Authors: Mary Renault
IT ANDERSON CROSSED THE
landing from his wife’s room to his own, and, too much occupied with his thoughts to switch on the light, walked through the dark with the accuracy of habit to his bed. He untied the knot of his dressing gown, stood still for a moment, knotted it again, and put on the bedside lamp to look for a cigarette. Smoking last thing at night was not a habit of his—it was one of the small things about which he was rather fussily hygienic—but to-night more important habits had been broken. It would take him more than the length of a cigarette to sort and reassemble himself. He had not fallen seriously out of love since he was twenty, not a good age for analyzing the experience. This time he found it as complex, as interesting and (to him momentarily shocked surprise) as satisfactory as falling in.
At this point it occurred to him that with the light behind him, and the street in front, his meditations were probably public. After two years of general practice, he was still not quite acclimatized to the mild spotlight trained upon doctors in small provincial towns. In his own mind he always, unless he reminded himself, slipped back into the strenuous anonymity of his London hospital; a way of life which he had taken to easily, and secretly preferred.
He put the light out and settled himself again, invisible now except for the point of his cigarette; to the private disappointment of a passing housemaid returning from the cinema, who had thought the circle of light round his fair head not wholly an anticlimax. Kit for his part was not much attached to his personal appearance, which was a professional liability. He was nearly thirty, but the stranger’s casual estimate was likelier to be twenty-four. His hair was the chief trouble, being of the raw-silk colour and texture that hardly ever outlasts childhood. His eyes were the most obviously adult part of his face; they had a definite air of being willing to continue an acquaintance with reality: but, unaware of this, he was fond of concealing them behind superfluous horn glasses in the consulting-room to make himself look older. Soon it would make little difference, for his mouth was on the way to looking the same age; its pleasant line had become, in the last year, somewhat voluntary and determined.
Kit was perfectly well aware of what his looks cost him in annual income (he reckoned it at about a couple of hundred) and it did not assist a certain diffidence due to other causes. It led him to eke out the horn glasses with a certain professional primness which people who knew his work thought amusing, as well as unnecessary. Such patients as he got, he kept, and often a friend or two of theirs as well; but most clung anxiously to his senior partner, Fraser, who had a head like an advertisement for tonic wine, and addressed them ritually as We.
There had been a time when Kit had ceased to be annoyed with his physical envelope. While he and Janet were first in love, he had felt much more kindly towards it, because the fact that she seemed to like the look of it had made it, indirectly, a part of her too. But that was gone, almost forgotten, though it was of Janet he was thinking as he leaned out among the slight breezes and hidden sounds of the chilly moonless night. With a confused sense of loss, of release and self-reproach, he was trying to accustom himself to the discovery that she no longer had the power to hurt him.
Nothing had happened. It was because it had all been so simple, so lacking in situation or crisis, that he knew it must be true. The day had been like other days; evening surgery, bridge with the Frasers—a crushing weekly rite from which he had hoped as usual for an emergency call to deliver him. As usual, no call had come; they saved themselves for his evenings with McKinnon, which he enjoyed. Afterwards, for an hour or so, he and Janet had talked desultorily about the impersonal things which had become their safety-valve, and had gone up to bed. It was while he was brushing his teeth that he suddenly remembered the name of a book which during the conversation had eluded him. Janet had heard something about it and wanted to read it, and by morning he might have forgotten, so, noticing on his way from the bathroom that the light still showed under her door, he had knocked. She said “Come in” with the moment’s hesitation which had become so habitual that now he scarcely noticed it.
“Oh, Janet—can I come in a minute?—I’ve just remembered the name of that book. I knew it was some sort of tongue-twister. I’ll write it down on your pad.”
Janet was sitting up in bed and filing her nails. Her straight heavy dark hair was brushed smoothly into the plaits which, by day, she wore coiled together at the nape of her neck. Now they hung over her shoulders, giving her a studious sixth-form air. Her white crêpe-de-Chine nightgown and bed-jacket were dainty and immaculate. He noted vaguely their quality and good taste and thought, without emphasis or realizing it was for the first time, how impalpably delight had evaporated from her, like the scent from a flower.
She looked up. “What … oh, do you mean that education thing? I couldn’t think what you were talking about for a minute.”
“Yes, the F. M. Alexander one you wanted. May I?” He sat down on the end of the bed with the memorandum-pad on his knee. Her voice had been subtly defensive; he knew she had been trying to cover the uneasiness she had felt at his appearance. She did not look at him as he wrote, but picked up a nail-buffer and began to polish her nails and curve them against the light. Kit wrote down the title, carefully rounding out his cramped medical scribble to make it legible, and blaming himself for thoughtlessness. He ought to have remembered how careful she was not to meet him when she was in her night things. No doubt she was right. Then a slow surprise took hold of him, because he
forgotten to-night. He had walked in casually, with an untroubled mind and half his thoughts elsewhere; thinking only of the book, which she had seemed anxious to read.
