IF ON THIS night you turned off Queensberry Road and into Queensberry Mews, West, and went down the cobble-stoned alley and at Number 9 went up the steep curving stairs with the iron rail which has somehow escaped salvage, opened the yellow door and walked through the little hallway and into the tiny living room, you would find Jennifer MacDougal sitting on a stool before an unlighted gas log.
She sat there on the small stool with her arms tight around her hunched-up knees and stared at the gas log as if it had some message for her. She seemed to have no consciousness of the room at all. It was a pleasant enough little room, with red rugs that her Aunt Kate had brought from the old barracks of a house in Sussex, Aunt Kate’s Chinese cabinet, the Chinese vases on the mantel, the rooster of china between the vases, the table with the copper kettle and the fine teacups. But Jennifer MacDougal seemed remote from the room. She had once had a round, merry, enchanting face but her cheekbones showed clearly now and there was a stillness in her dark eyes like the stillness of despair.
Presently she looked behind her, quickly, as if there were some enemy in the room. There was nothing behind her except the bookcase and the black curtains drawn over the casement windows. Her eyes stilled again, but not as if the enemy had been routed—more as if she had tried to make herself invisible by utter quiet, without and within. She sat that way a long time. The room was very still. Suddenly she stood up and she was taller than you would have expected from her slight figure.
She opened a small brass box beside the china rooster, took out a match, lit it with shaking fingers, turned on the gas and the log glowed abruptly with a bluish flame. She sat down on the fur rug before the grate, put her head down on her arms across the stool whose needlepoint cover she had worked when she was eleven. She looked as if she might be weeping, silently and bitterly, but she was not. No, she had been brought up by Aunt Kate and weeping was something she had been taught not to do. But every line of her slight body told of weariness and tears within. And her eyes, could you have seen them, would have shown shame as well.
For it was weakness that had made her light the fire. She was ashamed of the weakness but she could not fight against it. She had to be warm. She had to shut out by some means the blackness of the curtains, a blackness that had become in some queer way a part of her very heart. But she was quite well aware that she would never have done it had Aunt Kate been there. And, though she sat there, head down against her arms for a long time, she was conscious of the minutes ticking away and when it was a quarter of ten, she turned out the fire. At ten, exactly, her Aunt Kate would leave her friend Stella’s house and make her way home.
At seven minutes after ten Aunt Kate walked in, small and erect and sharp as always, put her umbrella in the old-fashioned umbrella stand, came into the living room.
“Hello. What’s new from New Zealand tonight?” Jennifer said briskly enough. Aunt Kate’s friend Stella came from New Zealand.
“Olive Strong’s having a baby. I’m taking over her C.A.B. post till it arrives.”
“You’re doing nothing of the sort.”
“And why not? I flatter myself that even if I haven’t any legal training, I’ve got common sense enough to manage.”
“Oh, you’ve got common sense all right, Aunt Kate.”
“That’s all that’s needed . . . It’s stuffy in here. If you’ll turn out the lights, Jen, I’ll get some windows open.”
“Wait till I tell you my dream.”
“It’s bedtime,” Aunt Kate said firmly. She gave Jennifer a quick, sharp, anxious look but it was hidden in the shadows.
“No, wait. It wasn’t one of my bad dreams. I was on this high stone tower, sitting right a-straddle this stone ridge of the tower, and the lights began to come on all over London, a light blazing in every window, just blazing, blazing, and I sat there and I waved my arm toward Adolf, and he could see me way from Berlin, too, and I shouted at him: ‘See! Here we are! Here we are!’ Don’t you think that was a jolly dream?”
“I think you’re getting fey, like your great-grandmother, Jane MacDougal. Come, get to bed!
. . . Your uniform could do with a pressing.”
“I know. I know . . . That was a good dream, though, wasn’t it? If I could have one dream a night like that ...”
Aunt Kate turned cut the lights and said calmly: “Good night, Jen.”
