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LYRASIS Members and Sloan Foundation 


By H. E. Bates 























The Best of H. E. Bates 


H. E. 


With a 

Preface by 



An Atlantic Monthly Press Book 


copyright 1928, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1945, 1947, 

1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955 BY H. E. BATES 
COPYRIGHT © I956, 1957 BY H. E. BATES 



Published in England under the title of 








The earliest of these stories, The Flame, was 
first published in 1926, having been written a 
year earlier, when I was twenty; the latest 
appeared in 1961. The intervening thirty-five 
years, together with the thirty-five stories I 
have chosen from that period, therefore give 
this collection its title, Seven by Five. My aim 
has been to make the book as widely repre- 
sentative of my work as a short story writer as 
possible, but I have nevertheless refrained from 
including any of the war-time stories I wrote 
under the pseudonym of 'Flying Officer X', any 
of the stories of Uncle Silas and any novellas, 
since these all belong, in my view, to quite 
separate categories. 

*The title of the British edition. 


It was only a little over a year ago that I came across H. E. 
Bates' work; up until then. I had never even heard his name, 
strange as this may sound. I blush now when I read that he is 
the author of forty or more books, has been translated into a 
dozen or more languages, and that 'his reputation in America, 
Australia and New Zealand equals, and in some cases surpasses, 
that in his own country.' 

Perhaps I would never have heard of him had I not been laid 
up with chills and fever in the Hotel Formentor, Mallorca, 
where I was quartered during the Formentor Conference. Hav- 
ing nothing to read I asked a friend to go to the bookstore in 
the lobby and select something light, gay, amusing for me. My 
friend returned with a copy of A Breath of French Air. He said 
nothing about knowing the author until some days later when 
I told him how much I had enjoyed the book. A little later, at 
some airport, I picked up The Darling Buds of May and Fair 
Stood the Wind for France. The last named impressed me 
deeply and made me wonder why I had never heard of the 
author. It struck me as being the only good novel I had read 
about World War II. 

In a way Mr Bates is the very opposite of what I look for in 
an author. There is certainly little relation between his manner 
of writing and that of Celine or Blaise Cendrars, my favourites 
among contemporary writers. (Both dead now, alas.) On the 
other hand, I do find a kinship between Bates and Jean Giono, 
whose work I adore. I ought to add - like whom I wish I could 

One of the great joys for a writer is to find a fellow writer 
who, because he is so different, captivates and enchants him. 
To find a writer whose work he will read even if he is warned 
that it is not one of the author's best. 

In general I must confess that I seldom fall for the work of 
a popular writer. Had I lived in Dickens' time, for example, I 
doubt that I would have been one of his devoted readers. As 
for the successful writers of our own time there is hardly one 

Preface by Henry Miller 

I can think of off hand whom I have any desire to read. It de- 
mands an effort for me to read a modern novel, and an even 
greater one to read a short story. I make exception for the short 
stories of I. B. Singer, the Yiddish writer. And Mr Bates is 
supremely a novelist and short-story writer. He is, moreover, 
a rather conventional one. 

After all that has been written about this author it seems 
rather unimportant that I add my tribute to him. Certainly he 
needs no further words of praise, and praise, I am afraid, is all 
I can summon. I assume that the reason I have been requested 
to write this preface to his collected short stories is because the 
coupling of our two names will seem highly incongruous both 
to Mr Bates' readers and my own. I know that I have a reputa- 
tion for being highly critical of, perhaps even unfair to British 
authors. On the other hand, it should not be overlooked that 
the one author (still alive) for whom I have an undying 
admiration is John Cowper Powys, and that I regard his novel, 
A Glastonbury Romance, as the greatest novel in the English 

If Mr Bates were a painter I think I could express my views 
about his work much better. Last night I lay awake trying to 
pick out the painter with whom I sought to identify his writing. 
No single painter whose work I know seemed suitable. I thought 
of Renoir and Bonnard, of Breughel the elder and others. I think 
that if I were to find one it would be a Flemish painter. The 
reason is obvious. 

Whether it be the short story or the novel, Mr Bates always 
finds time for lengthy descriptions of nature, descriptions which 
in the hands of a lesser writer would seem boring or out of place. 
He dwells long and lovingly on things which years ago would 
have driven me mad. I mean such things as flowers, plants, trees, 
birds, sea, sky, everything in short which meets the eye and 
which the unskilled writer uses as so much window dressing. 
Indeed, it is not only the unskilled writer who is guilty of mis- 
handling description. Some of the greatest novelists of the past 
were flagrantly guilty of doing just this, and more particularly 
British writers. With Mr Bates this fault has been made into 
a virtue. The reader falls upon these lengthy passages like a 
man athirst. 

There is another virtue which goes hand in hand with the 

Preface by Henry Miller 

above-mentioned one, and that is the author's feeling for women. 
His women are always females first and foremost. That is to 
say, they are fully sexed : they have all the charm, the loveliness, 
the attraction of the flowers he knows so well. With a few deft 
strokes - like a painter again - we are given their peculiar grace, 
character and utter femininity. Not all of them, naturally, for 
he can also render the other kind of woman just as tellingly. 

And then there is this element which crops up again and 
again, I find - an obsession with pain. Pain stretched to the 
breaking point, pain prolonged beyond all seeming endurance. 
This element is usually called forth in connection with heroic 
behaviour. Perhaps it is the supreme mark of the hero, this ability 
to endure pain. With Mr Bates I feel that it goes beyond the 
point of the heroic; it carries us into some other dimension. Pain 
takes on the aspects of space and time, a continuum or 
perpetuum which one finally questions no longer. 

But no matter how much one is made to suffer, one closes his 
books with a lasting sensation of beauty. And this sense of 
beauty, it seems to me, is evoked by the author's unswerving 
acceptance of life. It is this which makes his flowers, trees, birds, 
skies, whatever it be, different from those of other writers. They 
are not merely decorative, they are not showily dramatic: they 
exist, along with his characters, his thoughts, his observations, 
in a plenum which is spiritual as well as physical. 

There is one other quality which must endear him to every 
reader and that is his sense of humour. It is a full, robust 
humour, often bawdy, which I must confess the British writer 
seems to have lost in the last few centuries. It is never a nasty 
humour, so common to American writers. It is clean and healthy, 
and absolutely infectious. 

What surprises me most about this man's work is the fact 
that only one or two of his books have been made into films. 
Despite the abundance of descriptive passages which I spoke 
of, there is drama in all his work. Drama and dialogue. Good, 
natural dialogue which, if transferred to the screen, would need 
no adaptation. 

I realise at this point that I have said little or nothing about 
the short stories themselves. Aside from a few very short ones 
I find them all absorbing. Meanwhile I look forward with great 
relish to eating my way through the thirty odd books of his 

Preface by Henry Miller 

which I have yet to read, especially those containing his novellas, 
a form which clearly suits him best, as it did one of my first 
idols, Knut Hamsun. But I am sure that whatever Mr Bates 
gives us will always please me. 

Henry Miller 






TIME 27 





THE OX 120 

















let's play soldiers 334 

the watercress girl 345 

the cowslip field 358 

great uncle crow 365 

the enchantress 372 

now sleeps the crimson petal 396 

where the cloud breaks 414 

lost ball 425 





'Two ham and tongue, two teas, please, Miss!' 


The waitress retreated, noticing as she did so that the clock 
stood at six. 'Two ham and tongue, two teas/ she called down 
the speaking-tube. The order was repeated. She put down the 
tube, seemed satisfied, even bored, and patted the white frilled 
cap that kept her black hair in place. Then she stood still, hand 
on hip, pensively watching the door. The door opened and shut. 

She thought : 'Them two again ! ' 

Wriggling herself upright she went across and stood by the 
middle-aged men. One smiled and the other said : 'Usual/ 

Down the tube went her monotonous message : 'One ham, one 
tongue, two teas/ 

Her hand went to her hip again, and she gazed at the clock. 
Five past! -time was hanging, she thought. Her face grew 
pensive again. The first order came on the lift, and the voice up 
the tube: 'Two 'am an' tongue, two teas!' 

'Right/ She took the tray and deposited it with a man and 
woman at a corner-table. On returning she was idle again, her 
eye still on the door. Her ear detected the sound of a bronchial 
wheeze on the floor above, the angry voice of a customer in the 
next section, and the rumble of the lift coming up. But she 
watched the door until the last possible second. The tray slid 
into her hand almost without her knowing it and the nasal voice 
into her ears: 'One 'am, one tongue, two teas!' 


The middle-aged customers smiled; one nudged the other 
when she failed to acknowledge that salute, and chirped : 'Bright 
today, ain't you ! ' 

She turned her back on him. 

'Been brighter,' she said, without smiling. 

She was tired. When she leant against the head of the lift she 
shut her eyes, then remembered and opened them again to 
resume her watch on the door and clock. The man in the corner 

8 The Flame 

smacked his lips, drank with his mouth full and nearly choked. 
A girl in another corner laughed, not at the choking man but at 
her companion looking cross-eyed. The cash-register linked' 
sharply. Someone went out: nothing but fog came in, making 
every one shiver at once. The man in the corner whistled three 
or four notes to show his discomfort, remembered himself, and 
began to eat ham. 

The girl noticed these things mechanically, not troubling to 
show her disgust. Her eye remained on the door. A customer 
came in, an uninteresting working girl who stared, hesitated, 
then went and sat out of the dark girl's section. The dark girl 
noticed it mechanically. 

The manageress came: tall, darkly dressed, with long sleeves, 
like a manageress. 

'Have you had your tea, Miss Palmer/ she asked. 


'Would you like it?' 

'No, thank you/ 

'No? Why not?' 

'It's my night off. I'm due out at half-past.' 

She walked away, took an order, answered a call for 'Bill!' 
and found that the order got mixed with the bill, and that the 
figures wouldn't add. It seemed years before the 'tink' of the 
register put an end to confusion. The customer went out: fog 
blew in : people shivered. The couple in the corner sipped their 
tea, making little storms in their tea-cups. 

She put her head against the lift. The clock showed a quarter 
past: another quarter of an hour! She was hungry. As if in 
consequence her brain seemed doubly sharp and she kept 
thinking: 'My night out. Wednesday. Wednesday. He said 
Wednesday ! He said - ' 

'Bill! Bill!' 

She went about mechanically, listened mechanically, executed 
mechanically. A difficult bill nearly sent her mad, but she wrote 
mechanically, cleaned away dirty platter, brushed off crumbs - 
all mechanically. Now and then she watched the clock. Five 
minutes more! Would he come? Would he? Had he said 

The waitress from the next section, a fair girl, came and said : 

'Swap me your night, Lil? Got a flame comin' in. I couldn't 

The Flame 9 

get across to tell you before. A real flame - strite he is - nice, 
quiet, 'andsome. Be a dear? You don't care?' 

The dark girl stared. What was this ! She couldn't ! Not she ! 
The clock showed three minutes to go. She couldn't! 

'Nothing doing,' she said and walked away. 

Every one was eating contentedly. In the shadow near the lift 
she pulled out his note and read: 'I will come for you, 
Wednesday evening, 6.' 

Six! Then, he was late! Six! Why should she think half- 
past? She shut her eyes. Then he wasn't coming! 

A clock outside struck the half-hour. She waited five minutes 
before passing down the room, more mechanically than ever. 
Why hadn't he come? Why hadn't he come? 

The fair girl met her. 'Be a dear?' she pleaded. 'Swap me 
your night. He's a real flame - 'struth he is, nice, quiet ! ' 

Thirty-five minutes late ! The dark girl watched the door. No 
sign ! It was all over. 

'Right-o,' she said. 

She . sent another order down. The door opened often now, 
the fog was thicker, she moved busily. She thought of him when 
a man ordered a brandy and spilt it over her hand because his 
own shivered with cold. He wasn't like that, she thought, as she 
sucked her fingers dry. 

For the first time in five minutes she looked at the door. She 
felt her heart leap. 

He had come at last. Yes, there he was. He was talking to the 
fair girl. The little doll was close to him. Yes, there he was, nice, 
quiet handsome. Their voices crept across to her. 

'Two seats? two seats?' she heard. 


'Oh ! I say ! And supper ? ' 

'Of course. And supper.' 

The dark girl could not move as they went out. 

The door shut hard. 'Two seats?' 'And supper?' 'Nice quiet, 
'andsome.' The dark girl dreamed on. 

'Miss! Miss!' 

She obeyed. She was sad, hungry, tired. 

'Yessir?' They were middle-aged men again! 

'Two teas, two tongues,' said one. 

'Two seats and supper?' she whispered. 

10 The Flame 

'Whaaat? Two teas! two tongues! Can't you hear?' 
'Yessir. Two teas, two tongues. Thank you, sir.' 
She moved slowly away. 

'You can never make these blooming gals understand/ said 
one man to the other. 


The blackthorn tree stooped over the high bank above the road. 
Its branches were clouded with white blossom and the spring 
sunlight threw lace-like patterns on the earth that had been 
trodden bare underneath the tree. The grass of the bank was 
scattered with big, pale-blue violets and stars of coltsfoot and 
daisies very like chance blackthorn blossoms that the wind had 
shaken down. In the hedge behind the blackthorn were com- 
panies of pale-green lords-and-ladies that had thrust up their 
unfurled hoods through a thicket of dog's-mercury. They 
looked cold and stately. The sunlight was sharp and brilliant 
and against the blue of the sky the blackthorn tree was whiter 
than a summer cloud. 

On the road below stood a row of cottages and in the back 
gardens wives were beating carpets and gossiping. A clergyman 
rode by on a bicycle, carrying The Times and a bunch of 
daffodils. A blackbird squawked and dipped across the road and 
vanished into a spinney of hazels as he passed. 

A girl of seven or eight was sitting under the blackthorn. The 
tree was so twisted and stooping that she sat there in a kind of 
room, shut in by a roof and walls of blossoming branches. It 
was very sweet and snug there on the dry floor in the freckling 
sunlight. She had taken off her pinafore and had spread it 
across the earth and had set in the centre of it a tin that had 
once held peaches. In the tin she was arranging flowers among 
ivy leaves and grasses. She had put in celandines and dog- 
violets and coltsfoot and a single dandelion, with a spray or two 
of blackthorn. She arched her fingers very elegantly and sat 
back to admire the effects. She had fair, smooth hair, and 
she had made a daisy chain to bind round her forehead. It gave 
her a very superior and ladylike air which was not lost on 

Presently she ceased arranging the flowers and began to 
smooth her dress and polish her finger-nails on her palms, 
lingering over them for a long time. At last there was a move- 


12 A Flower Piece 

ment in a hawthorn bush a little distance away and a voice 
called quietly: 

'Do I have to come in now?' 

The girl looked up in the direction of the voice. 

'You have to wait till I tell you/ she whispered sharply. 

And then in a totally strange voice, very high-pitched and 
affected, like the voice of a stage duchess, she sang out: 

Tm at my toilet, my dear. An awful nuisance. Do excuse me.' 

'I see.' 

'Only a moment! I'm still in my deshabille.' 

She began to make hurried imaginary movements of slipping 
in and out of garments. Finally she undid two buttons at the 
bodice of her dress and turned back the bodice of her dress, 
revealing her naked chest. She looked down at herself in 
admiration, breathing heavily once or twice, so that her bosom 
rose and fell very languidly and softly. She gave one last touch 
to the flowers in the peach-tin and then whispered: 

'You can come in now. Act properly.' 

Another child came out of hiding and stood outside the haw- 
thorn tree. She was a brown, shy, unassuming creature, about 
six or seven, with beautiful dark eyes that reflected the dazzling 
whiteness of the sloe blossom so perfectly that they took fresh 
light from it. Her voice was curiously soft and timid and 

'Do I have to come straight in ? ' she said. 

'You have to be in the garden first. You look at the flowers and 
then you ring and the servant comes.' 

'Oh! what lovely may,' said the other child, talking softly to 

'It's not may! It's lilac' 

'Oh! What lovely lilac. Oh! dear, what lovely lilac' 

She pulled down a branch of blossom and caressed it with 
her cheek. It was very sweet and she sighed. She acted very 
charmingly, and finally she rang the bell and the servant came. 

'May I see Mrs Lane?' 

'Not Mrs Lane,' came an awful whisper. 'Lady Constance. 
You're Mrs Lane.' 

'Is Lady Constance in ? ' 

'Will you go into the drawing-room?' 

She stooped and went through a space in the blackthorn 

A Flower Piece 13 

branches. The fair child for a moment did not notice her. She 
had broken off a thorn and she was absorbed in stitching 
imaginary embroideries very delicately. Suddenly she glanced up 
with a most perfect exclamation of well-mannered surprise. 

'My dear Mrs Lane! It is Mrs Lane, isn't it?' 


'How sweet of you to come. Won't you sit down? I'll ring for 
tea. You must be tired.' Ting-a-ling-a-ling ! 'Oh ! Jane, will you 
bring tea at once, please? Thank you. Oh! do sit down, won't 
you ? ' 

'Where do I sit?' said the brown child. 

'On the floor, silly ! ' whispered the fair girl. 'Oh ! do take the 
settee, won't you ? ' 

'I was admiring your lovely may,' said the brown child. 

'The lilac? Oh! yes, wouldn't you like to take some?' 

'Oh! Yes. May I?' 

She began to crawl through the break in the branches again. 
Instantly the fair child was furious. 

'You don't have to do that until I tell you,' she whispered. 
'Come back and sit down now. Oh! yes, of course,' she said 
aloud. 'I'll tell the gardener to cut you some.' 

The brown-eyed child crept back under the tree and sat down. 
She looked very meek and solemn and embarrassed, as though 
she were really in a drawing-room and did not know what to do 
with her hands. The fair child was acting superbly, not one 
accent or gesture out of place. The maid arrived with the tea 
and the fair one said with perfect sweetness: 

'Milk and sugar?' 

The dark child had become busy with hidden knots, her frock 
uplifted, and she did not hear. The fair-haired child took one 
look at her and became furious again. 

'Put your clothes down,' she whispered terribly. 'You're 
showing all you've got.' 

'I can't help it. It's my knickers. I want some new elastic' 

'But you mustn't do it. Not in the drawing-room. We're 
ladies ! ' 

'Ladies do it.' 

'Ladies don't do it! Ladies have to sit nice and talk nice and 
behave themselves.' 

The brown-eyed child surrendered. She looked as though she 

14 A Flower Piece 

were bored and bewildered by the affectations of the fair child 
and by the prospect of being a lady. She was constantly glanc- 
ing with an expression of quiet longing at the blackthorn 
blossom, the blue sky and the flowers arranged in the peach-tin. 

'Milk and sugar?' repeated the fair child. 

'Oh ! yes please/ 

There were no teacups, but the fair child had gathered a heap 
of stones for cakes. The brown child sat with a stone in her 
hand. The other took a cake between her finger-tips and made 
elegant bites and munched with a sweetish smile. She made 
small talk to perfection, and when she drank her tea she extended 
her little finger. Finally she observed that the dark child was 
neither eating nor drinking. She looked at her as if she had 
committed unpardonable sins in etiquette. 

'Aren't you having any tea?' she said icily. 

The brown-eyed child looked startled and then declared 
timidly : 

'I don't want to play this game.' 

'Why don't you want to play?' 

The brown child did not answer. All the dignity of the fair 
child at once vanished. She made a gesture as though it were 
difficult to bear all the shortcomings of the younger child. 

'All because you can't act,' she said tartly. 

'Let's go out and get violets and be real people.' 

'We are real people. You play so silly. You aren't old enough 
to understand.' 

The brown-eyed child looked acutely depressed. Suddenly she 
dropped the stone and began to creep out disconsolately from 
under the blackthorn tree. The fair child adopted a new, 
cajoling tone. 

'It's easy,' she said. 'You only have to put it on a bit and 
you're a lady. We can start again and you can be a duchess. 
Come on.' 

The dark child looked back for a moment very dubiously, as 
though it were too much to believe, and then walked away up the 
bank. The other child sniffed and tossed her head with fierce 
pride and called out : 

'You needn't think you can come back here now you've gone.' 

Without answering, the brown-eyed child walked away behind 
the hawthorn trees and by the hedge at the top of the bank. She 

A Flower Piece 15 

became lost in a world of dog's-mercury and budding hawthorn 
and pale violets. She came upon primrose buds and finally a 
cluster of opened primroses and a bed of white anemones. 
Talking to herself, she gathered flowers and leaves and put them 
in her hair, as the fair girl had done. 

The fair child crept out from under the blackthorn tree. She 
had tucked her frock in her pale blue knickers and she stood 
upright on her toes, like a ballet-dancer. She broke off a spray 
of blackthorn and held it with both hands above her head and 
then twirled on her toes and did high kicks and waltzed 
majestically round and round the blackthorn tree. Now and then 
she broke out and sang to herself. She introduced a stage vibrato 
into her voice and she danced about the blackthorn tree to the 
tune she made, acting perfectly. 

Finally the brown-haired child came down the bank again. 
She saw the fair child dancing and she suddenly conceived a 
desire to dance too. She stood by the tree and waited. The fair 
girl saw her. 

'You needn't come here ! ' she sneered. 

A spasm of sadness crossed the face of the dark child. She 
turned and descended the bank very slowly, sometimes pausing 
and looking backward and then edging unwillingly away. 
Finally, with the primroses and the single anemone still shining 
in her hair, she reached the road and walked slowly away and 

When she had gone there was nothing left to interrupt the 
gaiety of the dancing child, the flowers about the earth and the 
blackthorn tree scattering its shower of lovely stars. 


In the midday heat of a June day a farm-boy was riding down 
a deserted meadow-lane, straddling a fat white pony. The 
blossoms of hawthorn had shrivelled to brown on the tall hedges 
flanking the lane and wild pink and white roses were beginning 
to open like stars among the thick green leaves. The air was 
heavy with the scent of early summer, the odour of the dying 
hawthorn bloom, the perfume of the dog-roses, the breath of 
ripening grass. 

The boy had taken off his jacket and had hooked it over the 
straw victual-bag hanging from the saddle. There were bottles 
of beer in the bag and the jacket shaded them from the heat of 
the sun. The pony moved at walking-pace and the boy rode 
cautiously, never letting it break into a trot. As though it was 
necessary to be careful with the beer, he sometimes halted the 
pony and touched the necks of the bottles with his fingers. The 
bottlenecks were cool, but the cloth of his jacket was burning 
against his hand. 

He presently steered the pony through a white gate leading 
from the lane to a meadow beyond. The gate was standing open 
and he rode the pony straight across the curving swathes of hay 
which lay drying in the sun. It was a field of seven or eight acres 
and a third of the grass had already been mown. The hay was 
crisp and dry under the pony's feet and the flowers that had 
been growing in the grass lay white and shrivelled in the 

Over on the far side of the field a man was mowing and a 
woman was turning the rows of grass with a hay rake. The 
figure of the man was nondescript and dark, and the woman was 
dressed in a white blouse and an old green skirt that had faded 
to the yellowish colour of the grass the man was mowing. The 
boy rode the pony towards them. The sunshine blazed down 
fierce and perpendicular, and there was no shade in the field 
except for the shadow of an ash tree in one corner and a group 
of willows by a cattle-pond in another. 


The Mower 17 

Everywhere was silence and the soft sound of the pony's feet 
in the hay and the droning of bees in the flowers among the 
uncut grass seemed to deepen the silence. 

The woman straightened her back and, leaning on her rake, 
shaded her face with her hand and looked across at the boy as 
she heard him coming. The man went on mowing, swinging the 
scythe slowly and methodically, his back towards her. 

The woman was dark and good-looking, with a sleek swarthy 
face and very high, soft red cheek-bones, like a gipsy, and a 
long pigtail of thick black hair which she wore twisted over her 
head like a snake coiled up asleep. She herself was rather like 
a snake also, her long body slim and supple, her black eyes 
liquid and bright. The boy rode up to her and dismounted. She 
dropped her rake and held the pony's head and ran her fingers 
up and down its nose while he slipped from the saddle. 

'Can he come?' she said. 

The boy had not time to answer before the man approached, 
wiping the sweat from his face and neck with a dirty red 
handkerchief. His face was broad and thick-lipped and pon- 
derous, his eyes were grey and simple, and the skin of his face 
and neck and hands was dried and tawny as an Indian's with 
sun and weather. He was about forty, and he walked with a 
slight stoop of his shoulders and a limp of his left leg, very 
slowly and deliberately. 

'See him?' he said to the boy. 

'He was up there when I got the beer,' the boy said. 

'In the Dragon? What did he say?' 

'He said he'd come.' 

The woman ceased stroking the pony's nose and looked up. 

'He said that yesterday,' she said. 

'Ah ! but you can't talk to him. He's got to have his own way,' 
said the man. 'Was he drunk ? ' he asked. 

'I don't think so,' said the boy. 'He was drunk yesterday.' 

The man wiped his neck impatiently and made a sound of 
disgust and then took out his watch. 'Half the day gone - and a 
damn wonder if he comes,' he muttered. 

'Oh! if Ponto says he'll come,' said the woman slowly, 'he'll 
come. He'll come all right.' 

'How do you know? He does things just when he thinks he 
will - and not until.' 

18 The Mower 

'Oh! He'll come if he says he'll come,' she said. 

The boy began to lead the pony across the field towards the 
ash tree. The woman stood aside for him and then kicked her 
rake on a heap of hay and followed him. 

The sun had crossed the zenith. The man went back to his 
scythe and slipped his whetstone from his pocket and laid it 
carefully on the mown grass. As he put on his jacket he turned 
and gazed at the white gate of the field. He could see no one 
there, and he followed the woman and the boy across the field 
to the ash tree. 

Under the ash tree the boy was tethering the horse in the 
shade and the woman was unpacking bread and cold potatoes 
and a meat pie. The boy had finished tethering the horse as the 
man came up and he was covering over the bottles of beer with 
a heap of hay. The sight of the beer reminded the man of some- 

'You told him the beer was for him? he asked. 

'He asked me whose it was and I told him what you said,' the 
boy replied. 

'That's all right.' 

He began to unfold the sack in which the blade of his scythe 
had been wrapped. He spread out the sack slowly and carefully 
on the grass at the foot of the ash trunk and let his squat body 
sink down upon it heavily. The boy and the woman seated them- 
selves on the grass at his side. He unhooked the heavy soldier's 
knife hanging from his belt, and unclasped it and wiped it on 
his trousers knee. The women sliced the pie. The man took his 
plateful of pie and bread and potatoes on his knee, and spitting 
his sucking-pebble from his mouth began spearing the food with 
the point of his knife, eating ravenously. When he did not eat 
with his knife he ate with his fingers, grunting and belching 
happily. The woman finished serving the pie, and sucking a 
smear of gravy from her long fingers, began to eat too. 

During the eating no one spoke. The three people stared at 
the half-mown field. The curves of the scythed grass were 
beginning to whiten in the blazing sunshine. The heat 
shimmered and danced above the earth in the distance in little 

Before long the man wiped his plate with a piece of bread and 
swilled down his food with long drinks of cold tea from a blue 

The Mower 19 

can. When he had finished drinking, his head lolled back against 
the ash tree and he closed his eyes. The boy lay flat on his belly, 
reading a sporting paper while he ate. The air was stifling and 
warm even under the ash tree, and there was no sound in the 
noon stillness except the clink of the horse's bit as it pulled off 
the young green leaves of the hawthorn hedge. 

But suddenly the woman sat up a little and the drowsy look on 
her face began to clear away. A figure of a man had appeared at 
the white gate and was walking across the field. He walked with 
a kind of swaggering uncertainty and now and then he stopped 
and took up a handful of mown grass and dropped it again. He 
was carrying a scythe on his shoulder. 

She watched him intently as he skirted the standing grass and 
came towards the ash tree. He halted at last within the shade of 
the tree and took a long look at the expanse of grass, thick with 
buttercups and tall bull- daises, scattered everywhere like a white 
and yellow mass of stars. 

'By Christ/ he muttered softly. 

His voice was jocular and tipsy. The woman stood up. 

What's the matter, Ponto ? ' she said. 

'This all he's cut?' 

'That's all.' 

'By Christ.' 

He laid his scythe on the grass in disgust. He was a tall, thin, 
black-haired fellow, about thirty, lean and supple as a stoat; his 
sharp, dark-brown eyes were filled with a roving expression, half 
dissolute and half cunning; the light in them was sombre with 
drinking. His soft red lips were full and pouting, and there was 
something about his face altogether conceited, easy-going and 
devilish. He had a curious habit of looking at things with one 
eye half closed in a kind of sleepy wink that was marvellously 
knowing and attractive. He was wearing a dark slouch hat which 
he had tilted back from his forehead and which gave him an 
air of being a little wild but sublimely happy. 

Suddenly he grinned at the woman and walked over to where 
the man lay sleeping. He bent down and put his mouth close to 
his face. 

'Hey, your old hoss's bolted!' he shouted. 

The man woke with a start. 

'Your old hoss's bolted ! ' 

20 The Mower 

'What's that? Where did you spring from? , 

'Get up, y' old sleepy guts. I wanna get this grass knocked 
down afore dark.' 

The man got to his feet. 

'Knock this lot down afore dark ? ' 

'Yes, my old beauty. When I mow I do mow, I do.' He smiled 
and wagged his head. 'Me and my old dad used to mow twenty- 
acre fields afore dark - and start with the dew on. Twenty- acre 
fields. You don't know what mowin' is.' 

He began to take off his jacket. He was slightly unsteady on 
his feet and the jacket bothered him as he pulled it off and he 
swore softly. He was wearing a blue- and- white shirt and a pair 
of dark moleskin trousers held up by a wide belt of plaited 
leather thongs. His whetstone rested in a leather socket hanging 
from the belt. He spat on his hands and slipped the whetstone 
from the socket and picked up his scythe and with easy, careless 
rhythmical swings began to whet the long blade. The woman 
gazed at the stroke of his arm and listened to the sharp ring of 
the stone against the blade with a look of unconscious admiration 
and pleasure on her face. The blade of the scythe was very long, 
tapering and slender, and it shone like silver in the freckles of 
sunlight coming through the ash leaves. He ceased sharpening 
the blade and took a swing at a tuft of bull-daisies. The blade 
cut the stalks crisply and the white flowers fell evenly together, 
like a fallen nosegay. His swing was beautiful and with the 
scythe in his hand the balance of his body seemed to become 
perfect and he himself suddenly sober, dignified, and composed. 

'Know what my old dad used to say?' he said. 


'Drink afore you start.' 

'Fetch a bottle of beer for Ponto,' said the man to the boy at 
once. 'I got plenty of beer. The boy went up on the nag and 
fetched it.' 

'That's a good job. You can't mow without beer.' 

'That's right.' 

'My old man used to drink twenty pints a day. God's truth. 
Twenty pints a day. He was a bloody champion. You can't mow 
without beer.' 

The woman came up with a bottle of beer in her hand. Ponto 
took it from her mechanically, hardly looking at her. He un- 

The Mower 21 

corked the bottle, covered the white froth with his mouth and 
drank eagerly, the muscles of his neck rippling like those of a 
horse. He drank all the beer at one draught and threw the empty 
bottle into the hedge, scaring the pony. 

'Whoa ! damn you ! ' he shouted. 

The pony tossed his head and quietened again. Ponto wiped 
his lips, and taking a step or two towards the boy, aimed the 
point of the scythe jocularly at his backside. The boy ran off and 
Ponto grinned tipsily at the woman. 

'You goin' to turn the rows?' he said. 

'Yes/ she said. 

He looked her up and down, from the arch of her hips to the 
clear shape of the breasts in her blouse and the coil of her black 
pigtail. Her husband was walking across the field to fetch his 
scythe. She smiled drowsily at Ponto and he smiled in return. 

'I thought you'd come/ she said softly. 

His smile broadened and he stretched out his hand and let his 
fingers run down her bare brown throat. She quivered and 
breathed quickly and laughed softly in return. His eyes rested on 
her face with mysterious admiration and delight and he seemed 
suddenly very pleased about something. 

'Good old Anna/ he said softly. 

He walked past her and crossed the field to the expanse of 
unmown grass. He winked solemnly and his fingers ran lightly 
against her thigh as he passed her. 

The woman followed him out into the sunshine and took up 
her rake and began to turn the rows that had been cut since 
early morning. When she glanced up again the men were mow- 
ing. They seemed to be mowing at the same even, methodical 
pace, but Ponto was already ahead. He swung his scythe with a 
long light caressing sweep, smoothly and masterfully, as though 
his limbs had been born to mow. The grass was shaved off very 
close to the earth and was laid in a tidy swathe that curved 
gently behind him like a thick rope. On the backward stroke the 
grass and the butter-cups and the bull-daisies were pressed 
gently backwards, bent in readiness to meet the forward swing 
that came through the grass with a soft swishing sound like the 
sound of indrawn breath. 

The boy came and raked in the row next to the woman. To- 
gether they turned the rows and the men mowed in silence for a 

22 The Mower 

long time. Every time the woman looked up she looked at Ponto. 
He was always ahead of her husband and he moved with a kind 
of lusty insistence, as though he were intent on moving the whole 
field before darkness fell. Her husband mowed in a stiff, 
awkward fashion, always limping and often whetting his scythe. 
The boy had taken some beer to Ponto, who often stopped to 
drink. She would catch the flash of the bottle tilted up in the 
brilliant sunshine and she would look at him meditatively as 
though remembering something. 

As the afternoon went on, Ponto mowed far ahead of her 
husband, working across the field towards the pond and the 
willows. He began at last to mow a narrow space of grass behind 
the pond. She saw the swing of his bare arms through the 
branches and then lost them again. 

Suddenly he appeared and waved a bottle and shouted some- 

Til go,' she said to the boy. 

She dropped her rake and walked over to the ash tree and 
found a bottle of beer. The flies were tormenting the horse and 
she broke off an ash bough and slipped it in the bridle. The sun 
seemed hotter than ever as she crossed the field with the beer, 
and the earth was cracked and dry under her feet. She picked up 
a stalk of buttercups and swung it against her skirt. The scent 
of the freshly-mown grass was strong and sweet in the sunshine. 
She carried the beer close by her side, in the shadow. 

Ponto was mowing a stretch of grass thirty or forty yards wide 
behind the pond. The grass was richer and taller than in the rest 
of the field and the single swathes he had cut lay as thick as 

She sat down on the bank of the pond under a willow until 
he had finished his bout of mowing. She had come up silently, 
and he was mowing with his back towards her, and it was not 
until he turned that he knew she was there. 

He laid his scythe in the grass and came sidling up to her. His 
face was drenched in sweat and in his mouth was a stalk of 
totter-grass and the dark red seeds trembled as he walked. He 
looked at Anna with a kind of sleepy surprise. 

'Good old Anna/ he said. 

'You did want beer?' she said. 

He smiled and sat down at her side. 

The Mower 23 

She too smiled with a flash of her black eyes. He took the 
bottle from her hand and put one hand on her knee and caressed 
it gently. She watched the hand with a smile of strange, wicked, 
ironical amusement. He put the bottle between his knees and 
unscrewed the stopper. 

'Drink/ he said softly. 

She drank and gave him the bottle. 

'Haven't seen you for ages/ she murmured. 

He shrugged his shoulders and took a long drink. His hand 
was still on her knee and as she played idly with the stalk of 
buttercups, her dark face concealed its rising passion in a look of 
wonderful preoccupation, as though she had forgotten him com- 
pletely. He wetted his lips with his tongue and ran his hand 
swiftly and caressingly from her knees to her waist. Her body 
was stiff for one moment and then it relaxed and sank backwards 
into the long grass. She shut her eyes and slipped into his 
embrace like a snake, her face blissfully happy, her hand still 
clasping the stalk of buttercups, her whole body trembling. 

Presently across the field came the sound of a scythe being 
sharpened. She whispered something quickly and struggled and 
Ponto got to his feet. She sat up and buttoned the neck of her 
blouse. She was flushed and panting, and her eyes rested on 
Ponto with a soft, almost beseeching look of adoration. 

Ponto walked away to his scythe and picked it up and began 
mowing again. He mowed smoothly and with a sort of aloof in- 
difference as though nothing had happened, and she let him 
mow for five or six paces before she too stood up. 

'Ponto/ she whispered. 


'I'll come back/ she said. 

She remained for a moment in an attitude of expectancy, but 
he did not speak or cease the swing of his arms, and very slowly 
she turned away and went back across the field. 

She walked back to where she had left her rake. She picked 
up the rake and began to turn the swathes of hay again, follow- 
ing the boy. She worked for a long time without looking up. 
When at last she lifted her head and looked over towards the 
pond, she saw that Ponto had ceased mowing behind the pond 
and was cutting the grass in the open field again. He was mow- 
ing with the same easy, powerful insistence and with the same 

24 The Mower 

beautiful swaggering rhythm of his body, as though he could 
never grow tired. 

They worked steadily on and the sun began to swing round 
behind the ash tree and the heat began to lessen and twilight 
began to fall. While the two men were mowing side by side on 
the last strip of grass, the woman began to pack the victual-bags 
and put the saddle on the horse under the ash tree. 

She was strapping the girth of the saddle when she heard feet 
in the grass and a voice said softly : 

'Anymore beer?' 

She turned and saw Ponto. A bottle of beer was left in the 
bag and she brought it out for him. He began drinking, and 
while he was drinking she gazed at him with rapt admiration, as 
though she had been mysteriously attracted out of herself by the 
sight of his subtle, conceited, devilish face, the memory of his 
embrace by the pond and the beautiful untiring motion of his 
arms swinging the scythe throughout the afternoon. There was 
something altogether trustful, foolish and abandoned about her, 
as though she was sublimely eager to do whatever he asked. 

'Think you'll finish ?' she said in a whisper. 


He corked the beer and they stood looking at each other. He 
looked at her with a kind of careless, condescending stare, half 
smiling. She stood perfectly still, her eyes filled with half-happy, 
half-frightened submissiveness. 

He suddenly wiped the beer from his lips with the back of his 
hand and put out his arm and caught her waist and tried to kiss 

'Not now/ she said desperately. 'Not now. He'll see. After- 
wards. He'll see.' 

He gave her a sort of half -pitying smile and shrugged his 
shoulders and walked away across the field without a word. 

'Afterwards,' she called in a whisper. 

She went on packing the victual-bags, the expression on her 
face lost and expectant. The outlines of the field and the figures 
of the mowers became softer and darker in the twilight. The 
evening air was warm and heavy with the scent of the hay. 

The men ceased mowing at last. The boy had gone home and 
the woman led the horse across the field to where the men were 
waiting. Her husband was tying the sack about the blade of his 

The Mower 25 

scythe. She looked at Ponto with a dark, significant flash of her 
eyes, but he took no notice. 

'You'd better finish the beer/ she said. 

He took the bottle and drank to the dregs and then hurled the 
bottle across the field. She tried to catch his eye, but he was 
already walking away over the field, as though he had never 
seen her. 

She followed him with her husband and the horse. They came 
to the gate of the field and Ponto was waiting. A look of antici- 
pation and joy shot up in her eyes. 

'Why should I damn well walk ? ' said Ponto. 'Eh ? Why should 
I damn well walk up this lane when I can sit on your old hoss? 
Lemme get up.' 

He laid his scythe in the grass and while the woman held the 
horse he climbed into the saddle. 

'Give us me scythe/ he asked. 'I can carry that. Whoa! mare, 
damn you ! ' 

She picked up the scythe and gave it to him and he put it over 
his shoulder. She let her hand touch his knee and fixed her eyes 
on him with a look of inquiring eagerness, but he suddenly urged 
the horse forward and began to ride away up the lane. 

She followed her husband out of the field. He shut the gate 
and looked back over the darkening field at the long black 
swathes of hay lying pale yellow in the dusk. He seemed pleased 
and he called to Ponto : 

'I don't know what the Hanover we should ha' done without 
you, Ponto.' 

Ponto waved his rein-hand with sublime conceit. 

'That's nothing/ he called back. 'Me and my old dad used to 
mow forty- acre fields afore dark. God damn it, that's nothing. 
All in the day's work.' 

He seized the rein again and tugged it and the horse broke into 
a trot, Ponto bumping the saddle and swearing and shouting as 
he went up the lane. 

The woman followed him with her husband. He walked 
slowly, limping, and now and then she walked on a few paces 
ahead, as though trying to catch up with the retreating horse. 
Sometimes the horse would slow down into a walk and she 
would come almost to within speaking distance of Ponto, but 
each time the horse would break into a fresh trot and leave her 

26 The Mower 

as far behind again. The lane was dusky with twilight and Ponto 
burst into a song about a girl and a sailor. 

'Hark at him/ said the husband. 'He's a Tartar. He's a Tartar.' 
The rollicking voice seemed to echo over the fields with soft, 
deliberate mocking. The woman did not speak: but as she 
listened her dark face was filled with the conflicting expression 
of many emotions, exasperation, perplexity, jealousy, longing, 
hope, anger. 


Sitting on an iron seat fixed about the body of a great chestnut 
tree breaking into pink-flushed blossom, two old men gazed 
dumbly at the sunlit emptiness of a town square. 

The morning sun burned in a sky of marvellous blue serenity, 
making the drooping leaves of the tree most brilliant and the pale 
blossoms expand to fullest beauty. The eyes of the old men were 
also blue, but the brilliance of the summer sky made a mockery 
of the dim and somnolent light in them. Their thin white hair 
and drooping skin, their faltering lips and rusted clothes, the 
huddled bones of their bodies had come to winter. Their hands 
tottered, their lips were wet and dribbling, and they stared with 
a kind of earnest vacancy, seeing the world as a stillness of 
amber mist. They were perpetually silent. The deafness of one 
made speech a ghastly effort of shouting and mis-interpretation. 
With their worn sticks between their knees and their worn hands 
knotted over their sticks they sat as though time had ceased to 
exist for them. 

Nevertheless every movement across the square was an event. 
Their eyes missed nothing that came within sight. It was as if the 
passing of every vehicle held for them the possibility of catas- 
trophe; the appearance of a strange face was a revolution; the 
apparitions of young ladies in light summer dresses gliding on 
legs of shell- pink silk had on them something of the effect of 
goddesses on the minds of young heroes. There were, sometimes, 
subtle changes of light in their eyes. 

Across the square they observed an approaching figure. They 
watched it with a new intensity, exchanging also, for the first 
time, a glance with one another. For the first time also they 

Who is it?' said one. 

'Duke, ain't it? ' 

'Looks like Duke/ the other said. 'But I can't see that far.' 

Leaning forward on their sticks, they watched the approach 
of this figure with intent expectancy. He, too, was old. Beside 


28 Time 

him, indeed, it was as if they were adolescent. He was patriar- 
chal. He resembled a biblical prophet, bearded and white and 
immemorial. He was timeless. 

But though he looked like a patriarch he came across the 
square with the haste of a man in a walking race. He moved with 
a nimbleness and airiness that were miraculous. Seeing the old 
men on the seat he waved his stick with an amazing gaiety at 
them. It was like the brandishing of a youthful sword. Ten 
yards away he bellowed their names lustily in greeting. 

Well Rueben boy ! Well Shepherd ! ' 

They mumbled sombrely in reply. He shouted stentoriously 
about the weather, wagging his white beard strongly. They 
shifted along the seat and he sat down. A look of secret relief 
came over their dim faces, for he had towered above them like a 
statue in silver and bronze. 

'Thought maybe you warn't coming/ mumbled Rueben. 

'Ah ! been for a sharp walk ! ' he half-shouted. 'A sharp walk ! ' 

They had not the courage to ask where he had walked but in 
his clear brisk voice he told them, and deducing that he could 
not have travelled less than six or seven miles they sat in gloomy 
silence, as though shamed. With relief they saw him fumble in 
his pockets and bring out a bag of peppermints, black-and- 
white balls sticky and strong from the heat of his strenuous 
body, and having one by one popped peppermints into their 
mouths they sucked for a long time with toothless and dumb 
solemnity, contemplating the sunshine. 

As they sucked, the two old men waited for Duke to speak, 
and they waited like men awaiting an oracle, since he was, in 
their eyes, a masterpiece of a man. Long ago, when they had 
been napkinned and at the breast, he had been a man with a 
beard, and before they had reached their youth he had passed 
into a lusty maturity. All their lives they had felt infantile beside 

Now, in old age, he persisted in shaming them by the lustiness 
of his achievements and his vitality. He had the secret of a 
devilish perpetual youth. To them the world across the square 
was veiled in sunny mistiness, but Duke could detect the swift- 
ness of a rabbit on a hillside a mile away. They heard the 
sounds of the world as though through a stone wall, but he 
could hear the crisp bark of a fox in another parish. They were 

Time 29 

condemned to an existence of memory because they could not 
read, but Duke devoured the papers. He had an infinite know- 
ledge of the world and the freshest affairs of men. He brought 
them, every morning, news of earthquakes in Peru, of wars in 
China, of assassinations in Spain, of scandals among the clergy. 
He understood the obscurest movements of politicians and ex- 
plained to them the newest laws of the land. They listened to 
him with the devoutness of worshippers listening to a preacher, 
regarding him with awe and believing in him with humble 
astonishment. There were times when he lied to them blatantly. 
They never suspected. 

As they sat there, blissfully sucking, the shadow of the chest- 
nut-tree began to shorten, its westward edge creeping up, like a 
tide, towards their feet. Beyond, the sun continued to blaze with 
unbroken brilliance on the white square. Swallowing the last 
smooth grain of peppermint Reuben wondered aloud what time 
it could be. 

'Time?' said Duke. He spoke ominously. 'Time?' he repeated. 

They watched his hand solemnly uplift itself and vanish into 
his breast. They had no watches. Duke alone could tell them the 
passage of time while appearing to mock at it himself. Very 
slowly he drew out an immense watch, held it out at length on 
its silver chain, and regarded it steadfastly. 

They regarded it also, at first with humble solemnity and then 
with quiet astonishment. They leaned forward to stare at it. 
Their eyes were filled with a great light of unbelief. The watch 
had stopped. 

The three old men continued to stare at the watch in silence. 
The stopping of this watch was like the stopping of some perfect 
automaton. It resembled almost the stopping of time itself. Duke 
shook the watch urgently. The hand moved onward for a second 
or two from half-past three and then was dead again. He lifted 
the watch to his ear and listened. It was silent. 

For a moment or two longer the old man sat in lugubrious 
contemplation. The watch, like Duke, was a masterpiece, in- 
credibly ancient, older even than Duke himself. They did not 
know how often he had boasted to them of its age and efficiency, 
its beauty and pricelessness. They remembered that it had once 
belonged to his father, that he had been offered incredible sums 
for it, that it had never stopped since the battle of Waterloo. 

30 Time 

Finally Duke spoke. He spoke with the mysterious air of a 
man about to unravel a mystery. 'Know what 'tis ? ' 

They could only shake their heads and stare with the blank- 
ness of ignorance and curiosity. They could not know. 

Duke made an ominous gesture, almost a flourish, with the 
hand that held the watch. 'It's the lectric. , 

They stared at him with dim- eyed amazement. 

'It's the lectric,' he repeated. 'The lectric in me body.' 

Shepherd was deaf. 'Eh ? ' he said. 

'The lectric/ said Duke significantly, in a louder voice. 

'Lectric?' They did not understand and they waited. 

The oracle spoke at last, repeating with one hand the ominous 
gesture that was like a flourish. 

'It stopped yesterday. Stopped in the middle of me dinner,' he 
said. He was briefly silent. 'Never stopped as long as I can re- 
member. Never. And then stopped like that, all of a sudden, just 
at pudden-time. Couldn't understand it. Couldn't understand it 
for the life of me.' 

'Take it to the watch maker's?' Reuben said. 

'I did,' he said 'I did. This watch is older'n me, I said, and it's 
never stopped as long as I can remember. So he squinted at it 
and poked it and that's what he said.' 


'It's the lectric, he says, that's what it is. It's the lectric - the 
lectric in your body. That's what he said. The lectric' 

'Lectric light?' 

'That's what he said. Lectric. You're full o' lectric, he says. 
You go home and leave your watch on the shelf and it'll go 
again. So I did.' 

The eyes of the old men seemed to signal intense questions. 
There was an ominous silence. Finally, with the watch still in 
his hand, Duke made an immense flourish, a gesture of serene 

'And it went,' he said, 'It went ! ' 

The old men murmured in wonder. 

'It went all right. Right as a cricket ! Beautiful ! ' 

The eyes of the old men flickered with fresh amazement. The 
fickleness of the watch was beyond the weakness of their ancient 
comprehension. They groped for understanding as they might 
have searched with their dim eyes for a balloon far up in the sky. 

Time 3 1 

Staring and murmuring they could only pretend to understand. 

'Solid truth/ said Duke. 'Goes on the shelf but it won't go on 
me. It's the lectric.' 

'That's what licks me/ said Reuben, 'the lectric.' 

'It's me body/ urged Duke. 'It's full of it.' 

'Lectric light?' 

'Full of it. Alive with it.' 

He spoke like a man who had won a prize. Bursting with glory, 
he feigned humility. His white beard wagged lustily with pride, 
but the hand still bearing the watch seemed to droop with 

'It's the lectric/ he boasted softly. 

They accepted the words in silence. It was as though they 
began to understand at last the lustiness of Duke's life, the 
nimbleness of his mind, the amazing youthfulness of his 
patriarchal limbs. 

The shadow of the chestnut-tree had dwindled to a small dark 
circle about their seat. The rays of the sun were brilliantly per- 
pendicular. On the chestnut-tree itself the countless candelabra 
of blossoms were a pure blaze of white and rose. A clock began 
to chime for noon. 

Duke, at that moment, looked at his watch, still lying in his 

He started with instant guilt. The hands had moved miracu- 
lously to four o'clock and in the stillness of the summer air he 
could hear the tick of wheels. 

With hasty gesture of resignation he dropped the watch into 
his pocket again. He looked quickly at the old men, but they 
were sunk in sombre meditation. They had not seen or heard. 

Abruptly he rose. 'That's what it is/ he said. 'The lectric' He 
made a last gesture as though to indicate that he was the victim 
of some divine manifestation. 'The lectric/ he said. 

He retreated nimbly across the square in the hot sunshine and 
the old men sat staring after him with the innocence of solemn 
wonder. His limbs moved with the haste of a clockwork doll and 
he vanished with incredible swiftness from sight. 

The sun had crept beyond the zenith and the feet of the old 
men were bathed in sunshine. 


A Ford motor-van, old and repainted green with Jos. Hartop, 
greengrocer, rabbits, scratched in streaky white lettering on a 
flattened-out biscuit tin nailed to the side, was slowly travelling 
across a high treeless stretch of country in squally November 
half-darkness. Rain hailed on the windscreen and periodically 
swished like a sea-wave on the sheaves of pink chrysanthemums 
strung on the van roof. Jos. Hartop was driving : a thin angular 
man, starved-faced. He seemed to occupy almost all the seat, 
sprawling awkwardly; so that his wife and their daughter Alice 
sat squeezed up, the girl with her arms flat as though ironed 
against her side, her thin legs pressed tight together into the size 
of one. The Hartops' faces seemed moulded in clay and in the 
light from the van-lamps were a flat swede-colour. Like the man, 
the two women were thin, with a screwed-up thinness that made 
them look both hard and frightened. Hartop drove with great 
caution, grasping the wheel tightly, braking hard at the bends, 
his big yellowish eyes fixed ahead, protuberantly, with vigilance 
and fear. His hands, visible in the faint dashboard light, were 
marked on the backs with dark smears of dried rabbits' blood. 
The van fussed and rattled, the chrysanthemums always swish- 
ing, rain-soaked, in the sudden high wind-squalls. And the two 
women sat in a state of silent apprehension, their bodies not 
moving except to lurch with the van their clayish faces con- 
tinuously intent, almost scared, in the lamp-gloom. And after 
some time Hartop gave a slight start, and then drew the van to 
the roadside and stopped it. 

'Hear anything drop?' he said. 'I thought I heard something/ 

'It's the wind/ the woman said. T can hear it all the time/ 

'No, something dropped.' 

They sat listening. But the engine still ticked, and they could 
hear nothing beyond it but the wind and rain squalling in the 
dead grass along the roadside. 

'Alice, you git out/ Hartop said. 


The Mill 33 

The girl began to move herself almost before he had spoken. 

'Git out and see if you can see anything.' 

Alice stepped across her mother's legs, groped with blind in- 
stinct for the step, and then got out. It was raining furiously. 
The darkness seemed solid with rain. 

'See anything?' Hartop said. 


'Eh? What? Can't hear.' 


Hartop leaned across his wife and shouted: 'Go back a bit 
and see what it was.' The woman moved to protest, but Hartop 
was already speaking again : 'Go back a bit and see what it was. 
Something dropped. We'll stop at Drake's Turn. You'll catch up. 
I know something dropped.' 

'It's the back-board,' the woman said. 'I can hear it all the 
time. Jolting.' 

'No, it ain't. Something dropped.' 

He let in the clutch as he was speaking and the van began to 
move away. 

Soon, to Alice, it seemed to be moving very rapidly. In the rain 
and the darkness all she could see was the tail-light, smoothly 
receding. She watched it for a moment and then began to walk 
back along the road. The wind was behind her; but repeatedly it 
seemed to veer and smash her, with the rain, full in the face. She 
walked without hurrying. She seemed to accept the journey as 
she accepted the rain and her father's words, quite stoically. She 
walked in the middle of the road, looking directly ahead, as 
though she had a long journey before her. She could see nothing. 

And then, after a time, she stumbled against something in the 
road. She stooped and picked up a bunch of pink chrysanthe- 
mums. She gave them a single shake. The flower-odour and the 
rain seemed to be released together, and then she began to walk 
back with them along the road. It was as though the chrysanthe- 
mums were what she had expected to find above all things. She 
showed no surprise. 

Before very long she could see the red tail-light of the van 
again. It was stationary. She could see also the lights of houses, 
little squares of yellow which the recurrent rain on her lashes 
transformed into sudden stars. 

When she reached the van the back-board had been un- 

34 The Mill 

hooked. Her mother was weighing out potatoes. An oil lamp 
hung from the van roof, and again the faces of the girl and her 
mother had the appearance of swede-coloured clay, only the 
girl's bleaker than before. 

'What was it?' Mrs Hartop said. 

The girl laid the flowers on the back-board. 'Only a bunch 
of chrysanthemums.' 

Hartop himself appeared at the very moment she was speaking. 

'Only?' he said, 'Only? What d'ye mean by only? Eh? Might 
have been a sack of potatoes. Just as well. Only! What next?' 

Alice stood mute. Her pose and her face meant nothing, had 
no quality except a complete lack of all surprise: as though she 
had expected her father to speak like that. Then Hartop raised 
his voice : 

'Well, don't stand there! Do something. Go on. Go on! 
Go and see who wants a bunch o' chrysanthemums. Move 
yourself ! ' 

Alice obeyed at once. She picked up the flowers, walked away 
and vanished, all without a word or a change of that expression 
of unsurprised serenity. 

But she was back in a moment. She began to say that there 
were chrysanthemums in the gardens of all the houses. Her voice 
was flat. It was like a pressed flower, a flat faint impression of a 
voice. And it seemed suddenly to madden her father: 

'All right, all right. Christ, all right. Leave it.' 

He seized the scale-pan of potatoes and then walked away 
himself. Without a word the girl and her mother chained and 
hooked up the back-board, climbed up into the driving seat, and 
sat there with the old intent apprehension, staring through the 
rain-beaded windscreen, until the woman spoke in a voice of 
religious negation, with a kind of empty gentleness : 

'You must do what your father tells you.' 

'Yes,' Alice said. 

Before they could speak again Hartop returned, and in a 
moment the van was travelling on. 

When it stopped again the same solitary row of house-lights as 
before seemed to appear on the roadside and the Hartops seemed 
to go through the same ritual of action : the woman unhooking 
the back-board, the man relighting the oil lamp, and then the girl 
and the woman going off in the rain to the backways of the 

The Mill 35 

houses. And always, as they returned to the van, Hartop grous- 
ing, nagging: 

Why the 'ell don't you speak up? Nothing? Well, say it then, 
say it!' 

Finally the girl took a vegetable marrow from the skips of 
potatoes and oranges and onions, carried it to the houses and 
then returned with it, and Hartop flew into a fresh rage : 

Td let 'em eat it if I was you, let 'em eat it. Take the whole 
bloody show and let 'em sample. Go on. I'm finished. I jack up. 
I've had a packet. I jack up.' 

He slammed down the scale-pan, extinguished the oil lamp, 
began to chain up the back-board. On the two women his rage 
had not even the slightest effect. Moving about in the rain, 
slowly, they were like two shabby ducks, his rage rolling off the 
silent backs of their minds like water. 

And then the engine, chilled by the driving rain, refused to 
start. Furious, Hartop gave mad jerks at the starting handle. 
Nothing happened. The two women, silently staring through the 
windscreen, never moved. They might even have been in another 
world, asleep or dead. 

Swinging viciously at the starting handle Hartop shouted: 
When I swing, shove that little switch forward. Forward! 
Christ. Forward! I never seen anything to touch it. Never. 
Forward! Now try. Can't you bloody well hear?' 


'Then act like it. God, they say there's no peace for the 
wicked. Forward!* 

Then when the engine spluttered, fired, and at last was revolv- 
ing and the van travelling on and the women were able to hear 
again, Hartop kept repeating the words in a kind of comforting 
refrain. No peace for the wicked. No bloody peace at all. He'd 
had enough. Just about bellyful. What with one thing - Christ, 
what was the use of talking to folks who were deaf and dumb? 
Jack up. Better by half to jack up. Bung in. No darn peace for 
the wicked. 

And suddenly, listening gloomily to him, the woman realized 
that the road was strange to her. She saw trees, then turns and 
gates and hedges that she did not know. 

'Jos, where are we going?' she said. 

Hartop was silent. The mystery comforted him. And when at 

36 The Mill 

last he stopped the van and switched off the engine it gave him 
great satisfaction to prolong the mystery, to get down from the 
van and disappear without a word. 

Free of his presence, the two women came to life. Alice half 
rose from the seat and shook her mackintosh and skirt and said, 
'Where have we stopped?' Mrs Hartop was looking out of the 
side window, peering with eyes screwed-up. She could see noth- 
ing. The world outside, cut off by blackness and rain, was 
strange and unknown. Then when Mrs Hartop sat down again 
the old state of negation and silence returned for a moment until 
Alice spoke. It seemed to Alice that she could hear something, a 
new sound, quite apart from the squalling of wind and rain; a 
deeper sound, quieter, and more distant. 

The two women listened. Then they could hear the sound 
distinctly, continuously, a roar of water. 

Suddenly Mrs Hartop remembered. 'It's the mill/ she said. 
She got up to look through the window again. 'We've stopped at 
Holland's Mill.' She sat down slowly. 'What's he stopped here 
for? What've we— ?' 

Then she seemed to remember something else. Whatever it 
was seemed to subdue her again, sealing over her little break of 
loquacity, making her silent once more. But now her silence had 
a new quality. It was very near anxiety. She would look quickly 
at Alice and then quickly away again. 

'Is there any tea left?' Alice said. 

Mrs Hartop bent down at once and looked under the seat. She 
took out a thermos flask two tea-cups and an orange. Then Alice 
held the cups while her mother filled them with milky tea. Then 
Mrs Hartop peeled and quartered the orange and they ate and 
drank, warming their fingers on the tea-cups. 

They were wiping their juice-covered fingers and putting away 
the tea-cups when Hartop returned. He climbed into the cab, 
slammed the door, and sat down. 

'What you been to Hollands' for?' the woman said. 

Hartop pressed the self-starter. It buzzed, but the engine was 
silent. The two women waited. Then Hartop spoke. 

'Alice/ he said, 'you start in service at Hollands' Monday 
morning. His wife's bad. He told me last Wednesday he 
wanted a gal about to help. Five shillin' a week and all found.' 


The Mill 37 

But the noise of the self-starter and then the engine firing 
drowned what the women had to say. And as the van moved on 
she and Alice sat in silence, without a sound of protest or 
aquiescence, staring at the rain. 


At night, though so near, Alice had seen nothing of the mill, 
not even a light. On Monday morning, from across the flat and 
almost treeless meadows, she could see it clearly. It was a very 
white three- storey ed building, the whitewash dazzling, almost in- 
candescent, against the wintry fields in the morning sunshine. 

Going along the little by-roads across the valley she felt extra- 
ordinarily alone, yet not lonely. She felt saved from loneliness by 
her little leather bag; there was comfort in the mere changing of 
it from hand to hand. The bag contained her work-apron and 
her nightgown, and she carried it close to her side as she walked 
slowly along, not thinking. 'You start in good time/ Hartop had 
said to her, 'and go steady on. The walk'll do you good.' It was 
about five miles to the mill, and she walked as though in 
obedience to the echo of her father's command. She had a con- 
stant feeling of sharp expectancy, not quite apprehension, every 
time she looked up and saw the mill. But the feeling never re- 
solved itself into thought. She felt also a slight relief. She had 
never been, by herself, so far from home. And every now and 
then she found herself looking back, seeing the house she had 
left behind, the blank side-wall gas-tarred, the wooden shack in 
the back-yard where Hartop kept the motor-van, the kitchen 
where she and her mother bunched the chrysanthemums or 
sorted the oranges. It seemed strange not to be doing those 
things: she had sorted oranges and had bunched whatever 
flowers were in season for as long as she could remember. She 
had done it all without question, with instinctive obedience. 
Now, suddenly, she was to do something else. And whatever it 
was she knew without thinking that she must do it with the same 
unprotesting obedience. That was right. She had been brought 
up to it. It was going to be a relief to her father, a help. Things 
were bad and her going might better them. And then - five 
shillings a week. She thought of that with recurrent spasms of 
wonder and incredulity. Could it be true? The question crossed 

38 The Mill 

her mind more often than her bag crossed from hand to hand, 
until it was mechanical and unconscious also. 

She was still thinking of it when she rapped at the back door 
of the mill. The yard was deserted. She could hear no sound of 
life at all except the mill-race. She knocked again. And then, this 
time, as she stood waiting, she looked at the yard more closely. 
It was a chaos of derelict things. Everything was derelict : dere- 
lict machinery, old iron, derelict motor cars, bedsteads, wire, 
harrows, binders, perambulators, tractors, bicycles, corrugated 
iron. The junk was piled up in a wild heap in the space between 
the mill-race and the backwater. Iron had fallen into the water. 
Rusty, indefinable skeletons of it had washed up against the 
bank- reeds. She saw rust and iron everywhere, and when some- 
thing made her look up to the mill-windows she saw there the 
rusted fly-wheels and crane-arms of the mill machinery, the 
whitewashed wall stained as though with rusty reflections of it. 

When she rapped on the door again, harder, flakes of rust, 
little reddish wafers, were shaken off the knocker. She stared at 
the door as she waited. Her eyes were large, colourless, fixed in 
vague penetration. She seemed to be listening with them. They 
were responsive to sound. And they remained still, as though of 
glass, when she heard nothing. 

And hearing nothing she walked across the yard. Beyond the 
piles of rusted iron a sluice tore down past the mill-wall on a 
glacier of green slime. She stooped and peered down over the 
stone parapet at the water. Beyond the sluice a line of willows 
were shedding their last leaves, and the leaves came floating 
down the current like little yellow fish. She watched them come 
and surge through the grating, and then vanish under the water- 
arch. Then, watching the fish-like leaves, she saw a real fish, 
dead, caught in the rusted grating, thrown there by the force of 
descending water. Then she saw another, and another. Her eyes 
registered no surprise. She walked round the parapet, and then, 
leaning over and stretching, she picked up one of the fish. It was 
cold, and very stiff, like a fish of celluloid, and its eyes were like 
her own, round and glassy. Then she walked along the path, still 
holding the fish and occasionally looking at it. The path circled 
the mill pond and vanished, farther on, into a bed of osiers. The 
mill-pond was covered in duck-weed, the green crust split into 
blackness here and there by chance currents of wind or water. 

The Mill 39 

The osiers were leafless, but quite still in the windless air. And 
standing still, she looked at the tall osiers for a moment, her eyes 
reflecting their stillness and the strange persistent absence of all 

And then suddenly she heard a sound. It came from the osiers. 
A shout: 

'You lookin' for Mus' Holland ?' 

She saw a man's face in the osiers. She called back to it: 'Yes/ 

'He ain't there.' 

She could think of nothing to say. 

'If you want anythink, go in. She's there. A-bed.' A shirt- 
sleeve waved and vanished. 'Not that door. It's locked. Round 
the other side.' 

She walked back along the path, by the sluice and the 
machinery and so past the door and the mill-race to the far side 
of the house. A stretch of grass, once a lawn and now no more 
than a waste of dead grass and sedge, went down to the back- 
water from what she saw now was the front door. 

At the door she paused for a moment. Why was the front door 
open and not the back? Then she saw why. Pushing upen the 
door she saw that it had no lock; only the rusty skeleton pattern 
of it remained imprinted on the brown sun-scorched paint. 

Inside, she stood still in the brick-flagged passage. It seemed 
extraordinarily cold; the damp coldness of the river air seemed to 
have saturated the place. 

Finally she walked along the passage. Her lace-up boots were 
heavy on the bricks, setting up a clatter of echoes. When she 
stopped her eyes were a little wider and almost white in the 
lightless passage. And again, as outside, they registered the quiet- 
ness of the place, until it was broken by a voice : 

'Somebody there? Who is it?' The voice came from upstairs. 
'Who is it?' 


A silence. Alice stood still, listening with wide eyes. Then the 
voice again: 

'Who is it?' 

'Me. Alice.' 

Another silence, and then : 

'Come up.' It was a light voice, unaggressive, almost friendly. 
'Come upstairs.' 

40 The Mill 

The girl obeyed at once. The wooden stairs were steep and 
carpetless. She tramped up them. The banister, against which she 
rubbed her sleeve, was misted over with winter wetness. She 
could smell the dampness everywhere. It seemed to rise and 
follow her. 

On the top stairs she halted. 'In the end bedroom/ the voice 
called. She went at once along the wide half-light landing in the 
direction of the voice. The panelled doors had at one time been 
painted white and blue, but now the white was blue and the 
blue the colour of greenish water. The doors had old-fashioned 
latches of iron and when she lifted the end latch she could 
feel the first thin leaf of rust on it ready to crumble and fall. 
She hesitated a moment before touching the latch, but as she 
stood there the voice called again and she opened the 

Then, when she walked into the bedroom, she was almost sur- 
prised. She had expected to see Mrs Holland in bed. But the 
woman was kneeling on the floor, by the fireplace. She was in 
her nightgown. The gown had come unbuttoned and Alice could 
see Mrs Holland's drooping breasts. They were curiously 
swollen, as though by pregnancy or some dropsical complaint. 
The girl saw that Mrs Holland was trying to light a fire. Faint 
acrid paper-smoke hung about the room and stung her eyes. She 
could hear the tin-crackle of burnt paper. There was no flame. 
The smoke rose up the chimney and then, in a moment, puthered 
down again, the paper burning with little running sparks that 
extinguished themselves and then ran on again. 

'I'm Alice/ the girl said. 'Alice Hartop.' 

She stared fixedly at the big woman sitting there with her 
nightgown unbuttoned and a burnt match in her hands and her 
long pigtail of brown hair falling forward over her shoulders 
almost to the depths of her breasts. Her very largeness, her soft 
dropsical largeness, and the colour of that thick pigtail were 
somehow comforting. They were in keeping with the voice she 
had heard, the voice which spoke to her quite tenderly again 

'I'm so glad youVe come, Alice, I am so glad/ 

'Am I late?' Alice said. 'I walked.' 

Then she stopped. Mrs Holland had burst out laughing. The 
girl stood vacant, at a loss, her mouth fallen open. The woman 

The Mill 41 

gathered her nightgown in her hands and held it tight against 
her breasts, as though she feared that the laughter might 
suddenly flow out of them like milk. And the girl stared until 
the woman could speak : 

'In your hand ! Look, look. In your hand. Look ! ' 

Then Alice saw. She still had the fish in her hand. She was 
clutching it like a little silver-scaled purse. 

'Ohdear! ohdear!' she said. She spoke the words as one 
word : a single word of unsurprised comment on the unconscious 
folly of her own act. Even as she said it Mrs Holland burst out 
laughing again. And as before the laughter seemed as if it must 
burst liquidly or fall and run over her breasts and hands and 
her nightgown. The girl had never heard such laughter. It was 
far stranger than the fish in her own hand. It was almost too 
strange. It had a strangeness that was only a shade removed from 
hysteria, and only a little further from inanity. 'She's a bit 
funny/ the girl thought. And almost simultaneously Mrs Holland 
echoed her thought: 

'Oh! Alice, you're funny.' The flow of laughter lessened and 
then dried up. 'Oh, you are funny.' 

To Alice that seemed incomprehensible. If anybody was funny 
it was Mrs Holland, laughing in that rich, almost mad voice. So 
she continued to stare. She still had the fish in her hand. It 
added to her manner of uncomprehending vacancy. 

Then suddenly a change came over her. She saw Mrs Holland 
shiver and this brought back at once her sense of almost 
subservient duty. 

'Hadn't you better get dressed and let me light the fire?' she 

'I can't get dressed. I've got to get back into bed.' 

'Well, you get back. You're shivering.' 

'Help me.' 

Alice put down her bag on the bedroom floor and laid the fish 
on top of it. Mrs Holland tried at the same moment to get up. 
She straightened herself until she was kneeling upright. Then 
she tried to raise herself. She clutched the bedrail. Her fat, 
almost transparent-fleshed fingers would not close. They were 
like thick sausages, fat jointless lengths of flesh which could not 
bend. And there she remained in her helplessness, until Alice put 
her arms about her and took the weight of her body. 

M The Mill 

'Yes, Alice, you'll have to help me. I can't do it myself any 
longer. You'll have to help me.' 

Gradually Alice got her back to bed. And Alice, as she 
helped her, could feel the curious swollen texture of Mrs Hol- 
land's flesh. The distended breasts fell out of her unbuttoned 
nightgown, her heavy thighs lumbered their weight against 
her own, by contrast so weak and thin and straight. And 
then when Mrs Holland was in bed, at last, propped up by 
pillows, Alice had time to look at her face. It had that same 
heavy water-blown brightness of flesh under the eyes and in the 
cheeks and in the soft parts of the neck. The gentle dark 
brown eyes were sick. They looked out with a kind of gentle sick 
envy on Alice's young movements as she straightened the bed- 
clothes and then cleaned the fireplace and finally as she laid and 
lighted the fire itself. 

And then when her eyes had satisfied themselves Mrs Holland 
began to talk again, to ask questions. 

'How old are you, Alice ? ' 


'Would you rather be here with me than at home?' 

'I don't mind.' 

'Don't you like it at home ? ' 

'I don't mind.' 

'Is the fire all right?' 


'When you've done the grate will you go down and git the 
taters ready?' 


'It's cold mutton. Like cold mutton, Alice?' 

'I don't mind.' 

Then, in turn, the girl had a question herself. 

'Why ain't the mill going?' she asked. 

'The mill? The mill ain't been going for ten years/ 

'What's all that iron?' 

'That's the scrap. What Fred buys and sells. That's his trade. 
The mill ain't been worked since his father died. That's been ten 
year. Fred's out all day buying up iron like that, and selling it. 
Most of it he never touches, but what he don't sell straight off 
comes back here. He's gone off this morning. He won't be back 
till night-time. You'll have to get his tea when he comes back.' 

The Mill 43 

'I see.' 

'You must do all you can for him. I ain't much good to him 

'I see.' 

'You can come up again when you've done the taters.' 

Downstairs Alice found the potatoes in a wet mould-green 
sack and stood at the sink and pared them. The kitchen window 
looked out on the mill-stream. The water foamed and eddied and 
kept up a gentle bubbling roar against the wet stone walls out- 
side. The water- smell was everywhere. From the window she 
could see across the flat valley: bare willow branches against 
bare sky, and between them the bare water. 

Then as she finished the potatoes she saw the time by the blue 
tin alarum clock standing on the high smoke-stained mantel- 
piece. It was past eleven. Time seemed to have flown by her 
faster than the water was flowing under the window. 


It seemed to flow faster than ever as the day went on. Dark- 
ness began to settle over the river and the valley in the middle 
afternoon : damp, still November darkness preceded by an hour 
of watery half-light. From Mrs Holland's bedroom Alice watched 
the willow trees, dark and skeleton-like, the only objects raised 
up above the flat fields, hanging half-dissolved by the winter 
mist, then utterly dissolved by the winter darkness. The after- 
noon was very still; the mist moved and thickened without wind. 
She could hear nothing but the mill-race, the everlasting almost 
mournful machine-like roar of perpetual water, and then, high 
above it, shrieking, the solitary cries of sea-gulls, more mournful 
even than the monotone of water. They were sounds she had 
heard all day, but had heard unconsciously. She had had no time 
for listening, except to Mrs Holland's voice calling downstairs 
its friendly advice and desires through the open bedroom door: 
'Alice, have you put the salt in the taters? You'll find the 
onions in the shed, Alice. The oil-man calls to-day, ask him to 
leave the usual. When you've washed up you can bring the paper 
up, Alice, and read bits out to me for five minutes. Has the oil- 
man been? Alice, I want you a minute, I want you.' So it had 
gone on all day. And the girl, gradually, began to like Mrs Hoi- 

44 The Mill 

land; and the woman, in turn, seemed to be transported into a 
state of new and stranger volatility by Alice's presence. She was 
garrulous with joy. 'I've been lonely. Since I've been bad I ain't 
seen nobody, only Fred, one week's end to another. And the 
doctor. It's been about as much as I could stan'.' And the static, 
large-eyed, quiet presence of the girl seemed to comfort her 
extraordinarily. She had someone to confide in at last. 'I ain't 
had nobody I could say a word to. Nobody. And nobody to do 
nothing for me. I had to wet the bed one day. I was so weak I 
couldn't get out. That's what made Fred speak to your dad. I 
couldn't go on no longer.' 

So the girl had no time to listen except to the voice or to think 
or talk except in answer to it. And the afternoon was gone and 
the damp moving darkness was shutting out the river and the 
bare fields and barer trees before she could realise it. 

'Fred'll be home at six,' Mrs Holland said. 'He shaves at night. 
So you git some hot water ready about a quarter to.' 

'All right.' 

'Oh ! and I forgot. He alius has fish for his tea. Cod or some- 
thing. Whatever he fancies. He'll bring it. You can fry it while 
he's shaving.' 

'All right.' 

'Don't you go and fry that roach by mistake ! ' 

Mrs Holland, thinking again of the fish in Alice's hand, 
lay back on the pillows and laughed, the heavy ripe laughter that 
sounded as before a trifle strange, as though she were a little 
mad or hysterical in the joy of fresh companionship. 

Mrs Holland and Alice had already had a cup of tea in the 
bedroom. That seemed unbelievably luxurious to Alice, who for 
nearly five years had drunk her tea from a thermos flask in her 
father's van. It brought home to her that she was very well off : 
five shillings a week, tea by the fire in the bedroom, Mrs Holland 
so cheerful and nice, and an end at last to her father's ironic 
grousing and the feeling the she was a dead weight on his hands. 
It gave her great satisfaction. Yet she never registered the 
emotion by looks or words or a change in her demeanour. She 
went about quietly and a trifle vaguely, almost in a trance of 
detachment. The light in her large flat pellucid eyes never varied. 
Her mouth would break into a smile, but the smile never tele- 
graphed itself to her eyes. And so with words. She spoke, but the 

The Mill 45 

words never changed that expression of dumb content, that wide 
and in some way touching and attractive stare straight before her 
into space. 

And when she heard the rattling of a motor-van in the mill- 
yard just before six o'clock she looked suddenly up, but her ex- 
pression did not change. She showed no flicker of apprehension 
or surprise. 

About five minutes later Holland walked into the kitchen. 

"Ullo/ he said. 

Alice was standing at the sink, wiping the frying pan with a 
dishcloth. When Holland spoke and she looked round at him her 
eyes blinked with a momentary flash of something like surprise. 
Holland's voice was very deep and it seemed to indicate that 
Holland himself would be physically very large and powerful. 

Then she saw that he was a little man, no taller than herself, 
and rather stocky, without being stiff or muscular. His trousers 
hung loose and wide, like sacks. His overcoat, undone, was 
also like a sack. The only unloose thing about him was his 
collar. It was a narrow stiff celluloid collar fixed with a patent 
ready-made tie. The collar was oilstained and the tie, once blue, 
was soaked by oil and dirt to the appearance of old crepe. The 
rest of Holland was loose and careless and drooping. A bit of an 
old shack, Alice thought. Even his little tobacco-yellowed mou- 
stache drooped raggedly. Like his felt hat, stuck carelessly on the 
back of his head, it looked as though it did not belong to him. 

"Ullo,' he said. 'You are e're then. I see your dad. D'ye think 
you're going to like it ? ' 


'That's right. You make yourself at 'ome.' He had the parcel 
of fish under his arm and as he spoke he took it out and laid it 
on the kitchen table. The brown paper flapped open and Alice 
saw the tail-cut of a cod. She went at once to the plate-rack, took 
a plate and laid the fish on it. 

'Missus say anythink about the fish ? ' Holland said. 


'All right. You fry it while I git shaved.' 

'I put the water on,' she said. 

Holland took off his overcoat, then his jacket, and finally his 
collar and tie. Then he turned back the greasy neck-band of his 
shirt and began to make his shaving lather in a wooden bowl at 

46 The Mill 

the sink, working the brush and bowl like a pestle and mortar. 
Alice put the cod into the frying-pan and then the pan on the 
oil-stove. Then as Holland began to lather his face, Mrs Holland 
called downstairs: 'Fred. You there, Fred? Fred!' and Holland 
walked across the kitchen, still lathering himself and dropping 
spatters of white lather on the stone flags as he went, to listen at 
the stairs door. 

'Yes, I'm 'ere, Em'ly. I'm -Eh? Oh! all right.' 

Holland turned to Alice. 'The missus wants you a minute 

Alice ran upstairs, thinking of the fish. After the warm kitchen 
she could feel the air damper than ever. Mrs Holland was lying 
down in bed and a candle in a tin holder was burning on the 
chest of drawers. 

'Oh! Alice,' Mrs Holland said, 'you do all you can for Mr 
Holland, won't you? He's had a long day.' 


'And sponge his collar. I want him to go about decent. It 
won't get done if you don't do it,' 

'All right.' 

Alice went downstairs again. Sounds of Holland's razor scrap- 
ing his day-old beard and of the cod hissing in the pan filled the 
kitchen. She turned the cod with a fork and then took up Hol- 
land's collar and sponged it with the wetted fringe of her pina- 
fore. The collar came up bright and fresh as ivory, and when 
finally Holland had finished shaving at the sink and had put on 
the collar again it was as though a small miracle had been per- 
formed. Holland was middle-aged, about fifty, and looked older 
in the shabby overcoat and oily collar. Now, shaved and with 
the collar cleaned again, he looked younger than he was. He 
looked no longer shabby, a shack, and a bit nondescript, but 
rather homely and essentially decent. He had a tired, rather 
stunted and subservient look. His flesh was coarse, with deep 
pores, and his greyish hair came down stiff over his forehead. 
His eyes were dull and a little bulging. When Alice put the fried 
fish before him he sat low over the plate, scooped up the white 
flakes of fish with his knife and then sucked them into his mouth. 
He spat out the bones. Every time he spat out a bone he drank 
his tea, and when his cup was empty, Alice, standing by, filled it 
up again. 

The Mill 47 

None of these things surprised the girl. She had never seen 
anyone eat except like that, with the knife, low over the plate, 
greedily. Her father and mother ate like it and she ate like it her- 
self. So as she stood by the sink, waiting to fill up Holland's 
cup, her eyes stared with the same abstract preoccupation as 
ever. They did not even change when Holland spoke, praising 

'You done this fish all right, Alice. ' 

'Shall I git something else for you?' 

'Git me a bit o' cheese. Yes, you done that fish very nice, 
Alice. Very nice indeed.' 

Yet, though her eyes expressed nothing, she felt a sense of re- 
assurance, very near to comfort, at Holland's words. It was not 
deep: but it was enough to counteract the strangeness of her 
surroundings, to help deaden the perpetual sense of the mill-race, 
to drive away some of the eternal dampness about the place. 

But it was not enough to drive away her tiredness. She went to 
bed very early, as soon as she had washed Holland's supper 
things and had eaten her own supper of bread and cheese. Her 
room was at the back of the mill. It had not been used for a long 
time; its dampness rose up in a musty cloud. Then when she lit 
her candle and set it on the washstand she saw that the wall- 
paper, rotten with dampness, was peeling off and hanging in 
ragged petals, showing the damp-green plaster beneath. Then 
she took her nightgown out of her case, undressed and stood for 
a moment naked, her body as thin as a boy's and her little lemon- 
shaped breasts barely formed, before dropping the nightgown 
over her shoulders. A moment later she had put out the candle 
and was lying in the little iron bed. 

Then, as she lay there, curling up her legs for warmth in the 
damp sheets, she remembered something. She had said no 
prayers. She got out of bed at once and knelt down by the bed 
and words of mechanical supplication and thankfulness began to 
run at once through her mind : 'Dear Lord, bless us and keep us. 
Dear Lord, help me to keep my heart pure,' little impromptu 
gentle prayers of which she only half-understood the meaning. 
And all the time she was kneeling she could hear a background 
of other sounds: the mill-race roaring in the night, the wild 
occasional cries of birds from up the river, and the rumblings of 
Holland and his wife talking in their bedroom. 

48 The Mill 

And in their room Holland was saying to his wife : 'She seems 
like a good gal.' 

'She is. I like her/ Mrs Holland said. 'I think she's all right.' 

'She done that fish lovely.' 

'Fish.' Mrs Holland remembered. And she told Holland of 
how Alice had brought up the roach in her hand, and as she told 
him her rather strange rich laughter broke out again and Holland 
laughed with her. 

'Oh dear,' Mrs Holland laughed. 'She's a funny little thing 
when you come to think of it.' 

'As long as she's all right,' Holland said, 'that's all that 
matters. As long as she's all right.' 


Alice was all right. It took less than a week for Holland to see 
that, although he distrusted a little Alice's first showing with his 
fish. It seemed too good. He knew what servant girls could be 
like : all docile, punctual and anxious to please until they got the 
feeling of things, and then haughty and slovenly and sulky 
before you could turn round. He wasn't having that sort of 
thing. The minute Alice was surly or had too much lip she could 
go. Easy get somebody else. Plenty more kids be glad of the job. 
So for the first few nights after Alice's arrival he would watch 
her reflection in the soap-flecked shaving-mirror hanging over 
the sink while he scraped his beard. He watched her critically, 
tried to detect some flaw, some change, in her meek servitude. 
The mirror was a big round iron-framed concave mirror, so that 
Alice, as she moved slowly about with the fish-pan over the oil- 
stove, looked physically a little larger, and also vaguer and softer, 
than she really was. The mirror put flesh on her bony arms and 
filled out her pinafore. And looking for faults, Holland saw only 
this softening and magnifying of her instead. Then when he had 
dried the soap out of his ears and had put on the collar Alice had 
sponged for him he would sit down to the fish, ready to pounce 
on some fault in it. But the fish, like Alice, never seemed to vary. 
Nothing wrong with the fish. He tried bringing home different 
sorts of fish, untried sorts, tricky for Alice to cook; witch, whit- 
ing, sole and halibut, instead of his usual cod and hake. But it 
made no difference. The fish was always good. And he judged 

The Mill 49 

Alice by the fish: if the fish was all right Alice was all right. 
Upstairs, after supper, he would ask Mrs Holland: 'Alice all 
right to-day?' and Mrs Holland would say how quiet Alice was, 
or how good she was, and how kind she was, and that she 
couldn't be without her for the world. 'Well, that fish was lovely 
again/ Holland would say. 

And gradually he saw that he had no need for suspicion. No 
need to be hard on the kid. She was all right. Leave the kid 
alone. Let her go on her own sweet way. Not interfere with her. 
And so he swung round from the suspicious attitude to one 
almost of solicitude. Didn't cost no more to be nice to the kid 
than it did to be miserable. 'Well, Alice, how's Alice?' The tone 
of his evening greeting became warmer, a little facetious, more 
friendly. 'That's right, Alice. Nice to be back home in the dry, 
Alice.' In the mornings, coming downstairs, he had to pass her 
bedroom door. He would knock on it to wake her. He got up in 
darkness, running downstairs in his stockinged feet, with his 
jacket and collar and tie slung over his arm. And pausing at 
Alice's door he would say 'Quart' t' seven, Alice. You gittin' up, 
Alice?' Chinks of candlelight round and under the door-frame, 
or her sleepy voice, would tell him if she were getting up. If the 
room were in darkness and she did not answer he would knock 
and call again. 'Time to git up, Alice. Alice!' One morning the 
room was dark and she did not answer at all. He knocked harder 
again, hard enough to drown any sleepy answer she might have 
given. Then, hearing nothing and seeing nothing, he opened the 

At the very moment he opened the door Alice was bending 
over the washstand, with a match in her hands, lighting her 
candle. 'Oh! Sorry, Alice, I din't hear you.' In the moment 
taken to speak the words Holland saw the girl's open nightgown, 
and then her breasts, more than ever like two lemons in the 
yellow candelight. The light shone straight down on them, the 
deep shadow of her lower body heightening their shape and 
colour, and they looked for a moment like the breasts of a larger 
and more mature girl than Holland fancied Alice to be. 

As he went downstairs in the winter darkness he kept seeing 
the mirage of Alice's breasts in the candlelight. He was excited. 
A memory of Mrs Holland's large dropsical body threw the 
young girl's breasts into tender relief. And time seemed to 

50 The Mill 

sharpen the comparison. He saw Alice bending over the candle, 
her nightgown undone, at recurrent intervals throughout the 
day. Then in the evening, looking at her reflection in the shav- 
ing-mirror, the magnifying effect of the mirror magnified his 
excitement. And upstairs he forgot to ask if Alice was all right. 

In the morning he was awake a little earlier than usual. The 
morning was still like night. Black mist shut out the river. He 
went along the dark landing and tapped at Alice's door. When 
there was no answer he tapped again and called, but nothing 
happened. Then he put his hand on the latch and pressed it. 
The door opened. He was so surprised that he did not know for 
a moment what to do. He was in his shirt and trousers, with the 
celluloid collar and patent tie and jacket in his hand, and no 
shoes on his feet. 

He stood for a moment by the bed and then he stretched out 
his hand and shook Alice. She did not wake. Then he put his 
hand on her chest and let it rest there. He could feel the breasts 
unexpectedly soft and alive, through the nightgown. He touched 
one and then the other. 

Suddenly Alice woke. 

'All right, Alice. Time to git up, that's all/ Holland said. 'I 
was trying to wake you.' 


'I 'spect you want to git home week-ends, don't you, Alice?' 
Mrs Holland said. 

Alice had been at the mill almost a week. 'I don't mind,' she 

'Well, we reckoned you'd like to go home a' Sundays, anyway. 
Don't you?' 

'I don't mind.' 

'Well, you go home this week, and then see. Only it means 
cold dinner for Fred a' Sundays if you go.' 

So after breakfast on Sunday morning Alice walked across the 
flat valley and went home. The gas-tarred house, the end one of 
a row on the edge of the town, seemed cramped and a little 
strange after the big rooms at the mill and the bare empty fields 
and the river. 

'Well, how d'ye like it?' Hartop said. 

The Mill 51 

'It's all right.' 

'Don't feel homesick ?' 

'No, I don't mind.' 

Alice laid her five shillings on the table. 'That's my five shil- 
lings,' she said. 'Next Sunday I ain't coming. What shall I do 
about the money?' 

'You better send it,' Hartop said. 'It ain't no good to you there 
if you keep it, is it? No shops, is they?' 

'I don't know. I ain't been out.' 

'Well, you send it.' Then suddenly Hartop changed his mind. 
'No, I'll tell you what. You keep it and we'll call for it a' Friday. 
We can come round that way.' 

'All right,' Alice said. 

'If you ain't coming home,' Mrs Hartop said, 'you'd better 
take a clean nightgown. And I'll bring another Friday.' 

And so she walked back across the valley in the November 
dusk with the nightgown wrapped in brown paper under her 
arm, and on Friday Hartop stopped the motor-van outside the 
mill and she went out to him with the five shillings Holland had 
left on the table that morning. 'I see your dad about the money, 
Alice. That's all right.' And as she stood by the van answering 
in her flat voice the questions her father and mother put to her, 
Hartop put his hand in his pocket and said : 

'Like orange, Alice?' 

'Yes,' she said. 'Yes, please.' 

Hartop put the orange into her hand. 'Only mind,' he said. 
'It's tacked. It's just a bit rotten on the side there.' He leaned out 
of the driver's seat and pointed out the soft bluish rotten patch 
on the orange skin. 'It's all right. It ain't gone much.' 

'You gittin' on all right, Alice?' Mrs Hartop said. She spoke 
from the gloom of the van seat. Alice could just see her vague 
clay- coloured face. 

'Yes. I'm all right.' 

'See you a' Friday again then.' 

Hartop let off the brake and the van moved away simultane- 
ously as Alice moved away across the millyard between the piles 
of derelict iron. Raw half -mist from the river was coming across 
the yard in sodden swirls and Alice, frozen, half-ran into the 
house. Then, in the kitchen, she sat by the fire with her skirt 
drawn up above her knees, to warm herself. 

52 The Mill 

She was still sitting like that, with her skirt drawn up to her 
thighs and her hands outstretched to the fire and the orange in 
her lap, when Holland came in. 

'Hullo, Alice/ he said genially. 'I should git on top o' the fire 
if I was you.' 

Alice, wretched with the cold, which seemed to have settled 
inside her, scarcely answered. She sat there for almost a full 
minute longer, trying to warm her legs, before getting up to cook 
Holland's fish. All the time she sat there Holland was looking at 
her legs, with the skirt pulled up away from them. The knees 
and the slim thighs were rounded and soft, and the knees and 
the legs themselves a rosy flame-colour in the firelight. Holland 
felt a sudden agitation as he gazed at them. 

Then abruptly Alice got up to cook the fish, and the vision of 
her rose-coloured legs vanished. But Holland, shaving before the 
mirror, could still see in his mind the soft firelight on Alice's 
knees. And the mirror, as before, seemed to magnify Alice's 
vague form as it moved about the kitchen, putting some flesh on 
her body. Then when Holland sat down to his fish Alice again 
sat down before the fire and he saw her pull her skirt above her 
knees again as though he did not exist. And all through the meal 
he sat looking at her. Then suddenly he got tired of merely look- 
ing at her. He wanted to be closer to her. 'Alice, come and 'ave 
a drop o' tea,' he said. Tour yourself a cup out. Come on. You 
look starved.' The orange Hartop had given Alice lay on the 
table, and the girl pointed to it. 'I'm going to have that orange,' 
she said. Holland picked up the orange. 'All right, only you want 
summat. Here, I'm going to throw it.' He threw the orange. It 
fell into Alice's lap. And it seemed to Holland that its fall drew 
her dress a little higher above her knees. He got up. 'Never hurt 
you, did I, Alice?' he said. He ran his hands over her shoulders 
and arms, and then over her thighs and knees. Her knees were 
beautifully warm, like hard warm apples. 'You're starved 
though. Your knees are like ice.' He began to rub her hands a 
little with his own, and the girl, her flat expression never chang- 
ing, let him do it. She felt his fingers harsh on her bloodless 
hands and then on her shoulders. 'Your chest ain't cold, is it?' 
Holland said. 'You don't want to git cold in your chest.' He was 
feeling her chest, above the breasts. The girl shook her head. 
'Sure?' Holland said. He kept his hands on her chest. 'You put 

The Mill 53 

something on when you go out to that van again. If you git 
cold on your chest . . .' And as he was speaking his hands moved 
down until they covered her breasts. They were so small that he 
could hold them easily in his hands. 'Don't want to git cold in 
them, do you?' he said. 'In your nellies ?' She stared at him ab- 
stractedly, not knowing the word, wondering what he meant. 
Then suddenly he was squeezing her breasts, in a bungling effort 
of tenderness. The motion hurt her. 'Come on, Alice, come on. I 
shan't do nothing. Let's have a look at you, Alice. I don't want 
to do nothing, Alice. All right. I don't want to hurt you. Undo 
your dress, Alice.' And the girl, mechanically, to his astonish- 
ment, put her hands to the buttons. As they came undone he put 
his hands on her chest and then on her bare breasts in clumsy 
and agitated efforts to caress her. She sat rigid, staring, not fully 
understanding. Every time Holland squeezed her he hurt her. 
But the mute and fixed look on her face and the grey flat as 
though motionless stare in her eyes never changed. She listened 
only vaguely to what Holland said. 

'Come on, Alice. You lay down. You lay down on the couch. 
I ain't going to hurt you, Alice. I don't want to hurt you.' 

For a moment she did not move. Then she remembered, 
flatly, Mrs Holland's injunction: 'You do all you can for Mr 
Holland,' and she got up and went over to the American leather 

'I'll blow the lamp out,' Holland said. 'It's all right. It's all 


'Don't you say nothing, Alice. Don't you go and tell nobody.' 
Corn for Mrs Holland's chickens, a wooden potato-tub of 
maize and another of wheat, was kept in a loft above the mill 
itself, and Alice would climb the outside loft-ladder to fill the 
chipped enamel corn-bowl in the early winter afternoons. And 
standing there, with the bowl empty in her hands, or with a 
scattering of grain in it or the full mixture of wheat and maize, 
she stared and thought of the words Holland said to her almost 
every night. The loft windows were hung with skeins of spider- 
webs, and the webs in turn were powdered with pale and dark 
grey dust, pale flour-dust never swept away since the mill had 

54 The Mill 

ceased to work, and a dark mouse-coloured dust that showered 
constantly down from the rafters. The loft was always cold. The 
walls were clammy with river damp and the windows misty 
with wet. But Alice always stood there in the early afternoons 
and stared through the dirty windows across the wet flat valley. 
Seagulls flew wildly above the floods that filled the meadows 
after rain. Strings of wild swans flew over and sometimes came 
down to rest with the gulls on the waters or the islands of grass. 
They were the only moving things in the valley. But Alice stared 
at them blankly, hardly seeing them. She saw Holland instead; 
Holland turning out the lamp, fumbling with his trousers, getting 
up and relighting the lamp with a tight scared look on his face. 
And she returned his words over and over in her mind. 'Don't 
you say nothing. Don't you say nothing. Don't you go and tell 
nobody.' They were words not of anger, not threatening, but of 
fear. But she did not see it. She turned his words slowly over 
and over in her mind as she might have turned a ball or an 
orange over and over in her hands, over and over, round and 
round, the surface always the same, the shape the same, for ever 
recurring, a circle with no end to it. She reviewed them with- 
out surprise and without malice. She never refused Holland. 
Once only she said, suddenly scared: 'I don't want to, not to- 
night. I don't want to.' But Holland cajoled, 'Come on, Alice 
come on. I'll give you something. Come on. I'll give y' extra six- 
pence with your money, Friday, Alice. Come on.' 

And after standing a little while in the loft she would go down 
the ladder with the corn-bowl to feed the hens that were cooped 
up behind a rusty broken-down wire-netting pen across the yard, 
beyond the dumps of iron. 'Tchka! Tchka! Tchka!' She never 
varied the call. 'Tchka ! Tchka ! ' The sound was thin and sharp 
in the winter air. The weedy fowls, wet-feathered, scrambled 
after the yellow corn as she scattered it down. She watched them 
for a moment, staying just so long and never any longer, and 
then went back into the mill, shaking the corn-dust from the 
bowl as she went. It was as though she were religiously pledged 
to a ritual. The circumstances and the day never varied. She 
played a minor part in a play which never changed and seemed 
as if it never could change. Holland got up, she got up, she 
cooked breakfast. Holland left. She cleaned the rooms and 
washed Mrs Holland. She cooked the dinner, took half up to Mrs 

The Mill 55 

Holland and ate half herself. She stood in the loft, thought of 
Holland's words, fed the fowls, then ceased to think of Holland. 
In the afternoon she read to Mrs Holland. In the evening Hol- 
land returned. And none of it seemed to affect her. She looked 
exactly as she had looked when she had first walked across the 
valley with her bag. Her eyes were utterly unresponsive, flat, 
never lighting up. They only seemed if anything greyer and 
softer, a little fuller if possible of docility. 

And there was only one thing which in any way broke the 
ritual; and even that was regular, a piece of ritual itself. Every 
Wednesday, and again on Sunday, Mrs Holland wrote to her 

Or rather Alice wrote. 'You can write better 'n me. You write 
it. I'll tell you what to put and you put it.' So Alice sat by the 
bed with a penny bottle of ink, a steel pen and a tissue writing 
tablet, and Mrs Holland dictated. 'Dear Albert.' There she 
stopped, lying back on the pillows to think. Alice waited. The 
pen dried. And then Mrs Holland would say: 'I can't think 
what to put. You git th' envelope done while I'm thinking.' So 
Alice wrote the envelope : 

Tte Albert Holland, 94167, B Company, Fifth Battalion 1st 
Rifles, British Army of Occupation, Cologne, Germany.' 

And then Mrs Holland would begin, talking according to her 
mood: 'I must say, Albert, I feel a good lot better. I have not 
had a touch for a long while.' Or : 'I don't seem to get on at all 
somehow. The doctor comes every week and says I got to stop 
here. Glad to say though things are well with your Dad and 
trade is good and he is only waiting for you to come home and 
go in with him. There is a good trade now in old motors. Your 
Dad is very good to me I must say and so is Alice. I wonder 
when you will be home. Alice is writing this.' 

All through the winter Alice wrote the letters. They seemed 
always to be the same letters, slightly changed, endlessly re- 
peated. Writing the letters seemed to bring her closer to Mrs 
Holland. 'I'm sure I don't know what I should do without you, 
Alice.' Mrs Holland trusted her implicity, could see no wrong in 
her. And it seemed to Alice as if she came to know the soldier 
too, since she not only wrote the letters which went to him but 
read those which came in return. 

56 The Mill 

'Dear Mum, it is very cold here and I can't say I shall be very 
sorry when I get back to see you. Last Sunday we . . .' 

It seemed almost as if the letters were written to her. And 
though she read them without imagination, flatly, they gave her 
a kind of pleasure. She looked forward to their arrival. She 
shared Mrs Holland's anxiety when they did not come. 'It seems 
funny about Albert, he ain't writ this week.' And they would sit 
together in the bedroom, in the short winter afternoons, and talk 
of him and wonder. 

Or rather Mrs Holland talked. Alice simply listened, her large 
grey eyes very still with their expression of lost attentiveness. 


She began to be sick in the early mornings without knowing 
what was happening to her. It was almost spring. The floods 
were lessening and vanishing and there was a new light on the 
river and the grass. The half-cut osier-bed shone in the sun like 
red corn, the bark varnished with light copper. She could dimly 
feel the change in the life about her: the new light, the longer 
days, thrushes singing in the willows above the mill-water in the 
evenings, the sun warm on her face in the afternoons. 

But there was no change in her own life. Or if there was a 
change she did not feel it. There was no change in Mrs Hol- 
land's attitude to her and in her own to Mrs Holland. And only 
once was there a change in her attitude to Holland himself. After 
the first touch of sickness she could not face him. The life had 
gone out of her. 'I ain't well,' she kept saying to Holland. 'I ain't 
well.' For the first time he went into a rage with her. 'It ain't 
been a week since you said that afore! Come on. Christ! You 
ain't goin' to start that game.' He tried to put his arms round 
her. She struggled a little, tried to push him away. And sud- 
denly he hit her. The blow struck her on the shoulder, just above 
the heart. It knocked her silly for a moment and she staggered 
about the room, then sat on the sofa, dazed. Then as she sat 
there the room was suddenly plunged into darkness. It was as 
though she had fainted. Then she saw that it was only Holland. 
He had put out the lamp. 

After that she never once protested. She became more than 

The Mill 57 

ever static, a neutral part of the act in which Holland was always 
the aggressor. There was nothing in it for her. It was over quick- 
ly, a savage interlude in the tranquil day-after-day unaltered life 
of Mrs Holland and herself. It was as regular almost as the spong- 
ing of Holland's collar and the cooking of his fish, or as the Fri- 
day visit of her mother and father with the van. 

'How gittin' on? You don't look amiss. You look as if you're 
fillin' out a bit.' Or 'This is five and six! Is he rised you? 
Mother, he give her a rise. Well, well, that's all right, that is. 
That's good, a rise so soon. You be a good gal and you won't 
hurt.' And finally : 'Well, we s'll ha' to git on. Be dark else,' and 
the van would move away. 

She was certainly plumper: a slight gentle filling of her 
breasts and her face were the only signs of physical change in 
her. She herself scarcely noticed them; until standing one day in 
the loft, gazing across the valley, holding the corn-bowl pressed 
against her, she could feel the bowl's roundness hard against the 
hardening roundness of her belly. Then she could feel something 
wrong with herself for the first time. And she stood arrested, 
scared. She felt large and heavy. What was the matter with her? 
She stood in a perplexity of fear. And finally she put the corn- 
bowl on the loft floor and then undid her clothes and looked at 
herself. She was round and hard and shiny. Then she opened the 
neck of her dress. Her breasts were no longer like little hard 
pointed lemons, but like half-blown roses. She put her hand 
under them, and under each breast, half in fear and half in 
amazement, and lifted them gently. They seemed suddenly as if 
they would fall if she did not hold them. What was it? Why 
hadn't she noticed it? Then she had suddenly something like an 
inspiration. It was Mrs Holland's complaint. She had caught it. 
Her body had the same swollen shiny look about it. She could 
see it clearly enough. She had caught the dropsy from Mrs 

For a time she was a little frightened. She lay in bed at night 
and touched herself, and wondered. Then it passed off. She went 
back into the old state of unemotional neutrality. Then the sick- 
ness began to get less severe; she went for whole days without 
it; and finally it ceased altogether. Then there were days when 
the heaviness of her breasts and belly seemed a mythical thing, 
when she did not think of it. And she would think that the sick- 

58 The Mill 

ness and the heaviness were passing off together, things depen- 
dent on each other. 

By the late spring she felt that it was all right, that she had 
nothing to fear. Summer was coming. She would be better in 
summer. Everybody was better in the summer. 

Even Mrs Holland seemed better. But it was not the spring 
weather or the coming of summer that made her so, but the 
letters from Germany. 'I won't say too much, Mum, in case. But 
very like we shall be home afore the end of this year/ 

'I believe I could git up, Alice, if he come home. I believe I 
could. I should like to be up/ Mrs Holland would say. 'I believe 
I could.' 

And often, in the middle of peeling potatoes or scrubbing the 
kitchen bricks, Alice would hear Mrs Holland calling her. And 
when she went up it would be, 'Alice, you git the middle bed- 
room ready. In case Albert comes/ or 'See if you can find 
Albert's fishing-tackle. It'll be in the shed or else the loft. He'll 
want it/ or 'Tell Fred when he comes home I want him to git 
a ham. A whole 'un. In case.' And always the last flickering de- 
sire: 'If I knowed when he was coming I'd git up. I believe I 
could git up.' 

But weeks passed and nothing happened. Mid-summer came, 
and all along the river the willow-leaves drooped or turned, 
green and silver, in the summer sun and the summer wind. And 
the hot still days were almost as uneventful and empty as the 
brief damp days of winter. 

Then one afternoon in July Alice, standing in the loft and 
gazing through the dusted windows, saw a soldier coming up the 
road. He was carrying a white kitbag and he walked on rather 
splayed flat feet. 

She ran down the loft steps and across the dump-yard and up 
into Mrs Holland's bedroom. 

'Albert's come!' 

Mrs Holland sat straight up in bed, as though by a miracle, 

'Get me out, quick, let me get something on. Get me out. I 
want to be out for when he comes. Get me out.' 

The girl took the weight of the big woman as she half slid out 
of bed, Mrs Holland's great breasts falling out of her nightgown, 
Alice thinking all the time, 'I ain't got it as bad as her, not half 

The Mill 59 

as bad. Mine are little side of hers. Mine are little.' She had 
never realised how big Mrs Holland was. And she had never 
seen her so distressed - distressed by joy and anticipation and 
her own sickness. Tears were flowing from her eyes. Alice 
struggled with her desperately. But she had scarcely put on her 
old red woollen dressing- jacket and helped her to a chair before 
there was a shout : 


Alice was at the head of the stairs before the second shout 
came. She could see the soldier in the passage below looking up. 
His tunic collar was unbuttoned and thrown back from his sun- 
red neck. 

'Where's mum?' 

'Up here.' 

