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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 53. E. M. Forster "The Obelisk"

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The Obelisk

 

Ernest was an elementary schoolmaster, and very, very small; it was like marrying a doll, Hilda sometimes thought, and one with glass eyes too. She was larger herself: tall enough to make them look funny as they walked down the esplanade, but not tall enough to look dignified when she was alone. She cherished aspirations; none would have guessed it from her stumpy exterior. She yearned for a trip in a Rolls Royce with a sheikh, but one cannot have everything or anything like it. One cannot even always be young. It is better to have a home of one’s own than to always be a typist. Hilda did not talk quite as she should, and her husband had not scrupled to correct her. She had never forgotten – it was such a small thing, yet she could not forget it – she had never forgotten that night on their honeymoon when she had said something ungrammatical about the relative position of their limbs.

He was now asking her to decide whether they should sit in the shelter or walk to the Obelisk. There was time to do one or the other before the bus went, but not to do both.

“Sit down will be best,” she replied. But as soon as they were in the shelter, looking at the undersized and under-coloured sea, she wished she had chosen the Obelisk. “Where is it? What’s it for? Who’s it to?” she asked.

“I don’t know to whom it was erected – to some local worthy, one presumes. As regards its situation, it stands above the town in the direction of the landslip.”

“Would you like to go to it?”

“I can’t honestly say that I should. My shoes are somewhat tight.”

“Yes, I suppose we’re best where we are and then some tea. Do you know how far off it is?” she asked.

“I can’t say that I do.”

“It may be quite near. Perhaps you could ask these people.” She lowered her voice, not to be overheard by the people in question: two sailors who were seated on the other side of the glass screen.

“l don’t think I could well do that,” said Ernest timidly; a martinet at home and at school, he was terrified of anything unfamiliar.

“Why not?”

“They won’t know.”

“They might.”

“There is no naval station here, Hilda. They are merely visitors like ourselves. No ships are ever stationed at a small watering-place.” He breathed on his pince-nez, and placed it between himself and the sea.

“Shall I ask them?” She was feeling peeved.

“Certainly, if you wish to do so.”

Hilda opened her mouth to speak to the sailors, but no sound came out of it. “You ask,” she whispered to her husband. “It seems better that way.”

“l don’t wish to ask; I shall not ask. I have told you my reasons already, and if you are incapable of following them, I really can do no more.”

“Oh, all right, dear, don’t get in such a fuss. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure I don’t want to go to your Obelisk."

“Why, in that case, do you want to inquire how to get there? And why ‘my’ Obelisk? I was not aware that I possessed one.”

She felt cross – Ernest did tie one up so – and determined to speak to the sailors to prove her independence. She had noticed them as she sat down; one of them particularly.

“Please excuse me,” she began. They were laughing at something, and did not hear her. “Please, could you kindly tell us—” No reply. She got up and said to her husband, “Oh, let’s go. I hate this place.”

“Certainly; certainly,” said he, and they moved off down the esplanade in an offended silence. Hilda, who had been in the wrong, soon felt ashamed of herself. What on earth had made her behave like that she wondered. It had been almost a quarrel, and all about nothing. She determined never to mention the beastly Obelisk again.

This was not to be, for it appeared on a noticeboard, "To the Obelisk and Landslip," and an arrow pointed to a gap in the crumbly cliffs. She would have marched by, but Ernest stopped. “l think I should – I think I should like to go, if you don’t object," he said, in a voice that was intended to be conciliatory. “l could talk to the class about it on Monday. I am very short of material.”

Turning back, she looked at the shelter where they had sat. She could see the long dark legs of the sailors sticking out of it; the esplanade was almost deserted otherwise. “No, of course I shouldn’t mind,” she said.

“Excellent, excellent, admirable.” He led the way. The sea, such as it was, disappeared, and they began climbing a muddly sort of gorge – not romantic, though she tried to pretend it was so. Rocks of no great size overhung them, a stream dripped through mud. The weather was stuffy and an aeroplane could be heard being sick in the distance. Hilda took a stern line with herself; whatever they did this afternoon, she wanted to be doing something else. How nice Ernest was really! How genuine! How sincere! If only his forehead wasn’t quite so bulgy, and had a little more hair hanging over it, if his shoes weren’t quite so small and yellow, if he had eyes like a hawk, and an aquiline nose, and a sinewy sunburnt throat . . . no, no, that was asking too much. She must keep within bounds. She must not hope for a sinewy throat, or for reckless arms to clasp her beyond redemption . . . . That came of going to those cinemas . . . .

