HEARTS TO LET
The story of a girl who learned that you can rent a house but you can’t break a lease on love
FIRST the girl walked past the house fast, hands in her pockets, head averted, whistling a little, nonchalantly, under her breath. Then, by the lamppost, she stopped. Just in case anyone watched her (nobody did) she played a swift pantomime of remembering something forgotten—of course!—and turned back. She went, past the house again, slowly this time, and came back and stood by the gate.
It was a small house, sandwiched as if by mistake between two bigger ones; a room above, a room below, a green-painted door; a tiny handkerchief of a garden where a mulberry tree-—leafless now—fountained and fell, its black boughs gnarled like a Rackham drawing from a childhood fairy tale.
The gate was painted too. She reached up her gloved hands and held onto its vertical bars—held on tight, her nose almost touching them. Just for a moment—her soft, dark hair blown back, her camel coat tightly hitched round her, the bright kerchief at her neck whipping in a sharp wind—she looked like a little girl at a forbidden shop-
Perhaps she thought this herself. Her hands fell to her sides. She started to move away. Then she stopped again, took a deep breath, opened the gate, walked up the path to the front door and rang the bell.
Nobody answered. A leaf came scuttering up the path to her feet.; the wan, wintry sun gleamed for a moment and faded again.
She had half turned—regret and relief intermingled that she herself did not know which she felt, or which was which—when the sound of footsteps came, running downstairs.
The door opened.
A tall dark woman with a pink cotton housecoat slung over her arm—her face white and formless in the shadows—looked out, but said nothing.
The girl did not speak either.
“Yes?” said the woman.
“I’m so terribly sorry to trouble you, but —but—”
The girl halted.
“You don’t know me. You can’t. But I’m your tenant. That is, I mean, I will be. I mean, my fiance is. You said . . . the agent said you said . . . that if I came you’d show me one or two things like . . . like working the boiler. I couldn’t come then, when you said; but I can now, and tomorrow it’ll be too late, you’ll be gone, so I—” She broke off, laughing a little, apologetically, at her long breathless speech.
“So you came now?” said the woman.
“Yes, I . . .” The girl blushed. “I was walking this wav, and you’d said you would help me, over the boiler and so on. So I-”
She looked up. She noticed the pink housecoat. “Oh, you’re packing!” she said in quick contrition. “You’re busy. I should have known. I’m so sorry. I—’’
“That’B all right.”
“I should have phoned you or something. Not come like this when you—”
"I’m packing. But 10 minutes one way or another can’t make much difference. Come in.”
It was said strangely—neither in warmth nor in coldness, neither in friendliness nor in mere social politeness; as if the words were unplanned if not regretted.
“Oh, you mustn’t. I shouldn't. It’s the wrong time—”
The woman had turned away. The faint blur of a laugh sounded over her shoulder. “If it were I should tell you. Don’t worry. Come in.” SHE LED the way through the door on their left into the living room. The pale sun struck a warm light from a little bronze jug of tight bitter chrysanthemums; from the white paint of the bookshelves; from the pink wash of the walls. A gold-scrolled mirror, with empty candle sconces, on the wall opposite the window showed the fleur-de-lis pattern of the curtains.
“Oh, it’s just like I remembered it—only better!” the girl said, looking round her. “I was so afraid that it might look different—so many things do when you see them a second time. Different, and usually worse!”
The woman did not answer. She knelt quickly and put a match to the fire. The blue in her black hair, her dark shirt, the pink housecoat flung over the chair back, struck sharply against the pastel kindness of
“We’re so terribly lucky,” the girl said impulsively, “to get a place—any place. And furnished, you know . . . Nigel thought it would be antimacassars, and I thought it would be antlers; and both of us were simply terrified that it might be . . . you know: all neat and dead and shiny—folk weave and fumed oak and . . . and a silver entree dish and a photo of somebody else’s wedding . . . and now this!“
The woman looked back over her shoulder, half smiling. “You like it?” she asked politely.
The girl said: “It’s perfect! We’re terribly lucky! Only you see I . . .” She broke off, as if herself surprised at what she had started. “You see, I did wonder. About the boiler and so on. And . . .”
“That’s all right! Why, I offered to show you. It won’t take a minute. We’ll put on a kettle, and the fire will have burned up then and—” “And I did want to know' about—the best shops; and the laundry. You know, when it comes; how you fix things. You’re out all day, aren’t you? I will be too. But now, if you’re busy—”
The woman looked into the fire. “Packing,” the woman said lightly, “is not one of the things I mind postponing.”
The girl started to say something, then stopped. In the half-light they had a look of each other—the girl with her young spindliness; the woman with her elegant slimness; both with their darkness and their pallor.
“You must hate it!” the girl said, with something like passion. “Leaving this place when—”
The woman got up with a quick grace. “These things happen! Let’s put on a kettle and have tea.”
A flight of steep stairs led down, darkly, to a basement kitchen.
“You want to be careful,” said the woman, “it’s a neck-breaking staircase. But at least you don’t get that foul cabbage smell everywhere, cooking down here.”
