The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman

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The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman is Benson's sardonic story he calls a "crank" in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories. “Life for him consisted of imagination, not of experience, and the practical application of that was to study and soak himself in the suggestions that gave him the sting of experience, without any sordid contact with life.”
An illustration for the story The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman by the author E.F. Benson
Hess Department Store window, 1965
An illustration for the story The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman by the author E.F. Benson
Hess Department Store window, 1965
An illustration for the story The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman by the author E.F. Benson

Oliver Bowman was sitting opposite his sister after dinner, watching her cracking walnuts in her strong, firm hands. The wonder of it never failed: she put two walnuts in her palms, pressed her hands together as if in silent prayer, and then there was a great crash and pieces of walnut-shell flew about the table. It was a waste of energy, no doubt, since close beside her were the nut-crackers that gave the nut-eater so great a mechanical advantage; but then his sister had so much energy that it would have been not less ridiculous to accuse the sea of wasting energy because it broke in waves on the shore. Presently she would drink a couple of glasses of port and begin smoking in earnest.

“And then?” asked Oliver, who was exhibiting a fraternal interest in the way in which Alice had passed her day.

“Then I had tea at an A B C shop, and walked round the Park. Lovely day: you ought to have come out.”

“I had a little headache,” said Oliver. He spoke in a soft voice, which occasionally cracked and went into a high key, as when a boy’s voice is breaking. That had happened to him some fifteen years ago, since he was now thirty; but he had made a habit of dropping into falsetto tones, as being an engaging remnant of youthfulness.

“A good walk in the sun and wind would have made that better,” said his sister.

“But I don’t like the sun,” said he petulantly, “and you know I detest the wind.”

“What did you do, then?” she asked.

“I read a story by Conrad about a storm at sea. I quite felt as if I was going through it all without any of the inconveniences of it. That is the joy of a well-written book: it enlarges your experiences without paying you out for them.”

Alice dusted the fragments of walnut-shell from her fingers, poured out a glass of port, and lit a cigarette.

“I would sooner do any one thing myself than read about any twenty,” she observed. “I should hate to get my experiences secondhand, already digested for me, just as I should hate to wear secondhand clothes or eat peptonized food. They’ve got to be mine, and I’ve got to do them—I mean digest them—myself.”

Oliver refused port, and took a very little coffee with a good deal of hot milk in it.

“Considering Nature has been making men and women for so many million years, it’s odd how often she makes mistakes about them,” he said. “She constantly puts them into the wrong envelope: she puts a baby girl into a baby boy’s envelope, and a baby boy into a baby girl’s. You ought to have been a boy, Alice, and I ought to have been a girl.”

Alice could not resist another walnut or two, and the crashings began again.

“That may be true,” she said; “but that’s not really the point. A woman may be a real woman and yet want to do things herself. The real mistake that Nature makes is to give people arms and legs and a quantity of good red blood, and not give them the desire of using them.”

“Or to give them an imagination without the desire of using it,” remarked Oliver.

“I’m glad I have none,” said Alice firmly. “I never imagine what a thing is going to be like. I go and do the thing, and then I know.”

They passed into the drawing-room next door, which seemed to bear out Oliver’s criticism on Nature’s mistakes, because the room had been furnished and decorated in accordance with his tastes, and with one exception was completely a woman’s room. Everything in it was soft and shaded and screened sideways and draped. But in one corner was a turning-lathe with an unshaded electric light directly over it.

