Hope for the Living
When Philip died a hero he took Sara’s heart with him — Jeff brought it back purged of all hatred
SARA lay quiet and almost at peace in the sun, watching Billy push sand into small heaps, his thin back white and bony above the faded shorts. He had been doing the same thing for over an hour now, without evident purpose and with steady, listless patience, not seeming to need companionship. This was fortunate because she could not have borne the oblivious happy laughter of strange children. Poor little boy, she thought vaguely, as if he were someone else’s child, he has no father and his mother is more dead than alive.
But she could not afford to think of Philip. Now that she was here at last on this lonely island, safe in her escape from the stifling patient affection of his parents and the perplexed solicitude of her few remaining friends, it should be easier to push away thoughts of him. Here there could be no repetition of how splendid she had been to accept his death so bravely, no allusions to her pride in his heroism — because she knew no one and would seek no friendships in this place.
And her isolation had been complete and satisfying for the first few days, until at last it had been necessary for Billy’s sake (never for her own) to go to the one store on the island. She remembered it had been on a Friday, almost two weeks ago exactly, and she had gone in, with Billy a small steady anchor at her side, to be enveloped in stale air and the smell of moldy cheese. She had glanced furtively at the occupants of the place—farmers mostly, and a few Indian fishermen—and when it became evident that no one thought her of importance she had advanced almost boldly to the counter.
“I would like these things,” she said, presenting a neatly prepared list to five clerk. He was an old man and he looked fired and out of sorts, as if the oopressive atmosphere of the place had permeated him entirely. He peered at the list in a worried manner, tracing t he items with a long yellow finger. The finger stopped suddenly.
“No butter,” he said.
“But I have my coupons.” She pushed the little books toward him.
“Makes no difference,” he said crossly, “no butter.”
“But you see,” she said, “it’s the butter I need more than anything.” Impossible to explain to this testy old man that the need for butter alone had forced her against lier flaccid, battered will into this open place. She could have managed without the other things for quite a few days yet.
“What did you say, lady?” He put his hand behind his ear. He could give her no butter and he could not even hear what she said. Tears of exhaustion and self-pity rose in her eyes and she turned blindly toward the door in ignominious flight from this exposed, ungainly contest. Naturally they would all be staring at her, ferrets’ eyes prodding her like knives, mouths smiling behind grimy hands.
“Don’t let it throw you,” a man said, laughing. He put his hand on her arm above the elbow and she could feel the laughter like a strong wind blowing between them. He was very tall and his teeth flashed white in his brown face.
IOOK, Alec,” he said to the old man, “you’ve had J your little joke. The lady wants some butter. Tell her it ’ll be in on the boat.”
“All right,” the old man said indifferently, “you wait around until three, maybe half past. Might be some.”
“If 1 can’t have it now,” she said, “I don’t want it at all.” Such a little thing to ask and all this fuss. It was quite true, of course, as Philip had so often told her, that she did not know and would probably never learn how to deal with servants and salespeople. She had tried so hard to acquire the abilities he wanted in a wife; but she had not been a successful pupil.
“You must be a stranger here,” the young man
said. “They don’t like impatient people in this place.”
“I don’t ask to be liked,” she said, enunciating each word precisely. Her mouth began to tremble like an old woman’s. “I only want some butter.” “My God,” he said, and the laughter was gone from his voice. “You don’t need to make such a thing of it. Get your husband or somebody to pick it up later.”
“1 couldn’t do that,” she said. “You see, my husband’s dead. He’s been dead for two years.” The laughter was gone now, all of it. The men moved uneasily, like sulky shamefaced little boys; only the old man seemed as usual, long-suffering and cantankerous because he had not heard. She was a little sorry for them now, with their joke gone so fiat, and. as she well knew from long experience, feeling called upon to bring forth pity or some equally suitable emotion for custom’s sake—and
all the time impatient and irritated with her for bringing her infirmity to their attention.
“Give me your ration books,” the young man said, “and wait for me outside.”
