For the twentieth time Bertram Pollard went to the door of the little room he called his “study” and listened. He heard nothing but the slow tick-tock of a grandfather’s clock at the end of the narrow hall; that, and his own breathing which seemed loud.
The silence of the house in Holland Street, Kensington, was horrible to him; yet better than the rapid footsteps of a doctor, the quick rustle of a nurse’s starched dress, the strange inexplicable noises of something being dragged across the room upstairs, water being poured out, a glass falling and smashing, and other sounds which had scared him when his wife was in pain.
He’d heard her moaning once or twice, had gone back into his room, shutting the door quietly, and saying, “Lord! . . . Lord! . . .” and nothing else but that again and again.
In that room of his—twelve feet by fourteen, as he knew by measuring it from skirting-board to skirting-board, as a mechanical occupation for his nerve-tattered brain—he had prayed, cursed, groaned, and even wept a little. He had paced up and down, sat down at his desk, put his forehead against the wall, gripped the mantelpiece, clenched and unclenched his hands, behaved with a ridiculous lack of self-control.
He was frightened by his own cowardice. “This won’t do!” he had said once or twice, and then used the words which he had said to his own soul, not without effect sometimes, when men had lain dead about him and his chance of death had been as good as theirs. “Keep a stiff upper lip, my lad!”
That’s what his father had said sharply to him as a small boy when he had taken a toss from a pony or cut his knees in a tumble. “Keep a stiff upper lip, my lad!” That was part of the family tradition, and it had served him pretty well at the war—a tradition of nerve-control, endurance of pain, hiding of fear, however frightened. It was no good now, when Joyce was suffering torture. No damn good.
His thoughts brooded over the last six months and more. What a brute he had been, and how frightful was life which caused women to suffer so much when this thing happened!
Joyce had not wanted it to happen. She’d had some foreboding of its agony, though she’d tried to hide it from him with her usual pluck. Wonderful pluck! This girl with “bobbed” hair, who felt that she was unfit to be seen if her nails weren’t newly manicured, and who was as slim and fragile-looking as a Watteau shepherdess, had the spirit of all her family, and of many women in her crowd, as he’d seen them in the hunting-field, in canteens, once or twice in air-raids. He’d been more scared than this golden-haired “kid”, as he called her then, when a bomb had fallen, smashing the door of a house in which they had been dancing, one night in London of war-time. His heart had given a thump, though he was a major of machine-guns, but Joyce had lit a cigarette with a steady hand, laughed without a tremor, and said, “Bad miss, brother Boche!”
That was the night he’d asked her to marry him, if he had the luck to get through the war. “The luck’s yours, and my love will keep you safe!” she’d said, as he remembered now, and would remember always.
Well it had seemed luck then, though since, once or twice, he’d wondered whether the luck hadn’t been with the men who’d gone out before the show was finished. They’d been saved a lot of worry—this worrying business of life after war, with its enormous disappointments, and the whole muddle and mystery of things.
Marriage was one of its mysteries. He’d gone into it as an escape from all troubles. Funny, that! It was to wipe out the memory of the things he’d seen. It would be the rest-cure for body and soul, both rather badly jolted and put out of gear by something like shell-shock. “Soul-shock,” as old Christy had once called it.
This marriage with Joyce had seemed like getting by sheer, undeserved luck the ideal of beauty which old Christy used to say was the secret, unattained, and unattainable purpose of life.
“Beauty of life,” said Christy—they were sitting together in a dug-out between Henencourt Château and the ruins of Albert—“is God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven.”
He used to talk like that though he was so ironical and blasphemous about all definite religion.
“Beauty is the most exquisite understanding of truth and happiness. Body as well as soul, the material and the spiritual, must be given a chance of that, and when harmony is established between ’em then Perfection, or God, is attained. But we’re a long way from that at the moment, Major, in this dirty little war of ours!”
That’s what Christy had said, and Bertram had scoffed at him as a crawling Pacifist and hot-air merchant, and made rude, insulting remarks about his friend’s excuse for a face, which departed abominably from beauty’s line.
