The Woman Who
Sat Still by
When he went, when he had to go, he took with him the memory
of her that had become crystallised, set for him in his own frequent words to
her, standing at her side, looking down at her with his keen, restless eyes—such
words as: “It puzzles me how on earth you manage to sit so still....”
Then, enlarging: “It is wonderful to me how you can keep so
happy doing nothing—make of enforced idleness a positive pleasure! I suppose it
is a gift, and I haven't got it—not a bit. It doesn't matter how tired I am, I
have to keep going—people call it industry, but its real name is nervous energy,
run riot. I can't even take a holiday peacefully. I must be actively playing if
I cannot work. I'm just the direct descendant of the girl in the red shoes—they
were red, weren't they?—who had to dance on and on until she dropped. I shall go
on and on until I drop, and then I shall attempt a few more useless yards on all
“Come now,” in answer to the way she shook her head at him,
smiled at him from her sofa, “you know very well how I envy you your gift, your
power of sitting still—happily still—your power of contemplation....”
And one day, more intimately still, with a sigh and a look
(Oh, a look she understood!), “To me you are the most restful person in the
* * * * *
Why he went, except that he had to go; why he stayed away so
long, so very long, are not really relevant to this story; the facts, stripped
of conjecture, were simply these: she was married, and he was not, and there
came the time, as it always comes in such relationships as theirs, when he had
to choose between staying without honour and going quickly. He went. But even
the bare facts concerning his protracted absence are less easily stated because
his absence dragged on long after the period when he might, with impeccable
honour, have returned.
The likeliest solution was that setting her aside when he had
to, served so to cut in two his life, so wrenched at his heartstrings, so burnt
and bruised his spirit, that when, in his active fashion he had lived some of
the hurt down, he could not bring himself easily to reopen the old subject—fresh
wounds for him might still lurk in it—how could he tell? Although it had been at
the call, the insistence of honour, still hadn't he left her—deserted her? Does
any woman, even his own appointed woman, forgive a man who goes speechless away?
Useless, useless speculation! For some reason, some man's reason, when another's
death made her a free woman, yet he lingered and did not come.
He knew, afterwards, that it was from the first his intention
to claim her. He wanted her—deep down he wanted her as he had always wanted her;
meant to come—some time. Knew all the time that he could not always keep away.
And then, responding to a sudden whim, some turn of his quickly moving mind—a
mind that could forcibly bury a subject and as forcibly resurrect it—hot-foot
and eager he came.
* * * * *
He had left her recovering slowly and surely from a long
illness; an illness that must have proved fatal but for her gift of
tranquillity, her great gift of keeping absolutely, restfully still in body,
while retaining a happily occupied mind. Her books, and her big quiet room, and
the glimpse of the flower-decked garden from her window, with just these things
to help her, she had dug herself into the deep heart of life where the wells of
contentment spring. Bird's song in the early morn and the long, still day before
her in which to find herself—to take a new, firmer hold on the hidden strength
of the world. And, just to keep her in touch with the surface of things, visits
from her friends. Then later, more tightly gripping actuality, with a new, keen,
sharp, growing pleasure—the visits of a friend.
While those lasted there was nothing she would have changed
for her quiet room, her sofa: the room that he lit with his coming; where she
rested and rested, shut in with the memory of all he said, looked, thought in
her presence—until again he came.
While they lasted! She had been content, never strong, never
able to do very much, with seclusion before. During the time of his visits she
revelled, rejoiced in it, asking nothing further. While they lasted, sitting
still (Oh, so still), hugging her joy, she didn't think, wouldn't think, how it
Sometimes, just sometimes, by a merciful providence, things
do not end. She lived for months on the bare chance of its not ending.
Yet, as we know, the end came.
At first while the world called her widowed she sat with her
unwidowed heart waiting for him in the old room, in the old way. Surely now he
would come? She had given good measure of fondness and duty and friendship—that
was only that under another name—to the one who until now had stood between her
and her heart's desire, and parting with him, and all the associations that went
with him, had surprisingly hurt her. Always frail, she was ill—torn with sorrow
and pity—and then, very slowly again, she recovered. And while she recovered,
lying still in the old way, she gave her heart wings—wild, surging wings—at
last, at last. Sped it forth, forth to bring her joy—to compel it.