She walked down the rickety steps into the sunshine with Billy holding very tight to her hand. And looking down at him fearfully, seeing his small face so white and strained, she thought in an agony of pity, poor lamb, how forsaken he must feel. She bent down and hugged him close and shivering against her. “Never mind, darling,” she said, “never mind.” He began to cry and she rocked him a little back and forth against her shoulder. “Poor baby,” she said. She had failed Philip in so many ways; now it seemed that she was to fail his son as well.
She remembered an occasion in the first year of her marriage when her inadequacy had been just as painfully exposed to public view. Knowing that Philip detested indiscriminate crowds she had still insisted that he take her to a night club, believing that it was not. good for them to be so often separate in their pleasures.
Driving downtown he had been even more silent than usual, but she had not minded, scarcely noticing the silence in her single-minded anticipation, her childish, easy excitement. And then, just as they were entering the night club, he had remarked casually, as if it had only now occurred to him, that he did not particularly care for her dress. It was not, he said, the one he would have preferred to have her wear.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If you had just mentioned it before we left I could have worn something else.” She had looked down at the dress in a sickness of despair and futility.
“Really, Sara, you mustn’t be so painfully selfconscious.” He smiled his rare, careful smile. “There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly. It merely seems a little—well, provincial. Of course, I don’t know much about these things.”
She had retreated to the powder room, and after she had known that he was right. He was almost always right. She had thought it such a pretty dress, but now she was certain that it was ordinary. She had wanted to go home, or perhaps stay in this safe cubbyhole all evening, but after a while she had gone out to join him because there was nothing else to do.
“Poor Sara,” he said. “Now I’ve made you unhappy again.”
“No,” she said, with a kind of dull wonder at her own stupidity, “you’re right, of course. It’s an awful dress. I don’t know what made me think you’d like it.”
He had been very kind to her all evening, protecting her from the certain laughter and the stares, pointing out for her edification several well-dressed women whom he knew. But she had been sure that he would never bring her to this place again, unless it were his own idea. No longer could Philip be a witness to her small defeats; but there was still his son.
BILLY’S sobs were undiminished when the young man came out of the store with a pound of butter in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. For a moment he stood watching them. “What’s the matter with him?” he said.
“The usual thing,” she said. “It’s been terribly hard for him.”
“Has it?” She could discover in his face no kindness, no threat of incipient helpfulness, merely a kind of impersonal dislike.
He thrust the ice cream cone into Billy’s hand. “Here, fella. This ought to cure what ails you.”
He gave her the butter and the ration books. “You owe me four bits,” he said. “They’ll send the rest of the stuff later.”
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“I’m sorry . . . about; all that fuss,” she said. And suddenly it became important that he should be the one to say that he was sorry, sorry that her husband was dead. His reaction was all wrong; quite different from the usual; she had been so careful and yet in some obscure manner she had failed. She was compelled to put this right.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, “It’s just . . .”
“For Pete’s sake,” he said, “stop apologizing. It’s none of my business.”
She began to trot in an effort to keep up with his long-legged stride, pulling Billy behind her.
“Let go the kid’s hand,” he said. “He’s old enough to walk by himself.”
“I can’t,” she said. “This is a strange place and he’s frightened. After all, he’s only a little boy.”
“If you ask me,” he said, “you’re the one who’s frightened.”
She could have told him, had she chosen, that the fear was like claws tearing at her flesh and that she must hide in the shadows so that, none might see her mutilation. But she could not tell him; she could tell no one ever.
He stopped suddenly. “I go this way,” he said. She and Billy watched him go. He did not turn to look at them. She did not blame him for his lack of interest, his exasperation—she was used to those—but he might, at least, have said good-by.
And she had not seen him again. Since that inglorious afternoon she had sent a note by Mr. Barlow, her willing and fortunately uninquisitive neighbor, whenever she needed anything from the store. And her days now were the way she wanted them to be.
She turned restlessly, shivering a little; the sun seemed to be losing its warmth although it could not be more than half past four.
“Billy,” she called, “we’d better go in now, darling. It’s getting cold.”
He came to her obediently, unsmiling.
“Did you have a nice time, darling, playing in the sand?”