Oliver walked across to an easy-chair by the fireplace, and took down an embroidered bag that hung on a painted screen there. It contained a quantity of coloured wools, and an embroidery tambour. He was employed just now on making a chair-back in petit point, and could easily fill in areas of uniform colour by electric light, though daylight was necessary for matching shades of wool. The design was a perfectly unreal rustic scene with a cottage and a tree and a lamb and a blue sky and a slightly lighter blue lake. It realized completely to him what the country ought to be like, and what the country never was like. Instead of the lamb there was in real life a barking dog and a wasp; instead of a blue lake a marsh, which oozed with mud and dirtied your boots; instead of a clean white cottage, a pig-sty or a cowshed where stupid animals breathed heavily through their noses at you. Oliver hated the country in consequence, and never left town unless it was to immure himself from Saturday till Monday in a very comfortable house with central heating, or to spend a few weeks in some other town; but it was delightful to sit in his own pleasant room, and with coloured wools make a picture of what the country should be. In the foreground of his piece were clumps of daffodils, which he copied from those that stood on a table near him, for there ought always to be daffodils in the foreground.

Alice occupied herself for half an hour or so with an active foot on the treadle of her lathe, and made loud buzzing noises with steel tools and boxwood. Then, as usual, she went to bed very early, after a short struggle to read the evening paper, and left Oliver to himself. These were the hours which he liked best of all the day, for there was no chance of being interrupted and no prospect of having to go out of doors or perform any action in which he would come in contact with real life in any form. Alice’s lathe was silent, and all round him were soft, shaded objects and his piece of needlework. But though he disliked the rough touch of life more than anything in the world, there was nothing he liked better than to imagine himself in the hubbub and excitement of adventure without stirring from his chair.

Sometimes, as he had done this afternoon, he would read a story of the sea, and thus, without terror of shipwreck or qualms of nausea, listen to the crash of menacing waves and the throb of the racing screw. Sometimes he would spend an hour in the country, while his unerring needle made daffodils and lambs; or, with a strong effort of the imagination, travel across France to the delightful shores of the Riviera with a vividness derived from the Continental Bradshaw. A sniff at the lemon brought in with a tray of wafer biscuits and a siphon could give him the effect of a saunter through the lemon groves outside Nice, and the jingle of money in his pocket recalled the Casino at Monte Carlo, where he saw himself amassing a colossal fortune in a single night, and losing it all again. As a matter of fact, he never set foot in the real Temple of Chance, because there were so many bold females there who looked at his handsome face with such friendly, if not provocative, glances. For though in imagination he was a perfect Don Juan, the merest glance of interest from a female eye would send him scurrying back like a lost lamb to the protective austerity of Alice.

To-night it seemed to him that the habits and instincts of years came about him in crowds, asking him to classify them and construct a definite theory about them for use in practical life, and suddenly, in a flash of illumination, he saw the cohering principle on which he had acted so long without consciously formulating it. He had always hated real people, real experiences, the sun, the wind, the rain, but equally had he loved the counterfeits of them as presented by Art in its various forms, and by the suggestions that a lemon or a continental Bradshaw or a piece of wool-work could give him. The theory that held all these things together was that life for him consisted of imagination, not of experience, and the practical application of that was to study and soak himself in the suggestions that gave him the sting of experience, without any sordid contact with life. To make a fortune (or lose one) at Monte Carlo would have implied setting cheek to jowl with bold, bad people, and risking a great deal of money. It was infinitely better to study the time-table of the trains to Monte Carlo, sniff a lemon, and jingle his money in his pocket; while if he wanted the sense of the hot, smoke-laden, scent-heavy atmosphere, he must smoke a cigarette and sprinkle his handkerchief with musk or frangipane. A pack of cards thrown about the table would assist the illusion, and he could say, “Faites vos jeux, messieurs et mesdames,” in the chanting monotone of the croupiers.

