Read the maltese angel Online

Authors: Yelena Kopylova

the maltese angel (5 page)

"Aye; an' I can tell you, mister, that's what they all say, whether they're from the town or the country. An' you're from the country, aren't you?"

Before Ward could get over his indignation in order to make an

appropriate reply to this observant man and demand how the devil he knew he was from the country, the man told him: "Oh ... Oh you needn't get on your high horse, mister," he said; "I've seen 'em all.

But none of your townees would come four times in a week an' sit in the front row. No; by the second night they would have had a cab at the door an' flowers sent to her dressing-room. Oh, they're all the

same, London, Manchester, or here. I've seen 'em all," he boasted again; but then his tone changing, he said, " Anyway, I'm sorry I can't let on where she's stayin', not even for a backhander. "

"I wasn't thinking about giving you a backhander. And seeing that you've weighed me up, and everybody else apparently His words were cut off by the opening of the swing door to his right and through it the appearance of an enormous woman and a very small man, each of them carrying two dogs and each dog enveloped in a red flannel coat.

The woman, ignoring Ward, spoke directly to the doorman, "That bugger won't do that to us again. Put us on in the first half. We know our place. We should be third from last by now. I'll have something to say to him at the end of the week. A year now since we first hit

Newcastle, and it'll be ten before we hit it again."

When one of the dogs in her arms moved uneasily and turned its head towards Ward while giving a sharp bark, she turned her attention to him, saying, "It's all right, mister; as long as you don't touch her she won't bite you."

But Ward had already put his hand out and was scratching the immaculate white topknot of the poodle, and the poodle, instead of biting him, was licking his wrist, the sight of which brought an exclamation from the small man in a voice that was so high as to seem to be issuing from the mouth of a young boy: "Flora! Flora! Did you ever! Do you see what Sophia's doing?"

The large woman, looking straight at Ward now, said, "You used to animals, mister? Trainer or something?"

He was forced to smile as he answered, "No; no; but I have two dogs of my own."

"Poodles?"

"No. Sheep dogs. I'm ... I'm a farmer."

"Oh. Oh." She now said pointedly, "Bitches?"

He was still smiling as he answered her: "One of each."

"Well, all I can say she must have got a sniff of something that pleased her, because she's very particular, is Sophia."

Ward looked at Sophia. He recognised her as the clever one that pulled the little bottle out of the man's coat, withdrew the cork with her teeth, and then, standing on her hindlegs, put the bottle to her mouth; after which she staggered across the stage to the uproarious laughter of the audience, fell on her back and kicked her legs in the air, to be chastised by this woman, who picked her up, smacked her bottom and sent her off the stage, only for the dog to come slinking in the other side, supposedly unknown to anyone.

The woman was addressing him now: "Have you seen the show, sir?"

"Yes; I've seen the show."

She now leaned towards him, to peer in the dim light of the passage.

Then, her mouth opening into a big gape and the smile spreading across her face, she exclaimed, "Oh yes! The front row. The front row."

Rather shamefacedly now, Ward nodded and said, "Yes; the front row."

"To see Stephanie."

Before he had time to acknowledge this, the doorman put in, "This ..

this gentleman ... This gentleman came to see Miss McQueen the night, but was very disappointed that she wasn't on."

"Oh. Oh." The woman's head was now bobbing up and down.

"Well, I'm sorry you've had your journey for nothing, sir; but she had an accident, you see. Saturday night just gone. He let her down too quickly." She now turned her head and addressed the doorman: "He's a bloody maniac, that Watson," she said.

"He's never sober. I'm not against a drink, you know that, Harry, but there's a time an' a place for it. And she's as light on her feet as a feather. But he bounced her down. She slotted off that foot like a rubber ball."

"Is she in a bad way?" Ward's voice held an anxious note.

"Well' the woman shrugged her shoulders and the flesh on her body seemed to ripple 'not in a bad way, really; no life or death business.

Yet, what am I talking about? It's her livelihood. Her feet are her fortune, you could say, and it'll be a week or two before she's able to go on the boards again. Yet she keeps rubbing it and declares she'll be all right for Sunderland next week. But she won't, will she. Ken?"

