Noël Coward – The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe,1939

She remembered once saying to Cecil, Marjorie’s husband, who after all was supposed to be a painter, when they were standing in the garden one summer evening before dinner, that sunset and sunrise were God’s loveliest gifts to mortals if only they were not too blind to be able to appreciate them. Cecil had laughed, that irritating, cynical laugh of his, and replied that many thousands of people would appreciate them more if they were edible. She recalled how annoyed she had been, she could have bitten her tongue out for betraying a fragment of her own private self to someone who was obviously incapable of understanding it. On looking back, she realized that that was the first moment that she really knew that she disliked Cecil. Of course, she had never let Marjorie suspect it for an instant, and never would. What was done, was done, but still it was no use pretending. ”Know thyself,” was one of the cornerstones of her philosophy. Poor Marjorie. Poor willful, disillusioned Marjorie. That Marjorie was thoroughly disillusioned by now, Mrs. Radcliffe hadn’t the faintest doubt. Nobody could be married for seven years to a man like Cecil with his so-called artistic temperament, his casualness about money, her money, and his complete inability to earn any for himself, without being disillusioned. Mrs. Radcliffe sighed as she turned into Station Road. What a tragedy! Marjorie Radcliffe had met Cecil Garfield at a fancy-dress ball at the Albert Hall in 1950. She was up in town for a few days visiting a married school friend, Laura Courtney. There had been a buffet dinner before the ball, in Laura’s house in St. John’s Wood, and Marjorie, dressed as Cleopatra, a very effective costume that she had designed and made herself, was escorted to the Albert Hall by Roger Wood, a cousin of Laura’s who was in the air force. Roger was not dressed as anything in particular. He was a hearty young man and balked at the idea of tidying himself up; the most he had conceded to the carnival spirit of the occasion was a false moustache and a dark blue cape lined with scarlet which he wore over his ordinary evening clothes. Marjorie had been rather bored with him and was much relieved when, upon arrival at the ball, they ‘had been accosted in the foyer by a group of hilarious young people none of whom she knew, but all of whom seemed to know Roger. They were whirled off to the bar immediately to have a drink before even attempting to find Laura and the rest of their party. Among the group, was Cecil Garfield, and Cecil was dressed as Mark Antony. This coincidence provided an excuse for a great deal of playful comment from everybody. It would be useless to deny that Cecil looked very attractive as Mark Antony. His physique, much of which was apparent, was magnificent. He had a quick wit and a charming smile and Marjorie danced several dances with him.

At about three in the morning everybody, Laura and her husband included, adjourned to Cecil’s studio in Glebe Place to cook eggs and bacon. it was there that Marjorie first realized that he was an artist. How the word “Artist,” to Marjorie, held an imperishable glamour. She had long ago decided that a life such as her mother would have wished her to lead with a conventional husband, a cook and a baby, was out of the question. Marjorie wholeheartedly detested her suburban existence and, if the truth were known, was none too fond of her mother. Of this unnatural state of affairs, Mrs. Radcliffe was mercifully unaware, and if Mr. Radcliffe occasionally had an inkling of it,, he was wise enough to keep his suspicions to himself. Marjorie’s predilection for the artistic life had originally started when she was in her teens. Miss Lucas, her drawing mistress at school. had, perhaps unsuitably, lent her The Life of Van Gogh. Profoundly impressed by this, Marjorie had gone from bad to worse. My Days with the French Romantics, The Beardsley Period, Isadora Duncan’s Autobiography, and The Moon and Sixpence, had followed each other in quick succession. By the time she was twenty, she had assimilated a view of life so diametrically opposed to her mother’s, that existence at home became almost insupportable. She was an intelligent girl, however, wise beyond her years and practiced in deceit. A certain proficiency in’this direction being essential with a mother like Mrs. Radcliffe, and with a secretiveness that could only be described as downright sly, she kept her own counsel.

. . . . . .

