THE WOMAN WHO SAT STILL

By PARRY TRUSCOTT

(From Colour)

1922

Best British Short Stories

When he went, when he had to go, he took with him the memory of her that had become crystallised, set for him in his own frequent words to her, standing at her side, looking down at her with his keen, restless eyes—such words as: "It puzzles me how on earth you manage to sit so still…."

Then, enlarging: "It is wonderful to me how you can keep so happy doing nothing—make of enforced idleness a positive pleasure! I suppose it is a gift, and I haven't got it—not a bit. It doesn't matter how tired I am, I have to keep going—people call it industry, but its real name is nervous energy, run riot. I can't even take a holiday peacefully. I must be actively playing if I cannot work. I'm just the direct descendant of the girl in the red shoes—they were red, weren't they?—who had to dance on and on until she dropped. I shall go on and on until I drop, and then I shall attempt a few more useless yards on all fours…."

"Come now," in answer to the way she shook her head at him, smiled at him from her sofa, "you know very well how I envy you your gift, your power of sitting still—happily still—your power of contemplation…."

And one day, more intimately still, with a sigh and a look (Oh, a look she understood!), "To me you are the most restful person in the world…."

* * * * *

Why he went, except that he had to go; why he stayed away so long, so very long, are not really relevant to this story; the facts, stripped of conjecture, were simply these: she was married, and he was not, and there came the time, as it always comes in such relationships as theirs, when he had to choose between staying without honour and going quickly. He went. But even the bare facts concerning his protracted absence are less easily stated because his absence dragged on long after the period when he might, with impeccable honour, have returned.

The likeliest solution was that setting her aside when he had to, served so to cut in two his life, so wrenched at his heartstrings, so burnt and bruised his spirit, that when, in his active fashion he had lived some of the hurt down, he could not bring himself easily to reopen the old subject—fresh wounds for him might still lurk in it—how could he tell? Although it had been at the call, the insistence of honour, still hadn't he left her—deserted her? Does any woman, even his own appointed woman, forgive a man who goes speechless away? Useless, useless speculation! For some reason, some man's reason, when another's death made her a free woman, yet he lingered and did not come.

He knew, afterwards, that it was from the first his intention to claim her. He wanted her—deep down he wanted her as he had always wanted her; meant to come—some time. Knew all the time that he could not always keep away. And then, responding to a sudden whim, some turn of his quickly moving mind—a mind that could forcibly bury a subject and as forcibly resurrect it—hot-foot and eager he came.

* * * * *

He had left her recovering slowly and surely from a long illness; an illness that must have proved fatal but for her gift of tranquillity, her great gift of keeping absolutely, restfully still in body, while retaining a happily occupied mind. Her books, and her big quiet room, and the glimpse of the flower-decked garden from her window, with just these things to help her, she had dug herself into the deep heart of life where the wells of contentment spring. Bird's song in the early morn and the long, still day before her in which to find herself—to take a new, firmer hold on the hidden strength of the world. And, just to keep her in touch with the surface of things, visits from her friends. Then later, more tightly gripping actuality, with a new, keen, sharp, growing pleasure—the visits of a friend.

While those lasted there was nothing she would have changed for her quiet room, her sofa: the room that he lit with his coming; where she rested and rested, shut in with the memory of all he said, looked, thought in her presence—until again he came.

While they lasted! She had been content, never strong, never able to do very much, with seclusion before. During the time of his visits she revelled, rejoiced in it, asking nothing further. While they lasted, sitting still (Oh, so still), hugging her joy, she didn't think, wouldn't think, how it might end.

Sometimes, just sometimes, by a merciful providence, things do not end.
She lived for months on the bare chance of its not ending.

Yet, as we know, the end came.

At first while the world called her widowed she sat with her unwidowed heart waiting for him in the old room, in the old way. Surely now he would come? She had given good measure of fondness and duty and friendship—that was only that under another name—to the one who until now had stood between her and her heart's desire, and parting with him, and all the associations that went with him, had surprisingly hurt her. Always frail, she was ill—torn with sorrow and pity—and then, very slowly again, she recovered. And while she recovered, lying still in the old way, she gave her heart wings—wild, surging wings—at last, at last. Sped it forth, forth to bring her joy—to compel it.

