Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Decay by Marjorie Bowen

Published in Seeing Life! And Other Stories, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1923

I want to write it down at once, to get it 'out of my head' as they say, though why one should suppose these things are in one's head, I don't know--they seem to me all about us, flavouring the food we eat, colouring the sky.

Of course I've got the journalist's habit of scribbling too, it is so much easier to jot things down than explain them by speech.

To us, at least.

And you are so far away it is a good excuse to send 'newsy' letters. Only, I've got a feeling that in Lima this will read, well, queer.

Still you must be interested and I must write, no, I forestall your objection, it won't do for 'copy'. I'm not spoiling a good 'scoop'.

What I have got to say can never be published.

Nor written to anyone but yourself--and you won't speak of it, I know.

Good Lord, you won't want to.

You'll remember the people as they would you--we were all in the same 'set' together for so long--I think you were the first to break away when you got this Lima job, weren't you?

And soon after that came the marriage of Cedric Halston.

You heard all about it, I sent you the 'cuttings' written by our own colleagues--you were rather fond of Halston, I think.

So was I.

Of course we were rather prejudiced by his being called Cedric and writing poetry, but it was such good stuff and he was such a decent sort and, of course, being so palpably ruined in Fleet Street! Much too good for what was too good for the rest of us, wasn't he?

And rather more poverty-stricken than anyone ought to be it seemed to me.

Lord! The sheer sordidness of Halston, 'hard-upishness'!

He couldn't write his stuff for grind and worry and despair--but the little bits that struggled through as it were, were jolly fine.

Even the old Die-hards that 'slam the door in the face of youth', etc., etc., said he was--well, the right stuff.

None of your crazy, mazy, jig-saw, jazzy poets, poison green and liver yellow, but the 'real thing'.

Like Keats.

Of course there ought to have been money in a stunt like that, being the real thing, I mean, and starving, but poor old Halston never could work it, could he? He just--starved.

Not very picturesquely.

Till he met Jennifer Harden.

(Did you ever think how wrong that 'Jennifer' was? I'd never seen the name before except signing one of those articles that begin, 'It's ever so crowded on the Riviera now, and oh my dear'--you know the patter--and the people who write it!)

You know they married--one rather wanted to jeer, but couldn't--we all sat back and looked humble.

It was so tremendous you could only describe it in terms of claptrap, 'Abelard and Heloise' a 'grande passion' and 'immortal love', 'eternal devotion', 'twin souls' and all the rest of the good old frayed symbols, old chap, but they are getting worn--I'm thinking.

You remember I sent you her photo? One of those misty affairs looking like--well, not like Jennifer Harden.

Still, she was beautiful, but out of drawing--lots of money, lots of taste, not too young, by any means--and then the 'love of a lifetime' thrown in.

She didn't mind using that phrase about him--publicly, in the woman's club she ran, and where she had met him--lured to gas on 'Truth in relation to Modesty' by the bribe of a good dinner. She also said she worshipped him--I admired her for that--you know they take a bit of saying, those sort of things now-a-days!

And he raved about her--got the rose-coloured spectacles firmly fixed and took her on as she was, 'Jennifer' and all--dashed into poetry and spread himself out over ivory pomegranates, roses, and all the rest of the irrelevant stuff we drag in to say a woman's a woman. Do you remember the old Italian who saw his beloved at the fountain and said:

'She alone of all the world is worthy to be called a woman?'

That is the prettiest compliment I know of.

Well, to return to the Halstons, they were married and I don't suppose you ever heard any more of them.

It is three years ago.

You know how lucky we all thought him--she really had such a lot of money.

And money had always been just what Halston wanted.

Of course they were very wonderful about it: he was 'so humble in his great happiness, he could not let paltry pride stand in the way', and she only 'valued her fortune in that it could minister to his genius'--a pity how all these fine sentiments slip into 'clich├ęs'.

I suppose someone believes them, or means them, sometimes.

I wonder?

Well, they cleared out. She bought a place in Herts and called it 'Enchantment'. Why not, after all? You might really feel that, I suppose.

Well, they shut themselves in this Paradise--never came to town, hardly ever wrote--sometimes a few 'choice' poems from him, the kind that goes with handmade paper and silk ties and you keep reading over feeling sure that it means much more than it possibly could--and sometimes letters from her to 'privileged' friends (they really thought they were) letters that are like screams of happiness.

Of course we all thought it rather wonderful that they could stay shut up like that and enjoy it--it was quite a blow for the real cynics.

'A case in a million' was all they could say.

He never wrote to anyone and there was not one of us who would not have thought it cheek to write to him, we even sank to seriously thinking of him as 'a God-sent genius'.

Well, here comes what I must set down--only to you, Lorimer.

Halston and I knew you best of all in the old days and you are the only person I can tell.

Forgive the preamble, but I have a sense of your being so far away--I imagine you saying: 'Who is Halston?'

I haven't mentioned him for so long--there was nothing to mention--'Happy nations', etc. Here is the story.

