An Imaginative Woman
by Thomas Hardy
When William Marchmill had finished his inquiries for lodgings at a well-known watering-place in Upper Wessex, he returned to the hotel to find his wife. She, with the children, had rambled along the shore, and Marchmill followed in the direction indicated by the military-looking hall-porter
‘By Jove, how far you’ve gone! I am quite out of breath,’ Marchmill said, rather impatiently, when he came up with his wife, who was reading as she walked, the three children being considerably further ahead with the nurse.
Mrs. Marchmill started out of the reverie into which the book had thrown her. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been such a long time. I was tired of staying in that dreary hotel. But I am sorry if you have wanted me, Will?’
‘Well, I have had trouble to suit myself. When you see the airy and comfortable rooms heard of, you find they are stuffy and uncomfortable. Will you come and see if what I’ve fixed on will do? There is not much room, I am afraid; hut I can light on nothing better. The town is rather full.’
The pair left the children and nurse to continue their ramble, and went back together.
In age well-balanced, in personal appearance fairly matched, and in domestic requirements conformable, in temper this couple differed, though even here they did not often clash, he being equable, if not lymphatic, and she decidedly nervous and sanguine. It was to their tastes and fancies, those smallest, greatest particulars, that no common denominator could be applied. Marchmill considered his wife’s likes and inclinations somewhat silly; she considered his sordid and material. The husband’s business was that of a gunmaker in a thriving city northwards, and his soul was in that business always; the lady was best characterized by that superannuated phrase of elegance ‘a votary of the muse.’ An impressionable, palpitating creature was Ella, shrinking humanely from detailed knowledge of her husband’s trade whenever she reflected that everything he manufactured had for its purpose the destruction of life. She could only recover her equanimity by assuring herself that some, at least, of his weapons were sooner or later used for the extermination of horrid vermin and animals almost as cruel to their inferiors in species as human beings were to theirs.
She had never antecedently regarded this occupation of his as any objection to having him for a husband. Indeed, the necessity of getting life-leased at all cost, a cardinal virtue which all good mothers teach, kept her from thinking of it at all till she had closed with William, had passed the honeymoon, and reached the reflecting stage. Then, like a person who has stumbled upon some object in the dark, she wondered what she had got; mentally walked round it, estimated it; whether it were rare or common; contained gold, silver, or lead; were a clog or a pedestal, everything to her or nothing.
She came to some vague conclusions, and since then had kept her heart alive by pitying her proprietor’s obtuseness and want of refinement, pitying herself, and letting off her delicate and ethereal emotions in imaginative occupations, day-dreams, and night-sighs, which perhaps would not much have disturbed William if he had known of them.
Her figure was small, elegant, and slight in build, tripping, or rather bounding, in movement. She was dark-eyed, and had that marvellously bright and liquid sparkle in each pupil which characterizes persons of Ella’s cast of soul, and is too often a cause of heartache to the possessor’s male friends, ultimately sometimes to herself. Her husband was a tall, long-featured man, with a brown beard; he had a pondering regard; and was, it must be added, usually kind and tolerant to her. He spoke in squarely shaped sentences, and was supremely satisfied with a condition of sublunary things which made weapons a necessity.
Husband and wife walked till they had reached the house they were in search of, which stood in a terrace facing the sea, and was fronted by a small garden of wind-proof and salt-proof evergreens, stone steps leading up to the porch. It had its number in the row, but, being rather larger than the rest, was in addition sedulously distinguished as Coburg House by its landlady, though everybody else called it ‘Thirteen, New Parade.’ The spot was bright and lively now; but in winter it became necessary to place sandbags against the door, and to stuff up the keyhole against the wind and rain, which had worn the paint so thin that the priming and knotting showed through.
The householder, who bad been watching for the gentleman’s return, met them in the passage, and showed the rooms. She informed them that she was a professional man’s widow, left in needy circumstances by the rather sudden death of her husband, and she spoke anxiously of the conveniences of the establishment.
Mrs. Marchmill said that she liked the situation and the house; but, it being small, there would not be accommodation enough, unless she could have all the rooms.
The landlady mused with an air of disappointment. She wanted the visitors to be her tenants very badly, she said, with obvious honesty. But unfortunately two of the rooms were occupied permanently by a bachelor gentleman. He did not pay season prices, it was true; but as he kept on his apartments all the year round, and was an extremely nice and interesting young man, who gave no trouble, she did not like to turn him out for a month’s ‘let,’ even at a high figure. ‘Perhaps, however,’ she added, ‘he might offer to go for a time.’
They would not hear of this, and went back to the hotel, intending to proceed to the agent’s to inquire further. Hardly had they sat down to tea when the landlady called. Her gentleman, she said, had been so obliging as to offer to give up his rooms for three or four weeks rather than drive the new-comers away.
‘It is very kind, but we won’t inconvenience him in that way,’ said the Marchmills.
‘O, it won’t inconvenience him, I assure you!’ said the landlady eloquently. ‘You see, he’s a different sort of young man from most—dreamy, solitary, rather melancholy—and he cares more to be here when the south-westerly gales are beating against the door, and the sea washes over the Parade, and there’s not a soul in the place, than he does now in the season. He’d just as soon be where, in fact, he’s going temporarily, to a little cottage on the Island opposite, for a change.’ She hoped therefore that they would come.
