(From Lloyd's Story Magazine)


Best British Short Stories

Charlie had no true vice in him. All the same, a man may be overtaxed, over-harassed, over-routined, over-driven, over-pricked, over-preached and over-starved right up to the edge; and then the fascination of the big space below may easily pull him over.

But his wife's uncle's assertion that he must always, inwardly, have been naturally wild and bad, was as wrong as such assertions usually are, for he was no more truly vicious than his youngest baby was.

On the warm evening when he came home on that fateful autumn day, Charlie had been pushed, in the course of years, right up to the edge, and was looking into the abyss, though he was hardly aware of it, so well had he been disciplined. He emerged from a third-class carriage of the usual train without an evening paper because his wife had shown him the decency of cutting down small personal expenses, and next morning's papers would have the same news in anyway; he walked home up the suburban road for the four thousandth five hundredth and fiftieth time; entered quietly not to disturb the baby; rubbed his boots on the mat; answered his wife brightly and manfully; washed his hands in cold water—the hot water being saved for the baby's bath and the washing-up in the evenings—and sat down to about the four thousandth five hundredth and fiftieth cold supper.

His wife said she was tired and seemed proud of it.

"But never mind," she said, "one must expect to be tired." He went on eating without verbally questioning her; it was an assertion to which she always held firmly. But in his soul something stirred vaguely, as if mutinous currents fretted there.

"I have been thinking," she said, "that you really ought not to buy that new suit you were considering if Maud is to go to a better school next term. I have been looking over your pepper-and-salt, and there are those people who turn suits like new. You can have that done."

"But——" he murmured.

"We ought not to think of ourselves," she added.

"I never have," said Charlie in rather a low voice.

"We ought to give a little subscription to the Parish Magazine," she continued. "The Vicar is calling round for extra subscriptions."

Charlie nodded. He was wishing he knew the football results in the evening paper.

His wife served a rice shape. She doled out jam with a careful hand and a measuring eye. "We ought to see about the garden gate," she said.

"I'll mend it on Saturday," Charlie replied.

"I was thinking," she said presently, "that we ought to ask Uncle Henry and Aunt round soon. They will be expecting it."

Charlie put his spoon and fork together, hesitated and then replied slowly: "Life is nothing but 'ought.' 'Ought' to do this: 'Ought' to do that."

His wife looked at him, astonished. He could see that she was grieved—or rather, aggrieved—at his glimmer of anarchy.

"Of course," she explained at last. "People can't have what they like. There's one's duty to do. Life isn't for enjoyment, Charlie. It's given to us … it is given to us…."

As she paused to crystallise an idea, Charlie cut in.

"Yes," he said, "it is given to us…. What for?"

He leaned his head on his hand. He was not looking at her. He was looking at the cloth, weaving patterns upon it. And with this question something of boyhood came upon him again, and he weaved visions upon the cloth.

"To do one's duty in," she replied gently, but rebukingly.

Charlie did not know the classic phrase, "Cui bono." He merely repeated:

"What for?"

After supper he helped her to wash up, for the daily help left early in the afternoon; and then he asked her, idle as he knew the question to be, if she would like to come for a walk—just a short walk up the road.

She shook her head. "I ought not to leave the children."

"They're in bed," he argued, "and Maud's big enough to look after the others for half-an-hour. Maud's twelve."

She shook her head. "I ought not to leave the house."

"But," he began slowly.

"I am not the kind of woman who leaves her house and children in the evenings," she said gently, but finally.

Charlie took his hat. He turned it round and round in his hands, pinching the crown in, and punching it out. He had a curious, almost uncontrollable wish to cry. For a moment it was terrible. Before it was over, she was speaking again.

"You ought not to mess your hats about like that; they don't last half as long."

Charlie went out.

He knew other men who were as puzzled about life as himself, but mostly they were of cruder stuff, and if things at home went beyond their bearing they flung out of their houses, swearing, and went to play a hundred up at the local club. Then they were philosophers again. But for Charlie this evening there was no philosophy big enough, for he was looking, though he did not know it, over the edge of that awful, but enchanting abyss. Its depths were obscured by rolling clouds of mist, and it was only this mist which he now saw, terrifying and confusing him. He was a little man, and knew it. He was a poor man, and knew it. He was a weary man, and knew it. He hated his wife, and knew it. He hated his children—whom she had made like herself, prim, peeking and childishly censorious—and knew it.

