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The Waiting Room

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Elaine marlowe sat on the Rohns Terrasse and looked down over Gottingen. She had the timeless feeling that comes after a long journey. Everything had arrived safely and was put away, and recovered from, and as she sat there, on that delicious May morning, she felt deeply, tenderly settled.

The still tranquil sunshine rested on her hands, on the new born green of the beech leaves, as softly and insubstan-tially as if the leaves and her hands were both transparent —light resting upon light.

Beneath her lay the little russet town dipped deep in gardens. The tall massive tower of the Jacobiskirche seemed to be pulling its heavy church up with it into the vague blue air. The German tower lacked the flying grace of an English spire or the slender stateliness of an Italian Campanile, but it had a beauty and a vivid strength all its own.

The twin towers of the Johanniskirche had never settled which of their quaint and obstinately unlike spires should really have been allowed to soar. They rose up above the solid grave old Rathaus in a perpetual silent strife, stone against stone. Elaine knew what the little squat high-roofed houses beneath them were like; all carved and painted, pillow-shaped wooden rollers over the doorways, steep bulging roofs, as if time like a wind was playing beneath them, drawing them in here, and furling them out there, above their timbered beams.

The windows looked out from overhanging eaves like deep-set eyes from under frowning brows. The narrow streets were still cobbled and full of youths with slashed faces, brave from recent duels, flying by on bicycles, their incredible saucer-shaped caps looking as if they must be gummed or growing out of their round shaped heads. There had been changes of course since she was here. These gentle, stiff, simple and good-humoured people, clean and honest like their Anglo-Saxon cousins, had flamed into monsters of iniquity for the rest of the world, and the rest of the world had seemed to them a herd of vindictive and wanton oppressors. There was a certain clumsiness about them, then as now, the clumsiness of the rigid mind, of the over-disciplined unplastic will. Dick had once said to her: “It’s the fatality of the good mixed with the stupid. We all share it. We are good to ourselves, we are stupid to others, and out of our stupidity comes violence, suspicion, hate, cruelty and panic. Wicked people get stopped, but a clumsy person does such unexpected things—you can’t stop them—and when their intentions are good too, they naturally won’t stop themselves.”

This morning Elaine did not feel the War as she usually felt it—even now after all these years, as a fresh weight of pity and horror.

It seemed too remote from the lovely covering of the spring. She thought of the little town with love. An almost singing happiness filled her whole heart. She could not move her hand on the fluttering white tablecloth without joy.

She had been alone for a long time without feeling in the least lonely; for the terrasse was full of birds’ songs, and the occasional visits of bees and butterflies were personal matters. They carried with them on their wings part of her happiness.

Suddenly she heard voices, and saw advancing along the terrasse three very large and massive forms. A man with an immense red neck followed meekly by two large women, with very small hats above broad smiling faces and strange clothes which seemed to have passed through centuries of fashion without taking from them so much as one coherent thought. Elaine was not as a rule very fond of large loud people, but she had a peculiar sensation as her eyes rested upon this advancing group. She felt an overwhelming desire to protect them, as if they were secretly afraid of something that she knew they needn’t be afraid of, and she was touched by them—by their secret pathos—almost to tears. It was all the difference between seeing a note of music printed on a page and hearing it sound suddenly from some beautifully toned instrument. They were dreadfully real to her. They bore down upon Elaine, loud, beaming, with a quite curious physical solidity wedging their vast circumferences into the delicate light. She was thankful that there were empty tables on each side of her, because in spite of her sympathy she had a conflicting sense of being anxious to get out of their way. It was a curious guilty feeling as if she knew something that they had forgotten or had forgotten something that they knew.

They advanced yet nearer, their cheerful moving sounds enveloped her. They approached the table at which she sat as if she was not there. Elaine made a wavering gesture with her hand towards one of the empty tables. They didn’t look at all angry or brutal but they ignored her defensive gesture. They came straight up to her table and the most massive of the ladies sat down in Elaine’s chair. It was then that Elaine realized that she was dead. She didn’t have even to withdraw herself from the lady. She simply wasn’t there. A thought had been there and the thought was gone.

