A Married Man's Story

by


An unfinished story published in Mansfield's collection,The Doves' Nest published in 1923.

It is evening. Supper is over. We have left the small, cold dining-room, we have come back to the sitting-room where there is a fire. All is as usual. I am sitting at my writing table which is placed across a corner so that I am behind it, as it were, and facing the room. The lamp with the green shade is alight; I have before me two large books of reference, both open, a pile of papers ... all the paraphernalia, in fact, of an extremely occupied man. My wife, with her little boy on her lap, is in a low chair before the fire. She is about to put him to bed before she clears away the dishes and piles them up in the kitchen for the servant girl to-morrow morning. But the warmth, the quiet, and the sleepy baby, have made her dreamy. One of his red woollen boots is off, one is on. She sits, bent forward, clasping the little bare foot, staring into the glow, and as the fire quickens, falls, flares again, her shadow—an immense Mother and Child—is here and gone again upon the wall....

Outside it is raining. I like to think of that cold drenched window behind the blind, and beyond, the dark bushes in the garden, their broad leaves bright with rain, and beyond the fence, the gleaming road with the two hoarse little gutters singing against each other, and the wavering reflections of the lamps, like fishes’ tails. While I am here, I am there, lifting my face to the dim sky, and it seems to me it must be raining all over the world—that the whole earth is drenched, is sounding with a soft quick patter or hard steady drumming, or gurgling and something that is like sobbing and laughing mingled together, and that light playful splashing that is of water falling into still lakes and flowing rivers. And all at one and the same moment I am arriving in a strange city, slipping under the hood of the cab while the driver whips the cover off the breathing horse, running from shelter to shelter, dodging someone, swerving by someone else. I am conscious of tall houses, their doors and shutters sealed against the night, of dripping balconies and sodden flower-pots. I am brushing through deserted gardens and falling into moist smelling summer-houses (you know how soft and almost crumbling the wood of a summer-house is in the rain), I am standing on the dark quayside, giving my ticket into the wet red hand of the old sailor in an oilskin. How strong the sea smells! How loudly the tied-up boats knock against one another! I am crossing the wet stackyard, hooded in an old sack, carrying a lantern, while the house-dog, like a soaking doormat, springs, shakes himself over me. And now I am walking along a deserted road—it is impossible to miss the puddles, and the trees are stirring—stirring.

But one could go on with such a catalogue for ever—on and on—until one lifted the single arum lily leaf and discovered the tiny snails clinging, until one counted ... and what then? Aren’t those just the signs, the traces of my feeling? The bright green streaks made by someone who walks over the dewy grass? Not the feeling itself. And as I think that, a mournful glorious voice begins to sing in my bosom. Yes, perhaps that is nearer what I mean. What a voice! What power! What velvety softness! Marvellous!

Suddenly my wife turns round quickly. She knows—how long has she known?—that I am not “working.” It is strange that with her full, open gaze, she should smile so timidly—and that she should say in such a hesitating voice, “What are you thinking?”

I smile and draw two fingers across my forehead in the way I have. “Nothing,” I answer softly.

At that she stirs, and still trying not to make it sound important, she says, “Oh, but you must have been thinking of something!”

Then I really meet her gaze, meet it fully, and I fancy her face quivers. Will she never grow accustomed to these simple—one might say—everyday little lies? Will she never learn not to expose herself—or to build up defences?

“Truly, I was thinking of nothing.”

There! I seem to see it dart at her. She turns away, pulls the other red sock off the baby, sits him up, and begins to unbutton him behind. I wonder if that little soft rolling bundle sees anything, feels anything? Now she turns him over on her knee, and in this light, his soft arms and legs waving, he is extraordinarily like a young crab. A queer thing is I can’t connect him with my wife and myself; I’ve never accepted him as ours. Each time when I come into the hall and see the perambulator, I catch myself thinking: “H’m, someone has brought a baby!” Or, when his crying wakes me at night, I feel inclined to blame my wife for having brought the baby in from outside. The truth is, that though one might suspect her of strong maternal feelings, my wife doesn’t seem to me the type of woman who bears children in her own body. There’s an immense difference! Where is that ... animal ease and playfulness, that quick kissing and cuddling one has been taught to expect of young mothers? She hasn’t a sign of it. I believe that when she ties its bonnet she feels like an aunt and not a mother. But of course I may be wrong; she may be passionately devoted ... I don’t think so. At any rate, isn’t it a trifle indecent to feel like this about one’s own wife? Indecent or not, one has these feelings. And one other thing. How can I reasonably expect my wife, a broken-hearted woman, to spend her time tossing the baby? But that is beside the mark. She never even began to toss when her heart was whole.

