Within a Wall By Agatha Christie
‘Within a Wall’ was first published in Royal Magazine,
It was Mrs Lempriere who discovered the existence of Jane Haworth. It would be, of course. Somebody once said that Mrs Lempriere was easily the most hated woman in London, but that, I think, is an exaggeration. She has certainly a knack of tumbling on the one thing you wish to keep quiet about, and she does it with real genius. It is always an accident.
In this case we had been having tea in Alan Everard’s studio. He gave these teas occasionally, and used to stand about in corners, wearing very old clothes, rattling the coppers in his trouser pockets and looking profoundly miserable.
I do not suppose anyone will dispute Everard’s claim to genius at this date. His two most famous pictures, Colour, and The Connoisseur, which belong to his early period, before he became a fashionable portrait painter, were purchased by the nation last year, and for once the choice went unchallenged. But at the date of which I speak, Everard was only beginning to come into his own, and we were free to consider that we had discovered him.
It was his wife who organized these parties. Everard’s attitude to her was a peculiar one. That he adored her was evident, and only to be expected. Adoration was Isobel’s due. But he seemed always to feel himself slightly in her debt. He assented to anything she wished, not so much through tenderness as through an unalterable conviction that she had a right to her own way. I suppose that was natural enough, too, when one comes to think of it.
For Isobel Loring had been really very celebrated. When she came out she had been the debutante of the season. She had everything except money; beauty, position, breeding, brains. Nobody expected her to marry for love. She wasn’t that kind of girl. In her second season she had three strings to her bow, the heir to a dukedom, a rising politician, and a South African millionaire. And then, to everyone’s surprise, she married Alan Everard – a struggling young painter whom no one had ever heard of.
It is a tribute to her personality, I think, that everyone went on calling her Isobel Loring. Nobody ever alluded to her as Isobel Everard. It would be: ‘I saw Isobel Loring this morning. Yes – with her husband, young Everard, the painter fellow.’
People said Isobel had ‘done for herself’. It would, I think, have ‘done’ for most men to be known as ‘Isobel Loring’s husband’. But Everard was different. Isobel’s talent for success hadn’t failed her after all. Alan Everard painted Colour.
I suppose everyone knows the picture: a stretch of road with a trench dug down it, the turned earth, reddish in colour, a shining length of brown glazed drainpipe and the huge navvy, resting for a minute on his spade – a Herculean figure in stained corduroys with a scarlet necker-chief. His eyes look out at you from the canvas, without intelligence, without hope, but with a dumb unconscious pleading, the eyes of a magnificent brute beast. It is a flaming thing – a symphony of orange and red. A lot has been written about its symbolism, about what it is meant to express. Alan Everard himself says he didn’t mean it to express anything. He was, he said, nauseated by having had to look at a lot of pictures of Venetian sunsets, and a sudden longing for a riot of purely English colour assailed him.
After that, Everard gave the world that epic painting of a public house – Romance; the black street with rain falling – the half-open door, the lights and shining glasses, the little foxy-faced man passing through the doorway, small, mean, insignificant, with lips parted and eyes eager, passing in to forget.
On the strength of these two pictures Everard was acclaimed as a painter of ‘working men’. He had his niche. But he refused to stay in it. His third and most brilliant work, a full-length portrait of Sir Rufus Herschman. The famous scientist is painted against a background of retorts and crucibles and laboratory shelves. The whole has what may be called a Cubist effect, but the lines of perspective run strangely.
And now he had completed his fourth work – a portrait of his wife. We had been invited to see and criticize. Everard himself scowled and looked out of the window; Isobel Loring moved amongst the guests, talking technique with unerring accuracy.
We made comments. We had to. We praised the painting of the pink satin. The treatment of that, we said, was really marvellous. Nobody had painted satin in quite that way before.
Mrs Lempriere, who is one of the most intelligent art critics I know, took me aside almost at once.
‘Georgie,’ she said, ‘what has he done to himself? The thing’s dead. It’s smooth. It’s – oh! it’s damnable.’
‘Portrait of a Lady in Pink Satin?’ I suggested.
‘Exactly. And yet the technique’s perfect. And the care! There’s enough work there for sixteen pictures.’
‘Too much work?’ I suggested.
‘Perhaps that’s it. If there ever was anything there, he’s killed it. An extremely beautiful woman in a pink satin dress. Why not a coloured photograph?’
