m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A U G U S T   1 9 5 6

The Smell of Lilies

He was, himself, sick to death of lilies of the valley, her favorite flower. She tried to fasten the pin to her pretty dotted swiss negligee, but her hands trembled. A bad sign, he thought

by Martha Gellhorn

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

SHE had been waiting for him. The door opened gently. There were no sudden movements, no unexpected noise in this house. She held out her arms and he came across the room and kissed her hand and her forehead. He pulled the chair closer to her chaise longue and took her hand in his. She watched him, with happy eyes and slightly parted lips. Her asthma is better, he thought. He smiled, hoping there was nothing mechanical or weary about what he felt as a grimace of the mouth.

"I've brought you a present," he said. It was more of a present than he could afford. He took a small velvet box from his pocket and gave it to her.

"Oh," she said. "Oh, James."

It was a pin: three stalks of lily of the valley, with leaves, bound together by a gold band. The leaves were palest green enamel, the flowers white, small pearls imitated dew. He was, himself, sick to death of lilies of the valley, her favorite flower. She tried to fasten the pin to her pretty dotted swiss negligee, but her hands trembled. A bad sign, he thought. He took the jewel from her and got it more or less properly placed and she moved her head to see it, and then touched it carefully.
Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Go to part two of this story.

Return to Flashback: "Remembering Martha Gellhorn"

"Our sixteenth," she said in her low hesitant voice, the voice that had to be rationed, using the breath that was so costly and difficult to keep in her body. "I can't believe it. I remember the day we were married as if it were now. Where have the years gone? Oh darling, your beautiful present."

He knew very well where the years had gone. Doubtless she remembered their wedding day better than he did, since she had so little to remember. He could think of nothing at all to say, so he kissed her hand again, and as he bowed his head, she stroked his hair. Then she talked; she saved everything to tell him.

At last she believed she really knew and understood the Bach Concerto in D Minor. She had been playing it over and over and listening with all her attention. And she had read the Chekhov stories he sent her, weren't they sad, weren't they perfect, motionless stories which said everything. The squirrels were now settled down to married life, and Mrs. S. was a bustling mother, a competent Hausfrau, and Mr. S. as anyone could see was feeling his responsibilities. Three days ago he scampered in through the open French window and studied her room. Soon they would all come. But the robins had left, it was a great loss, probably the squirrels irritated them, being such active noisy little beasts. Had he ever seen the garden lovelier; Aunt Lucy and Sarine were beside themselves with pleasure over it. Aunt Lucy had given a little bridge party last week, three other ladies, what a twit she had been in, worrying Sarine about the sandwiches and the cake and the cookies, but it was a great success and Aunt Lucy talked of nothing else, she had enough village news to last for half a year. Ted was so good, so constant, so generous of his time, and also encouraging, he was sure she was getting better.

At the name Ted, he listened hoping to hear something beyond her words. Ted was always good, constant, encouraging, and had been for years. How many? Nine years, now. Ted was the ideal doctor, and as much of a fixture as Aunt Lucy, Sarine, and more of a fixture than the squirrels. He saw that she was tiring herself, she had talked enough. It was his turn. Since she never asked about his life, he did not speak of it. Had she simply lost interest? did she fear to know? did she feel she would not understand, as if his life was something lived among foreigners, in a country she had never seen? Besides, what report could he give? I go to the store at nine and leave at five. I sit at my desk and plan layouts, correct copy, write copy. They tell me to push a new line in airplane luggage. They say they want to get rid of last year's fur coats. The China Department informs me they have bargain stuff from Copenhagen. Sometimes I smoke and look at the sky. Sometimes I think of a fast selling idea and rush into Thick's office, full of hopped-up, necessary enthusiasm, and pour it out with trimmings, and that way I prove I am a man keen on his work. At five I often walk in the park, walking off the taste of the day, before I go home. What was there to tell? He would speak, as usual, of a play he had seen, a movie, pictures, a record he had bought. It was no use to talk of people; she knew none of them, he saw very few anyhow, they were without meaning to him also. He could not speak of Maggie, who was all, absolutely all, that concerned him.