Albert came upstairs. Alice had expected a young man, very 
young. Albert seemed about thirty-five, perhaps older. His flat 
feet, splayed out, and his dark loose moustache gave him a 
slightly old-fashioned countrified look, a little stupid. He was 
very like Holland himself. His eyes bulged, the whites glassy. 

'Where is she?' he said. 

'In the bedroom/ Alice said. 'In there.' 

Albert went past her and along the landing without another 
word, scarcely looking at her. Alice could smell his sweat, the 
pungent sweat-soaked smell of khaki, as he went by. In another 
moment she heard Mrs Holland's cries of delight and his voice in 

From that moment she began to live in a changed world. 
Albert's coming cut her off at once from Mrs Holland; she was 
pushed aside like an old love by a new. But she was prepared for 
that. Not consciously, but by intuition, she had seen that it must 
come, that Albert would usurp her place. So she had no surprise 
when Mrs Holland scarcely called for her all day, had no time to 
talk to her except of Albert, and never asked her to sit and read 
to her in the bedroom as she had always done in the past. She 
was prepared for all that. What she was not prepared for at all 
was to be cut off from Holland himself too. It had not occurred 
to her that in the evenings Albert might sit in the kitchen, that 
there might be no lying on the sofa, no putting out of the light, 
no doing as Holland wanted. 

She was so unprepared for it that for a week she could not 

60 The Mill 

believe it. Her incredulity made her quieter than ever. All the 
time she was waiting for Holland to do something: to come to 
her secretly, into her bedroom, anywhere, and go on as he had 
always done. But nothing happened. For a week Holland was 
quiet too. He did not speak to her. Every evening Alice fried a 
double quantity of fish for Holland and Albert, and after tea the 
two men sat in the kitchen and talked, or walked through the 
osier-bed to the meadows and talked there. Holland scarcely 
spoke to her. They were scarcely ever alone together. Albert was 
an everlasting presence, walking about aimlessly, putteeless, his 
splayed feet shuffling on the bricks, stolid, comfortable, not 
speaking much. 

And finally when Holland did speak to her it was with the old 
words: 'Don't you say nothing! See?' But now there was not 
only fear in the words, but anger. 'You say half a damn word 
and I'll break your neck. See? I'll smash you. That's over. Done 
with. Don't you say a damn word ! See?' 

The words, contrary to their effect of old, no longer perturbed 
or perplexed her. She was relieved, glad. It was all over. No 
more putting out the lamp, lying there waiting for Holland. No 
more pain. 


Outwardly she seemed incapable of pain, even of emotion at 
all. She moved about with the same constant large-eyed quiet- 
ness as ever, as though she were not thinking or were incapable 
of thought. Her eyes were remarkable in their everlasting expres- 
sion of mute steadfastness, the same wintry grey light in them as 
always, an un reflective, almost lifeless kind of light. 

And Albert noticed it. It struck him as funny. She would stare 
at him across the kitchen, dishcloth in hand, in a state of dumb 
absorption, as though he were some entrancing boy of her own 
age. But there was no joy in her eyes, no emotion at all, nothing. 
It was the same when, after a week's rest, Albert began to repair 
the chicken-coop beyond the dumps of old iron. Alice would 
come out twice a day, once with a cup of tea in the morning, 
once when she fed the hens in the early afternoon, and stand and 
watch him. She hardly ever spoke. She only moved to set down 
the tea-cup on a box or scatter the corn on the ground. And 
standing there, hatless, in the hot sunlight, staring, her lips gently 

The Mill 61 

parted, she looked as though she were entranced by Albert. All 
the time Albert, in khaki trousers, grey army shirt, a cloth 
civilian cap, and a fag-end always half burning his straggling 
moustache, moved about with stolid countrified deliberation. He 
was about as entrancing as an old shoe. He never dressed up, 
never went anywhere. When he drank, his moustache acted as a 
sponge, soaking up a little tea, and Albert took second little 
drinks from it, sucking it in. Sometimes he announced, 'I don't 
know as I shan't go down Nenweald for half hour and look 
round/ but further than that it never went. He would fish in the 
mill-stream instead, dig in the ruined garden, search among the 
rusty iron dumps for a hinge or a bolt, something he needed for 
the hen-house. In the low valley the July heat was damp and 
stifling, the willows still above the still water, the sunlight like 
brass. The windless heat and the stillness seemed to stretch away 
infinitely. And finally Albert carried the wood for the new hen- 
house into the shade of a big cherry-tree that grew between the 
river and the house, and sawed and hammered in the cherry-tree 
shade all day. And from the kitchen Alice could see him. She 
stood at the sink, scraping potatoes or washing dishes, and 
watched him. She did it unconsciously. Albert was the only new 
thing in the square of landscape seen from the window. She had 
nothing else to watch. The view was even smaller than in winter 
time, since summer had filled the cherry-boughs, and the tall 
river reeds had shut out half the world. 

It went on like this for almost a month, Albert tidying up the 
garden and remaking the hen-house, Alice watching him. Until 
finally Albert said to her one day : 

'Don't you ever git out nowhere ? ' 


'Don't you want to git out?' 

'I don't mind.' 

The old answer: and it was the same answer she gave him, 
when, two days later, on a Saturday, he said to her : 'I'm a-going 
down Nenweald for hour. You git ready and come as well. Go 
on. You git ready.' 

She stood still for a moment, staring, not quite grasping it all. 

'Don't you wanna come ? ' 

'I don't mind.' 

'Well, you git ready.' 

62 The Mill 

She went upstairs at once, taking off her apron as she went, in 
mute obedience. 

Earlier, Albert had said to Mrs Holland: 'Don't seem right 
that kid never goes nowhere. How'd it be if I took her down 
Nenweald for hour?' 

'It's a long way. How're you going ? ' 

'Walk. That ain't far.' 

'What d'ye want to go down Nenweald for?' A little sick 
petulant jealousy crept into Mrs Holland's voice. 'Why don't you 
stop here?' 

'I want some nails. I thought I'd take the kid down for hour. 
She can drop in and see her folks while I git the nails.' 

'Her folks don't live at Nenweald. They live at Drake's End.' 

'Well, don't matter. Hour out'll do her good.' 

And in the early evening Albert and Alice walked across the 
meadow paths into Nenweald. The sun was still hot and Albert, 
dressed up in a hard hat and a blue serge suit and a stand-up 
collar, walked slowly, with grave flat-footed deliberation. The 
pace suited Alice. She felt strangely heavy; her body seemed 
burdened down. She could feel her breasts, damp with heat, 
hanging heavily down under her cotton dress. In the bedroom, 
changing her clothes, she could not help looking at herself. The 
dropsy seemed to be getting worse. It was beyond her. And she 
could feel the tightly swollen nipples of her breasts rubbing 
against the rather coarse cotton of her dress. 

But she did not think of it much. Apart from the heaviness of 
her body she felt strong and well. And the country was new to 
her, the fields strange and the river wider than she had ever 

It was the river, for some reason, which struck her most. 
'Don't it git big?' she said. 'Ain't it wide?' 

'Wide,' Albert said. 'You want to see the Rhine. This is only a 
brook.' And he went on to tell her of the Rhine. 'Take you 
quarter of hour to walk across. And all up the banks you see 
Jerry's grapes. Growing like twitch. And big boats on the river, 
steamers. I tell you. That's the sort o' river. You ought to see it. 
Like to see a river like that, wouldn't you?' 


'Ah, it's a long way off. A thousand miles near enough.' 

Alice did not speak. 

The Mill 63 

'You ain't been a sight away from here, I bet, 'ave you?' 
Albert said. 


'How far?' 

'I don't know.' 

'What place? What's the farthest place you bin?' 

'I don't know. I went Bedford once.' 

'How far's that? About ten miles, ain't it?' 

'I don't know. It seemed a long way.' 

And gradually they grew much nearer to each other, almost 
intimate. The barriers of restraint between them were broken 
down by Albert's talk about the Rhine, the Germans, the war, 
his funny or terrible experiences. Listening, Alice forgot herself. 
Her eyes listened with the old absorbed unemotional look, but in 
reality with new feelings of wonder behind them. In Nenweald 
she followed Albert through the streets, waited for him while 
he bought the nails or dived down into underground places or 
looked at comic picture post-cards outside cheap stationers. They 
walked through the Saturday market, Albert staring at the sweet 
stalls and the caged birds, Alice at the drapery and the fruit 
stalls, remembering her old life at home again as she caught the 
rich half- rotten fruit smells, seeing herself in the kitchen at 
home, with her mother, hearing the rustle of Spanish paper 
softly torn from endless oranges in the kitchen candelight. 

Neither of them talked much. They talked even less as they 
walked home. Albert had bought a bag of peardrops and they 
sucked them in silence as they walked along by the darkening 
river. And in silence Alice remembered herself again : could feel 
the burden of her body, the heavy swing of her breasts against 
her dress. She walked in a state of wonder at herself, at Albert, 
at the unbelievable Rhine, at the evening in the town. 

It was a happiness that even Mrs Holland's sudden jealousy 
could not destroy or even touch. 

Suddenly Mrs Holland had changed. 'Where's that Alice! 
Alice! Alice! Why don't you come when I call you? Now just 
liven yourself, Alice, and git that bedroom ready. You're gettin' 
fat and lazy, Alice. You ain't the girl you used to be. Git on, git 
on, do. Don't stand staring.' Alice, sackcloth apron bundled 
loosely round her, her hair rat-tailed about her face, could only 
stare in reply and then quietly leave the bedroom. 'And here!' 

64 The Mill 

Mrs Holland would call her back. 'Come here. You ain't bin 
talking to Albert, 'ave you? He's got summat else to do 'sides 
talk to you. You leave Albert to 'isself. And now git on. Bustle 
about and git some o' that fat off ' 

The jealousy, beginning with mere petulancy, then rising to 
reprimand, rose to abuse at last. 

' Just because I'm in bed you think you can do so you like. 
Great slommacking thing. Lazy ain't in it. Git on, do ! ' 

And in the evenings : 

'Fred, that Alice'll drive me crazy.' 

'What's up ? ' Holland's fear would leap up, taking the form of 
anger too. 'What's she bin doing? Been saying anything?' 

'Fat, slommacking thing. I reckon she hangs round our Albert. 
She don't seem right, staring and slommacking about. She looks 
half silly.' 

'I'll say summat to her. That fish ain't very grand o' nights 

'You can say what you like. But she won't hear you. If she 
does she'll make out she don't. That's her all over. Makes out she 
don't hear. But she hears all right.' 

And so Holland attacked her : 

'You better liven yourself up. See? Act as if you was sharp. 
And Christ, you ain't bin saying nothing, 'ave you? Not to 


'Not to nobody?' 


'Don't you say a damn word. That's over. We had a bit o' fun 
and now it's finished with. See that?' 

'Yes.' Vaguely she wondered what he meant by fun. 

'Well then, git on. Go on, gal, git on. Git on! God save the 
King, you make my blood boil. Git on ! ' 

The change in their attitude was beyond her: so far beyond 
her that it created no change in her attitude to them. She went 
about as she had always done, very quietly, with large-eyed 
complacency, doing the dirty work, watching Albert, staring at 
the meadows, her eyes eternally expressionless. It was as though 
nothing could change her. 

Then Albert said, 'How about if we go down Nenweald again 
Saturday? I got to go down.' 

The Mill 65 

She remembered Mrs Holland, stared at Albert and said 

'You git ready about five/ Albert said. 'Do you good to git out 
once in a while. You don't git out half enough.' He paused, look- 
ing at her mute face. 'Don't you want a come ? ' 

'I don't mind.' 

'All right. You be ready.' 

Then, hearing of it, Mrs Holland flew into a temper of 

'You'd take a blessed gal out but you wouldn't stay with me, 
would you? Not you. Away all this time, and now when you're 
home again you don't come near me.' 

'All right, all right. I thought'd do the kid good, that's all.' 

'That's all you think about. Folks'll think you're kidnappin' ! ' 

'Ain't nothing to do with it. Only taking the kid out for an 

'Hour! Last Saturday you'd gone about four!' 

'All right,' Albert said, 'we won't go. It don't matter.' 

Mrs Holland broke down and began to weep on the pillow. 

'I don't want a stop you,' she said. 'You can go. It don't matter 
to me. I can stop here be meself. You can go.' 

And in the end they went. As before they walked through the 
meadows, Albert dressed up and hot, Alice feeling her body 
under her thin clothes as moist and warm as a sweating apple 
with the heat. In Nenweald they did the same things as before, 
took the same time, talked scarcely at all, and then walked back 
again in the summer twilight, sucking the peardrops Albert had 

The warm air lingered along by the river. The water and the 
air and the sky were all breathless. The sky was a soft green- 
lemon colour, clear, sunless and starless. 'It's goin' to be a 
scorcher again tomorrow,' Albert said. 

Alice said nothing. They walked slowly, a little apart de- 
corously. Albert opened the towpath gates, let Alice through, and 
then splay-footed after her. They were like some countrified old 
fashioned couple half-afraid of each other. 

Then Albert, after holding open a towpath gate and letting 
Alice pass, could not fasten the catch. He fumbled with the 
gate, lifted it, and did not shut it for about a minute. When he 
walked on again Alice was some distance ahead. Albert could see 

66 The Mill 

her plainly. Her pale washed-out dress was clear in the half light. 
Albert walked on after her. Then he was struck all of a sudden 
by the way she walked. She was walking thickly, clumsily, not 
exactly as though she were tired, but heavily, as though she had 
iron weights in her shoes. 

Albert caught up with her. 'You all right, Alice?' he said. 

'I'm all right.' 

'Ain't bin too much for you? I see you walking a bit lame like.' 

Alice did not speak. 

'Ain't nothing up, Alice, is there ? ' 

Alice tried to say something, but Albert asked again: 'Ain't 
bin too hot, is it?' 

'No. It's all right. It's only the dropsy.' 

'The what?' 

'What your mother's got. I reckon I catched it off her.' 

'It ain't catchin', is it?' 

'I don' know. I reckon that's what it is.' 

'You're a bit tired, that's all 'tis,' Albert said. 'Dropsy. You're 
a funny kid, no mistake.' 

They walked almost in silence to the mill. It was dark in the 
kitchen, Holland was upstairs with Mrs Holland, and Albert 
struck a match and lit the oil-lamp. 

The burnt match fell from Albert's fingers. And stooping to 
pick it up he saw Alice, standing sideways and full in the lamp- 
light. The curve of her pregnancy stood out clearly. Her whole 
body was thick and heavy with it. Albert crumbled the match in 
his fingers, staring at her. Then he spoke. 

'Here kid,' he said. 'Here.' 

She looked at him. 

'What'd you say it was you got? Dropsy?' 

'Yes. I reckon that's what it is I caught/ 

'How long you bin like it ? ' 

'I don't know. It's bin coming on a good while. All summer.' 

He stared at her, not knowing what to say. All the time she 
stared too with the old habitual muteness. 

'Don't you know what's up wi' you?' he said. 

She shook her head. 

When he began to tell her she never moved a fraction. Her 
face was like a lump of unplastic clay in the lamplight. 

'Don't you know who it is? Who you bin with? Who done it?' 

The Mill 67 

She could not answer. It was hard for her to grapple not only 
with Albert's words but with the memory of Holland's: 'You 
tell anybody and I'll smash you. See?' 

'You better git back home/ Albert said. 'That's your best 


'Soon as you can. Git off to-morrow. You no business slaving 

And then again : 

'Who done it? Eh? Don't y' know who done it? If you know 
who done it he could marry you.' 

'He couldn't marry me.' 

Albert saw that the situation had significance for him. 

'You better git off to bed quick,' he said. 'Go on. And then be 
off in the morning.' 

In the morning Alice was up and downstairs soon after sun- 
light, and the sun was well above the trees as she began to walk 
across the valley. She walked slowly, carrying her black case, 
changing it now and then from one hand to another. Binders 
stood in the early wheatfields covered with their tarpaulins, that 
were in turn covered with summer dew. It was Sunday. The 
world seemed empty except for herself, rooks making their way 
to the cornfields, and cattle in the flat valley. She walked for long 
periods without thinking. Then when she did think, it was not of 
herself or the mill or what she was doing or what was going to 
happen to her, but of Albert. An odd sense of tenderness rose up 
in her simultaneously with the picture of Albert rising up in her 
mind. She could not explain it. There was something singularly 
compassionate in Albert's countrified solidity, his slow voice, his 
fiat feet, his concern for her. Yet for some reason she could not 
explain, she could not think of him with anything like happiness. 
The mere remembrance of him sawing and hammering under the 
cherry-tree filled her with pain. It shot up in her breast like 
panic. 'You better git back home.' She could hear him saying it 
again and again. 

And all the time she walked as though nothing had happened. 
Her eyes had the same dull mute complacency as ever. It was as 
though she were only half-awake. 

When she saw the black gas-tarred side of the Hartop's house 
it was about eight o'clock. She could hear the early service bell. 

68 The Mill 

The sight of the house did not affect her. She went in by the 
yard gate, shut it carefully, and then walked across the yard to 
the back door. 

She opened the door and stood on the threshold. Her mother 
and her father, in his shirt-sleeves, sat in the kitchen having 
breakfast. She could smell tea and bacon. Her father was sopping 
up his plate with bread, and seeing her he paused with the bread 
half to his lips. She saw the fat dripping down to the plate again. 
Watching it, she stood still. 

Tve come back/ she said. 

Suddenly the pain shot up in her again. And this time it 
seemed to shoot up through her heart and breast and throat and 
through her brain. 

She did not move. Her face was flat and blank and her body 
static. It was only her eyes which registered the suddenness and 
depths of her emotions. They began to fill with tears. 

It was as though they had come to life at last. 


For thirty seconds after the lorry had halted between the shack 
and the petrol pumps the summer night was absolutely silent. 
There was no wind; the leaves and the grass stalks were held in 
motionless suspense in the sultry air. And after the headlights 
had gone out the summer darkness was complete too. The 
pumps were dead white globes, like idols of porcelain; there was 
no light at all in the station. Then, as the driver and his mate 
alighted, slamming the cabin doors and grinding their feet on the 
gravel, the light in the station came suddenly on : a fierce electric 
flicker from the naked globe in the shack, the light golden in one 
wedge-shaped shaft across the gravel pull-in. And seeing it the 
men stopped. They stood for a moment with the identical sus- 
pense of the grass and the trees. 

The driver spoke first. He was a big fellow, quite young, with 
breezy blue eyes and stiff untrained hair and a comic mouth. 
His lips were elastic : thin bands of pink india-rubber that were 
for ever twisting themselves into grimaces of irony and burles- 
que, his eyes having that expression of comic and pained 
astonishment seen on the painted faces of Aunt Sallies in shoot- 
ing galleries. 

His lips twisted to the shape of a buttonhole, so that he whis- 
pered out of the one corner. 'See her? She heard us come. 
What , dItellyou? , 

The mate nodded. He too was young, but beside the driver he 
was boyish, his checks smooth and shiny as white cherries, his 
hair yellow and light and constantly ruffled up like the fur of a 
fox-cub. And unlike the driver's, his lips and eyes were quite 
still; so that he had a look of intense immobility. 

He could see the woman in the shack. Short white casement 
curtains of transparent lace on brass rods cut across the window, 
but above and through them he could see the woman clearly. She 
was big-shouldered and dark, with short black hair, and her face 
was corn-coloured under the light. She seemed about thirty; and 
that surprised him. 


70 The Station 

'I thought you said she was young/ he said. 

'So she is.' The driver's eyes flashed white. 'Wait'll you git 
close. How old d'ye think she is?' 

'Thirty. More.' 

'Thirty? She's been here four year. And was a kid when she 
was married, not nineteen. How's that up you?' 

'She looks thirty.' 

'So would you if you'd kept this bloody shack open every 
night for four year. Come on, let's git in.' 

They began to walk across the gravel, but the driver stopped. 

'And don't forgit what I said. She's bin somebody. She's had 
education. Mind your ups and downs.' 

When they opened the door of the shack and shuffled in, 
the driver first, the mate closing the door carefully behind him, 
the woman stood behind the rough-carpentered counter with her 
arms folded softly across her chest, in an attitude of unsurprised 
expectancy. The counter was covered with blue-squared oilcloth, 
tacked down. By the blue alarum clock on the lowest of the 
shelves behind it, the time was four minutes past midnight. At 
the other end of the shelf a flat shallow kettle was boiling on an 
oil-stove. The room was like an oven. The woman's eyes seemed 
curiously drowsy, as though clouded over with the steam and the 
warm oil-fumes. And for half a minute nothing happened. She 
did not move. The men stood awkward. Then the driver spoke. 
His india-rubber mouth puckered comically to one side, and his 
eye flicked in a wink that was merely friendly and habitual. 

'Well, here we are again.' 

She nodded; the drowsiness of her eyes cleared a little. All the 
same there was something reserved about her, almost sulky. 

'What would you like?' she said. 

'Give me two on a raft and coffee,' the driver said. 

'Two on a raft and coffee,' the woman said. She spoke beauti- 
fully, without effort, and rather softly. 'What's your friend going 
to have?' 

The mate hesitated. His eyes were fixed on the woman, half- 
consciously, in admiration. And the driver had to nudge him, 
smiling his india-rubber smile of comic irony, before he became 
aware of all that was going on. 

'Peck up,' the driver said. 

'That'll do me,' the mate said. 

The Station 71 

'Two on a raft twice and coffee/ the woman said. 'Is that it?' 

Though the mate did not know it for a moment, she was 
addressing him. He stood in slight bewilderment, as though he 
were listening to a language he did not understand. Then as he 
became aware of her looking at him and waiting for an answer 
the bewilderment became embarrassment and his fair cherry- 
smooth cheeks flushed very red, the skin under the short golden 
hairs and his neck flaming. He stood dumb. He did not know 
what to do with himself. 

'I'm afraid I don't know your friend's name or his tastes yet,' 
the woman said. 'Shall I make it two poached twice and coffee?' 

'Just like me. Forgot to introduce you,' the driver said. His 
mouth was a wrinkle of india-rubber mocking. 'Albie, this is Mrs 
Harvey. This is Albert Armstrong. Now mate on Number 4, 
otherwise Albie.' 

The woman smiled and in complete subjection and fascination 
the boy smiled too. 

'Are you sure that's all right?' she said. 'Poached and coffee? 
It sounds hot to me.' 

'Does me all right,' the driver said. 

'I could make you a fresh salad,' she said. And again she was 
speaking to the mate, with a kind of soft and indirect invitation. 
'There would be eggs in that.' 

'I'll have that,' the mate said. 

'What?' the driver said. His eyes were wide open, his mouth 
wide also in half serious disgust, as though the mate had com- 
mitted a sort of sacrilege. 'You don' know what's good.' 

'So you'll have the salad?' the woman said. 

'Yes, please.' 

'I can give you the proper oil on it, and vinegar. You can have 
fruit afterwards if you'd like it.' 

'Fruit?' the driver said. 'What fruit?' 

She took the kettel from the oil-stove and poured a little hot 
water into the coffee-pot and then a little into each of the egg- 
poachers. 'Plums,' she said. 

'Now you're talking,' the driver said. 'Plums. Some sense. Now 
you are talking.' 

'Go and get yourself a few if you like them so much.' 

'Show me. Show me a plum tree within half a mile and I'm 

72 The Station 

'Go straight down the garden and it's the tree on the left. Pick 
as many as you like/ 

The driver opened the door, grinning. 'Coming, Albie?' 

'You're not afraid of the dark, are you?' the woman said. 

This time she was speaking to the driver. And suddenly as he 
stood there at the door, grimacing with comic irony at her, his 
whole head and face and neck and shoulders became bathed in 
crimson light, as though he had become the victim of a colossal 
blush. Startled, he lifted up his face and looked up at the shack 
from the outside. The bright electric sign with the naked letters 
saying simply The Station was like a fire of scarlet and white. 
At intervals it winked and darkened, on and out, scarlet to dark- 
ness, The Station to nothing. The driver stood with uplifted 
face, all scarlet, in surprised admiration. 

'Blimey, that's a winner. When'd you get that?' 

'It's new this week.' 

'It's a treat. It makes no end of a difference. How's it you 
didn't have it on when we came in?' 

'I keep forgetting it. I'm so used to sitting here in the dark I 
can't get used to it. It's a bit uncanny.' 

The driver went down the shack steps, into the night. The 
woman, busy with the eggs, and the boy, leaning against the 
counter, could see him standing back, still faintly crimson, in 
admiration of the eternal winking light. And for a minute, as he 
stood there, the station was completely silent, the August dark- 
ness like velvet, the sultry night air oppressing all sound except 
the soft melancholy murmur of the simmering kettle. Then the 
woman called : 

'You'd better get your plums. The eggs won't be two minutes.' 

The driver answered something, only barely audible, and after 
the sound of his feet crunching the gravel the silence closed in 

It was like a stoke- room in the shack. The smells of coffee and 
eggs and oil were fused into a single breath of sickening heat. 
Like the driver, the boy stood in his shirt-sleeves. He stood still, 
very self-conscious, watching the woman breaking the eggs and 
stirring the coffee and finally mixing in a glass bowl the salad 
for himself. He did not know what to do or say. Her thin white 
dress was like the silky husk of a seed-pod, just bursting open. 
Her ripe breasts swelled under it like two sun-swollen seeds. And 

The Station 73 

he could not take his eyes away from them. He was electrified. 
His blood quivered with the current of excitement. And all the 
time, even though she was busy with the eggs on the stove, and 
the mixing of the salad, very often not looking at him, she 
was aware of it. Looking up sometimes from the stove or the 
salad she would look past him, with an air of arrested dreaminess, 
her dark eyes lovely and sulky. The deliberation of it maddened 
him. He remembered things the driver had said as they came 
along the road. The words flashed in his mind as though lit up 
by the electricity of his veins. 'She's a peach, Albie. But I'll tell 
you what. One bloody wink out o' place and you're skedaddled. 
She won't have it. She's nice to the chaps because it's business, 
that's all. See what I mean, Albie? She'll look at you fit to melt 
your bleedin' heart out, but it don't mean damn all. She wants to 
make that station a success, that's all. That's why she runs the 
night shack. Her husband runs the day show and she's second 
house, kind of. It's her own idea. See?' 

And suddenly his thoughts broke off. The lights in his brain, 
as it were, went out. His mind was blank. She was looking at 
him. He stood transfixed, his veins no longer electric but re- 
lapsed, his blood weak. 

'Like it on the lorry ? ' she said. 

'Yes.' He hardly spoke. 

She had finished making the salad and she pushed the bowl 
across the counter towards him before speaking again. 

'You're not very old for the job, are you?' 

'I'm eighteen.' 

'Get on with old Spike?' 


'Isn't it lonely at first? They all say it's lonely when they first 

'I don't mind it.' 

'What's your girl say to it?' 

It was as though the electric sign had been suddenly turned on 
him as it had been turned on the driver. He stood helpless, his 
face scarlet. 

'I ain't got a girl.' 

'What? Not a nice boy like you?' She was smiling, half in 
mockery. 'I know you must have.' 


74 The Station 

'Does she love you much?' She looked at him in mock serious- 
ness, her eyes lowered. 

'I ain't got one/ 

'Honest?' She pushed the bottles of oil and vinegar across the 
counter towards him. 'I'll ask Spike when he comes in.' 

'No, don't say anything to Spike,' he begged. 'Don't say noth- 
ing. He's always kidding me about her, anyway.' 

'You said you hadn't got a girl.' 


She took two plates from the rack behind the counter and then 
knives and forks from the drawer under the counter and then 
laid them out. 

'Does she hate it when you're on nights?' she said. 


'What's she like - dark or fair?' 


'Like me?' 

He could not answer. He only gazed straight at her in mute 
embarrassment and nodded. Every word she uttered fired him 
with passionate unrest. The current in his blood was renewed 
again. He felt himself tightened up. And she could see it all. 

'You'd better call Spike,' she said. 'The eggs are ready.' 

He moved towards the door. Then he turned and stopped. 
'Don't say nothing,' he said. 

'All right.' 

He stood at the door, his face scarlet under the winking sign, 
and called out for Spike, singing the word, 'Spi-ike!' And he 
could hear the sound echoing over the empty land in the dark- 
ness. There was a smell of corn in the air, stronger and sweeter 
even than the smell of the heat and cooking in the shack. It came 
in sweet waves from across the invisible fields in the warm night 

'I know how you feel,' she said. 

He turned sharply. 'How?' 

'Come and eat this salad and cool down a bit.' 

He came from the door to the counter in obedience, pulling 
out a stool and sitting on it. 

'Oil and vinegar?' she said. 'The coffee will be ready by the 
time Spike comes.' 

'How do I feel? What do you mean?' 

The Station 75 

'You know/ 

'Yes, but how do you know?' 

Tve felt like it myself.' 

She stood with her arms folded and resting on the counter 
edge, and leaning slightly forward, so that he could see her 
breasts beneath the open dress. She looked at him with a kind of 
pity, with tenderness, but half- amused. He saw the breasts rise 
and fall with the same slow and almost sulky passion as she 
looked at him. He stared from her breasts to her face, and she 
stared back, her eyes never moving. And they stood like that, not 
moving or speaking, but only as it were burning each other up, 
until suddenly Spike came in. 

The woman stood up at once. Spike's cupped hands were full 
of plums. 

'They're green/ the woman said. 

'By God, if I didn't think they was tart.' 

'Didn't you find the right tree? On the left?' 

'I couldn't see a blamed thing.' 

'Eat your eggs. I'll get a torch and we'll go down and get some 
ripe ones before you go.' 

'Eggs look good an' all,' Spike said. 

The men ate in silence, the woman busy with bread and 
coffee. The boy put vinegar on his salad, but not oil, and once, 
noticing it, she unstoppered the oil bottle and pushed it across to 
him. It was her only sign towards him. The old manner of pity 
and intimacy had vanished. She was the proprietress; they were 
the drivers come in to eat. She stood almost aloof, busy with odd 
things at the far end of the counter. And the boy sat in fresh 
bewilderment, at a loss, and in wonder about her. 

They each drank two cups of coffee and when the cups were 
finally empty she said : 

'If you're ready we can go down and get the plums. But I 
don't want to hurry you.' 

'I'm fit,' Spike said. 'And my God the eggs were a treat. You 
missed a treat Albie, not having eggs.' 

'The salad was all right.' 

'I'll get the torch,' the woman said. 'You go out that door and 
I'll meet you round the back.' 

She went out of the shack by a door behind the counter, and 
the boy followed Spike through the front door, under the electric 

76 The Station 

sign. Outside, behind the shack, the sweet smell of ripened corn 
and night air seemed stronger than ever. At the side of the shack 
and a little behind it, the bungalow stood out darker than the 
darkness. And after a minute the torch appeared from the bun- 
galow and began to travel towards the men. The boy could see it 
shining white along the cinder path and on the woman's feet as 
she came along. 

'You walk down the path/ she said. 'I'll show the light.' 

Spike began to walk down the path, the boy following him, 
and then the woman. The shadows strode like giants over the 
garden and were lost beyond the yellow snake fence in the dark 
land. The garden was short, and in a moment they all three stood 
under the plum tree, the woman shining the torch up into 
the branches, the tree turned to an immense net of green and 

'I'll shine, Spike,' she said. 'You pick them. If they're soft and 
they lift off they're ripe.' 

'This is better,' Spike said. His mouth was already full of 
plums. 'I struck one match to every blamed plum when I came 

The woman stood a little away from the tree, shining the 
torch steadily, making a great ring of white light across which 
little moths began to flutter like casual leaves. The boy stood 
still, not attempting to move, as though he were uninvited. 

'What about you ? ' she said. 

And again he could feel the old softness of sympathy and pity 
and insinuation in her voice, and again his blood leapt up. 

'I'm about full up,' he said. 

'Take some for the journey.' 

He stood still, electrified. 

'Take some to eat on the way. Look here, come round the 
other side. They're riper.' 

She moved round the tree, shining the torch always away from 
her. He followed her in silence, and then in silence they stood 
against the plum branches, in the darkness behind the light. He 
saw her stretch up her arm into the silver leaves, and then lower 
it again. 

'Where's your hand?' she was whispering. 'Here. It's a beauty.' 
The soft ripe plum was between their hands. Suddenly she 
pressed it hard against his hands, and the ripe skin broke and the 

The Station 11 

juice trickled over his fingers. 'Eat it, put it in your mouth,' she 
said. He put the plum into his mouth obediently, and the sweet 
juice trickled down over his lips and chin as it had already 
trickled over his hands. 

'Was that nice ? ' she said softly. 


'Sweet as your girl?' 

It seemed suddenly as if his blood turned to water. She was 
touching him. She took his hand and laid it softly against her 
hip. It was firm and strong and soft. It had about it a kind of 
comforting maturity. He could feel all the sulky strength and 
passion of her whole body in it. Then all at once she covered his 
hand with her own, stroking it up and down with her fingers, 
until he stood helpless, intoxicated by the smell of corn and 
plums and the night warmth and her very light, constant strok- 
ing of his hand. 

'Shine the light,' Spike called. 'I can't see for looking.' 

'I'm shining,' she said. 'Albie wants to see too.' 

'Getting many, Albie?' 

'He's filling his pockets.' 

She began to gather plums off the tree with her free hand as 
she spoke, keeping her other hand still on his, pressing it against 
her by an almost mechanical process of caressing. He reached up 
and tore off the plums too, not troubling if they were ripe, filling 
one pocket while she filled the other, the secrecy and passion of 
her movements half demoralizing him, and going on without 
interruption until Spike called : 

'Albie ! Plums or no plums, we shall have to get on th' old bus 

'All right.' 

The boy could hardly speak. And suddenly as the woman took 
her hand away at last he felt as if the life in him had been cut 
off, the tension withdrawn, leaving his veins like dead wires. 

He stumbled up the path behind Spike and the woman and 
the light. Spike was gabbling : 

'Sweetest plums I ever tasted. When we come back I'll take 
a couple of pounds and the missus'll pie 'em.' 

'When will you be back?' 

'The night after to-morrow.' 

'There'll be plenty,' she said. 

78 The Station 

She said nothing to the boy, and he said nothing either. 

'Let's pay you/ Spike said. 

'A shilling for you, and ninepence for the salad/ she said. 

'Salad's cheaper/ Spike said. 'I'll remember that. What about 
the plums?' 

'The plums are thrown in.' 

They paid her. Then she stood on the shack steps while they 
crunched across the pull-in and climbed up into the cab, the 
bright red sign flashing above her. 

'That sign's a treat/ Spike called. 'You could see it miles off.' 

'I'm glad you like it/ she called. 'Good night.' 

'Good night!' 

Spike started up, and almost before the boy could realise it the 
lorry was swinging out into the road, and the station was be- 
ginning to recede. He sat for some moments without moving. 
Then the lorry began to make speed and the smell of corn and 
plums and the summer land began to be driven out by the 
smells of the cab, the petrol and oil and the heat of the engine 
running. But suddenly he turned and looked back. 

'The light's out/ he said. 

Spike put his head out of the cab and glanced back. The sign 
was still flashing but the shack itself was in darkness. 

'She's sitting in the dark,' he said. 'She always does. She says 
it saves her eyes and the light and she likes it better.' 


'Better ask her.' Spike put a plum in his mouth. 'I don't know.' 

'What's her husband doing, letting her run the place at night, 
and sit there in the dark ? ' 

'It's her own idea. It's a paying game an' all, you bet your life 
it is.' 

The boy took a plum from his pocket and bit it slowly, lick- 
ing the sweet juice from his lips as it ran down. He was still 

And glancing back again he could see nothing of the station 
but the red sign flashing everlastingly out and on, scarlet to 
darkness, The Station to nothing at all. 


It was the second Saturday of August, 1911, when I came to 
London for the interview with Kersch and Co. I was just twenty- 
five. The summer had been almost tropical. 

There used to be a train in those days that got into St 
Pancras, from the North, about ten in the morning. I came by it 
from Nottingham, left my bag in the cloakroom and went 
straight down to the City by bus. The heat of London was 
terrific, a white dust heat, thick with the smell of horse dung. I 
had put on my best suit, a blue serge, and it was like a suit of 
gauze. The heat seemed to stab at me through it. 

Kersch and Co. were very nice. They were electrical engineers. 
I had applied for a vacancy advertised by them. That morning I 
was on the short list and Mr Alexander Kersch, the son, was 
very nice to me. We talked a good deal about Nottingham and I 
asked him if he knew the Brownsons, who were prominent Con- 
gregationalists there, but he said no. Everyone in Nottingham, 
almost, knew the Brownsons, but I suppose it did not occur to 
me in my excitement that Kersch was a Jew. After a time he 
offered me a whisky and soda, but I refused. I had been brought 
up rather strictly, and in any case the Brownsons would not have 
liked it. Finally, Mr Kersch asked me if I could be in London 
over the week-end. I said yes, and he asked me at once to come 
in on Monday morning. I knew then that the job was as good as 
settled and I was trembling with excitement as I shook hands 
and said good-bye. 

I came out of Kersch and Co. just before twelve o'clock. Their 
offices were somewhere off Cheapside. I forget the name of the 
street. I only remember, now, how yery hot it was. There was 
something un-English about it. It was a terrific heat, fierce and 
white. And I made up my mind to go straight back to St Pan- 
cras and get my bag and take it to the hotel the Brownsons had 
recommended to me. It was so hot that I didn't want to eat. I 
felt that if I could get my room and wash and rest it would be 


80 The Kimono 

enough. I could eat later. I would go up West and do myself 
rather well. 

Pa Brownson had outlined the position of the hotel so well, 
both in conversation and on paper, that when I came out of St 
Pancras with my bag I felt I knew the way to the street as well as 
if it had been in Nottingham. I turned east and then north and 
went on turning left and then right, until finally I came to the 
place where the street with the hotel ought to have been. It 
wasn't there. I couldn't believe it. I walked about a bit, always 
coming back to the same place again in case I should get lost. 
Then I asked a baker's boy where Midhope Street was and he 
didn't know. I asked one or two more people, and they didn't 
know either. 'Wade's Hotel,' I would say, to make it clearer, but 
it was no good. Then a man said he thought I should go back 
towards St Pancras a bit, and ask again, and I did. 

It must have been about two o'clock when I knew that I was 
pretty well lost. The heat was shattering. I saw one or two other 
hotels but they looked a bit low class and I was tired and 

Finally I set my bag down in the shade and wiped my face. 
The sweat on me was filthy. I was wretched. The Brownsons had 
been so definite about the hotel and I knew that when I got back 
they would ask me if I liked it and all about it. Hilda 
would want to know about it too. Later on, if I got the Kersch 
job, we should be coming up to it for our honeymoon. 

At last I picked up my bag again. Across the street was a little 
sweet shop and cafe showing ices. I went across to it. I felt I had 
to have something. 

In the shop a big woman with black hair was tinkering with 
the ice-cream mixer. Something had gone wrong. I saw that at 
once. It was just my luck. 

'I suppose it's no use asking for an ice?' I said. 

'Well, if you wouldn't mind waiting.' 

'How long?' 

'As soon as ever I get this nut fixed on and the freezer going 
again. We've had a breakdown.' 

'All right. You don't mind if I sit down?' I said. 

She said no, and I sat down and leaned one elbow on the tea- 
table, the only one there was. The woman went on tinkering with 
the freezer. She was a heavy woman, about fifty, a little swarthy, 

The Kimono 81 

and rather masterful to look at. The shop was stifling and filled 
with a sort of yellowish-pink shade cast by the sun pouring 
through the shop blind. 

'I supposed it's no use asking you where Midhope Street is ? ' I 

'Midhope Street/ she said. She put her tongue in her cheek, in 
thought. 'Midhope Street, I ought to know that/ 

'Or Wade's Hotel.' 

'Wade's Hotel,' she said. She wriggled her tongue between her 
teeth. They were handsome teeth, very white. 'Wade's Hotel. 
No. That beats me.' And then : 'Perhaps my daughter will know. 
I'll call her.' 

She straightened up to call into the back of the shop. But a 
second before she opened her mouth the girl herself came in. She 
looked surprised to see me there. 

'Oh, here you are, Blanche ! This gentleman here is looking for 
Wade's Hotel.' 

'I'm afraid I'm lost,' I said. 

'Wade's Hotel,' the girl said. She too stood in thought, run- 
ning her tongue over her teeth, and her teeth too were very 
white, like her mother's. 'Wade's Hotel. I've seen that some- 
where. Surely?' 

'Midhope Street.' I said. 

'Midhope Street.' 

No, she couldn't remember. She had on a sort of kimono, 
loose, with big orange flowers all over it. I remember thinking it 
was rather fast. For those days it was. It wouldn't be now. And 
somehow, because it was so loose and brilliant, I couldn't take 
my eyes off it. It made me uneasy, but it was an uneasiness in 
which there was pleasure as well, almost excitement. I remember 
thinking she was really half undressed. The kimono had no neck 
and no sleeves. It was simply a piece of material that wrapped 
over her, and when suddenly she bent down and tried to fit the 
last screw on to the freezer the whole kimono fell loose and I 
could see her body. 

At the same time something else happened. Her hair fell over 
her shoulder. It was the time of very long hair, the days when 
girls would pride themselves that they could sit on their pig 
tails, but hers was the longest hair I had ever seen. It was like 
thick jet-black cotton-rope. And when she bent down over the 

82 The Kimono 

freezer the pig-tail of it was so long that the tip touched the 

'I'm so sorry/ the girl said. 'My hair's always getting me into 

'It's all right. It just seems to be my unlucky day, that's all.' 

'I'm so sorry.' 

'Will you have a cup of tea?' the woman said. 'Instead of the 
ice ? Instead of waiting ? ' 

'That's it, Mother. Get him some tea. You would like tea, 
wouldn't you?' 

'Very much.' 

So the woman went through the counter-flap into the back of 
the shop to get the tea. The girl and I, in the shop alone, stood 
and looked at the freezer. I felt queer in some way, uneasy. The 
girl had not troubled to tighten up her kimono. She let it hang 
loose, anyhow, so that all the time I could see part of her 
shoulder and now and then her breasts. Her skin was very white, 
and once when she leaned forward rather farther than usual I 
could have sworn that she had nothing on at all underneath. 

'You keep looking at my kimono,' she said. 'Do you like it?' 

'It's very nice,' I said. 'It's very nice stuff.' 

'Lovely stuff. Feel of it. Go on. Just feel of it.' 

I felt the stuff. For some reasons, perhaps it was because I had 
had no food, I felt weak. And she knew it. She must have known 
it. 'It's lovely stuff. Feel it. I made it myself.' She spoke sweetly 
and softly, in invitation. There was something electric about her. 
I listened quite mechanically. From the minute she asked me to 
feel the stuff of her kimono I was quite helpless. She had me, as 
it were, completely done up in the tangled maze of the orange 
and green of its flowers and leaves. 

'Are you in London for long? Only to-day?' 

'Until Monday.' 

'I suppose you booked your room at the hotel?' 

'No. I didn't book it. But I was strongly recommended there.' 

'I see.' 

That was all, only 'I see.' But in it there was something quite 
maddening. It was a kind of passionate veiled hint, a secret 

'Things were going well,' I said, 'until I lost my way.' 


The Kimono 83 

'I came up for an interview and I got the job. At least I think 
I got the job.' 

'A bit of luck. I hope it's a good one ? ' 

'Yes/ I said. 'It is. Kersch and Co. In the City/ 

'Kersch and Co ? ' she said. 'Not really ? Kersch and Co. ? ' 

'Yes/ I said. 'Why, do you know them?' 

'Know them? Of course I know them. Everybody knows them. 
That is a bit of luck for you.' 

And really I was flattered. She knew Kersch and Co. ! 
She knew that it was a good thing. I think I was more pleased 
because of the attitude of the Brownsons. Kersch and Co. didn't 
mean anything to the Brownsons. It was just a name. They had 
been rather cold about it. I think they would have liked me to 
get the job, but they wouldn't have broken their hearts if I 
hadn't. Certainly they hadn't shown any excitement. 

'Kersch and Co./ the girl said again. 'That really is a bit of 

Then the woman came in with the tea. 'Would you like any- 
thing to eat?' 

'Well, I've had no dinner.' 

'Oh! No wonder you look tired. I'll get you a sandwich. Is 
that all right?' 

'Thank you.' 

So the woman went out to get the sandwich, and the girl and I 
stayed in the shop again, alone. 

'It's a pity you booked your room at the hotel,' she said. 

'I haven't booked it/ I said. 

'Oh ! I thought you said you'd booked it. Oh ! My fault. You 
haven't booked it ? ' 

'No. Why?' 

'We take people in here/ she said. 'Over the cafe. It's not 
central of course. But then we don't charge so much.' 

I thought of the Brownsons. 'Perhaps I ought to go to 
the hotel/ I said. 

'We charge three and six/ she said. 'That isn't much, is it?' 

'Oh, no!' 

'Why don't you just come up and see the room?' she 
said. 'Just come up.' 


'Come up and see it. It won't eat you.' 

84 The Kimono 

She opened the rear door of the shop and in a moment I was 
going upstairs behind her. She was not wearing any stockings. 
Her bare legs were beautifully strong and white. The room was 
over the cafe. It was a very good room for three and six. The 
new wall-paper was silver-leaved and the bed was white and 
looked cool. 

And suddenly it seemed silly to go out into the heat again and 
wander about looking for Wade's Hotel when I could stay where 
I was. 

Well, what do you think of it?' she said. 

'I like it/ She sat down on the bed. The kimono was drawn 
up over her legs and where it parted at her knees I could see her 
thighs, strong and white and softly disappearing into the shadow 
of the kimono. It was the day of long rather prim skirts and I 
had never seen a woman's legs like that. There was nothing 
between Hilda and me beyond kissing. All we had done was to 
talk of things, but there was nothing in it. Hilda always used to 
say that she would keep herself for me. 

The girl hugged her knees. I could have sworn she had noth- 
ing on under the kimono. 

'I don't want to press you/ she said, 'but I do wish you'd stay. 
You'd be our first let.' 

Suddenly a great wave of heat came up from the street outside, 
the fierce, horse-smelling, dust-white heat of the earlier day, and 
I said: 

'All right. I'll stay.' 

'Oh, you angel!' 

The way she said that was so warm and frank that I did not 
know what to do. I simply smiled. I felt curiously weak with 
pleasure. Standing there, I could smell suddenly not only 
the heat but the warmth of her own body. It was sweetish and 
pungent, the soft odour of sweat and perfume. My heart was 

Then suddenly she got up and smoothed the kimono over her 
knees and thighs. 

'My father has just died, you see,' she said. 'We are trying this 
for a living. You'll give us a start.' 

Somehow it seemed too good to be true. 

The Kimono 85 


I know now that it was. But I will say more of that later, when 
the time comes. 

That evening I came down into the shop again about six 
o'clock. I had had my tea and unpacked my things and rested. It 
was not much cooler, but I felt better. I was glad I had stayed. 

The girl, Blanche, was sitting behind the counter, fanning her- 
self with the broken lid of a sweet-box. She had taken off her 
kimono and was wearing a white gauzy dress with a black sash. 
I was disappointed. I think she must have seen that, because she 
pouted a bit when I looked at her. In turn I was glad she pouted. 
It made her lips look full-blooded and rich and shining. There 
was something lovely about her when she was sulky. 

'Going out?' she said. 

'Yes/ I said. 'I thought of going up West and celebrating over 
Kersch and Co.' 

'Celebrating ? By yourself ? ' 

'Well/ I said. Tm alone. There's no one else.' 

'Lucky you/ 

I knew what she meant in a moment. 'Well/ I said, almost in 
a joke, 'why don't you come?' 

'Me?' she said, eyes wide open. 'You don't mean it. Me?' 

'I do/ I said. 'I do mean it.' 

She got up. 'How long can you wait? I'll just change my dress 
and tell mother.' 

'No hurry at all/ I said, and she ran upstairs. 

I have said nothing about how old she was. In the kimono she 
looked about twenty, and in the white dress about the same age, 
perhaps a little younger. When she came down again that even- 
ing she looked nearer twenty-six or twenty-seven. She looked 
big and mature. She had changed from the white dress into a 
startling yellow affair with a sort of black coatee cut away at the 
hips. It was so flashy that I felt uneasy. It was very tight too : 
the skirt so tight that I could see every line of her body, the 
bodice filled tight in turn with her big breasts. I forget what her 
hat was like. I rather fancy I thought it was rather silly. 
But later she took it off. 

'Well, where shall we go ? ' she said. 

'I thought of going up West and eating and perhaps dropping 
in to hear some music.' 

86 The Kimono 

'Music. Isn't that rather dull?' 
'Well, a play then.' 

'I say/ she said, 'don't let's go up West. Let's go down to the 
East End instead. We can have some fun. It'll do you good to 
see how the Jews live. If you're going to work for a firm of Jews 
you ought to know something about them. We might have some 
Jewish food. I know a nice place.' 

So we took a bus and went. In the Mile End Road we had a 
meal. I didn't like it. The food didn't smell very nice. It was 
spiced and strong and rather strange to eat. But Blanche liked it. 
Finally she said she was thirsty. 'Let's go out of here and have 
a drink somewhere else,' she said. 'I know a place where you can 
get beautiful wine, cheap.' So we went from that restaurant to 
another. We had some cheese and a bottle of wine - asti, I think 
it was. The place was Italian. The evening was stifling and 
everywhere people were drinking heavily and fanning themselves 
limply against the heat. After the wine I began to feel rather 
strange. I wasn't used to it and I hardly knew what I was doing. 
The cheese was rather salt and made me thirsty. I kept drinking 
almost unconsciously and my lips began to form syllables 
roundly and loosely. I kept staring at Blanche and thinking of 
her in the kimono. She in turn would stare back and we played a 
kind of game, carrying on a kind of conversation with glances, 
burning each other up, until at last she said : 

'What's you name? You haven't told me yet.' 

'Arthur,' I said. 'Arthur Lawson.' 


The way she said it set my heart on fire. I just couldn't say 
anything: I simply sat looking at her. There was an intimacy 
then, at that moment, in the mere silences and glances between 
us, that went far beyond anything I had known with Hilda. 

Then she saw something on the back of the menu that made 
her give a little cry. 

'Oh, there's a circus ! Oh, let's go ! Oh, Arthur, you must take 

So we went there too. I forget the name of the theatre and 
really, except for some little men and women with wizened bird 
faces and beards, there is nothing I remember except one thing. 
In the middle of the show was a trapeze act. A girl was swinging 
backwards and forwards across the stage in readiness to somer- 

The Kimono 87 

sault and the drum was rolling to rouse the audience to excite- 
ment. Suddenly the girl shouted 'I can't do it!' and let loose. 
She crashed down into the stalls and in a minute half the 
audience were standing up in a pandemonium of terror. 

'Oh ! Arthur, take me out.' 

We went out directly. In those days women fainted more often 
and more easily than they do now, and I thought Blanche would 
faint too. As we came out into the street she leaned against me 
heavily and clutched my arm. 

Til get a cab and take you home/ I said. 

'Something to drink first.' 

I was a bit upset myself. We had a glass of port in a public 
house. It must have been about ten o'clock. Before long, after the 
rest and the port, Blanche's eyes were quite bright again. 

Soon after that we took the cab and drove home. 'Let me lean 
against you,' she said. I took her and held her. 'That's it,' she 
said. 'Hold me. Hold me tight.' It was so hot in the cab that I 
could hardly breathe and I could feel her face hot and moist too. 
'You're so hot,' I said. She said it was her dress. The 
velvet coatee was too warm. 'I'll change it as soon as I get home,' 
she said. 'Then we'll have a drink. Some ice-cream in lemonade. 
That'll be nice.' 

In the cab I looked down at her hair. It was amazingly black. 
I smiled at it softly. It was full of odours that were warm and 
voluptuous. But it was the blackness of it that was so wonderful 
and so lovely. 

'Why do they call you Blanche? I said. 'When you're so black. 
Blanche means white.' 

'How do you know I'm not white underneath?' she said. 

I could not speak. No conversation I had ever had with 
a woman had ever gone within miles of that single sentence. I sat 
dazed, my heart racing. I did not know what to do. 'Hold 
me tight,' she said. I held her and kissed her. 

I got out of the cab mechanically. In the shop she went 
straight upstairs. I kept thinking of what she had said. I was wild 
with a new and for me a delicious excitement. Downstairs the 
shop was in darkness and finally I could not wait for her to come 
down again. I went quietly upstairs to meet her. 

She was coming across the landing as I reached the head of 
the stairs. She was in the kimono, in her bare feet. 

88 The Kimono 

'Where are you?' she said softly. 'I can't see you.' She came a 
second later and touched me. 

'Just let me see if mother has turned your bed back/ she 

She went into my bedroom. I followed her. She was leaning 
over the bed. My heart was racing with a sensation of great long- 
ing for her. She smoothed the bed with her hands and, as she did 
so, the kimono, held no longer, fell right apart. 

And as she turned again I could see, even in the darkness, that 
she had nothing on underneath it at all. 


On the following Monday morning I saw Kersch and Co. 
again and in the afternoon I went back to Nottingham. I had 
been given the job. 

But curiously, for a reason I could not explain, I was no longer 
excited. I kept thinking of Blanche. I suppose, what with my en- 
gagement to Hilda Brownson and so on, I ought to have been 
uneasy and a little conscience-stricken. I was uneasy, but it was a 
mad uneasiness and there was no conscience at all in it. I felt 
reckless and feverish, almost desperate. Blanche was the first 
woman I had known at all on terms of intimacy, and it shattered 
me. All my complacent values of love and women were smashed. 
I had slept with Blanche on Saturday night and again on Sunday 
and the effect on me was one of almost catastrophic ecstasy. 

That was something I had never known at all with Hilda: I 
had never come near it. I am not telling this, emphasising the 
physical side of it and singling out the more passionate implica- 
tions of it, merely for the sake of telling it. I want to make clear 
that I had undergone a revolution: a revolution brought about, 
too, simply by a kimono and a girl's bare body underneath it. 
And since it was a revolution that changed my whole life it seems 
to me that I ought to make the colossal effect of it quite clear, 
now and for always. 

I know, now, that I ought to have broken it off with Hilda at 
once. But I didn't. She was so pleased at my getting the Kersch 
job that to have told her would have been as cruel as tak- 
ing away a doll from a child. I couldn't tell her. 

The Kimono 89 

A month later we were married. My heart was simply not in it. 
I wasn't there. All the time I was thinking of and, in imagina- 
tion, making love to Blanche. We spent our honeymoon at 
Bournemouth in September. Kersch and Co. had been very nice 
and the result was that I was not to take up the new appointment 
until the twenty-fifth of the month. 

I say appointment. It was the word the Brownsons always 
used. From the very first they were not very much in love with 
my going to work in London at all and taking Hilda with me. I 
myself had no parents, but Hilda was their only child. That put 
what seemed to me a snobbish premium on her. They set her on 
a pedestal. My job was nothing beside Hilda. They began to dic- 
tate what we should do and how and where we ought to live, and 
finally Mrs Brownson suggested that we all go to London and 
choose the flat in which we were to live. I objected. Then Hilda 
cried and there was an unpleasant scene in which Pa Brownson 
said that he thought I was unreasonable and that all Mrs 
Brownson was trying to do was to ensure that I could give Hilda 
as good a home as she had always had. He said something else 
about God guiding us as He had always guided them. We must 
put our trust in God. But God or no God, I was determined 
that if we were going to live in a flat in London the Brownsons 
shouldn't choose it. I would choose it myself. Because even 
then I knew where, if it was humanly possible, I wanted it to 

In the end I went to London by myself. I talked round Hilda, 
and Hilda talked round her mother, and her mother, I suppose, 
talked round her father. At any rate I went. We decided on a flat 
at twenty-five shillings a week if we could get it. It was then 
about the twentieth of September. 

I went straight from St Pancras to Blanche. It was a lovely 
day, blue and soft. It was a pain for me merely to be alive. I got 
to the shop just as Blanche was going out. We almost bumped 
into each other. 


The way she said it made me almost sick with joy. She had on 
a tight fawn costume and a little fussy brown hat. 'Arthur! I 
was just going out. You just caught me. But mother can go in- 
stead. Oh ! Arthur.' Her mother came out of the back room and 
in a minute Blanche had taken off her hat and costume and her 

90 The Kimono 

mother had gone out instead of her, leaving us alone in the shop. 

We went straight upstairs. There was no decision, no asking, 
no consent in it at all. We went straight up out of a tremendous 
equal passion for each other. We were completely in unison, in 
desire and act and consummation and everything. Someone came 
in the shop and rang the bell loudly while we were upstairs, but 
it made no difference. We simply existed for each other. There 
was no outside world. She seemed to me then amazingly rich and 
mature and yet sweet. She was like a pear, soft and full- juiced 
and overflowing with passion. Beside her Hilda seemed like an 
empty eggshell. 

I stayed with the Hartmans that night and the next. There 
were still three days to go before the Kersch job began. Then I 
stayed another night. I telegraphed Hilda, "Delayed. Returning 
certain to-morrow.' 

I never went. I was bound, heart and soul, to Blanche Hart- 
man. There was never any getting away from it. I was so far gone 
that it was not until the second day of that second visit that I 
noticed the name Hartman at all. 

'I'm going to stay here,' I said to Blanche. 'Lodge here and live 
with you. Do you want me?' 

'Arthur, Arthur.' 

'My God/ I said. 'Don't.' I simply couldn't bear the repetition 
of my name. It awoke every sort of fierce passion in me. 

Then after a time I said: 'There's something I've got to tell 

'I know,' she said. 'About another girl. It doesn't matter. I 
don't want to hear. I could tell you about other men.' 

'No, but listen,' I said. 'I'm married.' I told her all about 

'It doesn't matter,' she said. 'It makes no difference. You 
could be a Mormon and it wouldn't matter.' 

And after that, because it mattered nothing to her, it mattered 
nothing to me. There is no conscience in passion. When I did 
think of Hilda and the Brownsons it was like the squirt of a 
syphon on to a blazing furnace. I really had no conscience at all. 
I walked out of one life into another as easily as from one room 
into another. 

The only difficulty was Kersch and Co. It was there that Hilda 
would inquire for me as soon as I failed to turn up. 

The Kimono 91 

Actually I got out of the Kersch difficulty as easily as I got out 
of the rest. I didn't go back there either. 


I went on living with Blanche until the war broke out. I got 
another job. Electrical engineers were scarcer in those days. 
Then, as soon as the war broke out, I joined up. 

In a way it was almost a relief. Passion can go too far and one 
can have too much of it. I was tired out by a life that was too 
full of sublimity. It was not that I was tired of Blanche. She re- 
mained as irresistible to me as when I had first seen her in the 
green and orange kimono. It was only that I was tired of the 
constant act of passion itself. My spirit, as it were, had gone stale 
and I needed rest. 

The war gave it me. As soon as I came home for my first leave 
I knew it was the best thing that could have happened to 
me. Blanche and I went straight back to the almost unearthly 
plane of former intimacy. It was the old almost catastrophic 

I say almost catastrophic. Now, when I think of it, I see that 
it was really catastrophic. One cannot expect a woman to feed off 
the food of the gods and then suddenly, because one man among 
a million is not there, to go back on a diet of nothing at all. I am 
trying to be reasonable about this. I am not blaming Blanche. It 
is the ecstasy between us that I am blaming. It could not have 
been otherwise than catastrophic. 

I always think it odd that I did not see the catastrophe coming 
before it did. But perhaps if I had seen it coming it would have 
ceased to be a catastrophe. I don't know. I only know that I 
came home in 1917, unexpectedly, and found that Blanche was 
carrying on with another man. 

I always remembered that Mrs Hartman looked extraordi- 
narily scared as I walked into the shop that day. She was an 
assured, masterful woman and it was not at all like her to be 
scared. After a minute or so I went upstairs and in my bedroom a 
man was just buttoning up his waistcoat. Blanche was not there, 
but I understood. 

I was furious, but the fury did not last. Blanche shattered it. 
She was a woman to whom passion was as essential as bread. She 

92 The Kimono 

reminded me of that. But she reminded me also of something 
else. She reminded me that that I was not married to her. 

'But the moral obligation ! ' I raged. 

'It's no good/ she said. 'I can't help it. It's no more than kis- 
sing to me. Don't be angry, honey. If you can't take me as I am 
you're not bound to take me at all.' 

And in the end she melted my fury. 'What's between us is 
different from all the rest/ she said. I believed her and she 
demonstrated it to me too. And I clung to that until the end of 
the war. 

But when I came home finally it had gone farther than that. 
There was more than one man. They came to the shop, travellers 
in the sweet-trade, demobilised young officers with cars. They 
called while I was at my job. 

I found out about it. This time I didn't say anything. I did 
something instead. I gave up what the Brownsons would have 
called my appointment. 

'But what have you done that for?' Blanche said. 

'I can't stand being tied by a job any more/ I said. 'I'll work 
here. We'll develop the shop. There's money in it.' 

'Who's going to pay for it?' 

'I will.' 

Just before I married Hilda I had nearly a hundred and fifty 
pounds in the bank. I had had it transferred to a London branch 
and it was almost all of it still there. I drew it out and in the 
summer of 1919 I spent nearly £80 of it on renovating the Hart- 
man's shop. Blanche was delighted. She supervised the decora- 
tions and the final colour scheme of the combined shop and cafe 
was orange and green. 

'Like your kimono/ I said. 'You remember it? That old one?' 

'Oh ! Arthur. I've got it.' 

'Put it on/ I said. 

She went upstairs and put it on. In about a minute I followed 
her. It was like old times. It brought us together again. 

'Tell me something/ I said. 'That first day, when I came in. 
You hadn't anything on underneath, had you?' 

'No/ she said. 'I'd just had a bath and it was all I had time to 
slip on.' 

'By God, kiss me.' 

She kissed me and I held her very tight. Her body was thicker 

The Kimono 93 

and heavier now, but she was still lovely. It was all I asked. I was 
quite happy. 

Then something else happened. I got used to seeing men in the 
shop. Most of them shot off now when they saw me, but one day 
when I came back from the bank there was a man in the living- 

He was an oldish chap, with pepper and salt hair cut rather 

'Hello/ I said, 'what's eating you?' I got to be rather short 
with any man I saw hanging about the place. 

'Nothing's eating me,' he said. 'It's me who wants something 
to eat.' 

'Oh! Who are you?' 

'My name's Hartman,' he said. 

I looked straight at his hair. It was Blanche's father. And in a 
minute I knew that he was out of prison. 

I don't know why, but it was more of a shock to me than 
Blanche's affairs with other men. Blanche and I could fight out 
the question of unfaithfulness between ourselves, but the ques- 
tion of a criminal in the house was different. 

'He isn't a criminal,' Blanche said. 'He's easily led and he was 
led away by others. Be kind to him, honey.' 

Perhaps I was soft. Perhaps I had no right to do anything. It 
was not my house, it was not my father. Blanche was not even 
my wife. What could I possibly do but let him stay? 

That summer we did quite well with the new cafe. We made 
a profit of nine and very often ten or eleven pounds a week. 
Hartman came home in May. In July things began to get worse. 
Actually, with the summer at its height, they ought to have been 
better. But the takings dropped to six and even five pounds. 
Blanche and her mother kept saying that they couldn't under- 
stand it. 

But I could. Or at least I could after a long time. It was Hart- 
man. He was not only sponging on me, but robbing the till too. 
All the hard-earned savings of the shop were being boozed away 
by Hartman. 

I wanted to throw him out. But Blanche and her mother 
wouldn't hear of it. 'He's nothing but a damned scoundrel/ I 

'He's my father/ Blanche said. 

94 The Kimono 

That was the beginning of it. I date the antagonism between 
us and also the estrangement between us from that moment. It 
was never the same afterwards. I could stand Blanche being 
nothing more or less than a whore, but it was the thought of the 
old man and the thought of my own stupidity and folly that en- 
raged me and finally almost broke me up. 

Perhaps I shouldn't have written the word whore, and I 
wouldn't have done if it wasn't for the fact that, as I sit here, my 
heart is really almost broken. 

I am sitting in what used to be my bedroom. We have changed 
it into a sitting-room now. We ought to have it done up. We 
haven't had new paper on it for seven or eight years. 

I am just fifty. I think Blanche is just about fifty, too. She is 
out somewhere. It's no use thinking where. Passion is still as 
essential to her as bread. It means no more to her and I have 
long since given up asking where she goes. And somehow - and 
this is the damnable part of it all -I am still fond of her, but 
gently and rather foolishly now. What I feel for her most is 
regret. Not anger and not passion. I couldn't keep up with her 
pace. She long since outdistanced me in the matter of emotions. 

Mrs Hartman is dead. I am sorry. She was likeable and though 
sometimes I didn't trust her I think she liked me. Hartman still 
hangs on. I keep the till-money locked up, but somehow he picks 
the locks, and there it is. He's too clever for me and I can't prove 
it. I feel as if, now, I am in a prison far more complete than any 
Hartman was ever in. It is a bondage directly inherited from that 
first catastrophic passion for Blanche. It's that, really, that I 
can't escape. It binds me irrevocably. I know that I shall never 

Last night, for instance, I had a chance to escape. I know of 
course that I'm a free man and that I am not married to Blanche 
and that I could walk out now and never come back. But this 
was different. 

Hilda asked for me. I was in the shop, alone, just about six 
o'clock. I was looking at the paper. We don't get many people in 
the cafe now, but I always have the evening paper, in case. This 
district has gone down a lot and the cafe of course has gone 

The Kimono 95 

down with it. We don't get the people in that we did. And as I 
was reading the paper the wireless was on. At six o'clock, the 
dance band ended and in another moment or two someone was 
saying my name. 

'Will Arthur Lawson, last heard of in London twenty-five 
years ago, go at once to the Nottingham Infirmary, where his 
wife, Hilda Lawson, is dangerously ill.' 

That was all. No one but me, in this house I mean, heard it. 
Afterwards no one mentioned it. Round here they think my 
name is Hartman. It was as though it had never happened. 

But it was for me all right. When I heard it I stood stunned, 
as though something had struck me. I almost died where I stood, 
at the foot of the stairs. 

Then after a bit I got over it enough to walk upstairs to the 
sitting-room. I did not know quite what I was doing. I felt faint 
and I sat down. I thought it over. After a minute I could see that 
there was no question of going. If it had been Blanche - yes. But 
not Hilda. I couldn't face it. And I just sat there and thought 
not of what I should do but what I might have done. 

I thought of that hot day in 1911, and the Kersch job and how 
glad I was to get it. I thought about Hilda. I wondered what she 
looked like now and what she had done with herself for twenty- 
five years and what she had suffered. Finally I thought of that 
catastrophic ecstasy with Blanche, and then of the kimono. And 
I wondered how things might have gone if the Hartmans' ice- 
cream freezer had never broken and if Blanche had been dressed 
as any other girl would have been dressed that day. 

And thinking and wondering, I sat there and cried like a 


The two girls, Miss Anstey and Miss Harvey, had been well 
educated; but it was another matter getting a job. They first 
came together one summer, quite casually, and in the August of 
the same year, having no prospects, began farming together. In 
this they felt shrewd; their farm was to be so different. Not a 
common farm, with pigs or corn, sheep or poultry, but a farm 
for herbs. Where you will find*, they said a 'thousand people 
farming the ordinary things, you won't find one farming herbs.' 
There was something in this. But in their hearts they liked it be- 
cause they felt it to be different, a little poetical, charged with 
some unspecified but respectable romance. They had ideals. And 
that autumn, when they rented a small cottage in Hampshire, 
with an acre of land, on the edge of the forest, they felt existence 
for the first time very keenly; they felt independent; they had 
only to stretch out and pick up handf uls of sweetness and solitude. 

The forest opened into a clearing where their house stood, and 
oak and rhododendron and holly pressed in and down on them 
and their land, securing their world. The plot was already culti- 
vated, and they intended to grow the herbs, at first, in small lots, 
taking variety to be salvation. For the first year they would work 
hard, cultivating; after that they would advertise; after that sell. 
They divided responsibility. Miss Harvey, the practical one, took 
charge of the secretarial work and kept accounts and made plans. 
Miss Anstey had imagination and knew a little botany; she 
could talk of carpel and follicle, of glandulosa and hirsutum. In 
late August, in a world still warm and dark and secure in leaf, 
the first bundles of herbs began to arrive; and pressing out the 
small rare sweetnesses and joyfully smelling each other's hands, 
they felt sure of everything. Above all, they felt very sure of each 

From the first they were devoted. Miss Anstey was the 
younger, twenty-three. Miss Harvey was twenty-eight. They 
called each other Breeze and Lorn. No one seemed clear about 


Breeze Anstey 97 

the origins and reasons of Miss Anstey's name, which did not 
express her small, slimmish, very compact and not at all volatile 
figure. Her hair was almost white; her nostrils were rather 
arched; she looked Scandinavian. She had a beautiful way of 
smiling at nothing, absently. She had another way of smiling at 
Miss Harvey, chiefly when she was not looking. It was a kind of 
mouse smile, furtive and timid, not fully expressed. It had in it 
the beginnings of adoration. 

Miss Harvey was heavily built with thick eye-brows and black 
short hair. She was very strong and wore no stockings and her 
legs went red, really ham-coloured, in the sun. She was attrac- 
tive in a full-blooded, jolly way. She was like some heavy, 
friendly mare, with her black mane falling over her face and her 
thick strong thighs and her arched way of walking with her 
shoulders back. Nothing was too much trouble for her; nothing 
daunted or depressed her. 

The two girls at first worked hard, scorning outside help, 
happy together. They began with three hundred pounds. Breeze 
said : We should be very strict and apportion everything out and 
pay weekly/ They did this. Rent would cost them fifty a year, so 
they opened a new account at the bank, paid in a year's rent and 
signed a banker's order. That settled, they hoped to live on a 
hundred a year, the two of them. That left a hundred and fifty 
for seeds and plants, expenses and saving. We should save 
seventy-five/ Lorn said. All this was theory. In practice it did 
not turn out so well. 

It was a long time, almost a whole winter and a spring, before 
they noticed it. In autumn they were pre-occupied. The 
autumn went on, that year, a long time, drawn up into some too- 
dreamy twilight of mild airs and leaves that hung on and kept 
out the low sunlight like blankets of dark leaf -wool. August and 
September were hot. Planted too soon, their first plants died. In 
a panic they ordered more, then kept the water bucket going. 
Their well got low. That was a real problem. They could not 
bathe. Lorn made little portable tents of lath and newspaper to 
shade the plants, and by September they had learnt to wash hair, 
face and feet in one kettle of water. Up to that time they had not 
worn stockings, and often not shoes. They had to give that up. 
They wore shoes and washed their feet twice a week. That was 
real hardship. 

98 Breeze Anstey 

But they were not troubled about it. They liked it. It was part 
of the new life, more still of the new independence. It was fun. 
It was hardship only by comparison. Instinctively they felt that 
cleanliness and godliness were one, perhaps, after all. They 
longed for water, not seeing until then how much life might 
depend on it. 

Then Breeze made a discovery. They felt it to be miraculous. 
Wandering off the forest path to look for sweet chestnuts, she 
came upon a pond, not a hundred yards from the house. Shaded 
by trees, it was quite deep. Round it marsh and sedge were dry, 
the earth cracked in thick crust blisters, and she could see where 
wild ponies had broken it up, coming down to drink. She fetched 
Lorn, who said : 'We could fetch twenty buckets in an hour and 
then bathe.' Breeze got some water in her hands. 'Why carry it?' 
she said. The water was brownish, leaf-stained, but clear. 'Why 
take the mountain to Mahomed? We could come down here and 

'Not in daylight.' 

'Why shouldn't we? We would have costumes on. Who's to say 
anything ? ' 

'Nobody. But this is the forest. You know people are always 
wandering about.' 

'All right. Then we could come when the sun's gone down. 
It's warm enough.' 

It was too good to miss. After sunset they took soap and 
towels and costumes and went into what was already half dark- 
ness under the trees. The pond was black, unreflective, and there 
was some sense, under the pitch dark roof of forest branches, of 
peculiar secrecy. As she took off her clothes, Breeze said: 'I'm 
going in without anything on.' She stood undressing, feet in the 
water. 'It's warm,' she said. 'It's wonderfully warm. Don't put 
anything on. It's warm and like silk. It would be wicked to put 
anything on.' 

She went in naked, swam round and looked back to Miss 
Harvey. She was putting her costume on. 

'Oh! Don't!' 

'What do you think I am?' Lorn said. 'Venus?' 

'Yes, but it's the feeling. It's wonderful. And it's quite warm.' 

'Is it swimmable?' 

'It's about four feet. Look.' 

Breeze Anstey 99 

She swam off, turning, breasting back. When she stood 
up again she saw Lorn knee-deep in water. She had nothing on. 
Looking at her the girl was struck by an odd spasm of pleasure. 
It ran up her legs like a hot current of blood and pounded up, 
finally, in her chest. She felt, for about a second, strange and 
weak. There was aroused in her an unconscious exquisite 
capacity for pain and she did not know what to do with it. It was 
like a shock. 

'I thought you said it was warm ? ' 

'Go under.' 

It was all she could say. She did not know why, but the sight 
of Lorn filled her with a queer excitement. Lorn was bigger than 
she had imagined, more mature, more ripe. She felt absurdly 
young beside her. She looked at her large brown-nippled breasts 
and saw in them the potential beauty of motherhood. The thick 
smooth flesh of the whole body had some beautiful power 
to attract and comfort. Lorn went under, up to her neck. She 
came up heavily, dripping, to stand in water up to her knees. The 
girl looked at her again, in a spell of adoration. 

'It's muddy ! ' Lorn said. 

'No. Not here. Come over here. It's lovely. Like sand. Why 
don't you swim?' 

'I'll walk. I'm not certain of it.' 

She took heavy water-bound strides across the pond, arms 
folded under breasts. 

'Shall we wash each other?' Breeze said. 

'Puzzle, find the soap.' 

'I brought it.' 

'Good. Wash me. Wash my sins away. Wash my back.' 

The younger girl stood with her habitual absent smile of 
adoration, rubbing the soap in her hands. 'Swim round while I 
get some lather.' 

Lorn swam, heavy and white, in a ponderous circle, then came 
back to Breeze. The water was up to their middles. The young 
girl's hands were white with the lather. Lorn bent her back. She 
put her hands on her knees and the girl began to soap her back, 
absently tender. 

'Oh! that's lovely. Lovely. Wash up as far as possible and 
down as far possible. Why is it so nice to have your back 

100 Breeze Anstey 

'I don't know, why is it? Have the soap and rub your front.' 

Lorn made lather and rubbed it over her chest, until her 
breasts were snow bubbles with the brown mouth of nipple alone 
uncovered. Then she turned, and Breeze stared at her. 

'What are you looking at?' 

'You're so big. I didn't think you were so big, Lorn.' 

Well, I like that! Big. You mean fat.' 

'No. Lorn, I like it. You look like a woman. Not half of one. 
Look at me. You could hold what there is of me in one hand.' 

She looked down at her small, almost stiff breasts, her slight 

'I ought to wear more support,' Lorn said. 'I shall be all over 
the place. Look at you. You're the ideal of every female in 
Christendom. All you need wear is half a yard of silk. Turn 
round and let me scrub you, child.' 

Breeze turned, bent her back and Lorn rubbed her with large 
soap-soft hands. The sensation of the soft drawn-down palms 
was something exquisite, physically thrilling to the girl. 

'Harder. I want to get really clean. Harder. Wash me all over. 

'Anything else, Madam?' 

'Your hands are bigger than mine. Soap me all over.' 

'Extra charge.' They both laughed. 'Front portion extra. 
Owing to my sensibility, Madam.' 

'Oh! Lorn, you're a dear. It's a grand feeling to be washed 

She stood with arms over her head, hands clasped on her hair, 
and turned round, and Lorn soaped her chest and shoulders. Her 
hands took wide strong sweeps across and down the girl's body. 
The soap covered the small almost absurd bust in snow froth. 

'Oh ! it's grand, Lorn. Lovely ! ' 

'We must get out.' 

'Oh ! must we ? Need we ? ' 

'I can hardly see you. It must be awfully late.' 

'It's nice in the twilight. It's warm. That's all that matters. 
One swim.' 

She swam round the darkening pond. Above, when she turned 
and floated, she could see the autumn evening sky colourless 
beyond the forest branches. The trees seemed very near, the sky 
correspondingly far off. She felt extraordinarily happy, her mind 

Breeze Anstey 101 

quiet, the exquisite sensation of shock gone. She floated serenely 
on the memory of emotions. She could smell the forest, dampish, 
closed-in, the sweetish odour of living and falling leaves, and she 
felt almost like crying. 

Then she stood in shallow water and, looking up, saw that 
Lorn was out. She saw the white flap of the towel. Something 
made her hurry out too, some sudden and not quite conscious 
impulse to be near her. 

She ran out, splashing. She stood quivering on the cracked 
mud among the sedge, and got her towel. She looked at Lorn 
and in a moment the sensation of physical shock, like some 
electric start of nerves, struck her again. She rubbed her body 
hard, trembling. 

'I feel wonderful/ Lorn said. 

Lorn put her skirt over her head. It was pale pink, almost col- 
ourless in the tree twilight. Breeze did not speak. She felt nearer 
to Lorn, at that moment, than she had ever done to anyone in her 
life. It was an attachment not only of emotion, but of body. She 
felt drawn to Lorn physically, in a beautiful way, by some 
idealised force of attraction. It elated her and, for a second or 
two, stupefied her with its strength and gentleness. 

It was only when Lorn said at last, 'Come on, Breezy, cover 
your shame, child, do, and get a stitch or two on/ that she came 
back to her normal self. Even then she did not speak. She 
wanted to speak and she stood trying to speak, to frame some 
words to express at least a hint of her affection, but nothing 

In five minutes she was dressed. The forest was then almost 
dark, and looking up at the fragments of sky above the heavy 
mass of trees she felt some kind of balm in them. She felt com- 
pletely herself, at rest again. 


'Lorn/ Breeze said, 'you must have been in love, sometime?' 
It was early January, and now they had nothing to do, on the 
long winter nights, except read and talk and evolve unrealised 
theories about the future, the farm, the world, themselves and 
men. They argued hard, quarrelled a little; but the central core 
of affection between them was never soured or shaken. It was 

102 Breeze Anstey 

dark south-west weather, wild warm days of rain followed by 
black nights, when they could do very little outside. They settled 
down after tea and read books, had supper at eight and generally 
talked till ten. 'The less we go out, the less we spend/ they said. 

'Yes/ Lorn said. 

'But when was it? You never told me. You never said any- 

'I should have told you if Fd ever told anybody/ 

'Did it go on long ? ' 

'Two years. If you can call that long.' 

'Did you - did it ever come to anything ? ' 


Breeze had wanted to know this. She felt somehow that it 
concerned her, was important. She had felt, sometimes, that it 
might distress her. Now she felt almost indifferent, only curious. 
As something in the past, it hardly touched her. 

'Only once?' 

'No. A lot. Almost every time we saw each other. Almost 
whenever we could/ 

'It must be a long time ago, or you couldn't talk about it/ 

'Three or four years. Four years/ 

'Who wanted it most ? Did he, or you ? ' 

'Both of us. We both did. We couldn't go on without it. It 
wouldn't have meant anything/ 

Breeze did not speak. She wanted to ask something else. Lorn 

'Why this sudden discussion of my affairs, young lady?' 

'We swore we'd have no secrets.' 

'Well, I've told you now.' 

'Lorn/ Breeze said, 'what's it like? The loving part. The 
proper loving.' 

'Sometimes there's nothing there.' 

'And others?' 

'You must know. I can't explain. It's something you can't tell.' 

'Like some electric shock?' 


'What then?' 

'Partly electric. But more a fulfilment. You take something 
from each other, and something in you is fulfilled.' 

'That doesn't make sense.' 

Breeze Anstey 103 

'I know. It's a thing that doesn't make sense. Why should it?' 

Breeze said earnestly: 'Does it change you?' 


'How? Physically?' 

'Partly. It must do. But I don't think you'd notice it anyway, 
whatever it does.' 

'Not till afterwards?' 

'No.' Lorn got up. 'I don't think you do till afterwards. Till 
you must do without it.' 

She went into the kitchen, gathered plates and knives and 
forks from the dresser, and came back to lay supper. Breeze 
looked at her with an absent smile, and said : 

'Why is it all over ? ' 

Lorn flacked the cloth, smoothed it, her eyes looking down flat 
on its dead whiteness, 

'I never said it was all over.' 

Breeze could not speak. She felt it instantly, for some reason, 
to be something between them. She felt the minute beginnings 
of a queer jealousy. It was not active; it moved in her conscious- 
ness like a remote pain, pricking her. 

When it faded, in a moment, and she was able to speak, she 
said: 'I don't see what you mean. How do you mean, it's not all 

'Oh! Just that. We had a pact and parted, but very shortly 
he'll be home again, and then - ' 


'He's in India.' 

'India? A soldier?' 

'An army doctor.' 

'Let me make the cocoa,' Breeze said. 

She bent down before the fire, pushed the kettle against the 
logs. The kettle sang a little. She straightened up, mixed cocoa 
and milk in the two cups, on the table, while Lorn cut bread. 
Breeze felt strangely anxious, as though Lorn had told her she 
was ill or was going away. Remote, not fully conscious, her 
anxiety pricked her, as the jealousy had done, like a small pain. 
The kettle boiled and she made cocoa, half looking at Lorn. How 
very strong Lorn was: big wind-cut arms, solid neck, such 
friendly strength, so warm. She stood absently fascinated, the 
small pain dying away. 

104 Breeze Anstey 

'It was a question of finishing his period of service/ Lorn said 
'He wanted to go back.' 

'He wanted to go back more than he wanted you.' 

'No. He wanted to go back. I understood that all right. I 
wanted him to go back. I was only twenty- three, just out of 

'What difference did that make? If it was all you say it was?' 

'That was just it. We wanted to see if it made a difference. If 
it made a difference, well, there it was. If it didn't, then he could 
come back, and we'd get married.' 

They sat by the fire, with cocoa and bread and cheese, Lorn 
with her skirts up, warming her knees. 

'I think that's awful,' Breeze said. 'For all it mattered, you 
were married. Nothing could alter that.' 

'I don't see it. We'd made love. But that was something we 
couldn't help. We could help marriage, if we ever got to it. 
Hence the arrangement.' 

'It was like making a business of it,' Breeze said. She was 
upset, trembling. 'It's a hateful thing. It was like making a busi- 
ness of it, it was like making a business of it ! It was awful ! ' 

'Breeze, Breeze.' 

'You don't deny it, do you?' 


'Who proposed it, he or you?' 

'He did. He was older.' 

'Then he wasn't worthy of you ! How could he be ? Proposing 
that. Proposing an awful thing like that. He wasn't worthy of 
you ! ' 

'Breeze. I can't bear to hear it.' 

The words were too much for the girl. She began to cry, 
deeply, with shame and some unhappiness she could not define. 
She set her cocoa on the hearth, could not see for tears, and spilt 
it. Lorn put her cup down beside it and put her arms round 
Breeze's neck. 'You're not to cry. Why are you crying? Breeze. 
It's silly to cry.' She held her, strongly, against the warm 
resilient bulk of her large body. They sat like mother and 
child, bound by grief and comfort. 'You hear me? You're not to 

'It does me good,' Breeze said. 'I shall feel better. Hold me. I 
shall feel better.' 

Breeze Anstey 105 

'I'm holding you/ Lorn said. Tve got you.' 
'Hold me tighter.' 


By April things had begun to move. The rows of herbs began 
to look vigorous and full of promise. Turned over and hoed, the 
earth was sweet and black. The two girls planted fresh supplies 
of plants, new varieties, and sowed seeds. They got up early and 
worked on into the bright spring evenings, and in the evenings, 
after a warm day, they could smell the forest, the strong, 
vigorous and yet almost drowsy odour of a great mass of trees 
breaking into leaf. They were enchanted by the new life, by an 
existence in which, as never before, they felt they had a purpose. 
They lived physically. Tired out, earth-stained, they came in- 
doors as darkness came on and sat down in the little kitchen- 
sitting-room in the cottage and sat on without speaking and 
watched the fading out of the primrosy twilights, their minds 
dumbly content. Too tired to talk, they ate supper, went to bed 
early and were up again at six. 

They spent energy needlessly. Lorn did the digging : she had a 
large four-pronged fork and used it bravely, like a weapon, 
knocking the soil about, throwing out every stone. She had some 
strenuous ambition to see the land as smooth as sand, without 
stones, immaculate. She did a man's work, and her body got to 
have some kind of male awkwardness about it: a longer stride, 
cruder grasp, a way of straddling as she stood. Close to her every 
day, Breeze did not notice it. She did the hoeing, generally, and 
the labelling and sowing, and the little artistic things : she would 
have a little rock-garden by the back door, on the south side, 
with patches of purple horned viola and winey primulas and 
then lavender hedges down the paths, giving vistas. 'You and 
your vistas/ Lorn said. But vistas were important; they had 
the effect of making things seem, to Breeze, not quite as they 
were, and the illusion was precious. She felt the beauty of 
things keenly; she could not bear ugliness, and spring drove her 
into small inexpressible ecstasies. Beauty was everything. It 
impinged upon her sharply, with pain, so that she felt something 
immensely precious and personal about the spring. It was for her 
and she could not share it. Unlike Lorn, she worked in a kind of 

106 Breeze Anstey 

semi- consciousness, not bravely, but with a kind of absent per- 
sistence. She spent greater energy of spirit, dreaming as she 
worked, and it seemed as if the spring days sucked her up, body 
and spirit and all, leaving her at times almost crying with weari- 
ness. She did not understand this supreme tiredness at all. She 
worked harder to overcome it, splashing her hoe crudely with 
clenched hands, forcing herself into the full consciousness of the 
act, breaking down her dreamy passivity. All the time, and all 
through spring and summer, it seemed to get worse. The great 
massed ring of forest seemed to shut out life sometimes, so that 
she felt imprisoned by a wall of wood and leaf, sucked by a 
beauty that was almost parasitic into an awful listlessness of 
spirit that she could not understand. All the time, in contrast to 
Lorn, she seemed to get more and not less feminine: much 
slighter, very brown and delicate, with a light detached beauty 
and an almost irritating remoteness of spirit. It was as though she 
needed waking up; as though the best of her were not alive. 

Then Lorn noticed it. By the end of May the oaks were in full 
flower and the forest stood like an olive cloud. The great polished 
bushes of rhododendron split pinkly into blossom, and the rare 
sweet-scented wild azaleas, pale yellow. The forest breathed out 
its enormous but not quite tangible sweetness and sucked back, 
in turn, the still more enormous breath of the life about it. There 
were days when, under the shelter of the too-close trees, life was 
utterly stupefied. 

'I get so tired/ Lorn said. 'How is it? Do you get tired?' 

'Yes. I didn't want to say anything about it. I thought it was 
just myself/ 

'But how is it? What's the reason for it?' 

'I feel there's no air.' 

'Possibly we need a change,' Lorn said. 'We might have been 
working too hard.' 

'But it's not the work. I'm tired if I sit still' 

'Even so, a change would do us no harm.' 

So they went, for three days, to London. For economy they 
stayed at a little scrubby hotel off Guildford Street. They ate 
cheaply; saw films cheaply. London tired them, but in a new 
way; it stripped off the old lassitude like a heavy skin. They had 
a double room with one bed, and they stayed in bed, every morn- 
ing, as late as they dare. And at night, when Lorn took the 

Breeze Anstey 107 

younger girl in her arms and mothered her down to sleep, Breeze 
felt a tender and inexplicable restful transfusion of strength take 
place. She lay close to Lorn and felt again, still not with full con- 
sciousness, that queer stirring of remote affection that was like 
a small pain. It was beautiful, but it was also reassuring, a very 
wonderful comfort, a strength against trouble. One night Breeze 
woke up with a start, frightened, not knowing where she was, 
feeling alone in a strange place. She started wildly up in bed, and 
said: What is it? I don't want it! I don't want it to come, 
please ! I don't want it/ but in a moment Lorn stretched out her 
arms and took her back, saying, 'Silly kid, silly kid/ in a voice of 
strong but amused tenderness. 

What made you wake up in the night?' she said next morning. 

'I was in trouble/ Breeze said. 'It was you I wanted. I was all 
right when I'd got you.' 

That afternoon they went to see a woman, the secretary of an 
organisation specialising in the distribution of rural products. 
Lorn had. heard of her and had written, asking for an interview. 
This woman made them see various new aspects of things. She 
raised hopes. Where they had seen, vaguely, that some day they 
must organise distribution in order to keep going, they now 
began to see, rationally, how such organisation must be planned, 
how far ahead it must be planned, how little they had done. 
They would need, in time, packers, a mail-order system, expert 
knowledge on this, that and the other. Miss Wills, the secretary, 
wore light amber rimmed spectacles and spoke in a voice of 
vinegar and treacle which both Breeze and Lorn disliked. But 
they felt, beyond the voice and the spectacles, a shrewd, clever, 
no-nonsense personality. 'You're on a good thing, you girls, if 
you'll work hard, and come to me whenever you're stuck. But 
don't try to be elegant. You're amateurs and you can't afford to 
be amateurs. We're in touch with all kinds of markets here and 
we can take all your stuff, if it's good, on a commission basis. 
You've got to look at things rationally, Miss Harvey, without a 
lot of sticky romance. When shall you be ready for production?' 

Lorn told her. 'We hope to be in a position to do something 
next year. That's what we thought.' 

'All right. Up to date, what have you done? I mean regarding 

'Not much.' 

108 Breeze Anstey 

'Then you must start. I think it might be as well if I came 
down to see you. Discuss things. I could come' - she looked up a 
diary, marked it off in blue pencil - 'in a fortnight. That is, after 
Whitsun. I'll say the week-end of June 5. Let me know if that 
suits you. Drop me a card: yes or no. That'll be enough.' 

They went away full of hope, excited. They saw the thing in 
rational outline at last, no longer some cloudy embryo of 
romance. They saw that they must work hard, plan, think, that it 
was not enough to waste an energy of body and spirit. They saw 
that by working in the dark, they had worked for nothing; they 
had given themselves up, wholeheartedly, to emptiness. 

'I think that's what made us so tired,' Lorn said. 'Working and 
working and not knowing quite where we were going.' 

'Oh ! let's get home, Lorn. I want to be back, doing something. 
I don't want to be away any longer.' 

They went back on the following day, excitement still strong, 
their whole hopes concentrated on the pole of the ideal pointed 
out by the secretary. 'I didn't like her,' Breeze said. 'She was too 
sweet and too sure, but she knew what was what. Oh ! Lorn, I'm 
glad we went. We've got something now. We can look forward 
to something.' 

When they arrived back at the cottage, in the late afternoon, 
they found a slip on the front door-mat : a cable awaited Lorn at 
the post office. She at once got on her bicycle and rode with 
excitement into Lyndhurst. She was back in half an hour. By 
that time Breeze had tea laid. Lorn laid the cable on the table, 
for Breeze to read. The cable had been handed in at Port Said, 
two days previously, and it said : 

Expect arrive London Friday telegraph me Grosvenor Hotel 
when and where possible meet you have plans for future: 

'He's coming home,' Lorn said. She stood in silence for a 
moment, and then began to cry. Her strength seemed to vanish 
at once, she stood weak and in some way foolish, 
womanish, miserable with joy. All the time Breeze stood apart 
from her, repelled by some unaccountable feeling of dislike, not 
knowing what to do. 

Breeze Anstey 109 


She was caught up, from that moment, by the force of a 
peculiar jealousy. She got fixed in her mind, as though by some 
fierce and abrupt photographic flash, a fully realised picture of 
the man who was coming. He was about thirty, an easy sociable 
being, with large, cold medical hands, a man of assurance, with 
the blond aloof sobriety of the English middle class. She saw 
also, for some reason, his mother in the background. Why, she 
did not know, but she saw the mother as some skinny and also 
aloof halo behind the man. She was holding a cablegram too, 
and smiling, with indulgent proud stretched lips, like some 
absurd filmic emblem of maternity and sacrifice : the brave wait- 
ing for the brave. She felt that she hated her too. 

She saw the change in Lorn with identical clarity. Emotion 
sharpened her before she knew it. With quiet derision she saw 
Lorn get on her bicycle, the next morning, to bike off to send 
her wire. She was not prepared for the sudden switch over from 
adoration to contempt. She had not time to consider it or defend 
herself from it when it came. It hit her, striking from within, be- 
fore she had time to think. 'Lorn looks so silly, rushing off. 
Rushing off like a school-kid.' Lorn, getting on her bicycle in a 
hurry, had got her skirt bundled beneath her, showing the 
laddered and worn tops of her working stockings. She looked, for 
a second, ungainly, heavily ridiculous. The darned stockings and 
the gap of bare red flesh above them looked ugly. 'Her legs are 
ugly. Why doesn't she pull her skirts down?' She rode off with 
excited haste, her thick legs pounding on the bicycle pedals. 
'She's got the saddle too low. She hasn't raised it since I used it. 
Her knees stick out.' The impressions were instinctive, having no 
incentive from the conscious self. She could not control them. 

Lorn was gone an hour. Breeze worked, meanwhile, on the 
plot, hoeing among rows of thyme and parsley. It was warm, 
heavy weather; weeds were coming fast. Breeze kept looking 
towards the house. She heard at last Lorn's bicycle bell and, 
looking up, saw Lorn herself pushing the bicycle up the path: 
pushing heavily, panting, excited, thick legs lumping down on 
the path, head forward, mouth open. Instinctively the impression 
leapt to mind: 'She thumps her feet down like a horse. Why 
doesn't she hold herself straight?' Lorn was untidy, hot from the 
ride. 'Her face looks awful. Like raw meat. Has she been to 

110 Breeze Anstey 

Lyndhurst and back like that?' Lorn almost flung the bicycle 
against the water-butt at the house corner and thumped into the 
house, catching her foot against the step, stumbling. 'She looks 
as though she doesn't know what she's doing. She looks stupid. 
Only half there.' 

She went on hoeing. Lorn did not come out of the house. For 
a time Breeze did not take much notice; then half an hour 
passed, an hour, and it was almost noon. Breeze began to get 
more and more impatient, hoeing fiercely, chopping the hoe 
hard against the soft dry earth, raising dust. What was Lorn 
doing? Why didn't she come out, just to say Hullo? Hungry, 
Breeze remembered then that it was Lorn's turn to cook. That 
explained it. Even so, she felt inexplicably and persistently angry, 
against her will. She hoed until her shoes and legs were soot- 
powdered with dust and her body muck-sweaty and her insides 
weak with hunger. 

Then at twelve-thirty she dropped the hoe and went into the 
house. She registered, at once, a number of unpleasant impres- 
sions: no smell of dinner, no table laid, no Lorn, nothing. 
Wherever was Lorn? She wrenched open the stairs door and 
shouted her name. 

'Lorn ! Lorn ! For goodness sake ! ' 

And at once Lorn replied, easily, almost sweetly: 'Yes? Want 
anything ? ' 

In vacant fury, Breeze stood at the foot of the stairs. 'I thought 
it was your turn to cook? What have you been doing? You've 
been back from Lyndhurst hours.' 

'I know. Come up a second. I want to tell you something.' 

Breeze went upstairs, into Lorn's bedroom. Lorn was sitting at 
her dressing-table in new peach-coloured slip and knickers, 
making up. She had a clean huckaback towel over her shoulders 
and was rubbing a white skin-cream over her face; then, as 
Breeze came in, she took the towel off her shoulders and wiped 
her hands and, very carefully, her lips. Bare again, her shoulders 
looked heavy and coarse, without grace. Breeze stood still, at the 
door; she could see Lorn's face in the mirror. She did not know 
what to do or say or what to make of it. Emotion and face- 
cream had made Lorn's face somehow shining and puffed. It 
looked faintly gross : not Lorn's face at all, but the face of some 
absurd obese stranger. 

Breeze Anstey 111 

'What's come over you ? ' Breeze said. 

'He's coming down this afternoon/ Lorn said, 'by the four 
o'clock. ' 

'How do you know? I thought you telegraphed.' 

'I telephoned. I telephoned the hotel instead. I spoke to him.' 

'Is that why you were gone so long?' 

'Not altogether. I had to get something.' She was unscrewing a 
cylinder of lipstick. 'She doesn't know how to hold it,' Breeze 
thought. 'She holds it like a stick of kid's rock. What's come over 

Lorn's thick strong ringers grasped the lipstick crudely and she 
began to rub it clumsily, to and fro, on her lips. 'She uses it like 
an india rubber. She's got no idea. She's never done it before. 
The lips grew orange, greasy. 'She's got the wrong colour. She's 
daubing it on. She can't know. She's like a kid.' All of this con- 
tinual creation of impressions was unconscious, in some way 
against her will. It ceased when Lorn said : 

'Then I had to order the taxi.' 


'He said order a taxi. It could call for me here, then bring us 
both back from the station. He said he didn't fancy a tramp with 

'He's staying?' 

'Well, I should think so.' She was pushing out her lips to- 
wards the mirror, in an orange pout; she drew them back, pursed 
them; she twitched the corners, smiling a little. The lips seemed 
enamelled, brittle, like snakeskin. Satisfied, Lorn set them in 
what she felt was a line of tenderness, naturally. 'She looks hope- 
less, awful,' Breeze thought. 'She looks pathetic. She's got 
pimples on her face. She can't know how awful she looks.' Sud- 
denly she could not bear it. 'Lorn, let me do it,' she said. 'Let me 
touch it up. You're too heavy.' 

She took the lipstick : the tinfoil was warm and sweaty where 
Lorn had held it in her hot hands, the stick already soft beneath. 

'What made you get orange ? ' 

'He likes it.' 

'It's not your colour.' 

'I know. I wanted cerise. But he likes flame. He always liked it.' 

Breeze looked at the stick. Flame-coloured, kiss-proof, it was 
a symbol of some kind of fatuous hope. She wiped Lorn's lips, 

112 Breeze Anstey 

until they were clean again except for fissures of orange in the 
cracks of the skin; then she began all over again, painting them 
delicately, bringing the mouth into softer, longer line. All the 
time Lorn was trembling. 

That afternoon, while Lorn had gone to the station in her taxi, 
there was a storm. It broke with warm stickiness and a great beat 
of thick rain that flashed white against the summery dark back- 
ground of forest. It drove Breeze indoors. She sat miserable, 
waiting and listening for the taxi beyond the sound of rain and 
the huge sudden blunderings of thunder. The air was hot and 
oppressive and the rain, smashing down grass and plants and 
flowers, made small floods among the flattened rows of herbs. By 
mid- afternoon the garden looked a desolation, its grace gone, its 
colours washed out, the forest beyond it a gloomy wall of solid 
leaf and rain. Waiting, miserable, she felt it to be almost the 
worst thing that could have happened. The place looked mean 
and small and dead. 

The taxi came at half-past three. Going to the window to 
watch, Breeze had in her mind her pre-conceived picture of the 
man : blond, aloof, coldly medical, about thirty, with the skinny 
and aloof halo of his mother shining, inexplicably, in the back- 
ground. She had waited for his arrival with a kind of remote 
arrogance, in a determination to be aloof also, her preconceived 
image part of a preconceived hatred. 

Looking across the garden, to the gate, she had a great shock. 
There appeared with Lorn, under her grey umbrella, a man of 
more than fifty. She could not believe it. She stood and stared at 
him in a conflict of pain: the pain of unbelief, amazement and 
the shock of a momentary and stupid terror. Her image of him 
went black, like a fused light, the halo of the mother fluttering 
out behind it like a silly candle. 

She had not time to think. In a moment he was standing be- 
fore her, grey-haired, lean, flesh yellow with sun, with the air of 
some decaying and dictatorial professor, nose slightly askew, eyes 
having some curious affliction of twitching, so that she could not 
look at him. 

'So this', he said, shaking hands with her, 'is Breeze Anstey?' 

Breeze Anstey 113 

His voice was nasal, meticulous, a little superior. It was a voice 
accustomed to speaking obliquely, in innuendoes. She did not 
trust it. Hearing it, she felt the conception of her hatred of him 
harden more firmly than ever. At that moment it was the only 
thing of which she felt quite sure. 

Foolishly she said : Tm sorry it rained like this - 1 mean in 
this tropical way.' 

'Tropical. This?' He was very amused. Greatly. Tropical? 
Very, very funny. Did she understand, dear young lady, quite 
what tropical meant? He looked at her with oblique superiority, 
with a maddening amusement and a thin nasal sneer which she 
was to discover, later, was habitual. 

Explaining to her what tropical rain was really like, he 
addressed her again as 'Dear young lady.' She felt furious. She 
stared at him with crude dislike, openly. All the time Lorn was 
smiling, open-mouthed, teeth gay and white against her absurd 
lipstick. It was a smile in which there was something like a giddi- 
ness of adoration: the smile of utterly silly, uncritical feminine 
delight. She was in heaven. 

It went on all through tea. It was like the functioning of some 
cheap machine into which Lorn kept pressing unseen coins in 
order to keep it working. To Breeze it was incomprehensible. It 
could not be genuine. She could not conceive of it as anything 
else but forced, the desperate mechanical reaction to the 

The doctor talked. To Breeze he was an old man. He framed 
his sentences with the slow care of experience, searching for his 
words, as though engaged on some careful and perpetual 

'When I first had - er - intimation of - of this - this project of 
yours, my dear, I had - er - some notion that you had taken - 
taken a place of some size/ 

'It doesn't look big, dear/ Lorn said, 'but you try to work it 
and see.' 

'But you said - you said a farm.' 


'But this is - just a garden.' 

'We call it a farm. It couldn't very well be bigger because of 
the forest/ 

'The -the forest?' 

114 Breeze Anstey 

He looked out of the window with a kind of amazed contempt, 
at their small confined and now rain-flattened plot of earth, with 
the barricade of trees beyond and the heavy English sky pressing 
down on it all and giving it some air of civilised meanness. He 
looked in silence. Then he began laughing. It was, to Breeze, an 
extraordinary laugh, almost silent, impersonal and yet selfish, as 
though the joke were for himself alone and yet on them. He 
laughed for fully two minutes before finally saying anything. 
Then he repeated 'Forest, forest*, in the tone of a man who, 
though knowing everything, has a little pity for the rest of the 

Breeze understood. She caught the accent, almost the sneer, of 
pity : pity for them, pity for their so-called farm, for their ideals, 
for two silly too- earnest Englishwomen with their pretence of 
ambition. Without saying it, he hinted that there were lives of 
which they knew nothing, forests beside which their own miser- 
able affair was a shrubbery. He seemed to say : 'You may believe 
in it, but is it worth believing in? It can't be serious. It can't 
mean anything. And now that I've come it can't go on.' 
Almost as though she heard it, Breeze said, frankly : 
'You came home in a hurry, Dr Bentley.' 
He looked at her, then at Lorn, obliquely. 'I had business,' he 
said. He kept looking at Lorn, still obliquely, with a soft and 
almost crafty smile of adoration, until Lorn at last lifted her eyes 
and smiled back in a confusion of happiness. Their eyes, in 
silence, telegraphed secrets which were not secrets at all. 'Yes,' 
the doctor said, 'I had business. It's not - not for me to say how 
- important - it is. But I had business. That is so -eh, Lorn?' 

The system of telegraphy, once begun, went on. After tea, and 
on into the misty heavy evening, the doctor and Lorn sat about 
in the little sitting-room and, whenever Breeze was there, sent 
each other messages of what was almost adolescent adoration. 
They spoke in riddles: restless, obvious riddles of which they 
were only too anxious that Breeze should know the meaning. 
They held out their love to her, as it were, on a plate, like some 
piece of juicy steak, inviting her to admire and, while indicating 
that it was not for her, to envy. She responded by muteness. She 
did not know what to say. Dumbly she sat and waited for the 
time when she could decently go to bed. 
'Tempus fugit,' the doctor said, once. 

Breeze Anstey 115 

'Yes, but slowly/ Lorn said, 'when you're waiting/ 
'Everything comes/ the doctor said, 'to him who waits.' 
At eight Breeze pleaded excuses and went up to bed. After 
lying awake, listening to the slow summer drip of rain from the 
branches outside, she heard, at nine, the shutting and locking of 
doors, footsteps on the stairs, whispers, the small shufflings and 
rustling of retirement. She waited for Lorn to come into her, as 
always, to say good-night. They would sit together, talk, confide, 
discuss the happenings of one day and their plans for another. 
She cherished the moment jealously. 

She waited. Nothing happened. Then, towards ten, she heard 
a door, footsteps. They approached and went past. She heard the 
opening and shutting of another door, then silence. 

