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   Chapter 13 No.13

This Freedom By A. S. M. Hutchinson Characters: 25027

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"You have pretended to dislike and to despise men, but it was a pretence to deceive me and you are a liar."

This was the astounding opening of an astounding letter, pages and pages, to Rosalie from Miss Salmon. Pages and pages, having the appearance, each one, of a battlefield or of a riot: a welter of thick, black underscores strewn about like coffins or like corpses, and a bristling pin-cushionful (black pins) of notes of exclamation leaping about like war-dancing Zulus or staggering about like drunken or like wounded men. A welter you had to pick your way through with epithets rushing against you at every step like units of a surging mob hounding and charging against an unfortunate pedestrian caught in the trouble.

Miss Salmon had two months before introduced "a gentleman friend" to the boarding house. He was a clerk in some big business firm. His name was Upsmith and he bore upon a fattish face a troubled, beseeching look, rather as though something internal and not to be mentioned was severely incommoding him and might at any moment become acute. Miss Salmon called him Boo, which Rosalie considered grotesque but not unsuitable, and it was communicated to the boarding house that the twain were at a mysterious point of affinity called, not an engagement, but an understanding.

Rosalie had by this time taken the second step in her upward progression of comfort in the boarding house. She had moved into a separate room, leaving Miss Salmon to become half of another two friends as one, and she and Miss Salmon therefore saw much less of each other. But Rosalie still sat at the same table as Miss Salmon at dinner and there Mr. Upsmith joined them.

The thing may be hurried along to its astounding conclusion in the astounding letter. It was not in itself an event of any sort of moment to Rosalie. She was in no way outraged by being called a liar. There is no hurt at all in being called a liar when you know you are not a liar. The accusation has sting only if you are a liar; and indeed it is comforting evidence of some inner self within us that only when we have ourselves debased that inner self become we open to wounds from without. That citadel is never taken by storm; only by treachery. No, the significance of the astounding letter reposed in the fact that her reception of it opened to Rosalie a glimpse of a quality rising beneath her to carry her forward as a wave beneath a swimmer. It has been perceived in her but Rosalie had not perceived it.

A great triumph and a great happiness swelled within Miss Salmon with the arrival of Mr. Upsmith and with the circulation about the boarding house that there was an understanding between herself and Mr. Upsmith. Her humming took on a loud, defiant quality, as of triumph; she pursued her pince-nez with a certain eagerness, as of confidence of balance and certitude of capture. Her note and her air seemed to say that she was Boo's and Boo hers and she gloried in it with that exalted and yet something fearful glory that is to be seen, pathetically, on the faces of very plain young women, or of distinctly ageing young women, who have got a Boo but for whom the Boos of this world are elusive to capture and slippery to hold. The look is to be seen a dozen times on any Sunday afternoon when the young couples are out.

At dinner time Miss Salmon would talk much to Boo in whispers and then would look up and hum across at Rosalie in triumph, as of one that knew things that Rosalie could not know and that had a thing that Rosalie did not possess. Mr. Upsmith looked also much at Rosalie, in no triumph, but in an apparent great excess of his unfortunate complaint. He stared, troubled and beseeching, at her at meals, and he stared, troubled and beseeching, at her when he encountered her away from meals. The longer he sojourned in the boarding house the more troubled and beseeching, when Rosalie happened to notice him, did his fattish countenance appear to become. That was all. There scarcely ever was exchanged between them even the courtesies customary between dwellers beneath the same roof; they never, that Rosalie could remember, were a minute alone together and yet on a day in an August, Miss Salmon a week away on a month at the seaside with the family to which she was nursery governess, Rosalie was being told in the violent opening sentence of one letter that she had pretended to despise and dislike men but had only done it to deceive Miss Salmon and was a liar; and in the impassioned sentences of another which had been enclosed and had fallen and to which bewildered she stooped and then read, that the heart of Boo was at her feet ("your proud, sweet little feet that I would kiss in my adorance") that he had adored her ever since he had first set eyes on her, that he treasured "like pearls before swine" every encouragement she had given him from her divine eyes and from her proud little lips, that he had had no sleep for a fortnight and felt he would go mad unless he wrote these few lines (nine pages), that he earned "good money," and that he was, in conclusion, to which Rosalie amazedly skipped, "ever and ever and imperishably always her imperishably adoring Boo."

