A Tale from the Grave
Source: Ira V. Morris, The Calendar of Modern Letters February 1926.
In an insignificant grey house in one of the many insignificant grey suburbs of London there breathes and stirs a man who for many years has ceased to live. He eats, sleeps, talks, and works, and not one of the few acquaintances who greet him casually in the street suspects for a moment that he is addressing a dead man; if they knew, they would be filled with horror; so maybe it is far better for me, the dead man, to pretend that I am still alive.
I want to tell about myself, it will be a relief; and you will be interested to hear: it is a good story.
Let me first describe my house: I have often longed to poke fun at this ridiculous house. In appearance it differs very little from any of the hundred thousand or so suburban houses about London; but its likeness to the thirteen other houses on my block is yet more striking. The fact is, it is one of a group of houses that resemble each other brick for brick, such as can be seen in any one of the suburbs of London or Manchester or Philadelphia or Berlin.
Speaking exactly, my house, like each of the fourteen houses of the block, is only half a house: that is to say, it can only be considered as a complete structure when taken together with my neighbour’s house, which comprises the left part of the building as a whole. I share with my neighbour half of the smokestack, half of the garden and half the doorstep of this building, and one can thus see that he and I are little more than neighbours, and less than room-mates: I might incidentally remark that in our ten years’ acquaintance we have never spoken more than six words to each other at the same time. The next house of the block on the other side is likewise joined to mine like Siamese twins; but it is a relief that it has no part in my doorstep or smokestack. I am rather proud of this.
The plan of my house is that of a model suburban “villa.” There are two rooms of importance: one known alternatively as parlour, sitting-room, smoking or drawing-room, and lounge; the second, the master bedroom, where my wife and I sleep. This last room is directly above the other, and resembles it precisely in size, shape, and fixtures: I have measured both rooms and I know. There is a large bay window facing the street, with blue cretonne curtains, green shades, and shutters that work with considerable and increasing difficulty (I am speaking of both rooms now). The wall paper is a floral design, three pink roses with long stems, and so on ad perpetuum. This likewise is identical in both rooms. The carpets have a design of small squares, enclosed in circles, in turn enclosed by larger squares: they are similar except that that in the parlour is green, in the bedroom brown. From the geometrical middle point of the parlour’s yellow ceiling hangs a large electric lamp with a green shade, fairly dark green on the outside and very pale on the inner edge, where the light has faded it: this lamp hangs at just the proper height for the bright unglazed bulbs to hurt one’s eyes when one is trying to read. In one corner of the sitting-room stands an upright bookcase of polished mahogany, with four shelves of books and glass doors locked by a key, a type of bookcase which may be found advertised in the magazines for so many shillings and an odd number of pence. The door to this bookcase creaks loudly when one opens it, as does every other door in the house with the exception of that into the kitchen, which had become so bad that I was forced to oil it. A piano, always in need of tuning, stands awkwardly at the end of the room, and in the way of the bookcase. The furniture of this refined drawing-room is of blue plush, a set of which my wife is duly proud: she has already mentioned it in her will. There is an open fireplace with logs, but this is make-belief; it is possible only to have a gas fire. The fenders of this fireplace, as well as the firing instruments, and for that matter everything else in the room, are remarkable uninteresting. The following pictures adorn the walls: three second-rate oil paintings of the nineteenth century French nature school, respectively depicting maidens bathing in a lake, maidens dancing in a wood, and maidens playing ball upon a lawn; another oil painting by a man named Wilson of a waterfall; a copy of a water colour by Maxfield Parish; and finally a badly-executed woodcut of a person I take to be Mr. Pickwick.
I trust I have not tired the reader with this possibly too lengthy description of my parlour. Please remember that I have spent a considerable portion of my life in this very room, so it is understandable that I have formed a definite opinion of all its contents, and one can sympathise with my desire to communicate these opinions: they are not entirely without moment. Let me describe one more room, my bedroom, and leave the four others, my daughter’s room, the dining-room, and so forth, to your imagination.
