Encounters (Bowen)/The Return

For works with similar titles, see The Return.
Encounters  (1923)  by Elizabeth Bowen
The Return


MR. and Mrs. Tottenham had come home.

The moist brown gravel of the drive and sweep bore impress of their fly wheels. Lydia Broadbent listened from the doorstep to the receding gritty rumble of the empty fly, and the click and rattle as the gate swung to. Behind her, in the dusky hall, Mr. Tottenham shouted directions for the disposal of the luggage, flustered servants bumped against each other and recoiled, and Porloch the gardener shouldered the heavy trunks with gasps and lurches, clutching at the banisters until they creaked.

Lydia heard Mrs. Tottenham burst open the drawing-room door and cross the threshold with her little customary pounce, as though she hoped to catch somebody unawares. She pictured her looking resentfully round her, and knew that presently she would hear her tweaking at the curtains. During her six weeks of solitude the house had grown very human to Lydia. She felt Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/44 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/45 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/46 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/47 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/48 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/49 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/50 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/51 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/52 Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/53 Her book lay open on a table: she shut it with a sense of desolation. It would never be finished now, it was too good a thing to read while they were in the house; to be punctuated by her petulant insistent chatter, his little shuffling, furtive steps. If only this room were all her own: inviolable. She could leave the rest of the house to them, to mar and bully, if she had only a few feet of silence of her own, to exclude the world from, to build up in something of herself.

If she did not go upstairs now Mrs. Tottenham would call her, and that, in this room, would be more than she could bear. Vaguely she pictured headlines: "'Laurels' Murder Mystery. Bodies in a Cistern. Disappearance of Companion." The darkness was all lurid with her visionary crime.

Mrs. Tottenham had not been round the house. She did not say the rooms smelt mouldy, and she left the curtain-draperies alone.

Lydia wondered deeply.

"Did you know Sevenoaks?"

The question abashed her. What had Mrs. Tottenham to do with Sevenoaks?

Page:Encounters (Bowen).djvu/55 "Well, no. You see, I was very young when I was married. Quite an inexperienced young girl—a child, you might almost say."

Lydia supposed that Mrs. Tottenham had been young. She strained her imagination to the effort.

"I did very well for myself when I married Mr. Tottenham," the wife said sharply. "I must say I never was a fool. My mother'd never brought me up to go about, but we did a good deal of entertaining at one time, Mr. Tottenham's friends and my own, and we always had things very nice and showy. But it was a lonely life."

Mrs. Tottenham's confidences were intolerable. Better a hundred times that she should nag.

"So you liked the Hydro—found it really comfortable?"

"Oh yes. But it's the coming back—to this. . . . Lydia, you're a good sort of girl. I wonder if I ought to tell you."

"Don't tell me anything you would regret," said Lydia defensively, jerking at the drawer-handles.

"You see, Mr. Merton was a good deal to me at one time; then we tore it, and he went off to Canada and married there. I heard he'd been unhappy, and that there was the rumour of a split. Of course he didn't write or anything; we had ab-so-lutely torn it; but I couldn't help hearing things, and she seems to have been a really bad sort of woman—there were children, too. He's bringing the children back with him to Sevenoaks.

"He wants to come and see me. He's been thinking about me a great deal, he says, and wondering if I've changed, and wishing—He always was a straight sort of man; it was only circumstances drove him crooked. I daresay I was a good bit to blame. I've kept his photograph, though I know I didn't ought, but I liked having it by me to look at."

She had unlocked a drawer and held a stiff-backed photograph up beneath the light, scrutinising it. Lydia listened to a distant surge of movement in the house beneath her; steps across the oil-cloth, windows shutting, voices cut off by the swinging of a door. She felt, revoltedly, as though Mrs. Tottenham were stepping out of her clothes.

"He says he's hardly changed at all. Seventeen years—they go past you like a flash, he says, when you're working."

"Seventeen years," said Lydia deliberately, "are bound to make a difference to a woman. Did you care for him?"

Mrs. Tottenham made no answer; she was staring at the photograph. Her eyes dilated, and she licked her lips.

"I suppose you'll be glad to see him again?" suggested Lydia. She felt suddenly alert and interested, as though she were watching through the lens of a microscope some tortured insect twirling on a pin.

Mrs. Tottenham sat down stiffly on the sofa, and laid the photo on her lap. Suddenly she clasped her hands and put them up before her eyes.

"I couldn't," she gasped. "Not after all these years I couldn't. Not like this. O Lord, I've got so ugly! I can't pretend—I haven't got the heart to risk it. It's been so real to me, I couldn't bear to lose him.

"It's all gone, it's all gone. I've been pretending. I used to be a fine figure of a woman. How can I have the heart to care when I couldn't keep him caring?"

"You broke it off. It was all over and done with, you told me so. It was wrong, besides. Why should either of you want to rake it up when it was all past and done with seventeen years ago?"

"Because it was wrong. It's this awful rightness that's killing me. My husband's been a bad man, too, but here we both are, smirking and grinning at each other, just to keep hold of something we neither of us want."

Lydia was terrified by the dry, swift sobbing. She felt suddenly hard and priggish and immature. All her stresses, her fears and passions, were such twilight things.

Mrs. Tottenham stood upright and held the photograph in the flame of the gas jet, watching the ends curl upwards. For all her frizzled hair and jingling ornaments and smudgy tentative cosmetics she was suddenly elemental and heroic.

It was over.

Lydia went quietly out of the room and shut the door behind her.

The place was vibrant with the humanity of Mrs. Tottenham. It was as though a child had been born in the house.