The Lonely God By Agatha Christie
‘The Lonely God’ was first published in Royal Magazine,
He stood on a shelf in the British Museum, alone and forlorn amongst a company of obviously more important deities. Ranged round the four walls, these greater personages all seemed to display an overwhelming sense of their own superiority. The pedestal of each was duly inscribed with the land and race that had been proud to possess him. There was no doubt of their position; they were divinities of importance and recognized as such.
Only the little god in the corner was aloof and remote from their company. Roughly hewn out of grey stone, his features almost totally obliterated by time and exposure, he sat there in isolation, his elbows on his knees, and his head buried in his hands; a lonely little god in a strange country.
There was no inscription to tell the land whence he came. He was indeed lost, without honour or renown, a pathetic little figure very far from home. No one noticed him, no one stopped to look at him. Why should they? He was so insignificant, a block of grey stone in a corner. On either side of him were two Mexican gods worn smooth with age, placid idols with folded hands, and cruel mouths curved in a smile that showed openly their contempt of humanity. There was also a rotund, violently self-assertive little god, with a clenched fist, who evidently suffered from a swollen sense of his own importance, but passers-by stopped to give him a glance sometimes, even if it was only to laugh at the contrast of his absurd pomposity with the smiling indifference of his Mexican companions.
And the little lost god sat on there hopelessly, his head in his hands, as he had sat year in and year out, till one day the impossible happened, and he found – a worshipper.
‘Any letters for me?’
The hall porter removed a packet of letters from a pigeon-hole, gave a cursory glance through them, and said in a wooden voice:
‘Nothing for you, sir.’
Frank Oliver sighed as he walked out of the club again. There was no particular reason why there should have been anything for him. Very few people wrote to him. Ever since he had returned from Burma in the spring, he had become conscious of a growing and increasing loneliness.
Frank Oliver was a man just over forty, and the last eighteen years of his life had been spent in various parts of the globe, with brief furloughs in England. Now that he had retired and come home to live for good, he realized for the first time how very much alone in the world he was.
True, there was his sister Greta, married to a Yorkshire clergyman, very busy with parochial duties and the bringing up of a family of small children. Greta was naturally very fond of her only brother, but equally naturally she had very little time to give him. Then there was his old friend Tom Hurley. Tom was married to a nice, bright, cheerful girl, very energetic and practical, of whom Frank was secretly afraid. She told him brightly that he must not be a crabbed old bachelor, and was always producing ‘nice girls’. Frank Oliver found that he never had anything to say to these ‘nice girls’; they persevered with him for a while, then gave him up as hopeless.
And yet he was not really unsociable. He had a great longing for companionship and sympathy, and ever since he had been back in England he had become aware of a growing discouragement. He had been away too long, he was out of tune with the times. He spent long, aimless days wandering about, wondering what on earth he was to do with himself next.
It was on one of these days that he strolled into the British Museum. He was interested in Asiatic curiosities, and so it was that he chanced upon the lonely god. Its charm held him at once. Here was something vaguely akin to himself; here, too, was someone lost and astray in a strange land. He became in the habit of paying frequent visits to the Museum, just to glance in on the little grey stone figure, in its obscure place on the high shelf.
‘Rough luck on the little chap,’ he thought to himself. ‘Probably had a lot of fuss made about him once, kow-towing and offerings and all the rest of it.’
He had begun to feel such a proprietary right in his little friend (it really almost amounted to a sense of actual ownership) that he was inclined to be resentful when he found that the little god had made a second conquest. He had discovered the lonely god; nobody else, he felt, had a right to interfere.
But after the first flash of indignation, he was forced to smile at himself. For this second worshipper was such a little bit of a thing, such a ridiculous, pathetic creature, in a shabby black coat and skirt that had seen its best days. She was young, a little over twenty he should judge, with fair hair and blue eyes, and a wistful droop to her mouth.
Her hat especially appealed to his chivalry. She had evidently trimmed it herself, and it made such a brave attempt to be smart that its failure was pathetic. She was obviously a lady, though a poverty-stricken one, and he immediately decided in his own mind that she was a governess and alone in the world.
He soon found out that her days for visiting the god were Tuesdays and Fridays, and she always arrived at ten o’clock, as soon as the Museum was open. At first he disliked her intrusion, but little by little it began to form one of the principal interests of his monotonous life. Indeed, the fellow devotee was fast ousting the object of devotion from his position of pre-eminence. The days that he did not see the ‘Little Lonely Lady’, as he called her to himself, were blank.
