…from the short-story collection Rhapsody

The most foolish things happen to people in the summer. For instance, this summer a most foolish thing happened to Mr Joseph Laurel, and yet, of course, in a way it was a revelation too.

After playing tennis with Beatrice Hammond most of June and July, he went down to stay with her sister in the country. He dislikes tennis very much, but at the courts where they play there are on a sloping bank some lovely rhododendrons, and some large yellow flowers rather like them, growing on bushes, and with petals thick like wax and a heavy scent like honeysuckle. After about one set Mr Laurel flings his racquet on the grass and himself on the bank, and, with his hands under his head, he looks up at the sky or at the people on the courts. And there is something particularly luxurious about this, which the other players appear not to understand.

Beatrice is an extraordinarily good player. I suppose she plays to keep young, because she is well over thirty. Tennis is, if one might say so, very becoming to her. She is tall and dark, and it always seems like a sudden revelation of her personality to see her in white. And she moves like a winged fury behind the nets, and shoots stinging balls at people in a way that Mr Laurel can quite understand other people finding rather fascinating.

She told him that her sister had invited him, but I should think the invitation really came from her. She said that they wanted someone to make up a set with her niece and her niece’s cousin, and that she did not dare invite anyone who played well, because Leonora played so badly. And Mr Laurel, who prides himself on his bad tennis, decided to go.

He had been there before when the sister’s husband was alive. They had a rather charming house, with a nice tennis court. The daughter, Leonora, had rather curious pale brown hair, the colour of smoke in modern painting. When he saw her first she wore it down her back in ringlets. Now this time she had put it up in a rather old-fashioned way, which made her look older than she was. She had only just left school. The cousin who was there was also very young, a tall dark boy, very alert, and only just out of the sixth form.

Beatrice drove Mr Laurel down, and he was a little bored at first, but they had tea outside in the garden. Leonora sat opposite him in a green basket chair, near a rose tree, whose pink roses made her hair look strange. The cousin sat on the grass, handing the cake-stand round by balancing the whole thing from underneath on his hand, and though Mrs Chalen asked Mr Laurel one or two tiresome questions, all the same the charm of the garden began to make an impression on him.

“I want to ask your advice about Leonora,” said Mrs Chalen, turning anxiously to him. “I don’t know what to let her do.”

“Has she any particular talents?” he asked.

“None that I know anything about,” said her mother, looking at Leonora severely.

Mr Laurel looked at Leonora too, and she smiled back to him. She had a curious, square smile, which was very attractive, though perhaps also a little heartless.

“She can’t dance,” said Basil, her cousin, not intending to insult her, but simply to eliminate one possibility.

“Or play tennis,” said Beatrice a little impatiently.

“Will you have some more chocolate cake?” said Leonora

“Thank you,” said Mr Laurel, taking some. “I think she should go to an art school,” he said to her mother.

“Do you really think so?” said she. “Can you paint, dear?”

“I don’t know,” said Leonora.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” said Mr Laurel, smiling at her. “Some artist will marry her because he wants to paint her hair, and they will live happily ever afterwards.”

“Yes,” said Leonora, with innocent approval.

“You really think so?” said her mother, smiling a little doubtfully.

“Undoubtedly,” said Mr Laurel.

And thus her fate was decided, for sure enough she has gone to an art school.

“I am going to be a dancer,” said Basil.

Mr Laurel does not remember much what happened that evening, but it was very delightful to see the darkness come slowly over the garden and the roses.

However, that night, just as he was dropping off to sleep, he heard a little tap at his door, and then it slowly opened and Leonora’s head appeared.

“Can I come in?” she whispered.

“Yes,” he whispered back.

She came in, and Basil came after her.

“We are a deputation to you,” she said.

“We are pleased to hear you,” said Mr Laurel, leaning back on his pillow. “Switch on the light.”

She sat on the edge of his bed. She wore a pink dressing-gown with lace on it, over her pyjamas, and looked very charming.

“Look here, Your Majesty,” she said, “when Aunt Beatrice is here we have to play tennis all the time, and we don’t want to.”

“In truth,” said Basil, balancing himself on the bedpost, “we, your liege subjects, flatly refuse to waste our time, and yours too, in such an unintellectual pastime.”

