The Kite
by W. Somerset Maugham
(Narrated by Kenneth Danziger)

 

No reference was made next day to what had passed. Mrs Sunbury was frigidly polite to Herbert and he was sullen and silent. After supper he went out. On Saturday he told his father and mother that he was engaged that afternoon and wouldn’t be able to come to the common with them.

‘I dare say we shall be able to do without you,’ said Mrs Sunbury grimly.

It was getting on to the time for their usual fortnight at the seaside. They always went to Heme Bay, because Mrs Sunbury said you had a nice class of people there, and for years they had taken the same lodgings. One evening, in as casual a way as he could, Herbert said:

‘By the way, Mum, you’d better write and tell them I shan’t be wanting my room this year. Betty and me are getting married and we’re going to Southend for the honeymoon.’

For a moment there was dead silence in the room.

‘Bit sudden-like, isn’t it, Herbert?’ said Mr Sunbury uneasily.

‘Well, they’re cutting down at Betty’s office and she’s out of a job, so we thought we’d better get married at once. We’ve taken two rooms in Dabney Street and we’re furnishing out of my Savings Bank money.’

Mrs Sunbury didn’t say a word. She went deathly pale and tears rolled down her thin cheeks.

‘Oh, come on, Mum, don’t take it so hard,’ said Herbert. ‘A fellow has to marry sometime. If Dad hadn’t married you, I shouldn’t be here now, should I?’

Mrs Sunbury brushed her tears away with an impatient hand.

Your dad didn’t marry me; I married ’im. I knew he was steady and respectable. I knew he’d make a good ‘usband and father. I’ve never ’ad cause to regret it and no more ’as your dad. That’s right, Samuel, isn’t it?’

Right as rain, Beatrice,’ he said quickly.

‘You know, you’ll like Betty when you get to know her. She’s a nice girl, she is really. I believe you’d find you had a lot in common. You must give her a chance, Mum.’

‘She’s never going to set foot in this house only over my dead body.’

‘That’s absurd, Mum. Why, everything’11 be just the same if you’ll only be reasonable. I mean, we can go flying on Saturday afternoons same as we always did. Just this time I’ve been engaged it’s been difficult. You see, she can’t see what there is in kite-flying, but she’ll come round to it, and after I’m married it’ll be different, I mean I can come and fly with you and Dad; that stands to reason.’

‘That’s what you think. Well, let me tell you that if you marry that woman you’re not going to fly my kite. I never gave it you, I bought it out of the housekeeping money, and it’s mine, see.’

‘All right then, have it your own way. Betty says it’s a kid’s game anyway and I ought to be ashamed of myself, flying a kite at my age.’

He got up and once more stalked angrily out of the house. A fortnight later he was married. Mrs Sunbury refused to go to the wedding and wouldn’t let Samuel go either. They went for their holiday and came back. They resumed their usual round. On Saturday afternoons they went to the common by themselves and flew their enormous kite. Mrs Sunbury never mentioned her son. She was determined not to forgive him. But Mr Sunbury used to meet him on the morning train they both took and they chatted a little when they managed to get into the same carriage. One morning Mr Sunbury looked up at the sky.

‘Good flying weather today,’ he said. D’you and Mum still fly?’

‘What do you think? She’s getting as clever as I am. You should see her with her skirts pinned up running down the hill. I give you my word, I never knew she had it in her. Run? Why, she can run better than what I can.’

‘Don’t make me laugh, Dad!’

‘I wonder you don’t buy a kite of your own, Herbert. You’ve been always so keen on it.’

‘I know I was. I did suggest it once, but you know what women are, Betty said: “Be your age,” and oh, I don’t know what all. I don’t want a kid’s kite, of course, and them big kites cost money. When we started to furnish Betty said it was cheaper in the long run to buy the best and so we went to one of them hire purchase places and what with paying them every month and the rent, well, I haven’t got any more money than just what we can manage on. They say it doesn’t cost any more to keep two than one, well, that’s not my experience so far.’

‘Isn’t she working?’

‘Well, no, she says after working for donkeys’ years as you might say, now she’s married she’s going to take it easy, and of course someone’s got to keep the place clean and do the cooking.’

So it went on for six months, and then one Saturday afternoon when the Sunburys were as usual on the common Mrs Sunbury said to her husband: Did you see what I saw, Samuel?’

‘I saw Herbert, if that’s what you mean. I didn’t mention it because I thought it would only upset you.’

‘Don’t speak to him. Pretend you haven’t seen him.’

