Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim - HTML preview
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People were so much preoccupied by the Twinkler problem that they were less interested than they otherwise would have been in the sea-blue advertisements, and when the one appeared announcing that The Open Arms would open wide on the 29th of the month and exhorting the public to watch the signposts, they merely remarked that it wasn't, then, the title of a book after all. Mr. Twist would have been surprised and nettled if he had known how little curiosity his advertisements were exciting; he would have been horrified if he had known the reason. As it was, he didn't know anything. He was too busy, too deeply absorbed, to be vulnerable to rumour; he, and the twins, and Mrs. Bilton were safe from it inside their magic circle of Arbeit und Liebe.
Sometimes he was seen in Main Street, that street in Acapulco through which everybody passes at certain hours of the morning, looking as though he had a great deal to do and very little time to do it in; and once or twice the Twinklers were seen there, also apparently very busy, but they didn't now come alone. Mrs. Bilton, the lady from Los Angeles—Acapulco knew all about her and admitted she was a lady of strictest integrity and unimpeachable character, but this only made the Twinkler problem more obscure—came too, and seemed, judging from the animation of her talk, to be on the best of terms with her charges.
But once an idea has got into people's heads, remarked the lawyer, who was nudged by the friend he was walking with as the attractive trio were seen approaching,—Mrs. Bilton with her black dress and her snowy hair setting off, as they in their turn set her off, the twins in their clean white frocks and shining youth,—once an idea has got into people's heads it sticks. It is slow to get in, and impossible to get out. Yet on the face of it, was it likely that Mrs. Bilton—"Say," interrupted his friend, "since when have you joined up with the water-blooded believe-nothing-but-good-ites?" And only his personal affection for the lawyer restrained him from using the terrible word pro-German; but it had been in his mind.
The day before the opening, Miss Heap heard from an acquaintance in the East to whom she had written in her uneasiness, and who was staying with some people living in Clark. Miss Heap wrote soon after the departure—she didn't see why she shouldn't call it by its proper name and say right out expulsion—of the Twist party from the Cosmopolitan, but letters take a long time to get East and answers take the same long time to come back in, and messages are sometimes slow in being delivered if the other person doesn't realize, as one does oneself, the tremendous interests that are at stake. What could be a more tremendous interest, and one more adapted to the American genius, than safe-guarding public morals? Miss Heap wrote before the sinister rumours of German machinations had got about; she was still merely at the stage of uneasiness in regard to the morals of the Twist party; she couldn't sleep at night for thinking of them. Of course if it were true that his mother was coming out ... but was she? Miss Heap somehow felt unable to believe it. "Do tell your friends in Clark," she wrote, "how delighted we all are to hear that Mrs. Twist is going to be one of us in our sunny refuge here this winter. A real warm welcome awaits her. Her son is working day and night getting the house ready for her, helped indefatigably by the two Miss Twinklers."
She had to wait over a fortnight for the answer, and by the time she got it those other more terrible doubts had arisen, the doubts as to the exact position occupied by the Twinklers and Mr. Twist in the German secret plans for, first, the pervasion, and, second, the invasion of America; and on reading the opening lines of the letter Miss Heap found she had to sit down, for her legs gave way beneath her.
It appeared that Mrs. Twist hadn't known where her son was till Miss Heap's letter came. He had left Clark in company of the two girls mentioned, and about whom his mother knew nothing, the very morning after his arrival home from his long absence in Europe. That was all his mother knew. She was quite broken. Coming on the top of all her other sorrow her only son's behaviour had been a fearful, perhaps a finishing blow, but she was such a good woman that she still prayed for him. Clark was horrified. His mother had decided at first she would try to shield him and say nothing, but when she found that nobody had the least idea of what he had done she felt she owed it to her friends to be open and have no secrets from them. Whatever it cost her in suffering and humiliation she would be frank. Anything was better than keeping up false appearances to friends who believed in you. She was a brave woman, a splendid woman. The girls— poor Mrs. Twist—were Germans.
On reading this Miss Heap was all of a tingle. Her worst suspicions hadn't been half bad enough. Here was everything just about as black as it could be; and Mr Twist, a wellknown and universally respected American citizen, had been turned, by means of those girls playing upon weaknesses she shuddered to think of but that she had reason to believe, from books she had studied and conversations she had reluctantly taken part in, were not altogether uncommon, into a cat's-paw of the German Government.
What should she do? What should she say? To whom should she go? Which was the proper line of warning for her to take? It seemed to her that the presence of these people on the Pacific coast was a real menace to its safety, moral and physical; but how get rid of them? And if they were got rid of wouldn't it only be exposing some other part of America, less watchful, less perhaps able to take care of itself, to the ripening and furtherance of their schemes, whatever their schemes might be? Even at that moment. Miss Heap unconsciously felt that to let the Twinklers go would be to lose thrills. And she was really thrilled. She prickled with excitement and horror. Her circulation hadn't been so good for years. She wasn't one to dissect her feelings, so she had no idea of how thoroughly she was enjoying herself. And it was while she sat alone in her bedroom, her fingers clasping and unclasping the arms of her chair, her feet nervously nibbing up and down on the thick soft carpet, hesitating as to the best course for her to take, holding her knowledge meanwhile tight, hugging it for a little altogether to herself, her very own, shared as yet by no one,—it was while she sat there, that people out of doors in Acapulco itself, along the main roads, out in the country towards Zamora on the north and San Blas on the south, became suddenly aware of new signposts.
They hadn't been there the day before. They all turned towards the spot at the foot of the mountains where Pepper Lane was. They all pointed, with a long white finger, in that direction. And on them all was written in plain, sea-blue letters, beneath which the distance in miles or fractions of a mile was clearly marked, To The Open Arms.
Curiosity was roused at last. People meeting each other in Main Street stopped to talk about these Arms wondered where and what they were, and decided to follow the signposts that afternoon in their cars and track them down. They made up parties to go and track together. It would be a relief to have something a little different to do. What on earth could The Open Arms be? Hopes were expressed that they weren't something religious. Awful to follow signposts out into the country only to find they landed you in a meeting-house.
At lunch in the hotels, and everywhere where people were together, the signposts were discussed. Miss Heap heard them being discussed from her solitary table, but was so much taken up with her own exciting thoughts that she hardly noticed. After lunch, however, as she was passing out of the restaurant, still full of her unshared news and still uncertain as to whom she should tell it first, Mr. Ridding called out from his table and said he supposed she was going too.
They had been a little chilly to each other since the afternoon of the conversation with the Twinklers, but he would have called out to any one at that moment He was sitting waiting while Mrs. Ridding finished her lunch, his own lunch finished long ago, and was in the condition of muffled but extreme exasperation which the unoccupied watching of Mrs. Ridding at meals produced. Every day three times this happened, that Mr. Ridding got through his meal first by at least twenty minutes and then sat trying not to mind Mrs. Ridding. She wasn't aware of these efforts. They would greatly have shocked her; for to try not to mind one's wife surely isn't what decent, loving husbands ever have to do."Going where?" asked Miss Heap, stopping by the table; whereupon Mr. Ridding had the slight relief of getting up. Mrs. Ridding continued to eat impassively. "Following these new signposts that are all over the place," said Mr. Ridding. "Sort of paper-chase business." "Yes. I'd like to. Were you thinking of going, Mrs. Ridding?" "After our nap," said Mrs. Ridding, steadily eating. "I'll take you. Car at four o'clock,
She didn't raise her eyes from her plate, and as Miss Heap well knew that Mrs. Ridding was not open to conversation during meals and as she had nothing to say to Mr. Ridding, she expressed her thanks and pleasure, and temporarily left them.
This was a day of shocks and thrills. When the big limousine—symbol of Mrs. Ridding's power, for Mr. Ridding couldn't for the life of him see why he should have to provide a strange old lady with cars, and yet did so on an increasing scale of splendour—arrived at the turn on the main road to San Blas which leads into Pepper Lane and was confronted by the final signpost pointing up it, for the first time The Open Arms and the Twist and Twinkler party entered Miss Heap's mind in company. So too did they enter Mr. Ridding's mind; and they only remained outside Mrs. Ridding's because of her profound uninterest. Her thoughts were merged in aspic. That was the worst of aspic when it was as good as it was at the Cosmopolitan; one wasn't able to leave off eating it quite in time, and then, unfortunately, had to go on thinking of it afterwards.
The Twist house, remembered her companions simultaneously, was in Pepper Lane. Odd that this other thing, whatever it was, should happen to be there too. Miss Heap said nothing, but sat very straight and alert, her eyes everywhere. Mr. Ridding of course said nothing either. Not for worlds would he have mentioned the word Twist, which so instantly and inevitably suggested that other and highly controversial word Twinkler. But he too sat all eyes; for anyhow he might in passing get a glimpse of the place containing those cunning little bits of youngness, the Twinkler sisters, and even with any luck a glimpse of their very selves.
Up the lane went the limousine, slowly because of the cars in front of it. It was one of a string of cars, for the day was lovely, there was no polo, and nobody happened to be giving a party. All the way out from Acapulco they had only had to follow other cars. Cars were going, and cars were coming back. The cars going were full of solemn people, pathetically anxious to be interested. The cars coming back were full of animated people who evidently had achieved interest.
Miss Heap became more and more alert as they approached the bend in the lane round which the Twist house was situated. She had been there before, making a point of getting a friend to motor her past it in order to see what she could for herself, but Mr. Ridding, in spite of his desire to go and have a look too, had always, each time he tried to, found Mrs. Ridding barring the way. So that he didn't exactly know where it was; and when on turning the corner the car suddenly stopped, and putting his head out—he was sitting backwards—- he saw a great, old-fashioned signboard, such as he was accustomed to in pictures of ancient English village greens, withThe Open Arms in medieval letters painted on it, all he said was, "Guess we've run it to earth."
Miss Heap sat with her hands in her lap, staring. Mrs. Ridding, her mind blocked by aspic, wasn't receiving impressions. She gazed with heavy eyes straight in front of her. There she saw cars. Many cars. All stopped at this particular spot. With a dull sensation of fathomless fatigue she dimly wondered at them.
"Looks as though it's a hostelry," said Mr. Ridding, who remembered his Dickens; and he blinked up, craning his head out, at the signboard, on which through a gap in the branches of the pepper trees a shaft of brilliant late afternoon sun was striking. "Don't see one, though."He jerked his thumb. "Up back of the trees there, I reckon," he said. Then he prepared to open the door and go and have a look. A hand shot out of Miss Heap's lap at him. "Don't," she said quickly. "Don't, Mr. Ridding."
There was a little green gate in the thick hedge that grew behind the pepper trees, and some people he knew, who had been in the car in front, were walking up to it. Some other people he knew had already got to it, and were standing talking together with what looked like leaflets in their hands. These leaflets came out of a green wooden box fastened on to one of the gate-posts, with the words Won't you take one? painted on it.Mr. Ridding naturally wanted to go and take one, and here was Miss Heap laying hold of him and saying "Don't." "Don't what?" he asked looking down at her, his hand on the door. "Hello Ridding," called out one of the people he knew. "No good getting out. Show doesn't open till to-morrow at four. Can't get in to-day. Gate's bolted. Nothing doing." And then the man detached himself from the group at the gate and came over to the car with a leaflet in his hand.
"Say—" he said,—"how are you to-day, Miss Heap? Mrs. Ridding, your humble servant—say, look at this. Teapot Twist wasn't born yesterday when it comes to keeping things dark. No mention of his name on this book of words, but it's the house he was doing up all right, and it is to be used as an inn. Afternoon-tea inn. Profits to go to the American Red Cross. Price per head five dollars. Bit stiff, five dollars for tea. Wonder where those Twinkler girls come in. Here—you have this, Ridding, and study it. I'll get another." And taking off his hat a second time to the ladies he went back to his friends.
In great agitation Miss Heap turned to Mrs. Ridding, whose mind, galvanized by the magic words Twist and Twinkler, was slowly heaving itself free of aspic. "Perhaps we had best go back to the hotel, Mrs Ridding," said Miss Heap, her voice shaking. "There's something I wish particularly to tell you. I ought to have done so this morning, directly I knew, but I had no idea of course that this...." She waved a hand at the signboard, and collapsed into speechlessness.
"Albert—hotel," directed Mrs. Ridding.
CHAPTER XXXI"It's perfect," said the twins, looking round the tea-room.
This was next day, at a quarter to four. They had been looking round saying it was perfect at intervals since the morning. Each time they finished getting another of the little tables ready, each time they brought in and set down another bowl of flowers they stood back and gazed a moment in silence, and then said with one voice, "It's perfect."
Mr. Twist, though the house was not, as we have seen, quite as sober, quite as restrained in its effect as he had intended, was obliged to admit that it did look very pretty. And so did the Annas. Especially the Annas. They looked so pretty in the seablue frocks and little Dutch caps and big muslin aprons that he took off his spectacles and cleaned them carefully so as to have a thoroughly uninterrupted view; and as they stood at a quarter to four gazing round the room, he stood gazing at them, and when they said "It's perfect," he said, indicating them with his thumb, "Same here," and then they all laughed for they were all very happy, and Mrs. Bilton, arrayed exactly as Mr. Twist had pictured her when he engaged her in handsome black, her white hair beautifully brushed and neat, crossed over to the Annas and gave each of them a hearty kiss—for luck, she said—which Mr. Twist watched with an odd feeling of jealousy."I'd like to do that," he thought, filled with a sudden desire to hug. Then he said it out loud. "I'd like to do that," he said boldly. And added, "As it's the opening day."
"I don't think it would afford you any permanent satisfaction," said Anna-Felicitas placidly. "There's nothing really to be gained, we think, by kissing. Of course," she added politely to Mrs. Bilton, "we like it very much as an expression of esteem.""Then why not in that spirit—" began Mr. Twist.
"We don't hold with kissing," said Anna-Rose quickly, turning very red. Intolerable to be kissed en famille. If it had to be done at all, kissing should be done quietly, she thought. But she and Anna-Felicitas didn't hold with it anyhow. Never. Never. To her amazement she found tears in her eyes. Well, of all the liquid idiots.... It must be that she was so happy. She had never been so happy. Where on earth had her handkerchief got to...."Hello," said Mr. Twist, staring at her. Anna-Felicitas looked at her quickly.
"It's merely bliss," she said, taking the corner of her beautiful new muslin apron to Christopher's eyes. "Excess of it. We are, you know," she said, smiling over her shoulder at Mr. Twist, so that the corner of her apron, being undirected, began dabbing at Christopher's perfectly tearless ears, "quite extraordinarily happy, and all through you. Nevertheless Anna-R." she continued, addressing her with firmness while she finished her eyes and began her nose, "You may like to be reminded that there's only ten minutes left now before all those cars that were here yesterday come again, and you wouldn't wish to embark on your career as a waitress hampered by an ugly face, would you?"
But half an hour later no cars had come. Pepper Lane was still empty. The long shadows lay across it in a beautiful quiet, and the crickets in the grass chirruped undisturbed. Twice sounds were heard as if something was coming up it, and everybody flew to their posts—Li Koo to the boiling water, Mrs. Bilton to her raised desk at the end of the room, and the twins to the door—but the sounds passed on along the road and died away round the next corner.At half-past four the personnel of The Open Arms was sitting about silently in a state of increasing uneasiness, when Mr. Ridding walked in.
