A rather small young man sat by the window of a pretty seaside cottage trying to persuade himself that he was reading the newspaper. It was about half-past eight in the morning. Outside, the glory roses hung in the morning sunshine like little bowls of fire tipped up. The young man looked at the table, then at the clock, then at his own big silver watch. An expression of stiff endurance came on to his face. Then he rose and reflected on the oil-paintings that hung on the walls of the room, giving careful but hostile attention to "The Stag at Bay". He tried the lid of the piano, and found it locked. He caught sight of his own face in a little mirror, pulled his brown moustache, and an alert interest sprang into his eyes. He was not ill-favoured. He twisted his moustache. His figure was rather small, but alert and vigorous. As he turned from the mirror a look of self-commiseration mingled with his appreciation of his own physiognomy.
In a state of self-suppression, he went through into the garden. His jacket, however, did not look dejected. It was new, and had a smart and self-confident air, sitting upon a confident body. He contemplated the Tree of Heaven that flourished by the lawn, then sauntered on to the next plant. There was more promise in a crooked apple tree covered with brown-red fruit. Glancing round, he broke off an apple and, with his back to the house, took a clean, sharp bite. To his surprise the fruit was sweet. He took another. Then again he turned to survey the bedroom windows overlooking the garden. He started, seeing a woman's figure; but it was only his wife. She was gazing across to the sea, apparently ignorant of him.
For a moment or two he looked at her, watching her. She was a good-looking woman, who seemed older than he, rather pale, but healthy, her face yearning. Her rich auburn hair was heaped in folds on her forehead. She looked apart from him and his world, gazing away to the sea. It irked her husband that she should continue abstracted and in ignorance of him; he pulled poppy fruits and threw them at the window. She started, glanced at him with a wild smile, and looked away again. Then almost immediately she left the window. He went indoors to meet her. She had a fine carriage, very proud, and wore a dress of soft white muslin.
"I've been waiting long enough," he said.
"For me or for breakfast?" she said lightly. "You know we said nine o'clock. I should have thought you could have slept after the journey."
"You know I'm always up at five, and I couldn't stop in bed after six. You might as well be in pit as in bed, on a morning like this."
"I shouldn't have thought the pit would occur to you, here."
She moved about examining the room, looking at the ornaments under glass covers. He, planted on the hearthrug, watched her rather uneasily, and grudgingly indulgent. She shrugged her shoulders at the apartment.
"Come," she said, taking his arm, "let us go into the garden till Mrs Coates brings the tray."
"I hope she'll be quick," he said, pulling his moustache. She gave a short laugh, and leaned on his arm as they went. He had lighted a pipe.
Mrs Coates entered the room as they went down the steps. The delightful, erect old lady hastened to the window for a good view of her visitors. Her china-blue eyes were bright as she watched the young couple go down the path, he walking in an easy, confident fashion, with his wife, on his arm. The landlady began talking to herself in a soft, Yorkshire accent.
"Just of a height they are. She wouldn't ha' married a man less than herself in stature, I think, though he's not her equal otherwise." Here her granddaughter came in, setting a tray on the table. The girl went to the old woman's side.
"He's been eating the apples, gran'," she said.
"Has he, my pet? Well, if he's happy, why not?"
Outside, the young, well-favoured man listened with impatience to the chink of the teacups. At last, with a sigh of relief, the couple came in to breakfast. After he had eaten for some time, he rested a moment and said:
"Do you think it's any better place than Bridlington?"
"I do," she said, "infinitely! Besides, I am at home here--it's not like a strange sea-side place to me."
"How long were you here?"
He ate reflectively.
"I should ha' thought you'd rather go to a fresh place," he said at length.
She sat very silent, and then, delicately, put out a feeler.
"Why?" she said. "Do you think I shan't enjoy myself?"
He laughed comfortably, putting the marmalade thick on his bread.
"I hope so," he said.
She again took no notice of him.
"But don't say anything about it in the village, Frank," she said casually. "Don't say who I am, or that I used to live here. There's nobody I want to meet, particularly, and we should never feel free if they knew me again."
"Why did you come, then?"
"'Why?' Can't you understand why?"
"Not if you don't want to know anybody."
"I came to see the place, not the people."
He did not say any more.
"Women," she said, "are different from men. I don't know why I wanted to come--but I did."
She helped him to another cup of coffee, solicitously.