It is a large room, as I have already stated the exact duplicate of the sitting-room. The enormous double bed in which my wife and I sleep occupies one corner; it is placed in such a position that the light from the window strikes your eyes in the morning, so that when you wake up they are sore and your head aches. I attribute largely to this the fact that I now wear glasses and that my eyesight is growing gradually worse. I have slept in this double bed not quite every night since my second marriage seventeen and a half years ago. I am an old man, I am resigned to my fate, yet even now it seems to me hard that towards the end of my life I am not allowed my own room, or at least my own bed. I have often proposed moving into the spare bedroom; but at the very suggestion my wife becomes so upset that I am forced to give up the idea.
Besides the bed, which may be termed the piece de resistance, there are in the room a dresser for my wife’s and my clothes, six chairs, of which only two are ever used, and in the corner my secretary, where I keep letters and papers, and which I use as a working desk. Fortunately, the bureau is large, for it has to hold not only the clothes we regularly wear, but likewise twenty-one extra suits of mine which I had made in case I should some time become too poor to order new clothes. I am an old man of sixty-four, and I have probably not more than twenty-one years to live at the most; allowing for one fresh suit a year, they will last me. In my bedroom there hang four pictures: a small copy of the same Maxfield Parish picture that hangs below, two hunting scenes, and an imitation print entitled “Men Catching Salmon.” Outside the door of the garret, in the hallway at the head of the stairs, hangs a large oil painting, the only valuable article in the house. It is the portrait of my great-great-grandfather, the first Earl of Hume, a beautiful piece of work. Each feature of the stern old face stands out as if hewn in granite; the fine blue eyes gaze down at you, penetrating and understanding.
No one of my family dare mention the picture, for they know I will fly into a fury at once; it is the only thing I possess that reminds me of the time when I was still alive.
When a man dies he ought not, like the Egyptians, drag his cherished memories to the grave…
My day begins at seven o’clock with my wife shaking me by the shoulder and asking me how long I expect to lie in bed. As I never get to sleep till three or four I am tired and feel like resting a while, but after listening to her grinding voice for a moment I become fully awake; moreover, the bright sunshine shines full in my eyes, so I get up, dress quickly and go downstairs. I sit down and begin reading a book, but before long my wife comes into the room, still doing up her hair and begins talking to me; when I continue to read she heaves a deep sigh, exclaiming in an injured tone:
“Ramsay, will you never listen to me? Do you think I’m talking to the air? Yes, you are going to listen to me now for once.”
My early morning is already spoiled, so I put down the book without a word, and as she proceeds to tell me that our daughter simply must be sent off to boarding-school, and asks me several times what work I intend to do this day, I answer as briefly as possible, and, with a sort of self-torture, scrutinise her thin, unattractive features.
Seventeen years ago I married an intelligent, beautiful and, as I then thought, a spiritual woman. She was twenty, with all the freshness and sincerity of youth, her eyes were clear, and her complexion was refreshing to look at. Where is that woman now? The person I see before me is indefinite and uninspiring. She is stout where she should not be, and thin where she should not be; she has let herself go; her clothes hang from her as if they were not hers but she had borrowed them for the occasion. Her hands are large and bony and hard; her shoes seem too big, and when she walks she does not lift up her feet; and her face is no longer beautiful but looks pinched, her nose is far too acquiline, and when she opens her mouth it appears to be full of teeth. She is a middle-aged, middle-class woman.
My daughter Alice comes down the stairs, and hardly greeting us, goes to the piano and begins to play. Though she is only sixteen, she despises her mother and me, feels herself oppressed, and I can see that she is longing to get away; she thinks herself a member of the enlightened generation, and the atmosphere of our house weighs on her like lead. This, for some reason, fills me with anger. I know that it would be far the best thing for her to be sent off to school, as her mother is continually urging, but I invent excuses, declare that we can’t afford it, and that she is too young; this though I know that she sees through me like glass, and that she will despise me more than ever.
I do not love my daughter. Her presence only awakens in me the remembrance that she is not my daughter at all, that this life is not mine either, but that far away, over the Atlantic Ocean, are my true daughters, my true life. What has this awkwardness, this harsh voice, this black hair, to do with me? My two real daughters in America are different. They have their mother’s grace, her voice which is like the note of a viola, her honey-brown hair—the only hair for a woman. They are mine, they are women—this is a stranger.
The breakfast topics are three in number: my daughter’s education, the conduct of the new servant, and a third topic selected at random from the morning paper.
While we are eating our oranges my wife asks:
“Well, Alice, I hope you have done all your home work.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t? What do you think we are sending you to an expensive school for? You’ll get kicked out next thing, that’s what.”
