Penn Library
CETI: Center for Electronic Text & Image

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922)
by May Sinclair

Chapter VI
Back Forward

FE Index MS Index WB Index


TOWARDS spring Harriett showed signs of          [FE]   [MS]   [WB]
depression, and they took her to the
south of France and to Bordighera and
Rome. In Rome she recovered. Rome
was one of those places you ought to see;
she had always been anxious to do the
right thing. In the little Pension in the
Via Babuino she had a sense of her own
importance and the importance of her
father and mother. They were Mr and
Mrs Hilton Frean, and Miss Harriett
Frean, seeing Rome.
  After their return in the summer he
began to write his book, The Social Order.
There were things that had to be said;
it did not much matter who said them             [FE]             
provided they were said plainly. He
dreamed of a new Social State, society
governing itself without representatives.
For a long time they lived on the interest
and excitement of the book, and when it
came out Harriett pasted all his reviews
very neatly into an album. He had the
air of not taking them quite seriously;
but he subscribed to The Spectator,
and sometimes an article appeared there
understood to have been written by
Hilton Frean.
  And they went abroad again every
year. They went to Florence and came                    [MS]             
home and read Romola and Mrs Browning
and Dante and The Spectator; they went                         [WB]
to Assisi and read the Little Flowers of
Saint Francis;  they went to Venice and
read Ruskin and The Spectator; they              [FE]   
went to Rome again and read Gibbon's
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Harriett said, 'We should have enjoyed
Rome more if we had read Gibbon,' and
her mother replied that they would not
have enjoyed Gibbon so much if they had
not seen Rome. Harriett did not really
enjoy him; but she enjoyed the sound
of her own voice reading out tile great
sentences and the rolling Latin names.
  She had brought back photographs of
the Colosseum and the Forum and of
Botticelli's Spring, and a della Robbia
Madonna in a shrine of fruit and flowers,
and hung them in the drawing-room.
And when she saw the blue egg in its
gilt frame standing on the marble-topped
table, she wondered how she had ever
loved it, and wished it were not there.          [FE]   
It had been one of Mamma's wedding
presents. Mrs Hancock had given it her;
but Mr Hancock must have bought it.
  Harriett's face had taken on again its
arrogant lift. She esteemed herself justly.
She knew she was superior to the Han-
cocks and the Pennefathers and to Lizzie                [MS] 
Pierce and Sarah Barmby; even to Pris-                   
cilla. When she thought of Robin and
how she had given him up she felt a thrill                     [WB]
of pleasure in her beautiful behaviour,
and a thrill of pride in remembering that
he had loved her more than Priscilla. Her
mind refused to think of Robin married.
  Two, three, five years passed, with a
perceptible acceleration, and Harriett was
now thirty.
  She had not seen them since the wedding-       [FE]   
day. Robin had gone back to his own town;
he was cashier in a big bank there. For
four years Prissie's letters came regularly
every month or so, then ceased abruptly.
  Then Robin wrote and told her of
Prissie's illness. A mysterious paralysis.
It had begun with fits of giddiness in the
street; Prissie would turn round and
round on the pavement; then falling fits;
and now both legs were paralysed, but
Robin thought she was gradually recover-
ing the use of her hands.
  Harriett did not cry. The shock of it
stopped her tears. She tried to see it
and couldn't. Poor little Prissie. How
terrible. She kept on saying to herself
