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Table of Contents
Chapter One - The New Life
Chapter Two - The Beetles
Chapter Three - Clerk Simon
Chapter Four - The Dream
Chapter Five - The Hall by Holborn
Chapter Six - The Wise Water
Chapter Seven - The Magical Sacrifice
Chapter Eight - The Magical Creation
Chapter Nine - Telephone Conversations
Chapter Ten - The Acts of the City
All Hallow's Eve
First digital edition 2018 by Anna Ruggieri
She was standing on Westminster Bridge. It was twilight, but the City was no longer dark. The street lamps along the Embankment were still dimmed, but in the buildings shutters and blinds and curtains had been removed or left undrawn, and the lights were coming out there like the first faint stars above. Those lights were the peace. It was true that formal peace was not yet in being; all that had happened was that fighting had ceased. The enemy, as enemy, no longerexisted, and one more crisis of agony was done. Labour, intelligence, patience — much need for these; and much certainty of boredom and suffering and misery, but no longer the sick vigils and daily despair.
Lester Furnival stood and. looked at the City while the twilight deepened. The devastated areas were hidden; much was to be done but could be. In the distance she could hear an occasional plane. Its sound gave her a greater sense of relief than the silence. It was precisely not dangerous; it promised atruer safety than all the squadrons of fighters and bombers had held. Something was ended, and those remote engines told her so. The moon was not yet risen; the river was dark below. She put her hand on the parapet and looked at it; it should make no morebandages if she could help it. It was not a bad hand, though it was neither so clean nor so smooth as it had been years ago, before the war. It was twenty-five now, and to her that seemed a great age. She went on looking at it for a long while; in the silence and the peace, until it occurred to her that the silence was very prolonged, except for that recurrent solitary plane. No one, all the time she had been standing there, had crossed the bridge; no voice, no step, no car had sounded in the deepening night.
She took her hand off the wall, and turned. The bridge was as empty as the river; no vehicles or pedestrians here, no craft there. In all that City she might have been the only living thing. She had been so impressed by the sense of security and peacewhile she had been looking down at the river that only now did she begin to try and remember why she was there on the bridge. There was a confused sense in her mind that she was on her way somewhere; she was either going to or coming from her own flat. Itmight have been to meet Richard, though she had an idea that Richard, or someone with Richard, had told her not to come. But she could not think of anyone, except Richard, who was at all likely to do so, and anyhow she knew she had been determined to come.It was all mixed up with that crash which had put everything out of her head; and as she lifted hereyes, she saw beyond the Houses and the Abbey the cause of the crash, the plane lying half in the river and half on the Embankment. She looked at it with asense of its importance to her, but she could not tell why it should seem so important. Her only immediate concern with it seemed to be that it might have blocked the direct road home to her flat, which lay beyond Millbank and was where Richard was or would be and her own chief affairs. She thought of it with pleasure; it was reasonably new and fresh, and they had been lucky to get it when Richard and she had been married yesterday. At least — yesterday? well, not yesterday but not very much longer than yesterday, only the other day. It had been the other day. The word for a moment worried her; it had been indeed another, a separate, day. She felt as if she had almost lost her memory of it, yet she knew she had not. She had been married, and to Richard.
Theplane, in the thickening darkness, was now but a thicker darkness, and distinguishable only because her eyes were still fixed on it. If she moved she would lose it. If she lost it, she would be left in the midst of this — this lull. She knew the sudden London lulls well enough, but this lull was lasting absurdly long. All the lulls she had ever known were not as deep as this, in which there seemed no movement at all, if the gentle agitation of the now visible stars were less than movement, or the steady flow of the river beneath her; she had at least seen that flowing — or had she? was that also still? She was alone with this night in the City — a night of peace and lights and stars, and of bridges and streets she knew, but all in a silence she did not know, so that if she yielded to the silence she would not know those other things, and the whole place would be different and dreadful.
She stood up from the parapet against which she had been leaning, and shook herself impatiently. “I’m moithering,” she saidin a word she had picked up from a Red Cross companion, and took a step forward. If she could not get directly along Millbank, she must go round. Fortunately the City was at least partially lit now. The lights in the houses shone out, and by them she couldsee more clearly than in the bad old days. Also she could see into them; and somewhere in her there was a small desire to see someone — a woman reading, children playing, a man listening to the wireless; something of that humanity which must be near, butof which on that lonely bridge she could feel nothing. She turned her face towards Westminster and began to walk.
