“The joke of it is,” Henry kept saying, “the joke is that there’s nothing to leave, nothing at all. No money. Not in any direction. I used up most of the capital year ago. What’s left will nicely do my lifetime.”
Beaming, expectant, he waited for his wife to share the joke. Stella didn’t think it as funny as all that. It was a fine thing to be told, at this stage, that there was no money, that your innocent little child sleeping upstairs had nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of work. She had just been bathing the innocent child. Usually, her evening task consisted only of kissing it good night, for the Mannings were fortunate in their Italian servants, who were efficient, loyal, and cheap.
“They don’t let Stella lift a finger,” Henry always told visitors. “Where can you get that kind of loyalty nowadays, and at such little cost? Not in England, I can tell you.”
There had been two babies in the bath. The boy was Stella’s; in the midst of less cheerful thoughts, it was still a matter of comfort that she had produced the only boy in the Manning family, the heir. The other baby, a girl, was, Stella supposed, her grandchild. That is, she was Henry’s grandchild. It was too much, really, to be expected to consider oneself a grandmother at twenty-six. Stella pulled down her cardigan sleeves, brushing at the wet spots where the babies had splashed. In the presence of Henry’s grown daughter, she had been grave and devoted, had knelt on the cold bathroom floor, as if no one, not even the most cheap and loyal of Italian servants, could take a mother’s place.
Peggy, the daughter, had lounged in the doorway, not offering to help. She looked amused. “Doesn’t Max Beerbohm live near here?” she said. “I expect everyone asks that.”
“We know no one of that name,” said Stella, soberly. “Henry says he came to Italy to meet Italians.”
“I see,” said Peggy. She shifted from one bony leg to the other, started to say something, changed her mind. She turned the talk to Henry. “How like the poor old boy to think he can go native,” she said. “Actually, he chose this part of the coast because it was full of English. They must he doddering, most of them. It must he ghastly for you, at your age.”
All Stella retained from this was the feeling that Henry had been criticized. She no more liked having him referred to as “the old boy” than she enjoyed Peggy’s repeated references to Stella’s youth. She was only ten months younger than her stepdaughter, but Peggy made it sound years. Of course, Peggy looked older, always would. She said of herself, as if the idea pleased her, that she had been born old. The features that were attractive in Henry had been dismayingly caricatured in his child. Pegged was too tall, too thin, her teeth were too large and white. Slumped in the doorway, she looked hike a cynical horse.
There were so many things one could retort to Peggy, replies at once cutting and polite; the trouble was, Stella never thought of them in time. Now, embroiled in an unaccustomed labor (dressing her son for the night), she could not give her mind to anything else. She held the baby on her lap, struggling with him and with garments that seemed to have no openings or fastenings.
“Why don’t you put it down on something, the infant, I mean,” said Peggy. “You’ll never manage that way. He’s too lively and fat. And mine should he out of the bath. She’ll catch pneumonia in this room.” She beckoned to Stella’s nurse, who, hovering in the passage, had been waiting to pounce.
“My little boy doesn’t feel the cold,” said Stella, unable to make this sound convincing. She dreaded her own baths here. The bathroom had been converted from something—a ballroom, she often thought. A chandelier in the form of glass roses dropped from the ceiling. The upper half of the walls was brown, except where paint had flaked away to reveal an undercoat of muddy blue. The bathroom grieved Stella more than any other part of the house. She knew that a proper bathroom should be small, steamy, draftless, and pale green, but try to convince Henry! The villa was only a rental, and even if they lived in it the rest of their lives, nothing would induce him to put a penny into repairs.
“Be sure that the nursery is warm,” said Stella, surrendering the baby to its nurse with exaggerated care, as if it were an egg. “Mrs. Burleigh is worried about the cold.”
But it was hopeless. No room could be kept warm. The rest of the house was of a piece with the bathroom, in style and in temperature. The ceilings were blistered and stained with damp; the furnishings ran to headed lampshades and oil paintings of Calabrian maidens holding baskets of fruit. The marble staircase—a showpiece, Henry said—was a funnel of icy air. There was no heating, other than a fireplace in the dining room and a tiny open stove in the library. Over this stove, much of the year, Stella sat, crouched, reading Lady and Woman’s Own, which her mother sent regularly from England.