HE HEARD his voice as a monotone, heavy with boredom. He tried to force color and warmth into the sounds he was making. She listened, fascinated. His voice droned on and on: Arthur Miller, Brando, the gifted young American painter Perlin whose pictures of Italy, the Boston Symphony recording of Bartok's.... The insect murmur from the garden matched his words and accompanied them. She lay now in the beginning of shadow, the afternoon was ending. The house was silent around them, although Sarine would be busy in the kitchen and Aunt Lucy was supposedly alive upstairs and not glued to her chair. This room would make a perfect picture, cool, Degas without ballet girls perhaps. He spoiled it, of course; it was not a room that a man could fit into.

Strange how she never tired of anything; she had kept this soft green wallpaper, printed with delicate clusters of lilies of the valley, for thirteen years. Yet it was so fresh that she must have had her room done several times, always in the same design. Her bed in the corner, disguised as a large divan, was covered with the same rosy damask, the windows were curtained in the same faded rose material. Her writing table, which was an ornament since she could not sit at it, the tables by her chaise longue, by her bed, the long table against the far wall were tobacco- brown, lovingly polished pieces of wood made in the eighteenth century by Englishmen who knew their craft; but they were never moved, the order of the room remained the same. And everywhere, for as long as he could remember, there was this luxury of flowers, in bowls, in small porcelain vases, in great glass jars, and always the air held the same light sweet scent of lilies of the valley. Since nothing else changed, why should she alter the colors and the pattern of her becoming room?

He began to talk of plays he had not seen, discussing the rival reviews, and he studied his wife, thinking that facts were facts and this was indeed their sixteenth wedding anniversary and therefore she was thirty-seven years old and would be thirty eight in two months, but facts did not obey any known laws in this house, time was nothing but a theoretical idea here, for she looked as she always had. In a terrible, sinister way, he felt that she grew younger on her chaise longue, year after year. Whereas he grew much older, faster than time, far ahead of time, on the 15th floor of Berkeley's, crouched there in his neat white cell high above Fifth Avenue.

She was beautiful and new and fragile as the spring. Yet she had suffocated and fought for air, felt the muscles clamp around her heart; she had gone through this often, she could expect such agony at any time, without warning. And she lived with fear. She lived in horror of death, and the horror grew the longer she waited. Her face should have been drawn and her eyes wild. Instead, her face was smooth and of the clear color of a shell. The curve of her cheek was as touching as it had been when she was a girl. Her eyes had the same look of innocence. Her hair still played that amazing trick of seeming to blow in shadows of curls around her temples and ears. She had always worn her hair long. It was loosely tied back, with a narrow satin bow, the color of her eyes. Should there not be gray in that bright, brown mane? She was unmarked and unused; her hands, her arms, her lovely breast, her impossibly small waist, her beautiful legs, her knees, a perfection of the mechanics of bone, all as before, as remembered. Everyone spread and sagged, faded, bloated. His own body repelled him with its new creases, and patches of flabbiness. Time scarred the whole human race, except Annette.

He knew, as a wickedness in himself, that he could have cared more, somehow joined in her pain and her terror, if only she showed how her life had hurt her. On the other hand, perhaps it was pure bravery to show nothing. He tried to make himself see that and honor her for it. But he could not quite believe it; he did not know, there was no way of knowing; she would not speak of her illness. He suspected that she had shut her mind, refusing death by refusing to think; he suspected that she stayed young because she would not grow. She lay forever on her chaise longue, or on the worst days in her bed, and denied this helpless immobility, denied that anything was different, denied even that he and she were anything but man and wife, as other men, other wives.

He could not imagine what he had found to say; now the words ground to a stop. He was tormented by the need for a cigarette, but naturally he could not smoke here. He felt hot. He would have liked to sleep for twelve hours or play two hard sets of tennis and go swimming. Annette reached for her handkerchief and he looked furtively at his watch. It was still the fourteenth of April, still the garden crackled and hummed in the failing sunlight, and he had delivered his lecture on contemporary art, crawled over that mountain pass of time, in less than a quarter of an hour. He was shaken and sick with something he knew too well, hopelessness, and an anger that had no focus, and pity for them both, and the sense of waste. He could also remember how he had loved her, which was his own pain, altogether different from hers. He remembered the joy and the power and the immense hope of his loving her. It was as if he remembered a happy man and that man was now long dead.

