voices from the past


The Coat

by Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946)

. . . the story ends with . . .

Talk on, my child. Only your mother hears you."

"Haven't I said enough? That I hated her yes, HATED! and was glad she was run over?" But it seemed not, for once more she listened in vain for a response. Her face hardened. "Very well then, if it's not her, if it's me, and I'm dead, then I'll stop dead. And the dead don't talk."

For these words she paid dear. The whining swelled to a screech, a chorus of screeches, like the fierce cawing and quacking of a swarm of rooks about to pounce. Bitterly she rued her bravado; tried to atone for it by carrying on, in a voice raised to all but a shout against the din.

"The one single thing I had better than her was my coat. She couldn't touch THAT. Oh, how thankful I was I'd worn it! Though it nearly did for me. You were right, every one of you, when you told me to take it off. This is the first time today I'm able to breathe."

"Good, child, good. But go on, make haste."

"Why? What's the hurry?"

But even as she put the question, she too began to feel that time was flying. To let it escape unused was somehow to court disaster.

Yet still she fenced and hedged.

"Yes, there the coat, I mean I had her. And and Harry. For she'd never managed to get a husband; nobody ever asked HER to marry them. She's one of your born old maids. AND envious! When I told her about Harry, how fond he is of me and the fuss he makes over me, she went green with envy. But Oh, Mother, Mother, what IS the awful noise inside my head? Is this what it means to die? I'm frightened, I'm frightened. Oh, help me, for you can, you know how, if only you will!

"No one can help you but yourself, child. But be quick, your chance is passing."

In the knees she leant on she thought she felt a movement as if to rise, and panic seized her.

"For God's SAKE, don't go, don't leave me! alone in this fog."

For the mist was gathering again; had come as low as the face above her, blurring its outlines. More: even as she looked these seemed to change their shape, to be growing fluid. Terror at the sight broke down her last defences. Taking the other's dress in both hands, bringing it up round her face for a screen, she began to speak, so fast, in so little above a whisper that, to any mortal ear, what now came would have been inaudible.

"Stay with me, only stay, and I'll tell you everything. Oh, I've been a wicked woman, Mother. I'm a liar and and a thief, yes, rotten through and through. Nothing I told Margaret was true. Harry never gave me this coat. He never gives me anything. He doesn't care a hang for me. Nor I for him. I hate him and despise him. I only took him because there was no one else. And ever since I married him I've tricked him and done him. The money I got for the house, I've always kept back part of it. It didn't hurt him, for he didn't know. He's the sort of man who never knows anything; what he eats or what things cost. Or sees how shabby I go. And anyhow he wouldn't care, he's got no pride in HIM. For months and months I've been saving up to buy a coat. But it was never enough. And when I heard Margaret was coming SHE to see what I had sunk to! I couldn't bear it, Mother, I simply couldn't."

The tears were streaming now, splashing hot on cheeks, hands, dress.

"And so . . . I got a bunch of keys at the iron-monger's, and found one that fitted the drawer where he keeps his money, for rates and things, and took it and went out and bought this coat. But surely as much for his sake as mine? That Margaret shouldn't know how mean, how despicably mean he is? No, wait, stop, that's not true. But at least I meant to sell it again after she went, and put the money back. Or didn't I? Oh God, I don't know, don't know any more what's true and what isn't. Perhaps I meant to keep it he's never at home by day to see what I wear. And it was going to be quite easy to invent a burglary, turn the rooms upside down, say the house had been broken into while I was out. But NOW he'll open the drawer and find the money gone and see the coat and know me for what I am a common thief. Oh, just one day more, ONLY one, to put things right! You can do it, you can save me . . . MOTHER!"

Humming, wailing, cawing alike had ceased. In her and about her lay a stillness that was as precious as balm to a wound, or the sudden lull in a griping, gutting pain. But her joy in it was short-lived, for now, past question, her mother was making ready to go. She widened her hold, clung for dear life: but to what? To a form which, from flesh and blood, was growing intangible as air. And which, in thinning, was receding, fading back into the mists from which it had sprung. She staggered up to follow, and, as she did, caught her foot in the coat, lying on the ground. And some impulse made her stoop to this, pick it up and drag it after her, by one sleeve.

Too late. Now, all that remained to her was a voice: so faint, so far, that it had no more body to it than the echo of an echo, heard from the high hills.

"I shall be waiting for you . . . be waiting."

"Tch! I do believe she's coming to," said the nurse in the Casualty Ward, and threw a troubled glance at the house-surgeon, who, his job done, had turned aside. "Look! . . . actually trying to speak."

With a swab of cotton-wool she wiped the blood and foam from monstrously distorted lips, all that was now to be seen for bandages of the dying face and, stooping, put her ear to them.

* * *

"I'm afraid she's gone, your friend," she said a few minutes later, to the shocked, benumbed woman who kept vigil in the corridor. "But believe me it's better so. Though we haven't managed to get hold of her husband yet."

Here she hesitated. And, with an eye to stuff, cut and cost of the other's clothing, asked a little diffidently: "Is your . . . are you by chance 'Margaret'? Oh yes? So IT WAS you she was thinking of. She seemed to be trying to tell you something. It was all very jumbled and confused, I only got a word here and there. Something about a coat the one she had on when she was brought in, I suppose and a thief. Perhaps she was afraid it had been stolen. Though," very apologetically, "it did seem once as if she was calling herself a thief. Still, they often talk nonsense at the end. Well, sorry I couldn't make much of it. I'm afraid you won't, either."

But, on coming face to face with the shabby, careworn little man, of the sloping shoulders and limp, uncertain movements, that was Harry, Margaret, deeply pitying, believed she understood.

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