'Won't you come and have tea with me - do! Come right along now. Don't you find it bitterly cold? Yes - well now - come in with me and we'll have a cup of nice, hot tea in our little sitting-room. The weather changes so suddenly, and really one needs a little reinforcement. But perhaps you don't take tea?'
'Oh yes. I got so used to it in England,' said Hannele.
'Did you now! Well now, were you long in England?'
'Oh yes - '
The two women had met in the Domplatz. Mrs Hepburn was looking extraordinarily like one of Hannele's dolls, in a funny little cape of odd striped skins, and a little dark-green skirt, and a rather fuzzy sort of hat. Hannele looked almost huge beside her.
'But now you will come in and have tea, won't you? Oh, please do. Never mind whether it's de rigueur or not. I ALWAYS please myself WHAT I do. I'm afraid my husband gets some shocks sometimes - but that we can't help. I won't have anybody laying down the law to me.' She laughed her winsome little laugh.' So now come along in, and we'll see if there aren't hot scones as well. I love a hot scone for tea in cold weather. And I hope you do. That is, if there are any. We don't know yet.' She tinkled her little laugh. 'My husband may or may not be in. But that makes no difference to you and me, does it? There, it's just striking half past four. In England, we always have tea at half past. My husband ADORES his tea. I don't suppose our man is five minutes off the half past, ringing the gong for tea, not once in twelve months. My husband doesn't mind at all if dinner is a little late. But he gets - quite - well, quite "ratty" if tea is late.' She tinkled a laugh. 'Though I shouldn't say that. He is the soul of kindness and patience. I don't think I've ever known him do an unkind thing - or hardly say an unkind word. But I doubt if he will be in today.'
He WAS in, however, standing with his feet apart and his hands in his trouser pockets in the little sitting-room upstairs in the hotel. He raised his eyebrows the smallest degree, seeing Hannele enter.
'Ah, Countess Hannele - my wife has brought you along! Very nice, very nice! Let me take your wrap. Oh yes, certainly . . .'
'Have you rung for tea, dear?' asked Mrs Hepburn.
'Er - yes. I said as soon as you came in they were to bring it.'
'Yes - well. Won't you ring again, dear, and say for THREE.'
'Yes - certainly. Certainly.'
He rang, and stood about with his hands in his pockets waiting for tea.
'Well now,' said Mrs Hepburn, as she lifted the tea-pot, and her bangles tinkled, and her huge rings of brilliants twinkled, and her big ear-rings of clustered seed-pearls bobbed against her rather withered cheek,' isn't it charming of Countess zu - Countess zu - '
'Rassentlow,' said he. 'I believe most people say Countess Hannele. I know we always do among ourselves. We say Countess Hannele's shop.'
'Countess Hannele's shop! Now, isn't that perfectly delightful: such a romance in the very sound of it. You take cream?'
'Thank you,' said Hannele.
The tea passed in a cloud of chatter, while Mrs Hepburn manipulated the tea-pot, and lit the spirit-flame, and blew it out, and peeped into the steam of the tea-pot, and couldn't see whether there was any more tea or not - and - 'At home I KNOW - I was going to say to a teaspoonful - how much tea there is in the pot. But this tea-pot - I don't know what it's made of - it isn't silver, I know that - it is so heavy in itself that it's deceived me several times already. And my husband is a greedy man, a greedy man - he likes at least three cups - and four if he can get them, or five! Yes, dear, I've plenty of tea today. You shall have even five, if you don't mind the last two weak. Do let me fill your cup, Countess Hannele. I think it's a CHARMING name.'
'There's a play called Hannele, isn't there?' said he.
When he had had his five cups, and his wife had got her cigarette perched in the end of a long, long, slim, white holder, and was puffing like a little Chinawoman from the distance, there was a little lull.
'Alec, dear,' said Mrs Hepburn. 'You won't forget to leave that message for me at Mrs Rackham's. I'm so afraid it will be forgotten.'
'No, dear, I won't forget. Er - would you like me to go round now?'
Hannele noticed how often he said 'er' when he was beginning to speak to his wife. But they WERE such good friends, the two of them.
'Why, if you WOULD, dear, I should feel perfectly comfortable. But I don't want you to hurry one bit.'
'Oh, I may as well go now.'
And he went. Mrs Hepburn detained her guest.
'He IS so charming to me,' said the little woman. 'He's really wonderful. And he always has been the same - invariably. So that if he DID make a little slip - well, you know, I don't have to take it so seriously.'
'No,' said Hannele, feeling as if her ears were stretching with astonishment.
'It's the war. It's just the war. It's had a terribly deteriorating effect on the men.'
'In what way?' said Hannele.
'Why, morally. Really, there's hardly one man left the same as he was before the war. Terribly degenerated.'
