There was a woman who loved her husband, but she could not live with him. The husband, on his side, was sincerely attached to his wife, yet he could not live with her. They were both under forty, both handsome and both attractive. They had the most sincere regard for one another, and felt, in some odd way, eternally married to one another. They knew one another more intimately than they knew anybody else, they felt more known to one another than to any other person.
Yet they could not live together. Usually, they kept a thousand miles apart, geographically. But when he sat in the greyness of England, at the back of his mind, with a certain grim fidelity, he was aware of his wife, her strange yearning to be loyal and faithful, having her gallant affairs away in the sun, in the south. And she, as she drank her cocktail on the terrace over the sea, and turned her grey, sardonic eyes on the heavy dark face of her admirer, whom she really liked quite a lot, she was actually preoccupied with the clear-cut features of her handsome young husband, thinking of how he would be asking his secretary to do something for him, asking in that good-natured, confident voice of a man who knows that his request will be only too gladly fulfilled.
The secretary, of course, adored him. She was very competent, quite young, and quite good-looking. She adored him. But then all his servants always did, particularly his women-servants. His men-servants were likely to swindle him.
When a man has an adoring secretary, and you are the mans wife, what are you to do? Not that there was anything wrongif you know what I mean!between them. Nothing you could call adultery, to come down to brass tacks. No, no! They were just the young master and his secretary. He dictated to her, she slaved for him and adored him, and the whole thing went on wheels.
He didnt adore her. A man doesnt need to adore his secretary. But he depended on her. I simply rely on Miss Wrexall. Whereas he could never rely on his wife. The one thing he knew finally about her was that she didnt intend to be relied on.
So they remained friends, in the awful unspoken intimacy of the once-married. Usually each year they went away together for a holiday, and, if they had not been man and wife, they would have found a great deal of fun and stimulation in one another. The fact that they were married, had been married for the last dozen years, and couldnt live together for the last three or four, spoilt them for one another. Each had a private feeling of bitterness about the other.
However, they were awfully kind. He was the soul of generosity, and held her in real tender esteem, no matter how many gallant affairs she had. Her gallant affairs were part of her modern necessity. After all, Ive got to live. I cant turn into a pillar of salt in five minutes just because you and I cant live together! It takes years for a woman like me to turn into a pillar of salt. At least I hope so!
Quite! he replied. Quite! By all means put them in pickle, make pickled cucumbers of them, before you crystallise out. Thats my advice.
He was like that: so awfully clever and enigmatic. She could more or less fathom the idea of the pickled cucumbers, but the crystallising outwhat did that signify?
And did he mean to suggest that he himself had been well pickled and that further immersion was for him unnecessary, would spoil his flavour? Was that what he meant? And herself, was she the brine and the vale of tears?
You never knew how catty a man was being, when he was really clever and enigmatic, withal a bit whimsical. He was adorably whimsical, with a twist of his flexible, vain mouth, that had a long upper lip, so fraught with vanity! But then a handsome, clear-cut, histrionic young man like that, how could he help being vain? The women made him so.
Ah, the women! How nice men would be if there were no other women!
And how nice the women would be if there were no other men! Thats the best of a secretary. She may have a husband, but a husband is the mere shred of a man, compared to a boss, a chief, a man who dictates to you and whose words you faithfully write down and then transcribe. Imagine a wife writing down anything her husband said to her! But a secretary! Every and and but of his she preserves for ever. What are candied violets in comparison!
Now it is all very well having gallant affairs under the southern sun, when you know there is a husband whom you adore dictating to a secretary whom you are too scornful to hate yet whom you rather despise, though you allow she has her good points, away north in the place you ought to regard as home. A gallant affair isnt much good when youve got a bit of grit in your eye. Or something at the back of your mind.
Whats to be done? The husband, of course, did not send his wife away.
Youve got your secretary and your work, she said. Theres no room for me.
Theres a bedroom and a sitting-room exclusively for you, he replied. And a garden and half a motor-car. But please yourself entirely. Do what gives you most pleasure.
In that case, she said, Ill just go south for the winter.
Yes, do! he said. You always enjoy it.
I always do, she replied.