Cecil and Marjorie had sat in a corner together that night after the ball and talked. A few days later they met by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and talked a lot more. They talked of literature, music, religion and morals and agreed on all points. Of painting they talked more than anything. Cecil’s gods were Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Manet. He considered Picasso an intrinsically fine painter, but misguided. Cecil, when he talked of painting, betrayed his heart. Marjorie watched him fascinated. She noted the way his body became tense, the swift, expressive movements of his hands, how, when he was describing some picture that meant much to him, he would screw up his eyes and look through her, beyond her, beyond the trees of the park and the red buses trundling along on the other side of the railings, beyond the autumn sunshine and the people and the houses, beyond the present into the future. It was himself he was staring at through those half-closed eyes, himself having painted a successful picture, several successful pictures. Not successful from other people’s points of view, perhaps, but from his own.

It was when she first saw him like that, unselfconscious, almost arrogant, demanding so much of life and of himself and of anybody who had anything to do with him, that she knew she loved him. More than this, she knew that she could help him and comfort him and look after him. At last she had found someone in whom she could sublimate her passionate, unresolved yearning for creativeness. Five months later she had crept out of the house early on a bleak wet morning in February, traveled to London by the seven-forty-five train, met him under the clock at Victoria Station and married him at nine-thirty at a Registry Office in Fulham.

. . . . .

All this had taken place six years ago. Since then the allowance had been raised, on the stubborn insistence of Mr. Radcliffe, to almost double. Consequently, the Garfields were enabled to live in comparative comfort in a small house behind Sloane Square with a studio at the back converted, at certain expense, from a conservatory.

The fact that Cecil only very rarely managed to sell a picture was a source of great irritation to Mrs. Radcliffe. Having at last, soothed by the passage of time, consented to bury the hatchet and accept her artistic son-in-law, it was extremely frustrating not to be able to refer to his work with any conviction. To say ”My son-in-law is quite a well-known painter, you know,” was one thing, but it was quite another to say, “My son-in-law is a painter,” and upon being asked what kind of a painter, to be unable to explain. If only he would do portraits that had some resemblance to the sitter, or landscapes which gave some indication, however faint, of what they were supposed to be. lt was all very fine to argue that a painter painted through his own eyes and nobody else’s, and that what was green to one person might very possibly be bright pink to another. All that sort of talk smacked of affectation and highbrowism. What was good enough for Landseer and alma Tadema was good enough for Mrs. Radcliffe, and, she would have thought, good enough for anybody who had their heads screwed on in the right way.

. . . . .

“How is Cecil?”

“Bright as a button. He’s been working like a dog for the last two weeks.”

“Really?” The vision of Cecil working like a dog did not impress Mrs. Radcliffe. In the first place she didn’t believe it. She didn’t consider that painting away in that studio constituted work at all. It was just dabbing about. Cecil, as far as she could see, spent his whole life dabbing about. She naturally didn’t say this to Marjorie. Marjorie was inclined to be overvehement in defense of her husband’s activities.

“Has he managed to sell any more pictures lately?” she inquired. The ”any more” was purely courtesy. As far as she could remember Cecil had only sold one picture in the last eighteen months and for that he had received only twenty pounds.

An expression of irritation passed over Marjorie’s face, but she answered amiably enough. “He’s planning to have an exhibition in June. Lady Bethel is lending him her house for it.”

This caused Mrs. Radcliffe to sit up as Marjorie had intended that it should.

“ls that the Lady Bethel who organized that charity pageant just before Christmas?”

“Yes,” said Marjorie. “She’s a darling, there was a lovely picture of her in the Tatler last week: going to a Court ball,” she added wickedly.

“Mrs. Radcliffe was clearly puzzled. Lady Bethel was certainly an important figure. If she was willing to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings it might mean—here her reflections were disturbed by Cecil himself coming into the room. He had washed and tidied himself for lunch, but for all that he looked ill-groomed. His hair was too long, he wore no tie and there were paint stains on his very old gray flannel trousers. He bent down and kissed Mrs. Radcliffe on the cheek and then poured himself out some sherry.

