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An Actor in the Wings: Notes (1980 – 2009) by Andre van Loon

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Image: Le joie de vivre - Paul Delveaux

Charles

I could see him from beside the door. He was surrounded by men in suits, pointing at the ceiling, looking at their drinks or at what their wives were doing. I remember the sight of them perfectly, as though it was yesterday, but strangely enough, always without sound.

I put my hand on the door knob, in the same way that one of the men had put his hand on the back of his chair.

Harry came up behind me and looked into the room. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Are you spying?’

‘No!’

‘Looks to me like you are.’ He seemed pleased to have found a weakness in me. But I saw him decide to go away, and I walked into the room to stand at the bay windows. A man cycling past waved at me.

Later, we went into the common. We played by the railway line, trying to throw sticks over the fence. It was broken in places, but none of us dared to go close to the openings. We went to the pond and threw stones in it, before one of the mothers told us not to.

Most of them had gone by the time we came back. When we came in he appeared from the garden and began telling us a story about a train crash that had happened years earlier. Harry told him the truth and he smiled at both of us. ‘You’re a funny boy Robert,’ he said to me, ‘you never say what you think, do you? Do you really think it will be less true if you say it?’

We went to bed and I began to pray. I remembered all that had happened that day; the men with their polished shoes; their wives carrying bags, looking at where things should go best; Harry and Victor chasing each other around the pond before falling out over a five-pound note.

Finally I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and whispered, too loudly: ‘and God bless Charles.’

That is 19 years ago.

Victor

‘This is Victor, Robert. He is three.’

I looked through the railings at a brown-haired boy. ‘Will I sleep in here?’

‘No no, this is Victor’s room.’

‘Where will I sleep?’

‘On the other side of the house. Victor needs lots of peace and quiet. You understand that, don’t you? He’s very sick unfortunately.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Funny boy.’ Charles looked at his shoe, turned the tip of it a few times on the carpet, and then took a large breath. ‘Come, let’s leave him. You’ll have lots of time to play with him when he’s a bit older. What do you think; will you be a friend to him?’

‘Yes. I think so.’

‘Good stuff.’ He turned towards the door and held out his hand for me. I looked back one last time at the boy. For the first time I noticed two big white and orange machines beside the cot, quietly humming away. One of them, I remember, had a sticker of a dragon on it.

Jacqueline

Jacqueline had red hair. I wondered for a long time why she looked as she did. In the living room’s bright lights, her face appeared very pale and I think she might have had green eyes, but I can’t remember. I have photographs of her, of course, but I won’t look at them.

The quiet stairs on a Sunday. The black and white photographs of men in uniforms and women with parasols or sitting on elephants. The piano with its silver candle holders. The bookcase with no books bought after the 1950s on it. The living room with its newspapers and low table, made from old railway sleepers. And always Jacqueline; the only one I remember always being there, whatever the weather or event.

She nodded at me when I first met her, and said hello as though it was once and forever. She had nothing to say, it seemed, but there were times when she talked to Charles for a long time, in a quiet voice, and he would look concerned then and wring his hands, start to say something, but eventually think the better of it and sigh.

I can see her now, tidying away glasses; drinking red wine with Charles on a Sunday; unsmiling, tall, stick thin.

I learned early on that she wasn’t an enemy. But also, that she would never be a friend. Something indefinable, something she’d seemingly rather die than talk about, had taken all of that away.

‘Aren’t you afraid?’

Two black beetles scurried about, fleeing from the stick I had picked up and was now bothering them with. I flicked one of them back at the little hole it had appeared from and it lay black and white in the sunshine. They would forget I had scared them and would dig and feel their way across twigs and half decayed leaves, hurrying towards God only knew what. I put the stick into the hole the beetles had come from again, but no other ones came out, though a few black ants had attached themselves to it.

‘Where are you, you shit?!’

I dropped my stick instantly and ran quickly towards the far end of the clearing. He didn’t shout again, but I heard him thrashing about in the woods behind me. He was hitting trees and bushes, stopping to be able to break things properly. I slid into the river bed, powder dry, and ran hunched down beneath fallen tree branches. I stopped and looked back, but I didn’t see him, not now, nor could I hear him. I tried to think where the river would go, and decided it must loop back on itself at some point.

Soon I got to a wide-open space where indeed the river arched itself back through low-lying fields. I cut my hand on tall reeds and then I sank into a black-deep finger of water. I went completely under and I suddenly thought I could leave it all now. I could stay here, to be nosed at by eels, never to be found but in three thousand years, oddly preserved.

But I felt too angry to stay under.

I got out of the ditch and went back the way I came. I got back to where the others were playing and I saw him instantly. He stood on a wooden walkway, low above the water, and was pointing at something far beneath. I walked up to him, past my bag and shoes, and pushed him into the water.

He came out, taking his time, apparently not thinking I could do anything else. He wasn’t crying; he wasn’t even that upset; in fact, he looked very calm, almost too quiet. He came right up to me, looked me in the eyes, until his nose touched mine. Finally, he said, just to me: ‘Aren’t you afraid?’

‘No,’ I lied.

He stepped back slowly, careful not to step on my toes, glanced at the woods beside the lake, and then he walked past me.

I have no idea what he did afterwards.

Two years ago, I was best man at his wedding.

Melancholy boy

She is happy to be alone with me, but she is also nervous.

It seemed an age since I had said anything. I felt embarrassed, I realised, and noticing myself realising, I blushed, cursing myself inwardly.

‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ she said suddenly. I didn’t know what to say, but felt encouraged when I saw she had stopped speaking.

What she’d said had brought us closer; if also impossibly apart.

Harry came down the stairs and lay his hand on her shoulder. ‘Not too late tonight darling’, he said, ‘we’ve a lot to do tomorrow.’ She smiled up at him.

It was time for me to go.

‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ I said to myself, walking home. No-one had ever told me anything so beautiful or so true.

That, at least, was something.

Tom

‘What do you study?’

‘English Literature. You?’

‘History.’ He looked at the book I held open. I thought how funny it was that he’d come up to me, standing in a row of books, before Thackeray, on the third floor of the library, most people being away for the holidays, downstairs or in the park. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Waiting for a friend,’ I lied.

‘Come out for a smoke?’

‘Alright.’

‘Tom,’ he said.

‘Robert.’

We went out into the day, a high blue sky and a wind that didn’t come close, staying along the square’s open windows. He had Marlboro Reds, which he said he’d bought in Sweden. I slept on his friend’s couch that night.

I still know him today. I think he lives with his wife in Fulham.

Splitting the universe

The pubs down the road were getting quieter. I switched off my laptop, went down the stairs, came back up again and phoned Ellie. She’d cooked vegetables and carved out avocados that now stood under a napkin.

‘I don’t know what to do with the wine.’

‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’

‘I thought about you today.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’

‘Oh.’

‘Well, I don’t think you’re honest. You’re not, are you?’

‘In what way?’

‘Are you really at work? I bet you went for drinks with your friends.’

‘Oh no. I’m finished.’

‘Robert…’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you feel love for me?’

She waited, as if my answer could split the universe. ‘Ellie, you know I do.’

There was a pause, but then she said: ‘I can’t open the wine.’

‘Yes of course. I’ll get a corkscrew, don’t worry.’

‘Yeah well, I don’t drink much anyway. It’s for you.’

Later, we ate by the light of two candles, little shocks disturbing our drinks from the trains. The avocados were brown around the edges but Ellie had made mustard to go with them.

We went to bed after Newsnight.

Oxford

We went to the hotel on Friday night, the train arriving after ten at Oxford. The lights of a tractor ran over the walls as we walked up the drive, the wind coming over the fields and through the trees above us.

We stayed in bed until midday the next day. Ellie stopped herself several times from talking about her classes, and I tried not to mention my unanswered emails. We ate lunch by a large window downstairs, joking about how much we’d listened to Dido already.

We read upstairs in the afternoon. I put my head on her knees, holding up Either Side of Winter. Ellie ran her hand through my hair, talking about the amount of times she’d finished before everyone else, and still had had to wait.

I kissed her.

On Sunday, we went to the river. There was enough sun and we lay where we could put our feet in the water. Ellie lay on her back, her eyes closed. I went close to her, reached to hold her hand, but then stopped and checked my mobile instead. A small grey fly scurried down my arm, flew up when it reached the first hairs of my hand, and landed on her shirt.

In the evening, I tried to talk to her, but finally went into the bathroom. I ran both taps, took off my shoes and sat on the edge of the bath. I could hear her laugh as she spoke on the phone to her mum.

True

‘I burnt my legs. See?’

‘Oh yeah? I got burnt on my shoulders and in my neck.’

‘Let me see?’ She ran her hands softly over my back. She tried to pull down my shirt at the back; stopped and unbuttoned the top button; and began feeling for sunburn. She went to get some water and then she wet her fingertips, tracing the outlines of my shoulder blades. ‘It’s not that bad,’ she said when she’d had enough, ‘it will go away.’

I turned around and looked at her standing by the bookshelves. She was looking intently at a piece of paper, holding one of the flat grey stones of her necklace very still. She stood just out of the sunlight, which slanted behind her onto a row of blue Tolstoys.

I’d seen her search for me on trains, in hallways, at parties, in cafes, bookshops, restaurants, cinemas and galleries. I’d heard her call me in countless places; her voice not always nice to hear. I had a thousand text messages from her, scribbled notes, birthday cards, signed books and even a long letter which she had page numbered, circling the numbers with large loops, but one that we didn’t talk about anymore.

She stood there, reading something I didn’t recognise, completely still.

Now or never it must be said, I thought.

Minutes earlier, this might even have been true.

Patiently perhaps

He couldn’t see me. I saw him look past and below me, his face and shirt lit up from the hallway. He looked slightly annoyed, as though I was too far from him; like now he’d have to shout, something he detested.

‘Why did you go up Robert?’

I felt the odd sensation of making sure of your expression though no one can see you; an actor in the wings. My feet felt awkward and heavy and I tried to make it better by standing on one leg. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t you come down? We can take Max out; you know he loves it when you’re back.’

I shouldn’t have told him anything, I thought. Or made up some story.

‘Anyway, you should talk things over. What do you think she’s going to do? Bite you?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ I whispered.

‘You’re such a funny boy Robert. Why don’t you just say what you think?’

‘It’s not working. What’s there to talk about?’

‘You can’t just…oh Robert, would you please come down? I can’t just stand here. I can’t even see you!’

‘I’ll be a minute.’ I had no intention of going to face him again.

‘You should talk about it. At least with me. You’re not afraid of me, are you?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Good, so come down.’ He stepped away from the stairs and went into the living room.

Nothing good could come of talking of course. Nothing ever had.

But I went to see Charles in the end, and let him try once more.

It would probably be God next, patiently perhaps.


By Andre van Loon

The London Magazine Short Story Competition 2016 | Winners

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Thank you so much to everyone who entered The London Magazines Short Story Competition 2016. We were delighted to see such a large volume and high standard of entries. Judges Max Porter, Erica Wagner and Angus Cargill have made their decision, and we are very pleased to announce the winners:

First place: The Match Factory by Emma Hughes

Second place: I Have Called You By Your Name by Anne O’Brien

Third place: The Ideal Husband Exhibition by Dan Powell

Each of these short stories will be published in upcoming issues of The London Magazine as well as online. The winners will be awarded their prizes at a ceremony held at the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion in March.

We would like to extend a special mention to those who were shortlisted, your short fiction also impressed our judges and magazine staff:

Shortlist:
The Fog Harvester – Marie Gethins
Strange Monument No. 1 –
Kevin Klinskidorn
Five Parts – Amanda Oosthuizen
Big Fish – William Pei Shih
Snow – Sally Syson
London City Ghouls i: Matt and Rakel Don’t Go Out – Toby Parker Rees
Take The Well – Mark Wagstaff

We’d also like to thank our judges for all the time and effort they put into reading the submissions, and thanks also to our readers, Ludovico Cinelli, Rufus Cuthbert and Victoria Lancaster, who aided the selection process!

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Max Porter

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With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to judge Max Porter and found out about which writer never fails to inspire him, which three books he’d take if he were stranded on a desert island, and what advice he’d give to this year’s competition entrants.

 

What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed?

I’m reading Lian Hearn’s Japanese adventure series Shikanoko, Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice, and some Peter Stamm short stories.

And what specifically did you like about it?

I like the very controlled and worthwhile magic realism in Lian Hearn’s books, and the sex, and the painterly way she has with violence. They’re hugely entertaining and I need that because I ‘literary fiction’ all day every day.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

That’s a horrible question and I refuse to answer it. Oh OK. On Monday it was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. On Tuesday it was The Swimmer by John Cheever. On Wednesday it is The Country Funeral by John McGahern. Thursday The Early Deaths of.. by Jesse Ball. And so on.

I’d choose The Lottery for a space capsule I suppose. Because it is devastating, exquisitely well designed, witty, political, mythic. It tells vast truths quickly and with poise. It is perfect.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Angela Carter.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

Refuse to answer. Ok, Odyssey, Shakespeare and a massive cheat Poetry anthology.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

You should let the story do what it needs to do and not corral it harmfully into another shape. Stories are lethal tools, let it be. Consider how many we’ll have to read and show us quickly why we need to pay attention to yours. Do not waste one single word. Finish well, all the greats do.

 


Max PorterMax Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

Thomas Hardy’s ‘A Mere Interlude’

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Title-page of Thomas Hardy's 'A Mere Interlude', published in The London Magazine in May 1903. All images: The British Library

With The London Magazine Short Story Competition now open for submissions, we delved into our archives for inspiration and found this short by Thomas Hardy from May 1903. The story was accompanied by illustrations by Gordon Browne. 

The traveller in school-books, who vouched in dryest tones for the fidelity to fact of the following narrative, used to add a ring of truth to it by opening with a nicety of criticism on the heroine’s personality. People were wrong, he declared, when they surmised that Baptista Trewthen was a young woman with scarcely emotions or character. There was nothing in her to love, and nothing to hate–so ran the general opinion. That she showed few positive qualities was true. The colours and tones which changing events paint on the faces of active womankind were looked for in vain upon hers. But still waters run deep; and no crisis had come in the years of her early maidenhood to demonstrate what lay hidden within her, like metal in a mine.

She was the daughter of a small farmer in St Maria’s, one of the Isles of Lyonesse beyond Off-Wessex, who had spent a large sum, as there understood, on her education, by sending her to the mainland for two years. At nineteen she was entered at the Training College for Teachers, and at twenty-one nominated to a school in the country, near Tor-upon-Sea, whither she proceeded after the Christmas examination and holidays.

The months passed by from winter to spring and summer, and Baptista applied herself to her new duties as best she could, till an uneventful year had elapsed. Then an air of abstraction pervaded her bearing as she walked to and fro, twice a day, and she showed the traits of a person who had something on her mind. A widow, by name Mrs Wace, in whose house Baptista Trewthen had been provided with a sitting-room and bedroom till the schoolhouse should be built, noticed this change in her youthful tenant’s manner, and at last ventured to press her with a few questions.

‘It has nothing to do with the place, nor with you,’ said Miss Trewthen.

‘Then it is the salary?’

‘No, nor the salary.’

‘Then it is something you have heard from home, my dear.’

Baptista was silent for a few moments. ‘It is Mr Heddegan,’ she murmured. ‘Him they used to call David Heddegan before he got his money.’

‘And who is the Mr Heddegan they used to call David?’

‘An old bachelor at Giant’s Town, St Maria’s, with no relations whatever, who lives about a stone’s throw from father’s. When I was a child he used to take me on his knee and say he’d marry me some day. Now I am a woman the jest has turned earnest, and he is anxious to do it. And father and mother say I can’t do better than have him.’

‘He’s well off?’

‘Yes–he’s the richest man we know–as a friend and neighbour.’

‘How much older did you say he was than yourself?’

‘I didn’t say. Twenty years at least.’

‘And an unpleasant man in the bargain perhaps?’

‘No–he’s not unpleasant.’

‘Well, child, all I can say is that I’d resist any such engagement if it’s not palatable to ‘ee. You are comfortable here, in my little house, I hope. All the parish like ‘ee: and I’ve never been so cheerful, since my poor husband left me to wear his wings, as I’ve been with ‘ee as my lodger.’

The schoolmistress assured her landlady that she could return the sentiment. ‘But here comes my perplexity,’ she said. ‘I don’t like keeping school. Ah, you are surprised–you didn’t suspect it. That’s because I’ve concealed my feeling. Well, I simply hate school. I don’t care for children–they are unpleasant, troublesome little things, whom nothing would delight so much as to hear that you had fallen down dead. Yet I would even put up with them if it was not for the inspector. For three months before his visit I didn’t sleep soundly. And the Committee of Council are always changing the Code, so that you don’t know what to teach, and what to leave untaught. I think father and mother are right. They say I shall never excel as a schoolmistress if I dislike the work so, and that therefore I ought to get settled by marrying Mr Heddegan. Between us two, I like him better than school; but I don’t like him quite so much as to wish to marry him.’

These conversations, once begun, were continued from day to day; till at length the young girl’s elderly friend and landlady threw in her opinion on the side of Miss Trewthen’s parents. All things considered, she declared, the uncertainty of the school, the labour, Baptista’s natural dislike for teaching, it would be as well to take what fate offered, and make the best of matters by wedding her father’s old neighbour and prosperous friend.

The Easter holidays came round, and Baptista went to spend them as usual in her native isle, going by train into Off-Wessex and crossing by packet from Pen-zephyr. When she returned in the middle of April her face wore a more settled aspect.

‘Well?’ said the expectant Mrs Wace.

‘I have agreed to have him as my husband,’ said Baptista, in an off-hand way. ‘Heaven knows if it will be for the best or not. But I have agreed to do it, and so the matter is settled.’

Mrs Wace commended her; but Baptista did not care to dwell on the subject; so that allusion to it was very infrequent between them. Nevertheless, among other things, she repeated to the widow from time to time in monosyllabic remarks that the wedding was really impending; that it was arranged for the summer, and that she had given notice of leaving the school at the August holidays. Later on she announced more specifically that her marriage was to take place immediately after her return home at the beginning of the month aforesaid.

