Orchids, a hat, a photograph — little did Bert, the dustman, realize they were clues to a world of joy and sorrow
ELSIE HAWKINS filled the brown stone teapot as soon as she heard the squeak of the front gate. Bert’s tea was ready for him on the table— a piece of haddock with an egg atop, bread and butter cut thickly on the blue-ringed plate, and a cake that Elsie had baked earlier in the afternoon.
Bert stuck his head in at the kitchen door.
“Got something for you, Else,” he said. “I’ll wash first though.”
He went over to the sink and scrubbed his hands, then he untied the scarf from his neck and washed that too. Being a dustman brought in good money, but it brought a lot of dirt as well.
"What you got, Bert?” Elsie asked as she whisked the teapot off the stove onto the table and took the inverted plate off the top of Bert's haddock.
“Orchids,” he said through a mouth of towel, “and a new hat and a photygraph.”
“Go on,” she said, “you and your orchids. More likely a cabbage that went bad.”
He emerged from the towel and pulled down his shirt sleeves. His eyes were brown and twinkling.
“I’m not kidding,” he said. “They’re orchids all right.” He went past her into the. hall and brought back his spoils.
He put them carefully on the table. A spray of three orchids, purple and proud and hardly battered. They wraved fingers of maidenhair fern, and their stems were lovingly wrapped in silver tissue ribbon.
Elsie stared at them.
‘They’re not really pretty flowers, are they, Bert,” she said slowly. “I wonder who chucked them away.”
“Some girl,” said Bert Hawkins wisely, “who has so many flowers given her. she doesn't bother about wearing them more than once.”
TF ANYONE had told Ann that an article in a cheap, woman's paper could change her life, she would have laughed at them. Anyway, Ann Dacre didn't read articles in cheap women’s pajiers as a rule. She read the fashion magazines and the latest library books.
She'd no intention of reading the copy of Women's Notes that had been pushed through the letter box as an advertising Scheme. No intention at all. She merely flipped over the pages when her maid brought it in to her with her breakfast for the sake of something to do.
The heading sprang out at her.
“Have You Kept Your Husband’s Love?”
Ann's lij» twitched a little.
She certainly hadn’t, but no advice handed out by Women's Notes could make the slightest difference. She wondered what advice they would give anyway.
She skimmed through the printed words: “Do you sit down to supper in the overall you wore to cook it ? ... Do you punctuate your conversation with him by remarks as to the sins of the baker, and how the butcher sent scrag end when you’d ordered shoulder?”
The remarks hardly applied to Ann Dacre, who lived in London’s most expensive block of flats, who wouldn’t know scrag end from shoulder if she saw it. And then her eye caught a final remark.
“Are you still the girl your husband married?”
She leaned back and hunched her knees up under the satin bedspread. She reviewed her day. The appointment with her hairdresser at eleven, lunch with Monica Stanley, at three o’clock John's roses would arrive or would they? He had never missed sending roses on the anniversary' of their wedding, timing them to arrive at exactly the hour they had been pronounced man and wife. But this year — this year they had grown even farther apart than before. Would that outward token of a love that had long been dead still arrive?
“Are you still the girl your husband married?”
The stupid words made a little song in her head. Her thoughts went draggingly back to that day, eight years ago, when she had stood beside John in the church. They had been moderately poor in those days, but terribly happy. He had promised her everything in the world, diamonds and furs and a car of her own. And he had kept his promise. He had given her everything that money could buy, and he had taken away the one thing she wanted -her child.
She tried to tear her thoughts away from that time, but they tortured her, reminding her of every detail. Of the loose carpet in the sitting room that she had asked John to fix, of the frenzied catching at the furniture to prevent her top-heavy young body from falling. And then the dark hours of pain shot through with wild terror. The waiting: aching ears alert for the tiny crying sound that never came.
Perhaps the long weeks in hospital when her battered body tried to elude the doctors who were keeping it alive had affected her nerves more than she knew. Whatever it was, she had changed from that moment. She had never forgiven John for not fixing that loose carpet. Never.
“Are you still the girl your husband married?”
Of course I’m not. thought Ann viciously. And John’s not the same man either. Her thin, nervous hands plucked at the satin bedspread, remembering John in those dark days. His wild attempts at begging her pardon. His pain-filled eyes. His pathetic arguments. “If I had lost you, Ann, I should have lost my life, but there can be other children.” And her answer, cold with passion: “I’m not going
through that again. I'm not giving you another child to kill by your thoughtlessness.”
Her brain suddenly became very clear. Rather frightening in its clarity. Did you really say that, it asked her. did you?
