Slowly, amidst intolerable noises from, on the one hand the street and, on the other, from the large and voluminously echoing playground, the depths of the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago it had used to have—of being a part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny.
The telephone, for some ingeniously torturing reason, was in a corner of the great schoolroom without any protection and, called imperatively, at a moment of considerable suspense, out of the asphalte playground where, under her command ranks of girls had stood electrically only just within the margin of control, Valentine with the receiver at her ear was plunged immediately into incomprehensible news uttered by a voice that she seemed half to remember. Right in the middle of a sentence it hit her:
"… that he ought presumably to be under control, which you mightn't like!"; after that the noise burst out again and rendered the voice inaudible.
It occurred to her that probably at that minute the whole population of the world needed to be under control; she knew she herself did. But she had no male relative that the verdict could apply to in especial. Her brother? But he was on a minesweeper. In dock at the moment. And now... safe for good! There was also an aged great uncle that she had never seen. Dean of somewhere... Hereford? Exeter?... Somewhere... Had she just said safe? She was shaken with joy!
She said into the mouthpiece:
"Valentine Wannop speaking... Physical Instructress at this school, you know!"
She had to present an appearance of sanity... a sane voice at the very least!
The tantalisingly half-remembered voice in the telephone now got in some more incomprehensibilities. It came as if from caverns and as if with exasperated rapidity it exaggerated its s 's with an effect of spitting vehemence.
"His brothers.s.s got pneumonia, so his mistress.ss.ss even is unavailable to look after..."
The voice disappeared; then it emerged again with:
"They're said to be friends now!"
It was drowned then, for a long period in a sea of shrill girl's voices from the playground, in an ocean of factory-hooters' ululations, amongst innumerable explosions that trod upon one another's heels. From where on earth did they get explosives, the population of squalid suburban streets amidst which the school lay? For the matter of that where did they get the spirits to make such an appalling row? Pretty drab people! Inhabiting liver-coloured boxes. Not on the face of it an imperial race.
The sibilating voice in the telephone went on spitting out spitefully that the porter said he had no furniture at all; that he did not appear to recognise the porter... Improbable sounding pieces of information half-extinguished by the external sounds but uttered in a voice that seemed to mean to give pain by what it said.
Nevertheless it was impossible not to take it gaily. The thing, out there, miles and miles away must have been signed—a few minutes ago. She imagined along an immense line sullen and disgruntled cannon sounding for a last time.
"I haven't," Valentine Wannop shouted into the mouthpiece, "the least idea of what you want or who you are."
She got back a title... Lady someone or other... It might have been Blastus. She imagined that one of the lady governoresses of the school must be wanting to order something in the way of school sports organised to celebrate the auspicious day. A lady governoress or other was always wanting something done by the School to celebrate something. No doubt the Head who was not wanting in a sense of humour—not absolutely wanting!—had turned this lady of title on to Valentine Wannop after having listened with patience to her for half an hour. The Head had certainly sent out to where in the playground they all had stood breathless, to tell Valentine Wannop that there was someone on the telephone that she—Miss Wanostrocht, the said Head—thought that she, Miss Wannop, ought to listen to... Then: Miss Wanostrocht must have been able to distinguish what had been said by the now indistinguishable lady of title. But of course that had been ten minutes ago... Before the maroons or the sirens, whichever it had been, had sounded... "The porter said he had no furniture at all... He did not appear to recognise the porter... Ought presumably to be under control!"... Valentine's mind thus recapitulated the information that she had from Lady (provisionally) Blastus. She imagined now that the Lady must be concerned for the superannuated drill-sergeant the school had had before it had acquired her, Valentine, as physical instructor. She figured to herself the venerable, mumbling gentleman, with several ribbons on a black commissionaire's tunic. In an almshouse, probably. Placed there by the Governors of the school. Had pawned his furniture no doubt...
Intense heat possessed Valentine Wannop. She imagined indeed her eyes flashing. Was this the moment?
She didn't even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened—the noise, whatever it was—whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting: girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole...
Then... For the rest of her life she was never to be able to remember the greatest stab of joy that had ever been known by waiting millions. There would be no one but she who would not be able to remember that... Probably a stirring of the heart that was like a stab; probably a catching of the breath that was like an inhalation of flame!... It was over now; they were by now in a situation; a condition, something that would affect certain things in certain ways...
She remembered that the putative ex-drill sergeant had a brother who had pneumonia and thus an unavailable mistress...
She was about to say to herself:
"That's just my luck!" when she remembered good-humouredly that her luck was not like that at all. On the whole she had had good luck—ups and downs. A good deal of anxiety at one time—but who hadn't had! But good health; a mother with good health; a brother safe... Anxieties, yes! But nothing that had gone so very wrong...
This then was an exceptional stroke of bad luck! Might it be no omen—to the effect that things in future would go wrong: to the effect that she would miss other universal experiences. Never marry, say; or never know the joy of childbearing: if it was a joy! Perhaps it was; perhaps it wasn't. One said one thing, one another. At any rate might it not be an omen that she would miss some universal and necessary experience!... Never see Carcassonne, the French said... Perhaps she would never see the Mediterranean. You could not be a proper man if you had never seen the Mediterranean: the sea of Tibullus, of the Anthologists, of Sappho, even... Blue: incredibly blue!
People would be able to travel now. It was incredible! Incredible! Incredible! But you could. Next week you would be able to! You could call a taxi? And go to Charing Cross! And have a porter! A whole porter!... The wings, the wings of a dove: then would I flee away, flee away and eat pomegranates beside an infinite wash tub of Reckitt's blue. Incredible, but you could!
