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

Chapter X
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'MY DEAR HARRIETT,--Thank you for                [FE]   [MS]
your kind letter of sympathy. Although
we had expected the end for many weeks
poor Prissie's death came to us as a great
shock. But for her it was a blessed
release, and we can only be thankful.
You who knew her will realise the depth
and extent of my bereavement. I have
lost the dearest and most loving wife man
ever had....'

   Poor little Prissie. She couldn't bear
 to think she would never see her again.

    Six months later Robin wrote again,
 from Sidmouth.
  'DEAR HARRIETT, Priscilla left you             [FE]
this locket in her will as a remembrance.
I would have sent it before but that I
couldn't bear to part with her things all
at once.
  'I take this opportunity of telling you
that I am going to be married again--'
  Her heart heaved and closed. She could
never have believed she could have felt
such a pang.
  'The lady is Miss Beatrice Walker, the
devoted nurse who was with my dear
wife all through her last illness. This step
may seem strange and precipitate, coming
so soon after her death; but I am urged
to do it by the precarious state of my own
health and by the knowledge that we are                 [MS]
fulfilling poor Prissie's dying wish....'
  Poor Prissie's dying wish. After what
she had done for Prissie, if she had a           [FE]
dying wish--   But neither of them
had thought of her. Robin had forgotten
her.... Forgotten.... Forgotten.
  But no. Priscilla had remembered.
She had left her the locket with his hair
in it. She had remembered and she had
been afraid; jealous of her. She couldn't
bear to think that Robin might marry
her, even after she was dead. She had
made him marry this Walker woman so
that he shouldn't--
  Oh, but he wouldn't. Not after
twenty years.
  'I didn't really think he would.'
  She was forty-five, her face was lined
and pitted and her hair was dust colour,
streaked with gray: and she could only
think of Robin as she had last seen him,
young: a young face; a young body;               [FE]
young, shining eyes. He would want to
marry a young woman. He had been in
love with this Walker woman, and Prissie
had known it. She could see Prissie lying
in her bed, helpless, looking at them over
the edge of the white sheet. She had
known that as soon as she was dead,
before the sods closed over her grave, they             [MS]     
would marry. Nothing could stop them.
And she had tried to make herself believe
it was her wish, her doing, not theirs.
Poor little Prissie.