Henry never seemed to notice the cold. He spent the mornings in bed writing letters, slept after lunch until five, drank until dinner, and then played bridge with the tattered remnants of the English colony, relics of the golden period called “before the war.” “Why don’t you do something—knit, for instance,” he would tell Stella. “Sitting still slows the blood. That’s why you’re always shivering and complaining.”
“Knitting isn’t exercise,” she would say, but after delivering an order or an opinion Henry always stopped paying attention.
Stella might have found some reason to move around if Henry hadn’t had such definite ideas about getting value for money. She would have enjoyed housework, might even have done a little cooking, but they had inherited a family of servants along with the house. Their wages seemed so low, by English standards, that Henry felt offended and out-of-pocket if his wife so much as emptied an ashtray. Patient, he repeated that this was Italy. Italy explained their whole way of life: it explained the absence of heating and of something to do. It explained the wisteria trellis outside, placed so that no sun could enter the ground-floor rooms. During the summer, when the sudden heat rendered the trellis useful, it was Henry’s custom to sublet the house, complete with staff, and move his family to a small flat in London. The flat was borrowed. Henry always managed that.
Although she spent much of the year abroad pining for England and reading English recipes, Stella was a country girl alarmed and depressed by London. Her summers were nearly as lonely as her long Italian winters, for Henry, having settled her in London with a kindly injunction to go and look at shops, spent his holiday running around England visiting old cronies. He and Stella always returned to Italy after a stay of exactly three months less one day, so that Henry would not be subject to income tax.
“I’ve organized life for a delightful old age,” Henry often said, with a gesture that included his young wife.
At times, a disconcerting thought crept into Stella’s waking dreams: Henry was thirty years older than she, and might, presumably, die thirty years sooner. She would be free then, but perhaps too old to enjoy it. He might die a little earlier. He took frightfully good care of himself, with all that rest and those mornings in bed; but then he drank a lot. Did drink prolong or diminish life? Doctors were against it, but Stella knew of several old parties, particularly down here, who flourished on a bottle of brandy a day. A compound of middle-class virtues, she was thoroughly ashamed of this thought. Questioned about her life abroad, she was enthusiastic, praising servants she could neither understand nor direct, food that made her bilious, and a race of people (“so charming and childlike”) who seemed to her dangerous and dishonest. Many people in England envied her; it was agreeable to be envied, even for a form of life that didn’t exist. Peggy, she knew, envied her more than anyone in the world.
“It’s wasted,” Peggy had said at Stella’s wedding, and Stella had overheard her. “That poor little thing in Italy? She’ll be bored and lonely and miserable. It’s like giving a fragile and costly toy to a child who would rather have a hammer and bricks.” Stella had been too rushed and excited that day to pay much attention, but she had recorded for future scrutiny that Peggy was a mean, jealous girl.
“We adore Italy,” said Stella now, playing her sad, tattered card. What were some of the arguments Henry used? “Servants are so loyal,” she said. “Where can you get that loyalty nowadays?”
“I don’t know what you mean by loyalty now,” said Peggy. “You are much too young to remember loyalty then.”
Stella looked depressed. No one ever answered Henry that way. She began, “I only meant—” But if you had to make excuses, where was the triumph?
“I know what you meant,” said Peggy, softer. “Only don’t catch that awful servant thing from Henry. He’s gone sour and grasping, I think. He used to be quite different, when he still believed the world was made for people of his sort. But don’t you get that way. There’s no reason for it, and you’re much too young. It will make you unfit for life anywhere but here, a foreigner in a foreign country with just a shade more money than the natives.”