JENNIFER got into bed but she didn’t sleep. There is a weariness too deep for sleep. Besides, sh? didn’t want to dream. She didn’t want to dream of Reggie, lying on the sand in Africa. She shouldn’t, she knew, have told Aunt Kate that dream, but it had been so real, as if she had felt the sun and heard the flies and the drone of planes and felt the sand against her hands. Aunt Kate had no patience with dreams. “But what made it so awful was that Reggie never liked the sun,” she had insisted to Aunt Kate. “He liked the grey, windy days, even the rain.”
“Unless you loved the lad, and I never thought you did, I’d advise you not to dwell on it,” Aunt Kate said.
“No, I wish I had loved him,” Jen told her. “I just wish I had. He had such a nice, comforting sort of mind.”
“Very womanish, I always thought.”
“Yes, very womanish. Womanish intuition. But that’s very comforting, Aunt Kate. That can be very restful.”
“Fiddlesticks'” said Aunt Kate.
So she lay there in her narrow bed and in the next room Aunt Kate lay in hers and there was stillness. The curtains were pulled back but the night outside was black. At last she slept.
When she woke Aunt Kate had gone off on her bicycle to Wimbledon. Jen put on the wrinkled, dusty-green uniform and went off to work. She did all her usual jobs for Mr. Oldham, nice Mr. Oldham, who had been a don at Oxford and now devoted himself to making things easy for visiting Americans. She typed a few letters and made out an itinerary or two, conducted an American manufacturer to Mr. Dundee’s office. Mr. Oldham seemed never to see her but suddenly, as he was going to lunch, he said, “Feeling all right, Miss MacDougal?”
“Quite, thank you.”
“Thought you looked a bit seedy. You ought to have had your holiday—we were so rushed, however ...”
“Oh, I’m quite all right. I don’t need a holiday.”
She smiled at him and he looked half relieved, half still anxious, but he went off to lunch, with his mackintosh hanging over his arm.
He couldn’t much more than have reached the street when the door opened and a young man came in, a tall, bony Yankee, grinning a little cockily.
“Mr. Oldham—” he began.
“Mr, Oldham is out for lunch right now.”
“Yes, I know. I met him at the gate and he got me in. This is an awfully hush-hush sort of place, isn’t it? He said to ask for Miss MacDougal and she’d fix me up. You Miss MacDougal?”
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, there seems to be a rigmarole about papers. Identity card and all that. Fourteen, my pal carries. Where do I start? Police station?”
“That’s right. Only first you have to have six photographs.”
“Good heavens, not six! I had four before I left the States.”
“It’s required, Mr.—er—Rogers. What paper are you representing, Mr. Rogers?”
‘The Yank. Army paper. All the home town news for the boys in the forces.”
On her way down Malet Street that night she heard a voice call out, “Oh, Miss MacDougal!”
The bony, tall figure of the Yankee on the Yank loomed up breathlessly beside her.
“Oh, how do you do?” Jen said at her coldest.
“Tell me a good place to eat, will you, Miss MacDougal? A quiet place that doesn’t cost much.” “There’s the Acropolis—it’s not far.”
“Sounds Greek and full of bay leaves.”
“It’s Greek. It’s good enough.”
He grinned at her. “Good enough for what—for whom?” he said. “Well, thanks. I’ll give it a try. Like to come with me?”
“I’m afraid not, thanks.”
“I was afraid not too. Could I try again?”
“Asking you to have dinner with me. Don’t say ‘no’ without thinking. Don’t say anything. I’ll be dropping in at your prison one of these days on some red tape. I’ll get my answer then. So long!” He went striding off toward the Acropolis. His uniform fitted him very well, for all his lankiness.
AUNT KATE was already at home, getting the . dinner ready. She wore her black dress she had worn to the C.A.B. office. Every hair was in place; her back was as stiff as ever.
