Nan gave Rodney her small, fleeting smile. She had a critical friendliness for him, but had never believed him really good enough for Neville.
Gerda and Kay began to play a single, and Nan said, “I’m in a hole.”
“Broke, darling?” Neville asked her, for that was usually it, though sometimes it was human entanglements.
Nan nodded. “If I could have ten pounds.... I’d let you have it in a fortnight.”
“That’s easy,” said Rodney, in his kind, offhand way.
“Of course,” Neville said. “You old spendthrift.”
“Thank you, dears. Now I can get a birthday present for mother.”
For Mrs. Hilary’s birthday was next week, and to celebrate it her children habitually assembled at The Gulls, St. Mary’s Bay, where she lived. Nan always gave her a more expensive present than she could afford, in a spasm of remorse for the irritation her mother roused in her.
“Oh, poor mother,” Neville exclaimed, suddenly remembering that Mrs. Hilary would in a week be sixty-three, and that this must be worse by twenty years than to be forty-three.
The hurrying stream of life was loud in her ears. How quickly it was sweeping them all along—the young bodies of Gerda and of Kay leaping on the tennis court, the clear, analysing minds of Nan and Rodney and herself musing in the sun, the feverish heart of her mother, loving, hating, feeding restlessly on itself by the seaside, the age-calmed soul of her grandmother, who was eighty-four and drove out in a donkey chair by the same sea.
The lazy talking of Rodney and Nan, the cryings and strikings of Gerda and Kay, the noontide chirrupings of birds, the cluckings of distant hens pretending that they had laid eggs, all merged into the rushing of the inexorable river, along and along and along. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bearing all its sons away. Clatter, chatter, clatter, does it matter, matter, matter? They fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.... No, it probably didn’t matter at all what one did, how much one got into one’s life, since there was to be, anyhow, so soon an end.
The garden became strange and far and flat, like tapestry, or a dream....
The lunch gong boomed. Nan, who had fallen asleep with the suddenness of a lower animal, her cheek pillowed on her hand, woke and stretched. Gerda and Kay, not to be distracted from their purpose, finished the set.
“Thank God,” said Nan, “that I am not lunching with Rosalind.”
MRS. HILARY’S BIRTHDAY