He was such a good little boy. And yet there were times during the frightening, sleepless nights when it came to her that he was too good for a sixyear-old, too passive; but her own distress was so near and acute that she could not seem to cope with anything outside it. Later, in the fall perhaps, she would think it through.
She hugged him closely, savoring the clean boy smell of him.
“Mummy’s boy,” she said. “Such a good little boy.”
As they went hand in hand into the cottage she was assailed again by its utter dreariness; the ceiling discolored by damp patches which spread like mold each time it rained, the walls a dark, fetid green streaked by smoke from the monster of a stove in the corner. She attacked the stove now with cunning, as if it were alive, a beast to be placated, and soon its interior began to crackle. I have that much courage, she thought, pleased by her small accomplishment. With inanimate objects she was frequently successful; it was with people that she failed.
She took a can of vegetable soup for Billy out of the cupboard, counting the remaining cans like a miser. There were 10 left. She should, she supposed, have fresh vegetables for him but he seemed healthy enough—much better, really, than when they had first come, and that was the important thing.
She set the table by the window so that they could watch the boats passing while they ate. “Isn’t this nice, Billy?”
she said. “See that boat? Look, there’s another one.”
He looked up with his usual obedience, then turning listlessly to his soup he began to stir it with aimless, jerky movements.
“Eat your soup, dear.”
“I’m not very hungry.”
“You must eat your soup so you’ll be big and strong.” Like daddy, she almost said. Philip had been so proud of his fine strong body; had taken such good care of it. Where was that body now? He had been presumed dead and that was all, leaving her the choice of endless possibilities, placing her at the mercy of the ceaseless, hideous dreams. Some of his effects, left behind in England, had been returned to her, and prudently choosing an afternoon when his mother would be absent from the house she had burned the letters and the women’s pictures slowly and deliberately, one by one.
IT HAD been a long job, since the collection was both sizable and varied, and she had been quite cool in its destruction and only a little surprised at her latent duplicity. Recognizing none of them, because Philip had been careful in this as in most other things, she had wondered if the senders of those letters and the owners of those faces mourned. She had been certain of one thing only—that it was impossible to share her long-held knowledge with Philip’s parents. They were old and desolate and had been very kind to her.
“Was my daddy strong?” Her whole body became rigid. She had to force the words out of her mouth.
“Yes, dear. And very brave.”
She had told him so many times that his daddy had been brave and strong, a hero. See, this is a picture of your daddy from the newspaper, and here is another one. These are his medals, his decorations; you may have them when you are a big boy. You must take good care of them always; they would have meant a great deal to your daddy—he enjoyed collecting things. He was a fine man, Billy, a successful man, He was rarely mistaken about anything and he never failed. And all of it said so many times, like a record player over and over and herself raw with the telling of it. Would he never tire of asking and must she always answer because, they said, it was important for a child who had no father to have at least a memory of one. A fine memory of one.
There was a sudden loud knock at the door and she jumped up quickly, glad to be relieved for a moment of her intolerable burden, even though it meant that her isolation was to be violated. She unbolted the door and opened it only enough to reveal the broad, flushed face of Mrs. Barlow.
“Yes,” she said, making no attempt to smile at the intruder, “What is it?” Mrs. Barlow, armed with a dish covered by a snowy napkin, stood her ground undismayed. “I made bread today,” she said. “There was some dough left over and I just said to Harry, I bet that Mrs. Carstairs would like some buns. There’s nothing healthier than homemade buns, I said to Harry, and that little thing don’t look too buxom—or her little boy, either.” She thrust the dish into Sara’s reluctant hand.
And you said to Harry, Sara thought, that it would be nice to know what’s going on over there. And if you think you’ll find out, my fine, friendly neighbor, you’re quite mistaken. “Thank you very much,” she said, and the smile stretched across her teeth like rubber. “You are very kind. But really, we have plenty to eat.”
“I didn’t mean . . Mrs. Barlow began. She half turned toward the steps and then squared her heavy body around to face Sara with stolid determination. “I came here to say something,” she said, “and I intend to say it. Jeff Wilson was over to our place yesterday and he said it looked like there was something wrong over here. He didn’t say exactly what—Jeff ain’t the kind to gossip. But 1 thought maybe you was sick or something.”
