"I'm getting up, Teddilinks," said Mrs Whiston, and she sprang out of bed briskly.
"What the Hanover's got you?" asked Whiston.
"Nothing. Can't I get up?" she replied animatedly.
It was about seven o'clock, scarcely light yet in the cold bedroom. Whiston lay still and looked at his wife. She was a pretty little thing, with her fleecy, short black hair all tousled . . . He watched her as she dressed quickly, flicking her small, delightful limbs, throwing her clothes about her. Her slovenliness and untidiness did not trouble him. When she picked up the edge of her petticoat, ripped off a torn string of white lace, and flung it on the dressing-table, her careless abandon made his spirit glow. She stood before the mirror and roughly scrambled together her profuse little mane of hair. He watched the quickness and softness of her young shoulders, calmly, like a husband, and appreciatively.
"Rise up," she cried, turning to him with a quick wave of her arm - "and shine forth."
They had been married two years. But still, when she had gone out of the room, he felt as if all his light and warmth were taken away, he became aware of the raw, cold morning. So he rose himself, wondering casually what had roused her so early. Usually she lay in bed as late as she could.
Whiston fastened a belt round his loins and went downstairs in shirt and trousers. He heard her singing in her snatchy fashion. The stairs creaked under his weight. He passed down the narrow little passage, which she called a hall, of the seven and sixpenny house which was his first home.
He was a shapely young fellow of about twenty-eight, sleepy now and easy with well-being. He heard the water drumming into the kettle, and she began to whistle. He loved the quick way she dodged the supper cups under the tap to wash them for breakfast. She looked an untidy minx, but she was quick and handy enough.
"Teddilinks," she cried.
"Light a fire, quick."
She wore an old, sack-like dressing-jacket of black silk pinned across her breast. But one of the sleeves, coming unfastened, showed some delightful pink upper-arm.
"Why don't you sew your sleeve up?" he said, suffering from the sight of the exposed soft flesh.
"Where?" she cried, peering round. "Nuisance," she said, seeing the gap, then with light fingers went on drying the cups.
The kitchen was of fair size, but gloomy. Whiston poked out the dead ashes.
Suddenly a thud was heard at the door down the passage.
"I'll go," cried Mrs Whiston, and she was gone down the hall.
The postman was a ruddy-faced man who had been a soldier. He smiled broadly, handing her some packages.
"They've not forgot you," he said impudently.
"No - lucky for them," she said, with a toss of the head. But she was interested only in her envelopes this morning. The postman waited inquisitively, smiling in an ingratiating fashion. She slowly, abstractedly, as if she did not know anyone was there, closed the door in his face, continuing to look at the addresses on her letters.
She tore open the thin envelope. There was a long, hideous, cartoon valentine. She smiled briefly and dropped it on the floor. Struggling with the string of a packet, she opened a white cardboard box, and there lay a white silk handkerchief packed neatly under the paper lace of the box, and her initial, worked in heliotrope, fully displayed. She smiled pleasantly, and gently put the box aside. The third envelope contained another white packet - apparently a cotton handkerchief neatly folded. She shook it out. It was a long white stocking, but there was a little weight in the toe. Quickly, she thrust down her arm, wriggling her fingers into the toe of the stocking, and brought out a small box. She peeped inside the box, then hastily opened a door on her left hand, and went into the little, cold sitting-room. She had her lower lip caught earnestly between her teeth.
With a little flash of triumph, she lifted a pair of pearl ear- rings from the small box, and she went to the mirror. There, earnestly, she began to hook them through her ears, looking at herself sideways in the glass. Curiously concentrated and intent she seemed as she fingered the lobes of her ears, her head bent on one side.
Then the pearl ear-rings dangled under her rosy, small ears. She shook her head sharply, to see the swing of the drops. They went chill against her neck, in little, sharp touches. Then she stood still to look at herself, bridling her head in the dignified fashion. Then she simpered at herself. Catching her own eye, she could not help winking at herself and laughing.
She turned to look at the box. There was a scrap of paper with this posy:
She made a grimace and a grin. But she was drawn to the mirror again, to look at her ear-rings.
Whiston had made the fire burn, so he came to look for her. When she heard him, she started round quickly, guiltily. She was watching him with intent blue eyes when he appeared.
He did not see much, in his morning-drowsy warmth. He gave her, as ever, a feeling of warmth and slowness. His eyes were very blue, very kind, his manner simple.
"What ha' you got?" he asked.
"Valentines," she said briskly, ostentatiously turning to show him the silk handkerchief. She thrust it under his nose. "Smell how good," she said.
"Who's that from?" he replied, without smelling.
"It's a valentine," she cried. "How da I know who it's from?"
"I'll bet you know," he said.
"Ted! - I don't!" she cried, beginning to shake her head, then stopping because of the ear-rings.
He stood still a moment, displeased.
"They've no right to send you valentines, now," he said.
"Ted! - Why not? You're not jealous, are you? I haven't the least idea who it's from. Look - there's my initial" - she pointed with an emphatic finger at the heliotrope embroidery -
"Get out," he said. "You know who it's from."
"Truth, I don't," she cried.
He looked round, and saw the white stocking lying on a chair.
"Is this another?" he said.
"No, that's a sample," she said. "There's only a comic." And she fetched in the long cartoon.
He stretched it out and looked at it solemnly.
"Fools!" he said, and went out of the room.