She felt eighteen again. Cocky! She said, using the good, metallic, Cockney bottoms of her lungs that she had used for shouting back at interrupters at Suffrage meetings before... before this... she shouted blatantly into the telephone:
"I say, whoever you are! I suppose they have done it; did they announce it in your parts by maroons or sirens?" She repeated it three times, she did not care for Lady Blastus or Lady Blast Anybody else. She was going to leave that old school and eat pomegranates in the shadow of the rock where Penelope, wife of Ulysses, did her washing. With lashings of blue in the water! Was all your underlinen bluish in those parts owing to the colour of the sea? She could! She could! She could! Go with her mother and brother and all to where you could eat... Oh new potatoes! In December, the sea being blue... What songs the Sirens sang and whether...
She was not going to show respect for any Lady anything ever again. She had had to hitherto, independent young woman of means though she were, so as not to damage the School and Miss Wanostrocht with the Governoresses. Now... She was never going to show respect for anyone ever again. She had been through the mill: the whole world had been through the mill! No more respect!
As she might have expected she got it in the neck immediately afterwards—for over cockiness!
The hissing, bitter voice from the telephone enunciated the one address she did not want to hear:
Sin!... Like the Devil!
The cruel voice said:
"I'm s.s.peaking from there!"
Valentine said courageously:
"Well; it's a great day. I suppose you're bothered by the cheering like me. I can't hear what you want. I don't care. Let 'em cheer!"
She felt like that. She should not have.
The voice said:
"You remember your Carlyle..."
It was exactly what she did not want to hear. With the receiver hard at her ear she looked round at the great schoolroom—the Hall, made to let a thousand girls sit silent while the Head made the speeches that were the note of the School. Repressive!... The place was like a noncomformist chapel. High, bare walls with Gothic windows running up to a pitch-pine varnished roof. Repression, the note of the place; the place, the very place not to be in today... You ought to be in the streets, hitting policemen's helmets with bladders. This was Cockney London: that was how Cockney London expressed itself. Hit policemen innocuously because policemen were stiff, embarrassed at these tributes of affection, swayed in rejoicing mobs over whose heads they looked remotely, like poplar trees jostled by vulgarer vegetables!
But she was there, being reminded of the dyspepsia of Thomas Carlyle!
" Oh! " she exclaimed into the instrument, "You're Edith Ethel!" Edith Ethel Duchemin, now of course Lady Macmaster! But you weren't used to thinking of her as Lady Somebody.
The last person in the world: the very last! Because, long ago she had made up her mind that it was all over between herself and Edith Ethel. She certainly could not make any advance to the ennobled personage who vindictively disapproved of all things made—with a black thought in a black shade, as you might say. Of all things that were not being immediately useful to Edith Ethel!
And, aesthetically draped and meagre, she had sets of quotations for appropriate occasions. Rossetti for Love; Browning for optimism—not frequent that: Walter Savage Landor to show acquaintance with more esoteric prose. And the unfailing quotation from Carlyle for damping off saturnalia: for New Year's Day, Te Deums, Victories, anniversaries, celebrations... It was coming over the wire now, that quotation:
"... And then I remembered that it was the birthday of their Redeemer!"
How well Valentine knew it: how often with spiteful conceit had not Edith Ethel intoned that. A passage from the diary of the Sage of Chelsea who lived near the Barracks.
"Today," the quotation ran, "I saw that the soldiers by the public house at the corner were more than usually drunk. And then I remembered that it was the birthday of their Redeemer!"
How superior of the Sage of Chelsea not to remember till then that that had been Christmas Day! Edith Ethel, too, was trying to show how superior she was. She wanted to prove that until she, Valentine Wannop, had reminded her, Lady Macmaster, that that day had about it something of the popularly festival she, Lady Mac, had been unaware of the fact. Really quite unaware, you know. She lived in her rapt seclusion along with Sir Vincent—the critic, you know: their eyes fixed on the higher things, they disregarded maroons and had really a quite remarkable collection, by now, of first editions, official-titled friends and At Homes to their credit.
Yet Valentine remembered that once she had sat at the feet of the darkly mysterious Edith Ethel Duchemin—Where had that all gone?—and had sympathised with her marital martyrdoms, her impressive taste in furniture, her large rooms and her spiritual adulteries. So she said good-humouredly to the instrument:
"Aren't you just the same, Edith Ethel? And what can I do for you?"
The good-natured patronage in her tone astonished her, and she was astonished, too, at the ease with which she spoke. Then she realised that the noises had been going away: silence was falling: the cries receded. They were going towards a cumulation at a distance. The girls' voices in the playground no longer existed: the Head must have let them go. Naturally, too, the local population wasn't going to go on letting off crackers in side streets... She was alone: cloistered with the utterly improbable!
Lady Macmaster had sought her out and here was she, Valentine Wannop; patronising Lady Macmaster! Why? What could Lady Macmaster want her to do? She couldn't —But of course she jolly well could!—be thinking of being unfaithful to Macmaster and be wanting her, Valentine Wannop, to play the innocent, the virginal gooseberry or Disciple. Or alibi. Whatever it was. Goose was the most appropriate word... Obviously Macmaster was the sort of person to whom any Lady Macmaster would want—would have—to be unfaithful. A little, dark-bearded, drooping, deprecatory fellow. A typical Critic! All Critic's wives were probably unfaithful to them. They lacked the creative gift. What did you call it? A word unfit for a young lady to use!