'Is that so?' said Hannele.
'It is indeed. Why, isn't it the same with the German men and officers?'
'Yes, I think so,' said Hannele.
'And I'm sure so, from what I hear. But of course it is the women who are to blame in the first place. We poor women! We are a guilty race, I am afraid. But I never throw stones. I know what it is myself to have temptations. I have to flirt a little - and when I was younger - well, the men didn't escape me, I assure you. And I was SO often scorched. But never QUITE singed. My husband never minded. He knew I was REALLY safe. Oh yes, I have always been faithful to him. But still - I have been very near the flame.' And she laughed her winsome little laugh.
Hannele put her fingers to her ears to make sure they were not falling off.
'Of course during the war it was terrible. I know that in a certain hospital it was quite impossible for a girl to stay on if she kept straight. The matrons and sisters just turned her out. They wouldn't have her unless she was one of themselves. And you know what that means. Quite like the convent in Balzac's story - you know which I mean, I'm sure.' And the laugh tinkled gaily.
'But then, what can you expect, when there aren't enough men to go round! Why, I had a friend in Ireland. She and her husband had been an ideal couple, an IDEAL couple. Real playmates. And you can't say more than that, can you? Well, then, he became a major during the war. And she was so looking forward, poor thing, to the perfectly lovely times they would have together when he came home. She is like me, and is lucky enough to have a little income of her own - not a great fortune - but - well - Well now, what was I going to say? Oh yes, she was looking forward to the perfectly lovely times they would have when he came home: building on her dreams, poor thing, as we unfortunate women always do. I suppose we shall never be cured of it.' A little tinkling laugh. 'Well now, not a bit of it. Not a bit of it.' Mrs Hepburn lifted her heavily-jewelled little hand in a motion of protest. It was curious, her hands were pretty and white, and her neck and breast, now she wore a little tea-gown, were also smooth and white and pretty, under the medley of twinkling little chains and coloured jewels. Why should her face have played her this nasty trick of going all crumpled! However, it was so.
'Not one bit of it,' reiterated the little lady. 'He came home quite changed. She said she could hardly recognize him for the same man. Let me tell you one little incident. Just a trifle, but significant. He was coming home - this was some time after he was free from the army - he was coming home from London, and he told her to meet him at the boat: gave her the time and everything. Well, she went to the boat, poor thing, and he didn't come. She waited, and no word of explanation or anything. So she couldn't make up her mind whether to go next day and meet the boat again. However, she decided she wouldn't. So of course, on that boat he arrived. When he got home, he said to her: "Why didn't you meet the boat?" "Well," she said, "I went yesterday, and you didn't come." "Then why didn't you meet it again today?" Imagine it, the sauce! And they had been real playmates. Heart-breaking isn't it? "Well," she said in self-defence, "why didn't you come yesterday?" "Oh," he said, "I met a woman in town whom I liked, and she asked me to spend the night with her, so I did." Now what do you think of that? Can you conceive of such a thing?'
'Oh no,' said Hannele. 'I call that unnecessary brutality.'
'Exactly! So terrible to say such a thing to her! The brutality of it! Well, that's how the world is today. I'm thankful my husband isn't that sort. I don't say he's perfect. But whatever else he did, he'd never be unkind, and he COULDN'T be brutal. He just couldn't. He'd never tell me a lie - I know THAT. But callous brutality, no, thank goodness, he hasn't a spark of it in him. I'm the wicked one, if either of us is wicked.' The little laugh tinkled. 'Oh, but he's been perfect to me, perfect. Hardly a cross word. Why, on our wedding night, he kneeled down in front of me and promised, with God's help, to make my life happy. And I must say, as far as possible, he's kept his word. It has been his one aim in life, to make my life happy.'
The little lady looked away with a bright, musing look towards the window. She was being a heroine in a romance. Hannele could see her being a heroine, playing the chief part in her own life romance. It is such a feminine occupation, that no woman takes offence when she is made audience.