There had been no noise of a car to announce him; he just walked in mopping his forehead, for he had come in the jitney omnibus to the nearest point and had done the last mile on his own out-of-condition feet. Mrs. Ridding thought he was writing letters in the smoking-room. She herself was in a big chair on the verandah, and with Miss Heap and most of the other guests was discussing The Open Arms in all its probable significance. He hadn't been able to get away sooner because of the nap. He had gone through with the nap from start to finish so as not to rouse suspicion. He arrived very hot, but with a feeling of dare-devil running of risks that gave him great satisfaction. He knew that he would cool down again presently and that then the consequences of his behaviour would be unpleasant to reflect upon, but meanwhile his blood was up.
He walked in feeling not a day older than thirty,—most gratifying sensation. The personnel, after a moment's open-mouthed surprise, rushed to greet him. Never was a man more welcome. Never had Mr. Ridding been so warmly welcomed anywhere in his life."Now isn't this real homey," he said, beaming at Anna-Rose who took his stick. "Wish I'd known you were going to do it, for then I'd have had something to look forward to."
"Will you have tea or coffee?" asked Anna-Felicitas, trying to look very solemn and like a family butler but her voice quivering with eagerness. "Or perhaps you would prefer frothed chocolate? Each of these beverages can be provided either hot or iced—"
"There's ice-cream as well," said Anna-Rose, tumultuously in spite of also trying to look like a family butler. "I'd have ice-cream if I were you. There's more body in it. Cold, delicious body. And you look so hot. Hot things should always as soon as possible be united to cold things, so as to restore the proper balance—"
"And there's some heavenly stuff called cinnamon-toast—hot, you know, but if you have ice-cream at the same time it won't matter," said Anna-Felicitas, hanging up his hat for him. "I don't know whether you've studied the leaflets," she continued, "but in case you haven't I feel I oughtn't to conceal from you that the price is five dollars whatever you have."
She flicked an imaginary grain of dust off the cloth with the corner of her apron to convey to him that she knew her business, and hurried away to give the order. Indeed, they both hurried away to give the order.
"Say—" called out Mr. Ridding, for he thought one Anna would have been enough for this and he was pining to talk to them; but the twins weren't to be stopped from both giving the very first order, and they disappeared together into the pantry.
Mrs. Bilton sat in the farthest corner at her desk, apparently absorbed in an enormous ledger. In this ledger she was to keep accounts and to enter the number of teas, and from this high seat she was to preside over the activities of the personnel. She had retired hastily to it on the unexpected entrance of Mr. Ridding, and pen in hand was endeavouring to look as if she were totting up figures. As the pages were blank this was a little difficult. And it was difficult to sit there quiet. She wanted to get down and go and chat with the guest; she felt she had quite a good deal she could say to him; she had a great itch to go and talk, but Mr. Twist had been particular that to begin with, till the room was fairly full, he and she should leave the guests entirely to the Annas.
He himself was going to keep much in the background at all times, but through the halfopen door of his office he could see and hear; and he couldn't help thinking, as he sat there watching and observed the effulgence of the beams the old gentleman just arrived turned on the twins, that the first guest appeared to be extraordinarily and undesirably affectionate. He thought he had seen him at the Cosmopolitan, but wasn't sure. He didn't know that the Annas, after their conversation with him there, felt towards him as old friends, and he considered their manner was a little unduly familiar. Perhaps, after all, he thought uneasily, Mrs. Bilton had better do the waiting and the Annas sit with him in the office. The ledger could be written up at the end of the day. Or he could hire somebody....
Mr. Twist felt worried, and pulled at his ear. And why was there only one guest? It was twenty minutes to five; and this time yesterday the road had been choked with cars. He felt very much worried. With every minute this absence of guests grew more and more remarkable. Perhaps he had better, this beings the opening day, go in and welcome the solitary one there was. Perhaps it would be wise to elaborate the idea of the inn for his edification, so that he could hand on what he had heard to those others who so unaccountably hadn't come.
He got up and went into the other room; and just as Anna-Felicitas was reappearing with the teapot followed by Anna-Rose with a tray of cakes, Mr. Ridding, who was sitting up expectantly and giving his tie a little pat of adjustment, perceived bearing down upon him that fellow Teapot Twist.
This was a blow. He hadn't run risks and walked in the afternoon heat to sit and talk to Twist. Mr. Ridding was a friendly and amiable old man, and at any other time would have talked to him with pleasure; but he had made up his mind for the Twinklers as one makes up one's mind for a certain dish and is ravaged by strange fury if it isn't produced. Besides, hang it all, he was going to pay five dollars for his tea, and for that sum he ought to least to have it under the conditions he preferred.
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Twist," he nevertheless said as Mr. Twist introduced himself, his eyes, however, roving over the ministering Annas,—a roving Mr. Twist noticed with fresh misgivings.It made him sit down firmly at the table and say, "If you don't mind, Mr.—" "Ridding is my name." "If you don't mind, Mr. Ridding, I'd like to explain our objects to you."
But he couldn't help wondering what he would do if there were several tables with roving-eyed guests at them, it being clear that there wouldn't be enough of him in such a case to go round.
Mr. Ridding, for his part, couldn't help wondering why the devil Teapot Twist sat down unasked at his table. Five dollars. Come now. For that a man had a right to a table to himself.
But anyhow the Annas wouldn't have stayed talking for at that moment a car stopped in the lane and quite a lot of footsteps were heard coming up the neatly sanded path. Mr. Ridding pricked up his ears, for from the things he had heard being said all the evening before and all that morning in Acapulco, besides most of the night from the lips of that strange old lady with whom by some dreadful mistake he was obliged to sleep, he hadn't supposed there would be exactly a rush.
Four young men came in. Mr. Ridding didn't know them. No class, he thought, looking them over; and was seized with a feeling of sulky vexation suitable to twenty when he saw with what enthusiasm the Twinklers flew to meet them. They behaved, thought Mr. Ridding crossly, as if they were the oldest and dearest friends.
"Who are they?" he asked curtly of Mr. Twist, cutting into the long things he was saying. "Only the different experts who helped me rebuild the place," said Mr. Twist a little impatiently; he too had pricked up his ears in expectation at the sound of all those feet, and was disappointed.
He continued what Mr. Ridding, watching the group of young people, called sulkily to himself his rigmarole, but continued more abstractedly. He also was watching the Annas and the experts. The young men were evidently in the highest spirits, and were walking round the Annas admiring their get-up and expressing their admiration in laughter and exclamations. One would have thought they had known each other all their lives. The twins were wreathed in smiles. They looked as pleased, Mr. Twist thought, as cats that are being stroked. Almost he could hear them purring. He glanced helplessly across to where Mrs. Bilton sat, as he had told her, bent pen in hand over the ledger. She didn't move. It was true he had told her to sit like that, but hadn't the woman any imagination? What she ought to do now was to bustle forward and take that laughing group in charge.
"As I was telling you—" resumed Mr. Twist, returning with an effort to Mr. Ridding, only to find his eyes fixed on the young people and catch an unmistakably thwarted look in his face.
In a flash Mr. Twist realized what he had come for,—it was solely to see and talk to the twins. He must have noticed them at the Cosmopolitan, and come out just for them. Just for that. "Unprincipled old scoundrel," said Mr. Twist under his breath, his ears flaming. Aloud he said, "As I was telling you—" and went on distractedly with his rigmarole.
Then some more people came in. They had motored, but the noise the experts were making had drowned the sound of their arrival. Mr. Ridding and Mr. Twist, both occupied in glowering at the group in the middle of the room, were made aware of their presence by Anna-Felicitas suddenly dropping the pencil and tablets she had been provided with for writing down orders and taking an uncertain and obviously timid step forward.
They both looked round in the direction of her reluctant step, and saw a man and two women standing on the threshold. Mr. Twist, of course, didn't know them; he hardly knew anybody, even by sight. But Mr. Ridding did. That is, he knew them well by sight and had carefully avoided knowing them any other way, for they were Germans.
Mr. Ridding was one of those who didn't like Germans. He was a man who liked or disliked what his daily paper told him to, and his daily paper was anti-German. For reasons natural to one who disliked Germans and yet at the same time had a thirstily affectionate disposition, he declined to believe the prevailing theory about the Twinklers. Besides, he didn't believe it anyhow. At that age people were truthful, and he had heard them explain they had come from England and had acquired their rolling r's during a sojourn abroad. Why should he doubt? But he refrained from declaring his belief in their innocence of the unpopular nationality, owing to a desire to avoid trouble in that bedroom he couldn't call his but was obliged so humiliatingly to speak of as ours. Except, however, for the Twinklers, for all other persons of whom it was said that they were Germans, naturalized or not, immediate or remote, he had, instructed by his newspaper, what his called a healthy instinctive abhorrence.
"And she's got it too," he thought, much gratified at this bond between them, as he noted Anna-Felicitas's hesitating and reluctant advance to meet the new guests. "There's proof that people are wrong."
But what Anna-Felicitas had got was stage-fright; for here were the first strangers, the first real, proper visitors such as any shop or hotel might have. Mr. Ridding was a friend. So were the experts friends. This was trade coming in,—real business being done. Anna-Felicitas hadn't supposed she would be shy when the long-expected and prepared-for moment arrived, but she was. And it was because the guests seemed so disconcertingly pleased to see her. Even on the threshold the whole three stood smiling broadly at her. She hadn't been prepared for that, and it unnerved her."Charming, charming," said the newcomers, advancing towards her and embracing the room and the tables and the Annas in one immense inclusive smile of appreciation. "Know those?" asked Mr. Ridding, again cutting into Mr. Twist's explanations. "No," said he. "Wangelbeckers," said Mr. Ridding briefly. "Indeed," said Mr. Twist, off whose ignorance the name glanced harmlessly. "Well, as I was telling yous—"
"But this is delicious—this is a conception of genius," said Mr. Wangelbecker allembracingly, after he had picked up Anna-Felicitas's tablets and restored them to her with a low bow."Charming, charming," said Mrs. Wangelbecker, looking round. "Real cunning," said Miss Wangelbecker, "as they say here." And she laughed at AnnaFelicitas with an air of mutual understanding. "Will you have tea or coffee?" asked Anna-Felicitas nervously. "Or perhaps you would prefer frothed chocolate. Each of these beverages can be—" "Delicious, delicious," said Mrs. Wangelbecker, enveloping Anna-Felicitas in her smile. "The frothed chocolate is very delicious," said Anna-Felicitas with a kind of grave nervousness.
"Ah—charming, charming," said Mrs. Wangelbecker, obstinately appreciative. "And there's ice-cream as well," said Anna-Felicitas, her eyes on her tablets so as to avoid seeing the Wangelbecker smile. "And—and a great many kinds of cakes—""Well, hadn't we better sit down first," said Mr. Wangelbecker genially, "or are all the tables engaged?" "Oh I beg your pardon," said Anna-Felicitas, blushing and moving hastily towards a table laid for three.
"Ah—that's better," said Mr. Wangelbecker, following closely on her heels. "Now we can go into the serious business of ordering what we shall eat comfortably. But before I sit down allow me to present myself. My name is Wangelbecker. An honest German name. And this is my wife. She too had an honest German name before she honoured mine by accepting it—she was a Niedermayer. And this is my daughter, with whom I trust you will soon be friends."And they all put out their hands to be shaken, and Anna-Felicitas shook them. "Look at that now," said Mr. Ridding watching.
"As I was telling you—" said Mr. Twist irritably, for really why should Anna II. shake hands right off with strangers? Her business was to wait, not to get shaking hands. He must point out to her very plainly."Pleased to meet you Miss von Twinkler," said Mrs. Wangelbecker; and at this AnnaFelicitas was so much startled that she dropped her tablets a second time. "As they say here," laughed Miss Wangelbecker, again with that air of mutual comprehension. "But they don't," said Anna Felicitas hurriedly, taking her tablets from the restoring hand of Mr. Wangelbecker and forgetting to thank him. "What?" said Mrs. Wangelbecker. "When you are both so charming that for once the phrase must be sincere?"
"Miss von Twinkler means she finds it wiser not to use her title," said Mr. Wangelbecker. "Well, perhaps—perhaps. Wiser perhaps from the point of view of convenience. Is that where you will sit, Güstchen? Still, we Germans when we are together can allow ourselves the refreshment of being ourselves, and I hope to be frequently the means of giving you the relief, you and your charming sister, of hearing yourselves addressed correctly. It is a great family, the von Twinklers. A great family. In these sad days we Germans must hang together—"
Anna-Felicitas stood, tablets in hand, looking helplessly from one Wangelbecker to the other. The situation was beyond her.
"But—" she began; then stopped. "Shall I bring you tea or coffee?" she ended by asking again.
"Well now this is amusing," said Mr. Wangelbecker, sitting down comfortably and leaning his elbows on the table. "Isn't it, Güstchen. To see a von Twinkler playing at waiting on us.""Charming, charming," said his wife.
"It's real sporting," said his daughter, laughing up at Anna-Felicitas, again with comprehension,—with, almost, a wink. "You must let me come and help. I'd look nice in that costume, wouldn't I mother.""There is also frothed choc—" "I suppose, now, Mr. Twist—he must be completely sympathy—" interrupted Mr. Wangelbecker confidentially, leaning forward and lowering his voice a little.
Anna-Felicitas gazed at him blankly. Some more people were coming in at the door, and behind them she could see on the path yet more, and Anna-Rose was in the pantry fetching the tea for the experts."Would you mind telling me what I am to bring you?" she asked. "Because I'm afraid—" Mr. Wangelbecker turned his head in the direction she was looking. "Ah—" he said getting up, "but this is magnificent Güstchen, here are Mrs. Kleinbart and her sister—why, and there come the Diederichs—but splendid, splendid—" "Say," said Mr. Ridding, turning to Mr. Twist with a congested face, "ever been to Berlin?" "No," said Mr. Twist, annoyed by a question of such wanton irrelevance flung into the middle of his sentence. "Well, it's just like this." "Like this?" repeated Mr. Twist. "Those there," said Mr. Ridding, jerking his head. "That lot there—see 'em any day in Berlin, or Frankfurt, or any other of their confounded towns." "I don't follow," said Mr. Twist, very shortly indeed. "Germans," said Mr. Ridding. "Germans?" "All Germans," said Ridding. "All Germans?" "Wangelbeckers are Germans," said Mr. Ridding. "Didn't you know?" "No," said Mr. Twist. "So are the ones who've just come in." "Germans?" "All Germans. So are those behind, just coming in." "Germans?" "All Germans." There was a pause, during which Mr. Twist stared round the room. It was presenting quite a populous appearance. Then he said slowly, "Well I'm damned." And Mr. Ridding for the first time looked pleased with Mr. Twist. He considered that at last he was talking sense. "Mr. Twist," he said heartily, "I'm exceedingly glad you're damned. It was what I was sure at the bottom of my heart you would be. Shake hands, sir."
CHAPTER XXXIIThat evening depression reigned in The Open Arms.
