The Literary Sense

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The Literary Sense

THE SECOND BEST

THE letter was brief and abrupt.

"I am in London. I have just come back from Jamaica. Will you come and see me? I can be in at any time you appoint."

There was no signature, but he knew the handwriting well enough. The letter came to him by the morning post, sandwiched between his tailor's bill and a catalogue of Rare and Choice Editions.

He read it twice. Then he got up from the breakfast-table, unlocked a drawer, and took out a packet of letters and a photograph.

"I ought to have burned them long ago," he said; "I'll burn them now." He did burn them but first he read them through, and as he read them he sighed, more than once. They were passionate, pretty letters, – the phrases simply turned, the endearments delicately chosen. They breathed of love and constancy and faith, a faith that should move mountains, a love that should shine like gold in the furnace of adversity, a constancy that death itself should be powerless to shake. And he sighed. No later love had come to draw with soft lips the poison from this old wound. She had married Benoliel, the West Indian Jew. It is a far cry from Jamaica to London, but some whispers had reached her jilted lover. The kindest of them said that Benoliel neglected his wife, the harshest, that he beat her.

He looked at the photograph. It was two years since he had seen the living woman. Yet still, when he shut his eyes, he could see the delicate tints, the coral, and rose, and pearl, and gold that went to the making up of her. He could always see these. And now he should see the reality. Would the two years have dulled that bright hair, withered at all that flower-face? For he never doubted that he must go to her.

He was a lawyer; perhaps she wanted that sort of help from him, wanted to know how to rid herself of the bitter bad bargain that she had made in marrying the Jew. Whatever he could do he would, of course, but —

He went out at once and sent a telegram to her.

"Four to-day."

And at four o'clock he found himself on the doorstep of a house in Eaton Square. He hated the wealthy look of the house, the footman who opened the door, and the thick carpets of the stairs up which he was led. He hated the soft luxury of the room in which he was left to wait for her. Everything spoke, decorously and without shouting, but with unmistakable distinctness, of money, Benoliel's money: money that had been able to buy all these beautiful things, and, as one of them, to buy her.

She came in quietly. Long simple folds of grey trailed after her: she wore no ornament of any kind. Her fingers were ringless, every one. He saw all this, but before he saw anything else he saw that the two years had taken nothing from her charm, had indeed but added a wistful patient look that made her seem more a child than when he had last seen her.

The meaningless contact of their hands was over, and still neither had spoken. She was looking at him questioningly. The silence appeared silly; there was, and there could be, no emotion to justify, to transfigure it. He spoke.

"How do you do?" he said.

She drew a deep breath, and lifted her eyebrows slightly.

"Won't you sit down?" she said; "you are looking just like you used to." She had the tiniest lisp; once it had used to charm him.

"You, too, are quite your old self," he said. Then there was a pause.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" she said.

"It was you who sent for me," said he.

"Yes."

"Why did you?"

"I wanted to see you." She opened her pretty child-eyes at him, and he noted, only to bitterly resent, the appeal in them. He remembered that old appealing look too well.

"No, Madam," he said inwardly, "not again! You can't whistle the dog to heel at your will and pleasure. I was a fool once, but I'm not fool enough to play the fool with Benoliel's wife."

Aloud he said, smiling —

"I suppose you did, or you would not have written. And now what can I do for you?"

She leaned forward to look at him.

"Then you really have forgotten? You didn't grieve for me long! You used to say you would never leave off loving me as long as you lived."

"My dear Mrs. Benoliel," he said, "if I ever said anything so thoughtless as that, I certainly have forgotten it."

"Very well," she said; "then go!"

This straight hitting embarrassed him mortally.

"But," he said, "I've not forgotten that you and I were once friends for a little while, and I do beg you to consider me as a friend. Let me help you. You must have some need of a friend's services, or you would not have sent for me. I assure you I am entirely at your commands. Come, tell me how I can help you – "

"You can't help me at all," she said hopelessly, "nobody can now."

"I've heard – I hope you'll forgive me for saying so – I've heard that your married life has been – hasn't been – "

"My married life has been hell," she said; "but I don't want to talk about that. I deserved it all."

"But, my dear lady, why not get a divorce or, at least, a separation? My services – anything I can do to advise or – "

She sprang from her chair and knelt beside him.

