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The Complete Short Stories of L.P. Hartley, Page 61

L. P. Hartley

  Everyone of course was sorry for him, I not least, being one of his oldest friends, and a born bachelor, as he had seemed to be—though not with the facial attachment that he had. I would say to him: ‘Edward, come in for a drink on Thursday—I’m having a few friends,’ and as like as not he would accept, and yet he might as well have stayed away, for he didn’t bring himself with him, not even the muted self we used to know. We were sorry for him, I repeat, but you can’t feel the pang of sorrow indefinitely: the nerve gets overlaid and ceases to respond. He was still a charge on our feelings—‘Poor Edward!’—but he was no longer news.

  And then somebody remarked, who had been with him at a meeting, that he had started to draw the face again. All the years that he was married, and for some years after, he hadn’t drawn it. Possessing it he hadn’t needed to, and losing it he hadn’t the heart to—at least this was the explanation generally given. The face, so my informant told me, and this was soon confirmed by others who had seen it in other versions, was still the same face, hadn’t altered in any particular—it was even the same age it used to be. I felt a little sceptical about these rumours, but one evening, when I was playing cards with him, I saw it myself, decorating the bridge-marker. Time, as someone said of Dr. Johnson, had given him a younger wife. But was she still his old wife, Mary, or a potential new wife? Or just his obsession with his ideal?

  Nothing happened for a long time, and then a mutual friend called Thomas Henry told me that at a café in Restbourne where he was having tea he had been served by a waitress, whose face was the facsimile of Edward’s model, the spitting image, he said. Thomas Henry was a fussy little man, twice married, and as meddlesome as a woman; he was fond of starting hares, especially matrimonial hares, for other people to follow up. Now he was all agog. ‘But what can we do about it?’ I asked him.

  ‘Well, bring them together.’

  ‘But how?’

  ‘Tell him to go down to the café and see for himself.’

  I deprecated this—it seemed too crude.

  ‘We don’t know how he feels,’ I said. ‘It might upset him terribly—you can’t monkey about with people’s emotions in that way.’

  ‘All the same,’ said Thomas Henry, ‘it might be the saving of him and bring him back to life, and think how nice for her!’ That aspect of the case hadn’t occurred to me, nor, I must say, did it appeal to me. A waitress in a café! Without being a snob I thought it most unsuitable, and said so. ‘Why,’ said Thomas Henry, ‘you old diehard, we live in a classless society, or soon shall, and all he cares about is the Face. He doesn’t care about anything else.’

  ‘Oh, nonsense,’ I said, ‘he’s an idealist through and through. It wasn’t just chance that Mary was as nice as she was nice-looking. The Face is the face of a lady—besides, it may not be his face—the face he thinks about—at all. We’ve only your word for it.’

  ‘Well, go and see for yourself,’ he said.

  It happened to be very inconvenient for me to do this, and besides, I didn’t want to spend the day going to Restbourne, just to have tea and come back. And what a wild-goose chase! I was Edward’s age, nearly forty, and doing things I didn’t like was becoming increasingly hard for me. Self-discipline is all right for the young, but for those of riper years it is just another brake on the already overclogged machinery of living. All the same, for the sake of my old friendship with Edward I decided to go to Restbourne and inspect the waitress.

  I saw her the moment I got inside the Krazie Café, and seeing her I saw what Thomas Henry meant. I hovered, looking for a table at which she would be serving; luckily she came up to me and showed me one. I scrutinized her as she stood waiting for my order. Yes—the resemblance was most striking—even to the deeper colour on the high cheek-bones—though that, perhaps, owed something to art, for she was more made-up than Mary had been. Her voice was made up too; it had an obvious overlay of gentility but Edward didn’t draw voices. I called her back to ask her for some jam; the hands that brought it were innocent of a wedding-ring: they were larger than Mary’s, and not so pretty, but Edward didn’t draw hands. What was she like in herself? Like Mary? How could I tell? She didn’t chat much to the other customers, and they paid her no special attention. How tantalizing it was! Before I left I must say something to her—something to draw her out. But I was hopeless at that sort of thing: I hadn’t the right touch: least of all the light touch. I couldn’t leave it to the moment of settling the bill; at the risk of being a nuisance I must again ask for something. But how could I, when the table was groaning with food and I never ate tea anyway? Distaste for my mission increased: I longed to get it over. Never a chatterbox myself, the waitress seemed the last person in the world I wished to talk to. I must; but not at the cost of eating my way through all those viands. Hastily pouring all the hot water into the teapot, I caught her eye.

