The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

A Pinchbeck Goddess, Chapter 7 (Alice Kipling Fleming)


“And such as you were, I took you for mine:
Did not you find me yours,
To watch the olive and wait the vine,
And wonder when rivers of oil and wine
Would flow as the Book assures?
Well, and if none of these good things came,
What did the failure prove?
The man was my whole world, all the same,
With his flowers to praise, or his weeds to blame,
And either or both to love."

          “Be the welcome one!" said Winnie to Mrs. Myles, at a quarter to two on a June day. “I am all alone, with no one else but me. Janet has gone to feed chickens or something with Mrs. Tykes; that woman is mad about feathered fowl: she smells of the perch."
          “I only looked in for a minute to ask you--“
          “No, you didn't; you are going to stay to lunch, and out you don't go, as we say to Cripps, till four o'clock at the earliest. I have hardly seen you to speak to since we left the ship."
          “You always have so many engagements."
          “Not now; I am a person of infinite leisure, because 'Cupid's Client ' is over. And what have you been doing?"
          “Nothing; sitting behind a shut door and shirking all my calls."
          “But why?"
          “Nothing seems worth doing, somehow."
          “What is the matter with her?" said Winnie gently. “Is she feverish or neuralgic or wor ried? Come and have lunch."
          “Take your hat off and lie down on that sofa," she said when lunch was over. “My dear, what have you been doing to your eyes? The lids are all white and puffy."
          “I was awake the greater part of last night," said Lilian, stretching herself wearily. “I sup pose that is it."
Winnie looked at her in silence; the air seemed heavy with a coming confidence which it might be wisest and kindest to avert.
          “Could you sleep if I kept quiet?" she said. “Won't you try to? The world looks so different after a little sleep."
          “No, I'm not tired in that way. I want you to talk to me. Did you love your husband?"
She spoke in a strangely impersonal voice. Her eyes looked beyond Winnie. She waited an answer as calmly as though she had asked an every-day question.
          “He was a very good man," said Winnie slowly.
          “Yes; but were you very fond of him? Was he kind to you?
          “Very kind. But what imports the nomination of this gentleman?“
          Lilian did not notice the attempt at flippancy.
          "Was he never vexed with you? Did he ever tell you that he hated you, that his life was bitter to him because of you?“
          Her voice broke, and as the tears came she covered her face. Winnie was still and silent, but Cripps, whose warm heart knew no fear of being intrusive, considered a hidden face a plea for his pity, and came instantly with anxious scratching paws and eager tongue.
          “Dear beast!" said Lilian, smiling through wet eyes. “I don't generally behave in this way, Mrs. Edwards; I never talked like this to anyone before. I wonder if it helps. I shall be horribly ashamed of myself to-morrow, I know. It's very convenient, from a man's point of view, that it should be considered vulgar, or worse than vulgar, for his wife to speak of her domestic unhappiness."
          “I suppose it is," said Winnie slowly, wondering how best to steer past the looming rocks of tragedy.
          “You have never needed to think of it," said the woman with the swollen eyelids, looking enviously at Winnie's pink-and-white face; "but who is there for an unhappy woman to confide in if she breaks down, and has not strength enough to keep her troubles to herself?“
          The pause she made was merely rhetorical, for the pent-up thoughts of many days were eagerly seeking the relief of words. Winnie was silent because she understood.
          “It wouldn't be fair to tell my own people, for they really love me, and it would make them unhappy; besides, they would be prejudiced against Gilbert, and that would hurt me, and my husband's family would say it was all my own fault."
          “I do wish that I could believe whole-heartedly that anything in this world was all the fault of one person; it must be a very complete and satisfying belief," said Winnie. “If one were even to hint at that sort of trouble to a man," went on Lilian, “it would simply be equivalent to asking for kisses."
          “Yes, they are a man's one form of sympathy and consolation for a pretty woman—or a plain one either, I dare say," said Winnie, throwing back her head; “men's tastes are not exacting."
          “I would not mind if our quarrels were about serious matters," said Lilian, following her own train of thought; “but they are about such silly things, and mere trifles lead to terrible consequences. We don't speak the same language, he and I. Do you think it is bad for a woman to lose her illusions?"
          “They are the flesh that hides the skeleton, and a fleshless skeleton is a very hideous thing," said Winnie.
          “I think I could manage without them in the present and future if he would only spare me the ones in the past. You don't know how I envy a woman who has had an unfortunate love affair," said Lilian vehemently.
          “I know what you mean; but it is not always a garden charmed from changing." And Winnie thought of a thin-faced young clergyman.
          “It would have been to me. If I had not married Gilbert, I should have worshipped his memory for the rest of my life."
          “You mean if you had never married?" “No; I dare say I should have married someone else, and when he was unkind to me—I sup pose I am a woman no one could live happily with; I have been told so often enough—I should have thought, ' Gilbert would never have been like this.' Unluckily, I never even fancied that I cared for anyone except him."
          Cripps lay nestled within her arm, moaning a little as she pulled his ears, but suffering the liberty for the sake of his position on the forbidden sofa. Her voice was quick and commonplace, as though she wished it to veil her words.
          “I have no memories to fall back upon. I pretend sometimes that Gilbert died, and I married someone else—he is very like someone else often—but it does not do me much good."
          “Don't you think you are making yourself needlessly unhappy?" hazarded Winnie. “You told me on board ship how glad you were to be going back to your husband, and how long you had been engaged, and----"