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They were crowding in upon her again—all of them, watching her, prying into things that were not their concern under the thin guise of helpfulness. So his name was Jeff Wilson, was it? She had misjudged him; she had thought that he, at least, would be glad to leave her alone. Had he done it deliberately, certain that this hateful woman would be sure to plague her? Well, she could deal with Mrs. Barlow.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said, “that a little peace and quiet wouldn’t cure.” Was that plain enough for the woman?
Mrs. Barlow’s face had attained a sort of plum color. “All right,” she said. “I can take a hint good as the next one. But before I go I intend to say my two cents’ worth. It may be all right for you to be the way you are. I guess that’s your business. But if I ever seen an unhappy, sorry-lookin’ little creature, it’s that boy of yours. I been watching him—nobody to play with, staring into space most of the time— and if he ain’t a sick child, and a mighty sick child, I miss my guess.”
She took a deep breath. “Now,” she said, the breath erupting in a loud, relieved laugh, “I said it, and I can’t say as I’m sorry. It’s the first time in my life I ever been this rude, but you don’t give a body much chance to be anything else.”
Sara stood motionless, holding the plate of buns uncertainly. Suddenly her hand began to shake and the buns slid off the plate and rolled onto the porch. She looked at them helplessly. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “All those lovely buns.” They bent down to pick them up. Billy came out of the house and stood watching in silence, as if they were two rather inept children playing a senseless game.
Mrs. Barlow got up with ponderous dignity. “Here, son,” she said, “you’re a good deal younger and spryer than I am. You gather them up and we’ll take them over to the pigs. Probably all they’re good for anyhow.”
Sara said, “I’m sure they were very good.”
“Never mind, child, never mind. Just let the boy come with me. Do him good to get away from this place for a while. I never could abide this cottage—no windows to speak of, no fireplace, all that terrible green. It would send me out of my head in no time.”
“I don’t mind it,” Sara said. Would the woman never go? The pain was beginning again behind her eyes and it would spread like a live thing until she was exhausted from the bearing of it.
“Well, if you don’t you ought to. Lots of fellows around here got eyes in their heads. I’ll stay with the boy any time at all.”
“Nonsense. Jeff said your man’s been dead two years. Just because you’re a widow don’t mean you’re dead, too.”
“Please, Mrs. Barlow, please. Take Billy if you want to but leave me alone.”
She went into the desolate house and locked the door. When she heard them leave the porch she pulled the dingy curtain a little away from the window and watched them disappearing down
the overgrown path. He looks so thin, she thought, his little legs are so weedy and pathetic. And then, when she could see them no longer, she walked slowly into the bedroom, lay down on the lumpy bed and turned her face to the wall.
Later, getting Billy ready for bed, she said, “Did you have fun with the pigs, baby?”
His small face lighted up with remembered delight. “Oh yes, mummy. They have snouts instead of noses, Mr. Barlow said, and they make such funny noises.” He paused thoughtfully. “They root, you know,” he went on with the utmost seriousness, as if that particular faculty of pigs assured their superiority for all time.
Sara touched his brown curls gently. That dreadful woman was right, ot course, he needed to get away from this place, away from her. And now that he had gone once he would go again and she would have, in the end, nothing for herself at all. He had never understood —he was too small for that—but the time would come, if she let him go, when he would look at her with their eyes, not accepting without question any longer, but watching, judging . . .
“Mrs. Barlow said to come again tomorrow. May I, mummy?” How strained he looked, and anxious, like a little lost old man. Had she done this to him—or was it just a part of loss, like the remembered pain in an amputated limb? She would not think about it. Let him go; she would be alone, always alone.