Mr. Twist paced up and down the tea-room deep in thought that was obviously unpleasant and perplexed; Mrs. Bilton went to bed abruptly, after a short outpour of words to the effect that she had never seen so many Germans at once before, that her psyche was disharmonious to Germans, that they made her go goose-fleshy just as cats in a room made Mr. Bilton go goose-fleshy in the days when he had flesh to go it with, that she hadn't been aware the inn was to be a popular resort and rendezvous for Germans, and that she wished to speak alone with Mr. Twist in the morning; while the twins, feeling the ominousness of this last sentence,—as did Mr. Twist, who started when he heard it,—and overcome by the lassitude that had succeeded the shocks of the afternoon, a lassitude much increased by their having tried to finish up the pailsful of left-over ices and the huge piles of cakes slowly soddening in their own souring cream, went out together on to the moonlit verandah and stood looking up in silence at the stars. There they stood in silence, and thought things about the immense distance and indifference of those bright, cold specks, and how infinitely insignificant after all they, the Twinklers were, and how they would both in any case be dead in a hundred years. And this last reflection afforded them somehow a kind of bleak and draughty comfort.
Thus the first evening, that was to have been so happy, was spent by everybody in silence and apart. Li Koo felt the atmosphere of oppression even in his kitchen, and refrained from song. He put away, after dealing with it cunningly so that it should keep until a more propitious hour, a wonderful drink he had prepared for supper in celebration of the opening day—"Me make li'l celebrity," he had said, squeezing together strange essences and fruits—and he moved softly about so as not to disturb the meditations of the master. Li Koo was perfectly aware of what had gone wrong: it was the unexpected arrival to tea of Germans. Being a member of the least blood-thirsty of the nations, he viewed Germans with peculiar disfavour and understood his master's prolonged walking up and down. Also he had noted through a crack in the door the way these people of blood and death crowded round the white-lily girls; and was not that sufficient in itself to cause his master's numerous and rapid steps?
Numerous indeed that evening were Mr. Twist's steps. He felt he must think, and he could think better walking up and down. Why had all those Germans come? Why, except old Ridding and the experts, had none of the Americans come? It was very strange. And what Germans! So cordial, so exuberant to the twins, so openly gathering them to their bosoms, as though they belonged there. And so cordial too to him, approaching him in spite of his withdrawals, conveying to him somehow, his disagreeable impression had been, that he and they perfectly understood each other. Then Mrs. Bilton; was she going to give trouble? It looked like it. It looked amazingly like it. Was she after all just another edition of his mother, and unable to discriminate between Germans and Germans, between the real thing and mere technicalities like the Twinklers? It is true he hadn't told her the twins were German, but then neither had he told her they weren't. He had been passive. In Mrs. Bilton's presence passivity came instinctively. Anything else involved such extreme and unusual exertion. He had never had the least objection to her discovering their nationality for herself, and indeed had been surprised she hadn't done so long ago, for he felt sure she would quickly begin to love the Annas, and once she loved them she wouldn't mind what their father had happened to be. He had supposed she did love them. How affectionately she had kissed them that very afternoon and wished them luck. Was all that nothing? Was lovableness nothing, and complete innocence, after all in the matter of being born, when weighed against the one fact of the von? What he would do if Mrs. Bilton left him he couldn't imagine. What would happen to The Open Arms and the twins in such a case, his worried brain simply couldn't conceive.
Out of the corner of his eye every time he passed the open door on to the verandah he could see the two Annas standing motionless on its edge, their up-turned faces, as they gazed at the stars, white in the moonlight and very serious. Pathetic children. Pathetic, solitary, alien children. What were they thinking of? He wouldn't mind betting it was their mother.
Mr. Twist's heart gave a kind of tug at him. His sentimental, maternal side heaved to the top. A great impulse to hurry out and put his arms round them seized him, but he frowned and overcame it. He didn't want to go soft now. Nor was this the moment, his nicely brought up soul told him, his soul still echoing with the voice of Clark, to put his arms round them—this, the very first occasion on which Mrs. Bilton had left them alone with him. Whether it would become proper on the very second occasion was one of those questions that would instantly have suggested itself to the Annas themselves, but didn't occur to Mr. Twist. He merely went on to think of another reason against it, which was the chance of Mrs. Bilton's looking out of her window just as he did it. She might, he felt, easily misjudge the situation, and the situation, he felt, was difficult enough already. So he restrained himself; and the Annas continued to consider infinite space and to perceive, again with that feeling of dank and unsatisfactory consolation, that nothing really mattered.
Next day immediately after breakfast Mrs. Bilton followed him into his office and gave notice. She called it formally tendering her resignation. She said that all her life she had been an upholder of straight dealing, as much in herself towards others as in others towards herself—"Mrs. Bilton—" interrupted Mr. Twist, only it didn't interrupt. She had also all her life been intensely patriotic, and Mr. Twist, she feared, didn't look at patriotism with quite her single eye— "Mrs. Bilton—" As her eye saw it, patriotism was among other things a determination to resist the encroachments of foreigners— "Mrs. Bilton—" She had no wish to judge him, but she had still less wish to be mixed up with foreigners, and foreigners for her at that moment meant Germans— "Mrs. Bilton—" She regretted, but psychically she would never be able to flourish in a soil so largely composed, as the soil of The Open Arms appeared to be, of that nationality— "Mrs. Bilton—" And though it was none of her business, still she must say it did seem to her a pity that Mr. Twist with his well-known and respected American name should be mixed up— "Mrs. Bilton—"
And though she had no wish to be inquisitive, still she must say it did seem to her peculiar that Mr. Twist should be the guardian of two girls who, it was clear from what she had overheard that afternoon, were German—
Here Mr. Twist raised his voice and shouted. "Mrs. Bilton," he shouted, so loud that she couldn't but stop, "if you'll guarantee to keep quiet for just five minutes—sit down right here at this table and not say one single thing, not one single thing for just five minutes," he said, banging the table, "I'll tell you all about it. Oh yes, I'll accept your resignation at the end of that time if you're still set on leaving, but just for this once it's me that's going to do the talking."And this must be imagined as said so loud that only capital letters would properly represent the noise Mr. Twist made.
Mrs. Bilton did sit down, her face flushed by the knowledge of how good her intentions had been when she took the post, and how deceitful—she was forced to think it—Mr. Twist's were when he offered it. She was prepared, however, to give him a hearing. It was only fair. But Mr. Twist had to burst into capitals several times before he had done, so difficult was it for Mrs. Bilton, even when she had agreed, even when she herself wished, not to say anything.
It wasn't five minutes but twenty before Mrs. Bilton came out of the office again. She went straight into the garden, where the Annas, aware of the interview going on with Mr. Twist, had been lingering anxiously, unable at so crucial a moment to settle to anything, and with solemnity kissed them. Her eyes were very bright. Her face, ordinarily colourless as parchment, was red. Positively she kissed them without saying a single word; and they kissed her back with such enthusiasm, with a relief that made them hug her so tight and cling to her so close, that the brightness in her eyes brimmed over and she had to get out her handkerchief and wipe it away.
"Gurls," said Mrs. Bilton, "I had a shock yesterday, but I'm through with it. You're motherless. I'm daughterless. We'll weld."
She was much moved. Her heart was touched; and once that happened nothing could exceed her capacity for sticking through what she called thick and thin to her guns. For years Mr. Bilton had occupied the position of the guns; now it would be these poor orphans. No Germans could frighten her away, once she knew their story; no harsh judgments and misconceptions of her patriotic friends. Mr. Twist had told her everything, from the beginning on the St. Luke, harking back to Uncle Arthur and the attitude of England, describing what he knew of their mother and her death, not even concealing the part his own mother had played or that he wasn't their guardian at all. He made the most of Mrs. Bilton's silence; and as she listened her heart melted within her, and the immense store of grit which was her peculiar pride came to the top and once and for all overwhelmed her prejudices. But she couldn't think, and at last she burst out and told Mr. Twist she couldn't think, why he hadn't imparted all this to her long ago."Ah," murmured Mr. Twist, bowing his head as a reed in the wind before the outburst of her released volubility.
Hope once more filled The Open Arms, and the Twist party looked forward to the afternoon with renewed cheerfulness. It had just happened so the first day, that only Germans came. It was just accident. Mr. Twist, with the very large part of him that wasn't his head, found himself feeling like this too and declining to take any notice of his intelligence, which continued to try to worry him.
Yet the hope they all felt was not realized, and the second afternoon was almost exactly like the first. Germans came and clustered round the Annas, and made friendly though cautious advances to Mr. Twist. The ones who had been there the first day came again and brought others with them worse than themselves, and they seemed more at home than ever, and the air was full of rolling r's—among them, Mr. Twist was unable to deny, being the r's of his blessed Annas. But theirs were such little r's, he told himself. They rolled, it is true, but with how sweet a rolling. While as for these other people—confound it all, the place might really have been, from the sounds that were filling it, a Conditorei Unter den Linden.
All his doubts and anxieties flocked back on him as time passed and no Americans appeared. Americans. How precious. How clean, and straight, and admirable. Actually he had sometimes, he remembered, thought they weren't. What an aberration. Actually he had been, he remembered, impatient with them when first he came back from France. What folly. Americans. The very word was refreshing, was like clear water on a thirsty day. One American, even one, coming in that afternoon would have seemed to Mr. Twist a godsend, a purifier, an emollient—like some blessed unction dropped from above.
But none appeared; not even Mr. Ridding.
At six o'clock it was quite dark, and obviously too late to go on hoping. The days in California end abruptly. The sun goes down, and close on its heels comes night. In the tea-room the charmingly shaded lights had been turned on some time, and Mr. Twist, watching from the partly open door of his office, waited impatiently for the guests to begin to thin out. But they didn't. They took no notice of the signals of lateness, the lights turned on, the stars outside growing bright in the surrounding blackness.
Mr. Twist watched angrily. He had been driven into his office by the disconcerting and incomprehensible overtures of Mr. Wangelbecker, and had sat there watching in growing exasperation ever since. When six struck and nobody showed the least sign of going away he could bear it no longer, and touched the little muffled electric bell that connected him to Mrs. Bilton in what Anna-Felicitas called a mystical union—Anna II. was really excessively tactless; she had said this to Mrs. Bilton in his presence, and then enlarged on unions, mystical and otherwise, with an embarrassing abundance of imagery—by buzzing gently against her knee from the leg of the desk.She laid down her pen, as though she had just finished adding up a column, and went to him. "Now don't talk," said Mr. Twist, putting up an irritable hand directly she came in. Mrs. Bilton looked at him in much surprise. "Talk, Mr. Twist?" she repeated. "Why now, as though—"
"Don't talk I say, Mrs. Bilton, but listen. Listen now. I can't stand seeing those children in there. It sheer makes my gorge rise. I want you to fetch them in here—now don't talk— you and me'll do the confounded waiting—no, no, don't talk—they're to stay quiet in here till the last of those Germans have gone. Just go and fetch them, please Mrs. Bilton. No, no, we'll talk afterwards. I'll stay here till they come." And he urged her out into the tea-room again.
The guests had finished their tea long ago, but still sat on, for they were very comfortable. Obviously they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and all were growing, as time passed, more manifestly at home. They were now having a kind of supper of ices and fruit-salads. Five dollars, thought the sensible Germans, was after all a great deal to pay for afternoon tea, however good the cause might be and however important one's own ulterior motives; and since one had in any case to pay, one should eat what one could. So they kept the Annas very busy. There seemed to be no end, thought the Annas as they ran hither and thither, to what a German will hold.
Mrs. Bilton waylaid the heated and harried Anna-Rose as she was carrying a tray of ices to a party she felt she had been carrying ices to innumerable times already. The little curls beneath her cap clung damply to her forehead. Her face was flushed and distressed. What with having to carry so many trays, and remember so many orders, and try at the same time to escape from the orderers and their questions and admiration, she was in a condition not very far from tears.
Mrs. Bilton took the tray out of her hands, and told her Mr. Twist wanted to speak to her; and Anna-Rose was in such a general bewilderment that she felt quite scared, and thought he must be going to scold her. She went towards the office reluctantly. If Mr. Twist were to be severe, she was sure she wouldn't be able not to cry. She made her way very slowly to the office, and Mrs. Bilton looked round the room for the other one. There was no sign of her. Perhaps, thought Mrs. Bilton, she was fetching something in the kitchen, and would appear in a minute; and seeing a group over by the entrance door, for whom the tray she held was evidently destined, gesticulating to her, she felt she had better keep them quiet first and then go and look for Anna-Felicitas.
Mrs. Bilton set her teeth and plunged into her strange new duties. Never would she have dreamed it possible that she should have to carry trays to Germans. If Mr. Bilton could see her now he would certainly turn in his grave. Well, she was a woman of grit, of adhesiveness to her guns; if Mr. Bilton did see her and did turn in his grave, let him; he would, she dared say, be more comfortable on his other side after all these years.
For the next few minutes she hurried hither and thither, and waited single-handed. She seemed to be swallowed up in activity. No wonder that child had looked so hot and bewildered. Mr. Twist didn't come and help, as he had promised, and nowhere was there any sign of Anna-Felicitas; and the guests not only wanted things to eat, they wanted to talk,—talk and ask questions. Well, she would wait on them, but she wouldn't talk. She turned a dry, parchment-like face to their conversational blandishments, and responded only by adding up their bills. Wonderful are the workings of patriotism. For the first time in her life, Mrs. Bilton was grumbled at for not talking.
CHAPTER XXXIIIIn the office Anna-Rose found Mr. Twist walking up and down.
"See here," he said, turning on her when she came in, "I'm about tired of looking on at all this twittering round that lot in there. You're through with that for to-day, and maybe for to-morrow and the day after as well."He waved his arm at the deep chair that had been provided for his business meditations. "You'll sit down in that chair now," he said severely, "and stay put."
Anna-Rose looked at him with a quivering lip. She went rather unsteadily to the chair and tumbled into it. "I don't know if you're angry or being kind," she said tremulously, "but whichever it is I—I wish you wouldn't. I—I wish you'd manage to be something that isn't either." And, as she had feared, she began to cry.
"Anna-Rose," said Mr. Twist, staring down at her in concern mixed with irritation—out there all those Germans, in here the weeping child; what a day he was having—"for heaven's sake don't do that.""I know," sobbed Anna-Rose. "I don't want to. It's awful being so natu—natu—naturally liquid." "But what's the matter?" asked Mr. Twist helplessly. "Nothing," sobbed Anna-Rose.
He stood over her in silence for a minute, his hands in his pockets. If he took them out he was afraid he might start stroking her, and she seemed to him to be exactly between the ages when such a form of comfort would be legitimate. If she were younger ... but she was a great girl now; if she were older ... ah, if she were older, Mr. Twist could imagine...."You're overtired," he said aloofly. "That's what you are." "No," sobbed Anna-Rose. "And the Germans have been too much for you." "They haven't," sobbed Anna-Rose, her pride up at the suggestion that anybody could ever be that.
"But they're not going to get the chance again," said Mr. Twist, setting his teeth as much as they would set, which wasn't, owing to his natural kindliness, anything particular. "Mrs. Bilton and me—" Then he remembered Anna-Felicitas. "Why doesn't she come?" he asked."Who?" choked Anna-Rose. "The other one. Anna II. Columbus."
"I haven't seen her for ages," sobbed Anna-Rose, who had been much upset by AnnaFelicitas's prolonged disappearance and had suspected her, though she couldn't understand it after last night's finishings up, of secret unworthy conduct in a corner with ice-cream.
Mr. Twist went to the door quickly and looked through. "I can't see her either," he said. "Confound them—what have they done to her? Worn her out too, I daresay. I shouldn't wonder if she'd crawled off somewhere and were crying too.""Anna-F.—doesn't crawl," sobbed Anna-Rose, "and she—doesn't cry but—I wish you'd find—her." "Well, will you stay where you are while I'm away, then?" he said, looking at her from the door uncertainly.
