As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.
The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which would go on for five minutes or thereabouts if you did not stop it. Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious and contemptible self-pity, which usually seized upon her when it was time to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head under the bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears. She struggled against her fatigue, however, and, according to her custom, exhorted herself sharply in the second person plural. Come on, Dorothy, up you get! No snoozing, please! Proverbs vi, 9. Then she remembered that if the noise went on any longer it would wake her father, and with a hurried movement she bounded out of bed, seized the clock from the chest of drawers, and turned off the alarm. It was kept on the chest of drawers precisely in order that she should have to get out of bed to silence it. Still in darkness, she knelt down at her bedside and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, but rather distractedly, her feet being troubled by the cold.
It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning. Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt her way downstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster, and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from either side of the passage on the second floor she could hear the antiphonal snoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all work. With care — for the kitchen table had a nasty trick of reaching out of the darkness and banging you on the hip-bone — Dorothy felt her way into the kitchen, lighted the candle on the mantelpiece, and, still aching with fatigue, knelt down and raked the ashes out of the range.
The kitchen fire was a ‘beast’ to light. The chimney was crooked and therefore perpetually half choked, and the fire, before it would light, expected to be dosed with a cupful of kerosene, like a drunkard’s morning nip of gin. Having set the kettle to boil for her father’s shaving-water, Dorothy went upstairs and turned on her bath. Ellen was still snoring, with heavy youthful snores. She was a good hard-working servant once she was awake, but she was one of those girls whom the Devil and all his angels cannot get out of bed before seven in the morning.
Dorothy filled the bath as slowly as possible — the splashing always woke her father if she turned on the tap too fast — and stood for a moment regarding the pale, unappetizing pool of water. Her body had gone goose-flesh all over. She detested cold baths; it was for that very reason that she made it a rule to take all her baths cold from April to November. Putting a tentative hand into the water — and it was horribly cold — she drove herself forward with her usual exhortations. Come on, Dorothy! In you go! No funking, please! Then she stepped resolutely into the bath, sat down and let the icy girdle of water slide up her body and immerse her all except her hair, which she had twisted up behind her head. The next moment she came to the surface gasping and wriggling, and had no sooner got her breath back than she remembered her ‘memo list’, which she had brought down in her dressing-gown pocket and intended to read. She reached out for it, and, leaning over the side of the bath, waist deep in icy water, read through the ‘memo list’ by the light of the candle on the chair.
7 oc. H.C.
Mrs T baby? Must visit.
BREAKFAST. Bacon. MUST ask father money. (P)
Ask Ellen what stuff kitchen father’s tonic NB. to ask about stuff for curtains at Solepipe’s.
Visiting call on Mrs P cutting from Daily M angelica tea good for rheumatism Mrs L’s cornplaster.
12 oc. Rehearsal Charles I. NB. to order 1/2 lb glue 1 pot aluminium paint.
DINNER (crossed out) LUNCHEON . . .?
Take round Parish Mag NB. Mrs F owes 3/6d.
4.30 pm Mothers’ U tea don’t forget 2 1/2 yards casement cloth.
Flowers for church NB. 1 tin Brasso.
SUPPER. Scrambled eggs.
Type Father’s sermon what about new ribbon typewriter?
NB. to fork between peas bindweed awful.
Dorothy got out of her bath, and as she dried herself with a towel hardly bigger than a table napkin — they could never afford decent- sized towels at the Rectory — her hair came unpinned and fell down over her collar-bones in two heavy strands. It was thick, fine, exceedingly pale hair, and it was perhaps as well that her father had forbidden her to bob it, for it was her only positive beauty. For the rest, she was a girl of middle height, rather thin, but strong and shapely, and her face was her weak point. It was a thin, blonde, unremarkable kind of face, with pale eyes and a nose just a shade too long; if you looked closely you could see crow’s feet round the eyes, and the mouth, when it was in repose, looked tired. Not definitely a spinsterish face as yet, but it certainly would be so in a few years’ time. Nevertheless, strangers commonly took her to be several years younger than her real age (she was not quite twenty-eight) because of the expression of almost childish earnestness in her eyes. Her left forearm was spotted with tiny red marks like insect bites.
Dorothy put on her nightdress again and cleaned her teeth — plain water, of course; better not to use toothpaste before H.C. After all, either you are fasting or you aren’t. The R.C.s are quite right there — and, even as she did so, suddenly faltered and stopped. She put her toothbrush down. A deadly pang, an actual physical pang, had gone through her viscera.
She had remembered, with the ugly shock with which one remembers something disagreeable for the first time in the morning, the bill at Cargill’s, the butcher’s, which had been owing for seven months. That dreadful bill — it might be nineteen pounds or even twenty, and there was hardly the remotest hope of paying it — was one of the chief torments of her life. At all hours of the night or day it was waiting just round the corner of her consciousness, ready to spring upon her and agonize her; and with it came the memory of a score of lesser bills, mounting up to a figure of which she dared not even think. Almost involuntarily she began to pray, ‘Please God, let not Cargill send in his bill again today!’ but the next moment she decided that this prayer was worldly and blasphemous, and she asked forgiveness for it. Then she put on her dressing- gown and ran down to the kitchen in hopes of putting the bill out of mind.
The fire had gone out, as usual. Dorothy relaid it, dirtying her hands with coal-dust, dosed it afresh with kerosene and hung about anxiously until the kettle boiled. Father expected his shaving- water to be ready at a quarter past six. Just seven minutes late, Dorothy took the can upstairs and knocked at her father’s door.
‘Come in, come in!’ said a muffled, irritable voice.
The room, heavily curtained, was stuffy, with a masculine smell. The Rector had lighted the candle on his bed-table, and was lying on his side, looking at his gold watch, which he had just drawn from beneath his pillow. His hair was as white and thick as thistledown. One dark bright eye glanced irritably over his shoulder at Dorothy.
‘Good morning, father.’
‘I do wish, Dorothy,’ said the Rector indistinctly — his voice always sounded muffled and senile until he put his false teeth in — ‘you would make some effort to get Ellen out of bed in the mornings. Or else be a little more punctual yourself.’
‘I’m so sorry, Father. The kitchen fire kept going out.’
‘Very well! Put it down on the dressing-table. Put it down and draw those curtains.’
It was daylight now, but a dull, clouded morning. Dorothy hastened up to her room and dressed herself with the lightning speed which she found necessary six mornings out of seven. There was only a tiny square of mirror in the room, and even that she did not use. She simply hung her gold cross about her neck — plain gold cross; no crucifixes, please! — twisted her hair into a knot behind, stuck a number of hairpins rather sketchily into it, and threw her clothes (grey jersey, threadbare Irish tweed coat and skirt, stockings not quite matching the coat and skirt, and much-worn brown shoes) on to herself in the space of about three minutes. She had got to ‘do out’ the dining-room and her father’s study before church, besides saying her prayers in preparation for Holy Communion, which took her not less than twenty minutes.
When she wheeled her bicycle out of the front gate the morning was still overcast, and the grass sodden with heavy dew. Through the mist that wreathed the hillside St Athelstan’s Church loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom! boom! boom! Only one of the bells was now in active use; the other seven had been unswung from their cage and had lain silent these three years past, slowly splintering the floor of the belfry beneath their weight. In the distance, from the mists below, you could hear the offensive clatter of the bell in the R.C. church — a nasty, cheap, tinny little thing which the Rector of St Athelstan’s used to compare with a muffin-bell.
Dorothy mounted her bicycle and rode swiftly up the hill, leaning over her handlebars. The bridge of her thin nose was pink in the morning cold. A redshank whistled overhead, invisible against the clouded sky. Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee! Dorothy propped her bicycle against the lychgate, and, finding her hands still grey with coal-dust, knelt down and scrubbed them clean in the long wet grass between the graves. Then the bell stopped ringing, and she jumped up and hastened into church, just as Proggett, the sexton, in ragged cassock and vast labourer’s boots, was clumping up the aisle to take his place at the side altar.
The church was very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust. It was a large church, much too large for its congregation, and ruinous and more than half empty. The three narrow islands of pews stretched barely half-way down the nave, and beyond them were great wastes of bare stone floor in which a few worn inscriptions marked the sites of ancient graves. The roof over the chancel was sagging visibly; beside the Church Expenses box two fragments of riddled beam explained mutely that this was due to that mortal foe of Christendom, the death-watch beetle. The light filtered, pale- coloured, through windows of anaemic glass. Through the open south door you could see a ragged cypress and the boughs of a lime-tree, greyish in the sunless air and swaying faintly.
As usual, there was only one other communicant — old Miss Mayfill, of The Grange. The attendance at Holy Communion was so bad that the Rector could not even get any boys to serve him, except on Sunday mornings, when the boys liked showing off in front of the congregation in their cassocks and surplices. Dorothy went into the pew behind Miss Mayfill, and, in penance for some sin of yesterday, pushed away the hassock and knelt on the bare stones. The service was beginning. The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. ‘This is a valid sacrament,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.’ Proggett, the sexton, a man of forty with curly grey hair and a red, harassed face, stood patiently by, uncomprehending but reverent, fiddling with the little communion bell which was lost in his huge red hands.
Dorothy pressed her fingers against her eyes. She had not yet succeeded in concentrating her thoughts — indeed, the memory of Cargill’s bill was still worrying her intermittently. The prayers, which she knew by heart, were flowing through her head unheeded. She raised her eyes for a moment, and they began immediately to stray. First upwards, to the headless roof-angels on whose necks you could still see the sawcuts of the Puritan soldiers, then back again, to Miss Mayfill’s black, quasi-pork-pie hat and tremulous jet ear-rings. Miss Mayfill wore a long musty black overcoat, with a little collar of greasy-looking astrakhan, which had been the same ever since Dorothy could remember. It was of some very peculiar stuff, like watered silk but coarser, with rivulets of black piping wandering all over it in no discoverable pattern. It might even have been that legendary and proverbial substance, black bombazine. Miss Mayfill was very old, so old that no one remembered her as anything but an old woman. A faint scent radiated from her — an ethereal scent, analysable as eau-de-Cologne, mothballs, and a sub-flavour of gin.
Dorothy drew a long glass-headed pin from the lapel of her coat, and furtively, under cover of Miss Mayfill’s back, pressed the point against her forearm. Her flesh tingled apprehensively. She made it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to her prayers, to prick her arm hard enough to make blood come. It was her chosen form of self-discipline, her guard against irreverence and sacrilegious thoughts.
With the pin poised in readiness she managed for several moments to pray more collectedly. Her father had turned one dark eye disapprovingly upon Miss Mayfill, who was crossing herself at intervals, a practice he disliked. A starling chattered outside. With a shock Dorothy discovered that she was looking vaingloriously at the pleats of her father’s surplice, which she herself had sewn two years ago. She set her teeth and drove the pin an eighth of an inch into her arm.
They were kneeling again. It was the General Confession. Dorothy recalled her eyes — wandering, alas! yet again, this time to the stained-glass window on her right, designed by Sir Warde Tooke, A.R.A., in 1851 and representing St Athelstan’s welcome at the gate of heaven by Gabriel and a legion of angels all remarkably like one another and the Prince Consort — and pressed the pinpoint against a different part of her arm. She began to meditate conscientiously upon the meaning of each phrase of the prayer, and so brought her mind back to a more attentive state. But even so she was all but obliged to use the pin again when Proggett tinkled the bell in the middle of ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels’— being visited, as always, by a dreadful temptation to begin laughing at that passage. It was because of a story her father had told her once, of how when he was a little boy, and serving the priest at the altar, the communion bell had a screw-on clapper, which had come loose; and so the priest had said: ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name; evermore praising Thee, and saying, Screw it up, you little fat-head, screw it up!’
As the Rector finished the consecration Miss Mayfill began to struggle to her feet with extreme difficulty and slowness, like some disjointed wooden creature picking itself up by sections, and disengaging at each movement a powerful whiff of mothballs. There was an extraordinary creaking sound — from her stays, presumably, but it was a noise as of bones grating against one another. You could have imagined that there was only a dry skeleton inside that black overcoat.
Dorothy remained on her feet a moment longer. Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose, and wet. The underlip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetizing mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup. Suddenly, spontaneously, as though the Devil himself had put it there, the prayer slipped from Dorothy’s lips: O God, let me not have to take the chalice after Miss Mayfill!
The next moment, in self-horror, she grasped the meaning of what she had said, and wished that she had bitten her tongue in two rather than utter that deadly blasphemy upon the altar steps. She drew the pin again from her lapel and drove it into her arm so hard that it was all she could do to suppress a cry of pain. Then she stepped to the altar and knelt down meekly on Miss Mayfill’s left, so as to make quite sure of taking the chalice after her.
Kneeling, with head bent and hands clasped against her knees, she set herself swiftly to pray for forgiveness before her father should reach her with the wafer. But the current of her thoughts had been broken. Suddenly it was quite useless attempting to pray; her lips moved, but there was neither heart nor meaning in her prayers. She could hear Proggett’s boots shuffling and her father’s clear low voice murmuring ‘Take and eat’, she could see the worn strip of red carpet beneath her knees, she could smell dust and eau-de-Cologne and mothballs; but of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the purpose for which she had come here, she was as though deprived of the power to think. A deadly blankness had descended upon her mind. It seemed to her that actually she COULD not pray. She struggled, collected her thoughts, uttered mechanically the opening phrases of a prayer; but they were useless, meaningless — nothing but the dead shells of words. Her father was holding the wafer before her in his shapely, aged hand. He held it between finger and thumb, fastidiously, somehow distastefully, as though it had been a spoon of medicine. His eye was upon Miss Mayfill, who was doubling herself up like a geometrid caterpillar, with many creakings and crossing herself so elaborately that one might have imagined that she was sketching a series of braid frogs on the front of her coat. For several seconds Dorothy hesitated and did not take the wafer. She dared not take it. Better, far better to step down from the altar than to accept the sacrament with such chaos in her heart!
Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open south door. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds. It struck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray of leaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green, greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as though some jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant, filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood of joy ran through Dorothy’s heart. The flash of living colour had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace of mind, her love of God, her power to worship. Somehow, because of the greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O all ye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began to pray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon her tongue. She took the chalice from her father, and tasted with repulsion, even with an added joy in this small act of self- abasement, the wet imprint of Miss Mayfill’s lips on its silver rim.
St Athelstan’s Church stood at the highest point of Knype Hill, and if you chose to climb the tower you could see ten miles or so across the surrounding country. Not that there was anything worth looking at — only the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape, intolerably dull in summer, but redeemed in winter by the recurring patterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies.
Immediately below you lay the town, with the High Street running east and west and dividing unequally. The southern section of the town was the ancient, agricultural, and respectable section. On the northern side were the buildings of the Blifil-Gordon sugar- beet refinery, and all round and leading up to them were higgledy- piggledly rows of vile yellow brick cottages, mostly inhabited by the employees of the factory. The factory employees, who made up more than half of the town’s two thousand inhabitants, were newcomers, townfolk, and godless almost to a man.
The two pivots, or foci, about which the social life of the town moved were Knype Hill Conservative Club (fully licensed), from whose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy- gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubby goldfish from an aquarium pane; and Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, a little farther down the High Street, the principal rendezvous of the Knype Hill ladies. Not to be present at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe between ten and eleven every morning, to drink your ‘morning coffee’ and spend your half-hour or so in that agreeable twitter of upper-middle- class voices (‘My dear, he had NINE spades to the ace-queen and he went one no trump, if you please. What, my dear, you don’t mean to say you’re paying for my coffee AGAIN? Oh, but my dear, it is simply TOO sweet of you! Now tomorrow I shall SIMPLY INSIST upon paying for yours. And just LOOK at dear little Toto sitting up and looking such a CLEVER little man with his little black nose wiggling, and he would, would he, the darling duck, he would, he would, and his mother would give him a lump of sugar, she would, she would. THERE, Toto!’), was to be definitely out of Knype Hill society. The Rector in his acid way nicknamed these ladies ‘the coffee brigade’. Close to the colony of sham-picturesque villas inhabited by the coffee brigade, but cut off from them by its larger grounds, was The Grange, Miss Mayfill’s house. It was a curious, machicolated, imitation castle of dark red brick — somebody’s Folly, built about 1870 — and fortunately almost hidden among dense shrubberies.
