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The Literary Sense

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Эдит Несбит
The Literary Sense

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THE UNFAITHFUL LOVER

SHE was going to meet her lover. And the fact that she was to meet him at Cannon Street Station would almost, she feared, make the meeting itself banal, sordid. She would have liked to meet him in some green, cool orchard, where daffodils swung in the long grass, and primroses stood on frail stiff little pink stalks in the wet, scented moss of the hedgerow. The time should have been May. She herself should have been a poem – a lyric in a white gown and green scarf, coming to him through the long grass under the blossomed boughs. Her hands should have been full of bluebells, and she should have held them up to his face in maidenly defence as he sprang forward to take her in his arms. You see that she knew exactly how a tryst is conducted in the pages of the standard poets and of the cheaper weekly journals. She had, to the full limit allowed of her reading and her environment, the literary sense. When she was a child she never could cry long, because she always wanted to see herself cry, in the glass, and then of course the tears always stopped. Now that she was a young woman she could never be happy long, because she wanted to watch her heart's happiness, and it used to stop then, just as the tears had.

He had asked her to meet him at Cannon Street; he had something to say to her, and at home it was difficult to get a quiet half-hour because of her little sisters. And, curiously enough, she was hardly curious at all about what he might have to say. She only wished for May and the orchard, instead of January and the dingy, dusty waiting-room, the plain-faced, preoccupied travellers, the dim, desolate weather. The setting of the scene seemed to her all-important. Her dress was brown, her jacket black, and her hat was home-trimmed. Yet she looked entrancingly pretty to him as he came through the heavy swing-doors. He would hardly have known her in green and white muslin and an orchard, for their love had been born and bred in town – Highbury New Park, to be exact. He came towards her; he was five minutes late. She had grown anxious, as the one who waits always does, and she was extremely glad to see him, but she knew that a late lover should be treated with a provoking coldness (one can relent prettily later on), so she gave him a limp hand and no greeting.

"Let's go out," he said. "Shall we walk along the Embankment, or go somewhere on the Underground?"

It was bitterly cold, but the Embankment was more romantic than a railway carriage. He ought to insist on the railway carriage: he probably would. So she said —

"Oh, the Embankment, please!" and felt a sting of annoyance and disappointment when he acquiesced.

They did not speak again till they had gone through the little back streets, past the police station and the mustard factory, and were on the broad pavement of Queen Victoria Street.

He had been late: he had offered no excuse, no explanation. She had done the proper thing; she had awaited these with dignified reserve, and now she was involved in the meshes of a silence that she could not break. How easy it would have been in the orchard! She could have snapped off a blossoming branch and – and made play with it somehow. Then he would have had to say something. But here – the only thing that occurred to her was to stop and look in one of the shops till he should ask her what she was looking at. And how common and mean that would be compared with the blossoming bough; and besides, the shops they were passing had nothing in the windows except cheap pastry and models of steam-engines.

Why on earth didn't he speak? He had never been like this before. She stole a glance at him, and for the first time it occurred to her that his "something to say" was not a mere excuse for being alone with her. He had something to say – something that was trying to get itself said. The keen wind thrust itself even inside the high collar of her jacket. Her hands and feet were aching with cold. How warm it would have been in the orchard!

"I'm freezing," she said suddenly; "let's go and have some tea."

"Of course, if you like," he said uncomfortably; yet she could see he was glad that she had broken that desolate silence.

Seated at a marble table – the place was nearly empty – she furtively watched his face in the glass, and what she saw there thrilled her. Some great sorrow had come to him. And she had been sulking! The girl in the orchard would have known at a glance. She would gently, tenderly, with infinite delicacy and the fine tact of a noble woman, have drawn his secret from him. She would have shared his sorrow, and shown herself "half wife, half angel from heaven" in this dark hour. Well, it was not too late. She could begin now. But how? He had ordered the tea, and her question was still unanswered. Yet she must speak. When she did her words did not fit the mouth of the girl in the orchard – but then it would have been May there, and this was January. She said —

"How frightfully cold it is!"

