The Letter and the Lie by Arnold Bennett
As he hurried from his brougham through the sombre hall to his
study, leaving his secretary far in the rear, he had already composed
the first sentence of his address to the United Chambers of Commerce of
the Five Towns; his mind was full of it; he sat down at once to his
vast desk, impatient to begin dictating. Then it was that he perceived
the letter, lodged prominently against the gold and onyx inkstand given
to him on his marriage by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The
envelope was imperfectly fastened, or not fastened at all, and the flap
came apart as he fingered it nervously.
“Dear Cloud,—This is to say good-bye, finally—”
He stopped. Fear took him at the heart, as though he had been
suddenly told by a physician that he must submit to an operation
endangering his life. And he skipped feverishly over the four pages to
the signature, “Yours sincerely, Gertrude.”
The secretary entered.
“I must write one or two private letters first,” he said to the
secretary. “Leave me. I'll ring.”
“Yes, sir. Shall I take your overcoat?”
A discreet closing of the door.
“—finally. I can't stand it any longer. Cloud, I'm gone to Italy. I
shall use the villa at Florence, and trust you to leave me alone. You
must tell our friends. You can start with the Bargraves to-night. I'm
sure they'll agree with me it's for the best—”
It seemed to him that this letter was very like the sort of letter
that gets read in the Divorce Court and printed in the papers
afterwards; and he felt sick.
“—for the best. Everybody will know in a day or two, and then in
another day or two the affair will be forgotten. It's difficult to
write naturally under the circumstances, so all I'll say is that we
aren't suited to each other, Cloud. Ten years of marriage has amply
proved that, though I knew it six—seven—years ago. You haven't
guessed that you've been killing me all these years; but it is so—”
Killing her! He flushed with anger, with indignation, with
innocence, with guilt—with Heaven knew what!
“—it is so. You've been living your life. But what
about me? In five more years I shall be old, and I haven't begun to
live. I can't stand it any longer. I can't stand this awful Five
Had he not urged her many a time to run up to South Audley Street
for a change, and leave him to continue his work? Nobody wanted her to
be always in Staffordshire!
“—and I can't stand you. That's the brutal truth. You've got
on my nerves, my poor boy, with your hurry, and your philanthropy, and
your commerce, and your seriousness. My poor nerves! And you've been
too busy to notice it. You fancied I should be content if you made love
to me absent-mindedly, en passant, between a political dinner
and a bishop's breakfast.”
He flinched. She had stung him.
“I sting you—”
No! And he straightened himself, biting his lips!
“—I sting you! I'm rude! I'm inexcusable! People don't say these
things, not even hysterical wives to impeccable husbands, eh? I admit
it. But I was bound to tell you. You're a serious person, Cloud, and
I'm not. Still, we were both born as we are, and I've just as much
right to be unserious as you have to be serious. That's what you've
never realized. You aren't better than me; you're only different from
me. It is unfortunate that there are some aspects of the truth that you
are incapable of grasping. However, after this morning's scene—”
Scene? What scene? He remembered no scene, except that he had asked
her not to interrupt him while he was reading his letters, had asked
her quite politely, and she had left the breakfast-table. He thought
she had left because she had finished. He hadn't a notion—what
“—this morning's scene, I decided not to 'interrupt' you any
Yes. There was the word he had used—how childish she was!
“—any more in the contemplation of those aspects of the truth which
you are capable of grasping. Good-bye! You're an honest man, and
a straight man, and very conscientious, and very clever, and I expect
you're doing a lot of good in the world. But your responsibilities are
too much for you. I relieve you of one, quite a minor one—your wife.
You don't want a wife. What you want is a doll that you can wind up
once a fortnight to say 'Good-morning, dear,' and 'Good-night, dear.' I
think I can manage without a husband for a very long time. I'm not so
bitter as you might guess from this letter, Cloud. But I want you
thoroughly to comprehend that it's finished between us. You can do what
you like. People can say what they like. I've had enough. I'll pay any
price for freedom. Good luck. Best wishes. I would write this letter
afresh if I thought I could do a better one.—Yours sincerely,
He dropped the letter, picked it up and read it again and then
folded it in his accustomed tidy manner and replaced it in the
envelope. He sat down and propped the letter against the inkstand and
stared at the address in her careless hand: “The Right Honourable Sir
Cloud Malpas, Baronet.” She had written the address in full like that
as a last stroke of sarcasm. And she had not even put “Private.”
He was dizzy, nearly stunned; his head rang.
Then he rose and went to the window. The high hill on which stood
Malpas Manor—the famous Rat Edge—fell away gradually to the south,
and in the distance below him, miles off, the black smoke of the Five
Towns loomed above the yellow fires of blast-furnaces. He was the
demi-god of the district, a greater landowner than even the Earl of
Chell, a model landlord, a model employer of four thousand men, a model
proprietor of seven pits and two iron foundries, a philanthropist, a
religionist, the ornamental mayor of Knype, chairman of a Board of
Guardians, governor of hospitals, president of Football Association—in
short, Sir Cloud, son of Sir Cloud and grandson of Sir Cloud.
He stared dreamily at his dominion. Scandal, then, was to touch him
with her smirching finger, him the spotless! Gertrude had fled. He had
ruined Gertrude's life! Had he? With his heavy and severe
conscientiousness he asked himself whether he was to blame in her
regard. Yes, he thought he was to blame. It stood to reason that he was
to blame. Women, especially such as Gertrude, proud, passionate,
reserved, don't do these things for nothing.
With a sigh he passed into his dressing-room and dropped on to a
She would be inflexible—he knew her. His mind dwelt on the
beautiful first days of their marriage, the tenderness and the dream!