Two days previously Rosalie had received, but not read, another slightly mysterious letter. It had been in her receptacle in the letter rack in the hall, addressed to her in an unfamiliar writing and deposited by hand, not through the post. It had begun "Dear Miss Salmon, re our friendship I have to inform you-" Rosalie had turned to the end, "B. Upsmith." She had replaced it in its envelope, written upon the envelope, "This is evidently for you, but addressed to me, as you see-R." and had placed it in another stamped wrapper to be forwarded by Miss Kentish. She had only thought of it as in funny style for a love letter, proper no doubt to the niceties of an "understanding." And what had happened was that the vile, egregious, and infamous Boo, writing to break off one understanding and establish another, had placed them in the wrong envelopes. The outpourings of his bursting heart to Rosalie had been received by Miss Salmon; the information "re our friendship" had gone to Rosalie.

Of itself, as has been said, the whole incident was nothing at all in the life of Rosalie. It came with the crash, but only startling and quite harmless crash, of an unexpected clap of thunder, and it passed as completely and as passively, doing no damage, leaving no mark. Miss Salmon never returned to the boarding house; the vile, egregious and infamous Boo haply incisively informed by Miss Salmon of what he had done, incontinently, and without speech to Rosalie, fled from the boarding house. They were gone, they were nothing to Rosalie; the correspondence was destroyed, it was nothing to Rosalie.

But the significance of the matter was here. There was in Miss Salmon's letter to Rosalie one paragraph that Rosalie read a second time. She had received the letter when coming in just before dinner. Not at all injured nor in any way discommoded by the hurtling epithets, the terrific underscores intended to be as bludgeons, or the leaping exclamatory notes set there for stabs, she had put the thing away in a drawer and gone down to her meal. The passage alluded to came more than once into her mind. When she was about to get into bed that night she destroyed the letter, first reading that paragraph, and only that, again. Sole in the violent welter of those sheets it had no underscores nor any exclamations. It was added as a postscript. It said:

"Well, now; Boo and I met the first time in a crowd watching a horse that had fallen down. It kicked and I stepped back quickly and trod on his foot. It made him put his hands on my arms and I looked around to apologise and there was his dear face smiling at me, although in great pain, for I had trodden on a corn he has; and I knew at once it was the face I had looked for and longed for all my life and had found at last; and I loved him from the first and we went out of the crowd and talked. Well, now; I clung to him in all our happy, happy months together, in a way you can never understand, because I loved him, and because I am not the sort that men like because I am only plain, and I knew that if ever he left me I could never get another. Well, now; you have taken him away from me. You could get dozens and dozens of men to love you, but you have taken mine, and I never, never can get another."

