The Triangle, by James Stephens
Nothing is true for ever. A man and a fact will become equally
decrepit and will tumble in the same ditch, for truth is as mortal as
man, and both are outlived by the tortoise and the crow.
To say that two is company and three is a crowd is to make a very
temporary statement. After a short time satiety or use and wont has
crept sunderingly between the two, and, if they are any company at all,
they are bad company, who pray discreetly but passionately for the
crowd which is censured by the proverb.
If there had not been a serpent in the Garden of Eden it is likely that
the bored inhabitants of Paradise would have been forced to import one
from the outside wilds merely to relax the tedium of a too-sustained
duet. There ought to be a law that when a man and a woman have been
married for a year they should be forcibly separated for another year.
In the meantime, as our law-givers have no sense, we will continue to
invoke the serpent.
Mrs. Mary Morrissy had been married for quite a time to a gentleman of
respectable mentality, a sufficiency of money, and a surplus of
leisure—Good things? We would say so if we dared, for we are growing
old and suspicious of all appearances, and we do not easily recognize
what is bad or good. Beyond the social circumference we are confronted
with a debatable ground where good and bad are so merged that we cannot
distinguish the one from the other. To her husband's mental
attainments (from no precipitate, dizzy peaks did he stare; it was only
a tiny plain with the tiniest of hills in the centre) Mrs. Morrissy
extended a courtesy entirely unmixed with awe. For his money she
extended a hand which could still thrill to an unaccustomed
prodigality, but for his leisure (and it was illimitable) she could
find no possible use.
The quality of permanency in a transient world is terrifying. A
permanent husband is a bore, and we do not know what to do with him.
He cannot be put on a shelf. He cannot be hung on a nail. He will not
go out of the house. There is no escape from him, and he is always the
same. A smile of a certain dimension, moustaches of this inevitable
measurement, hands that waggle and flop like those of automata—these
are his. He eats this way and he drinks that way, and he will continue
to do so until he stiffens into the ultimate quietude. He snores on
this note, he laughs on that, dissonant, unescapeable, unchanging.
This is the way he walks, and he does not know how to run. A
predictable beast indeed! He is known inside and out, catalogued,
ticketed, and he cannot be packed away.
Mrs. Morrissy did not yet commune with herself about it, but if her
grievance was anonymous it was not unknown. There is a back-door to
every mind as to every house, and although she refused it house-room,
the knowledge sat on her very hearthstone whistling for recognition.
Indeed, she could not look anywhere without seeing her husband. He was
included in every landscape. His moustaches and the sun rose together.
His pyjamas dawned with the moon. When the sea roared so did he, and
he whispered with the river and the wind. He was in the picture but
was out of drawing. He was in the song but was out of tune. He
agitated her dully, surreptitiously, unceasingly. She questioned of
space in a whisper, "Are we glued together?" said she. There was a bee
in a flower, a burly rascal who did not care a rap for any one: he sat
enjoying himself in a scented and gorgeous palace, and in him she
"If," said she to the bee, "if that man doesn't stop talking to me I'll
kick him. I'll stick a pin in him if he does not go out for a walk."
She grew desperately nervous. She was afraid that if she looked at him
any longer she would see him. To-morrow, she thought, I may notice
that he is a short, fat man in spectacles, and that will be the end of
everything. But the end of everything is also the beginning of
everything, and so she was one half in fear and the other half in hope.
A little more and she would hate him, and would begin the world again
with the same little hope and the same little despair for her meagre
She had already elaborated a theory that man was intended to work, and
that male sloth was offensive to Providence and should be forbidden by
the law. At times her tongue thrilled, silently as yet, to certain
dicta of the experienced Aunt who had superintended her youth, to the
intent that a lazy man is a nuisance to himself and to everybody else;
and, at last, she disguised this saying as an anecdote and repeated it
pleasantly to her husband.
He received it coldly, pondered it with disfavour, and dismissed it by
arguing that her Aunt had whiskers, that a whiskered female is a freak,
and that the intellectual exercises of a freak are—— He lifted his
eyebrows and his shoulders. He brushed her Aunt from the tips of his
fingers and blew her delicately beyond good manners and the mode.