“Come, come, Jen,” Aunt Kate said impatiently. They sat down at the little table in the living room and Aunt Kate served them briskly. There were peas and spinach from the garden at Wimbledon. Jen looked at them and they became some horrid symbol of Aunt Kate, at 57, cycling through the dewy morning a long, long six miles.
“How was the C.A.B.?” she said, taking an infinitesimal helping.
“Here, now—stop being so finicky! There’s plenty!” Aunt Kate said, and gave Jen a generous helping of spinach. “The C.A.B. is all right. Just takes common sense, as I said. And what happened to you today?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Jen said.
“While I do up the dishes, will you walk down to Olive Strong’s with these patterns, Jen?”
“No,” Jen said. “I’ll do the dishes. I don’t want to see Olive Strong. I don’t like the idea of babies being born nowadays.”
“Nonsense! It’s very encouraging indeed!”
Jen began to gather up the dishes. But when Aunt Kate had gone off with the patterns Jen stood in the tiny kitchen staring at the sink. When she began at last to wash up, her hands fumbled on the dishes and once she dropped a cup and the handle broke sharply off. She began to tremble all over as if some major catastrophe had taken place.
It was three days later that she was running for a Number 19 and hurling herself onto it when she felt a strong hand on her elbow and heard a voice say, “Up-sa-daisy! Made it!” The hand stayed on her elbow up the steep stairs while the bus lurched forward.
“Ran three blocks, but I got here,” he said. “Have a cigarette?”
“Look here, don’t be so snooty to a stranger in a strange land ! How am I going to tell about the British if I don’t know any British? Do you know you’re very photogenic?”
“Nice planes and angles. My pal who’s over here with me doing the camera work would make something pretty nice of you.”
“Well, there are nice planes and angles in St. Paul’s, too,” Jen said tartly.
Jen got off the bus and he trailed after her. “Hardly had our tuppence’ worth, did we?” he said. “This your alley?”
Jen came to the steep, narrow stairs, walked up them, not answering him.
“Invite me in, won’t you?” he said.
Jen turned and looked at him without smiling. “Do come in!” she said and he got red, but he followed her into the little hallway.
“Aunt Kate, Mr. Rogers, from America—my aunt, Miss MacDougal, Mr. Rogers.”
“I’ve got an Aunt Kate, too,” he said. “She lives on a farm in Vermont, mostly stones and fences. So’s my Aunt Kate, if you know what I mean. A very hard old girl, but I like her.”
“A little hardness doesn’t come amiss these days,’’Aunt Kate said. She put the kettle on. “Sit down, Mr. Rogers—we’ll have some tea.” Jen saw her take down a precious jar of the best marmalade, take the best tea-cloth from the drawer and spread it on the small table. But he’s only a cocky young American and I didn’t invite him! she cried in silent protest. He pushed himself in! He says “ Up-sa-daisy! ”
The Yankee was telling Aunt Kate about his difficulties with the Ministry, about all his papers. Aunt Kate agreed with him about red tape. Then she began talking briskly about Information in general as she poured the tea.
“I’m getting pretty tired of men who don’t know the difference between Information and Propaganda,” Aunt Kate said. “I’d like to have a chance to run their Propaganda Bureau for a few weeks! A little common sense is all that’s needed.” She went on to discuss shipping losses.
He took two helpings of everything, despite all ships sunk. Then he got up to go.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “I wish I could do something to repay you. I’ve got a few pairs of silk stockings left. They said at home that everybody wanted silk stockings—would you like some of ’em? Size nine and a half, they are. Nylons.”
Aunt Kate got up and walked over to the bureau, opened a drawer.
“I’m afraid I don’t think much of the stockings nowadays,” she said matter-of-factly. “These are some I’ve had eight years. I keep them for occasions. Otherwise the lisle does very well. I had a shop of my own here and in Paris some years ago. You don’t see stockings now, Mr. Rogers, that last eight years.” And she held up the wispy black Paris stockings and Mr. Rogers stammered and apologized. Aunt Kate said calmly, “That’s all right. We’d be pleased if you would join us for dinner Sunday, Mr. Rogers.”
