FICTION

HER BURIED TALENTS

ALAN SULLIVAN January 1 1933
FICTION

HER BURIED TALENTS

ALAN SULLIVAN January 1 1933

HER BURIED TALENTS

ALAN SULLIVAN

MR. HENRY BERTRAM, K.C., stood in the hall of a discreetly placea villa in St. John’s Wood, his face a shade flushed, his large, grey eyes slightly luminous. Close against him, with her arms round his neck, was a very pretty woman.

“You won’t come to Paris?” he repeated.

She shook her dark head.

"We’d have rather a wonderful time. It won’t be all work for me.”

She gave a little sigh, looked up at him, and said :

“I’m sorry, and I’m afraid you don’t understand, but I’ve thought about it a lot and just can’t make myself. It would be somehow' different. I don’t need a—a stimulus like that. I’ve a mad idea, and can’t get rid of it, that I’d be putting myself in—well, another class. And Paris wouldn’t give us any more than we have now. Why don’t you take vour w'ife?”

“What!”

I mean it. And she’s better looking than I am, Harry.”

“It isn’t so much a woman’s looks as what they do to one. You ought to know'.”

She laughed a little.

“Perhaps I sounded cheeky, but really I’m quite in earnest. I feel rather sorry for her. She might not seem to want to go, but actually she would. Any woman would. So I don’t mind a bit if . . . ” She broke off. staring at him with bright, scrutinizing eyes. “No. I don t mean that, at all. Don’t take her, and come back as soon as you can.”

“What’s got into you tonight. Claudia?”

I wish I knew’. There’s so much that may happen any day. It probably w'on’t, but I can’t shake off the possibility.”

(I would n t mind if it did.” said he stubbornly.

Don t think about it, dearest,” she whispered, her arms tightening. “Don’t dwell on the other side of things. You’ve given a hostage, and what is written is written. I hate to have you go away without me, and I wrant to be quite sure about something.”

"Is there anything I haven't told you?” he smiled.

“I sometimes wonder if you really get my side of it. Always when you’re not here my mind follows you about. I watch you, and imagine you doing this and that. I trail you to your chambers, hear you talking with other people, try and make you see me over their shoulders. I’m quite happy while that goes on, because I can often tell by your eyes that you’re thinking about me. Then something jerks you aw'ay and I’m horribly lonely,”

“I don’t think that’s good for either of us,” Bertram said gravely.

“A woman doesn’t generally bother much about what’s good for her, and anyway, what is ‘good’? Do you want me to stop feeling?”

"Never.”

“Two years now, Harry.”

He nodded. Two wonderful years! Then he experienced one of those fleeting interludes of time in which oneself and everything about one seem pointless and undirected and of

little value. He shook it off with a laugh that was rather forced.

“If we stop to question the general scheme of things, we’re up against it at once, he said gently. “I love you now and always. I'll come in tomorrow evening.”

With this he put on his hat. stepped out into a foggy night, and started for home and his wife.

XifEN. it is submitted, are queer creatures; more inter-LV-L esting on the whole than women because their actions and reactions reveal more of a conflict between reason and instinct. One can observe the process of reason controlling their impulses —which is not often the case with a woman.

Thus a man can and does, and with an air of entire calm and deliberation, compel himself to act in a manner contrary to his instincts and without the slightest superficial indication of what is going on inside him.

This may be a matter of training

or to avoid argument......which

most men detest. But to few women is it possible.

One of the few, however, was Bertram's wife, whom he had never quite undersUxxl.

He had married her five years previously, perhaps because he thought it would be “gxxl” for him. As a rising barrister, he needed, he reasoned, a wife of her sort. She was tall, fair, and of perfect taste. She had a lovely figure, and eyes of that shadowless blue which seems eternally unaffected by meetings, partings and the surprises of life. She was quite beautiful, and never changed. She was terribly respectable, and personally always in the best and most correct order.

For a time all went well, and Bertram liked to think of himself as a man with a background of this type. It was dignified, and he found it restful to come back to after tense hours in court. During the second year a son arrived, and here, too. there was no fuss. One week Hilda had not been a mother. The next she was. It made no difference in her or in the house, and she was devoted to the newcomer.