He heard footsteps in the study; the door was opened! It was
Gertrude! He could see her in the dusk. She had returned! Why? She
tripped to the desk, leaned forward and snatched at the letter.
Evidently she did not know that he was in the house and had read it.
The tension was too painful. A sigh broke from him, as it were of
“Who's there?” she cried, in a startled voice. “Is that you, Cloud?”
“Yes,” he breathed.
“But you're home very early!” Her voice shook.
“I'm not well, Gertrude,” he replied. “I'm tired. I came in here to
lie down. Can't you do something for my head? I must have a holiday.”
He heard her crunch up the letter, and then she hastened to him in
“My poor Cloud!” she said, bending over him in the mature elegance
of her thirty years. He noticed her travelling costume. “Some eau de
He nodded weakly.
“We'll go away for a holiday,” he said, later, as she bathed his
The touch of her hands on his temples reminded him of forgotten
caresses. And he did really feel as though, within a quarter of an
hour, he had been through a long and dreadful illness and was now
“Then you think that after starting she thought better of it?” said
Lord Bargrave after dinner that night. “And came back?”
Lord Bargrave was Gertrude's cousin, and he and his wife sometimes
came over from Shropshire for a week-end. He sat with Sir Cloud in the
smoking-room; a man with greying hair and a youngish, equable face.
“Yes, Harry, that was it. You see, I'd just happened to put the
letter exactly where I found it. She's no notion that I've seen it.”
“She's a thundering good actress!” observed Lord Bargrave, sipping
some whisky. “I knew something was up at dinner, but I didn't know it
from her: I knew it from you.”
Sir Cloud smiled sadly.
“Well, you see, I'm supposed to be ill—at least, to be not well.”
“You'd best take her away at once,” said Lord Bargrave. “And don't
do it clumsily. Say you'll go away for a few days, and then gradually
lengthen it out. She mentioned Italy, you say. Well, let it be Italy.
Clear out for six months.”
“But my work here?”
“D—n your work here!” said Lord Bargrave. “Do you suppose you're
indispensable here? Do you suppose the Five Towns can't manage without
you? Our caste is decayed, my boy, and silly fools like you try to
lengthen out the miserable last days of its importance by giving
yourselves airs in industrial districts! Your conscience tells you that
what the demagogues say is true—we are rotters on the face of
the earth, we are mediaeval; and you try to drown your
conscience in the noise of philanthropic speeches. There isn't a
sensible working-man in the Five Towns who doesn't, at the bottom of
his heart, assess you at your true value—as nothing but a man with a
hobby, and plenty of time and money to ride it.”
“I do not agree with you,” Sir Cloud said stiffly.
“Yes, you do,” said Lord Bargrave. “At the same time I admire you,
Cloud. I'm not built the same way myself, but I admire you—except in
the matter of Gertrude. There you've been wrong—of course from the
highest motives: which makes it all the worse. A man oughtn't to put
hobbies above the wife of his bosom. And, besides, she's one of us. So take her away and stay away and make love to her.”
“Suppose I do? Suppose I try? I must tell her!”
“Tell her what?”
“That I read the letter. I acted a lie to her this afternoon. I
can't let that lie stand between us. It would not be right.”
Lord Bargrave sprang up.
“Cloud,” he cried. “For heaven's sake, don't be an infernal ass.
Here you've escaped a domestic catastrophe of the first magnitude by a
miracle. You've made a sort of peace with Gertrude. She's come to her
senses. And now you want to mess up the whole show by the act of an
idiot! What if you did act a lie to her this afternoon? A very good
thing! The most sensible thing you've done for years! Let the lie stand
between you. Look at it carefully every morning when you awake. It will
help you to avoid repeating in the future the high-minded errors of the
past. See?” III
And in Lady Bargrave's dressing-room that night Gertrude was
confiding in Lady Bargrave.
“Yes,” she said, “Cloud must have come in within five minutes of my
leaving—two hours earlier than he was expected. Fortunately he went
straight to his dressing-room. Or was it unfortunately? I was half-way
to the station when it occurred to me that I hadn't fastened the
envelope! You see, I was naturally in an awfully nervous state, Minnie.
So I told Collins to turn back. Fuge, our new butler, is of an
extremely curious disposition, and I couldn't bear the idea of him
prying about and perhaps reading that letter before Cloud got it. And
just as I was picking up the letter to fasten it I heard Cloud in the
next room. Oh! I never felt so queer in all my life! The poor boy was
quite unwell. I screwed up the letter and went to him. What else could
I do? And really he was so tired and white—well, it moved me! It moved
me. And when he spoke about going away I suddenly thought: 'Why not try
to make a new start with him?' After all ...”
There was a pause.
“What did you say in the letter?” Lady Bargrave demanded. “How did
you put it?”
“I'll read it to you,” said Gertrude, and she took the letter from
her corsage and began to read it. She got as far as “I can't stand this
awful Five Towns district,” and then she stopped.
“Well, go on,” Lady Bargrave encouraged her.
“No,” said Gertrude, and she put the letter in the fire. “The fact
is,” she said, going to Lady Bargrave's chair, “it was too cruel. I
hadn't realized.... I must have been very worked-up.... One does work
oneself up.... Things seem a little different now....” She glanced at
“Why, Gertrude, you're crying, dearest!”
“What a chance it was!” murmured Gertrude, in her tears. “What a
chance! Because, you know, if he had once read it I would never
have gone back on it. I'm that sort of woman. But as it is, there's a
sort of hope of a sort of happiness, isn't there?”
“Gertrude!” It was Sir Cloud's voice, gentle and tender, outside the
“Mercy on us!” exclaimed Lady Bargrave. “It's half-past one.
Bargrave will have been asleep long since.”
Gertrude kissed her in silence, opened the door, and left her.