They parted with a certain relentlessness that had a touch of wistful sentiment behind it. Off she went to her gallant affairs, that were like the curates egg, palatable in parts. And he settled down to work. He said he hated working, but he never did anything else. Ten or eleven hours a day. Thats what it is to be your own master!
So the winter wore away, and it was spring, when the swallows homeward fly, or northward, in this case. This winter, one of a series similar, had been rather hard to get through. The bit of grit in the gallant ladys eye had worked deeper in the more she blinked. Dark faces might be dark, and icy cocktails might lend a glow; she blinked her hardest to blink that bit of grit away, without success. Under the spicy balls of the mimosa she thought of that husband of hers in his library, and of that neat, competent but common little secretary of his, for ever taking down what he said!
How a man can stand it! How she can stand it, common little thing as she is, I dont know! the wife cried to herself.
She meant this dictating business, this ten hours a day intercourse, à deux, with nothing but a pencil between them, and a flow of words.
What was to be done? Matters, instead of improving, had grown worse. The little secretary had brought her mother and sister into the establishment. The mother was a sort of cook-housekeeper, the sister was a sort of upper maidshe did the fine laundry, and looked after his clothes, and valeted him beautifully. It was really an excellent arrangement. The old mother was a splendid plain cook, the sister was all that could be desired as a valet de chambre, a fine laundress, an upper parlour-maid, and a table-waiter. And all economical to a degree. They knew his affairs by heart. His secretary flew to town when a creditor became dangerous, and she always smoothed over the financial crisis.
He, of course, had debts, and he was working to pay them off. And if he had been a fairy prince who could call the ants to help him, he would not have been more wonderful than in securing this secretary and her family. They took hardly any wages. And they seemed to perform the miracle of loaves and fishes daily.
She, of course, was the wife who loved her husband, but helped him into debt, and she still was an expensive item. Yet when she appeared at her home, the secretarial family received her with most elaborate attentions and deference. The knight returning from the Crusades didnt create a greater stir. She felt like Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, a sovereign paying a visit to her faithful subjects. But perhaps there lurked always this hair in her soup! Wont they be glad to be rid of me again!
But they protested No! No! They had been waiting and hoping and praying she would come. They had been pining for her to be there, in charge: the mistress, his wife. Ah, his wife!
His wife! His halo was like a bucket over her head.
The cook-mother was of the people, so it was the upper-maid daughter who came for orders.
What will you order for to-morrows lunch and dinner, Mrs. Gee?
Well, what do you usually have?
Oh, we want you to say.
No, what do you usually have?
We dont have anything fixed. Mother goes out and chooses the best she can find, that is nice and fresh. But she thought you would tell her now what to get.
Oh, I dont know! Im not very good at that sort of thing. Ask her to go on just the same; Im quite sure she knows best.
Perhaps youd like to suggest a sweet?
No, I dont care for sweetsand you know Mr. Gee doesnt. So dont make one for me.
Could anything be more impossible! They had the house spotless and running like a dream; how could an incompetent and extravagant wife dare to interfere, when she saw their amazing and almost inspired economy! But they ran the place on simply nothing!
Simply marvellous people! And the way they strewed palm branches under her feet!
But that only made her feel ridiculous.
Dont you think the family manage very well? he asked her tentatively.
Awfully well! Almost romantically well! she replied. But I suppose youre perfectly happy?
Im perfectly comfortable, he replied.
I can see you are, she replied. Amazingly so! I never knew such comfort! Are you sure it isnt bad for you?
She eyed him stealthily. He looked very well, and extremely handsome, in his histrionic way. He was shockingly well-dressed and valeted. And he had that air of easy aplomb and good humour which is so becoming to a man, and which he only acquires when he is cock of his own little walk, made much of by his own hens.
No! he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and smiling whimsically round at her. Do I look as if it were bad for me?
No, you dont, she replied promptly: thinking, naturally, as a woman is supposed to think nowadays, of his health and comfort, the foundation, apparently, of all happiness.
Then, of course, away she went on the back-wash.
Perhaps for your work, though, its not so good as it is for you, she said in a rather small voice. She knew he couldnt bear it if she mocked at his work for one moment. And he knew that rather small voice of hers.