Bertram adored his son. It thrilled him when the small, pink fist gripped one of his fingers, and he would lk across at Hilda with unspoken things in his eyes, but even in these moments she never lost her preternatural calm. She would just give him an affectionate nod, and they would go down to dinner and talk about things that she thought would take his mind off the day’s work. And for the rest of it, there was nothing of herself withheld that she could give.

On the other hand, she could not give what she did not possess.

This discovery came to him gradually, being made finally not through her but another woman. When, ultimately, it arrived, its first effect was curious and unexpected. He found himself defending Hilda to himself. Claudia had passion. Hilda had not. Claudia was electric. A glance from her—-this at the very outset sent his pulses leaping. She wakened things in him so that with her his mind went on wild excursions, all trending to one objective. When they met again, which was soon, he looked at her covertly, arguing with himself that he was mad and that such visions were demoralizing; then at a glance from her dark eyes he began to live at a terrific pace, feeling younger, more vital and almost omnipotent. It came to lx* worth anything to feel like that.

Of what she herself felt, here again, as in the case of his wife, he was curiously uninformed. She told him just one thing, and left it at that. Her own husband had died three years previously, leaving her quite independent. She would not have Bertram divorce Hilda, whom she knew slightly, because of the hostage at home. She knew, and admitted it quite frankly, that the matter could have but one ending in which she would be the chief sufferer. That did not seem to disturb her.

Of this much and no more, Bertram was aware. The rest remained an enigma. Men pursued her. She could have married any one of a desirable dozen, but would not. She had phases that only made her the more attractive. At times she would withdraw herself for days. What she did on those occasions he never knew, but as a matter of fact she retired within herself to contemplate with a vivid curiosity the human conundrum that was herself, she being one of the few' who can without immodesty provide themselves with human interest. She liked what she described to Bertram as “periods of imaginative isolations.”

Then, when she did see hihi, he found her lull of natural allure, revivified, infinitely satisfying, inspiring to his mind, asking nothing of him but love. She never criticized any one. never spoke of his wife. She assured him that other men did not interest her, that she was happy with so much of himself

as she could have, and he must never worry about her.

Tonight, as so many times before, he walked home with that clinging assurance in his ears.

TJTE DID NOT see Hilda till breakfast, and then she said: A “You were late getting back. I didn’t hear you come in."

He made some excuse, watching her across the table, inwardly vexed that there should be nothing about her with which to find fault. She w'as better looking than the other woman, more of a natural aristocrat, with more method and sequence. She took pride in her house and made it beautiful.

But over everything

lay her Olympian, infrangible calm.

“Will you have to go to Paris, Harry?” “Yes. I must.” The Paris affair was a matter of examining certain witnesses who would shortly be called to testify in an important suit in London, and it fell to Bertram, who spoke French fluently, to do the preliminary work.

“How long will you be away?”

“It’s hard to say; a week, perhaps ten days.”

“Could I come?”

It was so very sudden, with something ironical about it, but his training enabled him to suppress any sign of surprise, and it struck him that here was the most human thing she had said for years. It w'ould all be ver^ different from what he had hoped, but secretly he wandered what effect it would have.

“Of course,” she added, “if you’d rather not ”

This, in a curious fashion, made him ashamed. In her ow n impeccable way, she did so much for him, asking so little. She put no questions. He could not by a finger on one thing she had left undone that was in her pow'er. Not one. He assumed that in doing them she expressed her nature, and thereby got as much out of life as women of her cool type ever got. And if he found her only half alive, it might not be her fault. So perhaps it w'as up to him.

“Not at all,” he said hastily. "Yes. do come.” Then, to his own astonishment : “Won’t you need some clothes?”

At this point something happened, and a look came into her face that he had not seen there for years. It was younger, and for a second she resembled the girl with whom he had gone shopping the w-eek before they were married.

