FICTION

Graven Image of a Boy

A story of modern marriage and a wife who learned that happiness lies not backward along the road of life, but forward

NELIA GARDNER WHITE April 15 1939
FICTION

Graven Image of a Boy

A story of modern marriage and a wife who learned that happiness lies not backward along the road of life, but forward

NELIA GARDNER WHITE April 15 1939

Graven Image of a Boy

FICTION

A story of modern marriage and a wife who learned that happiness lies not backward along the road of life, but forward

NELIA GARDNER WHITE

BENJIE had been dead four years, and he had never gone away from this house nor from her heart. ’ Now he would have been thirteen years old. She lived as if she never thought of him; she played bridge and went to teas and occasionally went somewhere with Ben, and no one looking on would have seen the ghost of Benjie, his vivid young face laughing and clear, beside her. Some said that grief drew people together, but it had not been so with her and Ben. They were now as far apart as complete strangers, though that, too, was hardly discernible to other eyes. They were so polite.

She came down to breakfast, one morning in April, dressed in a very becoming dress of white homespun. All was as usual. The table was a study in lavender, green and pink. The pink tulips made a faint lavender glow in the dark wood, and Greta had used the breakfast dishes with the delicate lavender trail of blossoms. Sunlight, pale but lovely, was made warmer by its passage through the yellow silk net of the curtains. Greta was bringing in a plate of her perfect currant buns.

Ben stood by the window, looking out toward the fresh shoots of the daffodils, and it went bitterly through her mind that he added to the effect of the room. His dark hair and crisp dark mustache set off and sharpened his face, made him seem very handsome. His clothes were impeccable. He had the look of a man meant for humor, but when he turned to greet her, his eyes were still, guarded by pride, humorless, indeed almost lifeless.

“Lovely morning,” he said, seating himself.

“Yes. The best we’ve had.”

He drew his grapefruit toward him, attacked it absently. “Doing anything in particular?” he queried then, not really as if he wanted to know, but rather as if he were accustomed to fill in these moments with politeness.

“A luncheon and bridge at Joan’s,” she said.

“Oh. Is Joan still interested in her modelling?”

“Yes, some. She’s sold a fountain this spring.”

“Has she, really? That will help justify her side-stepping domesticity.”

“I don’t believe she’s thought of it that way.”

“Don’t you?”

She passed him the buns.

“No, thank you.”

She did not urge him, put the green plate down.

“More coffee?”

“Yes.”

He drank the coffee hurriedly, rose.

“I must go. ’By, Alice.” “Good-by,” she answered perfunctorily.

Alice left the table and walked into the living room. She saw that Greta had put out the brighter pillows that they used for summer. Greta remembered everything. Sometimes Alice wished that Greta did not remember everything. She would then be forced to have more on her own mind. She never even had to remind Greta that the silver needed polishing or that the sills were dusty.

The morning stretched before her. Three hours before she could go to Joan’s. She felt a certain intensity of suspense about going to Joan’s. For Joan and she had this in common, that they did not walk through life beside their

husbands. They were separated by something malignant, unconquerable. Not the same thing, but so akin that she had a feeling of being a sister to Joan. They rarely talked of their husbands, however.

She went out through the kitchen to the back yard. All along the fence were clumps of new green. She examined each evidence of new growth mechanically, looking, indeed, engrossed in her bendings and peerings. But there was no sincerity in this garden pilgrimage. She turned soon from the garden, made her way up to her room, sat down at her desk. There were a few letters to answer. She did these. It was still not eleven. She went down and talked a little with Greta about the dinner, though Greta needed no instructions. Then she dressed carefully in a suit of heavy silk with white trimmings. She looked back at herself from the mirror, immaculate, beautiful.

JOAN SAID: “Glad to see you, Alice. Nice suit you have on.”

Alice stepped into Joan’s living room, which was empty of people.

“Oh, am I early?” she asked. For Joan’s short grey hair was rumpled, as if she had just come from work. She was not especially dressed-up.

