Mona had always regarded herself as cast for the tragic rôle; her name, her large dark eyes, and the style of hairdressing that best suited her, all contributed to support that outlook on life. She habitually wore the air of one who has seen trouble, or, at any rate, expects to do so very shortly; and she was accustomed to speak of the Angel of Death almost as other people would speak of their chauffeur waiting around the corner to fetch them at the appointed moment. Fortune-tellers, noting this tendency in her disposition, invariably hinted at something in her fate which they would not care to speak about too explicitly. “You will marry the man of your choice, but afterwards you will pass through strange fires,” a Bond Street two-guinea palm-oilist had told her. “Thank you,” said Mona, “for your plain speaking. But I have known it always.”
In marrying John Waddacombe, Mona had mated herself with a man who shared none of her intimacy with the shadowy tragedies of what she called the half-seen world. He had the substantial tragedies of his own world to bother about, without straining his eyes for the elusive and dubious distractions belonging to a sphere that lay entirely beyond his range of vision; or, for the matter of that, his range of interests. Potato blight, swine fever, the Government’s land legislation, and other pests of the farm absorbed his attention as well as his energies, and even if he had admitted the possibility of such a disease as soul-sickness, of which Mona recognised eleven distinct varieties, most of them incurable, he would probably have prescribed a fortnight at the seaside as the most hopeful and natural remedy. There was no disguising the fact, John Waddacombe was of the loam, loamy. If he had cared to go into politics he would have been known inevitably as honest John Waddacombe, and after that there is nothing more to be said.
Two days, or thereabouts, after her marriage, Mona had made the tragic discovery that she was yoked to a life-partner with whom she had little in common, and from whom she could expect nothing in the way of sympathetic understanding. Anyone else, knowing both her and John and their respective temperaments, could have advanced her that information the moment that the engagement was announced. John was fond of her in his own way, and she, in her quite different way, was more than a little fond of him; but they trafficked in ideas that had scarcely a common language.
Mona set out on her married life with the expectation of being misunderstood, and after a while John arrived at the rather obvious conclusion that he didn’t understand her — and was content to “leave it at that”. His wife was at first irritated and then disheartened by his attitude of stolid indifference. “Least said, soonest mended,” was his comfortable doctrine, which failed woefully when applied to Mona’s share of the reticence. She was unhappy and perturbed about their lack of soul-fellowship; why couldn’t he be decently distressed about it also? From being at first theatrically miserable she became more seriously affected. The morbid strain in her character found at last something tangible to feed on, and brought a good appetite to the feeding. While John was busy and moderately happy with his farm troubles, Mona was dull, unoccupied, and immoderately unhappy with her own trouble.
It was at this time, in the course of one of her moody, listless rambles, that she came across the pond. In the high chalky soil of the neighbourhood, standing water was a rarity; with the exception of the artificially made duck-pond at the farm and one or two cattle pools, Mona knew of no other for miles around. It stood in a clay “pocket” in the heart of a neglected beech plantation on the steep side of a hill, a dark, evil-looking patch of water, fenced round and overspread with gloomy yews and monstrous decaying beeches. It was not a cheerful spot, and such picturesqueness as it possessed was all on the side of melancholy; the only human suggestion that could arise in connection with the pool was the idea of a dead body floating on its surface. Mona took to the place with an instantaneous sense of fascination; it suited her temperament, and it mightily suited her mood. Nearly all her walks led her to the beech wood, and the Mecca of the wood was always the still, dark pond, with its suggestion of illimitable depths, its silence, its air of an almost malignant despondency. If one could indulge in such a flight of fancy as to imagine a hill rejoicing, or a valley smiling, one could certainly picture the pond wearing a sullen, evil scowl.
