The Colonel's Lady
by W. Somerset Maugham

Narrated by Martin Jarvis

The Peregrines were having breakfast. Though they were alone and the table was long they sat at opposite ends of it. From the walls George Peregrine’s ancestors, painted by the fashionable painters of the day, looked down upon them. The butler brought in the morning post. There were several letters for the colonel, business letters, The Times, and a small parcel for his wife Evie. He looked at his letters and then, opening The Times, began to read it. They finished breakfast and rose from the table. He noticed that his wife hadn’t opened the parcel.

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

‘Only some books.’

‘Shall I open it for you?’

‘If you like.’

He hated to cut string and so with some difficulty untied the knots.

‘But they’re all the same,’ he said when he had unwrapped the parcel. ‘What on earth d’you want six copies of the same book for?’ He opened one of them. ‘Poetry’ Then he looked at the title-page. When Pyramids Decay, he read, by E. K. Hamilton. Eva Katherine Hamilton: that was his wife’s maiden name. He looked at her with smiling surprise. ‘Have you written a book, Evie? You are a slyboots.’

‘I didn’t think it would interest you very much. Would you like a copy?’

‘Well, you know poetry isn’t much in my line, but-yes, I’d like a copy; I’ll read it. I’ll take it along to my study. I’ve got a lot to do this morning.’

He gathered up The Times, his letters, and the book, and went out. His study was a large and comfortable room, with a big desk, leather arm-chairs, and what he called ‘trophies of the chase’ on the walls. On the bookshelves were works of reference, books on farming, gardening, fishing, and shooting, and books on the last war, in which he had won an M.C. and a D.S.O. For before his marriage he had been in the Welsh Guards. At the end of the war he retired and settled down to the life of a country gentleman in the spacious house, some twenty miles from Sheffield, which one of his forebears had built in the reign of George III. George Peregrine had an estate of some fifteen hundred acres which he managed with ability; he was a Justice of the Peace and performed his duties conscientiously. During the season he rode to hounds two days a week. He was a good shot, a golfer, and though now a little over fifty could still play a hard game of tennis. He could describe himself with propriety as an all-round sportsman.

He had been putting on weight lately, but was still a fine figure of a man; tall, with grey curly hair, only just beginning to grow thin on the crown, frank blue eyes, good features, and a high colour. He was a public-spirited man, chairman of any number of local organizations and, as became his class and station, a loyal member of the Conservative Party. He looked upon it as his duty to see to the welfare of the people on his estate and it was a satisfaction to him to know that Evie could be trusted to tend the sick and succour the poor. He had built a cottage hospital on the outskirts of the village and paid the wages of a nurse out of his own pocket All he asked of the recipients of his bounty was that at elections, county or general, they should vote for his candidate. He was a friendly man, affable to his inferiors, considerate with his tenants, and popular with the neighbouring gentry. He would have been pleased and at the same time slightly embarrassed if someone had told him he was a jolly good fellow. That was what he wanted to be. He desired no higher praise.

It was hard luck that he had no children. He would have been an excellent father, kindly but strict, and would have brought up his sons as gentlemen’s sons should be brought up, sent them to Eton, you know, taught them to fish, shoot, and ride. As it was, his heir was a nephew, son of his brother killed in a motor accident, not a bad boy, but not a chip off the old block, no, sir, far from it; and would you believe it, his fool of a mother was sending him to a coeducational school. Evie had been a sad disappointment to him. Of course she was a lady, and she had a bit of money of her own; she managed the house uncommonly well and she was a good hostess. The village people adored her. She had been a pretty little thing when he married her, with a creamy skin, light brown hair, and a trim figure, healthy too, and not a bad tennis player; he couldn’t understand why she’d had no children; of course she was faded now, she must be getting on for five and forty; her skin was drab, her hair had lost its sheen, and she was as thin as a rail. She was always neat and suitably dressed, but she didn’t seem to bother how she looked, she wore no make-up and didn’t even use lipstick; sometimes at night when she dolled herself up for a party you could tell that once she’d been quite attractive, but ordinarily she was-well, the sort of woman you simply didn’t notice. A nice woman, of course, a good wife, and it wasn’t her fault if she was barren, but it was tough on a fellow who wanted an heir of his own loins; she hadn’t any vitality, that’s what was the matter with her. He supposed he’d been in love with her when he asked her to marry him, at least sufficiently in love for a man who wanted to marry and settle down, but with time he discovered that they had nothing much in common. She didn’t care about hunting, and fishing bored her. Naturally they’d drifted apart. He had to do her the justice to admit that she’d never bothered him. There’d been no scenes. They had no quarrels.

