The Beckoning Fair One, by Oliver Onions
The three or four "To Let" boards had stood within the low paling as
long as the inhabitants of the little triangular "Square" could remember,
and if they had ever been vertical it was a very long time ago. They now
overhung the palings each at its own angle, and resembled nothing so
much as a row of wooden choppers, ever in the act of falling upon some
passer-by, yet never cutting off a tenant for the old house from the
stream of his fellows. Not that there was ever any great "stream" through
the square; the stream passed a furlong and more away, beyond the
intricacy of tenements and alleys and byways that had sprung up since the
old house had been built, hemming it in completely; and probably the
house itself was only suffered to stand pending the falling-in of a lease
or two, when doubtless a clearance would be made of the whole
It was of bloomy old red brick, and built into its walls were the crowns
and clasped hands and other insignia of insurance companies long since
defunct. The children of the secluded square had swung upon the low gate
at the end of the entrance-alley until little more than the solid top bar
of it remained, and the alley itself ran past boarded basement windows on
which tramps had chalked their cryptic marks. The path was washed and
worn uneven by the spilling of water from the eaves of the encroaching
next house, and cats and dogs had made the approach their own. The
chances of a tenant did not seem such as to warrant the keeping of the
"To Let" boards in a state of legibility and repair, and as a matter of
fact they were not so kept.
For six months Oleron had passed the old place twice a day or oftener, on
his way from his lodgings to the room, ten minutes' walk away, he had
taken to work in; and for six months no hatchet-like notice-board had
fallen across his path. This might have been due to the fact that he
usually took the other side of the square. But he chanced one morning to
take the side that ran past the broken gate and the rain-worn entrance
alley, and to pause before one of the inclined boards. The board bore,
besides the agent's name, the announcement, written apparently about the
time of Oleron's own early youth, that the key was to be had at Number
Now Oleron was already paying, for his separate bedroom and workroom,
more than an author who, without private means, habitually disregards his
public, can afford; and he was paying in addition a small rent for the
storage of the greater part of his grandmother's furniture. Moreover, it
invariably happened that the book he wished to read in bed was at his
working-quarters half a mile and more away, while the note or letter he
had sudden need of during the day was as likely as not to be in the
pocket of another coat hanging behind his bedroom door. And there were
other inconveniences in having a divided domicile. Therefore Oleron,
brought suddenly up by the hatchet-like notice-board, looked first down
through some scanty privet-bushes at the boarded basement windows, then
up at the blank and grimy windows of the first floor, and so up to the
second floor and the flat stone coping of the leads. He stood for a
minute thumbing his lean and shaven jaw; then, with another glance at the
board, he walked slowly across the square to Number Six.
He knocked, and waited for two or three minutes, but, although the door
stood open, received no answer. He was knocking again when a long-nosed
man in shirt-sleeves appeared.
"I was arsking a blessing on our food," he said in severe explanation.
Oleron asked if he might have the key of the old house; and the
long-nosed man withdrew again.
Oleron waited for another five minutes on the step; then the man,
appearing again and masticating some of the food of which he had spoken,
announced that the key was lost.
"But you won't want it," he said. "The entrance door isn't closed, and a
push'll open any of the others. I'm a agent for it, if you're thinking of
Oleron recrossed the square, descended the two steps at the broken gate,
passed along the alley, and turned in at the old wide doorway. To the
right, immediately within the door, steps descended to the roomy cellars,
and the staircase before him had a carved rail, and was broad and
handsome and filthy. Oleron ascended it, avoiding contact with the rail
and wall, and stopped at the first landing. A door facing him had been
boarded up, but he pushed at that on his right hand, and an insecure bolt
or staple yielded. He entered the empty first floor.
He spent a quarter of an hour in the place, and then came out again.
Without mounting higher, he descended and recrossed the square to the
house of the man who had lost the key.
"Can you tell me how much the rent is?" he asked.
The man mentioned a figure, the comparative lowness of which seemed
accounted for by the character of the neighbourhood and the abominable
state of unrepair of the place.
"Would it be possible to rent a single floor?"
The long-nosed man did not know; they might….
"Who are they?"
The man gave Oleron the name of a firm of lawyers in Lincoln's Inn.
"You might mention my name—Barrett," he added.
Pressure of work prevented Oleron from going down to Lincoln's Inn that
afternoon, but he went on the morrow, and was instantly offered the
whole house as a purchase for fifty pounds down, the remainder of the
purchase-money to remain on mortgage. It took him half an hour to
disabuse the lawyer's mind of the idea that he wished anything more of
the place than to rent a single floor of it. This made certain hums and
haws of a difference, and the lawyer was by no means certain that it lay
within his power to do as Oleron suggested; but it was finally extracted
from him that, provided the notice-boards were allowed to remain up, and
that, provided it was agreed that in the event of the whole house
letting, the arrangement should terminate automatically without further
notice, something might be done. That the old place should suddenly let
over his head seemed to Oleron the slightest of risks to take, and he
promised a decision within a week. On the morrow he visited the house
again, went through it from top to bottom, and then went home to his
lodgings to take a bath.
He was immensely taken with that portion of the house he had already
determined should be his own. Scraped clean and repainted, and with
that old furniture of Oleron's grandmother's, it ought to be entirely
charming. He went to the storage warehouse to refresh his memory of his
half-forgotten belongings, and to take measurements; and thence he went
to a decorator's. He was very busy with his regular work, and could have
wished that the notice-board had caught his attention either a few months
earlier or else later in the year; but the quickest way would be to
suspend work entirely until after his removal….
A fortnight later his first floor was painted throughout in a tender,
elder-flower white, the paint was dry, and Oleron was in the middle of
his installation. He was animated, delighted; and he rubbed his hands as
he polished and made disposals of his grandmother's effects—the tall
lattice-paned china cupboard with its Derby and Mason and Spode, the
large folding Sheraton table, the long, low bookshelves (he had had two
of them "copied"), the chairs, the Sheffield candlesticks, the riveted
rose-bowls. These things he set against his newly painted elder-white
walls—walls of wood panelled in the happiest proportions, and moulded
and coffered to the low-seated window-recesses in a mood of gaiety and
rest that the builders of rooms no longer know. The ceilings were lofty,
and faintly painted with an old pattern of stars; even the tapering
mouldings of his iron fireplace were as delicately designed as jewellery;
and Oleron walked about rubbing his hands, frequently stopping for the
mere pleasure of the glimpses from white room to white room….
"Charming, charming!" he said to himself. "I wonder what Elsie Bengough
will think of this!"
He bought a bolt and a Yale lock for his door, and shut off his quarters
from the rest of the house. If he now wanted to read in bed, his book
could be had for stepping into the next room. All the time, he thought
how exceedingly lucky he was to get the place. He put up a hat-rack in
the little square hall, and hung up his hats and caps and coats; and
passers through the small triangular square late at night, looking up
over the little serried row of wooden "To Let" hatchets, could see the
light within Oleron's red blinds, or else the sudden darkening of one
blind and the illumination of another, as Oleron, candlestick in hand,
passed from room to room, making final settlings of his furniture, or
preparing to resume the work that his removal had interrupted.
As far as the chief business of his life—his writing—was concerned,
Paul Oleron treated the world a good deal better than he was treated by
it; but he seldom took the trouble to strike a balance, or to compute how
far, at forty-four years of age, he was behind his points on the
handicap. To have done so wouldn't have altered matters, and it might
have depressed Oleron. He had chosen his path, and was committed to it
beyond possibility of withdrawal. Perhaps he had chosen it in the days
when he had been easily swayed by something a little disinterested, a
little generous, a little noble; and had he ever thought of questioning
himself he would still have held to it that a life without nobility and
generosity and disinterestedness was no life for him. Only quite
recently, and rarely, had he even vaguely suspected that there was more
in it than this; but it was no good anticipating the day when, he
supposed, he would reach that maximum point of his powers beyond which he
must inevitably decline, and be left face to face with the question
whether it would not have profited him better to have ruled his life
by less exigent ideals.
In the meantime, his removal into the old house with the insurance marks
built into its brick merely interrupted Romilly Bishop at the fifteenth
As this tall man with the lean, ascetic face moved about his new abode,
arranging, changing, altering, hardly yet into his working-stride again,
he gave the impression of almost spinster-like precision and nicety. For
twenty years past, in a score of lodgings, garrets, flats, and rooms
furnished and unfurnished, he had been accustomed to do many things for
himself, and he had discovered that it saves time and temper to be
methodical. He had arranged with the wife of the long-nosed Barrett, a
stout Welsh woman with a falsetto voice, the Merionethshire accent of
which long residence in London had not perceptibly modified, to come
across the square each morning to prepare his breakfast, and also to
"turn the place out" on Saturday mornings; and for the rest, he even
welcomed a little housework as a relaxation from the strain of writing.
His kitchen, together with the adjoining strip of an apartment into
which a modern bath had been fitted, overlooked the alley at the side of
the house; and at one end of it was a large closet with a door, and a
square sliding hatch in the upper part of the door. This had been a
powder-closet, and through the hatch the elaborately dressed head had
been thrust to receive the click and puff of the powder-pistol. Oleron
puzzled a little over this closet; then, as its use occurred to him, he
smiled faintly, a little moved, he knew not by what…. He would have to
put it to a very different purpose from its original one; it would
probably have to serve as his larder…. It was in this closet that
he made a discovery. The back of it was shelved, and, rummaging on an
upper shelf that ran deeply into the wall, Oleron found a couple of
mushroom-shaped old wooden wig-stands. He did not know how they had come
to be there. Doubtless the painters had turned them up somewhere or
other, and had put them there. But his five rooms, as a whole, were
short of cupboard and closet-room; and it was only by the exercise of
some ingenuity that he was able to find places for the bestowal of his
household linen, his boxes, and his seldom-used but not-to-be-destroyed
accumulations of papers.
It was in early spring that Oleron entered on his tenancy, and he was
anxious to have Romilly ready for publication in the coming autumn.
Nevertheless, he did not intend to force its production. Should it demand
longer in the doing, so much the worse; he realised its importance, its
crucial importance, in his artistic development, and it must have its own
length and time. In the workroom he had recently left he had been making
excellent progress; Romilly had begun, as the saying is, to speak and
act of herself; and he did not doubt she would continue to do so the
moment the distraction of his removal was over. This distraction was
almost over; he told himself it was time he pulled himself together
again; and on a March morning he went out, returned again with two great
bunches of yellow daffodils, placed one bunch on his mantelpiece between
the Sheffield sticks and the other on the table before him, and took out
the half-completed manuscript of Romilly Bishop.
But before beginning work he went to a small rosewood cabinet and took
from a drawer his cheque-book and pass-book. He totted them up, and his
monk-like face grew thoughtful. His installation had cost him more than
he had intended it should, and his balance was rather less than fifty
pounds, with no immediate prospect of more.
"Hm! I'd forgotten rugs and chintz curtains and so forth mounted up so,"
said Oleron. "But it would have been a pity to spoil the place for the
want of ten pounds or so…. Well, Romilly simply must be out for the
autumn, that's all. So here goes—"
He drew his papers towards him.
But he worked badly; or, rather, he did not work at all. The square
outside had its own noises, frequent and new, and Oleron could only hope
that he would speedily become accustomed to these. First came hawkers,
with their carts and cries; at midday the children, returning from
school, trooped into the square and swung on Oleron's gate; and when the
children had departed again for afternoon school, an itinerant musician
with a mandolin posted himself beneath Oleron's window and began to
strum. This was a not unpleasant distraction, and Oleron, pushing up his
window, threw the man a penny. Then he returned to his table again….
But it was no good. He came to himself, at long intervals, to find that
he had been looking about his room and wondering how it had formerly
been furnished—whether a settee in buttercup or petunia satin had stood
under the farther window, whether from the centre moulding of the light
lofty ceiling had depended a glimmering crystal chandelier, or where the
tambour-frame or the picquet-table had stood…. No, it was no good; he
had far better be frankly doing nothing than getting fruitlessly tired;
and he decided that he would take a walk, but, chancing to sit down for a
moment, dozed in his chair instead.
"This won't do," he yawned when he awoke at half-past four in the
afternoon; "I must do better than this to-morrow—"
And he felt so deliciously lazy that for some minutes he even
contemplated the breach of an appointment he had for the evening.
The next morning he sat down to work without even permitting himself to
answer one of his three letters—two of them tradesmen's accounts, the
third a note from Miss Bengough, forwarded from his old address. It was a
jolly day of white and blue, with a gay noisy wind and a subtle turn in
the colour of growing things; and over and over again, once or twice a
minute, his room became suddenly light and then subdued again, as the
shining white clouds rolled north-eastwards over the square. The soft
fitful illumination was reflected in the polished surface of the table
and even in the footworn old floor; and the morning noises had begun
Oleron made a pattern of dots on the paper before him, and then broke off
to move the jar of daffodils exactly opposite the centre of a creamy
panel. Then he wrote a sentence that ran continuously for a couple of
lines, after which it broke on into notes and jottings. For a time he
succeeded in persuading himself that in making these memoranda he was
really working; then he rose and began to pace his room. As he did so, he
was struck by an idea. It was that the place might possibly be a little
better for more positive colour. It was, perhaps, a thought too
pale—mild and sweet as a kind old face, but a little devitalised, even
wan…. Yes, decidedly it would bear a robuster note—more and richer
flowers, and possibly some warm and gay stuff for cushions for the
"Of course, I really can't afford it," he muttered, as he went for a
two-foot and began to measure the width of the window recesses….
In stooping to measure a recess, his attitude suddenly changed to one of
interest and attention. Presently he rose again, rubbing his hands with
"Oho, oho!" he said. "These look to me very much like window-boxes,
nailed up. We must look into this! Yes, those are boxes, or
I'm … oho, this is an adventure!"
On that wall of his sitting-room there were two windows (the third was in
another corner), and, beyond the open bedroom door, on the same wall, was
another. The seats of all had been painted, repainted, and painted again;
and Oleron's investigating finger had barely detected the old nailheads
beneath the paint. Under the ledge over which he stooped an old keyhole
also had been puttied up. Oleron took out his penknife.
He worked carefully for five minutes, and then went into the kitchen for
a hammer and chisel. Driving the chisel cautiously under the seat, he
started the whole lid slightly. Again using the penknife, he cut along
the hinged edge and outward along the ends; and then he fetched a
wedge and a wooden mallet.
