, but with no perplexity, for Anna-Felicitas had roused his enthusiasm, himself taking the very opposite view as to the proper thing for the twins to do from the one he had taken in the night and on the rocks that morning. School? Nonsense. Absurd to bury these bright shoots of everlastingness—this is what they looked like to him, afire with enthusiasm and the setting sun—in such a place of ink. If the plan, owing to the extreme youth of the Annas, were unconventional, conventionality could be secured by giving a big enough salary to a middle-aged lady to come and preside. He himself would hover beneficently in the background over the undertaking.
Anna-Felicitas's idea was to use Uncle Arthur's £200 in renting one of the little wooden cottages that seemed to be plentiful, preferably one about five miles out in the country, make it look inside like an English cottage, all pewter and chintz and valances, make it look outside like the more innocent type of German wayside inn, with green tables and spreading trees, get a cook who would concentrate on cakes, real lovely ones, various, poetic, wonderful cakes, and start an inn for tea alone that should become the fashion. It ought to be so arranged that it became the fashion. She and Anna-Rose would do the waiting. The prices would be very high, indeed exorbitant—this Mr. Twist regarded as another inspiration,—so that it should be a distinction, give people a cachet, to have had tea at their cottage; and in a prominent position in the road in front of it, where every motor-car would be bound to see it, there would be a real wayside inn signboard, such as inns in England always have, with its name on it.
"If people here were really neutral you might have the Imperial arms of Germany and England emblazoned on it," interrupted Mr. Twist, "just to show your own extreme and peculiar neutrality.""We might call it The Christopher and Columbus," interrupted Anna-Rose, who had been sitting open-mouthed hanging on Anna-Felicitas's words. "Or you might call it The Cup and Saucer," said Mr. Twist, "and have a big cup brimming with tea and cream painted on it—" "No," said Anna-Felicitas. "It is The Open Arms. That is its name." And Mr. Twist, inclined to smile and criticise up to this, bowed his head in instantaneous recognition and acceptance.
He became definitely enthusiastic. Of course he would see to it that not a shadow of ambiguousness was allowed to rest on such a name. The whole thing as he saw it, his mind working rapidly while Anna-Felicitas still talked, would be a happy joke, a joyous, gay little assault on the purses of millionaires, in whom the district abounded judging from the beautiful houses and gardens he had passed that day,—but a joke and a gay assault that would at the same time employ and support the Annas; solve them, in fact, saw Mr. Twist, who all day long had been regarding them much as one does a difficult mathematical problem.
It was Mr. Twist who added the final inspiration to Anna-Felicitas's many, when at last she paused for want of breath. The inn, he said, should be run as a war philanthropy. All that was over after the expenses were paid and a proper percentage reserved by the Annas as interest on their invested capital—they listened with eager respect to these business-like expressions—would be handed over to the American Red Cross. "That," explained Mr. Twist, "would seal the inn as both respectable and fashionable, which is exactly what we would want to make it."
They didn't go back to the Cosmopolitan till dinnertime, there was so much to say, and after dinner, a meal at which Mr. Twist had to suppress them a good deal because The Open Arms kept on bursting through into their talk and, as at breakfast, the people at the tables round them were obviously trying to hear, they went out once again on to the sea-front and walked up and down till late continuing the discussion, mostly simultaneously as regards the twins, while Mr. Twist chimed in with practical suggestions whenever they stopped to take breath.
He had to drive them indoors to bed at last, for the lights were going out one by one in the Cosmopolitan bedroom windows, where the virtuous rich, exhausted by their day of virtue, were subsiding, prostrate with boredom and respectability, into their various legitimate lairs, and he stayed alone out by the sea rapidly sketching out his activities for the next day.
There was the guardianship to be arranged, the cottage to be found, and the middleaged lady to be advertised for. She, indeed, must be secured at once; got to come at once to the Cosmopolitan and preside over the twins until they all proceeded in due season to The Open Arms. She must be a motherly middle-aged lady, decided Mr. Twist, affectionate, skilled in managing a cook, business-like, intellectual, and obedient. Her feminine tact would enable her to appear to preside while she was in reality obeying. She must understand that she was there for the Annas, and that the Annas were not there for her. She must approach the situation in the spirit of the enlightened king of a democratic country, who receives its honours, accepts its respect, but does not lose sight of the fact that he is merely the Chief Servant of the people. Mr. Twist didn't want a female Uncle Arthur let loose upon those blessed little girls; besides, they would have the dangerous weapon in their hands of being able to give her notice, and it would considerably dim the reputation of The Open Arms if there were a too frequent departure from it of middle-aged ladies.
Mr. Twist felt himself very responsible and full of anxieties as he paced up and down alone, but he was really enjoying himself. That youthful side of him, so usual in the artistic temperament, which leaped about at the least pleasant provocation like a happy lamb when the sunshine tickles it, was feeling that this was great fun; and the business side of him was feeling that it was not only great fun but probably an extraordinarily productive piece of money-making.
The ignorant Annas—bless their little hearts, he thought, he who only the night before on that very spot had been calling them accursed—believed that their £200 was easily going to do everything. This was lucky, for otherwise there would have been some thorny paths of argument and convincing to be got through before they would have allowed him to help finance the undertaking; probably they never would have, in their scrupulous independence. Mr. Twist reflected with satisfaction on the usefulness of his teapot. At last he was going to be able to do something, thanks to it, that gave him real gladness. His ambulance to France—that was duty. His lavishness to his mother—that again was duty. But here was delight, here at last was what his lonely heart had always longed for,—a chance to help and make happy, and be with and watch being made happy, dear women-things, dear soft sweet kind women-things, dear sister-things, dear children-things....
The very next morning they set out house-hunting, and two days later they had found what they wanted. Not exactly what they wanted of course, for the reason, as AnnaFelicitas explained that nothing ever is exactly, but full of possibilities to the eye of imagination, and there were six of this sort of eye gazing at the little house.
It stood at right angles to a road much used by motorists because of its beauty, and hidden from it by trees on the top of a slope of green fields scattered over with live oaks that gently descended down towards the sea. Its back windows, and those parts of it that a house is ashamed of, were close up to a thick grove of eucalyptus which continued to the foot of the mountains. It had an overrun little garden in front, separated from the fields by a riotous hedge of sweetbriar. It had a few orange, and lemon, and peach trees on its west side, the survivors of what had once been intended for an orchard, and a line of pepper trees on the other, between it and the road. Neglected roses and a huge wistaria clambered over its dilapidated face. Somebody had once planted syringas, and snowballs, and lilacs along the inside of the line of pepper trees, and they had grown extravagantly and were an impenetrable screen, even without the sweeping pepper trees from the road.
It hadn't been lived in for years, and it was well on in decay, being made of wood, but the situation was perfect for The Open Arms. Every motorist coming up that road would see the signboard outside the pepper trees, and would certainly want to stop at the neat little gate, and pass through the flowery tunnel that would be cut through the syringas, and see what was inside. Other houses were offered of a far higher class, for this one had never been lived in by gentry, said the house-agent endeavouring to put them off a thing so broken down. A farmer had had it years back, he told them, and instead of confining himself to drinking the milk from his own cows, which was the only appropriate drink for a farmer the agent maintained—he was the president of the local Anti-Vice-InAll-Its-Forms League—he put his money as he earned it into gin, and the gin into himself, and so after a bit was done for.
The other houses the agent pressed on them were superior in every way except situation; but situation being the first consideration, Mr. Twist agreed with the twins, who had fallen in love with the neglected little house whose shabbiness was being so industriously hidden by roses, that this was the place, and a week later it and its garden had been bought—Mr. Twist didn't tell the twins he had bought it, in order to avoid argument, but it was manifestly the simple thing to do—and over and round and through it swarmed workmen all day long, like so many diligent and determined ants. Also, before the week was out, the middle-aged lady had been found and engaged, and a cook of gifts in the matter of cakes. This is the way you do things in America. You decide what it is that you really want, and you start right away and get it. "And everything so cheap too!" exclaimed the twins gleefully, whose £200 was behaving, it appeared, very like the widow's cruse.
This belief, however, received a blow when they went without Mr. Twist, who was too busy now for any extra expeditions, to choose and buy chintzes, and it was finally shattered when the various middle-aged ladies who responded to Mr. Twist's cry for help in the advertising columns of the Acapulco and Los Angeles press one and all demanded as salary more than the whole Twinkler capital.
Mr. Twist, whose brow too had been puckered in the effort to think out a way of persuading the twins to let him help them openly with his money, for in spite of his going to be their guardian they remained difficult on this point, jumped at the idea. He couldn't, of course, tell what in Anna-Rose's mind the word co-operative stood for, but felt confident that whatever it stood for he could manipulate it into covering his difficulties.
"What is co-operative?" asked Anna-Felicitas, with a new respect for a sister who could suddenly produce a business word like that and seem to know all about it. She had heard the word herself, but it sat very loosely in her head, at no point touching anything else."Haven't you heard of Co-operative Stores?" inquired Anna-Rose. "Yes but—" "Well, then." "Yes, but what would a co-operative inn be?" persisted Anna-Felicitas. "One run on co-operative lines, of course," said Anna-Rose grandly. "Everybody pays for everything, so that nobody particular pays for anything." "Oh," said Anna-Felicitas. "I mean," said Anna-Rose, who felt herself that this might be clearer, "it's when you pay the servants and the rent and the cakes and things out of what you get." "Oh," said Anna-Felicitas. "And will they wait quite quietly till we've got it?" "Of course, if we're all co-operative."
"I see," said Anna-Felicitas, who saw as little as before, but knew of old that Anna-Rose grew irascible when pressed.
"See here now," said Mr. Twist weightily, "if that isn't an idea. Only you've got hold of the wrong word. The word you want is profit-sharing. And as this undertaking is going to be a big success there will be big profits, and any amount of cakes and salaries will be paid for as glibly and easily as you can say your ABC."
And he explained that till they were fairly started he was going to stay in California, and that he intended during this time to be book-keeper, secretary, and treasurer to The Open Arms, besides Advertiser-in-Chief, which was, he said, the most important post of all; and if they would be so good as to leave this side of it unquestioningly to him, who had had a business training, he would undertake that the Red Cross, American or British, whichever they decided to support, should profit handsomely.
Thus did Mr. Twist artfully obtain a free hand as financial backer of The Open Arms. The profit-sharing system seemed to the twins admirable. It cleared away every scruple and every difficulty, they now bought chintzes and pewter pots in the faith of it without a qualm, and even ceased to blench at the salary of the lady engaged to be their background,—indeed her very expensiveness pleased them, for it gave them confidence that she must at such a price be the right one, because nobody, they agreed, who knew herself not to be the right one would have the face to demand so much.
This lady, the widow of Bruce D. Bilton of Chicago of whom of course, she said, the Miss Twinklers had heard—the Miss Twinklers blushed and felt ashamed of themselves because they hadn't, and indistinctly murmured something about having heard of Cornelius K. Vanderbilt, though, and wouldn't he do—had a great deal of very beautiful snow-white hair, while at the same time she was only middle-aged. She firmly announced, when she perceived Mr. Twist's spectacles dwelling on her hair, that she wasn't yet forty, and her one fear was that she mightn't be middle-aged enough. The advertisement had particularly mentioned middle-aged; and though she was aware that her brains and fingers and feet couldn't possibly be described as coming under that heading, she said her hair, on the other hand, might well be regarded as having overshot the mark. But its turning white had nothing to do with age. It had done that when Mr. Bilton passed over. No hair could have stood such grief as hers when Mr. Bilton took that final step. She had been considering the question of age, she informed Mr. Twist, from every aspect before coming to the interview, for she didn't want to make a mistake herself nor allow the Miss Twinklers to make a mistake; and she had arrived at the conclusion that what with her hair being too old and the rest of her being too young, taken altogether she struck an absolute average and perfectly fulfilled the condition required; and as she wished to live in the country, town life disturbing her psychically too much, she was willing to give up her home and her circle—it was a real sacrifice—and accept the position offered by the Miss Twinklers. She was, she said, very quiet, and yet at the same time she was very active. She liked to fly round among duties, and she liked to retire into her own mentality and think. She was all for equilibrium, for the right balancing of body and mind in a proper alternation of suitable action. Thus she attained poise,—she was one of the most poised women her friends knew, they told her. Also she had a warm heart, and liked both philanthropy and orphans. Especially if they were war ones.
Mrs. Bilton talked so quickly and so profusely that it took quite a long time to engage her. There never seemed to be a pause in which one could do it. It was in Los Angeles, in an hotel to which Mr. Twist had motored the twins, starting at daybreak that morning in order to see this lady, that the personal interview took place, and by lunch-time they had been personally interviewing her for three hours without stopping. It seemed years. The twins longed to engage her, if only to keep her quiet; but Mrs. Bilton's spirited description of life as she saw it and of the way it affected something she called her psyche, was without punctuation and without even the tiny gap of a comma in it through which one might have dexterously slipped a definite offer. She had to be interrupted at last, in spite of the discomfort this gave to the Twinkler and Twist politeness, because a cook was coming to be interviewed directly after lunch, and they were dying for some food.
The moment Mr. Twist saw Mrs. Bilton's beautiful white hair he knew she was the one. That hair was what The Open Arms wanted and must have; that hair, with a well-made black dress to go with it, would be a shield through which no breath of misunderstanding as to the singleness of purpose with which the inn was run would ever penetrate. He would have settled it with her in five minutes if she could have been got to listen, but Mrs. Bilton couldn't be got to listen; and when it became clear that no amount of patient waiting would bring him any nearer the end of what she had to say Mr. Twist was forced to take off his coat, as it were, and plunge abruptly into the very middle of her flow of words and convey to her as quickly as possible, as one swimming for his life against the stream, that she was engaged. "Engaged, Mrs. Bilton,"—he called out, raising his voice above the sound of Mrs. Bilton's rushing words, "engaged." She would be expected at the Cosmopolitan, swiftly continued Mr. Twist, who was as particularly anxious to have her at the Cosmopolitan as the twins were particularly anxious not to,—for for the life of them they couldn't see why Mrs. Bilton should be stirred up before they started inhabiting the cottage,—within three days—"Mr. Twist, it can't be done," broke in Mrs. Bilton a fresh and mountainous wave of speech gathering above Mr. Twist's head. "It absolutely—"
"Within a week, then," he called out quickly, holding up the breaking of the wave for an instant while he hastened to and opened the door. "And goodmorning Mrs. Bilton—my apologies, my sincere apologies, but we have to hurry away—"
The cook was engaged that afternoon. Mr. Twist appeared to have mixed up the answers to his advertisement, for when, after paying the luncheon-bill, he went to join the twins in the sitting-room, he found them waiting for him in the passage outside the door looking excited."The cook's come," whispered Anna-Rose, jerking her head towards the shut door. "She's a man." "She's a Chinaman," whispered Anna-Felicitas.
Mr. Twist was surprised. He thought he had an appointment with a woman,—a coloured lady from South Carolina who was a specialist in pastries and had immaculate references, but the Chinaman assured him that he hadn't, and that his appointment was with him alone, with him, Li Koo. In proof of it, he said, spreading out his hands, here he was. "We make cakies—li'l cakies—many, lovely li'l cakies," said Li Koo, observing doubt on the gentleman's face; and from somewhere on his person he whipped out a paper bag of them as a conjurer whips a rabbit out of a hat, and offered them to the twins.They ate. He was engaged. It took five minutes.
After he had gone, and punctually to the minute of her appointment, an over-flowing Negress appeared and announced that she was the coloured lady from South Carolina to whom the gentleman had written.
Mr. Twist uncomfortably felt that Li Koo had somehow been clever. Impossible, however, to go back on him, having eaten his cakes. Besides, they were perfect cakes, blown together apparently out of flowers and honey and cream,—cakes which, combined with Mrs. Bilton's hair, would make the fortune of The Open Arms.