But time began to hang heavily on both. The intellectual antics of a
leisured man become at last wearisome; his methods of thought, by mere
familiarity, grow distasteful; the time comes when all the arguments
are finished, there is nothing more to be said on any subject, and
boredom, without even the covering, apologetic hand, yawns and yawns
and cannot be appeased. Thereupon two cease to be company, and even a
serpent would be greeted as a cheery and timely visitor. Dismal
indeed, and not infrequent, is that time, and the vista therefrom is a
long, dull yawn stretching to the horizon and the grave. If at any
time we do revalue the values, let us write it down that the person who
makes us yawn is a criminal knave, and then we will abolish matrimony
and read Plato again.
The serpent arrived one morning hard on Mrs. Morrissy's pathetic
pressure. It had three large trunks, a toy terrier, and a volume of
verse. The trunks contained dresses, the dog insects, and the book
emotion—a sufficiently enlivening trilogy! Miss Sarah O'Malley wore
the dresses in exuberant rotation, Mr. Morrissy read the emotional
poetry with great admiration, Mrs. Morrissy made friends with the dog,
and life at once became complex and joyful.
Mr. Morrissy, exhilarated by the emotional poetry, drew, with an
instinct too human to be censured, more and more in the direction of
his wife's cousin, and that lady, having a liking for comedy, observed
the agile posturings of the gentleman on a verbal summit up and down
and around which he flung himself with equal dexterity and
satisfaction—crudely, he made puns—and the two were further thrown
together by the enforced absences of Mrs. Morrissy, into a privacy more
than sealed, by reason of the attentions of a dog who would climb to
her lap, and there, with an angry nose, put to no more than temporary
rout the nimble guests of his jacket. Shortly Mrs. Morrissy began to
look upon the toy terrier with a meditative eye.
It was from one of these, now periodical, retreats that Mrs. Morrissy
first observed the rapt attitude of her husband, and, instantly, life
for her became bounding, plentiful, and engrossing.
There is no satisfaction in owning that which nobody else covets. Our
silver is no more than second-hand, tarnished metal until some one else
speaks of it in terms of envy. Our husbands are barely tolerable until
a lady friend has endeavoured to abstract their cloying attentions.
Then only do we comprehend that our possessions are unique, beautiful,
well worth guarding.
Nobody has yet pointed out that there is an eighth sense; and yet the
sense of property is more valuable and more detestable than all the
others in combination. The person who owns something is civilised. It
is man's escape from wolf and monkeydom. It is individuality at last,
or the promise of it, while those other ownerless people must remain
either beasts of prey or beasts of burden, grinning with ineffective
teeth, or bowing stupid heads for their masters' loads, and all begging
humbly for last straws and getting them.
Under a sufficiently equable exterior Mrs. Morrissy's blood was pulsing
with greater activity than had ever moved it before. It raced! It
flew! At times the tide of it thudded to her head, boomed in her ears,
surged in fierce waves against her eyes. Her brain moved with a
complexity which would have surprised her had she been capable of
remarking upon it. Plot and counterplot! She wove webs horrid as a
spider's. She became, without knowing it, a mistress of psychology.
She dissected motions and motives. She builded theories precariously
upon an eyelash. She pondered and weighed the turning of a head, the
handing of a sugar-bowl. She read treason in a laugh, assignations in
a song, villainy in a new dress. Deeper and darker things! Profound
and vicious depths plunging stark to where the devil lodged in
darknesses too dusky for registration! She looked so steadily on these
gulfs and murks that at last she could see anything she wished to see;
and always, when times were critical, when this and that, abominations
indescribable, were separate by no more than a pin's point, she must
retire from her watch (alas for a too-sensitive nature!) to chase the
enemies of a dog upon which, more than ever, she fixed a meditative eye.
To get that woman out of the house became a pressing necessity. Her
cousin carried with her a baleful atmosphere. She moved cloudy with
doubt. There was a diabolic aura about her face, and her hair was red!
These things were patent. Was one blind or a fool? A straw will
reveal the wind, so will an eyelash, a smile, the carriage of a dress.
