The Coat


Henry Handel Richardson

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:26.

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The train was late, and she shifted uneasily from foot to foot as she stood, the coat clinging and dragging like the water-logged clothes on a drowning man. For the weather had done one of its perverse changes, the November morning broken sunny and mild. Just her luck: yesterday she could have worn the wretched thing in comfort. Now, the mere thought of what lay before her — the traipsing to and fro, the crowded buses, the overheated shops — exhausted her.

But there, thank goodness, came the train, slithering round the bend like a sly brown serpent. And before it fairly stopped the windows were black with heads, carriage-doors flew open, porters shouted and were shouted for, bags and cases tumbled out. She had posted herself much too far down; had to trudge almost the length of the platform before she found Margaret, standing stolid and composed amid the racket. Just the same old sober-sides. The same old face, too: nature unadorned, not a touch of make-up: country from hat to shoes. One felt very chic and towny by comparison; and as the two of them moved to join the tail of the crowd at the gates, she saw to it that the skirts of the coat swayed becomingly.

More than once she thought she felt Margaret eyeing her, but: “So good of you, Katherine, to undertake to pilot me round,” was all that was said. Or (ridiculously): “Even to crunch the London soot underfoot is a treat.” And when they were out of the station, through the arch and on their way to the bus, there was nothing for it but herself to focus the other’s wandering attention.

“What do you think of my coat?”

“Oh, er . . . very nice, very nice indeed. But isn’t it rather heavy for such a warm day?”

“Oh dear, no. Fur of THIS quality is never heavy.” And as Margaret’s sole response was an agreeable smile: “It was a present from Harry, you see. On my last birthday. He paid a ruinous price for it — he’s a regular spendthrift where I’m concerned.

“Really? And so it has been a great success — your marriage?”

This time she, too, contented herself with smiling.

“I hope I’m to be allowed to meet him?”

“Yes, he has promised to join us for lunch.”

Glibly she brought out the falsehood. But, a strenuous morning’s shopping over — the sums she had to sit by and see spent! For the plainer and dowdier the clothes, the more it seemed they cost. And only the best of everything was good enough. The “ruinous price” attributed to Harry began to give her qualms. And in the shoe-shop she took care to keep her own feet out of sight — no Harry met them.

At midday, then, they sat alone at their table in the restaurant of a great store.

“It looks as if he hadn’t been able to get off. He’s quite an important person in the office nowadays you know.”

“Splendid. Perhaps he’ll rise to the head of it before he’s done. There’s nothing like a steady climb, is there? So much the most satisfactory way.”

Oh, this harping on Harry. And even here, where the air was thick with heat and food, she dared do no more than loosen a button at her throat, while she sat and listened to Margaret poke and pry. An inquisitive old maid, that was what the past three years had turned HER into.

“No children?”

What next! “Good Lord, no! Harry’s much too considerate. You’ve no IDEA what an old silly he is about me. When I scolded him for buying such a coat, all he said was:‘It ought to have been mink’.” And with a forced smile over the choke of the collar: “Next year I’m to have a car. One of the best on the road.”

Was she laying it on too thick? (COULD her shoes have been spotted?) Or did she only imagine the dryness, the lack of acceptance, in Margaret’s steady gaze? Anyhow, real or not, the suspicion was enough to give her pause. In a flurry she snatched up bag and gloves.

“I think . . . if you’ve quite finished? For it looks to me as if it’s going to turn foggy. That’s the danger of such fine mornings at this time of year.” (The danger, too, that trains might not run, and she be forced to take Margaret home with her. Oh, ANYTHING but that! The “charming bungalow”, the “spacious garden”.)

Outside, they had to cross the road; and at once there was a muddle. Still rattled, she stepped off the pavement just as the lights changed; and Margaret wasn’t sharp enough. (You had to be a Londoner to take chances.) To see what the fool was doing she turned her head, and a bus chose just that moment to swing round the corner and come charging down on her. Anything more appalling than the nearness of this scarlet monster . . . like a house got loose, a moving mountain . . . She had to jump for her life, blindly, desperately: but jump she did, with a nimbleness that amazed her, clogged as she was: and the next instant found herself safe on the opposite pavement. But someone hadn’t been so lucky: there was a hideous shriek, a chorus of grinding brakes, shouts, cries, wildest confusion. God! where was Margaret? That hat, she would have known it anywhere. But not a trace, not a speck of its ludicrous cock’s-plume, in the crowd that ran together like fowls after food. She tried to call out; but no voice came. And even if it WAS Margaret, she couldn’t go back. Accidents terrified her; the sight of blood turned her sick. And so, palsied with fear, her heart pounding fit to split her chest, she stood and watched the traffic pile up, policemen spring from the earth, the crush thicken, everyone pushing and shoving to catch a glimpse of what lay in the road. Then, the bell of an ambulance, which, still walled in by people, loaded its fearful burden and drove off. Whereupon the crowd thinned and melted. But still no Margaret beckoned to her or came over to join her. Finding her voice, she turned to a man who stood by and asked if he could tell her who had been hurt. But he didn’t seem to hear her. A kind-faced woman, however, gave her an odd look and a smile in passing, and, without being asked, said gently: “It’s all over. Don’t be frightened.”