"Now for our little mystery—" he said.
The sound of the mallet on the wedge seemed, in that sweet and pale
apartment, somehow a little brutal—nay, even shocking. The panelling
rang and rattled and vibrated to the blows like a sounding-board. The
whole house seemed to echo; from the roomy cellarage to the garrets
above a flock of echoes seemed to awake; and the sound got a little on
Oleron's nerves. All at once he paused, fetched a duster, and muffled the
mallet…. When the edge was sufficiently raised he put his fingers under
it and lifted. The paint flaked and starred a little; the rusty old
nails squeaked and grunted; and the lid came up, laying open the box
beneath. Oleron looked into it. Save for a couple of inches of scurf and
mould and old cobwebs it was empty.
"No treasure there," said Oleron, a little amused that he should have
fancied there might have been. "Romilly will still have to be out by
the autumn. Let's have a look at the others."
He turned to the second window.
The raising of the two remaining seats occupied him until well into the
afternoon. That of the bedroom, like the first, was empty; but from the
second seat of his sitting-room he drew out something yielding and folded
and furred over an inch thick with dust. He carried the object into the
kitchen, and having swept it over a bucket, took a duster to it.
It was some sort of a large bag, of an ancient frieze-like material, and
when unfolded it occupied the greater part of the small kitchen floor. In
shape it was an irregular, a very irregular, triangle, and it had a
couple of wide flaps, with the remains of straps and buckles. The patch
that had been uppermost in the folding was of a faded yellowish brown;
but the rest of it was of shades of crimson that varied according to the
exposure of the parts of it.
"Now whatever can that have been?" Oleron mused as he stood surveying
it…. "I give it up. Whatever it is, it's settled my work for today,
He folded the object up carelessly and thrust it into a corner of the
kitchen; then, taking pans and brushes and an old knife, he returned to
the sitting-room and began to scrape and to wash and to line with paper
his newly discovered receptacles. When he had finished, he put his spare
boots and books and papers into them; and he closed the lids again,
amused with his little adventure, but also a little anxious for the hour
to come when he should settle fairly down to his work again.
It piqued Oleron a little that his friend, Miss Bengough, should dismiss
with a glance the place he himself had found so singularly winning.
Indeed she scarcely lifted her eyes to it. But then she had always been
more or less like that—a little indifferent to the graces of life,
careless of appearances, and perhaps a shade more herself when she ate
biscuits from a paper bag than when she dined with greater observance of
the convenances. She was an unattached journalist of thirty-four, large,
showy, fair as butter, pink as a dog-rose, reminding one of a florist's
picked specimen bloom, and given to sudden and ample movements and moist
and explosive utterances. She "pulled a better living out of the pool"
(as she expressed it) than Oleron did; and by cunningly disguised puffs
of drapers and haberdashers she "pulled" also the greater part of her
very varied wardrobe. She left small whirlwinds of air behind her when
she moved, in which her veils and scarves fluttered and spun.
Oleron heard the flurry of her skirts on his staircase and her single
loud knock at his door when he had been a month in his new abode. Her
garments brought in the outer air, and she flung a bundle of ladies'
journals down on a chair.
"Don't knock off for me," she said across a mouthful of large-headed
hatpins as she removed her hat and veil. "I didn't know whether you were
straight yet, so I've brought some sandwiches for lunch. You've got
coffee, I suppose?—No, don't get up—I'll find the kitchen—"
"Oh, that's all right, I'll clear these things away. To tell the truth,
I'm rather glad to be interrupted," said Oleron.
He gathered his work together and put it away. She was already in the
kitchen; he heard the running of water into the kettle. He joined her,
and ten minutes later followed her back to the sitting-room with the
coffee and sandwiches on a tray. They sat down, with the tray on a small
table between them.
"Well, what do you think of the new place?" Oleron asked as she poured
"Hm!… Anybody'd think you were going to get married, Paul."
"Oh no. But it's an improvement on some of them, isn't it?"
"Is it? I suppose it is; I don't know. I liked the last place, in spite
of the black ceiling and no watertap. How's Romilly?"
Oleron thumbed his chin.
"Hm! I'm rather ashamed to tell you. The fact is, I've not got on very
well with it. But it will be all right on the night, as you used to say."
"Got any of it you care to read to me?…"
Oleron had long been in the habit of reading portions of his work to Miss
Bengough occasionally. Her comments were always quick and practical,
sometimes directly useful, sometimes indirectly suggestive. She, in
return for his confidence, always kept all mention of her own work
sedulously from him. His, she said, was "real work"; hers merely filled
space, not always even grammatically.
"I'm afraid there isn't," Oleron replied, still meditatively dry-shaving
his chin. Then he added, with a little burst of candour, "The fact
is, Elsie, I've not written—not actually written—very much more of
it—any more of it, in fact. But, of course, that doesn't mean I
haven't progressed. I've progressed, in one sense, rather alarmingly.
I'm now thinking of reconstructing the whole thing."
Miss Bengough gave a gasp. "Reconstructing!"
"Making Romilly herself a different type of woman. Somehow, I've begun to
feel that I'm not getting the most out of her. As she stands, I've
certainly lost interest in her to some extent."
"But—but—" Miss Bengough protested, "you had her so real, so living,
Oleron smiled faintly. He had been quite prepared for Miss Bengough's
disapproval. He wasn't surprised that she liked Romilly as she at present
existed; she would. Whether she realised it or not, there was much of
herself in his fictitious creation. Naturally Romilly would seem "real,"
"living," to her….
"But are you really serious, Paul?" Miss Bengough asked presently, with a
"You're really going to scrap those fifteen chapters?"
"I didn't exactly say that."
"That fine, rich love-scene?"
"I should only do it reluctantly, and for the sake of something I thought
"And that beautiful, _beau_tiful description of Romilly on the shore?"
"It wouldn't necessarily be wasted," he said a little uneasily.
But Miss Bengough made a large and windy gesture, and then let him have
"Really, you are too trying!" she broke out. "I do wish sometimes you'd
remember you're human, and live in a world! You know I'd be the last to
wish you to lower your standard one inch, but it wouldn't be lowering it
to bring it within human comprehension. Oh, you're sometimes altogether
too godlike!… Why, it would be a wicked, criminal waste of your powers
to destroy those fifteen chapters! Look at it reasonably, now. You've
been working for nearly twenty years; you've now got what you've been
working for almost within your grasp; your affairs are at a most critical
stage (oh, don't tell me; I know you're about at the end of your money);
and here you are, deliberately proposing to withdraw a thing that will
probably make your name, and to substitute for it something that ten to
one nobody on earth will ever want to read—and small blame to them!
Really, you try my patience!"
Oleron had shaken his head slowly as she had talked. It was an old story
between them. The noisy, able, practical journalist was an admirable
friend—up to a certain point; beyond that … well, each of us knows
that point beyond which we stand alone. Elsie Bengough sometimes said
that had she had one-tenth part of Oleron's genius there were few things
she could not have done—thus making that genius a quantitatively
divisible thing, a sort of ingredient, to be added to or subtracted
from in the admixture of his work. That it was a qualitative thing,
essential, indivisible, informing, passed her comprehension. Their
spirits parted company at that point. Oleron knew it. She did not appear
to know it.
"Yes, yes, yes," he said a little wearily, by-and-by, "practically you're
quite right, entirely right, and I haven't a word to say. If I could only
turn Romilly over to you you'd make an enormous success of her. But
that can't be, and I, for my part, am seriously doubting whether she's
worth my while. You know what that means."
"What does it mean?" she demanded bluntly.
"Well," he said, smiling wanly, "what does it mean when you're
convinced a thing isn't worth doing? You simply don't do it."
Miss Bengough's eyes swept the ceiling for assistance against this
"What utter rubbish!" she broke out at last. "Why, when I saw you last
you were simply oozing Romilly; you were turning her off at the rate of
four chapters a week; if you hadn't moved you'd have had her three-parts
done by now. What on earth possessed you to move right in the middle of
your most important work?"
Oleron tried to put her off with a recital of inconveniences, but she
wouldn't have it. Perhaps in her heart she partly suspected the reason.
He was simply mortally weary of the narrow circumstances of his life. He
had had twenty years of it—twenty years of garrets and roof-chambers
and dingy flats and shabby lodgings, and he was tired of dinginess and
shabbiness. The reward was as far off as ever—or if it was not, he no
longer cared as once he would have cared to put out his hand and take it.
It is all very well to tell a man who is at the point of exhaustion that
only another effort is required of him; if he cannot make it he is as far
off as ever….
"Anyway," Oleron summed up, "I'm happier here than I've been for a long
time. That's some sort of a justification."
"And doing no work," said Miss Bengough pointedly.
At that a trifling petulance that had been gathering in Oleron came to a
"And why should I do nothing but work?" he demanded. "How much happier am
I for it? I don't say I don't love my work—when it's done; but I hate
doing it. Sometimes it's an intolerable burden that I simply long to be
rid of. Once in many weeks it has a moment, one moment, of glow and
thrill for me; I remember the days when it was all glow and thrill; and
now I'm forty-four, and it's becoming drudgery. Nobody wants it; I'm
ceasing to want it myself; and if any ordinary sensible man were to ask
me whether I didn't think I was a fool to go on, I think I should agree
that I was."
Miss Bengough's comely pink face was serious.
"But you knew all that, many, many years ago, Paul—and still you chose
it," she said in a low voice.
"Well, and how should I have known?" he demanded. "I didn't know. I was
told so. My heart, if you like, told me so, and I thought I knew. Youth
always thinks it knows; then one day it discovers that it is nearly
"—forty-four, then—and it finds that the glamour isn't in front,
but behind. Yes, I knew and chose, if that's knowing and
choosing … but it's a costly choice we're called on to make when
Miss Bengough's eyes were on the floor. Without moving them she said,
"You're not regretting it, Paul?"
"Am I not?" he took her up. "Upon my word, I've lately thought I am! What
do I get in return for it all?"
"You know what you get," she replied.
He might have known from her tone what else he could have had for the
holding up of a finger—herself. She knew, but could not tell him, that
he could have done no better thing for himself. Had he, any time these
ten years, asked her to marry him, she would have replied quietly,
"Very well; when?" He had never thought of it….
"Yours is the real work," she continued quietly. "Without you we jackals
couldn't exist. You and a few like you hold everything upon your
For a minute there was a silence. Then it occurred to Oleron that this
was common vulgar grumbling. It was not his habit. Suddenly he rose and
began to stack cups and plates on the tray.
"Sorry you catch me like this, Elsie," he said, with a little
laugh…. "No, I'll take them out; then we'll go for a walk, if you
He carried out the tray, and then began to show Miss Bengough round his
flat. She made few comments. In the kitchen she asked what an old faded
square of reddish frieze was, that Mrs. Barrett used as a cushion for her
"That? I should be glad if you could tell me what it is," Oleron
replied as he unfolded the bag and related the story of its finding in
"I think I know what it is," said Miss Bengough. "It's been used to wrap
up a harp before putting it into its case."
"By Jove, that's probably just what it was," said Oleron. "I could make
neither head nor tail of it…."
They finished the tour of the flat, and returned to the sitting-room.
"And who lives in the rest of the house?" Miss Bengough asked.
"I dare say a tramp sleeps in the cellar occasionally. Nobody else."
"Hm!… Well, I'll tell you what I think about it, if you like."
"I should like."
"You'll never work here."
"Oh?" said Oleron quickly. "Why not?"
"You'll never finish Romilly here. Why, I don't know, but you won't.
I know it. You'll have to leave before you get on with that book."
He mused for a moment, and then said:
"Isn't that a little—prejudiced, Elsie?"
"Perfectly ridiculous. As an argument it hasn't a leg to stand on. But
there it is," she replied, her mouth once more full of the large-headed
Oleron was reaching down his hat and coat. He laughed.
"I can only hope you're entirely wrong," he said, "for I shall be in a
serious mess if Romilly isn't out in the autumn."
As Oleron sat by his fire that evening, pondering Miss Bengough's
prognostication that difficulties awaited him in his work, he came to the
conclusion that it would have been far better had she kept her beliefs to
herself. No man does a thing better for having his confidence damped at
the outset, and to speak of difficulties is in a sense to make them.
Speech itself becomes a deterrent act, to which other discouragements
accrete until the very event of which warning is given is as likely as
not to come to pass. He heartily confounded her. An influence hostile
to the completion of Romilly had been born.
And in some illogical, dogmatic way women seem to have, she had attached
this antagonistic influence to his new abode. Was ever anything so
absurd! "You'll never finish Romilly here." … Why not? Was this her
idea of the luxury that saps the springs of action and brings a man down
to indolence and dropping out of the race? The place was well enough—it
was entirely charming, for that matter—but it was not so demoralising as
all that! No; Elsie had missed the mark that time….
He moved his chair to look round the room that smiled, positively
smiled, in the firelight. He too smiled, as if pity was to be
entertained for a maligned apartment. Even that slight lack of robust
colour he had remarked was not noticeable in the soft glow. The drawn
chintz curtains—they had a flowered and trellised pattern, with baskets
and oaten pipes—fell in long quiet folds to the window-seats; the rows
of bindings in old bookcases took the light richly; the last trace of
sallowness had gone with the daylight; and, if the truth must be told,
it had been Elsie herself who had seemed a little out of the picture.
That reflection struck him a little, and presently he returned to it.
Yes, the room had, quite accidentally, done Miss Bengough a disservice
that afternoon. It had, in some subtle but unmistakable way, placed her,
marked a contrast of qualities. Assuming for the sake of argument the
slightly ridiculous proposition that the room in which Oleron sat was
characterised by a certain sparsity and lack of vigour; so much the worse
for Miss Bengough; she certainly erred on the side of redundancy and
general muchness. And if one must contrast abstract qualities, Oleron
inclined to the austere in taste….
Yes, here Oleron had made a distinct discovery; he wondered he had not
made it before. He pictured Miss Bengough again as she had appeared
that afternoon—large, showy, moistly pink, with that quality of the
prize bloom exuding, as it were, from her; and instantly she suffered in
his thought. He even recognised now that he had noticed something odd at
the time, and that unconsciously his attitude, even while she had been
there, had been one of criticism. The mechanism of her was a little
obvious; her melting humidity was the result of analysable processes; and
behind her there had seemed to lurk some dim shape emblematic of
mortality. He had never, during the ten years of their intimacy, dreamed
for a moment of asking her to marry him; none the less, he now felt for
the first time a thankfulness that he had not done so….
