The Major’s dining-room window was open, and as Miss Mapp passed it, she could not help hearing loud, angry remarks about eggs coming from inside. That made it clear that he was still at breakfast, and that if he had been working at his diaries in the fresh morning hours and forgetting the time, early rising, in spite of his early retirement last night, could not be supposed to suit his Oriental temper. But a change of habits was invariably known to be upsetting, and Miss Mapp was hopeful that in a day or two he would feel quite a different man. Farther down the street was quaint Irene lounging at the door of her new studio (a converted coach-house), smoking a cigarette and dressed like a jockey.
“Hullo, Mapp,” she said. “Come and have a look round my new studio. You haven’t seen it yet. I shall give a house-warming next week. Bridge-party!”
Miss Mapp tried to steel herself for the hundredth time to appear quite unconscious that she was being addressed when Irene said “Mapp” in that odious manner. But she never could summon up sufficient nerve to be rude to so awful a mimic. . . .
“Good morning, dear one,” she said sycophantically. “Shall I peep in for a moment?”
The decoration of the studio was even more appalling than might have been expected. There was a German stove in the corner made of pink porcelain, the rafters and roof were painted scarlet, the walls were of magenta distemper and the floor was blue. In the corner was a very large orange-coloured screen. The walls were hung with specimens of Irene’s art, there was a stout female with no clothes on at all, whom it was impossible not to recognize as being Lucy; there were studies of fat legs and ample bosoms, and on the easel was a picture, evidently in process of completion, which represented a man. From this Miss Mapp instantly averted her eyes.
“Eve,” said Irene, pointing to Lucy.
Miss Mapp naturally guessed that the gentleman who was almost in the same costume was Adam, and turned completely away from him.
“And what a lovely idea to have a blue floor, dear,” she said. “How original you are. And that pretty scarlet ceiling. But don’t you find when you’re painting that all these bright colours disturb you?”
“Not a bit: they stimulate your sense of colour.”
Miss Mapp moved towards the screen.
“What a delicious big screen,” she said.
“Yes, but don’t go behind it, Mapp,” said Irene, “or you’ll see my model undressing.”
Miss Mapp retreated from it precipitately, as from a wasp’s nest, and examined some of the studies on the wall, for it was more than probable from the unfinished picture on the easel that Adam lurked behind the delicious screen. Terrible though it all was, she was conscious of an unbridled curiosity to know who Adam was. It was dreadful to think that there could be any man in Tilling so depraved as to stand to be looked at with so little on. . . .
Irene strolled round the walls with her.
“Studies of Lucy,” she said.
“I see, dear,” said Miss Mapp. “How clever! Legs and things! But when you have your bridge-party, won’t you perhaps cover some of them up, or turn them to the wall? We should all be looking at your pictures instead of attending to our cards. And if you were thinking of asking the Padre, you know . . .”
They were approaching the corner of the room where the screen stood, when a movement there as if Adam had hit it with his elbow made Miss Mapp turn round. The screen fell flat on the ground and within a yard of her stood Mr. Hopkins, the proprietor of the fish-shop just up the street. Often and often had Miss Mapp had pleasant little conversations with him, with a view to bringing down the price of flounders. He had little bathing-drawers on. . . .
“Hullo, Hopkins, are you ready,” said Irene. “You know Miss Mapp, don’t you?”
Miss Mapp had not imagined that Time and Eternity combined could hold so embarrassing a moment. She did not know where to look, but wherever she looked, it should not be at Hopkins. But (wherever she looked) she could not be unaware that Hopkins raised his large bare arm and touched the place where his cap would have been, if he had had one.
“Good morning, Hopkins,” she said. “Well, Irene darling, I must be trotting, and leave you to your–” she hardly knew what to call it–“to your work.”
She tripped from the room, which seemed to be entirely full of unclothed limbs, and redder than one of Mr. Hopkins’s boiled lobsters hurried down the street. She felt that she could never face him again, but would be obliged to go to the establishment in the High Street where Irene dealt, when it was fish she wanted from a fish-shop. . . . Her head was in a whirl at the brazenness of mankind, especially womankind. How had Irene started the overtures that led to this? Had she just said to Hopkins one morning: “Will you come to my studio and take off all your clothes?” If Irene had not been such a wonderful mimic, she would certainly have felt it her duty to go straight to the Padre, and, pulling down her veil, confide to him the whole sad story. But as that was out of the question, she went into Twemlow’s and ordered four pounds of dried apricots.
E F Benson. 1867-1940. Miss Mapp. 1922. (Chapter 3)
Image: Dod Proctor, In a Strange Land, 1919. ©National Gallery of Victoria