The Square Circle
Perhaps one of the most attractive features about that famous and lovely town, Cheltenham Spa, is its squares. Planned at a period more spacious than ours of to-day, they bear with them an atmosphere of leisure, culture, and almost rural tranquillity. They all bear a family likeness, and Regency Square, though perhaps smaller and more exclusive than others in the vicinity, typifies perfectly its Georgian origins. It consists of only ten houses erected in the form of a flattened U with a quiet, residential road ambling across its open side. These ten well-proportioned domiciles face on to the central, communal square of grass, which is shaded here and there by rare trees and graceful, flowering shrubs. The architecture is varied, though pleasing, from the long, low façade of the White House, to the tall, flat-roofed simplicity of Number One on the opposite side of the square. None of these buildings, however, has more than three storeys, whilst most are ornamented with wrought-iron verandahs or carved stone balconies. As one faces into the square from the road one sees the left-hand arm of the U as a continuous frontage with a flat, crenellated roof and a series of four sets of stone steps leading down from four, solid-looking front-doors. To the right lies the White House in its own well-kept grounds and one other less distinguished, detached house which completes the right arm of the U.
At the base of the U are five undetached houses, the chief feature of which are the french windows on the second floor which give out on to stone balconies, supported by the pillars of porticos which hood their respective front-doors. An uninterrupted pavement runs round the three sides of the square, shaded with silver birch trees, which, combined with a number of discreet lamps, divide the pavement from the road. The general effect is of a quiet, residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.
Unfortunately, as in so many cases, the outward suggestions of the square are by no means compatible with the inward life lived by the people inhabiting it. Granted not one of those ten houses boasts a child. Granted that the average age of its residents is round about forty. Granted that traffic is scarce, barrel-organs unknown and wireless-sets so subdued that they are debarred from penetrating the walls of adjacent houses. But what of the yapping of Miss Boon’s dogs? Of the Rev. Matthews’ booming greetings which echo across the square? Of the eternal ringing of Dr. Pratt’s telephone- bell? Of the doubtful hymn-singing of the Misses Watt, and Captain Cotton’s high-powered motor-bike? And though, for the most part, the community live in amity, the very fact that they live in an enclosed intimacy not to be found in an ordinary road is sufficient to exaggerate such small annoyances and dissensions which from time to time arise. There was, for instance, the controversy over the Tree.
It was a minor war, which had been raging since the early winter, and now, in the middle of April, had come to a head. The Tree, a very old, almost immemorial elm, overhung the far, left-hand corner of the square, and in Mr. West’s opinion it was a Menace. The feelings of the other members of the square circle were divided. The masculine, short-skirted Miss Boon upheld that as it had stood for a hundred years there was no reason why it shouldn’t stand for another two hundred, an argument endorsed by Mr. Fitzgerald the bank-manager, and his pretty, though rather empty-headed young wife. The Rev. Matthews and his sister who could see the elm from their drawing-room were perfectly certain that its roots were sound, and that it would be a crime to cut it down. Dr. Pratt, on the other hand, sided with Mr. West because there was nothing he liked better than an argument with Miss Boon, whilst the caution and natural timidity of the Misses Nancy and Emmeline Watt placed them, as a matter of course, in the Menace camp. For the rest Captain Cotton didn’t care a damn, Mr. Edward Buller was more interested in the stock-market and his own ailments, Miss Barnet was away, and Sir Wilfred and Lady Eleanor Whitcomb, of the White House, retained their usual aloof and non-committal attitude to the brawls of the hoi-poloi.
“Look here, West,” said Dr. Pratt one early spring morning, “it’s no use letting this absurd argument drift on like this. You ought to act. See the Borough Surveyor—I think it’s in his demesne—get him on your side and have the tree cut down.”
“But what about Matthews? He’s dead against—”
“Oh, damn Matthews. He doesn’t want it cut down for aesthetic and sentimental reasons. But public safety is of far more importance than sentiment.”