‘Why not?’ I agreed. ‘Do you suppose he knows?’ ‘Don’t you see the man’s on edge? It comes, I daresay, of mixing up sentiment and business. He’s put his whole soul into painting Isobel, because she is Isobel, and in sparing her, he’s lost her. He’s been too kind. You’ve got to – to destroy the flesh before you can get at the soul sometimes.’
I nodded reflectively. Sir Rufus Herschman had not been flattered physically, but Everard had succeeded in putting on the canvas a personality that was unforgettable.
‘And Isobel’s got such a very forceful personality,’ continued Mrs Lempriere.
‘Perhaps Everard can’t paint women,’ I said.
‘Perhaps not,’ said Mrs Lempriere thoughtfully. ‘Yes, that may be the explanation.’
And it was then, with her usual genius for accuracy, that she pulled out a canvas that was leaning with its face to the wall. There were about eight of them, stacked carelessly. It was pure chance that Mrs Lempriere selected the one she did – but as I said before, these things happen with Mrs Lempriere.
‘Ah!’ said Mrs Lempriere as she turned it to the light.
It was unfinished, a mere rough sketch. The woman, or girl – she was not, I thought, more than twenty-five or six – was leaning forward, her chin on her hand. Two things struck me at once: the extraordinary vitality of the picture and the amazing cruelty of it. Everard had painted with a vindictive brush. The attitude even was a cruel one – it had brought out every awkwardness, every sharp angle, every crudity. It was a study in brown – brown dress, brown background, brown eyes – wistful, eager eyes. Eagerness was, indeed, the prevailing note of it.
Mrs Lempriere looked at it for some minutes in silence. Then she called to Everard.
‘Alan,’ she said. ‘Come here. Who’s this?’
Everard came over obediently. I saw the sudden flash of annoyance that he could not quite hide.
‘That’s only a daub,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose I shall ever finish it.’
‘Who is she?’ said Mrs Lempriere.
Everard was clearly unwilling to answer, and his unwillingness was as meat and drink to Mrs Lempriere, who always believes the worst on principle.
‘A friend of mine. A Miss Jane Haworth.’
‘I’ve never met her here,’ said Mrs Lempriere.
‘She doesn’t come to these shows.’ He paused a minute, then added: ‘She’s Winnie’s godmother.’
Winnie was his little daughter, aged five.
‘Really?’ said Mrs Lempriere. ‘Where does she live?’
‘Battersea. A flat.’
‘Really,’ said Mrs Lempriere again, and then added: ‘And what has she ever done to you?’
‘To you. To make you so – ruthless.’
‘Oh, that!’ he laughed. ‘Well, you know, she’s not a beauty. I can’t make her one out of friendship, can I?’
‘You’ve done the opposite,’ said Mrs Lempriere. ‘You’ve caught hold of every defect of hers and exaggerated it and twisted it. You’ve tried to make her ridiculous – but you haven’t succeeded, my child. That portrait, if you finish it, will live.’
Everard looked annoyed.
‘It’s not bad,’ he said lightly, ‘for a sketch, that is. But, of course, it’s not a patch on Isobel’s portrait. That’s far and away the best thing I’ve ever done.’
He said the last words defiantly and aggressively. Neither of us answered.
‘Far and away the best thing,’ he repeated.
Some of the others had drawn near us. They, too, caught sight of the sketch. There were exclamations, comments. The atmosphere began to brighten up.
It was in this way that I first heard of Jane Haworth. Later, I was to meet her – twice. I was to hear details of her life from one of her most intimate friends. I was to learn much from Alan Everard himself. Now that they are both dead, I think it is time to contradict some of the stories Mrs Lempriere is busily spreading abroad. Call some of my story invention if you will – it is not far from the truth.
When the guests had left, Alan Everard turned the portrait of Jane Haworth with its face to the wall again. Isobel came down the room and stood beside him.
‘A success, do you think?’ she asked thoughtfully. ‘Or – not quite a success?’
‘The portrait?’ he asked quickly.
‘No, silly, the party. Of course the portrait’s a success.’
‘It’s the best thing I’ve done,’ Everard declared aggressively.
‘We’re getting on,’ said Isobel. ‘Lady Charmington wants you to paint her.’
