Salterton, this first few days of December, was looking its grey worst. And her home, now that Ma was gone, was unwelcoming — not because of anything that was said or done, but because it was empty of spirit. Of course, there was the physical difficulty about beds. There were only two bedrooms; Dad had one, and Aunt Ellen the other. Monica declined the offer of a place in her aunt’s bed; sleeping alone or with a man had unfitted her for a tucking up with an elderly maiden lady who had two regular, resounding coughing-fits every night. Neither Dad nor Aunt Ellen was at home between half-past eight and half-past five, and what was Monica to do? She visited Alice once or twice, but that did not serve her turn, for when she was with her elder sister all London, all Paris, all self-possession and hard-won self-knowledge seemed to slip from her, and they quarrelled as bitterly as when they had shared the tiny bedroom at home. As bitterly? Far worse, now, for both had gained substance of personality. Alice was aggrieved that Monica had money; that it was money which had “fallen into her lap”; that her own ambition scorched mercilessly upon the need for a new and bigger house, whereas Monica had no such vital problem; that Monica had acquired high and mighty ways which (Ah, shade of Ma Gall!) could not possibly be real because she had not been born to them, and was therefore guilty of “sticking it on”. It was inconceivable to Alice that what had been learned, and thoroughly digested, could become more truly one’s nature than the attitudes and customs of the family into which one had been born. She was herself in flight from her family, but the ball and chain was always on her leg. She grudged Monica her freedom from this servitude, and believed that it had been easily won. A couple of visits to Alice were quite enough.
One obligatory evening, spent at the movies with George Medwall and Teresa Rook, and a silent friend of George’s, exhausted that source of companionship. She liked Kevin and Alex still, but could not conceal from herself the fact that they were a little afraid of her.
So there she was, sleeping on the sofa in the living-room of her father’s house, without even a place where she could stand her picture of Giles. She had to keep it in her music-case, and get it out like a miser his treasure, when nobody was at home.
It was foolish, and she knew it was foolish, but Monica caught herself thinking that it was somehow inconsiderate of everyone she knew to be working when she herself was on holiday: she was so much a Londoner now in her own estimation that she supposed that people in smaller places must necessarily be less busy than herself. What a fool I am, she thought, when she surprised herself in this mood; I need a metamorphosis, like Lucius in Giles’ opera. I’m in great danger of a love-affair with Number One.
But if the welcome of her family was feeble, that of the Bridgetowers was unexpectedly warm. Diffidently, Monica had telephoned to Veronica to inquire after her health, and had at once been asked to dinner. So friendly was the atmosphere that she was able to say how much she hoped that the child Veronica was carrying would be a boy, and so plain was her sincerity that Solly and Veronica believed this, at first appearance, improbable statement.
“It’s extremely good of you,” said Solly. “Of course, we have hopes. You know that things haven’t been easy. But we aren’t pinning everything on it. If it’s a boy — wonderful! If it isn’t, it’s not the end of the world. I think one of the secrets of life is that one must give up caring too much about anything. I know that sounds terrible, but for a lot of people it’s the only possible philosophy. You blunt the edge of fate by being stoical. My Mother cared too much about having her own way; result — a remarkable artist gets her start — well, that’s what they say about you, Monica, so don’t protest — an extraordinary opera gets its first production. Neither of them things Mother would have foreseen or desired, to be truthful. She just wanted to let us feel the weight of her hand. Well, let’s not talk about it any more, or I shall be saying things like ‘It makes you think, don’t it’.”
Not only from the Bridgetowers, but from the Cobblers, Monica received a flattering and heart-warming welcome. And though she had not meant to do any work for a time, she began to do some daily practice with Cobbler, to get her out of the unfriendly little box that she called her home. There was no piano there, for Aunt Ellen had been compelled to part with hers; her new home had no room for it.
It was Cobbler who persuaded Monica to sing on the occasion of the fourth Bridgetower Memorial Sermon. “Come on,” he said; “you sang at the old girl’s funeral. Since then you’ve become the great interpreter of Revelstoke’s songs, among other things. This maybe the last of these memorial capers — I’m betting on a boy — and we want to do it up right. The choir is going to do Lo, Star-Led Chiefs — top-notch Christmas rouser — because the Dean wants to preach about the Wise Men of the East. Now, why don’t you sing Cornelius’ Three Kings from his Weihnachtslieder and top the thing off in style? We’ll shove it up a couple of tones, and show what you can do. Come on, be a sport! This may be your last year on the Bridgetower gravy-train; why not show you’ve no hard feelings.”
But Monica would not consent, until one day Dean Knapp telephoned and asked her so pleasantly to assist at the service that she could not refuse without seeming churlish. She still resented the Dean, because of Auntie Puss Pottinger’s rebuke, when she had spoken of him as “Reverend Knapp”. Well, it was high time to get over such nonsense.
High time indeed. On the morning of December the sixth, which is St Nicholas’ Day, and the day also of the Bridgetower Sermon, she went to Cobbler’s to rehearse, and found Humphrey and Molly in a great state of triumph and excitement.
“I was right,” shouted Cobbler, dancing in the middle of his chaotic living-room. It’s a boy!”
“What’s a boy?”
“Baby Bridgetower! Who else? Here safe and sound, everything screwed on tight, fingers and toes complete — even hair, I’m told by those in the know. You see what a prophet I am; I’m going to go into the business. Slip happy couples my card at weddings — ‘Five Months hence, Consult Cobbler; Put your Sexpectations on a Scientific Basis; Strictest Confidence Observed’. There’s a fortune in it!”
“But I thought it wasn’t due for another month or more?”
“Sit down, and have some coffee,” said Molly Cobbler. “And shut up, Humphrey, you’re being silly. As a matter of fact, it was a rather nasty business. Veronica has been awfully well during her pregnancy, you know. Not a bit like last time. So they weren’t worrying about a thing. But last night, somewhere around three in the morning, Veronica woke up and thought she heard a storm window rattling in another room. Now shut up, Humphrey — I’m telling this and I want to tell it my own way. The room in which she heard the sound was old Mrs Bridgetower’s room, which was queer, because nobody ever opens the windows in there; it’s kept just as the old lady left it, and Puss Pottinger sees that nothing is moved. But Veronica must have been confused by sleep — Humphrey, shut up! — and went in there. Solly woke when he heard a terrible scream, missed Veronica, and started to look for her. But he didn’t think of looking in his mother’s room until he had searched in several other places, and when he finally found her, she was on the floor in a terrible way — very badly frightened, a bit irrational and quite a way on in labour. Anyhow, they got the doctor, and he popped her right into old Mrs Bridgetower’s bed, and that’s where young Solomon was born at half-past five this morning.”
“And serve Ma Bridgetower damn well right,” said Humphrey. “She got the first child, but Veronica was too many for her this time. Now Molly, nobody’s going to convince me that Veronica didn’t have some kind of wrestle with that old woman in the middle of the night, so shut up! That’s love. That’s devotion, and I call your attention to it,” said he, shaking his head at his wife like a solemn golliwog. “Why don’t we whip over there right now and drink a toast to the infant trust-breaker? Better take our own bottle; the Bridgetowers aren’t always prepared for toasts. But there’s a better day coming on, if I may say so without giving Monny the fiscal creeps.”