Red and embarrassed, he thanked her and went away.
“A very stimulating young man,” Aunt Kate said, taking away the tea things.
“You can have him, Aunt Kate, if he stimulates you. He doesn’t stimulate me.”
“And why not? He’s got life, hasn’t he? We can do with a little life around here.”
Jen began to laugh. She could hear the laugh coming out, off key, could see Aunt Kate’s hand gripping the teapot handle too firmly.
“Oh, you were so wonderful about the stockings, Aunt Kate!” she said. “So wonderful!”
Aunt Kate gave her little dry bark of a laugh.
“He meant all right. I just didn’t want him to get the notion that you bought hospitality with Nylons around here.”
“Oh, how elegant the shop was!” Jen said more sharply than she meant to speak. “That lovely plain MacDougal over the door, and inside the stockings like cobwebs—and only the super-super rich coming in to buy—and the trips to Paris ...”
“Jen, you’re jumpy,” Aunt Kate said crisply.
JEN shut off the hysteria abruptly. But after dinner when Aunt Kate had gone down the street to Stella’s, she stood in front of the little table where stood the pictures of Alex and Douglas that Aunt Kate had brought up as if they were her own. Their fresh young eager faces looked merrily up at her. Their kilts looked so ridiculous and jolly. The hysteria caught her up again and she began to talk, out loud, to the young face of Douglas.
“I’m jumpy, Doug. Did you hear that? Jen, you’re jumpy. Oh, I’m all of that. I’m all of that. I can’t stand it any more, that’s all. I’m just not one of the Britishers who can take it world without end. I’m just not, do you understand? I’m sick of standing in queues and I’m sick of seeing the paint get shabby and my clothes get shabby and my hands get rough and I’m sick of having Aunt Kate go cycling off to Wimbledon. I’m sick of pulling the curtains every night and every night and every night. I’m sick of Americans who wangle themselves a nice safe plane ride over here and think they’ll hustle through the whole business in a few days . . . Oh, Doug! Oh, darling, dead Cousin Doug! I can’t bear it any more! She’s gone out because she can’t bear to be here with me, so jumpy, jumpy, jumpy. Jen, you’re jumpy! Our Aunt Kate, Doug. Our fortress, our very present help in time of trouble. Our Aunt Kate, with bones of steel— my bones are all gone to water, Doug. All gone to water ...”
She became aware of her own voice speaking to nothingness. She let it trail off to silence. The silence deepened in the little room. There was silence now in the merry faces of Alex and Doug who would never more at all come running up the stairs to hug Aunt Kate. Silence, silence. Jen looked around her almost fearfully and then Aunt Kate came up the steps.
“I’ve got to go to Cornwall,” Jen said.
“Cornwall? Whatever for?”
“I’ve just got to.”
“It’s all barbed wire and sentries, they tell me. You can’t get within five miles of the coast.”
“But I have to,” Jen insisted. “I’ve got to sit in the inn at Zennor and spread yellow butter thick, thick on top of the good bread. And I’ve got to feel the wind from the sea blowing across the heather ...”
“They have margarine there the same as here,” Aunt Kate said.
“That’s a lie. No butter in Cornwall? That’s an outright lie, Aunt Kate, and you know it.”
But Aunt Kate did not give her little bark of a laugh. She said instead, “Get me my bag.”
Jen got it. Aunt Kate opened it, took out a small bottle.
“Go take two of those,” she said. They’re vitamins that some soldier gave Stella. From America. Stella doesn’t need them—no New Zealander does, nor any American, so far as I can judge.”
“I don’t want vitamins. I want Cornwall,” Jen said.
“Take them,” Aunt Kate said firmly. “I declare, Jen, I don’t know what’s got into you. You need a dose of something, that’s certain!”
