THE CRISIS OF VICTOR’S WALK with Maggie was now over. After a little silence, they began talking happily about indifferent matters. Presently they came to a little cottage that offered teas. They had their meal in the garden, sitting together on a bench before a rickety little table, facing the view. Maggie told me that through that meal and the rest of their walk she had an increasing sense that they had known one another for many years. Again and again they anticipated each other’s thoughts, as though each knew beforehand what to expect of the other. Yet consciously they knew very little of each other, and their minds were very different — Victor with his background of public school and Oxford, Maggie a country girl with simple tastes and a veneer of town experience. Yet so long as they did not discuss their own future, they talked easily and happily. In spite of differences of accent and social class, each delighted each by quick intuition of the other’s point of view.
Maggie was soon telling Victor about her own life. Her early years were spent in Shetland. She was born in a minute crofter’s cottage beside one of the larger “voes” or fjords. Her father was a typical Shetlander, who made a precarious living by a combination of fishing by line or net from a boat, tending the little hardy though soft-fleeced sheep, and tilling the impoverished and storm-swept soil, which yielded oats and rye as dwarfed as the sheep and the famous ponies. Ramblingly and with evident nostalgia, Maggie told Victor how she used to take part in the fishing; how, holding the line, one had to feel for the gentle tremor when the fish nibbled the bait, distinguishing between the different action of whiting, haddock and the rest; how in the old days cod were plentiful in the coastal waters and within range of small boats, but now they had to be sought far off in the Arctic by long-ranging steam trawlers; how the herring fishery, at one time prosperous, had retreated to the south, leaving behind broken-down jetties and the rotting remains of the fishing fleet in almost every village; how her father used to take out his gun and shoot the seals from the cliff, and the dead or merely wounded creatures, tortured by the salt water in their wounds, would be left on the rocks by the next retreating tide, to be retrieved at leisure by the men of the crofts; how the cruel business distressed her, but gradually she hardened herself to it, knowing well how much the meat and oil and skin were needed; how, when she was about twelve years old, one of her elder brothers was lost in a storm, having gone out beyond the headlands in an unseaworthy boat, against his father’s advice; how she herself, weeks later, happened on his decaying body on the rocks, damaged, bloated, blackened by corruption, but still recognizably her brother; and how this experience had “somehow opened a window on to the evil of the world,” so that for years afterwards she was prone to “waking nightmares” in which she was paralysed by the shocking memory of that strange thing that had been her brother; how her eldest brother became a deck-hand on a liner, and would periodically return from the Far East with strange gifts and stranger stories; how these homecomings used to fill her with a fierce determination to see the great world, though she was only a girl; how the eider-ducks piloted their flotillas of tiny babies on the turbulent waves, and in among the rocks; how the stylish arctic skuas and the great brown “bonxies” would dive screaming from the sky to threaten the head of any child venturing too near their nests; how the gannets, dagger-beaked, creamy headed, wing-tipped with ink, would drop like stones into the sea for fish, and the cormorants would come up from the deep with their writhing bulky catch, and struggle valiantly to swallow it, till at last it showed merely as a great swelling in the bird’s neck; how a dead whale was once stranded at the mouth of the voe, and how it stank; how one of the boys once carried home on his shoulder a whale’s vertebra, a lump of sea-polished solid bone as big as a new grindstone, but triangular and with a hole in the middle for the great spinal cord; how she and her school friends used to play in a near-by “broch,” a stone-built Pictish fortress, on a high cliff over the sea; how her mother used to plant their cabbages in queer little circles of stone wall, like miniature brochs, to protect them from the ruthless winds; how at midnight in the summer, the grass was still green and the water blue; but in winter, noon was just an evening between two interminable dead black nights, relieved sometimes by the pale or rosy Northern Lights; how the whole family would sometimes go by boat, sailing or rowing, inland to the head of the voe to cut peat on the low moors, and stack it to dry (like slabs of moist ginger cake, she said); and how, long afterwards, they would go again to load the dried peat on to the boat and bring it home; how in fine weather one could see far out on the horizon a small, tall, lonely island where several families won a meagre living from the ocean and the scanty pasture, and sometimes (it was said) great storms swept their houses over the cliff into the seas; how she was sometimes taken by her father on