He put his hands on the bed-rail and threw his legs high into the air, coming down lightly on the carpet.

“Now you have a good deal of influence with Aunt Beatrice,” said Leonora, applying herself more seriously to the deputation.

“Sweet lady,” said Mr Laurel, smoothing down the collar of his sleeping-jacket, “it shall be as you wish. We consider that the game is too frivolous for a royal pursuit, and will play it only when the Lady Beatrice, over whom we have no authority, absolutely insists.”

“Good,” said Basil. “Come, Leonore. Try to exit backwards. Good-night, Your Majesty.”

But Leonora did not for the moment move from the bed.

“Is that your dressing-gown?” she asked. “Isn’t it lovely? May I try it on?”

“A present from the Emperor of China,” Mr Laurel remarked. “You may.”

She walked up and down the room in the brightly coloured thing.

“It is curious how few colours suit you,” said he.

She looked at him reproachfully and put the dressing-gown on the bed. Basil switched the light off and went out.

“But when colours do suit you, they do,” said Mr Laurel, laughing, and taking hold of the end of her dressing-gown. It slipped a little off her shoulder and she nearly left it behind with him, like the princess in the fairy tale, and she went out.

“Isn’t he decent?” he heard her whisper to Basil outside the door.

Just as he was falling asleep it occurred to him that it was not a fairy tale at all, but Potiphar’s wife. What an amusing thing!

The next morning he went into the garden before breakfast. They had breakfast very late there. The grass was still wet with dew, and the top of the tennis net was wet too. He drew his hand along it as he passed. Then he sat down in the sunshine.

Leonora and Basil came running down on to the lawn. She wore a navy blue jersey and knickers, while Basil looked very tall and rather diabolical in a black jersey and tights.

“We do our exercises now,” he shouted in explanation.

They proceeded to do the more gymnastic dance steps. Basil seemed to be able to spring perpendicularly into the air with very little expenditure of energy. Leonora was agile, but there was nothing conscious about her movements. Basil turned a somersault on to his feet and said, “She helps me a lot, you know. I have to practice lifting her.”

And he lifted her in various ways and into various positions, and finally, carrying her high above his head, he ran the whole length of the court with her.

“Bravo,” said Mr Laurel, with genuine admiration.

“Do you really think it is good?” said Basil, coming back; “and it would be much easier with a proper dancer, you know.”

“Yes,” said Mr Laurel. “Have you any definite plans?”

“Well, not exactly,” said Basil. “I have lessons every vac., you know, and now I can have them all the time. I shall have some money when I am of age, and Aunt Margaret is lending me some until then.”

“Perhaps I can help you in some way,” said Mr Laurel. “I know one or two dancers. Would it be any use your meeting them?”

“Oh yes, please,” he said, and grasped Mr Laurel’s hand. “Of course there is a lot I can’t do, you know,” he added. “There are many things I can’t practise with Leonore. Look, put your hand there.”

He placed Mr Laurel’s hand on his spine and bent back very far indeed.

“Good,” said he.

“Now do it to Leonore,” said Basil.

He obediently put his hand on Leonora’s spine and she bent back rather stiffly. If one could judge by touching it, her spine must have been very pretty. It is a funny thing, but there really is something very attractive about the thought of the skeletons of red-haired people. These are the only kind of skeletons one would not mind meeting at night. How deliciously intimate it would have been to have a conversation with Leonora’s skeleton!

“You see, she does not press on you at all, as she should,” said Basil, and Mr Laurel recalled the object of the experiment.

There was only one fault that could be found with the tennis court there, and that is that there was a glasshouse full of yellow roses just a little too near. When Mr Laurel does return a ball he usually endeavors to return it to heaven, whence at the beginning all things came, and on one of these occasions, after a short sojourn in the upper air, it fell through the roof of this glasshouse.

Leonora ran from her side to fetch it, and he, entering at the other end, contemplated for a moment the lovely picture she made among the yellow roses.

“How nice you look!” he said, forgetting to look for the ball.

She smiled. “Like what?” she asked

I do not know why it is impossible to expound an aesthetic appreciation to a schoolgirl.

“Like the apricot and the pineapple in a fruit salad,” he said.