“Oh, stop your nagging, Mother, for goodness sake. You know I can get along, and that’s all you care about.”
“Don’t you dare speak to your mother like that,” I growl furiously, though I know she is quite right and that, despite her doing no work whatsoever, she is usually the best in her class. In this at least she takes after me, and not her mother.
During the egg course my wife is sure to speak about the new servant. There is always a new servant, for none can stand my wife for more than a few weeks. I do not assert that I am not difficult as well, but I know for a fact that while they fear my temper, they inevitably like and respect me, while they all detest and heartily despise my wife: more than one has told me this in so many words.
“Well, Hilda will never do, that’s certain,” moans my wife in her grinding, injured tone. “Remember how badly she served last night, and now did you see her hands this morning—why, they are black. It’s disgraceful. You can’t get a good servant nowadays. And the wages we pay!”
I note that people slovenly in their personal appearance are apt to be unduly critical of others; now while my wife spoke, it was evident that she had not yet washed her bony hands, and her finger-nails were none too clean; one could not imagine being caressed by those hands.
By the time coffee has come, these two entrancing topics have been exhausted, and there is need of an artificial stimulus to the conversation; almost unconsciously I pick up the Times (I should have been scolded had I attempted to look at it before), open to the political page, and make some wholly unnecessary statement such as:
“I see that Mussolini has arrested the editor of a Milan
“You don’t say so,” cries my wife, waving her hands about in horror as if it were she who has been placed under arrest. “These wretched Fascisti! Soon there won’t be any liberty left anywhere. How can those Italians allow it!”
A little later I read:
“Bolsheviks arrest two Britishers.”
“Devils,” cries my wife furiously, “how dare they? Those radicals ought to be squashed out; before we know it they’ll be running this country too. Why don’t we do something about it? Well, what do you think about it, Alice?”
My wife’s ambition is to bring up Alice as a “lady,” in which design she encourages her to form opinions on current matters, and had even suggested her taking extra lessons in elocution.
“I think it’s no use discussing it, and that we don’t know much about it,” says my daughter drily, getting up and putting down her napkin. How that girl despises her mother and me too!
About mine, after having read the paper sheet by sheet, I start off for my office. My wife stands in the doorway, examining the lock, which does not hold properly, and calling after me.
“You are sure you won’t need me in the office to-day, Ramsay? Maybe I’d better come after all. What do you think? Just call me up if I’m needed. I’ll be here all morning—I can’t go out to do things anyway because of the new maid. I have to teach her everything—she doesn’t know how to do a thing. When will you be home? You’re sure you don’t need me?”
Ever since I was forced to discharge my stenographer to save money, my wife has been doing much of my typing for me. She is not at all stupid at many things, and is skillful on the machine: but I much prefer doing this extra work myself than to hear her grinding, unpleasant voice for these added hours.
At present I am part owner of a newspaper clipping business which I bought from what I was able to save from my last business, which was rubber import. Since my divorce, twenty-four years back, I have owned and been interested in exactly thirteen businesses, not including the present one, of which seven have gone bankrupt, and from the rest of which I have for various reasons retired; and this despite my intelligence, integrity, and business ability. What is the cause?
Mr. Bell, my partner, is already there when I arrive in my office; likewise, a pasty, uninterested chap whom we employ to run errands. I sit down to work, and work on till lunch time, rapidly but without enthusiasm. Formerly when one business failed, I would take up a new with increased zeal, settling out to master its intricacies, and would experience keen enjoyment as I learned to understand my subject. But now I am worn down by failures and the old enthusiasm is lacking; I know I cannot succeed, that life is against me. Why then try?
Mr. Bell has led a life of failures too. He is a gentleman and I enjoy his company; but I do not respect him. He is not dishonest, but on the other hand he is not quite honest either; in the same way, he is not exactly clever, but he is very far from dull. I had him to dinner the other day, and I remarked that when he spilled something he hastily covered it up with his glass. It is difficult to respect a man like that; he is a half-way house.
At one we go out for a quick lunch, return, and work till a quarter to five. It is not easy work. On the floor lie piles of newspapers and reviews of several nationalities; it is our task to scan each one of these publications for articles and news items related no matter how remotely with any of our clients. It is not like ordinary newspaper clipping service, but far more specialized. For instance, one of our clients has us collect all articles bearing on Siamese trade; another has us to look for mentions of a certain half-forgotten German author. It is impossible for the three of us to do the work thoroughly; yet when we miss something it is apt to cost us a client. Already our trade has slightly fallen off.