Sarine opened the door, without knocking. There would be no intimate scene to disturb and Mrs. Whiteley could not, in any case, raise her voice to call "Come in." Sarine brought a tray and laid it on the table by the chaise longue.

"Evening, Mr. James," she said, as if she had seen him since early afternoon.

"How are you, Sarine?"

"Not too bad, Mr. James. We're all doing fine, aren't we now, Miss Annette?"

She was a tall, ugly, bony, strong, colored woman in her fifties, who smiled for no one except his wife, her Miss Annette. He had thought about Sarine's life often, and with shame. If he could not save himself, he could at least save Sarine. Once, years ago, he offered to finance Sarine's escape; she could find work anywhere, she could live in her own house, he held out Harlem with the greatest doubt, still it seemed better, closer to life, than the virginal dolled-up attic of the white frame house in Grangeville. Sarine was not too old to marry; perhaps too old for children, by then, but not too old for a man. She was healthy, she had a right to live. Sarine apparently was a slave who had nothing to love but her chains. Leave Miss Annette, her little saint, Miss Annette who couldn't do a thing for herself, and was like Sarine's baby? Sarine had never trusted him, after that, probably no longer liked him, if ever she had liked him.

"I brought you a cocktail too, Miss Annette." Sarine poured lemonade from a small glass pitcher into a cocktail glass and gave the glass to Annette who smiled her thanks, that wonderful smile, the smile of a pleased and grateful child. He took bottles from the tray and mixed a martini. Sarine looked at him, saying silently all she meant to say: now you be careful, don't you tire our baby, don't you stay more than an hour, don't you say anything to upset her. Then she left them to their ritual.

Usually, he raised his glass and said, "To you." She smiled at him, exactly as she smiled at Sarine, and said, "To you, darling."

Tonight he said, "To our sixteenth."

"Yes. Oh James, James, darling. I have so much to thank you for. Sixteen years. And you've never made me unhappy, never hurt me, never a quarrel. Nothing but your love and your kindness, all that time. I can only thank God for sending you to me."

He could not answer or look at her. She was used to silence. To drink without smoking was not the same thing, but it helped. He poured another martini. He asked if he might hear the Bach concerto and she told him where the record was. He listened to the racing intricate music, stopped listening, and drank more martinis. The sky was greenish blue, with the light going quickly. His allotted hour was finished. He would see her again for a few moments after breakfast, and then he would take his train back to New York, and this visit, like countless others, would be behind him, and he would organize his mind to forget it.

He kissed her again on the forehead, pressed her hand gently, smiled from the door, called Sarine, and turned and hurried out of the house. He would cross Necher's fields and get into the woods and walk fast along the darkening path until he came to the top of the hill. Then he would sit down and smoke one cigarette and try to think of nothing. Then he would come back and face the evening meal with Aunt Lucy. He might even run in the woods, although running was only a gesture, only the compulsion of his body, for he never ran as he wanted to, away.


THE table was round, so Aunt Lucy could not, properly, sit at the head of it but she did anyhow. He sat at her right, the guest of honor. He always felt a guest in this house, and not a very certain one: any wrong move and Aunt Lucy and Sarine would chuck him out. This was a peculiar way to feel since it was not only his house but he had been born in it, in the bedroom next door, formerly his father's and mother's, now Aunt Lucy's. Of course, when the house became a hospital and shrine, it had changed so much that it no longer resembled the place where he had grown up. His mother ran a feeding station for the Grangeville boys; she had felt guilty because she could not give him brothers and sisters to keep him company, and she was always afraid that James would be lonely, the only child of middle-aged parents. His mother had not cared how her house looked, or what happened to it, as long as it was filled, positively roaring, with life.