The coloured lady, therefore, was sent away, disappointed in spite of the douceur and fair words Mr. Twist gave her; and she was so much disappointed that they could hear her being it out loud all the way along the passage and down the stairs, and the nature of her expression of her disappointment was such that Mr. Twist, as he tried by animated conversation to prevent it reaching the twins' ears, could only be thankful after all that Li Koo had been so clever. It did, however, reach the twins' ears, but they didn't turn a hair because of Uncle Arthur. They merely expressed surprise at its redness, seeing that it came out of somebody so black.
Directly after this trip to Los Angeles advertisements began to creep over the countryside. They crept along the roads where motorists were frequent and peeped at passing cars round corners and over hedges. They were taciturn advertisements, and just said three words in big, straight, plain white letters on a sea-blue ground:THE OPEN ARMS
People passing in their cars saw them, and vaguely thought it must be the name of a book. They had better get it. Other people would have got it. It couldn't be a medicine nor anything to eat, and was probably a religious novel. Novels about feet or arms were usually religious. A few considered it sounded a little improper, and as though the book, far from being religious, would not be altogether nice; but only very proper people who distrusted everything, even arms took this view.After a week the same advertisements appeared with three lines added:
THE OPEN ARMS
WHY? WHERE? WHAT?
THE OPEN ARMS WILL OPEN
And while the countryside—an idle countryside, engaged almost wholly in holidaymaking and glad of any new distraction—began to be interested and asked questions, Mr. Twist was working day and night at getting the thing ready.
All day long he was in Acapulco or out at the cottage, urging, hurrying, criticizing, encouraging, praising and admonishing. His heart and soul and brain was in this, his business instincts and his soft domestic side. His brain, after working at top speed during the day with the architect, the painter and decorator, the furnisher, the garden expert, the plumbing expert, the electric-light expert, the lawyer, the estate agent, and numberless other persons, during the night meditated and evolved advertisements. There was to be a continual stream week by week after the inn was opened of ingenious advertisements. Altogether Mr. Twist had his hands full.
The inn was to look artless and simple and small, while actually being the last word in roomy and sophisticated comfort. It was to be as like an old English inn to look at as it could possibly be got to be going on his own and the twins' recollections and the sensationally coloured Elizabethan pictures in the architect's portfolio. It didn't disturb Mr. Twist's unprejudiced American mind that an English inn embowered in heliotrope and arum lilies and eucalyptus trees would be odd and unnatural, and it wouldn't disturb anybody else there either. Were not Swiss mountain chalets to be found in the fertile plains along the Pacific, complete with fir trees specially imported and uprooted in their maturity and brought down with tons of their own earth attached to their roots and replanted among carefully disposed, apparently Swiss rocks, so that what one day had been a place smiling with orange-groves was the next a bit of frowning northern landscape? And were there not Italian villas dotted about also? But these looked happier and more at home than the chalets. And there were buildings too, like small Gothic cathedrals, looking as uncomfortable and depressed as a woman who has come to a party in the wrong clothes. But no matter. Nobody minded. So that an English inn added to this company, with a little German beer-garden—only there wasn't to be any beer—wouldn't cause the least surprise or discomfort to anybody.
In the end, the sole resemblance the cottage had to an English inn was the signboard out in the road. With the best will in the world, and the liveliest financial encouragement from Mr. Twist, the architect couldn't in three weeks turn a wooden Californian cottage into an ancient red-brick Elizabethan pothouse. He got a thatched roof on to it by a miracle of hustle, but the wooden walls remained; he also found a real antique heavy oak front door studded with big rusty nailheads in a San Francisco curiosity shop, that would serve, he said, as a basis for any wished-for hark-back later on when there was more time to the old girl's epoch—thus did he refer to Great Eliza and her spacious days—and meanwhile it gave the building, he alleged, a considerable air; but as this door in that fine climate was hooked open all day long it didn't disturb the gay, the almost jocose appearance of the place when everything was finished.
Houses have their expressions, their distinctive faces, very much as people have, meditated Mr. Twist the morning of the opening, as he sat astride a green chair at the bottom of the little garden, where a hedge of sweetbriar beautifully separated the Twinkler domain from the rolling fields that lay between it and the Pacific, and stared at his handiwork; and the conclusion was forced upon him—reluctantly, for it was the last thing he had wanted The Open Arms to do—that the thing looked as if it were winking at him.
Positively, thought Mr. Twist, his hat on the back of his head, staring, that was what it seemed to be doing. How was that? He studied it profoundly, his head on one side. Was it that it was so very gay? He hadn't meant it to be gay like that. He had intended a restrained and disciplined simplicity, a Puritan unpretentiousness, with those sweet maidens, the Twinkler twins, flitting like modest doves in and out among its tea-tables; but one small thing had been added to another small thing at their suggestion, each small thing taken separately apparently not mattering at all and here it was almost—he hoped it was only his imagination—winking at him. It looked a familiar little house; jocular; very open indeed about the arms.
CHAPTER XXIIIVarious things had happened, however, before this morning of the great day was reached, and Mr. Twist had had some harassing experiences.
One of the first things he had done after the visit to Los Angeles was to take steps in the matter of the guardianship. He had written to Mrs. Bilton that he was the Miss Twinklers' guardian, though it was not at that moment true. It was clear, he thought, that it should be made true as quickly as possible, and he therefore sought out a lawyer in Acapulco the morning after the interview. This was not the same lawyer who did his estate business for him; Mr. Twist thought it best to have a separate one for more personal affairs.
On hearing Mr. Twist's name announced, the lawyer greeted him as an old friend. He knew, of course, all about the teapot, for the Non-Trickler was as frequent in American families as the Bible and much more regularly used; but he also knew about the cottage at the foot of the hills, what it had cost—which was little—and what it would cost—which was enormous—before it was fit to live in. The only thing he didn't know was that it was to be used for anything except an ordinary pied-à-terre. He had heard, too, of the presence at the Cosmopolitan of the twins, and on this point, like the rest of Acapulco, was a little curious.
The social column of the Acapulco daily paper hadn't been able to give any accurate description of the relationship of the Twinklers to Mr. Twist. Its paragraph announcing his arrival had been obliged merely to say, while awaiting more detailed information, that Mr. Edward A. Twist, the well-known Breakfast Table Benefactor and gifted inventor of the famous Non-Trickler Teapot, had arrived from New York and was staying at the Cosmopolitan Hotel with entourage; and the day after this the lawyer, who got about a bit, as everybody else did in that encouraging climate, happening to look in at the Cosmopolitan to have a talk with a friend, had seen the entourage.
It was in the act of passing through the hall on its way upstairs, followed by a boy carrying a canary in a cage. Even without the boy and the canary it was a conspicuous object. The lawyer asked his friend who the cute little girls were, and was interested to hear he was beholding Mr. Edward A. Twist's entourage. His friend told him that opinion in the hotel was divided about the precise nature of this entourage and its relationship to Mr. Twist, but it finally came to be generally supposed that the Miss Twinklers had been placed in his charge by parents living far away in order that he might safely see them put to one of the young ladies' finishing schools in that agreeable district. The house Mr. Twist was taking was not connected in the Cosmopolitan mind with the Twinklers. Houses were always being taken in that paradise by wealthy persons from unkinder climates. He would live in it three months in the year, thought the Cosmopolitan, bring his mother, and keep in this way an occasional eye on his charges. The hotel guests regarded the Twinklers at this stage with nothing but benevolence and goodwill, for they had up to then only been seen and not heard; and as one of their leading characteristics was a desire to explain, especially if anybody looked a little surprised, which everybody usually did quite early in conversation with them, this was at that moment, the delicate moment before Mrs. Bilton's arrival, fortunate.
The lawyer, then, who appreciated the young and pretty as much as other honest men, began the interview with Mr. Twist by warmly congratulating him, when he heard what he had come for, on his taste in wards.
Mr. Twist received this a little coldly, and said it was not a matter of taste but of necessity. The Miss Twinklers were orphans, and he had been asked—he cleared his throat—asked by their relatives, by, in fact, their uncle in England, to take over their guardianship and see that they came to no harm.The lawyer nodded intelligently, and said that if a man had wards at all they might as well be cute wards. Mr. Twist didn't like this either, and said briefly that he had had no choice. The lawyer said, "Quite so. Quite so," and continued to look at him intelligently.
Mr. Twist then explained that he had come to him rather than, as might have been more natural, to the solicitor who had arranged the purchase of the cottage because this was a private and personal matter—"Quite so. Quite so," interrupted the lawyer, with really almost too much intelligence.
Mr. Twist felt the excess of it, and tried to look dignified, but the lawyer was bent on being friendly and frank. Friendliness was natural to him when visited for the first time by a new client, and that there should be frankness between lawyers and clients he considered essential. If, he held, the client wouldn't be frank, then the lawyer must be; and he must go on being so till the client came out of his reserve.
Mr. Twist, however, was so obstinate in his reserve that the lawyer cheerfully and unhesitatingly jumped to the conclusion that the entourage must have some very weak spots about it somewhere.
"There's another way out of it of course, Mr. Twist," he said, when he had done rapidly describing the different steps to be taken. There were not many steps. The process of turning oneself into a guardian was surprisingly simple and swift."Out of it?" said Mr. Twist, his spectacles looking very big and astonished. "Out of what?" "Out of your little difficulty. I wonder it hasn't occurred to you. Upon my word now, I do wonder." "But I'm not in any little diff—" began Mr. Twist. "The elder of these two girls, now—" "There isn't an elder," said Mr. Twist. "Come, come," said the lawyer patiently, waiting for him to be sensible. "There isn't an elder," repeated Mr. Twist, "They're twins."
"Twins, are they? Well I must say we manage to match up our twins better than that over here. But come now—hasn't it occurred to you you might marry one of them, and so become quite naturally related to them both?"Mr. Twist's spectacles seemed to grow gigantic. "Marry one of them?" he repeated, his mouth helplessly opening. "Yep," said the lawyer, giving him a lead in free-and-easiness.
"Look here," said Mr. Twist suddenly gathering his mouth together, "cut that line of joke out. I'm here on serious business. I haven't come to be facetious. Least of all about those children—"
"Quite so, quite so," interrupted the lawyer pleasantly. "Children, you call them. How old are they? Seventeen? My wife was sixteen when we married. Oh quite so, quite so. Certainly. By all means. Well then, they're to be your wards. And you don't want it known how recently they've become your wards—""I didn't say that," said Mr. Twist.
"Quite so, quite so. But it's your wish, isn't it. The relationship is to look as grass-grown as possible. Well, I shall be dumb of course, but most things get into the press here. Let me see—" He pulled a sheet of paper towards him and took up his fountain pen. "Just oblige me with particulars. Date of birth. Place of birth. Parentage—"He looked up ready to write, waiting for the answers. None came. "I can't tell you off hand," said Mr. Twist presently, his forehead puckered.
"Ah," said the lawyer, laying down his pen. "Quite so. Not known your young friends long enough yet."
"I've known them quite long enough," said Mr. Twist stiffly, "but we happen to have found more alive topics of conversation than dates and parents."
Mr. Twist looked at him very straight. Vividly he remembered his mother's peculiar horror when he told her the girls he was throwing away his home life for and breaking her heart over were Germans. It had acted upon her like the last straw. And since then he had felt everywhere, with every one he talked to, in every newspaper he read, the same strong hostility to Germans, so much stronger than when he left America the year before.
Mr. Twist began to perceive that he had been impetuous in this matter of the guardianship. He hadn't considered it enough. He suddenly saw innumerable difficulties for the twins and for The Open Arms if it was known it was run by Germans. Better abandon the guardianship idea than that such difficulties should arise. He hadn't thought; he hadn't had time properly to think; he had been so hustled and busy the last few days...."They come from England," he said, looking at the lawyer very straight. "Ah," said the lawyer.
Mr. Twist wasn't going to lie about the twins, but merely, by evading, he hoped to put off the day when their nationality would be known. Perhaps it never would be known; or if known, known later on when everybody, as everybody must who knew them, loved them for themselves and accordingly wouldn't care.
"Quite so," said the lawyer again, nodding. "I asked because I overheard them talking the other day as they passed through the hall of your hotel. They were talking about a canary. The r in the word seemed a little rough. Not quite English, Mr. Twist? Not quite American?""Not quite," agreed Mr. Twist. "They've been a good deal abroad." "Quite so. At school, no doubt." He was silent a moment, intelligently balancing his pen on his forefinger.
"Then these particulars," he went on, looking up at Mr. Twist,—"could you let me have them soon? I tell you what. You're in a hurry to fix this. I'll call round to-night at the hotel, and get them direct from your young friends. Save time. And make me acquainted with a pair of charming girls."
"No," said Mr. Twist. He got on to his feet and held out his hand. "Not to-night. We're engaged to-night. To-morrow will be soon enough. I'll send round. I'll let you know. I believe I'm going to think it over a bit. There isn't any such terrible hurry, anyhow.""There isn't? I understood—" "I mean, a day or two more or less don't figure out at much in the long run."
"Quite so, quite so," said the lawyer, getting up too. "Well, I'm always at your service, at any time." And he shook hands heartily with Mr. Twist and politely opened the door for him.Then he went back to his writing-table more convinced than ever that there was something very weak somewhere about the entourage.
As for Mr. Twist, he perceived he had been a fool. Why had he gone to the lawyer at all? Why not simply have announced to the world that he was the Twinkler guardian? The twins themselves would have believed it if he had come in one day and said it was settled, and nobody outside would ever have dreamed of questioning it. After all, you couldn't see if a man was a guardian or not just by looking at him. Well, he would do no more about it, it was much too difficult. Bother it. Let Mrs. Bilton go on supposing he was the legal guardian of her charges. Anyway he had all the intentions of a guardian. What a fool he had been to go to the lawyer. Curse that lawyer. Now he knew, however distinctly and frequently he, Mr. Twist, might say he was the Twinkler guardian, that he wasn't.
It harassed Mr. Twist to perceive, as he did perceive with clearness, that he had been a fool; but the twins, when he told them that evening that owing to technical difficulties, with the details of which he wouldn't trouble them, the guardianship was off, were pleased."We want to be bound to you," said Anna-Felicitas her eyes very soft and her voice very gentle, "only by ties of affection and gratitude."
And Anna-Rose, turning red, opened her mouth as though she were going to say something handsome like that too, but seemed unable after all to get it out, and only said, rather inaudibly, "Yes."
CHAPTER XXIVYet another harassing experience awaited Mr. Twist before the end of that week.
It had been from the first his anxious concern that nothing should occur at the Cosmopolitan to get his party under a cloud; yet it did get under a cloud, and on the very last afternoon, too, before Mrs. Bilton's arrival. Only twenty-four hours more and her snowy-haired respectability would have spread over the twins like a white whig. They would have been safe. His party would have been unassailable. But no; those Twinklers, in spite of his exhortation whenever he had a minute left to exhort in, couldn't, it seemed, refrain from twinkling,—the word in Mr. Twist's mind covered the whole of their easy friendliness, their flow of language, their affable desire to explain.
He had kept them with him as much as he could, and luckily the excited interest they took in the progress of the inn made them happy to hang about it most of the time of the delicate and dangerous week before Mrs. Bilton came; but they too had things to do,— shopping in Acapulco choosing the sea-blue linen frocks and muslin caps and aprons in which they were to wait at tea, and buying the cushions and flower-pots and canary that came under the general heading, in Anna-Rose's speech, of feminine touches. So they sometimes left him; and he never saw them go without a qualm."Mind and not say anything to anybody about this, won't you," he would say hastily, making a comprehensive gesture towards the cottage as they went. "Of course we won't." "I meant, nobody is to know what it's really going to be. They're to think it's just a pied-àterre. It would most ruin my advertisement scheme if they—" "But of course we won't. Have we ever?" the twins would answer, looking very smug and sure of themselves. "No. Not yet. But—"
And the hustled man would plunge again into technicalities with whichever expert was at that moment with him, leaving the twins, as he needs must, to God and their own discretion.
