Mary Borden.

The tortoise, a novel online

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THE man and the woman were dreadfully
still in the joyous rustling garden.
Through the early rippling light of lovely
morning they showed like desolate statues mo-
tionless, soundless, pallid. It was as if the dark
night had turned them to stone, and left upon them
its darkness. The man was at a distance from the
woman. The long emerald lawn still silvery with
dew, and the shining space above it, where the birds
darted and twittered, separated them, but something
invisible, taut as a strong wire held them together.
The man was bigger than most men. He loomed
huge and heavy before the rose-laden gable of the
small doorway, his great back and hunched shoul-
ders turned to the long low house that seemed too
small for him. A weary Colossus, his feet planted
on the brick walk between the beds of wallflowers
and pansies, he waited, immensely still. His atten-
tion was fixed on the distant woman, who sat rigid
on the edge of a garden seat, in the centre of the
lawn, her long body tilted forward, her bosom lifted,
her pale head averted and thrown back so that
her face received the full light of the sun. Her
pose was that of a figure nailed to the prow of a
ship. Her arms hung down, slanting backward.
The powerful gesture of her hands, if she had



moved, would have been that of a swimmer, but she
made no gesture. Her figure was tense with the
dangerous stillness of fear. She looked to him like
one who would commit suicide by drowning in the
sunlight if she could.

It was clear that this man was capable of great
physical effort, but now all his effort and all his
power was concentrated in looking at her. In the
large white mask of his expressionless face, his eyes
were like small lighted openings through which es-
caped, toward her, all the life that was in him. His
looking at her was desperate. He looked because
he could not help looking. And while he looked
his strength ebbed away from him. Looking weak-
ened him as if a vein had been opened in his wrist,
but it was impossible to take his eyes from her. He
thought: " Tomorrow she may be gone. It is im-
possible that I shall never see her again."

He dared go no nearer.

She was small and white in the centre of the lawn.
High birch trees towered above her shaping the sky
to a canopy over her head. Beyond her gleamed
the lily pond framed in its round basin. He saw
her as the mysterious and incalculable, and uncertain
centre of the beautiful unsafe world. So he had
always seen her. Never had he felt safe with her.
Keeping her had been his gamble with fate. He
had played high, he had played constantly, higher
and higher, and he had believed he would win. His
faith had been profound, but now he was no longer
sure. He saw her in a new and terrible posture.


She had told him, without speech, not to believe any
more. Yet he would not give up hope and how
could he stop believing? She had acted. She had
taken the issue out of his hands and yet he counted
still on one chance. If he left her completely alone
there was a chance. He could do nothing but leave
her alone. Yet he could not help watching her.
He could not help looking.

He felt sure that up to that moment she had not
seen him looking. He believed that never had she
seen him looking at her as he had actually always
looked. And although it might possibly be that
even now his face expressed nothing, he felt that it
must at last be the ordinary man's face of self-be-

She had once said what a pity it was that he had
not a face of his own. Now he was glad of that,
but was nevertheless afraid to trust the blankness
of the mask God had lent him. He would have
lived over again all the many dumb hours of hatred
of that vast pale disc that said nothing to her to
be sure now that it was quite as usual, a smooth
round slit surface that made people stare curiously
and told no tales of its owner.

His stillness was not dramatic as was her stillness.
It was not a wild arrested movement. His was a
far greater stillness than hers. It conveyed no pos-
sibility of relief. He was so still that he looked as
though never again could any ripple of movement
pass over his bulk, neither over his heavy shoulders,
his huge torso, his massive legs, nor his feet. One


felt that his present stillness was a thing acquired
long ago and was only the culmination and the tre-
mendous result of his old habitual quiet. The effort
he now made was only the gathered concentrated
expression of the effort he had always made. He
had always willed not to alarm her, and he had never
enjoyed making her laugh. So he had always willed
to be quiet in her presence. It was only when he
was quiet that he neither alarmed people nor made
them laugh. His effect of alarm or amusement on
other people was indifferent to him, but nothing that
concerned her was indifferent to him.