And she seemed so extra small over there in the enormous chair, and somehow so extra motherless as she obediently gurgled and choked a promise not to move, that he found himself unable to resist going back to her for a minute in order to pat her head. "There, there," said Mr. Twist, very gently patting her head, his heart yearning over her; and it yearned the more that, the minute he patted, her sobs got worse; and also the more because of the feel of her dear little head.
"You little bit of blessedness," murmured Mr. Twist before he knew what he was saying; at which her sobs grew louder than ever,—grew, indeed, almost into small howls, so long was it since anybody had said things like that to her. It was her mother who used to say things like that; things almost exactly like that.
"Hush," said Mr. Twist in much distress, and with one anxious eye on the half-open door, for Anna-Rose's sobs were threatening to outdo the noise of teacups and icecream plates, "hush, hush—here's a clean handkerchief—you just wipe up your eyes while I fetch Anna II. She'll worry, you know, if she sees you like this,—hush now, hush—there, there—and I expect she's being miserable enough already, hiding away in some corner. You wouldn't like to make her more miserable, would you—"
And he pressed the handkerchief into Anna-Rose's hands, and feeling much flurried went away to search for the other one who was somewhere, he was sure, in a state of equal distress.
He hadn't however to search. He found her immediately. As he came out of the door of his office into the tea-room he saw her come into the tea-room from the door of the verandah, and proceed across it towards the pantry. Why the verandah? wondered Mr. Twist. He hurried to intercept her. Anyhow she wasn't either about to cry or getting over having done it. He saw that at once with relief. Nor was she, it would seem, in any sort of distress. On the contrary, Anna-Felicitas looked particularly smug. He saw that once too, with surprise,—why smug? wondered Mr. Twist. She had a pleased look of complete satisfaction on her face. She was oblivious, he noticed, as she passed between the tables, of the guests who tried in vain to attract her attention and detain her with orders. She wasn't at all hot, as Anna-Rose had been, nor rattled, nor in any way discomposed; she was just smug. And also she was unusually, extraordinarily pretty. How dared they all stare up at her like that as she passed? And try to stop her. And want to talk to her. And Wangelbecker actually laying his hand—no, his paw; in his annoyance Mr. Twist wouldn't admit that the object at the end of Mr. Wangelbecker's arm was anything but a paw—on her wrist to get her to listen to some confounded order or other. She took no notice of that either, but walked on towards the pantry. Placidly. Steadily. Obvious. Smug.
"Now Anna II.," said Mr. Twist, walking beside her towards the pantry since she didn't stop but continued steadily on her way, "that's trifling with the facts. You've been in the garden. I saw you come in. Perhaps you'll tell me the exact line of business you've been engaged in.""Waiting," said Anna-Felicitas placidly. "Waiting? In the garden? Where it's pitch dark, and there's nobody to wait on?" They had reached the pantry, and Anna-Felicitas gave an order to Li Koo through the serving window before answering; the order was tea and hot cinnamon toast for one.
"He's having his tea on the verandah," she said, picking out the most delicious of the little cakes from the trays standing ready, and carefully arranging them on a dish. "It isn't pitch dark at all there. There's floods of light coming through the windows. He won't come in.""And why pray won't he come in?" asked Mr. Twist. "Because he doesn't like Germans." "And who pray is he?" "I don't know." "Well I do," burst out Mr. Twist. "It's old Ridding, of course. His name is Ridding. The old man who was here yesterday. Now listen: I won't have—" But Anna-Felicitas was laughing, and her eyes had disappeared into two funny little screwed-up eyelashy slits.
Mr. Twist stopped abruptly and glared at her. These Twinklers. That one in there shaken with sobs, this one in here shaken with what she would no doubt call quite the contrary. His conviction became suddenly final that the office was the place for both the Annas. He and Mrs. Bilton would do the waiting.
"I'll take this," he said, laying hold of the dish of cakes. "I'll send Mrs. Bilton for the tea. Go into the office, Anna-Felicitas. Your sister is there and wants you badly. I don't know," he added, as Li Koo pushed the tea-tray through the serving window, "how it strikes you about laughter, but it strikes me as sheer silly to laugh except at something."
"Well, I was," said Anna-Felicitas, unscrewing her eyes and with gentle firmness taking the plate of cakes from him and putting it on the tray. "I was laughing at your swift conviction that the man out there is Mr. Ridding. I don't know who he is but I know heaps of people he isn't, and one of the principal ones is Mr. Ridding.""I'm going to wait on him," said Mr. Twist, taking the tray. "It would be most unsuitable," said Anna-Felicitas, taking it too. "Let go," said Mr. Twist, pulling. "Is this to be an unseemly wrangle?" inquired Anna-Felicitas mildly; and her eyes began to screw up again.
"If you'll oblige me by going into the office," he said, having got the tray, for AnnaFelicitas was never one to struggle, "Mrs. Bilton and me will do the rest of the waiting for to-day."
He went out grasping the tray, and made for the verandah. His appearance in this new rôle was greeted by the Germans with subdued applause—subdued, because they felt Mr. Twist wasn't quite as cordial to them as they had supposed he would be, and they were accordingly being a little more cautious in their methods with him than they had been at the beginning of the afternoon. He took no notice of them, except that his ears turned red when he knocked against a chair and the tray nearly fell out of his hands and they all cried out Houp là. Damn them, thought Mr. Twist. Houp là indeed.
In the farthest corner of the otherwise empty and very chilly verandah, sitting alone and staring out at the stars, was a man. He was a young man. He was also an attractive young man, with a thin brown face and very bright blue twinkling eyes. The light from the window behind him shone on him as he turned his head when he heard the swing doors open, and Mr. Twist saw these things distinctly and at once. He also saw how the young man's face fell on his, Mr. Twist's, appearance with the tray, and he also saw with some surprise how before he had reached him it suddenly cleared again. And the young man got up too, just as Mr. Twist arrived at the table—got up with some little difficulty, for he had to lean hard on a thick stick, but yet obviously with empressement."You've forgotten the sugar," said Anna-Felicitas's gentle voice behind Mr. Twist as he was putting down the tray; and there she was, sure enough, looking smugger than ever. "This is Mr. Twist," said Anna-Felicitas with an amiable gesture. "That I was telling you about," she explained to the young man. "When?" asked Mr. Twist, surprised. "Before," said Anna-Felicitas. "We were talking for some time before I went in to order the tea, weren't we?" she said to the young man, angelically smiling at him.
"Rather," he said; and since he didn't on this introduction remark to Mr. Twist that he was pleased to meet him, it was plain he couldn't be an American. Therefore he must be English. Unless, suddenly suspected Mr. Twist who had Germans badly on his nerves that day and was ready to suspect anything, he was German cleverly got up for evil purposes to appear English. But the young man dispersed these suspicions by saying that he was over from England on six months' leave, and that his name was Elliott."Like us," said Anna-Felicitas. The young man looked at her with what would have been a greater interest than ever if a greater interest had been possible, only it wasn't. "What, are you an Elliott too?" he asked eagerly.
Anna-Felicitas shook her head. "On the contrary," she said, "I'm a Twinkler. And so is my sister. What I meant was, you're like us about coming from England. We've done that. Only our leave is for ever and ever. Or the duration of the war."
Mr. Twist waved her aside. "Anna-Felicitas," he said, "your sister is waiting for you in the office and wants you badly. I'll see to Mr. Elliott."
"Why not bring your sister here?" said the young man, who, being in the navy, was fertile in resourcefulness. And he smiled at Anna-Felicitas, who smiled back; indeed, they did nothing but smile at each other.
"I think that's a brilliant idea," she said; and turned to Mr. Twist. "You go," she said gently, thereby proving herself, the young man considered, at least his equal in resourcefulness. "It's much more likely," she continued, as Mr. Twist gazed at her without moving, "that she'll come for you than for me. My sister," she explained to the young man, "is older than I am.""Then certainly I should say Mr. Twist is more likely—" "But only about twenty minutes older." "What? A twin? I say, how extraordinarily jolly. Two of you?"
"Anna-Felicitas," interrupted Mr. Twist, "you will go to your sister immediately. She needs you. She's upset. I don't wish to draw Mr. Elliott behind the scenes of family life, but as nothing seems to get you into the office you force me to tell you that she is very, much upset indeed, and is crying."
"Crying?" echoed Anna-Felicitas. "Christopher?" And she turned and departed in such haste that the young man, who luckily was alert as well as resourceful, had only just time to lean over and grab at a chair in her way and pull it aside, and so avert a deplorable catastrophe."I hope it's nothing serious?" he inquired of Mr. Twist. "Oh no. Children will cry." "Children?" Mr. Twist sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. "Tell me about England," he said. "You've been wounded, I see." "Leg," said the young man, still standing leaning on his stick and looking after AnnaFelicitas. "But that didn't get you six months' leave." "Lungs," said the young man, looking down impatiently at Mr. Twist. Then the swing doors swung to, and he sat down and poured out his tea.
He had been in the battle of Jutland, and was rescued after hours in the water. For months he was struggling to recover, but finally tuberculosis had developed and he was sent to California, to his sister who had married an American and lived in the neighbourhood of Acapulco. This Mr. Twist extracted out of him by diligent questioning. He had to question very diligently. What the young man wanted to talk about was AnnaFelicitas; but every time he tried to, Mr. Twist headed him off.
And she didn't come back. He waited and waited, and drank and drank. When the teapot was empty he started on the hot water. Also he ate all the cakes, more and more deliberately, eking them out at last with slowly smoked cigarettes. He heard all about France and Mr. Twist's activities there; he had time to listen to the whole story of the ambulance from start to finish; and still she didn't come back. In vain he tried at least to get Mr. Twist off those distant fields, nearer home—to the point, in fact, where the Twinklers were. Mr. Twist wouldn't budge. He stuck firmly. And the swing doors remained shut. And the cakes were all eaten. And there was nothing for it at last but to go.
So after half-an-hour of solid sitting he began slowly to get up, still spreading out the moments, with one eye on the swing doors. It was both late and cold. The Germans had departed, and Li Koo had lit the usual evening wood fire in the big fireplace. It blazed most beautifully, and the young man looked at it through the window and hesitated."How jolly," he said. "Firelight is very pleasant," agreed Mr. Twist, who had got up too. "I oughtn't to have stayed so long out here," said the young man with a little shiver. "I was thinking it was unwise," said Mr. Twist. "Perhaps I'd better go in and warm myself a bit before leaving." "I should say your best plan is to get back quickly to your sister and have a hot bath before dinner," said Mr. Twist. "Yes. But I think I might just go in there and have a cup of hot coffee first." "There is no hot coffee at this hour," said Mr. Twist, looking at his watch. "We close at half-past six, and it is now ten minutes after." "Then there seems nothing for it but to pay my bill and go," said the young man, with an air of cheerful adaptation to what couldn't be helped. "I'll just nip in there and do that." "Luckily there's no need for you to nip anywhere," said Mr. Twist, "for surely that's a type of movement unsuited to your sick leg. You can pay me right here."
And he took the young man's five dollars, and went with him as far as the green gate, and would have helped him into the waiting car, seeing his leg wasn't as other legs and Mr. Twist was, after all, humane, but the chauffeur was there to do that; so he just watched from the gate till the car had actually started, and then went back to the house.
He went back slowly, perturbed and anxious, his eyes on the ground. This second day had been worse than the first. And besides the continued and remarkable absence of Americans and the continued and remarkable presence of Germans, there was a slipperiness suddenly developed in the Annas. He felt insecure; as though he didn't understand, and hadn't got hold. They seemed to him very like eels. And this Elliott— what did he think he was after, anyway?
For the second time that afternoon Mr. Twist set his teeth. He defied Elliott. He defied the Germans. He would see this thing successful, this Open Arms business, or his name wasn't Twist. And he stuck out his jaw—or would have stuck it out if he hadn't been prevented by the amiable weakness of that feature. But spiritually and morally, when he got back into the house he was all jaw.
That night he determined he would go into Acapulco next morning and drop in at his bank and at his lawyer's and other places, and see if he could pick up anything that would explain why Americans wouldn't come and have tea at The Open Arms. He even thought he might look up old Ridding. He didn't sleep. He lay all night thinking.
The evening had been spent tête-à-tête with Anna-Felicitas. Anna-Rose was in bed, sleeping off her tears; Mrs. Bilton had another headache, and disappeared early; so he was left with Anna-Felicitas, who slouched about abstractedly eating up the remains of ice-cream. She didn't talk, except once to remark a little pensively that her inside was dreadfully full of cold stuff, and that she knew now what it must feel like to be a mausoleum; but, eyeing her sideways as he sat before the fire, Mr. Twist could see that she was still smug. He didn't talk either. He felt he had nothing at present to say to Anna-Felicitas that would serve a useful purpose, and was, besides, reluctant to hear any counter-observations she might make. Watchfulness was what was required. Silent watchfulness. And wariness. And firmness. In fact all the things that were most foreign to his nature, thought Mr. Twist, resentful and fatigued.
Next morning he had a cup of coffee in his room, brought by Li Koo, and then drove himself into Acapulco in his Ford without seeing the others. It was another of the perfect days which he was now beginning to take as a matter of course, so many had there been since his arrival. People talked of the wet days and of their desolate abundance once they started, but there had been as yet no sign of them. The mornings succeeded each other, radiant and calm. November was merging into December in placid loveliness. "Oh yes," said Mr. Twist to himself sardonically, as he drove down the sunflecked lane in the gracious light, and crickets chirped at him, and warm scents drifted across his face, and the flowers in the grass, standing so bright and unruffled that they seemed almost as profoundly pleased as Anna-Felicitas, nodded at him, and everything was obviously perfectly contented and happy, "Oh yes—I daresay." And he repeated this remark several times as he looked round him,—he couldn't but look, it was all so beautiful. These things hadn't to deal with Twinklers. No wonder they could be calm and bright. So could he, if—
He turned a corner in the lane and saw some way down it two figures, a man and a girl, sitting in the grass by the wayside. Lovers, of course. "Oh yes—I daresay," said Mr. Twist again, grimly. They hadn't to deal with Twinklers either. No wonder they could sit happily in the grass. So could he, if—
At the noise of the approaching car, with the smile of the last thing they had been saying still on their faces, the two turned their heads, and it was that man Elliott and AnnaFelicitas.
"Hello," called out Mr. Twist, putting on the brakes so hard that the Ford skidded sideways along the road towards them.
She had no hat on, and had evidently escaped from Mrs. Bilton just as she was. Escaped, however, was far too violent a word Mr. Twist felt; sauntered from Mrs. Bilton better described her effect of natural and comfortable arrival at the place where she was.
"I didn't know you were here," said Mr. Twist addressing her when the car had stopped. He felt it was a lame remark. He had torrents of things he wanted to say, and this was all that came out.Anna-Felicitas considered it placidly for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it wasn't worth answering, so she didn't. "Going into the town?" inquired Elliott pleasantly. "Yes. I'll give you a lift." "No thanks. I've just come from there." "I see. Then you'd better come with me," said Mr. Twist to Anna-Felicitas. "I'm afraid I can't. I'm rather busy this morning." "Really," said Mr. Twist, in a voice of concentrated sarcasm. But it had no effect on Anna-Felicitas. She continued to contemplate him with perfect goodwill.
