Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Stranger Woman by G,B. Stern

(From John o'London's Weekly)

1922

After Hal Burnham had banged himself with his usual vigour out of the house, Dickie sat quite inconsolably staring in front of him at a favourite picture on his wall; a dim, sombre effect of quays and masts and intent hurrying men; his neat little brows were pulled down in a worried frown, his childish mouth was puckered.

Was it accurate and just, what Hal had said? Or, simpler still, was it true?

“What you damn well need, Dickie, old son, is life in the raw. You're living in a lady's work-box here.”

It was a bludgeoning return for the courteous attention with which Dickie had that evening listened to his friend's experiences of travel, for Hal was not even a good raconteur; he started an anecdote by its point, and roughly slapped in the scenery afterwards; he had likewise a habit of disconnecting his impressions from any sequence of time; also he exaggerated, and forgot names and dates; and even occasionally lapsed into odd silence just when Dickie was offering himself receptively for a climax.

And then the inevitable: “Well—and what have you been doing meanwhile?”

Dickie was not in the least at a loss; he had refurnished his rooms, to begin with; and that involved a diligent search in antique shops and at sale rooms, and one or two trips across country in order not to miss a real gem. And they had to be ready for comfortable habitation before the arrival of M. and Mlle. St. Andre for their annual stay with him—a delightful old pair, brother and sister, with peppery manners and hypercritical appreciation of a good cuisine—but so poor, so really painfully poor, that, as Dickie delicately put it: “I could not help knowing that it might make a difference to them if I postponed their visit, of less trivial annoyance, but more vital in quality, than with other of my friends for whom I should therefore have hurried my preparations rather less—this is in confidence, of course, my dear Hal!” He had set himself to complete his collection of Watts's Literary Souvenirs—“I have the whole eleven volumes now——” And he had been a guest at two charming house-parties in the country, and at one of them had been given the full responsibility of rehearsing a comic opera in the late eighteenth-century style. “Amateurs, of course. But I was so bent on realizing the flavour of the period, that I'm indeed afraid that I did not draw a clear enough line between the deliciously robust and the obnoxiously coarse——”

“Coarse—you!” Hal guffawed. And then—out came the accusation which was so disturbing little Dickie.

Life in the raw! Why did the phrase make him want to clear his throat? Raw—yes, that was the association—when you opened your mouth and the fog swirled in. Newsboys scampering along a foggy street that was neither elegant nor squalid, but just a street of mixed shops and mixed traffic and barrows lit with a row of flapping lights, and men and women with faces that showed they worked hard to earn a little less than they needed.... Public-houses.... Butchers' shops with great slabs of red meat.... Yes, and a queue outside the picture palace—and a station; people bought the evening papers as they hurried in and out of the station. “'Ere yer are, sir,” and on the sheets were headlines that blared out all the most sordid crimes of the past twenty-four hours, ignored during a sober morning of politics and commerce, but dragged into bold view for the people's more leisured reading.

Newsboys in a foggy street on a Saturday night—thus was Dickie's first instinct to define “life in the raw....” Then he discovered that this was only the archway, and that the crimes themselves were life in the raw—and the criminals.

But one must get nearer by slow degrees.

If at all.

Hal had said that he was living in a lady's work-box. Dickie was sensitive, and not at all stupid. His penetration was quite aware that Burnham's remark was not applied to the harmonizing shades of the walls between which he dwelt, nor to the soft, mellow pattern of his silky Persian rugs, nor to his collections—heavens, how he collected!—of glowing Sevres china, of Second Empire miniatures, of quaint old musical instruments with names that in themselves were a tender tinkle of song, and of the shoes that had been worn by queens.

All these things were merely accessories: his soul making neat, tiny gestures, shrugging its shoulders, pointing a toe. What Hal meant was that Dickie dared not live dangerously.

“What am I to do?”

He raised wistful, light brown eyes to the picture which was the one incongruous touch to the dainty perfection of his octagonal sitting-room. He had bought it at a rummage sale; it was unsigned, and the canvas, overcrowded with figures, had grown sombre and blurred; yet queerly Dickie liked the suggestion of powerful, half-naked men; the foreign quay-side street, with a slatternly woman silent against a doorway, and the clumsy ship straining to swing out to a menacing sea beyond.