“No. I asked just you for luncheon; the rest are coming later for bridge. We’re having just a salad and coffee up in the studio. To tell you the truth, Alice, I’ve finished a thing and I want to ask you about it.”

Joan led the way up to the third floor, where she worked. The table was set without much ceremony near the window . Crisp salad, rye bread, coffee and cakes.

“Shall I show you the statue first?”

Alice was a little startled at a note of intensity in Joan’s voice. Joan was casual to a fault.

"Oh. first. We can talk of it while we eat.”

Joan brought the small table a little nearer the casement windows that looked down on her garden. Alice, looking at Joan’s garden, felt a moment's distaste for her own. Joan’s was mostly trees and grass, with a lilac bush now in blossom and in one corner a bed of perennials. Alice turned her eyes from the garden to the room, which had a bareness she respected.

“No, I believe I won’t, after all,” Joan said. “I’m nervous about it.”

The two women sat down at the table. Then Alice surprised herself by saying: “Is Leander getting any more reconciled to your work?”

Joan did not hold her off. She gave a quick laugh and said without hesitation: “Leander? Oh, his protests are not meant for me.”

Alice knew what she meant. Leander was of late trying to make himself out an abused husband to Gracie Lester.

Joan said then quite seriously: “Of course. I do let

everything get at sixes and sevens. But I doubt if that really has anything to do with happiness. Do you think it has? You’re born tidy and I’m born careless, but I can’t see where it really has any bearing on anything . . .I’ve been working like a dog on this statue."

“What's the statue of?”

"Dick Whittington.”

“Dick Whittington?”

“Yes. Odd subject for me, eh?” Joan was given to a sharp, modern treatment of steel-age subjects.

“Is it an order?"

"Well, if they like it. There's a little town not far from here. Somebody there happens to love the place and wants a statue for the town square. Not anything as a memorial to soldiers or a glorification of some statesman, but something to show love for the town itself. Just chance that I heard of it. but I’m to show the thing on Monday. I don’t know whether it gets over or not.”

"But I’m afraid I don’t see . . .”

“The why of Whittington? Perhaps no one will see. I’m calling it Dick Whittington, Halfway to London Town.”

“I begin to see.”

“Do you? Really, Alice? I don’t know howI got the idea, but once Whittington came to my thoughts, the rest was clear. 1 thought that there must have been a si>ot on the way to Ix>ndon when Dick was torn so with desire to go back that he was ill with homesickness. If I could get this look of homesickness well, it seemed to me so much of a symbol. Precious few of us that don’t get torn from home soil sooner or later. Not many of us go back ever - but all of us feel the pull. I thought, if I could get it over . . . But I’ve worked so long at it, I just don’t know.”

Alice Arnot said: “I’ve finished. Let’s see it.” .

She rose from the table, more expectant than she \ remembered to have felt for a very long time. It was the only way to be, stoical, like herself and Joan, but sometimes it was a bit horrible to consider that one might appear stoical because one actually could not feel.

Joan drew aside the screen and there this boy was—a bronze boy of twelve or so, the legendary bundle over his shoulder, the cat at his feet. It was a good statue. There was this homesick face, this boy’s eyes remembering — remembering old paths, the starlings, the town clock striking in the night, the voice of the baker's wife singing in the early morning, the quiver of asjxms before his own house.

Alice stood looking at it, stood stiff and hard, looking at it. and all the years of her married life whirled through her head, all the years with Benjie and all the years since. Joan had never, never since the very day, talked with Alice about Benjie, but now she said, “I knew you’d know,” as if she’d delivered herself into her friend’s hands.

Alice turned away from the statue and began to walk out of the room. Joan pulled the screen back and came after her. At the head of the stairs Joan said. “Alice!” protestinglv, and Alice found herself turning with almost venomous anger toward Joan. The bell rang; the rest began to come for bridge.