From that night his horizons began to expand, and he wondered at himself for the blindness in which he had hitherto spent his life. The London streets, in spite of the wind and the sun and the rain and the fog, woke into a teeming life of their own, and pelted suggestions at him as the crowd pelted confetti at mi-carême. He began not to dislike the crowded pavements, for he no longer took any notice of the real people who were there, so absorbing had become the shop windows which gave him the material which he translated into dreams. Hitherto, when he had passed a fish shop he had held his breath, so that the objectionable smell of it might not vex him; now, he inhaled it with a gusto as adding to the vividness of M. Pierre Loti’s “Pêcheur d’Islande,” He would stand before a fish shop for five minutes at a time, and be no longer in Bond Street, but in the hold of his boat or on the quay at Paimpol. Even the boy in the shop who went out with a flat tray on his shoulder was mon frère Yves, and Oliver almost spoke to him in French. Next door was a shop filled with Japanese screens and carved jade and branches of paper cherry-blossom, and lo! his fishing experiences were whisked away, and he was living in the land of Madame Chrysanthème.

But it was only for a short while that the shop windows were, so to speak, coloured illustrations in books written by other men, for he soon discarded these second-hand canvases, and constructed out of them and the wealth of suggestive material that lay broadcast round him new and amazing adventures of his own. His senses, and in particular his sense of smell, grew every day more acute, for daily he was keenly on the look out for a sight or sound, a touch or smell, that would be to him a hint out of which he could evolve some fantastic imagination that lived henceforth in his brain as the memory of an actual experience lives in the brain of those who, like his sister, must know that a thing has happened to them before they can call it their own.

But of all the senses, that of smell supplied him with the vividest hints: the aromatic odour, for instance, that came out of the door of a chemist’s shop would launch him on a brain adventure which lasted the whole length of a stroll down Piccadilly, in which he felt himself suffering from some acute and mysterious disease that baffled the skill of doctors, and led them to administer all manner of curious drugs in the hope of bringing him alleviation. Then when he had soaked the honey from this painful experience—for however disagreeable such an illusion would have been in real life, it had in those vivid unrealities the thrill and excitement of such without any of its inconveniences—the sight of a jeweller’s window blazing with gems would scatter the clouds of his approaching demise, and muffle the sound of his own passing bell with the strains of a ball-room band. He would spring from his death-bed, and, experiencing a new incarnation and a change of sex, would be the central figure, queen in her own right, of some great State ball.

She—he, that is to say—was unmarried, and as she wove the chain of the royal quadrille, the hands of half a dozen aspirants to be her prince-consort communicated their hopes in the pressure of finger-tips. A tiara to which the one in the shop window supplied the clue was on her golden-haired head, ropes of pearls clinked as she moved, a great diamond four times the size of the solitary splendour that winked on the dark blue velvet there, scintillated on her breast, and to each of her lovers, the Grand Duke Peter, the Archduke Francis, the Prince Ignatius, she gave the same mysterious little smile, that, while she disdained their passion, yet expressed some faint vibrating response. All men seemed rather alike to her, and she gave a little sigh, half contemptuous of their adoration, half curious about the desire that made them so divinely discontent. To-night she had determined to choose one of them, for, queen though she was, she must conform to the usage of the world, and besides—besides, the thought of bearing a child of her own made some secret nerve ecstatically ache within her. She must choose....

Then, even while Oliver was hesitating between the Archduke Francis and Prince Ignatius, he would catch sight of a flower-seller by the fountain in Piccadilly Circus, and straightway he would be in the country of his petit point again, where lambs were white and lakes blue; or the sight of a draped model with a waxwork head would switch him off into a new amorous adventure with a lady in an orange-coloured dress, just like that, and the point of an infinitesimal shoe peeping seductively from below its hem.