He hesitated a moment. What could he do? Nothing, that he could see, before the young man; nothing that wouldn't make him ridiculous. He felt a fool already. He oughtn't to have pulled up. He ought to have just waved to them and gone on his way, and afterwards in the seclusion of his office issued very plain directions to AnnaFelicitas as to her future conduct. Sitting by the roadside like that! Openly; before everybody; with a young man she had never seen twenty-four hours ago.
He jammed in the gear and let the clutch out with such a jerk that the car leaped forward. Elliott waved his stick again. Mr. Twist responded by the briefest touch of his cap, and whirred down the road out of sight.
"Does he mind your sitting here?" asked Elliott. "It would be very unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas gently. "One has to sit somewhere."
And he laughed with delight at this answer as he laughed with delight at everything she said, and he told her for the twentieth time that she was the most wonderful person he had ever met, and she settled down to listen again, after the interruption caused by Mr. Twist, with a ready ear and the utmost complacency to these agreeable statements, and began to wonder whether perhaps after all she mightn't at last be about to fall in love.
In the new interest of this possibility she turned her head to look at him, and he told her tumultuously—for being a sailor-man he went straight ahead on great waves when it came to love-making—that her eyes were as if pansies had married stars.
She turned her head away again at this, for though it sounded lovely it made her feel a little shy and unprovided with an answer; and then he said, again tumultuously, that her ear was the most perfect thing ever stuck on a girl's cheek, and would she mind turning her face to him so that he might see if she had another just like it on the other side.
She blushed at this, because she couldn't remember whether she had washed it lately or not—one so easily forgot one's ears; there were so many different things to wash— and he told her that when she blushed it was like the first wild rose of the first summer morning of the world.
At this Anna-Felicitas was quite overcome, and subsided into a condition of blissful, quiescent waiting for whatever might come next. Fancy her face reminding him of all those nice things. She had seen it every day for years and years in the looking-glass, and not noticed anything particular about it. It had seemed to her just a face. Something you saw out of, and ate with, and had to clean whatever else you didn't when you were late for breakfast, because there it was and couldn't be hidden,—an object remote indeed from pansies, and stars, and beautiful things like that.
She would have liked to explain this to the young man, and point out that she feared his imagination ran ahead of the facts and that perhaps when his leg was well again he would see things more as they were, but to her surprise when she turned to him to tell him this she found she was obliged to look away at once again. She couldn't look at him. Fancy that now, thought Anna-Felicitas, attentively gazing at her toes. And he had such dear eyes; and such a dear, eager sort of face. All the more, then, she reasoned, should her own eyes have dwelt with pleasure on him. But they couldn't. "Dear me," she murmured, watching her toes as carefully as if they might at any moment go away and leave her there.
"I know," said Elliott. "You think I'm talking fearful flowery stuff. I'd have said Dear me at myself three years ago if I had ever caught myself thinking in terms of stars and roses. But it's all the beastly blood and muck of the war that does it,—sends one back with a rush to things like that. Makes one shameless. Why, I'd talk to you about God now without turning a hair. Nothing would have induced me so much as to mention seriously that I'd even heard of him three years ago. Why, I write poetry now. We all write poetry. And nobody would mind now being seen saying their prayers. Why, if I were back at school and my mother came to see me I'd hug her before everybody in the middle of the street. Do you realize what a tremendous change that means, you little girl who's never had brothers? You extraordinary adorable little lovely thing?"And off he was again.
"When I was small," said Anna-Felicitas after a while, still watching her feet, "I had a governess who urged me to consider, before I said anything, whether it were the sort of thing I would like to say in the hearing of my parents. Would you like to say what you're saying to me in the hearing of your parents?""Hate to," said Elliott promptly. "Well, then," said Anna-Felicitas, gentle but disappointed. She rather wished now she hadn't mentioned it. "I'd take you out of earshot," said Elliott.
She was much relieved. She had done what she felt might perhaps be regarded by Aunt Alice as her duty as a lady, and could now give herself up with a calm conscience to hearing whatever else he might have to say.
And he had an incredible amount to say, and all of it of the most highly gratifying nature. On the whole, looking at it all round and taking one thing with another, Anna-Felicitas came to the conclusion that this was the most agreeable and profitable morning she had ever spent. She sat there for hours, and they all flew. People passed in cars and saw her, and it didn't disturb her in the least. She perfectly remembered she ought to be helping Anna-Rose pick and arrange the flowers for the tea-tables, and she didn't mind. She knew Anna-Rose would be astonished and angry at her absence, and it left her unmoved. By midday she was hopelessly compromised in the eyes of Acapulco, for the people who had motored through the lane told the people who hadn't what they had seen. Once a great car passed with a small widow in it, who looked astonished when she saw the pair but had gone almost before Elliott could call out and wave to her."That's my sister," he said. "You and she will love each other." "Shall we?" said Anna-Felicitas, much pleased by this suggestion of continuity in their relations; and remarked that she looked as if she hadn't got a husband.
"She hasn't. Poor little thing. Rotten luck. Rotten. I hate people to die now. It seems so infernally unnatural of them, when they're not in the fighting. He's only been dead a month. And poor old Dellogg was such a decent chap. She isn't going anywhere yet, or I'd bring her up to tea this afternoon. But it doesn't matter. I'll take you to her." "Shall you?" said Anna-Felicitas, again much pleased. Dellogg. The name swam through her mind and swam out again. She was too busy enjoying herself to remark it and its coincidences now."Of course. It's the first thing one does." "What first thing?"
"To take the divine girl to see one's relations. Once one has found her. Once one has had"—his voice fell to a whisper—"the God-given luck to find her." And he laid his hand very gently on hers, which were clasped together in her lap.
This was a situation to which Anna-Felicitas wasn't accustomed, and she didn't know what to do with it. She looked down at the hand lying on hers, and considered it without moving. Elliott was quite silent now, and she knew he was watching her face. Ought she, perhaps, to be going? Was this, perhaps, one of the moments in life when the truly judicious went? But what a pity to go just when everything was so pleasant. Still, it must be nearly lunch-time. What would Aunt Alice do in a similar situation? Go home to lunch, she was sure. Yet what was lunch when one was rapidly arriving, as she was sure now that she was, at the condition of being in love? She must be, or she wouldn't like his hand on hers. And she did like it.
She looked down at it, and found that she wanted to stroke it. But would Aunt Alice stroke it? No; Anna-Felicitas felt fairly clear about that. Aunt Alice wouldn't stroke it; she would take it up, and shake it, and say good-bye, and walk off home to lunch like a lady. Well, perhaps she ought to do that. Christopher would probably think so too. But what a pity.... Still, behaviour was behaviour; ladies were ladies.
She drew out her right hand with this polite intention, and instead—Anna-Felicitas never knew how it happened—she did nothing of the sort, but quite the contrary: she put it softly on the top of his.
Meanwhile Mr. Twist had driven on towards Acapulco in a state of painful indecision. Should he or shouldn't he take a turning he knew of a couple of miles farther that led up an unused and practically undrivable track back by the west side to The Open Arms, and instruct Mrs. Bilton to proceed at once down the lane and salvage Anna-Felicitas? Should he or shouldn't he? For the first mile he decided he would; then, as his anger cooled, he began to think that after all he needn't worry much. The Annas were lucidly too young for serious philandering, and even if that Elliott didn't realize this, owing to Anna-Felicitas's great length, he couldn't do much before he, Mr. Twist, was back again along the lane. In this he under-estimated the enterprise of the British Navy, but it served to calm him; so that when he did reach the turning he had made up his mind to continue on his way to Acapulco.There he spent some perplexing and harassing hours.
At the bank his reception was distinctly chilly. He wasn't used, since his teapot had been on the market, to anything but warmth when he went into a bank. On this occasion even the clerks were cold; and when after difficulty—actual difficulty—he succeeded in seeing the manager, he couldn't but perceive his unusual reserve. He then remembered what he had put down to mere accident at the time, that as he drove up Main Street half an hour before, all the people he knew had been looking the other way.
From the bank, where he picked up nothing in the way of explanation of the American avoidance of The Open Arms, the manager going dumb at its mere mention, he went to the solicitors who had arranged the sale of the inn, and again in the street people he knew looked the other way. The solicitor, it appeared, wouldn't be back till the afternoon, and the clerk, an elderly person hitherto subservient, was curiously short about it.
By this time Mr. Twist was thoroughly uneasy, and he determined to ask the first acquaintance he met what the matter was. But he couldn't find anybody. Every one, his architect, his various experts—those genial and frolicsome young men—were either engaged or away on business somewhere else. He set his teeth, and drove to the Cosmopolitan to seek out old Ridding—it wasn't a place he drove to willingly after his recent undignified departure, but he was determined to get to the bottom of this thing— and walking into the parlour was instantly aware of a hush falling upon it, a holding of the breath.
In the distance he saw old Ridding,—distinctly; and distinctly he saw that old Ridding saw him. He was sitting at the far end of the great parlour, facing the entrance, by the side of something vast and black heaped up in the adjacent chair. He had the look on his pink and naturally pleasant face of one who has abandoned hope. On seeing Mr. Twist a ray of interest lit him up, and he half rose. The formless mass in the next chair which Mr. Twist had taken for inanimate matter, probably cushions and wraps, and now perceived was one of the higher mammals, put out a hand and said something,—at least, it opened that part of its face which is called a mouth but which to Mr. Twist in the heated and abnormal condition of his brain seemed like the snap-to of some great bag,—and at that moment a group of people crossed the hall in front of old Ridding, and when the path was again clear the chair that had contained him was empty. He had disappeared. Completely. Only the higher mammal was left, watching Mr. Twist with heavy eyes like two smouldering coals.
He couldn't face those eyes. He did try to, and hesitated while he tried, and then he found he couldn't; so he swerved away to the right, and went out quickly by the side door.
There was now one other person left who would perhaps clear him up as to the meaning of all this, and he was the lawyer he had gone to about the guardianship. True he had been angry with him at the time, but that was chiefly because he had been angry with himself. At bottom he had carried away an impression of friendliness. To this man he would now go as a last resource before turning back home, and once more he raced up Main Street in his Ford, producing by these repeated appearances an effect of agitation and restlessness that wasn't lost on the beholders.
The lawyer was in his office, and disengaged. After his morning's experience Mr. Twist was quite surprised and much relieved by being admitted at once. He was received neither coldly nor warmly, but with unmistakable interest."I've come to consult you," said Mr. Twist.
The lawyer nodded. He hadn't supposed he had come not to consult him, but he was used to patience with clients, and he well knew their preference in conversation for the self-evident."I want a straight answer to a straight question," said Mr. Twist, his great spectacles glaring anxiously at the lawyer who again nodded. "Go on," he said, as Mr. Twist paused. "What I want to know is," burst out Mr. Twist, "what the hell—" The lawyer put up a hand. "One moment, Mr. Twist," he said. "Sorry to interrupt—" And he got up quickly, and went to a door in the partition between his office and his clerks' room. "You may go out to lunch now," he said, opening it a crack. He then shut it, and came back to his seat at the table. "Yes, Mr. Twist?" he said, settling down again. "You were inquiring what the hell—?" "Well, I was about to," said Mr. Twist, suddenly soothed, "but you're so calm—" "Of course I'm calm. I'm a quietly married man." "I don't see what that's got to do with it." "Everything. For some dispositions, everything. Mine is one. Yours is another." "Well, I guess I've not come here to talk about marriage. What I want to know is why—" "Quite so," said the lawyer, as he stopped. "And I can tell you. It's because your inn is suspected of being run in the interests of the German Government."
A deep silence fell upon the room. The lawyer watched Mr. Twist with a detached and highly intelligent interest. Mr. Twist stared at the lawyer, his kind, lavish lips fallen apart. Anger had left him. This blow excluded anger. There was only room in him for blank astonishment."You know about my teapot?" he said at last. "Try me again, Mr. Twist." "It's on every American breakfast table." "Including my own." "They wouldn't use it if they thought—"
"My dear sir, they're not going to," said the lawyer. "They're proposing, among other little plans for conveying the general sentiment to your notice, to boycott the teapot. It is to be put on an unofficial black list. It is to be banished from the hotels."
Mr. Twist's stare became frozen. The teapot boycotted? The teapot his mother and sister depended on and The Open Arms depended on, and all his happiness, and the twins? He saw the rumour surging over America in great swift waves, that the proceeds of the Twist Non-Trickler were used for Germany. He saw—but what didn't he see in that moment of submerged horror? Then he seemed to come to the surface again and resume reason with a gasp. "Why?" he asked."Why they're wanting to boycott the teapot?" "No. Why do they think the inn—" "The Miss Twinklers are German." "Half."
"The half that matters—begging my absent wife's pardon. I know all about that, you see. You started me off thinking them over by that ward notion of yours. It didn't take me long. It was pretty transparent. So transparent that my opinion of the intelligence of my fellow-townsfolk has considerably lowered. But we live in unbalanced times. I guess it's women at the bottom of this. Women got on to it first, and the others caught the idea as they'd catch scarlet fever. It's a kind of scarlet fever, this spy scare that's about. Mind you, I admit the germs are certainly present among us." And the lawyer smiled. He thought he saw he had made a little joke in that last remark.Mr. Twist was not in the condition to see jokes, and didn't smile. "Do you mean to say those children—" he began. "They're not regarded as children by any one except you."
"Well, if they're not," said Mr. Twist, remembering the grass by the wayside in the lane and what he had so recently met in it, "I guess I'd best be making tracks. But I know better. And so would you if you'd seen them on the boat. Why, twelve was putting their age too high on that boat.""No doubt. No doubt. Then all I can say is they've matured pretty considerably since. Now do you really want me to tell you what is being believed?" "Of course. It's what I've come for." "You mayn't find it precisely exhilarating, Mr. Twist." "Go ahead."
"What Acapulco says—and Los Angeles, I'm told, too, and probably by this time the whole coast—is that you threw over your widowed mother, of whom you're the only son, and came off here with two German girls who got hold of you on the boat—now, Mr. Twist, don't interrupt—on the boat crossing from England, that England had turned them out as undesirable aliens—quite so, Mr. Twist, but let me finish—that they're in the pay of the German Government—no doubt, no doubt, Mr. Twist—and that you're their cat'spaw. It is known that the inn each afternoon has been crowded with Germans, among them Germans already suspected, I can't say how rightly or how wrongly, of spying, and that these people are so familiar with the Miss von Twinklers as to warrant the belief in a complete secret understanding."
For a moment Mr. Twist continued both his silence and his stare. Then he took off his spectacles and wiped them. His hand shook. The lawyer was startled. Was there going to be emotion? One never knew with that sort of lips. "You're not—" he began.Then he saw that Mr. Twist was trying not to laugh. "I'm glad you take it that way," he said, relieved but surprised.
"It's so darned funny," said Mr. Twist, endeavouring to compose his features. "To anybody who knows those twins it's so darned funny. Cat's-paw. Yes—rather feel that myself. Cat's-paw. That does seem a bit of a bull's eye—" And for a second or two his features flatly refused to compose.The lawyer watched him. "Yes," he said. "Yes. But the effect of these beliefs may be awkward." "Oh, damned," agreed Mr. Twist, going solemn again.
