by May Sinclair
Nobody ever understood why he married her.
You expected calamity to pursue Wilkinsonit always had pursued
him; but that Wilkinson should have gone out of his way to pursue
calamity (as if he could never have enough of it) really seemed a most
For there had been no pursuit on the part of the lady. Wilkinson's
wife had the quality of her defects, and revealed herself chiefly in a
formidable reluctance. It was understood that Wilkinson had prevailed
only after an austere struggle. Her appearance sufficiently refuted any
theory of unholy fascination or disastrous charm.
Wilkinson's wife was not at all nice to look at. She had an
insignificant figure, a small, square face, colorless hair scraped with
difficulty to the top of her head, eyes with no lashes to protect you
from their stare, a mouth that pulled at an invisible curb, a sallow
skin stretched so tight over her cheek-bones that the red veins stood
stagnant there; and with it all, poor lady, a dull, strained expression
hostile to further intimacy.
Even in her youth she never could have looked young, and she was
years older than Wilkinson. Not that the difference showed, for his
marriage had made Wilkinson look years older than he was; at least, so
it was said by people who had known him before that unfortunate event.
It was not even as if she had been intelligent. Wilkinson had a
gentle passion for the things of intellect; his wife seemed to exist on
purpose to frustrate it. In no department of his life was her influence
so penetrating and malign. At forty he no longer counted; he had lost
all his brilliance, and had replaced it by a shy, unworldly charm.
There was something in Wilkinson that dreamed or slept, with one eye
open, fixed upon his wife. Of course, he had his blessed hours of
deliverance from the woman. Sometimes he would fly in her face and ask
people to dine at his house in Hampstead, to discuss Roman remains, or
the Troubadours, or Nietzsche. He never could understand why his wife
couldn't enter, as he expressed it, into these subjects. He smiled at
you in the dimmest, saddest way when he referred to it. It's
extraordinary, he would say, the little interest she takes in
Mrs. Norman found him once wandering in the High Street, with his
passion full on him. He was a little absent, a little flushed; his eyes
shone behind his spectacles; and there were pleasant creases in his
queer, clean-shaven face.
She inquired the cause of his delight.
I've got a man coming to dine this evening, to have a little talk
with me. He knows all about the Troubadours.
And Wilkinson would try and make you believe that they had threshed
out the Troubadours between them. But when Mrs. Norman, who was a
little curious about Wilkinson, asked the Troubadour man what they
had talked about, he smiled and said it was somethingsome
extraordinary adventurethat had happened to Wilkinson's wife.
People always smiled when they spoke of her. Then, one by one, they
left off dining with Wilkinson. The man who read Nietzsche was quite
rude about it. He said he wasn't going there to be gagged by that
woman. He would have been glad enough to ask Wilkinson to dine with him
if he would go without his wife.
If it had not been for Mrs. Norman the Wilkinsons would have
vanished from the social scene. Mrs. Norman had taken Wilkinson up, and
it was evident that she did not mean to let him go. That, she would
have told you with engaging emphasis, was not her way. She had seen how
things were going, socially, with Wilkinson, and she was bent on his
If anybody could have carried it through, it would have been Mrs.
Norman. She was clever; she was charming; she had a house in Fitzjohn's
Avenue, where she entertained intimately. At forty she had preserved
the best part of her youth and prettiness, and an income insufficient
for Mr. Norman, but enough for her. As she said in her rather dubious
pathos, she had nobody but herself to please now.
You gathered that if Mr. Norman had been living he would not have
been pleased with her cultivation of the Wilkinsons. She was always
asking them to dinner. They turned up punctually at her delightful
Friday evenings (her little evenings) from nine to eleven. They dropped
in to tea on Sunday afternoons. Mrs. Norman had a wonderful way of
drawing Wilkinson out; while Evey, her unmarried sister, made
prodigious efforts to draw Wilkinson's wife in. If you could only make
her, said Mrs. Norman, take an interest in something.
But Evey couldn't make her take an interest in anything. Evey had no
sympathy with her sister's missionary adventure. She saw what Mrs.
Norman wouldn't seethat, if they forced Mrs. Wilkinson on people who
were trying to keep away from her, people would simply keep away from
them. Their Fridays were not so well attended, so delightful, as they
had been. A heavy cloud of dulness seemed to come into the room, with
Mrs. Wilkinson, at nine o'clock. It hung about her chair, and spread
slowly, till everybody was wrapped in it.