"Oh, how could you think that of me? How could you? He's dead – Benoliel's dead. I thought you'd understand that by my sending to you. Do you think I'd ever have seen you again as long as he was alive? I'm not a wicked woman, dear, I'm only a fool."

She had caught the hand that lay on the arm of his chair, her face was pressed on it, and on it he could feel her tears and her kisses.

"Don't," he said harshly, "don't." But he could not bring himself to draw his hand away otherwise than very gently, and after a decent pause. He stood up and held out his hand. She put hers in it, he raised her to her feet and put her back in her chair, and artfully entrenching himself behind a little table, sat down in a very stiff chair with a high seat and gilt legs.

She laughed. "Oh, don't trouble! You needn't barricade yourself like a besieged castle. Don't be afraid of me. You're really quite safe. I'm not so mad as you think. Only, you know, all this time I've never been able to get the idea out of my head – "

He was afraid to ask what idea.

"I always believed you meant it; that you always would love me, just as you said. I was wrong, that's all. Now go! Do go!"

He was afraid to go.

"No," he said, "let's talk quietly, and like the old friends we were before we – "

"Before we weren't. Well?"

He was now afraid to say anything.

"Look here," she said suddenly, "let me talk. There are some things I do really want to say, since you won't let it go without saying. One is that I know now you're not so much to blame as I thought, and I do forgive you. I mean it, really, not just pretending forgiveness; I forgive you altogether – "

"You– forgive me?"

"Yes, didn't you understand that that was what I meant? I didn't want to say 'I forgive you,' and I thought if I sent for you you'd understand."

"You seem to have thought your sending for me a more enlightening move than I found it."

"Yes – because you don't care now. If you had, you'd have understood."

"I really think I should like to understand."

"What?"

"Exactly what it is you're kind enough to forgive."

"Why – your never coming to see me. Benoliel told me before we'd been married a month that he had got my aunt to stop your letters and mine, so I don't blame you now as I did then. But you might have come when you found I didn't write."

"I did come. The house was shut up, and the caretaker could give no address."

"Did you really? And there was no address? I never thought of that."

"I don't suppose you did," he said savagely; "you never did think!"

"Oh, I was a fool! I was!"

"Yes."

"But I have been punished."

"Not you!" he said. "You got what you wanted – money, money, money – the only thing I couldn't give you. If it comes to that, why didn't you come and see me? I hadn't gone away and left no address."

"I never thought of it."

"No, of course not."

"And, besides, you wouldn't have been there – "

"I? I sat day after day waiting for a letter."

"I never thought of it," she said again.

And again he said: "No, of course you didn't; you wouldn't, you know – "

"Ah, don't! please don't! Oh, you don't know how sorry I've been – "

"But why did you marry him?"

"To spite you – to show you I didn't care – because I was in a rage – because I was a fool! You might as well tell me at once that you're in love with someone else."

"Must one always be in love, then?" he sneered.

"I thought men always were," she said simply. "Please tell me."

"No, I'm not in love with anybody. I have had enough of that to last me for a year or two."

"Then – oh, won't you try to like me again? Nobody will ever love you so much as I do – you said I looked just the same – "

"Yes, but you aren't the same."

"Yes I am. I think really I'm better than I used to be," she said timidly.

"You're not the same," he went on, growing angrier to feel that he had allowed himself to grow angry with her. "You were a girl, and my sweetheart; now you're a widow – that man's widow! You're not the same. The past can't be undone so easily, I assure you."

"Oh," she cried, clenching her hands, "I know there must be something I could say that you would listen to – oh, I wish I could think what! I suppose as it is I'm saying things no other woman ever would have said – but I don't care! I won't be reserved and dignified, and leave everything to you, like girls in books. I lost too much by that before. I will say every single thing I can think of. I will! Dearest, you said you would always love me – you don't care for anyone else. I know you would love me again if you would only let yourself. Won't you forgive me?"

 

"I can't," he said briefly.

"Have you never done anything that needed to be forgiven? I would forgive you anything in the world! Didn't you care for other people before you knew me? And I'm not angry about it. And I never cared for him."

"That only makes it worse," he said.

