Mrs. Wilton passed through a little alley leading from one of the gates
which are around Regent's Park, and came out on the wide and quiet
street. She walked along slowly, peering anxiously from side to side so
as not to overlook the number. She pulled her furs closer round her;
after her years in India this London damp seemed very harsh. Still, it
was not a fog to-day. A dense haze, gray and tinged ruddy, lay between
the houses, sometimes blowing with a little wet kiss against the face.
Mrs. Wilton's hair and eyelashes and her furs were powdered with tiny
drops. But there was nothing in the weather to blur the sight; she could
see the faces of people some distance off and read the signs on the
Before the door of a dealer in antiques and second-hand furniture she
paused and looked through the shabby uncleaned window at an unassorted
heap of things, many of them of great value. She read the Polish name
fastened on the pane in white letters.
"Yes; this is the place."
She opened the door, which met her entrance with an ill-tempered jangle.
From somewhere in the black depths of the shop the dealer came forward.
He had a clammy white face, with a sparse black beard, and wore a skull
cap and spectacles. Mrs. Wilton spoke to him in a low voice.
A look of complicity, of cunning, perhaps of irony, passed through the
dealer's cynical and sad eyes. But he bowed gravely and respectfully.
"Yes, she is here, madam. Whether she will see you or not I do not know.
She is not always well; she has her moods. And then, we have to be so
careful. The police--Not that they would touch a lady like you. But the
poor alien has not much chance these days."
Mrs. Wilton followed him to the back of the shop, where there was a
winding staircase. She knocked over a few things in her passage and
stooped to pick them up, but the dealer kept muttering, "It does not
matter--surely it does not matter." He lit a candle.
"You must go up these stairs. They are very dark; be careful. When you
come to a door, open it and go straight in."
He stood at the foot of the stairs holding the light high above his head
and she ascended.
The room was not very large, and it seemed very ordinary. There were
some flimsy, uncomfortable chairs in gilt and red. Two large palms were
in corners. Under a glass cover on the table was a view of Rome. The
room had not a business-like look, thought Mrs. Wilton; there was no
suggestion of the office or waiting-room where people came and went all
day; yet you would not say that it was a private room which was lived
in. There were no books or papers about; every chair was in the place it
had been placed when the room was last swept; there was no fire and it
was very cold.
To the right of the window was a door covered with a plush curtain. Mrs.
Wilton sat down near the table and watched this door. She thought it
must be through it that the soothsayer would come forth. She laid her
hands listlessly one on top of the other on the table. This must be the
tenth seer she had consulted since Hugh had been killed. She thought
them over. No, this must be the eleventh. She had forgotten that
frightening man in Paris who said he had been a priest. Yet of them all
it was only he who had told her anything definite. But even he could do
no more than tell the past. He told of her marriage; he even had the
duration of it right--twenty-one months. He told too of their time in
India--at least, he knew that her husband had been a soldier, and said
he had been on service in the "colonies." On the whole, though, he had
been as unsatisfactory as the others. None of them had given her the
consolation she sought. She did not want to be told of the past. If Hugh
was gone forever, then with him had gone all her love of living, her
courage, all her better self. She wanted to be lifted out of the
despair, the dazed aimless drifting from day to day, longing at night
for the morning, and in the morning for the fall of night, which had
been her life since his death. If somebody could assure her that it was
not all over, that he was somewhere, not too far away, unchanged from
what he had been here, with his crisp hair and rather slow smile and
lean brown face, that he saw her sometimes, that he had not forgotten
her. . . .
"Oh, Hugh, darling!"
When she looked up again the woman was sitting there before her. Mrs.
Wilton had not heard her come in. With her experience, wide enough now,
of seers and fortune-tellers of all kinds, she saw at once that this
woman was different from the others. She was used to the quick
appraising look, the attempts, sometimes clumsy, but often cleverly
disguised, to collect some fragments of information whereupon to erect a
plausible vision. But this woman looked as if she took it out of
Not that her appearance suggested intercourse with the spiritual world
more than the others had done; it suggested that, in fact, considerably
less. Some of the others were frail, yearning, evaporated creatures, and
the ex-priest in Paris had something terrible and condemned in his look.
He might well sup with the devil, that man, and probably did in some way
But this was a little fat, weary-faced woman about fifty, who only did
not look like a cook because she looked more like a sempstress. Her
black dress was all covered with white threads. Mrs. Wilton looked at
her with some embarrassment. It seemed more reasonable to be asking a
woman like this about altering a gown than about intercourse with the
dead. That seemed even absurd in such a very commonplace presence. The
woman seemed timid and oppressed: she breathed heavily and kept rubbing
her dingy hands, which looked moist, one over the other; she was always
wetting her lips, and coughed with a little dry cough. But in her these
signs of nervous exhaustion suggested overwork in a close atmosphere,
bending too close over the sewing-machine. Her uninteresting hair, like
a rat's pelt, was eked out with a false addition of another color. Some
threads had got into her hair too.
Her harried, uneasy look caused Mrs. Wilton to ask compassionately: "Are
you much worried by the police?"
"Oh, the police! Why don't they leave us alone? You never know who comes
to see you. Why don't they leave me alone? I'm a good woman. I only
think. What I do is no harm to any one." . . .
She continued in an uneven querulous voice, always rubbing her hands
together nervously. She seemed to the visitor to be talking at random,
just gabbling, like children do sometimes before they fall asleep.