Mona wove all sorts of histories about the pool, and in most of them there was some unhappy, fate-buffeted soul who hung wearily over its beckoning depths and finally floated in sombre spectacular repose among the weeds on its surface, and each time that she reshaped the story she identified the victim more and more with herself. She would stand or sit on the steeply inclined bank that overhung the pond on every side, peering down into the water and reflecting on the consequences that would follow a slip of her foot or an incautious venturing over-near the edge. How long would she struggle in those unfathomed weed-grown depths before she lay as picturesquely still as the drowned heroine of her tale-weavings, and how long would she float there in peace, with the daylight and moonlight reaching down to her through the over-arching catafalque of yew and beech, before searchers discovered her resting-place, and hauled her body away to the sordid necessities of inquest and burial? The idea of ending her despondencies and soul troubles in that dark, repose-inviting pool took firmer and clearer shape; there seemed a spirit lurking in its depths and smiling on its surface that beckoned her to lean further and yet further over its edge, to stand more and more rashly on the steep slope that overhung it. She took a subtle pleasure in marking how the fascination grew on her with each visit; how the dread of the catastrophe that she was courting grew less and less. Every time that she reluctantly tore herself away from the spot there seemed a half-jeering, half-reproachful murmur in the air around her, “Why not to-day?”
And then, at a timely moment, John Waddacombe, hearty as an ox, and seemingly proof against weather exposure, fell suddenly and critically ill with a lung attack that nearly triumphed over doctors and nurses and his own powers of stubborn resistance. Mona did her fair share of the nursing while the case was critical, fighting with greater zeal against the death that threatened her husband than she had shown in combatting the suggestion of self-destruction that had gained so insidious a hold on her. And when the convalescent stage had been reached she found John, weak and rather fretful as he was after his long experience of the sick-room, far more lovable and sympathetic than he had been in the days of his vigour. The barriers of reserve and mutual impatience had been broken down, and husband and wife found that they had more in common than they had once thought possible. Mona forgot the pond, or thought of it only with a shudder; a healthy contempt for her morbid weakness and silliness had begun to assert itself. John was not the only one of them who was going through a period of convalescence.
The self-pity and the coquetry with self-destruction had passed away under the stress of new sympathies and interests; the morbid undercurrent was part of Mona’s nature, and was not to cast out at a moment’s notice. It was the prompting of this undercurrent that led her, one day in the autumn, to pay a visit to the spot where she had toyed so weakly with stupid, evil ideas and temptations. It would be, she felt, a curious sensation to renew acquaintance with the place now that its fascination and potential tragedy had been destroyed. In outward setting it was more desolate and gloom-shrouded than ever; the trees had lost their early autumnal magnificence, and rain had soaked the fallen beech-leaves into a paste of dark slush under foot. Amid the nakedness of their neighbours, the yews stood out thick, and black, and forbidding, and the sickly growth of fungoid things showed itself prominently amid the rotting vegetation. Mona peered down at the dark, ugly pool, and shuddered to think that she could ever have contemplated an end so horrible as choking and gasping to death in those foul, stagnant depths, with their floating surface of slime and creeping water insects and rank weed-growth. And then the thing that she recoiled from in disgust seemed to rise up towards her as though to drag her down in a long-deferred embrace. Her feet had slipped on the slithery surface of sodden leaves and greasy clay, and she was sliding helplessly down the steep bank to where it dropped sheer into the pool. She clutched and clawed frantically at yielding roots and wet, slippery earth, and felt the weight of her body pull her downward with ever-increasing momentum. The hideous pool, whose fascination she had courted and slighted, was gaping in readiness for her; even if she had been a swimmer there would have been little chance for her in those weed-tangled depths, and John would find her there, as once she had almost wished — John who had loved her and learned to love her better than ever; John whom she loved with all her heart. She raised her voice to call his name again and again, but she knew he was a mile or two away, busy with the farm life that once more claimed his devoted attention. She felt the bank slide away from her in a dark, ugly smear, and heard the small stones and twigs that she had dislodged fall with soft splashes into the water at her feet; above her, far above her it seemed, the yews spread their sombre branches like the roof-span of a crypt.
“Heavens alive, Mona, where did you get all that mud?” asked John in some pardonable astonishment. “Have you been playing catch-as-catch-can with the pigs? You’re splashed up to the eyes in it.”
“I slipped into a pond,” said Mona.
“What, into the horse-pond?” asked John.
“No, a pond out in one of the woods,” she explained.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing for miles around,” said John.
“Well, perhaps it would be an exaggeration to call it a pond,” said Mona with a faint trace of resentment in her voice; “it’s only about an inch and a half deep.”
- Parodying 1 Corinthians 15:47: “The first man is of the earth, earthy”. ↩
‘The Pond’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Bystander (public domain). Notes © 2017 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.