Then, suddenly and swiftly, his face flamed that he should be thinking
thus of his friend. What! Elsie Bengough, with whom he had spent weeks
and weeks of afternoons—she, the good chum, on whose help he would have
counted had all the rest of the world failed him—she, whose loyalty to
him would not, he knew, swerve as long as there was breath in her—Elsie
to be even in thought dissected thus! He was an ingrate and a cad….
Had she been there in that moment he would have abased himself before
For ten minutes and more he sat, still gazing into the fire, with that
humiliating red fading slowly from his cheeks. All was still within and
without, save for a tiny musical tinkling that came from his kitchen—the
dripping of water from an imperfectly turned-off tap into the vessel
beneath it. Mechanically he began to beat with his finger to the faintly
heard falling of the drops; the tiny regular movement seemed to hasten
that shameful withdrawal from his face. He grew cool once more; and when
he resumed his meditation he was all unconscious that he took it up again
at the same point….
It was not only her florid superfluity of build that he had approached in
the attitude of criticism; he was conscious also of the wide differences
between her mind and his own. He felt no thankfulness that up to a
certain point their natures had ever run companionably side by side; he
was now full of questions beyond that point. Their intellects diverged;
there was no denying it; and, looking back, he was inclined to doubt
whether there had been any real coincidence. True, he had read his
writings to her and she had appeared to speak comprehendingly and to the
point; but what can a man do who, having assumed that another sees as he
does, is suddenly brought up sharp by something that falsifies and
discredits all that has gone before? He doubted all now…. It did for a
moment occur to him that the man who demands of a friend more than can be
given to him is in danger of losing that friend, but he put the thought
Again he ceased to think, and again moved his finger to the distant
dripping of the tap….
And now (he resumed by-and-by), if these things were true of Elsie
Bengough, they were also true of the creation of which she was the
prototype—Romilly Bishop. And since he could say of Romilly what for
very shame he could not say of Elsie, he gave his thoughts rein. He did
so in that smiling, fire-lighted room, to the accompaniment of the
faintly heard tap.
There was no longer any doubt about it; he hated the central character
of his novel. Even as he had described her physically she overpowered
the senses; she was coarse-fibred, over-coloured, rank. It became true
the moment he formulated his thought; Gulliver had described the
Brobdingnagian maids-of-honour thus: and mentally and spiritually she
corresponded—was unsensitive, limited, common. The model (he closed his
eyes for a moment)—the model stuck out through fifteen vulgar and
blatant chapters to such a pitch that, without seeing the reason, he had
been unable to begin the sixteenth. He marvelled that it had only just
dawned upon him.
And this was to have been his Beatrice, his vision! As Elsie she was to
have gone into the furnace of his art, and she was to have come out the
Woman all men desire! Her thoughts were to have been culled from his own
finest, her form from his dearest dreams, and her setting wherever he
could find one fit for her worth. He had brooded long before making the
attempt; then one day he had felt her stir within him as a mother feels
a quickening, and he had begun to write; and so he had added chapter to
And those fifteen sodden chapters were what he had produced!
Again he sat, softly moving his finger….
Then he bestirred himself.
She must go, all fifteen chapters of her. That was settled. For what was
to take her place his mind was a blank; but one thing at a time; a man
is not excused from taking the wrong course because the right one is not
immediately revealed to him. Better would come if it was to come;
in the meantime—
He rose, fetched the fifteen chapters, and read them over before he
should drop them into the fire.
But instead of putting them into the fire he let them fall from his hand.
He became conscious of the dripping of the tap again. It had a tinkling
gamut of four or five notes, on which it rang irregular changes, and it
was foolishly sweet and dulcimer-like. In his mind Oleron could see the
gathering of each drop, its little tremble on the lip of the tap, and the
tiny percussion of its fall, "Plink—plunk," minimised almost to
inaudibility. Following the lowest note there seemed to be a brief
phrase, irregularly repeated; and presently Oleron found himself waiting
for the recurrence of this phrase. It was quite pretty….
But it did not conduce to wakefulness, and Oleron dozed over his fire.
When he awoke again the fire had burned low and the flames of the candles
were licking the rims of the Sheffield sticks. Sluggishly he rose,
yawned, went his nightly round of door-locks and window-fastenings, and
passed into his bedroom. Soon he slept soundly.
But a curious little sequel followed on the morrow. Mrs. Barrett usually
tapped, not at his door, but at the wooden wall beyond which lay Oleron's
bed; and then Oleron rose, put on his dressing-gown, and admitted her. He
was not conscious that as he did so that morning he hummed an air; but
Mrs. Barrett lingered with her hand on the door-knob and her face a
little averted and smiling.
"De-ar me!" her soft falsetto rose. "But that will be a very o-ald tune,
Mr. Oleron! I will not have heard it this for-ty years!"
"What tune?" Oleron asked.
"The tune, indeed, that you was humming, sir."
Oleron had his thumb in the flap of a letter. It remained there.
"I was humming?… Sing it, Mrs. Barrett."
Mrs. Barrett prut-prutted.
"I have no voice for singing, Mr. Oleron; it was Ann Pugh was the singer
of our family; but the tune will be very o-ald, and it is called 'The
Beckoning Fair One.'"
"Try to sing it," said Oleron, his thumb still in the envelope; and Mrs.
Barrett, with much dimpling and confusion, hummed the air.
"They do say it was sung to a harp, Mr. Oleron, and it will be very
o-ald," she concluded.
"And I was singing that?"
"Indeed you wass. I would not be likely to tell you lies."
With a "Very well—let me have breakfast," Oleron opened his letter; but
the trifling circumstance struck him as more odd than he would have
admitted to himself. The phrase he had hummed had been that which he had
associated with the falling from the tap on the evening before.
Even more curious than that the commonplace dripping of an ordinary
water-tap should have tallied so closely with an actually existing air
was another result it had, namely, that it awakened, or seemed to awaken,
in Oleron an abnormal sensitiveness to other noises of the old house. It
has been remarked that silence obtains its fullest and most impressive
quality when it is broken by some minute sound; and, truth to tell, the
place was never still. Perhaps the mildness of the spring air operated on
its torpid old timbers; perhaps Oleron's fires caused it to stretch its
old anatomy; and certainly a whole world of insect life bored and
burrowed in its baulks and joists. At any rate, Oleron had only to sit
quiet in his chair and to wait for a minute or two in order to become
aware of such a change in the auditory scale as comes upon a man who,
conceiving the midsummer woods to be motionless and still, all at once
finds his ear sharpened to the crepitation of a myriad insects.
And he smiled to think of man's arbitrary distinction between that which
has life and that which has not. Here, quite apart from such recognisable
sounds as the scampering of mice, the falling of plaster behind his
panelling, and the popping of purses or coffins from his fire, was a
whole house talking to him had he but known its language. Beams settled
with a tired sigh into their old mortices; creatures ticked in the walls;
joints cracked, boards complained; with no palpable stirring of the air
window-sashes changed their positions with a soft knock in their frames.
And whether the place had life in this sense or not, it had at all events
a winsome personality. It needed but an hour of musing for Oleron to
conceive the idea that, as his own body stood in friendly relation to his
soul, so, by an extension and an attenuation, his habitation might
fantastically be supposed to stand in some relation to himself. He even
amused himself with the far-fetched fancy that he might so identify
himself with the place that some future tenant, taking possession, might
regard it as in a sense haunted. It would be rather a joke if he, a
perfectly harmless author, with nothing on his mind worse than a novel he
had discovered he must begin again, should turn out to be laying the
foundation of a future ghost!…
In proportion, however, as he felt this growing attachment to the fabric
of his abode, Elsie Bengough, from being merely unattracted, began to
show a dislike of the place that was more and more marked. And she did
not scruple to speak of her aversion.
"It doesn't belong to to-day at all, and for you especially it's bad,"
she said with decision. "You're only too ready to let go your hold on
actual things and to slip into apathy; you ought to be in a place
with concrete floors and a patent gas-meter and a tradesmen's lift. And
it would do you all the good in the world if you had a job that made you
scramble and rub elbows with your fellow-men. Now, if I could get you a
job, for, say, two or three days a week, one that would allow you heaps
of time for your proper work—would you take it?"
Somehow, Oleron resented a little being diagnosed like this. He thanked
Miss Bengough, but without a smile.
"Thank you, but I don't think so. After all each of us has his own life
to live," he could not refrain from adding.
"His own life to live!… How long is it since you were out, Paul?"
"About two hours."
"I don't mean to buy stamps or to post a letter. How long is it since you
had anything like a stretch?"
"Oh, some little time perhaps. I don't know."
"Since I was here last?"
"I haven't been out much."
"And has Romilly progressed much better for your being cooped up?"
"I think she has. I'm laying the foundations of her. I shall begin the
actual writing presently."
It seemed as if Miss Bengough had forgotten their tussle about the first
Romilly. She frowned, turned half away, and then quickly turned again.
"Ah!… So you've still got that ridiculous idea in your head?"
"If you mean," said Oleron slowly, "that I've discarded the old
Romilly, and am at work on a new one, you're right. I have still got
that idea in my head."
Something uncordial in his tone struck her; but she was a fighter. His
own absurd sensitiveness hardened her. She gave a "Pshaw!" of impatience.
"Where is the old one?" she demanded abruptly.
"Why?" asked Oleron.
"I want to see it. I want to show some of it to you. I want, if you're
not wool-gathering entirely, to bring you back to your senses."
This time it was he who turned his back. But when he turned round again
he spoke more gently.
"It's no good, Elsie. I'm responsible for the way I go, and you must
allow me to go it—even if it should seem wrong to you. Believe me, I
am giving thought to it…. The manuscript? I was on the point of burning
it, but I didn't. It's in that window-seat, if you must see it."
Miss Bengough crossed quickly to the window-seat, and lifted the lid.
Suddenly she gave a little exclamation, and put the back of her hand
to her mouth. She spoke over her shoulder:
"You ought to knock those nails in, Paul," she said.
He strode to her side.
"What? What is it? What's the matter?" he asked. "I did knock them
in—or, rather, pulled them out."
"You left enough to scratch with," she replied, showing her hand. From
the upper wrist to the knuckle of the little finger a welling red wound
"Good—Gracious!" Oleron ejaculated…. "Here, come to the bathroom and
bathe it quickly—"
He hurried her to the bathroom, turned on warm water, and bathed and
cleansed the bad gash. Then, still holding the hand, he turned cold water
on it, uttering broken phrases of astonishment and concern.
"Good Lord, how did that happen! As far as I knew I'd … is this water
too cold? Does that hurt? I can't imagine how on earth … there; that'll
"No—one moment longer—I can bear it," she murmured, her eyes closed….
Presently he led her back to the sitting-room and bound the hand in one
of his handkerchiefs; but his face did not lose its expression of
perplexity. He had spent half a day in opening and making serviceable the
three window-boxes, and he could not conceive how he had come to leave an
inch and a half of rusty nail standing in the wood. He himself had opened
the lids of each of them a dozen times and had not noticed any nail; but
there it was….
"It shall come out now, at all events," he muttered, as he went for a
pair of pincers. And he made no mistake about it that time.
Elsie Bengough had sunk into a chair, and her face was rather white; but
in her hand was the manuscript of Romilly. She had not finished with
Romilly yet. Presently she returned to the charge.
"Oh, Paul, it will be the greatest mistake you ever, ever made if you
do not publish this!" she said.
He hung his head, genuinely distressed. He couldn't get that incident of
the nail out of his head, and Romilly occupied a second place in his
thoughts for the moment. But still she insisted; and when presently he
spoke it was almost as if he asked her pardon for something.
"What can I say, Elsie? I can only hope that when you see the new
version, you'll see how right I am. And if in spite of all you don't
like her, well …" he made a hopeless gesture. "Don't you see that I
must be guided by my own lights?"
She was silent.
"Come, Elsie," he said gently. "We've got along well so far; don't let us
split on this."
The last words had hardly passed his lips before he regretted them. She
had been nursing her injured hand, with her eyes once more closed; but
her lips and lids quivered simultaneously. Her voice shook as she spoke.
"I can't help saying it, Paul, but you are so greatly changed."
"Hush, Elsie," he murmured soothingly; "you've had a shock; rest for a
while. How could I change?"
"I don't know, but you are. You've not been yourself ever since you came
here. I wish you'd never seen the place. It's stopped your work, it's
making you into a person I hardly know, and it's made me horribly anxious
about you…. Oh, how my hand is beginning to throb!"
"Poor child!" he murmured. "Will you let me take you to a doctor and have
it properly dressed?"
"No—I shall be all right presently—I'll keep it raised——"
She put her elbow on the back of her chair, and the bandaged hand rested
lightly on his shoulder.
At that touch an entirely new anxiety stirred suddenly within him.
Hundreds of times previously, on their jaunts and excursions, she had
slipped her hand within his arm as she might have slipped it into the arm
of a brother, and he had accepted the little affectionate gesture as a
brother might have accepted it. But now, for the first time, there rushed
into his mind a hundred startling questions. Her eyes were still closed,
and her head had fallen pathetically back; and there was a lost and
ineffable smile on her parted lips. The truth broke in upon him. Good
God!… And he had never divined it!
And stranger than all was that, now that he did see that she was lost in
love of him, there came to him, not sorrow and humility and abasement,
but something else that he struggled in vain against—something entirely
strange and new, that, had he analysed it, he would have found to be
petulance and irritation and resentment and ungentleness. The sudden
selfish prompting mastered him before he was aware. He all but gave it
words. What was she doing there at all? Why was she not getting on with
her own work? Why was she here interfering with his? Who had given her
this guardianship over him that lately she had put forward so
assertively?—"Changed?" It was she, not himself, who had changed….
But by the time she had opened her eyes again he had overcome his
resentment sufficiently to speak gently, albeit with reserve.
"I wish you would let me take you to a doctor."
"No, thank you, Paul," she said. "I'll go now. If I need a dressing I'll
get one; take the other hand, please. Good-bye—"
He did not attempt to detain her. He walked with her to the foot of the
stairs. Half-way along the narrow alley she turned.