All these things that he would never do: strip and carry bales on his back; linger in strange doorways and love hotly an animal woman who was unaccomplished and without grace and breeding; and then embark on an evil-smelling hulk that would have no human sympathy with his human ills.

He had done a little yachting, of course; with the Ansteys the year before last.

His lips bent to a small ironical smile as he reflected on the difference between “a little yachting” and the sinister fascination of that ugly, uninspired painting....

Slowly he got up and went out; that is to say, he very precisely selected the hat, gloves, coat, and silk muffler suitable to wear, and as precisely put them on. Then he blew up the fire with an old-fashioned pair of worked brass bellows; turned out the lamp; told Mrs. Derrick—who would have died in his service every day from eight to eight o'clock, but would not crook a finger for him a minute before she entered the house nor five seconds after she left it—that he was going for a walk and would certainly be back at a quarter to seven, but probably before; and then went out.

For this was the natural way for Dickie Maybury to behave.

At twenty to seven he returned, with a sheaf of news-papers—raucous, badly-printed papers with smudged lines and a sort of speckled film over the illustrations, and startlingly intimate headlines to every item of news.

Dickie was trying to get into touch with “life in the raw.”

At first he was merely bewildered. He had read his daily newspaper, of course—though not with the stolid regularity with which the average man does so. And besides, it was pre-eminently a journal of dignity and good form, with an art column, and a curio column, and a literary page, and a chess problem, and rather a delicately witty causerie by “Rapier”; it is to be feared that Dickie absorbed himself in these items first, and altogether left out most of the topical and sensational news.

Now, however, he read it. And out of it, the horror of the underworld swayed up at him. A twilit world, where cisterns dripped, and where homely, familiar things like gas-brackets and braces and coal-shovels were turned to dreadful weapons of death. The coroner and the broker's man and the undertaker sidled in and out of this world, dispassionately playing their frequent parts.... Stunted boys and girls died for love, like Romeo and Juliet, leaving behind them badly-punctuated cries of passion and despair that made Dickie wince as he read them....

Pale but fascinated, Dickie turned over a page, and came to the great sensation of the moment. “Is Ruth Oliver Guilty?” “Dramatic Developments.” “I Wish You Were Dead, Lucas!”

The account of the first day of the trial filled the entire page, and dribbled excitedly over on to the next. There was a photograph of Ruth Oliver, accused of murdering her husband. You could see that she had gay eyes in a small oval face, and a child's wistful mouth. This must have been taken while she was very happy.

Dickie had never read through a murder trial before. But he did so now, every line of it ... and the next day, and the next. Until the woman who had pleaded “Not guilty” was acquitted. And then he wrote to her, and asked her to marry him.

And who would dare say of him now that he had feared to meet life in the raw?

He did not know, of course, that his offer was one among fifty; did not know that the curious state of mind he was in, between trance and hysteria, was a very common one to the public after a trial in which the elements are dramatic or the central figure in any way picturesque. He did not even know how Ruth Oliver was being noisily besieged by Pressmen and Editors anxious for her biography; by music-hall and theatrical managers willing to star her; by old friends curiously proud of association with her notoriety; by religious fanatics with their proofs of a strictly localized Deity—“whose Hand has clearly been outstretched to save you!”; by unhealthy flappers who had Believed in her all along—(autograph, please).

But not knowing, yet his letter, chivalrous, without ardour, promised her a cool, quiet retreat from the plague of insects which was buzzing and stinging in the hot air all about her.... “My house is in a little square with trees all around it; it is shady and you cannot hear the traffic. I wonder if you are interested in old china and Japanese water-colours?...” Finally: “I shall be very proud and happy if you can trust me to understand how deeply you must be longing for sanctuary after the sorrowful time you have been through....”

“Sanctuary.” She saw it open for her like a cloistered aisle between cold pillars. He offered her, not the emotional variations, intolerable to her weariness just then, of a new devotion; but green shaded rooms, and the beauty of old things, and a little old-fashioned gentleman's courtesy.... So, ignoring the fifty other offers of marriage which had assailed her, she wrote to Dickie Maybury and asked him to come and see her.

