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Stories, Dreams and Allegories. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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The Buddhist Priest’s Wife

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COVER her up! How still it lies! You can see the outline under the white. You would think she was asleep. Let the sunshine come in; it loved it so. She that had travelled so far, in so many lands, and done so much and seen so much, how she must like rest now! Did she ever love anything absolutely, this woman whom so many men loved, and so many women; who gave so much sympathy and never asked for anything in return! did she ever need a love she could not have? Was she never obliged to unclasp her fingers from anything to which they clung? Was she really so strong as she looked? Did she never wake up in the night crying for that which she could not have? Were thought and travel enough for her? Did she go about for long days with a weight that crushed her to earth? Cover her up! I do not think she would have liked us to look at her. In one way she was alone all her life; she would have liked to be alone now!... Life must have been very page: 62 beautiful to her, or she would not look so young now. Cover her up! Let us go!

Many years ago in a London room, up long flights of stairs, a fire burnt up in a grate. It showed the marks on the walls where pictures had been taken down, and the little blue flowers in the wall‐paper and the blue felt carpet on the floor, and a woman sat by the fire in a chair at one side.

Presently the door opened, and the old woman came in who took care of the entrance hall downstairs.

“Do you not want anything to‐night?” she said.

“No, I am only waiting for a visitor; when they have been, I shall go.”

“Have you got all your things taken away already?”

“Yes, only these I am leaving.”

The old woman went down again, but presently came up with a cup of tea in her hand.

“You must drink that; it’s good for one. Nothing helps one like tea when one’s been packing all day.”

The young woman at the fire did not thank her, but she ran her hand over the old woman’s from the wrist to the fingers.

“I’ll say good‐bye to you when I go out.”

The woman poked the fire, put the last coals on, and went.

When she had gone the young one did not drink the tea, but drew her little silver cigarette case from page: 63 her pocket and lighted a cigarette. For a while she sat smoking by the fire; then she stood up and walked the room.

When she had paced for a while she sat down again beside the fire. She threw the end of her cigarette away into the fire, and then began to walk again with her hands behind her. Then she went back to her seat and lit another cigarette, and paced again. Presently she sat down, and looked into the fire; she pressed the palms of her hands together, and then sat quietly staring into it.

Then there was, a sound of feet on the stairs and someone knocked at the door.

She rose and threw the end into the fire and said without moving, “Come in.”

The door opened and a man stood there in evening dress. He had a great‐coat on, open in front.

“May I come in? I couldn’t get rid of this downstairs; I didn’t see where to leave it!” He took his coat off. “How are you? This is a real bird’s nest!”

She motioned to a chair.

“I hope you did not mind my asking you to come?”

“Oh no, I am delighted. I only found your note at my club twenty minutes ago.”

He sat down on a chair before the fire.

“So you really are going to India? How delightful! But what are you to do there? I think it was page: 64 Grey told me six weeks ago you were going, but regarded it as one of those mythical stories which don’t deserve credence. Yet I’m sure I don’t know! Why, nothing would surprise me.”

He looked at her in a half‐amused, half‐interested way.

“What a long time it is since we met! Six months, eight?”

“Seven,” she said.

“I really thought you were trying to avoid me. What have you been doing with yourself all this time?”

“Oh, been busy. Won’t you have a cigarette?”

She held out the little case to him.

“Won’t you take one yourself? I know you object to smoking with men, but you can make an exception in my case!”

“Thank you.” She lit her own and passed him the matches.

“But really what have you been doing with yourself all this time? You’ve entirely disappeared from civilised life. When I was down at the Grahams’ in the spring, they said you were coming down there, and then at the last moment cried off. We were all quite disappointed. What is taking you to India now? Going to preach the doctrine of social and intellectual equality to the Hindu women and incite them to revolt? Marry some old Buddhist Priest, build a little cottage on the top of the Himalayas and live page: 65 there, discuss philosophy and meditate? I believe that’s what you’d like. I really shouldn’t wonder if I heard you’d done it!”