She had hardly taken a dozen steps when she stopped. In the first moment, she thought it was only the echo of her own steps that she heard, but immediately she knew it was not. Someone else, at last, was there; someone else was coming, and comipg quickly. Her heart leapt and subsided; the sound at once delighted and frightened her.But she grew angry with this sort of dallying, this over-consciousness of sensation. It was more like Richard than herself. Richard could be aware of sensation so and yet take it in its stride; it was apt to distract her. She had admired him for it, and still did; only now she was a little envious and irritated. She blamed Richard for her own incapacity. She had paused, and before she could go on she knew the steps. They were his. Six months of marriage had not dulled the recognition; she knew the true time of it at once. It was Richard himself coming. She went quicklyon.
In a few moments she saw him; her eyes as well as her ears recognized him. Her relief increased her anger. Why had he let her in for this inconvenience? had they arranged to meet? if so, why had he not been there? why had she been kept waiting? and what had she been doing while she had been kepThe lingering? lack of memory drove her on and increased her irritation. He was coming. His fair bare head shone darkgold under a farther street lamp; under the nearer they came face to face.
He stopped dead as hesaw her, and his face went white. Then he sprang towards her. She threw up her hand as if to keep him off. She said, with a coldness against her deeper will, but she could not help it: “Where have you been? what have you been doing? I’ve been waiting.”
Hesaid: “How did you get out? what do you mean waiting?”
The question startled her. She stared at him. His own gaze was troubled and almost inimical; there was something in him which scared her more. She wondered if she were going to faint, for he seemed almost to float before her in the air and to be far away. She said: “What do you mean? Where are you going? Richard!”
For he was going-in another sense. Her hand still raised, in that repelling gesture, she saw him move backwards, uncertainly, out of the range of that dimmed light. She went after him; he should not evade her. She was almost up to him, and she saw him throw out his hands towards her. She caught them; she knew she caught them, for she could see them in her own, but she could not feel them. Theywere terrifying, and he was terrifying. She brought her hands against her breast, and they grew fixed there, as, wide-eyed with anger and fear, she watched him disappearing before her. As if he were a ghost he faded; and with him faded all the pleasant human soundsfeet, voices, bells, engines, wheels — which now she knew that, while she had talked to him, she had again clearly heard. He had gone; all was silent. She choked on his name; it did not recall him. He had vanished, and she stood once more alone.
She could not tell how long she stood there, shocked and impotent to move. Her fear was at first part of her rage, but presently it separated itself, and was cold in her,and became a single definite thought. When at last she could move, could step again to the parapet and lean against it and rest her hands on it, the thought possessed her with its desolation. It dominated everything — anger and perplexity and the silence; it was in a word — “Dead,” she thought, “dead.” He could not otherwise have gone; never in all their quarrels had he gone or she; that certainty had allowed them a licence they dared not otherwise have risked. She began to cry — unusually, helplessly, stupidly. She felt the tears on her face and peered at the parapet for her handbag and ahandkerchief, since now she could not — O despair!-borrow his, as with her most blasting taunts she ad sometimes done. It was not on the parapet. She took a step or two away, brushed with her hand the tears from her eyes, and looked about the pavement. Itwas not on the pavement. She was crying in the street and she had neither handkerchief nor powder. This was what happened when Richard was gone, was dead. He must be dead; how else could he be gone? how else could she be there, and so?
Dead, and she haddone it once too often. Dead, and this had been their parting. Dead; her misery swamped her penitence. They had told each other it made no difference, and now it had made this. They had reassured each other in their reconciliations, for though they had been fools and quick-tempered, high egotists and bitter of tongue, they had been much in love and they had been but fighting their way. But she felt her own inner mind had always foreboded this. Dead; separate; for ever separate. It did not, in that separation, much matter who was dead. If it had been she — She. On the instant she knew it. The word still meant to her so much only this separation that the knowledge did not at first surprise her. One of them was; she was. Very well; she was. But then — she was.On that apparent bridge, beneath those apparent stars, she stood up and knew it. Her tears stopped and dried; she felt the stiffness and the stains on her apparent flesh. She did not now doubt the fact and was still not surprised. She remembered what had happened — herself setting out to meet Evelyn at the Tube, and instead coming across her just over there, and their stopping. And then the sudden loud noise, the shrieks, the violent pain. The plane had crashed on them. She had then, or very soon after, become what she now was.
She was no longer crying; her misery had frozen. The separation she endured was deeper than even she had believed. She had seen Richard for the last time, for now she herself was away, away beyond him. She was entirely cut off; she was dead. It was now a more foreign word than it had ever been and it meant this. She could perhaps, if it was he who had been dead, have gone to him; now she could not. She could never get back to him, and he would never come to her. He could not: she had thrown him away. It was allquite proper; quite inevitable. She had pushed him away, and there was an end to Richard. But there was no end to her.
