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Authors: Elizabeth Bowen

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BOOK: The Death of the Heart
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“Would you like me to fill your case?”

“Oh, thank you so much: thanks—What did you say you’d been doing?”

“Constitutional history, musical appreciation, French.”

“Liking it? I mean, how are you getting on?”

“I do think history is sad.”

“More, shady,” said Thomas. “Bunk, misfires and graft from the very start. I can’t think why we make such a fuss now: we’ve got no reason to expect anything better.”

“But at one time, weren’t people braver?”

“Tougher, and they didn’t go round in rings. And also there was a future then. You can’t get up any pace when you feel you’re right at the edge.”

Portia looked blank, then said: “I know some French. I know more French than some of the other girls.”

“Oh well, that is always something,” said Thomas. His voice trailed off—slumped in his chair, across the fire from Portia, he sat slowly turning his head with an uneasy baited look, like an animal being offered something it does not like. Thomas had very dark hair, always brushed very flat, and decidedly-drawn eyebrows, like his father’s and Portia’s. Like his father’s, his expression was obstinate, but with a hint of deep indecision behind. His head and forehead were rather grandly constructed, but at thirty-six his amiable, mobile face hung already loosish over the bony frame. His mouth and eyes expressed something, but not the whole, of him; they seemed to be cut off from the central part of himself. He had the cloudy, at some moments imperious look of someone conscious of fulfilling his destiny imperfectly; he looked not unlike one of the lesser Emperors. Now, one hand balanced his tumbler on the arm of his chair, the other hung to the floor, as though rather vaguely groping for something lost. There was clearly, at this moment, nothing that Thomas was at all moved to say. The vibration of London was heard through the shuttered and muffled window as though one were half deaf; lamplight bound the room in rather unreal circles; the fire threw its hard glow on the rug. The house held such tense, positive quiet that he and she might have been all alone in it. Portia raised her head, as though listening to this.

She said: “A house
is
quiet, after a hotel. In a way, I am not used to it yet. In hotels, you keep hearing other people, and in fiats you had to be quiet for fear they should hear you. Perhaps that is not so in flats with a big rent, but in our flats we had to be very quiet, or else the landlord jumped out.”

“I didn’t think the French minded.”

“When we took flats, they were in people’s villas. Mother liked that, in case something should happen. But lately, we lived in hotels.”

“Pretty awful,” said Thomas, making an effort.

“It might be if you
had
ever lived in a house. But Mother and I got fond of it, in some ways. We used to make up stories about the people at dinner, and it was fun to watch people come and go. Sometimes, we got to know some of the other people.”

Thomas absently said: “I expect you quite miss all that.”

At that, she looked away in such overcome silence that he beat a tattoo on the floor with his hanging-down hand.

He said: “I realise much more than that, of course. It was rotten about your mother—things like that shouldn’t happen.”

She said with quite surprising control: “It’s nice being here with you, though, Thomas.”

“I wish we could give you a better time. We could if you were grown-up.”

“But by that time perhaps I—”

She stopped, for Thomas was frowning into his empty tumbler, wondering whether to get another drink. Deferring the question, he turned to look doubtfully at the books stacked beside him at elbow-level, at the reviews and magazines balancing on their top. He rejected these after a glance, put his glass down and reached the
Evening Standard
from the edge of his desk. “Do you mind,” he said, “if I just have a look at this?” He frowned at one or two headlines, stopped, put down the paper, went across to his desk and defiantly jabbed a button of the house telephone.

“I say,” he said into the receiver, “is St. Quentin living here? … Well, as soon as he does, then… . No, don’t do that…Yes, I suppose I am, rather.” He hung up the receiver and looked at Portia. “I suppose I
am
back rather early,” he said.

