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Taking The Veil

Kathleen Mansfield Murry (1888–1923) was a prominent modernist writer of short fiction from New Zealand who wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At the age of 18 she settled in London to study music and to establish herself as a writer. In 1918, Mansfield married the English literary critic John Middleton Murry. Mansfield’s creative years were burdened with loneliness, illness, jealousy, alienation – all this reflected in her work in the bitter depiction of marital and family relationships. Her short stories are noted for their use of stream of consciousness and sharp portraits of characters. She often depicted everyday events in the lives of ordinary people. Mansfield was greatly influenced by Anton Chekhov, sharing his warm humanity, sensitive characterization and subtle choice of detail. Her influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature was also notable. Her family memoirs were collected in Bliss (1920), which secured her reputation as a writer. Collections of her short fiction include In a German Pansion, The Garden Party, The Dove’s Nest, The Man Without a Temperament, Something Childish and many others. During her life only three volumes of her stories were published.

It seemed impossible that anyone should be unhappy on such a beautiful morning. Nobody was, decided Edna, except herself. The windows were flung wide in the houses. From within there came the sound of pianos, little hands chased after each other and ran away from each other, practising scales. The trees fluttered in the sunny gardens, all bright with spring flowers. Street boys whistled, a little dog barked; people passed by, walking so lightly, so swiftly, they looked as though they wanted to break into a run. Now she actually saw in the distance a parasol, peach-coloured, the first parasol of the year.

Perhaps even Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt. It is not easy to look tragic at eighteen, when you are extremely pretty, with the cheeks and lips and shining eyes of perfect health. Above all, when you are wearing a French blue frock and your new spring hat trimmed with cornflowers. True, she carried under her arm a book bound in horrid black leather. Perhaps the book provided a gloomy note, but only by accident; it was the ordinary library binding. For Edna had made going to the library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now.

An awful thing had happened. Quite suddenly, at the theatre last night, when she and Jimmy were seated side by side in the dress-circle, without a moment’s warning – in fact, she had just finished a chocolate almond and passed the box to him again – she had fallen in love with an actor. But – fallen – in – love....

The feeling was unlike anything she had ever imagined before. It wasn’t in the least pleasant. It was hardly thrilling. Unless you can call the most dreadful sensation of hopeless misery, despair, agony and wretchedness, thrilling. Combined with the certainty that if that actor met her on the pavement after, while Jimmy was fetching their cab, she would follow him to the ends of the earth, at a nod, at a sign, without giving another thought to Jimmy or her father and mother or her happy home and countless friends again....

The play had begun fairly cheerfully. That was at the chocolate almond stage. Then the hero had gone blind. Terrible moment! Edna had cried so much she had to borrow Jimmy’s folded, smooth-feeling handkerchief as well. Not that crying mattered. Whole rows were in tears. Even the men blew their noses with a loud trumpeting noise and tried to peer at the programme instead of looking at the stage. Jimmy, most mercifully dry-eyed – for what would she have done without his handkerchief? – squeezed her free hand, and whispered “Cheer up, darling girl!” And it was then she had taken a last chocolate almond to please him and passed the box again. Then there had been that ghastly scene with the hero alone on the stage in a deserted room at twilight, with a band playing outside and the sound of cheering coming from the street. He had tried – ah! how painfully, how pitifully! – to grope his way to the window. He had succeeded at last. There he stood holding the curtain while one beam of light, just one beam, shone full on his raised sightless face, and the band faded away into the distance....

It was – really, it was absolutely – oh, the most – it was simply – in fact, from that moment Edna knew that life could never be the same. She drew her hand away from Jimmy’s, leaned back, and shut the chocolate box for ever. This at last was love!

Edna and Jimmy were engaged. She had had her hair up for a year and a half; they had been publicly engaged for a year. But, they had known they were going to marry each other ever since they walked in the Botanical Gardens with their nurses, and sat on the grass with a wine biscuit and a piece of barley-sugar each for their tea. It was so much an accepted thing that Edna had worn a wonderfully good imitation of an engagement-ring out of a holiday cracker all the time she was at school. And up till now they had been devoted to each other.

