We Have to Sit Opposite ~ by Ethel Wilson

Even in the confusion of entering the carriage at Salzburg, Mrs. Montrose and her cousin Mrs. Forrester noticed the man with the blue tooth. He occupied a corner beside the window. His wife sat next to him. Next to her sat their daughter of perhaps seventeen. People poured into the train. A look passed between Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester. The look said, “These people seem to have filled up the carriage pretty well, but we’d better take these seats while we can as the train is so full. At least we can have seats together.” The porter, in his porter’s tyrannical way, piled their suitcases onto the empty rack above the heads of the man with the blue tooth, and his wife, and his daughter, and departed. The opposite rack was full of baskets, bags and miscellaneous parcels. The train started. Here they were. Mrs. Montrose and Mrs Forrester smiled at each other as they settled down below the rack which was filled with miscellaneous articles. Clinging vines that they were, they felt adventurous and successful. They had travelled alone from Vienna to Salzburg, leaving in Vienna their doctor husbands to continue attending the clinics of Dr. Bauer and Dr. Hirsch. And now, after a week in Salzburg, they were happily on their way to rejoin their husbands, who had flown to Munich.

Both Mrs Montrose and Mrs. Forrester were tall, slight and fair. They were dressed with dark elegance. They knew that their small hats were smart, suitable and becoming, and they rejoiced in the simplicity and distinction of their new costumes. The selection of these and other costumes, and of these and other hats in Vienna had, they regretted, taken from the study of art, music and history a great deal of valuable time. Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester were sincerely fond of art, music and history and longed almost passionately to spend their days in the Albertina Gallery and the Kunsthistorische Museum. But the modest shops and shop windows of the craftsmen of Vienna had rather diverted the two young women from the study of art and history, and it was easy to lay blame for this on the museums and art galleries which, in truth, closed their doors at very odd times. After each day’s enchanting pursuits and disappointments, Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester hastened in a fatigued state to the cafe where they had arranged to meet their husbands who by this time had finished their daily sessions with Dr. Bauer and Dr. Hirsch.

This was perhaps the best part of the day, to sit together happily in the sunshine, toying with the good Viennese coffee or a glass of wine, gazing and being gazed upon, and giving up their senses to the music that flowed under the chestnut trees. (Ah Vienna, they thought, Vienna, Vienna.)

No, perhaps the evenings had been the best time when after their frugal pension dinner they hastened out to hear opera or symphony or wild atavistic gypsy music. All was past now. They had been very happy. They were fortunate. Were they too fortunate?

Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester were in benevolent good spirits as they looked round the railway carriage and prepared to take their seats and settle down for the journey to Munich to meet their husbands. In their window corner, opposite the man with the blue tooth, was a large hamper. “Do you mind?” asked Mrs. Montrose, smiling sweetly at the man, his wife, and his daughter. She prepared to lift the hamper on which the charming view from the carriage window was wasted, intending to move it along the seat, and take its place. The man, his wife, and his daughters had never taken their eyes off Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester since they had entered the carriage.

“If you please,” the man said loudly and slowly in German English, “if you please, that place belongs to my wife or to my daughter. For the moment they sit beside me, but I keep that place for my wife or my daughter. That seat is therefore reserved. You may of course use the two remaining seats.”

“I’m sorry,’ said Mrs. Montrose, feeling snubbed, and she and Mrs. Forrester sat down side by side of the two remaining seats opposite the German family. Beside them the hamper looked out of the window at the charming view. Their gaiety and self-esteem evaporated. The train rocked along.

The three continued to stare at the two young women. Suddenly the mother leaned toward her daughter. She put up her hand to her and mouth and whispered behind her hand, her eyes remaining fixed on Mrs. Montrose. Mrs. Montrose flushed. The mother sat upright again, still looking at Mrs. Montrose, who felt very uncomfortable, and very much annoyed at blushing.

The man ceased staring at the two young women. He looked up at the rack above him, which contained their suitcases.

“Those are your suitcases,” he asked, or rather announced.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester without smiles.

“They are large,” said the man in a didactic manner, “they are too large. They are too large to be put on racks. A little motion, a very little motion, and they might fall. If they fall they will injure myself, my wife or my daughter. It is better,” he continued instructively, “that if they fall, they should fall upon your heads, not upon our heads. That is logical. They are not my suitcases. They are your suitcases. You admit it. Please to move your suitcases to the opposite rack, where, if they fall, they will fall upon your own heads.” And he continued to sit there motionless. So did his wife. So did his daughter.

Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester looked at the suitcases in dismay. “Oh,” said Mrs. Forrester, “they are so heavy to move. If you feel like that, please won’t you sit on this side of the carriage, and we will move across, under our own suitcases, though I can assure you they will not fall. Or perhaps you would help us?”

“We prefer this side of the carriage,” said the man with the blue tooth. “We have sat here because we prefer this side of the carriage. It is logical that you should move your suitcases. It is not logical that my wife, my daughter and I should give up our seats in this carriage, or remove your suitcases.”

Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester looked at each other with rage in their hearts. All their self-satisfaction was gone. They got up and tugged and tugged as the train rocked along. They leaned resentfully across the erectly sitting man and his wife and daughter. They experienced with exasperation the realization that they had better make the best of it. The train, they knew, was crowded. They had to remain in this carriage with this disagreeable family. With much pulling and straining they hauled down the heavy suitcases. Violently they removed the parcels of the German family and lifted their own suitcases onto the rack above their heads, disposing them clumsily on the rack. Panting a little (they disliked panting), they settled down again side by side with high colour and loosened wisps of hair. They controlled  their features so as to appear serene and unaware of the existence of anyone else in the railway carriage, but their hearts were full of black hate.

The family exchanged whispered remarks, and then resumed their scrutiny of the two young women, whose elegance had by this time a sort of tipsy quality. The girl leaned toward her mother. She whispered behind her hand to her mother, who nodded. Both of them stared at Mrs. Forrester. Then they laughed.

“Heavens!” thought the affronted Mrs. Forrester, “this is outrageous! Why can’t Alice and I whisper behind our hands to each other about these people and make them feel simply awful! But they wouldn’t feel awful. Well, we can’t, just because we’ve been properly brought up, and it would be too childish. And perhaps they don’t even know they’re rude. They’re just being natural.” She breathed hard in frustration, and composed herself again.

Suddenly the man with the blue tooth spoke. “Are you English?” he said loudly.

“Yes – well – no,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“No – well – yes,” said Mrs. Montrose, simultaneously.

A derisive look came over the man’s face. “You must know what you are,” he said, “either you are English or you are not English. Are you, or are you not?”

“No,” said Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester, speaking primly. Their chins were high, their eyes flashed, and they were ready for discreet battle.

“Then you are Americans?” said the man in the same bullying manner.

“No,’ said Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester.

“You can’t deceive me, you know,” said the man with the blue tooth, “I know well the English language. You say you are not English. You say you are not American. What, then, may I ask, are you? You must be something.”

“We are Canadians,” said Mrs. Forrester, furious at this catechism.

“Canadians,” said the man.

“Yes, Canadians,” said Mrs. Montrose.

“This,” murmured Mrs. Forrester to Mrs. Montrose, “is more than I can bear!”

“What did you say?” said the man, leaning forward quickly, his hands on his knees.

“I spoke to my friend,” said Mrs. Forrester coldly, “I spoke about my bear.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Montrose, “she spoke about her bear.”

“Your bear? Have you a bear. But you cannot have a bear!” said the man with some surprise.

“In Canada I have a bear. I have two bears,” said Mrs. Forrester conceitedly.

“That is true,” said Mrs. Montrose nodding, “she has two bears. I myself have five bears. My father has seven bears. That is nothing.  It is the custom.”

“What do you do with your bears?” asked the man.

“We eat them,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Montrose, “we eat them. It is the custom.”

The man turned and spoke briefly to his wife and daughter, whose eyes opened wider than ever.

Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester felt pleased. This was better.

The man with the blue tooth became really interested. “Are you married?” he asked Mrs. Forrester.

“Yes,” she replied. (We’ll see what he’ll say next, then we’ll see what we can do.)

“And you?” he enquired of Mrs. Montrose. Mrs. Montrose seemed uncertain. “Well, yes, in a way, I suppose,” she said.

The man with the blue tooth scrutinized Mrs. Montrose for a moment. “Then,” he said, as though he had at last found her out. “If you are married, where is your husband?”

Mrs. Montrose took out her pocket handkerchief. She buried her face in her hands, covering her eyes with her handkerchief. She shook. Evidently she sobbed.

