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The Doves' Nest and Other Stories


page 118


I Had been in Port Willin six months when I decided to give a one-man show. Not that I was particularly keen, but little Field, the picture-shop man, had just started a gallery and he wanted me—begged me, rather—to kick of! for him. He was a decent little chap ; I hadn't the heart to refuse. And besides, as it happened, I had a good deal of stuff that I felt it would be rather fun to palm off on any one who was fool enough to buy it. So with these high aims I had the cards printed, the pictures framed in plain white frames, and God knows how many cups and saucers ordered for the Private View.

What was I doing in Port Willin ? Oh well —why not ? I'll own it does sound an unlikely spot, but when you are an impermanent movable, as I am, it's just those unlikely spots that have a trick of holding you. I arrived, intending to stay a week and go on to Fiji. But I had letters to one or two people, and the morning of my arrival, hanging over the side page 119 of the ship while we were waiting in the stream, with nothing on earth to do but stare, I took an extraordinary" fancy to the shape—to the look of the place.

It's a small town, you know, planted at the edge of a fine deep harbour like a lake. Behind it, on either side there are hills. The houses are built of light painted wood. They have iron roofs coloured red. And there are big dark plumy trees massed together, breaking up those light shapes, giving a depth—warmth— making a composition of it well worth looking at... Well, we needn't go into that— But it had me that fine morning. And the first days after my arrival, walking, or driving out in one of the big swinging, rocking cabs, I took an equal fancy to the people.

Not to quite all of them. The men left me cold. Yes, I must say, colonial men are not the brightest specimens. But I never struck a place where the average of female attractiveness was so high. You can't help noticing it, for a peculiarity of Port Willin is the number of its teashops and the vast quantity of tea absorbed by its inhabitants. Not tea only— sandwiches, cream cakes, ices, fruit salad with fresh pineapples. From eleven o'clock in the morning you meet with couples, and groups, of girls and young married women hurrying off to their first tea. It was a real eleven o'clock function. Even the business men page 120 knocked off and went to a cafe. And the same thing happened in the afternoon. From four until half-past six the streets were gay as a garden. Which reminds me, it was early-spring when I arrived and the town smelled of moist earth and the first flowers. In fact, wherever one went one got a strong whiff, like the whiff of violets in a wood, which was enough in itself to make one feel like lingering .. .

There was a theatre too, a big bare building plastered over with red and blue bills which gave it an oriental look in that blue air, and a touring company was playing " San Toy." I went my first evening. I found it, for some reason, fearfully exciting. The inside smelled of gas, of glue and burnt paper. Whistling draughts cut along the corridors—a strong wind among the orchestra kept the palms trembling, and now and again the curtain blew out and there was a glimpse of a pair of large feet walking rapidly away. But what women ! What girls in muslin dresses with velvet sashes and little caps edged with swansdown ! In the intervals long ripples of laughter sounded from the stalls, from the dress-circle. And I leaned against a pillar that looked as though it was made of wedding-cake icing—and fell in love with whole rows at a time . . .

Then I presented my letters, I was asked out to dine, and I met these charmers in their own page 121 homes. That decided it. They were something I had never known before—so gay, so friendly, so impressed with the idea of one's being an artist! It was rather like finding oneself in the playground of an extremely attractive girls' school.

I painted the Premier's daughter, a dark beauty, against a tree hung with long bell-like flowers, as white as wax. I painted a girl with a pig-tail curled up on a white sofa playing with a pale-red fan . . . and a little blonde in a black jacket with pearl-grey gloves... I painted like fury.

I'm fond of women. As a matter of fact I'm a great deal more at my ease with women than I am with men. Because I've cultivated them, I suppose. You see, it's like this with me. I've always had enough money to live on and the consequence is I have never had to mix with people more than I wished. And I've equally always had—well, I suppose you might call it a passion—for painting. Painting is far and away the most important thing in life—as I see it. But—my work's my own affair. It's the separate compartment which is me. No strangers allowed in. I haven't the smallest desire to explain what it is I'm after—or to hear other men. If people like my work I'm pleased. If they don't—well, if I was a shrugging person, I'd shrug. This sounds arrogant. It isn't; I know my limita- page 122 tions. But the truth about oneself always sounds arrogant, as no doubt you've observed.