She now corresponded regularly with Mr Heddegan. Her letters from him were seen, at least on the outside, and in part within, by Mrs Wace. Had she read more of their interiors than the occasional sentences shown her by Baptista she would have perceived that the scratchy, rusty handwriting of Miss Trewthen’s betrothed conveyed little more matter than details of their future housekeeping, and his preparations for the same, with innumerable ‘my dears’ sprinkled in disconnectedly, to show the depth of his affection without the inconveniences of syntax.

A Mere Interlude 3-4 image

II

It was the end of July–dry, too dry, even for the season, the delicate green herbs and vegetables that grew in this favoured end of the kingdom tasting rather of the watering-pot than of the pure fresh moisture from the skies. Baptista’s boxes were packed, and one Saturday morning she departed by a waggonette to the station, and thence by train to Pen-zephyr, from which port she was, as usual, to cross the water immediately to her home, and become Mr Heddegan’s wife on the Wednesday of the week following.

She might have returned a week sooner. But though the wedding day had loomed so near, and the banns were out, she delayed her departure till this last moment, saying it was not necessary for her to be at home long beforehand. As Mr Heddegan was older than herself, she said, she was to be married in her ordinary summer bonnet and grey silk frock, and there were no preparations to make that had not been amply made by her parents and intended husband.

In due time, after a hot and tedious journey, she reached Pen-zephyr. She here obtained some refreshment, and then went towards the pier, where she learnt to her surprise that the little steamboat plying between the town and the islands had left at eleven o’clock; the usual hour of departure in the afternoon having been forestalled in consequence of the fogs which had for a few days prevailed towards evening, making twilight navigation dangerous.

This being Saturday, there was now no other boat till Tuesday, and it became obvious that here she would have to remain for the three days, unless her friends should think fit to rig out one of the island sailing-boats and come to fetch her–a not very likely contingency, the sea distance being nearly forty miles.

Baptista, however, had been detained in Pen-zephyr on more than one occasion before, either on account of bad weather or some such reason as the present, and she was therefore not in any personal alarm. But, as she was to be married on the following Wednesday, the delay was certainly inconvenient to a more than ordinary degree, since it would leave less than a day’s interval between her arrival and the wedding ceremony.

Apart from this awkwardness she did not much mind the accident. It was indeed curious to see how little she minded. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that, although she was going to do the critical deed of her life quite willingly, she experienced an indefinable relief at the postponement of her meeting with Heddegan. But her manner after making discovery of the hindrance was quiet and subdued, even to passivity itself; as was instanced by her having, at the moment of receiving information that the steamer had sailed, replied ‘Oh’, so coolly to the porter with her luggage, that he was almost disappointed at her lack of disappointment.

The question now was, should she return again to Mrs Wace, in the village of Lower Wessex, or wait in the town at which she had arrived. She would have preferred to go back, but the distance was too great; moreover, having left the place for good, and somewhat dramatically, to become a bride, a return, even for so short a space, would have been a trifle humiliating.

Leaving, then, her boxes at the station, her next anxiety was to secure a respectable, or rather genteel, lodging in the popular seaside resort confronting her. To this end she looked about the town, in which, though she had passed through it half-a-dozen times, she was practically a stranger.

Baptista found a room to suit her over a fruiterer’s shop; where she made herself at home, and set herself in order after her journey. An early cup of tea having revived her spirits she walked out to reconnoitre.

Being a schoolmistress she avoided looking at the schools, and having a sort of trade connection with books, she avoided looking at the booksellers; but wearying of the other shops she inspected the churches; not that for her own part she cared much about ecclesiastical edifices; but tourists looked at them, and so would she–a proceeding for which no one would have credited her with any great originality, such, for instance, as that she subsequently showed herself to possess. The churches soon oppressed her. She tried the Museum, but came out because it seemed lonely and tedious.

Yet the town and the walks in this land of strawberries, these headquarters of early English flowers and fruit, were then, as always, attractive. From the more picturesque streets she went to the town gardens, and the Pier, and the Harbour, and looked at the men at work there, loading and unloading as in the time of the Phoenicians.

‘Not Baptista? Yes, Baptista it is!’

The words were uttered behind her. Turning round she gave a start, and became confused, even agitated, for a moment. Then she said in her usual undemonstrative manner, ‘O–is it really you, Charles?’

Without speaking again at once, and with a half-smile, the newcomer glanced her over. There was much criticism, and some resentment–even temper–in his eye.

‘I am going home,’ continued she. ‘But I have missed the boat.’

He scarcely seemed to take in the meaning of this explanation, in the intensity of his critical survey. ‘Teaching still? What a fine schoolmistress you make, Baptista, I warrant!’ he said with a slight flavour of sarcasm, which was not lost upon her.

‘I know I am nothing to brag of,’ she replied. ‘That’s why I have given up.’

‘O–given up? You astonish me.’

‘I hate the profession.’

‘Perhaps that’s because I am in it.’

‘O no, it isn’t. But I am going to enter on another life altogether. I am going to be married next week to Mr David Heddegan.’

The young man–fortified as he was by a natural cynical pride and passionateness–winced at this unexpected reply, notwithstanding.

‘Who is Mr David Heddegan?’ he asked, as indifferently as lay in his power.

She informed him the bearer of the name was a general merchant of Giant’s Town, St Maria’s Island–her father’s nearest neighbour and oldest friend.

‘Then we shan’t see anything more of you on the mainland?’ inquired the schoolmaster.

‘O, I don’t know about that,’ said Miss Trewthen.

‘Here endeth the career of the belle of the boarding-school your father was foolish enough to send you to. A “general merchant’s” wife in the Lyonesse Isles. Will you sell pounds of soap and pennyworths of tin tacks, or whole bars of saponaceous matter, and great tenpenny nails?’

‘He’s not in such a small way as that!’ she almost pleaded. ‘He owns ships, though they are rather little ones!’

‘O, well, it is much the same. Come, let us walk on; it is tedious to stand still. I thought you would be a failure in education,’ he continued, when she obeyed him and strolled ahead. ‘You never showed power that way. You remind me much of some of those women who think they are sure to be great actresses if they go on the stage, because they have a pretty face, and forget that what we require is acting. But you found your mistake, didn’t you?’

‘Don’t taunt me, Charles.’ It was noticeable that the young schoolmaster’s tone caused her no anger or retaliatory passion; far otherwise: there was a tear in her eye. ‘How is it you are at Pen-zephyr?’ she inquired.

‘I don’t taunt you. I speak the truth, purely in a friendly way, as I should to anyone I wished well. Though for that matter I might have some excuse even for taunting you. Such a terrible hurry as you’ve been in. I hate a woman who is in such a hurry.’

‘How do you mean that?’

‘Why–to be somebody’s wife or other–anything’s wife rather than nobody’s. You couldn’t wait for me, O, no. Well, thank God, I’m cured of all that!’

‘How merciless you are!’ she said bitterly. ‘Wait for you? What does that mean, Charley? You never showed–anything to wait for–anything special towards me.’

‘O come, Baptista dear; come!’

‘What I mean is, nothing definite,’ she expostulated. ‘I suppose you liked me a little; but it seemed to me to be only a pastime on your part, and that you never meant to make an honourable engagement of it.’

‘There, that’s just it! You girls expect a man to mean business at the first look. No man when he first becomes interested in a woman has any definite scheme of engagement to marry her in his mind, unless he is meaning a vulgar mercenary marriage. However, I did at last mean an honourable engagement, as you call it, come to that.’

‘But you never said so, and an indefinite courtship soon injures a woman’s position and credit, sooner than you think.’

‘Baptista, I solemnly declare that in six months I should have asked you to marry me.’

She walked along in silence, looking on the ground, and appearing very uncomfortable. Presently he said, ‘Would you have waited for me if you had known?’ To this she whispered in a sorrowful whisper, ‘Yes!’

They went still farther in silence–passing along one of the beautiful walks on the outskirts of the town, yet not observant of scene or situation. Her shoulder and his were close together, and he clasped his fingers round the small of her arm–quite lightly, and without any attempt at impetus; yet the act seemed to say, ‘Now I hold you, and my will must be yours.’

Recurring to a previous question of hers he said, ‘I have merely run down here for a day or two from school near Trufal, before going off to the north for the rest of my holiday. I have seen my relations at Redrutin quite lately, so I am not going there this time. How little I thought of meeting you! How very different the circumstances would have been if, instead of parting again as we must in half-an-hour or so, possibly for ever, you had been now just going off with me, as my wife, on our honeymoon trip. Ha–ha–well–so humorous is life!’

She stopped suddenly. ‘I must go back now–this is altogether too painful, Charley! It is not at all a kind mood you are in today.’

‘I don’t want to pain you–you know I do not,’ he said more gently. ‘Only it just exasperates me–this you are going to do. I wish you would not.’

‘What?’

‘Marry him. There, now I have showed you my true sentiments.’

‘I must do it now,’ said she.

‘Why?’ he asked, dropping the off-hand masterful tone he had hitherto spoken in, and becoming earnest; still holding her arm, however, as if she were his chattel to be taken up or put down at will. ‘It is never too late to break off a marriage that’s distasteful to you. Now I’ll say one thing; and it is truth: I wish you would marry me instead of him, even now, at the last moment, though you have served me so badly.’

‘O, it is not possible to think of that!’ she answered hastily, shaking her head. ‘When I get home all will be prepared–it is ready even now–the things for the party, the furniture, Mr. Heddegan’s new suit, and everything. I should require the courage of a tropical lion to go home there and say I wouldn’t carry out my promise!’

‘Then go, in Heaven’s name! But there would be no necessity for you to go home and face them in that way. If we were to marry, it would have to be at once, instantly; or not at all. I should think your affection not worth the having unless you agreed to come back with me to Trufal this evening, where we could be married by licence on Monday morning. And then no Mr. David Heddegan or anybody else could get you away from me.’

‘I must go home by the Tuesday boat,’ she faltered. ‘What would they think if I did not come?’

‘You could go home by that boat just the same. All the difference would be that I should go with you. You could leave me on the quay, where I’d have a smoke, while you went and saw your father and mother privately; you could then tell them what you had done, and that I was waiting not far off; that I was a schoolmaster in a fairly good position, and a young man you had known when you were at the Training College. Then I would come boldly forward; and they would see that it could not be altered, and so you wouldn’t suffer a lifelong misery by being the wife of a wretched old gaffer you don’t like at all. Now, honestly; you do like me best, don’t you, Baptista?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then we will do as I say.’

She did not pronounce a clear affirmative. But that she consented to the novel proposition at some moment or other of that walk was apparent by what occurred a little later.

III

An enterprise of such pith required, indeed, less talking than consideration. The first thing they did in carrying it out was to return to the railway station, where Baptista took from her luggage a small trunk of immediate necessaries which she would in any case have required after missing the boat. That same afternoon they travelled up the line to Trufal.

Charles Stow (as his name was), despite his disdainful indifference to things, was very careful of appearances, and made the journey independently of her though in the same train. He told her where she could get board and lodgings in the city; and with merely a distant nod to her of a provisional kind, went off to his own quarters, and to see about the licence.

On Sunday she saw him in the morning across the nave of the pro-cathedral. In the afternoon they walked together in the fields, where he told her that the licence would be ready next day, and would be available the day after, when the ceremony could be performed as early after eight o’clock as they should choose.

His courtship, thus renewed after an interval of two years, was as impetuous, violent even, as it was short. The next day came and passed, and the final arrangements were made. Their agreement was to get the ceremony over as soon as they possibly could the next morning, so as to go on to Pen-zephyr at once, and reach that place in time for the boat’s departure the same day. It was in obedience to Baptista’s earnest request that Stow consented thus to make the whole journey to Lyonesse by land and water at one heat, and not break it at Pen-zephyr; she seemed to be oppressed with a dread of lingering anywhere, this great first act of disobedience to her parents once accomplished, with the weight on her mind that her home had to be convulsed by the disclosure of it. To face her difficulties over the water immediately she had created them was, however, a course more desired by Baptista than by her lover; though for once he gave way.

The next morning was bright and warm as those which had preceded it. By six o’clock it seemed nearly noon, as is often the case in that part of England in the summer season. By nine they were husband and wife. They packed up and departed by the earliest train after the service; and on the way discussed at length what she should say on meeting her parents, Charley dictating the turn of each phrase. In her anxiety they had travelled so early that when they reached Pen-zephyr they found there were nearly two hours on their hands before the steamer’s time of sailing.

Baptista was extremely reluctant to be seen promenading the streets of the watering-place with her husband till, as above stated, the household at Giant’s Town should know the unexpected course of events from her own lips; and it was just possible, if not likely, that some Lyonessian might be prowling about there, or even have come across the sea to look for her. To meet anyone to whom she was known, and to have to reply to awkward questions about the strange young man at her side before her well-framed announcement had been delivered at proper time and place, was a thing she could not contemplate with equanimity. So, instead of looking at the shops and harbour, they went along the coast a little way.

The heat of the morning was by this time intense. They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea.

Baptista did not much like the idea of being left alone; it was gloomy, she said. But he assured her he would not be gone more than a quarter of an hour at the outside, and she passively assented.

Down he went, disappeared, appeared again, and looked back. Then he again proceeded, and vanished, till, as a small waxen object, she saw him emerge from the nook that had screened him, cross the white fringe of foam, and walk into the undulating mass of blue. Once in the water he seemed less inclined to hurry than before; he remained a long time; and, unable either to appreciate his skill or criticize his want of it at that distance, she withdrew her eyes from the spot, and gazed at the still outline of St Michael’s–now beautifully toned in grey.

Her anxiety for the hour of departure, and to cope at once with the approaching incidents that she would have to manipulate as best she could, sent her into a reverie. It was now Tuesday; she would reach home in the evening–a very late time they would say; but, as the delay was a pure accident, they would deem her marriage to Mr Heddegan tomorrow still practicable. Then Charles would have to be produced from the background. It was a terrible undertaking to think of, and she almost regretted her temerity in wedding so hastily that morning. The rage of her father would be so crushing; the reproaches of her mother so bitter; and perhaps Charles would answer hotly, and perhaps cause estrangement till death. There had obviously been no alarm about her at St Maria’s, or somebody would have sailed across to inquire for her. She had, in a letter written at the beginning of the week, spoken of the hour at which she intended to leave her country schoolhouse; and from this her friends had probably perceived that by such timing she would run a risk of losing the Saturday boat. She had missed it, and as a consequence sat here on the shore as Mrs Charles Stow.

This brought her to the present, and she turned from the outline of St Michael’s Mount to look about for her husband’s form. He was, as far as she could discover, no longer in the sea. Then he was dressing. By moving a few steps she could see where his clothes lay. But Charles was not beside them.

Baptista looked back again at the water in bewilderment, as if her senses were the victim of some sleight of hand. Not a speck or spot resembling a man’s head or face showed anywhere. By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder. Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place.

She descended as hastily as her trembling limbs would allow. The way down was terribly long, and before reaching the heap of clothes it occurred to her that, after all, it would be best to run first for help. Hastening along in a lateral direction she proceeded inland till she met a man, and soon afterwards two others. To them she exclaimed, ‘I think a gentleman who was bathing is in some danger. I cannot see him as I could. Will you please run and help him, at once, if you will be so kind?’

She did not think of turning to show them the exact spot, indicating it vaguely by the direction of her hand, and still going on her way with the idea of gaining more assistance. When she deemed, in her faintness, that she had carried the alarm far enough, she faced about and dragged herself back again. Before reaching the now dreaded spot she met one of the men.

‘We can see nothing at all, Miss,’ he declared.

Having gained the beach, she found the tide in, and no sign of Charley’s clothes. The other men whom she had besought to come had disappeared, it must have been in some other direction, for she had not met them going away. They, finding nothing, had probably thought her alarm a mere conjecture, and given up the quest.

Baptista sank down upon the stones near at hand. Where Charley had undressed was now sea. There could not be the least doubt that he was drowned, and his body sucked under by the current; while his clothes, lying within high-water mark, had probably been carried away by the rising tide.

She remained in a stupor for some minutes, till a strange sensation succeeded the aforesaid perceptions, mystifying her intelligence, and leaving her physically almost inert. With his personal disappearance, the last three days of her life with him seemed to be swallowed up, also his image, in her mind’s eye, waned curiously, receded far away, grew stranger and stranger, less and less real. Their meeting and marriage had been so sudden, unpremeditated, adventurous, that she could hardly believe that she had played her part in such a reckless drama. Of all the few hours of her life with Charles, the portion that most insisted in coming back to memory was their fortuitous encounter on the previous Saturday, and those bitter reprimands with which he had begun the attack, as it might be called, which had piqued her to an unexpected consummation.

A sort of cruelty, an imperiousness, even in his warmth, had characterized Charles Stow. As a lover he had ever been a bit of a tyrant; and it might pretty truly have been said that he had stung her into marriage with him at last. Still more alien from her life did these reflections operate to make him; and then they would be chased away by an interval of passionate weeping and mad regret. Finally, there returned upon the confused mind of the young wife the recollection that she was on her way homeward, and that the packet would sail in three-quarters of an hour.

Except the parasol in her hand, all she possessed was at the station awaiting her onward journey.

She looked in that direction; and, entering one of those undemonstrative phases so common with her, walked quietly on.

At first she made straight for the railway; but suddenly turning she went to a shop and wrote an anonymous line announcing his death by drowning to the only person she had ever heard Charles mention as a relative. Posting this stealthily, and with a fearful look around her, she seemed to acquire a terror of the late events, pursuing her way to the station as if followed by a spectre.

When she got to the office she asked for the luggage that she had left there on the Saturday as well as the trunk left on the morning just lapsed. All were put in the boat, and she herself followed. Quickly as these things had been done, the whole proceeding, nevertheless, had been almost automatic on Baptista’s part, ere she had come to any definite conclusion on her course.

Just before the bell rang she heard a conversation on the pier, which removed the last shade of doubt from her mind, if any had existed, that she was Charles Stow’s widow. The sentences were but fragmentary, but she could easily piece them out.