In what way? he said, bristles rising.
Oh, I dont know, she answered indifferently. Perhaps its not good for a mans work if he is too comfortable.
I dont know about that! he said, taking a dramatic turn round the library and drawing at his pipe. Considering I work, actually, by the clock, for twelve hours a day, and for ten hours when its a short day, I dont think you can say I am deteriorating from easy comfort.
No, I suppose not, she admitted.
Yet she did think it, nevertheless. His comfortableness didnt consist so much in good food and a soft bed, as in having nobody, absolutely nobody and nothing to contradict him. I do like to think hes got nothing to aggravate him, the secretary had said to the wife.
Nothing to aggravate him! What a position for a man! Fostered by women who would let nothing aggravate him. If anything would aggravate his wounded vanity, this would!
So thought the wife. But what was to be done about it? In the silence of midnight she heard his voice in the distance, dictating away, like the voice of God to Samuel, alone and monotonous, and she imagined the little figure of the secretary busily scribbling shorthand. Then in the sunny hours of morning, while he was still in bedhe never rose till noonfrom another distance came that sharp insect noise of the typewriter, like some immense grasshopper chirping and rattling. It was the secretary, poor thing, typing out his notes.
That girlshe was only twenty-eightreally slaved herself to skin and bone. She was small and neat, but she was actually worn out. She did far more work than he did, for she had not only to take down all those words he uttered, she had to type them out, make three copies, while he was still resting.
What on earth she gets out of it, thought the wife, I dont know. Shes simply worn to the bone, for a very poor salary, and hes never kissed her, and never will, if I know anything about him.
Whether his never kissing herthe secretary, that ismade it worse or better, the wife did not decide. He never kissed anybody. Whether she herselfthe wife, that iswanted to be kissed by him, even that she was not clear about. She rather thought she didnt.
What on earth did she want then? She was his wife. What on earth did she want of him?
She certainly didnt want to take him down in shorthand, and type out again all those words. And she didnt really want him to kiss her; she knew him too well. Yes, she knew him too well. If you know a man too well, you dont want him to kiss you.
What then? What did she want? Why had she such an extraordinary hang-over about him? Just because she was his wife? Why did she rather enjoy other menand she was relentless about enjoymentwithout ever taking them seriously? And why must she take him so damn seriously, when she never really enjoyed him?
Of course she had had good times with him, in the past, beforeah! before a thousand things, all amounting really to nothing. But she enjoyed him no more. She never even enjoyed being with him. There was a silent, ceaseless tension between them, that never broke, even when they were a thousand miles apart.
Awful! Thats what you call being married! Whats to be done about it? Ridiculous, to know it all and not do anything about it!
She came back once more, and there she was, in her own house, a sort of super-guest, even to him. And the secretarial family devoting their lives to him.
Devoting their lives to him! But actually! Three women pouring out their lives for him day and night! And what did they get in return? Not one kiss! Very little money, because they knew all about his debts, and had made it their life business to get them paid off! No expectations! Twelve hours work a day! Comparative isolation, for he saw nobody!
And beyond that? Nothing! Perhaps a sense of uplift and importance because they saw his name and photograph in the newspaper sometimes. But would anybody believe that it was good enough?
Yet they adored it! They seemed to get a deep satisfaction out of it, like people with a mission. Extraordinary!
Well, if they did, let them. They were, of course, rather common, of the people; there might be a sort of glamour in it for them.
But it was bad for him. No doubt about it. His work was getting diffuse and poor in qualityand what wonder! His whole tone was going downbecoming commoner. Of course it was bad for him.
Being his wife, she felt she ought to do something to save him. But how could she? That perfectly devoted, marvellous secretarial family, how could she make an attack on them? Yet shed love to sweep them into oblivion. Of course they were bad for him: ruining his work, ruining his reputation as a writer, ruining his life. Ruining him with their slavish service.
Of course she ought to make an onslaught on them! But how could she? Such devotion! And what had she herself to offer in their place? Certainly not slavish devotion to him, nor to his flow of words! Certainly not!
