HE really was an impossible person. Too shy altogether. With absolutely
nothing to say for himself. And such a weight. Once he was in your
studio he never knew when to go, but would sit on and on until you
nearly screamed, and burned to throw something enormous after him
when he did finally blush his way out–something like the tortoise
stove. The strange thing was that at first sight he looked most
interesting. Everybody agreed about that. You would drift into the
café one evening and there you would see, sitting in a corner,
with a glass of coffee in front of him, a thin dark boy, wearing
a blue jersey with a little grey flannel jacket buttoned over it.
And somehow that blue jersey and the grey jacket with the sleeves
that were too short gave him the air of a boy that has made up his
mind to run away to sea. Who has run away, in fact, and will get
up in a moment and sling a knotted handkerchief containing his nightshirt
and his mother's picture on the end of a stick, and walk out into
the night and be drowned. . . . Stumble over the wharf edge on his
way to the ship, even. . . . He had black close-cropped hair, grey
eyes with long lashes, white cheeks and a mouth pouting as though
he were determined not to cry. . . . How could one resist him? Oh,
one's heart was wrung at sight. And, as if that were not enough,
there was his trick of blushing. . . . Whenever the waiter came
near him he turned crimson–he might have been just out of
prison and the waiter in the know. . . .
"Who is he, my dear? Do you know?"
"Yes. His name is Ian French. Painter. Awfully clever, they
say. Someone started by giving him a mother's tender care. She asked
him how often he heard from home, whether he had enough blankets
on his bed, how much milk he drank a day. But when she went round
to his studio to give an eye to his socks, she rang and rang, and
though she could have sworn she heard someone breathing inside,
the door was not answered. . . . Hopeless!"
Someone else decided that he ought to fall in love. She summoned
him to her side, called him "boy," leaned over him so
that he might smell the enchanting perfume of her hair, took his
arm, told him how marvellous life could be if one only had the courage,
and went round to his studio one evening and rang and rang. . .
"What the poor boy really wants is thoroughly rousing,"
said a third. So off they went to café's and cabarets, little
dances, places where you drank something that tasted like tinned
apricot juice, but cost twenty-seven shillings a bottle and was
called champagne, other places, too thrilling for words, where you
sat in the most awful gloom, and where someone had always been shot
the night before. But he did not turn a hair. Only once he got very
drunk, but instead of blossoming forth, there he sat, stony, with
two spots of red on his cheeks, like, my dear, yes, the dead image
of that rag-time thing they were playing, like a "Broken Doll."
But when she took him back to his studio he had quite recovered,
and said "good night" to her in the street below, as though
they had walked home from church together. . . . Hopeless.
After heaven knows how many more attempts–for the spirit
of kindness dies very hard in women–they gave him up. Of course,
they were still perfectly charming, and asked him to their shows,
and spoke to him in the café but that was all. When one is
an artist one has no time simply for people who won't respond. Has
"And besides I really think there must be something rather
fishy somewhere . . . don't you? It can't all be as innocent as
it looks! Why come to Paris if you want to be a daisy in the field?
No, I'm not suspicious. But –"
He lived at the top of a tall mournful building overlooking the
river. One of those buildings that look so romantic on rainy nights
and moonlight nights, when the shutters are shut, and the heavy
door, and the sign advertising "a little apartment to let immediately"
gleams forlorn beyond words. One of those buildings that smell so
unromantic all the year round, and where the concierge lives in
a glass cage on the ground floor, wrapped up in a filthy shawl,
stirring something in a saucepan and ladling out tit-bits to the
swollen old dog lolling on a bead cushion. . . . Perched up in the
air the studio had a wonderful view. The two big windows faced the
water; he could see the boats and the barges swinging up and down,
and the fringe of an island planted with trees, like a round bouquet.
The side window looked across to another house, shabbier still and
smaller, and down below there was a flower market. You could see
the tops of huge umbrellas, with frills of bright flowers escaping
from them, booths covered with striped awning where they sold plants
in boxes and clumps of wet gleaming palms in terra-cotta jars. Among
the flowers the old women scuttled from side to side, like crabs.
Really there was no need for him to go out. If he sat at the window
until his white beard fell over the sill he still would have found
something to draw. . . .
How surprised those tender women would have been if they had managed
to force the door. For he kept his studio as neat as a pin. Everything
was arranged to form a pattern, a little "still life"
as it were–the saucepans with their lids on the wall behind
the gas stove, the bowl of eggs, milk jug and teapot on the shelf,
the books and the lamp with the crinkly paper shade on the table.
An Indian curtain that had a fringe of red leopards marching round
it covered his bed by day, and on the wall beside the bed on a level
with your eyes when you were lying down there was a small neatly
printed notice: GET UP AT ONCE.
Every day was much the same. While the light was good he slaved
at his painting, then cooked his meals and tidied up the place.
And in the evenings he went off to the café, or sat at home
reading or making out the most complicated list of expenses headed:
"What I ought to be able to do it on," and ending with
a sworn statement. . . "I swear not to exceed this amount for
next month. Signed, Ian French."
Nothing very fishy about this; but those far-seeing women were
quite right. It wasn't all.