‘A man drowned–swam out too far–was a stranger to the place–people in boat–saw him go down–couldn’t get there in time.’

The news was little more definite than this as yet; though it may as well be stated once for all that the statement was true. Charley, with the over-confidence of his nature, had ventured out too far for his strength, and succumbed in the absence of assistance, his lifeless body being at the moment suspended in the transparent mid-depths of the bay. His clothes, however, had merely been gently lifted by the rising tide, and floated into a nook hard by, where they lay out of sight of the passers-by till a day or two after.

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IV

In ten minutes they were steaming out of the harbour for their voyage of four or five hours, at whose ending she would have to tell her strange story.

As Pen-zephyr and all its environing scenes disappeared behind Mousehole and St Clement’s Isle, Baptista’s ephemeral, meteor-like husband impressed her yet more as a fantasy. She was still in such a trance-like state that she had been an hour on the little packet-boat before she became aware of the agitating fact that Mr Heddegan was on board with her. Involuntarily she slipped from her left hand the symbol of her wifehood.

‘Hee-hee! Well, the truth is, I wouldn’t interrupt ‘ee. “I reckon she don’t see me, or won’t see me,” I said, “and what’s the hurry? She’ll see enough o’ me soon!” I hope ye be well, mee deer?’

He was a hale, well-conditioned man of about five and fifty, of the complexion common to those whose lives are passed on the bluffs and beaches of an ocean isle. He extended the four quarters of his face in a genial smile, and his hand for a grasp of the same magnitude. She gave her own in surprised docility, and he continued:

‘I couldn’t help coming across to meet ‘ee. What an unfortunate thing you missing the boat and not coming Saturday! They meant to have warned ‘ee that the time was changed, but forgot it at the last moment. The truth is that I should have informed ‘ee myself, but I was that busy finishing up a job last week, so as to have this week free, that I trusted to your father for attending to these little things. However, so plain and quiet as it is all to be, it really do not matter so much as it might otherwise have done, and I hope ye haven’t been greatly put out. Now, if you’d sooner that I should not be seen talking to ‘ee–if ‘ee feel shy at all before strangers–just say. I’ll leave ‘ee to yourself till we get home.’

‘Thank you much. I am indeed a little tired, Mr Heddegan.’

He nodded urbane acquiescence, strolled away immediately, and minutely inspected the surface of the funnel, till some female passengers of Giant’s Town tittered at what they must have thought a rebuff–for the approaching wedding was known to many on St Maria’s Island, though to nobody elsewhere. Baptista coloured at their satire, and called him back, and forced herself to commune with him in at least a mechanically friendly manner.

The opening event had been thus different from her expectation, and she had adumbrated no act to meet it. Taken aback she passively allowed circumstances to pilot her along; and so the voyage was made.

It was near dusk when they touched the pier of Giant’s Town, where several friends and neighbours stood awaiting them. Her father had a lantern in his hand. Her mother, too, was there, reproachfully glad that the delay had at last ended so simply. Mrs Trewthen and her daughter went together along the Giant’s Walk, or promenade, to the house, rather in advance of her husband and Mr Heddegan, who talked in loud tones which reached the women over their shoulders.

Some would have called Mrs Trewthen a good mother; but though well meaning she was maladroit, and her intentions missed their mark. This might have been partly attributable to the slight deafness from which she suffered. Now, as usual, the chief utterances came from her lips.

‘Ah, yes, I’m so glad, my child, that you’ve got over safe. It is all ready, and everything so well arranged, that nothing but misfortune could hinder you settling as, with God’s grace, becomes ‘ee. Close to your mother’s door a’most, ’twill be a great blessing, I’m sure; and I was very glad to find from your letters that you’d held your word sacred. That’s right–make your word your bond always. Mrs Wace seems to be a sensible woman. I hope the Lord will do for her as he’s doing for you no long time hence. And how did ‘ee get over the terrible journey from Tor-upon-Sea to Pen-zephyr? Once you’d done with the railway, of course, you seemed quite at home. Well, Baptista, conduct yourself seemly, and all will be well.’

Thus admonished, Baptista entered the house, her father and Mr Heddegan immediately at her back. Her mother had been so didactic that she had felt herself absolutely unable to broach the subjects in the centre of her mind.

The familiar room, with the dark ceiling, the well-spread table, the old chairs, had never before spoken so eloquently of the times ere she knew or had heard of Charley Stow. She went upstairs to take off her things, her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard of outside the Western Duchy. Baptista, once alone, sat down and did nothing; and was called before she had taken off her bonnet.

‘I’m coming,’ she cried, jumping up, and speedily disapparelling herself, brushed her hair with a few touches and went down.

Two or three of Mr Heddegan’s and her father’s friends had dropped in, and expressed their sympathy for the delay she had been subjected to. The meal was a most merry one except to Baptista. She had desired privacy, and there was none; and to break the news was already a greater difficulty than it had been at first. Everything around her, animate and inanimate, great and small, insisted that she had come home to be married; and she could not get a chance to say nay.

One or two people sang songs, as overtures to the melody of the morrow, till at length bedtime came, and they all withdrew, her mother having retired a little earlier. When Baptista found herself again alone in her bedroom the case stood as before: she had come home with much to say, and she had said nothing.

It was now growing clear even to herself that Charles being dead, she had not determination sufficient within her to break tidings which, had he been alive, would have imperatively announced themselves. And thus with the stroke of midnight came the turning of the scale; her story should remain untold. It was not that upon the whole she thought it best not to attempt to tell it; but that she could not undertake so explosive a matter. To stop the wedding now would cause a convulsion in Giant’s Town little short of volcanic. Weakened, tired, and terrified as she had been by the day’s adventures, she could not make herself the author of such a catastrophe. But how refuse Heddegan without telling? It really seemed to her as if her marriage with Mr Heddegan were about to take place as if nothing had intervened.

Morning came. The events of the previous days were cut off from her present existence by scene and sentiment more completely than ever. Charles Stow had grown to be a special being of whom, owing to his character, she entertained rather fearful than loving memory. Baptista could hear when she awoke that her parents were already moving about downstairs. But she did not rise till her mother’s rather rough voice resounded up the staircase as it had done on the preceding evening.

‘Baptista! Come, time to be stirring! The man will be here, by Heaven’s blessing, in three-quarters of an hour. He has looked in already for a minute or two–and says he’s going to the church to see if things be well forward.’

Baptista arose, looked out of the window, and took the easy course. When she emerged from the regions above she was arrayed in her new silk frock and best stockings, wearing a linen jacket over the former for breakfasting, and her common slippers over the latter, not to spoil the new ones on the rough precincts of the dwelling.

It is unnecessary to dwell at any great length on this part of the morning’s proceedings. She revealed nothing; and married Heddegan, as she had given her word to do, on that appointed August day.

V

Mr Heddegan forgave the coldness of his bride’s manner during and after the wedding ceremony, full well aware that there had been considerable reluctance on her part to acquiesce in this neighbourly arrangement, and, as a philosopher of long standing, holding that whatever Baptista’s attitude now, the conditions would probably be much the same six months hence as those which ruled among other married couples.

An absolutely unexpected shock was given to Baptista’s listless mind about an hour after the wedding service. They had nearly finished the midday dinner when the now husband said to her father, ‘We think of starting about two. And the breeze being so fair we shall bring up inside Pen-zephyr new pier about six at least.’

‘What–are we going to Pen-zephyr?’ said Baptista. ‘I don’t know anything of it.’

‘Didn’t you tell her?’ asked her father of Heddegan.

It transpired that, owing to the delay in her arrival, this proposal too, among other things, had in the hurry not been mentioned to her, except some time ago as a general suggestion that they would go somewhere. Heddegan had imagined that any trip would be pleasant, and one to the mainland the pleasantest of all.

She looked so distressed at the announcement that her husband willingly offered to give it up, though he had not had a holiday off the island for a whole year. Then she pondered on the inconvenience of staying at Giant’s Town, where all the inhabitants were bonded, by the circumstances of their situation, into a sort of family party, which permitted and encouraged on such occasions as these oral criticism that was apt to disturb the equanimity of newly married girls, and would especially worry Baptista in her strange situation. Hence, unexpectedly, she agreed not to disorganize her husband’s plans for the wedding jaunt, and it was settled that, as originally intended, they should proceed in a neighbour’s sailing boat to the metropolis of the district.

In this way they arrived at Pen-zephyr without difficulty or mishap. Bidding adieu to Jenkin and his man, who had sailed them over, they strolled arm in arm off the pier, Baptista silent, cold, and obedient. Heddegan had arranged to take her as far as Plymouth before their return, but to go no further than where they had landed that day. Their first business was to find an inn; and in this they had unexpected difficulty, since for some reason or other–possibly the fine weather–many of the nearest at hand were full of tourists and commercial travellers. He led her on till he reached a tavern which, though comparatively unpretending, stood in as attractive a spot as any in the town; and this, somewhat to their surprise after their previous experience, they found apparently empty. The considerate old man, thinking that Baptista was educated to artistic notions, though he himself was deficient in them, had decided that it was most desirable to have, on such an occasion as the present, an apartment with ‘a good view’ (the expression being one he had often heard in use among tourists); and he therefore asked for a favourite room on the first floor, from which a bow-window protruded, for the express purpose of affording such an outlook.

The landlady, after some hesitation, said she was sorry that particular apartment was engaged; the next one, however, or any other in the house, was unoccupied.

‘The gentleman who has the best one will give it up tomorrow, and then you can change into it,’ she added, as Mr Heddegan hesitated about taking the adjoining and less commanding one.

‘We shall be gone tomorrow, and shan’t want it,’ he said.

Wishing not to lose customers, the landlady earnestly continued that since he was bent on having the best room, perhaps the other gentleman would not object to move at once into the one they despised, since, though nothing could be seen from the window, the room was equally large.

‘Well, if he doesn’t care for a view,’ said Mr Heddegan, with the air of a highly artistic man who did.

‘O no–I am sure he doesn’t,’ she said. ‘I can promise that you shall have the room you want. If you would not object to go for a walk for half an hour, I could have it ready, and your things in it, and a nice tea laid in the bow-window by the time you come back?’

This proposal was deemed satisfactory by the fussy old tradesman, and they went out. Baptista nervously conducted him in an opposite direction to her walk of the former day in other company, showing on her wan face, had he observed it, how much she was beginning to regret her sacrificial step for mending matters that morning.

She took advantage of a moment when her husband’s back was turned to inquire casually in a shop if anything had been heard of the gentleman who was sucked down in the eddy while bathing.

The shopman said, ‘Yes, his body has been washed ashore,’ and had just handed Baptista a newspaper on which she discerned the heading, ‘A Schoolmaster drowned while bathing’, when her husband turned to join her. She might have pursued the subject without raising suspicion; but it was more than flesh and blood could do, and completing a small purchase almost ran out of the shop.

‘What is your terrible hurry, mee deer?’ said Heddegan, hastening after.

‘I don’t know–I don’t want to stay in shops,’ she gasped.

‘And we won’t,’ he said. ‘They are suffocating this weather. Let’s go back and have some tay!’

They found the much desired apartment awaiting their entry. It was a sort of combination bed and sitting-room, and the table was prettily spread with high tea in the bow-window, a bunch of flowers in the midst, and a best-parlour chair on each side. Here they shared the meal by the ruddy light of the vanishing sun. But though the view had been engaged, regardless of expense, exclusively for Baptista’s pleasure, she did not direct any keen attention out of the window. Her gaze as often fell on the floor and walls of the room as elsewhere, and on the table as much as on either, beholding nothing at all.

But there was a change. Opposite her seat was the door, upon which her eyes presently became riveted like those of a little bird upon a snake. For, on a peg at the back of the door, there hung a hat; such a hat–surely, from its peculiar make, the actual hat–that had been worn by Charles. Conviction grew to certainty when she saw a railway ticket sticking up from the band. Charles had put the ticket there–she had noticed the act.

Her teeth almost chattered; she murmured something incoherent. Her husband jumped up and said, ‘You are not well! What is it? What shall I get ‘ee?’

‘Smelling salts!’ she said, quickly and desperately; ‘at the chemist’s shop you were in just now.’

He jumped up like the anxious old man that he was, caught up his own hat from a back table, and without observing the other hastened out and downstairs.

Left alone she gazed and gazed at the back of the door, then spasmodically rang the bell. An honest-looking country maid-servant appeared in response.

‘A hat!’ murmured Baptista, pointing with her finger. ‘It does not belong to us.’

‘O yes, I’ll take it away,’ said the young woman with some hurry ‘It belongs to the other gentleman.’

She spoke with a certain awkwardness, and took the hat out of the room. Baptista had recovered her outward composure. ‘The other gentleman?’ she said. ‘Where is the other gentleman?’

‘He’s in the next room, ma’am. He removed out of this to oblige ‘ee.’

‘How can you say so? I should hear him if he were there,’ said Baptista, sufficiently recovered to argue down an apparent untruth.

‘He’s there,’ said the girl, hardily.

‘Then it is strange that he makes no noise,’ said Mrs Heddegan, convicting the girl of falsity by a look.

‘He makes no noise; but it is not strange,’ said the servant.

All at once a dread took possession of the bride’s heart, like a cold hand laid thereon; for it flashed upon her that there was a possibility of reconciling the girl’s statement with her own knowledge of facts.

‘Why does he make no noise?’ she weakly said.

The waiting-maid was silent, and looked at her questioner. ‘If I tell you, ma’am, you won’t tell missis?’ she whispered.

Baptista promised.

‘Because he’s a-lying dead!’ said the girl. ‘He’s the schoolmaster that was drowned yesterday.’

‘O!’ said the bride, covering her eyes. ‘Then he was in this room till just now?’

‘Yes,’ said the maid, thinking the young lady’s agitation natural enough. ‘And I told missis that I thought she oughtn’t to have done it, because I don’t hold it right to keep visitors so much in the dark where death’s concerned; but she said the gentleman didn’t die of anything infectious; she was a poor, honest, innkeeper’s wife, she says, who had to get her living by making hay while the sun sheened. And owing to the drowned gentleman being brought here, she said, it kept so many people away that we were empty, though all the other houses were full. So when your good man set his mind upon the room, and she would have lost good paying folk if he’d not had it, it wasn’t to be supposed, she said, that she’d let anything stand in the way. Ye won’t say that I’ve told ye, please, m’m? All the linen has been changed, and as the inquest won’t be till tomorrow, after you are gone, she thought you wouldn’t know a word of it, being strangers here.’

The returning footsteps of her husband broke off further narration. Baptista waved her hand, for she could not speak. The waiting-maid quickly withdrew, and Mr Heddegan entered with the smelling salts and other nostrums.

‘Any better?’ he questioned.

‘I don’t like the hotel,’ she exclaimed, almost simultaneously. ‘I can’t bear it–it doesn’t suit me!’

‘Is that all that’s the matter?’ he returned pettishly (this being the first time of his showing such a mood). ‘Upon my heart and life such trifling is trying to any man’s temper, Baptista! Sending me about from here to yond, and then when I come back saying ‘ee don’t like the place that I have sunk so much money and words to get for ‘ee. ‘Od dang it all, ’tis enough to–But I won’t say any more at present, mee deer, though it is just too much to expect to turn out of the house now. We shan’t get another quiet place at this time of the evening–every other inn in the town is bustling with rackety folk of one sort and t’other, while here ’tis as quiet as the grave–the country, I would say. So bide still, d’ye hear, and tomorrow we shall be out of the town altogether–as early as you like.’

The obstinacy of age had, in short, overmastered its complaisance, and the young woman said no more. The simple course of telling him that in the adjoining room lay a corpse which had lately occupied their own might, it would have seemed, have been an effectual one without further disclosure, but to allude to that subject, however it was disguised, was more than Heddegan’s young wife had strength for. Horror broke her down. In the contingency one thing only presented itself to her paralysed regard–that here she was doomed to abide, in a hideous contiguity to the dead husband and the living, and her conjecture did, in fact, bear itself out. That night she lay between the two men she had married–Heddegan on the one hand, and on the other through the partition against which the bed stood, Charles Stow.

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VI

Kindly time had withdrawn the foregoing event three days from the present of Baptista Heddegan. It was ten o’clock in the morning; she had been ill, not in an ordinary or definite sense, but in a state of cold stupefaction, from which it was difficult to arouse her so much as to say a few sentences. When questioned she had replied that she was pretty well.

Their trip, as such, had been something of a failure. They had gone on as far as Falmouth, but here he had given way to her entreaties to return home. This they could not very well do without repassing through Pen-zephyr, at which place they had now again arrived.

In the train she had seen a weekly local paper, and read there a paragraph detailing the inquest on Charles. It was added that the funeral was to take place at his native town of Redrutin on Friday.

After reading this she had shown no reluctance to enter the fatal neighbourhood of the tragedy, only stipulating that they should take their rest at a different lodging from the first; and now comparatively braced up and calm–indeed a cooler creature altogether than when last in the town, she said to David that she wanted to walk out for a while, as they had plenty of time on their hands.

‘To a shop as usual, I suppose, mee deer?’

‘Partly for shopping,’ she said. ‘And it will be best for you, dear, to stay in after trotting about so much, and have a good rest while I am gone.’

He assented; and Baptista sallied forth. As she had stated, her first visit was made to a shop, a draper’s. Without the exercise of much choice she purchased a black bonnet and veil, also a black stuff gown; a black mantle she already wore. These articles were made up into a parcel which, in spite of the saleswoman’s offers, her customer said she would take with her. Bearing it on her arm she turned to the railway, and at the station got a ticket for Redrutin.

Thus it appeared that, on her recovery from the paralysed mood of the former day, while she had resolved not to blast utterly the happiness of her present husband by revealing the history of the departed one, she had also determined to indulge a certain odd, inconsequent, feminine sentiment of decency, to the small extent to which it could do no harm to any person. At Redrutin she emerged from the railway carnage in the black attire purchased at the shop, having during the transit made the change in the empty compartment she had chosen. The other clothes were now in the bandbox and parcel. Leaving these at the cloak-room she proceeded onward, and after a wary survey reached the side of a hill whence a view of the burial ground could be obtained.