Discretion, he already amply knew, was not a Twinkler characteristic. But the week passed, Mrs. Bilton's arrival grew near, and nothing had happened. It was plain to the watchful Mr. Twist, from the pleasant looks of the other guests when the twins went in and out of the restaurant to meals, that nothing had happened. His heart grew lighter. On the last afternoon, when Mrs. Bilton was actually due next day, his heart was quite light, and he saw them leave him to go back and rest at the hotel, because they were tired by the accumulated standing about of the week, altogether unconcernedly.
The attitude of the Cosmopolitan guests towards the twins was, indeed, one of complete benevolence. They didn't even mind the canary. Who would not be indulgent towards two such sweet little girls and their pet bird, even if it did sing all day and most of the night without stopping? The Twinkler girls were like two little bits of snapped-off sunlight, or bits of white blossom blowing in and out of the hotel in their shining youth and it was impossible not to regard them indulgently. But if the guests were indulgent, they were also inquisitive. Everybody knew who Mr. Twist was; who, however, were the Twinklers? Were they relations of his? Protégées? Charges?
The social column of the Acapulco daily paper, from which information as to new arrivals was usually got, had, as we know, in its embarrassment at being ignorant to take refuge in French, because French may so easily be supposed to mean something. The paper had little knowledge of, but much confidence in, French. Entourage had seemed to it as good a word as any other, as indeed did clientèle. It had hesitated between the two, but finally chose entourage because there happened to be no accent in its stock of type. The Cosmopolitan guests were amused at the word, and though inquisitive were altogether amiable; and, until the last afternoon, only the manager didn't like the Twinklers. He didn't like them because of the canary. His sympathies had been alienated from the Miss Twinklers the moment he heard through the chambermaid that they had tied the heavy canary cage on to the hanging electric light in their bedroom. He said nothing, of course. One doesn't say anything if one is an hotel manager, until the unique and final moment when one says everything.
On the last afternoon before Mrs. Bilton's advent the twins, tired of standing about for days at the cottage and in shops, appeared in the hall of the hotel and sat down to rest. They didn't go to their room to rest because they didn't feel inclined for the canary, and they sat down very happily in the comfortable rocking-chairs with which the big hall abounded, and, propping their dusty feet on the lower bar of a small table, with friendly and interested eyes they observed the other guests.The other guests also observed them.
It was the first time the entourage had appeared without its companion, and the other guests were dying to know details about it. It hadn't been sitting in the hall five minutes before a genial old gentleman caught Anna-Felicitas's friendly eye and instantly drew up his chair.
"Uncle gone off by himself to-day?" he asked; for he was of the party in the hotel which inclined, in spite of the marked difference in profiles, to the relationship theory, and he made a shot at the relationship being that of uncle."We haven't got an uncle nearer than England," said Anna-Felicitas affably. "And we only got him by accident," said Anna-Rose, equally affably. "It was an unfortunate accident," said Anna-Felicitas, considering her memories. "Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed. How was that?" "By the usual method, if an uncle isn't a blood uncle," said Anna-Rose. "We happened to have a marriageable aunt, and he married her. So we have to have him." "It was sheer bad luck," said Anna-Felicitas, again brooding on that distant image. "Yes," said Anna-Rose. "Just bad luck. He might so easily have married some one else's aunt. But no. His roving glance must needs go and fall on ours." "Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed." And he ruminated on this, with an affectionate eye—he was affectionate—resting in turn on each Anna. "Then Mr. Twist," he went on presently—"we all know him of course—a public benefactor—" "Yes, isn't he," said Anna-Rose radiantly. "A boon to the breakfast-table—" "Yes, isn't he," said Anna-Rose again, all asparkle. "He is so pleasant at breakfast." "Then he—Mr. Twist—Teapot Twist we call him where I live—" "Teapot Twist?" said Anna-Rose. "I think that's irreverent." "Not at all. It's a pet name. A sign of our affection and gratitude. Then he isn't your uncle?" "We haven't got a real uncle nearer than heaven," said Anna-Felicitas, her cheek on her hand, dreamily reconstructing the image of Onkel Col.
"Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed." And he ruminated, on this too, his thirsty heart—he had a thirsty heart, and found difficulty in slaking it because of his wife—very indulgent toward the twins.Then he said: "That's a long way off." "What is?" asked Anna-Rose.
"The place your uncle's in." "Not too far really," said Anna-Felicitas softly. "He's safe there. He was very old, and was difficult to look after. Why, he got there at last through his own carelessness.""Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Sheer carelessness," said Anna-Rose. "Indeed," said the old gentleman. "How was that?" "Well, you see where we lived they didn't have electric light," began Anna-Rose, "and one night—the the night he went to heaven—he put the petroleum lamp—"
And she was about to relate that dreadful story of Onkle Col's end which has already been described in these pages as unfit for anywhere but an appendix for time had blunted her feelings, when Anna-Felicitas put out a beseeching hand and stopped her. Even after all these years Anna-Felicitas couldn't bear to remember Onkle Col's end. It had haunted her childhood. It had licked about her dreams in leaping tongues of flame. And it wasn't only tongues of flame. There were circumstances connected with it.... Only quite recently, since the war had damped down lesser horrors, had she got rid of it. She could at least now talk of him calmly, and also speculate with pleasure on the probable aspect of Onkle Col in glory, but she still couldn't bear to hear the details of his end.
At this point an elderly lady of the spare and active type, very upright and much wrinkled, that America seems so freely to produce, came down the stairs; and seeing the twins talking to the old gentleman, crossed straight over and sat down briskly next to them smiling benevolently."Well, if Mr. Ridding can talk to you I guess so can I," she said, pulling her knitting out of a brocaded bag and nodding and smiling at the group. She was knitting socks for the Allied armies in France the next winter, but it being warm just then in California they were cotton socks because wool made her hands too hot. The twins were all polite, reciprocal smiles.
"I'm just crazy to hear about you," said the brisk lady, knitting with incredible energy, while her smiles flicked over everybody. "You're fresh from Europe, aren't you? What say? Quite fresh? My, aren't you cute little things. Thinking of making a long stay in the States? What say? For the rest of your lives? Why now, I call that just splendid. Parents coming out West soon too? What say? Prevented? Well, I guess they won't let themselves be prevented long. Mr. Twist looking after you meanwhile? What say? There isn't any meanwhile? Well, I don't quite—Mr. Twist your uncle, or cousin? What say? No relation at all? H'm, h'm. No relation at all, is he. Well, I guess he's an old friend of your parents, then. What say? They didn't know him? H'm, h'm. They didn't know him, didn't they. Well, I don't quite—What say? But you know him? Yes, yes, so I see. H'm, h'm. I don't quite—" Her needles flew in and out, and her ball of cotton rolled on to the floor in her surprise.Anna-Rose got up and fetched it for her before the old gentleman, who was gazing with thirsty appreciation at Anna-Felicitas, could struggle out of his chair. "You see," explained Anna-Felicitas, taking advantage of the silence that had fallen on the lady, "Mr. Twist, regarded as a man, is old, but regarded as a friend he is new." "Brand new," said Anna-Rose.
"H'm, h'm," said the lady, knitting faster than ever, and looking first at one twin and then at the other. "H'm, h'm, h'm. Brand new, is he. Well, I don't quite—" Her smiles had now to struggle with the uncertainty and doubt, and were weakening visibly.
"Say now, where did you meet Teapot Twist?" asked the old gentleman, who was surprised too, but remained quite benevolent owing to his affectionate heart and his not being a lady."We met Mr. Twist," said Anna-Rose, who objected to this way of alluding to him, "on the steamer."
"Not before? You didn't meet Mr. Twist before the steamer?" exclaimed the lady, the last of her smiles flickering out. "Not before the steamer, didn't you. Just a steamship acquaintance. Parents never seen him. H'm, h'm, h'm.""We would have met him before if we could," said Anna-Felicitas earnestly. "I should think so," said Anna-Rose. "It has been the great retrospective loss of our lives meeting him so late in them." "Why now," said the old gentleman smiling, "I shouldn't call it so particularly late in them."
But the knitting lady didn't smile at all, and sat up very straight and said "H'm, h'm, h'm" to her flashing needles as they flew in and out; for not only was she in doubt now about the cute little things, but she also regretted, on behalf of the old gentleman's wife who was a friend of hers, the alert interest of his manner. He sat there so very much awake. With his wife he never seemed awake at all. Up to now she had not seen him except with his wife."You mustn't run away with the idea that we're younger than we really are," Anna-Rose said to the old gentleman.
"Why no, I won't," he answered with a liveliness that deepened the knitting lady's regret on behalf of his wife. "When I run away you bet it won't be with an idea." And he chuckled. He was quite rosy in the face, and chuckled; he whom she knew only as a quiet man with no chuckle in him. And wasn't what he had just said very like what the French call a double entendre? She hadn't a husband herself, but if she had she would wish him to be at least as quiet when away from her as when with her, and at least as free from double entendres. At least. Really more. "H'm, h'm, h'm," she said, clicking her needles and looking first at the twins and then at the old gentleman."Do you mean to say you crossed the Atlantic quite alone, you two?" she asked, in order to prevent his continuing on these remarkable and unusual lines of badinage. "Quite," said Anna-Felicitas. "That is to say, we had Mr. Twist of course," said Anna-Rose. "Once we had got him," amended Anna-Felicitas. "Yes, yes," said the knitting lady, "so you say. H'm, h'm, h'm. Once you had got him. I don't quite—" "Well, I call you a pair of fine high-spirited girls," said the old gentleman heartily, interrupting in his turn, "and all I can say is I wish I had been on that boat."
"Here's Mrs. Ridding," said the knitting lady quickly, relief in her voice; whereupon he suddenly grew quiet. "My, Mrs. Ridding," she added when the lady drew within speaking distance, "you do look as though you needed a rest."
Mrs. Ridding, the wife of the old gentleman, Mr. Ridding, had been approaching slowly for some time from behind. She had been out on the verandah since lunch, trying to recover from it. That was the one drawback to meals, she considered, that they required so much recovering from; and the nicer they were the longer it took. The meals at the Cosmopolitan were particularly nice, and really all one's time was taken up getting over them.
She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals. The old gentleman had married her in her youth, when she hadn't had time to have had so many. He and she were then the same age, and unfortunately hadn't gone on being the same age since. It had wrecked his life this inability of his wife to stay as young and new as himself. He wanted a young wife, and the older he got in years—his heart very awkwardly retained its early freshness—the younger he wanted her; and, instead, the older he got the older his wife got too. Also the less new. The old gentleman felt the whole thing was a dreadful mistake. Why should he have to be married to this old lady? Never in his life had he wanted to marry old ladies; and he thought it very hard that at an age when he most appreciated bright youth he should be forced to spend his precious years, his crowning years when his mind had attained wisdom while his heart retained freshness, stranded with an old lady of costly habits and inordinate bulk just because years ago he had fallen in love with a chance pretty girl.
He struggled politely out of his chair on seeing her. The twins, impressed by such venerable abundance, got up too.
"Albert, if you try to move too quick you'll crick your back again," said Mrs. Ridding in a monotonous voice, letting herself down carefully and a little breathlessly on to the edge of a chair that didn't rock, and fanning herself with a small fan she carried on the end of a massive gold chain. Her fatigued eyes explored the twins while she spoke."I can't get Mr. Ridding to remember that we're neither of us as young as we were," she went on, addressing the knitting lady but with her eyes continuing to explore the twins.
They naturally thought she was speaking to them, and Anna-Felicitas said politely, "Really?" and Anna-Rose, feeling she too ought to make some comment, said, "Isn't that very unusual?"
Aunt Alice always said, "Isn't that very unusual?" when she didn't know what else to say, and it worked beautifully, because then the other person launched into affirmations or denials with the reasons for them, and was quite happy.But Mrs. Ridding only stared at the twins heavily and in silence. "Because," explained Anna-Rose, who thought the old lady didn't quite follow, "nobody ever is. So that it must be difficult not to remember it."
Mr. Ridding too was silent, but that was because of his wife. It was quite untrue to say that he forgot, seeing that she was constantly reminding him. "Old stranger," he thought resentfully, as he carefully arranged a cushion behind her back. He didn't like her back. Why should he have to pay bills for putting expensive clothes on it? He didn't want to. It was all a dreadful mistake."You're the Twinkler girls," said the old lady abruptly. They made polite gestures of agreement. The knitting lady knitted vigorously, sitting up very straight and saying nothing, with a look on her face of disclaiming every responsibility. "Where does your family come from?" was the next question.
This was unexpected. The twins had no desire to talk of Pomerania. They hadn't wanted to talk about Pomerania once since the war began; and they felt very distinctly in their bones that America, though she was a neutral, didn't like Germany any more than the belligerents did. It had been their intention to arrange together the line they would take if asked questions of this sort, but life had been so full and so exciting since their arrival that they had forgotten to.
Anna-Rose found herself unable to say anything at all. Anna-Felicitas, therefore, observing that Christopher was unnerved, plunged in.
"We are the sole surviving examples of the direct line of Twinklers," said Anna-Rose, now quite herself and ready to give Columbus a hand. "There's just us. And we—" she paused a moment, and then plunged—"we come from England.""Do you?" said the old lady. "Now I shouldn't have said that. I can't say just why, but I shouldn't. Should you, Miss Heap?"
"I shouldn't say a good many things, Mrs. Ridding," said Miss Heap enigmatically, her needles flying.
"It's because we've been abroad a great deal with our parents, I expect," said AnnaRose rather quickly. "I daresay it has left its mark on us."
"You seem to be bothered by your memory," said Anna-Rose politely, addressing the old gentleman "Have you ever tried making notes on little bits of paper of the things you have to remember? I think you would probably be all right then. Uncle Arthur used to do that. Or rather he made Aunt Alice do it for him, and put them where he would see them."
"Uncle Arthur," explained Anna-Felicitas to the old lady, "is an uncle of ours. The one," she said turning to the old gentleman, "we were just telling you about, who so unfortunately insisted on marrying our aunt. Uncle, that is, by courtesy," she added, turning to the old lady, "not by blood."The old lady's eyes moved from one twin to the other as each one spoke, but she said nothing.
"But Aunt Alice," said Anna-Rose, "is our genuine aunt. Well, I was going to tell you," she continued briskly, addressing the old gentleman. "There used to be things Uncle Arthur had to do every day and every week, but still he had to be reminded of them each time, and Aunt Alice had a whole set of the regular ones written out on bits of cardboard, and brought them out in turn. The Monday morning one was: Wind the Clock, and the Sunday morning one was: Take your Hot Bath, and the Saturday evening one was: Remember your Pill. And there was one brought in regularly every morning with his shaving water and stuck in his looking-glass: Put on your Abdominable Belt."
The knitting needles paused an instant.
"Yes," Anna-Felicitas joined in, interested by these recollections, her long limbs sunk in her chair in a position of great ease and comfort, "and it seemed to us so funny for him to have to be reminded to put on what was really a part of his clothes every day, that once we wrote a slip of our own for him and left it on his dressing-table: Don't forget your Trousers."The knitting needles paused again. "But the results of that were dreadful," added Anna-Felicitas, her face sobering at the thought of them. "Yes," said Anna-Rose. "You see, he supposed Aunt Alice had done it, in a fit of high spirits, though she never had high spirits—" "And wouldn't have been allowed to if she had," explained Anna-Felicitas. "And he thought she was laughing at him," said Anna-Rose, "though we have never seen her laugh—" "And I don't believe he has either," said Anna-Felicitas. "So there was trouble, because he couldn't bear the idea of her laughing at him, and we had to confess." "But that didn't make it any better for Aunt Alice." "No, because then he said it was her fault anyhow for not keeping us stricter."