She listened for a long time. There was no other sound. The 
rain had ceased and she could hear the silence, could feel it as 
something hard and tangible about her, as a crystallisation of 
emptiness into solidity, into something as light and sharp as a 
knife, cutting her off from Lorn completely. 


By innuendoes, half-phrases, gestures of superiority, and 
above all by the sly oblique smile of pity, the doctor poured con- 
tempt on the little farm. For almost a week Lorn, bewildered by 
the pull of opposing emotions, wavered between the man and the 
ideal she and Breeze had set themselves. As though aware of it, 
the doctor said, at last : 

'I suppose you two -young things know that this -this place 
-isn't healthy? It isn't doing either of you any good.' 

This was a shock; and Breeze at once resented it. 

'Who said it wasn't healthy?' 

The doctor was patient : which aroused her still more. She de- 
tested the assured enamel superiority of the man. Honest, decent 
anger, resentment, bitterness, had no place in his make-up. He 
presented only an assured too-smooth egg-like coldness. Her own 
anger, like some feeble Lilliputian pin, could not even scratch the 
iron shell of his supreme priggishness. It was all hopelessly 
beyond her. Lorn and this man, this man for a lover. 

Another time he said to her: 'Do you feel well?' 

'Yes,' she said. 'As well as I ever did.' 

116 Breeze Anstey 

'Which means?' He paused, waiting for a reply which did not 
come. 'You feel tired ? ' 


'Sleepy? No - no energy ? ' 


'Oppressed ? ' 


She was lying. He knew it and she, in a moment, knew that he 
was aware of it. 'Lorn tells me - quite - quite otherwise/ he said. 

'I'm not Lorn/ she said. 

'Lorn says you are both tired - er - continually - and can't 
understand it.' 

'We work hard.' 

'Perhaps so. But that would not account for this - this extra- 
ordinary enervation. The trouble is that there are too many trees 
in this place. They suck up the air.' 

'That's your opinion. I like the trees.' 

'May I take your pulse ? ' he said. 

Before she could resist he had taken her hand, had his thumb 
on her wrist. It was as though she were held in a clasp of pure 
dead bone. In the feel of his hands she felt, as it were, the whole 
essence of his nature: hard, bony, dead, the expression of man 
seeing life as something to be perpetually diagnosed, the delicacy 
of human nature as something needing eternal probing and some 
ultimate interesting operation. 

He dropped her hand. She felt, for a few seconds, the small 
cool point of the thumb's contact. She stood waiting, resentfully, 
in silence. What had he to do with her? Why did he trouble with 
her? It was beyond her, this damnable solicitude, and she did 
not want it. 

'You'll be telling me next/ she said, 'that I've got galloping 

For a moment he did not reply. They were in the little sitting- 
room. Lorn had gone to cut lettuces for the evening salad. It was 
a sultry, still evening, breathless 

'No, it's not that you've got/ he said. 'Will you sit down?' 


'Just sit down. I want to ask you the same - er - questions as I 
asked Lorn.' 

'What questions?' 

Breeze Anstey 117 

Well - -er- just -' 

'You're going to ask me to sleep with you perhaps?' she said. 
She raised her voice, spoke without thinking, the words out of 
her mouth before she could prevent them. 'You're going to ask 
me to wait seven years for you perhaps ? No thank you ! Not to- 
day, thank you ! No thank you ! ' 

He looked at her, smiling, the small chill oblique smile of pro- 
fessional reticence, as one accustomed to such ill-mannered out- 
bursts. He did not speak. She set her teeth, waiting, meaning the 
words she had spoken with all her heart, yet wishing, now, that 
she had not spoken them. She stood poised somewhere between 
anger and embarrassment. 

At that moment Lorn came in, carrying the already dew-wet 

'Hullo, you two,' she said. 'Quarrelling?' 

'Yes!' Breeze said. 


'He's got as far as taking my pulse - but that isn't far enough.' 

Her anger quickened again, fired up in her face. 

'He's not satisfied with coming here and taking you away. 
That isn't enough. He wants to prove the place isn't healthy. He 
wants to get me out of it.' 

'Breeze, Breeze, I won't have it ! I won't have it.' 

'It's true. He's smashed our life.' 

'You can't say it. I won't have you saying it.' 

'Why isn't it true? Before he came rushing home like a love- 
sick boy we were quite happy here. The farm was our whole life. 
You know that. We'd planned and schemed and banked on it. 
We'd arranged for the organiser to come down. Now he comes 
rushing home and it all means nothing.' 

'You mean you mean nothing ! ' 

'Well, what difference? What difference whether it's me or the 
farm? He's trying to make you believe it's unhealthy. That 
means he either wants you to give me up or me to give up the 
farm. Well, I'll give up the farm.' 

'Oh! Breeze, please. Please, not now.' 

'I'll give it up, I tell you ! You don't want me ! What point in 
my staying? I'll clear out now -before I can change my mind.' 

Suddenly she looked from Lorn to the man. He was smiling 
and the smile had that perpetual as though engraved mockery in 

118 Breeze Anstey 

it, the slightly oblique sneer of condescension, and she knew that 
he was not only laughing at her physical self, her behaviour, but 
her ideals, her anger and the very preciousness of her affection. 

Suddenly rage burned up in her to a point when she could not 
control it. She went across to him and hit him full across the 
face. For a moment nothing happened. The smile did not change. 
It remained, like some rotten and yet imperishable engraving of 
his whole nature. Beside herself, almost crying, she struggled 
with a terrific desire to hit it again, to smash it out of existence. 
Then, suddenly, the smile, the rage, the reason for it all had no 
meaning. She went very weak. She had just strength enough to 
lift her voice and half shout : 

'I'll get out in the morning. I'll go! There's not room for all 
of us.' 

Lorn would have spoken, but Breeze ran out of the room. She 
was already crying. In the second before the door slammed she 
heard the faint condescending breath of a laugh from the doctor. 

She lay in bed and cried with anguish and comfort. She 
waited for Lorn to come, clinging to the hope of reconciliation. It 
must have been about eight o'clock, and she lay for two hours, 
until darkness, before she heard a sound from below. Sounds 
came, then, and went, but nothing happened. She lay in silence 
and could not sleep. She thought of Lorn. She saw Lorn, 
physically, as a constant presence, comforting, large, so soft and 
maternal. She ached for her. She saw her as she had seen her in 
the forest, bathing, and she was caught up, unexpectedly, by a 
return of the same singular moment of acute anguish, almost 
pain, that had shot through her at the first sight of Lorn's body. 

Then, for the first time, she understood herself. She knew, 
suddenly, what it was she resented, what exactly it was she had 
wanted, what she was so extraordinarily afraid of losing. 

She sat up in bed. She had ceased crying and she felt, now, 
like a rag that has been wrung out. The cold realisation of her 
feeling for Lorn struck her with fear, almost terror, as though 
she had suddenly become aware that she was incurably ill. 

Simultaneously she saw also the reason for the doctor's smile : 
that perpetual smile of aloof knowingness. 'No, that's not what 
you've got.' He knew. Unconsciously she must have known that 
he knew. But curiously, for all her knowing, her rage against him 
did not lessen. He had struck so hard at her ideals, the little and 

Breeze Anstey 119 

now absurd farm, the business partnership, the hope of success. 
He had taken, and in a way destroyed Lorn. 

She lay for a long time. She hoped that Lorn would come. She 
wanted, and for the first time consciously, to be held by Lorn, 
tenderly, with the same love and strength as she felt in return. 
Something had taught her that a love of that kind belonged to 
the limbo of things that were never mentioned. To her, in the 
full realisation of it, it seemed a beautiful thing. She cried ten- 
derly because of it. It comforted her. There was some kind of 
sad inverted pleasure in the gentle pain of realisation and loss. 

At one o'clock she got up, lighted her candle and packed her 
bag. Going to shut the window she caught the great breath of the 
forest, damp, profound, summer-drenched, the smell of a whole 
section of her life. She stood for a moment breathing it in, look- 
ing over the dark quiet earth of the garden towards the still 
darker mass of trees. The night was deadly still. As it hung about 
her, huge and intangible, with an intolerable quality of suspense 
and comfort, her life seemed very little and not to matter. 

She shut the window. She felt, at once, back in the cramped 
confinement of her own affairs, where things had seemed, a 
moment before, to be all over, but where they seemed, now, to 
be just beginning. 

And she knew that the rest, whatever it was, lay with herself. 


The Thurlows lived on a small hill. As though it were not high 
enough, the house was raised up, as on invisible stilts, with a 
wooden flight of steps to the front door. Exposed and isolated, 
the wind striking at it from all quarters, it seemed to have 
no part with the surrounding landscape. Empty ploughed lands, 
in winter-time, stretched away on all sides in wet steel 

At half-past seven every morning Mrs Thurlow pushed her 
great rusty bicycle down the hill; at six every evening she pushed 
it back. Loaded, always, with grey bundles of washing, oilcans, 
sacks, cabbages, bundles of old newspaper, boughs of wind- 
blown wood and bags of chicken food, the bicycle could never 
be ridden. It was a vehicle of necessity. Her relationship to it 
was that of a beast to a cart. Slopping along beside it, flat heavy 
feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face 
and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone, she was like a beast of 

Coming out of the house, raised up even above the level of the 
small hill, she stepped into a country of wide horizons. This fact 
meant nothing to her. The world into which she moved was very 
small: from six to nine she cleaned for the two retired sisters, 
nine to twelve for the retired photographer, twelve-thirty to 
three for the poultry farm, four to six for the middle-aged 
bachelor. She did not think of going beyond the four lines which 
made up the square of her life. She thought of other people 
going beyond them, but this was different. Staring down at a 
succession of wet floors, working always for other people, against 
time, she had somehow got into the habit of not thinking about 

She thought much, in the same stolid pounding way as she 
pushed the bicycle, of other people: in particular of Thurlow, 
more particularly of her two sons. She had married late; the boys 


The Ox 121 

were nine and thirteen. She saw them realising refined ambi- 
tions, making their way as assistants in shops, as clerks in 
offices, even as butlers. Heavily built, with faces having her own 
angular boniness, they moved with eyes on the ground. She had 
saved money for them. For fifteen years she had hoarded the 
scubbing-and-washing money, keeping it in a bran bag under a 
mattress in the back bedroom. They did not know of it; she felt 
that no one, not even Thurlow, knew of it. 

Thurlow had a silver plate in his head. In his own eyes it set 
him apart from other men. 'I got a plate in me head. Solid silver. 
Enough silver to make a dozen spoons and a bit over. Solid. Beat 
that ! ' Wounded on the Marne, and now walking about with the 
silver plate in his head, Thurlow was a martyr. 'I didn't ought to 
stoop. I didn't ought to do nothing. By rights. By rights I didn't 
ought to lift a finger.' He was a hedge cutter. 'Lucky I'm tall, 
else that job wouldn't be no good to me.' He had bad days and 
good days, even days of genuine pain. 'Me plate's hurting me! 
It's me plate. By God, it'll drive me so's I don't know what I'm 
doing! It's me plate again.' And he would stand wild and 
vacant, rubbing his hands through his thin black hair, clawing 
his scalp as though to wrench out the plate and the pain. 

Once a week, on Saturdays or Sundays, he came home a little 
tipsy, in a good mood, laughing to himself, riding his bicycle up 
the hill like some comic rider in a circus. 'Eh? Too much be 
damned. I can ride me bike, can't I? S' long as I can ride me 
bike I'm all right.' In the pubs he had only one theme, 'I got a 
plate in me head. Solid silver,' recited in a voice challenging the 
world to prove it otherwise. 

All the time Mrs Thurlow saved money. It was her creed. 
Sometimes people went away and there was no cleaning. She 
then made up the gap in her life by other work: picking 
potatoes, planting potatoes, dibbing cabbages, spudding roots, 
pea picking, more washing. In the fields she pinned up her skirt 
so that it stuck out behind her like a thick stiff tail, making her 
look like some bony ox. She did washing from five to six in the 
morning, and again from seven to nine in the evening. Taking in 
more washing, she tried to wash more quickly, against time. 
Somehow she succeeded, so that from nine to ten she had time 
for ironing. She worked by candlelight. Her movements were 
largely instinctive. She had washed and ironed for so long, in the 

122 The Ox 

same way, at the same time and place, that she could have 
worked in darkness. 

There were some things, even, which could be done in dark- 
ness; and so at ten, with Thurlow and the sons in bed, she blew 
out the candle, broke up the fire, and sat folding the clothes or 
cleaning boots, and thinking. Her thoughts, like her work, went 
always along the same lines, towards the future, out into the re- 
splendent avenues of ambitions, always for the two sons. There 
was a division in herself, the one part stolid and uncomplaining 
in perpetual labour, the other fretful and almost desperate in an 
anxiety to establish a world beyond her own. She had saved 
fifty-four pounds. She would make it a hundred. How it was to 
be done she could not think. The boys were growing; the cost of 
keeping them was growing. She trusted in some obscure provi- 
dential power as tireless and indomitable as herself. 

At eleven she went to bed, going up the wooden stairs in dark- 
ness, in her stockinged feet. She undressed in darkness, her 
clothes falling away to be replaced by a heavy grey nightgown 
that made her body seem still larger and more ponderous. She 
fell asleep almost at once, but throughout the night her mind, 
propelled by some inherent anxiety, seemed to work on. She 
dreamed she was pushing the bicycle down the hill, and then that 
she was pushing it up again; she dreamed she was scrubbing 
floors; she felt the hot stab of the iron on her spittled finger and 
then the frozen bite of icy swedes as she picked them off un- 
thawed earth on bitter mornings. She counted her money, her 
mind going back over the years throughout which she had saved 
it, and then counted it again, in fear, to make sure, as though 
in terror that it might be gone in the morning. 


She had one relaxation. On Sunday afternoons she sat in the 
kitchen alone, and read the newspapers. They were not the news- 
papers of the day, but of all the previous week and perhaps of 
the week before that. She had collected them from the houses 
where she scrubbed, bearing them home on the bicycle. Through 
them and by them she broke the boundaries of her world. She 
made excursions into the lives of other people: tragic lovers, 
cabinet ministers, Atlantic flyers, suicides, society beauties, 

The Ox 123 

murderers, kings. It was all very wonderful. But emotionally, 
as she read, her face showed no impression. It remained ox-like 
in its impassivity. It looked in some way indomitably strong, 
as though little things like beauties and suicides, murderers and 
kings, could have no possible effect on her. About three o'clock, 
as she sat reading, Thurlow would come in, lumber upstairs, 
and sleep until about half-past four. 

One Sunday he did not come in at three o'clock. It was after 
four when she heard the bicycle tinkle against the woodshed out- 
side. She raised her head from the newspaper and listened for 
him to come in. Nothing happened. Then after about five 
minutes Thurlow came in, went upstairs, remained for some 
minutes, and then came down again. She heard him go out into 
the yard. There was a stir among the chickens as he lumbered 
about the woodshed. 

Mrs Thurlow got up and went outside, and there, at the door 
of the woodshed, Thurlow was just hiding something under his 
coat. She thought it seemed like his billhook. She was not sure. 
Something made her say : 

'Your saw don't need sharpening again a'ready, does it?' 

'That it does,' he said. 'That's just what it does. Joe Woods is 
going to sharp it.' Thurlow looked upset and slightly wild, as he 
did when the plate in his head was hurting him. His eyes were a 
little drink-fired, dangerous. 'I gonna take it down now, so's I can 
git it back to-night' 

All the time she could see the saw itself hanging in the dark- 
ness of the woodshed behind him. She was certain then that he 
was lying, almost certain that it was the billhook he had under 
his coat. 

She did not say anything else. Thurlow got on his bicycle and 
rode off, down the hill, his coat bunched up, the bicycle slightly 
crazy as he drove with one tipsy hand. 

Something, as soon as he had gone, made her rush upstairs. 
She went into the back bedroom and flung the clothes off the 
mattress of the small iron bed that was never slept in. The 
money: it was all right. It was quite all right. She sat down 
heavily on the bed. And after a moment's anxiety her colour 
returned again - the solid, immeasurably passive calm with 
which she scrubbed, read the newspapers, and pushed the 

124 The Ox 

In the evening, the boys at church, she worked again. She 
darned socks, the cuffs of jackets, cleaned boots, sorted the wash- 
ing for the following day. The boys must look well, respectable. 
Under the new scheme they went, now, to a secondary school in 
the town. She was proud of this, the first real stepping-stone to 
the higher things of the future. Outside, the night was windy, 
and she heard the now brief, now very prolonged moan of wind 
over the dark winter-ploughed land. She worked by candlelight. 
When the boys came in she lighted the lamp. In their hearts, 
having now some standard by which to judge her, they despised 
her a little. They hated the cheapness of the candlelight. When 
they had eaten and gone lumbering up to bed, like two colts, she 
blew out the lamp and worked by candlelight again. Thurlow 
had not come in. 

He came in a little before ten. She was startled, not hearing 
the bicycle. 

'You want something t' eat?' 

'No/ he said. He went straight into the scullery. She heard 
him washing his hands, swilling the sink, washing, swilling again. 

'You want the light?' she called. 


He came into the kitchen. She saw his still-wet hands in the 
candlelight. He gave her one look and went upstairs without 
speaking. For some time she pondered on the memory of this 
look, not understanding it. She saw in it the wildness of the 
afternoon, as though the plate were hurting him, but now it had 
in addition fear, and, above fear, defiance. 

She got the candle and went to the door. The wind tore the 
candle flame down to a minute blue bubble which broke, and she 
went across the yard, to the woodshed, in darkness. In the wood- 
shed she put a match to the candle again, held the candle up at 
eye level, and looked at the walls. The saw hung on its nail, but 
there was no billhook. She made a circle with the candle, looking 
for the bicycle with dumb eyes. It was not there. She went into 
the house again. Candleless, faintly perturbed, she went up 
to bed. She wanted to say something to Thurlow, but he was 
dead still, as though asleep, and she lay down herself, hearing 
nothing but the sound of Thurlow's breathing and, outside, the 
sound of the wind blowing across the bare land. 

Asleep, she dreamed, as nearly always, about the bicycle, but 

The Ox 125 

this time it was Thurlow's bicycle and there was something 
strange about it. It had no handles, but only Thurlow's billhook 
where the handles should have been. She grasped the billhook, 
and in her dream she felt the pain of the blood rushing out of 
her hands, and she was terrified and woke up. 

Immediately she put out her hands, to touch Thurlow. The 
bed was empty. That scared her. She got out of bed. 'Thurlow ! 
Bill! Thurlow! Thurlow!' 

The wind had dropped, and it was quiet everywhere. She 
went downstairs. There, in the kitchen, she lighted the candle 
again and looked round. She tried the back door; it was unlocked 
and she opened it and looked out, feeling the small ground wind 
icy on her bare feet. 

'Thurlow ! ' she said. 'Bill ! Thurlow ! ' 

She could hear nothing, and after about a minute she went 
back upstairs. She looked in at the boys' bedroom. The boys 
were asleep, and the vast candle shadow of herself stood behind 
her and listened, as it were, while she listened. She went into 
her own bedroom. Thurlow was not there. Then she went into 
the back bedroom. 

The mattress lay on the floor. And she knew, even before she 
began to look for it, that they money was gone. She knew that 
Thurlow had taken it. 

Since there was nothing else she could do, she went back to 
bed, not to sleep, but to lie there, oppressed but never in de- 
spondency, thinking. The money had gone, Thurlow had gone, 
but it would be all right. Just before five she got up, fired the 
copper, and began the washing. At seven she hung it out in 
long grey lines in the wintry grey light, holding the pegs like a 
bit in her teeth. A little after seven the boys came down to wash 
in the scullery. 

'Here, here! Mum! There's blood all over the sink!' 

'Your dad killed a rabbit,' she said. 'That's all.' 

She lumbered out into the garden, to cut cabbages. She cut 
three large cabbages, put them in a sack, and, as though nothing 
had happened, began to prepare the bicycle for the day. She tied 
the cabbages on the carrier, two oilcans on the handlebars, and 
then on the crossbar a small bundle of washing, clean, which she 
had finished on Saturday. That was all: nothing much for a 

126 The Ox 

At half-past seven the boys went across the fields, by footpath, 
to catch the bus for school. She locked the house, and then, 
huge, imperturbable, planting down great feet in the mud, she 
pushed the bicycle down the hill. She had not gone a hundred 
yards before, out of the hedge, two policemen stepped into the 
road to meet her. 

We was wondering if Mr Thurlow was in?' 

4 No,' she said, 'he ain't in.' 

'You ain't seen him ? ' 

'No, I ain't seen him.' 

'Since when?' 

'Since last night.' 

'You mind,' they said, 'if we look round your place?' 

'No,' she said, 'you go on up. I got to git down to Miss Han- 
ley's.' She began to push the bicycle forward, to go. 

'No,' they said. 'You must come back with us.' 

So she turned the bicycle round and pushed it back up the 
hill again. 'You could leave your bike,' one of the policemen 
said. 'No,' she said, 'I'd better bring it. You can never tell nowa- 
days what folk are going to be up to.' 

Up at the house she stood impassively by while the two 
policemen searched the woodshed, the garden, and finally the 
house itself. Her expression did not change as they looked at the 
blood in the sink. 'He washed his hands there last night,' she 

'Don't touch it,' the policeman said. 'Don't touch it.' And then 
suspiciously, almost in implied accusation: 'You ain't touched 
nothing - not since last night?' 

'I got something else to do,' she said. 

'We'd like you to come along with us, Mrs Thurlow,' they 
said, 'and answer a few questions.' 

'All right.' She went outside and took hold of her bicycle. 

'You can leave your bicycle.' 

'No,' she said. 'I'll take it. It's no naughty way, up here, from 
that village.' 

'We got a car down the road. You don't want a bike.' 

'I better take it,' she said. 

She wheeled the bicycle down the hill. When one policeman 
had gone in the car she walked on with the other. Ponderous, 
flat-footed, unhurried, she looked as though she could have gone 

The Ox 127 

on pushing the bicycle in the same direction, at the same pace, 
for ever. 

They kept her four hours at the station. She told them about 
the billhook, the blood, the way Thurlow had come home and 
gone again, her waking in the night, Thurlow not being there, 
the money not being there. 

'The money. How much was there ? ' 

'Fifty-four pounds, sixteen and fourpence. And twenty-eight 
of that in sovereigns. ' 

In return they told her something else. 

'You know that Thurlow was in the Black Horse from eleven 
to two yesterday?' 

'Yes, I dare say that's where he'd be. That's where he always 
is, Sundays.' 

'He was in the Black Horse, and for about two hours he was 
arguing with a man stopping down here from London. Arguing 
about that plate in his head. The man said he knew the plate was 
aluminium and Thurlow said he knew it was silver. Thurlow got 
very threatening. Did you know that ? 

'No. But that's just like him.' 

'This man hasn't been seen since, and Thurlow hasn't been 
seen since. Except by you last night.' 

'Do you want me any more?' she said. 'I ought to have been at 
Miss Hanley's hours ago.' 

'You realise this is very important, very serious?' 

'I know. But how am I going to get Miss Hanley in, and Mrs 
Acott, and then the poultry farm and then Mr George?' 

'We'll telephone Miss Hanley and tell her you can't go.' 

'The money,' she said. 'That's what I can't understand. The 


It was the money which brought her, without showing it, to 
the edge of distress. She thought of it all day. She thought of it 
as hard cash, coin, gold and silver, hard-earned and hard-saved. 
But it was also something much more. It symbolised the future, 
another life, two lives. It was the future itself. If, as seemed 
possible, something terrible had happened and a life had been 
destroyed, it did not seem to her more terrible than the fact that 
the money had gone and that the future had been destroyed. 

128 The Ox 

As she scrubbed the floors at the poultry farm in the late after- 
noon, the police telephoned for her again. We can send the car 
for her/ they said. 

'I got my bike/ she said. 'I'll walk/ 

With the oilcans filled, and cabbages and clean washing now 
replaced by newspapers and dirty washing she went back to the 
police station. She wheeled her bicycle into the lobby and they 
then told her how, that afternoon, the body of the man from 
London had been found, in a spinney, killed by blows from some 
sharp instrument like an axe. 'We have issued a warrant for 
Thurlow's arrest/ they said. 

'You never found the money?' she said. 

'No/ they said. 'No doubt that'll come all right when we find 

That evening, when she got home, she fully expected Thurlow 
to be there, as usual, splitting kindling wood with the billhook, 
in the outhouse, by candlelight. The same refusal to believe that 
life could change made her go upstairs to look for the money. 
The absence of both Thurlow and the money moved her to no 
sign of emotion. But she was moved to a decision. 

She got out her bicycle and walked four miles, into the next 
village, to see her brother. Though she did not ride the bicycle, it 
seemed to her as essential as ever that she should take it with her. 
Grasping its handles, she felt a sense of security and fortitude. 
The notion of walking without it, helplessly, in the darkness, was 

Her brother was a master carpenter, a chapel-going man of 
straight-grained thinking and purpose, who had no patience with 
slovenliness. He lived with his wife and his mother in a white- 
painted electrically-lighted house whose floors were covered with 
scrubbed coco-matting. His mother was a small woman with 
shrill eyes and ironed-out mouth who could not hear well. 

Mrs Thurlow knocked on the door of the house as though 
these people, her mother and brother, were strangers to her. Her 
brother came to the door and she said : 

'It's Lil. I come to see if you'd seen anything o' Thurlow?' 

'No, we ain't seen him. Summat up ? ' 

'Who is it?' the old woman called. 

'It's Lil/ the brother said, in a louder voice. 'She says have we 
seen anything o' Thurlow?' 

The Ox 129 

'No, an' don't want ! ' 

Mrs Thurlow went in. For fifteen years her family had openly 
disapproved of Thurlow. She sat down on the edge of the chair 
nearest the door. Her large lacc-up boots made large black mud 
prints on the virgin coco-matting. She saw her sister-in-law look 
first at her boots and then at her hat. She had worn the same 
boots and the same hat for longer than she herself could 
remember. But her sister-in-law remembered. 

She sat untroubled, her eyes sullen, as though not fully con- 
scious in the bright electric light. The light showed up the mud 
on her skirt, her straggling grey hair under the shapeless hat, the 
edges of her black coat weather-faded to a purplish grey. 

'So you ain't heard nothing about Thurlow?' she said. 

'No,' her brother said. 'Be funny if we had, wouldn't it? He 
ain't set foot in this house since dad died.' He looked at her hard. 
'Why? What's up?' 

She raised her eyes to him. Then she lowered them again. It 
was almost a minute before she spoke. 

'Ain't you heard?' she said. 'They reckon he's done a murder.' 

'What's she say?' the old lady said. 'I never heard her.' 

Mrs Thurlow looked dully at her boots, at the surrounding 
expanse of coco-matting. For some reason the fissured pattern of 
the coco-matting, so clean and regular, fascinated her. She said : 
'He took all the money. He took it all and they can't find 

'Eh? What's she say? What's she mumbling about?' 

The brother, his face white, went over to the old woman. He 
said into her ear: 'One of the boys is won a scholarship, She 
come over to tell us.' 

'Want summat to do, I should think, don't she ? Traipsing over 
here to tell us that.' 

The man sat down at the table. He was very white, his hands 
shaking. His wife sat with the same dumb, shaking expression of 
shock. Mrs Thurlow raised her eyes from the floor. It was as 
though she had placed on them the onus of some terrible re- 

'For God's sake,' the man said, 'when did it happen?' 

Ail Mrs Thurlow could think of was the money. 'Over fifty 
pounds. I got it hid under the mattress. I don't know how he 
could have found out about it. I don't know. I can't think. It's 

130 The Ox 

all I got. I got it for the boys.' She paused, pursing her lips to- 
gether, squeezing back emotion. 'It's about the boys I come.' 

'The boys?' The brother looked up, scared afresh. 'He ain't - 

'I didn't know whether you'd have them here,' she said. 'Till 
it's blowed over. Till they find Thurlow. Till things are 
straightened out.' 

'Then they ain't found him ? ' 

'No. He's done a bunk. They say as soon as they find him I 
shall git the money.' 

'Yes,' the brother said. 'We'll have them here.' 

She stayed a little longer, telling the story dully, flatly, to the 
scared pairs of eyes across the table and to the old shrill eyes, 
enraged because they could not understand, regarding her from 
the fireplace. An hour after she had arrived, she got up to go. 
Her brother said : 'Let me run you back in the car. I got a car 
now. Had it three or four months. I'll run you back.' 

'No, I got my bike,' she said. 

She pushed the bicycle home in the darkness. At home, in the 
kitchen, the two boys were making a rabbit hutch. She saw that 
they had something of her brother's zeal for handling wood. She 
saw that their going to him would be a good thing. He was a man 
who had got on in the world: she judged him by the car, the 
white-painted house, the electric light, the spotless coco-matting. 
She saw the boys, with deep but inexpressible pride, going to the 
same height, beyond it. 

'Dad ain't been home,' they said. 

She told them there had been a little trouble. 'They think your 
dad took some money.' She explained how it would be better for 
them, and for her, if they went to stay with her brother. 'Git to 
bed now and I'll get your things packed.' 

'You mean we gotta go and live there?' 

'For a bit,' she said. 

They were excited. 'We could plane the wood for the rabbit 
hutch ! ' they said. 'Make a proper job of it.' 


That night, and again on the following morning, she looked 
under the mattress for the money. In the morning the boys de- 

The Ox 131 

parted. She was slightly depressed, slightly relieved by their 
excitement. When they had gone she bundled the day's washing 
together and tied it on the bicycle. She noticed, then, that the 
back tyre had a slow puncture, that it was already almost flat. 
This worried her. She pumped up the tyre and felt a little more 

Then, as she prepared to push the bicycle down the hill, she 
saw the police car coming along the road at the bottom. Two 
policemen hurried up the track to meet her. 

'We got Thurlow,' they said. 'We'd like you to come to the 

'Is he got the money?' she said. 

'There hasn't been time,' they said, 'to go into that.' 

As on the previous morning she pushed her bicycle to the 
village, walking with one policeman while the other drove on in 
the car. Of Thurlow she said very little. Now and then she 
stopped and stooped to pinch the back tyre of the bicycle. 'Like 
I thought. I got a slow puncture,' she would say. 'Yes, it's gone 
down since I blowed it up. I s'li have to leave it at the bike shop 
as we go by.' 

Once she asked the policeman if he thought that Thurlow had 
the money. He said, 'I'm afraid he's done something more serious 
than taking money.' 

She pondered over this statement with dull astonishment. 
More serious? She knew that nothing could be more serious. To 
her the money was like a huge and irreplaceable section of her 
life. It was part of herself, bone and flesh, blood and sweat. 
Nothing could replace it. Nothing, she knew with absolute 
finality, could mean so much. 

In the village she left the bicycle at the cycle shop. Walking on 
without it, she lumbered dully from side to side, huge and un- 
steady, as though lost. From the cycle-shop window the repairer 
squinted after her, excited. Other people looked from other 
windows as she lumbered past, always a pace or two behind the 
policeman, her ill-shaped feet painfully set down. At the entrance 
to the police station there was a small crowd. She went heavily 
into the station. Policemen were standing about in a room. An 
inspector, many papers in his hand, spoke to her. She listened 
heavily. She looked about for a sign of Thurlow. The inspector 
said, with kindness, 'Your husband is not here.' She felt a sense 

132 The Ox 

of having been cheated. 'They are detaining him at Metford. We 
are going over there now/ 

'You know anything about the money V she said. 

Five minutes later she drove away, with the inspector and two 
other policemen, in a large black car. Travelling fast, she felt 
herself hurled, as it were, beyond herself. Mind and body 
seemed separated, her thoughts numbed. As the car entered the 
town, slowing down, she looked out of the side windows, saw 
posters: 'Metford Murder Arrest.' People, seeing policemen in 
the car, gaped. 'Murder Sensation Man Detained.' 

Her mind registered impressions gravely and confusedly. 
People and posters were swept away from her and she was con- 
scious of their being replaced by other people, the police station, 
corridors in the station, walls of brown glazed brick, fresh faces, 
a room, desks covered with many papers, eyes looking at her, box 
files in white rows appearing also to look at her, voices talking to 
her, an arm touching her, a voice asking her to sit down. 

'I have to tell you, Mrs Thurlow, that we have detained your 
husband on a charge of murder.' 

'He say anything about the money?' 

'He has made a statement. In a few minutes he will be charged 
and then remanded for further inquiries. You are at liberty to 
see him for a few moments if you would like to do so.' 

In a few moments she was standing in a cell, looking at Thur- 
low. He looked at her as though he did not know what had hap- 
pened. His eyes were lumps of impressionless glass. He stood 
with long arms loose at his sides. For some reason he looked 
strange, foreign, not himself. It was more than a minute before 
she realised why this was. Then she saw that he was wearing a 
new suit. It was a grey suit, thick, ready-made, and the sleeves 
were too short for him. They hung several inches above his thick 
protuberant wrist bones, giving his hands a look of inert defeat. 

'You got the money, ain't you?' she said. 'You got it?' 

He looked at her. 'Money ? ' 

'The money you took. The money under the mattress.' 

He stared at her. Money? He looked at her with a faint ex- 
pression of appeal. Money. He continued to stare at her with 
complete blankness. Money? 

'You remember,' she said. 'The money under the mattress/ 


The Ox 133 

'The money. That money. Don't you remember ?' 

He shook his head. 

After some moments she went out of the cell. She carried out 
with her the sense of Thurlow's defeat as she saw it expressed in 
the inert hands, the dead, stupefied face, and his vacant in- 
ability to remember anything. She heard the court proceedings 
without interest or emotion. She was oppressed by a sense of in- 
creasing bewilderment, a feeling that she was lost. She was 
stormed by impressions she did not understand. 'I do not pro- 
pose to put in a statement at this juncture. I ask for a remand 
until the sixteenth/ 'Remand granted. Clear the court.' 

This effect of being stormed by impressions continued outside 
the court, as she drove away again in the car. People. Many 
faces. Cameras. More faces. Posters. The old sensation of mind 
severed from body, of thoughts numbed. In the village, when the 
car stopped, there were more impressions: more voices, more 
people, a feeling of suppressed excitement. 'We will run you 
home/ the policemen said. 

'No/ she said. 'I got my cleaning to do. I got to pick up my 

She fetched the bicycle and wheeled it slowly through the vil- 
lage. People looked at her, seemed surprised to see her in broad 
daylight, made gestures as though they wished to speak, and then 
went on. Grasping the handles of the bicycle, she felt a return 
of security, almost of comfort. The familiar smooth handlebars 
hard against her hands had the living response of other hands. 
They brought back her sense of reality : Miss Hanley, the clean- 
ing, the poultry farm, the time she had lost, the boys, the money, 
the fact that something terrible had happened, the monumental 
fact of Thurlow's face, inert and dead, with its lost sense of re 

Oppressed by a sense of duty, she did her cleaning as though 
nothing had happened. People were very kind to her. Miss 
Hanley made tea, the retired photographer would have run her 
home in his car. She was met everywhere by tender, remote 
words of comfort. 

She pushed home her bicycle in the darkness. At Miss Han- 
ley's at the poultry farm, at the various places where she 
worked, the thought of the money had been partially set aside 
Now, alone again, she felt the force of its importance more 

134 The Ox 

strongly, with the beginnings of bitterness. In the empty house 
she worked for several hours by candlelight, washing, folding, 
ironing. About the house the vague noises of wind periodically 
resolved themselves into what she believed for a moment were the 
voices of the two boys. She thought of the boys with calm un- 
happiness, and the thought of them brought back with renewed 
force the thought of the money. This thought hung over her 
with the huge preponderance of her own shadow projected on 
the ceiling above her. 

On the following Sunday afternoon she sat in the empty 
kitchen, as usual, and read the stale newspapers. But now they 
recorded, not the unreal lives of other people, but the life of 
Thurlow and herself. She saw Thurlow's photograph. She read 
the same story told in different words in different papers. In all 
the stories there was an absence of all mention of the only thing 
that mattered. There was no single word about the money. 

During the next few weeks much happened, but she did not 
lose the belief that the money was coming back to her. Nothing 
could touch the hard central core of her optimism. She saw the 
slow evolution of circumstances about Thurlow as things of sub- 
sidiary importance, the loss of the life he had taken and the loss 
of his own life as things which, terrible in themselves, seemed 
less terrible than the loss of ideals built up by her sweat and 

She knew, gradually, that Thurlow was doomed, that it was 
all over. She did not know what to do. Her terror seemed remote, 
muffled, in some way incoherent. She pushed the bicycle back 
and forth each day in the same ponderous manner as ever, her 
heavy feet slopping dully beside it. 

When she saw Thurlow for the last time his face had not 
changed, one way or the other, from its fixed expression of de- 
feat. Defeat was cemented into it with imperishable finality. She 
asked him about the money for the last time. 


'The money. You took it. What you do with it? That money. 
Under the mattress/ For the first time she showed some sign of 
desperation. 'Please, what you done with it? That money. My 

'Eh?' And she knew that he could not remember. 

The Ox 135 


A day later it was all over. Two days later she pushed the 
bicycle the four miles to the next village, to see her brother. It 
was springtime, time for the boys to come back to her. Pushing 
the bicycle in the twilight, she felt she was pushing forward into 
the future. She had some dim idea, heavily dulled by the sense 
of Thurlow's death, that the loss of the money was not now so 
great. Money is money; death is death; the living are the living 
The living were the future. The thought of the boys' return 
filled her with hopes for the future, undated hopes, but quite 
real, strong enough to surmount the loss of both Thurlow and 

At her brother's they had nothing to say. They sat, the 
brother, the mother, and the sister-in-law, and looked at her with 
eyes over which, as it were, the blinds had been drawn. 

'The boys here?' she said. 

'They're making a bit of a wheelbarrow.' 

'They all right?' 

'Yes.' He wetted his lips. His clean-planed mind had been 
scarred by events as though by a mishandled tool. 'They don't 
know nothing. We kept it from 'em. They ain't been to school 
and they ain't seen no papers. They think he's in jail for stealing 

She looked at him, dully. 'Stealing money? That's what he 
did do. That money I told you about. That money I had under 
the mattress.' 

'Well,' he said slowly, 'it's done now.' 

'What did he do with it?' she said. 'What d'ye reckon he done 
with it?' 

He looked at her quickly, unable suddenly to restrain his 
anger. 'Done with it? What d'ye suppose he done with it? Spent 
it. Threw it away. Boozed it. What else? You know what 
he was like. You knew! You had your eyes open. You knew 

'Will, Will,' his wife said. 

He was silent. The old lady said: 'Eh? What's that? What's 
the matter now?' 

The brother said, in a loud voice, 'Nothing.' Then more 
softly: 'She don't know everything.' 

136 The Ox 

'I came to take the boys back/ Mrs Thurlow said. 

He was silent again. He wetted his lips. He struck a match on 
the warm fire-hob. It spurted into a sudden explosion, igniting of 
its own volition. He seemed startled. He put the match to his 
pipe, let it go out. 

He looked at Mrs Thurlow, the dead match in his hands. 'The 
boys ain't coming back no more/ he said. 

'Eh?' she said. She was stunned. 'They ain't what?' 

'They don't want to come back/ he said. 

She did not understand. She could not speak. Very slowly he 

it's natural they don't want to come back. I know it's hard. 
But it's natural. They're getting on well here. They want to stop 
here. They're good boys. I could take 'em into the business.' 

She heard him go on without hearing the individual words. 
He broke off, his face relieved - like a man who has liquidated 
some awful obligation. 

'They're my boys/ she said. 'They got a right to say what they 
shall do and what they shan't do.' 

She spoke heavily, without bitterness. 

'I know that/ he said. 'That's right. They got a right to speak. 
You want to hear what they got to say?' 

'Yes, I want to/ she said. 

Her sister-in-law went out into the yard at the back of the 
house. Soon voices drew nearer out of the darkness and the two 
boys came in. 

'Hullo/ she said. 

'Hello, Mum/ they said. 

'Your Mum's come/ the carpenter said, 'to see if you want to 
go back with her.' 

The two boys stood silent, awkward, eyes glancing past her. 

'You want to go?' the carpenter said. 'Or do you want to stay 

'Here/ the elder boy said. 'We want to stop here.' 

'You're sure o' that?' 

'Yes/ the other said. 

Mrs Thurlow stood silent. She could think of nothing to say 
in protest or argument or persuasion. Nothing she could say 
would, she felt, give expression to the inner part of herself, the 
crushed core of optimism and faith. 

The Ox 137 

She stood at the door, looking back at the boys. 'You made up 
your minds, then?' she said. They did not speak. 

'I'll run you home,' her brother said. 

'No,' she said. 'I got my bike/ 

She went out of the house and began to push the bicycle 
slowly home in the darkness. She walked with head down, 
lumbering painfully, as though direction did not matter. Where- 
as, coming, she had seemed to be pushing forward into the 
future, she now felt as if she were pushing forward into no- 

After a mile or so she heard a faint hissing from the back 
tyre. She stopped, pressing the tyre with her hand. 'It's slow,' 
she thought; 'it'll last me.' She pushed forward. A little later it 
seemed to her that the hissing got worse. She stopped again, and 
again felt the tyre with her hand. It was softer now, almost flat. 

She unscrewed the pump and put a little air in the tyre and 
went on. 'I better stop at the shop,' she thought, 'and have it 

In the village the cycle-shop was already in darkness. She 
pushed past it. As she came to the hill leading up to the house 
she lifted her head a little. It seemed to her suddenly that the 
house, outlined darkly above the dark hill, was a long way off 
She had for one moment an impression that she would never 
reach it. 

She struggled up the hill. The mud of the track seemed to 
suck at her great boots and hold her down. The wheels of the 
bicycle seemed as if they would not turn, and she could hear the 
noise of the air dying once again in the tyre. 


Colonel Julian lay in the sun. By pressing down his hands so 
that the bony knuckles touched the dusty hot lead of the balcony 
floor he could raise himself up just enough to look through the 
openings of the stone balustrade to where the deep ring of 
rhododendrons broke and revealed, across fields of oak-brown 
corn, the line of the sea. 

The balcony was built above the portico of the house, facing 
southward. Beyond the rhododendrons, quite flowerless now, 
dark without that Indian glory the Colonel loved, he could see 
also his only gardener cutting with a horse-mower the wild outer 
fringe of lawn, and he could smell the sweet, light fragrance of 
it drying in the August heat. The terrace, the gardener, the horse 
and the sun were almost all that was left to him of his life before 
the war. Not, he often reflected, that they were very much good 
to him. He could no longer ride the horse, and the gardener was 
a witless sort of bounder who abused him to his face and raided 
his tobacco jar behind his back. That left him only the terrace, 
and, if he were lucky, the sun. All the rest had long since been 
given up to what he always called the young Air Force gentle- 
men. They had long ago invaded the solitude, broken the silence 
and recoloured, sometimes excitingly, the grey privacy of a house 
that was, anyway, too large for one old man. All that remained 
to him now was a single room above the stables, and, by a purely 
compassionate arrangement, the terrace in the sun. The young 
men filled all the rest of the place with their eating and drinking, 
their laughter and their language that he could never quite 
understand, and he in turn had lain for four years in the sun, 
whenever there was any sun, and watched the faces of them 
come and go. 

He had not been very lucky with the sun since invasion day. 
The papers were saying that it was the worst summer for forty 
years. Cold gales had swept down from the north in June, break- 
ing the oats into shabby and forlorn wreckage and burning the 
tender leaves of the limes. The Colonel, who felt the cold easily 


Colonel Julian 139 

and bitterly, lit the gas-fire in his room in the evenings, or sat on 
the balcony with his overcoat on and read over and over again 
the invasion news in the papers. After the first few days there 
was very little flying and he began to feel depressed by having to 
look so often at a sky without planes. It seemed as if the cloud 
was solid, unchanged by turns of wind, and dark over the whole 
world. Ten-tenths, the boys called it: which seemed a curious 
sort of arithmetical and more difficult way of saying complete, he 

But then he had no knowledge at all of the language of 
modern war; he had lost touch with its progress; at eighty- three 
he had fallen a long way behind. The young men who came and 
talked to him in the garden and even on the balcony talked to 
him constantly in a language which it seemed to him made no 
sense at all. He discovered in himself a depressing and uneasy 
ignorance as they talked of kites and pieces of cake, of a shaky 
do and a very curious situation in which they informed you that 
you had had it. The Colonel did not know where all this had 
sprung from. Language in his day had been rather a pompous 
affair, perhaps rather puerile, but he felt that at least you could 
understand it. He did not understand this other at all. He felt 
sometimes like a small boy left out in the cold, not yet initiated 
into the secret of the games of older boys. 

And yet he liked talking to them. He liked it very much; per- 
haps more than he cared to say. On the few days when flying 
began again he found himself alone on the balcony all day in the 
sun, bored with the remote contents of newspapers, missing the 
immediate touch that he got from talking with men who perhaps 
only an hour before had been over the battlefield. 

That also was a thing he could not get used to. In his day you 
went off to war after a series of stern farewells; you lived a life 
of monastic remoteness somewhere on a damnable plain in India, 
or you went to the northern hills and were cut off for some 
months at a time. Or if there were no war you went pig-hunting 
or you had furlough, and if you liked that sort of thing you 
arranged something unofficially pleasant in the way of women. 
You needed the hide of a pig yourself not to be affected by all 
this, and you did in fact come back with that sort of hide, sun- 
brown or yellow and as harsh as rind. You looked like a soldier. 
But nowadays these young fellows flew out and put the fear of 

140 Colonel Julian 

God into what they called a gaggle of Wolfers or a bunch of 
tanks at four-thirty in the afternoon, and at seven they were 
lying in the hay with a young woman or drinking gin in the local 
bar. For some reason or other they hadn't any kind of soldierly 
look about them, either. He had looked almost in vain for a 
martial type. He sometimes saw instead a touch of almost 
feminine dreaminess about some of them. They were very quiet 
sometimes and had long-seeing eyes that seemed to be dreaming 
in planetary distances. They were boyishly hilarious and laughed 
fantastically behind quite impossibly undipped moustaches. 
There was none of that heroic stuff at all. 

He spread out his fingers loosely in the sun. The weather had 
changed at last. Now he could feel the heat stinging up through 
his fingers from the lead. It was the sort of heat he loved; it 
seemed to burn him to the bone. It was now about twelve o'clock 
and if he were lucky one of the young night-fliers who slept all 
morning would be waking up now and would come up to talk to 
him before lunch. The war was going very well at last, and there 
had arisen another of those curious situations in which the night- 
fliers now talked of beating the daylights out of Jerry. 

He sat for another ten minutes or so alone, listening to the 
clap-racket of the horse-mower and the soft wind that lifted 
gently up and down, in slow dark swells, the flat branches of 
two cedars on the lawn. He felt the sun beating not only into his 
fingers but down through the closed lids of his eyes, which 
seemed transparent in the vertical light. Then he heard sounds in 
the bedroom that opened out on to the balcony and the voice 
of one of the young men saying 'Good morning, sir,' and he 
opened his eyes to see Pallister, one of the night-pilots, standing 
there quite naked except for a pink- and- white towel round his 

'Ah, young fellow,' he said. 

Pallister danced from one foot to another on the hot lead of 
the balcony, and then dropped the towel and stood on it. His 
body was brown all over, a sort of light buttery brown, except 
for paler islands of skin on the inner flanks of his thighs. The 
Colonel knew all about those islands. The skin from them had 
been used to re-cover the burnt lids of the boy's eyes. 

The Colonel watched Pallister spread out the towel and then 
sit on it, cross-legged, like one of the Indian boys the Colonel so 

Colonel Julian 141 

clearly remembered. The boy sighed and screwed up his eyes and 
put on a pair of dark glasses. 

'Too hot for you ? ' the Colonel said. 

'I just can't have enough of that sun soak into me/ the boy said. 

'It's certainly very beautiful,' the Colonel said. 

He wanted to talk about the war; to get that intimate touch of 
fire no newspaper ever gave. But Pallister, behind dark glasses, 
looked remote and anonymous. He was cut off from him, and the 
Colonel lost for some moments the friendliness of the young face. 

But after a time he got used to the dark glasses; he concen- 
trated on the lips of the boy instead. They, too, were friendly, 
and unlike the eyes had never been burnt out of the shape of 
youth. They had sometimes a way of looking very cynical that 
only made them more youthful still. 

'Well,' the Colonel said, 'what is it like over there?' 

He supposed he always asked that. He could think of no other 
way of beginning. 

'Oh! It's a bloody ramping mess,' the boy said. 'Looks like 

'Even at night?' the Colonel said. He wondered how even the 
August moon showed this rampant detail. 

'Oh! It was light already when I was coming back,' the boy 
said. 'There was a bit of a doings.' 

'Shoot something down?' 

'Up,' the boy said. 'Road stuff. And a Ju.88 down. Piece of 

'Tell me about it.' 

'Oh ! They hadn't a clue. It was just a hell of a nice bang on 
the ground and hell of a nicer bang upstairs,' the boy said. 'Very 
smooth do.' 

The boy grinned as he spoke, and the Colonel got the impres- 
sion of an idol, darkly eyeless, laughing up into the sun. The 
severance of the lips from the black-glassed eyes was so complete 
as to be unreal and in a way almost hideous. The eyes in their 
unalive darkness were for the Colonel the symbol of the fact that 
there had been a time, only a summer ago, when the boy had 
really been eyeless and for many months nearly dead. It had 
happened that flak over Denmark had hit something in the Mos- 
quito, the Colonel thought perhaps the pyrotechnics, and had 
driven white whirlwinds of flame down through the aircraft with 

142 Colonel Julian 

terrible fury that could not be stopped. It burnt the face of the 
boy for a few moments as the heat of a blow-lamp burns off the 
skin of old paint. The boy had heard himself screaming against 
the death that was coming up to seize him with a terror that 
made a lacerating shriek throughout the whole of his body. In- 
stantaneously he was dead but alive: the death living and tor- 
turous in a second of screaming flame before its hellish extinc- 
tion of him. He knew in this awful interval what it was to be 
burning alive; to be dying and to be aware; to be aware and to 
be quite helpless. The flame leapt up for an awful and final 
moment of savage agony and slit the light out of his eyes and left 
the light of his body and the terror of his mind completely dead. 

He did not know quite what happened after that. The flame 
went out into darkness. It seemed never to have happened; there 
seemed never to have been a flame. He was afterwards told that 
for a long time he did not utter a sound; but he had a fanciful 
and private impression of talking the whole time. It was also 
quite real; an impression of repeating to himself a frenzied 
catechism; '1 can see, I can see, I can see/ And then: 'I will see, 
I will see, God ! I will see ! ' Then it appeared that at last he did 
begin talking and did amazing things in the way of instructing 
Jackson, his observer, to fly the aircraft. He was reported as 
being nervously and consciously active over the whole seaward 
course, and that, among other details, he kept naming the stars. 
He had again the private and absolute conviction that all this was 
nonsense. He had never talked at all. He knew that he was not 
even very good at naming the stars. He was quite certain about 
these things. And yet it was quite certain also that Jackson had 
flown the aircraft home and could only have done so under his 
advice. As he struggled afterwards to get at the truth of the long 
darkness that had succeeded the catastrophic moment of white 
flame, in which he was living and yet also dead, he fell back on 
the simple defence against terror that was its own dissolution. It 
was just one of those things. 

There followed about nine months in hospitals. The Colonel, 
who was still staring at the boy and trying to get himself into a 
state when he could talk easily beyond what were always the first 
moments of embarrassment, knew all about that time. Sometimes 
the boy talked very well. Even then the Colonel got the impres- 
sion that, as often as not, he did not talk to him. He lay flat on 

Colonel Julian 143 

his back, perfectly naked, outstretched and very brown except 
for white patches on the inner flanks of his thighs, and simply 
talked upward to the sun. He talked quite rapidly, giving no 
other sign of his high-pitched nervousness except that he 
drummed his fingers restlessly on the lead of the balcony. It 
might have been, the Colonel thought, that he was sometimes 
very much afraid. In a laconic and careless sort of way he talked 
of the miracles they had done to him in hospital. The Colonel, 
simply by sheer repetition, got to know some part of the surgical 
language of them: things like scarlet mercurochrome, Tierch 
grafts, pre- anaesthetic injections and God knew what. He heard 
how those grafts had left the boy for some time looking like a 
young cuckoo, his face a mess of puffed sewing that had a foul 
baldness not yet touched by sun. He had heard of physio- 
therapy and occupational therapy, and how, at last, the boy had 
come out of it, less shocking to look at than he had feared, with 
the fierce light of living in him, and able to see. 

Then the miracle of it all had almost been lost. It appeared 
from the livid language of the boy, who could out-swear a 
regular army sergeant without effort, that there had been a fool 
of a psychiatrist who had made the suggestion that he was men- 
tally unfit to fly. It had had a violently opposite effect. It instantly 
brought to the surface, in a high emotional temperature, all the 
symptoms of the disease from which the Colonel now knew the 
boy was suffering. For as the Colonel lay on the terrace day after 
day and talked to the boy, it seemed to him that the very great 
differences between war as he had fought it long ago in Northern 
Indian hills, and as the boy fought it over the fields of France, 
was not a difference of time, of latitude, of speed or of weapons, 
but something more simple and more amazing. The Colonel had 
gone into war as another man might go into business; respect- 
ably, steadfastly, following his father in a line of succession. For 
the boy it was all quite different. Flying was a disease. 

He did not know if the boy was aware of that. He had only 
recently become aware of it himself. You could, of course, suffer 
from a disease without being aware of it. It was quite certain that 
it was something not wholly conscious which had sent the boy 
into a frenzy of antagonism and scheming against all authority 
until at last authority had finally given way and let him fly once 

144 Colonel Julian 

Thinking of this, and then letting it slip away from his mind, 
the Colonel once again spoke to the boy. What was now happen- 
ing in France interested him greatly. This war of movement was 
so fast that he did not know if you could any longer talk of 
strategy as he had once been taught it. He longed to get a picture 
of it, fixed and clear, as the boy might have photographed it 
from the air. 

'Tell me about this Seine thrust/ he said. 'What do you think 
of it? Do you think it aims at the coast?' 

'I never really trouble about what the Brown Jobs are doing,' 
the boy said. 

The Colonel was silenced. It was not a very good morning. 
Once again he was up against some new term he did not 

'Brown Jobs?' 


'Oh ! ' the Colonel said. 'Oh ! ' He understood now. Of course, 
apart from the slight contempt it was very apt, very typical. 

'Yes, but it's a combined operation,' he said. 'You are all in it. 
You depend very much on each other.' 

'Oh ! I know,' the boy said : as if he did not know at all. 

The Colonel did not know what to say. The astonishing rea- 
lisation that the boy did not know what was happening on a 
general scale stupefied him. It seemed an incredible thing. It 
seemed to arise from a different sort of blindness, not physical, 
but from the blindness of this intense and narrow passion to fly. 
To the boy all horizons beyond these narrow limits of vision 
were closed. His life soared furiously and blindly between. 

'Without you,' the Colonel said, 'the Brown Jobs might never 
force the issue.' 

The boy slightly tilted his head, turning towards the Colonel a 
pair of black sun-glassy lenses, as if to say 'Force the issue ? 
What the bloody hell does that mean ? ' 

For a moment the Colonel felt that he did not know what the 
hell it meant himself. He lay quietly in his chair. Across the 
garden now the horse-mower was silent. There was no sound 
except the sea-sound of cedar branches gently lifting and falling 
on the summer wind. It seemed now to the Colonel that the 
battle-front, really half an hour's flight to the south, was a 
million miles away. 

Colonel Julian 145 

'There is no bloody issue except killing Huns/ the boy 
said. That's all that matters.' He looked straight up into the 

A certain essence of individual cruelty in this remark quite 
shocked the Colonel. It startled him so that he lifted himself up 
in the chair and looked at the boy. In the hot sun the face had a 
pure and impersonal immobility. The savagery of the remark 
was quite natural. To the Colonel there seemed a certain absence 
of ethics in the whole of this careless and calculated attitude of 
the boy's towards fighting. In his day, the Colonel's, there had 
been in fighting some sort of - well, he supposed it to be sort of 
ethical water-line. You kept above it. The people who sank 
below the water-line, who made public a private desire to kill the 
man on the opposite side, were not thought very much of. It was 
very much like a game, and all the wars in which he had played 
it were really, beside this one, quite small. They seemed very im- 
portant then and were quite forgotten now. He supposed per- 
haps that that was finally the essence of it: the hugeness of 
the thing. The boy had in his hands, like the rest of his genera- 
tion, a frightening and enormous power. It was perhaps the 
greatest power ever given into the hands of the individual in all 

'Wizard day,' the boy said. As suddenly as he spoke he curved 
up his long legs and outstretched them again, in a slow convul- 
sive movement of pleasure in the sun. 'Bloody wizard.' He took 
great breaths of the warm, noontide air and breathed them out 

The Colonel, startled out of his reminiscence, did not speak, 
and the boy went on, talking as if to himself : 

'Gosh, the trees,' the boy said, 'and the smell of the bloody 
hay and the lime trees and all that. After all those months of 
smelling hospital wards and ether and anaesthetics, Christ, it's 
good. Did I ever tell you what it was like in Normandy? I mean 
in the D-minus days.' 

'No,' the Colonel said. He had given up. 

'Not the orchards ? You could see them all in blossom at night, 
in the full moon. Miles of them. You know how short the nights 
are in May. Never quite dark. You could see everything. Every 
puff of smoke from a train, and the rivers, and the orchards in 
blossom. Bloody wonderful, Colonel, I tell you. You never saw 

146 Colonel Julian 

anything so lovely as the sun coming up and the moon not set 
and the sky half pink with sunlight and half yellowy with moon- 
light, and all the colour on the French orchards. I tell you, 
Colonel, you never saw anything so wonderful/ 

So much for the passionate, impersonal cruelty of the boy, the 
Colonel thought. So much for the notion of calculated savagery. 
It now seemed quite monstrous beside the tenderness of that 
description of orchards in May. He could see that the boy felt it 
very deeply and he tried to remember if, so long ago, he too had 
been touched by anything like that, but he could remember only 
scarlet rhododendrons, in fantastic cascades, on a wild furlough 
trek above Darjeeling; how they fell bloodily into rocky spring 
valleys there and how impressed he had been and how for that 
reason he had planted them liberally in the garden here. But the 
glory of them was never quite the same. The scarlet wildness 
was never renewed. There was something hot and foreign and 
un-English about them, anyway; not like the orchards, that were 
so cool and cloudy, like the northern skies. It pleased him veiy 
much that the boy liked them. It seemed to make him quite 
human again. 

Then to his dismay the boy got up. He stood. quite naked, and 
took off his glasses and turned away from the sun. His eyes had 
the oddest appearance of not belonging to the rest of his body. 
The pale new tissue, not yet merged into the older skin of the 
face, seemed lividly dead. It seemed to have been grafted there 
from another person altogether. It aroused the instant and un- 
easy impression that the boy was two different people. 

'Must you?* the Colonel said. 'So soon?' 

Tm as hungry as hell/ the boy said. Tve got to get dressed 
and lunch is off at two.' 

'Well, nice of you to come up/ the Colonel said. 'I do so 
appreciate it/ 

'Can I send you up a can of beer, sir?' the boy said. 

'No. No thanks. I don't think so.' 

'A half-can? The orderly can bring it up.' 

'No, thank you. Thank you all the same.' He did not want to 
offend the boy. The pilots were very kind to him sometimes like 
that, sending him up tobacco or chocolate, or a glass of beer. 
'Perhaps to-morrow. Perhaps we might have a drink together. I 
should like that.' 

Colonel Julian 147 

'Good show/ the boy said. 

'About this time?' the Colonel said. 

'Yeh. I'll get the orderly to bring the beer up.' 

'I'll wait for you,' the Colonel said. 

The boy tucked the towel round his loins and hopped over the 
hot lead of the terrace into the bedroom, calling back over his 
shoulder something about the Colonel having a sleep, and as if in 
obedience the Colonel smiled and closed his eyes against the 
brassy midday light, the only light in which, after many years 
in the East, he ever felt really warm. 

He lay there next day at about the same time, in much the 
same attitude, waiting for the boy. The strength of the grasses' 
sweetness had faded a little overnight. He caught it only at odd 
moments, in brief renewed waves, on the seaward wind. But the 
branches of the cedars rose and fell with the same slow placidity 
as the day before, and beyond them, if he raised himself up on 
his fleshless knuckles, he could again see across brown cornfields 
to the blue-grey edge of sea. 

He waited for just over an hour before deciding to go down 
into the garden to see if he could find the boy. He was permitted 
to use the back-stairs, once the servants' stairs, on which now 
there was always a loathsome smell of stale cooking. He did not 
like these stairs and he was glad to be out of them, past the back 
entrance and the heaps of boiler coke, into the garden and the 

At eighty-three he walked very slowly, with a sort of deliberate 
majesty, keeping his head up more by habit than any effort, and 
it was some time before he could walk far enough across the 
lawns to find someone to ask about Pallister. Groups of young 
officers were playing croquet on the farthest lawn, and the knock 
of balls and the yelling of voices clapped together in the clear 

Under one of the cedars, in shadow that was almost black, an 
officer in battledress was lying on the grass with a book. He had 
Canada on his shoulder. 

'Excuse me,' the Colonel said. 

'Oh ! hullo, sir,' the Canadian said. 'How've you bin ? ' 

'I was looking for Mr Pallister,' the Colonel said. 'We were to 
have a drink together. I thought you might have seen him some- 

148 Colonel Julian 

'I guess he bought it/ the Canadian said. 

The language that he did not understand left the Colonel 
without a reply. 

'YehP the Canadian said. 'I guess he bought it. Over France 
last night.' 


The thin tongue of coast was so flat that it was like a scar on the 
sea. Nothing rose above the level of the one-storeyed shacks 
scattered about it like cubes of sea-worn wreckage except a light- 
house, standing up like a vast white candle in a wide lofty sky, so 
that from a distance it seemed to float in air. 

By the end of September, after the heat of summer, the sea- 
flowers were dead. A long flat tide floated in, almost limped in, 
washing over and over again the same wide salt-grey waste of 
sand, the same bright fringe of shingle, black with fresh-strewn 
seaweed and sprinkled with pretty white and rose and turquoise 
shells. Salt dust blew on small winds from one side of the road to 
the other, rattling harshly on steely patches of sea-thistle and 
dune-grass, and then blew back again. It drifted finely against 
the shacks, with their sun-spent flowers, that would soon be 
closed for winter, and buried the steps of their porches a little 
deeper every day. 

From the end of the peninsula it was a two-mile walk for 
Brand to get the papers. Every morning he walked along the 
cracked concrete road and bought the papers and perhaps a 
magazine from the shop where squat black plaice-boats, cur- 
tained about with kipper-coloured netting, were beached from 
the bay. The air was always thick with the smell of sun-dried 
sea-fish and gangs of swooping gulls crying about the boats, and 
he was always thirsty by the time he began to walk back along 
the shore. 

Half-way back was a shack, facing the sea, that had tin-plate 
advertisements nailed over one side of it so that it glittered 
harshly, blue and green and white and red, in the sun. He 
noticed it first not because of the advertisements but because it 
had outside it a square of grass. This grass, watered all summer, 
was vivid green in the desert of beach and sand. In the middle 
of it was a white flag-pole and at the top of the flag-pole was a 
triangular scarlet flag, with ICES sewn across it in white letters. 

He had been there nearlv a week when he first went in. Sun 


150 The Lighthouse 

and sea-air had warped the jerry-built glass door so that he had 
to push it violently before it would open. Before he knew it he 
was half-thrown into the small cafe, against the counter. 

Behind the counter stood a woman in a black fur coat and a 
green scarf on her head, and through a window behind her he 
could see the sea. 

'And about time too/ she said. 'I thought you were never 
coming. ' 

She was smoking a cigarette and she did not take the cigarette 
from her mouth when she spoke to him. It was burning short and 
the smoke was curling up into her big face, crinkling the 
pouches under her eyes. 

Suddenly, looking at him again, she burst out laughing. 

'Oh ! God alive, I thought it was the taxi/ 

He smiled and she began coughing violently from smoke and 
laughter, so that grey ash spilt in a fine cloud on the black fur 
coat. She laughed again and did not shake it free. 

'Hear that?* she called. 'Gentleman came in and I thought it 
was the cab.' 

Behind the counter was a door and he could see a kitchen 
beyond it, but no one answered. 

'Terribly sorry, sir.' The cigarette smoke burned straight up 
into her baggy colourless eyes. 'Very rude of me.' She let the ash 
drop on to her coat again. 'Something we can get you?' 

'Glass of milk?' he said. 

'Sorry, no milk. It's the drought. They cut us down/ She took 
the cigarette out of her mouth, coughing ash on the counter. 
'Excuse me. Cuppa tea ? ' 

'Cup of tea.' 

'Haven't seen a taxi anywhere, I suppose, have you? What do 
you make the time ? ' 

'Just after eleven.' 

'Supposed to be here for eleven. Puts years on you.' She looked 
beyond him, irritated, through the glass door. 'Same with every- 

He did not answer. She took a packet of cigarettes from the 
pocket of her fur coat and lit a fresh cigarette from the old, 
coughing again. 

'Gentleman'd like a cuppa tea,' she called. 'Got one on?' 

There was no answer. 

The Lighthouse 151 

'Whyn't you sit down?' she said. 'On holiday? Got a beach- 
hut here?' 

'Up by the lighthouse. ' 

'Getting a bit late in the season. What d'you do with yourself 
all day?' 

He did not know what to say; there was no point in telling her 
he was bored all day. Then suddenly she began coughing again, 
this time with excitement, spilling ash on her coat, the coarse 
skin of her face and neck creasing and flopping up and down; 
and in the same moment he heard the taxi on the road outside. 

'God alive, I must fly ! ' 

She came from behind the counter, waddling and coughing, 
picking up her handbag from the corner of the counter as she 
passed him. 

'Cab's here ! ' she called. 'No message for Fred ? ' 

She pulled the door open and went out across the square of 
grass under the flag-pole to where, on the concrete beyond, the 
taxi was turning round. The thin door banged loudly, shaking 
the walls of the shack, but there was no answer from the room 

He sat on one of the stools by the counter and opened the 
paper. Every day they were saying it was the driest, hottest 
summer for fifty years. There was already something boring 
about the sequence of dead dry days and the calm glitter of sea. 


He looked up to see a girl standing at the door behind the 
counter. The high sea-light coming in at the window fell full on 
her face and made her eyes, especially, seem very large. They 
were dark brown eyes with extraordinary whites that were not 
really white at all. They were a pure pale blue, wet and shining, 
that made the point of the pupils almost black. 

'Please,' he said. 

'One or two?' 


He heard the lump of sugar clink on the spoon. She came up 
to the counter, carrying a cup in one hand and a teapot in the 

'Anything in the paper?' 

She poured out the tea. 

'Not much.' 

152 The Lighthouse 

'Never is.' She tried for a second or two to read the paper 
where it was on the counter, upside down. 'Anything to eat? I 
forgot to ask you/ 

'No/ he said. 'Just the tea.' 

She gave up trying to read the paper upside down and for 
some moments stood with her arms folded on the counter. She 
had slim cream hands, the skin thin and transparent, so that the 
veins shone through like soft blue tendrils; and the fingers were 
slightly upturned as they lay on the smooth golden hairs of her 

'Busy these days?' he said. 

'I can be busy. Just how it takes me. Where are you ? ' 

'Up by the lighthouse.' 

She turned the paper round where it lay on the counter, turn- 
ing it with one long finger, so that she could read it with her 
head only slightly averted. Her neck was long and deep cream 
under the dark brown hair. 

'Ever been up there ? ' she said. 

'No. Not me. Makes me giddy/ 

'Does it?* she said. 'Funny. Never affects me.' 

'Ugh/ he said. 

'Got a beach-hut ?' 


'What do you do for cooking? I hear there's no gas up there/ 

'Never bother/ 

'You're the sort of people who put us out of business/ she 

He did not know what to say; he stirred his tea without drink- 
ing and remembered the woman running for the taxi. 

'That your mother?' 

'Don't blame me/ she said. 'She was born first. Off to London 
for the week while I look after the sea.' 

With that curious expression she turned the paper round 
again, so that she could read it right way up. He found himself 
screwing his own head round, trying to read it as she had done, 
upside down, and as he did so he was aware of her body pressed 
against the counter. She gave him a quick glance and then went 
on reading; then after some moments she spoke without looking 

'Not drinking your tea/ she said. 

The Lighthouse 153 

He sipped it gently, looking down at her over the edge of the 

She turned the paper over, lifting her body slightly in the act 
of doing so, raising her eyes, brown and casual, in the slightest 

'I'll bet you think I'm rude. Reading your paper/ 

'No/ he said. 'You can have it. I don't want it. Keep it and 
I'll call in later.' 

'Come in and I'll get you a meal,' she said. 'Why don't you? 
You must eat sometimes.' 

'I could.' 

'Well, say it as if you wanted to,' she said. 

He smiled. 

'Nothing elaborate, just eggs or something. But say it as if you 
wanted to.' 

She stared up at him with great brown eyes that were casual 
and bored but brilliant, too, with bright sea-light; he looked back 
at her and felt the blood beating up in his throat. He thought, 
too, that she knew it was beating there because she held him a 
little longer with that same slow bored stare. 

'All right?' 

'All right,' he said. 

She smiled. She had a way of smiling by opening her mouth 
and putting her tongue slowly outward and pressing it against 
her teeth and then upward, casually and softly, against her lip. 

'About six?' she said. 

'About six.' 

She pressed her tongue upward against her lips, and then, as if 
deliberately letting him go, lowered her eyes and folded her long 
creamy arms, blue with tender veins, on the paper. 

'Now drink your tea,' she said. 

Walking back along the sea- road, he thought of Ella. Things 
had not been going well with Ella. More and more she seemed to 
him like a peremptory bright-nosed hen decked up. She had 
begun to be a great one on committees. At supper, after the 
office, she bored him with histories of committees rather as she 
must, he thought, have bored the committees. Sometimes, in 
hasty moments, he did silly things like putting his socks on inside 
out, and that in turn would urge her to endless nagging resolu- 
tions, all of which he felt she had put down on the agenda of 

154 The Lighthouse 

their married differences. Whenever she came home from com- 
mittees she wore the same dark brown straw hat. It was too 
small for her; it sat on her head, mocking her, like a ridiculous 
piece of flat stale toast. He longed to jump on it. One day he 
almost did jump on it and she screamed : 'The trouble with you 
is that you can't tolerate anything but yourself ! You're so selfish, 
so vain ! ' and in a fit of rage he had driven the car down to the 

Back at the point, by the lighthouse, he read the papers and 
watched the tide. It washed over a series of shallow corrugated 
valleys, blue-grey with jelly-fish and sown with pretty rose and 
white and turquoise shells. The sandy peninsula projected so far 
out to sea that ships skirted it by only a hundred and fifty yards. 
Sometimes liners came so close that he could see even the sparkle 
of drinks in passengers' glasses in the dining-saloons or the 
lounge. And sometimes passengers waved their hands. 

He wondered about these passengers. Who were they all? 
Among them were surely men who hated their wives because 
they wore hats like slices of toast and wives who hated their hus- 
bands for the monstrosity of trivial things. 

He began to think of the girl in the cafe. Her voice, throaty 
and casual, seemed to come along the seashore with the lazy soft- 
ness of the tide. He thought of her hands. There was something 
intensely disturbing in their creamy transparence and the blue 
tendril veins. And then the extraordinary dark brown eyes, with 
the whites that were really not white, but blue, like some of the 
smoother pearl-like shells. And then the bored casual way of 
pressing her tongue against her teeth and the bored casual way 
of trying to read the paper upside down. 

He swam twice during the afternoon. The sea, heavily salt and 
warm, made him hungry and drowsy. The sun curved round and 
shone flat on his face. He slept without realising it and woke 
suddenly with the idea that one of the ships was ramming the 
point. It was a liner painted white for the tropics and it seemed 
for a second or two to tangle itself with the white cone of the 
lighthouse and come bearing down on him where he lay. 

It was past six when he woke and nearly seven o'clock by the 
time he had dressed and walked along the sea- road to where the 
scarlet flag was waving above the square of watered grass in the 
evening sun. 

The Lighthouse 155 

The shack was closed. He started to rap on the thin glass door. 
The door was loose and rattled loudly, echoing across the empty 
beach in the warm still air. 

After a moment or two he gave it up and went round to the 
back. The girl was lying on the sand, in a white and red-spotted 
cotton beach-dress, without shoes or stockings, her long blue- 
veined creamy legs and arms stretched out in the sun. She did 
not get up. 

'You're a nice one/ she said. 

'I went to sleep. I didn't realise — ' 

'I got fed up and closed. Nobody to talk to all afternoon, so I 
came out to look after the sea.' 

Again he noticed that curious expression. 

Tm sorry,' he said. 

She rolled over and lay sideways, looking up at him. 

Well : what do you fancy?' 

'Anything; if it's not too late - whatever you've got.' 

'It isn't what I've got, it's what you fancy.' 

'Whatever you've got I'll fancy,' he said. 

'Well, if that's the way you look at it.' She moved once 
again on the sand, turning her body. 'Can't see you. You're 
upside down.' He remembered how she had read the news- 
paper upside down and something in the turn of her body 
immediately electrified him, making the blood beat up in his 

'Oh! You're the same man. I wondered. Your voice sounded 

'Disappointed ? ' 

'Oh! no. No. I just got the impression of you in my mind 
somehow, and I like to get the right impression' She suddenly 
knelt up, brushing away sand from her dress. 'Well, let's go in. 
The sea can look after itself for a bit.' 

It struck him again as curious how she spoke, now and then, 
of looking after the sea. She stood up, brushing sand from first 
one leg and then another and then from her arms. 

'Am I all sand at the back?' 

'On your shoulders.' 

'Brush me down, will you ? It gets into everything - food and 
everything. Beds and everywhere.' 

He brushed with both hands at the half-circle of her naked 

156 The Lighthouse 

shoulder. The skin was smooth and oily and he felt the blood 
beat up into his throat again as he touched it with the sweeping 
tips of his fingers under the thick brown hair. 

'I'll fry you a Dover sole/ she said. 'A good fat one. How's 

'It's just what I fancy.' 

She had the sole ready in about half an hour. She pulled the 
blinds down on that side of the cafe overlooking the sea-road, 
and she laid him a table overlooking the sea. From there, as he 
waited, he could see the lighthouse. The lamps had not begun 
to burn and the tall white cylinder looked more than ever like 
an unlit candle on the narrow scar of sand. 

'Been up the lighthouse yet?' 

She was in the kitchen and he called back: 'No. I told you. 
Makes me feel -' 

'You'll have to try it some day.' 

'Not me,' he said. 

The sole, dipped in golden breadcrumbs, was nicely fried. 

'All right?' she said. 

'Lovely. What about you ? ' 

'You're a customer. Can't eat with the customers.' 

'I hoped you could.' 

'Well, there's no law against it. I'll have a cup of tea.' 

She had changed her dress and now she was wearing a thin 
frock of silky sea-bright green. It gave a smouldering candle-like 
warmth to her bare arms as she crooked them on the table and 
watched him eat. 

'You wanted that. You were hungry,' she said. 

'Didn't bother about lunch.' 

She looked at the sea. It was after eight o'clock and now 
suddenly, in a wonderful flash, the lamps in the lighthouse 
began turning, swinging startling bars of light on darkening 
water and shore. 

'There she goes,' the girl said. 'I always love that. It sends a 
thrill right through me. Right down. A real thrill. I watch it 
every night.' 

She was watching the light eagerly, her mouth parted, her 
tongue touching her lip as she smiled. 

As it grew slowly darker ships with star-like navigation lights 
appeared across a copper-crested sea that was deep indigo under 

The Lighthouse 157 

a paler sky. After watching them for some time she turned her 
face and looked at him. 

'Married ?' she said. 

'No/ he said. 

'You ought to get yourself a nice wife that can cook/ 

'Are you married ? ' he said. 

'No/ she said. 'Not me.' 

Who was Ella? The sudden accusing unreality of Ella forced 
itself on his conscience for a moment and then assumed the 
remoteness of one of the lights creeping slowly away to sea. His 
wife seemed in every way like one of those dim lights going out, 
going away for ever. Committees and the hat like toast, agenda 
of married faults and the face like a peremptory pecking hen's; 
there was no lie about them. They did not exist any more. 

'What about Fred?' he said. He remembered the parting 
words of her mother. 

'Oh ! Fred. Fred's nobody. He's cook up there. We got another 
cafe at King's Cross. He's cook up there.' The lids of her eyes, 
olive and dark and gleaming, closed down smoothly as she looked 
at his empty cup and plate. 'More tea?' 

'No, thank you.' 

'Like to go outside for a breath of air?' 

'If you like.' 

They were already outside when she spoke once again of look- 
ing after the sea. The shack had a small railed verandah over- 
looking the beach. Sand had piled against it in deep smooth 
breasts, submerging the lower steps. She leaned against one of 
the posts of it. The shore was dark except for the repeated flash 
of the lighthouse, revolving like a wheel, and as she stared at the 
sea and spoke again of looking after it he said : 

'Think it'll run away or something ? ' 


'What then?' 

'Oh! nothing.' 

He watched the lighthouse flashing on her face, heightening 
sharply every few seconds or so the candle-like warmth given by 
the green dress; and then he said : 

'Odd. What's the idea of looking after the sea? That's one 
thing that'll look after itself - ' 

She turned on him in the moment that the lighthouse flashed. 

158 The Lighthouse 

It gave the impression of her entire body leaping into flame. All 
her bored casual face flared up, bright and bitter and angry. 

What else have I got to do? God, I got nothing else to do but 
look after it, have I ? Nobody to talk to from Monday to Friday. 
Nothing to do, nobody to talk to. What else have I got to do but 
look after it? God, I feel it's all I got left - ' 

The act of kissing her for the first time had in it the shock of 
something bare and bruising and antagonistic. He had not ex- 
pected it to be like that. He had wanted it to be drawn out of her 
sleepy languid casualness: to be one with the soft brown eyes, 
the way she read the paper upside down. Now she held him with 
both arms and the stiffened frame of her body, driving her 
mouth at his with the dry hunger of long boredom; and all the 
time the lighthouse flashed with its dazzling revolutions on her 

After a time she was quieter and they lay down on the sand. 
He could hear the sea: gentle, the tide out, endless small waves 
licking backwards in the warm September darkness. 'If you 
hadn't turned up Fd have gone off my head. I thought you 
wouldn't turn up - Fd have gone off my head - 

He liked her more as she quietened. She seemed to grow 
drowsy and languid again, the frame of her body in its relaxation 
melting into the deep softness he wanted: the entire antithesis 
of Ella, the pecking hen-like face, the toast-like hat; the antidote 
to all his own dry boredom and rage. He found her limbs in long 
deep curves. Her skin had seemed so delicate, with its fine trans- 
parence and the many blue tendrils of veins, that the full dis- 
covered strength of her body surprised him. 'I wanted you like 
that/ she said, 'by the sea. I wanted you terribly.' The light- 
house flashed on her face, giving the brown eyes a look of trans- 
fixed dark burning. 'Be careful how you touch me. You make me 
feel how the lighthouse does.' 

Walking home at last, after midnight, he understood her feel- 
ing about the lighthouse. It had been the flame in the drabness of 
her boredom : burning and flashing suddenly to excite her once a 
day. He was pleased to think he was like that. He was pleased to 
stand where he was and watch, like a fading down-channel light, 
the dying discordant figure of Ella and Ella's hat, the former 
world of committees and catechisms and the pecking hen. He felt 
slightly intoxicated and elated as if he stood on the top of the 

The Lighthouse 159 

lighthouse, watching the minute and inconsequential light of 
something that had bored and angered him and would do so no 

He had arranged to go back for lunch next day. 'Not too 
early,' she said, 'because I can close up from two to five. You can 
swim and have a lie in the sun/ and in the morning, for the first 
time, he did not trouble to fetch the papers. It was enough to 
wait for afternoon. 

But about two o'clock, after they had eaten and just as she was 
about to lock up, something happened. He looked out of the 
window and saw a wild troop of Boy Scouts invading the shore. 
Soon they began to invade the shack. He had dreamed so long of 
lying with her in warm sun, alone on the shore, that the sight of 
scores of small boys besieging her for ice-cream and drinks and 
sandwiches brought him furious frustration. She, too, looked des- 
perate and he could have hit a ridiculous grey-haired scoutmaster 
who said: 

'You may remember us. We dropped in last year. We remem- 
bered your flag.' 

Bathing and yelling, punting footballs, littering the shore with 
cartons and trousers and shirts and papers, the boys stayed until 
six o'clock. So many of them came into the shack that finally he 
took off his jacket and for four hours, impotent and full of 
hatred of them, he helped the girl behind the counter. All after- 
noon there was a dry hunger in her eyes that made him think she 
could not wait for him. 

'Well, it'll please Ma,' she said when it was all over. And then 
a cheerful thought: 'Anyway, we took enough so we close to- 
morrow and the next day. That's if there's no Boy Scouts.' 

'There'll be no Boy Scouts,' he said. 'To-morrow we'll go to 
the lighthouse.' 

'That's an idea.' 

'Perhaps we could have a trip in the car.' 

'I'd like that. That would be lovely.' 

Again and again, in the darkness on the shore, to the sound of 
small consuming lapping waves, the lighthouse flashed on her 
face. Her long arms held him down on the soft sand and the deep 
brown eyes burned insatiably. 

Next day, when they climbed the lighthouse, a little breeze was 
blowing in fitful gusts against the sun. It had the effect of 

160 The Lighthouse 

ploughing the sea into furrows of brilliant white and blue. Along 
the coast small sails skimmed about; white gulls planed down on 
long air-currents about black plaice-boats and the dazzling candle 
of lighthouse; and the white sea-light was heady and very 

It seemed to him that the top of the lighthouse swayed. All his 
fear of heights rushed up through his body and he felt the 
irresistible paralysing terror of wanting to go over. It froze the 
back of his legs coldly and he was hardly conscious of the keeper, 
who was also a guide, saying : 

'The point puts on another six feet of land every year. Can you 
see where it's creeping out? Ten or fifteen years and they'll have 
to be thinking of building another lighthouse/ 

Brand could not look and the keeper pointed inland over flats 
of sea-thistled shingle : 

'That's the old lighthouse. That shows you where the point 
used to be.' 

All the time the girl moved carelessly from side to side of the 
lighthouse top, following the keeper's fingers, leaning non- 
chalantly over, long arms folded, staring straight down. To 
Brand's intense horror she hung over the side, laughing, waving 
to groups of people below. 

Tor God's sake,' he said, and felt terribly and weakly sick at 
the thought that a beating squall of wind might, in an awful 
moment, move the wrong way and take her over. 

'Now if you'll follow me down, sir,' the keeper said. 

They stood for a moment together, alone on the top. She held 
him flat against her body, her skirt flapping in the breeze against 
her legs, and he could have sworn that once again the lighthouse 

She kissed him, holding him rigidly, but he knew the light- 
house rocked. For some idiotic reason he thought of the pre- 
carious toast-like hat perched on Ella's head, and the girl said : 

'Don't be so jittery. There's nothing to be scared of - ' 

'I hate it. I always have hated it.' 

'It's because you let it,' she said. 'If you looked down -just 
made yourself look down - you'd be all right.' She began laugh- 
ing at him: gay with the quivering exhilaration of breeze and 
height and sun. 'Come on -look down. Make yourself. It's 

The Lighthouse 161 

Once again she leaned far over. This time she held his hand, 
and for the space of a second or two he looked down too, his 
entire body wrapped in a stiffened chrysalis of vertigo. A sinister 
narrowing world of shore, of boats, of faces and of kaleidoscope 
sea-waves seemed to draw him down and then the girl laughed 
at him again, mocking slightly : 

'Come on. You can't take it. The keeper's waiting.' 

Even fifty or sixty feet below he could still feel the horror in 
his legs and he said : 

'Don't you feel anything? Doesn't it affect you at all?' 

'Only like you,' she said. 'That nice feeling. Right through my 

She was pleased about the car. From the new lighthouse they 
drove inland, through a flat sea-beaten world of drab shingle and 
faded sea-poppy and steely sea-thistle, towards the old. He 
thought its black tarred stump looked hideous even among the 
cracked concrete of ruined sea-defences and shabby summer 
bungalows whose doorsteps were being slowly buried by autumn 

'Like an old lady going to a funeral or something,' the girl said. 

Like every horrifying experience the cold moments at the light- 
house top afterwards exhilarated him. For each of the three fol- 
lowing nights as he lay on the shore with the girl he felt a certain 
vague bravery about it all. 

'I'm your lighthouse,' he would say to her. Already it was Fri- 
day, and for two nights he had not troubled to go back to sleep at 
the hut. 'I make you feel the same way - ' 

'Not after to-night,' she said. 

A moment of freezing sickness, identical with all he had felt 
on the lighthouse, turned his stomach over. 

'What are you talking about ? ' 

'Ma comes to-morrow. Did you forget? She's down every 
week-end, Saturday to Monday.' 

'Oh ! God,' he said, 'is that all? I thought - ' 

'You better keep out of the way,' she said. 'Just for a night or 

'I could come in for a cup of tea or something,' he said, 
'couldn't I ? She'd never know.' 

'Not Ma?' she said. 'The old gimlet. Not Ma? You never get 
over Ma.' 

162 The Lighthouse 

'God/ he said, 'the whole week-end - ' 

'There's all next week/ she said. 'Plenty of time.' He felt her 
reasoning sweetness express itself in one of those slow casual 
expanding smiles. Her tongue touched her lip and a wonderful 
beauty of dark eyes held him profoundly as the lighthouse 
flashed. He was agonised once again by the thought of giving her 
up, and she said : 'A rest from each other will do us good. Then 
we'll have all next week. What are you worrying for?' 

'I want you - all the time. Terribly - ' 

'I'm here/ she said. He saw all the languid beauty of her long 
curving body as she pressed herself down into dark dry sand. 
'Nobody's stopping you.' 

The next day, Saturday, he did not see her at all. He could 
not bring himself to walk along the sea-road; he did not want the 
papers. Teasing him, she had said: 'You can always go up the 
lighthouse. You can wave from there. If I see you I'll know it's 

And that afternoon, in a moment of puerile anguish, he went 
up. A great dry loneliness, horrible as the lifeless sea-broken 
concrete road and the barren shingle, had held him all day. From 
the top of the lighthouse the tranquil bay, circled by a gigantic 
bracelet of sun-dried sand, was like pure glass, windless and 
beautiful. He stared across lines of plaice-boats and a few 
trippers to the shack. The red flag had not enough air to raise it 
from the pole; but he could see, underneath it, the spray of a 
water-hose, sprinkling the bright square of grass. 

Presently he saw figures there. It seemed like a man and 
perhaps, he tried to persuade himself, the girl; but it was much 
too far away. He even waved his hand; but nothing happened 
and soon, driven by sudden misery and vertigo, he hurried 

For the rest of that day and during Sunday his only remedy 
was to swim and walk westward, away from the shack, in the 
queer derelict half-urban, half-marsh country between the two 
lighthouses. He began to think of Ella. When he was with the 
girl all his thought of Ella was moulded in terms of an amused 
and tolerant pity. Poor dear old Ella : he really felt sorry for her. 
All the discordance about her vanished. Did she wonder about 
him? Had she gone round in panic circles of distress? Had it 
spoiled the routine of committees, the hideous respectable pose 

The Lighthouse 163 

of the toast-like hat? What would she say, he thought, if she 
could see me now? Poor dear old Ella. The ease of that long 
generous body on the sand would have shocked her, would have 
made her realise that there were not only women who gave more 
pleasure than they asked, but gave it without asking questions, as 
beautifully as flowers. 

But that day, as he tried to wear out Sunday, he did not have 
many amused and rather fanciful thoughts of women like 
flowers. Ella appeared to stand up in the flat endless day with the 
gauntness of the old lighthouse above the ugly marsh. She was a 
terrible relic, Ella; and somehow Sunday was her day. She had a 
great fondness for fussing about the kitchen on Sunday morn- 
ings, roasting beef, baking a particular kind of tart called Maids 
of Honour. What maids, he would tease her, and what honour? 
Her hands were floury and he ate the tarts from the stove, while 
they were still hot. To-day, inexplicably, between loneliness and 
discordance, he felt keenly the absence of these trivialities. It was 
not permanent; he knew that. It was just Sunday. It was less that 
he missed Ella than that Sunday was a day of infinite desolation 
when deprived of the comfort of floured hands, beef, hot tarts 
and long-known company. Monday would show it all to have 
been another example of puerile heartache; but to-day he could 
not bear it at all. 

And finally, because he could not bear it, he walked along, 
about half-past seven, to the shack. Lights were burning and a 
few people were having supper. He walked past and got him- 
self several drinks, a mile farther on, at a place called The 
Fisherman's Arms, before walking back again. 

When he walked back lights were still burning in the shack but 
the place seemed empty. After a few moments he went in. The 
girl's mother was leaning on the counter, coughing cigarette ash 
down the heavy black front of her body, but there was no sign 
of the girl. 

'Yessir?' she said. 

'Too late for anything ?' 

'Never too late for anything. What'll it be? Coffee, tea, 

Til take coffee.' 

'You'll take coffee,' she said. 

While he drank it he said : 

164 The Lighthouse 

'Remember me ? I'm the fellow you mistook for the taxi-driver 
last Monday/ 

'God alive, so it is.' Coughing and laughing, she sprayed a 
small cloud of cigarette ash. 'I don't know whatever you thought 
of me, sir.' 

'Your daughter made up for it/ he said. 'Got me a nice meal 
that day/ 

'Nice cook/ she said. 

He looked round the cafe. 'Not here to-night?' 

'Gone to the flicks with Fred.' 

'Fred?' he said. He could feel a horrible tightness, cold and not 
unlike the vertigo he so hated and dreaded, taking hold of his 
body, cramping it with jealousy and fear. 'Boy friend?' 

'Boy friend my foot,' she said. 'Husband.' 

Monday brought, as he knew it would, the notion that to be 
lonely for Ella was something quite puerile. Between the thought 
of Ella and the thought of the girl he felt a haunting and grow- 
ing sense of being cheated. Ella, he felt, had got him into this. 
He felt dislocated, slightly crazy, trapped. That infernally silly 
hen-like face, the committees and the maddening toast-like hat 
had manoeuvred him into a trap. 

It was late afternoon before he could bring himself to go along 
to the cafe. The girl had closed the cafe and he found her lying 
behind it, as he always did, on the sand. The breeze of the last 
few days had piled up still higher the smooth clean breasts of 
sand below the verandah, submerging yet another of the steps. 
In one of the hollows between these breasts she lay in her red 
beach-dress, staring at the sky. 

'Oh God, I thought you were never coming. I wanted you 
terribly - I hated the waiting - ' 

He let himself be drawn down, almost sucked down, by her 
long arms and the tightened frame of her body, stiffly anguished 
as it had been when he had first kissed her. 

'Did you want me?' she said. 

'All the time/ he said. 'How was the week-end?' 

'Oh! terrible. She talked and talked. Nothing but talk. I was 
bored to death. What did you do ? ' 

'Went to the lighthouse.' 

'There/ she said. 'You see. How was it ? ' 

'I'm getting better. It's like you said. I just need practice.' 

The Lighthouse 165 

She laughed, pressing her tongue against her lips, her brown 
eyes brilliant and languid and burning in the shell-like whites. 

'One more trip and you'll be all right,' she said. 

'Might be.' 

'Probably when you're all right you won't make me feel how 
you do,' she said. 'Had you thought of that?' 


'Make me feel like it now,' she said. 

He did not speak of Fred until they lay in the sand in dark- 
ness. A twisted and crazy sort of dislocation made him keep 
back, until then, all he felt by way of the trap, the cheating and 
the jealousy. Out at sea small navigation lights floated about like 
stars and one of them, as before, was Ella, dying and fading 
away; and he hated her because of his pain. 

'How was the husband ? ' he said. 

'You don't have to speak like that,' she said. 'No need to speak 
like that.' Her face, in the flash from the lighthouse, was undis- 
turbed, casual and languid as ever. 

'You didn't tell me/ he said. 

'It didn't make any difference. It didn't and it doesn't now.' 

'Me during the week and a change for Sundays/ he said. Rage 
beat at his pride with callous and lacerating strokes of pain. He 
felt himself drop away, crazy and blinded and embittered by 
acid dregs of cheating and jealousy. All the time he was aware 
of her moving her body with quiet suppleness deeper into the 
sand and that movement, too, made him ache with helpless 

'You didn't tell me either/ she said. 'But it wouldn't make any 
difference if you did. No difference at all.' 

Td nothing to tell.' His voice was quiet; he could hear the tide 
slowly coming in across the sand. 

'Well, then -who should care?' She moved in the sand again, 
supple and astonishingly quiet, and in distraction he found her 
body once again in long deep curves; the flash of the lighthouse 
fell on her mouth, making it glisten and then leaving it wonder- 
fully dark again as the light swung out to sea. 

'We're just two people/ she said. 'People get so messed up 
about the right and wrong of things. We're just two people. 
What do we want with rights and wrongs? All we want is here/ 

No: not here, he thought. Vainly he tried to listen to the tide; 

166 The Lighthouse 

but he was distracted by the feel of her soft body into agonies 
of mind that flung up thoughts of Ella and the lighthouse. He 
determined not to be afraid of the lighthouse any longer, and 
now, too, he remembered the girl, high up there, leaning over. 

'Come on, kiss me; it's nothing/ she said. 'Come on; just once 
more like the lighthouse. In case it cures you. You never know.' 

She folded him down into a body that had lost the last of its 
rigidity and seemed now to have the quality of burying him into 
itself, like the sand. The lighthouse flashed several times, across 
the shore and across the long, oblivious kiss, and then she freed 
her face and said, smiling : 

'When do we go up again ? ' 

'To-morrow ? ' he said. 

'When do you suppose they'll put up the new lighthouse V she 
said. He did not answer. His heart, at that moment, seemed to 
stop beating. His body lay imprisoned in its harsh chrysalis of 
jealousy and weakness and fear. He could not look at her face; 
and down on the shore there was no movement but a small wind 
eating at the sea and innumerable small waves casually consum- 
ing what remained of the waste of sand. 


We are surrounded by the most ghastly people/ the Captain 
said. All across miles of unbroken pasture there was not another 

Up through the south avenue of elms, where dead trees lifted 
scraggy bone against spring sky, bluebells grew like thick blue 
corn, spreading into the edges of surrounding grass. The wind 
came softly, in a series of light circles from the west. Here and 
there an elm had died and on either side of it young green 
leaves from living trees were laced about smoke-brown brittle 
branches. In a quadrangle of wall and grass the great house lay 

'You never really see the beauty of the house until you get up 
here/ the Captain said. Though still young, not more than forty- 
five or so, he was becoming much too fat. His ears were like 
thickly-veined purple cabbage leaves unfurling on either side of 
flabby swollen cheeks. His mouth, pink and flaccid, trembled 
sometimes like the underlip of a cow. 

'They have killed the elms/ he said. 'Finished them. They used 
to be absolutely magnificent. ' 

He stopped for a moment and I saw that he wanted to draw 
breath, and we looked back down the hill. Down beyond 
soldierly lines of trees, the tender lucent green broken here and 
there by the black of dead branches, I could see a flag waving in 
such intermittent and strengthless puffs of air that it, too, seemed 
dead. It was quartered in green and scarlet and flew from a small 
round tower that was like a grey pepper-box stuck in the western 
arm of the cross-shaped house. 

Now I could see, too, that there were four avenues of elms, 
repeating in immense pattern the cross of the house below. As we 
stood there, the Captain making gargling noises in his throat, a 
cuckoo began calling on notes that were so full and hollow that 
it was like a bell tolling from the elms above us. Presently it 
seemed to be thrown on a gust of air from the tip of a tree, to 
float down-wind like a bird of grey paper. 


168 The Flag 

'There she goes/ I said. 

'Tank emplacements mostly/ the Captain said. His face shone 
lividly in the sun, his lip trembling. 'The place was occupied 
right, left and centre. We used to have deer too, but the last 
battalion wiped them out/ 

The breath of bluebells was overpoweringly sweet on the 
warm wind. 

'When we get a little higher you will see the whole pattern 
of the thing/ the Captain said. 

Turning to renew the ascent, he puffed in preparation, his 
veins standing out like purple worms on his face and neck and 

'Tired?' he said. 'Not too much for you? You don't mind 
being dragged up here ? ' 

'Not at all/ 

'One really has to see it from up here. One doesn't grasp it 
otherwise. That's the point.' 

'Of course.' 

'We shall have a drink when we get back/ he said. He laughed 
and the eyes, very blue but transparent in their wateriness, were 
sad and friendly. 'In fact, we shall have several drinks.' 

It was only another fifty yards to the crown of the hill and we 
climbed it in silence except for the hissing of the Captain's 
breath against his teeth. All the loveliness of spring came down 
the hill and past us in a stream of heavy fragrance, and at the 
top, when I turned, I could feel it blowing past me, the wind 
silky on the palms of my hands, to shine all down the hill on the 
bent sweet grasses. 

'Now,' the Captain said. It was some moments before he could 
get breath to say another word. Moisture had gathered in con- 
fusing drops on the pink lids of his eyes. He wiped it away. 'Now 
you can see it all.' 

All below us, across the wide green hollow in which there was 
not another house, I could see, as he said, the pattern of the 
thing. Creamy grey in the sun, the house made its central cross 
of stone, the four avenues of elms like pennants of pale green 
flying from the arms of it across the field. 

'Wonderful,' I said. 

'Wonderful, but not unique/ he said. 'Not unique.' 

Not angrily at first but wearily, rather sadly, he pointed about 

The Flag 169 

him with both arms. 'It's simply one of six or seven examples 
here alone/ 

Then anger flitted suddenly through the obese watery-eyed 
face with such heat that the whole expression seemed to rise to 
a bursting fester, and I thought he was about to rush, in destruc- 
tive attack at something, down the hill. 

'It was all done by great chaps/ he said, 'creative chaps. It's 
only we of this generation who are such absolute destructive 

'Oh! I don't know.' 

'Won't even argue about it,' he said. His face, turned to the 
sun, disclosed now an appearance of rosy calm, almost boy-like, 
and he had recovered his breath. 'Once we were surrounded by 
the most frightfully nice people. I don't mean to say intellectual 
people and that kind of thing, but really awfully nice. You know, 
you could talk to them. They were on your level.' 


'And now you see what I mean, they've gone. God knows 
where but they're finished. I tell you everything is a shambles.' 

Across from another avenue the cuckoo called down-wind 
again and over the house I saw the flag lifted in a green and 
scarlet flash on the same burst of breeze. I wanted to ask him 
about the flag, but he said : 

'It's perfectly ghastly. They've been hounded out. None of 
them left. All of them gone - ' 

Abruptly he seemed to give it up. He made gestures of 
apology, dropping his hands : 

'So sorry. Awfully boring for you, I feel. Are you thirsty? 
Shall we go down?' 

'When you're ready. I'd like to see the house - ' 

'Oh ! please, of course. I'd like a drink, anyway.' 

He took a last wide look at the great pattern of elm and stone, 
breathing the deep, almost too sweet scent of the hill. 

'That's another thing. These perishers don't know the elements 
of decent drinking. One gets invited to the dreariest cocktail 
parties. The drinks are mixed in a jug and the sherry comes from 
God knows where.' Anger was again reddening his face to the 
appearance of a swollen fester. 'One gets so depressed that one 
goes home and starts beating it up. You know?' 

I said yes, I knew, and we began to walk slowly down the hill, 

170 The Flag 

breathing sun-warm air deeply, pausing fairly frequently for 
another glance at the scene below. 

'How is it with you?' he said. 'In your part of the world? Are 
you surrounded by hordes of virgin spinsters?' 

'They are always with us/ I said. 

He laughed, and in that more cheerful moment I asked him 
about the flag. 

'Oh! it's nothing much.' He seemed inclined to belittle it. I 
thought. 'It gives a touch of colour.' 

'I must look at it.' 

'Of course. We can go up to the tower. There's a simply 
splendid view from there. You can see everything. But we shall 
have a drink first. Yes ? ' 

'Thank you.' 

'My wife will be there now. She will want to meet you.' 

Slowly we went down to the house. About its deep surround- 
ing walls there were no flowers and the grass had not been mown 
since some time in the previous summer, but old crucified 
peaches, and here and there an apricot, had set their flowers for 
fruiting and it was hot in the hollow between the walls. At the 
long flight of stone steps, before the front door, the Captain said 
something in a desultory way about the beauty of the high 
windows but evidently he did not expect a reply. He leapt up the 
last four or five steps with the rather desperate agility of a man who 
has won a race at last, and a moment later we were in the house. 

In the large high-windowed room with its prospect of un- 
mown grass the Captain poured drinks and then walked ner- 
vously about with a glass in his hand. I do not know how many 
drinks he had before his wife appeared, but they were large and 
he drank them quickly. 

'Forty-six rooms and this is all we can keep warm,' he said. 

When his wife came in at last she was carrying bunches of 
stiff robin-orange lilies. She was very dark and her hands, folded 
about the lily stalks, were not unlike long blanched stalks of up- 
rooted flowers themselves. She had a hard pallor about her face, 
very beautiful but in a way detached and not real, that made the 
Captain's festering rosiness seem more florid than ever. 

I liked the lilies, and when I asked about them she said : 

'We must ask Williams about them. I'm frightful at names. 
He'll know.' 

The Flag 171 

Williams knows everything/ the Captain said. 

He poured a drink without asking her what she wanted and 
she seemed to suck at the edge of the glass, drawing in her lips so 
that they made a tight scarlet bud. 

'Are you keen on flowers?' she said. 

I said 'Yes/ and she looked at me in a direct clear way that 
could not have been more formal. Her eyes had slits of green, 
like cracks, slashed across the black. 

'That's nice/ she said. 

'Has Williams done the cabbages?' the Captain said. 

'What cabbages? Where?' 

'He knew damn well he had cabbages to do/ the Captain said. 
'I told him so.' 

'How should I know what he has to do and what he hasn't to 
do?' she said. 

'How should you know/ he said. He drank with trembling 
hands, trying to steady himself a little. He went to the window 
and stared out. The room was so large that his wife and I seemed 
to be contained, after his walking away, in a separate and private 
world bordered by the big fireless hearth and the vase where she 
was arranging flowers. She smiled and I looked at her hands. 

'Williams will tell you the name of the flowers if you like to 
come along to the conservatory before you go.' She did not raise 
her voice; there was no sound except the plop of lily stalks fall- 
ing softly into the water in the vase. 'He would like it. He likes 
people who are interested.' 

She dropped in the last of the lilies and then took off her coat 
and laid it on a chair. It was black and underneath she was wear- 
ing a yellow jumper of perpendicular ribbed pattern over a black 
skirt. It went very well with her black hair, her white long face 
and her green-shot eyes. 

I heard the Captain pouring himself another drink, and he 

'What about the tower? You still want to go up?' 

'I really ought to go.' 

'Oh ! Good God man, no. We've hardly seen a thing.' 

'He's coming to see the conservatory, anyway/ his wife said. 

'Is that so?' he said. 'Well, if he's to see everything you'd 
better get cracking.' 

He made a jabbing kind of gesture against the air with his 

172 The Flag 

glass and he was so close to the window that I thought for a 
moment he would smash one glass against another. I could not 
tell if he was nervous or impatient. He covered it up by pouring 
himself another drink, and his wife said, with acid sweetness: 

'There are guests too, my dear/ 

'No thanks/ I said. 

'You haven't had anything,' the Captain said. 'Good God, I 
feel like beating it up.' 

'If you still want to see the conservatory I think we'd better 
go,' she said. 

I went out of the room with her and we had gone some way 
to the conservatory, which really turned out to be a hot-house of 
frilled Victorian pattern beyond the walls on the south side of 
the house, before I realised that the Captain was not with us. 

'Williams,' she called several times. 'Williams.' Big scarlet 
amaryllis trumpets stared out through the long house of glass. 

Presently Williams came out of the potting shed and I thought 
he seemed startled at the sight of me. He was a man of thirty- 
five or so with thick lips and carefully combed dark brown hair 
that he had allowed to grow into a curly pad on his neck. There 
was a kind of stiff correct strength about him as he stared 
straight back at her. 

She introduced me and said: 'We'd like to see the con- 

'Yes, madam,' he said. 

