However, it turned out quite otherwise. For Dorothy had not gone five yards from the gate when a telegraph boy came riding up the street in the opposite direction, whistling and looking at the names of the houses. He saw the name Ringwood House, wheeled his bicycle round, propped it against the kerb, and accosted Dorothy.
‘Miss Mill-BURROW live ’ere?’ he said, jerking his head in the direction of Ringwood House.
‘Yes. I am Miss Millborough.’
‘Gotter wait case there’s a answer,’ said the boy, taking an orange-coloured envelope from his belt.
Dorothy put down her bag. She had once more begun trembling violently. And whether this was from joy or fear she was not certain, for two conflicting thoughts had sprung almost simultaneously into her brain. One, ‘This is some kind of good news!’ The other, ‘Father is seriously ill!’ She managed to tear the envelope open, and found a telegram which occupied two pages, and which she had the greatest difficulty in understanding. It ran:
Rejoice in the lord o ye righteous note of exclamation great news note of exclamation your reputation absolutely reestablished stop mrs semprill fallen into the pit that she hath digged stop action for libel stop no one believes her any longer stop your father wishes you return home immediately stop am coming up to town myself comma will pick you up if you like stop arriving shortly after this stop wait for me stop praise him with the loud cymbals note of exclamation much love stop.
No need to look at the signature. It was from Mr Warburton, of course. Dorothy felt weaker and more tremulous than ever. She was dimly aware the telegraph boy was asking her something.
‘Any answer?’ he said for the third or fourth time.
‘Not today, thank you,’ said Dorothy vaguely.
The boy remounted his bicycle and rode off, whistling with extra loudness to show Dorothy how much he despised her for not tipping him. But Dorothy was unaware of the telegraph’s boy’s scorn. The only phrase of the telegram that she had fully understood was ‘your father wishes you return home immediately’, and the surprise of it had left her in a semi-dazed condition. For some indefinite time she stood on the pavement, until presently a taxi rolled up the street, with Mr Warburton inside it. He saw Dorothy, stopped the taxi, jumped out and came across to meet her, beaming. He seized her both hands.
‘Hullo!’ he cried, and at once threw his arm pseudo-paternally about her and drew her against him, heedless of who might be looking. ‘How are you? But by Jove, how thin you’ve got! I can feel all your ribs. Where is this school of yours?’
Dorothy, who had not yet managed to get free of his arm, turned partly round and cast a glance towards the dark windows of Ringwood House.
‘What! That place? Good God, what a hole! What have you done with your luggage?’
‘It’s inside. I’ve left them the money to send it on. I think it’ll be all right.’
‘Oh, nonsense! Why pay? We’ll take it with us. It can go on top of the taxi.’
‘No, no! Let them send it. I daren’t go back. Mrs Creevy would be horribly angry.’
‘Mrs Creevy? Who’s Mrs Creevy?’
‘The headmistress — at least, she owns the school.’
‘What, a dragon, is she? Leave her to me — I’ll deal with her. Perseus and the Gorgon, what? You are Andromeda. Hi!’ he called to the taxi-driver.
The two of them went up to the front door and Mr Warburton knocked. Somehow, Dorothy never believed that they would succeed in getting her box from Mrs Creevy. In fact, she half expected to see them come out flying for their lives, and Mrs Creevy after them with her broom. However, in a couple of minutes they reappeared, the taxi- driver carrying the box on his shoulder. Mr Warburton handed Dorothy into the taxi and, as they sat down, dropped half a crown into her hand.
‘What a woman! What a woman!’ he said comprehensively as the taxi bore them away. ‘How the devil have you put up with it all this time?’
‘What is this?’ said Dorothy, looking at the coin.
‘Your half-crown that you left to pay for the luggage. Rather a feat getting it out of the old girl, wasn’t it?’
‘But I left five shillings!’ said Dorothy.
‘What! The woman told me you only left half a crown. By God, what impudence! We’ll go back and have the half-crown out of her. Just to spite her!’ He tapped on the glass.
‘No, no!’ said Dorothy, laying her hand on his arm. ‘It doesn’t matter in the least. Let’s get away from here — right away. I couldn’t bear to go back to that place again — EVER!’
It was quite true. She felt that she would sacrifice not merely half a crown, but all the money in her possession, sooner than set eyes on Ringwood House again. So they drove on, leaving Mrs Creevy victorious. It would be interesting to know whether this was another of the occasions when Mrs Creevy laughed.
Mr Warburton insisted on taking the taxi the whole way into London, and talked so voluminously in the quieter patches of the traffic that Dorothy could hardly get a word in edgeways. It was not till they had reached the inner suburbs that she got from him an explanation of the sudden change in her fortunes.
‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘what is it that’s happened? I don’t understand. Why is it all right for me to go home all of a sudden? Why don’t people believe Mrs Semprill any longer? Surely she hasn’t confessed?’
‘Confessed? Not she! But her sins have found her out, all the same. It was the kind of thing that you pious people would ascribe to the finger of Providence. Cast thy bread upon the waters, and all that. She got herself into a nasty mess — an action for libel. We’ve talked of nothing else in Knype Hill for the last fortnight. I though you would have seen something about it in the newspapers.’
‘I’ve hardly looked at a paper for ages. Who brought an action for libel? Not my father, surely?’
‘Good gracious, no! Clergymen can’t bring actions for libel. It was the bank manager. Do you remember her favourite story about him — how he was keeping a woman on the bank’s money, and so forth?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘A few months ago she was foolish enough to put some of it in writing. Some kind friend — some female friend, I presume — took the letter round to the bank manager. He brought an action — Mrs Semprill was ordered to pay a hundred and fifty pounds damages. I don’t suppose she paid a halfpenny, but still, that’s the end of her career as a scandalmonger. You can go on blackening people’s reputations for years, and everyone will believe you, more or less, even when it’s perfectly obvious that you’re lying. But once you’ve been proved a liar in open court, you’re disqualified, so to speak. Mrs Semprill’s done for, so far as Knype Hill goes. She left the town between days — practically did a moonlight flit, in fact. I believe she’s inflicting herself on Bury St Edmunds at present.’
