Which? by Arthur Quiller-Couch
The scene was a street in the West End of London, a little south of Eaton Square: the hour just twenty-five minutes short of midnight.
A wind from the North Sea had been blowing all day across the Thames marshes, and collecting what it could carry; and the shop-keepers had scarcely drawn their iron shutters before a thin fog drifted up from lamp-post to lamp-post and filled the intervals with total darkness--all but one, where, half-way down the street on the left-hand side, an enterprising florist had set up an electric lamp at his private cost, to shine upon his window and attract the attention of rich people as they drove by on their way to the theatres. At nine o'clock he closed his business: but the lamp shone on until midnight, to give the rich people another chance, on their way home, of reading that F. Stillman was prepared to decorate dinner-tables and ball-rooms, and to supply bridal bouquets or mourning wreaths at short notice.
The stream of homeward-bound carriages had come to a sudden lull. The red eyes of a belated four-wheeler vanished in the fog, and the florist's lamp flung down its ugly incandescent stare on an empty pavement. Himself in darkness, a policeman on the other side of the street flashed his lantern twice, closed the slide and halted for a moment to listen by an area railing.
Halting so, he heard a rapid footfall at the upper corner of the street. It drew nearer. A man suddenly stepped into the circle of light on the pavement, as if upon a miniature stage; and as suddenly paused to gaze upward at the big white globe.
He was a middle-aged man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of broad-cloth, with a shabby silk hat and country-made boots. He stared up at the globe, as if to take his bearings in the fog; then pulled out a watch.
As the light streamed down upon its dial, a woman sidled out from the hollow of a shop-door behind him, and touched his elbow.
"Deary!" she began. "Going home, deary?"
"Heh? Let me alone, please," said the man roughly. "I am not that sort." She had almost slipped her arm in his before he turned to speak; but now she caught it away, gasping. Mock globes danced before his eyes and for the moment he saw nothing but these: did not see that first she would have run, then moved her hands up to cover her face. Before they could do so he saw it, all white and damned.
"Oh, Willy . . ." She put out a hand as if to ward him off, but dropped both arms before her and stood, swaying them ever so slightly.
"So this . . . So this . . ." He choked upon the words.
She nodded, hardening her eyes to meet his. "He left me. He sent no money--"
"I was afraid."
"Afraid to do it . . . suddenly . . . to put an end. . . . It's not so easy to starve, really. Oh, Willy, can't you hit me?"
He seemed to be reflecting. "I--I say," he said abruptly, "can't we talk? Can't we get away somewhere and talk?"
Her limp arms seemed to answer: they asked, as plainly as words, "What is there to say?"
"I don't know. . . . Somewhere out of this infernal light. I want to think. There must be somewhere, away from this light . . ." He broke off. "At home, now, I can think. I am always thinking at home."
"At home . . ." the woman echoed.
"And you must think too?"
"Ah!" he ran on, as one talking against time: "but what do you suppose I think about, nine times out of ten? Why"--and he uttered it with an air of foolish triumph--"of the chances that we might meet . . . and what would happen. Have you ever thought of that?"
"Always: everywhere . . . of that . . . and the children."
"Grace looks after them."
"I know. I get word. She is kind."
"You think of them?"
He harked back. "Do you know, whenever I've thought of it . . . the chance of our meeting . . . I've wondered what I should say. Hundreds and hundreds of times I've made up my mind what to say. Why, only just now--I've come from the theatre: I still go to the theatre sometimes; it's a splendid thing to distract your thoughts: takes you out of yourself--Frou--Frou, it was . . . the finest play in the world . . . next to East Lynne. It made me cry, to-night, and the people in the pit stared at me. But one mustn't be ashamed of a little honest emotion, before strangers. And when a thing comes home to a man . . . So you've thought of it too--the chance of our running against one another?"
"Every day and all the day long I've gone fearing it: especially in March and September, when I knew you'd be up in town buying for the season. All the day long I've gone watching the street ahead of me . . . watching in fear of you. . . ."
"But I never guessed it would happen like this." He stared up irritably, as though the lamp were to blame for upsetting his calculations. The woman followed his eyes.
"Yes . . . the lamp," she assented. "Something held my face up to it, just now, when I wanted to hide. It's like as if our souls were naked under it, and there is nothing to say."
"Eh? but there is. I tell you I've thought it out so often! I've thought it all out, or almost all; and that can't mean nothing." He cleared his throat. "I've made allowances, too--" he began magnanimously.
