The Best British Short Stories of 1922 HTML version

Empty Arms
(From The Ladies' Home Journal)
There was a maroon wall paper in the dining-room, abundantly decorated with sweeping
curves unlike any known kind of vegetation. There were amber silk sashes to the
Nottingham lace curtains at the huge bow window and an amber winding sheet was
wrapped about the terra cotta pot in which a tired aspidistra bore forth a yearly leaf. Upon
the Brussels carpet was a massive mahogany dining table, and facing the window a
Georgian chiffonier, brass railed and surmounted by a convex mirror. The mantlepiece
was draped in red serge, ball fringed. There were bronzes upon it and a marble clock,
while above was an overmantel, columned and bemirrored, upon the shelves of which
reposed sorrowful examples of Doulton ware and a pair of wrought-iron candlesticks. It
was a room divorced from all sense of youth and live beings, sunless, grave, unlovely; an
arid room that bore to the nostrils the taint and humour of the tomb.
From somewhere near the Edgware Road came the clot-clot of a late four-wheeler and
the shake and rumble of an underground train. The curtains had been discreetly drawn,
the gas turned off at the metre and an hour had passed since the creaking of the old lady's
shoes and the jingle of the plate basket ascending the stairs had died away. A dim light
from the street lamp outside percolated through the blinds and faintly illuminated the
frame and canvas of a large picture hanging opposite the mantlepiece.
It was a beautiful picture, a piece of perfect painting--three figures in a simple curve of
rocks, lit as it were by an afterglow of sunset. In the centre was a little Madonna draped
in blue and gold. Her elbows were tight to her sides and her upturned palms with their
tender curving fingers were empty. It seemed almost as though they cradled some one
who was not there. Her mouth was pulled down at the corners, as is a child's at the edge
of tears, and in her eyes was a questing and bewildered look. To her right, leaning upon a
slender staff, was the figure of St. John the Baptist, and upon his face also perplexity was
written. A trick brushwork had given to his eyes a changing direction whereby at a
certain angle you would say he was looking at the Madonna, and again that he was
following the direction of her gaze out into unknown places. His lips were shaped to the
utterance of such a word as "why" or "where." It seemed as though the two were in a
partnership of sorrow or of search.
The third figure was of Saint Anne, standing a little behind and looking upward. A
strange composition, oddly incomplete, giving an impression of sadness, of unrest and of
loss irredeemable.
A clock was chiming the parts of an hour when the little Madonna stepped from the
frame and tiptoed across the room. To her own reflection in the mirror opposite she shook
her head in a sorrowful negative. She peeped into a cupboard and behind the draperies of