Kathleen Drover, a woman in her forties, has returned to her house in London during the Second World War. She has come to collect items that she will bring back to her family in the country, where they are living to avoid the bombs being dropped on the city. She reflects on how her family has grown accustomed to life in the country, and on how empty and damaged the street—and the city at large—feels to her. It requires an effort on her part to get into the house because it has been shut up for so long, but following a struggle with the front door she manages to get inside.
Due to the bombs dropped on London during The Blitz at the start of The Second World War, many families moved to the countryside. The deserted and ruined street Mrs. Drover returns to has a sense of desolation and estrangement, and the effort required to get into the house creates a sense of foreboding, suggesting her visit will be difficult and testing.
Once inside the house, Mrs. Drover reflects on how dirty and damp her family home has become. The absent furniture has left marks and indentations that seem strange and unnerving, and she feels entirely estranged from this once-familiar setting. As Mrs. Drover makes her way upstairs, she sees a letter on the hall table. Its very appearance—never mind the lack of a stamp and the fact it is addressed to her—makes no sense, as nobody has been inside the house for some time and no one knows she is due to be there today.
The disrepair of the family home suggests it has been tainted by the violence and damage of warfare. The house being stained with previous use and activity also suggests that the past has left a kind of residue behind. The letter is another kind of intrusion: its appearance cannot be explained, and it emphasizes that all is not as it should be.
Though reluctant to read the letter, Mrs. Drover does so upstairs in her bedroom. The sender writes, “You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary,” and that “You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged.” Strangely, it seems the sender has been observing her for some time and has knowledge of her life and her movements over the years. It is also clear that the sender believes Mrs. Drover has made them a promise, though it less clear what exactly this promise entails.
When Mrs. Drover reads the letter, the past floods into the present moment. The suggestion that the sender has been observing her for some time and expects her to keep a promise she made a long time ago also reaffirms this sense of the past taking over the present. The fact that the terms of her promise are not specified seems ominous—clearly, whatever it is, she is expected to understand what the sender means and fulfill her mysterious obligation.
Though disturbed by the contents of the letter and the fact that it is marked with that day’s date, Mrs. Drover attempts to ignore it. She goes to the mirror to study her own reflection, where she is “confronted by a woman of forty-four,” and she describes how she has aged she has aged and how giving birth to three sons has taken a toll on her body. She next attempts to distract herself by going through a chest and retrieving the items she has come to collect, but she cannot stop looking behind her at the letter on the bed. As the clock strikes six o’clock, she anxiously begins to wonder which precise hour the letter referred to.
Mrs. Drover’s is unable to see herself in a direct and personal way. She can only view herself abstractly, and seems to have a hazy sense of her of own identity, perhaps brought on by emotionally testing experience of living through two world wars as well as the discomfort of being in a relationship with a man who treated her unkindly.
In a flashback, Mrs. Drover is a “young girl” talking to a soldier whose face “she had not ever completely seen.” She reaches out with her hand, which he in turn presses “without very much kindness, and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform” until the button cuts her palm. He is nearing the end of his leave from France. The soldier draws away from her, and she in turn looks back to the house, imagining being returned to the company of her mother and sister. She tells the man, her fiancé, that she is concerned that “You’re going away such a long way.” He replies, “Not so far as you think.” He also tells her “I shall be with you…sooner or later. You won’t forget that. You need do nothing but wait.” The young Mrs. Drover runs back up toward her family home a few moments later.
As traumatic memories are often brought on by loud noises, the fact that the sound of the clock striking six causes a flashback suggests that Mrs. Drover is suffering from a trauma she is now reliving. In short, her attempts to ignore the past have proven useless. In the flashback, her desire to leave the company of her fiancé causes her to look to the immediate future as a place of safety, and underscores her troubled relationship with both the past and present moment.The confusing information from her former fiancé mirrors the terms of the letter, specifically that he will be close by and that they will be reunited, whether she likes it or not.
Mrs. Drover then recalls how she responded to news of her fiancé’s presumed death in the war: she handled the situation well, partly because she was relieved she would not have to marry him. Her family was also relieved, as they did not believe they were a good match. Being with him made her experience a “dislocation from everything” that stayed with her for some time and prevented her from attracting a husband until she was thirty-two. Then, having met her husband, she went on to live a quiet life that she struggles to believe has been observed by anyone.
Her relationship with her fiancé dealt a blow to her sense of self—even estranging herself from her own being for a time—and this prevented her from having meaningful relationships for some time afterwards. Notably, she was never unfaithful to her fiancé—she met her husband long after her fiancé disappeared. This defies the source of the story’s title, an old ballad warning women that a demon would come if they were unfaithful while their husbands were away. Mrs. Drover was not unfaithful, so this subtly suggests that whatever is haunting her is perhaps an undeserved punishment.
Returned to the present moment, however, Mrs. Drover asserts that “dead or living the letter writer sent her only a threat.” She finds it difficult to continue kneeling “with her back exposed to the empty room,” so she moves to a chair where she can see the whole room before observing her “married London home’s whole air of being a cracked cup from which memory, with its reassuring power, had either evaporated or leaked away”. The house now feels hollow enough to undo the years she has spent there with her family and any comfort she might draw from these memories. She notices the sounds of rain through the shut windows and, shutting her eyes, attempts to convince herself she has imagined the letter, but when she opens them still sees it lying on the bed.