Frightened? Fright was the least of it. For what now? — now that, thanks to another’s imbecility, she had been landed in this hole. (oh, that she had never set eyes on Margaret!) Now, she would need to go to a policeman, allege faintness, say she missed her friend; hear to which hospital the ambulance had driven, make her way there, listen to gruesome details, perhaps even see and identify the body. Horrible indeed: but it wasn’t this that made her shiver and quake. And, while she put a hand to her jaw, to stop its chattering, her brain fumbled with thoughts of escape. Nobody here had known she was to meet Margaret; at this end she was safe. But down in the country, at Margaret’s home, a letter might be found bearing her name. If she did not come forward she would probably be broadcast or advertised for . . . oh God, oh God!

Insensibly, however, she had begun to walk away: to follow, as if drawn, in the direction of the ambulance. And here she was in Portland Place. Or so she supposed. For sure enough fog had come down, filling the eyes, throwing a haze over streets and people, muffling the tall buildings till you couldn’t tell one from another. Still, she plodded on, in growing bewilderment: the coat alone remaining true to itself and making a labour of each step.

A seat! . . . a seat. She hailed it with a relief that went up like a prayer of thanks. Never had anything come so opportunely. Alone, too, and fog-screened, she could at last unbutton the coat. And this she did, throwing it wide from neck to hem, drinking in deep, luscious breaths of air; if air it could be called.

But not for long was she alone. A figure took shape in the murk, and turned to a man, who sat down beside her. She edged away; for he didn’t look much, and she had her fur to think of.

Now, he was actually speaking, asking if she had lost herself.

Of him she made short work. “Certainly not. I’m just taking a rest.”

“And the fog will gradually lift.”

“Let us hope so.” She meant to leave it at that, but found herself adding:‘What I HAVE lost is the friend I came out with.”

“Can I help you?”

“You? How, I’d like to know!”

‘Well, if you would perhaps remove your coat. . .

Aha! so that was what he was: a coat thief. She had read of such things happening under cover of fog. Hurriedly she re-did her fastenings. If he was after the coat he’d have to take her too. And she was tall and strong.

But he made no move to attack her. And again some inner urge forced her to go on speaking.

“The very idea of me sitting here without it! I should be much too . . .”—“bare” was the word that presented itself, but she choked it back, it sounded so odd, and said “cold” instead, though she was perspiring freely.

“As you will,” said the man. And evidently took the hint; for when she looked round next he had gone.

Fool, oh, fool, she with her suspicions. After all he might have known, have been able to tell her what it would be best to do. She raised her handkerchief to her smarting eyes; and as she lowered it saw another figure growing as it were out of the mist: a woman this time, so no cause for alarm. But the be-stringed bonnet, the antiquated mantle COULD only belong to a char-woman or some such person; and again she made to edge away. But was brought up by the end of the seat. And the new-comer plumped down almost on top of her.

Thus wedged in she had to listen to the same fatuous question.

“Can I help you?”

What the hell did they mean by it, all of them? (The next one that came along she’d be beforehand with.) And her reply was as crushing as she knew how to make it.

But a glance shot sideways, to see how the creature took the snubbing, froze the words on her tongue. Round-eyed, open-mouthed, she wrenched herself loose, to turn, to make sure.

“MOTHER! — you? What on earth are YOU doing here? In this fog, with your rheumatism? You’ll be ill again, you’ll be laid up!”

“Don’t worry about me, my dear. It’s you we have to think of.”

Which was Mother to the life. Always ready to belittle herself and her ailments.

“Well, I must say. But oh, it seems too good to be true. For you’re just the person I need. I’m in such trouble, Mother, such terrible trouble!” And breathlessly she poured out her tale: the accident, her own lucky escape, her fears for Margaret, her laming uncertainty.

Except for a gentle click or two of the tongue, she was listened to in silence. But when she stopped speaking, in place of the expected sympathy, the sound, motherly advice, all she heard was: “But first take off your coat.”

And that was like the stab of the drill on an inflamed nerve.

“Oh, CURSE the coat! Can’t you any of you leave it alone? Besides, I never heard such nonsense. How can I possibly take it off? I should be much too —” Again she had to fight an impulse to say something she didn’t want to, or mean.

“You needn’t mind being bare before me, little Katie.”

There! — the word was out, and said not by her but another.