‘But what has all that got to do with the things she said about you and me?’
‘Nothing — nothing whatever. But why worry? The point is that you’re reinstated; and all the hags who’ve been smacking their chops over you for months past are saying, “Poor, poor Dorothy, how SHOCKINGLY that dreadful woman has treated her!”’
‘You mean they think that because Mrs Semprill was telling lies in one case she must have been telling lies in another?’
‘No doubt that’s what they’d say if they were capable of reasoning it out. At any rate, Mrs Semprill’s in disgrace, and so all the people she’s slandered must be martyrs. Even MY reputation is practically spotless for the time being.’
‘And do you think that’s really the end of it? Do you think they honestly believe that it was all an accident — that I only lost my memory and didn’t elope with anybody?’
‘Oh, well, I wouldn’t go as far as that. In these country places there’s always a certain amount of suspicion knocking about. Not suspicion of anything in particular, you know; just generalized suspicion. A sort of instinctive rustic dirty-mindedness. I can imagine its being vaguely rumoured in the bar parlour of the Dog and Bottle in ten years’ time that you’ve got some nasty secret in your past, only nobody can remember what. Still, your troubles are over. If I were you I wouldn’t give any explanations till you’re asked for them. The official theory is that you had a bad attack of flu and went away to recuperate. I should stick to that. You’ll find they’ll accept it all right. Officially, there’s nothing against you.
Presently they got to London, and Mr Warburton took Dorothy to lunch at a restaurant in Coventry Street, where they had a young chicken, roasted, with asparagus and tiny, pearly-white potatoes that had been ripped untimely from their mother earth, and also treacle tart and a nice warm bottle of Burgundy; but what gave Dorothy the most pleasure of all, after Mrs Creevy’s lukewarm water tea, was the black coffee they had afterwards. After lunch they took another taxi to Liverpool Street Station and caught the 2.45. It was a four-hour journey to Knype Hill.
Mr Warburton insisted on travelling first-class, and would not hear of Dorothy paying her own fare; he also, when Dorothy was not looking, tipped the guard to let them have a carriage to themselves. It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winter according as you are indoors or out. From behind the shut windows of the carriage the too-blue sky looked warm and kind, and all the slummy wilderness through which the train was rattling — the labyrinths of little dingy-coloured houses, the great chaotic factories, the miry canals, and derelict building lots littered with rusty boilers and overgrown by smoke-blackened weeds — all were redeemed and gilded by the sun. Dorothy hardly spoke for the first half-hour of the journey. For the moment she was too happy to talk. She did not even think of anything in particular, but merely sat there luxuriating in the glass-filtered sunlight, in the comfort of the padded seat and the feeling of having escaped from Mrs Creevy’s clutches. But she was aware that this mood could not last very much longer. Her contentment, like the warmth of the wine that she had drunk at lunch, was ebbing away, and thoughts either painful or difficult to express were taking shape in her mind. Mr Warburton had been watching her face, more observantly than was usual for him, as though trying to gauge the changes that the past eight months had worked in her.
‘You look older,’ he said finally.
‘I am older,’ said Dorothy.
‘Yes; but you look — well, more completely grown up. Tougher. Something has changed in your face. You look — if you’ll forgive the expression — as though the Girl Guide had been exorcized from you for good and all. I hope seven devils haven’t entered into you instead?’ Dorothy did not answer, and he added: ‘I suppose, as a matter of fact, you must have had the very devil of a time?’
‘Oh, beastly! Sometimes too beastly for words. Do you know that sometimes —’
She paused. She had been about to tell him how she had had to beg for her food; how she had slept in the streets; how she had been arrested for begging and spent a night in the police cells; how Mrs Creevy had nagged at her and starved her. But she stopped, because she had suddenly realized that these were not the things that she wanted to talk about. Such things as these, she perceived, are of no real importance; they are mere irrelevant accidents, not essentially different from catching a cold in the head or having to wait two hours at a railway junction. They are disagreeable, but they do not matter. The truism that all real happenings are in the mind struck her more forcibly than ever before, and she said:
‘Those things don’t really matter. I mean, things like having no money and not having enough to eat. Even when you’re practically starving — it doesn’t CHANGE anything inside you.’
‘Doesn’t it? I’ll take your word for it. I should be very sorry to try.’
‘Oh, well, it’s beastly while it’s happening, of course; but it doesn’t make any real difference; it’s the things that happen inside you that matter.’
‘Meaning?’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Oh — things change in your mind. And then the whole world changes, because you look at it differently.’
She was still looking out of the window. The train had drawn clear of the eastern slums and was running at gathering speed past willow-bordered streams and low-lying meadows upon whose hedges the first buds made a faint soft greenness, like a cloud. In a field near the line a month-old calf, flat as a Noah’s Ark animal, was bounding stiff-legged after its mother, and in a cottage garden an old labourer, with slow, rheumatic movements, was turning over the soil beneath a pear tree covered with ghostly bloom. His spade flashed in the sun as the train passed. The depressing hymn-line ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ moved through Dorothy’s mind. It was true what she had said just now. Something had happened in her heart, and the world was a little emptier, a little poorer from that minute. On such a day as this, last spring or any earlier spring, how joyfully, and how unthinkingly, she would have thanked God for the first blue skies and the first flowers of the reviving year! And now, seemingly, there was no God to thank, and nothing — not a flower or a stone or a blade of grass — nothing in the universe would ever be the same again.