"It would be a long way to come if you happened not to be in," she said;
"I'll send you a postcard the next time."
At the gate she turned again.
"Leave here, Paul," she said, with a mournful look. "Everything's wrong
with this house."
Then she was gone.
Oleron returned to his room. He crossed straight to the window-box. He
opened the lid and stood long looking at it. Then he closed it again and
"That's rather frightening," he muttered. "It's simply not possible that
I should not have removed that nail…."
Oleron knew very well what Elsie had meant when she had said that her
next visit would be preceded by a postcard. She, too, had realised that
at last, at last he knew—knew, and didn't want her. It gave him a
miserable, pitiful pang, therefore, when she came again within a week,
knocking at the door unannounced. She spoke from the landing; she did not
intend to stay, she said; and he had to press her before she would so
much as enter.
Her excuse for calling was that she had heard of an inquiry for short
stories that he might be wise to follow up. He thanked her. Then, her
business over, she seemed anxious to get away again. Oleron did not seek
to detain her; even he saw through the pretext of the stories; and he
accompanied her down the stairs.
But Elsie Bengough had no luck whatever in that house. A second accident
befell her. Half-way down the staircase there was the sharp sound of
splintering wood, and she checked a loud cry. Oleron knew the woodwork to
be old, but he himself had ascended and descended frequently enough
Elsie had put her foot through one of the stairs.
He sprang to her side in alarm.
"Oh, I say! My poor girl!"
She laughed hysterically.
"It's my weight—I know I'm getting fat—"
"Keep still—let me clear these splinters away," he muttered between his
She continued to laugh and sob that it was her weight—she was getting
He thrust downwards at the broken boards. The extrication was no easy
matter, and her torn boot showed him how badly the foot and ankle
within it must be abraded.
"Good God—good God!" he muttered over and over again.
"I shall be too heavy for anything soon," she sobbed and laughed.
But she refused to reascend and to examine her hurt.
"No, let me go quickly—let me go quickly," she repeated.
"But it's a frightful gash!"
"No—not so bad—let me get away quickly—I'm—I'm not wanted."
At her words, that she was not wanted, his head dropped as if she had
given him a buffet.
"Elsie!" he choked, brokenly and shocked.
But she too made a quick gesture, as if she put something violently
"Oh, Paul, not that—not you—of course I do mean that too in a
sense—oh, you know what I mean!… But if the other can't be, spare
me this now! I—I wouldn't have come, but—but—oh, I did, I did try to
It was intolerable, heartbreaking; but what could he do—what could he
say? He did not love her…
"Let me go—I'm not wanted—let me take away what's left of me—"
"Dear Elsie—you are very dear to me—"
But again she made the gesture, as of putting something violently aside.
"No, not that—not anything less—don't offer me anything less—leave me
a little pride—"
"Let me get my hat and coat—let me take you to a doctor," he muttered.
But she refused. She refused even the support of his arm. She gave
another unsteady laugh.
"I'm sorry I broke your stairs, Paul…. You will go and see about the
short stories, won't you?"
"Then if you won't see a doctor, will you go across the square and let
Mrs. Barrett look at you? Look, there's Barrett passing now—"
The long-nosed Barrett was looking curiously down the alley, but as
Oleron was about to call him he made off without a word. Elsie seemed
anxious for nothing so much as to be clear of the place, and finally
promised to go straight to a doctor, but insisted on going alone.
"Good-bye," she said.
And Oleron watched her until she was past the hatchet-like "To Let"
boards, as if he feared that even they might fall upon her and maim her.
That night Oleron did not dine. He had far too much on his mind. He
walked from room to room of his flat, as if he could have walked away
from Elsie Bengough's haunting cry that still rang in his ears. "I'm
not wanted—don't offer me anything less—let me take away what's left
Oh, if he could only have persuaded himself that he loved her!
He walked until twilight fell, then, without lighting candles, he stirred
up the fire and flung himself into a chair.
Poor, poor Elsie!…
But even while his heart ached for her, it was out of the question.
If only he had known! If only he had used common observation! But
those walks, those sisterly takings of the arm—what a fool he had
been!… Well, it was too late now. It was she, not he, who must now
act—act by keeping away. He would help her all he could. He himself
would not sit in her presence. If she came, he would hurry her out again
as fast as he could…. Poor, poor Elsie!
His room grew dark; the fire burned dead; and he continued to sit,
wincing from time to time as a fresh tortured phrase rang again in his
Then suddenly, he knew not why, he found himself anxious for her in a new
sense—uneasy about her personal safety. A horrible fancy that even then
she might be looking over an embankment down into dark water, that she
might even now be glancing up at the hook on the door, took him. Women
had been known to do those things…. Then there would be an inquest, and
he himself would be called upon to identify her, and would be asked how
she had come by an ill-healed wound on the hand and a bad abrasion of the
ankle. Barrett would say that he had seen her leaving his house….
Then he recognised that his thoughts were morbid. By an effort of will he
put them aside, and sat for a while listening to the faint creakings
and tickings and rappings within his panelling…. If only he could have
married her!… But he couldn't. Her face had risen before him again
as he had seen it on the stairs, drawn with pain and ugly and swollen
with tears. Ugly—yes, positively blubbered; if tears were women's
weapons, as they were said to be, such tears were weapons turned against
themselves … suicide again….
Then all at once he found himself attentively considering her two
Extraordinary they had been, both of them. He could not have left that
old nail standing in the wood; why, he had fetched tools specially from
the kitchen; and he was convinced that that step that had broken beneath
her weight had been as sound as the others. It was inexplicable. If these
things could happen, anything could happen. There was not a beam nor a
jamb in the place that might not fall without warning, not a plank that
might not crash inwards, not a nail that might not become a dagger. The
whole place was full of life even now; as he sat there in the dark he
heard its crowds of noises as if the house had been one great
Only half conscious that he did so, he had been sitting for some time
identifying these noises, attributing to each crack or creak or knock its
material cause; but there was one noise which, again not fully conscious
of the omission, he had not sought to account for. It had last come some
minutes ago; it came again now—a sort of soft sweeping rustle that
seemed to hold an almost inaudibly minute crackling. For half a minute or
so it had Oleron's attention; then his heavy thoughts were of Elsie
He was nearer to loving her in that moment than he had ever been. He
thought how to some men their loved ones were but the dearer for those
poor mortal blemishes that tell us we are but sojourners on earth, with a
common fate not far distant that makes it hardly worth while to do
anything but love for the time remaining. Strangling sobs, blearing
tears, bodies buffeted by sickness, hearts and mind callous and hard with
the rubs of the world—how little love there would be were these things a
barrier to love! In that sense he did love Elsie Bengough. What her
happiness had never moved in him her sorrow almost awoke….
Suddenly his meditation went. His ear had once more become conscious
of that soft and repeated noise—the long sweep with the almost
inaudible crackle in it. Again and again it came, with a curious
insistence and urgency. It quickened a little as he became increasingly
attentive … it seemed to Oleron that it grew louder….
All at once he started bolt upright in his chair, tense and listening.
The silky rustle came again; he was trying to attach it to something….
The next moment he had leapt to his feet, unnerved and terrified. His
chair hung poised for a moment, and then went over, setting the
fire-irons clattering as it fell. There was only one noise in the world
like that which had caused him to spring thus to his feet….
The next time it came Oleron felt behind him at the empty air with his
hand, and backed slowly until he found himself against the wall.
"God in Heaven!" The ejaculation broke from Oleron's lips. The sound had
The next moment he had given a high cry.
"What is it? What's there? Who's there?"
A sound of scuttling caused his knees to bend under him for a moment; but
that, he knew, was a mouse. That was not something that his stomach
turned sick and his mind reeled to entertain. That other sound, the like
of which was not in the world, had now entirely ceased; and again he
He called and continued to call; and then another terror, a terror of the
sound of his own voice, seized him. He did not dare to call again. His
shaking hand went to his pocket for a match, but found none. He thought
there might be matches on the mantelpiece—
He worked his way to the mantelpiece round a little recess, without for a
moment leaving the wall. Then his hand encountered the mantelpiece, and
groped along it. A box of matches fell to the hearth. He could just see
them in the firelight, but his hand could not pick them up until he had
cornered them inside the fender.
Then he rose and struck a light.
The room was as usual. He struck a second match. A candle stood on the
table. He lighted it, and the flame sank for a moment and then burned up
clear. Again he looked round.
There was nothing.
There was nothing; but there had been something, and might still be
something. Formerly, Oleron had smiled at the fantastic thought that,
by a merging and interplay of identities between himself and his
beautiful room, he might be preparing a ghost for the future; it had not
occurred to him that there might have been a similar merging and
coalescence in the past. Yet with this staggering impossibility he was
now face to face. Something did persist in the house; it had a tenant
other than himself; and that tenant, whatsoever or whosoever, had
appalled Oleron's soul by producing the sound of a woman brushing her
Without quite knowing how he came to be there Oleron found himself
striding over the loose board he had temporarily placed on the step
broken by Miss Bengough. He was hatless, and descending the stairs. Not
until later did there return to him a hazy memory that he had left the
candle burning on the table, had opened the door no wider than was
necessary to allow the passage of his body, and had sidled out, closing
the door softly behind him. At the foot of the stairs another shock
awaited him. Something dashed with a flurry up from the disused cellars
and disappeared out of the door. It was only a cat, but Oleron gave a
He passed out of the gate, and stood for a moment under the "To Let"
boards, plucking foolishly at his lip and looking up at the glimmer
of light behind one of his red blinds. Then, still looking over his
shoulder, he moved stumblingly up the square. There was a small
public-house round the corner; Oleron had never entered it; but he
entered it now, and put down a shilling that missed the counter by
"B—b—bran—brandy," he said, and then stooped to look for the shilling.
He had the little sawdusted bar to himself; what company there
was—carters and labourers and the small tradesmen of the
neighbourhood—was gathered in the farther compartment, beyond the space
where the white-haired landlady moved among her taps and bottles. Oleron
sat down on a hardwood settee with a perforated seat, drank half his
brandy, and then, thinking he might as well drink it as spill it,
Then he fell to wondering which of the men whose voices he heard across
the public-house would undertake the removal of his effects on the
In the meantime he ordered more brandy.
For he did not intend to go back to that room where he had left the
candle burning. Oh no! He couldn't have faced even the entry and the
staircase with the broken step—certainly not that pith-white,
fascinating room. He would go back for the present to his old
arrangement, of workroom and separate sleeping-quarters; he would
go to his old landlady at once—presently—when he had finished his
brandy—and see if she could put him up for the night. His glass was
He rose, had it refilled, and sat down again.
And if anybody asked his reason for removing again? Oh, he had reason
enough—reason enough! Nails that put themselves back into wood again
and gashed people's hands, steps that broke when you trod on them, and
women who came into a man's place and brushed their hair in the dark,
were reasons enough! He was querulous and injured about it all. He had
taken the place for himself, not for invisible women to brush their
hair in; that lawyer fellow in Lincoln's Inn should be told so, too,
before many hours were out; it was outrageous, letting people in for
agreements like that!
A cut-glass partition divided the compartment where Oleron sat from the
space where the white-haired landlady moved; but it stopped seven or
eight inches above the level of the counter. There was no partition at
the farther bar. Presently Oleron, raising his eyes, saw that faces were
watching him through the aperture. The faces disappeared when he looked
He moved to a corner where he could not be seen from the other bar; but
this brought him into line with the white-haired landlady.
She knew him by sight—had doubtless seen him passing and repassing; and
presently she made a remark on the weather. Oleron did not know what he
replied, but it sufficed to call forth the further remark that the winter
had been a bad one for influenza, but that the spring weather seemed to
be coming at last…. Even this slight contact with the commonplace
steadied Oleron a little; an idle, nascent wonder whether the landlady
brushed her hair every night, and, if so, whether it gave out those
little electric cracklings, was shut down with a snap; and Oleron was
With his next glass of brandy he was all for going back to his flat. Not
go back? Indeed, he would go back! They should very soon see whether he
was to be turned out of his place like that! He began to wonder why he
was doing the rather unusual thing he was doing at that moment, unusual
for him—sitting hatless, drinking brandy, in a public-house. Suppose he
were to tell the white-haired landlady all about it—to tell her that a
caller had scratched her hand on a nail, had later had the bad luck to
put her foot through a rotten stair, and that he himself, in an old house
full of squeaks and creaks and whispers, had heard a minute noise and had
bolted from it in fright—what would she think of him? That he was mad,
of course…. Pshaw! The real truth of the matter was that he hadn't been
doing enough work to occupy him. He had been dreaming his days away,
filling his head with a lot of moonshine about a new Romilly (as if the
old one was not good enough), and now he was surprised that the devil
should enter an empty head!
Yes, he would go back. He would take a walk in the air first—he hadn't
walked enough lately—and then he would take himself in hand, settle
the hash of that sixteenth chapter of Romilly (fancy, he had actually
been fool enough to think of destroying fifteen chapters!) and
thenceforward he would remember that he had obligations to his fellow-men
and work to do in the world. There was the matter in a nutshell.
He finished his brandy and went out.
He had walked for some time before any other bearing of the matter than
that on himself occurred to him. At first, the fresh air had increased
the heady effect of the brandy he had drunk; but afterwards his mind grew
clearer than it had been since morning. And the clearer it grew, the less
final did his boastful self-assurances become, and the firmer his
conviction that, when all explanations had been made, there remained
something that could not be explained. His hysteria of an hour before had
passed; he grew steadily calmer; but the disquieting conviction remained.
A deep fear took possession of him. It was a fear for Elsie.
For something in his place was inimical to her safety. Of themselves, her
two accidents might not have persuaded him of this; but she herself had
said it. "I'm not wanted here…" And she had declared that there was
something wrong with the place. She had seen it before he had. Well and
good. One thing stood out clearly: namely, that if this was so, she must
be kept away for quite another reason than that which had so confounded
and humiliated Oleron. Luckily she had expressed her intention of staying
away; she must be held to that intention. He must see to it.
And he must see to it all the more that he now saw his first impulse,
never to set foot in the place again, was absurd. People did not do that
kind of thing. With Elsie made secure, he could not with any respect to
himself suffer himself to be turned out by a shadow, nor even by a danger
merely because it was a danger. He had to live somewhere, and he would
live there. He must return.