“You know, Pratt,” said West apologetically, “I hate upsetting people. It seems a pity that this matter couldn’t be settled amicably.”
The doctor snorted.
“Well, if you won’t see the authorities, I’ll do it myself. It’s your place to—you started the shamozzle. Point is, unless that elm comes down somebody’s going to be killed in the long run. It’s our duty to act.”
“Oh, very well,” said West wearily. “I’ll mention the matter in the right direction and see what can be done about it. I’m sick of the whole business.”
“Good!” concluded Pratt emphatically. “You’re doing the sensible thing.”
“Am I?” wondered West. “It’s all very well for you. You’re making me shoulder the responsibility and if there’s a row I shall be the one to suffer.”
He didn’t want any more worries. He had quite enough to deal with as it was—financial worries, domestic worries, worries about the future. Ever since he had come such a cropper over those cement shares, selling when he ought to have held for a substantial rise, nothing had gone right with his finances. Buller had been handsomely apologetic over the misinformation which he had given him over those shares. Of course the man, although a stockbroker, could not always be expected to gauge the market to a T. The stock-market was a tricky business at the best of times and, of late, political unrest had undermined what little stability existed in the money world. But it had placed him in an awkward fix. If things didn’t suddenly take a turn for the better and his investments show an increased profit—well, good-bye to his retirement. He’d have to look around for a job and go into harness again.
Isobel wouldn’t like it. She was difficult enough now but if money got tight heaven alone knew what might happen. The old threat of a separation might be translated from a threat into an act. Things between them had become so strained since Christmas that it needed only a spark to send their domestic life sky-high. If only he could adopt a nice callous attitude toward his wife, the sort of attitude she seemed to hold for him, then the dread of this threatened split would no longer worry him. As it was he often lay awake at night trying to straighten things out. Trouble was that the others in the square knew all about it now. He had been quick to realize this fact from their politely veiled innuendos and unspoken sympathy. And it was all Isobel’s fault. She was brazen, thoughtless in the calm manner in which she accepted Captain Cotton’s odious advances. Hadn’t he seen them sharing a tea-table on the Promenade? And the fellow was an outsider, a wastrel, an adventurer. Nobody seemed to know where his money came from or how a mere car-salesman could run a house in the square with a manservant to look after him. It seemed incredible that an intelligent, educated woman like Isobel should have come under the spell of such a vulgar upstart. The retention of that prefix “Captain” should have been sufficient to warn her, for Pratt had told him in confidence that Cotton had never held a regular commission. Exactly what one would expect of the bounder.
Turning these unpleasant thoughts over in his mind as he made his way to the municipal offices, West almost collided with Miss Boon returning from her shopping, surrounded, as usual, by an ill-assorted pack of dogs.
“Ah, hullo, Arthur. Taking a constitutional?” West guiltily prevaricated.
“Yes, just popping down to the bank.”
“Just been there myself,” said Miss Boon in her resounding bass. “Fitz looks off his oats, doesn’t he?”
“Fitzgerald? I haven’t really noticed. Is he ill?”
“Ill! He looks as if he’s seen a ghost. Or falsified his accounts. He ought to see Pratt.”
“Well he always seems happy enough—I mean in his home. If ever a couple were eminently suited to each other—”
Miss Boon shuddered.
“Horrible. The way they hang round each other’s necks. I grant you they’ve only been married for a short time and that she’s only just out of her teens, but Fitz is old enough to know better. Can’t fathom what he sees in that fancy little bit.”
“She’s very pretty,” contested West, edging along the pavement a little.
“Bah! Chocolate-box, Arthur. You’ve got low tastes.” “And a lot to do,” added West meaningly. “I really must—”
Miss Boon side-stepped and planted herself and her dogs implacably in his path.
“Wait a bit. I want a word with you. About that Tree.”
West felt a cold shiver run up his spine. This was the one subject he wished to avoid.
“Matthews and I won’t have it cut down. You’re old-womanish in your attitude.”
“It’s unsafe. Patently so. Pratt agrees.”