She turned to the little man, who answered accordingly, "No, Flora; of course she won't. But she's got pluck. Oh yes, she's got pluck."

"Do ... do you think ... I mean, do you think I might see her? Sort of be introduced to her? I ... I would like to make her acquaintance."

The woman and the man looked at each other, their glances holding for some time before she, as if having come to a great decision, said with emphasis, "I don't see any reason, sir, why you shouldn't make her acquaintance. Sophia here seemed to have a good opinion of you, so, animals having much more sense than humans, I've always said so, and I would trust them any day in the week to give me the right answer, I would say, no, I don't see any obstacle that need be put in the way.

Have you got a conveyance? "

The word conveyance came out on a high note and with a change of

tone;

and when he had to confess that he was sorry he hadn't, only his horse, the woman laughed and her ah-la changed as she said, "Well, we can't all get on that, can we? And so, as it's only a stone's throw from here, where we are residing, we could all walk the distance, couldn't we? Good night, Harry."

She was nodding towards the doorman, who replied, "Good night, Mrs.

Killjoy. Good night, Mr. Killjoy." And the little man answered,

"Good night. Harry."

They were now in the street, Ward walking between the woman and the man, with the rain pelting down on them, and Mrs. Killjoy wiped it from her face as she enquired of him, "And what is your name, sir?"

"I'm Hayward Gibson, but I'm usually called Ward."

"Ward. It's an unusual Christian name ... Ward. Well, Mr. Gibson, you know our occupation, so may I enquire if your farm is a large farm or a small one. You see, we are town folk, and the only thing we seem to know is that farms belong to estates where small holdings don't."

Ward smiled to himself at this diplomatic grilling, and he pursed his lip before he explained, "Well, my farm isn't held on lease to one of the landowners, by which I mean it isn't rented; it is a freehold farm, much bigger than a small holding but much smaller than some other farms in the country."

"Well, that is a fair answer." She now turned towards him and smiled broadly as she said, "We cross over here, and then we are almost there.

But to get back to the farmers: you see, we are very ignorant of the country, we people who live by the boards, for entertainments such as ours are performed in the town, you know, aren't they?"

They were in the middle of the road now, and, halting suddenly, she held up a hand, as a constable might, to stop the approaching

traffic.

The astonished driver of a cab to one side of her and two boys pushing a flat cart to the other pulled up sharply, causing further

astonishment from the drivers of the following vehicles dimly seen through the rain and gathering twilight as she led her company across the other half of the road and to the pavement, to the accompaniment of highly seasoned language from the cab driver and others and the ribald laughter of the boys. But as if this incident had not happened, she continued where she had left off, saying, "So we must always enquire into the work, station, and habits of those who wish to make our

acquaintance."

He wanted to laugh aloud, he wanted to roar: here he was, walking

between these two oddities and their four dogs and being questioned as to his character as if he

were in a courtroom, and all the while there was racing through him a feeling of anticipation and excitement;

he was going to meet her .. not as the actress coming out of the stage door, whom he would not really have known how to approach, but he was going to face her in her lodgings.

For a moment the anticipation and elation were chilled by the

thought:

what if he didn't take to her? What if she were a hoity-toity piece and thought too much of herself; or, on the other hand, just plain common; but oh dear! what if she didn't take to him? Yes, that was the main point: what if she didn't take to him?

"Ah! Here we are. Home from home."

He was standing in a street where every house appeared to be approached by three steps, guarded on each side by sloping iron railings. They were quite large houses. He wouldn't say this was the best end of the city, but it was no cheap street.

The front door to the house looked heavy and strong and was graced with a brass letter-box and door knob, and when it was opened, the woman sailed in; and the man pressed Ward forward. And now he was being

introduced to a woman who was apparently the owner of the house, for Mrs. Killjoy was saying, "This is a friend of ours, Connie. We have met him by chance this evening." She turned towards Ward now, saying,

"Mr. Hayward Gibson." Then extending her hand to the flat bosomed middle-aged woman, she added, "Mrs. Borman, our landlady and the kindest you will find in a day's walk." And now, with fingers wagging, she exclaimed, "And I mean that, Connie. You know I mean that."

