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Authors: John Cowper Powys

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BOOK: After My Fashion
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The point was: did she, in spite of appearances, love the fellow? If so – and it seemed likely enough – there was nothing for him to do but clear off elsewhere. The idea of settling down to write poetry
in the neighbourhood of this happy domestic arrangement didn't appeal to him. His attraction to Nelly had gone a little too far for that Confound it all! What a thing life was. The day before yesterday – even yesterday – he had felt that his great new idea, that high mystical doctrine which had gathered in his mind, was the one important thing in existence. Nelly's white fragile face and fair silken hair were only traceries upon the tapestry, no more really essential to him than were the green hieroglyphs at the back of the hair-streak's wings.

But since he had last seen her, at the lodge gate of the close, ‘the perfume and suppliance' of her personality had been growing steadily upon him, gathering importance, insinuating themselves into his deeper consciousness.

A horrid thought, black for him as the sooty wings of the rooks he now saw crossing the skyline, flapped down into his mind, trying to find lodgement; the thought, namely, that it might be the fair thing, the honest thing, the kind thing, just to clear off and leave the field quite free for Canyot ‘to bustle in'.
Are there any men, he
asked himself,
really so noble and unselfish that when they see that
their presence has caused trouble to any human circle, and is likely
to cause more, they just move off, say goodbye, clear out?
Yes! he supposed there were such people. He sighed heavily. And how often do such heroic renunciations only cause greater unhappiness in the end? What a world!

His meditations were interrupted by the old naturalist's giving vent to a tremendous snore, loud as the snort of a slumbrous buffalo.

Exhausted with his ardent cicerone work among the dead forms of those filmy winged people of the air, the vicar had fallen asleep.

A desperate desire for tea awoke in the heart of Richard Storm. It occurred to him very strongly that a considerable portion of his present depression arose from the absence of this beverage. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past five. Tea I must and will have, ‘he said firmly to himself,' but heaven knows how I'm going to get it! I can't quite shake the old fellow by the shoulder and bawl in his ears, “Get me some tea!” and I know by instinct there isn't a female in the house.' He stared at the sleeper. The great Schopenhauer-like head looked very noble in its weary passivity.

No! No
, he thought,
I can't disturb an old man's dreams to
satisfy my incorrigible tea-lust. I'll try the farm. If they can put up
with Canyot, they can put up with me. I'll try anyhow

With these intentions he went very softly to the door, opened it, let himself out, passed through the hallway on tiptoe, and emerged into the garden.


Storm strode quickly across the intervening village green and knocked at the door of the farm. It was a tumbledown, ramshackle old place, with pigs and fowls and ducks and geese wandering about, where beds of trim flowers might well have been.

But Mrs Winsome, the farmer's wife, although the grimmest of women, seemed quite pleased to welcome him.

‘Tea? Certainly, sir! Friend of Mr Canyot's? There's been a telegram for him since early this morning. The boy brought it from Selshurst. Please to come in and excuse everything! Please to sit down. Kettle's on the boil. Won't keep you long.'

The hard-featured woman did not keep him long. Indeed, before five minutes had elapsed from his entering her parlour, he was seated before a charming tea tray pouring out for himself cup after cup of the divine nectar.

After the first three cups and the first three pieces of home-made bread and butter, Mr Richard Storm regarded the universe in quite a different manner. He no longer felt the least inclination to be unselfish and leave the field to his rival. He felt inspirited and adventurous, ready to deal with many Mr Canyots. He felt that if he could see Nelly Moreton once more, have her to himself for one long afternoon in these enchanting lanes and fields, he would be able to snatch her out of all her past.

As for the ‘what next?' which naturally must follow this soul snatching, he did not at that hour, so irresponsible were the pleasant fumes of Mrs Winsome's tea, give a thought to the matter.

It was so lovely just to feel oneself growing young again, to feel all those vague sweet delicious tremors one feared were quite irrecoverable, once more thrilling one's nerves, that any cold-blooded virtuous interrogations as to ‘what would come of it all' seemed most singularly irrelevant.

He found himself, in place of any serious thought, just building up fantastic childish castles in the air. Why shouldn't he, just as well as this sulky young painter, take a house in this charming spot,
marry Nell out of hand, and support the old man for his remaining days?


Having liberally compensated the grim lady of Wind Shuttle Farm for her excellent entertainment and watched her shaking the tablecloth to the ducks and the geese and the chickens, Richard, after a hurried glance towards church and vicarage, started to make his way back to Selshurst.