“Thank you, Kit.” She took the pad and studied it, with a kind of blank concentration which betrayed that she had only wanted another excuse to look away from him. “You shouldn’t have bothered at this time of night.”
“I was afraid I might forget,” he said. “The Times Book Club will get it for you without any trouble.” It was too steep for her, he was thinking. She would stick at the first chapter. But never mind.
He got up. Suddenly—no doubt the word “education” had been working in his mind—he thought how maladroit it was to have brought to her notice a book so much concerned with young children. Hesitating a moment, he said, “You may find it rather solid going. It’s very technical. Bore you, perhaps.”
She looked up with the bitter-sweet smile which had, at last, become involuntary. “Never mind, Christopher dear. If I find it beyond me, you shall explain it all in words of one syllable.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. But at that moment, like a breath of cool wind in a stifling room, the knowledge broke in on him that he no longer cared what she believed him to mean. It was all external to him. He only wanted to make her mind at ease, as he would have wanted to relieve a patient of pain or restlessness, and to get back to bed and to sleep. He felt this with a strange mingling of liberation and lostness; it was like finding oneself outside the gates of a prison after a long term.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll be going. Are you sleeping better, by the way?”
“Yes, a good deal, thank you. I very rarely hear midnight strike now.” She put her manicure things away; he recognized one of her gestures of dismissal.
“Better keep up the tonic for a while. Just let me know when you want some more. Good night.”
“Good night. … The bottle’s still half full; it will last some time yet.” He was moving away, when she put out a sudden hand and caught at his sleeve. “Kiss me good night, Kit. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be unkind.”
“Of course, I know.” He bent and kissed her cheek; then, because she looked reproachful, her mouth. She took hold of the lapel of his dressing gown; and he knew by this sign that she was about to make one of those gestures to which from time to time she seemed impelled. These were the moments to which, for a year now, he had been learning to brace himself; sometimes aware hours ahead of their approach, sometimes taken off his guard, so that his mind had, by now, pitched itself to a constant, almost unconscious watchfulness. But to-night there did not stir in him the swift, secret signal for defence, the fear of self-betrayal, the set expectation of pain. He simply wanted to keep her from hurting herself if possible, and for his part, to get to sleep. Bridge with the Frasers always left him sleepy.
He put his arm round her shoulders. “Why don’t you settle down straight away? You know, women keep too many of these fiddling odd jobs to do last thing at night; nails, and so on. It leaves your mind restive.”
Leaning her cheek against him she said, with a deliberate little sigh, “I try to keep myself looking nice for you, Kit, even though …”
Oh, God, he thought, not now: and the old habit of sudden control made a stiffening in his throat. But next moment his caution relaxed; there was no danger any more. “You always look nice, to me,” he said, and patted her shoulder.
Ignoring it, she put her arms round her knees, and twisted her fingers together. “You must often think hardly of me, I know, though you pretend not to. You think I don’t realize—or that Ï don’t care.”
He stood beside her, lightly caressing her shoulder; remembering times like this in the past, amazed that it should be recollection now and no long reality: the almost unbearable strain, the bewilderment that she should be willing consciously—for he was sure that she was aware of it—to inflict this hurt, the half-understanding of an emotional need which drove her, tangling unendurably the pain of compassion with his own pain. But now only compassion moved in him.
“I think you should sleep, my dear,” he said, “and not imagine what isn’t there.”
She looked quickly at him, and then away; and he knew, with an almost impersonal shock of discovery, that his calm had disconcerted her; that the evidence of his suffering had been—unknown to her perhaps, perhaps only unacknowledged—a necessary satisfaction and release. In the past he had half suspected this, but, because the thought was impossibly hurtful, had thrust it aside from his mind. She sat twisting her fingers, restless lest he should leave her, thinking of something more to say; and it was then—watching the light strike sideways on the smooth ivory plane of her cheekbone that had once in itself been able to take his breath away—that he knew he was free of love, and had been free, perhaps, without his knowledge, for a long time.
“I’ve failed you,” she said, “I know. I expect you always think of me like that. But I do try to make up for it, Kit, every way I can. You know that. Don’t you?”
“Please,” he said. How distant it all seemed; her voice, her shoulder under his hand, like a memory, cut off from the present by a wall of glass. “I never think that. How could I?” He took away the book she had been reading, and, withdrawing his arm, settled her into the pillows. “Go to sleep, Janie my dear. I’ll give you something to take if you feel you’d like it. Shall I?”
She did not answer for a moment; then, turning her head on the pillow to look at him, said, “You’ve stopped loving me.”
Even this had happened before; so that when he said, “Don’t, Janie, you know I love you,” he did not think till later about its not being true. He was more occupied with its strangeness; it was like looking at a healed scar on one’s body, and recollecting that this had once been the seat of intolerable pain.