But he’d remembered Christy’s words when he’d stood in St. Mary Abbot’s church with Joyce. She stood beside him—he could see her now like that, though she lay upstairs—slim, tall, with gold-spun hair cut like a boy’s, perfectly calm and self-possessed. “Isn’t she beautiful!” murmured the crowd of women outside the church, in High Street, Kensington, before they drove away, and Bertram had agreed in his heart. She was the Beauty for which all his soul had yearned during four and a half years of ugliness. She was the beauty of life which had come to him!
He had called her that on the first night when they were alone together in this little house in Holland Street which she had furnished out of her own money with reckless extravagance, a delight in weird wall-papers and sham antiques, a passion for highly coloured cushions into which she used to sink with little squeals of ecstasy.
It had been a great game of Life in those first few months of marriage—a year ago now. Joyce had set the pace and kept it up with amazing resistance to all fatigue. He had pleaded for “a quiet life,” “time to love each other,” “an escape from the crowd,” but she’d jeered at him as “an introspective slacker,” dragged him out to theatres, dance clubs, other people’s houses. She’d filled this little house in Holland Street with an amazing collection of people whose presence he’d resented sometimes with almost poisonous hatred—young staff officers who still swaggered about Whitehall though the war was over, young clergymen who had been chaplains at the front, young airmen who’d put up their wings some time after Armistice, girls who came drifting back from canteens at Etaples, Rouen, Cologne, with a lot of army slang and a mania for cheap cigarettes, a sense of boredom with peace, a restless desire for “a good time” and a most embarrassing habit of discussing sex problems in mixed company with a complete absence of reserve. They had come in and out of the house at all times of the day, even to late breakfasts, where Joyce had joined them in one of her many dressing-gowns of Japanese silk and Futurist colours, with her bare feet in bedroom slippers, looking like a sleepy boy, after dancing in some overheated room until late night or early morning.
He had quarrelled with her for that. It was the cause of their first quarrel, “It doesn’t seem decent,” he’d said, “and anyhow, I hate it.” That was when she’d given breakfast in this way to one of those Army chaplains of whom she knew so many—Peter Fynde, a young, good-looking, conceited ass, with an exaggerated Oxford drawl, a slight stutter, and affected gallantry. He had had the impudence to kiss Joyce’s hand and to make some remark about her little feet, totally unconscious of Bertram’s hot flush and sulky discourtesy towards him.
Joyce seemed to have no regard even for the privacy of her bedroom, and there had been another quarrel when Bertram had come back from an afternoon stroll and found Joyce, who had complained of a sick head-ache, “giving audience,” as she called it, to two young officers, three girls, and Kenneth Murless of the Foreign Office—Murless, whom he detested most of all her friends because he was too beautiful to live—one of those tall, curly-headed, Greek God sort of fellows—and elaborately brilliant in conversational insincerities. He was sitting on a low stool by Joyce’s bed, feeding her with strawberries and cream, and telling some ridiculous story about his life as a junior diplomatist at the Hague before the war, to the appreciative laughter of the company, and Joyce’s friendly smiles.
Bertram had made rather a fool of himself that afternoon. He admitted it now, in remembrance, with a groan of contrition. He had played the part of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.
“I wish to God you people would clear out of my wife’s room!” he had said, with violence. “Can’t you see that she’s suffering from head-ache and that all this chatter is the worst thing you can do to her?”
That second part of his speech had been clearly dishonest. It was not Joyce’s head-ache he was worrying about—she seemed to have forgotten that—but his own jealousy, his hatred of this public possession of Joyce’s room.
Of course she hadn’t taken his explosion meekly.
“My dear Bertram,” she’d said, in her pretty mocking way, “if you don’t feel like a gentleman this afternoon, go and walk till you do. Anyhow, don’t interrupt Kenneth’s amusing story!”