But she only looked through him, and Thomas felt the force of not being seen… .What she did see was the pension on the crag in Switzerland, that had been wrapped in rain the whole afternoon. Swiss summer rain is dark, and makes a tent for the mind. At the foot of the precipice, beyond the paling, the lake made black wounds in the white mist. Precarious high-upness had been an element in their life up there, which had been the end of their life together. That night they came back from Lucerne on the late steamer, they had looked up, seen the village lights at star-level through the rain, and felt that that was their dear home. They went up, arm-in-arm in the dark, up the steep zigzag, pressing each other’s elbows, hearing the night rain sough down through the pines: they were not frightened at all. They always stayed in places before the season, when the funicular was not working yet. All the other people in that pension had been German or Swiss: it was a wooden building with fretwork balconies. Their room, though it was a back room facing into the pinewoods, had a balcony; they would run away from the salon and spend the long wet afternoons there. They would lie down covered with coats, leaving the window open, smelling the wet woodwork, hearing the gutters run. Turn abouts, they would read aloud to each other the Tauchnitz novels they had bought in Lucerne. Things for tea, the little stove and a bottle of violet methylated spirits stood on the wobbly commode between their beds, and at four o’clock Portia would make tea. They ate, in alternate mouthfuls, block chocolate and
brioches
.
Postcards they liked, and Irene’s and Portia’s sketches were pinned to the pine walls; stockings they had just washed would be exposed to dry on the radiator, although the heating was off. Sometimes they heard a cow bell in the thick distance, or people talking German in the room next door. Between five and six the rain quite often stopped, wet light crept down the trunks of the pines. Then they rolled off their beds, put their shoes on, and walked down the village street to the viewpoint over the lake. Through torn mist they would watch the six o’clock steamer chuff round the cliff and pull in at the pier. Or they would attempt to read the names on the big still shut hotels on the heights opposite. They looked at the high chalets stuck on brackets of grass—they often used to wish they had field-glasses, but Mr. Quayne’s field-glasses had been sent home to Thomas. On the way home they met the cows being driven down through the village—kind cows, damp, stumbling, plagued by their own bells. Or the Angelus coming muffled across the plateau would make Irene sigh, for once she had loved church. To the little Catholic church they had sometimes guiltily been, afraid of doing the wrong thing, feeling they stole grace. When they left that high-up village, when they left for ever, the big hotels were just being thrown open, the funicular would begin in another day. They drove down in a fly, down the familiar zigzag, Irene moaning and clutching Portia’s hand. Portia could not weep at leaving the village, because her mother was in such pain. But she used to think of it while she waited at the Lucerne clinic, where Irene had the operation and died: she died at six in the evening, which had always been their happiest hour.

A whir from Thomas’s clock—it was just going to strike six. Six, but not six in June. At this hour, the plateau must be in snow, and but for the snow dark, with lights behind shutters, perhaps a light in the church. Thomas sits so fallen-in, waiting for Anna, that his clock makes the only sound in his room. But our street must be completely silent with snow, and there must be snow on our balcony.

“The lake was frozen this morning,” she said to him.

“Yes, so I saw.”

“But it broke up this afternoon; there were swans on it. … I suppose it will freeze again.”

St. Quentin could be heard saying goodbye to Anna, outside in the hall. Thomas quickly picked up the
Evening Standard
and played at reading it. Portia pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes, got quickly up and went to turn over books at a far table, so that she could keep her back to the room. The table toppled with books that had no place: Anna wanted this room to look cheerfully casual, Thomas made it formlessly untidy. When St. Quentin had slammed the hall door on his own last remark, Anna came smiling into the study. Thomas seemed to wait while he counted three, then he looked at her over the
Evening Standard
.

“Well, darling,” said Anna, “poor St. Quentin has gone.”

“I hope you didn’t turn him out?”

“Oh no,” said Anna vaguely, “he just shot out in his usual way.” She found Thomas’s glass on the floor, and said: “Have you and Portia been having a drink?”

“No, that’s only mine.”

“How I wish you’d put them on the table.” She raised her voice: “Oh, Portia, I hate to worry, but if they have given you any homework, don’t you think you ought to do it now? We might all go to a movie later on.”