The thoughts of Rosalie, not sequent, but going about and amounting thusly, were thus: "That is very pathetic. That is horribly sad and pathetic. Coming at the end like that and without any strokes and flourishes, it is as if she was exhausted of her hate and rage and just put out an utterly tired hand and set this here like a sigh. That's pathetic, the mere look of it and that thought of it. And then what she says. The dreadfully simple naivete of the beginning of it. Staring at a fallen horse in the street. It's just where they would be, both of them. They'd stand there for hours and just stare and stare. And then she steps back on his foot and there's 'his dear face' smiling at her; ah, it's pathetic, it's poignant! I can see it absolutely. Yes, I can. As if I were in the crowd around the horse, watching them. There they are, the horse between us, and all the doltish, staring faces round about; and their two dull and stupid faces; and as their eyes meet that sudden look upon their foolish faces, as of irradiation out of heaven, that would make a clown's face beautiful and cause the hardest heart to twist. But it doesn't cause mine to twist. That's the odd thing. I remember perfectly when a thing like that would have given me a little blinky kind of feeling. I've always been awfully quick to notice things like that. I've often seen them. Quite recently, so little, I believe, as a year ago, things like that, things like this, would have moved me a lot. They somehow do not now. That frightful ending of hers: 'You could get dozens and dozens of men to love you, but you have taken mine and I can never, never get another.' That is most terribly pathetic. I think that is the most poignant thing I have ever heard. Well, I can realise its utter pathos; I can realise it but I cannot feel it. It does not move me. 'And I never, never can get another.' It's frightful. I could cry. But I do not a bit want to cry. I must have somehow changed. I am not a bit sorry if I have changed. I would be sorry to go back and be as, if I have changed, I must have been-sentimental. I have changed. I believe I can look back and see it. About the time I left the Sultana's, mother's letters, and keeping them and answering them, began to be-yes they did begin to be a little, tiny bit of a nuisance to me. Yes, it was beginning then, this. And I expect earlier, if I worked it out. There's nothing in it to regret. It's just a growing out of a thing. It's not, when I see a thing that's pathetic, that I've grown blunt or blind and can't see it for pathetic. It's just-I know what it is-it's just that it doesn't appeal to me in the same way. It's like seeing a dish of most tempting food in front of you, not that I ever remember my mouth, as they say, watering at anything; but say strawberries and cream-I'm fond of strawberries and cream-it's like seeing a dish of strawberries and cream in front of you, and knowing it's good and knowing it's delicious, and knowing you're awfully fond of it-and just not being hungry; turning away and leaving it there, not because it's not everything that it ought to be, but just because-you don't want it. I should say that's how it is with me about these-these pathetic things. I know they're pathetic. I don't want them."

That is how it was, how it had become, with Rosalie. That was just her first recognition of it, as the swimmer, intent on his own making of his progression, recognises not, till he has been borne some distance by it, the current that also is carrying him along.

Visits home to the Rectory were further manifestations to her of this arising symptom.

There were appeals that should have arisen to her out of her home; and they did arise; and she recognised them; but they did not appeal to her-not in the old way. She went home very rarely for occasional week-ends, always for her annual holidays, always for Christmas; and the discovery she made was that she liked her home very much better when she was away from it than when she was in it. Wh

en a visit was in prospect she desired her home, that is to say her mother, most frightfully. But when the visit was in being the joy she had promised herself she would spread somehow was not at her command; the love she had yearned to show somehow was chilled within her and not forthcoming. It was the tempting dish in a new illustration-rushing eagerly to it, avid of its delights; coming to it and finding, after all, one was not hungry.

Strange!

Her mother was ageing rapidly. She could have wept to see the ageing signs; but somehow, seeing them, did not weep; was not moved; received the impression but was not sensitive to it; felt the tug but did not respond to the pull. Rather, indeed, was apt to be a little impatient. Returned to London and to her engrossing work and longed to be back with her mother; came back to her mother-and was not hungry.

Strange!

Then she began to analyse the strangeness of it and found it was not, after all, so strange; at least it was not a thing to be distressed about, nor bearing conviction of unnatural qualities, of hardness, of unkindness. There was a line she knew that came in a verse:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,

The earth, and every common thing

To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore.

Turn wheresoe'er I may

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

"The things which I have seen I now can see no more." That was the line. "The things which used to appeal to me now appeal no more-or rather not quite in the same way. I think I used to be very sentimental. It is stupid and useless to be sentimental. People must grow old. There's nothing sad in that. It is natural. It is life. It is life and one must accept life. The unnatural thing, the foolish and wrong thing, is to remain a sentimental child for ever, with a child's ready foolish tears at what are common, necessary facts of life. I can be much kinder, much more really kind, by seeing things clearly-and in their right perspective than by occluding them with false compassions. I am always my dear, my darling mother's devoted daughter, ever at her disposal, and she knows it and loves me for it. When I am to her or to any friend but as ships that pass in the night-Keggo's phrase-then let me take myself to task."

Keggo's phrase! Keggo was being intermittently seen at this time and these thoughts of Rosalie's were very close to the occasion when finally she lost sight of Keggo. It could be said like this-that Keggo here made a contribution to Rosalie's life that passed Rosalie on her way.

