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THE END OF AN AFFAIR
The cocks were crowing in the cool glassy darkness before the dawn. Their cry, thinned by long silent distances, crept faintly through the early chill; ghostly, menacing, full of danger and of promise. From its gray tower halfway up the hillside, the clock of a village church struck five.
Hilary pulled off her white coat, saw that it was splashed with blood, and tossed it into a corner of the floor. On second thoughts, she stirred it with her foot till the bloodstain came uppermost. This, she hoped, might indicate to someone that she did not want to see it again on her next call.
The little changing-room had a high gothic window, almost filling one of the walls, for the place had been adapted from one of the huge unpractical rectories of the 1860s. Hilary flung up the sash, and leaned out into the soft cold Cotswold air. It smelled of dewy grass, of arbutus and of pine. The heaviness of interrupted sleep had been cleared from her brain by concentration, urgency, and a strong cup of the Night Sister's tea. She continued, for a few moments, to think about the lacerated arm she had just been suturing, and to speculate on its chances of getting back full mobility; then tossed it all away, like the white coat, into a dim background consciousness of a sound job done. The hills were growing black against the eastern skyline. Birds began to chitter, and then, on a note of happy and hesitant surprise, to sing.
Below her the garden, which the Cottage Hospital's lack of funds had preserved unspoiled in a tangled peace, sloped away downhill, bushes and trees emerging in faint intimations of shape from the thinning night. Under the window where Hilary stood, another window, lit more brightly, sent a pale yellow pathway streaming across the grass of the half-tended lawn. It belonged to the duty room, where, in the last of the lull before the scramble of the morning work began, the night nurses were drowsing over their tea. Carried by the silence, their low voices threw upward, now and again, an audible word or phrase.
"... in Dr. Dent's time ... bit sharp sometimes but ever such fun ... Have to get used to it. But you know ... seems dead-alive somehow ... Now you know what I mean, don't be ... always get that with women doctors ... No, I know they can't, but ..."
Hilary pulled in her head from the window and unhooked, mechanically, her tweed driving-coat from behind the door. She shrugged into it and stood still for a minute, her well-kept sensible hands pushed into her deep pockets, standing back a little in her crepe-soled shoes. The shoes, her suit and overcoat, had the casual rightness which age stamps upon good clothes; her face, with its unstressed breeding, impatience and humor, had a kind of allied quality, which promised to become more marked before so very long. She was thirty-four, and, because she had set out in a hurry and without regard for appearances, looked a few years older.
The voices sank to a sleepy blur, and died away in a yawn. Hilary smiled to herself, and got out her cigarette case and lighter. She became conscious of the slight hollowness and sinking which nicotine induces when combined with fatigue and an empty stomach, but continued, obstinately, to smoke and to smile. She recalled to mind, for supplement, a few broad jokes with which she and her fellow-students, confident in their numbers, their enthusiasm, and their youth, had decorated this familiar theme. But the jokes needed someone to cap them; or perhaps it was the wrong hour of the morning.
Even here, she thought. For the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge, and since the place was opened to the best of my belief, the casualty work here has been done by crusted, dyed-in-the-wool G.P.'s. When they get a middling good general surgeon, you might imagine that someone, one solitary human soul, would remark on some kind of impalpable difference. But not they, damn them. Well, what did I expect? There's just one difference that counts. She remembered at this point another hospital story, the simple but unprintable classic about a woman surgeon and a saw. Even in solitude and at five in the morning, it made her grin faintly. She shut the window, and went downstairs in search of her car.
She found it without the help of her torch, for the darkness had yielded to a gray glimmering twilight. A small keen wind was stirring; she felt cold, and thought with dejection of the two hours, an interval too short for sleep but far too long before breakfast, which stretched ahead. She lived in two rooms of a house which, though friendly, was not her own, and had the usual female taboo against invading someone else's kitchen even in time of need. Reflecting that such occasional inconveniences were more than balanced by daily comfort and freedom from domestic fuss, she was about to push in the starting button when she noticed an object on the seat. It turned out to be a Thermos flask in a canvas bag. She uncorked it; the incense of good, strong coffee rose like a benevolent djinn.
Hilary drank it, slowly and luxuriously. Her estimate of human nature, and more particularly of her own sex, went up as the coffee went down. However many evenings, she wondered, has Mrs. Clare been leaving this, and quietly removing it in the morning? My last night call was a week ago. After all, I'm only a glorified lodger. The telephone probably disturbs her, too.