The Rectory stood half way up the hill, with its face to the church and its back to the High Street. It was a house of the wrong age, inconveniently large, and faced with chronically peeling yellow plaster. Some earlier Rector had added, at one side, a large greenhouse which Dorothy used as a workroom, but which was constantly out of repair. The front garden was choked with ragged fir-trees and a great spreading ash which shadowed the front rooms and made it impossible to grow any flowers. There was a large vegetable garden at the back. Proggett did the heavy digging of the garden in the spring and autumn, and Dorothy did the sowing, planting, and weeding in such spare time as she could command; in spite of which the vegetable garden was usually an impenetrable jungle of weeds.
Dorothy jumped off her bicycle at the front gate, upon which some officious person had stuck a poster inscribed ‘Vote for Blifil- Gordon and Higher Wages!’ (There was a by-election going on, and Mr Blifil-Gordon was standing in the Conservative interest.) As Dorothy opened the front door she saw two letters lying on the worn coconut mat. One was from the Rural Dean, and the other was a nasty, thin-looking letter from Catkin & Palm, her father’s clerical tailors. It was a bill undoubtedly. The Rector had followed his usual practice of collecting the letters that interested him and leaving the others. Dorothy was just bending down to pick up the letters, when she saw, with a horrid shock of dismay, an unstamped envelope sticking to the letter flap.
It was a bill — for certain it was a bill! Moreover, as soon as she set eyes on it she ‘knew’ that it was that horrible bill from Cargill’s, the butcher’s. A sinking feeling passed through her entrails. For a moment she actually began to pray that it might not be Cargill’s bill — that it might only be the bill for three and nine from Solepipe’s, the draper’s, or the bill from the International or the baker’s or the dairy — anything except Cargill’s bill! Then, mastering her panic, she took the envelope from the letter-flap and tore it open with a convulsive movement.
‘To account rendered: L21 7S. 9d.’
This was written in the innocuous handwriting of Mr Cargill’s accountant. But underneath, in thick, accusing-looking letters, was added and heavily underlined: ‘Shd. like to bring to your notice that this bill has been owing a VERY LONG TIME. The EARLIEST POSSIBLE settlement will oblige, S. Cargill.’
Dorothy had turned a shade paler, and was conscious of not wanting any breakfast. She thrust the bill into her pocket and went into the dining-room. It was a smallish, dark room, badly in need of repapering, and, like every other room in the Rectory, it had the air of having been furnished from the sweepings of an antique shop. The furniture was ‘good’, but battered beyond repair, and the chairs were so worm-eaten that you could only sit on them in safety if you knew their individual foibles. There were old, dark, defaced steel engravings hanging on the walls, one of them — an engraving of Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I— probably of some value if it had not been ruined by damp.
The Rector was standing before the empty grate, warming himself at an imaginary fire and reading a letter that came from a long blue envelope. He was still wearing his cassock of black watered silk, which set off to perfection his thick white hair and his pale, fine, none too amiable face. As Dorothy came in he laid the letter aside, drew out his gold watch and scrutinized it significantly.
‘I’m afraid I’m a bit late, Father.’
‘Yes, Dorothy, you are A BIT LATE,’ said the Rector, repeating her words with delicate but marked emphasis. ‘You are twelve minutes late, to be exact. Don’t you think, Dorothy, that when I have to get up at a quarter past six to celebrate Holy Communion, and come home exceedingly tired and hungry, it would be better if you could manage to come to breakfast without being A BIT LATE?’
It was clear that the Rector was in what Dorothy called, euphemistically, his ‘uncomfortable mood’. He had one of those weary, cultivated voices which are never definitely angry and never anywhere near good humour — one of those voices which seem all the while to be saying, ‘I really CANNOT see what you are making all this fuss about!’ The impression he gave was of suffering perpetually from other people’s stupidity and tiresomeness.
‘I’m so sorry, Father! I simply had to go and ask after Mrs Tawney.’ (Mrs Tawney was the ‘Mrs T’ of the ‘memo list’.) ‘Her baby was born last night, and you know she promised me she’d come and be churched after it was born. But of course she won’t if she thinks we aren’t taking any interest in her. You know what these women are — they seem so to hate being churched. They’ll never come unless I coax them into it.’
The Rector did not actually grunt, but he uttered a small dissatisfied sound as he moved towards the breakfast table. It was intended to mean, first, that it was Mrs Tawney’s duty to come and be churched without Dorothy’s coaxing; secondly, that Dorothy had no business to waste her time visiting all the riffraff of the town, especially before breakfast. Mrs Tawney was a labourer’s wife and lived in partibus infidelium, north of the High Street. The Rector laid his hand on the back of his chair, and, without speaking, cast Dorothy a glance which meant: ‘Are we ready NOW? Or are there to be any MORE delays?’
‘I think everything’s here, Father,’ said Dorothy. ‘Perhaps if you’d just say grace —’
‘Benedictus benedicat,’ said the Rector, lifting the worn silver coverlet off the breakfast dish. The silver coverlet, like the silver-gilt marmalade spoon, was a family heirloom; the knives and forks, and most of the crockery, came from Woolworths. ‘Bacon again, I see,’ the Rector added, eyeing the three minute rashers that lay curled up on squares of fried bread.
‘It’s all we’ve got in the house, I’m afraid,’ Dorothy said.
The Rector picked up his fork between finger and thumb, and with a very delicate movement, as though playing at spillikins, turned one of the rashers over.
‘I know, of course,’ he said, ‘that bacon for breakfast is an English institution almost as old as parliamentary government. But still, don’t you think we might OCCASIONALLY have a change, Dorothy?’
‘Bacon’s so cheap now,’ said Dorothy regretfully. ‘It seems a sin not to buy it. This was only fivepence a pound, and I saw some quite decent-looking bacon as low as threepence.’
‘Ah, Danish, I suppose? What a variety of Danish invasions we have had in this country! First with fire and sword, and now with their abominable cheap bacon. Which has been responsible for the more deaths, I wonder?’
Feeling a little better after this witticism, the Rector settled himself in his chair and made a fairly good breakfast off the despised bacon, while Dorothy (she was not having any bacon this morning — a penance she had set herself yesterday for saying ‘Damn’ and idling for half an hour after lunch) meditated upon a good conversational opening.
There was an unspeakably hateful job in front of her — a demand for money. At the very best of times getting money out of her father was next door to impossible, and it was obvious that this morning he was going to be even more ‘difficult’ than usual. ‘Difficult’ was another of her euphemisms. He’s had bad news, I suppose, she thought despondently, looking at the blue envelope.
Probably no one who had ever spoken to the Rector for as long as ten minutes would have denied that he was a ‘difficult’ kind of man. The secret of his almost unfailing ill humour really lay in the fact that he was an anachronism. He ought never to have been born into the modern world; its whole atmosphere disgusted and infuriated him. A couple of centuries earlier, a happy pluralist writing poems or collecting fossils while curates at 40 pounds a year administered his parishes, he would have been perfectly at home. Even now, if he had been a richer man, he might have consoled himself by shutting the twentieth century out of his consciousness. But to live in past ages is very expensive; you can’t do it on less than two thousand a year. The Rector, tethered by his poverty to the age of Lenin and the Daily Mail, was kept in a state of chronic exasperation which it was only natural that he should work off on the person nearest to him — usually, that is, on Dorothy.
He had been born in 1871, the younger son of the younger son of a baronet, and had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London — a nasty, hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower class (as he made a point of calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand. It was a little better when he was curate-in-charge at some remote place in Kent (Dorothy had been born in Kent), where the decently down- trodden villagers still touched their hats to ‘parson’. But by that time he had married, and his marriage had been diabolically unhappy; moreover, because clergymen must not quarrel with their wives, its unhappiness had been secret and therefore ten times worse. He had come to Knype Hill in 1908, aged thirty-seven and with a temper incurably soured — a temper which had ended by alienating every man, woman, and child in the parish.
It was not that he was a bad priest, merely AS a priest. In his purely clerical duties he was scrupulously correct — perhaps a little too correct for a Low Church East Anglian parish. He conducted his services with perfect taste, preached admirable sermons, and got up at uncomfortable hours of the morning to celebrate Holy Communion every Wednesday and Friday. But that a clergyman has any duties outside the four walls of the church was a thing that had never seriously occurred to him. Unable to afford a curate, he left the dirty work of the parish entirely to his wife, and after her death (she died in 1921) to Dorothy. People used to say, spitefully and untruly, that he would have let Dorothy preach his sermons for him if it had been possible. The ‘lower classes’ had grasped from the first what was his attitude towards them, and if he had been a rich man they would probably have licked his boots, according to their custom; as it was, they merely hated him. Not that he cared whether they hated him or not, for he was largely unaware of their existence. But even with the upper classes he had got on no better. With the County he had quarrelled one by one, and as for the petty gentry of the town, as the grandson of a baronet he despised them, and was at no pains to hide it. In twenty-three years he had succeeded in reducing the congregation of St Athelstan’s from six hundred to something under two hundred.
This was not solely due to personal reasons. It was also because the old-fashioned High Anglicanism to which the Rector obstinately clung was of a kind to annoy all parties in the parish about equally. Nowadays, a clergyman who wants to keep his congregation has only two courses open to him. Either it must be Anglo- Catholicism pure and simple — or rather, pure and not simple; or he must be daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same. The Rector did neither. On the one hand, he had the deepest contempt for the Anglo-Catholic movement. It had passed over his head, leaving him absolutely untouched; ‘Roman Fever’ was his name for it. On the other hand, he was too ‘high’ for the older members of his congregation. From time to time he scared them almost out of their wits by the use of the fatal word ‘Catholic’, not only in its sanctified place in the Creeds, but also from the pulpit. Naturally the congregation dwindled year by year, and it was the Best People who were the first to go. Lord Pockthorne of Pockthorne Court, who owned a fifth of the county, Mr Leavis, the retired leather merchant, Sir Edward Huson of Crabtree Hall, and such of the petty gentry as owned motor-cars, had all deserted St Athelstan’s. Most of them drove over on Sunday mornings to Millborough, five miles away. Millborough was a town of five thousand inhabitants, and you had your choice of two churches, St Edmund’s and St Wedekind’s. St Edmund’s was Modernist — text from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ blazoned over the altar, and communion wine out of liqueur glasses — and St Wedekind’s was Anglo-Catholic and in a state of perpetual guerrilla warfare with the Bishop. But Mr Cameron, the secretary of the Knype Hill Conservative Club, was a Roman Catholic convert, and his children were in the thick of the Roman Catholic literary movement. They were said to have a parrot which they were teaching to say ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus’. In effect, no one of any standing remained true to St Athelstan’s, except Miss Mayfill, of The Grange. Most of Miss Mayfill’s money was bequeathed to the Church — so she said; meanwhile, she had never been known to put more than sixpence in the collection bag, and she seemed likely to go on living for ever.
The first ten minutes of breakfast passed in complete silence. Dorothy was trying to summon up courage to speak — obviously she had got to start SOME kind of conversation before raising the money- question — but her father was not an easy man with whom to make small talk. At times he would fall into such deep fits of abstraction that you could hardly get him to listen to you; at other times he was all too attentive, listened carefully to what you said and then pointed out, rather wearily, that it was not worth saying. Polite platitudes — the weather, and so forth — generally moved him to sarcasm. Nevertheless, Dorothy decided to try the weather first.
‘It’s a funny kind of day, isn’t it?’ she said — aware, even as she made it, of the inanity of this remark.
‘WHAT is funny?’ inquired the Rector.
‘Well, I mean, it was so cold and misty this morning, and now the sun’s come out and it’s turned quite fine.’
‘IS there anything particularly funny about that?’
That was no good, obviously. He MUST have had bad news, she thought. She tried again.
‘I do wish you’d come out and have a look at the things in the back garden some time, Father. The runner beans are doing so splendidly! The pods are going to be over a foot long. I’m going to keep all the best of them for the Harvest Festival, of course. I thought it would look so nice if we decorated the pulpit with festoons of runner beans and a few tomatoes hanging in among them.’
This was a faux pas. The Rector looked up from his plate with an expression of profound distaste.
‘My dear Dorothy,’ he said sharply, ‘IS it necessary to begin worrying me about the Harvest Festival already?’
‘I’m sorry, Father!’ said Dorothy, disconcerted. ‘I didn’t mean to worry you. I just thought —’
‘Do you suppose’, proceeded the Rector, ‘it is any pleasure to me to have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I am not a greengrocer. It quite puts me off my breakfast to think of it. When is the wretched thing due to happen?’
‘It’s September the sixteenth, Father.’
‘That’s nearly a month hence. For Heaven’s sake let me forget it a little longer! I suppose we must have this ridiculous business once a year to tickle the vanity of every amateur gardener in the parish. But don’t let’s think of it more than is absolutely necessary.’
The Rector had, as Dorothy ought to have remembered, a perfect abhorrence of Harvest Festivals. He had even lost a valuable parishioner — a Mr Toagis, a surly retired market gardener — through his dislike, as he said, of seeing his church dressed up to imitate a coster’s stall. Mr Toagis, anima naturaliter Nonconformistica, had been kept ‘Church’ solely by the privilege, at Harvest Festival time, of decorating the side altar with a sort of Stonehenge composed of gigantic vegetable marrows. The previous summer he had succeeded in growing a perfect leviathan of a pumpkin, a fiery red thing so enormous that it took two men to lift it. This monstrous object had been placed in the chancel, where it dwarfed the altar and took all the colour out of the east window. In no matter what part of the church you were standing, the pumpkin, as the saying goes, hit you in the eye. Mr Toagis was in raptures. He hung about the church at all hours, unable to tear himself away from his adored pumpkin, and even bringing relays of friends in to admire it. From the expression of his face you would have thought that he was quoting Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge:
Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty!
Dorothy even had hopes, after this, of getting him to come to Holy Communion. But when the Rector saw the pumpkin he was seriously angry, and ordered ‘that revolting thing’ to be removed at once. Mr Toagis had instantly ‘gone chapel’, and he and his heirs were lost to the Church for ever.
Dorothy decided to make one final attempt at conversation.
‘We’re getting on with the costumes for Charles I,’ she said. (The Church School children were rehearsing a play entitled Charles I in aid of the organ fund.) ‘But I do wish we’d chosen something a bit easier. The armour is a dreadful job to make, and I’m afraid the jackboots are going to be worse. I think next time we must really have a Roman or Greek play. Something where they only have to wear togas.’
This elicited only another muted grunt from the Rector. School plays, pageants, bazaars, jumble sales, and concerts in aid of were not quite so bad in his eyes as Harvest Festivals, but he did not pretend to be interested in them. They were necessary evils, he used to say. At this moment Ellen, the maidservant, pushed open the door and came gauchely into the room with one large, scaly hand holding her sacking apron against her belly. She was a tall, round-shouldered girl with mouse-coloured hair, a plaintive voice, and a bad complexion, and she suffered chronically from eczema. Her eyes flitted apprehensively towards the Rector, but she addressed herself to Dorothy, for she was too much afraid of the Rector to speak to him directly.
‘Please, Miss —’ she began.
‘Please, Miss,’ went on Ellen plaintively, ‘Mr Porter’s in the kitchen, and he says, please could the Rector come round and baptize Mrs Porter’s baby? Because they don’t think as it’s going to live the day out, and it ain’t been baptized yet, Miss.’
Dorothy stood up. ‘Sit down,’ said the Rector promptly, with his mouth full.
‘What do they think is the matter with the baby?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, Miss, it’s turning quite black. And it’s had diarrhoea something cruel.’
The Rector emptied his mouth with an effort. ‘Must I have these disgusting details while I am eating my breakfast?’ he exclaimed. He turned on Ellen: ‘Send Porter about his business and tell him I’ll be round at his house at twelve o’clock. I really cannot think why it is that the lower classes always seem to choose mealtimes to come pestering one,’ he added, casting another irritated glance at Dorothy as she sat down.