I was sent down to Hertford town a few weeks ago to investigate some ghost story, you know what a rage that sort of thing is with us just now, all of us shouting things you can hardly say in a whisper and trying to disprove what no one can prove.

The case was interesting and kept me some time--the day before I was due back in London I met Halston in the High Street. He seemed very cordial and prosperous, had a good car waiting, was rather too well dressed in uncommon kind of clothes--sort of peasant handicraft and Savile Row combined. But I did not think he looked well, strained, aged and thin--but this he explained by the fact that he was writing an Epic.

(Why do you smile, Lorimer, people have written Epics, you know.)

That was why he had been shut away all the time--that great work might grow under the beautiful ministrations of his wife...Jennifer, I gathered, was really running a little Paradise for his special benefit...she had just snatched him away from all that was ugly or crude or mean or distressing and lapped him in Love and Beauty and Service...

Of course I grinned...but I was ashamed of grinning.

Halston did not seem to notice; he actually asked me over to 'Enchantment' to stay a few days.

Being a free lance I could accept and did--you can imagine my curiosity--a vulgar thing to admit to, but don't you think it will be our first emotion if we ever step into Heaven?

Imagine the relish of being able to settle those questions--'What is God really like?' and 'those robes and crowns?' and the 'many mansions?'--and little private pet queries of your own.

That was how I felt as I motored over to 'Enchantment' which was known to the outsider as a very delightful Tudor Farm House, completely brought up to date, that had formerly been called Eversley Lodge and run by a city gentleman, whose reputation was more noted for lustre than solidity. I found the place (which was isolated, a great way from the station, a good way from the road) perfect.

Rather like the 'Ideal Homes' they make so much of just now, still they are ideal, aren't they?

Well, here it all was, 'pleasance', 'pleached walk', sunk ponds, statues, peacock, arbours, box hedges, astrolabes, sundials--all the bag of tricks and inside everything done by electricity and servants so efficient you forgot they were there. Wonderfully comfortable.

Everything right--flowers, pictures, furniture, food--the last word in little contrivances for ease and luxury--three cars, I think, electric bells disguised as lanthorns and telephones concealed in sedan chairs, wood fires to 'look nice' and steam heating. Elzivirs to tone with the walls and modern books slipped into brocade covers to read, you know the kind of thing!

But really perfect!

Halston had a wing built on specially for himself--specially for the epic, I ought to say, perhaps.

The most marvellous writing-room and library. I don't know what he hadn't got.

It was all 'choice'; I hate the word but no other will do.

All really 'choice' and as I was gaping round, in came Jennifer.

And she was 'choice' too.

Just a rough silk dress, a girdle of queer stones no one else would have liked, leather shoes simply asserting they were hand-made--and a manner.

She was gracious--sweeter than anyone need or ought to be, I thought, but I hadn't quite got the atmosphere.

'Our first guest,' she murmured, holding out both hands. 'How strange Cedric should meet you. He so seldom goes to the town, or ever leaves the house. He doesn't care to,' she added with a thrill in her voice.

She looked at him and he looked at her and murmured, 'Jennifer.'

While we had dinner--all excellent--that evening I observed her; she absolutely fascinated me and I want to describe her to you, Lorimer.

She is tall, with wide shoulders and a full Rosetti sort of neck, and a head rather nicely set, dark waved hair gathered in a knot at her nape and good forehead and dark rather flat eyes--then the nose tight, the lips hard and crooked, the complexion harsh and grained with red and the chin too small, running with a bad line into the Rosetti throat.

She lisped a little and showed more of her teeth than her lips when she talked.

Graceful enough she somehow gave an impression as I have said of beauty; she had a still yet enthusiastic manner and an air of almost incredible fastidiousness and refinement.

The conversation was delicately 'high-brow', and afterwards she played to us (yes, it was a Scriabine, and someone else, unknown to me who makes even Scriabine seem old-fashioned!) then he played and she stood behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders, and when it was over raised his face with slow fingers and kissed him.

There was a lot of this sort of thing; she, Jennifer, looked through me, with a sort of 'divine pity'--but she was kind, very kind.

I soon learnt that Halston's 'sanctum' was 'just for writing' upstairs they shared the same room; he hadn't a corner, not even in the 'sanctum' for she would glide in there and sit in place of the banal secretary who could not have been tolerated in 'Enchantment'.

Not a corner--the woman pervaded the whole house--but why not?

You don't want corners in Paradise.

There was a day or two of this; I don't know why I stayed save that I was really rather fascinated.

Wanting to pick holes and not able to--you know.

I'm not sneering when I say again that it was really perfect.

Comfort, beauty, ease, leisure--every book, picture, magazine you could think of, the exquisite garden, the marvellous service (the servants were all in some quarters of their own, I believe, so seldom did one see them). And always Jennifer in tasteful gowns, in pretty poses moving lightly about doing useless beautiful things.

And always Cedric in his good quiet clothes with his fountain pen and his smile, and his running his fingers through his hair and his one or two dropped words that she understood so perfectly and took up with that bright brave smile 'one soul signalling to another along the ramparts of eternity'--that was Jennifer's smile.