I carry home work under my arm to complete before dinner. As usual, I ride thirty-eight minutes in the stuffy Underground and walk home the crowded, unpleasant way by High Street, in order to save a few moments. But on unlocking my front door I am surprised to hear voices. Visitors! How dare my wife invite guests to my house without consulting me? And who could they be? No decent person would care to come to this house to talk to that rattling, wheezy old vixen. Furiously I sweep the room. Two middle-class women and a terrified looking little man are sipping tea, while my wife is seated in regal splendour behind the tea kettle.
“Oh,” I declare apologetically, turning to go. “Pardon me. I did not know you were seeing any tradespeople to-day, my dear.”
“Ramsay!” she cries desperately, getting up quickly. “Ramsay, I should like to introduce you——I——”
Her pale face has become blood red.
“You must really excuse me,” I beg her, turning at the door. “I am quite sure you can manage it very well yourself. Call me when dinner is ready.”
I go upstairs and set to work. I can hear the guests putting on their cloaks and leaving, and later my wife’s sobbing. I work on for a while, but when I can stand it no longer I go down; by the time I am heartily ashamed of my childish outburst, and sorry for my wife.
“For God’s sake pardon me, Harriet,” I say, going up to her. “I am only a miserable, selfish old man. Forgive me.” And add in a low voice, “You have much to forgive me for.”
She looks up at me, and her face, wrinkled with weeping, looks old and grey and tired.
“Yes, I forgive you, Ramsay. Please go now, I want to be alone.”
I sneak upstairs and sit down by the bay window. I remember the girl I married seventeen years ago. I thought then that I would form her, that I would mould her character from something worth while. She loved me; I would learn to love her——and to forget. And what has happened? What has become of her—and of her love? And after seventeen years had I learned to forget? I am seized with despair. I sink my grey head in my hand, and rock back and forth moaning.
“It’s not use,” I think. “My God! What is the use? What is the use?”…
Sometimes when I am unduly depressed, I tell myself there is no brightness left in my life; but this is not so. No matter how burdened with misery the human mind may be, it never needs more than a trifle to bring a momentary forgetfulness; soldiers under shellfire can enjoy their cigarettes, and in the same way there is more than one pleasure left in me. I enjoy good food, intelligent conversation, and the theatre, though these are all rare enough nowadays. I can still look forward to my long evenings with my books: and there is another enjoyment greater than these.
Ever since my divorce I have received a letter each month from my eldest daughter Margaret in New York. She has been living with her mother and sister, and the beginning of each month I send them a sum of money, as large as I can afford at the time. My fortunes have varied, and theirs have fluctuated correspondingly. During one time, at the beginning of my second marriage, I was doing fairly well as part owner of a large glass blowing industry, and my first family lived in style in an expensive New York apartment. My house outside London I had rented only temporarily, and I planned to give it up and buy a larger one when the lease expired; before that, however, I quarrelled with my partners, retired from the business, and used up my earnings to buy an interest in a folding chair factory, for which I predicted great things, but which soon failed owing to the dishonesty of my friend and partner. Then my two families were forced to live more simply, but a little later I made money again, this time in insurance, and would have made more had it not been for war. And so on. My business life, like my private one, is without order and reason. I have grown to hate good luck as much as bad, for if fate lets me off now, I know it will only give me a harder blow later: and I no longer care a great deal.
At present I can give my first family little, and though I agreed with my second wife when we married always to send them as much as we used ourselves, she looks at me as if I were robbing her when I go to the post office at the beginning of the month. Now they have taken a little house in one of the cheaper suburbs of New York. They apparently live on nothing, but even so, both my daughters have been forced to take work, the elder as private secretary, the younger as accountant in a large concern. This hurts me, and I feel they must despise me for not having earned enough to support my own daughters in my old age.
