AT last it is raining. Months have gone by since a good steady rain has soaked into the ground. Thunderstorms have shot by, and hail has slashed lettuce and nasturtiums, but the ground has remained parched. The pole beans have climbed only half their height, the Lima pods are thin and empty, and only by a weekly mulch of grass cutting have the gladioli achieved their proper estate. But to-day, ever since tea time, the rain has fallen with steady persistence — the end of a long tension. I feel like the dry and thirsty ground myself, relaxing under the slow and gentle pressure of the rain.
This morning the farmer and I made plans for a perennial seed bed. New Delphinium, new poppies, new phlox, and new columbine for the year after. ‘Why no foxglove?’ he said. I wanted to tell him, but I could n’t. To whom but you could I tell so personal a nightmare? I know what you would say. ‘How silly to hate digitalis because the doctors had faith in it. You go on loving Delphinium, which deceived only you.’
It happened the night you died. I had been lying in the next bed. I think they must have given me some medicine to make me sleep, but around one o’clock a nurse wakened me.
‘Perhaps you’d like to sit on his bed,’ she said. The tone was too ominously kind.
‘Is it the end?’ I asked.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘There’s one more thing,’ the doctor said. He opened a little box, took out a tiny glass tube, broke off the end, filled the hypodermic needle, and pricked it into your leg.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Digitalis. A heart stimulant.’
‘Let me see.’ I took the little box into my hand. On the cover was a spray of pink foxglove. ‘They’re all mad,’ I thought. ‘Delphinium failed me a week ago.’ But there seemed no point in telling him.
You leaned against the pillows gasping, still under the isinglass tent, still the din of the perpetual machine.
‘He does n’t know me,’ I said.
‘He feels no pain?’
‘But he gasps so. He can’t breathe at all.’
‘He does n’t know it.’
‘You’re sure he can’t feel anything?’
‘Sure. He feels no pain.’
‘Oh my God! He feels no pain. He doesn’t know he’s leaving me. He does n’t know. . . . Lover, don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. I can’t live without you. I can’t. I don’t want to. I can’t live without you. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.’ Your hand was quite limp. It did n’t feel my touch, but I had nothing else to hold on to.
‘I’m going too,’ I said. ‘I’m going too. I won’t stay without him. You can’t make me. I’m his, and I’m going too.’
I started to go. It was very wonderful to go like that with you. I grew lighter, lighter, and lighter. They would never have seen me go at all. Quite invisibly I should have gone with you. But no. Suddenly God’s hands were on me. He wore spectacles and a long brocaded gown. He gripped my shoulders very tight and his voice boomed forth.
‘You can’t go,’ he said. ‘You must stay. You can’t go. He’d want you to stay. It is n’t right for you to go too.’
Heavy, sick, alone, I returned. God was right. I could n’t go. Only it was n’t God. It was just the doctor in his dressing gown, waked from his sleep to watch you die.
‘How long can this go on?’ I said. ‘How long?’
‘Not very long. It’s hard to say.’
‘I can’t bear it very long, you know. Not very long. Will it be an hour?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not an hour, I think.’
Suddenly I noticed the noise of the machine.
‘What in God’s name is that thing doing?’ I said. ‘He’s going to die, is n’t he? Let him die in peace, then. Take that cage off him so I can hold him in my arms.’
Was it only yesterday that you had asked me how long you’d been in the cage? And when I said, ‘Three days,’you said, ‘No. Three weeks — strapped to the bridge of the Berengaria in a storm.’
They took it off, and that was all right, but suddenly the din ceased too — the noise of the machine that had been pumping the semblance of life into your body, air into your lungs. It stopped — stopped completely. Power stopped, air stopped, life stopped, and you went on gasping for breath.
‘Turn that thing on!’ I screamed. ‘Do you want to kill him? Do you want to let him die?’
For you and me, whose life had been as natural as the grass growing in the field, death was a machine controlled by a technician.
‘How soon is he going to die?’ I asked. ‘How soon? I can’t bear this any longer. It’s too much. You say he does n’t feel, he does n’t know. Are you sure?’
