by W. Somerset Maugham
(Narrated by Kenneth Danziger)
I know this is an odd story. I don’t understand it myself and if I set it down in black and white it is only with a faint hope that when I have written it I may get a clearer view of it, or rather with the hope that some reader, better acquainted with the complications of human nature than I am, may offer me an explanation that will make it comprehensible to me.
First of all I must make it plain that it is not my story and that I knew none of the persons with whom it is concerned. It was told me one evening by my friend Ned Preston, and he told it me because he didn’t know how to deal with the circumstances and he thought, quite wrongly as it happened, that I might be able to give him some advice that would help him. In a previous story I have related what I thought the reader should know about Ned Preston, and so now I need only remind him that my friend was a prison visitor at Wormwood Scrubs. He took his duties very seriously and made the prisoners’ troubles his own. We had been dining together at the Café Royal in that long, low room with its absurd and charming decoration which is all that remains of the old Café Royal that painters have loved to paint; and we were sitting over our coffee and liqueurs and, so far as Ned was concerned against his doctor’s orders, smoking very long and very good Havanas.
‘I’ve got a funny chap to deal with at the Scrubs just now,’ he said, after a pause, ‘and I’m blowed if I know how to deal with him.’
‘What’s he in for?’ I asked.
‘He left his wife and the court ordered him to pay so much a week in alimony and he’s absolutely refused to pay it. I’ve argued with him till I was blue in the face. I’ve told him he’s only cutting off his nose to spite his face. He says he’ll stay in jail all his life rather than pay her a penny. I tell him he can’t let her starve, and all he says is: “Why not?” He’s perfectly well behaved, he’s no trouble, he works well, he seems quite happy, he’s just getting a lot of fun out of thinking what a devil of a time his wife is having.’
‘What’s he got against her?’
‘She smashed his kite.’
‘She did what?’ I cried.
‘Exactly that. She smashed his kite. He says he’ll never forgive her for that till his dying day.’
‘He must be crazy.’
‘No, he isn’t, he’s a perfectly reasonable, quite intelligent, decent fellow’ Herbert Sunbury was his name, and his mother, who was very refined, never allowed him to be called Herb or Bertie, but always Herbert, just as she never called her husband Sam but only Samuel. Mrs Sunbury’s first name was Beatrice, and when she got engaged to Mr Sunbury and he ventured to call her Bea she put her foot down firmly.
‘Beatrice I was christened,’ she said, ‘and Beatrice I always have been and always shall be, to you and to my nearest and dearest.’
She was a little woman, but strong, active, and wiry, with a sallow skin, sharp, regular features, and small beady eyes. Her hair, suspiciously black for her age, was always very neat, and she wore it in the style of Queen Victoria’s daughters, which she had adopted as soon as she was old enough to put it up and had never thought fit to change. The possibility that she did something to keep her hair its original colour was, if such was the case, her only concession to frivolity, for, far from using rouge or lipstick, she had never in her life so much as passed a powder-puff over her nose. She never wore anything but black dresses of good material, but made (by that little woman round the corner) regardless of fashion after a pattern that was both serviceable and decorous. Her only ornament was a thin gold chain from which hung a small gold cross.
Samuel Sunbury was a little man too. He was as thin and spare as his wife, but he had sandy hair, gone very thin now so that he had to wear it very long on one side and brushed it carefully over the large bald patch. He had pale blue eyes and his complexion was pasty. He was a clerk in a lawyer’s office and had worked his way up from office boy to a respectable position. His employer called him Mr Sunbury and sometimes asked him to see an unimportant client. Every morning for twenty-four years Samuel Sunbury had taken the same train to the City, except of course on Sundays and during his fortnight’s holiday at the seaside, and every evening he had taken the same train back to the suburb in which he lived. He was neat in his dress; he went to work in quiet grey trousers, a black coat, and a bowler hat, and when he came home he put on his slippers and a black coat which was too old and shiny to wear at the office; but on Sundays when he went to the chapel he and Mrs Sunbury attended he wore a morning coat with his bowler. Thus he showed his respect for the day of rest and at the same time registered a protest against the ungodly who went bicycling or lounged about the streets until the pubs opened. On principle the Sunburys were total abstainers, but on Sundays, when to make up for the frugal lunch, consisting of a scone and butter with a glass of milk, which Samuel had during the week, Beatrice gave him a good dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, for his health’s sake she liked him to have a glass of beer. Since she wouldn’t for the world have kept liquor in the house, he sneaked out with a jug after morning service and got a quart from the pub round the corner; but nothing would induce him to drink alone, so, just to be sociable-like, she had a glass too.