From the beginning, Aunt Lucy, consulting Annette's wishes, sensibly and ruthlessly arranged this old remembered house to fit Annette. They enlarged the real living room, downstairs, to make Annette's bedroom because they could move her into the garden from there, and the squirrels could come to call, and she could watch the flowers growing, close at hand. They changed the dining room into a dressing room and bathroom for Annette. They did wonders to the kitchen so that now it had become a noiseless odorless operating theater. It had to be odorless, because of Annette's asthma. Aunt Lucy made his room, where now they ate at the round table, into a snug, chintzy Victorian parlor. Here she could receive her soft spoken lady friends; the room was not directly above Annette, and their footsteps would not disturb her. Here, he had once hung his pennants, his cases of butterflies, his stuffed fish; he had done his homework, thrown his clothes on the floor, slept well and dreamed triumphantly. They kept the tiny guest room, only changing it into a bower of rosebuds and blue lover's knots, and it was known politely as James's room. The bathroom was unrecognizably pretty; it had been a bare splashed-up box in his time. In the attic, Sarine was content with her white-painted iron bedstead, her cushioned rocking chair, and her shower bath from Sears Roebuck. Well, why not, he thought. They live here, I don't. It was a little jewel of a house, and had cost quite a lot: luckily, his mother carried a heavy life insurance.

Because they believed these to be his favorite dishes, they always gave him the same dinner, and always, as now, Aunt Lucy said how too bad it was that he had to eat that unhealthy restaurant food in New York when what he needed was this nice home cooking.

Stuffing fried chicken and corn soufflé into his mouth, he began a wordless conversation. "Oh no, Aunt Lucy, you've got it wrong. I eat dinner at home every night. My beloved is interested in cookery as a game, a sport. She has never heard of a balanced diet and probably never will. Last night, for instance, we had a brownish slippery mess which was a mixture of bamboo shoots and almonds and strips of meat said to be duck. You might not believe me, but it was delicious."

Suddenly he noticed the silence. Aunt Lucy, unlike Annette, was not used to silence. He said, "Well, I have to work, you know."

"Of course you do, dear boy. And how is everything at the store?"

"About the same."

She would not ask anything more. The only work she understood was her father's work, he had been the Methodist minister in Petersfield, South Carolina. She thought that was good work. She also had a dim idea of what Judge Mallin, her little sister Bea's husband, Annette's father, had been up to. On the whole, she did not think men's work was any of her business; they worked, as they should, to earn the money to keep their wives. In return, their wives were loving, ornamental, served them excellent food, and kept pretty homes for them, as Annette did. Heaven knew it was the least men could do, considering. James was very sweet and aware of his duties, but there must have been times. What had he done to use Annette up, in less than four years? She had given Annette to him in perfect health, and when she came back, to bring Annette to this house and nurse her, Annette was a pitiful little white thing, dying before her eyes. Lucy Blair knew exactly what James had done, but she would not put it into words in her mind. God had been especially kind to her, granting her Annette to mother, after her dear parents died in the Accident. She had this joy without paying any harsh and terrible price. They were all happy women here, and perhaps James, who was in a sense guilty, had been God's instrument, and in any case she had long since decided she was not to judge him. Smoothly round, serene faced, white-haired, Aunt Lucy sat in her rightful place and ate her way daintily through piles of food.


HELPING himself to another popover, he said, "Annette looks fine."

Aunt Lucy's eyes lighted; now, at last, they were launched on her subject. It is her life's work, he thought, it is reasonable for her to want to talk about nothing else.

"She is looking well, isn't she? I'm so glad you said so. I can never be sure if I'm really seeing her, you know, looking at her so hard all the time. Well, we haven't had a bad attack, really not an attack at all since, let me see, it would be March tenth, yes, it was well after you left us the last time." (Reproach, he thought, and followed his usual technique of continuing to chew.) "I can't think what happened. There may have been some dust from the garden or maybe-she overtired herself." (How in God's name? he thought.) "She just had enough strength to ring the bell by her bed, and Sarine and I flew downstairs and while Sarine held her up and gave her the drops, I telephoned Ted and he got here in no time at all, he must have put his coat over his pajamas, I don't know what. Well, it was terrible for a while, oh that poor angel, that lamb of light, I can never tell you, James, what that child is. There she was choking, fighting, you could see the pain she was in and somehow she managed to smile at us. Ted gave her an injection and massaged her; I don't know what he does, it's just a miracle; and he saved her again. What would we do without Ted?"

"You didn't write me."

"No, Annette forbade me. She said it was useless to worry you. She thinks of you all the time, James. Ted said to Me once that he believes what keeps Annette alive is the thought of you and the hope of seeing you again."

"Did he?"

"Yes, he did. And I said to him, no man ever had a more devoted loving wife than Annette."