It was very beautiful in the conservatory. The pipes were still 
on and the air was moistly sweet and strangling. The big scarlet 
and pink and crimson-black amaryllis had a kind of golden frost 
in their throats. They were very fiery and splendid among banks 
of maidenhair, and when I admired them Williams said: 

'Thank you, sir. They're not bad.' 

'Don't be so modest,' she said. 'They're absolutely the best ever.' 

He smiled. 

'What we haven't done to get them up to this,' she said. 

I walked to the far end by the house to look at a batch of 
young carnations, and when I turned back the Captain's wife 
was holding Williams by the coat-sleeve. It exactly as if she were 
absent-mindedly picking a piece of dust from it, yet it was also as 
if she held him locked, in a pair of pincers. I heard her saying 

The Flag 173 

something, too, but what it was I never knew, because at that 
moment the fiery festering figure of the Captain began shouting 
down the path from the direction of the house. I could not hear 
what he said, either. 

'He's worrying to get you up to the tower,' she said. 'I'm 
frightfully sorry you're being dragged about like this.' 

'Not at all.' 

Williams opened the door for me. The cuckoo was calling up 
the hillside, and the Captain, more rosy than ever, was coming 
up the path. 

'Don't want to hurry you, but it takes longer than you think to 
get up there.' 

At the door of the conservatory his wife stretched out her 
hand. 'I'll say good-bye,' she said, 'in case I don't see you again.' 
We shook hands, and her hand, in curious contrast to the moist 
sweet heat of the house behind her, was dry and cool. Williams 
did not come to say good-bye. He had hidden himself beyond the 
central staging of palm and fern. 

The Captain and I walked up to the tower. Once again we 
could see, as from the top of the hill, the whole pattern of the 
thing : the four avenues of elms flying like long green pennants 
from the central cross of the house, the quadrangle of stone 
below, the corn-like bluebells wind-sheaved on the hill. The Cap- 
tain staggered about, pointing with unsteady fingers at the land- 
scape, and the flag flapped in the wind. 

'Curious thing is you can see everything and yet can't see a 
damned thing,' the Captain said. On all sides, across wide elm- 
patterned fields, there was still no sign of another house. Below 
us the conservatory glittered in the sun and it was even possible 
to see, huge and splendidly scarlet under the glass, the amaryllis 
staring back at us. 

The Captain began to cry. 

'You get up here and you'd never know any difference/ he 
said. His tears were simply moist negative oozings on the lids of 
his pink-lidded eyes. They might have been caused by the wind 
that up there, on the tower, was a little fresher than in the 
hollow below. 

'Never know it was going to pot/ he said. 'Everything. The 
whole damn thing.' 

I felt I had to say something and I remembered the flag. 

174 The Flag 

'Oh! it's simply a thing I found in an attic/ he said. 'Just 
looks well. It doesn't mean a thing/ 

'Nothing heraldic?' 

'Oh! Good God, no. Still, got to keep the flag flying.' He 
made an effort at a smile. 

I said I had seen somewhere, in the papers, or perhaps it was 
a book, I could not remember where, that heraldry was simply 
nothing more than a survival of the fetish and the totem pole, 
and he said : 

'Evil spirits and that sort of thing? Is that so? Damn funny.' 

Again, not angrily but sadly, biting his nails, with the tremb- 
ling of his lower lip that was so like the lip of a cow, he stared at 
the green empty beautiful fields, and once again I felt all the 
warm sweetness of spring stream past us, stirring the green and 
scarlet flag, on tender lazy circles of wind. 

Below us the Captain's wife and Williams came out of the 
greenhouse, and I saw them talking inside the winking scarlet 
roof of glass. 

'Well, you've seen everything,' the Captain said. 'We'll have 
another snifter before you go.' 

'No thanks. I really ought -' 

'No?' he said. 'Then I'll have one for you. Eh? Good enough?' 

'Good enough,' I said. 

We climbed down from the tower and he came to the gate in 
the fields to say good-bye. Across the fields there were nearly 
two miles of track, with five gates to open, before you reached 
the road. The Captain's eyes were full of water and he had 
begun to bite his nails again and his face was more than ever like 
a florid fester in the sun. 

There was no sign of his wife, and as I put in the gears and let 
the car move away he looked suddenly very alone and he said 
something that, above the noise of the car, sounded like : 

'Cheers. Thanks frightfully for coming. Jolly glad-' 

Half a mile away, as I got out to open the first of the five field 
gates, I looked back. There was no sign of life at all. The Cap- 
tain had gone into the house to beat it up. The greenhouse was 
hidden by the great cross of stone. All that moved was the 
cuckoo blown once again from the dying elms like a scrap of torn 
paper, and on the tower, from which the view was so magni- 
ficent, the flag curling in the wind. 


Twice a month, going back to the tea-garden in the north, he 
took the Darjeeling night mail out of the heat of Calcutta; 
seldom without meeting on the station as he departed some re- 
turning English nurse with a basket of primroses fresh from the 
hills, but never, for some reason, seeing these same nurses go. 
Calcutta, with its vast and sticky heat, its air charged with post- 
war doom, shrivelled them in the moment of departure into 
nonentity. The hills revived and re-shaped them, so that they 
returned, carrying their little native baskets of yellow and pink 
and purple primula, shaded with fern, northern and cool as 
English spring, like strangers coming in from another world. 

He arrived at the last junction of the broad-gauge line at six in 
the morning, in a cool dawn of exquisite dusty mistiness through 
which in the dry season the snows were rarely visible. He longed 
always to see these snows, cloud-like or icy-blue or at their most 
wonderful like vast crests of frozen sea-foam, and was disap- 
pointed whenever he stepped from the cinder- dusted night train 
on to a platform of seething dhotis and smoke-brown faces, to 
find that he could not see them in the northern sky. He envied 
always those travellers who were going further north and would, 
from their bedroom windows, see Kangchenjunga as they 
shaved. He thought jealously of the little nurses and the last war- 
ime service girls he never saw on their way to Darjeeling, but 
jnly, refreshed and snow-cool, as they came down to the Delta 
again, carrying their mountain flowers. 

Wherever he appeared along the line, especially at the terminus 
where he drank a cup of milkless tea before driving out in the 
lorry the sixty miles to the tea-garden, there was a respect for 
him that was friendly. He had been travelling up and down 
there, in the same way, for twenty years. He had a long lean 
figure and a pale face, rather dreamy and prematurely grey and 
in very hot weather blue-lipped, that had become almost Indian- 
ised, giving him a look of Asiatic delicacy. He had learned, very 
early, that in the East time is an immensity that does not matter; 


176 The Frontier 

that it is better not to get excited; that what does not happen to- 
day will happen to-morrow and that death, it is very probable, 
will come between. His chief concern was not to shout, not to 
worry, not to get excited, but to grow and manufacture a toler- 
ably excellent grade of tea. 

There was a clubhouse at the junction, deliciously shaded with 
large palms and peepul trees, an old white house with exception- 
ally lofty open rooms through which birds flew freely, where he 
sometimes shaved in the mornings after the more hideous train 
journeys and then had a quick breakfast before driving on to the 
plantation. There was also an army station near, and during the 
war the club had become a mere transit camp, with both 
English and Indian officers piling bedrolls in the doorway, and 
rather noisy behaviour in the compounds. There were often girls 
there too, and once he had seen an Indian girl, in khaki uniform, 
of the very highest type, having cocktails with a bunch of war- 
time subalterns who belonged to some dismal section of army 
accountancy and were in consequence behaving like abandoned 
invaders. It upset him a little. He looked at her with envious 
deep feeling for a long time. She had a pale, aloof, high-cheeked 
beauty, with smoky brown shadows of the eyes and purple depth 
of hair, that he had never grown used to; and he longed to talk 
to her. But she, too, was going southward at a moment when he 
was coming north; she was simply one of those entrancing, mad- 
dening figures that war threw up for a few illuminating seconds 
before it snuffed them out again; and in the end he went on to 
the plantation alone. 

He always went on to the plantation alone. In the misty dis- 
tances of the Dooar country there was a curious tranquillity and 
it entranced and bored him at the same time. It entranced him by 
the beauty of its remoteness. It had the strange tenseness, ampli- 
fied in daylight by heat haze and at night by the glow of forest 
fires in the Bhutan hills, of a country at the foot of great moun- 
tains that were themselves a frontier. There was an intense and 
overshadowed hush about it. He felt always, both on the long 
truck journey across recurrent dried or flooded river beds and 
then on the green orderly tea plantation itself, that something 
wonderful and dramatic was about to happen there. 

And nothing ever did. His boredom sprang from a multitude 
of cheated moments. The place was a great let-down. It was like 

The Frontier 177 

coming down to a meal, day after day, year in, year out, and 
finding the same tablecloth, impeccably ironed and spread, white 
in perfect invitation. There was about to be a wonderful meal on 
it, and there never was. 

His visits to the plantation were like that. He expected some- 
thing wonderful to dramatise itself out of the hazy fire-shot hills, 
the uneasy nearness of a closed frontier, the deep Mongol dis- 
tances lost so often in sublime sulphur haze. And he expected 
Kangchenjunga. The days when he saw the snows of the moun- 
tain always compensated him, in a wonderful way, for the hum- 
drum parochial business of going the rounds of the plantation, 
visiting the MacFarlanes on the adjoining estate, talking of 
Dundee, doling out the Sunday issue of rice and oils to his 
workers, and eating about a dozen chickens, skinny and poorly 
cooked, between Friday and Monday afternoon. He also con- 
ceived that he had a sense of duty to the place. He had rather a 
touching pride in an estate he had taken over as derelict and that 
was now a place with thirty or forty miles of metalled road, with 
hardly a weed, and with every tea-pruning neatly burned, every 
bug neatly captured by yellow pot-bellied children, every worker 
devoted and contented. And, though he was not aware of it, he 
was bored by that too. 

And then something upset him. One of his workers got drunk 
on rice-beer, ran madly about the plantation for a day, and then 
raped and murdered a woman over by the MacFarlane boundary. 

When he got down to the plantation on his next visit the 
murderer, armed with a stolen rifle, was still roaming about the 
low bamboo-forest country along the river. Everybody was 
stupidly excited, and it was impossible to get the simplest 
accurate report. The affair had developed into a gorgeous and 
monstrous Indian mess, everybody at clamorous cross-purposes, 
sizzling with rumour and cross- rumour and revived malice, 
seething with that maddening Indian fatalism that sucks fun out 
of disaster and loves nothing better than prolonging it by lying 
and lamentation. 

After he had organised search parties and sent out rumour- 
grubbing scouts, putting on a curfew for the women and child- 
ren, he spent most of the week-end driving wildly about his 
thirty-five miles of metalled road in pursuit of false reports. In 
the tiring excitement of it he forgot to look for Kangchenjunga, 

178 The Frontier 

only remembering it when he was far back in the heart of 
Bengal, in the hot and cinder-blackened train. 

When he came back on his next visit, a week earlier than 
normal, the murderer had not been found. He was worried about 
it all and did not sleep well in the hot train, with its noisy mid- 
night dislocations. It was a blow to his pride and he was angry 
that it had ever happened. 

Then he fell asleep, to be woken suddenly by the sound of 
frantic arguments. The train had stopped and he put on a 
light. He let down the gauze window and saw, in the light of 
the station outside, a mass of seething dhotis clamouring at each 
other with brown antennae, like moths. He shouted angrily for 
everybody to shut up. A bubble of surprise among the dhotis, 
with explanatory sing-song inflexions, was followed by someone 
shouting back, in English : 

'Shut up yourself! You're lucky. You've got a compartment. 
They won't let me on.' 

Til be out in a moment ! ' he said. 

'Oh! don't worry.' 

He slipped his dressing-gown over his pyjamas and went out 
on to the platform, really no more than a length of cinder track 
running past the metals, and pushed his way among the flutter- 
ing dhotis. He heard the English voice again and then saw, 
among the crowd, under the low station lights, what seemed to 
him an incredibly unreal thing. 

Standing there was one of the nurses he had so often seen 
coming back to Calcutta on the south-bound train. She was very 
young and she was waving angry hands. 

'Something I can do?' he said. 

'Yes, you can shut these people up ! ' 

Her eyes had the dark brightness of nervous beetles. Her hair, 
parted in the middle, was intensely black and smoothed. 

'May I look at your ticket?' 

'Oh ! I suppose so.' 

He took her ticket, looking at it for a moment under the 
station lights. 

'This isn't a sleeper ticket. This is just a -' 

'Oh! I know, I know. It's the wrong ticket. I know. That 
comes of not getting it yourself! My bearer got it. In this 
country if you want a thing done, do it yourself. I know.' 

The Frontier 179 

Where are you going ? ' 

'Darjeeling. On leave/ 

'I've a compartment. I'm not sleeping. You can share with 

'That makes me feel pretty small. Getting so excited.' 

'Oh, everybody in India gets excited. It's nothing. It's the 

Tm awfully sorry/ she said. 

He called a porter for her luggage; the moth-like dhotis floated 
away under the station lights; and together they got on the train. 

He always had plenty of food and ice-water and beer and fruit 
packed up in neat travelling baskets, and the rest of the night he 
and the girl sat opposite each other on the bunks, eating ham 
and bread and bananas and drinking beer. He was fascinated by 
her hunger and thirst. They were the hunger and thirst of the 
very young, and it seemed to him that she talked all night with 
her mouth full. 

'Ever been to Darjeeling before?' he said. 

'No. They say it's wonderful and it stinks,' she said. 

'You're lucky. You'll see Kangchenjunga.' 

She had not the faintest idea what Kangchenjunga was, and he 
talked of it for some time as a man talks of a pet grievance, a pet 
memory, or an old campaign. He told her several times how 
wonderful it was, and then he knew that she was bored. 

'Oh ! I'm sorry,' he said. 'The trouble is that I like mountains. 
I'm rather in love with mountains.' 

'Really?' She sat cross-legged on the bunk, eating a fourth 
banana, her shoes off, her knees rounded and smoothly silken, 
her skirt pulled tightly above. 

'Don't you care for mountains?' 

'Not terribly.' 

'Then why Darjeeling? That's why people go there.' 

'You've got to go somewhere,' she said. 

He knew suddenly that she was going there simply because it 
was a place, a thing, a convention; because she had a piece of 
time to be killed; because she was bored. She was going to a 
place whose identity did not matter, and suddenly he was aware 
of wanting to say something to her; to make, as casually as he 
could, a desperate suggestion. 

He began to make it, and then he found himself trembling un- 

180 The Frontier 

expectedly and with immense diffidence, so that all he could say 


She took another banana and began to peel it very slowly, as if 

'What were you going to say ? ' 

'Oh! it was an idea. But then I remembered it wouldn't -it 
wasn't possible.' 

What was it?' she said; and when he did not answer she 
looked at him with delightful black eyes, teasing him a little, 
mock serious. Tlease.' 

'Well,' he said. 'Well -I was going to suggest you spent the 
week-end on the estate with me. Oh! you could go on to Dar- 
jeeling afterwards.' 

She began laughing, her mouth full of banana, so that she 
hung her head. He saw then that her very black hair was parted 
in a rigid wonderful white line straight down the middle and he 
had the first of many impulses to bend down and touch it with 
his hands. 

Just as he felt he could no longer keep himself from doing this 
she lifted her head sharply and said : 

'I thought you were going to ask me something terribly serious. 
You know, like - ' 

He was shocked. 

'Oh! but it is serious. The reason I didn't ask you the first 
time was because there's a murderer running about the place.' 

'What possible difference could that make ? ' 

'I'll have to spend most of the week-end trying to catch him,' 
he said. 'It wouldn't be fair to you. You'd have to entertain 

'Entertain my foot,' she said. 'I should come with you.' 

He discovered very soon that she accepted everything in that 
same way : without fuss, offhand but rather bluntly, as if things 
like riding on night trains with strange men, changing her plans 
and hunting native murderers in remote places were all things 
of the most casual account to her. 

It troubled and attracted him so much that he forgot, in the 
morning confusion at the junction, to take his customary look for 
the snows in the north. He did not remember it until he had 
been driving for ten or fifteen miles along the road to the estate. 

The Frontier 181 

And then he remembered another simple and curious thing at the 
same time. He had stupidly forgotten to ask her name; and he 
had neglected, still more stupidly, to tell her his own. 

The three of them, his Indian driver, himself and the girl, 
were pressed together in the driving cab of a Ford truck. In the 
back of the truck were a dozen huddled Indians who wanted to 
be dropped off at hamlets along the road. It was impossible to 
speak in the roaring, jolting open-sided cabin, in the trembling 
glare of dust, and it was only when the truck stopped at last to 
let four or five villagers alight that he said : 

'You can't see the snows this morning. Awful pity. It's the 
haze. By the way, my name's Owen.' 

She took it indifferently and it struck him that possibly she 
had known it all the time. 

'Mine's Blake,' she said. 

What else?' 

'Oh ! just Blake. I get used to it,' she said. 

All along the road, for the next hour, he watched for the 
slightest dispersal, northward, of the vaporous glare that hid all 
of the mountains except the beginnings of forested foothills. 
These first hills, deceptively distant in the dusty glare of sun, 
were like vast lines of sleeping elephants, iron-grey and encrusted 
with broken forest, above tea-gardens that now began to line the 

And then, thirty miles from the station, they came to the river. 
He had been looking forward to it as an important event he 
wanted to show her. He had spoken of it several times at village 
stopping-places. At bridges over smaller streams he had shouted 
above the noise of the motor : 'Not this one. This isn't it. A bit 
further yet. You'll see.' 

And then they were there. The sight of the broad, snow- 
yellow stream running splendidly down with furious and intricate 
currents between flat banks of sun-whitened sand, of lines of ox- 
wagons standing on dusty bamboo traverses waiting to be ferried 
across, of the ferry being madly poled by sweating and singing 
men against the powerful snow-flood : all of it filled him with a 
pride and excitement that he wanted somehow to convey to her. 
He felt in a way that it was his own river; that the water was 
from his own snows; and that the snows were from his own 
mountains. This was his country and his pride in it all was 

182 The Frontier 

parochial and humble. It was inadequate and he could not put it 
into words. 

He simply stood on the deck of the slowly-crossing ferry, 
crowded now with ox-carts, many peasants, a single car and his 
own truck, and stared at the wide sweeping waters. 

Wonderful, isn't it? Don't you think so? Don't you think it's a 
wonderful river?' 

'Reminds me of one I saw in Burma,' she said. 

'Burma ? ' he said. He felt himself once again brought up sharp 
by the casual bluntness of her way of speaking. 'Burma? Were 
you there?' 

'The whole caboodle,' she said. 

He suddenly felt small and crushed. The river and all it meant 
for him, and had so long meant, shrivelled into insignificance. He 
stared round for some moments at the scraggy oxen on the ferry. 
The carts, he noticed, were overloaded, and the oxen, as they 
always were, underfed, their thighs raw and bloody from strugg- 
ling against each other and against the ill-balanced pole of the 
shafts. He felt angry at the stupidity of drivers who drove them 
with such savage lack of thought. The suffering of the grey 
moon-eyed creatures standing in the glare of sun, staring at the 
water, depressed him, and the miserable little songs of the ferry- 
men, in a dialect he did not understood, might have been, in 
their primitive whining, the voices of cattle themselves, whimper- 
ing in pain. 

And then the girl said : 

'Who are those people ? ' 

'Oh ! just peasants.' 

'No,' she said. 'The people with the car.' 

He looked up to see, on the other side of the ferry, a family of 
educated Indians, a man in a European suit and soft white hat, 
a woman in a blue sari, two pig-tailed girls in cotton frocks. 
They belonged, he saw, to the Chevrolet saloon. 

'They're Indians,' he said. 'An educated family.' 

'I want to get myself a sari like that,' she said. 'I want to take 
one home.' 

'Home?' he said. He felt suddenly and brutally pained. 'When 
do you go home?' 


He looked at the Indians standing by the car. He felt the 

The Frontier 183 

collective pain of his thoughts about the oxen, the river, and of 
the girl leaving India abruptly increased by the thought that he 
himself had not much longer to remain. 'Quit India/ the curt and 
shabby slogan that one had seen for so many years chalked up 
on walls and bridges and decaying tenements in cities, every- 
where, meant him too. In a year, perhaps in a few months, he, 
too, would have to go. 

They reached the estate, with its pleasant two-storey bungalow 
of white-railed verandahs, its little plantation of pineapples, its 
papaia trees and its garden of orange and rose and crimson 
gerbera daisies, purple petunias and now fading sweet peas, 
about forty minutes later. He showed it her with pride. Its 
windows faced a view of lawn and flowers, of thousands of tea- 
bushes in the gardens, neatly shaped under high and slender 
trees of shade, and beyond it all the line of elephantine moun- 
tains, smouldering in morning haze. 

'Over there/ he said, 'is Bhutan. This is the frontier.' 

'What is Bhutan?' 

'It's a state. A closed state. You can't get in there.' 

'Why not?' 

'You just can't/ he said. 'The mountains are the frontier and 
they'd keep you out if nothing else did.' 

'Just like Burma/ she said. 'Only they didn't keep us out.' 

He did not know what to say. 

'Awfully good place for your murderer/ she said. 'Once he's in 
there you've had it. It's all over.' 

'Yes/ he said. 

He had hoped she would not mention the murder. She had 
changed after her bath into a white dress with scarlet candy 
stripes, sleeveless and fresh, with a simple belt. Diagonal lines of 
scarlet met down the centre line of her body, continuing the line 
of her hair. Each time she lowered her head, to bend over her 
plate, he saw this line with increasingly aggravated impulses, 
aching to touch it. Then when she stood up from the table, after 
breakfast, he was aware of the line running down through the 
whole length of her body. It was the division between her 
breasts; it went on, in a series of scarlet arrowheads, to the tip 
of her skirt; it divided her brown sun- warm legs, fascinating 

'What would you like to do?' he said. 

184 The Frontier 

'Hunt the murderer/ she said, 'of course. Isn't that what I 
came for?' 

They drove most of that day about the estate. It was quite hot, 
but she did not rest in the afternoon. Some of the excitement 
about the murder had died down, and now there was a stillness 
of heat about the long avenues of tea-bushes, under the delicate 
high shade trees, that was enchanting. Bougainvilleas flamed on 
roofs seen through far sun-washed openings of the gardens. 
Delicious small winds stirred in the forest of bamboo. He showed 
her all of it with pride : the good new roads, the tea manufactory, 
the cool office where he paid his workers, the yellow slant-eyed 
children solemnly squatting with their tea-bugs spread out like 
patterns of dominoes, waiting for them to be counted. He let her 
pluck from the bushes a few leaves of tea. 

'All we needed to make a perfect day of it was a pot at the 
murderer/ she said. 

After dinner they sat on the north verandah, facing the hills. 
In the darkness smouldering hill fires seemed at intervals to 
be fanned by sudden winds. They flared with golden tips and 
then died for a moment, deep red, before they flamed and ran 

She was fascinated by these fires, and he explained them to 
her. They were the fires of itinerant hill-people, clearing sections 
of forest, burning them and then moving on. They were like 
beacons on the frontier, far-off and unattainable, mysterious and 
lovely in the tense night air. 

And in the sudden lighter fannings of flame, as he turned to 
speak to her, he saw the light of them on her face. It accentuated 
the line of her scalp so vividly that he could hardly bear to sit 
there, an arm's length away, and not touch her. He longed to run 
his fingers down this line and tenderly down its lovely continua- 

Suddenly he knew that she was aware of this. She stirred in 
her chair, her legs stretched outward. He saw her black eyes turn 
and fix themselves fully on him, and he felt the beating under- 
current of their dark excitement. He put out his hands. In the 
hills a furious moment of fire leapt up and flooded her face with 
crimson light and he saw her lips, wet and soft, parting them- 
selves slowly, ready to accept him. 

A moment later he heard the voice of MacFarlane calling 

The Frontier 185 

across the verandah, in the broad Dundee Scots that he had 
always faintly loathed : 

'Hi there, Owen, where are you hidin' ye'self, man?' 

For the rest of the evening the fierce parochialism of MacFar- 
lane filled the chair between them. MacFarlane, tall and angular 
and stiff, spoke volubly of other Scots, of Scotland, of Scottish 
compounds in Calcutta. He bloomed with Scottish pride. 

'Miss Blake, that's a Scots name, surely?' 

'As English as - ' 

Td no be so sure o' that. Pd no be so sure, Miss Blake. I'd no 
be so sure.' 

'Well— ' 

'Better be true Scot than half English,' MacFarlane said. 
Something about his discovery of the two of them on the veran- 
dah, together with the astonishing fact of Miss Blake being there 
at all, seemed to fill him with a hostile desire to taunt their 
secrecy. 'Ye're like Owen here. He's a Welsh name. Ye've a 
Scots name. The pair of ye claim to be English and a' the damn 
time neither one of you knows where y'are ! ' 

MacFarlane took ferocious sips of whisky and Owen felt all the 
delicacy, the tension and the beauty of the day crumble in his 
hands. The girl lay in her chair, full length, black eyes dreaming, 
her body quiet and bored, and stared at the hills and their 
gigantic bursting flowers of fire. 

But once, before MacFarlane finally got up and staggered off 
across the garden down the path hidden from the house by 
groves of banana, she was moved to taunt him back : 

'And when is Scotland going to capture the murderer?' 

'Ah, he's about. He's about yet. We'll have him yet.' 

'That'll be a brave day for Scotland.' 

'Not a damn bit braver than any other ! ' 

MacFarlane waved proud, extravagant, tipsy hands and Owen 
hated him. He looked across at the girl, catching the light of her 
dark eyes for a second, and felt that she, too, waited for the time 
when the moment of shattered secrecy between them could be 
renewed. He felt his body once again ache for the line of her 
hair, and then MacFarlane said : 

'Ah weel, I'll bid ye good night, ye damn' Sassenachs. We'll 
be glad to gie ye tea to-morrow if ye care to run over. 'Phone 
us up.' 

1 86 The Frontier 

'Miss Blake hasn't much time/ Owen said. 'She's leaving 
India. Going home. To England/ 

'England!' MacFarlane said. ' Wha'ever said England was 
home ! ' 

'Good night/ Owen said. 

'Good night/ MacFarlane said. 'Sleep well.' He began to 
stagger away, across the garden, towards the banana grove, from 
which he called with final dour triumph : 'Not that ye will ! ' 

When he had gone there was no sound in the garden except 
the occasional turning, like the slow page of a book, of banana 
leaves twisting in soft air. It was a sound that gave the impres- 
sion, now and then, of being part of the echo of distant fires 
splintering fresh paths into dark forests along the hills. 

On the still verandah Owen felt his own emotions bursting for- 
ward in just such sudden flaring spurts of exploration into the 
darkness where the girl lay stretched in her chair. He waited for 
a few moments after MacFarlane had gone and then he went 
over to her and did what he had wanted to do ever since she had 
ridden with him in the train that morning. He smoothed his 
hands down the parted flanks of her hair. She did not stir. After 
dinner she had put on a house-gown of dark blue silk and the 
metal zip down the front of it ended in a tassel of blue cord. He 
wanted to pull gently at this cord; he wanted the gown to fall 
away like the dark shell of a nut, leaving her naked body pale 
with rounded bowls of shadow underneath it. He wanted to 
watch the colour of the fire from the hills on her face and see it 
grow rosy on the pale skin of her breasts, on her shoulders and 
on the intensely black divisions of her hair. But he did not do 
anything; he was paralysed suddenly by withering shyness; and 
suddenly he stood away. 

'I just wanted to say that it was sweet of you to come/ he said. 
'Awfully sweet, and I'm grateful.' 

In the morning they drove across the estate again. He took his 
rifle in the back of the car. On the hills, above the fresh green 
gardens, so like orchards of privet, there was nothing to be seen, 
in the glistening haze of dust, of the fires of the night before: 
except here and there dead scars of burning, like black scabs, 
across brown serrations of shale. The great fires were lost, like 
the smoulderings of matches, in the vaster substance of moun- 
tains, and the light of them had become extinguished by sun. 

The Frontier 187 

He wanted to drive her out beyond the gardens, through the 
first fringes of bamboo forest and on to the deep reaches of 
grass-swamp where, by the river, there were rhinoceros. On the 
narrow sandy track of the forest, like a white gulley between tall 
olive stalks of bamboo, they passed a running Indian, naked 
except for a small loincloth, with his bow and arrows. 

'A Sunday morning hunter/ he said. 'It's the same the world 

'Except here they hunt the murderer/ she said. 'They're 
probably all murderers, anyway/ 

'I think we can give that up/ he said. 'They're really wonder- 
ful people/ 

'Give up nothing/ she said. 'It's what I came for.' 

'He's probably up there/ he said. He could not tell if she were 
teasing him or not, and he pointed to the hills. 

'Then let's chase him/ she said. 'Let's get up there.' 

'It's impossible/ he said. 'You can't get in there. And even if 
you could get in there it would mean a jungle trek, an expe- 

'Then let's have an expedition. I've got a week with nothing to 
do. It would be fun.' 

'You simply don't understand,' he said. 'There are some 
things you just can't do.' 

'They said that about Burma/ she said. 

Then as they drove on through the deep dry grasses of river 
swamp, dusty and withered and only partly green now after the 
dry season, he stopped the car sometimes to point out the things 
he thought would interest her: a clearing where he had shot an 
elephant before the war, tunnels bored in the grasses by rhino- 
ceroses, the dried tributary of a stream with its carefully built 
fin-like breakwaters of stone, his own enterprise and invention, 
to prevent the sweeping erosion of monsoons. 

Whenever he stopped the car and stood up and pointed about 
the swamp she did not stir. She sat in the seat next to his own as 
she had sat in the chair on the verandah, the night before, 
dreamy and quiet but with bright warm black eyes, so that it was 
hard to tell if she was bored or not by all he said. 

'We'll see the other river in five minutes/ he said. 

Then she said an unexpected thing. 

'By the way, did you come to my room last night?' 

188 The Frontier 

'You were fast asleep,' he said. 

'I was awake and I heard you.' 

'I came to see if you had a mosquito net, that's all/ he said. 
'Some people come here and because it's high they think a net 
isn't necessary. They think there are no mosquitoes. But there 
are. They come from the swamp here. You need a net.' 

'I never have a net,' she said. 'In Burma for four years and I 
never had a net. I hate them. I feel they stifle me. I can't sleep 
with them.' 

'That was silly. It was dangerous,' he said. 

'In wartime,' she said, 'you get used to that.' 

He did not speak; but as they drove on again he felt over- 
whelmed by his own inadequacy. He had been doing the same 
two trips a month out of Calcutta, by the night mail, for twenty 
years; pottering round the estate; fussing over improvements; 
finicking and praying over it as a parish priest finicks and prays 
over the little eddies and whirls of a parochial pond. War had 
come and swept disastrously over the East like an awful flood 
and had left him as he was. 

And now it was Quit India. Riots were beginning in Calcutta. 
The English - Scots like MacFarlane did not seem to him of the 
same account -were going at last. There would be great rejoic- 
ing. People who did not know India and did not understand and 
did not care would say it was a wonderful thing, a great step for- 
ward, a revolutionary thing. Perhaps for some people it was. But 
to him it was a pace backward : the birth of another nationalism 
in a world diseased by nationalism, the creation of yet another 

He was glad when they reached the river. He got out and ran 
round the front of the car and helped the girl jump down into 
the sand. She was wearing a pure white dress of smooth linen 
that buttoned down the front, and once again he was shaken by 
impulses to touch the line of her hair and the deep fine thread, 
down through her body, of its continuation. 

'This river comes from the Himalayas,' he said. 'It's Hima- 
layan snow.' 

'It's like the other,' she said. 

The river, very wide at that point, melted on the far side into 
forests of yellow haze. Strong green currents broke across it from 
all directions like quivering muscles. In that way it was like the 

The Frontier 189 

river of the previous day, except that now there was no ferry to 
the other side. 

The girl bent down and put her hand in the water. 

'Icy/ she said. Wonderful and icy.' 

'This is the best view of Kangchenjunga you can get/ he said. 
'Straight through there.' He pointed upstream, squinting against 
the sun. 'That's the spot exactly, although you can't see it 

'The water's wonderful,' she said. 'Why didn't you tell me it 
was so marvellous? I'd have brought a costume.' 

'There are terrible currents,' he said. 

She stood looking at the shore of monsoon-washed sand, white 
and fine as a seashore in brilliant sun between the river edge and 
the grasses of the swamp. In its icy clearness there were great 
egg-like stones, whiter than the sand. 

He saw her begin to take off her shoes. 

'What are you going to do ? ' he said. 

'Paddle.' She lifted the edges of her dress and unrolled her 
stockings, peeling them down her brown smooth legs. 'Come on.' 
The dark eyes flashed. 'You too.' 

'No,' he said. 'I'll sit here. I'll watch you.' 

Standing in the water, holding her dress above her knees, she 
bent her head, looking down at her feet, and he felt himself 
quiver, once again, because of the line of her hair. 

As she turned and began to walk slowly upstream, in the 
shallow edge of water, swishing her feet, he saw her head, vividly 
black above the white dress, move slowly into the line of moun- 
tains, where Kangchenjunga should have been. 

'Don't go too far,' he called. 

'No,' she said. 'If I don't come back you'll know I'm swim- 

'No,' he said. He was agitated. 'Don't do that! It's dangerous. 
Don't do that.' 

'Have a nap,' she called. 'It'll do you good ! ' 

He stood watching her for a moment or two longer. As she 
stepped away on big white stones he saw water and sun gleam on 
the bare skin of her legs and arms. Then as she poised to balance 
herself he saw the line of her body going down, white and 
brown, with her reflection, to the bottom of the pools she was 
crossing. He watched her go like this, seventy or eighty yards up- 

190 The Frontier 

stream, past the first elbow of sand and rock, and then he sat 
down to wait for her by the car. 

When the rifle shot came out of the swamp edge, also from 
upstream, and hit him full in the chest, he did not fall. The 
suddenness of it seemed simply to paralyse him from the waist 
upwards. For some seconds he did not even stagger. He stood 
acutely watching the white river shore, the water, the swamp 
edge, the running Indian figure with the rifle disappearing into 
low bamboo. 

For a few moments longer he seemed to hold these objects 
briefly focused with the most painless calm and brilliance and 
then he fell backwards, choking. 

As he lay there the girl came running to him over soft sand. 
He kept his eyes open with terrible difficulty, waiting for her to 
arrive. When she did arrive she had taken off her dress, and 
once again there was her face, white but calm; her black hair 
with its tormenting central line; her naked breast and shoulders 
as she bent down. 

'That was your murderer all right/ she said. 'That was one of 
your wonderful people.' 

He lay on the sand, burned by sun, his mouth open, and tried 
to answer. He could not speak. All the life of his body, borne on 
a great torrent of blood, was flowing back to his head, choking 
with hideous congestion his sight and breath. He made weak and 
frantic signs that he wanted to sit up. 

She put her arms about him, holding him upright for a few 
seconds longer. He whimpered in a great struggle to hold his 
weakness, his terror and the flow of blood. 

'Don't worry/ she said. 'It's all right. I'm with you. Try not to 

He made another tortured effort to speak but he could make 
no sound. His mouth slowly slobbered blood. Everything he 
wanted to say seemed to become compressed, in a final glittering 
moment, into his eyes. She saw them convulsedly trying to fix 
themselves on herself, the sky and the mountains. This convul- 
sion, calming down at last, gave way to a startling flash of 
reflected light. It leapt into the dying retina with such brilliance 
that she turned and instinctively looked behind her, towards the 
swamp and the mountains, as if for a second he had seen the 
murderer coming back. 

The Frontier 191 

But when she turned there was no one there; and when she 
looked back at his eyes she saw that all sight of sky, the moun- 
tains and the haze that hid the further mountains had been 
extinguished too. 

Now only herself remained. 


She gave lessons in voice-training in the long room above the 
music shop. Her pupils won many examinations and were after- 
wards very successful at local concerts and sometimes in giving 
lessons in voice-training to other pupils. She herself had won 
many examinations and everybody said how brilliant she 

Every Christmas, as this year, she longed for snow. It gave a 
transfiguring gay distinction to a town that otherwise had none. 
It lifted up the squat little shops, built of red brick with upper 
storeys of terra-cotta; it made the roofs down the hill like glisten- 
ing cakes; it even gave importance to the stuffy gauze- windowed 
club where local gentlemen played billiards and solo whist over 
meagre portions of watered whisky. One could imagine, with the 
snow, that one was in Bavaria or Vienna or the Oberland, and 
that horse-drawn sleighs, of which she read in travel guides, 
would glide gracefully down the ugly hill from the gasworks. 
One could imagine Evensford, with its many hilly little streets 
above the river, a little Alpine town. One could imagine any- 
thing. Instead there was almost always rain and long columns of 
working-class mackintoshes floating down a street that was like a 
dreary black canal. Instead of singing Mozart to the snow she 
spent long hours selling jazz sheet-music to factory workers and 
earned her reward, at last, on Christmas Eve, by being bored at 
the Williamsons' party. 

Last year she had sung several songs at the Williamson's party. 
Some of the men, who were getting hearty on mixtures of gin 
and port wine, had applauded in the wrong places, and Freddy 
Williamson had bawled out 'Good old Clara ! ' 

She knew the men preferred Erne. Her sister was a very gay 
person although she did not sing; she had never passed an 
examination in her life, but there was, in a strange way, hardly 
anything you felt she could not do. She had a character like a 
chameleon; she had all the love affairs. She laughed a great deal, 
in rippling infectious scales, so that she made other people begin 


A Christmas Song 193 

laughing, and she had large violet-blue eyes. Sometimes she 
laughed so much that Clara herself would begin weeping. 

This year Clara was not going to the Williamsons' party; she 
had made up her mind. The Williamsons were in leather; they 
were very successful and had a large early Edwardian house with 
bay-windows and corner cupolas and bathroom windows of 
stained glass overlooking the river. They were fond of giving 
parties several times a year. Men who moved only in Rotarian or 
golf circles turned up with wives whose corset suspenders could 
be seen like bulging pimples under sleek dresses. About midnight 
Mrs Williamson grew rowdy and began rushing from room to 
room making love to other men. The two Williamson boys, 
George and Freddy, became rowdy too, and took off their jackets 
and did muscular and noisy gymnastics with the furniture. 

At four o'clock she went upstairs to close the windows of the 
music- room and pull the curtains and make up the fire. It was 
raining in misty delicate drops and the air was not like Christ- 
mas. In the garden there were lime trees and their dark red 
branches, washed with rain, were like glowing veins in the deep 
blue air. 

As she was coming out of the room her sister came upstairs. 

'Oh! there you are. There's a young man downstairs who 
wants a song and doesn't know the name.' 

'It's probably a Danny Kaye. It always is.' 

'No it isn't. He says it's a Christmas song.' 

'I'll come,' she said. Then half-way downstairs she stopped; 
she remembered what it was she was going to say to Effie. 'By 
the way, I'm not coming to the party,' she said. 

'Oh! Clara, you promised. You always come.' 

'I know; but I'm tired, and I don't feel like coming and there 
it is.' 

'The Williamsons will never let you get away with it/ her 
sister said. 'They'll drag you by force.' 

'I'll see about this song,' she said. 'What did he say it was?' 

'He says it's a Christmas song. You'll never get away with it. 
They'll never let you.' 

She went down into the shop. Every day people came into the 
shop for songs whose names they did not know. 'It goes like this,' 
they would say, 'or it goes like that.' They would try humming a 
few notes and she would take it up from them; it was always 

194 A Christmas Song 

something popular, and in the end, with practice, it was never 
very difficult. 

A young man in a brown overcoat with a brown felt hat and 
an umbrella stood by the sheet-music counter. He took off his hat 
when she came up to him. 

'There was a song I wanted — ' 

'A carol ? ' she said. 

'No, a song/ he said. 'A Christmas song.' 

He was very nervous and kept rolling the ferrule of the 
umbrella on the floor linoleum. He wetted his lips and would not 
look at her. 

'If you could remember the words?' 

Tm afraid I can't.' 

'How does it go ? Would you know that ? ' 

He opened his mouth either as if to begin singing a few notes 
or to say something. But nothing happened and he began biting 
his lip instead. 

'If you could remember a word or two/ she said. 'Is it a new 
song ? ' 

'You see, I think it's German/ he said. 

'Oh/ she said. 'Perhaps it's by Schubert?' 

'It sounds awfully silly, but I simply don't know. We only 
heard it once/ he said. 

He seemed about to put on his hat. He ground the ferrule of 
the umbrella into the linoleum. Sometimes it happened that 
people were too shy even to hum the notes of the song they 
wanted, and suddenly she said : 

'Would you care to come upstairs? We might find it there.' 

Upstairs in the music room she sang the first bars of one or 
two songs by Schubert. She sat at the piano and he stood re- 
spectfully at a distance, leaning on the umbrella, too shy to 
interrupt her. She sang a song by Brahms and he listened hope- 
fully. She asked him if these were the songs, but he shook his 
head, and finally, after she had sung another song by Schubert, 
he blurted out : 

'You see, it isn't actually a Christmas song. It is, and it isn't. 
It's more that it makes you think of Christmas — ' 

'Is it a love song?' 


She sang another song by Schubert; but it was not the one he 

A Christmas Song 195 

wanted; and at last she stood up. 'You see, there are so many 
love songs — ' 

'Yes, I know, but this one is rather different somehow. ' 

'Couldn't you bring her in?' she said. 'Perhaps she would 

'Oh! no,' he said. 'I wanted to find it without that' 

They went downstairs and several times on the way down he 
thanked her for singing. 'You sing beautifully,' he said. 'You 
would have liked this song.' 

'Come in again if you think of it,' she said. 'If you can only 
think of two or three bars.' 

Nervously he fumbled with the umbrella and then quickly put 
on his hat and then as quickly took it off again. He thanked her 
for being so kind, raising his hat a second time. Outside the shop 
he put up the umbrella too sharply, and a breeze, catching it, 
twisted him on the bright pavement and bore him out of sight. 

Rain fell gently all evening and customers came in and shook 
wet hats on bright pianos. She walked about trying to think of 
the song the young man wanted. Songs by Schubert went 
through her head and became mixed with the sound of carols 
from gramophone cubicles and she was glad when the shop had 

Effie began racing about in her underclothes, getting ready for 
the party. 'Clara, you can't mean it that you're not coming.' 

'I do mean it. I'm always bored and they really don't want me.' 

'They love you.' 

'I can't help it. I made up my mind last year. I never enjoy it, 
and they'll be better without me.' 

'They won't let you get away with it,' Effie said. 'I warn you 
they'll come and fetch you.' 

At eight o'clock her father and mother drove off with Effie in 
the Ford. She went down through the shop and unbolted the 
front door and let them out into the street. 'The stars are shin- 
ing,' her mother said. 'It's getting colder.' She stood for a second 
or two in the doorway, looking up at the stars and thinking that 
perhaps, after all, there was a touch of frost in the air. 

'Get ready!' Effie called from the car. 'You know what the 
Williamsons are ! ' and laughed with high infectious scales so that 
her mother and father began laughing too. 

After the car had driven away she bolted the door and 

196 A Christmas Song 

switched off the front shop bell. She wnt upstairs and put on 
her dressing-gown and tried to think once again of the song the 
young man had wanted. She played over several songs on the 
piano, singing them softly. 

At nine o'clock something was thrown against the sidestreet 
window and she heard Freddy Williamson bawling : 

'Who isn't coming to the party? Open the window.' 

She went to the window and pulled back the curtain and stood 
looking down. Freddy Williamson stood in the street below and 
threw his driving gloves at her. 

'Get dressed ! Come on ! ' 

She opened the window. 

'Freddy, be quiet. People can hear.' 

'I want them to hear. Who isn't coming to whose party? I 
want them to hear.' 

He threw the driving gloves up at the window again. 

'Everybody is insulted!' he said. 'Come on.' 

'Please,' she said. 

'Let me in then!' he bawled. 'Let me come up and talk to 

'All right,' she said. 

She went downstairs and let him in through the shop and he 
came up to the music room, shivering, stamping enormous feet. 
'Getting colder,' he kept saying. 'Getting colder.' 

'You should put on an overcoat,' she said. 

'Never wear one,' he said. 'Can't bear to be stuffed up.' 

'Then don't grumble because you're starved to death.' 

He stamped up and down the room, a square-boned young 
man with enormous lips and pink flesh and small poodle-like 
eyes, pausing now and then to rub his hands before the fire. 

'The Mater sends orders you're to come back with me,' he 
said, 'and she absolutely won't take no for an answer.' 

'I'm not coming,' she said. 

'Of course you're coming! I'll have a drink while you get 

'I'll pour you a drink,' she said, 'but I'm not coming. What will 
you have?' 

'Gin,' he said. 'Clara, sometimes you're the most awful bind.' 

She poured the drink, not answering. Freddy Williamson lifted 
the glass and said : 

A Christmas Song 197 

'Sorry, didn't mean that. Happy Christmas. Good old Clara.' 

'Happy Christmas/ 

'Good old Clara. Come on, let's have one for Christmas.' 

Freddy Williamson put clumsy hands across her shoulders, 
kissing her with lips rather like those of a heavy wet dog. 

'Good old Clara,' he said again. 'Good old girl.' 

Songs kept crossing and recrossing her mind, bewildering her 
into moments of dreamy distraction. She had the feeling of try- 
ing to grasp something that was floating away. 

'Don't stand there like a dream,' Freddy Williamson said. 'Put 
some clothes on. Come on.' 

'I'm going to tie up Christmas presents and then go to bed.' 

'Oh! Come on, Clara, come on. Millions of chaps are there, 

She stood dreamily in the centre of the room, thinking of the 
ardent shy young man who could not remember the song. 

'You're such a dream,' Freddy Williamson said. 'You just 
stand there. You've got to snap out of yourself.' 

Suddenly he pressed himself against her in attitudes of 
muscular, heavier love, grasping her about the waist, partly lift- 
ing her from the floor, his lips wet on her face. 

'Come on, Clara,' he kept saying, 'let the blinds up. Can't keep 
the blinds down for ever.' 

'Is it a big party ? ' 

'Come on, let the blinds up.' 

'How can I come to the party if you keep holding me here?' 

'Let the blinds up and come to the party too,' he said. 'Eh?' 


'Well, one more kiss,' he said. He smacked at her lips with his 
heavy dog-like mouth, pressing her body backwards. 'Good old 
Clara. All you got to do is let yourself go. Come on -let the 
blinds up. Good old Clara.' 

'All right. Let me get my things on,' she said. 'Get yourself 
another drink while you're waiting.' 

'Fair enough. Good old Clara.' 

While she went away to dress he drank gin and stumped about 
the room. She came back in her black coat with a black and 
crimson scarf on her head and Freddy Williamson said: 
'Whizzo. That's better. Good old Clara,' and kissed her again, 
running clumsy ruffling hands over her face and neck and hair. 

198 A Christmas Song 

When they went downstairs someone was tapping lightly on 
the glass of the street door. 'Police for the car/ Freddy William- 
son said. 'No lights or some damn thing/ but when she opened 
the door it was the young man who could not remember the 
song. He stood there already raising his hat : 

Tm terribly sorry. Oh ! you're going out. Excuse me.' 

'Did you remember it?' she said. 

'Some of it/ he said. 'The words.' 

'Come in a moment/ she said. 

He came in from the street and she shut the door. It was dark 
in the shop, and he did not seem so nervous. He began to say: 
'It goes rather like this - 1 can't remember it all. But something 
like this - Leise flehen meine Lieder - Liebchen, komm zu mir— 

'It is by Schubert/ she said. 

She went across the shop and sat down at one of the pianos 
and began to sing it for him. She heard him say, 'That's it. 
That's the one,' and Freddy Williamson fidgeted with the latch 
of the shop door as he kept one hand on it, impatient to go. 

'It's very beautiful,' the young man said. 'It's not a Christmas 
song, but somehow -' 

Freddy Williamson stamped noisily into the street, and a 
second or two later she heard him start up the car. The door- 
catch rattled where he had left it open and a current of cold air 
blew into the dark shop. 

She had broken off her singing because, after the first verse, 
she could not remember the words. Softly fly my songs - Loved 
one, come to me - she was not sure how it went after that. 

'I'm sorry I can't remember the rest/ she said. 

'It's very kind of you,' he said,' The door irritated her by bang- 
ing on its catch. She went over and shut it and out in the 
street Freddy Williamson blew impatiently on the horn of the 

'Was it the record you wanted?' she said. 'There is a very 
good one - ' 

'If it's not too much trouble.' 

'I think I can find it/ she said. 'I'll put on the light.' 

As she looked for the record and found it, she sang the first 
few bars of it again. 'There is great tenderness in it/ she began 
to say. 'Such a wonderful tenderness/ but suddenly it seemed as 
if the young man was embarrassed. He began fumbling in his 

A Christmas Song 199 

pocket-book for his money, but she said, 'Oh! no. Pay after 
Christmas. Pay any time/ and at the same moment Freddy 
Williamson opened the door of the shop and said : 

'What goes on? After hours, after hours. Come on/ 

Tm just coming,' she said. 

Til say good night/ the young man said. Tm very grateful. I 
wish you a Happy Christmas/ 

'Happy Christmas/ she said. 

Outside the stars were green and sharp in a sky without wind; 
the street had dried except for dark prints of frost on pavements. 

'Damn cool/ Freddy Williamson kept saying. 'Damn cool.' 

He drove rather fast, silent and a little sulky, out towards the 
high ground overlooking the river. Rain had been falling every- 
where through all the first weeks of December and now as the car 
came out on the valley edge she could see below her a great 
pattern of winter floodwater, the hedgerows cutting it into rec- 
tangular lakes glittering with green and yellow lights from towns 
on the far side. 

Td have told him to go to hell/ Freddy Williamson said. 'I 
call it damn cool. Damn cool.' 

'See the floods/ she said. 'There'll be skating.' 

'The damn cheek people have,' Freddy Williamson said. 
'Damn cheek.' 

He drove the car with sulky abandon into the gravel drive of 
the big Edwardian house. Dead chestnut leaves swished away on 
all sides, harsh and brittle, and she could see frost white on the 
edges of the big lawn. 

'One before we go in/ Freddy Williamson said. She turned 
away her mouth but he caught it with clumsy haste, like a dog 
seizing a bird. 'Good old Clara. Let the blinds up. It's Christmas 

'Put the car away and I'll wait for you/ she said. 

'Fair enough/ he said. 'Anything you say. Good old Clara. 
Damn glad you come.' 

She got out of the car and stood for a few moments looking 
down the valley. She bent down and put her hands on the grass. 
Frost was crisp and hard already, and she could see it sparkling 
brightly on tree branches and on rain-soaked stems of dead 
flowers. It made her breath glisten in the house-lights coming 
across the lawn. It seemed to be glittering even on the long wide 

200 A Christmas Song 

floodwaters, so that she almost persuaded herself the valley was 
one great river of ice already, wonderfully transformed. 

Standing there, she thought of the young man, with his shy 
ardent manner, his umbrella and his raised hat. The song he had 
not been able to remember began to go through her head again 
- Softly fly my songs - Loved one, come to me - ; but at that 
moment Freddy Williamson came blundering up the drive and 
seized her once again like a hungry dog. 

'One before we go in/ he said. 'Come on. Good old Clara. One 
before we go in. Good show/ 

Shrieks of laughter came suddenly from the house as if some- 
one, perhaps her sister, had ignited little fires of merriment that 
were crackling at the windows. 

'Getting worked up!' Freddy Williamson said. 'Going to be 
good ! ' 

She felt the frost crackling under her feet. She grasped at 
something that was floating away. Leise flehen meine Lieder- 
Oh! my loved one - how did it go ? 


That summer we lived in the hotel on the lake below the moun- 
tains, and Major Martineau, the Major of Hussars, lived on the 
floor below us, in a room with a eucalyptus tree on the balcony. 

The weather was very hot and in the sunlight the lake 
sparkled like crusty golden glass and in the late afternoon the 
peaks of the Blumlisalp and the whole range about the Jungfrau 
glistened in the fine mountain air with fiery rosy snow. The 
major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were 
very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty 
who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of 
his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey 
hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very 
proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for after- 

We used to meet the major everywhere: on the terrace, where 
lunch was served under a long pergola of crimson and yellow 
roses, and from which you got a magnificent view of the snow 
caps; and then under the dark shade of chestnut trees on the 
lake edge, where coffee was served; and then at the tram 
terminus, where the small yellow trams started their journeys 
along the hot road by the lake; and then on the white steamers 
that came up and down the lake, calling at all the little towns 
with proud peeps of the funnel whistle, several times a day. At 
all of these places there was the major, very spruce in cool 
shantung and always wearing the correct set of false teeth for the 
time of day, looking very correct, very English, and, we thought, 
very alone. 

It must have been at the second or third of these meetings that 
he told us of his wife. 'She'll be out from England any day now.' 
And at the fifth or sixth that he told us of his false teeth. 'After 
all, one has several suits. One has several pairs of shoes. All ex- 
cellent for rest and change. Why not different sets of teeth?' It 
did not occur to me then that the teeth and his wife had any- 
thing to do with each other. 


202 The Major of Hussars 

Sometimes as we walked along the lake we could see a figure 
marching briskly towards us in the distance. 

'The major/ I would say. 

'It can't be/ my wife would say. 'It looks much too young.' 

But always, as he came nearer, we could see that it was the 
major, sparkling and smart and spruce with all the shine and 
energy of a younger man. 'Sometimes you'd take him for a man 
of forty/ my wife would say. 

Whenever we met on these occasions we would talk briefly of 
the major's wife; then of the lake, the food, the delicious summer 
weather, the alpine flowers, the snow on the mountains and how 
we loved Switzerland. The major was very fond of them all and 
we got the impression, gradually, that his wife was very fond of 
them too. 

'Ah!' he would say, 'she will adore all this. She will simply 
adore it.' His correct blue eyes would sparkle delightfully. 

'And when do you expect her?' 

'Well/ he would say, 'in point of fact she was to have been 
here this week. But there seems to have been some sort of hitch 
somewhere. Bad staff work.' 

'I hope she'll soon be able to come.' 

'Oh ! any day now.' 

'Good. And oh! by the way/ I said, 'have you been up to 
the Jungfrau yet? The flowers are very lovely now on the way 

'The Virgin?' the major said. 'Oh! not yet. I'm leaving 
all the conquest of that sort of thing till my wife gets here/ and 
he would laugh very heartily at the joke he made. 

'It's just as well,' I said. 

But the next day, on the steamer, we saw the major making a 
conquest of the girl who brought the coffee. She had a beautiful 
Swiss head, with dark coiled hair, and she was wearing a very 
virginal Bernese bodice in black and white and a skirt striped in 
pink and blue. She was very young and she laughed very much 
at whatever it was the major was saying to her. On the voyage 
the major drank eight cups of coffee and ate four ham rolls. 
There was so much ham in the rolls that it hung over the side 
like spaniel's ears, and the major had a wonderful time with his 
afternoon false teeth, his best pair, champing it in. 

'The major is conquering the Jungfrau/ I said. 

The Major of Hussars 203 

'You take a very low view of life/ my wife said. 'He's alone 
and he's simply being friendly.' 

'Queer how he doesn't notice us to-day.' 

The major, in fact, did not notice us; he did not notice us in 
fact for two days, and I wondered if I had said something to 
offend him. But when at last we met him again under the chest- 
nut trees at noon, with a glass of lager at his table in the shade, 
he seemed more friendly, more sparkling and more cheerful than 
ever. The yellow beer, the light shantung suit and the gleaming 
white teeth were all alight with the trembling silver reflections 
that sprang from the sunlight on the water. 

'Any news of your wife ? ' we said. 

'Coming to-day!' 

We said we were very pleased. 'What time?' 

'Coming by the afternoon boat. Gets in at three.' 

He looked at the lake, the roses on the terrace, the blue-grey 
eucalyptus tree shining on the balcony of his room and then 
at the vast snows towering and glistening beyond the lake. 'I 
can't tell you how she will adore all this/ he said. 'I can't tell 

'I'm sure she will/ we said. 'You must be very excited.' 

'Just like a kid with a toy ! ' he said. 'You see, I came out first 
to arrange it all. Choose the place. Choose the hotel. Choose 
everything. She doesn't know what she's coming to. You see? It's 
all going to be a great surprise for her.' 

'Don't forget you have to conquer the Jungfrau,' I said. 'The 
soldanella are wonderful above the Scheidegg now.' 

'Of course, ' he said. 'Well, I must go. Perhaps you'd join us 
for an aperitif about six? I do very much want you to meet her.' 

We said we should be delighted and he went singing away up 
to the hotel. 

'Your remark about the Jungfrau was very pointed,' my wife 

'I saved it with the soldanella/ I said. 

'Anyway,' she said, 'be careful what you say to-night.' 

From the lower terrace we could watch the steamers come and 
go. The afternoon was very hot and we stayed under the dark 
shade of the chestnut trees to watch the three o'clock boat come 
in. Among the hotel porters with their green and plum-coloured 
and scarlet and brown caps and uniforms the major stood out, in 

204 The Major of Hussars 

cool spruce shantung, as a very English, very conspicuous visitor 
on the quay. 

When the white steamer came up the lake at last, tooting in the 
hot afternoon air, the major had taken up his stand in front of all 
the porters, by the water's edge. I got up and leaned on the rail- 
ings of the terrace to get a better view. 

The steamer came swinging in with a ring of engine-room 
bells, with six or seven passengers waiting by the gangway. 

'There she is/ I said. 

Where?' My wife had come to stand beside me. 

'The lady with the green case/ I said. 'Standing by the cap- 
tain. She looks about the major's age and about as English.' 

'She looks rather nice - yes/ my wife said, 'it could be.' 

The steamer bounced lightly against the quay and the gang- 
way came down. The hotel porters adjusted their caps and the 
passengers began to come ashore. In his eagerness the major 
almost blocked the gangway. 

To my astonishment the lady with the green case came down 
the gangway and went straight past the major, and the porter 
from the Hotel du Lac raised his green and gold cap and took 
the case away from her. The major was looking anxiously up the 
gangway for the figure of his wife, but in less than two minutes 
all the passengers had come down. When the steamer moved 
away again the major was standing on the quay alone, still 
staring anxiously and still waiting for the wife who had not 

That evening we went down to the terrace for the aperitif with 
the major. 'For goodness' sake don't make that joke about the 
Jungfrau/ my wife said. 'He'll be in no mood for that.' The five 
o'clock steamer had come in, but the major's wife had not 

'It's his joke/ I said. 'Not mine.' 

'You twist it round/ she said. 

On the terrace the major, dressed in a dark grey suit and with 
his evening false teeth in, had a surprising appearance of 
ebullient gaiety. He had a peculiar taste in drinks and drank 
four or five glasses of Kirsch because there was no whisky and 
after it he did not seem so tired. 

'Met a friend in Paris/ he explained to us. 'Amazing coinci- 
dence.' He kept waving a rather long telegram about in front of 

The Major of Hussars 205 

us. 'Hadn't seen this friend for years, and then suddenly ran into 
her. Of course, it's only a night. She'll be here on Thursday.' 

Three weeks went past, but the major's wife did not arrive. 
The best of the roses by that time were over on the terrace and 
long salmon-scarlet lines of geraniums were blooming there 
instead. In the beds behind the chestnut trees there were purple 
petunias with interplantings of cherry-pie and in the hot still 
evenings the scent of them was delicious against the cool night 
odour of water. 'It's a pity for her to be missing all this,' we 

Now when we met the major we avoided the subject of his 
wife. We went on several excursions to the mountains and some- 
times on the steamers the major was to be seen on the first-class 
deck champing with his false teeth at the spaniel-eared ham 
sandwiches and drinking many cups of coffee. As he talked to the 
Swiss girl who served him he laughed quite often. But I did not 
think he laughed so much. I thought in a way he seemed not 
only less happy and less laughing, but more alone. He had 
stopped making explanations, and I thought he seemed like a 
man who had given up hoping. 

And then it all began again. This time she was really coming. 
There had really been some awful business of a hold-up about 
her visa. It had taken a long time. It was all over now. 

'She'll be here on Sunday,' the major said. 'Absolutely certain 
to be on the boat that gets in at three.' 

The Sunday steamers were always crowded, their decks gay 
with Swiss families going up the lake for the day, with tourists 
going to Interlaken. The little landing stages at the lakeside 
resorts were always crowded too. There were many straw hats 
and Bernese bodices and much raising of caps by hotel porters. 

So when the steamer arrived this time there was no picking out 
Mrs Martineau. Crowds of Sunday holiday-makers stood on the 
steamer deck and pushed down the gangway and more crowds 
stood on the quay waiting to go on board. Under the trimmed 
lime trees of the quayside restaurant the Sunday orchestra was 
playing, and people at little gay white tables were drinking 
wine and coffee. It was a very simple, very laughing, very 
bourgeois, very noisy afternoon. 

On the quay the major waited in his bright shantung suit, with 
his best teeth in. 

206 The Major of Hussars 

'There she is/ I said. 

'You said that last time/ my wife said. 

'You can see her waving, and the major is waving back.' 

'Several people are waving.' 

'The lady in the grey costume/ I said. 'Not the one with the 
sun-glasses. The one waving the newspaper/ 

At the steamer rails an amiable, greyish English-woman of 
sixty was waving in a nice undemonstrative sort of way to some- 
one on shore. Each time she waved I thought the major waved 

'Anyway/ my wife said, 'let's go round and meet her.' 

We walked up through the hotel gardens and across the bridge 
over the stream that came down and fed the lake with green 
snow-water from the mountains. It was very hot. The sun-blinds 
in the hotel were like squares of red and white sugar candy in the 
sun, and in the hot scented gardens under the high white walls 
almost the only thing that seemed cool was the grey eucalyptus 
tree growing on the balcony of the major's room. I had always 
rather envied the major the eucalyptus tree. Even the steamer 
whistle seemed stifled as it peeped the boat away. 

'Now mind what you say/ my wife said. 'No references to any 

'If she's that very English lady with the newspaper I shall like 
her/ I said. 

Just at that moment we turned the corner of the kiosk that 
sold magazines and postcards of alpine flowers, and the lady with 
the newspaper went past us, arm in arm with another English 
lady carrying a wine-red parasol. 

My wife did not take advantage of this situation. At that 
moment she became, like me, quite speechless. 

Up from the landing-stage the major was coming towards us 
with his wife. She staggered us. She was a black-haired girl of 
twenty-five, wearing a very smart summer suit of white linen 
with scarlet cuffs and revers, with lipstick of the same colour. I 
do not know what it was about her, but even from that distance 
I could tell by the way she walked, slightly apart from the major 
and with her head up, that she was blazingly angry. 

'A Jungfrau indeed/ I said. 

'Be quiet ! ' my wife said. 'They're here.' 

A moment or two later we were face to face with them. The 

The Major of Hussars 207 

major had lost his habitual cool spruceness, I thought, and looked 
harassed and upset about something and seemed as if he would 
have gone past us, if possible, without speaking. 

Instead, he stopped and raised his hat. His manners were 
always very correct and charming, and now they seemed pain- 
fully so. 

'May I present Mrs Martineau ? ' he said. 

Across the narrow roadway the orchestra on the restaurant 
terrace was playing at full blast, with sour-sharp violins and a 
stinging trumpet. Mingled with the noise came the sound of 
guitars played on the steamer as it drew away. 

We both shook hands with Mrs Martineau and said we were 
glad to meet her. She smiled at us in a politely savage sort of way 
and the major said : 

'Had an exhausting journey. Going to get her some tea and let 
her lie down.' 

'Not exhausting, darling/ she said. 'Just tiresome.' 

'I thought you said you were exhausted, dear/ 

'I did not say I was exhausted. I am not exhausted.' 

'Sorry, dear, I thought you did.' 

'You shouldn't think/ she said. 'I am not exhausted. The last 
thing I am is exhausted.' 

I could see by the way she looked over her shoulder at the 
restaurant orchestra that she already hated the place. 

'Perhaps you will join us this evening for an aperitif?' the 
major said. 

We said we should be delighted, but Mrs Martineau did not 
speak, and together, walking apart, she and the major went on to 
the hotel. 

'Oh! dear/ I said. 

'You sum people up so quickly/ my wife said. 'Too quickly.' 

'I didn't say a word.' 

'Then what was behind that oh ! dear?' 

'She makes up too much/ I said. 

I really didn't know what lay behind that oh! dear. It may 
have been that Mrs Martineau was very tired; it may have been 
that she was one of those women who, though young, get fretful 
and unsociable and angered by the trials of a journey alone; it 
may have been that she was a person of sensitive temperament 
and ear who could not bear without pain the terrace orchestras 

208 The Major of Hussars 

of Swiss Sunday afternoons. I did not know. I only knew that 
she was less than half the major's age and that the major, when 
he walked beside her, looked like a sorrowful old dog that had 
just been beaten. 

'They didn't say any time for the aperitif' my wife said. 'Or 

It was about six o'clock that same evening and it was still very 
warm as we went downstairs. 

'The major always has his on the terrace,' I said. 'We'll wait 

We waited on the terrace. The red and white sun-blinds were 
still down, casting a rosy-yellow sort of light, and I asked the 
waiter to pull them up so that we could see the mountains. When 
he raised the blinds the whole range of the Jungfrau and the 
Bliimlisalp shone, icily rose and mauve above the mountain- 
green waters of the lake, and in the gardens below us the flowers 
were rose and mauve too, tender in the evening sun. 

It always seemed to me that you could sit there on the terrace 
for a long time and do nothing more than watch the changing 
colours of the lake, the flowers and the mountains. 

'The major's late,' I said. 

From across the lake the smaller of the white steamers was 
coming in, and as it came nearer I could hear once again the 
sound of the guitars that were played by two Italian Swiss who 
travelled on the lake every Sunday, playing gay little peasant 
melodies from the south, earning a glass of beer or a coffee as 
they played on the boat or at the cafes of the landing-places. 

The sound of the guitars over the water was very gay and 
charming in the still air. 

And then suddenly as we sat listening to it the major came 
hurrying down. 

'So sorry.' He seemed agitated and begged several times that 
we should forgive him. 'She'll be down in a moment. Waiter! 
Very exhausted after that journey. Awful long way. Waiter - ah ! 
there you are.' 

The major insisted on ordering drinks. He drank very rapidly 
and finished four or five glasses of Kirsch before Mrs Martineau 
came down. 

'I've been waiting for hours in the lounge,' she said. 'How was 
I to know?' 

The Major of Hussars 209 

'Let me get you something to drink/ I said. 'What will it be?' 

Whisky/ she said, 'if I may/ 

'There's never any whisky/ the major said. 

'Good grief ! ' she said. 

I got up. 'I think it'll be all right/ I said. 

I walked to the end of the terrace and found the waiter. The 
hotel had a bad brandy that tasted spirituous and harsh like poor 
whisky, and I arranged with the waiter to bring a double one of 

When I got back to the table my wife and Mrs Martineau 
were talking of the mountains. My wife was trying to remember 
the names of those you could see from the terrace, but she was 
never very clear as to which they were. 

'I think that's Eiger/ she said. 

'No/ the major said, 'that's Finsteraarhorn.' 

'Then which is the one with pigeons on top?' she said, and T 
knew she was trying to avoid the question of the Jungfrau. 'It 
has bits of snow on all summer that look like white pigeons/ she 

'You can't see it from here.' 

'The one straight across/ the major said, 'the big one is the 

My wife looked at me. Mrs Martineau looked very bored. 

'There's a railway goes almost to the top/ my wife said. 'You 
must really go up while you're here.' 

I knew the major did not think very much of climbing moun- 
tains by rail. 'I don't think you'd find it very exciting crawling 
up in that cold little train.' 

'Oh! don't you?' Mrs Martineau said. 'I think it would be 
awful fun.' 

'No sense of conquest that way/ the major said. 

'Who wants a sense of conquest? The idea is to get to the top.' 

'Well, in a way ' 

'Oh! don't be so vague. Either you want to get to the top or 
you don't go.' 

I said something very pointed about the mountain being called 
the Jungfrau, but it made no impression on her. 

'Have you been up there yet ? ' she said. 

'No/ I said, 'we're always meaning to go. We've been as far as 
Wengen, that's all/ 

210 The Major of Hussars 

'Why don't we all go up together?' my wife said. 'I think it 
would be lovely.' 

'Marvellous idea/ Mrs Martineau said. 

'It means being up very early/ the major said. 'Have to be up 
by six. Not quite your time.' 

'Don't be so rude, darling/ she said. 

'Anyway, you'll be tired to-morrow.' 

'I shall not be tired. Why do you keep saying I'm tired? I'm 
not tired. I simply don't know the first thing about being tired, 
and yet you keep saying so. I can certainly be up by six if you 

I could see that she was very determined to go. The major 
drank three more glasses of Kirsch and looked more than ever 
like a beaten dog. The sound of the guitars came faintly over the 
lake and Mrs Martineau said, 'What is that ghastly row?' and 
we ended up by arranging to go to the Jungfrau the following 
morning, and then went in to dinner. 

The train to Jungfraujoch goes very slowly up through lovely 
alpine valleys rich in spring and summer with the flowers of the 
lower meadows, violet salvia and wild white daisy and pink 
lucerne and yellow burnished trollius, and peasants everywhere 
mow the flowery grass in thick sweet swathes. There is a smell of 
something like clover and butter in the bright snow-lit air. As the 
train goes higher the flowers by the track grow shorter and finer 
until on the slopes about Scheidegg there are thousands of white 
and pale mauve crocus, with many fragile purple soldanellas, and 
sharp fierce blue gentians among yellow silken anemones every- 
where about the short snow-pressed grass. 

As we rode up in the little train that morning under the 
dazzling snow-bright peak, the major was very interested in the 
flowers and kept asking me what they were. He was quite 
dazzled by the blueness of the gentians, and kept saying, 'Look 
at that blue, darling, look at it/ but I had never seen anyone 
quite so bored as Mrs Martineau. Gradually we climbed higher 
and nearer the snow until at last the air was white with the 
downward reflection of snow-light from the great peaks above; 
so that the powder on her cheeks, too heavy and thick for a 
young girl, looked scaly and blue and dead, and the scarlet of her 
lips had the flakiness of thin enamel wearing away. 

'God, I simply loathe tunnels/ she said. 

The Major of Hussars 211 

Above the Scheidegg the train goes into the mountain and 
climbs darkly and coldly inside, with funereal creakings and 
clankings every yard or so, for a long time. Mrs Martineau was 
furious every yard of that cold gloomy climb. 

In the half-darkness she said she could not think why the hell 
the major had not told her it was this kind of train. 

'I did tell you/ he said. 'I said it would be no fun.' 

'You said absolutely nothing of the kind.' 

'My dear, indeed I did. Did you expect the train would climb 
outside the mountain all the time ? ' 

'How the hell did I know what to expect, darling, if you didn't 
say a word ? ' 

'I said—' 

'The whole trouble is, darling, you haven't a clue.' 

'It isn't far to the top, anyway,' he said. 

'It seems a hell of a way to me ! ' she said. She looked terribly 
restless and shouted something about claustrophobia. 

So we climbed up in the cold gloom of the tunnel, with Mrs 
Martineau growing more and more furious, exclaiming more and 
more of claustrophobia, and all the time calling the major darling 
more often, as her anger grew. In the queer unwordly coldness of 
the clanking little train it was hard to believe in the pleasant heat 
of summer shining on the lake below. Mrs Martineau shivered 
and stamped her feet at the halts where we changed carriages 
and in her white and scarlet suit, with her scarlet lips and her 
white lamb-skin coat thrown over her shoulders she looked like a 
cold angry animal pacing up and down. 

But if she hated the journey up in the wearying little train 
under the mountain, she hated even more the hotel at the 
terminus on top. 

The hotel was bright and warm and flooded with the brilliant 
sunlight of high places, snow-sharp as it leapt off the glacier 
below. There was a pleasant smell of food, and the menu said 
potage parmentier and escallops of veal with spaghetti. But Mrs 
Martineau said she was height-sick and did not want to eat. 

'In any case I loathe spaghetti ! ' she said. 

'All right, dear,' the major said. He had been quite gentle, in 
an almost frightened way, under the most trying circumstances in 
the train. 'Have the veal alone.' 

'I'm not so frightfully fond of veal, either. I'm not hungry.' 

212 The Major of Hussars 

'Try it, dear.' 

Why should I try it if I hate it, darling? Why should I eat if 
I'm not hungry?' 

The major looked terribly embarrassed for us and did not 
know what to do. 

Well, can't you get the waiter, the manager or something? At 
least we could order a drink ! ' she said. 

The major sent for the manager. 

The manager was a very pleasant fat man with glasses who 
was amiably running about the large pinewood dining-room with 
two or three bottles of wine in each hand. There was a great 
popping of corks everywhere and in the high alpine sunlight, 
with the smell of food and pine-wood and sun-warmed air, noth- 
ing could have been more pleasant than to eat and drink and 
talk and watch that amiable man. 

In a few moments he spared the time to come over to us. The 
major explained how Mrs Martineau did not like the menu. 
Wasn't there something else ? he said. 

'It would mean waiting,' the manager said. 'The veal is very 
good.' He pronounced it weal instead of veal. 

'She doesn't like veal. What else could you do?' 

'It would mean waiting.' 

'Isn't there a steak or something?' Mrs Martineau said. 

'A steak, yes.' 

'All right, dear, if you'd like a steak ? ' 

'Or I could do you a fritto misto/ the manager said. 

What is that?' Mrs Martineau said. What is fritto mistoV 

The manager explained what fritto misto was. I am exceed- 
ingly fond of fritto misto myself; I like the spaghetti, and the 
delicate morsels of fried meat of various kinds, including, as the 
manager said, the small tender escallops of weal. It was, after all, 
a refined and more poetical version, with Italian variations, of the 
dish already on the menu. 

'It sounds wonderful,' Mrs Martineau said. 'I'll have that.' 

The manager did not smile. 'And something to drink? Some 
wine ? ' 

'Two bottles of the Dole,' the major said. 

The manager smiled very nicely and went away. 

'These people are always the same,' Mrs Martineau said. 'They 
don't do a damn thing until you tear the place down.' 

The Major of Hussars 213 

The one thing it is not necessary to do in Switzerland in order 
to eat is to tear the place down. And when the fritto misto 
arrived, fifteen minutes late and looking not very different from 
the escallops of veal we had eaten with so much pleasure, I 
thought Mrs Martineau ate them with great gusto for a woman 
who hated spaghetti and veal and was height-sick and not 

Before the train took us back down the mountain the major 
drank four more glasses of Kirsch after the wine. He drank them 
too fast; he also had a cognac with his coffee. And by the time 
we went upstairs to the men's room he was a little stupid and 
unsteady from the Kirsch, the wine, the cognac and the rarefied 
Jungfrau air. 

In the men's room he took out his false teeth. I had forgotten 
all about them. He was a little unsteady. And without his teeth 
he did not look like the spruce proud man we had first known at 
the hotel on the lake below. The toothless mouth had quite an 
aged, unhappy, empty look of helplessness. 

Swaying about, he wrapped his morning teeth in a small 
chamois leather bag and then took his afternoon teeth from an 
identical bag. Both sets were scrupulously clean and white. I had 
often wondered why he changed his teeth three times a day and 
now he told me. 

'Gives me a feeling of keeping young/ he said. 'Renews me. 
One gets stale, you see, wearing the same teeth. One loses a feel- 
ing of freshness.' 

He put his afternoon teeth into his mouth very neatly, and I 
could understand, seeing him now with the fresh bright teeth, 
how much younger, fresher and more sprightly he might feel. 

'You have your own teeth?' he said. 


'It's the one thing I'm awfully sensitive about. Really awfully 
sensitive. That's why I change them. I am very self-conscious 
about feeling a little old. You understand ? 

I said it was a good idea. 

He said he was glad I thought so. For a moment he swayed 
about in a confidential lugubrious sort of way, so that I thought 
he might cry. 'It would have to be something really frightfully 
bad to make me forget to change them,' he said. 

We rumbled down the mountain in the train all afternoon. 

214 The Major of Hussars 

Slowly out of the dark tunnel we came down into the dazzling 
flowery light of the Scheidegg, and once again Mrs Martineau, 
altogether oblivious of the scenery and the flowers, was height- 
sick as we waited on the station for the lower train. All the way 
down through the lovely meadows of high summer grass, rosy 
with lucerne, the major had a much needed nap, sleeping in the 
corner of the carriage with his mouth open, so that I thought 
once or twice that his teeth would fall out. Mrs Martineau did 
not speak and the major woke with a start at Interlaken. He 
looked about him open-mouthed, like a man who had woken in 
another world, and then he looked at Mrs Martineau. She looked 
young enough to be a reprimanding daughter. 

'Really, darling. Honestly/ she said. 

The major worked his teeth up and down as if they were 
bothering him, or like a dog that has nothing left to bite on. 

We parted at the hotel. 

'Oh! dear/ I said to my wife, and this time she did not ask 
what lay behind it. She, too, had rather given up. It was one of 
those excursions on which enemies are made for life, and for 
some reason or other I thought that neither the major nor Mrs 
Martineau would ever speak to us again. 

It was Saturday, in fact, five days later, before we came near 
enough to them to exchange another word. Somehow we always 
saw them from a distance. We saw the major running back to the 
hotel with Mrs Martineau's bag; we saw them on the steamers, 
where the major no longer enjoyed the pink-eared ham sand- 
wiches or made eye-love to the waitress; we saw them shopping 
in the town. Mrs Martineau wore many new dresses; she seemed 
to go in very particularly for short- skirted, frothy things, or day- 
frocks with sailor stripes of scarlet and blue, so that she looked 
more than ever like a young bright girl and the major more than 
ever like a father too painfully devoted. 

On Saturday came the affair of the eucalyptus tree. It was one 
of those trees that the Swiss are fond of for courtyards and bal- 
conies in summer; it was three or four feet high and it had soft 
tender blue-grey leaves that I always thought looked charming 
against the red pot on the major's sunny balcony. 

At half-past five that afternoon we heard the most awful 
crash on the floor below. I went to the balcony and looked 
down. The eucalyptus tree lay shattered in the courtyard below, 

The Major of Hussars 215 

and on the balcony the major, looking very unspruce and dis- 
hevelled and shattered himself, was standing in his undervest and 
trousers, staring down. For a moment I could not tell whether 
the major had thrown the eucalyptus tree down there in a 
terrible fit of despair, or whether Mrs Martineau had thrown it 
at him in an equally terrible fit of anger. 

A waiter in a white jacket and then the manager came running 
out of the hotel to see what had happened and at the same 
moment Mrs Martineau shouted from the bedroom: 'Come 
inside you decrepit old fool ! Stop making an exhibition of your- 
self, for God's sake ! ' 

'Please!' I heard the major say. 'People are coming. , 

'Well, let them come!' she shouted. 'If you've no more sense 
than to take a room with a eucalyptus tree when you know I 
loathe eucalyptus, when you know I've a phobia about 
eucalyptus — ' 

'It isn't that sort of eucalyptus,' the major whispered. 

'Any kind of eucalyptus is eucalyptus to me ! ' she shouted. 

'Please,' the major said. He leaned over the balcony and called 
down to the waiter and the manager below. 

'An accident ! I will pay ! ' 

'Oh! for God's sake come inside!' she shouted. 'What's it 
matter ? ' 

'I will pay ! ' the major shouted down again. 

Back in the room Mrs Martineau began throwing things. 
'You're always fussing!' I heard her shout, and then there was 
the enraged dull noise of things like books and shoes being 

'Please, darling, don't do that,' the major said. 'Don't do it 

'Oh ! shut up ! ' she said. 'And these damn things too ! ' 

I heard the most shattering crash as if a glass tumbler had 
been thrown. 

'Oh ! not my teeth ! ' the major said. 'Please, darling. Not my 
teeth ! For God's sake, not both sets, please ! ' 

He rushed into the bedroom. I went back into my own. 

'Whatever in the world?' my wife said. 

'Just the eucalyptus tree,' I said. 'The major will pay.' 

The following afternoon the major and Mrs Martineau went 
away. On the lake the steamers were very crowded and under the 

216 The Major of Hussars 

lime trees, at the restaurant by the landing-stage, the Sunday 
orchestra played very loudly to crowds of visitors in the hot 
afternoon. It was glorious weather, and on the four o'clock 
steamer as it came in there were crowds of happy Sunday- 
laughing people. 

On the landing-stage neither Mrs Martineau nor the major 
looked very happy. The hotel porter with his scarlet cap stood 
guarding their luggage, three trunks, two brown hide suitcases, 
a military-looking khaki grip, a pigskin hat-box and a shooting- 
stick, and the major, who was no longer wearing his spruce 
shantung but a suit of grey tweed, did not see us on the quay. 
Beside us the two Italian Swiss with their guitars were waiting to 
catch the steamer too. 

When the boat came in there was some difficulty about getting 
the major's luggage aboard. The trunks were fairly large and the 
porters grew hot and excited and everyone stared. But at last it 
was all finished, and on the landing-stage the hotel porter raised 
his scarlet cap in polite farewell. 

As the. steamer moved away the major stood by the rail, 
watching the shore. I could not see Mrs Martineau. Somewhere 
behind him the two Italian Swiss struck up with their guitars 
and began to play their little hungry-sweet gay tune. 

At that moment the major saw us. He lifted his hand in 
recognition, and almost eagerly, I thought, in sudden good-bye. 
He opened his mouth as if to say something, but the steamer was 
already too far away and his mouth remained open and empty, 
without a sound. And in that moment I remembered something. 
I remembered the eucalyptus tree falling from the balcony and 
the crash of the major's teeth on the bedroom wall. 

'How beautiful the Jungfrau is to-day,' my wife said. 

From the steamer the major, with his wrong teeth in, gave the 
most painful sort of smile, and sweetly from across the lake came 
the gay sound of the guitars. 


'I suppose the fact is men are more sentimental about them/ she 
said. Wouldn't you think that was it ? ' 

'No/ he said. 

Her face, underneath a little hat of striped brown and white 
fur, was like that of a pretty tigress that did not smile. 

'But don't they have them at Oxford?' she said. 'Isn't it one of 
those things there?' 

'How can having them at Oxford possibly have anything to do 
with it?' he said. 

'I don't know. I just thought,' she said. 

As the train rushed forward into spring twilight I could see, 
everywhere on the rainy green cuttings, pale eyes of primroses 
winking up from among parallel reflections of carriage lights. 
Above and beyond the cuttings many apple orchards were in 
thick wide pink bloom. 

'Then what is it you don't like about them ? ' she said. 

'In the first place they're messy. They're not like pansies,' he 
said. 'They don't have the flower on a stem. That's what repulses 
me. They're messy.' 

'Repulses,' she said. 'What a word.' 

His hair, a weak brandy brown, was shredded like tobacco into 
short separated curls that hung untidily down over the fiery flesh 
of his neck. His lips were full and pettish. When motionless they 
were like a thick slit in a red indiarubber ball. In the soft fat 
face the eyes were like blue glass marbles that did not quite fit 
into their sandy lidded slots and I sometimes got the impression 
that they would suddenly drop out as he gazed at her. 

At this moment she hid behind her newspaper and in the 
darkening glass of the train windows, across the carriage, we ex- 
changed reflections. I half expected her to smile. Instead I saw 
the last of the paling primrose reflections sow themselves lightly 
across a pair of dark still eyes that were almost expressionless. 

'Another thing is that the smell absolutely nauseates me.' 

'Why?' she said. 'It's so delicious.' 


218 Elaine 

'Not to me.' 

'Oh! that's fantastic/ she said. 'That heavenly scent. Every- 
body thinks so.' 

'I don't happen to be everybody/ he said. 

She had lowered her newspaper as she spoke. Now, sharply, 
she raised it up again. As she did so she pulled up, very slightly, 
the skirt of her dress, so that I could see for a moment or two 
her small pretty knees. 

'Who was it who made that remark about pansies being one 
side of Leicester Square and wallflowers on the other ?' she said. 

'That was Elaine.' 

'I knew it was somebody.' 

'Thank you.' 

This time I knew she would smile at me and I got ready to 
smile back at her dark steady reflection in the glass. But to my 
surprise she did not smile. She sat transfixed, staring at me as if 
I were transparent and she could see through and beyond me 
into the mass of fading apple orchards sailing past in the 
brilliant blue evening above the cuttings. 

'What sort of day did you have?' she said. 'What did you do?' 

'I had a very bad, tiring day.' 

'All bad days are tiring/ she said. 'That's why they're bad.' 

'Don't be trite.' 

He began to fuss with a brief-case, taking out first papers, 
then books, sorting them over and putting them back again. 
Between his knees he held a walking-stick of thick brown cane, 
the colour something more than a shade or two paler than the 
hairs that crawled down the flanks of his face. In the confusion 
he let the walking-stick slip and it fell with a clatter on 
the carriage floor and as he leaned forward to pick it up I saw his 
hands. They were pink and puffy, as if the flesh had been lightly 

'Why don't you put it on the rack ? ' she said. 

'Because I prefer it here.' 

'You didn't ask me what I did today/ she said. 

'If it had been interesting you'd have told me all about it/ he 

After that the girl and I stared at each other for a long time 
from behind the evening papers, first directly and then, when I 
could not bear the steady smileless dark eyes looking straight at 

Elaine 219 

me any longer, obliquely through the darkening glass. Now and 
then she moved her body slightly and I could see once again the 
rounded pretty knees. Then when she saw me looking at the 
knees she would cover them up again, not quickly, but dreamily, 
slowly, almost absent-mindedly, fixing me always with the steady 
eyes from under the tigress hat. 

All the time I expected her to smile at me but all this time 
there was no sign of a smile. I had begun to wonder how long 
this strange exchange could go on, first the direct stare, then the 
stare that was like something between two apparitions on two 
smoky photographic plates, and then the knees uncovering them- 
selves and her hands slowly covering them up again, when she 

'I think this is frightfully funny. Look at this.' 

She leaned forward and gave him the evening paper. He took it 
with puffy casual hands and for the first time I saw her smile. 
The parting of her lips, revealing her teeth, produced exactly the 
same effect as the parting of her skirt when it revealed her knees. 
They were very pretty teeth and he did not notice them either. 

'Why funny?' he said. 

He gave her back the paper. 

'Don't you think it's funny? I do.' 

'In what way?' 

'Well, I don't know - 1 just think it's funny.' 

'You mean it's funny because you think it is or you think it's 
funny because it really is?' 

'I just think it's funny -that's all. Don't you?' 


The smile, as it went from her face, reminded me of a flame 
turned off by a tap. Abruptly she turned it on again; and again 
the teeth were white and pretty and he did not notice them. 

'You can't have looked at the right piece,' she said. 

She gave him back the paper. 

'It made me laugh ' 

'It's exactly like the wallflowers,' he said. 'Just because you 
think they're sweet it doesn't mean to say they are. That doesn't 
make it a fact. Don't you see?' 


Furiously he threw the evening paper back in her face. She 
caught it in silence and held it rigidly in front of her. In this 

220 Elaine 

painful moment there was nothing for me to do but to hide 
behind my own. By this time the evening was fully dark outside 
and in place of primroses and orchards of apple bloom, cande- 
scent in the twilight, I could see only the rolling phantom lights 
of little country stations. 

For some time I watched these lights. Then there was a long 
stretch of line with no lights at all and presently from behind my 
paper I looked at her face again. To my astonishment the smile 
was still there. It was not only still there but she appeared, it 
seemed to me, to be nursing it. It was like a light or a piece of 
fire she did not want to go out. 

When she caught me looking at her again she seemed to do the 
trick of turning the tap again. The pretty teeth were suddenly 
hidden behind the tight lips. Only the pretty knees remained 
exposed, delicate and pale and rounded, until with the dreamy 
absent movement she covered them up again. 

Then she began to talk to him from behind her paper. 

'Did you have dinner?' she said. 

He moved savagely among his books and papers and did not 

With Elaine?' 

He did not answer. 

'How was Elaine ? ' she said. 

Her voice had raised itself a little. She looked at me hard from 
behind the paper. 

The train screamed through a little station beyond which were 
woods that were torn with long shrill echoes. I shaded my face 
with my hand and squinted out and pretend to search among the 
flashing little old-fashioned station lamps for a name, but dark- 
ness rushed in and tall spring woods crowded the sky. 

'Dear Elaine/ she said. 

He suddenly got up and snatched a suitcase from the rack. He 
banged on its locks as if they were jammed and she said: 

'She's a dear. I like her. Did she have her lily-of-the-valley hat 

The suitcase yawned open and he began to try to press into it 
the brief-case with its books and papers. There was not room for 
it and he banged at it for some time with his podgy fingers like 
an angry baker pummelling dough. 

'Or was it wallflowers ? or doesn't she like them ? ' 

Elaine 221 

He wrestled with the two cases. In a moment or two he gave 
up the idea of putting one into the other and threw the brief- 
case on to the seat. Then he shut down the locks of the larger 
case in two swift metallic snaps and said: 

'You take the brief-case. I'll take the two suitcases. We're 
nearly there.' 

From behind her newspaper she had nothing to say. Her knees 
with their delicate rounded prettiness were exposed again, with 
a naked effect of pure smooth skin but he did not notice them as 
he leaned forward and said in a voice of slow, cold, enamelled 
articulation : 

'I said would you take the brief-case? Do you mind? I'll 
take the suitcases. I have only one pair of hands.' 

What a funny thing to talk to a woman about,' she said. 'The 
scent of wallflowers.' 

'We shall be there in two minutes,' he said. 

He reached up for the second suitcase. It was cumbersome, of 
old shiny worn leather that slipped too easily down through his 
hands. He prevented its fall with clumsiness and as he did so 
she stared at me again, full face this time, unsmiling, the dark 
bright eyes giving that uneasy effect of trying to transfix and 
penetrate me. 

And when she spoke again it was again in a slightly louder 
voice, gazing straight at me : 

'I told you it was because men were more sentimental about 
them. They always are about flowers.' 

From the rack he took down a large brown dufflecoat, strug- 
gling fatly into it, submerging everything of himself except the 
untidy mass of brandy brown hair. I could see by this time the 
lights of the town and I could hear the train brakes grinding on. 
Sharply he slid back the corridor door but she made no sign of 
getting up. He did not look at her either. He was unaware of the 
pretty knees, the uplifted face, the little tigress hat. He was con- 
sumed by the struggle to get two suitcases through the door at 
once. Then the train lurched over points and the sudden motion 
seemed to throw himself, the suitcases and the heavy walking- 
stick in one clattering mass into the corridor outside. 

'Don't forget anything,' he said. 

A moment later he had disappeared along the corridor. The 
train stopped and I heard him banging on an outer door to open 

222 Elaine 

it. I saw him lurch forward under the station lights, grossly out 
of balance, head forward, puffing. 

She got up and began to gather up her things. I waited behind 
her so that she could leave the carriage first and it was only then 
that I realised how much he had left for her to carry. She was 
trying to gather up an umbrella, a handbag, three parcels, the 
brief-case and the evening paper. 

'May I help?' I said. 

She stared past me coldly. 

'No, thank you/ 

'It's no trouble.' 

She stared into me this time, rather as she had done so many 
times on the journey. For a second or two her eyes were, 
I thought, less chilly. I fancied there was perhaps a little relaxing 
in the lips. For another second or two I thought of the way she 
had exposed her knees and how attractive they were and how 
pretty. I thought too of the wallflowers, of Elaine, of the lily-of- 
the-valley hat and of how there were pansies on one side of 
the square and wallflowers on the other. Most of all I remem- 
bered how men were sentimental about them. 

'Are you quite sure ? ' I said. 

'Quite sure.' 

'It's absolutely no trouble. I have nothing to carry and if — ' 

'Good night,' she said. 

Outside, in the station yard, a light rain was falling. As I stood 
unlocking the door of my car a sudden wind seemed to throw 
her out of the station. She came out without dignity, as if lost, 
clutching parcels and brief-case and umbrella and newspaper, 
and she could not put up the umbrella against the rain. 

Thirty yards ahead he was striding out, oblivious, still grossly 
out of balance, brandy-coloured head down against the rain. 

When she saw him she gave a little cry and began running. I 
could see her pretty legs flickering under the lights of the station 
yard, white against the black spring rain. 

'Darling,' she called after him. 'Darling. Couldn't you wait for 


As he came off the train, under a sky dusky yellow with spent 
thunder, he turned instinctively to take the short cut, over the 
iron footbridge. You could cut across allotment grounds that way 
and save half a mile to the town. He saw then that the footbridge 
had been closed. A notice painted in prussian blue, blocking the 
end of it, saying Bridge Unsafe. Keep off. Trespassers will be 
prosecuted, told him more than anything else how much the 
town had changed. 

It was some time, the long way, down the slope and under the 
other bridge, before you got clear of the coalyards. The street 
was narrow and torrents of thunder-rain had flooded the granite 
setts with tides that left in the gutters patches of black sand that 
gave off oily glinting rainbows in the hot wet air. 

Beyond the coal-yards, where sheds spanned strips of railway 
track like huge black bats in the gaping sky, there was a pub that 
he remembered well because, many years before, he often 
stopped at it as he came down from the country to market, 
bringing his plums or peas or broccoli or apples or, in early 
spring, his daffodils. In those days he had started first of all with 
a horse and trap, then a motor bike with a large flat side-car that 
he had made himself. He had good, powerful hands. In the year 
he had met Cora Whitehead he had saved enough for his first 
car. He was twenty-two then, and that was the year he had begun 
to go ahead. 

The brick walls of the pub were red-black with old smoke 
from passing trains. Just beyond it another road bridge, 
blackened too, spanned the tracks, and the lights of buses passing 
over it were a strange sharp green under the unnatural stormy 
glare of sky. 

The lights in the pub were burning too. They touched the cut- 
glass pattern of foaming jug and bottle in the glass door with 
outer stencillings of silver that the light of sky, in turn, im- 
pressed with a stormy copper glow. 

Til have a double whisky with water/ he said. 


224 The Daffodil Sky 

Two railwaymen were playing darts in one corner of the 
saloon, perching pint jugs of dark beer on the mahogany curve 
of the counter. Another man was shooting a pin-table, making 
the little lights come up with jumping, yellow fires. 

There had never been a pin-table in the old days. That 
too showed how things had changed. The barman too was a 

'How much is that ? ' 

'Three and six.' 

'Have something for yourself ? ' 

'Well, thank you/ the barman said. Til have a brown.' 

'I'm looking for a Miss Whitehead,' he said. 

The barman drew himself an overflowing small ale in a glass. 
He set it on the counter and then picked it up again and wiped 
away, with a cloth, the circle of froth it had made. 

'You mean in here ? ' 

'No. She used to come in here. She used to live in Wellington 

'Wellington Street ? When would that be ? ' 

'Before the war. She used to work in the stocking factory.' 

'That's been a minute,' the barman said. 'They built a new 
one ten year ago. Outside the town.' 

'She was a big girl. Brown hair - a lot of it. Turning red. She 
used to come in here in Jack Shipley's time.' 

'Jack Shipley - that's been a minute,' the barman said. 'Jack's 
been dead eight year - nine year. That's been a minute.' 

The shorter of the two railwaymen stood with a dart in his 
hand, poised forward on the balls of his feet, in readiness to 

'You mean Cora Whitehead ? ' he said. 

'That's her.' 

'She's still in Wellington Street. Her old dad works at the fur- 
naces. He was a plate-layer once -then he went to the furnaces 
when they started up again.' 

'That's been a minute,' the barman said. 

'Thanks,' he said. 

He drained his glass and set it down. There was no point in 
waiting. He went outside and heard, almost immediately, from 
beyond the coal-yards, a new peal of thunder. It seemed to roll 
back, in an instant, the entire discoloured space of sky above 

The Daffodil Sky 225 

him, leaving it pure and clear as it had been on the morning he 
had first called in, many years ago, with the idea of giving his 
horse a bucket of water and having a pint of Black Boy for him- 
self. He remembered that day as if, in the way the barman said, 
it had been a minute ago. His cart was piled with daffodils. Like 
the sky where the storm had ripped it open in the west they were 
fresh and brilliant, shot through with pale green fire. The morn- 
ing was one of those April mornings that break with pure blue 
splendour and then are filled, by ten o'clock, with coursing 
western cloud. A spatter of hail caught him unawares on the 
bridge. He had no time to put the tarpaulin up and he gave the 
horse a lick instead and came down into the pub-yard with the 
hail cutting his face like slugs of steel. He drove the cart under a 
shed at the back and then ran through the yard to the saloon 
door and by that time the hail was big and spaced and glistening 
as snow in the sun. 

'Don't knock me flat/ she said. 'Somebody might want me to- 
morrow. ' 

Running with head down, he had reached the door at the same 
time as she did. He blundered clumsily against her shoulders. 
She had a morning off that day and she had started out in a thin 
dress with no sleeves, thinking that summer had come. The 
funny thing was that he couldn't remember the colour of the 
dress. It might have been anything: black or white or blue or 
cream. He didn't remember. He remembered only the shoulders 
and the bare arms, the big fleshy arms cold and wet with 
splashes of hail, the big soft lips, the masses of heavy red-brown 
hair and the brown eyes set into whites that were really a kind 
of greyish china-blue. 

Then the door stuck and he could not open it. A final whip of 
hail lashed along the pub-wall as he tried to twist the loose wet 
brass knob. She began laughing and the laugh was strong and 
friendly and yet low in key. A moment later the sun flashed out. 
The glare of it was white and blinding after the shadow of hail 
and he felt it hot on his face and neck, burning the skin where 
hail had cut him. 

'You're as good as an umbrella on a wet day,' she said. 

Then the door opened and they were inside the pub. It was 
simpler in those days : just a beer-house where railwaymen called 

226 The Daffodil Sky 

as they came up from the yards and a farmer or two like him- 
self from across the valley. There was a big triangle of cheese 
under a glowing brown cheese-dish on the counter and a white 
round spittoon on the sawdust floor. You could smell steam- 
coal smoke and stale beer and cheap strong cheese, but she said 
almost at once : 

'There's a smell of flowers or something. Can't you smell it?' 
and he saw her nostrils widen and quiver as she breathed at the 
scent of daffodils. 

'I got a load of 'em/ he said. 'Been gathering them since six 
this morning. It's the scent on my hands.' 

Almost unconsciously he lifted his hands and she took them 
and held them against her face. 

'That's it/ she said. 'That's lovely.' 

She smiled and drank Black Boy with him. It was early and 
there was no one else in the pub. Once as she lifted the black 
foaming glass of stout she laughed again and pretended to wince 
and said: 

'I believe you bruised my arm. My drinking arm at that.' 

'I always been big and clumsy/ he said. 'I can't help it.' 

'Then somebody will have to teach you better, won't they? she 
said. 'Can you see any bruise?' 

He looked down at her arm, the upper part soft and fleshy and 
bruiseless, and he felt the flame of her go through him for the 
first time. 

'Farmer?' she said, and he told her yes, sort of, hardly know- 
ing what he said, feeling only the racing flame running hot 
through his blood and choking his thinking. She asked him a lot 
of questions, all about himself, how he was getting on, how many 
acres he had, what his plans were, and she seemed somehow to 
talk with the enormous glistening brown eyes rather than with 
her lips. At least that was how he remembered it : the big brown 
eyes always widening and transfixing him, bold and warm and 
apparently still and yet not still, drawing him down in fascination 
until he could hardly trust himself to look at her. 

He had wanted to be early at market that day. The trade in 
Midland market-squares didn't begin till afternoon but he had 
reckoned on being there by twelve o'clock. He stayed drinking 
with her until nearly two. They ate most of the cheese from the 
big dish on the bar counter and he began to feel his eyes crossing 

The Daffodil Sky 227 

and rolling as he looked at her. He thought several times of the 
daffodils in the cart and the drink of water he ought to be giving 
to his horse. He worried about it for a time and then it didn't 
matter. Hail seemed to spring and lash at the windows every 
time he made up his mind that he ought to go, and then the 
fierce, flashing daffodil sun was out again and the railyards were 
steaming in the cutting below. 

'You'll be all right/ she said. 'Nobody gets up to market-hill 
yet awhile. It's Friday. Take it easy. You'll catch folks as they 
come from the factories. You'll be lucky.' 

'I ought to go - 1 got a lot to unpack — ' 

Tou'll be lucky,' she said. 'You're the sort. You'll get on. 
Your sort always does.' 

'How do you know ? ' 

'I'm lucky for them/ she said. 'I always am.' 

Presently that was how it turned out; all that day and other 
days the luck was with him. Hail closed in again that afternoon, 
rattling white bullets across the black setts of the market square, 
but the evening was clear and fine, with a bright yellow-green 
frosty April sky. People came late to buy under the orange par- 
affin flares. The daffodils shone a deeper yellow in the oily glow. 
Everything was good and the luck was with him. 

The motor-bike followed the cart. He had thought about it 
already and decided he couldn't afford it. Then it turned out she 
knew a man named Frankie Corbett who had a Beardmore com- 
bination that he was willing to sell very cheap and that she could 
even get for less than that, she thought. He made the side- 
truck himself from packing cases, with a detachable tarpaulin 
hood for wet days. It was a natural step from that to the 

'You see I'm lucky for you/ she would say. 'Like I told you. I'm 
lucky. I always am.' 

That summer he began to go to the house in Wellington 
Street. Her mother was dead and her father worked a night-shift 
at the furnaces. That made it easy to spend the nights with her. 
Her body was like her face: big and frank and bold, running 
against him like a brassy flame. In exactly the way that she 
always seemed to speak to him through her large brown eyes 
rather than her lips so all her thoughts about him did not come 
from her mind but through the pores of her skin. 

228 The Daffodil Sky 

'You know what?' she would say. 'I know when you turn the 
corner by the bridge. I feel it. That's how I feel. I can tell you're 

He rented his land, five acres of it, from an elderly man named 
Osborne who kept chickens and geese on an adjoining ten acres, 
most of it an orchard of apples and plums where the daffodils 
grew thick and almost wild in spring. 'I'm gittin' old,' Osborne 
would say. 'I'm gittin' past it, boy.' He had a room with Osborne 
in a square wooden bungalow surrounded by a cart-hovel and a 
few disused pig-sties and a stack of hay that was taken every year 
from the orchard. Osborne pottered about the place with a scythe 
or a feed-bucket or a basket of eggs. At certain times of the year 
the house seemed full of geese-feathers. In wet weather the yard 
was sloppy and green with web-flattened droppings. 

'I'm gittin' past it/ Osborne said. 'If you could raise the 
money I'd git out and be glad on it. I'll go and live with my sister. 
Raise part on it, boy. You'll git on. Raise part on it and pay me 

He remembered the day, most of all the evening, Osborne had 
told him that. Suddenly all his life seemed to pull him forward 
like a bounding dog on a leash. It seemed to tear at the socket of 
his mind with a terrible excitement. He was going to own his 
own land, his own house, his own poultry or heifers or bullocks 
or whatever it was he wanted. He was going to have his feet on 
his own piece of earth. 

He drove her out that evening across the valley, along a back- 
water of the river, not much more than a wide ditch after the 
heat of summer, where meadowsweet and willow-herb and thick 
red burnet with a smell of cucumber made a deep barrier that 
hid the two of them from the road. They lay down by the back- 
water and it was so still that he could hear young pike rising 
below him, making soft sounds like blobs of summer rain in 
the warm pools. He took off his coat and lay on his back and 
stared at the sky and spoke of his plans. He was for rushing in 
and fixing it up at once, before there could be any hitch in things, 
but it was she who held him back. 

'Very like this Osborne is crafty. They're always the same. 
They seem simple and then they've got something up their 

The Daffodil Sky 229 

'Osborne's all right. He's as straight as the day is long.' 

'Yes, and some days are longer than others/ she said. 'Don't 
forget that.' 

She lay on her back too, staring with brown eyes at the 
August sky, giving the impression once again that her words 
flowed sleepily out of them. 

'You get it right from the beginning/ she said. 'Then you'll 
know it's right. How much money have you got?' 

He had saved a hundred and fifty pounds. He thought 
the farm could make him three hundred a year. 'I seen the bills 
for eggs. That's more than a hundred,' he said. 

'You'll put your hundred and fifty down as deposit and then 
what've you got ? ' she said. 

'I got all the stock. The geese and the hens. The fruit - there's 
a lot of fruit. The goodwill.' 

'What's goodwill ? ' she said. 

'You know what it is. Every business has got goodwill.' 

'So has your grandmother/ she said. 

She lay for some time longer staring at the sky. Then she shut 
her eyes. Dusky olive, the lids seemed to throb softly and steadily 
under the evening heat, and suddenly she turned with closed eyes 
and put her mouth against his face, finding his own mouth with 
instinct, without mistake or clumsiness, the first time. Her way of 
kissing was in long, soft strokes of her lips, from side to side, 
each as if it were the last, as if she could not bear it and must 
break away. 