“Pratt’s a fool. I like him but he’s a fool. If either of you dare—”
“Good-bye,” said West picking his way among the snuffling pack at his feet. “I’ve got a lot to do before lunch.”
Miss Boon swung round, whistled stridently to a Cocker on the far side of the street and made off in the direction of the square.
Poor Arthur, he was always a bit edgy these days. Making a regular nuisance of himself about that Tree. So childishly insistent that he was right. Of course Isobel’s behaviour was enough to drive any man to drink. Thank God she hadn’t any domestic worries. Dogs were the only sensible housemates.
They didn’t argue or make trouble like human beings. She felt happy and full of vim striding along with her canine bodyguard.
But as she turned into Regency Square and made ready to mount the steps of Number One her eye was arrested by something unpleasant at the end of the square. Her expression altered. Her massive jaw advanced. Her eyes narrowed and she radiated something that was half-brother to hatred. The object of her disapproval was the retired stockbroker, Edward Buller, who had just come out on to his stone bal- cony and dropped into his chaise-longue. Being, as he himself firmly believed, an invalid, he often took up this post of vantage on sunny mornings in order to relieve the monotony of inaction by watching the activities of other people. Luckily for him Miss Boon’s expression was too distant for him to recognize as also was her muttered imprecation:
“That vile inhuman brute!”
And anybody overhearing that remark would have judged that Miss Boon meant exactly what she said.
Buller himself felt in an expansive mood since he was alone and not burdened with the necessity of acting up to his role of a dying man. The finance page of his morning paper had greeted him with the bald information that overnight he had successfully made a couple of thousand pounds. One of his finest coups since the opening of the new year. Although he had retired from active stockbroking five years previously, a genuinely wealthy man, he liked to feel that he was keeping his hand in and that this hand had not lost its notorious Midas-touch. It was a familiar saying in the city: “Buller always hits the bulls. Everything he touches turns to money.” Quite true it did. A nice little nest-egg of fifty thousand pounds tucked away in gilt-edged, these casual little snippets dropping into his hand, the house his own and no actual dependants. Of course there was that two hundred pound annuity which he had settled on his nephew Anthony, but that was a mere fleabite. Sensible boy. Had a way with him. Had the right attitude toward money. Believed that it was better to make money than to spend it. Well his nephew wouldn’t regret these sentiments because he had made him his sole heir. A bit of fun to watch the boy’s face when he told him last Christmas. Better to let the boy know now after what Pratt had reluctantly told him about his constitution. Go easy. Plenty of sunlight and fresh-air. Keep the windows open. A tendency, perhaps to T.B. Nothing serious but serious enough in his, Buller’s, opinion to talk about to his few sympathetic friends. Pity this rag-and-bobtail lot in the square didn’t seem to get on with him—not that he admired them but it would have been pleasant to swap ailments whenever he felt like a chat. The old dears next door were all right though a bit pious with their church-going and hymn-singing. A little of ’em went a long way.
“Have you watered the ferns?” asked Miss Emmeline of her sister Nancy. “The warmer weather seems to be affecting them adversely, Nance.”
Miss Nancy looked up over her embroidery frame with an air of patient martyrdom.
“Do I ever forget. Really, Emmeline, you are a little trying at times. We have our separate duties and I’m sure I never attempt to evade the responsibilities I’ve accepted.”
“I’m very sorry, Nance. I’d no desire to upset you. I see Mr. Buller is taking the sun this morning.”
At this piece of news her sister laid down her embroidery and joined Emmeline at the window, where she was peeping obliquely along the façade of the house from behind a chink in the lace curtain at the projecting balcony of the adjacent building. For a moment the two sisters stared with commiseration and interest at the portly figure reclining in the chair, then Miss Nancy observed:
“I think he has got over his turn. It was terrible while it lasted, but I’m sure the spring is doing him a world of good. You were so brave that dreadful night, Emmeline.”
A tiny smirk of satisfaction rather belied Miss Emmeline’s modest denial.
