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A.E.W. MASON

AN INCONVENIENCE OF HABIT

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First published in Literature, July 15, 1899 pp 45-47
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
Produced by Francis Golding and Roy Glashan

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BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

Literature, the English periodical in which this story made its first appearance, was the forerunner of The Times Literary Supplement. Between October 23, 1887 and January 11, 1902 The Times published 221 issues of this weekly magazine. According to British Literary Magazines: The Victorian and Edwardian Age, 1837-1913 (Alvin Sullivan, 1984), although the magazine was not primarily a vehicle for poetry and short stories, "the contributors include Kipling and Meredith as well as Emily Lawless, Fiona MacLeod, Evelyn Nisbet, Ernest Rhys, Alice Herbert and Grace Ellery Channing." (Source: Galactic Central).

Following its first publication, "An Inconvenience of Habit" was published under syndication, appearing, e.g., in The Penn Yan Democrat on April 26, 1901, with the three illustrations included in the present version. —RG.



ARTHUR LANDALE was now sufficiently well-known to the cabmen in Portland-place to escape their solicitations. Let it be said at once, however, that he owed this recognition to nothing but the regularity of his appearance there at one particular time. Just when the first thin veil of October dusk had fallen and the cabmen were thinking of lighting their lamps, they saw him daily walk from the direction of Regent-street to this one corner, and turn at a right angle along this one street.

Illustration

On each day of the last three weeks they had seen him do this; in fact ever since the straw had been spread on the roadway of this street before the tenth house. And so familiar a figure had he grown to them that they had come, in a rough jesting way, which still concealed something of sympathy, to speculate with each other from the look of his face as he returned, and from the manner of his walk, whether to-day "she was better or was worse."

As the straw, however, got more and more trampled into a muddy pulp, such speculations grew more and more difficult. For the habit of these daily visits gave to Landale's walk and attitude a stereotyped and almost perfunctory air. He came and went as a man comes and goes about his regular business, and the few indications which his manner afforded pointed not so much to changes in the development of "her" malady as to changes wrought in him by habit. For instance, he no longer quickened his pace at the turning, as in the first days he had been always spurred to do by a leaping fear lest those lighted windows of the second floor should on this night be dark. It is true that he still glanced up to the windows, but the glance was unconscious and merely habitual. Again, the passing of a carriage before the door and the noisy chatter of its occupants no longer brought him to a stop and set him staring after it with a queer sense of incongruity between the life which laughed outside and the life which flickered painfully behind the windows. Such infinitesimal changes would have been imperceptible to all but the most interested observer; and, indeed, Landale was not aware of them himself. So little aware was he, in fact, that when standing on the doorstep on this particular evening he heard the clock boom out the hour of five, he did not even so much as recollect the blind anger which used formerly to wake in him—an anger against a world moving with a steady carelessness about its business.

"How is Miss Ainsworth?" he asked, and, as a small matter of detail, it was perhaps noticeable that the question of late had changed its form. During the first fortnight he had used the more eager phrase, "Is Miss Ainsworth better?"

One of the nurses chanced to open the door, and she answered him gravely,

"Will you come in, if you please?"

Landale stepped into the hall, and the nurse continued:-

"Miss Ainsworth would like to see you."

"She is up then?"

Illustration

"No", and the pause which followed sufficiently commented upon the word. Landale leaned against the wall of the passage without speaking. The nurse, as though to give him time to recover himself, walked very slowly to the foot of the stairs and as slowly ascended them. Landale was young, and she felt some pity for him. He was, however, simply thinking that the engagement between Jenny and himself which he had grown accustomed to regard as a thing eventually certain, and which, as it was, had so often, so nearly become an accomplished fact, would now never become one. And with this thought in his mind, he said half aloud to himself as he followed the nurse, "It's funny," and again, "it's funny."

On repeating the muttered phrase, however, he was seized with a fear that the nurse four steps above him might have heard it, and the fear quickened him to perceive its inappropriateness, and to wonder why he was not more conscious of the calamity. Then he remembered that people are apt to be stupefied by any sudden blow. Only he knew himself to be in complete possession of his senses. On the first landing he met Mrs Ainsworth. He was conscious that she spoke to him, and certain words he knew her to be speaking, such as "the doctor—consultation—no sleep—no hope unless." But for the most part his attention was distracted by the contrast between her complete sensibility and his inexplicable insensibility to the truth. The anticipation of her daughter's death was written, he saw, unmistakably in her eyes, on her face, and was heard unmistakeably in her broken voice. Why did he not realize it, too, he asked himself, since he knew it as well as she did?

