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Hand in Glove

Elizabeth Bowen


Jasmine Lodge was favourably set on a residential, prettily-wooded hillside in the south of Ireland, overlooking a river and, still better, the roofs of a lively garrison town. Around 1904, which was the flowering period of the Miss Trevors, girls could not have had a more auspicious home - the neighbhorhood spun merrily round the military. Ethel and Elsie, a spirited pair, garnered the full advantage - no ball, hop, picnic, lawn tennis, croquet or boating party was complete without them; in winter, though they could not afford to hunt, they trimly bicycled to all meets, and on frosty evening, with their guitars, set off to soirées, snug inside their cab in their fur-tipped capes.
          They possessed an aunt, a Mrs. Varley, née Elysia Trevor, a formerly notable local belle, who, drawn back again in her widowhood to what had been the scene of her early triumphs, occupied a back bedroom in Jasmine Lodge. Mrs. Varley de Grey had had no luck: her splashing match, in its time the talk of two kingdoms, had ended up in disaster - the well-born captain in a cavalry regiment having gone so far as to blow out his brains in India, leaving behind him nothing but her and debts. Mrs. Varley de Grey had returned from India with nothing but seven large trunks crammed with recent finery; and she also had been impaired by shock. This had taken place while Ethel and Elsie, whose father had married late, were still unborn - so it was that, for as long as the girls recalled, their aunt had been the sole drawback to Jasmine Lodge. Their parents had orphaned them, somewhat thoughtlessly, by simultaneously dying of scarlet fever when Ethel was just out and Elsie soon to be - they were therefore left lacking a chaperone and, with their gift for putting everything to some use, propped the aunt up in order that she might play that role. Only when her peculiarities became too marked did they feel it necessary to withdraw her: by that time, however, all the surrounding ladies could be said to compete for the honour of taking into society the sought-after Miss Trevors. From then on, no more was seen or heard of Mrs. Varley de Grey. (‘Oh, just a trifle unwell, but nothing much!') She remained upstairs, at the back: when the girls were giving one of their little parties, or a couple of officers came to call, the key of her room would be turned in the outer lock.
          The girls hung Chinese lanterns from the creepered veranda, and would sit slightly strumming on their guitars. Not less fascinating was their badinage, accompanied by a daring flash of the eyes. They were known as the clever Miss Trevors, not because of any taint of dogmatism or book-learning - no, when a gentleman cried, ‘Those girls have brains!' he meant it wholly in admiration - but because of their accomplishments, ingenuity and agility. They took leading parts in theatricals, lent spirit to numbers of drawing-room games, were naughty mimics, and sang duets. Nor did their fingers lag behind their wits - they constructed lampshades, crêpe paper flowers and picturesque hats; and, above all, varied their dresses marvellously - no one could beat them for ideas, nipping, slashing or fitting. Once more allowing nothing to go to waste, they had remodelled the trousseau out of their aunt's trunks, causing sad old tulles and tarlatans, satins and moiré taffetas, to appear to have come from Paris only today. They re-stiched spangles, pressed ruffles crisp, and revived many a corsage or squashed silk roses. They went somewhat softly about that task, for the trunks were all stored in the attic immediately over the back room.
          They wore their clothes well. ‘A pin on either of those two would look smart!' declared the other girls. All that they were short of was evening gloves - they had two pairs each, which they had been compelled to buy. What could have become of Mrs. Varley de Grey's presumably sumptuous numbers of this tiem, they were unable to fathom, and it was too bad. Had gloves been overlooked in her rush from India? - or were they here, in that one trunk the Trevors could not get at? All other locks had yielded to pulls or pickings, or the sisters found keys to fit them, or they had used the tool-box; but this last stronghold defied them. In that sad little soiled silk sack, always on her person, Mrs. Varley de Grey, they became convinced, hoarded the operative keys, along with some frippery rings and brooches - all true emeralds, pearls and diamonds having been long ago, as they knew, sold. Such contrariety on their aunt's part irked them - meanwhile, gaieties bore hard on their existing gloves. Last thing at nights when they came in, last thing in the evenings before they went out, they would manfully dab away at the fingers. So, it must be admitted that a long whiff of benzine pursued them as they whirled round the ballroom floor.