"Only," she resumed, "don't talk about me in the village." She laughed shakily. "I don't want my past brought up against me, you know." And she moved the crumbs on the cloth with her finger-tip.
He looked at her as he drank his coffee; he sucked his moustache, and putting down his cup, said phlegmatically:
"I'll bet you've had a lot of past."
She looked with a little guiltiness, that flattered him, down at the tablecloth.
"Well," she said, caressive, "you won't give me away, who I am, will you?"
"No," he said, comforting, laughing, "I won't give you away."
He was pleased.
She remained silent. After a moment or two she lifted her head, saying:
"I've got to arrange with Mrs Coates, and do various things. So you'd better go out by yourself this morning--and we'll be in to dinner at one."
"But you can't be arranging with Mrs Coates all morning," he said.
"Oh, well--then I've some letters to write, and I must get that mark out of my skirt. I've got plenty of little things to do this morning. You'd better go out by yourself."
He perceived that she wanted to be rid of him, so that when she went upstairs, he took his hat and lounged out on to the cliffs, suppressedly angry.
Presently she too came out. She wore a hat with roses, and a long lace scarf hung over her white dress. Rather nervously, she put up her sunshade, and her face was half-hidden in its coloured shadow. She went along the narrow track of flag-stones that were worn hollow by the feet of the fishermen. She seemed to be avoiding her surroundings, as if she remained safe in the little obscurity of her parasol.
She passed the church, and went down the lane till she came to a high wall by the wayside. Under this she went slowly, stopping at length by an open doorway, which shone like a picture of light in the dark wall. There in the magic beyond the doorway, patterns of shadow lay on the sunny court, on the blue and white sea-pebbles of its paving, while a green lawn glowed beyond, where a bay tree glittered at the edges. She tiptoed nervously into the courtyard, glancing at the house that stood in shadow. The uncurtained windows looked black and soulless, the kitchen door stood open. Irresolutely she took a step forward, and again forward, leaning, yearning, towards the garden beyond.
She had almost gained the corner of the house when a heavy step came crunching through the trees. A gardener appeared before her. He held a wicker tray on which were rolling great, dark red gooseberries, overripe. He moved slowly.
"The garden isn't open today," he said quietly to the attractive woman, who was poised for retreat.
For a moment she was silent with surprise. How should it be public at all?
"When is it open?" she asked, quick-witted.
"The rector lets visitors in on Fridays and Tuesdays."
She stood still, reflecting. How strange to think of the rector opening his garden to the public!
"But everybody will be at church," she said coaxingly to the man. "There'll be nobody here, will there?"
He moved, and the big gooseberries rolled.
"The rector lives at the new rectory," he said.
The two stood still. He did not like to ask her to go. At last she turned to him with a winning smile.
"Might I have one peep at the roses?" she coaxed, with pretty wilfulness.
"I don't suppose it would matter," he said, moving aside: "you won't stop long--"
She went forward, forgetting the gardener in a moment. Her face became strained, her movements eager. Glancing round, she saw all the windows giving on to the lawn were curtainless and dark. The house had a sterile appearance, as if it were still used, but not inhabited. A shadow seemed to go over her. She went across the lawn towards the garden, through an arch of crimson ramblers, a gate of colour. There beyond lay the soft blue sea with the bay, misty with morning, and the farthest headland of black rock jutting dimly out between blue and blue of the sky and water. Her face began to shine, transfigured with pain and joy. At her feet the garden fell steeply, all a confusion of flowers, and away below was the darkness of tree-tops covering the beck.
She turned to the garden that shone with sunny flowers around her. She knew the little corner where was the seat beneath the yew tree. Then there was the terrace where a great host of flowers shone, and from this, two paths went down, one at each side of the garden. She closed her sunshade and walked slowly among the many flowers. All round were rose bushes, big banks of roses, then roses hanging and tumbling from pillars, or roses balanced on the standard bushes. By the open earth were many other flowers. If she lifted her head, the sea was upraised beyond, and the Cape.
Slowly she went down one path, lingering, like one who has gone back into the past. Suddenly she was touching some heavy crimson roses that were soft as velvet, touching them thoughtfully, without knowing, as a mother sometimes fondles the hand of her child. She leaned slightly forward to catch the scent. Then she wandered on in abstraction. Sometimes a flame-coloured, scentless rose would hold her arrested. She stood gazing at it as if she could not understand it. Again the same softness of intimacy came over her, as she stood before a tumbling heap of pink petals. Then she wondered over the white rose, that was greenish, like ice, in the centre. So, slowly, like a white, pathetic butterfly, she drifted down the path, coming at last to a tiny terrace all full of roses. They seemed to fill the place, a sunny, gay throng. She was shy of them, they were so many and so bright. They seemed to be conversing and laughing. She felt herself in a strange crowd. It exhilarated her, carried her out of herself. She flushed with excitement. The air was pure scent.
