A Prayer for My Son - Hugh Walpole - ebook

A Prayer for My Son ebook

Hugh Walpole

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Opis

This is the story of a sadist, in this case, a grandfather with excessive ego and a thirst for satisfying his sense of strength. The boy’s mother, his aunt, the boy himself become a victim of his madness, and the story gathers momentum until they are forced to flee from an environment that gives him his strength. This is a skillful build-up of atmosphere and tension.

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Contents

PART I

THE QUIET ENTRY

CHAPTER I SNOW-SHINE FOR ARRIVAL

CHAPTER II HEART AND SOUL OF A YOUNG MAN

CHAPTER III BIRTHDAY PARTY

CHAPTER IV LIFE AND DEATH OF JANET FAWCUS

CHAPTER V GLORY OF THIS WORLD

CHAPTER VI JOHN LISTENING

PART II

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

CHAPTER VII THE PARTY RETURNED

CHAPTER VIII THRESHOLD OF DANGER—OR ISN’T IT?

CHAPTER IX CONQUEST OF JANET—THE HOUSE HAS A COLD—MR. RACKSTRAW IS NOT WELL—ROSE LIGHTS A CANDLE

CHAPTER X FLIGHT FROM DESPOTISM—WITH RUMP

CHAPTER XI INSIDE THE COLONEL AS FAR AS ONE DARES

CHAPTER XII JANET COMES TO LIFE AND IS IMPRISONED

PART III

FIVE DAYS

CHAPTER XIII MAY 14TH: HOW MR. RACKSTRAW QUOTED LANDOR, MICHAEL TORE HIS TROUSERS, AND JANET COUNTED THE DAISIES

CHAPTER XIV MAY 15TH: HOW THE COLONEL HAD A BIRTHDAY

CHAPTER XV MAY 16TH: THIS DAY BELONGS TO JANET

CHAPTER XVI MAY 17TH-18TH: FLIGHT OUT OF EGYPT

CHAPTER XVII THE TREMBLING SKY

PART I

THE QUIET ENTRY

CHAPTER I. SNOW-SHINE FOR ARRIVAL

This moment of anticipation was the worst of her life–never before had she been so utterly alone.

Her loneliness now was emphasized by the strange dead-white glow that seemed to bathe her room. She had just switched off the electric light, and the curtains were not drawn upon the long gaunt windows. Although it was after five on that winter afternoon, the light of the snow still illuminated the scene. Beyond the windows a broad field ran slowly up to a thin bare hedge; above the hedge, the fell, thick in snow, mounted to a grey sky which lay like one shadow upon another against the lower flanks of Blencathra.

Rose had learnt the name of this mountain from the first instant of her arrival at the Keswick station. She had not known whether she would be met or not, and she had asked a porter whether he knew of Scarfe Hall. He knew of it well enough. It lay near the Sanatorium right under Saddleback. And then, because she was obviously a stranger, and he unlike many of his countrymen was loquacious, he explained to her that Saddleback was the common name for Blencathra. “What a pity,’ she murmured. “Blencathra is much finer.’ But he was not interested in that. He found the motor-car from the Hall and soon she was moving downhill from the station, turning sharply to the left by the river, and so to her destination.

She had had tea alone with Janet Fawcus in the drawing-room downstairs; such a strange, old-fashioned, overcrowded room, with photographs in silver frames and a large oil painting over the marble fireplace of Humphrey’s father. So odd, Rose thought, to have so large a painting of yourself so prominently displayed. She had seen before, of course, photographs of Humphrey’s father and had always liked the kindliness, the good-humour in his round chubby face, the beautiful purity of his white hair, his broad manly shoulders, but this oil painting, made obviously a number of years ago, gave him a kind of dignified splendour. She had always thought him like Mr. Pickwick, but now he was a Mr. Pickwick raised to a degree of authority that yet had not robbed him of his geniality.