Never in her life had she contemplated so final an end which was no end. All change had carried on some kind of memory which was encouragement. She had not always supposed it to be so; she had told herself, when she left school, when she was married, that she was facing a new life. But she had, on the whole, been fortunate in her passage, and some pleasantness inher past had always offered her a promise in the future. This however was a quite new life. Her good fortune had preserved her from any experience of that state which is — almost adequately-called “death-in-life”; it had consequently little prepared her for this life-in-death. Her heart had not fallen ever, ever — through an unfathomed emptiness, supported only on the fluttering wings of every-day life; and not even realizing that it was so supported. She was a quite ordinary, and rather lucky, girl, and she was dead.
Only the City lay silently around her; only the river flowed below, and the stars flickered above, and in the houses lights shone. It occurred to her presently to wonder vaguely — as in hopeless affliction men do wonder — why the lights were shining. If the City were as empty as it seemed, if there were no companion anywhere, why the lights? She gazed at them, and the wonder flickered and went away, and after a while returned and presently went away again, and so on for a long time. She remainedstanding there, for though she had been a reasonably intelligent and forceful creature, she had never in fact had to display any initiative — much less such initiative as was needed here. She had never much thought about death; she had never prepared forit; she had never related anything to it; She had nothing whatever to do with it, or (therefore) in it. As it seemed to have nothing to offer her except this wide prospect of London, she remained helpless. She knew it was a wide prospect, for after she hadremained for a great while in the dark it had grown slowly light again. A kind of pale October day had dawned, and the lights in the apparent houses had gone out; and then it had once more grown dark, and they had shone — and so on — twenty or thirty times. There had been no sun. During the day she saw the River and the City; during the night, the stars. Nothing else.
Why at last she began to move she could not have said. She was not hungry or thirsty or cold or tired — well, perhaps a little cold and tired, but only a little, and certainly not hungry or thirsty. But if Richard, in this new sense, were not coming, it presently seemed to her useless to wait. But besides Richard, the only thing in which she had been interested had been the apparatus of mortallife; not people — she had not cared for people particularly, except perhaps Evelyn; she was sincerely used to Evelyn,whom she had known at school and since; but apart from Evelyn, not people — only the things they used and lived in, houses, dresses, furniture, gadgets of all kinds. That was what she had liked, and (if she wanted it now) that was what she had got. She did not, of course, know this, and she could not know that it was the sincerity of her interest that procured her this relaxation in the void. If Richard had died, this would have remained vivid to her. Since she was dead, it remained also, though not (stripped of all forms of men and women) particularly vivid.
She began to walk. It did not much matter which way. Her first conscious movement— and even that was hardly a movement of volition — was to look over her shoulder in the seeming daylight to see if the plane were there. It was, though dimmer and smaller, as if it were fading. Would the whole City gradually fade and leave her to emptiness? Or would she too fade? She did not really attempt to grapple with the problem of her seeming body; death did not offer her problems of that sort. Her body in life had never been a problem; she had accepted it, inconveniences and all, as a thing that simply was. Her pride — and she had a good deal of pride, especially sexual — had kept her from commitments except with Richard. It was her willingness to commit herself with Richard that made her believe she (as she called it) loved Richard, though in her bad moments she definitely wished Richard, in that sense, to love her more than she loved him. But her bad moments were not many. She really did want, need, and (so far) love Richard. Her lack and longing and despair and self-blame were sincere enough, and they did not surprise her. It had been plain honest passion, and plain honest passion it remained. But now the passion more and more took the form of one thought; she had done it again, she had done it once too often, and this was the unalterable result.
She began to walk. She went up northward. That was instinct; she at least knew that part of London. Up from the bridge, up Whitehall — no one. Into Trafalgar Square — no one. In the shops, in the offices — no one. They were all full and furnished with everything but man. At moments, as she walked, a horrible fancy took her that those at which she was not, at the moment, looking were completely empty; that everything was but a facade, with nothing at all behind it; that if she had walked straight through one of those shops, she would come out into entire nothing. It was a creeping sensation of the void; she herself could not have put it into words. But there the suspicion was.
She came to the bottom of Charing Cross Road, and began to go up it. In front of hershe saw the curtains of brick that hid the entrances to Leicester Square Tube Station. By one of them, on the opposite side of the road, someone was standing. She was still not conscious of any shock of surprise or of fear or even of relief. Her emotions were notin action. There had been no one; there was now someone. It was not Richard; it was another young woman. She crossed the road towards the unknown; it seemed the thing to do. Unknown? not unknown. It was — and now she did feel a faint surprise — itwas Evelyn. In the sudden recollection of having arranged to meet Evelyn there, she almost forgot that she was dead. But then she remembered that their actual meeting had been accidental. They had both happened to be on their way to their appointed place.As she remembered, she felt a sudden renewal of the pain and of the oblivion. It did not remain. There was nothing to do but go on. She went on.
