The Marriage of Walter Woodside and Bertie Ryland
by Frederick Kraenzel

"Have you heard the sad news about Mr. George Llewellyn?" asked Mrs. Maltravers.

"I believe he has had a long illness," replied Miss Buxton, helping herself to another shortbread biscuit.

"He died quite suddenly, two days ago," declared her friend.

Miss Buxton mimed shock. "How terrible," she said, truly feeling a little depressed, as if floodwaters were seeping into her own cellar. "How terrible for Walter Woodside, Mrs. Llewellyn as she calls herself."

"I think they were very happy, living in sin as they were," pronounced Mrs. Maltravers. "But I can never forgive her for betraying a marriage."

"Well, poor Mr. Llewellyn. His wife was surely the occasion of sin in all this."

"Nevertheless, I cannot condone the behavior of Walter Woodside. She may have made George Llewellyn happy, but she dragged marriage down for the rest of us."

Miss Buxton knew well her friend's opinion of Walter Woodside's behavior. Discussing Walter Woodside had been a staple of her tea parties for twenty years, though no one in their circle had ever been invited to meet the lady in question. Walter Woodside was doubtless the Queen's greatest subject, the chief of novelists since Mr. Dickens' death, the pre-eminent moral authority in the land despite her sin.

Walter herself took several months to come out of seclusion after George's death. Not that it took her by surprise. George had been weakening for some years, suffering chronic pain, keeping his spirits up by conscious effort. Their lovely sex life of old, that wandering together in meads of delight, had withered. She was still eager and her imagination spun hotly, but of late George could only go through the motions. For several months before death, he had taken to his bed for long periods with worsening pains in his head, his chest, his stomach. Near the end, he had charged her to finish his great book on Man's Place in Nature. She accepted this as a sacred duty, for George had worked on this treatise since years, and it would be lost if she did not finish it.

Working on George's notes and drafts did not cheer her up. His views had been born in the holocaust of Bible certainties in which Walter Woodside had played a prominent part as furnisher of incendiary material, and had taken form in the picture of evolution framed by their friend Charles Darwin. George had been sure that the soul was a function of the body, extinguished at death, if not before. Walter wondered how chance and survival of the fittest made her able to build great tableaux of the people in the countryside she came from, full of light and weather, dramatic meetings and taproom conversations, virtue and tragedy. But she could not focus her doubts about the new world picture. She had to accept that her lover was no more, fallen into the lion's mouth, and that she would soon follow him into the bottomless lake. She was fifty-nine, and her health was shaky; but carpe diem, she told herself.

Her solace in these desolate days was her bachelor friend Albert Ryland. Bertie was a worshiper of Walter Woodside and her novels. He was her neighbor in the downland country south of the capital, and a successful financial consultant. Bertie was also tall, well set up, with a sumptuous head of hair and twenty years Walter's junior. He had for years managed the considerable fortune of the most successful writer in the Empire. He did this for love, not for money. His reward was that his idol talked to him, discussed books with him, taught him German, and increasingly petted him as her best of sons and brothers. Now that she was bereaved of her lover, she let Bertie come to her more and more often. He had time for her. He had lived for years with his mother in the country, but she had died within a month of George Llewellyn. Walter Woodside was his neighbor, idol, best customer, and now filled the place of his dead parent.

A few months after George's death, Walter picked up the threads of her life, her letters and receptions, her own book of essays as well as George's book. But her health soon cracked and swayed. She came down with one cold and influenza after another, kidney stone, albumen in her urine, the tormenting renal malfunction that had dogged her since her last novel. She took to her bed and Bertie called in doctors, supervised the servants who fed and cared for her, held her hand and soothed her. She grew very thin, and even when she rallied and got up, her beautifully cut dresses had little to show off. Walter Woodside was no beauty anyway. She had a lank horse-face, with eyes set close about the long, droopy nose which was her most obvious feature. Her teeth were large and wide apart, tending to protrude from her big lips when she talked. Yet it was just then that she was most bewitching. An amusing, ironic feminine banter sauced her seriousness. And her look hung with fascination and friendship on her partner in talk, making people feel important, wise and worthy of the great Walter Woodside.