Mr Porter was a labouring man — a bricklayer, to be exact. The Rector’s views on baptism were entirely sound. If it had been urgently necessary he would have walked twenty miles through snow to baptize a dying baby. But he did not like to see Dorothy proposing to leave the breakfast table at the call of a common bricklayer.
There was no further conversation during breakfast. Dorothy’s heart was sinking lower and lower. The demand for money had got to be made, and yet it was perfectly obvious that it was foredoomed to failure. His breakfast finished, the Rector got up from the table and began to fill his pipe from the tobacco-jar on the mantelpiece. Dorothy uttered a short prayer for courage, and then pinched herself. Go on, Dorothy! Out with it! No funking, please! With an effort she mastered her voice and said:
‘What is it?’ said the Rector, pausing with the match in his hand.
‘Father, I’ve something I want to ask you. Something important.’
The expression of the Rector’s face changed. He had divined instantly what she was going to say; and, curiously enough, he now looked less irritable than before. A stony calm had settled upon his face. He looked like a rather exceptionally aloof and unhelpful sphinx.
‘Now, my dear Dorothy, I know very well what you are going to say. I suppose you are going to ask me for money again. Is that it?’
‘Yes, Father. Because —’
‘Well, I may as well save you the trouble. I have no money at all — absolutely no money at all until next quarter. You have had your allowance, and I can’t give you a halfpenny more. It’s quite useless to come worrying me now.’
‘But, Father —’
Dorothy’s heart sank yet lower. What was worst of all when she came to him for money was the terrible, unhelpful calmness of his attitude. He was never so unmoved as when you were reminding him that he was up to his eyes in debt. Apparently he could not understand that tradesmen occasionally want to be paid, and that no house can be kept going without an adequate supply of money. He allowed Dorothy eighteen pounds a month for all the household expenses, including Ellen’s wages, and at the same time he was ‘dainty’ about his food and instantly detected any falling off in its quality. The result was, of course, that the household was perennially in debt. But the Rector paid not the smallest attention to his debts — indeed, he was hardly even aware of them. When he lost money over an investment, he was deeply agitated; but as for a debt to a mere tradesman — well, it was the kind of thing that he simply could not bother his head about.
A peaceful plume of smoke floated upwards from the Rector’s pipe. He was gazing with a meditative eye at the steel engraving of Charles I and had probably forgotten already about Dorothy’s demand for money. Seeing him so unconcerned, a pang of desperation went through Dorothy, and her courage came back to her. She said more sharply than before:
‘Father, please listen to me! I MUST have some money soon! I simply MUST! We can’t go on as we’re doing. We owe money to nearly every tradesman in the town. It’s got so that some mornings I can hardly bear to go down the street and think of all the bills that are owing. Do you know that we owe Cargill nearly twenty-two pounds?’
‘What of it?’ said the Rector between puffs of smoke.
‘But the bill’s been mounting up for over seven months! He’s sent it in over and over again. We MUST pay it! It’s so unfair to him to keep him waiting for his money like that!’
‘Nonsense, my dear child! These people expect to be kept waiting for their money. They like it. It brings them more in the end. Goodness knows how much I owe to Catkin & Palm — I should hardly care to inquire. They are dunning me by every post. But you don’t hear ME complaining, do you?’
‘But, Father, I can’t look at it as you do, I can’t! It’s so dreadful to be always in debt! Even if it isn’t actually wrong, it’s so HATEFUL. It makes me so ashamed! When I go into Cargill’s shop to order the joint, he speaks to me so shortly and makes me wait after the other customers, all because our bill’s mounting up the whole time. And yet I daren’t stop ordering from him. I believe he’d run us in if I did.’
The Rector frowned. ‘What! Do you mean to say the fellow has been impertinent to you?’
‘I didn’t say he’d been impertinent, Father. But you can’t blame him if he’s angry when his bill’s not paid.’
‘I most certainly can blame him! It is simply abominable how these people take it upon themselves to behave nowadays — abominable! But there you are, you see. That is the kind of thing that we are exposed to in this delightful century. That is democracy — PROGRESS, as they are pleased to call it. Don’t order from the fellow again. Tell him at once that you are taking your account elsewhere. That’s the only way to treat these people.’
‘But, Father, that doesn’t settle anything. Really and truly, don’t you think we ought to pay him? Surely we can get hold of the money somehow? Couldn’t you sell out some shares, or something?’
‘My dear child, don’t talk to me about selling out shares! I have just had the most disagreeable news from my broker. He tells me that my Sumatra Tin shares have dropped from seven and fourpence to six and a penny. It means a loss of nearly sixty pounds. I am telling him to sell out at once before they drop any further.’
‘Then if you sell out you’ll have some ready money, won’t you? Don’t you think it would be better to get out of debt once and for all?’
‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ said the Rector more calmly, putting his pipe back in his mouth. ‘You know nothing whatever about these matters. I shall have to reinvest at once in something more hopeful — it’s the only way of getting my money back.’
With one thumb in the belt of his cassock he frowned abstractedly at the steel engraving. His broker had advised United Celanese. Here — in Sumatra Tin, United Celanese, and numberless other remote and dimly imagined companies — was the central cause of the Rector’s money troubles. He was an inveterate gambler. Not, of course, that he thought of it as gambling; it was merely a lifelong search for a ‘good investment’. On coming of age he had inherited four thousand pounds, which had gradually dwindled, thanks to his ‘investments’, to about twelve hundred. What was worse, every year he managed to scrape together, out of his miserable income, another fifty pounds which vanished by the same road. It is a curious fact that the lure of a ‘good investment’ seems to haunt clergymen more persistently than any other class of man. Perhaps it is the modern equivalent of the demons in female shape who used to haunt the anchorites of the Dark Ages.
‘I shall buy five hundred United Celanese,’ said the Rector finally.
Dorothy began to give up hope. Her father was now thinking of his ‘investments’ (she new nothing whatever about these ‘investments’, except that they went wrong with phenomenal regularity), and in another moment the question of the shop-debts would have slipped entirely out of his mind. She made a final effort.
‘Father, let’s get this settled, please. Do you think you’ll be able to let me have some extra money fairly soon? Not this moment, perhaps — but in the next month or two?’
‘No, my dear, I don’t. About Christmas time, possibly — it’s very unlikely even then. But for the present, certainly not. I haven’t a halfpenny I can spare.’
‘But, Father, it’s so horrible to feel we can’t pay our debts! It disgraces us so! Last time Mr Welwyn-Foster was here’ (Mr Welwyn- Foster was the Rural Dean) ‘Mrs Welwyn-Foster was going all round the town asking everyone the most personal questions about us — asking how we spent our time, and how much money we had, and how many tons of coal we used in a year, and everything. She’s always trying to pry into our affairs. Suppose she found out that we were badly in debt!’
‘Surely it is our own business? I fail entirely to see what it has to do with Mrs Welwyn-Foster or anyone else.’
‘But she’d repeat it all over the place — and she’d exaggerate it too! You know what Mrs Welwyn-Foster is. In every parish she goes to she tries to find out something disgraceful about the clergyman, and then she repeats every word of it to the Bishop. I don’t want to be uncharitable about her, but really she —’
Realizing that she DID want to be uncharitable, Dorothy was silent.
‘She is a detestable woman,’ said the Rector evenly. ‘What of it? Who ever heard of a Rural Dean’s wife who wasn’t detestable?’
‘But, Father, I don’t seem to be able to get you to see how serious things are! We’ve simply nothing to live on for the next month. I don’t even know where the meat’s coming from for today’s dinner.’
‘Luncheon, Dorothy, luncheon!’ said the Rector with a touch of irritation. ‘I do wish you would drop that abominable lower-class habit of calling the midday meal DINNER!’
‘For luncheon, then. Where are we to get the meat from? I daren’t ask Cargill for another joint.’
‘Go to the other butcher — what’s his name? Salter — and take no notice of Cargill. He knows he’ll be paid sooner or later. Good gracious, I don’t know what all this fuss is about! Doesn’t everyone owe money to his tradesmen? I distinctly remember’— the Rector straightened his shoulders a little, and, putting his pipe back into his mouth, looked into the distance; his voice became reminiscent and perceptibly more agreeable —‘I distinctly remember that when I was up at Oxford, my father had still not paid some of his own Oxford bills of thirty years earlier. Tom’ (Tom was the Rector’s cousin, the Baronet) ‘owed seven thousand before he came into his money. He told me so himself.’
At that, Dorothy’s last hope vanished. When her father began to talk about his cousin Tom, and about things that had happened ‘when I was up at Oxford’, there was nothing more to be done with him. It meant that he had slipped into an imaginary golden past in which such vulgar things as butchers’ bills simply did not exist. There were long periods together when he seemed actually to forget that he was only a poverty-stricken country Rector — that he was not a young man of family with estates and reversions at his back. The aristocratic, the expensive attitude was the one that in all circumstances came the most naturally to him. And of course while he lived, not uncomfortably, in the world of his imagination, it was Dorothy who had to fight the tradesmen and make a leg of mutton last from Sunday to Wednesday. But she knew the complete uselessness of arguing with him any longer. It would only end in making him angry. She got up from the table and began to pile the breakfast things on to the tray.
‘You’re absolutely certain you can’t let me have any money, Father?’ she said for the last time, at the door; with the tray in her arms.
The Rector, gazing into the middle distance, amid comfortable wreaths of smoke, did not hear her. He was thinking, perhaps, of his golden Oxford days. Dorothy went out of the room distressed almost to the point of tears. The miserable question of the debts was once more shelved, as it had been shelved a thousand times before, with no prospect of final solution.
On her elderly bicycle with the basketwork carrier on the handle- bars, Dorothy free-wheeled down the hill, doing mental arithmetic with three pounds nineteen and fourpence — her entire stock of money until next quarter-day.
She had been through the list of things that were needed in the kitchen. But indeed, was there anything that was NOT needed in the kitchen? Tea, coffee, soap, matches, candles, sugar, lentils, firewood, soda, lamp oil, boot polish, margarine, baking powder — there seemed to be practically nothing that they were not running short of. And at every moment some fresh item that she had forgotten popped up and dismayed her. The laundry bill, for example, and the fact that the coal was running short, and the question of the fish for Friday. The Rector was ‘difficult’ about fish. Roughly speaking, he would only eat the more expensive kinds; cod, whiting, sprats, skate, herrings, and kippers he refused.
Meanwhile, she had got to settle about the meat for today’s dinner — luncheon. (Dorothy was careful to obey her father and call it LUNCHEON, when she remembered it. On the other hand, you could not in honesty call the evening meal anything but ‘supper’; so there was no such meal as ‘dinner’ at the Rectory.) Better make an omelette for luncheon today, Dorothy decided. She dared not go to Cargill again. Though, of course, if they had an omelette for luncheon and then scrambled eggs for supper, her father would probably be sarcastic about it. Last time they had eggs twice in one day, he had inquired coldly, ‘Have you started a chicken farm, Dorothy?’ And perhaps tomorrow she would get two pounds of sausages at the International, and that staved off the meat- question for one day more.
Thirty-nine further days, with only three pounds nineteen and fourpence to provide for them, loomed up in Dorothy’s imagination, sending through her a wave of self-pity which she checked almost instantly. Now then, Dorothy! No snivelling, please! It all comes right somehow if you trust in God. Matthew vi, 25. The Lord will provide. Will He? Dorothy removed her right hand from the handle-bars and felt for the glass-headed pin, but the blasphemous thought faded. At this moment she became aware of the gloomy red face of Proggett, who was hailing her respectfully but urgently from the side of the road.
Dorothy stopped and got off her bicycle.
‘Beg pardon, Miss,’ said Proggett. ‘I been wanting to speak to you, Miss — PARTIC’LAR.’
Dorothy sighed inwardly. When Proggett wanted to speak to you PARTIC’LAR, you could be perfectly certain what was coming; it was some piece of alarming news about the condition of the church. Proggett was a pessimistic, conscientious man, and very loyal churchman, after his fashion. Too dim of intellect to have any definite religious beliefs, he showed his piety by an intense solicitude about the state of the church buildings. He had decided long ago that the Church of Christ meant the actual walls, roof, and tower of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, and he would poke round the church at all hours of the day, gloomily noting a cracked stone here, a worm-eaten beam there — and afterwards, of course, coming to harass Dorothy with demands for repairs which would cost impossible sums of money.
‘What is it, Proggett?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, Miss, it’s they —’— here a peculiar, imperfect sound, not a word exactly, but the ghost of a word, all but formed itself on Proggett’s lips. It seemed to begin with a B. Proggett was one of those men who are for ever on the verge of swearing, but who always recapture the oath as it is escaping between their teeth. ‘It’s they BELLS, Miss,’ he said, getting rid of the B sound with an effort. ‘They bells up in the church tower. They’re a-splintering through that there belfry floor in a way as it makes you fair shudder to look at ‘em. We’ll have ‘em down atop of us before we know where we are. I was up the belfry ‘smorning, and I tell you I come down faster’n I went up, when I saw how that there floor’s a- busting underneath ‘em.’
Proggett came to complain about the condition of the bells not less than once a fortnight. It was now three years that they had been lying on the floor of the belfry, because the cost of either reswinging or removing them was estimated at twenty-five pounds, which might as well have been twenty-five thousand for all the chance there was of paying for it. They were really almost as dangerous as Proggett made out. It was quite certain that, if not this year or next year, at any rate at some time in the near future, they would fall through the belfry floor into the church porch. And, as Proggett was fond of pointing out, it would probably happen on a Sunday morning just as the congregation were coming into church.
Dorothy sighed again. Those wretched bells were never out of mind for long; there were times when the thought of their falling even got into her dreams. There was always some trouble or other at the church. If it was not the belfry, then it was the roof or the walls; or it was a broken pew which the carpenter wanted ten shillings to mend; or it was seven hymn-books needed at one and sixpence each, or the flue of the stove choked up — and the sweep’s fee was half a crown — or a smashed window-pane or the choir-boys’ cassocks in rags. There was never enough money for anything. The new organ which the rector had insisted on buying five years earlier — the old one, he said, reminded him of a cow with the asthma — was a burden under which the Church Expenses fund had been staggering ever since.
‘I don’t know WHAT we can do,’ said Dorothy finally; ‘I really don’t. We’ve simply no money at all. And even if we do make anything out of the school-children’s play, it’s all got to go to the organ fund. The organ people are really getting quite nasty about their bill. Have you spoken to my father?’
‘Yes, Miss. He don’t make nothing of it. “Belfry’s held up five hundred years,” he says; “we can trust it to hold up a few years longer.”’
This was quite according to precedent. The fact that the church was visibly collapsing over his head made no impression on the Rector; he simply ignored it, as he ignored anything else that he did not wish to be worried about.
‘Well, I don’t know WHAT we can do,’ Dorothy repeated. ‘Of course there’s the jumble sale coming off the week after next. I’m counting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really NICE for the jumble sale. I know she could afford to. She’s got such lots of furniture and things that she never uses. I was in her house the other day, and I saw a most beautiful Lowestoft china tea service which was put away in a cupboard, and she told me it hadn’t been used for over twenty years. Just suppose she gave us that tea service! It would fetch pounds and pounds. We must just pray that the jumble sale will be a success, Proggett. Pray that it’ll bring us five pounds at least. I’m sure we shall get the money somehow if we really and truly pray for it.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ said Proggett respectfully, and shifted his gaze to the far distance.
At this moment a horn hooted and a vast, gleaming blue car came very slowly down the road, making for the High Street. Out of one window Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Proprietor of the sugar-beet refinery, was thrusting a sleek black head which went remarkably ill with his suit of sandy-coloured Harris tweed. As he passed, instead of ignoring Dorothy as usual, he flashed upon her a smile so warm that it was almost amorous. With him were his eldest son Ralph — or, as he and the rest of the family pronounced it, Walph — an epicene youth of twenty, given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems, and Lord Pockthorne’s two daughters. They were all smiling, even Lord Pockthorne’s daughters. Dorothy was astonished, for it was several years since any of these people had deigned to recognize her in the street.