‘Never rush things!' he said to himself. ‘Women don't like to be greeted by their male friends when they come back tired to their domestic hearths. They prefer the position of defence, of being prepared on their own ground. Above all never take women by surprise – except when a traitor within the gates beckons to you over the wall!'

Fortifying himself with these maxims, for Richard was a veritable Rochefoucauld, as far as theory was concerned, he swung along the road to the old city in high and boyish spirits.

He was about two miles from Selshurst when he heard behind the sound of one running.

At first he thought it might be a runaway horse or cow, but before the runner came in sight he recognized the steps of a man and of a man in athletic condition.

he thought to himself.
It can't be the old gentleman?
Who can it be?

His suspense was not very pleasantly ended by the appearance of Robert Canyot.

The young painter pulled up breathless, and saluted him with a couple of gasped-out words of greeting.

‘Going to Selshurst?' he panted, wiping his forehead. ‘That's where I'm going.'

‘So I see,' said Richard drily, ‘and going at a good pace.'

‘To the hospital,' added the runner.

Storm clutched his arm. ‘Nothing wrong at Littlegate, I hope?'

‘Nothing that I know of. It's my mother – an accident – at least I'm afraid so. Shall know soon.'

Somehow it gave Richard a most curious feeling to think of this troublesome youth possessed of a mother – and a mother who'd had an accident.

From being an irritating automaton to be kicked out of the way,
he suddenly became a human person with a skin that could be pricked, with flesh that could bleed.

‘Oh I am so very sorry!' he murmured sympathetically. ‘I hope it's nothing serious – but of course, as you say, you don't know. Have you only just heard by wire or something?'

‘Walk a little faster, do you mind?' was the youth's response.

Richard quickened his pace. ‘I can run with you for a bit if you like,' he said.

‘No! No! Get my breath. Can't go it like that all the way. Make no difference.'

‘Does your mother live in this neighbourhood?' inquired the older man as they strode along side by side.

‘Here?' Oh no! London. Maida Vale. That's what the paper said. That's what's made me afraid it is her.'

And the youth explained briefly to his companion by what chance he had learned of the accident.

Richard insisted upon falling into a dog-trot with him; and thus they soon arrived at the outskirts of the town. ‘May I come with you to the hospital?' he asked panting, when they had secured directions as to its whereabouts. ‘I don't want to be a nuisance or to intrude – but I might be of service – one never can tell.'

Canyot expressed himself as grateful for the offer; and a little later they mounted side by side the steps of the quiet, unprofessional-looking building where Selshurst tended its sick.

A short hurried interview at the office in the hallway satisfied the young man that it really was his mother who had met with the injury.

‘I'll wait for you here,' said Richard, noticing with sympathetic alarm that the boy's face had grown suddenly white when he had finished his interview and obtained permission to see the patient.

Canyot nodded to him in a dazed sort of way, and accompanied by a stolid attendant disappeared in the lift.

The writer sank down on a bench in the lobby and fell into nervous and troubled thought.

From the interior of the newly painted lift, as it carried the youth out of his sight, had been wafted that well-known smell of ether, reminding him painfully of old wartime tragedies.

The coming and going of uniformed nurses, scared white-faced visitors, silent impassive officials, deepened his sense of depression and gloom.

All his recent irresponsibility left him, like something shallow and out of place, and the time-old weight of humanity's bitter lot upon earth laid its burden upon him.

He realized then clearly enough where it was that he had failed hitherto in his attempts after a more enduring poetic method. He had contented himself with isolated ‘occasional' poems; forgetting that it is only in a certain accumulated weight of human vision, carried steadily on in a premeditated direction, that any value beyond mere nuances of technique is attained.

And as he sat waiting, full of genuine anxiety as to what the young man might be finding up there in some bare cabin of that great ship of human wreckage, it came vividly upon him that he could never fight quite freely, quite unscrupulously for his own hand and his own pleasure, in a world where all men are bitten by the same adder's tooth.

He made no vow, he registered no purpose, but he made a note of the fact that in a place like this those were lucky, both among such as suffered and such as served, who had hands tolerably clean of their fellows' blood; blood that needed no outward sign of its shedding!

He kept his eye on that fatal lift as it went up and down, the very look of its white paint suggestive of the smell of disaster; and his heart beat a little each time it discharged any person not in hospital dress.