She laughed and took out her cigarette case.

She smoked slowly.

“I’ve been here a long time, four years, and I want change. I was glad to see how well you succeeded in that election,” she said. “You were much interested in it, were you not?”

“Oh, yes. We had a stiff fight. It tells in my favour, you know, though it was not exactly a personal matter. But it was a great worry.”

“Don’t you think,” she said, “you were wrong in sending that letter to the papers? It would have strengthened your position to have remained silent.”

“Yes, perhaps so; I think so now, but I did it under advice. However, we’ve won, so it’s all right.” He leaned back in the chair.

“Are you pretty fit?”

“Oh, yes; pretty well; bored, you know. One doesn’t know what all this working and striving is for sometimes.”

“Where are you going for your holiday this year?”

“Oh, Scotland, I suppose; I always do; the old quarters.”

“Why don’t you go to Norway? It would be more change for you and rest you more. Did you get a book on sport in Norway?”

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“Did you send it me? How kind of you! I read it with much interest. I was almost inclined to start off there and then. I suppose it is the kind of vis inertiæ that creeps over one as one grows older that sends one back to the old place. A change would be much better.”

“There’s a list at the end of the book” she said, “of exactly the things one needs to take. I thought it would save trouble; you could just give it to your man, and let him get them all. Have you still got him?”

“Oh, yes. He’s as faithful to me as a dog. I think nothing would induce him to leave me. He won’t allow me to go out hunting since I sprained my foot last autumn. I have to do it surreptitiously. He thinks I can’t keep my seat with a sprained ankle; but he’s a very good fellow; takes care of me like a mother.” He smoked quietly with the firelight glowing on his black coat. “But what are you going to India for? Do you know anyone there?”

“No,” she said. “I think it will be so splendid. I’ve always been a great deal interested in the East. It’s a complex, interesting life.”

He turned and looked at her.

“Going to seek for more experience, you’ll say, I suppose. I never knew a woman throw herself away as you do; a woman with your brilliant parts and attractions, to let the whole of life slip through your page: 67 hands, and make nothing of it. You ought to be the most successful woman in London. Oh, yes; I know what you are going to say: ‘You don’t care.’ That’s just it; you don’t. You are always going to get experience, going to get everything, and you never do. You are always going to write when you know enough, and you are never satisfied that you do. You ought to be making your two thousand a year, but you don’t care. That’s just it! Living, burying yourself here with a lot of old frumps. You will never do anything. You could have everything and you let it slip.”

“Oh, my life is very full,” she said. “There are only two things that are absolute realities, love and knowledge, and you can’t escape them.”

She had thrown her cigarette end away and was looking into the fire, smiling.

“I’ve let these rooms to a woman friend of mine.” She glanced round the room, smiling. “She doesn’t know I’m going to leave these things here for her. She’ll like them because they were mine. The world’s very beautiful, I think—delicious.”

“Oh, yes. But what do you do with it? What do you make of it? You ought to settle down and marry like other women, not go wandering about the world to India and China and Italy, and God knows where. You are simply making a mess of your life. You’re always surrounding yourself with all sorts page: 68 of extraordinary people. If I hear any man or woman is a great friend of yours, I always say: ‘What’s the matter? Lost his money? Lost his character? Got an incurable disease?’ I believe the only way in which anyone becomes interesting to you is by having some complaint of mind or body. I believe you worship rags. To come and shut yourself up in a place like this away from everybody and everything! It’s a mistake; it’s idiotic, you know.”

“I’m very happy,” she said. “You see,” she said, leaning forwards towards the fire with her hands on her knees, “what matters is that something should need you. It isn’t a question of love. What’s the use of being near a thing if other people could serve it as well as you can. If they could serve it better, it’s pure selfishness. It’s the need of one thing for another that makes the organic bond of union. You love mountains and horses, but they don’t need you; so what’s the use of saying anything about it! I suppose the most absolutely delicious thing in life is to feel a thing needs you, and to give at the moment it needs. Things that don’t need you, you must love from a distance.”

