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THE STRANGER
 To
Adrian L. Burns
{217}
WHEN my friend Trevor Hempel disappeared from among all his friends, he left me the following letter:
 
I am off to Australia to-morrow, and I’m going without saying farewell to any one. It is a choice between my committing murder and leaving Europe for ever. Nature has played me false—has tricked me. Between my wife and me she has placed something monstrous: a “sport” so hideous that to live any longer as a husband would mean a swift corrosion of anything good that is left of me.
I felt, my dear old friend, that I must speak out my mind to some one. It is a selfish feeling. I want to rid myself of the obsession of this wickedness. I want you to share its knowledge with me. The thing is of such a kind that it ought not to have happened. Nature ought not to lie in wait for us and spring out like a baboon from behind a tree. We know Nature is cruel, but not until lately did I know she could be malignant, damnably malignant, looking years ahead, calculating craftily all the time....
It is nine years since I met the woman who afterwards became my wife. I was in Salonika on one of my quarterly business visits. At the house of Madame Leconte de Stran it was that I met Judith for the first time. Her husband was with her: a dark evil man, short, with a great head and depth of chest and long, deformed arms. She was as spiritual as he was gross: very quiet, but full of character, and with a mind both strong and active.
I remember {218}going up to Madame de Stran.
“Who is that woman standing against the piano?” I asked.
“Mrs. Sterling. Don’t you know her?”
At the word “Mrs.” I felt that quick annoyance that sometimes comes to one when one hears for the first time that a woman one admires is married.
“No. Is her husband here?”
She indicated the shambling figure I have described to you.
“That!” I exclaimed. “That evil-looking beast her husband? Impossible!”
Madame de Stran gave me a quick, inquisitive look.
“Professor Sterling,” she said, “is perhaps the most distinguished man of science in Salonika. Why do you call him a beast?”
“Did I? I’m sorry. Tell me more about him.”
“Well, he describes himself as an experimental psychologist. He experiments in hypnotism, vivisects brains, and.... Last year he published in Rome a book that is talked about rather secretly.”
She stopped for a moment, and then laughed.
“All this sounds rather horrible,” she added, “but I suppose it isn’t really. At all events, he is greatly respected here by all men of learning.”
“If an opportunity arises,” I said, “will you introduce me to her? What I mean is, I don’t want the introduction to be conspicuous.”
She nodded and smiled.{219}
“You’ll find her very charming,” she said, as I walked away.
And later on Madame presented me to Judith.
From the very first moment we talked without restraint. But then, as I learned afterwards, she was never restrained with anybody. She was utterly frank and natural; interesting, too; full of curiosity about life.
What appealed to me most in her, I think, was her careful choice of words when discussing any subject that really mattered. Her speech was free from all exaggeration; she never invented opinions on the spur of the moment as so many people do in casual conversation. This pleased and attracted me. But there was something in her that repelled—that kept me at a distance. All the time we talked, I felt that the best part of her—the most exquisite part—was on the other side of the room with her husband. She was not really with me: she was with him. I resented this. I had no right to resent it; but I did. For, already, I was in love with her.
Lovers move craftily. So I sought out her husband and was presented to him. He looked me over carefully.
“You have been talking to my wife,” he observed.
“Yes,” said I. “We have been talking to each other.”
His rather large mouth smiled insincerely.
I felt he had guessed my secret. Certainly, his personality emanated a faint hostility. He turned to Luigi Papash, ... the man who has since become famous as a poet, and began to talk {220}to him. I was dismissed....
You would be bored if I were to describe to you my feverish lover’s restlessness during the next three weeks. I did many foolish things—neglected my business, wandered about alone, and sought every opportunity to be within sight and sound of Judith. I had only to shut my eyes to see her eyes, calm and grey, her pale oval face, her dark hair. She seemed pitiful. My jealousy burned me. It was impossible for me to see her and her husband together without a horrid excitement.... But you know these things: all men feel the same about them.
I learned very little more about her. The previous year, I was told, she had had a child, a baby-boy, who had died when eight months old. She had been married three years. Her husband kept his work hidden from her. He never discussed it, never referred to it. But of their mutual idolatry there was no shadow of doubt. No two people were more essential each to the other; yet (or do I mean because?) they were entirely different.
At the end of three weeks I went back to Athens.
Madame de Stran knew my secret; oh, I suppose every one knew it. Every one except Judith who, absorbed in her husband, never exercised her intuitions with regard to myself. Madame wrote to me occasionally; she was very kind. Just news of Salonika people. And somewhere in each letter would be a sentence: “The Sterlings are still here”; or, “Profess{221}or Sterling has just published a pamphlet on ‘The Nature and Origin of Cancer': I am sending you a copy”; or, “When I told Mrs. Sterling I was writing to you, she wished me to send you her remembrances.”