He had not meant it to be like this at all.

When he got married she was the starched daughter of starched parents from a starched small house—like the one he came from—but she was young, and her figure was pliant, and her hair curled rather sweetly.

He had dreamed of happy days, cosy days with laughter; little treats together—Soho restaurants, Richmond Park, something colourful, something for which he had vaguely and secretly longed all the dingy, narrow, church-parading, humbugging days of his good little boyhood. But he soon woke up to find he had married another hard holy woman like his mother.

He walked along, thinking mistily and hotly. Supposing he had a baby who roared with joy and stole the sugar … but she wouldn't have babies like that. The first coherent thing her babies learned to say was a text.

Babies…. He hadn't wanted three, because they couldn't afford them. He tried to talk to her about it. She made him ashamed of himself, though he didn't know why; and showed him how wicked he was, though he didn't know why; and how good she was, though he didn't know why—then. But he knew now that there are still many women who are gluttons for martyrdom, who long to exalt themselves by a parrot righteousness, and who are only happy when destroying natural joy in others. And he knew there were many men like himself, married and done for; tied up to these pettifogging saints; goaded under their stupid yoke; belittled through their narrow eyes.

He thought all this mistily and hotly.

He had come to the end of the road; and the end of another road more populous; and the end of another road, more populous.

At a corner of this road stood Kitty.

She was soft and colourful, painted to a perfect peachiness, young—twenty-four and looking less; old as the world and wise. She was gay. She did not much care if it snowed; she knew enough to wriggle in somewhere, somehow, out of it. The years had not yet scared her. She was joy.

Charlie paused before he knew why. She looked at him. Then the mists rolled away from the abyss below the tottering edge on which he had been balanced for longer time than he guessed, and he saw the garden far below; lotus flowers dreaming in the sun. He launched himself simply into space towards them.

Kitty helped him. She knew how.

Charlie had, as it happened, his next week's personal allowance of seven and sixpence in his pocket—for to-day had been pay day; and his season ticket. The rest he had handed over to his wife at supper time. He had also, however, the moral support of knowing that he had in the savings bank the exact amount of his sickness and life insurance premiums due that very week. So it did not embarrass him to take Kitty straight away up to town—she, making a shrewd summary of him, did not object to third-class travelling—and to stand her coffee and a sandwich at the Monico.

"I don't happen to have much change on me, and my bank's closed," was the explanation he offered, and she tactfully accepted of this modest entertainment.

It was ten-thirty when she took him to see her tiny flat a stone's throw away. She was looking for another supporter for that flat, and explained her reason for being in Charlie's suburb that evening. She'd been trying to find the house of a man friend—a rich friend—who lived there, and might have helped her over a temporary difficulty, but when she found the house the servants told her he was away. She confided these things, leaning in Charlie's arms on a little striped divan by a gas fire. She made him a drink, and showed him the cunning and luxurious little contrivances for comfort about the flat. He loved it. She didn't try to conceal from him her real vocation, for that would have been too silly. Even Charlie might not have been such a fool as to believe her. But she invested it with glamour; she made of it romance. Once more as in boyhood he saw the world full of allurement.

So he went home, having promised her that to-morrow he would come again.

And going in quietly, so as not to disturb the baby, he undressed quietly so as not to disturb his wife, and he crept cautiously into the double bed that she decreed they must share for ever and ever, whatever their feelings towards one another, because they were married; and he hoped to fall asleep with enchantment unbroken. But she was awake, and waiting patiently to speak. "Where have you been, Charlie?"

"At the club," he whispered back. "Watching two fellows play a billiard match."

She sighed.

"Charlie," she said, "you ought to have more consideration for me. Maudie said to me when I went in to look at them before I came to bed: 'Is daddy still out?' she said. 'I do think he ought not to go out and leave you alone, mamma.' She's such a sweet child, Charlie, and I do think you ought to think more of her. Children often say little things in the innocence of their hearts that do even us grown-up people good sometimes."

So the next morning Charlie left home with a suit-case—alleged to contain the one suit for turning, but really crammed to bursting. His wife being busy with the baby, Maud saw him off with her usual air of smug reproof; and that evening he did not come back. He had written a letter to his wife, on the journey to town, telling her his decision, which she would receive by the afternoon post. But he gave her no address.