“I’d sooner wait till we get there.” she smiled. “Harry. I don’t believe you know so much about women, after all.” Her voice held the faintest tinge of mockery, but he thought it wise to ignore that. What did she' mean by after all? I lad she ? But the blue eyes were as shadowless as ever, and he discerned only a very presentable wife obviously caught up in the prospect of an unexpected trip to Paris. Then he looked at the clock.

“I’m a bit late. Well, ten-thirty from Victoria, the day after tomorrow.”

“And I'll cancel all engagements for, say. a fortnight?” “Yes.”

“Are you dining at home tonight?”

He had fully intended not to, but something now suggested that he should, and when he said that he would come home, an odd expression came into her face. But w'hat she thought, or didn't think, completely baffled him; and on the wav to his chambers she cxxupied a greater part of his mind than for many a month past.

TN I’A RIS. they went to Meurice. where he engaged a sitting room with a bedroom on either side, so that the arrangement was homelike. Hilda, he thought, looked handsome and quietly happy, showing him exactly the same equable attention as usual, and he felt a quality of satisfaction in perceiving that she outclassed nearly all the women he saw. Oddly enough, he did not campare her with Claudia. He had never done that.

When they were settled, she said:

“Now you have your business and I’ve my shopping, so we’re going to be frightfully busy, and I think we ought to be independent. Where do we dine?”

"Nothing better than this to start with.”

“Right. Then I’ll meet you downstairs at eight o’clock?” “Yes.”

"And, Harry . . ”

“Yes?”

“It’s awfully good of you to bring me when you’ve so

much on your hands, so please don't let me be the least bit of a burden. If you want to dine and spend the evening with with any one, please do so without any thought of me. I’ve any number of things to see and get, and I’ll be perfectly happy. Promise?”

He nodded, aware that, though this was exactly the arrangement he would have made for himself had it been left to him to make it, now, for some reason it did not sound overinviting. He did not propose to be lonely in Paris. So they separated, and he went about his business.

At eight o’clock he was dawdling over a cigarette in the lounge when a man near him uttered a low “By Jove!” and he looked up. There w'ere a lot of people about and for a moment he did not see her, though he did notice that many heads were turned in the same direction, but when she came toward him he half rose and waited, leaning forward as if mesmerized. Hilda!

His wife was in a black velvet dress which he had never seen before, exquisitely molded to her figure and edged with white fox. ' She wore no jewels, and her hair had been differently waved. The supple grace of her walk, the movement of her lissom body under a miraculous frock that some genius had dreamed of and designed expressly for her, were to him quite startling. She was distinctive. The calm beauty of her face matched the gravity in her blue eyes. Here was an aristocrat. The simplicity of it all and the faint natural color in her cheeks were the more arresting among a multitude of painted, powdered, diamonded women, of whose searching inspection she seemed totally unaware. Bertram could only stare and stare. Then she smiled at him. “Well, Harry?”

“Splendid!” Pulling himself together, he tried to act as though she looked like this every day. “Where did you get it?”

“A little place off the Rue de Rivoli. It was more than I meant to pay, but I weakened. So glad you like it.”

“You do each other credit,” said he, more than ever conscious of the interest she was creating. “In moments like this, the male mammal realizes his unimportance.”

“I w'onder if he does, really? Shall we have dinner now? And are you free later?”

VL/mi alacrity he told her that he was. and when they vv went in to dine he again experienced a very definite reaction. Hilda was just as quiet, just as gentle as ever, but. though he had become used to this, now he suddenly resented it. A woman who looked as she did had no right to suppress herself thus. She suggested something quite different. She had a clear, transparent skin, arms and shoulders of lovely modelling, and the way her neck seemed to swim up out of the smooth curves of her breast rather went to his head. But this, he reminded himself, was only the outward woman. Nothing had changed within.

“A successful day?” she asked.

“Fair, but nothing like yours. French witnesses are apt to wander. Where else did you go?”

I met John Crowther and had tea with him. It was so nice. I hadn’t seen him for years.”

"Oh.”

“Of course, we had heaps to talk about,” she added placidly.

