There was tragedy, comedy, romance, among that cross section of humanity concentrated within the crucible of an air-raid shelter
IT WASN’T Mrs. Purdy’s way to put ideas into people’s heads and create an upset, but she did not like the look of the sky. Her senses were perhaps keener than most, and this wasn’t the first time the sky had given her that here-it-comes feeling. On each occasion there had been a raid, and in one of them the house she shared with her son, Cyril, had been demolished. Surveying its ruins on their return from the shelter, she had philosophically remarked : “It’s cleared up a lot of rubbish anyway.” But Cyril was thinking of his wife and kids who might have been there if they hadn’t been in Wales, and there wasn’t a smile to be got out of him. “What I wouldn’t do to that Hitler,” he said, and went off grimly to work at his bench. From the entrance of the casual street shelter, their
temporary abode, Mrs. Purdy waved Cyril good-by and watched his ramshackle figure turn in the direction of the factory where he was employed on the night shift. He had made a good supper of tinned salmon fish cakes, hotted up over a spirit lamp, and washed down with a mug of cocoa which only she knew how to make. A drop of cocoa was left over and Mrs. Purdy gave it to Old Regular, a red-bearded tramp who had staked his claim where the angle of two shelter walls made a prop for his head when he was asleep, wrapped in newspapers to keep him warm. Old Regular never spoke, but his eyes were grateful. Thanks to the war and the luxury of free accommodation, which had solved the winter problem of every tramp, he was enjoying a permanent state of beatitude and contentment. It was worth keeping in with him, as he seldom went from the shelter and would keep an eye—while she ran out to do her shopping—on Mrs. Purdy’s blankets and the bits and pieces she had got together to make their section of the place snug and homelike.
Through the lavender dusk Mrs. Purdy saw the shapeless forms of the better-be-wise-than-sorry brigade approaching with their bundles of bedding. As they came in she asked after their good husbands or brothers and responded to enquiries about Cyril.
“Yes, he’s all right in ’imself, but being separated from ’is loved ones is a heavy load on ’is ’eart, even if it’s one orf ’is mind. Still, as I keep saying, you can’t ’ave everything in a war, and the firce thing is to beat ’itler.”
And since that monster of iniquity was commonly supposed to strike from the sky, she looked upward to where a barrage balloon caught the rose-red rays of a vanished sun and thought how pretty it looked floating there.
As night closed in, a grey A.F.S. trailer pump went by behind a taxi, and air-raid wardens gathered at the street corner to exchange opinions and reminiscences. Silhouetted against the sky on a roof top, a plane spotter listened to the music of a breeze drawing an invisible bow across the balloon wires. There was a shuffle of swiftly moving feet below as an anxious youth half ran down the street. Fearful of being followed, he halted at a side turning, then vanished furtively toward the business centie of the city. In one moist palm he was clutching a newly-cut key so tightly that his muscles trembled from wrist to shoulder; and every few seconds he ran the tip of his tongue over thin lips which were unnaturally hot and dry.
“It’ll be all right,” he kept repeating. “They’ll never guess it was me—never.”
Then he remembered leaving the wax impression of the Guv’nor’s key on his dressing table, and that he had failed to wipe up the steel filings which had fallen into the grate. Not that it mattered, for there would be ample time to clear up when he got back from the office, and that old slouch, his landlady, never troubled to go into his room after a peep to assure herself that the blackout frames were in position.
“It’ll be all right—perfectly all right,” he said, and nearly collided with a girl; so nearly that he let out a half scream that ran into . . .
“. . . look where you’re going.”
THE GIRL trailed on indifferently, for nothing matters to a broken heart. She stopped by an unlighted lamp post and rested her forehead against the cold iron. In yielding to that impulse, she knew that she had left off behaving beautifully and was without interest, or hope, or pride. All that remained were aching memories of what had been and what had ceased to be.
“If I could only wipe him out of my thoughts,” she said, and because Providence does not work on such merciful lines, she wished that she was dead and was unaware of the quiet approach of Mr. Abbott until he reached her side.
He recognized her, even in the quickening dark, as a man will always recognize the nearness of what he loves best. He spoke gently, using her Christian name for the first time:
She turned toward the voice, then away, as if seeking to escape which was impossible.
“Mr. Abbott! Why . . .”
“I’ve formed the habit of walking at night. Something restful in dark, empty streets.”
Since his home was miles away, she knew that he wasn’t speaking the truth, and said:
“Michael telephoned just after you left the office or I could have spared you that meeting. Poor boy, I’m very sorry for him.”