So she and Janet Fawcus had shared an embarrassed tea. It was no surprise to her to discover in Janet the perfect spinster–that is, a woman of middle age whose certainty that virginity is a triumph is mingled with an everlasting disappointment. Janet was dressed in the hard and serviceable tweeds of the English dweller in the country. She talked to Rose with all the kindliness of a hostess and the patronage of a successful headmistress. Rose saw at once that Janet had always hated her and that meeting her had not weakened that emotion.

However, she had expected this, counted on it, in fact, and she sat now in this old curiosity shop of a drawing-room, the heavy, dark, ancient curtains drawn against the snow, brightly and falsely amiable about Geneva and the League of Nations and the selfishness of France, and what a pity it was that despotism was beginning to rule the world. It was explained to her that young John was out with his tutor skating on some pond towards St. John’s in the Vale and that Colonel Fawcus himself was at a meeting in Keswick about pylons, and that was why Janet must do the honours alone. “But, of course,’ Janet said, “you will see John when he comes in. He is so excited about your coming.’ In that last sentence Rose knew there was something sinister; that immaculate tweed-clad virgin would not give an inch. “But then,’ Rose thought, “I have no intention of asking her. I have not come here to fight. There is no battle in the air. John’s grandfather has invited me out of kindness and generosity. There was nothing in the signed agreement which compelled him to do this. It has been simply warm-hearted kindness on his part. I am not here to fight. I am not here to get my son back. I am not here to win his affection away from anyone else. He is not mine. I surrendered him deliberately, fully knowing what I was about. I am not here for any contest of any kind with this unagreeable, tiresome, self-satisfied prig of an Englishwoman.’ But as she smiled and said that, yes, she would have another cup of tea, and how good it was after a long cold journey–she was forced to repeat to herself: “I am not a mother. I surrendered John not only because it would be for his good, and because he would be given so many many things I could never give him, but also because I was not meant to be a mother. There were other things that I could do better. I am not maternal. I am a modern woman of my time. I do not wish to be hampered with a child. I have things I want to do for my generation and civilization and, although it is true that I am now thirty years of age and have done as yet very little for anybody, there is still plenty of time. I have surrendered John, and no amount of disliking his aunt from the bottom of my heart must make me want to take John away from her.’ She thought further: “She is looking at my clothes. She is envious of them and that makes her dislike me the more. I am very pleased. My clothes are certainly not remarkable and at least they do not look like a sheet of mail armour.’

“I expect,’ Janet said, with her considerate, indulgent smile, “you would like to come to your room now?’

To her room Rose was taken. What a strange, old, confused place it was! It must be, she realized with a thrill of excitement, the actual room of which Humphrey had often told her. The room where he had slept as a boy. Also it must be very little changed from those long-ago days, for there hanging near a window and opposite the four-poster bed was the oil painting of Abraham offering up Isaac for sacrifice. All the details that Humphrey had given her–the dark, angry hill painted a sinister red, the white body of the boy, the Patriarch with knife raised, and a black cloud breaking into spears of lightning, through which God’s voice spoke. Humphrey had told her how, as a child, he had lain in bed and seen the mounting field beyond the window, the sky above it, the serried edge of Blencathra, almost walk into the room and mingle with the old oil painting, so that he used to fancy that Abraham and his knife were waiting there on Blencathra for himself as the appointed victim.

This, then, was the very room that Humphrey had had. All the furniture in it was old and black. There were dark-green hangings with a red pattern on the four-poster, and the only concessions to modern life in the room were the electric light, an electric fire in the old stone fireplace and a small collection of recent books in gay colours near the bed. Then Rose made her first really serious mistake. “Why,’ she said, “this must be the very room that Humphrey had.’ Her impetuosity that she thought by now she had learnt to control had once again betrayed her. She felt Janet’s whole body stiffen, and she knew with her quickness of apprehension that Janet had loved her brother with an intense passion. Why, Rose wondered, had she been put in Humphrey’s room? They could not have forgotten. Perhaps it was the only spare room in the house. No, she knew that the place was of a rambling, undisciplined size. There must be many spare rooms. Janet had not answered. She had gone to the door and switched on the light. They had been for a moment standing together in the dusky white-stained twilight. Janet said, “As soon as John comes I will bring him up to see you,’ and went.