“Go if you like, dear,” she said. She kissed him and said good night. It was not until she had gone into the other room to prepare herself for the interminable night that she realized he had not asked her, for the first time since they had come to this place, to leave the lamp burning/
She went to the bookshelf in the corner, determined that this night she would read until she was so tired she must sleep. For the first few nights after her arrival she read several books on abnormal psychology that she had bought and packed slyly in the bottom of her suitcase, feeling as she did so ashamed and unclean, or as if she were already mad. She had read them fearfully, impatient with their technicalities, finding in the end no category in which to place herself. With bitter humor she had at last decided that, of course, her trouble was too elementary and individual to fit itself into the complexities of science. Oh, Philip, Philip, she cried to herself again, why did you not come back?
Now she inspected the titles on the shelf disconsolately; there was nothing among this characterless mixture of tenants’ leavings to compel her to any sort of concentration, to waylay the inevitable dreams. And then, far at the top, neglected and dusty, she found an old, leatherbound Bible. She opened the book at random and stabbed her forefinger into the middle of the unknown page. Then, opening her eyes in slow expectance, like a child playing a game, she read,
“For him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward for the memory of them is forgotten.”
It sounds so simple, she thought, so very simple. They all said it, even to the final authority, but the joke was that they were all wrong. None of them knew; none of them would ever know just how far from simple it really was.
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The night sounds came clearly into the room. Across the narrow channel someone was shining a flashlight fitfully; a voice yodeled with raucous and inexpert joy. She got up and shut the window, but the sounds still pressed upon her like unscrupulous, exploring fingers. The roar of a motorboat. close to shore was corning closer, louder; she saw the reflection of its powerful searchlight brightening on the water. Suddenly the light shone full in her face and the motor stopped. She moved away from the window to stand back tense against the wall. Someone gave a piercing whistle and the sound quivered through her like a well-aimed arrow.
“Ahoy, there,” a man shouted. “Come on out.”
There was laughter, hard male laughter, and the soft: giggling sounds of women in the boat. They were laughing at her; the word had gone around. Mrs. Barlow and Jeff Wilson had seen to that.
A man’s voice, lower than the others, but as clear as if it were in the room with her, said, “Sit down, you fool. You’ll dump us all into the chuck.” It was the same low laughing voice of that afternoon in the store. She moved to the door and opened it a few inches. She could hear scuffling sounds and what seemed to be good-natured argument, and then the voice she knew cut across the sounds. “Let it go,” he said. “She can’t leave the child. She wouldn’t leave him with Ike Eisenhower.”
They all roared with laughter. They were having a very good time. What a funny fellow, Sara thought, what a very funny fellow. The splashing sounds were followed by the crunch of gravel and then decisive footsteps coming on the plank from the beach. One of the men shouted, “Give you three to one you don’t get to first base.”
Sara closed the door quietly and waited in the darkness. I’ll show them, she thought. They were so terribly smart. He knocked and she let him knock again. She arranged the smile on her face before she opened the door.
“Why, hello,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” said Jeff Wilson. “This wasn’t my idea.”
“Don’t apologize. What idea?”
“That bunch out there,” he said. “They . . . that is, I . . . thought maybe you’d like to go to the dance.” He cleared his throat. “It’s Saturday night,” he said, as if no further explanation were needed. The hurting in her was eased a little by his confusion.
“Of course,” she said. “Saturday night.” Saturday nights had always been the worst times, the lonely times. “The Lord deliver me,” Philip used to say, “from the rustic revelry of a Saturday night, and the senseless howling of a pack of Babbitts.” I was a Babbitt, she thought, I am one stili —the dime a dozen type, and hardly a rare collector’s item.
“If someone could stay with Billy,” she said, “I’d love to go.”
“I'll tell you what,” she said, “why don’t you just run over to the Barlow’s? Mrs. Barlow said that any time ... I mean she’s a very good friend of yours, isn’t she?”
He grinned at her. “You’re quite a girl,” he said, “and prettier than Mrs. Barlow, too.”
She watched his broad back recede into the darkness and it seemed to her that the grin remained after he had gone, like the disconcerting laggard smile of the Cheshire Cat.