The Marchmill family accordingly took possession of the house next day, and it seemed to suit them very well. After luncheon Mr. Marchmill strolled out towards the pier, and Mrs. Marchmill, having despatched the children to their outdoor amusements on the sands, settled herself in more completely, examining this and that article, and testing the reflecting powers of the mirror in the wardrobe door.
In the small back sitting-room, which had been the young bachelor’s, she found furniture of a more personal nature than in the rest. Shabby books, of correct rather than rare editions, were piled up in a queerly reserved manner in corners, as if the previous occupant had not conceived the possibility that any incoming person of the season’s bringing could care to look inside them. The landlady hovered on the threshold to rectify anything that Mrs. Marchmill might not find to her satisfaction.
‘I’ll make this my own little room,’ said the latter, ‘because the books are here. By the way, the person who has left seems to have a good many. He won’t mind my reading some of them, Mrs. Hooper, I hope?’
‘O dear no, ma’am. Yes, he has a good many. You see, he is in the literary line himself somewhat. He is a poet—yes, really a poet—and he has a little income of his own, which is enough to write verses on, but not enough for cutting a figure, even if he cared to.’
‘A poet! O, I did not know that.’
Mrs. Marchmill opened one of the books, and saw the owner’s name written on the title-page. ‘Dear me!’ she continued; ‘I know his name very well—Robert Trewe—of course I do; and his writings! And it is his rooms we have taken, and him we have turned out of his home?’
Ella Marchmill, sitting down alone a few minutes later, thought with interested surprise of Robert Trewe. Her own latter history will best explain that interest. Herself the only daughter of a struggling man of letters, she had during the last year or two taken to writing poems, in an endeavour to find a congenial channel in which to let flow her painfully embayed emotions, whose former limpidity and sparkle seemed departing in the stagnation caused by the routine of a practical household and the gloom of bearing children to a commonplace father. These poems, subscribed with a masculine pseudonym, had appeared in various obscure magazines, and in two cases in rather prominent ones. In the second of the latter the page which bore her effusion at the bottom, in smallish print, bore at the top, in large print, a few verses on the same subject by this very man, Robert Trewe. Both of them had, in fact, been struck by a tragic incident reported in the daily papers, and had used it simultaneously as an inspiration, the editor remarking in a note upon the coincidence, and that the excellence of both poems prompted him to give them together.
After that event Ella, otherwise ‘John Ivy,’ had watched with much attention the appearance anywhere in print of verse bearing the signature of Robert Trewe, who, with a man’s unsusceptibility on the question of sex, had never once thought of passing himself off as a woman. To be sure, Mrs. Marchmill had satisfied herself with a sort of reason for doing the contrary in her case; that nobody might believe in her inspiration if they found that the sentiments came from a pushing tradesman’s wife, from the mother of three children by a matter-of-fact small-arms manufacturer.
Trewe’s verse contrasted with that of the rank and file of recent minor poets in being impassioned rather than ingenious, luxuriant rather than finished. Neither symboliste nor décadent, he was a pessimist in so far as that character applies to a man who looks at the worst contingencies as well as the best in the human condition. Being little attracted by excellences of form and rhythm apart from content, he sometimes, when feeling outran his artistic speed, perpetrated sonnets in the loosely rhymed Elizabethan fashion, which every right-minded reviewer said he ought not to have done.
With sad and hopeless envy, Ella Marchmill had often and often scanned the rival poet’s work, so much stronger as it always was than her own feeble lines. She had imitated him, and her inability to touch his level would send her into fits of despondency. Months passed away thus, till she observed from the publishers’ list that Trewe had collected his fugitive pieces into a volume, which was duly issued, and was much or little praised according to chance, and had a sale quite sufficient to pay for the printing.
This step onward had suggested to John Ivy the idea of collecting her pieces also, or at any rate of making up a book of her rhymes by adding many in manuscript to the few that had seen the light, for she had been able to get no great number into print. A ruinous charge was made for costs of publication; a few reviews noticed her poor little volume; but nobody talked of it, nobody bought it, and it fell dead in a fortnight—if it had ever been alive.
The author’s thoughts were diverted to another groove just then by the discovery that she was going to have a third child, and the collapse of her poetical venture had perhaps less effect upon her mind than it might have done if she had been domestically unoccupied. Her husband had paid the publisher’s bill with the doctor’s, and there it all had ended for the time. But, though less than a poet of her century, Ella was more than a mere multiplier of her kind, and latterly she had begun to feel the old afflatus once more. And now by an odd conjunction she found herself in the rooms of Robert Trewe.
She thoughtfully rose from her chair and searched the apartment with the interest of a fellow-tradesman. Yes, the volume of his own verse was among the rest. Though quite familiar with its contents, she read it here as if it spoke aloud to her, then called up Mrs. Hooper, the landlady, for some trivial service, and inquired again about the young man.
‘Well, I’m sure you’d be interested in him, ma’am, if you could see him, only he’s so shy that I don’t suppose you will.’ Mrs. Hooper seemed nothing loth to minister to her tenant’s curiosity about her predecessor. ‘Lived here long? Yes, nearly two years. He keeps on his rooms even when he’s not here: the soft air of this place suits his chest, and he likes to be able to come back at any time. He is mostly writing or reading, and doesn’t see many people, though, for the matter of that, he is such a good, kind young fellow that folks would only be too glad to be friendly with him if they knew him. You don’t meet kind-hearted people every day.’
‘Ah, he’s kind-hearted . . . and good.’