They had kept touch for quite a time after their separation as governess and pupil. They then lost touch.

"Why, it must be more than a year!" cried Rosalie, suddenly encountering Miss Keggs near the Marble Arch one evening and delightedly greeting her. It was in the summer and Rosalie had gone out from the boarding house after dinner for some fresh air in the park. She was enormously glad to see Keggo again and carried her greeting straight on into excuses for her share in their long sundering. "More than a year! You know, the fact is, Keggo, that when I first left the Sultana's, and for quite a time afterwards, I used to gush. I did! I was so frightfully full of all I was doing and it was all so new and so wonderful and I was so excited about it that it was sheer letting off steam-gush-to write you reams and reams of letters about it as I used to do. Then it got normal and the-the tumultuousness of it wore off and I was just-I am, you know-just absolutely absorbed in it and there was no more steam to let off; all the energy went into the work, I suppose. So gradually, I suppose, without quite realising it, I gave up writing. But, oh, if you knew how glad I am to see you now!"

Miss Keggs to all this presented only a fixed smile. A smile belongs much more to the eyes than to the lips. The lips, but not the eyes, can counterfeit a smile. False coin is "uttered" as they say in law; and the lips utter. Not so the eyes. All metal that the mouth issues is to be tested there. The expression in Miss Keggs's eyes was not at all in consonance with that of her mouth. The expression of her eyes was rather oddly vacant as you may see on the face of a person who is apparently attending to what you are saying but really is listening to another conversation in the same room. "Not listening" as it is called. "An absent look" as they say.

Nevertheless she joined dove-tailed response to Rosalie's words. "To tell you the truth," said Miss Keggs, speaking very slowly and repeating the preamble. "To tell you the truth I wouldn't have received your letters if you had written them."

"You wouldn't? Why not?"

"To tell you the truth-" there had been a pause before she first spoke; a pause again before this reply and then again a beginning with this phrase about which there was nothing odd in itself but something odd in the manner of its use by Miss Keggs. "To tell you the truth, I've left the school."

"Left the Sultana's!"

Miss Keggs nodded with slow inclinations, like grave bows, of her head.

"Whatever for? Keggo, when, why?" And then Rosalie, impelled by some apprehension that suddenly pressed her, put a quick hand on Keggo's arm and cried sharply, "Keggo! There is something very strange about you. What has happened to you? Something has happened. You can't keep it from me."

But Keggo could. At that quick gesture of suspicion of Rosalie's, animation sprung to meet it as a cat, at a sudden start, will leap from profound slumber to a place of safety and to arched defence. Miss Keggs, in their first exchanges, might have been as one drowsily answering questions from a bed. She was suddenly, in her instant casting away of her absent air, as that one flinging away the bedclothes and leaping upright to the floor. What had she been saying? She had been quite lost in something she was thinking of when Rosalie came up. She scarcely had recollected her. She had been very, very ill with "this influenza" and still was only convalescent. Why, how very, very glad she was to see her dear Rosalie again! And how Rosalie had developed!

"Why, Rosalie, you are beautiful! You are! And you don't blush or simper to hear it! Yes, you are beautiful."

There was a little room in a street somewhere off the Harrow Road that Miss Keggs now occupied. It was a forbidding street. It was one of those derelict streets frequent in certain quarters of London, in Holloway, in Kentish Town, in Kilburn and all over South London, all about which life teems and roars but where, along their own pavements, no life is. They are most characteristic of themselves, these streets, when, as often to be seen, there is no soul along them but a sad drab that is an itinerant singer that drifts along wailing, at every few paces shuffling her body in complete turns to scan the windows she has passed and the immediate windows on either hand. She has no home and these are not homes to which she wails. There is no flicker of life at any window. She's a sad drab, repulsive within; and they are sad drabs, not nice within. At night, but not before dusk, forlorn things flicker in and out of them like drab ghosts had on the strings of a puppet show. By day there sometimes is an old man crawling in or crawling out; sometimes a woman, always with a parcel or a net bag, fleeting along, expressionless. The high houses, all of one pattern, appear to have no pattern. They are like dead walls and the place they enclose like a vault, and the itinerant drab like a thing in drab cerements (they trail the dust) that ought to be dead wailing for entrance to things, tombed in those walls, that are dead. There is no life at all in these streets. There is nothing active or positive. There is just passivity and negation. There is just nothingness. They are not habitations, which connote life; they are repositories, which connote desuetude. They are the repositories of creatures, not that have done with life, for the sheer fact of living acknowledges service to life, but with whom life has done.