Then, one morning, opening a letter of Madame de Stran’s before I touched any of my other correspondence, I read: “Professor Sterling is seriously ill. They say he has brain fever.”
He would die: I knew it. I prayed that he should. I willed it. I thought of nothing else all day. That detestable, dark man must die. Judith must be released....
“Released”? What arrogant vanity distorts the vision of all lovers! Released? Why, she was happy. Her husband’s brain was not for her a prison: it was the wide world. His enfolding arms were freedom....
That same evening I took the steamer from Le Pirée to Salonika....
I want to describe that night to you, because it was the happiest in my life. You must remember that for a long time I had been suffering under a strain so cruel that my nerves and brain were bruised and quivering. The sea—the stars—space! They brought me solace.
I remember leaning over the rail and looking down at the sea; it was saturated with stars and moonlight. It seemed to me that I became part of what I looked at. Does that convey anything to you? I was released from myself. I had got rid of myself. I had become renewed.... It is{222} impossible, my dear friend, for me to describe what change took place in me for that one night. It was a sudden cessation of pain, a freeing of the soul, an accession of power. Illusion, no doubt—I mean the consciousness of power. If I had been Zeus himself——!
At all events, no sleep came to me that night: I wanted neither sleep nor rest. I was not going to Judith, for Judith already was with me. She was with me more closely that night than she ever was, though I married her. My mind was full of poets’ phrases: “His silver skin laced with his golden blood”: lines from “Annabel Lee”: the “magic casements” of Keats: some stupendous things from Whitman. These did not tease or worry me: they were like the potent delicate fumes of a drug. All life was poetry: there was no possible interpretation of life except the romantic interpretation. Happiness lay not in gathering and garnering beauty, but in surrendering oneself to beauty. And, in a burst, Wagner’s “Tristan” rushed flood-like upon me; I was drowned in its pleasure-pain——
Well, he died. He was dead when I arrived at Salonika. The news gave me no pleasure, for what had happened I had known would happen.
Madame de Stran received me.
“You look ill,” she said; “or perhaps you are tired?”
I made her sit down and tell me all she knew about J{223}udith.
“I wish to God she had never borne him a child!” I said, when she told me she had seen a photograph of the baby taken just before the illness from which it died.
“He was very like his father: dark, misshapen, vulpine,” said Madame.
“Don’t speak of him. The father and the child are dead: only she remains. Has she any close friends in Salonika?”
“No—not one that is very close, though many people like her. She did not make intimacies. You see, her husband absorbed her.”
“And now what will happen?”
Madame told me that she had already written to Judith offering her help: probably a reply to her letter would come in the morning. She promised to summon me if I could be of the slightest use, and with this small comfort I returned to my hotel to brood. Inaction lay so heavily upon me that it was scarcely to be endured. I wanted to help—to be something to her.
That night I lay awake in dark dejection. In those days I was not used to suffering, to anxiety. At length I slept....
Day after day I stayed on, hoping to be summoned, Madame de Stran giving me all the comfort she could. He was buried. Judith shut herself up in her house! At night I would walk from my hotel towards Kalamaria and, in the complete darkness, wander in the garden surrounding her home. I remember that I used to touch the flowers with my fingers. I used to put my foot on the pathway and say to myself: “H{224}er foot has been there!” The garden was magical with remembrances of her. Yet she was absent, and the ache in me grew and grew. My eyes used to become hot with unshed tears. Though it was torture to linger there, yet I could never draw myself away until very late, and one night, sitting down on a bank, I fell asleep. As I woke, the scent of dew-laden roses weakened me unmercifully; and I sobbed without tears....
I must tell you all this: it matters: it is the heart of the tragedy that has happened to me: that, and the remembrance of her brute-husband who so wickedly, so monstrously, still lives in my son....
One night, while in her garden, I saw her. I was standing in a little grove of pepper-trees. She came slowly towards me. I stepped back to conceal myself. Her little feet on the grass made no sound. What were her thoughts? Oh, of him—him whom she had loved and was still loving. It was he who for her haunted this garden, not I. If my body had been multiplied a hundred-fold and all my hundred bodies were hiding there in the trees, she would have felt nothing. She passed and repassed, and then disappeared into the gloom of the house.
