The Colonel's Lady
by W. Somerset Maugham

Narrated by Martin Jarvis

He went on thinking, and next morning when Evie had gone out he went to his club and up to the library. There he looked up recent numbers of The Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, and the Spectator. Presently he found reviews of Evie’s book. He didn’t read them very carefully, but enough to see that they were extremely favourable. Then he went to the bookseller’s in Piccadilly where he occasionally bought books. He’d made up his mind that he had to read this damned thing of Evie’s properly, but he didn’t want to ask her what she’d done with the copy she’d given him. He’d buy one for himself Before going in he looked in the window and the first thing he saw was a display of When Pyramids Decay. Damned silly title! He went in. A young man came forward and asked if he could help him.

‘No, I’m just having a look round.’ It embarrassed him to ask for Evie’s book and he thought he’d find it for himself and then take it to the salesman. But he couldn’t see it anywhere and at last, finding the young man near him, he said in a carefully casual tone: ‘By the way, have you got a book called When Pyramids Decay?’

‘The new edition came in this morning. I’ll get a copy.’

In a moment the young man returned with it. He was a short, rather stout young man, with a shock of untidy carroty hair and spectacles. George Peregrine, tall, upstanding, very military, towered over him.

‘Is this a new edition then?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. The fifth. It might be a novel the way it’s selling.’

George Peregrine hesitated a moment

‘Why d’you suppose it’s such a success? I’ve always been told no one reads poetry.’

‘Well, it’s good, you know. I’ve read it meself’ The young man, though obviously cultured, had a slight Cockney accent, and George quite instinctively adopted a patronizing attitude. ‘It’s the story they like. Sexy, you know, but tragic’

George frowned a little. He was coming to the conclusion that the young man was rather impertinent. No one had told him anything about there being a story in the damned book and he had not gathered that from reading the reviews. The young man went on:

‘Of course it’s only a flash in the pan, if you know what I mean. The way I look at it, she was sort of inspired like by a personal experience, like Housman was with The Shropshire Lad. She’ll never write anything else.’

‘How much is the book?’ said George coldly to stop his chatter. ‘You needn’t wrap it up, I’ll just slip it into my pocket.’

The November morning was raw and he was wearing a greatcoat.

At the station he bought the evening papers and magazines and he and Evie settled themselves comfortably in opposite corners of a first-class carriage and read. At five o’clock they went along to the restaurant car to have tea and chatted a little. They arrived. They drove home in the car which was waiting for them. They bathed, dressed for dinner, and after dinner Evie, saying she was tired out, went to bed. She kissed him, as was her habit, on the forehead. Then he went into the hall, took Evie’s book out of his greatcoat pocket and going into the study began to read it. He didn’t read verse very easily and though he read with attention, every word of it, the impression he received was far from clear. Then he began at the beginning again and read it a second time. He read with increasing malaise, but he was not a stupid man and when he had finished he had a distinct understanding of what it was all about. Part of the book was in free verse, part in conventional metres, but the story it related was coherent and plain to the meanest intelligence. It was the story of a passionate love affair between an older woman, married, and a young man. George Peregrine made out the steps of it as easily as if he had been doing a sum in simple addition.

Written in the first person, it began with the tremulous surprise of the woman, past her youth, when it dawned upon her that the young man was in love with her. She hesitated to believe it. She thought she must be deceiving herself And she was terrified when on a sudden she discovered that she was passionately in love with him. She told herself it was absurd; with the disparity of age between them nothing but unhappiness could come to her if she yielded to her emotion. She tried to prevent him from speaking but the day came when he told her that he loved her and forced her to tell him that she loved him too. He begged her to run away with him. She couldn’t leave her husband, her home; and what life could they look forward to, she an ageing woman, he so young? How could she expect his love to last? She begged him to have mercy on her. But his love was impetuous. He wanted her, he wanted her with all his heart, and at last trembling, afraid, desirous, she yielded to him. Then there was a period of ecstatic happiness. The world, the dull, humdrum world of every day, blazed with glory. Love songs flowed from her pen. The woman worshipped the young, virile body of her lover. George flushed darkly when she praised his broad chest and slim flanks, the beauty of his legs and the flatness of his belly.