Elaine felt as if she was plunging into a cold strange sea. A wash of unknown consciousness swept over her. It was startling to find that what she had supposed was her hand and her dress, the very lovely lines of the wisteria coloured dress she had just bought in Paris, only existed when she herself suggested existence to them. What more might come to her—what more might leave her—unprotected by any walls of sense from the strange secrets of the universe?

When had she died? She remembered nothing about it. Ever since Dick’s death she had been subject to recurrent attacks of breathlessness, for which the doctors had found various reasons and no remedies. They had been very distressing but the last had been the least severe. She had thought it was going to be very bad, when it had quite suddenly stopped.

But if she was dead, why was she at Gottingen? It was the last place she had even allowed herself to think of. She had disciplined her clamorous mind so severely that the very name Gottingen had gone out of her consciousness. Those dreadful memories, which had fought day and night like wild beasts over her prostrate heart, had been driven away or lost. She never saw Gottingen even in her dreams. But now when memory deepened into reality, when she was left alone and unprotected face to face with it, she felt no pain. Nothing, not even the lonely coldness of the unknown, shook her deep central security.

She looked at the scene of her life’s disaster without a pang. It had been such a silly little thing—plunging into the warm untroubled sea of their happiness like the swift unseen fin of a murderous shark! They were utterly wrapped up in each other; and with the years this condition of their love had deepened and grown safe about them. Their perfect marriage was the secret exasperation of those less fortunate than themselves, and the torch of hope to the inexperienced and the romantic. They never really quarrelled. Their hottest discussions had a mild unreality about them; they knew that no difference of opinion could shake the continuity of their love. Behind all possible differences they were always—just Elaine and Dick. And Elaine was the whole world to Dick and Dick the whole world to Elaine. Nothing but an accident could happen to them.

If she could possibly help it—after the time when she thought of nothing else—Elaine never allowed herself to remember the cause of their quarrel. But she let herself remember it now with a smile of tenderness for such foolishness. They had quarrelled as to which of their mothers they should visit first on their return to England. Both of them were attached to their mothers, and to each other’s mother.

There had never been an instant’s difficulty about these fortunate relationships. Dick’s mother thought Elaine as perfect for Dick as any young woman, not his mother, could be. Elaine’s mother thought Dick the pick of all possible husbands for her unique Elaine.

But though these relationships were ideal and needed very little keeping up, the affection of these desirable mothers-in-law for each other was distinctly less ideal. Elaine’s mother often thought that it was really extraordinary such a delightful son-in-law as Dick should have such a grasping, exacting mother, and Dick’s mother felt it little less than a miracle that so satisfactory a daughter-in-law as Elaine could have been produced by a jealous, scheming woman like Elaine’s mother. Both of them loved having their children to stay with them and neither of them liked their children staying with the other mother.

Elaine’s mother was delicate, special consideration was due to her on this account. Dick’s mother lived nearer the Channel Ports and was slightly the more unreasonable of the two old ladies. What Elaine feared, but unfortunately had not said, was that if they visited Dick’s mother first, her mother would allow the fine gold of Dick’s image to become dimmed. It was for Dick’s reputation Elaine was secretly fighting. Dick felt the same about Elaine and his mother and it was for Elaine’s white record that he fought.

Neither of them suspected that in the other, this exquisite care for the Beloved’s character was the root of a preposterous claim. Both credited the other with incredible and thick-witted selfishness, heightened by unreasoning obstinacy. So they had sat and quarreled in the warm May sunshine—how many years ago!—passionately dear to each other, wildly hurt, and hurting back as wildly! There was no reason for it at all. Neither of them cared in the least which mother they visited first. Neither of them stopped to find out whether this hated thing they were fighting in a mask, was not after all nothing but the beloved face which they would die to save. They said terrible things to each other. Finally Dick, who was most sensitive to the power of words, and secretly knew his mother to be the more unreasonable of the two, got up and said, “I can’t stand any more of this! I shall go for a walk alone. We can settle our plans when I return!” and Elaine had said icily, “Do, if you wish!” instead of “Darling, let’s do whatever you like!” which had lain so close to the other speech that she hardly knew which she had said, till afterwards.