She turned away, and as they both saw the ball and reached for it he pressed her hand, and the child blushed most furiously and ran out.

The curious thing is that he does not remember noticing Beatrice much during all this time. At least, they walked along together the day they went for a picnic, but she talked about the things they always talk about when they meet in town, and she rather got on his nerves, so completely had he given himself up to the atmosphere of the country and the garden and the roses, and Leonora with them. They were going to picnic on a little hill near, where some young birch trees grew near the top, rather like a regiment of young amazons, novices who, after the first battle, had been forced to retreat like a party of schoolgirls with a mistress on guard, and they presented a most terrifying phalanx of virginity. Mr Laurel laughed.

They all sat in the shadow of the first of the birch trees and had tea, and afterwards he lay looking up at the sky and at the feathery little branches above his head, and listened to the sound of Leonora’s voice making Basil arrange the things as she wanted them in the basket. Afterwards she came and sat by him, and began to fan him with a fern.

“The gnats are coming,” she said.

Basil looked towards them, but seeing her occupied, called Beatrice.

“I say, Aunt Beatrice, if you could only hold this branch a moment,” and he went out of Mr Laurel’s field of vision into the big tree. But Beatrice on her way there cast at Mr Laurel a little smile of malice and veiled amusement, for which he saw no occasion then.

Leonora looked down at him and smiled, saying something or other, and he shut his eyes, and imagined himself making love to one of those birch-maidens, and slipping an arm around her slender silver waist. But as soon as he tried to imagine her virtuous reaction to such behavior she turned back into a tree, with her little leaves and her branches swaying inaccessible above his head. He opened his eyes and looked at Leonora. She was looking at him and she blushed a little. He wonder what she would have done if he had slipped an arm around her waist instead; but not for words would he have had anything happen to dispel the delightful languor of that afternoon under the pale blue sky, so he contented himself with holding a corner of her green dress as he might have plucked a leaf of the birch tree.

They went home, not straight down the hill, but along the side of it, by a path winding between the trees. And he was no less charmed with Leonora and the birch tree than with Basil, walking between the trees balancing the basket on his head, as dark and graceful as a young slave.

By the time they reached the road it was growing dusk. Basil and Beatrice walked on in front, and Leonora and Mr Laurel slowly followed them. Leonora talked.

“I am so glad you have stopped teasing me,” she said, and she told him all about school, and her dearest friend Judith, with whom she had only lately had a terrible quarrel, and about the mistress whom they both adored, Judith, it appeared, with a fierce and flaming passion, Leonora, so he was led to believe, with a calmer but more eternal devotion. And he learnt also how serious a step she felt leaving school was, and then he thought what a large gulf there was between them, but not so wide that he could not help her to balance across it, perhaps on a thin plank that shook and dipped down in the middle. Not, you know, that he was nearly forty and she seventeen, but merely that he had left school a term before her.

It was nearly dark when they arrived home, and on the way into the garden Basil began to sing, beating time with a dusty branch in his hand, and Leonora joined in. Mr Laurel did not know the song, but he joined in too, singing anything to the tune. And again he caught Beatrice looking at him with a malicious little smile, which he resented without quite knowing why. It was a well-known fact that he did not always sing in tune, but he was not sensitive about that.

After this it poured with rain for three days without stopping. There was no tennis. Mr Laurel sat about indoors and read, and he spent one morning playing dances for Basil. One evening Leonora sang Elizabethan songs in a rather sharp, high voice. She stood in the middle of the carpet and sang without an atom of self-consciousness.

“You are more fresh and fair than I,
Yet stubs do live when flowers do die.”

said her voice, and the piano played a little dance measure to it. Really, it was all very charming.

The next morning the rain was over and the sun was shining through its tears. Mr Laurel went out into the garden. The grass was sodden with rain; three days rain had fallen on it. The little posts on the tennis court were wet, and each rose in the garden was full of rain. There is something quite strange about a garden after the rain. A field wakes up fresh and strong like a peasant. Three days’ rain is nothing to it. But a garden lies exhausted, like a young girl who has tasted too much the pleasures of love. There is no describing the voluptuous feeling a garden gives one.

