He had decided to sit up all night, as a kind of penance. The telegram had simply said: “Ophelia’s condition critical.” He felt, under the circumstances, that to go to bed in the wagon-lit would be frivolous. So he sat wearily in the first-class compartment as night fell over France.
He ought, of course, to be sitting by Ophelia’s bedside. But Ophelia didn’t want him. So he sat up in the train.
Deep inside him was a black and ponderous weight: like some tumour filled with sheer gloom, weighing down his vitals. He had always taken life seriously. Seriousness now overwhelmed him. His dark, handsome, clean-shaven face would have done for Christ on the Cross, with the thick black eyebrows tilted in the dazed agony.
The night in the train was like an inferno: nothing was real. Two elderly Englishwomen opposite him had died long ago, perhaps even before he had. Because, of course, he was dead himself.
Slow, grey dawn came in the mountains of the frontier, and he watched it with unseeing eyes. But his mind repeated:
“And when the dawn came, dim and sad
And chill with early showers,
Her quiet eyelids closed: she had
Another morn than ours.”
And his monk’s changeless, tormented face showed no trace of the contempt he felt, even self-contempt, for this bathos, as his critical mind judged it.
He was in Italy: he looked at the country with faint aversion. Not capable of much feeling any more, he had only a tinge of aversion as he saw the olives and the sea. A sort of poetic swindle.
It was night again when he reached the home of the Blue Sisters, where Ophelia had chosen to retreat. He was ushered into the Mother Superior’s room, in the palace. She rose and bowed to him in silence, looking at him along her nose. Then she said in French:
“It pains me to tell you. She died this afternoon.”
He stood stupefied, not feeling much, anyhow, but gazing at nothingness from his handsome, strong-featured monk’s face.
The Mother Superior softly put her white, handsome hand on his arm and gazed up into his face, leaning to him.
“Courage!” she said softly. “Courage, no?”
He stepped back. He was always scared when a woman leaned at him like that. In her voluminous skirts, the Mother Superior was very womanly.
“Quite!” he replied in English. “Can I see her?”
The Mother Superior rang a bell, and a young sister appeared. She was rather pale, but there was something naïve and mischievous in her hazel eyes. The elder woman murmured an introduction, the young woman demurely made a slight reverence. But Matthew held out his hand, like a man reaching for the last straw. The young nun unfolded her white hands and shyly slid one into his, passive as a sleeping bird.
And out of the fathomless Hades of his gloom he thought: “What a nice hand!”
They went along a handsome but cold corridor, and tapped at a door. Matthew, walking in far-off Hades, still was aware of the soft, fine voluminousness of the women’s black skirts, moving with soft, fluttered haste in front of him.
He was terrified when the door opened, and he saw the candles burning round the white bed, in the lofty, noble room. A sister sat beside the candles, her face dark and primitive, in the white coif, as she looked up from her breviary. Then she rose, a sturdy woman, and made a little bow, and Matthew was aware of creamy-dusky hands twisting a black rosary, against the rich, blue silk of her bosom.
The three sisters flocked silent, yet fluttered and very feminine, in their volumes of silky black skirts, to the bedhead. The Mother Superior leaned, and with utmost delicacy lifted the veil of white lawn from the dead face.
Matthew saw the dead, beautiful composure of his wife’s face, and instantly, something leaped like laughter in the depths of him, he gave a little grunt, and an extraordinary smile came over his face.
The three nuns, in the candle glow that quivered warm and quick like a Christmas tree, were looking at him with heavily compassionate eyes, from under their coif-bands. They were like a mirror. Six eyes suddenly started with a little fear, then changed, puzzled, into wonder. And over the three nuns’ faces, helplessly facing him in the candle-glow, a strange, involuntary smile began to come. In the three faces, the same smile growing so differently, like three subtle flowers opening. In the pale young nun, it was almost pain, with a touch of mischievous ecstasy. But the dark Ligurian face of the watching sister, a mature, level-browed woman, curled with a pagan smile, slow, infinitely subtle in its archaic humour. It was the Etruscan smile, subtle and unabashed, and unanswerable.
The Mother Superior, who had a large-featured face something like Matthew’s own, tried hard not to smile. But he kept his humorous, malevolent chin uplifted at her, and she lowered her face as the smile grew, grew and grew over her face.