  ‘Some more hot water, please,’ I said, forbiddingly.

  When she brought it she said: ‘Why, you are thirsty!’

  I didn’t like her familiarity but it broke the ice.

  ‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘you remind me of someone I used to know.’

  ‘Somebody nice?’ she asked.

  ‘Er . . . very nice.’

  ‘And were you thinking I might do instead?’

  It was what I was thinking, but not in the sense that she meant. Instantly I decided that she would not do, but that I ought to give her another chance. Besides, there was something else I wanted her to tell me.

  Ignoring her question I said: ‘She might have been your twin, she was so like you. . . . Her name was Mary Elmhirst.’

  ‘I have a twin sister as it happens,’ she said, ‘and she’s very like me, except she dresses differently, more of a mouse, you know, and doesn’t wear much make-up. Otherwise people couldn’t tell us apart, we’re always being mistaken for each other—it’s quite inconvenient at times. I’m Doris—Doris Blackmore—no relation to your friend, I’m afraid. I hope you’re not disappointed.’

  I answered at random: ‘No, of course not. But it gave me a slight shock, I mean the likeness did.’

  ‘Someone you were fond of?’

  ‘The wife of a friend of mine.’

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

  Whatever she meant by that, I liked her better for saying it.

  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I must be off.’

  ‘But you haven’t drunk your hot water. I don’t believe you really wanted it. You just wanted to——’

  ‘You don’t make an extra charge for hot water, do you?’ I interrupted.

  She laughed.

  ‘I make an extra charge for talking. I don’t talk to many of our customers.’


  ‘No. They want to start something funny with me, the men do. I thought that you——’

  ‘No,’ I assured her. ‘It was just the likeness.’

  She looked disappointed.

  ‘Oh well, then, if you don’t——’

  ‘But I’ve enjoyed it,’ I said firmly, ‘all the same.’

  ‘A bit lonely, are you?’

  ‘I suppose we all are, at times. Look, there’s somebody wants you.’

  She turned her head. ‘I see that you don’t,’ she said, walking away with exaggerated slowness.

  I thought, ‘You impudent hussy,’ but I didn’t feel as annoyed as I’d expected to. When she had attended to the other customer she came back.

  ‘I suppose you want your bill.’

  ‘Yes, please.’

  She made it out and handed it to me.

  ‘Do you generally talk that way to girls?’

  ‘Oh no,’ I said, fumbling in my pocket, ‘I’m like you, I hardly talk to anyone.’

  ‘Pay at the desk, please,’ she said, looking sullen.

  I laid a shilling on the table.

  ‘All right, but that’s for you.’

  ‘I don’t know that I want to take it,’ she said. You haven’t much respect for a girl’s feelings, have you?�

  Angry tears stood in her dark-blue eyes. I was amazed and jumped up from the table. The bill paid, I walked past her to say good-bye, but she took no notice of me.

  ‘I saw what you meant,’ I said to Thomas Henry for the third time. (I had edited the story, leaving out the last part.) ‘It’s an unbelievable likeness. But she wouldn’t do at all. She’s utterly unsuitable.’ I had said this three times too.

  ‘All the same, I think we ought to tell him.’

  ‘But why? Nothing would come of it, at any rate, nothing but harm.’

  ‘I think we owe it to him.’

  ‘An item for his experience account? No, really, Thomas Henry. Besides, how could we bring the subject up? I’ve never heard him mention Mary since she died, and I’ve never dared to mention her to him. The wound went much too deep. You never know what’s going on in people’s minds. The idea of another woman looking like her might upset him terribly, and destroy whatever compromise he’s been able to make with himself and life about her. We know he’s made one, because he still functions like an ordinary person. This might upset the balance and then God knows what would happen.’