Perhaps she, too, was equally interested in him, though she endeavoured to conceal the fact with studious unconcern. But little by little a sense of fellowship was slowly growing between them, though as yet they had exchanged no spoken word. The truth of the matter was, the man was too shy! He argued to himself that very likely she had not even noticed him (some inner sense gave the lie to that instantly), that she would consider it a great impertinence, and, finally, that he had not the least idea what to say.
But Fate, or the little god, was kind and sent him an inspiration – or what he regarded as such. With infinite delight in his own cunning, he purchased a woman’s handkerchief, a frail little affair of cambric and lace which he almost feared to touch, and, thus armed, he followed her as she departed and stopped her in the Egyptian room.
‘Excuse me, but is this yours?’ He tried to speak with airy unconcern, and signally failed.
The Lonely Lady took it, and made a pretence of examining it with minute care.
‘No, it is not mine.’ She handed it back, and added, with what he felt guiltily was a suspicious glance: ‘It’s quite a new one. The price is still on it.’
But he was unwilling to admit that he had been found out. He started on an over-plausible flow of explanation.
‘You see, I picked it up under that big case. It was just by the farthest leg of it.’ He derived great relief from this detailed account. ‘So, as you had been standing there, I thought it must be yours and came after you with it.’
She said again: ‘No, it isn’t mine,’ and added, as if with a sense of ungraciousness, ‘thank you.’
The conversation came to an awkward standstill. The girl stood there, pink and embarrassed, evidently uncertain how to retreat with dignity.
He made a desperate effort to take advantage of his opportunity.
‘I – I didn’t know there was anyone else in London who cared for our little lonely god till you came.’
She answered eagerly, forgetting her reserve:
‘Do you call him that too?’
Apparently, if she had noticed his pronoun, she did not resent it. She had been startled into sympathy, and his quiet ‘Of course!’ seemed the most natural rejoinder in the world.
Again there was a silence, but this time it was a silence born of understanding.
It was the Lonely Lady who broke it in a sudden remembrance of the conventionalities.
She drew herself up to her full height, and with an almost ridiculous assumption of dignity for so small a person, she observed in chilling accents:
‘I must be going now. Good morning.’ And with a slight, stiff inclination of her head, she walked away, holding herself very erect.
By all acknowledged standards Frank Oliver ought to have felt rebuffed, but it is a regrettable sign of his rapid advance in depravity that he merely murmured to himself: ‘Little darling!’
He was soon to repent of his temerity, however. For ten days his little lady never came near the Museum. He was in despair! He had frightened her away! She would never come back! He was a brute, a villain! He would never see her again!
In his distress he haunted the British Museum all day long. She might merely have changed her time of coming. He soon began to know the adjacent rooms by heart, and he contracted a lasting hatred of mummies. The guardian policeman observed him with suspicion when he spent three hours poring over Assyrian hieroglyphics, and the contemplation of endless vases of all ages nearly drove him mad with boredom.
But one day his patience was rewarded. She came again, rather pinker than usual, and trying hard to appear self-possessed.
He greeted her with cheerful friendliness.
‘Good morning. It is ages since you’ve been here.’
She let the words slip out with icy frigidity, and coldly ignored the end part of his sentence.
But he was desperate.
‘Look here!’ He stood confronting her with pleading eyes that reminded her irresistibly of a large, faithful dog. ‘Won’t you be friends? I’m all alone in London – all alone in the world, and I believe you are, too. We ought to be friends. Besides, our little god has introduced us.’
She looked up half doubtfully, but there was a faint smile quivering at the corners of her mouth.
It was the second time he had used this extremely positive form of assurance, and now, as before, it did not fail of its effect, for after a minute or two the girl said, in that slightly royal manner of hers:
‘That’s splendid,’ he replied gruffly, but there was something in his voice as he said it that made the girl glance at him swiftly, with a sharp impulse of pity.
And so the queer friendship began. Twice a week they met, at the shrine of a little heathen idol. At first they confined their conversation solely to him. He was, as it were, at once a palliation of, and an excuse for, their friendship. The question of his origin was widely discussed. The man insisted on attributing to him the most bloodthirsty characteristics. He depicted him as the terror and dread of his native land, insatiable for human sacrifice, and bowed down to by his people in fear and trembling. In the contrast between his former greatness and his present insignificance there lay, according to the man, all the pathos of the situation.