She imagined him stripped once more naked of secretary and secretarial family, and she shuddered. It was like throwing the naked baby in the dust-bin. Couldnt do that!
Yet something must be done. She felt it. She was almost tempted to get into debt for another thousand pounds, and send in the bill, or have it sent in to him, as usual.
But no! Something more drastic!
Something more drastic, or perhaps more gentle. She wavered between the two. And wavering, she first did nothing, came to no decision, dragged vacantly on from day to day, waiting for sufficient energy to take her departure once more.
It was spring! What a fool she had been to come up in spring! And she was forty! What an idiot of a woman to go and be forty!
She went down the garden in the warm afternoon, when birds were whistling loudly from the cover, the sky being low and warm, and she had nothing to do. The garden was full of flowers: he loved them for their theatrical display. Lilac and snowball bushes, and laburnum and red may, tulips and anemones and coloured daisies. Lots of flowers! Borders of forget-me-nots! Bachelors buttons! What absurd names flowers had! She would have called them blue dots and yellow blobs and white frills. Not so much sentiment after all!
There is a certain nonsense, something showy and stagey about spring, with its pushing leaves and chorus-girl flowers, unless you have something corresponding inside you. Which she hadnt.
Oh, heaven! Beyond the hedge she heard a voice, a steady rather theatrical voice. Oh, heaven! He was dictating to his secretary in the garden. Good God, was there nowhere to get away from it!
She looked around: there was indeed plenty of escape. But what was the good of escaping? He would go on and on. She went quietly towards the hedge, and listened.
He was dictating a magazine article about the modern novel. What the modern novel lacks is architecture. Good God! Architecture! He might just as well say: What the modern novel lacks is whalebone, or a teaspoon, or a tooth stopped.
Yet the secretary took it down, took it down, took it down! No, this could not go on! It was more than flesh and blood could bear.
She went quietly along the hedge, somewhat wolf-like in her prowl, a broad, strong woman in an expensive mustard-coloured silk jersey and cream-coloured pleated skirt. Her legs were long and shapely, and her shoes were expensive.
With a curious wolf-like stealth she turned the hedge and looked across at the small, shaded lawn where the daisies grew impertinently. He was reclining in a coloured hammock under the pink-flowering horse-chestnut tree, dressed in white serge with a fine yellow-coloured linen shirt. His elegant hand dropped over the side of the hammock and beat a sort of vague rhythm to his words. At a little wicker table the little secretary, in a green knitted frock, bent her dark head over her note-book, and diligently made those awful shorthand marks. He was not difficult to take down, as he dictated slowly, and kept a sort of rhythm, beating time with his dangling hand.
In every novel there must be one outstanding character with which we always sympathisewith whom we always sympathiseeven though we recognise iteven when we are most aware of the human frailties
Every man his own hero, thought the wife grimly, forgetting that every woman is intensely her own heroine.
But what did startle her was a blue bird dashing about near the feet of the absorbed, shorthand-scribbling little secretary. At least it was a blue-tit, blue with grey and some yellow. But to the wife it seemed blue, that juicy spring day, in the translucent afternoon. The blue bird, fluttering round the pretty but rather common little feet of the little secretary.
The blue bird! The blue bird of happiness! Well, Im blest,thought the wife. Well, Im blest!
And as she was being blest, appeared another blue birdthat is, another blue-titand began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, Im blest!
She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But he was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.
Get out! he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.
The little secretary looked up quickly, for she had already begun to write it down. He smiled at her his twisted whimsical smile.
No, dont take that down, he said affectionately. Did you see those two tits laying into one another?
No! said the little secretary, gazing brightly round, her eyes half-blinded with work.
But she saw the queer, powerful, elegant, wolf-like figure of the wife, behind her, and terror came into her eyes.
I did! said the wife, stepping forward with those curious, shapely, she-wolf legs of hers, under the very short skirt.
Arent they extraordinarily vicious little beasts? said he.
Extraordinarily! she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!
And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.
I think, he began, these are the loveliest afternoons, when theres no direct sun, but all the sounds and the colours and the scents are sort of dissolved, dont you know, in the air, and the whole thing is steeped, steeped in spring. Its like being on the inside; you know how I mean, like being inside the egg and just ready to chip the shell.