‘No pulse now.’ The nurse’s voice.
‘Almost over,’ the doctor said.
My arms were around you, but you did n’t know. My lips were on your hands, but you could n’t feel. Suddenly a terror splintered me into ice. When you died, your body would turn cold — your body that I loved so much. Stiff and cold. No. No, not that, I thought. Not that. He would n’t want it. He would n’t want me to know him that way. Not for us. Not that.
‘I’m going,’ I said. ‘I can’t stand it any longer. You should n’t have turned off that machine. That was the end. He does n’t know me any longer, does he?’
‘No. He does n’t know.’
‘Well, I’m going, then. I’m going away. ... I can’t, stand any more. I’m going away.’
I got up and walked across the room, to be blocked by a pillar of white starch.
‘You can’t go,’ the nurse said. ‘All your life you will regret it if you do.’
I struck her in the face.
‘Go to hell!’ I heard my voice say, and the doctor’s, ‘Leave her alone. She knows what’s right for her.’
Still you lay gasping, choking, dying. I went back and put my arms around you, and leaned over to kiss your lips, when a hand closed over my mouth.
‘Don’t do that,’ thundered a voice.
‘Why not? You said he couldn’t feel anyway.’
‘The infection,’ muttered the voice.
‘You damned fool!' I said.
I kissed your lips. They were still warm. SomewLere I had read about rigor mortis. Any moment, I thought, that terrible thing will happen, and he won’t be mine any more. That I can’t bear. He would n’t want me to. I stood in the doorway, unwilling to stay, unable to go. The gasping stopped. All time ceased. The silence of doom, and then — then a sound all my life I shall spend driving out of my ears. A rasping, dry, crackling sound — the death rattle in the throat. In newspaper columns there were jokes about it — about the death rattle in the throat. But it was n’t a joke. It was n’t something anybody made up. It was the sound you made when you left me forever. I stood there trying to understand.
‘It’s all over,’ the doctor said. Ann came and put her arms around me.
It was then I lost my identity. I stopped being a woman. A great weight fell off me. I became just a link in the long chain of those whose lovers and husbands and sons had died before their time. The picture flashed through my mind of Electra, the Greek woman I had once seen played, standing out there before the pillars, bemoaning her loss. Of that line of women I am, I thought. Ann led me down the corridor past our parents and friends, standing stricken in their grief.
‘They’re alive,’ I thought. ‘Like mummies they stand, but they’re alive. Only Jack is dead.’ I wanted to poke them with my finger to be sure, but I asked instead: ‘They’re alive, are n’t they? Only Jack’s dead.’
‘Yes,’ said Ann. ‘They’re alive.’
Long afterward it seemed to me dreadful that I should have left you alone, so newly dead. You, I know, would n’t have left me. But you had seen a dead person. I never had. You could n’t be the first.
Alice sat with you, though — all night long. She told me so long afterward. And that was right., was n’t it? You used to say, ‘How sweet Alice is! She’d be so cozy to wake up next to.’ But you did n’t wake up. You never have. It’s foolish of me to hate the foxglove.
Such enchanting things do occasionally happen! Last night I was sitting in the living room reading Greville’s Life of Sidney — another beautiful man who died too soon — when I heard a great barking of dogs, crunching of stone in the courtyard. I went to the kitchen door to investigate. A colossal horse-van stood before me, driven by a friend who lives over fifty miles away and to whom I had written a wail over losing Sandy.
‘Hello,’ I called. ‘What show are you on your way to?’
‘No show,’ he said. ‘Your letter about Sandy made me sad, so I’ve brought you a horse to ride. My own horse — he ought to be big enough to carry you for a while.’