He went, still in a strangely exultant mood, in which his will acted as easily and yet as fantastically as though it were on a slippery surface. And if he had met Hal Burnham on his way back from his visit to Ruth Oliver he would undoubtedly have swaggered a little. Nevertheless, he was thinking of Ruth, too, as well as of his own dare-devilry in thus seizing reality with both hands. Ruth's face, much older and more tormented than it had been in the photograph, had still that elusive quality which had from the beginning and through all the period of her trial haunted him. It outraged his refinement that any woman with the high looks and the breeding of his own class should have been for any space of time the property of a coarse public. As his wife, the insult should be tenderly rectified.... “The poor child! the poor sweet child!” He felt almost godlike with this new power upon him of acting, on impulse.

As for the peril of death which for a short while had threatened her, that was a fact too stark and hideous for contemplation: even with Dickie's altered appetite for primitive adventure....

They did not leave town after their quiet, matter-of-fact wedding at the registrar's. A journey, in Dickie's eyes, would have seemed too blatant an interruption to his everyday existence, as though he were tactlessly emphasising to his wife the necessity of a break and a complete change; she might even think—and again “poor child!” that events should have rubbed into such super-sensitiveness—that he was slightly ashamed of his act, and was therefore hustling her and himself out of sight. So they went straight home. And Mrs. Derrick said: “Indeed, sir,” when informed that her new mistress was the Ruth Oliver who had recently been acquitted of the charge of murdering her husband; she neither proffered a motherly bosom to Ruth, nor did she tender a haughty resignation from Mr. Maybury's service; but said she hoped it wouldn't be expected of her, under the new circumstances, to arrive earlier, nor to leave later, because she couldn't do it. As for Dickie's friends, most of them were of the country-house variety whom he visited once a year; next autumn would show whether Ruth would be included in those week and week-end invitations. Meanwhile, those few dwelling in London marvelled in a detached sort of way at Dickie's feat, liked Ruth, and pronounced it a shame that she should have been accused. Hal Burnham, the indirect promoter of the match, had returned to China.

Nobody was unkind; no word jarred; life was padded in dim brocade—Ruth drew a long breath, and was at peace. She was perfectly happy, watching Dickie. And Dickie was at play again, enjoying his collection and his objets d'art, and even his daily habits, with the added appreciation of a gambler who had staked, but miraculously, not lost them. Because, after all, anything might have resulted from his tempestuous decision at all costs to get into contact with naked actuality; all that had resulted was the presence in his house of a slim, grave woman who dressed her hair like a very skilful and not at all unconscious Madonna; whose taste was as fastidious as his own, and whose radiantly human smile had survived in vivid contrast to something quenched from her voice and shadowed in her eyes. A woman who, with a “May I?” of half-laughing reverence, discovered that she could slip on to her exquisite feet one pair after another from his collection of the shoes of dead queens—“It sounds like a ballade—Austin Dobson, I think—except that they're not all powder-and-patch queens.”

For she had an excellent feel of period—the texture of it, the fine shades of language, the outlook; Dickie hated people who had a blunt sense of period and in a jumbled fashion referred to old Venetian lace, and the Early Spanish School, and Louise de la Valliere, and a play by Wycherley indiscriminately as “historical.”

Yes, Dickie had certainly been lucky, and, like a wise man, he did not strain his star to another effort. The big thing—well, he had squared up to it—and, truth to say, he had been fearfully shaky and uncertain about his capacity to do so when Hal had first roused his pride in the matter. Now the little things again, the little beautiful things—he had earned them.

Anyway, he could not have a newspaper in the house nowadays, for Ruth's sake—he owed it to Ruth to shut out for ever those cries of horror and fear and violence from the battering underworld.

“What I love about the way we live, Dickie, is that the just-rightness of it all flows on evenly the whole time; one can be certain of it. Most people get it set aside for them in stray lumps—picture galleries and churches and a holiday on the Continent. And all the rest of their time is just-wrongness.”

