A Casual Affair
by W. Somerset Maugham

She must have had a bad fright. I didn’t take such a severe view of her conduct as Mrs Low. She was very young; she was not more than thirty-five now. Who could tell by what accident she had become J.’s mistress? I suspect that love had caught her unawares and that she was in the middle of an affair almost before she knew what she was about. She must always have been a cold, self-possessed woman, but it is just with people like that that nature at times plays strange tricks. I am prepared to believe that she lost her head completely. There is no means of knowing how Kastellan discovered what was going on, but the fact that she kept her lover’s letters shows that she was too much in love to be prudent. Arthur Low had mentioned that it was strange to find in the dead man’s possession his letters and not hers; but that seemed to me easily explainable. At the time of the catastrophe they were doubtless given back to him in exchange for hers. He very naturally kept them. Reading them again he could relive the love that meant everything in the world to him.

I didn’t suppose that Lady Kastellan, devoured by passion, could ever have considered what would happen if she were found out. When the blow fell it is not strange that she was scared out of her wits. She may not have had more to do with her children than most women who live the sort of life she lived, but she may for all that not have wanted to lose them. I did not even know whether she had ever cared for her husband, but from what I knew of her I guessed that she was not indifferent to his name and wealth. The future must have looked pretty grim. She was losing everything, the grand house in Carlton House Terrace, the position, the security; her father could give her no money and her lover had still to find a job. It may not have been heroic that she should yield to the entreaties of her family, but it was comprehensible.

While I was thinking all this Arthur Low went on with his story.

‘I didn’t quite know how to set about getting in touch with Lady Kastellan,’ he said. ‘It was awkward not knowing the chap’s name. However, when we got home I wrote to her. I explained who I was and said that I’d been asked to give her some letters and a gold and platinum cigarette-case by a man who’d recently died in my district. I said I’d been asked to deliver them to her in person. I thought perhaps she wouldn’t answer at all or else communicate with me through a solicitor. But she answered all right. She made an appointment for me to come to Carlton House Terrace at twelve one morning. Of course it was stupid of me, but when finally I stood on the doorstep and rang the bell I was quite nervous. The door was opened by a butler. I said I had an appointment with Lady Kastellan. A footman took my hat and coat. I was led upstairs to an enormous drawing-room.

“I’ll tell her ladyship you’re here, sir,” the butler said.

‘He left me and I sat on the edge of a chair and looked round. There were huge pictures on the walls, portraits you know, I don’t know who they were by, Reynolds I should think and Romney, and there was a lot of Oriental china, and gilded consoles and mirrors. It was all terribly grand and it made me feel very shabby and insignificant. My suit smelt of camphor and it was baggy at the knees. My tie felt a bit loud. The butler came in again and asked me to go with him. He opened another door from the one I’d come in by and I found myself in a further room, not so large as the drawing-room, but large all the same and very grand too. A lady was standing by the fireplace. She looked at me as I came in and bowed slightly. I felt frightfully awkward as I walked along the whole length of the room and I was afraid of stumbling over the furniture. I can only hope I didn’t look such a fool as I felt. She didn’t ask me to sit down.

n understand you have some things that you wish to deliver to me personally,” she said. “It’s very good of you to bother.”

‘She didn’t smile. She seemed perfectly self-possessed, but I had a notion that she was sizing me up. To tell you the truth it put my back up. I didn’t much fancy being treated as if I were a chauffeur applying for a situation.

“Please don’t mention it,” I said, rather stiffly. “It’s all in the day’s work.”

“Have you got the things with you?” she asked.

‘I didn’t answer, but I opened the dispatch-case I’d brought with me and took out the letters. I handed them to her. She accepted them without a word. She gave them a glance. She was very much made up, but I swear she went white underneath. The expression of her face didn’t change. I looked at her hands. They were trembling a little. Then she seemed to pull herself together.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Won’t you sit down?”

‘I took a chair. For a moment she didn’t seem to know quite what to do. She held the letters in her hand. I, knowing what they were, wondered what she felt. She didn’t give much away. There was a desk beside the chimney-piece and she opened a drawer and put them in. Then she sat down opposite me and asked me to have a cigarette. I handed her the cigarette-case. I’d had it in my breast pocket.

“I was asked to give you this too,” I said.

‘She took it and looked at it. For a moment she didn’t speak and I waited. I didn’t quite know if I ought to get up and go.

“‘Did you know Jack well?” she asked suddenly.

“I didn’t know him at all,” I answered. “I never saw him until after his death.”

“I had no idea he was dead till I got your note,” she said. “I’d lost sight of him for a long time. Of course he was a very old friend of mine.”