Now he knew that there was the greatest danger
of alarming her and the pathos of her fear that had
always hurt him, hurt him anew in the midst of other
new things.

It seemed to him at this moment that with all his
stillness, if he moved towards her, he was bound to
frighten her to death. Just as it seemed to him that
to her, his restrained regard for her must seem like
a curse. Yet he could not help his regard for her.
Ages ago, he had known that all he could do for her
was to restrain it, so that it might not alarm her.
The restraint that he put upon himself was so great
that it made the sweat stand in beads on his fore-
head, but it was only a greater degree of the same
restraint that he had practised for years.

Everything that had to do with him and with her,
seemed to him to have been for ages. Everything
that concerned them together seemed to him to be
forever. She had willed to destroy it, but it could


not be destroyed, so it seemed to him. He watched
fixedly the fixed gesture of her destroying despair.
The hurt that it caused him was so great that he
found it difficult to breathe, but the pain that had
plunged into him the night before and had
stayed there had destroyed nothing. He would
have set her free to destroy if he could, but he could
not. He would have freed her from that terrible
posture at any risk, if he could, but he could
not. He saw that she would kill herself to save
herself if she could. And he would have killed him-
self to save her if he could, but he saw that she could
not and that he could not. There would be no kill-
ing and no ending, yet there must be something.
He did not know yet what it must be, but he knew
that there must be something.

He became aware as he watched her that her
beauty interfered with his seeing of her. It had
always been so, more or less. Now it was more so.
In his great desire to understand her, he was hin-
dered by the fact of her beauty. Her beauty dis-
guised her, and made her mysterious in a less impor-
tant way than she was actually mysterious. Her
beauty used up a part of his mind and his will, and
the strength that he would have turned to her serv-
ice. He found himself now dwelling upon the per-
fect round of her head that was like a smooth gold
coin glinting in the sun. He was disturbed to find
that he could not keep even now from looking with
absorption at that golden head. His keen exclusive
delight in the look of that object confused him. He


could not distinguish at such a distance the line of
her profile, her high nose and the curve of her fine
pointed lips, but he imagined them for himself and
he pondered again upon the strange quality of her
face that made her look a foreigner in every coun-
try. It was neither Scandinavian nor Slav. There
were days when she even looked what she was, an
Englishwoman, but her wide smooth lidded eyes with
the sweeping eyebrows that dipped down the sides
of her forehead and the thin cheeks that came up
high under them gave her a strange distinction.
Often she looked to him when she moved in an
open space like some strange Goddess come to earth
to escape boredom. She moved as if she had wings
to her feet, and were refraining from soaring out
of kindness for heavy people. Now, he perceived
so much energy in her stillness that he felt if the
thing that held her gave way, she would shoot like
a rocket into the distance, disappear above the tree
tops and go back perhaps to Olympus where there
was the freedom he could not make for her, the
immense monotonous freedom of irresponsible per-

Her grandeur was not perfection. There was
not that finality to her. He had never found any
fault in her, nor had he ever been disappointed. On
the other hand, never, and that was the strangeness,
never had he been content with her. The moments
of most complete possession had been the moments
of deepest longing, but it was not only because of
his own limited capacity for receiving, it was also


that his mind went beyond what she so wonderfully
was and beheld breathlessly what she could be. He
was doing that now. He was doing it as he had
never done it. The pain she had dealt him had sent
his imagination tearing through vistas of herself he
had never dreamt of.

He admitted with an anguish made up of shame
and anger, that another man's interference had
brought this about.

One thing was certain, he refused to divide her.
But he knew that his refusal to share her with that
one or with any other was not a claim to owning.
He had never so much as thought of her in terms
of owning. It was rather that he could not conceive
a modification of their juxtaposition. Either he or
she must cease to exist to make room for another.
And if he and she persisted, then the other must
cease to be.

