The wild strawberries were getting ripe when he met her for the first time at the vicarage. He had met many girls before, but when he saw her he knew; this was she! But he did not dare to tell her so, and she only teased him for he was still at school.
He was an undergraduate when he met her for the second time. And as he put his arms round her and kissed her, he saw showers of rockets, heard the ringing of bells and bugle calls, and felt the earth trembling under his feet.
She was a woman at the age of fourteen. Her young bosom seemed to be waiting for hungry little mouths and eager baby fists. With her firm and elastic step, her round and swelling hips, she looked fit to bear at any moment a baby under her heart. Her hair was of a pale gold, like clarified honey, and surrounded her face like an aureole; her eyes were two flames and her skin was as soft as a glove.
They were engaged to be married and billed and cooed in the wood like the birds in the garden under the lime trees; life lay before them like a sunny meadow which the scythe had not yet touched. But he had to pass his examinations in mining first, and that would take him,–including the journey abroad–ten years. Ten years!
He returned to the University. In the summer he came back to the vicarage and found her every bit as beautiful. Three summers he came–and the fourth time she was pale. There were tiny red lines in the corners of her nose and her shoulders drooped a little. When the summer returned for the sixth time, she was taking iron. In the seventh she went to a watering-place. In the eighth she suffered from tooth-ache and her nerves were out of order. Her hair had lost its gloss, her voice had grown shrill, her nose was covered with little black specks; she had lost her figure, dragged her feet, and her cheeks were hollow. In the winter she had an attack of nervous fever, and her hair had to be cut off. When it grew again, it was a dull brown. He had fallen in love with a golden-haired girl of fourteen –brunettes did not attract him–and he married a woman of twenty-four, with dull brown hair, who refused to wear her dresses open at the throat.
But in spite of all this he loved her. His love was less passionate than it had been; it had become calm and steadfast. And there was nothing in the little mining-town which could disturb their happiness.
She bore him two boys, but he was always wishing for a girl. And at last a fair-haired baby girl arrived.
She was the apple of his eye, and as she grew up she resembled her mother more and more. When she was eight years old, she was just what her mother had been. And the father devoted all his spare time to his little daughter.
The housework had coarsened the mother’s hands. Her nose had lost its shape and her temples had fallen in. Constant stooping over the kitchen range had made her a little round-shouldered. Father and mother met only at meals and at night. They did not complain, but things had changed.
But the daughter was the father’s delight. It was almost as if he were in love with her. He saw in her the re-incarnation of her mother, his first impression of her, as beautiful as it had been fleeting. He was almost self-conscious in her company and never went into her room when she was dressing. He worshipped her.
But one morning the child remained in bed and refused to get up. Mama put it down to laziness, but papa sent for the doctor. The shadow of the angel of death lay over the house: the child was suffering from diphtheria. Either father or mother must take the other children away. He refused. The mother took them to a little house in one of the suburbs and the father remained at home to nurse the invalid. There she lay! The house was disinfected with sulphur which turned the gilded picture frames black and tarnished the silver on the dressing-table. He walked through the empty rooms in silent anguish, and at night, alone in his big bed, he felt like a widower. He bought toys for the little girl, and she smiled at him as he sat on the edge of the bed trying to amuse her with a Punch and Judy show, and asked after mama and her little brothers. And the father had to go and stand in the street before the house in the suburbs, and nod to his wife who was looking at him from the window, and blow kisses to the children. And his wife signalled to him with sheets of blue and red paper.
But a day came when the little girl took no more pleasure in Punch and Judy, and ceased smiling; and ceased talking too, for Death had stretched out his long bony arm and suffocated her. It had been a hard struggle.
Then the mother returned, full of remorse because she had deserted her little daughter. There was great misery in the home, and great wretchedness. When the doctor wanted to make a post mortem examination, the father objected. No knife should touch her, for she was not dead to him; but his resistance was overborne. Then he flew into a passion and tried to kick and bite the doctor.
When they had bedded her into the earth, he built a monument over her grave, and for a whole year he visited it every day. In the second year he did not go quite so often. His work was heavy and he had little spare time. He began to feel the burden of the years; his step was less elastic; his wound was healing. Sometimes he felt ashamed when he realised that he was mourning less and less for his child as time went by; and finally he forgot all about it.
Two more girls were born to him, but it was not the same thing; the void left by the one who had passed away could never be filled.