Though staggered, she managed a mocking laugh. “Bare? It sounds as if I had nothing on underneath. But ‘little Katie’— how good that sounds! No one has called me Katie since . . . SINCE—” The fraction of a second in which her heart stood still, and she was on her feet, her balled fists digging into her cheeks, her eyes wild with fear, all the blood in her body galloping back to her heart.

“MOTHER! YOU? But — but how can it be? For you’re dead, Mother — DEAD! — and have been for years and years.”

“I will explain.”

“Explain? Explain THAT? Oh Christ, what does it mean? Am I going mad?” Her legs abruptly failing her, she fell face downward on the seat, crying and sobbing.

“Quiet, child, quiet. But come now.” And by some means or other the coat was undone, loosened, pulled off her: bringing to light, in all its meanness, the shabby, out-of-date dress that was her sole wear. She shivered into herself as though she had been stripped naked. And yet . . . rid of the coat’s intolerable drag, the fug of it, the stickiness . . . Now, she could move, sit up with ease, turn her head, look about her. For the man had been right; the fog was lifting, had shrunk to mere whiffs and puffs of mist in the upper air. But — this was not Portland Place. No old Lister with his sideboards, no rows of cars and taxis. Nor houses either: just a wide, open, desolate space, with a single seat planked down in the middle of it.

Stupefied she stared round.

“Where am I? What am I doing here?”

“Safe with me, little Katie.”

“With you? How can I be? — Mother! You don’t — you can’t . . . It was Margaret, I tell you, MARGARET, not me! That bus never touched me, I swear it didn’t! Do you think I wouldn’t KNOW?”

Again she was on her feet, went raging up and down, her bunched hands shaking convulsively, in defiance, in despair.

“I won’t, I won’t be dead, I tell you, I WON’T! — Besides, it’s preposterous, it’s insane. Never have I felt so alive! Oh, there’s some awful mistake somewhere. Why, I’ve got years and years of life before me: I’m only thirty-six: I mean to live to be an old, old woman. Oh, do something, say something! Can’t you see I’m going mad?” And flinging herself on her knees she hid her face in her mother’s lap.

Now, her hat too was off; and she felt the touch of hands on her hair.

“Talk on, my child. You have many things to say to me.”

“You’re wrong, I haven’t, not one! Except that it’s all a mistake. Or else I’m dreaming. Yes, that’s what it is: just a hideous dream. The shock of seeing Margaret killed was too much for me. I shall wake up, I know I shall — I WILL! — and be able to laugh at myself.”

In her ears there was now a kind of singing, or humming, which added to her confusion. (But which was also a proof that she dreamed.)

“Oh, WHY couldn’t the woman have stopped where she was? Why did she need to come to London? I never asked her to, I didn’t want her. And this, this is all I get for being kind to her.”

“Was kindness your only motive, Katie?”

“What else?” And with a bitter laugh: “Do you think I enjoyed dragging at her heels like a dog on a lead? Watching her fling about with pounds as if they were shillings — I, who am so poor, so poor? Don’t you call that kind?”

To this there was no answer; except from the humming, which seemed to grow momentarily louder. She shook her head as if to chase off a winged pest, stopped her ears with her fingers; but neither helped. To drown it she was compelled to go on speaking.

“In every single shop we went to, her one thought was, to get the best of everything. More money than she knew what to do with, and no one but herself to spend it on. When she bought shoes, Mother, I had to hide mine under the chair. And so . . . when the bus got her and I knew I’d never have to see that smug, self-satisfied face of hers again — oh, wasn’t it only natural I couldn’t feel sorry? You must understand that, you must, you must!”

Here, the humming rose to a wail, like the whine of a high, thin wind among the chimney-pots on an autumn night. (A sound that had always got her down.)

“And you, you’re trying to make out it wasn’t her but me — ME! Oh, what shall I do?”

“Talk on, my child. Only your mother hears you.”

“Haven’t I said enough? That I hated her — yes, HATED! — and was glad she was run over?” But it seemed not, for once more she listened in vain for a response. Her face hardened. “Very well then, if it’s not her, if it’s me, and I’m dead, then I’ll stop dead. And the dead don’t talk.”

For these words she paid dear. The whining swelled to a screech, a chorus of screeches, like the fierce cawing and quacking of a swarm of rooks about to pounce. Bitterly she rued her bravado; tried to atone for it by carrying on, in a voice raised to all but a shout against the din.

“The one single thing I had better than her was my coat. She couldn’t touch THAT. Oh, how thankful I was I’d worn it! Though it nearly did for me. You were right, every one of you, when you told me to take it off. This is the first time today I’m able to breathe.”

“Good, child, good. But go on, make haste.”

“Why? What’s the hurry?”

But even as she put the question, she too began to feel that time was flying. To let it escape unused was somehow to court disaster.

Yet still she fenced and hedged.