Hastily, she went to a little seat among the white roses, and sat down. Her scarlet sunshade made a hard blot of colour. She sat quite still, feeling her own existence lapse. She was no more than a rose, a rose that could not quite come into blossom, but remained tense. A little fly dropped on her knee, on her white dress. She watched it, as if it had fallen on a rose. She was not herself.
Then she started cruelly as a shadow crossed her and a figure moved into her sight. It was a man who had come in slippers, unheard. He wore a linen coat. The morning was shattered, the spell vanished away. She was only afraid of being questioned. He came forward. She rose. Then, seeing him, the strength went from her and she sank on the seat again.
He was a young man, military in appearance, growing slightly stout. His black hair was brushed smooth and bright, his moustache was waxed. But there was something rambling in his gait. She looked up, blanched to the lips, and saw his eyes. They were black, and stared without seeing. They were not a man's eyes. He was coming towards her.
He stared at her fixedly, made unconscious salute, and sat down beside her on the seat. He moved on the bench, shifted his feet, saying, in a gentlemanly, military voice:
"I don't disturb you--do I?"
She was mute and helpless. He was scrupulously dressed in dark clothes and a linen coat. She could not move. Seeing his hands, with the ring she knew so well upon the little finger, she felt as if she were going dazed. The whole world was deranged. She sat unavailing. For his hands, her symbols of passionate love, filled her with horror as they rested now on his strong thighs.
"May I smoke?" he asked intimately, almost secretly, his hand going to his pocket.
She could not answer, but it did not matter, he was in another world. She wondered, craving, if he recognized her--if he could recognize her. She sat pale with anguish. But she had to go through it.
"I haven't got any tobacco," he said thoughtfully.
But she paid no heed to his words, only she attended to him. Could he recognize her, or was it all gone? She sat still in a frozen kind of suspense.
"I smoke John Cotton," he said, "and I must economize with it, it is expensive. You know, I'm not very well off while these lawsuits are going on."
"No," she said, and her heart was cold, her soul kept rigid.
He moved, made a loose salute, rose, and went away. She sat motionless. She could see his shape, the shape she had loved, with all her passion: his compact, soldier's head, his fine figure now slackened. And it was not he. It only filled her with horror too difficult to know.
Suddenly he came again, his hand in his jacket pocket.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" he said. "Perhaps I shall be able to see things more clearly."
He sat down beside her again, filling a pipe. She watched his hands with the fine strong fingers. They had always inclined to tremble slightly. It had surprised her, long ago, in such a healthy man. Now they moved inaccurately, and the tobacco hung raggedly out of the pipe.
"I have legal business to attend to. Legal affairs are always so uncertain. I tell my solicitor exactly, precisely what I want, but I can never get it done."
She sat and heard him talking. But it was not he. Yet those were the hands she had kissed, there were the glistening, strange black eyes that she had loved. Yet it was not he. She sat motionless with horror and silence. He dropped his tobacco pouch, and groped for it on the ground. Yet she must wait if he would recognize her. Why could she not go! In a moment he rose.
"I must go at once," he said. "The owl is coming." Then he added confidentially: "His name isn't really the owl, but I call him that. I must go and see if he has come."
She rose too. He stood before her, uncertain. He was a handsome, soldierly fellow, and a lunatic. Her eyes searched him, and searched him, to see if he would recognize her, if she could discover him.
"You don't know me?" she asked, from the terror of her soul, standing alone.
He looked back at her quizzically. She had to bear his eyes. They gleamed on her, but with no intelligence. He was drawing nearer to her.
"Yes, I do know you," he said, fixed, intent, but mad, drawing his face nearer hers. Her horror was too great. The powerful lunatic was coming too near to her.
A man approached, hastening.
"The garden isn't open this morning," he said.
The deranged man stopped and looked at him. The keeper went to the seat and picked up the tobacco pouch left lying there.
"Don't leave your tobacco, sir," he said, taking it to the gentleman in the linen coat.