‘Mr Blifil-Gordon is very friendly this morning,’ she said.
‘Aye, Miss. I’ll be bound he is. It’s the election coming on next week, that’s what ‘tis. All honey and butter they are till they’ve made sure as you’ll vote for them; and then they’ve forgot your very face the day afterwards.’
‘Oh, the election!’ said Dorothy vaguely. So remote were such things as parliamentary elections from the daily round of parish work that she was virtually unaware of them — hardly, indeed, even knowing the difference between Liberal and Conservative or Socialist and Communist. ‘Well, Proggett,’ she said, immediately forgetting the election in favour of something more important, ‘I’ll speak to Father and tell him how serious it is about the bells. I think perhaps the best thing we can do will be to get up a special subscription, just for the bells alone. There’s no knowing, we might make five pounds. We might even make ten pounds! Don’t you think if I went to Miss Mayfill and asked her to start the subscription with five pounds, she might give it to us?’
‘You take my word, Miss, and don’t you let Miss Mayfill hear nothing about it. It’d scare the life out of her. If she thought as that tower wasn’t safe, we’d never get her inside that church again.’
‘Oh dear! I suppose not.’
‘No, Miss. We shan’t get nothing out of HER; the old —’
A ghostly B floated once more across Proggett’s lips. His mind a little more at rest now that he had delivered his fortnightly report upon the bells, he touched his cap and departed, while Dorothy rode on into the High Street, with the twin problems of the shop-debts and the Church Expenses pursuing one another through her mind like the twin refrains of a villanelle.
The still watery sun, now playing hide-and-seek, April-wise, among woolly islets of cloud, sent an oblique beam down the High Street, gilding the house-fronts of the northern side. It was one of those sleepy, old-fashioned streets that look so ideally peaceful on a casual visit and so very different when you live in them and have an enemy or a creditor behind every window. The only definitely offensive buildings were Ye Olde Tea Shoppe (plaster front with sham beams nailed on to it, bottle-glass windows and revolting curly roof like that of a Chinese joss-house), and the new, Doric- pillared post office. After about two hundred yards the High Street forked, forming a tiny market-place, adorned with a pump, now defunct, and a worm-eaten pair of stocks. On either side of the pump stood the Dog and Bottle, the principal inn of the town, and the Knype Hill Conservative Club. At the end, commanding the street, stood Cargill’s dreaded shop.
Dorothy came round the corner to a terrific din of cheering, mingled with the strains of ‘Rule Britannia’ played on the trombone. The normally sleepy street was black with people, and more people were hurrying from all the sidestreets. Evidently a sort of triumphal procession was taking place. Right across the street, from the roof of the Dog and Bottle to the roof of the Conservative Club, hung a line with innumerable blue streamers, and in the middle a vast banner inscribed ‘Blifil-Gordon and the Empire!’ Towards this, between the lanes of people, the Blifil- Gordon car was moving at a foot-pace, with Mr Blifil-Gordon smiling richly, first to one side, then to the other. In front of the car marched a detachment of the Buffaloes, headed by an earnest-looking little man playing the trombone, and carrying among them another banner inscribed:
Who’ll save Britain from the Reds?
Who’ll put the Beer back into your Pot?
Blifil-Gordon for ever!
From the window of the Conservative Club floated an enormous Union Jack, above which six scarlet faces were beaming enthusiastically.
Dorothy wheeled her bicycle slowly down the street, too much agitated by the prospect of passing Cargill’s shop (she had got to pass, it, to get to Solepipe’s) to take much notice of the procession. The Blifil-Gordon car had halted for a moment outside Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Forward, the coffee brigade! Half the ladies of the town seemed to be hurrying forth, with lapdogs or shopping baskets on their arms, to cluster about the car like Bacchantes about the car of the vine-god. After all, an election is practically the only time when you get a chance of exchanging smiles with the County. There were eager feminine cries of ‘Good luck, Mr Blifil-Gordon! DEAR Mr Blifil-Gordon! We DO hope you’ll get in, Mr Blifil-Gordon!’ Mr Blifil-Gordon’s largesse of smiles was unceasing, but carefully graded. To the populace he gave a diffused, general smile, not resting on individuals; to the coffee ladies and the six scarlet patriots of the Conservative Club he gave one smile each; to the most favoured of all, young Walph gave an occasional wave of the hand and a squeaky ‘Cheewio!’
Dorothy’s heart tightened. She had seen that Mr Cargill, like the rest of the shopkeepers, was standing on his doorstep. He was a tall, evil-looking man, in blue-striped apron, with a lean, scraped face as purple as one of his own joints of meat that had lain a little too long in the window. So fascinated were Dorothy’s eyes by that ominous figure that she did not look where she was going, and bumped into a very large, stout man who was stepping off the pavement backwards.
The stout man turned round. ‘Good Heavens! It’s Dorothy!’ he exclaimed.
‘Why, Mr Warburton! How extraordinary! Do you know, I had a feeling I was going to meet you today.’
‘By the pricking of your thumbs, I presume?’ said Mr Warburton, beaming all over a large, pink, Micawberish face. ‘And how are you? But by Jove!’ he added, ‘What need is there to ask? You look more bewitching than ever.’
He pinched Dorothy’s bare elbow — she had changed, after breakfast, into a sleeveless gingham frock. Dorothy stepped hurriedly backwards to get out of his reach — she hated being pinched or otherwise ‘mauled about’— and said rather severely:
‘PLEASE don’t pinch my elbow. I don’t like it.’
‘My dear Dorothy, who could resist an elbow like yours? It’s the sort of elbow one pinches automatically. A reflex action, if you understand me.’
‘When did you get back to Knype Hill?’ said Dorothy, who had put her bicycle between Mr Warburton and herself. It’s over two months since I’ve seen you.’
‘I got back the day before yesterday. But this is only a flying visit. I’m off again tomorrow. I’m taking the kids to Brittany. The BASTARDS, you know.’
Mr Warburton pronounced the word BASTARDS, at which Dorothy looked away in discomfort, with a touch of naive pride. He and his ‘bastards’ (he had three of them) were one of the chief scandals of Knype Hill. He was a man of independent income, calling himself a painter — he produced about half a dozen mediocre landscapes every year — and he had come to Knype Hill two years earlier and bought one of the new villas behind the Rectory. There he lived, or rather stayed periodically, in open concubinage with a woman whom he called his housekeeper. Four months ago this woman — she was a foreigner, a Spaniard it was said — had created a fresh and worse scandal by abruptly deserting him, and his three children were now parked with some long-suffering relative in London. In appearance he was a fine, imposing-looking man, though entirely bald (he was at great pains to conceal this), and he carried himself with such a rakish air as to give the impression that his fairly sizeable belly was merely a kind of annexe to his chest. His age was forty-eight, and he owned to forty-four. People in the town said that he was a ‘proper old rascal’; young girls were afraid of him, not without reason.
Mr Warburton had laid his hand pseudo-paternally on Dorothy’s shoulder and was shepherding her through the crowd, talking all the while almost without a pause. The Blifil-Gordon car, having rounded the pump, was now wending its way back, still accompanied by its troupe of middle-aged Bacchantes. Mr Warburton, his attention caught, paused to scrutinize it.
‘What is the meaning of these disgusting antics?’ he asked.
‘Oh, they’re — what is it they call it? — electioneering. Trying to get us to vote for them, I suppose.’
‘Trying to get us to vote for them! Good God!’ murmured Mr Warburton, as he eyed the triumphal cortege. He raised the large, silver-headed cane that he always carried, and pointed, rather expressively, first at one figure in the procession and then at another. ‘Look at it! Just look at it! Look at those fawning hags, and that half-witted oaf grinning at us like a monkey that sees a bag of nuts. Did you ever see such a disgusting spectacle?’
‘Do be careful!’ Dorothy murmured. ‘Somebody’s sure to hear you.’
‘Good!’ said Mr Warburton, immediately raising his voice. ‘And to think that low-born hound actually has the impertinence to think that he’s pleasing us with the sight of his false teeth! And that suit he’s wearing is an offence in itself. Is there a Socialist candidate? If so, I shall certainly vote for him.’
Several people on the pavement turned and stared. Dorothy saw little Mr Twiss, the ironmonger, a weazened, leather-coloured old man, peering with veiled malevolence round the corner of the rush baskets that hung in his doorway. He had caught the word Socialist, and was mentally registering Mr Warburton as a Socialist and Dorothy as the friend of Socialists.
‘I really MUST be getting on,’ said Dorothy hastily, feeling that she had better escape before Mr Warburton said something even more tactless. ‘I’ve got ever such a lot of shopping to do. I’ll say good-bye for the present, then.’
‘Oh, no, you won’t!’ said Mr Warburton cheerfully. ‘Not a bit of it! I’ll come with you.’
As she wheeled her bicycle down the street he marched at her side, still talking, with his large chest well forward and his stick tucked under his arm. He was a difficult man to shake off, and though Dorothy counted him as a friend, she did sometimes wish, he being the town scandal and she the Rector’s daughter, that he would not always choose the most public places to talk to her in. At this moment, however, she was rather grateful for his company, which made it appreciably easier to pass Cargill’s shop — for Cargill was still on his doorstep and was regarding her with a sidelong, meaning gaze.
‘It was a bit of luck my meeting you this morning,’ Mr Warburton went on. ‘In fact, I was looking for you. Who do you think I’ve got coming to dinner with me tonight? Bewley — Ronald Bewley. You’ve heard of him, of course?’
‘Ronald Bewley? No, I don’t think so. Who is he?’
‘Why, dash it! Ronald Bewley, the novelist. Author of Fishpools and Concubines. Surely you’ve read Fishpools and Concubines?’
‘No, I’m afraid I haven’t. In fact, I’d never even heard of it.’
‘My dear Dorothy! You HAVE been neglecting yourself. You certainly ought to read Fishpools and Concubines. It’s hot stuff, I assure you — real high-class pornography. Just the kind of thing you need to take the taste of the Girl Guides out of your mouth.’
‘I do wish you wouldn’t say such things!’ said Dorothy, looking away uncomfortably, and then immediately looking back again because she had all but caught Cargill’s eye. ‘Where does this Mr Bewley live?’ she added. ‘Not here, surely, does he?’
‘No. He’s coming over from Ipswich for dinner, and perhaps to stay the night. That’s why I was looking for you. I thought you might like to meet him. How about your coming to dinner tonight?’
‘I can’t possibly come to dinner,’ said Dorothy. ‘I’ve got Father’s supper to see to, and thousands of other things. I shan’t be free till eight o’clock or after.’
‘Well, come along after dinner, then. I’d like you to know Bewley. He’s an interesting fellow — very au fait with all the Bloomsbury scandal, and all that. You’ll enjoy meeting him. It’ll do you good to escape from the church hen-coop for a few hours.’
Dorothy hesitated. She was tempted. To tell the truth, she enjoyed her occasional visits to Mr Warburton’s house extremely. But of course they were VERY occasional — once in three or four months at the oftenest; it so obviously DIDN’T DO to associate too freely with such a man. And even when she did go to his house she was careful to make sure beforehand that there was going to be at least one other visitor.
Two years earlier, when Mr Warburton had first come to Knype Hill (at that time he was posing as a widower with two children; a little later, however, the housekeeper suddenly gave birth to a third child in the middle of the night), Dorothy had met him at a tea-party and afterwards called on him. Mr Warburton had given her a delightful tea, talked amusingly about books, and then, immediately after tea, sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally. It was practically an assault. Dorothy was horrified almost out of her wits, though not too horrified to resist. She escaped from him and took refuge on the other side of the sofa, white, shaking, and almost in tears. Mr Warburton, on the other hand, was quite unashamed and even seemed rather amused.
‘Oh, how could you, how could you?’ she sobbed.
‘But it appears that I couldn’t,’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Oh, but how could you be such a brute?’
‘Oh, THAT? Easily, my child, easily. You will understand that when you get to my age.’
In spite of this bad beginning, a sort of friendship had grown up between the two, even to the extent of Dorothy being ‘talked about’ in connexion with Mr Warburton. It did not take much to get you ‘talked about’ in Knype Hill. She only saw him at long intervals and took the greatest care never to be alone with him, but even so he found opportunities of making casual love to her. But it was done in a gentlemanly fashion; the previous disagreeable incident was not repeated. Afterwards, when he was forgiven, Mr Warburton had explained that he ‘always tried it on’ with every presentable woman he met.
‘Don’t you get rather a lot of snubs?’ Dorothy could not help asking him.
‘Oh, certainly. But I get quite a number of successes as well, you know.’
People wondered sometimes how such a girl as Dorothy could consort, even occasionally, with such a man as Mr Warburton; but the hold that he had over her was the hold that the blasphemer and evil- liver always has over the pious. It is a fact — you have only to look about you to verify it — that the pious and the immoral drift naturally together. The best brothel-scenes in literature have been written, without exception, by pious believers or pious unbelievers. And of course Dorothy, born into the twentieth century, made a point of listening to Mr Warburton’s blasphemies as calmly as possible; it is fatal to flatter the wicked by letting them see that you are shocked by them. Besides, she was genuinely fond of him. He teased her and distressed her, and yet she got from him, without being fully aware of it, a species of sympathy and understanding which she could not get elsewhere. For all his vices he was distinctly likeable, and the shoddy brilliance of his conversation — Oscar Wilde seven times watered — which she was too inexperienced to see through, fascinated while it shocked her. Perhaps, too, in this instance, the prospect of meeting the celebrated Mr Bewley had its effect upon her; though certainly Fishponds and Concubines sounded like the kind of book that she either didn’t read or else set herself heavy penances for reading. In London, no doubt, one would hardly cross the road to see fifty novelists; but these things appeared differently in places like Knype Hill.
‘Are you SURE Mr Bewley is coming?’ she said.
‘Quite sure. And his wife’s coming as well, I believe. Full chaperonage. No Tarquin and Lucrece business this evening.’
‘All right,’ said Dorothy finally; ‘thanks very much. I’ll come round — about half past eight, I expect.’
‘Good. If you can manage to come while it is still daylight, so much the better. Remember that Mrs Semprill is my next-door neighbour. We can count on her to be on the qui vive any time after sundown.’
Mrs Semprill was the town scandalmonger — the most eminent, that is, of the town’s many scandalmongers. Having got what he wanted (he was constantly pestering Dorothy to come to his house more often), Mr Warburton said au revoir and left Dorothy to do the remainder of her shopping.
In the semi-gloom of Solepipe’s shop, she was just moving away from the counter with her two and a half yards of casement cloth, when she was aware of a low, mournful voice at her ear. It was Mrs Semprill. She was a slender woman of forty, with a lank, sallow, distinguished face, which, with her glossy dark hair and air of settled melancholy, gave her something the appearance of a Van Dyck portrait. Entrenched behind a pile of cretonnes near the window, she had been watching Dorothy’s conversation with Mr Warburton. Whenever you were doing something that you did not particularly want Mrs Semprill to see you doing, you could trust her to be somewhere in the neighbourhood. She seemed to have the power of materializing like an Arabian jinneeyeh at any place where she was not wanted. No indiscretion, however small, escaped her vigilance. Mr Warburton used to say that she was like the four beasts of the Apocalypse —‘They are full of eyes, you remember, and they rest not night nor day.’
‘Dorothy DEAREST,’ murmured Mrs Semprill in the sorrowful, affectionate voice of someone breaking a piece of bad news as gently as possible. ‘I’ve been so WANTING to speak to you. I’ve something simply DREADFUL to tell you — something that will really HORRIFY you!’
‘What is it?’ said Dorothy resignedly, well knowing what was coming — for Mrs Semprill had only one subject of conversation.
They moved out of the shop and began to walk down the street, Dorothy wheeling her bicycle, Mrs Semprill mincing at her side with a delicate birdlike step and bringing her mouth closer and closer to Dorothy’s ear as her remarks grew more and more intimate.