THE rest of the afternoon was a strange, haze of “vulnerable” and “invulnerable,” of “keeping the bid open,” of meaningless cards across from her, of exact, mechanical playing through the haze. Gracie Lester was there, insolently intimate with Joan. Fan Helmer, with her lovely face and pricking tongue, saying things about Ben and Leander, things half hidden yet intelligible to them all. Alice had wondered sometimes how much Joan felt Fan’s caustic revelations. This afternoon Alice scarcely took in Fan’s sentences or significant glances.

There were tea and sandwiches. They were going home. “Lovely party, Joan.” “Lots of fun, Joan darling.” Words like that. And Alice was going with them, not lingering to talk to Joan, not letting Joan have any opportunity to ask her to stay. Just going, down the steps with Gracie, saying: “Charming party, Joan ... I’ll give you a lift, Gracie.”

But in the car wûth Gracie, she could not bring herself to speak first. Now the wound opened, opened; she could not stop the bleeding.

“When I think of what that house used to be!” Gracie said.

She automatically set herself on the side opposite Gracie and said: “I never saw it in the old days. But I’ve seen Leander’s mother and I can imagine. She’s so painfully correct and boresome, she makes you want to scream.” “At least it looked as if gentlefolk lived there,” Gracie said more sharply. “If there were any reason for it to be so rundown—but there isn’t.”

“I think it’s charming this way; really, I do,” Alice said. “Charming?” Gracie’s voice had a note of hysteria. Perhaps she really loves Leander, Alice thought. Gracie was saying, “Well, thanks for the lift, Alice.”

She drove from Gracie’s door, and her hands were

trembling on the w heel. She drove slowly as if the familiar way were unknown to her. You couldn’t do such a thing to a friend, you couldn’t tear at hurts that way. You couldn’t. She had no right. Joan had no right. If she herself had ever asked for that sort of sympathy—but, no, she l ad never talked of Benjie to any of them. She had kept her grief to herself. She alone bore it. At first she had longed to turn to Ben with it, but afterward she had been so glad she had not. For Ben hadn’t cared, not in the way she did. I knew' you’d know ... I knew you’d know ... I knew you’d know.

She didn’t want to go into her own house, where she dw'elt in a world apart from Ben, where she kept on month after month, year after year, pretending they were man and wife when they both knew they were nothing of the kind. She put the car away and walked slow'ly into the house.

Ben was already home.

“Oh, you’re early,” she said.

“A little. Could w'e have dinner now? I have to go back to town.”

“Of course.” She moved toward the kitchen to speak to Greta. She thought, At least he doesn’t say “back to the office.”

THEY sat at the table. She dropped her napkin, though she was one whose fingers never made mistakes. She could not start a conversation. Finally, he said: “And could Joan get her hands out of clay long enough for bridge?”

“Oh, Joan does all the ordinary things.”

“And most of the extraordinary as well. I don’t wonder at Leander’s philandering a bit.”

It came to her to say, “But I do none of the extraordinary. and you philander too,” but she had never given him the satisfaction of pretending to notice his interest in other women. No. pride kept her from that. But she did say aloud : "I wonder at his running after a meaningless shadow like Gracie, when a woman like Joan’s under the same roof.”

He spread a piece of bread slowly and said: “Yes.

Joan’s a person all right. Perhaps she’s just too much of an intellectual for poor Leander.”

“Leander has brains enough. He’s just too slothful to use them.”

She wanted to say, "And once you had feelings enough. But you let them dry up and nowand now ...”

Ben asked her suddenly about hiring a new man for the garden and about having the fountain base repaired. Then he rose and said he must be going.

She said to Greta that she would have more coffee in by the fire—no. just for herself, she said. Ben went out and she was alone. She picked up a book and made herself comfortable before the fire. She stared at the book, and on it came pictures of little Benjie in his white sailor suit. Benjie sailing his boat in the pool about the fountain, and Ben standing on the platform saying, “Well, I’ll try to get down for the week-ends, Alice, but it’s a long journey, you know.” She pushed that last away.

