“I’m over forty, Frances, and rather set in my ways,” I said good-naturedly, ready to yield if she insisted that our going together on the visit involved her happiness. “My work is rather heavy just now too, as you know. The question is, could I work there—with a lot of unassorted people in the house?”
“Mabel doesn’t mention any other people, Bill,” was my sister’s rejoinder. “I gather she’s alone—as well as lonely.”
By the way she looked sideways out of the window at nothing, it was obvious she was disappointed, but to my surprise she did not urge the point; and as I glanced at Mrs. Franklyn’s invitation lying upon her sloping lap, the neat, childish handwriting conjured up a mental picture of the banker’s widow, with her timid, insignificant personality, her pale grey eyes and her expression as of a backward child. I thought, too, of the roomy country mansion her late husband had altered to suit his particular needs, and of my visit to it a few years ago when its barren spaciousness suggested a wing of Kensington Museum fitted up temporarily as a place to eat and sleep in. Comparing it mentally with the poky Chelsea flat where I and my sister kept impecunious house, I realized other points as well. Unworthy details flashed across me to entice: the fine library, the organ, the quiet work-room I should have, perfect service, the delicious cup of early tea, and hot baths at any moment of the day—without a geyser!
“It’s a longish visit, a month—isn’t it?” I hedged, smiling at the details that seduced me, and ashamed of my man’s selfishness, yet knowing that Frances expected it of me. “There are points about it, I admit. If you’re set on my going with you, I could manage it all right.”
I spoke at length in this way because my sister made no answer. I saw her tired eyes gazing into the dreariness of Oakley Street and felt a pang strike through me. After a pause, in which again she said no word, I added: “So, when you write the letter, you might hint, perhaps, that I usually work all the morning, and—er—am not a very lively visitor! Then she’ll understand, you see.” And I half-rose to return to my diminutive study, where I was slaving, just then, at an absorbing article on Comparative Aesthetic Values in the Blind and Deaf.
But Frances did not move. She kept her grey eyes upon Oakley Street where the evening mist from the river drew mournful perspectives into view. It was late October. We heard the omnibuses thundering across the bridge. The monotony of that broad, characterless street seemed more than usually depressing. Even in June sunshine it was dead, but with autumn its melancholy soaked into every house between King’s Road and the Embankment. It washed thought into the past, instead of inviting it hopefully towards the future. For me, its easy width was an avenue through which nameless slums across the river sent creeping messages of depression, and I always regarded it as Winter’s main entrance into London—fog, slush, gloom trooped down it every November, waving their forbidding banners till March came to rout them.