Archive for Oktober 2013
It was his old home all right, as he knew the moment he was inside the door, although who opened it to him he couldn’t remember, for in those days of long ago who could remember who opened the door to him? It must have been one of his parents’ servants who were often changing, and he himself wasn’t a frequent visitor, he had been about the world so much; but the feeling, the sense of the house, as apart from its visible structure—the front hall, the inner hall—were as clear to him as they ever had been: as vivid as a scent, and not exactly a scent but a combination of thoughts, feelings, experiences, an exhalation of the past, which was as vivid to him now, and as much a part of him, as it had ever been.
He didn’t ask himself why he was here—it seemed so natural that he should be—and then he remembered that he was expecting a guest—a guest for dinner, a guest for the week-end, a close friend of his, whom his parents didn’t know, though they knew about her, and were expecting her, and looking forward to seeing her.
What time of year was it? What time of day? Dinner-time, certainly, for the light that filtered through the big north window was a diluted twilight when it reached the hall, revealing not so much the outlines as the vague, shadowy almost insubstantial shapes of the pieces of furniture he knew so well. And yet his inner mind recognized them as intimately as if they had been floodlit—perhaps more intimately, since they were of the same substance as his memory.
But while he was still under the spell of their rather ghostly impact on his consciousness, his awareness of himself as expressed in them, another thought, more practical and more immediate, penetrated it—where was Helen Furthermore, for she was the object of the exercise, and the reason why he had returned so unexpectedly to his old home? She needed looking after, and it was his job to look after her, for she did not know the rest of the party, who he somehow divined, were his relations, mostly older than himself, but he couldn’t be sure, for he hadn’t seen them—but they must be somewhere about—nor did they know her.
She might be late, of course, but she wasn’t often late; she prided herself on not being late, but perhaps the taxi they had ordered for her—they must have ordered one—hadn’t recognized her at the station, and she was wandering to and fro outside its precincts, with the desolate feeling that the non-met visitor has—what to do next, where to go next—for there wouldn’t be another taxi at that wayside station. He could almost see her passing and repassing her little pile of luggage—not so little, for she never travelled light—growing more indistinct with each encounter in the growing gloom and more indistinct to herself, also, as the question of how to reach her destination grew more and more pressing until it began to occupy her whole being.
And then, quite suddenly, there she was—not in front of him, but behind him and round about him, a presence rather than a person. Someone must have let her in, as he had been let in, he couldn’t quite remember how, because the front door opened on a little hall divided by a pair of glass doors from the middle hall where he was standing.
But it was she all right. He turned and recognized her not so much by her face, for it was covered by the dark veil she sometimes wore, but by the unmistakeable shape that was as much a part of her personality as she herself was.
They must have exchanged those salutations and no doubt others, in a medium for him and perhaps her, of uncontrollable relief as if some terrible disaster had been providentially averted. He didn’t see how, but he had the impression, that her impedimenta had been suitably removed; and the next thing was a compulsive necessity—for his mind could only harbour one idea at a time—to introduce her to her fellow-guests.
Why should they be in the dining-room and not the drawing-room? He didn’t know; but he took it for granted that they were, and he was right, for when he opened the door for Lady Furthermore, he saw them all under the bright light of the chandelier, six or seven of them, seated round the dining-table, which was not laid for dinner, but rather like a board-room table surrounded by directors (bored indeed, for goodness knew how long they had been sitting there).
They all looked up and Valentine, who felt he must make an apology for himself as well as an excuse for her, said ‘Here we are, late I’m afraid. This is Helen Furthermore,’ and he was retreating behind her to let her make the effect which she always made, when the lights went out and the room was filled with darkness.
What to do now? Valentine’s social conscience was still in the ascendant; come what might, he must introduce Helen to her fellow-guests. But how, when they were invisible even to him? No doubt the light would come on again. But it didn’t, and meanwhile there was a slight muttering round the table which boded no good, as though Valentine himself had fused the lights.