Mrs. Borman did not spread her gaze over his entire body as Mrs.

Killjoy had done; but she looked him straight in the face and in a pleasant voice said, "Good evening, Mr. Gibson. Any friend of Mrs.

Killjoy is welcome to my house."

Nodding and smiling, Mrs. Killjoy put down her small charges, as did her husband, and informed the landlady in the most polite terms, "They have already done their number ones and twos, and Ken will give them their dinner as usual and put them to bed ... Go along, my darlings.

Go along with your papa. "

During this little scene Ward had been standing apart, holding his wide-brimmed hat level so that the rain wouldn't drip on to the

polished linoleum of the hall floor, and not really believing what he was hearing and witnessing. It was as if he himself had been lifted on to a stage and was taking part in a play;

and then more so when Mrs. Killjoy asked in her assumed refined tone,

"And how is our patient faring? Has she behaved herself?"

"Yes," replied Mrs. Borman; "I would say she has, as always, behaved herself. She is now in the parlour."

"Oh, she has managed to get there! That is wonderful. And it has eased what might have been an embarrassing question, which I would have had to phrase very diplomatically in asking if our friend here would have been allowed to visit her privately. Oh, the parlour is very

suitable.

Would you come this way? " She inclined a hand towards Ward.

"But, ah' she stopped again 'before doing so, let me divest you of your coat and take that hat."

He had to close his eyes for a moment whilst being divested of his coat. But then he was following Mrs. Killjoy, a person, he

considered, most definitely misnamed, into a room that seemed to be furnished entirely with chairs of all shapes and sizes, and there, sitting on one to the side of the fireplace, was a slim young girl.

As he walked slowly towards her, Mrs. Killjoy was exclaiming loudly,

"I've brought a gentleman to see you, dear. He was so disappointed that you weren't on stage tonight. He was enquiring of your health. He is a Mr. Hay ward Gibson." She split the name.

"He is from the country ... How is your ankle, dear?"

As the girl answered, "Much better, thank you," she did not look at Mrs. Killjoy, but at the tall man staring down at her, and she was recognising him, much more than at the moment he was recognising her, because he was looking down on a girl he imagined to be not more than sixteen, with her abundant brown hair lying in a loose bun at the back of her head. Her face was oval-shaped; her eyes large, and they were brown, too, but of a deeper brown than her hair. She had a wide full mouth and a small nose, and her skin appeared to be slightly tanned.

In no way did she fit the picture of the Maltese Angel.

"Good evening."

"Good evening." He bowed slightly; then he added, "I ... I was sorry to hear of your accident."

"Oh, it was nothing. It will soon be better." She put her hand towards where her foot was resting on the low stool.

"I'll be dancing again next week."

"That you won't. I've never been a betting woman but I'll take a bet on that. Three weeks at the least. That's what the doctor said. And, by the way' Mrs. Killjoy now indicated Ward with a quite gracious wave of her hand " Mr. Gibson is a farmer. And Sophia took to him, so that's a good reference, don't you think. " She smiled now from one to the other; then hitching up her large bosom, she added, " Now, I'm away to tidy myself up and get ready for supper, although we'll have a good hour or more to wait, seeing that we're early in. He put us on in the first half. " She now bent forward, her finger wagging as if at the culprit who had done this thing.

"Would you believe that, Stephanie?

The effrontery of it! Still, I'll tell you all about it later. "

At this, she turned about and sailed from the room, for, in spite of her bulk, her step was light.

Ward searched in his mind for something to say, but the only words it prompted were, "It is still raining," to which inane remark the girl quietly invited him to sit down.

He looked around as to which chair he would take, and her voice full of laughter now, prompted him, saying, "Don't sit in the big leather one. It looks very comfortable, but the springs have gone. I think the safest would be the Bentwood arm." She pointed to a chair a little to the left of her.

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