Margaret, my favourite, I have not seen for almost ten years, since my last visit to the States; now she is a grown woman of thirty-two, much like her mother according to the snapshot sent me, but she is not yet married. Lucia, the younger, visited me four years ago when she was, I believe, twenty-three or twenty-four. We quarrelled, and as a result of this quarrel I have neither written nor heard from her since that time. Though I still maintain that the cause of the quarrel was entirely her fault, though I declare I will never see her again, I should really give a great deal for some pretext for a reconciliation. And she knows this. I often ask myself how a young girl can so harden her heart against a lonely old man that she refuses to swallow her pride and beg his forgiveness.
I am continually writing Margaret to come and stay with me for a while. The guest-room stands empty, there is a servant doing nothing—why, then, should my own daughter sit in a stuffy office typing for eight hours a day? Why should my false daughter enjoy my house alone? And one day at last I am delighted to receive a letter saying that she has given up her job and that, provided I still want her, she will come to London to visit me. If I still want her! I hasten to the post office to cable her the necessary money at once; it is the first time in years that I have had something to look forward to.
I am at the station to meet her when she arrives. She looks pale and tired from the journey, and at once I am overcome with tenderness. I want to take her in my arms, to tell her that I love her, that I am glad to see her; but I do none of these things. I can only look at her, my lips trembling, and think,
“How like her mother she is! My God, how like her!”
We go to claim her baggage; she is carrying a wretched little brown suitcase which I do not even attempt to take from her. She finds one piece at once, a large cheap carry-all, much the worse for wear, torn at one edge.
“Well, that’s fine,” she says.
“But we must find the rest.”
“There isn’t any rest, Father.”
“Oh, I see,” I say vacantly.
In the taxi I keep looking at her face hungrily till she turns away in confusion; in the light of the feeble arc lamps I try to read into this face the features, the expression of that other dear face I shall never see again.
“You left your mother well—and happy?”
“She said nothing—she sent no message?” I ask guiltily, and then, without giving her time to answer, “No, no, no, no—of course. Well, I hope you will be happy with us here,” but in a moment I cannot keep myself from asking again,
“Did your mother say anything when you left—have you any message from her?”
My wife is downstairs when we arrive. Of course, she has never liked either of my elder daughters, but knowing that I love Margaret, she is bitterest towards her.
“You oughtn’t to take taxis, Ramsay,” she grinds out as we enter, “you know very well that we can’t afford it,” then in the same tone, “Oh, hello, Margaret—it’s a long time since we met.” My daughter shrinks as she is kissed hastily on the mouth; but then my wife begins, as usual, tinkering with the damaged door lock.
I show my daughter to her room, but instead of leaving her, walk up and down excitedly, casting glances at her face; when she turns away reddening, I still try to catch glimpses in the mirror.
She begins unpacking, and among other objects places a small framed photograph of her mother on the mantel. Assuming a casual manner, I stroll over and look at it.
“She’s grown older,” I say, trying to detach my voice from my body, “but she’s still beautiful. It’s a long time—she was younger then. Yes.” I know that it embarrasses my daughter, but I can talk about nothing else; it is so long since I was able to speak.
Despite my wife, dinner seems almost gay-to-night. Instead of discussing the new building that is going up in the vicinity, the foggy condition of the weather, my daughter’s classes, the conversation is very nearly general; my daughter tells us all about the crossing, and appears delighted at the difference in English and American trains and taxicabs; I even warm up sufficiently to tell one of my old jokes, which I know that my wife and Alice have already heard a dozen times or more.
During desert I declare jovially to my wife:
“We will have to take Margaret about and get some new clothes, won’t we, dear?”
“Goodness,” cries my wife, turning her cold eyes on me, “has someone left you an inheritance?” Such an answer somehow dampens one’s zest.
While sipping coffee after dinner, the cat slinks into the room. I have not yet spoken about this cat; it has a history of its own. It was a fine Angora when my wife bought it from me, and incidentally for herself, at Christmas some years ago. Then it was a sleek and contented animal, with a disposition so happy that it won it the name of “Jolly”; but with the years its sleekness and joy have fallen away; it has become emaciated, mangy, and melancholy. Nowadays Jolly wanders furtively about as if each of its seven cat lives were in momentary danger, its tail droops, and it has worms. The atmosphere of the house has affected the animal, as it seems to have the pots of faded geraniums in the window, and even the crinkled tomatoes that grow in the backyard. One of Poe’s characters is obsessed with hatred of a cat, and I imagine it is very much the same feeling that I experience: I hate it as a fellow sufferer.