‘I wondered if she thought I hadn’t read the letters or if she’d forgotten what sort of letters they were. If the sight of them had given her a shock she had quite got over it by then. She spoke almost casually.

“What did he die of in point of fact?” she asked.

“‘Tuberculosis, opium, and starvation,” I answered.

“How dreadful,” she said.

‘But she said it quite conventionally. Whatever she felt she wasn’t going to let me see. She was as cool as a cucumber, but I fancied, though it may have been only my fancy, that she was watching me, with all her wits about her, and wondering how much I knew. I think she’d have given a good deal to be certain of that.

“How did you happen to get hold of these things?” she asked me.

“I took possession of his effects after his death.” I explained. “They were done up in a parcel and I was directed to give them to you.”

“Was there any need to undo the parcel?”

‘I wish I could tell you what frigid insolence she managed to get into the question. It made me go white and I hadn’t any make-up on to hide it. I answered that I thought it my duty to find out if I could who the dead man was. I should have liked to be able to communicate with his relations.

“I see,” she said.

‘She looked at me as though that were the end of the interview and she expected me to get up and take myself off. But I didn’t. I thought I’d like to get a bit of my own back. I told her how I’d been sent for and how I’d found him. I described the whole thing and I told her how, as far as I knew, there’d been no one at the end to take pity on him but a Chinese woman. Suddenly the door was opened and we both looked round. A big, middle-aged man came in and stopped when he saw me.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, ‘I didn’t know you were busy.”

“Come in,” she said, and when he had approached, “This is Mr Low. My husband.”

‘Lord Kastellan gave me a nod.

“I just wanted to ask you,” he began, and then he stopped.

‘His eyes had caught the cigarette-case that was still resting on Lady Kastellan’s open hand. I don’t know if she saw the look of inquiry in his eyes. She gave him a friendly little smile. She was quite amazingly mistress of herself.

“Mr Low comes from the Federated Malay States. Poor Jack Almond’s dead and he’s left me his cigarette-case.”

“‘Really?” said Lord Kastellan. ‘When did he die?”

“‘About six months ago,” I said.

‘Lady Kastellan got up.

“Well, I won’t keep you any longer. I dare say you’re busy. Thank you so much for carrying out Jack’s request.”

“‘Things are pretty bad just now in the F.M.S. if all I hear is true,” said Lord Kastellan.

‘I shook hands with them both and Lady Kastellan rang a bell.

“‘Are you staying in London?” she asked, as I was going. “I wonder if you’d like to come to a little party I’m giving next week.”

“I have my wife with me,” I said.

“Oh, how very nice. I’ll send you a card.”

‘A couple of minutes later I found myself in the street. I was glad to be alone. I’d had a bad shock. As soon as Lady Kastellan mentioned the name I remembered. It was Jack Almond, the wretched bum I’d found dead in the Chinese house, dead of starvation. I’d known him quite well. It never struck me for a moment that it was he. Why, I’d dined and played cards with him, and we’d played tennis together. It was awful to think of him dying quite near me and me never knowing. He must have known he only had to send me a message and I’d have done something. I made my way into St James’s Park and sat down. I wanted to have a good think.’

I could understand that it was a shock to Arthur Low to discover who the dead wastrel had been, for it was a shock to me too. Oddly enough I also had known him. Not intimately, but as a man I met at parties and now and then at a house in the country where we were both passing the week-end. Except that it was years since I had even thought of him it would have been stupid of me not to put two and two together. With his name there flashed back into my memory all my recollections of him. So that was why he had suddenly thrown up a career he liked so much! At that time, it was just after the war, I happened to know several people in the Foreign Office; Jack Almond was thought the cleverest of all the young men attached to it, and the highest posts the Diplomatic Service had to offer were within his reach. Of course it meant waiting. But it did seem absurd for him to fling away his chances in order to go into business in the Far East. His friends did all they could to dissuade him. He said he had had losses and found it impossible to live on his salary. One would have thought he could scrape along till things grew better. I remembered very well what he looked like. He was tall and well-made, a trifle dressy, but he was young enough to carry off his faultless clothes with a dash, with dark brown hair, very neat and sleek, blue eyes with very long lashes, and a fresh brilliant colour. He looked the picture of health. He was amusing, gay, and quickwitted. I never knew anyone who had more charm. It is a dangerous quality and those who have it trade on it. Often they think it enough to get them through life without any further effort. It is well to be on one’s guard against it. But with Jack Almond it was the expression of a sweet and generous nature. He delighted because he was delightful. He was entirely without conceit. He had a gift for languages, he spoke French and German without a trace of accent, and his manners were admirable. You felt that when the time came he could play the part of an ambassador to a foreign power in the grand style. No one could fail to like him. It was not strange that Lady Kastellan should have fallen madly in love with him. My fancy ran away with me. What is there more moving than young love? The walks together of that handsome pair in one of the parks in the warm evenings of early summer, the dances they went to where he held her in his arms, the enchantment of the secret they shared when they exchanged glances across a dinner-table, and the passionate encounters, hurried and dangerous, but worth a thousand risks, when at some clandestine meeting-place they could give themselves to the fulfilment of their desire. They drank the milk of Paradise.

