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Malvina of Brittany by Jerome K. Jerome

Part 4 out of 4

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then, with the whimsical smile that she felt belonged to Sylvia, she
would remark quite simply, "Well, what have you got to say to her?"

What had happened to interfere with the programme was Ann Kavanagh.
It seemed that Ann Kavanagh had disliked Matthew Pole less than she
had thought she did. It was after he had sailed away that little
Ann Kavanagh had discovered this. If only he had shown a little
more interest in, a little more appreciation of, Ann Kavanagh! He
could be kind and thoughtful in a patronising sort of way. Even
that would not have mattered if there had been any justification for
his airs of superiority.

Ann Kavanagh, who ought to have taken a back seat on this occasion,
had persisted in coming to the front. It was so like her.

"Well," she said, "what are you going to say to her?" She did get
it in, after all.

"I was going," said Matthew, "to talk to her about Art and
Literature, touching, maybe, upon a few other subjects. Also, I
might have suggested our seeing each other again once or twice, just
to get better acquainted. And then I was going away."

"Why going away?" asked Ann.

"To see if I could forget you."

She turned to him. The fading light was full upon her face.

"I don't believe you could--again," she said.

"No," he agreed. "I'm afraid I couldn't."

"You're sure there's nobody else," said Ann, "that you're in love
with. Only us two?"

"Only you two," he said.

She was standing with her hand on old Abner's empty chair. "You've
got to choose," she said. She was trembling. Her voice sounded
just a little hard.

He came and stood beside her. "I want Ann," he said.

She held out her hand to him.

"I'm so glad you said Ann," she laughed.

THE FAWN GLOVES.

Always he remembered her as he saw her first: the little spiritual
face, the little brown shoes pointed downwards, their toes just
touching the ground; the little fawn gloves folded upon her lap. He
was not conscious of having noticed her with any particular
attention: a plainly dressed, childish-looking figure alone on a
seat between him and the setting sun. Even had he felt curious his
shyness would have prevented his deliberately running the risk of
meeting her eyes. Yet immediately he had passed her he saw her
again, quite clearly: the pale oval face, the brown shoes, and,
between them, the little fawn gloves folded one over the other. All
down the Broad Walk and across Primrose Hill, he saw her silhouetted
against the sinking sun. At least that much of her: the wistful
face and the trim brown shoes and the little folded hands; until the
sun went down behind the high chimneys of the brewery beyond Swiss
Cottage, and then she faded.

She was there again the next evening, precisely in the same place.
Usually he walked home by the Hampstead Road. Only occasionally,
when the beauty of the evening tempted him, would he take the longer
way by Regent Street and through the Park. But so often it made him
feel sad, the quiet Park, forcing upon him the sense of his own
loneliness.

He would walk down merely as far as the Great Vase, so he arranged
with himself. If she were not there--it was not likely that she
would be--he would turn back into Albany Street. The newsvendors'
shops with their display of the cheaper illustrated papers, the
second-hand furniture dealers with their faded engravings and old
prints, would give him something to look at, to take away his
thoughts from himself. But seeing her in the distance, almost the
moment he had entered the gate, it came to him how disappointed he
would have been had the seat in front of the red tulip bed been
vacant. A little away from her he paused, turning to look at the
flowers. He thought that, waiting his opportunity, he might be able
to steal a glance at her undetected. Once for a moment he did so,
but venturing a second time their eyes met, or he fancied they did,
and blushing furiously he hurried past. But again she came with
him, or, rather, preceded him. On each empty seat between him and
the sinking sun he saw her quite plainly: the pale oval face and
the brown shoes, and, between them, the fawn gloves folded one upon
the other.

Only this evening, about the small, sensitive mouth there seemed to
be hovering just the faintest suggestion of a timid smile. And this
time she lingered with him past Queen's Crescent and the Malden
Road, till he turned into Carlton Street. It was dark in the
passage, and he had to grope his way up the stairs, but with his
hand on the door of the bed-sitting room on the third floor he felt
less afraid of the solitude that would rise to meet him.