One summer day, six or eight months into her widowhood, Bertie was sitting by Walter's bed. She was convalescing from a bad bout; she was sitting up now, resting her back in the pillows, looking out the casement into her green garden where hummingbirds buzzed among the poppies. A sweet scent of warm foxgloves breathed through the sickroom. The sun was deeply aslant in the west, flooding the garden with golden light. Bertie said, "You can still be happy. And you can make another person very happy."

The aging woman looked the tall man in the eyes, and he saw life burning deep in her. "You make me very happy, Bertie," she said. "I can't think about anything else just now." A few weeks later she collapsed again, complaining of dreadful pains in her abdomen. During one of her rallies in the fall, Bertie brought the subject to a head. "You need somebody to take care of you," he said. "I need somebody in my life. I love you. Can't we become one?"

"Give me some time to think it over," she said.

"Remember that love can save you," he persisted.

During the Christmas holidays, Walter seemed in good health. Her house in the capital was full of friends, George LLewellyn's children and grandchildren whom she called her own, Bertie and his sisters, old friends from Walter's up-country youth. She ate sparingly but drank a good deal of champagne. Doctor's orders; it eased her pain and flushed her kidneys. Sometimes she took a glass more than prescribed, and claimed to be tipsy most of the time.

She took Bertie aside into her little writing room. The portraits of herself and George had been cleared out of it. Her eyes swept the blank walls, and then she looked straight at Bertie.

"I accept your proposal of marriage," she said.

He went down on one knee and kissed her hand.

"But I want you to be my husband in the full sense, Bertie," she went on. "This is the love that can save me."

"I'm not experienced," he said shyly, and then added, "But I can learn."

"It's the nearest to heaven that most of us get," she said.

For the next months, Walter's health improved. Her book of essays was selling well, and she tried again to market her translation of Spinoza from the Latin. She and Bertie read Dante together, as he had applied to her to improve his Italian. Near the end of April, she settled impulsively on a May wedding and began to write a great many letters.

People were surprised that Walter settled for a simple Anglican ceremony. She who ordained her own morality might surely have devised her own marriage contract. Just after the rite, the couple took the train for the Straits and crossed to the Continent. In Paris, Bertie suggested the Meurice, but Walter insisted on the modest HTMtel Britannique. No need to throw money around, she said.

The wedding night went perhaps no worse than wedding nights usually do. Bertie began by kissing Walter's feet as she sat in her dressing gown. "Come up higher," she said. "You must be over me."

"I can never be above you," he answered.

"Take me literally, Bertie," she said.

He doused the lights before they got into bed, but it bothered him that Walter, lying next to him, was wearing nothing. They embraced and kissed as they often had, with enthusiasm, but she seemed thinner than ever. He shivered, breathing hard, and she took his hand and passed it over her haunches. Why did women have these frightful things? He could feel the bones under the wasted flesh. When she touched him carnally, he let out a groan. It was all so beastly, so bereft of human dignity.

"I'm no good," he said finally. "I'm a failure."

"You can learn, Bertie," she said softly. "I love you." But she did not dare to hug him.

The next few days they toured the museums, the palaces, the new boulevards, the Opéra, which they did capitally if exhaustively, being experts. Not until they were in Grenoble did the issue of consummation come up again. In bed with her, he found things just as bad and much worse. She took his hand and touched her privates with it. That place down there in the dark was hairy, it was even slimy. When he took back his hand, the smell on it revolted him. As for his own member, what was he to do with it? He dared not think. It was all so utterly excremental.

"I can't do it," he moaned.

"I'm an old crowbait, Bertie, but you've got to ride me," she said.

