THE OTHER WOMAN
NOT that it was so particularly lovely, but that it was so astonishingly real, perplexed him. This reality, the conviction that he knew it intimately, were the reasons why its appearance troubled him, though trouble is perhaps too strong a word, since it woke a yearning sweetness too. The root of the strange emotion doubtless lay in this: that the face, while curiously familiar, was not known to him. He did not recognise it.
It would rise before his inmost vision as in a cloud of silvery mist; memory would leap to claim it, pause, hesitate, and finally draw back in failure. "I know you intimately," he would whisper, deep inside himself. "I have always known you. But, for the life of me, I can't remember who you are!" Comforted, blessed, contented, he would give up the puzzle with a sigh.
Where had he seen this face before? When had he met the original? Under what conditions of time and space had he known in the flesh this woman whose eyes gazed with such sweet, haunting invitation into his own? It was not a memory he could trace, try as he would; it was not a dream—in his dreams he never saw her; she belonged to everyday working life and sunlight. Moreover, she was ever young. She matured, but did not age. In every true artist-soul lies something which is unageing. She kept pace in him with that.
She first appeared quite early in his life, in boyhood almost, but certainly when the boy slipped into the man; and he soon established the fact that it was invariably a girl or woman who evoked her. It was sufficient for a girl or woman to engage, or threaten to engage, his heart, for this other woman to rise inwardly and take possession of him, with the result that the attraction of the moment faded, then wholly died away. The exquisite invasion brimmed his entire being, leaving nothing over or unsatisfied. Her seductive power was so great that against her mere silent appearance, before the gaze of those inviting, gentle eyes, no other charm, no passing fancy, at any rate, could stand a moment. His soul soared upwards towards her. She seemed to offer a perfection which became for him a test and standard for all lesser beauty. . . . Did she, then, resent intrusion of such lesser beauty? Certainly she nipped in the bud each of his early love affairs, prevented serious attachment too. Absurd as it must sound, absurd as it was indeed, the Face forbade his marrying. His soul loved and yearned towards her alone. She became his faultless guide.
Having humour in his composition, he called her the Other Woman, and tried, but without success, to paint her. His skill, already famous, failed with each attempt. On the canvas she became too commonplace to finish, much less to frame. She eluded him completely. Thus he was unable to convince his friends, who flocked to the studio, that she possessed the qualities, above all the reality, he saw and felt in her. Moreover, she prevented other pictures too, landscapes even, or imaginative renderings of his inmost being that were not absolutely true—born of his highest inspiration. She resented, in a word, he came to realise, any aspect of Beauty not of the purest, sweetest, that threatened possession of him to her own exclusion. She insisted upon a standard he could not always reach. He made his name among the few. He made no money.
The relationship, thus established and accepted, ruled his life. He loved, he worshipped, he obeyed this Other Woman who so elusively filled the imagined rolês of comrade, wife, and guide. Yet she troubled, even alarmed, him sometimes. It was not the conviction of precious intimacy, but the puzzling failure to recognise, that alarmed him, suggesting some grave dislocation of memory. Somewhere he must have seen her original, perhaps in a picture, perhaps fugitive in the street, or at another's house.
"You see, I know her," he told his friend, "know her as well as I know my own mother. Yet I cannot recall her name, or who she is, or where we met, or anything about her. And that's amazing—like forgetting all about the wife you love except that you know her, love her, and belong to her. Now—I ask you!"
"But you're a painter," the friend explained. "This is some ideal or other you visualise pictorially. It's probably some childhood memory suppressed years ago. Find the original and it will cease to haunt you."
"But she knows me, too, I tell you," insisted the artist, already regretting the confidence given. "That's the uncanny part of it." The other stared a moment with embarrassment. "It is," he repeated, as with a mental shrug of the shoulders. "It is a bit uncanny, as you say." He changed the subject, and presently made an excuse to go.
The painter passed through many love affairs; they had no result; they interfered with his work; they dimmed his sweetest vision as they passed; but each time, with the appearance of the haunting eyes that gazed so yearningly into his own, power was restored to him. Each frustration added to his power; he was enriched. He wanted wife and children . . . their lovely ghosts walked through his canvases. The artist soul is notoriously passionate and fickle, exacting too; the Other Woman led him victoriously, clean, unsoiled, through all adventure. To be false to her was to be faithless to the highest, deepest, truest, in his life. He suffered, but he did not fail her. He saw then in her dear eyes a new expression—majesty. His genius knew fulfilment.
"You say you have already tried to paint her?" asked a wise woman who loved him for himself, but loved his genius more. "Her expression would interest me enormously—"
"Tried till I'm tired," he interrupted. "She fades instantly. Elusive beyond capture. That's just it, you see." There was a note of reverence in his voice.
"And pain—?" she asked softly, the sympathy of real understanding dangerously in her eyes.
He signified assent. "I yearn towards her," he confessed, gazing at his companion as though he begged forgiveness, then gazing suddenly past her. "I'm beginning to think—" He paused; the sentence remained unfinished. Ineffable yearning filled his heart as the Other Woman rose in that instant before his inmost sight, exquisite, majestic, with her final, unquestionable power. The love offered him seemed tawdry by comparison. The full confidence was not given.
From his earthly eyes she remained concealed until the very end. It was at the very end only that he knew and recognised her. At the moment of death she gave herself into his full keeping, because she had already been in his full keeping always, and because he had proved faithful to her through all his minor faithlessness.
"Forgive me," he murmured, in the confused rambling they mistook for incoherence; "forgive my times of doubt and question. . . . O my Great Loveliness. . . . !"
Beside the bed they listened to his whisperings:
"It is worn thin with words. . . . I heard them discuss it often . . . the artist. . . I see now it's true. . . . Alone of men the artist has within himself the perfect mate. He needs no other. The feminine lies divinely in his being, his own perfect soul-mate. . . ."
He held out his hands, raising his head a moment from the pillow.
"It was you, and only you, I really loved. I have been true. . . . O my Great Loveliness!" And, with a smile of joy upon his face, he went to meet her.