Quite like that! she assented, without conviction.
There was a little pause. The secretary said nothing. They were waiting for the wife to depart again.
I suppose, said the latter, youre awfully busy, as usual?
Just about the same, he said, pursing his mouth deprecatingly.
Again the blank pause, in which he waited for her to go away again.
I know Im interrupting you, she said.
As a matter of fact, he said, I was just watching those two blue-tits.
Pair of little demons! said the wife, blowing away the yellow feather from her finger-tip.
Absolutely! he said.
Well, Id better go, and let you get on with your work, she said.
No hurry! he said, with benevolent nonchalance. As a matter of fact, I dont think its a great success, working out of doors.
What made you try it? said the wife. You know you never could do it.
Miss Wrexall suggested it might make a change. But I dont think it altogether helps, do you, Miss Wrexall?
Im sorry, said the little secretary.
Why should you be sorry? said the wife, looking down at her as a wolf might look down half-benignly at a little black-and-tan mongrel. You only suggested it for his good, Im sure!
I thought the air might be good for him, the secretary admitted.
Why do people like you never think about yourselves? the wife asked.
The secretary looked her in the eye.
I suppose we do, in a different way, she said.
A very different way! said the wife ironically. Why dont you make him think about you? she added, slowly, with a sort of drawl. On a soft spring afternoon like this, you ought to have him dictating poems to you, about the blue birds of happiness fluttering round your dainty little feet. I know I would, if I were his secretary.
There was a dead pause. The wife stood immobile and statuesque, in an attitude characteristic of her, half turning back to the little secretary, half averted. She half turned her back on everything.
The secretary looked at him.
As a matter of fact, he said, I was doing an article on the Future of the Novel.
I know that, said the wife. Thats whats so awful! Why not something lively in the life of the novelist?
There was a prolonged silence, in which he looked pained, and somewhat remote, statuesque. The little secretary hung her head. The wife sauntered slowly away.
Just where were we, Miss Wrexall? came the sound of his voice.
The little secretary started. She was feeling profoundly indignant. Their beautiful relationship, his and hers, to be so insulted!
But soon she was veering down-stream on the flow of his words, too busy to have any feelings, except one of elation at being so busy.
Tea-time came; the sister brought out the tea-tray into the garden. And immediately, the wife appeared. She had changed, and was wearing a chicory-blue dress of fine cloth. The little secretary had gathered up her papers and was departing, on rather high heels.
Dont go, Miss Wrexall, said the wife.
The little secretary stopped short, then hesitated.
Mother will be expecting me, she said.
Tell her youre not coming. And ask your sister to bring another cup. I want you to have tea with us.
Miss Wrexall looked at the man, who was reared on one elbow in the hammock, and was looking enigmatical, Hamletish.
He glanced at her quickly, then pursed his mouth in a boyish negligence.
Yes, stay and have tea with us for once, he said. I see strawberries, and I know youre the bird for them.
She glanced at him, smiled wanly, and hurried away to tell her mother. She even stayed long enough to slip on a silk dress.
Why, how smart you are! said the wife, when the little secretary reappeared on the lawn, in chicory-blue silk.
Oh, dont look at my dress, compared to yours! said Miss Wrexall. They were of the same colour, indeed!
At least you earned yours, which is more than I did mine, said the wife, as she poured tea. You like it strong?
She looked with her heavy eyes at the smallish, birdy, blue-clad, overworked young woman, and her eyes seemed to speak many inexplicable dark volumes.
Oh, as it comes, thank you, said Miss Wrexall, leaning nervously forward.
Its coming pretty black, if you want to ruin your digestion, said the wife.
Oh, Ill have some water in it, then.
Better, I should say.
Howd the work goall right? asked the wife, as they drank tea, and the two women looked at each others blue dresses.
Oh! he said. As well as you can expect. It was a piece of pure flummery. But its what they want. Awful rot, wasnt it, Miss Wrexall?
Miss Wrexall moved uneasily on her chair.
It interested me, she said, though not so much as the novel.