And there came over him in a flood the clear perception of what it would mean,—the sheer disaster of it, the horrible situation those helpless Annas would be in. What a limitless fool he must have been in his conduct of the whole thing. His absorption in the material side of it had done the trick. He hadn't been clever enough, not imaginative enough, nor, failing that, worldly enough to work the other side properly. When he found there was no Dellogg he ought to have insisted on seeing Mrs. Dellogg, intrusion or no intrusion, and handing over the twins; and then gone away and left them. A woman was what was wanted. Fool that he was to suppose that he, a man, an unmarried man, could get them into anything but a scrape. But he was so fond of them. He just couldn't leave them. And now here they all were, in this ridiculous and terrible situation."There are two things you can do," said the lawyer. "Two?" said Mr. Twist, looking at him with anxious eyes. "For the life of me I can't see even one. Except running amoke in slander actions—"
"Tut, tut," said the lawyer, waving that aside. "No. There are two courses to pursue. And they're not alternative, but simultaneous. You shut down the inn—at once, to-morrow— that's Saturday. Close on Saturday, and give notice you don't re-open—now pray let me finish—close the inn as an inn, and use it simply as a private residence. Then, as quick as may be, marry those girls.""Marry what girls?" "The Miss von Twinklers." Mr. Twist stared at him. "Marry them?" he said helplessly. "Marry them who to?" "You for one." Mr. Twist stared at him in silence. Then he said, "You've said that to me before." "Yep. And I'll say it again. I'll go on saying it till you've done it." "'Well, if that's all you've got to offer as a suggestion for a way out—" But Mr. Twist wasn't angry this time; he was too much battered by events; he hadn't the spirits to be angry.
"You've—got to—marry—one—of—those—girls," said the lawyer, at each word smiting the table with his open palm. "Turn her into an American. Get her out of this being a German business. And be able at the same time to protect the one who'll be your sister in-law. Why, even if you didn't want to, which is sheer nonsense, for of course any man would want to—I know what I'm talking about because I've seen them—it's your plain duty, having got them into this mess.""But—marry which?" asked Mr. Twist, with increased helplessness and yet a manifest profound anxiety for further advice. For the first time the lawyer showed impatience "Oh—either or both," he said. "For God's sake don't be such a—" He pulled up short.
"I didn't quite mean that," he resumed, again calm. "The end of that sentence was, as no doubt you guess, fool. I withdraw it, and will substitute something milder. Have you any objection to ninny?"
No, Mr. Twist didn't mind ninny, or any other word the lawyer might choose, he was in such a condition of mental groping about. He took out his handkerchief and wiped away the beads on his forehead and round his mouth."I'm thirty-five," he said, looking terribly worried.
Propose to an Anna? The lawyer may have seen them, but he hadn't heard them; and the probable nature of their comments if Mr. Twist proposed to them—to one, he meant of course, but both would comment, the one he proposed to and the one he didn't— caused his imagination to reel. He hadn't much imagination; he knew that now, after his conduct of this whole affair, but all there was of it reeled."I'm thirty-five," he said helplessly. "Pooh," said the lawyer, indicating the negligibleness of this by a movement of his shoulder. "They're seventeen," said Mr. Twist.
"Pooh," said the lawyer again, again indicating negligibleness. "My wife was—" "I know. You told me that last time. Oh, I know all that" said Mr. Twist with sudden passion. "But these are children. I tell you they're children—""Pooh," said the lawyer a third time, a third time indicating negligibleness.
Then he got up and held out his hand. "Well, I've told you," he said. "You wanted to know, and I've told you. And I'll tell you one thing more, Mr. Twist. Whichever of those girls takes you, you'll have the sweetest, prettiest wife of any man in the world except one, and that's the man who has the luck to get the other one. Why, sweetest and prettiest are poor words. She'll be the most delectable, the most—"Mr. Twist rose from his chair in such haste that he pushed the table crooked. His ears flamed. "See here," he said very loud. "I won't have you talk familiarly like that about my wife."
Wife. The word had a remarkable effect on him. It churned him all up. His thoughts were a chaotic jumble, and his driving on the way home matched them. He had at least three narrow shaves at cross streets before he got out of the town and for an entire mile afterwards he was on the wrong side of the road. During this period, deep as he was in confused thought, he couldn't but vaguely notice the anger on the faces of the other drivers and the variety and fury of their gesticulations, and it roused a dim wonder in him.
Wife. How arid existence had been for him up to then in regard to the affections, how knobbly the sort of kisses he had received in Clark. They weren't kisses; they were disapproving pecks. Always disapproving. Always as if he hadn't done enough, or been enough, or was suspected of not going to do or be enough.
His wife. Mr. Twist dreadfully longed to kiss somebody,—somebody kind and soft, who would let herself be adored. She needn't even love him,—he knew he wasn't the sort of man to set passion alight; she need only be kind, and a little fond of him, and let him love her, and be his very own.His own little wife. How sweet. How almost painfully sweet. Yes. But the Annas....
When he thought of the Annas, Mr. Twist went damp. He might propose—indeed, everything pointed to his simply having got to—but wouldn't they very quickly dispose? And then what? That lawyer seemed to think all he had to do was to marry them right away; not them, of course,—one; but they were so very plural in his mind. Funny man, thought Mr. Twist; funny man,—yet otherwise so sagacious. It is true he need only propose to one of them, for which he thanked God, but he could imagine what that one, and what the other one too, who would be sure to be somewhere quite near would ... no, he couldn't imagine; he preferred not to imagine.
Mr. Twist's dampness increased, and a passing car got his mud-guard. It was a big car which crackled with language as it whizzed on its way, and Mr. Twist, slewed by the impact half across the road, then perceived on which side he had been driving.
The lane up to the inn was in its middle-day emptiness and somnolence. Where AnnaFelicitas and Elliott had been sitting cool and shaded when he passed before, there was only the pressed-down grass and crushed flowers in a glare of sun. She had gone home long ago of course. She said she was going to be very busy. Secretly he wished she hadn't gone home, and that little Christopher too might for a bit be somewhere else, so that when he arrived he wouldn't immediately have to face everybody at once. He wanted to think; he wanted to have time to think; time before four o'clock came, and with four o'clock, if he hadn't come to any conclusion about shutting up the inn—and how could he if nobody gave him time to think?—those accursed, swarming Germans. It was they who had done all this. Mr. Twist blazed into sudden fury. They and their blasted war....
At the gate stood Anna-Rose. Her face looked quite pale in the green shade of the tunnelled-out syringa bushes. She as peering out down the lane watching him approach. This was awful, thought Mr. Twist. At the very gate one of them. Confronted at once. No time, not a minute's time given him to think."Oh," cried out Anna-Rose the instant he pulled up, for she had waved to him to stop when he tried to drive straight on round to the stable, "she isn't with you?" "Who isn't?" asked Mr. Twist. Anna-Rose became paler than ever. "She has been kidnapped," she said. "How's that?" said Mr. Twist, staring at her from the car.
"Kidnapped," repeated Anna-Rose, with wide-open horror-stricken eyes; for from her nursery she carried with her at the bottom of her mind, half-forgotten but ready to fly up to the top at any moment of panic, an impression that the chief activities and recreations of all those Americans who weren't really good were two: they lynched, and they kidnapped. They lynched you if they didn't like you enough, and if they liked you too much they kidnapped you. Anna-Felicitas, exquisite and unsuspecting, had been kidnapped. Some American's concupiscent eye had alighted on her, observed her beauty, and marked her down. No other explanation was possible of a whole morning's absence from duties of one so conscientious and painstaking as Anna-Felicitas. She never shirked; that is, she never had been base enough to shirk alone. If there was any shirking to be done they had always done it together. As the hours passed and she didn't appear, Anna-Rose had tried to persuade herself that she must have motored into Acapulco with Mr. Twist, strange and unnatural and reprehensible and ignoble as such arch shirking would have been; and now that the car had come back empty except for Mr. Twist she was convinced the worst had happened—her beautiful, her precious Columbus had been kidnapped."Kidnapped," she said again, wringing her hands.
Mr. Twist was horror-struck too, for he thought she was announcing the kidnapping of Mrs. Bilton. Somehow he didn't think of Anna-Felicitas; he had seen her too recently. But that Mrs. Bilton should be kidnapped seemed to him to touch the lowest depths of American criminal enterprise and depravity. At the same time though he recoiled before this fresh blow a thought did fan through his mind with a wonderful effect of coolness and silence,—"Then they'll gag her," he said.
"What?" cried Anna-Rose, as though a whip had lashed her. "Gag her?" And pulling open the gate and running out to him as one possessed she cried again, "Gag Columbus?"
"Oh that's it, is it," said Mr. Twist, with relief but also with disappointment, "Well, if it's that way I can tell you—"
He stopped; there was no need to tell her; for round the bend of the lane, walking bareheaded in the chequered light and shade as leisurely as if such things as tours of absence didn't exist, or a distracted household, or an anguished Christopher, with indeed, a complete, an extraordinary serenity, advanced Anna-Felicitas.
Always placid, her placidity at this moment had a shining quality. Still smug, she was now of a glorified smugness. If one could imagine a lily turned into a god, or a young god turned into a lily and walking down the middle of a sun-flecked Californian lane, it wouldn't be far out, thought Mr. Twist, as an image of the advancing Twinkler. The god would be so young that he was still a boy, and he wouldn't be worrying much about anything in the past or in the future, and he'd just be coming along like that with the corners of his mouth a little turned up, and his fair hair a little ruffled, and his charming young face full of a sober and abstracted radiance.
"Not much kidnapping there, I guess," said Mr. Twist with a jerk of his thumb. "And you take it from me, Anna I.," he added quickly, leaning over towards her, determined to get off to the garage before he found himself faced by both twins together, "that when next your imagination gets the jumps the best thing you can do is to hold on to it hard till it settles down again, instead of wasting your time and ruining your constitution going pale."And he started the Ford with a bound, and got away round the corner into the yard.
Here, in the yard, was peace; at least for the moment. The only living thing in it was a cat the twins had acquired, through the services of one of the experts, as an indispensable object in a really homey home. The first thing this cat had done had been to eat the canary, which gave the twins much unacknowledged relief. It was, they thought secretly, quite a good plan to have one's pets inside each other,—it kept them so quiet. She now sat unmoved in the middle of the yard, carefully cleaning her whiskers while Mr. Twist did some difficult fancy driving in order to get into the stable without inconveniencing her.Admirable picture of peace, thought Mr. Twist with a sigh of envy.
He might have got out and picked her up, but he was glad to manoeuvre about, reversing and making intricate figures in the dust, because it kept him longer away from the luncheon-table. The cat took no notice of him, but continued to deal with her whiskers even when his front wheel was within two inches of her tail, for though she hadn't been long at The Open Arms she had already sized up Mr. Twist and was aware that he wouldn't hurt a fly.
Thanks to her he had a lot of trouble getting the Ford into the stable, all of which he liked because of that luncheon-table; and having got it in he still lingered fiddling about with it, examining its engine and wiping its bonnet; and then when he couldn't do that any longer he went out and lingered in the yard, looking down at the cat with his hands in his pockets. "I must think," he kept on saying to himself."Lunchee," said Li Koo, putting his head out of the kitchen window. "All right," said Mr. Twist.
He stooped down as though to examine the cat's ear. The cat, who didn't like her ears touched but was prepared to humour him, got out of it by lying down on her back and showing him her beautiful white stomach. She was a black cat, with a particularly beautiful white stomach, and she had discovered that nobody could see it without wanting to stroke it. Whenever she found herself in a situation that threatened to become disagreeable she just lay down and showed her stomach. Human beings in similar predicaments can only show their tact."Nice pussy—nice, nice pussy," said Mr. Twist aloud, stroking this irresistible object slowly, and forgetting her ear as she had intended he should. "Lunchee get cold," said Li Koo, again putting his head out of the kitchen window. "Mis' Bilton say, Come in." "All right," said Mr. Twist.
He straightened himself and looked round the yard. A rake that should have been propped up against the tool-shed with some other gardening tools had fallen down. He crossed over and picked it up and stood it up carefully again.Li Koo watched him impassively from the window. "Mis' Bilton come out," he said; and there she was in the yard door. "Mr. Twist," she called shrilly, "if you don't come in right away and have your food before it gets all mushed up with cold I guess you'll be sorry."
"All right—coming," he called back very loud and cheerfully, striding towards her as one strides who knows there is nothing for it now but courage. "All right, Mrs. Bilton—sorry if I've kept you waiting. You shouldn't have bothered about me—"
And saying things like this in a loud voice, for to hear himself being loud made him feel more supported, he strode into the house, through the house, and out on to the verandah.
They always lunched on the verandah. The golden coloured awning was down, and the place was full of a golden shade. Beyond it blazed the garden. Beneath it was the flower-adorned table set as usual ready for four, and he went out to it, strung up to finding the Annas at the table, Anna-Felicitas in her usual seat with her back to the garden, her little fair head outlined against the glowing light as he had seen it every day since they had lived in the inn, Anna-Rose opposite, probably volubly and passionately addressing her.And there was no one. "Why—" he said, stopping short.
"Yes. It's real silly of them not to come and eat before everything is spoilt," said Mrs. Bilton bustling up, who had stayed behind to give an order to Li Koo. And she went to the edge of the verandah and shaded her eyes and called, "Gurls! Gurls! I guess you can do all that talking better after lunch."
He then saw that down at the bottom of the garden, in the most private place as regards being overheard, partly concealed by some arum lilies that grew immensely there like splendid weeds, stood the twins facing each other.
"Better leave them alone," he said quickly. "They'll come when they're ready. There's nothing like getting through with one's talking right away, Mrs. Bilton. Besides," he went on still more quickly for she plainly didn't agree with him and was preparing to sally out into the sun and fetch them in, "you and I don't often get a chance of a quiet chat together—"And this, combined with the resolute way he was holding her chair ready for her, brought Mrs. Bilton back under the awning again.
She was flattered. Mr. Twist had not yet spoken to her in quite that tone. He had always been the gentleman, but never yet the eager gentleman. Now he was unmistakably both.
She came back and sat down, and so with a sigh of thankfulness immediately did he, for here was an unexpected respite,—while Mrs. Bilton talked he could think. Fortunately she never noticed if one wasn't listening. For the first time since he had known her he gave himself up willingly to the great broad stream that at once started flowing over him, on this occasion with something of the comfort of warm water, and he was very glad indeed that anyhow that day she wasn't gagged.
While he ate, he kept on furtively looking down the garden at the two figures facing each other by the arum lilies. Whenever Mrs. Bilton remembered them and wanted to call them in, as she did at the different stages, of the meal,—at the salad, at the pudding— he stopped her. She became more and more pleased by his evident determination to lunch alone with her, for after all one remains female to the end, and her conversation took on a gradual tinge of Mr. Bilton's views about second marriages. They had been liberal views; for Mr. Bilton, she said, had had no post-mortem pettiness about him, but they were lost on Mr. Twist, whose thoughts were so painfully preoccupied by first marriage.
