FROM THE STACKS MAY 28, 2013
“This talent,” wrote New Republic editor Robert Littell in a 1922 review of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, “amounts to the rare thing which ... we call genius.” Just a few months later, Mansfield succumbed to tuberculosis. Upon hearing of the 34-year-old New Zealand ex-pat’s death, Virginia Woolf wrote that Mansfield’s writing was “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.” (Other modernists had strong feelings as well: D. H. Lawrence used Mansfield as a model for a witty and sarcastic character in Women in Love; T. S. Eliot derided her as a “dangerous woman.”) This fragment, “Six Years After,” ran in The New Republic as a posthumous tribute. It is a bittersweet tale of marital communion and cleavage aboard a steamship, with husband and wife experiencing the journey in fundamentally different ways. It displays the biting insightfulness that made her such a fearsome literary figure, albeit one who is now, sadly, less well known than some of her modernist peers.
It was not the afternoon to be on deck—on the contrary. It was exactly the afternoon when there is no snugger place than a warm cabin, a warm bunk. Tucked up with a rug, a hot water bottle and a piping hot cup of tea, she would not have minded the weather in the least. But he hated cabins, hated to be inside anywhere more than was absolutely necessary. He had a passion for keeping, as he called it, above board, especially when he was travelling. And it wasn't surprising, considering the enormous amount of time he spent cooped up in the office. So, when he rushed away from her as soon as they got on board and came back five minutes later to say he had secured two deck chairs on the lee side and the steward was undoing the rugs, her voice through the high sealskin collar murmured "Good" : and because he was looking at her, she smiled with bright eyes and blinked quickly, as if to say, "Yes, perfectly allright— absolutely." And she meant it.
"Then we'd better—" said he, and he tucked her hand inside his arm and began to rush her off to where their chairs stood. But she had just time to breathe, "Not so fast. Daddy, please," when he remembered too and slowed down.
Strange! They had been married twenty-eight years, and it was still an effort to him, each time, to adapt his pace to hers.
"Not cold, are you?" he asked, glancing sideways at her. Her little nose, geranium pink above the dark fur, was answer enough. But she thrust her free hand into the velvet pocket of her jacket and murmured gaily, "I shall be glad of my rug."
He pressed her tighter to his side—a quick nervous pressure. He knew, of course, that she ought to be down in the cabin; he knew that it was no afternoon for her to be sitting on deck, in this cold and raw mist, lee side or no lee side, rugs or no rugs, and he realized how she must be hating it. But he had come to believe that it really was easier for her to make these sacrifices than it was for him. Take their present case, for instance. If he had gone down to the cabin with her, he would have been miserable the whole time, and he couldn't have helped showing it. At any rate, she would have found him out. Whereas, having made up her mind to fall in with his ideas, he would have betted anybody she would even go so far as to enjoy the experience. Not because she was out personality of her own. Good Lord! She was absolutely brimming with it. But because . . . but here his thoughts always stopped. Here they always felt the need of a cigar, as it were. And looking at the cigar-tip, his fine blue eyes narrowed. It was a law of marriage, he supposed . . . . All the same, he always felt guilty when he asked these sacrifices of her. That was what the quick pressure meant. His being said to her being: "You do understand, don't you?" and there was an answering tremor in her fingers, "I understand."
Certainly, the steward—good little chap—had done all in his power to make them comfortable. He had put up their chairs in whatever warmth there was and out of the smell. She did hope he would be tipped adequately. It was on occasions like these (and her life seemed to be full of such occasions) that she wished it was the woman who controlled the purse.
"Thank you, steward. That will do beautifully."
"Why are stewards so often delicate looking?" she wondered, as her feet were tucked under.
"This poor little chap looks as though he'd got a chest, and yet one would have thought . . . the sea air….
The button of the pigskin purse was undone. The tray was tilted. She saw sixpences, shillings, half-crowns.
"I should give him five shillings," she decided, "and tell him to buy himself a good nourishing—"
He was given a shilling, and he touched his cap and seemed genuinely grateful.
Well, it might have been worse. It might have been sixpence. It might, indeed. For at that moment Father turned towards her and said, half apologetically, stuffing the purse back, "I gave him a shilling. I think it was worth it, don't you?"
"Oh, quite! Every bit!" said she.