And now she has carried the baby to bed. I hear her soft, deliberate steps moving between the dining-room and the kitchen, there and back again, to the tune of the clattering dishes. And now all is quiet. What is happening now? Oh, I know just as surely as if I’d gone to see—she is standing in the middle of the kitchen facing the rainy window. Her head is bent, with one finger she is tracing something—nothing—on the table. It is cold in the kitchen; the gas jumps; the tap drips; it’s a forlorn picture. And nobody is going to come behind her, to take her in his arms, to kiss her soft hair, to lead her to the fire and to rub her hands warm again. Nobody is going to call her or to wonder what she is doing out there. And she knows it. And yet, being a woman, deep down, deep down, she really does expect the miracle to happen; she really could embrace that dark, dark deceit, rather than live—like this.

§ To live like this.... I write those words, very carefully, very beautifully. For some reason I feel inclined to sign them, or to write underneath—Trying a New Pen. But seriously, isn’t it staggering to think what may be contained in one innocent-looking little phrase? It tempts me—it tempts me terribly. Scene. The supper-table. My wife has just handed me my tea. I stir it, lift the spoon, idly chase and then carefully capture a speck of tea-leaf, and having brought it ashore, I murmur, quite gently, “How long shall we continue to live—like—this?” And immediately there is that famous “blinding flash and deafening roar. Huge pieces of débris (I must say I like débris) are flung into the air ... and[98] when the dark clouds of smoke have drifted away....” But this will never happen; I shall never know it. It will be found upon me “intact” as they say. “Open my heart and you will see....”

Why? Ah, there you have me! There is the most difficult question of all to answer. Why do people stay together? Putting aside “for the sake of the children,” and “the habit of years” and “economic reasons” as lawyers’ nonsense—it’s not much more—if one really does try to find out why it is that people don’t leave each other, one discovers a mystery. It is because they can’t; they are bound. And nobody on earth knows what are the bonds that bind them except those two. Am I being obscure? Well, the thing itself isn’t so frightfully crystal clear, is it? Let me put it like this. Supposing you are taken, absolutely, first into his confidence and then into hers. Supposing you know all there is to know about the situation. And having given it not only your deepest sympathy but your most honest impartial criticism, you declare, very calmly, (but not without the slightest suggestion of relish—for there is—I swear there is—in the very best of us—something that leaps up and cries “A-ahh!” for joy at the thought of[99] destroying), “Well, my opinion is that you two people ought to part. You’ll do no earthly good together. Indeed, it seems to me, it’s the duty of either to set the other free.” What happens then? He—and she—agree. It is their conviction too. You are only saying what they have been thinking all last night. And away they go to act on your advice, immediately.... And the next time you hear of them they are still together. You see—you’ve reckoned without the unknown quantity—which is their secret relation to each other—and that they can’t disclose even if they want to. Thus far you may tell and no further. Oh, don’t misunderstand me! It need not necessarily have anything to do with their sleeping together.... But this brings me to a thought I’ve often half entertained. Which is that human beings, as we know them, don’t choose each other at all. It is the owner, the second self inhabiting them, who makes the choice for his own particular purposes, and—this may sound absurdly far-fetched—it’s the second self in the other which responds. Dimly—dimly—or so it has seemed to me—we realize this, at any rate to the extent that we realize the hopelessness of trying to escape. So that, what it all amounts to is—if the impermanent selves of my wife and me[100] are happy—tant mieux pour nous—if miserable—tant pis.... But I don’t know, I don’t know. And it may be that it’s something entirely individual in me—this sensation (yes, it is even a sensation) of how extraordinarily shell-like we are as we are—little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box at the gate, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in....