Hot stuff, Daphne’s friend had said. It was that all right. Disgusting.

There were sad little pieces in which she lamented the emptiness of her life when as must happen he left her, but they ended with a cry that all she had to suffer would be worth it for the bliss that for a while had been hers. She wrote of the long, tremulous nights they passed together and the languor that lulled them to sleep in one another’s arms. She wrote of the rapture of brief stolen moments when, braving all danger, their passion overwhelmed them and they surrendered to its call.

She thought it would be an affair of a few weeks, but miraculously it lasted. One of the poems referred to three years having gone by without lessening the love that filled their hearts. It looked as though he continued to press her to go away with him, far away, to a hill town in Italy, a Greek island, a walled city in Tunisia, so that they could be together always, for in another of the poems she besought him to let things be as they were. Their happiness was precarious. Perhaps it was owing to the difficulties they had to encounter and the rarity of their meetings that their love had retained for so long its first enchanting ardour. Then on a sudden the young man died. How, when or where George could not discover. There followed a long, heartbroken cry of bitter grief, grief she could not indulge in, grief that had to be hidden. She had to be cheerful, give dinner-parties and go out to dinner, behave as she had always behaved, though the light had gone out of her life and she was bowed down with anguish. The last poem of all was a set of four short stanzas in which the writer, sadly resigned to her loss, thanked the dark powers that rule man’s destiny that she had been privileged at least for a while to enjoy the greatest happiness that we poor human beings can ever hope to know.

It was three o’clock in the morning when George Peregrine finally put the book down. It had seemed to him that he heard Evie’s voice in every line, over and over again he came upon turns of phrase he had heard her use, there were details that were as familiar to him as to her: there was no doubt about it; it was her own story she had told, and it was as plain as anything could be that she had had a lover and her lover had died. It was not anger so much that he felt, nor horror or dismay, though he was dismayed and he was horrified, but amazement. It was as inconceivable that Evie should have had a love affair, and a wildly passionate one at that, as that the trout in a glass case over the chimney-piece in his study, the finest he had ever caught, should suddenly wag its tail. He understood now the meaning of the amused look he had seen in the eyes of that man he had spoken to at the club, he understood why Daphne when she was talking about the book had seemed to be enjoying a private joke, and why those two women at the cocktail party had tittered when he strolled past them.

He broke out into a sweat. Then on a sudden he was seized with fury and he jumped up to go and awake Evie and ask her sternly for an explanation. But he stopped at the door. After all, what proof had he? A book. He remembered that he’d told Evie he thought it jolly good. True, he hadn’t read it, but he’d pretended he had. He would look a perfect fool if he had to admit that

‘I must watch my step,’ he muttered.

He made up his mind to wait for two or three days and think it all over. Then he’d decide what to do. He went to bed, but he couldn’t sleep for a long time. ‘Evie,’ he kept on saying to himself Evie, of all people.’

They met at breakfast next morning as usual. Evie was as she always was, quiet, demure, and self-possessed, a middle-aged woman who made no effort to look younger than she was, a woman who had nothing of what he still called It. He looked at her as he hadn’t looked at her for years. She had her usual placid serenity. Her pale blue eyes were untroubled. There was no sign of guilt on her candid brow. She made the same little casual remarks she always made.

‘It’s nice to get back to the country again after those two hectic days in London. What are you going to do this morning?’

It was incomprehensible.

Three days later he went to see his solicitor. Henry Blane was an old friend of George’s as well as his lawyer. He had a place not far from Peregrine’s and for years they had shot over one another’s preserves. For two days a week he was a country gentleman and for the other five a busy lawyer in Sheffield. He was a tall, robust fellow, with a boisterous manner and a jovial laugh, which suggested that he liked to be looked upon essentially as a sportsman and a good fellow and only incidentally as a lawyer. But he was shrewd and wordly-wise.