The Lonely Lady would have none of this theory. He was essentially a kind little god, she insisted. She doubted whether he had ever been very powerful. If he had been so, she argued, he would not now be lost and friendless, and, anyway, he was a dear little god, and she loved him, and she hated to think of him sitting there day after day with all those other horrid, supercilious things jeering at him, because you could see they did! After this vehement outburst the little lady was quite out of breath.
That topic exhausted, they naturally began to talk of themselves. He found out that his surmise was correct. She was a nursery governess to a family of children who lived at Hampstead. He conceived an instant dislike of these children; of Ted, who was five and really not naughty, only mischievous; of the twins who were rather trying, and of Molly, who wouldn’t do anything she was told, but was such a dear you couldn’t be cross with her!
‘Those children bully you,’ he said grimly and accusingly to her.
‘They do not,’ she retorted with spirit. ‘I am extremely stern with them.’
‘Oh! Ye gods!’ he laughed. But she made him apologize humbly for his scepticism.
She was an orphan she told him, quite alone in the world.
Gradually he told her something of his own life: of his official life, which had been painstaking and mildly successful; and of his unofficial pastime, which was the spoiling of yards of canvas.
‘Of course, I don’t know anything about it,’ he explained. ‘But I have always felt I could paint something some day. I can sketch pretty decently, but I’d like to do a real picture of something. A chap who knew once told me that my technique wasn’t bad.’
She was interested, pressed for details.
‘I am sure you paint awfully well.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’ve begun several things lately and chucked them up in despair. I always thought that, when I had the time, it would be plain sailing. I have been storing up that idea for years, but now, like everything else, I suppose, I’ve left it too late.’
‘Nothing’s too late – ever,’ said the little lady, with the vehement earnestness of the very young.
He smiled down on her. ‘You think not, child? It’s too late for some things for me.’
And the little lady laughed at him and nick-named him Methuselah.
They were beginning to feel curiously at home in the British Museum. The solid and sympathetic policeman who patrolled the galleries was a man of tact, and on the appearance of the couple he usually found that his onerous duties of guardianship were urgently needed in the adjoining Assyrian room.
One day the man took a bold step. He invited her out to tea!
At first she demurred.
‘I have no time. I am not free. I can come some mornings because the children have French lessons.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the man. ‘You could manage one day. Kill off an aunt or a second cousin or something, but come. We’ll go to a little ABC shop near here, and have buns for tea! I know you must love buns!’
‘Yes, the penny kind with currants!’
‘And a lovely glaze on top -‘
‘They are such plump, dear things -‘
‘There is something,’ Frank Oliver said solemnly, ‘infinitely comforting about a bun!’
So it was arranged, and the little governess came, wearing quite an expensive hothouse rose in her belt in honour of the occasion.
He had noticed that, of late, she had a strained, worried look, and it was more apparent than ever this afternoon as she poured out the tea at the little marble- topped table.
‘Children been bothering you?’ he asked solicitously.
She shook her head. She had seemed curiously disinclined to talk about the children lately.
‘They’re all right. I never mind them.’
His sympathetic tone seemed to distress her unwarrantably. ‘Oh, no. It was never that. But – but, indeed, I was lonely. I was indeed!’ Her tone was almost pleading.
He said quickly, touched: ‘Yes, yes, child, I know – I know.’
After a minute’s pause he remarked in a cheerful tone: ‘Do you know, you haven’t even asked my name yet?’
She held up a protesting hand.
‘Please, I don’t want to know it. And don’t ask mine. Let us be just two lonely people who’ve come together and made friends. It makes it so much more wonderful – and – and different.’
He said slowly and thoughtfully: ‘Very well. In an otherwise lonely world we’ll be two people who have just each other.’
It was a little different from her way of putting it, and she seemed to find it difficult to go on with the conversation. Instead, she bent lower and lower over her plate, till only the crown of her hat was visible.
‘That’s rather a nice hat,’ he said by way of restoring her equanimity.
‘I trimmed it myself,’ she informed him proudly. ‘I thought so the moment I saw it,’ he answered, saying the wrong thing with cheerful ignorance.
‘I’m afraid it is not as fashionable as I meant it to be!’
‘I think it’s a perfectly lovely hat,’ he said loyally.
Again constraint settled down upon them. Frank Oliver broke the silence bravely.