sheep-dipping or fleecing expeditions, with a party of men, boys and dogs from the neighbouring crofts, generally by boat to some remote promontory, to spend the day in the orchestration of bleatings, barkings, human shoutings, the cries of gulls, and of course the wind; how the “national sport” of the Shetlanders (Shelties, she sometimes called them) was racing their Norse-looking sailing craft at regattas in one little port after another; how the family boasted about their own old elegant and often successful boat, and their father’s seamanship; how she used to walk over the hill to the village school beside a neighbouring voe, often in wild weather, dry in her little black oil-skins; how on Sundays the whole family, father, mother, two aunts, three boys and two girls, would follow the same track over the hill to the little Methodist chapel, all dressed in their precious Sunday clothes, she with her wild red hair tightly plaited and her sturdy little legs clad in the inevitable home-knitted black woollen stockings; how on one occasion a blue-eyed young lay preacher, who was also the local blacksmith (idolized by the young girls for his mighty prowess at the anvil, and for his radiant kindliness), gave them a terrific sermon all about hell-fire and shipwreck; how the fire, he said, rose up from the depth of the ocean and devoured the proud ships with their ungodly crews, and sucked them down into the nether pit for eternal damnation; how, after the service, when the young man stood at the chapel door to shake hands with each member of the congregation, she dared hardly take his hand, though she saw, incredulously, that he was once more beaming with good will; how, when her father once took her to the far-off town of Lerwick, on the way she saw for the first time trees, little stunted trees round a house in a sheltered valley, but to her they were symbolical of all the world’s forests and jungles; how Lerwick seemed to her in those days a great bewildering glamourful city, but in fact it was a small fishing port with narrow cobbled streets and an all-pervading smell from the salting of innumerable herrings; how she marvelled at the trawlers, the smart fisheries gunboat, and the little old mail steamer; how she longed to go in the steamer all the way to far-off Scotland, but such a trip was beyond the family’s means; how, even in those early days she began to be aware that she was living only on the outermost fringe of a great exciting dangerous modern world, in comparison with which her home life and all its values were old-fashioned, niggardly and superstitious; how, as a girl in her teens, she used to steal sweet meetings with a boy from Glasgow, a very young engineer, who used to come to the village on a motor-bike in connection with the setting up of a pumping engine; how he scorned Shetland, and told her about the gay city life; how he once took her for a wild pillion-ride on his motor-cycle, and her father heard of it, and was furious; how, in the long dark winter evenings, her mother and aunts, and often the two girls also, would sit spinning the near-white or richly brown (“murrat”) home-grown wool, or knitting, or mending clothes, fishing-nets or lines, while her father with a clay pipe in his mouth would be doing repairs to some tool, or mending a wicker lobster-pot; how sometimes he would tell them stories of the old days, or read aloud from “improving” books or Sir Walter Scott’s novels; for they had a couple of shelves stocked with well-used classics and religious works, as in so many of the Shetland crofts; how sometimes she would listen to her father with a deep sense of peace, loving the little cramped, dark, overcrowded home and the feeling of continuity with a mysterious romantic past; but sometimes she was restless, aloof, exasperated with her grown-up relatives because of their open contempt and secret fear of the new ways which were constantly eating into the old; how she and her elder sister sometimes went to the tiny croft of their Great–Aunt Abigail, to be given bannocks and a glass of precious ginger-wine, but the old woman herself would generally find some excuse for indulging in neat whisky or rum; how the dark little croft was crammed with furniture and treasures collected throughout a lifetime; how the kindly but alarming old witch (for such she looked, with her tousled grey hair and bushy brows that met over her nose, and her face of wrinkled leather) would sit by the fire with bright and frightening eyes telling stories of tragic loves and quarrels, of murders out at sea, of Pictish and Norse tradition, of kelpies and howling invisible fiends that rode on the storm, and could lift a man from his feet and throw him from a cliff; how sometimes in a low voice her great-aunt would tell of her own reputedly occult powers of second sight and control of people’s behaviour; how, for instance, she foretold the greatest storm of a century, and the wreck of a full-rigged ship on the rocks below the broch; how she triumphed over a wicked laird, who was the harsh landlord of all that district, by compelling him to throw himself from a high cliff.
Maggie told Victor that she herself, being a very level-headed child, was sceptical about all these stories, and yet fascinated by them.