“It’s ever so lovely here, don’t you think,” she exclaimed, as they rounded a corner and saw a quantity of unripe black berries.

“I should scarcely describe it in those terms.”

“I’m ever so glad we didn’t stick in that awful shelter.”

“What makes you keep on saying so?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did l? Ever so what oughtn’t I to have said?”

"No, no, you are getting it wrong. ‘Ever so what’ is not the question, but ‘ever so’ itself. The phrase ‘what’ is never needed. I can’t think why it has become so popular. It is spreading into circles where one would not expect to hear it. Curious. You try to form a sentence in which ‘ever so’ is not redundant."

She tried, but her thoughts went off to that disastrous night when he had pulled her up in much the same way, and had made her feel worthless, and had humiliated her, and had afterwards tried to caress her, and she couldn’t stand it. That had been his fault, but it was her fault if she minded now. She wanted to be really educated, and here he was helping her. Penitent, she looked at his pink and pear-shaped face, slightly beaded with sweat and topped by too small a hat, and determined to improve her grammar and to really love him.

There was a scrambling noise behind, and the two sailors came rushing up the path like monkeys.

“What do these fellows want here? I don’t like this,” cried Ernest.

Stopping dead short, they smiled, showing dazzling teeth. One of them – not the one she had noticed – said, “We right for the Obelisk, chum?”

Ernest was nervous. The place was deserted, the path narrow, and he wouldn’t anywhere have been easy with people whose bodies were so different from his own. He replied with more than his usual primness: “Obelisk. The notice on the esplanade says ‘To the Obelisk and Landslip.’ I fear I can tell you no more.”

“Call it the Ob and be done, eh!”

“Thank you, sir, thank you, and thank you, madam,” said the other sailor. He was a much better type – an educated voice and a gallant bearing – and when Hilda stood aside to let them stride past, he saluted her. “Excuse us, sir,” he called back, as if the path, and indeed the whole gorge, was Ernest’s private property. “Sorry to trouble you, but we thought we’d go a walk, make the most of our brief time on shore, sir, you know.”

“A sensible thing to do,” said Ernest, who was recovering from his alarm, and liked being called sir.

“Just a little change, anyhow. Got a cig on you, Tiny?”

The other sailor fumbled in his jumper. “Forgot ‘em again,” he replied.

“Well, of all the—”

“Ferget meown, what d’ye call ‘em, next.”

“Nice person to go out with, isn’t he, sir? Promised to bring along a packet, then lets us both down!”

“Have one of mine if it comes to that,” said Ernest.

“No, sir. I won’t do that, but it’s very good of you all the same.”

“Oh, come along, my man, take one.”

“No, sir; I don’t cadge.”

“Oh . . .” said Ernest, rather taken aback.

“Do have one. My husband has plenty.”

“No, thank you, madam, I’d rather not.” He had pride and a will, and a throb of pleasure went through her; pleasure mixed with despair. She felt him looking at her, and turned away to inspect the blackberries. In a moment he would go on, dart up the path, and disappear as it were into heaven.

“What about you?” said Ernest to the sailor so strangely called Tiny.

Tiny had no such scruples. He thrust out his huge paw with a grin and a grunt. ‘Her’ sailor shook his head and looked a little disdainful. “There’s nothing Tiny wouldn’t say no to, is there, Tiny?” he remarked.

“Tiny’s a sensible fellow,” said Ernest. The sailors, by their civil yet cheerful demeanour, had quite reassured him. He now dominated the situation, and behaved as if he was conducting an open-air class for older boys. “Come along, Tiny.” He stretched up a match to the expectant lips.

“Thanks ever so,” Tiny responded.

Hilda let out a cackle. It was ‘ever so’ – the forbidden phrase. The sailors laughed too, as did Ernest. He had become unusually genial. He astonished her by saying, “Oh, Hilda, I’m so sorry. Here I am smoking and I never asked you whether you would smoke too.” It was the first time he had invited her to smoke in public. She declined, thinking he was testing her, but he asked her again and she took one.

“I’m ever so – I’m very sorry,” Earnest repeated, distracted by something his wife could not grasp.

