AT HALF past three in the afternoon, while Elgar was up in the storeroom over the shop, he heard Miss Mongon calling upstairs to Maimie, and he knew that everything was over. Now, he would have to call to offer his condolences.
All week, when it was whispered about the town that she was sinking rapidly, it was of her parents he thought, and not of Naida at all. Would they expect him to call and inquire for her? Or would it only distress them to see him?
If only he had not let so long pass without going to see them! That was what made things so difficult now. It was nothing else. If only he had called to see them four years ago, as he intended to do, when he and Maimie came back from Dublin after their marriage. Only for Maimie he would have gone.
“They’ll give a nice look at you!" she said.
“Not when I tell them I came to apologize!”
“For what?” said Maimie, slyly.
“For the way I left the house that morning,” he said.
But Maimie only smirked. “Is that all?” she said.
Poor Maimie; her marriage hadn’t been all that she hoped, and it made her feel better to think that she had taken him from someone else.
They weren’t long back from Dublin when she began to repeat some nonsense she picked up from the customers in the shop.
“I hear Naida Paston is complaining of terrible headaches,”she said. “That’s something new, isn’t it? We never heard anything about her having headaches, did we?”
He guessed at once what was in the back of her mind. “You ought to know,” he said shortly. “You were her best friend, weren’t you?”
Then, another day, when they were sitting down to their dinner, in the stuffy room behind the shop, she looked across the table at him.
“I hear Naida Paston is no better,” she said, and then she took up her knife and fork. “It must be true, what my mother used to say, that a girl that’s jilted is never the same afterwards.”
He could have struck her. But by that time she was expecting Birdie, so he could only look at her with contempt.
“Don’t look at me like that!” she cried. “Don’t forget the night she came bursting into this very room and made such a scene about you!”
Oh that night! Only for thinking about it he might have made another effort to visit the Pastons after Birdie was born, while Maimie was in bed, and could not stop him. It was for the child’s sake he wanted to make up with them then. If anything ever happened to him, it would be nice for her to be friends with people like the Pastons, and not be completely smothered by her mother and her mother’s people.
But at the last minute, when he had brushed his suit and was ready to go out the door, he faltered. Perhaps Maimie was right and they would not forgive him, although no matter what she or anyone else might say, the only thing the Pastons could hold against him was the way he stole out of their house that morning. Even now, four years later, it gave him a sick feeling in his stomach to think of the way he threw his suitcase out of the window and let himself out after it. He had acted like a son of the house who if he were caught would have been locked up in a closet until the train had left the station. Instead of that he was practically a stranger. Well — if not exactly a stranger, at least there were limits to the intimacy between them. After all, he was paying his way, and although they were very kind to him he had spent the greater part of his time in his room studying.
Just because they were of his own way of thinking was no reason for him to feel any constraint upon his liberty. Quite truly, even before he met Maimie at all, that meant very little to him. If it was a factor at all, it only mattered to him inasmuch as that there being very few other Protestants in the locality, there would probably be very few callers. Indeed, only for Maimie, Naida did not seem to have any friends at all. And Maimie had probably pushed her way into their house out of curiosity, and uninvited, when they first came to the town, as indeed she did upon the first day he himself arrived in the town.
“Who is this?" he asked in surprise as he saw her coming towards them across the grass when he and Naida were taking a walk before supper.
“Oh, it’s Maimie Sully,” cried Naida. “She’s my best friend,” she added hastily, but he saw that she looked back uneasily at the house, and he guessed at once that whatever Naida might feel, the visitor, whoever she was, was not well regarded by Naida’s parents.
Not thal Maimie herself seemed to mind what they or anybody else thought of her. It was true that just once, as she came up to them, she gave a little nervous glance, just as Naida had done, towards the windows of the house behind them. But almost at once she gave a defiant little laugh and came forward. Before she spoke, that little laugh spoke for her.
I know you don’t want me, it seemed to say, but that’s always the way with people until I am a little while with them, and then they won’t let me go away!
Her actual words were more formal. “ I hope I’m not intruding, Naida,” she said. “I didn’t know your visitor had arrived!” While she spoke, her eyes went past Naida and took him in from head to foot, and he knew that she was telling a lie. But he felt flattered. “Naida was telling me about you,”she said. “You’re at Trinity, aren’t you?”
The words were simple enough, but there was something unaccountably flattering in the way Maimie said them, and her lively eyes were upon him all the time.
“What are you going to be?” she asked, without waiting for his reply.
That amused him. It was the typical bourgeois question. But instead of seeing the abyss that yawned between them at that moment, he saw only her flattering gaze upon him, and he laughed goodhumoredly.