She seemed to take it for granted that he should go his own way. When he went up to London now and then she never wanted to come with him. He had a girl there, well, she wasn’t exactly a girl, she was thirty-five if she was a day, but she was blonde and luscious and he only had to wire ahead of time and they’d dine, do a show, and spend the night together. Well, a man, a healthy normal man had to have some fun in his life. The thought crossed his mind that if Evie hadn’t been such a good woman she’d have been a better wife; but it was not the sort of thought that he welcomed and he put it away from him.

George Peregrine finished his Times and being a considerate fellow rang the bell and told the butler to take it to Evie. Then he looked at his watch. It was half past ten and at eleven he had an appointment with one of his tenants. He had half an hour to spare.

‘I’d better have a look at Evie’s book,’ he said to himself

He took it up with a smile. Evie had a lot of highbrow books in her sitting-room, not the sort of books that interested him, but if they amused her he had no objection to her reading them. He noticed that the volume he now held in his hand contained no more than ninety pages. That was all to the good. He shared Edgar Allan Poe’s opinion that poems should be short. But as he turned the pages he noticed that several of Evie’s had long lines of irregular length and didn’t rhyme. He didn’t like that. At his first school, when he was a little boy, he remembered learning a poem that began: The boy stood on the burning deck, and later, at Eton, one that started: Ruin seize thee, ruthless king; and then there was Henry V; they’d had to take that, one half He stared at Evie’s pages with consternation.

‘That’s not what I call poetry,’ he said.

Fortunately it wasn’t all like that. Interspersed with the pieces that looked so odd, lines of three or four words and then a line of ten or fifteen, there were little poems, quite short, that rhymed, thank God, with the lines all the same length. Several of the pages were just headed with the word Sonnet, and out of curiosity he counted the lines; there were fourteen of them. He read them. They seemed all right, but he didn’t quite know what they were all about. He repeated to himself: Ruin seize thee, ruthless king.

‘Poor Evie,’ he sighed.

At that moment the fanner he was expecting was ushered into the study, and putting the book down he made him welcome. They embarked on their business.

‘I read your book, Evie,’ he said as they sat down to lunch. ‘Jolly good. Did it cost you a packet to have it printed?’

‘No, I was lucky. I sent it to a publisher and he took it.’

Not much money in poetry, my dear,’ he said in his good-natured, hearty way.

‘No, I don’t suppose there is. What did Bannock want to see you about this morning?’

Bannock was the tenant who had interrupted his reading of Evie’s poems. ‘He’s asked me to advance the money for a pedigree bull he wants to buy. He’s a good man and I’ve half a mind to do it.’

George Peregrine saw that Evie didn’t want to talk about her book and he was not sorry to change the subject. He was glad she had used her maiden name on the title-page; he didn’t suppose anyone would ever hear about the book, but he was proud of his own unusual name and he wouldn’t have liked it if some damned penny-a-liner had made fun of Evie’s effort in one of the papers.

During the few weeks that followed he thought it tactful not to ask Evie any questions about her venture into verse, and she never referred to it. It might have been a discreditable incident that they had silently agreed not to mention. But then a strange thing happened. He had to go to London on business and he took Daphne out to dinner. That was the name of the girl with whom he was in the habit of passing a few agreeable hours whenever he went to town.

‘Oh, George,’ she said, ’is that your wife who’s written a book they’re all talking about?’

‘What on earth d’you mean?’

Well, there’s a fellow I know who’s a critic. He took me out to dinner the other night and he had a book with him. “Got anything for me to read?” I said. “What’s that?”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s your cup of tea,” he said. “It’s poetry. I’ve just been reviewing it.”

“No poetry for me,” I said. “It’s about the hottest stuff I ever read,” he said. ‘Selling like hot cakes. And it’s damned good.’

‘Who’s the book by?’ asked George.

