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Authors: John Cowper Powys

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BOOK: After My Fashion
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As with regard to the outside of the building the great sloping orange-coloured roof was the dominant feature, so with regard to the interior of it what held a stranger's attention, to the exclusion of all other interest, was the ponderous Norman arch dividing the small nave from the diminutive chancel.

Apart from this arch, huge, elaborately carved, weighty with historic sećrets, the rest of the church seemed meaningless and without character. The arch dwarfed the pillars, took all dignity away from the windows, and seemed to be endeavouring to draw to itself the natural human piety that would pass it by and press forward towards the simply furnished altar.

The arch seemed to be upholding the barn-like roof above it with a kind of stolid confederacy, as if between these two half-heathen things there existed a dumb conspiracy to substitute some other, earlier worship, for the one that had raised that quiet silver cross and had set in order those unlit candles.

Richard Storm vaguely recalled the fact that out of all England the land of the South Saxons was the last to be converted to Christ.

Half-oblivious to what he did and under the influence of French customs he looked about for some small observance, some slight offering of respect, that remained to be paid to the quiet souls of his dead.

Half-atheist, half-superstitious as his mind had become, among those passionately pagan and passionately medieval friends of his, it seemed to him a bad omen to leave the place his father's father had served as priest without some act of filial devotion. To kneel, to pray – anyone might do that! He felt a desire for some more objective, more symbolic act. He hesitated for a moment, leaning against the great arch. Then with a glance backwards at the bolted door and a hurried genuflexion he advanced boldly up to the altar,
and, striking a match, lit the two candles on either side of the cross.

It took a little time for the two small flames to burn upwards, clear and unflickering, above their pedestals of wax, but when they were well alight, he moved away down the aisle without any further obeisance and ensconced himself in a remote seat under the tower. A single bell-rope hung down above him through a hole in the roof and a long quivering shaft of sunlight, heavy with golden motes, fell upon the floor in front of him.

Between the candles on the altar and this heathen finger of the setting sun obtruded from beyond the planet's edge, the Norman arch in the centre of the church gathered darkness round it and became itself a thing of darkness.

Richard Storm stretched his legs out in front of him, clasped his hands behind his head and sat motionless, staring at the shaft of light and at the candles.

Suddenly the light faded. The darkness about the arch moved instantly to where he sat and embraced him. The candles on the altar were no longer little pyramids of palpable colour. They became flickering points of flame. The wanderer's thoughts concentrated themselves on the old dead people from the accident of whose remote encounter – Benjamin Storm with Susanna Talbot – his own appearance in the world at all, the son of his father who was the son of
his
father, so absolutely depended!

A strange sense came over him of the continuity of the generations and their fatal sequence; and under the power of that feeling he felt the unrolling of the long scroll of his days upon earth as he had never felt it before. Things that had been of primary importance to him, vivid passions, fierce infatuations, savage quarrels, seemed now to fade into complete insignificance, even as the sunset shaft had faded, and to leave him in the presence of deeper, older, more earth-rooted things.

A craving stirred within him to find expression, expression that he and others, bewildered and chance-driven as himself, might hold to and live by, for this mysterious undertone of the earth's gathered experience, moving through generation after generation of human subconsciousness and binding the ages together.

Those little flickering candle flames at which he stared seemed a signal to him that he in his turn had to wrestle with the Figure made of darkness and the shadow of death, until he or It cried ‘hold,
enough!' And what he felt most clearly just then was that the secret the clue, the sign – whatever it might be – of the thing which lay hidden under the phantasmagoria of life was something that was less involved, less connected, less fatally mixed up, with the evil and the good and the sweet and the bitter, than in the pell-mell of existence one was apt to hold.

What he felt at that moment was a profound craving to put into such magical words that nothing could destroy them the idea that there was some ultimate vision of things that could be reached by humanity, from the ground of which one was saved both from fear and remorse and from the fret and the fever of this perpetual choice and rejection.