She did not turn a page. She sat and saw the pictures, and felt cold and empty. Greta hummed to herself in the kitchen. Suddenly she put tire book sharply aside, rose, went for her coat, walked out of the house and down the street.

There was the smell of spring in the city night. She remembered a spring when she and Ben had seen their first crocuses and had stood in their garden and held hands tightly; it had seemed so surprisingly sweet that these flowers should have thrust out of winter into their garden.

That was a long time since. There was a parkway a few blocks from her house and into this parkway she turned, walked along the path down its centre.

She still felt shaken, and the intolerable pressure of that moment in Joan’s attic still weighed on her heart. She began to walk more rapidly. She walked out of the parkway and down a side street to Joan’s house, up the steps.

JOAN was alone. Again the bitterness of their likeness swept her. Lonely evening followed lonely evening in this shabby old house, stretched out beside lonely evening after lonely evening in her own immaculate house.

“Hello, Alice. Come in,” Joan said simply, without reproach.

She came in. Joan had been writing at the old secretary in the corner of the living room. She shoved papers back, pulled chairs to the fire.

"Now we can talk over everybody,” she said.

Alice sat down.

"I really didn’t come for that,” she said, with more awkwardness than was her wont. “I came to say I was sorry about this afternoon. I—I don’t know what came over me. I went to pieces.”

“You don’t need to say that,” Joan said. “I had just thought—with me . . . ”

"I don’t know what came over me,” Alice said again. "It—it wasn’t only remembering Benjie. It was everything, everything getting too awful.”

Joan rose.

"Let’s have some coffee together,” she said. Her tall, rangy figure moved toward the door. She had a girl who came in "by the day,” because, as she often said, she had enough temperament so she couldn’t bear people pressing at her in the house at night. Personalities of people she didn’t love weighed on her like rocks.

She brought cups on a tray to the small round table, a plate of thin cookies left over from the party. She looked tired, though she moved with her usual vigor.

“You oughtn’t to give parties, Joan. They tire you out.”

Joan laughed shortly. "It’s the people you have to ask,” she said. “That’s the trouble with parties, they’re composed of people.”

They sat with coffee and Alice said: "1 think your statue is pretty wonderful. I'm sure you will get the commission.”

"Heaven knows I’ve worked on it.” "Do you suppose,” she forced herself on with stubborn bravery, "that after Dick Whittington was lord mayor, he sometimes wished he’d gone back?”

"Oh, probably. But not many of us go back. It doesn’t seem to be natural to do that. And we can’t stand still in the road forever—at least, I’ve no patience with those who do.”

She put her cup down and leaned back in her chair. She could not

answer.

Joan laughed and said more cheerfully: "And being lord mayor has its moments. Yes, it certainly does . . . Have a cookie, before we get too abstract and above food. Fan’s hair’s a better red this time, don’t you think?”

Alice walked home through the dark spring night. Up in her room, she stood by her window and looked out on street lights beyond the lawn. The days and months of numb and awful politeness behind her came up to this moment and stopped off short, and she felt a painful strength surge through her. "No,” she said, "it is intolerable. It can’t be borne any more. I can’t stand still here any more.”

In the morning she said, more sharply than she had meant to speak : “I think I’ll go home for a week or two, Ben.”

She had not been home since Benjie died. It was at her home where Benjie had spent all his summers. For

She knew that in that instant he had thought. She intends not to come back. But when he looked up he was only politely interested, and she did not know whether he felt an intense relief or only indifference.

an instant Ben did not look up at her. Then he said: "All right, Alice.”

He took her to the train. That was painful, for he had been there with her many times, checking her bags, going out through the gate with her. Only always at the end he had put his hand on Benjie’s shoulder and said, “Well, don’t forget your old pops, son.” Now there was only she to walk beside, to say good-by to.

"Too bad I can’t get away now too,” he said perfunctorily.

She did not answer and he said, not quite so perfunctorily: “You evidently don’t feel it's too bad.”

She said: "I never considered that you might want to go, I suppose.”