Dickie wondered how much of her existence with Lucas Oliver had been “just-wrongness”—or indeed “all-wrongness.” But he never disturbed her surface of creamy serenity by referring to the husband who had been murdered by “some person or persons unknown.”

He and Ruth were the most harmonious of comrades, but never, so far, confidential. Perhaps Dickie overdid tact and non-intrusiveness; or perhaps Ruth, in her very passion of gratitude to him, was yet checked for ever from passionate expression by the memory that her innermost love and her innermost hate, wrung into words, had once, and not so long ago, been read aloud and commented upon in public court and in half the homes of England.

One evening, sitting together in front of the fire, they drifted into talk of their separate childhoods.

“There was a garden in mine,” said Ruth.

“And in mine—a Casino garden!” His eyes twinkled. “Palm trees like giant pineapples, and flower beds in a pattern, and a fountain—”

“Oh, you poor little Continental kiddie!”

He shrugged his shoulders. “The ways of the Lord are thoughtful and orderly. Why should He have wasted a heavenly wilderness of gnarled old apple-trees on a small boy who hated climbing?”

“You can't have hated climbing—if you hang that on your wall.” She nodded towards the quayside picture. “Surely you must have played 'pirates and South Seas' with your brothers.”

“I had none. A sister, that's all—who carried a sunshade.” “I had no sisters; but there was a girl next door—and her brother.”

“I note in jealous anguish of spirit,” remarked Dickie. “that you do not simply say 'a girl and boy next door.'“

Ruth's mischievous laugh affirmed his accusation. “The wall was not very high—I kicked a foothold into it half-way up, and Tommy gave me a pull from the top.”

“Tommy was ungallant enough to leave the wall to you?”

“There were cherries in his garden—sweet black cherries. And only crab-apples in ours.”

“He might have filled his pockets with cherries, and then climbed. No—I reject Tommy, he was unworthy of you. I may have been a horrid little Casino brat, I may even have worn a white satin sailor-suit with trousers down to my ankles—”

“Oh!” Ruth winced.

“I may have danced too well, and I understood too early the art of complimenting ladies whose hats were too big and whose eyes were too bright.... But once, after Annunciata Maddalena's nose had bled over this same sailor-suit, I said it was my own nose, because I knew how bitterly she was ashamed of her one bourgeois lapse....”

“Tommy would have disowned her, instead of owning the nose. Oh, I grant you the nobler nature ... but it breaks my heart that you didn't have the wild English garden and the cherries and the grubby old dark-blue jersey.”

“If we have a kiddie—” Dickie began softly, his mouth puckered to its special elvish little smile. Then he met her eyes lapping him round with such velvet tenderness—that Dickie suddenly knew he was loved, knew that impulsively she was going to tell him so, and breathlessly happier than he had ever been before, waited for it—

“I did kill my husband. They acquitted me, but I was guilty. It was an accident. I was so afraid. They would never have believed it could be an accident. But I had to, in self-defence.”

And now she had told him she loved him.

Only Dickie was too numb to recognise the form her confession of love had taken; love, as always, was clamouring to be clearly seen—naked, if need be, blood-guilty, if need be—but seen ... and then swept up, sin and all, by another love big enough to accept this truth, also, as essentially part of her.

Ruth waited several seconds for Dickie to speak. Then she got up, and strolled over to the picture, and said, examining intently, as though for the first time, the woman in the doorway: “I'm not sorry, Dickie. That is to say, I'm sorry, of course, if I've shattered an illusion of yours, but—I can't be melodramatic, you know, not even to the extent of using the word 'murderess' on myself. If I hadn't killed Lucas—”

“He would have killed you?” So he was able to utter quite natural and coherent sounds! Dickie was surprised.

“Yes—” But Ruth found that, after all, she could not tell Dickie much about Lucas. Lucas had not been a pleasant gentleman to live with—and there were things that Dickie was too fine himself, and too innocent, to realise. The only comprehension in this thoroughly well-groomed atmosphere of soft carpets and dim silken panels and miniatures and rare frail china might have come from the woman in the doorway of that incongruous picture ... a woman sullenly patient, brutalised, but—yes, her man might quite easily have been another Lucas.

