The clock ticked like a cheap metronome. Not a respectably resonating tick-tock at all. Just an incessant tick-tick-tick-tick. There was not even a cuckoo, no chimes to break the monotony. For Avery didn’t like them. He said it was a bally nuisance to have to stop one’s reading four times an hour to “hear” the time when one knew already. The servants marked it well enough with their constant bustling from morning till night. The sun awoke him, after all. At half nine breakfast was laid. And then he was off to work, where the time was kept for him. Numbers, numbers, numbers all day. Facts and sums and balances. A man should be allowed a little respite on his weekends. Shouldn’t he?
And so they didn’t have them. And never would. Not that chimes and cuckooing birds meant so very much to her. They didn’t. But it was something. Something to break up the dull endless ours of her mindless existence. Weekend or weekday, it made no difference to her.
Avery scowled over his newspaper.
Nora, her head bowed low over her needlework, tried to concentrate on the gradual gradation of the colours she threaded into the cambric square. (What was it to be? She had not yet decided.) And tried not to dwell too much on the endless punching and stabbing of her needle. The drawing out of the thread and the pushing of it back in.
But for all the monotony, all the conversations unspoken, the assumed platitudes of marital bliss that she surely felt (for she must, you know) and yet did not quite understand the meaning of, today felt different. Taught and ominous. The servants whispered more than usual, scowled more than usual over their work. Tisked and shook their heads more than usual. The voices on the street just outside were louder, the feet moved more quickly, more intently. Perhaps it was nothing more than her imagination. She had been accused once or twice, perhaps a dozen times of having such a thing.
“Will you not go to your club tonight?” She hadn’t meant it to sound as a wish. She waited.
At last he sighed, rubbed the dark bristles of his moustache and lowered the paper. He did not like to be interrupted.
“What was that, my dear,” he said and smiled too patiently. As though she were one of the many children they both wished for and did not have. “It is your night at the club. Do you not mean to go?”
“I think I’ll dine at home this evening.” And he scowled again as he took the paper up once more.
Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. And it went on. He was silenter than usual tonight. They did not share much in the way of conversation these days. They did not share much of anything.
But that wasn’t quite true, was it? Not that she wasn’t grateful to have the roof over her head, and all her necessities provided for, and the protection that marriage to such a man offered-or would, no doubt, should the need ever arise. There were many things, she supposed, that her husband shared with her. Tangible things. Necessary things. A roof, the protection of a husband. She had brought little to the marriage herself, aside from a good name and character free of blemish. Which was a great thing. A grand thing, though she did not suppose it very unusual. Certainly it could not be. But yes. She had proofs of her success before her, taffeta curtains, gleaming furniture, walls papered in the latest fashion with great scrolling leaves and flowers in blues and ochres and gold.
And though she had a home, she did not feel sheltered. And though she had gowns of organdie and silk, she did not feel clothed. Not that she felt quite naked. Such a vulgar idea had never entered her head. So why did she feel so deprived?
No, her husband did not share with her much conversation. Of his thoughts outside the purely domestic, rarely. Of his feelings, of his fears, his hopes, his dreams, never.
And so she was alone. That is not to say she had no friends, for they were many. There were the Mompesons, the Percy-Wellerbys and the Caridges and the Strathmores. Why they dined with thirty or more couples every month, but among these Nora had found no real intimates. They’ve all good people to be sure. The best!
And yet she was alone. Or imagined herself to be. But her imagination was something she had been advised to part with, as a child parts with her dolls. She was trying.
Avery looked up. “Is something troubling you, dear?”
“No, of course not.” It was a right and proper answer, and as proof of this, Avery smiled and went back to his paper. “Don’t you ever find it dull, you know, doing the same things day after day?”
“No. Never. Why should I? It’s a good, respectable, steady sort of life. Surely you didn’t imagine you’d be happier being the wife of an explorer? Or some such bit of nonsense.”
“Of course not. I only meant that…”
But Avery was not listening. The newspaper, that daily bit of printed matter that came into the house on a salver and left in ashes by the chimney, it was by far more companionable a companion than was a wife.
She arose from her chair.
“Where are you going?”
She did not answer but crossed the room.
“Stay away from the window, my dear. There’s a bitter draught.”
The window, so heavily covered…it was stifling. She felt herself wilting like a sunflower placed in some darkened cellar.
She drew back the curtain.
She rounded on him, her fist clenching her skirt in her hands and pressing great spidery wrinkles into the fabric. And smiled.
And then she heard it.
Rat. Tat. Rat-a-tat-tat.
She turned toward the window and threw the curtains open wide.
She heard it before she saw it, the drums, the beating of hundreds of feet in unison. Knew before she could know that something had happened. Something had changed.
“Come away, I say!”
Buts he did not. Could not.
Just without there were women with tear stained faces, clinging to men with sullen and determined looks on their faces-fathers, husbands, sons, lovers. Elsewhere there were men arguing. Boys running. There were men in soldiers. Men in lines. To get the papers, to read the bulletins pasted on the walls. The drums beat closer. And closer. And then from around the nearest corner they came. Soldiers marching in formation. The Union Jack fluttering above them, and the red, white and blue of France.
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
What does it mean? Her voice weak with subdued terror.
“Nothing,” came Avery’s gentle voice. “Come away from the window.”
She shrugged herself free as she turned to look at him for half a moment. Then crossed to his chair where the paper still lay.
She snatched it up.
England declares War.
“You said… You said it would not come to this. You said they were fools to speak of it.”
Then: “You said-”
“It cannot last. A month. Six weeks. You will see.”
“Will you go?”