“That’s quite all right, dear. Might I have a match?”

‘Her’ sailor whipped a box out of his breast pocket. Tiny, equally polite, blew on the tip of his cigarette and held it towards her. She felt flustered, enmeshed in blue arms, dazzled by rose-red and sunburnt flesh, intoxicated by strength; saltiness; the unknown. When she escaped, it was to her husband. Her sailor still held out the lighted match which she had used. “Sir, may I change my mind and have one of your cigarettes after all?” he said coolly.

“Of course, of course. Come along all and sundry.”

The gallant sailor took one, used the lighted match on it, then blew the match out and placed it in his breast pocket. The match they had shared – there it lay . . . close to him, hidden in him, safe . . . . He looked at her, touched his jumper, smiled a little and looked away, puffing his cigarette. At that moment the sun blazed out and it turned into a nice afternoon. She looked away too. There was something dangerous about the man, something of the bird of prey. He had marked her down for his fell purpose; she must be careful like any other heroine. If only he wasn’t so handsome; so out-of-the-way handsome.

“Who’s saying no, Stan, now?” the man’s companion guffawed. So his name was Stan . . . . Stanley, perhaps. What had led such a man to join the Navy? Perhaps some trouble at home.

“Stan’s sensible. Don’t you tease Stan,” piped Ernest. They proceeded in a safe enough formation towards the Obelisk, the two sailors in front, she behind Tiny’s buttocks, from which she had nothing to fear. Gradually the order altered –Ernest’s fault. He was elated with his success, and kept on pestering the men with questions about their work. Tiny fell back to deal with them, but was ill-informed. So ‘Stan’ joined them, and she went on ahead. It was nicer than she expected – everyone good-tempered, including her husband. But she still wished she had not come.

“It’s a funny thing, a day on shore,” said the easy, silky voice. He had stolen up behind her – no scrambling this time. She turned, and his eyes moved up and down her body.

“How do you mean, funny? I don’t understand.”

“You hardly know what to do with yourself. You’re let out of prison, as it were, the discipline stops. You find a shipmate who happens to be on leave too, you go off with him, though you have nothing in common. He wants to go to the pictures, so you go. He thinks he’d like a walk, so you go. He asks the way of strangers, with the result that you inflict yourself on them too. It’s a funny life, the Navy. You’re never alone; you’re never independent. I don’t like tacking on to people, the way that youngster I’m with does. I’ve told him of it before, but he turns everything into a joke.”

“Why is he called Tiny?”

“Merely because he’s so large. Another joke. You know the kind of thing, and how weary one gets of it. Still, life’s not a bed of roses anywhere, I suppose.”

“No, it isn’t; it isn’t.”

She ought not to have made such a remark, and she was glad when he ignored it and went on: “And I’ve got to be called Stan, although my name’s really Stanhope.”

“Stanhope?”

“It was my mother’s family name. We came from Cheshire. However, all that’s over, and I’m Stan.” There was a tinge of melancholy in his voice which made it fatally attractive. For all his gaiety, he had suffered, suffered. . . .

When she threw away her cigarette, he did the same and he gently touched his breast.

This frightened Hilda. She didn’t want any nonsense, and she suggested that they should wait for her husband. He obeyed, and turned his profile to her as they waited, looked even finer that way than full-face: the brow was so noble; the nose and the chin so firm; the lips so tender; the head poised so beautifully upon the sinewy neck; the colouring lovelier than imagination can depict. Here, however, was Ernest, coming round the corner like a cheerful ant. He held Tiny’s cap in his hand and was questioning him on the subject of his naval costume.

“Are we going on any further?” she called.

“I think so. Why not?”

“It seems turning out rather a climb.”

“We have plenty of time – an abundance of time – before the bus goes.”

“Yes, but we must be keeping these gentlemen back. You and I walk so slowly.”

“l was not aware of walking slowly. You in a hurry, Stan?” he called familiarly.

“Not in the least. Not in the very least, sir, thank you.”

“You, Tiny?”

“Hurry for what?”

“Do you want to go on and leave us?”

Grateful to Hilda for calling him a gentleman, he beamed up at her and said, “What’s his name, please?”—pointing to Ernest as if he were some rare animal and could not answer questions.

“My husband – his name’s Ernest.”