It did not seem to surprise Helen to be ushered into an almost pitch-dark room, with in the middle a vague impression of heads and forms ranged round an oblong table. But she was noted for her social tact which had served her on many occasions more important, if less surprising than this; and Valentine, taking courage from her acceptance of it, with the additional encouragement of her hand in his, which nobody could see, began a tour of the table.
‘Who are you?’ he asked, bending over the first head that presented itself, if presented be the word, in the gloom.
‘I’m your Uncle Eustace.’
‘Uncle Eustace, this is Lady Furthermore,’ (he hadn’t meant to give her her title, but the situation seemed to demand it) ‘who has come to spend the weekend with us, as I’m sure you know. May I introduce you to her?’
The head turned round, showing a pallid cheek, that certainly recalled Uncle Eustace.
‘Of course, my dear boy, I am very happy to meet Lady Furthermore. I hope she will forgive me for not getting up, but in this darkness I feel I am safer sitting down.’
His voice quavered. How old could Uncle Eustace be?
‘Please don’t move,’ said Lady Furthermore. ‘I look forward so much to seeing you when . . . when the lights let me.’
Always groping, she and Valentine advanced a step or two. Then Valentine bent forward over a bowed head.
‘Who are you? Please forgive me asking, but it’s so dark I can’t see my hand before my face—or your face,’ he added, hoping it sounded like a joke.
‘I’m your Aunt Agatha.’
It was rather annoying that ‘they’ should recognize him and not he them. But voices change; hers sounded very old.
‘Dear Aunt Agatha. I am so glad to see you—at least I should be, if I could see you!’ The joke, as he knew, fell rather flat. ‘But I want to introduce you to a great friend of mine, Lady Furthermore, who has come to spend the weekend with us.’
‘Lady Furthermore? I seem to know that name.’
‘Yes, I’m sure you do.’
‘She was a child when I—’
‘I’ve always been a child,’ interposed Helen, ‘and I know that when we really see each other—’
‘Yes? Yes?’ said the old lady, who was obviously a little deaf.
‘You will realize that you have weathered the storm better than I have.’
‘Oh nonsense,’ the old lady said. ‘I can’t see much, I couldn’t, even if it wasn’t dark—but I’ve never seen a picture of you since I don’t know when that didn’t look like what you have always looked like.’
‘Thank you,’ Helen said, more moved than she cared to show, but what matter since it couldn’t be shown.
Together the two went on, addressing and being addressed, till they came to the chair at what must be the head of the table.
‘Forgive me,’ said Valentine, ‘but who are you, if I may ask?’
‘I’m your father.’
It took Valentine several moments to recover himself. He wondered if Helen had heard. ‘Dear Daddy,’ he began, ‘this is a great friend of mine, Lady Furthermore. You’ve often heard me speak of her—’
At this moment there was an extraordinary noise between a crash and an explosion, and lights broke out, where it was impossible to say. Yet they were not lights in the sense that they banished the darkness: they were blue flares, wedge-shaped like arrows, piercing the room from end to end. And Valentine said to himself, ‘Of course, it’s the gas!’ For many years ago, when the lighting of the house had been changed, much against his father’s wish, from gas to electricity—‘gas gives a much better light,’ he used to say—he had a gas-bracket left in every room in case the electricity broke down, as he rather hoped it would. And now the gas—not like ordinary gas, but like flares at an old-time fair—was penetrating the room from every angle, blue arrows that like lightning flashes revealed nothing except themselves, and a sickly sheen of terror on the faces round the table.
Valentine grasped Helen’s arm. ‘Let’s get out of here!’ he said, and in a moment they were safe in the hall without apparently opening the dining-room door or shutting it.
