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Authors: John Cowper Powys

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BOOK: After My Fashion
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Richard muttered the syllable ‘Storm' and bowed to the young man. ‘I must be making my way back to Selshurst, I expect, if I am to find a room. I had a vague notion that there might be an inn here. That's why I brought this with me.' He indicated his bag.

‘Oh I'm sure you'll find a room all right – in Selshurst,' Mr Canyot earnestly remarked. ‘There's the White Hart and the Blue Pig and the King George and the George and Dragon. The one I'd try first, though, is the Richmond Arms. But it would be well to get in before eight, anyhow; or you might have difficulty about your dinner.' Saying this, Mr Canyot considerately pulled out his watch.

‘What
is
the time?' inquired the vicar's daughter putting her hand on the artist's wrist and looking at the watch he had produced. ‘Why it's twenty minutes to nine! Father must be awfully late or he'd have come to fetch me. I'm afraid we
must
say goodbye, Mr Storm. And you too, Robert, I'm sure it's past Mrs Winsome's suppertime.' She turned quickly to the wayfarer from France. ‘Mr Canyot is stopping at the farm,' she said, ‘but I'm afraid there is no inn in Littlegate. So do try the Richmond Arms; and be sure you
make
them give you something decent to eat.'

Again she tendered him that frank confiding handshake. ‘If you stay longer you must come and call on my father. He can tell you everything there is to be told about this part of the country.'

‘I don't quite know what I am going to do,' Richard replied cautiously. ‘It depends upon – many things.' He nodded to Mr Canyot and turned slowly away, not however without receiving a look from the girl's eyes which a little startled him.

    

What was it?
he thought as he made his way slowly back towards Selshurst through the long twilight, the evening sounds and scents stirring old memories in him that drifted away over the fields and
were lost too quickly.
What was it that her look meant?

He was too far-sunken in the faint sweetness of the place and the hour to laugh at himself – he, the runaway from the world-famed dancer – for his sentimental interest in this young person. Not one sardonic leer from the deadly critic within him rose to the surface to spoil his orgy of delicate dreams. He let his mind wander at large and as it pleased over the strangeness of the quick mysterious
rapport
which had risen between them.

What was it that that parting look meant? It seemed to have something in it of a definite appeal, of a definite call for help. But the girl's life appeared serene enough, all that he had seen of it. Was there something odd about the Reverend Moreton? Was that insolent young coxcomb of an artist teasing her, persecuting her – and the father, perhaps half-crazy or a drunkard, aiding and abetting him?

He leaned over a gate and stared at the thousands of sleeping buttercups and at the white hedge parsley. What absurd nonsense it was, to turn an accident like that, a mere chance encounter, into something worthy of serious analysis! What did it matter to him if the girl
was
unhappy? He had not escaped from Elise Angel to act the Don Quixote through the villages of Sussex. Let her play her organ to stray visitors! Let her marry the great Canyot!

He pursued his road at a quicker pace and before long came to a footpath which evidently led straight into the city. There were one or two town lights already visible; and with the deepening of the twilight the great meadows which surrounded the place were already covered by a filmy sea of thin whitish mist.

Drinking in, as he made his way through the wet grass, a hundred subtle fragrances, each one of which carried his mind back to the remote past, the wanderer felt that, however England might have changed, something essential in it, something that belonged both to the earth and the race, remained unchangeable and secure. The home of one's people! There must, he began to think, be some sort of intangible emanation proceeding from that which, more than any ritual, had the power to call one's mind back to its lost rhythm, to its broken balance. Too long, he decided, had he occupied himself with questions of technique, with problems of style. The work which he would do now, the poetry he would write, should primarily concern itselt with some definite vision of things that should
be left to evoke its own method of expression, its own music, in accordance with the intensity of its accumulative purpose. And to some such vision of things he began to feel himself distinctly led, as the warm May night poured its magic through him.

Yes! he must bury fathoms deep, the dangerous lure of that perfect skin, ‘like cruel white satin' as one of his poet friends had written of her. He must bury ‘deeper than did ever plummet sound' the memory of that entrancing figure ‘as of a bassarid in the woods of Thessaly'.

One thing at least, he thought to himself, as he made his way along the edge of an ancient wall covered with a tangle of early yellow roses that brushed, cool and wet, against his face and showed ghost-white in the dusk, one thing Elise Angel had done for him; she had blotted out and obliterated all his earlier complications. How faint and dim she had made them – as dim as these shadowy roses – those Mathildes and Maries of his earlier Paris life!

He shuddered with fearful relief when he thought how nearly he had come to the point of actually
marrying
La Petite Charmille because Raymond de la Tailhede told him he had treated her badly! Well! he was clear of all that now, clear and free, and he had no intention of permitting the weakness of remorse to poison the good blood of his new intention.

