ON Wednesday morning Julia had her face massaged and her hair waved. She could not make up her mind whether to wear for dinner a dress of flowered organdie, very pretty and springlike with its suggestion of Botticelli's Primavera, or one of white satin beautifully cut to show off her slim young figure, and virginal; but while she was having her bath she decided on the white satin: it indicated rather delicately that the sacrifice she intended was in the nature of an expiation for her long ingratitude to Michael. She wore no jewels but a string of pearls and diamond bracelet; besides her wedding-ring only one square-cut diamond. She would have liked to put on a slight brown tan, it looked open-air-girl and suited her, but reflecting on what lay before her she refrained. She could not very well, like the actor who painted himself black all over to play Othello, tan her whole body. Always a punctual woman, she came downstairs as the front door was being opened for Charles. She greeted him with a look into which she put tenderness, a roguish charm and intimacy. Charles now wore his thinning grey hair rather long, and with advancing years his intellectual, distinguished features had sagged a little; he was slightly bowed and his clothes looked as though they needed pressing.
"Strange world we live in," thought Julia. "Actors do their damnedest to look like gentlemen and gentlemen do all they can to look like actors."
There was no doubt that she was making a proper effect on him. He gave her the perfect opening.
"Why are you looking so lovely tonight?" he asked.
"Because I'm looking forward to dining with you."
With her beautiful, expressive eyes she looked deep into his. She parted her lips in the manner that she found so seductive in Romney's portraits of Lady Hamilton.
They dined at the Savoy. The head waiter gave them a table on the gangway so that they were admirably in view. Though everyone was supposed to be out of town the grill-room was well filled. Julia bowed and smiled to various friends of whom she caught sight. Charles had much to tell her; she listened to him with flattering interest.
"You are the best company in the world, Charles," she told him.
They had come late, they dined well, and by the time Charles had finished his brandy people were already beginning to come in for supper.
"Good gracious, are the theatres out already?" he said, glancing at his watch. "How quickly the time flies when I'm with you. D'you imagine they want to get rid of us?"
"I don't feel a bit like going to bed."
"I suppose Michael will be getting home presently?"
"I suppose so."
"Why don't you come back to my house and have a talk?"
That was what she called taking a cue.
"I'd love it," she answered, putting into her tone the slight blush which she felt would have well become her cheek.
They got into his car and drove to Hill Street. He took her into his study. It was on the ground floor and looked on a tiny garden. The french windows were wide open. They sat down on a sofa.
"Put out some of the lights and let the night into the room," said Julia. She quoted from The Merchant of Venice. " 'In such a night as this, when the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees…'"
Charles switched off everything but one shaded lamp, and when he sat down again she nestled up to him. He put his arm round her waist and she rested her head on his shoulder.
"This is heaven," she murmured.
"I've missed you terribly all these months."
"Did you get into mischief?"
"Well, I bought an Ingres drawing and paid a lot of money for it. I must show it you before you go."
"Don't forget. Where have you put it?"
She had wondered from the moment she got into the house whether the seduction would take place in the study or upstairs.
"In my bedroom," he answered.
"That's much more comfortable really," she reflected.
She laughed in her sleeve as she thought of poor old Charles devising a simple little trick like that to get her into his bedroom. What mugs men were! Shy, that was what was the matter with them. A sudden pang shot through her heart as she thought of Tom. Damn Tom. Charles really was very sweet and she was determined to reward him at last for his long devotion.
"You've been a wonderful friend to me, Charles," she said in her low, rather husky voice. She turned a little so that her face was very near his, her lips, again like Lady Hamilton's, slightly open. "I'm afraid I haven't always been very kind to you."
She looked so deliciously yielding, a ripe peach waiting to be picked, that it seemed inevitable that he should kiss her. Then she would twine her soft white arms round his neck. But he only smiled.
"You mustn't say that. You've been always divine."
("He's afraid, poor lamb.") "I don't think anyone has ever been so much in love with me as you were."
He gave her a little squeeze.
"I am still. You know that. There's never been any woman but you in my life."