He mastered the faint chill of fear that came with the decision, and
turned in his walk abruptly. Should fear grow on him again he would,
perhaps, take one more glass of brandy….
But by the time he reached the short street that led to the square he was
too late for more brandy. The little public-house was still lighted, but
closed, and one or two men were standing talking on the kerb. Oleron
noticed that a sudden silence fell on them as he passed, and he noticed
further that the long-nosed Barrett, whom he passed a little lower down,
did not return his good-night. He turned in at the broken gate, hesitated
merely an instant in the alley, and then mounted his stairs again.
Only an inch of candle remained in the Sheffield stick, and Oleron did
not light another one. Deliberately he forced himself to take it up and
to make the tour of his five rooms before retiring. It was as he returned
from the kitchen across his little hall that he noticed that a letter lay
on the floor. He carried it into his sitting-room, and glanced at the
envelope before opening it.
It was unstamped, and had been put into the door by hand. Its handwriting
was clumsy, and it ran from beginning to end without comma or period.
Oleron read the first line, turned to the signature, and then finished
It was from the man Barrett, and it informed Oleron that he, Barrett,
would be obliged if Mr. Oleron would make other arrangements for the
preparing of his breakfasts and the cleaning-out of his place. The sting
lay in the tail, that is to say, the postscript. This consisted of a text
of Scripture. It embodied an allusion that could only be to Elsie
A seldom-seen frown had cut deeply into Oleron's brow. So! That was it!
Very well; they would see about that on the morrow…. For the rest, this
seemed merely another reason why Elsie should keep away….
Then his suppressed rage broke out….
The foul-minded lot! The devil himself could not have given a leer at
anything that had ever passed between Paul Oleron and Elsie Bengough,
yet this nosing rascal must be prying and talking!…
Oleron crumpled the paper up, held it in the candle flame, and then
ground the ashes under his heel.
One useful purpose, however, the letter had served: it had created in
Oleron a wrathful blaze that effectually banished pale shadows.
Nevertheless, one other puzzling circumstance was to close the day. As he
undressed, he chanced to glance at his bed. The coverlets bore an impress
as if somebody had lain on them. Oleron could not remember that he
himself had lain down during the day—off-hand, he would have said that
certainly he had not; but after all he could not be positive. His
indignation for Elsie, acting possibly with the residue of the brandy in
him, excluded all other considerations; and he put out his candle, lay
down, and passed immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep, which, in
the absence of Mrs. Barrett's morning call, lasted almost once round the
To the man who pays heed to that voice within him which warns him that
twilight and danger are settling over his soul, terror is apt to appear
an absolute thing, against which his heart must be safeguarded in a twink
unless there is to take place an alteration in the whole range and scale
of his nature. Mercifully, he has never far to look for safeguards. Of
the immediate and small and common and momentary things of life, of
usages and observances and modes and conventions, he builds up
fortifications against the powers of darkness. He is even content that,
not terror only, but joy also, should for working purposes be placed in
the category of the absolute things; and the last treason he will commit
will be that breaking down of terms and limits that strikes, not at one
man, but at the welfare of the souls of all.
In his own person, Oleron began to commit this treason. He began to
commit it by admitting the inexplicable and horrible to an increasing
familiarity. He did it insensibly, unconsciously, by a neglect of the
things that he now regarded it as an impertinence in Elsie Bengough to
have prescribed. Two months before, the words "a haunted house," applied
to his lovely bemusing dwelling, would have chilled his marrow; now,
his scale of sensation becoming depressed, he could ask "Haunted by
what?" and remain unconscious that horror, when it can be proved to be
relative, by so much loses its proper quality. He was setting aside the
landmarks. Mists and confusion had begun to enwrap him.
And he was conscious of nothing so much as of a voracious
inquisitiveness. He wanted to know. He was resolved to know. Nothing
but the knowledge would satisfy him; and craftily he cast about for means
whereby he might attain it.
He might have spared his craft. The matter was the easiest imaginable. As
in time past he had known, in his writing, moments when his thoughts
had seemed to rise of themselves and to embody themselves in words not to
be altered afterwards, so now the questions he put himself seemed to be
answered even in the moment of their asking. There was exhilaration in
the swift, easy processes. He had known no so such joy in his own power
since the days when his writing had been a daily freshness and a delight
to him. It was almost as if the course he must pursue was being dictated
And the first thing he must do, of course, was to define the problem. He
defined it in terms of mathematics. Granted that he had not the place to
himself; granted that the old house had inexpressibly caught and engaged
his spirit; granted that, by virtue of the common denominator of the
place, this unknown co-tenant stood in some relation to himself: what
next? Clearly, the nature of the other numerator must be ascertained.
And how? Ordinarily this would not have seemed simple, but to Oleron it
was now pellucidly clear. The key, of course, lay in his half-written
novel—or rather, in both Romillys, the old and the proposed new one.
A little while before Oleron would have thought himself mad to have
embraced such an opinion; now he accepted the dizzying hypothesis without
He began to examine the first and second Romillys.
From the moment of his doing so the thing advanced by leaps and bounds.
Swiftly he reviewed the history of the Romilly of the fifteen chapters.
He remembered clearly now that he had found her insufficient on the very
first morning on which he had sat down to work in his new place. Other
instances of his aversion leaped up to confirm his obscure investigation.
There had come the night when he had hardly forborne to throw the whole
thing into the fire; and the next morning he had begun the planning of
the new Romilly. It had been on that morning that Mrs. Barrett,
overhearing him humming a brief phrase that the dripping of a tap the
night before had suggested, had informed him that he was singing some air
he had never in his life heard before, called "The Beckoning Fair
The Beckoning Fair One!…
With scarcely a pause in thought he continued:
The first Romilly having been definitely thrown over, the second had
instantly fastened herself upon him, clamouring for birth in his brain.
He even fancied now, looking back, that there had been something like
passion, hate almost, in the supplanting, and that more than once a stray
thought given to his discarded creation had—(it was astonishing how
credible Oleron found the almost unthinkable idea)—had offended the
Yet that a malignancy almost homicidal should be extended to his
fiction's poor mortal prototype….
In spite of his inuring to a scale in which the horrible was now a thing
to be fingered and turned this way and that, a "Good God!" broke from
This intrusion of the first Romilly's prototype into his thought
again was a factor that for the moment brought his inquiry into the
nature of his problem to a termination; the mere thought of Elsie was
fatal to anything abstract. For another thing, he could not yet think of
that letter of Barrett's, nor of a little scene that had followed it,
without a mounting of colour and a quick contraction of the brow. For,
wisely or not, he had had that argument out at once. Striding across the
square on the following morning, he had bearded Barrett on his own
doorstep. Coming back again a few minutes later, he had been strongly of
opinion that he had only made matters worse. The man had been vagueness
itself. He had not been to be either challenged or browbeaten into
anything more definite than a muttered farrago in which the words
"Certain things … Mrs. Barrett … respectable house … if the cap
fits … proceedings that shall be nameless," had been constantly
"Not that I make any charge—" he had concluded.
"Charge!" Oleron had cried.
"I 'ave my idears of things, as I don't doubt you 'ave yours—"
"Ideas—mine!" Oleron had cried wrathfully, immediately dropping his
voice as heads had appeared at windows of the square. "Look you here, my
man; you've an unwholesome mind, which probably you can't help, but a
tongue which you can help, and shall! If there is a breath of this
"I'll not be talked to on my own doorstep like this by anybody,…"
Barrett had blustered….
"You shall, and I'm doing it …"
"Don't you forget there's a Gawd above all, Who 'as said…"
"You're a low scandalmonger!…"
And so forth, continuing badly what was already badly begun. Oleron had
returned wrathfully to his own house, and thenceforward, looking out
of his windows, had seen Barrett's face at odd times, lifting blinds or
peering round curtains, as if he sought to put himself in possession of
Heaven knew what evidence, in case it should be required of him.
The unfortunate occurrence made certain minor differences in Oleron's
domestic arrangements. Barrett's tongue, he gathered, had already been
busy; he was looked at askance by the dwellers of the square; and he
judged it better, until he should be able to obtain other help, to make
his purchases of provisions a little farther afield rather than at the
small shops of the immediate neighbourhood. For the rest, housekeeping
was no new thing to him, and he would resume his old bachelor habits….
Besides, he was deep in certain rather abstruse investigations, in which
it was better that he should not be disturbed.
He was looking out of his window one midday rather tired, not very well,
and glad that it was not very likely he would have to stir out of doors,
when he saw Elsie Bengough crossing the square towards his house. The
weather had broken; it was a raw and gusty day; and she had to force
her way against the wind that set her ample skirts bellying about her
opulent figure and her veil spinning and streaming behind her.
Oleron acted swiftly and instinctively. Seizing his hat, he sprang to the
door and descended the stairs at a run. A sort of panic had seized him.
She must be prevented from setting foot in the place. As he ran along the
alley he was conscious that his eyes went up to the eaves as if something
drew them. He did not know that a slate might not accidentally fall….
He met her at the gate, and spoke with curious volubleness.
"This is really too bad, Elsie! Just as I'm urgently called away! I'm
afraid it can't be helped though, and that you'll have to think me an
inhospitable beast." He poured it out just as it came into his head.
She asked if he was going to town.
"Yes, yes—to town," he replied. "I've got to call on—on Chambers. You
know Chambers, don't you? No, I remember you don't; a big man you once
saw me with…. I ought to have gone yesterday, and—" this he felt to be
a brilliant effort—"and he's going out of town this afternoon. To
Brighton. I had a letter from him this morning."
He took her arm and led her up the square. She had to remind him that his
way to town lay in the other direction.
"Of course—how stupid of me!" he said, with a little loud laugh. "I'm so
used to going the other way with you—of course; it's the other way to
the bus. Will you come along with me? I am so awfully sorry it's happened
They took the street to the bus terminus.
This time Elsie bore no signs of having gone through interior struggles.
If she detected anything unusual in his manner she made no comment, and
he, seeing her calm, began to talk less recklessly through silences. By
the time they reached the bus terminus, nobody, seeing the pallid-faced
man without an overcoat and the large ample-skirted girl at his side,
would have supposed that one of them was ready to sink on his knees for
thankfulness that he had, as he believed, saved the other from a wildly
They mounted to the top of the bus, Oleron protesting that he should not
miss his overcoat, and that he found the day, if anything, rather
oppressively hot. They sat down on a front seat.
Now that this meeting was forced upon him, he had something else to say
that would make demands upon his tact. It had been on his mind for some
time, and was, indeed, peculiarly difficult to put. He revolved it for
some minutes, and then, remembering the success of his story of a sudden
call to town, cut the knot of his difficulty with another lie.
"I'm thinking of going away for a little while, Elsie," he said.
She merely said, "Oh?"
"Somewhere for a change. I need a change. I think I shall go to-morrow,
or the day after. Yes, to-morrow, I think."
"Yes," she replied.
"I don't quite know how long I shall be," he continued. "I shall have to
let you know when I am back."
"Yes, let me know," she replied in an even tone.
The tone was, for her, suspiciously even. He was a little uneasy.
"You don't ask me where I'm going," he said, with a little cumbrous
effort to rally her.
She was looking straight before her, past the bus-driver.
"I know," she said.
He was startled. "How, you know?"
"You're not going anywhere," she replied.
He found not a word to say. It was a minute or so before she continued,
in the same controlled voice she had employed from the start.
"You're not going anywhere. You weren't going out this morning. You only
came out because I appeared; don't behave as if we were strangers, Paul."
A flush of pink had mounted to his cheeks. He noticed that the wind had
given her the pink of early rhubarb. Still he found nothing to say.
"Of course, you ought to go away," she continued. "I don't know whether
you look at yourself often in the glass, but you're rather noticeable.
Several people have turned to look at you this morning. So, of course,
you ought to go away. But you won't, and I know why."
He shivered, coughed a little, and then broke silence.
"Then if you know, there's no use in continuing this discussion," he said
"Not for me, perhaps, but there is for you," she replied. "Shall I tell
you what I know?"
"No," he said in a voice slightly raised.
"No?" she asked, her round eyes earnestly on him.
Again he was getting out of patience with her; again he was conscious of
the strain. Her devotion and fidelity and love plagued him; she was only
humiliating both herself and him. It would have been bad enough had he
ever, by word or deed, given her cause for thus fastening herself on
him … but there; that was the worst of that kind of life for a woman.
Women such as she, business women, in and out of offices all the time,
always, whether they realised it or not, made comradeship a cover for
something else. They accepted the unconventional status, came and
went freely, as men did, were honestly taken by men at their own
valuation—and then it turned out to be the other thing after all, and
they went and fell in love. No wonder there was gossip in shops and
squares and public houses! In a sense the gossipers were in the right of
it. Independent, yet not efficient; with some of womanhood's graces
forgone, and yet with all the woman's hunger and need; half
sophisticated, yet not wise; Oleron was tired of it all….
And it was time he told her so.
"I suppose," he said tremblingly, looking down between his knees, "I
suppose the real trouble is in the life women who earn their own living
are obliged to lead."
He could not tell in what sense she took the lame generality; she merely
replied, "I suppose so."
"It can't be helped," he continued, "but you do sacrifice a good deal."
She agreed: a good deal; and then she added after a moment, "What, for
"You may or may not be gradually attaining a new status, but you're in a
false position to-day."
It was very likely, she said; she hadn't thought of it much in that
"And," he continued desperately, "you're bound to suffer. Your most
innocent acts are misunderstood; motives you never dreamed of are
attributed to you; and in the end it comes to—" he hesitated a moment
and then took the plunge, "—to the sidelong look and the leer."
She took his meaning with perfect ease. She merely shivered a little as
she pronounced the name.
His silence told her the rest.
Anything further that was to be said must come from her. It came as the
bus stopped at a stage and fresh passengers mounted the stairs.
"You'd better get down here and go back, Paul," she said. "I understand
perfectly—perfectly. It isn't Barrett. You'd be able to deal with
Barrett. It's merely convenient for you to say it's Barrett. I know what
it is … but you said I wasn't to tell you that. Very well. But before
you go let me tell you why I came up this morning."
In a dull tone he asked her why. Again she looked straight before her as
"I came to force your hand. Things couldn't go on as they have been
going, you know; and now that's all over."
"All over," he repeated stupidly.