“Think his Trilby hat’d fit me?” His hand shot out to pull it off, but he was checked by a quiet word of reproof from Stanhope. Ernest scuttled back a step. “Chum, I won’t hurt you, chum . . . chuck, chuck, chum, chum”—he said as if feeding chicken.

“Certain people always go too far. They spoil things; it’s a pity,” Stanhope remarked to her as they continued their walk.

How right he was – though for the moment, Tiny had entertained her. She also got a wicked pleasure when Ernest’s cowardice got exposed. She smiled, and felt clever herself, not realizing that Stanhope now walked behind her, which was exactly what she had not meant to happen. “My husband and him seem getting on quite nicely,” she said.

“Tiny’s always ready to play the fool, day in, day out. I’m afraid I don’t understand it. Something wrong with me, suppose.”

“One gets rather tired of anything that’s always the same, I think.”

He offered no opinion, and they walked on for five minutes without saying anything. The path was well marked and not steep, and many pretty flowers, both yellow and pink, grew between the stones. Glimpses of the sea appeared, dancing blue, the aeroplane turned into a gull. The interval separating the two sailors gradually increased.

“What made you join the Navy?” she said suddenly.

He told her – it was fascinating. He was of good family – she had guessed as much – and wanted to see the world. He had left a soft job in an office when he was eighteen. He told her the name of the office. She happened to have heard of it in her typist days, and was instantly possessed by a feeling of security. Of course she was safe with him – ridiculous. He reeled off the names of ports, known and unknown. He was not very young when you were close to him, but Hilda did not like very young men, they were not distinguished, and her dream was distinction. These marked features, this hair, raven-black against the snowy line of the cap, yet necked at the temples with gray, suited her best. Oh, and those eyes, cruel eyes, kind eyes, kind, cruel, oh! They burnt into your shoulders; if you turned and faced them it was worse. And she so dumpy! She tried to steady herself by her modesty, which was considerable, and well-grounded. And a batch of people came downhill and passed them – it was only an extension of the esplanade. No, Hilda, no one like this is going to bother to seduce you, she told herself.

“I suppose I can’t persuade you,” he said. He took out of his jumper a cigarette-case and opened it.

“But I thought you hadn’t got any cigarettes,” she cried.

He snapped the case up, put it back, and said, “Caught!”

“What do you mean? Why ever did you ask for one when you had all those?”

“I decline to answer that question.” He smiled.

“I want to know. You must answer. Tell me! Oh, go on! Do tell me.”

“No, I’d better not.”

“Oh, you’re horrid.”

“Am l? Why?” The ravine had got wilder, almost beautiful. The path climbed above thick bushes and little trees. She knew they ought to wait again for Ernest, but her limbs drove her on. She repeated: “You must tell me. I insist.” He drove her more rapidly before him. Then he said, “Very well, but promise not to be angry.”

“I’m angry with you already.”

“Then I may as well tell. I pretended I’d no cigarettes on the chance of your husband offering me one.”

“But why? You said no when he did.”

“It wasn’t a cigarette that I wanted. And now I suppose you’re angry. I didn’t want to go on, and it was my only chance of stopping. So I asked Tiny for one. I knew he’d be out of them; he always is. I wanted some excuse to keep with your party, because I wanted to—” He took the extinguished match from his pocket. “Better throw this away now, hadn’t l? Or you’ll be angry again.”

“I’m not angry. But don’t start being silly, please.”

“There are worse things than silliness.”

Hilda didn’t speak. Her knees were trembling, her heart thumping, but she hurried on. Whether he threw the match away or not, she did not know. After a pause, he said in quite a different voice: “I’ve done quite enough talking, you know. Now you talk.”

“I’ve nothing to say,” she said, her voice breaking. “Nothing ever happens to me, nothing will, I . . . . I do feel so odd.” He seemed to tug her this way and that. If only he wasn’t so lovely! His hand touched her. Almost without her knowing, he guided her off the path, and got her down among the bushes.

Once there, she was lost. Under the pretext of comforting, he came closer. He persuaded her to sit down. She put her hand to his jersey to thrust him off, and it slid up to his throat. He was so gentle as well as so strong. That was the trouble. She did not know which way to resist him, and those eyes: appealing; devouring; appealing. He constrained her to lie down. A little slope of grass, scarcely bigger than a couch, was the scene of her inadequate resistance; beyond the dark blue of his shoulders she could see the blue of the sea. All around were thick thorny bushes covered with flowers, and she let him do what he wanted.