Mr Laurel went and sat in a little summer-house and looked up at the house over the sloping lawns. And there he began carving a rose on the wooden table with such engrossment that he did not see Basil and Leonora come down to the garden, and they did not see him, but stood near a little rose tree. Leonora smelt a flower, and Basil handed her a handkerchief to wipe the raindrops off her nose.

He looked down at the flowers and suddenly round at Leonora. Then he looked up towards the house, but it never occurred to him to look in Mr Laurel’s direction.

“Leonore, come over here a minute,” he said, point to the glasshouse.

She looked up at him, but obediently followed.

Against the side of the glasshouse some freshly cut squares of turf were piled up. He pointed to them, and she sat down, looking up at him, and probably expecting some new trick. Now he was out of sight of the house. He bent down, put his arms round her shoulders, and kissed her, on the cheek though, not on her mouth.

Mr Laurel could see from where he was how she blushed. Basil laughed, and felt, I dare say, awfully wicked and daring. But he was a little embarrassed too. For lack of anything to say he kissed her again, and she hid her face against his macintosh. They sat down side by side, and could not even look at each other. Then Basil said something with a casual air, nonchalantly turned a cartwheel somersault on the wet grass, and they walked out through the gate, looking straight ahead of them, and with the mark of the brown turfs across the back of their macintoshes.

And as they passed out of the gate it seemed to Mr Laurel that his youth vanished with them. He watched them walk along the road until they disappeared, and he was left behind with the rain-sodden garden. He felt an overwhelming melancholy within his soul, and yet it seemed, too, as if he were on the threshold of a thought that would console him, when, looking up, he saw Beatrice sitting reading just outside the house. She was in white again, ready to play when the grass was dry. He suddenly began to see why she had smiled with such malice. It was the spectacle of him fatuously running after a schoolgirl, anxiously watching each little blush, as though blushes were not simply a physical characteristic of schoolgirls. He nearly blushed himself at the thought. It would have been far more appropriate if he carried on a flirtation with Beatrice, who was nearer his own age. He suddenly felt even more alarmed. He recalled the number of times he had played tennis with Beatrice and taken her out, without ever having considered that she was of a marriageable age. But now that he had discovered that he was himself middle-aged, he began to see that he had behaved in a most compromising manner. He almost ran across the lawn, intending in a few moments’ conversation to efface his unconscious behavior of years. But he stumbled up the steps, and when he go to her he felt a little embarrassed, perhaps not unnaturally.

Beatrice looked slowly up from her book as though she believed he had come especially to tell her something. This put what he had meant to say out of his head, and after a moment’s embarrassing silence he hurriedly looked down the garden and said, “It will soon be dry enough for tennis.”

“Yes,” said Beatrice, and after a moment looked down again at her book. And as he went in he saw her smiling to herself, so that he felt awfully foolish.

She took absolutely no notice of him for the next few days, except on one morning, when Basil and Leonora were out together she made him play tennis with her. He felt unusually tired and weary. When Beatrice played with him she always played without exerting herself, so that he did at least touch the ball now and then, but this time she exerted herself to play. Balls seemed to be hurled at him from every direction, and every one of them seemed to be expressing contempt. She served balls that sped low along the ground, and he felt that he had forfeited her respect for ever. If only he had had the strength to return one of them! But the racquet hung heavily in his hand and he felt profoundly depressed.

Only the day before they were to go he thought of the long drive home with her, and he felt that it would be an ordeal too terrifying to be borne. He walked downstairs thinking of it with dread.

“A letter for your Imperial Highness,” said Leonora, waving it to him and laughing.

Mr Laurel opened it, and, though there was nothing important in it at all, said with an expression of great consternation, “I must go home to-day.”

“But we were going to give you a farewell feast to-night,” said Leonora. “Oh, please, don’t go.”

“I am so sorry,” he said, “but it is very important.”

There was no mistaking her disappointment. And she and Basil paid him the utmost attention during lunch, but he was not to be deceived a second time. And then they took him to the station, and sat on the wooden fence and waved him affectionate and admiring good-byes.

Now he has decided to go abroad for the winter, because he finds that his diary is full of engagements with Beatrice, and he is only waiting to keep some quite inevitable ones and to take Basil to lunch with the dancers, and then he will escape.