Maimie didn’t stay long that day. Glancing at the little gold watch on her wrist, she sprang to her feet. “Oh dear. I must fly! Owdie Hicks will be waiting for me.”
It was the second or third time she had mentioned the name.
“ Who is Owdie Hicks?” he asked impulsively.
“ He’s one of my admirers,” said Maimie, without a smile.
When she was gone his thoughts still dwelt on her.
“Where does she live?” he asked Naida, as they walked back towards the house.
“Her mother keeps a shop in the town,” said Naida, and she stopped. “You can see the back of the house from here,” she said, and looking where she pointed, he saw the back windows of a few tall houses, and among them one taller than the others, from the windows of which a full view could be had of the Pastons’ house and lawn.
HE didn’t see Maimie for several days after that first day, but once or twice when he took out his books to study under the trees, and Naida came and sat down quietly beside him, he looked instinctively at the back windows of Sully’s house. Did Maimie ever look out at them? It was a wonder she had not made them another visit.
Then one afternoon when he went into the town on a message he ran into her in the street.
“Oh, hello,” she said, and stopped. “How are you getting along?” But she didn’t give him time to answer. “I was telling Owdie Hicks about you,” she said. “I was telling him how glad I was that you were so nice —” She paused for a minute, and then went on with a laugh, “For Naida’s sake, I mean! She’s one of my best friends, you know, and I always said she wasn’t such a stick as people thought. I always said that you couldn’t expect her to have followers, like the rest of us, when there were no young men in the town. No young men of her own kind, I meant, ” she explained with emphasis, and then she laughed again. “There are plenty of my kind,” she added, “but as I said to Owdie, I knew someone of her own kind would turn up some day; someone like you.”
Was she trying to provoke him? He ought to have been annoyed with her, but instead he felt irritated with Naida. Had she been talking about him? And what had she been saying? It did not occur to him then that Maimie’s words could have been calculated to have the effect they had upon him.
“I think you must have been misinformed about my relations with the Pastons,” he said stiffly, but when he saw that she was still laughing at him, he got irritable. “Anyway I don’t know what, you’re talking about!” he said. “Naida is only a child.
For a minute Maimie did not answer him, and he looked up. He saw with surprise that her eyes were full upon him.
“She’s the same age as me,” she said then, slowly and deliberately. “Do you think I’m a child?”
There was no mistaking the meaning behind her words. There was no ignoring the invitation in her eyes. All of Maimie was in the look she gave him at that moment ; all her boldness, and all her vulgarity, and all her vanity, but all her provocative charm was in it as well, and her eager appetite for admiration. That look was his undoing.
From that moment he was restless and unsettled. When he went back to the Pastons’ house he did not tell Naida he had met her friend, and when evening came he felt an unconquerable urge to stroll into the town again.
He was hardly aware of where he was going until he looked up and saw that he was outside Sully’s shop. It startled him for a minute to read the name on the showboard, but yet when he raised his eyes to the upper windows, he was not surprised to see Maimie standing at one of them looking down at him.
That was the beginning, and there was no going back afterwards. It was only a matter of a few weeks until the tremendous evening when everything was settled, and he made up his mind to throw up everything—his studies, his religion, everything; and to run away with Maimie.
But how had Naida heard about their plans? And how did she know that he was there the night she made that ignominious visit to Maimie’s house? How had it happened that she had not been stopped in the hall, or in the passage, but had surprised them alone in the stuffy parlor back of the shop, he with his arm so foolishly wound round Maimie’s waist?
He had often suspected Maimie. Maimie had enjoyed that outrageous scene. When he tried to pull his arm from around her waist, she had caught his hand and held it. The things she had said! He couldn’t remember them now, but he knew they poured out from her; so different from Naida, with her single passionate cry.
“Is it true?”
That cry rang in his ears to this day. To this day it wrung his heart.
“How can you do it?” she cried, when he made no reply.
How Maimie had bridled. “ What do you mean? ” she cried, and thrust herself between them. “Naida Paston,” she said, “I don’t know who let you into my house to behave like this, but I know one thing! You’re not going to prevent me from having him just because you couldn’t get him for yourself!”
Oh, how had he listened to it ? She might just as well have lifted her hand and struck the girl in the face.
Indeed, Naida drew back as if she had been struck. Over her face there had come an expression that he would never forget as long as he lived. It was as if in that moment only for the first time, she had seen how she must appear to Maimie; perhaps even to him.