The bars at the back of the truck were removed, the runway placed on them, and out trotted a large thoroughbred with as sweet a face as ever I saw. His name is Genji, he is nearly seventeen hands, and he made himself quite at home in Sandy’s stall. I rode him for the first time this morning, and very exciting it was. High above the ground I feel diminutive, but impressed with the power of so small a creature’s ability to control one so elephantine. He is primarily a hunter, sturdy and strong, and I rode twice as far and twice as hard as usual. But his mouth is n’t as light as Sandy’s, and he can pull me right up out of the saddle with a jerk, if he catches me unawares. Nor are his gaits so subtle and so easy. His high trot jogs you until you catch the rhythm of it, and his canter makes up in solidity for what it lacks in smoothness. But he’s a love of a horse, and it would please you to meet me riding him on the road.
He is of course merely a loan until the hunting season starts, but he came at so opportune a time to bring me happiness. Very few of one’s friends own horse-vans, but it is pleasant to have at least one, who, after the day’s work at the office, will trouble of his own free will to deliver at a lady’s doorstep his own personal hunter.
To-day has been divinely hot. Not. a cloud in the sky. Most of the day I lay on my back in the sun, wondering why the sky looked blue rather than some other color, and hoping that my breasts and stomach and thighs would burn the same shade as the rest of my anatomy. I find when I look in the mirror after my bath that I resemble too closely a zebra for someone comparatively ignorant of its ways. I was forced at one point to clamber into a bathing suit by the unannounced arrival of some friends. I gave them a large bunch of gladioli to take home, and I am forced to admit I hated parting with them. Vegetables are no sacrifice, but, no matter how full the garden is of flowers, I can’t bear to let one of them go away from me. I love them too much — an unreasoning and harmless enough passion, growing, I suppose, from a gardenless childhood; too many years when I could only look and smell, never touch and own.
Do you remember how badly I behaved the first time I ever picked flowers in your garden ? It was the fall before we were married, when no one was supposed to know. You had been bringing me great bunches of zinnias and asters and Michaelmas daisies that you picked for me yourself. But frost was due any day, and I had an overwhelming desire to pick flowers myself, as many as I wanted before frost. It would have seemed unwise at the time for a strange lady to be seen making herself at home in your garden, so you offered to bring me out at night when everyone had gone to bed, and I could pick flowers to my heart’s content by the light of a lantern you would hold.
We started out in very high spirits — amused at so simple a pleasure’s being given such an air of intrigue and adventure. The lantern and some scissors were procured, and I started on the zinnia bed. Ruthlessly, without noticing the buds, with no thought to the future, I started to cut the blooms.
‘You mustn’t do that,’you burst out. ‘You must cut them carefully. There won’t be any left for to-morrow or the next day. You’re cutting all the buds. You should n’t do that.'
‘But the frost is coming. What difference does it make? I’ll cut them the way I want to or I won’t cut them at all. You can have your old flowers anyway!’ I screamed. ’I don’t want them!’ And I ran away and hid before you could catch me. It seems very childish now, does n’t it? But had it ended any other way we might never have got married at all.
I wandered around for a while in the dark, not knowing my way very well, crying with disappointment and fear. You wandered around with your lantern, wishing, you afterward told me, that you had cut out your tongue before you spoke, wondering how you could restore my childlike faith in the word you had broken. Some instinct must have made me know it was time, once and for all, to banish childish obedience. No longer was I going to ’look and smell.’ I was going to touch as much and how I wanted. I went back to the flower bed and started cutting them all off at the very base of the stalk, to ensure the longest possible stems. In a little while you found me.
‘I’m doing what you said not to,’ I said.
‘You’re quite right, my dear. If you had n’t, I was going to. See, my knife’s all open. If you had n’t taken them, I was going to cut them all off and bring them to you, so you’d know I meant what I said in the first place.’
‘I’m glad.’ I knew no words to express my gratitude.
‘You see, I was only thinking of saving them for you. I just could n’t believe you were really here. I’d been looking forward so long to your picking your flowers in my garden that I did n’t realize quickly enough that it was actually happening.’
Between the me you had imagined and the me who exists, an unhappy child had flung her thwarted little will, that it might be, thanks to you, set permanently free.
I still pick flowers in your garden — carefully, so there will always be enough for to-morrow and the next day and next week, enough to give away to people, whom I allow to smell and look, but never to touch. I deny, though, that my miserliness is based entirely on greed. It has its æsthetic aspect.
