IN THE KING’S ARMS
There was something going on between them, Mrs. Kendall was certain. Lately their low voices disturbed her sleep at night; they seemed to throb through the ceiling of the sitting room, invading her bedroom above.
It was so peculiar, their murmuring. Spooky, almost. One voice carried over the other, like a chant. Mrs. Kendall knew a great deal about plainsong from listening to Archibald's explanation of it to Timothy. The sound was never abandoned to die. If a few monks should happen to grow short of breath (and with this she sympathized; Mrs. Kendall smoked cigarettes in endless chains), a few others lifted up their foundering note, and then they too were relieved, on and on, in alternation, forever. Endless.
Julian was developing large dark rings under his eyes. Did either of them ever sleep? Sometimes she peered, undetected, through the large glass sitting room doors. The boy seemed so odd around Lily. He bit his nails to the quick; he flushed; he looked relieved and giggled; his eyes darted; he clasped his knees to his chin and wiggled an ankle. It was a wrenching sight for a mother to see. In the end, he was comfortless. The girl made him nervous. Once she saw him fall to his knees at Lily' s feet and offer his beautiful head to the mercy of her hands. And he had been crying. But he never cried! The girl had slowly circled each eye with one slender finger.
Mrs. Kendall went into the kitchen, lit a cigarette and stirred her tea. She suffered from this awful insomnia, but couldn't the children get things done in daylight? It was as though the house had changed hands, with Lily its new mistress. I'd rather like to sit by the fire right now, she thought, staring at her dull grey tea under bulb light. Once she had come in to offer them some nice, dark fruitcake, but Lily had smilingly declined, and Julian had gazed at her like a mooncalf. Archibald could sleep through all of this, but she could not, she was afraid. His methodical snores nearly drowned out all that was happening below, but between the snores she could hear so well that the fire nearly crackled in her hair.
Julian had always been the problem child. Peter was studious, even if he did need to get the better of everyone else, and to have the last word. But Julian was the more sensitive. What didn't he see from the very moment he breathed life? (He wasn't a bit like Timothy, who took in just precisely what Archibald told him.) Julian had been a magical sort of child, like the creatures in fairy tales who sense the things that made you heart-weary. The magic horse with immortal head, and the magic Russian doll who spoke oh, he and she had read them all together, hadn't they? But he was indecisive too, and sometimes lazy, so lazy that he had fits of it, kicking at the rug for his own inertia. Of course Peter was going to finish his puzzles if Julian gave up in the middle. Why did he always lose heart so easily?
He was always being swept along. His passivity made people persistent; he made them ravenous.... At 19, he looked 25, with his long strong legs and back, and his hard chin cleft like the devil's foot. This had brought on the plague of girls and the flattery. He had broken some girl's heart already; there was a photograph of a skinny girl laying her head tentatively on his shoulder. That was the girl who had set all the notes, probably, a shoe-boxful that, when removed for closet cleaning, had exhaled the scent of old violets. Julian had not seemed much altered by this affair. He was very given, though, to vanity, rearranging his father's old bow ties on his neck (these festoons filled a drawer), dangling a cigarette from his lips, fixing the mirror with that insolent grin.
And now Oxford had rejected him. It was hard, with one boy in, and the other left out in the cold. It was hard, hearing Julian's sour comments, comments that Peter himself might have made. "City of dreaming queers." "Black gowns and buggery." He couldn't stand not being wanted. How clever of this girl to want him utterly, to step in just now, and exploit his torment.
Mrs. Kendall thought of Lily's finger, tracing the lines of her son's rending face. The girl was surely older than he. She'd studied. She'd traveled. Quite energetic, wasn't she? He was quite taken by it, in any case. Or being taken. Roughly opened. Trampled so the juices flowed. She certainly wasn't lazy. Said she had glandular fever, but it hadn't felled her. She slouched a bit and was often sighing, but that was the extent of its toll. Besides, Jews always sighed. Caught up in their greedy yearnings. A portable people, the Jews. Always coming from heaven knows where. Fragile as dandelions, as impossible to get rid of. Tough too. Planted in your sitting room. This siren plainsong could go on forever, with or without support.
She stood by the glass doors. The fire had gutted; only a few embers glowed. In the arms of Julian lay Lily, curled up very small. He was stroking her hair, looking down into her eyes, and mumbling quietly. Lily made a little sound, and reached to be closer, like a newborn at the teat. Julian bent his head downward toward an engulfing, dark silence and remained. His mother, after a long instant, turned herself toward the stairway.
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