By degrees, this particular figure, standing in royal state alone behind the plate-glass window in Regent Street, began to exercise a controlling influence on his imagination, and he would hurry by the rows of shops which lay on his route without constructing independent romances out of the hints they gave him, and only glancing at them to see what suggestions they supplied as regards Her. He gave her, for instance, the tiara which he had worn when he was queen in his own right; he presented her with some lemon-coloured gloves that reached to her elbow; he bought her daffodils from Piccadilly Circus; and, rather more tentatively, he endowed her with a black hat with Gloire-de-Dijon roses in it; and standing there in front of her, he would hold up to his nose the handkerchief on which he had poured wallflower scent, which he was sure she would use, and inhale a sweetness that really seemed to come from her through the plate-glass window. All other shops which could not contribute to her embellishment became uninteresting again, and once more he would hurry with held breath past the fishmonger, for if was clearly unsuitable to present her with kippers, raw salmon, or even live lobsters. Then, standing a little sideways, not directly in front of her, her eyes met his, and though usually they seemed lost in reverie, occasionally they would meet his own in a way that sent his heart thumping in his throat. Always she wore the same faint, unfathomable smile, reminding him of Leonardo’s “Monna Lisa,” and it seemed to him that the reason for which Nature had brought him into the world was that he should penetrate into the thoughts that set that red mouth so deliciously ajar. It must surely be on his own lips that it would close.... Her loveliness, while she was kind, made the whole world lovely to him, and his whole nature seemed to awake.

His constant day-long walks about London had wonderfully improved his health; he no longer feared the sun and the wind, and got quite bronzed in complexion. Still more remarkable was, so to speak, the psychical bronzing of his mind, the suntan of virility that overspread it; everything was shot with interest for him, and he even got Alice to show him how to work the lathe. For this was no pining and lovelorn affection; it was quite a hopeful affair, and though, when alone, he might sigh and turn over and back again on his bed, the brilliance and upright carriage of the object of his adoration stung him into a manly robustness. She would not like him to go sighing and sheltering himself about the world.

It was no wonder that Alice noticed and applauded the change in him.

“Something has happened to you, Oliver,” she said one night at dinner, while they were cracking walnuts together, for he had aspired to that accomplishment, though it hurt his soft hands very much. “Something has happened to you. I wonder if I can guess what it is?”

He felt quite secure of the secrecy of his passion, and cracked two walnuts.

“I’m quite certain you can’t,” he said. “Lord, that did hurt!”

“Well, I shall do no harm then if I try,” said she. “I believe you’ve fallen in love.”

The convoluted kernels dropped from Oliver’s fingers.

“What makes you think that?” he asked.

“My dear, it’s obvious to a woman’s eyes. I always told you that what you needed was to fall in love. You don’t do wool-work any more; you walk instead of sitting in an easy-chair. Some day, if you go on like this, you will play golf.”

“Gracious! Am I as bad as that?” exclaimed he, startled into an irony that gave his case away.

Alice clapped her hands delightedly.

“Ah! I am right then!” she cried. “My dear, do tell me who she is? Shall I go and call on her? Have I ever seen her?”

Oliver felt a curious diplomatic pleasure in giving true information which he knew would deceive.

“Yes; I feel sure you have seen her,” he said, remembering that Alice had her dresses made at the shop where his divinity deified the window. “I can’t say that you know her.”

“Oh, who is she?” cried Alice. “Is she a girl? Is she a woman? Will she marry you?”

“No; I don’t suppose so,” said he.

Alice’s face fell.

“Is she somebody else’s wife, then?” she asked. “I hope not. But I don’t know that it matters. It is the fact of your having fallen in love which has improved you so immensely. I’ve noticed that an unhappy romance is just as good for people as a humdrum success which ends in christening mugs and perambulators.”

Oliver got up.

“You are rather coarse sometimes, dear Alice,” he observed.

Oliver’s romance and his growing robustness lasted for some few days after Alice had guessed his secret, and then an end came to it more horrible than any that his wildest imaginations could have suggested to him. One day he had seen in a celebrated furrier’s a sable stole that would most delightfully protect his lady’s waxen neck from the inclemencies of a shrewd May morning, and he hurried along, while that was still vivid to his eye, in order to visualize it round her neck. There was a crowd of women in front of her window, and he edged his way in with eyes downcast, as was his wont, so that she might burst splendidly upon him at short range. Then, full of devotion and sable stole, he raised them.