She knew it and so did I; but I wished she had prettier teeth.

Of course, I should not have been noticing teeth, or the way she whitened her rather red throat, or the quick glitter of her eyes so out of harmony with her slow speech...but I still had not quite got the atmosphere.

Of course also there were no callers or callings, the mere thought was like a blasphemy, the isolation was as complete as the rarefied air...it was really rather wonderful how they did it.

You will have guessed there were no children, what an intrusion children would have been in such a life!

One rather wondered...it is always the important things one mustn't touch on isn't it? The things that matter most, that fill our souls, our minds, even our eyes...I'm always amazed at our eternal reticences...well, there were no children and I am queer in my views on marriage without children, it is a tricky business this mating...one knows too much...you've got to be jolly careful the people you marry to each other or, well, sometimes I've felt nauseated.

Anyhow, here were two carrying it off beautifully--all grossness purged away, they would tell you, the souls in perfect communion--all lovely and delicate, serving Art--beauty, nature, God. Yes, but why didn't she give the poor devil a corner to himself?

I don't believe he was alone for five minutes of the day or night--she used to speak of 'our bedroom' and carry up flowers and fountain pens and biscuits, for the table beside their bed...ugh! I became uneasy at meeting his glance, I don't know why.

Then...I was coming in from the garden the fourth evening she was playing as usual, in a white gown that didn't suit her, and he was seated on his pure coloured chair with a Danish book of poetry.

As I entered the room I was assailed by a smell, so creeping, so foetid I could hardly forbear an exclamation--yet this was so obviously bad manners that I was silent.

I thought of course of drains or even dead birds in the chimney and that the discomfortable thing would be marked and removed. But neither of them noticed it and it died away presently.

Still, though it hung round us the whole evening now faint, now stronger...always indescribably awful.

It was not in my own room, yet I woke up in the night drenched with it, sick and shuddering with the horror of it...potent as a live thing it filled the lovely chamber. Lord! what a smell...I was retching as I staggered out to shut the window.

But it was in the house for the closed window made no difference...I passed a night of torment...by the morning it was gone.

I won't bore you with my next day's work, which was to trace that smell.

Quite fruitless.

The garden, the drains, the kitchens, all furtively examined were in perfect order.

How could one suspect anything else in such a house?

Yet with evening...that loathsome terror again.

It so saturated the rooms that everything seemed tainted with it, like a fog dirties and dims, so this smell blighted and smeared every lovely thing in the place.

And there were lovely things, I'd envied some of them really.

But it was all spoilt for me now--even when the ghastly odour wasn't there everything reminded me of it...I was in a state of perpetual nausea.

Naturally I resolved to clear out.

But it couldn't be done at less than a couple of days' notice, for I had come for a fortnight.

I mentioned the smell, actually dared to Jennifer (I shall always think of her as that, never as 'Mrs Halston', I know) and she was so distantly sweet about it that I felt I had been very impertinent.

'Of course there is nothing,' she said kindly. 'Cedric is so particular about--perfumes--sensitive people are, are they not? Perhaps you have fancies? Cedric used to...that is where I was able to...help him.'

Again the little thrill on the last two words: 'help him!' poor brute. Yes she has helped him all right...but where to.

I could do nothing but agree.

Jennifer gazed at me and I could see she meant to be very soothing.

'I banished everything ugly out of Cedric's life...Someday you will meet a woman who will do that for you--'then, with that natural brightness she used to mask her sacred emotions, 'Will you come and look at the rose bushes? I think I have got some teeny weeny buds for you to see--'

Yes, she had and must needs pick me one and give it me gravely...as a symbol of something or other, I'm sure. But it was no good; her 'teeny weeny' buds stank, my God, Lorimer, that is the only word for it stank to Heaven.

That day it was awful, the smell I mean. I took two long walks to get rid of it, the countryside was sweet and clean enough...the abomination was in the house, clinging to everything.

After dinner I asked them if they meant to live this life always, asked it bluntly, I suppose.

'Dear friend,' said Jennifer, 'you don't quite understand, does he, Cedric? This is...just home...ours...

'Home?' I was worse than blunt, but the smell was torturing me. 'What have you got in it?'

They both looked at me.

'Each other, haven't we, Cedric?' her smile was transcendent.

'Oh, yes,' I echoed, 'you've got each other--one can see that--feel it--sm--'

I stopped; what was I going to say?--what was slipping out?

I bit my tongue; but now I knew and it rather frightened me.

I cleared...I remember she said: 'And the Epic', but I just cleared out into the garden like a lunatic and walked as I was into Hertford to the hotel where they knew me.

Do you see it, Lorimer? It was all dead, love, ambition, kindness, the souls themselves, shut in, stagnant, he sold for money, his comforts, she sold for her satisfied lusts, each exacting the price...each hating the other--no children, nothing let in, nothing going on--putrid, rotten...each caged and caught by the other--and, Lorimer, stinking themselves to Hell.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page