"Well, I wouldn’t want to.”

"Of course not.”

She looked back out of the train window to him, standing there hatless, looking up at her, and for an instant it almost seemed that he was looking at her wistfully, without politeness, with some reality of loneliness in his dark eyes. The train began to move and he was gone. Or she was gone. It hurt so, it hurt so horribly to take this first step out of the halfway place. She had not known it would hurt quite this much.

AT HOME it was all as it had ever been. The old brown ■Av house with the pleasant yard, the sign, "Dr. Gregory McDermott, M.D.,” dim beside the office door, was just the same. Her father was the same—kindly, busy, no richer. Her mother, only, seemed a little older, but still silently devoted to her husband and her garden and her neighbors. They were a little pitiful in their pleasure at her unexpected coming. She found her mother out by the flower border in the back yard, down on her knees pulling out weeds.

Her mother stumbled a little as she got to her feet, crying, “Why, Alice ! Why, Alice !” Tears came to her eyes as she kissed Alice. "Have you seen father?”

"No. not yet.”

“He’ll be so pleased. He’ll be beside himself.”

She stood still a moment in this garden that she had feared to come to. Her mother knelt, just so, weeding, and young Benjie in long white trousers and his childish shirt with the open collar, stood beside her eating a cookie . . . Benjie raced up and down the garden with old Hover Benjie climbed the old apple tree . . . Benjie made a little garden out by the barn and planted it all to muskmelons and radishes.

Her father came in with his bag. dropped the bag to his desk and saw her sitting in the office chair.

"Well, about time, about time!" he said.

But now that she had turned back, she felt strangely confused. She had been standing still so long. It was painful to move; it was well-nigh impossible. But she could not think what she had come for. unless it was to prove to herself that she could. 11er father and mother were busy people, they were useful. Neighbors and patients kept coming in and out of the brown house, and no one questioned her much or was anything but just plain glad of her presence. Two days went by. In the nights she lay awake in her own old room, her own old maple bed with its squat fat posts, lay awake and let her mind remember the summers out of the past, let herself hear Benjie clambering onto her father’s car, saying, "Let me go too, grampa, let me go and be the doctor too.”

She went on long walks. The third morning she walked up the Coles Brook hill by herself. She knew the hill very well. It went farther back than Benjie for her. It went back to the time when she had first known Ben. When she came now to the top of the hill, she walked across the ditch to the field, stood leaning against the fence. She had been seventeen, exactly seventeen, and she had stood just here, leaning against this fence or one like it. In the field behind, daisies blossomed in the grass. He was a stranger in the town, a young stranger who had been to Europe even. “What do you want to do?” she’d said. She’d worn a blue dress and had had a blue ribbon round her hair. "Oh, I suppose I’ll make money,” he'd said, "though I don't care much about it.”

Well, he made it, she thought. Abruptly she began to cry, though she had not cried in years.

THE next day her father said: "Want to ride up

Bennett’s Mills way, Alice?”

"Why, yes.”

As they drove out of town, her father said: “I’m sorry Ben couldn’t get away.”

"Yes, he was sorry too.”

They went as much as a mile before her father said, turning his lined, brown face to her: “What’s wrong with you and Ben. Alice?”

She felt red run painfully and unexpectedly up her face. Why, what makes you think there’s anything wrong,” she evaded.

“I'm a country doctor—and your father.”

She was still to the next curve and then she said simply, like a child suddenly able to turn some unbearable trouble over to its mother: “Everything.”

“Oh . . . And what’s everything, Alice?”

“Dad, two months after Benjie died, Ben went to a dance.”

“Yes?”

“Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“Why, I don’t know. It depends. You didn’t go, too?”

“I? . . . Oh, dad, it seemed as if I died, too, that night, along with Benjie.”

He drove very slowly and said finally: “Didn’t you die a little easily, Allie?”

“Oh, it wasn’t only that.”

“A woman?”

“A? A good many, dad.”

“Well, that’s better than one.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do . . . You don’t quarrel, I gather?”

