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Chapter 4 Conversation in a Pantry

It was no use, she simply could not sleep. She had tried lying all sorts of ways: with the blanket pulled over her or the blanket off; with her knees doubled up to her chin or stretched so straight that her feet nearly touched the bottom of the bed; on her back with her hands under her neck, or with her face burrowed in the pillow. Nothing helped. Going on in her she could still feel the bumps and lurches of the coach in which she had ridden most of that day. Then the log that had been smouldering in the brick fireplace burnt away in the middle, and collapsed with a crash; and the two ends, rolling together, broke into flames again. These threw shadows which ran about the ceiling, and up and down the white walls, like strange animals.

She was spending the night with Alice, and they had had a fire “just for luxury,” and had sat by it for nearly an hour before going to bed. It would be her last chance of anything like that, Alice said: in schools, you never had fires, and all lights went out to the minute. And their talk had been fearfully interesting. For Alice was in love — she was over seventeen — and had told her about it just as if she was grown up, too; looking into the fire with ever such a funny little smile, and her blue eyes quite small behind their thick, curly lashes.

“Oh, don’t you wish we could see into the future, Trix? And what it’s going to bring us?”

But though she said yes, she wasn’t sure if she did, really; she liked surprises better. Besides, all the last part of the time Alice talked, she had been screwing up her courage to put a question. But she hadn’t managed to get it out. And that was one reason why now she couldn’t sleep.

With a fresh toss, she sighed gustily. And, where her tumblings and fidgetings had failed, this sound called her companion back from the downy meadows.

“What’s the matter, child? Aren’t you asleep yet?”

“No, I simply can’t.”

Alice sat up in bed, and shook her hair back from her face. “You’re over-excited. Try a drink of water.”

“I have. I’ve drunk it all up.”

“Then you must be hungry.”

“Well, yes, I am perhaps . . . a little.”

“Come on then, let’s forage.” And throwing back the sheet, the elder girl slid her feet to the floor.

One tall white figure, one short, they opened the door and stepped out on the verandah.

Here it was almost as bright as day; for the moon hung like a round cheese in the sky, and drenched everything with its light. Barefoot they pattered, the joins in the verandah floor-boards, which had risen, cutting into their soles. Had they to pass open windows, dark holes in which people lay sleeping, Alice laid a finger on her lips. From one of these came the sound of snores — harsh snores of the chromatic kind, which went up the scale and down, over and over again, without a pause.

Turning a corner, they stepped off the verandah and took a few steps on hard pebbly ground. Inside the pantry, which was a large outhouse, there were sharp contrasts of bluish-white moonlight and black shadows.

Swiftly Alice skimmed the familiar shelves. “Here’s lemon cheese-cakes . . . and jam tarts . . . and ginger-snaps . . . and pound cake. But I can’t start you on these, or you’d be sick.” And cutting a round off a home-made loaf, she spread it thickly with dairy butter, topped by a layer of quince jelly. “There, that’s more wholesome.”

Oh, had anything ever tasted so delicious? as this slice eaten at dead of night. Perched on an empty, upturned kerosene-tin, the young girl munched and munched, holding her empty hand outspread below, lest the quivering jelly glide over the crust’s edge.

Alice took a cheese-cake and sat down on a lidded basket. “I say, DID you hear Father? Oh, Trix, wouldn’t it be positively too awful if one discovered AFTERWARDS, one had married a man who snored?”

The muncher made no answer: the indelicacy of the question stunned her: all in the dark as she was, she felt her face flame. And yet . . . was this not perhaps the very chance she had been waiting for? If Alice could say such a thing, out loud, without embarrassment. . . . Hastily squeezing down her last tit-bit — she felt it travel, over-large, the full length of her gullet — she licked her jellied fingers clean and took the plunge.

“Dallie, there’s something I . . . I want to ask you something . . . something I want to know.”

“Fire away!” said Alice, and went on nibbling at the pastry-edging that trimmed her tartlet.