Then Evey protested. She wanted to know why Cornelia allowed their
evenings to be blighted thus. Why ask Mrs. Wilkinson?
I wouldn't, said Cornelia, if there was any other way of getting
Well, said Evey, he's nice enough, but it's rather a large price
to have to pay.
And is he, cried Cornelia passionately, to be cut off from
everything because of that one terrible mistake?
Evey said nothing. If Cornelia were going to take him that way,
there was nothing to be said!
So Mrs. Norman went on drawing Wilkinson out more and more, till one
Sunday afternoon, sitting beside her on the sofa, he emerged positively
splendid. There were moments when he forgot about his wife.
They had been talking together about his blessed Troubadours. (It
was wonderful the interest Mrs. Norman took in them!) Suddenly his
gentleness and sadness fell from him, a flame sprang up behind his
spectacles, and the something that slept or dreamed in Wilkinson awoke.
He was away with Mrs. Norman in a lovely land, in Provence of the
thirteenth century. A strange chant broke from him; it startled Evey,
where she sat at the other end of the room. He was reciting his own
translation of a love-song of Provence.
At the first words of the refrain his wife, who had never ceased
staring at him, got up and came across the room. She touched his
shoulder just as he was going to say Ma mie.
Come, Peter, she said, it's time to be going home.
Wilkinson rose on his long legs. Ma mie, he said, looking down at
her; and the flaming dream was still in his eyes behind his spectacles.
He took the little cloak she held out to him, a pitiful and rather
vulgar thing. He raised it with the air of a courtier handling a royal
robe; then he put it on her, smoothing it tenderly about her shoulders.
Mrs. Norman followed them to the porch. As he turned to her on the
step, she saw that his eyes were sad, and that his face, as she put it,
had gone to sleep again.
When she came back to her sister, her own eyes shone and her face
Oh, Evey, she said, isn't it beautiful?
Isn't what beautiful?
Mr. Wilkinson's behavior to his wife.
It was not an easy problem that Mrs. Norman faced. She wished to
save Wilkinson; she also wished to save the character of her Fridays,
which Wilkinson's wife had already done her best to destroy. Mrs.
Norman could not think why the woman came, since she didn't enjoy
herself, since she was impenetrable to the intimate, peculiar charm.
You could only suppose that her object was to prevent its penetrating
Wilkinson, to keep the other women off. Her eyes never left him.
It was all very well for Evey to talk. She might, of course,
have been wiser in the beginning. She might have confined the creature
to their big monthly crushes, where, as Evey had suggested, she would
easily have been mislaid and lost. But so, unfortunately, would
Wilkinson; and the whole point was how not to lose him.
Evey said she was tired of being told off to entertain Mrs.
Wilkinson. She was beginning to be rather disagreeable about it. She
said Cornelia was getting to care too much about that Wilkinson man.
She wouldn't have minded playing up to her if she had approved of the
game; but Mrs. Wilkinson was, after all, you know, Mr. Wilkinson's
Mrs. Norman cried a little. She told Evey she ought to have known it
was his spirit that she cared about. But she owned that it wasn't right
to sacrifice poor Evey. Neither, since he had a wife, was it
altogether right for her to care about Wilkinson's spirit to the
exclusion of her other friends.
Then, one Friday, Mrs. Norman, relieving her sister for once, made a
discovery while Evey, who was a fine musician, played. Mrs. Wilkinson
did, after all, take an interest in something; she was accessible to
the throbbing of Evey's bow across the strings.
She had started; her eyes had turned from Wilkinson and fastened on
the player. There was a light in them, beautiful and piercing, as if
her soul had suddenly been released from some hiding-place in its
unlovely house. Her face softened, her mouth relaxed, her eyes closed.
She lay back in her chair, at peace, withdrawn from them, positively
Mrs. Norman slipped across the room to the corner where Wilkinson
sat alone. His face lightened as she came.
It's extraordinary, he said, her love of music.
Mrs. Norman assented. It was extraordinary, if you came to
think of it. Mrs. Wilkinson had no understanding of the art. What did
it mean to her? Where did it take her? You could see she was
transported, presumably to some place of chartered stupidity, of
condoned oblivion, where nobody could challenge her right to enter and
So soothing, said Wilkinson, to the nerves.
Mrs. Norman smiled at him. She felt that, under cover of the music,
his spirit was seeking communion with hers.