How frightful that the end of it all should have been so tragic! ‘How did you know him?’ I now asked Low

‘He was with Dexter and Farmilow. You know, the shipping people. He had quite a good job. He’d brought letters to the Governor and people like that. I was in Singapore at the time. I think I met him first at the dub. He was damned good at games and all that sort of thing. Played polo. He was a fine tennis-player. You couldn’t help liking him.’

Did he drink, or what?’

‘No.’ Arthur Low was quite emphatic. ‘He was one of the best. The women were crazy about him, and you couldn’t blame them. He was one of the most decent fellows I’ve ever met.’

I turned to Mrs Low

Did you know him?’

‘Only just. When Arthur and I were married we went to Perak. He was sweet, I remember that. He had the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man.’

‘He was out quite a long time without going home. Five years, I think. I don’t want to use hackneyed phrases, but the fact is I can’t say it in any other way, he’d won golden opinions. There were a certain number of fellows who’d been rather sick at his being shoved into a damned good job by influence, but they couldn’t deny that he’d made good. We knew about his having been in the F.O. and all that, but he never put on any frills.’

‘I think what took me,’ Mrs Low interrupted, ‘was that he was so tremendously alive. It bucked you up just to talk to him.’

‘He had a wonderful send-off when he sailed. I happened to have run up to Singapore for a couple of days and I went to the dinner at the Europe the night before. We all got rather tight. It was a grand lark. There was quite a crowd to see him off. He was only going for six months. I think everybody looked forward to his coming back. It would have been better for him if he never had.’

‘Why, what happened then?’

‘I don’t know exactly. I’d been moved again, and I was right away north.’ How exasperating! It is really much easier to invent a story out of your own head than to tell one about real people, of whom you not only must guess the motives, but whose behaviour even at crucial moments you are ignorant of ‘He was a very good chap, but he was never an intimate friend of ours, you know how cliquey Singapore is, and he moved in rather more exalted circles that we did; when we went north I forgot about him. But one day at the club I heard a couple of fellows talking. Walton and Kenning. Walton had just come up from Singapore. There’d been a big polo match.

“‘Did Almond play?” asked Kenning.

“‘You bet your life he didn’t,” said Walton. “They kicked him out of the team last season.”

‘I interrupted.

“‘What are you talking about?” I said.

“‘Don’t you know?” said Walton. “He’s gone all to pot, poor devil.”

“How?” I asked.

“‘Drink.”

“‘They say he dopes too,” said Kenning.

“‘Yes, I’ve heard that,” said Walton. “He won’t last long at that rate. Opium, isn’t it?”

“If he doesn’t look out he’ll lose his job.” said Kenning.

‘I couldn’t make it out,’ Low went on. ‘He was the last man I should ever have expected to go that way. He was so typically English and he was a gentleman and all that. It appeared that Walton had travelled out with him on the same ship when Jack came back from leave. He joined the ship at Marseilles. He was rather low, but there was nothing funny about that; a lot of people don’t feel any too good when they’re leaving home and have to get back to the mill. He drank a good deal. Fellows do that sometimes too. But Walton said rather a curious thing about him. He said it looked as if the life had gone out of him. You couldn’t help noticing it because he’d always had such high spirits. There’d been a general sort of idea that he was engaged to some girl in England and on the ship they jumped to the conclusion that she’d thrown him over.’

‘That’s what I said when Arthur told me,’ said Mrs Low ‘After all, five years is a long time to leave a girl.’

