The Magnificent Emily
An unforgettable story of a woman who did nothing, wasn't even beautiful —and was buried in St. Paul's
EMILY held her last reception yesterday. She held it in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
You remember how cold it was yesterday; bitter and bleak, with scudding drifts of rain. The wind screamed through the tangle of streets from whose centre rises the great dome of the church, that immense symbolic structure; conceived for the glory of God, unspeakably degraded and polluted in the seventeenth century, purged by fire, rebuilt, attacked, condemned as dangerous, yet still rising, immutable, from the teeming heart of the teeming city. It seemed to me, as I threaded my way through the congested traffic and crossed the flagged square where the pigeons wheeled and strutted, that the Cathedral and Emily, in their several ways, were very much alike.
After the clattering, cold confusion of the streets, the utter calm within the building was like a benediction. The air was warm, and sweet with the fragrance of tall white lilies. The light was dim in the great nave, the altar a glimmering radiance, the vast arches of the roof in wavering shadow. Through it all the note of the muted organ pulsed like the voice of a weeping angel.
Far up the aisle lay Emily in her silver-embossed coffin. A long line of people moved steadily toward her, took their last look, paid their last tribute, then quietly settled themselves to await the service for her soul.
They had laid the coffin on a bier covered with a purple velvet pall, but the pall that rested on the coffin’s foot was of white, Emily’s color. She herself was wrap-
ped in rich white satin and on her black hair, braided in two thick plaits, was a mantilla of lace. Death had been kind to Emily. Her dark skin had taken on a marble pallor and for the first time I thought her beautiful.
There had been a column in The Times about her that morning. Some of its phrases came back to me as I looked my last upon her.
“Partly Spanish,” it had said, “she had the fascination, the brooding mystery of that land which is more East than West.” It went on to speak of her achievements. “Although her husband is one of our first painters, it is the opinion of many critics that her talent exceeded his.” “A specialist, confining herself to a single theme. The world is the poorer for this inflexibility of purpose; we shall never know, now, what she might have accomplished.” The article ended with the words:
“So passes a great artist and a great lady.”
üMILY WINTERTON, born Emily Perkiss, started -L/ her career in the dining room of the Stacey House in Lindville, Maine, The Stacey House was what we used to call a Commercial Hotel, and it did a roaring trade among travelling men, for Lindville was on the main line. It was a big square house of wooden clapboards painted yellow. It had a bathroom, fifty small and stuffy bedrooms, and a wide verandah covered with rocking chairs. There was also a small odorous office, a discreet bar and a huge dining room.
The dining room had two lines of tables covered with more or less clean cloths, and always bearing, along the middle like a row of soldiers, a bottle of tomato ketchup, a bottle of Harvey’s sauce, a large plate of soda crackers' a cruet, and a glass vase with knobbly decorations holding teaspoons. The room was in charge of Miss Green, a stately peroxided young lady, and she had twelve assistants.
They were what used to be known as “fine girls,” these young ladies of the Stacey House dining room. They were tall, firm-bosomed, wide-hipped. They wore straight-front corsets which made them concave in front and convex to a startling degree behind. Their black serge skirts, flared about their trim ankles, were pulled down below the curve of their waists, very tight and firm, and their black sateen blouses were pinned to them so stringently that frequently, when a young lady bent down, one heard an ominous ripping. They wore white ruching sewed into the tops of their highboned collars and little white aprons the size of a man’s pocket handkerchief.
They all did their hair in the then prevailing style, the “pompadour.” They fastened across the tops of their heads a fat semicircle of net stuffed with wool known as a “rat,” and their front hair was swept up over this erection and held in place by a great curved comb. The back hair was puffed out above the nape of the neck and arranged in little rows like sausages. Oh, they were an imposing sight, those girls at Stacey’s, and well they knew it.
They worked fifteen hours a day. Breakfast was
served from six till nine. Dinner from twelve till two. Supper from six till eight. In between meals the girls washed the dishes and cutlery belonging to their own tables and relaid them. Each girl had two tables, and each table seated ten persons. The day’s work finished with the sweeping of the room and laying the tables, and after that, as Stacey said, their time was their own.
He was very proud of his girls, was Stacey. They were a picked lot. He paid good wages, ten dollars a month, and they could keep all their tips. It wasn’t easy to get a position with him and it was only by sheer persistence that Emily got in. He didn’t want Emily. He didn’t want a girl in his dining room who was known to come from Swamp’s Hollow, and you couldn’t blame him.
