Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Alroy Kear, the most popular novelist of the day, arranges to have lunch with his friend Ashenden, another writer. Ashenden is fond of Kear, but he suspects that his invitation was extended for a purpose. He is right. Kear wants to talk about the late Edward Driffield, a famous English author of the past century. Kear has nothing but praise for the old man’s books, but Ashenden says that he never thought Driffield exceptional. Kear enthusiastically tells how well he knew Driffield in his last years and says that he is still a friend of Driffield’s widow, his second wife. Luncheon ends without a request for a favor. Ashenden is puzzled.
Returning to his room, Ashenden falls into a reverie. He recalls his first meeting with Driffield. Ashenden was then a boy, home for the holidays at Blackstable, a Kentish seacoast town, where he lived with his uncle, the local vicar. Ashenden met Driffield in the company of his uncle’s curate, but the boy thought the writer a rather common person. He learned from his uncle that Driffield married a local barmaid after spending a wild youth away from home.
Two or three days after Ashenden lunches with Kear, he receives a note from Driffield’s widow. She wishes him to visit her in Blackstable. Puzzled, Ashenden telephones Kear, who says that he will come to see him and explain the invitation.
Ashenden saw Mrs. Driffield only once. He went to her house with some other literary people several years before, while Driffield was still alive. Driffield married his second wife late in life, and she was his nurse. In the course of the visit, Ashenden was surprised to see old Driffield wink at him several times as if there were some joke between them. After that visit, Ashenden recalls how Driffield taught him to bicycle many years before. Driffield and his first wife, Rosie, took him with them on many excursions. He liked the Driffields, but he was shocked to find how outspoken they were with those below and above them in social station.
One evening, Ashenden found Rosie visiting his uncle’s cook, her childhood friend. After Rosie left, he saw her meet George Kemp, a local coal merchant. The couple walked out of town toward the open fields. Ashenden cannot imagine how Rosie could be unfaithful to her husband.
Ashenden went back to school. During the Christmas holiday, he often joined the Driffields for tea. Kemp was always there, but he and Rosie did not act like lovers. Driffield sang drinking songs, played the piano, and seldom talked about literature. When Ashenden returned to Blackstable the following summer, he heard that the Driffields had fled, leaving behind many unpaid bills. He was ashamed that he had ever been friendly with them.
Kear arrives at Ashenden’s rooms and explains that he is planning to write Driffield’s official biography. He wants Ashenden to contribute what he knows about the author’s younger days. What Ashenden tells him is not satisfactory, for the biography should contain nothing to embarrass the widow. Kear insists that Ashenden write down what he remembers of Driffield and goes to Blackstable to visit Mrs. Driffield. Ashenden agrees.
Ashenden remembers how he met the Driffields again in London when he was a young medical student. By chance, he saw Rosie on the street; he was surprised that she was not ashamed to meet someone from Blackstable, and he promised to come to one of the Driffields’ Saturday afternoon gatherings. Soon he became a regular visitor in their rooms. Since Driffield worked at night, Rosie often went out with her friends. Ashenden began to take her to shows. She was pleasant company, and he began to see that she was beautiful. One evening, he invited her to his room. She offered herself to him and remained for the night; after that night, Rosie visited his room regularly.
One day, Mrs. Barton Trafford, a literary woman who took Driffield under her care, invited Ashenden to tea. He learned from her that Rosie ran away with Kemp, her old lover from Blackstable. Ashenden was chagrined to learn that Rosie cared for another man more than she did for him.
Ashenden then lost touch with Driffield. He learned that the author divorced Rosie, who went to New York with Kemp. Mrs. Barton Trafford continued to care for Driffield as his fame grew. Then he caught pneumonia. He went to the country to convalesce and there married his nurse, the present Mrs. Driffield, whom Mrs. Trafford hired to look after him.
Ashenden goes down to Blackstable with Kear. They talk with Mrs. Driffield about her husband’s early life. She and Kear describe Rosie as promiscuous. Ashenden says that she is nothing of the sort. Good and generous, she cannot deny love to anyone, that is all. Ashenden knows this to be the truth, now that he can look back at his own past experience. The others disagree and dismiss the subject by saying that, after all, she is dead.
Rosie, however, is not dead. When Ashenden visits New York, she writes to him and asks him to call on her. He finds her now a wealthy widow; Kemp died several years before. She is an old woman who retains her love for living. They talk of old times, and Ashenden discovers that Driffield, too, understood her—even when she was being unfaithful to him.
Rosie says that she is too old to marry again; she had her fling at life. Ashenden asks her if Kemp is the only man she really loved; she says that it is true. Then Ashenden’s eyes stray to a photograph of Kemp on the wall. It shows him with a waxed mustache; he is dressed in flashy clothes, carries a cane, and flourishes a cigar in one hand. Ashenden turns to Rosie and asks why she preferred Kemp to her other lovers. Her reply is simple: He was always the perfect gentleman.
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