It was now a little before two o’clock. While Baptista waited a funeral procession ascended the road. Baptista hastened across, and by the time the procession entered the cemetery gates she had unobtrusively joined it.

In addition to the schoolmaster’s own relatives (not a few), the paragraph in the newspapers of his death by drowning had drawn together many neighbours, acquaintances, and onlookers.

Among them she passed unnoticed, and with a quiet step pursued the winding path to the chapel, and afterwards thence to the grave. When all was over, and the relatives and idlers had withdrawn, she stepped to the edge of the chasm. From beneath her mantle she drew a little bunch of forget-me-nots, and dropped them in upon the coffin. In a few minutes she also turned and went away from the cemetery. By five o’clock she was again in Pen-zephyr.

‘You have been a mortal long time!’ said her husband, crossly. ‘I allowed you an hour at most, mee deer.’

‘It occupied me longer,’ said she.

‘Well–I reckon it is wasting words to complain. Hang it, ye look so tired and wisht that I can’t find heart to say what I would!’

‘I am–weary and wisht, David; I am. We can get home tomorrow for certain, I hope?’

‘We can. And please God we will!’ said Mr Heddegan heartily, as if he too were weary of his brief honeymoon. ‘I must be into business again on Monday morning at latest.’

They left by the next morning steamer, and in the afternoon took up their residence in their own house at Giant’s Town.

The hour that she reached the island it was as if a material weight had been removed from Baptista’s shoulders. Her husband attributed the change to the influence of the local breezes after the hot-house atmosphere of the mainland. However that might be, settled here, a few doors from her mother’s dwelling, she recovered in no very long time much of her customary bearing, which was never very demonstrative. She accepted her position calmly, and faintly smiled when her neighbours learned to call her Mrs Heddegan, and said she seemed likely to become the leader of fashion in Giant’s Town.

Her husband was a man who had made considerably more money by trade than her father had done: and perhaps the greater profusion of surroundings at her command than she had heretofore been mistress of, was not without an effect upon her. One week, two weeks, three weeks passed; and, being pre-eminently a young woman who allowed things to drift, she did nothing whatever either to disclose or conceal traces of her first marriage; or to learn if there existed possibilities–which there undoubtedly did–by which that hasty contract might become revealed to those about her at any unexpected moment.

While yet within the first month of her marriage, and on an evening just before sunset, Baptista was standing within her garden adjoining the house, when she saw passing along the road a personage clad in a greasy black coat and battered tall hat, which, common enough in the slums of a city, had an odd appearance in St Maria’s. The tramp, as he seemed to be, marked her at once–bonnetless and unwrapped as she was her features were plainly recognizable–and with an air of friendly surprise came and leant over the wall.

‘What! don’t you know me?’ said he.

She had some dim recollection of his face, but said that she was not acquainted with him.

‘Why, your witness to be sure, ma’am. Don’t you mind the man that was mending the church-window when you and your intended husband walked up to be made one; and the clerk called me down from the ladder, and I came and did my part by writing my name and occupation?’

Baptista glanced quickly around; her husband was out of earshot. That would have been of less importance but for the fact that the wedding witnessed by this personage had not been the wedding with Mr. Heddegan, but the one on the day previous.

‘I’ve had a misfortune since then, that’s pulled me under,’ continued her friend. ‘But don’t let me damp yer wedded joy by naming the particulars. Yes, I’ve seen changes since; though ’tis but a short time ago–let me see, only a month next week, I think; for ’twere the first or second day in August.’

‘Yes–that’s when it was,’ said another man, a sailor, who had come up with a pipe in his mouth, and felt it necessary to join in (Baptista having receded to escape further speech). ‘For that was the first time I set foot in Giant’s Town; and her husband took her to him the same day.’

A dialogue then proceeded between the two men outside the wall, which Baptista could not help hearing.

‘Ay, I signed the book that made her one flesh,’ repeated the decayed glazier. ‘Where’s her good-man?’

‘About the premises somewhere; but you don’t see’em together much,’ replied the sailor in an undertone. ‘You see, he’s older than she.’

‘Older? I should never have thought it from my own observation,’ said the glazier. ‘He was a remarkably handsome man.’

‘Handsome? Well, there he is–we can see for ourselves.’

David Heddegan had, indeed, just shown himself at the upper end of the garden; and the glazier, looking in bewilderment from the husband to the wife, saw the latter turn pale.

Now that decayed glazier was a far-seeing and cunning man–too far-seeing and cunning to allow himself to thrive by simple and straightforward means–and he held his peace, till he could read more plainly the meaning of this riddle, merely added carelessly, ‘Well–marriage do alter a man, ’tis true. I should never ha’ knowed him!’

He then stared oddly at the disconcerted Baptista, and moving on to where he could again address her, asked her to do him a good turn, since he once had done the same for her. Understanding that he meant money, she handed him some, at which he thanked her, and instantly went away.

VII

She had escaped exposure on this occasion; but the incident had been an awkward one, and should have suggested to Baptista that sooner or later the secret must leak out. As it was, she suspected that at any rate she had not heard the last of the glazier.

In a day or two, when her husband had gone to the old town on the other side of the island, there came a gentle tap at the door, and the worthy witness of her first marriage made his appearance a second time.

‘It took me hours to get to the bottom of the mystery–hours!’ he said with a gaze of deep confederacy which offended her pride very deeply. ‘But thanks to a good intellect I’ve done it. Now, ma’am, I’m not a man to tell tales, even when a tale would be so good as this. But I’m going back to the mainland again, and a little assistance would be as rain on thirsty ground.’

‘I helped you two days ago,’ began Baptista.

‘Yes–but what was that, my good lady? Not enough to pay my passage to Pen-zephyr. I came over on your account, for I thought there was a mystery somewhere. Now I must go back on my own. Mind this–‘twould be very awkward for you if your old man were to know. He’s a queer temper, though he may be fond.’

She knew as well as her visitor how awkward it would be; and the hush-money she paid was heavy that day. She had, however, the satisfaction of watching the man to the steamer, and seeing him diminish out of sight. But Baptista perceived that the system into which she had been led of purchasing silence thus was one fatal to her peace of mind, particularly if it had to be continued.

Hearing no more from the glazier she hoped the difficulty was past. But another week only had gone by, when, as she was pacing the Giant’s Walk (the name given to the promenade), she met the same personage in the company of a fat woman carrying a bundle.

‘This is the lady, my dear,’ he said to his companion. ‘This, ma’am, is my wife. We’ve come to settle in the town for a time, if so be we can find room.’

‘That you won’t do,’ said she. ‘Nobody can live here who is not privileged.’

‘I am privileged,’ said the glazier, ‘by my trade.’

Baptista went on, but in the afternoon she received a visit from the man’s wife. This honest woman began to depict, in forcible colours, the necessity for keeping up the concealment.

‘I will intercede with my husband, ma’am,’ she said. ‘He’s a true man if rightly managed; and I’ll beg him to consider your position. ‘Tis a very nice house you’ve got here,’ she added, glancing round, ‘and well worth a little sacrifice to keep it.’

The unlucky Baptista staved off the danger on this third occasion as she had done on the previous two. But she formed a resolve that, if the attack were once more to be repeated she would face a revelation–worse though that must now be than before she had attempted to purchase silence by bribes. Her tormentors, never believing her capable of acting upon such an intention, came again; but she shut the door in their faces. They retreated, muttering something; but she went to the back of the house, where David Heddegan was.

She looked at him, unconscious of all. The case was serious; she knew that well; and all the more serious in that she liked him better now than she had done at first. Yet, as she herself began to see, the secret was one that was sure to disclose itself. Her name and Charles’s stood indelibly written in the registers; and though a month only had passed as yet it was a wonder that his clandestine union with her had not already been discovered by his friends. Thus spurring herself to the inevitable, she spoke to Heddegan.

‘David, come indoors. I have something to tell you.’

He hardly regarded her at first. She had discerned that during the last week or two he had seemed preoccupied, as if some private business harassed him. She repeated her request. He replied with a sigh, ‘Yes, certainly, mee deer.’

When they had reached the sitting-room and shut the door she repeated, faintly, ‘David, I have something to tell you–a sort of tragedy I have concealed. You will hate me for having so far deceived you; but perhaps my telling you voluntarily will make you think a little better of me than you would do otherwise.’

‘Tragedy?’ he said, awakening to interest. ‘Much you can know about tragedies, mee deer, that have been in the world so short a time!’

She saw that he suspected nothing, and it made her task the harder. But on she went steadily. ‘It is about something that happened before we were married,’ she said.

‘Indeed!’

‘Not a very long time before–a short time. And it is about a lover,’ she faltered.

‘I don’t much mind that,’ he said mildly. ‘In truth, I was in hopes ’twas more.’

‘In hopes!’

‘Well, yes.’

This screwed her up to the necessary effort. ‘I met my old sweetheart. He scorned me, chid me, dared me, and I went and married him. We were coming straight here to tell you all what we had done; but he was drowned; and I thought I would say nothing about him: and I married you, David, for the sake of peace and quietness. I’ve tried to keep it from you, but have found I cannot. There–that’s the substance of it, and you can never, never forgive me, I am sure!’

She spoke desperately. But the old man, instead of turning black or blue, or slaying her in his indignation, jumped up from his chair, and began to caper around the room in quite an ecstatic emotion.

‘O, happy thing! How well it falls out!’ he exclaimed, snapping his fingers over his head. ‘Ha-ha–the knot is cut–I see a way out of my trouble–ha-ha!’

She looked at him without uttering a sound, till, as he still continued smiling joyfully, she said, ‘O–what do you mean? Is it done to torment me?’

‘No–no! O, mee deer, your story helps me out of the most heart-aching quandary a poor man ever found himself in! You see, it is this–_I’ve_ got a tragedy, too; and unless you had had one to tell, I could never have seen my way to tell mine!’

‘What is yours–what is it?’ she asked, with altogether a new view of things.

‘Well–it is a bouncer; mine is a bouncer!’ said he, looking on the ground and wiping his eyes.

‘Not worse than mine?’

‘Well–that depends upon how you look at it. Yours had to do with the past alone; and I don’t mind it. You see, we’ve been married a month, and it don’t jar upon me as it would if we’d only been married a day or two. Now mine refers to past, present, and future; so that–‘

‘Past, present, and future!’ she murmured. ‘It never occurred to me that you had a tragedy too.’

‘But I have!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘In fact, four.’

‘Then tell ’em!’ cried the young woman.

‘I will–I will. But be considerate, I beg ‘ee, mee deer. Well–I wasn’t a bachelor when I married ‘ee, any more than you were a spinster. Just as you was a widow-woman, I was a widow-man.’

‘Ah!’ said she, with some surprise. ‘But is that all?–then we are nicely balanced,’ she added, relieved.

‘No–it is not all. There’s the point. I am not only a widower.’

‘O, David!’

‘I am a widower with four tragedies–that is to say, four strapping girls–the eldest taller than you. Don’t ‘ee look so struck–dumb-like! It fell out in this way. I knew the poor woman, their mother, in Pen-zephyr for some years; and–to cut a long story short–I privately married her at last, just before she died. I kept the matter secret, but it is getting known among the people here by degrees. I’ve long felt for the children–that it is my duty to have them here, and do something for them. I have not had courage to break it to ‘ee, but I’ve seen lately that it would soon come to your ears, and that hev worried me.’

‘Are they educated?’ said the ex-schoolmistress.

‘No. I am sorry to say they have been much neglected; in truth, they can hardly read. And so I thought that by marrying a young schoolmistress I should get some one in the house who could teach ’em, and bring ’em into genteel condition, all for nothing. You see, they are growed up too tall to be sent to school.’

‘O, mercy!’ she almost moaned. ‘Four great girls to teach the rudiments to, and have always in the house with me spelling over their books; and I hate teaching, it kills me. I am bitterly punished–I am, I am!’

‘You’ll get used to ’em, mee deer, and the balance of secrets–mine against yours–will comfort your heart with a sense of justice. I could send for ’em this week very well–and I will! In faith, I could send this very day. Baptista, you have relieved me of all my difficulty!’

Thus the interview ended, so far as this matter was concerned. Baptista was too stupefied to say more, and when she went away to her room she wept from very mortification at Mr Heddegan’s duplicity. Education, the one thing she abhorred; the shame of it to delude a young wife so!

The next meal came round. As they sat, Baptista would not suffer her eyes to turn towards him. He did not attempt to intrude upon her reserve, but every now and then looked under the table and chuckled with satisfaction at the aspect of affairs. ‘How very well matched we be!’ he said, comfortably.

Next day, when the steamer came in, Baptista saw her husband rush down to meet it; and soon after there appeared at her door four tall, hipless, shoulderless girls, dwindling in height and size from the eldest to the youngest, like a row of Pan pipes; at the head of them standing Heddegan. He smiled pleasantly through the grey fringe of his whiskers and beard, and turning to the girls said, ‘Now come forrard, and shake hands properly with your stepmother.’

Thus she made their acquaintance, and he went out, leaving them together. On examination the poor girls turned out to be not only plain-looking, which she could have forgiven, but to have such a lamentably meagre intellectual equipment as to be hopelessly inadequate as companions. Even the eldest, almost her own age, could only read with difficulty words of two syllables; and taste in dress was beyond their comprehension. In the long vista of future years she saw nothing but dreary drudgery at her detested old trade without prospect of reward.

She went about quite despairing during the next few days–an unpromising, unfortunate mood for a woman who had not been married six weeks. From her parents she concealed everything. They had been amongst the few acquaintances of Heddegan who knew nothing of his secret, and were indignant enough when they saw such a ready-made household foisted upon their only child. But she would not support them in their remonstrances.

‘No, you don’t yet know all,’ she said.

Thus Baptista had sense enough to see the retributive fairness of this issue. For some time, whenever conversation arose between her and Heddegan, which was not often, she always said, ‘I am miserable, and you know it. Yet I don’t wish things to be otherwise.’

But one day when he asked, ‘How do you like ’em now?’ her answer was unexpected. ‘Much better than I did,’ she said, quietly. ‘I may like them very much some day.’

This was the beginning of a serener season for the chastened spirit of Baptista Heddegan. She had, in truth, discovered, underneath the crust of uncouthness and meagre articulation which was due to their Troglodytean existence, that her unwelcomed daughters had natures that were unselfish almost to sublimity. The harsh discipline accorded to their young lives before their mother’s wrong had been righted, had operated less to crush them than to lift them above all personal ambition. They considered the world and its contents in a purely objective way, and their own lot seemed only to affect them as that of certain human beings among the rest, whose troubles they knew rather than suffered.

This was such an entirely new way of regarding life to a woman of Baptista’s nature, that her attention, from being first arrested by it, became deeply interested. By imperceptible pulses her heart expanded in sympathy with theirs. The sentences of her tragi-comedy, her life, confused till now, became clearer daily. That in humanity, as exemplified by these girls, there was nothing to dislike, but infinitely much to pity, she learnt with the lapse of each week in their company. She grew to like the girls of unpromising exterior, and from liking she got to love them; till they formed an unexpected point of junction between her own and her husband’s interests, generating a sterling friendship at least, between a pair in whose existence there had threatened to be neither friendship nor love.

THE END.

 

A Mere Interlude final page

 


Transcribed by Alice Troy-Donovan 

A Discovery in the Woods by Graham Greene

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Title for Graham Greene's 'A Discovery in the Woods', from The London Magazine May 1963

I

The village lay among the great red rocks about a thousand feet up and five miles from the sea, which was reached by a path that wound along the contours of the hills. No one in Pete’s village had ever travelled further than that, though Pete’s father had once, while fishing, encountered men from another small village beyond the headland, which stabbed the sea twenty miles to the east. The children, when they didn’t accompany their fathers to the shingled cove in which the boats lay, would climb up higher for their games — of ‘Old Noh’ and ‘Ware that Cloud’ — beneath the red rocks which dominated their home. Low scrub a few hundred feet up gave place to woodland: trees clung to the rock-face like climbers caught in an impossible situation, and among the trees were the bushes of blackberry, the largest fruit always sheltered from the sun; in the right season the berries formed a tasty sharp dessert to the invariable diet of fish. It was, taking it all in all, a sparse and simple yet a happy life.

Pete’s mother was a little under five foot tall; she had a squint and she was inclined to stumble when she walked, but her movements to Pete seemed at their most uncertain the height of human grace, and when she told him stories as she often did on the fifth day of the week, her stammer had for him some of the magical effect of music. There was one word in particular ‘t-t-t-tree’ which fascinated him. ‘What is it?’ he would ask, and she would try to explain. ‘You mean an oak?’ ’A t-tree is not an oak. But an oak is a t-t-tree, and so is a b-birch.’ ‘But a birch is quite different from an oak. Anyone can tell they are not the same even a long way off, like a dog and a cat.’ ‘A dog and a c-cat are both animals.’ She had from some past generation inherited this ability to generalize of which he and his father were quite incapable.

Not that he was a stupid child unable to learn from experience. He could even with some difficulty look back into the past for four winters, but the fur-thest time he could remember was very like a sea-fog which the wind may disperse for a moment from a rock or a group of trees, but it closes down again. His mother claimed that he was seven years old, but his father said that he was

nine and that after one more winter he would be old enough to join the crew of the boat which he shared with a relation (everybody in the village was in some way related). Perhaps his mother had deliberately distorted his age to postpone the time when he would have to go fishing with the men. It was not only the question of danger — though every winter brought a mortal casualty along with it, so that the size of the village hardly increased more than a colony of ants; it was also the fact that he was the only child. (There were two sets of parents in the village, the Torts and the Foxes, who had more than one child, and the Torts had triplets.) When the time came for Pete to join his father, his mother would have to depend on other people’s children for blackberries in the autumn or just go without, and there was nothing she loved better than blackberries with a splash of goat’s milk.