Nobody could have found a gentler way of expressing sympathy, or giving her back a bit of pride.
“Nothing is sadder than a lost opportunity or one thrown away. How badly are you hurt, my dear?”
“I don’t know. Loving him turned my life upside down. I don’t suppose we ever really matched.”
“On his side that would have been impossible. And the war of course turned his life upside down. You can’t take a man from a lawyer’s office and fling him through the air at three hundred miles an hour and expect everything to be the same.”
Penny nodded lifelessly.
“He went so far and fast. I ought to have known I couldn’t keep up with him. Do you think she’ll be able to? No. Forget I asked that.”
“Why should I? You’re not the kind to grudge happiness in which you have no share. It was a proper and natural question.”
“It wasn’t,” she said with sudden fierceness. “I do grudge it. I hate the thought that anybody should have the happiness he took away from me. Before he joined our staff I wouldn’t have changed my life with anyone. It was perfect.”
He looked at her sharply, and she saw the puzzled expression in a face lined by the traffic of other people’s problems.
“Do you mean that?”
“Yes. Don’t you know what goes on in the minds of the people who work for you?”
“Seemingly not,” he replied.
His thoughts went back to just before the war when, with the discovery that Michael was in love with her, he paid his extremely unselfish tribute to youth—reproaching himself for allowing Penny to waste young years in a lawyer’s office. “For if, as may well be, Hitler cries havoc and the records of dead and living men, and the work of their heads and hands are scattered into ruins, will you be able to say, of the time that went before, that you made the most of what life had to offer?” He remembered how she stood watching gravely as the words sank in, and the rebellion that came into her eyes, and how, less than a month later, she became engaged to his newly acquired
junior partner which ended a dream he had never been able to put into words.
The sound of her voice brought him back from the past to the present.
“If only Michael and I could have changed places tonight then I could have gone up . . . bailed out and forgotten to pull the cord.”
“No, no, no,” he insisted, “you’ve all your life before you.”
“I don’t want it,” she answered, her words running into the rising crescendo of an air-raid siren, hollow and dismal as a hound baying the moon. Its wail was taken up by other and more distant sirens until the night air trembled with warning.
Mr. Abbott glanced at the sky. Stars winked between the clouds and the tapering, luminous rods of searchlights quested from south to west.
“I’ll get you under cover,” he said, to the roar and grumble of the first bombs.
THE DAZZLING green flashes lit up the shelter less than fifty yards away. A large white “S” between belts on its brick walls called: “Sanctuary.”
Penny did not move, but excitement and hope came into her eyes. He knew the meaning of that look, having seen it before on the face of a woman who went out and took her own life.
“That’s no way to win a war,” he said, gripping her wrists and trying to drag her to the shelter.
“Oh, leave me alone!”
From the doorway of a public house, a respectable, middle-aged man came out unsteadily, as bomb after bomb splashed into a basin of shops and factories at the foot of the hill.
“Baskets!” he shrilled defiantly. “But you won’t get Lucy, damn your rotten eyes.”
He did not sound like a man given to swearing, which, indeed, he was not, being by trade a grocer and a quiet spoken man.
Mr. Abbott asked him to help take Penny to the shelter.
“With pleasure, sir, of course. Is she hurt then?”—his manner suggesting that he was back in the shop again.
With one on either side of her it was useless to resist, and they broke into a shuffling run.
As they reached the entrance, the grocer said:
“I’ll show yop the cable, sir, saying that she and the boy arrived at Montreal safe and sound. I only got it two hours ago—that and the drink has gone to my head I’m afraid.” He stopped and shook a fist at a sky that sparkled with bursting shells. “Fooled you, I have!”
A sailor in shabby, ill-fitting slops, with an anchor tattooed on the back of his hand, pulled him in under cover.
“No use asking for it, mate.”
“My wife and child arrived in Canada today,” the grocer explained. “I’m a little overexcited in consequence. You a married man?”
“Never long enough in one place,” said the sailor, in the tone of one who is sorry but bows to the inevitable.
Mrs. Purdy said: “There’s room for the young lady on the corner of my eiderdown.”
“Thank you. She’s not quite herself,” said Mr. Abbott.
Penny frowned. “Don’t make an invalid of me, please.”
He took note of the frown which proved that pride was not wholly extinct.
Mrs. Purdy said: “It takes us all one way or the other. Perraps you ’aven’t been in a big one before, dear?”
“Yes, I have—several.”
Penny did not want to be talked to—or about. From despair her mood liad swung to sullen resentment. She felt cheated, and, to avoid further questions, let her eyes wander round the company bracketed together in the well-lighted shelter.