Ann stared at the ceiling. It was incredible the way she had spoilt her life and John’s. More incredible still that she had never realized it before this very moment. She felt as if she were being stripped. Stripped of all her pretense and society veneer. Stripped of that barrier she had built up piece by piece between herself and her husband, until it was too strong to be tom down, too high to be scaled.
“Are you still the girl your husband married?”
Ann put her hands over her eyes and sob tied. Perhaps if she had cried like that four years ago things would have been different. But she hadn’t. She had cherished her resentment, until it lay like a cold, hard stone in her heart.
TOHN DACRE put the box conJ taining Miranda’s orchids on the hall table. He looked at the noiseless electric clock set into the pale lime wall. Plenty of time to bath and change, and pick Miranda up by nine o’clock.
He grinned at the square white box as he put it down.
“You’re going to sit on the shoulder of the sweetest girl in London,” he told them.
He wondered vaguely whether his wife was out. He hoped she was. Not that Ann ever required an explanation if he dressed and went out. but John Dacre had been faithful to his wife too long to have a very clear conscience about deceiving her. He didn’t mind if she was in, but he’d so very much rather she were out.
He walked into the dining room and saw that the table was set for two. Tall, graceful candles in a cut-glass candelabrum, exquisite lace mats, and tall red roses in a silver bowl.
He stared at the roses. Good gracious, he thought, it’s our wedding anniversary, and that shop still sends them along. He remembered the order he had given seven years ago—two dozen red roses delivered at the stroke of three, send the bill to his office, repeat the order every year. At first he had rung up every year to remind them, but lately it hadn’t seemed to matter.
Even then he didn’t quite realize that the table was set for him. If Ann had a dinner party she always told him several days in advance, she would never expect him to stay in without giving him fair warning.
She came out of the bedroom, and for a moment he stared at her.
There was something about her that was strange, different.
Something - softer.
She came over to him and put her hands on his shoulders. She was a little pale and very nervous.
“Thank you for your roses, John,” she said, and kissed him full on the lips. “I—I’ve got something for you.”
She gave him a round tin and watched him as he opened it. John swallowed as he saw the tobacco. What an extraordinary thing, he thought; has Ann gone crazy? He had stopped smoking a pipe two years before anyway, but then Ann would never have noticed that.
He said: “Why— thank you,
my dear, this is very kind.”
He sat down in a chair. He was early anyway, and he supposed he’d better talk to Ann for a while. He hoped wildly that he wouldn’t hit on some subject that annoyed her, it was so painfully easy to do, and hi didn’t want to meet Miranda with his nerves frayed and raw from one of his interminable domestic scenes.
Ann said: “Sherry, dear?” She stood over by the sideboard.
“Please,” he said, then he got up. “Let me do that; you sit down.”
She smiled at him.
“Let’s take our drinks into the other room. Dinner won’t be ready for another hour.”
So she expected him to stay in tonight. That was going to be awkward, especially as some strange atmosphere seemed to be hanging over her, making her almost—almost human again, he thought. As he poured the sherry and carried the glasses through into the sitting room, his thoughts flew back to Ann as she had been when he married her. If she was even half as sweet as that now, there would be no Mirandas in his life.
He sat in a deep armchair and Ann stood by the fireplace, one arm resting along the mantelpiece. She was very lovely in the firelight and very still. Presently she spoke, and her voice was a little breathless; when she had finished he got up and walked out into the hall.
It was only the work of a second to hand a square white box to the liftman, and to give him instructions to drop it in the dust bin in the basement.
BERT HAWKINS watched Elsie put the orchids in a jam jar filled with water.
“P’raps you’ll like this better,” he said, and put a handsized piece of black taffeta surmounted by an enormous bunch of anemones and a flighty wisp of veil, on the table between the tomato ketchup and the milk bottle.
Elsie picked it up.
“What a hat,” she giggled, “imagine me in it with me hair all sticking out all round! Still”—her eyes looked lovingly at the artificial flowers—“I like the flowers, Bert. They won’t be wasted, they’ll look ever so nice on my costume.”
“No need to wonder why that was chucked out.” Bert said, sitting down to his haddock. “These society bits couldn’t be seen in the same ’at twice. Be a tragedy, that would.”
He filled his mouth with haddock.
“Nice bit o’ fish, this. Else,” he said.
PEOPLE said of Valerie Hall-Davies that she was a nice girl but she had the most extraordinary tastes. Just imagine a girl who preferred hacking from some tupennyhalfpenny little stables in the country and cleaning her tack afterward, mind you, to riding in the Row in the morning! And that wasn’t the only thing either. Valerie actually liked walking and going to incredible places where they played the sort of music you had to listen to on the radio on Sundays. Valerie was quite hopeless about get ting the newest dance records too. her room was all cluttered up with big brown albums with names like Beethoven and Chopin written down the backs in gold letters.
