Richmond Read-along 31
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s story is from Katherine Mansfield. Born and raised in New Zealand, Mansfield came to London at a young age and spent much of her short life travelling around France and Switzerland. She suffered greatly from the tuberculosis that would kill her when she was only 34, and much of her travels were an attempt to prolong her life by chasing warm weather and trying often unconventional treatments. She became close with many of the great literary figures of the day, including the Bloomsbury set, and even briefly lived with D. H. Lawrence and their respective partners. She had a close and jealous friendship with Virgina Woolf; both of them admired the other’s writing, and Woolf’s Hogarth Press published “Prelude,” one of Mansfield’s most highly regarded stories.
Despite feeling like she was racing time and had only just begun her career as a writer by her death, Mansfield’s writing had a profound and lasting influence. Her short stories are considered novel and masterful feats of early modernism. She shunned traditional narrative structures with clear endings and morals in preference of snapshots of events and people, in an attempt to more faithfully recreate life. Her stories are captivating, occasionally bordering on the surreal, and they have made her arguably New Zealand’s best known writer.
He really was an impossible person. Too shy altogether. With absolutely nothing to say for himself. And such a weight. Once he was in your studio he never knew when to go, but would sit on and on until you nearly screamed, and burned to throw something enormous after him when he did finally blush his way out — something like the tortoise stove. The strange thing was that at first sight he looked most interesting. Everybody agreed about that. You would drift into the café one evening and there you would see, sitting in a corner, with a glass of coffee in front of him, a thin, dark boy, wearing a blue jersey with a little grey flannel jacket buttoned over it. And somehow that blue jersey and the grey jacket with the sleeves that were too short gave him the air of a boy that has made up his mind to run away to sea. Who has run away, in fact, and will get up in a moment and sling a knotted handkerchief containing his nightshirt and his mother’s picture on the end of a stick, and walk out into the night and be drowned… Stumble over the wharf edge on his way to the ship, even… He had black close-cropped hair, grey eyes with long lashes, white cheeks and a mouth pouting as though he were determined not to cry… How could one resist him? Oh, one’s heart was wrung at sight. And, as if that were not enough, there was his trick of blushing… Whenever the waiter came near him he turned crimson — he might have been just out of prison and the waiter in the know…
“Who is he, my dear? Do you know?”
“Yes. His name is Ian French. Painter. Awfully clever, they say. Someone started by giving him a mother’s tender care. She asked him how often he heard from home, whether he had enough blankets on his bed, how much milk he drank a day. But when she went round to his studio to give an eye to his socks, she rang and rang, and though she could have sworn she heard someone breathing inside, the door was not answered… Hopeless!”
Someone else decided that he ought to fall in love. She summoned him to her side, called him “boy,” leaned over him so that he might smell the enchanting perfume of her hair, took his arm, told him how marvellous life could be if one only had the courage, and went round to his studio one evening and rang and rang… Hopeless.
“What the poor boy really wants is thoroughly rousing,” said a third. So off they went to cafés and cabarets, little dances, places where you drank something that tasted like tinned apricot juice, but cost twenty-seven shillings a bottle and was called champagne, other places, too thrilling for words, where you sat in the most awful gloom, and where some one had always been shot the night before. But he did not turn a hair. Only once he got very drunk, but instead of blossoming forth, there he sat, stony, with two spots of red on his cheeks, like, my dear, yes, the dead image of that ragtime thing they were playing, like a “Broken Doll.” But when she took him back to his studio he had quite recovered, and said “good night” to her in the street below, as though they had walked home from church together… Hopeless.
After heaven knows how many more attempts — for the spirit of kindness dies very hard in women — they gave him up. Of course, they were still perfectly charming, and asked him to their shows, and spoke to him in the café, but that was all. When one is an artist one has no time simply for people who won’t respond. Has one?
“And besides I really think there must be something rather fishy somewhere… don’t you? It can’t all be as innocent as it looks! Why come to Paris if you want to be a daisy in the field? No, I’m not suspicious. But—”
He lived at the top of a tall mournful building overlooking the river. One of those buildings that look so romantic on rainy nights and moonlight nights, when the shutters are shut, and the heavy door, and the sign advertising “a little apartment to let immediately” gleams forlorn beyond words. One of those buildings that smell so unromantic all the year round, and where the concierge lives in a glass cage on the ground floor, wrapped up in a filthy shawl, stirring something in a saucepan and ladling out tit-bits to the swollen old dog lolling on a bead cushion… Perched up in the air the studio had a wonderful view. The two big windows faced the water; he could see the boats and the barges swinging up and down, and the fringe of an island planted with trees, like a round bouquet. The side window looked across to another house, shabbier still and smaller, and down below there was a flower market. You could see the tops of huge umbrellas, with frills of bright flowers escaping from them, booths covered with striped awning where they sold plants in boxes and clumps of wet gleaming palms in terra-cotta jars. Among the flowers the old women scuttled from side to side, like crabs. Really there was no need for him to go out. If he sat at the window until his white beard fell over the sill he still would have found something to draw…
How surprised those tender women would have been if they had managed to force the door. For he kept his studio as neat as a pin. Everything was arranged to form a pattern, a little “still life” as it were — the saucepans with their lids on the wall behind the gas stove, the bowl of eggs, milk jug and teapot on the shelf, the books and the lamp with the crinkly paper shade on the table. An Indian curtain that had a fringe of red leopards marching round it covered his bed by day, and on the wall beside the bed on a level with your eyes when you were lying down there was a small neatly printed notice: GET UP AT ONCE.