“I’ve got an essay to write.”

“My dear, you sound very snuffly. Did you catch cold today?”

Portia turned, at the table, and faced Anna—who stopped, though with something further on the tip of her tongue. Lips drawn in, clutching her belt, Portia, with stricken determination, walked straight past Anna out at the study door. Anna went to the door to make sure it was shut, then exclaimed: “Thomas, you’ve been making her cry.”

“Oh, was she? I think she’s missing her mother.”

“Goodness!” said Anna, stricken. “But what started her off? Why is she missing her mother
now?”

“You say I have no idea what people feel—how can I know when they are going to?”

“In some way, you must have unsettled her.”

Thomas, who had been looking hard at Anna, said: “If it comes to that, you unsettle me.”

“No, but listen,” said Anna, catching hold of his hand but holding it at a distance away from her, “is she really missing Irene? Because, if so, how awful! It’s like having someone very ill in the house. Oh yes, I can easily pity her. I wish I could manage to like her better.”

“Or love her, even.”

“My dear Thomas, that’s not a thing one can
mean
to do. Besides, would you really like me to love her? To get wrapped up in her, to wait for her to come in? No, you’d only like me to seem to love her. But I’m not good at seeming—I was horrid to her at tea. But I had my reasons, I must say.”

“You don’t have to remind me that you don’t like this.”

“After all, she’s in some way yours, and I married you, didn’t I? Most people have something in their family. For God’s sake don’t get worked up.”

“Did I hear you say we’d got to go to a movie?”

“Yes, you did.”

“Why—now, Anna, why? We haven’t stayed still for weeks.”

Anna, touching her pearls with an undecided hand, said: “We can’t all just sit around.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“We can’t all
three
sit around. It gets me down. You don’t seem to know what it’s like.”

“But she goes to bed at ten.”

“Well, it never
is
ten, as you know. I cannot stand being watched. She watches us.”

“I cannot see why she should.”

“I partly see. Anyhow, she makes us not alone.”

“We could be tonight,” said Thomas. “I mean after ten.” With an attempt at calmness, he once more put his hand out—but she, one mass of nervosity, stepped clear. She posted herself at the far side of the fire, in her close-fitting black dress, with her folded arms locked, wrapped up in tense thoughts. For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her his considering eyes. Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her. “I’m never with you,” he said.

“Well, look how we live.”

“The way we live is hopeless.”

Anna said, much more kindly: “Darling, don’t be neurotic. I have had such a day.”

He left her and looked round for his glass again. Meanwhile, he said to himself in a quoting voice: “We are minor in everything but our passions.”

“Wherever did you read that?”

“Nowhere: I woke up and heard myself saying it, one night.”

“How pompous you were in the night. I’m so glad I was asleep.”

III

THOMAS QUAYNE
had married Anna eight years ago. She used to visit friends near his mother’s house in Dorset, so they had met down there. She was then an accomplished, on the whole idle girl, with various gifts, who tried a little of everything and had even made money. She posed as being more indolent than she felt, for fear of finding herself less able than she could wish. For a short time, she had practised as an interior decorator, but this only in a very small way—she had feared to commit herself, in case she could not succeed. She had been wise, for she had not really succeeded, even in that small way. She did not get many clients, and almost at once drew in, chagrined by the rebuff. She drew satirical drawings, played the piano sometimes, had read, though she no longer did, and talked a good deal. She did not play outdoor games, for she did nothing she did not happen to do casually and well. When she and Thomas first met, she was reticent and unhappy: she had not only failed in a half chosen profession but failed in a love affair. The love affair, which had been of several years’ duration, had, when Thomas and she met, just come to a silent and—one might guess from her manner—an ignominious end. She was twenty-six when she married Thomas, and had been living with her father at Richmond, in an uphill house with that extensive view.

BOOK: The Death of the Heart
5.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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