conversations oddly flat, and wondered if they were devised for her benefit. Sometimes, they even forced her to join in, and she did so resentfully, quite rightly detecting condescension in their voices. Something revivalist in their tone whenever they turned to her, antagonised her – ‘And what do
think, Mrs Dickens?’ or, with wonderful tolerance, ‘I’m afraid Mrs Dickens won’t agree with us at all.’ At election-times, Evalie said, benignly: ‘And how’s Labour getting on, Mrs D.?’ Isabella (who had been told not to, by Harry) said nothing. Mrs Dickens was torn in two today. She had loved Harry, who, as she said at home, was the one she could get sense out of; but he was dead now and beyond being hurt and she would above all like the Liberals to get a slap in the face at the by-election. Harry’s successor was a Lady Violet Liberal, although Harry himself had tended to be the Lady Megan kind. Mrs Dickens was Doctor Edith Labour, but shehad been brought up Liberal, she sometimes admitted, though not Lady Violet Liberal.
She looked quickly away from the cake Isabella was putting into the oven, as if she had glimpsed something indecent. It was bound to rise up in the middle and crack into two blackened peaks. Slack mixture. Hot oven. Salute to the British Housewife, she thought malignantly. All that we heard on the wireless in the war, not mentioning the wasted ingredients.
‘If you could ring up Mr Woods for me,’ Isabella said, when she was seeing Evalie off. ‘I may not get a chance with Vinny here.’
‘Oh, naturally, my dear. I only wish I could see him for an instant. Vinny, I mean.’
‘Yes, it is a pity,’ Isabella said firmly.
‘Never mind, I do have a vivid picture of him in my mind, from all you’ve said.’
‘Such as what?’
‘Oh, that kind, effeminate sort of man who is so nice to women.’
‘Vinny is extremely manly – very broad across the shoulders. He went half-round the world once, serving before the mast.’
‘My dear, you say everyone has served before the mast. Except me.’
Isabella, who hoped to tidy herself before Vinny came, did not reply.
The garden-room was a small, dank bedroom on the ground floor. It had a glazed door opening on to a gravel path and shrubs, and oddments of furniture not needed in other parts of the house. Rose Kelsey apologised for everything and hoped, aloud, that the bed was properly aired. The room was only usedin summer emergencies, she explained, and this Vinny soon proved to himself by finding some old heather in the waste-paper basket, discarded, he supposed, by last year’s guests. He did not think he would be very comfortable. The carpet was worn away by so many gravelly boots coming in through the french window. An orange cover clung limply to the sagging bed. Rose said: ‘The children are above. I hope they won’t disturb you.’
Rose was the most English-looking woman he had ever seen. Her light-brown hair was taken back neatly in a bun; her carriage was straight, but stiff. She had grey eyes and a beautiful skin; large feet and lovely hands. Her clothes – as Isabella had warned him – were unconsidered; for she wore a satin blouse with her tweed suit and pale shiny stockings with brogues. Her manner was frigid, though she was not at a loss for words: in fact, she was rather brisk and under control and Vinny could not imagine her being otherwise. He had seen too many mothers like her – on railway platforms as the school-train went out, and standing on doorsteps in Harley Street with their children – to wonder how she had ever come to have a child. He now took that miracle for granted, supposing that everyone has their informal moments.
Such women are a product of English imperviousness and courage which contain both fanaticism and narrow loyalties. In foreign countries (and Rose seemed so much a soldier’s wife) the lack of sensuality was a defence and at times a maddening challenge. The attribute was always