‘Yes; he’ll oblige me in anything if I ask him. “Mr. Trewe,” I say to him sometimes, “you are rather out of spirits.” “Well, I am, Mrs. Hooper,” he’ll say, “though I don’t know how you should find it out.” “Why not take a little change?” I ask. Then in a day or two he’ll say that he will take a trip to Paris, or Norway, or somewhere; and I assure you he comes back all the better for it.’
‘Ah, indeed! His is a sensitive nature, no doubt.’
‘Yes. Still he’s odd in some things. Once when he had finished a poem of his composition late at night he walked up and down the room rehearsing it; and the floors being so thin—jerry-built houses, you know, though I say it myself—he kept me awake up above him till I wished him further . . . But we get on very well.’
This was but the beginning of a series of conversations about the rising poet as the days went on. On one of these occasions Mrs. Hooper drew Ella’s attention to what she had not noticed before: minute scribblings in pencil on the wall-paper behind the curtains at the head of the bed.
‘O! let me look,’ said Mrs. Marchmill, unable to conceal a rush of tender curiosity as she bent her pretty face close to the wall.
‘These,’ said Mrs. Hooper, with the manner of a woman who knew things, ‘are the very beginnings and first thoughts of his verses. He has tried to rub most of them out, but you can read them still. My belief is that he wakes up in the night, you know, with some rhyme in his head, and jots it down there on the wall lest he should forget it by the morning. Some of these very lines you see here I have seen afterwards in print in the magazines. Some are newer; indeed, I have not seen that one before. It must have been done only a few days ago.’
‘O yes! . . . ’
Ella Marchmill flushed without knowing why, and suddenly wished her companion would go away, now that the information was imparted. An indescribable consciousness of personal interest rather than literary made her anxious to read the inscription alone; and she accordingly waited till she could do so, with a sense that a great store of emotion would be enjoyed in the act.
Perhaps because the sea was choppy outside the Island, Ella’s husband found it much pleasanter to go sailing and steaming about without his wife, who was a bad sailor, than with her. He did not disdain to go thus alone on board the steamboats of the cheap-trippers, where there was dancing by moonlight, and where the couples would come suddenly down with a lurch into each other’s arms; for, as he blandly told her, the company was too mixed for him to take her amid such scenes. Thus, while this thriving manufacturer got a great deal of change and sea-air out of his sojourn here, the life, external at least, of Ella was monotonous enough, and mainly consisted in passing a certain number of hours each day in bathing and walking up and down a stretch of shore. But the poetic impulse having again waxed strong, she was possessed by an inner flame which left her hardly conscious of what was proceeding around her.
She had read till she knew by heart Trewe’s last little volume of verses, and spent a great deal of time in vainly attempting to rival some of them, till, in her failure, she burst into tears. The personal element in the magnetic attraction exercised by this circumambient, unapproachable master of hers was so much stronger than the intellectual and abstract that she could not understand it. To be sure, she was surrounded noon and night by his customary environment, which literally whispered of him to her at every moment; but he was a man she had never seen, and that all that moved her was the instinct to specialize a waiting emotion on the first fit thing that came to hand did not, of course, suggest itself to Ella.
In the natural way of passion under the too practical conditions which civilization has devised for its fruition, her husband’s love for her had not survived, except in the form of fitful friendship, any more than, or even so much as, her own for him; and, being a woman of very living ardours, that required sustenance of some sort, they were beginning to feed on this chancing material, which was, indeed, of a quality far better than chance usually offers.
One day the children had been playing hide-and-seek in a closet, whence, in their excitement, they pulled out some clothing. Mrs. Hooper explained that it belonged to Mr. Trewe, and hung it up in the closet again. Possessed of her fantasy, Ella went later in the afternoon, when nobody was in that part of the house, opened the closet, unhitched one of the articles, a mackintosh, and put it on, with the waterproof cap belonging to it.
‘The mantle of Elijah!’ she said. ‘Would it might inspire me to rival him, glorious genius that he is!’
Her eyes always grew wet when she thought like that, and she turned to look at herself in the glass. His heart had beat inside that coat, and his brain had worked under that hat at levels of thought she would never reach. The consciousness of her weakness beside him made her feel quite sick. Before she had got the things off her the door opened, and her husband entered the room.
‘What the devil—’
She blushed, and removed them
‘I found them in the closet here,’ she said, ‘and put them on in a freak. What have I else to do? You are always away!’
‘Always away? Well . . . ’
That evening she had a further talk with the landlady, who might herself have nourished a half-tender regard for the poet, so ready was she to discourse ardently about him.
‘You are interested in Mr. Trewe, I know, ma’am,’ she said; ‘and he has just sent to say that he is going to call to-morrow afternoon to look up some books of his that he wants, if I’ll be in, and he may select them from your room?’
‘You could very well meet Mr Trewe then, if you’d like to be in the way!’
She promised with secret delight, and went to bed musing of him.
Next morning her husband observed: ‘I’ve been thinking of what you said, Ell: that I have gone about a good deal and left you without much to amuse you. Perhaps it’s true. To-day, as there’s not much sea, I’ll take you with me on board the yacht.’
For the first time in her experience of such an offer Ella was not glad. But she accepted it for the moment. The time for setting out drew near, and she went to get ready. She stood reflecting. The longing to see the poet she was now distinctly in love with overpowered all other considerations.
‘I don’t want to go,’ she said to herself. ‘I can’t bear to be away! And I won’t go.’