You see, there are two ways of arranging flowers for a house. One may regard them as material with which to create a form, a design, which, reproduced on canvas through a painter’s eye, would become a work of art. But I like to make the actual pictures, myself, with the flowers as material — decorations to serve as prisms for light, or to emphasize some aspect of a room — tangible reproductions of still lives I have seen and remembered, or composed myself. When I give away special flowers like the gladioli, each one of which I have chosen for color or for form, I am suddenly arrested midpicture with the realization that Margery has unwittingly taken back to town with her that deep purple one with the crimson veining without which my chef d’œuvre is stillborn.
Do you think I have invented an æsthetic code just to excuse my stinginess?
Not this year have I waked up, as I did this morning, to the solid thudding rhythm of rain beating on the roof. Comatose, I dozed in the snug security of my bed. Gradually the raindrops beat a tattoo on my mind, of relevant sound and inverted meaning.
That the small rain down may rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Consciousness became the necessary expedient to avoid melancholy. Awake, I found myself shaken with inexpressible laughter. How often, after all, does one participate in a cosmic joke? This day, the only rainy one of the year, was also the occasion for the last time in this century of the total eclipse of the sun.
What magnificent humor, I thought! ‘That for your million-dollar scientific expeditions, your newspaper shouting, your railroad excursions, your radio broadcasts!’ said the Sun. ‘Rain for the thirsty earth you may have, but no secret knowledge of the moon and me or our ways.’
Last night Genji’s master came to dine, to see how we were getting on. After dinner, barely any light left, the first stars shining, we sat drinking our coffee on the terrace.
‘An island of peace,’ he said. ‘This place . . . one sheds the outside world as though it no longer existed.’
‘No time, no space,’ I echoed.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No time, no space. And to-morrow, when the rest of the world changes in the eclipse, this place will be the same.’
And so it was. The rain stopped, but the mist held. No ray of sunlight pierced the fog. No breath of wind stirred a leaf. Microcosm remained oblivious of macrocosmic change, astral or terrestrial. Not so me. As the hours wore on, tension grew. Surely this day so unlike others must hold for me too some special significance. Perhaps in the vision of even a partial eclipse I might perceive, written in letters of fire, the answer to my never-ceasing where and why. By mid-afternoon the house became a cage. Every footstep marked the moist floor. Beads of sweat stood on the flower vases. The safety of matches was impregnable. I lit a cigarette from a hot coal held in the tongs and set forth on Genji to climb the highest hill.
‘You would feel this way on any damp day,’ I thought. ‘They’re all like this. Easeless and disturbing, either with no sound or with noise, jarring and strident.’ Of course one never knows the truth of such things. Suspicious, my very eagerness to believe in the day’s conformity. In the glade at the foot of the hill, however, I became skeptical. There was no sound, no sound at all. ‘And no birds sing,’ I thought. No cicada droned, no cricket, no katydid. No creak of saddle leather. Genji’s hoofs hit the ground noiselessly. No whirring in the telephone wires, my voice silent inside me. A flock of crows, those noisy scavengers, alighting in dead silence. ‘I must get out of this,’ I thought, and cantered to the top of the hill.
The murky day had barely visibly thickened, but the heavy air seemed rarefied. At half past four I reached the hilltop farm. ‘One must stop,’ I thought. ‘It’s as embarrassing as the minute’s silence for the unknown soldier, only greater risk in the ignoring.’
The owner of the farmhouse, his neighbors and children, stood on the porch looking in the direction of the hidden sun. The smallest boy wandered out silent to where Genji stood. He walked around us, examining first the horse, then me. ‘Are you one of the girls from the camp over to Cummington?’ he asked just at 4.34, as the moon eclipsed the sun for the last time in this century.
‘No time, no space,’ I thought, ‘but the still glowing pleasure of being called a girl by a boy young enough to be my son.’