Herbert was standing among the idle lookers-on. He made no attempt to speak to his parents, but it did not escape Mrs Sunbury that he followed with all his eyes the flight of the big kite he had flown so often. It began to grow chilly and the Sunburys went home. Mrs Sunbury’s face was brisk with malice. ‘I wonder if he’ll come next Saturday,’ said Samuel.

‘If I didn’t think betting was wrong I’d bet you sixpence he will, Samuel. I’ve been waiting for this all along.’

‘You have?’

‘I knew from the beginning he wouldn’t be able to keep away from it.’

She was right. On the following Saturday and on every Saturday after that when the weather was fine Herbert turned up on the common. No intercourse passed. He just stood there for a while looking on and then strolled away. But after things had been going on like this for several weeks, the Sunburys had a surprise for him. They weren’t flying the big kite which he was used to, but a new one, a box-kite, a small one, on the model for which he had made the designs himself He saw it was creating a lot of interest among the other kite-flyers; they were standing round it and Mrs Sunbury was talking volubly. The first time Samuel ran down the hill with it the thing didn’t rise, but flopped miserably on the ground, and Herbert clenched his hands and ground his teeth. He couldn’t bear to see it fail. Mr Sunbury climbed up the little hill again, and the second time the box-kite took the air. There was a cheer among the bystanders. After a while Mr Sunbury pulled it down and walked back with it to the hill. Mrs Sunbury went up to her son.

‘Like to have a try, Herbert?’

He caught his breath.

‘Yes, Mum, I should.’

‘It’s just a small one because they say you have to get the knack of it. It’s not like the old-fashioned sort. But we’ve got specifications for a big one, and they say when you get to know about it and the wind’s right you can go up to two miles with it.’

Mr Sunbury joined them.

‘Samuel, Herbert wants to try the kite.’

Mr Sunbury handed it to him, a pleased smile on his face, and Herbert gave his mother his hat to hold. Then he raced down the hill, the kite took the air beautifully, and as he watched it rise his heart was filled with exultation. It was grand to see that little black thing soaring so sweetly, but even as he watched it he thought of the great big one they were having made. They’d never be able to manage that. Two miles in the air, mum had said. Whew!

‘Why don’t you come back and have a cup of tea, Herbert,’ said Mrs Sunbury, ‘and we’ll show you the designs for the new one they want to build for us. Perhaps you could make some suggestions.’

He hesitated. He’d told Betty he was just going for a walk to stretch his legs, she didn’t know he’d been coming to the common every week, and she’d be waiting for him. But the temptation was irresistible.

‘I don’t mind if I do,’ he said.

After tea they looked at the specifications. The kite was huge, with gadgets he had never seen before, and it would cost a lot of money.

‘You’ll never be able to fly it by yourselves,’ he said.

‘We can try.’

‘I suppose you wouldn’t like me to help you just at first?’ he asked uncertainly.

‘Mightn’t be a bad idea,’ said Mrs Sunbury.

It was late when he got home, much later than he thought, and Betty was vexed.

‘Wherever have you been, Herb? I thought you were dead. Supper’s waiting and everything.’

‘I met some fellows and got talking.’

She gave him a sharp look, but didn’t answer. She sulked.

After supper he suggested they should go to a movie, but she refused. ‘You go if you want to,’ she said. ‘I don’t care to.’

On the following Saturday he went again to the common and again his mother let him fly the kite. They had ordered the new one and expected to get it in three weeks. Present his mother said to him:

‘Elizabeth is here.’

‘Betty?’

‘Spying on you.’

It gave him a nasty turn, but he put on a bold front.

let her spy. I don’t care.’

But he was nervous and wouldn’t go back to tea with his parents. He went straight home. Betty was waiting for him.

‘So that’s the fellows you got talking to. I’ve been suspicious for some time, you going for a walk on Saturday afternoon, and all of a sudden I tumbled to it. Flying a kite, you, a grown man. Contemptible I call it.’

‘I don’t care what you call it. I like it, and if you don’t like it you can lump it.’

‘I won’t have it and I tell you that straight. I’m not going to have you make a fool of yourself.’

‘I’ve flown a kite every Saturday afternoon ever since I was a kid, and I’m going to fly a kite as long as ever I want to.’

‘It’s that old bitch, she’s just trying to get you away from me. I know her. If you were a man you’d never speak to her again, not after the way she’s treated me.’

‘I won’t have you call her that. She’s my mother and I’ve got the right to see her as often as ever I want to.’