‘Do you happen to have noticed,’ she began, ‘that girl who sits at the end of the pew nearest the organ in church? A rather PRETTY girl, with red hair. I’ve no idea what her name is,’ added Mrs Semprill, who knew the surname and all the Christian names of every man, woman, and child in Knype Hill.
‘Molly Freeman,’ said Dorothy. ‘She’s the niece of Freeman the greengrocer.’
‘Oh, Molly Freeman? Is THAT her name? I’d often wondered. Well —’
The delicate red mouth came closer, the mournful voice sank to a shocked whisper. Mrs Semprill began to pour forth a stream of purulent libel involving Molly Freeman and six young men who worked at the sugar-beet refinery. After a few moments the story became so outrageous that Dorothy, who had turned very pink, hurriedly withdrew her ear from Mrs Semprill’s whispering lips. She stopped her bicycle.
‘I won’t listen to such things!’ she said abruptly. ‘I KNOW that isn’t true about Molly Freeman. It CAN’T be true! She’s such a nice quiet girl — she was one of my very best Girl Guides, and she’s always been so good about helping with the church bazaars and everything. I’m perfectly certain she wouldn’t do such things as you’re saying.’
‘But, Dorothy DEAREST! When, as I told you, I actually saw with my own eyes . . .’
‘I don’t care! It’s not fair to say such things about people. Even if they were true it wouldn’t be right to repeat them. There’s quite enough evil in the world without going about looking for it.’
‘LOOKING for it!’ sighed Mrs Semprill. ‘But, my dear Dorothy, as though one ever wanted or NEEDED to look! The trouble is that one can’t HELP seeing all the dreadful wickedness that goes on in this town.’
Mrs Semprill was always genuinely astonished if you accused her of LOOKING for subjects for scandal. Nothing, she would protest, pained her more than the spectacle of human wickedness; but it was constantly forced upon her unwilling eyes, and only a stern sense of duty impelled her to make it public. Dorothy’s remarks, so far from silencing her, merely set her talking about the general corruption of Knype Hill, of which Molly Freeman’s misbehaviour was only one example. And so from Molly Freeman and her six young men she proceeded to Dr Gaythorne, the town medical officer, who had got two of the nurses at the Cottage Hospital with child, and then to Mrs Corn, the Town Clerk’s wife, found lying in a field dead drunk on eau-de-Cologne, and then to the curate at St Wedekind’s in Millborough, who had involved himself in a grave scandal with a choirboy; and so it went on, one thing leading to another. For there was hardly a soul in the town or the surrounding country about whom Mrs Semprill could not disclose some festering secret if you listened to her long enough.
It was noticeable that her stories were not only dirty and libellous, but they had nearly always some monstrous tinge of perversion about them. Compared with the ordinary scandalmongers of a country town, she was Freud to Boccaccio. From hearing her talk you would have gathered the impression that Knype Hill with its thousand inhabitants held more of the refinements of evil than Sodom, Gomorrah, and Buenos Aires put together. Indeed, when you reflected upon the lives led by the inhabitants of this latter-day City of the Plain — from the manager of the local bank squandering his clients’ money on the children of his second and bigamous marriage, to the barmaid of the Dog and Bottle serving drinks in the taproom dressed only in high-heeled satin slippers, and from old Miss Channon, the music-teacher, with her secret gin bottle and her anonymous letters, to Maggie White, the baker’s daughter, who had borne three children to her own brother — when you considered these people, all, young and old, rich and poor, sunken in monstrous and Babylonian vices, you wondered that fire did not come down from Heaven and consume the town forthwith. But if you listened just a little longer, the catalogue of obscenities became first monstrous and then unbearably dull. For in a town in which EVERYONE is either a bigamist, a pederast, or a drug-taker, the worst scandal loses its sting. In fact, Mrs Semprill was something worse than a slanderer; she was a bore.
As to the extent to which her stories were believed, it varied. At times the word would go round that she was a foul-mouthed old cat and everything she said was a pack of lies; at other times one of her accusations would take effect on some unfortunate person, who would need months or even years to live it down. She had certainly been instrumental in breaking off not less than half a dozen engagements and starting innumerable quarrels between husbands and wives.
All this while Dorothy had been making abortive efforts to shake Mrs Semprill off. She had edged her way gradually across the street until she was wheeling her bicycle along the right-hand kerb; but Mrs Semprill had followed, whispering without cease. It was not until they reached the end of the High Street that Dorothy summoned up enough firmness to escape. She halted and put her right foot on the pedal of her bicycle.
‘I really can’t stop a moment longer,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a thousand things to do, and I’m late already.’
‘Oh, but, Dorothy dear! I’ve something else I simply MUST tell you — something most IMPORTANT!’
‘I’m sorry — I’m in such a terrible hurry. Another time, perhaps.’
‘It’s about that DREADFUL Mr Warburton,’ said Mrs Semprill hastily, lest Dorothy should escape without hearing it. ‘He’s just come back from London, and do you know — I most PARTICULARLY wanted to tell you this — do you know, he actually —’
But here Dorothy saw that she must make off instantly, at no matter what cost. She could imagine nothing more uncomfortable than to have to discuss Mr Warburton with Mrs Semprill. She mounted her bicycle, and with only a very brief ‘Sorry — I really CAN’T stop!’ began to ride hurriedly away.
‘I wanted to tell you — he’s taken up with a new woman!’ Mrs Semprill cried after her, even forgetting to whisper in her eagerness to pass on this juicy titbit.
But Dorothy rode swiftly round the corner, not looking back, and pretending not to have heard. An unwise thing to do, for it did not pay to cut Mrs Semprill too short. Any unwillingness to listen to her scandals was taken as a sign of depravity, and led to fresh and worse scandals being published about yourself the moment you had left her.
As Dorothy rode homewards she had uncharitable thoughts about Mrs Semprill, for which she duly pinched herself. Also, there was another, rather disturbing idea which had not occurred to her till this moment — that Mrs Semprill would certainly learn of her visit to Mr Warburton’s house this evening, and would probably have magnified it into something scandalous by tomorrow. The thought sent a vague premonition of evil through Dorothy’s mind as she jumped off her bicycle at the Rectory gate, where Silly Jack, the town idiot, a third-grade moron with a triangular scarlet face like a strawberry, was loitering, vacantly flogging the gatepost with a hazel switch.
It was a little after eleven. The day, which, like some overripe but hopeful widow playing at seventeen, had been putting on unseasonable April airs, had now remembered that it was August and settled down to be boiling hot.
Dorothy rode into the hamlet of Fennelwick, a mile out of Knype Hill. She had delivered Mrs Lewin’s corn-plaster, and was dropping in to give old Mrs Pither that cutting from the Daily Mail about angelica tea for rheumatism. The sun, burning in the cloudless sky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dusty road quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over which even at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely, were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was the kind of day that is called ‘glorious’ by people who don’t have to work.
Dorothy leaned her bicycle against the gate of the Pithers’ cottage, and took her handkerchief out of her bag and wiped her hands, which were sweating from the handle-bars. In the harsh sunlight her face looked pinched and colourless. She looked her age, and something over, at that hour of the morning. Throughout her day — and in general it was a seventeen-hour day — she had regular, alternating periods of tiredness and energy; the middle of the morning, when she was doing the first instalment of the day’s ‘visiting’, was one of the tired periods.
‘Visiting’, because of the distances she had to bicycle from house to house, took up nearly half of Dorothy’s day. Every day of her life, except on Sundays, she made from half a dozen to a dozen visits at parishioners’ cottages. She penetrated into cramped interiors and sat on lumpy, dust-diffusing chairs gossiping with overworked, blowsy housewives; she spent hurried half-hours giving a hand with the mending and the ironing, and read chapters from the Gospels, and readjusted bandages on ‘bad legs’, and condoled with sufferers from morning-sickness; she played ride-a-cock-horse with sour-smelling children who grimed the bosom of her dress with their sticky little fingers; she gave advice about ailing aspidistras, and suggested names for babies, and drank ‘nice cups of tea’ innumerable — for the working women always wanted her to have a ‘nice cup of tea’, out of the teapot endlessly stewing.
Much of it was profoundly discouraging work. Few, very few, of the women seemed to have even a conception of the Christian life that she was trying to help them to lead. Some of them were shy and suspicious, stood on the defensive, and made excuses when urged to come to Holy Communion; some shammed piety for the sake of the tiny sums they could wheedle out of the church alms box; those who welcomed her coming were for the most part the talkative ones, who wanted an audience for complaints about the ‘goings on’ of their husbands, or for endless mortuary tales (‘And he had to have glass chubes let into his veins,’ etc., etc.) about the revolting diseases their relatives had died of. Quite half the women on her list, Dorothy knew, were at heart atheistical in a vague unreasoning way. She came up against it all day long — that vague, blank disbelief so common in illiterate people, against which all argument is powerless. Do what she would, she could never raise the number of regular communicants to more than a dozen or thereabouts. Women would promise to communicate, keep their promise for a month or two, and then fall away. With the younger women it was especially hopeless. They would not even join the local branches of the church leagues that were run for their benefit — Dorothy was honorary secretary of three such leagues, besides being captain of the Girl Guides. The Band of Hope and the Companionship of Marriage languished almost memberless, and the Mothers’ Union only kept going because gossip and unlimited strong tea made the weekly sewing-parties acceptable. Yes, it was discouraging work; so discouraging that at times it would have seemed altogether futile if she had not known the sense of futility for what it is — the subtlest weapon of the Devil.
Dorothy knocked at the Pithers’ badly fitting door, from beneath which a melancholy smell of boiled cabbage and dish-water was oozing. From long experience she knew and could taste in advance the individual smell of every cottage on her rounds. Some of their smells were peculiar in the extreme. For instance, there was the salty, feral smell that haunted the cottage of old Mr Tombs, an aged retired bookseller who lay in bed all day in a darkened room, with his long, dusty nose and pebble spectacles protruding from what appeared to be a fur rug of vast size and richness.
But if you put your hand on the fur rug it disintegrated, burst and fled in all directions. It was composed entirely of cats — twenty- four cats, to be exact. Mr Tombs ‘found they kept him warm’, he used to explain. In nearly all the cottages there was a basic smell of old overcoats and dish-water upon which the other, individual smells were superimposed; the cesspool smell, the cabbage smell, the smell of children, the strong, bacon-like reek of corduroys impregnated with the sweat of a decade.
Mrs Pither opened the door, which invariably stuck to the jamb, and then, when you wrenched it open, shook the whole cottage. She was a large, stooping, grey woman with wispy grey hair, a sacking apron, and shuffling carpet slippers.
‘Why, if it isn’t Miss Dorothy!’ she exclaimed in a dreary, lifeless but not unaffectionate voice.
She took Dorothy between her large, gnarled hands, whose knuckles were as shiny as skinned onions from age and ceaseless washing up, and gave her a wet kiss. Then she drew her into the unclean interior of the cottage.
‘Pither’s away at work, Miss,’ she announced as they got inside. ‘Up to Dr Gaythorne’s he is, a-digging over the doctor’s flower- beds for him.’
Mr Pither was a jobbing gardener. He and his wife, both of them over seventy, were one of the few genuinely pious couples on Dorothy’s visiting list. Mrs Pither led a dreary, wormlike life of shuffling to and fro, with a perpetual crick in her neck because the door lintels were too low for her, between the well, the sink, the fireplace, and the tiny plot of kitchen garden. The kitchen was decently tidy, but oppressively hot, evil-smelling and saturated with ancient dust. At the end opposite the fireplace Mrs Pither had made a kind of prie-dieu out of a greasy rag mat laid in front of a tiny, defunct harmonium, on top of which were an oleographed crucifixion, ‘Watch and Pray’ done in beadwork, and a photograph of Mr and Mrs Pither on their wedding day in 1882.
‘Poor Pither!’ went on Mrs Pither in her depressing voice, ‘him a- digging at his age, with his rheumatism THAT bad! Ain’t it cruel hard, Miss? And he’s had a kind of a pain between his legs, Miss, as he can’t seem to account for — terrible bad he’s been with it, these last few mornings. Ain’t it bitter hard, Miss, the lives us poor working folks has to lead?’
‘It’s a shame,’ said Dorothy. ‘But I hope you’ve been keeping a little better yourself, Mrs Pither?’
‘Ah, Miss, there’s nothing don’t make ME better. I ain’t a case for curing, not in THIS world, I ain’t. I shan’t never get no better, not in this wicked world down here.’
‘Oh, you mustn’t say that, Mrs Pither! I hope we shall have you with us for a long time yet.’
‘Ah, Miss, you don’t know how poorly I’ve been this last week! I’ve had the rheumatism a-coming and a-going all down the backs of my poor old legs, till there’s some mornings when I don’t feel as I can’t walk so far as to pull a handful of onions in the garden. Ah, Miss, it’s a weary world we lives in, ain’t it, Miss? A weary, sinful world.’
‘But of course we must never forget, Mrs Pither, that there’s a better world coming. This life is only a time of trial — just to strengthen us and teach us to be patient, so that we’ll be ready for Heaven when the time comes.’
At this a sudden and remarkable change came over Mrs Pither. It was produced by the word ‘Heaven’. Mrs Pither had only two subjects of conversation; one of them was the joys of Heaven, and the other the miseries of her present state. Dorothy’s remark seemed to act upon her like a charm. Her dull grey eye was not capable of brightening, but her voice quickened with an almost joyful enthusiasm.
‘Ah, Miss, there you said it! That’s a true word, Miss! That’s what Pither and me keeps a-saying to ourselves. And that’s just the one thing as keeps us a-going — just the thought of Heaven and the long, long rest we’ll have there. Whatever we’ve suffered, we gets it all back in Heaven, don’t we, Miss? Every little bit of suffering, you gets it back a hundredfold and a thousandfold. That IS true, ain’t it, Miss? There’s rest for us all in Heaven — rest and peace and no more rheumatism nor digging nor cooking nor laundering nor nothing. You DO believe that, don’t you, Miss Dorothy?’
‘Of course,’ said Dorothy.
‘Ah, Miss, if you knew how it comforts us — just the thoughts of Heaven! Pither he says to me, when he comes home tired of a night and our rheumatism’s bad, “Never you mind, my dear,” he says, “we ain’t far off Heaven now,” he says. “Heaven was made for the likes of us,” he says; “just for poor working folks like us, that have been sober and godly and kept our Communions regular.” That’s the best way, ain’t it, Miss Dorothy — poor in this life and rich in the next? Not like some of them rich folks as all their motorcars and their beautiful houses won’t save from the worm that dieth not and the fire that’s not quenched. Such a beautiful text, that is. Do you think you could say a little prayer with me, Miss Dorothy? I been looking forward all the morning to a little prayer.
Mrs Pither was always ready for a ‘little prayer’ at any hour of the night or day. It was her equivalent to a ‘nice cup of tea’. They knelt down on the rag mat and said the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for the week; and then Dorothy, at Mrs Pither’s request, read the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Mrs Pither coming in from time to time with ‘Amen! That’s a true word, ain’t it, Miss Dorothy? “And he was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom.” Beautiful! Oh, I do call that just too beautiful! Amen, Miss Dorothy — Amen!’
Dorothy gave Mrs Pither the cutting from the Daily Mail about angelica tea for rheumatism, and then, finding that Mrs Pither had been too ‘poorly’ to draw the day’s supply of water, she drew three bucketfuls for her from the well. It was a very deep well, with such a low parapet that Mrs Pither’s final doom would almost certainly be to fall into it and get drowned, and it had not even a winch — you had to haul the bucket up hand over hand. And then they sat down for a few minutes, and Mrs Pither talked some more about Heaven. It was extraordinary how constantly Heaven reigned in her thoughts; and more extraordinary yet was the actuality, the vividness with which she could see it. The golden streets and the gates of orient pearl were as real to her as though they had been actually before her eyes. And her vision extended to the most concrete, the most earthly details. The softness of the beds up there! The deliciousness of the food! The lovely silk clothes that you would put on clean every morning! The surcease from everlasting to everlasting from work of any description! In almost every moment of her life the vision of Heaven supported and consoled her, and her abject complaints about the lives of ‘poor working folks’ were curiously tempered by a satisfaction in the thought that, after all, it is ‘poor working folks’ who are the principal inhabitants of Heaven. It was a sort of bargain that she had struck, setting her lifetime of dreary labour against an eternity of bliss. Her faith was almost TOO great, if that is possible. For it was a curious fact, but the certitude with which Mrs Pither looked forward to Heaven — as to some kind of glorified home for incurables — affected Dorothy with strange uneasiness.