Old Regular was in his corner with eyes shut, and in the intervals between the uproar outside Penny could hear his unmusical humming. He only hummed when trouble was about. In a naughty world, humming was his link with sanity. Mrs. Purdy’s link was cocoa or tidying up, for she was never idle during a raid and busied herself with small affairs to provide comfort for the future— if there was one. There was sense in that, for hotting things up, or stopping a ladder in one’s stocking, inspired the feeling of being invulnerable, of being sure of coming out on the other side of adversity.
Some of the other women did no more than look up at the flat concrete roof and yawn. Nervousness reveals itself in the strangest ways, and Penny could not understand why they should yawn when death exploded at their elbows in fountains of fire.
ALEAN spinster, with nostrils like a horse, sat bolt upright alongside two old men who were playing chess and taking an unconscionable time between the moves. She was knitting a surgical stocking urgently, as if it would never be finished in time. In her expression was a rigid determination to show no fear. By her feet three small children, two girls and a boy, were stuffing themselves with slices of bread smeared with jam the color of blood. Their mother said:
“Wipe your faces, do—it’d make anyone think . . . ” She did not finish, but added in a lower voice: “I wouldn’t mind for meself, it’s the little ones, ’ow I’d be able to
face Jim if anything ’appened to them, I don’t know.” The spinster pistoned a knitting needle through her hair.
“Harden them. Do them good.”
The worn face of the woman took on an angry red.
“You can’t be a mother or you wouldn’t speak so.” “I’m not.”
“And you may thank God for it on a night like this.” For a moment, while the bomb-battered earth throbbed beneath them, making the chessmen rock on their pediments, the spinster knitted in silence, then:
“I don’t—I envy you, but you’ve got to be hard to fight the devil.”
The red died in the woman’s cheeks and her mouth softened.
“That’s right. It’s what my Jim says, and why he wouldn’t not be in khaki even though he is past the age.” An over-tired clergyman in a cassock and wearing a beard that might have been plucked from a Van Dyck canvas, came in supporting a heavily-built man who hopped and hobbled and said: “Ouch!”
Room was found for him on one of the benches. The clergyman explained that the inspector had turned his ankle, which identified the hobbler as a policeman.
“Nice night to choose, eh? Slipped up on a chimney pot, or what was left of it. My chaps will think I’m swinging the lead. Looks like being another Coventry, too.” He gave a negative shake of the head when Mr. Abbott held out a cigarette case. “I’m on duty.”
The clergyman said: “You take it easy and I’ll leave word at the station.” He removed the tin helmet he had been wearing and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His tired eyes surveyed the company. “Everybody comfortable? They seem to be centring on the business part
of the city—apparently making rather a mess of it, I fear.”
Mrs. Purdy offered him a mug of cocoa, but he said he had work to do, and went out, bareheaded, to meet his Maker perhaps.
Mr. Abbott touched Penny’s arm. “It’s good to be British—a fine lot, aren’t they?”
She knew he had said that to make her think away from herself or to instill pride in being one of a gallant company. How often, she wondered, had she sat in his office, notebook in hand, while his wise and subtle brain wrestled with every kind of human emergency. Tonight its wisdom and contrivings were dedicated to her and it seemed ungrateful not to want to be saved from herself.
She muttered something unintelligible and turned to where the sailor and the grocer propped up one of the shelter walls.
The sailor was saying: “Montreal, eh? I was there in the spring of ’13—deck hand on a whaler. Not many men have got sail on their books nowadays. Went north after, we did, up to Hudson Bay as the ice was breaking. Never saw a whale, but we done all right. Walruses. Used to shoot ’em with a service rifle, then ’arpoon ’em and fienee them on the ice. Don’t rightly know what they used ths blubber for, but the hides come in for machine belting— tough they are. We’d stamp ’em down with pickling salt in the forrard ’old”.
The grocer reckoned it must have been a lonely sort of life, but there would be plenty of company where his wife had gone. But the sailor’s thoughts were still lost in the floe ice of the bitter north.
“Seven months without seeing steam or sail. Just as well we didn’t, per’aps, for we ’adn’t a licence and we’d ’ave been in trouble if they’d come on us. We fetched up in Greenland ’ating each other, but I wouldn’t ’ave missed
ANEAR hit rocked the shelter and sent the chessmen flying. The players were not much concerned, for their minds had been on the game and they knew where each piece belonged. The inspector tilted his head suggestively.
“Parker Street way by the sound of it.”
A girl who had been tracing the squares of her checked skirt with a wandering forefinger, clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a gulping cry. The spinster was on to her like a terrier.