After a long time she broke away. She seemed to have been 
thinking and she opened her eyes. 

'What if I came in with you ? ' 

He felt he needed only something like that for the completion 
of his plan and his happiness. 

'I've got fifty saved up/ she said. 'What does he want for the 
place ? ' 

'A thousand for the bungalow and everything in.' 

'That's two hundred we've got. Could you raise any more?' 

'I don't know where from.' 

'I might raise it/ she said. 'Frankie Corbett might raise for us. 
He's got it - I've only got to talk round him somehow.' 

Suddenly he was leaning over her, holding her face in his 

230 The Daffodil Sky 

We'll get married/ he said. 'You know what you said - you're 
lucky for me.' 

'Are you asking me ? ' she said. 

'Yes/ he said. 'Yes, I'm asking.' 

'All right,' she said. 'I'm glad you asked me.' 

He would never forget that day : the soft summer evening with 
fish plopping in the pools of the backwater, the smell of water 
and meadowsweet and willow-herb, the cool cucumber smell of 
burnet which they crushed with their bodies as they lay there; 
and all his green, bounding satisfaction at his luck, his success 
and his future, a young man with a car, a house, a farm-holding 
and the woman he wanted. 

'And to think it all started,' he said, 'with the daffodils.' 

'It's always little things like that,' she said. 

Six weeks later, almost to the minute, on a rainy October 
evening, he was killing Frankie Corbett in a street below the 

He walked slowly and deliberately up Wellington Street. The 
houses were all the same, long rows of flat boxes in blackened 
yellow brick, with gaping oblong holes for porches. It was 
getting darker with the swing of the storm coming back across 
the railway yards. 

A man came up the street with two whippet dogs quiet as long- 
legged ferrets covered with red and yellow jackets as they trotted 
before him on a double leash. That was how Frankie Corbett 
had come up that evening, except that he had only one dog, a 
wire-haired white mongrel that yapped in front of him without a 
lead. It had been getting dark then too, with spits of rain and a 
cold touch of autumn in the wind, and he knew the man was 
Frankie Corbett because of the dog. He had to admit he had 
been waiting for Frankie. He was too honest not to admit it and 
it was the honesty of it, subsequently, that had him damned. 
He was simply waiting to have a word with Frankie, that was all. 
He knew Frankie exercised the dog every evening about the same 
time. That was the only thing about it he had managed with any 
subtlety. He had tricked Cora into telling him that. The rest was 
clumsy and stupid. 

What he ought to have realised, and did not realise till after- 
wards, was that he had been blinded with the stupor of a slow- 

The Daffodil Sky 231 

eating jealousy. First there was the way she began to call him 
Frankie. 'Frankie'll get the money. I'll see Frankie. I got to see 
Frankie tomorrow. No, I can't see you because I got to see 
Frankie. Of course I'm going to his house -where else would I 
go? You don't suppose he carries a couple o' hundred quid round 
with him any day ? ' 

How long had she known this Frankie? That was the next 
step in his rising suspicion of her. 

'Oh! years. I never knew the time when I didn't know 

Had she been with him? She knew how he meant -that way? 
more than friends? 

'Oh ! I don't say we didn't have a bit of fun sometimes. Girls 
do - it's been known.' 

He wasn't talking about fun. He was talking about something 
else. What about that? 

'Oh! we courted a bit once. But we were always squabbling. 
We were no good for each other.' 

Then why didn't she give it up? Once and for all? Why did 
she go on seeing him? Why did she think she had the pull with 
him to get the money ? 

'Oh ! I can get round him,' she said. 

Get round him? That was a damn funny expression. What did 
that mean ? 

'We want the money, don't we?' she said. 'I got to get it the 
best way I can, haven't I? You can't just rush in and ask for a 
couple of hundred quid like that, can you ? ' 

It took a month to get the money. Long before the end of it his 
mind was eaten by something more than suspicion. He began to 
lie awake at night with his head feeling black and soft and heavy 
as a rotting apple, and in it a vast canker, ugly as death, slimily 
eating its way outward. 

That was how he came to be standing in the raining October 
street, waiting for Frankie. His dream of the house, the farm, the 
little orchard with its daffodils had been eaten by the canker. 

Presently, after that ugly obliteration, he knew that she was 
going to have a child. And somehow he felt that the child was 
ugly and cankerous too: that was not because he knew it was 
Frankie's. It was because he didn't know. And that was why, in 
the end, he had to have a word with Frankie. 

232 The Daffodil Sky 

That evening he waited for nearly half an hour in the street 
and there were people who passed and saw him waiting. Then 
the dog came, yapping, and then Frankie came, a man older than 
he was, with jockey legs in brown buckskin breeches and a yellow 
check muffler and black check cap and a cane crop in his hands. 

He stopped him, and they stood on the pavement and spoke a 
word or two. He was trembling violently and the air was a con- 
fusion of red and black. A few heavier spits of rain came hastily 
down and Frankie said he was getting wet and hadn't all night 
to stand there jawing over trifles. 'There's no trifle about this 
and all I want is a straight answer.' Then the dog yapped, 
splashing in a gutter puddle, and Frankie began to swing the 

He had a sudden blind idea that the swing of the crop was 
meant for him. A moment later he was hitting at Frankie with a 
broccoli knife. It was a thin curved knife and he had sharpened 
it that morning on the grindstone, with Osborne turning the 
wheel. Then Frankie lashed at him with the crop and then in 
return he hit out with the knife again. At the fourth or fifth 
stroke Frankie fell and hit his skull against the iron lip of the 
gutter, and suddenly there was bright blood in the rain. 

It was exactly as she had said: it was the little things that 
started it. The broccoli knife, the grindstone, the yapping dog, 
the people seeing him waiting in the rain. 

And then, on top of these, his jealousy of Frankie. She had 
made a great deal, in the witness box, of his jealousy of Frankie. 
What sort of jealousy would you call it?' they had asked her. 
'Normal jealousy? Blind jealousy? A passing sort of jealousy? 
What kind of jealousy did it seem to you?' 

'I'd call it black,' she said. 

And he knew, again, that that was true. She knew, as always, 
exactly how he felt about things. She was full of the uncanny 
instinct of the blood. 

The number in Wellington Street was eighty-four. He stood 
for a moment outside. He felt his blood plunging and beating in 
his chest like a clumsy suction pump exactly as it had done the 
night he had waited for Frankie. If she was there what was he 
going to say to her? What was he going to do? 

It was like an argument that for all those years had not been 
finished. He wanted to have the last word: perhaps another 

The Daffodil Sky 233 

violent one, perhaps only to tell her what he thought of her, per- 
haps merely to ask why in God's name she had had to do a thing 
like that? Perhaps it was a damn fool thing to do. Perhaps he 
ought to have kept away. A man of his age ought to know better. 
He was a man of forty now; the young man with the dream of a 
piece of orchard land and a place of his own had long been eaten 
by the canker. 

He rapped on the door by twice lifting the knocker above the 
slit of letter box. A streak of lightning went forking across the 
darkening brown-purple sky and seemed to be answered, a 
moment or so later, by the flash of a naked light in the passage of 
the house. 

His hands were trembling and he locked them together. The 
door dragged on the jerry-built bottom step. He felt the same 
dragging sensation across his chest and then a terrified and blind- 
ing idea that if she opened the door he might not be able to re- 
strain himself but would rush straight at her and kill her exactly 
as he had killed Frankie. Then he remembered that this time 
there would be no manslaughter about it, and he gripped his 
hands even harder behind his back, waiting. 

When she opened the door he knew at once that she had not 
changed much. The light from the naked electric bulb illumi- 
nated reddishly the mass of chestnut hair. The curious thing was, 
he thought, that he had no agony or bitterness about her. He felt 
only the flame of her stab through him again exactly as it had 
done on the day he had run against her in hail and sun, the day 
of the daffodils. 

'Yes?* she said. 

Then he knew that the voice was not the same. It was quieter 
and lighter in key. And then in a quick movement she turned her 
face and peered at him and he knew that the face was not the 

He knew that it was, after all, not her at all. 

'I am looking for a Miss Whitehead/ he said, 'or perhaps it's 
Mrs Whitehead. , 

Tm Miss Whitehead/ she said. 'Mrs Whitehead isn't in.' 

'Are you Cora's girl ? ' he said. 

'Yes, that's my mother/ she said. 

He began to say that he was an old friend of her mother's. He 

234 The Daffodil Sky 

found himself clumsily using the words 'stranger in the district/ 
and asking when would she be back? 

'Not tonight/ she said. 'She's just gone on shift. She's out at 
the stocking factory/ 

'I see/ he said. 'Perhaps I could call again.' 

'You could catch her tomorrow. ' 

'All right/ he said. He found he could not take his eyes off the 
mass of reddish, familiar, light-framed hair. Til see if I can drop 
in tomorrow.' 

'What time? What name shall I say?' 

A burst of thunder seemed to fill the street with a solid spout 
of rain before he could answer. 

'It's coming back. You'd better wait/ she said. 'You could 
come in and wait.' 

'No. I'll get a bus back to the station/ he said. 

The street was drowned in storm-white curtains. 

'You'll get soaked/ she said. 'Wait till it lets up a bit.' 

Overhead the thunder made a raw lash, with long overtones of 
echoes, and heavy rain swept in as far as his feet in the 

'You'd better stand in the doorway/ she said. 

She pushed back the door as far as it could go and he stood 
with his back to the door-frame, she on the other side. 

'Frightened of thunder ? ' he said. 


Suddenly he felt the rising steam of rain in the air, making it 
hotter and thicker than ever. His blood began to beat again with 
heavy suction strokes in his throat. She had turned her face now 
and she was leaning one bare shoulder on the door-frame, her 
arms folded across her breasts. They were the same kind of arms, 
full and naked and fleshy, that had inflamed him on the day he 
had first met her mother. He wondered suddenly if the eyes were 
the same, brown and large, with that strange and compelling 
manner of eloquence, and then a moth flew across her neck, 
darting for the light in the passage, and as she turned to brush it 
away he saw the same perfect brown depth in the pupils, 
the same blueness in the large whites, the same eloquence that 
could say things without speaking. 

'It seems as if it'll never let up/ she said. 'It's been 
rolling round all day.' 

The Daffodil Sky 235 

'Perhaps Fd better make a dash for it.' 

'You'll get soaked. Have you got a train to catch? If you 
haven't I could lend you an umbrella and you could bring it back 

He peered for a second out of the dripping doorway. 'It looks 
lighter across the yards.' 

'Wait one more minute,' she said. 'Then if it doesn't let up I'll 
lend you the umbrella.' 

He waited, watching her face, younger and lighter and finer in 
tone than her mother's as he remembered it, the hair soft and 
red, perhaps a tone or two darker, the throat moving with deep 
slow strokes in the naked cross-light from behind her. 

'Still at school?' he said. 

'Good Lord, no. Me? I'm in the hosiery too. Only they don't 
allow night shift till you're twenty. Lord knows why.' 

He was all at once afraid of talking too much; he was scared 
that at any moment she might remember her unanswered ques- 
tion and ask his name. 

'I'd better push off,' he said. 'I don't want to keep you stand- 
ing here.' 

'I'll get the umbrella,' she said. 

She went into the house and pulled an umbrella from a round 
tin stand that stood in the passage. Suddenly he remembered 
what her mother had said, in that quick and flashing way of 
hers: 'You're as good as an umbrella on a rainy day,' and then 
the girl said : 

'I'll walk as far as the bridge with you. It's letting up a bit. 
You can get a bus there and I can bring the umbrella back.' 

'I don't like ' 

'Oh ! that's all right. I got nothing to do. I get bored with both 
of them on night shift and me sitting there waiting for bed-time. 
Wouldn't you ? It gives you the atmospherics - like the radio.' 

She laughed as they ran out together, she holding the 
umbrella, into the rain, and the laugh too was much like her 
mother's, but lighter and softer in tone. The rain was slacking a 
little and they walked with heads down against it and once he 
peered out from under the rim of the umbrella to see if the sky 
was growing lighter still across the yard. 

'Keep your head under. You'll get soaked,' she said. 'It's com- 

236 The Daffodil Sky 

ing in enough as it is. This umbrella's one of mine I had as a 
kid. It's only half size.' 

He crouched closer under the umbrella and found himself 
taking her arm. She said, 'That's better. That's more like it,' and 
again he felt the flame of touching her go through him exactly as 
it had done when he had touched Cora's arm, cold and wet with 
hail under a fiery burst of sunshine on a spring day. 

That's better,' she said. Isn't it?' 

'Do you like it?' 

'I like it a lot,' she said. 'Do you ? ' 


'Is that why you're running so hard to catch the bus?' 

He had not realised that he was running. He had not grasped 
that excitement was driving him through the rain. He laughed 
and slackened his pace and she said : 

'The way you were going anybody would think you had to get 
the Manchester express.' 

'Perhaps I have.' 

'Oh ! go on. Where are you going ? Nowhere, are you ? ' 

'Nowhere particular.' 

'I knew it all the time.' 

That was like her mother too : that queer thinking through the 
pores, the knowingness, the second sight about him. 'I know 
when you're coming round the corner. I know when you're 

By the time they had reached the bridge it was raining no 
longer. The few peals of thunder might have been far-distant 
wheels of freight trains thudding heavily up slow gradients to the 
north. The sky beyond the black low yards was pure and empty, 
almost stark, a strong green-yellow, after the swift and powerful 
wash of rain. 

She did not put the umbrella down. Its shadow almost com- 
pleted the summer darkness so that when they halted and stood 
by the bridge he could see her face only in softened outline, 
under the mass of brown-red hair. Then a bus came with its 
glare of strange green thundery light over the crest of the bridge 
and she said : 

'This is your bus. This is the one you ought to get.' 

'There's no bus. There's no train. There's no nothing,' he said. 

She did not speak. They let the bus go by. It flared away, 

The Daffodil Sky 237 

leaving behind it a darkness momentarily shot with dancing fires 
of green that were also like broken after-reflections of the clear- 
ing, yellowing sky. 

'It's nice being with you/ she said. 'Do you feel that about 
some people? It's nice the first time you meet them. You feel it 
and you know.' 

'That's right,' he said. 

He wanted suddenly to tell her who he was : who and why and 
what and all about himself. He wanted to tell her about her 
mother and the dream the canker had eaten and he wanted to 
run. He knew he ought to get out. He ought to find a little farm 
like Osborne's and get work on it and save money and start 
again. It was getting late and he ought to find himself a bed 
down by the station. Then in the morning he could get out and 
start clear, over in another county, somewhere east, Norfolk per- 
haps, where he wasn't known. Harvest was beginning and there 
was plenty of work on the farms. 

Then he was aware of an awful loneliness. He felt sick with it. 
His stomach turned and was slipping out. It was the feeling he 
had known when they sentenced him. His stomach was black and 
he was alone and terribly afraid. He looked at the haunting 
yellow sky. He heard at the same time a train rushing down 
through the yards from the north and he began to say : 

'I suppose you ' 


The express came roaring down, double-engined, crashing and 
flaring under the bridge. She waited for it to pass in its cloud of 
floating orange steam before she spoke again. 

What was that you said ? ' 


'You know what I thought you were going to say?' 


'I thought you were going to ask if I'd come out with you 

'No,' he said. 'No.' His entire body was beginning to shake 
again, so that he could hardly say : 

'No -I was going to say I wanted a drink. That's all. I was 
going to say I suppose you wouldn't have one with me.' 

'Well, of course I would,' she said. 'That's easy. What could be 
easier than that?' 


The Daffodil Sky 

He knew that nothing could be easier than that. He waited for 
a moment or two longer without speaking. He looked down at 
her face, not very clear in the partial shadow of the umbrella, but 
familiar as if he had known it a long time. The train was through 
the yards. It was roaring now through the station, under the old 
closed footbridge, and behind it, in noisy flashes, the signals were 
lifting to red. 

Well, what are we waiting for?' she said. 

'Nothing,' he said. 

Still under the umbrella, they began to walk up the gradient, 
by smoke-blackened walls, towards the pub. She gave the 
umbrella a sideways lift so that, above the yards, in the fresh 
light of after-storm, he could see a great space of calm, rain- 
washed daffodil sky. 

'It's all over/ she said. 'It's fine. It'll be hot again tomorrow.' 

She closed down the umbrella. She was smiling and he could 
not look at her face. 

'We'd better get on,' he said. 'It's nearly closing-time.' 


For twenty-five years Joe Mortimer and his wife had lived in a 
valley, getting a living from raising hens and geese, a few cows 
and calves, the fruit from half a dozen cherry trees and an acre 
or two of corn. 

Their small red brick house, surrounded by coops of wire and 
low wooden sheds for chickens, stood close to a railway line, and 
occasionally passengers could look out and see, walking about the 
small grass paddock or across the bare autumn stubbles, a woman 
with wispy fair hair and long brown arms. Sometimes she was 
lovingly leading a calf by a halter; sometimes she seemed to be 
earnestly talking to flocks of geese and hens. At times a man was 
with her : a tall gaunt-framed man with close-cut hair and spare 
knotty muscle and water-blue eyes that slowly lifted themselves 
and gazed absently on the windows of passing trains. In summer 
there were always many children on the trains, eagerly pressing 
faces to the glass as they travelled down to the sea, and when- 
ever the Mortimers caught sight of them there was a sudden 
brightness on their faces, a great eagerness, almost an illumi- 
nation, as they smiled and waved their hands. 

Every Tuesday and again on Saturday the Mortimers drove in 
a small black truck to market. They took with them cases of eggs, 
half a dozen unplucked brown chickens, a few chips of cherries 
in their season and odd things like bunches of turnips and 
onions, a brace of pigeons, a hare, and daffodils carefully tied in 

In the evenings, when they came home again, they counted out 
their money on the kitchen table. They laid it out in little piles of 
silver and copper and notes, counting it several times to make 
sure how much they had. 

Then when the counting was finished Joe Mortimer would 
divide the money exactly in half. Solemnly, from the very 
beginning of their marriage, he would put one half into a tin 
cash box and then push the other across to his wife, who took it 
from him with long, uneager hands. 


240 The Good Corn 

'You know what that's for/ he would say, 'put that away/ 

At first they were quite sure about children. It seemed as 
natural to think of children coming as to think of eggs in the 
hen-runs and calves for cows and flowers on cherry trees. It 
was merely a question of time before children came. Mrs 
Mortimer thought of children laughing and running among 
flocks of hens, scattering grain, tossing it among the snapping, 
quarrelling brown feathers. In early spring, in cold wet weather, 
she sometimes nursed the first yellow chicks in warm flannel, 
in baskets, under the kitchen stove. That was the sort of thing 
children always loved, she thought. 

It was in summer, when the corn was ready, that Mortimer 
thought of them most. In imagination he saw boys riding in 
harvest carts or chasing rabbits among shocks of wheat and 
barley. He saw himself cutting them ash-plants from hedgerows 
or teaching them to thresh wheat in the palms of their hands. He 
saw them bouncing on piles of fresh light straw on threshing 

Then gradually, as time went by and there were no children, 
he became resigned to it in a puzzled, absent sort of way. It did 
not embitter him. If there were no children there were no child- 
ren, he thought. That was nature; that was how it was. You 
could not alter that. It turned out like that with some people. 
There was nothing you could do about it but hope and make 
the best of it. 

But his wife could not see it like that. It was not simply that 
she wanted children; it was not merely a question of pride. It 
was a woman's duty to have children; it was all of a woman's 
life to give birth. Not to bear children, when her pride was deep, 
was something more to a woman than misfortune. It was a 
failure in her living. It was like a hen that did not lay eggs or 
a cow that was sterile or a tree that never came into blossom. 
There was no point in the existence of them. 

As time went on she drew more and more into herself. With 
something more than injured pride she drew deep down into an 
isolation where she thought of nothing but the failure that came 
from sterility. The reproach of failure never left her; she could 
not grow used to the pain of it. It was like a gnawing physical 
disability, an ugly mark she wanted to hide. 

All the time, waiting for children, the two of them worked very 

The Good Corn 241 

hard. They saved money. Chickens and eggs went to market 
every week; cherries brought good money in summer; there was 
always enough corn for the hens and enough hay for the cows 
and calves and plenty over. 

Whenever a new calf came she cried a little. The mournful 
tender glassiness of a cow's big eyes after birth was something 
she could not bear. She liked to lift the soft wet heads of the new 
calves and hold them in her arms. She liked the smell of milk on 
their faces and the gluey suck of their mouths if she fed them 
from the bucket. 

After they had been married twenty-five years she stood one 
morning in the small cow-shed at the back of the house and 
watched a calf die in her arms. It was a red heifer calf and she 
began to cry bitterly. The calf had been dropped in the meadow 
the previous afternoon, prematurely, while she and Mortimer 
were at market. A cold wet wind with hail in it was blowing 
from the west. The calf could not stand on its feet by the time 
she and Mortimer found it and there was a drift of wet hail 
along the side of its body. 

She went on to grieve about the calf. The death of the calf 
became a personal thing. She found she could not sleep at night. 
She bit the edges of the pillow so that she could lay and cry 
without a sound. After a time there was a continuous pain in her 
chest : a great bony bolt that shot across her throat and made it 
difficult to swallow. 

At the same time she began to despise herself. 

'Don't come near me. I'm no good to you. You should have 
found someone else, not me. What have I done for you? What 
good have I ever been ? ' 

'Don't say that. Don't talk like that,' Mortimer said. 'You're 
not well. You're not yourself. I'm going to get the doctor to look 
at you.' 

The doctor spent a long time with her in the bedroom, alone, 
sitting on the edge of the bed, asking questions. She stared at 
him most of the time with pallid, boring eyes. After a time he 
went downstairs and gave Mortimer a pipe of tobacco and 
walked about the yard, among the crying geese, and talked to him. 

'All she can talk about is how she's been no good to me,' Joe 
said. 'How I'm not to go near her. How she hates herself. How 
she's been a failure all the time.' 

242 The Good Corn 

The doctor did not answer; the geese cried and squawked 
among the barns. 

'Neither one of us is sleeping well/ Joe said. 'I can't put up 
with it. I can't stand it much longer/ 

'Was there something that began it?' 

'The calf. We lost a calf about three weeks ago. She blamed 
herself for that.' 

'Never thought of going away from here ? ' the doctor said. 


'How long have you lived here ? ' 

'Five and twenty years. Nearly six and twenty/ 

'I believe you might do well to move/ the doctor said. 

'Move? Whereto? What for ?' 

'It might be that everything here has the same association. 
This is where she wanted her children and this is where she 
never had them. She might be happier if you moved away from 

'She misses children. She'd have been all right with children/ 
Joe said. 

'Think it over/ the doctor said. 'She needs a rest too. Get her 
to take it a little easier. Get a girl to help in the kitchen and with 
the hens. It'll be company for her. Perhaps she won't think of 
herself so much.' 

'All right. It upsets me to see her break her heart like that.' 

'I wish I were a farmer. If I were a farmer you know what I'd 
like to do?' the doctor said. 'Grow nothing but corn. That's the 
life. Give up practically everything but corn. With the cows and 
stock and birds it's all day and every day. But with corn you go 
away and you come back and your corn's still there. It's a 
wonderful thing, corn. That's what I'd like to do. There's some- 
thing marvellous about corn.' 

The following spring they moved to a farm some distance up 
the hill. All their married lives they had lived on flat land, with 
no view except the hedges of their own fields and a shining 
stretch of railway line. Now they found themselves with land 
that ran away on a gentle slope, with a view below it of an 
entire broad valley across which trains ran like smoking toys. 

The girl who answered their advertisement for help was short 
and dark, with rather sleepy brown eyes, a thick bright com- 

The Good Corn 243 

plexion and rosy-knuckled hands. She called at the house with 
her mother, who did most of what talking there was. 

'She's been a bit off colour. But she's better now. She wants 
to work in the fresh air for a bit. You want to work in the fresh 
air, don't you, Elsie ? ' 

'Yes/ Elsie said. 

'She's very quiet, but she'll get used to you,' her mother said. 
'She don't say much, but she'll get used to you. She's not par- 
ticular either. You're not particular, are you, Elsie?' 

'No,' Elsie said. 

'She's a good girl. She won't give no trouble,' her mother said. 

'How old is she ? ' Mortimer said. 

'Eighteen,' her mother said. 'Eighteen and in her nineteen. 
She'll be nineteen next birthday, won't you, Elsie ? ' 

'Yes,' Elsie said. 

The girl settled into the house and moved about it with un- 
obtrusive quietness. As she stood at the kitchen sink, staring 
down across the farm-yard, at the greening hedgerows of haw- 
thorn and the rising fields of corn, she let her big-knuckled 
fingers wander dreamily over the wet surface of the dishes as if 
she were a blind person trying to trace a pattern. Her brown eyes 
travelled over the fields as if she were searching for something 
she had lost there. 

Something about this lost and dreamy attitude gradually 
began to puzzle Mrs Mortimer. She saw in the staring brown 
eyes an expression that reminded her of the glazed eyes of a calf. 

'You won't get lonely up here, will you?' she said. 'I don't 
want you to get lonely.' 

'No,' the girl said. 

'You tell me if you get anyways lonely, won't you?' 


'I want you to feel happy here,' Mrs Mortimer said. 'I want 
you to feel as if you was one of our own.' 

As the summer went on the presence of the girl seemed occa- 
sionally to comfort Mrs Mortimer. Sometimes she was a little 
more content; she did not despise herself so much. During day- 
time at least she could look out on new fields, over new distances, 
and almost persuade herself that what she saw was a different 
sky. But at night, in darkness, the gnaw of self-reproaches 
remained. She could not prevent the old cry from breaking out : 

244 The Good Corn 

'Don't come near me. Not yet. Soon perhaps - but not yet. Not 
until I feel better about things. I will one day, but not yet/ 

Once or twice she even cried : 'You could get someone else. I 
wouldn't mind. I honestly wouldn't mind. It's hard for you. I 
know it is. I wouldn't mind.' 

Sometimes Mortimer, distracted too, got up and walked about 
the yard in summer darkness, smoking hard, staring at the 
summer stars. 

All summer, in the afternoons, after she had worked in the 
house all morning, the girl helped about the yard and the fields. 
By July the corn was level as a mat of thick blue-green pile be- 
tween hedgerows of wild rose and blackberry flower. In the 
garden in front of the house bushes of currant were bright with 
berries that glistened like scarlet pearls from under old lace 

The thick fingers of the girl were stained red with the juice of 
currants as she gathered them. Her fingermarks were bright 
smears across the heavy front of her cotton pinafore. 

As the two women knelt among the bushes, in alley-ways of 
ripe fruit, lifting the bleached creamy curtains in the July sun, 
Mrs Mortimer said : 

'I'm glad of another pair of hands. I don't know what I should 
have done without another pair of hands. Your mother will miss 
you back home I reckon.' 

'She's got six more to help,' the girl said. 'She don't need me 
all that much.' 

'Six? Not children?' 

'When I was home there was seven. Eight before the baby 

'Before the baby went? Whose baby? What happened to the 

'It was mine. I gave it away,' the girl said. 'I didn't know what 
to do with it no sense, so I gave it away. My sister adopted it. 
They all said it was best like that. I gave it to my married sister.' 

'Gave it away?' Mrs Mortimer sat on the earth, between the 
bushes, feeling sick. 'Gave it away? A baby? You gave it away?' 

'Yes,' Elsie said. 'It's no bother to me now.' 

Towards the end of the month the first corn began to ripen. 
The sheen of olive on the wheat began to turn pale yellow, then 
to the colour of fresh-baked crust on bread. 

The Good Corn 245 

As he looked at it Mortimer remembered what the doctor had 
said. 'You go away and you come back and your corn's still there. 
It's a wonderful thing, corn. There's something marvellous about 

Now as he looked at it he could not help feeling proud of the 
corn. It helped him too as he thought of his wife. It hurt him to 
hear her cry that he must keep away from her, that the pride in 
her was still tortured, the love in her not smoothed out. The corn 
helped to soothe him a little. The wind that ran darkly across it 
on cloudy days had a beautiful twist as if long snakes were slip- 
ping among the ears. 

In the evenings, after supper, while the two women washed 
the dishes, he was often alone with the corn. And one evening as 
he stood watching it he did something he had always liked to do. 
He broke off an ear and began to thresh it in his hands, breaking 
the husk from the grain with the pressure of the balls of his 

While he was still doing this the girl came down the hill- 
side from the house with a message that a man had called to 
deliver a sailcloth. Mortimer blew on the grain that lay in his 
cupped hands, scattering a dancing cloud of chaff like summer 

'I'll be up in a minute/ he said. 'Here - tell me what you think 
of that.' 

'The wheat?' she said. 

She picked a few grains of wheat from the palm of his hand. 
She did not toss them into her mouth but put them in one by 
one, with the tips of her fingers, biting them with the front of 
her teeth. Her teeth were surprisingly level and white and he 
could see the whiteness of the new grains on her tongue as she 
bit them. 

'They're milky,' she said. 

'Still want a few more days, I think,' he said. 

As they walked back up the field she plucked an ear of wheat 
herself and began to thresh it with her hands. The corn, almost 
as high as the girl herself, rustled in her fingers. When she bent 
down to blow on the husks a small gust of wind suddenly turned 
and blew the chaff up into her face. She laughed rather loudly, 
showing her teeth again, and he said : 

'Here, you want to do it like this. You want to bring your 

246 The Good Corn 

thumbs over so that you can blow down there and make a 

'How?' she said. 

A moment later he was holding her hands. He stood slightly 
behind her and held her hands and showed her how to cup them 
so that the chaff could blow out through the chimney made by 
her fingers. 

'Now blow/ he said. 

'I can't blow for laughing/ 

Her mouth spluttered and a new gust of laughter blew into her 
hands and a dancing cloud of chaff leapt up in a spurt from her 
fingers. She laughed again and he felt her body shaking. A few 
husks of wheat blew into her mouth and a few more stuck to the 
moist edges of her lips as she laughed. 

She pulled out her handkerchief to wipe her lips, still laugh- 
ing, and suddenly he found himself trying to help her and then 
in a clumsy way trying to kiss her face and mouth at the same 

'Elsie/ he said. 'Here, Elsie ' 

She laughed again and said, 'We don't want to fool here. 
Somebody will see us if we start fooling here. Mrs Mortimer will 
see us. Not here.' 

'You were always so quiet/ he said. 

'It isn't always the loud ones who say most, is it ? she said. She 
began to shake herself. 'Now I've got chaff down my neck. Look 
at me.' 

She laughed again and shook herself, twisting her body in a 
way that suddenly reminded him of the twist of dark air running 
among the ripening corn. He tried to kiss her again and she 

'Not here I keep telling you. Some time if you like but not 
here. Not in broad daylight. I don't like people watching me.' 

'All right ' 

'Some other time. It's so public here/ she said. 'There'll be 
another time.' 

By the end of August the corn was cut and carted. The 
stubbles were empty except for the girl and Mrs Mortimer, 
gleaning on fine afternoons, and a few brown hens scratching 
among the straw. 'I could never quite give up the hens/ Mrs 

The Good Corn 247 

Mortimer said. 'It would be an awful wrench to give them up. I 
didn't mind the cherries and I didn't even mind the calves so 
much. But the hens are company. I can talk to the hens.' 

About the house, in the yard, bright yellow stacks stood ready 
for threshing, and there was a fresh clean smell of straw on the 
air. During summer the face of the girl had reddened with sun 
and air and as autumn came on it seemed to broaden and flatten, 
the thick skin ripe and healthy in texture. 

'Soon be winter coming on, Elsie/ Mrs Mortimer said. 'You 
think you'll stay up here with us for the winter?' 

'Well, I expect I shall if nothing happens,' Elsie said. 
'Happens ? If what happens ? ' 

'Well, you never know what may happen/ Elsie said, 'do you ? ' 

'I want you to stay if you can/ Mrs Mortimer said. 'They get 

a lot of snow up here some winters, but perhaps we'll be lucky. 

Stay if you can. I got now so as I think of you as one of our 


In a growing fondness for the girl Mrs Mortimer occasionally 
remembered and reflected on the incident of the baby. It was 
very strange and inexplicable to her, the incident of the baby. It 
filled her with mystery and wonder. It was a mystery beyond 
comprehension that a girl could conceive and bear a child and 
then, having delivered it, give it away. She felt she would never 
be able to grasp the reasons for that. 'You'd think it would be 
like tearing your own heart out to do a thing like that/ she 

Towards the end of November the first snow fell, covering the 
hillsides down to within a hundred feet of the valley. The house 
stood almost on the dividing line of snow, like a boat at the edge 
of a tide, between fields that were still fresh green with winter 
corn and others smooth with the first thin white fall. 

'I got something to tell you/ the girl said to Mrs Mortimer. 'I 
don't think I'll be staying here much longer.' 
'Not staying?' 

'Why not?' 

'I don't think I will, that's all.' 

'Is it the snow? You don't like the snow, do you? That's what 
it is, the snow.' 

'It's not the snow so much.' 

248 The Good Corn 

'Is it us then ? ' Mrs Mortimer said. 'Don't you like us no more ? ' 

'I like you. It isn't that/ the girl said. 

'What is it then, Elsie? Don't say you'll go. What is it?' 

'It's the baby,' Elsie said. 

'The baby?' Mrs Mortimer felt a pain of tears in her eyes. 'I 
somehow thought one day you'd want it back. I'm glad.' 

'Not that baby,' the girl said. 'Not that one. I'm going to have 

Mrs Mortimer felt a strange sense of disturbance. She was 
shaken once again by disbelief and pain. She could not speak and 
the girl said : 

'In the Spring. April I think it'll be.' 

'How did you come to do that?' Mrs Mortimer said. 'Up here? 
With us ?' 

'I know somebody,' the girl said. 'I got to know somebody. 
That's all' 

'I don't understand,' Mrs Mortimer said. She spoke quietly, 
almost to herself. She thought, with the old pain, of her years of 
sterility. She remembered how, in distraction, she had so much 
despised herself, how she had turned, out of. pride, into isolation, 
away from Joe. 'I don't understand,' she said. 

At night she turned restlessly in her bed. Splinters of moon- 
light between the edges of the curtains cut across her eyes and 
kept them stiffly open. 

'Can't you sleep again?' Joe said. 

'It's the girl,' she said. 'Elsie. I can't get her out of my 

'What's wrong with Elsie ? ' 

'She's having another baby,' she said. 'In the Spring.' 

'Oh! no!' he said. 'Oh! no. No. You don't mean that? No.' 

'It seems she got to know somebody. Somehow,' she said. She 
felt across her eyes the hard stab of moonlight. She turned and 
put her hand out and touched Joe on the shoulder. 'Joe,' she 
said. 'That doesn't seem right, does it? It doesn't seem fair.' 

Joe did not answer. 

'It doesn't seem fair. It's not right. It seems cruel,' she said. 

The following night she could not sleep again. She heard a 
westerly wind from across the valley beating light squalls of rain 
on the windows of the bedroom. The air was mild in a sudden 
change and she lay with her arms outside the coverlet, listening 

The Good Corn 249 

to the rain washing away the snow. 

Suddenly Joe took hold of her hands and began crying into 

'I didn't know what I was doing. She kept asking me. It was 
her who kept asking me.' 

She could not speak and he turned his face to the pillow. 

'I didn't think you wanted me. You used to say so. I got so as 
I thought you didn't want me any more. You used to say ' 

'I want you,' she said. 'Don't be afraid of that.' 

'Did she say anything?' he said. 'Did she say it was me?' 

'No. She didn't say.' 

'Did you think it was me ? ' 

'I'd begun to think,' she said. 'I thought I could tell by the 
way you couldn't look at her.' 

She heard him draw his breath in dry snatches, unable to find 
words. Suddenly she was sorry for him, with no anger or re- 
proach or bitterness, and she stretched out her long bare arms. 

'Come here to me,' she said. 'Come close to me. I'm sorry. It 
was me. It was my fault.' 

'Never,' he said. 'Never. I won't have that ' 

'Listen to me,' she said. 'Listen to what I say.' 

As she spoke she was aware of a feeling of being uplifted, of a 
depressive weight being taken from her. 

'Listen, Joe, if I ask her perhaps she'll give it to us. You re- 
member? She gave the other away.' 

'No,' he said. 'You couldn't do that—' 

'I could,' she said. She began smiling to herself in the dark- 
ness. 'Tomorrow I'll ask her. We could do it properly - make it 
legal - so that it was ours.' 

'If you forgive me,' Joe said. 'Only if you do that ' 

'I forgive you,' she said. 

She went through the rest of the winter as if she were carry- 
ing the baby herself. 'You mustn't do that, Elsie. Don't lift that,' 
she would say. 'Take a lie down for an hour. Rest yourself - 
it'll do you the world of good to rest' She looked forward to 
Spring with a strange acute sensation of being poised on a wire, 
frightened that she would fall before she got there. 

When the baby was born she wrapped it in a warm blanket 
and succoured it like the early chickens she had once wrapped in 
flannel, in a basket, under the stove. 

250 The Good Corn 

'And I can have him?' she said. 'You haven't changed your 
mind ? You won't change your mind, will you ? ' 

'No/ the girl said. 'You can have him. I don't want the bother. 
You can look after him.' 

'We'll love him,' she said. 'We'll look after him.' 

On a day in late April she took the baby and carried him 
down through the yard, in the sunshine, to where the fields 
began. Hedgerows were breaking everywhere into bright new 
leaf. Primroses lay in thick pale drifts under the shelter of them 
and under clumps of ash and hornbeam. In every turn of wind 
there was a whitening of anemones, with cowslips trembling gold 
about the pasture. 

She lifted the baby up, in the sunshine, against the blue spring 
sky, and laughed and shook him gently, showing him the world 
of leaf and flower and corn. 

'Look at all the flowers!' she said. 'Look at the corn! The 
corn looks good, doesn't it? It's going to be good this year, isn't 
it ? Look at it all ! - isn't the corn beautiful ? ' 

High above her, on the hill, there was a sound of endless lark 
song and in the fields the young curved lines of corn were 
wonderfully fresh and trembling in the sun. 


All the vases in Mrs Clavering's house were rilled with sprays of 
white forced lilac and glossy pittosporum leaves. In January the 
lilac was almost more expensive than she could afford. But the 
tall leafless sprays were very distinguished and she hoped they 
would not fade. 

She was going to give everyone white wine to drink at the 
party. This was partly because she had read somewhere, in a 
magazine or a newspaper, that that was distinguished too; partly 
because at the Fanshawes' party she had heard Captain Perigo's 
wife complaining quite loudly of the stinking drinks you now- 
adays got out of jugs; and partly because at another party, the 
Luffingtons', at the Manor, a Colonel Arber, a newcomer to the 
district, had started to proclaim his intention of beating things 
up and had done so, rowdily, on dreadful mixtures of cider and 
gin. That was exactly what she wanted to avoid. She did not want 
rowdiness and people complaining, even if they did not mean 
it, that the drinks you gave them were not strong enough. She 
thought that nowadays everyone drank too much gin. At one 
time gin was nothing but a washer-woman's drink but now every- 
one drank it, everywhere. They tippled it down. White wine 
sounded so much more reserved and distinguished even if people 
did not like it so much. She thought too that it was bound to give 
tone to her attempt to get to know the Paul Vaulkhards. The 
Paul Vaulkhards, who were new to the county, had taken the 
house down the hill, and she understood that they were very dis- 
tinguished too. 

All day frost lingered on the trees. It drew a curtain of rimy 
branches, like chain armour, over the sky, shutting in the large 
oak-staired house, making it darker than ever, in isolation. It 
lingered in black ice pools about the road. At three o'clock the 
caterers' van should have arrived; and nervously, for an hour, 
Mrs Clavering paced about the house, wondering where it had 
got to; and it was not until after four o'clock that it arrived, with 


252 Country Society 

dented mudguards and one tray of vol-au-vent cakes smashed 
into crumbs, because of a skid on the frozen hill. 

The three caterers' men grumbled and said the roads were 
worse than ever and that everyone ought to have chains. And 
then suddenly the western hill of beeches took away the last strips 
of frost green daylight too early, as it always did, and the fields 
became dark and unkindly, closing in. Mrs Clavering felt the 
awful country isolation extinguish immediately all hope about 
the party. She felt that no one would come. She became doubtful 
of the coldness of the white wine. There were people who had to 
come from considerable distances, such as the Blairs and Captain 
Perigo and the principal of the research college and his wife, 
very distinguished and important people too, who would certainly 
not risk it. She doubted even if the Luffingtons would risk it 
from the Manor. With fear and coldness she felt that the Paul 
Vaulkhards would not risk it. Nobody of distinction or impor- 
tance would dare to risk it and she would be left with people like 
the dropsical Miss Hemshawe and her mother, with Miss Ireton 
and Miss Graves, who lived together and spun sheep-wool and 
dyed it into shades of porridge and pale autumnal lichen, and 
with the Reverend Perks and his elder brother: with those people 
whom Mr Clavering sometimes rudely called the hen-coop tribe. 

'Because they cluck and fuss and scratch and make dirt and 
pull each other's feathers out/ Mr Clavering said. 

Mrs Clavering had not succeeded in curing her husband, in 
thirty years, of a habit of accurate flippancy, to which he some- 
times added what she felt was deliberate forgetfulness. 

Mr Clavering too, like the caterers, was late coming out from 
his office in the town. 

'You said you would be here at four ! ' she called from the first- 
floor landing. 'Wherever have you been? Did you remember the 
pecan nuts? But they were ready! They were telephoned for! 
All you had to do was to pick them up from Watsons' — ' 

'Nobody ate the damn things last time.' 

'Of course they ate them. They were much appreciated.' 

In the hall, where Mr Clavering stood taking off his homberg 
hat and overcoat, the telephone rang and she called : 

'That's the first one. Answer it! I can't bear to — ' 

Mr Clavering, answering the telephone, called that it was Mrs 
Vaulkhard. 'She'd like to speak to you,' he said. 

Country Society 253 

'This is it, this is it, this is it/ she said. In a constraint of cold- 
ness and fear she scurried downstairs and picked up the tele- 
phone, trembling, but Mrs Vaulkhard said : 

'I did not want to trouble you. Oh! it was not that. It was 
simply to ask you - we have my niece here. We thought it would 
be so nice -No: she is young. Quite young. Seventeen - could 
we? Would it be any kind of inconvenience? -I did not want 
you to think — ' 

With joy Mrs Clavering forgot the absence of the pecan nuts 
and a haunting fear that the white wine was, after all, not 
a suitable drink for so dark and freezing a day. 

'Well, they will come at any rate. If no one else does — ' 

'Everybody will come/ Mr Clavering said. 'And a few you 
never thought of.' 

Tm sure no one would ever think of doing that sort of thing/ 
she said. 

'Everybody will be here/ Mr Clavering said. 'The hen-coop 
tribe. The horse-box tribe. The wool-spinning tribe. The medical 
tribe. The point-to-pointers. You didn't ask Mrs Bonnington 
and Battersby by any chance, did you?' 

'Of course I did.' 

'And Freda O'Connor?' 

'Of course.' 

'Charming, very charming/ he said. 

'I don't know what you mean. I chose everybody very care- 

Mrs Bonnington, who was dark and shapely and in her thirties, 
kept house for a retired naval commander who amused himself 
by fishing and sketching in water colour; Mr Bonnington came 
down from somewhere at week-ends. The naval commander 
had a silvery piercing beard, commanding as a stiletto, and ice- 
blue handsome passionate eyes. Freda O'Connor, a long brown- 
haired hungry-looking girl with a flaunting bust that was like 
two full-blown poppy-heads, had left her husband and gone to 
live, while really preferring horses, with a Major Battersby. In a 
pleasant way Major Battersby, brown and shaggy and side- 
whiskered and untidily muscular, was rather like a large horse 
himself. Miss O'Connor had succeeded Mrs Battersby. In 
the furies of separation Mrs Battersby, a woman of broad- 
hipped charm who wore slacks all day, had taken refuge with 

254 Country Society 

Mrs Bonnington. On a horse she looked commanding and 
taller than she was. It seemed sometimes to Mr Clavering that 
Mr Bonnington arrived at week-ends simply for the purpose of 
seeing Mrs Battersby, later departing only to leave Mrs Bonning- 
ton free for the naval commander. He did not know. You could 
never be quite sure, in the country, about these complicated 
things and he said : 

'You didn't invite Major Battersby too, did you?' 
'I invited all the people I thought ought to be invited. After all 
one has to keep up] she said, 'one has to keep in — ' 

Mr Clavering, who would have preferred to live in town, 
where you could have a leisurely game of snooker or bridge in the 
evenings at the Invicta Club over a quiet glass of whisky, out of 
reach of women, gave a sigh of pain and said something about 
not caring whether one was up or in and then added that Mrs 
Clavering was wonderful. 

Mrs Clavering replied that she thought Mr Clavering ought to 
go and change. 

'Change what?' he said. 

'That suit of course! You're never coming down in that 

Mr Clavering, who could see nothing wrong with his suit, 
began to go upstairs whistling. Mrs Clavering rushed suddenly 
past him, remembering she had turned on the bath water. This 
gave him an opportunity of saying that on second thoughts he 
would have a quick snifter before the herd arrived, but Mrs 
Clavering leaned swiftly over the banisters and called : 

'No! Absolutely and utterly not. No snifters. If you want 
to do something useful see that the lights are switched on in 
the drive — ' She was bullying him with affection, and he 

Some minutes later, as he switched the lights on in the long 
paved drive that led under canopies of frosted beech boughs up 
to the front door of the house, he saw that darkness had fallen 
completely. The lamps set all the low weeping boughs glistening 
delicately under cold blue air. He stood for a moment watching 
the sparkling wintry lace of frosted twigs. He thought how cold 
and dark and isolated the garden beyond them seemed, and he 
thought of the billiard room of the Invicta Club, where light was 
coned above green warm tables in a soft silence broken only by 

Country Society 255 

men's voices and the click of snooker balls. He did not really 
care much for country life. The house was really too big and too 
expensive and too difficult to keep up; there was always the tire- 
some problem of servants who did not want to stay. It was only 
for his wife's sake that he kept it up. He was easy-going. She was 
fond of it all; she liked country society. 

'Isn't there any gin ? ' he said to the caterers' men in the sitting- 

'Only the white wine, Sir,' they told him, and he said 'Good 
God ! Wine ? ' and then recognised that it was another idea of his 
wife's designed to make the party different, to elevate and keep 
up its tone. He was amused by this and decided to try a glass 
of the wine. It was a delicate light green in colour and he thought 
it seemed insipid, all taste frozen out of it, and after drinking 
half a single frosted glass he went off to grope in the dining- 
room cellarette for the gin, but the usual bottle was not there, 
and with tolerant amusement he realised his wife had probably 
hidden it away. 

By soon after six o'clock a dozen people were standing about 
in stiff cold groups in the too large hall, grasping chilled glasses 
of wine with chilly lingers. The owl-like eyes of the dropsical, 
spectacled Miss Hemshawe and her mother prowled to and fro, 
searching all newcomers. The Reverend Perks and his elder 
brother arrived, looking like two pieces of scraped shin-bone 
with a little beef left on, red and fierce at the edges of their ears 
and noses. Mrs Clavering fluttered. Some conversation went on 
in subdued tones, and the caterers' men advanced with trays of 
wine-glasses and coloured fish-bright snippets of food, eagerly 
seized upon by the Reverend Perks and then earnestly recom- 
mended by his brother to Miss Graves and Miss Ireton, who 
were clad in sheep's wool in the form of large net-like faded 
blotting paper. 

Soon there was a clucking everywhere, as Mr Clavering said, 
of busy hens. There was even, in the clink of glasses, a sound of 
pecking in the air. Presently the hall began to be very full; people 
overflowed into the dining-room; and Mr Clavering found he 
could not see everybody, or keep track of everybody, at once. 
The wine seemed to him horribly cold and insipid and he hid 
his glass behind a vase of lilac without noticing what the sprays 
of naked blossom were. 

256 Country Society 

Then his wife came to whisper with despair that it was nearly 
seven o'clock and that neither the Paul Vaulkhards nor the 
Perigos nor the Blairs had arrived. 

'All the best people arrive last/ he said, and then looked across 
bubbling mole-hills of hats and heads to see Mrs Battersby 
standing on the threshold. 

Mrs Battersby looked outraged and stunned. Her eye sockets 
seemed to have lost their pupils and looked like two dark empty 
key-holes. Mr Clavering saw that this sightless stare of dark out- 
rage was directed at Freda O'Connor. Until that moment he had 
not noticed her. Now he saw that her slender skimmed figure, 
looking taller than ever, was bound tightly in a long skirt of black 
silk, with a brief bodice of white from which her bust protruded 
with enforced and enlarged distinction. She was talking to 
Colonel Arber, who was not very tall and had the advantage of 
not needing to alter the level of his protuberant watery eyes in 
order to appraise the parts of her that interested him most. 
Freda O'Connor looked casual and hungry and languidly, glamor- 
ously indifferent. Her body lacked the cohesive charm of Mrs 
Battersby's, but it seemed instead to flame. Mrs Battersby melted 
away somewhere into another room. Colonel Arber took another 
glass of wine, holding it at the trembling level of Freda O'Con- 
nor's bosom, and seemed as if about to speak with husky passion 
of something. He guffawed instead, and the conversation was 
of horses. 

Gradually Mr Clavering felt that he had seen everybody. The 
rooms were impossibly, clamorously full. The Perigos, the Blairs, 
the Luffingtons had all arrived. A sound of cracked trumpets 
came from the turn of the baronial staircase, echoing into wall 
displays of copper cooking-pans, where Dr Pritchard was telling 
what Mr Clavering thought were probably obstetric stories to 
Miss Ireton and Miss Graves, who gazed at him with a kind of 
rough fondness, half-masculine. Dr Pritchard had an inexhaus- 
tible fund of stories drawn from the fountains of illegitimacy and 
the shallows of infidelity that he liked to tell for the purpose, most 
often, of cheering women patients waiting in labour. But maiden 
ladies liked them too, and sometimes pressed him to tell one 
rather more risque than they had heard before. In consequence 
something infectious seemed to float from the foot of the stair- 
case, filling the room with light and progressive laughter. 

Country Society 257 

'I want you, I want you ! ' Mrs Clavering whispered. 'The Paul 
Vaulkhards are here ! ' 

He found himself joined to her by the string of a single fore- 
finger that led him through the crowd of guests to where, in a 
corner, the Paul Vaulkhards and their niece were waiting. 

Mr Vaulkhard was tall and white, and, as Mrs Clavering had 
hoped, as distinguished as a statue. Mrs Clavering fluttered about 
him, making excited note of his subdued dove-blue waistcoat, so 
much more elite than red or yellow, and thought that Mr Claver- 
ing must have one too. Mrs Vaulkhard had the loose baggy 
charm of a polite pelican covered in an Indian shawl of white 
and gold. 

'Let me introduce my niece/ she said. 'Miss Dufresne. Olivia.' 

Charming, distinguished name, Mrs Clavering thought; and 
almost before Mr Clavering had time to shake hands she said : 

'Would you look after Miss Dufresne? I'm going to positively 
drag Mr and Mrs Paul Vaulkhard away - that is if they don't 
mind being dragged. Do you mind being dragged?' She gave a 
spirited giggle of excuse and excitement and then dragged the 
Vaulkhards away. 

A young dark face looked out from, as it seemed to Mr 
Clavering, a crowd of swollen, solid cabbages. It had something 
of the detachment of a petal that did not belong there. He took 
from a passing tray a glass of wine and held it out to her, con- 
scious of curious feelings of elevated lightness, of simplification. 
Out of the constricted clamour of voices he was aware of a core 
of silence about her that was absorbing and tranquil. 

'Are you here for long?' he said. 'Do you like the country?' 

'No to one,' she said. 'Yes to the other.' 

He said something about being glad about one thing and not 
the other, but a small cloudburst of conversational laughter split 
the room, drowning what he had to say, and she said : 

'I'm terribly sorry, but I couldn't hear what you were saying.' 

'Let's move a little,' he said. 

He steered her away through the crowd, watching her light 
figure. She leaned by the wall at last, sipping her wine and look- 
ing at him. 

'I don't know that it's any quieter,' he said. 'Perhaps we should 

She laughed, and he said : 

258 Country Society 

'Really instead of standing here I ought to take you round and 
introduce you. Is there anyone you know ? ' 


'Is there anyone you'd like to know ? ' 

'What do you think?' 

She gave him an engaging delicate smile, brief, almost ner- 
vous, and he felt that it was possibly because she was young and 
not sure of herself. He looked about the room, at the groups of 
cabbage heads. And suddenly he decided that he did not want to 
introduce her. He wanted instead to keep her, to isolate her for 
a little while, letting her remain a stranger. 

'Haven't you ever been here before?' he said. 


'And you really like the country?' 

'I love it. I think it's beautiful.' 

Mr Clavering felt himself appraise the tender, uplifted quality 
of her voice. 

'I think everything's beautiful,' the girl said. 

'Everything ? ' 

'The lilac,' she said, 'for instance. That's marvellously 


Absurd of him, he thought, not to have noticed the lilac. 

'I noticed it as soon as I came in,' she said. 'I love white things. 
Don't you? White flowers. I love snow and frost on the boughs 
and everything like that.' 

At this moment Mr Clavering noticed for the first time that 
her dress was white too. Frilled about the neck, simply and taste- 
fully, it too had a frosty appearance. It seemed almost to embalm 
her young body in a cloud of rime. 

'What masses of people,' she said. 'What a marvellous party.' 

'Are you at school?' he said. 

'Me? School?' She gave, he thought, a little petulant toss of 
the wine glass as she lifted it to her mouth and sipped at it 
swiftly. 'Oh! don't say that. Don't say I still look like a school- 
girl. Do I?' 

'No,' he said. 

Across the room Major Battersby laughed, for the fourth or 
fifth consecutive time, like a buffalo. 

'Who is the man who laughs so much ? ' she said. 

Country Society 259 

He told her. Battersby was with Freda O'Connor and Mrs 
Bonnington and Colonel Arber. The factions had begun to split 
up. He felt he would not have been surprised to hear from the 
Battersby group a succession of whinnies instead of laughter. 
Occasionally Colonel Arber bared his teeth and Freda O'Connor 
tossed her hair back from her neck and throat like a mane. 

'Have you a nice garden ? ' she said. 

Yes, he supposed the garden was nice. He supposed it was 
pleasant. He thought if anything there were too many trees. It 
was a bore getting people to work in it nowadays and sometimes 
he would have preferred a house with a good solid courtyard 
of concrete all round. 

'I love gardens/ she said. 'Especially gardens like yours with 
big old trees. I love it at night when you see the car lights on the 
boughs and then on the very dark trees. It looks so mysterious 
and wonderfully like old legends and that sort of thing. Don't 
you think so ? ' 

'Yes,' he said. He had never given the slightest thought to the 
fact that his garden was mysterious with old legends. 'I suppose 

'Oh! It's lovely just to watch people,' she said. 'Marvellous 
to wonder who they are — ' 

Her remark coincided with a thought of his own that his house 
was full of jibbering monkeys. The rooms were strident with 
people clamouring with jibberish, sucking at glasses, trying to 
shout each other down. There was nothing but jibberish every- 

'I just love to stand here,' she said. 'I just love to wonder what's 
in their minds.' 

Great God, he thought. Minds? As if hoping for an answer to 
it all he stared into the glittering, mocking confusion of faces and 
smoke and glassiness. Minds? He saw that Mrs Battersby had 
got together her own faction, joining herself with the Perigos and 
a woman named Mrs Peele, who smoked cigarettes from a long 
ivory holder, and a man named George Carter, who managed 
kennels for her at which you could buy expensive breeds of dachs- 
hunds. There was something of the piquant dachshund broodi- 
ness in the face of Mrs Peele. She was short in the body, with 
eyes darkly encased in coils of premature wrinkles, and the long 
cigarette holder gave her a grotesque touch of being top-heavy. 

260 Country Society 

There was no doubt that Mrs Peele and George Carter lived 
together, just as there was no doubt that the dachshunds were 
much too expensive for anybody to buy. 

'Oh ! it's fascinating to watch/ the girl said. 'Don't you think 

A waiter tried to push his way past with a tray of snippets. 
With guilt Mr Clavering remembered that he had offered her 
nothing to eat. 

'Please take something,' he said. 

'Oh ! yes, may I ? I'm famished. Do you think wine makes you 
hungry?' She took several fish-filled cases while the waiter stood 
by, and then a moon-like round of egg. 'I adore egg/ she said. 
'Don't you?' and when he did not answer simply because he felt 
there could be no answer : 

'Am I talking too much? I'm not, am I? But the wine gives me 
a feeling of being gay.' 

Through smoke-haze he saw his wife, pride-borne and fussy 
with anxiety, steering the Paul Vaulkhards from, as it were, 
customer to customer, as if they were sample goods for which 
you could place an order. 

I ought to circulate too, he thought, and then found himself 
grasping the mild limp dropsical hand of a slightly flushed Miss 
Hemshawe, who with her mother had come to say good-bye. 
They must be toddling, Miss Hemshawe said, and under a guise 
of passiveness gave him a look of unresolved curiosity, because 
he had been talking for so long a time, alone, to so young a 

'Good-bye, Mr Clavering,' they fussed. 'Good-bye. Good- 

'Sweet,' the girl said. She grinned as if the facial distortions 
of Miss Hemshawe and her mother, toothsome and expansive 
in farewell, were a secret only she and himself could share. 

'Yes,' he said, and he knew that now he had only to be seen 
touching her hand, placing himself an inch or so nearer the 
frothy delicate rime of her dress, for someone like Miss Hem- 
shawe to begin to build about him too a legend to which he had 
never given a thought. 

Presently he was surrounded by other people coming to say 
good-bye; every few moments he heard somebody say what a 
wonderful party it was. His wife, they told him, was so good at 

Country Society 261 

these things. He was assailed by shrill voices ejected piercingly 
from the roar of a dynamo. 

The girl pressed herself back against the wall, regarding the 
scene through eyes limpid with fascination, over the rim of her 
glass. He was aware of a fear that she would move away and that 
he did not want her to move away. 

'Don't go/ he said, and touched her hand. 

Before she had time to speak he was involved in the business 
of saying good-bye to a Mrs Borden and a Mr Joyce. He remem- 
bered in time that Mrs Borden was really Mrs Woodley and that 
she had changed her name by deed-poll in order to run away 
with Borden, who had then rejected her in favour of Mrs Joyce. 
The complications of this were often beyond him, but now he 
remembered in time to address her and the consolatory Mr Joyce 

'Nice party, old boy/ Mr Borden said. 'Nice.' 

He felt that Mrs Borden had a face like a bruised swede- 
turnip and that Joyce, red and crusted and staggering, was a 
little drunk. 

'I ought to go too/ the girl said. 'I think I see them signalling 

He began to steer her gently through the maze of groups and 
factions like a man steering a boat through a series of crowded 
reefs and islands. As he did so he was aware of a minute exulta- 
tion because, until the last, he had kept her a stranger, apart 
from them all. 

'Oh ! Clavering, must say good-bye.' 

He found himself halted by a clergyman named Chalfont- 
Beverley, from a parish over the hill. Chalfont-Beverley was tall 
and young, with a taste for flamboyance that took the form of 
dressing-up. He was now dressed in a hacking jacket of magni- 
fied black-and-white check, with a waistcoat of magenta and a 
purple tie. His chest had something of the appearance of a 
decorated altar above which the face was a glow of rose and blue. 

'Damn good party, Clavering/ he said. His hands were silky. 
Clavering remembered that he was given to Anglo- Catholicism 
and occasional appearances at afternoon services dressed in pink- 
cord riding breeches and spurs below sweeping robes of white 
and scarlet. 'Damn good. Must bear away.' There was an odour 
of talcum powder in the air. 

262 Country Society 

By the time Clavering was free again he saw the girl being 
taken away, in the hall, by the Paul Vaulkhards. He reached 
them just in time to be able to hold her coat. 

'It isn't far/ she said. Til just slip it over my shoulders.' 

She held the collar of the coat close about her neck, so that 
he felt the young delicacy of her face to be startlingly heightened. 

'Good-bye/ everyone said. The Paul Vaulkhards said they 
thought it had been enchanting. Mr Paul Vaulkhard gave a bow 
of courteous dignity, holding Mrs Clavering's hand. Mrs Paul 
Vaulkhard said that the Claverings must come to see them too, 
and not to leave it too long; and he saw his wife exalted. 

'Good-bye, Miss Dufresne,' he said and again, for the second 
time, held her hand. 'I will see you all out. It's a little tricky. 
There are steps — ' 

The Paul Vaulkhards went ahead with Mrs Clavering, and as 
he followed through the outer hall he said : 

'Did you enjoy it? Would you care to come and see us again 
before you go away?' 

'Oh ! it was a marvellous, wonderful exquisite party,' she said. 
'It was beautiful. It was vivid.' 

The word lit up for him, like an unexpected flash of centralis- 
ed light, all her eagerness, touching him into his own moment of 
reserved exultation. He walked with her for a few yards into the 
frosty drive, where the Paul Vaulkhards were waiting. A chain 
of light frozen boughs, glistening in the lamplight, seemed to 
obscure all the upper sky, but she lifted her face in a last gesture 
of excitement to say : 

'Oh! All the stars are out! Look at all the stars!' 

'Now remember,' he said. 'Don't forget to come and see us 
before you go.' 

'Oh ! I will, I will,' she said. She laughed with light confusion. 
'I mean I will come - 1 mean I won't forget. I will remember.' 

He watched her run into the frosty night, down the drive. 

Later, in a house deserted except for the caterers' men and 
shabby everywhere with dirty glasses and still burning cigarettes 
and a mess of half-gnawed food, his wife said : 

'Honestly, did you think it went well? Did you? You didn't 
think everybody was awfully stiff and bored ? ' 

'I don't think so,' he said. 

'Oh! Somehow I thought it never got going. It never jelled. 

Country Society 263 

People just stood about in groups and glared and somehow I 
thought it never worked up. You know how I mean.' 

'I thought it was nice/ he said. 

What about the wine? I knew as soon as we started it was a 
mistake. People didn't know what to make of it, did they? It was 
too cold. Didn't you feel they didn't know what to make of 
it? - it's funny how a little thing like that can go through a party.' 

Disconsolately, agitatedly picking up glasses and putting them 
down again, she wandered about the empty rooms. The caterers' 
men, in their shirt-sleeves, were packing up. In the hall a spray 
of lilac had become dislodged from its green guard of pittospor- 
um leaves and as Clavering passed through the hall he picked 
it up and put it back again. 

'What do you suppose the Paul Vaulkhards made of it?' his 
wife called. 'Didn't you have an awful feeling they felt they w ere 
a bit above it? Not quite their class?' 

Opening the front door, he was too far away to answer. He 
walked for a few paces down the still-lighted drive, looking up 
at the stars. The night in its rimy frostiness was without wind. 
With a tenderness he did not want to pursue into anything deeper 
he remembered how much the girl had liked all things that were 
white. He remembered how she had thought everything was 

From the frozen meadows behind the house there was a call of 
owls and from farther away, from dark coverts, a barking of 


'How many langoustines today, Monsieur Harris?' the boy said. 

Almost every day that summer there were big blue dishes of 
cream pink langoustine, a sort of small spidery lobster, for lunch, 
and all through the sunny dining-room of the hotel there was a 
hungry cracking of claws. A fine bristling Atlantic air blew in 
hot from the bay. 

The small boy, Jean-Pierre, had eyes like glistening blobs of 
bright brown sea-weed. 'English! English! -in English, please !' 


'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight - noine ! ' 




'Please say nine!' Madame Dupont said. 'Nine, Jean-Pierre - 
now ! No more of that noine ! ' 


'Ten now/ Harris said and even Madame Dupont, the gover- 
ness, who with small beady dark eyes and neat pink jaws deli- 
cately champing had something of the look of a refined langou- 
stine herself, laughed gaily. 

'I have to laugh/ Madame Dupont said. 'It's very wrong, but 
I can't help it. The boy is very happy.' 

Harris had begun to share a table under the window with 
Madame Dupont and the boy because now, in July, towards the 
height of the season, the hotel was quickly filling up. There were 
no longer any single tables for single men. Every day new French 
mammas and papas arrived with shrieking families and dour 
matriarchal grandmothers and small yapping dogs, and every 
day Madame Dupont, who had chosen the table in the corner 
because it was secluded and strategic, squinted finely through 
her small gold spectacles so that she could see them better. 

'That's a family named Le Brun who were here last year. 
They are from Lyons. He is in the Surete.' 

'How many langoustines now, Monsieur Harris?' 


Across the Bay 265 

'One dozen. ' 

'Dozen, dozen, dozen? How many is that?' 

'Douzaine,' Harris said. 'Dozen, douzaine. Douze, douze.' 

'It is the same,' Madame Dupont said. 'Isn't that so often the 
case? They are so alike, French and English. Sometimes there 
is hardly any difference at all, really.' 

'French is more beautiful — ' 

'Oh! no. English is very beautiful too.' Sea-light from the 
wide hot bay sparkled on Madame Dupont's spectacles as she 
lifted her face. 'The family Bayard has gone, I see. They have 
rearranged the tables.' 

Harris, with his back to the room, could not see the comings 
and goings of French families. They were reflected for him in 
the flashing glasses, the brief arrested pauses of neat lean jaws, 
the way the silver lobster pincers were held, delicately or with 
surprise or with a certain stern reproval and expectancy, over a 
pile of pink-brown shell and whisker. 

'I believe they are going to put that family - no, they are not. 
Thank Heaven.' 

'Which family?' 

'Blanche. The big fat man in the blue-striped shirt and the 
white cap that he always forgets to take off in the dining-room.' 

After the langoustine that day there were small filets de Sole 
Dieppoise and after that navarin d'agneau with tender olive peas. 
The sun was a blinding silver on the bay. Big blue sardine boats, 
with blood-bronze sails, came round the distant point of pine and 
rock with deceptive grace, running quickly out of sight into port. 
Across the bay an almost complete circle of sand, dead white, 
lay below blue-black pine woods like a crust of salt left by tide 
and baked to a dazzling fierceness by wind and sun. 

By the time he reached the navarin Harris was quite sleepy. 
It was the same, he discovered, every day. Lunch began at twelve 
o'clock and every day he was determined to walk, afterwards, 
along the little coast road under the pines to find out for himself 
what lay on and about that dazzling curve of sand across the bay. 
Every day lunch with Jean-Pierre and Madame Dupont went on, 
with much laughter and sucking of grapes and coffee, until two 
o'clock, and after it he went to sleep in the sun. 

At one-thirty Madame Dupont said, 'It is very queer the table 
is not occupied. I find it very queer.' 

266 Across the Bay 

'Monsieur Harris is going to sleep/ the boy said. 'His eyes are 
shutting ! ' 

'Oh ! no, no, no. Wide awake. Thinking.' 

'Too much langoustines ! ' 

'They have put special flowers on the table,' Madame Dupont 
said. 'Roses and things. Nice ones.' 

'Monsieur Harris is asleep ! He's not listening.' 

'I find it very queer,' Madame Dupont said. 'Special flowers 
and nobody coming.' 

'The flowers are always for Americans,' Harris said. 'They 
will insist on ice-water and plain salad and make a fuss.' 

'Fuss, fuss?' the boy said. 'What's that? What's fuss?' 

'It's what you are,' Madame Dupont said. 'Fuss fuss ! ' 

'Fuss fuss ! ' he said. 

Madame Dupont, not speaking, began to wash a branch of 
blue-black grapes in her finger bowl, holding it just under her 
chin, letting it swing there. Slowly, almost dreamily, she took 
off the wet grapes with her slender fingers, one by one, pressing 
them into her mouth, stones and skin and all, with neat and ele- 
gant squirts. 

'You must not look,' she said, 'but the new people are just com- 
ing now.' 

Harris idly began to wash a bunch of grapes too. In the water 
the dark skins gathered crusts of little pearls. The grapes were 
always sweet and delicious, he found, but sometimes in the early 
pears and peaches there were to be found, to the boy's amuse- 
ment, trundling fat maggots, pear-cream or peach-rose according 
to the flesh from which they unrolled, and Madame Dupont, in 
horror, covered her twinkling glasses with her hands. 

Today, in the boy's slim green pear, there were no maggots, 
and Madame Dupont's eyes were alert and free. 

'I thought it looked for a moment like Monsieur Bazin from 
St Germain and his wife,' she said. 'He is a man of the same 

'Not Americans?' 

'Oh ! no, no. French. An elderly man and a girl.' 

'Nice?' he said. 'The girl.' 

A grape lay for a second in the centre of Madame Dupont's 
lips, delicately poised. 

'A beauty.' 

Across the Bay 267 

As the grape slid into Madame Dupont's mouth, to be sucked 
and champed and swallowed swiftly away, she said: 

'Can I describe her for you?' and went on, not waiting for an 
answer: 'Very dark. No colour. Big brown eyes. And quite a big 
girl -big and round, with nice arms and hands.' She broke oil 
another grape. 'About twenty-two.' 

'And him?' 

'She's wearing a white sun dress with a red coat that slips off. 
She's putting a flower into his buttonhole.' 

'What is he like?' 

'A real French papa. He's a little short-sighted I think. He 
seems to find it hard to read the menu.' 

'Perhaps he is long-sighted instead,' Harris said and Madame 
Dupont, looking hastily down under her glasses, washing grape- 
stained hands in the finger bowl, seemed for the first time a little 

'I have a feeling I have seen him somewhere before,' she said. 
'Jean-Pierre, you must wash your hands. Quickly. Wash them. 
We must go.' 

'Fuss fuss ! ' he said. 

'Thanks to you he is learning English too quickly,' she said. 
'Are you coming too ? ' 

'Yes,' he said. 'I am going to walk across the bay.' 

'On your stomach? or swimming?' she said and once again the 
three of them, the boy with imp-bright eyes, Madame Dupont 
no longer severe or confused, laughed gaily together. 

'He's asleep ! ' the boy said. 'His eyes are shut ! He's asleep al- 

'Quiet!' she said. 'Walk nicely from the dining-room.' 

'Tell me about the war,' the boy said. 

'No,' he said. 'Nothing to tell. I must walk across the bay.' 

All afternoon he slept, as usual, in the sun. 

When he woke, about five o'clock, the wind had turned a little 
northward, breaking straight through the small gap from the 
open sea. It stirred even the sheltered bay into a surface of jagged 
glass, a dark and wonderful indigo, with flouncing edges of salt- 
white foam. The air was so much cooler that he woke with a 
sudden start, the wind quite cold across his shoulders, where his 
wound scar, almost invisible now on dark sea-browned flesh, 
felt tight and dead. 

268 Across the Bay 

He dressed and began to walk, as he had always promised him- 
self, up the road that went along the bay. For about half a mile 
there were little hotels, each with its own small red-tented plage, 
a few villas with shutters pulled down on geranium-filled veran- 
dahs against the sun, and then four or five pensions, shuttered 
too and noiseless behind walls of sea-bent cypresses. Between 
them a few boats lay beached, half-buried in thick white sand; 
and then the shore, at last, was clear, all pine and slate-blue rock 
and dune-grass, with the road winding thinner and thinner up 
the bay. 

Here and there a cove of rock, a miniature bay, pushed the 
road further inland, so that the sea was suddenly not visible over 
humps of bracken and pine. He began to see that the fine long 
curve of road was a deception. It would take hours, half a day, 
perhaps more, to walk the long circle to the point. Sand blew in 
sharp tedious whirls under the pines and a sound of shaken 
boughs, somewhere between a moan and a whine, not summery 
at all, was almost ugly in the cooling afternoon. 

He was glad to be on the clear treeless road again, where he 
could feel sun. And then, abruptly, on a rise of rock, the road 
ended altogether. It shot upwards over the little rise, ending in 
barricades of wire and petrol cans and old sea-worn notices that 
had once spelled 'Danger: Pont coupe' in brighter red. 

Beyond, a narrow estuary, tidal, filling now with the scum of 
incoming sea, cut him off from the higher coast, and he stood 
looking down at what remained of the bridge, two lines of old 
black tooth-stumps, crusted by weed and mussels in the sand. 
The estuary gave on to a little bay, sheltered from the west by 
a point of rock, with scattered pools : and then beyond again the 
repeated dazzling dunes of sand. 

He sat down, lazy in the strong sea-air, glad to be cheated of 
the walk along the coast. He had not come to France for walk- 
ing; he was happy to absorb sea and sun and sand, eat a thousand 
langoustes, a thousand langoustines, and sleep, with no one to 
worry him, every day. He had been shot down over Lorient a day 
or two before invasion began. He had been wounded in the left 
shoulder; and now it produced a curious deflective sort of action 
in his arm, so that he travelled crab-wise when swimming. Parti- 
sans had taken care of him for a week or two, grim, high-spirited 
and very kind, and his first thought, after the war, had been to 

Across the Bay 269 

come back to them. He had wandered, later, all through the coast 
country about here, trying to find his unit in a countryside lit- 
tered with abrupt, tired, severe notices saying 'No: we do not 
know where your unit is.' All of it now seemed a million years 

He would not have known the girl coming up the road, five 
minutes later, if it had not been for Madame Dupont's descrip- 
tion of her : a white sun-dress with a red coat that could be slip- 
ped off. She had taken off the coat and was carrying it in her 

She too stood looking down at the little estuary, the bay, and 
the remains of the bridge; the wind filling and beating the skirt 
of her dress, so that she held it down with her free hand. 

'The bridge is cut/ he said. He spoke in French and for a 
moment she did not reply. 

Then she said, with a curious repetitive flatness that he could 
not explain as either ironical or bored : 

'Yes : the bridge is cut.' 

She stared across the bay, lips full, thrust outward, almost 
pouting. It was true, as Madame Dupont said, that she was a 
big girl, big and round, with sallow skin and fine full arms; but 
her eyes, like her voice, were flat and unresponsive. Sea-light 
seemed to have pulled over the deep brown pupils a thin opaque 

He stood for a second or two not knowing what to say and 
then he remarked that, below, the little bay was very beautiful. 

Yes, it was very beautiful, she said : flatly again, as if, perhaps, 
it were a stretch of corrugated iron. 

There was probably a road round the estuary, he said, if she 
thought of walking on; and she said : 

Yes, there was probably a road round the estuary : as if neither 
she nor anyone could possibly care. 

Quite suddenly she turned and began to walk back down the 
road to the hotel. He watched her for some minutes and then 
began to walk back too. Half-way there the wind blew cool again, 
whining and moaning under the pines, and the girl put on the 
little scarlet coat as she walked along. 

That evening the patron came to the table, as he always did, 
and said, 'Tonight, sir, Mister Harris m'sieu, we have on the 
menu to eat a nice potage, a broth, and then some local fish 

270 Across the Bay 

cooked en fenouille, and afterwards a piece of meat, bifteck, 
cooked in butter. It is all right? You find it?' 

He would find it excellent, Harris answered, and at the bif- 
teck Madame Dupont said : 

'The girl is all alone. She is wearing quite a nice dress, dark 
blue and white. It goes well with that dark hair of hers.' 

'You have butter on your chin, Monsieur Harris,' Jean-Pierre 
said, and Harris licked the running butter away with his tongue. 

'Their name is Michel. I found it from Madame. He is some- 
thing in automobiles in Paris. Quite well off, I think, too.' 

'Are they married ? ' 

'They are father and daughter.' 

'Then why do you suppose the father isn't here tonight?' 

'Because he has gone to Paris,' Madame Dupont said. 'He is 
like so many other gentlemen. He has affaires in Paris and he 
will come here, no doubt, for the wickend.' 

'Have you seen him before?' 

'I don't know,' Madame Dupont said. 'I am not sure. Some- 
how there is a little feeling I have seen him somewhere.' 

In the evenings there was nothing to do but sit on the terrace 
and, in the darkness, almost always warm but hardly ever with- 
out a stir of wind, watch the awakening of lights across the bay. 
The long sea-strong days made Harris very sleepy and by ten 
o'clock, most evenings, he was too tired to keep awake and fell 
asleep at once, on the top floor, in his small attic bed. In the hotel 
salon games of bridge between staid French pairs, at tables of 
green baize, went on until midnight; and in the bar below plain- 
tive French songs, on records, with dancing, beat into the wave- 
lapped night air for an hour or two longer. 

That night he did not fall asleep. With sunset the bristling 
wind across the bay had died. In the still air the gramophone 
from below thumped like the heavy throbbing of a sardine boat 
setting out to open sea. 

It seemed as if, for an hour, the same tune was played over and 
over again. He got up and looked at his watch. He shook it 
several times to make sure that half past nine, and not, as he 
thought, half past ten, was the time it showed. Across the bay, 
at the headland, a navigation light flashed green and red, and 
below, on the terrace, there was still a noise of spoons in coffee 

Across the Bay 271 

It suddenly came to him that, in a moment of sleepiness, he 
had made a mistake of an hour in the time. He dressed and went 
downstairs. There was much knitting by French mesdames in 
the lounge, and outside, under arbours of plane-leaves, a few 
people were still drinking, served by a waiter who in moments of 
idleness stared out at a dreamy milk-calm sea. In the bar a few 
others were dancing, the windows open for air, the gramophone 
filling the room with the beat of the same hot sweet tune he had 
heard upstairs. 

In the bar he found the girl : but not dancing. 

She was sitting alone on a high stool at the bar, playing with 
a few dark-golden grains of sugar in a coffee spoon. 

Would you dance?' he said. 

She held up her arms, not speaking, without a smile. The 
sleeves of her dress, dark blue, were long, ending in cuffs that 
clipped together with small white shells. The stuff of the dress 
was some light crepe-like material through which, as they 
danced, he could feel her skin, smooth and blood-warm and un- 
encumbered. She danced mechanically, smoothly, staring over 
his shoulder : either as if she were deep in thought or not think- 
ing at all. He asked her once if she knew the name of the French 
tune that now, as before, the gramophone kept playing over and 
over again, but she shrugged her shoulders, whether because she 
did not understand or because she did not know he never dis- 

After the third or fourth dance he experienced a curious 
feeling. A latent boredom, a kind of soft fungus of drowsiness 
rising from the same dance, the same tune, the same mechanical 
rhythm of her body - as if she had done all this and done it as 
silently, as beautifully and as efficiently with a hundred men like 
him before -began to creep up through his mind. He felt it 
over-hot in the little bar. He began to dislike the haunting re- 
petitive little tune. A smell of sea- air, fresh and salt, came in 
lightly through the open window, and suddenly he felt he wanted 
to be outside, watching the bay and its lights, walking by the sea. 

'Shall we walk?' he said. 

Her response to the idea of walking was exactly as it had been 
to the idea of dancing. Not speaking, again without a smile, she 
walked in her anonymous way into the darkness ahead of him. 
He followed her and, side by side, they began to walk along the 

272 Across the Bay 

little curving esplanade. For a time street lights at regular inter- 
vals lit up bright purple and scarlet beds of verbena and geran- 
iums, rows of striped bathing huts, blue and brown boats up- 
turned on white sand. 

And then, soon, the last of the light had gone. The dark sea, 
a white fringe of miniature summer waves, a few dark rocks in 
white sand: it was all wonderfully quiet after the bright noises 
of the bar. 

Half a mile farther on they stopped by the sea-wall and looked 
out to where, over the bay, it was possible now to see the lights 
of the lower port, the green and scarlet flashes of navigation 
points, the trail of a sardine fleet making for open water. He 
watched for a few moments and then, casually, he turned to 
kiss her. He thought for a moment he had made a hasty and 
blundering attempt at it because, as he came close to her, she 
turned her face away. And then suddenly he knew that she was 
simply offering her cheek, lightly and formally, in the conven- 
tional French way. 

'Not that way/ he said and began to turn her towards him, 
kissing her full on the mouth. He felt a great start of quickened 
response flare up through her body that, from her breast down- 
ward, seemed to have nothing covering it but the flimsy crepe- 
like stuff of the dress. 

Like one of the navigation lights pricking the darkness, the 
start of her body flared up and went out again. She seemed to kill 
it and then hold herself away. 

He stood for some moments tracing with one finger, slightly 
puzzled, the line of her long arm and the bare curve of one shoul- 
der. She had taken up a half-crouching attitude, leaning forward 
on the wall, looking at the sea. 

'How long do you stay here?' he said. 

'Until the hot weather is finished. It is very hot in Paris now. 

'Do you live in Paris?' 

'I live in Paris/ 

'Do you like it here?' he said. 'Do you swim?' 

'Yes : I swim/ 

There was something increasingly curious, he thought, about 
that repeated formality, the flashing start of feeling, the sudden 
ending of it, the holding away. He felt that behind it, behind all 
the soft correctness of tone, a disturbed moment of high feeling, 

Across the Bay Z72> 

of anguish in heat or even anger, might suddenly flare out if he 
touched her again. 

'Perhaps you would like to swim tomorrow ?' he said. 'With 

'I would like it. Thank you.' 

'What time? At half past ten? Before lunch?' 

'Before lunch: yes/ 

He began to explain to her about the sand in front of the hotel. 
The wash of tide covered it with unpleasant contours of sea-weed 
and a species of ugly splintered grey shell. By noon crowds of 
feet had turned it into a mess. It was better to bathe some dis- 
tance up the shore and now he suddenly remembered the smaller 
bay, at the estuary, where the bridge was broken, that he had 
seen that afternoon. 

'Would you come there?' he said. 'It's better.' 

'Yes : I will come there,' she said. 

For more than half the way back to the hotel she had nothing 
else to say. He did not kiss her again. At a turn in the esplanade 
a brief curl of wind, like some afterthought from the breezy 
afternoon, caught her long hair and blew it, intensely black and 
beautiful, across her face. She stopped to pin it back; and stand- 
ing there, in the half-light of the first esplanade lamp forty yards 
away, she addressed him for the first time with a question of her 

'How long do you stay here ? ' 

He laughed. 

'As long as the money lasts.' 

'You don't know?' 


He had not given it serious thought. He had been able to bring 
about seventy pounds - all that was left of his precious mag- 
nificent gratuity, all he had. After that had gone he hadn't a 
penny, not a prospect, not the remotest idea of a plan or a job. 

'When there's no more money you go home ? ' 

'That's it.' 

'You must be careful with your money.' 

In the morning they lay in the sun, below dunes of scorching 
sand, beyond the estuary. A wind had risen with customary fresh- 
ness after sunrise and it seemed to keep off the heat of a brilliant 
day. But it was the wind, he knew, that burnt; and he was torn 

274 Across the Bay 

between telling her to cover her body for comfort's sake and 
letting her leave it there, magnificent and full, breast and loins 
held in nothing but simple triangles of sea-green, long hair blue- 
black on her full ripe shoulders, so that he could take his fill of 
watching it. 

Finally he reached for her sun-wrap. She was lying full- 
stretched on sea-whitened sand, her skin almost as pale. 'You 
ought to put this on,' he said. 'The sun will burn you.' 

She turned over, her flanks picking up star-like grains of sand, 
one breast dipping and taking up with its heavy tautness a coat 
of the same shimmering particles of whiteness; and in a moment 
he felt himself fired and trembling and began to kiss her. Her 
mouth, now, came full to him at once, without hesitation. Her 
hair fell across his face and with a long slow arm she brushed it 
away and then let the arm curl across his back. He felt the five 
needles of her fingers nicking down the bone of his spine, clench- 
ed, holding him in still frenzy. 

An afternoon of indigo and snow-white brilliance blew in 
exhilarating bursts of wind that flowered into occasional running 
whirlwinds of sand. Above the dunes there was a tossing and 
continuous murmur of pines. Waves lashed with glittering and 
exciting brilliance at the rocks of the small point and sometimes 
it was too hot, and then too cool, to lie on naked sand in the 

That afternoon he discovered her name; it was Yvonne, but 
he did not trouble about the rest. Michel or something, Madame 
Dupont had said. It was Friday; and he said something, just 
before they went back to the hotel, about her father coming back 
for the weekend. Whether, in the crash of waves and the general 
dazzling exhilaration of sea and sun and wind, she did not hear 
quite what he said, or whether she was really not listening or not 
wanting to listen, he did not know. But it was not until they were 
walking back along the road that she answered him : 

'Yes : he is coming back tomorrow.' 

'Until when?' 

'He will go back to Paris on Monday.' 

He remembered the little short-sighted dapper man who could 
not read the menu; the flower in the buttonhole; a certain touch 
of obedient filial care about her attitude towards him at table. 
And it did not surprise him when she said : 

Across the Bay 215 

'I will have to be with him. He likes me to be with him. All the 

'I understand/ 

That evening they danced in the bar and walked, afterwards, 
along dark calm sands. Under stars of tense brilliance, to a barely 
audible splash of tiny waves, she kissed him several times; and 

'Please don't talk to me when he is here. It isn't for long. Two 
days. But he likes to walk with me. And play cards in the even- 
ings. You know. That sort of thing.' 

'I know,' he said. That night, as she put it, it did not seem very 

Next day, for lunch, there were again langoustines. He ate six. 
Saturday, for some reason, was always a disappointing day 
for food, with dishes that seemed scratched up and tired; and 
Jean-Pierre set up a commotion of mocking : 

'Monsieur Harris doesn't eat his food! Monsieur Harris 
doesn't eat his food ! How many langoustines ? ' 

'I think I'm getting tired of langoustines.' 

'When you take things on your plate you have to eat them!' 

Madame Dupont flashed her spectacles : 

'I see the girl's father has come back. She always puts a flower 
in his buttonhole.' 

He did not turn to look; and Jean-Pierre said : 

'If you don't eat your langoustines you can't come to the par- 
don tomorrow.' 

'It is the greatest pardon of all tomorrow,' Madame Dupont 
said. 'It's a wonderful thing. You should see it. You should come 
with us.' 

'Please ! ' the boy said. 'Please ! ' 

'We are hiring a car,' Madame Dupont said. 'There will be 
plenty of room for you if you care to come.' 

There was nothing else to do; and he spent most of Sunday 
roaming about with the boy and the governess on a high crow- 
ded hill full of the shrieks of a fair-ground and the droning of 
unending priestly incantations. All day a great throng of sur- 
plices swarmed about a big grey church like fat, flapping moths. 
Bishops in yellow robes led a whole hillside of peasant faces in 
moaning and singing and ceaseless prayer. At the foot of the hill- 
side drunken orgies started between alley-ways of fair-stalls, in 

276 Across the Bay 

cider-booths, and peasants reaped rich harvests from car-parks 
in paddocks and stubble fields. From the top of the hill a vast 
bay of sand, clear and superbly cleansed by weedless tides, 
stretched curving away against miles of bright blue ocean. 

And looking at it, thinking of the other, smaller bay, of the 
girl and her body taking to it like a magnet the golden grains of 
sand, he felt pained by an ache of sudden anguish for her. He 
was smitten with grey loneliness, made worse by the dry wearying 
incantations, the shrill callings down from heaven. He felt 
sickened by people. He wanted no one near him but the girl, on 
the burning shore or in the calm darkness of the other bay. 

That afternoon Madame Dupont bought many hideous tinsel 
statuettes of saints and Jean-Pierre ate pommes frites from a 
paper bag and at five o'clock they drove home. 

Always, on Sundays, the hotel was crowded. French boys 
played accordions, and sometimes guitars, with loud sweet tunes, 
on the esplanade. The gramophone blared all day from the bar. 

He gave up the idea of drinking about nine o'clock and de- 
cided to go to bed. As he passed the salon he stopped and stood 
looking in through the partially curtained dividing windows. A 
few games of cards were being played. Lights fell across litters 
of cards and small piles of money on green baize tables and he 
saw the girl, upright, neutral-faced, very quiet, playing with her 
father; but whether she was bored, or tired, or simply unusually 
circumspect in her black Sunday evening dress he did not know. 
It struck him that, in these few moments, she hardly looked at 
her partner, dapper with his long amber cigarette holder, the 
flower in his buttonhole and his general French air of being the 
spruce shrewd successful man. 

It was during that week, towards the end, that she saw, as they 
bathed, the scar on Harris' shoulder. It began a conversation not, 
as it turned out, so much about him as about herself. 

Some time before this he had discovered that Madame Dupont 
had been wrong about her age; she had, perhaps, allowed for the 
fact that big supple girls are sometimes younger than they seem. 

She was, after all, twenty-seven; and the conversation, for that 
reason, did not surprise him quite so much. 

'I have been married,' she said. 

With an unpleasant choking sensation in his throat he lay 
looking at the sky. A sardine boat, chugging seawards about 

Across the Bay 277 

the point, seemed to travel for several miles before she spoke 

'During the war/ she said. 'The scar reminded me. I wanted 
to tell you in any case.' 

'There was no need to tell me.' 

'You would have to find out/ 

She seemed suddenly, because of this remark, to speak more 
easily. The sardine boat cleared the point, quickening up its 
engines in a stabbing series of coughing barks that broke sharply 
across the water. 

'It was just for a day or two/ she said. 'That's all.' 

'The war?' 

'Yes : a partisan/ She spoke quickly. 'Two or three nights of 
love - and then, out - pouff ! — ' 

She did not go on, and now as he turned to her, looking at her 
face, he found it unexpectedly pained and hard, embittered al- 
most to giving the illusion of being old. 

'There was no need to tell this/ he said. 

'You would find out in time/ she said, and all of a sudden he 
felt all the fire of wanting her leap back, a sick central needle of 
pain. Her body, golden-grained with sand, rolled itself over to 
him, heavy with emotion, quivering to touch. 'You would know/ 
she said. 'You would have to know.' 

The days of the middle week, in this way, mounted like a castle 
in sand. By the estuary, under hot white dunes, and then in the 
evenings, along the deserted shore, to the sound of tiny waves 
that were not more than spilled echoes, the structure of it, hot 
and frenzied and delicate, was raised up. And each time the 
week-end, like the sea, swept in and bore it away. 

By each Monday he felt that a dark ugly hole had been torn 
in his existence. Not merely had the bright insubstantial castle 
gone. Her other existence, like the sea, had torn deep under it, 
leaving only a ravaged, lacerating hole of loneliness. He began 
to hate the dapper, card-playing flower-fop of a father who 
punctually came down every Saturday to perform, in his neat 
and neutrally precise way, the shattering extinction of everything 
beautiful the week had built up. He thought she hated it too. 

On the following Friday, for the first time for several weeks, 
a squally wind brought an afternoon and then an evening of 
lashed cold rain. A squally touch of winter seemed suddenly to 

278 Across the Bay 

rip across the upturned tables of the terraces. In an hour or 
two summer, like a sea-wrecked castle too, had been ripped 

In the bar they had the customary dance or two, her body 
warm-pressed and supple against him as they went round and 
round to the familiar steel-worn tunes. But tonight, because of 
rain, the bar was full. Rain lashed at the windows and there 
would be no walking, he knew, to places made familiar by love 
along the deserted sand. 

It seemed as if she too was thinking of this : 

'You could come to my room/ she said. 

For a moment in the bedroom, before undressing, she went 
to the window to make sure that it was shut and to pull the long 
chenille curtains. She could not find the cord that pulled the 
curtains together, and for the space of half a minute she put on 
the light. 

There, by the window, a coat stand held her father's hat and 
a crisp neat suit of cream alpaca he always wore when walking 
the esplanade, arm in arm with the girl, silver-headed walking 
stick jauntily swinging, on Sunday afternoons. 

She saw him look at it. 'He left them here to be cleaned/ she 

At intervals he lay listening to cold rain beating with light 
flashes on the sea-exposed window beyond the heavy curtains. 
To his surprise, some time later, he turned and found her face, 
as he moved to touch it with his mouth, wet with tears. 

Why are you crying? What is it?' he said. 'What is it?' 

'I am thinking of the time when you will be gone/ she said. 
'I can't bear that time — ' 

He held her face with his hands, and as she cried a dark ac- 
cumulation of all that he felt at each week-end, the dry dead 
misery of being alone, deprived of her, gave him a sudden bitter 
foretaste of what he knew, in time, would have to come. 

But it was only briefly. It was early August now; there would 
still be four, even five or six weeks of summer. Then he asked 
himself what would happen if the weather broke? and once more, 
afraid and hateful, he listened to the rain beating with its almost 
wintry harshness across the bay. 

'Supposing the summer breaks up ? ' 

'We shall stay now. I have told him I want to stay — ' He 

Across the Bay 279 

could hear by her voice that she had stopped crying. She was 
restrained and quiet again and his fear of losing her, always 
uppermost in his mind rather than any thought of going away 
himself, stopped now too. 

In the morning his fear was renewed and twisted round. He 
discovered, as he paid his weekly bill at the hotel desk, that he 
had somehow made a miscalculation in his money. At the begin- 
ning of his holiday he had seemed to be so rich in traveller's 
cheques that he had really never bothered to count them care- 
fully. The weeks had stretched deliciously ahead. Now, it seemed, 
he had ten pounds less than he bargained for. 

It meant going home a week, perhaps two weeks, earlier than 
he had calculated. 

She was curiously indifferent about these fears. His English- 
ness revolted against and was troubled by a calculation that had 
gone wrong. He was worried by the new post-war fear of having 
no money in a foreign country. 

'By the end of next week I'll have no francs left - nothing 
at all.' 

'I have francs. I can get you francs.' 

'But I could never pay them back.' 

'Who wants you to pay them back?' she said. 'Who wants it? 
Who cares ? ' 

In his English way he was bothered by a possible failure to 
do something correctly. It wasn't exactly a question of dis- 
honesty; it was not quite the game. For her, on the other hand, 
war had killed the meaning, if she had ever understood it in the 
same way, of all such phrases. Nobody bothered about that sort 
of thing any longer. 

'I will get you francs at the week-end. All the francs you 

"I couldn't possibly pay you back — ' 

'Please,' she said. 'All the money in France is black market 
money. Nobody is honest any longer. Who cares ? ' 

He did not know what to answer. 

'Everybody has given up worrying about these things. Every- 
body has to live — ' 

And after all, it seemed, when she spoke like that, very easy. 
She could get a little each week for him. And in that way he 
could stay on. 

280 Across the Bay 

'And I want you to stay on/ she said. 'I want it so much. I don't 
want you to go — ' 

All the time he felt himself held back by a small irritating 
matter of pride. It was the old uneasy business of taking money 
from a woman. Of course people did it; there were times when 
you had to and perhaps there was, after all, really nothing in it; 
but it always left a bad taste somehow, a feeling of a man being 

'I don't know/ he said. 'Somehow — ' 

'But its easy, it's so easy/ she said. 'And if you don't take it 
you have to go — ' 

'I know, I know/ he said. 

'Then if you know and it's so easy why do you make it 
so difficult?' 

He could not explain. All that he felt about being kept 
by a woman sounded priggish and adolescent and horribly and 
smugly English. And yet there was something about being 
kept — 

'I love you/ she said. 'Please do it for that. Please. You will do 
it for that, won't you ? ' 

Well, all right, he said, he would do it for that. He would do it 
for love. 

And then she had a sudden thought. It seemed to her that for 
him it was really, after all, nothing but a matter of pride, and 
she said : 

'I will put it in a letter. Every Saturday I will write you a little 
letter and tell you how I love you and the money will be in it.' 

He laughed. 'You think of clever things/ he said. 'Don't you ? ' 

'Only because I love you.' 

'The more you love the cleverer you get?' he said, 'is that it?' 

'Of course/ she said. 'Every woman knows that is what 
happens — ' 

And so every Saturday morning, before breakfast, he would 
find her letter with the hotel-porter, and inside it enough francs 
to take him through the week, and with the francs a little note, 
brief and tender, about how she loved him and how she was 
happy now because, with the money, he could stay a little longer. 
He took the note away to read on the shore, before he swam, and 
in the fine exquisite air he lost his fear. 

'The season will soon be ending/ Madame Dupont said. 'There 

Across the Bay 281 

is always a horrible rush about the fifteenth and then by the end 
of the month it begins to thin out a little. ' 

'Do you have langoustines in England?' the boy said. 

'No : no langoustines in England.' 

'You have peaches ? ' 

'Yes: peaches.' 

'Yesterday I had a big fat animal in a peach. The biggest one 
I ever had. Pink like a langouste, with a black head — ' 

'I shall be sick!' Madame Dupont said, and buried her face, 
with its flashing spectacles, in her hands. 

After all the weather had not broken. The single day and night 
of gusting rain had been followed by skies of pure washed blue, 
exquisite and brilliant: by afternoons of burning indigo breezi- 
ness, bringing a saltiness that Harris could taste on the face of 
the girl as he touched it with his mouth. Her body had become 
a deep butter-golden brown in the sun. 

By the second week in September he began to experience 
once again the excruciating fear that soon it would all be over. 
The blue dishes of langoustines, the shrill voice of Jean-Pierre 
discovering maggots in the peaches, Madame Dupont's unweary- 
ing spectacles; the hot afternoons by the estuary, the earlier 
darkening evenings along the shore. Not even the week-end dole 
of francs, delivered with the letter after being squeezed somehow 
from the changeless dapper parent who came up from Paris with 
unfailing punctuality every Saturday, could save it much longer. 

She too seemed to realise it and along the shore, on a dark 
humid September evening, said to him : 

'I wanted to tell you something about myself,' and went on at 
once : 'It was about being married — ' 

Listening, not interrupting her, he watched the many naviga- 
tion lights flowing emerald and white and crimson across the 
bay. She, too, after all, it seemed, had been one of his partisans. 
In four years she had helped nearly two hundred men : English 
mostly, but colonials too, and in the final year a few Americans. 

During all the time she spoke of this there was a flatness in her 
voice that reminded him of the evening he had first walked with 
her by the sea. She had once again pulled down that opaque 
blind between them; as if she were keeping something back. 

And then she began to talk, presently, of another man. Not 
an Englishman this time, but a French boy, a young man from 

282 Across the Bay 

Orleans, an eager brilliant boy who when war broke out had 
been studying for a degree in engineering and then, late in the 
war, had become a partisan too. 'He had a wonderful face/ she 
kept saying. 'Such wonderful brilliant eyes. So intelligent and 
beautiful. ' 

After she had known him a few weeks they had been given an 
assignment, quite a difficult one, seventy or eighty miles north of 
Marseilles, and suddenly, under all the impulse of war and the 
emotion of war, they decided to get married before attempting it. 
They were married in his own village, somewhere south of Paris, 
and afterwards they set out on bicycles. That was their honey- 
moon: sleeping in barns, under haystacks, sometimes in small 
hotels, sometimes in the houses of other partisans. It had been 
very beautiful, she said, and as she spoke of it he could hear once 
again the restrictive quietness of unspent tears in her voice, 
making it flat and calm. 

On the second night of the journey as she bicycled downhill 
in darkness, she missed the road, crashing the bicycle into a bank, 
buckling it beyond repair. They hid it in a barn so that he 
could come back for it. Then they rode on together on one 
bicycle, she on the crossbar. And all that night the feeling of 
being close to the young eager boy grew deeper, until in that 
excited, keyed-up, secret and almost funny situation she felt they 
were inseparable. Here she spoke again of his face, saying how 
brilliant and beautiful it was. 

And then the cross-bar of the second bicycle broke; and they 
went on to complete the rest of the assignment on foot, quite 
successfully as it turned out, except that the boy, going 
back two days later in the hope of picking up at least one 
of the bicycles, had himself been picked up by waiting 

After three months they sent him back. 'There was not much 
left of his face/ she said. Her voice had a stony, barren sound. 
'I did not know him from his face. It was not there.' He died a 
week or two later. 

Pride and anger and tenderness for her flooded up like her 
own unspent tears through his heart, confusing and hurting him, 
so that he could not speak again. 

'I did not sleep for a year/ she said. 'I felt I could never sleep 

Across the Bay 283 

He did not answer. 

'Something was taken away and has not come back/ she 

He wanted in that moment to ask her if there was, perhaps, 
something of himself that could replace the things, the feelings, 
the inexplicable something she had lost, but he could not express 
himself in words. A light run of breeze brought a few sharper, 
more crested waves across the bay. He heard her say how beauti- 
ful the evening was, how you could still imagine it was full sum- 
mer. For some moments longer he listened to a sardine boat 
chuffing and coughing away to sea and then to her voice re- 
minding him, at last, still with its dry stony pain, that in a week 
he would be listening to it all no longer. 

'Did you mind that I told you all that?' she said. 

'No : I'm glad you told me.' 

'Sometimes you make me think of him. The same feeling 
comes. I'm happy again/ 

His own happiness and anguish for her kept him quiet again 
and after she had said, in a sentence he did not understand and 
did not ask to have explained, 'There are things that can kill you 
like that, unless you find someone in their place/ they walked 
back arm in arm to the hotel. 

'One has to live/ she said. 

The following day, at lunch, there were more langoustines and 
Madame Dupont, cracking away with neat relish above a pile of 
pink-brown shells, stared through her spectacles to where, at the 
table by the window, the girl was threading the customary flower 
into the dapper bottonhole. 

'It was only today I discovered from Madame Prideaux who 
he is.' 

Before Harris could answer her the patron came to the table 
to say: 'I know you do not like the liver, Monsieur Harris -so 
if you prefer it we have today for you a piece of meat. A bifteck. 
If you find it all right?' 

'Excellent/ Harris said. 'Thank you/ The patron smiled and 
patted Jean-Pierre on the head and walked away. Madame 
Dupont stared critically, with a kind of dry prudery, through 
her spectacles. Jean-Pierre said he would be glad when the 
peaches came and Madame Dupont, holding the lobster-pincers 
poised under her chin, said : 

284 Across the Bay 

'He was at La Baule the summer before the war. With another 

'Another daughter?' 

'I remembered him very well the moment Madame Prideaux 
reminded me.' 

The noon wind was springing up, deepening the sea to flash- 
ing brilliant indigo, across the bay. 

'Daughter?' Madame Dupont said. 'She is somebody's 
daughter, yes. They are all somebody's daughter.' 

In the dining-room there was a swift breath of fish hot in but- 
ter, and richly, thickly, with nausea, it clotted Harris's throat. 

'It's a fine game,' she said. 'I suppose you find it in England 
too? I suppose one finds it everywhere.' 

He suddenly sent his fish away. 

'Nor me ! ' the boy said. 'Nor me. I hate it ! ' 

'You must eat fish,' Madame Dupont said. 'It gives brains.' 


'It gives brains, doesn't it, Monsieur Harris? He must eat it.' 

'Monsieur Harris doesn't eat it.' 

'Monsieur Harris is old enough to please himself what he has 
and what he doesn't have. Aren't you, Monsieur Harris?' 

'Yes,' he said. 

'You must eat and grow big and get lots of brains,' she said, 
'so that you can please yourself what you do.' 

Across the bay the rising breeze from open sea carried deeper 
sparkling furrows broadside along the shore. A blue sardine boat, 
like an ark, shone with its climbing crimson sail tightening against 
the long promontory of blue-black pines. 

'After all she has to live,' Madame Dupont said. She smiled 
with dry tolerance, her mouth twisted, her eyes narrowed like 
the eyes of the old watchful matriarchs behind her spectacles. 
'They all have to live.' 

Harris, eating his beefsteak, stared blindly across the bay. 

'She knows how to make a fuss of an old man like that. And 
after all the old man wants to live — ' 

'Fuss, fuss ! ' the boy said. 

'Quiet!' Madame Dupont said. 'Take what fruit you want, 
Jean-Pierre, and eat it.' 

Harris, staring across the sea, thought of the boy who had 
died, the something that had been taken away from the girl and 

Across the Bay 285 

that he hoped, in a sense, he might have given back. Suddenly 
it seemed that the other shore of the bay was very far away. It 
quivered and receded in the bristling air of noon. 

And staring at it he realised that he had never, all this time, 
been across the bay. He had never been across to the other side. 
It was too late now and as he sat thinking of the girl's dark hair 
blowing across her face, the rain beating on the windows and 
the suit of cream alpaca, pressed and neat, hanging in the bed- 
room, he remembered the stony barren pain of her face and the 
things that would kill. 

'I have a big one ! ' the boy said. 'Look ! Look ! Look at that ! ' 

Harris looked away from the sea to where Jean-Pierre, split- 
ting a gold-pink peach in halves, was prodding with the point of 
his fruit knife a trundling fat maggot that had fattened on the 
blood-brown shining heart of flesh. 

'Kill it! Kill it!' Madame Dupont said. Tut it away! Take it 
out of my sight. I can't bear it ! For God's sake put it out of my 
sight ! ' 

All across the bay the sea flashed with its deep noon beauty 
and in the dining-room Madame Dupont, quite pale behind 
her golden spectacles, buried her face in her hands. 