But she didn’t look at Jen. She looked closely at her knitting, which she could do in the dark.
It rained on Sunday.
“I’m going over to get back that onion I loaned Stella,” Aunt Kate said. “Keep your eye on the joint!”
He ran up the steps and rattled the knocker noisily.
“Hello!” he said. “Where’s Aunt Kate?”
“She’s gone after an onion.”
“Good! Grand old girl, isn’t she? She’s a blood sister to my Aunt Kate from Vermont—tough, but with a heart of gold. Does it always rain in this island?”
“I believe you, sister. Well, I’ve got my mackintosh—ah, ha, I didn’t say raincoat!” He grinned cheerfully at Jen as if he’d caught her out. He hung his coat on the old rack in the hall, came into the living room and stood by the mantel, putting his arm along the edge.
JEN PICKED up Aunt Kate’s sock and knitted a row too tightly. The Yankee fiddled with the China ornaments on the mantel, grinned at the china rooster. He certainly did look as if he had had all the vitamins he could stand. His long face was brown and hard and his blue eyes seemed to fairly crackle with life. But when he spoke it was a little confusedly.
“You British certainly are hard to know,” he said. “You can get as homesick as the very devil on this island. Did I grab at a chance to go out to dinner! Well, you may be choosey but you certainly can—”
“If you say ‘You certainly can take it!’ I’ll shoot you,” Jen said coldly. “What’s so remarkable about taking it, if you haven’t any choice, Mr. Rogers? And will you please put that rooster down? I’ve had him forever and I want to keep him.”
He put the rooster down carefully, turned and shoved his hands into his pockets. He suddenly did not look quite so friendly.
“I wasn’t going to say you could take it,” he said. “Nothing of the sort. I was just going to say you certainly could choose the perfect day to ask a homesick American out to dinner. And I’m sure I don’t want your rooster. I might have said that you certainly can decorate your houses with some of the ugliest jugs and gimcracks that it’s ever been my bad fortune to see. And you don’t need to say they’re Ming Dynasty or something, because they’re not. And I know it says in Mr. Knight’s Guide that we ought to be polite to our hosts and our allies, but doesn’t it work both ways, Miss MacDougal? Suppose I did push my way in it was a bona fide invitation, wasn’t it? Have you never been homesick? I like you. I like your Aunt Kate. Any particular reason to slap me in the face every time I speak?”
“I’m sorry,” Jen said, making a yet tighter row that would surely have to be ripped out.
“Yes, you are! All right. All right. I’m not wanted. It’s quite clear. I won’t trouble you again. You shouldn’t be so pretty, though, Miss MacDougal. You ought to suppress that come-hither look of yours!”
The door opened and Aunt Kate came in, dripping wet, but with her onion.
“Did you get it?” he asked her, quite friendly again. “Nothing like an onion to brighten up a dinner, I always say!”
“Of course I got it!” Aunt Kate said. “How are you, Mr. Rogers?”
She whisked up the card table in a twinkling, whisked on the cloth and the silver, got out the three good napkins that weren’t darned. She whisked the joint out of the oven and onto the table and the salad with the onion in it and they sat down and ate. Aunt Kate talked briskly all through the meal. She asked all sorts of questions about America.
“I’ve always liked Americans,” she said. “I think my mind’s like the American mind.”
She said that very firmly, sitting there in her black dress, her back as stiff as a ramrod, looking as British as the White Cliffs of Dover.
When he went away soon after dinner he said, not looking at Jen, “You’ve been darn decent to a stranger, Aunt Kate!”
“Well, we’d better not be strangers, if we know what’s good for us!” Aunt Kate said grimly and they both laughed.
“A very stimulating young man,” Aunt Kate said, when the door closed.
“You said that before.”
“I say it again. We need a breath of new life.”
“Think so? The trouble is, they don’t think we’ve ever breathed. They think they’ve got a monopoly on breathing.”
