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Short stories
(page two of)
The Unbolted Door
by Mrs Belloc Lowndes

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She, from the first, in dry-eyed despair, had felt no hope at all. And her husband's obstinate - what to herself she more than once harshly called his idiotic - optimism, had pained, exasperated, sometimes maddened, her.

She stared now, as if hypnotized, at her own reflection in the dark glass of the mirror. Though she would be forty-five on her next birthday, it was true, as tiresome people so often told her, that she still, at times, looked like a girl. Time had scarcely touched her lovely face and slender rounded figure with his rude finger; but Jack Torquil, not yet fifty, might have been ten years older than his age. For the first time in her life, to-night, Anne asked herself, with a touch of unease, if her husband was as unhappy as she was herself.

This evening she had watched him sitting hunched up in an easy chair, a book in his hand, on the other side of the fire. Suddenly he had taken up a pencil - it was a thing Jack Torquil was given to do, and it always irritated his wife - and marked a passage in the book he was reading. Looking up, he had thrown her a queer, shamed, pleading look; and when he had risen and left the library, to go through his usual ritual of taking a turn out of doors with the three dogs, she had walked across the room to see what it was he had marked in his book. And then she had been at once annoyed, diverted, and, maybe, a little touched; for what her husband had marked had been two lines, the first ridiculously familiar, the second, till this moment, unknown to her.

"It is the little rift within the lute
That by and by will make the music mute."

And now, while slowly undressing, she remembered the two lines Jack had marked. What he, no doubt, still thought of as "a little rift" between them was, in actual fact, a chasm which was ever yawning wider and wider. Yet once, only once, in their now long joint life, had she spoken bitter words to him.

It had been years ago, at a time when he was still full of hope, and she alas! starkly hopeless, as to their son's possible return. The lover in him had awakened, and when his lips had sought hers she had said fiercely, "Never, Jack. Never again" So literally had he accepted her decree, that not once, since then, had he even knocked on the door of the room they had shared so blissfully for twenty-one years.

To-day, this eve of Armistice Day, had been an intolerable day, and Anne told herself that next year they would have people here for the first fortnight of November. They were rich, hospitable both, in their quite different ways, popular. But the real reason why they were never alone, excepting for the Christmas, holidays, and part of November of each year, was that a dual solitude becomes intolerable when shared by a man and woman who were once ardent, exultingly happy, lovers.

As Anne Torquil got into her great bed, the stable clock began to strike twelve, ushering in another Armistice Day; and, as she lay back, smarting, difficult tears rose to her still undimmed eyes.

The thought of her boy was very near to her to-night, so near, indeed, that an overwhelming wish to gaze on his pictured face came over her.

Slipping out of bed, she went over to a painted cabinet where she kept certain sacred, secret things. Among them was her husband's adoring letters, each beginning My darling little love, written during their short engagement; also all her son's photographs from babyhood.

She had had a sketch of him done by Sargent when he was at Sandhurst. That now hung in his father's bedroom. There was no portrait of him in any other part of the house which knew him no more. Some of their later friends did not know they had ever had a child.

Unlocking the drawer in which lay all the photographs of John, she took out the last one, taken of him just after he had received his commission, and wearing his first uniform. While she gazed into the boyish face, he seemed to be smiling proudly, confidently, merrily, up at her.

As she put it back in the drawer, she remembered a clumsy attempt, most kindly meant, of sympathy on the part of their Vicar. He had met her during one of the long lonely walks she had taken that first year of woe, in between her still strenuous war work, for, after the Armistice, Torquilton House had gone on for a long time being a soldiers' convalescent hospital. And, "Who being dead, yet liveth," the Vicar had said in a low voice.

Throwing her head back, she had exclaimed: "You know my husband is still. quite convinced that John was not killed? He thinks he may come back any day."

With a startled look, and making no attempt to answer her, the would-be comforter had gone his way.

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Tuesday 3 May 2005