‘Things change in your mind,’ she repeated. ‘I’ve lost my faith,’ she added, somewhat abruptly, because she found herself half ashamed to utter the words.
‘You’ve lost your WHAT?’ said Mr Warburton, less accustomed than she to this kind of phraseology.
‘My faith. Oh, you know what I mean! A few months ago, all of a sudden, it seemed as if my whole mind had changed. Everything that I’d believed in till then — everything — seemed suddenly meaningless and almost silly. God — what I’d meant by God — immortal life, Heaven and Hell — everything. It had all gone. And it wasn’t that I’d reasoned it out; it just happened to me. It was like when you’re a child, and one day, for no particular reason, you stop believing in fairies. I just couldn’t go on believing in it any longer.’
‘You never did believe in it,’ said Mr Warburton unconcernedly.
‘But I did, really I did! I know you always thought I didn’t — you thought I was just pretending because I was ashamed to own up. But it wasn’t that at all. I believed it just as I believe that I’m sitting in this carriage.’
‘Of course you didn’t, my poor child! How could you, at your age? You were far too intelligent for that. But you’d been brought up in these absurd beliefs, and you’d allowed yourself to go on thinking, in a sort of way, that you could still swallow them. You’d built yourself a life-pattern — if you’ll excuse a bit of psychological jargon — that was only possible for a believer, and naturally it was beginning to be a strain on you. In fact, it was obvious all the time what was the matter with you. I should say that in all probability that was why you lost your memory.’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, rather puzzled by this remark.
He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner. Dorothy had never heard of anything of this kind before, and she could not at first accept his explanation. Nevertheless she considered it for a moment, and perceived that, even if it were true, it did not alter the fundamental fact.
‘I don’t see that it makes any difference,’ she said finally.
‘Doesn’t it? I should have said it made a considerable difference.’
‘But don’t you see, if my faith is gone, what does it matter whether I’ve only lost it now or whether I’d really lost it years ago? All that matters is that it’s gone, and I’ve got to begin my life all over again.’
‘Surely I don’t take you to mean,’ said Mr Warburton, ‘that you actually REGRET losing your faith, as you call it? One might as well regret losing a goitre. Mind you, I’m speaking, as it were, without the book — as a man who never had very much faith to lose. The little I had passed away quite painlessly at the age of nine. But it’s hardly the kind of thing I should have thought anyone would REGRET losing. Used you not, if I remember rightly, to do horrible things like getting up at five in the morning to go to Holy Communion on an empty belly? Surely you’re not homesick for that kind of thing?’
‘I don’t believe in it any longer, if that’s what you mean. And I see now that a lot of it was rather silly. But that doesn’t help. The point is that all the beliefs I had are gone, and I’ve nothing to put in their place.’
‘But good God! why do you want to put anything in their place? You’ve got rid of a load of superstitious rubbish, and you ought to be glad of it. Surely it doesn’t make you any happier to go about quaking in fear of Hell fire?’
‘But don’t you see — you must see — how different everything is when all of a sudden the whole world is empty?’
‘Empty?’ exclaimed Mr Warburton. ‘What do you mean by saying it’s empty? I call that perfectly scandalous in a girl of your age. It’s not empty at all, it’s a deuced sight too full, that’s the trouble with it. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and we’ve no time to enjoy what we’ve got.’
‘But how CAN one enjoy anything when all the meaning’s been taken out of it?’
‘Good gracious! What do you want with a meaning? When I eat my dinner I don’t do it to the greater glory of God; I do it because I enjoy it. The world’s full of amusing things — books, pictures, wine, travel, friends — everything. I’ve never seen any meaning in it all, and I don’t want to see one. Why not take life as you find it?’
She broke off, for she saw already that she was wasting words in trying to make herself clear to him. He was quite incapable of understanding her difficulty — incapable of realizing how a mind naturally pious must recoil from a world discovered to be meaningless. Even the loathsome platitudes of the pantheists would be beyond his understanding. Probably the idea that life was essentially futile, if he thought of it at all, struck him as rather amusing than otherwise. And yet with all this he was sufficiently acute. He could see the difficulty of her own particular position, and he adverted to it a moment later.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I can see that things are going to be a little awkward for you when you get home. You’re going to be, so to speak, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Parish work — Mothers’ Meetings, prayers with the dying, and all that — I suppose it might be a little distasteful at times. Are you afraid you won’t be able to keep it up — is that the trouble?’
‘Oh, no. I wasn’t thinking of that. I shall go on with it, just the same as before. It’s what I’m most used to. Besides, Father needs my help. He can’t afford a curate, and the work’s got to be done.’
‘Then what’s the matter? Is it the hypocrisy that’s worrying you? Afraid that the consecrated bread might stick in your throat, and so forth? I shouldn’t trouble. Half the parsons’ daughters in England are probably in the same difficulty. And quite nine-tenths of the parsons, I should say.’
‘It’s partly that. I shall have to be always pretending — oh, you can’t imagine in what ways! But that’s not the worst. Perhaps that part of it doesn’t matter, really. Perhaps it’s better to be a hypocrite — THAT kind of hypocrite — than some things.’
‘Why do you say THAT kind of hypocrite? I hope you don’t mean that pretending to believe is the next best thing to believing?’
‘Yes . . . I suppose that’s what I do mean. Perhaps it’s better — less selfish — to pretend one believes even when one doesn’t, than to say openly that one’s an unbeliever and perhaps help turn other people into unbelievers too.’
‘My dear Dorothy,’ said Mr Warburton, ‘your mind, if you’ll excuse my saying so, is in a morbid condition. No, dash it! it’s worse than morbid; it’s downright septic. You’ve a sort of mental gangrene hanging over from your Christian upbringing. You tell me that you’ve got rid of these ridiculous beliefs that were stuffed into you from your cradle upwards, and yet you’re taking an attitude to life which is simply meaningless without those beliefs. Do you call that reasonable?’