She went into the bedroom and brought out a striped red and white dress. It was a young, flamboyant dress; it reminded her a little of an awning — or perhaps, she thought
wryly, a barber’s pole. She had bought it after Philip went away but she had never worn it, except to try it on once late at night in her room, when his parents were asleep. They, as befitted Philip’s parents, were most circumspect; they would not have approved of this dress. She did not, she reflected, care much for it herself; but for this night it would suit her purpose admirably.
When Jeff came back with Mrs. Barlow she was ready.
“This is very nice of you, Mrs. Barlow,” Sara said, “on such short notice.”
“It don’t matter,” Airs. Barlow said. “I can sit here as well as home.” She inspected Sara carefully. “My,” she said, “you’re sure all dressed up. You look real pretty.”
“She does at that,” Jeff said. He smiled at her and his eyes were warm and watchful on her face.
Sara moved into the shadow. “I’ll pay you when I come back,” she said. “You won’t mind, will you, if I’m very late?”
Airs. Barlow and the young man exchanged a puzzled look.
“Well, no,” Airs. Barlow said. “Just so you show me where I can sleep.”
“You can sleep in my bed,” Sara said. “It’s clean. I changed the sheets this morning. There isn’t anything to do for Billy. He’s probably dreaming about all those,delightful pigs.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Airs. Barlow said. “You’re not sick or something?”
“I’m fine,” Sara said, and her shadowed eyes were hard and bright. “I’m just dandy.”
IN THE boat she said hello to the faces. The men asked he r if she would sit here, or there, was she warm enough, did she have plenty of room? The women peered at her through the darkness, trying to see her face. They were all cjuiet and ill at ease until they reached their destination across the wate'
Jeff tied up the boat at the dock and the two of them started up the path; the others had gone ahead. i“Losing your nerve?” he said.
,“Why should 1?”
“Here, hold -my hand. The path is rough.”
“I can manage, thank you.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I just wouldn’t want you to break your neck.”
She gave him her hand. She could feel it moist and cold within his large warm one and she thought: how awful for him. I wouldn’t blame him if he dropped it like a toad. Philip’s hand had been long and slim, a gentleman’s hand. He had berm most careful of them. She could see them, pale in the darkness, lying still and colder than her own. Separate things and dead.
“Watch it, tonight,” Jeff said. “Some of the local boys can get pretty rough. You’re a new face and it’s their night to howl.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I can look after myself.”
“Sure,” he said. “I can imagine.” They went into the hall, into a sea of noise and heedless, anonymous faces. Jeff seemed to know everyone. “Go on,” she said. “Don’t bother about me.”
“It won’t queer my pitch to dance with you once,” he said. She moved into his arms. The music was inexpert and explosive, and its violence lashed at her without mercy.
“Relax,” he said. “I won’t eat you.” He held her closer.
“I’m sorry. I’m not a very good dancer. Aly husband . . .”
“Goon. Say it.”
“Aly husband always said I had a tendency to . . , bounce.” What was the matter with her? The noise had confused her and made her stupid.
“What did he want?” Jeff asked. “Pavlova?”
The music stopped. He released her and stood looking at her soberly, his eyes intent and puzzled. Somehow she must get away from him.
A young man in a tight Sunday suit appeared before them, blown forward by loud bursts of laughter from the corner of the room. “May I have this next dance?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “It’s open season.”
She danced with them all, all sizes and shapes of them, drunk and sober. She flirted with them outrageously, not caring what she said, indifferent to the increasing cold rigidity of their neglected women. Twice she went outside; once with a very jovial logger who had a bottle of cheap rum cached in the bushes, once with a tall man with deep hard lines running down each side of a handsome hawklike nose. He looked dissolute and evil and she let him kiss her, accepting him and feeling nothing.
“That’s enough,” she said, and it seemed to her that her voice belonged to someone else. He left her standing there in the darkness.
New, quick footsteps crunched on the gravel. It was Jeff. It occurred to her to run but it seemed, on the whole, altogether too much trouble. She waited. He put a jacket over her shoulders. The discharge button in the lapel winked faintly in the moonlight.
“Army?” she asked, politely.
“Yes. Four years.”
“Did you see many . . . dead?”,
“How do you stop seeing them?”