“Oh, come now, Jen! He can’t help it because New York hasn’t been bombed, can he? We weren’t in any hurry to get started ourselves.”
“We did get started, though.”
“In time. In time. It doesn’t get us any farther forward to be unreasonable, Jen. Our boys are tired—not so tired as the Jerries, I hope—but tired. We need these boys and I, for one, am glad to see them. What on earth have you been doing to this sock? I’m not knitting it for a pygmy!” She began to unravel the sock.
It was Sunday morning that Aunt Kate said, “What’s that thing down in front?”
She looked down and said, “That’s a jeep.”
The knocker went banging on the yellow door. He stood there, looking stiff and military and doggedly antagonistic but he said, “Hello. Busy?” “Yes, I am, rather.”
“My pal’s going down into the country to take a few pictures. Thought maybe you’d come along— for company.”
“Sorry, but I really am busy.” “Nonsense! Take her along, Mr. Rogers,” Aunt Kate said. “She’s been moaning after the country for days. It’ll do her good! Run along, Jen!”
Aunt Kate brought her raglan coat that was all worn on the edges, shoved her into it and fairly out of the door.
“This is Tod Devlin—call him Tod,” the Yankee said. “This is Miss Jennifer MacDougal, Tod—call her Jen.”
“Hi, Jen! Park yourself anywhere,” Tod said. He had red hair and a snub nose.
“Of course Tod’s never driven on your side of the road before,” Mr. Rogers said. “But he’ll make it—I think. Anyway, as you say, you British can take it.”
Jen gave him a look of fury. They went bumping down the street. They went bumping out of London.
They came at last to a little village and Tod stopped the jeep and said, “Out you get, children. I’ll pick you up later.”
“He’s going to get some camp pictures,” Mr. Rogers said. “Military secret and all that. We’ll get a bite of lunch somewhere, if we can, while he’s gone.”
SO THERE they stood in the street and Tod went roaring off, yelling, “I’ll be seeing you !” It was very still in the village, very still and peaceful.
“So this is England,” the Yankee said, looking up the street with his blue, interested gaze. “This is what I thought it would be like. The Lion and the Unicorn—do you think they’d have food? Shall we try?”
She followed him reluctantly into The Lion and The Unicorn.
They sat in the somewhat stuffy but warm little room with the Dickens prints mingled with commercial calendars on the walls.
“I ought to have brought Aunt Kate,” Mr. Rogers said suddenly and a little angrily. “She’s a good sport, at least.”
“Well, why didn’t you?”
“I suppose because I was fool enough to want you. I thought maybe we could declare a truce or something. You wouldn’t consider it?”
“Make it Roger. Roger Rogers, that’s my name. Wouldn’t that be simpler, Jen?”
“I thought you said you’d let me alone.”
“So I did. But I found out I didn’t want to. That’s what’s the matter with you British—you always want to be let alone.”
“Well, that’s the way we are. If we don’t mind, why should you? We just don’t happen to be a nation of back-slappers.”
His blue eyes lost their warmth.
“No, you certainly don’t,” he agreed. “Don’t touch me. You ought to put that on the Union Jack somewhere. Well, I’d rather belong to a nation of back-slappers than a nation of Don’t-touch-me’s. It’s not so lonely.”
“No? I should think it might be more so.”
“Well, it isn’t. My Aunt Kate—”
“Your Aunt Kate! You haven’t got an Aunt Kate and you know it! You can get around Aunt Kate with that, but not me, Mr. Rogers.”
“Roger,” the Yankee said briefly but firmly. “It happens I have got an Aunt Kate and I haven’t tried to get around anybody, least of all your aunt, who has got a pretty hard head on her shoulders but happens to be kinder than some I could mention but won’t.”
The fat woman brought two thick plates piled with bread and cheese and put down two big cups of coffee.
Jen stared at the cheese and didn’t touch it for a moment.
