At the back of my mind lingered the conviction that if I went on thinking long enough a solution would come. How could I manage to look old? I asked the question of myself every hour of the next few days. I asked it of everyone I met, and was fatuously assured that I demanded the impossible; at long last I asked it of old Bridget, whose sound common sense had come to my rescue times and again. Look to your cheeks, miss, if you wants to keep young! Her broad chest heaved in a cackle of amused reminiscence. Poor old Bridget! She got the surprise of her life in my reception of that simple question.
Then to find herself at one moment enthusiastically patted on the back, and at the next to be pushed towards the door, and exhorted to hurry! It was the cheeks that made the disguise!
Spectacles and hair still left the personality of the face untouched; even the bushy eyebrows were but a partial disguise, but with the insertion of those small india-rubber pads came an utter and radical change. That chubby, square-faced woman was not Evelyn Wastneys. Never by any possibility could she see forty again. So far as propriety went, she might roam alone from one end of the world to the other.
If she lived in the largest block of flats that was ever erected, her neighbours would regard her comings and goings with serene indifference.
Shimmer and Burn
Admirable woman! I met her spectacled glance with a beam of approval. I must dress for the part! My life interest had been so sheltered, so hedged round by convention, that at times it had seemed as though there was a wall of division between me and every other human creature.
But now! From the moment of hearing there had been no real hesitation; before night fell my plans were made, and a telegram to Charmion was speeding on its way.
A new life lay before me—a dual life, teeming with interest and possibility. On one hand, my fate must be to some extent bound up with that of Charmion Fane, the most interesting and, in a sense, mysterious woman I had ever met; on the other, I was plunging into the unknown, and transforming myself into a new personality, to meet the new circumstances.
I stared at myself in the glass and solemnly shook my grey head. I object to references to my problematical marriage—especially by aunts. She was the only person who was to accompany me into the new life, and experience had proved that her sound common sense might be trusted to act as a brake on the wheels of my own impetuosity. We stayed the morning in town, when I interviewed a house agent, and set him on the search for suitable flats, and then we adjourned to the West End to buy a becoming new hat.
It always soothes me to buy hats. In times of doubt and depression it is an admirable tonic to the feminine mind. Charmion was awaiting us in a private sitting-room, long, oak-beamed, spotlessly clean, and a trifle musty, with that faint but unmistakable mustiness which hangs about old rooms and old furniture. Tea was set out on one half of the oak dining-table.
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The china was of the old-fashioned white and gold order, the cups very wide at the brim and cramped at the handle, and possessing a dear little surprise rose at the base, which peeped out through a hoar frost of sugar as you drained the last gulp. Charmion laughed at my delight over that rose, but I was in the mood to be pleased, to see happy auguries in trivial happenings.
I hailed that rose as a type of unexpected joys. Charmion was dressed in business-like grey tweeds, with a soft grey felt hat slouched over her head. She looked very pale, very frail, intensely, vibratingly alive. This extraordinary contradiction between body and mind made a charm and mystery which it is difficult to express in words.
One longed to protect and shield her, to tuck her up on a sofa, and tend her like a fragile child, at the very same moment that mentally one was sitting at her feet, domineered by the influence of a master mind! Do you realise that nothing is settled, and that nothing need be, unless you are absolutely, whole-heartedly sure? What sort of things were you thinking about?
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You must promise to give an unvarnished opinion. I have a brutal frankness in expressing my own opinion.
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If, through nice feeling, I try to disguise it, my manner shrieks it aloud! Next comes the question of time. We should have to take a lease of three years. They always do in books, you know, when girls go to live in country houses. To the best of my belief, there is not a single man, bachelor or widower, within many miles.
Beyond The Shimmer Gate: A Romantic Adventure:
My expression unvarnished! It is foolish to set up a partnership in the dark. But not real lovers, Charmion, only— pretendus. One was young and needy and ambitious, and thought that I should look very well sitting at the head of his table. Incidentally, that my money would be useful to provide the table and the things upon it.
The other—he was rather a dear, and he cared enough to give me a pang. But he was happily married last year to a girl who is as un -like me in every respect as you can possibly imagine. They are both ancient history now. If any other woman had asked me such a question there would have been short shrift with her. Charmion herself had never before attempted such personalities; but now, when she deemed it necessary, she spoke without a flicker of hesitation, her grey eyes staring full into mine.
It would have seemed ridiculous to take offence. She knew what I meant, made a dainty little grimace, and bent her head in a small bow of acknowledgment, which somehow managed to look quite regal and stately. I longed to put one or two questions in return. Widows have been known to marry again! Why should I not wish to be reassured on my own account? Why should it be wrong for me to force confidences, when she herself had led the way?
It would not be wrong; it would be right, and prudent, and praiseworthy. The only objection was, I could not do it.
After that little bow of acknowledgment, Charmion threw back her head until it rested on the high cushioned back of her chair. Her heavy lids drooped over her eyes, her fine white hands were folded in her lap. There was in voice and manner an air of finality, which was as impervious as a barrier of barbed wire. Not for any bribe in the world would I have attempted to scale it.
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It was a dull, grey day, of which I was glad, for any place can look attractive in spring sunshine. There was a great deal of panelling on the walls, but it was of white wood, not oak, and the old, small latticed windows had been converted into deep bays, filled with great panes of plate glass—a pagan proceeding from an artistic point of view, but infinitely cheerful and healthy. There was a large central hall from either side of which opened two rooms of medium size, facing respectively east and west; a quaint descent of two steps led the way to a really spacious drawing-room, through the great windows of which was a lovely vista of velvet lawn, and a great cedar drooping its green branches to the ground.
Parallel with the drawing-room, and also facing south, was a long glassed-in apartment which had evidently been used to harbour plants, garden-chairs, and impedimenta, but which revealed itself to our eyes as an ideal sun-parlour for chilly days. Sheltered from draughts by the outstanding walls, yet with a glass roof and frontage to catch every ray of sun, the parlour would be an ideal refuge for spring and autumn.
So far as public rooms went, we were well off with five apartments at the disposal of two people.