‘Little Lady, I didn’t mean to tell you yet, but I can’t help it. I love you. I want you. I loved you from the first moment I saw you standing there in your little black suit. Dearest, if two lonely people were together – why – there would be no more loneliness. And I’d work, oh! how I’d work! I’d paint you. I could, I know I could. Oh! my little girl, I can’t live without you. I can’t indeed -‘
His little lady was looking at him very steadily. But what she said was quite the last thing he expected her to say. Very quietly and distinctly she said: ‘You bought that handkerchief!’
He was amazed at this proof of feminine perspicacity, and still more amazed at her remembering it against him now. Surely, after this lapse of time, it might have been forgiven him.
‘Yes, I did,’ he acknowledged humbly. ‘I wanted an excuse to speak to you.
Are you very angry?’ He waited meekly for her words of condemnation.
‘I think it was sweet of you!’ cried the little lady with vehemence. ‘Just sweet of you!’ Her voice ended uncertainly.
Frank Oliver went on in his gruff tone:
‘Tell me, child, is it impossible? I know I’m an ugly, rough old fellow . . .’
The Lonely Lady interrupted him.
‘No, you’re not! I wouldn’t have you different, not in any way. I love you just as you are, do you understand? Not because I’m sorry for you, not because I’m alone in the world and want someone to be fond of me and take care of me – but because you’re just – you. Now do you understand?’
‘Is it true?’ he asked half in a whisper.
And she answered steadily: ‘Yes, it’s true -‘ The wonder of it overpowered them.
At last he said whimsically: ‘So we’ve fallen upon heaven, dearest!’
‘In an ABC shop,’ she answered in a voice that held tears and laughter.
But terrestrial heavens are short-lived. The little lady started up with an exclamation.
‘I’d no idea how late it was! I must go at once.’
‘I’ll see you home.’
‘No, no, no!‘
He was forced to yield to her insistence, and merely accompanied her as far as the Tube station.
‘Goodbye, dearest.’ She clung to his hand with an intensity that he remembered afterwards.
‘Only goodbye till tomorrow,’ he answered cheerfully. ‘Ten o’clock as usual, and we’ll tell each other our names and our histories, and be frightfully practical and prosaic.’
‘Goodbye to – heaven, though,’ she whispered.
‘It will be with us always, sweetheart!’
She smiled back at him, but with that same sad appeal that disquieted him and which he could not fathom. Then the relentless lift dragged her down out of sight.
He was strangely disturbed by those last words of hers, but he put them resolutely out of his mind and substituted radiant anticipations of tomorrow in their stead.
At ten o’clock he was there, in the accustomed place. For the first time he noticed how malevolently the other idols looked down upon him. It almost seemed as if they were possessed of some secret evil knowledge affecting him, over which they were gloating. He was uneasily aware of their dislike.
The little lady was late. Why didn’t she come? The atmosphere of this place was getting on his nerves. Never had his own little friend (their god) seemed so hopelessly impotent as today. A helpless lump of stone, hugging his own despair!
His cogitations were interrupted by a small, sharp-faced boy who had stepped up to him, and was earnestly scrutinizing him from head to foot. Apparently satisfied with the result of his observations, he held out a letter.
It had no superscription. He took it, and the sharp boy decamped with extraordinary rapidity.
Frank Oliver read the letter slowly and unbelievingly. It was quite short. Dearest,
I can never marry you. Please forget that I ever came into your life at all, and try to forgive me if I have hurt you. Don’t try to find me, because it will be no good. It is really ‘goodbye’.
The Lonely Lady
There was a postscript which had evidently been scribbled at the last moment:
I do love you. I do indeed.
And that little impulsive postscript was all the comfort he had in the weeks that followed. Needless to say, he disobeyed her injunction ‘not to try to find her’, but all in vain. She had vanished completely, and he had no clue to trace her by. He advertised despairingly, imploring her in veiled terms at least to explain the mystery, but blank silence rewarded his efforts. She was gone, never to return.
And then it was that for the first time in his life he really began to paint. His technique had always been good. Now craftsmanship and inspiration went hand in hand.
The picture that made his name and brought him renown was accepted and hung in the Academy, and was accounted to be the picture of the year, no less for the exquisite treatment of the subject than for the masterly workmanship and technique. A certain amount of mystery, too, rendered it more interesting to the general outside public.