She told her husband that she had changed her mind about wishing to sail. He was indifferent, and went his way.
For the rest of the day the house was quiet, the children having gone out upon the sands. The blinds waved in the sunshine to the soft, steady stroke of the sea beyond the wall; and the notes of the Green Silesian band, a troop of foreign gentlemen hired for the season, had drawn almost all the residents and promenaders away from the vicinity of Coburg House. A knock was audible at the door.
Mrs. Marchmill did not hear any servant go to answer it, and she became impatient. The books were in the room where she sat; but nobody came up. She rang the bell.
‘There is some person waiting at the door,’ she said.
‘O no, ma’am! He’s gone long ago. I answered it.’
Mrs. Hooper came in herself.
‘So disappointing!’ she said. ‘Mr. Trewe not coming after all!’
‘But I heard him knock, I fancy!’
‘No; that was somebody inquiring for lodgings who came to the wrong house. I forgot to tell you that Mr. Trewe sent a note just before lunch to say I needn’t get any tea for him, as he should not require the books, and wouldn’t come to select them.’
Ella was miserable, and for a long time could not even re-read his mournful ballad on ‘Severed Lives,’ so aching was her erratic little heart, and so tearful her eyes. When the children came in with wet stockings, and ran up to her to tell her of their adventures, she could not feel that she cared about them half as much as usual.
* * * * *
‘Mrs. Hooper, have you a photograph of—the gentleman who lived here?’ She was getting to be curiously shy in mentioning his name.
‘Why, yes. It’s in the ornamental frame on the mantelpiece in your own bedroom, ma’am.’
‘No; the Royal Duke and Duchess are in that.’
‘Yes, so they are; but he’s behind them. He belongs rightly to that frame, which I bought on purpose; but as he went away he said: “Cover me up from those strangers that are coming, for God’s sake. I don’t want them staring at me, and I am sure they won’t want me staring at them.” So I slipped in the Duke and Duchess temporarily in front of him, as they had no frame, and Royalties are more suitable for letting furnished than a private young man. If you take ’em out you’ll see him under. Lord, ma’am, he wouldn’t mind if he knew it! He didn’t think the next tenant would be such an attractive lady as you, or he wouldn’t have thought of hiding himself; perhaps.’
‘Is he handsome?’ she asked timidly.
‘I call him so. Some, perhaps, wouldn’t.’
‘Should I?’ she asked, with eagerness.
‘I think you would, though some would say he’s more striking than handsome; a large-eyed thoughtful fellow, you know, with a very electric flash in his eye when he looks round quickly, such as you’d expect a poet to be who doesn’t get his living by it.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Several years older than yourself, ma’am; about thirty-one or two, I think.’
Ella was, as a matter of fact, a few months over thirty herself; but she did not look nearly so much. Though so immature in nature, she was entering on that tract of life in which emotional women begin to suspect that last love may be stronger than first love; and she would soon, alas, enter on the still more melancholy tract when at least the vainer ones of her sex shrink from receiving a male visitor otherwise than with their backs to the window or the blinds half down. She reflected on Mrs. Hooper’s remark, and said no more about age.
Just then a telegram was brought up. It came from her husband, who had gone down the Channel as far as Budmouth with his friends in the yacht, and would not be able to get back till next day.
After her light dinner Ella idled about the shore with the children till dusk, thinking of the yet uncovered photograph in her room, with a serene sense of something ecstatic to come. For, with the subtle luxuriousness of fancy in which this young woman was an adept, on learning that her husband was to be absent that night she had refrained from incontinently rushing upstairs and opening the picture-frame, preferring to reserve the inspection till she could be alone, and a more romantic tinge be imparted to the occasion by silence, candles, solemn sea and stars outside, than was afforded by the garish afternoon sunlight.
The children had been sent to bed, and Ella soon followed, though it was not yet ten o’clock. To gratify her passionate curiosity she now made her preparations, first getting rid of superfluous garments and putting on her dressing-gown, then arranging a chair in front of the table and reading several pages of Trewe’s tenderest utterances. Then she fetched the portrait-frame to the light, opened the back, took out the likeness, and set it up before her.
It was a striking countenance to look upon. The poet wore a luxuriant black moustache and imperial, and a slouched hat which shaded the forehead. The large dark eyes, described by the landlady, showed an unlimited capacity for misery; they looked out from beneath well-shaped brows as if they were reading the universe in the microcosm of the confronter’s face, and were not altogether overjoyed at what the spectacle portended.
Ella murmured in her lowest, richest, tenderest tone: ‘And it’s you who’ve so cruelly eclipsed me these many times!’
As she gazed long at the portrait she fell into thought, till her eyes filled with tears, and she touched the cardboard with her lips. Then she laughed with a nervous lightness, and wiped her eyes.
She thought how wicked she was, a woman having a husband and three children, to let her mind stray to a stranger in this unconscionable manner. No, he was not a stranger! She knew his thoughts and feelings as well as she knew her own; they were, in fact, the self-same thoughts and feelings as hers, which her husband distinctly lacked; perhaps luckily for himself; considering that he had to provide for family expenses.
‘He’s nearer my real self, he’s more intimate with the real me than Will is, after all, even though I’ve never seen him,’ she said.