"Yes, isn't it?" he said.

The fine tact of a noble woman seemed to have deserted her. She resisted a little impulse to put her hand in his under the marble table, and to say, "What is it, dearest? Tell me all about it. I can't bear to see you looking so miserable," and there was another silence.

The waitress brought the two thick cups of tea, and looked at him with a tepid curiosity. As soon as the two were alone again he leaned his elbows on the marble and spoke.

"Look here, darling, I've got something to tell you, and I hope to God you'll forgive me and stand by me, and try to understand that I love you just the same, and whatever happens I shall always love you."

This preamble sent a shiver of dread down her spine. What had he done – a murder – a bank robbery – married someone else?

It was on the tip of her tongue to say that she would stand by him whatever he had done; but if he had married someone else this would be improper, so she only said, "Well?" and she said it coldly.

"Well – I went to the Simpsons' dance on Tuesday – oh, why weren't you there, Ethel? – and there was a girl in pink, and I danced three or four times with her – she was rather like you, side-face – and then, after supper, in the conservatory, I – I talked nonsense – but only a very little, dear – and she kept looking at me so – as if she expected me to – to – and so I kissed her. And yesterday I had a letter from her, and she seems to expect – to think – and I thought I ought to tell you, darling. Oh, Ethel, do try to forgive me! I haven't answered her letter."

"Well?" she said.

"That's all," said he, miserably stirring his tea.

She drew a deep breath. A shock of unbelievable relief tingled through her. So that was all! What was it, compared with her fears? She almost said, "Never mind, dear. It was hateful of you, and I wish you hadn't, but I know you're sorry, and I'm sorry; but I forgive you, and we'll forget it, and you'll never do it again." But just in time she remembered that nice girls must not take these things too lightly. What opinion would he form of the purity of her mind, the innocence of her soul, if an incident like this failed to shock her deeply? He himself was evidently a prey to the most rending remorse. He had told her of the thing as one tells of a crime. As the confession of a crime she must receive it. How should she know that he had only told her because he feared that she would anyhow hear it through the indiscretion of the girl in pink, or of that other girl in blue who had seen and smiled? How could she guess that he had tuned his confession to the key of what he believed would be an innocent girl's estimate of his misconduct?

Following the tingle of relief came a sharp, sickening pinch of jealousy and mortification. These inspired her.

"I don't wonder you were afraid to tell me," she began. "You don't love me – you've never loved me – I was an idiot to believe you did."

"You know I do," he said; "it was hateful of me – but I couldn't help it."

Those four true words wounded her more than all the rest.

"Couldn't help it? Then how can I ever trust you? Even if we were married I could never be sure you weren't kissing some horrid girl or other. No – it's no use – I can never, never forgive you – and it's all over. And I believed in you so, and trusted you – I thought you were the soul of honour."

He could not say, "And so I am, on the whole," which was what he thought. Her tears were falling hot and fast between face and veil, for she had talked till she was very sorry indeed for herself.

"Forgive me, dear," he said.

Then she rose to the occasion. "Never," she said, her eyes flashing through her tears. "You've deceived me once – you'd do it again! No, it's all over – you've broken my heart and destroyed my faith in human nature. I hope I shall never see you again. Some day you'll understand what you've done, and be sorry!"

"Do you think I'm not sorry now?"

She wished that they were at home, and not in this horrible tea-shop, under the curious eyes of the waitresses. At home she could at least have buried her face in the sofa cushions and resisted all his pleading, – at last, perhaps, letting him take one cold passive hand and shower frantic kisses upon it.

He would come to-morrow, however, and then – At present the thing to compass was a dignified parting.

"Good-bye," she said; "I'm going home. And it's good-bye for ever. No – it's only painful for both of us. There's no more to be said; you've betrayed me. I didn't think a decent man could do such things." She was pulling on her gloves. "Go home and gloat over it all! And that poor girl – you've broken her heart too." This really was a master stroke of nobility.