“Keep still,” he whispered later. “They’re passing.

From the path came the sound of feet.

“Don’t talk just yet.” He continued to hold her, his chin raised, listening. “They’ve gone now, but talk quietly. It’s all right. He won’t know. I’ll fix up a story. Don’t you worry. Don’t you cry.”

“It’s your fault, you made me . . . ”

He laughed gently, not denying it. He raised her up, his arms slanting across her back unexpectedly kind. He let her say whatever she wanted to, as long as she did not say it too loud, and now and then he stroked her hair. She accused him; she exalted Ernest, repeating, “I’m not what you think I am at all.” All he said was “That’s all right,” or “You shan’t come into any trouble, I swear it, I swear it, and you mustn’t cry,” or “l play tricks – yes. But I never let a woman down. Look at me. Do as I tell you! Look at me, Hilda.”

She obeyed. Her head fell on his shoulder and she gave him a kiss. For the first time in her life, she felt worthy. Her humiliation slipped from her, never to return. She had pleased him.

“Stanhope . . . ”

“Yes, I know.”

“What do you know?”

“I’m waiting until it’s absolutely safe. Yes.”

He held her against him for a time, then laid her again on the grass. She was consciously deceiving her husband, and it was heaven. She took the lead, ordered the mysterious stranger – the film-star, the sheikh – what to do. She was, for one moment, a queen, and he her slave. They came out of the depths of pleasure together, confederates.

He helped her up, then respectfully turned away. She hated grossness, and nothing he did jarred.

When they were back on the path, he laid his plans.

“Hilda, it’s no use going on to the Obelisk,” he said, “it’s too late. They’re in front of us, and we shall meet them coming down. He’ll want to know how they passed us without seeing us, and if you’ve an explanation of that I’ve not. No. We shall have to go back and wait for them on the esplanade.” She patted her hair – she had good hair.

“Make up some story when they arrive. Muddle them. We shall never muddle them if we meet them face to face on this path. You leave it to me – I’ll confuse them in no time.”

“But how?” she said dubiously as they started the long descent.

“I shall see when I see them. That’s how I always work.”

“Don’t you think it would be better if you hid here, and I went down alone? Our bus leaves before very long, then you’ll be safe.”

He shook his head, and showed his teeth, scorning her gaily. “No, no. I’m better at telling stories than you; I don’t trust you. Take your orders from me. Don’t ask questions, and it’ll be all right. I swear it will. We shall pull through.”

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false, and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport . . . . Oh, for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

Swinging ahead of her onto the esplanade, he gave her his final instructions. “Take your line from me; remember we’ve done nothing we shouldn’t; remember it’s going to be much easier than you think; and don’t lose your head. Simpler to say than to do. All the same, don’t do it. And if you can’t think of anything else to do, look surprised. Our first job is to sit down quietly on the esplanade and wait.”

But they were not to wait. As they came out of the gap in the cliffs, they saw Ernest on a bench, and Tiny leaning on the esplanade railings observing the sea. Ernest jumped up all a bunch of nerves, crying, “Hilda! Hilda, where have you been? Why weren’t you at the Obelisk? We looked and looked for you there, we hunted all the way back—

Before she could answer, indeed before he had finished, Stanhope launched an effective counter-attack. “What happened to you, sir? We got up to the Obelisk and waited, then we’ve been shouting and calling all the way back. The lady’s been so worried – she thought an accident had happened. Are you all right, sir?” He bayed on, full-chested, magnificent, plausible, asking questions and allowing no time for their reply.

“Hilda, it’s impossible. You couldn’t have been, or I should have seen you.”

“There we were, sir. We had a good look at the view and waited for you, and then came down. It was not meeting you on the way back that puzzled us so.”

“Hilda, were you really . . . ”

By now she had had her cue, and she heard her voice a long way off saying in fairly convincing tones, “Oh, yes, we got up to the Obelisk.”

And he believed, or three-quarters believed her. How shocking, but what a respite! It was the first lie she had ever told him, and it was unlikely she would ever tell him a worse. She felt very odd – not ashamed, but so queer, and Stanhope went on with his bluffing. The wind raised his dark forelock and his collar. He looked the very flower of the British Navy as he lied and lied. “l can’t understand it,” he repeated. “It’s a relief to know nothing’s wrong, but not to run into you as we came down . . . I don’t understand it. I’m what you may call stumped. Well, I’m damned.”