They were sitting in the Theaterplatz under a copper beech; against its bronzed dull red, a clever waiter had set pots of scarlet geraniums. The sun played through the dark metallic lustre of the beech leaves, and flamed on the broad fiery petals of the geraniums. Memory went on unflinchingly now, and quite without that cold terror Elaine had always felt as she approached any of the avenues of thought down which she might catch a glimpse of the Arch-Fear.

Dick stepped on to the road without looking, without perhaps caring, and a great car swooped out of the white distance, caught him and killed him before her eyes. There had been no time for a word, or a smile, no time for anything but the interminable fussy ministrations of the Gottingen authorities. They had all been kind. She was able, borne up by the wings of disaster, to remember what Dick would have liked, to give them as little trouble as possible, and as much recognition of their kindness.

The shipwreck came afterwards. And now she didn’t mind thinking even about that! Curious! How long the journey must have been, and she was dead, and this was Gottingen! Why was she here? Was it because she had tried so hard to forget it? Was it because she was a criminal and had killed him and so must always haunt the scene of her crime? But wasn’t it the murdered, more often than the murderer, who was to be found there? Ah! if it only could be! If only for a fraction of what she supposed must be Eternity, she could see him face to face! This had been her perpetual human longing, only to know that he existed, only to know where he was! But she nourished no illusions. Dick had not returned to her. She had found him neither among the Living nor among the Dead, if there were any other dead. She felt lonely now—conscious that she had lost not only Dick but everybody else—even the human beings she saw weren’t so human to her as when she was human to them.

She knew now why her heart had gone out to the Germans who came to her table, and why she was sorry for them. What she had wanted to tell them was that death was not dreadful. What she wanted to express to them was that she was much more like them than she had ever known, she was almost a part of them, only when one was alive one did not understand that all living things were the same; and that to hurt each other was to hurt oneself.

Dick had always told her thoughts were things and she realized now how true his particular theory had been. Her thoughts—which she felt hadn’t yet begun to grow or change to meet the new condition she was in—were still clothed with familiar appearances. She had her human form when she thought about it, not when she didn’t. She smelt, saw, heard, felt, not with the organs of sense but out of one intangible sense which gave her everything, a unity that space no longer controlled nor was time concerned in it.

She said to herself: “I will walk to the Theaterplatz,” but she was conscious that she didn’t walk there. She was there, just as if she chose to think about it, she was in the Rohns Terrasse, and at the same time. It was not confusing because automatically what you did not think of ceased to exist—you saw only what you selected to see.

Once one was in one place at one time, now one was always—everywhere; and it was less strange than that one could go from one room to another and shut out the world. She saw the copper beech, and close to the bright geraniums, with their old sun-warmed scent, were the rows of little white tables. She thought of herself as she had been eight years ago and she no longer wore the wisteria dress, but a lovely pale grey-green garment Dick had chosen for her, with a flame coloured crepe de chine hat. She thought methodically of the very shoes and stockings, the emerald ring on her engloved hand. She wondered if she was smiling the same smile, the last one she had not had to smile on purpose. She thought she would find the table where they had had iced coffee—and the quarrel. Perhaps God had sent her here, simply to lay the ghost of that quarrel forever, and to lay ghosts you had to go through everything that had made the ghost rise.

She found the table. It was the lunch hour and none of the tables was empty. Someone was sitting at hers. But in a moment she remembered it didn’t really matter. She saw Them, but quite obviously from the Rohns Terrasse episode—They didn’t see her. If she spoke to Them it was like the murmur of summer bees and if she touched Them, they thought it only the wind against their cheeks.

She could without disturbing her fellow guest sit down, and, blotting him out of her line of vision, relive her memories until she had brought them all safely into the strange peace. But when she reached the table he had seen her. He rose and their eyes met. She supposed it was their eyes. For she saw Dick, saw him again as if it was just now—only just now, that they were swept apart by Death —by that silly little thing—now passed away forever.

She said what had lain in her heart and almost on her lips ever since. “Ah Dick, where were you all the time?” And he said, “My darling, I never left here, I just waited.”


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