The door opens.... My wife. She says, “I am going to bed.”

And I look up vaguely, and vaguely say, “You are going to bed.”

“Yes.” A tiny pause. “Don’t forget—will you?—to turn out the gas in the hall.”

And again I repeat, “The gas in the hall.”

There was a time—the time before—when this habit of mine—it really has become a habit now—it wasn’t one then—was one of our sweetest jokes together. It began, of course, when on several occasions I really was deeply engaged and I didn’t hear. I emerged only to see her shaking her head and laughing at me, “You haven’t heard a word!”

“No. What did you say?”

Why should she think that so funny and charming? She did; it delighted her. “Oh, my darling, it’s so like you! It’s so—so—” And I knew she loved me for it. I knew she positively looked forward to coming in and disturbing me, and so—as one does—I played up. I was guaranteed to be wrapped away every evening at 10.30 p.m. But now? For some reason I feel it would be crude to stop my performance. It’s simplest to play on. But what is she waiting for to-night? Why doesn’t she go? Why prolong this? She is going. No, her hand on the door-knob, she turns round again, and she says in the most curious, small, breathless voice, “You’re not cold?”

Oh, it’s not fair to be as pathetic as that! That was simply damnable. I shuddered all over before I managed to bring out a slow “No-o!” while my left hand ruffles the reference pages.

She is gone; she will not come back again to-night. It is not only I who recognize that; the room changes too. It relaxes, like an old actor. Slowly the mask is rubbed off; the look of strained attention changes to an air of heavy sullen brooding. Every line, every fold breathes fatigue. The mirror is quenched; the ash whitens; only my sly lamp burns on.... But what a cynical indifference to me it all shows! Or should I perhaps be flattered? No, we understand each other. You know those stories of little children who are suckled by wolves and accepted by the tribe, and how for ever after they move freely among their fleet, grey brothers? Something like that has happened to me. But wait! That about the wolves won’t do. Curious! Before I wrote it down, while it was still in my head, I was delighted with it. It seemed to express, and more, to suggest, just what I wanted to say. But written, I can smell the falseness immediately and the ... source of the smell is in that word fleet. Don’t you agree? Fleet, grey brothers! “Fleet.” A word I never use. When I wrote “wolves” it skimmed across my mind like a shadow and I couldn’t resist it. Tell me! Tell me! Why is it so difficult to write simply—and not only simply but sotto voce, if you know what I mean? That is how I long to write. No fine effects—no bravura. But just the plain truth, as only a liar can tell it.

§

I light a cigarette, lean back, inhale deeply—and find myself wondering if my wife is asleep. Or is she lying in her cold bed, staring into the dark, with those trustful, bewildered eyes? Her eyes are like the eyes of a cow that is being driven along a road. “Why am I being driven—what[103] harm have I done?” But I really am not responsible for that look; it’s her natural expression. One day, when she was turning out a cupboard, she found a little old photograph of herself, taken when she was a girl at school. In her confirmation dress, she explained. And there were the eyes, even then. I remember saying to her, “Did you always look so sad?” Leaning over my shoulder, she laughed lightly, “Do I look sad? I think it’s just ... me.” And she waited for me to say something about it. But I was marvelling at her courage at having shown it to me at all. It was a hideous photograph! And I wondered again if she realized how plain she was, and comforted herself with the idea that people who loved each other didn’t criticize but accepted everything, or if she really rather liked her appearance and expected me to say something complimentary.

Oh, that was base of me! How could I have forgotten all the numberless times when I have known her to turn away to avoid the light, press her face into my shoulders. And, above all, how could I have forgotten the afternoon of our wedding day when we sat on the green bench in the Botanical Gardens and listened to the band, how, in an interval between two pieces, she suddenly turned to me and said in the voice in which one says, “Do you think the grass is damp?” or “Do you think it’s time for tea?” ... “Tell me, do you think physical beauty is so very important?” I don’t like to think how often she had rehearsed that question. And do you know what I answered? At that moment, as if at my command there came a great gush of hard, bright sound from the band, and I managed to shout above it cheerfully, “I didn’t hear what you said.” Devilish! Wasn’t it? Perhaps not wholly. She looked like the poor patient who hears the surgeon say, “It will certainly be necessary to perform the operation—but not now!”

