FICTION

Brief Discontent

VELIA ERCOLE April 1 1935
FICTION

Brief Discontent

VELIA ERCOLE April 1 1935

Brief Discontent

FICTION

VELIA ERCOLE

THE EARLY morning had been bright, but now the sky was overcast, and a wind blew about the house, scattering raindrops from the withered leaves. Katherine sipped her morning coffee and stared gloomily through the glass doors which led into the garden. Winter days, she reflected, are only bearable if one has exciting prospects for winter nights.

"Lord,” she said aloud, “please brighten my day with the promise of something rich and strange.”

The Lord’s prompt answer seemed to be Ethel, the little servant who appeared at the garden door and talked with great urgency though inaudibly. The wind blew her words gustily against the glass panes, and Katherine went across and opened the doors.

"I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” she said crossly. Ethel thought. "It’s one of her days.” and was glad at the thought of her afternoon off.

"It’s the baby’s washing. It’s going to rain again and I can’t hang it out, and if I puts it in the kitchen it’ll drip and there’s no room in the hot cupboard.”

"Well, that eliminates everything. What do you suggest we do with it?”

But Ethel’s part of the job was done. She stared, roundeyed and waited.

That young, unhelpful face irritated Katherine, and she said unreasonably:

"Well, dig a hole in the garden and bury it. I don’t care. Or pray for fine weather.”

“The harmistice-day service yesterday was real lovely, mother said,” Ethel announced, provoked by the word "pray” into one of her inevitable associations of ideas. “She took Bertie. But I wouldna gone if you’d paid me. Church on them days gives me the willies.”

"What on earth,” said Katherine, “are the willies?”

Ethel eyed a dark cloud vaguely.

"Oh, I dunno. You feel as if you want to cry, and nothink seems any good like, because you’ve got to die in the end.” “Well, put the washing on the line and don’t be morbid,” said Katherine with some asperity.

“Yes’m,” said Ethel and was gone. But she left her effect behind. "In a nutshell,” thought Katherine, "I feel as if I want to cry and nothink seems any good like. I’d better count my many blessings.” But at that moment one of her most important blessings, the baby, woke with a high wail. “Now don’t you start”, its mother said darkly. But the baby had started, and quite definitely meant to continue. There were three stages in its crying. Katherine had learned. The first, an intermittent bleat, could be disregarded, the second compelled attention, and the third required swift action if the child was not to go black in the face. The third stage was soon reached and Katherine flew on fearful wings to the nursery’. Because one never could tell. But there was nothing wrong with the child, though it took her an hour to prove it to him.

“So the morning goes,” she reflected as she ate her solitary luncheon, "and ail its promise is of wet washing round the house for days.” And for a dreadful moment she wished that by some magic all this could be swept away and she were

back again, having a hurried glass of milk and a bun in an interval between old Blair’s frenzied dictation, with all her day made thrilling by the thought of meeting Ken when office hours were over.

BUT. OF COURSE, she did not mean that, she told herself quickly, in a childish fearing that the gods might overhear and snatch away Ken and the baby and the bungalow in the twinkling of an eye. Meeting Ken at their own front door was quite as thrilling as meeting him outside the office door. To be able to kiss him was better than merely wanting to kiss him; desperately wanting, in the crowded street, with his hand holding hers so tightly that it hurt, tucked under his arm . . . Was it better?

And surely to be sure of your love was better than that painful, dreadful, sweet excitement of making sure of him. Joy to be done with all that turbulence, with that uncertainty when one had no time to cope with anything except the complexities of one’s love affairs, and one’s brain could contain no image except the one image. This serenity of loving w-as infinitely better. Surely it was.

Oh, heck! Who wanted serenity in this unserene age? Her mother-in-law came to tea.

"You look peaked.” she said. "Probably you don’t take enough exercise. Why don’t you go for long walks?”

“I loathe long walks.” said Katherine shortly. “Besides I’m not peaked.^ I’ve not put on any rouge. That’s all.” "Well, I must say I don’t care for rouge. But probably some people look better with it on.”

“I left it off because a pale face suits my mood exactly. I feel pale inside.” Katherine knew she should not say things like that to Ken’s mother. It gave her such opportunities. She pounced on the remark.