Herbert was the only child the Lord had vouchsafed to them, and this certainly through no precaution on their part. It just happened that way. They doted on him. He was a pretty baby and then a good-looking child. Mrs Sunbury brought him up carefully. She taught him to sit up at table and not put his elbows on it and she taught him how to use his knife and fork like a little gentleman. She taught him to stretch out his little finger when he took his teacup to drink out of it and when he asked why, she said:
‘Never you mind. That’s how it’s done. It shows you know what’s what.’
In due course Herbert grew old enough to go to school. Mrs Sunbury was anxious because she had never let him play with the children in the street. ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners,’ she said. ‘I always have kept myself to myself and I always shall keep myself to myself.’
Although they had lived in the same house ever since they were married she had taken care to keep her neighbours at a distance.
‘You never know who people are in London,’ she said. ‘One thing leads to another, and before you know where you are you’re mixed up with a lot of riffraff and you can’t get rid of them.’
She didn’t like the idea of Herbert being thrown into contact with a lot of rough boys at the County Council school and she said to him:
‘Now, Herbert, do what I do; keep yourself to yourself and don’t have anything more to do with them than you can help.’
But Herbert got on very well at school. He was a good worker and far from stupid. His reports were excellent. It turned out that he had a good head for figures.
‘If that’s a fact’ said Samuel Sunbury, ‘he’d better be an accountant. There’s always a good job waiting for a good accountant.’
So it was settled there and then that this was what Herbert was to be. He grew tall.
‘Why, Herbert,’ said his mother, ‘soon you’ll be as tall as your dad.’
By the time he left school he was two inches taller, and by the time he stopped growing he was five feet ten.
‘Just the right height,’ said his mother. ‘Not too tall and not too short.’
He was a nice-looking boy, with his mother’s regular features and dark hair, but he had inherited his father’s blue eyes, and though he was rather pale his skin was smooth and clear. Samuel Sunbury had got him into the office of the accountants who came twice a year to do the accounts of his own firm and by the time he was twenty-one he was able to bring back to his mother every week quite a nice little sum. She gave him back three half-crowns for his lunches and ten shillings for pocket money, and the rest she put in the Savings Bank for him against a rainy day.
When Mr and Mrs Sunbury went to bed on the night of Herbert’s twenty-first birthday, and in passing I may say that Mrs Sunbury never went to bed, she retired, but Mr Sunbury, who was not quite so refined as his wife, always said: ‘Me for Bedford,’-when then Mr and Mrs Sunbury went to bed, Mrs Sunbury said:
‘Some people don’t know how lucky they are; thank the Lord, I do. No one’s ever had a better son than our Herbert. Hardly a day’s illness in his life and he’s never given me a moment’s worry. It just shows if you bring up somebody right they’ll be a credit to you. Fancy him being twenty-one, I can hardly believe it.’
‘Yes, I suppose before we know where we are he’ll be marrying and leaving us.
‘What should he want to do that for?’ asked Mrs Sunbury with asperity. ‘He’s got a good home here, hasn’t he? Don’t you go putting silly ideas into his head, Samuel, or you and me’ll have words and you know that’s the last thing I want. Marry indeed! He’s got more sense than that. He knows when he’s well off. He’s got sense, Herbert has.’
Mr Sunbury was silent. He had long ago learnt that it didn’t get him anywhere with Beatrice to answer back.
‘I don’t hold with a man marrying till he knows his own mind,’ she went on. ‘And a man doesn’t know his own mind till he’s thirty or thirty-five.’
‘He was pleased with his presents,’ said Mr Sunbury to change the conversation.
‘And so he ought to be,’ said Mrs Sunbury still upset.
