The plumes of the chimneys floated perpendicular against skies of smoky rose.
Gordon caught the 27 bus at ten past eight. The streets were still locked in their Sunday sleep. On the doorsteps the milk bottles waited ungathered like little white sentinels. Gordon had fourteen shillings in his hand—thirteen and nine, rather, because the bus fare was threepence. Nine bob he had set aside from his wages—God knew what that was going to mean, later in the week!—and five he had borrowed from Julia.
He had gone round to Julia's place on Thursday night. Julia's room in Earl's Court, though only a second-floor back, was not just a vulgar bedroom like Gordon's. It was a bed-sitting with the accent on the sitting. Julia would have died of starvation sooner than put up with such squalor as Gordon lived in. Indeed every one of her scraps of furniture, collected over intervals of years, represented a period of semi-starvation. There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two 'antique' hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair—Drage's: thirteen monthly payments—in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar—somebody's Christmas present—with 'It's a long lane that has no turning' done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to 'borrow' money.
When Gordon had given three knocks—three knocks for second floor—Julia took him up to her room and knelt down in front of the gas-fire.
'I'll light the fire again,' she said. 'You'd like a cup of tea, wouldn't you?'
He noted the 'again'. The room was beastly cold—no fire had been lighted in it this evening. Julia always 'saved gas' when she was alone. He looked at her long narrow back as she knelt down. How grey her hair was getting! Whole locks of it were quite grey. A little more, and it would be 'grey hair' tout court.
'You like your tea strong, don't you?' breathed Julia, hovering over the tea-caddy with tender, goose-like movements.
Gordon drank his cup of tea standing up, his eye on the birchwood calendar. Out with it! Get it over! Yet his heart almost failed him. The meanness of this hateful cadging! What would it all tot up to, the money he had 'borrowed' from her in all these years?
'I say, Julia, I'm damned sorry—I hate asking you; but look here—'
'Yes, Gordon?' she said quietly. She knew what was coming.
'Look here, Julia, I'm damned sorry, but could you lend me five bob?'
'Yes, Gordon, I expect so.'
She sought out the small, worn black leather purse that was hidden at the bottom of her linen drawer. He knew what she was thinking. It meant less for Christmas presents. That was the great event of her life nowadays—Christmas and the giving of presents: hunting through the glittering streets, late at night after the teashop was shut, from one bargain counter to another, picking out the trash that women are so curiously fond of. Handkerchief sachets, letter racks, teapots, manicure sets, birchwood calendars with mottoes in pokerwork. All through the year she was scraping from her wretched wages for 'So-and-so's Christmas present', or 'So-and-so's birthday present'. And had she not, last Christmas, because Gordon was 'fond of poetry', given him the Selected Poems of John Drinkwater in green morocco, which he had sold for half a crown? Poor Julia! Gordon made off with his five bob as soon as he decently could. Why is it that one can't borrow from a rich friend and can from a half-starved relative? But one's family, of course, 'don't count'.
On the top of the bus he did mental arithmetic. Thirteen and nine in hand. Two day-returns to Slough, five bob. Bus fares, say two bob more, seven bob. Bread and cheese and beer at a pub, say a bob each, nine bob. Tea, eightpence each, twelve bob. A bob for cigarettes, thirteen bob. That left ninepence for emergencies. They would manage all right. And how about the rest of the week? Not a penny for tobacco! But he refused to let it worry him. Today would be worth it, anyway.
Rosemary met him on time. It was one of her virtues that she was never late, and even at this hour of the morning she was bright and debonair. She was rather nicely dressed, as usual. She was wearing her mock-shovel hat again, because he had said he liked it. They had the station practically to themselves. The huge grey place, littered and deserted, had a blowsy, unwashed air, as though it were still sleeping off a Saturday night debauch. A yawning porter in need of a shave told them the best way to get to Burnham Beeches, and presently they were in a third-class smoker, rolling westward, and the mean wilderness of London was opening out and giving way to narrow sooty fields dotted with ads for Carter's Little Liver Pills. The day was very still and warm. Gordon's prayer had come true. It was one of those windless days which you can hardly tell from summer. You could feel the sun behind the mist; it would break through presently, with any luck. Gordon and Rosemary were profoundly and rather absurdly happy. There was a sense of wild adventure in getting out of London, with the long day in 'the country' stretching out ahead of them. It was months since Rosemary and a year since Gordon had set foot in 'the country'. They sat close together with the Sunday Times open across their knees; they did not read it, however, but watched the fields and cows and houses and the empty goods trucks and great sleeping factories rolling past. Both of them enjoyed the railway journey so much that they wished it had been longer.
At Slough they got out and travelled to Farnham Common in an absurd chocolate-coloured bus with no top. Slough was still half asleep. Rosemary remembered the way now that they had got to Farnham Common. You walked down a rutted road and came out on to stretches of fine, wet, tussocky grass dotted with little naked birches. The beech woods were beyond. Not a bough or a blade was stirring. The trees stood like ghosts in the still, misty air. Both Rosemary and Gordon exclaimed at the loveliness of everything. The dew, the stillness, the satiny stems of the birches, the softness of the turf under your feet! Nevertheless, at first they felt shrunken and out of place, as Londoners do when they get outside London. Gordon felt as though he had been living underground for a long time past. He felt ...