‘Oh, Lord!’ He frowned. ‘I’m not a fashionable portrait painter, you know.’
‘You will be. You’ll get to the top of the tree.’
‘That’s not the tree I want to get to the top of.’
‘But, Alan dear, that’s the way to make mints of money.’
‘Who wants mints of money?’
‘Perhaps I do,’ she said smiling.
At once he felt apologetic, ashamed. If she had not married him she could have had her mints of money. And she needed it. A certain amount of luxury was her proper setting.
‘We’ve not done so badly just lately,’ he said wistfully.
‘No, indeed; but the bills are coming in rather fast.’
Bills – always bills!
He walked up and down.
‘Oh, hang it! I don’t want to paint Lady Charmington,’ he burst out, rather like a petulant child.
Isobel smiled a little. She stood by the fire without moving. Alan stopped his restless pacing and came nearer to her. What was there in her, in her stillness, her inertia, that drew him – drew him like a magnet? How beautiful she was – her arms like sculptured white marble, the pure gold of her hair, her lips – red full lips.
He kissed them – felt them fasten on his own. Did anything else matter? What was there in Isobel that soothed you, that took all your cares from you? She drew you into her own beautiful inertia and held you there, quiet and content. Poppy and mandragora; you drifted there, on a dark lake, asleep.
‘I’ll do Lady Charmington,’ he said presently. ‘What does it matter? I shall be bored – but after all, painters must eat. There’s Mr Pots the painter, Mrs Pots the painter’s wife, and Miss Pots the painter’s daughter – all needing sustenance.’
‘Absurd boy!’ said Isobel. ‘Talking of our daughter – you ought to go and see Jane some time. She was here yesterday, and said she hadn’t seen you for months.’
‘Jane was here?’
‘Yes – to see Winnie.’
Alan brushed Winnie aside.
‘Did she see the picture of you?’
‘What did she think of it?’
‘She said it was splendid.’
He frowned, lost in thought.
‘Mrs Lempriere suspects you of a guilty passion for Jane, I think,’ remarked Isobel. ‘Her nose twitched a good deal.’
‘That woman!’ said Alan, with deep disgust. ‘That woman! What wouldn’t she think? What doesn’t she think?’
‘Well, I don’t think,’ said Isobel, smiling. ‘So go and see Jane soon.’
Alan looked across at her. She was sitting now on a low couch by the fire. Her face was half turned away, the smile still lingered on her lips. And at that moment he felt bewildered, confused, as though a mist had formed round him, and, suddenly parting, had given him a glimpse into a strange country.
Something said to him: ‘Why does she want you to go and see Jane? There’s a reason.’ Because with Isobel, there was bound to be a reason. There was no impulse in Isobel, only calculation.
‘Do you like Jane?’ he asked suddenly.
‘She’s a dear,’ said Isobel.
‘Yes, but do you really like her?’
‘Of course. She’s so devoted to Winnie. By the way, she wants to carry Winnie off to the seaside next week. You don’t mind, do you? It will leave us free for Scotland.’
‘It will be extraordinarily convenient.’
It would, indeed, be just that. Extraordinarily convenient. He looked across at Isobel with a sudden suspicion. Had she asked Jane? Jane was so easily imposed upon.
Isobel got up and went out of the room, humming to herself. Oh, well, it didn’t matter. Anyway, he would go and see Jane.
Jane Haworth lived at the top of a block of mansion flats overlooking Battersea Park. When Everard had climbed four flights of stairs and pressed the bell, he felt annoyed with Jane. Why couldn’t she live somewhere more get-at-able? When, not having obtained an answer, he had pressed the bell three times, his annoyance had grown greater. Why couldn’t she keep someone capable of answering the door?
Suddenly it opened, and Jane herself stood in the doorway. She was flushed.
‘Where’s Alice?’ asked Everard, without any attempt at greeting.
‘Well, I’m afraid – I mean – she’s not well today.’
‘Drunk, you mean?’ said Everard grimly.
What a pity that Jane was such an inveterate liar.
‘I suppose that’s it,’ said Jane reluctantly.
‘Let me see her.’
He strode into the flat. Jane followed him with disarming meekness. He found the delinquent Alice in the kitchen. There was no doubt whatever as to her condition. He followed Jane into the sitting-room in grim silence.
‘You’ll have to get rid of that woman,’ he said. ‘I told you so before.’