They had in fact been handsome. Mr Sunbury had given him a silver wrist-watch, with hands that you could see in the dark, and Mrs Sunbury had given him a kite. It wasn’t by any means the first one she had given him. That was when he was seven years old, and it happened this way. There was a large common near where they lived and on Saturday afternoons when it was fine Mrs Sunbury took her husband and son for a walk there. She said it was good for Samuel to get a breath of fresh air after being cooped up in a stuffy office all the week. There were always a lot of people on the common, but Mrs Sunbury who liked to keep herself to herself kept out of their way as much as possible. ‘Look at them kites, Mum,’ said Herbert suddenly one day.
There was a fresh breeze blowing and a number of kites, small and large, were sailing through the air.
‘Those, Herbert, not them,’ said Mrs Sunbury.
‘Would you like to go and see where they start, Herbert?’ asked his father. ‘Oh, yes, Dad.’
There was a slight elevation in the middle of the common and as they approached it they saw boys and girls and some men racing down it to give their kites a start and catch the wind. Sometimes they didn’t and fell to the ground, but when they did they would rise, and as the owner unravelled his string go higher and higher. Herbert looked with ravishment.
‘Mum, can I have a kite?’ he cried.
He had already learnt that when he wanted anything it was better to ask his mother first.
‘Whatever for?’ she said.
‘To fly it, Mum.’
‘If you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself,’ she said.
Mr and Mrs Sunbury exchanged a smile over the little boy’s head. Fancy him wanting a kite. Growing quite a little man he was.
‘If you’re a good boy and wash your teeth regular every morning without me telling you I shouldn’t be surprised if Santa Claus didn’t bring you a kite on Christmas Day.’
Christmas wasn’t far off and Santa Claus brought Herbert his first kite. At the beginning he wasn’t very clever at managing it, and Mr Sunbury had to run down the hill himself and start it for him. It was a very small kite, but when Herbert saw it swim through the air and felt the little tug it gave his hand he was thrilled; and then every Saturday afternoon, when his father got back from the City, he would pester his parents to hurry over to the common. He quickly learnt how to fly it, and Mr and Mrs Sunbury, their hearts swelling with pride, would watch him from the top of the knoll while he ran down and as the kite caught the breeze lengthened the cord in his hand.
It became a passion with Herbert, and as he grew older and bigger his mother bought him larger and larger kites. He grew very clever at gauging the winds and could do things with his kite you wouldn’t have thought possible. There were other kite-flyers on the common, not only children, but men, and since nothing brings people together so naturally as a hobby they share it was not long before Mrs Sunbury, notwithstanding her exclusiveness, found that she, her Samuel, and her son were on speaking terms with all and sundry. They would compare their respective kites and boast of their accomplishments. Sometimes Herbert, a big boy of sixteen now, would challenge another kite-flyer. Then he would manoeuvre his kite to windward of the other fellow’s, allow his cord to drift against his, and by a sudden jerk bring the enemy kite down. But long before this Mr Sunbury had succumbed to his son’s enthusiasm and he would often ask to have a go himself It must have been a funny sight to see him running down the hill in his striped trousers, black coat, and bowler hat. Mrs Sunbury would trot sedately behind him and when the kite was sailing free would take the cord from him and watch it as it soared. Saturday afternoon became the great day of the week for them, and when Mr Sunbury and Herbert left the house in the morning to catch their train to the City the first thing they did was to look up at the sky to see if it was flying weather. They liked best of all a gusty day, with uncertain winds, for that gave them the best chance to exercise their skill. All through the week, in the evenings, they talked about it. They were contemptuous of smaller kites than theirs and envious of bigger ones. They discussed the performances of other flyers as hotly, and as scornfully, as boxers or football-players discuss their rivals. Their ambition was to have a bigger kite than anyone else and a kite that would go higher. They had long given up a cord, for the kite they gave Herbert on his twenty-first birthday was seven feet high, and they used piano wire wound round a drum. But that did not satisfy Herbert. Somehow or other he had heard of a box-kite which had been invented by somebody, and the idea appealed to him at once. He thought he could devise something of the sort himself and since he could draw a little he set about making designs of it. He got a small model made and tried it out one afternoon, but it wasn’t a success. He was a stubborn boy and he wasn’t going to be beaten. Something was wrong, and it was up to him to put it right.