He could not help being thankful that he himself had neither parent nor child – those all too fragile links in the great chain of the world's suffering!


At last the figure Storm looked for did actually appear.

He knew at once from the way the boy approached him that his mother was dead. Two great strands of his tow-coloured hair hung limp over his forehead. His cheeks were tear-stained. His mouth twitched.

He sat down on the bench by Richard's side without a word and stared straight in front of him, his solitary hand resting upon his knee.

Richard in the helplessness of an outsider touched this great fist and closed his fingers over it.

‘I am sorry,' he said. ‘I'm afraid things are bad.'

‘She's gone,' the boy muttered without moving a muscle.

‘Did she know you?' asked Richard.

The young man choked and bit his lip to keep down his sobs. With a fierce effort, shaking his heavy head like a bewildered animal, he turned and looked at the writer, great globular tears running down his cheeks and falling upon the collar of his coat.

Yes! she knew me. They say it was a miracle. She
let herself go till I'd come to her. She came down to bring me something; she thought it was fame for me at last; an exhibition in New York – a silly invitation. It was just like her to want to bring it to me herself. But what's the damned thing to me now?'

He made an effort to smile and the contortion of his queer corrugated countenance was piteous. ‘Oh mother!' he cried stretching his one arm straight out in front of him with the fingers clenched. Then he pulled himself gallantly together and looked quietly and directly into his companion's face. ‘You must excuse me,' he said. She was awfully fond of me. She had no one else.'

A hospital nurse with a kind nun-like face approached them. ‘We're ready for you,' she said with a sort of wan smile that seemed to Richard as if it were the final indictment of a grief-exhausted planet, addressed to the Unknown.

The youth moved away with her and then suddenly turned and came back.

‘Thank you very much,' he said, holding out his hand.

The sudden catastrophe that had overtaken Mr Canyot produced many drastic effects upon the lives of those whom destiny had entangled with his life.

Soon after his departure to London to superintend his mother's funeral and to settle his business matters and the disposal of the poor lady's small possessions, Richard received a surprising letter from him, addressed to the Crown Inn.

‘Dear Mr Storm,' the letter ran. ‘It may seem to you a laughable thing that I should write like this, but I want you to feel quite free as far as I am concerned. You well know what I mean by free. I've written to Miss Moreton, sending back certain little things she'd given me, and have asked her to do the same. It is not your fault that you've come between us. It has just happened so. I am writing to you like this because Miss Moreton seems for some reason reluctant to return me what I asked for and I attribute her reluctance to pity. She
me. This I cannot endure. I will not be the person to take advantage of a great loss to soften a girl's heart where it really belongs to someone else. I shall come down and say goodbye before I start for America; by which time she will have to choose definitely between us. But I did not wish, especially after your kindness to me at the hospital to leave you with the feeling that you also, out of pity, must leave things as they were. I don't want pity from anybody. I don't want to bind anybody. I've lived till now for my work; and I can continue to do so. If however, by any chance in which I
believe, you are trifling with Nelly, you may count on it you will have me to deal with. She has no mother and you have seen what her father is like. But I won't have our engagement kept on out of pity. I won't have it! Yours, with gratitude for your kindness, Robert Canyot.'

There was a postscript appended to this letter which read as follows:

‘You'd better use my rooms at Mrs Winsome's. I've paid in advance up to August. Board included.'

This singular epistle, and especially the postscript to it, gave Richard Storm an extremely uncomfortable day. He had well understood Nelly's shyness about going up to Mrs Canyot's funeral and was not surprised when in the end she had not gone. But since that decision of hers he
made few efforts to see her, and moreover when they
met, both of them had been so nervous and ill at ease that it had been impossible to talk with any kind of intimacy.


Richard took Canyot's letter with him into the cathedral close and pondered long and wretchedly over it.

The situation was certainly an awkward one. What an extraordinary letter! No – he wasn't conscious of ‘trifling' with Nelly Moreton. What the devil
this ‘trifling'? But on the other hand
he certainly did not feel committed, or as if he were involved with her in any irrevocable way. What a blundering, clumsy, roughshod fellow this Robert was! He felt a very decided anger against him. It was so childish – so ridiculous. Was the boy entirely ignorant of the ways of the world? Or was he, Richard, out of touch with the habits and manners of the middle classes in England?