She laid his book and picture on the table at the bedside, and when she was reclining on the pillow she re-read those of Robert Trewe’s verses which she had marked from time to time as most touching and true. Putting these aside, she set up the photograph on its edge upon the coverlet, and contemplated it as she lay. Then she scanned again by the light of the candle the half-obliterated pencillings on the wall-paper beside her head. There they were—phrases, couplets, bouts-rimés, beginnings and middles of lines, ideas in the rough, like Shelley’s scraps, and the least of them so intense, so sweet, so palpitating, that it seemed as if his very breath, warm and loving, fanned her cheeks from those walls, walls that had surrounded his head times and times as they surrounded her own now. He must often have put up his hand so—with the pencil in it. Yes, the writing was sideways, as it would be if executed by one who extended his arm thus.
These inscribed shapes of the poet’s world,
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality,
were, no doubt, the thoughts and spirit-strivings which had come to him in the dead of night, when he could let himself go and have no fear of the frost of criticism. No doubt they had often been written up hastily by the light of the moon, the rays of the lamp, in the blue-grey dawn, in full daylight perhaps never. And now her hair was dragging where his arm had lain when he secured the fugitive fancies; she was sleeping on a poet’s lips, immersed in the very essence of him, permeated by his spirit as by an ether.
While she was dreaming the minutes away thus, a footstep came upon the stairs, and in a moment she heard her husband’s heavy step on the landing immediately without.
‘Ell, where are you?’
What possessed her she could not have described, but, with an instinctive objection to let her husband know what she had been doing, she slipped the photograph under the pillow just as he flung open the door, with the air of a man who had dined not badly.
‘O, I beg pardon,’ said William Marchmill. ‘Have you a headache? I am afraid I have disturbed you.’
‘No, I’ve not got a headache,’ said she. ‘How is it you’ve come?’
‘Well, we found we could get back in very good time after all, and I didn’t want to make another day of it, because of going somewhere else to-morrow.’
‘Shall I come down again?’
‘O no. I’m as tired as a dog. I’ve had a good feed, and I shall turn in straight off. I want to get out at six o’clock to-morrow if I can . . . I shan’t disturb you by my getting up; it will be long before you are awake.’ And he came forward into the room.
While her eyes followed his movements, Ella softly pushed the photograph further out of sight.
‘Sure you’re not ill?’ he asked, bending over her.
‘No, only wicked!’
‘Never mind that.’ And he stooped and kissed her.
Next morning Marchmill was called at six o’clock; and in waking and yawning she heard him muttering to himself: ‘What the deuce is this that’s been crackling under me so?’ Imagining her asleep he searched round him and withdrew something. Through her half-opened eyes she perceived it to be Mr. Trewe.
‘Well, I’m damned!’ her husband exclaimed.
‘What, dear?’ said she.
‘O, you are awake? Ha! ha!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Some bloke’s photograph—a friend of our landlady’s, I suppose. I wonder how it came here; whisked off the table by accident perhaps when they were making the bed.’
‘I was looking at it yesterday, and it must have dropped in then.’
‘O, he’s a friend of yours? Bless his picturesque heart!’
Ella’s loyalty to the object of her admiration could not endure to hear him ridiculed. ‘He’s a clever man!’ she said, with a tremor in her gentle voice which she herself felt to be absurdly uncalled for.
‘He is a rising poet—the gentleman who occupied two of these rooms before we came, though I’ve never seen him.’
‘How do you know, if you’ve never seen him?’
‘Mrs. Hooper told me when she showed me the photograph.’
‘O; well, I must up and be off. I shall be home rather early. Sorry I can’t take you to-day, dear. Mind the children don’t go getting drowned.’
That day Mrs. Marchmill inquired if Mr. Trewe were likely to call at any other time.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Hooper. ‘He’s coming this day week to stay with a friend near here till you leave. He’ll be sure to call.’
Marchmill did return quite early in the afternoon; and, opening some letters which had arrived in his absence, declared suddenly that he and his family would have to leave a week earlier than they had expected to do—in short, in three days.
‘Surely we can stay a week longer?’ she pleaded. ‘I like it here.’
‘I don’t. It is getting rather slow.’
‘Then you might leave me and the children!’
‘How perverse you are, Ell! What’s the use? And have to come to fetch you! No: we’ll all return together; and we’ll make out our time in North Wales or Brighton a little later on. Besides, you’ve three days longer yet.’
It seemed to be her doom not to meet the man for whose rival talent she had a despairing admiration, and to whose person she was now absolutely attached. Yet she determined to make a last effort; and having gathered from her landlady that Trewe was living in a lonely spot not far from the fashionable town on the Island opposite, she crossed over in the packet from the neighbouring pier the following afternoon.
What a useless journey it was! Ella knew but vaguely where the house stood, and when she fancied she had found it, and ventured to inquire of a pedestrian if he lived there, the answer returned by the man was that he did not know. And if he did live there, how could she call upon him? Some women might have the assurance to do it, but she had not. How crazy he would think her. She might have asked him to call upon her, perhaps; but she had not the courage for that, either. She lingered mournfully about the picturesque seaside eminence till it was time to return to the town and enter the steamer for recrossing, reaching home for dinner without having been greatly missed.
At the last moment, unexpectedly enough, her husband said that he should have no objection to letting her and the children stay on till the end of the week, since she wished to do so, if she felt herself able to get home without him. She concealed the pleasure this extension of time gave her; and Marchmill went off the next morning alone.
But the week passed, and Trewe did not call.