  ‘He still draws the Face.’

  ‘Yes, but we don’t know why. It’s probably just to keep Mary’s image in his mind. It would be tasteless and tactless beyond belief to suggest to him that he might be interested in another woman, and above all that woman.’

  ‘You yourself didn’t seem to dislike her all that much.’

  ‘I? My dear fellow, I was amused by the whole episode, but only because there was a time limit to it. If I’d had to spend another five minutes in her company I should have died.’

  ‘You never liked the company of women very much.’

  ‘Well, not women of that type.’

  ‘That’s for him to decide. The point is, we must give him the chance. With Mary he was blissfully happy. He fulfilled himself in her. He lives for one person; the rest of us are shadows. Now he’s emotionally mutilated—paralysed. If you could see the emptiness of his life——’

  ‘I can’t, and nor can you.’

  ‘—you’d realize that anything is better than the void, le néant. You’ve never been attached to anyone——’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Isn’t it obvious? You’re quite self-sufficient. Whereas he——’

  ‘Well, I’m not going to tell him.’

  ‘Then I shall. But first let me get it right. She works in Restbourne, at the Krazie Café, and her name is——’

  ‘I’ve forgotten.’

  ‘But you knew it a moment ago.’

  ‘Well, I’ve forgotten now. And I beg you, Thomas Henry, not to tell him anything about her. I beseech you——’

  ‘All right, I won’t bring you into it——’

  ‘For God’s sake don’t.’

  ‘And I’ll take all the blame and all the credit, too, if it comes off.’

  ‘If what comes off?’

  ‘Well, if the Face fits.’

  When I next saw Thomas Henry, some days later, it was in the company of other people, and we hardly spoke. I knew I was avoiding him, and I thought he was avoiding me: but why? Edward I did see to pass the time of day with: and to my surprise I found myself asking him to lunch with me.

  ‘What about next Saturday?’

  ‘Let me get my little book,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I’m engaged on Saturday.’

  ‘Well, the following Saturday?’ He turned the leaves.

  ‘I’m engaged then, too. Silly, isn’t it?’

  ‘I know you can’t get away easily in the middle of the week,’ I said, ‘but what about Wednesday?’

  ‘I’m not quite sure about Wednesday,’ he hedged. ‘I’ll let you know.’

  ‘Don’t let me be a nuisance,’ I said, ‘but it would be nice to see you. You lunch out sometimes, Edward, don’t you?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ he said with his polite air that kept one at a distance, ‘but just at this moment I seem to have more engagements than usual. I’ll tell you about Wednesday.’

  A day or two later he telephoned that he couldn’t manage it. I was unaccountably disappointed, for much as I liked Edward I had never set great store on seeing him.

  The next time I met Thomas Henry was at a cocktail party, and this time I didn’t let him escape me. ‘What about Edward?’ I asked. ‘Did you tell him about our friends at Restbourne?’ I used the plural as a precaution: friends sounded less compromising than friend. But he looked round apprehensively and said, ‘Not here, I think. Stone walls——’

  ‘No one else can hear you,’ I said, shouting above the din. ‘I can hardly hear you myself.’ When he still wouldn’t be drawn I pinned him down to dinner the next day.

  A strange tale he told me. He was unhappy about it, as he should have been, and very much on the defensive.

  ‘I couldn’t have guessed what would happen,’ he said. ‘I acted for the best.’

  ‘No one does so much harm as those who go about doing good,’ I said, quoting Bishop Creighton.

  ‘You never run that risk,’ he retorted tartly.

  ‘Well, not on this occasion, perhaps,’ I answered, ‘and I warned you not to.’ Realizing we were on the verge of a quarrel, and I might get no more out of him, I succeeded in pacifying him: few things make one angrier with other people than being angry with oneself.

