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The Doves' Nest and Other Stories


page 66


To live like this... I write those words, very carefully, very beautifully. For some reason I feel inclined to sign them, or to write underneath—Trying a New Pen. But seriously, isn't it staggering to think what may be contained in one innocent-looking little phrase ? It tempts me—it tempts me terribly. Scene. The supper-table. My wife has just handed me my tea. I stir it, lift the spoon, idly chase and then carefully capture a speck of tea-leaf, and having brought it ashore, I murmur, quite gently, " How long shall we continue to live— like—this ? " And immediately there is that famous " blinding flash and deafening roar. Huge pieces of debris (I must say I like debris) are flung into the air . . . and when the dark clouds of smoke have drifted away ..." But this will never happen; I shall never know it. It will be found upon me ' intact' as they say. " Open my heart and you will see . . ."

Why ? Ah, there you have me I There is the most difficult question of all to answer. Why do people stay together ? Putting aside " for the sake of the children," and " the habit of years" and " economic reasons" as lawyers' nonsense—it's not much more—if one really does try to find out why it is that people don't leave each other, one discovers a mystery. It is because they can't; they are bound. And nobody on earth knows what are the bonds page 67 that bind them except those two. Am I being obscure ? Well, the thing itself isn't so frightfully crystal clear, is it ? Let me put it like this. Supposing you are taken, absolutely, first into his confidence and then into hers. Supposing you know all there is to know about the situation. And having given it not only your deepest sympathy but your most honest impartial criticism, you declare, very calmly, (but not without the slightest suggestion of relish— for there is—I swear there is—in the very best of us—something that leaps up and cries ' A-ahh !' for joy at the thought of destroying), " Well, my opinion is that you two people ought to part. You'll do no earthly good together. Indeed, it seems to me, it's the duty of either to set the other free." What happens then ? He—and she—agree. It is their conviction too. You are only saying what they have been thinking all last night. And away they go to act on your advice, immediately . . . And the next time you hear of them they are still together. You see—you've reckoned without the unknown quantity—which is their secret relation to each other—and that they can't disclose even if they want to. Thus far you may tell and no further. Oh, don't misunderstand me ! It need not necessarily have anything to do with their sleeping together . . . But this brings me to a thought I've often half entertained. Which is that human beings, as page 68 we know them, don't choose each other at all. It is the owner, the second self inhabiting them, who makes the choice for his own particular purposes, and—this may sound absurdly farfetched—it's the second self in the other which responds. Dimly—dimly—or so it has seemed to me—we realise this, at any rate to the extent that we realise the hopelessness of trying to escape. So that, what it all amounts to is— if the impermanent selves of my wife and me are happy—tant mieux pour nous—if miserable —tant pis ... But I don't know, I don't know. And it may be that it's something entirely individual in me—this sensation (yes, it is even a sensation) of how extraordinarily shell-like we are as we are—little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box at the gate, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in . . .

The door opens... My wife. She says, " I am going to bed."

And I look up vaguely, and vaguely say, " You are going to bed."

" Yes." A tiny pause. " Don't forget— will you ?—to turn out the gas in the hall."

And again I repeat, " The gas in the hall."

There was a time—the time before—when this habit of mine—it really has become a habit now—it wasn't one then—was one of our sweetest jokes together. It began, of course, page 69 when on several occasions I really was deeply-engaged and I didn't hear. I emerged only to see her shaking her head and laughing at me, " You haven't heard a word ! "

" No. What did you say ? "

Why should she think that so funny and charming ? She did ; it delighted her. " Oh, my darling, it's so like you! It's so—so—" And I knew she loved me for it. I knew she positively looked forward to coming in and disturbing me, and so—as one does—I played up. I was guaranteed to be wrapped away every evening at 10.30 p.m. But now ? For some reason I feel it would be crude to stop my performance. It's simplest to play on. But what is she waiting for to-night ? Why doesn't she go ? Why prolong this ? She is going. No, her hand on the door-knob, she turns round again, and she says in the most curious, small, breathless voice, " You're not cold ? "

Oh, it's not fair to be as pathetic as that! That was simply damnable. I shuddered all over before I managed to bring out a slow " No-o ! " while my left hand ruffles the reference pages.

She is gone ; she will not come back again to-night. It is not only I who recognise that; the room changes too. It relaxes, like an old actor. Slowly the mask is rubbed off ; the look of strained attention changes to an air of heavy sullen brooding. Every line, every fold breathes page 70 fatigue. The mirror is quenched; the ash whitens; only my sly lamp burns on ... But what a cynical indifference to me it all shows ! Or should I perhaps be flattered ? No, we understand each other. You know those stories of little children who are suckled by wolves and accepted by the tribe, and how for ever after they move freely among their fleet, grey brothers ? Something like that has happened to me. But wait! That about the wolves won't do. Curious! Before I wrote it down, while it was still in my head, I was delighted with it. It seemed to express, and more, to suggest, just what I wanted to say. But written, I can smell the falseness immediately and the . . . source of the smell is in that word fleet. Don't you agree ? Fleet, grey brothers! " Fleet." A word I never use. When I wrote " wolves" it skimmed across my mind like a shadow and I couldn't resist it. Tell me! Tell me ! Why is it so difficult to write simply —and not only simply but sotto voce, if you know what I mean ? That is how I long to write. No fine effects—no bravura. But just the plain truth, as only a liar can tell it.