The Mirror’s Gaze

 

David Wheldon

 

 

Last night I was writing a brief story unintended for publication. It concerned my meeting with a stranger one wintry night in Oxford. The stranger, a young woman, sat alone in a public house in Broad Street; it was the eve of Epiphany and snow was falling heavily. We sat at the same table, unspeaking; soon we found ourselves in conversation. She was a remarkable person. Here is the first paragraph of the story:

I met her by chance in a public house in Broad Street, Oxford; she was tall and slim. To be frank with you I mistook her at first glance for a young man; I think it was the narrowness of her hips and shortness of her hair. She wore black moleskin trousers with sharp creases and a well-fitting black jacket, rather long; its lapels were faced with black satin. She was drinking whisky and water. She seemed entirely alone. She was sitting at a table beneath a window. Suddenly she reached into her breast pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper. She wrote a few words with a pencil and then replaced this piece of paper in her inner pocket. Aware that she was observed she looked up, her steady gaze traversing the bar. She was not a woman for glances. She quickly located me. There was a trace of open hostility in her stare. She sat back and rested her arms on those of her chair. She crossed her legs. She watched me for a while. Her gaze was very frank, and, if I am to be truthful, a little disturbing: she had the ability to make her appraisal of me visible while keeping her assessment quietly to herself. Suddenly she indicated the chair beside her with the flat of a long, rather slender hand. There was an unusual disparity in the length of her fingers.

The word "she" appears about seventeen times: the person to whom this "she" refers has clearly made an impression upon the writer. How true that was. I have hardly met a more mysterious person. She invited me for whisky in her flat, a roomy Art Deco apartment in Headington. Her conversation was quite frank:

The first thing she said, as she lit the gas fire, was: ‘I’ve enjoyed our evening. Our minds are similar: how I was surprised when we began to talk. We live in the same world. We could become friends. I’d like that. Thoughtful people are rare. It will have to be platonic, though. I’m generally regarded as something of a man-hater.’ She paused. ‘That’s not altogether true, it seems. Your company— Well, I am surprised. Maybe I don’t understand myself. Sit down, please.’ She indicated an ancient club chair covered with cracked leather. She retained the position of her indicating hand for some time. I sat: I could feel the horsehair upholstery creak against my spine.

The story ends:

And what could I make of her and the room she occupied, private and secretive? The world outside was muffled by snow; the traffic, such as there was, had become quite silent.

We sat in the stillness and the quiet. I was reluctant to look around myself at her room, her world as she had furnished and created it; my gaze in turn would be scrutinized by hers. Did she wish me as a mirror in which she could regard herself?

‘Reflect,’ she murmured, gazing at me above her glass. ‘Show me my image; my form; myself as I am.’

Our conversation in the public house that evening had been wide-ranging:

And that started a conversation which lasted until closing time. She was very well read; her vocabulary was profound and she used it well. Her sentences were enunciated with a complex and exact syntax which I can’t imitate. ‘Have you noticed that most male writers don’t know how to treat with the female psyche? And when they attempt to do so they tend to make a poor shadow? Think of Beckett. He has no idea how the female might appear. The exceptions are few: perhaps Shakespeare and Defoe: and perhaps Hardy in his poetic, broken-hearted way.’

A Trampwoman’s Tragedy. And what a tragedy. I have heard that Hardy wove his poem from a local tale he had heard at an inn near Glastonbury.’

‘Do you know the poem?’

‘I come from that part of the country. Here's the first verse—

From Wynyard’s Gap the livelong day,
The livelong day,
We beat afoot the northward way
We had travelled times before.
The sun-blaze burning on our backs,
Our shoulders sticking to our packs,
By fosseway, fields, and turnpike tracks
We skirted sad Sedge-Moor.

I looked at her, examining her face — my telling the poem seemed to give me permission — her lips thin and pale, rather long, but not unattractive. Her mouth, when she talked, was less mobile than is the rule; perhaps she had been brought up in an old-fashioned household where to show one’s teeth is seen as impolite. She was very perceptive of my gaze. ‘The women portrayed by Walter de la Mare entranced me as a youth,’ I said. ‘I must read his stories again.’