"All over. I want you now to consider yourself, as far as I'm concerned,
perfectly free. I make only one reservation."
He hardly had the spirit to ask her what that was.
"If I merely need you," she said, "please don't give that a thought;
that's nothing; I shan't come near for that. But," she dropped her voice,
"if you're in need of me, Paul—I shall know if you are, and you
will be—then I shall come at no matter what cost. You understand that?"
He could only groan.
"So that's understood," she concluded. "And I think that's all. Now go
back. I should advise you to walk back, for you're shivering—good-bye—"
She gave him a cold hand, and he descended. He turned on the edge of the
kerb as the bus started again. For the first time in all the years he had
known her she parted from him with no smile and no wave of her long arm.
He stood on the kerb plunged in misery, looking after her as long as she
remained in sight; but almost instantly with her disappearance he felt
the heaviness lift a little from his spirit. She had given him his
liberty; true, there was a sense in which he had never parted with it,
but now was no time for splitting hairs; he was free to act, and all was
clear ahead. Swiftly the sense of lightness grew on him: it became a
positive rejoicing in his liberty; and before he was halfway home he had
decided what must be done next.
The vicar of the parish in which his dwelling was situated lived within
ten minutes of the square. To his house Oleron turned his steps. It was
necessary that he should have all the information he could get about this
old house with the insurance marks and the sloping "To Let" boards, and
the vicar was the person most likely to be able to furnish it. This last
preliminary out of the way, and—aha! Oleron chuckled—things might be
expected to happen!
But he gained less information than he had hoped for. The house, the
vicar said, was old—but there needed no vicar to tell Oleron that; it
was reputed (Oleron pricked up his ears) to be haunted—but there were
few old houses about which some such rumour did not circulate among the
ignorant; and the deplorable lack of Faith of the modern world, the vicar
thought, did not tend to dissipate these superstitions. For the rest,
his manner was the soothing manner of one who prefers not to make
statements without knowing how they will be taken by his hearer. Oleron
smiled as he perceived this.
"You may leave my nerves out of the question," he said. "How long has the
place been empty?"
"A dozen years, I should say," the vicar replied.
"And the last tenant—did you know him—or her?" Oleron was conscious of
a tingling of his nerves as he offered the vicar the alternative of sex.
"Him," said the vicar. "A man. If I remember rightly, his name was
Madley; an artist. He was a great recluse; seldom went out of the place,
and—" the vicar hesitated and then broke into a little gush of candour
"—and since you appear to have come for this information, and since it
is better that the truth should be told than that garbled versions should
get about, I don't mind saying that this man Madley died there, under
somewhat unusual circumstances. It was ascertained at the post-mortem
that there was not a particle of food in his stomach, although he was
found to be not without money. And his frame was simply worn out. Suicide
was spoken of, but you'll agree with me that deliberate starvation is, to
say the least, an uncommon form of suicide. An open verdict was
"Ah!" said Oleron…. "Does there happen to be any comprehensive history
of this parish?"
"No; partial ones only. I myself am not guiltless of having made a number
of notes on its purely ecclesiastical history, its registers and so
forth, which I shall be happy to show you if you would care to see them;
but it is a large parish, I have only one curate, and my leisure, as you
will readily understand …"
The extent of the parish and the scantiness of the vicar's leisure
occupied the remainder of the interview, and Oleron thanked the vicar,
took his leave, and walked slowly home.
He walked slowly for a reason, twice turning away from the house within a
stone's-throw of the gate and taking another turn of twenty minutes or
so. He had a very ticklish piece of work now before him; it required the
greatest mental concentration; it was nothing less than to bring his
mind, if he might, into such a state of unpreoccupation and receptivity
that he should see the place as he had seen it on that morning when,
his removal accomplished, he had sat down to begin the sixteenth chapter
of the first Romilly.
For, could he recapture that first impression, he now hoped for far more
from it. Formerly, he had carried no end of mental lumber. Before the
influence of the place had been able to find him out at all, it had had
the inertia of those dreary chapters to overcome. No results had shown.
The process had been one of slow saturation, charging, filling up to a
brim. But now he was light, unburdened, rid at last both of that
Romilly and of her prototype. Now for the new unknown, coy, jealous,
bewitching, Beckoning Fair!…
At half-past two of the afternoon he put his key into the Yale lock,
entered, and closed the door behind him….
His fantastic attempt was instantly and astonishingly successful. He
could have shouted with triumph as he entered the room; it was as if he
had escaped into it. Once more, as in the days when his writing had had
a daily freshness and wonder and promise for him, he was conscious of
that new ease and mastery and exhilaration and release. The air of the
place seemed to hold more oxygen; as if his own specific gravity had
changed, his very tread seemed less ponderable. The flowers in the bowls,
the fair proportions of the meadowsweet-coloured panels and mouldings,
the polished floor, and the lofty and faintly starred ceiling, fairly
laughed their welcome. Oleron actually laughed back, and spoke aloud.
"Oh, you're pretty, pretty!" he flattered it.
Then he lay down on his couch.
He spent that afternoon as a convalescent who expected a dear visitor
might have spent it—in a delicious vacancy, smiling now and then as
if in his sleep, and ever lifting drowsy and contented eyes to his
alluring surroundings. He lay thus until darkness came, and, with
darkness, the nocturnal noises of the old house….
But if he waited for any specific happening, he waited in vain.
He waited similarly in vain on the morrow, maintaining, though with less
ease, that sensitised-plate-like condition of his mind. Nothing occurred
to give it an impression. Whatever it was which he so patiently wooed, it
seemed to be both shy and exacting.
Then on the third day he thought he understood. A look of gentle drollery
and cunning came into his eyes, and he chuckled.
"Oho, oho!… Well, if the wind sits in that quarter we must see what
else there is to be done. What is there, now?… No, I won't send for
Elsie; we don't need a wheel to break the butterfly on; we won't go to
those lengths, my butterfly…."
He was standing musing, thumbing his lean jaw, looking aslant; suddenly
he crossed to his hall, took down his hat, and went out.
"My lady is coquettish, is she? Well, we'll see what a little neglect
will do," he chuckled as he went down the stairs.
He sought a railway station, got into a train, and spent the rest of the
day in the country. Oh, yes: Oleron thought he was the man to deal with
Fair Ones who beckoned, and invited, and then took refuge in shyness and
He did not return until after eleven that night.
"Now, my Fair Beckoner!" he murmured as he walked along the alley and
felt in his pocket for his keys….
Inside his flat, he was perfectly composed, perfectly deliberate,
exceedingly careful not to give himself away. As if to intimate that he
intended to retire immediately, he lighted only a single candle; and as
he set out with it on his nightly round he affected to yawn. He went
first into his kitchen. There was a full moon, and a lozenge of
moonlight, almost peacock-blue by contrast with his candle-frame, lay on
the floor. The window was uncurtained, and he could see the reflection of
the candle, and, faintly, that of his own face, as he moved about. The
door of the powder-closet stood a little ajar, and he closed it before
sitting down to remove his boots on the chair with the cushion made of
the folded harp-bag. From the kitchen he passed to the bathroom. There,
another slant of blue moonlight cut the windowsill and lay across the
pipes on the wall. He visited his seldom-used study, and stood for a
moment gazing at the silvered roofs across the square. Then, walking
straight through his sitting-room, his stockinged feet making no noise,
he entered his bedroom and put the candle on the chest of drawers. His
face all this time wore no expression save that of tiredness. He had
never been wilier nor more alert.
His small bedroom fireplace was opposite the chest of drawers on which
the mirror stood, and his bed and the window occupied the remaining
sides of the room. Oleron drew down his blind, took off his coat, and
then stooped to get his slippers from under the bed.
He could have given no reason for the conviction, but that the
manifestation that for two days had been withheld was close at hand he
never for an instant doubted. Nor, though he could not form the faintest
guess of the shape it might take, did he experience fear. Startling or
surprising it might be; he was prepared for that; but that was all; his
scale of sensation had become depressed. His hand moved this way and that
under the bed in search of his slippers….
But for all his caution and method and preparedness, his heart all at
once gave a leap and a pause that was almost horrid. His hand had found
the slippers, but he was still on his knees; save for this circumstance
he would have fallen. The bed was a low one; the groping for the slippers
accounted for the turn of his head to one side; and he was careful to
keep the attitude until he had partly recovered his self-possession. When
presently he rose there was a drop of blood on his lower lip where he had
caught at it with his teeth, and his watch had jerked out of the pocket
of his waistcoat and was dangling at the end of its short leather
Then, before the watch had ceased its little oscillation, he was himself
In the middle of his mantelpiece there stood a picture, a portrait of his
grandmother; he placed himself before this picture, so that he could see
in the glass of it the steady flame of the candle that burned behind him
on the chest of drawers. He could see also in the picture-glass the
little glancings of light from the bevels and facets of the objects about
the mirror and candle. But he could see more. These twinklings and
reflections and re-reflections did not change their position; but there
was one gleam that had motion. It was fainter than the rest, and it moved
up and down through the air. It was the reflection of the candle on
Oleron's black vulcanite comb, and each of its downward movements was
accompanied by a silky and crackling rustle.
Oleron, watching what went on in the glass of his grandmother's portrait,
continued to play his part. He felt for his dangling watch and began
slowly to wind it up. Then, for a moment ceasing to watch, he began to
empty his trousers pockets and to place methodically in a little row on
the mantelpiece the pennies and halfpennies he took from them. The
sweeping, minutely electric noise filled the whole bedroom, and had
Oleron altered his point of observation he could have brought the dim
gleam of the moving comb so into position that it would almost have
outlined his grandmother's head.
Any other head of which it might have been following the outline was
Oleron finished the emptying of his pockets; then, under cover of another
simulated yawn, not so much summoning his resolution as overmastered by
an exhorbitant curiosity, he swung suddenly round. That which was being
combed was still not to be seen, but the comb did not stop. It had
altered its angle a little, and had moved a little to the left. It was
passing, in fairly regular sweeps, from a point rather more than five
feet from the ground, in a direction roughly vertical, to another point a
few inches below the level of the chest of drawers.
Oleron continued to act to admiration. He walked to his little washstand
in the corner, poured out water, and began to wash his hands. He removed
his waistcoat, and continued his preparations for bed. The combing did
not cease, and he stood for a moment in thought. Again his eyes twinkled.
The next was very cunning—
"Hm!… I think I'll read for a quarter of an hour," he said aloud….
He passed out of the room.
He was away a couple of minutes; when he returned again the room was
suddenly quiet. He glanced at the chest of drawers; the comb lay still,
between the collar he had removed and a pair of gloves. Without
hesitation Oleron put out his hand and picked it up. It was an ordinary
eighteenpenny comb, taken from a card in a chemist's shop, of a substance
of a definite specific gravity, and no more capable of rebellion against
the Laws by which it existed than are the worlds that keep their orbits
through the void. Oleron put it down again; then he glanced at the bundle
of papers he held in his hand. What he had gone to fetch had been the
fifteen chapters of the original Romilly.
"Hm!" he muttered as he threw the manuscript into a chair…. "As I
thought…. She's just blindly, ragingly, murderously jealous."
* * * * *
On the night after that, and on the following night, and for many nights
and days, so many that he began to be uncertain about the count of them,
Oleron, courting, cajoling, neglecting, threatening, beseeching, eaten
out with unappeased curiosity and regardless that his life was becoming
one consuming passion and desire, continued his search for the unknown
co-numerator of his abode.
As time went on, it came to pass that few except the postman mounted
Oleron's stairs; and since men who do not write letters receive few, even
the postman's tread became so infrequent that it was not heard more than
once or twice a week. There came a letter from Oleron's publishers,
asking when they might expect to receive the manuscript of his new book;
he delayed for some days to answer it, and finally forgot it. A second
letter came, which also he failed to answer. He received no third.
The weather grew bright and warm. The privet bushes among the
chopper-like notice-boards flowered, and in the streets where Oleron did
his shopping the baskets of flower-women lined the kerbs. Oleron
purchased flowers daily; his room clamoured for flowers, fresh and
continually renewed; and Oleron did not stint its demands. Nevertheless,
the necessity for going out to buy them began to irk him more and more,
and it was with a greater and ever greater sense of relief that he
returned home again. He began to be conscious that again his scale of
sensation had suffered a subtle change—a change that was not restoration
to its former capacity, but an extension and enlarging that once more
included terror. It admitted it in an entirely new form. Lux orco,
tenebrae Jovi. The name of this terror was agoraphobia. Oleron had begun
to dread air and space and the horror that might pounce upon the
Presently he so contrived it that his food and flowers were delivered
daily at his door. He rubbed his hands when he had hit upon this
expedient. That was better! Now he could please himself whether he went
out or not….
Quickly he was confirmed in his choice. It became his pleasure to remain
But he was not happy—or, if he was, his happiness took an extraordinary
turn. He fretted discontentedly, could sometimes have wept for mere
weakness and misery; and yet he was dimly conscious that he would not
have exchanged his sadness for all the noisy mirth of the world outside.
And speaking of noise: noise, much noise, now caused him the acutest
discomfort. It was hardly more to be endured than that new-born fear that
kept him, on the increasingly rare occasions when he did go out, sidling
close to walls and feeling friendly railings with his hand. He moved from
room to room softly and in slippers, and sometimes stood for many seconds
closing a door so gently that not a sound broke the stillness that was in
itself a delight. Sunday now became an intolerable day to him, for, since
the coming of the fine weather, there had begun to assemble in the square
under his windows each Sunday morning certain members of the sect to
which the long-nosed Barrett adhered. These came with a great drum and
large brass-bellied instruments; men and women uplifted anguished voices,
struggling with their God; and Barrett himself, with upraised face and
closed eyes and working brows, prayed that the sound of his voice might
penetrate the ears of all unbelievers—as it certainly did Oleron's. One
day, in the middle of one of these rhapsodies, Oleron sprang to his blind
and pulled it down, and heard as he did so his own name made the subject
of a fresh torrent of outpouring.
And sometimes, but not as expecting a reply, Oleron stood still and
called softly. Once or twice he called "Romilly!" and then waited; but
more often his whispering did not take the shape of a name.