So this, he believed, was to be his last autumn on land, and he was not much concerned about it. Perhaps his father was in the right about his age, for he had become aware that his position as leader of his special gang was now too incontestable: his muscles felt the need of strengthening against an opponent greater than himself. His gang consisted this October of four children, to three of whom he had allotted numbers, for this made his commands sound more abrupt and discipline so much the easier. The fourth member was a seven year old girl called Liz, unwillingly introduced for reasons of utility.

They met among the ruins at the edge of the village. The ruins had always been there, and at night the children, if not the adults too, believed them to be haunted by giants. Pete’s mother, who was far superior in knowledge to all the other women in the village, nobody quite knew why, said that her grandmother had spoken of a great catastrophe which thousands of years ago had involved a man called Noh — perhaps it was a thunderbolt from the sky, a huge wave (it would have needed a wave at least a thousand feet high to have extinguished this village), or maybe a plague, so some of the legends went, that had killed the inhabitants and left these ruins to the slow destruction of time. Whether the giants were the phantoms of the slayers or of the slain the children were never quite clear.

The blackberries this particular autumn were nearly over and in any case the bushes that grew within a mile of the village — which was called Bottom, perhaps because it lay at the foot of the red rocks — had been stripped bone-bare. When the gang had gathered at the rendezvous Pete made a revolutionary proposal — that they should enter a new territory in search of fruit.

Number One said disapprovingly, ‘We’ve never done that before.’ He was in all ways a conservative child. He had small deep-sunk eyes like holes in stone made by the dropping of water, and there was practically no hair on his head and that gave him the air of a shrivelled old man.

‘We’ll get into trouble,’ Liz said, ‘if we do.’

‘Nobody need know,’ Pete said, ‘so long as we take the oath.’

The village by long custom claimed that the land belonging to it extended in a semi-circle three miles deep from the last cottage — even though the last cottage was a ruin of which only the foundations remained; of the sea too they reckoned to own the water for a larger and more ill-defined area that extended some twelve miles out to sea. This claim, on the occasion when they had encountered the boats from beyond the headland, nearly caused a conflict. It was Pete’s father who had made peace by pointing towards the clouds which had begun to mass over the horizon, one cloud in particular of enormous black menace, so that both parties turned in agreement towards the land, and the fishermen from the village beyond the headland never sailed again so far from their home. (Fishing was always done in grey overcast weather or in fine blue weather, or even during moonless nights, when the stars were obscured; it was only when the actual shape of the clouds could be discerned that by general consent fishing stopped.)

‘But suppose we meet someone ?’ Number Two asked.

‘How could we?’ Pete said.

‘There must be a reason,’ Liz said, ‘why they don’t want us to go.’

‘There’s no reason,’ Pete said, ’except the law.’

‘Oh, if it’s only the law,’ Number Three said, and he kicked a stone to show how little he thought of the law.

‘Who does the land belong to?’ Liz asked.

‘To nobody,’ Pete said. ’There’s no one there at all.’

‘All the same nobody has rights,’ Number One said sententiously, looking inwards, with his watery sunk eyes.

‘You are right there,’ Pete said. ’Nobody has.’

‘But I didn’t mean what you mean,’ Number One replied.

‘You think there are blackberries there, further up?’ Number Two asked. He was a reasonable child who only wanted to be assured that the risk was worth while.

‘There are bushes all the way up through the woods,’ Pete said.

‘How do you know?’

‘It stands to reason.’

It seemed odd to him that day how reluctant they were to take his advice. Why should the blackberry bushes abruptly stop their growth on the border of their own territory? Blackberries were not created for their special use. Pete said, ‘Don’t you want to pick them one time more before the winter comes?’ and they hung their heads, as though they were seeking a reply in the red earth where the ants were making roads from stone to stone. At last Number One said, ‘Nobody’s been there before,’ as if that was the worst thing he could say.

‘All the better blackberries,’ Pete replied.

Number Two said after consideration, ‘The wood looks deeper up there and blackberries like the shade.’

Number Three yawned. ‘Who cares about blackberries anyway? There’s other things to do than pick. It’s new ground isn’t it? Let’s go and see. Who knows . . .’

‘Who knows?’ Liz repeated in a frightened way and looked first at Pete and then at Number Three as though it were possible that perhaps they might.

‘Hold up your hands and vote,’ Pete said. He shot his own arm commandingly up and Number Three was only a second behind. After a little hesitation Number Two followed suit; then seeing that there was a majority anyway for venturing further, Liz raised a cautious hand but with a backward glance at Number One. ‘So you’re going home?’ Pete said to Number One with scornful relief.

‘He’ll have to take the oath anyway,’ Number Three said, ‘or else…’

‘I don’t have to take the oath if I’m going home.’

‘Of course you have to or else you’ll tell.’

‘What do I care about your silly oath. It doesn’t mean a thing. I can take it and tell just the same.’

There was a shocked silence: the other three looked at Pete. The whole foundation of their mutual trust seemed to be endangered. No one had ever suggested breaking the oath before. At last Number Three said, ‘Let’s bash him.’ ‘No,’ Pete said. Violence, he knew, wasn’t the answer. Number One would run home just the same and tell everything. The whole blackberry picking would be spoilt by the thoughts of the punishment to come.

‘Oh hell,’ Number Two said, ‘Let’s forget the blackberries and play Old Noh.’

Liz, like the girl she was, began to weep. ‘I want to pick blackberries.’

But Pete had been given the time to reach a decision. He said, ‘He’s going to take the oath and he’s going to pick blackberries too. Tie his hands.’

Number One tried to escape, but Number Two tripped him up. Liz bound his wrist. with her hair ribbon, pulling a hard knot which only she knew — it was for such special skills as this that she had gained her entry into the gang. Number One sat on a chunk of ruin and sneered at them. ‘How do I pick blackberries with my hands tied?’

‘You were greedy and ate them all. You brought none home. They’ll find the stains all over your clothes.’

‘Oh, he’ll get such a beating,’ Liz said with admiration. ‘I bet they’ll beat him bare.’

‘Four against one.’

‘Now you are going to take the oath,’ Pete said. He broke off two twigs and held them in the shape of a cross. Each of the other three members of the gang gathered saliva in the mouth and smeared with it the four ends of the cross. Then Pete thrust the sticky points of wood between the lips of Number One. Words were unnecessary: the same thought came inevitably to the mind of each one with the act: ‘Strike me dead if I tell.’ After they had dealt forcibly with Number One each followed the same ritual voluntarily. (Not one of them knew the origin of the oath; it had passed down through generations of gangs like this. Once Pete, and perhaps all the others at one time or another had done the same in the darkness of their beds, tried to explain to himself the ceremony of the oath: in sharing the spittle maybe they were sharing each other’s lives, like mixing blood, and the act was solemnized upon a cross because for some reason a cross always signified shameful death.)

‘Who’s got a bit of string?’ Pete said.

They tied the string to Liz’s hair ribbon and jerked Number One to his feet. Number Two pulled the string and Number Three pushed from behind. Pete led the way, upwards and into the wood, while Liz trailed alone behind; she couldn’t move quickly because she had very bandy legs. Now that he realized there was nothing to be done about it, Number One made little trouble; he contented himself with an occasional sneer and lagged enough to keep the cord stretched fight, so their march was delayed and nearly two hours passed before they came to the edge of the known territory, emerging from the woods of Bottom on to the edge of a shallow ravine. On the other side the rocks rose again in exactly the same way with the birches lodged in every crevice up to the skyline to which no one from the village of Bottom had ever climbed, and in all the interstices of roots and rocks the blackberries grew. From where they stood they could imagine a blue haze like autumn smoke from the great luscious untouched fruit dangling in the shade.

II

All the same they hesitated a little before they started going down; it was as though Number One had retained a certain malevolent influence and they had bound themselves to it by the cord. He squatted on the ground and sneered up at them. ‘You see you don’t dare…’

‘Dare what?’ Pete asked, trying to brush his words away before any doubts could settle on Two or Three or Liz and sap the uncertain power he possessed.

‘Those blackberries don’t belong to us,’ One said.

‘Then who do they belong to?’ Pete asked him, noting how Number Two looked at Number One hopefully as though he expected an answer.

Three said with scorn, ‘Findings keeping,’ and kicked a stone down into the ravine.

‘They belong to the next village. You know that as well as I do.’

‘And where’s the next village?’ Pete asked.

‘Somewhere.’

‘For all you know there isn’t another village.’

‘There must be. It’s common sense. We can’t be the only ones we and Two Rivers.’ (That was what they called the village which lay beyond the headland.)

‘But how do you know?’ Pete said. His thoughts began to take wing. ‘Perhaps we are the only ones. Perhaps we could climb up there and go on for ever and ever. Perhaps the world’s empty.’ He could feel the way that Number Two and Liz were half-way with him — as for Number Three he was a hopeless case; he cared for nothing, but all the same if he had to choose his successor, he would prefer Number Three’s care-for-nothing character than the elderly inherited rules of Number One or the unadventurous reliability of Number Two. Number One said ‘You are just crazy,’ and spat down into the ravine. ’We couldn’t be the only ones alive. It’s common sense.’

‘Why not?’ Pete said. ’Who knows?’

Perhaps the blackberries are poisoned? Liz said. ‘Perhaps we’ll get the gripes. Perhaps there’s savages there. Perhaps there’s giants.’

‘I’ll believe in giants when I see them,’ Pete said. He knew the shallowness of her fear; she only wanted to be reassured by someone stronger than herself.

‘You talk a lot,’ Number One said, ‘but you can’t even organize. Why didn’t you toil us to bring baskets if we were going to pick things?’

‘We don’t need baskets. We’ve got Liz’s skirt.’

‘And It’s Liz who’ll be thrashed when her skirt’s all stained.’

‘Not if it’s full of blackberries she won’t. Tie up your skirt, Liz.’

Liz tied it up, making it into a pannier, with a knot behind above the opening of her small plump buttocks. The boys watched her with a certain interest to see how she fixed it. ‘They’ll all fall out,’ Number One said. ‘You ought to have taken the whole thing off an’ made a sack?

‘How could I climb holding a sack? You don’t know a thing, Number One. I can fix this easy.’ She squatted on the ground with a bare buttock on each heel and tied and retied the knot till she was quite satisfied that the pannier was firm.

‘So now we go down,’ Number Three said.

‘Not till I give the order. Number One, I’ll release you if you promise to give no trouble.’ ’I’ll give plenty of trouble.’

‘Number Two and Three, you take charge of Number One. You’re the rear-guard, see. If we have to retreat in a hurry, you just leave the prisoner behind. Liz and I go ahead to reconnoitre.’

‘Why Liz ?’ Number Three said. ’What good’s a girl?’

‘In case we have to use a spy. Girl spies are always best. Anyway they wouldn’t bash a girl.’

‘Pa does,’ Liz said, twitching her buttocks.

‘But I want to be in the van,’ Three said.

‘We don’t know which is the van yet. They may be watching us now while we talk. They may be luring us on and then they’ll attack in the rear.’

‘You’re afraid,’ Number One said. ‘Fainty goose! Fainty goose!’

‘I’m not afraid, but I’m boss, I’m responsible for the gang. Listen all of you, in case of danger we give one short whistle. Stay where you are. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Two short whistles mean abandon the prisoner and retreat double-quick. One long whistle means treasure discovered, all well, come as quick as you can. Everybody got that clear?’

‘Yah,’ said Number Two. ’But suppose we’re just lost?’

‘Stay where you are and wait for a whistle.’

‘Suppose he whistles — to confuse?’ Number Two said, digging at Number One with his toe.

‘If he does gag him. Gag him hard, so his teeth squeak.’

Pete went to the edge of the plateau and gazed down to choose his path through the scrub; the rocks descended some thirty feet. Liz stood close behind him and held the edge of his shirt. ‘Who are They?’ she whispered.

‘Strangers.’

‘You don’t believe in giants?’

‘No.’

‘When I think of giants, I shiver — here,’ and she laid her hand on the little bare mount of Venus below her panniered skirt.

Pete said, ‘We’ll start down there between those clumps of gorse. Be care-ful. The stones are loose and we don’t want to make any noise at all,’ He turned back to the others who watched him with admiration, in envy and hate (that was Number One), ‘Wait till you see us start climbing up the other side and then you come on down.’ He looked at the sky. ‘The invasion began at noon,’ he said with the precision of an historian recording an event in the past which had altered the shape of the world.

III

‘We could whistle now,’ Liz said. They were halfway up the opposing slope of the ravine by this time, and they were both out of breath from the scramble. She put a blackberry in her mouth and added, ‘They’re sweet. Sweeter than ours. Shall I start picking?’ Her thighs and bottom were scratched with briars and smeared with blood like blackberry juice.

Pete said, ‘Why, I’ve seen better than these in our territory. Liz, don’t you notice, not one of them’s been picked. No one’s ever come here. Those ones are nothing to what we’ll find later. They’ve been growing here for years and years and years — why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we came on a whole forest of them with berries as big as apples. We’ll leave these little ones for the others if they want to pick them. You and I will climb up higher and find real treasure.’ As he spoke he could hear the scrape of the others’ shoes, where they followed behind and the roll of a loose stone, but they could see nothing because the bushes grew so thick around the trees. ‘Come on. If we find treasure first, it’s ours.’

‘I wish it was real treasure, not just blackberries.’

‘It might be real treasure. No one’s ever explored here before us.’

‘Giants?’ Liz asked him with a shiver.

‘Those are stories they tell children. Like Old Noh and his ship. There never were giants.’

‘Not Old Noh?’

‘What a baby you are.’

They climbed up and up among the birches and bushes, and the sound of th. other’ diminished below them. There was quite a different smell here: hot and moist and metallic, far away from the salt of the sea. Then the trees and bushes thinned and they were at the summit of the hills. Looking backwards Bottom was hidden by the ridge between, but through the trees they could see a line of blue as though the sea had been lifted up almost to their level by some gigantic convulsion. They turned nervously away from it and stared into the unknown land ahead.

IV

‘It’s a house,’ Liz said Vs a huge house.’

‘It can’t be. You’ve never seen a house that size — or that shape,’ but he knew that Liz was right. This had been made by men and not by nature. It was something in which people had once lived.

‘A house for giants,’ Liz said fearfully.

Pete lay on his stomach and peered over the edge of the ravine. A hundred feet down among the red rocks lay the long structure glinting here and there among the bushes and moss which overgrew it — it stretched beyond their sight, trees climbed along its sides, trees had seeded on the roof, and up the length of two enormous chimneys ivy twined and flowering plants with trumpet-mouths. There was no smoke, no sign of any occupant; only the birds, perhaps disturbed by their voices, called warnings among the trees, and: a whole colony of starlings rose from one of the chimneys and dispersed.

‘Let’s go back,’ Liz whispered.

‘We can’t now,’ Pete said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s only another ruin. What’s wrong with ruins? We’ve always played in them.’

‘It’s scary. It’s not like the ruins at Bottom.’

‘Bottom’s not the world; Pete said: it was the expression of a profound belief he shared with no one else. The huge structure was tilted at an angle, so that they could almost see down one of the enormous chimneys, gaping like a hole in the world. ‘I’m going down to look,’ Pete said, ’but I’ll spy out the land first.’

‘Shall I whistle?’

‘Not yet. Stay just where you are in case the others come.’

He moved cautiously along the ridge. Behind him the strange thing not built of stone or wood — seemed to extend a hundred yards or more, sometimes hidden, sometimes obscured by trees, but in the direction which he now took the cliff was bare of vegetation, and he could peer down at the great wall of the house, not straight but oddly curved, like the belly of a fish or…He stood still for a moment and looked hard at it: the curve was the ‘enormous magnification of something which was familiar to him. He went thoughtfully on, thinking of the old legend which had been the subject of their games. Nearly a hundred yards further on he stopped again. It was as though at this point some enormous hand had taken the house and split it in two. He could look down between the two portions and see the house exposed floor by floor — there must be five, six, seven of them, with nothing stirring inside, except where the bushes had found a lodging and a wing flickered. He could imagine the great halls receding into the dark, and he thought how all the inhabitants of Bottom could have lived in a single room on a single floor and still have found space for their animals and their gear. How many thousand people, he wondered, had once lived in this enormous house. He hadn’t realized the world contained so many.

When the house had been broken — how? — one portion had been flung upwards at an angle, and only fifty yards from where he stood he could see where the end of it had penetrated the ridge, so that if he wished to explore further he had only to drop a few yards to find himself upon the roof. There trees grew again and made an easy descent. He had no excuse to stay where he was and suddenly aware of his loneliness and ignorance and the mystery of the great house he put his fingers to his mouth and gave one long whistle to summon all the others.

V

They were overawed, and if Number One had not so jeered at them, perhaps they might have decided to go home with the secret of the house locked in their minds with a dream of one day returning. But when Number One said, ’Softies, Fainties…’ and shot his spittle down towards the house, Number Three broke silence. ‘What are we waiting for?’ Then Pete had to act, if he were to guard his leadership to the end. Scrambling from branch to branch of a tree that grew up from a plateau of rock below the ridge, he got within six feet of the roof and dropped. He landed painfully on his knees upon a surface cold and hard and smooth as an egg-shell. The four children looked down at him with awe and waited.

The slope of the roof was such that he had to slide cautiously downwards on his bottom. At the end of the descent there was another house which had been built upon the roof, and he realized from where he sat that the whole structure was not one house but a succession of houses built one over the other and over the topmost house loomed the tip of the enormous chimney. Remembering how the whole thing had been torn apart he was careful not to slide too fast for fear that he should plunge into the gap between. None of the others had followed him; he was alone.

Ahead of him was a great arch of some unknown material, and under the arch a red rock rose and split it in two. This was like a victory for the mountains with which he was familiar; however hard the material men had used in making the house, the mountains remained the stronger. He came to rest with his feet against a rock and looked down into the wide gap where it had come up and split the houses; the gap was many yards across, but it was bridged by a fallen tree, and although he could see only a little way down, he had the same sense as he had received above that he was looking into something as deep as the sea. Why was it he half expected to see fishes moving there?