§

But all this conveys the impression that my wife and I were never really happy together. Not true! Not true! We were marvellously, radiantly happy. We were a model couple. If you had seen us together, any time, any place, if you had followed us, tracked us down, spied, taken us off our guard, you still would have been forced to confess, “I have never seen a more ideally suited pair.” Until last autumn.

But really to explain what happened then I should have to go back and back, I should have[105] to dwindle until my two hands clutched the banisters, the stair-rail was higher than my head, and I peered through to watch my father padding softly up and down. There were coloured windows on the landings. As he came up, first his bald head was scarlet; then it was yellow. How frightened I was! And when they put me to bed, it was to dream that we were living inside one of my father’s big coloured bottles. For he was a chemist. I was born nine years after my parents were married. I was an only child, and the effect to produce even me—small, withered bud I must have been—sapped all my mother’s strength. She never left the room again. Bed, sofa, window, she moved between the three. Well I can see her, on the window days, sitting, her cheek in her hand, staring out. Her room looked over the street. Opposite there was a wall plastered with advertisements for travelling shows and circuses and so on. I stand beside her, and we gaze at the slim lady in a red dress hitting a dark gentleman over the head with a parasol, or at the tiger peering through the jungle while the clown, close by, balances a bottle on his nose, or at a little golden-haired girl sitting on the knee of an old black man in a broad cotton hat.... She says nothing. On sofa days there is a flannel dressing gown that I loathe, and a cushion that keeps on slipping off the hard sofa. I pick it up. It has flowers and writing sewn on. I ask what the writing says, and she whispers, “Sweet Repose!” In bed her fingers plait, in tight little plaits, the fringe of the quilt, and her lips are thin. And that is all there is of my mother, except the last queer “episode” that comes later.

My father.... Curled up in the corner on the lid of a round box that held sponges, I stared at my father so long, it’s as though his image, cut off at the waist by the counter, has remained solid in my memory. Perfectly bald, polished head, shaped like a thin egg, creased, creamy cheeks, little bags under his eyes, large pale ears like handles. His manner was discreet, sly, faintly amused and tinged with impudence. Long before I could appreciate it, I knew the mixture.... I even used to copy him in my corner, bending forward, with a small reproduction of his faint sneer. In the evening his customers were, chiefly, young women; some of them came in every day for his famous five-penny pick-me-up. Their gaudy looks, their voices, their free ways, fascinated me. I longed to be my father, handing them across the counter the little glass of bluish stuff they tossed off so greedily. God[107] knows what it was made of. Years after I drank some, just to see what it tasted like, and I felt as though someone had given me a terrific blow on the head; I felt stunned.

One of those evenings I remember vividly. It was cold; it must have been autumn, for the flaring gas was lighted after my tea. I sat in my corner and my father was mixing something; the shop was empty. Suddenly the bell jangled and a young woman rushed in, crying so loud, sobbing so hard, that it didn’t sound real. She wore a green cape trimmed with fur and a hat with cherries dangling. My father came from behind the screen. But she didn’t stop herself at first. She stood in the middle of the shop and wrung her hands and moaned; I’ve never heard such crying since. Presently she managed to gasp out, “Give me a pick-me-up!” Then she drew a long breath, trembled away from him and quavered, “I’ve had bad news!” And in the flaring gaslight I saw the whole side of her face was puffed up and purple; her lip was cut, and her eyelid looked as though it was gummed fast over the wet eye. My father pushed the glass across the counter, and she took the purse out of her stocking and paid him. But she couldn’t drink; clutching the glass, she stared in front of her as if she could not[108] believe what she saw. Each time she put her head back the tears spurted out again. Finally she put the glass down. It was no use. Holding the cape with one hand, she ran in the same way out of the shop again. My father gave no sign. But long after she had gone I crouched in my corner, and when I think back it’s as though I felt my whole body vibrating—“So that’s what it is outside,” I thought. “That’s what it’s like out there.”