While she waited in this fashion a sweet, recaptured sense of
familiarity made his coming seem imminent. She had only to wait and he would be
here. She couldn't have mistaken the looks that had never been translated into
words—that hadn't needed words. Though she had longed and ached for a
word—then—she was quite content now. He had wanted her just as she was,
unashamed and untainted. And to preserve her as she was he had gone away. And
now for the very first time she was truly glad he had gone in that abrupt,
speechless fashion—in spite of the heartache and the long years between them,
really and truly glad. Nothing had been spoilt; they had snatched at no stolen
joys. And the rapture, (what rapture!) of meeting would blot out all that they
had suffered in silence—the separation—all of it!
As she waited, getting well for him, she had no regrets,
growing more and more sure of his coming.
It was not until she was well again, not until the months had
piled themselves on each other, that, growing more frightened than she knew, she
began her new work of preparation.
* * * * *
Suddenly, impulsively, when she had reached the stage of
giving him up for days at a time, when hope had nearly abandoned her, then he
He had left a woman so hopeful in outlook, so young and
peaceful in spirit, that with her the advancing years would not matter. On his
journey back to her, visualising her afresh, touching up his memory of her, he
pictured her going a little grey. That would suit her—grey was her
colour—blending to lavender in the clothes she always wore for him. A little
grey, but her clear, pale skin unfaded, her large eyes full of pure, guarded
secrets—secrets soon to unfold for him alone.
A haven—a haven! So he thought of her, and now, ready for
her, coming to her, he craved the rest she would give him—rest more than
anything in all the world. She, with her sweet white hands, when he held them,
kissed them, would unlock the doors of peace for him, drawing him into her life,
letting him potter and linger—linger at her side. Even when long ago he had
insisted to her that for him there was no way of rest, he had known that she,
just she, meant rest for him, when he could claim her for his own. Other women,
other pursuits, offered him excitement, stimulation—and then a weariness too
profound for words. But rest, bodily, spiritually, was her unique gift for him.
She—he smiled as he thought it—would teach him to sit still.
And tired, so tired, he hurried to her across the world as
fast as he could go.
Waiting at her door, the door opened, crossing the
threshold—Oh, he had never thought his luck would be so great as to be taken
direct to the well remembered room upstairs! Yet with only a few short inquiries
he was taken there—she for whom he asked, the mistress of the house, would be in
her sitting-room, he was told, and if he was an old friend...? He explained that
he was a very old friend, following the maid upstairs. But the maid was
mistaken; her mistress was not in her private sitting-room; not in the house at
all—she had gone out, and it proved on investigation that she had left no word.
The maid, returning, suggested however, that she would not be long. Her mistress
had a meeting this evening; she was expecting some one before dinner; no, she
would certainly not be long, so—so if he would like to wait?
He elected to wait—a little impatiently. He knew it was
absurd that coming, without warning—after how many years was it?—he should yet
have made so sure of finding her at home. Absurd, unreasonable—and yet he was
disappointed. He ought to have written, but he had not waited to write. He had
pictured the meeting—how many times? Times without number—and always pictured
her waiting at home. And then the room?
Left alone in it he paced the room. But the room enshrined in
his heart of hearts was not this room. Was there, surely there was some mistake?
There could be no mistake. There could not be two upstairs
rooms in this comparatively small house, of this size and with this aspect;
westward, and overlooking with two large windows the little walled garden into
which he had so often gazed, standing and talking to her, saying over his
shoulders the things he dare not say face to face—that would have meant so much
more, helped out with look and gesture, face to face.
The garden, as far as he could see, was the same except that
he fancied it less trim, less perfect in order: in the old days it would be for
months at a time all the outside world she saw—there had been object enough in
keeping it trim. Now it looked, to his fancy, like a woman whose beauty was
fading a little because she had lost incentive to be beautiful. He turned from
the garden, his heart amazed, fearful, back to the room.
The room of the old days—with closed eyes he reproduced it;
its white walls, its few good pictures, its curtains and carpet of deep blue.
Her sofa by the window, the wide armchair on which he always sat, the table
where, in and out of season, roses, his roses, stood. The little old gilt clock
on the mantlepiece that so quickly, cruelly ticked away their hour. Books, books
everywhere, the most important journals and a medley of the lighter magazines;
those, with her work-basket, proving her feminine and the range of her
interests, her inconsistency. A woman's room, revealing at a glance her
individuality, her spirit.