And one thing bewildered him. He was not sure
that she saw it as he did. He was almost sure
that she did not. If she did, why had she come back
with the impression of the other man so deep upon
her? She had not left that other one. She had
brought him with her. The face she had turned to
him on her arrival was marked with his mark. It
had become a luminous sharp face. The stranger's
hatred of him had looked at him out of her eyes.
He had watched for the compassionate sweetness
her eyes usually offered him, but when the stranger's
hatred faded it had given place to her own appre-
hension. Her movements too were not her own.


She had moved swifty, darting here and there in little
rushes. Her body had been a tormented thing in
his presence.

Yet she had come back to him.

And she had given no explanation.

It was clear that she had not yet decided to leave
him. Something had driven her back. Another
thing was pulling her away. Maybe she had come
back to decide. Maybe she was deciding now.

He understood that she was spell bound by the tor-
ment of her indecision.

All that he could do was to leave her alone. If
she had come back wanting to know how he would
take it, she knew now. Actually she must have
known all along. She had wanted perhaps merely
to do him the justice of having there before her his
enormous dumb refusal.

Silence was their one safety. He put his trust in
it. More than their dignity depended on it. Any
sound of words would be fatal. He knew that if he
approached her and spoke, his voice would terrify
her into action. The thing needed understanding.
Speech would destroy comprehension. Also, she
must face it alone. He had lost her, either for the
time being or for eternity, he did not know which.
She must go or come back to him. It must be her
doing. He was helpless. If she were intending
to go, no word of his would keep her. If she went
she would go without speaking; he would find her

So with one final draught of her beauty, that he


took from his distance, panting slightly as a man
exhausted with pain and with thirst, he turned from
her and stumbled his way up the stairs. In his room
he took off the clothes he had had on all night, put
on some others and ordered his motor.

She from her seat in the garden, heard the sound
of his car and turned her head startled, listened to
the grinding of its brakes and the powerful whirr
of its engines and then as it burred smoothly away,
carrying him up to the city, the thing that held her
snapped suddenly, and with her hands up to her face
she flung herself back in her chair.


THOUGH she had not seen him standing un-
der the porch she had felt him somewhere
in the background and his presence had ex-
ercised on her nerves an intolerable pressure. Her
physical fear of him had kept her rigid. She had
drawn herself in tight, to combat it, but his going
did not give her the kind of relief she had expected.
While there, he had filled the place to suffocation
but his absence was a positive thing too, a vacuum
which refused to be filled. There was no comfort
in it. Instead of a definite menace confronting her,
there was now closing about her a confined and
strained emptiness with her thoughts let loose in it to
buzz like a lot of flies under a glass jar.

There was no longer, at least for the moment, any
probability of his hurting her, there was only the
horror of the certainty of her hurting him. It
would have been much easier for her, had he hit her.
For a time she had been so convinced that he would
kill her, that she had forgotten his pain. What she
hated most of all was the idea of making him suffer.
She would have preferred his killing her. Now she
was left to imagine what depths of complicated suf-
fering had made him refrain from doing so.

It was like him not to do the inevitable thing.



He was a violent giant who had never cracked a tea-
cup in her presence.

Her mind zig-zagged suddenly.

How sea-sick she had been yesterday. It was
yesterday that she had come home. She remem-
bered the green chopping waves of the Channel and
the nausea that had absorbed all thought and all
torment. Sea sickness, wonderful and annihilating,
had come to her rescue. What a relief. She had
solved every problem by wanting violently to die and
end the horrid sensation. If one were often sea-
sick one would have no emotions and no conscience.
No man's attraction was strong enough to counteract
nausea. She would have turned from Jocelyn de
St. Christe with a groan.

Very well then.

Her mind wavered. William was always very
gentle when one was ill. He knew what to do. She
remembered him in a darkened room sitting beside
her bed in the night, hour after hour, watching,
keeping her alive by the closeness of his watching
willing her to live moment by moment, never let-
ting go. She jerked her mind back from that mem-
ory. It hurt her too much.