He drew out the whole amount in the savings bank, surrendered his life insurance, realising £160; and he went home after the day's work to Kitty.

Little Kitty was looking for any kind of mug, pending better developments, and she certainly had found one; but what a happy mug he was! Life was warm and light, gay and uncritical. He spent even less on his own lunches—he retained his seven and sixpence weekly personal allowance, though of course he posted the rest of his salary home—so that he might have an extra half-crown or so to buy chocolates for Kitty. It was nice to buy chocolates instead of subscribing to the Vicar's Fund. And little Kitty, who was wise, guessed he hadn't much and couldn't afford her long, so pending better things, like a sensible person, she eked him out.

She made him so happy. They laughed. She sang—

  I'm for ever blowing bubbles,
  Pretty bubbles in the air.
  They fly so high, nearly reach the sky….

She had a gramophone and she taught him to dance, and then he had to take her to the best dancing place he could afford and they danced a long evening through. He bought her a wonderful little woollen frock at one of the small French shops in Shaftesbury Avenue, and she looked exactly what she was in it; and he knew she was the most wonderful thing in the world. When he propounded the frock question to her one morning when they woke up, saying: "I would like to see you in a dress I'd bought, Kitty," she did not tell him it was wrong to consider themselves, and she would have her old black turned. She put a dear fat little arm round his neck, laid a soft selfish cheek to his, and muttered cosily, "It shall buy her a frock then. It shall."

She was sporting enough not to protest when she knew where his weekly pay went. "Three kids must be fed," she said. In fact, according to her own codes, she was not ungenerous towards the other woman.

All the while he knew: £160 can't last. What will happen when…?

Charlie's wife thought she was sure of what must happen pretty soon. So did her Uncle Henry and Aunt, for whom she had sent a day or two after the blow had fallen.

They found her cutting down Maud's oldest dress for the second child in her tidy house.

"Charlie has left me for an immoral woman," she said, after preparing them with preliminaries.

"What!" said Uncle Henry. He was a churchwarden at the church to which
Charlie, in a bowler hat, had had to take the critical Maud on Sundays.

"Fancy leaving that!" said Aunt, when they had digested and credited the news. She pointed at her niece sewing diligently even through this painful conversation. "Look at her scraping and economising and contriving. And he leaves her!"

"He must be naturally wild and bad," said Uncle Henry. "Shall I speak to the Vicar for you?"

"Have you written to his firm?" asked Aunt.

Charlie's wife spoke wisely, gently, and with perfection as ever. "No," she said. "I have thought it over, and I think the best thing, for the children's sake, is to say nothing. We ought not to consider ourselves. Besides, I dare say it's my duty to forgive him."

"Always thinking of your duty!" murmured Aunt admiringly.

"If I wrote to his firm about it," said Charlie's wife, "they would dismiss him."

"Ah! and he sends you his pay, you say?" said Uncle Henry, seizing the point like a business man.

"What a position for a conscientious woman like you!" mourned Aunt.

"You are quite right, my dear," said Uncle Henry. "You have three children and no other means of sustenance, and you cannot afford to do as I should otherwise advise you."

"Besides, he will come back," said Charlie's wife gently. "Men are soon sickened of these women."

"Of course," agreed Aunt.

"Well! Well!" said Uncle Henry, "you are very magnanimous, my dear, and one day Charles will fully appreciate it. And I hope he will be duly thankful to you for your great goodness. Yes! You will soon have Master Charles creeping back, very ashamed of himself, and when he comes, I for one, intend to give him the biggest talking to he has ever had in his life. But I really think the Vicar too, should be told, in confidence, so that he may decide upon the right course of action for himself."

"Because he could not allow your husband to communicate, my love," said
Aunt, "without being sure of his genuine repentance."

"I have been thinking of that too," said Charlie's wife. "It would not be right."

"I wonder what he feels about himself, when he remembers his dear little children," said Aunt. "Maud nearly old enough to understand, and all!"

So they lay for Charlie, while he basked and thrived in the abyss of the lotus-flower; and the £160 dwindled.