The conclusions he came to during that trying meal while Mrs. Bilton talked, were that he would propose first to Anna-Rose, she being the eldest and such a course being accordingly natural, and, if she refused, proceed at once to propose to Anna-Felicitas. But before proceeding to Anna-Felicitas, a course he regarded with peculiar misgiving, he would very earnestly explain to Anna-Rose the seriousness of the situation and the necessity, the urgency, the sanity of her marrying him. These proposals would be kept on the cool level of strict business. Every trace of the affection with which he was so overflowing would be sternly excluded. For instance, he wasn't going to let himself remember the feel of Christopher's little head the afternoon before when he patted it to comfort her. Such remembrances would be bound to bring a warmth into his remarks which wouldn't be fair. The situation demanded the most scrupulous fairness and delicacy in its treatment, the most careful avoidance of taking any advantage of it. But how difficult, thought Mr. Twist, his hand shaking as he poured himself out a glass of iced water, how difficult when he loved the Annas so inconveniently much.Mrs. Bilton observed the shaking of his hand, and felt more female than ever.
Still, there it was, this situation forced upon them all by the war. Nobody could help it, and it had to be faced with calmness, steadfastness and tact. Calmness, steadfastness and tact, repeated Mr. Twist, raising the water to his mouth and spilling some of it.Mrs. Bilton observed this too, and felt still more female.
Marriage was the quickest, and really the only, way out of it. He saw that now. The lawyer had been quite right. And marriage, he would explain to the Annas, would be a mere formal ceremony which after the war they—he meant, of course, she—could easily in that land of facile and honourable divorce get rid of. Meanwhile, he would point out, they—she, of course; bother these twins—would be safely American, and he would undertake never to intrude love on them—her—unless by some wonderful chance, it was wanted. Some wonderful chance ... Mr. Twist's spectacles suddenly went dim, and he gulped down more water.
Yes. That was the line to take: the austere line of self-mortification for the Twinkler good. One Twinkler would be his wife—again at the dear word he had to gulp down water—and one his sister-in-law. They would just have to agree to this plan. The position was too serious for shilly-shallying. Yes. That was the line to take; and by the time he had got to the coffee it was perfectly clear and plain to him.But he felt dreadfully damp. He longed for a liqueur, for anything that would support him....
"Is there any brandy in the house?" he suddenly flung across the web of Mrs. Bilton's words.
"Brandy, Mr. Twist?" she repeated, at this feeling altogether female, for what an unusual thing for him to ask for,—"You're not sick?"
At once he looked down the garden. Anna-Felicitas was in the act of putting her arm round Anna-Rose's shoulder, and Anna-Rose was passionately disengaging herself. Yes. There was trouble there. He knew there would be.He gulped down more water.
Anna-Felicitas couldn't expect to go off like that for a whole morning and give AnnaRose a horrible fright without hearing about it. Besides, the expression on her face wanted explaining,—a lot of explaining. Mr. Twist didn't like to think so, but AnnaFelicitas's recent conduct seemed to him almost artful. It seemed to him older than her years. It seemed to justify the lawyer's scepticism when he described the twins to him as children. That young man Elliott—
But here Mr. Twist started and lost his thread of thought, for looking once more down the garden he saw that Anna-Felicitas was coming towards the verandah, and that she was alone. Anna-Rose had vanished. Why had he bothered about brandy, and let Mrs. Bilton go? He had counted, somehow, on beginning with Anna-Rose....He seized a cigarette and lit it. He tried vainly to keep his hand steady. Before the cigarette was fairly plight there was Anna-Felicitas, walking in beneath the awning. "I'm glad you're alone," she said, "for I want to speak to you." And Mr. Twist felt that his hour had come.
"Hadn't you better have lunch first?" he asked, though he knew from the look on her face that she wouldn't. It was a very remarkable look. It was as though an angel, dwelling in perfect bliss, had unaccountably got its feet wet. Not more troubled than that; a little troubled, but not more than that."No thank you," she said politely. "But if you've finished yours, do you mind coming into the office? Because otherwise Mrs. Bilton—" "She's fetching me some brandy," said Mr. Twist. "I didn't know you drank," said Anna-Felicitas, even at this moment interested. "But do you mind having it afterwards? Because otherwise Mrs. Bilton—" "I guess the idea was to have it first," said Mr. Twist. She was however already making for the tea-room, proceeding towards it without hurry, and with a single-mindedness that would certainly get her there. He could only follow. In the office she said, "Do you mind shutting the door?"
"Not at all," said Mr. Twist; but he did mind. His hour had come, and he wasn't liking it. He wanted to begin with Anna-Rose. He wanted to get things clear with her first before dealing with this one. There was less of Anna-Rose. And her dear little head yesterday when he patted it.... And she needed comforting.... Anna-Rose cried, and let herself be comforted.... And it was so sweet to Mr. Twist to comfort...."Christopher—" began Anna-Felicitas, directly he had shut the door.
"I know. She's mad with you. What can you expect, Anna II.?" he interrupted in a very matter-of-fact voice, leaning against a bookcase. Even a bookcase was better than nothing to lean against."Christopher is being unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas, her voice softer and gentler than he had yet heard it.
Then she stopped, and considered him a moment with much of the look of one who on a rather cold day considers the sea before diving in—with, that is, a slight but temporary reluctance to proceed.
"Won't you sit down?" said Mr. Twist. "Perhaps I'd better," she said, disposing herself in the big chair. "It's very strange, but my legs feel funny. You wouldn't think being in love would make one want to sit down.""I beg your pardon?" said Mr. Twist. "I have fallen in love," said Anna-Felicitas, looking up at him with a kind of pensive radiance. "I did it this morning." Mr. Twist stared at her. "I beg your—what did you say?" he asked.
She said, still with that air as she regarded him of pensive radiance, of not seeing him but something beyond him that was very beautiful to her and satisfactory, "I've fallen in love, and I can't tell you how pleased I am because I've always been afraid I was going to find it a difficult thing to do. But it wasn't. Quite the contrary."
Then, as he only staged at her, she said, "He's coming round this afternoon on the new footing, and I wanted to prepare your and Christopher's minds in good time so that you shouldn't be surprised."And having said this she lapsed into what was apparently, judging from her expression, a silent contemplation of her bliss. "But you're too young," burst out Mr. Twist. "Too young?" repeated Anna-Felicitas, coming out of her contemplation for a moment to smile at him. "We don't think so." Well. This beat everything. Mr. Twist could only stare down at her.
Conflicting emotions raged in him. He couldn't tell for a moment what they were, they were so violent and so varied. How dared Elliott. How dared a person they had none of them heard of that time yesterday come making love to a girl he had never seen before. And in such a hurry. So suddenly. So instantly. Here had he himself been with the twins constantly for weeks, and wouldn't have dreamed of making love to them. They had been sacred to him. And it wasn't as if he hadn't wanted to hug them often and often, but he had restrained himself as a gentleman should from the highest motives of delicacy, and consideration, and respect, and propriety, besides a great doubt as to whether they wouldn't very energetically mind. And then comes along this blundering Britisher, and straight away tumbles right in where Mr. Twist had feared to tread, and within twenty-four hours had persuaded Anna-Felicitas to think she was in love. New footing indeed. There hadn't been an old footing yet. And who was this Elliott? And how was Mr. Twist going to be able to find out if he were a proper person to be allowed to pay his addresses to one so precious as a Twinkler twin?
Anger, jealousy, anxiety, sense of responsibility and mortification, all tumbled about furiously together inside Mr. Twist as he leaned against the bookcase and gazed down at Anna-Felicitas, who for her part was gazing beatifically into space; but through the anger, and the jealousy, and the anxiety, and the sense of responsibility and mortification one great thought was struggling, and it finally pushed every other aside and got out to the top of the welter: here, in the chair before him, he beheld his sister-inlaw. So much at least was cleared up.
He crossed to the bureau and dragged his office-stool over next to her and sat down. "So that's it, is it?" he said, trying to speak very calmly, but his face pulled all sorts of ways, as it had so often been since the arrival in his life of the twins."Yes," she said, coming out of her contemplation. "It's love at last." "I don't know about at last. Whichever way you look at it, Anna II., that don't seem to hit it off as a word. What I meant was, it's Elliott." "Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Which is the same thing. I believe," she added, "I now have to allude to him as John."
Mr. Twist made another effort to speak calmly. "You don't," he said, "think it at all unusual or undesirable that you should be calling a man John to-day of whom you'd never heard yesterday.""I think it's wonderful," said Anna-Felicitas beaming. "It doesn't strike you in any way as imprudent to be so hasty. It doesn't strike you as foolish."
"On the contrary," said Anna-Felicitas. "I can't help thinking I've been very clever. I shouldn't have thought it of myself. You see, I'm not naturally quick." And she beamed with what she evidently regarded as a pardonable pride."It doesn't strike you as even a little—well, a little improper." "On the contrary," said Anna-Felicitas. "Aunt Alice told us that the one man one could never be improper about, even if one tried, was one's husband." "Husband?" Mr. Twist winced. He loved, as we have seen, the word wife, but then that was different.
"It's not time yet to talk of husbands," he said, full of a flaming unreasonableness and jealousy and the sore feeling that he who had been toiling so long and so devotedly in the heat of the Twinkler sun had had a most unfair march stolen on him by this eleventh-hour stranger.
He flamed with unreasonableness. Yet he knew this was the solution of half his problem,—and of much the worst half, for it was after all Anna-Felicitas who had produced the uncomfortable feeling of slipperiness, of eels; Anna-Rose had been quite good, sitting in a chair crying and just so sweetly needing comfort. But now that the solution was presented to him he was full of fears. For on what now could he base his proposal to Anna-Rose? Elliott would be the legitimate protector of both the Twinklers. Mr. Twist, who had been so much perturbed by the idea of having to propose to one or other twin, was miserably upset by the realization that now he needn't propose to either. Elliott had cut the ground from under his feet. He had indeed—what was the expression he used the evening before?—yes, nipped in. There was now no necessity for AnnaRose to marry him, and Mr. Twist had an icy and forlorn feeling that on no other basis except necessity would she. He was thirty-five. It was all very well for Elliott to get proposing to people of seventeen; he couldn't be more than twenty-five. And it wasn't only age. Mr. Twist hadn't shaved before looking-glasses for nothing, and he was very distinctly aware that Elliott was extremely attractive.
"See here, Anna II.," he said, finding it impossibly painful to wait while she contemplated, "suppose you don't at this particular crisis fall into quite so many ecstatic meditations. There isn't as much time as you seem to think."
"No—and there's Christopher," said Anna-Felicitas, giving herself a shake, and with that slightly troubled look coming into her face again as of having, in spite of being an angel in glory, somehow got her feet wet."Precisely," said Mr. Twist, getting up and walking about the room. "There's Christopher. Now Christopher, I should say, would be pretty well heart-broken over this." "But that's so unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas with gentle deprecation. "You're all she has got, and she'll be under the impression—the remarkably vivid impression—that she's losing you."
"But that's so unreasonable. She isn't losing me. It's sheer gain. Without the least effort or bother on her part she's acquiring a brother-in-law."
"Oh, I know what Christopher feels," said Mr. Twist, going up and down the room quickly. "I know right enough, because I feel it all myself."
"But there has to be conduct," said Anna-Felicitas, still very gentle, but looking as though her feet were getting wetter. "I don't see how anybody is ever to fall in love unless there's been some conduct first.""Oh, don't argue—don't argue. You can't expect Anna-Rose not to mind your wanting to marry a perfect stranger, a man she hasn't even seen." "But everybody you marry started by being a perfect stranger and somebody you hadn't ever seen," said Anna-Felicitas.
"Oh Lord, if only you wouldn't argue!" exclaimed Mr. Twist. "And as for your aunt in England, what's she going to say to this twenty-four-hours, quick-lunch sort of engagement? She'll be terribly upset. And Anna-Rose knows that, and is I expect nigh worried crazy.""But what," asked Anna-Felicitas, "have aunts to do with love?"
Then she said very earnestly, her face a little flushed, her eyes troubled, "Christopher said all that you're saying now, and a lot more, down in the garden before I came to you, and I said what I've been saying to you, and a lot more, but she wouldn't listen. And when I found she wouldn't listen I tried to comfort her, but she wouldn't be comforted. And then I came to you; for besides wanting to tell you what I've done I wanted to ask you to comfort Christopher."Mr. Twist paused a moment in his walk. "Yes," he said, staring at the carpet. "Yes. I can very well imagine she needs it. But I don't suppose anything I would say—" "Christopher is very fond of you," said Anna-Felicitas gently. "Oh yes. You're both very fond of me," said Mr. Twist, pulling his mouth into a crooked and unhappy smile. "We love you," said Anna-Felicitas simply.
Mr. Twist looked at her, and a mist came over his spectacles. "You dear children," he said, "you dear, dear children—"
"I don't know about children—" began Anna-Felicitas; but was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"It's only the brandy," said Mr. Twist, seeing her face assume the expression he had learned to associate with the approach of Mrs. Bilton. "Take it away, please Mrs. Bilton," he called out, "and put it on the—"
Mrs. Bilton however, didn't take anything away, but opened the door an inch instead. "There's someone wants to speak to you, Mr. Twist," she said in a loud whisper, thrusting in a card. "He says he just must. I found him on the verandah when I took your brandy out, and as I'm not the woman to leave a stranger alone with good brandy I brought him in with me, and he's right here back of me in the tea-room.""It's John," remarked Anna-Felicitas placidly. "Come early." "I say—" said a voice behind Mrs. Bilton. "Yes," nodded Anna-Felicitas, getting up out of the deep chair. "That's John." "I say—may I come in? I've got something important—" Mr. Twist looked at Anna-Felicitas. "Wouldn't you rather—?" he began. "I don't mind John," she said softly, her face flooded with a most beautiful light. Mr. Twist opened the door and went out. "Come in," he said. "Mrs. Bilton, may I present Mr. Elliott to you—Commander Elliott of the British Navy." "Pleased to meet you, Commander Elliott," said Mrs. Bilton. "Mr. Twist, your brandy is on the verandah. Shall I bring it to you in here?" "No thank you, Mrs. Bilton. I'll go out there presently. Perhaps you wouldn't mind waiting for me there—I don't suppose Mr. Elliott will want to keep me long. Come in, Mr. Elliott." And having disposed of Mrs. Bilton, who was in a particularly willing and obedient and female mood, he motioned Elliott into the office. There stood Anna-Felicitas. Elliott stopped dead. "This isn't fair," he said, his eyes twinkling and dancing.
"What isn't?" inquired Anna-Felicitas gently, beaming at him. "Your being here. I've got to talk business. Look here, sir," he said, turning to Mr. Twist, "could you talk business with her there?""Not if she argued," said Mr. Twist.
"Argued! I wouldn't mind her arguing. It's just her being there. I've got to talk business," he said, turning to Anna-Felicitas,—"business about marrying you. And how can I with you standing there looking like—well, like that?""I don't know," said Anna-Felicitas placidly, not moving.
"But you'll interrupt—just your being there will interrupt. I shall see you out of the corner of my eye, and it'll be impossible not to—I mean I know I'll want to—I mean, AnnaFelicitas my dear, it isn't done. I've got to explain all sorts of things to your guardian—""He isn't my guardian," corrected the accurate Anna-Felicitas gently. "He only very nearly once was."
"Well, anyhow I've got to explain a lot of things that'll take some time, and it isn't so much explain as persuade—for I expect," he said, turning to Mr. Twist, "this strikes you as a bit sudden, sir?"
"It would strike anybody," said Mr. Twist trying to be stern but finding it difficult, for Elliott was so disarmingly engaging and so disarmingly in love. The radiance on AnnaFelicitas's face might have been almost a reflection caught from his. Mr. Twist had never seen two people look so happy. He had never, of course, before been present at the first wonderful dawning of love. The whole room seemed to glow with the surprise of it.