He ate some more; it was wonderful how, if you kept your mouth full, you were excused from speech.

Presently he said, "Ted is very fond of Annette, isn't he?" It was a daydream he made for himself, in the cell on the 15th floor of Berkeley's store. Ted would come to him, man to man, noble with his sandy crew-cut, and say, "James, I am afraid this will break your heart, but Annette and I . . ."

"He loves her," Aunt Lucy said, "the way we all do. If he's told me once, he's told me a thousand times, that she's the bravest, sweetest patient he's ever had."

"And Annette is very fond of him?"

"Why, you know that, James. She's the most grateful person on earth. She even thanks the flowers for growing, she thanks us all for every little thing we do for her. She can't thank Ted enough for his care of her."

There are also the bills, James thought, it is not entirely on this spiritual level of the healer, wrestling with death. There are the bills.

"I was wondering," he said. Now how could he possibly say it? He picked at the apple pie, and sloshed the thick cream around his plate. "Living so much alone, seeing no one, only you and Sarine and Ted, I was wondering if she wouldn't . . ."

"James," Aunt Lucy said, in a granite voice, "if you are going to start being jealous of that poor helpless dying angel, it is the ugliest and most unworthy thing I ever heard."

"Oh no," he said. "Oh no, you don't understand."

"I'm sure I don't."

He gave up; besides it was foolish and hopeless. Ted was thirty-five years old and not crazy and, though unmarried and officially blameless, he was not likely to be a eunuch. No man would start off with a woman in Annette's condition. Not start off, not marry. Probably Ted attended to vital needs in New York or Hartford or Boston. Probably, having seen so many married couples, he was steering clear of the whole business. What did he know about Ted? Nothing, except that he couldn't take him. It was Ted, old Dr. Bartlett's sparkling new assistant, who told him, when he came back from the war, about Annette's heart and her asthma, in medical terms which he did not understand, and finished by saying, "I am afraid that she cannot stand anything, Whiteley, you know what I mean? I am afraid you will have to be a brother and sister, in some ways, from now on. Of course, medicine is not an exact science and there can always be a miraculous change." No change. Splendid Ted. The perfect doctor. He had learned, from Ted, the trick of kissing Annette's hand; this did not interfere with her precarious intake of breath.

"I think I'll go for a walk, Aunt Lucy. Delicious dinner. I'll thank Sarine downstairs."

"You'll be very quiet, coming in, won't you,


TED was waiting for him in the hall. It was always arranged this way. Ted paid his first call at the Whiteley house whenever James came up from New York. This gave James plenty of time to catch the 9:40 for the city. Immediately after breakfast, having already thanked Aunt Lucy and Sarine for his visit, James went to say good-by to his wife. She looked as lovely in the morning; she looked as if she had slept better than any other adult on the American continent. He promised to write more. She could not write at all; he got his news from Aunt Lucy. He announced that he would send any good books he read. He kissed her forehead or her cheek, complimented her on her beauty, told her to keep up the good work, and let himself quietly out of the room. For, at just that moment, as he left, there was another expression in her eyes, which he knew well. It was the look not of a pleased and grateful child, but of a hurt lost lonely child, unjustly punished. He never wanted to see that, and during the last four years he had consciously turned his head, to avoid seeing. He would not feel guilty about Maggie, who on earth had a right to suggest that he was guilty; but he did not wish to see that particular look in his wife's eyes.

When he had closed the door silently behind him, there was Ted. They would now walk down the road, away from the house, smoke, and have a frank chat about Annette's health. And then his train, his train, his train, which by now he was longing for with hunger, with passion.

"Well?" Ted said, as always.

"She looks fine, don't you think?"

"Yes, she's doing nicely just now. We had a bad one in March, Miss Blair tell you? It shook Annette a lot. She can't get used to them, poor girl. I don't mean the pain. No one ever gets used to pain. It's the idea she can't learn to accept."


"Well, yes. And each attack brings it nearer, obviously. It's a wonder to me how her heart stands up. She knows that, too. But she can't . . ."

"I know."

"I wish there was some way to help her. Spiritually, I mean. It's not my field."

"Not mine. A minister, I should think. Have you ever talked to Aunt Lucy?"