There was a thick rug in the back of the car. Deciding that she might as well wait, now, till there was light enough to drive by, she wrapped it round herself, and curled up comfortably, sideways on the seat. The outer and the inner warmth made her body drowsy, while the action of the coffee kept her thoughts stirring. It would be pleasant, she thought, to watch the dawn come up over the valley; a very good reason for staying out here instead of sitting in an armchair in the Night Sister's office, by a warm fire. Quite good enough. She recalled the politeness of the Night Sister, the politeness of other night sisters in her house surgeon days; the cups of coffee; the conversation, so well-intentioned, only so very slightly strained; the sudden warming and loosening of the atmosphere when one of the men strolled in to dawdle after a late party or an emergency call. All these things she had accepted impersonally, having no wish to expend useful energy in battle with biological or social laws, or with the tradition of centuries. She had, perhaps, dismissed them with too much haste. Since she had broken with David, they had become irritatingly noticeable.
Angrily she twitched at her mind, to disengage it from the too smooth channel into which it still slipped so easily; but this morning it seemed distant and unreal and hardly worth an effort, so after all she let it run.
She had met him three months after her finals, when she had still scarcely got over her pleasure and self-satisfaction at having been offered a house appointment in her own hospital, the only woman kept on. David, who had qualified elsewhere only six months before her, had arrived trailing some kind of hearsay reputation for promise which he lost no time in confirming. It had flattered her when he sought her advice, in preference to anyone else's, about local etiquette and procedure. (Now, in drowsy and indifferent retrospect, she reflected that he must of course have counted on this reaction, and at the same time gained among the men a reputation for natural acumen, thus killing two birds with one stone.) Having found his feet, he had been less in evidence for a while; but later on there had been an outstandingly good leaving-party, at which his approach had suddenly become much more personal. Within a few more weeks they were lovers.
The affair had gone on for more than a year. They had had nearly everything, community of interest, physical compatibility, good spirits, and the same jokes. The compound of affection and zest which these elements produced they had accepted—for they prided themselves on being realists—as an intelligent manifestation of love. Through the accident of their circumstances, the streak of emulation in them had seemed as natural as all the rest; they did not examine its quality in themselves or in one another, or recognize the implication of David's careless confidence in his own erratic brilliance, Hilary's dogged determination to succeed in a field where successful women were challengingly few. Their enjoyment of life, and Hilary's reserve, made them serious only in abstract discussion, flippant in speaking of their own ambitions, and apt to take conversational color from one another.
Their work happened never to overlap. Hilary was house surgeon on the neurosurgical firm, which was thought to be an enviable chance; David proceeded from pediatrics to gynecology with conscientious efficiency and a boredom which he concealed perfectly from his successive chiefs. Looking back with the fairness of perspective, she found herself admitting that the knowledge of being half a step ahead of him had added something to her fondness on more occasions than one.
It had been Sanderson, the neurosurgeon, who had told her, before it got about, that Ossian Bradford would soon be looking for a new second assistant. It was the best appointment in the hospital which anyone without a Fellowship could hope to expect; Bradford was a chest surgeon, a bold and successful innovator, who would undoubtedly lead his branch in a few years, and to have worked with him was already something of a hallmark. Sanderson was his personal friend. Hilary knew that he had liked her work; and the significance with which he had spoken had conveyed something stronger than a hint.
She said nothing about it to anyone: partly because she wanted to surprise David, partly from a superstition that premature brag would spoil her luck, partly because it meant too much. Another reason, and the strongest, she had not recognized; she could not tolerate the thought of admitting to him that she had tried for it and failed. Theirs was the kind of relationship in which people pride themselves on a certain toughness; and, because for her it was also the first, she had never asked herself whether she was following her own instincts or David's lead. It could scarcely be said of him that he had a horror of sentimentality; he regarded it rather as a remote kind of mental slum, of which one had vaguely heard. Her training and surroundings had made her ready to accept these values without a struggle, and without asking herself whether her definition of sentimentality was becoming more wholesale than her temperament had meant it to be.
It was just a month later that David strolled into her room and said, "Hullo, poppet. Did I once hear you say you'd bought Ossie's book?"
"Yes." Hilary picked it up from the table—she had spent all her spare time on it for weeks—and shook out her notes from between its pages. "What do you want to look up?"
"What I really want to do, if you can spare it for a couple of days, is to read the darn thing. He's just offered me Creighton's job so I feel it may be expected." He bent his stooping, aquiline head over the pages. "If you're using it for anything," he added. "I dare say I could run over it tonight."
Hilary said quite naturally. "Keep it as long as you like, I've done with it. Nice work, David." Realization filtered in gradually, and was not complete till she had finished speaking. "Very nice work."