It was towards the end of the second month that Charlie sensed a new element in his precarious dream. All day when he was out, thinking of Kitty through the routine of his work, he had no idea of what she was doing. Sometimes he was afraid to think of what she might be doing, and for fear of shattering the dream, he never dared to ask. Always she was sweet and joyful towards him—save for petulant quarrels she raised as if to make the ensuing sweetness and joyfulness the dearer—until towards the close of the second month. Then one evening she was distrait; one evening, critical; one night, cold; then she had a dinner and dance engagement at the Savoy. Then he knew that his time had come.

He waited up for her. He had the gas fire lighted in the tiny sitting-room, and little sugary cakes and wine on the table; and the gas fire lighted in the bedroom to warm it for her, and the bed turned down, and her nightgown and slippers, so frail, warming before the fire.

But he knew.

In the early dawn her key clicked in the lock, and she came in, followed by a man. He was pale, sensual, moneyed, fashionable. Charlie got up stoutly; but he was already beaten.

The Jew looked at him, and turned to Kitty.

"I told you," she said, stammering a little, "I told you how it was. By to-morrow … I told you…."

"I'll come again, to-morrow, then," said the man very meaningly, "fetch you out——"

"At eight," she nodded firmly.

He kissed her on the mouth, while Charlie stood looking at them with eyes that seemed to stare themselves out of his head, turned and went out.

"Nighty-night!" Kitty called after him.

After the front door clicked again there was a moment's silence. Kitty advanced, shook off her cloak, took up one of the sugary cakes, and began to munch it. She looked beautiful and careless and sorry and hard all at once.

"What are you sitting up for, Charlie?" she asked. "I didn't expect to see you. I brought that fellow in to talk."

"What about?" said Charlie in a hoarse desolate voice.

"Charlie," said Kitty, hurriedly, "you know this arrangement of ours can't last, now, can it, dear? You haven't the cash for one thing, dear. Now, have you? And I've got to think of myself a little; a girl's got to provide. You've been awf'ly good to me. Let's part friends."

"'Part!'" he repeated.

His eyes seemed to start from his head.

"Let's part friends," wheedled Kitty. "Shall us?"

The night passed in a kind of evil vision of desolation, and Kitty was asleep long before he had stopped his futile whisperings into her ear.

Before he went to the office in the morning, he asked her from a breaking heart: "You mean it?"

"I've got to," she explained. She cried easily. "Dearie, you'll leave peaceably? You won't make a row? Now, for my sake! To oblige me! While you're out to-day I'll pack your suit-case and give it to the hall-porter for you to call for. Shall I, Charlie? Kiss me, dear. Don't take your latch-key. Good-bye. You've been awfully decent to me. We'll part friends, shall us?"

He kissed her, and went out to work, speaking no more. He had said all the things in his heart during the hours of that sleepless dawn. She knew how he loved her … though possibly she didn't quite believe. He realised her position acutely, perhaps more acutely than his own. She had to live. And yet….

He had taken his latch-key the same as usual, and he found himself at the end of the day, going the same as usual to the tiny flat that was home if ever there was any place called home. He let himself in noiselessly. The little hall was dark. He stood in a corner against the coat cupboard. The flat was silent. He stood there a long while without moving and a clock chimed seven. He heard her singing—

  "I'm for ever blowing bubbles….
  Lal-la! la! la!… la! la! la!…"

She would be in her bedroom, sitting before the mirror in her diaphanous underwear, touching up her face. The pauses in the song made him see her…. Now she was using the eyebrow pencil…. The song went on and broke again; now she would be half turning from the mirror, curved on the gilt chair as he had so often seen her, hand-glass in hand, looking at the back of her head, and her eyelashes, and her profile, fining away all hard edges of rouge and lipstick. He felt quite peaceful as he imaged her.

Peace was shattered at a blast by the ringing of the front door bell.
Then light streamed from the opened bedroom door, was switched off, and
Kitty ran into the darkish hall. She clicked on the light by the front
door, opened the door, and the big man came in.

He kissed her on the mouth.

Then Charlie stepped from beside the coat cupboard, suddenly as though some strong spring which held him there had been released, and the strong spring was in his tense body alone. For the first time in his life he felt all steel and wire and whipcord, and many fires. He threw himself on the intruder and fought for his woman.

Kitty did not scream. She knew better.

"Oh Charlie!" she panted. "For —— sake go! Go! I can't have a row here. Oh, Charlie, be a good boy, do."