As soon as she was alone Rose switched off the light again and stood without moving, looking on to the fields that grew with every moment darker, seeming to smell that sharp, friendly, aromatic scent of freshly fallen snow. At last she went to the door and switched on the light again, then stood in front of the long old looking-glass bordered with dim gold that hung between the bed and the door. She looked at herself with a new interest. She was a woman devoid almost entirely of personal vanity. She liked to be clean, to be healthy, to be equipped for whatever she might have to do. Since Humphrey’s death she had thought very little about men except as, indirectly, companions. She had had no sexual life at all. She had been living, she fancied, in a world entirely of ideas, and now, looking into the mirror, she suddenly wondered for the first time whether the ideas had been worth while. In this old room, with the intense stillness of the snowy world beyond it, things altered their values. She saw herself one of an eager group of men and women at a table in a Geneva café, or in somebody’s room, or in the bureau where she worked, sharp, opinionative voices saying, “But then, of course, Barthou means something quite different,’ or “But, I ask you, Simon and Mussolini, how could they ever understand one another?’ or again, “Americans go only skin-deep: that is why the world is in the mess it is.’ Yes, these voices, so sure, so clever, so brittle, echoed with a kind of ludicrous inefficiency which came down in front of that old mirror. Five minutes’ talk with Janet Fawcus seemed to have changed, in spite of herself, the whole world. She did not want it to change. She was paying this visit because she was sure that she was impregnable, but now, was she sure? What unexpected influences were beginning to work upon her?

She looked back at herself in the mirror–slim, slight, dark-haired, much too youthful-looking for her thirty years, she impatiently reflected. She wished to impress them all with her stability, her firm security. She was on a visit to her little son whom she had definitely surrendered, coming from outside, remaining outside, a safe modern woman who was at work for the world’s good, rather than for personal maternity. “How detestably priggish that is,’ she thought. “But perhaps the whole of Geneva is priggish? What have I done coming here? I did not expect to feel so defenceless.’

It was then, standing in the middle of the room, that she knew her moment of wild, terrified anticipation. What would John be like? How would he greet her? How had he been taught to think of her? It was ten years since she had surrendered him, and she saw again that last dreadful minute in the cold room of the London hotel when she had delivered him up to the nurse and to the family man of affairs, and, seeing that minute again, she thought to herself: “It was not because I did not want him that I gave him up, but because I knew that it would be so much better for him; and it shall be. I must have no personal relationship with him. I must let them keep him from me as much as they wish.’

It was at that moment that she heard, even through the closed door, the sharp, clear call of a boy. The door opened, and John, his aunt just behind him, stood there looking at her.

There were two things she at once realized when she saw him; one was that he was strangely like the baby she had surrendered, the other that he had an astonishing and most moving resemblance to his father. It was the second of these two things that instantly warned her, like an inner voice: “Take care, take care. You must not be affected by this’–for indeed it was most desperately moving.

John, now twelve years of age, was small and slight and very fair in colouring. His hair, which was rather stiff (a little tuft of it stood up sharply on the back of his head), was pale honey-colour. His face was sharp and thin. His most remarkable feature, which you saw at once as you had done in his father before him, was the eyes, grey-blue in colour, strong, fearless, masculine, full of character. His nose and mouth were thin and pointed. The shape of his upper lip might have been, as his father’s had been inclined to be, cynical and sarcastic. But John’s mouth had suddenly a rather babyish softness which was probably transitory but, at the moment, very appealing. His slim child’s body was as straight as a dart. He was dressed in a light blue pullover and short grey flannel trousers, but you felt the nervous activity of his body beneath his clothes. He stood urgently on his feet as though he were about to start a race, but this may have been because he was feeling the excitement and strangeness of this meeting. His pale hair, his sharp-boned, delicate colouring, the athletic urgency of his poise gave him at once an air of life and spirit that scarcely seemed to belong to that old, dark room, nor had it anything to do with the spare, thin figure of the woman who stood beside him, her hand lightly touching his arm. But he was like the baby Rose had left and like the man she had lost, and it was no sentimental weakness for her to feel a catch in her throat, or to see the room suddenly sway behind a misty cloud of uncertainty.