“You should be too busy to have moods. 1 always found that looking after Kenneth was a full-time job.” The tolerant, chiding little laugh that accompanied this annoyed Katherine to the point of rudeness.

“I’m sure it was. But I’ve trained him now, and he can do a few things for himself.” She should not have said that either. Now Mrs. Mackenzie began to eat her plum cake in her polite, concentrated way which said so plainly, “I swore I would never interfere with Kenneth’s marriage. And it’s too late now, anyway. But if he had taken my advice ...” Mrs. Mackenzie’s attitude to her daughter-in-law was one of perpetually fearing the worst. “A leopard,” she was fond of saying, “cannot change its spots.” Katherine, before her marriage had been—well—gay. And in Mrs. Mackenzie’s opinion she would probably, sooner or later, be gay again.

To atone to Ken for her thoughts of the day, Katherine put on her red velvet frock, did her hair with great care and went into the hall to meet him when she heard the gate click. To that cold, tired young man she gave the kind of kiss which needs preparedness and a certain amount of physical comfort to be enjoyed, and it was hardly fair of her to be annoyed because her husband said:

“Darling, you’re as intense as a honeymoon. Will you let me come back for that later, when I've parked my umbrella and washed my hands?”

FOR AN INSTANT she disliked him almost as much as his mother.

“Of course. After all, we’ve our entire lives to kiss in.” But Kenneth missed the tone in her voice.

“Happy thought,” he said and ambled round the hall stand. “Did my suit come back from the cleaner’s?”

“It did.” Katherine’s teeth were clenched so hard that they hurt. She went back to the living room. Why put on your red velvet dress and do your hair like Kay Francis for a man who would tell you what old Jones at the office said, tune in the radio, hunt for his book which he was always losing, and read until he began to fall asleep; a man who loved you, true enough, but whose love was so deep that you needed a diving suit to get down to it?

“I could do,” Katherine thought, “with a few surface ripples and a little less of these deep, still waters of affection.” Of course, in a crisis Ken’s love was the kind a woman needed. But with perfect health, with an income sure enough to keep the wolf from the door and small enough to keep the devil from it, their crises were few and far between.

“The trouble is,” she said later while her husband bent over the radio, “we are getting stodgy.”

“Is there trouble, darling?” Ken lifted his head, suddenly quite pleased. “That was Moscow. Listen. It’ll come on again.”

“If it does, you’ll find it’s a local station. You know you never get Moscow.”

“Perhaps you’re right . . . Well, we’ll leave it at this.” Music filled the air and Ken, slapping his pockets for matches, began to prowl round the room. “Somebody’s moved that book I was reading. Why can’t—”

But suddenly Katherine was standing and shaking, a trembling, scarlet-clad fury. Her nails were scarlet, too, and went gleaming through the air as she flung out her hands.

“Oh, stop, will you! Stop saying the same things and doing the same things!”

Ken lit his pipe, stuffing the tobacco down in a deliberate silence. His eyes still searched the bookcase for his mislaid novel.

“If you knew how monotonous our lives have become!” Katherine insisted. “We’re in a rut. A dull, dreadful rut. Surely you can see . . . ”

“I see a certain monotony, yes. Every few evenings you can be depended on to make a scene. Where the devil has Ethel put that book?”

“Oh, forget your book for a minute. Ken, this is serious. I want to talk to you. And I don’t make scenes. If I’m not bursting with mirth all the time, you call it a scene. I don’t want to be rude. You make me rude by your attitude. I want to talk to you calmly and quietly. I want to find out what has happened to us, why there isn’t any excitement left in our loving, why a suit back from the cleaner’s is more important to you than my kissing you.”

“Oh, don’t talk rot,” Ken said. He was very tired and he wished he could find his book.

“It’s not rot! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and something is wrong with our marriage. What is it?” “Nothing. What’s wrong is your liver. You want more exercise.”

KATHERINE was silent for so long after that remark that her husband grew fidgety.

“Well?” he said, and his half smile was placating, but Katherine ignored it. Grinning away, she thought viciously. Like his fool of a mother.

“I can see it is quite hopeless to talk to you. Let it pass. I think I’ll go to bed.”