One thing she did not tell Victor till long afterwards. When Great–Aunt Abigail was at the point of death she summoned her favourite great-niece, Maggie, to a strictly private interview, and prophesied that she, too, would develop strange powers. Meanwhile, she said, Maggie herself, under the influence of the “great unbelieving world” would grow to neglect “the old wisdom,” till at last in suffering she would discover that she, too, was a witch, with powers that she might use for good or evil. The old lady said, “You will find, Maggie dear, that you can be strong both in the old wisdom and in the new wisdom, about which I know nothing but that the two clashing wisdoms are at bottom one true wisdom.” Her tired old eyes, that were still lit with frightening fire, looked fixedly at the young girl; and presently she said, “They will call you ugly, but you are beautiful. Most people are too blind to see your beauty, and if any of these ever calls you beautiful, he will be lying. But the very few, who can see, will see that you are lovely with a very ancient and forgotten kind of loveliness, or perhaps a new kind, still to win men’s praise. I don’t know which.” She gazed at the fascinated child; then said, “You must try to do much better than I have done, wasting all my powers, and all my life.” She fell silent for some time, while Maggie gazed at her in awe. Then Great–Aunt Abigail said, “Goodbye, dear Maggie. Remember always what I have said. And now, go!”
With mingled fright, repugnance, affection and exaltation, Maggie stooped and put her lips to the ancient leathery brow. But Great–Aunt Abigail said, faintly but sharply, “On the lips, little fool; even if it makes you vomit.” Maggie brought herself to comply, murmured, “Dear Great–Aunt Abigail!” and fled.
This exciting suggestion that she herself was a witch worked deeply into young Maggie’s mind; the more so since on one or two occasions she had had dreams that seemed to turn out obscurely prophetic.
Maggie did not tell Victor about this death-bed scene; partly because, though almost unconsciously she still cherished it, she had long ago ceased to take her great-aunt’s prophecy seriously, and had ceased to have any of those ambiguous experiences that had seemed to confirm it. Moreover, she feared that, if she told Victor, he would think her credulous. Instead, she rambled on about her ordinary memories, while Victor occasionally interjected some question or friendly comment.
The sun was now sinking behind the trees, and the chill of evening made them sit closely together, like well-tried brother and sister.
Maggie recounted how, when she left school, her parents reluctantly sent her into “service” in Lerwick, to add to the family earnings; how she wept on the day of departure, but how, as she settled into the new life she became more and more dependent on the excitement of this minute metropolis, and more determined to seek her fortune in some great glamorous city in Scotland; how her parents sternly opposed this intention, but in the end, without their consent, she bought a passage with her savings and at last boarded the mail steamer with a friend, Katie, who was returning from a holiday at home to a post as chamber-maid in a hotel in Aberdeen; how the two slept on deck under a tarpaulin, but were drenched by a wave; how the friend secured her a place as scullery-maid; how she marvelled at the city of grey granite, feeling that at last she was in the great world; how nevertheless she often found herself longing for the voes and the crofts and the Shetland speech, and her still dear family; how she was torn between love and contempt for the old life, between fascination and vague disgust with the city; how in due season she became a waitress in the same hotel and, in spite of her ugliness, was a success, not merely through efficiency but because of her knack of pleasing people of very different sorts; how she spent her free time mostly on solitary walks in the country or the town itself, watching its life; how her ugliness was a protection against unwanted attentions, but also a barrier between her and the boys; how she occasionally went with Katie to see the thrilling new moving pictures of life in New York or Monte Carlo; how Katie had a succession of love affairs, but she herself was merely everybody’s dear sister; how, still seeking fullness of life, she presently moved on to posts in Glasgow, and then to the North of England and her present job; how her ambition was to reach London.
While Maggie was happily telling Victor about her life, the afternoon had advanced into evening. The trees in front of them were silhouetted against a golden sky. The two sat closer together, and Victor had allowed himself to slip his arm under hers, and to hold her hand. She responded with gentle pressure, but said, “We may as well be friendly, even if I’m not going to take you on.”
Victor told me that he had been wondering how it was that a girl who had missed her due of admiration from young men could be so detached and even guarded against his own cautious advances. Intuitively he felt that sex was somehow repugnant to her; and yet, according to her own account, she had regretted her exclusion from normal love-experiences.
“Tell me!” he said. “Even though most young men were too blind to see your beauty, surely some must have wanted you? You don’t behave at all like — like a plain girl who is always longing to be loved.” She did not answer. He felt her go rigid. Her face was turned away from him.
Presently she turned toward him, and seemed to study his face in the fading light. Then she said, “Inquisitive, aren’t you? Why should I have to tell you all about myself? But you’re sort of understanding, like my brother Tom, who was drowned.”
