Which, by A. T. Quiller-Couch
Old Fires and
The scene was a street in the West End of London, a little south of
Eaton Square: the hour just twenty-five minutes short of midnight.
A wind from the North Sea had been blowing all day across the Thames
marshes, and collecting what it could carry; and the shop-keepers had
scarcely drawn their iron shutters before a thin fog drifted up from
lamp-post to lamp-post and filled the intervals with total darkness—all
but one, where, half-way down the street on the left-hand side, an
enterprising florist had set up an electric lamp at his private cost, to
shine upon his window and attract the attention of rich people as they
drove by on their way to the theatres. At nine o'clock he closed his
business: but the lamp shone on until midnight, to give the rich people
another chance, on their way home, of reading that F. Stillman was
prepared to decorate dinner-tables and ball-rooms, and to supply bridal
bouquets or mourning wreaths at short notice.
The stream of homeward-bound carriages had come to a sudden lull.
The red eyes of a belated four-wheeler vanished in the fog, and the
florist's lamp flung down its ugly incandescent stare on an empty
pavement. Himself in darkness, a policeman on the other side of the
street flashed his lantern twice, closed the slide and halted for a
moment to listen by an area railing.
Halting so, he heard a rapid footfall at the upper corner of the street.
It drew nearer. A man suddenly stepped into the circle of light on the
pavement, as if upon a miniature stage; and as suddenly paused to gaze
upward at the big white globe.
He was a middle-aged man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of broad-cloth,
with a shabby silk hat and country-made boots. He stared up at the
globe, as if to take his bearings in the fog; then pulled out a watch.
As the light streamed down upon its dial, a woman sidled out from the
hollow of a shop-door behind him, and touched his elbow.
"Deary!" she began. "Going home, deary?"
"Heh? Let me alone, please," said the man roughly. "I am not that
sort." She had almost slipped her arm in his before he turned to speak;
but now she caught it away, gasping. Mock globes danced before his eyes
and for the moment he saw nothing but these: did not see that first she
would have run, then moved her hands up to cover her face. Before they
could do so he saw it, all white and damned.
"Oh, Willy . . ." She put out a hand as if to ward him off, but dropped
both arms before her and stood, swaying them ever so slightly.
"So this . . . So this . . ." He choked upon the words.
She nodded, hardening her eyes to meet his. "He left me. He sent no
"I was afraid."
"Afraid to do it . . . suddenly . . . to put an end. . . . It's not so
easy to starve, really. Oh, Willy, can't you hit me?"
He seemed to be reflecting. "I—I say," he said abruptly, "can't we
talk? Can't we get away somewhere and talk?"
Her limp arms seemed to answer: they asked, as plainly as words,
"What is there to say?"
"I don't know. . . . Somewhere out of this infernal light. I want to
think. There must be somewhere, away from this light . . ." He broke
off. "At home, now, I can think. I am always thinking at home."
"At home . . ." the woman echoed.
"And you must think too?"
"Ah!" he ran on, as one talking against time: "but what do you suppose
I think about, nine times out of ten? Why"—and he uttered it with an
air of foolish triumph—"of the chances that we might meet . . . and
what would happen. Have you ever thought of that?"
"Always: everywhere . . . of that . . . and the children."
"Grace looks after them."
"I know. I get word. She is kind."
"You think of them?"
He harked back. "Do you know, whenever I've thought of it . . . the
chance of our meeting . . . I've wondered what I should say. Hundreds
and hundreds of times I've made up my mind what to say. Why, only just
now—I've come from the theatre: I still go to the theatre sometimes;
it's a splendid thing to distract your thoughts: takes you out of
yourself—Frou—Frou, it was . . . the finest play in the world . . .
next to East Lynne. It made me cry, to-night, and the people in the
pit stared at me. But one mustn't be ashamed of a little honest
emotion, before strangers. And when a thing comes home to a man . . .
So you've thought of it too—the chance of our running against one
"Every day and all the day long I've gone fearing it: especially in
March and September, when I knew you'd be up in town buying for the
season. All the day long I've gone watching the street ahead of me
. . . watching in fear of you. . . ."
"But I never guessed it would happen like this." He stared up
irritably, as though the lamp were to blame for upsetting his
calculations. The woman followed his eyes.
"Yes . . . the lamp," she assented. "Something held my face up to it,
just now, when I wanted to hide. It's like as if our souls were naked
under it, and there is nothing to say."
"Eh? but there is. I tell you I've thought it out so often!
I've thought it all out, or almost all; and that can't mean nothing."
He cleared his throat. "I've made allowances, too—" he began
But for the moment she was not listening. "Yes, yes . . ." She had
turned her face aside and was gazing out into the darkness. "Look at
the gas-jets, Willy—in the fog. What do they remind you of?