But now it was over. It was so completely over that Edna found it difficult to believe that Jimmy did not realise it too. She smiled wisely, sadly, as she turned into the gardens of the Convent of the Sacred Heart and mounted the path that led through them to Hill Street. How much better to know it now than to wait until after they were married! Now it was possible that Jimmy would get over it. No, it was no use deceiving herself; he would never get over it! His life was wrecked, was ruined; that was inevitable. But he was young.... Time, people always said, Time might make a little, just a little difference. In forty years when he was an old man, he might be able to think of her calmly – perhaps. But she, – what did the future hold for her?

Edna had reached the top of the path. There, under a new-leafed tree, hung with little bunches of white flowers, she sat down on a green bench and looked over the Convent flowerbeds. In the one nearest to her there grew tender stocks, with a border of blue, shell-like pansies, with at one corner a clump of creamy freesias, their light spears of green criss-crossed over the flowers. The Convent pigeons were tumbling high in the air, and she could hear the voice of Sister Agnes who was giving a singing lesson. Ah-me, sounded the deep tones of the nun, and Ah-me, they were echoed....

If she did not marry Jimmy, of course she would marry nobody. The man she was in love with, the famous actor – Edna had far too much common-sense not to realise that would never be. It was very odd. She didn’t even want it to be. Her love was too intense for that. It had to be endured, silently; it had to torment her. It was, she supposed, simply that kind of love.

“But, Edna!” cried Jimmy. “Can you never change? Can I never hope again?”

Oh, what sorrow to have to say it, but it must be said. “No, Jimmy, I will never change.”

Edna bowed her head; and a little flower fell on her lap, and the voice of Sister Agnes cried suddenly Ah-no, and the echo came, Ah-no....

At that moment the future was revealed. Edna saw it all. She was astonished; it took her breath away at first. But, after all, what could be more natural? She would go into a convent.... Her father and mother do everything to dissuade her, in vain. As for Jimmy, his state of mind hardly bears thinking about. Why can’t they understand? How can they add to her suffering like this? The world is cruel, terribly cruel! After a last scene when she gives away her jewellery and so on to her best friends – she so calm, they so broken-hearted – into a convent she goes. No, one moment. The very evening of her going is the actor’s last evening at Port Willin. He receives by a strange messenger a box. It is full of white flowers. But there is no name, no card. Nothing? Yes, under the roses, wrapped in a white handkerchief, Edna’s last photograph with, written underneath,

“The world forgetting, by the world forgot.”

Edna sat very still under the trees; she clasped the black book in her fingers as though it were her missal. She takes the name of Sister Angela. Snip! Snip! All her lovely hair is cut off. Will she be allowed to send one curl to Jimmy? It is contrived somehow. And in a blue gown with a white headband Sister Angela goes from the convent to the chapel, from the chapel to the convent with something unearthly in her look, in her sorrowful eyes, and in the gentle smile with which they greet the little children who run to her. A saint! She hears it whispered as she paces the chill, wax-smelling corridors. A saint! And visitors to the chapel are told of the nun whose voice is heard above the other voices, of her youth, her beauty, of her tragic, tragic love. “There is a man in this town whose life is ruined....”

A big bee, a golden furry fellow, crept into a freesia, and the delicate flower leaned over, swung, shook; and when the bee flew away it fluttered still as though it were laughing. Happy, careless flower!

Sister Angela looked at it and said, “Now it is winter.” One night, lying in her icy cell, she hears a cry. Some stray animal is out there in the garden, a kitten or a lamb or – well, whatever little animal might be there. Up rises the sleepless nun. All in white, shivering but fearless, she goes and brings it in. But next morning, when the bell rings for matins, she is found tossing in high fever ... in delirium... and she never recovers. In three days all is over. The service has been said in the chapel, and she is buried in the corner of the cemetery reserved for the nuns, where there are plain little crosses of wood. Rest in Peace, Sister Angela...