 

He stood up suddenly. "Do you mean it?" he said, and his tone should have warned her. "Are you really going to throw me over for a thing like this?"

The anger in his eyes frightened her, and the misery of his face wrung her heart; but how could she say —

"No, of course I'm not! I'm only talking as I know good girls ought to talk"?

So she said —

"Yes. Good-bye!"

He stood up suddenly. "Then good-bye," he said, "and may God forgive you as I do!" And he strode down between the marble tables and out by the swing-door. It was a very good exit. At the corner he remembered that he had gone away without paying for the tea, and his natural impulse was to go back and remedy that error. And if he had they would certainly have made it up. But how could he go back to say, "We are parting for ever; but still, I must insist on the sad pleasure of paying for our tea – for the last time"? He checked the silly impulse. What was tea, and the price of tea, in this cataclysmic overthrowing of the Universe? So she waited for him in vain, and at last paid for the tea herself, and went home to wait there – and there, too, in vain, for he never came back to her. He loved her with all his heart, and he, also, had what she had never suspected in him – the literary sense. Therefore he, never dreaming that the literary sense had inspired her too, perceived that to the jilted lover two courses only are possible – suicide or "the front." So he enlisted, and went to South Africa, and he never came home covered with medals and glory, which was rather his idea, to the few simple words of explanation that would have made all straight, and repaid her and him for all the past. Because Destiny is almost without the literary sense, and Destiny carelessly decreed that he should die of enteric in a wretched hut, without so much as hearing a gun fired. Literary to the soul, she has taken no other lover, but mourns him faithfully to this hour. Yet perhaps, after all, that is not because of the literary sense. It may be because she loved him. I think I have not mentioned before that she did love him.

ROUNDING OFF A SCENE

A SOFT rain was falling. Umbrellas swayed and gleamed in the light of the street lamps. The brightness of the shop windows reflected itself in the muddy mirror of the wet pavements. A miserable night, a dreary night, a night to tempt the wretched to the glimmering Embankment, and thence to the river, hardly wetter or cleaner than the gutters of the London streets. Yet the sight of these same streets was like wine in the veins to a man who drove through them in a hansom piled with Gladstone bags and P. and O. trunks. He leaned over the apron of the hansom and looked eagerly, longingly, lovingly, at every sordid detail: the crowd on the pavement, its haste as intelligible to him as the rush of ants when their hill is disturbed by the spade; the glory and glow of corner public-houses; the shifting dance of the gleaming wet umbrellas. It was England, it was London, it was home – and his heart swelled till he felt it in his throat. After ten years – the dream realised, the longing appeased. London – and all was said.

His cab, delayed by a red newspaper cart, jammed in altercative contact with a dray full of brown barrels, paused in Cannon Street. The eyes that drank in the scene perceived a familiar face watching on the edge of the pavement for a chance to cross the road under the horses' heads – the face of one who ten years ago had been the slightest of acquaintances. Now time and home-longing juggled with memory till the face seemed that of a friend. To meet a friend – this did, indeed, round off the scene of the home-coming. The man in the cab threw back the doors and leapt out. He crossed under the very nose-bag of a stationed dray horse. He wrung the friend – last seen as an acquaintance – by the hand. The friend caught fire at the contact. Any passer-by, who should have been spared a moment for observation by the cares of umbrella and top-hat, had surely said, "Damon and Pythias!" and gone onward smiling in sympathy with friends long severed and at last reunited.