‘Waning summer freaks,’ a headline in my favorite country newspaper, is sufficient explanation of my week’s inarticulateness. Dog days we have had, and I have been absorbing sunlight, trying to forget that August is the end of summer. During the middle of the month I kept convincing myself that August was static. No change in nature seemed visible. Driving back and forth over the road, so accurately chased in my mind, I could see only greenness and the fixed shape of the leaves. It comforted me. ‘ Summer isn’t really over,’ I thought. ‘This cæsura may prolong itself indefinitely.’ But even as I attempted self-deception, with the corner of my eye I perceived the growing stalks of the gentian. Suddenly then, after only a day or two, came evidence of disintegration too blatant to be ignored. Birch leaves are turning yellow. Ferns are already parchment-colored, some even brown and dry. Masses of wild aster are in bloom, and the blue color of a few closed gentians has seeped through into flower.
The garden is racing to fruition — flowers and vegetables alike. The poppies are already gone to seed, cornflowers hurrying after them. The cosmos overtakes me no matter how much I pick. Sweet peas must nightly be cut, and mignonette and annual phlox have climbed to prodigious height. Snapdragons, zinnias, and pinks seem willing to linger.
The vegetables are either more eager to spend themselves or unwilling to make so late an effort to fulfill their growth. The string and pole beans have been unpleasantly demolished by the Oriental beetle, and the Limas are flat leathery purses with no coin inside. The drought has enfeebled them as well as the late plantings of peas. The romaine, perfectly headed one day; the next, chicken feed. The herbs are blooming and I can’t reconcile myself to eating flowers. The zucchini, or what the farmer calls Italian squash, demand as careful watching as a precocious child. I always thought this too recondite and Latin a fruit to flourish in New England soil. But it is, after all, only squash, and anyone knowing New England recognizes her gift for nurturing the most distinguished crossbred exotics.
At last I appreciate September. Genji has temporarily converted me. The continual chill in the air, even when the sun was shining brightest, has marred my days. I can’t gracefully reconcile myself to warm clothes — my body so free and brown all summer, already turning pale, covered with breeches and boots, shirts and coats. Each night I fear a frost, try to remember just what degree of cold at ten o’clock predicts it, fail to recall, and rush about, flash light in one hand, burlap bags and newspapers in the other, to cover tomatoes and zinnias, Lima beans and marigolds, cucumbers and dahlias, only to discover on awaking next morning that there has been no frost. Until to-day I have indulged my Herbsischmerz, finishing my chores as rapidly as possible to sit by the fire and read the memoirs of seventeenthcentury ladies whose Spartan acceptance of physical discomfort puts me to shame.
To-day I went on the longest ride, the one you and I never took. I don’t know why, for it is only a little longer than the others, and much more beautiful, following as it does along the top of the ridge overlooking two valleys, then dipping down through the deep woods.
One July morning at dawn I rode there first alone. The heat of the full sun that summer was more than either the horse or I could bear, so I used to start out around four or half past. It was the first sunrise I had seen clockwise and I smiled unregretfully for the days when to dance until light, to come home at sunrise, signified the ultimate excitement. There seemed to be no temperature at all to the air, no hot or cold, just clarity and freshness and a transparent mist rising. ‘I must go to a new place,’ I thought, ‘for a new time of day.’ So I set out on the longest ride. Sometimes I took a wrong turn, finding myself unexpectedly the herald of dawn to a sleeping farmyard. Dogs would bark, cocks crow, and I would canter back to the road childishly alarmed at the potential wrath of some unknown farmer, snatching a few extra moments of sleep.
But to-day the road was as familiar to me as the creak of the saddle. Most of the way I trotted, but in the woods Genji walked. For I wanted to feast my eyes on the color blue. I had forgotten how it enriches the September woods — the gentle periwinkle color of the fringed gentian, the bright Prussian blue of the closed one, and the evil shining blue-black of the deadly nightshade. Christmas-red jack-in-the-pulpit berries squat on their pulpy stems and the Solomon’s-seal berries hang, a crimson tassel, from the end of the curving stem.
The underbrush had thinned out and dried up, so I could see stone walls, invisible in summer — the strong and lasting boundaries of lands long untenanted. The solidity of their beauty, the high hope in the hearts, the thrifty labor of the hands of the men who laid them, anchor my spirit to this countryside.