"He shall go," said the other man.

He was a big man; and still young and lithe. Kitty opened the front door, whispering: "Oh, Charlie! Oh! Charlie!" and the man pushed Charlie out. The lift was not working at the moment, the landing was quiet, there was not a soul on the stairway beside the liftshaft when the man flung Charlie headlong down the first flight and broke him on the unyielding stone.

Charlie heard his own spine crack; but as the other, scared and pale, reached him, he heard something else also; the voice of Kitty, who stood above them, looking down, sobbing: "I c-c-can't have a row here. It'd break me. Oh! Charlie! Oh Charlie! If you love me, go away!"

Charlie loved Kitty very much. "My back's broken," he whispered to the enemy bending over him. "But if you get me under the armpits, lift me down the stairs, and put me into the street, and if the hall-porter sees us go out tell him I'm dead drunk——"

The man lifted him as instructed, an arm round him, just under the shoulder-blades and armpits. Below he could feel the crumpled weight sway and sag. He tried to be merciful in his handling. "D-d-do you no g-g-good," he faltered as he lifted Charlie downstairs, "t-to get me into a mess. I'm sorry. D-d-didn't mean…. But I've got a wife and don't want hell raised…. You asked for it…. I'm sorry. I'm sorry…." When they reached the ground floor the single-handed porter was just carrying a passenger in the lift to the floor above, so they got unobserved into the street, a quietish street, a cul-de-sac.

"Take me a f-f-few d-d-doors off, and put me down," said Charlie, and the sweat of pain ran down his face, but when the man had put him down against some area railings, and laid him straight, he was comfortable.

The other man simply vanished.

A taxi-driver found Charlie by-and-by, and the police fetched an ambulance and took him to the hospital, and in a white bed he lay sleepily, revealing nothing, all that night. But they found, searching for an address in his pockets, the address of his family, and they sent a message to his wife.

His wife received it early the next morning, and first she sent Maud for Uncle Henry and Aunt, who found that all was turning out as they prophesied, save for the slight deviation of Charlie's accident.

"They don't say exactly how bad he is?" said Uncle Henry. "Ah! but he was well enough to send for you! He knows which side his bread's buttered. Yes! we shall have Master Charles creeping back again, very thankful to be in his home with every comfort, nursed by you; and I will give him the worse talking to be has ever had in his life!"

"And if he's ill he can't prevent the Vicar visiting him too," said

So Charlie's wife set out to do her duty.

But still earlier that morning, instructed by the tremendous peace which was stealing over him that time was short, Charlie was making his first request. Would they please ring up Shaftesbury 84 to ask for "Kitty" and tell her "Charlie" just wanted to see her very urgently for a few minutes at once, but not to be frightened, for everything would be perfectly all right?

Pending her arrival, which in a faltering voice over the phone she promised as soon as possible, Charlie asked the kindly Sister who was hovering near to help him die:

"Sister, when a friend of mine comes in, a young lady who isn't used to—to seeing—things, if I go off suddenly as it were-what I'm afraid of is, she may be afraid if there's any kind of struggle—I saw a fellow die once and he gave a sort of rattle—well, will you just pull the bed-clothes up over me, so that she doesn't see?"

Kitty came in, wearing, perhaps incidentally, perhaps by some grace of kindness, the woollen frock, and she crept, shaking, round the screen, and stood beside Charlie, and said, "Oh Charlie! Oh Charlie!" opening his closing eyes.

"Kitty!" he smiled, "sing 'Bubbles.'"

The look Sister—who had taken her right in—gave her, pried Kitty's trembling mouth open like a crowbar, and leaning against Charlie's cot she sang—

  "When shadows creep,
  When I'm asleep,
  To lands of hope I stray,
  Then at daybreak, when I awake…."

The Sister drew the bed-clothes shadily round Charlie's face.

  "… My blue bird flutters away,
  I'm forever blowing bubbles….
  Pretty bubbles in the air…."

Just then the good woman was brought into the ward, bearing with her messages from Maud worthy of Little Eva herself; and full of holy forgiveness; and at edge of the screen Sister met her.

"His wife?" said Sister. "A moment too late. I am sorry." The good woman was looking at the bad woman by the bed, so Sister made a vague explanation.

"He just wanted a song," she said.