"I was just asking this lady to stay to lunch," the latter said politely. "She is a friend of mine."
The woman turned and walked swiftly, blindly, between the sunny roses, out of the garden, past the house with the blank, dark windows, through the sea-pebbled courtyard to the street. Hastening and blind, she went forward without hesitating, not knowing whither. Directly she came to the house she went upstairs, took off her hat, and sat down on the bed. It was as if some membrane had been torn in two in her, so that she was not an entity that could think and feel. She sat staring across at the window, where an ivy spray waved slowly up and down in the sea wind. There was some of the uncanny luminousness of the sunlit sea in the air. She sat perfectly still, without any being. She only felt she might be sick, and it might be blood that was loose in her torn entrails. She sat perfectly still and passive.
After a time she heard the hard tread of her husband on the floor below, and, without herself changing, she registered his movement. She heard his rather disconsolate footsteps go out again, then his voice speaking, answering, growing cheery, and his solid tread drawing near.
He entered, ruddy, rather pleased, an air of complacency about his alert figure. She moved stiffly. He faltered in his approach.
"What's the matter?" he asked a tinge of impatience in his voice. "Aren't you feeling well?"
This was torture to her.
"Quite," she replied.
His brown eyes became puzzled and angry.
"What is the matter?" he said.
He took a few strides, and stood obstinately, looking out of the window.
"Have you run up against anybody?" he asked.
"Nobody who knows me," she said.
His hands began to twitch. It exasperated him, that she was no more sensible of him than if he did not exist. Turning on her at length, driven, he asked:
"Something has upset you hasn't it?"
"No, why?" she said neutral. He did not exist for her, except as an irritant.
His anger rose, filling the veins in his throat.
"It seems like it," he said, making an effort not to show his anger, because there seemed no reason for it. He went away downstairs. She sat still on the bed, and with the residue of feeling left to her, she disliked him because he tormented her. The time went by. She could smell the dinner being served, the smoke of her husband's pipe from the garden. But she could not move. She had no being. There was a tinkle of the bell. She heard him come indoors. And then he mounted the stairs again. At every step her heart grew tight in her. He opened the door.
"Dinner is on the table," he said.
It was difficult for her to endure his presence, for he would interfere with her. She could not recover her life. She rose stiffly and went down. She could neither eat nor talk during the meal. She sat absent, torn, without any being of her own. He tried to go on as if nothing were the matter. But at last he became silent with fury. As soon as it was possible, she went upstairs again, and locked the bedroom door. She must be alone. He went with his pipe into the garden. All his suppressed anger against her who held herself superior to him filled and blackened his heart. Though he had not know it, yet he had never really won her, she had never loved him. She had taken him on sufference. This had foiled him. He was only a labouring electrician in the mine, she was superior to him. He had always given way to her. But all the while, the injury and ignominy had been working in his soul because she did not hold him seriously. And now all his rage came up against her.
He turned and went indoors. The third time, she heard him mounting the stairs. Her heart stood still. He turned the catch and pushed the door--it was locked. He tried it again, harder. Her heart was standing still.
"Have you fastened the door?" he asked quietly, because of the landlady.
"Yes. Wait a minute."
She rose and turned the lock, afraid he would burst it. She felt hatred towards him, because he did not leave her free. He entered, his pipe between his teeth, and she returned to her old position on the bed. He closed the door and stood with his back to it.
"What's the matter?" he asked determinedly.
She was sick with him. She could not look at him.
"Can't you leave me alone?" she replied, averting her face from him.
He looked at her quickly, fully, wincing with ignominy. Then he seemed to consider for a moment.
"There's something up with you, isn't there?" he asked definitely.
"Yes," she said, "but that's no reason why you should torment me."
"I don't torment you. What's the matter?"
"Why should you know?" she cried, in hate and desperation.
Something snapped. He started and caught his pipe as it fell from his mouth. Then he pushed forward the bitten-off mouth-piece with his tongue, took it from off his lips, and looked at it. Then he put out his pipe, and brushed the ash from his waistcoat. After which he raised his head.
"I want to know," he said. His face was greyish pale, and set uglily.
Neither looked at the other. She knew he was fired now. His heart was pounding heavily. She hated him, but she could not withstand him. Suddenly she lifted her head and turned on him.
"What right have you to know?" she asked.
He looked at her. She felt a pang of surprise for his tortured eyes and his fixed face. But her heart hardened swiftly. She had never loved him. She did not love him now.