The quarrel went on hour after hour. Betty screamed at him and Herbert shouted at her. They had had trifling disagreements before, because they were both obstinate, but this was the first serious row they had had. They didn’t speak to one another on the Sunday, and during the rest of the week, though outwardly there was peace between them, their ill-feeling rankled. It happened that the next two Saturdays it poured with rain. Betty smiled to herself when she saw the downpour, but if Herbert was disappointed he gave no sign of it. The recollection of their quarrel grew dim. Living in two rooms as they did, sleeping in the same bed, it was inevitable that they should agree to forget their differences. Betty went out of her way to be nice to her Herb, and she thought that now she had given him a taste of her tongue and he knew she wasn’t going to be put upon by anyone, he’d be reasonable. He was a good husband in his way, generous with his money and steady. Give her time and she’d manage him all right.

But after a fortnight of bad weather it cleared.

‘Looks as if we’re going to have good flying weather tomorrow,’ said Mr Sunbury as they met on the platform to await their morning train. ‘The new kite’s come.’

‘It has?’

‘Your mum says of course we’d like you to come and help us with it, but no one’s got the right to come between a man and his wife, and if you’re afraid of Betty, her kicking up a rumpus, I mean, you’d better not come. There’s a young fellow we’ve got to know on the common who’s just mad about it, and he says he’ll get it to fly if anybody can.’

Herbert was seized with a pang of jealousy.

‘Don’t you let any strangers touch our kite. I’ll be there all right.’

‘Well, you think it over, Herbert, and if you don’t come we shall quite understand.’

‘I’ll come,’ said Herbert.

So next day when he got back from the City he changed from his business clothes into slacks and an old coat. Betty came into the bedroom.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Changing,’ he answered gaily. He was so excited, he couldn’t keep the secret to himself ‘Their new kite’s come and I’m going to fly it.’

‘Oh, no, you’re not,’ she said. ‘I won’t have it.’

‘Don’t be a fool, Betty. I’m going, I tell you, and if you don’t like it you can do the other thing.’

‘I’m not going to let you, so that’s that.’

She shut the door and stood in front of it. Her eyes flashed and her jaw was set. She was a little thing and he was a tall strong man. He took hold of her two arms to push her out of the way, but she kicked him violently on the shin. D’you want me to give you a sock on the jaw?’

‘If you go you don’t come back,’ she shouted.

He caught her up, though she struggled and kicked, threw her on to the bed and went out.

If the small box-kite had caused an excitement on the common it was nothing to what the new one caused. But it was was difficult to manage, and though they ran and panted and other enthusiastic flyers helped them Herbert couldn’t get it up.

‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘we’ll get the knack of it presently. The wind’s not right today, that’s all.’

He went back to tea with his father and mother and they talked it over just as they had talked in the old days. He delayed going because he didn’t fancy the scene Betty would make him, but when Mrs Sunbury went into the kitchen to get supper ready he had to go home. Betty was reading the paper. She looked up.

‘Your bag’s packed,’ she said.

‘My what?’

‘You heard what I said. I said if you went you needn’t come back. I forgot about your things. Everything’s packed. It’s in the bedroom.’

He looked at her for a moment with surprise. She pretended to be reading again. He would have liked to give her a good hiding.

‘All right, have it your own way,’ he said.

He went into the bedroom. His clothes were packed in a suitcase, and there was a brown-paper parcel in which Betty had put whatever was left over. He took the bag in one hand, the parcel in the other, walked through the sitting-room without a word and out of the house. He walked to his mother’s and rang the bell. She opened the door.

‘I’ve come home, Mum,’ he said.

‘Have you, Herbert? Your room’s ready for you. Put your things down and come in. We were just sitting down to supper.’ They went into the dining-room. ‘Samuel, Herbert’s come home. Run out and get a quart of beer.’

Over supper and during the rest of the evening he told them the trouble he had had with Betty.

‘Well, you’re well out of it, Herbert,’ said Mrs Sunbury when he had finished. ‘I told you she was no wife for you. Common she is, common as dirt, and you who’s always been brought up so nice.’

He found it good to sleep in his own bed, the bed he’d been used to all his life, and to come down to breakfast on the Sunday morning, unshaved and unwashed, and read the News of the World.

‘We won’t go to chapel this morning,’ said Mrs Sunbury. ‘It’s been an upset to you, Herbert; we’ll all take it easy today.’

During the week they talked a lot about the kite, but they also talked a lot about Betty. They discussed what she would do next.

‘She’ll try and get you back,’ said Mrs Sunbury.