“I know what’s been happening,” Ken said irritably.

“It’s Aileen again. Every time you see her we have days of this. Why can’t you think your own thoughts instead of hers? She’s a hectic little waster, and you’d admit it if you were honest with yourself.”

Katherine stood up, very cold, very angry.

“I said we’d let it pass, Ken. If you want a quarrel, I’ll give it to you. But I’d rather go to bed. And you can call Aileen what you like. It won’t affect our friendship. She is a civilized, modern woman, and she leads the right kind of existence. At least things happen to her. She doesn’t vegetate.”

“What will happen to her will be the divorce court. And if—”

“Nothing of the kind. You always exaggerate. She and Brian understand one another. But they don’t consider it necessary to a happy marriage to sit in one another’s pockets discussing the laundry !”

Ken’s eyes narrowed.

“So that’s it, is it? You aren’t bored with life, you’re bored with me. What you’ve been trying to tell me for weeks is that you’d like a fresh interest.” Now Ken was as angry as his wife. “Well, go ahead; don’t let me stop you. But remember it’s a game two can play at. Perhaps I don’t find you as exciting as you used to be, either.”

Both of them were a little horrified after that outburst, but to Katherine’s horror succeeded swift rage.

“I’m glad you said that. Now I know where we stand.” “Oh, Kat, for heaven’s sake, why do you always start this kind of thing lately?” Beneath his anger, Ken felt a dreary bewilderment. What had provoked this? Because he couldn’t find his book. Now here she was, hacking away at the foundations of their marriage, so terribly angry, talking in that white-faced, flashing way. He pulled at his pipe, which had gone out, then snatched it from his mouth to shout at her:

“Will you stop talking? If I thought you meant half the things you are saying I’d get out of this house right now. I don’t know what the matter is except something has gone wrong and you’re taking it out on me. You always were dashed unfair— like all women. If you’re so tired and fed-up with me, go to it. See what you can do. I’m going to bed !” Katherine heard him banging noisily upstairs while she huddled over the fire, bitter and unrepentant. Of course, Ken exaggerated. You never could discuss things reasonably with him, but out of their stupid yelling at each other, one fact did emerge clearly. The romance had gone out of things. Their marriage, so radiantly begun, was like every other marriage—flat, stale and unprofitable. And all their youth to be imprisoned in it! A snare and a trap, that’s what marriage was, and the only way to regard it was as a business partnership and have your private life outside it. Because if a woman of twenty-four, she thought bleakly as she looked in the mirror, couldn’t feel she was intensely attractive to some man, she might as well be dead. Or have a career. And she had no career. And it wras obviously impossible to remain intensely attractive to the man you married.

Ken appeared to be asleep when she went up to their room. She undressed without being particularly silent, but he said nothing. She turned out the light. She cried a little and rather effectively in the dark, but nothing came of it, and at last she, too, went to sleep.

NIGHT seemed to have spread a covering over the wound of the quarrel. At breakfast there was the usual hurry—the baby waiting for its bath, wailing upstairs, Ken bolting his coffee and saying, “You open the letters.” “Bills,” she said, thrusting three envelopes toward him. “But these look like letters.” She read one and reported with rather overdone heartiness:

“Aileen’s having a party tonight and wants us to go. Isn’t that like her? To give a few hours notice. She says she’ll phone me this morning. Would you like to go?”

“Not particularly. Is there any more toast?”

“Ring the bell.” Katherine was occupied with the second letter.

“Well,” she said, eyeing it thoughtfully, “what do you make of this? It’s from that Mrs. Lee of yours. She says she’s writing to confirm her husband’s invitation, and she s sorry to be so late but she mislaid our address. What’s the idea?”

“Oh, lord, yes. I forgot to tell you. Teddy Lee came into the office one day last week for the address. They’re having a‘do’and want us to go. When is it?”

“Tonight. I wish you wouldn’t forget these things. Did you say we’d go?”

“I think I did. Anyhow we’d better go. I like the Lees.” “And you don’t like Aileen.” Katherine’s voice was expressionless.