Since, however, he did not take the proffered lips she slightly turned. She looked reflectively at the electric fire. Pity it was unlit. The scene wanted a fire.
"How different everything would have been if we'd bolted that time. Heigh-ho."
She never quite knew what heigh-ho meant, but they used it a lot on the stage, and said with a sigh it always sounded very sad.
"England would have lost its greatest actress. I know now how dreadfully selfish it was of me ever to propose it."
"Success isn't everything. I sometimes wonder whether to gratify my silly little ambition I didn't miss the greatest thing in the world. After all, love is the only thing that matters." And now she looked at him again with eyes more beautiful than ever in their melting tenderness. "D'you know, I think that now, if I had my time over again, I'd say take me."
She slid her hand down to take his. He gave it a graceful pressure.
"Oh, my dear."
"I've so often thought of that dream villa of ours. Olive trees and oleanders and the blue sea. Peace. Sometimes I'm appalled by the dullness and vulgarity of my life. What you offered was beauty. It's too late now, I know; I didn't know then how much I cared for you, I never dreamt that as the years went on you would mean more and more to me."
"It's heavenly to hear you say that, my sweet. It makes up for so much."
"I'd do anything in the world for you, Charles. I've been selfish. I've ruined your life, I didn't know what I was doing."
Her voice was low and tremulous and she threw back her head so that her neck was like a white column. Her decollete showed part of her small firm breasts and with her hands she pressed them forward a little.
"You mustn't say that, you mustn't think that," he answered gently. "You've been perfect always. I wouldn't have had you otherwise. Oh my dear, life is so short and love is so transitory. The tragedy of life is that sometimes we get what we want. Now that I look back on our long past together I know that you were wiser than I. 'What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape?' Don't you remember how it goes? 'Never, never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve; she cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss. For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!' "
("Idiotic") "Such lovely lines," she sighed. "Perhaps you're right. Heigh-ho."
He went on quoting. That was a trick of his that Julia had always found somewhat tiresome.
"Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new!…"
It gave Julia an opportunity to think. She stared in the unlit fire, her gaze intent, as though she were entranced by the exquisite beauty of those words. It was quite obvious that he just hadn't understood. It could hardly be wondered at. She had been deaf to his passionate entreaties for twenty years, and it was very natural if he had given up his quest as hopeless. It was like Mount Everest; if those hardy mountaineers who had tried for so long in vain to reach the summit finally found an easy flight of steps that led to it, they simply would not believe their eyes: they would think there was a catch in it. Julia felt that she must make herself a little plainer; she must, as it were, reach out a helping hand to the weary pilgrim.
"It's getting dreadfully late," she said softly. "Show me your new drawing and then I must go home."
He rose and she gave him both her hands so that he should help her up from the sofa. They went upstairs. His pyjamas and dressing-gown were neatly arranged on a chair.
"How well you single men do yourselves. Such a cosy, friendly bedroom."
He took the framed drawing off the wall and brought it over for her to look at under the light. It was a portrait in pencil of a stoutish woman in a bonnet and a lownecked dress with puffed sleeves. Julia thought her plain and the dress ridiculous.
"Isn't it ravishing?" she cried.
"I knew you'd like it. A good drawing, isn't it?"
He put the little picture back on its nail. When he turned round again she was standing near the bed with her hands behind her back, a little like a Circassian slave introduced by the chief eunuch to the inspection of the Grand Vizier; there was a hint of modest withdrawal in her bearing, a delicious timidity, and at the same time the virgin's anticipation that she was about to enter into her kingdom. Julia gave a sigh that was ever so slightly voluptuous.
"My dear, it's been such a wonderful evening. I've never felt so close to you before."
She slowly raised her hands from behind her back and with the exquisite timing that came so naturally to her moved them forwards, stretching out her arms, and held them palms upward as though there rested on them, invisibly, a lordly dish, and on the dish lay her proffered heart. Her beautiful eyes were tender and yielding and on her lips played a smile of shy surrender.
She saw Charles's smile freeze on his face. He had understood all right.
("Christ, he doesn't want me. It was all a bluff.") The revelation for a moment staggered her. ("God, how am I going to get out of it? What a bloody fool I must look.")