Dorothy prepared to depart, while Mrs Pither thanked her, rather too effusively, for her visit, winding up, as usual, with fresh complaints about her rheumatism.
‘I’ll be sure and take the angelica tea,’ she concluded, ‘and thank you kindly for telling me of it, Miss. Not as I don’t expect as it’ll do me much good. Ah, Miss, if you knew how cruel bad my rheumatism’s been this last week! All down the backs of my legs, it is, like a regular shooting red-hot poker, and I don’t seem to be able to get at them to rub them properly. Would it be asking too much of you, Miss, to give me a bit of a rub-down before you go? I got a bottle of Elliman’s under the sink.’
Unseen by Mrs Pither, Dorothy gave herself a severe pinch. She had been expecting this, and — she had done it so many times before — she really did NOT enjoy rubbing Mrs Pither down. She exhorted herself angrily. Come on, Dorothy! No sniffishness, please! John xiii, 14. ‘Of course I will, Mrs Pither!’ she said instantly.
They went up the narrow, rickety staircase, in which you had to bend almost double at one place to avoid the overhanging ceiling. The bedroom was lighted by a tiny square of window that was jammed in its socket by the creeper outside, and had not been opened in twenty years. There was an enormous double bed that almost filled the room, with sheets perennially damp and a flock mattress as full of hills and valleys as a contour map of Switzerland. With many groans the old woman crept on to the bed and laid herself face down. The room reeked of urine and paregoric. Dorothy took the bottle of Elliman’s embrocation and carefully anointed Mrs Pither’s large, grey-veined, flaccid legs.
Outside, in the swimming heat, she mounted her bicycle and began to ride swiftly homewards. The sun burned in her face, but the air now seemed sweet and fresh. She was happy, happy! She was always extravagantly happy when her morning’s ‘visiting’ was over; and, curiously enough, she was not aware of the reason for this. In Borlase the dairy-farmer’s meadow the red cows were grazing, knee- deep in shining seas of grass. The scent of cows, like a distillation of vanilla and fresh hay, floated into Dorothy’s nostrils. Though she had still a morning’s work in front of her she could not resist the temptation to loiter for a moment, steadying her bicycle with one hand against the gate of Borlase’s meadow, while a cow, with moist shell-pink nose, scratched its chin upon the gatepost and dreamily regarded her.
Dorothy caught sight of a wild rose, flowerless of course, growing beyond the hedge, and climbed over the gate with the intention of discovering whether it were not sweetbriar. She knelt down among the tall weeds beneath the hedge. It was very hot down there, close to the ground. The humming of many unseen insects sounded in her ears, and the hot summery fume from the tangled swathes of vegetation flowed up and enveloped her. Near by, tall stalks of fennel were growing, with trailing fronds of foliage like the tails of sea-green horses. Dorothy pulled a frond of the fennel against her face and breathed in the strong sweet scent. Its richness overwhelmed her, almost dizzied her for a moment. She drank it in, filling her lungs with it. Lovely, lovely scent — scent of summer days, scent of childhood joys, scent of spice-drenched islands in the warm foam of Oriental seas!
Her heart swelled with sudden joy. It was that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things that she recognized, perhaps mistakenly, as the love of God. As she knelt there in the heat, the sweet odour and the drowsy hum of insects, it seemed to her that she could momentarily hear the mighty anthem of praise that the earth and all created things send up everlastingly to their maker. All vegetation, leaves, flowers, grass, shining, vibrating, crying out in their joy. Larks also chanting, choirs of larks invisible, dripping music from the sky. All the riches of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with Angels and Archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully, forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face.
She checked herself instantly, and drew back. What was she doing? Was it God that she was worshipping, or was it only the earth? The joy ebbed out of her heart, to be succeeded by the cold, uncomfortable feeling that she had been betrayed into a half-pagan ecstasy. She admonished herself. None of THAT, Dorothy! No Nature-worship, please! Her father had warned her against Nature- worship. She had heard him preach more than one sermon against it; it was, he said, mere pantheism, and, what seemed to offend him even more, a disgusting modern fad. Dorothy took a thorn of the wild rose, and pricked her arm three times, to remind herself of the Three Persons of the Trinity, before climbing over the gate and remounting her bicycle.
A black, very dusty shovel hat was approaching round the corner of the hedge. It was Father McGuire, the Roman Catholic priest, also bicycling his rounds. He was a very large, rotund man, so large that he dwarfed the bicycle beneath him and seemed to be balanced on top of it like a golf-ball on a tee. His face was rosy, humorous, and a little sly.
Dorothy looked suddenly unhappy. She turned pink, and her hand moved instinctively to the neighbourhood of the gold cross beneath her dress. Father McGuire was riding towards her with an untroubled, faintly amused air. She made an endeavour to smile, and murmured unhappily, ‘Good morning.’ But he rode on without a sign; his eyes swept easily over her face and then beyond her into vacancy, with an admirable pretence of not having noticed her existence. It was the Cut Direct. Dorothy — by nature, alas! unequal to delivering the Cut Direct — got on to her bicycle and rode away, struggling with the uncharitable thoughts which a meeting with Father McGuire never failed to arouse in her.
Five or six years earlier, when Father McGuire was holding a funeral in St Athelstan’s churchyard (there was no Roman Catholic cemetery at Knype Hill), there had been some dispute with the Rector about the propriety of Father McGuire robing in the church, or not robing in the church, and the two priests had wrangled disgracefully over the open grave. Since then they had not been on speaking terms. It was better so, the Rector said.
As to the other ministers of religion in Knype Hill — Mr Ward the Congregationalist minister, Mr Foley the Wesleyan pastor, and the braying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at Ebenezer Chapel — the Rector called them a pack of vulgar Dissenters and had forbidden Dorothy on pain of his displeasure to have anything to do with them.
It was twelve o’clock. In the large, dilapidated conservatory, whose roof-panes, from the action of time and dirt, were dim, green, and iridescent like old Roman glass, they were having a hurried and noisy rehearsal of Charles I.
Dorothy was not actually taking part in the rehearsal, but was busy making costumes. She made the costumes, or most of them, for all the plays the schoolchildren acted. The production and stage management were in the hands of Victor Stone — Victor, Dorothy called him — the Church schoolmaster. He was a small-boned, excitable, black-haired youth of twenty-seven, dressed in dark sub- clerical clothes, and at this moment he was gesturing fiercely with a roll of manuscript at six dense-looking children. On a long bench against the wall four more children were alternately practising ‘noises off’ by clashing fire-irons together, and squabbling over a grimy little bag of Spearmint Bouncers, forty a penny.
It was horribly hot in the conservatory, and there was a powerful smell of glue and the sour sweat of children. Dorothy was kneeling on the floor, with her mouth full of pins and a pair of shears in her hand, rapidly slicing sheets of brown paper into long narrow strips. The glue-pot was bubbling on an oil-stove beside her; behind her, on the rickety, ink-stained work-table, were a tangle of half-finished costumes, more sheets of brown paper, her sewing- machine, bundles of tow, shards of dry glue, wooden swords, and open pots of paint. With half her mind Dorothy was meditating upon the two pairs of seventeenth-century jackboots that had got to be made for Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, and with the other half listening to the angry shouts of Victor, who was working himself up into a rage, as he invariably did at rehearsals. He was a natural actor, and withal thoroughly bored by the drudgery of rehearsing half-witted children. He strode up and down, haranguing the children in a vehement slangy style, and every now and then breaking off to lunge at one or other of them with a wooden sword that he had grabbed from the table.
‘Put a bit of life into it, can’t you?’ he cried, prodding an ox- faced boy of eleven in the belly. ‘Don’t drone! Say it as if it meant something! You look like a corpse that’s been buried and dug up again. What’s the good of gurgling it down in your inside like that? Stand up and shout at him. Take off that second murderer expression!’
‘Come here, Percy!’ cried Dorothy through her pins. ‘Quick!’
She was making the armour — the worst job of the lot, except those wretched jackboots — out of glue and brown paper. From long practice Dorothy could make very nearly anything out of glue and brown paper; she could even make a passably good periwig, with a brown paper skull-cap and dyed tow for the hair. Taking the year through, the amount of time she spent in struggling with glue, brown paper, butter muslin, and all the other paraphernalia of amateur theatricals was enormous. So chronic was the need of money for all the church funds that hardly a month ever passed when there was not a school play or a pageant or an exhibition of tableaux vivants on hand — not to mention the bazaars and jumble sales.
As Percy — Percy Jowett, the blacksmith’s son, a small curly-headed boy — got down from the bench and stood wriggling unhappily before her, Dorothy seized a sheet of brown paper, measured it against him, snipped out the neckhole and armholes, draped it round his middle and rapidly pinned it into the shape of a rough breastplate. There was a confused din of voices.
VICTOR: Come on, now, come on! Enter Oliver Cromwell — that’s you! NO, not like that! Do you think Oliver Cromwell would come slinking on like a dog that’s just had a hiding? Stand up. Stick your chest out. Scowl. That’s better. Now go on, CROMWELL: ‘Halt! I hold a pistol in my hand!’ Go on.
A GIRL: Please, Miss, Mother said as I was to tell you, Miss —
DOROTHY: Keep still, Percy! For goodness’ SAKE keep still!
CROMWELL: ‘Alt! I ‘old a pistol in my ‘and!
A SMALL GIRL ON THE BENCH: Mister! I’ve dropped my sweetie! [Snivelling] I’ve dropped by swee-e-e-etie!
VICTOR: No, no, NO, Tommie! No, no, NO!
THE GIRL: Please, Miss, Mother said as I was to tell you as she couldn’t make my knickers like she promised, Miss, because —
DOROTHY: You’ll make me swallow a pin if you do that again.
CROMWELL: Halt! I Hold a pistol —
THE SMALL GIRL [in tears]: My swee-e-e-e-eetie!
Dorothy seized the glue-brush, and with feverish speed pasted strips of brown paper all over Percy’s thorax, up and down, backwards and forwards, one on top of another, pausing only when the paper stuck to her fingers. In five minutes she had made a cuirass of glue and brown paper stout enough, when it was dry, to have defied a real sword-blade. Percy, ‘locked up in complete steel’ and with the sharp paper edge cutting his chin, looked down at himself with the miserable resigned expression of a dog having its bath. Dorothy took the shears, slit the breastplate up one side, set it on end to dry and started immediately on another child. A fearful clatter broke out as the ‘noises off’ began practising the sound of pistol-shots and horses galloping. Dorothy’s fingers were getting stickier and stickier, but from time to time she washed some of the glue off them in a bucket of hot water that was kept in readiness. In twenty minutes she had partially completed three breastplates. Later on they would have to be finished off, painted over with aluminium paint and laced up the sides; and after that there was the job of making the thigh- pieces, and, worst of all, the helmets to go with them. Victor, gesticulating with his sword and shouting to overcome the din of galloping horses, was personating in turn Oliver Cromwell, Charles I, Roundheads, Cavaliers, peasants, and Court ladies. The children were now growing restive and beginning to yawn, whine, and exchange furtive kicks and pinches. The breastplates finished for the moment, Dorothy swept some of the litter off the table, pulled her sewing-machine into position and set to work on a Cavalier’s green velvet doublet — it was butter muslin Twinked green, but it looked all right at a distance.
There was another ten minutes of feverish work. Dorothy broke her thread, all but said ‘Damn!’ checked herself and hurriedly re- threaded the needle. She was working against time. The play was now a fortnight distant, and there was such a multitude of things yet to be made — helmets, doublets, swords, jackboots (those miserable jackboots had been haunting her like a nightmare for days past), scabbards, ruffles, wigs, spurs, scenery — that her heart sank when she thought of them. The children’s parents never helped with the costumes for the school plays; more exactly, they always promised to help and then backed out afterwards. Dorothy’s head was aching diabolically, partly from the heat of the conservatory, partly from the strain of simultaneously sewing and trying to visualize patterns for brown paper jackboots. For the moment she had even forgotten the bill for twenty-one pounds seven and ninepence at Cargill’s. She could think of nothing save that fearful mountain of unmade clothes that lay ahead of her. It was so throughout the day. One thing loomed up after another — whether it was the costumes for the school play or the collapsing floor of the belfry, or the shop-debts or the bindweed in the peas — and each in its turn so urgent and so harassing that it blotted all the others out of existence.
Victor threw down his wooden sword, took out his watch and looked at it.
‘That’ll do!’ he said in the abrupt, ruthless tone from which he never departed when he was dealing with children. ‘We’ll go on on Friday. Clear out, the lot of you! I’m sick of the sight of you.’
He watched the children out, and then, having forgotten their existence as soon as they were out of his sight, produced a page of music from his pocket and began to fidget up and down, cocking his eye at two forlorn plants in the corner which trailed their dead brown tendrils over the edges of their pots. Dorothy was still bending over her machine, stitching up the seams of the green velvet doublet.
Victor was a restless, intelligent little creature, and only happy when he was quarrelling with somebody or something. His pale, fine-featured face wore an expression that appeared to be discontent and was really boyish eagerness. People meeting him for the first time usually said that he was wasting his talents in his obscure job as a village schoolmaster; but the truth was that Victor had no very marketable talents except a slight gift for music and a much more pronounced gift for dealing with children. Ineffectual in other ways, he was excellent with children; he had the proper, ruthless attitude towards them. But of course, like everyone else, he despised his own especial talent. His interests were almost purely ecclesiastical. He was what people call a CHURCHY young man. It had always been his ambition to enter the Church, and he would actually have done so if he had possessed the kind of brain that is capable of learning Greek and Hebrew. Debarred from the priesthood, he had drifted quite naturally into his position as a Church schoolmaster and organist. It kept him, so to speak, within the Church precincts. Needless to say, he was an Anglo-Catholic of the most truculent Church Times breed — more clerical than the clerics, knowledgeable about Church history, expert on vestments, and ready at any moment with a furious tirade against Modernists, Protestants, scientists, Bolshevists, and atheists.
‘I was thinking,’ said Dorothy as she stopped her machine and snipped off the thread, ‘we might make those helmets out of old bowler hats, if we can get hold of enough of them. Cut the brims off, put on paper brims of the right shape and silver them over.’
‘Oh Lord, why worry your head about such things?’ said Victor, who had lost interest in the play the moment the rehearsal was over.
‘It’s those wretched jackboots that are worrying me the most,’ said Dorothy, taking the doublet on to her knee and looking at it.
‘Oh, bother the jackboots! Let’s stop thinking about the play for a moment. Look here,’ said Victor, unrolling his page of music, ‘I want you to speak to your father for me. I wish you’d ask him whether we can’t have a procession some time next month.’
‘Another procession? What for?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. You can always find an excuse for a procession. There’s the Nativity of the B.V.M. coming off on the eighth — that’s good enough for a procession, I should think. We’ll do it in style. I’ve got hold of a splendid rousing hymn that they can all bellow, and perhaps we could borrow their blue banner with the Virgin Mary on it from St Wedekind’s in Millborough. If he’ll say the word I’ll start practising the choir at once.’
‘You know he’ll only say no,’ said Dorothy, threading a needle to sew buttons on the doublet. ‘He doesn’t really approve of processions. It’s much better not to ask him and make him angry.’
‘Oh, but dash it all!’ protested Victor. ‘It’s simply months since we’ve had a procession. I never saw such dead-alive services as we have here. You’d think we were a Baptist chapel or something, from the way we go on.’