All day long in the dingy back office in Abingdon Street,
Westminster, where from ten to six each day he sat copying briefs
and petitions, he thought over what he would say to her; tactful
beginnings by means of which he would slide into conversation with
her. Up Portland Place he would rehearse them to himself. But at
Cambridge Gate, when the little fawn gloves came in view, the words
would run away, to join him again maybe at the gate into the Chester
Road, leaving him meanwhile to pass her with stiff, hurried steps
and eyes fixed straight in front of him. And so it might have
continued, but that one evening she was no longer at her usual seat.
A crowd of noisy children swarmed over it, and suddenly it seemed to
him as if the trees and flowers had all turned drab. A terror
gnawed at his heart, and he hurried on, more for the need of
movement than with any definite object. And just beyond a bed of
geraniums that had hidden his view she was seated on a chair, and
stopping with a jerk absolutely in front of her, he said, quite
angrily:

"Oh! there you are!"

Which was not a bit the speech with which he had intended to
introduce himself, but served his purpose just as well--perhaps
better.

She did not resent his words or the tone.

"It was the children," she explained. "They wanted to play; so I
thought I would come on a little farther."

Upon which, as a matter of course, he took the chair beside her, and
it did not occur to either of them that they had not known one
another since the beginning, when between St. John's Wood and Albany
Street God planted a garden.

Each evening they would linger there, listening to the pleading
passion of the blackbird's note, the thrush's call to joy and hope.
He loved her gentle ways. From the bold challenges, the sly glances
of invitation flashed upon him in the street or from some
neighbouring table in the cheap luncheon room he had always shrunk
confused and awkward. Her shyness gave him confidence. It was she
who was half afraid, whose eyes would fall beneath his gaze, who
would tremble at his touch, giving him the delights of manly
dominion, of tender authority. It was he who insisted on the
aristocratic seclusion afforded by the private chair; who, with the
careless indifference of a man to whom pennies were unimportant,
would pay for them both. Once on his way through Piccadilly Circus
he had paused by the fountain to glance at a great basket of lilies
of the valley, struck suddenly by the thought how strangely their
little pale petals seemed suggestive of her.

"'Ere y' are, honey. Her favourite flower!" cried the girl, with a
grin, holding a bunch towards him.

"How much?" he had asked, vainly trying to keep the blood from
rushing to his face.

The girl paused a moment, a coarse, kindly creature.

"Sixpence," she demanded; and he bought them. She had meant to ask
him a shilling, and knew he would have paid it. "Same as silly
fool!" she called herself as she pocketed the money.

He gave them to her with a fine lordly air, and watched her while
she pinned them to her blouse, and a squirrel halting in the middle
of the walk watched her also with his head on one side, wondering
what was the good of them that she should store them with so much
care. She did not thank him in words, but there were tears in her
eyes when she turned her face to his, and one of the little fawn
gloves stole out and sought his hand. He took it in both his, and
would have held it, but she withdrew it almost hurriedly.

They appealed to him, her gloves, in spite of their being old and
much mended; and he was glad they were of kid. Had they been of
cotton, such as girls of her class usually wore, the thought of
pressing his lips to them would have put his teeth on edge. He
loved the little brown shoes, that must have been expensive when
new, for they still kept their shape. And the fringe of dainty
petticoat, always so spotless and with never a tear, and the neat,
plain stockings that showed below the closely fitting frock. So
often he had noticed girls, showily, extravagantly dressed, but with
red bare hands and sloppy shoes. Handsome girls, some of them,
attractive enough if you were not of a finicking nature, to whom the
little accessories are almost of more importance than the whole.

He loved her voice, so different from the strident tones that every
now and then, as some couple, laughing and talking, passed them,
would fall upon him almost like a blow; her quick, graceful
movements that always brought back to his memory the vision of hill
and stream. In her little brown shoes and gloves and the frock
which was also of a shade of brown though darker, she was strangely
suggestive to him of a fawn. The gentle look, the swift, soft
movements that have taken place before they are seen; the haunting
suggestion of fear never quite conquered, as if the little nervous
limbs were always ready for sudden flight. He called her that one
day. Neither of them had ever thought to ask one another's names;
it did not seem to matter.

"My little brown fawn," he had whispered, "I am always expecting you
to suddenly dig your little heels into the ground and spring away";
and she had laughed and drawn a little closer to him. And even that
was just the movement of a fawn. He had known them, creeping near
to them upon the hill-sides when he was a child.

There was much in common between them, so they found. Though he
could claim a few distant relatives scattered about the North, they
were both, for all practical purposes, alone in the world. To her,
also, home meant a bed-sitting room--"over there," as she indicated
with a wave of the little fawn glove embracing the north-west
district generally; and he did not press her for any more precise
address.