She was not there. In her place was a bold-faced creature in carmine, with lustful, wicked eyes like the females at Monte Carlo. His healthy outdoor life stood him in good stead at that moment, for he did not swoon or address shrill ejaculations to his Maker. He just staggered back one step, as if he had received a blow in the chest, then rallied his failing forces again....

All day he walked from dressmaker to dressmaker, seeking to find her; and when he was too much fatigued to pursue his way on foot any longer, he went to his club, and by the aid of a London directory ascertained the addresses of a couple of dozen more shops farther afield where she might possibly be found. These he visited in a taxi, but without success, and returned home to his flat a quarter of an hour before dinner, where, utterly exhausted, he went to sleep in his chair. Naturally, he dreamed about her, in a vague nightmarish manner, and she seemed to be in trouble.

He awoke with a start, and for a moment thought that, like Pygmalion, he had brought his Galatea to life, for there she stood in front of him in the dusk. At least, her orange dress stood there.

“My dear Oliver,” said Alice’s voice, “aren’t you ready for dinner yet? Make me some compliment on my new tea-gown....”

After that miserable adventure he resolved to have no more to do with the serious or emotional side of life, and in the words of one of our modern bards “he held it best in living to take all things very lightly.” He had consecrated all the power of his imagination on one great passion, and now his dream was exploded and Alice had got the tea-gown! Almost worse than that was that the divine orange vesture of his beloved had begun to multiply in a most unseemly manner in the shops of quite inferior dressmakers, and half a dozen times a day he could feel his breath catch in his throat as for a moment he thought he saw in some other window the wraith of her who was for ever lost to him. But while this stung and wounded him, it yet probably helped to cure him, and a few weeks later he was immersed again in the minor joys of life, visiting Capri and the Bay of Naples, when he saw the cages of quails in the poulterers’ shops, going again to Court balls opposite the jeweller’s, tossing with the fishing fleet on moonlit nights off the Cornish coast opposite the fishmonger’s, or spending hours in the country over his embroidery frame.

One day a smart shower drove him into the portals of Micklethwait’s Stores in Knightsbridge, where the most exotic of purchasers can find their curious wants supplied, and all at once it struck him that these incessant peregrinations of the streets made up a very diluted form of life. Here all possible fountains of desire and adventure scintillated under one roof, and you had but to take a step out of the Arctic winter of the fur department to find yourself in the hot summer weather of straw hats, or playing a match against the heads of the profession in the room where billiard balls and tables were sold.

Though he would never fall seriously in love again, he could have some pleasant flirtations in the ladies’ underwear department, or, if his mood was Byronic, he would go to the games department and think of the nursery he would have furnished for his growing family if the beloved in the orange dress had remained faithful to him, and not given her tea-gown to Alice, whom it strangely misbecame. With a stifled groan he would tear himself away from that, and, surrounded by paper and envelopes and red-tape and sealing-wax, spend an hour as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, conducting abstruse diplomatic operations with the perfidious Turk, and worsting him at every turn in the tangled game.

So underneath those lofty roofs and terra-cotta cupolas, he began to live a life of which the variety and extravagance baffles description. A chance shower had originally taken him there (for on such small accidents does our destiny depend), but now rain or fine, hot or cold, he was the first in the morning to pass through the swing doors and, with a couple of hurried intervals for meals, the last to leave in the evening. Whether August burned the torrid pavements outside, or whether the fog gripped the town in its grimy hand, there was always the same warm, calm atmosphere inside laden with a hundred aromatic scents and teeming with rich suggestions of love and athletics and chemistry and travel. Often in the morning he would be tempted to go straight to the department of tea-gowns and other more intimate feminine apparel, but he kept a firm hold on himself and transacted business in the stationery department, or spent a studious hour in the book-room first.