‘A woman called Hamilton. My friend told me that wasn’t her real name. He said her real name was Peregrine. “Funny,” I said, “I know a fellow called Peregrine.”

“Colonel in the army,” he said. “Lives near Sheffield.’

‘I’d just as soon you didn’t talk about me to your friends,’ said George with a frown of vexation.

‘Keep your shirt on, dearie. Who d’you take me for? I just said: “It’s not the same one.’ Daphne giggled. ‘My friend said: “They say he’s a regular Colonel Blimp.’

George had a keen sense of humour.

‘You could tell them better than that,’ he laughed. ‘If my wife had written a book I’d be the first to know about it, wouldn’t I?’

‘I suppose you would.’

Anyhow the matter didn’t interest her and when the colonel began to talk of other things she forgot about it. He put it out of his mind too. There was nothing to it, he decided, and that silly fool of a critic had just been pulling Daphne’s leg. He was amused at the thought of her tackling that book because she had been told it was hot stuff and then finding it just a lot of bosh cut up into unequal lines.

He was a member of several clubs and next day he thought he’d lunch at one in St James’s Street. He was catching a train back to Sheffield early in the afternoon. He was sitting in a comfortable arm-chair having a glass of sherry before going into the dining-room when an old friend came up to him.

‘Well, old boy, how’s life?’ he said. ‘How d’you like being the husband of a celebrity?’

George Peregrine looked at his friend. He thought he saw an amused twinkle in his eyes.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he answered.

‘Come off it, George. Everyone knows E. K. Hamilton is your wife. Not often a book of verse has a success like that. Look here, Henry Dashwood is lunching with me. He’d like to meet you.’

‘Who the devil is Henry Dashwood and why should he want to meet me?’

‘Oh, my dear fellow, what do you do with yourself all the time in the country? Henry’s about the best critic we’ve got. He wrote a wonderful review of Evie’s book. D’you mean to say she didn’t show it you?’

Before George could answer his friend had called a man over. A tall, thin man, with a high forehead, a beard, a long nose, and a stoop, just the sort of man whom George was prepared to dislike at first sight. Introductions were effected. Henry Dashwood sat down.

‘Is Mrs Peregrine in London by any chance? I should very much like to meet her,’ he said.

‘No, my wife doesn’t like London. She prefers the country,’ said George stiffly.

‘She wrote me a very nice letter about my review. I was pleased. You know, we critics get more kicks than halfpence. I was simply bowled over by her book. It’s so fresh and original, very modern without being obscure. She seems to be as much at her ease in free verse as in the classical metres.’ Then because he was a critic he thought he should criticize. ‘Sometimes her ear is a trifle at fault, but you can say the same of Emily Dickinson. There are several of those short lyrics of hers that might have been written by Landor.’

All this was gibberish to George Peregrine. The man was nothing but a disgusting highbrow. But the colonel had good manners and he answered with proper civility: Henry Dashwood went on as though he hadn’t spoken.

‘But what makes the book so outstanding is the passion that throbs in every line. So many of these young poets are so anaemic, cold, bloodless, dully intellectual, but here you have real naked, earthy passion; of course deep, sincere emotion like that is tragic-ah, my dear Colonel, how right Heine was when he said that the poet makes little songs out of his great sorrows. You know, now and then, as I read and re-read those heart-rending pages I thought of Sappho.’

This was too much for George Peregrine and he got up.

‘Well, it’s jolly nice of you to say such nice things about my wife’s little book. I’m sure she’ll be delighted. But I must bolt, I’ve got to catch a train and I want to get a bite of lunch.’

‘Damned fool,’ he said irritably to himself as he walked upstairs to the dining-room.

He got home in time for dinner and after Evie had gone to bed he went into his study and looked for her book. He thought he’d just glance through it again to see for himself what they were making such a fuss about, but he couldn’t find it. Evie must have taken it away.

‘Silly,’ he muttered.

He’d told her he thought it jolly good. What more could a fellow be expected to say? Well, it didn’t matter. He lit his pipe and read the Field till he felt sleepy. But a week or so later it happened that he had to go into Sheffield for the day. He lunched there at his club. He had nearly finished when the Duke of Haverel came in. This was the great local magnate and of course the colonel knew him, but only to say how d’you do to; and he was surprised when the Duke stopped at his table.