While she waited in this fashion a sweet, recaptured sense of familiarity made his coming seem imminent. She had only to wait and he would be here. She couldn't have mistaken the looks that had never been translated into words—that hadn't needed words. Though she had longed and ached for a word—then—she was quite content now. He had wanted her just as she was, unashamed and untainted. And to preserve her as she was he had gone away. And now for the very first time she was truly glad he had gone in that abrupt, speechless fashion—in spite of the heartache and the long years between them, really and truly glad. Nothing had been spoilt; they had snatched at no stolen joys. And the rapture, (what rapture!) of meeting would blot out all that they had suffered in silence—the separation—all of it!

As she waited, getting well for him, she had no regrets, growing more and more sure of his coming.

It was not until she was well again, not until the months had piled themselves on each other, that, growing more frightened than she knew, she began her new work of preparation.

* * * * *

Suddenly, impulsively, when she had reached the stage of giving him up for days at a time, when hope had nearly abandoned her, then he came.

He had left a woman so hopeful in outlook, so young and peaceful in spirit, that with her the advancing years would not matter. On his journey back to her, visualising her afresh, touching up his memory of her, he pictured her going a little grey. That would suit her—grey was her colour—blending to lavender in the clothes she always wore for him. A little grey, but her clear, pale skin unfaded, her large eyes full of pure, guarded secrets—secrets soon to unfold for him alone.

A haven—a haven! So he thought of her, and now, ready for her, coming to her, he craved the rest she would give him—rest more than anything in all the world. She, with her sweet white hands, when he held them, kissed them, would unlock the doors of peace for him, drawing him into her life, letting him potter and linger—linger at her side. Even when long ago he had insisted to her that for him there was no way of rest, he had known that she, just she, meant rest for him, when he could claim her for his own. Other women, other pursuits, offered him excitement, stimulation—and then a weariness too profound for words. But rest, bodily, spiritually, was her unique gift for him. She—he smiled as he thought it—would teach him to sit still.

And tired, so tired, he hurried to her across the world as fast as he could go.

Waiting at her door, the door opened, crossing the threshold—Oh, he had never thought his luck would be so great as to be taken direct to the well remembered room upstairs! Yet with only a few short inquiries he was taken there—she for whom he asked, the mistress of the house, would be in her sitting-room, he was told, and if he was an old friend…? He explained that he was a very old friend, following the maid upstairs. But the maid was mistaken; her mistress was not in her private sitting-room; not in the house at all—she had gone out, and it proved on investigation that she had left no word. The maid, returning, suggested however, that she would not be long. Her mistress had a meeting this evening; she was expecting some one before dinner; no, she would certainly not be long, so—so if he would like to wait?

He elected to wait—a little impatiently. He knew it was absurd that coming, without warning—after how many years was it?—he should yet have made so sure of finding her at home. Absurd, unreasonable—and yet he was disappointed. He ought to have written, but he had not waited to write. He had pictured the meeting—how many times? Times without number—and always pictured her waiting at home. And then the room?

Left alone in it he paced the room. But the room enshrined in his heart of hearts was not this room. Was there, surely there was some mistake?

There could be no mistake. There could not be two upstairs rooms in this comparatively small house, of this size and with this aspect; westward, and overlooking with two large windows the little walled garden into which he had so often gazed, standing and talking to her, saying over his shoulders the things he dare not say face to face—that would have meant so much more, helped out with look and gesture, face to face.

The garden, as far as he could see, was the same except that he fancied it less trim, less perfect in order: in the old days it would be for months at a time all the outside world she saw—there had been object enough in keeping it trim. Now it looked, to his fancy, like a woman whose beauty was fading a little because she had lost incentive to be beautiful. He turned from the garden, his heart amazed, fearful, back to the room.

The room of the old days—with closed eyes he reproduced it; its white walls, its few good pictures, its curtains and carpet of deep blue. Her sofa by the window, the wide armchair on which he always sat, the table where, in and out of season, roses, his roses, stood. The little old gilt clock on the mantlepiece that so quickly, cruelly ticked away their hour. Books, books everywhere, the most important journals and a medley of the lighter magazines; those, with her work-basket, proving her feminine and the range of her interests, her inconsistency. A woman's room, revealing at a glance her individuality, her spirit.