“How is he?” asked Bertram, trying to keep the acid out of his tone.

hrightfully well and keen. I told him you were up to your eyes in work, and I’d lunch with him tomorrow'.” “What does Crowther do with himself?” hazarded her husband with undisguised diffidence.

“Slux>ts, fishes and travels, as far as I could gather. He’s very well off now. He didn’t marry that girl after all.” Bertram nodded shortly. He also had not seen Crowther for years, but remembered him as one of Hilda’s retinue up to the time her engagement was announced, after which Hilda being Hilda, he had slipped with the others into the discard. Now he was in Paris and seemingly anxious to make up for lost time. How, wondered Hilda’s husband, did she feel about it? But he was in no position to ask.

"You don’t mind, do you?” she added innocently.

How absurd ! Why should I?” Then, as an afterthought, though it sounded rather ungallant: “It wouldn’t make any difference if I did, would it?”

"Should it?” said she over the top of her wine glass.

He blinked at her. There she sat. the most striking kx)king woman within sight and certainly the most surprising, regarding him w ith a sort of Gioconda smile quite beyond his power to interpret. Something, he told himself, had happened to her; or was it just a change of setting? In either case, it struck him as unfair of her now' to display for the first time an art of attraction that must always have been there, though left unused. If she had used it. he continued to argue, certain things would not have happened. She had deliberately buried her talents, and Paris was not the place in which to dig them up again.

ou see,” she went on, “we’ve both had perfect liberty of action tor so long that I’m afraid I rather stopped considering whether you’d like me to do this or that. It wasn’t that I didn’t wish to please you. but I felt that you didn’t much care either way. Now that you’ve been so awfully kind and brought me here. 1 wouldn't really enjoy it if I

thought that—well. I’m thinking of John. So please don't hesitate. I’m quite in earnest.”

“Not the slightest objection,” he assured her hastily. “We’re neither of us children.”

“Thanks, Harry. I rather expected that. Where do we go now?”

HE TOOK HER to see the Guitrys—a brilliant performance that ordinarily he would have revelled in, but tonight he was too conscious of his wife who seemed to edge between him and the play. People continued to stare at her. She was quite unaffected by this, very appreciative, and understood French much better than he had imagined. Then to The Ambassadeurs for supper, and so back to Meurice.

Here she vanished into her room, reappearing shortly in a filmy sort of tea gown, the effect of which rather took his breath away.

“It’s been a delightful evening, thanks to you, Harry; and I’m so pleased you approve of my frock. I was afraid you might think it cut too low.”

“Don’t thank me. The frock is just right.”

She sent him an undecipherable glance, her lips trembling ever so slightly.

“I’m very glad. We both have a busy day ahead, so I'm going to bed now. What about tomorrow evening? Jack asked me to let him know at lunch. If you’ve got anything on. he'll arrange something for me.”

“No doubt you’d prefer Crowther,” announced Bertram stiffly. “I can easily—”

“But I don’t,” she interrupted swiftly. “It was only in

case.”

This made him look at her very hard—a languorous, seductive figure stretched on a chaise longue, one shoulder bare and very white, one long smooth arm drooping slack. He tried not to imagine a curve in that arm meant for himself, but did not quite succeed, and cursed her silently because of his desire. He wanted her to go soon—now, before he made a fool of himself—then he hoped she would not, and when he spoke, his voice creaked.

“Then I suggest that you and I dine somewhere else, and try the Comédie Française afterward.”

“That sounds just right; it ought to be lovely. Good night, Harry.”

She disappeared quietly, much as a film fades from the screen, leaving him standing, his face suddenly flushed, his eyes fixed on the door. He frowned, then found himself

listening, but it was a heavy door, soundproof, and nothing reached him. He felt choky. He saw pictures of her doing this and that, always with the same deliberate grace; pictures of the black velvet gown sliding from her ivory body. At this he cursed and reached for the door handle. It turned but the door was fast, anchored by a noiseless bolt inside.