The streets of Selshurst were all lit up when he finally stood before the entrance of the hostelry he fancied the most. It was neither the George and Dragon nor the Richmond Arms but a quiet and clean little place, in the city's main thoroughfare, laconically entitled the Crown.

It appeared he had chosen with a wise instinct. He was allotted a charming and beautifully neat room looking out upon a well-kept kitchen garden, the scent of whose aromatic herbs floated deliciously in as soon as he opened the window.

A filmy mist, wavering and undulating as it moved up from the sea-ward meadows, rolled, like some aerial phantom river, round the old walls and the high garden trees; and through the fluctuations of this mist Richard could discern as he leaned out of his window, hushed and still in the scented night, the shadowy bulk of the cathedral and its majestic spire.

The landlady of the Crown and her buxom barmaid seemed
prepared to contendwith each other in making their visitor comfortable; and it was not long before he was seated in the private back parlour before an admirable supper heartened by as large a quantity of before-the-war wine as he cared to consume.

Wine immoderately imbibed may become, as Panurge informs us, a powerful sedative to the erotic madness. But wine moderately enjoyed – and Richard was habitually temperate in these things – has a different effect. Thus it turned out that in spite of his ascetic resolutions it was difficult, when once more at his open window he smoked cigarette after cigarette into the quiet night, to keep that fatal image ‘like a Bacchanal on a Grecian urn' drowned in the oblivion he had laid upon her.

She rose out of the white mists of the aromatic garden beneath him. She stretched out her arms towards him. She came nearer and nearer to the window. With a face more haggard and much older than his face had been all that day, he struggled to bury her again and to recover the new purpose of his life; but the struggle was not an easy one; and he smiled grimly to himself, as stretched in bed he inhaled the garden smells and listened to the chiming of some nearby clock tower, to think what simple prayers, for his escape from the wiles of Satan, the old Benjamin and the old Susanna would have raised at that juncture.

After all, he thought, the more complicated pattern of our modern days has not liberated us from the old accursed duality. Will the balance, the rhythm, the lovely poise of things,
never
be obtained by luckless humanity, torn and divided between the two natures?

In his case, that May night, it was the hand of sleep, not of philosophy, that closed the debate; and though the soft eyes that followed him through his dreams were the eyes of Nelly Moreton, the form that drew him towards itself through the entangling ways of a land whose mountaintops were covered with meadow flowers was not the modest form of the daughter of the Vicar of Littlegate.

As he sat at breakfast in the front room of the Crown, watching, between a great bowl of cowslips and a tall vase of bluebells, the pleasant sun-bathed traffic of the main Selshurst street, it presented itself rather forcibly to his mind that he had not made the remotest kind of plan for his future. He had just run away; and that summed the whole thing up. Had he, in the treacherous way the human mind works, secretly avoided making any plans, with a subconscious hope that no plans would be necessary; but that Satan, with the lure of that skin ‘softer than sleep', would draw him back again?

Well! It shouldn't draw him back! He was resolved firmly upon that. The freshness of the morning, the vase of bluebells, with two ungainly stalks of pink-campion evidently thrust in by childish hands, the pleasant rustic voices of loiterers outside the door, and all the cheerful stir of the placid town, helped him to hold tight to his renewed purpose.

He would ‘dig himself in' in English soil and write such poetry as would really satisfy the stern Arbiter whose hidden purpose, whatever it was, had kept him alive while so many better men had fallen.

He had not even left an address behind in France. The lean concierge from Auvergne who looked after the rooms in the Rue de Vaugirard had orders to retain his correspondence till he sent for it.

The question immediately to be decided, then, was where should he settle so to be sure of tolerably harmonious surroundings wherein to work?

It would be quite pleasant to remain precisely where he was, ensconced at the Crown Inn, Selshurst. And yet for some secret reason he didn't feel altogether satisfied with this project. Superficially he explained to himself this reluctance, to interview the landlady at once on the matter, on grounds quite remote from the real one which lay all the while hidden in the depths of his consciousness. He explained it to himself as a scruple of economic prudence, lest the woman should persuade him into some hasty agreement which second thoughts might wish to revoke; but, in reality, lurking in that remote portion of the mind where actual decisions are made, was a sort of shadowy signpost pointing to the hamlet of Littlegate.

Moved as much by an instinctive tendency to put off such decisions as long as possible as by a traveller's natural curiosity he spent a leisurely golden morning wandering about the streets and passages of the old town. He wandered in and out of the cathedral. He loitered in the cloisters. He leaned against the mossy posts of the old iron railings behind which the smooth-cut grass of the close showed green as a velvet altar cloth, covering the ashes of a thousand years. He listened to the cawing of rooks in the dark tops of immense elm trees. He surveyed with delight the impenetrable quietude, exhaling an atmosphere of refined serenity comparable to certain passages in the English Prayer Book, of the great red-brick Georgian houses, with their polished door-knockers and high- walled gardens, mellow and rare like the fragrance of old wine.