“You gather? No, we aren’t the quarrelling kind. We keep still and get bitter.”

“I was afraid so. You look burned out, Alice. I thought you were smarter than that.”

“Smarter? You’d rather I’d accuse him? Squabble? Fight for him, I suppose! No, thanks.”

“No, I don’t know as I meant just that. If he’s anything the man he used to be, I’d say he was worth it . . . But I was thinking of yourself, I guess.”

"I don’t believe I get you, dad.”

“Oh, I guess you do, Allie !”

He stopped at his destination, climbed out of the car, stood with one hand on a mailbox near the roadside. He gave her a quick, half-angry look from beneath his heavy brows, and said with a sort of loving vehemence: “I’d rather you were divorced, Allie.”

On the way home she did not talk at all. She found her mother in the garden, darning. She sat and talked with her there, all the time her cheeks burning. A bee buzzed over the lilies of the valley. Her mother was telling her of the Bradleys. Six children and Tom Bradley out of work.

“I was wondering, Allie”—her mother’s voice was both tender and hesitant. “There are four boys and it’s been hard to dress them this last year ... I remember how many nice things you had of —of ...”

She heard her own voice say quite calmly: “OfBenjie’s? Yes, there’s a whole chestful. I’ll send them.”

“They’ll be so thankful!” her mother said.

That very night she said: “I have to go back in the morning.”

When her mother kissed her good-by she said: “Come back soon. Allie. We’re getting on, your father and I.”

She felt ashamed to be going, but she had to. She said to her father: “Well, dad, next time I see you, I may be a landscape architect.”

“A what?”

“Really. I have a knack for that and I know a place where they might take me in.”

“Well, good luck to you, Allie,” he said gravely.

AT HOME, Greta came running in surprise from the kitchen. “Mr. Arnot’ll be that surprised. He never knew you was coming,” she said. “He’s not been staying in, Mrs. Arnot. He’s just called up about mail, that’s all.”

“All right, Greta,” she answered mechanically.

She went to the phone, called a Mr. MacLandon. Doit! Doit! Forward! It was no good going back ! Forward ! That’s the only answer.

Then she was saying: “Well, of course I wouldn’t expect much till I was worth it . . . Shall I come in in the morning and talk it over? All right, I’ll do that. Good-by.”

For an instant, standing there by the phone, she had a feeling of completeness and strength. Then abruptly, she was very tired. After an hour, she got out the car and drove around to Joan’s.

A man, Carl Eckert, was there, playing the piano with a sort of erratic brilliance. He only nodded to Alice and went on playing. Joan motioned Alice to a chair. Joan looked white. Carl Eckert stopped, with a crash of chords, said abruptly, “Be seeing you later, Joan,” and went off. “What a hurricane,” Alice said.

“Yes, isn’t he? But very sweet, at heart.”

“Sweet!”

“Yes.”

Alice didn’t answer that, but presently she said: “Did they take it?”

“Yes. I just got back this morning. I’m dead.”

“You look it.”

“Well. Iam... Alice?”

“What is it?”

“I think I’ll quit statues.”

“Oh, no!”

“I think I will.”

“I hope Carl Eckert’s not taking their place.”

“No. Oh, no. Though I ought to let him. We’re fools, we women, perhaps, to rate marriage so high.”

“So high?”

“Well, if you measure the height by the depth of the hurt it gives us . . . you’ve had your boy, anyway. Alice, even if he’s gone. You’ve had that. I’ve never had anything.”

“Sometimes,” she answered Joan half passionately, “I’ve thought it would have been better never to have had him.”

Then she prayed Benjie’s young forgiveness for that. She had meant, because of Ben.

Joan began restlessly to straighten pillows. “Well,” she said, and even laughed a little, “I’ve never thought that about Leander.” She began to turn on the lights one by one, and the shabby room grew warmer. “To tell the truth,” she went on, “I might take on Carl if I thought Leander would notice. But he wouldn’t.”