Then she suddenly disengaged herself and rose, saying that it was getting late, and they mustn’t miss the bus. He did not press her to say more. When he had paid for the meal, they walked down the garden, and he held the gate open for her. As she passed through, the evening light lent mystery to her face. “You are lovely to look at,” he said, “but that is not all. There is something strange about you. I think you must be a witch. Do you see the future, or stick pins in waxen images of your enemies, or put potions in people’s beer? Or do you just cast spells on them by giving them waking-dreams of your face?” She was startled, thinking of Great–Aunt Abigail’s now almost forgotten declaration. But she said, rather sharply, “I don’t believe in such things. I’m modern. I should like to go in a submarine or fly an aeroplane, or be a great surgeon. I believe in science. I’m bored with the old dope about witches and magic and second sight.” He said, “Then what about my dreams of you?”
She answered, “Oh, that’s your affair. Probably you are just kidding yourself.”
“Well, Miss Modern,” he said, “you must have had lots of lovers. Tell me about them!”
She answered only, “Nosing again!” And when he attempted to take her arm, she gently freed herself. But as they walked unlinked down the dark road, under trees, she said, “Oh, well. Perhaps I shall tell you some day.”
She did; at a much later date, when she had come to know him much better. And Victor, sitting; with me in the hotel lounge, told me vaguely that she had indeed, as he suspected, “encountered the seamy side of sex,” and been “severely wounded by her experiences.” Not till long afterwards did I learn from Maggie herself the details of this unhappy side of it her life. But I had better give some account of them now, since without some knowledge of them the reader would be unable to understand the course of her early relations with Victor.
During her time in Aberdeen she suffered increasingly from the sense of inability to attract men, and from her privation of all the normal dalliance and “walking out” which meant so much to her friend Katie. Moreover, her longing to be “modern,” and to have all kinds of “modern” and “emancipated” experiences, disposed her to a freedom and even licentiousness that was still rare in those days before the First World War. So when she found that some men would, with a little encouragement, make advances to her, she was very ready to accept them. But the men who took notice of her were all of the kind that Katie condemned as riff-raff or “wrong ‘uns.” Maggie, however, was ready to believe that they were the sensitive ones who could see the beauty to which most men were blind. She chose to ignore her great-aunt’s warning that some of the blind would lyingly praise her. Thus it was that she stumbled into a very unfortunate affair in the dockside underworld of Aberdeen. She struck up an acquaintance with some undesirable creature to whom no decent girl would stoop. His advances were of the crudest, but he was able to pose to her as an unfortunate and fundamentally gentle cave-man whom society had maltreated. Maggie frankly responded, and was ready to see in him virtues which no one else could see. She allowed him all sorts of liberties with her person. Gradually and very reluctantly, she discovered that he was not more sensitive than other men, but more coarse-grained and brutal, that his crude praise of her looks was quite insincere, that he had come to her not out of admiration and love but simply in the expectation that such an ugly girl would be ready to give him what others refused, namely bodily intercourse. Such a discovery was, of course, bitterly galling. But such was her hunger for experience and “emancipation” that she swallowed her shame and allowed herself to be led right up to the point of going to bed with her “lover.” At the last minute violent repugnance seized her, and she broke from his arms, and began to dress. The man, of course, was furious, and attempted rape; but Maggie was not one to give in easily, when loathing had conquered craving. She put up a spirited fight, and cooled her assailant’s ardour by inflicting painful damage. Thus, battered but victorious, she technically preserved her virginity.
Some time after she had recovered from the shock of this affair Maggie became involved with another unattractive specimen of the opposite sex. But this time disillusionment supervened at an earlier stage of the relationship, and she dismissed her man before she was seriously implicated. In spite of these two unfortunate incidents her passion to be experienced and “modern” forced her to try again and again. Each time, disgust supervened at an earlier stage than before, until at last she shrank from the slightest contact with any man.
In Glasgow, where she was barmaid in a low-class hotel, she had an adventure of a different pattern. She met a Negro. He had a frightful cough, was probably tubercular, and was desperately lonely. He longed to get back to West Africa, but he had no money. The girls treated him like dirt because he was black, broken-down, and simple. He had the remains of a well-knit and powerful body, and dog’s eyes. Out of compassion, Maggie befriended him, mothered him. He responded with adoration and great gentleness, never presuming to touch his goddess. To her surprise she found that when he did accidentally touch her she was not repelled. He had a sweet nature, she felt, that could never harbour the brutish lust that was the sole motive of her other lovers. He treated everyone, even his persecutors, with fundamental respect. He was ready to accord to everyone the benefit of the doubt. Maggie gradually conceived a great affection for him. And so, like a queen condescending to a trusted subject whom she had chosen as a consort, she gently led him into making love to her. At first he could scarcely bring himself to commit so small a sacrilege as stroking her hand. But stage by stage he reached the point of undressing his goddess, with all the reverence of a priest unveiling the holy of holies. She felt neither repugnance nor fear, but only a warm glow of affection and expectation. But then, to her surprise, his trembling hands were withdrawn from her, and he muttered in a thick husky voice, “I must not, I must not. There is a devil in me, and he would hurt you.” This declaration only increased Maggie’s confidence in him, and her readiness to give herself to him. She quickly overcame his scruples, and with an almost religious reverence and gentleness he took her.