‘I don’t know. No perhaps it’s not. But I suppose it’s what comes naturally to me.’
‘What you’re trying to do, apparently,’ pursued Mr Warburton, ‘is to make the worst of both worlds. You stick to the Christian scheme of things, but you leave Paradise out of it. And I suppose, if the truth were known, there are quite a lot of your kind wandering about among the ruins of C. of E. You’re practically a sect in yourselves,’ he added reflectively: ‘the Anglican Atheists. Not a sect I should care to belong to, I must say.’
They talked for a little while longer, but not to much purpose. In reality the whole subject of religious belief and religious doubt was boring and incomprehensible to Mr Warburton. Its only appeal to him was as a pretext for blasphemy. Presently he changed the subject, as though giving up the attempt to understand Dorothy’s outlook.
‘This is nonsense that we’re talking,’ he said. ‘You’ve got hold of some very depressing ideas, but you’ll grow out of them later on, you know. Christianity isn’t really an incurable disease. However, there was something quite different that I was going to say to you. I want you to listen to me for a moment. You’re coming home, after being away eight months, to what I expect you realize is a rather uncomfortable situation. You had a hard enough life before — at least, what I should call a hard life — and now that you aren’t quite such a good Girl Guide as you used to be, it’s going to be a great deal harder. Now, do you think it’s absolutely necessary to go back to it?’
‘But I don’t see what else I can do, unless I could get another job. I’ve really no alternative.’
Mr Warburton, with his head cocked a little on one side, gave Dorothy a rather curious look.
‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, in a more serious tone than usual, ‘there’s at least one other alternative that I could suggest to you.’
‘You mean that I could go on being a schoolmistress? Perhaps that’s what I ought to do, really. I shall come back to it in the end, in any case.’
‘No. I don’t think that’s what I should advise.’
All this time Mr Warburton, unwilling as ever to expose his baldness, had been wearing his rakish, rather broad-brimmed grey felt hat. Now, however, he took it off and laid it carefully on the empty seat beside him. His naked cranium, with only a wisp or two of golden hair lingering in the neighbourhood of the ears, looked like some monstrous pink pearl. Dorothy watched him with a slight surprise.
‘I am taking my hat off,’ he said, ‘in order to let you see me at my very worst. You will understand why in a moment. Now, let me offer you another alternative besides going back to your Girl Guides and your Mothers’ Union, or imprisoning yourself in some dungeon of a girls’ school.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Dorothy.
‘I mean, will you — think well before you answer; I admit there are some very obvious objections, but — will you marry me?’
Dorothy’s lips parted with surprise. Perhaps she turned a little paler. With a hasty, almost unconscious recoil she moved as far away from him as the back of the seat would allow. But he had made no movement towards her. He said with complete equanimity:
‘You know, of course, that Dolores [Dolores was Mr Warburton’s ex- mistress] left me a year ago?’
‘But I can’t, I can’t!’ exclaimed Dorothy. ‘You know I can’t! I’m not — like that. I thought you always knew. I shan’t ever marry.’
Mr Warburton ignored this remark.
‘I grant you,’ he said, still with exemplary calmness, ‘that I don’t exactly come under the heading of eligible young men. I am somewhat older than you. We both seem to be putting our cards on the table today, so I’ll let you into a great secret and tell you that my age is forty-nine. And then I’ve three children and a bad reputation. It’s a marriage that your father would — well, regard with disfavour. And my income is only seven hundred a year. But still, don’t you think it’s worth considering!’
‘I can’t, you know why I can’t!’ repeated Dorothy.
She took it for granted that he ‘knew why she couldn’t’, though she had never explained to him, or to anyone else, why it was impossible for her to marry. Very probably, even if she had explained, he would not have understood her. He went on speaking, not appearing to notice what she had said.
‘Let me put it to you’, he said, ‘in the form of a bargain. Of course, I needn’t tell you that it’s a great deal more than that. I’m not a marrying kind of man, as the saying goes, and I shouldn’t ask you to marry me if you hadn’t a rather special attraction for me. But let me put the business side of it first. You need a home and a livelihood; I need a wife to keep me in order. I’m sick of these disgusting women I’ve spent my life with, if you’ll forgive my mentioning them, and I’m rather anxious to settle down. A bit late in the day, perhaps, but better late than never. Besides, I need somebody to look after the children; the BASTARDS, you know. I don’t expect you to find me overwhelmingly attractive,’ he added, running a hand reflectively over his bald crown, ‘but on the other hand I am very easy to get on with. Immoral people usually are, as a matter of fact. And from your own point of view the scheme would have certain advantages. Why should you spend your life delivering parish magazines and rubbing nasty old women’s legs with Elliman’s embrocation? You would be happier married, even to a husband with a bald head and a clouded past. You’ve had a hard, dull life for a girl of your age, and your future isn’t exactly rosy. Have you really considered what your future will be like if you don’t marry?’
‘I don’t know. I have to some extent,’ she said.
As he had not attempted to lay hands on her or to offer any endearments, she answered his question without repeating her previous refusal. He looked out of the window, and went on in a musing voice, much quieter than his normal tone, so that at first she could barely hear him above the rattle of the train; but presently his voice rose, and took on a note of seriousness that she had never heard in it before, or even imagined that it could hold.