“Yes, there — the coat, I mean — I had her. And — and Harry. For she’d never managed to get a husband; nobody ever asked HER to marry them. She’s one of your born old maids. AND envious! When I told her about Harry, how fond he is of me and the fuss he makes over me, she went green with envy. But — Oh, Mother, Mother, what IS the awful noise inside my head? Is this what it means to die? I’m frightened, I’m frightened. Oh, help me, for you can, you know how, if only you will!

“No one can help you but yourself, child. But be quick, your chance is passing.”

In the knees she leant on she thought she felt a movement as if to rise, and panic seized her.

“For God’s SAKE, don’t go, don’t leave me! alone in this fog.”

For the mist was gathering again; had come as low as the face above her, blurring its outlines. More: even as she looked these seemed to change their shape, to be growing fluid. Terror at the sight broke down her last defences. Taking the other’s dress in both hands, bringing it up round her face for a screen, she began to speak, so fast, in so little above a whisper that, to any mortal ear, what now came would have been inaudible.

“Stay with me, only stay, and I’ll tell you everything. Oh, I’ve been a wicked woman, Mother. I’m a liar and — and a thief, yes, rotten through and through. Nothing I told Margaret was true. Harry never gave me this coat. He never gives me anything. He doesn’t care a hang for me. Nor I for him. I hate him and despise him. I only took him because there was no one else. And ever since I married him I’ve tricked him and done him. The money I got for the house, I’ve always kept back part of it. It didn’t hurt him, for he didn’t know. He’s the sort of man who never knows anything; what he eats or what things cost. Or sees how shabby I go. And anyhow he wouldn’t care, he’s got no pride in HIM. For months and months I’ve been saving up to buy a coat. But it was never enough. And when I heard Margaret was coming — SHE to see what I had sunk to! — I couldn’t bear it, Mother, I simply couldn’t.”

The tears were streaming now, splashing hot on cheeks, hands, dress.

“And so . . . I got a bunch of keys at the iron-monger’s, and found one that fitted the drawer where he keeps his money, for rates and things, and took it and went out and bought this coat. But surely as much for his sake as mine? That Margaret shouldn’t know how mean, how despicably mean he is? No, wait, stop, that’s not true. But at least I meant to sell it again after she went, and put the money back. Or didn’t I? Oh God, I don’t know, don’t know any more what’s true and what isn’t. Perhaps I meant to keep it — he’s never at home by day to see what I wear. And it was going to be quite easy to invent a burglary, turn the rooms upside down, say the house had been broken into while I was out. But NOW he’ll open the drawer and find the money gone and see the coat and know me for what I am — a common thief. Oh, just one day more, ONLY one, to put things right! You can do it, you can save me . . . MOTHER!”

Humming, wailing, cawing alike had ceased. In her and about her lay a stillness that was as precious as balm to a wound, or the sudden lull in a griping, gutting pain. But her joy in it was short-lived, for now, past question, her mother was making ready to go. She widened her hold, clung for dear life: but to what? To a form which, from flesh and blood, was growing intangible as air. And which, in thinning, was receding, fading back into the mists from which it had sprung. She staggered up to follow, and, as she did, caught her foot in the coat, lying on the ground. And some impulse made her stoop to this, pick it up and drag it after her, by one sleeve.

Too late. Now, all that remained to her was a voice: so faint, so far, that it had no more body to it than the echo of an echo, heard from the high hills.

“I shall be waiting for you . . . be waiting.”

“Tch! I do believe she’s coming to,” said the nurse in the Casualty Ward, and threw a troubled glance at the house-surgeon, who, his job done, had turned aside. “Look! . . . actually trying to speak.”

With a swab of cotton-wool she wiped the blood and foam from monstrously distorted lips, all that was now to be seen for bandages of the dying face and, stooping, put her ear to them.

* * *

“I’m afraid she’s gone, your friend,” she said a few minutes later, to the shocked, benumbed woman who kept vigil in the corridor. “But believe me it’s better so. Though we haven’t managed to get hold of her husband yet.”

Here she hesitated. And, with an eye to stuff, cut and cost of the other’s clothing, asked a little diffidently: “Is your . . . are you by chance’Margaret’? Oh yes? So IT WAS you she was thinking of. She seemed to be trying to tell you something. It was all very jumbled and confused, I only got a word here and there. Something about a coat — the one she had on when she was brought in, I suppose — and a thief. Perhaps she was afraid it had been stolen. Though,” very apologetically, “it did seem once as if she was calling herself a thief. Still, they often talk nonsense at the end. Well, sorry I couldn’t make much of it. I’m afraid you won’t, either.”

But, on coming face to face with the shabby, careworn little man, of the sloping shoulders and limp, uncertain movements, that was Harry, Margaret, deeply pitying, believed she understood.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005