It is extraordinary how peaceful it feels on a little steamer once the bustle of leaving port is over. In a quarter of an hour one might have been at sea for days. There is something almost touching, childish, in the way people submit themselves to the new conditions. They go to bed in the early afternoon, they shut their eyes and "it's night" like little children who turn the table upside down and cover themselves with the tablecloth. And those who remain on deck—they seem to be always the same, those few hardened men travellers—pause, light their pipes, stamp softly, gaze out to sea, and their voices are subdued as they walk up and down. The long-legged little girl chases after the redcheeked boy, but soon both are captured; and the old sailor, swinging an unlighted lantern, passes and disappears . . . .
He lay back, the rug up to his chin and she saw he was breathing deeply. Sea air I If any one believed in sea air, it was he. He had the strongest faith in its tonic qualities. But the great thing was, according to him, to fill the lungs with it the moment you came on board. Otherwise, the sheer strength of it was enough to give you a chill. . . .
She gave a small chuckle, and he turned to her quickly. "What is it?"
"It's your cap," she said. "I never can get used to you in a cap. You look such a thorough burglar."
"Well, what the deuce am I to wear?" He shot up one gray eyebrow and wrinkled his nose. "It's a very good cap, too. Very fine specimen of its kind. It's got a very rich white satin lining." He paused. He declaimed as he had hundreds of times before at this stage, "Rich and rare were the gems she wore."
But she was thinking he really was childishly proud of the white satin lining. He would like to have taken off his cap and made her feel it. "Feel the quality!" How often had she rubbed between finger and thumb his coat, his shirt cuff, tie, sock, linen handkerchief, while he said that.
She slipped down more deeply into her chair.
And the little steamer pressed on, pitching gently, over the gray, unbroken, gently moving water, that was veiled with slanting rain.
Far out, as though idly, listlessly, gulls were flying.
Now they settled on the waves, now they beat up into the rainy air, and shone against the pale sky like the lights within a pearl. They looked cold and lonely. "How lonely it will be when we have passed by," she thought. "There will be nothing but the waves and those birds and rain falling!"
She gazed through the rust-spotted railing along which big drops trembled, until suddenly she shut her lips. It was as if a warning voice inside her had said, "Don't look!"
"No, I won't," she decided. "It's too depressing, much too depressing."
But immediately, she opened her eyes and looked again. Lonely birds, water lifting, white pale sky —how were they changed?
And it seemed to her there was a .presence far out there, between the sky and the water; someone very desolate and longing watched them pass and cried as if to stop them—but cried to her alone.
"Don't leave me," sounded in the cry. "Don't forget me! You are forgetting me, you know you are!" And it was as though from her own breast there came the sound of childish weeping.
"My son—my precious child—it isn't true!" Sh! How was it possible that she was sitting there on that quiet steamer beside Father, and at the same time she was hushing and holding a little slender boy—so pale—who had just woken out of a dreadful dream?
"I dreamed I was in a wood—somewhere far away from everybody—and I was lying down and a great blackberry vine grew over me. And I called—to you—and you wouldn't come—you wouldn't come—so I had to lie there for ever."
What a terrible dream! He had always had terrible dreams. How often, years ago, when he was small, she had made some excuse and escaped from their friends in the dining-room or the drawing- room to come to the foot of the stairs and listen. "Mother!" And when he was asleep, his dream had journeyed with her back into the circle of lamplight; it had taken its place there like a ghost. And now—
Far more often—at all times—in all places—like now, for instance—she never settled down, she was never off her guard for a moment but she heard him. He wanted her. "I am coming as fast as I can! As fast as I can!" But the dark stairs have no ending, and the worst dream of all—the one that is always the same—goes forever and ever uncomforted.
This is anguish! How is it to be borne? Still, it is not the idea of her suffering which is unhearable—it is his. Can one do nothing for the dead? And for a long time the answer had been—Nothing.
. . . But softly without a sound the dark curtain has rolled down. There is no more to come. That is the end of the play. But it can't end like that— so suddenly. There must be more. No it's cold, it's still. There is nothing to he gained by waiting.
But—did he go back again? Or, when the war was over, did he come home for good? Surely, he will marry—later on—not for several years. Surely one day I shall remember his wedding and my first grandchild—a beautiful dark-haired boy born in the early morning—a lovely morning spring!
"Oh, Mother, it's not fair to put these ideas into my head! Stop, Mother, stop! When I think of all I have missed, I can't bear it."
"I can't bear it!" She sits up breathing the words and tosses the dark rug away. It is colder than ever, and now the dusk is falling, falling like ash upon the pallid water. And the little steamer, growing determined, throbbed on, pressed on, as if at the end of the journey there waited. . . .