'I'm afraid I've more of the woman than the mother in my composition,' resumed the little heroine. 'I adore my two children. The boy is at Winchester, and my little girl is in a convent in Brittany. Oh, they are perfect darlings, both of them. But the man is first in my mind, I'm afraid. I fear I'm rather old-fashioned. But never mind. I can see the attractions in other men - can't I indeed! There was a perfectly exquisite creature - he was a very clever engineer - but much, much more than THAT. But never mind.' The little heroine sniffed as if there were perfume in the air, folded her jewelled hands, and resumed: 'However - I know what it is myself to flutter round the flame. You know I'm Irish myself, and we Irish can't help it. Oh, I wouldn't be English for anything. Just that little touch of imagination, you know . . .' The little laugh tinkled. 'And that's what makes me able to sympathize with my husband even when, perhaps, I shouldn't. Why, when he was at home with me, he never gave a thought, not a thought to another woman. I must say, he used to make ME feel a little guilty sometimes. But there! I don't think he ever thought of another woman as being flesh and blood, after he knew me. I could tell. Pleasant, courteous, charming - but other women were not flesh and blood to him, they were just people, callers - that kind of thing. It used to amaze me, when some perfectly lovely creature came, whom I should have been head over heels in love with in a minute - and he, he was charming, delightful; he could see her points, but she was no more to him than, let me say, a pot of carnations or a beautiful old piece of punto di Milano. Not flesh and blood. Well, perhaps one can feel too safe. Perhaps one needs a tiny pinch of salt of jealousy. I believe one does. And I have not had one jealous moment for seventeen years. So that, REALLY, when I heard a whisper of something going on here, I felt almost pleased. I felt exonerated for my own little peccadilloes, for one thing. And I felt he was perhaps a little more human. Because, after all, it is nothing but human to fall in love, if you are alone for a long time and in the company of a beautiful woman - and if you're an attractive man yourself.'
Hannele sat with her eyes propped open and her ears buttoned back with amazement, expecting the next revelations.
'Why, of course,' she said, knowing she was expected to say something.
'Yes, of course,' said Mrs Hepburn, eyeing her sharply. 'So I thought I'd better come and see how far things had gone. I had nothing but a hint to go on. I knew no name - nothing. I had just a hint that she was German, and a refugee aristocrat - and that he used to call at the studio.' The little lady eyed Hannele sharply, and gave a breathless little laugh, clasping her hands nervously. Hannele sat absolutely blank: really dazed.
'Of course,' resumed Mrs Hepburn, 'that was enough. That was quite a sufficient clue. I'm afraid my intentions when I called at the studio were not as pure as they might have been. I'm afraid I wanted to see something more than the dolls. But when you showed me HIS doll, then I knew. Of course there wasn't a shadow of doubt after that. And I saw at once that she loved him, poor thing. She was SO agitated. And no idea who I was. And you were so unkind to show me the doll. Of course, you had no idea who you were showing it to. But for her, poor thing, it was such a trial. I could see how she suffered. And I must say she's very lovely - she's very, very lovely, with her golden skin and her reddish amber eyes and her beautiful, beautiful carriage. And such a naïve, impulsive nature. Give everything away in a minute. And then her deep voice - "Oh yes - Oh, please!" - such a child. And such an aristocrat, that lovely turn of her head, and her simple, elegant dress. Oh, she's very charming. And she's just the type I always knew would attract him, if he hadn't got me. I've thought about it many a time - many a time. When a woman is older than a man, she does think these things - especially if he has his attractive points too. And when I've dreamed of the woman he would love if he hadn't got me, it has always been a Spanish type. And the Baroness is extraordinarily Spanish in her appearance. She must have had some noble Spanish ancestor. Don't you think so?'
'Oh yes,' said Hannele.' There were such a lot of Spaniards in Austria, too, with the various emperors.'
'With Charles V, exactly. Exactly. That's how it must have been. And so she has all the Spanish beauty, and all the German feeling. Of course, for myself, I miss the RESERVE, the haughtiness. But she's very, very lovely, and I'm sure I could never HATE her. I couldn't even if I tried. And I'm not going to try. But I think she's much too dangerous for my husband to see much of her. Don't you agree, now?'
'Oh, but really,' stammered Hannele. 'There's nothing in it, really.'
'Well,' said the little lady, cocking her head shrewdly aside, 'I shouldn't like there to be any MORE in it.'
And there was a moment's dead pause. Each woman was reflecting. Hannele wondered if the little lady was just fooling her.
'Anyhow,' continued Mrs Hepburn, 'the spark is there, and I don't intend the fire to spread. I am going to be very, very careful, myself, not to fan the flames. The last thing I should think of would be to make my husband scenes. I believe it would be fatal.'
'Yes,' said Hannele, during the pause.
'I am going very carefully. You think there isn't much in it - between him and the Baroness?'
'No - no - I'm sure there isn't,' cried Hannele, with a full voice of conviction. She was almost indignant at being slighted so completely herself, in the little lady's suspicions.
'Hm! - mm!' hummed the little woman, sapiently nodding her head slowly up and down. 'I'm not so sure! I'm not so sure that it hasn't gone pretty far.'
'Oh NO!' cried Hannele, in real irritation of protest.
'Well,' said the other. 'In any case, I don't intend it to go any farther.'
There was dead silence for some time.
'There's more in it than you say. There's more in it than you say,' ruminated the little woman. 'I know HIM, for one thing. I know he's got a cloud on his brow. And I know it hasn't left his brow for a single minute. And when I told him I had been to the studio, and showed him the cushion-cover, I knew he felt guilty. I am not so easily deceived. We Irish all have a touch of second sight, I believe. Of course I haven't challenged him. I haven't even mentioned the doll. By the way, WHO ordered the doll? Do you mind telling me?'