The two lived together in very humble quarters, kept by Maggie’s earnings and the intermittent wages that he won from such casual labouring as he could secure. For a while she was content. But little by little she became restless and lonely. She craved equal comradeship and common enterprise. Her Negro, though infinitely patient and gentle, and in a way personally understanding, was too remote from the “great world” which had cast its spell on her. “I wanted,” she told me, “a man of my own kind, who would wake me, and — ride me rough-shod to the stars; who would free something creative in me that had always been chained up.” Such high-falutin language was quite beyond her at the time; but later, under Victor’s half-assimilated influence, this was how she described her feelings at the close of her adventure with her Negro. She was beginning to feel that she was losing contact with the great world, and becoming more and more tangled in responsibility toward her lover. Further, she was frightened that she might have a child. Such preventives as she knew were far from reliable. Little by little, her manner toward him changed. She cooled. Sometimes she would unintentionally let little spiteful remarks slip from her tongue; and the effort to comfort the wounded man after these lapses became increasingly burdensome.
One night she was particularly horrid to him, hinting that he was not really good enough for her, and that she had only accepted him out of charity, and that his love-making was too humble. She even forgot herself so far as to say that it would be too awful if she had the burden of a little nigger baby. This foolish remark woke something in him that had been long suppressed. He went savage. It was as though the spirit of the black race took possession of him to avenge itself upon the whole race of white tyrants. His eyes flashed, his teeth gleamed in his dark face. He said, “Right! I’ll make love to you in another way. It’s your own fault if you don’t like it.” Recounting this incident to me, she said, “Then he went at me like a tiger, tearing off my clothes, biting and tearing at my flesh, and doing unspeakable things.” She screamed and fought; but presently he sprang away from her, and collapsed in a heap on the floor, blubbering and begging her pardon. She, in spite of her fright and the rough handling, was feeling very guilty herself; and soon she was kneeling over him and comforting him, with blood on her neck and breasts. In ten minutes they were friends again, and making tea.
However, on the following day, the Negro, who seems to have been, at heart a remarkably generous and sensible person, decided that they must part. He could no longer trust himself with her. It was obvious to Maggie, too, that she could not trust herself not to torment him. So it was agreed that they must part. And they parted in style. They spent all their cash on food and drink for the celebration, prepared a feast in their cheap room, ate as much as they could manage, toasted one another, and then the black race and the white race, and the amity of the two, toasted everything and everybody, got happily sozzled and sentimental, petted and embraced one another, and finally, to the surprise of both, fell to serious love-making, and retired to bed together. Maggie, generous and courageous, was determined that the previous night’s mishap should be, so far as possible, wiped out by something better. The Negro was equally anxious to make amends for his past obsequiousness and for his recent brutality. The sense of her danger and of their imminent parting exalted Maggie to respond to him with a new fervour; and her warmth in turn had a tonic effect on him, so that for once he was able to be gentle without being abject, and ardent without being brutal. They slept in peace together; and next morning they parted.
For Maggie, the upshot was that, having at last copiously tasted the forbidden fruit, and having found it both sweet and bitter, she no longer craved it for its own sake. She would henceforth be violently repelled by all sexual contacts that were not patently the vehicle of true love between equals. For with her Negro she had at least experienced enough to be able to imagine what sex could be when it was indeed the expression of full personal love.
Such were the experiences that Maggie refrained from recounting to Victor as they walked along the dark road, side by side, but unlinked. He made one more attempt to gain her confidence. He said, “There’s something painful in your memory, and something you’re a bit ashamed of. If you were to trust me, and share the pain, and the shame too, I might be able to wipe them out for you.” She answered, “No! Not yet, anyhow. You’re not my father inquisitor.” The odd phrase amused him; and he wondered, but did not enquire, whether it was deliberate or due to ignorance. He pressed her no further, but turned the conversation to more general subjects. In the bus, they sat snugly together, but he refrained from holding her hand; and for this she was grateful, yet vaguely disappointed. When the time came to part, he did take her hand. It was a large and capable hand, and the skin was rather coarse. Ineradicable dirt was ingrained in the thumb and forefinger. He raised the hand to his lips, and said, “Think it all over. I’m leaving tomorrow, but I shall come back soon.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00