"Hard work," said David, "is what it looks too much like to me. However, it's a thing to have done, I suppose." She knew he was not posing; if this had not fallen at his feet, he would have been sure of its equivalent elsewhere.
Peering at a diagram, he went on indifferently, "I hope a couple of years will about see me shut of surgery, and getting on with something. A century from now, of course, surgeons will be almost period survivals. All this glamour surrounding the theater is just a temporary breakdown in proportion. Atavistic, really. The physician, the biologist, and the chemist will be where they always belonged, and tucked away somewhere in decent obscurity, like the mortuary, will be a sordid little hole, still known by courtesy as the theater, in which a seedy breakdown gang will slice up the few failures in the minimum of publicity. 'Old So-and-so's getting past it. Don't say I told you, but two of his cases have gone to the theater in less than six months.' That's how it will be.... What's the name of that Swede who does the fancy pneumonectomies, doesn't seem to be here."
"I can't remember," said Hilary. She had little concentration to spare from the sudden, inescapable knowledge that she had never loved him; that, at the moment, to keep from hating him was exacting from her her last reserves of decency and control.
She would have done better to have kept this intimation in sight; but, imperfectly knowing herself (she had always been busy), she had dismissed it with shame as the temporary effect of disappointment and shock. So the internal pressure had risen without vent; and the decisive quarrel, when it came, had sprung from a trifle, a pathetic business about some slides which neither had remembered to put away and which had, in consequence, been broken; a squalid bickering, not leaving even the satisfaction of a large gesture behind.
"It's typical of a man," Hilary had brought forth, to her own shocked surprise, from the boiling within her, "to crash through to every objective by plain selfishness, and take for granted it's just superior ability."
David had learned early the art of keeping his temper. He looked at her with his eyebrows raised, paused for effect, and spoke. "I'm sorry," he said. "I always supposed you were competent to hold your own as a human entity, without having resort to the squalling apologetics of feminism. You make me feel rather at a loss."
It had been as if a nerve in her brain had been touched with something red-hot. From that moment, they were finished.
They had avoided a crisis on major issues; both would have felt it to be embarrassing and melodramatic. They had behaved with restraint and with what had seemed, at the time, to be economy of emotion. Hilary had approved of this, as she had believed she approved of their undemonstrativeness while they were still together. She was not analytical of herself. There had never been much time.
Her intellect and abilities were another thing. These she had studied with the attention she gave to other tools of her calling. She examined her failure, and drew, impartially as she believed, the unpalatable conclusions. Determination, industry, good organization of a good second-class brain, had done their best for her. She was now at the level where they had to be set against the male powers of intellectual and imaginative endurance, the male reserve of stamina for a mental sprint; and she recognized the difference, fully, for the first time. It shocked her with a sense of fundamental injustice. Her relationship with David, which might have resolved everything, had lacked the single essential ingredient; but she did not reflect on this. She merely left the hospital.
In a kind of spite against herself and life, she had thrown herself away on this country practice in a small Cotswold market town. It carried a fair-sized panel, a sprinkling of private patients in the neighborhood, and, one week in a rota of three, emergencies at the Cottage Hospital. By the time she had been there three months, she found herself counting the days to the third week, which sometimes passed without any emergency at all. The cut tendon had been the most interesting event since her arrival.
Hilary stretched herself out of the rug, and, after half an hour's sheltered inactivity, at once shivered with cold. It became suddenly obvious to her that the only possible time filler was a walk. She let in the clutch; the noise of the accelerating engine seemed shattering in the stillness.
The car twisted downhill, between hedges in which the scent of the may was still quenched by dew and the chill of dawn; dropped into shadow in the valley, and climbed again. She turned off from her homeward road, and, slowing to an easy twenty, began to meander over the hills, looking about for a place to park.
She found it at a white, five-barred gate into a larch wood, whose trees, thinly spaced, let in the sun. The gate gave on to a ride, evidently private land; but it was too early to feel very serious about trespassing, and, having had a country childhood, she could judge that the place was not heavily preserved. She opened the gate, closing it conscientiously behind her.
The grass of the ride had the extreme velvety fineness which generations of rabbits create about their ancestral homes. It was a good morning for them; their sentinel ears pointed her approach, their white scuts bounced before her, and their jaunty young, losing their heads, took the longest way across the track before popping down into the green. Between padded mats of needles under the larches, bluebells lay in cloudy lakes and streams. Exercise was already making her warm.
Excerpted from Return to Night by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1947 William Morrow and Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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