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Title: Two Hanged Women
Author: Henry Handel Richardson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.:  0100191.txt
Language:   English
Date first posted: November 2001
Date most recently updated: November 2001

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Title: Two Hanged Women
Author: Henry Handel Richardson

Hand in hand the youthful lovers sauntered along the esplanade. It was a
night in midsummer; a wispy moon had set, and the stars glittered. The
dark mass of the sea, at flood, lay tranquil, slothfully lapping the

"Come on, let's make for the usual," said the boy.

But on nearing their favourite seat they found it occupied. In the velvety
shade of the overhanging sea-wall, the outlines of two figures were

"Oh, blast!" said the lad. "That's torn it. What now, Baby?"

"Why, let's stop here, Pincher, right close up, till we frighten 'em off."

And very soon loud, smacking kisses, amatory pinches and ticklings, and
skittish squeals of pleasure did their work. Silently the intruders rose
and moved away.

But the boy stood gaping after them, open-mouthed.

"Well, I'm DAMNED! If it wasn't just two hanged women!"

Retreating before a salvo of derisive laughter, the elder of the girls
said: "We'll go out on the break-water." She was tall and thin, and walked
with a long stride.

Her companion, shorter than she by a bobbed head of straight flaxen hair,
was hard put to it to keep pace. As she pegged along she said doubtfully,
as if in self-excuse: "Though I really ought to go home. It's getting
late. Mother will be angry."

They walked with finger-tips lightly in contact; and at her words she felt
what was like an attempt to get free, on the part of the fingers crooked
in hers. But she was prepared for this, and held fast, gradually working
her own up till she had a good half of the other hand in her grip.

For a moment neither spoke. Then, in a low, muffled voice, came the
question: "Was she angry last night, too?"

The little fair girl's reply had an unlooked-for vehemence. "You know she
wasn't!" And, mildly despairing: "But you never WILL understand. Oh,
what's the good of . . . of anything!"

And on sitting down she let the prisoned hand go, even putting it from her
with a kind of push. There it lay, palm upwards, the fingers still curved
from her hold, looking like a thing with a separate life of its own; but a
life that was ebbing.

On this remote seat, with their backs turned on lovers, lights, the town,
the two girls sat and gazed wordlessly at the dark sea, over which great
Jupiter was flinging a thin gold line. There was no sound but the lapping,
sucking, sighing, of the ripples at the edge of the breakwater, and the
occasional screech of an owl in the tall trees on the hillside.

But after a time, having stolen more than one side-glance at her
companion, the younger seemed to take heart of grace. With a childish toss
of the head that set her loose hair swaying, she said, in a tone of
meaning emphasis: "I like Fred."

The only answer was a faint, contemptuous shrug.

"I tell you I LIKE him!"

"Fred? Rats!"

"No it isn't . . . that's just where you're wrong, Betty. But you think
you're so wise. Always."

"I know what I know."

"Or imagine you do! But it doesn't matter. Nothing you can say makes any
difference. I like him, and always shall. In heaps of ways. He's so big
and strong, for one thing: it gives you such a safe sort of feeling to be
with him . . . as if nothing could happen while you were. Yes,
it's . . . it's . . . well, I can't help it, Betty, there's something
COMFY in having a boy to go about with--like other girls do. One they'd
eat their hats to get, too! I can see it in their eyes when we pass; Fred
with his great long legs and broad shoulders--I don't nearly come up to
them--and his blue eyes with the black lashes, and his shiny black hair.
And I like his tweeds, the Harris smell of them, and his dirty old pipe,
and the way he shows his teeth--he's got TOPPING teeth--when he laughs and
says 'ra-THER!' And other people, when they see us, look . . . well I
don't quite know how to say it, but they look sort of pleased; and they
make room for us and let us into the dark corner-seats at the pictures,
just as if we'd a right to them. And they never laugh. (Oh, I can't STICK
being laughed at!--and that's the truth.) Yes, it's so comfy, Betty
darling . . . such a warm cosy comfy feeling. Oh, WON'T you understand?"

"Gawd! why not make a song of it?" But a moment later, very fiercely: "And
who is it's taught you to think all this? Who's hinted it and suggested
it till you've come to believe it? . . . believe it's what you really

"She hasn't! Mother's never said a word . . . about Fred."

"Words?--why waste words? . . . when she can do it with a cock of the eye.
For your Fred, that!" and the girl called Betty held her fingers aloft and
snapped them viciously. "But your mother's a different proposition."

"I think you're simply horrid."

To this there was no reply.