At the bed-room door on the second landing he seemed to find an answer. It was just the opening of the door which gave it him, and the quiet passing out of the second nurse in order that he and Miss Ainsworth might be alone. It would need merely the sight of her, the aspect of her present weakness, and the remembrance of her former wilful vitality to make him understand. And he paused for a second on the threshold to brace himself for the coming shock.

After he had crossed it he did not dare to look towards the bed. The moist atmosphere of a sick-room enveloped him, and exaggerated his notion of the change which sickness had worked in her appearance. However, her voice welcomed him—a voice enfeebled and yet familiar as he had not expected it to be—and he was forced to look that way. All that he saw, or, at all events, all that he was conscious of seeing, was a tangled mass of curls showing dark against the white pillow, and framing a fragile white face, which, in its turn, was the setting of a pair of eyes unnaturally lustrous and unnaturally big. But as the eyes met his he noticed a look of appeal in them, and the white face flushed, and flushed immediately, to so clear a scarlet that the skin seemed to have thinned to the tenuity of tissue paper.

Obedient to the suggestion of her hand Landale seated himself on the bedside, thinking the while of the strange reversal which had brought it about that she should appeal to him.

"Five years," she said, "I have known you for five years, and all that time"— she broke off with a smile in which Landale caught a faint mimicry of her old whimsical humour—"it's the proper thing to confess when one's like this—all the time I was afraid I treated you very badly."

"Oh, no!" replied Landale, and was aware of a conventional politeness in his voice which sounded singularly out of place.

"But I did," she insisted. "There were others, weren't there?—always others, and still I never let you go." Then she nestled down in the bed, the compunction died out of her voice, and was replaced by a tone of almost satisfaction. "I was so sure of you, you see. You were a sort of solid banking account. I knew that I could always draw on you for—kindness." She hesitated slightly on the word, and finally uttered it in a note of question as though there was a better which she had not the right to use, but would gladly take from him.

Landale, however, did not mark the inflection, being still occupied with his inability to feel the position. For the sight of the girl had not produced its awaited effect, and he felt as if he was standing outside himself, a third and silent participator at the interview, listening to the two voices, watching the two faces with a quite detached and impersonal interest.

"It was bad," she continued, "because it hurt you so."

"But you didn't know that," he replied. "Besides, what does it matter?"

Her whole confession, indeed, struck him as superfluous, for while he recalled clearly enough the trouble which she had caused him, he recalled it only as a fact dead and done with. He almost wondered at it.

"But I did know," she repeated, "I did know. I am afraid I even found a pleasure in the knowledge," and, seeing Landale about to interrupt, "don't contradict me," she went on. "I am so tired," and for the moment she closed her eyes.

Landale remained silent. He knew that there was much which he should have said, much which would become clear to him after he had left this room, much which he would ever afterwards regret that he had not said. But what it was he could not define. The poorest banalities of sympathy were all that his lips could frame, and he refrained from speaking them. It was, indeed, as if his engrossing incomprehension to feel the deeper emotions had even sealed up the fountains of ordinary pity.

The girl opened her eyes. "And the strange thing is," she resumed, "that I really cared for you for all that time. You don't believe that? Why should you? But when you are ill some things stand out in your mind quite suddenly as true—truths which somehow you have missed altogether before."

Certain rhymes about the Devil being sick began of a sudden to jingle through Landale's brain. A piano-organ in the street below a second later abruptly flourished out the prelude to the latest march, and to the time of that march the rhymes began to dance, now quickening to the speed of the organ's impossible trills, now sedately stepping to its measured beats.

"I'll go down and stop it," said Landale, rising almost eagerly.

"No," she replied, "don't go. I like it. They come here because the straw's down, but it's really rather kind of them."