  She understood that Robin had been
staying in Sidmouth for his health.
  A year later, Harriett, run down, was
ordered to the seaside. She went to
Sidmouth. She told herself that she
wanted to see the place where she had            [FE]
been so happy with her mother, where
poor Aunt Harriett had died.
  Looking through the local paper she
found in the list of residents: Sidcote.--
Mr and Mrs Robert Lethbridge and Miss
Walker. She wrote to Robin and asked
if she might call on his wife.
  A mile of hot road through the town
and inland brought her to a door in a
lane and a thatched cottage with a little
lawn behind it. From the doorstep she
could see two figures, a man and a woman,
lying back in garden chairs. Inside the
house she heard the persistent, energetic
sound of hammering. The woman got up
and came to her. She was young, pink-
faced and golden haired, and she said she
was Miss Walker, Mrs Lethbridge's sister.               [MS]
  A tall, lean, gray man rose from the           [FE]
garden chair, slowly, dragging himself
with an invalid air. His eyes stared,
groping, blurred films that trembled be-
tween the pouch and droop of the lids;
long cheeks, deep grooved, dropped to
the infirm mouth that sagged under the
limp moustache. That was Robin.
  He became agitated when he saw her.
  'Poor Robin,' she thought.' All these
years, and it's too much for him, seeing
me.' Presently he dragged himself from
the lawn to the house and disappeared
through the French window where the
hammering came from.
  'Have I frightened him away?' she
said.
  'Oh, no, he's always like that when he
sees strange faces.'
  'My face isn't exactly strange.'               [FE]
  'Well, he must have thought it was.'
A sudden chill crept through her.
  'He'll be all right when he gets used
to you,' Miss Walker said.
  The strange face of Miss Walker chilled
her. A strange young woman, living
close to Robin, protecting him, explaining
Robin's ways.
  The sound of hammering ceased.                        [MS]
Through the long, open window she saw
a woman rise up from the floor and shed
a white apron. She came down the lawn
to them, with raised arms, patting dis-
ordered hair, large, a full, firm figure,
clipped in blue linen. A full-blown face,
bluish pink; thick gray eyes slightly
protruding; a thick mouth, solid and firm
and kind. That was Robin's wife. Her
sister was slighter, fresher, a good ten         [FE]
years younger, Harriett thought.
  'Excuse me, we're only just settling in. I
was nailing down the carpet in Robin's study.'
  Her lips were so thick that they moved
stiffly when she spoke or smiled. She
panted a little as if from extreme exertion.
  When they were all seated Mrs Leth-
bridge addressed her sister. 'Robin was
quite right. It looks much better turned
the other way.'
  'Do you mean to say he made you take
it all up and put it down again? Well--'
  'What's the use . . . Miss Frean, you
don't know what it is to have a husband
who will have things just so.'
  'She had to mow the lawn this morning                 [MS]
because Robin can't bear to see one blade
of grass higher than another.'
 'Is he as particular as all that?'              [FE]
  'I assure you, Miss Frean, he is,' Miss
Walker informed her.
  'He wasn't when I knew him,' Harriett
said.
  'Ah--my sister spoils him.'
  Mrs Lethbridge wondered why he
hadn't come out again.
  'I think,' Harriett said, 'perhaps he'll
come if I go.'
  'Oh, you mustn't go. It's good for him
to see people. Takes him out of himself.'
  'He'll turn up all right,' Miss Walker
said, 'when he hears the tea-cups.'
  And at four o'clock when the tea-cups
came, Robin turned up, dragging him-
self slowly from the house to the lawn.
He blinked and quivered with agitation;
Harriett saw he was annoyed, not with
her, and not with Miss Walker, but with          [FE]
his wife.
  'Beatrice, what have you done with my
new bottle of medicine?'
  'Nothing, dear.'                                      [MS]
  'You've done nothing, when you know
you poured out my last dose at twelve?'
  'Why, hasn't it come?'
  'No. It hasn't.'
  'But Cissy ordered it this morning.'
  'I didn't,' Cissy said. ' I forgot.'
  'Oh, Cissy--'
  'You needn't blame Cissy. You ought
to have seen to it yourself.... She was
a good nurse, Harriett, before she was
my wife.'
  'My dear, your nurse had nothing else
to do. Your wife has to clean and mend
for you, and cook your dinner and mow
the lawn and nail the carpets down.'             [FE]
While she said it she looked at Robin as
if she adored him.
  All through tea-time he talked about
his health and about the sanitary dust-
bin they hadn't got. Something had
happened to him. It wasn't like him to
be wrapped up in himself and to talk about
dustbins. He spoke to his wife as if she
had been his valet. He didn't see that
she was perspiring, worn out by her
struggle with the carpet.
  'Just go and fetch me another cushion,                [MS]
Beatrice.'
  She rose with tired patience.
  'You might let her have her tea in
peace,' Miss Walker said, but she was
gone before they could stop her.
   When Harriett left she went with her
to the garden gate, panting as she walked.       [FE]
Harriett noticed pale, blurred lines on
the edges of her lips. She thought: 'She
isn't a bit strong.' She praised the garden.
  Mrs Lethbridge smiled. 'Robin loves
it.... But you should have seen it at
five o'clock this morning.'
  'Five o'clock?'
  'Yes. I always get up at five to make
Robin a cup of tea.'