          They were tall and handsome - nothing so soft as pretty, but in those days it was a voacation to be a handsome girl; many of the best marriages had been made by such. They carried themselves imposingly, had good busts and shoulders, waists firm under the whalebone, and straight backs. Their features were striking, their colouring high; low on their foreheads bounced dark mops of curls. Ethel was, perhaps, the dominant one, but both girls were pronounced to be full of character.
          Whom, and still more when, did they mean to marry? They had already seen regiments out and in; for quite a number of years, it began to seem, bets in the neighbourhood had been running high. Sympathetic spy-glasses were trained on the conspicuous gateway to Jasmine Lodge; each new cavalier was noted. The only trouble might be, their promoters claimed, that the clever Trevors were always so surrounded that they had not a moment in which to turn or choose. Or otherwise, could it possibly be that the admiration aroused by Ethel and Elsie, and their now institutional place in the local scene, scared out more tender feeling from the masculine breast? It came to be felt, and perhaps by the girls themselves, that, having lingered so long and so puzzlingly, it was up to them to bring off (like their aunt) a coup. Society around this garrison town had long plumed itself upon its romantic record; summer and winter, Cupid shot his darts. Lush scenery, the oblivion of all things else bred by the steamy climate, and perpetual gallivanting - all were conducive. Ethel's and Elsie's names, it could be presumed, were by now murmured wherever the Union Jack flew. Nevertheless, it was time they should decide.
          Ethel's decision took place late one spring. She set her cap at the second son of an English marquess. Lord Fred had come on a visit, for the fishing, to a mansion some miles down the river from Jasmine Lodge. He first made his appearance, with the rest of the house party, at one of the more resplendent military balls, and was understood to be a man-about-town. The civilian glint of his pince-nez, at once serene and superb, instantaneously wrought, with his great name, on Ethel's heart. She beheld him, and the assembled audience, with approbation, looked on at the moment so big with fate. The truth, it appeared in a flash, was that Ethel, though so condescending with her charms, had not from the first been destined to love a soldier; and that here, after long attrition, her answer was. Lord Fred was, by all, at once signed over to her. For his part, he responded to her attentions quite gladly, though in a somewhat dazed way. If he did not so often dance with her - indeed, how could he, for she was much besought? - he could at least be perceived to gaze. At a swiftly organized river picnic, the next evening, he by consent fell to Ethel's lot - she had spent the foregoing morning snipping and tacking at a remaining muslin of Mrs. Varley de Grey's, a very fresh forget-me-not-dotted pattern. The muslin did not survive the evening out, for when the moon should have risen, rain poured in the boats. Ethel's good-humoured drollery carried all before it, and Lord Fred wrapped his blazer around her form.
          Next dy, more rain; and all felt flat. At Jasmine Lodge, the expectant deck chairs had to be hurried in from the garden, and the small close rooms, with their greeneried windows and plentiful bric-á-brac, gave out a stuffy, resentful indoor smell. The maid was out; Elsie was lying down with a migraine; so it devolved on Ethel to carry up Mrs. Varley de Grey's tea - the invalid set very great store by tea, and her manifestations by door rattling, sobs and mutters were apt to become disturbing if it did not appear. Ethel, with the not particularly dainty tray, accordingly entered the back room, this afternoon rendered dark by its outlook on a dripping uphill wood. The aunt, her visage draped in a cobweb shawl, was as usual sitting up in bed. ‘Aha,' she at once cried, screwing one eye up and glittering round at Ethel with the other, ‘so what's all this in the wind today?'
          Ethel, as she lodged the meal on the bed, shrugged her shoulders, saying, ‘I'm in a hurry.'
          ‘No doubt you are. The question is, will you get him?'
          ‘Oh, drink your tea!' snapped Ethel, her colour rising.
          The old wretch responded by popping a lump of sugar into her cheek, and sucking at it while she fixed her wink on her niece. She then observed: ‘I could tell you a thing or two!'
          ‘We've had enough of your fabrications, Auntie.'