A stone floor. A high window. A disused copper. The boiler.
“D’you wake early?” asked the woman.
“Wake early! If you do, before seven, and rush down madly, and rake the fire out, you can catch it. If you sleep late it’ll be out . . . and it’s hard to start then!”
“Nigel wakes—or he says so.”
“Well, get him to wake you. It’s a good little boiler when you know how to work it. It warms the whole house, and look—here— there’s a hot cupboard.” She broke off. “I don’t know why I’m trying to sell you the house, when you’re sold.”
“Oh, I’d feel the same if it were mine!” the girl said quickly. “I’ve never owned a house, of course, but I’ve felt the same way about things that belong to me. Even about Nigel! I get sort of . . . fierce and protective in case people don’t realize just how sweet he is, deep down, when you know him. It’s silly, because mostly they do. All the nice ones. And a house is the same, in a way. Kind of—part of you . .
The woman had moved ahead; her back was turned.
“Here’s the larder. There’s some jam and a tin or two, if you’d like them.”
“But you’ll want them!”
“I don’t think so.”
“Your husband’s been posted? The agent —he told me that was why you were letting.”
“Yes. David’s been posted North.”
“Then won’t you want these?”
“I’m not setting up house for the moment.” She filled the kettle and lit the gas jet. “While we wait for the tea—shall I show you upstairs?”
Up the staircase; up another; ahead to the bedroom.
“It’s terribly untidy, I’m afraid.”
The woman walked across to the French windows; the girl, still by the door, looked round the room.
GREY walls, grey-blue carpet, the quilt a bright patchwork; on this patchwork another of readyto-pack dresses—a green wool, a red silk, a nightpurple chiffon.
The girl moved forward.
On the dressing table a jewel case lay open; a coral rope spilled from it, and a brooch, like a curly gold pretzel, gleamed by its side.
“You can’t see the view—it’s too dark,” said the woman. “Rut in bed, in the mornings, you can watch the sun come up. You’ll see roof tops and the church spire, and on clear days the river.” She broke off with a half laugh. “It’s quite something to watch! The phone’s there by the bed. You see? Every convenience! I don’t know quite why everyone always phones when you’re in bed . . .”
“Nice to lie here and feel you can just—reach out for the phone and touch almost anyone!” the girl said. She blushed, suddenly shy at her fanciful words. “Did you notice the balcony?” the woman asked quickly.
The girl advanced to the window and stood at her side.
“You can breakfast here when it’s hot—we often did. There’s a card table, on the landing, that just fits with a tight squeeze.”
‘‘But that’s months away—summer! We may be gone. You may be back.”
‘‘I don’t think so.”
The woman shut the jewels into the jewel case. Then, as if on an unwilling impulse, she turned back.
The girl’s hands hung at her sides, limply. Her eyes were fixed on the half-filled trunk on the floor.
“Are you cold? Why, you’re shivering!” the woman said gently. “Go downstairs and sit by the fire while I make the tea.”
The woman came into the living room, moving briskly, and smiling as she set down the tray on a low stool by her chair.
“It’s a nice solid tray—what they call ‘butler’s mahogany.’ The teapot’s a bit chipped, but it pours all right if you take care. Have some jam—it’s our own. From the front garden. Mulberry. Perhaps you’ll be able to make some yourself next year. There’s a recipe there on the shelf—in Mrs. Beeton—”
The girl did not answer. She probably had not heard. She knelt on the hearthrug, a book beside her, her red socks, red sweater, her forward-falling hair, the firelight that outlined her face, all somehow sharpening her youthfulness.
She looked up without speaking.
The clock seemed to tick louder. The chrysanthemum scent deepened. The coal purred in the grate.
“Is there anything wrong?” the woman asked at last, quietly. “I thought, in the bedroom, you seemed—upset or unwell. If you’re worried about the house, you really needn’t be.
I know you can let it again, any day of the week.”
“It’s not that. It’s nothing.
I’m silly,” the girl said, too quickly. “It’s just the feeling you get when people pack. That nothing stays the same, that everything’s changing—” “Yes—packing’s depressing!” the woman lightly agreed.
Continued on page 27
Hearts To Let
Continued from page 9
The girl met her eyes.
The two women looked at each other, as if groping for contact, yet struggling to be free.
The girl spoke.
“I didn’t come here about the boiler. That wasn’t true. I came about—you and me.”
The silence spun out. “1 don’t . . . quite understand you.” “I sound crazy! But when I came to this house, the very first time—when the agent showed Nigel and me round. —I got the queer feeling . . . that you knew; you could tell me.”
“Tell you — what?” asked the woman.
“If I ask you, will you promise to tell me the truth?” ,
“I promise to try.”
The girl hunched her thin shoulders, and pressed her tightly clasped hands against her knees. “Can it happen— outside of books—a good marriage?” Her voice was a whisper. “Does it really happen? Did it happen to you?”
THE woman got up and stood looking out of the window, one hand on the curtain patterned with fleur-de-
“The truth? That isn’t an easy thing to tell anyone.”