The figure of Evelyn moved and came towards her. The sound of her heels was at first hideously loud on the pavement as she came, but after a step or two it dwindled to almost nothing. Lester hardly noticed the noise at the time or its diminution; her sense was in her eyes. She. absorbed the approaching form as it neared her with a growing intensity which caused heralmost to forget Richard. The second-best was now the only best. As they drew together, she could not find anything to say beyond what she had said a hundred times — dull and careless: “O hallo, Evelyn!” The sound of the words scared her, but much more the immediate intolerable anxiety about the reply: would it come? It did come. The shape of her friend said in a shaking voice: “O hallo, Lester!”
They stopped and looked at each other. Lester could not find it possible to speak of their present state. Evelyn stood before her, a little shorter than she, with her rather pinched face and quick glancing black eyes. Her black hair was covered by a small green hat. She wore a green coat; and her hands were fidgeting with each other. Lester saw at once that she also was without a handbag. This lack of what, for both of them, was almost, if not quite, part of their very dress, something without which they were never seen in public; this loss of handkerchief, compact, keys, money, letters, left them peculiarly desolate. They had nothing but themselves and what they wore — no property, no convenience. Lester felt nervous of the loss of her dress itself; she clutched it defensively. Without her handbag she was doubly forlorn in this empty City. But Evelyn was there, andEvelyn was something. They could, each of them, whatever was to happen, meet it with something human close by. Poor deserted vagrants as they were, they could at least be companions in their wanderings.
She said: “So you’re here!” and felt a little cheered. Perhaps soon she would be able to utter the word death. Lester had no lack of courage. She had always been willing, as it is called, “to face facts”; indeed, her chief danger had been that, in a life with no particular. crisis and no particular meaning,she would invent for herself facts to face. She had the common, vague idea of her age that if your sexual life was all right you wereall right, and she had the common vague idea of all ages that if you (and your sexual life) were not all right, it was probably someone else’s fault — perhaps undeliberate, but still their fault. Her irritation with her husband had been much more the result of power seeking material than mere fretfulness. Her courage and her power, when she saw Evelyn, stirred; she half-prepared a part for them to play — frankness, exploration, daring. Oh if it could but have been with Richard!
Evelyn was speaking. Her quick and yet inaccurate voice rippled in words and slurred them. She said: “You have been a long time. I quite thought you wouldn’t be coming. I’ve been waiting — you can’t think how long. Let’s go into the Park and sit down.”
Lester was about to answer when she was appalled by the mere flat ordinariness of the words. She had been gripping to herself so long her final loss of Richard that she had gripped also the new state in which they were. This talk of sitting down in the Park came over her like a nightmare, with a nightmare’s horror of unreality become actual. She saw before her the entrance to the station, and she rememberedthey had meant to go somewhere by Tube. She began, with an equal idiocy, to say: “But weren’t we — ” when Evelyn gripped her arm. Lester disliked being held; she disliked Evelyn holding her; now she disliked it more than ever. Her flesh shrank. Her eyes were on the station entrance, and the repulsion of her flesh spread. There was the entrance; they had meant to go — yes, but there could not now be any Tube below; or it would be as empty as the street. A medieval would have feared other things in such a moment — the way perhaps to the citta dolente, or the people of it, smooth or hairy, tusked or clawed, malicious or lustful, creeping and clambering up from the lower depths. She did not think of that, but she did think of the spaces and what might fill them; what but the dead? Perhaps — in a flash she saw them — perhaps there the people, the dead people, of this empty City were; perhaps that was where the whole population had been lying, waiting for her too, the entrance waiting and all below the entrance. There were things her courage could not face. Evelyn’s clutch on her arm was light, light out of all proportion to the fear in Evelyn’s eyes, but in her own fear she yielded to it. She allowed herself to be led away.
They went into the Park; they found a seat; they sat down. Evelyn had begun to talk, and now she went on. Lester had always known Evelyn talked a good deal, but she had never listened to more than she chose. Now she could not help listening, and she had never before heard Evelyn gabble like this. The voice was small and thin as it usually was, but it was speedier and much more continuous. It was like a river; no, it was like something thrown about on a river, twisted and tossed. It had no pressure; it had noweight. But it went on. She was saying— “that we wouldn’t go to see it today, after all. I mean, there aren’t many people about, and I do hate an empty theatre, don’t you? Even a cinema. It always seems different. I hate not being with people. Should we go and see Betty? I know you don’t muchcare for Betty, or her mother. I don’t like her mother myself, though of course with Betty she must have had a very difficult time. I wish I could have done more for her, but I did try. I’m really very fond of Betty, and I’ve always said that there was some simple explanation for that odd business with the little German refugee a year or two ago. Naturally I never said anything to her about it, because she’s almost morbidly shy, isn’t she? I did hear that that painter had been there several times lately; what’s his name? Drayton; he’s a friend of your husband, isn’t he? but I shouldn’t think he — ”
Lester said — if she said; she was not certain, but she seemed to say: “Be quiet, Evelyn.”
The voice stopped. Lester knew that she had stopped it. She could notherself say more. The stillness of the City was immediately present again, and for a moment she almost regretted her words. But of the two she knew she preferred the immense, the inimical stillness to that insensate babble. Death as death was preferable todeath mimicking a foolish life. She sat, almost defiantly, silent; they both sat silent. Presently Lester heard by her side a small and curious noise. She looked round. Evelyn was sitting there crying as Lester had cried, the tears running down her face,and the small noise came from her mouth. She was shaking all over, and her teeth were knocking together. That was the noise.
Lester looked at her. Once she would have been impatient or sympathetic. She felt that, even now, she might be either, but in factshe was neither. There was Evelyn, crying and chattering; well, there was Evelyn crying and chattering. It was not a matter that seemed relevant. She looked away again. They went on sitting.
The first shadow of another night was in the sky. There was neverany sun, so it could not sink. There was a moon, but a moon of some difference, for it gave no light. It was large and bright and cold, and it hung in the sky, but there was no moonlight on the ground. The lights in the houses would come on, and then go out. It was certainly growing darker. By her side the chattering went on; the crying became more full of despair. Lester dimly remembered that she would once have been as irritated by it as all but the truly compassionate always are by misery. Now she was not. She said nothing; she did nothing. She could not help being aware of Evelyn, and a slow recollection of her past with Evelyn forced itself on her mind. She knew she had never really liked Evelyn,but Evelyn had been a habit, almost a drug, with which she filled spare hours. Evelyn usually did what Lester wanted. She would talk gossip which Lester did not quite like to talk, but did rather like to hear talked, because she could then listen to it while despising it. She kept Lester up to date in all her less decent curiosities. She came because she was invited and stayed because she was needed. They went out together because it suited them; they had been going out that afternoon because it suited them; and now they were dead and sitting in the Park becauseit had suited someone or something else — someone who had let a weakness into the plane or had not been able to manage the plane, or perhaps this City of facades which in a mere magnetic emptiness had drawn them to be there, just there.
Still motionlesslygazing across the darkening Park, Lester thought again of Richard. If Richard had been in distress by her side — not, of course, crying and chattering, more likely dumb and rigid — would she have done anything? She thought probably not. But she might, shecertainly might, have cried to him. She would have expected him to help her. But she could not think of it; the pang took her too quickly; he was not there and could not be. Well . . . the pang continued, but she was growing used to it. She knew she wouldhave to get used to it.
The voice by her side spoke again. It said, through its sobs, the sobs catching and interrupting it: “Lester! Lester, I’m so frightened.” And then again: “Lester, why won’t you let me talk?”
Lester began: “Why — ” and had to pause,for in the shadow her voice was dreadful to her. It did not sound like a voice; only like an echo. In the apparent daylight, it had not been so bad, but in this twilight it seemed only like something that, if it was happening at all, was happening elsewhere. It could not hold any meaning, for all meaning had been left behind; in her flat perhaps which she would never occupy again; or perhaps with the other dead in the tunnels of the Tube; or perhaps farther away yet, with, whatever it was that had drawn them there and would draw them farther; this was only a little way — Oh what else remained to know?
She paused, but she would not be defeated. She forced herself to speak; she could and would dare that at least. She said: “Why. . . . Why do you want to talknow?”
The other voice said: “I can’t help it. It’s getting so dark. Let’s go on talking. We can’t do anything else.”
Lester felt again the small weak hand on her arm, and now she had time to feel it; nothing else intervened. She hated the contact. Evelyn’shand might have been the hand of some pleading lover whose touch made her flesh creep. She had, once or twice in herproud life, been caught like that; once in a taxi — the present touch brought sharply back that other clasp, in this very Park on a summerevening. She had only just not snapped into irritation and resentment then; but in some ways she had liked the unfortunate man, and they had been dining pleasantly enough. She had remained kind; she had endured the fingers feeling up her wrist, her wholebody loathing them, until she could with sufficient decency disengage herself. It was her first conscious recollection of an incident in her past — that act of pure courtesy, though she did not then recognize it either as recollection or as a courtesy. Only for a moment she thought she saw a taxi race through the Park away before her, and then she thought it could not be and was not. But she stiffened herself now against her instinctive shrinking, and let her arm lie still, while the feeble hand clutched and pawed at her.
Her apprehension quickened as she did so. To be what she was, to be in this state of death, was bad enough, but at the same time to feel the dead, to endure the clinging of the dead, being dead to know the dead — the live man in the taxi was far better than this, this that was Evelyn, the gabbling voice, the chattering teeth, the helpless sobs, the crawling fingers. But she had gone out with Evelyn much more than with the man in the taxi; her heart acknowledged a debt. She continued to sit still. She said in a voice touched by pity if not by compassion: “It’s no good talking, especially like that. Don’t you understand?”
Evelyn answered, resentfully choking, but still holding on: “I was only telling you about Betty, and it’s all quite true. And no one can hear me except you, so it doesn’t matter.”
No one could hear; it was true enough — unless indeed the City heard, unless the distant faqades, and the nearer fagade of trees and grass, were listening, unless they had in them just that reality atleast, a capacity to overhear and oversee. The thin nothingness could perhaps hear and know. Lester felt all about her a strange attention, and Evelyn herself, as if frightened by her own words, gave a hasty look round, and then burst again into a hysterical monologue: “Isn’t it funny — we’re all alone? We never thought we’d be alone like this, did we? But I only said what was quite true, even if I do hate Betty. I hate everyone except you; of course I don’t hate you; I’m very fond of you. You won’t go away, will you? It’s nearly dark again, and I hate it when it’s dark. You don’t know what the dark was like before you came. Why are we here like this? I haven’t done anything. I haven’t; I tell you I haven’t. I haven’t done anything.”
The last word rose likea wail in the night, almost (as in the old tales) as if a protesting ghost was loosed and fled, in a cry as thin as its own tenuous wisp ofexistence, through the irresponsive air of a dark world, where its own justification was its only, and worst, accusation. So high and shrill was the wail that Lester felt as though Evelyn herself must have been torn away and have vanished, but it was not so. The fingers still clutched her wrist, and Evelyn still sat there, crying and ejaculating, without strength to cry louder: “I haven’t done anything, anything. I haven’t done anything at all.”
And what then could be done now? If neither Evelyn nor she herself had ever of old done anything, what could or should they do now — with nothing and no one about them? withonly the shell of a City, and they themselves but shell, and perhaps not even true shell? only a faint memory and a pang worse than memory? It was too much to bear. As if provoked by an ancient impetuosity of rage, Lester sprang to her feet; shell or body,she sprang up, and the motion tore her from the hand that held her. She took a step away. Better go alone than sit so companioned; and then as her foot moved to the second step she paused. Evelyn had wailed again: “Oh don’t go! don’t go!” Lester felt herself again thrusting Richard away, and she paused. She looked back over her shoulder; half in anger and half in pity, in fear and scorn and tenderness, she looked back. She saw Evelyn, Evelyn instead of Richard. She stared down at the other girl, and she exclaimed aloud: “Oh my god!”
It was the kind of casual exclamation she and Richard had been in the habit of throwing about all over the place. It meant nothing; when they were seriously aggressive or aggrieved, they used language borrowed from bestiality orhell. She had never thought it meant anything. But in this air every word meant something, meant itself; and this curious new exactitude of speech hung there like a strange language, as if she had sworn in Spanish or Pushtu, and the oath had echoed into an invocation. Nothing now happened; no one came; not a quiver disturbed the night, but for a moment she felt as if someone might come, or perhaps not even that — no more than a sudden sense that she was listening as if to hear if it was raining. She was becoming strange to herself; her words, even her intonations, were foreign. In a foreign land she was speaking a foreign tongue; she spoke and did not know what she said. Her mouth was uttering its own habits, but the meaning of those habits was not her own.She did not recognize what she used. “I haven’t done anything. . . . Oh my God!” This was how they talked, and it was a great precise prehistoric language forming itself out of the noises their mouths made. She articulated the speech of Adam or Seth or Noah, and only dimly recognized the intelligibility of it. She exclaimed again, despairingly: “Richard!” and that word she did know. It was the only word common to her and the City in which she stood. As shespoke, she almost saw his face, himself saying something, and she thought she would have understood that meaning, for his face was part of the meaning, as it always had been, and she had lived with that meaning — loved, desired, denounced it. Something intelligible and great loomed and was gone. She was silent. She turned; she said, more gently than she had spoken before: “Evelyn, let’s do something now.”
“But I haven’t done anything,” Evelyn sobbed again. The precise words sounded round them, and Lester answered their meaning.
“No,” she said, “I know. Norhave I— much.” She had for six months kept house for Richard and herself and meant it. She had meant it; quarrels and bickerings could not alter that; even the throwing it away could not alter it. She lifted her head; it was as certain as any of the starsnow above her in the sky. For the second time she felt — apart from Evelyn — her past present with her. The first had been in the sense of that shadowy taxi racing through the Park, but this was stronger and more fixed. She lived more easily for that moment. She said again: “Not very much. Let’s go.”
“But where can we go?” Evelyn cried. “Where are we? It’s so horrible.”
Lester looked round her. She saw the stars; she saw the lights; she saw dim shapes of houses and trees in a landscape which was less familiar through being so familiar. She could not even yet manage to enunciate to her companion the word death. The landscape of death lay round them; the future of death awaited them. Let them go to it; let them do something. She thought of her own flat and ofRichard — no. She did not wish to take this other Evelyn there; besides, she herself would be, if anything at all, only a dim shadow to Richard, a hallucination or a troubling apparition. She could not bear that, if it could be avoided; she could not bearto be only a terrifying dream. No; they must go elsewhere. She wondered if Evelyn felt in the same way about her own home. She knew that Evelyn had continuously snubbed and suppressed her mother, with whom she lived; once or twice she had herself meant tosay something, if only out of an indifferent superiority. But the indifference had beaten the superiority. It was now for Evelyn to choose. She said: “Shall we go to your place?”
Evelyn said shrilly: “No; no. I won’t see Mother. I hate Mother.”
Lestershrugged. One way and another, they did seem to be rather vagrants, unfortunate and helpless creatures, with no purpose and no use. She said: “Well . . . let’s go.” Evelyn looked up at her. Lester, with an effort at companionship, tried to smile at her. She did not very well succeed, but at least Evelyn, slowly and reluctantly, got to her feet. The lights in the houses had gone out, but a faint clarity was in the air — perhaps (though it had come quickly) the first suggestion of the day. Lester knew exactlywhatshe had better do, and with an effort she did it. She took Evelyn’s arm. The two dead girls went together slowly out of the Park.
It was a month or so since Lester Furnival had been buried. The plane crash had been explained and regretted by the authorities. Apologies and condolences had been sent to Mrs. Furnival’s husband and Miss Mercer’s mother. A correspondence on the possibility and propriety of compensation had taken place in the Press, and a question or two had been asked in the House. It was explained that nothing could be done, but that a whole set of new instructions had been issued to everyone connected with flying, from Air Marshals to factory hands.
The publicity of this discussion was almost a greater shock to Richard Furnival than his wife’s death; or, at least, the one confused the other. He was just enough to see that, for the sake of the poor, the Crown ought always at such times to be challenged to extend as a grace what it refused as a claim. He was even conscious that Lester, if the circumstances had been reversed, might properly have had no difficulty in taking what he would have rejected; not that she was less fastidious or less passionate than he, but it would have seemed to her natural and properto spoil those whom he was content to ignore.
The Foreign Office in which through the war he had been serving, pressed on him prolonged leave. He had been half-inclined to refuse, for he guessed that, after the first shock, it was not now that his distresswould begin. The most lasting quality of loss is its unexpectedness, No doubt he would know his own loss in the expected places and times — in streets and stations, in restaurants and theatres, in their own home. He expected that. What he also expected, and yet knew he could not by its nature expect, was his seizure by his own loss in places uniquely his — in his office while he read Norwegian minutes, in the Tube while he read the morning paper, at a bar while he drank with a friend. These habits had existed before he had known Lester, but they could not escape her. She had, remotely but certainly, and without her own knowledge, overruled all. Her entrance into all was absolute, and lacking her the entrance of the pain.
He went away; he returned. He went away to spare his office — companions the slight embarrassment of the sight of him. He returned because he could not bear to be away. He had not yet taken up his work; in a few days he would. Meanwhile he determined unexpectedly one afternoon to call on Jonathan Drayton.
He had known him for a number of years, long before Jonathan became a well-known painter. He was also a very good painter, though there were critics whodisapproved of — him; they said his colour was too shrill. But he had been appointed oneof the official war-artists, and two of his paintings — Submarine Submerging and Night Fighters over Paris — were among the remarkable artistic achievements of the war. He also had been for some time on leave, in preparation (it was understood) for the grand meetings after the peace, when he would be expected to produce historic records of historic occasions. He had been once or twice, a little before the accident, at the Furnivals’ flat, but he had then gone to Scotland and written to Richard from there.A later postcard had announced his return.
Richard had come across the card accidentally on this particular afternoon, and had suddenly made up his mind to go round. Jonathan had been living, or rather had left his things while he was away, on the top floor of a building in the City, not far from St. Paul’s, one room of which was sufficiently well-lit to be used as a studio. It was to the studio that he took Richard after a warm welcome. He was shorter and stockier than his friend, and he had a gencral habit of leaving Richard the most comfortable chair and himself sitting on the table. He settled himself there, and went on: “I’ve got several things to tell you; at least, I’ve got one to tell you and two to show you. If I tell you first . . . the fact is I’mpractically engaged.”