But women—well, I can only speak for myself —I find the presence of women, the consciousness of women, an absolute necessity. I know they are considered a distraction, that the very Big Pots seal themselves in their hives to keep away. All I can say is work without women would be to me like dancing without music or food without wine or a sailing boat without a breeze. They just give me that. . . what is it ? Stimulus is not enough; inspiration is far too much. That—well, if I knew what it is, I should have solved a bigger problem than my own ! And problems aren't in my line.

I expected a mob at my Private View, and I got it, too . . . What I hadn't reckoned on was that there would be no men. It was one thing to ask a painter fellow to knock you up something to the tune of fifty guineas or so, but it was quite another to make an ass of yourself staring. The Port Willin men would as soon have gazed into shops. True, when you came to Europe, you visited the galleries, but then you shop-gazed too. It didn't matter what you did in Europe. You could walk about for a week without being recognised.

So there were little Field and I absolutely alone among all that loveliness; it frightened him out of his life, but I didn't mind, I thought it rather fun, especially as the sightseers didn't page 123 hesitate to find my pictures amusing. I'm by no means an out-and-out modern, as they say ; people like violins and landscapes of telegraph poles leave me cold. But Port Willin is still trying to swallow Rossetti, and Hope by Watts is looked upon as very advanced. It was natural my pictures should surprise them. The fat old Lady Mayoress became quite hysterical. She drew me over to one drawing, she patted my arm with her fan.

" I don't wonder you drew her slipping out," she gurgled. " And how depressed she looks! The poor dear never could have sat down in it. It's much too small. There ought to be a little cake of Pear's Soap on the floor." And overcome by her own joke, she flopped on the little double bench that ran down the middle of the room, and even her fan seemed to laugh.

At that moment two girls passed in front of us. One I knew, a big fair girl called May Pollock, pulled her companion by the sleeve. " Daphne ! " she said. " Daphne ! " And the other turned towards her, then towards us, smiled and was born, christened part of my world from that moment.

" Daphne! " Her quick beautiful smile answered . . .

Saturday morning was gloriously fine. When I woke up and saw the sun streaming over the page 124 polished floor I felt like a little boy who has been promised a picnic. It was all I could do not to telephone Daphne. Was she feeling the same ? It seemed somehow such a terrific lark that we should be going off together like this, just with a couple of rucksacks and our bathing suits. I thought of other week-ends, the preparation, the emotional tension, the amount of managing they'd needed. But I couldn't really think of them ; I couldn't be bothered, they belonged to another life . . .

It seemed to me suddenly so preposterous, that two people should be as happy as we were and not be happier. Here we were, alone, miles away from everybody, free as air, and in love with each other. I looked again at Daphne, at her slender shoulders, her throat, her bosom, and, passionately in love, I decided, with fervour : Wouldn't it be rather absurd, then, to behave like a couple of children ? Wouldn't she even, in spite of all she had said, be disappointed if we did ? . . .

And I went off at a tremendous pace, not because I thought she'd run after me, but I did think she might call, or I might look round . . .

It was one of those still, hushed days when the sea and the sky seem to melt into one another, and it is long before the moisture page 125 dries on the leaves and grasses. One of those days when the sea smells strong and there are gulls standing in a row on the sand. The smoke from our wood fire hung in the air and the smoke of my pipe mingled with it. I caught myself staring at nothing. I felt dull and angry. I couldn't get over the ridiculous affair. You see, my amour propre was wounded.

Monday morning was grey, cloudy, one of those mornings peculiar to the sea-side when everything, the sea most of all, seems exhausted and sullen. There had been a very high tide, the road was wet—on the beach there stood a long line of sickly-looking gulls . . .

When we got on board she sat down on one of the green benches and, muttering something about a pipe, I walked quickly away. It was intolerable that we should still be together after what had happened. It was indecent. I only asked—I only longed for one thing—to be free of this still, unsmiling and pitiful— that was the worst of it—creature who had been my playful Daphne.

For answer I telephoned her at once and asked if I might come and see her that evening. Her voice sounded grave, unlike the voice I remembered, and she seemed to deliberate. There was a long pause before she said, " Yes —perhaps that would be best." page 126 " Then I shall come at half-past six."

" Very well."

And we went into a room full of flowers and very large art photographs of the Harbour by Night, A Misty Day, Moonrise over the Water, and I know I wondered if she admired them.

" Why did you send me that letter ? "

"Oh, but I had to," said Daphne. "I meant every word of it. I only let you come to-night to ... No, I know I shall disappoint you. I'm wiser than you are for all your experience. I shan't be able to live up to it. I'm not the person for you. Really I'm not!"...