She was burning chaff in three big yellow separate heaps as he 
came across the field. A flame was darting up and along the blue- 
black edge of each heap like lamp-wick, leaving smoking ash 

She stood leaning on the long white handle of a hay-fork, arms 
firm and crooked, hands just below her chin, eyes rather low on 
the three smoking heaps, as if she was not really watching him 
at all. The wind was cold for October. It blew in sudden ugly 
gusts, switching smoke over grey-yellow stubble in blue flat 
clouds that turned back and bit each other like dogs at play. 

'Could you tell me which is Benacre?' he said. 

Deliberately she drew the tines of the hay-fork down the curve 
of the nearest heap, dragging chaff into fire. From the fresh strip 
of hot ashes new smoke sprang out and was caught by wind and 
driven into his face as he stood there waiting for an answer. 

'You've come wrong way/ she said. 'This is the back end of it. 
It's up the hill* 

'Which way would that be ? ' 

'Up the hill/ she said. Her voice was tart and confident. She 
Jragged at hot ash and chaff again, stirring them to smoke. This 
time she darted a quick look at him to see if he had the sense to 
move away, but he still stood in the wind, letting the blue cloud 
drive full at his face. 

'You'd better stand over here/ she said, 'if you don't want to 
get smoke-dried.' 

In that way she could see him better. She always looked first 
at men's hands and she saw that his own were large and long- 
fingered but rather white. His hair was smooth and dark and 
brushed well back. That was the second thing she always looked 
for. She could not bear men with scruffy ill-kept hair that sowed 
seeds all over the shoulders of their jackets. 

'Could I cut across the field?' he said. 

'You could/ she said, 'if you want to land in the river. Which 
way did you come ? ' 


Chaff in the Wind 287 

'I walked from the station/ 

'You should have got the bus and asked,' she said. 'Then they'd 
have put you down at Benacre.' 

'I thought I'd like the walk,' he said. 

She plunged the hay-fork into hot ash again, pulling half-burnt 
cakes of chaff out of the centre of the fire. One of them rolled 
like a slow fire-ball on to the singed ash-dusted stubble as she 

'You'd better stand back if you don't want to get your shoes 

That was the next thing she always looked for. Hands and hair 
and then shoes. Shoes were the things that had character. You 
could tell by the way a man laced his shoes or polished them or 
kept them repaired or even by what shape they were whether he 
was a careful man or a mean one or just slovenly or vain. 

His own were rather like his hair: town shoes, smooth and 
black and well-kept. They were already dusted by a fine powder 
of chaff-ash and she looked away in irritation. They were good, 
clean, well-tended shoes and she was annoyed by the dust on 
them as she might have been annoyed by the dust of his hair 
flaking down on his shoulders. 

Looking away at the fire, she said : 

'You're looking for Jean Godden, aren't you ? ' 

'That's right. How—' 

'I'm her sister,' she said. 'I'm Doreen.' 

He seemed to look at her for the first time. Her face was 
flushed under the pale blue eyes with blotches of redness from 
the bluster of wind and the heat of fire. She had a plain white 
scarf tied tightly back over her head, giving her hair the impres- 
sion of being whipped severely and sternly back. Her legs were 
shapeless in short turn-down gum-boots, like a fisherwoman's, 
and in denim trousers the colour of light brown cow-hide. 

'I wouldn't have known it,' he said. 

The wind seemed to blow a shadow of fury across her face. 
No, you wouldn't have known it, she thought. I'm that much 
older. Nearly forty. On the shelf, past it: that's what you were 
thinking. She stabbed at the fire again, moving from one heap 
to another, rolling fire-balls of chaff about the white-blue see- 
thing ashes and the running tongues of flame. 

'I thought you were coming last Sunday?' she said. 

288 Chaff in the Wind 

'I was/ he said. 'Then I couldn't get my day off. I had to work 
the week-end.' 

'She waited all day. She didn't know what to do with herself.' 

'I had to work,' he said. 'There was no way of letting 
her know.' 

'You couldn't get away with that with some girls/ she said. 

With me for instance, she thought. 

He was standing too near the fire again and as she pushed past 
him, almost brushing him with the fork-handle, a turn of wind 
took all the smoke of the three fires upward in a single spiral 
column that turned in air and doubled back again, plunging 
down into the central core of ashes so that they grinned, red and 
teeth-like, in the fanning wind. 

'She knows I'm coming today, doesn't she?' he said. 

'I expect so. She doesn't tell me everything.' 

She looked up at the sky. Clouds were curling up against each 
other, low and dirty, not unlike reflections in deeper uglier blue 
of the descending smoke of the fires. 

'The wind's gone up the hill/ she said. 'It'll rain before you 
know where you are. You'd better get down to Benacre while it's 

'Are you going down ? ' 

'I shall do. In a bit—' 

'Then I'll wait for you/ he said. 

She swung round and said : 

'You needn't wait for me. Get on while you've got the chance. 
I'm used to it. You can cut across to the gate there — ' 

'I'd rather wait,' he said. 'I'm in no hurry.' 

'That's a compliment to somebody/ she said. 

Her eyes, as she turned, were held in a frown. Then it lifted. 
Smoke blew across her face in a long wriggling just like the ghost 
of an escaping snake and when it cleared again her eyes were 
fixed with a sort of thoughtful transparence on the central grin- 
ning portions of fire. The glow seemed to consume some of her 
hardness and she said : 

'Weren't you going to stay the night? Where are your things?' 

'I left my bag over by the gate/ he said. 

'You deserve to get it picked up by somebody then, that's all. 
There's people going by there all the time. You never know who's 

Chaff in the Wind 289 

'There's nothing in it to matter much/ he said. 

'Oh ! well/ she said, 'if that's how you look at it.' 

In a moment she was moving again from fire to fire, raking 
and stabbing, letting in wind that woke the chaff to grinning 
eyes and bright yellow flags of flame. 

'Been threshing ? ' he said. 

She wanted to say 'It looks like it, doesn't it?' then she was 
unpredictably restrained by something, and she remembered 
her sister, at home in the kitchen, ironing a brown and yellow 
dress. She said: 'Oh! weeks ago. We got done early. This was 
just the day for burning chaff, that's all.' 

The dress was tight in the waist and had one of those wide 
black cummerbunds that women were wearing now. It was full 
about the hips and the ground-colour was a warm and lively 
brown, the colour of some autumn leaves, with sprigs of yellow 
tendril-borne flowers all over it, very delicate and small. It was 
the sort of dress she could never have chosen for herself. She 
always went wrong somewhere. The brown would have looked 
like furniture polish and the yellow crude and brassy, like dande- 

She hadn't the taste of her sister. Things never came off for 
her. She hadn't the luck either. She hadn't the way of not seem- 
ing to want men, the cool, aloof, irresponsible touch. 

'There's a spit of rain/ he said, and she laughed, very short 
and taunting, for the first time. 

'You'll look well if she's not there when you get there/ she said. 

'Oh ! she'll be there - she said she would.' 

'Oh! will she? Supposing she isn't? You take yourself for 
granted, don't you? You let her down on Sunday.' 

'I didn't let her down.' 

'Well, something like it. It didn't make her feel any sweeter.' 

'What would you do, then ? ' he said. 

'I'd pitchfork anybody out, quick,' she said, 'if they let me 
down/ and she made the gesture with her fork above the fire, 
scattering ash and smoke and chaff and a few flapping flames 
that seemed to turn dark orange, above the ash, in the darkening 

He did not speak and she turned quickly to see if her taunting 
had touched him at all. His face was flushed. She felt amused in 
a confident sort of way about that. His hands were in his trous- 

290 Chaff in the Wind 

er's pockets, deep, so that she could not tell if they were clenched 
or open. Wind had disturbed his hair, raking up a few thin 
separate strands, exactly like the separations in a feather. His 
shoes were almost white from dusty ash and she was suddenly 
uneasy about the changes in the image of him since he had first 
walked across the field. For a moment she lost all her hard, high 
taunting composure and she stabbed pointlessly at the fire again 
and said: 

'You mustn't mind me. You mustn't take any notice of me. 
Do you want to go? You do, don't you?' 

Before he answered she heard the first spits of rain falling 
softly, pifT ! pifT ! into the heart of the fires. 

'What about the fire?' he said. 'I can wait for you.' 

'Oh! it'll burn itself out. It always does. Or the rain'll put it 

Her mackintosh and her tea-bag lay behind her. As she turned 
to pick them up he moved to help her but she was there first, 
grabbing the coat before he could touch it. Then she slung the 
tea-bag over her back and sloped the fork over her shoulder. 

'Come on, we'd better go,' she said. 

Rain in faster spits, sharply hissing as it struck down through 
the full sepia-orange of surrounding oaks, came out of the west 
as the two of them walked across the field. She found her- 
self striding with head down, her big feet flat, her eyes looking 
at his shoes, ash-covered and now rain-pocked, their neatness 

'You think she'll be there all right?' he said. 

'I expect so. If you're fool enough to come I suppose she'll be 
fool enough to be there,' she said. 

She could not resist that. And supposing she was not there? 
She always was; she liked the boys, she had all the luck with 
them. She was pretty enough, with all the taste, for anybody. 
But supposing she were not, this time? Rain came swishing 
faster through the dry golden-brown oaks and made impression 
in her mind of thoughts rushing forward, herded and lost in dis- 
jointed confusion. What would she do if she were not there? Put 
on the green dress with the leather belt? And the flat shoes? And 
do her hair tightly up, in a coconut? 

'Where's your case?' she said. 

'Behind the hedge,' he said. With head down against the rain 

Chaff in the Wind 291 

he brought back a small brown week-end case he had left in the 
shelter of the hedge, by the gate to the field. 

'Here, you have this mac/ she said. 

'No/ he said. 'No. I'm all right.' 

'You've got your best suit on,' she said. 'You'll get it wet 
through. You'll ruin it. Come on, you have the mac on.' 

'No, you. It's yours. You have it.' 

'I don't want it,' she said. 'I'm used to it. Come on.' 

'I'm all right,' he said. 

'Are we going to quarrel over a mac?' she said. 'You've ruined 
your shoes already.' 

Queer how the thought of the ruined shoes upset her. As he 
looked down at them she put the mac over his shoulders. They 
were standing in the road now and suddenly rain came beating 
down in white sheets on the black metal surface, at the same time 
tearing pale brown clouds of leaves that fell wetly across the 
slate-blue sky and its lighter drifts of low blue smoke from the 

When he spoke again his voice was sharp and annoyed. 

'Now give me your tea-bag and hold the mac over your head,' 
he said. 'Go on. Hold one side while I hold the other. I don't 
know what we're arguing about. Put the mac over your head. 
Go on. There's enough for both of us.' 

She was quiet. She put the mac over her head and stared down 
at her big boots slapping in the wet, leaf-printed road, side by 
side with the neat half-spoilt shoes she liked so much. She did not 
know what to say and she wished suddenly that it was night- 
time, with nobody on the road, so that there was no way of see- 
ing her face. 

Presently she could bear it no longer and stopped and swung 
round to look back across the fields at the fires. The wind was 
blowing chaff and smoke and dust and flame into darkening rain 
from the three yellow heaps that were like solitary ftyres. 

'Keep the mac over your head,' he said. 'What are you looking 
at now?' 

'Just the fires,' she said. 

'Oh! come on, they'll burn out. You said they would.' 

'All right. I know.' 

'That's the trouble with some people,' he said. 'They always 
know. They always think they know.' 

292 Chaff in the Wind 

She did not answer. She walked with head still further down, 
watching the two pairs of feet. The rain beating on her lowered 
face made her feel dry and tired inside. What did she know? 
What were the sort of things she was supposed to know? 

She was a fool and there was nothing, she thought, that she 
did know-nothing but the falling rain, the queer odour of the 
mac on her head, the fading smell of fire and smoke and falling 
leaf, and the chaff driving in the wind. 


I first met him on a black wet night towards the end of the war, 
in one of those station buffets where the solitary spoon used to 
be tied to the counter by a piece of string. 

He stood patiently waiting for his turn with this spoon, spec- 
tacled and undemonstrative and uneager, in a shabby queue, 
until at last the ration of sugar ran out and nobody had any need 
for the spoon any longer. As he turned away he caught sight of 
me stirring my coffee with a key. It seemed to impress him, as 
if it were a highly original idea he had never thought of, and the 
thickish spectacles, rather than his own brown kidney-like eyes, 
gave me an opaque glitter of a smile. 

'That's rather natty/ he said. 

As we talked he clutched firmly to his chest a black leather 
brief-case on which the monogram of some government depart- 
ment had been embossed in gilt letters that were no longer clear 
enough to read. He wore a little homberg hat, black, neat, the 
fraction of a size too small for him, so that it perched high on 
his head. In peace-time I should have looked for a rose in his 
buttonhole, and in peace-time, as it afterwards turned out, I 
often did; and I always found one there. 

In the train on which we travelled together he settled himself 
down in the corner, under the glimmer of those shaded bluish 
lights we have forgotten now, and opened his brief-case and pre- 
pared, as I thought, to read departmental minutes or things of 
that sort. 

Instead he took out his supper. He unfolded with care what 
seemed to be several crackling layers of disused wallpaper. He 
was evidently very hungry, because he took out the supper with 
a slow relish that was also wonderfully eager, revealing the meal 
as consisting only of sandwiches, rather thickly cut. 

He begged me to take one of these, saying: 'I hope they're 
good. I rather think they should be. Anyway they'll make up for 
what we didn't get at the buffet.' His voice, like all his actions, 
was uneager, mild and very slow. 


294 The Evolution of Saxby 

I remembered the spoon tied to the counter at the buffet and 
partly because of it and partly because I did not want to offend 
him I took one of his sandwiches. He took one too. He said some- 
thing about never getting time to eat at the department and how 
glad he would be when all this was over, and then he crammed 
the sandwich eagerly against his mouth. 

The shock on his face was a more powerful reflection of my 
own. His lips suddenly suppurated with revulsion. A mess of 
saffron yellow, repulsively mixed with bread, hung for a few 
moments on the lips that had previously been so undemonstra- 
tive and uneager. Then he ripped out his handkerchief and spat. 

'Don't eat it/ he said. Tor God's sake don't eat it' He tore 
the sandwich apart, showing the inside of it as nothing but a vile 
mess of meatless, butterless mustard spread on dark war-time 
bread. 'Give it to me, for God's sake,' he said. 'Give it to me. 
Please don't have that.' 

As he snatched the sandwich away from me and crumpled it 
into the paper his hands were quivering masses of tautened sinew. 
He got up so. sharply that I thought he would knock his glasses 
off. The stiff wallpaper-like package cracked in his hands. His 
handkerchief had fallen to the seat and he could not find it again 
and in a spasm of renewed revulsion he spat in air. 

The next thing I knew was the window-blind going up like a 
pistol shot and the window clattering down. The force of the 
night wind blew his hat off. The keen soapy baldness of his head 
sprang out with an extraordinary effect of nakedness. He gave 
the revolting yellow-oozing sandwiches a final infuriated beating 
with his hands and then hurled them far out of the window into 
blackness, spitting after them. Then he came groping back for 
his lost handkerchief and having found it sat down and spat 
into it over and over again, half-retching, trembling with rage. 

He left it to me to deal with the window and the black-out 
blind. I had some difficulty with the blind, which snapped out of 
my hands before I could fix it satisfactorily. 

When I turned round again I had an impression that the sud- 
den snap of the blind had knocked his spectacles off. He was 
sitting holding them in his hands. He was breathing very heavily. 
His distraction was intolerable because without the spectacles 
he really looked like a person who could not see. He seemed to sit 
there groping blindly, feeble and myopic after his rush of rage. 

The Evolution of Saxby 29S 

His sense of caution, his almost fearsome correctness, returned 
in an expression of concern about the black-out blind. He got up 
and went, as it were, head-first into his spectacles, as a man dives 
into the neck of his shirt. When he emerged with the glasses on 
he realised, more or less sane now, his vision corrected, that I had 
put up the blind. 

'Oh ! You've done it/ he said. 

A respectable remorse afflicted him. 

'Do you think it was seen?' he said. 'I hate doing that sort of 
thing. Fve always felt it rather a point to be decent about the 

I said it was probably not serious. It was then nearly March, 
and I said I thought the war was almost over. 

'You really think so?' he said. What makes you think that? I've 
got a sort of ghastly feeling it will last for ever. Sort of tunnel 
we will never get out of.' 

I said that was a feeling everyone got. His spectacles had grown 
misty again from the sweat of his eyes. He took them off again 
and began slowly polishing them and, as if the entire hideous 
episode of the mustard had never happened, stared down into 
them and said : 

'Where do you live? Have you been able to keep your house 

I told him where I lived and he said : 

'That isn't awfully far from us. We live at Elham Street, by the 
station. We have a house that practically looks on the station.' 

He put on his spectacles and with them all his correctness 
came back. 

'Are you in the country?' he said. 'Really in the country?' and 
when I said yes he said that was really what he himself wanted 
to do, live in the country. He wanted a small place with a garden 
- a garden he could see mature. 

'You have a garden?' he said. 

'Yes. r 

'Nice one?' 

'I hope it will be again when this is over.' 

'I envy you that,' he said. 

He picked up his hat and began brushing it thoughtfully with 
his coat sleeve. I asked him if he had a garden too and he said : 

'No. Not yet. The war and everything - you know how it is.' 

296 The Evolution of Saxby 

He put on his hat with great care, almost reverently. 

'Not only that. We haven't been able to find anywhere that 
really suits my wife. That's our trouble. She's never well.' 

'I'm sorry — ' 

'They can't find out what it is, either,' he said. He remembered 
his handkerchief and as he folded it up and stuck it in his breast- 
pocket the combination of handkerchief and homberg and his 
own unassertive quietness gave him a look that I thought was 
unexpressibly lonely and grieved. 

'We move about trying to find something/ he said, 'but — ' 

He stopped, and I said I hoped she would soon be well again. 

'I'm afraid she never will,' he said. 'It's no use not being frank 
about it.' 

His hands, free now of handkerchief and homberg, demon- 
strated her fragility by making a light cage in the air. His spec- 
tacles gave an impervious glint of resignation that I thought was 

'It's one of those damnable mysterious conditions of the heart,' 
he said. 'She can do things of course. She can get about. But 
one of these days — ' 

His hands uplifted themselves and made a light pouf ! of gentle 

'That's how it will be,' he said. 

I was glad at that moment to hear the train slowing down. He 
heard it too and got up and began to grope about along the hat- 

'I could have sworn I had my umbrella,' he said. 

'No,' I said. 

'That's odd.' His face tightened. An effort of memory brought 
back to it a queer dry little reflection of the anger he had ex- 
perienced about the sandwiches of mustard. He seemed about 
to be infuriated by his own absent-mindedness and then he re- 
covered himself and said : 

'Oh ! no. I remember now.' 

Two minutes later, as the train slowed into the station, he 
shook me by the hand, saying how pleasant it had been and how 
much he had enjoyed it all and how he hoped I might one day, 
after the war, run over and see him if it were not too far. 

'I want to talk to you about gardens,' he said. 

He stood so smiling and glassy-eyed and uneager again in 

The Evolution of Saxby 297 

final good-bye that I began too to feel that his lapse of frenzy 
about the mustard sandwiches was like one of those episodic 
sudden bomb-explosions that caught you unawares and five 
minutes later seemed never to have happened. 

'By the way my name is Saxby,' he said. 'I shall look for you 
on the train.' 

Trains are full of men who wear homberg hats and carry brief- 
cases and forget their umbrellas, and soon, when the war was 
over, I got tired of looking for Saxby. 

Then one day, more than a year later, travelling on a slow 
train that made halts at every small station on the long high 
gradient below hills of beech-wood and chalk, I caught sight of 
a dark pink rose floating serenely across a village platform under 
a homberg hat. 

There was no mistaking Saxby. But for a few seconds, after I 
had hailed him from the carriage window, it seemed to me that 
Saxby might have mistaken me. He stared into me with glassy 
preoccupation. There was a cool and formidable formality about 
him. For one moment it occurred to me to remind him of the 
painful episode of the mustard sandwiches, and then a second 
later he remembered me. 

'Of course.' His glasses flashed their concealing glitter of a 
smile as he opened the carriage door. 'I always remember you 
because you listen so well.' 

This was a virtue of which he took full advantage in the 

'Yes, we've been here all summer,' he said. 'You can very nearly 
see the house from the train.' This time he had his umbrella with 
him and with its crooked malacca handle he pointed south-west- 
ward through the open window, along the chalk hillside. 'No. 
The trees are rather too dense. In the early spring you could see 
it. We had primroses then. You know, it's simply magnificent 

'How is your wife?' I said. 

The train, charging noisily into the tunnel, drowned whatever 
he had to say in answer. He rushed to shut the window against 
clouds of yellow tunnel fumes and suddenly I was reminded of 
his noisy and furious charge at the window in the black-out, his 
nauseated frenzy about the sandwiches. And again it seemed, 

298 The Evolution of Saxby 

like an episodic explosion, like the war itself, an unreality that 
had never happened. 

When we emerged from the tunnel black-out into bright sum- 
mer he said : 

'Did you ask me something back there ? ' 
'Your wife/ I said. 'I wondered how she was/ 
The railway cutting at that point is a high white declivity 
softened by many hanging cushions of pink valerian and he 
stared at it with a sort of composed sadness before he answered 

'I'm afraid she's rather worse if anything/ he said. 'You see, 
it's sort of progressive - an accumulative condition if you under- 
stand what I mean. It's rather hard to explain.' 

He bent his face to the rose in his buttonhole and seemed to 
draw from it, sadly, a kind of contradictory inspiration about 
his wife and her painfully irremediable state of health. 

It was rather on the lines of what diabetics had, he said. The 
circle was vicious. You got terribly hungry and terribly thirsty 
and yet the more you took in the worse it was. With the heart it 
was rather the same. A certain sort of heart bred excitement 
and yet was too weak to take it. It was rather like over- 
loading an electric circuit. A fuse had to blow somewhere and 

Perhaps my failure to grasp this was visible in my stare at the 
railway cutting. 

'You see, with electricity it's all right. The fuse blows and 
you put in another fuse. But with people the heart's the fuse. It 
blows and — ' 

Once again he made the light pouf! of extermination with 
his hands. 

I said how sorry I was about all this and how wretched I 
thought it must be for him. 

'I get used to it,' he said. 'Well, not exactly used to it if you 
understand what I mean. But I'm prepared. I live in a state of 
suspended preparation.' 

That seemed to me so painful a way of life that I did not 

'I'm ready for it/ he said quietly and without any sort of 
detectable desire for sympathy at all. 'I know it will just happen 
at any moment. Any second it will all be over.' 

The Evolution of Saxby 299 

There was something very brave about that, I thought. 

'Well anyway the war's over/ he said cheerfully. 'That at least 
weVe got to be thankful for. And weVe got this house, which is 
awfully nice, and we've got the garden, which is nicer still. 

'You must be quite high there/ I said, 'on the hill.' 

'Nearly five hundred feet/ he said. 'It's a stiffish climb.' 

I said I hoped the hills were not too much for his wife and he 

'Oh! she hardly ever goes out. She's got to that stage.' 

But the garden, it seemed, was wonderful. He was settling 
down to the garden. That was his joy. Carnations and phloxes 
did awfully well there and, surprisingly enough, roses. It was a 
Betty Uprichard, he said, in his buttonhole. That was one of his 
favourites and so were Etoile d' Holland e and Madame Butterfly. 
They were the old ones and on the whole he did not think you 
could beat the old ones. 

'I want gradually to have beds of them,' he said. 'Large beds 
of one sort in each. But you need time for that of course. People 
say you need the right soil for roses - but wasn't there someone 
who said that to grow roses you first had to have roses in your 

'There was someone who said that/ I said. 

'It's probably right/ he said, 'but I think you probably need 
permanence more. Years and years in one place. Finding out 
what sorts will do for you. Settling down. Getting the roots 
anchored - you know?' 

The sadness in his face was so peculiar as he said all this that 
I did not answer. 

'Have you been in your house long ? ' he said. 

'Twenty years/ I said. 

'Really/ he said. His eyes groped with diffused wonder at this. 
'That's marvellous. That's a lifetime.' 

For the rest of the way we talked - or rather he did, while I 
did my virtuous act of listening - about the necessity of per- 
manence in living, the wonder of getting anchored down. 

'Feeling your own roots are going deeper all the time. Feeding 
on the soil underneath you/ he said. 'You know? Nothing like 
it. No desk stuff can ever give you that.' 

And then, as the train neared the terminus, he said : 

'Look. You must come over. I'd love you to see the place. I'd 

300 The Evolution of Saxby 

love to ask you things. I know you're a great gardener. There 
must be lots you could tell me. Would you come? I'd be awfully 
grateful if you'd care to come.' 

I said I should be delighted to come. 

'Oh ! good, oh ! good,' he said. 

He produced from his vest-pocket the inevitable diary with a 
silver pencil and began flicking over its leaves. 

'Let's fix it now. There's nothing like fixing it now. What 
about Saturday?' 

'All right,' I said. 

'Good. Saturday's a good day,' he said. 

He began to pencil in the date and seemed surprised, as he 
suddenly looked up, that I was not doing the same. 

'Won't you forget? Don't you put it down?' 

'I shall remember,' I said. 

'I have to put everything down,' he said. 'I'm inclined to forget. 
I get distracted.' 

So it would be two-thirty or about that on Saturday, he said, 
and his enthusiasm at the prospect of this was so great that it 
was, in fact, almost a distraction. He seemed nervously uplifted. 
He shook hands with energetic delight, repeating several times 
a number of precise and yet confusing instructions as to how 
to get to the house, and I was only just in time to save him from 
a spasm of forgetfulness. 

'Don't forget your umbrella,' I said. 

'Oh! Good God, no/ he said. 'You can't miss it,' he said, 
meaning the house. 'It's got a sort of tower on the end of it. Quite 
a unique affair. You can't miss it. I shall look out for you.' 

The house was built of white weatherboard and tile and it 
hung on the steep chalk-face with the precise and arresting effect 
of having been carved from the stone. The tower of which Saxby 
had spoken, and which as he said was impossible to miss, was 
nothing more than a railed balcony that somebody had built on 
the roof of a stable, a kind of look-out for a better view. That 
day it was crutched with scaffolding. In the yard below it there 
were many piles of builders' rubble and sand and broken timber 
and beams torn from their sockets. A bloom of cement dust lay 
thick on old shrubberies of lilac and flowing currant, and in the 
middle of a small orchard a large pit had been dug. From it too, 

The Evolution of Saxby 301 

in the dry heat of summer, a white dust had blown thickly, settl- 
ing on tall yellow grass and apple leaves and vast umbrellas of 
seeding rhubarb. 

There was nowhere any sign of the garden of which Saxby had 
spoken so passionately. 

It took me some time, as he walked with me to and fro between 
the derelict boundaries of the place, to grasp that this was so. 
He was full of explanations: not apologetic, not in the form of 
excuses but, surprisingly, very pictorial. He drew for me a series 
of pictures of the ultimate shapes he planned. As we walked arm- 
pit deep through grass and thistle -the thistle smoking with 
dreamy seed in the hot air as we brushed it - he kept saying : 

'Ignore this. This is nothing. This will be lawn. We'll get round 
to this later.' Somebody had cut a few desultory swathes through 
the jungle with a scythe, and a rabbit got up from a seat in a 
swathe that crackled like tinder as it leapt away. 'Ignore this - 
imagine this isn't here.' 

Beyond this jungle we emerged to a fence-line on the crest of 
the hill. The field beyond it lay below us on a shelf and that too, 
it seemed, belonged to him. 

Spreading his hands about, he drew the first of his pictures. 
There were several others, later, but that was the important one. 
The farther you got down the slope, it seemed, the better the soil 
was, and this was his rose garden. These were his beds of Up- 
richard and Madame Butterfly and Sylvia and all the rest. He 
planned them in the form of a fan. He had worked it out on an 
arc of intensifying shades of pink and red. Outer tones of flesh 
would dissolve with graded delicacy through segments of ten- 
derer, deeper pink until they mounted to an inverted pinnacle 
of rich sparkling duskiness. 

'Rather fine/ he said, 'don't you think?' and I knew that as 
far as he was concerned it actually lay there before him, superbly 
flourishing and unblemished as in a catalogue. 

'Very good,' I said. 

'You really think so?' he said. 'I value your opinion terrific- 

'I think it's wonderful,' I said. 

We had waded some distance back through the jungle of 
smouldering thistle before I remembered I had not seen his wife; 
and I asked him how she was. 

302 The Evolution of Saxby 

'I fancy she's lying down/ he said. 'She feels the hot weather 
quite a bit. I think we shall make quite a place of it, don't you?' 

He stopped at the point where the grass had been partially 
mown and waved his hand at the wilderness. Below us lay in- 
comparable country. At that high point of summer it slept for 
miles in richness. In the hotter, moister valley masses of meadow- 
sweet spired frothily above its hedgerows, and in its cleared 
hayfields new-dipped sheep grazed in flocks that were a shade 
mellower and deeper in colour than the flower. 

'It's a marvellous view/ I said. 

'Now you get what I mean/ he said. 'The permanence of the 
thing. You get a view like that and you can sit and look at it for 

Through a further jungle of grass and thistle, complicated at 
one place by an entire armoury of horseradish, we went into the 

'Sit down/ Saxby said. 'Make yourself comfortable. My wife 
will be here in a moment. There will be some tea/ 

For the first time since knowing Saxby I became uneasy. It 
had been my impression for some time that Saxby was a man 
who enjoyed - rather than suffered from -a state of mild 
hallucination. Now I felt suddenly that I suffered from it too. 

What I first noticed about the room was its windows, shuttered 
with narrow Venetian blinds of a beautiful shade of grey-rose. 
They only partially concealed long silk curtains pencilled with 
bands of fuchsia purple. Most of the furniture was white, but 
there were a few exquisite Empire chairs in black and the walls 
were of the same grey-rose tint as the blinds. An amazing 
arrangement of glass walking-sticks, like rainbows of sweetmeats, 
was all the decoration the walls had been allowed to receive 
with the exception of a flower-spangled mirror, mostly in tones 
of rose and magenta, at the far end. This mirror spread across 
the entire wall like a lake, reflecting in great width the cool 
sparkle of the room in which, on the edge of an Empire chair, 
I sat nervously wondering, as I had done of Saxby's mustard 
sandwiches, whether what I saw had the remotest connection 
with reality. 

Into this beautiful show-piece came, presently, Mrs Saxby. 

Mrs Saxby was an immaculate and disarming woman of fifty 
with small, magenta-clawed hands. She was dressed coolly in 

The Evolution of Saxby 303 

grey silk, almost as if to match the room, and her hair was tinted 
to the curious shade of blue-grey that you see in fresh carnation 
leaves. I did not think, that first day, that I had ever met anyone 
quite so instantly charming, so incessantly alive with compact 
vibration - or so healthy. 

We had hardly shaken hands before she turned to Saxby and 

'They're coming at six o'clock. ' 

Saxby had nothing to say in answer to this. But I thought I 
saw, behind the flattering glasses, a resentful hardening bulge 
of the kidney-brown eyes. 

Not all beautiful women are charming, and not all charming 
women are intelligent, but Mrs Saxby was both intelligent and 
charming without being beautiful. We talked a great deal during 
tea -that is, Mrs Saxby and I talked a great deal, with Saxby 
putting in the afterthought of a phrase or two here and there. 

She mostly ignored this. And of the house, which I admired 
again and again, she said simply : 

'Oh! it's a sort of thing with me. I like playing about with 
things. Transforming them.' 

When she said this she smiled. And it was the smile, I decided, 
that gave me the clue to the fact that she was not beautiful. 
Her grey eyes were like two hard pearl buttons enclosed by 
the narrow dark buttonholes of her short lashes. As with the 
house, there was not a lash out of place. The smile too came 
from teeth that were as regular, polished and impersonal as 
piano keys. 

It seemed that tea was hardly over before we saw a car draw 
up among the rubble outside. In the extraordinary transition to 
the house I had forgotten the rubble. And now as I became aware 
of it again it was like being reminded of something unpleasantly 
chaotic. For some uneasy reason I got to thinking that the inside 
of the house was Mrs Saxby's palace and that the outside, among 
the wilderness of plaster and thistle and horse-radish, was Sax- 
by's grave. 

The visitors turned out to be a man and wife, both in the six- 
ties, named Bulfield. The woman was composed mainly of a series 
of droops. Her brown dress drooped from her large shoulders 
and chest and arms like a badly looped curtain. A treble row of 
pearls drooped from her neck, from which, in turn, drooped a 

304 The Evolution of Saxby 

treble bagginess of skins. From under her eyes drooped pouches 
that seemed once to have been full of something but that were 
now merely punctured and drained and flabby. And from her 
mouth, most of the time, drooped a cigarette from which she 
could not bother to remove the drooping ashes. 

Of Bulfield I do not remember much except that he too was 
large and was dressed in a tropical suit of white alpaca, with 
colossal buckskin brogues. 

'Would you like a drink first?' Mrs Saxby said, 'or would you 
like to see the house first?' 

Td like a drink/ Mrs Bulfield said, obviously speaking for 
both of them. 'If all the house is as terrific as this it will do me. 
It's terrific, isn't it, Harry?' 

Harry said it was terrific. 

Perhaps because of something disturbing about Saxby's silence 
-he sat defiantly, mutinously sipping glasses of gin for almost 
an hour with scarcely a word - it came to me only very slowly 
that the Bulfields had come to buy the place. 

It came to me still more slowly - again because I was troubled 
and confused about Saxby's part in it all - that the reason the 
Bulfields wanted to buy the house was because they were rising 
in the world. They sought -in fact desired -to be injected 
with culture : perhaps not exactly culture, but the certain flavour 
that they thought culture might bring. After the first World War 
Bulfield would have been called a profiteer. During the second 
World War it was, of course, not possible to profiteer; Bulfield 
had merely made money. Mrs Bulfield must have seen, in maga- 
zines and books, perhaps scores of times, pictures of the kind of 
house Mrs Saxby had created. She must have seen it as a house 
of taste and culture and she had come to regard these virtues 
as she might have regarded penicillin. Injected with them, she 
would be immunised from the danger of contact with lower cir- 
cumstances. Immunised and elevated, she could at last live in 
the sort of house she wanted without being able to create for 
herself but which Mrs Saxby -the sick, slowly expiring Mrs 
Saxby - had created for her. 

This was as much an hallucination as Saxby's own belief that 
his rose-garden was already there in the wilderness. But all 
dreams, like fires, need stoking, and for an hour the Bulfields sat 
stoking theirs. They drank stodgily, without joy, at a sort of un- 

The Evolution of Saxby 305 

holy communion of whisky. And by seven o'clock Mrs Bulfield 
was loud and stupefied. 

Whether it was the moment Mrs Saxby had been waiting for 
I don't know, but she suddenly got up from her chair, as full 
of immaculate and sober charm and vibration as ever, and said : 

'Well, would you like to see the rest of the house now?' 

'If it's all like this it's as good as done,' Mrs Bulfield said. 'It's 
absolutely terrific. I think it's perfect - where do you keep the 

Bulfield let out thunderclaps of laughter at this, roaring: 

'That's it! -we got to see the coal-hole. We must see that. 
And the whatsit! -we got to see the whatsit too.' 

'I'm sorry, Mrs Bulfield/ Mrs Saxby said. 'Forgive me -per- 
haps you'd like to see it in any case ? ' 

'Not me. I'm all right/ Mrs Bulfield said. 'I'm like a drain.' 

'Coal-hole ! ' Bulfield said. 'Come on, Ada. Coal-hole ! Got to 
see the coal-hole ! ' 

'You'll excuse us, won't you?' Mrs Saxby said to me, and once 
again the eyes were buttoned-up, grey and charming as the walls 
of the house, so pale as to be transparent, so that I could look 
right through them and see nothing at all beyond. 

It must have been a quarter of an hour before Saxby spoke 
again. He drank with a kind of arithmetical regularity : the glass 
raised, three sips, the glass down. Then a pause. Then the glass 
up again, three sips, and the glass down. It seemed to me so like a 
man determined to drink himself silly that I was intensely re- 
lieved when he said : 

'Let's get a spot of air. Eh ? Outside ? ' 

So we wandered out through the back of the house, and his 
first act there was to point out to me three or four rose trees 
actually growing on a wall. A bloom of cement dust covered the 
scarlet and cream and salmon of the flowers. He regarded them 
for a few moments with uncertainty, appeared about to say some- 
thing else about them and then walked on. 

His evident determination to say nothing more about one hal- 
lucination, that of the rose-garden, prepared me for his reluc- 
tance to elaborate or surrender another. This was his illusion of 
the sick, the expiring Mrs Saxby. 

'She'll kill herself,' he said. 'She can't stand up to it. She'll 
just wear herself down to the bone.' 

306 The Evolution of Saxby 

I refrained from saying anything about how healthy I thought 
Mrs Saxby seemed to be. 

'You know how many houses she's done this to ? ' he said. 'You 
want to know?' 

I encouraged him and he said : 

'Fifteen. We've lived in fifteen houses in twenty years.' 

He began to speak of these houses wrathfully, with jealousy 
and sadness. He spoke with particular bitterness of a house 
called The Croft. I gathered it was a big crude mansion of stone 
in post-Edwardian style having large bay-windows of indelicate 
pregnant massiveness pushing out into shrubberies of laurel and 
a vast plant called a gunnera, a kind of giant's castle rhubarb. 
'Like fat great paunches they were, the windows,' he said, 'like 
great fat commissionaires,' and I could see that he hated them as 
he might have hated another man. 

On one occasion the Saxbys had lived in a windmill. Saxby 
had spent a winter carrying buckets of water up and down the 
stairway, eating by the light of hurricane lamps, groping across 
a dark, stark hillside every morning to catch his train to the office 
in Whitehall. Then there had been a coastguard's house by the 
sea. The shore was flat and wind-torn and unembellished by a 
single feather of tamarisk or sea-holly or rock or weed. Then, 
because the war came, there were smaller houses : accessible, easy 
to run, chic and clever, sops to the new avidity of war, the new, 
comfortless servantless heaven for which men were fighting. 
She roamed restlessly about, looking for, and at, only those places 
that to other people seemed quite impossible : old Victorian junk- 
eries, old stables, old warehouses, old cart-sheds, a riverside 
boat-house, bringing to all of them the incessant vibration, the 
intense metamorphosis of her charm. Her passion for each house 
was, I gathered, a state of nervous and tearing exultancy. She 
poured herself into successive transformations with an absorp- 
tion that was violent. She was like a woman rushing from one 
amorous orgy to another : hungry and insatiable and drained away. 

She had in fact been unfaithful to him for a series of houses; 
it amounted to that. She had taken love away from him and had 
given it with discriminate wantonness to bricks and mortar. I do 
not say she could help this; but that was how I looked at it. She 
and Saxby had been married rather late. He was reaching the 
outer boundaries of middle-aged comfort when he first met her. 

The Evolution of Saxby 307 

He had wanted, as men do, a place of his own. He had wanted 
to come home at night to a decent meal, unassertive kindliness 
and some sense of permanency. Above all the sense of perma- 
nency. He had a touching desire to get his roots down : to plant 
things, invest in earth, reap the reward of sowing and nurturing 
things in one place. 

He came home instead to that quivering febrile vibration of 
hers that was so astonishing and charming to other people - 
people like me - until he could stand it no longer and could only 
call it a disease. He was really right when he said there was some- 
thing wrong with her heart. The profundity of its wrongness was 
perhaps visible only to him. Case-books had no name for her 
condition or its symptoms or anything else about her -but he 
had, and he knew it had turned him into a starved wanderer 
without a home. 

That was the second of his pictures : of Mrs Saxby constantly 
sick with the pressure of transforming another house, too sick to 
eat, distraught by builders and decorators and electricians and 
above all by the ferocious impact of herself. 'She's really ill. You 
don't see it today. She's really ill. She'll kill herself. She lives at 
that awful pace — ' 

The third was of himself. 

Did I remember the sandwiches, that first night we had met 
in the train? That was the sort of thing he had to put up with. 
Could I imagine anything more hideous than that awful bread 
and mustard? That had been her idea of his supper. 

I thought he might well be sick as he spoke of it. And I even 
thought for a moment I might be sick too. We had again wan- 
dered beyond the house into the wilderness of horse-radish and 
smoking thistle. In the hot late afternoon a plague of big sizzling 
flies, a fierce blackish emerald turquoise, had settled everywhere 
on leaves and thistle-heads, in grass mown and unmown. Our 
steps exploded them. He swung at these repulsive insect-clouds 
with his hands, trying to beat them off in futile blasphemies that 
I felt must be directed, really, in their savagery, against Mrs 
Saxby. I could not help feeling that, in his helpless fury, he 
wanted to kill her and was taking it out on the flies. 

But he was not taking it out on the flies : not his feelings for 
Mrs Saxby anyway. He took an enormous half-tipsy swipe at a 
glittering and bloated mass of flies and spat at them : 

308 The Evolution of Saxby 

'Get out, you sickening creepers, get out ! You see/ he said to 
me, 'I wouldn't care so much if it wasn't for the people. She 
makes all the houses so lovely - she always does it so beautifully 
- and then she sells them to the most ghastly people. Always 
the most bloody awful ghastly people. That's what gets me.' 

From the house, a moment later, came the sound of Mr Bul- 
field triumphantly playing with the appurtenances of the whatsit 
and of Mrs Bulfield, drooping drunkenly from an upstairs win- 
dow, trumpeting hoarsely in the direction of the rose-garden that 
was not there : 

'Now you've started something. Now you've set him off ! He'll 
spend his life in there.' 

And I knew, as Saxby did, that another house had gone. 

We met only once more : in the late autumn of that year. 

On that occasion we travelled down together, into the country, 
by the evening train. He seemed preoccupied and did not speak 
much. I imagined, perhaps, that another house had been begun, 
that he was off again on his homeless, bread-and-mustard wan- 
derings. But when I spoke of this he simply said: 

'The Bulfields haven't even moved in yet. We had some diffi- 
culty about another licence for an extension over the stable.' 

'How is your wife ? ' I said. 


The word dying was too painful for him to frame. Yet I knew 
that it was the word he was trying to say to me; because once 
again, as when I had first met him, he lifted his hands in that 
little pouf ! of sad and light extermination. 

'She started another house on the other side of the hill,' he 
said. 'It was too much for her. After all she can't go on like it 
for ever — ' 

After he had got out at the little station I could not help feel- 
ing very sorry for him. He had left behind him a queer air of 
sadness that haunted me -and also, as if in expression of his 
great distraction, his umbrella. 

And because I did not know when I should see him again I 
drove over, the following afternoon, to the house on the chalk 
hillside, taking the umbrella with me. 

The house stood enchanting in its wilderness of perishing 
grass and weeds, yellow with the first burning of frost on them, 

The Evolution of Saxby 309 

and a maid in a uniform of pale grey-rose - to match, evidently, 
the exquisite walls of that room in which Bulfield had roared his 
joy over the coal-hole and the whatsit - opened the door to me. 

'Is Mr Saxby in?' I said. 'I have brought the umbrella he left 
in the train/ 

'No, sir/ she said. 'But Mrs Saxby is in. Would you care to 
see Mrs Saxby?' 

'Yes/ I said. 

I went in and I gave the umbrella to Mrs Saxby. The day was 
coolish, with clear fresh sunlight. As I came away she stood for 
a moment or two at the door, talking to me, the light filling her 
eyes with delicate illumination, giving her once again that look 
of being full of charm, of being very alive with an effect of com- 
pact vibration - and as healthy as ever. 

'I am glad you came over once more/ she said. 'We are moving 
out on Saturday.' 

The dead grasses, scorched by summer and now blanched by 
frost, waved across the white hillside where the rose-garden 
should have been. 

'I'm afraid it's an awful wilderness,' she said. 'But we never 
touch gardens. That's the one thing people prefer to do for them- 

I drove slowly down the hill in cool sunshine. The country 
was incomparable. The fires of autumn were burning gold and 
drowsy in the beeches. 

If they seemed sadder than usual it was because I thought of 
Saxby. I wondered how long he had wanted to be free of her 
and how long he had wanted her to die. I wondered how many 
times he had wanted to kill her and if ever he would kill her- 
or if he would remain, as I fancied he would do, just bound to 
her for ever. 


'He is the young man she met on the aeroplane/ Mrs Carteret 
said. 'Now go to sleep/ 

Outside the bedroom window, in full moonlight, the leaves 
of the willow tree seemed to be slowly swimming in delicate 
but ordered separation, like shoals of grey-green fish. The thin 
branches were like bowed rods in the white summer sky. 

'This is the first I heard that there was a young man on the 
aeroplane/ Mr Carteret said. 

'You saw him/ Mrs Carteret said. 'He was there when we 
met her. You saw him come with her through the customs/ 

'I can't remember seeing her with anybody/ 

'I know very well you do because you remarked on his hat. 
You said what a nice colour it was. It was a sort of sage-green 
one with a turn-down brim — ' 

'Good God/ Mr Carteret said. 'That fellow? He looked forty 
or more. He was as old as I am/ 

'He's twenty-eight. That's all. Have you made up your mind 
which side you're going to sleep?' 

'I'm going to stay on my back for a while/ Mr Carteret said. 
'I can't get off. I heard it strike three a long time ago/ 

'You'd get off if you'd lie still/ she said. 

Sometimes a turn of humid air, like the gentlest of currents, 
would move the entire willow tree in one huge soft fold of shim- 
mering leaves. Whenever it did so Mr Carteret felt for a second 
or two that it was the sound of an approaching car. Then when 
the breath of wind suddenly changed direction and ran across 
the night landscape in a series of leafy echoes, stirring odd trees 
far away, he knew always that there was no car and that it was 
only, once again, the quiet long gasp of midsummer air rising 
and falling and dying away. 

'Where are you fussing off to now?' Mrs Carteret said. 

'I'm going down for a drink of water.' 

'You'd better by half shut your eyes and lie still in one place/ 
Mrs Carteret said. 'Haven't you been off at all?' 


Go Lovely Rose 311 

'I can never sleep in moonlight/ he said. 'I don't know how it 
is. I never seem to settle properly. Besides it's too hot.' 

Tut something on your feet/ Mrs Carteret said, 'for goodness 

Across the landing, on the stairs and down in the kitchen the 
moonlight and the white starkness of a shadowless glare. The 
kitchen floor was warm to his bare feet and the water warmish 
as it came from the tap. He filled a glass twice and then emptied 
it into the sink and then filled it again before it was cold enough 
to drink. He had not put on his slippers because he could not 
remember where he had left them. He had been too busy think- 
ing of Sue. Now he suddenly remembered that they were still 
where he had dropped them in the coal-scuttle by the side of the 

After he had put them on he opened the kitchen door and 
stepped outside and stood in the garden. Distinctly, with aston- 
ishingly pure clearness, he could see the colours of all the roses, 
even those of the darkest red. He could even distinguish the 
yellow from the white and not only in the still standing blooms 
but in all the fallen petals, thick everywhere on dry earth after 
the heat of the July day. 

He walked until he stood in the centre of the lawn. For a time 
he could not discover a single star in the sky. The moon was like 
a solid opaque electric bulb, the glare of it almost cruel, he 
thought, as it poured down on the green darkness of summer 

Presently the wind made its quickening watery turn of sound 
among the leaves of the willow and ran away over the nightscape, 
and again he thought it was the sound of a car. He felt 
the breeze move coolly, almost coldly, about his pyjama legs 
and he ran his fingers in agitation once or twice through the 
pillow tangles of his hair. 

Suddenly he felt helpless and miserable. 

'Sue/ he said. 'For God's sake where on earth have you got 
to? Susie, Susie - this isn't like you.' 

His pet term for her, Susie. In the normal way, Sue. Perhaps 
in rare moments of exasperation, Susan. He had called her Susie 
a great deal on her nineteenth birthday, three weeks before, be- 
fore she had flown to Switzerland for her holiday. Everyone 
thought, that day, how much she had grown, how firm and full 

312 Go Lovely Rose 

she was getting, and how wonderful it was that she was flying 
off alone. He only thought she looked more delicate and girlish 
than ever, quite thin and childish in the face in spite of her lip- 
stick, and he was surprised to see her drinking what he thought 
were too many glasses of sherry. Nor, in contrast to himself, did 
she seem a bit nervous about the plane. 

Over towards the town a clock struck chimes for a half hour 
and almost simultaneously he heard the sound of a car. There 
was no mistaking it this time. He could see the swing of its head- 
lights too as it made the big bend by the packing station down 
the road, a quarter of a mile away. 

'And quite time too, young lady,' he thought. He felt sharply 
vexed, not miserable any more. He could hear the car coming 
fast. It was so fast that he began to run back to the house across 
the lawn. He wanted to be back in bed before she arrived and 
saw him there. He did not want to be caught like that. His py- 
jama legs were several inches too long and were wet with the 
dew of the grass and he held them up, like skirts, as he ran. 

What a damn ridiculous situation, he thought. What fools 
children could make you look sometimes. Just about as exasper- 
ating as they could be. 

At the kitchen door one of his slippers dropped off and as he 
stopped to pick it up and listen again for the sound of the car he 
discovered that now there was no sound. The headlights too had 
disappeared. Once again there was nothing at all but the enor- 
mous noiseless glare, the small folding echoes of wind dying 

'Damn it, we always walked home from dances/ he thought. 
'That was part of the fun.' 

Suddenly he felt cold. He found himself remembering with 
fear the long bend by the packing station. There was no decent 
camber on it and if you took it the slightest bit too fast you 
couldn't make it. Every week there were accidents there. And 
God, anyway what did he know about this fellow? He might 
be the sort who went round making pick-ups. A married man or 
something. Anybody. A crook. 

All of a sudden he had a terrible premonition about it all. It 
was exactly the sort of feeling he had had when he saw her enter 
the plane, and again when the plane lifted into sky. There was an 
awful sense of doom about it: he felt sure she was not coming 

Go Lovely Rose 313 

back. Now he felt in come curious way that his blood was separa- 
ting itself into single drops. The drops were freezing and drop- 
ping with infinite systematic deadliness through the veins, 
breeding cold terror inside him. Somehow he knew that there 
had been a crash. 

He was not really aware of running down through the rose- 
garden to the gate. He simply found himself somehow striding 
up and down in the road outside, tying his pyjama cord tighter 
in agitation. 

My God, he thought, how easily the thing could happen. A girl 
travelled by plane or train or even bus or something and before 
you knew where you were it was the beginning of something 

He began to walk up the road, feeling the cold precipitation 
of blood take drops of terror down to his legs and feet. A pale 
yellow suffusion of the lower sky struck into him the astonishing 
fact that it was almost day. He could hardly believe it and he 
broke miserably into a run. 

Only a few moments later, a hundred yards away, he had the 
curious impression that from the roadside a pair of yellow eyes 
were staring back at him. He saw then that they were the lights 
of a stationary car. He did not know what to do about it. He 
could not very well go up to it and tap on the window and say, 
in tones of stern fatherhood, 'Is my daughter in there? Susan, 
come home. , There was always the chance that it would turn out 
to be someone else's daughter. It was always possible that it 
would turn out to be a daughter who liked what she was doing 
and strongly resented being interrupted in it by a prying middle- 
aged stranger in pyjamas. 

He stopped and saw the lip of daylight widening and deepen- 
ing its yellow on the horizon. It suddenly filled him with the 
sobering thought that he ought to stop being a damn fool and 
pull himself together. 

'Stop acting like a nursemaid/ he said. 'Go home and get into 
bed. Don't you trust her?' It was always when you didn't trust 
them, he told himself, that trouble really began. That was when 
you asked for it. It was a poor thing if you didn't trust them. 

'Go home and get into bed, you poor sap,' he said. 'You never 
fussed this much even when she was little.' 

He had no sooner turned to go back than he heard the engine 

314 Go Lovely Rose 

of the car starting. He looked round and saw the lights coming 
towards him down the road. Suddenly he felt more foolish than 
ever and there was no time for him to do anything but press him- 
self quickly through a gap in the hedge by the roadside. The 
hedge was not very tall at that point and he found himself 
crouching down in a damp jungle of cow parsley and grass and 
nettle that wetted his pyjamas as high as the chest and shoulders. 
By this time the light in the sky had grown quite golden and all 
the colours of day were becoming distinct again and he caught 
the smell of honeysuckle rising from the dewiness of the hedge. 

He lifted his head a second or so too late as the car went past 
him. He could not see whether Susie was in it or not and he was 
in a state of fresh exasperation as he followed it down the road. 
He was uncomfortable because the whole of his pyjamas were 
sopping with dew and he knew that now he would have to change 
and get himself a good rub-down before he got back into bed. 

'God, what awful fools they make you look/ he thought, and 
then, a second later, 'hell, it might not be her. Oh! hell, suppos- 
ing it isn't her?' 

Wretchedly he felt his legs go weak and cold again. He forgot 
the dew on his chest and shoulders as the slow freezing precipi- 
tation of his blood began. From somewhere the wrenching 
thought of a hospital made him feel quite faint with a nausea 
that he could not fight away. 

'Oh ! Susie, for Jesus' sake don't do this any more to us. Don't 
do it any more — ' 

Then he was aware that the car had stopped by the gates of 
the house. He was made aware of it because suddenly, in the 
fuller dawn, the red rear light went out. 

A second or two later he saw Susie. She was in her long helio- 
trope evening dress and she was holding it up at the skirt, in her 
delicate fashion, with both hands. Even from that distance he 
could see how pretty she was. The air too was so still in the bird- 
less summer morning silence that he heard her distinctly, in her 
nice fluty voice, so girlish and friendly, call out: 

'Good-bye. Yes: lovely. Thank you.' 

The only thing now, he thought, was not to be seen. He had 
to keep out of sight. He found himself scheming to get in by the 
side gate. Then he could slip up to the bathroom and get clean 
pyjamas and perhaps even a shower. 

Go Lovely Rose 315 

Only a moment later he saw that the car had already turned 
and was coming back towards him up the road. This time there 
was no chance to hide and all he could do was to step into the 
verge to let it go past him. For a few wretched seconds he stood 
there as if naked in full daylight, trying with nonchalance to 
look the other way. 

In consternation he heard the car pull up a dozen yards be- 
yond him and then a voice called : 

'Oh! sir. Pardon me. Are you Mr Carteret, sir?' 

'Yes/ he said. 

There was nothing for it now, he thought, but to go back and 
find out exactly who the damn fellow was. 

'Yes, I'm Carteret/ he said and he tried to put into his voice 
what he thought was a detached, unstuffy, coolish sort of dignity. 

'Oh! I'm Bill Jordan, sir/ The young man had fair, smooth- 
brushed hair that looked extremely youthful against the black 
of his dinner jacket. 'I'm sorry we're so late. I hope you haven't 
been worried about Susie ? ' 

'Oh! no. Good God, no.' 

'It was my mother's fault. She kept us.' 

'I thought you'd been dancing ? ' 

'Oh! no, sir. Dinner with my mother. We did dance a few 
minutes on the lawn but then we played canasta till three. My 
mother's one of those canasta fanatics. It's mostly her fault, I'm 

'Oh ! that's all right. So long as you had a good time.' 

'Oh ! we had a marvellous time, sir. It was just that I thought 
you might be worried about Susie — ' 

'Oh ! great heavens, no.' 

'That's fine, then, sir.' The young man had given several swift 
looks at the damp pyjamas and now he gave another and said : 
'It's been a wonderfully warm night, hasn't it?' 

'Awfully close. I couldn't sleep.' 

'Sleep - that reminds me.' He laughed with friendly, expan- 
sive well-kept teeth that made him look more youthful than ever 
and more handsome. 'I'd better get home or it'll be breakfast- 
time. Good night, sir.' 

'Good night.' 

The car began to move away. The young man lifted one hand 
in farewell and Carteret called after him : 

316 Go Lovely Rose 

'You must come over and have dinner with us one evening — ' 
'Love to. Thank you very much, sir. Good night/ 
Cartaret walked down the road. Very touching, the sir busi- 
ness. Very illuminating and nice. Very typical. It was touches 
like that which counted. In relief he felt a sensation of extra- 
ordinary self-satisfaction. 

When he reached the garden gate the daylight was so strong 
that it showed with wonderful freshness all the roses that had 
unfolded in the night. There was one particularly beautiful crim- 
son one, very dark, almost black, that he thought for a moment 
of picking and taking upstairs to his wife. But finally he decided 
against it and left it where it grew. 

By that time the moon was fading and everywhere the birds 
were taking over the sky. 


Every Sunday evening in summertime she sat at the front win- 
dow and watched until he came up the hill. Her hands on the 
horsehair rests of the chair were like pieces of stone-grey paper 
painted with thin lines of water-colour, palest blue, the skin 
transparent and the fingers crabbed over the little palms. She 
always wore a straw hat that had once evidently been purple, 
the shadows of the trimmings, dark grey, on the mildew grey of 
the faded, remaining straw. 

She sat surrounded by a mass of greenery in brass and china 
pots, set about on bamboo stands. The curtains in the big bay 
window were like blankets of red chenille bearing fruitings of 
soft bobbles down the sides. The old-fashioned gas-brackets 
over the mantelshelf bore opaque globes of pink and under them 
were ornaments of twisted yellow glass from which sprouted dead 
stalks of feathery brown reed and bunches of paper spills. She 
made the spills for Luther, with her own hands, every Satur- 

Whenever he came round the corner of the long steep hill she 
always thought that he looked, in his black suit and carrying 
the black fiddle case, so much like a doctor. Even from that dis- 
tance the big rough- angled body dwarfed the fiddle case so that 
it did not look much larger than a doctor's bag. She had in mind 
particularly Dr Farquharson's bag because it was the bag she 
had known best. It had brought her the twelve children, begin- 
ning with Luther. 

The illusion of bag and doctor remained with her through his 
journey up the hill. He walked with a slight groping roll, big 
feet splayed out as if he wanted to grip the hill with his toes. She 
knew he did not roll like that because he was drunk but only 
because his feet were bad. His feet had always been bad. They 
had been bad ever since the time he was a child and had grown 
so fast that she could never afford to buy shoes to catch up with 
him. In those days he had had to suffer a lot of things in that 
way because he was the first and times were desperate. She felt 


318 The Maker of Coffins 

keenly that she had never been able to do her best for him. The 
others had been luckier. 

When he came into the room at last it was always with a series 
of bungling noisy clashes as he tried to find a resting-place for 
the fiddle case somewhere among the many little tables, the piano, 
the bookcase and the chairs. He could never find room for the 
damn fiddle, he thought. The bookcase and the piano were 
both locked up, polished as glass, and she kept the keys on a 
chain. He groped among the chairs with bull-like stupor but 
she never at any time took a great deal of notice of it. He had 
always been clumsy on his feet. He had been a day or two short 
of nineteen months before he had started walking at all. She 
always remembered that, of being so afraid that he would never 
walk: an awful thing, to have a child so fragile that it never 

If she was aware of feeling that the enormous body still en- 
shrined the fragile child she did not reveal it. She turned on him 
with little grunts of peevish affection that had no effect on him 
at all. 

'It'll be dark before you get up here one of these days/ 

'Had a rush job on. Wonder I got finished at all/ 

When he had at last disposed of the fiddle he liked to sit by 
the piano, in the dark patch caused by one end, so that she could 
not see his face. 

'Who was it?' she said. 'Thought you said trade was so bad/ 

'So it is. Man in Canal Street. Burying tomorrow/ 


'A man named Johnson/ 

'Who's he? What name?' 

'Johnson. Call him Polly Johnson. Kin to Liz Johnson — ' 

'Nobody I know.' 

The lines of her face would crease themselves in deeper ruts 
of disapprovation. Her mouth would go on muttering without 
sound for some moments longer while he settled himself by the 
piano with hot discomfort and perhaps a belch or two. 

'You can take your coat off.' 

She liked him better with his coat off. It reminded her of the 
Sundays when all of them were at home, a dinner, all the boys 
with clean white aprons on, so that the gravy from the Yorkshire 
pudding did not drop on their chapel suits. 

The Maker of Coffins 319 

The absence of the coat revealed a man of gross, crusty width, 
with watery blue eyes starting beerily from a face fired by sum- 
mer to lines of smouldering bruisy red. His collar-stud pressed 
brassily on his thick throat and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up 
above arms massive and blackly haired. 

His voice had a yeasty thickness : 

'All of 'em gone chapel ? ' 

'Rose and Clarice and Will have gone. Lawrence and Nell 
went this morning/ 

Lawrence and Will were good boys : steady boys, fellows with 
enough ambition to get good jobs and enough sense to hang on to 
them when they got them. They were solid, pin-stripe men. She 
had never had any bother with Will and Lawrence; they never 
troubled her. They did not approve of Luther, but then, they 
did not understand him. 

'Ain't bin out nowhere this week, I reckon? Too hot for 

'Went up to Rose's Thursday,' she said. 

'Git the bus?' 

'Bus ! What d'ya think my legs are for ? ' 

'You wanta git the bus,' he said. 'One o' these days you'll be 
doing that traipse up there once too much and you'll be dropping 

'If I do you'll be there measuring me out 'fore I'm cold,' she 
said swiftly, 'I'll warrant that.' 

'Ah, don't sit there horse-facing so much. You horse-face too 
much by half.' 

'Don't you tell me I horse-face,' she said. 

He did not answer. It pained him when she horse-faced at him. 
He dreaded the day when he would be measuring her out, he 
thought. His only compensating thought about that was that he 
would make her something very nice; something really high- 
class and lovely; something fitting and worthy of the old lady. 

She sat there for some time looking like a bone carving, and 
at last he broke the silence by saying : 

'Anything to eat? I could do with a mite o' something.' 

'I'll be bound you never got your dinner again, did you?' 

'Never had time. Bin at it since daylight.' 

'Funny how you get so many jobs a-Sundays,' she said and 
her nose rose, pointed as a bird's. 

320 The Maker of Coffins 

Then because he sat there without moving for a second or 
two longer she said : 

'Well: you know where the pantry is. You don't expect me 
to put it in your mouth for you, do you ? ' 

Daylight was fading a little when he came lumbering back 
into the room with hunks of jam tart and cheese and bread and 
cold new potatoes and a slice of cold Yorkshire pudding on a 
plate. He sat with the plate on his knees. He knew that he had to 
be careful of the crumbs; he knew she would horse-face if he 
dropped the crumbs. But the taste of the new potatoes and the 
cold Yorkshire pudding were the taste of all the summer Sunday 
evenings of his boyhood and he crammed them in with blind- 
eyed pleasure, bolting them down, licking thick red lips and 
wishing to God she had a pint in the house to wash them down. 

She muttered at last : 

'Anybody'd think you'd never had a mite in your life. Don't 
she ever get you nothing a-Sundays?' 

'Never care whether I get much a- Sundays,' he said. 

'It don't look like it,' she said. 

That was the worst of his mother, he thought. She couldn't 
hit it off with Edna. He had given up trying to make her now. It 
was like trying to turn a mule. 

'You can get yourself a spill when you want one,' she said. 

Edna was a bit easy-going, he knew, but on the whole he 
didn't complain. She had let herself go a bit, perhaps, after the 
last baby. She was a bit sloppy round the middle. Her face was 
nothing much to write home about but then he wasn't a picture 
either. The chief thing was she didn't nag him; he really didn't 
get drunk very much and if he was late at The Unicorn on a 
Sunday she and the children ate the dinner without him and he 
pacified her with a pint of Guinness afterwards. 

By the time he had finished eating it was almost dark and he 
got up and did the thing he always did, without fail, every Sun- 
day. He lit one of the gas-lamps above the mantelshelf and then, 
holding his big red face under the light, adjusted the burner 
until it gave a pure white glow. Then he filled his pipe and lit 
one of her paper spills from the gas-mantle and put it to his pipe. 
The flame was sucked down by his red powerful mouth into the 
pipe bowl until at last he blew out strong blue clouds of smoke 
that almost smothered him. 

The Maker of Coffins 321 

As she sat in the window she let the smoke come over to her 
with her head slightly uplifted, as if it were a cool breeze blowing 
through the warm airless room in which no window had been 
open all day. There were three moments she really waited for 
all evening, and this was the second of them. The first was when 
she saw him turn, so like a doctor with the fiddle case, at the 
bottom of the hill. The second was the moment of the gas-lamp, 
the pure white glow on his face, the great sucked-down flame 
and the smoke puttering across the room in blue string clouds. 
It was the smoke above all that she associated with that clumsy 
massiveness of his and after she smelled it she was aware of the 
slow dying of cantankerousness inside herself, a softening of all 
the edges of the day. 

When the pipe was really going she knew what he was going 
to do next. She began unconsciously to finger the keys of the 
piano and the bookcase that hung on the chain round her neck. 
That was the third moment: the moment when he reached for 
the fiddle case and undid it and opened it and took out the 

He had begun to play the fiddle when he was seven years old. 
That had been her ambition for him: a fiddler, a violinist, a 
great player of the violin in the household. Mr Godbold, who 
had been a fiddler himself in a great orchestra in Leicester or 
Birmingham or some other big city up in that part of the world, 
gave him lessons in his front room, twice a week, after school, 
at two shillings a time. 

'He has fine hands/ Mr Godbold said. 'He will make a fine 
player. He is slow but in the end he will make a fine player.' 

The walls of Mr Godbold's front room were hung with many 
pictures of Mr Godbold playing the violin as a soloist or in or- 
chestras or at social evenings and smoking concerts. She thought 
Mr Goldbold, in pieces like The Spring Song and excerpts from 
Mariana and II Trovatore, played like an angel, and she thought 
it would be wonderful if Luther could rise as far as that. The 
first winter he persevered through many exercises and the second 
winter he came to his first piece, Robin Adair. Most children who 
learned the piano or the violin went to a Miss Scholes, in the 
High Street, where they learned The Bluebells of Scotland as 
their first piece and Miss Scholes gave them sixpence for doing 
so. Mr Godbold did not believe in bribing his pupils; they 

322 The Maker of Coffins 

worked hard on exercises that were the real foundation of music 
and then went straight on to pieces like Robin Adair. 

Luther stuck at Robin Adair. He played it through for a whole 
winter and then his hands began to grow. By the time he was 
twelve he was a big awkward gargoyle of a boy in whose hands 
the violin looked effete and fragile. She thought by that time he 
could play beautifully: perhaps not quite as beautifully as Mr 
Godbold. Perhaps it only seemed to her almost as beautiful 
because he was so very young. 

'You want the key?' she said. She took it off the chain and 
held it out to him. 

The sound of the fifths as he spaced them out on the piano 
was, she thought, a most wonderful thing. It was different from 
anything else that was ever heard on the piano: those queer, 
sharp steps of notes climbing up and starting a trembling on the 
air. That was the true violin sound: that wonderful prelude of 
quivering that drew out finally into the glassy, soaring singing 
of strings. 

She had never been very happy about his being a carpenter 
and at first she opposed it. It was probably that, she thought, 
that had made his hands so large and clumsy, She was certain 
the hands of a carpenter could not also be the hands of a violin- 
ist; the one could only ruin the other. But his father had said a 
man had his living to earn and what was wrong with a man being 
a carpenter? 'There was One who was a carpenter and there was 
no shame in that,' he said. 

Tlay the' old un?' Luther said, but she said nothing because 
she knew he never began with any other. 

The time he took to play through Robin Adair always seemed 
to go by, perhaps because she shut her eyes, very quickly. It 
flew away on the song's own delicacy. He liked to play too with 
the pipe in his mouth, so that it seemed as if every scrape of the 
bow gave out its own rank cloud of smoke that finally choked 
the room with gas-green fog. 

After Robin Adair he played several other pieces he knew: 
The Jolly Miller and Oh! Dear What Can the Matter Be? She 
thought he played better as he got older; but that, after all, was 
only natural, That was only as it should be. He was a man of 
over fifty now. He had been playing the same pieces, on the same 
violin, for forty years. 

The Maker of Coffins 323 

'Gittin' dark/ Luther would say, after the third piece. 'Better 
be gittin' steady on home. , 

He sat with the fiddle case on his knee and the pipe and the 
violin in his right hand, waiting to pack up. There would be just 
time, he thought, to nip into The Unicorn and have a couple of 
beers, perhaps even three or four beers, before they closed at 
half-past ten. Old Shady Parker would be there and Bill Flawn 
and Tom Jaques and Flannel Clarke and they would stand each 
other a round or two. That would rouse him up nicely and he 
would go home to Edna happy, belching through the dark sum- 
mer streets, up and down the hills. Tomorrow he would begin 
to cut out another coffin. Trade was never what you called good 
in the summer but someone was always going, unexpected or 
not, and he mucked along somehow. Damn what the family said. 
That was good enough for him. 

'Better put the key back afore you forgit,' he would say and 
she would take the key from him and clip it back on the chain 

The poise of her hands, held for a second or two about her 
throat, was a signal that she gave him every Sunday. 

Want me to gie y' another?' 

'Have you got time? Don't you hang about if you haven't got 

'Plenty o' time.' The big voice was crude and massive as the 
hands. 'You jes' say and I'll play it. Want another? What's it 
goin' a-be?' 

'Play me the old one,' she would say. 

The old one was Robin Adair. As he played it she stared be- 
yond the smoky gaslight into spaces empty of shape. She sat age- 
less and tranquil as if already embalmed among the greenery of 
fern-pots, before a shroud of blanketing curtains, under a gas- 
blue summer sky. The harsh sound of the fiddle strings drew 
out thinner and thinner across the spaces into which she was 
staring until her eyes went cloudily after them and she was sight- 
less as she listened. 

'Ah ! y' can't beat th' old uns,' Luther said. 'They take a bit o' 

She did not answer. She felt always that she could hear the 
sound of the strings long after they were silent. They were like 
the sound of pigeons' voices echoing each other far away in 
summer trees, and in the sound of them was all her love. 


When I was a boy the Candleton sisters, seven of them, lived in 
a large gabled house built of red brick that gave the impression 
of having been muted by continual sunlight to a pleasant shade 
of orange- rose. The front face of it had a high, benign open 
appearance and I always felt that the big sash windows actually 
smiled down on the long gravel terrace, the iron pergola of roses 
and the sunken tennis lawn. At the back were rows of stables, all 
in the same faded and agreeable shade of brick, with lofts above 
them that were full of insecure and ancient bedsteads, fire- 
guards, hip-baths, tennis rackets, croquet hammers, rocking 
horses, muscle-developers, Indian clubs, travelling trunks and 
things of that sort thrown out by Mr and Mrs Candleton over 
the course of their fruitful years. 

I was never very sure of what Mr Candleton did in life; I was 
not even sure in fact if he did anything at all except to induce 
Mrs Candleton, at very regular intervals, to bear another daugh- 
ter. In a town like Evensford there were at that time very few 
people of independent means who lived in houses that had stables 
at the back. The Candletons were, or so it seemed to me, above 
our station. There was at one time a story that Mr Candleton 
was connected with wine. I could well believe this. Like his 
house, Mr Candleton's face had toned to a remarkably pleasant 
shade of inflammable rose. This always seemed perhaps brighter 
than it really was because his eyes were so blue. They were of 
that rare shade of pale violet blue that always seems about to 
dissolve, especially in intoxication. This effect was still further 
heightened by hair of a most pure distinguished shade of yellow : 
a thick oat-straw yellow that was quite startling and remarkable 
in a male. 

All the Candleton sisters too had their father's pale violet dis- 
solving eyes and that exceptional shade of oat-straw hair. 

At first, when they were very small children, it was white and 
silky. Then as they grew up its characteristic shining straw- 
colour grew stronger. A stranger seeing them for the first time 



Love in a Wych Elm 325 

would have said that they were seven dolls who had been dipped 
in a solution of something several shades paler than saffron. The 
hair was very beautiful when brushed and as children they all 
wore it long. 

On hot days in summer Mr Candleton wore cream flannel 
trousers with a blue pin stripe in them, a blazer with red and 
orange stripes, and a straw hat with a band of the same design. 
Round his waist he wore a red silk cummerbund. All his shirts 
were of silk and he always wore them buttoned at the neck. In 
winter he wore things like Donegal tweeds: roughish, sporting, 
oatmeal affairs that were just right for his grained waterproof 
shooting brogues. He wore smart yellow gloves and a soft tweed 
hat with a little feather in the band. He always seemed to be set- 
ting off somewhere, brisk and dandyish and correct, a man of 
leisure with plenty of time to spare. 

It was quite different with Mrs Candleton. The house was big 
and rambling and it might well have been built specially to ac- 
commodate Mrs Candleton, who was like a big, absent-minded, 
untidy, roving bear. My mother used to say that she got up and 
went to bed in a pinafore. It wasn't a very clean pinafore either. 
Nor were her paper hair-curlers, which were sometimes still 
in her rough unruly black hair at tea-time. She always seemed 
to be wearing carpet-slippers and sometimes her stockings would 
be slipping down. She was a woman who always seemed to be 
catching up with life and was always a day and a half behind 

The fact was, I suppose, that with seven children in something 
like a dozen years Mrs Candleton was still naturally hazy in some 
of her diurnal calculations. Instead of her catching up with life, 
life was always catching up with her. 

Meals, for example, made the oddest appearances in the 
Candleton household. If I went on a school-less day to call on 
Stella - she was the one exactly of my own age, the one I knew 
best - it was either to find breakfast being taken at eleven-thirty, 
with Mr Candleton always immaculate behind the silver toast- 
rack and Mrs Candleton looking like the jaded mistress of a rag- 
and-bone man, or dinner at half-past three or tea at seven. In a 
town like Evensford everybody was rigidly governed by factory 
hours and the sound of factory hooters. At various times of the 
day silences fell on the town that were a hushed indication that 
all honest people were decently at work. All this meant that 

326 Love in a Wych Elm 

breakfast was at seven, dinner at twelve- thirty and tea at half- 
past five. That was how everybody ate and lived and ran their 
lives in Evensford : everybody, that is, except the Candletons. 

These characteristics of excessive and immediate smartness 
on the one hand and the hair-curler and pinafore style on the 
other had been bequeathed by him and Mrs Candletown in al- 
most exactly equal measure to their children. The girls were all 
beautiful, all excessively dressy as they grew up and, as my 
mother was fond of saying, not over clean. 

'If they get a cat-lick once a week it's about as much as they 
do get/ was one of her favourite sayings. 

But children do not notice such things very acutely and I can- 
not say that I myself was very interested in the virtues of soap 
and water. What I liked about the Candletons was not only a cer- 
tain mysterious quality of what I thought was aristocracy but a 
feeling of untamed irresponsibility. They were effervescent. 
When the eldest girl, Lorna, was seventeen she ran off with a 
captain in the Royal Artillery who turned out to be a married 
man. I thought it might well have been the sort of thing that 
would have ruined a girl, temporarily at least, in Evensford, but 
Stella simply thought it a wild joke and said : 

'She had a wonderful time. It was gorgeous. They stayed at a 
marvellous hotel in London. She told us all about it. I thought 
Mother would die laughing.' 

Of laughing, not shame: that was typical of the Candleton 
standard, the Candleton approach and the Candleton judgement 
on such things. 

The four eldest girls, two of them twins, were called Lorna, 
Hilda, Rosa and Freda. This habit of giving names ending in 
the same letter went on to Stella, with whom I played 
street-games in winter in front of the gas-lit windows of a pork- 
pie and sausage shop and games in summer in the Candleton 
garden and among the muscle-developers and bedsteads of the 
Candleton loft, and then on to the two youngest, who were mere 
babies as I knew them, Wanda and Eva. Mrs Candleton's Chris- 
tian name was Blanche, which suited her perfectly. 

It was a common tendency in all the Candleton girls to develop 
swiftly. At thirteen they were filling out; at fifteen they were 
splendidly and handsomely buxom and were doing up their hair. 
Hilda appeared to me to be a goddess of marbled form long be- 

Love in a Wych Elm 327 

fore she was eighteen and got engaged to a beefy young farmer 
who bred prize cattle and called for her in a long open sports car. 

Hilda had another characteristic not shared by any of the rest 
of the family except her mother. She sang rather well. At 
eighteen she began to have her pleasant, throaty, contralto voice 
trained. Mr Candleton was a strict Sunday morning churchgoer 
in pin-stripe trousers, bowler hat and spats, and Hilda went with 
him to sing in the choir. Her voice was trained by a Mr Lancas- 
ter, a rather bumptious pint-size tenor who gave her lessons three 
evenings a week. It was generally known that Mr Lancaster was, 
as a singer at any rate, past his best, but it was not long before 
the engagement between Hilda and the farmer was broken. 

At that time Stella and I were nine. I, at least, was nine and 
Stella, physically, was twelve or thirteen. What I liked about her 
so much in those days was her utter freedom to come and go as 
she pleased. Other children had errands to run, confirmation 
classes to attend, catechisms to learn, aunts to visit, restrictive 
penances like shoes to clean or knives to rub up with bath-brick. 

In the Candleton way she had never anything to do but play, 
enjoy herself, indulge in inconsequential make-believe and teach 
me remarkable things about life and living. 

What shall we do? Let's be married. Let's go up to the loft 
and be married. , 

We were married the day before yesterday/ 

'That doesn't matter. You can be married over and over again. 
Hilda's going to be. Come on, let's be married.' 

'All right. But not in the loft. Let's have a new house this 

'All right. Let's be married in the wych-elm.' 

The Candleton garden extended beyond the stables into a 
rough orchard of old damson trees, with a few crooked espalier 
pears. A pepper-pot summer house in rustic work with a thatched 
roof stood in one corner, almost obliterated by lilac trees. In 
summer damsons and pears fell into the deep grass and no one 
picked them up. A sense of honeyed rotting quietness spread 
under the lurching trees and was compressed and shut in by a 
high boundary line of old, tapering wych-elms. 

Rooks nested in the highest of the elms and when summer 
thickened the branches the trees were like a wall. The house was 
hidden and shut away. On a heavy summer day you would hear 

328 Love in a Wych Elm 

nothing there but the sound of rooks musing and croaking and 
fruit falling with a squashy mellow plop on the grass and paths. 

Up in the wych-elms the peculiar structure of boughs made 
a house for us. We could walk about it. We crawled, like mon- 
keys, from tree to tree. In this paradise we stayed for entire after- 
noons, cocooned with scents, hidden away in leaves. We made 
tea in ancient saucepans on flameless fires of elm twigs and pre- 
pared dinners of potatoes and gravy from fallen pears. And up 
here, on a soft August afternoon, we were married without wit- 
nesses and Stella, with her yellow hair done up for the first time, 
wore a veil of lace curtains and carried a bunch of cow-parsley. 

But before that happened I had caught, only the day before, 
another glimpse of the Candleton way of living. 

I had called about six o'clock in the evening for Stella but 
although the door of the house was open nobody, for some time 
at any rate, answered my ring at the bell. That was not at all 
unusual at the Candleton household. Although it never seemed 
possible for nine such unmistakable people to disappear without 
trace it was frequently happening and often I went to the door 
and rang until I was tired of ringing and then went away without 
an answer. 

I remember once ringing the bell and then, tired of it, peeping 
into the kitchen. It was one of those big old-fashioned kitchens 
with an enormous iron cooking range with plate racks above it and 
gigantic dressers and vast fish-kettles and knife-cleaners every- 
where. In the middle of it all Mrs Candleton sat asleep. Not 
normally asleep, I could see. A quarter-full bottle of something 
for which I had no definition stood on the table in front of her, 
together with a glass and, beside the glass, most astonishing thing 
of all, her false teeth. 

Blowsily, frowsily, comfortably, toothlessly, Mrs Candleton 
was sleeping away the afternoon in her hair-curlers and her pina- 

But on the evening I called for Stella the kitchen was empty. 
I rang the bell four or five times and then, getting no answer, 
stepped into the hall. 

'Hullo/ someone said. 

That very soft, whispered throaty voice was Hilda's. She was 
standing at the top of the stairs. She was wearing nothing but 
her petticoat and her feet were bare. In her hands she 

Love in a Wych Elm 329 

was holding a pair of stockings, which she had evidently been 
turning inside out in readiness to put on. 

'Oh! it's you/ she said. 'I thought I heard someone.' 

'Is Stella here?' 

'They're all out. They've all gone to the Robinsons' for tea. 
It's Katie's birthday.' 

'Oh! I see,' I said. 'Well, I'll come again tomorrow — ' 

'I'm just going to a dance/ she said. 'Would you like to see 
my dress? Would you? - come on, come up.' 

Standing in the bedroom, with the August sunlight shining on 
her bare shoulders, through the lace of her slip and on her sen- 
sational yellow Candleton hair, she was a magnificent figure of 
a girl. 

'Just let me put my stockings on and then you can see my 

She sat down on the bed to put on her stockings. Her legs were 
smooth and heavy. I experienced an odd sensation as the stock- 
ings unrolled up her legs and then were fastened somewhere 
underneath the petticoat. Then she stood up and looked at the 
back of her legs to see if her stockings were straight. After that 
she smoothed the straps of her petticoat over her shoulders and 

'Just wait till I give my hair one more brush.' 

I shall never forget how she sat before the dressing mirror and 
brushed her hair. I was agreeably and mystically stunned. The 
strokes of the brush made her hair shine exactly, as I have said 
before, like oat-straw. Nothing could have been purer and more 
shining. It was marvellously burnished and she laughed at me 
in the mirror because I stood there so staring and speechless and 

'Well, do I look nice? You think I shall pass in a crowd?' 


'That's good. It's nice to have a man's opinion.' 

She laughed again and put on her dress. It was pure white, 
long and flouncy. I remember distinctly the square low collar. 
Then she put on her necklace. It was a single row of pearls and 
she couldn't fasten it. 

'Here, you can do this,' she said. 

She sat on the bed and I fastened the necklace. The young 
hair at the nape of her neck was like yellow chicken down. I was 

330 Love in a Wych Elm 

too confused to notice whether she had washed her neck or not 
and then she said : 

'That's it. Now just a little of this and I'm ready.' 

She sprayed her hair, her arms and the central shadow of her 
bosom with scent from a spray. 

'How about a little for you ? ' 

She sprayed my hair and in a final moment of insupportable 
intoxication I was lost in a wave of wallflowers. 

'That's the most expensive scent there is,' she said. 'The most 
difficult to make. Wallflowers/ 

Perhaps it was only natural, next day, as I came to be married 
to Stella high at the altar of the wych-elms, that I found myself 
oppressed by a sensation of anticlimax. Something about Stella, 
I felt, had not quite ripened. I had not the remotest idea as to 
what it could be except that she seemed, in some unelevating and 
puzzling way, awkward and flat. 

'What do you keep staring at me for ? ' 

'I'm just going to spray you with scent/ I said. 'There - pifT ! 
pish! pifT — ' 

'Whatever made you think of that?' 

I was afraid to speak of Hilda and I said : 

'All girls have to have scent on when they're married.' 

'Do I look nice ? ' 

She didn't really look nice. The lace curtain was mouldy in 
one corner and had holes down one side. I didn't like the odour 
of cow-parsley. But the soft golden oat-straw hair was as remark- 
able as ever and I said : 

'You look all right.' 

Then we were married. After we were married she said: 

'Now you have to make love to me.' 


'Everybody has to make love when they're married.' 

I looked at her in utter mystification. Then suddenly she drop- 
ped the cow-parsley and pushed back her veil and kissed me. She 
held me in an obliterating and momentary bondage by the trunk 
of the wych-elm, kissing me with such blistering force that I lost 
my cap. I was rather upset about my cap as it fell in the nettles 
below but she said : 

'Sit down. We're in bed now. We have to be in bed now we're 
married. It's the first thing people do.' 

Love in a Wych Elm 331 


'Don't you know ? ' 

I did not know; nor, as it happens, did she. But one of the 
advantages of being born one of a family of seven sisters is that 
you arrive much earlier at the approximation of the more delicate 
truths than you do if you are a boy. Perhaps in this respect I was 
a backward boy, but I could only think it was rather comfortless 
trying to make love in a wych-elm and after a time I said : 

'Let's go and play in the loft now.' 

What with?' 

'I don't know,' I said. 'Let's have a change. We've been mar- 
ried an awful lot of times — ' 

'I know,' she said. 'We'll play with the chest-developers.' 

While we played in the loft with the chest-developers she had 
an original thought. 

'I think if I practise a lot with these I shall get fat up top more 

'You will?' 

'I think I shall soon anyway.' 

Like Hilda, I thought. A renewed sensation of agreeable and 
stupefying delight, together with a scent of wallflowers, shot 
deliciously through me and I was half-way to the realisation of 
the truth that girls are pleasant things when she said: 

'One day, when we're big, let's be really married, shall 

'All right.' 

'Promise ? ' 

'Yes,' I said. 

'You know what you'll be when you're married to me, don't 
you ? ' she said. 

I couldn't think. 

'You'll be a viscount,' she said. 

'What's a viscount?' 

'It's the husband of a viscountess.' 

'How shall I come to be that ? ' 

'Because a viscountess is the daughter of a lord.' 

'But,' I said, 'your father isn't a lord.' 

'No,' she said, 'but his brother is. He lives in a castle in Bed- 
fordshire. It has a hundred and forty rooms in it. We go there 
every summer. And when he dies my father will be a lord.' 

332 Love in a Wych Elm 

'Is he going to die ? ' 


'Supposing your father dies before he does?' 

'Oh! he won't/ she said. 'He's the youngest son. The oldest 
always die first/ 

She went on to tell me many interesting things about 
our life together. Everything in that life would be of silk, she 
said, like her father's shirts. Silk sheets on the bed, silk pillows, 
silk tablecloths, silk cushions. 'And I shall always wear silk 
drawers/ she said. 'Even on week-days.' 

Altogether, it seemed, we should have a marvellous life to- 

'And we shall drink port wine for supper/ she said. 'Like my 
father does. He always drinks port wine for supper.' 

'Is it nice?' 

'Yes/ she said. 'I'm allowed to have it sometimes. You'll like 
it. You can get drunk as often as you like then. Like my father 

'Does he get drunk?' 

'Not as often as my mother does/ she said, 'but quite a lot.' 

I suppose I was shocked. 

'Oh ! that's all right/ she said. 'Lords always get drunk. That's 
why people always say "drunk as a lord." That's the proper thing 
to do.' 

Armed with the chest-developers, we spent an ecstatic after- 
noon. I was so filled with the golden snobbery of being a viscount 
that it was a cold and dusty sort of shock when she told me that 
anyway we couldn't be married for years and years, not until she 
was fatter, like Hilda was. 

The recollection of Hilda, all burnished and magnificent and 
intoxicating and perfumed, inflamed and inspired me to greater 
efforts with the chest-developers. 

'We must work harder/ I said. 

I wanted so much to be a lord, to live in a castle, to drink port 
wine and to be married to someone with silk drawers that I was 
totally unprepared for the shock my mother gave me. 

'The little fibber, the little story-teller, the little liar/ she said. 

'But she said so/ I said. 'She told me.' 

'I went to board school with Reggie Candleton/ she said. 'He 
was in my class. They came from Gas Street.' 

Love in a Wych Elm 333 

Nothing in the world was worse than coming from Gas Street. 
You could not go lower than Gas Street. The end of the respec- 
table world was Gas Street. 

'It's she who had the money,' my mother said. 'Mrs Candleton. 
Her father was a brewer and Reggie Candleton worked there. 
He was always such a little dandy. Such a little masher. Always 
the one for cutting such a dash.' 

I decided it was wiser to say nothing about the prospect of 
marrying, or about Stella's urgent efforts with the chest-develop- 
ers, or the silk drawers. 

'All top show,' my mother said. 'That's what it is. All fancy 
fol-di-dols on top and everything dropping into rags underneath. 
Every one of them with hair like a ten-guinea doll and a neck 
you could sow carrots in.' 

I don't suppose for a moment that Stella remembers me; or 
that, on an uncomfortable, intimate occasion, we were married 
in a wych-elm. It is equally unlikely that Hilda remembers me; 
or that, with her incomparable yellow hair, her white dance 
dress, her soft blonde flesh and her rare scent of wallflowers, she 
once asked me to give her my opinion as a man. I believe Stella 
is married to a bus-conductor. The rest of the Candletons have 
faded from my life. With the summer frocks, the summer straw- 
hats and the summer flannels, the cummerbunds, the silk shirts, 
the elegant brogues, the chest-developers and the incomparable 
yellow hair they have joined Mr Candleton in misty, muted, 
permanent bankruptcy. 

Love in a wych-elm is not an easy thing; but like the Candle- 
tons it is unforgettable. 


The yellow strings of laburnum flower had already faded that 
afternoon when I stood on sentry for the 1st Battalion Albion 
Street Light Infantry and Mrs Strickland came out of her kit- 
chen door wearing a sack apron and a man's check cap pinned 
on her spindly curling rags by a long black hat pin and started 
shaking mats against the garden fence, not three yards from the 
tent made of split sacks and old lace curtains where we of the 
battalion held councils of war before going into battle. 

Upstairs across the yard Mrs Rankin was sitting at a window 
with a bottom like a pumpkin hanging over the sill, huffing ener- 
getically on glass already as pure as crystal and then scrupulously 
polishing the vapour off again with a spotless yellow rag. 

The face of Mrs Rankin, smooth and clean as porcelain, looked 
as if it had been polished too but the face of Mrs Strickland, 
like her curl- ragged hair, had nothing but greyness in it, a dopey 
salty greyness at the same time hard so that the skin looked like 
scoured pumice stone. 

I was only six at the time and still a private; but I thought I 
detected a smell of parsnip wine in the air. Mangled dust and 
shreds of coco-matting rose in dense brown clouds as Mrs Strick- 
land beat the decaying mats against the fence but I stood unshak- 
ably at attention under the laburnum tree, head up, eyes straight 
ahead, right hand firmly on the umbrella we were using as a 
riflle because Jeddah Clarke, our Captain, had the air gun, the 
only other weapon we possessed. 

I knew that if I stood firm on guard and didn't flinch and 
saluted properly and challenged people and didn't let them pass 
until they gave the password, I might become, in time, a lance- 
corporal. There was nothing on earth I wanted more than to be 
a lance-corporal : except perhaps to kill a soldier. 

'I wisht Albie was here,' Mrs Strickland said. 'I wisht Albie 
was here.' 

It wasn't only that morning that her voice had that pumice- 
dry melancholy in it. It was always there, like the curling rags. 


Let's Play Soldiers 335 

Sometimes Mrs Strickland didn't take out the curling rags until 
after Bill Strickland came home for his bloater tea at six o'clock 
and sometimes she didn't take them out at all. 

'Ain't got a spare Daisy Powder, gal, I reckon?' 

Mrs Strickland, staring with diffused and pleading eyes 
through the dust she had raised, groping up towards the sump- 
tuous pumpkin of Mrs Rankin on the window sill, ran a dreary 
hand several times across her aching brow. 

'Ain't got nivry one left,' Mrs Rankin said. 'You had the last 
one yisty.' 

Daisies were a brand of headache powder guaranteed to re- 
fresh and free you from pain in five minutes. Mrs Strickland was 
taking them all day. 

'Ain't Bill a-workin' then?' 

'Bad a-bed. Can't lift 'isself orf the piller. I wisht Albie was 

I knew Albie couldn't be there. Albie, who was eighteen, a 
private too like me, was in France, fighting the Germans. I liked 
Albie; he had a ginger moustache and was my friend. Every 
other day or so I asked Mrs Strickland if and when Albie was 
going to become a lance-corporal, but somehow she never seem- 
ed to think he was. 

'Ain't you got nivry one tucked away, gal, somewheer?' 

'Nivry one,' Mrs Rankin said. 'Nivry one.' 

Despair wrapped Mrs Strickland's face in a greyer, dustier 
web of gloom. 

'Me 'ead's splittin'. It'll split open. I wisht Albie was here.' 

'Won't the boy nip and get y' couple? Ask the boy.' 

Mrs Strickland, seeming to become aware of me for the first 
time, turned to my impassive sentinel figure with eyes of greyest 

'Nip down the shop and fetch us a coupla Daisies, there's a 
good boy. Nip and ask your mother to lend us a thrippenny bit, 
there's a good boy. I left me puss upstairs.' 

It was funny, my mother always said, how Mrs Strickland 
was always leaving, losing or mislaying her purse somewhere. 

'And a penn'orth o' barm too, boy, while you're down there. 
I gotta make a mite o' bread, somehow,' she called up to Mrs 
Rankin. 'Aain't got a mite in the place, gal. Not so much as a 

336 Let's Play Soldiers 

Mrs Rankin, who would presently be hurrying down to the 
yard to scour and white-wash the kitchen steps to blinding glac- 
ier whiteness and who, as my mother said, almost polished the 
coal before putting it on the fire, merely turned on Mrs Strick- 
land a rounder, blanker, completely unhelpful pumpkin. 

I didn't move either; I was on guard and Jeddah Clarke said 
you could be shot if you moved on guard. 

'Nip and ask your mother to lend us a thrippenny bit, boy. 
Tanner if she's got it, boy — ' 

'I can't go, Mrs Strickland. I'm on sentry,' I said. 'I'll get 

'Kids everywhere,' Mrs Strickland said, 'and nivry one on 'em 
to run of arrant for you when you want. I wisht Albie was here.' 

Mrs Strickland dragged the decaying mats to the middle of 
the yard. The smell of parsnip wine went with her and she 
called up to Mrs Rankin : 

'Ain't got 'arf a loaf I can have for a goin' on with gal, I reckon? 
Jist till the baker gits here ? Jist 'arf? Jist the top?' 

'You want one as'll fit on the bottom I lent you the day afore 
yisty? or will a fresh 'un do?' 

Fiery, tempestuous white curls seemed to fly suddenly out of 
Mrs Strickland's mournful, aching head. 

'What's a matter wi' y' ? Askt y' a civil question, dint I ? Askt 
y' civil question. What's a matter wi' y' all of a pop?' 

'Sick on it,' Mrs Rankin said. 'About sick to death on it.' 

'Go on, start maungin' ! Start yelpin' ! ' 

'Yelpin',' yelpin'?' Ain't got nothing to yelp about, I reckon, 
have I ? When it ain't bread it's salt. When it ain't salt it's bakin' 
powder. Enough to gie y' the pip. When it ain't — ' 

'Keep on, keep on!' Mrs Strickland said. 'It'll do your fat 
gullet good. And me with 'im in bed. And the damn war on. And 
Albie not here.' 

Suddenly she dropped the mats, picked up a bucket from 
the kitchen drain and started beating and rattling it like a war- 
gong. In a flash Mrs Rankin's pumpkin darted through the win- 
dow, dragging the sash down behind it. Behind the crystal 
glass Mrs Rankin's face remained palely distorted, mouthing 

Down below in the yard, Mrs Strickland rattled the bucket 
again, shaking her curling rags, and yelled : 

Let's Play Soldiers 337 

'Mag, mag. Jaw, jaw. That's all folks like you are fit for. Mag, 
jaw, mag, jaw — ' 

Mrs Rankin's face, ordinarily so polished and composed, splin- 
tered into uncontrollable furies behind the glass as Mrs Strick- 
land started to fill the bucket with water from the stand-pipe in 
the yard. 

In a second Mrs Rankin had the window up with a shrilling 
squeak of the sash and was half leaping out : 

'And don't you start your hanky-pankies. Don't you start that ! 
- 1 oiled and polished my door ! — ' 

An arc of white water struck Mrs Rankin's back door like a 
breaker. Mrs Rankin slammed down the window and started 
beating the panes with her fists. Mrs Strickland screamed that 
she wisht Albie was here, Albie would let some daylight into 
somebody, and threw the bucket with a crashing roll across the 

A moment later a bedroom window shot open in the Strickland 
house and an unsober chin of black stubble leaned out and 
bawled : 

'What the bloody 'ell's going on down there? If you two don't 
shut your yawpin' chops I'll come down and lay a belt acrosst 
the pair on y' — ' 

'I wisht Albie was here!' Mrs Strickland said. 'I wisht Albie 
was here ! ' 

Drearily she slammed away into the house and after that it 
was silent for some minutes until suddenly from the street beyond 
the yard I could hear the inspiring note of war cries. A minute 
later the first battalion Albion Street Light Infantry came trium- 
phantly pounding down the path between the cabbage patches, 
led by Jeddah Clarke, carrying the air-gun, Wag Chettle, bearing 
the standard, a red handkerchief tied to a bean-pole, and Fred 
Baker, beating a drum he had had for Christmas. 

Fred and Jeddah were actually in khaki uniforms. Jeddah, 
besides the air-gun, wore a bandolier across his chest with real 
pouches and two clips of spent cartridges; Fred had a peaked 
khaki cap on, with the badge of the Beds & Bucks Light Infantry 
on one side and that of the Royal Welch Fusiliers on the other. 
At that time the Fusiliers were billeted in the town and we had 
an inspired admiration for them because they kept a white goat 
as mascot. The goat ate anything you gave it, even cigarettes. 

338 Let's Play Soldiers 

What now surprised me about the battalion was not its air of 
triumph but its size. Usually it was no more than eight strong. 
Now it was twenty. Those bringing up the rear were even flying 
a second flag. It was a square of blue-and-white football shirt. 
I caught the gleam of a second and even a third air-gun and then 
suddenly Jeddah Clarke, our Captain, raised his air-gun and 
yelled : 

'Gas Street are on our side! They're in the battalion! Gas 
Street have come in with us ! Charge ! ' 

We all cheered madly and charged. The little hairs of my neck 
stuck up in pride, excitement and admiration as we thundered 
dustily into the summer street outside. 

'Charge!' we all shouted. 'Charge! Capture 'em! Charge!' 

Heady with thought of battle, we wheeled like thunder into 
Winchester Street: completely unnoticed by a milk float, two 
bakers' carts, a chimney sweep on a bicycle and two women 
pushing prams. 

'Charge!' I yelled, and was stunned to hear the blast of a 
bugle, suddenly blown at my side by a boy named Charley Flet- 
cher, who was in the Lads' Brigade. 

This new note, defiant above the roll of Fred Baker's drum, 
had us all in a frenzy of battle just as we surged past a railway 
dray loading piles of bulky leather outside a factory, where the 
crane swung out from its fourth storey door like a gallows and 
dropped its thirty-feet of rippling chain down to the shining 
hot pavement below. 

'Charge!' I yelled, bringing up the rear with the umbrella 
under my arm and pointing it forward as if it had a bayonet in 
the end, exactly as I had seen in pictures of soldiers charging 
from the trenches. There was nothing we didn't know about 
soldiers and the trenches. We knew all about Vimy Ridge, Ypres, 
Hill 60 and Verdun too. We had seen them all in pictures. 

The voice of our Captain, Jeddah Clarke, tore the air with 
fresh challenge as we whipped out of Winchester Street into 
Green's Alley. Continually Charley Fletcher's bugle ripped the 
quiet of the afternoon to shreds with raucous notes that were 
almost hysterical, rallying both us and the reinforcements of Gas 
Street, and I wondered suddenly where we were going and where 
the attack would be made. 

Jeddah, yelling, told us all a moment later : 

Let's Play Soldiers 339 

'Down to The Pit ! We'll git 'em in The Pit ! ' 

My heart went absolutely icy, turned sour and dropped to my 

The Pit was a terrible place. You never went to The Pit. No 
one ever did. If you did you never came out alive. The people 
there, who lived in sordid back-to-back hovels with sacks at the 
windows, captured you, tied you up, locked you in satanic priv- 
ies and let you suffocate to death. If they didn't do that they 
starved you, took away all your clothes and sold you naked in 
slavery. They were the most awful people in the world. People 
like Mrs Strickland were respectable by comparison. They were 
always dirty, drunk and fighting. They were always stinking and 
they were full of bugs and fleas. 

I suddenly wanted to turn back, stand guard in the cabbage 
patch and dream quietly about being a lance-corporal one day. 

'Charge!' everyone yelled. 'Charge! Git the stones ready!' 

Out of Green's Alley we swung on the tide of battle into The 
Jetty, a narrow track of dried mud and stone. There the trium- 
phant column broke up for a moment or two and we began to 
hack stones from the dust with the heels of our boots. By this 
time my legs and knees were shaking : so much so that all I could 
hack out were two pebbles and the stopper of a broken beer 
bottle. But Fred Baker, seeing this, took pity on me and armed 
me with half a brick. 

The bugle sounded again, shrill as a cornet. 

'Air-guns in front!' Jeddah yelled. 'Git ready when I say 
charge ! ' 

We thundered on. We had been joined now by a butcher's boy 
on a bicycle and for some reason I found myself clinging to his 
saddle. Suddenly in the excitement the butcher's boy started 
pedalling madly and I could hardly keep up with the column as it 
pounded along. 

Less than a minute later we were facing the jaws of The Pit. 
They were nothing more than a gap between two rows of derelict 
gas-tarred fences but beyond them I could see the little one- 
storey hovels with sacks at their windows, the horrible squat 
brick prisons of outdoor privies and a few dirty flags of shirt on 
a washing line. 

It was impossible for my heart to turn cold a second time; it 
was frozen stiff already. But the paralysis that kept it stuck at 

340 Let's Play Soldiers 

the pit of my stomach now affected my legs and I stopped run- 

This, as it turned out, was a purely instinctive reaction. Every- 
one else had stopped running too. 

'Charge!' someone yelled and this time it was not our Cap- 
tain, Jeddah. 

The order came from behind us and as we turned in its direc- 
tion we found ourselves the victims of the oldest of all battle 
manoeuvres. We were being attacked in the rear. 

This time my eyes froze. The Pit Brigade stood waiting for 
us : eight or ten of them, headed by a black-mouthed deaf-mute 
armed with five-foot two-pronged hoe. Another had an ugly 
strip of barrel hoop sharpend up like a sword and another a 
catapult with a black leather sling big enough to hold an egg. 
He was smoking a cigarette. Two others were manning a two- 
seater pram armoured with rusty plates of corrugated iron and 
this, we all realised, was an armament we did not possess. It was 
the first tank we had encountered. 

The deaf-mute started showing his black teeth, gurgling 
strange cries. He made vigorous deaf-and-dumb signs with his 
hands and the snarling faces about him jabbered. The entire Pit 
Brigade, older, bigger, dirtier and better armed than we were, 
stood ready to attack. 

It was too late to think about being a lance-corporal now and 
a moment later they were on us. 

'Charge ! ' everyone shouted from both sides. 'Charge ! ' and we 
were locked in an instant clash of bricks, stones, catapults, flags, 
sticks and air-guns that would not fire. Above it all the unearthly 
voice of the deaf mute gurgled like a throttled man, mouthing 
black nothings. 

I threw my brick. It fell like the legendary sparrow through 
the air. Someone started to tear the coat off my back and I 
thrashed madly about me with the umbrella. I could see our two 
flags rocking ship-mast fashion in the centre of battle and Char- 
ley Fletcher using the bugle as a hammer. The two-pronged hoe 
fell like a claw among us and the armour plates fell off the pram- 
tank as it ran into Fred Baker and cut his legs, drawing first 

Soon we actually had them retreating. 

'We're the English!' I heard Jeddah shouting. 'We're the 

Let's Play Soldiers 341 

English ! The Pit are the bloody Germans/ and this stirring cry 
of patriotism roused us to fresh thrills of battle frenzy. 

We're the English !' we all yelled. We're the English!' 

Suddenly as if a trap door had opened the Pit Brigade, under 
sheer weight of pressure, fell backward into the jaws of The Pit, 
hastily slamming the door behind them as a barricade and 
leaving outside a single stray soldier armed with a rusty flat iron 
suspended on a piece of cord and dressed as a sergeant of the 
Royal Artillery, complete with spurs and puttees. 

Cut off from the tide of battle, this soldier gave several rapid 
and despairing looks about him, dropped the flat iron and bolted 
like a hare. 

'Prisoner !' Jeddah yelled. 'Prisoner! Git him! Take him 
prisoner ! ' 

In a moment Fred Baker, Charley Fletcher and myself were 
after him. We caught him at the top to The Jetty. At first he 
lay on his back and kicked out at us with the spurs, spitting at 
the same time, but soon I was sitting on his face, Fred Baker on 
his chest and Charley Fletcher, who was the eldest, on his legs. 
For a long time he kept trying to spit at us and all the time there 
was a strong, putrid, stinking, funny smell about him. 

We kept him prisoner all afternoon. Then we decided to strip 
him. While Fred and I sat on his face and chest Charley unrolled 
the puttees and took off the spurs. 

'You always have spoils of war when you take prisoners,' 
Charley explained. 'Soldiers call it a bit of buckshee.' 