"So," said Anna-Felicitas, "after the house had been steeped in a sulphurous gloom for over a week, and we all felt as though we were being slowly and steadily gassed, we tried to make it up by writing a final one—a nice one—and leaving it on his plate at breakfast: Kiss your Wife. But instead of kissing her he—" She broke off, and then finished a little vaguely: "Oh well, he didn't."
"Still," remarked Anna-Rose, "it must be pleasant not to be kissed by a husband. Aunt Alice always wanted him to, strange to say, which is why we reminded him of it. He used to forget that more regularly than almost anything. And the people who lived in the house nearest us were just the opposite—the husband was for ever trying to kiss the person who was his wife, and she was for ever dodging him.""Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Like the people on Keats's Grecian Urn." "Yes," said Anna-Rose. "And that sort of husband, must be even worse. "Oh, much worse," agreed Anna-Felicitas. She looked round amiably at the three quiet figures in the chairs. "I shall refrain altogether from husbands," she said placidly. "I shall take something that doesn't kiss." And she fell into an abstraction, wondering, with her cheek resting on her hand, what he, or it, would look like.
There was a pause. Anna-Rose was wondering too what sort of a creature Columbus had in her mind, and how many, if any, legs it would have; and the other three were, as before, silent.Then the old lady said, "Albert," and put out her hand to be helped on to her feet. The old gentleman struggled out of his chair, and helped her up. His face had a congested look, as if he were with difficulty keeping back things he wanted to say. Miss Heap got up too, stuffing her knitting as she did so into her brocaded bag. "Go on ahead and ring the elevator bell, Albert," said the old lady. "It's time we went and had our nap." "I ain't going to," said the old gentleman suddenly. "What say? What ain't you going to, Albert?" said the old lady, turning her slow eyes round to him. "Nap," said the old gentleman, his face very red.
It was intolerable to have to go and nap. He wished to stay where he was and talk to the twins. Why should he have to nap because somebody else wanted to? Why should he have to nap with an old lady, anyway? Never in his life had he wanted to nap with old ladies. It was all a dreadful mistake."Albert," said his wife looking at him. He went on ahead and rang the lift-bell.
"You're quite right to see that he rests, Mrs. Ridding," said Miss Heap, walking away with her and slowing her steps to suit hers. "I should say it was essential that he should be kept quiet in the afternoons. You should see that Mr. Ridding rests more than he does. Much more," she added significantly."I can't get Mr. Ridding to remember that we're neither of us—"
This was the last the twins heard. They too had politely got out of their chairs when the old lady began to heave into activity, and they stood watching the three departing figures. They were a little surprised. Surely they had all been in the middle of an interesting conversation?"Perhaps it's American to go away in the middle," remarked Anna-Rose, following the group with her eyes as it moved toward the lift. "Perhaps it is," said Anna-Felicitas, also gazing after it.
The old gentleman, in the brief moment during which the two ladies had their backs to him while preceding him into the lift, turned quickly round on his heels and waved his hand before he himself went in.
The twins laughed, and waved back; and they waved with such goodwill that the old gentleman couldn't resist giving one more wave. He was seen doing it by the two ladies as they faced round, and his wife, as she let herself down on to the edge of the seat, remarked that he mustn't exert himself like that or he would have to begin taking his drops again.
That was all she said in the lift; but in their room, when she had got her breath again, she said, "Albert, there's just one thing in the world I hate worse than a fool, and that's an old fool."
CHAPTER XXVThat evening, while the twins were undressing, a message came up from the office that the manager would be obliged if the Miss Twinklers' canary wouldn't sing.
"But it can't help it," said Anna-Felicitas through the crack of door she held open; she was already in her nightgown. "You wouldn't either if you were a canary," she added, reasoning with the messenger."It's just got to help it," said he. "But why shouldn't it sing?" "Complaints." "But it always has sung." "That is so. And it has sung once too often. It's unpopular in this hotel, that canary of yours. It's just got to rest a while. Take it easy. Sit quiet on its perch and think." "But it won't sit quiet and think." "Well, I've told you," he said, going away.
This was the bird that had been seen arriving at the Cosmopolitan about a week before by the lawyer, and it had piercingly sung ever since. It sang, that is, as long as there was any light, real or artificial, to sing by. The boy who carried it from the shop for the twins said its cage was to be hung in a window in the sun, or it couldn't do itself justice. But electric light also enabled it to do itself justice, the twins discovered, and if they sat up late the canary sat up late too, singing as loudly and as mechanically as if it hadn't been a real canary at all, but something clever and American with a machine inside it.
Secretly the twins didn't like it. Shocked at its loud behaviour, they had very soon agreed that it was no lady, but Anna-Rose was determined to have it at The Open Arms because of her conviction that no house showing the trail of a woman's hand was without a canary. That, and a workbag. She bought them both the same day. The workbag didn't matter, because it kept quiet; but the canary was a very big, very yellow bird, much bigger and yellower than the frailer canaries of a more exhausted civilization, and quite incapable, unless it was pitch dark, of keeping quiet for a minute. Evidently, as Anna-Felicitas said, it had a great many lungs. Her idea of lungs, in spite of her time among them and similar objects at a hospital, was what it had always been: that they were things like pink macaroni strung across a frame of bones on the principle of a lyre or harp, and producing noises. She thought the canary had unusual numbers of these pink strings, and all of them of the biggest and dearest kind of macaroni. The other guests at the Cosmopolitan had been rather restive from the first on account of this bird, but felt so indulgent toward its owners, those cute little relations or charges or whatever they were of Teapot Twist's, that they bore its singing without complaint. But on the evening of the day the Annas had the interesting conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Ridding and Miss Heap, two definite complaints were lodged in the office, and one was from Mrs. Ridding and the other was from Miss Heap.
The manager, as has been said, was already sensitive about the canary. Its cage was straining his electric light cord, and its food, assiduously administered in quantities exceeding its capacity, littered the expensive pink pile carpet. He therefore lent a ready ear and sent up a peremptory message; and while the message was going up, Miss Heap, who had come herself with her complaint, stayed on discussing the Twist and Twinkler party.
She said nothing really; she merely asked questions; and not one of the questions, now they were put to him, did the manager find he could answer. No doubt everything was all right. Everybody knew about Mr. Twist, and it wasn't likely he would choose an hotel of so high a class to stay in if his relations to the Miss Twinklers were anything but regular. And a lady companion, he understood, was joining the party shortly; and besides, there was the house being got ready, a permanent place of residence he gathered, in which the party would settle down, and experience had taught him that genuine illicitness was never permanent. Still, the manager himself hadn't really cared about the Twinklers since the canary came. He could fill the hotel very easily, and there was no need to accommodate people who spoilt carpets. Also, the moment the least doubt or question arose among his guests, all of whom he knew and most of whom came back regularly every year, as to the social or moral status of any new arrivals, then those arrivals must go. Miss Heap evidently had doubts. Her standard, it is true, was the almost impossibly high one of the unmarried lady of riper years, but Mrs. Ridding, he understood, had doubts too; and once doubts started in an hotel he knew from experience that they ran through it like measles. The time had come for him to act.
Next morning, therefore, he briskly appeared in Mr. Twist's room as he was pulling on his boots, and cheerfully hoped he was bearing in mind what he had been told the day he took the rooms, that they were engaged for the date of the month now arrived at.Mr. Twist paused with a boot half on. "I'm not bearing it in mind," he said, "because you didn't tell me."
"Oh yes I did, Mr. Twist," said the manager briskly. "It isn't likely I'd make a mistake about that. The rooms are taken every year for this date by the same people. Mrs. Hart of Boston has this one, and Mr. and Mrs.—"
Mr. Twist heard no more. He finished lacing his boots in silence. What he had been so much afraid of had happened: he and the twins had got under a cloud.
The twins had been saying things. Last night they told him they had made some friends. He had been uneasy at that, and questioned them. But it appeared they had talked chiefly of their Uncle Arthur. Well, damnable as Uncle Arthur was as a man he was safe enough as a topic of conversation. He was English. He was known to people in America like the Delloggs and the Sacks. But it was now clear they must have said things besides that. Probably they had expatiated on Uncle Arthur from some point of view undesirable to American ears. The American ear was very susceptible. He hadn't been born in New England without becoming aware of that.
Mr. Twist tied his bootlaces with such annoyance that he got them into knots. He ought never to have come with the Annas to a big hotel. Yet lodgings would have been worse. Why hadn't that white-haired gasbag, Mrs. Bilton—Mr. Twist's thoughts were sometimes unjust—joined them sooner? Why had that shirker Dellogg died? He got his bootlaces hopelessly into knots."I'd like to start right in getting the rooms fixed up, Mr. Twist," said the manager pleasantly. "Mrs. Hart of Boston is very—" "See here," said Mr. Twist, straightening himself and turning the full light of his big spectacles on to him, "I don't care a curse for Mrs. Hart of Boston." The manager expressed regret that Mr. Twist should connect a curse with a lady. It wasn't American to do that. Mrs. Hart— "Damn Mrs. Hart," said Mr. Twist, who had become full-bodied of speech while in France, and when he was goaded let it all out. The manager went away. And so, two hours later, did Mr. Twist and the twins.
"I don't know what you've been saying," he said in an extremely exasperated voice, as he sat opposite them in the taxi with their grips, considerably added to and crowned by the canary who was singing, piled up round him."Saying?" echoed the twins, their eyes very round. "But whatever it was you'd have done better to say something else. Confound that bird. Doesn't it ever stop screeching?"
It was the twins, however, who were confounded. So much confounded by what they considered his unjust severity that they didn't attempt to defend themselves, but sat looking at him with proud hurt eyes.
By this time they both had become very fond of Mr. Twist, and accordingly he was able to hurt them. Anna-Rose, indeed, was so fond of him that she actually thought him handsome. She had boldly said so to the astonished Anna-Felicitas about a week before; and when Anna-Felicitas was silent, being unable to agree, Anna-Rose had heatedly explained that there was handsomeness, and there was the higher handsomeness, and that that was the one Mr. Twist had. It was infinitely better than mere handsomeness, said Anna-Rose—curly hair and a straight nose and the rest of the silly stuff—because it was real and lasting; and it was real and lasting because it lay in the play of the features and not in their exact position and shape.
Anna-Felicitas couldn't see that Mr. Twist's features played. She looked at him now in the taxi while he angrily stared out of the window, and even though he was evidently greatly stirred his features weren't playing. She didn't particularly want them to play. She was fond of and trusted Mr. Twist, and would never even have thought whether he had features or not ii Anna-Rose hadn't taken lately to talking so much about them. And she couldn't help remembering how this very Christopher, so voluble now on the higher handsomeness, had said on board the St. Luke when first commenting on Mr. Twist that God must have got tired of making him by the time his head was reached. Well, Christopher had always been an idealist. When she was eleven she had violently loved the coachman. Anna-Felicitas hadn't ever violently loved anybody yet, and seeing AnnaRose like this now about Mr. Twist made her wonder when she too was going to begin. Surely it was time. She hoped her inability to begin wasn't perhaps because she had no heart. Still, she couldn't begin if she didn't see anybody to begin on.
She sat silent in the taxi, with Christopher equally silent beside her, both of them observing Mr. Twist through lowered eyelashes. Anna-Rose watched him with hurt and anxious eyes like a devoted dog who has been kicked without cause. Anna-Felicitas watched him in a more detached spirit. She had a real affection for him, but it was not, she was sure and rather regretted, an affection that would ever be likely to get the better of her reason. It wasn't because he was so old, of course, she thought, for one could love the oldest people, beginning with that standard example of age, the liebe Gott; it was because she liked him so much.
How could one get sentimental over and love somebody one so thoroughly liked? The two things on reflection didn't seem to combine well. She was sure, for instance, that Aunt Alice had loved Uncle Arthur, amazing as it seemed, but she was equally sure she hadn't liked him. And look at the liebe Gott. One loves the liebe Gott, but it would be going too far, she thought, to say that one likes him.
These were the reflections of Anna-Felicitas in the taxi, as she observed through her eyelashes the object of Anna-Rose's idealization. She envied Anna-Rose; for here she had been steadily expanding every day more and more like a flower under the influence of her own power of idealization. She used to sparkle and grow rosy like that for the coachman. Perhaps after all it didn't much matter what you loved, so long as you loved immensely. It was, perhaps, thought Anna-Felicitas approaching this subject with some caution and diffidence, the quantity of one's love that mattered rather than the quality of its object. Not that Mr. Twist wasn't of the very first quality, except to look at; but what after all were faces? The coachman had been, as it were, nothing else but face, so handsome was he and so without any other recommendation. He couldn't even drive; and her father had very soon kicked him out with the vigour and absence of hesitation peculiar to Junkers when it comes to kicking and Anna-Rose had wept all over her bread and butter at tea that day, and was understood to say that she knew at last what it must be like to be a widow.
Mr. Twist, for all that he was looking out of the taxi window with an angry and worried face, his attention irritably concentrated, so it seemed, on the objects passing in the road, very well knew he was being observed. He wouldn't, however, allow his eye to be caught. He wasn't going to become entangled at this juncture in argument with the Annas. He was hastily making up his mind, and there wasn't much time to do it in. He had had no explanation with the twins since the manager's visit to his room, and he didn't want to have any. He had issued brief orders to them, told them to pack, declined to answer questions, and had got them safely into the taxi with a minimum waste of time and words. They were now on their way to the station to meet Mrs. Bilton. Her train from Los Angeles was not due till that evening at six. Never mind. The station was a secure place to deposit the twins and the baggage in till she came. He wished he could deposit the twins in the parcel-room as easily as he could their grips—neatly labelled, put away safely on a shelf till called for.
Rapidly, as he stared out of the window, he arrived at decisions. He would leave the twins in the waiting room at the station till Mrs. Bilton was due, and meanwhile go out and find lodgings for them and her. He himself would get a room in another and less critical hotel, and stay in it till the cottage was habitable. So would unassailable respectability once more descend like a white garment upon the party and cover it up.
But he was nettled; nettled; nettled by the contretemps that had occurred on the very last day, when Mrs. Bilton was so nearly there; nettled and exasperated. So immensely did he want the twins to be happy, to float serenely in the unclouded sunshine and sweetness he felt was their due, that he was furious with them for doing anything to make it difficult. And, jerkily, his angry thoughts pounced, as they so often did, on Uncle Arthur. Fancy kicking two little things like that out into the world, two little breakable things like that, made to be cherished and watched over. Mr. Twist was pure American in his instinct to regard the female as an object to be taken care of, to be placed securely in a charming setting and kept brightly free from dust. If Uncle Arthur had had a shred of humanity in him, he angrily reflected, the Annas would have stayed under his roof throughout the war, whatever the feeling was against aliens. Never would a decent man have chucked them out.
He turned involuntarily from the window and looked at the twins. Their eyes were fixed, affectionate and anxious, on his face. With the quick change of mood of those whose chins are weak and whose hearts are warm, a flood of love for them gushed up within him and put out his anger. After all, if Uncle Arthur had been decent he, Edward A. Twist, never would have met these blessed children. He would now have been at Clark; leading lightless days; hopelessly involved with his mother.
His loose, unsteady mouth broke into a big smile. Instantly the two faces opposite cleared into something shining.
"Oh dear," said Anna-Felicitas with a sigh of relief, "it is refreshing when you leave off being cross."