The little scene ended in a cordial invitation from the impromptu Damon, on the pavement, to Pythias, of the cab, to a little dance that evening at Damon's house, out Sydenham way. Pythias accepted with enthusiasm, though at his normal temperature, he was no longer a dancing man. The address was noted, hands clasped again with strenuous cordiality, and Pythias regained his hansom. It set him down at the hotel from which ten years before he had taken cab to Fenchurch Street Station. The menu of his dinner had been running in his head, like a poem, all through the wet shining streets. He ordered, therefore, without hesitation —

 
Ox-tail Soup.
Boiled Cod and Oyster Sauce.
Roast Beef and Horse-radish.
Boiled Potatoes. Brussels Sprouts.
Cabinet Pudding.
Stilton. Celery.
 

The cabinet pudding was the waiter's suggestion. Anything that called itself "pudding" would have pleased as well. He dressed hurriedly, and when the soup and the wine card appeared together before him he ordered draught bitter – a pint.

"And bring it in a tankard," said he.

The drive to Sydenham was, if possible, a happier dream than had been the drive from Fenchurch Street to Charing Cross. There were many definite reasons why he should have been glad to be in England, glad to leave behind him the hard work of his Indian life, and to settle down as a landed proprietor. But he did not think definite thoughts. The whole soul and body of the man were filled and suffused by the glow that transfuses the blood of the schoolboy at the end of the term.

The lights, the striped awning, the red carpet of the Sydenham house thrilled and charmed him. Park Lane could have lent them no further grace – Belgrave Square no more subtle witchery. This was England, England, England!

He went in. The house was pretty with lights and flowers. There was music. The soft-carpeted stair seemed air as he trod it. He met his host – was led up to girls in blue and girls in pink, girls in satin and girls in silk-muslin – wrote brief précis of their toilets on his programme. Then he was brought face to face with a tall dark-haired woman in white. His host's voice buzzed in his ears, and he caught only the last words – "old friends." Then he was left staring straight into the eyes of the woman who ten years ago had been the light of his: the woman who had jilted him, his vain longing for whom had been the spur to drive him out of England.

"May I have another?" was all he found to say after the bow, the conventional request, and the scrawling of two programmes.

"Yes," she said, and he took two more.

The girls in pink, and blue, and silk, and satin found him a good but silent dancer. On the opening bars of the eighth waltz he stood before her. Their steps went together like song and tune, just as they had always done. And the touch of her hand on his arm thrilled through him in just the old way. He had, indeed, come home.

There were definite reasons why he should have pleaded a headache or influenza, or any lie, and have gone away before his second dance with her. But the charm of the situation was too great. The whole thing was so complete. On his very first evening in England – to meet her! He did not go, and half-way through their second dance he led her into the little room, soft-curtained, soft-cushioned, soft-lighted, at the bend of the staircase.

Here they sat silent, and he fanned her, and he assured himself once more that she was more beautiful than ever. Her hair, which he had known in short, fluffy curls, lay in soberly waved masses, but it was still bright and dark, like a chestnut fresh from the husk. Her eyes were the same as of old, and her hands. Her mouth only had changed. It was a sad mouth now, in repose – and he had known it so merry. Yet he could not but see that its sadness added to its beauty. The lower lip had been, perhaps, too full, too flexible. It was set now, not in sternness, but in a dignified self-control. He had left a Greuze girl – he found a Madonna of Bellini. Yet those were the lips he had kissed – the eyes that —

The silence had grown to the point of embarrassment. She broke it, with his eyes on her.

"Well," she said, "tell me all about yourself."

"There's nothing much to tell. My cousin's dead, and I'm a full-fledged squire with estates and things. I've done with the gorgeous East, thank God! But you – tell me about yourself."

"What shall I tell you?" She had taken the fan from him, and was furling and unfurling it.

"Tell me" – he repeated the words slowly – "tell me the truth! It's all over – nothing matters now. But I've always been – well – curious. Tell me why you threw me over!"

He yielded, without even the form of a struggle, to the impulse which he only half understood. What he said was true: he had been – well – curious. But it was long since anything alive, save vanity, which is immortal, had felt the sting of that curiosity. But now, sitting beside this beautiful woman who had been so much to him, the desire to bridge over the years, to be once more in relations with her outside the conventionalities of a ball-room, to take part with her in some scene, discreet, yet flavoured by the past with a delicate poignancy, came upon him like a strong man armed. It held him, but through a veil, and he did not see its face. If he had seen it, it would have shocked him very much.