‘Anyhow they thought he’d get over it when he got back to work. But he didn’t, unfortunately. He went from bad to worse. A lot of people liked him and they did all they could to persuade him to pull himself together. But there was nothing doing. He just told them to mind their own business. He was snappy and rude, which was funny because he’d always been so nice to everybody. Walton said you could hardly believe it was the same man. Government House dropped him and a lot of others followed suit. Lady Ormonde, the Governor’s wife, was a snob, she knew he was well-connected and all that, and she wouldn’t have given him the cold shoulder unless things had got pretty bad. He was a nice chap, Jack Almond, it seemed a pity that he should make such a mess of things. I was sorry, you know, but of course it didn’t impair my appetite or disturb my night’s sleep. A few months later I happened to be in Singapore myself, and when I went to the club I asked about him. He’d lost his job all right, it appeared that he often didn’t go to the office for two or three days at a time; and I was told that someone had made him manager of a rubber estate in Sumatra in the hope that away from the temptations of Singapore he might pull himself together. You see, everyone had liked him so much, they couldn’t bear the thought of his going under without some sort of a struggle. But it was no good. The opium had got him. He didn’t keep the job in Sumatra long and he was back again in Singapore. I heard afterwards that you would hardly have recognized him. He’d always been so spruce and smart; he was shabby and unwashed and wild-eyed. A number of fellows at the club got together and arranged something. They felt they had to give him one more chance and they sent him out to Sarawak. But it wasn’t any use. The fact is, I think, he didn’t want to be helped. I think he just wanted to go to hell in his own way and be as quick as he could about it. Then he disappeared; someone said he’d gone home; anyhow he was forgotten. You know how people drop out in the F.M.S. I suppose that’s why when I found a dead man in a sarong, with a beard, lying in a little smelly room in a Chinese house thirty miles from anywhere, it never occurred to me for a moment that it might be Jack Almond. I hadn’t heard his name for years.’

‘ Just think what he must have gone through in that time,’ said Mrs Low, and her eyes were bright with tears, for she had a good and tender heart. ‘The whole thing’s inexplicable,’ said Low ‘Why?’ I asked.

Well, if he was going to pieces, why didn’t he do it when he first came out? His first five years he was all right. One of the best. If this affair of his had broken him you’d have expected him to break when it was all fresh. All that time he was as gay as a bird. You’d have said he hadn’t a care in the world. From all I heard it was a different man who came back from leave.’

‘Something happened during those six months in London,’ said Mrs Low. ‘That’s obvious.’

‘We shall never know,’ sighed Low.

‘But we can guess,’ I smiled. ‘That’s where the novelist comes in. Shall I tell you what I think happened?’

‘Fire away.’

‘Well, I think that during those first five years he was buoyed up by the sacrifice he’d made. He had a chivalrous soul. He had given up everything that made life worth living to him to save the woman he loved better than anything in the world. I think he had an exaltation of spirit that never left him. He loved her still, with all his heart; most of us fall in and out of love; some men can only love once, and I think he was one of them. And in a strange way he was happy because he’d been able to sacrifice his happiness for the sake of someone who was worthy of the sacrifice. I think she was always in his thoughts. Then he went home. I think he loved her as much as ever and I don’t suppose he ever doubted that her love was as strong and enduring as his. I don’t know what he expected. He may have thought she’d see it was no good fighting her inclination any more and would run away with him. It may have been that he’d have been satisfied to realize that she loved him still. It was inevitable that they should meet; they lived in the same world. He saw that she didn’t care a row of pins for him any longer. He saw that the passionate girl had become a prudent, experienced woman of the world, he saw that she’d never loved him as he thought she loved him, and he may have suspected that she’d lured him coldly into making the sacrifice that was to save her. He saw her at parties, self-possessed and triumphant. He knew that the lovely qualities he’d ascribed to her were of his own imagining and she was just an ordinary woman who had been carried away by a momentary infatuation and having got over it had returned to her true life. A great name, wealth, social distinction, worldly success: those were the things that mattered to her. He’d sacrificed everything, his friends, his familiar surroundings, his profession, his usefulness in the world, all that gives value to existence-for nothing. He’d been cheated, and it broke him. Your friend Walton said the true thing, you noticed it yourself, he said it looked as if the life had gone out of him. It had. After that he didn’t care any more and perhaps the worst thing was that even with it all, though he knew Lady Kastellan for what she was, he loved her still. I know nothing more shattering than to love with all your heart, than not to be able however hard you try to break yourself of it, someone who you know is worthless. Perhaps that is why he took to opium. To forget and to remember.’

It was a long speech I had made, and now I stopped.

‘All that’s only fancy,’ said Low.

‘I know it is,’ I answered, ‘but it seems to fit the circumstances.’

‘There must have been a weak strain in him. Otherwise he could have fought and conquered.’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps there is always a certain weakness attached to such great charm as he possessed. Perhaps few people love as wholeheartedly and as devotedly as he loved. Perhaps he didn’t want to fight and conquer. I can’t bring myself to blame him.’

I didn’t add, because I was afraid they would think it cynical, that maybe if only Jack Almond hadn’t had those wonderfully long eyelashes he might now have been alive and well, minister to some foreign power and on the high road to the Embassy in Paris.

‘Let’s go into the drawing-room,’ said Mrs Low The boy wants to clear the table.’

And that was the end of Jack Almond.

 

 

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