“I’m puzzled equally,” said Earnest, a tad nervous. “But there is nothing to be gained by a prolonged discussion. Hilda, shall we go to our bus?”

“l don’t want you to go until you feel satisfied,” said she. A false step; she realized as much as soon as she had spoken.

“Not satisfied? I am perfectly satisfied. With what have I to be dissatisfied? I only fail to grasp how I failed to find you when reached the monument.” He glanced at Tiny

Hilda dared not go away with him with things as they were. She didn’t know how to work out the details of the lie; it was in too much of a lump. Alarmed, she took refuge in crossness. “You’ve got to grasp it some time or other, you may as well now,” she snapped. Her lover looked at her anxiously.

“Well, be that as that may be, we must go.”

“What’s your explanation, Tiny?” called Stanhope, in his splendid authoritative way, to create a diversion. Tiny cocked up one heel and replied not.

“He can scarcely solve a problem which baffles the three of us, and it is so strange that you were ahead of us on the path going up, yet a good ten minutes behind us coming down,” enunciated Ernest.

“Come along, Tiny, you’ve a tongue in your head, haven’t you, mate? I’m asking you a question. Don’t stand there like a stuck pig.”

“Ber-yutiful view,” said Tiny, turning round and extending his huge blue arms right and left along the railings of the esplanade. “You was showing the lady the Ob, perhaps.”

“Of course we inspected the monument. You know that. You haven’t answered my question.”

“Hope you showed it ‘er properly while you was about it, Stan. Don’t do to keep a thing like that all to yourself, you know. Ern, why they call that an Ob?”

“Obelisk; obelisk,” winced Ernest, and was evidently more anxious to go.

“You said it, Obblepiss.”

“l said nothing of the sort.”

“You said Obblepiss.” The giant was grinning amiably, and seemed totally unaware that anything had gone wrong. But how different sailors are! How unattractive, in Tiny’s case, was the sun-reddened throat and the line of broad shoulders against the sea! He was terribly common, really, and ought not to be answering people back. “Anyone ever see’d a bigger one?” he inquired. No one replied, and how should they to so foolish a question? “Stands up, don’t it?” he continued. No one spoke. “No wonder they call that a needle, for wouldn’t that just serve a prick—”

“Stop that infernal talk at once,” exploded Stanhope, and he seemed needlessly vexed, but oh, how handsome he looked, and how his dark eyes flashed. She was glad to see him angry and to have this extra memory.

“Stan. Stan, what’s the matter; Stan?”

“If you speak again I’ll brain you.”

"Ever see’d a bigger one – a bigger Obolokist, I mean. That’s all I said. Because I ‘ave. Killopatra’s Needle’s bigger. Well? Well? What you all staring at me for? What you think I was going to say? Eh? Oh, look at little Ern, ain’t he just blushing. Oh, look at Stan. Lady, look at ‘em.”

Hilda did observe that the two older men were going the most extraordinary colours: her lover purplish; her husband rose-pink. And she did not like the tone of the conversation herself, she scarcely why, and feared something awkward might come out if it went on much longer. We must go, or we shall miss that bus,” she announced. “We shall never clear up why we never met, and it isn’t of the least importance. Ernest, do come along, dear.”

Ernest muttered that he was willing, and the episode ended. Goodbyes were said; by Tiny tempestuously. Plunging across the esplanade, he seized the unfortunate schoolmaster’s arm, and whirled it around like a windmill. “Goo’ bye, Ern. Take care of yerself. Pleased to have met yer, termater face [tomato face] and all,” he bawled.

“Pleased to have met you both,” said Ernest with restraint.

“Ju-jitsu . . . now as yer neck snaps . . . ”

Hilda and Stanhope profited by this noisy nonsense to say their farewells. They would not have dared otherwise. The touch of his hand was cool and dry, but he was nearly worn out, and it trembled. It had not been easy for him, returning her unreproached and unsuspected to her husband, fighting for her, using stratagem after stratagem; following hopeless hints . . . . The perfect knight! The gangster lover who really cares, one who knows . . . . “My darling . . . thank you for everything, forever,” she breathed. He dared not reply, but his lips moved, and he slipped his left hand into his breast pocket. She knew what he meant: the match was there, the symbol of their love. He would never forget her. She had lived. She was saved.