“Here’s John,’ Janet said.

“Hullo,’ John said, and then he held out his hand. “How are you?’

She felt and shared his own sense of intolerable shyness. He did not in all probability realize all the implications of this meeting, but he knew enough of them to feel a deep awkwardness and possibly strong, urgent resentment.

She went forward and took his hand. “How are you, John?’ she said. She bent down and kissed his forehead.

He received her kiss as though he had known that this ghastly thing must occur. She realized that that had been one of the moments he had been dreading and that now everything would be a little easier. She realized, too, that to the virgin mind of Janet Fawcus all this was of a dreadful indecency–the unmarried mother greeting her bastard child–and suddenly she thought: “How inconceivably stupid of me! Janet must have fought her father’s decision to invite me here with all the force she possessed. I had never realized how abandoned she must have thought me.’ She felt it exasperating that Janet should be present at her first meeting with her own son. She longed to have the courage to say, “Leave us for a moment, won’t you?’ but she could not and the woman did not move. Something had to be done, the pause had already lasted too long.

“You have been skating, John, haven’t you?’

His eyes were eating into her face. He was studying her with an absorbed attention, having forgotten completely all the rules of conduct, that you must not stare at strangers, and so on. His eyes never wavered from her face as he answered:

“Yes. The pond’s been frozen for a week. I’m getting quite good.’

“John, dear,’ Janet said softly, but he gave a little impatient wriggle of his shoulders.

“Oh! I’m not swanking, but Mr. Brighouse said so and he can skate like anything.’

“I live in Switzerland most of the time,’ said Rose, “so I get plenty of skating, or could have if I wanted it.’

“Why, don’t you want it?’ he asked, his eyes wider than ever, staring at her.

“Yes, but you know what it is,’ she said, smiling, “when you have so much of anything all round you, you don’t value it in the same way.’

“No, I suppose you don’t,’ he said. “It’s like being an assistant in a sweet-shop. They get as bored as anything with chocolates and cakes.’ He drew a quick little breath. “I don’t think I’d ever be bored with marzipan,’ he said.

Janet pressed her hand in a little on his shoulder. “Come, John,’ she said.

And it was at that moment that Rose knew her first instant of sharp, intense rebellion. What right had this woman to tell her son to go at this moment? This was her moment. If the woman had had any kind of decency she would have left them alone together. Then Rose remembered. She smiled, looked him full in the eyes, nodded and lightly said:

“Good night, John. See you to-morrow.’

He said, his eyes still on her face: “Yes. I hope the frost holds, don’t you?’ Then turned and went out with his aunt.

The room was very quiet. There was a gentle tap on the door. Rose said, “Come in,’ and a small, rather pinched-faced little maid stood in the doorway. She asked whether she might pull the curtains. Then, standing near the window, she asked whether everything was all right, please, miss?

“I didn’t know,’ she said, “whether that would be the dress you’d be wanting to wear.’

Rose looked and saw–what she had not noticed before–that her evening frock was laid out on the bed, and that it was the smart one of grey and silver. She smiled. “Oh, thank you. How nice everything is! But I think that I’ll have the black one to-night.’

“Oh yes, miss. I didn’t know.’ And she moved very quickly to the drawer, brought out the black taffeta dress and put the other one away, then drew the heavy thick mulberry-coloured curtains across the windows and moved to the door. Again she said: “Will that be everything, miss? Dinner’s at quarter to eight.’

“Yes, thank you,’ Rose said. “What is your name?’

“Sally, miss.’ The girl gave her a sharp, inquisitive look.

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