"I can't tell you, because I don't know what it was," said Mr. Twist, in his usual kind voice. "I only see the results. And the results are that the Cosmopolitan is tired of us, and we've got to find lodgings.""Lodgings?" "Till we can move into the cottage. I'm going to put you and Mrs. Bilton in an apartment in Acapulco, and go myself to some hotel." The twins stared at him a moment in silence. Then Anna-Rose said with sudden passion, "You're not." "How's that?" asked Mr. Twist; but she was prevented answering by the arrival of the taxi at the station. There followed ten minutes' tangle and confusion, at the end of which the twins found themselves free of their grips and being piloted into the waiting-room by Mr. Twist.
"There," he said. "You sit here quiet and good. I'll come back about one o'clock with sandwiches and candy for your dinner, and maybe a story-book or two. You mustn't leave this, do you hear? I'm going to hunt for those lodgings."And he was in the act of taking off his hat valedictorily when Anna-Rose again said with the same passion, "You're not." "Not what?" inquired Mr. Twist, pausing with his hat in mid-air. "Going to hunt for lodgings. We won't go to them." "Of course we won't," said Anna-Felicitas, with no passion but with an infinitely rock-like determination. "And pray—" began Mr. Twist.
"Go into lodgings alone with Mrs. Bilton?" interrupted Anna-Rose her face scarlet, her whole small body giving the impression of indignant feathers standing up on end. "While you're somewhere else? Away from us? We won't.""Of course we won't," said Anna-Felicitas again, an almost placid quality in her determination, it was so final and so unshakable. "Would you?" "See here—" began Mr. Twist. "We won't see anywhere," said Anna-Rose. "Would you," inquired Anna-Felicitas, again reasoning with him, "like being alone in lodgings with Mrs. Bilton?" "This is no time for conversation," said Mr. Twist, making for the door. "You've got to do what I think best on this occasion. And that's all about it." "We won't," repeated Anna-Rose, on the verge of those tears which always with her so quickly followed any sort of emotion. Mr. Twist paused on his way to the door. "Well now what the devil's the matter with lodgings?" he asked angrily. "It isn't the devil, it's Mrs. Bilton," said Anna-Felicitas. "Would you yourself like—" 'But you've got to have Mrs. Bilton with you anyhow from to-day on." "But not unadulterated Mrs. Bilton. You were to have been with us too. We can't be drowned all by ourselves in Mrs. Bilton. You wouldn't like it." "Of course I wouldn't. But it's only for a few days anyhow," said Mr. Twist, who had been quite unprepared for opposition to his very sensible arrangement. "I shouldn't wonder if it's only a few days now before we can all squeeze into some part of the cottage. If you don't mind dust and noise and workmen about all day long." A light pierced the gloom that had gathered round Anna-Felicitas's soul.
"We'll go into it to-day," she said firmly, "Why not? We can camp out. We can live in those little rooms at the back over the kitchen,—the ones you got ready for Li Koo. We'd be on the spot. We wouldn't mind anything. It would just be a picnic.""And we—we wouldn't be—sep—separated," said Anna-Rose, getting it out with a gasp. Mr. Twist stood looking at them.
"Well, of all the—" he began, pushing his hat back. "Are you aware," he went on more calmly, "that there are only two rooms over that kitchen, and that you and Mrs. Bilton will have to be all together in one of them?"
"We don't mind that as long as you're in the other one," said Anna-Rose. "Of course," suggested Anna-Felicitas, "if you were to happen to marry Mrs. Bilton it would make a fairer division."Mr. Twist's spectacles stared enormously at her. "No, no," said Anna-Rose quickly. "Marriage is a sacred thing, and you can't just marry so as to be more comfortable." "I guess if I married Mrs. Bilton I'd be more uncomfortable," remarked Mr. Twist with considerable dryness.
He seemed however to be quieted by the bare suggestion, for he fixed his hat properly on his head and said, sobriety in his voice and manner, "Come along, then. We'll get a taxi and anyway go out and have a look at the rooms. But I shouldn't be surprised," he added, "if before I've done with you you'll have driven me sheer out of my wits.""Oh, don't say that," said the twins together, with all and more of their usual urbanity.
By superhuman exertions and a lavish expenditure of money, the rooms Li Koo was later on to inhabit were ready to be slept in by the time Mrs. Bilton arrived. They were in an outbuilding at the back of the house, and consisted of a living-room with a cookingstove in it, a bedroom behind it, and up a narrow and curly staircase a larger room running the whole length and width of the shanty. This sounds spacious, but it wasn't. The amount of length and width was small, and it was only just possible to get three camp-beds into it and a washstand. The beds nearly touched each other. Anna-Felicitas thought she and Anna-Rose were going to be regrettably close to Mrs. Bilton in them, and again urged on Mr. Twist's consideration the question of removing Mrs. Bilton from the room by marriage; but Anna-Rose said it was all perfect, and that there was lots of room, and she was sure Mrs. Bilton, used to the camp life so extensively practised in America, would thoroughly enjoy herself.
They worked without stopping all the rest of the day at making the little place habitable, nailing up some of the curtains intended for the other house, unpacking cushions, and fetching in great bunches of the pale pink and mauve geraniums that scrambled about everywhere in the garden and hiding the worst places in the rooms with them. Mr. Twist was in Acapulco most of the time, getting together the necessary temporary furniture and cooking utensils, but the twins didn't miss him, for they were helped with zeal by the architect, the electrical expert, the garden expert and the chief plumber.
These young men—they were all young, and very go-ahead—abandoned the main building that day to the undirected labours of the workmen they were supposed to control, and turned to on the shanty as soon as they realized what it was to be used for with a joyous energy that delighted the twins. They swept and they garnished. They cleaned the dust off the windows and the rust off the stove. They fetched out the parcels with the curtains and cushions in them from the barn where all parcels and packages had been put till the house was ready, and extracted various other comforts from the piled up packing-cases,—a rug or two, an easy chair for Mrs. Bilton, a looking-glass. They screwed in hooks behind the doors for clothes to be hung on, and they tied the canary to a neighbouring eucalyptus tree where it could be seen and hardly heard. The chief plumber found buckets and filled them with water, and the electrical expert rigged up a series of lanterns inside the shanty, even illuminating its tortuous staircase. There was much badinage, but as it was all in American, a language of which the twins were not yet able to apprehend the full flavour, they responded only with pleasant smiles. But their smiles were so pleasant and the family dimple so engaging that the hours flew, and the young men were sorry indeed when Mr. Twist came back.
He came back laden, among other things, with food for the twins, whom he had left in his hurry high and dry at the cottage with nothing at all to eat; and he found them looking particularly comfortable and well-nourished, having eaten, as they explained when they refused his sandwiches and fruit, the chief plumber's dinner. They were sitting on the stump of an oak tree when he arrived, resting from their labours, and the grass at their feet was dotted with the four experts. It was the twins now who were talking, and the experts who were smiling. Mr. Twist wondered uneasily what they were saying. It wouldn't have added to his comfort if he had heard, for they were giving the experts an account of their attempt to go and live with the Sacks, and interweaving with it some general reflections of a philosophical nature suggested by the Sack ménage. The experts were keenly interested, and everybody looked very happy, and Mr. Twist was annoyed; for clearly if the experts were sitting there on the grass they weren't directing the workmen placed under their orders. Mr. Twist perceived a drawback to the twins living on the spot while the place was being finished; another drawback. He had perceived several already, but not this one. Well, Mrs. Bilton would soon be there. He now counted the hours to Mrs. Bilton. He positively longed for her.
When they saw him coming, the experts moved away. "Here's the boss," they said, nodding and winking at the twins as they got up quickly and departed. Winking was not within the traditions of the Twinkler family, but no doubt, they thought, it was the custom of the country to wink, and they wondered whether they ought to have winked back. The young men were certainly deserving of every friendliness in return for all they had done. They decided they would ask Mrs. Bilton, and then they could wink at them if necessary the first thing to-morrow morning.
Mr. Twist took them with him when he went down to the station to meet the Los Angeles train. It was dark at six, and the workmen had gone home by then, but the experts still seemed to be busy. He had been astonished at the amount the twins had accomplished in his absence in the town till they explained to him how very active the experts had been, whereupon he said, "Now isn't that nice," and briefly informed them they would go with him to the station."That's waste of time," said Anna-Felicitas. "We could be giving finishing touches if we stayed here." "You will come with me to the station," said Mr. Twist.
Mrs. Bilton arrived in a thick cloud of conversation. She supposed she was going to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, as indeed she originally was, and all the way back in the taxi Mr. Twist was trying to tell her she wasn't; but Mrs. Bilton had so much to say about her journey, and her last days among her friends, and all the pleasant new acquaintances she had made on the train, and her speech was so very close-knit, that he felt he was like a rabbit on the wrong side of a thick-set hedge running desperately up and down searching for a gap to get through. It was nothing short of amazing how Mrs. Bilton talked; positively, there wasn't at any moment the smallest pause in the flow.
"It's a disease," thought Anna-Rose, who had several things she wanted to say herself, and found herself hopelessly muzzled.
"No wonder Mr. Bilton preferred heaven," thought Anna-Felicitas, also a little restless at the completeness of her muzzling.
"This hotel we're going to seems to be located at some distance from the station," said Mrs. Bilton presently, in the middle of several pages of rapid unpunctuated monologue. "Isolated, surely—" and off she went again to other matters, just as Mr. Twist had got his mouth open to explain at last.She arrived therefore at the cottage unconscious of the change in her fate.
Now Mrs. Bilton was as fond of comfort as any other woman who has been deprived for some years of that substitute for comfort, a husband. She had looked forward to the enveloping joys of the Cosmopolitan, its bath, its soft bed and good food, with frank satisfaction. She thought it admirable that before embarking on active duties she should for a space rest luxuriously in an excellent hotel, with no care in regard to expense, and exchange ideas while she rested with the interesting people she would be sure to meet in it. Before the interview in Los Angeles, Mr. Twist had explained to her by letter and under the seal of confidence the philanthropic nature of the project he and the Miss Twinklers were engaged upon, and she was prepared, in return for the very considerable salary she had accepted, to do her duty loyally and unremittingly; but after the stress and hard work of her last days in Los Angeles she had certainly looked forward with a particular pleasure to two or three weeks' delicious wallowing in fleshpots for which she had not to pay. She was also, however, a lady of grit; and she possessed, as she said her friends often told her, a redoubtable psyche, a genuine American free and fearless psyche; so that when, talking ceaselessly, her thoughts eagerly jostling each other as they streamed through her brain to get first to the exit of her tongue, she caught her foot in some builder's débris carelessly left on the path up to the cottage and received in this way positively her first intimation that this couldn't be the Cosmopolitan, she did not, as a more timid female soul well might have, become alarmed and suppose that Mr. Twist, whom after all she didn't know, had brought her to this solitary place for purposes of assassination, but stopped firmly just where she was, and turning her head in the darkness toward him said, "Now Mr. Twist, I'll stand right here till you're able to apply some sort of illumination to what's at my feet. I can't say what it is I've walked against but I'm not going any further with this promenade till I can say. And when you've thrown light on the subject perhaps you'll oblige me with information as to where that hotel is I was told I was coming to."
"Information?" cried Mr. Twist. "Haven't I been trying to give it you ever since I met you? Haven't I been trying to stop your getting out of the taxi till I'd fetched a lantern? Haven't I been trying to offer you my arm along the path—""Then why didn't you say so, Mr. Twist?" asked Mrs. Bilton. "Say so!" cried Mr. Twist.
At that moment the flash of an electric torch was seen jerking up and down as the person carrying it ran toward them. It was the electrical expert who, most fortunately, happened still to be about.
Mrs. Bilton welcomed him warmly, and taking his torch from him first examined what she called the location of her feet, then gave it back to him and put her hand through his arm. "Now guide me to whatever it is has been substituted without my knowledge for that hotel," she said; and while Mr. Twist went back to the taxi to deal with her grips, she walked carefully toward the shanty on the expert's arm, expressing, in an immense number of words, the astonishment she felt at Mr. Twist's not having told her of the disappearance of the Cosmopolitan from her itinerary.
The electrical expert tried to speak, but was drowned without further struggle. AnnaRose, unable to listen any longer without answering to the insistent inquiries as to why Mr. Twist had kept her in the dark, raised her voice at last and called out, "But he wanted to—he wanted to all the time—you wouldn't listen—you wouldn't stop—"
Mrs. Bilton did stop however when she got inside the shanty. Her tongue and her feet stopped dead together. The electrical expert had lit all the lanterns, and coming upon it in the darkness its lighted windows gave it a cheerful, welcoming look. But inside no amount of light and bunches of pink geraniums could conceal its discomforts, its dreadful smallness; besides, pink geraniums, which the twins were accustomed to regard as precious, as things brought up lovingly in pots, were nothing but weeds to Mrs. Bilton's experienced Californian eye.
She stared round her in silence. Her sudden quiet fell on the twins with a great sense of refreshment. Standing in the doorway—for Mrs. Bilton and the electrical expert between them filled up most of the kitchen—they heaved a deep sigh. "And see how beautiful the stars are," whispered Anna-Felicitas in Anna-Rose's ear; she hadn't been able to see them before somehow, Mrs. Bilton's voice had so much ruffled the night."Do you think she talks in her sleep?" Anna-Rose anxiously whispered back.
But Mr. Twist, arriving with his hands full, was staggered to find Mrs. Bilton not talking. An icy fear seized his heart. She was going to refuse to stay with them. And she would be within her rights if she did, for certainly what she called her itinerary had promised her a first-rate hotel, in which she was to continue till a finished and comfortable house was stepped into."I wish you'd say something," he said, plumping down the bags he was carrying on the kitchen floor.
The twins from the doorway looked at him and then at each other in great surprise. Fancy asking Mrs. Bilton to say something.
"They would come," said Mr. Twist, resentfully, jerking his head toward the Annas in the doorway.
Mrs. Bilton drew a deep breath and looked round her. She looked round the room, and she looked up at the ceiling, which the upright feather in her hat was tickling, and she looked at the faces of the twins, lit flickeringly by the uncertain light of the lanterns. Then, woman of grit, wife who had never failed him of Bruce D. Bilton, widow who had remained poised and indomitable on a small income in a circle of well-off friends, she spoke; and she said:
"Mr. Twist, I can't say what this means, and you'll furnish me no doubt with information, but whatever it is I'm not the woman to put my hand to a plough and then turn back again. That type of behaviour may have been good enough for Pharisees and Sadducees, who if I remember rightly had to be specially warned against the practice, but it isn't good enough for me. You've conducted me to a shack instead of the hotel I was promised, and I await your explanation. Meanwhile, is there any supper?"
It was only a fortnight after this that the inn was ready to be opened, and it was only during the first days of this fortnight that the party in the shanty had to endure any serious discomfort. The twins didn't mind the physical discomfort at all; what they minded, and began to mind almost immediately, was the spiritual discomfort of being at such close quarters with Mrs. Bilton. They hardly noticed the physical side of that close association in such a lovely climate, where the whole of out-of-doors can be used as one's living-room; and their morning dressing, a difficult business in the shanty for anybody less young and more needing to be careful, was rather like the getting up of a dog after its night's sleep—they seemed just to shake themselves, and there they were.
They got up before Mrs. Bilton, who was, however, always awake and talking to them while they dressed, and they went to bed before she did, though she came up with them after the first night and read aloud to them while they undressed; so that as regarded the mysteries of Mrs. Bilton's toilette they were not, after all, much in her way. It was like caravaning or camping out: you managed your movements and moments skilfully, and if you were Mrs. Bilton you had a curtain slung across your part of the room, in case your younger charges shouldn't always be asleep when they looked as if they were.
