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They lay together, side by side, waiting for the morning, making a little pretence to one another that they were sleeping and were not afraid.
When the doctor came to see Elsa early the next day he sent Julius out of the bedroom and remained with her for some little time, the door closed, only the murmur of voices coming to Julius as he stood by the window in the sitting-room looking down upon Holborn.
He watched the heavy drays pass along the street Cityward, and the slow plodding omnibuses; now and then a bicycle would thread its way in amongst the horse traffic, while the pavements were already filled with people hurrying to work. The rooms were at the top of the building, and beneath him the routine and life of the café were starting, his employees passing in at the swing doors to make themselves ready for the business of the day. Two fellows were straining to shift aside the heavy shutters, and a carter and boy were staggering into the premises with great blocks of ice.
A woman was brushing and cleaning away the dust in front of the café, calling something over her shoulder to her helper inside who, hands and knees on the ground, with a pail of water beside her, was scrubbing at the stone floor.
Julius closed down the window and glanced at his watch. Surely the doctor must have finished his examination by now. He paced up and down the room, he lit a cigarette, a thing he never did in the mornings, he turned over some papers on the table.
In the pit of his belly a pain gripped him, a pain that he could not recognise as fear; but suddenly for no other reason but that this pain must be connected with a sensation of grief, there came to his senses the memory of a little boy throwing his cat into the Seine, and the feel of the cat’s claws upon his shoulders as he loosened their grasp. A shudder ran through him and deliberately he forced his mind away from the picture and began to concentrate on the wording of his speech to the owner of the site in the Strand, whom he would be seeing in two or three hours’ time.
Then the doctor came into the room, and Julius turned to him, the pain in his belly gripping him once more.
‘Well?’ he said briskly, waiting for no preliminary chatter that would waste his time, ‘what have you got to say?’
The man hesitated and cleared his throat, rubbing a handkerchief between his hands.
‘I gather that you must have understood the position from the first, Mr Lévy,’ he began; ‘after that hæmorrhage of last night there could be no doubt in your mind. Well - briefly, the situation is this. In her present condition and with things as they are she cannot possibly live beyond three months - at the utmost. Another hæmorrhage and everything would be over. The disease has too firm a hold on her, Mr Lévy. If I had been consulted before . . .’ he broke off, searching the other’s eyes. ‘Of course,’ he went on doubtfully, ‘even now I might be able to save her, but it would mean a complete break-up of her present existence. She would have to be moved to a clinic and receive very special treatment. Possibly you have heard of Doctor Lorder, the great authority on tuberculosis, it is his clinic, I mean; only you must understand that the expense would be considerable, and again I could not guarantee the result. A year ago Doctor Lorder cured a patient in very much the same condition as your - your wife, I take it. The girl is living in Switzerland now - but there, it is for you to say, Mr Lévy; I don’t know anything about your circumstances. All I can tell you is that she might - “might,” I say - be saved, but at very considerable expense; the treatment would be long; you understand. On the other hand,’ he hesitated again, ‘on the other hand, if that is out of the question, I will do everything in my power to help her, to see that she is comfortable and that she does not suffer too much. She must have a nurse, naturally, and anything she fancies in the way of food - you see, it won’t be very long that way. I am being perfectly frank with you, Mr Lévy. I am not trying to make things easier for you. I don’t believe you would have me lie to you or pretend a hope when there is none.’
Julius did not seem as though he were listening. He stared straight in front of him, tap-tapping with his fingers on the table.
‘That’s all right,’ he said after a moment; ‘thank you very much. I understand the position. I want you to see that Elsa - she is not my wife - has every comfort and attention, a nurse if you wish it - but above all that she is not told she is dying. I don’t see that there is any need for that. It’s stupid, unnecessary. Be careful about that, will you? That’s all, I think.’ He moved towards the door. The doctor realised that the interview was at an end, but Julius Lévy had made no mention of Doctor Lorder and the clinic.
‘Then you don’t wish me to . . .’ he began, reaching for his hat, but Julius cut him short: ‘There is nothing more to discuss,’ he said. ‘I thought I had made that quite clear. I mustn’t keep you, doctor; you are a very busy man and so am I for that matter. Will you make the arrangements for the nurse to come in to-day?’
They moved into the passage to the head of the stairs. The doctor made a last effort in the cause of humanity. ‘If you would like me to arrange a consultation with Doctor Lorder,’ he said in a low voice, ‘it can easily be managed. A word to him - I could let you know, about eleven-thirty this morning, he lives in Upper Wimpole Street ...’
Julius Lévy shook his head.
‘I can’t manage it,’ he said. ‘I have an appointment. Good day to you.’
Then he turned and went into the bedroom where Elsa was lying like a pale thin child against the pillows.
‘Hullo, you little shammer,’ he said, smiling, and crossed over to her bed and took her hands in his; ‘you’re just pretending to be ill, I know you. You’re a lazy little devil and you like me to fuss over you. That’s it, isn’t it?’
She smiled at him, shaking her head.