She must have slept more soundly than he did, for when he came to the door next morning, after breakfasting in his owm room, she was still drowsy, so he did not go in but went about his business with a detachment he could not shake off. He wondered w’ith a sort of futility what it would have been like were Claudia here instead of Hilda, but this contemplation proved unprofitable. Lunching abstractedly with a group of animated Frenchmen, he thought about Hilda smiling at John Crowther, and from this wandered to other excursions, hazarding what life would be like when love, as he now knew it, ceased to be an ecstatic experience and became more of a deliberate undertaking, and he would need companionship to replace unattainable passion.

This left him in the air; nor did anything happen in the next ten days to help him at all. He did not know how often his wife met Crowther—he was too self-conscious or else too ashamed to ask—but she kept the evenings for him and they did Paris rather thoroughly. Every night when they got back to the hotel, her procedure was the same. Looking more desirable than ever, she would give him charming thanks and, after a few moments, escape. She achieved a sort of immuneness, and he observed her as it were through a sheet of plate glass. She seemed entirely happy, devilishly independent.

CO IT WENT day after day, while his thoughts about the ^ other woman became overlaid by the significant presence of his wife, till the time arrived to return to England. He said good-by to Paris with no regret whatever. He felt starved, yet, oddly enough, had no hankering for St. John’s Wood.

During the Channel crossing, Hilda, though she loved the sea, was very quiet and hardly spoke at all till they reached London, but when they were inside their own door she looked at him with a strange expression and said :

“Harry, I’ve had a wonderful time. It was all quite perfect.”

"Quite?” he asked with the faintest edge on his voice.

“There wasn’t a single thing you left undone, but there’s one little point I’d like to feel sure about.”

“Oh.”

“You didn't ask me to come. I asked if I could, and— well, you were surprised. Now that it’s over, with lots of memories to fall back on, it would mean a lot to me if you could say. quite honestly, that you’re glad I asked you.”

He looked at her shrewdly. She was a clever woman, after all. But w'hy couldn’t she have demonstrated her cleverness long ago? Then, as in a flash, he caught a vivid glimpse of something in her that had hitherto escaped him. Not loyalty or strength or purpose or judgment—he granted all these— but a sort of shy, retiring pride, a kind of self-essence that could suffer much without complaint, masking itself behind the polished mirror of a woman of the world. This fleeting revelation—it seemed to leap out and vanish with the speed of light —affected him oddly, and his voice was not quite steady when he spoke.

“Yes, honestly. I’m glad you came. It—it ought to help.”

“Truly, Harry? Quite truly?”

“On my honor.” said he, instantly wondering why he had used that word.

He did not go to St. John's Wood that week, nor the next: nor was there any summons from Claudia, who certainly knew of his return. This, instead of vexing, made him thankful. He simply didn’t need her. But he wras a little hurt that Hilda should make no comment on the fact that now he spent all his evenings with her.

Then, one day, he ran into Crowther — very brown, rugged and travelled looking. Crowther put out a hand.

“Haven’t seen you for ages. How are you both?”

“Well, thanks,” said Bertram shortly. “You seem very fit.”

“I ought to be.”

“Paris,” remarked Bertram, “appears to agree with you.”

“Paris?”

Bertram felt obstreperous.

“That’s what I said.”

“My dear man. I’ve just had three months in North Africa, and landed yesterday from Southampton. Haven’t been in Paris for years. Hate the place anyway.”

Bertram made a queer little sound.

“Er—sorry—my mistake. We were there, and I thought I saw you. Do you mind if I push on? I’m late for court

He strode off with a mind in turmoil. So Hilda was a liar! This gave him an extraordinary revulsion, like being torn up by the roots. He found work impossible, pretended to dine at a restaurant, tried a theatre with no success, and

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finally got back to his hoiise, utterly shaken. Not for a single instant did it occur to him that he was being served with his own sauce. All he experienced was shock and outrage, and though he perceived that the way to freedom now apparently lay clear, he didn’t want it.

He dallied a while in his study, then went upstairs and knocked at his wife’s door.

“Come in, Harry.”

She was in bed, a book on her lap, her eyes very round.

“I’m so glad you’re back. I was frightened. You said you’d be in for dinner. I telephoned your chambers, but everyone had gone. They didn’t know anything about you at the club, and—well, I thought something must have happened.”