Life was a hard struggle. The young wife who had once been like–like no other woman on earth, had gradually lost her glamour; the gilding had worn off the home which had once been so bright and beautiful. The children had bruised and dented their mother’s wedding presents, spoiled the beds and kicked the legs of the furniture. The stuffing of the sofa was plainly visible here and there, and the piano had not been opened for years. The noise made by the children had drowned the music and the voices had become harsh. The words of endearment had been cast off with the baby clothes, caresses had deteriorated into a sort of massage. They were growing old and weary. Papa was no longer on his knees before mama, he sat in his shabby armchair and asked her for a match when he wanted to light his pipe. Yes, they were growing old.
When papa had reached his fiftieth year, mama died. Then the past awoke and knocked at his heart. When her broken body, which the last agony had robbed of its few remaining charms, had been laid in its grave, the picture of his fourteen-year-old sweetheart arose in his memory. It was for her, whom he had lost so long ago that he mourned now, and with his yearning for her came remorse. But he had never been unkind to the old mama; he had been faithful to the fourteen-year-old vicar’s daughter whom he had worshipped on his knees but had never led to the altar, for he had married an anaemic young woman of twenty-four. If he were to be quite candid, he would have to confess that it was she for whom he mourned; it was true, he also missed the good cooking and unremitting care of the old mama, but that was a different thing.
He was on more intimate terms with his children, now; some of them had left the old nest, but others were still at home.
When he had bored his friends for a whole year with anecdotes of the deceased, an extraordinary coincidence happened. He met a young girl of eighteen, with fair hair, and a striking resemblance to his late wife, as she had been at fourteen. He saw in this coincidence the finger of a bountiful providence, willing to bestow on him at last the first one, the well-beloved. He fell in love with her because she resembled the first one. And he married her. He had got her at last.
But his children, especially the girls, resented his second marriage. They found the relationship between their father and step-mother improper; in their opinion he had been unfaithful to their mother. And they left his house and went out into the world.
He was happy! And his pride in his young wife exceeded even his happiness.
“Only the aftermath!” said his old friends.
When a year had gone by, the young wife presented him with a baby. Papa, of course, was no longer used to a baby’s crying, and wanted his night’s rest. He insisted on a separate bed-room for himself, heedless of his wife’s tears; really, women were a nuisance sometimes. And, moreover, she was jealous of his first wife. He had been fool enough to tell her of the extraordinary likeness which existed between the two and had let her read his first wife’s love-letters. She brooded over these facts now that he neglected her. She realised that she had inherited all the first one’s pet names, that she was only her understudy, as it were. It irritated her and the attempt to win him for herself led her into all sorts of mischief. But she only succeeded in boring him, and in silently comparing the two women, his verdict was entirely in favour of the first one. She had been so much more gentle than the second who exasperated him. The longing for his children, whom he had driven from their home increased his regret, and his sleep was disturbed by bad dreams for he was haunted by the idea that he had been unfaithful to his first wife.
His home was no longer a happy one. He had done a deed, which he would much better have left undone.
He began to spend a good deal of time at his club. But now his wife was furious. He had deceived her. He was an old man and he had better look out! An old man who left his young wife so much alone ran a certain risk. He might regret it some day!
“Old? She called him old? He would show her that he was not old!”
They shared the same room again. But now matters were seven times worse. He did not want to be bothered with the baby at night. The proper place for babies was the nursery. No! he hadn’t thought so in the case of the first wife.
He had to submit to the torture.
Twice he had believed in the miracle of Phoenix rising from the ashes of his fourteen year old love, first in his daughter, then in his second wife. But in his memory lived the first one only, the little one from the vicarage, whom he had met when the wild strawberries were ripe, and kissed under the lime trees in the wood, but whom he had never married.
But now, as his sun was setting and his days grew short, he saw in his dark hours only the picture of the old mama, who had been kind to him and his children, who had never scolded, who was plain, who cooked the meals and patched the little boys’ knickers and the skirts of the little girls. His flush of victory being over, he was able to see facts clearly. He wondered whether it was not, after all, the old mama who had been the real true Phoenix, rising, calm and beautiful, from the ashes of the fourteen year old bird of paradise, laying its eggs, plucking the feathers from its breast to line the nest for the young ones, and nourishing them with its life-blood until it died.
He wondered … but when at last he laid his weary head on the pillow, never again to lift it up, he was convinced that it was so.