To-day I completed a ride embarked upon more than five years ago. Do you remember one day when you were too busy to ride I announced my intention of following the road with the poplar trees wherever it might lead? In less than two hours I came galloping back to tell you that while looking through the window of an old house in my search for paneling I had discovered the body of a dead man, undoubtedly murdered.
We dashed into the car and flew as fast as the country roads permitted, only to find my corpse hoeing his turnip patch. I could n’t believe that in New England anyone would sleep in the daytime.
‘Hello,’ you said to the man. ‘My wife tells me you have some nice-looking paneling here.’
‘So folks say.’
‘You don’t want to sell it, do you?’
‘I wanna, all right, but I can’t. This house is in litigation.’ He spoke with all the authority of a Justice of the Supreme Court.
‘Well, when your case is settled, let us know, will you?’
‘Sure, I’ll let ye know, but I would n’t count too much on it. The court’s been at it more’n five years now.’
Another five years, and the court has settled the question, but not to his or our advantage. He was carrying in wood as I rode up.
‘Still got that paneling?’
‘ Ya-as, still here, and got to stay until my brother dies, too. Then,’ and he spoke with vehemence, ‘I’m gonna fix this place up good. I’m gonna tear out all that old stuff and fix the house up real good.’
‘Well, you might let me know before you tear it out, will you?’
‘Sure, I’ll let ye know. Just what was your name?’
‘I’m Mrs. Sherburn from over to Chapel Falls.’
‘Oh ya-as. . . . Near Pony Mountain, ain’t it?’
‘Wa-al, I’ll try and remember. Good-bye.’
Passing an abandoned graveyard, farms and orchards alive with men picking and sorting apples, searching for landmarks, ignoring persistently the bright flare of turning leaves, relentless signals of oncoming winter, I rode home.
The first frost came last night, following on a day filled with busyness. Bushel baskets of beans to be picked, both siring and Lima, cucumbers, zucchini, and ripe tomatoes to be gathered. The tomato plants we pulled to hang by their roots in the shed, hoping that in time the green fruit might ripen.
I cut tubfuls of zinnias and marigolds and dahlias, all the sturdiest-looking flowers most susceptible to chill. The half-ripe grapes in the arbor and on the barn trellis took hours to pick. The ones over the shed I left to ripen in their protected place. Late at night I remembered the potted marigolds on the terrace and rose out of my warm bed to cover them. But to no avail. The frost last night was thorough, no meagre thirty-two degrees.
A relief it is, too, to accept the inevitable. The last few days I have n’t even enjoyed picking flowers, for I kept thinking, ’To-night may be your end. To-morrow, even if you are not stiff in death, your freshness will be lost, your perfection tarnished.’ Of course a few of the frailest-looking do withstand the cold; mignonette and calendulas, Phlox Drummondi and pinks, hold up their heads, until, shrunken into seed pods, they scatter on the ground.
I rode the longest ride this afternoon, ruminatively, except for the self-forgetfulness of an occasional gallop. The ridges were bristling with vermilion and jaundiced maples, softened by the deep black-green of the pine, the mossy green of the resistant oak.
‘Why,’ I thought, ‘can’t you just sec with your eyes? Why is n’t the picture enough? When you were young you liked October best. You could wax lyrical over the flaming Bacchanal of Fall. But now that the tyrant mind employs the eye as its tool in the perpetual search for relevance, the countryside is become the flamboyantly effective painting of an artist whose vision is antagonistic, or a vast spectacle to absorb the attention while life changes to death or anonymity.’
Perhaps autumn is a man’s time of year. I sometimes think so. After the leaves are gone, when the trees stand black and strong against the thin November sky, changing, as the sun sinks, from gray to palest green or lemon yellow, then men look far out over the world and find it good, lean their axes against the wall and sit by the fireside, silent and at peace. But for women it is a fallow time, their labor all indoors, no vision, no absorption in their bodies’ strength.