The novel? Which novel? said the wife. Is there another new one?
Miss Wrexall looked at him. Not for words would she give away any of his literary activities.
Oh, I was just sketching out an idea to Miss Wrexall, he said.
Tell us about it! said the wife. Miss Wrexall, you tell us what its about.
She turned on her chair, and fixed the little secretary.
Im afraidMiss Wrexall squirmedI havent got it very clearly myself, yet.
Oh, go along! Tell us what you have got then!
Miss Wrexall sat dumb and very vexed. She felt she was being baited. She looked at the blue pleatings of her skirt.
Im afraid I cant, she said.
Why are you afraid you cant? Youre so very competent. Im sure youve got it all at your finger-ends. I expect you write a good deal of Mr. Gees books for him, really. He gives you the hint, and you fill it all in. Isnt that how you do it? She spoke ironically, and as if she were teasing a child. And then she glanced down at the fine pleatings of her own blue skirt, very fine and expensive.
Of course youre not speaking seriously? said Miss Wrexall, rising on her mettle.
Of course I am! Ive suspected for a long timeat least, for some timethat you write a good deal of Mr. Gees books for him, from his hints.
It was said in a tone of raillery, but it was cruel.
I should be terribly flattered, said Miss Wrexall, straightening herself, if I didnt know you were only trying to make me feel a fool.
Make you feel a fool? My dear child!why, nothing could be farther from me! Youre twice as clever, and a million times as competent as I am. Why, my dear child, Ive the greatest admiration for you! I wouldnt do what you do, not for all the pearls in India. I couldnt anyhow
Miss Wrexall closed up and was silent.
Do you mean to say my books read as if he began, rearing up and speaking in a harrowed voice.
I do! said the wife. Just as if Miss Wrexall had written them from your hints. I honestly thought she didwhen you were too busy
How very clever of you! he said.
Very! she said. Especially if I was wrong!
Which you were, he said.
How very extraordinary! she cried. Well, I am once more mistaken!
There was a complete pause.
It was broken by Miss Wrexall, who was nervously twisting her fingers.
You want to spoil what there is between me and him, I can see that, she said bitterly.
My dear, but what is there between you and him? asked the wife.
I was happy working with him, working for him! I was happy working for him! cried Miss Wrexall, tears of indignant anger and chagrin in her eyes.
My dear child! cried the wife, with simulated excitement, go on being happy working with him, go on being happy while you can! If it makes you happy, why then, enjoy it! Of course! Do you think Id be so cruel as to want to take it away from you?working with him? I cant do shorthand and typewriting and double-entrance book-keeping, or whatever its called. I tell you, Im utterly incompetent. I never earn anything. Im the parasite of the British oak, like the mistletoe. The blue bird doesnt flutter round my feet. Perhaps theyre too big and trampling.
She looked down at her expensive shoes.
If I did have a word of criticism to offer, she said turning to her husband, it would be to you, Cameron, for taking so much from her and giving her nothing.
But he gives me everything, everything! cried Miss Wrexall. He gives me everything!
What do you mean by everything? said the wife, turning on her sternly.
Miss Wrexall pulled up short. There was a snap in the air, and a change of currents.
I mean nothing that you need begrudge me, said the little secretary rather haughtily. Ive never made myself cheap.
There was a blank pause.
My God! said the wife. You dont call that being cheap? Why, I should say you got nothing out of him at all, you only give! And if you dont call that making yourself cheapmy God!
You see, we see things different, said the secretary.
I should say we do!thank God! rejoined the wife.
On whose behalf are you thanking God? he asked sarcastically.
Everybodys, I suppose! Yours, because you get everything for nothing, and Miss Wrexalls, because she seems to like it, and mine because Im well out of it all.
You neednt be out of it all, cried Miss Wrexall magnanimously, if you didnt put yourself out of it all.
Thank you, my dear, for your offer, said the wife, rising, but Im afraid no man can expect two blue birds of happiness to flutter round his feet, tearing out their little feathers!
With which she walked away.
After a tense and desperate interim, Miss Wrexall cried:
And really, need any woman be jealous of me?
Quite! he said.
And that was all he did say.
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