What a contrast to the other – so boisterous, so common, so thoroughly unattractive! It was strange to think of them in the same uniform, strange to look down the esplanade and see them getting more and more like one another as the distance increased. The actual parting had gone off easily. Ernest had produced his cigarettes again. “Have one more, both of you, before repair to your boat,” he called. The powerfully made sailors stooped, the lean distinguished fingers and the battered clumsy ones helped themselves again to his bounty. Perky, he had lit up himself, and now he was strutting away with his good little wife on his arm.

Of course the first few minutes alone with him were awful. Still, she drew strength from the fact that she had deceived him so completely. And somehow she did not despise him; she did not despise him at all. He seemed nicer than usual, and she was pleased when he started to discuss the relative advantages of gas and electricity. He said one thing, she another, while the cloud of her past swept gloriously out to sea. Home and its details had a new freshness. Even when the night came, she should feel differently and not mind.

They reached the bus-stop with several minutes to spare. There was a picture-postcard kiosk, and she had a good idea: she would buy a postcard of the Obelisk, so that if the topic came up again she would know what it looked like.

There was an excellent selection, and she soon visualized it from several points of view. Though not as tall as Cleopatra’s Needle, it boasted a respectable height. One of the cards showed the inscription “Erected in 1879 to the memory of Alfred Judge, one-time Mayor.” She memorized this, for Ernest often mentioned inscriptions, but she actually bought a card which brought in some of its surroundings. The monument was nobly placed. It stood on a tongue of rock overlooking the landslip.

“Well, you won’t have seen that today, will you?” said the woman in the kiosk as she took payment.

Hilda thought she would fall to the ground. “Oh gracious, whatever do you mean?” she gasped.

“It’s not there to be seen.”

“But that’s the Obelisk. It says so.”

“It says so, but it’s not there. It fell down last week. During all that rain. It’s fallen right over into the landslip, upside-down, the tip of it’s gone in ever so far; rather laughable, though I suppose it’ll be a loss to the town.”

“Ah, there it is!” said her husband, coming up and taking the postcard out of her hand. “Yes, it gives quite a good idea of it, doesn’t it? I’ll have one displaying the inscription.”

Then the bus swept up and took them away. Hilda sank into a seat nearly fainting. Depth beneath depth seemed to open. For if she couldn’t have seen the Obelisk, he couldn’t have seen it either; if she had dawdled on the way up, he must have dawdled too; if she was lying, he must be lying; if she and her sailor had . . . he must have— She stopped her thoughts.

Hilda peered at her husband, who was on the other side of the coach, studying the postcard. He looked handsomer than usual, and much happier; his lips were flushed, parted in a natural smile.

—E. M. Forster,[i]

1939

 

 

 

 


[i] “The Obelisk” E. M. Forster The Life to Come and Other Stories (New York 1972), ps. 113-129

https://archive.org/details/lifetocomeothers00fors/page/112/mode/2up

 _

Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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47 minutes ago, Lux Apollo said:

What a cute little episode.

Thanks, Lux. This is one of the pieces that survived his bonfire of the vanities; one of the works he mentioned as "Licentious scribblings" and "though they are probably fatuous, I am never ashamed of them.”

Who would be ashamed of a story of this remarkably fine quality? How many more like it consigned to the flames?  

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84Mags

Posted (edited)

This is absolutely delightful! I’m so glad it survived. 

Edited by 84Mags
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Oh, my, Earnest! This is a delightful ramble up to the obelisk… er, up the … I laughed aloud at the end. Thank you for posting this. I, too, am glad it survived. 

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On 3/22/2022 at 12:58 PM, 84Mags said:

This is absolutely delightful! I’m so glad it survived. 

Thanks, @84Mags. Too bad he felt he couldn't publish it during his lifetime 

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On 3/22/2022 at 2:19 PM, Parker Owens said:

Oh, my, Earnest! This is a delightful ramble up to the obelisk… er, up the … I laughed aloud at the end. Thank you for posting this. I, too, am glad it survived. 

@Parker Owens When I was readying the text for posting, much of the humor presented itself anew. Lines like "...the tip of it’s gone in ever so far..." and "...Ever see’d a bigger one" put the whole monument into delightful context ;) 

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