  He had been playing bridge with Edward and seen the face appearing on the bridge-marker. He made no comment at the time, but when Edward was giving him a lift home he plucked up courage and said he had seen a girl whose face reminded him of the face Edward had been drawing—he didn’t say it reminded him of Mary, and now I come to think of it, I don’t believe any of Edward’s friends had ever remarked to him on the resemblance, though they often spoke of it to each other. Edward asked him where he had seen her, and Thomas Henry told him, but couldn’t tell him her name because I had forgotten it.

  ‘You didn’t tell him that?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh, no. I left you out of it, as I promised to.’

  Then Thomas Henry asked if he would be interested in seeing her, and Edward said he wasn’t sure; he said the drawings were a vice which he had given up when he was married. He said this in quite an ordinary tone and changed the subject. But when he next saw Thomas Henry he told him he had been down to Restbourne.

  ‘Oh!’ I said.

  ‘Yes, but the bird had flown. There was no one in the café in the least resembling her. He went to Restbourne three Saturdays running, and twice in the middle of the week, making some excuse of going on business—five times altogether, but he never saw her.’

  ‘She might have been away on holiday,’ I said, ‘on those three Saturdays. It’s August.’

  ‘I suggested that,’ said Thomas Henry, ‘and he’s going to try again. He would have asked about her, but he couldn’t, not knowing her name.’

  ‘Did he seem upset?’ I asked.

  ‘He certainly couldn’t talk of anything else.’

  ‘Look what you’ve done, Thomas Henry! You can’t say you weren’t warned.’

  ‘No, but it may have given him an object in life. He was much more animated than he used to be.’

  The next time we met, Thomas Henry was less optimistic. ‘He’s been down there again,’ he said, without bothering to explain who ‘he’ was, ‘and she isn’t there. He told me he thought I’d made a mistake, because he wasn’t a good draughtsman, and what he drew corresponded to something inside him, not outside (he didn’t mention Mary). He said that each line had a special meaning for him, and any deviation from it, in a human face, made that face quite unlike the face of his conception. And yet he couldn’t help thinking that I might be right, and that one day she might come back, and he would find her. “She may be ill,” he said, “or one of her relations may be ill. In the working-classes, some relation or other is nearly always ill”—you know the way he talks about the working-classes, as if they were another type of human being.’

nbsp; ‘They are,’ I said.

  ‘Oh, nonsense. But I do think we should do something for him—he can’t go on like this, commuting between here and Restbourne like a . . . like a . . .’

  ‘Shuttle on a loom,’ I said. ‘Well, you do something, Thomas Henry, it’s your pigeon. Vous l’avez voulu, Georges Dandin.’

  ‘Yes, I felt for him more than you did. I saw a fellow creature suffering, and wanted to relieve him. Whereas you——’

  ‘Passed by on the other side.’

  ‘It’s nothing to be proud of. But now you can do something to rid him of his obsession. You can go down to Restbourne, Ernest, and find out what’s happened to her.’

  ‘Why not you? I’m not specially keen on the south coast in August.’

  ‘Because you talked to her, and made yourself conspicuous, as no doubt they all remember in the café. You might even pose as a relation.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘One of the sick ones, perhaps.’

  ‘Oh, do go, Ernest. You’re a man of independent means. It’s much easier for you. You don’t have to be in any special place at any special time, so why not go to Restbourne?’

  ‘Restbourne is the last place I want to go to,’ I replied. But in the end I went.

  The appalling vulgarity of that town! Nowhere has the proletarianization of the English race gone so fast, or so far, as it has at Restbourne. It is the apotheosis of the synthetic. I dreaded it, and when I got there it was worse than I remembered—an exhibition of what was, to my middle-class mind, a substitute for every form of pleasure. Not that it was not expensive, for it was; everyone seemed to have money to burn. But how joyless that sometimes gay proceeding made them! How they trailed about on the sea-front, well fed, well dressed (so far as they were dressed), well tanned, well oiled (sometimes in both senses of the word), but among the lot not one whom a photographer, still less a biographer, would ever want to make his subject.