“No, I don’t.” Now what was going on in her head? Ken helped himself to more bacon and felt irritated. Dam it all! If she was going to start this kind of thing in the mornings as well, something would have to be done about it. But what? Anyhow he wouldn’t say a word. Let her fight with herself.

But she began to talk with an air of swreet reasonableness which puzzled him.

“Well, there’s no reason why I should inflict her on you. Supposing we accept both invitations and you go to the Lees? After all, you’ve said yourself when we’ve gone to parties that you’ve been bored most of the time. That’s because we stick together, or at any rate cramp each other’s style. I’m sure you’d enjoy yourself much more if I weren’t around.” Ken looked at her suspiciously.

“Is this sheer altruism or is there a catch in it?”

“There’s no catch in it. Don’t be silly. But there’s no reason for us to be like the Siamese twins because we’re married. Let’s see if we can’t brighten things a little by going to places without each other. After last night ...”

“I see. You’re still at it.” Ken’s bacon choked him suddenly and he pushed away his plate. “Well, go to Aileen’s. Go wherever you dam well please. Nothing has satisfied you lately. But I’ve been too dumb to guess the reason. Well, what I said last night goes. But just remember you started all this, and if you don’t like the way it ends, don’t blame me.”

SEVERAL times during the day Katherine said to herself: “He exaggerates hopelessly.

I don’t want to break up the home. I want ...” What did she wrant? There was no satisfactory answer to that until late afternoon, when she took her new evening dress from the wardrobe to see if it needed pressing.

She held it against her, in front of the long glass. The exact color of her eyes. Very fetching with her short fur cape. Then she noticed she was making eyes at herself above the ruffles of the gown. Practising expressions.

It was a long time since she had done that,

and she giggled rather shamefacedly. Then

she grew quite savage and flung the dress on

the bed and went ramping round the room,

collecting her evening things, and in a whirl

of thinking decided she should never have

married. She wasn’t the type. At any rate,

not the type for this wretched suburban little

marriage, with Ken’s wireless and the baby’s

washing. Of course she adored the baby, and

if anything happened to it she’d die. But why

should anything happen to it? There were

millions of babies bom every day and nothing happened to

them. There was no reason for God to punish her because

she wanted a little excitement —as long as the baby was

well and not being neglected.

“And I’m bored to death, and tired of a man who wouldn’t notice if I was dressed in sackcloth, and who is so predictable that it makes me scream. What I want is some man to make a fuss of me—and maybe take me to tea at the Ritz, and say the kind of things Ken used to say and—and that’s all.” She stopped thinking then, resolutely, because she had an instant’s chill vision of dark mists and cloudy uncertainties. And for all her assurance and the gaiety which she was convinced she felt that evening while they dressed—with Ken not saying much but whistling a great deal—the vision came back and quite destroyed her poise when Aileen announced in the privacy of the bedroom:

“Darling, I’ve some news. I’m so glad you came. I wanted all the crowd, because this is a divorce party. That dress is too marvellous, where did you get it?” Casual enough. But the hand she fluttered toward the gleaming frock was shaking. Katherine stopped powdering her nose and looked shocked.,

“My dear—you’re not getting a divorce! You aren’t going to marry that Humphries boy . .

“Oh, it’s not on my account.” Aileen lifted the glass she held to her lips. “It’s Brian. Yes, it was a surprise to me too. He thinks he’d like to marry Luella.”

“I can’t believe it.” Katherine regarded her friend, bewildered and a little childish before this sudden seriousness of events. “Brian? But I always thought . . .”

“So did I—that everybody would be happy, boredom eliminated, and no bones broken. But Brian hasn t been able to play the game my way.”

“I see,” Katherine said, though she did not quite see. “Well—as long as you don’t mind.” She darted a swift, embarrassed glance at her friend, and what she saw in Aileen’s lovely eyes disturbed her.

But Aileen finished her drink with creditable calm.

“Of course, I don’t mind,” she said airily. “Remember the old tag? The world is so full of a number of men, it’s only a matter of how, where and when. Now, if you’ve

finished making yourself beautiful, we’ll go and join in the celebrations. I’ve a devastating man for you; I earmarked him when you told me Ken couldn’t come.”