‘I know you did, Alan, but I can’t do that. You forget, her husband’s in prison.’
‘Where he ought to be,’ said Everard. ‘How often has that woman been drunk in the three months you’ve had her?’
‘Not so very many times; three or four perhaps. She gets depressed, you know.’
‘Three or four! Nine or ten would be nearer the mark. How does she cook? Rottenly. Is she the least assistance or comfort to you in this flat? None whatever. For God’s sake, get rid of her tomorrow morning and engage a girl who is of some use.’
Jane looked at him unhappily.
‘You won’t,’ said Everard gloomily, sinking into a big armchair. ‘You’re such an impossibly sentimental creature. What’s this I hear about your taking Winnie to the seaside? Who suggested it, you or Isobel?’
Jane said very quickly: ‘I did, of course.’
‘Jane,’ said Everard, ‘if you would only learn to speak the truth, I should be quite fond of you. Sit down, and for goodness’ sake don’t tell any more lies for at least ten minutes.’
‘Oh, Alan!’ said Jane, and sat down.
The painter examined her critically for a minute or two. Mrs Lempriere – that woman – had been quite right. He had been cruel in his handling of Jane. Jane was almost, if not quite, beautiful. The long lines of her body were pure Greek. It was that eager anxiety of hers to please that made her awkward. He had seized on that – exaggerated it – had sharpened the line of her slightly pointed chin, flung her body into an ugly poise.
Why? Why was it impossible for him to be five minutes in the room with Jane without feeling violent irritation against her rising up in him? Say what you would, Jane was a dear, but irritating. He was never soothed and at peace with her as he was with Isobel. And yet Jane was so anxious to please, so willing to agree with all he said, but alas! so transparently unable to conceal her real feelings.
He looked round the room. Typically Jane. Some lovely things, pure gems, that piece of Battersea enamel, for instance, and there next to it, an atrocity of a vase hand-painted with roses.
He picked the latter up.
‘Would you be very angry, Jane, if I pitched this out of the window?’
‘Oh! Alan, you mustn’t.’
‘What do you want with all this trash? You’ve plenty of taste if you care to use it. Mixing things up!’
‘I know, Alan. It isn’t that I don’t know. But people give me things. That vase – Miss Bates brought it back from Margate – and she’s so poor, and has to scrape, and it must have cost her quite a lot – for her, you know, and she thought I’d be so pleased. I simply had to put it in a good place.’
Everard said nothing. He went on looking round the room. There were one or two etchings on the walls – there were also a number of photographs of babies. Babies, whatever their mothers may think, do not always photograph well. Any of Jane’s friends who acquired babies hurried to send photographs of them to her, expecting these tokens to be cherished. Jane had duly cherished them.
‘Who’s this little horror?’ asked Everard, inspecting a pudgy addition with a squint. ‘I’ve not seen him before.’
‘It’s a her,’ said Jane. ‘Mary Carrington’s new baby.’
‘Poor Mary Carrington,’ said Everard. ‘I suppose you’ll pretend that you like having that atrocious infant squinting at you all day?’
Jane’s chin shot out.
‘She’s a lovely baby. Mary is a very old friend of mine.’
‘Loyal Jane,’ said Everard smiling at her. ‘So Isobel landed you with Winnie, did she?’
‘Well, she did say you wanted to go to Scotland, and I jumped at it. You will let me have Winnie, won’t you? I’ve been wondering if you would let her come to me for ages, but I haven’t liked to ask.’
‘Oh, you can have her – but it’s awfully good of you.’
‘Then that’s all right,’ said Jane happily.
Everard lit a cigarette.
‘Isobel show you the new portrait?’ he asked rather indistinctly.
‘What did you think of it?’
Jane’s answer came quickly – too quickly:
‘It’s perfectly splendid. Absolutely splendid.’
Alan sprang suddenly to his feet. The hand that held the cigarette shook.
‘Damn you, Jane, don’t lie to me!’
‘But, Alan, I’m sure, it is perfectly splendid.’