“Oh, but a woman like you ought to marry, ought to have children. You go squandering yourself on every old beggar or forlorn female or escaped criminal you meet; it may be very nice for them, but it’s a mistake from your point of view.”

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He touched the ash gently with the tip of his little finger and let it fall.

“I intend to marry. It’s a curious thing,” he said, resuming his pose with an elbow on one knee and his head bent forward on one side, so that she saw the brown hair with its close curls a little tinged with grey at the sides, “that when a man reaches a certain age he wants to marry. He doesn’t fall in love; it’s not that he definitely plans anything; but he has a feeling that he ought to have a home and a wife and children. I suppose it is the same kind of feeling that makes a bird build nests at certain times of the year. It’s not love; it’s something else. When I was a young man I used to despise men for getting married; wondered what they did it for; they had everything to lose and nothing to gain. But when a man gets to be six‐and‐thirty his feeling changes. It’s not love, passion, he wants; it’s a home; it’s a wife and children. He may have a house and servants; it isn’t the same thing. I should have thought a woman would have felt it too.”

She was quiet for a minute, holding a cigarette between her fingers; then she said slowly:

“Yes, at times a woman has a curious longing to have a child, especially when she gets near to thirty or over it. It’s something distinct from love for any definite person. But it’s a thing one has to get over. For a woman, marriage is much more serious than for page: 70 a man. She might pass her life without meeting a man whom she could possibly love, and, if she met him, it might not be right or possible. Marriage has become very complex now it has become so largely intellectual. Won’t you have another?”

She held out the case to him. “You can light it from mine.” She bent forward for him to light it.

“You are a man who ought to marry. You’ve no absorbing mental work with which the woman would interfere; it would complete you.” She sat back, smoking serenely.

“Yes,” he said, “but life is too busy; I never find time to look for one, and I haven’t a fancy for the pink‐and‐white prettiness so common and that some men like so. I need something else. If I am to have a wife I shall have to go to America to look for one.”

“Yes, an American would suit you best.”

“Yes,” he said, “I don’t want a woman to look after; she must be self‐sustaining and she mustn’t bore you. You know what I mean. Life is too full of cares to have a helpless child added to them.”

“Yes,” she said, standing up and leaning with her elbow against the fireplace. “The kind of woman you want would be young and strong; she need not be excessively beautiful, but she must be at‐ page: 71 tractive; she must have energy, but not too strongly marked an individuality; she must be largely neutral; she need not give you too passionate or too deep a devotion, but she must second you in a thoroughly rational manner. She must have the same aims and tastes that you have. No woman has the right to marry a man if she has to bend herself out of shape for him. She might wish to, but she could never be to him with all her passionate endeavour what the other woman could be to him without trying. Character will dominate over all and will come out at last.”

She looked down into the fire.

“When you marry you mustn’t marry a woman who flatters you too much. It is always a sign of falseness somewhere. If a woman absolutely loves you as herself, she will criticise and understand you as herself. Two people who are to live through life together must be able to look into each other’s eyes and speak the truth. That helps one through life. You would find many such women in America,” she said: “women who would help you to succeed, who would not drag you down.”

“Yes, that’s my idea. But how am I to obtain the ideal woman?”

“Go and look for her. Go to America instead of Scotland this year. It is perfectly right. A man has a right to look for what he needs. With a woman it page: 72 is different. That’s one of the radical differences between men and women.”

She looked downwards into the fire.