'No, it wasn't ordered,' confessed Hannele.
'Ah - I thought not - I thought not!' said Mrs Hepburn, lifting her finger. 'At least, I knew no outsider had ordered it. Of course I knew.' And she smiled to herself.
'So,' she continued, 'I had too much sense to say anything about it. I don't believe in stripping wounds bare. I believe in gently covering them and letting them heal. But I DID say I thought her a lovely creature.' The little lady looked brightly at Hannele.
'Yes,' said Hannele.
'And he was very vague in his manner, "Yes, not bad," he said. I thought to myself: Aha, my boy, you don't deceive me with your NOT BAD. She's very much more than not bad. I said so, too. I wanted, of course, to let him know I had a suspicion.'
'And do you think he knew?'
'Of course he did. Of course he did. "She's much too dangerous," I said, "to be in a town where there are so many strange men: married and unmarried." And then he turned round to me and gave himself away, oh, so plainly. "Why?" he said. But such a haughty, distant tone. I said to myself: "It's time, my dear boy, you were removed out of the danger zone." But I answered him: Surely somebody is bound to fall in love with her. Not at all, he said, she keeps to her own countrymen. You don't tell ME, I answered him, with her pretty broken English! It is a wonder the two of them are allowed to stay in the town. And then again he rounded on me. Good gracious! he said. Would you have them turned out just because they're beautiful to look at, when they have nowhere else to go, and they make their bit of a livelihood here? I assure you, he hasn't rounded on me in that overbearing way, not once before, in all our married life. So I just said quietly: I should like to protect OUR OWN MEN. And he didn't say anything more. But he looked at me under his brows and went out of the room.'
There was a silence. Hannele waited with her hands in her lap, and Mrs Hepburn mused, with her hands in HER lap. Her face looked yellow, and VERY wrinkled.
'Well now,' she said, breaking again suddenly into life. 'What are we to do? I mean what is to be done? You are the Baroness's nearest friend. And I wish her NO harm, none whatever.'
'What can we do?' said Hannele, in the pause.
'I have been urging my husband for some time to get his discharge from the army,' said the little woman. 'I knew he could have it in three months' time. But like so many more men, he has no income of his own, and he doesn't want to feel dependent. Perfect nonsense! So he says he wants to stay on in the army. I have never known him before go against my real wishes.'
'But it IS better for a man to be independent,' said Hannele.
'I know it is. But it is also better for him to be AT HOME. And I could get him a post in one of the observatories. He could do something in meteorological work.'
Hannele refused to answer any more.
'Of course,' said Mrs Hepburn, 'if he DOES stay on here, it would be much better if the Baroness left the town.'
'I'm sure she will never leave of her own choice,' said Hannele.
'I'm sure she won't either. But she might be made to see that it would be very much WISER of her to move of her own free will.'
'Why?' said Hannele.
'Why, because she might any time be removed by the British authorities.'
'Why should she?' said Hannele.
'I think the women who are a menace to our men should be removed.'
'But she is NOT a menace to your men.'
'Well, I have my own opinion on that point.'
Which was a decided deadlock.
'I'm sure I've kept you an awful long time with my chatter,' said Mrs Hepburn. 'But I did want to make everything as simple as possible. As I said before, I can't feel any ill-will against her. Yet I can't let things just go on. Heaven alone knows when they may end. Of course if I can persuade my husband to resign his commission and come back to England - anyhow, we will see. I'm sure I am the last person in the world to bear malice.'
The tone in which she said it conveyed a dire threat.
Hannele rose from her chair.
'Oh, and one other thing,' said her hostess, taking out a tiny lace handkerchief and touching her nose delicately with it. 'Do you think' - dab, dab - 'that I might have that DOLL - you know - ?'
'That - ?'
'Yes, of my husband' - the little lady rubbed her nose with her kerchief.
'The price is three guineas,' said Hannele.
'Oh indeed!' - the tone was very cold. 'I thought it was not for sale.'
Hannele put on her wrap.
'You'll send it round - will you? - if you will be so kind.'
'I must ask my friend first.'
'Yes, of course. But I'm sure she will be so kind as to send it me. It is a little - er - indelicate, don't you think!'
'No,' said Hannele. 'No more than a painted portrait.'
'Don't you?' said her hostess coldly. 'Well, even a painted portrait I think I should like in my own possession. This DOLL - '
Hannele waited, but there was no conclusion.
'Anyhow,' she said, 'the price is three guineas: or the equivalent in marks.'
'Very well,' said the little lady, 'you shall have your three guineas when I get the doll.'