One evening he was sitting at the side window eating some prunes
and throwing the stones on to the tops of the huge umbrellas in
the deserted flower market. It had been raining – the first
real spring rain of the year had fallen–a bright spangle hung
on everything, and the air smelled of buds and moist earth. Many
voices sounding languid and content rang out in the dusky air, and
the people who had come to close their windows and fasten the shutters
leaned out instead. Down below in the market the trees were peppered
with new green. What kind of trees were they? he wondered. And now
came the lamplighter. He stared at the house across the way, the
small, shabby house, and suddenly, as if in answer to his gaze,
two wings of windows opened and a girl came out on to the tiny balcony
carrying a pot of daffodils. She was a strangely thin girl in a
dark pinafore, with a pink handkerchief tied over her hair. Her
sleeves were rolled up almost to her shoulders and her slender arms
shone against the dark stuff.
"Yes, it is quite warm enough. It will do them good,"
she said, puffing down the pot and turning to someone in the room
inside. As she turned she put her hands up to the handkerchief and
tucked away some wisps of hair. She looked down at the deserted
market and up at the sky, but where he sat there might have been
a hollow in the air. She simply did not see the house opposite.
And then she disappeared.
His heart fell out of the side window of his studio, and down to
the balcony of the house opposite–buried itself in the pot
of daffodils under the half-opened buds and spears of green.. .
. That room with the balcony was the sitting-room, and the one next
door to it was the kitchen. He heard the clatter of the dishes as
she washed up after supper, and then she came to the window, knocked
a little mop against the ledge, and hung it on a nail to dry. She
never sang or unbraided her hair, or held out her arms to the moon
as young girls are supposed to do. And she always wore the same
dark pinafore and the pink handkerchief over her hair. . . . Whom
did she live with? Nobody else came to those two windows, and yet
she was always talking to someone in the room. Her mother, he decided,
was an invalid. They took in sewing. The father was dead. . . .
He had been a journalist–very pale, with long moustaches,
and a piece of black hair falling over his forehead.
By working all day they just made enough money to live on, but
they never went out and they had no friends. Now when he sat down
at his table he had to make an entirely new set of sworn statements.
. . . Not to go to the side window before a certain hour: signed,
Ian French. Not to think about her until he had put away his painting
things for the day: signed, Ian French.
It was quite simple. She was the only person he really wanted to
know, because she was, he decided, the only other person alive who
was just his age. He couldn't stand giggling girls, and he had no
use for grown-up women. . . . She was his age, she was–well,
just like him. He sat in his dusky studio, tired, with one arm hanging
over the back of his chair, staring in at her window and seeing
himself in there with her. She had a violent temper; they quarrelled
terribly at times, he and she. She had a way of stamping her foot
and twisting her hands in her pinafore . . . furious. And she very
rarely laughed. Only when she told him about an absurd little kitten
she once had who used to roar and pretend to be a lion when it was
given meat to eat. Things like that made her laugh. . . . But as
a rule they sat together very quietly; he, just as he was sitting
now, and she with her hands folded in her lap and her feet tucked
under, talking in low tones, or silent and tired after the day's
work. Of course, she never asked him about his pictures, and of
course he made the most wonderful drawings of her which she hated,
because he made her so thin and so dark. . . . But how could he
get to know her? This might go on for years. . . .
Then he discovered that once a week, in the evenings, she went
out shopping. On two successive Thursdays she came to the window
wearing an old-fashioned cape over the pinafore, and carrying a
basket. From where he sat he could not see the door of her house,
but on the next Thursday evening at the same time he snatched up
his cap and ran down the stairs. There was a lovely pink light over
everything. He saw it glowing in the river, and the people walking
towards him had pink faces and pink hands.
He leaned against the side of his house waiting for her and he
had no idea of what he was going to do or say. "Here she comes,"
said a voice in his head. She walked very quickly, with small, light
steps; with one hand she carried the basket, with the other she
kept the cape together. . . . What could he do? He could only follow.
. . . First she went into the grocer's and spent a long time in
there, and then she went into the butcher's where she had to wait
her turn. Then she was an age at the draper's matching something,
and then she went to the fruit shop and bought a lemon. As he watched
her he knew more surely than ever he must get to know her, now.
Her composure, her seriousness and her loneliness, the very way
she walked as though she was eager to be done with this world of
grown-ups all was so natural to him and so inevitable.
"Yes, she is always like that," he thought proudly. "We
have nothing to do with–these people."
But now she was on her way home and he was as far off as ever.
. . . She suddenly turned into the dairy and he saw her through
the window buying an egg. She picked it out of the basket with such
care–a brown one, a beautifully shaped one, the one he would
have chosen. And when she came out of the dairy he went in after
her. In a moment he was out again, and following her past his house
across the flower market, dodging among the huge umbrellas and treading
on the fallen flowers and the round marks where the pots had stood.
. . . Through her door he crept, and up the stairs after, taking
care to tread in time with her so that she should not notice. Finally,
she stopped on the landing, and took the key out of her purse. As
she put it into the door he ran up and faced her.
Blushing more crimson than ever, but looking at her severely he
said, almost angrily: "Excuse me, Mademoiselle, you dropped
And he handed her an egg.