The young, pale sister suddenly covered her face with her sleeve, her body shaking. The Mother Superior put her arm over the girl’s shoulder, murmuring with Italian emotion: “Poor little thing! Weep, then, poor little thing!” But the chuckle was still there, under the emotion. The sturdy dark sister stood unchanging, clutching the black beads, but the noiseless smile immovable.
Matthew suddenly turned to the bed, to see if his dead wife had observed him. It was a movement of fear.
Ophelia lay so pretty and so touching, with her peaked, dead little nose sticking up, and her face of an obstinate child fixed in the final obstinacy. The smile went away from Matthew, and the look of super-martyrdom took its place. He did not weep: he just gazed without meaning. Only, on his face deepened the look: I knew this martyrdom was in store for me!
She was so pretty, so childlike, so clever, so obstinate, so worn — and so dead! He felt so blank about it all.
They had been married ten years. He himself had not been perfect — no, no, not by any means! But Ophelia had always wanted her own will. She had loved him, and grown obstinate, and left him, and grown wistful, or contemptuous, or angry, a dozen times, and a dozen times come back to him.
They had no children. And he, sentimentally, had always wanted children. He felt very largely sad.
Now she would never come back to him. This was the thirteenth time, and she was gone for ever.
But was she? Even as he thought it, he felt her nudging him somewhere in the ribs, to make him smile. He writhed a little, and an angry frown came on his brow. He was not GOING to smile! He set his square, naked jaw, and bared his big teeth, as he looked down at the infinitely provoking dead woman. “At it again!”— he wanted to say to her, like the man in Dickens.
He himself had not been perfect. He was going to dwell on his own imperfections.
He turned suddenly to the three women, who had faded backwards beyond the candles, and now hovered, in the white frames of their coifs, between him and nowhere. His eyes glared, and he bared his teeth.
“Mea culpa! Mea culpa!” he snarled.
“Macchè!” exclaimed the daunted Mother Superior, and her two hands flew apart, then together again, in the density of the sleeves, like birds nesting in couples.
Matthew ducked his head and peered round, prepared to bolt. The Mother Superior, in the background, softly intoned a Pater Noster, and her beads dangled. The pale young sister faded farther back. But the black eyes of the sturdy, black-avised sister twinkled like eternally humorous stars upon him, and he felt the smile digging him in the ribs again.
“Look here!” he said to the women, in expostulation, “I’m awfully upset. I’d better go.”
They hovered in fascinating bewilderment. He ducked for the door. But even as he went, the smile began to come on his face, caught by the tail of the sturdy sister’s black eye, with its everlasting twink. And, he was secretly thinking, he wished he could hold both her creamy-dusky hands, that were folded like mating birds, voluptuously.
But he insisted on dwelling upon his own imperfections. Mea culpa! he howled at himself. And even as he howled it, he felt something nudge him in the ribs, saying to him: Smile!
The three women left behind in the lofty room looked at one another, and their hands flew up for a moment, like six birds flying suddenly out of the foliage, then settling again.
“Poor thing!” said the Mother Superior, compassionately.
“Yes! Yes! Poor thing!” cried the young sister, with naïve, shrill impulsiveness.
“Già!” said the dark-avised sister.
The Mother Superior noiselessly moved to the bed, and leaned over the dead face.
“She seems to know, poor soul!” she murmured. “Don’t you think so?”
The three coifed heads leaned together. And for the first time they saw the faint ironical curl at the corners of Ophelia’s mouth. They looked in fluttering wonder.
“She has seen him!” whispered the thrilling young sister.
The Mother Superior delicately laid the fine-worked veil over the cold face. Then they murmured a prayer for the anima, fingering their beads. Then the Mother Superior set two of the candles straight upon their spikes, clenching the thick candle with firm, soft grip, and pressing it down.
The dark-faced, sturdy sister sat down again with her little holy book. The other two rustled softly to the door, and out into the great white corridor. There softly, noiselessly sailing in all their dark drapery, like dark swans down a river, they suddenly hesitated. Together they had seen a forlorn man’s figure, in a melancholy overcoat, loitering in the cold distance at the corridor’s end. The Mother Superior suddenly pressed her pace into an appearance of speed.
Matthew saw them bearing down on him, these voluminous figures with framed faces and lost hands. The young sister trailed a little behind.
“Pardon, ma Mère!” he said, as if in the street. “I left my hat somewhere . . . .”
He made a desperate, moving sweep with his arm, and never was man more utterly smileless.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57