“Now you see what you’ve done!” said Mrs. Forrester. “You shouldn’t ask questions like that. Just look at what you’ve done.”

The three gazed fascinated on Mrs. Montrose. “Is he dead or what is he?” asked the man of Mrs. Forrester, making the words almost quietly with his mouth.

“Sh!” said Mrs. Forrester very loudly indeed. The three jumped a little. So did Mrs. Montrose.

There was silence while Mrs. Montrose wiped her eyes. She looked over the heads opposite. The wife leaned toward her husband and addressed him timidly behind her hand. He nodded, and spoke to Mrs. Forrester.

“Well,” he said, “at least you admit that you have a husband. If you have a husband then, where is he?”

Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. Forrester lightly.

“No, she doesn’t know,” said Mrs. Montrose.

The three on the opposite seat went into a conference. Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester did not dare to look at each other. They were enjoying themselves. Their self-esteem had returned. They had impressed. Unfavourably, it is true. But still they had impressed.

The man with the blue tooth pulled himself together. He reasserted himself. Across his waistcoat hung a watch chain. He took his watch out of his pocket and looked at the time. Then to the surprise of Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester he took another watch out of the pocket at the other end of the chain. “You see,” he said proudly, “I have two watches.”

Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester were surprised, but they had themselves well in hand.

Mrs. Montrose looked at the watches disparagingly. “My husband has six watches,” she said.

“Yes, that is true,” nodded Mrs. Forrester, “her husband has got six watches, but my husband, like you, unfortunately, has only two watches.”

The man put his watches back. Decidedly the battle was going in favour of the two young women. How horrid of us, he was so pleased with his watches, thought Mrs. Montrose. Isn’t it true that horridness. We’re getting horrider every minute. She regarded the man, his wife and his daughter with distaste but with pity.

“You say,” said the man, who always spoke as though their statements were open to doubt, which of course they were, “that you come from Canada. Do you come from Winnipeg? I know about Winnipeg.”

“No,” said Mrs. Montrose, and she spoke this time quite truthfully, “I come from Vancouver.” Mrs. Forrester remained silent.

“And you, where do you come from?” persisted the man in a hectoring tone, addressing Mrs. Forrester. Mrs. Forrester remained silent, she had almost decided to answer no more questions.

“Oh, do not tell, please do not tell,” begged Mrs Montrose in an anguished way.

“No,” said Mrs. Forrester importantly, “I shall not tell. Rest assured. I shall not tell.”

“Why will she not tell?” demanded the man. He was tortured by curiosity. So was his wife. So was his daughter.

“Sh!” said Mrs. Montrose very loudly.

The man seemed ill at ease. By this time nothing existed in the world for him, or for his wife, or for his daughter but these two Canadian women who ate bears.

“How is it,” asked the man, “that you no longer buy my trousers?”

“I beg your pardon?” faltered Mrs. Montrose. For a moment she lost ground.

“I said,” replied the man, “why is it that you no longer buy my trousers?”

The ladies did not answer. They could not think of a good answer to that one.

“I,” said the man, “am a manufacturer of trousers. I make the most beautiful trousers in Germany. Indeed in the world.” (You do not so, thought Mrs. Forrester, picturing her husband’s good London legs.) “For three years I receive orders from Winnipeg for my trousers. And now, since two years, yes, since 1929, I receive no more orders for my trousers. Why is that?” he asked, like a belligerent.

“Shall we tell him?” asked Mrs. Forrester, looking at Mrs. Montrose. Neither of them knew why he had received no more orders for his trousers, but they did not wish to say so.” “Shall we tell him?” asked Mrs. Forrester.

“You tell him,” said Mrs. Montrose.

“No, you tell him,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“I do not like to tell him,” said Mrs. Montrose, “I’d rather you told him.”

“Very well. I shall tell him,” said Mrs. Forrester. “The fact is,” she said, looking downward, “that in Canada men no longer wear trousers.”

“What are you saying? That is not true, never can that be true!” said the man in some confusion.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Montrose, corroborating sombrely. “Yes, indeed it is true. When they go abroad they wear trousers, but in Canada, no. It is a new custom.”

“It is the climate,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“Yes, that is the reason, it is the climate,” agreed Mrs. Montrose.

