It was a relief to sit down in the Krazie Café, for a chair is a chair, and tiredness is tiredness, whatever a mass-produced consciousness may have done to take the reality out of most objects and sensations. She wasn’t there, Doris Blackmore wasn’t there: I saw that at a glance; and the full weight of five hours thrown away, and five pounds thrown away on railway-trains and taxis, fell on me so crushingly that I groaned aloud. And sharpening my general disappointment was a particular one which I couldn’t or wouldn’t account for then. Deep down in me I had hoped to see the waitress. Why? To bandy words with her? To let her know where she got off, or didn’t get off? I couldn’t tell. But my sense of grievance was so overwhelming and acute that I did what, coming down in the train, I hadn’t thought possible—for me, at any rate. With a clear conscience, which for some reason mine wasn’t, it should have been quite easy; just a few words, casually uttered, as if the inquiry was the most natural in the world, and the thing would have been done. But in the train, however often I rehearsed them, whatever accent of indifference I gave them, they would not pass my lips. Now I knew they would, and when I had paid my bill I went up to the woman who seemed to be in charge and said:
‘Can you tell me what’s become of the waitress, Doris Blackmore I think her name was, who used to be here?’
At that the woman’s face stiffened and she said shortly:
‘I’m afraid I can’t. She left us at a few days’ notice. Naturally, we did not pay her her week’s wages.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘Over a month, I think. She said she was fed up, and she was earning good money, too. They’re all alike—you can’t rely on them. A whim, a fancied slight, a boy, you never know what it is, and then they’re off.’
‘A pity,’ I said. ‘She seemed to be a nice girl.’
The manageress pursed her lips and shrugged.
‘No nicer than the rest. They’re spoilt, if you ask me.’
‘And you don’t know where she’s gone?’
‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.’
Well, that was that. My next step was to tell Thomas Henry (who was going to pretend that he had made the journey down to Restbourne) to tell Edward that the Face had been, well, effaced. Useless to look for it; better forget about it. And this he did, assuring Edward, who didn’t want to be convinced, that any further raids on Restbourne would be fruitless. Fruitless for me, too, I reflected. The incident rankled like a sore place that hurts and is desired, as Cleopatra said, not only for its own sake but for the contrast with the healthy tissues round it.
At that time I had a flat in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park and it was my nightly custom, for the sake of my health, to take a brisk constitutional in the Park before retiring. Between Hyde Park Corner and Wellington Barracks was my usual beat, but it was not only my beat, I shared it with a great many others who were not there for their health. Some sat, some stood, some walked, some drove up or drove away in motor-cars that seemed to hug the kerbstone in a peculiarly intimate manner and in some way—perhaps by exuding a moral cloud—to darken the surrounding air. I won’t say anything against them for fear I should offend the live-and-let-live spirit of high-minded persons; but walking by them I had to run a gauntlet of hullos, dearies, darlings, and other forms of affectionate solicitation, and I got very tired of it. Indeed, but for a certain obstinacy, and the feeling that the Park was mine as well as theirs, I should have bent my steps another way.
When accosted I had not, as some men have, a polite formula of refusal ready: I swerved or dodged or walked straight on. But one evening I couldn’t, for my solicitrix, who had risen from a seat a few yards farther on, planted herself in front of me and blocked my way.
‘Hello, darling,’ she said.
If her face hadn’t been almost touching mine I should have recognized her sooner. If I had been less put out I should have recognized her sooner.
‘Doris Blackmore!’ I said at last.
‘The same,’ she answered. ‘I’ve seen you several times doing your nightly dozen, or whatever you were here for, so I thought, “Why not me as well as one of the others?” ’
‘I don’t come here to pick up women,’ I said.
‘I thought not, but one can’t be sure, I haven’t had much experience you see. Even the older ones can’t always tell.’
‘They can’t, indeed,’ I said.
‘No need to be snooty. You might be wanting something—other men do.’
I made no answer.
‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘yours is the first face I’ve recognized since I’ve been on the game.’
‘On the game?’
‘Well, on the batter, hustling, there are lots of names for it.’
‘I could say the same,’ I said. ‘Yours is the first face that I’ve recognized among your crowd.’
‘You’re one of the lucky ones,’ she told me, without rancour. ‘You can pick and choose, whereas we—Well, so long. Nice to have seen you.’
She was strutting off, with that peculiar stiff gait they all affect, when I caught her up.
‘Why on earth are you doing this?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I dunno. It’s a break, at any rate. I got browned off at Restbourne. After you came——’
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘Well, I just felt I wanted to do something else. That’s all there is to it.’
‘You’ll get browned off doing this.’
‘There’s more variety and much more money, too. Some of us make forty pounds a week. I’d sooner go the whole way with somebody than natter with them at a tea-table. Some men think they’re men just because they’ve been accosted. Some just come to look at us. We’re not all so bad. I’ve heard of a Tom who blew a policeman’s whistle for him when he’d been kicked in the groin and couldn’t move.’
‘I wasn’t criticizing you,’ I said, ‘or them.’