Gradually one alleviation was added to another, and Mrs. Bilton forgot the rigours of the beginning. Li Koo arrived, for instance, fetched by a telegram, and under a tent in the eucalyptus grove at the back of the house set up an old iron stove and produced, with no apparent exertion, extraordinarily interesting and amusing food. He went into Acapulco at daylight every morning and did the marketing. He began almost immediately to do everything else in the way of housekeeping. He was exquisitely clean, and saw to it that the shanty matched him in cleanliness. To the surprise and gratification of the twins, who had supposed it would be their lot to go on doing the housework of the shanty, he took it over as a matter of course, dusting, sweeping, and tidying like a practised and very excellent housemaid. The only thing he refused to do was to touch the three beds in the upper chamber. "Me no make lady-beds," he said briefly.
Li Koo's salary was enormous, but Mr. Twist, with a sound instinct, cared nothing what he paid so long as he got the right man. He was, indeed, much satisfied with his two employees, and congratulated himself on his luck. It is true in regard to Mrs. Bilton his satisfaction was rather of the sorrowful sort that a fresh ache in a different part of one's body from the first ache gives: it relieved him from one by substituting another. Mrs. Bilton overwhelmed him; but so had the Annas begun to. Her overwhelming, however, was different, and freed him from that other worse one. He felt safe now about the Annas, and after all there were parts of the building in which Mrs. Bilton wasn't. There was his bedroom, for instance. Thank God for bedrooms, thought Mr. Twist. He grew to love his. What a haven that poky and silent place was; what a blessing the conventions were, and the proprieties. Supposing civilization were so far advanced that people could no longer see the harm there is in a bedroom, what would have become of him? Mr. Twist could perfectly account for Bruce D. Bilton's death. It wasn't diabetes, as Mrs. Bilton said; it was just bedroom.
Still, Mrs. Bilton was an undoubted find, and did immediately in those rushed days take the Annas off his mind. He could leave them with her in the comfortable certitude that whatever else they did to Mrs. Bilton they couldn't talk to her. Never would she know the peculiar ease of the Twinkler attitude toward subjects Americans approach with care. Never would they be able to tell her things about Uncle Arthur, the kind of things that had caused the Cosmopolitan to grow so suddenly cool. There was, most happily for this particular case, no arguing with Mrs. Bilton. The twins couldn't draw her out because she was already, as it were, so completely out. This was a great thing, Mr. Twist felt, and made up for any personal suffocation he had to bear; and when on the afternoon of Mrs. Bilton's first day the twins appeared without her in the main building in search of him, having obviously given her the slip, and said they were sorry to disturb him but they wanted his advice, for though they had been trying hard all day, remembering they were ladies and practically hostesses, they hadn't yet succeeded in saying anything at all to Mrs. Bilton and doubted whether they ever would, he merely smiled happily at them and said to Anna-Rose, "See how good comes out of evil"—a remark that they didn't like when they had had time to think over it.
But they went on struggling. It seemed so unnatural to be all alone all day long with someone and only listen. Mrs. Bilton never left their side, regarding it as proper and merely fulfilling her part of the bargain, in these first confused days when there was nothing for ladies to do but look on while perspiring workmen laboured at apparently producing more and more chaos, to become thoroughly acquainted with her young charges. This she did by imparting to them intimate and meticulous information about her own life, with the whole of the various uplifts, as she put it, her psyche had during its unfolding experienced. There was so much to tell about herself that she never got to inquiring about the twins. She knew they were orphans, and that this was a good work, and for the moment had no time for more.
The twins were profoundly bored by her psyche, chiefly because they didn't know what part of her it was, and it was no use asking for she didn't answer; but they listened with real interest to her concrete experiences, and especially to the experiences connected with Mr. Bilton. They particularly wished to ask questions about Mr. Bilton, and find out what he had thought of things. Mrs. Bilton was lavish in her details of what she had thought herself, but Mr. Bilton's thoughts remained impenetrable. It seemed to the twins that he must have thought a lot, and have come to the conclusion that there was much to be said for death.
The Biltons, it appeared, had been the opposite of the Clouston-Sacks, and had never been separated for a single day during the whole of their married life. This seemed to the twins very strange, and needing a great deal of explanation. In order to get light thrown on it the first thing they wanted to find out was how long the marriage had lasted; but Mrs. Bilton was deaf to their inquiries, and having described Mr. Bilton's last moments and obsequies—obsequies scheduled by her, she said, with so tender a regard for his memory that she insisted on a horse-drawn hearse instead of the more fashionable automobile conveyance, on the ground that a motor hearse didn't seem sorry enough even on first speed—she washed along with an easy flow to descriptions of the dreadfulness of the early days of widowhood, when one's crepe veil keeps on catching in everything—chairs, overhanging branches, and passers-by, including it appeared on one occasion a policeman. She inquired of the twins whether they had ever seen a new-made widow in a wind. Chicago, she said, was a windy place, and Mr. Bilton passed in its windiest month. Her long veil, as she proceeded down the streets on the daily constitutional she considered it her duty toward the living to take, for one owes it to one's friends to keep oneself fit and not give way, was blown hither and thither in the buffeting cross-currents of that uneasy climate, and her walk in the busier streets was a series of entanglements. Embarrassing entanglements, said Mrs. Bilton. Fortunately the persons she got caught in were delicacy and sympathy itself; often, indeed, seeming quite overcome by the peculiar poignancy of the situation, covered with confusion, profuse in apologies. Sometimes the wind would cause her veil for a few moments to rear straight up above her head in a monstrous black column of woe. Sometimes, if she stopped a moment waiting to cross the street, it would whip round the body of any one who happened to be near, like a cord. It did this once about the body of the policeman directing the traffic, by whose side she had paused, and she had to walk round him backwards before it could be unwound. The Chicago evening papers, prompt on the track of a sensation, had caused her friends much painful if only short-lived amazement by coming out with huge equivocal headlines:WELL-KNOWN SOCIETY WIDOW AND POLICEMAN CAUGHT TOGETHER
and beginning their description of the occurrence by printing her name in full. So that for the first sentence or two her friends were a prey to horror and distress, which turned to indignation on discovering there was nothing in it after all.
The twins, their eyes on Mrs. Bilton's face, their hands clasped round their knees, their bodies sitting on the grass at her feet, occasionally felt as they followed her narrative that they were somehow out of their depth and didn't quite understand. It was extraordinarily exasperating to them to be so completely muzzled. They were accustomed to elucidate points they didn't understand by immediate inquiry; they had a habit of asking for information, and then delivering comments on it.
This condition of repression made them most uncomfortable. The ilex tree in the field below the house, to which Mrs. Bilton shepherded them each morning and afternoon for the first three days, became to them, in spite of its beauty with the view from under its dark shade across the sunny fields to the sea and the delicate distant islands, a painful spot. The beauty all round them was under these conditions exasperating. Only once did Mrs. Bilton leave them, and that was the first afternoon, when they instantly fled to seek out Mr. Twist; and she only left them then—for it wasn't just her sense of duty that was strong, but also her dislike of being alone—because something unexpectedly gave way in the upper part of her dress, she being of a tight well-held-in figure, depending much on its buttons; and she had very hastily to go in search of a needle. After that they didn't see Mr. Twist alone for several days. They hardly indeed saw him at all. The only meal he shared with them was supper, and on finding the first evening that Mrs. Bilton read aloud to people after supper, he made the excuse of accounts to go through and went into his bedroom, repeating this each night.The twins watched him go with agonized eyes. They considered themselves deserted; shamefully abandoned to a miserable fate. "And it isn't as if he didn't like reading aloud," whispered Anna-Rose, bewildered and indignant as she remembered the "Ode to Dooty." "Perhaps he's one of those people who only like it if they do it themselves," AnnaFelicitas whispered back, trying to explain his base behaviour.
And while they whispered, Mrs. Bilton with great enjoyment declaimed—she had had a course of elocution lessons during Mr. Bilton's life so as to be able to place the best literature advantageously before him—the diary of a young girl written in prison. The young girl had been wrongfully incarcerated, Mrs. Bilton explained, and her pure soul only found release by the demise of her body. The twins hated the young girl from the first paragraph. She wrote her diary every day till her demise stopped her. As nothing happens in prisons that hasn't happened the day before, she could only write her reflections; and the twins hated her reflections, because they were so very like what in their secret moments of slush they were apt to reflect themselves. Their mother had had a horror of slush. There had been none anywhere about her; but it is in the air in Germany, in people's blood, everywhere; and though the twins, owing to the English part of them, had a horror of it too, there it was in them, and they knew it,—genuine German slush.
They felt uncomfortably sure that if they were in prison they would write a diary very much on these lines. For three evenings they had to listen to it, their eyes on Mr. Twist's door. Why didn't he come out and save them? What happy, what glorious evenings they used to have at the Cosmopolitan, spent in intelligent conversation, in a decent give and take—not this button-holing business, this being got into a corner and held down; and alas, how little they had appreciated them! They used to get sleepy and break them off and go to bed. If only he would come out now and talk to them they would sit up all night. They wriggled with impatience in their seats beneath the épanchements of the young girl, the strangely and distressingly familiar épanchements. The diary was published in a magazine, and after the second evening, when Mrs. Bilton on laying it down announced she would go on with it while they were dressing next morning, they got up very early before Mrs. Bilton was awake and crept out and hid it.But Li Koo found it and restored it.
Li Koo found everything. He found Mrs. Bilton's outdoor shoes the third morning, although the twins had hidden them most carefully. Their idea was that while she, rendered immobile, waited indoors, they would zealously look for them in all the places where they well knew that they weren't, and perhaps get some conversation with Mr. Twist.
But Li Koo found everything. He found the twins themselves the fourth morning, when, unable any longer to bear Mrs. Bilton's voice, they ran into the woods instead of coming in to breakfast. He seemed to find them at once, to walk unswervingly to their remote and bramble-filled ditch.
In order to save their dignity they said as they scrambled out that they were picking flowers for Mrs. Bilton's breakfast, though the ditch had nothing in it but stones and thorns. Li Koo made no comment. He never did make comments; and his silence and his ubiquitous efficiency made the twins as fidgety with him as they were with Mrs. Bilton for the opposite reason. They had an uncomfortable feeling that he was rather like the liebe Gott,—he saw everything, knew everything, and said nothing. In vain they tried, on that walk back as at other times, to pierce his impassivity with genialities. Li Koo—again, they silently reflected, like the liebe Gott—had a different sense of geniality from theirs; he couldn't apparently smile; they doubted if he even ever wanted to. Their genialities faltered and froze on their lips.
Besides, they were deeply humiliated by having been found hiding, and were ashamed to find themselves trying anxiously in this manner to conciliate Li Koo. Their dignity on the walk back to the shanty seemed painfully shrunk. They ought never to have condescended to do the childish things they had been doing during the last three days. If they hadn't been found out it would, of course, have remained a private matter between them and their Maker, and then one doesn't mind so much; but they had been found out, and by Li Koo, their own servant. It was intolerable. All the blood of all the Twinklers, Junkers from time immemorial and properly sensitive to humiliation, surged within them. They hadn't felt so naughty and so young for years. They were sure Li Koo didn't believe them about the ditch. They had a dreadful sensation of being led back to Mrs. Bilton by the ear.If only they could sack Mrs. Bilton!
This thought, immense and startling, came to Anna-Rose, who far more than AnnaFelicitas resented being cut off from Mr. Twist, besides being more naturally impetuous; and as they walked in silence side by side, with Li Koo a little ahead of them, she turned her head and looked at Anna-Felicitas. "Let's give her notice," she murmured, under her breath.Anna-Felicitas was so much taken aback that she stopped in her walk and stared at Anna-Rose's flushed face. She too hardly breathed it. The suggestion seemed fantastic in its monstrousness. How could they give anybody so old, so sure of herself, so determined as Mrs. Bilton, notice?
"Give her notice?" she repeated. A chill ran down Anna-Felicitas's spine. Give Mrs. Bilton notice! It was a great, a breathtaking idea, magnificent in its assertion of independence, of rights; but it needed, she felt, to be approached with caution. They had never given anybody notice in their lives, and they had always thought it must be a most painful thing to do—far, far worse than tipping. Uncle Arthur usedn't to mind it a bit; did it, indeed, with gusto. But Aunt Alice hadn't liked it at all, and came out in a cold perspiration and bewailed her lot to them and wished that people would behave and not place her in such a painful position.
Mrs. Bilton couldn't be said not to have behaved. Quite the contrary. She had behaved too persistently; and they had to endure it the whole twenty-four hours. For Mrs. Bilton had no turn, it appeared, in spite of what she had said at Los Angeles, for solitary contemplation, and after the confusion of the first night, when once she had had time to envisage the situation thoroughly, as she said, she had found that to sit alone downstairs in the uncertain light of the lanterns while the twins went to bed and Mr. Twist wouldn't come out of his room, was not good for her psyche; so she had followed the twins upstairs, and continued to read the young girl's diary to them during their undressing and till the noises coming from their beds convinced her that it was useless to go on any longer. And that morning, the morning they hid in the ditch, she had even done this while they were getting up.
"It isn't to be borne," said Anna-Rose under her breath, one eye on Li Koo's ear which, a little in front of her, seemed slightly slanted backward and sideways in the direction of her voice. "And why should it be? We're not in her power.""No," said Anna-Felicitas, also under her breath and also watching Li Koo's ear, "but it feels extraordinarily as if we were."
"Yes. And that's intolerable. And it forces us to do silly baby things, wholly unsuited either to our age or our position. Who would have thought we'd ever hide from somebody in a ditch again!" Anna-Rose's voice was almost a sob at the humiliation."It all comes from sleeping in the same room," said Anna-Felicitas. "Nobody can stand a thing that doesn't end at night either."
"Of course they can't," said Anna-Rose. "It isn't fair. If you have to have a person all day you oughtn't to have to have the same person all night. Some one else should step in and relieve you then. Just as they do in hospitals.""Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Mr. Twist ought to. He ought to remove her forcibly from our room by marriage. "No he oughtn't," said Anna-Rose hastily, "because we can remove her ourselves by the simple process of giving her notice."
"I don't believe it's simple," said Anna-Felicia again feeling a chill trickling down her spine.
"Of course it is. We just go to her very politely and inform her that the engagement is terminated on a basis of mutual esteem but inflexible determination."
Mrs. Bilton had finished her breakfast when they got back, having seen no sense in letting good food get cold, and was ready to sit and chat to them while they had theirs. She was so busy telling them what she had supposed they were probably doing, that she was unable to listen to their attempted account of what they had done. Thus they were saved from telling humiliating and youthful fibs; but they were also prevented, as by a wall of rock, from getting the speech through to her ear that Anna-Rose, trembling in spite of her defiance, had ready to launch at her. It was impossible to shout at Mrs. Bilton in the way Mr. Twist, when in extremity of necessity, had done. Ladies didn't shout; especially not when they were giving other ladies notice. Anna-Rose, who was quite cold and clammy at the prospect of her speech, couldn't help feeling relieved when breakfast was over and no opportunity for it had been given.
"We'll write it," she whispered to Anna-Felicitas beneath the cover of a lively account Mrs. Bilton was giving them, à propos of their being late for breakfast, of the time it took her, after Mr. Bilton's passing, to get used to his unpunctuality at meals.
That Mr. Bilton, who had breakfasted and dined with her steadily for years, should suddenly leave off being punctual freshly astonished her every day, she said. The clock struck, yet Mr. Bilton continued late. It was poignant, said Mrs. Bilton, this way of being reminded of her loss. Each day she would instinctively expect; each day would come the stab of recollection. The vacancy these non-appearances had made in her life was beyond any words of hers. In fact she didn't possess such words, and doubted if the completest dictionary did either. Everything went just vacant, she said. No need any more to hurry down in the morning, so as to be behind the coffee pot half a minute before the gong went and Mr. Bilton simultaneously appeared. No need any more to think of him when ordering meals. No need any more to eat the dish he had been so fond of and she had found so difficult to digest, Boston baked beans and bacon; yet she found herself ordering it continually after his departure, and choking memorially over the mouthfuls—"And people in Europe," cried Mrs Bilton, herself struck as she talked by this extreme devotion, "say that American women are incapable of passion!""We'll write it," whispered Anna-Rose to Anna-Felicitas.