‘Haven’t you learnt by now, Jane, that I know every tone of your voice? You lie to me like a hatter so as not to hurt my feelings, I suppose. Why can’t you be honest? Do you think I want you to tell me a thing is splendid when I know as well as you do that it’s not? The damned thing’s dead – dead. There’s no life in it – nothing behind, nothing but surface, damned smooth surface. I’ve cheated myself all along – yes, even this afternoon. I came along to you to find out. Isobel doesn’t know. But you know, you always do know. I knew you’d tell me it was good – you’ve no moral sense about that sort of thing. But I can tell by the tone of your voice. When I showed you Romance you didn’t say anything at all – you held your breath and gave a sort of gasp.’
‘Alan . . .’
Everard gave her no chance to speak. Jane was producing the effect upon him he knew so well. Strange that so gentle a creature could stir him to such furious anger.
‘You think I’ve lost the power, perhaps,’ he said angrily, ‘but I haven’t. I can do work every bit as good as Romance – better, perhaps. I’ll show you, Jane Haworth.’
He fairly rushed out of the flat. Walking rapidly, he crossed through the Park and over Albert Bridge. He was still tingling all over with irritation and baffled rage. Jane, indeed! What did she know about painting? What was her opinion worth? Why should he care? But he did care. He wanted to paint something that would make Jane gasp. Her mouth would open just a little, and her cheeks would flush red. She would look first at the picture and then at him. She wouldn’t say anything at all probably.
In the middle of the bridge he saw the picture he was going to paint. It came to him from nowhere at all, out of the blue. He saw it, there in the air, or was it in his head?
A little, dingy curio shop, rather dark and musty-looking. Behind the counter a Jew – a small Jew with cunning eyes. In front of him the customer, a big man, sleek, well fed, opulent, bloated, a great jowl on him. Above them, on a shelf, a bust of white marble. The light there, on the boy’s marble face, the deathless beauty of old Greece, scornful, unheeding of sale and barter. The Jew, the rich collector, the Greek boy’s head. He saw them all.
‘The Connoisseur, that’s what I’ll call it,’ muttered Alan Everard, stepping off the kerb and just missing being annihilated by a passing bus. ‘Yes, The Connoisseur. I’ll show Jane.’
When he arrived home, he passed straight into the studio. Isobel found him there, sorting out canvases.
‘Alan, don’t forget we’re dining with the Marches -‘
Everard shook his head impatiently.
‘Damn the Marches. I’m going to work. I’ve got hold of something, but I must get it fixed – fixed at once on the canvas before it goes. Ring them up. Tell them I’m dead.’
Isobel looked at him thoughtfully for a moment or two, and then went out. She understood the art of living with a genius very thoroughly. She went to the telephone and made some plausible excuse.
She looked round her, yawning a little. Then she sat down at her desk and began to write.
Many thanks for your cheque received today. You are good to your godchild. A hundred pounds will do all sorts of things. Children are a terrible expense. You are so fond of Winnie that I felt I was not doing wrong in coming to you for help. Alan, like all geniuses, can only work at what he wants to work at – and unfortunately that doesn’t always keep the pot boiling. Hope to see you soon. Yours, Isobel‘
When The Connoisseur was finished, some months later, Alan invited Jane to come and see it. The thing was not quite as he had conceived it – that was impossible to hope for – but it was near enough. He felt the glow of the creator. He had made this thing and it was good.
Jane did not this time tell him it was splendid. The colour crept into her cheeks and her lips parted. She looked at Alan, and he saw in her eyes that which he wished to see. Jane knew.
He walked on air. He had shown Jane!
The picture off his mind, he began to notice his immediate surroundings once more.
Winnie had benefited enormously from her fortnight at the seaside, but it struck him that her clothes were very shabby. He said so to Isobel.
‘Alan! You who never notice anything! But I like children to be simply dressed – I hate them all fussed up.’
‘There’s a difference between simplicity and darns and patches.’
Isobel said nothing, but she got Winnie a new frock.
Two days later Alan was struggling with income tax returns. His own pass book lay in front of him. He was hunting through Isobel’s desk for hers when Winnie danced into the room with a disreputable doll.
‘Daddy, I’ve got a riddle. Can you guess it? “Within a wall as white as milk, within a curtain soft as silk, bathed in a sea of crystal clear, a golden apple doth appear.” Guess what that is?’
‘Your mother,’ said Alan absently. He was still hunting.
‘Daddy!’ Winnie gave a scream of laughter. ‘It’s an egg. Why did you think it was mummy?’
Alan smiled too.
‘I wasn’t really listening,’ he said. ‘And the words sounded like mummy, somehow.’
