The Silver Thorn. A Book of Stories - Hugh Walpole - ebook

The Silver Thorn. A Book of Stories ebook

Hugh Walpole



This is an exciting collection of 15 stories. Indeed, there are some who are very good – there is a sad and exciting „Silly old fool” about a canon who believes that a woman cares for him, and „Engraving” sees how an obsessed husband goes against his wife’s desires, collecting engravings. Other great stories are Little Donkeys with Raspberry Saddles, gentle Chinese Horses about two women and a man, and Major Wilbraham sees a World War I major go crazy. This is a wide genre collection, including sad and tender to the point of horror.

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Liczba stron: 433

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The little donkeys went past the shop-window at eight in the morning and seven-thirty in the evening, punctually, rain or shine.

Miss Pope christened them Percy and Emily. The old man whose donkeys they were she had long ago named Voltaire because he looked wicked, un-Christian and clever–and because she liked literary allusions. One thing she often discussed with Miss Menzies, and that was why, being wicked and clever, he had not advanced further in the world. Miss Menzies suggested drink, and Miss Pope thought it probable.

On the other hand, were it drink he would for sure beat and abuse Percy and Emily, and this he did quite plainly not do, because they were both plump and well cared for. That might be, suggested Miss Menzies, that he kept them in good condition to benefit his business. No one cared to ride skeletons. Miss Pope, who was very thin herself, said that stoutness did no one any good, and Miss Menzies, who was plump like the donkeys, replied that it was greatly a matter of God’s will, although, as Miss Pope knew, she had no very good opinion of the Deity and often enough spoke of Him sarcastically.

Percy, Emily, Voltaire, Miss Pope, Miss Menzies, all lived in Silverton-on-Sea. “When you say lived,’ Miss Menzies would sometimes impetuously exclaim, “you are putting it altogether too high–exist is about the word!’

Miss Pope and Miss Menzies had existed together in Silverton for over ten years now. They kept a shop of fancy work and antiquities. The fancy work was very new, the antiquities very old. The shop, when it was lucky, made a profit, and then they went away for a holiday. They had been to the Lake District, Paris, Vevey, the Isle of Man, and Lake Como. On the other years the shop had not made a profit.

Miss Pope was forty-three years of age, tall, bony, a jutting chin, kind, friendly eyes, reserved, sensitive. She loved Miss Menzies.

Miss Menzies was thirty, round, plump, short, dark pretty hair, also kind, friendly eyes, not at all sensitive, and she loved Miss Pope. But she loved Miss Pope less than Miss Pope loved Miss Menzies.

She was–outwardly, at least–more romantic and sentimental than Miss Pope. She thought often of men. Miss Pope never thought of them at all. Miss Menzies had no doubt but that very shortly she would be married. She had thought this now for fourteen years. She had been once engaged. Ten years ago. That had been to a young man in the war, just after she had joined Miss Pope, but the young man had flirted with other girls. “Only his fun,’ he had assured her. “Yes, but not mine,’ she had replied. She had a hot temper when roused.

Miss Menzies was the lively one. Miss Pope did the business. Miss Menzies was charming in the shop and sold many an article that the purchaser did not wish to buy. When she was gay, she was very gay. Her bad moods never lasted for long. Sometimes she would be deeply depressed. Was this to go on for ever and ever? Of course, she loved Miss Pope, but this stupid old town, this stupid old shop, this stupid unnatural life. After all, a woman was meant to be married. Not every woman, said Miss Pope.

Although, however, Miss Menzies was very gay with men, went to the local dances, smiled and laughed and delighted in compliments, she had a certain deep fastidiousness–just anyone would not do. With everyone there was something the matter.

The life was certainly monotonous. They lived in a little apartment above the shop. This apartment had four rooms, a sitting-room, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The rooms were tiny, but arranged with great taste. Miss Menzies loved possessions and cared deeply for the little Chippendale (half-Chippendale) bureau, the old gilt mirror, some prints from Ackermann’s Microcosm, and the old French clock that had belonged to Miss Pope’s grandfather. Miss Pope cared for these things, too, but chiefly because Miss Menzies cared for them.