"She doesn't want to think about it, any more than Annette."

"Annette said you thought she was getting better."

"Better than she was in March. Better than on her worst days. But not better. You know that."


"Of course, she's amazingly strong in her will. She may live a very long time. There's nothing new to tell you, James."


"Well, I suppose you want to be getting to your train? "

"Yes, I'll have to. Thanks for everything, Ted."

They were back at the front door. James picked up his suitcase and walked quickly down the road. Ted entered the house. Already, walking away, with the house at his back, with the train ahead of him, he could start forgetting. He would not have to come again until her birthday in June.


HE KICKED open the door, shouting, "Maggie, Maggie." She sprang up from a welter of papers, her paint box dropped on the floor, as usual she seemed to have painted herself as well. Holding the bourbon bottles like dumbbells, he hugged her fiercely. She had her arms around his neck, she kissed him. They made sounds as if they had been running towards each other, over a great distance.

"Look what I brought you," he said, at last.

"Oh goody! Oh wonderful! Let's drink them both tonight. Jim. You've been gone so long."

"Since yesterday morning."


They stood and looked at each other. "I'm shy," Maggie said. "You've been gone so long I don't know how to treat you. What shall we do next?"

"Well, drink."

"What a good idea."

She busied herself in the kitchenette, a small hell-hole. There was only the big room and the bathroom and the kitchenette, they hardly ever lost sight of each other.

"What have you been doing?" he asked, collecting the fallen sheets of drawing papers.

"A bra ad. A beauty. It may be the best bra ad ever done, I think it ought to bring in $500. Here," she said, showing him her work of art.

"Golly," he said.

"Why? No, please. Say why. Is it indecent?"

"No, not indecent. But, golly."

"Good. Then we'll have $500 and we'll take a trip."

"Where? "

"I don't know. Africa. Chile."

"What are we having for dinner; "

"Chile. That's why I said it of course. It's a Chilean dish. It seems to be based on pancakes and fish."

"Where did you learn about it?" He was always enchanted by this, her monkey curiosity, every day she came home with something added to the glorious optimistic jumble in her mind.

"I have a friend who knows a Chilean. But don't let's eat until late. Your drink."

He raised his glass. "To you, Maggie. Maggie darling. And to being home."

"Yes." But she was still shy.

"What's been going on, during my long absence? "

"Bill and Jessie were having lunch at my drugstore and when I said I was alone they said they'd come and cheer me up and bring wine and then somehow Mark and Andy showed up too, so we ate an immense amount of spaghetti and gallons of ghastly red wine and discussed."


"Oh, you know. Discussed. The way they do."

The way they did, he corrected her silently. She used to have a constant salon, it seemed; her flat here on 39th Street was convenient, she was hospitable and lively, people came, bringing contributions to the general welfare, and stayed and stayed and talked and talked. It took a while for them to drift away. She had been twenty-four when he moved in; her friends were her age. It would have been against their principles to remark on this open liaison. But James seemed terribly old to them, a man of forty then, he made them nervous, they didn't understand him, or they didn't understand his being so much older, they didn't call him "sir" because they weren't that kind, but they might have. And he really didn't know what they were talking about, he could not see what excited them so, he could not remember himself at twenty-four, or anyhow he had not been like this. He was a silent spectator; they took his silence for disapproval, whereas it was only uneasiness. Now they came if Maggie asked them, which was rarely; they always appeared, as if by magic, whenever he was away. I have taken her friends too, he thought. What haven't I taken? Four years of her life, half her flat, including her half share of the expenses, there isn't any end to what I won't take from Maggie.

"Drink up," Maggie said, anxiously. "I don't like the look in your eye."

"I was thinking."

"Yes, I know. I don't like it a bit when you think. Did you order your new suit?"

"Not exactly. No."

"Oh why? Did you change your mind? I thought it was lovely, so handsome and practical too. I can't wait to see you in it."

It was not that he couldn't think of a lie, he had become a talented liar, but he did not wish to lie to Maggie, not ever if he could help it.

"I spent the money on something else."


She might well say "Oh" with that note of shocked disappointment. After all, it was her money too. If he had not saved it to buy a suit, he could have spent it here, on their life; he could have spent it on her. He had thought of himself going without a suit; he had not thought of Maggie, and it now occurred to him that he was down-at-heel, dingy, and that his shabbiness hurt Maggie's pride.