“Oh!” she cried, and her hands flew to her face. “Oh!” she cried again, and she turned to him. “Oh, that’s not it at all!” she said, and desperate with entreaty, her eyes had sought his. “You know that, don’t you?” she begged. “It’s only that —” She paused, and put her hand up to her forehead, as if she had become confused, or as if she had felt some tension there, or some pain.
Yes! She had put up her hand to her head that day: he recalled it distinctly. She must have had those pains in her head even then: four years ago. How so could it possibly be said that they had anything to do with him; that they had been brought on by grieving for him? Yes: she had put her hand to her forehead that day.
“It’s only that—” But she could not say any more. And then, for one moment, their eyes had met.
So, sometimes, in mid-air, two birds come together for an instant, almost crashing together, and seeming to cross beaks, to kiss as it were, and then, with a lightning twist, circling divinely, they are gone their ways again.
Are they mates? Are they mating? Have they some message to exchange, or is it, just, that finding themselves together alone in the blue air, with the animal and vegetable world stretched far below them, they become intoxicated with a feeling of recognition; of being in that great blue element, two creatures exactly alike! Will they meet again? Are they parting forever? It matters not. Feather by feather, till they fall to the clay, they will be alike, those two.
“Naida!” he cried.
But she burst into tears and ran towards the door. Another moment and they heard her footsteps running along the silent street outside.
“Well!” Maimie had caught his arm and put it round her waist again. “I ought to be glad I got you when some people are ready to go to such lengths for you!”
That warm, soft waist: how it had seduced him again in a moment!
WELL; that was four years ago, and even now, after four years of marriage, she could, if she liked at any time, make a fool of him again.
Yes; the mother of a big child like Birdie, and expecting another child, Maimie still had the same hold over him. He went to the window and looked out. In the yard under the window their little girl was hopping about on the cobblestones. He looked down at her. She was well named, a chubby creature, all body, hopping about on little thin legs that she nevertheless put down firmly under her with every step she took, so that inside her little patentleather shoes one could imagine her small toes tightening down in their grip upon the ground.
She was the image of her mother; the image of Maimie. She was like her in appearance, and like her in character, and by imitation she was getting like her in a hundred small mannerisms. Not for the first time, but perhaps more poignantly than ever before, he felt a stab at his heart, and the painful love he had for the child tightened its strangle hold upon him.
Apart altogether from the natural bonds of blood, he was drawn towards this child in another way, as if her differences from him, her likeness to her mother, gave him the obsessive attachment to her of the wrongdoer to his victim.
What was she doing now? He tapped on the glass, but the child, absorbed in play, did not hear him. After watching her for a few minutes, he tapped again. This time Birdie’s attention seemed to have been caught, because she turned around, and looked back at the house. But she did not raise her head to the upper windows and in a lower window of the house someone else must have been watching her too, because she ran back to the house and for a minute he could not see her until she ran out again to the middle of the cobbles with a slice of bread in her hand.
Who gave it to her?
He listened to the sounds from below. There was only the sound of the servant girl whistling at her work, and a clatter of dishes in the sink.
Maimie was probably still lying down after the heavy meal she ate at midday. Except for a feeling of heaviness after eating, her pregnancy had no ill effect upon her.
A curiosity about the new unborn child entered his mind for the first time. Would it be like Birdie? All at once he hoped that it would not be like her. He did not want this child, also, to be all Maimie. He did not want it to be like her; or like her family. And yet he did not want it to be like him either.
What did he want? He stared out of the window.
Suddenly a forgotten image awakened in response to his quest ion.
On the mantelpiece in the Pastons’ drawing room there had been a photograph in a little silver frame. The stand at the back was broken, and it was more often than not upon its face, but he had taken it up one day and looked at the picture in it; a picture of a little girl with limp yellow hair hanging docilely down by the sides of her thin face, from which the large eyes looked out with a steady and serious regard.
At the time it had seemed to him that the child was plain, but now he knew that the look upon its face was the look that he yearned for, but never would see, upon the face of a child of his own. For the child in the picture was Naida.
Naida! All at once he was assailed by thoughts of her, and his mind was invaded by such poignant memories that he put up his hands to his head, and he ran towards the door.
He could not stay alone. He opened the door and plunged into the passage. The small steep stairway before him might have been a black hole down which he flung himself headlong.
“For Heaven’s sake! What kind of a way is that to come down the stairs?”
Maimie was feeling too comfortable and heavy to be more than mildly annoyed. She had come downstairs when Miss Mongon, her assistant, called up to her about Naida, and she was now behind the counter in the shop. Miss Mongon was at the other end of the shop, putting on her hat to go out to her tea. There was only one customer in the shop, if he could be called a customer at all: Owdie Hicks. He was leaning across the counter, gossiping with the two women.