“How are you, Marm?” he said breezily. He always addressed her as “Marm” and there was a suggestion in his tone of mock reverence which never failed to annoy her. “You look shining and beautiful.”

Mrs. Radcliffe deplored extravagance of phrase. She answered rather tartly, ”Very well indeed, thank you, Cecil.”

Cecil came over and leant against the mantelpiece, looking down at her. She was forced to admit to herself that he was hand- some in a loose, slovenly sort of way, but she could never be reconciled to that hair, never, if she lived to be a thousand.

“l’ve been telling mother about Lady Bethel promising to lend her house for your exhibition,” said Marjorie a trifle loudly.

Was it Mrs. Radcliffe’s fancy or did Cecil give a slight start of surprise?

”Yes,” he said with marked nonchalance. “It’s sweet of the old girl, isn’t it?”

Something in Mrs. Radcliffe revolted at Lady Bethel, The Lady Bethel, being referred to as an old girl, but she didn’t betray it.

“lt certainly is very nice of her,” she said. “But she has a great reputation, hasn’t she for giving a helping hand to struggling artists?”

Cecil, disconcertingly, burst out laughing. ”Touché, Marm,” he said. “Come along and let’s have some lunch.” He helped her out of her chair with elaborate solicitude and led the way into the dining room. Lunch passed off without incident. The conversation, although it could not be said to sparkle, was at least more or less continuous. Cecil was in the best of spirits. He was extremely attentive to Mrs. Radcliffe, always it is true with that light overture of mockery, that subtle implication in his voice and his gestures that she was a great deal older than she was, and had to be humored at all costs.

. . . . .

After lunch was over and they had had their coffee (lukewarm) in the drawing room, Mrs. Radcliffe expressed a desire to see Cecil’s pictures. This request was made merely in the spirit of conventional politeness. She had no real wish to see his pictures, as she knew from experience that there was little or no chance of her admiring them. Cecil and Marjorie were also perfectly aware of this, but nevertheless, after a little humming and hawing Cecil led the way into the studio. Marjorie walked behind with rather a lagging tread. The untidiness of Cecil’s studio always struck Mrs. Radcliffe with a fresh shock of distaste. It was inconceivable that anyone, however artistic, could live and breathe amid so much dirt and squalor. The table alone, which stood under the high window, was a sight to make the gorge rise. On it were ashtrays overflowing with days’ old cigarette ends, two or three used and unwashed teacups, a bottle of gin, a noisome conglomeration of paint tubes of all shapes and sizes, many of them cracked and broken so that their contents was oozing out and all of them smeared with a brownish substance that looked like glue, a pile of books and magazines, countless pencils and crayons and pieces of charcoal and, most disgusting of all, a half-full glass of milk, round the rim of which a fly was walking delicately. The rest of the room was equally repulsive. There was a model throne draped with some dusty material, a gas-fire with a bowl of water in front of it, in which floated several more cigarette ends, two easels, several canvases stacked against the wall, a large divan covered in red casement cloth and banked with paint-stained cushions and a pedestal supporting a sculpture in bronze of a woman’s breast. It was only by the greatest effort of self-control that Mrs. Radcliffe repressed a cry of horror.

The picture on which Cecil was working stood on the bigger of the two easels in the middle of the room. It represented a man, or what passed for a man, sitting in a crooked rocking chair without any clothes on. His legs, which were fortunately crossed, were enormously thick. Upon a slanting table at the right-hand side of the picture was what appeared to be a guitar together with a vase of flowers, a bottle and a fish. The paint on the canvas looked as though it had been flung at it from the other side of the room. There was not a trace of what Mrs. Radcliffe had been brought up to recognize as “fine brush work”. In fact there didn’t appear to be any brush work at all. She regarded in silence for a moment and then shook her head. “lt’s no use,” she said, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. “I don’t understand it.”