On Saturday morning the remaining members of the Marchmill family departed from the place which had been productive of so much fervour in her. The dreary, dreary train; the sun shining in moted beams upon the hot cushions; the dusty permanent way; the mean rows of wire—these things were her accompaniment: while out of the window the deep blue sea-levels disappeared from her gaze, and with them her poet’s home. Heavy-hearted, she tried to read, and wept instead.
Mr. Marchmill was in a thriving way of business, and he and his family lived in a large new house, which stood in rather extensive grounds a few miles outside the city wherein he carried on his trade. Ella’s life was lonely here, as the suburban life is apt to be, particularly at certain seasons; and she had ample time to indulge her taste for lyric and elegiac composition. She had hardly got back when she encountered a piece by Robert Trewe in the new number of her favourite magazine, which must have been written almost immediately before her visit to Solentsea, for it contained the very couplet she had seen pencilled on the wallpaper by the bed, and Mrs. Hooper had declared to be recent. Ella could resist no longer, but seizing a pen impulsively, wrote to him as a brother-poet, using the name of John Ivy, congratulating him in her letter on his triumphant executions in metre and rhythm of thoughts that moved his soul, as compared with her own brow-beaten efforts in the same pathetic trade.
To this address there came a response in a few days, little as she had dared to hope for it—a civil and brief note, in which the young poet stated that, though he was not well acquainted with Mr. Ivy’s verse, he recalled the name as being one he had seen attached to some very promising pieces; that he was glad to gain Mr. Ivy’s acquaintance by letter, and should certainly look with much interest for his productions in the future.
There must have been something juvenile or timid in her own epistle, as one ostensibly coming from a man, she declared to herself; for Trewe quite adopted the tone of an elder and superior in this reply. But what did it matter? he had replied; he had written to her with his own hand from that very room she knew so well, for he was now back again in his quarters.
The correspondence thus begun was continued for two months or more, Ella Marchmill sending him from time to time some that she considered to be the best of her pieces, which he very kindly accepted, though he did not say he sedulously read them, nor did he send her any of his own in return. Ella would have been more hurt at this than she was if she had not known that Trewe laboured under the impression that she was one of his own sex.
Yet the situation was unsatisfactory. A flattering little voice told her that, were he only to see her, matters would be otherwise. No doubt she would have helped on this by making a frank confession of womanhood, to begin with, if something had not happened, to her delight, to render it unnecessary. A friend of her husband’s, the editor of the most important newspaper in the city and county, who was dining with them one day, observed during their conversation about the poet that his (the editor’s) brother the landscape-painter was a friend of Mr. Trewe’s, and that the two men were at that very moment in Wales together.
Ella was slightly acquainted with the editor’s brother. The next morning down she sat and wrote, inviting him to stay at her house for a short time on his way back, and requesting him to bring with him, if practicable, his companion Mr. Trewe, whose acquaintance she was anxious to make. The answer arrived after some few days. Her correspondent and his friend Trewe would have much satisfaction in accepting her invitation on their way southward, which would be on such and such a day in the following week.
Ella was blithe and buoyant. Her scheme had succeeded; her beloved though as yet unseen one was coming. “Behold, he standeth behind our wall; he looked forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice,” she thought ecstatically. “And, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
But it was necessary to consider the details of lodging and feeding him. This she did most solicitously, and awaited the pregnant day and hour.
It was about five in the afternoon when she heard a ring at the door and the editor’s brother’s voice in the hall. Poetess as she was, or as she thought herself, she had not been too sublime that day to dress with infinite trouble in a fashionable robe of rich material, having a faint resemblance to the chiton of the Greeks, a style just then in vogue among ladies of an artistic and romantic turn, which had been obtained by Ella of her Bond Street dressmaker when she was last in London. Her visitor entered the drawing-room. She looked towards his rear; nobody else came through the door. Where, in the name of the God of Love, was Robert Trewe?
‘O, I’m sorry,’ said the painter, after their introductory words had been spoken. ‘Trewe is a curious fellow, you know, Mrs. Marchmill. He said he’d come; then he said he couldn’t. He’s rather dusty. We’ve been doing a few miles with knapsacks, you know; and he wanted to get on home.’
‘He—he’s not coming?’
‘He’s not; and he asked me to make his apologies.’
‘When did you p-p-part from him?’ she asked, her nether lip starting off quivering so much that it was like a tremolo-stop opened in her speech. She longed to run away from this dreadful bore and cry her eyes out.
‘Just now, in the turnpike road yonder there.’
‘What! he has actually gone past my gates?’
‘Yes. When we got to them—handsome gates they are, too, the finest bit of modern wrought-iron work I have seen—when we came to them we stopped, talking there a little while, and then he wished me good-bye and went on. The truth is, he’s a little bit depressed just now, and doesn’t want to see anybody. He’s a very good fellow, and a warm friend, but a little uncertain and gloomy sometimes; he thinks too much of things. His poetry is rather too erotic and passionate, you know, for some tastes; and he has just come in for a terrible slating from the --- Review that was published yesterday; he saw a copy of it at the station by accident. Perhaps you’ve read it?’
‘So much the better. O, it is not worth thinking of; just one of those articles written to order, to please the narrow-minded set of subscribers upon whom the circulation depends. But he’s upset by it. He says it is the misrepresentation that hurts him so; that, though he can stand a fair attack, he can’t stand lies that he’s powerless to refute and stop from spreading. That’s just Trewe’s weak point. He lives so much by himself that these things affect him much more than they would if he were in the bustle of fashionable or commercial life. So he wouldn’t come here, making the excuse that it all looked so new and monied—if you’ll pardon—’
‘But—he must have known—there was sympathy here! Has he never said anything about getting letters from this address?’