Nor did he neglect his exercise, and in the games department he knocked up a hundred runs at cricket, or had a brisk game of hockey, or played a round of golf, a pursuit to which he was now passionately attached owing to the strange suggestive forms of niblicks and brassies. Or, artistically inclined, he would wander among paint-boxes, palettes, and sketching umbrellas by the shore of some windless sea, and then hurry away to a counter behind which were discreet bathing costumes for both sexes, and spend a pleasant quarter of an hour in mixed bathing. This always gave him an appetite, and he tripped off to the cooked foods department, popping in at the bakery on the way, and had a delicious lunch off crisp country bread, with a pot of caviare and a couple of slices of galantine, washed down with a glass of Chablis from the wine department. Then perhaps after a whiff of roasting coffee from the grocery department, he would put on some clean ducks with a grey silk tie (haberdashery), in which he put a pear-shaped pearl pin (jewellery), and then, fresh and cool, spent a half-hour of airy badinage with the agreeable ladies, “whose presence,” as he recollected Mr. Pater saying, “so strangely rose” beside the chiffon and millinery. His constant passage through the various departments provoked no suspicion in the minds of the shop-walkers and attendants that he was one of the light-fingered brigade, for from time to time he made small purchases and always paid ready cash, and it occurred to no one that here was an opportunity of studying, first-hand, the rapid development of one of the strangest and most harmless monomaniacs who had ever pursued his innocent way outside the protective walls of a lunatic asylum.

After such a delicious lunch it was no wonder that when he went back to his flat he could make but small pretence at eating, for in imagination he had fared so delicately and well that the lumps of muscular mutton and robust beef provided by Alice’s catering made no appeal to him. She might wonder at the smallness of his appetite, but she could not feel the slightest anxiety about that, so bright of eye and alert of limb was he under the spell of the happy busy life crowded with incident, that now was his.

After lunch he would sit with her a little, talking in the most vivid and interesting manner on the topics of the moment, and then, looking at his watch, would silently remind himself that he was giving a pianoforte recital at three, and, if he was already a little late, would call a taxi to take him back to the Stores, while he suppled and gave massage to his fingers as he drove.

He was by this time in an advanced state of his agreeable insanity, for he had lost all control over his imagination, the workings of which were entirely in the hands of the suggestions that external objects made to it. It was just in this that the completeness of his enjoyment of life lay. It was in this, too, that there lay such discomfort and suffering as was his. The sight of a “dental case” in a window, with its rows of gleaming teeth and rose-coloured gums and palates, was sufficient to give him a violent stab of pain in his teeth, for the suggestion implied that he would have to get them all taken out before he attained to the acquisition of those foreign splendours. But he had learned by this time the position of all the shops between his flat and the Stores which displayed these and similar dolorous exhibitions, and his eye would instinctively avert itself from doctors’ door-plates or shops where were sold ear-trumpets, and pitch, with the precision of a bird on a twig, on cheerful and harmonious windows. He no longer, in fact, lived a self-governing life of his own, but was no more than thistledown in a wind before the suggestions that the outside world made to his disordered senses. And then, as was bound to happen sooner or later, came the crash.

That day he saw for the first time, close beside the lift in the boot department, through which he passed by accident, for boots conveyed nothing at all to him, a black door slightly ajar, and thinking, with a pang of delight, that some fresh world of experiences might be about to burst upon him, he entered. His first impression was of some lovely garden full of white flowers arranged in wreaths, as if in garden beds, and all covered with glass cases. Then he saw that though his first impression had been of gleaming whites, the predominant note was black. There were black cloaks, black scarves, black hats, black-edged cards.... And then, with a sudden icy pang at his heart, he saw straight in front of him a large oblong box with glass sides, on the top of which were nodding ostrich plumes. Simultaneously there advanced out of the gloom a small man in black clothes, with neat side-whiskers, clearly dyed. He came towards him, rubbing his hands in a professional and sympathetic manner.

“Is there anything we can do for you, sir?” he asked.

Oliver’s teeth chattered in his head, and his eyes rolled heavenwards. Then he spun round and fell in a heap on the floor. He was dead.


The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Tue, Feb 20, 2018

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