He fumbled in his memory among his early impressions and ran over hurriedly the English novels he had read since. Did they do this kind of thing in this provincial island? Or had the war produced a new England with queer new customs? The boy wrote to him as if he were his superior officer warning him not to seduce some maiden of a conquered country! It seemed an incredible letter from one artist to another artist, from one nomadic Bohemian to another nomadic Bohemian.

Wasn't one free to strike up a casual friendship with a charming girl without bringing down upon one the wrath of a furious fiancé?

Return her little gifts to her? Confound the fellow! If he were as touchy and jealous as all that, the child was indeed well rid of him.

But had they quarrelled? That was the point he wanted enlightenment upon. And if they had, had they quarrelled about
? But if they
quarrelled, because the girl had talked to him and seemed to like him, how did he know that she wished to have her engagement broken off on such ridiculous grounds?

She might be thoroughly in love with Canyot still and just hurt in her pride by his hot-headed silly violence. She might even be putting it all down to his upset nerves, to his grief for his mother. It looked as if she cared for him still – her reluctance to send back his ring. But it might also be a very natural refusal to be jostled and hurried and bullied at a moment's notice.

Choose definitely between us!
the fellow said. Never had such rough, boorish, crude, impolite usage been applied to a young woman! They would be lucky if she didn't whistle them both down the wind!

The whole thing was particularly annoying. Little had he expected that before he had been in England a fortnight he would receive a threatening letter handing over into his keeping an unprotected female!

This letter of Canyot's putting the matter so bluntly and grossly
broke up like a bombshell the delicate sentimental dreamings he had begun to weave around the girl. It drove him to drastic issues and decisions; and he wasn't at all ready for drastic issues and decisions. Nor was Miss Moreton ready for such things; he felt sure of that. The more he thought of it all the more angry he became with Canyot. Hot-headed conceited young prig! Because he had lost his mother did he think he could dictate their behaviour to half the world? It was extraordinarily annoying. It put both himself and Miss Moreton into such an absurd position. It made the girl look ridiculous and it made himself seem an ill-bred lunatic who had paid court to another man's sweetheart before he had been two hours in her company.

For, after all, what had Canyot to go upon? Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. He had not been alone with Nelly for a minute except those hours in the canon's garden and the cathedral – except their encounter in the little church.

Was England so queer a place that one couldn't talk to a girl for three-quarters of an hour without having her flung at one's head?

She must have had an awful quarrel with the boy; there could be no mistake about that! But surely, surely, she couldn't have told Canyot that she had ceased to care for him and had begun to care for
– a man she'd only just seen for the second time! It was unthinkable that she should have forgotten all modesty and decency to an extent as fantastic as that. The whole thing was Canyot's damned hot-headed blundering jealousy. If he'd been a Frenchman he would no doubt have challenged him to a duel. The stupid ass! And then this postscript about the room at the farm … It was all so extremely laughable that it was difficult to take it seriously. That girl, who was a thoroughly sensible girl, showed clearly enough that she didn't take it seriously by refusing to send him back his gifts.

She must be furiously angry with him though, if he had written to her in the style he had used to him!

Thus, with the surface of his mind, as if before a jury of people of the world, did Richard pour righteous oil upon his embarrassment.

In that deeper, subtler portion of his being, the part of him that did not condescend to use reason or logic, he was less sure, far less sure, of his position. Down in
depths, without any words, some honest cynical demon told him that Canyot was fatally near
the truth. Of course there
been, directly he and Nelly met, and every second they were together, a thrilling vivid undercurrent of sympathy, of understanding. Canyot would have been a very insensitive lover if he hadn't sensed that. He would have been a fool if he hadn't seen it. No doubt he saw things in her expressions, in her tones, in her gestures, that made him know, with the breath of fate itself, that his hour was ended.

No doubt he had challenged her – and, poor innocent inexperienced thing as she was, she had not been able convincingly to meet his challenge. Without meaning to do so, teased and persecuted in his bullying, she had betrayed herself to him. This subtler voice, among Richard's interior demons, was supported in its conclusions by his vanity.

It was as agreeable as it was touching: to think of a sweet young creature like this being driven into a corner till she admitted being more than a little interested in Mr Richard Storm!

Finally, as he rose from his seat under the lime trees, crushing Canyot's letter into his pocket the better, more normal Richard in him decided that the young man had recognized more quickly than either Nelly or himself which way the wind was blowing, and apart from the least admission on her side and simply from devotion to her interests, had brought matters to a head in this erratic manner.