For that which Dickie had always thought of as mysterious, elusive, was, to Ruth's eyes, only sorrowful wisdom.

“Come here, Ruth.”

She dragged her eyes away from the picture; crossed the room; broke down completely, her head on his knees, her shuddering body crouched closely to the floor: “When you've—been frightened—and have to live with it—and it doesn't even stop at night—for weeks and months and years—one's nerves aren't quite reliable.... They've no right to call that murder, have they? have they, Dickie? When you've been afraid for a long time—and there's no one you can tell about it except the person who makes the fear....”

But Dickie was all that she had perilously dared to hope he would be at this crisis. He soothed her and healed her by his loyalty; promised, without her extorting it, that he would never tell a soul what she had just told him; pixie-shy, yet he spoke of his personal need of her—and more than anything else she had desired to hear this. He mentioned some trivial intimate plans for their unbroken, unchanged future together, so as to reassure her of its continuance. He even made her laugh.

In fact, for a last appearance in the role of a gallant little gentleman, Dickie did not do so badly.

He woke in the night from a bad dream—with terror clinging thickly about his senses. But it did not slowly dissolve and release him, as nightmare is wont to do. It remained—so that he lay still as a man in his winding-sheet, afraid to move—remembering—

“I did kill my husband.”

Yes—that was it. In the room with him was a strange woman who had killed her husband.

Not Ruth—but a strange woman. How had she got into the room with him?

She had killed her husband. And now, he was her husband.

He lay motionless, but his imagination began to crawl.... What might happen to a man shut up alone in a house with a woman who—murdered?

His imagination began to race—and he lost control of it. Murder ... with dry, sandy throat and a kicking heart, Dickie had to pay for his audacity in imagining he was big enough to claim life in the raw.

“Not big enough! Not big enough!”—the goblins of the underworld croaked at him in triumphant chorus.... They capered ... they snapped their fingers at him ... they spun him down to where fear was ... he had delivered himself to them, by not being big enough.

“Mrs. Bigger had a baby—which was bigger, Mrs. Bigger or the baby?”

The silly conundrum sprang at him from goodness knows what void—and over and over again he repeated it to himself, trying to remember the answer, trying to forget fear....

“Mrs. Bigger had a baby—”

He dared not fall asleep ... with the woman who had killed her husband, alone in the room with him ... alone in the house with him.

A stir from the other bed, and one arm flung out in sleep. Dickie's knees jerked violently—his skin went cold and sticky with sweat. “You fool—it's only Ruth!”

But she did it—she did it once. There are people who can't kill, and a few, just a very few, who can. And because they can, they are different, and have to be shut away from the herd.

But—but this woman. They've made a ghastly mistake—they've let her go free—and I can't tell anyone ... nobody knows, except me and Ruth—— Ah, yes—a quivering sigh of relief here—Ruth knows, too—Ruth, my wife—ruth means pity....

There is no Ruth ... there never was ... quite alone except for a strange, strange woman—the kind that gets shut away and kept by herself....

      * * * * *

To this bondage had Dickie's nerves delivered him. The custom of punctilious courtesy, so deeply ingrained as to mean in his case the impossibility of wounding another, decreed that some pretence must be kept up before Ruth. But with one shock she divined the next morning the significant change in him, and bowed her head to it. What could she do? She loved him, but she had overrated the capacity of his spirit. There had never been any courage, only kindness and sweetness and chivalry—all no good to him, now that courage was wanted. She had made a mistake in telling him the truth.

Suffering—she thought she had suffered fiercely with Lucas, she thought she had suffered while she was being ignominiously tried for her life—but what were either of these phases compared with the helpless bitterness of seeing Dickie, whom she loved, afraid of her?