Out of sight, out of mind. Valentine’s memories of what had just taken place, perhaps from the excitement of the moment which often obliterates the details of a sensational happening, perhaps from some other cause, were already growing dim; they hadn’t quite passed away, they had left a residue—of feeling? of sensation? of subconscious conviction?—that still lingered. The house didn’t belong to him as he now realized, for there were other claimants. But he never suspected that it still belonged to his father. And this added very much to his new and growing preoccupation. Whoever might own the house, Helen was his guest as they all knew; and so far she had been treated very scurvily. She had not been shown her room: where was it? Upstairs, of course, but which room, the East Room? the South Room? When he tried to think of the bedroom accommodation and its access to bathrooms his mind became confused. All this should have been arranged by whoever the house belonged to, his father presumably, for his mother was long since dead—or was she? She was not at the table with him, at least he didn’t think so, for he had not had time to complete his tour of introductions round the table before the gas fireworks began. Somebody would know, of course; but where was somebody? Where was anybody? He had an invincible reluctance to re-enter the dining-room with its shafts of blue light (those he could remember) playing on the upturned, frightened faces of his elderly relations and perhaps setting the house on fire despite his father’s faith in the innocuousness of gas.
The residue of these happenings in his sub-memory affected his new preoccupation. Helen had not been treated in a guest-like manner, and above all she had not been offered a drink. A long cross-country journey and she had not been offered a drink! She must need one terribly, just as he wanted one terribly; her throat must be parched as his was, and with more reason for (so his mental map told him) she had travelled much further than he.
But what sort of drink would she like? That was one besetting question. A gin and vermouth, a dry martini, his mind kept repeating. But how could he ask her when he didn’t know where the drinks, if any, were kept? And would a dry martini be specially welcome to someone whose system, like his own, was already on the dry side? Vaguely, incoherently, came back to him the memory of his visits to her, when drinks of all sorts were immediately offered, and every provision for his comfort had been arranged beforehand. And now this. He couldn’t quite remember what happened after her arrival; he didn’t want to, it was too mortifying, too humiliating. Could inhospitality have gone further?
Where was she now? If she had vanished into the comparatively hospitable night, small blame to her; but no, she was somewhere about, though he couldn’t always locate her: sometimes at his back, sometimes on his left side, sometimes on his right, never in front, because in front of him was the large brass bowl? urn? container? which housed, as it always housed, the King Fern (Osmunda Regalis)—such a beautiful name, and it did not suit her. If only she would stop flitting and fluttering and let him have more than a side-glimpse of her! If only she would be more stable—for in ordinary life she was as stable as an anchor. At last she settled, like a butterfly; like a butterfly she was captive under his net.
‘Helen,’ he said, trying to see her expression under her veil, ‘I feel so distressed about your visit, but I really couldn’t have foreseen what was going to happen’ (‘and I can’t now,’ he might have added). ‘But what particularly worries me is that you haven’t had a drink. You must need one after your long journey, and I want one,’ (this sentence had been repeating itself in his mind). ‘But how, and where are they—the drinks I mean? The people are somewhere in the dining-room.’
He understood Helen to say she didn’t care if she had a drink or not; but he didn’t think this was true, and he himself was assailed by an appalling thirst.
Suddenly he had an idea which seemed like an inspiration flooding his whole being. The drawing-room, of course! Why hadn’t he thought of the drawing-room? Before, it had appeared quite natural that Helen and he should have been received (welcomed was not the word) at a bare board in the dining-room; now it did seem strange when the drawing-room, the traditional place for hosts whoever they might be to greet their guests, was still available. And a vision of the drawing-room at once crossed his mind, with its cheerful yellow wallpaper counteracting its cold northern aspect, and, most important of all, in the right-hand corner facing the door, a gate-legged table bearing a tray of glasses and drinks, most of them non-alcoholic, for his father belonged to a generation which had not heard of dry martinis, but had heard of whisky and sherry. Better whisky or sherry than nothing. The drawing-room was, for the moment, the only solution.
‘Helen,’ he repeated to the face under the veil, ‘let’s go into the drawing-room. We might find something there, something to drink I mean. And at any rate we shall be by ourselves.’
