(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A middle-aged writer, Dencombe, is ill and feels his strength ebbing irrevocably. He has just had a novel published, The Middle Years, and is reading it on a cliffside bench in the sea resort of Bournemouth, on the English Channel coast. As he meditates on his waning energy, he is distracted by three people who are walking slowly along the beach. He imagines that the young man is the son of the large, opulent matron, and that the humble young woman, possibly a clergyman’s or officer’s daughter, is secretly in love with the man. The object of her affection seems, however, more absorbed in a book he is carrying than in her.

Dencombe’s surmise, although wrong in detail, turns out to be essentially right regarding the trio’s relations. He learns that the older woman, wealthy and childless, has taken a strong liking to the young man, a recently graduated physiologist called only “Dr. Hugh.” Although she will probably leave him a considerable inheritance, she exacts from him absolute devotion and attention. The young woman is her paid companion, whose only prospect is to promote Dr. Hugh’s cause with his employer, so as either to marry him after the countess’s death or else pressure him into buying her off.

The main concern of the story is introduced as the young doctor separates himself from the ladies, sits on Dencombe’s bench, and each man discovers that the other is holding a copy of The Middle Years. Dencombe decides not to reveal his identity immediately: He wants an uninhibited evaluation of his novel by the young man. He quickly gets it: Dr....

(The entire section is 656 words.)