Her husband had saved her life, so that now she
could leave him and break his heart. That was
just a phrase. She imagined his actual heart under
ribs in his enormous chest, bursting, being torn in
two there inside him, shreds of blood and naked
flesh. Ugh ludicrous. People didn't suffer as
much as one thought. They couldn't. There was a


limit to any suffering. She was in pain now. There
was a vivid, throbbing pain in her side and a dull
sick pain all through her. It was because of Wil-
liam. She was imagining what he would feel.

If only she could forget him, she would be happy.
She could then give herself up to enjoying her ro-
mance. It was more than a romance. It was a
deep, elemental, fearful thing. It was like a story of
cave-dwellers of a prehistoric man and woman, a
great instinctive passion surging up through the glit-
tering artificial layer of social life.

Jocelyn was beautiful. She herself was beautiful.
They were two beautiful animals. That was import-
ant Surely that was important. The mating of
two beautiful creatures was glorious. She was not
vain, she knew what she was made for she was a
primitive woman, and she knew at last what she
wanted. She had seen it and recognized it and then
had run away from it. Why? Because of William.
William her husband was in the way. He was not
her mate. The other was that but but
William was something something enormous,
something strong and wistful and innocent. Could
one hurt a child? She thanked God now that she
had no children, but could one strike a child in the
face that looked at one with believing eyes that
drew one's hurting compassion out of one ? William
was a power. His brain was immense. He ex-
isted publicly, filling much space. Sometimes he ex-
ulted over mobs of men silently without show-
ing it, enjoying his power. Then in those moments,


she could turn against him, but with her he was never
like that, he was timid a child. It was unfair.

Always, always she had been sorry for William.
It was exhausting being sorry for a man in that way.
. Or was she deluding herself, did it only seem to her
like that now? If she were honest, she would have
to admit that she had had other feelings for William
than compassion. Fear she was afraid of him
sometimes. Confidence . It was a habit to
count on him and other feelings.

But she wanted Jocelyn. She wanted his joy, his
humor, his fantastic whimsical mind. He was
happy. His happiness was contagious. He was
full of "joie-de-vivre ". One could not imagine
him suffering very much. He knew what things were
worth; he never asked for the impossible. He un-
derstood the limits of pleasure. He knew how to
drain the cup of life he had drunk deep of it.
She had not even tasted. She would drink with him,
she would drink deep, deep. His voice made her
Understand. It promised wonderful things. His
voice quick and staccato ; clever, caressing voice,
expressing things she had never dreamed of. It
had affected her strangely. The mocking poetry in
his voice, passion laughing at its own savageness,
sensuality of the intellect, delicate fire. Ah yes,
he was a proficient lover Where had he learned it
all? She was jealous.

Never mind. She had never wanted anyone be-
fore. She would never want anyone again never.
She was like that. She had recognized him at once,


the unique man. It had not been the same with him.
He had only realized gradually. Men were differ-
ent. Frenchmen. Jocelyn was French. He was
not primitive, on the contrary. He knew everything.
His youth seemed a miracle, for he might have lived
a hundred years, so his voice said, sometimes. His
knowledge had troubled her at first. His eyes had
travelled over her terribly wise, divining everything.
Horrid, if one was not brave enough to strip one's
soul to his gaze. Shameful or wonderful. He
would laugh if she talked like that. She must never
use exalted language with him, he would only make
fun of her. He had no illusions no dreams all
the more reason to believe in the tribute of his
earnestness. And he was in earnest she knew
he admitted the deep elemental thing drawing them
one to the other. Nothing else mattered nothing
in the world mattered but that.

William was romantic but dumb. Poor Wil-
liam ! Certainly his love for her was sublime
but how it bored her now.

Why had she refused Jocelyn what he wanted,
what they both wanted? She might have had it.

She was conscious of a swooning sensation.
Closing her eyes she invoked his physical presence,
the odor of his face, his dark skin, his hair, the
touch of his coat and his intangible personal essence
so real in her imagination produced in her body a run-
ning fiery sweetness as if she were sipping a strong
intoxicating liquor.