‘Yes, yes, he has, from John Ivy—perhaps a relative of yours, he thought, visiting here at the time?’
‘Did he—like Ivy, did he say?’
‘Well, I don’t know that he took any great interest in Ivy.’
‘Or in his poems?’
‘Or in his poems—so far as I know, that is.’
Robert Trewe took no interest in her house, in her poems, or in their writer. As soon as she could get away she went into the nursery and tried to let off her emotion by unnecessarily kissing the children, till she had a sudden sense of disgust at being reminded how plain-looking they were, like their father.
The obtuse and single-minded landscape-painter never once perceived from her conversation that it was only Trewe she wanted, and not himself. He made the best of his visit, seeming to enjoy the society of Ella’s husband, who also took a great fancy to him, and showed him everywhere about the neighbourhood, neither of them noticing Ella’s mood.
The painter had been gone only a day or two when, while sitting upstairs alone one morning, she glanced over the London paper just arrived, and read the following paragraph:-
SUICIDE OF A POET
Mr. Robert Trewe, who has been favourably known for some years as one of our rising lyrists, committed suicide at his lodgings at Solentsea on Saturday evening last by shooting himself in the right temple with a revolver. Readers hardly need to be reminded that Mr. Trewe has recently attracted the attention of a much wider public than had hitherto known him, by his new volume of verse, mostly of an impassioned kind, entitled “Lyrics to a Woman Unknown,” which has been already favourably noticed in these pages for the extraordinary gamut of feeling it traverses, and which has been made the subject of a severe, if not ferocious, criticism in the --- Review. It is supposed, though not certainly known, that the article may have partially conduced to the sad act, as a copy of the review in question was found on his writing-table; and he has been observed to be in a somewhat depressed state of mind since the critique appeared.
Then came the report of the inquest, at which the following letter was read, it having been addressed to a friend at a distance:-
DEAR -,—Before these lines reach your hands I shall be delivered from the inconveniences of seeing, hearing, and knowing more of the things around me. I will not trouble you by giving my reasons for the step I have taken, though I can assure you they were sound and logical. Perhaps had I been blessed with a mother, or a sister, or a female friend of another sort tenderly devoted to me, I might have thought it worth while to continue my present existence. I have long dreamt of such an unattainable creature, as you know, and she, this undiscoverable, elusive one, inspired my last volume; the imaginary woman alone, for, in spite of what has been said in some quarters, there is no real woman behind the title. She has continued to the last unrevealed, unmet, unwon. I think it desirable to mention this in order that no blame may attach to any real woman as having been the cause of my decease by cruel or cavalier treatment of me. Tell my landlady that I am sorry to have caused her this unpleasantness; but my occupancy of the rooms will soon be forgotten. There are ample funds in my name at the bank to pay all expenses. R. TREWE.
Ella sat for a while as if stunned, then rushed into the adjoining chamber and flung herself upon her face on the bed.
Her grief and distraction shook her to pieces; and she lay in this frenzy of sorrow for more than an hour. Broken words came every now and then from her quivering lips: ‘O, if he had only known of me—known of me—me! . . . O, if I had only once met him—only once; and put my hand upon his hot forehead—kissed him—let him know how I loved him—that I would have suffered shame and scorn, would have lived and died, for him! Perhaps it would have saved his dear life! . . . But no—it was not allowed! God is a jealous God; and that happiness was not for him and me!’
All possibilities were over; the meeting was stultified. Yet it was almost visible to her in her fantasy even now, though it could never be substantiated -
The hour which might have been, yet might not
Which man’s and woman’s heart conceived and bore,
Yet whereof life was barren.
* * * * *
She wrote to the landlady at Solentsea in the third person, in as subdued a style as she could command, enclosing a postal order for a sovereign, and informing Mrs. Hooper that Mrs. Marchmill had seen in the papers the sad account of the poet’s death, and having been, as Mrs. Hooper was aware, much interested in Mr. Trewe during her stay at Coburg House, she would be obliged if Mrs. Hooper could obtain a small portion of his hair before his coffin was closed down, and send it her as a memorial of him, as also the photograph that was in the frame.
By the return-post a letter arrived containing what had been requested. Ella wept over the portrait and secured it in her private drawer; the lock of hair she tied with white ribbon and put in her bosom, whence she drew it and kissed it every now and then in some unobserved nook.
‘What’s the matter?’ said her husband, looking up from his newspaper on one of these occasions. ‘Crying over something? A lock of hair? Whose is it?’
‘He’s dead!’ she murmured.
‘I don’t want to tell you, Will, just now, unless you insist!’ she said, a sob hanging heavy in her voice.
‘O, all right.’
‘Do you mind my refusing? I will tell you some day.’
‘It doesn’t matter in the least, of course.’
He walked away whistling a few bars of no tune in particular; and when he had got down to his factory in the city the subject came into Marchmill’s head again.
He, too, was aware that a suicide had taken place recently at the house they had occupied at Solentsea. Having seen the volume of poems in his wife’s hand of late, and heard fragments of the landlady’s conversation about Trewe when they were her tenants, he all at once said to himself; ‘Why of course it’s he! How the devil did she get to know him? What sly animals women are!’