At length, under the implacable pressure of my own self-torture, I wrote to her. I told her I knew of her grief, that.... In short, I asked to be allowed to come and see her.{225}
Months later, she told me that my letter had terrified her. Some phrases in it had called up many dead memories and, pondering, she had seen in a flash that I loved her. Her spirit was too sore even for sympathy, and offering her love was like offering her an unsheathed sword. My letter brought no answer, and two days later Madame de Stran told me mournfully that Judith had left Salonika for Constantinople....
Four months passed; to me, working in Athens, they were four years. I did not deceive myself by telling myself I would try to forget her: no man ever tries to forget the woman he loves. Madame de Stran wrote occasionally, promising, and repeating her promise in each letter, that she would tell me as soon as she received news of Judith’s return. My business prospered: you know, I have always been successful. I threw myself into my work, and exhausted my false, feverish energy by violent exercise. I rode my horse an hour each day: I swam: I walked: and, occasionally, I sought the baleful comfort of drink.
September came and went. Then in October I was visited by a mood of such unremitting desperateness that I suddenly stopped my work and my violent exercise. I felt incapable of any action, for I had exhausted all my energy. I had used up my capacity for suffering; I could feel neither pain nor pleasure. For days I sat stupidly in my office, staring at nothing. I closed my door to all visitors; I transacted no business; I answered no letters.{226}
Then, one morning, as I was moodily pacing up and down my private room, a clerk entered with a telegram. Idly I tore open the envelope and read its contents. It was from Madame—just one word, “Come.” But that word meant everything: it changed the whole world for me....
Two days later I was in Salonika. I did not wait even to call on Madame de Stran, but went straight to Judith’s house.
It was early afternoon. I was admitted. The room into which I was shown was empty. Already greatly agitated, I felt my excitement increasing almost beyond bounds whilst I waited. What should I say when she entered? Would she still be thrall to her dead husband? Would his personality still envelop hers and obscure it?
She entered so silently that, though my eyes were fixed on the door, I scarcely realized she was there. A swift searching of her face told me she was well.
She was courteous, she was kind; but she was timid. She spoke of her friends in Constantinople.
“I have been very busy with my work,” she said, smiling.
As she looked at me it seemed to me that she was doing everything possible to be gentle with me; it was as though she knew she had the power to hurt me, and was afraid that some chance word might wound.{227}
“Work?” I asked.
“Yes. My husband left his last book half finished—a great mass of notes, and a rough synopsis of each chapter. I wrote the book as he wished it to be written. He helped me all the time.”
“He helped you!” I exclaimed, shocked.
“Yes. You do not believe in communication with the dead? He did not speak to me, it is true, but he guided me.”
I felt suddenly sick and cold.
“You must not believe it!” I exclaimed. “It is impossible! Such things do not happen! You may think it happened, but it didn’t!”
She smiled gently, as she said:
“Ah! But I know!”
“But, dear Mrs. Sterling ... why, such a thing has never come to pass in the whole history of the world. Why, then, should it happen to you?”
She shook her head.
“Do not let us discuss it,” she said. “Besides, the book is finished.”
“And does he still communicate with you—guide you?”
“No,” she answered sadly; “all that is finished—he has gone from me—gone, I am convinced, for ever.”
“I also have been working,” I said, “working hard.”
“You look tired. Have you been in Salonika long?”{228}
Our talk drifted to commonplace things, and soon I rose to leave.
Next day I sought her again. She was in the garden, for, though it was now late October, the weather was very warm and sunny. She seemed disturbed, but not surprised, when she saw me. We wandered slowly under the trees; their leaves left the branches as we came and fell upon our way. I did not feel that she was unhappy. I asked if I might come to see her every afternoon.
“Why, yes,” she said, “if it pleases you.”
So every afternoon I spent an hour with her, and, when the cold weather came with the Varda winds, we sat indoors.
By Christmas she had promised to marry me....
Now, my dear friend, you must understand that even before our marriage I realized that she was not, nor ever could be, wholly mine. In some inexplicable way, she still belonged to him. Many women are like that: the best women are. Sterling’s name was never mentioned; after our engagement he was not referred to even remotely. Yet she was his. Then why, you ask, did she marry me? Out of pity; I am sure of it. Yet, in a way, she loved me and loves me still. No one could have been more tender, more generous, more self-sacrificing: it weakens and unmans me to think of these things....
I took her away with me to Athens. I was very happy. I had never believed such unalloyed bliss as mine was possible. It never faded. And Judith, in her fashion, was happy also.{229}
Sometimes, it is true, Sterling passed ghost-like between us. There were occasions when ... but let me give you an instance.