We spent some time arguing about how the buckshee should 
be divided and finally Charley was awarded the puttees, because 
he was the eldest, and Fred Baker and I each had a spur. Hav- 
ing the spur was even better than being a lance corporal and I 
couldn't remember ever having had anything that made me feel 
more proud. 

It was almost evening before Jeddah and the rest of the Bat- 
talion got back, fifty strong, from telling of our victory in far 
places, in Lancaster Street, Rectory Street, Bedford Row, King's 
Lane and those parts of the town who could not be expected to 
hear of our triumph other than by word of mouth and from us. 

'We still got the prisoner, Captain,' we said. 'What shall we 
do with him ? ' 

'Shoot him,' Jeddah said. 

342 Let's Play Soldiers 

Orders were orders with Jeddah and we asked if we could have 
the air-gun. 

He handed it over. 

'I leave it to you/ Jeddah said. He was now wearing a forage 
cap, three long service stripes, a leather belt and a Welch black 
flash he had captured. 'Charge ! ' 

The sound of returning triumph from the fifty-strong bat- 
talion had hardly died away before we set to work to shoot the 
flat-iron boy. 

First of all we made him stand up by the fence, among a pile 
of junk and nettles. By this time we had tied his hands and legs 
with the cord off the flat-iron and had taken off his shoes so that 
he found it hard to run. But he still spat at us as he stood waiting 
to be shot and he still had that funny, sickening smell. 

Fred Baker shot him first. The unloaded air-gun made a noise 
rather like a damp squib. Then Charley Fletcher shot him and 
the gun made a noise like a damp squib a second time. Then I 
shot him and as I did so I made a loud, realistic noise that was 
more like the crack of a bursting paper bag. I aimed between the 
eyes of the flat-iron boy as I shot and I was very thrilled. 

'Now you're dead,' we said to him. 'Don't you forget. Don't 
you move - you're dead. You can't fight no more.' 

He didn't look very dead when we left him but we knew he 
he was. We told the Captain so when we rejoined the battalion 
in Gas Street, Fred Baker blowing the bugle and wearing the 
artillery puttees, Charley Fletcher and I taking turns to carry 
the air-gun and both of us waving a spur. 

Jeddah was drunk with victory. 'Tomorrow we're goin' to 
charge The Rock ! ' he said. The Rock was even worse than The 
Pit but now none of us was appalled and all of us cheered. There 
was no holding us now. 

'We'll kill 'em all!' Jeddah said. 'We'll burn ole Wag Saunders 
at the stake.' Wag was their Captain. 'Just like Indians. We'll 
win 'em. We ain't frit. Who are we?' 

'We're the English ! ' we yelled. 

It was already growing dark when I trotted home through 
the streets with my spur. In the back yard there were no lights 
in Mrs Rankin's neat, white-silled windows and in Mrs Strick- 
land's house all the blinds were drawn although all the lights 
were on. 

Let's Play Soldiers 343 

Where have you been all this long time?' my father said. 

He sat alone in the kitchen, facing a cold rice pudding. My 
father was very fond of cold rice pudding but tonight he did 
not seem to want it. Under the green gaslight the brown nutmeg 
skin of it shone unbroken. 

'Fighting with our battalion/ I said. 

I told him how the battle had been won and how I had cap- 
tured the spur. 

'That spur doesn't belong to you/ he said. 'Tomorrow morn- 
ing you must take it back.' 

I felt sick with disappointment and at the way grown-up 
people didn't understand you. 

'Can I keep it just for tonight?' 

'Just for tonight/ he said. 'But you must take it back tomor- 

Then I remembered something and I told him how the boy 
I'd got it from was dead. 

'How is that?' he said. 'Dead?' 

'We shot him.' 

'Oh ! I see/ he said. 'Well : tomorrow you go and find the dead 
boy and give him back his spur.' 

Looking round the kitchen I now remembered my mother 
and asked where she was. 

'She's with Mrs Strickland/ my father said. 'Mrs Rankin's 
with her too. I expect you noticed that all the blinds were 
drawn ? ' 

I said I had noticed and did it mean that someone was dead? 

'It's your friend - your friend Albie's not going to come back,' 
my father said. 

After that my father didn't seem to want to speak very much 
and I said: 

'Could I go and play in the tent until mother comes home?' 

'You can go and play in the tent/ he said. 

'With a candle?' I said. 'It's dark now outside.' 

'Take a candle if you like,' he said. 

I took a candle and sat in the tent all by myself, looking at my 
spur. It was shaped something like a handcuff to which was 
attached a silver star. The candlelight shone down on the spur 
with wonderful brilliance and as I looked at it I remembered the 
voices of Mrs Strickland and Mrs Rankin squabbling with bit- 

344 Let's Play Soldiers 

terness over a loaf of bread in the afternoon and how Mrs Strick- 
land wisht that Albie would come back, and now I listened again 
for their voices coming from the outer darkness but all I could 
hear was the voice from the afternoon : 

'I wisht Albie was here. I wisht Albie was here.' 

There is nothing much you can do with a solitary candle and 
a single spur. The spur can only shine like silver and the candle- 
light with a black vein in the heart of it. 

Early next morning I took the spur back to The Pit. I ran all 
the way there and I was glad that no one saw me. The sun was 
coming up over the gas-tarred fences, the little hovels, the privies 
and the washing lines and all I did was to lay the spur on a stone 
in the sunlight, hoping that someone would come and find it 

I ran all the way home, too, as hard as I could : afraid of the 
enemy we had conquered and the soldier I had killed. 


The first time he ever went to that house was in the summer, 
when he was seven, and his grandfather drove him down the 
valley in a yellow trap and all the beans were in flower, with sky- 
larks singing so high above them in the brilliant light that they 
hung trembling there like far-off butterflies. 

Who is it we're going to see?' he said. 

'Sar' Ann.' 

Which one is Sar' Ann?' 

'Now mek out you don* know which one Sar' Ann is/ his 
grandfather said, and then tickled the flank of the pony with the 
end of the plaited whip - he always wanted to plait reeds like 
that himself but he could never make them tight enough -so 
that the brown rumps, shorn and groomed for summer, quivered 
like firm round jellies. 

'I don't think Fve ever seen her/ he said. 

'You seen her at Uncle Arth's/ his grandfather said. 'Mek out 
you don't remember that, and you see her a time or two at Jen- 
ny's.' He pronounced it Jinny, but even then the boy couldn't 
remember who Jinny was and he knew his grandfather wouldn't 
tell him until he remembered who Sar' Ann was and perhaps 
not even after that. 

He tried for some moments longer to recall what Sar' Ann 
was like and remembered presently a square old lady in a pork- 
pie lace cap and a sort of bib of black jet beads on a large frontal 
expanse of shining satin. Her eyes were watering. She sat on the 
threshold of a house that smelled of apples and wax polish. She 
was in the sun, with a lace-pillow and bone bobbins in a blue 
and ivory fan on her knees. She was making lace and her hands 
were covered with big raised veins like the leaves of cabbages 
when you turned them upside down. He was sure that this was 
Sar' Ann. He remembered how she had touched his hands with 
her big cold cabbagy ones and said she would fetch him a cheese- 
cake, or if he would rather have it a piece of toffee, from the 
cupboard in her kitchen. She said the toffee was rather sugary 


346 The Watercress Girl 

and that made him say he preferred the cheese-cake, but his 
grandfather said : 

'Now don't you git up. He's ettin' from morn to night now. 
His eyes are bigger'n his belly. You jis sit still/ and he felt he 
would cry because he was so fond of cheese-cake and because he 
could hardly bear his disappointment. 

'She's the one who wanted to give me cheese-cake,' he said, 
'isn't she?' 

'No, she ain't/ his grandfather said. 'That's your Aunt 

'Then is she the one who's married to Uncle Arth? Up the 
high steps ? ' he said. 

'Uncle Arth ain't married/ his grandfather said. 'That's jis 
the widder-woman who looks after him.' 

His Uncle Arth was always in a night-shirt, with a black scarf 
round his head. He lived in bed all the time. His eyes were very 
red. Inside him, so his grandfather said, was a stone and the 
stone couldn't go up or down but was fixed, his grandfather said, 
in his kitney, and it was growing all the time. 

The stone was an awful nightmare to him, the boy. How big 
was it? What sort of stone was it? he would say, a stone in the 
kitney ? 

'Like a pibble,' his grandfather said. 'Hard as a pibble. And 
very like as big as a thresh's egg. Very like bigger'n that by now. 
Very like as big as a magpie's.' 

'How did it get there ? ' 

'You're arstin' on me now/ his grandfather said. 'It'd be a 
puzzle to know. But it got there. And there it is. Stuck in his 

'Has anybody ever seen it?' 


'Then if nobody's ever seen it how do they know it's there?' 

'Lean forward,' his grandfather said. 'We're gittin' to Long 
Leys hill. Lean forward, else the shafts'll poke through the sky.' 

It was when they climbed slowly up the long wide hill, already 
white with the dust of early summer, that he became aware of 
the beans in flower and the skylarks singing so loftily above them. 
The scent of beans came in soft waves of wonderful sweetness. 
He saw the flowers on the grey sunlit stalks like swarms of white, 
dark-throated bees. The hawthorn flower was nearly over and 

The Watercress Girl 347 

was turning pink wherever it remained. The singing of the sky- 
larks lifted the sky upward, farther and farther, loftier and lof- 
tier, and the sun made the blue of it clear and blinding. He felt 
that all summer was pouring down the hill, between ditches of 
rising meadowsweet, to meet him. The cold quivering days of 
coltsfoot flower, the icy-sunny days of racing cloud-shadow 
over drying ploughland, the dark-white days of April hail, were 
all behind him, and he was thirsty with summer dust and his 
face was hot in the sun. 

'You ain't recollected her yit, have you?' his grandfather said. 

They were at the top of the hill now and below them, in its 
yellow meadows, he could see a river winding away in broad 
and shining curves. He knew that that river was at the end of 
the earth; that the meadows, and with them the big woods of oak 
and hornbeam and their fading dusty spangles of flower, were 
another world. 

'Take holt o' the reins a minute/ his grandfather said. He put 
on the brake a notch and the brake shoes scraped on the metal 
tyres. The boy held the thin smooth reins lightly between his 
fingers, the way he had been taught to do. He sat forward on the 
high horse-hair cushions and looked down the long black tram- 
lines of the dead level reins to the brown pony's ears and felt 
himself, for one moment, high on the hill, to be floating in air, 
level with all the skylarks above the fields below. 

Til jis git me bacca going/ his grandfather said. 'We'll be 
there in about a quartern of hour. You keep holt on her steady.' 

He wanted to say to his grandfather that that was a funny 
word, quartern; his schoolteacher never used that word; and 
then as he turned he saw the brown, red-veined face softened 
by the first pulls of tobacco. All the mystery of it was dissolved 
in a blue sweet cloud. Then his grandfather began coughing be- 
cause the bacca, he said, had gone down wrong way and was 
tiddling his gills. His eyes were wet from coughing and he was 
laughing and saying : 

'You know who she is. She's the one with the specs like 

Then he knew. She was a little woman, he remembered clearly 
now, with enormous spy-glass spectacles. They were thick and 
round like the marbles he played with. She was always whisking 
about like a clean starched napkin. He had seen her at Uncle 

348 The Watercress Girl 

Arth's and she had jolted Uncle Arth about the bed with a ter- 
rible lack of mercy as she re-made his pillows, smacking them 
with her lightning hands as if they were disobedient bottoms. 
The colossal spectacles gave the eyes a terrible look of magnifi- 
cation. They wobbled sometimes like masses of pale floating 
frog-spawn. He didn't like her; he was held in the spawn-like 
hypnotism of the eyes and dared not speak. She had a voice like 
a jackdaw's which pecked and mocked at everybody with nasty 
jabs. He knew that he had got her mixed up somehow and he 

'I thought the one with the glass eye was Aunt Prunes.' 

'Prudence!' his grandfather said. 'They're sisters. She's the 
young 'un, Prudence.' He spat in a long liquid line, with off-hand 
care, over the side of the trap. 'Prunes ? - that was funny. 
How'd you come to git holt o' that?' 

'I thought everybody else called her Prunes.' 

'Oh! You did, simly? Well, it's Prudence. Prudence - that's 
her proper name.' 

Simly was another funny word. He would never understand 
that word. That was another word his schoolteacher never 

'Is she the one with the moustache ? ' 

'God alive,' the man said. 'Don't you say moustache. You'll 
git me hung if you say moustache. That's your Aunt Prudence 
you're talking about. Females don't have moustaches - you know 

He knew better than that because Aunt Prunes had a mous- 
tache. She was a female and it was quite a long moustache and 
she had, what was more, a few whiskers on the central part of 
her chin. 

'Why doesn't she shave it off?' he said. 

'You watch what you're doing,' his grandfather said. 'You'll 
have us in the duck-pond.' 

'How do you spell it?' he said. 'Her name -Prunes?' 

'Here, you gimme holt o' the reins now,' his grandfather said. 
'We'll be there in five ticks of a donkey's tail/ 

His grandfather took the reins and let the brake off, and in a 
minute the pony was trotting and they were in a world of high 
green reeds and grey drooping willows by the river. 

'Is it the house near the spinney?' he said. 

The Watercress Girl 349 

That's it,' his grandfather said. The little 'un with the big 

He was glad he remembered the house correctly : not because 
he had ever seen it but because his grandfather always described 
it with natural familiarity, as if taking it for granted that he had 
seen it. He was glad too about Aunt Prunes. It was very hard to 
get everyone right. There were so many of them, Aunt Prunes 
and Sar' Ann and Aunt Turvey and Uncle Arth and Jenny and 
Uncle Ben Newton, who kept a pub, and Uncle Oily, who was 
a fat man with short black leggings exactly like polished bottles. 
His grandfather would speak of these people as if they were 
playmates who had always been in his life and were to be taken 
for granted naturally and substantially like himself. They were 
all very old, terribly old, and he never knew, even afterwards, 
if they were ordinary aunts or uncles or great ones or only cous- 
ins some stage removed. 

The little house had two rooms downstairs with polished red 
bricks for floors and white glass vases or dried reeds from the 
river on the mantelpiece. His grandfather and Aunt Prunes and 
Sar' Ann and himself had dinner in the room where the stove 
was, and there were big dishes of potatoes, mashed with thick 
white butter sauce. Before dinner he sat in the other room with 
his grandfather and Aunt Prunes and looked at a large leather 
book called Sunday at Home, a prize Aunt Prunes had won at 
Bible Class, a book in which there were sandwiched, between 
steel-cuts of men in frock coats and sailors in sailing ships and 
ladies in black bonnets, pressings of dried flowers thin as tissue 
from the meadows and the riverside. His contemplation of the 
flat golden transparencies of buttercup and the starry eyes of 
bull-daisy and the woolly feathers of grass and reed was ravaged 
continually by the voice of Sar* Ann, the jackdaw, pecking and 
jabbing from the kitchen : 

There's something there to keep you quiet. That's a nice book, 
that is. You can look at that all afternoon.' 

'You tell me,' Aunt Prunes said softly, 'when you want 

He liked Aunt Prunes. She was quiet and tender. The mous- 
tache, far from being forbidding, brushed him with friendly 
softness, and the little room was so hot with sun and cooking that 
there were beads of sweat on the whiskers which he made the 

350 The Watercress Girl 

mistake of thinking, for some time, were drops of the cowslip 
wine she was drinking. His grandfather had several glasses of 
cowslip wine and after the third or fourth of them he took off 
his coat and collar. 

At the same time Aunt Prunes bent down and took the book 
away from him and said : 

'You can take off your coat too. That's it. That's better. Do 
you want to go anywhere ? ' 

'Not yet/ 

'When you do it's down the garden and behind the elderberry 
tree.' Her eyes were a modest brown colour, the same colour 
as her moustache, and there were many wrinkles about them as 
she smiled. He could smell the sweetish breath, like the yeast his 
grandmother used for baking, of the fresh wine on her lips, and 
she said : 

'What would you like to do this afternoon ? Tell me what you'd 
like to do.' 

'Read this book.' 

'I mean really.' 

'I don't know.' 

'You do what you like,' she said. 'You go down to the back- 
brook or in the garden or into the spinney and find snails 
or sticklebacks or whatever you like.' 

She smiled delicately, creating thousands of wrinkles, and 
then from the kitchen Sar' Ann screeched : 

'I'm dishing up in two minutes, you boozers. You'd guzzle 
there till bulls'-noon if I'd let you.' 

Bulls'-noon was another word, another strange queer thing he 
didn't understand. 

For dinner they had Yorkshire pudding straight out of the 
pan and on to the plate, all by itself, as the opening course. Some- 
times his grandfather slid slices of the creamy yellow pudding 
into his mouth on the end of his knife and said he remembered 
the days when all pudden was eaten first and you had your plate 
turned upside down, so that you could turn it over when the 
meat came. Sar' Ann said she remembered that too and she said 
they were the days and she didn't care what anybody said. People 
were happier. They didn't have so much of everything but they 
were happier. He saw Aunt Prunes give a little dry grin when- 
ever Sar' Ann went jabbing on and once he thought he saw her 

The Watercress Girl 351 

wink at his grandfather. All the time the door of the little room 
was open so that he could see into the garden with its white pinks 
and stocks and purple iris flags and now and then he could hear 
the cuckoo, sometimes near, sometimes far off across the 
meadows, and many blackbirds singing in endless call and 
answer in the oak-trees at the end of the garden, where rhubarb 
and elderberry were in foaming flower together. 

'You can hear nightingales too/ Aunt Prunes said. 'Would you 
like more pudding? You can have more pudding if you want it.' 

But his grandfather said again that his eyes were always bigger 
than his belly and the pudding was put away. 'Ets like a thacker/ 
his grandfather said and Aunt Prunes said, 'Let him eat then. I 
like to see boys eat. It does your heart good,' and she smiled and 
gave him cloudy piles of white potatoes and white sauce from 
a blue china boat and thin slices of rich beef with blood running 
out and washing against the shores of his potatoes like the little 
waves of a delicate pink sea. 

'How's Nance and Granny Houghton ?' Sar* Ann said, and 
his grandfather said they were fair-to-mid and suddenly there 
was great talk of relatives, of grown-ups, of people he didn't 
know, of Charley and a man he thought was named Uncle 
Fuggles and Cathy and Aunt Em and Maude Rose and two 
people called Liz and Herbert from Bank Top. His grandfather, 
who had begun the meal with three or four glasses of cowslip 
wine and a glass of beer, now helped himself to another glass of 
beer and then dropped gravy down his waistcoat. Aunt Prunes 
had beer too and her eyes began to look warm and sleepy and 
beautifully content. 

Afternoon, cuckoo-drowsy, very still and full of sun, seemed 
to thicken like a web about him long before the meal was over. 
He thought with dread of the quietness when all of them would 
be asleep and he himself in the little room with a big boring book 
and its rustling transparencies of faded flowers. He knew what 
it was like to try to move in the world of grown-up sleep. The 
whisper of the thinnest page would wake them. Night was the 
time for sleeping and it was one of the mysteries of life that 
people could also sleep by day, in chairs, in summertime, in 
mouth-open attitudes, and with snorting noises and legs suddenly 
jumping like the legs of horses when the flies were bad. 

Then to his joy Aunt Prunes remembered and said : 

352 The Watercress Girl 

'You know what I said. You run into the garden and have a 
look in the spinney for nests. Go down as far as the back-brook 
if you like.' 

'That's it/ his grandfather said. 'You'll very like see a moor- 
hen's or a coot's or summat down there. Else a pike or summat. 
Used to be a rare place for pike, a-layin' there a-top o' the 
water — ' 

'Don't you git falling in/ Sar' Ann said. 'Don't you git them 
feet wet. Don't you git them gooseberries - they'll give you belly- 
ache summat chronic — ' 

'You bring me some flowers,' Aunt Prunes said. 'Eh? -how's 
that? You stay a long time, as long as you like, and bring me 
some flowers.' 

There were no nests in the spinney except a pigeon's high up 
in a hazel-tree that was too thin to climb. He was not quite sure 
about the song of a nightingale. He knew the blackbird's, full 
and rich and dark like the bird itself and deep like the summer 
shadow of the closing wood, and with the voices of thrushes the 
blackbirds' song filled all the wood with bell-sounds and belling 

Beyond the wood the day was clear and hot. The grass was 
high to his knees and the ground, falling away, was marshy in 
places, with mounds of sedge, as it ran down towards the back- 
brook and the river. He walked with his eyes on the ground, 
partly because of oozy holes among the sedge, partly because he 
hoped to see the brown ring of a moorhen's nest in the marshier 

It was because of his way of walking that he did not see, for 
some time, a girl standing up to her knees in red-ochre mud, 
among half-floating beds of dark-green cresses. But suddenly he 
lifted his head and saw her standing there, bare-legged and bare- 
armed, staring at him as if she had been watching him for a long 
time. Her brown osier cress-basket was like a two-bushel measure 
and was slung over her shoulder with a strap. 

'You don't live here/ she said. 

'No/ he said. 'Do you?' 

'Over there/ she said. 'In that house.' 

'Which house?' He could not see a house. 

'You come here and you can see it/ she said. 

When he had picked his way through tufts of sedge to where 

The Watercress Girl 353 

she was standing in the bed of cresses he still could not see a 
house, either about the wood or across the meadows on the rising 
ground beyond. 

'You can see the chimney smoking/ she said. 

'It's not a house. It's a hut/ he said. 

'That's where we live.' 

'All the time?' 

'Yes/ she said. 'You're sinking in.' 

The toes of his boots were slowly drowning in red-ochre 

'If you're coming out here you'd better take your shoes and 
stockings off,' she said. 

A moment or two later his bare feet were cool in the water. 
She was gathering cresses quickly, cutting them off with an old 
shoe-knife, leaving young sprigs and trailing skeins of white root 
behind. She was older than himself, nine or ten, he thought, and 
her hair hung ribbonless and uncombed, a brown colour, rather 
like the colour of the basket, down her back. 

'Can I gather?' he said, and she said, yes, if he knew what 
brook-lime was. 

'I know brook-lime,' he said. 'Everybody knows brook-lime.' 

'Then which is it? Show me which it is. Which is brook-lime?' 

That was almost as bad, he thought, as being nagged by Sar' 
Ann. The idea that he did not know brook-lime from cress 
seemed to him a terrible insult and a pain. He snatched up a 
piece in irritation but it did not break and came up instead from 
the mud-depths in a long rope of dripping red-black slime, spat- 
tering his shirt and trousers. 

She laughed at this and he laughed too. Her voice, he thought, 
sounded cracked, as if she were hoarse from shouting or a cold. 
The sound of it carried a long way. He heard it crack over the 
meadows and the river with a coarse broken sort of screech that 
was like the slitting of rag in the deep oppressive afternoon. 

He never knew till long afterwards how much he liked that 
sound. She repeated it several times during the afternoon. In the 
same cracked voice she laughed at questions he asked or things 
he did not know. In places the water, shallower, was warm on 
his feet, and the cresses were a dark polished green in the sun. 
She laughed because he did not know that anyone could live by 
gathering cresses. He must be a real town boy, she said. There 

354 The Watercress Girl 

was only she and her father, she told him, and she began to tell 
what he afterwards knew were beautiful lies about the way they 
got up every other day at two in the morning and tramped out to 
sell cresses in Evensford and Bedford and towns about the valley. 

'But the shops aren't open then/ he said and that made her 
laugh again, cracked and thin, with that long slitting echo across 
the drowsy meadows. 

'It's not in the shops we sell them/ she said. 'It's in the streets 
- don't you know that ? - in the streets — ' 

And suddenly she lifted her head and drew back her throat 
and yelled the cry she used in the streets. He had heard that cry 
before, high and long and melancholy, like a call across lonely 
winter marshes in its slow fall and dying away, and there was 
to be a time in his life when it died for ever and he never heard 
it again : 

' Watercree-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! Fresh cre-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! Lovely 
fresh watercre-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! ' 

Standing up to his knees in water, his hands full of wet cresses 
and slimy skeins of roots dripping red mud down his shirt and 
trousers, he listened to that fascinating sound travelling like a 
bird-cry, watery and not quite earthly, down through the spinney 
and the meadows of buttercup and the places where the pike 
were supposed to lie. 

His eyes must have been enormous and transfixed in his head 
as he listened, because suddenly she broke the note of the cry and 
laughed at him again and then said : 

'You do it. You see if you can do it — ' 

What came out of his mouth was like a little soprano trill com- 
pared with her own full-throated, long-carrying cry. It made her 
laugh again and she said : 

'You ought to come with us. Come with us tomorrow - how 
long are you staying here ? ' 

'Only today.' 

'I don't know where we'll go tomorrow/ she said. 'Evensford, 
I think. Sometimes we go forty or fifty miles - miles and miles. 
We go to Buckingham market sometimes - that's forty miles — ' 

'Evensford/ he said. 'That's where I come from. I could see 
you there if you go.' 

'All right/ she said. 'Where will you be? We come in by The 
Waggon and Horses - down the hill, that way.' 

The Watercress Girl 355 

Til be at The Waggon and Horses waiting for you/ he said. 
'What time?' 

'You be there at five o'clock/ she said. 'Then I'll learn you 
how to do it, like this - watercree-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! Fresh cree- 
ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! Lovely fresh watercree-ee-ee-ee-ee-s ! ' 

As the sound died away it suddenly seemed to him that he had 
been there, up to his knees in water, a very long time, perhaps 
throughout the entire length of the sultry, sun-flushed afternoon. 
He did not know what time it was. He was cut off from the world 
of Aunt Prunes and Sar' Ann and his grandfather, the little 
house and the white pinks and the gooseberry trees, the big bor- 
ing book whose pages and dead flowers turned over in whispers. 

He knew that he ought to go back and said : 

'I got to go now. I'll see you tomorrow though - I'll be there. 
Five o'clock.' 

'Yes, you be there/ she said. She wiped a may-fly from her 
face with her forearm, drawing water and mud across it, and 
then remembered something. 'You want some cresses for tea? 
You can take some.' 

She plunged her hands into the basket and brought them out 
filled with cresses. They were cool and wet; and he thought, not 
only then but long afterwards, that they were the nicest things 
perhaps anyone had ever given him. 

'So long/ she said. 

'So long.' That was another funny expression, he thought. 
He could never understand people who said so long when they 
seemed to mean, as he did, soon. 

She waved her hands, spilling arcs of water-drops in the sun, 
as he climbed the stile into the spinney and went back. He did 
his best to wave in answer, but his shoes and stockings were too 
wet to wear and his hands were full with them and the cresses. 
Instead he simply stood balanced for a moment on the top bar of 
the stile, so that she could see him well and then call to him for 
the last time : 

'Cree-ee-ee-ee-ee-es ! Lovely fresh cree-ee-ee-ee-es ! ' 

It was only Aunt Prunes who was not angry with him. His 
grandfather called him 'A young gallus/ and kept saying, 'Where 
the Hanover' ve you bin all the time ? God A'mighty, you'll git me 
hung. I'll be burned if I don't git hung/ and Sar' Ann flew about 
the kitchen with the squawks of a trapped hen, telling him: 

356 The Watercress Girl 

'You know what happens to little boys what git wet- foot? And 
look at your shirt! They git their death, they catch their death. 
And don't you know who them folks are? Gyppos - that's all 
they are. Gyppos-they nick things, they live on other folks. 
That's the sort of folks they are. Don't you go near such folks 
again - they'll very like keep you and take you away and you'll 
never see nobody who knows you again. Then we'll find you in 
the bury-hole.' 

But he was not afraid of that and Aunt Prunes only said : 

'You didn't bring me my flowers, did you? I like watercress 
though. I'm glad you brought the watercress. I can have it with 
my tea.' 

It was late before they could start for home again. That was 
because his socks and shirt took a long time to dry and his shirt 
had to have an iron run over it several times in case, Sar' Ann 
kept saying, his mother had a fit. Before getting up into the trap 
he had to kiss both Sar' Ann and Aunt Prunes, and for some 
moments he was lost in the horror of the big globular spectacles 
reflecting and magnifying the evening sun, and then in the 
friendliness of the dark moustaches below which the warm mouth 
smiled and said : 

'How would you like to stay with me one day? Just you and me 
in the summer. Would you ? ' 

'Yes,' he said. 

'Then you come and see me again, won't you, soon?' 

He said Yes, he would see her soon. But in fact he did not see 
her soon or later or at any time again. He did not go to that house 
again until he was grown up. That was the day they were burying 
her and when the cork of silence that passed over the grave had 
blown out again he felt he could hear nothing but the gassy voice 
of Sar' Ann, who was old by then but still with the same fierce 
roving globular eyes, shrilly reminding him of the day he had 
gathered cresses. 

'I'll bet you would never know her now,' she said, 'that girl, 
would you? Would you ever know that this was her?' 

Then she was by his side and he was talking to her: the girl 
who had gathered the cresses, the same girl who had called with 
that screeching, melancholy, marshy cry across the summer after- 
noon. She was all in black and her hat had a purple feather in 
the crown. He remembered the little hut and the brown osier 

The Watercress Girl 357 

basket on her lithe thin shoulders and he asked her where she 
lived and what she was doing now. 'In the new houses/ she said. 
Tm Mrs Corbett now/ She took him to the garden hedge and 
pointed out to him blocks of bricks, like the toys of gigantic chil- 
dren, red and raw and concrete fenced, lining the road above the 
valley. That was the road where he and his grandfather had 
driven down on that distant summer morning, when the beans 
were in flower and he had got so mixed with his relatives and 
had wondered how Aunt Prunes had spelled her name. 

'That's us/ she said. She pointed with stout and podgy finger, 
a trifle nervously but with pride, across the fields. 'The second 
one. The one with the television. Have you got television?' 


'You ought to have it/ she said. 'It's wonderful to see things 
so far away. Don't you think it's wonderful ? ' 

'Wonderful/ he said. 

But on the night he drove home as a boy, watching the sky of 
high summer turn from blue to palest violet and then more richly 
to purple bronze and the final green-gold smokiness of twilight, 
he did not know these things. He sat still on the cushions of the 
trap, staring ahead. The evening was full of the scent of bean 
flowers and he was searching for early stars. 

'Shall we light the lamps ? ' he said. 

And presently they lit the lamps. They too were golden. They 
seemed to burn with wonderful brightness, lighting the grasses 
of the roadside and the flowers of the ditches and the crowns of 
fading may. And though he did not know it then they too were 
fading, for all their brightness. They too were dying, along with 
the things he had done and seen and loved : the little house, the 
cuckoo day, the tender female moustaches and the voice of the 
watercress girl. 


Pacey sat on the stile, swinging her legs and her cowslip-basket. 

Pacey, he thought, was by far the littlest lady he had ever seen. 
She had very thick dumpy legs and black squashy button boots 
and a brown felt hat under which bright blue eyes roamed about 
like jellyfish behind large sun-shot spectacles. On her cheek, just 
under her right eye, was a big furry brown mole that looked like 
the top of a bullrush that had been cut off and stuck there. 

Pacey was nice, though. He liked Pacey. 

'How far is it now to the cowslip field, Pacey?' he said. 

'A step or two furder yit/ Pacey said, 

'It's not furder, 1 he said. 'It's further 1 

'Oh! is't?' Pacey said. 'All right, it's further. I never knew 
such a boy for pickin' me up afore I'm down.' 

'And it's not afore, 1 he said. 'It's before. 1 

'Oh! is't?' Pacey said. 'All right, before then. I never knowed 
sich a boy for whittlin' on me — ' 

'And it's not on, 1 he said. 'It's of — ' 

'Here,' Pacey said, 'for goodness' sake catch holt o' the cowslip- 
basket and let me git down and let's git on. Else we'll never be 
there afore bull's-noon.' 

When Pacey jumped down from the stile her legs sank almost 
to the top of her button boots in meadow grasses. She was so 
thick and squatty that she looked like a duck waddling to find 
the path across the field. 

In that field the sun lay hot on sheets of buttercups. Soon 
when he looked at Pacey's boots they were dusty yellow faces, 
with rows of funny grinning eyes. At the end of the field rolled 
long white hedges of hawthorn, thick and foamy as the breakers 
he had once seen at the seaside, and from a row of sharp green 
larches, farther on, he heard a cuckoo call. 

It was past the time when the larches had little scarlet eye- 
lashes springing from their branches but he still remembered 

'Pacey,' he said, 'why do the trees have — ' 


The Cowslip Field 359 

'Jist hark at that cuckoo/ Pacey said. 'Afore long it'll charm 
us all to death/ 

'Pacey/ he said, 'why don't cowslips grow in this field?' 

'Because it ain't a cowslip field/ Pacey said, 'don't you know 
that? Don't you know the difference between a cowslip field and 
a buttercup field? If you don't it's time you did. Now you jis run 
on and git to the next stile and sit there quiet and wait fer me.' 

From the next stile he sat and watched Pacey waddling down 
the slope of the field, between dazzling sheets of buttercups, 
under a dazzling high blue sky. In the wide May morning she 
looked more than ever like a floundering little duck, funnier, 
tinier than ever. 

'Pacey/ he said, 'will you ever grow any bigger?' 

'Not unless me luck changes a lot more'n it's done up to yit.' 

'Will I grow any bigger?' 

' 'Course you will.' 

'Well then, why won't you ? ' 

'Hark at that cuckoo/ Pacey said. 'If it's called once this morn- 
ing, it's called a thousand times.' 

In the next field brown and white cows were grazing and 
Pacey took his hand. Some of the cows stood at a pond, over 
their hocks in water, flicking flies from their white-patched 
brown rumps in the sun. All across the field there were many ant- 
hills and Pacey let him run up and down them, as if they were 
switchbacks, always holding his hand. 

Her own hands were rough and clammy and warm and he liked 

'What do the ants do in their ant-hills all the time, Pacey?' he 

'They git on with their work/ Pacey said, ' 'ithout chattering 
so much.' 

As they passed the pond he could smell the thick warm odours 
of may-bloom and fresh dung that the cows had dropped and 
mud warming in the sun. All the smell of rising summer was in 
the air. The tips of a few bulrushes, so brown and so like Pacey 's 
mole, were like the last tips of winter, half-strangled by rising 

Then somehow he knew that the next field was the cowslip 
field and he suddenly broke free of Pacey's hand and ran jump- 
ing over the last of the ant-hills until he stood on a small plank 

360 The Cowslip Field 

bridge that went over a narrow stream where brook-lime grew 
among bright eyes of wild forget-me-not. 

Tacey, Pacey, Pacey!' he started shouting. 'Pacey!' 

He knew he had never seen, in all his life, so many cowslips. 
They covered with their trembling orange heads all the earth 
between himself and the horizon. When a sudden breeze caught 
them they ducked and darted very gently away from it and then 
blew gently back again. 

'We'll never gather them all before it's dark, Pacey/ he said, 
'will we ? ' 

'Run and git as many as you can/ Pacey said. 'It won't be dark 
yit awhile.' 

Running, he tripped and fell among cowslips. He did not 
bother to get to his feet but simply knelt there, in a cowslip forest, 
picking at the juicy stems. All the fragrance of the field blew 
down on him along a warm wind that floated past him to shake 
from larches and oaks and hedges of may-bloom a continuous 
belling fountain of cuckoo calls. 

When he turned to look for Pacey she too was on her knees, 
dumpier, squattier than ever, filling her hands with golden 
sheaves of flower. 

Tacey, what will we do with them all?' he said. 'What will 
we do with them all ? ' 

'Mek wine/ Pacey said. 'And I wouldn't be surprised if it were 
a drop o' good.' 

Soon he was running to Pacey with his own sheaves of flower, 
putting them into the big brown basket. Whenever he ran he 
buried his face in the heads of flower that were so rich and fra- 
grant and tender. Then as he dropped them into the basket he 
could not resist dipping his hands into the growing mound of 
cowslips. They felt like little limp kid gloves. They were so many 
soft green and yellow fingers. 

'The basket'll soon be full, Pacey/ he said. 'What will we do 
when the basket's full ? ' 

'Put 'em in we hats,' Pacey said. 'Hang 'em round we necks 
or summat.' 

'Like chains ? ' 

'Chains if you like/ Pacey said. 

Soon the basket was almost full and Pacey kept saying it was 
bloomin' hot work and that she could do with a wet and a wind. 

The Cowslip Field 361 

From a pocket in her skirt she took out a medicine bottle of milk 
and two cheese cakes and presently he and Pacey were sitting 
down in the sea of cowslips, resting in the sun. 

'The basket's nearly full/ he said. 'Shall we start making 
chains ?' 

'There'll be no peace until you do, I warrant.' 

'Shall we make one chain or two chains?' 

'Two,' Pacey said. 'I'll mek a big 'un and you mek a little 

As he sat there threading the cowslip stalks one into another, 
making his chain, he continually looked up at Pacey, peering in 
her funny way, through her thick jelly spectacles, at her own 
cowslip chain. He noticed that she held the flowers very close to 
her eyes, only an inch or two away. 

'Pacey,' he said, 'what makes the sky blue?' 

'You git on with your chain,' Pacey said. 

'Who put the sky there?' 

'God did.' 

'How does it stay up there?' 

Pacey made a noise like a cat spitting and put a cowslip stalk 
into her mouth and sucked it as if it were cotton and she were 
threading a needle. 

'How the 'nation can I thread this 'ere chain,' she said, 'if you 
keep a-iffin' and a-whyin' all the time?' 

Squinting, she peered even more closely at her cowslips, so 
that they were now almost at the end of her nose. Then he re- 
membered that that was how she sang from her hymn-book on 
Sundays, in the front row of the choir. He remembered too how 
his mother always said that the ladies in the front row of the 
choir sat there only to show off their hats and so that men could 
look at them. 

'Have you got a young man, Pacey?' he said. 

'Oh ! dozens,' Pacey said. 'Scores.' 

'Which one do you like best ? ' 

'Oh ! they're like plums on a tree,' Pacey said. 'So many I don't 
know which one on 'em to pick.' 

'Will you get married, Pacey?' 

Pacey sucked a cowslip stalk and threaded it through another. 

'Oh! they all want to marry me,' Pacey said. 'All on 'em.' 

'When will you ? ' 

362 The Cowslip Field 

'This year, next year,' Pacey said. 'When I git enough plum- 

'Why do you have to have plum-stones ? ' 

'Oh! jist hark at that cuckoo all the time,' Pacey said. 
'Charming us to death a'ready. How's your chain?' 

His chain was not so long as Pacey's. She worked neatly and 
fast, in spite of her thick stumpy fingers. Her chain was as long 
as a necklace already, with the cowslips ruffled close together, 
but his own was not much more than a loose golden bracelet. 

'Thread twothri more on it/ Pacey said, 'and then we can git 
we hats filled and go home to dinner.' 

When he looked up again from threading his last two cowslip 
stalks he saw that Pacey had taken off her brown felt hat. Her 
uncovered hair was very dark and shining in the sun. At the back 
it was coiled up into a rich, thick roll, like a heavy sausage. There 
seemed almost too much hair for her stumpy body and he stared 
at it amazed. 

'Is that all your hair, Pacey?' he said. 

'Well, it's what they dished out to me. I ain't had another issue 

'How long is it?' he said. 'It must be very long.' 

'Prit near down to me waist.' 

'Oh ! Pacey,' he said. 

As he finished threading his cowslip chain and then joined the 
ends together he sat staring at Pacey, with her dark hair shining 
against the blue May sky and her own cowslip chain lying like a 
gold-green necklace in her lap. 

'Does your hair ever come down?' he said, 'or does it always 
stay up like that ? ' 

'Oh ! it comes down a time or two now and agin.' 

'Let it come down now.' 

'It's time to go home to dinner,' Pacey said. 'We got to git 

'Please, Pacey,' he said. 'Please.' 

'You take your hat and git it filled with cowslips and then we 
can go — ' 

'Please,' he said. 'Then I can put my chain on top of your head 
and it'll look like a crown.' 

'Oh ! you'd wheedle a whelk out of its shell, you would,' Pacey 
said. 'You'd wheedle round 'Im up there ! ' 

The Cowslip Field 363 

As she spoke she lifted her face to the blue noon sky so that her 
spectacles flashed strangely, full of revolving light. A moment 
later she started to unpin the sausage at the back of her head, 
putting the black hairpins one by one into her mouth. Then 
slowly, like an unrolling blind, the massive coil of her hair fell 
down across her neck and shoulders and back, until it reached 
her waist. 

He had never seen hair so long, or so much of it, and he stared 
at it with wide eyes as it uncoiled itself, black and shining against 
the golden cowslip field. 

'That's it/ Pacey said, 'have a good stare.' 

'Now I've got to put the crown on you/ he said. 

He knelt by Pacey's lap and reached up, putting his cowslip 
chain on the top of her head. All the time he did this Pacey sat 
very still, staring towards the sun. 

'Now yours/ he said. 

He reached up, draping Pacey's own longer necklace across 
her hair and shoulders. The black hair made the cowslips shine 
more deeply golden than before and the flowers in turn brought 
out the lights in the hair. 

Pacey sat so still and staring as he did all this that he could 
not tell what she was thinking and suddenly, without asking, he 
reached up and took off her spectacles. 

A strange transformed woman he did not know, with groping 
blue eyes, a crown on her head and a necklace locking the dark 
mass of her hair, stared back at him. 

'Well, now I suppose you're satisfied ? ' 

'You look very nice, Pacey/ he said. 'You look lovely. I like 

'Well, if you're satisfied let's git ready and start back/ Pacey 
said, 'or else I be blamed if we shan't miss we dinners.' 

Hastily, half-blindly, she started to grope with her hands to- 
wards her hair. 

'And put my specs back on ! ' she said. 'You took 'em off. Now 
put 'em back. How the 'nation do you think I can see 'ithout 

'It's not 'ithout/ he said. 'It's without/ 

'Oh ! without then ! But put 'em back ! ' 

By the time they began to walk back home his hat was full of 
cowslips. Pacey's brown felt hat was full too and the basket was 

364 The Cowslip Field 

brimming over with the flowers that were so like tender, kid- 
gloved fingers. 

At the plank across the stream, as Pacey set down the basket 
and rested for a moment, he turned and looked back. Once again, 
as before, the cowslips seemed to stretch without break between 
himself and the bright noon sky. 

'There's just as many as when we came/ he said. 'We didn't 
make any difference at all, Pacey. You'd think we'd never been, 
wouldn't you ? ' 

Suddenly, with a cry, Pacey seized him and picked him up, 
swinging him joyfully round her body and finally holding him 
upside down. 

'Up, round and down!' Pacey said. 'Now what can you see 5 ' 

'London ! ' 

Pacey laughed loudly, swinging him a second time and then 
setting him on his feet again. 

When he tried to stand still again he found that the world too 
was swinging. The cowslip field was rolling like a golden sea in 
the sun and there was a great trembling about Pacey's hair, her 
necklace and her little crown of gold. 


Once in the summer time, when the water-lilies were in bloom 
and the wheat was new in ear, his grandfather took him on a long 
walk up the river, to see his Uncle Crow. He had heard so much 
of Uncle Crow, so much that was wonderful and to be marvelled 
at, and for such a long time, that he knew him to be, even before 
that, the most remarkable fisherman in the world. 

'Masterpiece of a man, your Uncle Crow/ his grandfather 
said. 'He could git a clothes-line any day and tie a brick on it and 
a mossel of cake and go out and catch a pike as long as your arm. , 

When he asked what kind of cake his grandfather seemed irri- 
tated and said it was just like a boy to ask questions of that sort. 

'Any kind o' cake/ he said. 'Plum cake. Does it matter? Car- 
raway cake. Christmas cake if you like. Anything. I shouldn't 
wonder if he could catch a pretty fair pike with a cold baked 

'Only a pike ?' 

'Times/ his grandfather said, Tve seen him sittin' on the bank 
on a sweltering hot day like a furnace, when nobody was gittin' 
a bite not even off a bloodsucker. And there your Uncle Crow'd 
be a-pullin' 'em but by the dozen, like a man shellin , harvest 

'And how does he come to be my Uncle Crow ? ' he said, 'if my 
mother hasn't got a brother? Nor my father.' 

'Well/ his grandfather said, 'he's really your mother's own 
cousin, if everybody had their rights. But all on us call him Uncle 

'And where does he live ? ' 

'You'll see/ his grandfather said. 'All by hisself. In a little titty 
bit of a house, by the river.' 

The little titty bit of a house, when he first saw it, surprised him 
very much. It was not at all unlike a black tarred boat that had 
either slipped down a slope and stuck there on its way to launch- 
ing or one that had been washed up and left there in a flood. The 


366 Great Uncle Crow 

roof of brown tiles had a warp in it and the sides were mostly 
built, he thought, of tarred beer-barrels. 

The two windows with their tiny panes were about as large 
as chessboards and Uncle Crow had nailed underneath each of 
them a sill of sheet tin that was still a brilliant blue, each with 
the words 'Backache Pills' in white lettering on it, upside down. 

On all sides of the house grew tall feathered reeds. They en- 
veloped it like gigantic whispering corn. Some distance beyond 
the great reeds the river went past in a broad slow arc, on mag- 
nificent kingly currents, full of long white islands of water-lilies, 
as big as china breakfast cups, shining and yellow-hearted in the 

He thought, on the whole, that that place, the river with the 
water-lilies, the little titty bit of a house, and the great forest of 
reeds talking between soft brown beards, was the nicest place he 
had ever seen. 

'Anybody about?' his grandfather called. 'Crow !- anybody 
at home ? ' 

The door of the house was partly open, but at first there was 
no answer. His grandfather pushed open the door still farther 
with his foot. The reeds whispered down by the river and were 
answered, in the house, by a sound like the creek of bed springs. 


'It's me, Crow,' his grandfather called. 'Lukey. Brought the 
boy over to have a look at you.' 

A big gangling red-faced man with rusty hair came to the door 
His trousers were black and very tight. His eyes were a smeary 
vivid blue, the same colour as the stripes of his shirt, and his 
trousers were kept up by a leather belt with brass escutcheons 
on it, like those on horses' harness. 

'Thought very like you'd be out a-pikin',' his grandfather said. 

'Too hot. How's Lukey boy? Ain't seed y' lately, Lukey boy.' 

His lips were thick and very pink and wet, like cow's lips. He 
made a wonderful erupting jolly sound somewhat between a 
belch and a laugh. 

'Comin' in it a minute?' 

In the one room of the house was an iron bed with an old red 
check horse-rug spread over it and a stone copper in one corner 
and a bare wooden table with dirty plates and cups and a tin 

Great Uncle Crow 367 

kettle on it. Two osier baskets and a scythe stood in another 

Uncle Crow stretched himself full length on the bed as if he 
was very tired. He put his knees in the air. His belly was tight as 
a bladder of lard in his black trousers, which were mossy green 
on the knees and seat. 

'How's the fishin , ? , his grandfather said. 'I bin tellin' the 

Uncle Crow belched deeply. From where the sun struck full on 
the tarred wall of the house there was a hot whiff of baking tar. 
But when Uncle Crow belched there was a smell like the smell 
of yeast in the air. 

'It ain't bin all that much of a summer yit,' Uncle Crow said. 
'Ain't had the rain.' 

'Not like that summer you catched the big 'un down at 
Archer's Mill. I recollect you a-tellin' on me — ' 

'Too hot and dry by half,' Uncle Crow said. 'Gits in your 
gullet like chaff.' 

'You recollect that summer?' his grandfather said. 'Nobody 
else a-fetching on 'em out only you — ' 

'Have a drop o' neck-oil,' Uncle Crow said. 

The boy wondered what neck-oil was and presently, to his 
surprise, Uncle Crow and his grandfather were drinking it. It 
came out of a dark-green bottle and it was a clear bright amber, 
like cold tea, in the two glasses. 

'The medder were yeller with 'em,' Uncle Crow said. 'Yeller 
as a guinea.' 

He smacked his lips with a marvellously juicy, fruity sound. 
The boy's grandfather gazed at the neck-oil and said he thought 
it would be a corker if it was kept a year or two, but Uncle Crow 

'Trouble is, Lukey boy, it's a terrible job to keep it. You start 
tastin' on it to see if it'll keep and then you taste on it again and 
you go on tastin' on it until they ain't a drop left as '11 keep.' 

Uncle Crow laughed so much that the bed springs cackled 
underneath his bouncing trousers. 

'Why is it called neck-oil?' the boy said. 

'Boy,' Uncle Crow said, 'when you git older, when you git 
growed-up, you know what'll happen to your gullet?' 


368 Great Uncle Crow 

It'll git sort o' rusted up inside. Like a old gutter pipe. So's 
you can't swaller very easy. Rusty as old Harry it'll git. You know 
that, boy?' 


'Well, it will. I'm tellin', on y\ And you know what y' got to 
do then?' 


'Every now and then you gotta git a drop o' neck-oil down it. 
So's to ease it. A drop o' neck-oil every once in a while - that's 
what you gotta do to keep the rust out.' 

The boy was still contemplating the curious prospect of his 
neck rusting up inside in later years when Uncle Crow said: 
'Boy, you go outside and jis' round the corner you'll see a bucket. 
You bring handful o' cresses out on it. I'll bet you're hungry, 
ain't you ? ' 

'A little bit.' 

He found the watercresses in the bucket, cool in the shadow 
of the little house, and when he got back inside with them Uncle 
Crow said : 

'Now you put the cresses on that there plate there and then 
put your nose inside that there basin and see what's inside. What 


'Ought to be fourteen on 'em. Four-apiece and two over. 
What sort are they, boy?' 


'You got a knowin' boy here, Lukey,' Uncle Crow said. He 
dropped the scaly red lid of one eye like an old cockerel going 
to sleep. He took another drop of neck-oil and gave another fruity, 
juicy laugh as he heaved his body from the bed. 'A very knowin' 

Presently he was carving slices of thick brown bread with a 
great horn-handled shut-knife and pasting each slice with sum- 
mery golden butter. Now and then he took another drink of 
neck-oil and once he said : 

'You get the salt pot, boy, and empty a bit out on that there 
saucer, so's we can all dip in.' 

Uncle Crow slapped the last slice of bread on to the buttered 
pile and then said : 

'Boy, you take that there jug there and go a step or two up the 

Great Uncle Crow 369 

path and dip yourself a drop o' spring water. You'll see it. It 
comes out of a little bit of a wall, jist by a doddle- wilier.' 

When the boy got back with the jug of spring water Uncle 
Crow was opening another bottle of neck-oil and his grandfather 
was saying: 'God a-mussy man, goo steady. You'll have me 
agooin' one way and another — ' 

'Man alive/ Uncle Crow said, 'and what's wrong with that?' 

Then the watercress, the salt, the moor-hens' eggs, the spring 
water, and the neck-oil were all ready. The moor-hens' eggs were 
hard-boiled. Uncle Crow lay on the bed and cracked them with 
his teeth, just like big brown nuts, and said he thought the water- 
cress was just about as nice and tender as a young lady. 

'I'm sorry we ain't got the gold plate out though. I had it out 
a-Sunday.' He closed his old cockerel-lidded eye again and licked 
his tongue backwards and forwards across his lips and dipped 
another peeled egg in salt. 'You know what I had for my dinner 
a- Sunday, boy?' 


'A pussy-cat on a gold plate. Roasted with broad-beans and 
new taters. Did you ever heerd talk of anybody eatin' a roasted 
pussy-cat, boy?' 


'You did?' 

'Yes/ he said, 'that's a hare.' 

'You got a very knowin' boy here, Lukey/ Uncle Crow said. 
'A very knowin' boy.' 

Then he screwed up a big dark-green bouquet of watercress 
and dipped it in salt until it was entirely frosted and then cram- 
med it in one neat wholesale bite into his soft pink mouth. 

'But not on a gold plate?' he said. 

He had to admit that. 

'No, not on a gold plate/ he said. 

All that time he thought the fresh watercress, the moor-hens' 
eggs, the brown bread-and-butter, and the spring water were 
the most delicious, wonderful things he had ever eaten in the 
world. He felt that only one thing was missing. It was that when- 
ever his grandfather spoke of fishing Uncle Crow simply took 
another draught of neck-oil. 

'When are you goin' to take us fishing?' he said. 

370 Great Uncle Crow 

'You et up that there egg/ Uncle Crow said. 'That's the last 
one. You et that there egg up and I'll tell you what/ 

'What about gooin' as far as that big deep hole where the chub 
lay?' grandfather said. 'Up by the back-brook — ' 

Til tell you what, boy/ Uncle Crow said, 'you git your grand- 
father to bring you over September time, of a morning, afore the 
steam's off the winders. Mushroomin' time. You come over and 
we'll have a bit o' bacon and mushroom for breakfast and then 
set into the pike. You see, boy, it ain't the pikin' season now. It's 
too hot. Too bright. It's too bright of afternoon, and they ain't 

He took a long rich swig of neck-oil. 

'Ain't that it, Lukey? That's the time, ain't it, mushroom 

'Thass it,' his grandfather said. 

'Tot out,' Uncle Crow said. 'Drink up. My throat's jist easin' 
orf a bit.' 

He gave another wonderful belching laugh and told the boy 
to be sure to finish up the last of the watercress and the bread- 
and-butter. The little room was rich with the smell of neck-oil, 
and the tarry sun-baked odour of the beer-barrels that formed 
its walls. And through the door came, always, the sound of reeds 
talking in their beards, and the scent of summer meadows drift- 
ing in from beyond the great curl of the river with its kingly 
currents and its islands of full blown lilies, white and yellow in 
the sun. 

'I see the wheat's in ear,' his grandfather said. 'Ain't that the 
time for tench, when the wheat's in ear ? ' 

'Mushroom time,' Uncle Crow said. 'That's the time. You git 
mushroom time here, and I'll fetch you a tench out as big as a 
cricket bat.' 

He fixed the boy with an eye of wonderful, watery, glassy blue 
and licked his lips with a lazy tongue, and said : 

'You know what colour a tench is, boy ? ' 

'Yes,' he said. 

'What colour?' 

'The colour of the neck-oil.' 

'Lukey,' Uncle Crow said, 'you got a very knowin' boy here. A 
very knowin' boy.' 

Great Uncle Crow 371 

After that, when there were no more cresses or moor-hens' 
eggs or bread-and-butter to eat, and his grandfather said he'd 
get hung if he touched another drop of neck-oil, he and his 
grandfather walked home across the meadows. 

'What work does Uncle Crow do ? ' he said. 

'Uncle Crow? Work? -well, he ain't -Uncle Crow? Well, 
he works, but he ain't what you'd call a reg'lar worker — ' 

All the way home he could hear the reeds talking in their 
beards. He could see the water-lilies that reminded him so much 
of the gold and white inside the moor-hens' eggs. He could hear 
the happy sound of Uncle Crow laughing and sucking at the 
neck-oil, and crunching the fresh salty cresses into his mouth in 
the tarry little room. 

He felt happy, too, and the sun was a gold plate in the sky. 


Nearly fifty years ago I knew her as a rather plump, fair-skinned 
child with eyes of brilliant hyacinth blue and long ribbon- 
less blonde hair that hung half way down her back in 

Her mother was a gaunt, hungry faced, prematurely aged 
woman who, with sickly yellow eyes sunk far into her head be- 
hind steel- rimmed spectacles, treadled feverishly all day and half 
the night at a sewing machine, in a black dress and apron, closing 
boot uppers, in the dirty window of a little house in one of the 
narrow yards we used as short cuts at the railway end of the 
town. Her father was an ex-pug grown coarse and fat who 
worked little, boozed a lot and spent most of his time in a pub 
called The Waterloo, re-telling for friends and strangers alike 
the story of how - incredibly as a light-weight - he had won 
impermanent fame and a silver belt as a champion twenty years 

On Sundays her mother skulked furtively to Methodist 
Chapel, wearing a black dress that might well have been the one 
she worked in, an old black straw hat without trimmings and 
black button boots worn badly down at the heel, looking like 
the poorest of the poor. In a town like Evensford, where boots 
and shoes are made, even the poor have no way of acquiring pub- 
lic derision more swiftly than to be seen in boots or shoes that 
need heeling badly. It is not merely a point of honour not to do 
such things; it incurs a sharp communal scorn. But no one felt 
either scorn or derision for Mrs Jackson. Nor did anyone ever 
seem to know the cause of her state of perpetual mourning, but 
as the years went past I guessed - correctly - that it was not 
mourning at all. She was merely saving for Bertha. 

The yard in which they lived was no more than a slum alley 
eight or nine feet wide and only those who lived there knew what 
went on behind the narrow backways that, bounded by fearsome 
little privies on either side, were no more than naked asphalt 
squares from which the fences had been ripped down. That 


The Enchantress 373 

stretch of the town, low down by the station, was called The 
Pit. To come from The Pit was the social equivalent of having 
leprosy. Sometimes a deaf mute, a scrawny wild-eyed man of 
thirty or so, stood guarding the upper end of it, making the 
noises of a caged animal and spitting at passers-by. It was a 
place of loafers playing crown-and-anchor under smoky 
walls, of yelling women in perpetual curling rags and men's caps 
who leered down to The Waterloo with beer jugs in their hands 
and made twice-weekly visits, with rattling prams, to pop- 

On Mondays Bertha's mother went to the pop-shop too; on 
Saturdays she redeemed whatever she had pawned. It is my guess 
that she went about in apparently perpetual mourning only be- 
cause whatever clothes she otherwise possessed were in almost 
eternal pawn. And they were there because of Bertha. 

Even as early as these days they started calling Bertha the 
princess. At ten she was already big for her age. She had already 
a clean, splendid sumptous bloom about her. Her eyes were most 
wonderfully clear and brilliant, with a great touch of calm and 
candid pride about them. Her hair was magnificent. It is quite 
common to see young girls with hair of palest bleached yellow 
and of extraordinary lightness in texture, but Bertha was the only 
child I ever saw whose hair was the colour of thistledown and of 
exactly the same lovely insubstantial airy quality. 

She was always beautifully dressed. It used to be said that her 
mother, sitting up into the small hours or surreptitiously working 
on Sunday afternoons, made all her dresses for her, but years 
later I met a woman, one of two sisters, the proprietress of a very 
good class dress shop at the other end of the town, who said: 

'Oh! no. Bertha's clothes all came from here. We made them 
for her, my sister and I. And her underclothes. I suppose it 
would surprise you to know that that child never had anything 
but pillow lace on her petticoats? And always paid for.' 

At thirteen she already looked like a girl of sixteen or seven- 
teen. She was tall, with full sloping shoulders and a firm high 
bust. Her legs were the sort of legs that make men turn round in 
the street, at least once if not twice, and she had a certain languid 
way of swinging her arms, with a backward graceful pull, as 
she walked. All this time her mother sat at the little window in 
the yard, treadling with sick desperation, almost insanely, at the 

374 The Enchantress 

sewing machine, and her father sat in The Waterloo, working 
his way through the chronicles of his history as a light-weight. 
You never saw them together. 

At fourteen she put her hair up. There was a good deal of it 
- it had been her mother's eternal pride never to cut it at all - and 
now, not so light in colour, though still very blonde and airy in 
texture, it made her seem an inch or two taller, giving her better 

By this time she was working in a boot factory. In those days 
women went to work in the oldest clothes they could find, pretty 
shabbily sometimes and often in the sort of thin black apron that 
Bertha's mother wore, but Bertha went to the factory exactly 
as she had previously gone to school: with her own impeccable 
quality, beautifully, fastidiously dressed. 

Already, by now, she looked like a young woman of twenty 
and already, people began to say, you could see all the old, eternal 
danger signs. It was only a question of time before girls of sen- 
sational early maturity found themselves in trouble, disgraced 
and tasting the fruits of bitter unlearned lessons. Girls of four- 
teen who went out of their way to look like women of twenty, 
dealing in the deliberate coinage of voluptuous attractions, had 
only themselves to blame if they bought what they asked for. 
The time had come for Bertha's fall. 

Just under three years later she astounded everybody by sud- 
denly getting married - quite undisgraced - to a retired leather 
dresser with a modest income, a most respectable Edwardian 
house enclosed by an orchard of apple and pear trees and a taste 
for driving out in a landau, in straw hat and cream alpaca suit, 
on summer afternoons. 

William James Sherwood was a neat, courteous, decorous 
man of the old school, very gentlemanly and of quiet nabits; and 
the whole thing was a sensation. No one could say how it 

'But she comes from The Pit!' they said. 'She's from The 
Pit! From there. And seventeen. How do you suppose it hap- 
pened? What possessed him?' 

When a man of seventy marries a girl of seventeen who is re- 
markably mature, fastidious and beautiful for her age it never 
seems to occur to anyone that all that has possessed him is a 
firm dose of taste, enterprise and common sense. Consequently 

The Enchantress 375 

it did not occur to anyone that William Sherwood might have 
made, in Bertha, a good bargain for himself. 

'But she's from The Pit!' they kept saying. 'She works in a 
factory. And the way she walks. The way she fancies herself. 
She isn't his kind. She can't be. Look who she comes from - the 
poorest of the poor. Her mother scraping and saving at shoe- 
work, her old man cooked every day in The Waterloo. 1 

Presently Bertha was to be seen driving out with William 
James Sherwood in a landau on fine summer afternoons. By the 
way she sat there, upright, composed, holding a parasol over her 
head, one hand resting lightly and decorously on the side of the 
carriage, you could have supposed that she had rarely done any- 
thing else but drive in landaus for the better part of her seven- 
teen years. But there was something else still more surprising and 
more interesting about her. She looked supremely content and 

For the next three years she went on matching herself, her 
ways and her appearance to William James Sherwood. She be- 
haved more like a woman contentedly settled in her middle thir- 
ties who had been born and brought up in a quiet country house, 
of good family, than a girl still in her teens who had been brought 
up in The Pit, on pawn-shop bread. Sometimes in summer you 
would see her not only driving out in the landau but walking, 
quietly, slowly and in thoughtful conversation, with William 
James Sherwood, in the orchard of apples and pears. They looked 
like a couple locked in the most harmonious tranquillity. It was 
easy to see that he was fond of her. His ways had obviously be- 
come her ways. In the swiftest and most unobtrusive fashion 
the daughter of The Pit, the child of the coarse ex-pug, had 
become a good wife, leaving all trace of any other self behind. 

Then suddenly, when she was twenty, James William Sher- 
wood slipped from a ladder while pruning a pear-tree, fell to a 
concrete path below and died of a haemorrhage two days later. 

'Now watch her,' everybody said. 'She's got what she wanted. 
Now watch her let it rip. Now watch her slide.' 

Sherwood died in January. One very hot oppressive evening 
in the following July I was walking slowly through the town, up 
to the tennis club, when a low green open sports car cut a corner 
as I was crossing, almost killed me and then roared away through 

376 The Enchantress 

rapid changes of gears and the guttural grind of twin exhausts. I 
had just time to catch sight of a man named Tom Pemberton at 
the wheel, and a very fair, bare-headed girl with one arm round 
his neck, before the car cut another corner and disappeared. 

It was some minutes before it came to me that the girl was 
Bertha, and the fact that I hadn't recognised her instantly was 
due to an interesting thing. Bertha had bobbed her hair. Twenty 
minutes later I walked into the tennis club and found her playing 
tennis with Pemberton and a man named Saunders and another 
girl whose name I can't remember. Saunders was a rather surly, 
dark-eyed man of great virility who played tennis well above the 
local average and Pemberton, though a fool in all other respects, 
was as polished and fluent a player as you ever get in an ordinary 

I was still trying to recover from my astonishment that Bertha 
was playing as well as any of them - in fact from my astonish- 
ment that she could play tennis at all - when I saw that Tom 
Pemberton had been drinking. Though not actually drunk, he 
threw the ball in the air several times and missed it and once, 
missing a smash, he fell headlong into the net and lay under- 
neath it cursing and giggling. Every time he did something of 
this kind Bertha started giggling too. 

It was plain, presently, to see that Saunders was tiring of this 
and soon they were exchanging, hotly, some words about a ball 
being on the wrong side of the line. Pemberton, I thought, was 
less drunk than stupid. But Saunders was not the kind of man 
who took any kind of argument very lightly and presently, surly 
as a mongrel, he hit a ball deliberately high over the shrubberies 
and into the street beyond. 

The next thing I realised was that Pemberton was walking off 
the court, followed by a cool, racy, slightly haughty Bertha who 
looked, I thought, more striking than ever. But this was not what 
impressed me, at that moment, most powerfully. 

What impressed me so much was that she had trained herself 
to Pemberton's pattern. She no longer looked like a woman 
nestling down into the contentment of her middle thirties. 
Though she was now a widow she looked, with her close-bobbed 
hair, severe twentyish tennis frock, her low waist and short skirt 
that showed her magnificent legs to superb advantage, like a 
careless wild-headed girl of seventeen. 

The Enchantress Zll 

Five minutes later they were roaring away in Pemberton's 
sports car and older members of the club began to say, prophe- 
tically as it turned out, that Pemberton would kill himself before 
he was much older. And I actually heard her scream -with 
delight, not fear - as the car skidded round a bend. 

I never cared much for Pemberton or indeed for men of 
Pemberton's upbringing, outlook and class. Tom was the only 
son of a wealthy boot-manufacturer who lived in a house of 
hideous chateau-like design surrounded by large conservatories 
with occasional diamonds of coloured glass in them. He had no 
need to be anything but empty headed and the father encourag- 
ed the condition by ceaseless indulgence with sports cars, open 
cheques, expensive suits and the ready payment of court fines 
whenever, as so often happened, Tom ran the sports car into 
lamp-posts, trees or even other sports cars. Drunk or sober, he 
always looked pitifully handsome, vacant, vain and without 

It occurred to me -I don't know why -that Bertha, who 
had married so unexpectedly and quietly into the gentility of 
James William Sherwood's septuagenarian household behind the 
pear-trees, was the very person to dispossess him of these un- 
likeable characteristics. I was wrong. 

It was many years indeed before I grasped that Bertha never 
dispossessed anybody of anything. The truth about Bertha was 
in fact very slow in coming to me. All I thought I saw in the 
incident of the tennis club was a girl who, consorting with an 
idiot, had caught a rash of idiocy. It was too early for me to 
know that the same characteristics that had turned her tem- 
porarily into a decorous wife for an elderly gentleman were the 
very same as those that were now turning her into a flapper of 
loud clipped speech, skirts above her knees and a taste for wild 
parties at dubious clubs on riversides. Grieflessly, swiftly and 
with not the slightest pressure on the nerves of conscience she 
had slipped out of the part of widow as easily as she might have 
slipped out of one of her petticoats, taking on the new tone, new 
pattern and new outlook of another man. 

About a year later Tom Pemberton, driving his car home very 
late and very fast one night in a thunderstorm, with Bertha at 
his side, crashed into a roadside tree for the last time. 

By one of those strange tricks that surround violent and acci- 

378 The Enchantress 

dental death Pemberton was terribly mutilated while Bertha, 
thrown clear, landed with miraculous gentleness on grass, dazed 
but unbruised, as if she had slid gently down a helter-skelter at 
a fair. 

Only a few weeks later a great scandal broke out in the town. 

Bertha, by this time, had gone back to live with her mother in 
The Pit. It might have been supposed that the few hundred 
pounds James William Sherwood had left her would have revolu- 
tionised life behind the dark little front window and the treadle 
sewing machine. Nothing of the kind had happened. The sick, 
yellow-eyed figure went on treadling as desperately as ever; in 
The Waterloo the ex-pug unfolded to all who would listen his 
tale of light-weight triumphs; and Bertha, splendid and well 
dressed as ever, went back to the factory. 

Two or three days after the death of Tom Pemberton a young 
curate named Ormsby-Hill called to see Bertha in The Pit, 
bearing the conventional condolences of the clergy and hoping, 
after the crash and its mutilations, that all was well as could be 
expected. Clergymen have a strange habit of calling on their 
sheep at awkward times and Ormsby-Hill, getting no answer at 
the front door of the house, which no one ever used anyway, 
went round to the back, among the miserable naked yards, just 
after six o'clock. The ex-pug, by that time, was already in The 
Waterloo, and Bertha's mother, free for a few minutes after the 
long day of treadling, was out doing shopping. 

Bertha, big arms and chest bare in a sleeveless chemise, was 
at the kitchen sink, washing away her factory grime. 

'Oh! come in if you can get in,' she said. She clearly remem- 
bered the young curate at Tom Pemberton's funeral. 'I'm afraid 
the kitchen's in a mess. Can you find a chair in the living 
room ? ' 

Ormsby-Hill sat down in the little living room while Bertha, 
entirely unaffected, finished washing and drying herself in the 
kitchen. It was never very clear to me, nor I think to anyone else, 
why Ormsby-Hill had entered the church. He was in all ways 
the complete opposite of the young curate of convention. Big, 
bovine, sensuous-lipped, fond of beer and rugby football, he 
belonged to that class of clergymen, not I think so common now, 
who thought godliness should be muscular and the way to 

The Enchantress 379 

heaven a hearty free for all. He thought the gospel went down 
much better from clergymen who offered it while dressed in 
tweeds rather than dog collars, with pints of foaming ale in their 
hands rather than crucifixes and by means of sportsmen's ser- 
vices, sometimes actually held in pubs, where the congregation 
was roughly addressed as 'chaps/ 

That evening he had gone to The Pit in trepidation, with some 
idea that Bertha was a wild bad girl. Nobody liked going down to 
The Pit if they didn't have to and Ormsby-Hill had been deliber- 
ately sent there on a distasteful errand by a vicar too squeamish 
to stomach the sordid alleyway of privies, louts playing crown- 
and-anchor on the asphalt and the deaf-mute keeping guard for 
a stray policeman at the top of the yard. 

His surprise at seeing Bertha was very great. His surprise at 
hearing her voice for the first time was even greater. 

With Tom Pemberton it had become a shrill, empty, fun-at- 
any-price sort of voice; during her marriage to James William 
Sherwood it had been a decorous, sympathetic toned-down voice 
of charm and understanding. 

When Ormsby-Hill heard it for the first time it was a smooth, 
throaty voice, easy and rather casual: as if she had already de- 
cided what voice he would like her to have. 

Til slip upstairs and put on a dress if you don't mind waiting/ 
she said. 'I won't be five minutes. I have to be at the dressmakers 
by seven anyway.' 

When she came down, about five minutes later, she was wear- 
ing a sleeveless yellow dress with a low neck and a very short skirt 
and with it white cotton gloves and white high-heeled shoes. 
She was very fond of white and yellow clothes and once or twice 
later I used to see her in this dress. It was tight and smooth 
across her thighs and so short that it showed her pretty rounded 
knees to great advantage. She hardly ever wore a hat in those 
days -she really didn't need to because the fine close-trimmed 
blonde hair was shaped exactly like a hat itself - and the low- 
cut neck of the dress, in the fashion of the time, showed a deep 
curve of soft low breast, the skin clear, unblemished and won- 
derfully smooth. 

When Ormsby-Hill saw her come downstairs into the dingy 
little living room he forgot almost at once what he had come to 
say to her. She was already drawing on her gloves and she said : 

380 The Enchantress 

'I'm awfully afraid I shall have to go. My dressmaker closes 
at half-past seven and I have to have this fitting. I don't know 
which way you're going back, but it's only in the High Street, 
this shop, if you'd like to walk that way.' 

Walking down the yard, out of The Pit, he managed to repeat 
a few words of conventional condolence about Tom Pemberton, 
asking her at the same time how she herself was. 

'It was very sad/ she said, 'but I don't remember much about 

'I believe you also suffered another unfortunate bereavement/ 
he said. 

'Yes/ she said. 'Some time ago/ 

By the time they were out in the street she was talking easily, 
lightly and readily of something else, quite unperturbed and 
sometimes laughing. She had a laugh that had a kind of spring to 
it. It uncoiled suddenly and lightly, ending in a series of high 
shimmering notes, merrily, like repeated echoes. 

And as he walked with her that evening through a High Street 
still crowded with late shoppers Ormsby-Hill could hardly bring 
himself to believe that he was with a young woman who had lost 
a husband and a lover in so short a time. Nor was there the sligh- 
test sign of the wild, bad girl he had expected. He felt indeed 
that he had never met anyone quite so pleasant to talk to, to 
look at or to listen to. Above all he couldn't believe -it was 
simply incomprehensible - that she had been born, bred and 
shaped in The Pit. It made his head rock with wonder that she 
had come, so golden and impeccable and pleasant, from that 
sordid rat-hole. 

He fell in love with her at once, with abandonment, quite 
blindly, and she let him fall in love for precisely the same reason 
as she had let James William Sherwood and Tom Pemberton fall 
in love : because she liked it. 

The scandal warmed and mounted quickly. It was one thing 
for a young curate to be seen in occasional conversation with a 
good-looking girl or even to dance with her at one of those 
decorous functions by which the church, in the nineteen-twen- 
ties, had begun to try to lure youth back into the grace of the 
fold; but it was quite another for Ormsby-Hill to be seen waiting 
for her at the factory door, often at the dinner hour and almost 
always at night, and then walking home to The Pit with her 

The Enchantress 381 

through the rushing crowds of shoemakers hungrily herding 
homewards on foot or on bicycles. 

'He comes of such a good family. He went to Oxford. His 
mother lives in a big house in Wiltshire. And Bertha -from 
The Pit. From there! What do you suppose the vicar thinks? 
And his mother? He doesn't wear the dog-collar very often, does 
he? I suppose he's ashamed.' 

Ormsby-Hill, strangely, was not ashamed. He existed boldly, 
for an entire autumn, a winter and part of the following spring, 
in a state of suspended enchantment. And Bertha in turn rewar- 
ded him as she had rewarded James William Sherwood and Tom 
Pemberton: with the sort of affection that moulds itself on the 
pattern of the receiver. If it is possible to imagine her as being 
sensuous in well-cut tweeds that was how she looked that 
autumn, winter and spring. And she looked like that and dressed 
like that for a sound simple reason: because Ormsby-Hill loved 
her and because he wanted her to. She also went to church, 
though her mother was a Methodist and went to chapel, and 
watched him take part in the services and listened to him preach- 
ing and reading the lessons. She took on also some of his accent, 
slightly Oxford, his phrases and his muscular mannerisms. She 
was sometimes to be seen in country pubs outside the town, 
drinking from large tankards of draught ale, laughing with 
ravishing heartiness and saying such things as : 

'Darling, how could you? You're too, too awful. You're really 
shame-making, honestly you are. Really shy-making. All right, 
pet, let's have another. Why not ? ' 

Suddenly, in the June of that year, there was no longer a Rev. 
Ormsby-Hill in the town, though down in Cornwall, in a remote 
rocky village isolated on the coast, a new congregation was get- 
ting ready to welcome a new curate in September. 

'One dead. One killed. One disgraced,' people said. 'Who's 
she going to ruin next?' 

Nobody seemed to understand that, down in The Pit, it was 
not Bertha's place to give an answer. 

I, in part, gave it instead. 

She was now, like the century, in her twenties. It was the 
bright, gay, desperate time. There was much dancing. 

She was always the central figure at dances, seldom wearing 

382 The Enchantress 

the same dress twice, always strikingly golden, elegant, friendly, 
in demand. Perhaps the friendliness was the nicest thing about 
her. She never refused the clumiest lout a quick-step. She waltzed 
on equal terms with youth, age, undergraduates, shoe-hands, 
golfers, shooting men, clerks, masters of fox-hounds, always 
beautifully companionable, at ease, talking whatever language 
they spoke to her. 

And presently, the following summer, she was even dancing 
with me. 

It was a very hot sultry evening in early July and some of 
the men, after the habit of the twenties, were wearing blazers 
and white flannels. Most of the girls were in light silk or satin 
frocks and the doors and windows of the dance hall were all 
wide open and you could see the blue brilliant evening 

I had just decided to disentangle myself from the hot sea-crab 
embraces of a Paul Jones when suddenly the music stopped 
and I found myself, by pure accident, facing Bertha, almost 
isolated on that corner of the floor. 

She smiled and at once raised her bare golden arms towards 
me. Both the smile and the gesture might have been those be- 
tween two old friends, though we had in fact never even spoken 

She was dressed, that evening, in striking oyster-coloured silk. 
The dress was short and sleeveless, in the fashion of the day, 
and she had matching gloves and shoes. Her eyes, naturally very 
blue, seemed to catch in reflection all the brilliance of the even- 
ing outside, so that they appeared to be deep violet in colour. 
Her hair looked as if she had spent most of the day brushing it 
and she had now begun to let it grow a little longer again, so that 
it hung down in the shape of a casque. 

She danced superbly. But what really struck me, in that hot, 
saxophonic scrum of pounding feet, was not her dancing. It was 
her coolness. Sweat was pouring heavily from the faces of all the 
men and now and then you could see across the back of a girl's 
dress the large wet ham-print of a hand. 

Bertha's arms and hands were, by contrast, as cool as por- 
celain cups dipped in spring water. 

'Enjoying it?' I said. 

'Oh ! awfully,' she said, 'aren't you?' 

The Enchantress 383 

I confessed I felt it rather warm and then she said : 

'I hear you've started to become a writer.' 

'Oh?' I said. 'Who told you that?' 

'As a matter of fact I read an article of yours the other 
day/ she said. 'About flowers. I cut it out because I liked it so 

After that it was impossible not to be happily at ease with her, 
friendly and greatly flattered. To my dismay the music stopped 
almost immediately. The dance had ended. She immediately 
gave me a wonderful smile of thanks and I had the presence of 
mind to ask her if she would like some ice-cream and if she would 
have the next dance with me. 

'Of course,' she said. 'How nice of you.' 

Over the ice-cream, which we took outside to eat, she said: 

'About those flowers. They weren't from our part of the 
country, were they ? ' 

'Most of them.' 

'But the orchids? -I didn't know we had orchids in this 
country. Do they grow here - the wild ones you said were like 
greeny white butterflies ? ' 

'In Longley Spinneys,' I said, 'just outside the town.' 


She licked the last of her ice-cream from the spoon and looked 
at me with, I thought, an air of disbelief. 

'You don't believe it/ I said. 

'Oh ! I don't want you to think that/ she said. 'Please.' 

I have always found that women are frequently most incredu- 
lous when you tell them the truth. I have also always been, all 
my life, a person governed by the swiftest, if sometimes the most 
foolish, impulses. 

'If you don't believe me I'll take you to see them/ I said. 
'They're in bloom now.' 

'Oh ! that's lovely/ Bertha said. 'When should we go ? ' 

'Now/ I said. 

The wide dark blue eyes did not look in the least surprised. 
It was only when I suddenly remembered that I was talking to 
a girl whose late habit had been to ride both in landaus and in 
cars of fast sporting design that I was aware of a stupid object 
standing in the way of what I had just proposed. 

'Damn/ I said. 'I forgot I'd only got my bicycle.' 

384 The Enchantress 

Her reply was typical. 

What's wrong with a bicycle ?' she said. 'I haven't got mine 
but I could ride on the back of yours.' 

Suddenly I knew I had made the first of several new discov- 
eries about Bertha. I knew now that she was not merely beautiful, 
sumptuous, companionable and physically delightful. She had 
an altogether wonderful innocence about her. 

'Come on, let's go,' she said. 'Before we change our minds.' 

'All right,' I said, 'but you ride the bike and I'll step it on the 
back. In case you soil your dress or tear your stockings.' 

There are an infinite number of ways of making love to a girl 
for the first time but the approach from the back of a bicycle, 
on a hot half-dark summer night is, I suppose, not among the 
most common of them. 

The road to Longley Spinneys is a fairly flat one and the 
actual business of bicycling was not hard for Bertha. It was I 
who had the difficult job of keeping my balance on the back and 
at first I rode with my hands on her bare cool shoulders. 

'Are my hands heavy for you up there?' I said. 'Say if they 

'Just a little heavy.' 

I put my hands round her waist. 

'Is that better?' 

'Much better.' 

As we rode I could smell the fragrance of hay from summer 
meadows, the lightest of scents from hedge- roses and from some- 
where farther off, in the hot darkness, the deeper, thicker breath 
of limes. By the time we were coasting down the last small incline 
to the spinneys, in that soundless intoxicating air, my hands were 
holding her breasts. They were firm and corsetless and my mouth 
was resting against her bare smooth shoulder. 

It was the most exquisite bicycle ride ever undertaken, but as 
we stood by the wood-side she made no comment on any of these 
happenings. They were perfectly natural to her. Soon I started 
to kiss her. I let my hands run over the cool sumptuous skin of 
her shoulders. In exquisite suspense, with closed eyes, I forgot 
the orchids. I thought she had forgotten them too but at last, in 
a low voice, she aroused me from a daze. 

'What about these flowers? These orchids?' she said. 'Or did 
you just invent them?' 

The Enchantress 385 

I took her into the spinneys. It was still not fully dark; but 
presently, under the ashlings, we came upon the first of the 
orchids, rare, fragile, milk-green winged, the ghostliest of flowers. 
The scent of them was overpoweringly sweet, too sweet, un- 
English, almost tropical, on the calm night air. 'You must have 
extraordinary eyes to see them in the dark/ she said. 'Or does the 
scent guide you?' I had no answer to make to her and for the 
second or third time, with trembling intoxication, I stopped 
under a tree, took her in my arms and kissed her. The acqui- 
escence of her body was sensational in its quietness. There was 
not a murmur in the spinneys, the fields, the sky or the hedge- 
rows about us. I could hear only in my own mind the echo of 
some words of a poem that had been haunting me since waking 
and that the later saxophonic pounding cries, the bicycle ride 
and the orchids had driven temporarily away : 

Dear love, for nothing less than thee 
Would I have broke this happy dream. 

She stood, dream-like herself, for a few moments as insub- 
stantial as the flowers she was holding, while I quoted to her with 
ardent quietness Donne's words about excess of joy. She listened 
not only as if she had been used all her life to hearing young men 
quote verse to her at night, in summer woods, but also as she 
must have listened to those other accents, the accents of James 
William Sherwood, Tom Pemberton, Ormsby-Hill and the rest, 
charmingly ready, now, to take on mine. 

When at length I finished with the last line I could remember, 

Enter these arms, for since thou thoughtst it best 
Not to dream all my dream, let's act the rest, 

she laughed softly, throatily, and said : 

'Did you write all that? It's lovely.' 

'No,' I said and I told her who had written it. 'Three hundred 
years ago.' 

'He was a man who knew about things/ she said. 'Like you 
with your flowers.' 

We rode home, hours later, in a darkness no less sultry for the 
pink light breaking in the east, the paling stars and a thin rising 
dew. Towards the end of the journey a few birds had already 
begun a light July chorus and once a leveret skimmed across in 

386 The Enchantress 

front of the bicycle, almost throwing us, so that I clutched 
harder, half in self-preservation, at her body. She was even then 
so acquiescent, so friendly and so full of her own apparent excess 
of joy that she actually half -turned her head a few moments later 
and kissed me as we rode. 

Presently I took her as far as The Pit in order to say, in the 
rapidly rising dawn, the tenderest of good-byes. 

'Tomorrow night?' 

'I'm awfully sorry. I can't tomorrow/ she said. 'I'm going 
out with George Freeman.' 

I felt as if I had been hit rudely and ferociously with the 

'But Bertha—' 

'I'm going out with George three nights a week,' she said, 'but 
I'd love to come with you on the others. I would -I love the 
way you talk. I loved that poetry. I want to hear all about you 
and your writing.' 

It was hard to believe she was still in her early twenties. It was 
harder still to believe that she could forsake my own particular 
excess of joy, the verse, the summer woods and the green-ghost 
orchids for George Freeman, a muscular flat-capped skittles 
player who drove a brewers' dray. 

A few days later my father started to admonish me. 

'I hear you've been seen with that Bertha Jackson girl.' 

I started to protest. 

'Oh ! yes, I know,' he said. 'I daresay she is all right. She may 
be. But that sort of girl can easily trap you. You understand?' 

There was really not much need to understand. 

'Probably a good thing,' my father said, 'that you're going to 
live in London soon.' 

A few weeks afterwards, bearing a sheaf of torn, tender mem- 
ories that already seemed as delicate and hauntingly insubstantial 
as the milk-green orchids, the ghostliest of flowers, I went to live 
away from home. 

Seventeen years later I stood before the desk of my com- 
manding officer, who had sent for me with some urgency and 
now said : 

'Didn't you tell me once, old boy, that you came from the 
Nene valley? Isn't that your native country? Evensford?' 


The Enchantress 387 

When I said that it was he went on : 

'Good show. I think IVe got a bright idea for a powerful piece 
for you. The Yanks have carved out a hell of a great bomber air- 
field just outside Evensford. Wouldn't it be nice if you went 
down and looked at it and wrote a nostalgic piece about it? -the 
revolution of war, the bomb that blew your childhood scene sky- 
high and that sort of thing? You get it? It would please the 
Americans. ' 

I said I thought I got it and he turned with eagerness to a pile 
of papers. 

'A chap named Colonel Garth F. Parkington, it seems, is 
Station Commander/ he said, 'and H.Q. at Huntingdon say he's 
the nicest sort of bloke to deal with. Spend as long as you like up 
there. Absorb the atmosphere. I'll lay everything on.' 

A day later I was driving northward, up to my native country. 
It was early summer. Gipsies were camping about their fires 
outside a strawberry field that I passed and just inside the field a 
line of women and children in light cotton dresses were gathering 
the berries and putting them into white chip baskets. One of the 
prettier of the girls, a blonde, seeing my uniform, waved her 
hand to me, laughing, showing clean white teeth, her hands red 
with strawberry stain. Farther along the road a field of wheat 
had already the lovely grey-blue sheen of pre-ripeness on the 
stiff straight ears and I could hear, all along the hedgerows, 
whenever I opened the car window, the song of yellow-hammers 
chipping with monotony at the heart of the sunny afternoon. 

Something about the fair-haired girl waving her hand to me 
from the strawberry field made me remember Bertha. Seventeen 
years is a longish time and my hair had begun to go grey. 

Then presently, as I drove along, I found myself trying to 
remember the number of times I had heard her name in seven- 
teen years. It was perhaps half a dozen. Someone, I forget who, 
had once told me that she was seeing a great deal of a prominent 
follower of the Pytchley; that she was much in the swim at flat 
race meetings and point-to-points. Someone else thought she 
was a hostess in a sea-side hotel. At least two people thought she 
had gone to live in London but when I mentioned this to another 
he said: 'Don't believe it. Bertha's still there, up at Evensford. 
Still the same as ever. Still going strong.' 

About three o'clock I found myself in a completely strange, 

388 The Enchantress 

foreign country. Only by stopping the car, getting out and iden- 
tifying, through some minutes of amazed reorientation, a slender 
stone church steeple I had known since boyhood, could I recog- 
nise that I had reached, in fact, the frontiers of my native land. 
Three great hangars, like monstrous brooding night-bats, suc- 
ceeded in saving from moon-mountain barrenness an otherwise 
naked sky-line. In brilliant sunshine a perimeter track curled 
across bare grass like a quivering bruising strip of steel. Like 
black, square-faced owls, Flying Fortresses everywhere rested 
on land where, as a boy, I had searched for sky-larks' eggs, 
walked in tranquillity on summer Sunday evenings with my 
family and gathered cowslips in exalted spring-times. 

Over everything swept the unstopped thundering prop-roar of 
engines warming up and dead in the heart of it a giant water- 
tank, like a Martian ghoul on stilts, strode colossus-wise across 
the sky. This was the country through which, on a July night, I 
had bicycled with Bertha, first put my hands with lightness on 
her breasts and talked to her of dreams and joy's excesses in 
terms of ghost-green orchid flowers. 

A few minutes later I was with Colonel Parkington, a likeable 
Nordic giant with many ribbons, an immaculate tunic and 
trousers of expensive light pink whip-cord who felt it imperative, 
every few moments, to call me old boy. 

'Sit down, old boy.' A telephone rang on his desk. He picked 
it up. 'Be right with you, old boy.' A voice began crackling in 
the telephone. 'Hell. No. Blast. Hell, Christ no.' A second tele- 
phone rang. The colonel did not pick it up. 'But what the flam- 
ing hell! What does Washington know? Through channels, for 
Christ's sake? Hell! It takes a century.' The second telephone 
kept ringing and Colonel Parkington, not picking it up, started 
shouting into the first. 'Always channels. Always channels. They 
think of nothing but channels. This is an operational station. 
Dammit, I can't wait ! Where do they think this goddam war is 
being fought? In Albuquerque or where?' 

He slammed down the telephone. The second telephone stop- 
ped ringing for ten seconds and then, as if taking breath, started 
again. Colonel Parkington picked it up, put his hand over the 
mouthpiece and said to me with polite, genuine sorrow: 

'Look, old boy. This goes on all day. Every day. It's hell. I tell 
you what. Go get yourself fixed up with a room. The lieutenant 

The Enchantress 389 

out there will fix you up. Then show up at six o'clock at my house 
down the road. We're having a little party - about fifty folks, 
cocktails. I want you to meet my wife. She's English too. O.K.? 
See you then, old boy.' 

Thunder was muttering ominously along the eastern sky-line 
as I walked down the road soon after six o'clock but its gathering 
rages were like the squeakings of sick mice compared with the 
already raucous bawlings coming out of the big Victorian red- 
brick house that the Colonel had taken for himself about a mile 
from the bomber station. 

Inside, in the big lofty Victorian rooms, it seemed that an army 
of giant locusts had settled. The species was mainly a laughing 
one. Between its laughter it sucked at glasses, ate ice-cream, blew 
smoke, gnawed at small brown sausages and yelled. 

In this maelstrom I sought refuge behind an ancient hat-rack, 
where a young lieutenant with many ribbons, pale flight-weary 
eyes and a glass beer-mug in his hand, had already forestalled 
me. The beer-mug was filled with what seemed to be port wine 
and the lieutenant, staring up from it, started calling me Bud. 

'Hullo, Bud, what's the uniform?' 

'Royal Air Force.' 

'Is it? For Christ's sake.' 

Drinking deeply at the port, he wiped his mouth across the 
back of his hand, staring the uniform up and down. 

'Forgot to put your ribbons on, Bud.' 

I explained that I had not only no ribbons to put on but that, 
so far, I had done nothing whatever to deserve any ribbons. 

'Hell, that's terrible,' he said. 'Don't look right without 

He drank again. I surveyed the smoky locust scene, looking 
for Colonel Parkington. As I searched unsuccessfully through 
the crowded gnawing faces the young lieutenant, mouth wet 
with port, spoke with terse, unsober bitterness of the day's events 
above Stettin. 

'Damn dirty trip,' he kept saying. 'A helluva damn stinking 
dirty trip.' 

'Do you know if Colonel Parkington is here?' I said. 


He too surveyed the scene, peering with difficulty from under 
lids that were closing down on the eyes' weary dilations. 

390 The Enchantress 

'Don't see him though.' 

'Which is Mrs Parkington?' 

Before he could answer a girl came up. She had the fair small- 
featured elegance that is so common to girls in that part of 
England and she heard my question. 

'That's her/ she said. 'Over at the top end of the room. In the 
black and silver dress. By the fireplace.' 

'Probably the colonel's there too,' the lieutenant said. 'How's 
things ? How's the shape ? ' he said to the girl, catching her by the 
shoulder, and I moved away. 

Half way across the room I stopped. The colonel's personal 
lieutenant, the one who had arranged my room, stupefied by 
the sight of a guest without a drink in his hand and thinking 
perhaps that I had halted in stupefaction too, as in fact I had, 
dragged me solicitously aside to a long table where mess order- 
lies were serving drinks from a barricade of ice-buckets. 

'Please have what you like, sir,' he said. 'I'm sorry. I didn't see 
you come in. The colonel's not here yet. He had a rush call to 
H.Q. at five.' 

An orderly poured me a drink. I bore it away through the 
crowd of faces and stood by a wall. I stood there a long time, 
alone, sipping the drink, watching Mrs Parkington. 

There was no mistaking that fine yellow hair. Bertha was 
wearing it rather long now, almost down to her shoulders, in the 
war-time fashion, and it matched with its curled brushed smooth- 
ness the long close line of the black and silver dress that made her 
appear even taller than she was. The dress, as always, was low- 
cut, showing the strong smooth bosom, and she was wearing 
rather large pear-shaped earrings, black, probably of jet, that 
quivered every now and then like shining berries as she tossed 
back her head, laughing. 

She was surrounded, on all sides, by young officers in uniform. 
There were, I noticed, no other women near. With native good 
sense they had clearly retreated, fearful of being overshadowed 
by a sumptuous, glittering, popular mountain. 

At intervals her laugh rang out clear, merry and golden. I 
hesitated for a long time about moving over towards her but at 
last I started, setting down my empty glass on a window sill out- 
side which I could see the far blue violence of summer lightning 
striking the sky above the black hangars on the hill. 

The Enchantress 391 

I did not get very far. For a second time the horrified lieuten- 
ant, alarmed by the sight of a single drinkless guest, stopped me 
and begged : 

'Let me get you something, sir. They're not looking after you. 
The colonel said to be sure to look after you. We don't get so 
many visits from you boys.' 

He disappeared and I stood for three or four minutes longer 
within hearing distance of Bertha, waiting for the drink. She 
spoke, I now discovered, with a slight American accent, just 
clipped enough to be charming. 

'Oh! it's all channels, channels,' I heard her say. 'Nothing 
but channels. It's like Garth says - you'd think they were fight- 
ing the war in Albuquerque or somewhere. For goodness' sake 
what does Washington know?' 

The young officers about her laughed with that particular 
brittle brand of laughter that young officers reserve for occasions 
when brass-hats, governments or cabinet officials are mentioned 
and one, younger, more good-looking and more tipsy than the 
rest, gazed with fondness at her bosom, as if almost ready to 
plant a kiss there, and said : 

'Good for Bertha. My God, we should send Bertha back home 
as special envoy. She'd knock 'em dead.' 

A moment later my drink arrived. I listened to her laughing 
and talking for a few moments longer, watching the earrings 
quiver like black berries against the long yellow hair and then at 
last, feeling unarmed for the encounter, I moved away. 

As I walked back up the road lightning struck with explosive 
blue tributaries, fierce and jagged, all about the woodless skyline. 
I walked slowly in the hot air, carrying my cap, and if I was sad 
it was not so much because of Bertha, gay and sumptuous as 
ever, but because, remembering James William Sherwood and 
Tom Pemberton, I feared that the night's ominous storminess 
might contain in it the fires of other premonitions. 

I need not, as it happened, have worried at all. 

The war was hardly over before I was filled with unbearable 
longings to travel again, to feel what France smelled like and to 
see flowers blooming about the classical stones of Italy, in fierce 
sunlight, about the vineyards, high above the lakesides. 

These things were still not easy and it was already a year later 

392 The Enchantress 

when I met a man who promptly scorned them, told me of ex- 
periences that had given him equal, easier pleasures and said: 

Trance? Why bother with France? You've got it all in Jersey. 
No currency nonsense. Everybody speaks English. Pretty good 
food. And this hotel - I'll write the name of this hotel down for 

Jersey is not France; nor are the Channel Islands the hills of 
Tuscany. I listened with unenraptured patience and with 
that glassiness of eye that, my friends tell me, draws down over 
my pupils whenever I grow dreamy or bored. 

'There. That's it. You can mention my name if you like - but 
the great thing is to get hold of this woman. The hostess there.' 

I am, I am bound to confess, afraid of hotels with hostesses. 

'I'd better write her name down too,' he said. 'Because she's 
the one. She'll do anything for you. You mustn't forget her. 
Mrs Jackson Parkington.' 

Over my eyes two little blinds of boredom had drawn them- 
selves down. Suddenly, with explosive revelation, they snapped 
up again. 

'What's she like?' I said. 

'Terrific,' he said. 'Blonde. Long hair. Early forties, I should 
say, but it's hard to tell. Figure of a young girl. Gorgeous 
dancer. Beautiful clothes. Easy with everybody. Able to talk to 
anybody, on any level, about anything, at any time.' 


'Sort of,' he said. 'Well, actually yes, I suppose. She was mar- 
ried to an American Air Force Colonel, they say, but it's all over 
now. Usual story. Divorced. Came out of it pretty comfortably, 
I understand. Just does the hostess thing for fun.' 

I tried to think of one or two more questions I might possibly 
ask about Bertha, but my friend swept me away in waves of 
greater eagerness, saying : 

'You go there. You'll never regret it. That's the way to make a 
hotel go - get a woman like that in. If there's anything she can 
possibly do to make you happy she will. Somehow she's got the 
knack of making everybody happy.' 

'I'll think about it,' I said. 

I did think about it; and for the first time there was, about 
Bertha, something I found not easy to forgive. It was not like 
Bertha to be pompous. Her body, her mind, her ways and her 

The Enchantress 393 

generosity were those of an enthralled innocence. I could not 
see her growing grand; I could not think of her, somehow, as 
rising too high in the world, half way as it were to being a 
duchess, calling herself Mrs Jackson Parkington. But it was a 
little thing; and I was glad, really, she was still making people 

It was another five years, nearly six, before I saw my Italian 
mountains, deep-fissured and burnt by late August heat, the 
lakes below them oiled in blue-rose calm, the little cream clus- 
tered towns melting like squat candles into the water, the pink 
and pale yellow oleanders blooming below the vines. 

Even this, after a few days, was too much for me. I found I 
could not sleep in the fierce, hot, mosquito nights of the lakeside 
and presently I moved to a village up a valley, half way to the 

In cooler exquisite mornings I walked about the rocks, stopped 
at little caffes for glasses of cold red wine and looked at 
the mountain flowers. In August there were not many flowers 
but sometimes on the paths, on the roads and outside the caffes 
little girls would be selling bunches of pink wild cyclamen, like 
small rosy butterflies, full of fragile loveliness before they 
drooped in the heat of noon. 

'But what flowers are they? Could you tell me what flowers 
they are?' 

At the corner of a mountain road I came, one morning, on a 
man and a woman buying bunches of the small pink cyclamen 
from a mute Italian child. 

'But don't you know what flowers they are?' The man spoke in 
Italian, the woman in English. As I passed them the man gave 
the child a hundred lire note, but she stepped back, still mute, 
black eyes wide, like a dog frightened. 'Are they violets?' the 
woman said. 'Don't you know?' 

In the white dust of the road the child started shuffling her 
bare feet. The woman opened her handbag, felt in it and started 
to offer the child another hundred lire note but suddenly the 
child, dropping her mouth with a cry, was away down the dust 
of the hillside. 

'Sweet/ the woman said. 'What a pity.' 

She closed her handbag. It was white, shaped like a little ele- 
gant drum. Her costume, of thinnest silk, was white too. Her 

394 The Enchantress 

shoes, earrings and necklace were also white and she was carry- 
ing white gloves in her hands. 

I turned from some four yards up the hillside. 

'The flowers are wild cyclamen/ I said. 

'Oh! really ?' she said. Thank you. How clever of you to 

The man, who was dressed in a thin Italian suit of lavender 
with darker stripings, raised a white hat in my direction. Under- 
neath it the head was handsome, distinguished and nuttily bald. 

'Cyclamen/ she said to him. 'Wild cyclamen/ 

'Ah! yes/ he said. 'Ah! yes. That is so. That is the word I 
was trying to think of/ He spoke now in English. 'Thank you, 

In a suspense I found I could not break with words I stood 
trying to take in the immaculate picture, all white and gold, 
the legs perfectly exquisite, the bosom firm and uplifted, the 
eyes of intensely clear, hyacinth brightness, of Bertha framed at 
the age of fifty against the mountainside. If from that distance 
she gave me any sign of recognition I did not detect it and 
presently, with a short wave of the hand, I turned and walked up 
the road. 

Ten seconds later a figure came panting up behind me. 

'Sir. Signor. It was most very kind of you to say the name of 
the flower. My wife is delighted. She thanks you very much/ 
He took off his hat again, revealing the sun-browned head, smiled 
in a distinguished way and shook hands. 'We are in the Hotel 
Savoia. By the bridge. If you have time will you take an aperitif 
with us, perhaps, this night?' 

'It's very kind of you/ I said, 'but I'm leaving this afternoon/ 

'Ah ! too bad/ he said. 'Too bad. Too much pity. If you should 
change your mind my name is Count Umberto Pinelli. Please 
ask for me/ 

He turned, lifted his hand and in a few seconds had joined her 
down the hillside. There, for a moment, she too lifted her hand. 

'Thank you so much ! ' she called. 'Very, very kind of you. I do 
appreciate it. I never know about flowers/ 

She smiled. Her hair shone with brilliance, with no trace of 
grey, against the fierce Italian sky. Her shoulders were as firm, 
sloping and impressive as the mountains. The cyclamen were 
pink and delicate in her hands. 

The Enchantress 395 

And since I was in Italy and since I could think, as I stood 
there remembering a gaunt, yellow-eyed, prematurely ageing 
woman feverishly treadling at a sewing machine, of no reason 
to do otherwise, I smiled back to her and bowed in answer. 

'Not at all,' I said. 'Enchanted.' 


Clara Corbett, who had dark brown deeply sunken eyes that did 
not move when she was spoken to and plain brown hair parted 
down the middle in a straight thin line, firmly believed that her 
life had been saved by an air warden's anti-gas cape on a black 
rainy night during the war. 

In a single glittering, dusty moment a bomb had blown her 
through the window of a warden's post, hurling her to the wet 
street outside. The wind from the bomb had miraculously blown 
the cape about her face, masking and protecting her eyes. When 
she had picked herself up, unhurt, she suddenly knew that it 
might have been her shroud. 

'Look slippy and get up to Mayfield Court. Six brace of part- 
ridges and two hares to pick up — ' 

'And on the way deliver them kidneys and the sirloin to Pax- 
ton Manor. Better call in sharp as you go out. They're having 
a lunch party.' 

Now, every rainy day of her life, she still wore the old camou- 
flaged cape as she drove the butcher's van, as if half fearing 
that some day, somewhere, another bomb would blow her 
through another window, helplessly and for ever. The crumpled 
patterns of green-and-yellow camouflage always made her look, 
in the rain, like a damp, baggy, meditating frog. 

Every day of his life, her husband, Clem, wore his bowler hat 
in the butcher's shop, doffing it obsequiously to special custom- 
ers, revealing a bald, yellow suet-shining head. Clem had a nar- 
row way of smiling and argued that war had killed the meat trade. 

Almost everyone else in that rather remote hilly country, where 
big woodlands were broken by open stretches of chalk heath- 
land covered with gorse and blackthorn and occasional yew 
trees, had given up delivering to outlying houses. It simply didn't 
pay. Only Clem Corbett, who doffed his hat caressingly to cus- 
tomers with one hand while leaving the thumb of his other on 
the shop scales a fraction of a second too long, thought it worth 
while any longer. 


Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 397 

'One day them people'll all come back. The people with class. 
Mark my words. The real gentry. They're the people you got to 
keep in with. The pheasant- and-partridge class. The real gentry. 
Not the sausage-and-scragenders. , 

Uncomplainingly, almost meekly, Clara drove out, every day, 
in the old delivery van with a basket or two in the back and an 
enamel tray with a few bloody, neatly-wrapped cuts of meat on 
it, into wooded, hilly countryside. Sometimes in winter, when 
the trees were thinned of leaves, the chimneys of empty houses, 
the mansions of the late gentry, rose starkly from behind deep 
thick beechwoods that were thrown like vast bearskins across the 
chalk. In summer the chalk flowered into a hill garden of wild 
yellow rock-rose, wild marjoram, and countless waving mauve 
scabious covered on hot afternoons with nervous darting butter- 

She drove into this countryside, winter and summer, camou- 
flaged always by the gas-cape on days of rain, without much 
change of expression. Her meek sunken eyes fixed themselves 
firmly on the winter woods, on the narrow lanes under prim- 
roses or drifts of snow, and on the chalk flowers of summer as if 
the seasons made no change in them at all. It was her job simply 
to deliver meat, to rap or ring at kitchen doors, to say good 
morning and thank you and then to depart in silence, camou- 
flaged, in the van. 

If she ever thought about the woods, about the blazing open 
chalkland in which wild strawberries sparkled, pure scarlet, in 
hot summers, or about the big desolate mansions standing empty 
among the beechwoods, she did not speak of it to a soul. If the 
mansions were on day to be opened up again, then they would, 
she supposed, be opened up. If people with money and class 
were to come back again, as Clem said they would, once more to 
order barons of beef and saddles of lamb and demand the choi- 
cest cuts of venison, then she supposed they would come back. 
That was all. 