“I’ve got a job with MacLandon,” Alice said irrelevantly.

“Have you?” Joan said, as if she knew all the way she had come, all the weary painful way, to that job.

At home Greta said: “Mr. Arnot called, Mrs. Arnot. I told him you’d got back.” “Oh.”

“He’ll he home for dinner, he says.”

At that moment he came in. Alice ! turned and saw him enter the front door, I saw him pause a moment there as if something kept him from coming forward. Yes, she thought, he didn't expect I'd ever come back.

But all he said was: “Well, you didn’t stay your week out.”

“No. It was duller than I anticipated.”

Now why had she said that? When it had not been dull at all?

He came into the living room and sat down in the deep chair by the hearth.

“It’s chilly,” he said tiredly.

She turned on the gas lighter in the ' fireplace. There was no fire laid, except for a few small sticks.

He didn't want me to come back, she thought.

Then Ben said, not looking up at her: “Gracie Lester tried to shoot Leander this afternoon."

“Leander?”

"At his office. Only hit him in the shouldernasty, though.”

She stood still before the small blaze.

“Doesdoes Joan know?”

"I suppose so. By now. He insisted that she shouldn’t. They called me in and I took Gracie home.”

She thought of Leander, so elegant, so gay. He’d insisted Joan shouldn’t know. Men didn’t know anything—not anything.

“It is cold,” she said, and shivered. “Perhaps we could have the little table set up in here.”

SHE couldn’t eat. No more, it seemed, could he. Finally the pretense was done, only the coffee left. He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes, more relaxed than she had seen him in a long time—as if he were too tired to keep on his cloak of remoteness any more.

. She was still for two long minutes. Then she thought. What am I doing, standing still here in the road? Passivity seemed to go out of her with a jerk.

Greta had brought wood but nevertheless Alice’s hands felt very cold. Well, forward like Dick Whittington to London, or back to to a cleared, windblown space on a little hill? It had to be forward because she didn’t know how to get back. As Joan said, you hardly ever did go back.

She said, aloud: “Ben . . . I'd rather no one shot you—in your office—or anywhere else.”

"Oh, really.”

“So let’s obviate that necessity.” “Divorce, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Of course. I knew you meant that. It suits me, Alice.”

“I thought it would. But—but please don't think I do it in a spirit of enmity.” “Oh. not at all.” His voice took on a note that was not boredom. “Quite the contrary. Enmity would imply some sort of feeling, wouldn’t it?”

She reached for her coffee cup. Her hand trembled and she set the cup down at once. She couldn’t think of any words, not any words at all. and she kept seeing Joan’s face as it had been this afternoon. Ben pulled himself up in the chair, hunched

himself forward a little in a position foreign to him.

"Corkle’ll know what we ought to do,” he said. “He steers everyone through it, without much fuss, either. To tell the truth, this isn’t unexpected. I thought, when you went away ...”

“That* I wouldn't come back. Yes, I saw you thinking that. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t in my mind at all then.” "No?”

“No ... I went home—to think. But I couldn’t.”

“To think of what?”

“Of marriage.”

“You evidently didn’t think too well of it.” His voice had gone back to indifference.

“I didn’t think of it, I tell you. I—I remembered Benjie, most of all.”

She said that stiffly enough but, within, she had a sense as of having allowed herself to throw a bomb. After a long time he said slowly, “Oh, Benjie?” Now they had both said it.

Then he said, quite as stiffly as she: “It’s a good thing he won’t see our marriage crack up.”

“Yes,” she assented.

He leaned way forward now and let his head rest in his hands. At last he said: “Do you mind if we talk this out tomorrow? This afternoon—or something— has tired me unmercifully.”

“I’m sorry—it was only—only that I suddenly felt I . . . ”

“It’s all right. Don’t apologize. But, all the same, I . . . ”

He straightened, put his hands on the arms of his chair as if to rise. It was no lie. He was unmercifully tired. He looked, indeed, haggard.

“It isn’t that I won't be glad to get it over with, too,” he went on. “Heaven knows, I’ve expected it a long time.”