Then he placidly dismissed the matter, and went on with his daily affairs. By this time Ella at home had come to a determination. Mrs. Hooper, in sending the hair and photograph, had informed her of the day of the funeral; and as the morning and noon wore on an overpowering wish to know where they were laying him took possession of the sympathetic woman. Caring very little now what her husband or any one else might think of her eccentricities; she wrote Marchmill a brief note, stating that she was called away for the afternoon and evening, but would return on the following morning. This she left on his desk, and having given the same information to the servants, went out of the house on foot.
When Mr. Marchmill reached home early in the afternoon the servants looked anxious. The nurse took him privately aside, and hinted that her mistress’s sadness during the past few days had been such that she feared she had gone out to drown herself. Marchmill reflected. Upon the whole he thought that she had not done that. Without saying whither he was bound he also started off, telling them not to sit up for him. He drove to the railway-station, and took a ticket for Solentsea.
It was dark when he reached the place, though he had come by a fast train, and he knew that if his wife had preceded him thither it could only have been by a slower train, arriving not a great while before his own. The season at Solentsea was now past: the parade was gloomy, and the flys were few and cheap. He asked the way to the Cemetery, and soon reached it. The gate was locked, but the keeper let him in, declaring, however, that there was nobody within the precincts. Although it was not late, the autumnal darkness had now become intense; and he found some difficulty in keeping to the serpentine path which led to the quarter where, as the man had told him, the one or two interments for the day had taken place. He stepped upon the grass, and, stumbling over some pegs, stooped now and then to discern if possible a figure against the sky.
He could see none; but lighting on a spot where the soil was trodden, beheld a crouching object beside a newly made grave. She heard him, and sprang up.
‘Ell, how silly this is!’ he said indignantly. ‘Running away from home—I never heard such a thing! Of course I am not jealous of this unfortunate man; but it is too ridiculous that you, a married woman with three children and a fourth coming, should go losing your head like this over a dead lover! . . . Do you know you were locked in? You might not have been able to get out all night.’
She did not answer.
‘I hope it didn’t go far between you and him, for your own sake.’
‘Don’t insult me, Will.’
‘Mind, I won’t have any more of this sort of thing; do you hear?’
‘Very well,’ she said.
He drew her arm within his own, and conducted her out of the Cemetery. It was impossible to get back that night; and not wishing to be recognized in their present sorry condition, he took her to a miserable little coffee-house close to the station, whence they departed early in the morning, travelling almost without speaking, under the sense that it was one of those dreary situations occurring in married life which words could not mend, and reaching their own door at noon.
The months passed, and neither of the twain ever ventured to start a conversation upon this episode. Ella seemed to be only too frequently in a sad and listless mood, which might almost have been called pining. The time was approaching when she would have to undergo the stress of childbirth for a fourth time, and that apparently did not tend to raise her spirits.
‘I don’t think I shall get over it this time!’ she said one day.
‘Pooh! what childish foreboding! Why shouldn’t it be as well now as ever?’
She shook her head. ‘I feel almost sure I am going to die; and I should be glad, if it were not for Nelly, and Frank, and Tiny.’
‘You’ll soon find somebody to fill my place,’ she murmured, with a sad smile. ‘And you’ll have a perfect right to; I assure you of that.’
‘Ell, you are not thinking still about that—poetical friend of yours?’
She neither admitted nor denied the charge. ‘I am not going to get over my illness this time,’ she reiterated. ‘Something tells me I shan’t.’
This view of things was rather a bad beginning, as it usually is; and, in fact, six weeks later, in the month of May, she was lying in her room, pulseless and bloodless, with hardly strength enough left to follow up one feeble breath with another, the infant for whose unnecessary life she was slowly parting with her own being fat and well. Just before her death she spoke to Marchmill softly:-
‘Will, I want to confess to you the entire circumstances of that—about you know what—that time we visited Solentsea. I can’t tell what possessed me—how I could forget you so, my husband! But I had got into a morbid state: I thought you had been unkind; that you had neglected me; that you weren’t up to my intellectual level, while he was, and far above it. I wanted a fuller appreciator, perhaps, rather than another lover—’
She could get no further then for very exhaustion; and she went off in sudden collapse a few hours later, without having said anything more to her husband on the subject of her love for the poet. William Marchmill, in truth, like most husbands of several years’ standing, was little disturbed by retrospective jealousies, and had not shown the least anxiety to press her for confessions concerning a man dead and gone beyond any power of inconveniencing him more.
But when she had been buried a couple of years it chanced one day that, in turning over some forgotten papers that he wished to destroy before his second wife entered the house, he lighted on a lock of hair in an envelope, with the photograph of the deceased poet, a date being written on the back in his late wife’s hand. It was that of the time they spent at Solentsea.
Marchmill looked long and musingly at the hair and portrait, for something struck him. Fetching the little boy who had been the death of his mother, now a noisy toddler, he took him on his knee, held the lock of hair against the child’s head, and set up the photograph on the table behind, so that he could closely compare the features each countenance presented. There were undoubtedly strong traces of resemblance; the dreamy and peculiar expression of the poet’s face sat, as the transmitted idea, upon the child’s, and the hair was of the same hue.
‘I’m damned if I didn’t think so!’ murmured Marchmill. ‘Then she did play me false with that fellow at the lodgings! Let me see: the dates—the second week in August . . . the third week in May . . . Yes . . . yes . . . Get away, you poor little brat! You are nothing to me!’