In due course, if such things happened, she supposed Clem 
would know how to deal with them. Clem was experienced, 
capable and shrewd, a good butcher and a good business man. 
Clem knew how to deal with people of class. Clem, in the early 
days of business, had been used to supplying the finest of every- 
thing, as his father and grandfather had done before him, for 

398 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

house parties, shooting luncheons, ducal dinners, and regimental 
messes. The days of the gentry might, as Clem said, be under 
a temporary cloud. But finally, one day, class would surely 
triumph again and tradition would be back. The war might 
have half killed the meat trade, but it couldn't kill those people. 
They were there all the time, as Clem said, somewhere. They 
were the backbone, the real people, the gentry. 

'Didn't I tell you?' he said one day. 'Just like I told you. Bel- 
vedere's opening up. Somebody's bought Belvedere.' 

She knew about Belvedere. Belvedere was one of those houses, 
not large but long empty, whose chimneys rose starkly, like 
tombs, above the beechwoods of winter-time. For six years the 
army had carved its ashy, cindery name on Belvedere. 

'See, just like I told you,' Clem said two days later, 'the gentle- 
man from Belvedere just phoned up. The right people are coming 
back. We got an order from Belvedere.' 

By the time she drove up to Belvedere, later that morning, 
rain was falling heavily, sultrily warm, on the chalk flowers of 
the hillsides. She was wearing the old war-time cape, as she 
always did under rain, and in the van, on the enamel tray, at the 
back, lay portions of sweetbreads, tripe, and liver. 

High on the hills, a house of yellow stucco frontage, with thin 
iron balconies about the windows and green iron canopies above 
them, faced the valley. 

'Ah, the lady with the victuals! The lady with the viands. 
The lady from Corbett, eh?' A man of forty-five or fifty, in 
shirtsleeves, portly, wearing a blue-striped apron, his voice 
plummy and soft, answered her ring at the kitchen door. 

'Do come in. You are from Corbett, aren't you?' 

'I'm Mrs Corbett.' 

'How nice. Come in, Mrs Corbett, come in. Don't stand there. 
It's loathsome and you'll catch a death. Come in. Take off your 
cape. Have a cheese straw.' 

The rosy flesh of his face was smeared with flour dust. His 
fattish soft fingers were stuck about with shreds of dough. 

'You arrived in the nick, Mrs Corbett. I was about to hurl 
these wretched things into the stove, but now you can pass judg- 
ment on them for me.' 

With exuberance he suddenly put in front of her face a plate 
of fresh warm cheese straws. 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 399 

'Taste and tell me, Mrs Corbett. Taste and tell/ 

With shyness, more than usually meek, her deep brown eyes 
lowered, she took a cheese straw and started to bite on it. 

'Tell me/ he said, 'if it's utterly loathsome.' 

'It's very nice, sir.' 

'Be absolutely frank, Mrs Corbett,' he said. 'Absolutely frank. 
If they're too revolting say so.' 

'I think— ' 

'I tell you what, Mrs Corbett,' he said, 'they'll taste far nicer 
with a glass of sherry. That's it. We shall each have a glass of 
pale dry sherry and see how it marries with the cheese.' 

Between the sherry and the cheese straws and his own con- 
versation she found there was not much chance for her to speak. 
With bewilderment she watched him turn away, the cheese straws 
suddenly forgotten, to the kitchen table, a basin of flour, and a 
pastry board. 

With surprising delicacy he pressed with his fingers at the 
edges of thiri pastry lining a brown shallow dish. Beside it lay a 
pile of pink peeled mushrooms. 

'This I know is going to be delicious,' he said. 'This I am sure 
about. I adore cooking. Don't you ? ' 

Speechlessly she watched him turn to the stove and begin to 
melt butter in a saucepan. 

'Croiite aux champignons/ he said. 'A kind of mushroom 
pie. There are some things one knows one does well. This I 
love to do. It's delicious - you know it, of course, don't you ? 

'No, sir.' 

'Oh, don't call me sir, Mrs Corbett. My name is Lafarge. 
Henry Lafarge.' He turned to fill up his glass with sherry, at the 
same time fixing her with greyish bulbous eyes. 'Aren't you ter- 
ribly uncomfortable in that wretched mackintosh? Why don't 
you throw it off for a while?' 

The voice, though not unkindly, shocked her a little. She had 
never thought of the cape as wretched. It was a very essential, 
useful, hard-wearing garment. It served its purpose very well, 
and with fresh bewilderment she pushed it back from her 

'Do you think I'm a fool?' he said. 'I mean about this house? 
All my friends say I'm a fool. Of course it's in a ghastly state, one 

400 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

knows, but I think I can do things with it. Do you agree ? Do you 
think I'm a fool?' 

She could not answer. She felt herself suddenly preoccupied, 
painfully, with the old brown dress she was wearing under the 
gas-cape. With embarrassment she folded her hands across the 
front of it, unsuccessfully trying to conceal it from him. 

To her relief he was, however, staring at the rain. 'I think it's 
letting up at last/ he said. 'In which case I shall be able to show 
you the outside before you go, You simply must see the outside, 
Mrs Corbett. It's a ravishing wilderness. Ravishing to the point 
of being sort of almost Strawberry Hill. You know?' 

She did not know, and she stared again at her brown dress, 
frayed at the edges. 

Presently the rain slackened and stopped and only the great 
beeches overshadowing the house were dripping. The sauce for 
the croute aux champignons was almost ready, and Lafarge 
dipped a little finger into it and then thoughtfully licked it, star- 
ing at the same time at the dripping summer trees. 

Tm going to paint most of it myself/ he said. 'It's more fun, 
don't you think? More creative. I don't think we're half creative 
enough, do you? Stupid to allow menials and lackeys to do all 
the nicest things for us, don't you think?' 

Pouring sauce over the mushrooms, he fixed on her an inquir- 
ing, engaging smile that did not need an answer. 

'Now, Mrs Corbett, the outside. You must see the outside.' 

Automatically she began to draw on her cape. 

'I can't think why you cling to that wretched cape, Mrs Cor- 
bett/ he said. 'The very day war was over I had a simply glorious 
ceremonial bonfire of all those things.' 

In a cindery garden of old half-wild roses growing out of mat- 
ted tussocks of grass and nettle, trailed over by thick white horns 
of convolvulus, he showed her the southern front of the house 
with its rusty canopies above the windows and its delicate iron 
balconies entwined with blackberry and briar. 

'Of course at the moment the plaster looks frightfully leprous/ 
he said, 'but it'll be pink when I've done with it. The sort of pink 
you see in the Mediterranean. You know ? ' 

A Virginia creeper had enveloped with shining tendrilled greed 
the entire western wall of the house, descending from the roof in 
a dripping curtain of crimson-green. 


Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 401 

'The creeper is coming down this week/ he said. 'Ignore the 
creeper. , He waved soft pastry-white hands in the air, clasping 
and unclasping them. 'Imagine a rose there. A black one. An 
enormous deep red-black one. A hat rose. You know the sort?' 

Again she realised he did not need an answer. 

'The flowers will glow/ he said, 'like big glasses of dark red 
wine on a pink tablecloth. Doesn't that strike you as being abso- 
lute heaven on a summer's day?' 

Bemused, she stared at the tumbling skeins of creeper, at the 
rising regiments of sow-thistle, more than ever uncertain what to 
say. She began hastily to form a few words about it being time 
for her to go when he said : 'There was something else I had to 
say to you, Mrs Corbett, and now I can't think what it was. Ter- 
ribly important too. Momentously important.' 

A burst of sunshine falling suddenly on the wet wilderness, the 
rusting canopies and Clara's frog-like cape seemed abruptly to 
enlighten him. 'Ah - hearts/ he said. 'That was it.' 


'What's today? Tuesday. Thursday/ he said, 'I want you to 
bring me one of your nicest hearts.' 

'One of my hearts?' 

He laughed, again not unkindly. 'Bullock's/ he said. 

'Oh! Yes, I see.' 

'Did you know/ he said, 'that hearts taste like goose? Just like 
goose-flesh?' He stopped, laughed again, and actually touched 
her arm. 'No, no. That's wrong. Too rich. One can't say that. 
One can't say hearts like goose-flesh. Can one?' 

A stir of wind shook the beech boughs, bringing a spray of 
rain sliding down the long shafts of sunlight. 

'I serve them with cranberry sauce/ he said. 'With fresh peas 
and fresh new potatoes I defy anyone to tell the difference.' 

They were back now at the kitchen door, where she had left her 
husband's basket on the step. 

'We need more imagination, that's all/ he said. 'The despised 
heart is absolutely royal, I assure you, if you treat it properly — ' 

'I think I really must go now, Mr Lafarge/ she said, 'or I'll 
never get done. Do you want the heart early?' 

'No/ he said, 'afternoon will do. It's for a little evening sup- 
per party. Just a friend and I. Lots of parties, that's what I shall 
have. Lots of parties, little ones, piggy ones in the kitchen, first. 

402 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

Then one big one, an enormous house-warmer, a cracker, when 
the house is ready/ 

She picked up her basket, automatically drawing the cape 
round her shoulders and started to say, 'All right, sir. I'll be up 
in the afternoon — ' 

'Most kind of you, Mrs Corbett,' he said. 'Good-bye. So kind. 
But no "sir" - we're already friends. Just Lafarge.' 

'Good-bye, Mr Lafarge,' she said. 

She was halfway back to the van when he called, 'Oh, Mrs 
Corbett! If you get no answer at the door you'll probably find 
me decorating.' He waved soft, pastry-white hands in the direc- 
tion of the creeper, the canopies, and the rusting balconies. 'You 
know - up there.' 

When she came back to the house late on Thursday afternoon, 
not wearing her cape, the air was thick and sultry. All along the 
stark white fringes of chalk, under the beechwoods, yellow rock- 
roses flared in the sun. Across the valley hung a few high bland 
white clouds, delicate and far away. 

'The creeper came down with a thousand empty birds' nests,' 
Lafarge called from a balcony. 'A glorious mess.' 

Dressed in dark blue slacks, with yellow open shirt, blue silk 
muffler, and white panama, he waved towards her a pink-tipped 
whitewash brush. Behind him the wall, bare of creeper, was 
drying a thin blotting-paper pink in the sun. 

'I put the heart in the kitchen,' she said. 

Ignoring this, he made no remark about her cape, either. 'The 
stucco turned out to be in remarkably good condition,' he 
said. 'Tell me about the paint. You're the first to see it. Too 

'I think it's very nice.' 

'Be absolutely frank,' he said. 'Be as absolutely frank and criti- 
cal as you like, Mrs Corbett. Tell me exactly how it strikes you. 
Isn't it too dark?' 

'Perhaps it is a shade too dark.' 

'On the other hand one has to picture the rose against it,' he 
said. 'Do you know anyone who grows that wonderful black-red 
rose ? ' 

She stood staring up at him. 'I don't think I do.' 

'That's a pity,' he said, 'because if we had the rose one could 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 403 

judge the effect - However, I'm going to get some tea. Would 
you care for tea ? ' 

In the kitchen he made tea with slow, punctilious ritual care. 

'The Chinese way/ he said. 'First a very little water. Then a 
minute's wait. Then more water. Then another wait. And so on. 
Six minutes in all. The secret lies in the waits and the little drops 
of water. Try one of these. It's a sort of sourmilk tart I invented.' 

She sipped tea, munched pastry, and stared at the raw heart 
she had left in a dish on the kitchen table. 

'Awfully kind of you to stop and talk to me, Mrs Corbett,' he 
said. 'You're the first living soul I've spoken to since you were 
here on Tuesday.' 

Then, for the first time, she asked a question that had troubled 

'Do you live here all alone?' she said. 

'Absolutely, but when the house is done I shall have masses of 
parties. Masses of friends.' 

'It's rather a big house for one person.' 

'Come and see the rooms,' he said. 'Some of the rooms I had 
done before I moved in. My bedroom for instance. Come up- 

Upstairs a room in pigeon grey, with a deep green carpet and 
an open french window under a canopy, faced across the valley. 

He stepped out on the balcony, spreading enthusiastic hands. 

'Here I'm going to have big plants. Big plushy ones. Petunias. 
Blowzy ones. Begonias, fuchsias, and that sort of thing. Opulence 

He turned and looked at her. 'It's a pity we haven't got that 
big black rose.' 

'I used to wear a hat with a rose like that on it,' she said, 'but 
I never wear it now.' 

'How nice,' he said, and came back into the room, where sud- 
denly, for the second time, she felt the intolerable dreariness of 
her brown woollen dress. 

Nervously she put her hands in front of it again and said: 

'I think I ought to be going now, Mr Laf arge. Was there some- 
thing for the weekend?' 

'I haven't planned,' he said. 'I'll have to telephone.' 

He stood for a moment in the window, looking straight at her 
with a expression of sharp, arrested amazement. 

404 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

'Mrs Corbet*,' he said, 'I saw the most extraordinary effect 
just now. It was when I was on the ladder and we were talking 
about the rose. You were standing there looking up at me and 
your eyes were so dark that it looked as if you hadn't got any. 
They're the darkest eyes I've even seen. Didn't anyone ever tell 
you so ? ' 

No one, as she remembered it, had ever told her so. 

The following Saturday morning she arrived at the house 
with oxtail and kidneys. 'I shall have the kidneys with sauce 
madere' he said. 'And perhaps even flambes.' 

He was kneading a batch of small brown loaves on the kit- 
chen table, peppering them with poppy seeds, and he looked up 
from them to see her holding a brown-paper bag. 

'It's only the rose off my hat,' she said. 'I thought you might 
like to try — ' 

'Darling Mrs Corbett,' he said. 'You dear creature.' 

No one, as she remembered it, had ever called her darling be- 
fore. Nor could she ever remember being, for anyone, at any 
time, a dear creature. 

Some minutes later she was standing on the balcony outside 
his bedroom window, pressing the dark red rose from her hat 
against the fresh pink wall. He stood in the cindery wilderness 
below, making lively, rapturous gestures. 

'Delicious, my dear. Heavenly. You must see it. You simply 
must come down ! ' 

She went down, leaving the rose on the balcony. A few seconds 
later he was standing in her place while she stood in the garden 
below, staring up at the effect of her dark red rose against the 

'What do you feel ? ' he called. 

'It seems real,' she said. 'It seems to have come alive.' 

'Ah ! but imagine it in another summer,' he said. 'When it will 
be real. When there'll be lots of them, scores of them, blooming 

With extravagant hands he tossed the rose down to her from 
the balcony. Instinctively she lifted her own hands, trying to 
catch it. It fell instead into a forest of sow-thistle. 

He laughed, again not unkindly, and called, 'I'm so grateful, 
darling Mrs Corbett. I really can't tell you how grateful I am. 
You've been so thoughtful. You've got such taste.' 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 405 

With downcast eyes she picked the rose out of the mass of 
sow-thistle, not knowing what to say. 

Through a tender August, full of soft light that seemed to 
reflect back from dry chalky fields of oats and wheat and barley 
just below the hill, the derelict house grew prettily, all pink at 
first among the beeches. By September, Lafarge had begun work 
on the balconies, painting them a delicate seagull grey. Soon the 
canopies were grey, too, hanging like half sea-shells above the 
windows. The doors and windows became grey also, giving an 
effect of delicate lightness to the house against the background 
of arching, massive boughs. 

She watched these transformations almost from day to day 
as she delivered to Lafarge kidneys, tripe, liver, sweetbreads, 
calves' heads, calves' feet, and the hearts that he claimed were 
just like goose-flesh. 

'Offal/ he was repeatedly fond of telling her, 'is far too under- 
rated. People are altogether too superior about offal. The eternal 
joint is the curse. What could be more delicious than sweet- 
breads ? Or calf's head ? Or even chitterlings ? There is a German 
recipe for chitterlings, Mrs Corbett, that could make you think 
you were eating I don't know what -some celestial, melting 
manna. You must bring me chitterlings one day soon, Mrs Cor- 
bett dear.' 

'I have actually found the rose too,' he said one day with ex- 
citement. 'I have actually ordered it from a catalogue. It's called 
Chateau Clos de Vougeot and it's just like the rose on your hat. 
It's like a deep dark red burgundy.' 

All this time, now that the weather had settled into the rainless 
calm of late summer, she did not need to wear her cape. At the 
same time she did not think of discarding it. She thought only 
with uneasiness of the brown frayed dress and presently replaced 
it with another, dark blue, that she had worn as second-best for 
many years. 

By October, when the entire outside of the house had become 
transformed, she began to feel, in a way, that she was part of it. 
She had seen the curtains of creeper, with their thousand bird's 
nests, give way to clean pink stucco. The canopies had grown 
from bowls of rusty green tin to delicate half seashells and the 
balconies from mere paintless coops to pretty cages of seagull 
grey. As with the fields, the beechwoods, the yellow rock-roses 

406 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

running across the chalk and the changing seasons she had 
hardly any way of expressing what she felt about these things. 
She could simply say, 'Yes, Mr Lafarge, I think it's lovely. It's 
very nice, Mr Lafarge. It's sort of come alive.' 

'Largely because of you, dear,' he would say. 'You've inspired 
the thing. You've fed me with your delicious viands. You've 
helped. You've given opinions. You brought the rose for the 
wall. You've got such marvellous instinctive taste, Mrs Corbett 

Sometimes too he would refer again to her eyes, that were so 
dark and looked so straight ahead and hardly moved when spoken 
to. 'It's those wonderful eyes of yours, Mrs Corbett,' he would 
say. 'I think you have a simply marvellous eye.' 

By November the weather had broken up. In the shortening 
rainy days the beeches began to shed continuous golden-copper 
showers of leaves. Electric light had now been wired to the outer 
walls of the house, with concealed lamps beneath the balconies 
and windows. 

She did not see these lights switched on until a darkening 
afternoon in mid November, when Lafarge greeted her with an 
intense extravagance of excitement. 

'Mrs Corbett, my dear, I've had an absolute storm of inspira- 
tion. I'm going to have the house-warmer next Saturday. All my 
friends are coming and you and I have to talk of hearts and livers 
and delicious things of that sort and so on and so on. But that 
isn't really the point. Come outside, Mrs Corbett dear, come 

In the garden, under the dark, baring trees, he switched on 
the lights. 'There, darling ! ' 

Sensationally a burst of electric light gave to the pink walls and 
feather-grey canopies, doors, windows, balconies, a new, uplifting 
sense of transformation. She felt herself catch her breath. 

The house seemed to float for a moment against half-naked 
trees, in the darkening afternoon, and he said in that rapturously 
plummy voice of his, 'But that isn't all, dear, that isn't all. You 
see, the rose has arrived. It came this morning. And suddenly 
I had this wild surmise, this wonderful on-a-peak-in-Darien sort 
of thing. Can you guess?' 

She could not guess. 

'I'm going to plant it,' he said, 'at the party.' 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 407 

'Oh yes, that will be nice/ she said. 

'But that's not all, dear, that's not all/ he said. 'More yet. The 
true, the blushful has still to come. Can't you guess?' 

Once again she could not guess. 

'I want you to bring that rose of yours to the party/ he said. 
'We'll fix it to the tree. And then in the electric light, against 
the pink walls — ' 

She felt herself catch her breath again, almost frightened. 

'Me?' she said. 'At the party?' 

'Well, of course, darling. Of course.' 

'Mr Lafarge, I couldn't come to your party — ' 

'My dear/ he said, 'if you don't come to my party, I shall be 
for ever mortally, dismally, utterly offended.' 

She felt herself begin to tremble. 'But I couldn't, Mr Lafarge, 
not with all your friends — ' 

'Darling Mrs Corbett. You are my friend. There's no argu- 
ment about it. You'll come. You'll bring the rose. We'll fix it to 
the tree and it will be heaven. All my friends will be here. You'll 
love my friends.' 

She did not protest or even answer. In the brilliant electric 
light she stared with her dark diffident eyes at the pink walls of 
the house and felt as if she were under an arc-light, about to 
undergo an operation, naked, transfixed, and utterly helpless. 

It was raining when she drove up to the house on Saturday 
evening, wearing her cape and carrying the rose in a paper bag. 
But by the time she reached the hills she was able to stop the, 
windscreen-wipers on the van and presently the sky was pricked 
with stars. 

There were so many cars outside the house that she stood for 
some time outside, afraid to go in. During this time she was so 
nervous and preoccupied that she forgot that she was still wear- 
ing the cape. She remembered it only at the last moment, and 
then took it off and rolled it up and put it in the van. 

Standing in the kitchen, she could only think that the house 
was a cage, now full of gibbering monkeys. Bewildered, she stood 
staring at trays of glasses, rows of bottles, many dishes of decora- 
ted morsels of lobster, prawns, olives, nuts, and sausages. 

As she stood there a woman came in with a brassy voice, a 
long yellow cigarette holder, and a low neckline from which 

408 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

melon-like breasts protruded white and hard, and took a drink 
from a tray, swallowing it quickly before taking the entire tray 
back with her. 

'Just float in, dear. It's like a mill-race in there. You just go 
with the damn stream.' 

Cautiously Mrs Corbett stood by the door of the drawing- 
room, holding the rose in its paper bag and staring at the gib- 
bering, munching, sipping faces swimming before her in smoky 

It was twenty minutes before Lafarge, returning to the kit- 
chen for plates of food, accidentally found her standing there, 
transfixed with deep immobile eyes. 

'But darling Mrs Corbett! Where have you been? I've been 
telling everyone about you and you were not here. I want you to 
meet everyone. They've all heard about you. Everyone!' 

She found herself borne away among strange faces, mute and 

'Angela darling, I want you to meet Mrs Corbett. The most 
wonderful person. The dearest sweetie. I call her my heart 

A chestless girl with tow-coloured hair, cut low over her fore- 
head to a fringe, as with a basin, stared at her with large, hollow, 
unhealthy eyes. 'Is it true you're a heart specialist? Where do 
you practise?' 

Before Clara could answer a man with an orange tie, a black 
shirt and a stiff carrot beard came over and said, 'Good lord, 
what a mob. Where does Henry get them from? Let's whip off 
to the local. That woman Forbes is drooling as usual into every 

Excuseless, the girl with hollow eyes followed him away. 
Lafarge too had disappeared. 

'Haven't I seen you somewhere before? Haven't we met? I 
rather fancied we had.' A young man with prematurely receding, 
downy yellow hair and uncertain reddish eyes, looking like a 
stoat, sucked at a glass, smoked a cigarette, and held her in a 
quivering, fragile stare. 

'Known Henry long? Doesn't change much, does he? How's 
the thing getting on? The opus, I mean. The great work. He'll 
never finish it, of course. Henry's sort never do.' 

It was some time before she realised what was wrong with the 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 409 

fragile uncertain eyes. The young man spilt the contents of his 
glass over his hands, his coat, and his thin, yellow snake of a tie. 
He moved away with abrupt unsteadiness and she heard a crash 
of glass against a chair. It passed unnoticed, as if a pin had 

Presently she was overwhelmed by hoglike snorts of laughter 
followed by giggling, and someone said, 'What's all this about a 
rose? , 

'God knows.' 

'Some gag of Henry's.' 

A large man in tweeds of rope-like thickness stood with feet 
apart, laughing his hoglike laugh. Occasionally he steadied him- 
self as he drank and now and then thrust his free hand under a 
heavy shirt of black-and-yellow check, scratching the hairs on 
his chest. 

Drinking swiftly, he started to whisper, 'What's all this about 
Henry and the grocer's wife? They say she's up here every hour 
of the day.' 

'Good lord, Henry and what wife?' 

'Grocer's, I thought - 1 don't know. You mean you haven't 

'Good lord, no. Can't be. Henry and girls?' 

'No? You don't think so?' 

'Can't believe it. Not Henry. He'd run from a female fly.' 

'All females are fly.' 

Again, at this remark, there were heavy, engulfing guffaws of 

'Possible, I suppose, possible. One way of getting the custom.' 

She stood in a maze, only half hearing, only half awake. 
Splinters of conversation sent crackling past her bewildered 
face like scraps of flying glass. 

'Anybody know where the polly is? Get me a drink while I'm 
gone, dear. Gin. Not sherry. The sherry's filthy.' 

'Probably bought from the grocer.' 

Leaning against the mantelpiece, a long arm extended, ash 
dropping greyly and seedily down her breast, the lady with the 
yellow cigarette holder was heard, with a delicate hiss, to accuse 
someone of bitchiness. 

'But then we're all bitches, aren't we,' she said, 'more or less? 
But she especially.' 

410 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

'Did she ever invite you? She gets you to make up a number 
for dinner and when you get there a chap appears on the door- 
step and says they don't need you any more. Yes, actually ! ' 

'She's a swab. Well, poor Alex, he knows it now.' 

'That's the trouble, of course - when you do know, it's always 
too bloody late to matter.' 

Everywhere the air seemed to smoke with continuous white 
explosions. Soon Clara started to move away and found herself 
facing a flushed eager Lafarge, who in turn was pushing past a 
heavy woman in black trousers, with the jowls of a bloodhound 
and bright blonde hair neatly brushed back and oiled, like a man. 

'There you are, Mrs Corbett. You've no drink. Nothing to eat. 
You haven't met anybody.' 

A man was edging past her and Lafarge seized him by the 

'Siegfried. Mrs Corbett, this is my friend Siegfried Pascoe. 
Siegfried, dear fellow, hold her hand. Befriend her while I get 
her a drink. It's our dear Mrs Corbett, Siegfried, of heart fame.' 
He squeezed Mrs Corbett's arm, laughing. 'His mother called 
him Siegfried because she had a Wagner complex,' he said. 'Don't 
move ! ' 

An object like an unfledged bird, warm and boneless, slid into 
her hand. Limply it slid out again and she looked up to see a 
plump creaseless moon of a face, babyish, almost pure white 
under carefully curled brown hair, staring down at her with 
pettish, struggling timidity. A moment later, in a void, she heard 
the Pascoe voice attempting to frame its syllables like a little 
fussy machine misfiring, the lips loose and puffy. 

'What do you f-f-f-feel about Eliot?' it said. 

She could not answer; she could think of no one she knew by 
the name of Eliot. 

To her relief Lafarge came back, bearing a glass of sherry and 
a plate on which were delicate slices of meat rolled up and filled 
with wine-red jelly. 'This,' he told her, 'is the heart. Yes, your 
heart, Mrs Corbett. The common old heart. Taste it, dear. Take 
the fork. Taste it and see if it isn't absolute manna. I'll hold the 

She ate the cold heart. Cranberry sauce squeezed itself from 
the rolls of meat and ran down her chin and just in time she 
caught it with a fork. 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 411 

The heart, she thought, tasted not at all unlike heart and in 
confusion she heard Lafarge inquire, 'Delicious ?' 

'Very nice.' 

'Splendid. So glad— ' 

With a curious unapologetic burst of indifference he turned 
on his heel and walked away. Five seconds later he was back 
again, saying, 'Siegfried, dear boy, we shall do the rose in five 
minutes. Could you muster the spade? It's stopped raining. We'll 
fling the doors open, switch on the lights, and make a dramatic 
thing of it. Everybody will pour forth — ' 

He disappeared a second time into the mass of gibbering faces, 
taking with him her glass of sherry, and when she turned her 
eyes she saw that Siegfried Pascoe too had gone. 

'What on earth has possessed Henry? They say she's the 
butcher's wife. Not grocer's after all.' 

'Oh, it's a gag, dear. You know how they hot things up. It's a 


She set her plate at last on a table and began to pick her way 
through the crush of drinkers, seeking the kitchen. To her great 
relief there was no one there. Suddenly tired, hopelessly bewil- 
dered and sick, she sat down on a chair, facing a wreckage of 
half-chewed vol-au-vents, canapes, salted biscuits and cold eyes 
of decorated egg. The noise from the big drawing-room increased 
like the hoarse and nervous clamour rising from people who, 
trapped, lost, and unable to find their way, were fighting madly 
to be free. 

Out of it all leapt a sudden collective gasp, as if gates had been 
burst open and the trapped, lost ones could now mercifully find 
their way. In reality it was a gasp of surprise as Lafarge switched 
on the outside lights, and she heard it presently followed by a 
rush of feet as people shuffled outwards into the rainless garden 

Not moving, she sat alone at the kitchen table, clutching the 
rose in the paper bag. From the garden she heard laughter burst- 
ing in excited taunting waves. A wag shouted in a loud voice, 
'Forward the grave-diggers ! On with the spade-work ! ' and there 
were fresh claps of caterwauling laughter. 

From it all sprang the sudden petulant voice of Lafarge, like 
a child crying for a toy, 'The rose ! On, my dear, the rose ! Where 
is the rose? We can't do it without the rose.' 

412 Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 

Automatically she got up from the table. Even before she 
heard Lafarge's voice, nearer now, calling her name, she was 
already walking across the emptied drawing-room, towards the 
open f rench windows, with the paper bag. 

'Mrs Corbett! Mrs Corbett! Oh, there you are, dear. Where 
did you get to ? What a relief - and oh, you poppet, you've got 
the rose/ 

She was hardly aware that he was taking her by the hand. 
She was hardly aware, as she stepped into the blinding white 
light of electric lamps placed about the bright pink walls, that he 
was saying, 'Oh, but Mrs Corbett, you must. After all, it's your 
rose, dear. I insist. It's all part of the thing. It's the nicest part 
of the thing — ' 

Vaguely she became aware that the rose tree, spreading five 
fanlike branches, was already in its place by the wall. 

'Just tie it on, dear. Here's the ribbon. I managed to get exactly 
the right-coloured ribbon.' 

From behind her, as she stood under the naked light, tying the 
rose to the tree, she was assailed by voices in chattering boister- 
ous acclamation. A few people actually clapped their hands and 
there were sudden trumpeted bursts of laughter as the wag who 
had shouted of grave-diggers suddenly shouted again, 'Damn it 
all, Henry, give her a kiss. Kiss the lady ! Be fair.' 

'Kiss her ! ' everyone started shouting. 'Kiss her. Kiss ! Kiss, 
Henry ! Kiss, kiss ! ' 

'Pour encourager les autresV the wag shouted. 'Free demon- 

After a sudden burst of harsh, jovial catcalls she turned her 
face away, again feeling utterly naked and transfixed under the 
stark white lights. A second later she felt Lafarge's lips brush 
clumsily, plummily across her own. 

Everyone responded to this with loud bursts of cheers. 

'Ceremony over!' Lafarge called out. He staggered uncer- 
tainly, beckoning his guests housewards. 'Everybody back to the 
flesh-pots. Back to the grain and grape.' 

'Henry's tight,' somebody said. 'What fun. Great, the kissing. 
Going to be a good party.' 

She stood for some time alone in the garden, holding the empty 
paper bag. In an unexpected moment the lights on the pink walls 
were extinguished, leaving only the light from windows shining 

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 413 

across the grass outside. She stood for a few moments longer 
and then groped to the wall, untied the rose and put it back in 
the paper bag. 

Driving away down the hillside, she stopped the van at last 
and drew it into a gateway simply because she could think of no 
other way of calming the trembling in her hands. She stood for 
a long time clutching the side of the van. In confusion she 
thought of the rose on the wall, of hearts that were like goose- 
flesh, and of how, as Clem said, the gentry would come back. 
Then she took her cape and the paper bag with its rose out of 
the van. 

When she had dropped the paper bag and the rose into the 
ditch she slowly pulled on the old cape and started to cry. As 
she cried she drew the cape over her head, as if afraid that some- 
one would see her crying there, and then buried her face in it, 
as into a shroud. 


Colonel Grade, who had decided to boil himself two new-laid 
eggs for lunch, came into the kitchen from the garden and laid 
his panama hat on top of the stove, put the eggs into it and then, 
after some moments of blissful concentration, looked inside to 
see if they were cooking. 

Presently he sensed that something was vaguely wrong about 
all this and began to search for a saucepan. Having found it, a 
small blue enamel one much blackened by fire, he gazed at it 
with intent inquiry for some moments, half made a gesture as 
if to put it on his head and then decided to drop the eggs into it, 
without benefit of water. In the course of doing this he twice 
dipped the sleeve of his white duck jacket into a dish of raspberry 
jam, originally put out on the kitchen table for breakfast. The 
jam dish was in fact a candlestick, in pewter, the candle part of 
which had broken away. 

Soon the Colonel, in the process of making himself some toast, 
found himself wondering what day it was. He couldn't be sure. 
He had recently given up taking The Times and it was this that 
made things difficult. He knew the month was July, although 
the calendar hanging by the side of the stove actually said it was 
September, but that of course didn't help much about the day. 
He guessed it might be Tuesday; but you never really knew when 
you lived alone. Still, it helped sometimes to know whether it 
was Tuesday or Sunday, just in case he ran short of tobacco 
and walked all the way to the village shop only to find it closed. 

Was it Tuesday? The days were normally fixed quite clearly 
in his mind by a system of colouration. Tuesday was a most 
distinct shade of raspberry rose. Thursday was brown and Sun- 
day a pleasant yellow, that particularly bright gold you got in 
sunflowers. Today seemed, he thought, rather a dark green, much 
more like a Wednesday. It was most important to differentiate, 
because if it were really Wednesday it would be not the slightest 
use his walking down to the shop to get stamps after lunch, since 
Wednesday was early closing day. 


Where the Cloud Breaks 415 

There was nothing for it, he told himself, but to semaphore his 
friend Miss Wilkinson. With a piece of toast in his hand he set 
about finding his signalling flags, which he always kept in a cup- 
board under the stairs. As he stooped to unlatch the cupboard 
door a skein of onions left over from the previous winter 
dropped from a fragile string on the wall and fell on his neck 
without alarming him visibly. 

One of the flags was bright yellow, the other an agreeable 
shade of chicory blue. Experience had shown that these two 
colours showed up far better than all others against the sur- 
rounding landscape of lush chestnut copse and woodland. They 
were clearly visible for a good half mile. 

In the army, from which he was now long retired, signalling 
had been the Colonel's special pigeon. He had helped to train 
a considerable number of men with extreme proficiency. Miss 
Wilkinson, who was sixty, wasn't of course quite so apt a pupil 
as a soldier in his prime, but she had nevertheless been overjoyed 
to learn what was not altogether a difficult art. It had been the 
greatest fun for them both; it had whiled away an enormous 
number of lonely hours. 

For the past five weeks Miss Wilkinson had been away, staying 
on the south coast with a sister, and the Colonel had missed her 
greatly. Not only had there been no one to whom he could signal 
his questions, doubts and thoughts; he had never really been 
quite sure, all that time, what day it was. 

After now having had the remarkable presence of mind to put 
an inch or two of water into the egg saucepan the Colonel set 
out with the flags to walk to the bottom of the garden, which 
sloped fairly steeply to its southern boundary, a three foot hedge 
of hawthorn. Along the hedge thirty or forty gigantic heads of 
sunflower were in full flower, the huge faces staring like yellow 
guardians across the three sloping open meadows that lay be- 
tween the Colonel and Miss Wilkinson, who lived in a small 
white weatherboard house down on the edge of a narrow stream. 
Sometimes after torrential winter rains the little stream rose with 
devastating rapidity, flooding Miss Wilkinson, so that the Colo- 
nel had to be there at the double, to bale her out. 

In the centre of the hedge was a stile and the Colonel, who 
in his crumpled suit of white duck looked something like a cadav- 
erous baker out of work, now stood up on it and blew three sharp 

416 Where the Cloud Breaks 

blasts on a whistle. This was the signal to fetch Miss Wilkinson 
from the kitchen, the greenhouse, the potting shed, or wherever 
she happened to be. The system of whistle and flag suited both 
the Colonel and Miss Wilkinson admirably, the Colonel because 
he hated the telephone so much and Miss Wilkinson because 
she couldn't afford to have the instrument installed. For the 
same reasons neither of them owned either television or radio, 
the Colonel having laid it down in expressly severe terms, almost 
as if in holy writ, that he would not only never have such anti- 
social devices in the house but that they were also, in a sense, 
degenerate : if not immoral. 

Miss Wilkinson having appeared in her garden in a large 
pink sun hat and a loose summery blue dress with flowers all 
over it, the Colonel addressed her by smartly raising his yellow 
flag. Miss Wilkinson replied by promptly raising her blue one. 
This meant that they were receiving each other loud and clear. 

The day in fact was so beautifully clear that the Colonel could 
actually not only see Miss Wilkinson in detail as she stood on 
the small wooden bridge that spanned the stream but he could 
also pick out slender spires of purple loosestrife among the many 
tall reeds that lined the banks like dark green swords. Both he 
and Miss Wilkinson, among their many other things in common, 
were crazy about flowers. 

Having given himself another moment to get into correct 
position, the Colonel presently signalled to Miss Wilkinson that 
he was frightfully sorry to trouble her but would she very much 
mind telling him what day it was ? 

To his infinite astonishment Miss Wilkinson signalled back 
that it was Thursday and, as if determined to leave no doubt 
about it, added that it was also August the second. 

August? the Colonel replied. He was much surprised. He 
thought it was July. 

No, no, it was August, Miss Wilkinson told him. Thursday 
the second - the day he was coming to tea. 

The Colonel had spent the morning since ten o'clock in a rush 
of perspiring industry, cleaning out the hens. The fact that he 
was going to tea with Miss Wilkinson had, like the precise date 
and month, somehow slipped his mind. 

'You hadn't forgotten, had you?' 

'Oh ! no, no, I hadn't forgotten. Had an awfully long morning, 

Where the Cloud Breaks 417 

that's all. Would you mind telling me what time it is now?' 

In the clear summer air the Colonel could distinctly see the 
movement of Miss Wilkinson's arm as she raised it to look at her 
watch. He himself never wore a watch. Though altogether less 
pernicious than telephone, television and radio, a watch never- 
theless belonged, in his estimation, to that category of inventions 
that one could well do without. 

'Ten to four.' 

Good God, the Colonel thought, now struck by the sudden 
realisation that he hadn't had lunch yet. 

'I was expecting you in about ten minutes. It's so lovely I 
thought we'd have tea outside. Under the willow tree.' 

Admirable idea, the Colonel thought, without signalling it. 
What, by the way, had he done with the eggs? Were they on 
the boil or not? He couldn't for the life of him remember. 

'Do you wish any eggs?' he asked. 'I have heaps.' 

'No, thank you all the same. I have some.' It might have been 
a laugh or merely a bird-cry that the Colonel heard coming across 
the meadows. 'Don't be too long. I have a surprise for you.' 

As he hurried back to the house the Colonel wondered, in 
a dreamy sort of way, what kind of surprise Miss Wilkinson 
could possibly have for him and as he wondered he felt a sort of 
whisper travel across his heart. It was the sort of tremor he often 
experienced when he was on the way to see her or when he looked 
at the nape of her neck or when she spoke to him in some 
specially direct or unexpected sort of way. He would like to have 
put this feeling into words of some kind - signalling was child's 
play by comparison - but he was both too inarticulate and too 
shy to do so. 

Half an hour later, after walking down through the meadows, 
he fully expected to see Miss Wilkinson waiting for him on the 
bank of the stream under the willow-tree, where the tea-table, 
cool with lace cloth, was already laid. But there was no sign of 
her there or in the greenhouse, where cucumbers were growing 
on humid vines, or in the kitchen. 

Then, to his great surprise, he heard her voice calling him 
from some distance off and a moment later he saw her twenty 
yards or so away, paddling in the stream. 

'Just remembered I'd seen a bed of watercress yesterday and I 
thought how nice it would be. Beautifully cool, the water.' 

418 Where the Cloud Breaks 

As he watched her approaching, legs bare and white above 
emerald skim of water-weed, the Colonel again experienced the 
tremor that circumvented his heart like a whisper. This time it 
was actually touched with pain and there was nothing he could 

'Last year there was a bed much farther upstream. But I sup- 
pose the seeds get carried down/ 

Miss Wilkinson was fair and pink, almost cherubic, her voice 
jolly. A dew-lap rather like those seen in ageing dogs hung flop- 
pily down on the collar of her cream shantung dress, giving her 
a look of obese friendliness and charm. 

'The kettle's on already/ she said. 'Sit yourself down while I 
go in and get my feet dried/ 

The Colonel, watching her white feet half-running, half- 
trotting across the lawn, thought again of the surprise she had in 
store for him and wondered if paddling in the stream was it. No 
other, he thought, could have had a sharper effect on him. 

When she came back, carrying a silver hot water jug and tea- 
pot, she laughed quite gaily in reply to his query about the sur- 
prise. No : it wasn't paddling in the stream. And she was afraid 
he would have to wait until after tea before she could tell him, 

'Oh ! how stupid of me/ she said, abruptly pausing in the act 
of pouring tea, 'I've gone and forgotten the watercress.' 

'I'll get it, I'll get it/ the Colonel said, at once leaping up to go 
into the house. 

'Oh! no, you don't/ she said. 'Not on your life. My surprise 
is in there.' 

Later, drinking tea and munching brown bread and butter 
and cool sprigs cf watercress dipped in salt, the Colonel found 
it impossible to dwell on the question of the surprise without 
uneasiness. In an effort to take his mind off the subject he re- 
marked on how good the sunflowers were this year and what a 
fine crop of seeds there would be. He fed them to the hens. 

'I think it's the sunflowers that give the eggs that deep brown 
colour/ he said. 

'You do?' she said. 'By the way did you like the pie I made for 


With silent distress the Colonel recalled a pie of morello cher- 

Where the Cloud Breaks 419 

ries, baked and bestowed on him the day before yesterday. He 
had put it into the larder and had forgotten that too. 

'It was delicious. I'm saving half of it for supper.' 

Miss Wilkinson, looking at him rather as dogs sometimes look, 
head sideways, with a meditative glint in her eye, asked suddenly 
what he had had for lunch ? Not eggs again ? 

'Eggs are so easy.' 

Tve told you before. You can't live on eggs all the time/ she 
said. Tve been making pork brawn this morning. Would you 
care for some of that ? ' 

'Yes, I would. Thank you. I would indeed.' 

From these trivial discussions on food it seemed to the 
Colonel that a curious and elusive sense of intimacy sprang up. 
It was difficult to define but it was almost as if either he or Miss 
Wilkinson had proposed to each other and had been, in spirit at 
least, accepted. 

This made him so uneasy again that he suddenly said : 

'By the way, I don't think I told you. I've given up The 

'Oh! really. Isn't that rather rash?' 

'I don't think so. I'd been considering it for some time actually. 
You see, one is so busy with the hens and the garden and all that 
sort of thing that quite often one gets no time to read until ten 
o'clock. Which is absurd. I thought that from time to time I 
might perhaps borrow yours ? ' 

'Of course.' 

The Colonel, thinking that perhaps he was talking too much, 
sat silent. How pretty the stream looked, he thought. The purple 
loosestrife had such dignity by the waterside. He must go fishing 
again one day. The stream held a few trout and in the deeper 
pools there were chub. 

'Are you quite sure you won't feel lost without a paper? I 
think I should.' 

'No, no. I don't think so. One gets surfeited anyway with these 
wretched conferences and ministerial comings and goings and 
world tension and so on. One wants to be away from it all.' 

'One mustn't run away from life, nevertheless.' 

Life was what you made it, the Colonel pointed out. He pre- 
ferred it as much as possible untrammelled. 

Accepting Miss Wilkinson's offer of a third cup of tea and 

420 Where the Cloud Breaks 

another plate of the delicious watercress he suddenly realised 
that he was ravenously hungry. There was a round plum cake 
on the table and his eye kept wandering back to it with the poig- 
nant voracity of a boy after a game of football. After a time 
Miss Wilkinson noticed this and started to cut the cake in readi- 

'I'm thinking of going fishing again very soon/ the Colonel said. 
'If I bag a trout or two perhaps you might care to join me for 
supper ? ' 

'I should absolutely love to.' 

It was remarks of such direct intimacy, delivered in a moist, 
jolly voice, that had the Colonel's heart in its curious whispering 
state again. In silence he contemplated the almost too pleasant 
prospect of having Miss Wilkinson to supper. He would try his 
best to cook the trout nicely, in butter, and not burn them. Per- 
haps he would also be able to manage a glass of wine. 

'I have a beautiful white delphinium in bloom/ Miss Wilkinson 
said. 'I want to show it you after tea.' 

'That isn't the surprise ? ' 

Miss Wilkinson laughed with almost incautious jollity. 

'You must forget all about the surprise. You're like a small 
boy who can't wait for Christmas.' 

The Colonel apologised for what seemed to be impatience and 
then followed this with a second apology, saying he was sorry 
he'd forgotten to ask Miss Wilkinson if she had enjoyed the long 
visit to her sister. 

'Oh ! splendidly. It really did me the world of good. One gets 
sort of ham-strung by one's habits, don't you think? It's good 
to get away.' 

To the Colonel her long absence had seemed exactly the oppo- 
site. He would like to have told her how much he had missed 
her. Instead something made him say : 

'I picked up a dead gold-finch in the garden this morning. 
It had fallen among the sea kale. Its yellow wing was open on one 
of the grey leaves and I thought it was a flower.' 

'The cat, I suppose ? ' 

'No, no. There was no sign of violence at all.' 

Away downstream a dove cooed, breaking and yet deepening 
all the drowsiness of the summer afternoon. What did one want 
with world affairs, presidential speeches, threats of war and all 

Where the Cloud Breaks 421 

those things? the Colonel wondered. What had newspapers ever 
given to the world that could be compared with that one sound, 
the solo voice of the dove by the waterside? 

'No, no. No more tea, thank you. Perhaps another piece of 
cake, yes. That's excellent, thank you.' 

The last crumb of cake having been consumed, the Colonel 
followed Miss Wilkinson into the flower garden to look at the 
white delphinium. It's snowy grace filled him with an almost 
ethereal sense of calm. He couldn't have been, he thought, more 

'Very beautiful. Most beautiful.' 

'I'm going to divide it in the spring,' Miss Wilkinson said, 'and 
give you a piece.' 

After a single murmur of acceptance for this blessing the 
Colonel remained for some moments speechless, another tremor 
travelling round his heart, this time like the quivering of a tight- 
ened wire. 

'Well now,' Miss Wilkinson said, 'I think I might let you see 
the surprise if you're ready.' 

He was not only ready but even eager, the Colonel thought. 

'I'll lead the way,' Miss Wilkinson said. 

She led the way into the sitting room, which was beautifully 
cool and full of the scent of small red carnations. The Colonel, 
who was not even conscious of being a hopelessly untidy person 
himself, nevertheless was always struck by the pervading neat- 
ness, the laundered freshness, of all parts of Miss Wilkinson's 
house. It was like a little chintz holy-of-holies, always embalmed, 
always the same. 

'Well, what do you say? There it is.' 

The Colonel, with customary blissful absent-mindedness, 
stared about the room without being able to note that anything 
had changed since his last visit there. 

'I must say I don't really see anything in the nature of a sur- 

'Oh! you do. Don't be silly.' 

No, the Colonel had to confess, there was nothing he could 
see. It was all exactly as he had seen it the last time. 

'Over there. In the corner. Of course it's rather a small one. 
Not as big as my sister's.' 

It slowly began to reach the blissfully preoccupied cloisters 

422 Where the Cloud Breaks 

of the Colonel's mind that he was gazing at a television set. A 
cramping chill went round his heart. For a few unblissful mo- 
ments he stared hard in front of him, tormented by a sense of 
being unfairly trapped, with nothing to say. 

'My sister gave it to me. She's just bought herself a new one. 
You see you get so little allowed for an old one in part exchange 
that it's hardly worth — ' 

'You mean you've actually got it permanently ? ' 

'Why, yes. Of course.' 

The Colonel found himself speaking with a voice so constricted 
that it seemed almost to be disembodied. 

'But I always thought you hated those things.' 

'Well, I suppose there comes a day. I must say it was a bit of 
a revelation at my sister's. Some of the things one saw were ab- 
sorbing. For instance there was a programme about a remote 
Indian tribe in the forests of South America that I found quite 
marvellous.' The Colonel was stiff, remote-eyed, as if not listen- 
ing. 'This tribe was in complete decay. It was actually dying out, 
corrupted — ' 

'Corrupted by what? By civilisation my guess would be.' 

'As a matter of fact they were. For one thing they die like 
flies from measles.' 

'Naturally. That,' the Colonel said, 'is what I am always trying 
to say.' 

'Yes, but there are other viewpoints. One comes to realise that.' 

'The parallel seems to me to be an exact one,' the Colonel said. 

'I'm afraid I can't agree.' 

There was now a certain chill, almost an iciness, in the air. 
The ethereal calm of the afternoon, its emblem the white del- 
phinium, seemed splintered and blackened. The Colonel, though 
feeling that Miss Wilkinson had acted in some way like a traitor, 
at the same time had no way of saying so. It was all so callous, 
he thought, so shockingly out of character. He managed to blurt 

'I really didn't think you'd come down to this.' 

'I didn't come down to it, as you so candidly put it. It was 
simply a gift from my sister. You talk about it as if I'd started 
taking some sort of horrible drug.' 

'In a sense you have.' 

'I'm afraid I disagree again.' 

Where the Cloud Breaks 423 

'All these things are drugs. Cinemas, radio, television, tele- 
phone, even newspapers. That's really why Fve given up The 
Times. I thought we always agreed on that?' 

'We may have done. At one time. Now we'll have to agree to 

'Very well.' 

A hard lump rose in the Colonel's throat and stuck there. A 
miserable sense of impotence seized him and kept him stiff, with 
nothing more to say. 

'I might have shown you a few minutes of it and converted 
you,' Miss Wilkinson said. 'But the aerial isn't up yet. It's com- 
ing this evening.' 

'I don't think I want to be converted, thank you.' 

'I hoped you'd like it and perhaps come down in the evenings 
sometimes and watch.' 

'Thank you, I shall be perfectly happy in my own way.' 

'Very well. I'm sorry you're so stubborn about it.' 

The Colonel was about to say with acidity that he was not 
stubborn and then changed his mind and said curtly that he 
must go. After a painful silence Miss Wilkinson said : 

'Well, if you must I'll get the pork brawn.' 

'I don't think I care for the pork brawn, thank you.' 

'Just as you like.' 

At the door of the sitting room the Colonel paused, if anything 
stiffer than ever, and remarked that if there was something he 
particularly wanted he would signal her. 

'I shan't be answering any signals,' Miss Wilkinson said. 

'You won't be answering any signals?' 

An agony of disbelief went twisting through the Colonel, im- 
posing on him a momentary paralysis. He could only stare. 

'No : I shan't be answering any signals.' 

'Does that mean you won't be speaking to me again?' 

'I didn't say that.' 

'I think it rather sounds like that.' 

'Then you must go on thinking it sounds like that, that's all.' 

It was exactly as if Miss Wilkinson had slapped him harshly 
in the face; it was precisely as if he had proposed and been rudely 

'Good-bye,' he said in a cold and impotent voice. 

'Good-bye,' she said. 'I'll see you out.' 

424 Where the Cloud Breaks 

'There's no need to see me out, thank you. I'll find my way 

Back in his own kitchen the Colonel discovered that the eggs 
had boiled black in the saucepan. He had forgotten to close the 
door of the stove. Brown smoke was hanging everywhere. Trying 
absentmindedly to clear up the mess he twice put his sleeve in 
the jam dish without noticing it and then wiped his sleeve across 
the tablecloth, uncleared since breakfast-time. 

In the garden the dead gold-finch still lay on the silvery leaf 
of sea kale and he stood staring at it for a long time, stiff-eyed 
and impotent, unable to think one coherent simple thought. 

Finally he went back to the house, took out the signalling 
flags and went over to the stile. Standing on it, he gave three 
difficult blasts on the whistle but nothing happened in answer 
except that one of two men standing on the roof of Miss Wilkin- 
son's house, erecting the television aerial, casually turned his 

Then he decided to send a signal. The three words he wanted 
so much to send were 'Please forgive me' but after some moments 
of contemplation he found that he had neither the heart nor the 
will to raise a flag. 

Instead he simply stood immovable by the stile, staring across 
the meadows in the evening sun. His eyes were blank. They 
seemed to be groping in immeasurable appeal for something and 
as if in answer to it the long row of great yellow sunflower faces, 
the seeds of which were so excellent for the hens, stared back at 
him, in that wide, laughing, almost mocking way that sunflowers 


'I often wonder if you couldn't do it by holding your breath for 
five minutes/ the girl said. 'I suppose that would be the most 
painless way/ 

For some distance inland, in places unprotected by the sea- 
white shoulders of long sand-dunes, the shore had invaded the 
golf-course, giving wide stretches of it a sandy baldness from 
which hungry spears of grass sprang wirily, like greyish yellow 

In other places the winds of old winters had thrown up peb- 
bles, some grey, some brown, some like mauve oval cakes of 
soap, but most of them pure chalk white, water- smoothed to 
the perfection of eggs laid in casual clutches by long-vanished 

It was somewhere among the eggs that Phillips had lost his 
golf ball. He was always losing one there. They were so damn 
difficult to see and when it happened over and over again it was 
enough to drive you mad. 

'They're so hellishly expensive too/ he said. That was why 
he had come back to search for the second time through the 
summer evening, after almost everyone else was either cheer- 
fully gathered in the club-house or had long since gone home. 
'I mean it makes the whole thing — ' 

'When did you lose it?' 

'This morning. About half-past eleven. Of course I couldn't 
stop then. Still playing. I suppose you weren't here about that 
time, were you ? ' 

'I've been here all day.' 

'I mean I suppose you didn't see or hear anything about that 
time? I wondered if you might perhaps have — ' 

'Not a sound.' 

Every Sunday morning he played eighteen holes with the same 
three fellows: Robinson, Chalmers and Forbes. He supposed 
they had played like that for ten, perhaps twelve years, at any 
rate ever since the war, except when they played in competitions, 


426 Lost Ball 

when of course they were paired with other people and it wasn't 
quite the same. 

'You couldn't have hit it into the sea, could you?' she said. 

He looked at her sharply. She was still lying exactly where 
he had first stumbled across her and in the same position : curved 
and reclined pale bare arms clasped at the back of her brown 
hair, her entire body crumpled into the white sandy lap of dune. 

On her face, in which the eyes were remarkably dark and inert, 
as if she were half asleep as she contemplated the sky, he thought 
the expression of deep indifference amounted almost to contempt. 
Young people often looked like that and he supposed she was 
only nineteen or twenty. 

He felt faintly annoyed too. Lately a lot of people had been 
using the golf course for any old thing: parking cars, picnics, 
courting in the sand dunes, exercising dogs and that sort of 
caper. The committee had tried hard to stop it several times 
but it was damn difficult with the shore and the course so often 
merging into one. 

Moreover it was a good fifty or sixty yards from the middle of 
the fairway to the dunes and then another forty or fifty to the sea. 

'Into the sea?' he said. 'Half a minute, I'm not that bad.' 

'I should have thought it would have been quite a feat to have 
hit it into the sea.' 

Quite obviously she hadn't a clue about the game; which when 
you came to think of it was rather remarkable in these days, 
when so many women hit the ball as hard as a man. 

'Well, I'm going to have another look,' he said. 'I'm going to 
find the damn thing if it kills me.' 

Still contemplating the sky, still in that same half-sleepy, 
crumpled position, she said : 

'If it hasn't killed you in five minutes I'll help you look for it.' 

He walked away without answering. Among the hollows of 
the dunes the evening air was still warm. Thick white sand 
sucked his shoes down and from the sea came one of those liquid 
summer breeezes that you thought were so pleasant until they 
tired you. 

As he walked about the shore scattered clutches of pebbles, 
like white eggs, continually bobbed up to deceive him, so much so 
that once or twice he was on the point of running to pick up his 

Lost Ball 427 

He always hated the idea of losing a ball. Quite apart from 
the expense it was a point of honour. Once before he had come 
back three evenings running to find a ball that other fellows 
would have given up as a bad job. He had had the luck to find 
three of someone else's too: which simply went to show that it 
didn't pay to give up. 

After another twenty minutes of slogging about the dunes he 
suddenly felt quite tired. He was beginning to put on weight : not 
so much weight as either Chalmers or Forbes, both of whom 
had a belly, but more than Robinson, who was fifty-five, three 
years older than he was. 

When he got back to the dune where the girl was he found 
her half sitting up, her knees bent. On one knee she was smooth- 
ing with slow strokes of her hand a square of silver paper. The 
brilliance of the smooth tin-foil in the evening sun made him 
realise for the first time the exact colour of her dress. He had 
simply thought it to be brown. Now he saw that it was really a 
blend of two colours: of dark rose-brown and purple shot to- 

Under the dress the shape of her knees was graceful. The tips 
of her toes were buried in the sand. The way she smoothed the 
silver paper was merely mechanical. She was not really looking 
at it at all. 

'Found it?' 

'No,' he said. 'I'll probably have to come back tomorrow. It's 
enough to drive you to drink, or suicide, or both. I don't know.' 

'As bad as that?' 

'Irritating. Maddening.' 

She was still smoothing the silver paper and yet not looking 
at it. A breeze caught the paper and crackled it upward, like the 
flutter of a wing, and she pinned it down on her knee again with 
one finger, quite casually, as if bored. 

'Mind if I ask you something ? ' she said. 

'No. What?' 

'How would you go about it?' 

For a moment he was mystified and then realised, with abrupt 
surprise, what she was talking about. 

'Oh! here, wait a minute,' he said, 'it hasn't got quite as far 
as that.' 

'Oh ! hasn't it? I thought you said it had.' 

428 Lost Ball 

'Well, hardly. I mean it's one of those things everybody 
says — ' 

'But supposing it did?' 

He felt a chill of distaste run over him. Abruptly he looked 
at the western horizon and thought that there might be still 
another hour in which to search for the ball before twilight 
came down. 

It was then that she said : 

'I often wonder if you couldn't do it by holding your breath 
for five minutes. I suppose that would be the most painless way?' 

Got to find that damn ball somehow, he thought. He had been 
on the point of sitting down for five minutes' rest but now he 
found himself prickling with impatience instead. 

'I suppose you wouldn't help me look?' he ?aid. 'There isn't a 
lot more daylight—' 

'If you like. I don't mind.' 

As she got to her feet he saw that her dark brown hair, very 
ruffled, was starred everywhere with dry white sand. She seemed 
not to notice it. Nor did she even bother to shake it out. 

Suddenly, as she climbed up to the grassy crest of the dune, 
he was captured by the grace of her bare legs, the skin a fine 
pure cream under the brown-purple skirt. With astonishment 
he found himself really looking at her for the first time. She was 
rather tall, shapely and no longer crumpled. 

She was what the fellows at the club would call nifty; she 
was what Freddy Robinson, in his heavy, waggish way, would 
refer to as a petite morceau de tout droit. 

Suddenly from the top of the dune she turned, looking to- 
wards the sea. For some moments her eyes looked quite hollow 
and there was no answer for him when he said : 

'You'll have to watch out for the pebbles. Especially the white 
ones. They're the ones that trick you.' 

He was never more than ten or a dozen yards from her as 
they walked about the dunes. The sun, falling as a coppery- 
orange disc into a rippled milk-blue sea, gradually stained sand 
and grass and pebbles with a flush of fire. The marine blue thorns 
of sea-thistle were touched with sepia rose. Her dress turned a 
sombre purple against her bare cream legs and arms. 

'Have to give it up,' he called at last. 'Afraid it's no go. Just 
have to come back tomorrow, that's all.' 

Lost Ball 429 

Once again there was no answer. She was simply walking with 
unbroken dreamy indifference across shadowy, smouldering 

'Can I give you a lift or something?' he said. 'My car's at the 
club-house. No distance at all.' 

Again there was no answer; but suddenly he saw her stoop, 
straighten slowly up again and then hold up her hand. 

'Is this it?' 

He actually started running. When he reached her she was 
holding the ball, exactly like a precious egg f in the palm of her 

'My God, it is,' he said. 'My God, what a bit of luck.' 

He felt extraordinarily excited. He had a ridiculous impulse 
to shake her by the hand. 

'My God, what a bit of luck,' he kept saying. 'Nearly dark. 
What a bit of luck.' 

In the excitement of grasping the ball he was unaware that 
she had already started to walk away. 

'Are you off?' he said. 'Where are you going? Which way?' 

She walked along the beach without pausing or looking back. 

'Just back to where I was sitting. I dropped my piece of silver 

He found himself almost running after her. 

'Saved me a shilling too,' he said. 'I can tell you that.' 

'Oh?' she said. 'Is that all they cost?' 

He laughed. 'Oh! Good God, no. Didn't mean that. I meant 
we have a sort of kitty - the four of us, I mean, the chaps I play 
with. Every time we lose a ball we put a bob in.' 


'Sort of fine. Amazing how it adds up.' 

'What do you do with it when it adds up ? ' 

'Buy more balls.' He laughed again. 'That's where the fun 


She was walking more slowly now. The folds of her purplish 
skirt were touched with copper. The sea burned with small metal- 
lic waves. 

'You see we have a draw. Sort of lottery. Lucky number. Chap 
who gets the lucky number gets the balls.' 

'I don't get it.' 

430 Lost Ball 

* Suppose it's the old thrill - the kick you get out of any gamble. 
Something for nothing/ 

She started to look about her, as if not quite certain about 
the exact place where she had left her silver paper on the beach. 

'You see what I mean, don't you?' he said. 'You might never 
lose a ball for a couple of months and then wham! you hit the 
jack-pot. That's when it's fun -when you see the faces of the 
other chaps.' 

'I see.' 

'Of course it might be you next time.' He laughed again. 'But 
so far I've been damn lucky. Struck it three times out of five. 
Fred Chalmers is the one -never had it once. Worth anything 
to see his face -livid, I tell you. Livid isn't the word.' 

He laughed yet again and suddenly she let out a quick startled 

'Oh ! my silver paper's gone.' 

He didn't bother to answer. A vivid picture of Fred Chalmers' 
furious face lit up the air between sea and beach with a hearten- 
ing glow. 

'The wind must have taken it,' she said. 'I'd had it all day.' 

In the failing light she stood staring thoughtfully down at the 
hollow her body had made in the sand. 

'It isn't so important, is it?' he said. The ball felt hard and 
secure as he pressed it in his hand and put it in his pocket. 'I'm 
afraid I must be going. What about you? Coming along?' 

'No. I think I'll stay a little longer.' 

'Getting dark.' 

'It always does some time.' 

She took a few light half-running steps down the beach, as if 
she had seen the silver paper. A fragment of dying light 
bounced from a breaking wave. A few spreading phosphorescent 
tongues of foam lapped the sand. 

'Sure you won't change your mind and come and have a 

'No thanks. I'll stay a bit longer. I want to find my piece of 
silver paper.' 

'Really? Why?' 

She was walking away now, face towards the sunset but 
slightly downcast. 

'I just do. I'll just cover the water-front a few more times. 

Lost Ball 431 

' You know that song ? / cover the Water-front?' 

He thought he heard her sigh; she might suddenly have been 
holding her breath. 

'Can't say I do.' 

'Nice song. "/ cover the Water-front. I'm watching the sea. 
Oh! When will my love come back to me — " ' 

She was already too far away for him to hear the rest of the 
song. Her figure was black against the last thin running bars of 
copper above the sea. 

'Afraid you won't stand much chance of seeing anything now, 
will you ? ' he called. 

He got no answer. He looked briefly at her figure, the darken- 
ing sand and the lapping phosphorescent tongues of foam and 
then started to walk up the slope of the beach towards the dunes. 

The evening wind was fresher there. The grey-yellow hairs of 
dune-grass were pressed close against smoothed ridges of sand. 
A leaf or two of sea-thistle rattled sharply. 

Caught among hairs of grass, the square of silver paper rattled 

'Wrong way,' he started saying aloud. 'Looking the wrong 

He was half-way down to the beach, waving the silver paper, 
before he realised ruddenly what he was doing. 

'Here, I've got your piece of paper,' he was already saying. 
'I've found it—' 

A second later he stopped speaking and pulled up sharp, glanc- 
ing round at the same time as if someone might possibly be 

Then suddenly he realised what an awful damn fool he was 
making - absolute damn fool. He looked hastily along the shore 
in the gathering darkness to make quite sure that the girl had 
not heard him running back with that ridiculous piece of paper. 
Why the hell could it be all that important to her? What on 
earth could anyone possibly want with that? 

It was time he stopped fooling around and got back to the 
club-house and talked to the chaps and bought himself a whisky, 
he thought - perhaps two. 

He started up the slope towards the dunes again, screwing up 
the silver paper into a little ball as he went. At the ridge he 
turned for a second time and looked back. 

432 Lost Ball 

The shore was quite empty. He threw down the silver ball 
among the pebbles that were so like clutches of eggs laid by 
long- vanished birds and didn't even bother to watch where it fell. 

Looking finally towards the last copper straws of sunset cloud, 
he started suddenly to congratulate himself. 'Just as well not to 
chase your luck too far/ he thought. 'Might get caught up with 
something funny. Anyway, you got your ball back, old boy. Be 

He listened again for a sound of her voice or her footsteps 
coming back. But all he could hear was the sound of wind and 
tide rising and halting and falling in little bursts along the 
darkening shore. 

It was exactly as if the sea sometimes held its breath and then 
broke into a little fragile, broken song. 


The place where she was born was eighty miles from London. 
She was never to go to London in all her life except in dreams 
or in imagination, when she lay awake in the top bedroom of 
the hotel, listening to the sound of wind in the forest boughs. 

When she first began to work at The Blenheim Arms she was 
a plump short girl of fourteen, with remarkably pale cream hands 
and a head of startling hair exactly the colour of autumn beech 
leaves. Her eyes seemed bleached and languid. The only colour 
in their lashes was an occasional touch of gold that made them 
look like curled paint brushes that were not quite dry. 

She began first as a bedroom maid, living in and starting at 
five in the morning and later taking up brass cans of hot shaving 
water to the bedrooms of gentlemen who stayed over-night. These 
gentlemen - any guest was called a gentleman in those days - 
were mostly commercial travellers going regularly from London 
to the West country or back again and after a time she got to 
know them very well. After a time she also got to know the view 
from the upper bedroom windows very well: southward to the 
village, down the long wide street of brown- red houses where 
horses in those days were still tied to hitching posts and then 
westward and northward and eastward to the forest that shel- 
tered the houses like a great horseshoe of boughs and leaves. 
She supposed there were a million beech-trees in that forest. 
She did not know. She only knew, because people said so, that 
you could walk all day through it and never come to the other 

At first she was too shy and too quiet about her work in the 
bedrooms. She knocked on early morning doors too softly. Heavy 
sleepers could not be woken by the tap of her small soft hands 
and cans of hot water grew cold on landings while other fuming 
frowsy men lay awake, waiting for their calls. This early mistake 
was almost the only one she ever made, The hotel was very old, 
with several long back stair-cases and complicated narrow pas- 
sages and still more flights of stairs up which she had to lug, 


434 Thelma 

every morning to attic bedrooms, twenty cans of water. She soon 
learned that it was stupid to lug more than she need. After two 
mornings she learned to hammer hard with her fist on the doors 
of bedrooms and after less than a week she was knocking, walk- 
ing in, putting the can of hot water on the wash-stand, covering 
it with a towel and saying in a soft firm young voice: 

'Half-past six, sir. You've got just an hour before your train.' 

In this way she grew used to men. It was her work to go into 
bedrooms where men were frequently to be startled in strange 
attitudes, half-dressed, unshaved, stupid with sleep and some- 
times thick-tongued and groping. It was no use being shy about 
it. It was no use worrying about it either. She herself was never 
thick-tongued, stupid or groping in the mornings and after a 
time she found she had no patience with men who had to be 
called a second time and then complained that their shaving 
water was cold. Already she was speaking to them as if she were 
an older person, slightly peremptory but not unkind, a little 
vexed but always understanding 

'Of course the water's cold, sir. You should get up when you're 
called. I called you twice. Do you expect people to call you fifty 
times ? ' 

Her voice was slow and soft. The final syllables of her senten- 
ces went singing upward on a gentle and inquiring scale. It was 
perhaps because of this that men were never offended by what 
she had to say to them even as a young girl and that they never 
took exception to remarks that would have been impertinent or 
forward in other girls. 

'I know, Thelma,' they would say. 'That's me all over, Thelma. 
Never could get the dust out of my eyes. I'll be down in five 
shakes -four and a half minutes for the eggs, Thelma. I like 
them hard.' 

Soon she began to know not only the names of travellers but 
exactly when they had to be called, what trains they had to catch 
and how they liked their eggs boiled. She knew those who liked 
two cans of shaving water and a wad of cotton wool because 
they always cut themselves. She was ready for those who groped 
to morning life with yellow eyes : 

'Well, you won't be told, sir. You know how it takes you. You 
take more than you can hold and then you wonder why you feel 
like death the morning after.' 

Theltna 435 

'I know, Thelma, I know. What was I drinking ? ' 

'Cider most of the time and you had three rum and ports with 
Mr Henderson.' 

'Rum and port ! - Oh ! my lord, Thelma — ' 

'That's what I say -you never learn. People can tell you 
forty times, can't they, but you never learn.' 

Once a month, on Sunday, when she finished work at three 
o'clock, she walked in the forest. She was very fond of the forest. 
She still believed it was true, as people said, that you could walk 
through it all day and never come to the farther side of it but 
she did not mind about that. She was quite content to walk some 
distance intc it and, if the days were fine and warm, sit down 
and look at the round grey trunks of the countless shimmering 
beeches. They reminded her very much of the huge iron- 
coloured legs of a troupe of elephants she had once seen at a 
circus and the trees themselves had just the same friendly sober 

When she was eighteen a man named George Furness, a travel- 
ler in fancy goods and cheap lines of cutlery, came to stay at the 
hotel for a Saturday night and a Sunday. She did not know 
quite how it came about but it presently turned out in the course 
of casual conversation that Furness was quite unable to believe 
that the nuts that grew on beech- trees were just as eatable as the 
nuts that grew on hazel or walnut trees. It was a silly, stupid 
thing, she thought, for a grown man to have to admit that he 
didn't know about beech-nuts. 

'Don't kid me,' Furness said. 'They're no more good to eat 
than acorns.' 

For the first time, in her country way, she found herself being 
annoyed and scornful by someone who doubted the truth of her 

'If you don't believe me,' she said, 'come with me and we'll 
get some. The forest is full enough of them. Come with me and 
I'll show you - I'll be going there tomorrow.' 

The following say, Sunday, she walked with Furness in the 
forest, through the great rides of scalded brilliant beeches. In the 
October sunshine her hair shone in a big coppery bun from 
under the back of her green straw Sunday hat. Furness was a 
handsome, light-hearted man of thirty-five with thickish lips 
and dark oiled hair and a short yellow cane which he occasion- 

436 Thelma 

ally swished, sword-fashion, at pale clouds of dancing flies. These 
flies, almost transparent in the clear October sun, were as light 
and delicate as the lashes of Thelma's fair bleached eyes. 

For some time she and Furness sat on a fallen tree-trunk 
while she picked up beech-nuts, shelled them for him and watched 
him eat them. She did not feel any particular sense of 
triumph in having shown a man that beech-nuts were good to 
eat but she laughed once or twice, quite happily, as Furness 
threw them gaily into the air, caught them deftly in his mouth 
and said how good they were. His tongue was remarkably red 
as it stiffened and flicked at the nuts and she noticed it every 
time. What was also remarkable was that Furness did not peel a 
single nut himself. With open outstretched hand and poised 
red tongue he simply sat and waited to be fed. 

'You mean you really didn't know they were good?' she said. 

'To tell you the honest/ Furness said, 'I never saw a beech- 
tree in my life before/ 

'Oh ! go on with you/ she said. 'NeverV 

'No/ he said. 'Honest. Cut my throat. I wouldn't know one 
if I saw one anyway.' 

'Aren't there trees in London ? ' 

'Oh ! plenty/ Furness said. 'Trees all over the place.' 

'As many as this?' she said. 'As many as in the forest?' 

'Oh ! easy/ Furness said, 'only more scattered. Scattered about 
in big parks - Richmond, Kew, Hyde Park, places like that 
- miles and miles. Scattered.' 

'I like to hear you talk about London.' 

'You must come up there some time/ he said. 'I'll show you 
round a bit. We'll have a day on the spree.' 

He laughed again in his gay fashion and suddenly, really before 
she knew what was happening, he put his arms round her and 
began to kiss her. It was the first time she had ever been kissed 
by anyone in that sort of way and the lips of George Furness 
were pleasantly moist and warm. He kissed her several times 
again and presently they were lying on the thick floor of beech- 
leaves together. She felt a light crackle of leaves under her hair 
as George Furness pressed against her, kissing her throat, and 
then suddenly she felt afraid of something and she sat up, brush- 
ing leaves from her hair and shoulders. 

'I think we ought to go now/ she said. 

Thelma 437 

'Oh no,' he said. 'Come on. What's the hurry, what's the 
worry? Come on, Thelma, let's have some fun.' 

'Not here. Not today — ' 

'Here today, gone tomorrow,' Furness said. 'Come on, Thelma, 
let's make a little hay while the sun shines.' 

Suddenly, because Furness himself was so gay and light- 
hearted about everything, she felt that perhaps she was being 
over-cautious and stupid and something made her say: 

'Perhaps some other day. When are you coming back 
again ? ' 

'Well, that's a point,' he said. 'If I go to Bristol first I'll be 
back this way Friday. If I go to Hereford first I'll stay in Bristol 
over the week-end and be back here Monday.' 

Sunlight breaking through thinning autumn branches scat- 
tered dancing blobs of gold on his face and hands as he laughed 
again and said : 

'All right, Thelma? A little hay-making when I come back?' 

'We'll see.' 

'Is that a promise?' 

'We'll see.' 

'I'll take it as a promise,' he said. He laughed again and kissed 
her neck and she felt excited. 'You can keep a promise, Thelma, 
can't you?' 

'Never mind about that now,' she said. 'What time shall I call 
you in the morning?' 

'Call me early, mother dear,' he said. 'I ought to be away by 
six or just after.' 

She could not sleep that night. She thought over and over 
again of the way George Furness had kissed her. She remem- 
bered the moist warm lips, the red gay tongue flicking at beech- 
nuts, and how sunlight breaking through thinning autumn 
branches had given a dancing effect to his already light-hearted 
face and hands. She remembered the way he had talked of promi- 
ses and making hay. And after a time she could not help wishing 
that she had done what George Furness had wanted her to do. 
'But there's always next week-end,' she thought. 'I'll be waiting 
next week-end.' 

It was very late when she fell asleep and it was after half-past 
six before she woke again. It was a quarter to seven before she 
had the tea made and when she hurried upstairs with the tray 

438 Thelma 

her hands were trembling. Then after she had knocked on the 
door of George Furness , bedroom she went inside to make the 
first of several discoveries. The bed was empty and George Fur- 
ness had left by motor-car. 

Only a few years later, by the time she was twenty-five, almost 
every gentleman came and went by motor-car. But that morning 
it was a new and strange experience to know that a gentleman 
did not need to go by train. It was a revolution in her life to find 
that a man could pay his bill overnight, leave before breakfast 
and not wait for his usual can of shaving water. 

All that week, and for several weeks afterwards, she waited 
for George Furness to come back. She waited with particular 
anxiety on Fridays and Mondays. She found herself becoming 
agitated at the sound of a motor-car. Then for the few remain- 
ing Sundays of that autumn she walked in the forest, sat down 
in the exact spot where George Furness had thrown beech-nuts 
into the air and caught them in his red fleshy mouth, and tried 
intensely to re-experience what it was like to be kissed by that 
mouth, in late warm sunlight, under a million withering beech- 

All this time, and for some time afterwards, she went about 
her work as if nothing had happened. Then presently she began 
to inquire, casually at first, as if it was really a trivial matter, 
whether anyone had seen George Furness. When it appeared 
that nobody had and again that nobody even knew what Furness 
looked like she found herself beginning to describe him, explain 
him and exaggerate him a little more. In that way, by making 
him a little larger than life, she felt that people would recognise 
him more readily. Presently there would inevitably come a day 
when someone would say 'Ah! yes, old George. Ran across him 
only yesterday.' 

At the same time she remained secretive and shy about him. 
She did not mention him in open company. It was always to 
some gentleman alone, to a solitary commercial traveller sipping 
a late night whisky or an early morning cup of tea in his bed- 
room, that she would say : 

'Ever see George Furness nowadays? He hasn't been down 
lately. You knew him didn't you?' 

'Can't say I did.' 

'Nice cheerful fellow. Dark. Came from London - he'd talk 

Thelma 439 

to you hours about London, George would. Used to keep me 
fascinated. I think he was in quite a way up there.' 

And soon, occasionally, she began to go further than this: 

'Oh! we had some times, George and me. He liked a bit of 
fun, George did. I used to show him the forest sometimes. He 
didn't know one tree from another/ 

One hot Sunday afternoon in early summer, when she was 
twenty, she was walking towards the forest when she met another 
commercial traveller, a man in hosiery named Prentis, sauntering 
with boredom along the roadside, flicking at the heads of butter- 
cups with a thin malacca cane. His black patent leather shoes 
were white with dust and something about the way he flicked 
at the buttercups reminded her of the way George Furness 
had cut with his cane at dancing clouds of late October 

'Sunday/ Prentis said. 'Whoever invented Sunday? Not a 
commercial, you bet. If there's one day in the week I hate it's 
Sunday - what's there to do on Sundays ? ' 

'I generally walk in the forest,' she said. 

Some time later, in the forest, Prentis began kissing her very 
much as George Furness had done. Under the thick bright mass 
of leaves, motionless in the heat of afternoon, she shut her eyes 
and tried to persuade herself that the moist red lips of Furness 
were pressing down on hers. The recaptured sensation of warmth 
and softness excited her into trembling. Then suddenly, feeling ex- 
posed and shy in the open riding, she was afraid that per- 
haps someone from the hotel might walk past and see her and she 

'Let's take the little path there. That's a nice way. Nobody 
ever goes up there.' 

Afterwards Prentis took off his jacket and made a pillow of 
it and they lay down together for the rest of the afternoon in 
the thick cool shade. At the same time Prentis' feet itched and 
he took off his shoes. As he did so and she saw the shoes white 
with summer dust she said : 

'You'd better leave them with me tonight. I'll clean them 

And then presently, lying on her back, looking up at the high 
bright mass of summer leaves with her bleached far-off eyes, 
she said : 

440 Thelma 

'Do you like the forest? Ever been in here before?' 


'I love it here/ she said. 'I always come when I can.' 

'By yourself?' 

'That would be telling/ she said. 

'I'll bet you do/ he said. He began laughing, pressing his body 
against her, stringing his fingers like a comb through her sharp 
red hair. 'Every Sunday, eh? What time will you bring the 
shoes ? ' 

Presently he kissed her again. And again she shut her eyes 
and tried to imagine that the mouth pressing down on hers was 
the mouth of George Furness. The experience was like that of 
trying to stalk a butterfly on the petal of a flower and seeing it, 
at the last moment, flutter away at the approach of a shadow. 
It was very pleasant kissing Prentis under the great arch of 
beech-leaves in the hot still afternoon. She liked it very much. 
But what she sought, in the end, was not quite there. 

By the time she was twenty-five she had lost count of the num- 
ber of men she had taken into the forest on Sunday afternoons. 
By then her face had broadened and begun to fill out a lot. Her 
arms were fleshy and her hips had begun to stand out from her 
body so that her skirts were always a little too tight and rode up 
at the back, showing the hem of her underclothes. Her feet, 
from walking up and down stairs all day, had grown much flatter 
and her legs were straight and solid. In the summer she could 
not bear to wear her corsets and gradually her figure became 
more floppy, her bust like a soft fat pillow untidily slept in. 

Most of them who came to spend a night or two at the hotel 
were married men, travellers glad of a little reprieve from wives 
and then equally glad, after a week or two on the road, to go 
back to them again. She was a great comfort to such men. They 
looked forward through dreary days of lugging and unpacking 
sample cases to evenings when Thelma, pillowy and soft, with 
her soothing voice, would put her head into their bedrooms and 

'Had a good week, sir? Anything you want? Something you'd 
like me to get for you ? ' 

Many of them wanted Thelma. Almost as many of them were 
content simply to talk with her. At night, when she took up to 
their bedrooms hot jugs of cocoa, tots of whisky, pots of tea or 

Thelma 441 

in winter, for colds, fiery mugs of steaming rum and cinnamon, 
they liked her to stay and talk for a while. Sometimes she simply 
stood by the bedside, arms folded over her enlarging bosom, 
legs a little apart, nodding and listening. Sometimes she sat on 
the edge of the bed, her skirt riding up over her thick knees, her 
red hair like a plaited bell-rope as one of the travellers twisted 
it in his hands. Sometimes a man was in trouble: a girl had 
thrown him over or a wife had died. Then she listened with eyes 
that seemed so intent in their wide and placid colourlessness 
that again and again a man troubled in loneliness gained the 
impression that she was thinking always and only of him. Not 
one of them guessed that she was really thinking of George 
Furness or that as she let them twist her thick red hair, stroke 
her pale comforting, comfortable arms and thighs or kiss her 
unaggressive lips she was really letting someone else, in imagina- 
tion, do these things. In the same way when she took off her 
clothes and slipped into bed with them it was from feelings and 
motives far removed from wantonness. She was simply groping 
hungrily for experiences she felt George Furness, and only 
George Furness, ought to have shared. 

When she was thirty the urge to see George Furness became 
so obsessive that she decided, for the first and only time in her 
life, to go to London. She did not really think of the impossi- 
bility of finding anybody in so large a place. She had thought a 
great deal about London and what it would be like there, with 
George Furness, on the spree. Lying in her own room, listening 
to the night sounds of a forest that was hardly ever really still 
all through winter and summer, she had built up the impression 
that London, though vast, was also composed in large part of 
trees. That was because George Furness had described it that 
way. For that reason she was not afraid of London; the prospect 
of being alone there did not appal her. And always at the back 
of her mind lay the comforting and unsullied notion that some- 
how, by extraordinary chance, by some unbelievable miracle, 
she would run into George Furness there as naturally and simply 
as if he were walking up the steps of The Blenheim Arms. 

So she packed her things into a small black fibre suit-case, 
asked for seven days off, the only holiday she had ever taken in 
her life, and started off by train. At the junction twelve miles 
away she had not only to change trains but she had also to wait 

442 Thelma 

for thirty-five minutes for the eastbound London train. It was 
midday on a warm oppressive day in September and she decided 
to go into the refreshment room to rest and get herself an Eccles 
cake, of which she was very fond, and a cup of tea. The cakes 
in fact tempted her so much that she ordered two. 

Just before the cakes and the tea arrived at her table she be- 
came uneasily aware of someone looking at her. She looked round 
the refreshment room and saw, standing with his foot on the 
rail of the bar, beside a big blue-flamed tea-urn, a man she knew 
named Lattimore, a traveller in novelty lines for toy-shops and 
bazaars. Lattimore, a tallish man of thirty-five with fair receding 
hair and a thick gold signet ring on the third finger of his right 
hand, was drinking whisky from a tumbler. 

She was so used to the state and appearance of men who took 
too much to drink that she recognised, even at that distance 
across the railway refreshment room, that Lattimore was not 
quite sober. She had seen him drunk once or twice before and 
instinctively she felt concerned and sorry for him as he picked 
up his glass, wiped his mouth on the back of his free hand and 
then came over to talk to her. 

'Where are you going, Mr Lattimore?' she said. 

'Down to the old Blenheim, he said. 'Where are you}' 

She did not say where she was going. In the few moments 
before her cakes arrived she looked at Lattimore with keen pale 
eyes. The pupils of his own eyes were dusky, ill-focused and 
beginning to water. 

'What is it, Mr Lattimore ?' she said. 

'Blast and damn her,' he said. 'Blast her/ 

'That isn't the way to talk/ Thelma said. 

'Blast her/ he said. 'Double blast her/ 

Her cakes and tea arrived. She poured herself a cup of 

'A cup of this would do you more good than that stuff/ she 

'Double blast/ he said. He gulped suddenly at the glass of 
whisky and then took a letter from his pocket. 'Look at that, 
Thelma. Tell us what you think of that/ 

It was not the first time she had read a letter from a wife to a 
husband telling him that she was finished, fed up and going 
away. Most of that sort of thing, she found, came right enough 

Thelma 443 

in the end. What she chiefly noticed this time was the postmark 
on the envelope. The letter came from London and it reminded 
her suddenly that she was going there. 

'Have one of these Eccles cakes/ she said. 'You want to get 
some food inside you/ 

He fumbled with an Eccles cake. Flaky crumbs of pastry and 
loose currants fell on his waistcoat and striped grey trousers. 
To her dismay he then put the Eccles cake back on the plate 
and, after a pause, picked up her cake in mistake for his own. 
Something about this groping mistake of his with the cakes made 
her infinitely sad for him and she said : 

'You never ought to get into a state like this, Mr Lattimore. 
It's awful. You'll do yourself no good getting into this sort of 
state. You're not driving, are you ? ' 

'Train,' he said. 'Train.' He suddenly drained his whisky and, 
before she could speak, wandered across the refreshment bar 
to get himself another. 'Another double and what platform for 
Deansborough ? ' he called. He banged his hand on the counter 
and then there was a sudden ring of breaking glasses. 

Ten minutes later she was sitting with him in the train for 
Deansborough, going back home, his head on her shoulder. It 
was warm and oppressive in the carriage and she opened the 
window and let in fresh air. The wind blowing on his face ruffled 
his thinning hair and several times she smoothed it down again 
with her hands. It came to her then that she might have been 
smoothing down the hair of George Furness and at the same 
time she remembered London, though without regret. 

'What part of London do you come from?' she said. 


'That isn't near the parks is it?' she said. 'You don't ever run 
across a man named George Furness, do you ? ' 

The little local train was rattling slowly and noisily between 
banks of woodland. Its noises rebounded from trees and cuttings 
and in through the open window so that for a moment she was 
not quite sure what Lattimore was saying in reply. 

'Furness? George? Old George? -dammit, friend of mine. 
Lives in Maida Vale.' 

She sat staring for some time at the deep September banks of 
woodland, still dark green from summer, streaming past the 
windows. The whisky breath of Lattimore was sour on the sultry 

444 Thelma 

air and she opened the window a little further, breathing fast 
and deeply. 
When did you see him last ? ' she said. 

'Thursday - no, Wednesday/ he said. 'Play snooker together 
every Wednesday, me and George/ 

Within a month the leaves on the beeches would be turning 
copper. With her blood pounding in her throat, she sat think- 
ing of their great masses of burning, withering leaf and the way, 
a long time before, George Furness had held out his hand while 
she peeled nuts for him and then watched him toss them into the 
air and catch them on his moist red tongue. 
'How is he these days ? ' she said. 

'Old George? -same as ever. Up and down. Up and down. 
Same as ever.' 

Once again she stared at the passing woodlands, remembering. 
Unconsciously, as she did so, she twisted quietly at the big signet 
ring on Lattimore's finger. The motion began to make him, in 
his half-drunk state, soothed and amorous. He turned his face 
towards her and put his mouth against her hair. 

'Ought to have married you, Thelma/ he said. 'Ought to have 
put the ring on you.' 
'You don't want me.' 

'You like the ring?' he said. 'You can have it.' He began 
struggling in groping alcoholic fashion to take the ring off his 
finger. 'Have it, Thelma - you put it on.' 

'No/ she said. 'No.' And then: 'How was George Furness 
when you saw him last Wednesday?' 

He succeeded suddenly in taking the ring from his finger and 
began pressing it clumsily on one of her own. 

'There y'are, Thelma. You put it on. You wear it. For me. 
Put it on and keep it, Thelma. For me.' 
The ring was on her finger. 
'How was George?' she said. 

'Getting fat/ he said. 'Can't get the old pod over the snooker 
table nowadays. Rest and be thankful - that's what they call 

Half sleepy, half drunk, Lattimore let his head slip from her 
shoulder and the mass of her thick red hair down to the shapeless 
comforting pillow of her bosom and she said : 
'What's he travel in now? The same old line?' 

Thelma 445 

'Same old line/ he said. 'Furniture and carpets. Mostly carpets 

She realised suddenly that they were talking of quite different 
things, quite different people. She was listening to a muddled 
drunk who had somehow got the names wrong. She stared for 
a long time at the woods rushing past the rattling little train. 
There was no need to speak. Lattimore was asleep in her bosom, 
his mouth open, and the ring was shining on her finger. 

Next day Lattimore did not remember the ring and she did 
not give it back. She kept it, as she kept a great many 
other things, as a memento of experiences that men liked to think 
were services she had rendered. 

A drawer in the wardrobe in her bedroom was full of these 
things. She hardly ever used them: handkerchiefs, night-dress 
cases and bits of underwear from travellers in ladies' wear, 
bottles of perfume and powder, night-dresses and dress-lengths 
of satin, necklaces of imitation pearl and amber; presents given 
for Christmas, her birthday or for a passing, comforting week- 

Some of the men who had given them came back only once 
or twice and she never saw them again. They changed jobs or 
were moved to other districts. But they never forgot Thelma 
and travellers were always arriving to say that they had seen 
Bill Haynes and Charlie Townsend or Bert Hobbs only the week 
before and that Bill or Charlie or Bert wished to be remembered. 
Among themselves too men would wink and say 'Never need 
be lonely down at The Blenheim. What do you say, Harry? 
Thelma always looks after you/ and many a man would be re- 
commended to stay there, on the edge of the forest, where he 
would be well looked after by Thelma, rather than go on to bigger 
towns beyond. 

By the time she was forty she was not only plumper and more 
shapeless but her hair had begun to show the first cottony signs 
of grey. There was nothing she disliked more than red hair 
streaked with another colour and from that time onwards she 
began to dye her hair. Because she could never shop anywhere 
except in the village or at most in Chippingham, the junction, 
twelve miles away, she never succeeded in getting quite the right 
shade for her hair. The first dye she used was a little too yellow 
and gave her hair the appearance of an old fox fur. One day 

446 Thelma 

the shop in the village ran out of this dye and sold her some- 
thing which, they said, was the nearest thing. This shade made 
her hair look as if stained with a mixture of beetroot and bay 
rum. It was altogether too dark for her. Later when the shop 
got in its new supplies of the yellow dye she uneasily realised that 
neither tint was suitable. The only thing that occurred to her to 
do then was to mix them together. This gave a strange gold rusty 
look to her hair and something in the dye at the same time made 
it much drier, so that it became unnaturally fuzzier and more 
difficult to manage than it had been. 

The one thing that did not change about her as she grew older 
was the colour and appearance of her eyes. They remained un- 
changeably bleached and distant, always with the effect of the 
mild soft lashes being still wet with a touch of gold paint on 
them. While the rest of her body grew plumper and older and 
greyer the eyes remained, perhaps because of their extreme 
pallor, very young, almost girlish, as if in a way that part of her 
would never grow up. 

It was these still pale, bleached, unnaturally adolescent eyes 
that she fixed on a man named Sharwood more than ten years 
later as she took him a tray of early morning tea and a newspaper 
on a wet late October morning, soon after she was fifty. During 
the night torrents of rain had hurled through the miles of 
beeches, bringing down great flying droves of leaves. Through 
the open bedroom window rain had poured in too on the cur- 
tains and as Thelma reached up to shut the window she said: 

'Not much of a morning to be out, sir. Which way are you 
off today?' 

'London/ he said. 

There was no need for him to say any more. Purposely she 
fussed a little with curtains and then casually, in the same 
slow, upward-singing voice, asked the inevitable question: 

'London? I suppose you never run into George Furness up 

Sharwood, a middle-aged man who travelled mainly in woollen 
goods, put three lumps of sugar into his tea, stirred it and then 

'As a matter of fact I was thinking of asking you the same 


Thelma 447 

Tunny thing/ Sharwood said, 'it was George who recom- 
mended me here.' 

Her heart began racing, fast and heavily, as it had done on 
the warm afternoon with Lattimore, drunk in the train. 

'Ran across him up in Glasgow about a month ago.' Sharwood 
said. 'You knew he was up there, didn't you ? - 1 mean had been. 
Been up there for thirty years - settled there. Even got himself 
a bit of a Scotch accent on the way.' 

'No, I didn't know,' she said. 'I never only saw him the once.' 

She did not know quite why she should admit, for the first 
and only time, that she had seen him only once, but by now she 
was so transfixed and overwrought that she hardly knew what 
she was saying. 

'I know,' Sharwood said. 'He told me. It's been all those years 
ago, he said, but if you go to The Blenheim Arms ask if Thelma's 
still there. She'll look after you.' 

She locked her hands together to prevent them quivering 
too hopelessly and he said : 

'That was the last time he was ever down this way. He moved 
up to Glasgow the next week. Heard of a good job there with 
a big wholesale firm of cloth people and there he stopped.' 

Sharwood paused, drank his tea and stared over the rim of the 
cup to the October rain slashing on the window beyond. 

'He'd have been up there just thirty-five years if he'd lived 
till November.' 

Her heart seemed to stop its racing. 

She did not know what to say or do. Then after a moment 
Sharwood said : 

'Hand me my wallet off the wash-stand, will you? I've got a 
cutting about him. Clipped it out of The Glasgow Herald. 1 

She stood staring for a few moments longer at the newspaper 
cutting that Sharwood handed her across the bed. The face of 
George Furness stared back at her from a photograph and she 
said simply : 

'I don't think he's changed a lot, do you?' 

'Same as ever,' Sharwood said. 'You'd have known him any- 

That afternoon, although it was a mid-week afternoon, she 
left The Blenheim Arms about three o'clock, walked up the 
road and into the forest. The rain had stopped about noon and 

448 Thelma 

now it was a day of racing sea-bright cloud, widening patches 
of high blue sky and a wind that broke from the beeches an end- 
less stream of leaves. 

She walked slowly down the long riding. She stopped for a 
few moments at the place where she and George Furness had 
eaten beech-nuts and where, some years later, she had tried for 
the first of many times to recapture the moment with another 
man. She picked up a few beech-nuts and made an attempt to 
peel them but the summer that year had been rainy and cool 
and most of the husks she broke were empty. 

Finally she walked on and did something she had never done 
before. Slowly, in brightening sunlight, through shoals of drenched 
fallen leaves, she walked the entire width of the forest to the 
other side. It was really, after all, not so far as people had always 
lead her to believe. 

By the time she reached the open country beyond the last 
of the enormous beeches the sky had been driven almost clear 
of cloud. The sun was warm and brilliant and as she sat down 
on a bank of leaves at the forest edge she could feel it burning 
softly on her face and hands. 

After a time she lay down. She lay there for two hours, not 
moving, her frizzed foxy hair blown against wet leaves, her 
bleached pale eyes staring upwards beyond the final rim of forest 
branches to where the sky, completely clear now of cloud, was 
almost fierce with high washed blue light in the falling after- 

That night she did not sleep much. The following night she 
was restless and there was a sharp, drawing pain in her back 
whenever she breathed a little hard. The following afternoon 
the doctor stood by her bed and said, shaking his head, joking 
with her : 

'Now, Thelma, what's all this? What have you been up to? 
It's getting cool at night this time of year.' 

'I sat down in the forest/ she said. 'That's all. I lay down for 
a while.' 

'You know, Thelma,' he said, 'you're getting too old for lying 
down in the forest. You've got a good warm bed, haven't you?' 

'I like the forest.' 

'You're really getting too old for this sort of thing,' he said. 
'Now be a good girl and take care of yourself a little better. 

Thclma 449 

YouVe had your fling -we all know -but now you'll have to 
take care a little more. Understand ? ' 

She made no sign that she understood except for a slight 
flicker of her thin pale gold lashes. 

'There comes a time/ the doctor said. 

She died five days later. On the coffin and on the graveside 
in the church-yard that lay midway between the village and the 
forest there were a great many wreaths. Many gentlemen had 
remembered her, most of them individually, but someone had 
had the idea of placing a collecting box on the bar of The Blen- 
heim Arms so that casual callers, odd travellers passing, could 
put into it a few coppers or a shilling or two and so pay their last 

A good deal of money was collected in this way and because 
so many people, mostly men, had contributed something it was 
impossible to indicate who and how many they were. It was 
thought better instead to put on the big round wreath of white 
chrysanthemums only a plain white card. 

Thelma. R.I.P.,' it said. 'Loved by all.' 


Every morning Mrs Eglantine sat at the round bamboo bar of 
the New Pacific Hotel and drank her breakfast. This consisted 
of two quick large brandies, followed by several slower ones. 
By noon breakfast had become lunch and by two o'clock the 
pouches under and above Mrs Eglantine's bleared blue eyes 
began to look like large puffed pink prawns. 

'I suppose you know you've got her name wrong?' my friend 
the doctor said to me. 'It's really Eglinton. What makes you call 
her Eglantine ? ' 

'She must have been rather sweet at some time.' 

'You think so?' he said. 'What has Eglantine got to do with 

'The Sweet-briar,' I said, 'or the Vine, or the twisted 

For a woman of nearly fifty Mrs Eglantine wore her blue 
lined shorts very neatly. Her legs were brown, well-shaped and 
spare. Her arms were slim and hairless and her nails well-mani- 
cured. She had pretty delicate ears and very soft pale blue eyes. 
Her hair, though several shades too yellow, was smooth and 
always well-brushed, with a slight upward curl where it fell on 
her tanned slender shoulders. 

Her only habit of untidiness was that sometimes, as she sat 
at the bar, she let one or both of her yellow sandals fall off. After 
that she often staggered about the verandah with one shoe on. 
and one in her hand; or with both shoes off, carrying them and 
saying : 

'Whose bloody shoes are these? Anybody know whose bloody 
shoes these are ? ' 

Soon, when she got to know me a little better, she would slap 
one of her sandals on the seat of the bar-stool next to her and 

'Here, England, come and sit here.' She always called me 
England. 'Come and sit down and talk to me. I'm British 
too. Come and sit down. Nice to meet someone from the old 


Mrs Eglantine 451 

country in this lousy frog-crowd. What do you make of 

I had never time to tell her what I thought of Tahiti before, 
licking brandy from her lips, she would say something like : 

'Swindle. The big myth. The great South-sea bubble. The 
great South-sea paradise. Not a decent hotel in the place. All the 
shops owned by Chinks. Everybody bone-lazy. Takes you all day 
to cash a cheque at the bank. Hot and dirty. Still, what else do 
you expect with the Froggies running the show?' 

Presently, after another brandy or two, she would begin to 
call me dear. 

'You've seen the travel posters, haven't you, dear? Those 
nice white sands and the Polynesian girls with naked bosoms 
climbing the palms? All a myth, dear. All a bloody swindle. All 
taken in the Cook Islands, hundreds of miles away.' 

Talking of the swindle of white sands and Polynesian girls 
she would point with her well-kept hands to the shore: 

'Look at the beach, dear. Just look at it. I ask you. Black sand, 
millions of sea-eggs, thousands of those liverish-looking sea- 
snakes. Coral island, my foot. I can bear most things, England, 
but not black sand. Not a beach that looks like a foundry yard.' 

It was true that the beaches of Tahiti were black, that the 
sea, where shallow, was thick with sea-eggs and at low tide with 
creatures looking like inert lumps of yellow intestine. But there 
were also shoals of blue and yellow fish, like delicate underwater 
sails, with sometimes a flying fish or a crowd of exquisite blue 
torpedoes flashing in bluest water. 

It occurred to me that something, perhaps, had made her 
ignore these things. 

'How long have you been here now?' I said. 

'Ever been to Australia?' she said. 'That's the place for 
beaches. Miles of them. Endless. You've seen the Cook Islands? 
White as that. Me? Six months, dear. Nearly seven months 

'Why don't you take the sea-plane and get out,' I said, 'if you 
hate it so much?' 

'Long story, England,' she said. 'Bloody complicated.' 

Every afternoon she staggered away, slept in her room and 
re-appeared about six, in time for sunset. By that time she had 
changed her shorts for a dress, generally something very simple 

452 Mrs Eglantine 

in cotton or silk that, from a distance or behind, with her brief 
lean figure, made her look attractive, fresh and quite young. 

I noticed that, in the evening, she did not go at once to the 
bar. For perhaps ten minutes or a quarter of an hour she would 
stand in silence at the rail of the verandah, gazing at the sunset. 

The sunsets across the lagoon at Tahiti, looking towards the 
great chimneys of Moorea, are the most beautiful in the world. 
As the sun dips across the Pacific the entire sky behind the moun- 
tains opens up like a blast furnace, flaming pure and violent 
fire. Over the upper sky roll clouds of scarlet petal, then orange, 
then yellow, then pink, and then swan-white as they sail away, 
high, and slowly, over the ocean to the north. In the last minutes 
before darkness there is left only a thunderous purple map of 
smouldering ash across the sky. 

'It's so beautiful, England dear/ she said to me. 'God, it's 
so beautiful it takes your breath away. I always want to cry.' 

Once or twice she actually did cry but soon, when sunset was 
over and the enormous soft southern stars were breaking the 
deep black sky, she would be back to brandy and the bar. Once 
again her eyes would take on the appearance of swollen prawns. 
One by one her shoes would fall off, leaving her to grope bare- 
footed, carrying her shoes about the verandah, not knowing 
whose they were. 

'Sweet people/ she said once. 'Very sweet people, you and 
Mrs England. Good old England. That's a sweet dress she has 
on. What would you say, Mrs England, if you wanted to marry 
someone here and they wouldn't let you?' 

She laughed. From much brandy her skin was hot and baggy. 
Her eyes, looking as if they were still in tears from the sunset, 
could no longer focus themselves. 

'A Froggy too/ she said, 'which I call damn funny. Rather 
a nice Froggy too.' 

Her voice was thick and bitter. 

Rather funny? she said. 'I come all this way from Australia. 
to meet him here and then find they've sent him to New 
Caledonia. Administrative post. Administrative trick, dear, 

I said something about how simple it was, nowadays, to fly 
from one side of the Pacific to the other, and she said : 

'Can't get permission, dear. Got to get permission from the 

Mrs Eglantine 453 

Froggies to go to Froggy territory/ she went on. 'Of course 
he'll come back here in time.' 

I said something about how simple it was to wait here, in 
Tahiti, where she was, and she said : 

'Can't get permission, dear. Got to get permission from the 
Froggies to stay in Froggy territory. Froggy red tape, dear. Can't 
stay here, can't go there. Next week my permit expires.' 

I made some expression of sympathy about all this and she 

'All a trick, dear. Complete wangle. His father's a friend of 
the governor. Father doesn't like me. Governor doesn't like me. 
Undesirable type, dear. Divorced and drink too much. Bad 
combination. British too. They don't want the British here. 
Leaves more Tahitian girls for the Froggies to set up fancy house 

There were, as my friend the doctor said, only two general 
types in Tahiti: those who took one look at the island, wanted 
to depart next day and never set eyes on it again; and those who, 
from the first moment, wanted to stay there for ever. Now I had 
met a third. 

'Going to make my last appeal for an extension of my permit 
tomorrow,' Mrs Eglantine said. 'Suppose you wouldn't like to 
write it for me, would you, England dear? It'll need to be bloody 
well put, that's sure.' 

'Where will you go?' I said. 'If you have to go?' 

'Nearest British possession, dear. Cook Islands. Wait there.' 

The Cook Islands are very beautiful. Across a long, shallow, 
sharkless lagoon flying-boats glide down between soft fringes 
of palm and purest hot white coral sand. At the little rest-house, 
by the anchorage, the prettiest and friendliest of Polynesian 
girls serve tea and cakes, giggling constantly, shaking back their 
long loose black hair. 

'Yes, it's very lovely,' I said. 'You couldn't have a better place 
to go than that. That's a paradise.' 

'And a dry one,' she said, 'in case you didn't know it. Worse 
than prohibition. They allow you a bottle of something stronger 
than lime-juice once a month, dear, and you even need a permit 
for that.' 

We left her under the moth-charged lights of the verandah 
groping for her shoes. 

454 Mrs Eglantine 

'Dormez bien, dears/ she said. 'Which is more than I shall do/ 

'She must have been very pretty once,' my wife said. 

'She's pretty now/ I said, 'sweet and rather pretty.' 

Five days later she flew out with us on the morning plane. 
Half way to the Cook Islands I brought her breakfast and she 
said, as she knocked it back, 'Bless you, England dear.' 

In the lagoon, by the anchorage, a little crowd of Polynesians, 
mostly women and girls, sat under the shade of palm-trees, out 
of the pure blistering heat of white coral sand, singing songs of 
farewell to a young man leaving by the plane. 

The songs of Polynesia have a great sadness in them that is 
very haunting. A few of the women were weeping. Then at the 
last moment a girl rushed on bare feet along the jetty towards 
the waiting launch, wringing her hands in sorrow, her long hair 
flying, bitterly weeping final words of good-bye. 

On the scalding white coral beach, under the palms, Mrs 
Eglantine was nowhere to be seen. And presently, as the launch 
moved away, I could no longer hear the songs of sad farewell 
or the haunting voice of the girl who was weeping. But only, 
running through my head, haunting too : 

'The Sweet-briar, or the Vine, or the twisted Eglantine.' 

Date Due 




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c. 3