Then an unfortunate thing happened. Herbert began to go out after supper. Mrs Sunbury didn’t like it much, but Mr Sunbury reasoned with her. After all, the boy was twenty-two, and it must be dull for him to stay home all the time.
If he wanted to go for a walk or see a movie there was no great harm. Herbert had fallen in love. One Saturday evening, after they’d had a wonderful time on the common, while they were at supper, out of a clear sky he said suddenly:
‘Mum, I’ve asked a young lady to come in to tea tomorrow. Is that all right?’
‘You done what?’ said Mrs Sunbury, for a moment forgetting her grammar. ‘You heard, Mum.’
‘And may I ask who she is and how you got to know her?’
‘Her name’s Bevan, Betty Bevan, and I met her first at the pictures one Saturday afternoon when it was raining. It was an accident-like. She was sitting next to me and she dropped her bag and I picked it up and she said thank you and so naturally we got talking.’
‘And d’you mean to tell me you fell for an old trick like that? Dropped her bag indeed!’
‘You’re making a mistake, Mum, she’s a nice girl, she is really and well educated too.’
‘And when did all this happen?’
‘About three months ago.’
‘Oh, you met her three months ago and you’ve asked her to come to tea tomorrow?’
‘Well, I’ve seen her since of course. That first day, after the show, I asked her if she’d come to the pictures with me on the Tuesday evening, and she said she didn’t know, perhaps she would and perhaps she wouldn’t. But she came all right.’
She would. I could have told you that.’
‘And we’ve been going to the pictures about twice a week ever since.’
‘So that’s why you’ve taken to going out so often?’
‘That’s right. But, look, I don’t want to force her on you, if you don’t want her to come to tea I’ll say you’ve got a headache and take her out.’
‘Your mum will have her to tea all right,’ said Mr Sunbury. Won’t you, dear? It’s only that your mum can’t abide strangers. She never has liked them.’
‘I keep myself to myself,’ said Mrs Sunbury gloomily. ‘What does she do?’ She works in a typewriting office in the City and she lives at home, if you call it home; you see, her mum died and her dad married again, and they’ve got three kids and she doesn’t get on with her step-ma. Nag, nag, nag all the time, she says.’
Mrs Sunbury arranged the tea very stylishly. She took the knick-knacks off the little table in the sitting room, which they never used, and put a tea-cloth on it. She got out the tea-service and the plated tea-kettle which they never used either, and she made scones, baked a cake, and cut thin bread-and-butter. ‘I want her to see that we’re not just nobody,’ she told her Samuel.
Herbert went to fetch Miss Bevan, and Mr Sunbury intercepted them at the door in case Herbert should take her into the dining-room where normally they ate and sat. Herbert gave the tea-table a glance of surprise as he ushered the young woman into the sitting-room.
‘This is Betty, Mum,’ he said.
‘Miss Bevan, I presume,’ said Mrs Sunbury.
‘That’s right, but call me Betty, won’t you?’
‘Perhaps the acquaintance is a bit short for that,’ said Mrs Sunbury with a gracious smile. ‘Won’t you sit down, Miss Bevan?’
Strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, Betty Bevan looked very much as Mrs Sunbury must have looked at her age. She had the same sharp features and the same rather small beady eyes, but her lips were scarlet with paint, her cheeks lightly rouged, and her short black hair permanently waved. Mrs Sunbury took in all this at a glance, and she reckoned to a penny how much her smart rayon dress had cost, her extravagantly high-heeled shoes, and the saucy hat on her head. Her frock was very short and she showed a good deal of flesh-coloured stocking. Mrs Sunbury, disapproving of her make-up and of her apparel, took an instant dislike to her, but she had made up her mind to behave like a lady, and if she didn’t know how to behave like a lady nobody did, so that at first things went well. She poured out tea and asked Herbert to give a cup to his lady friend.
‘Ask Miss Bevan if she’ll have some bread-and-butter or a scone, Samuel, my dear.’