The greatest fun that they had was when they went on buying expeditions. They went to London, Canterbury, Winchester, any number of places. They had a little Morris-Oxford which they called after Miss Menzies’ silly uncle, Fortescue.

The position of their shop was very agreeable. It possessed a charming Jane-Austenish bow-window and looked on to the cobbled path that turned down to the sea. From the side windows the sea, in all its glories, its sulks, its rages, and its “comedies’ was splendidly visible. In front of the bow-window was the path, a small green common, and the house of a retired lieutenant-colonel. Outside the shop hung a sign with a picture, beautifully painted, of an eighteenth-century street. Over the door was painted in large blue letters: “THE SERENDIPITY SHOP.’ No one knew what this meant, but it was out of Horace Walpole’s letters. A very superior London bookseller who dealt only in ancient and priceless editions called his shop by this name.

In the bow-window were arranged a number of enchanting things, brass candlesticks, fire-screens, pewter mugs, brightly coloured samplers, a silver ship, old paste brooches, necklaces, and pins. Miss Menzies loved some of these things so much that it was an agony for her to sell them. For the silver ship indeed she asked so impossible a price that it was still gloriously with her.

Miss Pope and Miss Menzies never quarrelled, because Miss Pope refused to hear of such a thing. At times Miss Menzies would indignantly exclaim that Miss Pope had no feelings, but in her heart she knew that the opposite of this was true. Miss Pope’s feelings were so deep that no trivial dispute was allowed to touch them.

There were occasions when Miss Menzies wished passionately that Miss Pope didn’t love her with such strength and obstinacy. It seemed that nothing could shake Miss Pope’s love for her, which made that love on occasion both unexciting and frightening. Miss Menzies felt that she wasn’t worthy of it.

That she wasn’t worthy of it was no fault of her own. Jane Pope had put all of her force into this one affection, while Alice Menzies allowed hers to spread out over a thousand things–over the silver ship, the Chippendale bureau, the Sealyham puppy next door, the curl of the sea as, on a fine morning, beyond the side window, it slipped back from the shining road, the kindliness of Mrs. Masham the fruiterer, the jolly twin of young Mr. Hexton, with whom she often danced, the touching loneliness and devotion to duty of the two little donkeys–these and many, many other things drew from Alice little impulses of love and tenderness. What she needed was to meet someone who would draw out of her all this love and tenderness to one aim and object, only, unlike Jane Pope, this someone must be a man.

She thought that, after all these years, possibly at last this man had arrived, Mr. Hunting, Mr. Maurice Hunting.

It was twenty minutes past seven of a fine summer morning, and she was standing at the bow-window–waiting for the donkeys to pass. Breakfast and the donkeys synchronised. Half-past seven the year round. They would maybe have had their breakfast at eight in winter-time had it not been for the donkeys, but because the donkeys did not relax they must not.

Although really, when you thought of it, seven-thirty in the morning was ridiculously early for donkeys in the winter-time. No clients would appear before ten. And how few in the winter in any case there must be!

Miss Menzies walked sometimes to the long strip of smooth sand over whose shiny surface Percy and Emily carried their little charges, and on cold, wet days they would look desolate enough–standing bravely there on duty, with their faded crimson saddles, and Old Voltaire, crooked and bent and wicked, staring malevolently out to sea.

No one in the world behaved more finely, more patiently, more decently than Percy and Emily with their soft sad eyes, their faint brown coats, their stubborn ears.

Now, how was Miss Menzies going to behave?

She stood there at the window seeing all the colour, the faint blue sky like a bird’s wing, the clear-sparkling grass of the little green, the poplars over to the right of the colonel’s house swaying musically in the morning breeze, and, through the open window, the hush-hush, the stir-stir of the gentle morning sea.

How was she going to behave? Last Tuesday Mr. Hunting had asked her to marry him. To-day she was to give him her answer.

She had said no word as yet to Jane Pope.