It was easy enough for him to picture it: the mean, close-smelling
street somewhere in the neighbourhood of Lisson Grove, or farther on
towards the Harrow Road. Always he preferred to say good-bye to her
at some point in the Outer Circle, with its peaceful vista of fine
trees and stately houses, watching her little fawn-like figure
fading away into the twilight.

No friend or relative had she ever known, except the pale,
girlish-looking mother who had died soon after they had come to
London. The elderly landlady had let her stay on, helping in the
work of the house; and when even this last refuge had failed her,
well-meaning folk had interested themselves and secured her
employment. It was light and fairly well paid, but there were
objections to it, so he gathered, more from her halting silences
than from what she said. She had tried for a time to find something
else, but it was so difficult without help or resources. There was
nothing really to complain about it, except-- And then she paused
with a sudden clasp of the gloved hands, and, seeing the troubled
look in her eyes, he had changed the conversation.

It did not matter; he would take her away from it. It was very
sweet to him, the thought of putting a protective arm about this
little fragile creature whose weakness gave him strength. He was
not always going to be a clerk in an office. He was going to write
poetry, books, plays. Already he had earned a little. He told her
of his hopes, and her great faith in him gave him new courage. One
evening, finding a seat where few people ever passed, he read to
her. And she had understood. All unconsciously she laughed in the
right places, and when his own voice trembled, and he found it
difficult to continue for the lump in his own throat, glancing at
her he saw the tears were in her eyes. It was the first time he had
tasted sympathy.

And so spring grew to summer. And then one evening a great thing
happened. He could not make out at first what it was about her:
some little added fragrance that made itself oddly felt, while she
herself seemed to be conscious of increased dignity. It was not
until he took her hand to say good-bye that he discovered it. There
was something different about the feel of her, and, looking down at
the little hand that lay in his, he found the reason. She had on a
pair of new gloves. They were still of the same fawn colour, but so
smooth and soft and cool. They fitted closely without a wrinkle,
displaying the slightness and the gracefulness of the hands beneath.
The twilight had almost faded, and, save for the broad back of a
disappearing policeman, they had the Outer Circle to themselves;
and, the sudden impulse coming to him, he dropped on one knee, as
they do in plays and story books and sometimes elsewhere, and
pressed the little fawn gloves to his lips in a long, passionate
kiss. The sound of approaching footsteps made him rise hurriedly.
She did not move, but her whole body was trembling, and in her eyes
was a look that was almost of fear. The approaching footsteps came
nearer, but a bend of the road still screened them. Swiftly and in
silence she put her arms about his neck and kissed him. It was a
strange, cold kiss, but almost fierce, and then without a word she
turned and walked away; and he watched her to the corner of Hanover
Gate, but she did not look back.

It was almost as if it had raised a barrier between them, that kiss.
The next evening she came to meet him with a smile as usual, but in
her eyes was still that odd suggestion of lurking fear; and when,
seated beside her, he put his hand on hers it seemed to him she
shrank away from him. It was an unconscious movement. It brought
back to him that haunting memory of hill and stream when some soft-
eyed fawn, strayed from her fellows, would let him approach quite
close to her, and then, when he put out his hand to caress her,
would start away with a swift, quivering movement.

"Do you always wear gloves?" he asked her one evening a little
later.

"Yes," she answered, speaking low; "when I'm out of doors."

"But this is not out of doors," he had pleaded. "We have come into
the garden. Won't you take them off?"

She had looked at him from under bent brows, as if trying to read
him. She did not answer him then. But on the way out, on the last
seat close to the gate, she had sat down, motioning him to sit
beside her. Quietly she unbuttoned the fawn gloves; drew each one
off and laid them aside. And then, for the first time, he saw her
hands.

Had he looked at her, seen the faint hope die out, the mute agony in
the quiet eyes watching him, he would have tried to hide the
disgust, the physical repulsion that showed itself so plainly in his
face, in the involuntary movement with which he drew away from her.
They were small and shapely with rounded curves, but raw and seared
as with hot irons, with a growth of red, angry-coloured warts, and
the nails all worn away.

"I ought to have shown them to you before," she said simply as she
drew the gloves on again. "It was silly of me. I ought to have
known."

He tried to comfort her, but his phrases came meaningless and
halting.

It was the work, she explained as they walked on. It made your
hands like that after a time. If only she could have got out of it
earlier! But now! It was no good worrying about it now.

They parted near to the Hanover Gate, but to-night he did not stand
watching her as he had always done till she waved a last good-bye to
him just before disappearing; so whether she turned or not he never
knew.