"Write what?" asked Anna-Felicitas abstractedly, who as usual when Mrs. Bilton narrated her reminiscences was absorbed in listening to them and trying to get some clear image of Mr. Bilton.
But she remembered the next moment, and it was like waking up to the recollection that this is the day you have to have a tooth pulled out. The idea of not having the tooth any more, of being free from it charmed and thrilled her, but how painful, how alarming was the prospect of pulling it out!
There was one good thing to be said for Mrs. Bilton's talk, and that was that under its voluminous cover they could themselves whisper occasionally to each other. AnnaRose decided that if Mrs. Bilton didn't notice that they whispered neither probably would she notice if she wrote. She therefore under Mrs. Bilton's very nose got a pencil and a piece of paper, and with many pauses and an unsteady hand wrote the following:
DEAR MRS. BILTON—For some time past my sister and I have felt that we aren't suited to you, and if you don't mind would you mind regarding the engagement as terminated? We hope you won't think this abrupt, because it isn't really, for we seem to have lived ages since you came, and we've been thinking this over ripely ever since. And we hope you won't take it as anything personal either, because it isn't really. It's only that we feel we're unsuitable, and we're sure we'll go on getting more and more unsuitable. Nobody can help being unsuitable, and we're fearfully sorry. But on the other hand we're inflexible.—Yours affectionately,ANNA-ROSE and ANNA-FELICITAS TWINKLER
With a beating heart she cautiously pushed the letter across the table under cover of the breakfast débris to Anna-Felicitas, who read it with a beating heart and cautiously pushed it back.
Anna-Felicitas felt sure Christopher was being terribly impetuous, and she felt sure she ought to stop her. But what a joy to be without Mrs. Bilton! The thought of going to bed in the placid sluggishness dear to her heart, without having to listen, to be attentive, to remember to be tidy because if she weren't there would be no room for Mrs. Bilton's things, was too much for her. Authority pursuing her into her bedroom was what she had found most difficult to bear. There must be respite. There must be intervals in every activity or endurance. Even the liebe Gott, otherwise so indefatigable, had felt this and arranged for the relaxation of Sundays.
She pushed the letter back with a beating heart, and told herself that she couldn't and never had been able to stop Christopher when she was in this mood of her chin sticking out. What could she do in face of such a chin? And besides, Mrs. Bilton's friends must be missing her very much and ought to have her back. One should always live only with one's own sort of people. Every other way of living, Anna-Felicitas was sure even at this early stage of her existence, was bound to come to a bad end. One could be fond of almost anybody, she held, if they were somewhere else. Even of Uncle Arthur. Even he somehow seemed softened by distance. But for living-together purposes there was only one kind of people possible, and that was one's own kind. Unexpected and various were the exteriors of one's own kind and the places one found them in, but one always knew them. One felt comfortable with them at once; comfortable and placid. Whatever else Mrs. Bilton might be feeling she wasn't feeling placid. That was evident; and it was because she too wasn't with her own kind. With her eyes fixed nervously on Mrs. Bilton who was talking on happily, Anna-Felicitas reasoned with herself in the above manner as she pushed back the letter, instead of, as at the back of her mind she felt she ought to have done, tearing it up.Anna-Rose folded it and addressed it to Mrs. Bilton. Then she got up and held it out to her. Anna-Felicitas got up too, her inside feeling strangely unsteady and stirred round and round.
"Would you mind reading this?" said Anna-Rose faintly to Mrs. Bilton, who took the letter mechanically and held it in her hand without apparently noticing it, so much engaged was she by what she was saying."We're going out a moment to speak to Mr. Twist," Anna-Rose then said, making for the door and beckoning to Anna-Felicitas, who still stood hesitating. She slipped out; and Anna-Felicitas, suddenly panic-stricken lest she should be buttonholed all by herself fled after her.
Mr. Twist, his mind at ease, was in the charming room that was to be the tea-room. It was full of scattered fittings and the noise of hammering, but even so anybody could see what a delightful place it would presently turn into.
The Open Arms was to make a specialty of wet days. Those were the days, those consecutive days of downpour that came in the winter and lasted without interruption for a fortnight at a time, when visitors in the hotels were bored beyond expression and ready to welcome anything that could distract them for an hour from the dripping of the rain on the windows. Bridge was their one solace, and they played it from after breakfast till bedtime; but on the fourth or fifth day of doing this, just the mere steady sitting became grievous to them. They ached with weariness. They wilted with boredom. All their natural kindness got damped out of them, and they were cross. Even when they won they were cross, and when they lost it was really distressing. They wouldn't, of course, have been in California at all at such a time if it were possible to know beforehand when the rains would begin, but one never did know, and often it was glorious weather right up to and beyond Christmas. And then how glorious! What a golden place of light and warmth to be in, while in the East one's friends were being battered by blizzards.
Mr. Twist intended to provide a break in the day each afternoon for these victims of the rain. He would come to their rescue. He made up his mind, clear and firm on such matters, that it should become the habit of these unhappy people during the bad weather to motor out to The Open Arms for tea; and, full of forethought, he had had a covered way made, by which one could get out of a car and into the house without being touched by a drop of rain, and he had had a huge open fireplace made across the end of the tea-room, which would crackle and blaze a welcome that would cheer the most dispirited arrival. The cakes, at all times wonderful were on wet days to be more than wonderful. Li Koo had a secret receipt, given him, he said, by his mother for cakes of a quite peculiar and original charm, and these were to be reserved for the rainy season only, and be made its specialty. They were to become known and endeared to the public under the brief designation of Wet Day Cakes. Mr. Twist felt there was something thoroughly American about this name—plain and business-like, and attractively in contrast to the subtle, the almost immoral exquisiteness of the article itself. This cake had been one of those produced by Li Koo from the folds of his garments the day in Los Angeles, and Mr. Twist had happened to be the one of his party who ate it. He therefore knew what he was doing when he decided to call it and its like simply Wet Day Cakes.
The twins found him experimenting with a fire in the fireplace so as to be sure it didn't smoke, and the architect and he were in their shirt sleeves, deftly manipulating wood shavings and logs. There was such a hammering being made by the workmen fixing in the latticed windows, and such a crackling being made by the logs Mr. Twist and the architect kept on throwing on the fire, that only from the sudden broad smile on the architect's face as he turned to pick up another log did Mr. Twist realize that something that hadn't to do with work was happening behind his back.He looked round and saw the Annas picking their way toward him. They seemed in a hurry. "Hello," he called out.
They made no reply to this, but continued hurriedly to pick their way among the obstacles in their path. They appeared to be much perturbed. What, he wondered, had they done with Mrs. Bilton? He soon knew."We've given Mrs. Bilton notice," panted Anna-Rose as soon as she got near enough to his ear for him to hear her in the prevailing noise. Her face, as usual when she was moved and excited, was scarlet, her eyes looking bluer and brighter than ever by contrast. "We simply can't stand it any longer," she went on as Mr. Twist only stared at her. "And you wouldn't either if you were us," she continued, the more passionately as he still didn't say anything. "Of course," said Anna-Felicitas, taking a high line, though her heart was full of doubt, "it's your fault really. We could have borne it if we hadn't had to have her at night." "Come outside," said Mr. Twist, walking toward the door that led on to the verandah. They followed him, Anna-Rose shaking with excitement, Anna-Felicitas trying to persuade herself that they had acted in the only way consistent with real wisdom.
The architect stood with a log in each hand looking after them and smiling all by himself. There was something about the Twinklers that lightened his heart whenever he caught sight of them. He and his fellow experts had deplored the absence of opportunities since Mrs. Bilton came of developing the friendship begun the first day, and talked of them on their way home in the afternoons with affectionate and respectful familiarity as The Cutes.
"Now," said Mr. Twist, having passed through the verandah and led the twins to the bottom of the garden where he turned and faced them, "perhaps you'll tell me exactly what you've done."
"You should rather inquire what Mrs. Bilton has done," said Anna-Felicitas, pulling herself up as straight and tall as she would go. She couldn't but perceive that the excess of Christopher's emotion was putting her at a disadvantage in the matter of dignity.
"I can guess pretty much what she has done," said Mr. Twist.
"You shouldn't have left us alone with her like this," burst out Anna-Rose again, "you shouldn't really. It was cruel, it was wrong, leaving us high and dry—never seeing you— leaving us to be talked to day and night—to be read to—would you like to be read to while you're undressing by somebody still in all their clothes? We've never been able to open our mouths. We've been taken into the field for our airing and brought in again as if we were newborns, or people in prams, or flocks and herds, or prisoners suspected of wanting to escape. We haven't had a minute to ourselves day or night. There hasn't been a single exchange of ideas, not a shred of recognition that we're grown up. We've been followed, watched, talked to—oh, oh, how awful it has been! Oh, oh, how awful! Forced to be dumb for days—losing our power of speech—""Anna-Rose Twinkler," interrupted Mr. Twist sternly, "you haven't lost it. And you not only haven't, but that power of yours has increased tenfold during its days of rest."
He spoke with the exasperation in his voice that they had already heard several times since they landed in America. Each time it took them aback, for Mr. Twist was firmly fixed in their minds as the kindest and gentlest of creatures, and these sudden kickings of his each time astonished them.
On this occasion, however, only Anna-Rose was astonished. Anna-Felicitas all along had had an uncomfortable conviction in the depth of her heart that Mr. Twist wouldn't like what they had done. He would be upset, she felt, as her reluctant feet followed Anna-Rose in search of him. He would be, she was afraid very much upset. And so he was. He was appalled by what had happened. Lose Mrs. Bilton? Lose the very foundation of the party's respectability? And how could he find somebody else at the eleventh hour and where and how could the twins and he live, unchaperoned as they would be, till he had? What a peculiar talent these Annas had for getting themselves and him into impossible situations! Of course at their age they ought to be safe under the wing of a wise and unusually determined mother. Well, poor little wretches, they couldn't help not being under it; but that aunt of theirs ought to have stuck to them— faced up to her husband, and stuck to them.
"And I don't suppose it's much use my trying to explain, either. Hasn't it ever occurred to you, though I'd be real grateful if you'd give me information on this point—that maybe you don't know everything?""She—" "We—"
"And that till you do know everything, which I take it won't be for some time yet, judging from the samples I've had of your perspicacity, you'd do well not to act without first asking some one's advice? Mine, for instance?"
"She—" began Anna-Rose again; but her voice was trembling, for she couldn't bear Mr. Twist's anger. She was too fond of him. When he looked at her like that her own anger was blown out as if by an icy draught and she could only look back at him piteously.
But Anna-Felicitas, being free from the weaknesses inherent in adoration, besides continuing to perceive how Christopher's feelings put her at a disadvantage, drew Mr. Twist's attention from her by saying with gentleness, "But why add to the general discomfort by being bitter?""Bitter!" cried Mr. Twist, still glaring at Anna-Rose.
"Do you dispute that God made us?" inquired Anna-Felicitas, placing herself as it were like a shield between Mr. Twist's wrathful concentration on Christopher and that unfortunate young person's emotion.
"See here," said Mr. Twist turning on her, "I'm not going to argue with you—not about anything. Least of all about God."
"I only wanted to point out to you," said Anna-Felicitas mildly, "that that being so, and we not able to help it, there seems little use in being bitter with us because we're not different. In regard to anything fundamental about us that you deplore I'm afraid we must refer you to Providence."
"Say," said Mr. Twist, not in the least appeased by this reasoning but, as Anna-Felicitas couldn't but notice, quite the contrary, "used you to talk like this to that Uncle Arthur of yours? Because if you did, upon my word I don't wonder—"
But what Mr. Twist didn't wonder was fortunately concealed from the twins by the appearance at that moment of Mrs. Bilton, who, emerging from the shades of the verandah and looking about her, caught sight of them and came rapidly down the garden.There was no escape.
They watched her bearing down on them without a word. It was a most unpleasant moment. Mr. Twist re-lit his cigarette to give himself a countenance, but the thought of all that Mrs. Bilton would probably say was dreadful to him, and his hand couldn't help shaking a little. Anna-Rose showed a guilty tendency to slink behind him. Anna-Felicitas stood motionless, awaiting the deluge. All Mr. Twist's sympathies were with Mrs. Bilton, and he was ashamed that she should have been treated so. He felt that nothing she could say would be severe enough, and he was extraordinarily angry with the Annas. Yet when he saw the injured lady bearing down on them, if he only could he would have picked up an Anna under each arm, guilty as they were, and run and run; so much did he prefer them to Mrs. Bilton and so terribly did he want, at this moment, to be somewhere where that lady wasn't.
There they stood then, anxiously watching the approaching figure, and the letter in Mrs. Bilton's hand bobbed up and down as she walked, white and conspicuous in the sun against her black dress. What was their amazement to see as she drew nearer that she was looking just as pleasant as ever. They stared at her with mouths falling open. Was it possible, thought the twins, that she was longing to leave but hadn't liked to say so, and the letter had come as a release? Was it possible, thought Mr. Twist with a leap of hope in his heart, that she was taking the letter from a non-serious point of view?
And Mr. Twist, to his infinite relief, was right. For Mrs. Bilton, woman of grit and tenacity, was not in the habit of allowing herself to be dislodged or even discouraged. This was the opening sentence of her remarks when she had arrived, smiling, in their midst. Had she not explained the first night that she was one who, having put her hand to the plough, held on to it however lively the movements of the plough might be? She would not conceal from them, she said, that even Mr Bilton had not, especially, at first, been entirely without such movements. He had settled down, however on finding he could trust her to know better than he did what he wanted. Don't wise wives always? she inquired. And the result had been that no man ever had a more devoted wife while he was alive, or a more devoted widow after he wasn't. She had told him one day, when he was drawing near the latter condition and she was conversing with him, as was only right, on the subject of wills, and he said that his affairs had gone wrong and as far as he could see she would be left a widow and that was about all she would be left—she had told him that if it was any comfort to him to know it, he might rely on it that he would have the most devoted widow any man had ever had, and he said—Mr. Bilton had odd fancies, especially toward the end—that a widow was the one thing a man never could have because he wasn't there by the time he had got her. Yes, Mr. Bilton had odd fancies. And if she had managed, as she did manage, to steer successfully among them, he being a man of ripe parts and character, was it likely that encountering odd fancies in two very young and unformed girls—oh, it wasn't their fault that they were unformed, it was merely because they hadn't had time enough yet—she would be unable, experienced as she was, to steer among them too? Besides, she had a heart for orphans; orphans and dumb animals always had had a special appeal for her. "No, no, Mr. Twist," Mrs. Bilton wound up, putting a hand affectionately on Anna-Rose's shoulder as a more convenient one than Anna-Felicitas's, "my young charges aren't going to be left in the lurch, you may rely on that. I don't undertake a duty without carrying it out. Why, I feel a lasting affection for them already. We've made real progress these few days in intimacy. And I just love to sit and listen to all their fresh young chatter."
CHAPTER XXIXThis was the last of Mr. Twist's worries before the opening day.