A wall as white as milk. A curtain. Crystal. The golden apple. Yes, it did suggest Isobel to him. Curious things, words.
He had found the pass book now. He ordered Winnie peremptorily from the room. Ten minutes later he looked up, startled by a sharp exclamation.
‘Hullo, Isobel. I didn’t hear you come in. Look here, I can’t make out these items in your pass book.’
‘What business had you to touch my pass book?’
He stared at her, astonished. She was angry. He had never seen her angry before.
‘I had no idea you would mind.’
‘I do mind – very much indeed. You have no business to touch my things.’
Alan suddenly became angry too.
‘I apologize. But since I have touched your things, perhaps you will explain one or two entries that puzzle me. As far as I can see, nearly five hundred pounds has been paid into your account this year which I cannot check. Where does it come from?’
Isobel had recovered her temper. She sank into a chair.
‘You needn’t be so solemn about it, Alan,’ she said lightly. ‘It isn’t the wages of sin, or anything like that.’
‘Where did this money come from?’
‘From a woman. A friend of yours. It’s not mine at all. It’s for Winnie.’
‘Winnie? Do you mean – this money came from Jane?’
‘She’s devoted to the child – can’t do enough for her.’
‘Yes, but – surely the money ought to have been invested for Winnie.’
‘Oh! it isn’t that sort of thing at all. It’s for current expenses, clothes and all that.’
Alan said nothing. He was thinking of Winnie’s frocks – all darns and patches.
‘Your account’s overdrawn, too, Isobel?’
‘Is it? That’s always happening to me.’
‘Yes, but that five hundred -‘
‘My dear Alan, I’ve spent it on Winnie in the way that seemed best to me. I can assure you Jane is quite satisfied.’
Alan was not satisfied. Yet such was the power of Isobel’s calm that he said nothing more. After all, Isobel was careless in money matters. She hadn’t meant to use for herself money given to her for the child. A receipted bill came that day addressed by a mistake to Mr Everard. It was from a dressmaker in Hanover Square and was for two hundred odd pounds. He gave it to Isobel without a word. She glanced over it, smiled, and said: ‘Poor boy, I suppose it seems an awful lot to you, but one really must be more or less clothed.’
The next day he went to see Jane.
Jane was irritating and elusive as usual. He wasn’t to bother. Winnie was her godchild. Women understood these things, men didn’t. Of course she didn’t want Winnie to have five hundred pounds’ worth of frocks. Would he please leave it to her and Isobel? They understood each other perfectly.
Alan went away in a state of growing dissatisfaction. He knew perfectly well that he had shirked the one question he really wished to ask. He wanted to say: ‘Has Isobel ever asked you for money for Winnie?’ He didn’t say it because he was afraid that Jane might not lie well enough to deceive him.
But he was worried. Jane was poor. He knew she was poor. She mustn’t – mustn’t denude herself. He made up his mind to speak to Isobel. Isobel was calm and reassuring. Of course she wouldn’t let Jane spend more than she could afford.
A month later Jane died.
It was influenza, followed by pneumonia. She made Alan Everard her executor and left all she had to Winnie. But it wasn’t very much.
It was Alan’s task to go through Jane’s papers. She left a record there that was clear to follow – numerous evidences of acts of kindness, begging letters, grateful letters.
And lastly, he found her diary. With it was a scrap of paper:
‘To be read after my death by Alan Everard. He has often reproached me with not speaking the truth. The truth is all here.’
So he came to know at last, finding the one place where Jane had dared to be honest. It was a record, very simple and unforced, of her love for him.
There was very little sentiment about it – no fine language. But there was no blinking of facts.
‘I know you are often irritated by me,’ she had written. ‘Everything I do or say seems to make you angry sometimes. I do not know why this should be, for I try so hard to please you; but I do believe, all the same, that I mean something real to you. One isn’t angry with the people who don’t count.’
It was not Jane’s fault that Alan found other matters. Jane was loyal – but she was also untidy; she filled her drawers too full. She had, shortly before her death, burnt carefully all Isobel’s letters. The one Alan found was wedged behind a drawer. When he had read it, the meaning of certain cabalistic signs on the counterfoils of Jane’s cheque book became clear to him. In this particular letter Isobel had hardly troubled to keep up the pretence of the money being required for Winnie.
