Thunder On The Left - Part 10

Part 10

"No," she said pitifully. "Oh, George, George, I don't know about these things."

"You said, 'Perhaps that's what I like about it''."

She clung to him in a kind of terror.

"I don't know whether I said that. George . . . don't let's be like other people. Does it matter?"

They stood together and the crickets shouted, rattled tiny feet of approval on the floor of the dunes like a galleiy of young Sh.e.l.leys. The whole night was one immense rhythm; up the gully from the beach came a slow vibration of surf. She was weak with the question in her blood, her knees felt empty. Perhaps that's where your morality is kept, in the knees, she thought. She slipped her arms under his coat, round the hard strong case of his ribs, to keep from tottering. The tobacco smell of his lapel was infinitely precious and pathetic.

"How do I know what matters?" he whispered. "We can wait and see. If it's important, the time will come. But I want you to know, my love for you is complete. It wants everything. Can't you hear the whole world singing it? Everything, everything, everything."

"I don't like the crickets. They're trying to get us into trouble."

Everything is so queer this evening, she thought. How did all this happen? I'm frightened.

"We've always been different from other people," she said. "We're absurd and pitiful and impossible.

Don't let's spoil it, let's just be us."

His arms held her more gently. For love is beyond mere desire: it is utter tenderness and pity. Sing, world, sing: here are your children caught in the chorus of that old, old music; here are Food and Hunger that meet only to cancel and expire. Here, cries Nature in her deepest diapason, here are my bread and wine. Too great to be accused of blasphemy, she shames not to borrow the words of man's n.o.blest fancy. Take, eat, she cries to the famished. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And her children, conscious of lowly birth, can rise to denials her old easy breast never dreamed.

"George," said Joyce quickly, "is any one watching . . . listening to us? I've had the strangest feeling. As though someone was trying to tell me something, calling me.""A singing in your nose, perhaps."

"No, but really."

"I've been trying to tell you something."

"Where did Mr. Martin go? Wasn't he there?"

"I didn't see him."

They turned toward the house. Its dark shadow hung over them, clear, impalpable, black as charcoal.

They felt purified by mutual confession and charity.

"I think it was the house listening to us," she said. "Why am I so happy?"

He knew that he loved her. It was not l.u.s.t, for though he desired her and a thousand times had had her in his heart, yet he shrank from possession, fearing it might satiate this pa.s.sion that was so dear. So it was a fool's love: perhaps a coward's, since to be taken is every woman's need. But who shall say? Life is a foreign language: all men misp.r.o.nounce it.

He loved her, for he saw the spirit of life in her. He loved her as a dream, as something he himself had created, as someone who had helped to create part of him. He loved her because it was secret, hopeless, impossible. He had loved her because he could not have her: and now she was here for his arms. The Dipper and the wind in the pine trees said, Poor fool, if you want her, take her. The black flap in the sky, where the starry pinning has fallen out (it opens into the law of gravity) said, It concerns only yourselves, no one will know. The tide and the whistling sand dunes said, She's yours already.

From the sleeping porch over their heads he heard one of the children cough.

"George," she whispered, "I'll do whatever you tell me."

He turned to her. "I'd like to see any one laugh at locksmiths."


They were entrenched in a little fortress of light. The tall silk-shaded lamp made the living hall an orange glow, an argument against silver chaos veined with brute nothing. The clock, the clock, the clock, measured itself against the infidel crickets. Phyllis, in a corner of the big sofa, was in the centre of that protecting glitter. She was panoplied in light: it poured upon the curve of her nape, sparkled in the bronze crisp of her hair, brimmed over the soft bend of her neck and ran deep down into the valley of her bosom. It rippled in scarps and crumples of her shining dress, struck in through the gauzy chiffon, lay in flakes on the underskirt, gilded the long slope of her stockings like the colour of dawn on snow. She could feel it, warm and defiant, wrapping her close, holding her together. Even her bright body, in such fragile garb, was hardly dark.

But the reality was still that pale emptiness outside. Where she sat she could see, beyond the dining room and the high rectangle of French windows, a pure shimmer of white night. Down the broad open well of the stair the same tender void came drifting, floating, sinking. Summer night cannot be shut out: it is heavier than thin lamp-shine, it spreads along the floor, gathers beneath chairs, crowds up behind pictures, makes treacherous friendship with the gallant little red-headed bulbs.

She felt soft and ill. She felt her pliant body settling deeper into the thick cushion, her hands weighing inert upon her lap. She wished Ben and Ruth could be restful for a moment. Ruth was flitting about, looking at the furniture; Ben, though sitting quietly, kept blowing cigar smoke in a kind of rhythmical indignation. She could see his mind toiling, so plainly that she would not have been surprised to read words written in his spouts of smoke, as in the balloon issuing from the mouth of a comic drawing. If Mr. Martin would only say something. He had just come in from the garden, without a word, and sat expectantly at the foot of the stairs. He was outside the circle of light, she could not see him clearly, but he seemed to be looking at her with inquiry or reproach. For being such a dull hostess, probably.