He thanked her at parting; the slight hush and mystery of his manner
intimated that she had found a way.
I hope, she said, you'll come oftenoften.
May we? May we? He seemed to leap at itas if they hadn't come
often enough before!
Certainly she had found the waythe way to deliver him, the way to
pacify his wife, to remove her gently to her place and keep her there.
The dreadful lady thus creditably disposed of, Wilkinson was no
longer backward in the courting of his opportunity. He proved punctual
to the first minute of the golden hour.
Hampstead was immensely interested in his blossoming forth. It found
a touching simplicity in the way he lent himself to the sympathetic
eye. All the world was at liberty to observe his intimacy with Mrs.
It endured for nine weeks. Then suddenly, to Mrs. Norman's
bewilderment, it ceased. The Wilkinsons left off coming to her Friday
evenings. They refused her invitations. Their behavior was so abrupt
and so mysterious that Mrs. Norman felt that something must have
happened to account for it. Somebody, she had no doubt, had been
talking. She was much annoyed with Wilkinson in consequence, and, when
she met him accidentally in the High Street, her manner conveyed to him
her just resentment.
He called in Fitzjohn's Avenue the next Sunday. For the first time
he was without his wife.
He was so downcast, and so penitent, and so ashamed of himself that
Mrs. Norman met him halfway with a little rush of affection.
Why have you not been to see us all this time? she said.
He looked at her unsteadily; his whole manner betrayed an extreme
I've come, he said, on purpose to explain. You mustn't think I
don't appreciate your kindness, but the fact is my poor wife(She
knew that woman was at the bottom of it!)is no longerup to it.
What is the wretch up to, I should like to know? thought Mrs.
He held her with his melancholy, unsteady eyes. He seemed to be
endeavoring to approach a subject intimately and yet abstrusely
She finds the musicjust at presenta little too much for her;
the vibrations, you know. It's extraordinary how they affect her. She
feels themmost unpleasantlyjust here. Wilkinson laid two delicate
fingers on the middle buttons of his waistcoat.
Mrs. Norman was very kind to him. He was not very expert, poor
fellow, in the fabrication of excuses. His look seemed to implore her
pardon for the shifts he had been driven to; it appealed to her to help
him out, to stand by him in his unspeakable situation.
I see, she said.
He smiled, in charming gratitude to her for seeing it.
That smile raised the devil in her. Why, after all, should she help
And are you susceptible to musicin the same unpleasant way?
Me? Oh, nono. I like it; it gives me the very greatest pleasure.
He stared at her in bewilderment and distress.
Then why, said Mrs. Norman sweetly, if it gives you pleasure,
should you cut yourself off from it?
My dear Mrs. Norman, we have to cut ourselves off from a great many
thingsthat give us pleasure. It can't be helped.
She meditated. Would it be any good, she said, if I were to call
on Mrs. Wilkinson?
Wilkinson looked grave. It is most kind of you, butjust at
presentI think it might be wiser not. She really, you know, isn't
Mrs. Norman's silence neither accepted nor rejected the preposterous
pretext. Wilkinson went on, helping himself out as best he could:
I can't talk about it; but I thought I ought to let you know. We've
just got to give everything up.
She held herself in. A terrible impulse was upon her to tell him
straight out that she did not see it; that it was too bad; that there
was no reason why she should be called upon to give everything up.
So, if we don't come, he said, you'll understand? It's betterit
really is better not.
His voice moved her, and her heart cried to him, Poor Peter!
Yes, she said; I understand.
Of course she understood. Poor Peter! so it had come to that?
Can't you stay for tea? she said.
No; I must be going back to her.
He rose. His hand found hers. Its slight pressure told her that he
gave and took the sadness of renunciation.
That winter Mrs. Wilkinson fell ill in good earnest, and Wilkinson
became the prey of a pitiful remorse that kept him a prisoner by his
He had always been a good man; it was now understood that he avoided
Mrs. Norman because he desired to remain what he had always been.
There was also an understanding, consecrated by the piety of their
renunciation, that Wilkinson was only waiting for his wife's death to
marry Mrs. Norman.
And Wilkinson's wife was a long time in dying. It was not to be
supposed that she would die quickly, as long as she could interfere
with his happiness by living.
With her genius for frustrating and tormenting, she kept the poor
man on tenter-hooks with perpetual relapses and recoveries. She jerked
him on the chain. He was always a prisoner on the verge of his release.