‘I’d not thought of him: he deserves better,’ said my companion with some surprise. ‘An extraordinary creator of character. Yes. Miss Duveen. Seaton’s mother’s step-sister. Selina, slim and thoughtful, gazing down from her high window like the goddess Athena. Extraordinary females. How could I have forgotten them? Especially unmourned Miss Duveen.’ She turned to me, her manner earnest. ‘Where do you live?’

As I recalled this conversation I pondered the exactness of her mind. de la Mare’s story is entitled Seaton’s Aunt, and most people do not realize that the mysterious and controlling woman who plays stifling games with people (and not only chess) is no blood relation to the boy Arthur Seaton. But it was clear that my companion’s sympathies lay with Miss Duveen. Her story is one of the few that possess the power to bring tears to my eyes.

I first encountered a limited collection of de la Mare’s short stories in 1968; I found a copy in Burwalls library, Bristol. The room was a few yards from the Suspension Bridge's western approach-road and every few seconds there was a double-click as car-wheels ran over a loose cast-iron drain cover. It is strange, the way recall asserts itself. I was immediately entranced by the writing; the first story I read was The Trumpet; then All Hallows; then Miss Duveen. I had not thought of Miss Duveen for thirty years until my recall of that snowy night in Oxford. I searched for her on the Internet last night and immediately found an accomplished and very readable essay by Russell Hoban: it really expresses everything I could say, so I will not try to reduplicate it. I'll try another course.

The story entitled Miss Duveen is told by a man recalling his unusual and lonely childhood. He has been orphaned, and was brought up by an unloving but dutiful and socially observant grandmother in her house in the country. At the bottom of her garden a small river, the Wandle, runs. It has stepping-stones. Investigating his new environment, the boy discovers an unusual companion, an adult woman who, though intelligent, is trapped in a world of make-believe. The boy, in the innocence of childhood, having no preconceptions of mental strangeness, believes in her as she appears before him; she in turn fervently embraces his innocence: on the occasion of their very first meeting she declares that their friendship will never be severed:

And now, please God, we need never be estranged.

The tragedy, though, is inevitable, and can be seen from afar. The boy grows up, mentally and physically, the world taking his innocence as it has to; the woman’s wits wander further. She is almost certainly mistreated by the cousin who provides for her. When she appears she is obviously hungry and her apparel is dingy and, later, frankly dirty. The description of the poor, lost woman is haunting:

[She] leaned her head questioningly, like a starving bird in the snow.

The unexpected turn, though, arrives when the teller of the story, now a man, recounts that he felt relief on hearing that she has been taken to an institution. How truthful he is: most of us, I suspect, would have enunciated an insincere regret, uttering a falsehood which would have revealed our final loss of innocence. He admits his unpleasantness in latterly avoiding the woman and, despite vague misgivings as to the morality of his feelings, he is truthful in detailing his sense of gratitude at her departure. His childhood companion, now that he has lost his innocence, has become no more than an embarrassment.

And when we have finished the story we look back to the beginning and see that the child's narrative was never pristine: it was always angled through the prism of an ashamed man's mind. Now, even the first description of this harmless woman portrays her as a predator and himself as prey.

What would I have done? Would I have held the poor, dishevelled woman in my arms, and let her cry her heart out on my shoulder? I hope so. Perhaps the adult narrator of the story might have wished to do the same: but this is not now open to him. Miss Duveen has been put away in a place where she almost certainly receives no visitors. All he can do now is to attempt an excuse for his feelings; and to do this he will have to damage Miss Duveen's memory.

Even thinking of Miss Duveen's plight saddens me. I somehow know her as though I had met her. de la Mare's story is a work of a very high order in that it prompts new thought in the reader’s mind, a little like the seeding of a crystal: for myself I have a wintry vision of the horse trotting up the drive of the asylum, and, in the hired trap behind, staring out at an unfamiliar world with bird-like eyes, a lost, courageous and intelligent woman who can never leave, who can never now be rescued, and who will never now be loved.

 

uploaded 11th October 2009

pdf file of the short story The Mirror's Gaze

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