He did not ride her that night. As they trained on through Milan and down the Po, Walter tried to draw out his feelings about conjugal union, but he refused to speak. He was brooding. He was not sure whether he loved Walter or hated her. How inappropriate for a horse-faced old woman to talk about riding her. How disgusting of her, at her age and station, to be addicted to sex. How incomprehensible was God's design of the function anyway. Yet he had made a promise, to be a husband in the full sense, to be bonny and bucksome in bed. Better it were if one of them should die.

Walter thought, how frightfully hot it is in Italy in June. Why was I such a fool as to choose this itinerary? And these carriages are badly aired, ancient, unclean, the slop of ages in the walls and cushions.

In Venice, the heat grew even worse. Walter took an expensive hotel this time, a second-floor suite with a balcony over the Grand Canal. This was a mistake. The Grand Canal was an open-air sewer. A vile fetor sufflated from it in the heat. Bertie went from silent to feverish, and mumbled. Walter called in a doctor.

When the doctor asked Bertie what his name was, the response was "Harry Crotch." The doctor looked over the symptoms and named heat and unhealthy atmosphere as the probable cause. "But an unconscious connection with sexuality is not excludable," he added.

At that, Bertie said clearly "There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit!" and skinning out of bed, shot over the balcony rail and plunged into the Grand Canal.

The gondoliers were gallant. The nearest one hooked Bertie with his pole and hauled him to the surface. Bertie spluttered and struggled to get his pajamas off the hook. By then another boat arrived. With three boats, they boxed Bertie in and heaved him out of the brew, into the arms of waiting guards. The doctor had ordered an ambulance, which presently arrived at a gallop. Bertie was straitjacketed and dragged off to hospital.

Walter arrived just after him, in the doctor's carriage. While the doctor looked to Bertie, she paced the hospital corridors. She did not fear for his life just now. Bertie's powerful struggles and imprecations gave evidence of sound health. What dominated her mind were Bertie's last words before his leap. The doctor, if his English was good enough, might have thought Bertie was talking about the Grand Canal. But Walter knew the text Bertie had quoted, and she knew what Shakespeare meant. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiend's. There's hell, there's darkness… Bertie was a virgin pure, undefiled by the flesh. And his action had said that he would die rather than ride an old crowbait.

Walter ran down the corridor to the women's washroom, locked herself in a cubicle, and collapsed onto the toilet. She bent her head to her knees and broke down in sobs. She was truly an old crowbait. But Bertie was her last hope of the ecstasy she had known with George, the mysterious heartbeat of creation, the source of spirit. Gone forever now. Nothing left but to sink slowly into waters far deeper than the Grand Canal.

Someone rattled the cublicle door. "Madama, come sta?"

"Sto bene," answered Walter. "I am not bereaved. I'm just an idiot."

When Bertie had been calm under observation for a few days, the two of them eased their way to a hillside villa near Verona, where the air was cooler and, above all, pure. Walter mothered Bertie, kissing and caressing him as they always had, but she hinted nothing about full husbandry. They slept in separate rooms. As June progressed they climbed into the Tirol, to Innsbruck, and crossed into Switzerland. Bertie walked cheerfully in the mountain air, leaving Walter exhausted at the end of beautiful days.

When they returned home at the end of July, villagers were surprised to see the great Antichrist walking out to church with her husband. As for Antichrist, she was thinking of her twenties, when for a few years she had been an evangelizing fundamentalist. Only two years ago she had written, "The things that began in us as illusions, when we were unacquainted with evil, do not lose their value because we discern them to be illusions." She had no will to start writing the desperate novels of the next century. She wrote nothing now but personal letters. She and her husband often played at tennis, and Bertie managed the estate, hewing down trees by himself and seeing to getting and furnishing a new house in the capital.

Walter's health was shaken by a bad kidney attack in October. She rallied for two months of mother-and-son married life, and came down with a cold a week before Christmas. The doctor was not alarmed, but when he visited on the evening of the twenty-second, he realized that all was over. Walter died quietly at ten, complaining of pain in her side. Bertie retired into seclusion for a time, emerging with the project of writing his wife's autobiography in her own words. A friend of Walter's remarked that he looked beatific.