With his hand pressed on the needle of red rock he stood upright and looking up was startled to see two inscrutable unwinking eyes regarding him from a few feet away. Then as he moved again he saw that they belonged to a squirrel, the colour of the rock: it turned without any hurry or fear, lifted a plumy tail and neatly evacuated before it leapt into the hail ahead of him.

The hall—it was indeed a hail, as he realized, making his way towards it astride the fallen tree, and yet the first impression he had was of a forest, with the trees regularly spaced as in a plantation made by men. It was possible to walk there an a level, though the ground was hummocked with red rock which here and there had burst through the hard paving. The trees were not trees at all but pillars of wood, still showing in patches a smooth surface, but pitted for most of their length with worm-holes and draped with ivy which climbed to the roof fifty feet up to escape through a great tear in the ceiling. There was a smell of vegetation and damp, and all down the hail were dozens of small green tumuli like woodland graves.

He kicked one of the mounds with his foot and it disintegrated immediately under the thick damp moss that covered it. Gingerly he thrust in his hand into the soggy greenery and pulled out a strut of rotting wood. He moved on and tried with his foot a long curved hump of green which stood more than breast high — not like a common grave — and this time he stubbed his toes and winced with the pain. The greenery had taken no root here, but had spread from tumulus to hump across the floor, and he was able to pluck away without difficulty the leaves and tendrils. Underneath lay a stone slab in many beautiful colours, green and rose-pink and red the colour of blood. He moved around it, cleaning the surface as he went, and here at last he came on real treasure. For a moment he didn’t realize what purpose those half translucent objects could have served; they stood in rows behind a smashed panel, most broken into green rubble, but a few intact, except for the discolorations of age. It was from their shape he realized that they must once have been drinking pots, made of a material quite different from the rough clay to which he was accus-tomed. Scattered on the floor below were hundreds of hard round objects stamped with the image of a human head like those his grandparents had dug up in the ruins of Bottom — useless objects except that with their help it was possible to draw a perfect circle and they could be used as forfeits, in place of pebbles, in the game of ‘Ware that Cloud’. They were more interesting than pebbles. They had dignity and rareness which belonged to all old things made by man — there was so little to be seen in the world older than an old man. He was tempted momentarily to keep the discovery to himself, but what purpose would they serve if they were not employed? A forfeit was of no value kept secret in a hole, so putting his fingers to his mouth he blew again the long whistle.

While he waited for the others to join him he sat on the stone slab deep in thought pondering all that he had seen, especially that great wall like a fish’s belly. The whole huge house, it seemed to him, was like a monstrous fish thrown up among the rocks to die, but what a fish and what a wave to carry it so high.

The children came sliding down the roof bringing Number One still in tow between them; they gave little cries of excitement and delight; they were quite forgetful of their fear, as though it were the season of snow. Then they picked themselves up by the red rock, as he had done, straddled the fallen tree, and hobbled across the vast space of the hail, like insects caught under a cup.

‘There’s treasure for you,’ Pete said with pride and he was glad to see how they were surprised into silence at the spectacle; even Number One forgot to sneer, and the cord by which they had held him trailed neglected on the ground. At last Number Two said, ‘Coo! It’s better than blackberries.’

‘Put the forfeits into Liz’s skirt. We’ll divide them later.’

‘Does Number One get any?’ Liz said ‘There’s enough for all,’ Pete said. ‘Let him go.’

It seemed the moment for generosity, and in any case they needed all their hands. While they were gathering up the forfeits he went to one of the great gaps in the wall that must once have been windows, covered perhaps like the windows of Bottom with straw mats at night, and leant far out. The hills rose and fell like a brown and choppy sea; there was no sign of a village anywhere, not even of a ruin. Below the great black wall curved out of sight; the point where it touched the ground was hidden from him by the tops of the trees that grew in the valley below. He remembered the old legend, and the game they played among the ruins of Bottom. ‘Noh built a boat. What kind of a boat? A boat for all the beasts and Brigit too. What kind of beasts? Big beasts like bears and beavers and Brigit too…’

Something went twang with a high musical sound and then there was a sigh which faded into silence. He turned and saw that Number Three was busy at yet another mound — the second biggest mound in the hall. He had unearthed a long box full of the oblongs they called dominoes, but nearly every time he touched a piece a sound came, each a little different, and when he touched one a second time it remained silent. Number Two, in the hope of further treasure, groped in the mound and found only rusty wires which scratched his hands. There were no more sounds to he coaxed out of the box, and no one ever discovered why at the beginning it seemed to sing to them.

VI

Had they ever experienced a longer day than this even at the height of mid-summer ? The sun, of course, stayed longer on the high plateau, and they could not tell that night was already encroaching on the woods and valleys far below them. There were two long narrow passages in the house down which they raced, tripping sometimes on the broken floor — Liz kept to the rear, unable to run fast for fear of spilling the forfeits from her skirt. The passages were lined with rooms each one large enough to contain a family from Bottom, with strange tarnished twisted fixtures of which the purpose remained a mystery to them. There was another great hall, this one without pillars, which had a great square sunk in the floor lined with coloured stone; it shelved upwards, so that at one end it was ten feet deep and at the other so shallow that they could drop down on to the floor, on to the drift of dead leaves and the scraps of twigs blown there by winter winds, and everywhere the droppings of birds like splashes of soiled snow.

At the end of yet a third hail they came, all of them, to a halt, for there in front of them, in bits and pieces, were five children staring back, a half-face, a head cut in two as though by a butcher’s hatchet, a knee severed from a foot. They stared at the strangers and one of them defiantly raised a fist — it was Number Three. At once one of the strange flat children lifted his fist in reply. Battle was about to be joined; it was almost a relief in this empty world to find real enemies to fight, so they advanced slowly like suspicious cats, Liz a little in the rear, and there on the other side was another girl with skirts drawn up in the same fashion as hers to hold the same forfeits, with a similar little crack under the mount below the belly, but her face obscured with a green rash, one eye missing. The strangers moved their legs and arms, and yet remained flat against the wall, and suddenly they were touching nose to nose, and there was nothing there at all but the cold smooth wall. They backed away and approached and backed away: this was something not one of them could understand. So without saying anything to each other, in a private awe, they moved away to where steps led down to the floors below; there they hesitated again listening and peering, their voices twittering against the unbroken silence, but they were afraid of the darkness waiting, where the side of the mountain cut off all light, so they ran away, screaming defiantly down the long passages, where the late sun slanted in, until they came to rest at last in a group on the great stairs which led upwards into a brighter daylight where the enormous chimneys stood.

‘Let’s go home,’ Number One said. ‘If we don’t go soon it will be dark.’

‘Who’s a Faintie now ?’ Number Three said.

‘It’s only a house. It’s a big house, but it’s only a house.’

Pete said, ‘It’s not a house,’ and they all turned with one accord and looked their questions at him.

‘What do you mean, not a house?’ Number Two asked.

‘It’s a boat,’ Pete said.

‘You are crazy. Whoever saw a boat as big as this?’

‘Whoever saw a house as big as this?’ Liz asked.

‘What’s a boat doing on top of a mountain? Why would a boat have chimneys? What would a boat have forfeits for? When did a boat have rooms and passages?’ They threw their sharp objections at him, like handfuls of gravel to sting him into sense.

‘It’s Noh’s boat,’ Pete said.

‘You’re nuts,’ Number One said. ‘Noh’s a game. There was never anyone called Noh.’

‘How can we tell? Maybe he did live hundreds of years ago. And if he had all the beasts with him, what could he do without lots of cages? Perhaps those aren’t rooms along the passage there; perhaps they are cages.’

‘And that hole in the floor ?’ Liz asked. ‘What’s that for?’

‘I’ve been thinking about it. It might he a tank for water. Don’t you see, bed have to have somewhere to keep the water-rats and the tadpoles.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ Number One said. ’How would a boat get up here?’

‘How would a house as big as this get up here? You know the story. It floated here, and then the waters went down again and left it.’

‘Then Bottom was at the bottom of the sea once?’ Liz asked. Her mouth fell open and she scratched her small buttocks stung with briars and scraped with rock and smeared with bird-droppings.

‘Bottom didn’t exist then. It was all so long ago…’

‘He might be right,’ Number Two said. Number Three made no comment: he began to mount the stairs towards the roof, and Pete followed him quickly and overtook him. The sun lay flat across the tops of the hills which looked like waves, and in all the world there seemed to be nobody but themselves. The great chimney high above shot out a shadow like a wide black road. They stood silent, awed by its size and power, where it tilted towards the cliff above them. Then Number Three said, ‘Do you really believe it?’

‘I think so.’

‘What about all our other games. “Ware that Cloud”?’

‘It may have been the cloud which frightened Noh.’

‘But where did everybody go? There aren’t any corpses.’

‘There wouldn’t be. Remember the game. When the water went down, they all climbed off the boat two by two.’

‘Except the water-rats. The water went down too quickly and one of them was stranded. We ought to find his corpse.’

‘It was hundreds of years ago. The ants would have eaten him.’

‘Not the bones, they couldn’t eat those.’

‘I’ll tell you something I saw — in those cages. I didn’t say anything to the others because Liz would have been scared.’

‘What did you see?’

‘I saw snakes.’

‘No!’

‘Yes, I did. And they’re all turned to stone. They curled along the floor, and I kicked one and it was hard like one of those stone fish they found above Bottom.’

‘Well,’ Number Three said, ’that seems to prove it,’ and they were silent again weighed down by the magnitude of their discovery. Above their heads, between them and the great chimney, rose yet another house in this nest of houses, and a ladder went up to it from a spot close to where they stood. On the front of the house twenty feet up was a meaningless design in tarnished yellow. Pete memorized the shape, to draw it later in the dust for his father who would never, he knew, believe their story, who would think they had dug their forfeits — their only proof — up in the ruins at the edge of Bottom. The design was like this:Graham Greene Image

‘Perhaps that’s where Noh lived,’ Number Three whispered, gazing at the design as if it contained a clue to the time of legends, and without another word they both began to climb the ladder, just as the other children came up on the roof below them.

‘Where are you going?’ Liz called out to them, but they didn’t bother to answer her. The thick yellow rust came off on their hands as they climbed and climbed. The other children came chattering up the stairs and then they saw the man too and were silent.

‘Noh,’ Pete said.

‘A giant,’ Liz said.

He was a white clean skeleton, and his skull had rolled on to the shoulder-bone and rested there as though it had been laid on a shelf. All round him lay forfeits brighter and thicker than the forfeits in the hail, and the leaves had drifted against the skeleton, so that they had the impression that he was lying stretched in sleep in a green field. A shred of faded blue material which the birds had somehow neglected to take at nesting-time still lay, as though for modesty, across the loins, but when Liz took it up in her fingers, it crumbled away to a little powder, Number Three paced the length of the skeleton. He said, ‘He was nearly six feet tall.’

‘So there were giants,’ Liz said.

‘And they played forfeits,’ Number Two said, as though that reassured him of their human nature.

‘Moon ought to see him,’ Number One said, ’thatwould take him down a peg.’ Moon was the tallest man ever known in Bottom, but he was a foot shorter than this length of white bone. They stood around the skeleton with eyes lowered as though they were ashamed of something.

At last Number Two said suddenly, ‘It’s late. I’m going home,’ and he made his hop-and-skip way to the ladder, and after a moment’s hesitation Number One and Number Three limped after him. A forfeit went crunch under a foot.

No one had picked these forfeits up, nor any other of the strange objects which lay gleaming among the leaves. Nothing here was treasure-trove; everything belonged to the dead giant.

At the top of the ladder Pete turned to see what Liz was up to. She sat squatting on the thigh bones of the skeleton, her naked buttocks rocking to and fro as though in the act of possession. When he went back to her he found that she was weeping.

‘What is it, Liz ?’ he asked.

She leant forward towards the gaping mouth. ‘He’s beautiful,’ she said ‘he’s so beautiful. And he’s a giant. Why aren’t there giants now?’ She began to keen over him like a little old woman at a funeral. ‘He’s six feet tall,’ she cried, exaggerating a little, ’and he has beautiful straight legs. No one has straight legs in Bottom. Why aren’t there giants now? Look at his lovely mouth with all the teeth. Who has teeth like that in Bottom?’

‘You are pretty, Liz,’ Pete said, shuffling around in front of her, trying in vain to straighten his own spine like the skeleton’s, beseeching her to notice him, feeling jealousy for those straight white bones upon the floor and for the first time a sensation of love for the little bandy-legged creature bucketing to and fro.

’Why aren’t there any giants now?’ she repeated for the third time, with her tears falling among the bird-droppings. He went sadly to the window and looked out. Below him was where the red rock had split the floor, and up the long slope of the roof he could see the three children ambling towards the cliff; awkward, with short uneven limbs, they moved like little crabs. He looked down at his own stunted and uneven legs and heard her begin to keel again for a whole world lost.

‘He’s six feet tall and he has beautiful straight legs.’


May-1963-CoverThis story first appeared in The London Magazine May 1963.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli. 

They Who Surround

0

 

The story my grandfather told of how he and my grandmother would walk further and further into the woods, until she asked to be left there, was really one about crows, he’d say, and I would not understand.

I was young, then, but I wasn’t sure I would have understood anyway. My father told me that the older generation of Poles put much stock in tales like these, and I should listen politely to my grandfather whenever he told one of them, so I did just that when my grandfather talked about the invisible birds he believed lined the roofs and the eaves of the town where we lived.

The crows had been in their positions atop the buildings as long as anyone had lived there, he’d say.

They were probably as large as the houses and buildings upon which they perched, judging by the great gusts of wind that came from the flutterings of their wings, winds that could knock you back.

My grandfather was sometimes scared of them, and sometimes not, and it was this way my grandmother, too.

They would walk into the forest, going deeper and deeper, until there was no path at all, but always a crow would follow, or so my grandfather believed. Never less than one. It’s not that the crows were necessarily bad, my grandfather said, but still, one wished for a respite from their presence, from time to time, and the woods offered a degree of that.

Each journey would carry them further, and many journeys were made over many years. The crows were wearying according to my grandfather, because one always felt their presence. They could curtail your route, at times, limit where you could go, limit your desire to try and go.

My grandfather became insistent on the power of these creatures, and after enough journeys into the forest, my grandmother, who was older still, told him to return back to the town, to gather provisions, for she wished to stay longer than they had before, and to return to her then.

When he set back out on the path, he couldn’t find my grandmother, nor, for the first time, could he detect the presence of any bird that had followed him from the town, though he felt certain that they remained back there waiting.

My grandmother lived to be 100. She did not die in a forest. But each time we visited my grandfather, he would tell his story of the crows, but only to me. My father had likely heard it many times, I thought at first. Until I began to believe that maybe he hadn’t at all, and my grandfather was say­ing this just to me.

We moved away not long after, and I never saw my grandfather again. I became older, I took what learning I could, and I began to work a trade until I could find the trade I assumed I would do until I did no more.

This trade did not entail the acquiring of goods, but rather the responsibility of going to institutions and partaking of the wares and services, upon which I would write a report of how my experience had gone and whether was satisfactory.

Some times it was, other times it was not, and then there were the instances that stood out, either way, as unlike any others. So it was in my trade as in life, until I met someone who also undertook the same work and with whom I knew I would be with until I could be with no one no more.

We came to live in her house, which was at the edge of a wood. I remarked to her that it reminded me of my boyhood, and she suggested that maybe I should take a walk along the path.

‘There is something you might wish to see,’ she said. ‘It has been here almost as long as the house itself’.

I asked her how I would recognize whatever this was, but she assured me I could not miss it.

‘You can both see and hear it,’ she said, and smiled in a way I had never known anyone else to smile. In that manner I had first seen when I knew, in an instant, I’d have no need for any other.

The day was cool but not cold, and I walked briskly. I noted a blue jay who darted along my side, flying at intervals and alighting on cedar branches at the level of my waist every thirty yards or so, pacing himself so he’d arrive just ahead of me.

I was fond of jays. I had learned that a blue jay could bury a seed he wished to consume later, and recall where he had done so a month after that. I’d tell my wife that upon my return, I decided, but I did not see what it seemed like she wished me to see. Or hear.

Instead, after walking for more time than I was certain I was expected to, I came to a mossed over patch of ground, a hollow between clumps of trees and brush and tendrils, and turned to walk back.

But not first before seeing a crow alight. The blue jay was behind me now, for there were no immediate cedar boughs to advance to, and I looked back to see him eyeing the crow.

Probably because the latter was bigger, and the jay, for all of his querulousness and confident manner, was cautious, as befitted the intelligence of a creature that could bury a seed in the earth and then find it a month again later.

The crow walked a few inch in one direction, then the other, and hopped a little, and I turned to return, noting as I did so that the jay had flown off.

‘Well, what did you think?’ my wife asked when I came tramping back into the yard, where she had been worrying over a tomato plant. ‘Have you ever seen such a beautiful water garden? My great-grandfather made it for my great grandmother. He designed it over an underground stream, so it will never be dry’. I told her I did not see a water garden, but rather simply a crow. ‘Yes, there is a crow who lives around here. He is very friendly. Sometimes I feed him peanut butter from a spoon. I have seen him in the woods, but not very commonly’.

I came to know the crow well. For a time, certainly. Or maybe it was many crows, and I could not tell them apart. There were days when I’d sense him around me, watching from some tree in which he was not visible. Other times I’d be pacing in the house, mulling some matter I perceived to be significant at the time, and I’d look out the window to see the crow, on the grass, mere feet away, doing the same.

‘They are highly mimetic,’ my wife said, when I told her about this. ‘That means they can make like you do’.

‘Like we do,’ I said.

‘Yes, like anyone does, I imagine,’ and that concluded the matter.

I did not see the crow for a long time after I had my loss. It was, I believed, my great loss, the greatest I would have. The smile that had claimed me in instant, was no more. I would walk into the woods, going further and fur­ther down the path, always making sure to avoid the water garden, which I had seen many times with my wife.

The jay, or a jay, would still appear, and would fly at my side, but for a long time I did not see the crow, nor did I expect to, and sometimes I even forgot there ever had been a crow.