  Harriett's last evening. She was dining
at Sidcote. On her way there she had
overtaken Robin's wife wheeling Robin in
a bath-chair. Beatrice had panted and
perspired and had made mute signs to
Harriett not to take any notice. She had
had to go and lie down till Robin sent                  [MS]
for her to find his cigarette case. Now she
was in the kitchen cooking Robin's part          [FE]
of the dinner while he lay down in his
study. Harriett talked to Miss Walker
in the garden.
  'It's been very kind of you to have us
so much.'
  'Oh, but we've loved having you. It's
so good for Beatie. Gives her a rest
from Robin.... I don't mean that she
wants a rest. But, you see, she's not well.
She looks a big, strong, bouncing thing,
but she isn't. Her heart's weak. She
oughtn't to be doing what she does.'
  'Doesn't Robin see it?'
  'He doesn't see anything. He never
knows when she's tired or got a headache.
She'll drop dead before he'll see it. He's
utterly selfish, Miss Frean. Wrapt up
in himself and his horrid little ailments.
Whatever happens to Beatie he must have          [FE]
his sweetbread, and his soup at eleven
and his tea at five in the morning....
  '. . . I suppose you think I might help
more?'
  'Well--' Harriett did think it.
  'Well, I just won't. I won't encourage
Robin. He ought to get her a proper                      [MS]
servant and a man for the garden and the
bath-chair. I wish you'd give him a hint.
Tell him she isn't strong. I can't. She'd
snap my head off. Would you mind?'
  Harriett didn't mind. She didn't mind
what she said. She wouldn't be saying
it to Robin but to the contemptible thing
that had taken Robin's place. She still
saw Robin as a young man, with young,
shining eyes, who came rushing to give
himself up at once, to make himself
known. She had no affection for this             [FE]
selfish invalid, this weak, peevish bully.
  Poor Beatrice. She was sorry for
Beatrice. She resented his behaviour to
Beatrice. She told herself she wouldn't
be Beatrice, she wouldn't be Robin's wife
for the world. Her pity for Beatrice gave
her a secret pleasure and satisfaction.
  After dinner she sat out in the garden
talking to Robin's wife, while Cissy
Walker played draughts with Robin in
his study, giving Beatrice a rest from him.
They talked about Robin.
  'You knew him when he was young,
didn't you? What was he like?'                           [MS]
  She didn't want to tell her. She wanted
to keep the young, shining Robin to
herself. She also wanted to show that
she had known him, that she had known a
Robin that Beatrice would never know.            [FE]
Therefore she told her.
  'My poor Robin.' Beatrice gazed wist-
fully, trying to see this Robin that Priscilla
had taken from her, that Harriett had
known. Then she turned her back.
  'It doesn't matter. I've married the
man I wanted.' She let herself go.
'Cissy says I've spoiled him. That isn't
true. It was his first wife who spoiled
him. She made a nervous wreck of him.'
  'He was devoted to her.'
  'Yes. And he's paying for his devotion
now. She wore him out.... Cissy
says he's selfish. If he is, it's because he's
used up all his unselfishness. He was
living on his moral capital.... I feel
as if I couldn't do too much for him after
what he did. Cissy doesn't know how
awful his life was with Priscilla. She was       [FE]
the most exacting--'
  'She was my friend.'
  'Wasn't Robin your friend, too?'                       [MS]
  'Yes. But poor Prissie, she was paralysed.'
  'It wasn't paralysis.'
  'What was it then ? '
  'Pure hysteria. Robin wasn't in love
with her, and she knew it. She developed
that illness so that she might have a hold
on him, get his attention fastened on her
somehow. I don't say she could help it.
She couldn't. But that's what it was.'
  'Well, she died of it.'
  'No. She died of pneumonia after
influenza. I'm not blaming Prissie. She
was pitiable. But he ought never to have
married her.'
  'I don't think you ought to say that.'
  'You know what he was,' said Robin's           [FE]
wife.' And look at him now.'
  But Harriett's mind refused, obstinately,
to connect the two Robins and Priscilla.

  She remembered that she had to speak
to Robin. They went together into his
study. Cissy sent her a look, a signal,
and rose; she stood by the doorway.
  'Beatie, you might come here a minute.'                [MS]
  Harriett was alone with Robin.
  'Well, Harriett, we haven't been able
to do much for you. In my beastly
state--'
  'You'll get better.'
  'Never. I'm done for, Harriett. I
don't complain.'
  'You've got a devoted wife, Robin.'
  'Yes. Poor girl, she does what she can.'
  'She does too much.'                           [FE]
  'My dear woman, she wouldn't be
happy if she didn't.'
  'It isn't good for her. Does it never
strike you that she's not strong ?'
  'Not strong ? She's--she's almost in-
decently robust. What wouldn't I give
to have her strength!'
  She looked at him, at the lean figure
sunk in the arm-chair; at the dragged,
infirm face, the blurred, owlish eyes,
the expression of abject self-pity, of self-
absorption.
  That was Robin.
  The awful thing was that she couldn't
love him, couldn't go on being faithful.
This injured her self esteem.

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