‘Consider what your future would be like,’ he repeated. ‘It’s the same future that lies before any woman of your class with no husband and no money. Let us say your father will live another ten years. By the end of that time the last penny of his money will have gone down the sink. The desire to squander it will keep him alive just as long as it lasts, and probably no longer. All that time he will be growing more senile, more tiresome, more impossible to live with; he will tyrannize over you more and more, keep you shorter and shorter of money, make more and more trouble for you with the neighbours and the tradesmen. And you will go on with that slavish, worrying life that you have lived, struggling to make both ends meet, drilling the Girl Guides, reading novels to the Mothers’ Union, polishing the altar brasses, cadging money for the organ fund, making brown paper jackboots for the schoolchildren’s plays, keeping your end up in the vile little feuds and scandals of the church hen-coop. Year after year, winter and summer, you will bicycle from one reeking cottage to another, to dole out pennies from the poor box and repeat prayers that you don’t even believe in any longer. You will sit through interminable church services which in the end will make you physically sick with their sameness and futility. Every year your life will be a little bleaker, a little fuller of those deadly little jobs that are shoved off on to lonely women. And remember that you won’t always be twenty-eight. All the while you will be fading, withering, until one morning you will look in the glass and realize that you aren’t a girl any longer, only a skinny old maid. You’ll fight against it, of course. You’ll keep your physical energy and your girlish mannerisms — you’ll keep them just a little bit too long. Do you know that type of bright — too bright — spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such a good sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyone feel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis and so handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kind of desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting, and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, year after year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and never realizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor, disappointed old maid? That’s what you’ll become, what you must become, however much you foresee it and try to avoid it. There’s no other future possible to you unless you marry. Women who don’t marry wither up — they wither up like aspidistras in back-parlour windows; and the devilish thing is that they don’t even know that they’re withering.’
Dorothy sat silent and listening with intent and horrified fascination. She did not even notice that he had stood up, with one hand on the door to steady him against the swaying of the train. She was as though hypnotized, not so much by his voice as by the visions that his words had evoked in her. He had described her life, as it must inevitably be, with such dreadful fidelity that he seemed actually to have carried her ten years onward into the menacing future, and she felt herself no longer a girl full of youth and energy, but a desperate, worn virgin of thirty-eight. As he went on he took her hand, which was lying idle on the arm of the seat; and even that she scarcely noticed.
‘After ten years,’ he continued, ‘your father will die, and he will leave you with not a penny, only debts. You will be nearly forty, with no money, no profession, no chance of marrying; just a derelict parson’s daughter like the ten thousand others in England. And after that, what do you suppose will become of you? You will have to find yourself a job — the sort of job that parsons’ daughters get. A nursery governess, for instance, or companion to some diseased hag who will occupy herself in thinking of ways to humiliate you. Or you will go back to school-teaching; English mistress in some grisly girls’ school, seventy-five pounds a year and your keep, and a fortnight in a seaside boarding-house every August. And all the time withering, drying up, growing more sour and more angular and more friendless. And therefore —’
As he said ‘therefore’ he pulled Dorothy to her feet. She made no resistance. His voice had put her under a spell. As her mind took in the prospect of that forbidding future, whose emptiness she was far more able to appreciate than he, such a despair had grown in her that if she had spoken at all it would have been to say, ‘Yes, I will marry you.’ He put his arm very gently about her and drew her a little towards him, and even now she did not attempt to resist. Her eyes, half hypnotized, were fixed upon his. When he put his arm about her it was as though he were protecting her, sheltering her, drawing her away from the brink of grey, deadly poverty and back to the world of friendly and desirable things — to security and ease, to comely houses and good clothes, to books and friends and flowers, to summer days and distant lands. So for nearly a minute the fat, debauched bachelor and the thin, spinsterish girl stood face to face, their eyes meeting, their bodies all but touching, while the train swayed them in its motion, and clouds and telegraph poles and bud-misted hedges and fields green with young wheat raced past unseen.
Mr Warburton tightened his grip and pulled her against him. It broke the spell. The visions that had held her helpless — visions of poverty and of escape from poverty — suddenly vanished and left only a shocked realization of what was happening to her. She was in the arms of a man — a fattish, oldish man! A wave of disgust and deadly fear went through her, and her entrails seemed to shrink and freeze. His thick male body was pressing her backwards and downwards, his large, pink face, smooth, but to her eyes old, was bearing down upon her own. The harsh odour of maleness forced itself into her nostrils. She recoiled. Furry thighs of satyrs! She began to struggle furiously, though indeed he made hardly any effort to retain her, and in a moment she had wrenched herself free and fallen back into her seat, white and trembling. She looked up at him with eyes which, from fear and aversion, were for a moment those of a stranger.
Mr Warburton remained on his feet, regarding her with an expression of resigned, almost amused disappointment. He did not seem in the least distressed. As her calmness returned to her she perceived that all he had said had been no more than a trick to play upon her feelings and cajole her into saying that she would marry him; and what was stranger yet, that he had said it without seriously caring whether she married him or not. He had, in fact, merely been amusing himself. Very probably the whole thing was only another of his periodical attempts to seduce her.
He sat down, but more deliberately than she, taking care of the creases of his trousers as he did so.
‘If you want to pull the communication cord,’ he said mildly, ‘you had better let me make sure that I have five pounds in my pocket- book.’
After that he was quite himself again, or as nearly himself as anyone could possibly be after such a scene, and he went on talking without the smallest symptom of embarrassment. His sense of shame, if he had ever possessed one, had perished many years ago. Perhaps it had been killed by overwork in a lifetime of squalid affairs with women.
For an hour, perhaps, Dorothy was ill at ease, but after that the train reached Ipswich, where it stopped for a quarter of an hour, and there was the diversion of going to the refreshment room for a cup of tea. For the last twenty miles of the journey they talked quite amicably. Mr Warburton did not refer again to his proposal of marriage, but as the train neared Knype Hill he returned, less seriously than before, to the question of Dorothy’s future.
‘So you really propose’, he said ‘to go back to your parish work? “The trivial round, the common task?” Mrs Pither’s rheumatism and Mrs Lewin’s corn-plaster and all the rest of it? The prospect doesn’t dismay you?’
‘I don’t know — sometimes it does. But I expect it’ll be all right once I’m back at work. I’ve got the habit, you see.’