Do you remember the November weeks when you and Jim and Gregory used to go to the cabin? When I offered to come and cook supper for you, how politely you’d refuse with ‘You see, Jim and Greg would think they’d have to shave if you came up.’
‘What do you do all evening,’ I’d ask, ‘after you’ve finished chopping wood? Just talk?’
‘No,’ you’d say. ‘We almost never talk. We just sit and drink whiskey, and Jim whittles little boats. The time passes very quickly.’
Men have the good fortune to know such companionship in their well and happy times. Women share that silent give-and-take only in the stress of pain or sorrow, illness or death.
Is autumn a time for silence? Or is it just that
I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air . . .
To-day is bitter cold. A crust of ice on the pool held the fallen leaves prisoner until the sun melted them free. My only offering to Saint Barbara is a bowl of highly polished winesaps. The copper kettle is filled with oak leaves tinged a garnet red, succeeding the bright maple, now dry and shriveled. Soon there will be only laurel and evergreen. ... I can write no more. I go to my hothouse in the city.
Each evening when you were dying I used to look out over New York, watch the lights come on in the Paramount Tower clock, and think, ‘This is a good enough place to die in.’ Since then I have found it a well-ordered background for a masquerade.
My ideal self would stay here the year round and discover the excitements of winter alone in the country as I have those of summer. But a streak of the Orient in me, rendering my whole nature an Achilles’ heel to cold, is stronger than my wish or my courage. So to New York I go. If it is a good place to die in, it is an equally useful one for fencing against loneliness and desperation. But with eternity it has no rapport, except occasionally by accident. From there my letters would be the kaleidoscopic hieroglyphs of a lady in disguise. And whom would she be impersonating? Ah, my dear, a strange invented woman you never knew. ‘A handsome young widow!’ How do you like that? Do those words shock you as much as they did me when first I heard them?
It was four years ago to-night. You were less than a year dead, but I felt even then that I must celebrate the day I met you, even as the day I was born. Many of our friends were there, and visitors and young people from round about. We had an old-fashioned country orchestra, and it was very gay. I was dancing with a man whom we had both known for many years as a rare and sensitive person, and, curiously enough, so he remains. That night as we were dancing he said to me, ‘I’m falling in love with a handsome young widow,’ and I thought, TIow curious! The last sort of person I should have thought he’d like,’ The refrain of a vulgar German song I had heard, and not understood, in my childhood passed through my mind: —
. . . der Erste war Anton, der Zweite war Fritz,
Aber er war nicht lange in meinen Besitz.
The picture on the cover of the sheet music was of a fast woman in a tightfitting black hobble skirt, slit up in front. On her head she wore a black toque with an aigrette sticking straight up. So I must always unconsciously have pictured widows. Loose, desirable, and a little to be envied, I dare say.
It was only through some slight pressure of his hand, perhaps, — I can’t tell what, — that suddenly it dawned on me I was the widow he meant. Your wife was ‘a handsome young widow’ with whom other men had the right to fall in love. My mind went blank. I know I keeled over on to the floor, and the first thing I remember was the fiddler saying, ‘Well, I’ve seen lots of ladies fall down, but I never saw one get up quicker’n you.’ I don’t know whether I was more curious about a man in whose life the falling down of ladies was so casual an occurrence or relieved that only he and my partner had seen the accident.
‘There must be more brandy in the punch than I remember putting in,’ I said, gallantry being the only asset my sex has filched from yours in a quarter of a century of unsuccessful imitation.
‘Widow’ — once the word started gnawing at my mind, I became interested in it, and finally accustomed to it. One does n’t write Jinian C. Sherburn, Executrix, a hundred times, fill in numberless blanks with the word ‘widow,’ without accepting it as part of one’s name. But that took time.
I used to think of all the widows I knew—rotund, middle-aged ladies, done up in sables and spending the season in Europe. In them I found little to enlighten me. With the famous widows in books I seemed to have even less in common — the Wife of Bath, Cressida, the patient Griselda (but did n’t her husband come back?), the ‘gallant ladies’ whom Brantôme describes as ‘ the freest of women, being subject neither to parents nor to husbands, and, what is more, not to any law.’ Clearly, I fitted into no such category. I was as little free as the creature of whom we used to sing in the school hymn, ‘If you cannot give your thousands, you can give the widow’s mite.’