But this room—! He looked for the familiar things—the sofa, the bookshelves, the little table dedicated to flowers. Yes, the sofa was there, but pushed away as though seldom used; on the bookshelves new, strange books were crowding out the old; on the little table drooped a few faded flowers in an awkward vase. On the mantlepiece, where she would never have more than one or two good ornaments, and the old gilt clock, were now stacks of papers, a rack bulging with packing materials—something like that—an ink-bottle, a candlestick, the candle trailed over with sealing-wax, and an untidy ball of string. And right in the centre of the room a great clumsy writing-table, an office table, piled with papers again, ledgers, a portable typewriter, and—a litter of cigarette ends.

Like a Mistress on the track of a much-doubted maid he ran his finger along the edge of a bookcase and then the mantlepiece. He looked at his fingers; there was no denying the dust he had wiped away.

She must have changed her room—why had she done it? But the maid had said—in her sitting-room—

He waited now frightened, now fuming. Still she did not come. Should he not wait—should he go—if this was her room? But he had come so far, and he needed her so—he must stay. For some dear, foolish woman's reason she must have lent her room for the use of a feminine busy-body; a political, higher-thought, pseudo-spiritualistic friend. (He must weed out her friends!) The trend of the work done in this room now his quick mind had seized upon—titles of books, papers, it was enough. Notices stuck in the Venetian Mirror (the desecration!) for meetings of this and that society, and all of them, so he judged, just excuses for putting unwanted fingers into unwanted, dangerous pies. He thought of it like that—he could not help it; he saw too far into motive and internal action; was too impatient of the little storms, the paltry, tea-cup things. She, with her unique gift of serenity—her place was not among the busybodies grinding axes that were better blunt; interfering with the slow, slow working of the Mills of God. Her gift was example—rare and delicate; her light the silver light of a soul, that through 'suffering and patience and contemplation, knows itself and is unafraid.

For such fussing, unstable work as it was used for now she ought not even to have lent her room—the room he had looked on as a temple of quietness; the shrine of a priceless temperament.

He smiled his first smile—she should not lend it again.

Then the door opened. Suddenly, almost noisily, she came in.

She had heard, downstairs, his name. So far she was prepared with her greeting. She came with hands out-stretched—he took her hands and dropped them.

When he could interrupt her greeting he said—forcing the words—"So now you are quite strong—and busy?"

She told him how busy. She told him how, (but not why) she had awakened from her long, selfish dream. She said she had found so late—but surely not too late?—the joy of action; constant, unremitting work for the world's sake. "Do you remember how you used to complain you couldn't sit still? I am like that now—"

And he listened, listened, each word a deeper stab straight at his defenceless heart.

Of all the many things he had done since they met he had nothing to say.

Having just let her talk (how she talked!) as soon as he decently could he went. Of all he had come to tell her he said not a word. Tired, so bitterly tired, he had come seeking rest, and now there was no more a place of rest for him—anywhere.

Yes, he had come across the world to find himself overdue; to find himself too late. He went out again—as soon as he decently could—taking only a picture of her that in sixty over-charged minutes had wiped out the treasured picture of years.

Sixty minutes! After waiting for years she had kept him an hour, desperately, by sheer force of will keeping a man too stunned at first to resist, to break free. (Then at last he broke free of that room and that woman, and went!) For years he had pictured her sitting still as no other woman sat still, tranquil and graceful, her hair going a little grey above her clear, pale skin, her eyes of a dream-ridden saint. And now he must picture her forced into life, vivaciously, restlessly eager; full of plans, (futile plans, how he knew those plans!) for the world's upheaval, adding unrest to unrest. And now he must picture her with the grey hair outwitted by art, with paint on her beautiful ravaged face.

At first he had wanted to take her in his arms; with his strength to still her, with his tears to wash the paint off.

But he couldn't—he couldn't. He knew that his had been a dream of such supreme sweetness that to awaken was an agony he could never hide; knew that you can't re-enter dreamland once you wake.

So he went.

He never knew, with the door shut on him, how she fell on her sofa—her vivacity quenched, her soul spent. He never knew that having failed, (as she thought) to draw him to her with what she was, she had vainly, foolishly tried a new model—himself.

He did not know how inartistic love can be when love is desperate.