‘A fat chance she’s got of doing that,’ said Herbert.

‘You’ll have to provide for her,’ said his father.

‘Why should he do that?’ cried Mrs Sunbury. ‘She trapped him into marrying her and now she’s turned him out of the home he made for her.’

‘I’ll give her what’s right as long as she leaves me alone.’

He was feeling more comfortable every day, in fact he was beginning to feel as if he’s never been away, he settled in like a dog in its own particular basket; it was nice having his mother to brush his clothes and mend his socks; she gave him the sort of things he’d always eaten and liked best; Betty was a scrappy sort of cook, it had been fun just at first, like picnicking, but it wasn’t the sort of eating a man could get his teeth into, and he could never get over his mother’s idea that fresh food was better than the stuff you bought in tins. He got sick of the sight of tinned salmon. Then it was nice to have space to move about in rather than be cooped up in two small rooms, one of which had to serve as a kitchen as well.

‘I never made a bigger mistake in my life than when I left home, Mum,’ he said to her once.

‘I know that, Herbert, but you’re back now and you’ve got no cause ever to leave it again.’

His salary was paid on Friday and in the evening when they had just finished supper the bell rang.

‘That’s her,’ they said with one voice.

Herbert went pale. His mother gave him a glance.

‘You leave it to me,’ she said. ‘I’ll see her.’

She opened the door. Betty was standing on the threshold. She tried to push her way in, but Mrs Sunbury prevented her.

‘I want to see Herb.’

‘You can’t. He’s out.’

‘No, he isn’t. I watched him go in with his dad and he hasn’t come out again.’

‘Well, he doesn’t want to see you, and if you start making a disturbance I’ll call the police.’

‘I want my week’s money.’

‘That’s all you’ve ever wanted of him.’ She took out her purse. ‘There’s thirty-five shillings for you.’

‘Thirty-five shillings? The rent’s twelve shillings a week.’

‘That’s all you’re going to get. He’s got to pay his board here, hasn’t he?’

‘And then there’s the instalments on the furniture.’

We’ll see about that when the time comes. D’you want the money or don’t you?’

Confused, unhappy, browbeaten, Betty stood irresolutely. Mrs Sunbury thrust the money in her hand and slammed the door in her face. She went back to the dining-room.

‘I’ve settled her hash all right,’ she said.

The bell rang again, it rang repeatedly, but they did not answer it, and presently it stopped. They guessed that Betty had gone away.

It was fine next day, with just the right velocity in the wind, and Herbert, after failing two or three times, found he had got the knack of flying the big box-kite. It soared into the air and up and up as he unreeled the wire. ‘Why, it’s a mile up if it’s a yard,’ he told his mother excitedly.

He had never had such a thrill in his life.

Several weeks passed by. They concocted a letter for Herbert to write in which he told Betty that so long as she didn’t molest him or members of his family she would receive a postal order for thirty-five shillings every Saturday morning and he would pay the instalments on the furniture as they came due. Mrs Sunbury had been much against this, but Mr Sunbury, for once at variance with her, and Herbert agreed that it was the right thing to do. Herbert by then had learnt the ways of the new kite and was able to do great things with it. He no longer bothered to have contests with the other kite-flyers. He was out of their class. Saturday afternoons were his moments of glory. He revelled in the admiration he aroused in the bystanders and enjoyed the envy he knew he excited in the less fortunate flyers. Then one evening when he was walking back from the station with his father Betty waylaid him.

‘Hullo, Herb,’ she said.

‘Hullo.’

‘I want to talk to my husband alone, Mr Sunbury.’

‘There’s nothing you’ve got to say to me that my dad can’t hear,’ said Herbert sullenly.

She hesitated. Mr Sunbury fidgeted. He didn’t know whether to stay or go. ‘All right, then,’ she said. ‘I want you to come back home, Herb. I didn’t mean it that night when I packed your bag. I only did it to frighten you. I was in a temper. I’m sorry for what I did. It’s all so silly, quarrelling about a kite.’

‘Well, I’m not coming back, see. When you turned me out you did me the best turn you ever did me.’

Tears began to trickle down Betty’s cheeks.

‘But I love you, Herb. If you want to fly your silly old kite, you fly it, I don’t care so long as you come back.’

‘Thank you very much, but it’s not good enough. I know when I’m well off and I’ve had enough of married life to last me a lifetime. Come on, Dad.’ They walked on quickly and Betty made no attempt to follow them. On the following Sunday they went to chapel and after dinner Herbert went to the coal-shed where he kept the kite to have a look at it. He just couldn’t keep away from it. He doted on it. In a minute he rushed back, his face white, with a hatchet in his hand.