Illustration

Landale seated himself again, listening inanely to the jingle of rhymes. He tried to drive them from his head: they would no more go than the organ-grinder in the street. He looked at the girl. There was again the appeal in her eyes, but it seemed to him now more urgent, more passionate than it had been before. The appeal called to him to speak, and his inability to obey became horrible to him. He was in some way disappointing expectation and he would never be able to repair the omission. Landale looked away in very shame, and his eyes fell upon a little shoe which lay kicked beneath a chair beside the bed. Hardly knowing what he did he picked it up, held it in his hand, turned it over. The shoe was almost new, so that the arch of sole between the heel and the ball of the foot was still white. That arch would now never be soiled, he said to himself, and tried that way to realize the truth. And then a sob from the bed broke through his vague thoughts. He was still holding the shoe; the girl's eyes were fixed on it; the same thought was evidently in her mind.

"What a brute I am!" he said, and setting down the shoe, "Jenny, there's always a chance. You know there's always a chance."

He bent forwards towards her as he spoke, and spoke eagerly out of his compunction. She sighed as if in herself.

"I was always sure of you," she said with a faint smile, and lifted her hand into his.

"There's always a chance," he repeated.

"Not for me, and the worst of it is, by dying, I shall cause you ever so much more trouble."

Landale started back. But she wouldn't. The conviction sprang up in his mind, sudden and certain. She wouldn't cause him ever so much more trouble. It would be like the loss of a friend, it would be just the loss of a friend. He sat staring vacantly in front of him, and understood, gradually it seemed to him, but actually in a few seconds, how all these last months habit had deceived him. The habit of constant visits to this house had kept alive within him an artificial want of her companionship. In the beginning he had genuinely felt that want. Habits of speech, habits of manner towards her which he had acquired when they expressed a genuine feeling, had remained with him after the feeling they expressed had died—had remained to deceive him. They were outward signs which had lost their inward grace, and had lost it imperceptibly. And, besides, there were other habits—habits even of thought. He has accustomed himself to use the thought of her as a stimulus to effort because originally such it had been.

"If it wasn't for the trouble my death will cause you," she broke in insistently, "I don't think I should mind so much"; and this remark, too, was couched in an anxious question.

Landale noticed the anxiety, but not the question. It was not only himself whom habit had deceived, but her, too. That anxiety of hers he could, at all events, relieve.

"Then you needn't mind at all," he began, and a look of fear in her face brought him to a stop. Her hand tightened on his convulsively. He ran through in his mind all that she had said to him since he had entered the room. He dwelt upon her repetition of this sentence and that "I was so sure of you," she had said, and had said it with satisfaction. Was it that she needed to make yet more sure, or would the truth indeed relieve her of anxiety?

Landale debated the question for a little. In after days he came to fancy that during this debate he was holding the scales of life and death.

"Was it true?" he asked. "You said that all the time—"

"I cared for you? Yes, that was true. But you said I needn't mind." What did you mean?"

"No, you needn't mind," he answered, making his decision, "because I have got more good from knowing you than any trouble could balance."

His judgment rejected the words even while he spoke them, labelling them sentimental. But she perceived nothing of their falsity, and the little sigh of relief which she breathed showed him that he had chosen the right answer.

His one fear now was that he should betray the truth. Consequently he continued in the same strain, plying his memory for fancies which had once come to him naturally and simulating an ardour of expression to make them pass as spontaneous now. And all the time he still seemed to be standing outside himself, noticing with a sense of irony the hollowness of the words he spoke and the credence with which she accepted them, and speculating on the reversal in their positions, which the mere shadow of death sufficed to bring about. At times, indeed, he felt that she must needs be conscious of this third presence which was really himself, and then he plunged deeper into sentimentalities.

"You see, whatever happens," he ended, "I shall always have this one thing permanent and indestructible, this one debt, the knowledge that I loved you."

"Let me think that," she whispered, and smiled as she whispered.

Landale assured her with the final lie of a kiss. Again she smiled, and, turning a little on her side, closed her eyes.

"Don't go for a minute," she said, and in a little her hand relaxed in his. Her breath grew more regular. It seemed to Landale that the tinge of blue was fading from her cheeks. When the nurse softly opened the door, Landale put his finger to his lips.

"She is asleep," he whispered.

The nurse crossed the room on tiptoe.

"Asleep," she repeated in a tone of wonderment, "asleep!"


A month later Landale was face to face with the fact that Miss Ainsworth was convalescent. She was sure of him, he remembered that he had deliberately helped to make her more sure. He drew a conclusion that the formation of habits is a vice.


THE END