Peggy spoke with a downward drop at the end of each sentence, as if there could be no possible challenge. She was so sure of herself, and yet so plain. That was class, Stella thought, unhappy. She remembered something else she had heard Peggy say: “She’s a nice little creature, but so bloody genteel.” In Stella’s milieu, one did not say “bloody,” and one spoke of one’s parents with respect. Stella had thought: They’re worse than we are. It was the first acknowledgment she had made to the difference between Henry and herself (other than a secret surprise that he had chosen her) and it was also her first criticism. Since then, she had acknowledged it more and more, and, each time, felt a little stronger. She permitted Henry to correct some of the expressions she used—“Christ, Stella,” was his usual educative remark—but, inwardly, she had developed a comforting phrase. We may be common, she would think, but we’re really much nicer. She felt, in a confused way, that she was morally right where Henry was wrong in any number of instances, and that her being right was solidly based on being, as Peggy had said, so bloody genteel. But it was slow going, and, at this moment, standing in the untidy bathroom with a wet towel in her hand, she looked so downcast, so uncertain, that Peggy said, as nicely as she could, “Hadn’t you better go down and cope with Henry? He’s out on the terrace having far too many drinks. Besides, Nigel bores him. It’s better if one of us is there.”
Nigel was Peggy’s husband, a plump young man in a blazer.
It was offensive, being ordered about n one’s own home this way, having Henry referred to as a grasping old man, almost a drunk. Once again, she failed to think of the correct crushing remark. Nor was there time to worry about it. Stella was anxious to get Henry alone, to place him on her side, if she could, in the tug of war with his daughter. She didn’t want to turn him against his own flesh and blood; in Stella’s world, that kind of action was said not to bring happiness. She simply wanted him to acknowledge her, in front of the others, mistress of the house and mother of the heir. It seemed simple enough; a casual word would do it, she thought—even a look of pride.
She sped down the stairs and found Henry alone on the dining-room terrace. He was drinking the whiskey Nigel had brought from England and looking with admiration at the giant cacti in the garden. Stella wondered how he could bear to so much as glance in their direction. The garden was another of her grievances. Instead of grass, it grew gravel, raked into geometric patterns by the cook’s son, who appeared to have no other occupation. There were the big cactus plants on which tradesmen scratched their initials to while away the moments between the delivering of bread and the receiving of change—a few irises, and the inevitable geraniums. The first year of her marriage, Stella had pushed at the garden with enthusiasm. Part of her vision of herself as a bride, and a lady, had been in a floppy hat with cutting scissors and dewy, long-stemmed roses. She had planted seeds from England, and bedded out dozens of tender little plants, and buried dozens of bulbs. Nothing had come of it. The seeds rotted in the ground, the bulbs were devoured by rats, the little plants shrivelled and died. She bought “Gardening in Happy Lands” and discovered that the palm trees were taking all the good from the soil. Cut the palms, she had ordered. She had not been married to Henry long enough then to be out of the notion of herself as a spoiled young thing, cherished and capricious. The cook’s son, to whom she had given the order, went straight to Henry. Henry lost his temper. It appeared that the cutting down of a palm was such a complicated undertaking that only a half-wit would have considered it. The trunks would neither burn nor sink. It was illegal to throw them into the sea, because they floated among the fishing nets. They had to be sliced down into bits, hauled away, and dumped on a mountainside somewhere in the back country. It was all very expensive, too; that was the part that seemed to bother Henry most.
“I wanted to make a garden,” Stella had said, too numb from his shouting to mention palms again. “Other people have gardens here.” She had never been shouted at in her life. Her family, self-made, and with self-made rules of gentility, considered it impolite to call from room to room.
“Other people have gardeners,” Henry had said, dropping his tone. “Or, they spend all their time and all of their income trying to create a bit of England on the Mediterranean. You must try to adapt, Stella dear.”
She had adapted. “Gardening in Happy Lands” had been donated to the British Library, and nearly forgotten; but she still could not look at the gravel, or the palms, or the hideous cacti, without regret.
Nigel had gone to change, Henry said, but changing was only an excuse to go away and restore his shattered composure.
“I told him I’d made my will entirely in favor of the boy,” he told Stella, chuckling. “Only there won’t be anything to leave. They can worry and stew until I’m dead. Then they’ll see the joke.”