Remorseful that he should have shirked helping the Annas to bear Mrs. Bilton, besides having had a severe fright on perceiving how near his shirking had brought the party to disaster, he now had his meals with the others and spent the evenings with them as well. He was immensely grateful to Mrs. Bilton. Her grit had saved them. He esteemed and respected her. Indeed, he shook hands with her then and there at the end of her speech, and told her he did, and the least he could do after that was to come to dinner. But this very genuine appreciation didn't prevent his finding her at close quarters what Anna-Rose, greatly chastened, now only called temperately "a little much," and the result was a really frantic hurrying on of the work. He had rather taken, those first four days of being relieved of responsibility in regard to the twins, to finnicking with details, to dwelling lovingly on them with a sense of having a margin to his time, and things accordingly had considerably slowed down; but after twenty-four hours of Mrs. Bilton they hurried up again, and after forty-eight of her the speed was headlong. At the end of forty-eight hours it seemed to Mr. Twist more urgent than anything he had ever known that he should get out of the shanty, get into somewhere with space in it, and soundproof walls—lots of walls—and long passages between people's doors; and before the rooms in the inn were anything like finished he insisted on moving in."You must turn to on this last lap and help fix them up," he said to the twins. "It'll be a bit uncomfortable at first, but you must just take off your coats to it and not mind."
Mind? Turn to? It was what they were languishing for. It was what, in the arid hours under the ilex tree, collected so ignominiously round Mrs. Bilton's knee they had been panting for, like thirsty dogs with their tongues out. And such is the peculiar blessedness of work that instantly, the moment there was any to be done, everything that was tangled and irritating fell quite naturally into its proper place. Magically life straightened itself out smooth, and left off being difficult. Arbeit und Liebe, as their mother used to say, dropping into German whenever a sentence seemed to her to sound better that way—Arbeit und Liebe: these were the two great things of life; the two great angels, as she assured them, under whose spread-out wings lay happiness.
With a hungry zeal, with the violent energy of reaction, the Annas fell upon work. They started unpacking. All the things they had bought in Acapulco, the linen, the china, the teaspoons, the feminine touches that had been piled up waiting in the barn, were pulled out and undone and carried indoors. They sorted, and they counted, and they arranged on shelves. Anna-Rose flew in and out with her arms full. Anna-Felicitas slouched zealously after her, her arms full too when she started, but not nearly so full when she got there owing to the way things had of slipping through them and dropping on to the floor. They were in a blissful, busy confusion. Their faces shone with heat and happiness. Here was liberty; here was freedom; here was true dignity—Arbeit und Liebe....
When Mr. Twist, as he did whenever he could, came and looked on for a moment in his shirt sleeves, with his hat on the back of his head and his big, benevolent spectacles so kind, Anna-Rose's cup seemed full. Her dimple never disappeared for a moment. It was there all day long now; and even when she was asleep it still lurked in the corner of her mouth. Arbeit und Liebe.
Immense was the reaction of self-respect that took hold of the twins. They couldn't believe they were the people who had been so crude and ill-conditioned as to hide Mrs. Bilton's belongings, and actually finally to hide themselves. How absurd. How like children. How unpardonably undignified. Anna-Rose held forth volubly to this effect while she arranged the china, and Anna-Felicitas listened assentingly, with a kind of grave, ashamed sheepishness.
The result of this reaction was that Mrs. Bilton, whose pressure on them was relieved by the necessity of her too being in several places at once, and who was displaying her customary grit, now became the definite object of their courtesy. They were the mistresses of a house, they began to realize, and as such owed her every consideration. This bland attitude was greatly helped by their not having to sleep with her any more, and they found that the mere coming fresh to her each morning made them feel polite and well-disposed. Besides, they were thoroughly and finally grown-up now, Anna-Rose declared—never, never to lapse again. They had had their lesson, she said, gone through a crisis, and done that which Aunt Alice used to say people did after severe trials, aged considerably.
Anna-Felicitas wasn't quite so sure. Her own recent behaviour had shaken and shocked her too much. Who would have thought she would have gone like that? Gone all to pieces, back to sheer naughtiness, on the first provocation? It was quite easy, she reflected while she worked, and cups kept on detaching themselves mysteriously from her fingers, and tables tumbling over at her approach, to be polite and considerate to somebody you saw very little of, and even, as she found herself doing, to get fond of the person; but suppose circumstances threw one again into the person's continual society, made one again have to sleep in the same room? Anna-Felicitas doubted whether it would be possible for her to stand such a test, in spite of her earnest desire to behave; she doubted, indeed, whether anybody ever did stand that test successfully. Look at husbands.
Meanwhile there seemed no likelihood of its being applied again. Each of them had now a separate bedroom, and Mrs. Bilton had, in the lavish American fashion, her own bathroom, so that even at that point there was no collision. The twins' rooms were connected by a bathroom all to themselves, with no other door into it except the doors from their bedrooms, and Mr. Twist, who dwelt discreetly at the other end of the house, also had a bathroom of his own. It seemed as natural for American architects to drop bathrooms about, thought Anna-Rose, as for the little clouds in the psalms to drop fatness. They shed them just as easily, and the results were just as refreshing. To persons hailing from Pomerania, a place arid of bathrooms, it was the last word of luxury and comfort to have one's own. Their pride in theirs amused Mr. Twist, used from childhood to these civilized arrangements; but then, as they pointed out to him, he hadn't lived in Pomerania, where nothing stood between you and being dirty except the pump.
But it wasn't only the bathrooms that made the inn as planned by Mr. Twist and the architect seem to the twins the most perfect, the most wonderful magic little house in the world: the intelligent American spirit was in every corner, and it was full of clever, simple devices for saving labour—so full that it almost seemed to the Annas as if it would get up quite unaided at six every morning and do itself; and they were sure that if the smallest encouragement were given to the kitchen-stove it would cook and dish up a dinner all alone. Everything in the house was on these lines. The arrangements for serving innumerable teas with ease were admirable. They were marvels of economy and clever thinking-out. The architect was surprised at the attention and thought Mr. Twist concentrated on this particular part of the future housekeeping. "You seem sheer crazy on teas," he remarked; to which Mr. Twist merely replied that he was.
The last few days before the opening were as full of present joy and promise of yet greater joys to come as the last few days of a happy betrothal. They reminded AnnaFelicitas of those days in April, those enchanting days she had always loved the best, when the bees get busy for the first time, and suddenly there are wallflowers and a flowering currant bush and the sound of the lawn being mown and the smell of cut grass. How one's heart leaps up to greet them, she thought. What a thrill of delight rushes through one's body, of new hope, of delicious expectation.
Even Li Koo, the wooden-faced, the brief and rare of speech seemed to feel the prevailing satisfaction and harmony and could be heard in the evenings singing strange songs among his pots. And what he was singing, only nobody knew it, were soft Chinese hymns of praise of the two white-lily girls, whose hair was woven sunlight, and whose eyes were deep and blue even as the waters that washed about the shores of his father's dwelling-place. For Li Koo, the impassive and inarticulate, in secret seethed with passion. Which was why his cakes were so wonderful. He had to express himself somehow.
But while up on their sun-lit, eucalyptus-crowned slopes Mr. Twist and his party—he always thought of them as his party—were innocently and happily busy full of hopefulness and mutual goodwill, down in the town and in the houses scattered over the lovely country round the town, people were talking. Everybody knew about the house Teapot Twist was doing up, for the daily paper had told them that Mr. Edward A. Twist had bought the long uninhabited farmhouse in Pepper Lane known as Batt's, and was converting it into a little ventre-à-terre for his widowed mother—launching once more into French, as though there were something about Mr. Twist magnetic to that language. Everybody knew this, and it was perfectly natural for a well-off Easterner to have a little place out West, even if the choice of the little place was whimsical. But what about the Miss Twinklers? Who and what were they? And also, Why?
There were three weeks between the departure of the Twist party from the Cosmopolitan and the opening of the inn, and in that time much had been done in the way of conjecture. The first waves of it flowed out from the Cosmopolitan, and were met almost at once by waves flowing in from the town. Good-natured curiosity gave place to excited curiosity when the rumour got about that the Cosmopolitan had been obliged to ask Mr. Twist to take his entourage somewhere else. Was it possible the cute little girls, so well known by sight on Main Street going from shop to shop, were secretly scandalous? It seemed almost unbelievable, but luckily nothing was really unbelievable.
The manager of the hotel, dropped in upon casually by one guest after the other, and interviewed as well by determined gentlemen from the local press, was not to be drawn. His reserve was most interesting. Miss Heap knitted and knitted and was persistently enigmatic. Her silence was most exciting. On the other hand, Mrs. Ridding's attitude was merely one of contempt, dismissing the Twinklers with a heavy gesture. Why think or trouble about a pair of chits like that? They had gone; Albert was quiet again; and wasn't that the gong for dinner?
But doubts as to the private morals of the Twist entourage presently were superseded by much graver and more perturbing doubts. Nobody knew when exactly this development took place. Acapulco had been enjoying the first set of doubts. There was no denying that doubts about somebody else's morals were not unpleasant. They did give one, if one examined one's sensations carefully, a distinct agreeable tickle; they did add the kick to lives which, if they had been virtuous for a very long time like the lives of the Riddings, or virgin for a very long time like the life of Miss Heap, were apt to be flat. But from the doubts that presently appeared and overshadowed the earlier ones, one got nothing but genuine discomfort and uneasiness. Nobody knew how or when they started. Quite suddenly they were there.
This was in the November before America's coming into the war. The feeling in Acapulco was violently anti-German. The great majority of the inhabitants, permanent and temporary, were deeply concerned at the conduct of their country in not having, immediately after the torpedoing of the Lusitania, joined the Allies. They found it difficult to understand, and were puzzled and suspicious, as well as humiliated in their national pride. Germans who lived in the neighbourhood, or who came across from the East for the winter, were politely tolerated, but the attitude toward them was one of growing watchfulness and distrust; and week by week the whispered stories of spies and gunemplacements and secret stores of arms in these people's cellars or back gardens, grew more insistent and detailed. There certainly had been at least one spy, a real authentic one, afterward shot in England, who had stayed near-by, and the nerves of the inhabitants had that jumpiness on this subject with which the inhabitants of other countries have long been familiar. All the customary inexplicable lights were seen; all the customary mysterious big motor cars rushed at forbidden and yet unhindered speeds along unusual roads at unaccountable hours; all the customary signalling out to sea was observed and passionately sworn to by otherwise calm people. It was possible, the inhabitants found, to believe with ease things about Germans—those who were having difficulty with religion wished it were equally easy to believe things about God. There was nothing Germans wouldn't think of in the way of plotting, and nothing they wouldn't, having thought of it, carry out with deadly thoroughness and patience.And into this uneasy hotbed of readiness to believe the worst, arrived the Twinkler twins, rolling their r's about.
It needed but a few inquiries to discover that none of the young ladies' schools in the neighbourhood had been approached on their behalf; hardly inquiries,—mere casual talk was sufficient, ordinary chatting with the principals of these establishments when one met them at the lectures and instructive evenings the more serious members of the community organized and supported. Not many of the winter visitors went to these meetings, but Miss Heap did. Miss Heap had a restless soul. It was restless because it was worried by perpetual thirst,—she couldn't herself tell after what; it wasn't righteousness, for she knew she was still worldly, so perhaps it was culture. Anyhow she would give culture a chance, and accordingly she went to the instructive evenings. Here she met that other side of Acapulco which doesn't play bridge and is proud to know nothing of polo, which believes in education, and goes in for mind training and welfare work; which isn't, that is, well off.Nobody here had been asked to educate the Twinklers. No classes had been joined by them.
Miss Heap was so enigmatic, she who was naturally of an unquiet and exercise-loving tongue, that this graver, more occupied section of the inhabitants was instantly as much pervaded by suspicions as the idlest of the visitors in the hotels and country houses. It waved aside the innocent appearance and obvious extreme youth of the suspects. Useless to look like cherubs if it were German cherubs you looked like. Useless being very nearly children if it were German children you very nearly were. Why, precisely these qualities would be selected by those terribly clever Germans for the furtherance of their nefarious schemes. It would be quite in keeping with the German national character, that character of bottomless artfulness, to pick out two such young girls with just that type of empty, baby face, and send them over to help weave the gigantic invisible web with which America was presently to be choked dead.
The serious section of Acapulco, the section that thought, hit on this explanation of the Twinklers with no difficulty whatever once its suspicions were roused because it was used to being able to explain everything instantly. It was proud of its explanation, and presented it to the town with much the same air of deprecating but conscious achievement with which one presents drinking-fountains.
Then there was the lawyer to whom Mr. Twist had gone about the guardianship. He said nothing, but he was clear in his mind that the girls were German and that Mr. Twist wanted to hide it. He had thought more highly of Mr. Twist's intelligence than this. Why hide it? America was a neutral country; technically she was neutral, and Germans could come and go as they pleased. Why unnecessarily set tongues wagging? He did not, being of a continuous shrewd alertness himself, a continuous wide-awakeness and minute consideration of consequences, realize, and if he had he wouldn't have believed, the affectionate simplicity and unworldliness of Mr. Twist. If it had been pointed out to him he would have dismissed it as a pose; for a man who makes money in any quantity worth handling isn't affectionately simple and unworldly—he is calculating and steely.
The lawyer was puzzled. How did Mr. Twist manage to have a forehead and a fortune like that, and yet be a fool? True, he had a funny sort of face on him once you got down to the nose part and what came after,—a family sort of face, thought the lawyer; a sort of rice pudding, wet-nurse face. The lawyer listened intently to all the talk and rumours, while himself saying nothing. In spite of being a married man, his scruples about honour hadn't been blunted by the urge to personal freedom and the necessity for daily selfdefence that sometimes afflicts those who have wives. He remained honourably silent, as he had said he would, but he listened; and he came to the conclusion that either there was a quite incredible amount of stupidity about the Twist party, or that there was something queer.
What he didn't know, and what nobody knew, was that the house being got ready with such haste was to be an inn. He, like the rest of the world, took the newspapers ventreà-terre theory of the house for granted, and it was only the expectation of the arrival of that respectable lady, the widowed Mrs. Twist, which kept the suspicions a little damped down. They smouldered, hesitating, beneath this expectation; for Teapot Twist's family life had been voluminously described in the entire American press when first his invention caught on, and it was known to be pure. There had been snapshots of the home at Clark where he had been born, of the home at Clark (west aspect) where he would die—Mr. Twist read with mild surprise that his liveliest wish was to die in the old home—of the corner in the Clark churchyard where he would probably be entombed, with an inset showing his father's gravestone on which would clearly be read the announcement that he was the Resurrection and the Life. And there was an inset of his mother, swathed in the black symbols of ungluttable grief,—a most creditable mother. And there were accounts of the activities of another near relative, that Uncle Charles who presided over the Church of Heavenly Refreshment in New York, and a snapshot of his macerated and unrefreshed body in a cassock,—a most creditable uncle.
These articles hadn't appeared so very long ago, and the impression survived and was general that Mr. Twist's antecedents were unimpeachable. If it were true that the house was for his mother and she was shortly arriving, then, although still very odd and unintelligible, it was probable that his being there now with the two Germans was after all capable of explanation. Not much of an explanation, though. Even the moderates who took this view felt this. One wasn't with Germans these days if one could help it. There was no getting away from that simple fact. The inevitable deduction was that Mr. Twist couldn't help it. Why couldn't he help it? Was he enslaved by a scandalous passion for them, a passion cold-bloodedly planned for him by the German Government, which was known to have lists of the notable citizens of the United States with photographs and details of their probable weaknesses, and was exactly informed of their movements? He had met the Twinklers, so it was reported, on a steamer coming over from England. Of course. All arranged by the German Government. That was the peculiar evil greatness of this dangerous people, announced the serious section of Acapulco, again with the drinking-fountain-presentation air, that nothing was too private or too petty to escape their attention, to be turned to their own wicked uses. They were as economical of the smallest scraps of possible usefulness as a French cook of the smallest scraps and leavings of food. Everything was turned to account. Nothing was wasted. Even the mosquitoes in Germany were not wasted. They contained juices, Germans had discovered, especially after having been in contact with human beings, and with these juices the talented but unscrupulous Germans made explosives. Could one sufficiently distrust a nation that did things like that? asked the serious section of Acapulco.