She had been unable to escape William without


first coming back to face him. It had been neces-
sary to confront him with her secret. Her faith in
the miracle had been so great that she had not be-
gun to be afraid till the train drew into Charing
Cross station. She had actually until then expected
him to shrivel up at the sight of it. On the con-
trary, he had swelled to even greater proportions.

He had loomed upon her through the dark hurry-
ing crowd, and she had thought: "Either he will
kill me or I shall see him lying at my feet hideously
undone by what I've to tell him."

He had remained impassive, and she had been
forced to admit that his impassivity had partaken of

Yet Jocelyn had remained beautiful. She still
saw him as she had always seen him, slim, swift,
electric, full of light, shining and drawing her to him.
Lying there, limp and flabby in the garden chair, she
felt him drawing her, just as the sun was drawing up
the dew from the grass. She felt like a soft, sticky
substance that was oozing away, being soaked up b^
a distant longing.

She lay in a stupor of emotion.

Suddenly it seemed to her that she was in danger.
Her position on that solid wooden seat in the centre
of the compact expanse of emerald turf, became per-
ilous. She lifted her head and looked about her,
breathing hurriedly, and conscious of her heart
thumping. There was the garden, closing round her
in all its comfortable luxuriance. The staunch trees
spread wide their crisp branches, shutting out dis-


tance, refusing mystery. The hedges were solid
walls of deep green. Where brick walls cut them,
pleasant vistas of sunny tangles led one's eye just a
little kindly way, but the seclusion of the place did not
assure or comfort her. All about it, beyond those
neat and charming confines she seemed to perceive
a surging waste, something as wide and terribly
empty as a desert. She had a vision of herself in a
garden, as of a solitary figure on an island that was
cut loose from its foundation and set a-floating on
the vast expanse of desolate and eternal uncertainty.

She shook herself.

The garden was safe, but she hated its safety.
Beyond it the dangerous future summoned her.

She gripped the arms of her chair and looking
down into the grass, saw little creatures there. Tiny
ants were scurrying across a bare patch of ground
where the legs of a chair had scraped away the turf.
One was dragging a crumb of bread. He was busy.
His occupation was of vast importance. His com-
panions too were all busy. The sight of their mi-
nute self-sufficiency annoyed her.

She realized now that she had hoped William
would do something terrible. If he had, she would
be free now and running toward the fulfillment of her
joy. It was for this that she had come back. She
had wanted him to help her destroy the thing that
bound them. Some obscure instinct had impelled
her. She wanted perfect happiness and she had
known deeply that she would never obtain it unless
William annihilated her memory, her respect, and


her admiration, by some ugliness. He had not done
what she wanted. His refusal to set her free had
been mute and mysterious and complete. He had
kept his dignity. His identity remained intact. He
appeared to her just as he always had done, only
more so. He had not struck her nor insulted her.
He had merely walked up and down the garden all
night. She had heard his step under her window
at regular intervals. The sound of it had made her
want to scream, but when it ceased she had listened
for it with longing. It took a long time for him to
go to the bottom of the garden and come back. Her
mind had followed him in the dark, keenly aware of
him, of his tenacity, of his weight, of his power.
Toward morning she had listened in vain for his step,
and had gone out on the balcony hoping to find him
beneath her. She would have spoken, or thrown
herself down, or summoned him up to do violence to
her secret, but he was nowhere to be seen and the
mysterious trees emerging above the low streamers
of white mist had diminished her sense of herself to
a pin point.

She felt dizzy and slightly sick. Her chair
seemed to sway under her. Looking apprehensively
over her shoulder she got upon unsteady feet. The
place was empty and its safety was false and the sun-
light pouring down did not warm her. She shivered.

Jocelyn de St Christe was there waiting. She
could see his eyes. They drew her to him. She
could feel his hands. Hers throbbed within them.
Closer she leant. Closer. She had only to close


her eyelids and fall into the embrace that waited to
engulf her.

Something was holding her back.

She did not know what William would do if she

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Online LibraryMary BordenThe tortoise, a novel → online text (page 1 of 15)