Of course she would accept him. There would be no possible doubt. She would have accepted him last Tuesday had not some strange unreasoning caution warned her to wait just for a day or two. He was physically most attractive–the type that she preferred. Not too young (he had told her that he was six-and-thirty), broad and strong, his colour red-brown with health, hair and short toothbrush moustache black, not stout as yet (although he must take care of that), most neat and cleanly in appearance, by profession a doctor with a good practice in Bristol.

He was, he told her, no longer a boy. He wanted a wife who would be a companion, a friend, who would help him in his work–and yet even as he spoke these quite assured words his voice had trembled, he had taken her hand and pressed it quite freely–there was a light in his dark eyes that seemed to speak of something more than a mere desire for companionship. He had fine tastes, too, read the novels of Mr. Galsworthy and the works of Mr. Lytton Strachey, admired the paintings of Sargent, and was a subscriber to the Bristol concerts. He was also a man who played golf–could sail a boat, loved dogs, enjoyed watching Rugby football.

A many-sided man. He had thought too about life, considered that wars were shameful and must be stopped, was a patriot, too, and thought Bolshevism an infernal crime, did not go to church, but yet had religious feelings.

Of course, she would marry him. He was the very man for whom she had for so long been waiting. And yet was she truly in love? Why, at this moment, as she looked out on to the shining grass and heard the rustle of the sea, was she not longing to be caught into his arms; why was it rather of Jane Pope that she was thinking and of all the little things–the little things that had seemed to her for so long to be tiresome, intolerable hindrances binding her to slavery? Why–

Ah! There were the donkeys!

They turned the corner, as they always did, at a little trot. Then, when they came to the stretch of flat with the gleaming green on their right they made a movement in the direction towards it, and then Voltaire, as he always did, switched them back to their proper place.

They paused opposite the bow-window, before resigning themselves to their inevitable duty.

Their crimson saddles–faded long ago with the wind and the rain–gave them their unusual note. Once those saddles must have been grand indeed with their splendid rich colour; even now there was colour enough to place them in a class by themselves. No other donkeys anywhere had saddles like these.

Miss Menzies leaned out of the window and waved to them. Percy and Emily looked neither to the right nor to the left; patiently, with childish dignity they stared down the road.

Then, after a switch of Voltaire’s little stick, on they trotted again.

“Breakfast ready!’ cried Miss Pope from the room above. Miss Menzies, sighing, turned away from the window. The moment had arrived. She must deal with it as honestly as she could.

The little sitting-room was very gay in the morning sun, the Ackermann prints smiled behind their glass, the sampler on the wall with its purple flowers and its “Jane Bowl made this’ in amber letters, everything welcomed Alice Menzies when indeed she did not want to be welcomed at all, but sat down like a condemned prisoner to her herring.

And Jane Pope at once knew. When you love anyone as deeply as she loved Alice Menzies you know everything.

“What’s the matter, Alice?’ she asked in her sharp, kind and rather masculine voice.

“You know Mr. Hunting–’ began Alice Menzies.

“Yes,’ said Jane Pope, who had met him once.

“He asked me to marry him last Tuesday. To-day I’m to give him my answer.’


“Of course I’m going to accept him.’

Jane Pope put down her cup. Alice knew she was trembling; she knew it although she did not look at her. She did not dare to look at her.

But Jane Pope’s voice was quite firm when she said:

“I’m very glad, darling. It’s what I’ve been wanting for you.’

Then, after another pause, she got up, went over to Alice Menzies’ chair, bent over and kissed her. Alice put up her hand and touched Jane Pope’s cheek. They stayed for a moment thus.

Then Jane Pope, moving back to her seat again, said:

“I expect that American woman will be in this morning after those two chairs. She’s got bargains there.’

“She has indeed,’ said Alice Menzies. And that was every word that they exchanged on the matter.