He was startled out of his meditations by a sudden unexpected creaking of woodwork somewhere in the church. At first he fancied it was just that automatic relaxing of some old bench or board which one often may hear in a hollow-echoing place where the slightest sound is distinct. It ceased as suddenly as it had come. But a second afterwards it recommenced. This time he leapt to his feet and realized what it must be. It must be the secretive steps of some light-footed person trying to descend unnoticed from the organ loft. His entrance into the building had evidently surprised and caught some organ player who being reluctant to play to an unknown auditor was endeavouring to slip out of the church unobserved.

Richard moved hurriedly up the aisle, went to the altar and blew out the two candles. Then returning to the shelter of the great chancel arch he paused and waited, in as indifferent and negligent a pose as he could assume, for the emergence of this shy prisoner.

He could not help smiling to himself rather mischievously when he remembered the enormously stiff and heavy bolt he had drawn across the door. But perhaps this embarrassed organ-player possessed the key to some other exit. He seemed to have alarmed the invisible one into petrified stillness by his expectant attitude. Evidently the idea in the prisoner's mind was that this lighter of candles would leave the church at once now that his little ceremony was concluded. It gave Richard quite a quaint and pleasing sensation to think that he had bolted himself in with a mysterious unknown who was now too shy to appear. ‘It must be a girl,' he said to himself.

The footsteps became suddenly impetuous and daring. The final
stages of the descent were accomplished in something resembling a precipitous rush to escape; and a slender feminine figure emerged into view. With the quickest possible glance at Richard as he stood motionless under the arch, she slipped away down the aisle.
She'll
never move that bar
, he thought, remembering the violent force with which he had run it through its rusty groove.

He was quite right. She was unable to make the thing stir an inch.

He recognized that it was incumbent upon him to open it for her and he moved down the aisle feeling as if he were going to let loose a bird or a butterfly that might hurt itself by its blind beatings against the obstacle.

She heard his steps behind her and turned round. ‘Allow me to do it,' he said and moved to her side. But before he had touched the bolt there came a violent rattling and shaking of the door from the outside.

With an irresistible movement of contrariness he drew back, and the girl and he stared at one another in a sort of confederacy of hesitation. Then she smiled with the frank amusement of youth at the incongruity of the situation. ‘Someone wants to get in,' remarked the girl. He looked into her eyes and realized how full of mischievous amusement she had become. It was clear too that she liked the look of her unwitting captor. She suddenly became grave and moved a few paces away from the bolted door. They stared at one another with renewed interest. Then, with a quick nervous little gesture she rested her bare hand on the edge of the font. ‘I saw you light those candles,' she whispered. ‘I wanted you to do something.' He now found his voice. He thought to himself,
If she had
said nothing about the candles it would have been better. Why must
women always say something about things like that?
But aloud he said, ‘I thought I was quite alone. How did you know I wanted to
do
something?'

Then she smiled at him from under her broad-brimmed hat so sweetly and so sadly that he changed his mind in a moment and was glad she had spoken. ‘I knew,' she murmured. ‘I knew you were thinking of the war.' He hadn't of course been thinking of the war at all; and yet, in a very profound sense, he had been. The whole thing was ‘the war' and the peace after ‘the war' again! Like the shooting of a shuttle or like the darting of a fish his mind moved up and down all the vistas of confusion and misery that filled the
world. Something in this girl's gravity as she looked at him brought vividly to his mind many things he had forgotten. ‘The war can never really end,' he found himself muttering.

His companion frowned a little, in an obvious youthful effort to say something that did not sound silly.

‘Well! This is beautiful weather anyhow,' she remarked, ‘and on days like this one oughtn't to think too sadly of things. It seems an insult to the happiness that is left. I mean to the happy people that are left.' And she coloured a little as if aware that her remark lacked weight.

Richard's mind once more became critical of her.
Why do
women mince their words so?
he thought;
and why are they so
devilishly self-conscious?

