Authors: Mavis Gallant
PRAISE FOR MAVIS GALLANT’S FICTION
“The worlds Gallant creates are so complete that, as readers, we can live inside them. They have their own atmosphere, oxygen, colors, characters, dilemmas. We carry these stories around with us for days after we finish reading them because of their profound human ambiguities.… These stories lodge in our minds and become part of our happiness, the happiness of knowing that perfection, wrought from an imperfect world, is possible.”
“One begins comparing her best moments to those of major figures in literary history. Names like Henry James, Chekhov and George Eliot dance across the mind. Gallant’s accomplishment is on an extraordinarily high level.”
– Margaret Atwood
“She has written many short stories. My calculation suggests that she has written in this form at least the equivalent of twenty novels.”
– Robertson Davies
BOOKS BY MAVIS GALLANT
What Is to Be Done?
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews
The Other Paris
Green Water, Green Sky
My Heart Is Broken
A Fairly Good Time
The Pegnitz Junction
The End of the World
From the Fifteenth District
Overhead in a Balloon
Across the Bridge
The Moslem Wife
The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant
Copyright © 1956, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981 by Mavis Gallant
First published by Macmillan of Canada, 1981
First Emblem Editions publication 2001
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data
Gallant, Mavis, 1922-
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
“With a Capital T” was first published in
Canadian Fiction Magazine
. All other stories originally appeared in
The New Yorker
SERIES EDITOR: ELLEN SELIGMAN
Series logo design: Brian Bean
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street,
To Nelly McMillan
hat year, it began to rain on the twenty-fourth of May – a holiday still called, some thirty years after her death, Queen Victoria’s Birthday. It rained – this was Canada – until the middle of June. The girls, kept indoors, exercising listlessly in the gym, quarrelled over nothing, and complained of headache. Between showers they walked along spongy gravel paths, knocking against spiraea bushes that suddenly spattered them with water and white. It was the last lap of term, the dead period between the end of exams and the start of freedom. Handicrafts and extra art classes were improvised to keep them busy, but it was hopeless; glooming over their desks, they quarrelled, dreamed of summer, wrote plaintive letters home.
Their raincoats were suddenly hot and heavy, their long black stockings scratchy and damp.
“Life is Hell,” Ruth Cook wrote on the lid of a desk, hoping that someone would see it and that there would be a row. It was the slow time of day – four o’clock. Yawning over a drawing of flowerpots during art class, she looked despairingly out the streaked window and saw Mrs. Holland coming up the walk. Mrs. Holland looked smart, from that distance. Her umbrella was furled. On her head was a small hat, tilted to one side, circled with a feather. She looked smart but smudged, as if paint had spilled over the outline of a drawing. Ruth took her in coldly, leaning on a plump, grubby hand. Mrs. Holland was untidy – she had heard people say so. She was emotional. This, too, Ruth had overheard, always said with disapproval. Emotion meant “being American”; it meant placing yourself unarmed in the hands of the enemy. Emotion meant not getting one’s lipstick on straight, a marcel wave coming apart in wild strands. It accounted for Mrs. Holland’s anxious blue eyes, for the button missing on a blouse, the odds and ends forever falling out of purse or pocket. Emotion was worse than bad taste; it was calamitous. Ruth had only to look at Mrs. Holland to see what it led to. Mrs. Holland passed up the front steps and out of sight. Ruth went back to her bold lettering: “Life is Hell.” Any other girl in the room, she thought with satisfaction, would have gone importantly up to the desk and whispered that a lady had come to take her to tea, and could she please go and get ready now? But Ruth knew that things happened in their own good time. She looked at her drawing, admired it, and added more flowerpots, diminishing to a fixed point at the center of the page.
“Well done,” said Miss Fischer, the art teacher, falsely,
strolling between the ranks of desks. If she saw “Life is Hell,” she failed to comment. They were all cowards; there was no one to fight. “Your horizon line is too low,” said Miss Fischer. “Look at the blackboard; see how I have shown Proportion.”
Indicating patience and self-control, Ruth looked at the blackboard, over it, around it. The blackboard was filled with receding lines, the lesson having dealt with Perspective as well as Proportion. Over it hung a photograph of the King – the late King, that is. He had died that year, and so had Kipling (although far less fuss was made about him), and the girls had to get used to calling Kipling “our late beloved poet” and the Prince of Wales “King Edward.” It was hopeless where the Prince was concerned, for there hung the real King still, with his stiff, elegant Queen by his side. He had died on a cold January day. They had prayed for him in chapel. His picture was in their prayer books because he was head of the Church – something like that. “It is a year of change,” the headmistress had said, announcing his death.
“It’s a year of change, all right,” Ruth said softly, imitating the headmistress’s English accent. Even the term “headmistress” was new; the old girl, who had retired to a cottage and a faithful spinster friend, had been content with “principal.” But the new one, blond, breathless, pink-cheeked, was fresh from England, full of notions, and felt that the place wanted stirring up. “I’m afraid I am progress-minded,” she told the stone-faced, wary girls. “We must learn never to fear change, provided it is for the best.” But they did fear it; they were shocked when the tinted image of George V was taken down from the dining-room wall and the famous picture of the Prince of Wales inspecting the front during the Great War put in its place. The Prince in the photo was a handsome boy,
blond, fresh, pink-cheeked – much like the new headmistress, in fact. “A year of change,” the headmistress repeated, as if to impress it forever on their minds.
Scrubbing at her flowerpots with artgum, Ruth thought it over and decided there had been no real change. She had never met the King and didn’t care for poetry. She was still in school. Her mother had gone to live abroad, but then she had never been around much. The only difference was that her father had met unfortunate Mrs. Holland.
oming into the flagged entrance hall, Mrs. Holland was daunted by the chilly gloom. She stared at the row of raincoats hanging from pegs, the sombre portraits of businessmen and clergymen on the walls. Governess-trained, she considered herself hopelessly untutored, and attached to the smell of drying coats an atmosphere of learning. Someone came, and went off to fetch the headmistress. Mrs. Holland sat down on a carved bench that looked like a pew. Irreligious but fond of saying she would believe in something if only she could, she gazed with respectful interest at the oil portrait of the school’s chief financial rock, a fruit importer who had abandoned Presbyterianism for the Church of England when a sudden rise in wealth and status demanded the change. Although he wore a gay checked suit and looked every inch himself, a smalltown Presbyterian go-getter, Mrs. Holland felt he must, surely, be some sort of Anglican dignitary; his portrait was so much larger than the rest; besides, the hall was so hushed and damp that religion had to come into it somewhere. She recalled a story she had been told – that the school had been a Bernardine abbey, transported from England to Canada stone
by stone. The lightless corridors, the smell of damp rot emanating from the linen cupboards, the drafts, the cunning Gothic windows with Tudor panes, the dark classrooms and sweating walls, the chill, the cold, the damp, the discomfort, wistfully British, staunchly religious, all suggested this might indeed have been the case. How nice for the girls, Mrs. Holland thought, vaguely but sincerely.