          ‘Fabrications!' croaked Mrs. Varley de Grey. ‘And who's been the fabricator, I'd like to ask? Who's so nifty with the scissors and needle? Who's been going a-hunting in my clothes?'
          ‘Oh, what a fib!' exclaimed Ethel, turning her eyes up. ‘Those old musty miserable bundles of things of yours - would Elsie or I consider laying a finger on them?'
          Mrs. Varley de Grey replied, as she sometimes did, by heaving up and throwing the tray at Ethel. Nought, therefore, but cast-off kitchen china nowadays was ever exposed to risk; and the young woman, not trying to gather the debris up, statuesquely, thoughfully stood with her arms folded, watching steam rise from the carpet. Today, the effort required seemed to have been too much for Aunt Elysia, who collapsed on her pillows, faintly blue in the face. ‘Rats in the attic,'she muttered. ‘I've heard them, rats in the attic! Now where's my tea?'
          ‘You've had it,' said Ethel, turning to leave the room. However, she paused to study a photograph in a tarnished, elaborate silver rame. ‘Really quite an Adonis, poor Uncle Harry. - From the first glance, you say, he never looked back?'
          ‘My lovely tea,' said her aunt, beginning to sob.
          As Ethel slowly put down the photograph, her eyes could be seen to calculate, her mouth hardened and a reflective cast came over her brow. Step by step, once more she approached the bed, and, as she did so, altered her tune. She suggested, in a beguiling tone: ‘You sid you could tell me a thing or two . . .?'

Time went on; Lord Fred, though forever promising, still failed to come quite within Ethel's grasp. Ground gained one hour seemed to be lost the next - it seemed, for example, that things went better for Ethel in the afternoons, in the open air, than at the dressier evening functions. It was when she swept down on him in full plumage that Lord Fred seemed to contract. Could it be that he feared his passions? - she hardly thought so. Or, did her complexion not light up well? When there was a question of dancing, he came so late that her programme already was black with other names, whereupon he would heave a gallant sigh. When they did take the floor together, he held her so far at arm's length, and with his face turned so far away, that when she wished to address him she had to shout - she told herself this must be the London style, but it piqued her, naturally. Next morning, all would be as before, with nobody so completely assiduous as Lord Fred - but, through it all, he still never came to the point. And worse, the days of his visit were running out; he would soon be back in the heart of the London Season. ‘Will you ever get him, Ethel, now, do you think?' Elsie asked, with trying solicitude, and no doubt the neighbourhood wondered also.
          She conjured up all her fascinations. But was something further needed, to do the trick?
          It was now that she began to frequent her aunt.
         In that dank little back room looking into the hill, proud Ethel humbled herself, to prise out the secret. Sessions were close and long. Elsie, in mystification outside the door, heard the dotty voice of their relative rising, falling, with, now and then, blood-curdling little knowing laughs. Mrs. Varley de Grey was back in the golden days. Always, though, of a sudden it would break off, drop back into pleas, whimpers and ragged breathing. No doctor, though she constantly asked for one, had for years been allowed to visit Mrs. Varley de Grey - the girls saw no reason for that expense, or for the interference which might follow. Aunt's affliction, they swore, was confined to the head; all she required was quiet, and that she got. Knowing, however, how gossip spread, they would let no servant near her for more than a minute or two, and then with one of themselves on watch at the door. They had much to bear from the foetid state of her room.
          ‘You don't think you'll kill her, Ethel?' the out-of-it Elsie asked. ‘Forever sitting on top of her, as you now do. Can it be healthy, egging her on to talk? What's this attraction, all of a sudden? - whatever's this which has sprung up between you two? She and you are becoming quite hand-in-glove.'
          Elsie merely remarked this, and soon fogot; she had her own fish to fry. It was Ethel who had cause to recall the words - for, the afternoon of the very day they were spoken, Aunt Elysia whizzed off on another track, screamed for what was impossible and, upon being thwarted, went into a seizure unknown before. The worst of it was, at the outset her mind cleared - she pushed her shawl back, reared up her unkempt grey head and looked at Ethel, unblinkly studied Ethel, with a lucid accumulation of years of hate. ‘You fool of a gawk,' she said, and with such contempt. ‘Coming running to me to know how to trap a man. Could you learn, if it was from Venus herself? Wait till I show you beauty. - Bring down those trunks!'