"WHY have you such a down on her? What's she ever done to you? . . . except
not get ratty when I stay out late with Fred. And I don't see how you can
expect . . . being what she is . . . and with nobody but me--after all
she IS my mother . . . you can't alter that. I know very well--and you
know, too--I'm not TOO putrid-looking. But"--beseechingly--"I'm NEARLY
twenty-five now, Betty. And other girls . . . well, she sees them, every
one of them, with a boy of their own, even though they're ugly, or fat,
or have legs like sausages--they've only got to ogle them a bit--the
girls, I mean . . . and there they are. And Fred's a good sort--he is,
really!--and he dances well, and doesn't drink, and so . . . so why
SHOULDN'T I like him? . . . and off my own bat . . . without it having to
be all Mother's fault, and me nothing but a parrot, and without any will
of my own?"

"Why? Because I know her too well, my child! I can read her as you'd never
dare to . . . even if you could. She's sly, your mother is, so sly there's
no coming to grips with her . . . one might as well try to fill one's hand
with cobwebs. But she's got a hold on you, a stranglehold, that nothing'll
loosen. Oh! mothers aren't fair--I mean it's not fair of nature to weigh
us down with them and yet expect us to be our own true selves. The
handicap's too great. All those months, when the same blood's running
through two sets of veins--there's no getting away from that, ever after.
Take yours. As I say, does she need to open her mouth? Not she! She's only
got to let it hang at the corners, and you reek, you drip with guilt."

Something in these words seemed to sting the younger girl. She hit back.
"I know what it is, you're jealous, that's what you are! . . . and you've
no other way of letting it out. But I tell you this. If ever I marry--yes,
MARRY!--it'll be to please myself, and nobody else. Can, you imagine me
doing it to oblige her?"

Again silence.

"If I only think what it would be like to be fixed up and settled, and
able to live in peace, without this eternal dragging two ways . . . just
as if I was being torn in half. And see Mother smiling and happy again,
like she used to be. Between the two of you I'm nothing but a punch-ball.
Oh, I'm fed up with it! . . . fed up to the neck. As for you . . .  And
yet you can sit there as if you were made of stone! Why don't you SAY
something? BETTY! Why won't you speak?"

But no words came.

"I can FEEL you sneering. And when you sneer I hate you more than any one
on earth. If only I'd never seen you!"

"Marry your Fred, and you'll never need to again."

"I will, too! I'll marry him, and have a proper wedding like other girls,
with a veil and bridesmaids and bushels of flowers. And I'll live in a
house of my own, where I can do as I like, and be left in peace, and
there'll be no one to badger and bully me--Fred wouldn't . . . ever!
Besides, he'll be away all day. And when he came back at night,
he'd . . . I'd I mean I'd----" But here the flying words gave out; there
came a stormy breath and a cry of: "Oh, Betty, Betty! . . . I couldn't,
no, I couldn't! It's when I think of THAT . . . Yes, it's quite true!
I like him all right, I do indeed, but only as long as he doesn't come too
near. If he even sits too close, I have to screw myself up to bear
it"--and flinging herself down over her companion's lap, she hid her face.
"And if he tries to touch me, Betty, or even takes my arm or puts his
round me. . . . And then his face . . . when it looks like it does
sometimes all wrong . . . as if it had gone all wrong--oh! then I feel I
shall have to scream--out loud. I'm afraid of him . . . when he looks like
that. Once . . . when he kissed me . . . I could have died with the horror
of it. His breath . . .his breath . . . and his mouth--like fruit
pulp--and the black hairs on his wrists . . . and the way he looked--
and . . . and everything! No, I can't, I can't . . . nothing will make
me . . . I'd rather die twice over. But what am I to do? Mother'll NEVER
understand. Oh, why has it got to be like this? I want to be happy, like
other girls, and to make her happy, too . . . and everything's all wrong.
You tell me, Betty darling, you help me, you're older . . . you
KNOW . . . and you can help me, if you will . . . if you only will!"
And locking her arms round her friend she drove her face deeper into the
warmth and darkness, as if, from the very fervour of her clasp, she could
draw the aid and strength she needed.

Betty had sat silent, unyielding, her sole movement being to loosen her
own arms from her sides and point her elbows outwards, to hinder them
touching the arms that lay round her. But at this last appeal she melted;
and gathering the young girl to her breast, she held her fast.--And so for
long she continued to sit, her chin resting lightly on the fair hair, that
was silky and downy as an infant's, and gazing with sombre eyes over the
stealthily heaving sea.


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