But speech was impossible. Now, with eyes widened by terror and yearning, she was almost aware of the sleepy world that lies beneath the mind's restless flit: the slow cruel world, without conscience, that the artist never quite forgets. In the glare of the lamp the room burned with subordinate life: the grainy wood of the furniture, the nap of the rug, the weave of the sofa, were fibred with obstinate essence.

Being was in them as in her, went on and on. It seemed as though one sudden push, if it could be made, might break through the fog of daily bickerings and foresights and adjustments, into that radiant untroubled calm. But conscious life tends to take the level of the lowest present: with Ruth and Ben and even the house itself steadfast against her, how could she speak out? The darkness that, outdoors, had been sweet privacy, was here obverted into secrecy: secrecy lay under the chairs, behind the doors, between the ticks of the clock. She had settled this room, only a few hours before, with so much care - dusting, arranging; everything in its accustomed pose. Now it was too strong for her, and every pattern in it ran with shouts of taunting laughter. . . . It was just like George to linger in the garden, leaving her alone to "entertain" these guests.

Then she was aware that someone had spoken. She had not caught the words, but the sound poised in her mind. It was a pleasant sound, it must have been Mr. Martin. Perhaps she would go through all the rest of her life without knowing what he had said. Yet it might have been a cry for help. You never know, she thought, when people may leave off pretending and lay their heads on your breast. What a silly way to put it: lay their head - his head - on your b.r.e.a.s.t.s; because you have only one head and two b.r.e.a.s.t.s.

Perhaps that's why the insects make such an uproar, shrilling sour grapes. They're jealous because they're not mammals. . . .

"He went back to the stable to get my scarf.""I hope they won't catch cold," said Phyllis. "It's so much cooler tonight."

"You oughtn't to kiss people when you have a cold," said Martin.

This, Phyllis supposed, was a little reckless aside for her alone. She felt a bright seed of anger in her; it was sprouting, climbing up the trellis of her nerves. She had a fine fertility for anger; her mind was shallow soil as its bottom had never been spaded: such seeds could not root deeply and slowly, so they shot upward in brilliant quick-withering flower. The rising warmth medicined her empty sickness. He was cruel, but she loved him for it and could have prostrated herself at his feet. What right had he to be so untouched, so happy and certain and sure? His mind was one, not broken up into competing yearnings.

"Compet.i.tion is the life of trade," she said.

Looking up, she wondered if she had said something accidentally witty. From the other side of the room Ruth was regarding her strangely. Beyond Ruth, black against the blanched evening, were George and Joyce on the veranda steps. . . . Oh, so that was what Martin had meant?

Ben's face was so perplexed and bored, she took pity on him.

"What would you people like to do? Play cards? We can't dance, there isn't any music."

Ruth was quite content not to dance; she suspected she would have had to take Ben as a partner. "Ben's favourite game is Twenty Questions," she said.

"Gracious, I haven't played that in ages. It'll be rather fun. Here come the others, let's do it."

George seemed almost like a stranger, Phyllis thought. She had an impish desire to ask to be introduced.

It amused her to think that any one should want to kiss him.

"What a gorgeous night." He spoke loudly, rather as if someone might contradict. "Here's your scarf," he added, almost roughly, holding it out to Joyce. Then he remembered, and gave it to Ruth.

"How funny you are," said Martin. "You made the same mistake again."

"Thank you so much," Ruth said. "I'm sorry you had such a long hunt for it."

Joyce crossed the room in silence. Ruth's eyes followed her, and it was in Ruth's face that Phyllis first saw Joyce was beautiful. She brought some of the moonlight with her. No man can ever admire a woman's loveliness as justly as another woman, for he rarely understands how her fluctuating charm depends on the hazard of the instant. Something had happened to make Joyce beautiful, and Phyllis was surprised by an immense compa.s.sion. This creature too was lonely, had her bewildered tumult in the blood, was defenceless and doomed. Ruth's watchful eyes, unseen by Joyce, were asking her whether she had anything to say for herself, anything that could be used against her. And Ruth (Phyllis could see) was as outraged by Joyce mute as she would have been at anything she said.

Joyce was helpless: helpless, because she was happy; helpless, for she had brought no words with her.

She had brought only moonlight and it was declared contraband. In the instant that the girl hesitated in the choice of a seat, Phyllis knew that she could have loved her, they could have come together in a miracle of understanding, but Ruth had made it impossible. Ruth, the comely fidget, who would never know the stroke of any grievance greater than her own jealous mischiefs. What could Ruth know of the great purifying pa.s.sions, who had always forestalled them by yielding to the pettiest? The seedling anger in Phyllis's heart, sensitively questing an object, swayed outward as a young vine leans toward sun. She would not think of the Brooks again as Ben and Ruth. They were Ruth and Ben. She knew now why Ben peeped so warily from behind a rampart of sedentary filing cabinets. His soul lurked behind the greatestof hiding places, a huge office building.