But when this cat sees my daughter, Margaret, it bounds towards her, purring with delight, and jumps on her lap; it has not shown so much spirit in years. However, my wife soon puts an end to its unaccustomed outburst by confining it to the cellar; and in the same way my own high spirits soon peter out and, without even desiring to read as usual, I follow my wife to bed.
But that does not necessarily mean sleep. If my daughter in the guest-room next door were awake, she might hear my wife’s grinding, injured voice going on and on and on without halt. Why, she would like to know, do I stare at that girl as I do? Is she as beautiful as all that? Maybe I have fallen in love with her? Well, she realises she is only my wife, and maybe I think she hasn’t the right to ask such questions? I needn’t believe that she fancies I still love her—but why do I keep throwing the fact in her very face? What is that girl doing here anyway? Do I think she doesn’t realise why I want her here? Why shouldn’t she stay in American where she belongs? What has she to do with my home? Perhaps I have so much money I had to find someone to spend it on? Maybe I felt that my family was living too luxuriously? And maybe I supposed that cynical woman would be a good influence for my own innocent little daughter? She could tell things about her, even if I couldn’t—have I ever known her to be mistaken in sizing up a face? I’ve already succeeded in ruining her life—am I planning to ruin her daughter’s next? She was a sweet young girl herself once before she met me—don’t I suppose she is in a position tell an evil influence when she sees one?
Towards one she falls into an exhausted sleep. When I hear the regular snores, I crawl noiselessly out of bed, tiptoe over to the door, profiting from past experience, make my way down the stairs without creaking a board. Downstairs I turn on the light, and, take out a volume of Proust, begin to read. I read on till dawn, trying to forget my life in the printed words.
My wife’s reactions to her step-daughter’s presence are worthy the attentions of a psycho-analyst. At first her attitude is reserved, dignified, matronish; she wishes to impress the fact that she is a family woman, a person of weight in the social community, a breeder of England’s next generation. She contrasts herself to my daughter: the unmarried woman; the useless mouth; the unwanted. Her tone bespeaks the mother; she is condescending, gives order, uses neither powder nor perfume. One would never guess there is only a few years’ difference between the two women.
A little later there is a sudden change. Instead of trying to appear elderly, she attempts to take off a few years, begins to powder to excess, for some reason has her hair bobbed. She is jealous of my daughter, and vexes when she finds her in my company, and she tries rather absurdly to flirt with me, in order, I suppose, to gain back my attentions.
While I am reading she comes and sits down heavily on my lap, taking away my book.
“Good heavens,” I cry in mock dismay, “consider my age. I’m sixty-four. What do you think I’m made of? Do you want to kill me?”
“Ramsay, dear, why aren’t you ever nice and sweet to me any more? Have I grown so ugly?”
“Are you being pathetic, my dear? I am afraid this is hardly a suitable place to exercise your talents for the theatre. Excuse me.”
“Come, come, my dear, I can hardly satisfy you any more. You must look for someone else—choose a younger man.”
“I know what it is,” she snaps with sudden spitefulness, her face hardening, “you’re in love with that girl. That’s what.”
In love—in love. Yes, I have always been in love, desperately, hopelessly in love. And now, twenty-four years since I laid eyes on my loved one, I am deeper in love than I have ever been before. My love is undying—it will never end.
I seek excuses to enter my daughter’s room that I may see the picture of my beloved. As she is reading, I let my hand steal carelessly over honey-brown hair, but she knows that it is not she I am caressing.
At the motion pictures one night one of the actresses is strangely like my beloved—her gestures, her eyes, her hands; I am seized with such trembling that the whole bench shakes and the people look about at me; I cannot control myself, and am forced to leave the theatre, mumbling some feeble excuse to my wife, and walk up and down the pavement outside till the show is over.
In love, always in love——
For some time I have known that my wife has been intercepting Margaret’s letters from her mother, and my daughter has several times complained to me about it. I assume an air of wounded dignity, of ruffled pride, and assure her that it is an unheard-of event, that she can rest assured it will never happen again. But in my heart I know I will never have the courage to mention the matter; I have far too much regard for my poor night’s rest. Long ago I learned better than to voluntarily bring up the subject for an all-night harangue.