But she was a nice kid all the same, and she dressed awfully well, although goodness knows how, when she never seemed to take the slightest interest in clothes. Perhaps Lady Hall-Davies looked after her wardrobe. Lady Hall-Davies did.
She looked after her daughter’s social life to an enormous degree. She had done everything in her power to crush Valerie’s incredible bourgeois tendencies. It was a mystery where the child got them from, she thought, unless it was from that farming ancestor of Henry’s who had founded the fortunes of the family with his farming inventions.
Lady Hall-Davies had fought her daughter for the majority of Valerie’s twenty-one years, and to what effect? she thought bitterly. The moment the girl had come of age she had got herself engaged to a man named Bill Smith. It sounded like something out of a music-hall joke. It was most certainly a joke in very poor taste on Valerie’s part.
Lady Hall-Davies calk'd a small slam in spades, and tried not to catch the Hon. Mrs. Tarrent’s eye as she laid down her hand. She knew she shouldn’t have called as high as that, but with Valerie upsetting her whole life upstairs, she could hardly be expected to concentrate very well.
Valerie hummed a gay little tune as she helped her maid to [jack. Every now and then she sat back on her heels and talked to Marie. She sat back now.
“This time tomorrow, Marie, I shall be plain Mrs. Bill Smith. Doesn’t that thrill you?”
The maid smiled at her. Miss Valerie was a dear. Quite mad of course, but a dear, nevertheless.
“It doesn’t thrill me,” she admitted honestly. “I’d have married Lord Travers if I’d been you. Miss Valerie.” “Would you, Marie?” asked Valerie, her eyes dancing with strange excited lights. “Then you’d have spent your life in London drinking cocktails you didn’t want, and seeing a lot of stupid musical comedies that bored you to tears, and dancing all night and being too tired to get up before ten o’clock in the morning.”
The maid looked incredulous.
“But what else can you want?” she asked. “That’s what I call a lovely life.” She folded a pair of jodhpurs and placed them at the bottom of a trunk.
“What else can I ivant, Marie? Have you ever galloped fast over the fields before breakfast, have you ever smelled the lovely scent of a stable, or felt the slippery sensation of saddle soap? Have you ever held day-old chicks in your hands and listened to their tiny voices? Have you seen puppies grow up into slim, straight dogs, and know that
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this litter is going to bring you in a worthwhile sum? Have you ever planted bulbs and watched them grow, the bulbs you’ve planted yourself, Marie, not the bulbs some florist has grown for you?” Valerie paused, breathless.
“No,” said Marie, folding heavy sweaters with distaste, “and I can’t say I want to either.”
“Well I do,” said Valerie, “and after tomorrow, thank God, I’m going to!” She took town clothes out of her wardrobe, flinging them on the bed carelessly. Twin silver foxes, gleaming darkly in the light, ridiculous shoes with stilt heels, slick suits in the fashionable black, frocks in all the colors of the rainbow.
“I want you to choose something you like tremendously, Marie,” she said, flicking her fingers at the bed, “and the rest I’m going to sell. I’m going to be thoroughly mean, because Bill and I need all the money we can get to enlarge the kennels.”
Marie looked over the clothes reverently. These were the sort of clothes anyone in their sane mind would wear. Those others—breeches and sweaters and gum boots—what a trousseau, to be sure!
Valerie’s mind went off on one of its secret tracks. No more cocktail parties, she thought. No more catty remarks about your best friend. No more bright repartee. Just honest-to-goodness sentiment and — Bill. She was happy. So gloriously, incredibly happy that even the dreadful scene with her mother didn’t matter any more.
She wondered what would have happened to her if she hadn’t met Bill Smith at a Queen’s Hall concert. If she hadn’t suddenly been taken ill and found his strong, warm arm there to help her out. It was anything but a romantic meeting, but he’d taken her home on the top of a bus, and romance had come quickly enough. Dear Bill, she thought, dear, darling Bill.
Her cheeks flamed when she thought of the things her mother had said to him. To the young man who bred dogs in Sussex and who had dared to win the heart of London’s loveliest debutante. She remem-
bered the sudden flash in Bill’s eyes when Lady Hall-Davies had accused him of marrying for money, and she felt her heart grow warm when she remembered his answer. His refusal to allow Valerie to touch a penny of her fortune.
And then the last of the trunks were strapped down and Marie said good-night and left Valerie alone in the empty bedroom. Valerie peered into cupboards and drawers, and the only thing she had forgotten to put in the trunk for the secondhand clothes people was one small hat.
She held it in front of her and grinned at it. Of all the stupid, idiotic hats, this was the winner. Not designed to keep the rain off your hair, nor the wind from your eyes, merely designed to attach an enormous bunch of imitation flowers to some fantastic position on your head.