§

Do you remember your childhood? I am always coming across these marvellous accounts by writers who declare that they remember “everything.” I certainly don’t. The dark stretches, the blanks, are much bigger than the bright glimpses. I seem to have spent most of my time like a plant in a cupboard. Now and again, when the sun shone, a careless hand thrust me out on the window-sill, and a careless hand whipped me in again—and that was all. But what happened in the darkness—I wonder? Did one grow? pale stem ... timid leaves ... white reluctant bud. No wonder I was hated at school. Even the masters shrank from me. I somehow knew that my soft hesitating voice disgusted them. I knew, too, how they turned away from my shocked, staring eyes. I was small and thin, and I smelled of the shop; my nickname was Gregory Powder. School was a tin building, stuck on the raw hillside. There were dark red streaks like blood in the oozing clay banks of the playground. I hide in the dark passage, where the coats hang, and am discovered there by one of the masters. “What are you doing there in the dark?” His terrible voice kills me; I die before his eyes. I am standing in a ring of thrust-out heads; some are grinning, some look greedy, some are spitting. And it is always cold. Big crushed-up clouds press across the sky; the rusty water in the school tank is frozen; the bell sounds numb. One day they put a dead bird in my overcoat pocket. I found it just when I reached home. Oh, what a strange flutter there was at my heart when I drew out that terribly soft, cold little body, with the legs thin as pins and the claws wrung. I sat on the back door step in the yard and put the bird in my cap. The feathers round the neck looked wet, and there was a tiny tuft just above the closed eyes that stood up too. How tightly the beak was shut! I could not see the mark where it was divided. I stretched out one wing and touched the soft, secret down underneath; I tried[110] to make the claws curl round my little finger. But I didn’t feel sorry for it—no! I wondered. The smoke from our kitchen chimney poured downwards, and flakes of soot floated—soft, light in the air. Through a big crack in the cement yard a poor-looking plant with dull, reddish flowers had pushed its way. I looked at the dead bird again.... And that is the first time that I remember singing—rather ... listening to a silent voice inside a little cage that was me.

§

But what has all this to do with my married happiness? How can all this affect my wife and me? Why—to tell what happened last autumn—do I run all this way back into the Past? The Past—what is the Past? I might say the star-shaped flake of soot on a leaf of the poor-looking plant, and the bird lying on the quilted lining of my cap, and my father’s pestle and my mother’s cushion belong to it. But that is not to say they are any less mine than they were when I looked upon them with my very eyes, and touched them with these fingers. No, they are more; they are a living part of me. Who am I, in fact, as I sit here at this table, but my own past? If I deny that, I am nothing. And if I were to try to divide my life into childhood, youth, early manhood and so on, it would be a kind of affectation; I should know I was doing it just because of the pleasantly important sensation it gives one to rule lines, and to use green ink for childhood, red for the next stage, and purple for the period of adolescence. For one thing I have learnt, one thing I do believe is, Nothing Happens Suddenly. Yes, that is my religion, I suppose.

My mother’s death, for instance. Is it more distant from me today than it was then? It is just as close, as strange, as puzzling, and in spite of all the countless times I have recalled the circumstances, I know no more now than I did then, whether I dreamed them, or whether they really occurred. It happened when I was thirteen and I slept in a little strip of a room on what was called the half-landing. One night I woke up with a start to see my mother, in her night-gown, without even the hated flannel dressing-gown, sitting on my bed. But the strange thing which frightened me was, she wasn’t looking at me. Her head was bent; the short, thin tail of hair lay between her shoulders; her hands were pressed between her knees, and my bed shook; she was shivering. It was the first time I had ever seen her out of her own room. I said, or I think I said, “Is that you, Mother?” And as she turned round, I saw in the moonlight how queer she looked. Her face looked small—quite different. She looked like one of the boys at the school baths, who sits on a step, shivering just like that, and wants to go in and yet is frightened.

“Are you awake?” she said. Her eyes opened; I think she smiled. She leaned towards me. “I’ve been poisoned,” she whispered. “Your father’s poisoned me.” And she nodded. Then, before I could say a word, she was gone; I thought I heard the door shut. I sat quite still, I couldn’t move, I think I expected something else to happen. For a long time I listened for something; there wasn’t a sound. The candle was by my bed, but I was too frightened to stretch out my hand for the matches. But even while I wondered what I ought to do, even while my heart thumped—everything became confused. I lay down and pulled the blankets round me. I fell asleep, and the next morning my mother was found dead of failure of the heart.