‘Well, George, what’s brought you here today?’ he boomed as the colonel was shown into his office. ‘Have a good time in London? I’m taking my missus up for a few days next week. How’s Evie?’

‘It’s about Evie I’ve come to see you,’ said Peregrine, giving him a suspicious look. ‘Have you read her book?’

His sensitivity had been sharpened during those last days of troubled thought and he was conscious of a faint change in the lawyer’s expression. It was as though he were suddenly on his guard.

‘Yes, I’ve read it. Great success, isn’t it? Fancy Evie breaking out into poetry. Wonders will never cease.’

George Peregrine was inclined to lose his temper.

‘It’s made me look a perfect damned fool.’

‘Oh, what nonsense, George! There’s no harm in Evie’s writing a book. You ought to be jolly proud of her.’

‘Don’t talk such rot It’s her own story. You know it and everyone else knows it. I suppose I’m the only one who doesn’t know who her lover was.’

‘There is such a thing as imagination, old boy. There’s no reason to suppose the whole thing isn’t made up.’

‘Look here, Henry, we’ve known one another all our lives. We’ve had all sorts of good times together. Be honest with me. Can you look me in the face and tell me you believe it’s a made-up story?’

Harry Blane moved uneasily in his chair. He was disturbed by the distress in old George’s voice.

‘You’ve got no right to ask me a question like that Ask Evie.’

‘I daren’t,’ George answered after an anguished pause. ‘I’m afraid she’d tell me the truth.’

There was an uncomfortable silence.

‘Who was the chap?’

Harry Blane looked at him straight in the eye.

‘I don’t know, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you.’

‘You swine. Don’t you see what a position I’m in? Do you think it’s very pleasant to be made absolutely ridiculous?’

The lawyer lit a cigarette and for some moments silently puffed it. ‘I don’t see what I can do for you,’ he said at last.

‘You’ve got private detectives you employ, I suppose. I want you to put them on the job and let them find everything out.’

‘It’s not very pretty to put detectives on one’s wife, old boy; and besides, taking for granted for a moment that Evie had an affair, it was a good many years ago and I don’t suppose it would be possible to find out a thing. They seem to have covered their tracks pretty carefully.’

‘I don’t care. You put the detectives on. I want to know the truth.’

‘I won’t, George. If you’re determined to do that you’d better consult someone else. And look here, even if you got evidence that Evie had been unfaithful to you what would you do with it? You’d look rather silly divorcing your wife because she’d committed adultery ten years ago.’

‘At all events I could have it out with her.’

‘You can do that now, but you know just as well as I do that if you do she’ll leave you. D’you want her to do that?’

George gave him an unhappy look.

‘I don’t know. I always thought she’d been a damned good wife to me. She runs the house perfectly, we never have any servant trouble; she’s done wonders with the garden and she’s splendid with all the village people. But damn it, I have my self-respect to think of How can I go on living with her when I know that she was grossly unfaithful to me?’

‘Have you always been faithful to her?’

‘More or less, you know. After all, we’ve been married for nearly twenty-four years and Evie was never much for bed.’

The solicitor slightly raised his eyebrows, but George was too intent on what he was saying to notice.

‘I don’t deny that I’ve had a bit of fun now and then. A man wants it. Women are different.’

We only have men’s word for that,’ said Harry Blane, with a faint smile. ‘Evie’s absolutely the last woman I’d have suspected of kicking over the traces. I mean, she’s a very fastidious, reticent woman. What on earth made her write the damned book?’

‘I suppose it was a very poignant experience and perhaps it was a relief to her to get it off her chest like that.’

‘Well, if she had to write it why the devil didn’t she write it under an assumed name?’

‘She used her maiden name. I suppose she thought that was enough, and it would have been if the book hadn’t had this amazing boom.’