“But in Canada,” argued the man with the blue tooth, “your climate is cold. Everyone knows your climate is cold.”

“In the Arctic regions, yes, it is really intensely cold, we all find it so. But not in Winnipeg. Winnipeg is very salubrious.” (That’s a good one, thought Mrs. Montrose.)

The man turned and spoke rapidly to his wife. She also turned, and looked askance at her daughter. The expressions of the man, his wife, and his daughter were a blend of pleasure and shock. The two liars were delighted.

At last the man could not help asking. “But they must wear something! It is not logical.”

“Oh, it’s logical, all right!” said Mrs. Forrester.

“But what do they wear?” persisted the man.

“I never looked to see,” said Mrs. Montrose. “I did, I looked,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“Well?” asked the man.

“Oh, they just wear kilts,” said Mrs. Forrester.

“Kilts? What are kilts? I do not know kilts,” said the man.

“I would rather not tell you,” said Mrs. Forrester primly.

“Oh,” said the man.

Mrs. Montrose took out her vanity case, and inspected herself, powder puff in hand.

“I do not allow my wife and daughter to paint their faces so,” said the man with the blue tooth.

“No?” said Mrs. Montrose.

“It is not good that women should paint their faces so. Good women do not do that. It is a pity.”

(Oh, Alice, thought Mrs. Forrester in a fury, he shall not dare!) “It is a pity,” she hissed, “that in your country there are no good dentists!”

“Be careful, be careful,” whispered Mrs. Montrose.

“What do you mean?” demanded the man with the blue tooth.

(She will go too far, I know she will, thought Mrs. Montrose, alarmed, putting out her hand,)

“In our country,” said the rash Mrs. Forrester, “anyone needing attention is taken straight to the State Dentist by the Police. This is done for aesthetic reasons. It is logical.”

“I am going to sleep,” said Mrs. Montrose very loudly, and she shut her eyes tight.

“So am I,” said Mrs. Forrester, in a great hurry, and she shut her eyes too. This had been hard work but good fun for Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester. They felt, though, that they had gone a little bit too far. It might be as well if they slept, or pretended to sleep, until they reached Munich. They felt that outside their closed eyes was something frightening. The voice of the man with the blue tooth was saying, “I wish to tell you, I wish to tell you…” but Mrs. Montrose was in a deep sleep, and so was Mrs Forrester. They sat with their eyes tightly closed, beside the hamper which still occupied the seat with the view by the darkening window. Mrs. Montrose had the inside corner, and so by reason of nestling down in the corner, and by reason of having an even and sensible temperament, she really and truly fell asleep at last.

Not so Mrs. Forrester.Her eyes were tightly closed, but her mind was greatly disturbed. Why had they permitted themselves to be baited? She pondered on the collective mentality that occupied the seat near to them (knees almost touching), and its results which now filled the atmosphere of the carriage so unpleasantly. She had met this mentality before, but had not been closely confined with it, as now. What of a world in which this mentality might ever become dominant? Then one would be confined with it, without appeal or relief. The thought was shocking. She felt unreasonably agitated. She felt rather a fool, too, with her eyes shut tightly. But, if she opened them, she would have to look somewhere, presumably at the family, so it seemed safer to keep them closed. The train sped on. After what seemed to her a very long time, she peeped. The wife and daughter were busy. The husband sat back, hands on his knees, chin raised, expectant, eyes closed. His wife respectfully undid his tie, his collar, and his top shirt button. By this time the daughter had opened the hamper, and had taken from it a bottle and a clean napkin. These she handed to her mother. The wife moistened the napkin from the bottle and proceeded to wash her husband, his face, his ears, round the back of his neck, and inside his shirt collar, with great care. “Like a cat,” thought Mrs. Forrester, who had forgotten to shut her eyes.

The man with the blue tooth lowered his raised chin and caught her. “You see,” he said loudly, “you see, wives should look properly after their husbands, instead of travelling alone and…” But Mrs. Forrester was fast asleep again. The whole absurd encounter had begun to hold an element of terror. They had been tempted into folly. She knew – as she screwed up her closed eyes – that they were implicated in fear and folly.

The two young women took care to sleep until the train reached Munich. Then they both woke up.

Many people slept until they reached Munich. Then they all began to wake up.





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  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson
  • wp socializer sprite mask 32px We Have to Sit Opposite  ~ by Ethel Wilson

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