‘We’re so sorry your wife couldn’t come to us for the week-end,’ he said, with a sort of shy cordiality. ‘We’re expecting rather a nice lot of people.’

George was taken aback. He guessed that the Haverels had asked him and Evie over for the week-end and Evie, without saying a word to him about it, had refused. He had the presence of mind to say he was sorry too.

‘Better luck next time,’ said the Duke pleasantly and moved on.

Colonel Peregrine was very angry and when he got home he said to his wife:

‘Look here, what’s this about our being asked over to Haverel? Why on earth did you say we couldn’t go? We’ve never been asked before and it’s the best shooting in the county.’

‘I didn’t think of that. I thought it would only bore you.’

‘Damn it all, you might at least have asked me if I wanted to go.’

‘I’m sorry.’

He looked at her closely. There was something in her expression that he didn’t quite understand. He frowned.

‘I suppose I was asked?’ he barked.

Evie flushed a little.

‘Well, in point of fact you weren’t.’

‘I call it damned rude of them to ask you without asking me.’

‘I suppose they thought it wasn’t your sort of party. The Duchess is rather fond of writers and people like that, you know. She’s having Henry Dashwood, the critic, and for some reason he wants to meet me.’

‘It was damned nice of you to refuse, Evie.’

‘It’s the least I could do,’ she smiled. She hesitated a moment. ‘George, my publishers want to give a little dinner party for me one day towards the end of the month and of course they want you to come too.’

‘Oh, I don’t think that’s quite my mark. I’ll come up to London with you if you like. I’ll find someone to dine with.’

Daphne.

‘I expect it’ll be very dull, but they’re making rather a point of it. And the day after, the American publisher who’s taken my book is giving a cocktail party at Claridge’s. I’d like you to come to that if you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Sounds like a crashing bore, but if you really want me to come I’ll come.’

‘It would be sweet of you.’

George Peregrine was dazed by the cocktail party. There were a lot of people. Some of them didn’t look so bad, a few of the women were decently turned out, but the men seemed to him pretty awful. He was introduced to everyone as Colonel Peregrine, E. K. Hamilton’s husband, you know. The men didn’t seem to have anything to say to him, but the women gushed.

‘You must be proud of your wife. Isn’t it wonderful? You know, I read it right through at a sitting, I simply couldn’t put it down, and when I’d finished I started again at the beginning and read it right through a second time. I was simply thrilled.’

The English publisher said to him:

We’ve not had a success like this with a book of verse for twenty years. I’ve never seen such reviews.’

The American publisher said to him:

‘It’s swell. It’ll be a smash hit in America. You wait and see.’

The American publisher had sent Evie a great spray of orchids. Damned ridiculous, thought George. As they came in, people were taken up to Evie, and it was evident that they said flattering things to her, which she took with a pleasant smile and a word or two of thanks. She was a trifle flushed with the excitement, but seemed quite at her ease. Though he thought the whole thing a lot of stuff and nonsense George noted with approval that his wife was carrying it off in just the right way.

‘Well, there’s one thing,’ he said to himself, ‘you can see she’s a lady and that’s a damned sight more than you can say of anyone else here.’

He drank a good many cocktails. But there was one thing that bothered him. He had a notion that some of the people he was introduced to looked at him in rather a funny sort of way, he couldn’t quite make out what it meant, and once when he strolled by two women who were sitting together on a sofa he had the impression that they were talking about him and after he passed he was almost certain they tittered. He was very glad when the party came to an end.

In the taxi on their way back to their hotel Evie said to him:

‘You were wonderful, dear. You made quite a hit. The girls simply raved about you: they thought you so handsome.’

‘Girls,’ he said bitterly. ‘Old hags.’

‘Were you bored, dear?’

‘Stiff’

She pressed his hand in a gesture of sympathy.

‘I hope you won’t mind if we wait and go down by the afternoon train. I’ve got some things to do in the morning.’

‘No, that’s all right. Shopping?’

‘I do want to buy one or two things, but I’ve got to go and be photographed. I hate the idea, but they think I ought to be. For America, you know’

He said nothing. But he thought. He thought it would be a shock to the American public when they saw the portrait of the homely, desiccated little women who was his wife. He’d always been under the impression that they liked glamour in America.

 

 

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