‘And you really feel equal to years of calculated hypocrisy? For that’s what it amounts to, you know. Not afraid of the cat getting out of the bag? Quite sure you won’t find yourself teaching the Sunday School kids to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or reading Gibbon’s fifteenth chapter to the Mothers’ Union instead of Gene Stratton Porter?’
‘I don’t think so. Because, you see, I do feel that that kind of work, even if it means saying prayers that one doesn’t believe in, and even if it means teaching children things that one doesn’t always think are true — I do feel that in a way it’s useful.’
‘Useful?’ said Mr Warburton distastefully. ‘You’re a little too fond of that depressing word “useful”. Hypertrophy of the sense of duty — that’s what’s the matter with you. Now, to me, it seems the merest common sense to have a bit of fun while the going’s good.’
‘That’s just hedonism,’ Dorothy objected.
‘My dear child, can you show me a philosophy of life that isn’t hedonism? Your verminous Christian saints are the biggest hedonists of all. They’re out for an eternity of bliss, whereas we poor sinners don’t hope for more than a few years of it. Ultimately we’re all trying for a bit of fun; but some people take it in such perverted forms. Your notion of fun seems to be massaging Mrs Pither’s legs.’
‘It’s not that exactly, but — oh! somehow I can’t explain!’
What she would have said was that though her faith had left her, she had not changed, could not change, did not want to change, the spiritual background of her mind; that her cosmos, though now it seemed to her empty and meaningless, was still in a sense the Christian cosmos; that the Christian way of life was still the way that must come naturally to her. But she could not put this into words, and felt that if she tried to do so he would probably begin making fun of her. So she concluded lamely:
‘Somehow I feel that it’s better for me to go on as I was before.’
‘EXACTLY the same as before? The whole bill of fare? The Girl Guides, the Mothers’ Union, the Band of Hope, the Companionship of Marriage, parish visiting and Sunday School teaching, Holy Communion twice a week and here we go round the doxology-bush, chanting Gregorian plain-song? You’re quite certain you can manage it?’
Dorothy smiled in spite of herself. ‘Not plain-song. Father doesn’t like it.’
‘And you think that, except for your inner thoughts, your life will be precisely what it was before you lost your faith? There will be NO change in your habits?’
Dorothy thought. Yes, there WOULD be changes in her habits; but most of them would be secret ones. The memory of the disciplinary pin crossed her mind. It had always been a secret from everyone except herself and she decided not to mention it.
‘Well,’ she said finally, ‘perhaps at Holy Communion I shall kneel down on Miss Mayfill’s right instead of on her left.’
A week had gone by.
Dorothy rode up the hill from the town and wheeled her bicycle in at the Rectory gate. It was a fine evening, clear and cold, and the sun, unclouded, was sinking in remote, greenish skies. Dorothy noticed that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotted dark red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound.
She was rather tired. She had had a busy week of it, what with visiting all the women on her list in turn and trying to get the parish affairs into some kind of order again. Everything was in a fearful mess after her absence. The church was dirty beyond all belief — in fact, Dorothy had had to spend the best part of a day cleaning up with scrubbing-brushes, broom and dustpan, and the beds of ‘mouse dirts’ that she had found behind the organ made her wince when she thought of them. (The reason why the mice came there was because Georgie Frew, the organ-blower, WOULD bring penny packets of biscuits into church and eat them during the sermon.) All the Church associations had been neglected, with the result that the Band of Hope and the Companionship of Marriage had now given up the ghost, Sunday School attendance had dropped by half, and there was internecine warfare going on in the Mothers’ Union because of some tactless remark that Miss Foote had made. The belfry was in a worse state than ever. The parish magazine had not been delivered regularly and the money for it had not been collected. None of the accounts of the Church Funds had been properly kept up, and there was nineteen shillings unaccounted for in all, and even the parish registers were in a muddle — and so on and so on, ad infinitum. The Rector had let everything slide.
Dorothy had been up to her eyes in work from the moment of reaching home. Indeed, things had slipped back into their old routine with astonishing swiftness. It was as though it had been only yesterday that she had gone away. Now that the scandal had blown over, her return to Knype Hill had aroused very little curiosity. Some of the women on her visiting list, particularly Mrs Pither, were genuinely glad to see her back, and Victor Stone, perhaps, seemed just a little ashamed of having temporarily believed Mrs Semprill’s libel; but he soon forgot it in recounting to Dorothy his latest triumph in the Church Times. Various of the coffee-ladies, of course, had stopped Dorothy in the street with ‘My dear, how VERY nice to see you back again! You HAVE been away a long time! And you know, dear, we all thought it such a SHAME when that horrible woman was going round telling those stories about you. But I do hope you’ll understand, dear, that whatever anyone else may have thought, I never believed a word of them’, etc., etc., etc. But nobody had asked her the uncomfortable questions that she had been fearing. ‘I’ve been teaching in a school near London’ had satisfied everyone; they had not even asked her the name of the school. Never, she saw, would she have to confess that she had slept in Trafalgar Square and been arrested for begging. The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. The world outside is a terra incognita, inhabited, no doubt, by dragons and anthropophagi, but not particularly interesting.
Even Dorothy’s father had greeted her as though she had only been away for the week-end. He was in his study when she arrived, musingly smoking his pipe in front of the grandfather clock, whose glass, smashed by the charwoman’s broom-handle four months ago, was still unmended. As Dorothy came into the room he took his pipe out of his mouth and put it away in his pocket with an absent-minded, old-mannish movement. He looked a great deal older, Dorothy thought.
‘So here you are at last,’ he said. ‘Did you have a good journey?’
Dorothy put her arms round his neck and touched his silver-pale cheek with her lips. As she disengaged herself he patted her shoulder with a just perceptible trace more affection than usual.
‘What made you take it into your head to run away like that?’ he said.
‘I told you, Father — I lost my memory.’
‘Hm,’ said the Rector; and Dorothy saw that he did not believe her, never would believe her, and that on many and many a future occasion, when he was in a less agreeable mood than at present, that escapade would be brought up against her. ‘Well,’ he added, ‘when you’ve taken your bag upstairs, just bring your typewriter down here, would you? I want you to type out my sermon.’
Not much that was of interest had happened in the town. Ye Olde Tea Shoppe was enlarging its premises, to the further disfigurement of the High Street. Mrs Pither’s rheumatism was better (thanks to the angelica tea, no doubt), but Mr Pither had ‘been under the doctor’ and they were afraid he had stone in the bladder. Mr Blifil-Gordon was now in Parliament, a docile deadhead on the back benches of the Conservative Party. Old Mr Tombs had died just after Christmas, and Miss Foote had taken over seven of his cats and made heroic efforts to find homes for the others. Eva Twiss, the niece of Mr Twiss the ironmonger, had had an illegitimate baby, which had died. Proggett had dug the kitchen garden and sowed a few seeds, and the broad beans and the first peas were just showing. The shop-debts had begun to mount up again after the creditors’ meeting, and there was six pounds owing to Cargill. Victor Stone had had a controversy with Professor Coulton in the Church Times, about the Holy Inquisition, and utterly routed him. Ellen’s eczema had been very bad all the winter. Walph Blifil- Gordon had had two poems accepted by the London Mercury.
Dorothy went into the conservatory. She had got a big job on hand — costumes for a pageant that the schoolchildren were going to have on St George’s Day, in aid of the organ fund. Not a penny had been paid towards the organ during the past eight months, and it was perhaps as well that the Rector always threw the organ-people’s bills away unopened, for their tone was growing more and more sulphurous. Dorothy had racked her brains for a way of raising some money, and finally decided on a historical pageant, beginning with Julius Caesar and ending with the Duke of Wellington. They might raise two pounds by a pageant, she thought — with luck and a fine day, they might even raise three pounds!
She looked round the conservatory. She had hardly been in here since coming home, and evidently nothing had been touched during her absence. Her things were lying just as she had left them; but the dust was thick on everything. Her sewing-machine was on the table amid the old familiar litter of scraps of cloth, sheets of brown paper, cotton-reels and pots of paint, and though the needle had rusted, the thread was still in it. And, yes! there were the jackboots that she had been making the night she went away. She picked one of them up and looked at it. Something stirred in her heart. Yes, say what you like, they WERE good jackboots! What a pity they had never been used! However, they would come in useful for the pageant. For Charles II, perhaps — or, no, better not have Charles II; have Oliver Cromwell instead; because if you had Oliver Cromwell you wouldn’t have to make him a wig.
Dorothy lighted the oilstove, found her scissors and two sheets of brown paper, and sat down. There was a mountain of clothes to be made. Better start off with Julius Caesar’s breastplate, she thought. It was always that wretched armour that made all the trouble! What did a Roman soldier’s armour look like? Dorothy made an effort, and called to mind the statue of some idealized curly-bearded emperor in the Roman Room at the British Museum. You might make a sort of rough breastplate out of glue and brown paper, and glue narrow strips of paper across it to represent the plates of the armour, and then silver them over. No helmet to make, thank goodness! Julius Caesar always wore a laurel wreath — ashamed of his baldness, no doubt, like Mr Warburton. But what about greaves? Did they wear greaves in Julius Caesar’s time? And boots? Was a caligum a boot or a sandal?
After a few moments she stopped with the shears resting on her knee. A thought which had been haunting her like some inexorcizable ghost at every unoccupied moment during the past week had returned once more to distract her. It was the thought of what Mr Warburton had said to her in the train — of what her life was going to be like hereafter, unmarried and without money.
It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future. She could see it all quite clearly before her. Ten years, perhaps, as unsalaried curate, and then back to school- teaching. Not necessarily in quite such a school as Mrs Creevy’s — no doubt she could do something rather better for herself than that — but at least in some more or less shabby, more or less prison-like school; or perhaps in some even bleaker, even less human kind of drudgery. Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women. ‘The Old Maids of Old England’, as somebody called them. She was twenty-eight — just old enough to enter their ranks.
But it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter! That was the thing that you could never drive into the heads of the Mr Warburtons of this world, not if you talked to them for a thousand years; that mere outward things like poverty and drudgery, and even loneliness, don’t matter in themselves. It is the things that happen in your heart that matter. For just a moment — an evil moment — while Mr Warburton was talking to her in the train, she had known the fear of poverty. But she had mastered it; it was not a thing worth worrying about. It was not because of THAT that she had got to stiffen her courage and remake the whole structure of her mind.
No, it was something far more fundamental; it was the deadly emptiness that she had discovered at the heart of things. She thought of how a year ago she had sat in this chair, with these scissors in her hand, doing precisely what she was doing now; and yet it was as though then and now she had been two different beings. Where had she gone, that well-meaning, ridiculous girl who had prayed ecstatically in summer-scented fields and pricked her arm as a punishment for sacrilegious thoughts? And where is any of ourselves of even a year ago? And yet after all — and here lay the trouble — she WAS the same girl. Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.
And given only faith, how can anything else matter? How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand? Your whole life is illumined by the sense of purpose. There is no weariness in your heart, no doubts, no feeling of futility, no Baudelairean ennui waiting for unguarded hours. Every act is significant, every moment sanctified, woven by faith as into a pattern, a fabric of never-ending joy.
She began to meditate upon the nature of life. You emerged from the womb, you lived sixty or seventy years, and then you died and rotted. And in every detail of your life, if no ultimate purpose redeemed it, there was a quality of greyness, of desolation, that could never be described, but which you could feel like a physical pang at your heart. Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful. No use trying to argue it away. Think of life as it really is, think of the DETAILS of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave. Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?