“Let’s leave Aunt Kate out of this,” she said flatly. “She can take anything, because she—because she’s got bones of steel. She ran a fire brigade all through the bad bombings. She can take anything.”
“Did she, really? Tough old girl. I’ll bet she made ’em jump around?
. . . What’s the matter?” For she had clenched her hands tight together on the edge of the table, so tight the bones of her knuckles stood out. “Nothing.”
“Did I say something else that annoyed you?”
“Almost everything you say annoys me. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Tough old girl! My Aunt Kate! She had fourteen girls under her who never left their posts once. They sent her this fleet of taxis with bars at the back for fastening the hoses to—and no holes drilled in the bars—and she got some men with acetylene torches to come and they drilled and drilled for hours and hours, and the fires burning up London all the time. And she was waiting for word about Douglas, my cousin Douglas, all the time. You ought not to talk about toughness, Mr. Rogers.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Did—did she hear about your cousin?”
“She heard he was dead.”
He took a drink of coffee, making a wry face as he did so, then he said: “All right. I give up. There’s just nothing I can say about anything. But you might as well eat ycur National Bread and Cheese.”
She tried to eat but she couldn’t seem to swallow.
When the fat woman cleared away she looked with disapproval on the crusts of bread left on Jen’s plate.
They walked out into the street in silence. Then the Yankee said in a hard sort of voice: “I’m going to walk out to the end of the village. You don’t need to come if you don’t want to.”
But she walked beside him because she couldn’t stand still there in the middle of the street and didn’t know where else to go. He didn’t talk but walked with long strides along the peaceful street. It didn’t take long to get to the edge of the village and into the country. And there the fields stretched out, the hedges and the hills. They came to a gap in a hedge with a wooden gate across the gap and Roger Rogers stood at the fence, with his hands thrust into his pockets, and looked at the sheep grazing quietly in the meadow beyond.
“Yeah,” he said at last. “This is just the way I always thought it was. The hedges and all. Only I didn’t know that all the people had hedges around them, too. I guess I didn’t realize that fully.”
Then he took his hands out of his pockets and rested his arms along the fence and watched the sheep and the clump of great beech trees on a little knoll for a long time, not talking at all. He seemed just to have forgotten all about Jen. Indeed, he did not speak till there was a sound of clattering down the street and Tod and his car came into view.
“Hi!” Tod shouted.
They got into the jeep and drove back toward London.
“Got some swell shots!” Tod yelled back at them. “You ought to have been along!”
They rattled into Queensberry Mews and stopped at Number 9. He came with her up the steep steps.
There he stopped, taking off his cap that he wore at such an annoyingly cocky angle, and said: “Thanks for nothing, Miss MacDougal. I really thought it might be fun, you know!” and he went quickly down the steps, flung himself in beside Tod and was gone.
AND THEN nothing happened for a week. On Saturday night Jen was alone. When the knocker sounded she went slowly to the door.
He stood there smiling, but not in the hearty way he had at first. It was a smile that only pretended to be impudent.
“I’ve got a present for you. It’s gold,” he said.
“I can’t be bought with gold and silver,” Jen said. Funny greeting.
“Wait!” he said, and he fished in the pocket of his mackintosh and brought out an orange and held it out to her. And Jen, without knowing she was going to, began to tremble all over with a longing so physical, so terrible, that she could hardly stand. She put out a hand and took the orange, like Eve taking the apple, and without a word she walked back to the kitchen. She took a knife from the drawer, cut the orange in half, put one half aside, looking at it guiltily as if wondering if she had cut it evenly, began to eat the other half.
She ate it greedily, as if she had had no food for a long, long time. She chewed at the rind like a child. And all the time Roger Rogers, the Yankee, stood in the doorway and stared at her out of his blue eyes and didn’t say a word. And suddenly the tears began to run down Jen’s face and she walked past him and into the living room, sat down on the stool, hugged her knees tightly. The tears kept on flowing as if there were no end to them.