          ‘Oh, Auntie.'
          ‘Bring them down, I say. I'm about to dress myself up.'
          ‘Oh, but I cannot; they're heavy; I'm single-handed.' ‘Heavy? - they came here hevy. But there've been rats in the attic. - I saw you, swishing downstairs in my eau-de-nil!'
          ‘Oh, you dreamed that!'
          ‘Through the crack of the door. - Let me up, then. Let us go where they are, and look - we shall soon see!' Aunt Elysia threw back the bedclothes and began to get up. ‘Let's take a look,' she said, ‘at the rats'work.' She set out to totter towards the door.
          ‘Oh, but you're not fit!' Ethel protested.
          ‘And when did a doctor say so?' There was a swaying: Ethel caught her in time and, not gently, lugged her back to bed - and Ethel's mind the whole of this time was whirling, for tonight was the night upon which all hung. Lord Fred's last local appearance was to be, like his first, at a ball: tomorrow after he left for London. So it must be tonight, at this ball, or never! How was it that Ethel felt so strangely, wildly confident of the outcome? It was time to egin on her coiffure, lay out her dress. Oh, tonight she would shine as never before! She flung back the bedclothes over the helpless form, heard a clock strikes, and hastily turned to go.
          ‘I will be quits with you,' said the voice behind her.

Ethel, in a kimono, hair half done, was in her own room, in front of the open glove drawer, when Elsie came in - home from a tennis party. Elsie acted oddly; she went at once to the drawer and buried her nose in it. ‘Oh, my goodness,' she cried, ‘it's all too true, and it's awful!'
          ‘What is,' Ethel carelessly asked.
          ‘Ethel, dear, would you ever face it out if I were to tell you a certain rumour I heard today at the party as to Lord Fred?'
          Ethel turned from her sister, took up the heated tongs and applied more crimps to her natural curliness. She said: ‘Certainly; spit it out.'
          ‘Since childhood, he's recoiled from the breath of benzine. He wilts away when it enters the very room!'
          ‘Who says that's so?'
          ‘He confided to his hostess, who is now spitefully putting it around the country.'
          Ethel bit her lip and put down the tongs, while Elsie sorrowfully concluded: ‘And your gloves stink, Ethel, as I'm sure do mine.' Elsie then thought it wiser to slip away.
          In a minute more, however, she was back, and time time with a still more peculiar air. She demanded: ‘In what state did you leave Auntie? She was sounding so very quiet that I peeped in, and I don't care for the looks of her now at all!' Ethel swore, but consented to take a look. She stayed in there, in the back room, with Elsie biting her thumb-nail outside the door, for what seemed an ominous length of time - when she did emerge, she looked greenish, but held her head high. The sisters'eyes met. Ethel said, stonily ‘Dozing.'
          ‘You're certain she's not . . .? She couldn't ever be - you know?'
          ‘Dozing, I tell you,' Ethel stared Elsie out.
          ‘If she was gone,' quavered the frailer sister, ‘just think of it - why, we'd never get to the ball! - And a ball that everything hangs on,' she ended up, with a scared but conspiratorial glance at Ethel.
          ‘Reassure yourself. Didn't you hear me say?
          As she spoke Ethel, chiefly from habit, locked her late aunt's door on the outside. The act caused a sort of secret jingle to be heard from inside her fist, and Elsie asked, ‘What's that you've got hold of, now?' ‘Just a few little keys and trinkets she made me keep,' replied Ethel, disclosing the small bag she had found where she'd looked for it, under the dead one's pillow. ‘Scurry on now, Elsie, or you'll never be dressed. Care to make use of my tongs, while they're so splendidly hot?'