One has obviously to forge one’s own widowhood. Unlike motherhood, or the state of being a wife or a mistress, it is not a rôle in which one has ever pictured one’s self, until unexpectedly, shockingly, one awakes one morning, desolate.
Soon after you were dead I read in the newspaper that the sound waves of voices continued around the world long after the throat that uttered them was stilled; that if a powerful enough instrument existed, the voices of the dead could be caught out of the air. I dare say grief maddens one a little, because for a long time I lived in terror of unexpectedly one day hearing your voice floating out to me on the street or in some stranger’s house. After a year or two I knew that even the sound waves would have died, and I was n’t sorry when someone gave me a radio set.
Almost the first tune that miraculously invaded my drawing-room was the waltz from The Merry Widow. I don’t think I was conscious of the title, only of the familiar caressing feeling that is implicit in a Viennese waltz. The makers of radio programmes are not widely documented gentlemen, and I soon found that hardly a day was to pass without my hearing the strains of the Merry Widow Waltz. Other waltzes wearied me, but that one brought with it some happy implication, some bright picture from the past I could n’t catch. Then one day I remembered.
When I was a little girl, my cousins and I used to be allowed to go to the matinée once a week, in a box with my governess. They were too old for governesses, and neither Fräulein nor I was made to feel very welcome. But the day of The Merry Widow was my victory. They, in their early teens, were considered susceptible to any suggestion of happy vice which might emanate from the scene at Maxim’s. So before the last act they were sent home. I, however, young enough to be impervious to wickedness, — and my first victory’s arising from a mere accident of birth detracted no whit from my triumph, — was allowed to stay, to hear the beautiful music and see the wonderful ladies with their great picture hats, dipping and swirling and waltzing, not just with handsome men in uniform as partners, but with heroes, with gods who had experienced all the gayety of life and of love.
After that adventure, of course, my status with my companions was wholly changed. From the youngest I became the only one who knew the end of the story, the only one who had seen lords and ladies dancing at night in Paris. At first I withheld my knowledge, fingering it over in my mind, playing to myself, over and over, the part of the beautiful young widow. But gradually, by a series of bribes, the final one being the promise that I could always play the leading part when we acted out the opera to the music of gramophone records, I divulged my information.
For how many years Vilia or Sonia, or whatever may have been her euphonious name, remained my heroine I can’t remember. But her successor, illogically enough, was Isabel Archer. From the moment, at the age of sixteen or so, that I started journeying in that romantic restrained Continent which Henry James discovered, I wanted only to be a lady, a very great lady who poured tea on the terrace and presided at dinner parties where the conversation was as witty as the guests distinguished, the food as savory as the glass and silver elegant.
That, I fancy, is the history, although unconscious, of my winter masque. Once one starts acting a part, it easily becomes a habit. My dinner parties are a close enough approximation of the ideal, the balance being a little more, perhaps, on the side of beauty than of brains. For I find as I listen to people talk that very few ever say anything not easily found either in books or in one’s own imagination. The eye rather than the ear is rewarded as I look down the table. The turn of a finely built body, an individual gesture, a graceful movement, is in itself a lasting picture. With you, style was an integrated, unified projection of yourself, but most men who wear their clothes well jumble their words badly.
I can make and listen to remarks about the new play, or X’s falling in or out of love with Y, while my mind wanders to the orchard where the apples in that pyramided centrepiece grew; to the woods where I picked those very laurel leaves on which the apples rest. The butter has come from the churn I used sometimes to turn in summer, and the veal is that little bull calf whose soft ears I was stroking and pulling so short a time ago.
None of my guests, I think, ever suspect that they are participating in a charade. But if one night the butler announced, ‘Mr. Sherburn has returned,’ you would at once penetrate the disguise, welding together again the woman of the world and the child, restoring to them that lost freedom of being your wife.