“Yes. But . . . well, I don’t quite . . . I mean I . . .

“Like that, is it? Wait a tick,” and rather more rapidly than she had intended, Alice bolted her luscious circle of lemon-cheese, picked up her basket and planted it beside the tin. “Now then.”

Shut away in this outhouse, the young girl might have cried her words aloud. But leaning over till she found the shell of her friend’s ear, she deposited them safely inside. Alice, who was ticklish, gave an involuntary shudder. But as the sense of the question dawned on her, she sat up very stiff and straight, and echoed perturbed: “HOW? Oh, but Kid, I’m not sure — not at all sure — whether you ought to know. At your age!” said seventeen to thirteen.

“But I must, Dallie.”

“But why, my dear?”

“Because of something Ruth said.”

“Oh, Ruth!” said Alice scornfully. “Trust Ruth for saying the wrong thing. What was it?”

“Why, that . . . now I was growing up . . . was as good as grown up . . . I must take care, for . . . for fear. . . . But, Dallie, how can I? . . . if I don’t know?” This last question came out with a rush, and with a kind of click in the throat.

“Well, well! I always have felt sorry for you children, with no mother but only Ruth to bring you up — and she for ever prinking before her glass. But you know you’ll be perfectly safe at school, Trix. They’ll look after you, never fear!”

But there was more to, come.

It was Ella, it seemed, Ella Morrison, who was two years older than her, who’d begun it. She’d said her mother said now she mustn’t let the boys kiss her any more.

“And you have, eh?”

Trixie’s nod was so small that it had to be guessed at. Haltingly, word by word, the story came out. It had been at Christmas, at a big party, and they were playing games. And she and some others, all boys, had gone off to hide from the rest, and they’d climbed into the hay-loft, Harry MacGillivray among them; and she rather liked Harry, and he liked her, and the other boys knew it and had teased them. And then they said he wasn’t game to kiss her and dared him to. And she didn’t want him to, not a bit . . . or only a teeny weeny bit . . . and anyhow she wasn’t going to let him, there before them all. But the other boys grabbed her, and one held her arms and another her legs and another her neck, so: that he could. And he did — three times — hard. She’d been as angry as anything; she’d hit them all round. But only angry. Afterwards, though . . . when Ellie told her what her mother had said . . . and now Ruth. . ..

But she got no further; for Alice had thrown back her head and was shaking with ill-repressed laughter.,‘Oh, you babe . . . you blessed infant, you! Why, child, there was no more harm in that than . . . well, than in this!” And pulling the girl to her she kissed her soundly, some half-dozen times, with scant pause between. An embarrassing embrace, from which Trixie made uneasy haste to free herself; for Alice was plump, and her nightgown thin.

“No, you can make your little mind easy,” continued the elder girl on recovering her breath. “Larking’s all that was and couldn’t hurt a fly. IT’S WHAT LARKING LEADS TO,” said Alice, and her voice sank, till it was hollow with mystery.

“What does it?”

“Ah!” said Alice in the same sepulchral tone. “You asked me just now how babies came. Well, THAT’S HOW, my dear.”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Come, you’ve read your Bible, haven’t you? The Garden of Eden, and so on? And male and female created He them?”

“But. . .”

“Well, Trix, in MY opinion, you ought to be content with that . . . in the meanwhile. Time enough for more when . . . well, when you’re married, my dear.” Not for the world would Alice have admitted her own lack of preciser knowledge, or have uncovered to the day her private imaginings of the great unknown.

“But suppose I . . . Not EVERY lady gets married, Dallie! And than I’d never know.”

“And wouldn’t need to. But I don’t think there’s much fear of that, Trix! You’re not the stuff old maids are made of,” said Alice sturdily, welcoming the side issue.

Affectionately Trixie snuggled up to her friend. This tribute was most consoling. (How awful should nobody want you, you remain unchosen!) All the same she did not yield; a real worm for knowledge gnawed in her. “Still, I don’t quite see . . . truly I don’t, Dallie . . . how you CAN ‘take care,’ if you don’t know how.”