Every day was much the same. While the light was good he slaved at his painting, then cooked his meals and tidied up the place. And in the evenings he went off to the café, or sat at home reading or making out the most complicated list of expenses headed: “What I ought to be able to do it on,” and ending with a sworn statement… “I swear not to exceed this amount for next month. Signed, Ian French.”
Nothing very fishy about this; but those far-seeing women were quite right. It wasn’t all.
One evening he was sitting at the side window eating some prunes and throwing the stones on to the tops of the huge umbrellas in the deserted flower market. It had been raining — the first real spring rain of the year had fallen — a bright spangle hung on everything, and the air smelled of buds and moist earth. Many voices sounding languid and content rang out in the dusky air, and the people who had come to close their windows and fasten the shutters leaned out instead. Down below in the market the trees were peppered with new green. What kind of trees were they? he wondered. And now came the lamplighter. He stared at the house across the way, the small, shabby house, and suddenly, as if in answer to his gaze, two wings of windows opened and a girl came out on to the tiny balcony carrying a pot of daffodils. She was a strangely thin girl in a dark pinafore, with a pink handkerchief tied over her hair. Her sleeves were rolled up almost to her shoulders and her slender arms shone against the dark stuff.
“Yes, it is quite warm enough. It will do them good,” she said, putting down the pot and turning to some one in the room inside. As she turned she put her hands up to the handkerchief and tucked away some wisps of hair. She looked down at the deserted market and up at the sky, but where he sat there might have been a hollow in the air. She simply did not see the house opposite. And then she disappeared.
His heart fell out of the side window of his studio, and down to the balcony of the house opposite — buried itself in the pot of daffodils under the half-opened buds and spears of green… That room with the balcony was the sitting-room, and the one next door to it was the kitchen. He heard the clatter of the dishes as she washed up after supper, and then she came to the window, knocked a little mop against the ledge, and hung it on a nail to dry. She never sang or unbraided her hair, or held out her arms to the moon as young girls are supposed to do. And she always wore the same dark pinafore and the pink handkerchief over her hair… Whom did she live with? Nobody else came to those two windows, and yet she was always talking to some one in the room. Her mother, he decided, was an invalid. They took in sewing. The father was dead… He had been a journalist — very pale, with long moustaches, and a piece of black hair falling over his forehead.
By working all day they just made enough money to live on, but they never went out and they had no friends. Now when he sat down at his table he had to make an entirely new set of sworn statements… Not to go to the side window before a certain hour: signed, Ian French. Not to think about her until he had put away his painting things for the day: signed, Ian French.
It was quite simple. She was the only person he really wanted to know, because she was, he decided, the only other person alive who was just his age. He couldn’t stand giggling girls, and he had no use for grown-up women… She was his age, she was — well, just like him. He sat in his dusky studio, tired, with one arm hanging over the back of his chair, staring in at her window and seeing himself in there with her. She had a violent temper; they quarrelled terribly at times, he and she. She had a way of stamping her foot and twisting her hands in her pinafore… furious. And she very rarely laughed. Only when she told him about an absurd little kitten she once had who used to roar and pretend to be a lion when it was given meat to eat. Things like that made her laugh… But as a rule they sat together very quietly; he, just as he was sitting now, and she with her hands folded in her lap and her feet tucked under, talking in low tones, or silent and tired after the day’s work. Of course, she never asked him about his pictures, and of course he made the most wonderful drawings of her which she hated, because he made her so thin and so dark… But how could he get to know her? This might go on for years…
Then he discovered that once a week, in the evenings, she weent out shopping. On two successive Thursdays she came to the window wearing an old-fashioned cape over the pinafore, and carrying a basket. From where he sat he could not see the door of her house, but on the next Thursday evening at the same time he snatched up his cap and ran down the stairs. There was a lovely pink light over everything. He saw it glowing in the river, and the people walking towards him had pink faces and pink hands.
He leaned against the side of his house waiting for her and he had no idea of what he was going to do or say. “Here she comes,” said a voice in his head. She walked very quickly, with small, light steps; with one hand she carried the basket, with the other she kept the cape together… What could he do? He could only follow… First she went into the grocer’s and spent a long time in there, and then she went into the butcher’s where she had to wait her turn. Then she was an age at the draper’s matching something, and then she went to the fruit shop and bought a lemon. As he watched her he knew more surely than ever he must get to know her, now. Her composure, her seriousness and her loneliness, the very way she walked as though she was eager to be done with this world of grown-ups all was so natural to him and so inevitable.
“Yes, she is always like that,” he thought proudly. “We have nothing to do with these people.”
But now she was on her way home and he was as far off as ever… She suddenly turned into the dairy and he saw her through the window buying an egg. She picked it out of the basket with such care — a brown one, a beautifully shaped one, the one he would have chosen. And when she came out of the dairy he went in after her. In a moment he was out again, and following her past his house across the flower market, dodging among the huge umbrellas and treading on the fallen flowers and the round marks where the pots had stood… Through her door he crept, and up the stairs after, taking care to tread in time with her so that she should not notice. Finally, she stopped on the landing, and took the key out of her purse. As she put it into the door he ran up and faced her.
Blushing more crimson than ever, but looking at her severely he said, almost angrily: “Excuse me, Mademoiselle, you dropped this.”
And he handed her an egg.
You can find this story, and many others by Mansfield, at the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. Members of Richmond upon Thames Libraries can read about Mansfield’s life, travels and connections in her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by Claire Tomalin.
Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!