With a swift impulse she reached out, beckoning to a place beside her on the sofa. Joyce's hand was cold and seemed surprised. The two hands, like casual acquaintances meeting by accident, lingered together wondering how to escape politely. Phyllis realized it was not a success. She leaned forward to speak brightly to George, so that her fingers might seem to slip free unawares.

"We're going to play Twenty Questions."

"Fine!" said George. This, he thought, would prevent general conversation, the one thing most to be feared.

"Ben, you go out," Phyllis suggested. Ben deserved some amus.e.m.e.nt, he had been rather patient in the middle of this silent turmoil.

"Let Ruth," said Ben. "She's clever at guessing things."

"No, Ben, you," Ruth said definitely. She was having too good a time guessing as she was.

From the sofa Joyce could see into the little dark sitting room - her room: her only retreat. It drew her strongly. The frame of the window opened into moonlight and a queer twist of shadows. If only she could go in there, get away. Here, under the lamp, everything was too full of dangerous artifice. The light held everything together tightly, in a bursting tension. No one could say anything for fear it would have a double meaning. One meaning at a time was burden enough.

Was there anything queer about that little room? Mr. Martin, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, was close to the door: he was looking there too. In the back of her mind she remembered that she had started to say something to him in the garden; or he to her, she was not certain which; but something had been left unfinished. George was watching her, watching her; she could feel it, and needed to escape into herself.

How could she escape? He knew all about her now, she found him round the remotest corners of her mind. No, no, there were lovely things about her that he did not guess. If she could be alone for a few minutes she could find out what they were. . . . So this was love, this dreadful weakness. It ought to be so easy; free and easy, that gay old phrase; and the taut web of human nerves frustrated it. Beside her, in a glitter of light, Phyllis shone mysteriously. The touch of that warm hand had shocked Joyce. She knew now that they could never be at peace together.

"I'll go," she said suddenly.

Phyllis, still leaning forward, was listening.

"Was that one of the children?"

As Joyce rose, getting up with difficulty from the deep settee, Martin closed the sitting-room door with a quick push. Why did he do that? Now it would seem rude to go in there. George, whose ear was c.o.c.ked toward upstairs, looked angrily at him.

"I didn't hear anything. You've got the children on the brain, Phyl." "

"I'll go on the veranda while you think of something," Joyce said.

It was amusing to see how eagerly they all turned to the old almost forgotten pastime. She heard them mumbling together while they concerted their choice. They were like savages at a campfire, rehearsing some cheerful ceremonial to dispel sorcery. The bare mahogany of the dining table was glossed with panels of dim colour. This led her eyes upward to the red and blue window. It reminded her distantly ofsome poem, some perfect enchantment that mocked the poor futility of her own obsession. That most magic outcry of unreflecting love, from the most wretched of lovers: the eternal collision between life as dreamed and life as encountered.

There was a burst of laughter.

"She'll never guess that," she heard Ruth saying.

"All ready," George called.

"There are five of us, you can go round four times. You must ask questions that can be answered by Yes or No."

She began in the traditional way.

"Is it animal?"

"No," said Ruth.

"Is it vegetable?"

"Yes," said Phyllis.

"Is it in this room?"

"Yes," said Ben.

The part of her that was asking questions seemed separate from her racing undertow of feeling. She was the frightened child who was shy about games because she was always playing and watching simultaneously. What should she ask? It was vegetable and in the room. She had a preposterous eagerness to say something wildly absurd, she was weary of telling lies. If it had been Animal, she might have said "Is it George's love for me?" Their faces would have been comic. But it was Vegetable. . . . My vegetable love shall grow Vaster than empires and more slow . . .' but if I quote that it will have to be explained. Why do poems insist on coming into the mind at instants of trouble?

"Is it Mr. Brook's cigar?"

"No," said George.

"Is it a.s.sociated with some person in this room?"

"Yes," said Martin. A little self-consciously, she thought.

"Look here," George interrupted. "That answer of Phyl's wasn't quite right. Is it fair to say it's vegetable?"

"It was vegetable, vegetable in origin," Phyllis protested.

"Yes, but in a way it's animal too. It's becoming animal."

"Is it - any one's affection for any one else?" Joyce demanded promptly.

"No," said Ruth, amid general laughter.

"The difficulty with this game," said Phyllis, "is that there are so many questions you can't answer just Yes or No.""That's why it's a good game," said George. "It's like life."

Joyce tried to recapitulate. It was in this room, a.s.sociated with a person, it was vegetable in origin but becoming animal . . . but how absurd.

Perhaps they mean becoming to an animal, she thought.

"Is it Mrs. Granville's silver dress?"


"Is it anything to wear?"


"Is it a.s.sociated with a man or a woman?'"

"I can't answer that Yes or No," said George.

"Well, with a man?"


"Is it something I can see now?" she asked, looking directly at him.