But for the moment she was not listening. "Yes, yes . . ." She had turned her face aside and was gazing out into the darkness. "Look at the gas-jets, Willy--in the fog. What do they remind you of? That Christmas-tree . . . after Dick was born. . . . Don't you remember how he mistook the oranges on it for lanterns and wanted to blow them out . . . how he kicked to get at them . . ."
"It's odd: I was thinking of Dick, just now, when you--when you spoke to me. The lamp put me in mind of him. I was wondering what it cost. We have nothing like it at home. Of course, if I bought one for the shop, people would talk--'drawing attention,' they'd say, after what has happened. But I thought that Dick, perhaps . . . when he grows up and enters the business . . . perhaps he might propose such a thing, and then I shan't say no. I should carry it off lightly . . . After all, it's the shop it would call attention to . . . not the house. And one must advertise in these days."
She was looking at him steadily now. "Yes," she assented, "people would talk."
"And they pity me. I do hate to be pitied, in that way. Even the people up here, at the old lodgings . . . I won't come to them again. If I thought the children . . . One never can tell how much children know--"
He plunged a hand into his pocket. "I daresay, now, you're starving?"
Her arms began to sway again, and she laughed quietly, hideously. "Don't--don't--don't! I make money. That's the worst. I make money. Oh, why don't you hit me? Why was you always a soft man?"
For a moment he stood horribly revolted. But his weakness had a better side, and he showed it now.
"I say, Annie . . . is it so bad?"
"It is hell."
"'Soft'?" he harked back again. "It might take some courage to be soft."
She peered at him eagerly; then sighed. "But you haven't that sort of courage, Willy."
"They would say . . ." he went on musing, "I wonder what they would say? . . . Come back to the lamp," he cried with sudden peevishness. "Don't look out there . . . this circle of light on the pavement . . . like a map of the world."
"With only our two shadows on it."
"If it were all the world . . ." He peered around, searching the darkness. "If there were nothing to concern us beyond, and we could stay always inside it . . ."
"--With the light shining straight down on us, and our shadows close at our feet, and so small! But directly we moved beyond they would lengthen, lengthen . . ."
"'Forsaking all other'--that's what the Service says. And what does that mean if we cannot stand apart from all and render account to each other only? I tell you I've made allowances. I didn't make any in the old days, being wrapped up in the shop and the chapel, and you not caring for either. There was fault on my side: I've come to see that."
"I'd liefer you struck me, Willy, instead of making allowances."
"Oh, come, that's nonsense. It seems to me, Annie, there's nothing we couldn't help to mend together. It would never be the same, of course: but we can understand . . . or at least overlook." In his magnanimity he caught at high thoughts. "This light above us--what if it were the Truth?"
"Truth doesn't overlook," she answered, with a hopeless scorn which puzzled him. "No, no," she went on rapidly, yet more gently, "Truth knows of the world outside, and is wakeful. If we move a step our shadows will lengthen. They will touch all bright things--they will fall across the children. Willy, we cannot move!"
"I see . . ."
"Ah?" She craned forward and almost touched his arm again.
"Annie, it comes to me now--I see for the first time how happy we might have been. How came we two to kill love?"
The woman gave a cry, almost of joy. Her fingers touched his sleeve now. "We have not killed love. We--I--had stunned him: but (O, I see!) he has picked up his weapons again and is fighting. He is bewildered here, in this great light, and he fights at random . . . fights to make you strong and me weak, you weak and me strong. We can never be one again, never. One of us must fall, must be beaten . . .he does not see this, but O, Willy, he fights . . . he fights!"
"He shall fight for you. Annie, come home!"
"No, no--for you--and the children!"
"Think of the people!" She held him off, shaking her head, but her eyes were wistful, intent upon his. "You have lived it down. . . . It would all begin again. Look at me . . . think of the talk . . ."
"Let them say what they choose. . . I wonder what they would say . . ."
The Policeman stepped forward and across the road-way. He had heard nothing, and completely misunderstood all he had seen.
"Come, you must move on there, you two!" he commanded harshly.
Suddenly, as he said it, the light above was extinguished.
"Hullo!" He paused, half-way across. "Twelve o'clock already! Then what's taken my watch?"
A pair of feet tip-toed away in the darkness for a few yards, then broke into a nervous run.
As a matter of fact it still wanted five minutes of midnight. And while the Policeman fumbled for his watch and slipped back the slide of his lantern, the white flame leaped back into the blind eye above and blazed down as fiercely as ever.
"Something wrong with the connection, I suppose," said the Policeman, glancing up and then down at the solitary figure left standing under the lamp.
"Why, hullo! . . ." said he again.
But which was it?--the man or the woman?