she couldn't bear to think of Prissie
paralysed. Poor little Prissie.                         [MS]             
  And poor Robin--                               [FE]   
  Paralysis. She saw the paralysis coming
between them, separating them, and inside
her the secret pain was soothed. She need
not think of Robert married any more.
  She was going to stay with them.
Robin had written the letter. He said
Prissie wanted her. When she met him                           [WB]
on the platform she had a little shock
at seeing him changed. Changed. His
face was fuller, and a dark moustache hid
the sensitive, uneven, pulsing lip. His
mouth was dragged down further at the
corners. But he was the same Robin.
In the cab, going to the house, he sat
silent, breathing hard; she felt the tremor
of his consciousness and knew that he still
loved her; more than he loved Priscilla.
Poor little Prissie. How terrible!
  Priscilla sat by the fireplace in a wheel-     [FE]   
chair. She became agitated when she
saw Harriett; her arms shook as she lifted
them for the embrace.
  'Hattyyou've hardly changed a bit.'
Her voice shook.
  Poor little Prissie. She was thin, thinner                   [WB]
than ever, and stiff as if she had withered.
Her face was sallow and dry, and the                    [MS]             
lustre had gone from her black hair.
Her wide mouth twitched and wavered,
wavered and twitched. Though it was
warm summer she sat by a blazing fire
with the windows behind her shut.
  Through dinner Harriett and Robin
were silent and constrained. She tried not
to see Prissie shaking and jerking and
spilling soup down the front of her gown.                      [WB]
Robin's face was smooth and blank; he
pretended to be absorbed in his food, so         [FE]   
as not to look at Prissie. It was as if
Prissie's old restlessness had grown into
that ceaseless jerking and twitching. And
her eyes fastened on Robin; they clung
to him and wouldn't let him go. She kept
on asking him to do things for her.
'Robin, you might get me my shawl';
and Robin would go and get the shawl
and put it round her. Whenever he did
anything for her Prissie's face would
settle down into a quivering, deep content.
  At nine o'clock he lifted her out of
her wheel-chair. Harriett saw his stoop,
and the taut, braced power of his back
as he lifted. Prissie lay in his arms with
rigid limbs hanging from loose attach-
ments, inert, like a doll. As he carried
her upstairs to bed her face had a
queer, exaltedlook of pleasure and of            [FE]   [MS]  
triumph.
  Harriett and Robin sat alone together in
his study.
  'How long is it since we've seen each
other?'
  'Five years, Robin.'
  'It isn't. It can't be.'                                     [WB]
  'It is.'
  'I suppose it is. But I can't believe it.
I can't believe I'm married. I can't
believe Prissie's ill. It doesn't seem real
with you sitting there.'
  'Nothing's changed, Robin, except
that you're more serious.'
  'Nothing's changed, except that I'm
more serious than ever.... Do you
still do the same things Do you still
sit in the curly chair, holding your work
up to your chin with your little pointed         [FE]   
hands like a squirrel? Do you still see
the same people?'
  'I don't make new friends, Robin.'
  He seemed to settle down after that,
smiling at his own thoughts, appeased....
  Lying in her bed in the spare room,
Harriett heard the opening and shutting
of Robin's door. She still thought of
Prissie's paralysis as separating them, still           [MS]             
felt inside her a secret, unacknowledged
satisfaction. Poor little Prissie. How
terrible. Her pity for Priscilla went
through and through her in wave after
wave. Her pity was sad and beautiful
and at the same time it appeased her pain.