Kenneth and the rest had laughed heartily. Bertram’s desire for them to “clear out” seemed to them a delicious joke. It was he who cleared out, and later came back, when they’d gone, in a rattled temper, to say things to Joyce for which now he could have bitten out his tongue. She hadn’t quarrelled. She’d been cool and smiling and sarcastic.
“My dear Bertram, surely you don’t think marriage has given you the prerogative of tyranny? That’s gone out of date. My love for you doesn’t give you the right to insult my friends. Why you should get jealous and fussed because I receive them in my bedroom—look at all these bedclothes and this heavy quilt!—I can’t understand. I never heard anything so narrow-minded, so suburban! In any case, don’t be disloyal to form. Our crowd doesn’t behave like that.”
“Our crowd!” Bertram had said bitterly. “I wish the whole crowd would go and drown themselves. I want you alone, to myself. You let these blighters into your bedroom, let them kiss your hand, but if I show any kind of emotion for you, you shrink from me. When I want to kiss you, as I always want to, you say I’m too ‘beastly emotional’!”
“You must admit you are, Bertram!” Joyce had said. “I can’t stand too much of it. It bores me. I prefer intelligent conversation, comradeship, laughter. What’s wrong with that?”
“Marriage means more than that,” he’d said gloomily, and then had made abject apologies for his sulkiness, and had gone down on both knees by her bedside, so that she had forgiven him, and tousled his hair with playful fingers. But there had been other quarrels of the kind, worse than that.
He was “nervy,” he knew that. The War had left him all on edge. He was irritable with small things, the loss of a collar-stud, the slackness of a servant, the continual tinkle of the telephone bell—Joyce’s friends suggesting some new “stunt.” Some secret warfare was going on inside his brain, loosening his hold on old beliefs, and disturbing old checks and balances of mind, old loyalties of tradition. If he’d had some work to do, it would have been easier, but England had two million unemployed, and thousands of ex-officers like himself were wearing their boots out to find a living wage.
Joyce had been horribly distressed when she knew that a child was coming. All the tenderness which had overwhelmed him at that news failed to reconcile her to the idea, though she hid some fear that was in her. It was the inactivity forced upon her at the end which hurt her most; that and her loss of beauty for a time. “No more dances!” she had cried. “No more flying stunts at Hendon. Oh, Bertram, what a colossal bore!”
He had been angry with her again (and now cursed himself for that temper) because she’d insisted upon still retaining her crowd of friends about her to the last. She’d made no secret of her condition, even to Kenneth Murless, and Bertram had resented that candour with painful jealousy, shrinking from the thought that any one but himself should be in possession of their sacred secret.
“It’s frightful!” he’d said. “It’s like exposing yourself in the market-place.”
“You’re ridiculous!” Joyce had answered. “Anybody would think you’d been brought up at—Peckham. In the early Victorian era. Do you think people don’t know?”
“Yes—but to talk about it to Kenneth Murless! That decadent waster!”
“A good friend of mine, whom I met long before I knew you.” So Joyce had said, calmly and cruelly.
He had been violently angry. . . . How could he ever forgive himself for such brutality now that Joyce lay upstairs, between life and death! Lord! . . . Lord! . . .
The supreme moment of fear came when for more than the twentieth time he listened at the door of his study, and heard again the horrible silence upstairs, following those still more dreadful sounds of the activity of strangers busy with his wife. Did this silence mean death? He asked the question between two frightful heart-beats. Then the door opened at the top of the landing and there was the rustle again of the nurse’s starched dress coming downstairs. Bertram went into his room and faced round as the woman came in after a tap at the door. It was the verdict of life or death.
“Is she all right?” he asked, failing to steady his voice.
The nurse seemed to be pitiful of his agony. His white face and haggard eyes were like those of many men she’d seen at such a time.
“Your wife’s all right,” she said; “no danger now!” She hesitated a moment, and then added nervously:
“The baby was still-born. I’m sorry.”
She left the room again, and didn’t see Bertram Pollard go to the mantelpiece and put his face down on his arms.