"Tell me," he said softly, "tell me now – at last – "

Still she was silent.

"Tell me," he said again; "why did you do it? How was it you found out so very suddenly and surely that we weren't suited to each other – that was the phrase, wasn't it?"

"Do you really want to know? It's not very amusing, is it – raking out dead fires?"

"Yes, I do want to know. I've wanted it every day since," he said earnestly.

"As you say – it's all ancient history. But you used not to be stupid. Are you sure the real reason never occurred to you?"

"Never! What was it? Yes, I know: the next waltz is beginning. Don't go. Cut him, whoever he is, and stay here and tell me. I think I have a right to ask that of you."

"Oh – rights!" she said. "But it's quite simple. I threw you over, as you call it, because I found out you didn't care for me."

"I– not care for you?"

"Exactly."

"But even so – if you believed it – but how could you? Even so – why not have told me – why not have given me a chance?" His voice trembled.

Hers was firm.

"I was giving you a chance, and I wanted to make sure that you would take it. If I'd just said, 'You don't care for me,' you'd have said, 'Oh, yes I do!' And we should have been just where we were before."

"Then it wasn't that you were tired of me?"

"Oh, no," she said sedately, "it wasn't that!"

"Then you – did you really care for me still, even when you sent back the ring and wouldn't see me, and went to Germany, and wouldn't open my letters, and all the rest of it?"

"Oh, yes!" – she laughed lightly – "I loved you frightfully all that time. It does seem odd now to look back on it, doesn't it? but I nearly broke my heart over you."

"Then why the devil – "

"You mustn't swear," she interrupted; "I never heard you do that before. Is it the Indian climate?"

"Why did you send me away?" he repeated.

"Don't I keep telling you?" Her tone was impatient. "I found out you didn't care, and – and I'd always despised people who kept other people when they wanted to go. And I knew you were too honourable, generous, soft-hearted – what shall I say? – to go for your own sake, so I thought, for your sake, I would make you believe you were to go for mine."

"So you lied to me?"

"Not exactly. We weren't suited – since you didn't love me."

"I didn't love you?" he echoed again.

"And somehow I'd always wanted to do something really noble, and I never had the chance. So I thought if I set you free from a girl you didn't love, and bore the blame myself, it would be rather noble. And so I did it."

"And did the consciousness of your own nobility sustain you comfortably?" The sneer was well sneered.

"Well – not for long," she admitted. "You see, I began to doubt after a while whether it was really my nobleness after all. It began to seem like some part in a play that I'd learned and played – don't you know that sort of dreams where you seem to be reading a book and acting the story in the book at the same time? It was a little like that now and then, and I got rather tired of myself and my nobleness, and I wished I'd just told you, and had it all out with you, and both of us spoken the truth and parted friends. That was what I thought of doing at first. But then it wouldn't have been noble! And I really did want to be noble – just as some people want to paint pictures, or write poems, or climb Alps. Come, take me back to the ball-room. It's cold here in the Past."

 

But how could he let the curtain be rung down on a scene half finished, and so good a scene?

"Ah, no! tell me," he said, laying his hand on hers; "why did you think I didn't love you?"

"I knew it. Do you remember the last time you came to see me? We quarrelled – we were always quarrelling – but we always made it up. That day we made it up as usual, but you were still a little bit angry when you went away. And then I cried like a fool. And then you came back, and – you remember – "

"Go on," he said. He had bridged the ten years, and the scene was going splendidly. "Go on; you must go on."

"You came and knelt down by me," she said cheerfully. "It was as good as a play – you took me in your arms and told me you couldn't bear to leave me with the slightest cloud between us. You called me your heart's dearest, I remember – a phrase you'd never used before – and you said such heaps of pretty things to me! And at last, when you had to go, you swore we should never quarrel again – and that came true, didn't it?"