These came to be Rosalie's thoughts of this street-Limpen Street-but they could not have been hers when she was first going there to spend evenings with Miss Keggs, for it was in her earlier visits there to Keggo that she cried there. When she could cry for pure compassion for another she was still too-too ardent for Limpen Street to be seen as it has been presented. From the first it affected her disagreeably but she would have felt, then, a sympathy for its state, and a belief that it could be aroused out of its state, and a wish so to arouse it; and in her earlier visits she had ardently this sympathy, but it was raised to a profound compassion; this belief, but it was a conviction; and this wish, but it was a resolution, in regard to Keggo.

For Keggo was drinking.

Keggo had been drinking for years and years and now Keggo had walled herself away in Limpen Street to drink and drink, still secretly with the sharp cunning of the secret drinker, but now with cunning only necessary when of her own wish she met the world. At the Sultana's, (only Mr. Ponders in her secret, and in her pay; "that vile man" as, after the revelation, she always spoke of him to Rosalie) at the Sultana's and in all her life of that period she was, as it were, as one whose life is threatened, dwelling among spies; that breastplate of her cunning never could be laid off then; now, as one threatened, but secure in a castle, the breastplate only was needed when sallies forth were made. There was at the Sultana's the need of constant care to inhibit her cravings; there now was none to save her-unless Rosalie did.

There is no need at all to tell all this and all that by which Rosalie was led to this most terrible discovery and Keggo impelled to her most painful revelation. There was deceit and its exposure; lies and their crumpling in the hand; mystifications and their sinister interpretations; contingencies and their ugly dissolutions. These would be all beastly to tell. Beastly is a vile word but this is a vile thing. There was about it all, all the time, a tainted and unwholesome atmosphere. There was always in the little room in Limpen Street that strange disagreeable smell of bad eau-de-Cologne that always had hung about the little room at the Sultana's.

Beastly things....

But they were not felt to be beastly by Rosalie, then. They are said here to be beastly, for they were beastly, only in excuse for Rosalie afterwards. They only were to her, then, intensely sad, most deeply pitiful, intensely increasing of her love for Keggo as pure love is increased by seeing its object in tortures that may not be helped because they will not be confessed. If only Keggo would tell her! Once or twice she said to Keggo, speaking with an entreaty that must have made obvious to Keggo her knowledge, "Keggo, haven't you something to tell me; something that you'd like to tell me?" The occasion was always when she was leaving after a visit that had found Keggo very unwell, very dejected of spirits, and that Keggo had at last terminated by saying, "I think perhaps you had better go, Rosalie. I think perhaps I'd be better lying down." But Keggo's answer always was, "Something to tell you? No, nothing at all! What should I have to tell you?"

And then one day something said brought them very near to the matter between them. Miss Keggs came nearer yet. She said, "The fact is, Rosalie, I sometimes get so I simply cannot make an effort, the smallest effort. I believe when I'm like that if a thousand pounds were offered me for the going out and asking of it, and God knows I want it badly enough, I simply could not make the effort to do it. I'd simply let it pass and know that I was letting it pass and not care. That's how it's got with me, how it is sometimes with me, Rosalie."

Rosalie said with extraordinary emphasis, leaning forward on the chair in which she sat facing Keggo. "Why is it, Keggo?"

If Keggo had answered, the thing would not have happened. Keggo did not answer. She was sitting with her hands crossed, one palm upon the other, and resting on her lap, her eyes to the ground. Quite a long time passed. Rosalie said, "You're drinking, aren't you, Keggo?"

"Yes, drinking, Rosalie."

"Oh, Keggo!"

It was then that Rosalie cried.

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