‘What did the doctor tell you?’ she asked. ‘He wouldn’t say anything to me. Tell me - I won’t be afraid.’
‘Afraid?’ said Julius. ‘I should think not! What’s there to be afraid of? No - you’ve got to lie here like a lamb for about three months - fed up and petted and a hospital nurse to fuss over you - and after that, well, by then you’ll be strong enough to be moved off to Switzerland. Some place in the mountains where you can bask in the sun and listen to sleigh bells. Does that suit you, little silly thing?’
‘Do you mean that, Julius? Shall I really get well and will I really go to Switzerland?’
He winked at her, laying one finger on her cheek. They laughed together, and then she coughed, and had to struggle for breath on the pillows.
‘Try and not do that,’ he told her.
‘I can’t help it,’ she said; ‘it’s stronger than me. Oh! I’m going to shut my eyes as I lie here and imagine the air in those Swiss mountains. They say the sky is always blue there and the sun shines. You don’t feel the cold for all the snow . . . the horses drag sleighs at quite a pace up and down the slippery roads. I’m sure I don’t know how they do it, do you? I’ve seen picture postcards of the Lake Lucerne; perhaps I could go somewhere near there.’
She went on chatting excitedly, patting the back of his hand, and after a while he looked down at his watch and he told her he must leave her now because he had an appointment.
‘I suppose it’s that site in the Strand,’ she said; ‘do be careful not to let yourself in for something too big for you.You’ll have such a lot of expense from now on.’
‘Don’t you worry, Mimitte.’
‘You won’t be away very long, will you? There’s such heaps of things I want to say. I feel much better now the doctor has been; the very thought of Switzerland makes me long to be well. Oh! dear - I’m so happy.’
‘Are you?’ he said, and he went off to keep his appointment in the Strand, to buy the site and to build another café.
October - November - December, the weeks passed slowly to Julius Lévy, they dragged themselves into little particles of hours and minutes and would not form together to make a definite passage of time.
The Holborn café was a certainty these days. It ran itself, the profits incre
ased, and his personal supervision was only a matter of formality.
His interests were wholly concerned with the new café in the Strand, and building would not begin until early in the New Year. Julius was impatient at the delay. The slowness of labour in England irritated him profoundly; he felt that in any other country the excavations would already have been finished, the foundations laid, and the new structure be rising from the ground. He did not see how the Strand café could possibly be open to the public before the following autumn. Meanwhile he must wait, and waiting was not his game. He wanted to grasp things quickly that came within his reach, to create, to construct, to be for ever and continuously connected with some movement. To go from this, and then to the next thing, and on and on, to-morrow and to-morrow, his mind and his body and his soul reaching out to some hidden phase of the future.There was only one thing in life that mattered at this moment, and that was work; the satisfaction of making realities out of the starry thread of a dream; and those realities must come quickly to him because ten, twenty, thirty years were not long in the existence of one man, they would be gone from him too soon and there he would be standing with the bare threads in his hands.
There was not enough time for all he would do, not enough time to create and to hold his possessions, but because of the brute stupidity and incomprehension of those beings humbler than himself he must endure the long hours of October, November, December.
Elsa, coughing her life away in the little bedroom next to him, was happy in the ignorance of death like a child who believes in God.
Time was not slow to her, the seconds passed on the crest of a wave and so out of her reach for ever.
She lived in a world of pure imagination: white mountains that stood above an azure lake, heavy branches laden with snow and the cold clear jingle of sleigh bells round the bend of the mountain. She lived in a wooden chalet among the tree tops, the wide windows open to the sun, and when she leant over the wooden balustrade she would see Julius coming to her from the valleys below, smiling up at her with a wave of his hand and brushing the snow from his cap.
This nurse who cared for her and moved about the room with silent feet, shifting her pillows, mixing her food, she was only a temporary vision that swam before her conscious mind now and again; she could not disturb the happiness and the peace. Sometimes even Switzerland would go from her, and she would be in Alger once more, the street cries of the Kasbah humming in her ears, the chatter of women behind drawn curtains, a song, a note of music, and the beating of a drum. Between her hands she held the purple bougainvillea flowers, and the green leaf of eucalyptus, she crushed her face amongst the deep dark moss that grew at Mustapha. Like a breath of soft air in her nostrils came the warm lingering amber scent, and the white dust of the cobbled streets, saddle leather from a merchant’s shop, the smoke of a cigarette. She would lift her head from the pillow and there would be Julius beside her, looking down at her from a long distance, and this would bring her home to the little bedroom and the sound of the traffic in Holborn. She smiled at him, for talking was an effort, these days, she knew not why, and he would say: ‘You’re looking much better, I believe you’ll be up in a week or two,’ and his lies were messages of beauty to her, bringing much comfort and a drawing away of pain.
‘When shall I be able to move to Switzerland?’ she whispered, and ‘Soon,’ he said, watching her face, seeing in her eyes the pale lost look that had been Père’s, the look that belongs to the dying, the look of those who hug within themselves the flickering light of the secret city. Then he talked to her, made little descriptions of people in the café, till she waved her hand at him to stop, for he made her laugh too much, and laughter hurt.