“Never mind, Marm,” said Cecil cheerfully. “lt’s not really finished yet, anyhow.”

“But what does it mean?”

“It’s called ‘Music,”’ said Marjorie as though that explained everything.

“I still don’t understand what it means,” said Mrs. Radcliffe.

Cecil exchanged a quick look with Marjorie, who shrugged her shoulders. This annoyed Mrs. Radcliffe. “I’m sure you think I’m very ignorant and old-fashioned,” this time making no attempt to control her irritation, “but I don’t approve of this modern futuristic art and I never shall. To my mind a picture should express beauty of some sort. Heaven knows, there is enough ugliness in the world without having to paint it—”

“But we don’t think that picture is ugly, mother,” said Marjorie with an edge on her voice. Cecil looked at her warningly. Mrs. Radcliffe sniffed.

“You may not think its ugly and your highbrow friends may not think so either, but I do,” she said.

“Our friends are not particularly highbrow, Marm,” he said gently. “And as a matter of fact, nobody has seen this picture yet at all. You’re the first, you should feel very honoured,” he added with a disarming smile. Unfortunately, however, the smile was not quite quick enough and failed to disarm. Mrs. Radcliffe was by now thoroughly angry. The Chianti at lunch had upset her digestion as she had known it would and, having endured that inferior, badly cooked food and done her level best to be pleasant and entertaining into the bargain, to be stood in front of a daub like this and expected to admire it was really too much. In addition to this, both Cecil and Marjorie had a note of patronage in their voices which she found insufferable. All very fine for them to be patronizing when they were living entirely on her money, or rather Mr. Radcliffe’s which was the same thing. All very fine for a strong, healthy young man of Cecil’s age to fritter his time away painting these nonsensical pictures when he ought to be in some steady job shouldering his responsibilities and supporting his wife in the luxury to which she had been accustomed. All very fine to allude to Lady Bethel as an “old girl” and “darling” in that casual intimate manner and boast that she was going to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings. If Lady Bethel considered that that sort of nonsense was worthy of being exhibited she must be nothing short of an imbecile. In any case, she strongly doubted that Lady Bethel had promised any such thing. She recalled the swift look that had passed between Cecil and Marjorie before lunch, and the rather overdone nonchalance of Cecil’s tone.

The whole thing was nothing but a lie in order to impress her. The suspicion of this, which had lain dormant at the back of her mind throughout the whole of lunch, suddenly became a conviction. Of course that was what it was. A deliberate lie calculated to put her in the wrong, to make her feel ‘that her criticisms of Cecil’s painting in the past had been unjust, and to try to deceive her into the belief that he was appreciated and understood by people who really knew, whereas all the time he was nothing more nor less than the complete and utter failure he always had been and always would be. Mrs. Radcliffe decided to speak her mind. .

“Cecil” she said in an ominous voice, ‘’I have something to say to you that I have been wishing to say for some time past.”

The smile faded from Cecil’s face, and Marjorie walked across purposefully and slipped her arm through his.

‘Fire away, Marm,” he said with a certain bravado, but she saw him stiffen slightly.

“I want to suggest,” went on Mrs. Radcliffe, ”that you give up this absurd painting business once and for all and find some sort of job that will bring you in a steady income—”

“Give up his painting, mother, you must be mad!” said Marjorie angrily.

“Cecil patted her arm. “Shut up, darling,” he said.

Mrs. Radcliffe ignored the interruption and continued: ‘’I have talked the matter over with my husband.” This was untrue, but she felt that it solidified her position. “And we are both in complete agreement that it is nothing short of degrading that a young man of your age should be content to live indefinitely on his wife’s money.” There was dead silence for a moment. Mrs. Radcliffe’s face was flushed and the corners of Cecil’s mouth twitched.

Noël Coward,1899-1973   The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe, in, To Step Aside, Seven Short Stories,1939