          “Oh yes, Gilbert was once my ideal of tender, resolute constancy, but he has taken pains to tell me since that his constancy was only because he was obstinate. He has a will like a piece of iron. What a fool I am to talk like this! But I can't help it. He hasn't spoken to me for eight days--this is the ninth morning--and I never meant to make him angry."
          “But, my dear girl, what have you done? what does he think you have done?"
          “I don't know, unless it was that at the Birthday ball I asked him to stay for one more dance after he had said he was ready to go; when I ask him what is the matter, he only frowns. I spend my days thinking of half a dozen trifles, and wondering which of them can be the thing that has made him angry."
          “I suppose late hours don't suit him," said Winnie, trying to find some excuse for the absent one.
          ”Late hours! Why, I hardly ever ask him to go to a dance," cried Lilian, her voice changing suddenly from a resigned tone, not without dignity, to the sharp notes of intense irritation. “Gilbert always talks of his work as though he were the only civilian in the world. Other men work just as hard, and yet they go out in the evening. It's not fair to me; he ought to have married an old woman."
          “He wouldn't have liked that," said Winnie.
          “He wants me to behave like one, at any rate, and I had such a quiet time when I was a girl. My mother is almost an invalid, you know,  and I have never had any real fun, and now, when there is any amount of it going on all around me, I must make a point of keeping out of it all, or miserable things like this happen. Isn't it unkind?"
          The querulous voice dispelled some of the pity Winnie felt for the sad face, though she was vexed with herself for being so easily swayed. “I could bear anything better than silence," she said, after a pause. “That's what I feel," said Lilian, in her quieter voice; “but one bears what one has to. I wish it wasn't making me hard; I seem to spend my time feeding on bitter thoughts; it poisons everything."
          “Has there ever been any jealousy between you?"
          “Not a shadow of it on either side; that's what is so absurd. If there was any tragic reason for my unhappiness, perhaps I should be able to endure it, but to have one's life spoilt and made wretched by trifles and fancied slights—oh, it is hard!"
          She kissed the black spot over Cripps' right eye, and, putting him down, paced the room to and fro.
          “There's your Daisy's picture looking at us with her great gray eyes. Dear child! I hope she'll never marry. You are a happy woman to have a child."
          Winnie said nothing.
          “Very likely in my case it would be another lost illusion," went on Lilian; "but, of course, I always fancy that it wouldn't be. I know I am an utter failure as a wife, but I think I could make a child love me."
          “You poor dear!" said Winnie softly.
          “You can't guess what an ache it gives me to see other women's children; it's real physical pain, like a hand clutching one's heart. I never trust myself to kiss a child now; I am afraid of breaking down and behaving like a fool."
          “Try to see the advantages of it; think how you are spared terrible anxiety, and the dreadful Indian separation just when children need their mothers most."
          “Oh yes, yes; of course I know all these phrases of consolation. I have so much time to myself—for heart-ache; I have 'freedom from anxiety,' which means I can sit and wish I had never been born."
          She was lashing herself with her own words, making no effort either to restrain or conceal the tears that streamed down her face, and Winnie looked away with a feeling of shame, as though she had peered at the nakedness of sorrow.
          ”I went to see Mrs. Malet yesterday," said Lilian more quietly, after a little silence; "we are the same age; she has been married a few months longer than I have. Her baby is just a month old—her second baby, a plump, pink darling, with eyes much larger than its mouth. Of course I pretended that I hardly cared to look at it, and would not touch it for the world, and began to talk frocks with Gertie. She said that she was dreadfully tired of tea-gowns and clothes that didn't fit, and then she looked at me, and said, 'Oh, what a lucky girl you are, Lil, never to have lost your slender figure! 'It's a grand piece of good fortune, isn't it?“
          She stopped before a mirror. "What an object I am!" she said, with a laugh that affected Winnie more than her tears had done; “please lend me a thick veil, and forgive me for the way that I have been going on: I never did it before. I suppose I am hysterical; at any rate, I have a fearful headache, and everything is physical nowadays. No, thank you, dear, I'd rather not have any tea; I must go home and wash my face for half an hour with hot and cold water alternately—I have grown quite clever at hiding tear-marks—and try to look decent before Gilbert comes back from office. I am tired enough to grovel, if he wants that."
          “I do wish I could help you in any way," said Winnie, as she tied the thick veil.
          “But you have; it was very good of you to let me talk. I shall not touch on this the next time we meet."
          “I understand; nor I."
          “Why, I thought you were going out for a ride," said Janet, an hour later. “Yes, I was, only I didn't," replied Winnie from the depths of the most comfortable couch; “something troubled me and roused me, and made me understand that living with a cross old woman is not the worst grief in life. It also made me feel a pretender, a sham freemason who knew nothing of the craft."
          “What do you mean, Winnie?"
          “Nothing that matters, dear. Tell me news; did Mrs. Tykes make you cook your own lunch, and how do the poultry grow? "
          “It is half-past ten, and I am so tired; I think I shall go to bed," said Lilian that same evening.
Her husband's face was carefully devoid of expression.
          “I am going for a ride to-morrow morning," she went on cheerfully; “Sir Garnet will be fearfully fresh; will you come, Gilbert?"
          No answer, and no change in the set face. “Good-night," she said; then, with desperate, courage, she stood very near him, and repeated, "Good-night, Gilbert. Oh, do speak to me!" she added, after a moment of absolute silence; “do, dear!" and she laid a light kiss on his fore head.
          “Pouf!" he said, grimacing. She went quickly to her room, and began to undress, humming a tune the while; but the little show of bravado soon ended in helpless tears.

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