‘You’re killing me,’ she protested, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes; ‘you mustn’t do it, you’re killing me,’ and then he would tell her stories instead, going over the things they had done together in Alger, remembering snatches of conversations, music and laughter, the words of songs:‘J’ai tout quitté pour l’ingrate Sylvie,
Elle me laisse, pour prendre un autre amant—
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie . . .’
she humming under her breath, and smiling:‘Again, Julius, again.’
October - November - December, little fragments of time that were seconds and were eternity in one, and Julius with his days spent over the new building in the Strand, absorbed in the plans for it; like an obsession it was to him, like the star to the scientist and the explorer who sees the path across the mountains. And so back to Elsa in the evening, whom life and beauty had forsaken without her knowledge, she saying to him with her child’s faith:
‘I’m much better, aren’t I? - much better. I shall get up and look out of the window with you on New Year’s Eve.’
‘Oh! you,’ he said, ‘you’re nothing but a pretence, Mimitte. You aren’t ill at all. Why, you’ll be flown on the air and gone from me, you’ll be burying your face in the snow above Lausanne.’ And he was comforted in some way that his lies were truth to her.
She died on December the twenty-ninth after another hæmorrhage.
He came back about six-thirty in the evening having spent a full long day with his contractors, and having finally arranged that work should begin in earnest on the first of January. He was in tremendous spirits and it seemed to him that life once more belonged to him in every way; he could create and control it as he wished, and this world was his own world for his own purpose. The night was clear and beautiful and cold and he walked without a hat so that the air should sting him, bitter with frost.
The pavements were filled with people hurrying home from work, the lights splashed upon their faces and lit the windows of the shops, still gay with holly and Christmas fare.
Julius was thinking, ‘Next year - five years - ten years,’ never at rest, never at peace, but it came to him with a glow of exultation that it was all part of his own strength, this glamour of living, his health and mind and vitality were one and the same thing, they led him in his search like the glory of a spark rising strong and bright in the darkness of the sky. He remembered Jean Blançard walking home to Puteaux on Saturday nights, his bargaining done for the day, his money safe in his blouse, singing with the sheer joy of animal living, laughing, drunk, his crazy blue eyes turned to the stars; and in his sensation of power and strength it seemed to Julius that Grandpère Blançard was with him now, alive in his blood, his great voice in his ear.
He ran up the stairs to the little poky rooms at the top of the building, caring for nothing and for no one, and the nurse met him outside the bedroom door and she told him that Elsa had had another hæmorrhage and was dying. He went into the room without a word, and he watched her as she lay with her face upturned plucking at the sheets and she tried to say his name and call to him, but her strength was gone from her.
He saw by her eyes that she knew she was dying, and that her faith was gone and she was afraid. He saw that she did not believe in God, or continuation after death, and that this was the end for her and she would never see him again. She would be a candle blown in the darkness. He saw by her eyes that she knew now he could have saved her had he wanted, but he chose to let her die, and she did not understand.
All this she told him with her eyes, but she could not say his name, and he stood beside her bed and held her hand and watched her die. She was Elsa no longer, not a woman, nor a child, but a little frightened thing with claws digging into his flesh, a thing that clung to him for safety and was thrust between the bars of a bridge to be lost for ever, and buried and forgotten.
Afterwards he went on holding her hand, empty-minded, uncertain of his feelings, puzzled at the strange impersonality of dead people, and he wondered if the horror of this would dwell within him and be part of him.
After a while he wanted food, and he went down to the café and had supper, and whatever he felt of loneliness, or grief or pain, was swamped and hidden by the wav
e of fear and thankfulness that it was not he who lay upstairs so coldly impersonal, but somebody else, and that Julius Lévy was hungry and alive.
There was a fellow in the City who was making a name for himself. A Jew of course, but nobody knew where he came from. He spoke English perfectly, though with a French accent.
He had burst upon London from the unknown, his star rising in a night, and his two big cafés, one in Holborn and one in the Strand, drew wealth like a magnet, having seized the popular fancy of the middle classes.
Julius Lévy was making money hand over fist; he knew exactly what he wanted and went straight for it.
As he had expected, the building in the Strand was an enormous success from the start, it was a larger and more important affair than the original café in Holborn; it catered for the mass of pleasure-seeking and theatre-going public, who could not afford hotel or restaurant prices.
During the day business men lunched there, office clerks and salesmen, but in the evening the café took on a different aspect. There was a spirit of gaiety in the air, the large white building was brilliantly lit and an orchestra played on the first floor. It was considered rather ‘fast’ to dine at Lévy’s in the Strand, the place was novel and amusing, and the sober, efficient business-like tone of the day changed to something rather breathless and intriguing.
This Jewish fellow was clever enough to realise that a bad moral tone would kill his business, but a romantic and vaguely suggestive aura was sufficient to set it going with a swing.
Young earls with actresses, nervous gentlemen with other men’s wives, and the ordinary sentimental cockney couple who held hands under the table, they were all of them fish to the net and very profitable fish into the bargain.