Should not one be happy when one is going to fulfil the desire of one’s heart? The sun is shining, the waters are rolling white-capped on the shore, the skylark is singing above the cornfield, the air is warm with summer scents, it is the day after the heart of all the poets from Syracusan Theocritus to Mr. Wordsworth of Grasmere. In the hollow of the cliff, high over the shore glittering now mother-of-pearl behind the retreating tide, cornfields behind him and wine-purple sea in front of him, Mr. Hunting, passion in his heart and a ring (charming, in excellent taste, three little pearls and a thin gold band) in his pocket, is waiting. Below him are bathing-tents, maidenly in a row like early Victorian ladies; to the left of him along the broad stretch of sand Percy and Emily (their crimson saddles invisible from this distance) are trotting under their infant burdens; above him the cornfields like burnt sugar; everywhere happiness and life and colour. Only Miss Menzies advancing in a dress of pink and white.

He had no doubt of what the answer would be. He was well-satisfied (a state not uncustomary for him). This was all that he needed, a lady, pretty, cultivated, with good taste, to manage his house, charm his friends, assist the growth of his practice, share his bed and bear him two children. Two. A boy and a girl. Percy, after his uncle who, when he died, would leave him money, Emily after his aunt who had left him some money already. He would take that house towards Clifton, the house with the verandah and the garage near the gate. He would–

Alice, as she sat down beside him, wished (Oh, how she wished!) that he had not chosen just this spot in which to make his proposal. Had she thought of it (but when does one think of these things?) there could not possibly be anywhere worse–here where she could see all the familiar things–the little town white and shining in the sun, huddled together so happily as though cosily inviting her congratulation (she so old a friend) at its contentment, the great sweep of purple, green-striped sea, the silver beach, the cornfields and the singing larks. Yes–and then, surely she could see them quite clearly, Percy and Emily trotting bravely, little midgets of patience and determination, to their inevitable destiny.

She had hated all these things. She had regarded them as tyrants holding her to sterility, old-maidhood, failure and negation. But how differently they seemed now that she was about to leave them! And the shadow of Jane, Jane’s nobility and kindliness and love, the touch of her cheek, the unselfish fidelity of her soul, Jane’s shadow hung over all the scene.

Turning to Mr. Hunting, she was forced to confess that he was noble too. Sitting forward, staring at the sea, square and strong, and so very masculine, he seemed indeed a rock–not a rock of Jane’s less romantic kind–a masculine rock with all the masculine allure. His voice, too, was extremely firm and decided.

“Alice,’ he said, “I thought you were never coming. I didn’t know how I was going to wait. It has been cruel of you to keep me so long in doubt.’

He took her hand in his. She expected her heart to bound with excitement and joy. It did not. But that was because her eye had been caught by the shining spire of St. John’s Church. St. John’s, where indeed she very seldom went, whose bells, however, seemed to belong to her, to be hers by right of every tiny happening of the last ten years.

“I hope–I mean–’ she hesitated. “I’ve been thinking a great deal of what you said. It was kind of you to give me a day or two–’

“That was only fair. You wanted a little time, and so I gave it you. If you had been my patient and you’d wanted a day or two to consider whether you’d have an operation or no, I’d give you time. Of course I would. This is a sort of operation, you know.’

He laughed in a very jolly human way, but she knew at once that her sense of humour was not his. She would never laugh at the things that he would laugh at–or was it that her eye now had travelled to the cluster of red house-roofs that sheltered, as she so thoroughly knew, the market-place? The market-place where on Fridays all the farmers, the dogs, the sheep–

“Well, darling,’ his firm voice reminded her, “I want my answer.’ Gently (but very firmly) he put his arm round her and drew her close to him. She could smell the stuff of his coat and the scent of a rather strong tobacco. His heart was beating with steady beats. His body, as she realised her contact with it, seemed to be made of iron.

“I want,’ she said in a small faltering voice (and her eye now had caught the flag that always flew so bravely in the season from the tower of the little building–the Plaza it was called–where the concerts, the dances, the lectures were held), “to try and explain.’

“To explain?’ His hand tightened on hers. “Why, of course; explain away!’

“You see’–and the flag on the Plaza seemed to be waving quite especially in her direction–I’m not a child any longer. It isn’t as though either of us were children.’

“Quite,’ he said, encouraging her.

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