He did rise now, pushing his chair back a little.

She shut her eyes. What did you do now? There was no choice now. It was done, all the deadness of the last years and the years to come. Done. Decided upon. Suppose she’d gone back instead? Been sentimental? But, no, you couldn’t. You couldn't go back. Your mind wouldn't let you and, however sweet it might have been once, you didn’t really want that again, anyhow. Nevertheless, she’d left out something, everything. Were all women like that? Joan was articulate in clay, but not with Leander. Should she tell him of the statue? No—no, not that. Of her job? Better. But she couldn’t tell him of that either.

She said: “Sit down, Ben.”

“Really, Alice—don’t ask me to hash over things. I can’t do it tonight. I tell

you.”

“No, I won’t. I want to ask you something.”

He did not sit down.

“Well?”

"What did you mean when you said, T imagine I’ll make a lot of money— though I don’t care much about it?’ ”

“I don’t get you.”

“All right. I didn’t think you would. Good night.”

He stared at her briefly, turned toward the stairway.

He went up the stairs. She sat still.

AFTER a long time, she went up and - into her room. When she was in bed she lay. wide awake, staring at the slightly moving curtains. She wondered at herself for having asked that impossible-to-answer question. She thought of Joan.

Ben came into her room without knocking and stood beside her bed. He was not undressed.

“Are you asleep. Alice?”

“No. What is it?”

“There’s one thing I want to say, before we get to lying about extreme mental cruelty and all that sort of thing, and hating each other too much.”

“Yes?”

“When I went to that dance—it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought of Benjie. I’d I thought of him till I'd have been mad in a little more. I—I went to stop thinking. You ought to have known it.”

She sat up in bed and said in a strange voice. “Oh !”

“That’s all.”

He turned, and the light from the hallway accentuated the black and white of him, the height and the leanness.

“Wait a minute!” she said it more sharply than she’d meant to. “If we’re going to—lie—and hate each other, perhaps I should say something, too.” “You needn’t.”

“But I will. It’s this. I don’t mind about you and Benjie any more. Nor any other women, either.”

“I didn’t think you did, any more.” “Not—not for that reason, Ben. When I was home, I went up on the hill to that cleared place—you wouldn’t remember —and tried to think. I couldn’t. But that afternoon mother asked me for Benjie’s clothes, and I didn’t mind her having them. I didn’t know why I’d kept them. It seemed as if all that pose had been false. I—I can even see why you wanted the other women. I kept Benjie and myself away too long during the summers ... I never talked things out ... I never let you. I thought, that day, I’ll let Ben go. He wants me to let him go, and I will. I came home to tell you. I’m sorry—sorry for us and—everyone.”

He stood still, half turned to go, not looking at her.

“Do you know what you’re saying, Alice?” he said at last. He still kept his voice stiff.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re saying you love me—though, of course, I know you don’t. You haven’t since—since Benjie was born.”

“I’m—saying ...”

“You’re saying you love me. You’re saying it’s more important, our marriage, than anything else. But, when I believed that, you wouldn’t.”

“Perhaps I didn’t know it.”

There was another silence. She saw his hand reach out for the bedpost, cling to it.

“Why do you presuppose I don’t remember the clearing?” he asked then. “But you don’t.”

“No? I remember the very dress you wore—blue, and a blue ribbon round your hair . . .I’d had words with my father, and you comforted me ... I thought I’d never feel alone again. Queer, isn’t it, what damnable lonely creatures men are?” “Well—women, too.”

“Women, too, I suppose. Only they forget in their children.”

“When they’re grown up, they remember again.”

“And then it’s too late, like you and me." “Yes.”

He let go the post and came around again to the side of the bed.

“You didn’t mean it then, Alice?” he said.

She had read somewhere lately that North American men were never tender. It wasn’t so . . . And what a queer and awful thing pride was! Suddenly they were not standing still halfway to anywhere. They were rather breathtakingly going forward.