"I hadn't thought," he said.

"What is it, Jim?"

"I spent it on a pin, a present for Annette. I can't give her anything, except something like that. It was our sixteenth wedding anniversary, you know. I guess I did it out of guilt. Not nice, is it? And I hadn't thought about you."

"It doesn't matter," she said, looking crushed. "It just puts it off. In a few months anyhow, we'll have the money again. Or this bra ad, yes, the bra ad. So it doesn't matter a bit."

"It does."

"Please," she said. "It's over. Don't let's worry about it. What a damn silly thing to worry about."

But she did not ask what the pin was like, or how it had been received. She had this in common with Annette; there were things she refused to talk about.

The dishes were stacked and dirty in the kitchenette. Clothes slopped from the chairs on to the floor. Maggie's paint box lay as fallen. The used glasses settled in wet rings on the table, the ash trays overflowed. They had abandoned everything, suddenly, as if seized by panic. His absence and the reason for it still stood between them. They had to find each other again, they could not afford or endure this strangeness. There was no other way but this, this best and unbelievable, always renewed, always miraculous, gentle, fierce and healing.


"My dearest?"

"How I love you. Just you. Nobody in the world but you. Good night."

He held her head against his chest, he held his arm warm around her, and she slept easily. He was too tired to sleep, and too happy now, he wanted to stay awake with his happiness. He drifted into familiar fantasy, rearranging the past. They were in Naples. It was a warm spring night and Maggie and he, standing on the balcony, could smell marvelous things, camellias, magnolias, tube roses, he was not sure, and below them lay the shining water, and black and high and magical across the bay were the mountains. They had an ice bucket with champagne in the room and the huge Italian letto matrimoniale. In the morning they visited the town. He could not imagine Maggie in any sort of uniform, which created a difficulty because how then did she manage to be there. She was there, simply, looking like herself, like a small boy who made a good thing out of selling papers. She didn't look like that of course, and not at all like a small brown teddy bear, but she gave you a feeling of both; short beaver-fur hair, brown skin, brown bright eyes, did monkeys have happy eyes? no; little girl, very little girl, blown into her clothes somehow, always a belt cinched tight around her middle, always looking wonderful, unexpected, young.

There was Rome; Rome was his favorite place to go on leave with Maggie. Maggie loved Rome. Later they met in Paris. He had to make this up, as he had never been to Paris; his Division was the hard-luck kind, they had a long dismal war, from Africa, mountain-climbing desperately and endlessly up Italy, only brought to the center of the world as reinforcements during the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was perfect too, silver and perfect, and Maggie was the toast of the town. They met in London just once. They had a room in the Dorchester high above the park. It rained; they stayed in bed most of the time. The war was nothing, it happened in between his leaves with Maggie.

He moved Maggie, now, tenderly; rubbed his shoulder, stretched, rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. None of it true, he thought, can't get away with it, can't fool with the past. It's there, you can't change it. It's just there, all the time.

None of it true. On his infrequent leaves, he slept. He slept like the dead and the sick. And then got silently, unlaughingly, stonily drunk: and then went back to the regiment. He never had Maggie, he never had any woman. How could he, with his beautiful, beloved young wife dying at home? He had a superstitious terror that if he took a woman, even the ugliest bargain-rate whore, it would kill Annette like lightning. And all he wanted was for Annette to live, only that; let Annette live until he could come home and make her well. He worked, that was what he did in the war. It wasn't so bad; it kept him from thinking. Company commander, battalion commander, second in command of the regiment, never wounded, always there, dependable Jim, not much fun, serious guy, took the war seriously, had some trouble of his own, got the work done. No Maggie, only the joyless years.

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

Martha Gellhorn is an American novelist and short-story writer who feels happiest when working abroad. She wrote her first novel in Paris at the age of twenty-three. As a foreign correspondent she covered the Civil War in Spain; Munich; Czechoslovakia; Finland; and the war in China before Pearl Harbor. London was most frequently her headquarters during the Second World War.

Copyright © 1956 by Martha Gellhorn. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1956; The Smell of Lilies; Volume 198, No. 8; pages 41 - 54.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture