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An unnamed little boy in a London suburb observes a strange signpost that stands across the street from his house. It points to an empty alleyway and reads simply: 'To Heaven.' The boy’s parents insist the sign is a joke by some 'naughty young men,' one of whom was a poet.
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E. M. Forster
The Celestial Omnibus
and other Stories
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Sovereign Classic
All rights reserved.
THE STORY OF A PANIC
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE
THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS
THE CURATE’S FRIEND
THE ROAD FROM COLONUS
THE STORY OF A PANIC
Eustace’s career—if career it can be called—certainly dates from that afternoon in the chestnut woods above Ravello. I confess at once that I am a plain, simple man, with no pretensions to literary style. Still, I do flatter myself that I can tell a story without exaggerating, and I have therefore decided to give an unbiassed account of the extraordinary events of eight years ago.
Ravello is a delightful place with a delightful little hotel in which we met some charming people. There were the two Miss Robinsons, who had been there for six weeks with Eustace, their nephew, then a boy of about fourteen. Mr. Sandbach had also been there some time. He had held a curacy in the north of England, which he had been compelled to resign on account of ill-health, and while he was recruiting at Ravello he had taken in hand Eustace’s education—which was then sadly deficient—and was endeavouring to fit him for one of our great public schools. Then there was Mr. Leyland, a would-be artist, and, finally, there was the nice landlady, Signora Scafetti, and the nice English-speaking waiter, Emmanuele—though at the time of which I am speaking Emmanuele was away, visiting a sick father.
To this little circle, I, my wife, and my two daughters made, I venture to think, a not unwelcome addition. But though I liked most of the company well enough, there were two of them to whom I did not take at all. They were the artist, Leyland, and the Miss Robinsons’ nephew, Eustace.
Leyland was simply conceited and odious, and, as those qualities will be amply illustrated in my narrative, I need not enlarge upon them here. But Eustace was something besides: he was indescribably repellent.
I am fond of boys as a rule, and was quite disposed to be friendly. I and my daughters offered to take him out—’No, walking was such a fag.’ Then I asked him to come and bathe—’ No, he could not swim.’
“Every English boy should be able to swim,” I said, “I will teach you myself.”
“There, Eustace dear,” said Miss Robinson; “here is a chance for you.”
But he said he was afraid of the water!—a boy afraid!—and of course I said no more.
I would not have minded so much if he had been a really studious boy, but he neither played hard nor worked hard. His favourite occupations were lounging on the terrace in an easy chair and loafing along the high road, with his feet shuffling up the dust and his shoulders stooping forward. Naturally enough, his features were pale, his chest contracted, and his muscles undeveloped. His aunts thought him delicate; what he really needed was discipline.
That memorable day we all arranged to go for a picnic up in the chestnut woods—all, that is, except Janet, who stopped behind to finish her water-colour of the Cathedral—not a very successful attempt, I am afraid.
I wander off into these irrelevant details, because in my mind I cannot separate them from an account of the day; and it is the same with the conversation during the picnic: all is imprinted on my brain together. After a couple of hours’ ascent, we left the donkeys that had carried the Miss Robinsons and my wife, and all proceeded on foot to the head of the valley—Vallone Fontana Caroso is its proper name, I find.
I have visited a good deal of fine scenery before and since, but have found little that has pleased me more. The valley ended in a vast hollow, shaped like a cup, into which radiated ravines from the precipitous hills around. Both the valley and the ravines and the ribs of hill that divided the ravines were covered with leafy chestnut, so that the general appearance was that of a many fingered green hand, palm upwards, which was clutching, convulsively to keep us in its grasp. Far down the valley we could see Ravello and the sea, but that was the only sign of another world.
“Oh, what a perfectly lovely place,” said my daughter Rose. “What a picture it would make!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Many a famous European gallery would be proud to have a landscape a tithe as beautiful as this upon its walls.”
“On the contrary,” said Leyland, “it would make a very poor picture. Indeed, it is not paintable at all.”
“And why is that?” said Rose, with far more deference than he deserved.
“Look, in the first place,” he replied, “how intolerably straight against the sky is the line of the hill. It would need breaking up and diversifying. And where we are standing the whole thing is out of perspective. Besides, all the colouring is monotonous and crude.”
“I do not know anything about pictures,” I put in, “and I do not pretend to know: but I know what is beautiful when I see it, and I am thoroughly content with this.”
“Indeed, who could help being contented!” said the elder Miss Robinson and Mr. Sandbach said the same.
“Ah!” said Leyland, “you all confuse the artistic view of nature with the photographic.”
Poor Rose had brought her camera with her, so I thought this positively rude. I did not wish any unpleasantness; so I merely turned away and assisted my wife and Miss Mary Robinson to put out the lunch—not a very nice lunch.
“Eustace, dear,” said his aunt, “come and help us here.”
He was in a particularly bad temper that morning. He had, as usual, not wanted to come, and his aunts had nearly allowed him to stop at the hotel to vex Janet. But I, with their permission, spoke to him rather sharply on the subject of exercise; and the result was that he had come, but was even more taciturn and moody than usual.
Obedience was not his strong point. He invariably questioned every command, and only executed it grumbling. I should always insist on prompt and cheerful obedience, if I had a son.
“I’m—coming—Aunt—Mary,” he at last replied, and dawdled to cut a piece of wood to make a whistle, taking care not to arrive till we had finished.
“Well, well, sir!” said I, “you stroll in at the end and profit by our labours.” He sighed, for he could not endure being chaffed. Miss Mary, very unwisely, insisted on giving him the wing of the chicken, in spite of all my attempts to prevent her. I remember that I had a moment’s vexation when I thought that, instead of enjoying the sun, and the air, and the woods, we were all engaged in wrangling over the diet of a spoilt boy.
But, after lunch, he was a little less in evidence. He withdrew to a tree trunk, and began to loosen the bark from his whistle. I was thankful to see him employed, for once in a way. We reclined, and took a dolce far niente.
Those sweet chestnuts of the South are puny striplings compared with our robust Northerners. But they clothed the contours of the hills and valleys in a most pleasing way, their veil being only broken by two clearings, in one of which we were sitting.
And because these few trees were cut down, Leyland burst into a petty indictment of the proprietor.
“All the poetry is going from Nature,” he cried, “her lakes and marshes are drained, her seas banked up, her forests cut down. Everywhere we see the vulgarity of desolation spreading.”
I have had some experience of estates, and answered that cutting was very necessary for the health of the larger trees. Besides, it was unreasonable to expect the proprietor to derive no income from his lands.
“If you take the commercial side of landscape, you may feel pleasure in the owner’s activity. But to me the mere thought that a tree is convertible into cash is disgusting.”
“I see no reason,” I observed politely, “to despise the gifts of Nature, because they are of value.”
It did not stop him. “It is no matter,” he went on, “we are all hopelessly steeped in vulgarity. I do not except myself. It is through us, and to our shame, that the Nereids have left the waters and the Oreads the mountains, that the woods no longer give shelter to Pan.”
“Pan!” cried Mr. Sandbach, his mellow voice filling the valley as if it had been a great green church, “Pan is dead. That is why the woods do not shelter him.” And he began to tell the striking story of the mariners who were sailing near the coast at the time of the birth of Christ, and three times heard a loud voice saying: “The great God Pan is dead.”
“Yes. The great God Pan is dead,” said Leyland. And he abandoned himself to that mock misery in which artistic people are so fond of indulging. His cigar went out, and he had to ask me for a match.
“How very interesting,” said Rose. “I do wish I knew some ancient history.”
“It is not worth your notice,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Eh, Eustace?”
Eustace was finishing his whistle. He looked up, with the irritable frown in which his aunts allowed him to indulge, and made no reply.
The conversation turned to various topics and then died out. It was a cloudless afternoon in May, and the pale green of the young chestnut leaves made a pretty contrast with the dark blue of the sky. We were all sitting at the edge of the small clearing for the sake of the view, and the shade of the chestnut saplings behind us was manifestly insufficient. All sounds died away—at least that is my account: Miss Robinson says that the clamour of the birds was the first sign of uneasiness that she discerned. All sounds died away, except that, far in the distance, I could hear two boughs of a great chestnut grinding together as the tree swayed. The grinds grew shorter and shorter, and finally that sound stopped also. As I looked over the green fingers of the valley, everything was absolutely motionless and still; and that feeling of suspense which one so often experiences when Nature is in repose, began to steal over me.
Suddenly, we were all electrified by the excruciating noise of Eustace’s whistle. I never heard any instrument give forth so ear-splitting and discordant a sound.
“Eustace, dear,” said Miss Mary Robinson, “you might have thought of your poor Aunt Julia’s head.”
Leyland who had apparently been asleep, sat up.
“It is astonishing how blind a boy is to anything that is elevating or beautiful,” he observed. “I should not have thought he could have found the wherewithal out here to spoil our pleasure like this.”
Then the terrible silence fell upon us again. I was now standing up and watching a catspaw of wind that was running down one of the ridges opposite, turning the light green to dark as it travelled. A fanciful feeling of foreboding came over me; so I turned away, to find to my amazement, that all the others were also on their feet, watching it too.
It is not possible to describe coherently what happened next: but I, for one, am not ashamed to confess that, though the fair blue sky was above me, and the green spring woods beneath me, and the kindest of friends around me, yet I became terribly frightened, more frightened than I ever wish to become again, frightened in a way I never have known either before or after. And in the eyes of the others, too, I saw blank, expressionless fear, while their mouths strove in vain to speak and their hands to gesticulate. Yet, all around us were prosperity, beauty, and peace, and all was motionless, save the catspaw of wind, now travelling up the ridge on which we stood.
Who moved first has never been settled. It is enough to say that in one second we were tearing away along the hillside. Leyland was in front, then Mr. Sandbach, then my wife. But I only saw for a brief moment; for I ran across the little clearing and through the woods and over the undergrowth and the rocks and down the dry torrent beds into the valley below. The sky might have been black as I ran, and the trees short grass, and the hillside a level road; for I saw nothing and heard nothing and felt nothing, since all the channels of sense and reason were blocked. It was not the spiritual fear that one has known at other times, but brutal overmastering physical fear, stopping up the ears, and dropping clouds before the eyes, and filling the mouth with foul tastes. And it was no ordinary humiliation that survived; for I had been afraid, not as a man, but as a beast.
I cannot describe our finish any better than our start; for our fear passed away as it had come, without cause. Suddenly I was able to see, and hear, and cough, and clear my mouth. Looking back, I saw that the others were stopping too; and, in a short time, we were all together, though it was long before we could speak, and longer before we dared to.
No one was seriously injured. My poor wife had sprained her ankle, Leyland had torn one of his nails on a tree trunk, and I myself had scraped and damaged my ear. I never noticed it till I had stopped.
We were all silent, searching one another’s faces. Suddenly Miss Mary Robinson gave a terrible shriek. “Oh, merciful heavens! where is Eustace?” And then she would have fallen, if Mr. Sandbach had not caught her.
“We must go back, we must go back at once,” said my Rose, who was quite the most collected of the party. “But I hope—I feel he is safe.”
Such was the cowardice of Leyland, that he objected. But, finding himself in a minority, and being afraid of being left alone, he gave in. Rose and I supported my poor wife, Mr. Sandbach and Miss Robinson helped Miss Mary, and we returned slowly and silently, taking forty minutes to ascend the path that we had descended in ten.
Our conversation was naturally disjointed, as no one wished to offer an opinion on what had happened. Rose was the most talkative: she startled us all by saying that she had very nearly stopped where she was.
“Do you mean to say that you weren’t—that you didn’t feel compelled to go?” said Mr. Sandbach.
“Oh, of course, I did feel frightened”—she was the first to use the word—”but I somehow felt that if I could stop on it would be quite different, that I shouldn’t be frightened at all, so to speak.” Rose never did express herself clearly: still, it is greatly to her credit that she, the youngest of us, should have held on so long at that terrible time.
“I should have stopped, I do believe,” she continued, “if I had not seen mamma go.”
Rose’s experience comforted us a little about Eustace. But a feeling of terrible foreboding was on us all, as we painfully climbed the chestnut-covered slopes and neared the little clearing. When we reached it our tongues broke loose. There, at the further side, were the remains of our lunch, and close to them, lying motionless on his back, was Eustace.
With some presence of mind I at once cried out: “Hey, you young monkey! jump up!” But he made no reply, nor did he answer when his poor aunts spoke to him. And, to my unspeakable horror, I saw one of those green lizards dart out from under his shirt-cuff as we approached.
We stood watching him as he lay there so silently, and my ears began to tingle in expectation of the outbursts of lamentations and tears.
Miss Mary fell on her knees beside him and touched his hand, which was convulsively entwined in the long grass.
As she did so, he opened his eyes and smiled.
I have often seen that peculiar smile since, both on the possessor’s face and on the photographs of him that are beginning to get into the illustrated papers. But, till then, Eustace had always worn a peevish, discontented frown; and we were all unused to this disquieting smile, which always seemed to be without adequate reason.
His aunts showered kisses on him, which he did not reciprocate, and then there was an awkward pause, Eustace seemed so natural and undisturbed, yet, if he had not had astonishing experiences himself, he ought to have been all the more astonished at our extraordinary behaviour. My wife, with ready tact, endeavoured to behave as if nothing had happened.
“Well, Mr. Eustace,” she said, sitting down as she spoke, to ease her foot, “how have you been amusing yourself since we have been away?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Tytler, I have been very happy.”
“And where have you been?”
“And lying down all the time, you idle boy?”
“No, not all the time.”
“What were you doing before?”
“Oh; standing or sitting.”
“Stood and sat doing nothing! Don’t you know the poem ‘Satan finds some mischief still for——’”
“Oh, my dear madam, hush! hush!” Mr. Sandbach’s voice broke in; and my wife, naturally mortified by the interruption, said no more and moved away. I was surprised to see Rose immediately take her place, and, with more freedom than she generally displayed, run her fingers through the boy’s tousled hair.
“Eustace! Eustace!” she said, hurriedly, “tell me everything—every single thing.”
Slowly he sat up—till then he had lain on his back.
“Oh, Rose,” he whispered, and, my curiosity being aroused, I moved nearer to hear what he was going to say. As I did so, I caught sight of some goats’ footmarks in the moist earth beneath the trees.
“Apparently you have had a visit from some goats,” I observed. “I had no idea they fed up here.”
Eustace laboriously got on to his feet and came to see; and when he saw the footmarks he lay down and rolled on them, as a dog rolls in dirt.
After that there was a grave silence, broken at length by the solemn speech of Mr. Sandbach.
“My dear friends,” he said, “it is best to confess the truth bravely. I know that what I am going to say now is what you are all now feeling. The Evil One has been very near us in bodily form. Time may yet discover some injury that he has wrought among us. But, at present, for myself at all events, I wish to offer up thanks for a merciful deliverance.”
With that he knelt down, and, as the others knelt, I knelt too, though I do not believe in the Devil being allowed to assail us in visible form, as I told Mr. Sandbach afterwards. Eustace came too, and knelt quietly enough between his aunts after they had beckoned to him. But when it was over he at once got up, and began hunting for something.
“Why! Someone has cut my whistle in two,” he said. (I had seen Leyland with an open knife in his hand—a superstitious act which I could hardly approve.)
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he continued.
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