She very nearly lost her poise. She had to think like lightning. He was standing there, looking at her with an embarrassment that he tried hard to conceal. Julia was panic-stricken. She could not think what to do with those hands that held the lordly dish; God knows, they were small, but at the moment they felt like legs of mutton hanging there. Nor did she know what to say. Every second made her posture and the situation more intolerable.
("The skunk, the dirty skunk. Codding me all these years.")
She did the only thing possible. She continued the gesture. Counting so that she should not go too fast, she drew her hands towards one another, till she could clasp them, and then throwing back her head, raised them, very slowly, to one side of her neck. The attitude she reached was as lovely as the other, and it was the attitude that suggested to her what she had to say. Her deep rich voice trembled a little with emotion.
"I'm so glad when I look back to think that we have nothing to reproach ourselves with. The bitterness of life is not death, the bitterness of life is that love dies. (She'd heard something like that said in a play.) If we'd been lovers you'd have grown tired of me long ago, and what should we have now to look back on but regret for our own weakness? What was that line of Shelley's that you said just now about fading?"
"Keats," he corrected." 'She cannot fade though thou hast not thy bliss.' "
"That's it. Go on."
She was playing for time.
'"For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.'"
She threw her arms wide in a great open gesture and tossed her curly head. She'd got it.
"It's true, isn't it? 'For ever wilt thou love and I be fair.' What fools we should have been if for a few moments' madness we had thrown away the wonderful happiness our friendship has brought us. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We're clean. We can walk with our heads held high and look the whole world in the face."
She instinctively felt that this was an exit line, and suiting her movements to the words, with head held high, backed to the door and flung it open. Her power was such that she carried the feeling of the scene all the way down the stairs with her. Then she let it fall and with the utmost simplicity turned to Charles who had followed her.
"The car is there," he said as he wrapped it round her. "I'll drive you home."
"No, let me go alone. I want to stamp this hour on my heart. Kiss me before I go."
She held up her lips to him. He kissed them. But she broke away from him, with a stifled sob, and tearing open the door ran to the waiting car.
When she got home and stood in her own bedroom she gave a great whoof of relief.
"The bloody fool. Fancy me being taken in like that. Thank God, I got out of it all right. He's such an ass, I don't suppose he began to see what I was getting at." But that frozen smile disconcerted her. "He may have suspected, he couldn't have been certain, and afterwards he must have been pretty sure he'd made a mistake. My God, the rot I talked. It seemed to go down all right, I must say. Lucky I caught on when I did. In another minute I'd have had me dress off. That wouldn't have been so damned easy to laugh away."
Julia began to titter. The situation was mortifying of course, he had made a damned fool of her, but if you had any sense of humour you could hardly help seeing that there was a funny side to it. She was sorry that there was nobody to whom she could tell it; even if it was against herself it would make a good story. What she couldn't get over was that she had fallen for the comedy of undying passion that he had played all those years; for of course it was just a pose; he liked to see himself as the constant adorer, and the last thing he wanted, apparently, was to have his constancy rewarded.
"Bluffed me, he did, completely bluffed me."
But an idea occurred to Julia and she ceased to smile. When a woman's amorous advances are declined by a man she is apt to draw one of two conclusions; one is that he is homosexual and the other is that he is impotent. Julia reflectively lit a cigarette. She asked herself if Charles had used his devotion to her as a cover to distract attention from his real inclinations. But she shook her head. If he had been homosexual she would surely have had some hint of it; after all, in society since the war they talked of practically nothing else. Of course it was quite possible he was impotent. She reckoned out his age. Poor Charles. She smiled again. And if that were the case it was he, not she, who had been placed in an embarrassing and even ridiculous position. He must have been scared stiff, poor lamb. Obviously it wasn't the sort of thing a man liked to tell a woman, especially if he were madly in love with her; the more she thought of it the more probable she considered the explanation. She began to feel very sorry for him, almost maternal in fact.
"I know what I'll do," she said, as she began to undress, "I'll send him a huge bunch of white lilies tomorrow."