And this is not the only insult to which my daughter is subject. My wife does not fail to remind her of the social harmfulness of the idle, or to suggest that everybody should seek work of some kind in order to take the burden off the few. Almost nightly the dinner table witnesses a fresh attack.
“Just fancy,” cries my wife happily, “I was looking down the street this evening and I saw someone striding along, taking up the whole pavement; straight as a stick, mind you, and with her head back as if she were looking for aeroplanes. Goodness, who can that fine lady be, I thought; and when she got closer—well, who do you suppose it was?”
My wife ogles us about the table, her long white teeth protruding from all corners of her smiling mouth.
“Why, no other than our own little Margie,” she cries, laughing shrilly and patting my daughter’s arm, with her clammy, grey hand. “What were you looking for, Margie—won’t you tell us?”
And I sit there, smiling like an imbecile, and afraid to open my mouth, though I know the poor girl winces under these continual petty insults. Later I hear Alice weeping in my daughter Margaret’s room and the voice of the older girl trying to console her, and I know it is out of shame for her mother and for me that she weeps. That is not pleasant for a father.
One night, shortly before midnight, I sit reading as usual when I hear cautious footsteps on the stairs. My daughter Margaret comes into the sitting-room; she is dressed in a travelling costume and in her hand she holds her little brown bag. My heart gives a sudden squeeze: I feel this is the end.
She puts down her bag noiselessly and tiptoes up to the blue plush armchair.
“Well, Father, I’m going,” she says in a low voice. “You will have to say good-bye to your wife for me—I couldn’t do it. Send my black bag on when you get a change—I’ll write you my address.”
I can only stare at her dully, without even putting down my book, and think, “How like her mother—my God, how like her.”
“You’re going?” I finally manage to say.
“Yes, I’m going. I don’t know where—I shall get a job somehow. Later I’ll be going home.”
“I’m an old man, Margaret. I shall be gone soon; you won’t blame me any more then.”
“I don’t blame you any more,” she replies coldly, “none of us blame you any more—not for anything. We’ve gotten over that.”
I feel my old temper rising in me again.
“How dare you stand there and speak to me like that, girl?” I cry. “How dare you throw your mother’s blame back in my face? How dare you?”
“Speak lower or your wife will wake up,” she interrupts disdainfully.
“Let me speak,” I shout furiously. “So you don’t blame me any more for anything? How dare you say that? Let your mother first accuse me of a single act of disloyalty, and then we will talk about blaming. Let her say that I ceased loving her for a single moment, and I will let you speak of blaming, or not blaming. Give me one sensible reason why she left me, and I will be the first to censure myself!”
“Why such a scene at this late date?” asks my daughter calmly. “And why should I now begin to explain what your whole wasted life has failed to teach you? Do you ask your daughter to tell you that you are a weak, selfish, foolish old man, whom it is impossible for anyone to live with? If you could for once learn to bow your neck!”
But it is unseemly for a dead man to be aroused. And I cast furtive glances up the stairs, hoping that my wife has not been awakened. My daughter goes to the door and takes up her little brown bag.
“You will need money?” I suggest.
“No, thanks. I have a few pounds.”
“But I will get your passage home—let me send it to
There is nothing more to say: she is about to leave.
“Well, let me help you part of the way with your bag at least. You will let me do that for you,” I say desperately.
“Oh, it’s so light—don’t trouble. Thank you.”
She is gone. And as I close the door on her dear figure, my own grey life seems to come flooding in the room like a mist. I go back to my chair by the bay window, and gaze out on the arc-lit street down which she has disapproved. The grandfather clock in the hallway slowly ticks the hours. I try to analyse my thought, but now, try as I will, I can think of nothing significant: it only strikes me that the corner of the carpet is worn away, that the lamp-shade has faded from green to grey. The psycho-analysts say that only the desires are important. But what do I desire? My wishes are as trivial as my thoughts. I desire that for my few remaining years I shall be allowed my own bedroom, at least not forced to share my room with one who is uncongenial to me. And another desire: I should like to see the woman I love once more before I die. That is all: it is modest enough. And my thoughts return once more to the worn carpet, to the faded silk shade. The clock ticks, the hours pass; lonely as the grave.
In this houseful of people, in this city full of people, I am all alone: my days are peopled with spectres, and a spectre myself, it is my lot to move amongst them clinging to the sole reality of my memories. The last clod of earth has been flung upon my grave.