Swamp’s Hollow was the district out beyond the gasworks and the tannery, where the river, befouled and stinking, crept through a marshy depression before it emerged again, a shining ribbon, leaving its slime behind it. As a slum, the Hollow could have given points in misery and depravity and general horror to London or Glasgow or Naples. It was a blot on the town which the town ignored as much as possible. Occasional abortive attempts were made to help and rouse the inhabitants, but it was a useless and thankless task. They were, as someone expressed it,
“grimed in.” There had been people existing in Swamp’s Hollow before the first house was built in what was now a fair and pleasant little town.
They were desperately poor. What money they made from odd jobs they spent mostly on drink. They intermated, with or without civil ceremony, and the results were deplorable. We called them bone-lazy, but the truth was they had no stamina. There was a family there—a large family with many ramifications—which for generations had been bald or, at best, with only a few wisps of colorless hair.
There was—but I must not risk offending your sensibilities.
PMILY PERKISS was ■*“' born in this vile place, daughter of a wastrel and a slattern. But Emily had the advantage of cleaner blood.
Her parents came of respectable farm folk and had sunk to the Hollow only after a series of well-earned vicissitudes. Once there, the miasma had fastened its slimy fingers upon them. They made no effort to rise from the mud and no effort to raise their child. But Emily was of sterner stuff. She had little beauty, less brains, but she had the gift of persistence and an ineradicable belief in herself.
She was one of the few Swamp’s Hollow children who came to school. The ladies of the town used to send parcels of old clothing to the poor families there, and Emily contrived to save enough of these from her father, who saw in such things only potential pawn tickets, to keep herself decently clad. I remember her at school—for you must understand that in those little towns the daughter of the judge and the daughter of the laborer shared the same classrooms and frequently the same desk.
She was a big sallow child, neither pretty nor overplain, with good but heavy features and a tremendous mane of dense black hair. Her eyes were her best point, being very dark and long and heavy-lidded. When she smiled her slow smile—she did nothing other than slowly—those eyes would narrow and her expression
would assume an impenetrability, an enigmatic intelligence, which had no foundation whatever in fact. No one cared much about her. She was too slow; we children called her “dumb.” She kept up fairly well in her classes, however, because she had great tenacity and, as I have said, that curious unshakable belief in herself. Her teachers said of her that she did what she was told; did it over and over and over until finally it was perfectly done.
It was in this way that she began drawing her cats. We had a craze at that time for drawing sketchy animals; you know, two half circles, two smaller ones and a straight line for an elephant: two upright triangles, a circle, an oblong and a curved line for a cat, and so on. The margins of our books were covered with these engaging creatures for a month or so; then, when the
craze had died down and we were collecting acrostics, Emily began to draw cats. I shared my desk with her and it was I who taught her.
She couldn’t get the hang of it for a long time, but she kept at it. And one day she got it; anybody would
have known that it was a cat. And having once drawn a good one she never again drew a poor one. They grew better and better and less sketchy, although the foundation was always the same.
“How can I show fur?” she asked me presently. I was sick of the very word cats by this time, but I knew she would keep at me until I showed her. I had a certain talent for sketching, and I taught her to shade in the fur and make eyes and a real tail and whiskers. She copied me faithfully; seemed obsessed by it. She drew cat after cat, and presently she bought some cheap crayons and colored them.
It was this same persistence, this belief in her own ability, that finally placed her in the dining room of the Stacey House. She had left school at fifteen and had been employed in the kitchen there, bullied by the harassed cook and sneered at by the scullery maids who, whatever they might be, had at least not been born in Swamp’s Hollow. The dining room young ladies with their fine figures and their immaculate coiffures, coming superbly in and out with their great iron trays balanced nonchalantly upon one hand, had seemed to the poor child little short of goddesses. She made up her mind that some day she would be one of them.
Stacey said no, and no, and again no. The cook refused to recommend her. “She hasn’t the brains of a hen,” the cook declared, “and she’s bone-lazy like all the Swamp’s Hollow folks. She wouldn’t last a week.”
She wasn’t lazy. She had been undernourished for years, that was all. And although at fifteen she was tall and developed, there wasn’t anything behind this robust appearance. But she kept on at Stacey until at last in sheer self-defense he said: “All right. You can try it.” So Emily, dazed with happiness, tried it and stuck to it. She started in at sixteen and she was still there on her twentieth birthday and she hadn’t missed a day.
I remember going into the hotel one day with my grandfather to enquire about her progress, for our family had always taken an interest in Emily, whose mother had once worked in our own kitchen.
“She’s getting on real well,” the proprietor informed us. “I’ll say for her that she’s a sticker. I pret’ near fired her a dozen times at first; guess she’s made every mistake it’s possible for a waitress to make, and that’s a consid’ble few. But she never made the same one twice, see? Not that she’s what I’d call a draw, mind you; the drummers don’t exactly fight to get to her table; ain’t got no backchat, nothing to hand ’em. Still, she’s a good girl and her heart’s in her work. And not so bad-looking at that, if she wasn’t so dumb.” It was true that Emily was, in her large placid way, goodlooking, and there was a great deal of sweetness in her slow smile, but the commercial gentlemen called her a washout. The other young ladies were as deft with their tongues as thej. were with their trays; the insolent swing of their hips was matched by the insolence of their swift speech. They handed it out to the men, good and plenty. Quick on the uptake, too; knew what a fellow was getting at, appreciated the commercial wit.
But Emily had no repartee, no conception of humor. “Is that so?” she would murmur pleasantly but vaguely. Or, “Well, I never!” Or else, puzzled beyond speech, she
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would simply smile her enigmatic smile that promised so much, yet hid nothing but blankness.
However, although she knew she was not popular, Emily was well content. It was enough for her that she had achieved her ambition. Her one dread was that she might lose her job, and it took all her strength and all her mind to hold it. Being on one’s feet fifteen hours a day takes a good deal of grit, even if you haven’t gone half-starved for threequarters of your young life. Remembering ten different orders and getting them all in at once is a task for any girl’s brain. And when your brain is naturally a slow one, and your legs are too big and too soft, with great purple veins that tie themselves into knots, the business of being, and keeping on being, an efficient waitress is a pretty absorbing one.
TT WAS when Emily was twenty that my cousin Percival Winterton came out from England to visit us. The town was venturing on a pageant that year and we persuaded him to produce it for us. Percival was an artist, already known and on the road to fame.
He was a man of thirty-three at this time; slender, nervous, irritable and kindhearted. He was wrapped up in his work and, so it was said, never looked at a woman save as a possible model for his clever brush. He consented to run the pageant for us, and he certainly put us through it. He drilled us unmercifully; there was no satisfying his exacting standards.
The pageant, of course, included a number of Indian episodes, and Emily Perkiss—heaven knows why—conceived the idea of being an Indian princess. She came to our house one evening to make this request. We were all very much amused and a little sorry, for we expected that she would receive scant mercy from the quick-tempered Percival.
I remember her in our drawing-room, sitting on the edge of a small chair in her long flared skirt, her little tight jacket with the leg o’ mutton sleeves, her big hat pinned at the back of her monstrous black pompadour.
“Oh, I’m afraid. . .” Percival began. Emily interrupted him, hands gripping e^ch other, great dark eyes fixed upon his.
“Please, please let me,” said big Emily, just like a child.
“But, Emily,” my mother put in gently, “I don’t believe you could. It is like acting on a stage, you know. You’ve never done anything of that kind.”
“I can learn,” said Emily.
My mother glanced helplessly at Percival, who to the surprise of us all said to the girl abruptly: “Take off your hat and take down your hair.”
Quite simply, Emily obeyed, unpinning the huge hat, taking dozens and dozens of hairpins and three combs and a large “rat” out of her hair and laying them upon a table. Then she shook out her black mane and stood up, very big and serious and oddly touching.
“All right,” Percival nodded. “I’ll try you out. When can you drill with pie?”
“In the evenings, after work.” “Starting tomorrow?”
YTL/HEN she was gone we protested.
“You can’t make anything out of Emily Perkiss. She’ll ruin the thing. She’ll be a joke.”
“I couldn’t refuse,” he answered. “She wanted it so terribly. Don’t you worry. I’ll make an Indian princess of her, if we both die of it.”
And he did.
He drilled her and drilled her, two hours, three hours, every night. It was rather like trying to put life into a solid
bit of rock at first, but his patience and hers seemed inexhaustible. And at the end of three weeks, when we held a dress rehearsal in the schoolhouse, we had to admit that he had made a success of it. She went through every movement, held every pose, exactly as he had taught her. And she really looked rather magnificent in her fringed buckskin dress, her beads and feathers, and her great black cloud of hair. The only difficulty had been her poor disfigured legs, and this we had overcome with flesh-colored silk stockings.
The pageant was to last all day, beginning and ending with a grand parade through the town, the episodes proper taking place in the park.
“You’ll have to stand like a statue,” Percival warned Emily, “practically all day long. Can you do it?” For Percival had caught a glimpse of those legs of hers.
“I’m used to standing,” Emily assured him. And stand she did.
“She’s the best one of you all,” Percival declared when it was all over. “She did exactly what I told her. Bravo, Miss Emily!” He smiled up at her where she stood above him on the big float, with its wigwam and captured white man and ferocious Indian braves. And Emily smiled back at him—and then she toppled and fell in a heap at his feet.
Our old doctor was there—everyone was there—and he hurried across to where we bent over the unconscious girl. He couldn’t rouse her and at my grandfather’s suggestion she was lifted into our carriage and driven to our house.
“We’re responsible,” my grandfather said. “Percival has half killed the poor child, rehearsing her for hours after her long day’s work.”
They were a long time bringing her out of her faint, and while the doctor and my mother busied themselves about her I gave Percival an outline of her history. He had seen Swamp’s Hollow and seemed extraordinarily shocked to learn that Emily had been born and bred in that fetid marsh.
“That ragged, drunken, half-witted crew!” he exclaimed. “You don’t mean that she is one of them?”
I explained the circumstances; how Emily, alone of all that sorry tribe, had climbed out of the muck. “She’s made a good deal of herself,” I finished, condescendingly.
“She could make anything of herself,” he cried. “Anything!”
Well, I had never thought of Emily in quite that light, but I agreed that she had done very well, considering what she came from. And I had no doubt, I continued, that if Emily could keep it up she would one day be head waitress at Stacey’s, which was, I explained, her secret, dear ambition.
“The devil she will !” exclaimed Percival, suddenly and inexplicably enraged. At this point my mother came in to tell us that Emily had come to herself and Percival at once went upstairs to see her. I went too, for I was uneasy, and I saw him bend over her and saw the look in her dark eyes as she gazed up at him.
“Well, Miss Emily,” he said, “so I nearly succeeded in killing you?”
“I don’t know as I’d mind if you had,” she answered him, “so long as it was you.” A dread premonition seized me and the future confirmed it. When Percival sailed for England Emily sailed too, as his wife.
T WILL not dwell on what went before;
the protests, the family storm, the nine days’ wonder of the town. Percival remained immovable throughout. Whether he had really fallen in love with Emily or not I could never determine, but at any rate something in the big,
gentle, inarticulate girl with her slow brain and her indomitable spirit had touched him to the core of his being.
“I am going to make up to her,” he declared, “for all that she has never had. And she’ll do no more standing! She’d have died on her feet if I hadn’t come— and this town would have let her.”
“I know,” I said, “she is a dear and touching creature. But, Percival, think what she comes from. Couldn’t we all do something for her. . . I mean. . . to marry her seems. . . what about your career, your brilliant friends ... “I floundered on, for I was more than a little afraid of him.
“Bother my brilliant friends!” he said. “If they don’t like it they can lump it. Besides, I’ll teach her. And remember, Helen, she will appear over there without her background.”
“But, Percival,” for my life I couldn’t help asking it, “what do you see in her?”
“She rests me,” he said.
The only person who had no misgivings about this amazing marriage was Emily herself. She adored Percival and was solemn with great joy, but serenely unmoved by any other consideration.
“Of course,” she said to me one day, “it’s a big change for me. I never expected to travel or be an artist’s wife—a gentleman’s wife.”
“It will be a different life indeed,” I replied, “and not too easy, Emily.”
“Well, I’ll learn,” said Emily composedly.
“And are you sure you will be happy? Among strangers, so far away? For it’s a long way to go.”
“Come to that,” replied Emily, with a flash of rare and unexpected comprehension, “it isn’t so far as from Swamp’s Hollow to Stacey’s dining room, Helen.”
We saw them off on the first stage of Emily’s new long journey with much foreboding. It seemed to us that Percival, quixotic Percival, had done for himself. He had hung a millstone around his neck. Only my mother had a word of comfort for us all.
“Percival is an odd creature,” she said. “Women mean nothing to him. He won’t demand much and Emily will demand nothing at all. She’s a good, placid, restful soul, who will sit in the background and be there when he wants her. When you come to think of it, that is the homely sort of wife most geniuses marry.” And she quoted several instances for our reassurance.
T DID not see either of them again for
ten years. During this time I married and went with my husband to his regiment in India. It was during our second leave that we had a fleeting glimpse of the Wintertons, who were at that time living in Italy. I confess that I was consumed with curiosity to see Emily.
Percival met us at the station. He looked stronger, very brown and less nervous.
“Emily has taken good care of you,” I remarked. His eyes twinkled.
“You’ll find Emily changed,” he said.
She was waiting for us in the dim cool drawing-room of their pink villa, perched high above the sea in a colony of English artists. She welcomed us quietly and pleasantly. She had grown very stout and was dressed in a loose white gown, which accentuated her size, but was very graceful and becoming. Her fine hair, innocent now of combs and “rats,” was parted madonna-like in the centre and rolled low on her neck. I noticed that her English was correct, her accent impeccable, her voice low and sweet. She had gained immensely in assurance, and my first impression was that she was quite passable and would not disgrace Percival in any company. I did not think more
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of her than that, and was wholly unprepared for what followed.
In the late afternoon a number of people dropped into the pretty pink-tiled loggia with its tiny fountain and gay borders of flowers. They came in casually and easily, as if in the habit of so doing. The servants brought out small wicker tables with various drinks and fruit and sweets, and Percival dispensed them. Emily, in a long white silk wrap, with a piece of Spanish lace on her dark hair, lay in a low basket chair. Everyone went up to her—she did not rise to greet her friends—took her hand, said something pleasant. And sometimes Emily said, “IL~w do you do?” and sometimes only smiled.
“Not exactly asocial success,” I thought, watching her. She did not join in the animated conversation which immediately started, everyone chattering at once on every conceivable topic. Occasionally, however, she made some quiet remark, always obvious and often banal. I thought her a bit of a bore, but I soon found that I was alone in this conception of her. Everyone else looked at her with interest and respect. Her least remark was listened to and replied to, though, heaven knows, they never listened to each other. They were as voluble, as egoistic as only artists and writers can be. They desired, apparently, to hear only their own voices, listen to their own opinions. But they were, remarkably, wholly at one with respect to Emily. She was the centre of the picture.
Yet she did nothing. And she wasn’t even beautiful. She was not unattractive with her blue-black hair and fine long eyes framed by the white lace, but there were half a dozen women there to whom she could not hold a candle.
“Wonderful, isn’t she?” a young man at my side murmured presently, his eyes upon her. “Marvellous hostess.”
“Isn’t she?” I agreed rather lamely, for I had not seen anything to warrant such an encomium. Emily had not moved and had scarcely spoken for an hour.
“You know,” the boy went on, “she is just a little terrifying to me. Those immense silences—and that smile of hers, like Mona Lisa’s. One can’t help wondering just what she is thinking of us all, what is behind that lovely stillness of hers.”
I could have assured him that there was nothing at all behind the smile, and that Emily’s immobility was doubtless due to her poor legs, which had never recovered from those grilling years at Stacey’s, but I wasn’t going to give Emily away.
“Wonder where Winterton found her, lucky devil,” the young man mused. “He met her somewhere abroad. Of course she’s Spanish, or partly so. That is obvious.”
“It is certainly a Spanish type of coloring,” I replied cautiously.
Later in the evening I had a word alone with Percival.
“Well?” he demanded, his eyes again twinkling.
“You’ve done it,” I said, “Pygmalion.” “Me? I haven’t done a thing but teach her to speak English and to dress. She was all for bright colors at first and for busking herself in tight corsets, but I showed her a picture of Carmen Sylva of Rumania and told her to stick to that.” “And she stuck,” I chuckled. “I wondered who she kept reminding me of.” “She did. And her dresses are always white. I have done nothing else.”
“But—don’t think I’m being catty, Percival." I’m overjoyed about the whole thing—only. . . these people. . . they adore her. . . .”
“Why not? She isn’t brilliant, I grant you, but she is very sweet and restful.” “I know she is sweet. And gentle. And good. But . . . they think her brilliant as well. . They think there are untold stores behind that smile of hers.”
“I told you, Helen, she would appear
over here without her background. And don’t you remember what Lincoln said about the public? Well, she’s done it. part of it. ‘All the people some of the time.’ You know.”
rT"'HAT night when I was undressing, while my husband and Percival smoked a last cigarette on the terrace, Emily came in to me.
“Did you like the party?” she enquired. I assured her that I had.
“You are a wonder, Emily,” I said warmly. “They are all crazy about you.” “Thank you. It’s nice of you to say that.” Something in her tone made me ask quickly, “And you? Are you happy? Do you like the life, these people?”
“Oh. . . happy!” A faint flush rose in her dark cheek. “It’s just like heaven. This house and the flowers, and just to sit quiet, and be with Percival and have good things to eat.”
“And the people?” I persisted.
“I like them, too. At first I was scared. The way they talk! Like nothing you ever heard. I couldn’t make head or tail of it, and I thought I’d have to learn to be like them, and you know I was never a talker, Helen.”
I knew it, indeed. Poor Emily.
“Well,” I prompted.
“Well, Percival said, never mind. Be yourself, he said, and show them something different. So I decided to keep still and let them do the guessing. I put a ... a sort of ideal in front of me and worked up to it. It wasn’t easy, either,” finished Emily reminiscently.
“You’ve done wonders,” I said. “You have a place for yourself, not only as Percival’s wife but individually, Emily. You ought to be very proud—as proud as we are of you, my dear.”
“I generally can do what I set my mind to,” Emily responded simply. Then to my surprise she went on, “But it’s not enough:”
“Not enough? What more do you want?”
“We’re going to London next month, to settle. Percival is getting too big a man to be away from the centre of things. And London will be different from this little place. There’ll be people there who are cleverer than these out here who think themselves so great, and Percival will be sought after and I. . .1 must do something or I’ll drop behind.”
“What do you propose to do?”
“Well,” said Emily seriously, “I can’t play bridge; seems I have no head for cards. And I’m no reader. And I couldn’t go in for these English politics like so many women. I’m going to be a painter.” “A painter! But Emily—it’s impossible. You haven’t any talent. Even if you had, it takes years of study. You don’t know what you are talking about.” “I can learn,” said Emily, “if I set my mind to it. Anyway,” she smiled her slow smile, “I’ll make them think I’m a painter.”
'YIL/'E LEFT the next morning and it was another ten years before I saw her again. We came home for good, settling down in London, and a week or so after our arrival we were bidden to a reception in Percival’s studio. He had taken a stable that stood in a garden behind his house in Cheyne Walk and transformed it.
It was one immense room with high oak rafters and a gallery of oak over which hung beautiful Persian rugs. The floor was of teak, polished like black glass, with more of the priceless rugs scattered upon it. Fresh from the austerities of an Indian bungalow in a bleak station, I was conscious at first only of a riot of warm color, of shaded lights, a leaping log fire and a medley of voices. The first thing I saw clearly was Emily’s cats.
They encircled the room, in a frieze above a narrow panel, little framed paintings. Although they were drawn and painted in a highly decorative man-
ner, some with elongated necks, some with outrageously bushy tails and so on, I recognized them. The groundwork, the essential cat was the same: the triangles, the circle and the oblong. Other pictures, Percival’s fine work, hung upon the walls as well, but as we threaded our way among the press of people I did not see anyone paying attention to them. One and all they were looking at Emily’s cats.
Percival came to us and led us up to his wife. She was sitting in a high-backed chair on a little dais at one end of the room. She was dressed as before in white; a flowing gown that touched the floor on either side and was reflected in its dark polish. Her hair was still parted and coiled low, but the bit of Spanish lace was now a true mantilla draped over a huge tortoiseshell comb.
As we came up to her she smiled in the old way and put out her hand.
“This is a great pleasure,” she said, and in spite of myself, in spite of all my true and certain knowledge of her, I had all I could do not to bow before her, while my husband assured me afterward that he very nearly kissed that large smooth hand. She really looked like something royal, sitting there.
We moved aside for others to speak with her, but I hovered in the vicinity of the dais. I was fascinated, amused, incredulous all at once. I had seen her before the centre of a gathering, but these people at the London studio were very different from that colony of artistic aspirants on the Italian Riviera. These men and women had arrived, professionally and socially. There were people from the various embassies, men of affairs, artists, writers, explorers, and a formidable leavening of old titles. Percival, by his own achievement, had a right to their respect, but it was not Percival that they had come to see. It was Emily.
I noted that everyone approached her eagerly, left her reluctantly. She had improved in manner and in ease, spoke a little more, but her utterances were still obvious, still what we call in America “small town.” It was incredible that they did not see through her.
I heard men of talent, men of high standing, saying brilliant things to her. She had no repartee, no appreciation of humor, caught no subtleties. I saw her, time and again, puzzled, out of her depth, and watched with increasing amusement and admiration her handling of such momentary situations. She parried every thrust and scored her point every time. And the way she did it was simply in her low rich voice, to murmur “Ah!” and to smile, and lower her heavy-lidded eyes and to look—I had to admit it— exactly like Mona Lisa.
“N’est-ce pas?” I heard an eminent French critic chuckle as she responded thus to a gay satirical little tale of his own. And he looked complacently at the large, inscrutable face, the enigmatic eyelids, and chuckled again at what he evidently considered so intelligent an appreciation of his wit.
I tore myself away from her intriguing vicinity presently to look again at her cats. People were praising them extravagantly, and indeed they were charming things. But to compare them with Percival’s work was simply silly. Yet I heard such comparisons again and again, mingled with regrets that Mrs. Winterton adhered so rigidly to the one subject. I came upon Percival during my tour of the great room. He greeted me with a whimsical look.
“Are they all mad?” I demanded of him. “Do you hear what they say, Percival?”
“I’ve been hearing it for some time,” he answered. “Emily has put my nose out of joint.”
“But how on earth. . ”1 began.
“Don’t ask me how. She set her mind on becoming a painter, and when Emily sets her mind on a thing. . . ” he waved an expressive hand.
“They are extraordinarily good,” I
said. “She must have worked.” A shade crossed Percival’s face.
“Oh. . . worked! She’s killing herself, Helen. You know she isn’t strong, has no reserves. And she won’t stop. She hasn’t made the Academy yet—that is what she wants.”
“If she wants it she’ll get it,” I said.
“I believe you,” he replied.
"VITTIEN the guests were gone my * " husband went off with Percival to his club and I stayed with Emily. We crossed the garden to the house and went up to her bedroom. Emily sank into a deep chintz-covered chair with a long sigh and began to unpin the mantilla which was attached to the big comb by tiny hooks. She took it off, took out the comb and shook her hair free.
“That’s better,” she said. “That thing weighs a ton. “Well,” she smiled at me, “and how are you, Helen?”
“Don’t talk about me,” I burst out. “I want to talk about you, Emily. You are a marvel. How on earth have you done it?”
“Done it? Why, you know I always could draw cats. Percival showed me how to color them and make them different and amusing. Decorative art, they call it. Do you like them?”
“They are gorgeous. Everyone is mad about them. I heard someone say you are a better painter than your husband.” “I’ve heard that, too. Aren’t people funny? For you know, Helen, I can’t draw anything else. Not so much as a flower, not a curve or a line. And they aren’t real cats. I mean—you have to study anatomy and things to do animals really. But I told you I’d make them think I could paint. And because one or two did think so, the rest all followed like sheep. I guess they’re all afraid of missing something, being out of the fashion.”
“Well, whatever it is, you’ve succeeded. But you look tired, Emily. You have done too much.”
“Yes, I am tired. I think I was born tired. But I’ve got to get hung, Helen.” “Hung?”
“In the Academy. Then, maybe, 111 have a long rest. You see. it’s not only the painting. It’s keeping up being the person they think I am when I am only Emily Perkiss underneath. It takes a lot out of you.”
“You’re an ambitious woman, Emily,” I said.
“It’s not exactly that,” she replied. “I’ll tell you how it is. It is because I was born in Swamp’s Hollow. Nothing good ever came out of the Hollow. Nobody ever expected it. You were finished before you began. But when I first knew what I was and where I was, I made up my mind that I’d be something before I died. I was angry, Helen, clean through. I never had anything decent to eat or to wear. I never saw my father sober or my mother with shoes to her feet. There were worse things than that, too. Things I’d not tell you. Oh, they hadn’t any right to have me, they hadn’t any right to bear a child in a place like that!”
“Do you mean that you always felt like this? Even as a child?”
“Always, always. I was just burning up inside. I thought then that being a waitress and maybe getting to be head would be enough. It didn’t seem as if, ambition could go further! Well then Percival came and... I loved him. I wouldn’t have married him otherwise. You mustn’t think that, Helen.”
“I have never thought that.”
“And after that I saw that there was more to do; things far beyond Stacey’s dining room. So I kept on learning.” “And doing,” I put in softly.”
“And doing,” Emily conceded, with her sweet deprecating smile, “and bluffing, too, Helen. Bluffing most of all. I saw it was easy to fool people, and I wanted to fool them. I wanted to fool the whole world, to get my revenge on Swamp’s Hollow. There oughtn’t to be any such
place as the Hollow. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right. And nobody cares. Nobody ever helped me—except Percival. And now— well, you saw them this afternoon. The world! It would kick ragged little Emily Perkiss back into the mud, but it comes and crawls around Emily Winterton the painter, the mysterious Spanish woman!”
She spoke with a fire and energy of which I would never have believed her capable.
“Of course,” she went on, more quietly now, “it would have been different if I had been a beauty or had had brains. But I had neither. They didn’t give me anything! You read about these actresses and movie stars that come up out of the gutter overnight in a blaze of glory. I had to study each step and creep along, inch by inch.”
“Inch by inch,” I agreed, “but always on and upward, Emily. You’ve made no false steps.”
“Well, that’s enough about me,” Emily said, regaining her old placidity once more. “I don’t know what made me break out like this. I guess I just wanted you to understand.”
T NEVER saw her alive again. I was
summoned to America the next day by my mother’s illness and was away for more than a year. But I heard of Emily. The papers were full of her. Of how her picture of a cat was hung in the Academy in the spring, how her paintings became the rage. No Mayfair boudoir was complete without its frieze of gaily colored fantastic cats; no nursery furnished without its complement of fluffy white pussies. The “Emily” cat was copied in porcelain, copied by the toymakers. Her receptions were famous: everyone wanted to meet her. .
Then we heard that she had been stricken by a mortal illness, and Percival wrote us that she had been received into the English church. I knew why.
Religion had had no part in the life of the Wintertons. Percival, as tolerant a man as ever breathed in most respects, was singularly intolerant of all religious dogma. He detested the rites of the church both for the living and the dead, and had always declared that he intended to be cremated, his ashes scattered to the four winds. Emily agreed, placidly, as she agreed to all his opinions. It didn’t matter to Emily, either way. To my
certain knowledge she had never been inside a church in her life.
But as time went on, she had seen that religion, or its outward observance was, as she would have said in her Lindville days, “the thing.” She saw that her people, the highly placed people, followed their sovereign to church, belonged to it, conformed to it, married and died in its shelter. Emily had followed their lead in other matters and I knew, as well as if she had told me, that she had determined to end her life in character, so to speak.
She would have the ancient, picturesque rites. She would make her soul with precious bread and blessed wine. When she was dead, the most beautiful of all beautiful services would be performed for her. She would sleep her long last sleep in holy ground with a white cross at her head and a white stone at her feet. Her name would be carved deep in the marble, inviolate, enduring. Magnificent Emily!
T HAD been thinking of all this, going
over that strange indomitable life of hers while the service for the departed was being read, the young voices of the choir rising and falling, passionate and pleading, the prayers offered, the great company of people on their knees, praying for Emily’s soul. Little Emily Perkiss of Swamp’s Hollow. Emily, of Stacey’s dining room. Emily, who “hadn’t been given anything,” who had had to do it all for herself. I thought that she deserved it.
When the service was ended I found myself beside Percival.
“It’s finished,” he said softly. “The last of my Emily.”
“She has had everything she wanted,” I murmured. “She has been a very happy woman, Percival.”
“I think she has. I hope so.”
We were at the door of the Cathedral. Behind us the glimmer of lights, the scent of the lilies, the low voice of the organ and a line of silent, slow moving people. Percival smiled the ghost of his old whimsical smile.
“This would have pleased her,” he said.
“Percival,” I could not resist asking it, “how did you do it? A service in St. Paul’s . ”
“It took a bit of wire pulling,” he admitted seriously, “but you, see, Emily had set her mind on it.”