Fortunate people, he thought, those aged ecclesiastics who brooded on choice Latinity and high divinity behind those rose- tangled windows! Theirs was a life, he supposed, in which the sting of mortal trouble was reduced to the minimum point, consistent with the calamity of being alive at all on this harassed earth!

    

Instead of returning to his inn he lunched luxuriously in a little tea shop close to the cathedral gates; and here, as he drank cup after cup of beautifully made tea, and watched the indolent unhurried people chatting together in the sunshine and going in and out of the trim shops, he felt that there was, after all, a certain genius for sheer contentment in the race that had its place, say what one might, in any wise scheme of existence.

For it was not that all this material well-being was a superficial thing. It had endured, with its exclusive neatness and trimness and cleanliness, many strange blows and shocks from the hand of fate – this final ‘great war' only the latest of such disasters – and had endured them cheerfully. There was a look, especially in the eyes of the elder women, even when they were lightly chatting to each other, that suggested that this refmed-upon maturity, like time's own polish upon very old and very solid furniture, was not a thing obtained without sacrifice and cost.

He had noted and relished deeply the passionate feeling for intellectualized beauty, for lucid and lovely organization, in his adopted French home, but
that
could exist – he had found often to his
wondering surprise – side by side with curious lapses from instinctive daintiness and delicacy.

Here, in this English country-town there was a meticulous cleanliness and neatness showing itself in a thousand charming ways, from the aprons of the little girls to the wheels of the farmers wagons.

And it was all so deep-rooted and instinctive, so unconscious and taken-for-granted! It was not, it seemed to him, as he drank his fifth cup of tea and nibbled his fifth ‘halfpenny' bun, any sort of conscious art-impulse that had produced it in those simple, self-centred, humorously wily men and those cheerful, secretive, patient women. It was a kind of immemorial moral code, touched here and there with a faint tincture of religious unction, like the half-mechanical performance of some very old ritual.

He went out into the street in extraordinarily good spirits. The shiny-faced young woman to whom he tendered payment had looked at him with that quick indescribable look, full of innocent subtleties, with which the simplest maiden can enchant and disarm a philosopher.

He stepped into one of those small tobacconist shops that display among their glossy pipes and smoking-materials such a vast assortment of dignified walking sticks as would supply all the elderly beaux of England with the insignia of retired leisure.

Emerging, still more well-pleased from this repository of epicurism, fortified with an immense number of cigarettes and a second entrancing smile, Richard seated himself upon a comfortable bench, just within the precincts, and gave himself up to meditation.

A queer mood of languid and drowsy indifference came upon him, as the hot sun warmed his limbs and the voices of children ebbed and flowed. It seemed to him as though nothing in the world greatly mattered so long as quiet harmless people could go about their affairs, undisturbed by official arrogance and unvexed by words of command.

The very secret of English life, a thing not of politics or economics, but of the obstinate right of every Englishman to meditate upon his own sensations in reserved isolation, took possession of him and gave to the brooding voices of the doves, hidden away among the trees of the dean's garden, a symbolic significance.

By slow degrees, as he sat there, the encroaching spell of sheer physical well-being, emanating from every object within sight, covered him with a kind of pleasant cloud of leafy vegetable contentment.

He smoked and nodded. He nodded and dreamed. And over his head the rooks went by and the elm trees faintly stirred in the warm wind and a hidden clock from somewhere, with a voice that might have been the voice of generations of dead bishops, chimed the slowly moving quarters.

His relaxed and drowsed nerves, freed from the feverish tension of his Paris life, responded to some profound atavistic appeal in that soil, that air, that sun-bathed masonry, those silent tree trunks.

He dimly regretted the fierce passion of his struggles to articulate and intellectualize his life. Why should he articulate anything, or analyse anything, when it was possible to let his soul sink peacefully into the being of these old calm eternal things, until it became a portion of them and lived their life, large-flowing, placid, deep- ruminating, unruffled, content?

In the process of these thoughts, Richard's eyes found themselves negligently fixed upon a remote untraversed grass-plot, surrounded by smaller houses, lying a little back of the main cathedral close. Little by little he became aware that the stream of his meditation was flowing over some hard, resistant and hostile object that disturbed its smooth current like a sharp rock.

At last there came to him the sudden jerking consciousness that he was looking at a familiar figure seated before an easel. Yes! even at that distance the empty sleeve was visible. But what brought his mind into a different focus with a yet more violent jerk was the sight of a slim flexible figure in a thin summer dress bending over the artist's shoulder and watching every stroke of his brush.