“It’s a law of her nature and of sex relationship.’ There’s nothing arbitrary or conventional about it any more than there is in her having to bear her child while the male does not. Intellectually we may both be alike. I suppose if fifty men and fifty women had to solve a mathematical problem, they would all do it in the same way; the more abstract and intellectual, the more alike we are. The nearer you approach to the personal and sexual, the more different we are. If I were to represent men’s and women’s natures,” she said, “by a diagram, I would take two circular discs; the right side of each I should paint bright red; then I would shade the red away till in a spot on the left edge it became blue in the one and green in the other. That spot represents sex, and the nearer you come to it, the more the two discs differ in colour. Well then, if you turn them so that the red sides touch, they seem to be exactly alike, but if you turn them so that the green and blue paint form their point of contact, they will seem to be entirely unlike. That’s why you notice the brutal, sensual men invariably believe women are entirely different from men, another species of creature; and very cultured, intellectual men sometimes believe we are exactly alike. You see, sex love in its substance page: 73 may be the same in both of us; in the form of its expression it must differ. It is not man’s fault; it is nature’s. If a man loves a woman, he has a right to try to make her love him because he can do it openly, directly, without bending. There need be no subtlety, no indirectness. With a woman it’s not so; she can take no love that is not laid openly, simply, at her feet. Nature ordains that she should never show what she feels; the woman who had told a man she loved him would have put between them a barrier once and for ever that could not be crossed; and if she subtly drew him towards her, using the woman’s means—silence, finesse, the dropped handkerchief, the surprise visit, the gentle assertion she had not thought to see him when she had come a long way to meet him, then she would be damned; she would hold the love, but she would have desecrated it by subtlety; it would have no value. Therefore she must always go with her arms folded sexually; only the love which lays itself down at her feet and implores of her to accept it is love she can ever rightly take up. That is the true difference between a man and a woman. You may seek for love because you can do it openly; we cannot because we must do it subtly. A woman should always walk with her arms folded. Of course friendship is different. You are on a perfect equality with man then; you can ask him to come and see you as I asked you. That’s the beauty page: 74 of the intellect and intellectual life to a woman, that she drops her shackles a little; and that is why she shrinks from sex so. If she were dying perhaps, or doing something equal to death, she might .... Death means so much more to a woman than a man; when you knew you were dying, to look round on the world and feel the bond of sex that has broken and crushed you all your life gone, nothing but the human left, no woman any more, to meet everything on perfectly even ground. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t go to America and look for a wife perfectly deliberately. You will have to tell no lies. Look till you find a woman that you absolutely love, that you have not the smallest doubt suits you apart from love, and then ask her to marry you. You must have children; the life of an old childless man is very sad.”

“Yes, I should like to have children. I often feel now, what is it all for, this work, this striving, and’no one to leave it to? It’s a blank, suppose I succeed ...?”

“Suppose you get your title?”

“Yes; what is it all worth to me if I’ve no one to leave it to? That’s my feeling. It’s really very strange to be sitting and talking like this to you. But you are so different from other women. If all women were like you, all your theories of the equality of men and women would work. You’re the only woman with whom I never realise that she is a woman.”

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“Yes,” she said.

She stood looking down into the fire.

“How long will you stay in India?”

“Oh, I’m not coming back.”

“Not coming back! That’s impossible. You will be breaking the hearts of half the people here if you don’t. I never knew a woman who had such power of entrapping men’s hearts as you have in spite of that philosophy of yours. I don’t know,” he smiled, “that I should not have fallen into the snare myself—three years ago I almost thought I should—if you hadn’t always attacked me so incontinently and persistently on all and every point and on each and every occasion. A man doesn’t like pain. A succession of slaps damps him. But it doesn’t seem to have that effect on other men .... There was that fellow down in the country when I was there last year, perfectly ridiculous. You know his name...” He moved his fingers to try and remember it—“big, yellow moustache, a major, gone to the east coast of Africa now; the ladies unearthed it that he was always carrying about a photograph of yours in his pocket; and he used to take out little scraps of things you printed and show them to people mysteriously. He almost had a duel with a man one night after dinner because he mentioned you; he seemed to think there was something incongruous between your name and—”

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“I do not like to talk of any man who has loved me,” she said. “However small and poor his nature may be, he has given me his best. There is nothing ridiculous in love. I think a woman should feel that all the love men have given her which she has not been able to return is a kind of crown set up above her which she is always trying to grow tall enough to wear. I can’t bear to think that all the love that has been given me has been wasted on something unworthy of it. Men have been very beautiful and greatly honoured me. I am grateful to them. If a man tells you he loves you,” she said, looking into the fire, “with his breast uncovered before you for you to strike him if you will, the least you can do is to put out your hand and cover it up from other people’s eyes. If I were a deer,” she said, “and a stag got hurt following me, even though I could not have him for a companion, I would stand still and scrape the sand with my foot over the place where his blood had fallen; the rest of the herd should never know he had been hurt there following me. I would cover the blood up, if I were a deer,” she said, and then she was silent.