"I wanted to explain----" hesitated Mrs. Wilton.
But the woman, with her head pressed close against the back of the
chair, was staring beyond her at the wall. Her face had lost whatever
little expression it had; it was blank and stupid. When she spoke it was
very slowly and her voice was guttural.
"Can't you see him? It seems strange to me that you can't see him. He is
so near you. He is passing his arm round your shoulders."
This was a frequent gesture of Hugh's. And indeed at that moment she
felt that somebody was very near her, bending over her. She was
enveloped in tenderness. Only a very thin veil, she felt, prevented her
from seeing. But the woman saw. She was describing Hugh minutely, even
the little things like the burn on his right hand.
"Is he happy? Oh, ask him does he love me?"
The result was so far beyond anything she had hoped for that she was
stunned. She could only stammer the first thing that came into her head.
"Does he love me?"
"He loves you. He won't answer, but he loves you. He wants me to make
you see him; he is disappointed, I think, because I can't. But I can't
unless you do it yourself."
After a while she said:
"I think you will see him again. You think of nothing else. He is very
close to us now."
Then she collapsed, and fell into a heavy sleep and lay there
motionless, hardly breathing. Mrs. Wilton put some notes on the table
and stole out on tip-toe.
She seemed to remember that downstairs in the dark shop the dealer with
the waxen face detained her to show some old silver and jewelry and such
like. But she did not come to herself, she had no precise recollection
of anything, till she found herself entering a church near Portland
Place. It was an unlikely act in her normal moments. Why did she go in
there? She acted like one walking in her sleep.
The church was old and dim, with high black pews. There was nobody
there. Mrs. Wilton sat down in one of the pews and bent forward with her
face in her hands.
After a few minutes she saw that a soldier had come in noiselessly and
placed himself about half-a-dozen rows ahead of her. He never turned
round; but presently she was struck by something familiar in the figure.
First she thought vaguely that the soldier looked like her Hugh. Then,
when he put up his hand, she saw who it was.
She hurried out of the pew and ran towards him. "Oh, Hugh, Hugh, have
you come back?"
He looked round with a smile. He had not been killed. It was all a
mistake. He was going to speak. . . .
Footsteps sounded hollow in the empty church. She turned and glanced
down the dim aisle.
It was an old sexton or verger who approached. "I thought I heard you
call," he said.
"I was speaking to my husband." But Hugh was nowhere to be seen.
"He was here a moment ago." She looked about in anguish. "He must have
gone to the door."
"There's nobody here," said the old man gently. "Only you and me. Ladies
are often taken funny since the war. There was one in here yesterday
afternoon said she was married in this church and her husband had
promised to meet her here. Perhaps you were married here?"
"No," said Mrs. Wilton, desolately. "I was married in India."
It might have been two or three days after that, when she went into a
small Italian restaurant in the Bayswater district. She often went out
for her meals now: she had developed an exhausting cough, and she found
that it somehow became less troublesome when she was in a public place
looking at strange faces. In her flat there were all the things that
Hugh had used; the trunks and bags still had his name on them with the
labels of places where they had been together. They were like stabs. In
the restaurant, people came and went, many soldiers too among them, just
glancing at her in her corner.
This day, as it chanced, she was rather late and there was nobody there.
She was very tired. She nibbled at the food they brought her. She could
almost have cried from tiredness and loneliness and the ache in her
Then suddenly he was before her, sitting there opposite at the table. It
was as it was in the days of their engagement, when they used sometimes
to lunch at restaurants. He was not in uniform. He smiled at her and
urged her to eat, just as he used in those days. . . .
I met her that afternoon as she was crossing Kensington Gardens, and she
told me about it.
"I have been with Hugh." She seemed most happy.
"Did he say anything?"
"N-no. Yes. I think he did, but I could not quite hear. My head was so
very tired. The next time----"
I did not see her for some time after that. She found, I think, that by
going to places where she had once seen him--the old church, the little
restaurant--she was more certain to see him again. She never saw him at
home. But in the street or the park he would often walk along beside
her. Once he saved her from being run over. She said she actually felt
his hand grabbing her arm, suddenly, when the car was nearly upon her.
She had given me the address of the clairvoyant; and it is through that
strange woman that I know--or seem to know--what followed.
Mrs. Wilton was not exactly ill last winter, not so ill, at least, as to
keep to her bedroom. But she was very thin, and her great handsome eyes
always seemed to be staring at some point beyond, searching. There was a
look in them that seamen's eyes sometimes have when they are drawing on
a coast of which they are not very certain. She lived almost in
solitude: she hardly ever saw anybody except when they sought her out.
To those who were anxious about her she laughed and said she was very
One sunny morning she was lying awake, waiting for the maid to bring her
tea. The shy London sunlight peeped through the blinds. The room had a
fresh and happy look.
When she heard the door open she thought that the maid had come in. Then
she saw that Hugh was standing at the foot of the bed. He was in uniform
this time, and looked as he had looked the day he went away.
"Oh, Hugh, speak to me! Will you not say just one word?"
He smiled and threw back his head, just as he used to in the old days at
her mother's house when he wanted to call her out of the room without
attracting the attention of the others. He moved towards the door, still
signing to her to follow him. He picked up her slippers on his way and
held them out to her as if he wanted her to put them on. She slipped out
of bed hastily. . . .
It is strange that when they came to look through her things after her
death the slippers could never be found.
The Hymn Of Donald Ban The Iron Cage