A fat outdoor cat lived in the yard next door. He was surprisingly agile, and one morning, as I paced inside the room where I had paced so often, and 102

more often still when my wife became ill, I noticed this cat standing outside my window, moving his gaze from side to side as I changed direction.

He had several black feathers protruding from his mouth, and what I assumed was a nasty grin on his face. A grin even the jay, for all of his vanity and querulousness, would never employ.

The cat was lazy enough that it was not hard to get him into a sack, and he made no protests, not a single meowing complaint, as I walked with the sack in hand out past the water garden, where the underground stream likely ended beneath a small kettle pond, whose waters were always frigid, no matter how warm the day was.

The jay flew at my side, perhaps searching his commendable memory as to whether he had seen anything like this in the past month.

At the edge of the pond, I cocked back my arm, and threw the sack as far as I could. I expected the jay to squawk, but instead I heard the crow again, from the direction of the mossy gap between the various clumps of forest, and I swum into the pond to retrieve the sack before it sunk.

The cat still offered no commentary as he found himself safely beached. I felt I had need of the crow, I was glad I’d get to see him again, but when I came to the mossy break in the woods, there was no bird to be seen.

I married again. I thought it would put some matters that weren’t right back to being right. I married too soon. I learned that the kind of loss one has with death can be easier than other forms of loss. There is no choice in­volved. Or there seldom is. Commentary of a negative sort is not provided upon the union, or either person. It is not that way when a person goes and both live.

Each morning, alone, I’d head out on the path, looking. And though I walked it more and more, it was becoming overgrown, harder to discern. Sometimes I would prune it with tools from the shed, and that helped, but I noticed that when I walked later at night, at dusk, or even just after the sun had gone down, there would be attendant shapes beside me.

The jay had retired for the day at that point. But now I saw his form in arrangements of leaves, in vines and tendrils that as darkness took hold would bend into the shapes of what I had known.

There was my grandfather beside me, there was my wife and her smile, there was another who had gone and lived, cycling shapes of leaves, the cycling darkness, thorn bushes, wisteria, that advanced at my sides with a great fluttering, so that I could feel the wind coming from in front of me, always in front of me, whether I was on my way out, or my way back.

The shape of the jay was made up of the most knotted, aged vines, vines that looked to be in pain, or had some need to dispense that pain elsewhere, as a form of energy, cutting into some fresh tree.

But then I knew why, for the shape of the jay was moulting, nightly, as I walked, into a far darker shade, one which I recognized, as I had once in­stantly recognized a smile, as the form of a crow.

I was certain I’d meet him again and that I had to. I set out at the first light of morning for the mossy break in the woods, determined to sit and wait for the crow’s return. And I sat, until a bird appeared, but it was the jay, who was primping and pacing more than usual, not conflicted with any doubt, I imagined, as to where he might have last buried a seed.

He would accept food from me by hand, and as he did so I gently closed my fingers around his feathers, took the garden shears from my pocket that I had used for pruning, and cut off his head, dropping both parts of him on the moss. I would not see the crow that day.

Nor would I see him again, in that way I had seen him before, come to expect to see him, and taken for granted that I’d see him. But I sensed his form on all sides of me, all of his forms, and I realized he was there, he was there in all directions I would turn, and while he was invisible in one regard, he was not in another, and this is what my grandfather meant by the crows dotting the roofs of all the buildings in the place where we had once lived.

The final time my grandfather told me the story, I asked the question I be­lieve he was always waiting for from me.

Maybe my father once asked it, too. Maybe not. Maybe I would have a child who would ask me. It was a question, I think, that when asked, also sounds like an answer.

‘What are the crows?’ I said to my grandfather.

He crooked his finger, and tapped his chest twice, and then did the same to mine.

Nas,’ he said. ‘Nas.’ The crows are us. All of the surrounding, advancing, retreating, viewable, not viewed versions. And the ones that must be noted but which maybe will not be.

I understood him that day, but I was not ready to. That would come later. The impression, though, has never left me in all of the times since I’ve all but heard, and maybe have heard, the vines cracking, like whips, as they snap into the shapes of birds, flightless, wing-waving birds. There is someone else’s face, there is mine. Another again, mine again. Mine again, mine again, mine again, never the same but for the fluttering.

 


Colin Fleming’s fiction has appeared in the VQR, Post Road, Black Clock, Boulevard, and Cincinnati Review, with additional work running in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Boston Magazine. He is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, a work of nonfiction, Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles, a children’s book called Silas Beaverton: The Beaver Who Tried to Dam the Ocean, and Musings with Franklin, a novel told entirely in conversation in a bar at Christmastime between Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin.

The Rain Horse

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Detail from The Rain Horse © Eleanor Crow

From our archives – this short story was first published by The London Magazine in February 1960.

As the young man came over the hill the rst thin blowing of rain met him. He turned his coat-collar up and stood on top of the shelving rabbit-riddled hedgebank, looking down into the valley.

He had come too far. What had set out as a walk along pleasantly-remembered tarmac lanes had turned dreamily by gate and path and hedge-gap into a cross-ploughland trek, his shoes ruined, the dark mud of the lower elds inching up the trouser legs of his grey suit where they rubbed against each other. And now there was a raw, apping wetness in the air that would be downpour again at any minute. He shivered, holding himself tense against the cold.

This was the view he had been thinking of. Vaguely, without really directing his walk, he had felt he would get the whole thing from this point. For twelve years, whenever he had recalled this scene, he had imagined it as it looked from here. Now the valley lay sunken in front of him, utterly deserted, shallow, bare elds, black and sodden as the bed of an ancient lake after the weeks of rain.

Nothing happened. Not that he had looked forward to any very transfiguring experience. But he had expected something, some pleasure, some meaningful sensation, he didn’t quite know what.

So he waited, trying to nudge the right feelings alive with the details – the surprisingly familiar curve of the hedges, the stone gate-pillar and iron gatehook let into it that he had used as a target, the long bank of the rabbit-warren on which he stood and which had been the rst thing he ever noticed about the hill when twenty years ago, from the distance of the village, he had said to himself ‘That looks like rabbits’.

Twelve years had changed him. This land no longer recognized him, and he looked back at it coldly, as at a nally visited home-country, known only through the stories of a grandfather; felt nothing but the dullness of feeling nothing. Boredom. Then, suddenly, I in patience, with a whole exasperated swarm of little anxieties about his shoes and the spitting rain and his new suit and that sky and the two-mile trudge through the mud back to the road.

It would be quicker to go straight forward to the farm a mile away in the valley and behind which the road looped. But the thought of meeting the farmer – to be embarrassingly remembered or shouted at as a trespasser – deterred him. He saw the rain pulling up out of the distance, dragging its grey broken columns, smudging the trees and the farms.

A wave of anger went over him: anger against himself for blundering into this mud-trap and anger against the land that made him feel so outcast, so old and stiff and stupid. He wanted nothing but to get away from it as quickly as possible. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.

Over to his right a thin, black horse was running across the ploughland toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good.

From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the horse ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.

For several seconds he stared at the skyline, stunned by the unpleasantly strange impression the horse had made on him. Then the plastering beat of icy rain on his bare skull brought him to himself. The distance had vanished in a wall of grey. All around him the elds were jumping and streaming.

Holding his collar close and tucking his chin down into it he ran back over the hilltop toward the town-side, the lee side, his feet sucking and splashing, at every stride plunging to the ankle.

This hill was shaped like a wave, a gently rounded back lifting out of the valley to a sharply crested, almost concave front hanging over the river meadows toward the town. Down this front, from the crest, hung two small woods separated by a fallow eld. The near wood was nothing more than a quarry, circular, full of stones and bracken, with a few thorns and non- descript saplings, foxholes and rabbit holes. The other was rectangular, mainly a planting of scrub oak trees. Beyond the river smouldered the town like a great heap of blue cinders.

He ran along the top of the rst wood and nding no shelter but the thin, lea ess thorns of the hedge, dipped below the crest out of the wind and jogged along through thick grass to the wood of oaks. In blinding rain he lunged through the barricade of brambles at the wood’s edge. The little crippled trees were small choice in the way of shelter, but at a sudden erce thickening of the rain he took one at random and crouched down under the leaning trunk.

Still panting from his run, drawing his knees up tightly, he watched the bleak lines of rain, grey as hail, slanting through the boughs into the clumps of bracken and bramble. He felt hidden and safe. The sound of the rain as it rushed and lulled in the wood seemed to seal him in. Soon the chilly sheet lead of his suit became a tight, warm mould, and gradually he sank into a state of comfort that was all but trance, though the rain beat steadily on his exposed shoulders and trickled down the oak trunk on to his neck.

All around him the boughs angled down, glistening, black as iron. From their tips and elbows the drops hurried steadily, and the channels of the bark pulsed and gleamed. For a time he amused himself calculating the var- iation in the rainfall by the variations in a dribble of water from a trembling twig-end two feet in front of his nose. He studied the twig, bringing dwarfs and continents and animals out of its scurfy bark. Beyond the boughs the blue shoal of the town was rising and falling, and darkening and fading again, in the pale, swaying backdrop of rain.

He wanted this rain to go on for ever. Whenever it seemed to be drawing off he listened anxiously until it closed in again. As long as it lasted he was suspended from life and time. He didn’t want to return to his sodden shoes and his possibly ruined suit and the walk back over that land of mud.

All at once he shivered. He hugged his knees to squeeze out the cold and found himself thinking of the horse. The hair on the nape of his neck prick- led slightly. He remembered how it had run up to the crest and showed against the sky.

He tried to dismiss the thought. Horses wander about the countryside often enough. But the image of the horse as it had appeared against the sky stuck in his mind. It must have come over the crest just above the wood in which he was now sitting. To clear his mind, he twisted around and looked up the wood between the tree stems, to his left.

At the wood top, with the silvered grey light coming in behind it, the black horse was standing under the oaks, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.

A horse sheltering from the rain generally goes into a sort of stupor, tilts a hind hoof and hangs its head and lets its eyelids droop, and so it stays as long as the rain lasts. This horse was nothing like that. It was watching him intently, standing perfectly still, its soaked neck and ank shining in the hard light.

He turned back. His scalp went icy suddenly and he shivered. What was he to do? Ridiculous to try driving it away. And to leave the wood, with the rain still coming down full pelt, was out of the question. Meanwhile the idea of being watched became more and more unsettling until at last he had to twist around again, to see if the horse had moved. It stood exactly as before.

This was absurd. He took control of himself and turned back deliberately, determined not to give the horse one more thought. If it wanted to share the wood with him, let it. If it wanted to stare at him, let it. He was nestling rmly into these resolutions when the ground shook and he heard the crash of a heavy body coming down the wood. Like lightning his legs bounded him upright and about face. The horse was almost on top of him, its head stretching forward, ears attened and lips lifted back from the long yel- low teeth. He got one snapshot glimpse of the red-veined eyeball as he ung himself backwards around the tree. Then he was away up the slope, whipped by oak twigs as he leapt the brambles and brushwood, twisting between the close trees till he tripped and sprawled. As he fell the warning ashed through his head that he must at all costs keep his suit out of the leaf-mould, but a more urgent instinct was already rolling him violently sideways. He spun around, sat up and looked back, ready to scramble off in a ash to one side. He was panting from the sudden excitement and effort. The horse had disappeared. The wood was empty except for the drumming, slant grey rain, dancing the bracken and glittering from the branches.

He got up, furious. Knocking the dirt and leaves from his suit as well as he could he looked around for a weapon. The horse was evidently mad, had an abscess on its brain or something of the sort. Or maybe it was just spiteful. Rain sometimes puts creatures into queer states. Whatever it was, he was going to get away from the wood as quickly as possible, rain or no rain.

Since the horse seemed to have gone on down the wood, his way to the farm over the hill was clear. As he went, he broke a yard length of wrist- thick dead branch from one of the oaks, but immediately threw it aside and wiped the slime of rotten wet bark from his hands with his soaked handkerchief. Already he was thinking it incredible that the horse could have meant to attack him. Most likely it was just going down the wood for better shelter and had made a feint at him in passing – as much out of curiosity or playfulness as anything. He recalled the way horses menace each other when they are galloping around in a paddock.

The wood rose to a steep bank topped by the hawthorn hedge that ran along the whole ridge of the hill. He was pulling himself up to a thin place in the hedge by the bare stem of one of the hawthorns when he ducked and shrank down again. The whole swelling gradient of fields lay in front of him, smoking in the slowly crossing rain. Out in the middle of the rst eld, tall as a statue, and a ghostly silver in the undercloud light, stood the horse, watching the wood.

He lowered his head slowly, slithered back down the bank and crouched. An awful feeling of helplessness came over him. He felt certain the horse had been looking straight at him. Waiting for him? Was it clairvoyant? Maybe a mad animal can be clairvoyant. At the same time he was ashamed to nd himself acting so inanely, ducking and creeping about in this way just to keep out of sight of a horse. He tried to imagine how anybody in their senses would just walk off home. This cooled him a little, and he retreated further down the wood. He would go back the way he had come, along under the hill crest, without any more nonsense.

The wood hummed and the rain was a cold weight, but he observed this rather than felt it. The water ran down inside his clothes and squelched in his shoes as he eased his way carefully over the bedded twigs and leaves. At every instant he expected to see the prick-eared black head looking down at him from the hedge above.

At the woodside he paused, close against a tree. The success of this last manoeuvre was restoring his con dence, but he didn’t want to venture out into the open eld without making sure that the horse was just where he had left it. The perfect move would be to withdraw quietly and leave the horse standing out there in the rain. He crept up again among the trees to the crest and peeped through the hedge.

The grey field and the whole slope were empty. He searched the distance. The horse was quite likely to have forgotten him altogether and wandered off. Then he raised himself and leaned out to see if it had come in close to the hedge. Before he was aware of anything the ground shook. He twisted around wildly to see how he had been caught. The black shape was above him, right across the light. Its whinnying snort and the spattering whack of its hooves seemed to be actually inside his head as he fell backwards down the bank, and leapt again like a madman, dodging among the oaks, imagining how the buffet would come and how he would be knocked headlong. Halfway down the wood the oaks gave way to bracken and old roots and stony rabbit diggings. He was well out into the middle of this before he realized that he was running alone.

Gasping for breath now and cursing mechanically, without a thought for his suit he sat down on the ground to rest his shaking legs, letting the rain plaster the hair down over his forehead and watching the dense ashing lines disappear abruptly into the soil all around him as if he were watching through thick plate glass. He took deep breaths in the effort to steady his heart and regain control of himself. His right trouser turn-up was ripped at the seam and his suitjacket was splashed with the yellow mud of the top field.

Obviously the horse had been further along the hedge above the steep field, waiting for him to come out at the woodside just as he had intended. He must have peeped through the hedge – peeping the wrong way – within yards of it.

However, this last attack had cleared up one thing. He need no longer act like a fool out of mere uncertainty as to whether the horse was simply being playful or not. It was de nitely after him. He picked up two stones about the size of goose eggs and set off toward the bottom of the wood, striding carelessly.

A loop of the river bordered all this farmland. If he crossed the little mead- ow at the bottom of the wood, he could follow the river, a three-mile circuit, back to the road. There were deep hollows in the river-bank, shoaled with pebbles, as he remembered, perfect places to defend himself from if the horse followed him out there.

The hawthorns that choked the bottom of the wood – some of them good- sized trees – knitted into an almost impassable barrier. He had found a place where the growth thinned slightly and had begun to lift aside the long spiny stems, pushing himself forward, when he stopped. Through the bluish veil of bare twigs he saw the familiar shape out in the eld below the wood.

But it seemed not to have noticed him yet. It was looking out across the eld towards the river. Quietly, he released himself from the thorns and climbed back across the clearing towards the one side of the wood he had not yet tried. If the horse would only stay down there he could follow his rst and easiest plan, up the wood and over the hilltop to the farm.

Now he noticed that the sky had grown much darker. The rain was heavier every second, pressing down as if the earth had to be ooded before nightfall. The oaks ahead blurred and the ground drummed. He began to run. And as he ran he heard a deeper sound running with him. He whirled around. The horse was in the middle of the clearing. It might have been running to get out of the terri c rain except that it was coming straight for him, scattering clay and stones, with an immensely supple and powerful motion. He let out a tearing roar and threw the stone in his right hand. The result was instantaneous. Whether at the roar or the stone the horse reared as if against a wall and shied to the left. As it dropped back on to its forefeet he ung his second stone, at ten yards’ range, and saw a bright mud blotch suddenly appear on the glistening black ank. The horse surged down the wood, splashing the earth like water, tossing its long tail as it plunged out of sight among the hawthorns.

He looked around for stones. The encounter had set the blood beating in his head and given him a savage energy. He could have killed the horse at that moment. That this brute should pick on him and play with him in this malevolent fashion was more than he could bear. Whoever owned it, he thought, deserved to have his neck broken for letting the dangerous thing loose.

He came out at the woodside in open battle now, still searching for the right stones. There were plenty here, piled and scattered where they had been ploughed out of the eld. He selected two, then straightened and saw the horse twenty yards off in the middle of the steep eld, watching him calmly. They looked at each other.

`Out of it!’ he shouted, brandishing his arm. ‘Out of it! Go on!’ The horse twitched its pricked ears. With all his force he threw. The stone soared and landed beyond with a soft thud. He re-armed and threw again. For several minutes he kept up his bombardment without a single hit, working him- self into a despair and throwing more and more wildly, till his arm began to ache with the unaccustomed exercise. Throughout the performance the horse watched him fixedly. Finally he had to stop and ease his shoulder muscles. As if the horse had been waiting for just this, it dipped its head twice and came at him.

He snatched up two stones and roaring with all his strength ung the one in his right hand. He was astonished at the crack of the impact. It was as if he had struck a tile – and the horse actually stumbled. With another roar he jumped forward and hurled his other stone. His aim seemed to be under superior guidance. The stone struck and rebounded straight up into the air, spinning ercely, as the horse swirled away and went careering down to- wards the far bottom corner of the eld, at rst with great, swinging leaps, then at a canter, leaving deep churned holes in the soil.