She sprang to her feet. "It makes it worse for me! But if you loved me it ought to make it better for you. If you had loved me with your heart and mind you would be glad to think how little it was, after all, that I did give to that man."

"Sold – not gave – "

"Oh, don't spare me! But there's no need to tell you not to spare me. But I don't care what you say. You've loved other women. I've never loved anyone but you. And yet you can't forgive me!"

"It's not the same," he repeated dully.

"I am the same – only I'm more patient, I hope, and not so selfish. But your pride is hurt, and you think it's not quite the right thing to marry a rich man's widow. And you want to go home and feel how strong and heroic you've been, and be proud of yourself because you haven't let me make a fool of you."

It was so nearly true that he denied it instantly.

"I don't," he said. "I could have forgiven you anything, however wicked you'd been – but I can't forgive you for having been – "

"Been a fool? I can't forgive myself for that, either. My dear, my dear, you don't love anyone else; you don't hate me. Do you know that your eyes are quite changed from what they were when you came in? And your voice, and your face – everything. Think, dear, if I am not the same woman you loved, I'm still more like her than anyone else in the world. And you did love me – oh, don't hate me for anything I've said. Don't you see I'm fighting for my life? Look at me. I am just like your old sweetheart, only I love you more, and I can understand better now how not to make you unhappy. Ah, don't throw everything away without thinking. I am more like the woman you loved than anyone else can ever be. Oh, my God! my God! what shall I say to him? Oh, God help me!"

She had said enough. The one phrase "If I am not the same woman you loved, still I am more like her than anyone else in the world" had struck straight at his heart. It was true. What if this, the second best, were now the best life had to offer? If he threw this away, would any other woman be able to inspire him with any sentiment more like love than this passion of memory, regret, tenderness, pity – this desire to hold, protect, and comfort, with which, ever since her tears fell on his hand, he had been fighting in fierce resentment. He looked at the huddled grey figure. He must decide – now, at this moment – he must decide for two lives.

But before he had time to decide anything he found that he had taken her in his arms.

"My own, my dear," he was saying again and again, "I didn't mean it. It wasn't true. I love you better than anything. Let's forget it all. I don't care for anything now I have you again."

"Then why – "

"Oh, don't let's ask each other questions – let's begin all over again at two years ago. We'll forget all the rest – my dear – my own!"

Of course neither has ever forgotten it, but they always pretend to each other that they have.

Her defiance of the literary sense in him and in her was justified. His literary sense, or some deeper instinct, prompted him to refuse to use Benoliel's money – but her acquiescence in his decision reversed it. And they live very comfortably on the money to this day.

The odd thing is that they are extremely happy. Perhaps it is not, after all, such a bad thing to be quite sure, before marriage, that the second-best happiness is all you are likely to get in this world.

A HOLIDAY

THE month was June, the street was Gower Street, the room was an attic. And in it a poet sat, struggling with the rebellious third act of the poetic drama that was to set him in the immediate shadow of Shakespeare, and on the level of those who ring Parnassus round just below the summit. The attic roof sloped, the furniture was vilely painted in grained yellow, the arm-chair's prickly horsehair had broken to let loose lumps of dark-coloured flock. The curtains were dark and damask and dusty. The carpet was Kidderminster and sand-coloured. It had holes in it; so had the Dutch hearthrug. The poet's penholder was the kind at twopence the dozen. The ink was in a penny bottle. Outside on a blackened flowerless lilac a strayed thrush sang madly of spring and hope and joy and love.

The clear strong June sunshine streamed in through the window and turned the white of the poet's page to a dazzling silver splendour.

"Hang it all!" he cried, and he threw down the yellow-brown penholder. "It's too much! It's not to be borne! It's not human!"

He turned out his pockets. Two-and-seven-pence. He could draw the price of an ode and a roundelay from the Spectator– but not to-day, for this was a Bank Holiday, Whit Monday, in fact. Then he thought of his tobacco jar. Sure enough, there lurked some halfpence among the mossy shag, and – oh, wonder and joy and cursed carelessness for ever to be blessed – a gleaming coy half-sovereign. In the ticket-pocket of his overcoat a splendid unforeseen shilling – a florin and a sixpence in the velveteen jacket he had not worn since last year. Ten – and two – and one – and two and sevenpence and sixpence – sixteen shillings and a penny. Enough, more than enough, to take him out of this world of burst horsehair chairs and greedy foolscap, of arid authorship and burst bubbles of dreams to the real world, where spring, still laughing, shrank from the kisses of summer, where white may blossomed and thrushes sang.

