That same Sunday Alicia had been able to say to Lindsay about Hilda Howe, “We have not stood still—we know each other well now,” and when he commented with some reserve upon this, to follow it up. “But these things have so little to do with mere length of time or number of opportunities,” she declared. “One springs at some people.”
A Major-General, interrupting, said he wished he had the chance; and they talked about something else. But perhaps this is enough to explain a note which went by a messenger from the Livingstones’ pillared palace in Middleton street to No. 3, La Behari’s Lane on Monday morning. It was a short note, making a definite demand with an absence of colour and softness and emotion which was almost elaborate. Hilda, at breakfast, tore off the blank half sheet, and wrote in pencil—
“I think I can arrange to get her here about five this afternoon. No rehearsal—they’re doing something to the gas-pipes at the theatre, so you will find me, anyway. And I’ll be delighted to see you.”
She twisted it up and addressed it, reconsidered that, and made the scrap more secure in a yellow envelope. It had an embossed post-office stamp, which she sacrificed with resignation. Then she went back to an extremely uninteresting vegetable curry, with the reflection, “Can she possibly imagine that one doesn’t see it yet?”
Alicia came before five. She brought a novel of Gissing’s, in order apparently that they might without fail talk about Gissing. Hilda was agreeable; she would talk about Gissing, or about anything, tipped on the edge of her bed—Alicia had surmounted that degree of intimacy at a bound by the declaration that she could no longer endure the blue umbrellas—and clasping one knee, with an uncertain tenure of a chipped bronze slipper deprived of its heel. Wonderful tusser silk draperies fell about her, with ink-spots on the sleeves; her hair was magnificent.
“It’s so curious to me,” she was saying of the novel, “that any one should learn all that life as you do, at a distance, in a book. It’s like looking at it through the little end of an opera-glass.”
“I fancy that the most desirable way,” said Alicia, glancing at the door.
“Don’t you believe it. The best way is to come out of it, to grow out of it. Then all the rest has the charm of novelty and the value of contrast, and the distinction of being the best. You, poor dear, were born an artificial flower in a cardboard box. But you couldn’t help it.”
“Everybody doesn’t grow out of it.” The concentration in Alicia’s eyes returned again with vacillating wings.
“She can’t be here for a quarter of an hour yet.”
The slipper dropped at this point, and Hilda stooped to put it on again. She kept her foot in her hands and regarded it pensively.
“Shoes are the one thing one shouldn’t buy in the native quarter,” she said; “At all events, ready-made.”