THE MAN, Katherine thought, might be devastating, and he was obedient to his hostess at any rate. He concentrated on her most flatteringly when she was thrust into his arms. “She dances as well as she looks, Hugh,” Aileen said, and with an inner dreariness which she tried to dismiss, Katherine began to play the game. Because, after all, Aileen’s débâcle need hardly be paralleled in her own case. Aileen, when all was said, had been rather a fool, and had overdone things. And as the night wore on and her cavalier remained properly, but not improperly, attentive, her confidence in herself increased. Once she caught sight of herself in a mirror and thought, “It certainly improves my looks. I haven’t looked like this for ages. ’ But it was a pity this man thought it necessary to drink so much.

“You’ve worn quite a track to the bar, haven’t you?” she said at last. “Look there, all the flowers on the carpet are trampled to a dull blur.”

He followed her pointing finger solemnly.

“It’s a fact,” he said. “And this was one party where I need not have got my interest in life from a bottle.”

“Do you usually get it from a bottle?”

“Usually,” he "said, and dumped his cigarette rather savagely. For an appreciable pause neither of them said anything, then he smiled, suddenly and disarmingly.

“Come up on the roof and reform me. It’s hot in here.” She rubbed her lower lip with a painted thumbnail. Her eyes smiled at him.

“It will be cold on the roof.”

“Very cold?”

“Quite cold.”

For an instant he held her eyes.

“Well, I’ll risk it. Come on. I was inoculated long ago and I'm immune to chills.”

But on Aileen’s little roof garden where the darkness rushed at them, she realized that this man, for all his quiet voice and his steadiness downstairs, was drunk. Quite

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drunk. He lurched and caught at her to steady himself, and then automatically his arms went round her and he was kissing her, kissing the breath out of her, while she was still searching an opening for a conversation which would make their mounting to the roof even slightly justifiable. She twisted away from him, and thrust at his chest. He let her go as suddenly as he had seized her, and then stood, his head thrust back, his hands pressing down heavily on the parapet.

Katherine, too, leaned on the parapet and looked at the stars. She had never felt more flat in her life. Her anger, mere physical reaction, subsided as soon as he released her; and, standing there, she felt so remote from this male human being that to leave the roof garden seemed superfluous. She wondered drearily what she could say to pretend a little dignity for them both, but found nothing before the man said:

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was dealing with a virtuous wife.”

He seemed to have sobered.

“It wasn’t virtue; just mere inability to enjoy the situation.”

He swung round then, and tried to observe her in the dark. He laughed shortly.

“All terribly stupid of me. Will you forgive me if I admit I’d had a lot to drink and the air knocked me. And—if I admit that I don’t enjoy these situations much either?”

Flatter still, Katherine felt. She said nothing.

“I can’t even say this isn’t a habit,” the big man said, and there was a note in his voice which made Katherine feel a little less cheap suddenly. “I won’t bore you with the story of my life. But I’ve a wife, and she’s rather spoiled me for situations. But she used to enjoy them herself and—well, once I retaliated in rather a big way. I don’t know if you’ve learned it yet, but men don’t play this game a woman’s way. She found she couldn’t stand my way of playing it—so

here I am, and she’s in Cairo or was when I last heard. All very stupid, as I said. Shall we go back to the party?”

“I think,” Katherine said, shivering suddenly, “I’ll go home.”

“Good idea. I’m inclined the same way. Could I drop you anywhere Say no, if you want to. I shouldn’t blame you and I won’t be offended.”

Katherine sighed; a strange, friendly light sigh in the darkness.

“I won’t say no. And, after all, I don’t think I’ll go home. Fate seems to be giving me a little advice tonight—if you don’t mind my not going into details. I’ve a husband at a party—the other side of town though. Would you drop me there?”

“Anywhere you like. Come on.”

THE LEES’ party did not appear very much different from Aileen’s, Katherine thought—the same drifting about, the air blue with cigarette smoke, the tinkle of glasses and the staccato of laughter above the blur of voices. But perhaps all parties appeared the same at one in the morning. Mrs. Lee, if she felt any surprise at Katherine’s appearance, hid it under a riotous welcome.