Maimie looked at her husband, and then she stared behind him into the hall.
“You brought the plaster down from the ceiling!" she said, seeing behind him in the dark hallway, like particles of snow falling at dusk, small flakes of lime from overhead floating indolently downward through the air.
He looked backward over his shoulder. He felt foolish, the more so because there was a feeling in the air as if a conversation had been interrupted. He gave a glance towards the other end of the shop. Miss Mongon was still putting on her hat. What was keeping that person? It was on her account that he felt foolish. It was because of the figure he cut in her eyes that he was annoyed. For his own part he took no harm out of the way Maimie and Owdie were talking. It looked intimate, but it was only the intimacy of old friends. Above all, no matter what way he felt, he didn’t want that Mongon person to see that he was annoyed. It would be interpreted as jealousy. Jealousy! It galled him that anyone should think him jealous of a poor wretched creature like Owdie Hicks. He forced himself to affect a false jocularity.
“What are you two plotting?" he said, but he knew by a contemptuous flash in her eyes that Maimie saw his insincerity.
More obtuse, Owdie pointed to the counter. “What do you think of those?" he asked. The counter was littered with snapshots with sticky glossy surfaces. “I took them yesterday.”
“And he developed them last night!" said Maimie.
Owdie picked up one and passed it to him. “ What do you think of this one?” he said. “That’s the best, in my opinion. That ought to make a good enlargement.”
It was Birdie. And it was a good snapshot of the child.
Elgar smiled. Owdie took the picture back.
“Her mother over again!” he said, and he stared at it. Then he looked up and laughed. “If I’m willing to wait for her, will you give her to me?” he said. “You owe me something, you know. Don’t forget you stole her mother from me!”
Elgar looked away from the stupid white face. He did not look at Maimie either. On her face he knew there would be the complacent look he hated. The joke was stale. But not to Maimie. It could bring a blush to her warm face any day.
The pusillanimity of their affair was contemptible. If there was some iniquity in them he thought he could have endured it better. And yet, in his heart, he knew that even by his contempt he wronged them, and that it was not pusillanimity that kept them from sin, but that for all their ogling and double meanings they were curiously innocent.
Where had they come by this integrity? Was it bred in them, or was it inculcated in them by their religion? He looked at them and wondered.
For Owdie Hicks would never marry. Already he had the neglected look of a man with no ambition for the regard of any woman. And Maimie, whatever caprice or vanity had made her want him, her husband, she would be faithful to him without question; perhaps never fully conscious of any disappointment in her desires, daily attributing it to the annoyances of the day, to the weather, or to the strain of looking after the child.
Whereas he — ? Abruptly, on the brink of this abysmal question, he shrank back.
Miss Mongon was ready for the street at last, but for her gloves, into which she was trying to squeeze her chilblained hands, as she came out between the counters into the middle of the shop.
“Since you waited so long, you may as well wait and take your choice!” she said, looking at Maimie and laughing.
He did not understand what she meant, but the familiarity of her manner, the intimacy in her voice revolted him. And then Maimie laughed goodhumoredly. “Oh, the next will be a boy!” she said.
Was it possible? Were they familiarly talking about her condition, and in these terms of loose jocularity, Miss Mongon laughing and showing the insides of her big teeth, decorated with tartar?
“Boys take after their mothers,” she said.
Owdie looked down at the snapshot that he still held in his fat hand. “That wasn’t the case here,” he said, and then he looked up at Maimie. “If I had known your children would take after you. I’d have been a bit more forceful four years ago.”
Elgar looked at him, and he felt a sudden pity for him. Under the foolish talk, he felt there was both disappointment and regret. But as he saw Maimie’s gratified smile, his contempt for both of them returned. Maimie knew what was meant, but she wanted to have the titillation of hearing the compliment repeated.
“What do you mean, Owdie Hicks?” she said.
Owdie had been leaning over the counter, facing inwards towards where, behind Maimie’s back between the glittering bottles of whiskey, a big mirror in a gilt frame gave back the shop, and all that was in it.
“Look!” he said, and he pointed his stout forefinger to where, between the glittering bottles, his own pallid face was reflected. “How would you like one of your children to have a face like that?” he asked, and he gave a laugh, but the bitter little laugh was lost in the loud laugh that came from Miss Mongon. It surprised them all, and in particular Elgar. He looked straight at the elderly spinster, and for the first time he began to read the malevolent suspicions in her face.