She shifted her position in her chair. But after all there must be SOME meaning, SOME purpose in it all! The world cannot be an accident. Everything that happens must have a cause — ultimately, therefore, a purpose. Since you exist, God must have created you, and since He created you a conscious being, He must be conscious. The greater doesn’t come out of the less. He created you, and He will kill you, for His own purpose. But that purpose is inscrutable. It is in the nature of things that you can never discover it, and perhaps even if you did discover it you would be averse to it. Your life and death, it may be, are a single note in the eternal orchestra that plays for His diversion. And suppose you don’t like the tune? She thought of that dreadful unfrocked clergyman in Trafalgar Square. Had she dreamed the things he said, or had he really said them? ‘Therefore with Demons and Archdemons and with all the company of Hell’. But that was silly, really. For your not liking the tune was also part of the tune.
Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution. There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient to itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of ‘progress’ with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete. It is all or nothing. Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark, and dreadful.
Dorothy started. A frizzling sound was coming from the glue-pot. She had forgotten to put any water in the saucepan, and the glue was beginning to burn. She took the saucepan, hastened to the scullery sink to replenish it, then brought it back and put it on the oilstove again. I simply MUST get that breastplate done before supper! she thought. After Julius Caesar there was William the Conqueror to be thought of. More armour! And presently she must go along to the kitchen and remind Ellen to boil some potatoes to go with the minced beef for supper; also there was her ‘memo list’ to be written out for tomorrow. She shaped the two halves of the breastplate, cut out the armholes and neckholes, and then stopped again.
Where had she got to? She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything. Well, what then?
The action of going to the scullery and refilling the saucepan had changed the tenor of her thoughts. She perceived, for a moment at least, that she had allowed herself to fall into exaggeration and self-pity. What a fuss about nothing, after all! As though in reality there were not people beyond number in the same case as herself! All over the world, thousands, millions of them; people who had lost their faith without losing their need of faith. ‘Half the parsons’ daughters in England,’ Mr Warburton had said. He was probably right. And not only parsons’ daughters; people of every description — people in illness and loneliness and failure, people leading thwarted, discouraging lives — people who needed faith to support them, and who hadn’t got it. Perhaps even nuns in convents, scrubbing floors and singing Ave Marias, secretly unbelieving.
And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of — to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue!
And yet —!
Dorothy had put down her scissors. Almost from force of habit, as though her return home, which had not restored her faith, had restored the outward habits of piety, she knelt down beside her chair. She buried her face in her hands. She began to pray.
‘Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief. Lord, I believe, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.’
It was useless, absolutely useless. Even as she spoke the words she was aware of their uselessness, and was half ashamed of her action. She raised her head. And at that moment there stole into her nostrils a warm, evil smell, forgotten these eight months but unutterably familiar — the smell of glue. The water in the saucepan was bubbling noisily. Dorothy jumped to her feet and felt the handle of the glue-brush. The glue was softening — would be liquid in another five minutes.
The grandfather clock in her father’s study struck six. Dorothy started. She realized that she had wasted twenty minutes, and her conscience stabbed her so hard that all the questions that had been worrying her fled out of her mind. What on earth have I been doing all this time? she thought; and at that moment it really seemed to her that she did not know what she had been doing. She admonished herself. Come on, Dorothy! No slacking, please! You’ve got to get that breastplate done before supper. She sat down, filled her mouth with pins and began pinning the two halves of the breastplate together, to get it into shape before the glue should be ready.
The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer. She did not know this. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.
There was still a minute or two before the glue would be ready to use. Dorothy finished pinning the breastplate together, and in the same instant began mentally sketching the innumerable costumes that were yet to be made. After William the Conqueror — was it chain mail in William the Conqueror’s day? — there were Robin Hood — Lincoln Green and a bow and arrow — and Thomas a Becket in his cope and mitre, and Queen Elizabeth’s ruff, and a cocked hat for the Duke of Wellington. And I must go and see about those potatoes at half past six, she thought. And there was her ‘memo list’ to be written out for tomorrow. Tomorrow was Wednesday — mustn’t forget to set the alarm clock for half past five. She took a slip of paper and began writing out the ‘memo list’:
7 oc. H.C.
Mrs J. baby next month go and see her.
She paused to think of fresh items. Mrs J. was Mrs Jowett, the blacksmith’s wife; she came sometimes to be churched after her babies were born, but only if you coaxed her tactfully beforehand. And I must take old Mrs Frew some paregoric lozenges, Dorothy thought, and then perhaps she’ll speak to Georgie and stop him eating those biscuits during the sermon. She added Mrs Frew to her list. And then what about tomorrow’s dinner — luncheon? We simply MUST pay Cargill something! she thought. And tomorrow was the day of the Mothers’ Union tea, and they had finished the novel that Miss Foote had been reading to them. The question was, what to get for them next? There didn’t seem to be any more books by Gene Stratton Porter, their favourite. What about Warwick Deeping? Too highbrow, perhaps? And I must ask Proggett to get us some young cauliflowers to plant out, she thought finally.
The glue had liquefied. Dorothy took two fresh sheets of brown paper, sliced them into narrow strips, and — rather awkwardly, because of the difficulty of keeping the breastplate convex — pasted the strips horizontally across it, back and front. By degrees it stiffened under her hands. When she had reinforced it all over she set it on end to look at it. It really wasn’t half bad! One more coating of paper and it would be almost like real armour. We MUST make that pageant a success! she thought. What a pity we can’t borrow a horse from somebody and have Boadicea in her chariot! We might make five pounds if we had a really good chariot, with scythes on the wheels. And what about Hengist and Horsa? Cross- gartering and winged helmets. Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating. The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind. It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the glue-pot.
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53