"I'll have a holiday," he said, "who knows – I may get an idea for a poem!"

He cleaned his boots with ink; they were not shiny after it, but they were at least black. He put on his last clean shirt and the greeny-blue Liberty tie that his sister had sent him for his April birthday. He brushed his soft hat – counted his money again – found for it a pocket still lacking holes – and went out whistling. The front door slammed behind him with a cheerful conclusive bang.

From the top of an omnibus he noted the town gilded with June sunlight. And it was very good.

He bought food, and had it packed in decent brown paper, so that it looked like something superfluous from the stores.

And he caught the ten something train to Halstead. He only just caught it.

He blundered into a third-class carriage, and nearly broke his neck over an umbrella which lay across the door like an amateur trap for undesired company.

By some extraordinary apotheosis of Bank Holiday mismanagement, there was only one person in the carriage – the owner of the trap-umbrella. A girl, of course. That was inevitable in this magic weather. He had knocked her basket off the seat, and had only just saved himself from buffeting her with his uncontrolled shoulder before he saw that she was a girl. He took off his hat and apologised. She smiled, murmured, and blushed.

He settled himself in his corner, and unfolded the evening paper of yesterday which, by the most fortunate chance, happened to be in his pocket.

Over it he glanced at her. She was pretty – with a vague unawakened prettiness. Her eyes and hair were dark. Her hat seemed dowdy, yet becoming. Her gloves were rubbed at the fingers. Her blouse was light and bright. Her skirt obscure and severe. He decided that she was not well off.

His eyes followed a dull leader on the question of the government of India. But he did not want to read. He wanted to talk. On this June day, when the life of full-grown spring thrilled one to the finger tips, how could one feed one's vitality, one's over-mastering joy of life, with printer's ink and the greyest paper in London?

He glanced at her again. She was looking out of the window at the sordid little Bermondsey houses, where the red buds of the Virginia creeper were already waking to their green summer life-work. He spoke. And no one would have guessed from his speech that he was a poet.

"What a beautiful day!" he said.

"Yes, very," said she, and her tone gave no indication of any exuberant spring expansiveness to match his own.

He looked at her again. No. Yes. Yes, he would try the experiment he had long wanted to try – had often in long, silent, tête-à-tête journeys dreamed of trying. He would skip all the pitiful formalities of chance acquaintanceship. He would speak as one human being to another – would assume the sure bond of a common kinship. He said —

"It is such a beautiful day that I want to talk about it! Mayn't I talk to you? Don't you feel that you want to say how beautiful it is – just as much as I do?"

The girl looked at him. A scared fold in her brow warned him of the idea that had seized her.

"I'm really not mad," he said; "but it does seem so frightfully silly that we should travel all the way to – to wherever you are going, and not tell each other how good June weather is."

"Well – it is!" she owned.

He eagerly spoke: he wanted to entangle her in talk before her conventional shrinking from chance acquaintanceship should shrivel her interest past hope.

"I often think how silly people are," he said, "not to talk in railway carriages. One can't read without blinding oneself. I've seen women knit, but that's unspeakable. Many a time in frosty, foggy weather, when the South Eastern has taken two hours to get from Cannon Street to Blackheath, I've looked round the carriage and wanted to say, 'Gentlemen, seeing that we are thus delayed, let us each contribute to the general hilarity by telling a story – we might gather them into a Christmas number afterwards – in the manner of the late Mr. Charles Dickens,' then I've looked round the carriage full of city-centred people, and wondered how they'd deal with the lunatic who ventured to suggest such an All-the-year-round idea. But nobody could be city-centred on such a day, and so early. So let's talk."

She had laughed, as he had meant her to laugh. Now she seemed to throw away some scruple in the gesture with which she shrugged her shoulders and turned to him.

"Very well," she said, and she was smiling. "Only I've nothing to say."