“But Kenneth,” she said, holding Katherine’s arm and looking around vaguely. “Now where did Kenneth go? He went to fetch a girl friend. I don’t know. He was very hilarious and not very explicit. Ted might know. I lost my memory several hours ago. Ted,” she called, and her husband came up.

He was gay but weary, and said Kenneth had played the low-down. Wasn’t satisfied with local talent and had gone to import some playmates of his own. But he should be back soon. Katherine caught the glance between husband and wife—deprecatory, rather at a loss. “Anyhow, come and meet people. He’ll be back. He’s left his hat.”

Katherine met that situation well enough, but a sickening, cold thought had sprung into her brain. She thrust it back with argument. After all, Kenneth knew numbers of girls. He was the world’s friend at a party.

She was telling herself that quite violently after an hour had gone by; and trying to look at the d(x>r without seeming to do so was almost physically painful. Then people began to leave and she grew embarrassed. But the blessed solution to it all occurred to her just when she was on the point of screaming. He had gone home, of course. Of course, she thought, and was intensely happy; so happy that she let Dora Lee kiss her. almost gratefully, though she hated kissing women.

“And you’ll come again? And tell that husband of yours we expect a written apology.”

“He never can stay out a party. Caves in just when it’s really good. Thank you so much ...”

And though, when she needed wings, she must choose the most ancient taxi in town, she got home at last. She ran up the stairs in a blaze of light, because she was afraid of darkened, silent houses, and there was great joy in her heart at the thought of Ken there; Ken, who would be there always.

But Ken was not there. The bed, neatlyturned down, was untouched. And all the house was silent.

For a long time she refused to admit apprehension. She undressed very slowly. She found multiple little things to do, and all the time her ears were straining, her distress gathering. At last she got into bed, and lay high on the pillows, staring her thoughts in the face, and turned away the ticking bedside clock so that she might better pretend the passing hours were minutes. But when she heard the rattle of the milk cart and the quick, loud steps of the boy coming up the path, she knew what time it was. After six o’clock. All those possibilities which she had suggested to herself through the hours, failed now. A man can’t play a woman’s game her way, that man on the roof had said. If Ken was somewhere with some girl . . .

THE COLD, pallid dawn seemed to have things dying in it. She turned her face into the pillow and thought that nothing would ever be quite the same again, because one did mind. When it came to the point, one minded frightfully.

She was lying like that when Ken came into the room. The night had marked his face, too. He sat down on the bed and stared at her. His eyes were so tired, halfclosed. She couldn’t read anything there.

“Well?” she whispered, and then Ken seemed to find some energy for passion somewhere in his being. He said violently:

“For heaven’s sake, where did you go? I went to Aileen's to get you and she told me you’d gone home, that Leo Morrison drove you. But you didn’t come home. Where did you go? I know that swine, Morrison— and I know the mood you were in. Tell me what happened. I won’t stand this, Katherine !”

Katherine lay back on the pillow. Her relief was so great that she could hardly speak.

“Go on, tell me,” Ken was insisting. “And it’s no good lying. I came back and waited here two hours. Then I went to that fellow’s flat. I know the kind of rotter he is. There was a light on, but no one answered the door, of course. I’ve been waiting outside in that street. And then I didn’t care, because if you want to do this kind of thing you can. But I’ve got to know! WTere you there with him? Or where the devil did you go?”

"I didn’t come straight home. I went to the Lees, to find you. They said you’d be back, and I waited until four, when the party broke up. Then I came home. And . . ”

When all their explaining was done, Ken said, his face pressed so tightly to hers that it hurt:

“It doesn’t work, Kat. You see it doesn’t. These little hells aren’t really amusing. We’ve each had a ghastly night. You see, it doesn’t work.”

Katherine’s beautiful mouth curved in a little smile which her husband could not see.

“Oh. I don’t know.” she said softly. “I don’t know, darling. At least I got what I wanted—some man to make a fuss over me. I do feel, I really do feel, darling, that I’m intensely attractive to you.”

“Well, you should have felt that without making me stand for hours in a dam cold street,” Ken grumbled. He yawned and looked at the clock. “And now, look at the time. I’ll only have time to bath and dress and get to the office. Did you hang out that suit that came back from the cleaner’s? If it still smells of gasoline like it did, I can’t wear it.”