Ankles also! One saw too much of them. Let it be said then. Teeth
and neck were bared too often and too broadly. If modesty was indeed
more than a name, then here it was outraged. Shame too! was it only a
word? Does one do this and that without even a blush? Even vice
should have its good manners, its own decent retirements. If there is
nothing else let there be breeding! But at this thing the world might
look and understand and censure if it were not brass-browed and stupid.
Sneak! Traitress! Serpent! Oh, Serpent! do you slip into our very
Eden? looping your sly coils across our flowers, trailing over our beds
of narcissus and our budding rose, crawling into our secret arbours and
whispering-places and nests of happiness! Do you flaunt and sway your
crested head with a new hat on it every day? Oh, that my Aunt were
here, with the dragon's teeth, and the red breath, and whiskers to
match! Here Mrs. Morrissy jumped as if she had been bitten (as indeed
she had been) and retired precipitately, eyeing the small dog that
frisked about her with an eye almost petrified with meditation.
To get that woman out of the house quickly and without scandal. Not to
let her know for a moment, for the blink and twitter of an eyelid, of
her triumph. To eject her with ignominy, retaining one's own dignity
in the meantime. Never to let her dream of an uneasiness that might
have screamed, an anger that could have bitten and scratched and been
happy in the primitive exercise. Was such a task beyond her adequacy?
Below in the garden the late sun slanted upon her husband, as with
declamatory hands and intense brows he chanted emotional poetry, ready
himself on the slope of opportunity to roll into verses from his own
resources. He criticised, with agile misconception, the inner meaning,
the involved, hard-hidden heart of the poet; and the serpent sat before
him and nodded. She smiled enchantments at him, and allurements, and
subtle, subtle disagreements. On the grass at their feet the toy
terrier bounded from his slumbers and curved an imperative and furious
hind-leg in the direction of his ear.
Mrs. Morrissy called the dog, and it followed her into the house,
frisking joyously. From the kitchen she procured a small basket, and
into this she packed some old cloths and pieces of biscuit. Then she
picked up the terrier, cuffed it on both sides of the head, popped it
into the basket, tucked its humbly-agitated tail under its abject ribs,
closed the basket, and fastened it with a skewer. She next addressed a
label to her cousin's home, tied it to the basket, and despatched a
servant with it to the railway-station, instructing her that it should
be paid for on delivery.
At breakfast the following morning her cousin wondered audibly why her
little, weeny, tiny pet was not coming for its brecky.
Mrs. Morrissy, with a smile of infinite sweetness, suggested that Miss
O'Malley's father would surely feed the brute when it arrived. "It was
a filthy little beast," said she brightly; and she pushed the
toast-rack closer to her husband.
There followed a silence which drowsed and buzzed to eternity, and
during which Mr. Morrissy's curled moustaches straightened and grew
limp and drooped. An edge of ice stiffened around Miss O'Malley.
Incredulity, frozen and wan, thawed into swift comprehension and
dismay, lit a flame in her cheeks, throbbed burningly at the lobes of
her ears, spread magnetic and prickling over her whole stung body, and
ebbed and froze again to immobility. She opposed her cousin's kind
eyes with a stony brow.
"I think," said she rising, "that I had better see to my packing."
"Must you go?" said Mrs. Morrissy, with courteous unconcern, and she
helped herself to cream. Her husband glared insanely at a pat of
butter, and tried to look like some one who was somewhere else.
Miss O'Malley closed the door behind her with extreme gentleness.
So the matter lay. But the position was unchanged. For a little time
peace would reign in that household, but the same driving necessity
remained, and before long another, and perhaps more virulent, serpent
would have to be requisitioned for the assuagement of those urgent
woes. A man's moustaches will arise with the sun; not Joshua could
constrain them to the pillow after the lark had sung reveille. A woman
will sit pitilessly at the breakfast table however the male eye may
shift and quail. It is the business and the art of life to degrade
permanencies. Fluidity is existence, there is no other, and for ever
the chief attraction of Paradise must be that there is a serpent in it
to keep it lively and wholesome. Lacking the serpent we are no longer
in Paradise, we are at home, and our sole entertainment is to yawn when
we wish to.