          Alone at last, Ethel drew in a breath, and, with a gesture of resolution, retied her kimono sash tightly over her corset. She took the key from the bag and regarded it, murmuring, ‘Providential!', then gave a glance upwards, towards where the attics were. The late spring sun had set, but an apricot afterglow, not unlike the light cast by a Chinese lantern, crept through the upper storey of Jasmine Lodge. The cessation of all those rustlings, tappings, whimpers and moans from inside Mrs. Varley de Grey's room had set up an unfamiliar, somewhat unnerving hush. Not till a whiff of singeing hair announced that Elsie was well employed did Ethel set out on the quest which held all her hopes. Success was imperative - she must have gloves. Gloves, gloves . . .
          Soundlessly, she set foot on the attic stairs.
          Under the skylight, she had to suppress a shriek, for a rat - yes, of all things! - leaped at her out of an empty hatbox; and the rodent gave her a wink before it darted away. Now Ethel and Elsie knew for a certain fact that there never had been rats in Jasmine Lodge. However, she continued to steel her nerves, and to push her way to the one inviolate trunk.
          All Mrs. Varley de Grey's other Indian luggage gaped and yawned at Ethel, void, showing its linings, on end or toppling, forming a barricade around the object of her search - she pushed, pitched and pulled, scowling as the dust flew into her hair. But the last trunk, when it came into view and reach, still had something select and bridal about it: on top, the initials E. V. de G. stared out, quite luminous in a frightening way - for indeed how dusky the attic was! Shadows not only multiplied in the corners but seemed to finger their way up the sloping room. Silence pierced up through the floor from the room below - and, worst, Ethel had the sensation of being watched by the pair of fixed eyes she had not stayed to close. She glanced this way, that way, backward over her should. But, Lord Fred was at stake! - she knelt down and got to work with the key.
          This trunk had two neat brass locks, one left, one right, along the front of the lid. Ethel, after fumbling, opened the first - then, so great was her hurry to know what might be within that she could not wait but slipped her hand in under the lifted corner. She pulled out one pricelessly lacy tip of what must be a bridal veil, and gave a quick laugh - must not this be an omen? She pulled again, but the stuff resisted, almost as though it were being grasped from inside the trunk - she let go, and either her eyes deceived her or the lace began to be drawn back slowly, in again, inch by inch. What was odder was, that the spotless fingertip of a white kid glove appeared for a moment, as though exploring its way out, then withdrew.
          Ethel's heart stood still - but she turned the other lock. Was a giddy attack overcoming her? - for, as she gazed, the entire lid of the trunk seemed to bulge upward, heave and strain, so that the E. V. de G. upon it rippled.
          Untouched by the key in her trembling hand, the second lock tore itself open.
          She recoiled, while the lid slowly rose - of its own accord.
         She should have fled. But oh, how she craved what lay there exposed! - layer upon layer, wrapped in transparent paper, of elbow-length, magnolia-pure white gloves, bedded in the inert folds of the veil. 'Lord Fred,' thought Ethel, 'now you're within my grasp!'
          That was her last thought, nor was the grasp to be hers. Down on her knees again, breathless with lust and joy, Ethel flung herself forward on that sea of kid, scrabbing and seizing. The glove she had seen before was now, however, readier for its purpose. At first it merely pounced after Ethel's fingers, as though making mock of their greedy course; but the hand within it was all the time filling out . . . With one snowy flash through the dusk, the glove clutched Ethel's front hair, tanged itself in her black curls and dragged her head down. She began to choke among the sachets and tissue - then the glove let go, hurled her back, and made its leap at her throat.
          It was a marvel that anything so dainty should be so strong. So great, so convulsive was the swell of the force that, during the strangling of Ethel, the seams of the glove split.
          In any case, the glove would have been too small for her.
          The shrieks of Elsie, upon the attic threshold, began only when all the other sounds had died down . . . The ultimate spark of the once-famous cleverness of the Miss Trevors appeared in Elsie's extrication of herself from this awkward mess - for, who was to credit how Ethel came by her end? The sisters' reputation for warmth of heart was to stand the survivor in good stead - for, could those affections nursed in Jasmine Lodge, extending so freely even to the unwell aunt, have culminated in Elsie's setting on Ethel? No. In the end, the matter was hushed up - which is to say, is still talked about even now. Ethel Trevor and Mrs. Varley de Grey were interred in the same grave, as everyone understood that they would have wished. What conversation took place under the earth, one does not know.