“Splendid!” said Richard. Such thin s were unlikely to distress him, as Jonathan guessed; one could not altogether say what might, but not that. He was quite simply pleased. He said: “Do I know her? and what do you mean by’practically’?”
“I don’t know if you know her,” Jonathan said. “She’s Betty Wallingford, the daughter of the Air Marshal. She and her mother are coming here presently.”
“I remember hearing her name,” Richard said. “She was a friend of Lester’s — or rather not afriend, but they knew each other some time ago. But I rather gathered she was ill or something, and her mother didn’t let her go out much.”
“That’s true enough,” Jonathan answered. “It was the Air Marshal who asked me to dine one night after I’d painted him. He’s a nice creature, though not interesting to paint. Lady Wallingford keeps Betty rather close, and why I say ‘practically’ is because, when things came to a head with Betty the other day, she didn’t seem very keen. She didn’t exactly refuse, but shedidn’t encourage. They’re both coming here presently. Don’t go, whatever you do. I’ve a particular reason for asking you to stay.”
“Have you?” Richard said. “What is it?”
Jonathan nodded at an easel on which was a canvas covered by a cloth. “That,” he said, and looked at his watch. “We’ve an hour before they come, and I’d like you to see it first. No; it’s not a painting of Betty, or of her mother. It’s something quite different, butit may — I don’t know, but it just may-be a little awkward with Lady Wallingford. However, there’s something else for you to see first — d’you mind? If you hadn’t come along, 1. was going to ring you up. I’m never quite happy about a thing till you’ve seen it.”
This, as Richard knew, was a little extreme. But it had a basis of truth, whenjonathan exaggerated, he exaggerated in the grand style. He never said the same thing to two people; something similar perhaps, but always distinguished, though occasionally hardly anyone but he could distinguish the distinction. Richard answered: “I’ve never known you take much notice of anything I said. But show it to me all the same, whatever it is.”
“Over here,” Jonathan said, and took his friend round to the other side of the room. A see ‘ond easel was standing back to back with the first, also holding a canvas, but this uncovered. Richard set himself to look at it.
It was of a part of London after a raid — he thought, of the City proper, for a shape on the right reminded him dimly of St. Paul’s. At the back were a few houses, but the rest ofthe painting was of a wide stretch of desolation. The time was late dawn; the sky was clear; the light came, it seemed at first, from the yet unrisen sun behind the single group of houses. The light was the most outstanding thing in the painting; presently, as Richard looked, it seemed to stand out from the painting, and almost to dominate the room itself. At least it so governed the painting that all other details and elements were contained within it. They floated in that imaginary light as the earth doesin the sun’s. The colours were so heightened that they were almost at odds. Richard saw again what the critics meant when they said that Jonathan Drayton’s paintings “were shrill” or “shrieked”, but he saw also that what prevented this was a certain massiveness. The usual slight distinction between shape and hue seemed wholly to have vanished. Colour was more intensely image than it can usually manage to be, even in that art. A beam of wood painted amber was more than that; it was light which had become amber in order to become wood. All that massiveness of colour was led, by delicate gradations almost like the vibrations of light itself, towards the hidden sun; the eye encountered the gradations in their outward passage and moved inwards towards their source. It was then that the style of the painting came fully into its own. The spectator became convinced that the source, of that light was not only in that hidden sun; as, localized, it certainly was. “Here lies the east; does not the day break here?” The day did, but the light did not. The eye, nearing that particular day, realized that it was leaving the whole fullness of the light behind. It was everywhere in the painting — concealed in houses andin their projected shadows, lying in ambush in the cathedral, opening in the rubble, vivid in the vividness of the sky. It would everywhere have burst through, had it not chosen rather to be shaped into forms, and to restrain and change its greatness in the colours of those lesser limits. It was universal, and lived.
Richard said at last: “I wish you could have shown the sun.”
“Yes?” said Jonathan. “Why?”
“Because then I might have known whether the light’s in the sun or the sun’s in the light. For the life of me, I can’t be certain. It rather looks as though, ifone could see the sun, it would be a kind of container . . . no, as if it would be made of the light as well as everything else.”
“And very agreeable criticism,” Jonathan said. “I admit you imply a whole lot of what I only hope are correct comments on therest of it. You approve?”
“It’s far and away the best thing you’ve done,” Richard answered. “It’s almost the only thing you’ve done — now you’ve done it. It’s like a modern Creation of the World, or at least a Creation of London. How did you come to do it?”
“Sir Joshua Reynolds”, said Jonathan, “once alluded to ‘common observation and a plain understanding’ as the source of all art. I should like to think I agreed with Sir Joshua here.”