He thought her slight inclination of the head signified assent and so he led the way, up four steps and then to the right, to the drawing-room door with its pseudo linen-fold panels which were difficult to see because his father, economical in most ways, was especially economical about the use of artificial light.
Imagine their surprise, therefore, when the door opened to reveal a blaze of light—no fuse here—illuminating every part of the room from corner to corner and from cornice to cornice, and not least the crossbeams in the ceiling which an Italian craftsman, early in the last century, had concealed beneath intricate designs in stucco. But before Valentine had time to do more than realize that the gate-legged table in the corner was still there, his eyes were astonished by another sight. So far, being of an acceptant nature, he had taken everything that happened for granted, but now—!
There were six or seven little beds in the room, arranged side by side or end to end; and in each was a child, of indeterminate age and sex, asleep. Asleep when he and Helen came in; but when the light shone on their eyes they began to rub them, and having rubbed them, to set up a pitiful wail, each child taking it up from the next.
Beneath her veil which was so thick that even the brilliant light could not penetrate it, Helen’s face was unreadable. I must get her out of this, he thought; this is worse than the dining-room. ‘Please sit here,’ he said, indicating a stiff-backed armchair which besides being the only chair in the room, commanded a view of the various beds, ‘and I’ll sit here,’ and he sat down on the edge of the bed of a squalling child.
But before he and Helen had time to consult each other, or take in more than a tossing sea of bedclothes, a figure entered the room. It was a hospital nurse, dressed as such.
‘What on earth are you doing here?’ she asked.
Valentine, for the first time in many years, lost his temper.
‘And what on earth are you doing here? What right have you to be here? This may not be my house, but it is the house of my family, the Walkovers, have you ever heard of them?’
The Sister touched her forehead, a gesture that might have meant anything.
‘Yes, I have heard of them. Many years ago the Corporation—’
‘The Corporation? What Corporation?’
‘The Corporation. They bought this house from a family called Walkover, for a home for disturbed children.’
‘Yes, here are some of them. And I can tell you that your unwarranted presence here is disturbing them more.’
Wails and screams gave credence to her words, but they only exasperated Valentine.
‘I don’t believe you for a moment,’ he said. ‘My relations are downstairs, and I’ll fetch them up to tell you you are trespassing. Trespassing, do you hear?’
Having to make this scene in front of Helen aggravated his indignation. ‘I’ll order you to get out,’ he shouted, ‘and leave this place to whom it belongs. I came in here to get a drink for my friend Lady Furthermore—’
He wouldn’t subject Helen to the indignity of introducing her to the Sister.
‘There is some milk on the table in the corner,’ the Sister said, ‘and you are welcome to it, if you don’t make too much noise.’
Valentine went to the table, seized a bottle of milk and hurled it at the Sister. A whitish streak, half fluid, half powder, such as might have been exuded by a bomber in the intense cold of the stratosphere—a sort of Milky Way—followed, until the missile struck the chandelier, and for the second time that night, darkness prevailed.
Helen was still with him; how they got out of the room he didn’t know; how they got out of the house he didn’t know; but he did know, or thought he knew, that he had put her on a train to somewhere.
‘Where am I?’ he thought, and then a sense of his proper environment—his bed—came back to him. ‘But why am I so thirsty?’ for he was longing, as never before, for a dry martini. ‘Oh for a dry martini!’
The experience must have been real, from its mere physical aftermath; for never before had he woken up at night pining for a drink. He sat up in bed; where were the ingredients? They were downstairs behind a locked door; and the only thirst-quencher at hand was a long-opened bottle of sherry. He turned over and gradually his throat and tongue resumed their normal functions. ‘I must have imagined it all,’ he thought, ‘and I hope that Helen has imagined it, too.’
With a vision of her stranded on some wayside railway platform, drinkless, even milk-less, it took him a long time to go to sleep.
‘Anyhow,’ he thought, ‘she is well rid of Castlewick House.’ He hadn’t remembered the name of his old home until now.