The threat suggested by the letter and her traumatic memories of the past have contaminated the safety and comfort of the family home. Clearly, the past is not a refuge for her, and now she is terrified of the present—in her flashback, she looked forward to safety and refuge in the future, but she hasn’t started to do that yet now. Instead, she chooses to try to pretend the letter isn’t real thereby denuding the present of its threat. It doesn’t work, though—the letter is still there, which suggests that the sender is indeed real.
Mrs. Drover refers to “the supernatural side” of the letter’s appearance: how did it get into the house? How did the sender know she would be there? Putting these issues to the side, she is certain that regardless of how the letter appeared, she must immediately leave the house. She locks the bedroom door and begins considering her options. She is adamant not to leave the house without retrieving the items she came for, as to do so would let down her family and tarnish her dependability. She thinks of how she might order a taxi, but she realizes the telephone is cut off.
Mrs. Drover is unable to focus on one question at a time and unable to form a plan of action. She is torn between escaping the house and saving herself, and retrieving the items she came to collect for her family in order to preserve an image of herself as a reliable mother. If the letter’s sender is real, then Mrs. Drover’s behavior is rational, but it’s possible that she is imagining this, which would make her locking the door, her inability to focus, and her panicked contemplation of an exit strategy incredibly bizarre.
Mrs. Drover continues to consider “The idea of flight,” but cannot help but remember her former fiancé and his coldness toward her. Indeed, she remembers “with such dreadful acuteness” that “the twentyfive years since then dissolved like smoke” and she looks to her palm expecting to see the woundmade by her former fiancé’s button still there. She also remembers how their relationship brought about the “complete suspension of her existence,” and fears the past is now threatening her present-day role as a wife and mother. Despite these vivid recollections, she nonetheless remains adamant that she would not recognize her former fiancé if she saw him, and that “Under no conditions could she remember his face.”
Her attempts at planning her escape are compromised as she is unable to focus on the present moment, continually confronted with visceral recollections from the past that seem to both overlap with and overwhelm the present. The strength of these recollections causes her to behave erratically and prevents her from rousing herself to action. It’s ambiguous and also ominous that she notes that her fiancé’s presence suspended her own existence—having a partner who destroys your sense of self is often a sign of abuse. Of course, there is some evidence that the demon lover exists only within herself, which could mean that when he appears within her, her normal personality recedes. That she has never seen his face would support this reading—after all, how do you get engaged to someone and never see their face?
Finally, Mrs. Drover decides that she will exit the house before “any clock struck what could be the hour” and find a taxi whose driver can help her retrieve her belongings. Imagining the solid presence of another human comforts her, and she unlocks the door and ventures to the top of the staircase. Here, she believes she feels a draft rising up from the basement, as though someone has just exited through a door or window from that part of the house. This further encourages her to leave.
Mrs. Drover is afraid the next hour will be the hour the letter refers to, and so it’s becoming increasingly urgent to leave the house. Her belief that a draft from the basement signals the departure of an intruder could be true, or further evidence of her erratic behavior and unstable frame of mind (although the physicality of air being disturbed is one of the more tangible pieces of evidence for a physical presence in the house).
Mrs. Drover is then on the street, still struck by the desolation of the deserted neighborhoodarea. The immense silence there intimidates her, as it makes it impossible for her to move about unheard. She is also agitated by the “damaged stare” of the surrounding buildings and tries not to look over her shoulder. When she comes onto the square, she forces herself to walk calmly toward the taxi rank among people carrying on with their lives as normal, and she climbs into the taxi just as the clock strikes seven o’clock.
Readers do not see Mrs. Drover leave the house. Instead, Bowen moves the narrative directly to the silence of the street, and the repetition of the image of the damaged buildings creates a sense of foreboding that mirrors the atmosphere upon Mrs. Drover’s arrival at the beginning of the story. It’s ominous that, just as she gets into the taxi—the place she imagined would provide her safety—the clock strikes seven, signaling a possible moment when the demon lover could appear.
Overwhelmed with relief at having escaped, it takes Mrs. Drover some moments to realize the taxi is moving without her having given any instructions as to where she’s going. She attempts to get the driver’s attention, and he responds by abruptly braking the car and propelling her forward. He then turns around so that their faces are very close to one another. They “remained for an eternity eye to eye,” and Mrs. Drover commences screaming. She continues to scream and beat on the windows of the taxi as it drives recklessly away, “accelerating without mercy… into the hinterland of deserted streets.”
Judging from her extreme reaction, it seems plausible that she has recognized the driver as her former fiancé, now transformed into the demon lover. That Bowen says they stared at one another for “an eternity” suggests both the magnitude of Mrs. Drover’s terror and also the complete suspension of time, perhaps even death. This is significant, since throughout the story Mrs. Drover has kept meticulous track of time—both the hour of the clock, and also she has attempted (not always successfully) to separate the terror of the past from the present, and then danger of the present from the presumed safety of the future. In “eternity,” all of these concerns are unnecessary, which is part of the terror of the ending—Mrs. Drover’s old concerns are moot, perhaps because her worst fears came true.