Did that visit happen? Was it a dream? Why did she come to tell me? Or why, if she came, did she go away so quickly? And her expression—so joyous under the frightened look—was that real? I believed it fully the afternoon of the funeral, when I saw my father dressed up for his part, hat and all. That tall hat so gleaming black and round was like a cork covered with black sealing-wax, and the rest of my father was awfully like a bottle, with his face for the label—Deadly Poison. It flashed into my mind as I stood opposite him in the hall. And Deadly Poison, or old D. P., was my private name for him from that day.

§

Late, it grows late. I love the night. I love to feel the tide of darkness rising, slowly and slowly washing, turning over and over, lifting, floating, all that lies strewn upon the dark beach, all that lies hid in rocky hollows. I love, I love this strange feeling of drifting—whither? After my mother’s death I hated to go to bed. I used to sit on the window-sill, folded up, and watch the sky. It seemed to me the moon moved much faster than the sun. And one big, bright green star I chose for my own. My star! But I never thought of it beckoning to me, or twinkling merrily for my sake. Cruel, indifferent, splendid—it burned in the airy night. No matter—it was mine! But, growing close up against the window, there was a creeper with small, bunched-up pink and purple flowers. These did know me. These, when I touched them at night, welcomed my fingers; the little tendrils, so weak, so delicate, knew I would not hurt them. When the wind moved the leaves I felt I understood their shaking. When I came to the window, it seemed to me the flowers said among themselves, “The boy is here.”

As the months passed, there was often a light in my father’s room below. And I heard voices and laughter. “He’s got some woman with him,” I thought. But it meant nothing to me. Then the gay voice, the sound of laughter, gave me the idea it was one of the girls who used to come to the shop in the evenings—and gradually I began to imagine which girl it was. It was the dark one in the red coat and skirt, who once had given me a penny. A merry face stooped over me—warm breath tickled my neck—there were little beads of black on her long lashes, and when she opened her arms to kiss me, there came a marvellous wave of scent! Yes, that was the one.

Time passed, and I forgot the moon and my green star and my shy creeper—I came to the window to wait for the light in my father’s window, to listen for the laughing voice, until one night I dozed and I dreamed she came again—again she drew me to her, something soft, scented, warm and merry hung over me like a cloud. But when I tried to see, her eyes only mocked me, her red lips opened and she hissed, “Little sneak! Little sneak!” But not as if she were angry,—as if she understood, and her smile somehow was like a rat—hateful!

The night after, I lighted the candle and sat down at the table instead. By and by, as the flame steadied, there was a small lake of liquid wax, surrounded by a white, smooth wall. I took a pin and made little holes in this wall and then sealed them up faster than the wax could escape. After a time I fancied the candle flame joined in the game; it leapt up, quivered, wagged; it even seemed to laugh. But while I played with the candle and smiled and broke off the tiny white peaks of wax that rose above the wall and floated them on my lake, a feeling of awful dreariness fastened on me—yes, that’s the word. It crept up from my knees to my thighs, into my arms; I ached all with misery. And I felt so strangely that I couldn’t move. Something bound me there by the table—I couldn’t even let the pin drop that I held between my finger and thumb. For a moment I came to a stop, as it were.

Then the shrivelled case of the bud split and fell, the plant in the cupboard came into flower. “Who am I?” I thought. “What is all this?” And I looked at my room, at the broken bust of the man called Hahnemann on top of the cupboard, at my little bed with the pillow like an envelope. I saw it all, but not as I had seen before.... Everything lived, everything. But that was not all. I was equally alive and—it’s the only way I can express it—the barriers were down between us—I had come into my own world!

§

The barriers were down. I had been all my life a little outcast; but until that moment no one had “accepted” me; I had lain in the cupboard—or the cave forlorn. But now I was taken, I was accepted, claimed. I did not consciously turn away from the world of human beings; I had never known it; but I from that night did beyond words consciously turn towards my silent brothers....


5

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