There was one spot in particular of his abode that he began to haunt with
increasing persistency. This was just within the opening of his bedroom
door. He had discovered one day that by opening every door in his place
(always excepting the outer one, which he only opened unwillingly) and by
placing himself on this particular spot, he could actually see to a
greater or less extent into each of his five rooms without changing his
position. He could see the whole of his sitting-room, all of his bedroom
except the part hidden by the open door, and glimpses of his kitchen,
bathroom, and of his rarely used study. He was often in this place,
breathless and with his finger on his lip. One day, as he stood there, he
suddenly found himself wondering whether this Madley, of whom the vicar
had spoken, had ever discovered the strategic importance of the bedroom
Light, moreover, now caused him greater disquietude than did darkness.
Direct sunlight, of which, as the sun passed daily round the house, each
of his rooms had now its share, was like a flame in his brain; and even
diffused light was a dull and numbing ache. He began, at successive hours
of the day, one after another, to lower his crimson blinds. He made short
and daring excursions in order to do this; but he was ever careful to
leave his retreat open, in case he should have sudden need of it.
Presently this lowering of the blinds had become a daily methodical
exercise, and his rooms, when he had been his round, had the blood-red
half-light of a photographer's darkroom.
One day, as he drew down the blind of his little study and backed in good
order out of the room again, he broke into a soft laugh.
"That bilks Mr. Barrett!" he said; and the baffling of Barrett
continued to afford him mirth for an hour.
But on another day, soon after, he had a fright that left him trembling
also for an hour. He had seized the cord to darken the window over the
seat in which he had found the harp-bag, and was standing with his back
well protected in the embrasure, when he thought he saw the tail of a
black-and-white check skirt disappear round the corner of the house. He
could not be sure—had he run to the window of the other wall, which was
blinded, the skirt must have been already past—but he was almost sure
that it was Elsie. He listened in an agony of suspense for her tread on
But no tread came, and after three or four minutes he drew a long breath
"By Jove, but that would have compromised me horribly!" he muttered….
And he continued to mutter from time to time, "Horribly
compromising … no woman would stand that … not any kind of
woman … oh, compromising in the extreme!"
Yet he was not happy. He could not have assigned the cause of the fits of
quiet weeping which took him sometimes; they came and went, like the
fitful illumination of the clouds that travelled over the square; and
perhaps, after all, if he was not happy, he was not unhappy. Before
he could be unhappy something must have been withdrawn, and nothing had
yet been withdrawn from him, for nothing had been granted. He was waiting
for that granting, in that flower-laden, frightfully enticing apartment
of his, with the pith-white walls tinged and subdued by the crimson
blinds to a blood-like gloom.
He paid no heed to it that his stock of money was running perilously low,
nor that he had ceased to work. Ceased to work? He had not ceased to
work. They knew very little about it who supposed that Oleron had ceased
to work! He was in truth only now beginning to work. He was preparing
such a work … such a work … such a Mistress was a-making in the
gestation of his Art … let him but get this period of probation and
poignant waiting over and men should see…. How should men know her,
this Fair One of Oleron's, until Oleron himself knew her? Lovely radiant
creations are not thrown off like How-d'ye-do's. The men to whom it is
committed to father them must weep wretched tears, as Oleron did, must
swell with vain presumptuous hopes, as Oleron did, must pursue, as Oleron
pursued, the capricious, fair, mocking, slippery, eager Spirit that, ever
eluding, ever sees to it that the chase does not slacken. Let Oleron but
hunt this Huntress a little longer… he would have her sparkling
and panting in his arms yet…. Oh no: they were very far from the truth
who supposed that Oleron had ceased to work!
And if all else was falling away from Oleron, gladly he was letting it
go. So do we all when our Fair Ones beckon. Quite at the beginning we
wink, and promise ourselves that we will put Her Ladyship through her
paces, neglect her for a day, turn her own jealous wiles against her,
flout and ignore her when she comes wheedling; perhaps there lurks within
us all the time a heartless sprite who is never fooled; but in the end
all falls away. She beckons, beckons, and all goes….
And so Oleron kept his strategic post within the frame of his bedroom
door, and watched, and waited, and smiled, with his finger on his
lips…. It was his duteous service, his worship, his troth-plighting,
all that he had ever known of Love. And when he found himself, as he now
and then did, hating the dead man Madley, and wishing that he had never
lived, he felt that that, too, was an acceptable service….
But, as he thus prepared himself, as it were, for a Marriage, and moped
and chafed more and more that the Bride made no sign, he made a discovery
that he ought to have made weeks before.
It was through a thought of the dead Madley that he made it. Since that
night when he had thought in his greenness that a little studied neglect
would bring the lovely Beckoner to her knees, and had made use of her own
jealousy to banish her, he had not set eyes on those fifteen discarded
chapters of Romilly. He had thrown them back into the window-seat,
forgotten their very existence. But his own jealousy of Madley put him in
mind of hers of her jilted rival of flesh and blood, and he remembered
them…. Fool that he had been! Had he, then, expected his Desire to
manifest herself while there still existed the evidence of his divided
allegiance? What, and she with a passion so fierce and centred that it
had not hesitated at the destruction, twice attempted, of her rival? Fool
that he had been!…
But if that was all the pledge and sacrifice she required she should
have it—ah, yes, and quickly!
He took the manuscript from the window-seat, and brought it to the fire.
He kept his fire always burning now; the warmth brought out the last
vestige of odour of the flowers with which his room was banked. He did
not know what time it was; long since he had allowed his clock to run
down—it had seemed a foolish measurer of time in regard to the
stupendous things that were happening to Oleron; but he knew it was late.
He took the Romilly manuscript and knelt before the fire.
But he had not finished removing the fastening that held the sheets
together before he suddenly gave a start, turned his head over his
shoulder, and listened intently. The sound he had heard had not been
loud—it had been, indeed, no more than a tap, twice or thrice
repeated—but it had filled Oleron with alarm. His face grew dark as
it came again.
He heard a voice outside on his landing.
It was Elsie's voice.
"Paul!… I know you're in… I want to see you…."
He cursed her under his breath, but kept perfectly still. He did not
intend to admit her.
"Paul!… You're in trouble…. I believe you're in danger… at least
come to the door!…"
Oleron smothered a low laugh. It somehow amused him that she, in such
danger herself, should talk to him of his danger!… Well, if she was,
serve her right; she knew, or said she knew, all about it….
"Paul!… Paul!…" He mimicked her under his breath.
"Oh, Paul, it's horrible!…"
Horrible, was it? thought Oleron. Then let her get away….
"I only want to help you, Paul…. I didn't promise not to come if you
He was impervious to the pitiful sob that interrupted the low cry. The
devil take the woman! Should he shout to her to go away and not come
back? No: let her call and knock and sob. She had a gift for sobbing; she
mustn't think her sobs would move him. They irritated him, so that he set
his teeth and shook his fist at her, but that was all. Let her sob.
With his teeth hard set, he dropped the first page of Romilly into the
fire. Then he began to drop the rest in, sheet by sheet.
For many minutes the calling behind his door continued; then suddenly it
ceased. He heard the sound of feet slowly descending the stairs. He
listened for the noise of a fall or a cry or the crash of a piece of the
handrail of the upper landing; but none of these things came. She was
spared. Apparently her rival suffered her to crawl abject and beaten
away. Oleron heard the passing of her steps under his window; then she
He dropped the last page into the fire, and then, with a low laugh rose.
He looked fondly round his room.
"Lucky to get away like that," he remarked. "She wouldn't have got away
if I'd given her as much as a word or a look! What devils these women
are!… But no; I oughtn't to say that; one of 'em showed
Who showed forbearance? And what was forborne? Ah, Oleron
knew!… Contempt, no doubt, had been at the bottom of it, but that
didn't matter: the pestering creature had been allowed to go unharmed.
Yes, she was lucky; Oleron hoped she knew it….
And now, now, now for his reward!
Oleron crossed the room. All his doors were open; his eyes shone as he
placed himself within that of his bedroom.
Fool that he had been, not to think of destroying the manuscript
* * * * *
How, in a houseful of shadows, should he know his own Shadow? How, in a
houseful of noises, distinguish the summons he felt to be at hand? Ah,
trust him! He would know! The place was full of a jugglery of dim lights.
The blind at his elbow that allowed the light of a street lamp to
struggle vaguely through—the glimpse of greeny blue moonlight seen
through the distant kitchen door—the sulky glow of the fire under the
black ashes of the burnt manuscript—the glimmering of the tulips and the
moon-daisies and narcissi in the bowls and jugs and jars—these did not
so trick and bewilder his eyes that he would not know his Own! It was he,
not she, who had been delaying the shadowy Bridal; he hung his head for a
moment in mute acknowledgment; then he bent his eyes on the deceiving,
puzzling gloom again. He would have called her name had he known it—but
now he would not ask her to share even a name with the other….
His own face, within the frame of the door, glimmered white as the
narcissi in the darkness….
A shadow, light as fleece, seemed to take shape in the kitchen (the time
had been when Oleron would have said that a cloud had passed over the
unseen moon). The low illumination on the blind at his elbow grew dimmer
(the time had been when Oleron would have concluded that the lamplighter
going his rounds had turned low the flame of the lamp). The fire settled,
letting down the black and charred papers; a flower fell from a bowl,
and lay indistinct upon the floor; all was still; and then a stray
draught moved through the old house, passing before Oleron's face….
Suddenly, inclining his head, he withdrew a little from the door-jamb.
The wandering draught caused the door to move a little on its hinges.
Oleron trembled violently, stood for a moment longer, and then, putting
his hand out to the knob, softly drew the door to, sat down on the
nearest chair, and waited, as a man might await the calling of his name
that should summon him to some weighty, high and privy Audience….
One knows not whether there can be human compassion for anemia of the
soul. When the pitch of Life is dropped, and the spirit is so put over
and reversed that that only is horrible which before was sweet and
worldly and of the day, the human relation disappears. The sane soul
turns appalled away, lest not merely itself, but sanity should suffer.
We are not gods. We cannot drive out devils. We must see selfishly
to it that devils do not enter into ourselves.
And this we must do even though Love so transfuse us that we may well
deem our nature to be half divine. We shall but speak of honour and duty
in vain. The letter dropped within the dark door will lie unregarded, or,
if regarded for a brief instant between two unspeakable lapses, left and
forgotten again. The telegram will be undelivered, nor will the whistling
messenger (wiselier guided than he knows to whistle) be conscious as he
walks away of the drawn blind that is pushed aside an inch by a finger
and then fearfully replaced again. No: let the miserable wrestle with his
own shadows; let him, if indeed he be so mad, clip and strain and enfold
and couch the succubus; but let him do so in a house into which not an
air of Heaven penetrates, nor a bright finger of the sun pierces the
filthy twilight. The lost must remain lost. Humanity has other business
to attend to.
For the handwriting of the two letters that Oleron, stealing noiselessly
one June day into his kitchen to rid his sitting-room of an armful of
fetid and decaying flowers, had seen on the floor within his door, had
had no more meaning for him than if it had belonged to some dim and
faraway dream. And at the beating of the telegraph-boy upon the door,
within a few feet of the bed where he lay, he had gnashed his teeth and
stopped his ears. He had pictured the lad standing there, just beyond his
partition, among packets of provisions and bundles of dead and dying
flowers. For his outer landing was littered with these. Oleron had feared
to open his door to take them in. After a week, the errand lads had
reported that there must be some mistake about the order, and had left no
more. Inside, in the red twilight, the old flowers turned brown and fell
and decayed where they lay.
Gradually his power was draining away. The Abomination fastened on
Oleron's power. The steady sapping sometimes left him for many hours
of prostration gazing vacantly up at his red-tinged ceiling, idly
suffering such fancies as came of themselves to have their way with him.
Even the strongest of his memories had no more than a precarious hold
upon his attention. Sometimes a flitting half-memory, of a novel to be
written, a novel it was important that he should write, tantalised him
for a space before vanishing again; and sometimes whole novels, perfect,
splendid, established to endure, rose magically before him. And sometimes
the memories were absurdly remote and trivial, of garrets he had
inhabited and lodgings that had sheltered him, and so forth. Oleron had
known a good deal about such things in his time, but all that was now
past. He had at last found a place which he did not intend to leave until
they fetched him out—a place that some might have thought a little on
the green-sick side, that others might have considered to be a little too
redolent of long-dead and morbid things for a living man to be mewed up
in, but ah, so irresistible, with such an authority of its own, with such
an associate of its own, and a place of such delights when once a man had
ceased to struggle against its inexorable will! A novel? Somebody ought
to write a novel about a place like that! There must be lots to write
about in a place like that if one could but get to the bottom of it! It
had probably already been painted, by a man called Madley who had lived
there … but Oleron had not known this Madley—had a strong feeling
that he wouldn't have liked him—would rather he had lived somewhere
else—really couldn't stand the fellow—hated him, Madley, in fact. (Aha!
That was a joke!). He seriously doubted whether the man had led the life
he ought; Oleron was in two minds sometimes whether he wouldn't tell that
long-nosed guardian of the public morals across the way about him; but
probably he knew, and had made his praying hullabaloos for him also.
That was his line. Why, Oleron himself had had a dust-up with him about
something or other … some girl or other … Elsie Bengough her name
was, he remembered….
Oleron had moments of deep uneasiness about this Elsie Bengough. Or
rather, he was not so much uneasy about her as restless about the things
she did. Chief of these was the way in which she persisted in thrusting
herself into his thoughts; and, whenever he was quick enough, he sent her
packing the moment she made her appearance there. The truth was that she
was not merely a bore; she had always been that; it had now come to the
pitch when her very presence in his fancy was inimical to the full
enjoyment of certain experiences…. She had no tact; really ought to
have known that people are not at home to the thoughts of everybody all
the time; ought in mere politeness to have allowed him certain seasons
quite to himself; and was monstrously ignorant of things if she did not
know, as she appeared not to know, that there were certain special hours
when a man's veins ran with fire and daring and power, in which … well,
in which he had a reasonable right to treat folk as he had treated that
prying Barrett—to shut them out completely…. But no: up she popped,
the thought of her, and ruined all. Bright towering fabrics, by the side
of which even those perfect, magical novels of which he dreamed were dun
and grey, vanished utterly at her intrusion. It was as if a fog should
suddenly quench some fair-beaming star, as if at the threshold of some
golden portal prepared for Oleron a pit should suddenly gape, as if a
bat-like shadow should turn the growing dawn to mirk and darkness
again…. Therefore, Oleron strove to stifle even the nascent thought
Nevertheless, there came an occasion on which this woman Bengough
absolutely refused to be suppressed. Oleron could not have told exactly
when this happened; he only knew by the glimmer of the street lamp on his
blind that it was some time during the night, and that for some time she
had not presented herself.