She flew upstairs and took off the ear-rings. When she returned, he was crouched before the fire blowing the coals. The skin of his face was flushed, and slightly pitted, as if he had had small-pox. But his neck was white and smooth and goodly. She hung her arms round his neck as he crouched there, and clung to him. He balanced on his toes.
"This fire's a slow-coach," he said.
"And who else is a slow-coach?" she said.
"One of us two, I know," he said, and he rose carefully. She remained clinging round his neck, so that she was lifted off her feet.
"Ha! - swing me," she cried.
He lowered his head, and she hung in the air, swinging from his neck, laughing. Then she slipped off.
"The kettle is singing," she sang, flying for the teapot. He bent down again to blow the fire. The veins in his neck stood out, his shirt collar seemed too tight.
she sang, laughing.
He smiled at her.
She was so glad because of her pearl ear-rings.
Over the breakfast she grew serious. He did not notice. She became portentous in her gravity. Almost it penetrated through his steady good-humour to irritate him.
"Teddy!" she said at last.
"What?" he asked.
"I told you a lie," she said, humbly tragic.
His soul stirred uneasily.
"Oh aye?" he said casually.
She was not satisfied. He ought to be more moved.
"Yes," she said.
He cut a piece of bread.
"Was it a good one?" he asked.
She was piqued. Then she considered - WAS it a good one? Then she laughed.
"No," she said, "it wasn't up to much."
"Ah!" he said easily, but with a steady strength of fondness for her in his tone. "Get it out then."
It became a little more difficult.
"You know that white stocking," she said earnestly. "I told you a lie. It wasn't a sample. It was a valentine."
A little frown came on his brow.
"Then what did you invent it as a sample for?" he said. But he knew this weakness of hers. The touch of anger in his voice frightened her.
"I was afraid you'd be cross," she said pathetically.
"I'll bet you were vastly afraid," he said.
"I WAS, Teddy."
There was a pause. He was resolving one or two things in his mind.
"And who sent it?" he asked.
"I can guess," she said, "though there wasn't a word with it - except - "
She ran to the sitting-room and returned with a slip of paper.
He read it twice, then a dull red flush came on his face.
"And WHO do you guess it is?" he asked, with a ringing of anger in his voice.
"I suspect it's Sam Adams," she said, with a little virtuous indignation.
Whiston was silent for a moment.
"Fool!" he said. "An' what's it got to do with pearls? - and how can he say 'wear these for me' when there's only one? He hasn't got the brain to invent a proper verse."
He screwed the sup of paper into a ball and flung it into the fire.
"I suppose he thinks it'll make a pair with the one last year," she said.
"Why, did he send one then?"
"Yes. I thought you'd be wild if you knew."
His jaw set rather sullenly.
Presently he rose, and went to wash himself, rolling back his sleeves and pulling open his shirt at the breast. It was as if his fine, clear-cut temples and steady eyes were degraded by the lower, rather brutal part of his face. But she loved it. As she whisked about, clearing the table, she loved the way in which he stood washing himself. He was such a man. She liked to see his neck glistening with water as he swilled it. It amused her and pleased her and thrilled her. He was so sure, so permanent, he had her so utterly in his power. It gave her a delightful, mischievous sense of liberty. Within his grasp, she could dart about excitingly.
He turned round to her, his face red from the cold water, his eyes fresh and very blue.
"You haven't been seeing anything of him, have you?" he asked roughly.
"Yes," she answered, after a moment, as if caught guilty. "He got into the tram with me, and he asked me to drink a coffee and a Benedictine in the Royal."
"You've got it off fine and glib," he said sullenly. "And did you?"
"Yes," she replied, with the air of a traitor before the rack.
The blood came up into his neck and face, he stood motionless, dangerous.
"It was cold, and it was such fun to go into the Royal," she said.
"You'd go off with a nigger for a packet of chocolate," he said, in anger and contempt, and some bitterness. Queer how he drew away from her, cut her off from him.
"Ted - how beastly!" she cried. "You know quite well - " She caught her lip, flushed, and the tears came to her eyes.
He turned away, to put on his necktie. She went about her work, making a queer pathetic little mouth, down which occasionally dripped a tear.
He was ready to go. With his hat jammed down on his head, and his overcoat buttoned up to his chin, he came to kiss her. He would be miserable all the day if he went without. She allowed herself to be kissed. Her cheek was wet under his lips, and his heart burned. She hurt him so deeply. And she felt aggrieved, and did not quite forgive him.
In a moment she went upstairs to her ear-rings. Sweet they looked nestling in the little drawer - sweet! She examined them with voluptuous pleasure, she threaded them in her ears, she looked at herself, she posed and postured and smiled, and looked sad and tragic and winning and appealing, all in turn before the mirror. And she was happy, and very pretty.
She wore her ear-rings all morning, in the house. She was self- conscious, and quite brilliantly winsome, when the baker came, wondering if he would notice. All the tradesmen left her door with a glow in them, feeling elated, and unconsciously favouring the delightful little creature, though there had been nothing to notice in her behaviour.
She was stimulated all the day. She did not think about her husband. He was the permanent basis from which she took these giddy little flights into nowhere. At night, like chickens and curses, she would come home to him, to roost.
Meanwhile Whiston, a traveller and confidential support of a small firm, hastened about his work, his heart all the while anxious for her, yearning for surety, and kept tense by not getting it.