She was at death's door in March. In April she was to be seen,
convalescent, in a bath-chair, being wheeled slowly up and down the
Spaniard's Road. And Wilkinson walked by the chair, his shoulders bent,
his eyes fixed on the ground, his face set in an expression of
In the summer she gave it up and died; and in the following spring
Wilkinson resumed his converse with Mrs. Norman. All things considered,
he had left a decent interval.
By autumn Mrs. Norman's friends were all on tiptoe and craning their
necks with expectation. It was assumed among them that Wilkinson would
propose to her the following summer, when the first year of his
widowhood should be ended. When summer came there was nothing between
them that anybody could see. But it by no means followed that there was
nothing to be seen. Mrs. Norman seemed perfectly sure of him. In her
intense sympathy for Wilkinson she knew how to account for all his
hesitations and delays. She could not look for any passionate, decisive
step from the broken creature he had become; she was prepared to accept
him as he was, with all his humiliating fears and waverings. The tragic
things his wife had done to him could not be undone in a day.
Another year divided Wilkinson from his tragedy, and still he stood
trembling weakly on the verge. Mrs. Norman began to grow thin. She lost
her bright air of defiance, and showed herself vulnerable by the hand
of time. And nothing, positively nothing, stood between them, except
Wilkinson's morbid diffidence. So absurdly manifest was their case that
somebody (the Troubadour man, in fact) interposed discreetly. In the
most delicate manner possible, he gave Wilkinson to understand that he
would not necessarily make himself obnoxious to Mrs. Norman were he to
approach her withwell, with a view to securing their joint
happinesshappiness which they had both earned by their admirable
That was all that was needed: a tactful friend of both parties to
put it to Wilkinson simply and in the right way. Wilkinson rose from
his abasement. There was a light in his eye that rejoiced the tactful
friend; his face had a look of sudden, virile determination.
I will go to her, he said, now.
It was a dark, unpleasant evening, full of cold and sleet.
Wilkinson thrust his arms into an overcoat, jammed a cap down on his
forehead, and strode into the weather. He strode into Mrs. Norman's
When Mrs. Norman saw that look on his face she knew that it was all
right. Her youth rose in her again to meet it.
Forgive me, said Wilkinson. I had to come.
Why not? she said.
It's so late.
Not too late for me.
He sat down, still with his air of determination, in the chair she
indicated. He waved away, with unconcealed impatience, the trivialities
she used to soften the violence of his invasion.
I've come, he said, because I've had something on my mind. It
strikes me that I've never really thanked you.
For your great kindness to my wife.
Mrs. Norman looked away.
I shall always be grateful to you, said Wilkinson. You were very
good to her.
Oh, no, no, she moaned.
I assure you, he insisted, she felt it very much. I thought you
would like to know that.
Oh, yes. Mrs. Norman's voice went very low with the sinking of her
She used to say you did more for heryou and your sister, with her
beautiful musicthan all the doctors. You found the thing that eased
her. I suppose you knew how ill she wasall the time? I mean
before her last illness.
I don't think, said she, I did know.
His face, which had grown grave, brightened. No? Well, you see, she
was so plucky. Nobody could have known; I didn't always realize it
Then he told her that for five years his wife had suffered from a
nervous malady that made her subject to strange excitements and
We fought it, he said, together. Through it all, even on her
worst days, she was always the same to me.
He sank deeper into memory.
Nobody knows what she was to me. She wasn't one much for society.
She went into it (his manner implied that she had adorned it) to
please me, because I thought it might do her good. It was one of the
things we tried.
Mrs. Norman stared at him. She stared through him and beyond him,
and saw a strange man. She listened to a strange voice that sounded far
off, from somewhere beyond forgetfulness.
There were times, she heard him saying, when we could not go out
or see anyone. All we wanted was to be alone together. We could sit,
she and I, a whole evening without saying a word. We each knew what the
other wanted to say without saying it. I was always sure of her; she
understood me as nobody else ever can. He paused. All that's gone.
Oh, no, Mrs. Norman said, it isn't.
It is. He illuminated himself with a faint flame of passion.
Don't say that, when you have friends who understand.
They don't. They can't. And, said Wilkinson, I don't want them
Mrs. Norman sat silent, as in the presence of something sacred and
She confessed afterward that what had attracted her to Peter
Wilkinson was his tremendous capacity for devotion. Only (this she did
not confess) she never dreamed that it had been given to his wife.