Now it is evening. Two old people leaning on each other come slowly to the grave and kneel down sobbing, “Our daughter! Our only daughter!” Now there comes another. He is all in black; he comes slowly. But when he is there and lifts his black hat, Edna sees to her horror his hair is snow-white. Jimmy! Too late, too late! The tears are running down his face; he is crying now. Too late, too late! The wind shakes the leafless trees in the churchyard.

He gives one awful bitter cry.

Edna’s black book fell with a thud to the garden path. She jumped up, her heart beating. My darling! No, it’s not too late. It’s all been a mistake, a terrible dream. Oh, that white hair! How could she have done it. “She has not done it. Oh, heavens! Oh, what happiness! She is free, young, and nobody knows her secret. Everything is still possible for her and Jimmy. The house they have planned may still be built, the little solemn boy with his hands behind his back watching them plant the standard roses may still be born. His baby sister... But when Edna got as far as his baby sister, she stretched out her arms as though the little love came flying through the air to her, and gazing at the garden, at the white sprays on the tree, at those darling pigeons blue against the blue, and the Convent with its narrow windows, she realised that now at last for the first time in her life – she had never imagined any feeling like it before – she knew what it was to be in love, but – in – love!

By Katherine Mansfield

1. Translate the following words and word combinations into Russian. Describe the situations in which they were used.

• to practice scales

• ghastly scene

• to break into a run

• to grope one’s way

• trimmed with cornflowers

• barley sugar

• to provide a gloomy note

• to take one’s breath away

• to make an excuse

• sorrowful eyes

• dreadful sensation

• stray animal

• to fetch a cab

• to toss in high fever

• to follow smb to the ends of the earth

• to give another thought

• to blow one’s nose

• delirium

• to squeeze smb’s hand

• to give a bitter cry

• to fall with a thud

• to stretch out one’s arms

2. Explain in English the meaning of the following words:

1. to chase – __________

2. frock – __________

3. misery – __________

4. agony – __________

5. sightless – __________

6. to deceive – __________

7. intense – __________

8. odd – __________

9. to be astonished – __________

10. cell – __________

3. Study the following:

to flutter – to make small gentle movements in the air, e.g. The flag fluttered in the light breeze.

parasol – a type of umbrella used to provide shade from the sun, e.g. She carried a parasol to keep the sun from her face.

to bind (bound) – to fasten the pages of a book together and put them in a cover, e.g. The book was bound in beautiful expensive leather.

dress circle – the lowest of the curved rows of seats upstairs in a theatre [= first balcony American English], e.g. And the scaffolding that surrounded the dress circle has now encroached on to the stage.

despair – a feeling that you have no hope at all, e.g. Separation from someone you love can bring loneliness and despair.

wretched (noun wretchedness) – extremely bad or unpleasant [= miserable], e.g. I was shocked to see their wretched living conditions.

fold – to bend a piece of paper, cloth etc by laying or pressing one part over another, e.g. Before getting into bed, I usually fold my clothes and put them on the chair.

peer – to look very carefully at something, especially because you are having difficulty seeing it, e.g. Roger peered into the dark corridor to see what was making the noise.

twilight – the time when day is just starting to become night [= dusk], e.g. In the twilight and without my glasses, I couldn’t really tell.

beam – a line of light shining from the sun, a lamp etc, e.g. We could see the beams of searchlights scanning the sky.

fade (away) – to gradually disappear, e.g. Over the years her beauty had faded a little.

to wreck (adjective wrecked) – to completely spoil something so that it cannot continue in a successful way [= ruin], e.g. Injury threatened to wreck his sporting career.

inevitable – certain to happen and impossible to avoid, e.g. It was inevitable that he’d find out her secret sooner or later.

pansy – a small garden plant with brightly coloured flowers, e.g. Mother’s favourite flowers are pansies.