Even her periodic fits of wild arrogant passion, which usually, when they surged past restraint, wrecked and altered whatever situation was hemming her in, and left gaps for a passage through to something else—even these had now to be curbed. Useful in hate, they were impotent in love. So Ruth recognised in her new humility. But when one day, seized by panic at having spoken irritably to her, Dickie hastily tried to propitiate her, to ingratiate himself so that she might spare him, might let him live a little longer, then Ruth felt she must cry aloud under the strain of this subtle torture. Why, he was her lover, her man, her child.... In thought, her arm shaped itself into a crook for his head to lie there; her fingers smoothed out the drawn perplexity of his brows; her kisses were cool as snow on his hot, twitching little mouth; her voice, hushed to a lullaby croon, promised him that nobody should hurt him, nobody, while she was there to heal and protect—

  “Sleep, baby, sleep,
  The hills are white with sheep——”

Over and over again she lulled herself with the old rhyme, for comfort's sake. But Dickie she could not comfort, since, irony of ironies, she was the cause of his pitiful breakdown. Why, if she spoke, he started; if she moved towards him, he shrank. Yet still Ruth dreamt that if he would only let her touch him, she could bring him reassurance. But meanwhile his appetite was meagre, the rare half-hours he slept were broken with evil dreams, from which he awoke whimpering. He did not care any more about the little beautiful things he had collected and grouped about him, but sat for hours listless and blank; his appearance a grotesque parody of the trim and dapper Dickie Maybury of the past—what could it matter how he looked with death slicing so close to him?

“The master seems poorly of late, don't he, ma'am? His digestion ain't strong. P'r'aps something 'as disagreed with 'im.” Thus Mrs. Derrick, taking her part in the drama, as the simple character who makes speeches of more significant portent than she is aware of.

Something had, indeed, disagreed with Dickie. In the slang phrase: “He had bitten off more than he could chew.”

And the goblins were hunting him; whispering how she would creep up to him stealthily from behind, this woman who killed ... and put her arms round him, and put her fingers to his throat—that was one way.

Other ways there were, of course. He must learn about them all, so as to be watchful and prepared. Self-defence ... accident. Of course, they always said it was accident. He knew that now, for the evening crime-sheets began to appear in the flat again, and Dickie studied them, in place of the villanelles, the graceful essays, the belles-lettres of his former choice. Ruth saw him, with his delicate shaking hands clutching the newspapers, his mild eyes bright with sordid fascination. He was ill, certainly; and brain-sick and oppressed; and she yearned for his illness to show itself a tangible, serious matter; a matter of bed and doctor and complete prostration and unwearied effort on the part of his nurse. “My darling—my darling.... He did everything for me, when I most needed it. And now, I can do nothing.... It isn't fair!”

She stood by one of the open windows of the pretty Watteau sitting-room. The lamps had just sprung to fiery stars in the blue glamorous twilight of the square; the fragrance of wet lilac blew up to her, and a blackbird among the bushes began to sing like mad ... the fist which was cruelly squeezing Ruth's spirit seemed slowly to unclench ... and suddenly it struck her that things might be made worth while again for her and Dickie.

After all, how insane it was for him to be huddling miserably, as she knew he would be, in the arm-chair of his study, gazing with forlorn eyes at the squalid columns, which it had grown too dark for him to decipher. She had a vision of what this very evening might yet hold of recovered magic, if only she had the courage to carry out her simple cure of his head drawn down on to her left breast, just where her heart was beating. “Dickie, it's all right, you know—it's only Ruth I You've been sitting with your bogies all the time the white lilac has been coming out——”

A faint smile lay at last on Ruth's mouth, and in the curve of her tired eyelids. She went softly into the study. The door was open....

Dickie sprang to his feet with a yell of terror as her hands came round his neck from behind. He clutched at the revolver in his pocket and fired, at random, backwards.... In the wall behind them was the round dark mark of a merciful bullet. And——

“Dickie—oh, Dickie—when you've been frightened—and have to live with it—and it doesn't even stop at nights—do you understand, now, how it happens? They've no right to call that murder, have they, Dickie?”

And now, indeed, understanding that the awful act of killing could be, in a rare once or twice, a human accident for the frightened little human to commit—understanding, Dickie was shocked back to sanity.

“Dear, dear Ruth——” Why, this stranger woman was no stranger, after all, but Ruth, his own sweet wife. Dickie was tired, and he knew he need not explain things to her. He laid his head down on her left breast, just where the heart was beating.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page