It turned up the far side of the field, climbing till it was level with him. He felt a little surprise of pity to see it shaking its head, and once it paused to lower its head and paw over its ear with its fore-hoof as a cat does. ‘You stay there!’ he shouted. ‘Keep your distance and you’ll not get hurt.’

And indeed the horse did stop at that moment, almost obediently. It watched him as he climbed to the crest.

The rain swept into his face and he realized that he was freezing, as if his very esh were sodden. The farm seemed miles away over the dreary fields.

Without another glance at the horse – he felt too exhausted to care now what it did – he loaded the crook of his left arm with stones and plunged out on to the waste of mud.

He was halfway to the first hedge before the horse appeared, silhouetted against the sky at the corner of the wood, head high and attentive, watching his laborious retreat over the three fields.

The ankle-deep clay dragged at him. Every stride was a separate, deliber- ate effort, forcing him up and out of the sucking earth, burdened as he was by his sogged clothes and load of stones and limbs that seemed themselves to be turning to mud. He fought to keep his breathing even, two strides in, two strides out, the air ripping his lungs. In the middle of the last field he stopped and looked around. The horse, tiny on the skyline, had not moved.

At the corner of the field he unlocked his clasped arms and dumped the stones by the gatepost, then leaned on the gate. The farm was in front of him. He became conscious of the rain again and suddenly longed to stretch out full length under it, to take the cooling, healing drops all over his body and forget himself in the last wretchedness of the mud. Making an effort, he heaved his weight over the gate-top. He leaned again, looking up at the hill.

Rain was dissolving land and sky together like a wet watercolour as the afternoon darkened. He concentrated, raising his head, searching the sky- line from end to end. The horse had vanished. The hill looked lifeless and desolate, an island lifting out of the sea, awash with every tide.

Under the long shed where the tractors, plough, binders and the rest were drawn up, waiting for their seasons, he sat on a sack thrown over a petrol drum, trembling, his lungs heaving. The mingled smell of parafin, creosote, fertilizer, dust— all was exactly as he had left it twelve years ago. The ragged swallows’ nests were still there tucked in the angles of the rafters. He remembered three dead foxes hanging in a row from one of the beams, their teeth bloody.

The ordeal with the horse had already sunk from reality. It hung under the surface of his mind, an obscure confusion of fright and shame, as after a narrowly-escaped street accident. There was a solid pain in his chest, like a spike of bone stabbing, that made him wonder if he had strained his heart on that last stupid burdened run. Piece by piece he began to take off his clothes, wringing the grey water out of them, but soon he stopped that and just sat staring at the ground, as if some important part had been cut out of his brain.

Next Boat from Douala by William Boyd

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From The London Magazine Stories 11, 1979

Then the brothel was raided. Christ, he’d only gone down to Spinoza’s to confront Patience with her handiwork. She hadn’t been free when Morgan first arrived so he had chatted to the owner, Baruch — as his better-read clients whimsically dubbed the diminutive Levantine pimp – for half an hour or so, and watched the girls dancing listlessly under the roof fans. His anger had subsided a bit but he managed to stoke up a rage when he was eventually ushered into Patience’s cubicle. ‘Hey!’ he had roared, lowering his greyish Y-fronts, ‘Bloody look at this mess!’ But then his tirade had been cut short by the whistles and stompings of Sgt. Mbele and his vice squad.

The day had started badly. Morgan woke, hot and sweaty, his sheets damp binding-cloths. Three things presented themselves to his mind almost simultaneously: it was Christmas eve, in four days he would be catching the next boat home from Douala and he had a dull ache in his groin. He eased his 17½ stone out of bed and started for the bathroom. There, a hesitant diagnosis set off by the unfamiliar pain was horrifyingly confirmed by the sight of his opaque, forked and pustular urine.

He dropped off at the local clinic before going into the office. Inside it was cool and air-conditioned. Outside, in the shade cast by the wide eaves, mothers and children sprawled. And inside he ruefully confessed to a Calvinistic Scottish doctor, young and unrelentingly professional, of his weekly visits to Patience at Spinoza’s. Then a plump black sister led him to an ante-room where, retreating coyly behind a screen, he delivered up a urine sample. The clear tinkle of his stream on the thin glass of the bottle seemed to rebound deafeningly from the tiled walls. With a cursoriness teetering on the edge of contempt the doctor told him that the result of the test would be available tomorrow.

He vented his embarrassment and mounting anger at his office, Nkongsamba’s High Commission, turning down all that day’s  ‘applications for visas out of hand, vetoing the recommendations of senior missionaries for candidates in the next birthday honours and, exquisite zenith of the day’s attack of spleen, peremptorily sacking a filing clerk for eating fu-fu while handling correspondence. He began to feel a little better, the fear of some hideous social disease retreating as time interposed itself between now and his visit to the clinic.

After lunch his air-conditioner broke down. Morgan detested the sun and because of his corpulence his three years in Nkongsamba had been three years of seemingly constant perspiration, virulent rashes and general discomfort. He had accepted the posting gladly, proud to tell family and friends he was in the Diplomatic Service, and had enthusiastically read the literature of West Africa, searching, with increasing despair, first in Joyce Cary then through Graham Greene right down to Gerald Durrell and Conrad, for any experience that vaguely corresponded with his own. When the cream tropical suit he had so keenly bought began to grow mould in the armpits – a creeping greenish hue eventually encroaching on the button-down flap of a breast pocket-he had forthwith abandoned it, and with it all hopes of injecting a literary frisson into his dull and routine life. But, thank God, he was leaving it all soon, next boat from Douala, leaving the steaming forest, the truculent natives, the tiny black flies that raised florin-sized bites. What would he miss? The beer, strong and cold, and, of course, Patience, with her lordotic posture, pragmatic sex and her smooth black body smelling strangely of ‘Amby’, a skin lightening agent that sold very well in these parts.

Morgan came home after work. There had been an unexpected fall of rain during the afternoon. The air was heavy and damp, great ranges of purple cumulus loomed in the sky. He climbed up the steps to his stoop shouting for Pious his houseboy to bring beer. There on the stoop table lay his copy of Keats, sole heritage of his years at his plate-glass university. He had come across it while packing and had glanced through it, with nostalgic affection, at breakfast. Now, carelessly left out in the rain, it sat there swollen, and steaming slightly it seemed, in the late afternoon heat – a grotesque papier-maché brick. He picked it up and bellowed for Pious.

He stood under the cold shower allowing the stream of water to course down his face plastering his thinning hair to his forehead. A startled Pious had received the sodden complete works full in the face and when he scrabbled to pick it up Morgan had booted him viciously in the arse. He smiled, then frowned. The sudden movement, though producing a satisfying yelp from Pious, had done some damage. Pain pulsed like a belisha beacon from his testicles, now, he was convinced, grown palpably larger. He counted slowly from one to ten. Things were ganging up on him, he was beginning to feel insecure, hunted almost. Only three days to the boat, then away, thank Christ, for good.

An obsequious chastened Pious brought him the gin on the stoop. Morgan poured two inches into a glass full of ice, added some bitters and a dash of water. He hated the drink but it seemed the apt thing to do; end of a tropical day, sundowners and all that. It was dark now and unbearably humid. There would be a storm tonight. Fat sausage flies brought out by the rain whirled and battered about him. Ungainly on their wings one landed in his gin and drowned there, straddled on the cubes. His shirt stuck to his back, the minatory hum of a mosquito was in his ear. Crickets chirped moronically in the garden. He would go and sort out that Patience.

*          *          *

In Sgt. Mbele’s fetid detention hall Morgan had two hours in which to repent that decision. Finally he managed to impress Mbele, a grinning stubborn man, with, also, the help of a 30 kobo bribe, that as he was an assistant district commissioner he possessed diplomatic immunity, and that he would take it as a personal favour if the sergeant wouldn’t mention him in his report. H.E., though profligate himself, admired a sense of decorum in his subordinates.

Leaving the police station Morgan decided there and then to abandon his car at Spinoza’s and instead go to the club — a ten minute walk — and get drunk. The Recreation Club, as it was inspiringly named, had been built for the expatriate population of Nkongsamba in the heady days of the Empire. A long rambling high—ceilinged building, surrounded by a piebald golf—course and tennis courts, it preserved, with its uniformed servants and airmail copies of British newspapers, something of the ease and tenor of those times. As Morgan approached it became evident that quiet inebriation was out of the question. Gerry and the Pacemakers boomed from the ballroom, coloured lights and streamers were festooned everywhere. It was the Christmas Party. Morgan, scowling and black-humoured, brutally shouldered his way through the crowd around the bar and drank three large gins very quickly. Then, moderately composed, he sat on a bar stool and surveyed the scene. The men wore white dinner jackets or tropical suits and looked hot and apoplectic. The women sported the fashions of a decade ago and appeared strained and ill—at-ease. There were few young people; young people did not come to the tropics from choice, only if they were sent like Morgan.

‘Um, excuse me’ a tap on his elbow ‘it is Mr Morgan isn’t it?’

He looked round. ‘Yes. Hello. Mrs . . . Brinkit, yes? Erm, let me see. Queen’s Birthday, High Commission last year?’

‘That’s right’. She seemed overjoyed that he had remembered. She was tall and thin and just missed being attractive. Thirtyish, late, probably. She wore a strapless evening gown that exposed a lot of bony chest and shoulder. Her nose was red, she was a bit drunk but then so was Morgan.

‘Doreen’ she said.

‘Sorry?’.

‘Doreen. My name.’

‘Christ yes. So sorry. And your husband, ah, George, How’s he ?’

‘It’s Brian actually. He would be here but Tom, our dachshund, ran away and Brian’s been out all night looking for him. Doesn’t want him to catch rabies.’

‘A la recherche du Tom perdu’ eh? Mbahaha.’ Morgan laughed at his joke.

‘Pardon?’ said Doreen Brinkit smiling blankly and swaying gently up against him.

Morgan drank a lot more and danced with Doreen. They became very friendly, more by force of circumstances — they were both alone, unattractive and needing to forget it — than by desire. At midnight they kissed and she stuck her tongue in his ear. There was no sign of Brian. Morgan remembered them now from the cocktail party at the High Commission. Brinkit small bald and shy. Doreen six inches taller than him. Brinkit telling him of his desire to leave Africa and become a vet in Devon. Wanted kids, nothing quite like family life. No place for children Africa, very risky, healthwise. No place for you either Morgan had thought as he looked at the man’s little eyes and his frail earnest features.

Some time later in a dark corner of the ballroom Doreen squirmed and hissed ‘No! Morgan! Stop it. . . honestly, not here.’ Then more suggestively, ‘Look why don’t I give you a run home. I’ve got the van outside.’

Breathless with excitement and lust Morgan excused himself for a moment. On his way to the lavatory he reflected that possibly it hadn’t been such a bad day after all. God. A real white woman. Wor.

But then a five minute session of searing agony in the gent’s toilet brought home to him — with an awful clarity — the nightmarish significance of the lyrics in Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’. He reeled out of the toilet, eyes streaming, teeth clenched, and collided with a small firm object. Through the mists of tears the prim features of his doctor shimmered and formed, mouth like a recently sutured wound.

‘Oh! Morgan, it’s you. Well, I won’t waste any words. Save you a  trip tomorrow. Bad news I’m afraid. You’ve got gonorrhoea.’ As if he didn’t know.

*          *          *

The VW bus was parked up a track off the main road some miles out of town. The jungle reared up on all sides. Heavy rain beat down remorselessly. Inside, lit by the inadequate glow of a map light, Morgan and Doreen Brinkit lay in the back, spacious with the seats folded down. Doreeen moaned unconvincingly as Morgan nuzzled her neck. His heart wasn’t in it. His mind was obsessed with a single image, rooted there since he’d heard the appalling news, of a rancid gherkin astride two suppurating black olives. With a shudder he broke off and took great pulls at the gin bottle he’d purchased before leaving the club. His brain seemed to cartwheel crazily in his skull. Bloody country! he screamed inwardly. Bloody filthy Patience! Three rotting years just to end up with the clap. He drank deep awash with self-pity. A tense frustrated rage mounted within him. Distractedly he looked round. Doreen was tugging at the bodice of her skirt, all tulle and taffeta reinforced with bakelite and whalebone. She pulled it down revealing an absurd cut—away bra that offered her nipples like canapés on a cocktail tray. Morgan’s rage was replaced by a spasm of equally intense lust. What the hell, he was on the next boat from Douala, clearing out. She was desperate for it. He reached up and switched out the map light.

But then somewhere in the prolonged pre—coital tussle, Doreen’s dress Concertina-ed at her waist, Morgan’s trousers at his knees, the rain drumming on the tin roof, the air soupy with sweat and deep breathing, Morgan took stock. Perhaps it was when, spliced between Doreen’s pale shanks, she breathed come on Morgan, it’s O.K., it’s O.K., it’s the safe time of the month and Morgan looked up at the windscreen awash with water and images began to zig—zag through his mind, like bats in a room seeking an open window. He thought of his testicles effervescing with bacilli, he thought of pathetic Brian Brinkit searching for his fucking dachshund in a downpour, then he thought of impregnating Doreen, his putrid seed in her womb, Brian’s innocent alarm at the diseased monster he’d inadvertently produced, he thought of Brian diseased too, a loathsome spiral of infection, a little septic carbuncle festering in Africa behind him. And he realized as Doreen’s grunts began to reach a crescendo beneath him that, no, in spite of everything — Patience, Keats, Pious, Mbele, the stinking heat and the clap — it just wasn’t on.

He withdrew and sat up breathing heavily.

‘What is it Morgan?’ Surprised, a tint of anger colouring her voice.

What the hell could he say? ‘I’m sorry Doreen’ he began pathetically, desperately running through plausible reasons. ‘But . . . it’s just, um . . . well I don’t think this is fair to Brian. I mean . . . he is out looking for Tom, in this rain.’ Then, despite himself, he laughed, a half—suppressed derisive snort, and Doreen abruptly burst into tears, sobbing as she tried to cover herself up. Morgan sat and finished the gin.

Get out!’ Morgan looked round in alarm. Doreen, hair all over the place, face tracked with mascara, shrieking at him. ‘Fucking get out! How dare you treat me like this! You filth, you fat sodding bastard!’ She started to pummel him with her fists, pushing him towards the back of the van with surprising strength. Somehow the door sprang open.

‘Hang on Doreen! It’s pouring. Let’s talk about it.’ She was hitting him about the head and shoulders with the empty gin bottle screaming obscenities all the while Morgan fell out of the back of the van. He scampered out of the way seconds later as she reversed violently down the road. Morgan sat on the verge, the jungle at his back, rain soaking him completely. ‘Jesus,’ he said. He wiped his wet hair from his forehead. For some curious reason he felt lightheaded suddenly hugely relieved. He got to his feet noticing unconcernedly that his trousers were covered in mud. Then, for a brief tranquil moment, the rain beating down on his head, he felt intensely exhilaratingly happy. Why? He couldn’t really be sure. Still… He set off down the track, a bulky dripping figure, humming quietly to himself at first, and then, spontaneously, filling his lungs and breaking into a booming cockney basso profundo that spilled out into the dark and over the trees.

‘Hyme a si—i—inging in a ryne, hyme a singing in a ryne.’

Cicadas trilled in his path.

© William Boyd 2015


closeThis short story appeared in The London Magazine Stories 11 in 1979, a London Magazine Editions publication selected by TLM editor Alan Ross. Alongside it was short fiction by writers including Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and Milan Kundera.

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett

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In August 1960 The London Magazine published V. S. Pritchett’s short story ‘The Wheelbarrow’ alongside four poems by Derek Walcott and reviews by Louis MacNeice, Roy Fuller and Frank Kermode. Pritchett, himself an avid short story writer, professed that to write a short story ‘is exquisitely difficult’ yet – as his word choice suggests – it was also one of his favourite forms to practice. In fact, when interviewed by The Paris Review Pritchett spoke openly of his preference for short fiction:

The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward. Many critics have noticed this about my stories.

At the start of the new millennium the Royal Society of Literature founded The V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize to commemorate the centenary of the author who was widely regarded as one of the finest English short-story writers of the 20th century. The prize is awarded to the best unpublished short story of the year.

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.
The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.

Tonight the RSL celebrate the presentation of the annual prize with the judges who will discuss the complexities, the wonders, the highs and the lows of writing short fiction. This year’s judges include Somerset Maugham Award winner Adam Mars-Jones, Dylan Thomas Award winner Rose Tremain as well as editor Philip Hensher who has spent the last two years surrounded by short fiction in his quest to curate The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, published just last month.

Eudora Welty went as far to say that ‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’. Read an exclusive extract from ‘The Wheelbarrow’ as it first appeared in The London Magazine below:

She did not hear him. Her face had drained of waking light. She had entered blindly into a dream in which she could hardly drag herself along. She was looking painfully through the album, rocking her head slowly from side to side, her mouth opening a little and closing on the point of speech, a shoulder rising as if she had been hurt, and her back moving and saying as she felt the clasp of the past like hands on her. She was looking at ten forgotten years of her life, her own life, not her family’s, and she did not laugh when she saw the skirts too long, the top-heavy hats hiding the eyes, her face too full and fat, her plainness so sullen, her prettiness too open-mouthed and loud, her look too grossly shy. In this one, sitting at the cafe table by the lake when she was nineteen, she looked masterful and at least forty. In this garden picture she was theatrically fancying herself as an ancient Greek in what looked like a night-gown! One of her big toes, she noticed, turned up comically in the sandal she was wearing. Here on a rock by the sea, in a bathing dress, she had got so thin again — that was her marriage — and look at her hair! This picture of the girl on skis, sharp-faced, the eyes narrowed —who was that? Herself — yet how could she have looked like that! But she smiled a little at last at the people she had forgotten. This man with the crinkled fair hair, a German — how mad she had been about him. But what pierced her was that in each picture of herself she was just out of reach, flashing and yet dead; and that really it was the things that burned in the light of permanence — the chairs, the tables, the trees, the car outside the cafe, the motor launch on the lake. These blinked and glittered. They had lasted and were ageless, untouched by time, and she was not.

For more information about the event visit The Royal Society of Literature website here

By Thea Hawlin