All at once, the shop assistant’s inciting presence was unbearable to him. With a crash he brought his fist down on the counter.
“I may not have said as much in words,” he said, “but you, all three of you, know that I detest this kind of thing; this vulgar talk about a matter that -”
He could not find words delicate enough for his meaning; in the glass behind the counter he saw that he had whitened, and he knew that his voice was shaking. He was trembling too with the unusual violence of his feeling. And, catching sight of Owdie’s face also in the mirror, he was further upset by the look of utter stupefaction upon it. Owdie didn’t know what he was talking about; Owdie thought he had gone out of his mind. He turned to Maimie.
“I won’t have it!” he shouted. “I won’t have it: do you hear me?”
But the look upon Maimie’s face made his senses swim. She was looking back at him, defiantly, as if to say that it was their natures that differed, and matters were not to be mended by a shout.
All his will was bent then to say something to hurt her. But he could not think of anything. He could think only of his own outraged feelings.
“I won’t have it, that’s all!” he railed. “Not in this house!” He stopped, but a violent surge of feeling forced him on to say something more. “Not today!” he cried. “Today of all days!”
TODAY of all days: unawares, unwillingly, from the wells of feeling those words gushed forth.
And Maimie flushed as if from a blow. For an instant her eyes held his, and then she glanced nervously at the others: at Owdie and Miss Mongon. They, however, were still subdued by the first unexpected shout. After it they did not appear capable of hearing anything more. Indeed Miss Mongon, who had at last got the tight kid gloves pasted to her hands, stood as if herself pasted to the door behind her.
Husband and wife looked at each other; a long, inscrutable look.
Elgar was aghast at his own outburst; above all, at his last words. What did he mean? He hardly knew, but to his relief he heard Owdie talking again to Miss Mongon, easily and naturally.
“Well, so long! I suppose you’ll hardly be back before I’m gone!”
But Miss Mongon was powerless to go. A thought had been stirred in her mind, and she was irresistibly urged to give utterance to it.
“She’s being waked this evening, isn’t she?" she said.
It didn’t appear necessary to her to mention any name, but once again Maimie flushed, and Elgar, watching her, saw her eyes tearing Miss Mongon’s little soul apart to see if she spoke in ignorance or if some malice lay behind her words.
“Is it Naida you mean?”
Never in his life had he heard that edge in Maimie’s voice.
But Owdie had answered Miss Mongon.
“In the house, I suppose,” he said, and Maimie’s sharp cry was not noticed.
Was Owdie clever enough to have spoken on purpose to cover Maimie? Elgar wondered, but he was grateful to him in any case. The danger was passed. Miss Mongon came back into the shop.
“God forgive me,” she said, “but I always think it’s a lonesome thing to leave a coffin all night in an empty church. It gives me the creeps to think of being left there myself some night!”
“It’s the law of the Church,” said Maimie sharply.
“I know that.”Miss Mongon was at once weak and docile again. “But feelings are feelings,” she said, with another little spurt of defiance. “I’d rather be waked in my own house.”
“Maggie Mongon!” Maimie stared at her head assistant.
“Perhaps it’s not a dogma of faith,” said Owdie, interposing again hastily. “I mean to say we may not be obliged under pain of sin in this matter.”
But Maimie wasn’t interested in dogmas and doctrines.
“If you ask me, it’s a matter of common sense,”she said. “I can tell you, if you had a corpse in the house for a few hours, you’d soon see the sense of taking it to the church!" She shuddered. “Why do you think people fill the house with flowers?” she said. She shuddered again. “Ugh!” she said. “Ugh!”
In their experience, neither Owdie nor Miss Mongon had ever found death anything other than chill and alienating, but with Maimie’s words, malodorous fears overlaid their hearts. And they shuddered.
“Yes,” said Maimie, crudely, cruelly, “if it weren’t for the way they’re covered up with a shroud, you’d see them beginning to change color after a few hours!" and absent-mindedly, she examined the skin on her own fleshy living hand. Miss Mongon’s own flesh felt clammy. Then a thought struck her.
“They don’t wear shrouds, do they?” she asked. “Protestants, I mean?”
Maimie was taken by surprise; and still unnamed, Naida flashed into their minds again.
“What do they wear, I wonder?" said Owdie.
“I think I heard someone say they’re laid out in a white dress; the women, I mean,” said Maimie, reluctantly drawn into the conversation. Involuntarily, she turned to her husband. “Elgar, you ought to know,” she said impatiently. “What will she wear?”
But when he looked at her so oddly, she stamped her foot at him.
“Naida, I mean,” she said impatiently. “You ought to know.”