Her voice came softly and slowly. She stood very still. The twilight engulfed her.
Alone in the firelight, and almost as if to herself, the girl spoke: “I’m
crazy to tell you all this—an absolute st ranger. And yet . . . because you’re a stranger . . . that’s why I can. I’m in a panic”—the words came rushing out of her “I’m in an absolute panic —you’ve probably guessed. About Nigel. About getting married. About everything! But it isn’t—I know that —what people call ‘bridal nerves.’ I love Nigel most frightfully”—she shut her eyes—“most frightfully. But . . “But what?”
“But where does that get you— loving a man? All the people I know who liate each other and loathe marriage and mess everything up and get divorced . . . didn’t they love each other -once? Didn’t they feel what we feel? What difference is there? How can anyone tell?”
Her hand reached out for the book at her side, blindly.
“When I came here the first time I simply couldn’t believe it. Not just getting this place—though that was incredible luck. But ... I got the feel, in this house, of a really good marriage. I know it sounds silly. I can’t help it. I knew. Every stick in this house is like . . . part of a history. Somehow alive and . . . oh, I don’t know, real. The mirror there on the wall, and the chairs and the carpet. The boiler downstairs”—she laughed— “The mulberry. Your view. This book” — she touched it — “and the brooch in your bedroom. Even”—she smiled—“this ‘butler’s mahogany’ tray. They didn’t just happen. They’re part of something real. Aren’t they?” An unsteady hand went to her forehead. “Aren't they? Or did I just— make all this up?”
The woman’s thin hand seemed to pull on the curtain.
“You didn’t . . . make it all up. No. You guessed right.”
She turned back.
The words came, still and slow, from the depths of her being; with unquestioning candor, yet with a harsh reserve.
“The tray . . . David bought me that tray, ages ago. It cost five bob. We went to a country sale.” The girl felt the sun, saw the crowds and the windy sky. “I always liked money— we never had much of it. At least, what I liked was the things money could buy. David said that the tray was ... a start on the butler!”
The girl felt the joy of the quick, teasing shared laugh.
“The brooch? David bought me that brooch I don’t know; years ago. We were broke, and 1 terribly wanted a new dress. For some special dinner. I thought l was hiding my feelings. I was ready dressed in my old black when David got home. He gave me the brooch.” She broke off, smiling onesidecjly. “I felt like ... I felt like a cover girl that night!”
The girl saw the curly gold brooch again, like a pretzel; and, as if she herself wore it, breathed a painful, sweet breath.
“That book on the floor,” said the woman, “that ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ David read that book out loud to me, all of one night. I was ill and delirious and frightened—I raved a bit . . .” Dark hair on a pillow, and shadows climbing the wall, and a man’s steady slow hand turning the pages . . .
“I couldn’t have borne any other book but ‘Alice,’ ” the woman told the girl slowly. “And David knew.”
She broke off. She turned away. She was silent a long time. “Am I telling you,” she asked then, “what you wanted to know? Since my marriage I’ve been happier—and unhappier— than I ever dreamed possible, in all my life.”
“I’m not frightened of being unhappy,” the girl said softly. “As long as the other part happens — really happens. The way that I felt it had happened for you. I just had to be sure. Does it sound crazy? I had to be. If I was wron# about you, then I might be about me.”
She got up. She came slowly forward and stood at the window. The woman saw her stretch and take a deep breath and smile; as if from a secret hoard, a rush of happiness swept up and lit into beauty her thin, young face.
“I feel . . . it’s so wonderful, I simply can’t tell you! If the good part happens the bad can’t matter. It can't!"
Then she shivered. “If I hadn’t come here—if you hadn’t let me—I’d have gone and told Nigel that I couldn’t —we couldn’t—”
“Don’t think about it.”
They looked out of the window. Beyond the mulberry, beyond the low wall, they saw a shadowy figure slowly advancing.
“It’s Nigel. I told him I might be here—”
“Ask him in.”
“No. Not now.”
“Then don’t keep him waiting.”
She could not get to the front door quickly enough; but when it was opened she turned, catching her breath. Her cheek was warm with its blush as she leaned out of the darkness to kiss the woman’s cold cheek.
“Thank you!” she said.
Beyond the mulberry, in a mist of cold and dusk, the girl ran to her lover. And into the woman’s mind came the thought so long kept at bay:
Suppose I had told her the reason why I'm packing? That I'm leaving David— leaving David for good!
The woman shut the front door; shut the door on the firelight; pushed the hair back from her forehead; walked quickly upstairs. She knelt on the floor and finished packing, methodically—stockings, hairbrushes, jewel case, the frocks from the bed.
Then she stopped. Fatigue, like an anaesthetic, swept over her. She put up a trembling hand to cover her eyes.
The room seemed to stir as if at a ghost’s going.
“David,” she said out loud, “I did tell her the truth, didn’t I? It was the truth I told her. And ... if it was . . .
These last months don't count.
“I’ve got to go with you tomorrow . . .”
As if to touch someone once again close, she reached for the telephone.
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