His inspiration had come quite by chance. A fairy story in a magazine had taken a hold on his imagination.
It was the story of a fortunate Princess who had always had everything she wanted. Did she express a wish? It was instantly gratified. A desire? It was granted. She had a devoted father and mother, great riches, beautiful clothes and jewels, slaves to wait upon her and fulfil her lightest whim, laughing maidens to bear her company, all that the heart of a Princess could desire. The handsomest and richest Princes paid her court and sued in vain for her hand, and were willing to kill any number of dragons to prove their devotion. And yet, the loneliness of the Princess was greater than that of the poorest beggar in the land.
He read no more. The ultimate fate of the Princess interested him not at all. A picture had risen up before him of the pleasure-laden Princess with the sad, solitary soul, surfeited with happiness, suffocated with luxury, starving in the Palace of Plenty.
He began painting with furious energy. The fierce joy of creation possessed him.
He represented the Princess surrounded by her court, reclining on a divan. A riot of Eastern colour pervaded the picture. The Princess wore a marvellous gown of strange-coloured embroideries; her golden hair fell round her, and on her head was a heavy jewelled circlet. Her maidens surrounded her, and Princes knelt at her feet bearing rich gifts. The whole scene was one of luxury and richness.
But the face of the Princess was turned away; she was oblivious of the laughter and mirth around her. Her gaze was fixed on a dark and shadowy corner where stood a seemingly incongruous object: a little grey stone idol with its head buried in its hand in a quaint abandonment of despair.
Was it so incongruous? The eyes of the young Princess rested on it with a strange sympathy, as though a dawning sense of her own isolation drew her glance irresistibly. They were akin, these two. The world was at her feet – yet she was alone: a Lonely Princess looking at a lonely little god.
All London talked of this picture, and Greta wrote a few hurried words of congratulation from Yorkshire, and Tom Hurley’s wife besought Frank Oliver to ‘come for a weekend and meet a really delightful girl, a great admirer of your work’. Frank Oliver laughed once sardonically, and threw the letter into the fire. Success had come – but what was the use of it? He only wanted one thing – that little lonely lady who had gone out of his life for ever.
It was Ascot Cup Day, and the policeman on duty in a certain section of the British Museum rubbed his eyes and wondered if he were dreaming, for one does not expect to see there an Ascot vision, in a lace frock and a marvellous hat, a veritable nymph as imagined by a Parisian genius. The policeman stared in rapturous admiration.
The lonely god was not perhaps so surprised. He may have been in his way a powerful little god; at any rate, here was one worshipper brought back to the fold.
The Little Lonely Lady was staring up at him, and her lips moved in a rapid whisper.
‘Dear little god, oh! dear little god, please help me! Oh, please do help me!’
Perhaps the little god was flattered. Perhaps, if he was indeed the ferocious, unappeasable deity Frank Oliver had imagined him, the long weary years and the march of civilization had softened his cold, stone heart. Perhaps the Lonely Lady had been right all along and he was really a kind little god. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence. However that may be, it was at that very moment that Frank Oliver walked slowly and sadly through the door of the Assyrian room.
He raised his head and saw the Parisian nymph.
In another moment his arm was round her, and she was stammering out rapid, broken words.
‘I was so lonely – you know, you must have read that story I wrote; you couldn’t have painted that picture unless you had, and unless you had understood. The Princess was I; I had everything, and yet I was lonely beyond words. One day I was going to a fortune-teller’s, and I borrowed my maid’s clothes. I came in here on the way and saw you looking at the little god. That’s how it all began. I pretended – oh! it was hateful of me, and I went on pretending, and afterwards I didn’t dare confess that I had told you such dreadful lies. I thought you would be disgusted at the way I had deceived you. I couldn’t bear you to find out, so I went away. Then I wrote that story, and yesterday I saw your picture. It was your picture, wasn’t it?’
Only the gods really know the word ‘ingratitude’. It is to be presumed that the lonely little god knew the black ingratitude of human nature. As a divinity he had unique opportunities of observing it, yet in the hour of trial he who had had sacrifices innumerable offered to him, made sacrifice in his turn. He sacrificed his only two worshippers in a strange land, and it showed him to be a great little god in his way, since he sacrificed all that he had.
Through the chinks in his fingers he watched them go, hand in hand, without a backward glance, two happy people who had found heaven and had no need of him any longer.
What was he, after all, but a very lonely little god in a strange land?