At this outlandish persistence Alice drew a heavy sigh. “But, child, there’s surely something in you . . . at least if there isn’t there ought to be . . . that tells you what’s skylarking and what isn’t? Just you think of undressing. Suppose you began to take your clothes off in front of somebody, somebody who was a stranger to you, wouldn’t something in you stop you by saying: it isn’t done, it’s not NICE?”

“Gracious, yes!” cried Trixie hotly. “I should think so indeed!” (Though she could not imagine herself BEGINNING.) But here, for some reason, what Alice had said about a husband who snored came back to her, and got tangled up with the later question. “But, Dallie, you have to . . . do that, take your clothes off . . . haven’t you? . . . if you . . . sleep in the same bed with somebody,” was what she wanted to say, but the words simply would not come out.

Alice understood. “But ONLY if you’re married, Trixie! And then, it’s different. Then everything’s allowed, my dear. If once you’re married, it doesn’t matter what you do.”

“Oh, doesn’t it?” echoed Trixie feebly, and her cheeks turned so hot that they scorched. For at Alice’s words horrid things, things she was ashamed even to think, came rushing into her mind, upsetting everything she had been taught or told since she was a little child. But SHE wouldn’t be like that, no, never, no matter how much she was married; there would always be something in HER that would say “don’t, it’s not nice.”

A silence followed, in which she could hear her own heart beating. Then, out of a kind of despair, she asked: “Oh, WHY are men and women, Dallie? Why have they got to be?”

“Well now, really’!” said Alice, startled and sincerely shocked. “I hope to goodness you’re not going to turn irreligious, and begin criticising what God has done and how He’s made us?”

“Of course not! I know everything He does is right,” vowed Trixie, the more hotly because she couldn’t down the naughty thought: if He’s got all that power, then I don’t see why He couldn’t have arranged things differently, let them happen without . . . well, without all this bother . . . and so many things you weren’t supposed to know . . . and what you were allowed to, so . . . so unpleasant. Yes, it WAS unpleasant, when you thought of undressing . . . and the snores . . . and — and everything.

And then quite suddenly and disconcertingly came a memory of Alice sitting looking into the fire, telling about her sweetheart. She had never known before that Alice was so pretty, with dimples round her mouth, and her eyes all shady. Oh, could it mean that . . . yes, it must: Alice simply didn’t MIND.

Almost as if this thought had passed to her, Alice said: “Just you wait till you fall in love, Trix, and then it’ll be different — as different as chalk from cheese. Then you’ll be only too glad, my dear, that we’re not all the same — all men or all women. Love’s something that goes right through you, child, I couldn’t even begin to describe it — and you wouldn’t understand it if I did — but once you’re in love, you can’t think of anything else, and it gives you such a strange feeling here that it almost chokes you!”— and laying one hand over the other on the place where she believed her heart to be, Alice pressed hard. “Why, only to be in the same room with him makes you happy, and if you know he’s feeling the same, and that he likes to look at you and to hold your hand — oh, Trix, it’s just Heaven!”

I do believe she’d even like him snoring, thought Trixie in dismay. (But perhaps it was only OLD men who snored.) Confused and depressed, she could not think of anything to reply. Alice did not speak again either, and there was a long silence, in which, though it was too dark to see her, Trixie guessed she would have the same funny little smile round her mouth and the same funny half-shut eyes, from thinking about George. Oh dear! what a muddle everything was.

“But come!” cried Alice, starting up from her dreams. “To bed and to sleep with you, young woman, or we shall never get you up in time for the morning coach. Help yourself to a couple of cheese-cakes . . . we can eat them as we go.”

Tartlets in hand, back they stole along the moon-blanched verandah; back past the row of dark windows, past the chromatic snores — to Trixie’s ears these had now a strange and sinister significance — guided by a moon which, riding at the top of the sky, had shrunk to the size of a pippin.


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