‘Have both,’ said Samuel, handing round the two plates, in his coarse way. ‘I like to see people eat hearty.’
Betty insecurely perched a piece of bread-and-butter and a scone on her saucer and Mrs Sunbury talked affably about the weather. She had the satisfaction of seeing that Betty was getting more and more ill-at-ease. Then she cut the cake and pressed a large piece on her guest. Betty took a bite at it and when she put it in her saucer it fell to the ground.
‘Oh, I am sorry,’ said the girl, as she picked it up.
‘It doesn’t matter at all, I’ll cut you another piece,’ said Mrs Sunbury. ‘Oh, don’t bother, I’m not particular. The floor’s clean.’
‘I hope so,’ said Mrs Sunbury with an acid smile, ‘but I wouldn’t dream of letting you eat a piece of cake that’s been on the floor. Bring it here, Herbert, and I’ll give Miss Bevan some more.’
‘I don’t want any more, Mrs Sunbury, I don’t really.’
‘I’m sorry you don’t like my cake. I made it specially for you.’ She took a bit. ‘It tastes all right to me.’
‘It’s not that, Mrs Sunbury, it’s a beautiful cake, it’s only that I’m not hungry.’ She refused to have more tea and Mrs Sunbury saw she was glad to get rid of the cup. ‘I expect they have their meals in the kitchen,’ she said to herself Then Herbert lit a cigarette.
‘Give us a fag, Herb,’ said Betty. ‘I’m simply dying for a smoke.’
Mrs Sunbury didn’t approve of women smoking, but she only raised her eyebrows slightly.
‘We prefer to call him Herbert, Miss Bevan,’ she said.
Betty wasn’t such a fool as not to see that Mrs Sunbury had been doing all she could to make her uncomfortable, and now she saw a chance to get back on her.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘When he told me his name was Herbert I nearly burst out laughing. Fancy calling anyone Herbert. A scream, I call it.’
‘I’m sorry you don’t like the name my son was given at his baptism. I think it’s a very nice name. But I suppose it all depends on what sort of class of people one is.’
Herbert stepped in to the rescue.
‘At the office they call me Bertie, Mum.’
‘Then all I can say is, they’re a lot of very common men.’
Mrs Sunbury lapsed into a dignified silence and the conversation, such as it was, was maintained by Mr Sunbury and Herbert. It was not without satisfaction that Mrs Sunbury perceived that Betty was offended. She also perceived that the girl wanted to go, but didn’t quite know how to manage it. She was determined not to help her. Finally Herbert took the matter into his own hands.
Well, Betty, I think it’s about time we were getting along,’ he said. ‘I’ll walk back with you.’
‘Must you go already?’ said Mrs Sunbury, rising to her feet. ‘It’s been a pleasure, I’m sure.’
‘Pretty little thing,’ said Mr Sunbury tentatively after the young things had left. ‘Pretty my foot. All that paint and powder. You take my word for it, she’d look very different with her face washed and without a perm. Common, that’s what she is, common as dirt.’
An hour later Herbert came back. He was angry.
‘Look here, Mum, what d’you mean by treating the poor girl like that? I was simply ashamed of you.’
‘Don’t talk to your mother like that, Herbert,’ she flared up. ‘You didn’t ought to have brought a woman like that into my house. Common, she is, common as dirt.’
When Mrs Sunbury got angry not only did her grammar grow shaky, but she wasn’t quite safe on her "aitches" (H's). Herbert took no notice of what she said.
‘She said she’d never been so insulted in her life. I had a rare job pacifying her.’
‘Well, she’s never coming here again, I tell you that straight.’
‘That’s what you think. I’m engaged to her, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.’
Mrs Sunbury gasped. ‘You’re not?’
‘Yes, I am. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and then she was so upset tonight I felt sorry for her, so I popped the question and I had a rare job persuading her, I can tell you.’
‘You fool,’ screamed Mrs Sunbury. ‘You fool.’
There was quite a scene then. Mrs Sunbury and her son went at it hammer and tongs, and when poor Samuel tried to intervene they both told him roughly to shut up. At last Herbert flung out of the room and out of the house and Mrs Sunbury burst into angry tears.