“Something did happen,” said Bertram stiffly. “I met Crowther.”

She gave a sharp little gasp, staring at him with an expression in which a multitude of emotions found place. But—and it

hardened him to see it—there was no shame.

“How ex-extraordinary,” she stammered.

“Landed yesterday at Southampton.” He leaned forward, jaw set, aware only of his own side of the matter and determined to have the thing out. “Who was the man in Paris?” he creaked.

This, shot at her as out of a gun, produced no effect except that the comers of her mouth began to quiver.

“Harry,” said she unsteadily, “it’s rather a long story, but I’ll have to start at the beginning. I’ve often wondered how I’d tell it if the time ever came, but it never would take any particular form, so if I’m rather stupid just be patient. First, I know all about St. John’s Wood.”

“Eh!”

“Nearly two years now. Also I know Claudia. We’ve met several times. Of course she didn’t know that I knew, but when one of these what I call piratical women meets the wife whose husband she has annexed, there’s generally something about her and her manner—I can’t describe it—that gives her away.”

“Go on,” said Bertram heavily.

"Well, it hurt dreadfully, and I kept asking myself what I had done or left undone to bring this about. Of course, I found lots of things. I wasn’t coy or magnetic or perhaps physical enough, and didn’t practise my allure if I have any, which I doubt; perhaps I was too centred in my son to the exclusion of his father; but just which it was I couldn’t get hold of, and no doubt I made myself less attractive by being unhappy. All the time you were moving farther away, and I tried to disguise my loneliness under an indifference that made matters worse. Do you”—here she glanced at him earnestly —“do you see any sense in all this?”

“Yes; please go on.”

“Then just a word more about Claudia, and I’ll never speak of her again. Her type is a sort of lovely, sleek, dark-haired boa constrictor who will swallow a man whole

and spend months in digesting him, which is her chief pleasure; and while that’s going on she doesn’t want another because there’s no room for him. But when he is digested, it’s the next one’s tum. And you needn’t say a word for or against, since it wouldn’t make the slightest difference ever. Another woman might admire her art. but most of us hate her principles, or lack of them. It’s just appetite. Of course I could have divorced you, but that would have been handing you over to her, and something convinced me you wouldn’t have been happier for it. I suppose I sound like an angry cat?”

AT THIS she broke off, regarding him with a sort of enquiry as to whether he wanted to say anything, but for once in his life Bertram, K.C., had no reply. That was that, he thought. Now for the man in Paris.

“Well, Harry, at first I was a little surprised that you did not take her to France, but it would have been pretty blatant and she’s too clever for that, so I thought I’d better go myself. Never have I worked harder than I did there, and never have I been so lonely except in the evenings.”

“Lonely?”

‘Horribly lonely.”

“It wasn’t Crowther, but who was it?”

“An imaginary cavalier who, for lack of a better name, I christened John Crowther; and wasn’t it ridiculous that the real one turned up today? No one could see my John, not even myself, but I pictured him beside me as I lunched alone at all sorts of little places, knowing you were busy. I made the most of him, and we got to be real friends in a ghostly sort of way. I told him about you and St. John’s Wood and me; and he, being a man of the world, suggested several things I might do. So I got that velvet frock and the tea gown and had my hair done differently, and. just as he prophesied, watched you getting farther from the boa constrictor every evening. It made me wildly thankful, for I loved you just the same though I didn’t know how to show it, because something inside me tightened up like a steel trap whenever the moment came. When I went to my room I longed for you to come with me, but dared not let you. I couldn't use that method of making you love me again. Too much like the boa constrictor. I was terribly pleased when you got so jealous of no one ; and since you’ve been spending your evenings here, I realized what that meant, and was happier still. But you didn’t see that, just as you never saw it when I was miserable. For days and days I’ve been trying to speak, but couldn’t begin, and now the real John Crowther has come along, and—and—”

“And what?” asked Bertram chokily.

“Nothing—everything!” Suddenly the

white arms were held out, and her voice broke with a flood of tenderness. “Don’t say one word. Don’t look like that. Kiss me! Kiss me!”