‘It’s not a bad life. Most men are all mouth and trousers—well, I like the trousers best, if you see what I mean.’
‘You mean without the trousers.’
‘Yes, I suppose I do. Well, bye-bye, Mr. So-and-so. You didn’t tell me your name. London’s such a big place. It’s nice to think we’re neighbours.’
‘Look here,’ I said.
‘I can’t afford to waste another minute. Big Harry will be after me.’
‘Are you here every night?’
‘Yes, till they send me somewhere else.’
‘Good-bye, good luck,’ I said, and shook her hand. ‘Perhaps I shall be seeing you.’
As a rule, on my nightly rambles, my thoughts follow their own course. But this time they wouldn’t, they kept returning to the problem of Doris and Edward, digging straight lines from me to them, making an angle which, when I came into it, assumed the dignity and completeness of a triangle.
But I didn’t come into it much. The wave of tenderness I had felt for Doris the waitress didn’t reach to Doris the whore; I could only see her as a member of her profession, for which I felt no sentiment at all. An uneasiness, a twinge of guilt I did feel, wondering if my visit to Restbourne, and the kindness I hadn’t meant to show her, had been the last straw which broke the back of her virtue—if she was virtuous then.
But Edward, that unknown quantity, would he mind what her calling was, if she had the face he dreamed about? Like most of his circle, Edward was well off. It was taken for granted that any of us had unlimited supplies of gin and vermouth, or whatever drink was in favour at the moment. He had dropped some money over his marriage, for the settlement he had made on Mary came back to him at her death much reduced, when the Inland Revenue had had their whack. More than once, in expansive moments, he had praised the wisdom of parting with one’s money in one’s lifetime—at which some people pricked up their ears. ‘But,’ he said, ‘most of my friends are my own age, and better off than I am, so where would be the point? I must give some of myself with the gift, or it’s no fun; and nearly everyone I know has much more personality
than I have—they couldn’t do with more.’ So it became a sort of game to find for Edward a possible legatee, and many very odd ones were suggested, though not, of course, to him. He was right about his lack of personality; he was more real when he was being talked about than when he was present. He used to say his friends invented him. But the current of his being flowed in a secret channel invisible to us.
Of all the suggested recipients of his bounty none was quite so fantastic as Doris Blackmore. Yet was she really so unsuitable? Besides having the Face, hadn’t she almost all the qualifications, including lack of personality? Having been all things to all men, she might find it the less difficult to be one thing to one.
‘Edward,’ I said, one evening when we were together, ‘excuse the question, but have you ever been with a prostitute?’
He frowned, and fixed his amber eyes on me.
‘Why, no,’ he said.
‘Does the thought of them repel you?’
‘I’ve never given them much thought.’
‘Nor had I until a night or two ago when one accosted me in the Park, and do you know, she rather took my fancy.’
‘Did you get off with her?’ asked Edward.
‘Well, no, it isn’t in my line. But I talked to her and found her interesting and sympathetic. Does that shock you?’
‘Not in the least,’ said Edward. ‘I’m not shocked by sexual irregularities or even’—he smiled—‘by sexual regularity.’
‘Would you care to meet her?’
‘Not in the street, perhaps.’
‘No, at some restaurant. She wouldn’t look different from other girls—I’d see to that.’
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘But can she get away? I mean, their bosses keep them pretty hard at work.’
‘I’d give her something she could show for herself.’
‘Well, let me in on that. What do you think—a fiver?’
But when I told her that a friend was going to join us, she seemed disappointed.
‘I thought it was only you,’ she said.
‘Only me? You’re not flattering,’ I said. ‘But yes, you are. Still, this friend of mine, he’s a nice fellow, and of course I need a chaperon.’
‘I should have thought you were old and ugly enough to look after yourself.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. At my age I can’t afford to take risks.’
‘I suppose you want me to get off with him?’
‘Good lord!’ I said. ‘But if I did, would you object?’
‘Object?’ she repeated. ‘Girls like me can’t afford to object to anything.’
‘Oh, come,’ I rallied her. ‘Your life is one long record of objections—all that I know of it, which isn’t much. You objected to the Krazie Café; you objected to being talked to, you objected to not being talked to——’
‘Only because you were so inconsiderate.’
‘All right,’ she said, ‘I’ll come.’
Doris’s conversation wasn’t dull—at least not dull to me—but it was limited. She liked it to be a sparring match; she also peppered it with catch-words of the day—euphemisms and verbal subterfuges. ‘Fair enough’ for something that wasn’t quite fair; ‘Jolly good’ to make something sound jollier and better than it was; and ‘All right’ with an interrogative inflexion to cover something that was not quite all right.
But we were both handicapped. We waited and waited, she and I, churning out gobbets of small talk. Conversation always becomes difficult between two people who are waiting for a third who doesn’t come. The flow of communication is held up by the mere fact that at any moment it may be broken; and a kind of suspense starts which paralyses the tongue. I seized the opportunity to sing Edward’s praises: he was the most amiable of men and the soul of punctuality. This sounded a little hollow in view of his manifest unpunctuality, and Doris, who was looking very pretty and anything but tartish, said:
‘I suppose he doesn’t want to meet somebody like me. Fair enough.’
‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘He was most anxious to meet you. He’s not a man with silly prejudices and besides——’ my voice trailed away under the accusing eye of the clock, which said eight-thirty. An invitation to dinner—eight-thirty for eight! One could tease him about that.
‘I don’t think much of a man who says he’ll dine out with a prostitute,’ said Doris unexpectedly. ‘No nice man would.’
‘What about me?’
‘Oh, you’re different. He’s thought better of it, you can bet your life, and I don’t blame him.’
‘It’s not like him to be late.’
‘So you keep saying. I expect it’s not like him to be dining with somebody like me.’
‘Don’t keep saying that—you’re not like anyone except yourself.’
‘All he wants is to go to bed with me.’
‘A moment ago you were saying that he wouldn’t come because you were a——’
‘That’s right, try to make me contradict myself.’
‘Mr. Lenthall, please, Mr. Lenthall, please,’ intoned a page-boy in a high-pitched nasal sing-song, threading his way between the tables, fixing each guest in turn with a speculative, hopeful stare. ‘A telephone call for Mr. Lenthall, please. Mr. Lenthall, please.’
It was only when he had called my name for the fourth time that I realized he meant me.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, rising.
‘Is that your name? You never told me. You never tell me anything.’
I didn’t like to leave her to herself—I had a vague idea that the other diners might rise and drum her out—but I was glad to get away. As a companion, the telephone made less demands than Doris.
‘Is that Ernest?’
‘Yes, you old devil. Why aren’t you here? Where are you?’
The story he told me didn’t to me make sense. I had to believe it because Edward was nothing if not truthful, but believing it I also had to doubt my sanity. The telephone-box became a cage, a padded cell.
‘You can’t mean that.’
‘But I do mean it. I’m terribly sorry, but you do understand, don’t you? Make what excuses for me you can.’
‘I don’t understand a single thing, so how can I make excuses for you?’
‘Tell her what I’ve told you.’
‘I can’t explain why now, but she won’t believe it any more than I do—not so much. She’ll have a special reason for not believing it. She’ll scratch my eyes out—you don’t know what women of that sort can do.’
‘Tell her it was love at first sight. She must be used to that.’
‘To lust no doubt, but not to love. You are a brute, letting me down like this. And I don’t believe you’re in Restbourne at all, you’re here, in the next room.’
‘Are you spending the night at Restbourne?’
‘Yes, and perhaps to-morrow night. I must ring off now—she’s waiting for me.’
‘Well,’ said Doris. ‘What did your boy-friend say? You were so long he must have told you the whole story of his life——’
‘He did, in a way. But now let’s order dinner.’
Steak was one of the things she asked for, and stout to wash it down, but I persuaded her to have champagne. ‘You’ll need it,’ I said, ‘and so shall I.’
‘I don’t suppose you could tell me anything that would surprise me.’
‘I think I can.’ Then suddenly I had a doubt—for what’s in a name? Had I jumped to some idiotic conclusion? Was it a damp squib after all?
‘I’m waiting,’ Doris warned me.
‘Well, he’s at Restbourne. There, I knew you’d be surprised.’
She recovered herself quickly.
‘So are about eighty thousand other people. What’s odd in that?’
‘It would take too long to tell you.’
‘Everything’s taken long to-night.’
‘Well, here’s your steak at any rate, and my grilled sole.’
I asked the waiter to pour out the champagne. Doris attacked her steak. ‘I’m still waiting,’ she said. ‘All you’ve told me so far is that your friend’s at Restbourne. Is that stop-press news?’
‘Well——’ I began.
‘I wish you wouldn’t go on saying “well”. What’s the use of a well without any water?’
‘It’s who he’s with.’
‘Who is he with? A woman, I suppose. Probably a woman like me. Restbourne is stiff with them.’
I stared at her. I had so often seen the Face coming to life under Edward’s pencil that it had something legendary and hypnotic about it, something of the immortality of art that made it more memorable than the living model. If Mona Lisa had sat beside her portrait, it would have overshadowed her.
‘I don’t know if she was like you,’ I said, ‘but she had the same name, Blackmore.’
That shook her a little, but only for a moment.
‘It’s a common name—not that we were brought up common. There are loads of Blackmores.’
‘Perhaps. But not at the Krazie Café.’
Then I got my effect—the same effect that Edward’s announcement had had on me, but more so.
‘You don’t say so!’ she said, and a mist, perhaps the expression of her inner bewilderment, clouded her dark-blue eyes. ‘A Blackmore at the Krazie Café! It doesn’t make sense.’
‘It didn’t to me,’ I said.
‘I left there five weeks ago—how could I still be there?’
‘That’s what I asked myself.’
‘Sounds dotty, doesn’t it?’ she said. ‘Was he kidding you?’
‘He’s not that sort of man.’
‘What took him to the Krazie Café anyway? What took you, for that matter?’
‘Ah, thereby hangs a tale,’ I said. ‘Some day I’ll tell you.’ But I didn’t think that we should meet again.