  In the morning Priscilla told her about                      [WB]
her illness. The doctors didn't understand
it. She ought to have had a stroke and           [FE]   
she hadn't one. There was no reason                            [WB]
why she shouldn't walk except that she
couldn't. It seemed to give her pleasure
to go over it, from her first turning round
and round in the street (with helpless,
shaking laughter at the queerness of it),
to the moment when Robin bought her
the wheel-chair. .. . Robin.... Robin
. . .' I minded most because of Robin.
It's such an awful illness, Hatty. I can't
move when I'm in bed. Robin has to
get up and turn me a dozen times in one
night.... Robin's a perfect saint. He
does everything for me.' Prissie's voice
and her face softened and thickened with
voluptuous content.
  '. . . Do you know, Hatty, I had a
little baby. It died the day it was born.               [MS]             
. . . Perhaps some day I shall have              [FE]   
another.'
  Harriett was aware of a sudden tighten-
ing of her heart, of a creeping depression
that weighed on her brain and worried
it.  She thought this was her pity for
Priscilla.
  
  Her third night. All evening Robin
had been moody and morose. He would
hardly speak to either Harriett or Priscilla.
When Priscilla asked him to do anything
for her he got up heavily, pulling himself
together with a sigh, with a look of weary,
irritated patience.
  Prissie wheeled herself out of the study
into the drawing-room, beckoning Harriett
to follow. She had the air of saving
Robin from Harriett, of intimating that
his grumpiness was Harriett's fault.' He         [FE]   
doesn't want to be bothered,' she said.
  She sat up till eleven, so that Robin
shouldn't be thrown with Harriett in the
last hours.
  Half the night Harriett's thoughts ran                       [WB]
on, now in a darkness, now in thin flashes
of light.' Supposing, after all, Robin
wasn't happy? Supposing he can't stand
it? Supposing.... But why is he                         [MS]             
angry with me?' Then a clear thought:
'He's angry with me because he can't
be angry with Priscilla.' And clearer.
'He's angry with me because I made him
marry her.'
  She stopped the running and meditated
with a steady, hard deliberation. She                          [WB]
thought of her deep, spiritual love for
Robin; of Robin's deep spiritual love
for her; of his strength in shouldering his      [FE]   
burden. It was through her renunciation
that he had grown so strong, so pure, so
good.

  Something had gone wrong with Prissie.
Robin, coming home early on Saturday
afternoon, had taken Harriett for a walk.
All evening and all through Sunday it
was Priscilla who sulked and snapped
when Harriett spoke to her.
  On Monday morning she was ill, and                           [WB]
Robin ordered her to stay in bed. Monday
was Harriett's last night. Priscilla stayed
in bed till six o'clock, when she heard
Robin come in; then she insisted on
being dressed and carried downstairs.
Harriett heard her calling to Robin, and
Robin saying, 'I told you you weren't to
get up till to-morrow,' and a sound like         [FE]   
Prissie crying.
  At dinner she shook and jerked and                    [MS]             
spilt things worse than ever. Robin
gloomed at her.' You know you ought
to be in bed. You'll go at nine.'                              [WB]
  'If I go, you'll go. You've got a
headache.'
  'I should think I had, sitting in this
furnace.'
  The heat of the dining-room oppressed
him, but they sat on there after dinner
because Prissie loved the heat. Robin's
pale, blank face had a sick look, a deadly
smoothness. He had to lie down on the
sofa in the window.
  When the clock struck nine he sighed
and got up, dragging himself as if the
weight of his body was more than he
could bear. He stooped over Prissie, and         [FE]   
lifted her.
  'Robinyou can't. You're dropping
to pieces.'
  'I'm all right.' He heaved her up
with one tremendous, irritated effort, and
carried her upstairs, fast, as if he wanted
to be done with it. Through the open
doors Harriett could hear Prissie's pleading
whine, and Robin's voice, hard and con-
trolled. Presently he came back to her
and they went into his study. They
could breathe there, he said.
They sat without speaking for a little                         [WB]
time. The silence of Prissie's room over-
head came between them.
  Robin spoke first. 'I'm afraid it hasn't              [MS]             
been very gay for you with poor Prissie
in this state.'
  'Poor Prissie? She's very happy,               [FE]          [WB]      
Robin.'
  He stared at her. His eyes, round and
full and steady, taxed her with falsehood,
with hypocrisy.
  'You don't suppose I'm not, do you?'
  'No.' There was a movement in her
throat as though she swallowed some-
thing hard. 'No. I want you to be
happy.'
  'You don't. You want me to be rather
miserable.'
  'Robin!' She contrived a sound like
laughter. But Robin didn't laugh; his
eyes, morose and cynical, held her there.
  'That's what you want.... At least
I hope you do. If you didn't--
  She fenced off the danger.' Do you
want me to be miserable, then?'
  At that he laughed out. 'No. I don't.          [FE]   
I don't care how happy you are.'
  She took the pain of it: the pain he
meant to give her.
  That evening he hung over Priscilla                          [WB]
with a deliberate, exaggerated tenderness.
  'Dear.... Dearest....' He spoke
the words to Priscilla, but he sent out his
voice to Harriett. She could feel its false
precision, its intention, its repulse of her.
  She was glad to be gone.

Table of Contents Section Index Previous Next

First Edition Index Manuscript Index Workbook Index


CETI Home