"Ah, but why?"

"Well, as you went out I saw you pick up your gloves off the table, and I knew– "

"Knew what?"

"Why, that it was the gloves you had come back for and not me – only when you saw me crying you were sorry for me, and determined to do your duty whatever it cost you. Don't! What's the matter?"

He had caught her wrists in his hands and was scowling angrily at her.

"Good God! was that all? I did come back for you. I never thought of the damned gloves. I don't remember them. If I did pick them up, it must have been mechanically and without noticing. And you ruined my life for that?"

He was genuinely angry; he was back in the past, where he had a right to be angry with her. Her eyes grew soft.

"Do you mean to say that I was wrong– that it was all my fault – that you did love me?"

"Love you?" he said roughly, throwing her hands from him; "of course I loved you – I shall always love you. I've never left off loving you. It was you who didn't love me. It was all your fault."

He leaned his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands. He was breathing quickly. The scene had swept him along in its quickening flow. He shut his eyes, and tried to catch at something to steady himself – some rope by which he could pull himself to land again. Suddenly an arm was laid on his neck, a face laid against his face. Lips touched his hand, and her voice, incredibly softened and tuned to the key of their love's overture, spoke —

"Oh, forgive me, dear, forgive me! If you love me still – it's too good to be true – but if you do – ah, you do! – forgive me, and we can forget it all! Dear, forgive me! I love you so!"

He was quite still, quite silent.

"Can't you forgive me?" she began again. He suddenly stood up.

"I'm married," he said. He drew a long breath and went on hurriedly, standing before her, but not looking at her. "I can't ask you to forgive me – I shall never forgive myself."

"It doesn't matter," she said, and she laughed; "I – I wasn't serious. I saw you were trying to play the old comedy, and I thought I had better play up to you. If I'd known you were married – but it was only your glove, and we're such old acquaintances! There's another dance beginning. Please go – I've no doubt my partner will find me."

He bowed, gave her one glance, and went. Halfway down the stairs he turned and came back. She was still sitting as he had left her. The angry eyes she raised to him were full of tears. She looked as she had looked ten years before, when he had come back to her, and the cursed gloves had spoiled everything. He hated himself. Why had he played with fire and raised this ghost to vex her? It had been such pretty fire, and such a beautiful ghost. But she had been hurt – he had hurt her. She would blame herself now for that old past; as for the new past, so lately the present, it would not bear thinking of.

The scene must be rounded off somehow. He had let her wound her pride, her self-respect. He must heal them. The light touch would be best.

"Look here," he said, "I just wanted to tell you that I knew you weren't serious just now. As you say, it was nothing between two such old friends. And – and – " He sought about for some further consolation. Ill-inspired, with the touch of her lips still on his hand, he said, "And about the gloves. Don't blame yourself about that. It was not your fault. You were perfectly right. It was the gloves I came back for."

He left her then, and next day journeyed to Scotland to rejoin his wife, of whom he was, by habit, moderately fond. He still keeps the white glove she kissed, and at first reproached himself whenever he looked at it. But now he only sentimentalises over it now and then, if he happens to be a little under the weather. He feels that his foolish behaviour at that Sydenham dance was almost atoned for by the nobility with which he lied to spare her, the light, delicate touch with which he rounded off the scene.

He certainly did round it off. By a few short, easy words he accomplished three things. He destroyed an ideal of himself which she had cherished for years; he killed a pale bud of hope which she had loved to nurse – the hope that perhaps in that old past it had been she who was to blame, and not he, whom she loved; he trampled in the mud the living rose which would have bloomed her life long, the belief that he had loved, did love her – the living rose that would have had magic to quench the fire of shame kindled by that unasked kiss, a fire that frets for ever like hell-fire, burning, but not consuming, her self-respect.

He did, without doubt, round off the scene.


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