common sense – the ability to behave in a sensible way and make practical decisions, e.g. Use your common sense when deciding when children should go to bed.

to criss-cross – to make a pattern of straight lines that cross each other, e.g. Railway lines crisscross the countryside.

to endure – to be in a difficult or painful situation for a long time without complaining, e.g. It seemed impossible that anyone could endure such pain.

to torment – to make someone suffer a lot, especially mentally, e.g. Jealousy, fear, and suspicion tormented Harriet.

convent – a building or set of buildings where nuns live, e.g. Cecilia, remaining faithful to her vow to the end, plans to enter a convent.

to dissuade – to persuade someone not to do something, e.g. He wanted to come with me, and nothing I said could dissuade him.

missal – a book containing all the prayers said during each Mass for a whole year in the Roman Catholic church, e.g. He went to the high altar where the great missal lay.

to contrive – to succeed in doing something in spite of difficulties, e.g. Fortunately this morning Nick had contrived to rid himself of Tom’s services.

4. Make up a dialogue or a short situation using as many words as you can from Exercise 3.

5. Choose the right ending.

1. On that beautiful morning Edna got out of the house ________

(A) to think.

(B) to go to the library.

(C) to meet Jimmy.

2. Edna’s love for the actor was ________

(A) pleasant.

(B) thrilling.

(C) hopeless.

3. During the play Edna ________

(A) laughed.

(B) applauded.

(C) cried.

4. There was a heartrending scene when the hero ________

(A) took poison.

(B) went blind.

(C) stabbed himself.

5. Jimmy was Edna’s ________

(A) elder brother.

(B) best friend.

(C) fiancé.

6. Edna imagined that she would become a ________

(A) famous actress.

(B) nun.

(C) Jimmy’s wife.

7. In her dreams Edna was to ________

(A) marry the actor

(B) leave her native country forever.

(C) die.

8. At the end of the story Edna realized that ________

(A) she loved Jimmy.

(B) she would never forget the actor.

(C) she didn’t want to go to the convent.

Answers: 1. A; 2. C; 3. C; 4. B; 5. C; 6. B; 7. C; 8. A

6. Describe:

A. Edna

B. Edna and Jimmy’s relations

C. Edna’s dream

7. Answer the questions.

1. Why was Edna unhappy on such a beautiful morning?

2. What happened to Edna at the theatre last night?

3. Why was everybody in tears?

4. What scene made Edna fall in love with the actor?

5. What was Edna’s love for the actor like?

6. Why did Edna decide to marry Jimmy?

7. What did she realize at last?

Questions to think about.

1. What is the author’s attitude to Edna? Is it positive/negative/indifferent/ironical/sympathetic etc? Prove your point of view.

2. What is your own attitude to Edna? Do you understand the girl’s feelings? Have you ever fallen in love with a famous actor/singer/musician?

3. Did Edna truly love the actor or was it just a temporary infatuation? Comment on your opinion.

4. Did Edna love Jimmy? Why do you think so?

5. Do you sometimes plunge into your dreams forgetting about reality? Why do people dream? Which is more important: dreams or reality?

8. Comment on the title of the story. Make up your own title. Prove that it is suitable.

9. Make up a dialogue between Edna and the actor after the play. Edna is in a highly romantic mood and the actor is indifferent and tired of his numerous admirers.

10. Continue the story. Imagine what will happen to Edna and Jimmy in 20-30 years.

11. Read and translate the quotations below. Choose one of them and say if you agree or disagree with the author’s point of view. Expand his idea.

• Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. (H.L. Mencken)

• All love shifts and changes. I don’t know if you can be wholeheartedly in love all the time. (Julie Andrews)

• It is difficult to know at what moment love begins; it is less difficult to know that it has begun. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

• …life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams. (Pedro Calderon de la Barca)

• You can often measure a person by the size of his dream. (Robert H. Schuller)

• When we can’t dream any longer we die. (Emma Goldman)

By Svetlana Yunyova ,
Moscow Regional Pedagogical College, Serpukhov