"There. You see?" said Elliott, again appealing to Anna-Felicitas, who stood smiling beatifically at him without moving. "I've got to explain that it isn't after all as mad as it seems, and that I'm a fearfully decent chap and can give you lots to eat, and that I've got a jolly little sister here who's respectable and well-known besides, and I'm going to produce references to back up these assertions, and proofs that I'm perfectly sound in health except for my silly foot, which isn't health but just foot and which you don't seem to mind anyhow, and how—I ask you how, Anna-Felicitas my dear, am I to do any of this with you standing there looking like—well, like that?""I don't know," said Anna-Felicitas again, still not moving. "Anna-Felicitas, my dear," he said, "won't you go?" "No, John," said Anna-Felicitas gently. His eyes twinkled and danced more than ever. He took a step towards her, then checked himself and looked round beseechingly at Mr. Twist. "Somebody's got to go," he said. "Yes," said Mr. Twist. "And I guess it's me."
CHAPTER XXXVIIIHe went straight in search of Anna-Rose.
He was going to propose to her. He couldn't bear it. He couldn't bear the idea of his previous twins, his blessed little Twinklers, both going out of his life at the same time, and he couldn't bear, after what he had just seen in the office, the loneliness of being left outside love.
All his life he had stood on the door-mat outside the shut door of love. He had had no love; neither at home, where they talked so much about it and there wasn't any, nor, because of his home and its inhibitions got so thoroughly into his blood, anywhere else. He had never tried to marry,—again because of his home and his mother and the whole only-son-of-a-widow business. He would try now. He would risk it. It was awful to risk it, but it was more awful not to. He adored Anna-Rose. How nearly the afternoon before, when she sat crying in his chair, had he taken her in his arms! Why, he would have taken her into them then and there, while she was in that state, while she was in the need of comfort, and never let her go out of them again, if it hadn't been that he had got the idea so firmly fixed in his head that she was a child. Fool that he was. Elliott had dispelled that idea for him. It wasn't children who looked as Anna-Felicitas had looked just now in the office. Anna-Rose, it is true, seemed younger than Anna-Felicitas, but that was because she was little and easily cried. He loved her for being little. He loved her because she easily cried. He yearned and hungered to comfort, to pet to take care of. He was, as has been pointed out, a born mother.
Avoiding the verandah and Mrs. Bilton, Mr. Twist filled with recklessness, hurried upstairs and knocked at Anna-Rose's door. No answer. He listened. Dead silence. He opened it a slit and peeped in. Emptiness. Down he went again and made for the kitchen, because Li Koo, who always knew everything, might know where she was. Li Koo did. He jerked his head towards the window, and Mr. Twist hurried to it and looked out. There in the middle of the yard was the cat, exactly where he had left her an hour before, and kneeling beside her stroking her stomach was Anna-Rose.
She had her back to the house and her face was hidden. The sun streamed down on her bare head and on the pale gold rings of hair that frisked round her neck. She didn't hear him till he was close to her, so much absorbed was she apparently in the cat; and when she did she didn't look up, but bent her head lower than before and stroked more assiduously."Anna-Rose," said Mr. Twist. "Yes." "Come and talk to me." "I'm thinking." "Don't think. Come and talk to me, little—little dear one." She bent her head lower still. "I'm thinking," she said again. "Come and tell me what you're thinking." "I'm thinking about cats." "About cats?" said Mr. Twist, uncertainly. "Yes," said Anna-Rose, stroking the cat's stomach faster and carefully keeping her face hidden from him. "About how wise and wonderful they are." "Well then if that's all, you can go on with that presently and come and talk to me now."
"You see," said Anna-Rose, not heeding this, "they're invariably twins, and more than twins, for they're often fours and sometimes sixes, but still they sit in the sun quietly all their lives and don't mind a bit what their—what their twins do—""Ah," said Mr. Twist. "Now I'm getting there."
"They don't mind a bit about anything. They just clean their whiskers and they purr. Perhaps it's that that comforts them. Perhaps if I—if I had whiskers and a—and a purr— "The cat leaped suddenly to her feet and shook herself violently. Something hot and wet had fallen on her beautiful stomach.
Anna-Rose made a little sound strangers might have taken for a laugh as she put out her arms and caught her again, but it was a sound so wretched, so piteous in the attempt to hide away from him, that Mr. Twist's heart stood still. "Oh, don't go," she said, catching at the cat and hugging her tight, "I can't let you go—" And she buried her face in her fur, so that Mr. Twist still couldn't see it."Now that's enough about the cat," he said, speaking very firmly. "You're coming with me." And he stooped and picked her up, cat and all, and set her on her feet. Then he saw her face. "Good God, Anna-Rose!" he exclaimed.
"I did try not to show you," she said; and she added, taking shelter behind her pride and looking at him as defiantly as she could out of eyes almost closed up, "but you mustn't suppose just because I happen to—to seem as if I'd been crying that I—that I'm minding anything."
"Oh no," said Mr. Twist, who at sight of her face had straightway forgotten about himself and his longings and his proposals, and only knew that he must comfort Christopher. "Oh no," he said, looking at her aghast, "I'm not supposing we're minding anything, either of us."He took her by the arm. Comfort Christopher; that's what he had got to do. Get rid as quickly as possible of that look of agony—yes, it was downright agony—on her face.
He thought he guessed what she was thinking and feeling; he thought—he was pretty sure—she was thinking and feeling that her beloved Columbus had gone from her, and gone to a stranger, in a day, in a few hours, to a stranger she had never even seen, never even heard of; that her Columbus had had secrets from her, had been doing things behind her back; that she had had perfect faith and trust in her twin, and now was tasting the dreadful desolation of betrayal; and he also guessed that she must be sick with fears,—for he knew how responsible she felt, how seriously she took the charge of her beautiful twin—sick with fear about this unknown man, sick with the feeling of helplessness, of looking on while Columbus rushed into what might well be, for all any one knew, a deadly mess-up of her happiness.
Well, he could reason her out of most of this, he felt. Certainly he could reassure her about Elliott, who did inspire one with confidence, who did seem, anyhow outwardly, a very fitting mate for Anna-Felicitas. But he was aghast at the agony on her face. All that he guessed she was thinking and feeling didn't justify it. It was unreasonable to suffer so violently on account of what was, after all, a natural happening. But however unreasonable it was, she was suffering.
He took her by the arm. "You come right along with me," he said; and led her out of the yard, away from Li Koo and the kitchen window, towards the eucalyptus grove behind the house. "You come right along with me," he repeated, holding her firmly for she was very wobbly on her feet, "and we'll tell each other all about the things we're not minding. Do you remember when the St. Luke left Liverpool? You thought I thought you were minding things then, and were very angry with me. We've made friends since, haven't we, and we aren't going to mind anything ever again except each other."But he hardly knew what he was saying, so great was his concern and distress.
Anna-Rose went blindly. She stumbled along, helped by him, clutching the cat. She couldn't see out of her swollen eyes. Her foot caught in a root, and the cat, who had for some minutes past been thoroughly uneasy, became panic-stricken and struggled out of her arms, and fled into the wood. She tried to stop it, but it would go. For some reason this broke down her self-control. The warm cat clutched to her breast had at least been something living to hold on to. Now the very cat had gone. Her pride collapsed, and she tumbled against Mr. Twist's arm and just sobbed.
If ever a man felt like a mother it was Mr. Twist at that moment. He promptly sat her down on the grass. "There now—there, there now," he said, whipping out his handkerchief and anxiously mopping up her face. "This is what I did on the St. Luke—do you remember?—there now—that time you told me about your mother—it looks like being my permanent job—there, there now—don't now—you'll have no little eyes left soon if you go on like this—"
"Yes, yes I know all about Columbus. Don't you worry about her. She's all right. She's all right in the office at this moment, and we're all right out here if only you knew it, if only you wouldn't cry such quantities. It beats me where it all comes from, and you so little—there, there now—""Oh but—oh but Columbus—"
"Yes, yes, I know—you're worrying yourself sick because you think you're responsible for her to your aunt and uncle, but you won't be, you know, once she's married—there, there now—""Oh but—oh but—"
"Now don't—now please—yes, yes, I know—he's a stranger, and you haven't seen him yet, but everybody was a stranger once," said Mr. Twist, quoting Anna-Felicitas's own argument, the one that had especially irritated him half-an-hour before, "and he's real good—I'm sure of it. And you'll be sure too the minute you see him. That's to say, if you're able to see anything or anybody for the next week out of your unfortunate stucktogether little eyes.""Oh but—oh but—you don't—you haven't—"
"Yes, yes, I have. Now turn your face so that I can wipe the other side properly. There now, I caught an enormous tear. I got him just in time before he trickled into your ear. Lord, how sore your poor little eyes are. Don't it even cheer you to think you're going to be a sister-in-law, Anna-Rose?""Oh but you don't—you haven't—" she sobbed, her face not a whit less agonized for all his reassurances.
"Well, I know I wish I were going to be a brother-in-law," said Mr. Twist, worried by his inability to reassure, as he tenderly and carefully dabbed about the corners of her eyes and her soaked eyelashes. "My, shouldn't I think well of myself."
Then his hand shook. "I wish I were going to be Anna-Felicitas's brother-in-law," he said, suddenly impelled, perhaps by this failure to get rid of the misery in her face, to hurl himself on his fate. "Not yours—get your mind quite clear about that,—but Anna-Felicitas's." And his hand shook so much that he had to leave off drying. For this was a proposal. If only AnnaRose would see it, this was a proposal.
Anna-Rose, however, saw nothing. Even in normal times she wasn't good at relationships, and had never yet understood the that-man's-father-was-my-father's-son one; now she simply didn't hear. She was sitting with her hands limply in her lap, and sobbing in a curious sort of anguish.
He couldn't help being struck by it. There was more in this than he had grasped. Again he forgot himself and his proposal. Again he was overwhelmed by the sole desire to help and comfort.He put his hand on the two hands lying with such an air of being forgotten on her lap. "What is it?" he asked gently. "Little dear one, tell me. It's clear I'm not dead on to it yet." "Oh—Columbus—" She seemed to writhe in her misery. "Well yes, yes Columbus. We know all about that." Anna-Rose turned her quivering face to him. "Oh, you haven't seen—you don't see—it's only me that's seen—" "Seen what? What haven't I seen? Ah, don't cry—don't cry like that—" "Oh, I've lost her—lost her—" "Lost her? Because she's marrying?" "Lost her—lost her—" sobbed Anna-Rose. "Come now," remonstrated Mr. Twist. "Come now. That's just flat contrary to the facts. You've lost nothing, and you've gained a brother." "Oh,—lost her—lost her," sobbed Anna-Rose. "Come, come now," said Mr. Twist helplessly.
"Oh," she sobbed, looking at him out of her piteous eyes, "has nobody thought of it but me? Columbus hasn't. I—I know she hasn't from what—from what—she said. She's too—too happy to think. But—haven't you thought—haven't you seen—that she'll be English now—really English—and go away from me to England with him—and I—I can't go to England—because I'm still—I'm still—an alien enemy—and so I've lost her—lost her—lost my own twin—"And Anna-Rose dropped her head on to her knees and sobbed in an abandonment of agony.
Mr. Twist sat without saying or doing anything at all. He hadn't thought of this; nor, he was sure, had Anna-Felicitas. And it was true. Now he understood Anna-Rose's face and the despair of it. He sat looking at her, overwhelmed by the realization of her misfortune. For a moment he was blinded by it, and didn't see what it would mean for him. Then he did see. He almost leaped, so sudden was the vision, and so luminous.
"Anna-Rose," he said, his voice trembling, "I want to put my arm round you. That's because I love you. And if you'll let me do that I could tell you of a way there is out of this for you. But I can't tell you so well unless—unless you let me put my arm round you first...."
He waited trembling. She only sobbed. He couldn't even be sure she was listening. So he put his arm round her to try. At least she didn't resist. So he drew her closer. She didn't resist that either. He couldn't even be sure she knew about it. So he put his other arm round her too, and though he couldn't be sure, he thought—he hardly dared think, but it did seem as if—she nestled.
Happiness, such as in his lonely, loveless life he had never imagined, flooded Mr. Twist. He looked down at her face, which was now so close to his, and saw that her eyes were shut. Great sobs went on shaking her little body, and her tears, now that he wasn't wiping them, were rolling down her cheeks unchecked.He held her closer to him, close to his heart where she belonged, and again he had that sensation, that wonderful sensation, of nestling. "Little Blessed, the way out is so simple," he whispered. "Little Blessed, don't you see?"
But whether Anna-Rose saw seemed very doubtful. There was only that feeling, as to which he was no doubt mistaken, of nestling to go on. Her eyes, anyhow, remained shut, and her body continued to heave with sobs.He bent his head lower. His voice shook. "It's so, so simple," he whispered. "All you've got to do is to marry me." And as she made an odd little movement in his arms he held her tighter and began to talk very fast.
"No, no," he said, "don't answer anything yet. Just listen. Just let me tell you first. I want to tell you to start with how terribly I love you. But that doesn't mean you've got to love me—you needn't if you don't want to—if you can't—if you'd rather not I'm eighteen years older than you, and I know what I'm like to look at—no, don't say anything yet—just listen quiet first—but if you married me you'd be an American right away, don't you see? Just as Anna-Felicitas is going to be English. And I always intended going back to England as soon as may be, and if you married me what is to prevent your coming too? Coming to England? With Anna-Felicitas and her husband. Anna-Rose—little Blessed— think of it—all of us together. There won't be any aliens in that quartette, I guess, and the day you marry me you'll be done with being German for good and all. And don't you get supposing it matters about your not loving me, because, you see, I love you so much, I adore you so terribly, that anyhow there'll be more than enough love to go round, and you needn't ever worry about contributing any if you don't feel like it—"
Mr. Twist broke off abruptly. "What say?" he said, for Anna-Rose was making definite efforts to speak. She was also making definite and unmistakable movements, and this time there could be no doubt about it; she was coming closer."What say?" said Mr. Twist breathlessly, bending his head. "But I do," whispered Anna-Rose. "Do what?" said Mr. Twist, again breathlessly. She turned her face up to his. On it was the same look he had lately seen on AnnaFelicitas's, shining through in spite of the disfiguration of her tears. "But—of course I do," whispered Anna-Rose, an extraordinary smile, an awe-struck sort of smile, coming into her face at the greatness of her happiness, at the wonder of it. "What? Do what?" said Mr. Twist, still more breathlessly. "I—always did," whispered Anna-Rose. "What did you always did?" gasped Mr. Twist, hardly able to believe it, and yet—and yet—there on her little face, on her little transfigured face, shone the same look. "Oh—love you," sighed Anna-Rose, nestling as close as she could get. It was Mr. Twist himself who got on a ladder at five minutes past four that afternoon and pasted a strip of white paper obliquely across the sign of The Open Arms with the word. SHUT
on it in big letters. Li Koo held the foot of the ladder. Mr. Twist had only remembered the imminence of four o'clock and the German inrush a few minutes before the hour, because of his being so happy; and when he did he flew to charcoal and paper. He got the strip on only just in time. A car drove up as he came down the ladder."What?" exclaimed the principal male occupant of the car, pointing, thwarted and astonished, to the sign. "Shut," said Mr. Twist. "Shut?" "Shut."