Victor chafed ceaselessly against the dull correctness of the Rector’s services. His ideal was what he called ‘the real Catholic worship’— meaning unlimited incense, gilded images, and more Roman vestments. In his capacity of organist he was for ever pressing for more processions, more voluptuous music, more elaborate chanting in the liturgy, so that it was a continuous pull devil, pull baker between him and the Rector. And on this point Dorothy sided with her father. Having been brought up in the peculiar, frigid via media of Anglicanism, she was by nature averse to and half-afraid of anything ‘ritualistic’.
‘But dash it all!’ went on Victor, ‘a procession is such fun! Down the aisle, out through the west door and back through the south door, with the choir carrying candles behind and the Boy Scouts in front with the banner. It would look fine.’ He sang a stave in a thin but tuneful tenor:
‘Hail thee, Festival Day, blest day that art hallowed for ever!’
‘If I had MY way,’ he added, ‘I’d have a couple of boys swinging jolly good censers of incense at the same time.’
‘Yes, but you know how much Father dislikes that kind of thing. Especially when it’s anything to do with the Virgin Mary. He says it’s all Roman Fever and leads to people crossing themselves and genuflecting at the wrong times and goodness knows what. You remember what happened at Advent.’
The previous year, on his own responsibility, Victor had chosen as one of the hymns for Advent, Number 642, with the refrain ‘Hail Mary, hail Mary, hail Mary full of grace!’ This piece of popishness had annoyed the Rector extremely. At the close of the first verse he had pointedly laid down his hymn book, turned round in his stall and stood regarding the congregation with an air so stony that some of the choirboys faltered and almost broke down. Afterwards he had said that to hear the rustics bawling ‘‘Ail Mary! ‘Ail Mary!’ made him think he was in the four-ale bar of the Dog and Bottle.
‘But dash it!’ said Victor in his aggrieved way, ‘your father always puts his foot down when I try and get a bit of life into the service. He won’t allow us incense, or decent music, or proper vestments, or anything. And what’s the result? We can’t get enough people to fill the church a quarter full, even on Easter Sunday. You look round the church on Sunday morning, and it’s nothing but the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides and a few old women.’
‘I know. It’s dreadful,’ admitted Dorothy, sewing on her button. ‘It doesn’t seem to make any difference what we do — we simply CAN’T get the people to come to church. Still,’ she added, ‘they do come to us to be married and buried. And I don’t think the congregation’s actually gone down this year. There were nearly two hundred people at Easter Communion.’
‘Two hundred! It ought to be two thousand. That’s the population of this town. The fact is that three quarters of the people in this place never go near a church in their lives. The Church has absolutely lost its hold over them. They don’t know that it exists. And why? That’s what I’m getting at. Why?’
‘I suppose it’s all this Science and Free Thought and all that,’ said Dorothy rather sententiously, quoting her father.
This remark deflected Victor from what he had been about to say. He had been on the very point of saying that St Athelstan’s congregation had dwindled because of the dullness of the services; but the hated words of Science and Free Thought set him off in another and even more familiar channel.
‘Of course it’s this so-called Free Thought!’ he exclaimed, immediately beginning to fidget up and down again. ‘It’s these swine of atheists like Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley and all that crowd. And what’s ruined the Church is that instead of jolly well answering them and showing them up for the fools and liars they are, we just sit tight and let them spread their beastly atheist propaganda wherever they choose. It’s all the fault of the bishops, of course.’ (Like every Anglo-Catholic, Victor had an abysmal contempt for bishops.) ‘They’re all Modernists and time- servers. By Jove!’ he added more cheerfully, halting, ‘did you see my letter in the Church Times last week?’
‘No, I’m afraid I didn’t,’ said Dorothy, holding another button in position with her thumb. ‘What was it about?’
‘Oh, Modernist bishops and all that. I got in a good swipe at old Barnes.’
It was very rarely that a week passed when Victor did not write a letter to the Church Times. He was in the thick of every controversy and in the forefront of every assault upon Modernists and atheists. He had twice been in combat with Dr Major, had written letters of withering irony about Dean Inge and the Bishop of Birmingham, and had not hesitated to attack even the fiendish Russell himself — but Russell, of course, had not dared to reply. Dorothy, to tell the truth, very seldom read the Church Times, and the Rector grew angry if he so much as saw a copy of it in the house. The weekly paper they took in the Rectory was the High Churchman’s Gazette — a fine old High Tory anachronism with a small and select circulation.
‘That swine Russell!’ said Victor reminiscently, with his hands deep in his pockets. ‘How he does make my blood boil!’
‘Isn’t that the man who’s such a clever mathematician, or something?’ said Dorothy, biting off her thread.
‘Oh, I dare say he’s clever enough in his own line, of course,’ admitted Victor grudgingly. ‘But what’s that got to do with it? Just because a man’s clever at figures it doesn’t mean to say that — well, anyway! Let’s come back to what I was saying. Why is it that we can’t get people to come to church in this place? It’s because our services are so dreary and godless, that’s what it is. People want worship that IS worship — they want the real Catholic worship of the real Catholic Church we belong to. And they don’t get if from us. All they get is the old Protestant mumbo-jumbo, and Protestantism’s as dead as a doornail, and everyone knows it.’
‘That’s not true!’ said Dorothy rather sharply as she pressed the third button into place. ‘You know we’re not Protestants. Father’s always saying that the Church of England is the Catholic Church — he’s preached I don’t know how many sermons about the Apostolic Succession. That’s why Lord Pockthorne and the others won’t come to church here. Only he won’t join in the Anglo- Catholic movement because he thinks they’re too fond of ritualism for its own sake. And so do I.’
‘Oh, I don’t say your father isn’t absolutely sound on doctrine — absolutely sound. But if he thinks we’re the Catholic Church, why doesn’t he hold the service in a proper Catholic way? It’s a shame we can’t have incense OCCASIONALLY. And his ideas about vestments — if you don’t mind my saying it — are simply awful. On Easter Sunday he was wearing a Gothic cope with a modern Italian lace alb. Dash it, it’s like wearing a top hat with brown boots.’
‘Well, I don’t think vestments are so important as you do,’ said Dorothy. ‘I think it’s the spirit of the priest that matters, not the clothes he wears.’
‘That’s the kind of thing a Primitive Methodist would say!’ exclaimed Victor disgustedly. ‘Of course vestments are important! Where’s the sense of worshipping at all if we can’t make a proper job of it? Now, if you want to see what real Catholic worship CAN be like, look at St Wedekind’s in Millborough! By Jove, they do things in style there! Images of the Virgin, reservation of the Sacrament — everything. They’ve had the Kensitites on to them three times, and they simply defy the Bishop.’
‘Oh, I hate the way they go on at St Wedekind’s!’ said Dorothy. ‘They’re absolutely spiky. You can hardly see what’s happening at the altar, there are such clouds of incense. I think people like that ought to turn Roman Catholic and have done with it.’
‘My dear Dorothy, you ought to have been a Nonconformist. You really ought. A Plymouth Brother — or a Plymouth Sister or whatever it’s called. I think your favourite hymn must be Number 567, “O my God I fear Thee, Thou art very High!”’
‘Yours is Number 231, “I nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s march nearer Rome!”’ retorted Dorothy, winding the thread round the last button.
The argument continued for several minutes while Dorothy adorned a Cavalier’s beaver hat (it was an old black felt school hat of her own) with plume and ribbons. She and Victor were never long together without being involved in an argument upon the question of ‘ritualism’. In Dorothy’s opinion Victor was a kind to ‘go over to Rome’ if not prevented, and she was very likely right. But Victor was not yet aware of his probable destiny. At present the fevers of the Anglo-Catholic movement, with its ceaseless exciting warfare on three fronts at once — Protestants to right of you, Modernists to the left of you, and, unfortunately, Roman Catholics to rear of you and always ready for a sly kick in the pants — filled his mental horizon. Scoring off Dr Major in the Church Times meant more to him than any of the serious business of life. But for all his churchiness he had not an atom of real piety in his constitution. It was essentially as a game that religious controversy appealed to him — the most absorbing game ever invented, because it goes on for ever and because just a little cheating is allowed.
‘Thank goodness, that’s done!’ said Dorothy, twiddling the Cavalier’s beaver hat round on her hand and then putting it down. ‘Oh dear, what piles of things there are still to do, though! I wish I could get those wretched jackboots off my mind. What’s the time, Victor?’
‘It’s nearly five to one.’
‘Oh, good gracious! I must run. I’ve got three omelettes to make. I daren’t trust them to Ellen. And, oh, Victor! Have you got anything you can give us for the jumble sale? If you had an old pair of trousers you could give us, that would be best of all, because we can always sell trousers.’
‘Trousers? No. But I tell you what I have got, though. I’ve got a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress and another of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that I’ve been wanting to get rid of for years. Beastly Protestant trash! An old Dissenting aunt of mine gave them to me. — Doesn’t it make you sick, all this cadging for pennies? Now, if we only held our services in a proper Catholic way, so that we could get up a proper congregation, don’t you see, we shouldn’t need —’
‘That’ll be splendid,’ said Dorothy. ‘We always have a stall for books — we charge a penny for each book, and nearly all of them get sold. We simply MUST make that jumble sale a success, Victor! I’m counting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really NICE. What I’m specially hoping is that she might give us that beautiful old Lowestoft china tea service of hers, and we could sell it for five pounds at least. I’ve been making special prayers all the morning that she’ll give it to us.’
‘Oh?’ said Victor, less enthusiastically than usual. Like Proggett earlier in the morning, he was embarrassed by the word ‘prayer’. He was ready to talk all day long about a point of ritual; but the mention of private devotions struck him as slightly indecent. ‘Don’t forget to ask your father about the procession,’ he said, getting back to a more congenial topic.
‘All right, I’ll ask him. But you know how it’ll be. He’ll only get annoyed and say it’s Roman Fever.’
‘Oh, damn Roman Fever!’ said Victor, who, unlike Dorothy, did not set himself penances for swearing.
Dorothy hurried to the kitchen, discovered that there were only five eggs to make the omelettes for three people, and decided to make one large omelette and swell it out a bit with the cold boiled potatoes left over from yesterday. With a short prayer for the success of the omelette (for omelettes are so dreadfully apt to get broken when you take them out of the pan), she whipped up the eggs, while Victor made off down the drive, half wistfully and half sulkily humming ‘Hail thee, Festival Day’, and passing on his way a disgusted-looking manservant carrying the two handleless chamber- pots which were Miss Mayfill’s contribution to the jumble sale.
It was a little after ten o’clock. Various things had happened — nothing, however, of any particular importance; only the usual round of parish jobs that filled up Dorothy’s afternoon and evening. Now, as she had arranged earlier in the day, she was at Mr Warburton’s house, and was trying to hold her own in one of those meandering arguments in which he delighted to entangle her.
They were talking — but indeed, Mr Warburton never failed to manoeuvre the conversation towards this subject — about the question of religious belief.
‘My dear Dorothy,’ he was saying argumentatively, as he walked up and down with one hand in his coat pocket and the other manipulating a Brazilian cigar. ‘My dear Dorothy, you don’t seriously mean to tell me that at your age — twenty-seven, I believe — and with your intelligence, you will retain your religious beliefs more or less in toto?’
‘Of course I do. You know I do.’
‘Oh, come, now! The whole bag of tricks? All that nonsense that you learned at your mother’s knee — surely you’re not going to pretend to me that you still believe in it? But of course you don’t! You can’t! You’re afraid to own up, that’s all it is. No need to worry about that here, you know. The Rural Dean’s wife isn’t listening, and I won’t give the show away.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “all that NONSENSE”,’ began Dorothy, sitting up straighter in her chair, a little offended.
‘Well, let’s take an instance. Something particularly hard to swallow — Hell, for instance. Do you believe in Hell? When I say BELIEVE, mind you, I’m not asking whether you believe it in some milk and water metaphorical way like these Modernist bishops young Victor Stone gets so excited about. I mean do you believe in it literally? Do you believe in Hell as you believe in Australia?’
‘Yes, of course I do,’ said Dorothy, and she endeavoured to explain to him that the existence of Hell is much more real and permanent than the existence of Australia.
‘Hm,’ said Mr Warburton, unimpressed. ‘Very sound in its way, of course. But what always makes me so suspicious of you religious people is that you’re so deucedly cold-blooded about your beliefs. It shows a very poor imagination, to say the least of it. Here am I an infidel and blasphemer and neck deep in at least six out of the Seven Deadly, and obviously doomed to eternal torment. There’s no knowing that in an hour’s time I mayn’t be roasting in the hottest part of Hell. And yet you can sit there talking to me as calmly as though I’d nothing the matter with me. Now, if I’d merely got cancer or leprosy or some other bodily ailment, you’d be quite distressed about it — at least, I like to flatter myself that you would. Whereas, when I’m going to sizzle on the grid throughout eternity, you seem positively unconcerned about it.’
‘I never said YOU were going to Hell,’ said Dorothy somewhat uncomfortably, and wishing that the conversation would take a different turn. For the truth was, though she was not going to tell him so, that the point Mr Warburton had raised was one with which she herself had had certain difficulties. She did indeed believe in Hell, but she had never been able to persuade herself that anyone actually WENT there. She believed that Hell existed, but that it was empty. Uncertain of the orthodoxy of this belief, she preferred to keep it to herself. ‘It’s never certain that ANYONE is going to Hell,’ she said more firmly, feeling that here at least she was on sure ground.
‘What!’ said Mr Warburton, halting in mock surprise. ‘Surely you don’t mean to say that there’s hope for me yet?’
‘Of course there is. It’s only those horrid Predestination people who pretend that you go to Hell whether you repent or not. You don’t think the Church of England are Calvinists, do you?’
‘I suppose there’s always the chance of getting off on a plea of Invincible Ignorance,’ said Mr Warburton reflectively; and then, more confidently: ‘Do you know, Dorothy, I’ve a sort of feeling that even now, after knowing me two years, you’ve still half an idea you can make a convert of me. A lost sheep — brand plucked from the burning, and all that. I believe you still hope against hope that one of these days my eyes will be opened and you’ll meet me at Holy Communion at seven o’clock on some damned cold winter morning. Don’t you?’
‘Well —’ said Dorothy, again uncomfortably. She did, in fact, entertain some such hope about Mr Warburton, though he was not exactly a promising case for conversion. It was not in her nature to see a fellow being in a state of unbelief without making some effort to reclaim him. What hours she had spent, at different times, earnestly debating with vague village atheists who could not produce a single intelligible reason for their unbelief! ‘Yes,’ she admitted finally, not particularly wanting to make the admission, but not wanting to prevaricate.
Mr Warburton laughed delightedly.
‘You’ve a hopeful nature,’ he said. ‘But you aren’t afraid, by any chance, that I might convert YOU? “The dog it was that died”, you may remember.’
At this Dorothy merely smiled. ‘Don’t let him see he’s shocking you’— that was always her maxim when she was talking to Mr Warburton. They had been arguing in this manner, without coming to any kind of conclusion, for the past hour, and might have gone on for the rest of the night if Dorothy had been willing to stay; for Mr Warburton delighted in teasing her about her religious beliefs. He had that fatal cleverness that so often goes with unbelief, and in their arguments, though Dorothy was always RIGHT, she was not always victorious. They were sitting, or rather Dorothy was sitting and Mr Warburton was standing, in a large agreeable room, giving on a moonlit lawn, that Mr Warburton called his ‘studio’— not that there was any sign of work ever having been done in it. To Dorothy’s great disappointment, the celebrated Mr Bewley had not turned up. (As a matter of fact, neither Mr Bewley, nor his wife, nor his novel entitled Fishpools and Concubines, actually existed. Mr Warburton had invented all three of them on the spur of the moment, as a pretext for inviting Dorothy to his house, well knowing that she would never come unchaperoned.) Dorothy had felt rather uneasy on finding that Mr Warburton was alone. It had occurred to her, indeed she had felt perfectly certain, that it would be wiser to go home at once; but she had stayed, chiefly because she was horribly tired and the leather armchair into which Mr Warburton had thrust her the moment she entered the house was too comfortable to leave. Now, however, her conscience was pricking her. It DIDN’T DO to stay too late at his house — people would talk if they heard of it. Besides, there was a multitude of jobs that she ought to be doing and that she had neglected in order to come here. She was so little used to idleness that even an hour spent in mere talking seemed to her vaguely sinful.