"Never mind; I have," he rejoined, and proceeded to say it. It seemed amusing to him as an experiment to talk to this girl, this perfect stranger, with a delicate candour that he would not have shown to his oldest friend. It seemed interesting to lay bare, save for a veiling of woven transparent impersonality, his inmost mind. It was interesting, for the revelation drew her till they were talking together in a world where it seemed no more than natural for her to show him her soul: and she had no skill to weave veils for it.

Such talk is rare: so rare and so keen a pleasure, indeed, as to leave upon one's life, if one be not a poet, a mark strong and never to be effaced.

The slackening of the train at Halstead broke the spell which lay on both with a force equal in strength, if diverse in kind.

"Oh!" she said, "I get out here. Good-bye, good-bye."

He would not spoil the parting by banalities of hat-raising amid the group of friends or relations who would doubtless meet her.

"Good-bye," he said, and his eyes made her take his offered hand. "Good-bye. I shall never forget you. Never!"

And then it seemed to him that the farewell lacked fire: and he lifted her hand to his face. He did not kiss it. He laid it against his cheek, sighed, and dropped it. The action was delicate and very effective. It suggested the impulse, almost irresistible yet resisted, the well-nigh overwhelming longing to kiss the hand, kept in check by a respect that was almost devotion.

She should have torn her hand away. She took it away gently, and went.

Leisurely he got out of the train. She had disappeared. Well – the bright little interlude was over. Still, it would give food for dreams among the ferny woods. The first lines of a little song hummed themselves in his brain —

 
"Eyes like stars in the night of life,
Seen but a moment and seen for ever."
 

He would finish them and send them to the Pall Mall Gazette. That would be a guinea.

He wished the journey had been longer. He would never see her again. Perhaps it was just as well. He crushed that last thought. It would be good to dwell through the day on the thought of her – the almost loved, the wholly lost.

 
 
"That could but have happened once
And we missed it, lost it for ever!"
 

Her eyes were very pretty, especially when they opened themselves so widely as she tried to express the thoughts that no one but he had ever cared to hear expressed. The definite biography – dead father, ailing mother – hard work – hard life – hard-won post as High School Mistress, were but as the hoarding on which was pasted the artistic poster of their meeting – their parting. He sighed as he walked along the platform. The promise of June had fulfilled itself: he was rich in a sorrow that did not hurt – a regret that did not sting. Poor little girl! Poor pretty eyes! Poor timid, brave maiden-soul!

Suddenly in his walk he stopped short.

Obliquely through the door of the booking-office he saw her. She was alone. No troops of friends or relations had borne her off. She was waiting for someone; and someone had not come.

What was to be done? He felt an odd chill. If he had only not taken her hand in that silly way which had seemed at the time so artistically perfect. The railway carriage talk might have been prolonged prettily, indefinitely. But that foolish contact had rung up the curtain on a transformation scene, whose footlights needed, at least, a good make-up for the facing of them.

She stood there – looking down the road; in every line of her figure was dejection; hopelessness itself had drawn the line of her head's sideward droop. His make-up need be but of the simplest.

She had expected to meet someone, and someone had not come.

His chivalric impulses, leaping to meet the occasion's call, bade him substitute a splendid replacement – himself, for the laggard tryst-breaker. Even though he knew that that touch of the hand must inaugurate the second volume of the day's romance.

He came behind her and spoke.

"Hasn't he come?" He did not like himself for saying "he" – but he said it. It belonged to the second volume.

She turned with a start and a lighting of eyes and lips that almost taught him pity. Not quite: for the poet's nature is hard to teach.

"He?" she said, decently covering the light of lips and eyes as soon as might be. "It was a friend. She was to come from Sevenoaks. She ought to be here. We were to have a little picnic together." She glanced at her basket. "I didn't know you were getting out here. Why – " The question died on trembling lips.

"Why?" he repeated. There was a pause.

"And now, what are you going to do?" he asked, and his voice was full of tender raillery for her lost tryst with the girl friend, and for her pretty helplessness.

"I – I don't know," she said.

"But I do!" he looked in her eyes. "You are going to be kind. Life is so cruel. You are going to help me to cheat Life and Destiny. You are going to leave your friend to the waste desolation of this place, if she comes by the next train: but she won't – she's kept at home by toothache, or a broken heart, or some little foolish ailment like that," – he prided himself on the light touch here, – "and you are going to be adorably kind and sweet and generous, and to let me drink the pure wine of life for this one day."