That Christmas-tree . . . after Dick was born. . . . Don't you remember
how he mistook the oranges on it for lanterns and wanted to blow them
out . . . how he kicked to get at them . . ."
"It's odd: I was thinking of Dick, just now, when you—when you spoke to
me. The lamp put me in mind of him. I was wondering what it cost.
We have nothing like it at home. Of course, if I bought one for the
shop, people would talk—'drawing attention,' they'd say, after what has
happened. But I thought that Dick, perhaps . . . when he grows up and
enters the business . . . perhaps he might propose such a thing, and
then I shan't say no. I should carry it off lightly . . . After all,
it's the shop it would call attention to . . . not the house. And one
must advertise in these days."
She was looking at him steadily now. "Yes," she assented, "people would
"And they pity me. I do hate to be pitied, in that way. Even the
people up here, at the old lodgings . . . I won't come to them again.
If I thought the children . . . One never can tell how much children
He plunged a hand into his pocket. "I daresay, now, you're starving?"
Her arms began to sway again, and she laughed quietly, hideously.
"Don't—don't—don't! I make money. That's the worst. I make money.
Oh, why don't you hit me? Why was you always a soft man?"
For a moment he stood horribly revolted. But his weakness had a better
side, and he showed it now.
"I say, Annie . . . is it so bad?"
"It is hell."
"'Soft'?" he harked back again. "It might take some courage to be
She peered at him eagerly; then sighed. "But you haven't that sort of
"They would say . . ." he went on musing, "I wonder what they would say?
. . . Come back to the lamp," he cried with sudden peevishness.
"Don't look out there . . . this circle of light on the pavement . . .
like a map of the world."
"With only our two shadows on it."
"If it were all the world . . ." He peered around, searching the
darkness. "If there were nothing to concern us beyond, and we could
stay always inside it . . ."
"—With the light shining straight down on us, and our shadows close at
our feet, and so small! But directly we moved beyond they would
lengthen, lengthen . . ."
"'Forsaking all other'—that's what the Service says. And what does
that mean if we cannot stand apart from all and render account to each
other only? I tell you I've made allowances. I didn't make any in the
old days, being wrapped up in the shop and the chapel, and you not
caring for either. There was fault on my side: I've come to see that."
"I'd liefer you struck me, Willy, instead of making allowances."
"Oh, come, that's nonsense. It seems to me, Annie, there's nothing we
couldn't help to mend together. It would never be the same, of course:
but we can understand . . . or at least overlook." In his magnanimity
he caught at high thoughts. "This light above us—what if it were the
"Truth doesn't overlook," she answered, with a hopeless scorn which
puzzled him. "No, no," she went on rapidly, yet more gently, "Truth
knows of the world outside, and is wakeful. If we move a step our
shadows will lengthen. They will touch all bright things—they will
fall across the children. Willy, we cannot move!"
"I see . . ."
"Ah?" She craned forward and almost touched his arm again.
"Annie, it comes to me now—I see for the first time how happy we might
have been. How came we two to kill love?"
The woman gave a cry, almost of joy. Her fingers touched his sleeve
now. "We have not killed love. We—I—had stunned him: but (O, I see!)
he has picked up his weapons again and is fighting. He is bewildered
here, in this great light, and he fights at random . . . fights to make
you strong and me weak, you weak and me strong. We can never be one
again, never. One of us must fall, must be beaten . . .he does not see
this, but O, Willy, he fights . . . he fights!"
"He shall fight for you. Annie, come home!"
"No, no—for you—and the children!"
"Think of the people!" She held him off, shaking her head, but her eyes
were wistful, intent upon his. "You have lived it down. . . . It would
all begin again. Look at me . . . think of the talk . . ."
"Let them say what they choose. . . I wonder what they would say . . ."
The Policeman stepped forward and across the road-way. He had heard
nothing, and completely misunderstood all he had seen.
"Come, you must move on there, you two!" he commanded harshly.
Suddenly, as he said it, the light above was extinguished.
"Hullo!" He paused, half-way across. "Twelve o'clock already!
Then what's taken my watch?"
A pair of feet tip-toed away in the darkness for a few yards, then broke
into a nervous run.
As a matter of fact it still wanted five minutes of midnight. And while
the Policeman fumbled for his watch and slipped back the slide of his
lantern, the white flame leaped back into the blind eye above and blazed
down as fiercely as ever.
"Something wrong with the connection, I suppose," said the Policeman,
glancing up and then down at the solitary figure left standing under the
"Why, hullo! . . ." said he again.
But which was it?—the man or the woman?