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The Doves' Nest and Other Stories

Second Violin

page 172

Second Violin

A February morning, windy, cold, with chill-looking clouds hurrying over a pale sky and chill snowdrops for sale in the grey streets. People look small and shrunken as they flit by; they look scared as if they were trying to hide inside their coats from something big and brutal. The shop doors are closed, the awnings are furled, and the policemen at the crossings are lead policemen. Huge empty vans shake past with a hollow sound ; and there is a smell of soot and wet stone staircases, a raw, grimy smell. . .

Flinging her small scarf over her shoulder again, clasping her violin, Miss Bray darts along to orchestra practice. She is conscious of her cold hands, her cold nose and her colder feet. She can't feel her toes at all. Her feet are just little slabs of cold, all of a piece, like the feet of china dolls. Winter is a terrible time for thin people—terrible! Why should it hound them down, fasten on them, worry them so ? Why not, for a change, take a nip, page 173 take a snap at the fat ones who wouldn't notice ? But no ! It is sleek, warm, cat-like summer that makes the fat one's life a misery. Winter is all for bones . . .

Threading her way, like a needle, in and out and along, went Miss Bray, and she thought of nothing but the cold. She had just come out of her kitchen, which was pleasantly snug in the morning, with her gas-fire going for her breakfast and the window closed. She had just drunk three large cups of really boiling tea. Surely, they ought to have warmed her. One always read in books of people going on their way warmed and invigorated by even one cup. And she had had three ! How she loved her tea ! She was getting fonder and fonder of it. Stirring the cup, Miss Bray looked down. A little fond smile parted her lips, and she breathed tenderly, " I love my tea."

But all the same, in spite of the books, it didn't keep her warm. Cold! Cold! And now as she turned the corner she took such a gulp of damp, cold air that her eyes filled. Ti-yi-yi, a little dog yelped; he looked as though he'd been hurt. She hadn't time to look round, but that high, sharp yelping soothed her, was a comfort even. She could have made just that sound herself.

And here was the Academy. Miss Bray pressed with all her might against the stiff, sulky door, squeezed through into the vestibule page 174 hung with pallid notices and concert programmes, and stumbled up the dusty stairs and along the passage to the dressing-room. Through the open door there came such shrill loud laughter, such high, indifferent voices that it sounded like a play going on in there. It was hard to believe people were not laughing and talking like that ... on purpose. " Excuse me—pardon—sorry," said Miss Bray, nudging her way in and looking quickly round the dingy little room. Her two friends had not yet come. The First Violins were there ; a dreamy, broad-faced girl leaned against her 'cello ; two Violas sat on a bench, bent over a music book, and the Harp, a small grey little person, who only came occasionally, leaned against a bench and looked for her pocket in her underskirt. . .

" I've a run of three twice, ducky," said Ma, " a pair of queens make eight, and one for his nob makes nine."

With an awful hollow groan Alexander, curling his little finger high, pegged nine for Ma. And " Wait now, wait now," said she, and her quick short little hands snatched at the other cards. " My crib, young man! " She spread them out, leaned back, twitched her shawl, put her head on one side. " H'm, not so bad ! A flush of four and a pair ! "

" Betrayed ! Betrayed ! " moaned Alexander, bowing his dark head over the cribbage page 175 board, " and by a woo-man." He sighed deeply, shuffled the cards and said to Ma, " Cut for me, my love ! "

Although of course he was only having his joke like all professional young gentlemen, something in the tone in which he said " my love! " gave Ma quite a turn. Her lips trembled as she cut the cards, she felt a sudden pang as she watched those long slim fingers dealing.

Ma and Alexander were playing cribbage in the basement kitchen of number 9 Bolton Street. It was late, it was on eleven, and Sunday night, too—shocking! They sat at the kitchen table that was covered with a worn art serge cloth spotted with candle grease. On one corner of it stood three glasses, three spoons, a saucer of sugar lumps and a bottle of gin. The stove was still alight, and the lid of the kettle had just begun to lift, cautiously, stealthily, as though there was someone inside who wanted to have a peep and pop back again. On the horse-hair sofa against the wall by the door, the owner of the third glass lay asleep, gently snoring. Perhaps because he had his back to them, perhaps because his feet poked out from the short overcoat covering him, he looked forlorn, pathetic, and the long fair hair covering his collar looked forlorn and pathetic, too.

" Well, well," said Ma, sighing as she put page 176 out two cards and arranged the others in a fan, " such is life. I little thought when I saw the last of you this morning that we'd be playing a game together to-night."

" The caprice of destiny," murmured Alexander. But, as a matter of fact, it was no joking matter. By some infernal mischance that morning he and Rinaldo had missed the train that all the company travelled by. That was bad enough. But being Sunday, there was no other train until midnight, and as they had a full rehearsal at 10 o'clock on Monday it meant going by that, or getting what the company called the beetroot. But God ! what a day it had been. They had left the luggage at the station and come back to Ma's, back to Alexander's frowsy bedroom with the bed unmade and water standing about. Rinaldo had spent the whole day sitting on the side of the bed swinging his leg, dropping ash on the floor and saying, " I wonder what made us lose that train. Strange we should have lost it. I bet the others are wondering what made us lose it, too." And Alexander had stayed by the window gazing into the small garden that was so black with grime even the old lean cat who came and scraped seemed revolted by it, too. It was only after Ma had seen the last of her Sunday visitors. . .