George Peregrine and the lawyer were sitting opposite one another with a desk between them. George, his elbow on the desk, his cheek on his hand, frowned at his thought.

‘It’s so rotten not to know what sort of a chap he was. One can’t even tell if he was by way of being a gentleman. I mean, for all I know he may have been a farm-hand or a clerk in a lawyer’s office.’

Harry Blane did not permit himself to smile and when he answered there was in his eyes a kindly, tolerant look.

‘Knowing Evie so well I think the probabilities are that he was all right. Anyhow I’m sure he wasn’t a clerk in my office.’

‘It’s been a shock to me,’ the colonel sighed. ‘I thought she was fond of me. She couldn’t have written that book unless she hated me.’

‘Oh, I don’t believe that. I don’t think she’s capable of hatred.’

‘You’re not going to pretend that she loves me.’

‘No.’

‘Well, what does she feel for me?’

Harry Blane leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at George reflectively. ‘Indifference, I should say.’

The colonel gave a little shudder and reddened.

‘After all, you’re not in love with her, are you?’

George Peregrine did not answer directly.

‘It’s been a great blow to me not to have any children, but I’ve never let her see that I think she’s let me down. I’ve always been kind to her. Within reasonable limits I’ve tried to do my duty by her.’

The lawyer passed a large hand over his mouth to conceal the smile that trembled on his lips.

‘It’s been such an awful shock to me,’ Peregrine went on. ‘Damn it all, even ten years ago Evie was no chicken and God knows, she wasn’t much to look at. It’s so ugly.’ He sighed deeply. ‘What would you do in my place?’

‘Nothing.’

George Peregrine drew himself bolt upright in his chair and he looked at Harry with the stern set face that he must have worn when he inspected his regiment.

‘I can’t overlook a thing like this. I’ve been made a laughing-stock. I can never hold up my head again.’

‘Nonsense,’ said the lawyer sharply, and then in a pleasant, kindly manner, ‘Listen, old boy: the man’s dead; it all happened a long while back. Forget it. Talk to people about Evie’s book, rave about it, tell ’em how proud you are of her. Behave as though you had so much confidence in her, you knew she could never have been unfaithful to you. The world moves so quickly and people’s memories are so short. They’ll forget.’

‘I shan’t forget.’

‘You’re both middle-aged people. She probably does a great deal more for you than you think and you’d be awfully lonely without her. I don’t think it matters if you don’t forget. It’ll be all to the good if you can get it into that thick head of yours that there’s a lot more in Evie than you ever had the gumption to see.’

‘Damn it all, you talk as if I was to blame.’

‘No, I don’t think you were to blame, but I’m not so sure that Evie was either. I don’t suppose she wanted to fall in love with this boy. D’you remember those verses right at the end? The impression they gave me was that though she was shattered by his death, in a strange sort of way she welcomed it. All through she’d been aware of the fragility of the tie that bound them. He died in the full flush of his first love and had never known that love so seldom endures; he’d only known its bliss and beauty. In her own bitter grief she found solace in the thought that he’d been spared all sorrow’

‘All that’s a bit above my head, old boy. I see more or less what you mean.’ George Peregrine stared unhappily at the inkstand on the desk. He was silent and the lawyer looked at him with curious, yet sympathetic, eyes.

‘Do you realize what courage she must have had never by a sign to show how dreadfully unhappy she was?’ he said gently.

Colonel Peregrine sighed.

‘I’m broken, I suppose you’re right; it’s no good crying over spilt milk and it would only make things worse if I made a fuss.’

‘Well?’

George Peregrine gave a pitiful little smile.

‘I’ll take your advice. I’ll do nothing. Let them think me a damned fool and to hell with them. The truth is, I don’t know what I’d do without Evie. But I’ll tell you what, there’s one thing I shall never understand till my dying day: What in the name of heaven did the fellow ever see in her?’

 

 

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