Presently she sat down in her chair and said, with her hand before her: “Yet, you know, I have not the ordinary feeling about love. I think the one who is loved confers the benefit on the one who loves, it’s been so great and beautiful that it should be loved. page: 77 I think the man should be grateful to the woman or the woman to the man whom they have been able to love, whether they have been loved back or whether circumstances have divided them or not.” She stroked her knee softly with her hand.

“Well, really, I must go now.” He pulled out his watch. “It’s so fascinating sitting here talking that I could stay all night, but I’ve still two engagements.” He rose; she rose also and stood before him looking up at him for a moment.

“How well you look! I think you have found the secret of perpetual youth. You don’t look a day older than when I first saw you just four years ago. You always look as if you were on fire and being burnt up, but you never are, you know.”

He looked down at her with a kind of amused face as one does at an interesting child or a big Newfoundland dog.

“When shall we see you back?”

“Oh, not at all!”

“Not at all! Oh, we must have you back; you belong here, you know. You’ll get tired of your Buddhist and come back to us.”

“You didn’t mind my asking you to come and say good‐bye?” she said in a childish manner unlike her determinateness when she discussed anything impersonal. “I wanted to say good‐bye to everyone. If one hasn’t said good‐bye one feels restless and feels page: 78 one would have to come back. If one has said goodbye to all one’s friends, then one knows it is all ended.”

“Oh, this isn’t a final farewell! You must come in ten years’ time and we’ll compare notes—you about your Buddhist Priest, I about my fair ideal American; and we’ll see who succeeded best.”

She laughed.

“I shall always see your movements chronicled in the newspapers, so we shall not be quite sundered; and you will hear of me perhaps.”

“Yes, I hope you will be very successful.”

She was looking at him, with her eyes wide open, from head to foot. He turned to the chair where his coat hung.

“Can’t I help you put it on?”

“Oh, no, thank you.”

He put it on.

“Button the throat,” she said, “the room is warm.”

He turned to her in his great‐coat and with his gloves. They were standing near the door.

“Well, good‐bye. I hope you will have a very pleasant time.”

He stood looking down upon her, wrapped in his great‐coat.

She put up one hand a little in the air. “I want to ask you something,” she said quickly.

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“Well, what is it?”

“Will you please kiss me?”

For a moment he looked down at her, then he bent over her.

In after years he could never tell certainly, but he always thought she put up her hand and rested it on the crown of his head, with a curious soft caress, something like a mother’s touch when her child is asleep and she does not want to wake it. Then he looked round, and she was gone. The door had closed noiselessly. For a moment he stood motionless, then he walked to the fireplace and looked down into the fender at a little cigarette end lying there, then he walked quickly back to the door and opened it. The stairs were in darkness and silence. He rang the bell violently. The old woman came up. He asked her where the lady was. She said she had gone out, she had a cab waiting. He asked when she would be back. The old woman said, “Not at all”; she had left. He asked where she had gone. The woman said she did not know; she had left orders that all her letters should be kept for six or eight months till she wrote and sent her address. He asked whether she had no idea where he might find her. The woman said no. He walked up to a space in the wall where a picture had hung and stood staring at it as though the picture were still hanging there. He drew his mouth as though he were emitting a long whistle, page: 80 but no sound came. He gave the old woman ten shillings and went downstairs.

That was eight years ago.

How beautiful life must have been to it that it looks so young still!