All that day and a good deal of the next was spent by Richard in meditating what he should do in this curious imbroglio. The end of it was that he decided to do nothing at all, except to leave Nelly Moreton alone for a while.

To leave the neighbourhood was out of the question. It would be like running away
for the second time

He replied in a friendly but quite non-committal manner to Canyot's letter and said he would be very glad to see something more of him before he sailed for America. He avoided any mention of Miss Moreton's name. His policy of remaining in retreat for the present and leaving the girl alone was made easier for him by a certain rush of energy in the sphere of his writing.

He wrote steadily for several long uninterrupted mornings and afternoons making a conscious effort to keep the image of Nelly, as well as that
image, far back in the recesses of his consciousness.

What, he thought fantastically to himself on one of these calm days, do these insidious phantoms of people, that for the time being we don't want to think about, these bodiless haunters of our suppressed world, do with one another in that queer twilight? Do they gibber and squeak at one another – these Elises and Nellys – or are they, like the Queen of Carthage in the Elysian fields, silent and disdainful?

He found, as he wrote, that it was possible to reduce all these human entanglements to a vague far-off world that hardly infringed upon the world he visioned in his present humour.
world, of his mystical consciousness, was a world in which the immediate pain of things and the immediate thrill of things were both held back to a certain distance. It was a world in which
immediate pain and
immediate pleasure were taken up and absorbed in the great stream of all the pleasures and pains of the human race.

What he sought to give an enduring expression to, as he took his available words and squeezed out their subtler meanings and tried to make his thought clothe itself, rhythm within rhythm, with these delicate essences, was the large flowing tide of human experience as it gathered in great reiterated waves, under the old pressure of the old dilemmas, and rolled forward and drew back along the sea banks of necessity.

What he groped after was an entrance into some larger consciousness, not remote from this earthly world, but carrying forward, generation after generation, the faint surmises, the dim guesses, the broken half-glimpses, of men and women and, with all these gathered up within it, itself growing more and more responsive to deeper vibrations from the Unknown, more and more aware of itself as the true Son of Man, as the true logos, into whose being had been poured all the thwarted and baffled aspirations of all souls.

It was not that he wished to find some mere mystical sensation, inchoate and indistinct, and try to express the feeling of just that, in lulled and monotonous rhythms. It was that he wished to take the many poignant ‘little things', bitter and sweet, tragic and grotesque, common and fantastic, such as the earth affords us all in our confused wayfaring, and to associate these, as each generation is aware of them before it passes away, as he himself was aware of them in his own hour, with some dimly conceived immortal consciousness
that gave them all an enduring value and dropped none of them by the way.

It was, so to speak, some tentative, hesitant, as yet only half-conscious soul of the earth, to which he sought to feel his way, a kind of half-human, half-elemental logos, nearer the Goat-foot Pass than any vague dream of the old Gnostics, and yet with a music in its being, beyond the breath of any reed of the marshes.

It was comparatively easy to let the faint magic of his view of things ebb and flow before his mental vision in these long golden mornings in Selshurst, where the very streets were full of the fragrances of the fields. It was a very different matter when he came to attempt the task of putting all this into poetic form. How, in that little bedroom of his, opening on the light breaths of rosemary and balsam and newly budding lavender, where every now and then came lively voices from the back parlour, he wrestled with the obstinate mystery of words!

Why not put these thoughts of his into the simpler cadences of prose? Because there are certain things that refuse to be expressed in prose, that demand the austerer rhythms, the more oracular gestures, the more broken, fragmentary, evasive hints, of poetry.

But ‘Oh Prince, what labour, oh Prince, what pain!' For the rhythms of poetry, expecially of the
vers libre
he was working in, are of such a kind that not only the general swing of the verse had to leap forth as the very exhalation of his own especial soul, but each separate line, nay! every word he uses, must fall into its place, not ‘by taking thought', but by an indefinable movement of the energy of music in himself. The syllables have to form an essence compounded of strange subtleties; and as for the thoughts, they must be bitter and sweet, full of the mysterious saps and juices of the blood of life, cool-breathing, redolent of undying mornings and evenings, sprinkled with eternal dews.


Day followed day without any interruption to these mental and psychic labours. ‘I have not run away a second time,' he kept saying to himself; but that was the very thing, as he well knew in his secret heart, that he
done! To fall suddenly after those vibrant and thrilling first meetings with her, into dead silence, was nothing less than to abscond, to quit the field, to bolt.

BOOK: After My Fashion
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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