The observing demon in Richard's brain did not fail to prod him into recording the fact that the sight of his little new acquaintance completely destroyed the drowsy trance of the preceding hour.

He got up and began walking slowly, and with all the negligence he could assume, towards the pair.

As he moved, his heart beating a little more quickly than usual, and his head turned rather ostentatiously towards the cathedral, that same mocking demon in his brain kept whispering to him the
sardonic comment that the only cure for the mania for one woman was another woman. ‘You are making the most of this organ maid,' whispered the voice, ‘because you know well that with all your fine resolutions your heart is still in the Théâtre des Arts.'

But even below this demon voice yet another interior commentator made itself audible. This second mental imp challenged the sincerity of the first one and protested that what Richard was really trying to evade was the shameful confession that he was just simply a fickle philanderer who, while more dangerous sport was renounced, made the best of safer pleasures.

Richard himself found it difficult enough as he rather nervously ‘stalked', so to speak, the ‘position' of his acquaintances to give an adequate answer to either of these voices. What he actually achieved, before he greeted her, was a rapid association of this friendly child with his vaguely outlined poetic impulse.

She seemed, in the quietness of her conscious reserve and the steadiness of her look, to be in some secret ‘rapport' with the vision of things towards which he was groping.

There was an unpleasant moment of embarrassed approach across that secluded grass-plot while the girl hurriedly pointed him out to her artist companion. But she came with a quick eager step to meet him and he felt sure there was no dissimulation in her unconcealed friendliness.

Robert Canyot rose to his feet, removed his hat with his left hand and sat down again.

Nelly lifted her eyebrows with an imperceptible little grimace and a faint shrug of her shoulders, as though to indicate that the hopeless
naïveté
of men passed the limit of comprehension.

‘Are you interested in painting?' she said, turning to Storm with an unmistakable appeal to him to be sensible and tactful.

‘He won't be interested in
my
painting,' remarked Mr Canyot, ‘if he's been long in France.'

There lurked in this speech a double implication; that the French in general were crazy fanatics and that Storm in particular was a priggish dilettante primed with the latest aesthetic pose.

Having thrown out this remark Mr Canyot went on applying colour to his canvas with the sort of self-satisfied indifference with which a competent builder might regard an amateur architect.

Richard longed to give the fellow's complacency some kind of a
shock; but when he looked at the picture on the easel he was startled to observe that there were real signs there of a noticeable originality. The style of the thing appealed to him. He knew enough of the studios to know that this was not ordinary work. The man was clearly no fool at his job.

‘I like the way you've gone straight to the atmosphere of the place,' he found himself saying. ‘It isn't the cathedral or the trees or the houses; it's something much more important. It's the
happiness
of England that you're after.'

Nelly Moreton looked as if she could have kissed him for his words. Her face lightened up as though the flesh of it had become transparent. ‘Yes! that's just what I've been telling him. Look at that branch against the buttress! They seem to melt into each other. And you can actually
see
the warm air flowing round them both, caressing them both!'

They contemplated Mr Canyot's quick decisive movements in silence for a while. Then the girl laid her hand on the artist's shoulder. ‘We won't disturb you any more, Robert. I'll take Mr Storm to see Canon Ireton's garden. They're all away; but I'm allowed to take anyone. He'll be pleased with it. The peonies are wonderful.'

The artist lifted his head, laid down his brush, and placed his hat beside it on the grass. Richard received from him a long scrutinizing look and was rather pleased to note that his expression became perceptibly puzzled.

The conformation of Mr Canyot's skull, covered with thick tow- like bleached hair, struck him as remarkable; but the contours of the man's face were arrogant, his mouth morose, his eyes jeering.

‘Certainly, by all means. But let's have tea fairly early, so that you won't have to rush back and tire yourself out.'

The girl patted his shoulder affectionately. ‘All right,' she laughed, ‘we'll be here in good time. I'm not going to kidnap Mr Storm.'

Her tone apparently gave satisfaction to the painter, for he bestowed upon them an amiable nod of dismissal and resumed his work.

Miss Moreton led her companion past the west door of the cathedral, down a little avenue of limes, between nursery-maids holding gargantuan infants, and aged nondescript philosophers, the smoke of whose placid pipes ascended to heaven.

On the further side of the close she led him down a narrow brick alley, over one wall of which hung wistaria and over the other white and blue clematis.

At last they came to a little brightly painted green door which she opened with a small key taken from her purse. ‘Mrs Ireton was a friend of mother's,' she said, and they passed through. ‘I can pick anything I like here, as long as Mr Tip doesn't see me. They're all terribly afraid of Mr Tip. He's the dean's man really; but he works for them all since the war.'

BOOK: After My Fashion
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