Henry had begun hinting at this, his latest piece of humor, a fortnight before, with the arrival of Peggy’s letter announcing her visit. Relations between Henry and his daughter had been cool since his marriage. It was no secret that Peggy had never expected him to marry again. She had wanted to keep house for her father and live in Italy. Three months after Stella’s wedding, Peggy had married Nigel. (No one ever said that Nigel had married her.) Henry had not been in the least sentimental about Peggy’s letter, which Stella considered a proper gesture of reconciliation. Nigel and Peggy were coming about money, he said, cheerful. They wanted to find out about his will, and were hoping he would make over some of his capital to them now. Nigel was fed tip with the English climate and with English taxation. However, if they were counting on him to settle their future, they had better forget it. Henry still had a few surprises up his sleeve.
“Thank God for my sense of humor,” he said now.
“Henry,” said Stella bravely, “I don’t think this is funny, and I must know if it’s really true.”
“It’s enormously true and enormously funny.” He was tight and looked quite devilish, with his long face, and the thinning hair plastered flat on his skull.
“Not to me,” said Stella. She tried again: “You might think of your own innocent child.”
“She’s quite old enough to think for herself,” Henry said.
“Not that child—my child,” Stella almost screamed.
“By the time he grows up, the State will be taking care of everyone,” Henry said. “I intend to enjoy my old age. Those who come after me can bloody well cope. And step shrieking. They’ll hear.”
“What does it matter if they hear? “ said Stella. “They think I’m common, anyway. Peggy called me that at our very own wedding. My mother heard her. A common little baggage, my mother heard Peggy say.”
Henry’s answer was scarcely consoling. He said, “Peggy was drunk. She didn’t draw a sober breath from the time I announced my intentions. She read the engagement notice in the Times, poor girl.”
“Oh, why did you marry me?” Stella wailed.
Henry took her in his arms. That was why he had married her. It was all very well, but Stella hadn’t married in order to be buried in an Italian seaside town. And now, having had a son, having put all their noses out of joint by producing an heir, to be told there was no money!
It had not been Stella’s ambition to marry money. She had cherished a great reverence for family and background, and she believed, deeply, in happiness, comfort, and endless romance. In Henry she thought she had found all these things; middle-aged, father of a daughter Stella’s age, he was still a catch. She hadn’t married money; the trouble was that during their courtship Henry had seduced her with talk of money. He talked stocks, shares, and Rhodesian Electric. He talked South Africa, and how it was the only sound place left for investment in the world. He spoke of the family trust and of how he had broken it years before, and what a good life this had given him. Stella had turned to him her round kitten face, with the faintly stupid kitten eyes, and had listened entranced, picturing Henry with the trust in his hands, breaking it in two.
“I don’t believe in all this living on tiny incomes, keeping things intact for the sake of grown children who can earn their own way,” he had said. “The next generation won’t have anything in any event, the way the world is heading. There won’t be anything hut drudgery and dreariness. I intend to enjoy myself now. I have enjoyed myself. I can seriously say that I do not regret one moment of my life.”
Stella had found his predictions about the future only mildly alarming. He was clever and experienced, and such people often frighten one without meaning to. She was glad he intended to enjoy life, and she intended to enjoy it with him. She hadn’t dreamed that it would come down to living in an unheated villa in the damp Italian winter. When he continued to speak contemptuously of the next generation and its wretched lot, she had taken it for granted that he meant Peggy, and Peggy’s child—never her own.
Nigel and Peggy came onto the terrace, ostentatiously letting the dining-room door slam in order to announce their presence.
“How noisy you are,” Henry said to Peggy. “But you always were. I remember—” He poured himself a drink, frowning, presumably remembering. “Stella, I fancy, was a quiet little girl.” Something had put her frighteningly out of temper. She paced about the terrace pulling dead leaves off the potted geraniums.
“Oh, damn,” she said suddenly, for no reason.
They dined on the terrace, under a light buried in moths.