He did not go to meet her the next evening. A dozen times his
footsteps led him unconsciously almost to the gate. Then he would
hurry away again, pace the mean streets, jostling stupidly against
the passers-by. The pale, sweet face, the little nymph-like figure,
the little brown shoes kept calling to him. If only there would
pass away the horror of those hands! All the artist in him
shuddered at the memory of them. Always he had imagined them under
the neat, smooth gloves as fitting in with all the rest of her,
dreaming of the time when he would hold them in his own, caressing
them, kissing them. Would it be possible to forget them, to
reconcile oneself to them? He must think--must get away from these
crowded streets where faces seemed to grin at him. He remembered
that Parliament had just risen, that work was slack in the office.
He would ask that he might take his holiday now--the next day. And
they had agreed.

He packed a few things into a knapsack. From the voices of the
hills and streams he would find counsel.

He took no count of his wanderings. One evening at a lonely inn he
met a young doctor. The innkeeper's wife was expecting to be taken
with child that night, and the doctor was waiting downstairs till
summoned. While they were talking, the idea came to him. Why had
he not thought of it? Overcoming his shyness, he put his questions.
What work would it be that would cause such injuries? He described
them, seeing them before him in the shadows of the dimly lighted
room, those poor, pitiful little hands.

Oh! a dozen things might account for it--the doctor's voice sounded
callous--the handling of flax, even of linen under certain
conditions. Chemicals entered so much nowadays into all sorts of
processes and preparations. All this new photography, cheap colour
printing, dyeing and cleaning, metal work. Might all be avoided by
providing rubber gloves. It ought to be made compulsory. The
doctor seemed inclined to hold forth. He interrupted him.

But could it be cured? Was there any hope?

Cured? Hope? Of course it could be cured. It was only local--the
effect being confined to the hands proved that. A poisoned
condition of the skin aggravated by general poverty of blood. Take
her away from it; let her have plenty of fresh air and careful diet,
using some such simple ointment or another as any local man, seeing
them, would prescribe; and in three or four months they would
recover.

He could hardly stay to thank the young doctor. He wanted to get
away by himself, to shout, to wave his arms, to leap. Had it been
possible he would have returned that very night. He cursed himself
for the fancifulness that had prevented his inquiring her address.
He could have sent a telegram. Rising at dawn, for he had not
attempted to sleep, he walked the ten miles to the nearest railway
station, and waited for the train. All day long it seemed to creep
with him through the endless country. But London came at last.

It was still the afternoon, but he did not care to go to his room.
Leaving his knapsack at the station, he made his way to Westminster.
He wanted all things to be unchanged, so that between this evening
and their parting it might seem as if there had merely passed an
ugly dream; and timing himself, he reached the park just at their
usual hour.

He waited till the gates were closed, but she did not come. All day
long at the back of his mind had been that fear, but he had driven
it away. She was ill, just a headache, or merely tired.

And the next evening he told himself the same. He dared not whisper
to himself anything else. And each succeeding evening again. He
never remembered how many. For a time he would sit watching the
path by which she had always come; and when the hour was long past
he would rise and walk towards the gate, look east and west, and
then return. One evening he stopped one of the park-keepers and
questioned him. Yes, the man remembered her quite well: the young
lady with the fawn gloves. She had come once or twice--maybe
oftener, the park-keeper could not be sure--and had waited. No,
there had been nothing to show that she was in any way upset. She
had just sat there for a time, now and then walking a little way and
then coming back again, until the closing hour, and then she had
gone. He left his address with the park-keeper. The man promised
to let him know if he ever saw her there again.

Sometimes, instead of the park, he would haunt the mean streets
about Lisson Grove and far beyond the other side of the Edgware
Road, pacing them till night fell. But he never found her.

He wondered, beating against the bars of his poverty, if money would
have helped him. But the grim, endless city, hiding its million
secrets, seemed to mock the thought. A few pounds he had scraped
together he spent in advertisements; but he expected no response,
and none came. It was not likely she would see them.

And so after a time the park, and even the streets round about it,
became hateful to him; and he moved away to another part of London,
hoping to forget. But he never quite succeeded. Always it would
come back to him when he was not thinking: the broad, quiet walk
with its prim trees and gay beds of flowers. And always he would
see her seated there, framed by the fading light. At least, that
much of her: the little spiritual face, and the brown shoes
pointing downwards, and between them the little fawn gloves folded
upon her lap.

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