Suddenly she had an idea.
She went to the lifts and rang the bell.
“I want to go down to wherever the dust bins are kept,” she told the liftman; and he looked at her curiously as he took her down to the basement in the lift.
Valerie lifted one of the lids of the enormous bins. She carried her hat in between two varnished fingernails. For a moment it hovered, then she dropped it.
It was a lovely gesture, and she felt considerably better when she’d done it.
AND IS that all you’ve got today, Bert?” asked Elsie as she poured out the strong, dark tea.
Bert Hawkins wiped his hands on the edge of the tablecloth.
“I nearly forgot,” he said, “there’s the photygraph. Don’t know really why I picked it up, but, don’t think me silly, Else, she’s got a sort of look in her face.”
He felt in his coat pocket and drew out a photograph, bent at the edges and a little stained from its sojourn in the dust bin.
Elsie put down her teapot and took the photograph.
“I see what you mean, Bert,” she said, “she looks kind of brave, like that picture in Daisy’s history book of Joan of Arc. Wonder who threw that away and why.”
“Easy,” said Bert, and helped himself to another slice of bread and butter. “Some young fellow she gave up. Must be. No bloke’d chuck a girl like that.”
rT'HE evening post brought Hugh Ross four more bills and a letter from his tailor demanding immediate settlement.
“If you’d live somewhere normal, Hugh darling,” Noel told him several times a month, “you’d be able to meet your bills, but you pay more than half your income in rent.”
She was perfectly right, of course. Noel had a fatal habit of being perfectly right in most things. But he didn’t want to live somewhere normal, he liked living in the same block of flats as Lady Hall-Davies and that Dacre man who had made such an enormous fortune in cars. He liked it, and he was ambitious.
Noel didn’t understand what it was to be ambitious. When he promised that in a very little time he’d give her everything she wanted, she would look at him with her candid, fearless eyes and say. softly:
“You give me everything I want, now, my sweet—your love and your companionship.”
He held his head in his hands.
Noel was so sweet, that was the trouble. She was the sweetest girl he had ever known, and the finest. There was nothing small or unworthy about Noel Charles. If she said a thing you knew it was so, and she’d never let you down, not as long as she lived.
Look how wonderful she had been about the Clare business. Her eyes hadn’t even wavered when he told her that he was going to take Clare Latham to a party. She had understood. And a woman who understood her man taking the boss’ daughter to a party, when the boss’ daughter was twenty-three and exceptionally beautiful, was a woman in a thousand.
He thought about Clare now. So she wanted to marry him. She loved him. She stood for everything that Hugh Ross wanted from life. Money, property, good breeding. He relived the interview with her father again.
“I don’t want to dictate to you, Ross,” Richard Latham had said, that afternoon, “but if your intentions toward Clare are not what we used to call strictly honorable. I’d like you to stop taking her out. She seems to think she’s in love with you, and I don’t want my daughter’s heart broken.”
He’d been fair enough, Hugh admitted.
He hadn’t even hinted that Hugh’s position in the firm would suffer if he didn’t marry Clare. Hugh knew perfectly well that his position would improve if he did . . .
He lit a cigarette, and crumpled the bills and the demanding letter between his hands.
It was a bad situation. Because he loved Noel. There were no two ways about it. He quite definitely loved the girl, and if only he had enough money he’d marry her tomorrow. But he hadn’t enough money, he never would have enough money for the things he wanted to do. For the things that he could do if he married Richard Latham’s daughter.
It would be so easy too. Noel wouldn’t argue or reproach him. Not once in the eighteen months of their friendship had she been the least bit difficult. He couldn’t imagine Noel making a scene. She would be very cool and casual. She’d watch her heart being broken without showing the slightest sign that she cared. Why, you could even tell Noel Charles that you were very sorry but you weren’t going to marry her after all, in the middle of a dance. Noel would smile charmingly and say something clever and amusing, and continue to be a grand companion for the rest of the evening. That was the way she was made.
But you wouldn’t tell her to her face of course, because something about her cool courage would make you feel ashamed. You’d telephone her instead, so that you couldn’t see her eyes.
Hugh got up suddenly and walked around the room. What the devil was he thinking about? Give up Noel, indeed. He must be crazy. He looked down at the floor, and the letter from his tailor stood out, bleak and demanding, on the copperbrown carpet . . .
His hand wasn’t very steady as he took Noel’s photograph out of the heavy silver frame and dropped it, face downward, in the wastepaper basket. He felt better when her face, fearless and honest and strangely beautiful, was no longer there in front of him.
He dialled her number.
A little later Noel hung her telephone back on its hook. It made only a small click in the silence of her room. Her eyes were hurt and a little shamed, but her mouth was very steady. She had known all along, in her secret heart, that this would happen.