One day, in the April after our marriage, we went to Eleusis by rail and wandered over the ruins of that once-wonderful place. Tired, we sat down to rest on a broken column. We were silent and alone. There came upon me one of those moods of gentle ecstasy in which the soul seems to nestle softly in one’s body, satisfied and glad to be there. Judith’s hand was in mine: I felt she was really with me, in body, in mind, in soul. My ecstasy increased. Lifting my eyes to her face, I saw that she also was a-thrill with bliss. Her eyes were softened with unshed tears. Her throat trembled visibly. Her breath came quickly.... But, Christ! not for me! Not for this moment, nor this place! But for him! For some day of long ago—for some never-forgotten hour of love with him....
Gently, very gently, though I suffered as never before, I withdrew my hand from hers. She trembled violently, turned her face to mine and, with a little cry, flung her arms about me.
“Oh, little one!” she cried; “forgive me! Forgive me!”
And the tears that had gathered for him were shed for me....
And now I have to tell you of the slow horror that began to creep upon me—upon us both. For a long time, I thrust it away with my hands, I closed my eyes to it, my mind refused to admit it. Only to-day, indeed, for the first tim{230}e, do I really accept and believe it, though for years it has hung about my neck most loathsomely.
A year after our marriage Judith bore me a male child—a healthy baby who came into the world without unnecessary fuss and who continued to thrive from the moment of his birth. Though, of course, I was very fond of the little chap, I did not see much of him. Indeed, as you know, I am not the kind of parent who gloats over his offspring.
We employed a nurse, and both baby and nurse lived in the rooms set apart for them. When I returned home from my work each evening, our baby was generally asleep, and I rarely saw him on these occasions. If I did go to his cot, Judith always accompanied me; indeed, I used to tease her on account of her appearing never to wish me to be alone with our child.
Two months after his birth I went alone to London on business, expecting to be away a month or so. But I was detained in England much longer than I had expected, and when at length I returned to Athens I had been away four months....
When, my dear fellow, I began this letter, I meant to tell you all my tragedy in detail, but now, when I reach the very heart of it, I feel I must hurry its telling.
I saw my son—a little black creature—and it seemed to me he looked at me with eyes of hate. He was not mine: I could not feel that he was mine. His nurse, looking from him to me, said kindly:{231}
“He is very like you, sir—he has your forehead.”
“Yes,” breathed Judith, who stood by my side; “we have often said that, haven’t we, nurse?”
I turned to look at her, but she fluttered away to the other end of the room, and I could not see her face. So, with an effort, I bent low over the cot in which my son lay and scrutinized each feature of his face in turn. But I could see none of my blood in him. Nothing of mine was his.... The dead past had come to life. Sterling still survived....
I am sure that my manner of living at this time puzzled and distressed my friends—you, in particular. If you will carry your mind back to two years ago, you will recollect how I plunged myself into wild dissipation for a time, and how in a fit of most reticent yet hot anger I left wife and home for Persia, then India, then China. All the time I was away—until, indeed, yesterday when I returned home after my long absence—I was trying to forget. To forget my son, I mean. For a time I hated Judith. It was through her that Nature had dealt me this blow. If she had not so dearly loved Sterling, I thought, this thing could not have happened to me. But as the months went by I softened to my wife; my hatred of her broadened into a hatred of life itself.
In the letters she wrote me she never made even passi{232}ng mention of our son.
Then, yesterday, I returned. Judith was expecting me. Her manner, generally so calm, was disturbed, agitated. She has grown very thin, very old.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Upstairs—in the nursery. But do not go to see him now,” she urged. “Stay with me a little while.”
And she put her arms about my neck and kissed me fondly. My flesh responded to hers. But whilst we stood locked in each other’s arms, my memory, hating me, threw up before my eyes a vivid picture of the dark little creature I left behind two years ago. I shuddered. My braced arms slackened. I turned away.
“I must see him now,” I said; “is he well?”
“Yes,” she answered—regretfully, I thought.
We went to the nursery. He was sitting on the floor, playing with his toys. She stood between him and me, as though shielding him. It was Sterling—Sterling as he must have looked at the age of two and a half—an eager, intelligent face, long, deformed arms, a great breadth of chest, a vulpine look in his eyes....
As his eyes caught mine, his whole body stiffened. He put up a little hand against his face and made a sound of rage.
I do not know what movement I made, but Judith, suddenly stooping, caught her child up from the floor and folded him in her arms.
“You must not touch him!” she said, pale and distraught.{233}
And she placed a hungry kiss upon his lips....
And so, my dear friend, farewell.


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