Alan sat in front of the desk staring with unseeing eyes out of the window for a long time. Finally he slipped the cheque book into his pocket and left the flat. He walked back to Chelsea, conscious of an anger that grew rapidly stronger.
Isobel was out when he got back, and he was sorry. He had so clearly in his mind what he wanted to say. Instead, he went up to the studio and pulled out the unfinished portrait of Jane. He set it on an easel near the portrait of Isobel in pink satin.
The Lempriere woman had been right; there was life in Jane’s portrait. He looked at her, the eager eyes, the beauty that he had tried so unsuccessfully to deny her. That was Jane – the aliveness, more than anything else, was Jane. She was, he thought, the most alive person he had ever met, so much so, that even now he could not think of her as dead.
And he thought of his other pictures – Colour, Romance, Sir Rufus Herschman. They had all, in a way, been pictures of Jane. She had kindled the spark for each one of them – had sent him away fuming and fretting – to show her! And now? Jane was dead. Would he ever paint a picture – a real picture – again? He looked again at the eager face on the canvas. Perhaps. Jane wasn’t very far away.
A sound made him wheel round. Isobel had come into the studio. She was dressed for dinner in a straight white gown that showed up the pure gold of her hair.
She stopped dead and checked the words on her lips. Eyeing him warily, she went over to the divan and sat down. She had every appearance of calm.
Alan took the cheque book from his pocket.
‘I’ve been going through Jane’s papers.’
He tried to imitate her calm, to keep his voice from shaking.
‘For the last four years she’s been supplying you with money.’
‘Yes. For Winnie.’
‘No, not for Winnie,’ shouted Everard. ‘You pretended, both of you, that it was for Winnie, but you both knew that that wasn’t so. Do you realize that Jane has been selling her securities, living from hand to mouth, to supply you with clothes – clothes that you didn’t really need?’
Isobel never took her eyes from his face. She settled her body more comfortably on the cushions as a white Persian cat might do.
‘I can’t help it if Jane denuded herself more than she should have done,’ she said. ‘I supposed she could afford the money. She was always crazy about you – I could see that, of course. Some wives would have kicked up a fuss about the way you were always rushing off to see her, and spending hours there. I didn’t.’
‘No,’ said Alan, very white in the face. ‘You made her pay instead.’
‘You are saying very offensive things, Alan. Be careful.’
‘Aren’t they true? Why did you find it so easy to get money out of Jane?’
‘Not for love of me, certainly. It must have been for love of you.’
‘That’s just what it was,’ said Alan simply. ‘She paid for my freedom – freedom to work in my own way. So long as you had a sufficiency of money, you’d leave me alone – not badger me to paint a crowd of awful women.’
Isobel said nothing.
‘Well?’ cried Alan angrily.
Her quiescence infuriated him.
Isobel was looking at the floor. Presently she raised her head and said quietly: ‘Come here, Alan.’
She touched the divan at her side. Uneasily, unwillingly, he came and sat there, not looking at her. But he knew that he was afraid.
‘Alan,’ said Isobel presently.
He was irritable, nervous.
‘All that you say may be true. It doesn’t matter. I’m like that. I want things – clothes, money, you. Jane’s dead, Alan.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Jane’s dead. You belong to me altogether now. You never did before – not quite.’
He looked at her – saw the light in her eyes, acquisitive, possessive – was revolted, yet fascinated.
‘Now you shall be all mine.’
He understood Isobel then as he had never understood her before.
‘You want me as a slave? I’m to paint what you tell me to paint, live as you tell me to live, be dragged at your chariot wheels.’
‘Put it like that if you please. What are words?’
He felt her arms round his neck, white, smooth, firm as a wall. Words danced through his brain. ‘A wall as white as milk.’ Already he was inside the wall. Could he still escape? Did he want to escape?
He heard her voice close against his ear – poppy and mandragora.
‘What else is there to live for? Isn’t this enough? Love – happiness – success – love -‘
The wall was growing up all round him now – ‘the curtain soft as silk’, the curtain wrapping him round, stifling him a little, but so soft, so sweet! Now they were drifting together, at peace, out on the crystal sea. The wall was very high now, shutting out all those other things – those dangerous, disturbing things that hurt – that always hurt. Out on the sea of crystal, the golden apple between their hands.
The light faded from Jane’s picture.