Her eyes drooped. Fully inspired, he struck a master-chord in the lighter key.

"You have a basket. I have a brown paper parcel. Let me carry both, and we will share both. We'll go to Chevening Park. It will be fun. Will you?"

There was a pause: he wondered whether by any least likely chance the chord had not rung true. Then —

"Yes," she said half defiantly. "I don't see why I shouldn't – Yes."

"Then give me the basket," he said, "and hey for the green wood!"

The way led through green lanes – through a green park, where tall red sorrel and white daisies grew high among the grass that was up for hay. The hawthorns were silvery, the buttercups golden. The gold sun shone, the blue sky arched over a world of green and glory. And so through Knockholt, and up the narrow road to the meadow whose path leads to the steep wood-way where Chevening Park begins.

They walked side by side, and to both of them – for he was now wholly lost in the delightful part for which this good summer world was the fitting stage – to both of them it seemed that the green country was enchanted land, and they under a spell that could never break.

They talked of all things under the sun: he, eager to impress her with that splendid self of his; she, anxious to show herself not wholly unworthy. She, too, had read her Keats and her Shelley and her Browning – and could cap and even overshadow his random quotations.

"There is no one like you," he said as they passed the stile above the wood; "no one in this beautiful world."

Her heart replied —

"If there is anyone like you I have never met him, and oh, thank God, thank God, that I have met you now."

Aloud she said —

"There's a place under beech trees – a sort of chalk plateau – I used to have picnics there with my brothers when I was a little girl – "

"Shall we go there?" he asked. "Will you really take me to the place that your pretty memories haunt? Ah – how good you are to me."

As they went down the steep wood-path she slipped, stumbled – he caught her.

"Give me your hand!" he said. "This path's not safe for you."

It was not. She gave him her hand, and they went down into the wood together.

The picnic was gay as an August garden. After a life of repression – to meet someone to whom one might be oneself! It was very good.

She said so. That was when he did kiss her hand.

When lunch was over they sat on the sloped, short turf and watched the rabbits in the warren below. They sat there and they talked. And to the end of her days no one will know her soul as he knew it that day, and no one ever knew better than she that aspect of his soul which he chose that day to represent as its permanent form.

The hours went by, and when the shadows began to lengthen and the sun to hide behind the wood they were sitting hand in hand. All the entrenchments of her life's training, her barriers of maidenly reserve, had been swept away by the torrent of his caprice, his indolently formed determination to drink the delicate sweet cup of this day to the full.

It was in silence that they went back along the wood-path – her hand in his, as before. Yet not as before, for now he held it pressed against his heart.

"Oh, what a day – what a day of days!" he murmured. "Was there ever such a day? Could there ever have been? Tell me – tell me! Could there?"

And she answered, turning aside a changed, softened, transfigured face.

"You know – you know!"

So they reached the stile at the top of the wood – and here, when he had lent her his hand to climb it, he paused, still holding in his her hand.

Now or never, should the third volume begin – and end. Should he? Should he not? Which would yield the more perfect memory – the one kiss to crown the day, or the kiss renounced, the crown refused? Her eyes, beseeching, deprecating, fearing, alluring, decided the question. He framed her soft face in his hands and kissed her, full on the lips. Then not so much for insurance against future entanglement as for the sound of the phrase, which pleased him – he was easily pleased at the moment – he said —

"A kiss for love – for memory – for despair!"

It was almost in silence that they went through lanes still and dark, across the widespread park lawns and down the narrow road to the station. Her hand still lay against his heart. The kiss still thrilled through them both. They parted at the station. He would not risk the lessening of the day's charming impression by a railway journey. He could go to town by a later train. He put her into a crowded carriage, and murmured with the last hand pressure —

"Thank God for this one day. I shall never forget. You will never forget. This day is all our lives – all that might have been."

"I shall never forget," she said.

In point of fact, she never has forgotten. She has remembered all, even to the least light touch of his hand, the slightest change in his soft kind voice. That is why she has refused to marry the excellent solicitor who might have made her happy, and, faded and harassed, still teaches to High School girls the Euclid and Algebra which they so deeply hate to learn.

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