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- Celibates - 20/57 -
'It is more than a mile. I shall have to take you down to the local cobbler and get you measured. I never saw such feet.'
He was oddly matter of fact. There was something naive and childish about him, and he amused and interested Mildred.
'With whom,' she said, 'do you go out painting when I'm not here? Every Jack seems to have his own Jill in Barbizon.'
'And don't they everywhere else? It would be damned dull without.'
'Do you think it would? Have you always got a Jill?'
'I've been down in my luck lately.'
'Which of the women here has the most talent?'
'Perhaps Miss Laurence. But Miss Clive does a nice thing occasionally.'
'What do you think of Miss Turner's work?'
'It's pretty good. She has talent. She had two pictures in the Salon last year.'
Mildred bit her lips. 'Have you ever been out with her?'
'Yes, but why do you ask?'
'Because I think she likes you. She looked very miserable when she heard that we were going out together. Just as if she were going to cry. If I thought I was making another person unhappy I would sooner give you--give up the pleasure of going out with you.'
'And what about me? Don't I count for anything?'
'I must not do a direct wrong to another. Each of us has a path to walk in, and if we deviate from our path we bring unhappiness upon ourselves and upon others.'
Morton stopped and looked at her, his stolid childish stare made her laugh, and it made her like him.
'I wonder if I am selfish?' said Mildred reflectively. 'Sometimes I think I am, sometimes I think I am not. I've suffered so much, my life has been all suffering. There's no heart left in me for anything. I wonder what will become of me. I often think I shall commit suicide. Or I might go into a convent.'
'You'd much better commit suicide than go into a convent. Those poor devils of nuns! as if there wasn't enough misery in this world. We are certain of the misery, and if we give up the pleasures, I should like to know where we are.'
Each had been so interested in the other that they had seen nothing else. But now the road led through an open space where every tree was torn and broken; Mildred stopped to wonder at the splintered trunks; and out of the charred spectre of a great oak crows flew and settled among the rocks, in the fissures of a rocky hill.
'But you're not going to ask me to climb those rocks,' said Mildred. 'There are miles and miles of rocks. It is like a landscape by Salvator Rosa.'
'Climb that hill! you couldn't. I'll wait until our cobbler has made you a pair of boots. But isn't that desolate region of blasted oaks and sundered rocks wonderful? You find everything in the forest. In a few minutes I shall show you some lovely underwood.'
And they had walked a very little way when he stopped and said: 'Don't you call that beautiful?' and, leaning against the same tree, Morton and Mildred looked into the dreamy depth of a summer wood. The trunks of the young elms rose straight, and through the pale leafage the sunlight quivered, full of the impulse of the morning. The ground was thick with grass and young shoots.... Something ran through the grass, paused, and then ran again.
'What is that?' Mildred asked.
'A squirrel, I think... yes, he's going up that tree.'
'How pretty he is, his paws set against the bark.'
'Come this way and we shall see him better.'
But they caught no further sight of the squirrel, and Morton asked Mildred the time.
'A quarter-past ten,' she said, glancing at the tiny watch which she wore in a bracelet.
'Then we must be moving on. I ought to be at work at half-past. One can't work more than a couple of hours in this light.'
They passed out of the wood and crossed an open space where rough grass grew in patches. Mildred opened her parasol.
'You asked me just now if I ever went to England. Do you intend to go back, or do you intend to live in France?'
'That's my difficulty. So long as I was painting there was a reason for my remaining in France, now that I've given it up---'
'But you've not given it up.'
'Yes, I have. If I don't find something else to do I suppose I must go back. That's what I dread. We live in Sutton. But that conveys no idea to your mind. Sutton is a little town in Surrey. It was very nice once, but now it is little better than a London suburb. My brother is a distiller. He goes to town every day by the ten minutes past nine and he returns by the six o'clock. I've heard of nothing but those two trains all my life. We have ten acres of ground--gardens, greenhouses, and a number of servants. Then there's the cart--I go out for drives in the cart. We have tennis parties--the neighbours, you know, and I shall have to choose whether I shall look after my brother's house, or marry and look after my husband's.'
'It must be very lonely in Sutton.'
'Yes, it is very lonely. There are a number of people about, but I've no friends that I care about. There's Mrs. Fargus.'
'Who's Mrs. Fargus?'
'Oh, you should see Mrs. Fargus, she reads Comte, and has worn the same dinner dress ever since I knew her--a black satin with a crimson scarf. Her husband suffers from asthma, and speaks of his wife as a very clever woman. He wears an eyeglass and she wears spectacles. Does that give you an idea of my friends?'
'I should think it did. What damned bores they must be.'
'He bores me, she doesn't. I owe a good deal to Mrs. Fargus. If it hadn't been for her I shouldn't be here now.'
'What do you mean?'
They again passed out of the sunlight into the green shade of some beech trees. Mildred closed her parasol, and swaying it to and fro amid the ferns she continued in a low laughing voice her tale of Mrs. Fargus and the influence that this lady had exercised upon her. Her words floated along a current of quiet humour cadenced by the gentle swaying of her parasol, and brought into relief by a certain intentness of manner which was peculiar to her. And gradually Morton became more and more conscious of her, the charm of her voice stole upon him, and once he lingered, allowing her to get a few yards in front so that he might notice the quiet figure, a little demure, and intensely itself, in a yellow gown. When he first saw her she had seemed to him a little sedate, even a little dowdy, and when she had spoken of her intention to abandon painting, although her manner was far from cheerless, he had feared a bore. He now perceived that this she at least was not--moreover, her determination to paint no more announced, an excellent sense of the realities of things in which the other women--the Elsies and the Cissys--seemed to him to be strangely deficient. And when he set up his easel her appreciation of his work helped him to further appreciation of her. He had spread the rug for her in a shady place, but for the present she preferred to stand behind him, her parasol slanted slightly, talking, he thought very well, of the art of the great men who had made Barbizon rememberable. And the light tone of banter in which she now admitted her failure seemed to Morton to be just the tone which she should adopt, and her ridicule of the impressionists and, above all, of the dottists amused him.
'I don't know why they come here at all,' he said, 'unless it be to prove to themselves that nature falls far short of their pictures. I wonder why they come here? They could paint their gummy tapestry stuff anywhere.'
'I can imagine your asking them what they thought of Corot. Their faces would assume a puzzled expression, I can see them scratching their heads reflectively; at last one of them would say:
'"Yes, there is _Chose_ who lives behind the Odeon--he admires Corot. _Pas de blague_, he really does." Then all the others in chorus: "he really does admire Corot; we'll bring him to see you next Tuesday."'
Morton laughed loudly, Mildred laughed quietly, and there was an intense intimacy of enjoyment in her laughter.
'I can see them,' she said, 'bringing _Chose, le petit Chose_, who lives behind the Odeon and admires Corot, to see you, bringing him, you know, as a sort of strange survival, a curious relic. It really is very funny.'
He was sorry when she said the sun was getting too hot for her, and she went and lay on the rug he had spread for her in the shade of the oak. She had brought a book to read, but she only read a line here and there. Her thoughts followed the white clouds for a while, and then she admired the man sitting easily on his camp-stool, his long legs wide apart. His small head, his big hat, the line of his bent back amused and interested her; she liked his abrupt speech, and wondered if she could love him. A couple of peasant women came by, bent under the weight of the faggots they had picked, and Mildred could see that Morton was watching the movement of these women, and she thought how well they would come into the picture he was painting.
Soon after he rose from his easel and walked towards her.
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