“You don’t. After a while you don’t see them so often or so clearly. There isn’t any formula. If that’s what you’re driving at.”
Well, that’s that, she thought. We’ve exhausted that subject.
“That character . . he said. He nodded in the direction the hawklike man had taken.
“I didn’t mind, really,” she said. “I asked for it.”
He took her hand and held it closely. “Such a small cold hand,” he said. “What are you so afraid of?”
“Don’t touch me. I’m not . .
“Why the hell not?” Fie pulled her around by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. She pushed at him, head down, like a young animal; this treachery of the body was more than she could bear.
“No, you don’t,” he said. “It’s not that simple.” He forced her chin up with a relentless hand.
“Why,” he said, “you’re crying! What was lie anyway—a little tin god?”
“I hated him,” she said. The monstrous words were said now, and it was all wasted; the whole elaborate fiction had crumbled into dust. Her shame, hidden for so long and kept alive in secrecy, lay between them uprooted, stark and quivering, a tangible thing. “I hated him,” she said again and it gave her pleasure to hear the words.
“So that’s it,” he said. “I should have guessed.” He smiled at her as if she were a rather foolish child. “You aren’t,” he added, “a very good actress.”
The casual words confused her. Divested of her secret, denied the expected withdrawl and aversion, she was bereft; she had nothing to take its place. She began to cry again and he held her gently, almost impersonally. She cried for a long time, and then when there were no more tears she lifted her head and kissed him.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.”
He took her hand and held it to his cheek. “That’s the way 1 feel,” he said. “Does that help?”
“You don’t need to,” she said, “I’m better now.”
They walked away from the dance hall, down the dark road. She felt empty and light as if she had been without food for many days or had just begun to recover from a long illness.
After a while she said, “You see . . .
1 never cried. They said 1 was very brave. How could I tell them there were no tears because I was glad that he was dead?”
Her voice faltered. “At first I thought it would be wonderful to he free. I didn’t know that living I could have left him, but dead ... I was tied to him forever.”
“Why forever? You’re not the first woman who ever hated her husband.” “Don’t you see ... he was a hero. Oh, yes . . . there was no doubt about it. I think he was born to be a soldier— he was very good at giving orders.”
“All right, so he was a hero. He could still have been a lousy husband.” “But he was dead. There was nothing I could say—there never had been anything I could say. He didn’t beat me or drink too much—it was such little unimportant things to make a hate. And they kept repeating how proud I must be of him; always talking about him, never leaving me alone.”
“I can see how it would be,” he said. \ “It isn’t much fun to be all alone in a boat.”
“It was like not having any oars,” she said, “and being afraid to swim.” “Did no one else see him as you did?”
“His parents loved him very much— he was an only son. I haven’t any family, but he had swarms of doting relatives. None of them would ever have believed anything but the best of him. He was successful in everything he did; it was I who failed, and each time I failed I hated him a little more.” “And after a while . . Jeff said thoughtfully, “you would be sure to feel that everything could easily have been your fault—that you could have been wrong about him all along.”
“Yes,” she said. “You can’t imagine how I hated myself. It was as if I’d killed him by not wanting him to come back. And all the time I was so afraid I would make some ghastly mistake and they would be able to see right inside me to the rotten core.”
“You,” he said, “and your fine conscience.”
“But I’m better now,” she said. “I discovered two things today.” She glanced up into his face to see if he was laughing at a statement Philip would have been sure to call ridiculously childish. But his expression was intent and sober.
“Go on,” he said. “Let’s have them.” She met his eyes steadily. “Billy left me today,” she said, “for some very attractive pigs. When he came home he was happy—for the first time, really, in two years. I can see now what I’ve been doing to him.”
“And one other thing?”
“I don’t want to be left alone—not any more.”
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s the one.”
They began to walk again, slowly, her hand close and warm in his. She did not know where they were going and it did not really matter. Poor Philip, she thought, seeing him again as he had been when she first knew him —young, alive and whole; and she remembered that in spite of all she had done to him and he to her, they had loved each other once, for a little while. Poor Philip, she thought, poor dead lion. And the hate and guilt were gone as if they had never been. ★