He had no warning, none, of her coming; she just came—was there. Strive
as he would, he could not shake off the thought of her nor the image of
her face. She haunted him.
But for her to come at that moment of all moments!… Really, it was past
belief! How she could endure it, Oleron could not conceive! Actually, to
look on, as it were, at the triumph of a Rival…. Good God! It was
monstrous! tact—reticence—he had never credited her with an
overwhelming amount of either: but he had never attributed mere—oh,
there was no word for it! Monstrous—monstrous! Did she intend
thenceforward…. Good God! To look on!…
Oleron felt the blood rush up to the roots of his hair with anger against
"Damnation take her!" he choked….
But the next moment his heat and resentment had changed to a cold sweat
of cowering fear. Panic-stricken, he strove to comprehend what he had
done. For though he knew not what, he knew he had done something,
something fatal, irreparable, blasting. Anger he had felt, but not this
blaze of ire that suddenly flooded the twilight of his consciousness with
a white infernal light. That appalling flash was not his—not his
that open rift of bright and searing Hell—not his, not his! His had
been the hand of a child, preparing a puny blow; but what was this
other horrific hand that was drawn back to strike in the same place? Had
he set that in motion? Had he provided the spark that had touched off
the whole accumulated power of that formidable and relentless place? He
did not know. He only knew that that poor igniting particle in himself
was blown out, that—Oh, impossible!—a clinging kiss (how else to
express it?) had changed on his very lips to a gnashing and a removal,
and that for very pity of the awful odds he must cry out to her against
whom he had lately raged to guard herself … guard herself….
"Look out!" he shrieked aloud….
* * * * *
The revulsion was instant. As if a cold slow billow had broken over him,
he came to to find that he was lying in his bed, that the mist and horror
that had for so long enwrapped him had departed, that he was Paul Oleron,
and that he was sick, naked, helpless, and unutterably abandoned and
alone. His faculties, though weak, answered at last to his calls upon
them; and he knew that it must have been a hideous nightmare that had
left him sweating and shaking thus.
Yes, he was himself, Paul Oleron, a tired novelist, already past the
summit of his best work, and slipping downhill again empty-handed from it
all. He had struck short in his life's aim. He had tried too much, had
over-estimated his strength, and was a failure, a failure….
It all came to him in the single word, enwrapped and complete; it needed
no sequential thought; he was a failure. He had missed….
And he had missed not one happiness, but two. He had missed the ease of
this world, which men love, and he had missed also that other shining
prize for which men forgo ease, the snatching and holding and triumphant
bearing up aloft of which is the only justification of the mad adventurer
who hazards the enterprise. And there was no second attempt. Fate has no
morrow. Oleron's morrow must be to sit down to profitless, ill-done,
unrequired work again, and so on the morrow after that, and the morrow
after that, and as many morrows as there might be….
He lay there, weakly yet sanely considering it….
And since the whole attempt had failed, it was hardly worth while to
consider whether a little might not be saved from the general wreck. No
good would ever come of that half-finished novel. He had intended that it
should appear in the autumn; was under contract that it should appear; no
matter; it was better to pay forfeit to his publishers than to waste what
days were left. He was spent; age was not far off; and paths of wisdom
and sadness were the properest for the remainder of the journey….
If only he had chosen the wife, the child the faithful friend at the
fireside, and let them follow an ignis fatuus that list!…
In the meantime it began to puzzle him exceedingly what he should be so
weak, that his room should smell so overpoweringly of decaying vegetable
matter, and that his hand, chancing to stray to his face in the darkness,
should encounter a beard.
"Most extraordinary!" he began to mutter to himself. "Have I been ill? Am
I ill now? And if so, why have they left me alone?… Extraordinary!…"
He thought he heard a sound from the kitchen or bathroom. He rose a
little on his pillow, and listened…. Ah! He was not alone, then! It
certainly would have been extraordinary if they had left him ill and
alone—Alone? Oh no. He would be looked after. He wouldn't be left, ill,
to shift for himself. If everybody else had forsaken him, he could trust
Elsie Bengough, the dearest chum he had, for that … bless her faithful
But suddenly a short, stifled, spluttering cry rang sharply out:
It came from the kitchen.
And in the same moment it flashed upon Oleron, he knew not how, that two,
three, five, he knew not how many minutes before, another sound, unmarked
at the time but suddenly transfixing his attention now, had striven to
reach his intelligence. This sound had been the slight touch of metal on
metal—just such a sound as Oleron made when he put his key into the
"Hallo!… Who's that?" he called sharply from his bed.
He had no answer.
He called again. "Hallo!… Who's there?… Who is it?"
This time he was sure he heard noises, soft and heavy, in the kitchen.
"This is a queer thing altogether," he muttered. "By Jove, I'm as weak as
a kitten too…. Hallo, there! Somebody called, didn't they?… Elsie! Is
Then he began to knock with his hand on the wall at the side of his bed.
"Elsie!… Elsie!… You called, didn't you?… Please come here, whoever
There was a sound as of a closing door, and then silence. Oleron began to
get rather alarmed.
"It may be a nurse," he muttered; "Elsie'd have to get me a nurse, of
course. She'd sit with me as long as she could spare the time, brave
lass, and she'd get a nurse for the rest…. But it was awfully like her
voice…. Elsie, or whoever it is!… I can't make this out at all. I
must go and see what's the matter…."
He put one leg out of bed. Feeling its feebleness, he reached with his
hand for the additional support of the wall….
* * * * *
But before putting out the other leg he stopped and considered, picking
at his new-found beard. He was suddenly wondering whether he dared go
into the kitchen. It was such a frightfully long way; no man knew what
horror might not leap and huddle on his shoulders if he went so far;
when a man has an overmastering impulse to get back into bed he ought to
take heed of the warning and obey it. Besides, why should he go? What
was there to go for? If it was that Bengough creature again, let her look
after herself; Oleron was not going to have things cramp themselves on
his defenceless back for the sake of such a spoilsport as she!… If
she was in, let her let herself out again, and the sooner the better for
her! Oleron simply couldn't be bothered. He had his work to do. On the
morrow, he must set about the writing of a novel with a heroine so
winsome, capricious, adorable, jealous, wicked, beautiful, inflaming, and
altogether evil, that men should stand amazed. She was coming over him
now; he knew by the alteration of the very air of the room when she was
near him; and that soft thrill of bliss that had begun to stir in him
never came unless she was beckoning, beckoning….
He let go the wall and fell back into bed again as—oh, unthinkable!—the
other half of that kiss that a gnash had interrupted was placed (how else
convey it?) on his lips, robbing him of very breath….
In the bright June sunlight a crowd filled the square, and looked up at
the windows of the old house with the antique insurance marks in its
walls of red brick and the agents' notice-boards hanging like wooden
choppers over the paling. Two constables stood at the broken gate of the
narrow entrance-alley, keeping folk back. The women kept to the outskirts
of the throng, moving now and then as if to see the drawn red blinds of
the old house from a new angle, and talking in whispers. The children
were in the houses, behind closed doors.
A long-nosed man had a little group about him, and he was telling some
story over and over again; and another man, little and fat and wide-eyed,
sought to capture the long-nosed man's audience with some relation in
which a key figured.
"… and it was revealed to me that there'd been something that very
afternoon," the long-nosed man was saying. "I was standing there, where
Constable Saunders is—or rather, I was passing about my business, when
they came out. There was no deceiving me, oh, no deceiving me! I saw
"What was it like, Mr. Barrett?" a man asked.
"It was like hers whom our Lord said to, 'Woman, doth any man accuse
thee?'—white as paper, and no mistake! Don't tell me!… And so I
walks straight across to Mrs. Barrett, and 'Jane,' I says, 'this must
stop, and stop at once; we are commanded to avoid evil,' I says, 'and it
must come to an end now; let him get help elsewhere.'
"And she says to me, 'John,' she says, 'it's four-and-sixpence a
week'—them was her words.
"'Jane,' I says, 'if it was forty-six thousand pounds it should
stop'… and from that day to this she hasn't set foot inside that gate."
There was a short silence: then,
"Did Mrs. Barrett ever… see anythink, like?" somebody vaguely
Barrett turned austerely on the speaker.
"What Mrs. Barrett saw and Mrs. Barrett didn't see shall not pass these
lips; even as it is written, keep thy tongue from speaking evil," he
Another man spoke.
"He was pretty near canned up in the Waggon and Horses that night,
weren't he, Jim?"
"Yes, 'e 'adn't 'alf copped it…."
"Not standing treat much, neither; he was in the bar, all on his own…."
"So 'e was; we talked about it…."
The fat, scared-eyed man made another attempt.
"She got the key off of me—she 'ad the number of it—she come into my
shop of a Tuesday evening…."
Nobody heeded him.
"Shut your heads," a heavy labourer commented gruffly, "she hasn't been
found yet. 'Ere's the inspectors; we shall know more in a bit."
Two inspectors had come up and were talking to the constables who guarded
the gate. The little fat man ran eagerly forward, saying that she had
bought the key of him. "I remember the number, because of it's being
three one's and three three's—111333!" he exclaimed excitedly.
An inspector put him aside.
"Nobody's been in?" he asked of one of the constables.
"Then you, Brackley, come with us; you, Smith, keep the gate. There's a
squad on its way."
The two inspectors and the constable passed down the alley and entered
the house. They mounted the wide carved staircase.
"This don't look as if he'd been out much lately," one of the inspectors
muttered as he kicked aside a litter of dead leaves and paper that lay
outside Oleron's door. "I don't think we need knock—break a pane,
The door had two glazed panels; there was a sound of shattered glass; and
Brackley put his hand through the hole his elbow had made and drew back
"Faugh!"… choked one of the inspectors as they entered. "Let some light
and air in, quick. It stinks like a hearse—"
The assembly out in the square saw the red blinds go up and the windows
of the old house flung open.
"That's better," said one of the inspectors, putting his head out of a
window and drawing a deep breath…. "That seems to be the bedroom in
there; will you go in, Simms, while I go over the rest?…"
They had drawn up the bedroom blind also, and the waxy-white, emaciated
man on the bed had made a blinker of his hand against the torturing
flood of brightness. Nor could he believe that his hearing was not
playing tricks with him, for there were two policemen in his room,
bending over him and asking where "she" was. He shook his head.
"This woman Bengough… goes by the name of Miss Elsie Bengough… d'ye
hear? Where is she?… No good, Brackley; get him up; be careful with
him; I'll just shove my head out of the window, I think…."
The other inspector had been through Oleron's study and had found
nothing, and was now in the kitchen, kicking aside an ankle-deep mass of
vegetable refuse that cumbered the floor. The kitchen window had no
blind, and was over-shadowed by the blank end of the house across the
alley. The kitchen appeared to be empty.
But the inspector, kicking aside the dead flowers, noticed that a
shuffling track that was not of his making had been swept to a cupboard
in the corner. In the upper part of the door of the cupboard was a square
panel that looked as if it slid on runners. The door itself was closed.
The inspector advanced, put out his hand to the little knob, and slid the
hatch along its groove.
Then he took an involuntary step back again.
Framed in the aperture, and falling forward a little before it jammed
again in its frame, was something that resembled a large lumpy pudding,
done up in a pudding-bag of faded browny red frieze.
"Ah!" said the inspector.
To close the hatch again he would have had to thrust that pudding back
with his hand; and somehow he did not quite like the idea of touching
it. Instead, he turned the handle of the cupboard itself. There was
weight behind it, so much weight that, after opening the door three or
four inches and peering inside, he had to put his shoulder to it in order
to close it again. In closing it he left sticking out, a few inches from
the floor, a triangle of black and white check skirt.
He went into the small hall.
"All right!" he called.
They had got Oleron into his clothes. He still used his hands as
blinkers, and his brain was very confused. A number of things were
happening that he couldn't understand. He couldn't understand the
extraordinary mess of dead flowers there seemed to be everywhere; he
couldn't understand why there should be police officers in his room; he
couldn't understand why one of these should be sent for a four-wheeler
and a stretcher; and he couldn't understand what heavy article they
seemed to be moving about in the kitchen—his kitchen….
"What's the matter?" he muttered sleepily….
Then he heard a murmur in the square, and the stopping of a four-wheeler
outside. A police officer was at his elbow again, and Oleron wondered
why, when he whispered something to him, he should run off a string of
words—something about "used in evidence against you." They had lifted
him to his feet, and were assisting him towards the door….
No, Oleron couldn't understand it at all.
They got him down the stairs and along the alley. Oleron was aware of
confused angry shoutings; he gathered that a number of people wanted to
lynch somebody or other. Then his attention became fixed on a little fat
frightened-eyed man who appeared to be making a statement that an officer
was taking down in a notebook.
"I'd seen her with him … they was often together … she came into my
shop and said it was for him … I thought it was all right … 111333
the number was," the man was saying.
The people seemed to be very angry; many police were keeping them back;
but one of the inspectors had a voice that Oleron thought quite kind and
friendly. He was telling somebody to get somebody else into the cab
before something or other was brought out; and Oleron noticed that a
four-wheeler was drawn up at the gate. It appeared that it was himself
who was to be put into it; and as they lifted him up he saw that the
inspector tried to stand between him and something that stood behind the
cab, but was not quick enough to prevent Oleron seeing that this
something was a hooded stretcher. The angry voices sounded like a sea;
something hard, like a stone, hit the back of the cab; and the inspector
followed Oleron in and stood with his back to the window nearer the side
where the people were. The door they had put Oleron in at remained open,
apparently till the other inspector should come; and through the opening
Oleron had a glimpse of the hatchet-like "To Let" boards among the
privet-trees. One of them said that the key was at Number Six….
Suddenly the raging of voices was hushed. Along the entrance-alley
shuffling steps were heard, and the other inspector appeared at the
"Right away," he said to the driver.
He entered, fastened the door after him, and blocked up the second window
with his back. Between the two inspectors Oleron slept peacefully. The
cab moved down the square, the other vehicle went up the hill. The
mortuary lay that way.