‘She’s smashed it up. She did it with this.’

The Sunburys gave a cry of consternation and hurried to the coal-shed. What Herbert had said was true. The kite, the new expensive kite, was in fragments. It had been savagely attacked with the hatchet, the woodwork was all in pieces, the reel was hacked to bits.

‘She must have done it while we were at chapel. Watched us go out, that’s what she did.’

‘But how did she get in?’ asked Mr Sunbury.

‘I had two keys. When I came home I noticed one was missing, but I didn’t think anything about it.’

‘You can’t be sure she did it, some of them fellows on the common have been very snooty, I wouldn’t put it past them to have done this.’

‘Well, we’ll soon find out,’ said Herbert. ‘I’ll go and ask her, and if she did it I’ll kill her.’

His rage was so terrible that Mrs Sunbury was frightened.

‘And get yourself hung for murder? No, Herbert, I won’t let you go. Let your dad go, and when he comes back we’ll decide what to do.’

‘That’s right, Herbert, let me go.’

They had a job to persuade him, but in the end Mr Sunbury went. And in half an hour he came back.

‘She did it all right. She told me straight out. She’s proud of it. I won’t repeat her language, it fair startled me, but the long and short of it was she was jealous of the kite. She said Herbert loved the kite more than he loved her and so she smashed it up and if she had to do it again she’d do it again.’

‘Lucky she didn’t tell me that. I’d have wrung her neck even if I’d had to swing for it. Well, she never gets another penny out of me, that’s all.’

‘She’ll sue you,’ said his father.

let her.’

‘The instalment on the furniture is due next week, Herbert,’ said Mrs Sunbury quietly. ‘In your place I wouldn’t pay it.’

‘Then they’ll just take it away,’ said Samuel, ‘and all the money he’s paid on it so far will be wasted.’

‘Well, what of it?’ she answered. ‘He can afford it. He’s rid of her for good and all and we’ve got him back and that’s the chief thing.’

‘I don’t care twopence about the money,’ said Herbert. ‘I can see her face when they come to take the furniture away. It meant a lot to her, it did, and the piano, she set a rare store on that piano.’

So on the following Friday he did not send Betty her weekly money, and when she sent him on a letter from the furniture people to say that if he didn’t pay the instalment due by such and such a date they would remove it, he wrote back and said he wasn’t in a position to continue the payments and they could remove the furniture at their convenience. Betty took to waiting for him at the station, and when he wouldn’t speak to her followed him down the street screaming curses at him. In the evenings she would come to the house and ring the bell till they thought they would go mad, and Mr and Mrs Sunbury had the greatest difficulty in preventing Herbert from going out and giving her a sound thrashing. Once she threw a stone and broke the sitting-room window. She wrote obscene and abusive postcards to him at his office. At last she went to the magistrate’s court and complained that her husband had left her and wasn’t providing for her support. Herbert received a summons. They both told their story and if the magistrate thought it a strange one he didn’t say so. He tried to effect a reconciliation between them, but Herbert resolutely refused to go back to his wife. The magistrate ordered him to pay Betty twenty-five shillings a week. He said he wouldn’t pay it.

‘Then you’ll go to prison,’ said the magistrate. ‘Next case.’

But Herbert meant what he said. On Betty’s complaint he was brought once more before the magistrate, who asked him what reason he had for not obeying the order.

‘I said I wouldn’t pay her and I won’t, not after she smashed my kite. And if you send me to prison I’ll go to prison.’

The magistrate was stern with him this time.

‘You’re a very foolish young man,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a week to pay the arrears, and if I have any more nonsense from you you’ll go to prison till you come to your senses.’

Herbert didn’t pay, and that is how my friend Ned Preston came to know him and I heard the story.

‘What d’you make of it?’ asked Ned as he finished. ‘You know, Betty isn’t a bad girl. I’ve seen her several times, there’s nothing wrong with her except her insane jealousy of Herbert’s kite; and he isn’t a fool by any means. In fact he’s smarter than the average. What d’you suppose there is in kite-flying that makes the damned fool so mad about it?’

‘I don’t know,’ I answered. I took my time to think. ‘You see, I don’t know a thing about flying a kite. Perhaps it gives him a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it’s as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it. But all this is very fanciful and I dare say it’s just stuff and nonsense. I think you’d better put your problem before someone who knows a lot more about the psychology of the human animal than I do.’