She made an effort, and straightened herself in the too-comfortable chair. ‘I think, if you don’t mind, it’s really time I was getting home,’ she said.
‘Talking of Invincible Ignorance,’ went on Mr Warburton, taking no notice of Dorothy’s remark, ‘I forget whether I ever told you that once when I was standing outside the World’s End pub in Chelsea, waiting for a taxi, a damned ugly little Salvation Army lassie came up to me and said — without any kind of introduction, you know — “What will you say at the Judgement Seat?” I said, “I am reserving my defence.” Rather neat, I think, don’t you?’
Dorothy did not answer. Her conscience had given her another and harder jab — she had remembered those wretched, unmade jackboots, and the fact that at least one of them had got to be made tonight. She was, however, unbearably tired. She had had an exhausting afternoon, starting off with ten miles or so bicycling to and fro in the sun, delivering the parish magazine, and continuing with the Mothers’ Union tea in the hot little wooden-walled room behind the parish hall. The Mothers met every Wednesday afternoon to have tea and do some charitable sewing while Dorothy read aloud to them. (At present she was reading Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.) It was nearly always upon Dorothy that jobs of that kind devolved, because the phalanx of devoted women (the church fowls, they are called) who do the dirty work of most parishes had dwindled at Knype Hill to four or five at most. The only helper on whom Dorothy could count at all regularly was Miss Foote, a tall, rabbit-faced, dithering virgin of thirty-five, who meant well but made a mess of everything and was in a perpetual state of flurry. Mr Warburton used to say that she reminded him of a comet —‘a ridiculous blunt-nosed creature rushing round on an eccentric orbit and always a little behind time’. You could trust Miss Foote with the church decorations, but not with the Mothers or the Sunday School, because, though a regular churchgoer, her orthodoxy was suspect. She had confided to Dorothy that she could worship God best under the blue dome of the sky. After tea Dorothy had dashed up to the church to put fresh flowers on the altar, and then she had typed out her father’s sermon — her typewriter was a rickety pre-Boer War ‘invisible’, on which you couldn’t average eight hundred words an hour — and after supper she had weeded the pea rows until the light failed and her back seemed to be breaking. With one thing and another, she was even more tired than usual.
‘I really MUST be getting home,’ she repeated more firmly. ‘I’m sure it’s getting fearfully late.’
‘Home?’ said Mr Warburton. ‘Nonsense! The evening’s hardly begun.’
He was walking up and down the room again, with his hands in his coat pockets, having thrown away his cigar. The spectre of the unmade jackboots stalked back into Dorothy’s mind. She would, she suddenly decided, make two jackboots tonight instead of only one, as a penance for the hour she had wasted. She was just beginning to make a mental sketch of the way she would cut out the pieces of brown paper for the insteps, when she noticed that Mr Warburton had halted behind her chair.
‘What time is it, do you know?’ she said.
‘I dare say it might be half past ten. But people like you and me don’t talk of such vulgar subjects as the time.’
‘If it’s half past ten, then I really must be going,’ said Dorothy. I’ve got a whole lot of work to do before I go to bed.’
‘Work! At this time of night? Impossible!’
‘Yes, I have. I’ve got to make a pair of jackboots.’
‘You’ve got to make a pair of WHAT?’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Of jackboots. For the play the schoolchildren are acting. We make them out of glue and brown paper.’
‘Glue and brown paper! Good God!’ murmured Mr Warburton. He went on, chiefly to cover the fact that he was drawing nearer to Dorothy’s chair: ‘What a life you lead! Messing about with glue and brown paper in the middle of the night! I must say, there are times when I feel just a little glad that I’m not a clergyman’s daughter.’
‘I think —’ began Dorothy.
But at the same moment Mr Warburton, invisible behind her chair, had lowered his hands and taken her gently by the shoulders. Dorothy immediately wriggled herself in an effort to get free of him; but Mr Warburton pressed her back into her place.
‘Keep still,’ he said peaceably.
‘Let me go!’ exclaimed Dorothy.
Mr Warburton ran his right hand caressingly down her upper arm. There was something very revealing, very characteristic in the way he did it; it was the lingering, appraising touch of a man to whom a woman’s body is valuable precisely in the same way as though it were something to eat.
‘You really have extraordinary nice arms,’ he said. ‘How on earth have you managed to remain unmarried all these years?’
‘Let me go at once!’ repeated Dorothy, beginning to struggle again.
‘But I don’t particularly want to let you go,’ objected Mr Warburton.
‘PLEASE don’t stroke my arm like that! I don’t like it!’
‘What a curious child you are! Why don’t you like it?’
‘I tell you I don’t like it!’
‘Now don’t go and turn round,’ said Mr Warburton mildly. ‘You don’t seem to realize how tactful it was on my part to approach you from behind your back. If you turn round you’ll see that I’m old enough to be your father, and hideously bald into the bargain. But if you’ll only keep still and not look at me you can imagine I’m Ivor Novello.’
Dorothy caught sight of the hand that was caressing her — a large, pink, very masculine hand, with thick fingers and a fleece of gold hairs upon the back. She turned very pale; the expression of her face altered from mere annoyance to aversion and dread. She made a violent effort, wrenched herself free, and stood up, facing him.
‘I DO wish you wouldn’t do that!’ she said, half in anger and half in distress.
‘What is the matter with you?’ said Mr Warburton.
He had stood upright, in his normal pose, entirely unconcerned, and he looked at her with a touch of curiosity. Her face had changed. It was not only that she had turned pale; there was a withdrawn, half-frightened look in her eyes — almost as though, for the moment, she were looking at him with the eyes of a stranger. He perceived that he had wounded her in some way which he did not understand, and which perhaps she did not want him to understand.
‘What is the matter with you?’ he repeated.
‘WHY must you do that every time you meet me?’
‘“Every time I meet you” is an exaggeration,’ said Mr Warburton. ‘It’s really very seldom that I get the opportunity. But if you really and truly don’t like it —’
‘Of course I don’t like it! You know I don’t like it!’
‘Well, well! Then let’s say no more about it,’ said Mr Warburton generously. ‘Sit down, and we’ll change the subject.’
He was totally devoid of shame. It was perhaps his most outstanding characteristic. Having attempted to seduce her, and failed, he was quite willing to go on with the conversation as though nothing whatever had happened.
‘I’m going home at once,’ said Dorothy. ‘I can’t stay here any longer.’
‘Oh nonsense! Sit down and forget about it. We’ll talk of moral theology, or cathedral architecture, or the Girl Guides’ cooking classes, or anything you choose. Think how bored I shall be all alone if you go home at this hour.’
But Dorothy persisted, and there was an argument. Even if it had not been his intention to make love to her — and whatever he might promise he would certainly begin again in a few minutes if she did not go — Mr Warburton would have pressed her to stay, for, like all thoroughly idle people, he had a horror of going to bed and no conception of the value of time. He would, if you let him, keep you talking till three or four in the morning. Even when Dorothy finally escaped, he walked beside her down the moonlit drive, still talking voluminously and with such perfect good humour that she found it impossible to be angry with him any longer.
‘I’m leaving first thing tomorrow,’ he told her as they reached the gate. ‘I’m going to take the car to town and pick up the kids — the BASTARDS, you know — and we’re leaving for France the next day. I’m not certain where we shall go after that; eastern Europe, perhaps. Prague, Vienna, Bucharest.’
‘How nice,’ said Dorothy.
Mr Warburton, with an adroitness surprising in so large and stout a man, had manoeuvred himself between Dorothy and the gate.
‘I shall be away six months or more,’ he said. ‘And of course I needn’t ask, before so long a parting, whether you want to kiss me good-bye?’
Before she knew what he was doing he had put his arm about her and drawn her against him. She drew back — too late; he kissed her on the cheek — would have kissed her on the mouth if she had not turned her head away in time. She struggled in his arms, violently and for a moment helplessly.
‘Oh, let me go!’ she cried. ‘DO let me go!’
‘I believe I pointed out before,’ said Mr Warburton, holding her easily against him, ‘that I don’t want to let you go.’
‘But we’re standing right in front of Mrs Semprill’s window! She’ll see us absolutely for certain!’
‘Oh, good God! So she will!’ said Mr Warburton. ‘I was forgetting.’
Impressed by this argument, as he would not have been by any other, he let Dorothy go. She promptly put the gate between Mr Warburton and herself. He, meanwhile, was scrutinizing Mrs Semprill’s windows.
‘I can’t see a light anywhere,’ he said finally. ‘With any luck the blasted hag hasn’t seen us.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Dorothy briefly. ‘This time I really MUST go. Remember me to the children.’
With this she made off as fast as she could go without actually running, to get out of his reach before he should attempt to kiss her again.
Even as she did so a sound checked her for an instant — the unmistakable bang of a window shutting, somewhere in Mrs Semprill’s house. Could Mrs Semprill have been watching them after all? But (reflected Dorothy) of COURSE she had been watching them! What else could you expect? You could hardly imagine Mrs Semprill missing such a scene as that. And if she HAD been watching them, undoubtedly the story would be all over the town tomorrow morning, and it would lose nothing in the telling. But this thought, sinister though it was, did no more than flight momentarily through Dorothy’s mind as she hurried down the road.
When she was well out of sight of Mr Warburton’s house she stopped, took out her handkerchief and scrubbed the place on her cheek where he had kissed her. She scrubbed it vigorously enough to bring the blood into her cheek. It was not until she had quite rubbed out the imaginary stain which his lips had left there that she walked on again.
What he had done had upset her. Even now her heart was knocking and fluttering uncomfortably. I can’t BEAR that kind of thing! she repeated to herself several times over. And unfortunately this was no more than the literal truth; she really could not bear it. To be kissed or fondled by a man — to feel heavy male arms about her and thick male lips bearing down upon her own — was terrifying and repulsive to her. Even in memory or imagination it made her wince. It was her especial secret, the especial, incurable disability that she carried through life.
If only they would leave you ALONE! she thought as she walked onwards a little more slowly. That was how she put it to herself habitually —‘If only they would leave you ALONE!’ For it was not that in other ways she disliked men. On the contrary, she liked them better than women. Part of Mr Warburton’s hold over her was in the fact that he was a man and had the careless good humour and the intellectual largeness that women so seldom have. But why couldn’t they leave you ALONE? Why did they always have to kiss you and maul you about? They were dreadful when they kissed you — dreadful and a little disgusting, like some large, furry beast that rubs itself against you, all too friendly and yet liable to turn dangerous at any moment. And beyond their kissing and mauling there lay always the suggestion of those other, monstrous things (‘ALL THAT’ was her name for them) of which she could hardly even bear to think.
Of course, she had had her share, and rather more than her share, of casual attention from men. She was just pretty enough, and just plain enough, to be the kind of girl that men habitually pester. For when a man wants a little casual amusement, he usually picks out a girl who is not TOO pretty. Pretty girls (so he reasons) are spoilt and therefore capricious; but plain girls are easy game. And even if you are a clergyman’s daughter, even if you live in a town like Knype Hill and spend almost your entire life in parish work, you don’t altogether escape pursuit. Dorothy was all too used to it — all too used to the fattish middle-aged men, with their fishily hopeful eyes, who slowed down their cars when you passed them on the road, or who manoeuvred an introduction and then began pinching your elbow about ten minutes afterwards. Men of all descriptions. Even a clergyman, on one occasion — a bishop’s chaplain, he was . . . .
But the trouble was that it was not better, but oh! infinitely worse when they were the right kind of man and the advances they made you were honourable. Her mind slipped backwards five years, to Francis Moon, curate in those days at St Wedekind’s in Millborough. Dear Francis! How gladly would she have married him if only it had not been for ALL THAT! Over and over again he had asked her to marry him, and of course she had had to say No; and, equally of course, he had never known why. Impossible to tell him why. And then he had gone away, and only a year later had died so irrelevantly of pneumonia. She whispered a prayer for his soul, momentarily forgetting that her father did not really approve of prayers for the dead, and then, with an effort, pushed the memory aside. Ah, better not to think of it again! It hurt her in her breast to think of it.
She could never marry, she had decided long ago upon that. Even when she was a child she had known it. Nothing would ever overcome her horror of ALL THAT— at the very thought of it something within her seemed to shrink and freeze. And of course, in a sense she did not want to overcome it. For, like all abnormal people, she was not fully aware that she was abnormal.
And yet, though her sexual coldness seemed to her natural and inevitable, she knew well enough how it was that it had begun. She could remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, certain dreadful scenes between her father and her mother — scenes that she had witnessed when she was no more than nine years old. They had left a deep, secret wound in her mind. And then a little later she had been frightened by some old steel engravings of nymphs pursued by satyrs. To her childish mind there was something inexplicably, horribly sinister in those horned, semi-human creatures that lurked in thickets and behind large trees, ready to come bounding forth in sudden swift pursuit. For a whole year of her childhood she had actually been afraid to walk through woods alone, for fear of satyrs. She had grown out of the fear, of course, but not out of the feeling that was associated with it. The satyr had remained with her as a symbol. Perhaps she would never grow out of it, that special feeling of dread, of hopeless flight from something more than rationally dreadful — the stamp of hooves in the lonely wood, the lean, furry thighs of the satyr. It was a thing not to be altered, not to be argued away. It is, moreover, a thing too common nowadays, among educated women, to occasion any kind of surprise.
Most of Dorothy’s agitation had disappeared by the time she reached the rectory. The thoughts of satyrs and Mr Warburton, of Francis Moon and her foredoomed sterility, which had been going to and fro in her mind, faded out of it and were replaced by the accusing image of a jackboot. She remembered that she had the best part of two hours’ work to do before going to bed tonight. The house was in darkness. She went round to the back and slipped in on tiptoe by the scullery door, for fear of waking her father, who was probably asleep already.
As she felt her way through the dark passage to the conservatory, she suddenly decided that she had gone wrong in going to Mr Warburton’s house tonight. She would, she resolved, never go there again, even when she was certain that somebody else would be there as well. Moreover, she would do penance tomorrow for having gone there tonight. Having lighted the lamp, before doing anything else she found her ‘memo list’, which was already written out for tomorrow, and pencilled a capital P against ‘breakfast’, P stood for penance — no bacon again for breakfast tomorrow. Then she lighted the oilstove under the glue-pot.
The light of the lamp fell yellow upon her sewing-machine and upon the pile of half-finished clothes on the table, reminding her of the yet greater pile of clothes that were not even begun; reminding her, also, that she was dreadfully, overwhelmingly tired. She had forgotten her tiredness at the moment when Mr Warburton laid his hands on her shoulders, but now it had come back upon her with double force. Moreover, there was a somehow exceptional quality about her tiredness tonight. She felt, in an almost literal sense of the words, washed out. As she stood beside the table she had a sudden, very strange feeling as though her mind had been entirely emptied, so that for several seconds she actually forgot what it was that she had come into the conservatory to do.
Then she remembered — the jackboots, of course! Some contemptible little demon whispered in her ear, ‘Why not go straight to bed and leave the jackboots till tomorrow?’ She uttered a prayer for strength, and pinched herself. Come on, Dorothy! No slacking please! Luke ix, 62. Then, clearing some of the litter off the table, she got out her scissors, a pencil, and four sheets of brown paper, and sat down to cut out those troublesome insteps for the jackboots while the glue was boiling.
When the grandfather clock in her father’s study struck midnight she was still at work. She had shaped both jackboots by this time, and was reinforcing them by pasting narrow strips of paper all over them — a long, messy job. Every bone in her body was aching, and her eyes were sticky with sleep. Indeed, it was only rather dimly that she remembered what she was doing. But she worked on, mechanically pasting strip after strip of paper into place, and pinching herself every two minutes to counteract the hypnotic sound of the oilstove singing beneath the glue-pot.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53