“I only did what I could. But Doctor Pratt was wonderful. Wonderful. I could only sit by the bedside and pray that the crisis would pass.”
There was a pause as Miss Nancy cautiously withdrew from the window and resettled herself in her sewing-chair. At length she looked up and asked with immense gravity:
“I wonder, Emmeline, do you think we were right in telling Mr. Matthews the awful words you overheard? I can’t help feeling that it was a little unkind to Mr. Buller. Of course I know Mr. Matthews would never breathe a word to anybody but if Mr. West were to hear—”
“It was our duty,” broke in Miss Emmeline sternly, turning away from the window and picking up a feather-duster. “I know those words were only spoken in delirium. One likes to believe there was no truth in them, but I felt I wanted advice. I naturally turned to Mr. Matthews in my distress. You must understand, Nance, that from that day I have never born the slightest ill-will to Mr. Buller.
“But why should he think that he had swindled—yes, Emmeline, it’s the only word to use—that he had swindled Mr. West of all that money?”
“I think,” concluded Miss Emmeline, flicking her feather- duster over a china-laden what-not, “that it was a figment of his feverish imagination.”
Her sister, aware that the subject had now been closed, knew better than to try and reopen it. Instead she branched out into an entirely new conversational direction with the observation that Miss Barnet’s brother, Aldous, would probably be taking his sister’s house now that she had gone abroad again. They knew that their left-hand neighbour liked to “keep the place aired.” The Misses Watt, moreover, were intensely interested in Aldous because he represented, however obliquely, a world of which they knew nothing— the world of crime. For Aldous Barnet, who lived under the South Downs in the little village of Washington, was a writer of detective stories. In the course of his occasional visits he often dropped in and chatted to them about forgeries and thefts and murders. Of course these godless things would never come their way but it was interesting to hear about the wickedness of other people from a man who was practically an authority on the subject.
Dr. Pratt, too, whose house stood at right angles to Miss Barnet’s in the corner of the square, was also a willing audience to her brother’s anecdotes. He made it a custom to have Aldous in to dinner whenever he came to Cheltenham and, after their port, they settled down to an evening’s survey of crime and its many ramifications. Pratt had not perhaps the naive attitude of the Misses Watt toward theft and murder, but was more interested in the psychology of criminal types. His chief, perhaps his only, hobby was a detached study of the actions and reactions of his fellow-men, a study which, after years of silent practice he had reduced to a fine art. Pratt always felt that he could anticipate to a detail what a certain man would do in certain circumstances. Or for that matter, though with less confidence, a certain woman. This hobby invested him with an air of intellectual detachment which seemed to arouse more faith in his patients than a jovial bedside-manner.
The aloofness of Sir Wilfred and Lady Eleanor, whose large, expensive, dazzling White House abutted the doctor’s, was in an entirely different category. It was less intellectual and more snobbish, for Sir Wilfred’s immediate forebears had by no means thought it odd to take off their coats before sitting down to their unimaginative, midday dinners. It was quite impossible to disassociate Sir Wilfred and his wife from their titles. They allowed and took no liberties, but dwelt somewhat apart from the other denizens in Regency Square, a little condescending, a little patronizing and generally disliked. Although several people in the square had approached Sir Wilfred with the suggestion that he should become a member of the Wellington Archery Club he had always refused with the simple though irritating phrase that “bows and arrows were out-of-date.” To this sententious and absurd remark he owed quite half of his unpopularity, for Regency Square boasted a small, select band of keen archers, who were as fanatic in their own line as golfers. It was a well- known fact that many of the more vulgar residents in the vicinity referred to Regency Square as “Archery Nook.” For all that the municipal and even county teams often called upon Dr. Pratt, Miss Boon, West, Fitzgerald and the Rev. Matthews to “draw a bow” on their behalf.
Thus the inhabitants of Regency Square—diverse, yet as a community, typical; outwardly harmonious, yet privately at loggerheads; temperamentally and intellectually dissimilar, yet all of them chiselling away at the same hard block of granite which, for want of a better word, we call life.