But suddenly she lifted her head again swiftly, like a thing that tries to get free. She wanted to be free of it. It was not him so much, but it, something she had put on herself, that bound her so horribly. And having put the bond on herself, it was hardest to take it off. But now she hated everything and felt destructive. He stood with his back to the door, fixed, as if he would oppose her eternally, till she was extinguished. She looked at him. Her eyes were cold and hostile. His workman's hands spread on the panels of the door behind him.
"You know I used to live here?" she began, in a hard voice, as if wilfully to wound him. He braced himself against her, and nodded.
"Well, I was companion to Miss Birch of Torril Hall--she and the rector were friends, and Archie was the rector's son." There was a pause. He listened without knowing what was happening. He stared at his wife. She was squatted in her white dress on the bed, carefully folding and re-folding the hem of her skirt. Her voice was full of hostility.
"He was an officer--a sub-lieutenant--then he quarrelled with his colonel and came out of the army. At any rate"--she plucked at her skirt hem, her husband stood motionless, watching her movements which filled his veins with madness--"he was awfully fond of me, and I was of him--awfully."
"How old was he?" asked the husband.
"When--when I first knew him? Or when he went away?--"
"When you first knew him."
"When I first knew him, he was twenty-six--now--he's thirty-one--nearly thirty-two--because I'm twenty-nine, and he is nearly three years older--"
She lifted her head and looked at the opposite wall.
"And what then?" said her husband.
She hardened herself, and said callously:
"We were as good as engaged for nearly a year, though nobody knew--at least--they talked--but--it wasn't open. Then he went away--"
"He chucked you?" said the husband brutally, wanting to hurt her into contact with himself. Her heart rose wildly with rage. Then "Yes", she said, to anger him. He shifted from one foot to the other, giving a "Ph!" of rage. There was silence for a time.
"Then," she resumed, her pain giving a mocking note to her words, "he suddenly went out to fight in Africa, and almost the very day I first met you, I heard from Miss Birch he'd got sunstroke--and two months after, that he was dead--"
"That was before you took on with me?" said the husband.
There was no answer. Neither spoke for a time. He had not understood. His eyes were contracted uglily.
"So you've been looking at your old courting places!" he said. "That was what you wanted to go out by yourself for this morning."
Still she did not answer him anything. He went away from the door to the window. He stood with his hands behind him, his back to her. She looked at him. His hands seemed gross to her, the back of his head paltry.
At length, almost against his will, he turned round, asking:
"How long were you carrying on with him?"
"What do you mean?" she replied coldly.
"I mean how long were you carrying on with him?"
She lifted her head, averting her face from him. She refused to answer. Then she said:
"I don't know what you mean, by carrying on. I loved him from the first days I met him--two months after I went to stay with Miss Birch."
"And do you reckon he loved you?" he jeered.
"I know he did."
"How do you know, if he'd have no more to do with you?"
There was a long silence of hate and suffering.
"And how far did it go between you?" he asked at length, in a frightened, stiff voice.
"I hate your not-straightforward questions," she cried, beside herself with his baiting. "We loved each other, and we were lovers--we were. I don't care what you think: what have you got to do with it? We were lovers before ever I knew you--"
"Lovers--lovers," he said, white with fury. "You mean you had your fling with an army man, and then came to me to marry you when you'd done--"
She sat swallowing her bitterness. There was a long pause.
"Do you mean to say you used to go--the whole hogger?" he asked, still incredulous.
"Why, what else do you think I mean?" she cried brutally.
He shrank, and became white, impersonal. There was a long, paralysed silence. He seemed to have gone small.
"You never thought to tell me all this before I married you," he said, with bitter irony, at last.
"You never asked me," she replied.
"I never thought there was any need."
"Well, then, you should think."
He stood with expressionless, almost childlike set face, revolving many thoughts, whilst his heart was mad with anguish.
Suddenly she added:
"And I saw him today," she said. "He is not dead, he's mad."
Her husband looked at her, startled.
"Mad!' he said involuntarily.
"A lunatic," she said. It almost cost her her reason to utter the word. There was a pause.
"Did he know you?" asked the husband in a small voice.
"No," she said.
He stood and looked at her. At last he had learned the width of the breach between them. She still squatted on the bed. He could not go near her. It would be violation to each of them to be brought into contact with the other. The thing must work itself out. They were both shocked so much, they were impersonal, and no longer hated each other. After some minutes he left her and went out.