‘You're a stranger to Littlegate?' she said. ‘It really is a lovely village, quite worth seeing.'

She knows I thought her a little prig just now
, Richard's critical demon whispered.
How sharp they are, the minxes!

But the girl had caught sight of his travelling-bag covered with foreign labels. ‘Have you far to go tonight?' she asked, speaking with a direct almost maternal concern and in a new tone.

‘I really don't know,' he muttered rather awkwardly.

‘Because,' she went on, ‘you strike me as the kind of person who wants looking after.'

‘Do I?' he answered quietly. ‘Well, perhaps I do,' he added smiling at her; but his secret thoughts ransacked that remark of hers and combed it out.
They can only be natural when they are fussing
over you or being fussed over – everything else is ‘showing off'
.

They were standing opposite each other now, she waiting for him to say goodbye, and he scrutinizing her with an intent concentration. Suddenly an unaccountable wave of tenderness towards all these self-conscious, secretive, evasive, fragile, tenacious beings, who were so invariably ‘up to some game' and yet were so inevitably betrayed by something or other – by Nature perhaps – that was ‘up' to some still deeper game with them, took possession of him and disarmed him. The curious awkwardness and embarrassment which they both seemed aware of in the presence of that bolted door became a sort of palpable ‘third presence' linking them together. At that moment the door was once more violently shaken from outside.

The girl instinctively drew away from him; and an odd sense of having been caught in some humorous predicament passed in a quick wave from one to the other.

Then she smiled mischievously and gaily. ‘I've half a mind
not
to open it, she whispered.' ‘How silly of him to make that noise!' Richard laid his hand on the bolt but did not draw it. ‘Is it your brother?' he asked abruptly. The question seemed to change her in a moment from a discreet self-contained young woman into a naughty little girl.

Storm got a faint impression that she actually put out her tongue. She certainly suppressed an inclination to burst into peals of laughter.

‘My brother? Good Heavens, no! It's Robert. It's Mr Canyot. He's so fussy and funny. He probably thinks you are murdering me in here. Oh, I would love to give him a tremendous fright! Do you think it would be
too
wicked if I were to scream or something?'

There was enough light left in the church for the violent protest on Richard's face at this suggestion to throw her into a fit of convulsive merriment. She shook with suppressed laughter and leaned against the font to recover her breath. She finally gasped, ‘I'm not often as silly as this. It's so funny though. You don't know how funny it is. You don't know Mr Canyot!'

Richard under his breath gave Mr Canyot to the devil. ‘But I think I do,' he said. ‘Wasn't he sketching out there? He frightened me into the church. He didn't seem a very friendly youth.'

She had recovered herself now – ‘Oh he's all right!' she said, ‘with a slight annoyance in her tone at having revealed too much to a stranger. Open the door, will you, please.' And then before he could obey her she held out her hand. ‘I am Nelly Moreton,' she explained gravely. ‘My father's the vicar here.' Storm was pleased with her for this explanation and still more pleased by something trusting and confiding in the way she gave him her hand, the whole of her hand, not just the clammy tips of lethargic fingers. Indeed he was so pleased with this gesture of hers, and the frank look that accompanied it, that he found himself pushing back the bolt and opening the door before it occurred to him to return her courtesy by revealing to her
his
name. They were met on the threshold of the porch by the indignant Mr Canyot. ‘It's too bad of you to give a person such shocks,' he began severely. Then he looked Richard up
and down. ‘Excuse me, sir,' he said, ‘but how was I to know that you knew – ah! – the ropes, as one might say.' He paused again as if to emphasize his displeasure. ‘I mean Miss Moreton,' he added sternly.

‘Really Mr Canyot,' protested the lady, ‘you mustn't mean me when you talk about “ropes”. This gentleman hadn't till a moment ago the least notion who I was.' She glanced whimsically at Storm. ‘I don't know
your
name yet – this is Mr Robert Canyot, our Sussex Painter.'

BOOK: After My Fashion
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