“How delicious,” Peggy said. “Look at the lights on the sea. Those are the fishing boats, Nigel. It’s the first sign of good weather.”
“I think it’s much more comfortable to eat indoors, even if you don’t see the boats,” Stella said sadly. “Sometimes we sit out here bundled in our overcoats. Henry thinks we must eat out just because it’s Italy. So we do it all winter. Then, when it gets warm, there are ants in the bread.”
“I suppose there is some stage between too cold and too warm when you enjoy it,” Peggy said.
Stella looked at the gravy congealing on her plate and said, “We adore Italy, of course. It’s just the question of eating in or out.”
“One dreams of it in England,” said Nigel. It was the first time he had opened his mouth except to eat or drink. “We think of how lucky you are to be here.”
“My people never went in for it at home,” said Stella, suddenly broken under Henry’s jokes, and homesickness. “Although we had a lovely garden. We had lovely things—grass. You can’t grow grass here. I tried it. I tried primroses and things.”
“This extraordinary habit the English have of taking bits of England everywhere they go,” said Peggy, jabbing at her plate. Nigel started to say something—something nice, one felt by his expression—and Peggy said, “Shut up, Nigel.”
Soon after dinner Stella disappeared. It was some time before any of them noticed, and then it was Peggy who went to look. Stella was in the garden, sitting on a bench between two tree-sized cacti.
“You’re not crying, are you?”
“Yes, I am. At least, I was. I’m all right now. I wish I were going home instead of you,” Stella said. “I’d give anything. Do you know that there are rats in the palms? Big ones. They jump from tree to tree. Sometimes at night I can even hear them on the roof.”
Peggy sat down on a stone. The moon had risen and was so bright it threw their shadows. “They’ve gone indoors,” she said. “Henry’s quite tight. I suppose that’s one of the problems.”
Stella sniffled, hiccuping. “It isn’t just that. It’s that you don’t like me.”
“Don’t he silly,” Peggy said. “Anyway, why should you care? You’ve got what you wanted.” Stella was silent. “I’m not angry with you,” Peggy went on. “But I’m so angry with Henry that I can hardly speak to him. As for Nigel, he came upstairs in such a state that I thought we should have to take the next train home. We’re furious with Henry and with his cheap, stupid little games. Henry’s spent all his money. He spent his father’s, my mother’s, and mine. No one has complained and no one has minded. But why should he talk to Nigel of wills and of inheritance when we all know that he has nothing in the world but you?”
“Me? “ said Stella. Astonishment dried her tears. She peered, puffy-eyed, through the moonlight. “I haven’t anything.”
“Then that was Henry’s mistake,” said Peggy calmly. “Or, perhaps it was your youth he wanted. As for you, what did you want, Stella? Did you think he was rich? Hadn’t anyone else proposed to you—someone your own age?”
“There was a nice man in chemicals,” said Stella. “We would have lived in Japan. There was another one, a boy in my father’s business, a boy my father had trained.”
“Why in the name of God didn’t you choose one of them?”
Stella looked at her sodden handkerchief. “When Henry asked me to marry him, my mother said, ‘It’s better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.’ And then, it seemed different. I thought it would be fun.”
The lights of the fishing boats blinked and bobbed out at sea. They could hear the fishermen thumping the sides of the boats and shouting in order to wake up the fish.
“I should have been you, and you should have been me,” Peggy said. “I love Italy, and I can cope with Henry. He was a good parent, before he went sour. You should have married Nigel—or a Nigel.”
The crushing immorality of this blanked out Stella’s power of speech. It had been suggested that she ought to marry her stepdaughter’s husband— something like that. There was something good about being shocked. It placed her. It reaffirmed her sense of being morally right where Henry and his kind were morally wrong. She thought: I am Henry’s wife, and I am the mistress of this house.
“I mean,” said Peggy, “that sometimes people get dropped in the wrong pockets by mistake.”
“Well,” said Stella, “that is life. That’s the way things are. You don’t get dropped, you choose. And then you have to stick to it, that’s all. At least, that’s what I think.”