The Yankee sat down in the big chair facing her.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me!” Jen said angrily. “I get enough to eat. I get plenty to eat. I don’t know what’s the matter with me!” And all the time the tears kept running down her face.
“Come here,” Roger Rogers said. Not in his cocky voice, but gently. But she didn’t move. She just sat there, hugging her knees.
Then the Yankee reached across and took her in his arms and pulled her over into the big chair with him. And she didn’t struggle, she didn’t pull away. She sat there with his strong arms about her and she rested.
“You know,” he said, almost as if he didn’t care whether she listened or not, “sometimes it seems as if I can’t bear it, either. We’ve all been so stupid, you and us alike. Not seeing, not pulling together. Not starting in time. All the waste and everything. Using years when it might have been months. Using up all the boys in the world. The whole world pinching and scraping. We came as soon as we could, you know. We weren’t ready, either. If I come through this with a whole skin and get to sit in my Aunt Kate’s kitchen and have a piece of her pumpkin pie again, it’s only because I’m allergic to eggs. That’s the truth. The regular Army doesn’t take men who are allergic to eggs. That’s how chancy life is.
“I don’t blame you for hating us, but you might as well make use of us, now we’re here. We’ll give you a chance to get your second wind. I know how we look to you, like a lot of presumptuous young jackasses. We don’t mean to. It’s just that we haven’t had to go through all you have. We aren’t tired.
“Listen, Jen, that first day I came and walked into Mr. Oldham’s office I was as near to being religious as I’ve been since I sat on the hard seat in the front of the Methodist church in West Falls, Vermont, beside my Aunt Kate. ‘Here she is,’ I said. ‘This is the girl.’ I don’t know why. I’ve seen prettier girls, you know, Jen. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen in the States. I guess I saw you were lonely, like me. You’ve certainly given me the brush-off, but it hasn’t made any difference. It was you or nothing. Every time I’d say I wouldn’t take any more from you, and then I’ve come right back and taken more.
“Well, you do get lonely, even inside your hedges, don’t you? You just show it differently, that’s all. You’d like Vermont, Jen. I know you would. It’s stony and it’s hard to raise crops there, but it gets into your blood. You feel you’ve got to conquer it or else. And the hills in October are something! You don’t hate me quite so much as you did at first, do you, Jen?”
And Jen said, “No, I don’t hate you.”
He put his hard Yankee cheek down against her hair and he said, “Good! Then we’ll have to get along with this war and get it over so we can do something definite about the main business!” But he didn’t sound cocky; he sounded humble.
And then Aunt Kate walked in. She didn’t even turn a hair at the sight of Jen in the Yankee’s arms. She didn’t even give her dry little laugh. But Aunt Kate had known bombs and fire and death in multiple and what it meant to hang on month in, month out, by the skin of her teeth. She said quite calmly, Aunt Kate, the Spartan, “It’s a chill night. I think we might have a little fire.” And she lit the fire and sat down a few minutes, spreading out her hands to the blaze, and talked about the bridge game that was going on down in the Air Warden’s post.
Then she got up, said matter-of-factly, “Good night, children,” and went off to her bedroom.
“I had a dream,” Jen said. “I want to tell you my dream. I was on top of this tower and my rooster was with me—that’s why I couldn’t have you touching my rooster. He was up on the tower with me, crowing like mad, my Chanticleer . . .”
He kept his face down against her hair and let her tell him her dream. It seemed to her she had really dreamed it, or that it was true. She could hear the golden sound of her Chanticleer crowing out across the world, “Mourn no more! Be desperate no more! Weep no more for Cornwall and the dead!”
And when he had gone away, saying, “I’ll be seeing you !”she stood there a moment looking at her china rooster. “Not Ming Dynasty? Nonsense!” she said defiantly. Then she bent and turned out the fire, without reluctance.
“I’m warm,” she said.