But this room—! He looked for the familiar things—the sofa,
the bookshelves, the little table dedicated to flowers. Yes, the sofa was there,
but pushed away as though seldom used; on the bookshelves new, strange books
were crowding out the old; on the little table drooped a few faded flowers in an
awkward vase. On the mantlepiece, where she would never have more than one or
two good ornaments, and the old gilt clock, were now stacks of papers, a rack
bulging with packing materials—something like that—an ink-bottle, a candlestick,
the candle trailed over with sealing-wax, and an untidy ball of string. And
right in the centre of the room a great clumsy writing-table, an office table,
piled with papers again, ledgers, a portable typewriter, and—a litter of
Like a Mistress on the track of a much-doubted maid he ran
his finger along the edge of a bookcase and then the mantlepiece. He looked at
his fingers; there was no denying the dust he had wiped away.
She must have changed her room—why had she done it? But the
maid had said—in her sitting-room—
He waited now frightened, now fuming. Still she did not come.
Should he not wait—should he go—if this was her room? But he had come so far,
and he needed her so—he must stay. For some dear, foolish woman's reason she
must have lent her room for the use of a feminine busy-body; a political,
higher-thought, pseudo-spiritualistic friend. (He must weed out her friends!)
The trend of the work done in this room now his quick mind had seized
upon—titles of books, papers, it was enough. Notices stuck in the Venetian
Mirror (the desecration!) for meetings of this and that society, and all of
them, so he judged, just excuses for putting unwanted fingers into unwanted,
dangerous pies. He thought of it like that—he could not help it; he saw too far
into motive and internal action; was too impatient of the little storms, the
paltry, tea-cup things. She, with her unique gift of serenity—her place was not
among the busybodies grinding axes that were better blunt; interfering with the
slow, slow working of the Mills of God. Her gift was example—rare and delicate;
her light the silver light of a soul, that through 'suffering and patience and
contemplation, knows itself and is unafraid.
For such fussing, unstable work as it was used for now she
ought not even to have lent her room—the room he had looked on as a temple of
quietness; the shrine of a priceless temperament.
He smiled his first smile—she should not lend it again.
Then the door opened. Suddenly, almost noisily, she came in.
She had heard, downstairs, his name. So far she was prepared
with her greeting. She came with hands out-stretched—he took her hands and
When he could interrupt her greeting he said—forcing the
words—“So now you are quite strong—and busy?”
She told him how busy. She told him how, (but not why) she
had awakened from her long, selfish dream. She said she had found so late—but
surely not too late?—the joy of action; constant, unremitting work for the
world's sake. “Do you remember how you used to complain
you couldn't sit still? I am like that now—”
And he listened, listened, each word a deeper stab straight
at his defenceless heart.
Of all the many things he had done since they met he had
nothing to say.
Having just let her talk (how she talked!) as soon as he
decently could he went. Of all he had come to tell her he said not a word.
Tired, so bitterly tired, he had come seeking rest, and now there was no more a
place of rest for him—anywhere.
Yes, he had come across the world to find himself overdue; to
find himself too late. He went out again—as soon as he decently could—taking
only a picture of her that in sixty over-charged minutes had wiped out the
treasured picture of years.
Sixty minutes! After waiting for years she had kept him an
hour, desperately, by sheer force of will keeping a man too stunned at first to
resist, to break free. (Then at last he broke free of that room and that woman,
and went!) For years he had pictured her sitting still as no other woman sat
still, tranquil and graceful, her hair going a little grey above her clear, pale
skin, her eyes of a dream-ridden saint. And now he must picture her forced into
life, vivaciously, restlessly eager; full of plans, (futile plans, how he knew
those plans!) for the world's upheaval, adding unrest to unrest. And now he must
picture her with the grey hair outwitted by art, with paint on her beautiful
At first he had wanted to take her in his arms; with his
strength to still her, with his tears to wash the paint off.
But he couldn't—he couldn't. He knew that his had been a
dream of such supreme sweetness that to awaken was an agony he could never hide;
knew that you can't re-enter dreamland once you wake.
So he went.
He never knew, with the door shut on him, how she fell on her
sofa—her vivacity quenched, her soul spent. He never knew that having failed,
(as she thought) to draw him to her with what she was, she had vainly, foolishly
tried a new model—himself.
He did not know how inartistic love can be when love is