Decay by Marjorie Bowen
Published in Seeing Life! And Other Stories, Hurst & Blackett,
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
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
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'.
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
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
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
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 'clichés'.
I suppose someone believes them, or means them, sometimes.
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
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
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
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
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
The garden, the drains, the kitchens, all furtively examined were in
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
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
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.