“None of that now!” But the girl had risen, and was saying: “Parker Street! Tam’s there—my dog!” She looked round desperately. “I know they aren’t allowed in a public shelter, but would anybody mind?”
There was a chorus of negatives, but the inspector told her to stay where she was well off. She took no notice of that.
Penny got up and said: “I’ll come with you.” “Out of kindness, or for any personal reason?” asked Mr. Abbott. “If the former, we’ll both go.” Some color came into Penny’s cheeks and she sat down again as the girl slipped out into the blitz.
Mr. Abbott turned to the sailor. “You spoke of one experience you would not have missed, how about this?”
The sailor shrugged: “Oh, I don’t know. Yer see I ought to be in it by right, but me ’and’s shut up on me.” He showed them an open hand with the little finger cleaving to the palm. “That and bein’ fifty-four, they wouldn’t even ’ave me on a sweeper. No, I don’t know.”
See also page 42
Continued from page 9—Starts on page 7
silences they heard the planes coming and going. They were so numerous that the sound of engines was constant as the droning of a dynamo. The nearby explosion had split the concrete roof and through the rift they saw the white light of falling flares and the little red tracer shells streaming upward to put them out. Then the sky was scarred with leaping flames that made the entrance to the shelter look like the door of a furnace. A youth and a girl, in that order, raced in blindly, the girl’s triumphant laugh mingling with a roar that rushed earthward and the rattle and clack of falling fragments of metal. The youth thrust his thumbs into his ears and from one of his hands a newly cut key fell and tinkled on the floor.
“Can’t say I didn’t knock before coming in, can you?” the girl squeaked, and laughed afresh so that the shoulders of her short, silver-fox coatee went up and down.
Mrs. Purdy looked at the over-painted cheeks and mouth and primmed her lips. What the war blew in !
The sailor went to the entrance and looked out. A piece of thick cord with frayed ends slapped the pavement and fragments of a synthetic silk fabric billowed down like settling wild fowl.
“Landmine. Parachute,” he said. “Our guns must have hit it coming down. We was lucky.”
The frightened youth spoke stammeringly. “They picked it up with a searchlight and the tracer shells got it. Laws, you should have seen! It was like hell up there with the devil sitting in the middle of a sheet of flame.”
“Stop behaving like a fool and pick up your key,” said the spinster sharply.
“Key? What key? I never had a key,” and his voice soared to the top E of hysteria.
The inspector eyed him with professional interest as the girl in the coatee kicked the key toward him with the toe of her shoe.
“Why not join the Air Force and see the world,” she crowed derisively.
“I’m a pacifist,” he spat the words at her. “I don’t believe in war, it’s horrible.”
'"THE MOTHER of three pulled back one of her wandering offspring.
“Don’t you go near him, a living disgrace, that’s what he is!”
“Shut up, you,” he shouted. “Anyway I’m not old enough to join.” That was a lie, for an order bidding him attend a conscientious objectors’ tribunal was in his breast pocket along with fifty pounds stolen from the office cash box. If the verdict of the tribunal went against him that money would finance a dash for freedom.
The mother said: “I’d pity you if my Jim ’ad ’eard you say that.”
He would have retorted but the inspector’s eye was on him, and Mr. Abbott quietly quoted: “ ‘Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead, But God Himself can’t kill them when they’re said.’ ”
From the comer where Old Regular was humming came a grunt of assent. “There’s a lot more sense in po’try than folks get credit for,” he nodded. And since none of the habitues had ever before heard him speak more than a single word, heads turned in wonderment. “That’s so,” he went on, “and I reckon when all this ’ub’ub dies away as po’try’ll take its rightful place in the world—po’try an’ simple things or’nary folks’ve ’urried by without noticing. A man like meself, with time on ’is ’ands, orfen comes on bits of what you might call neglected beauty. I don’t suspect anybody ’ere ’sides meself ever slept in a wood on a June night wrapped in the smell of bluebells. I’ve covered a long road and found nuthin’
better nor sweeter and don’t suspect I never will. I orfen think if you was able to put a nidea like that in ’itler’s ’ead, all this tryin’ to grab orf more’n any man could chew ’ud seem jest foolishness.” “That’s right,” said Mrs. Purdy, and the sailor nodded soberly, and observed: “Wanton destruction is all ’e thinks about, ’ark at ’im now !”
Following the bursts, they listened to the weary crumbling and tumbling of churches and gracious houses that the skill and love and labor of men had raised from out of the ground.
The youth clutched the wooden front slat of the bench.
“They’re coming closer !”
Nearness to a coward brought strength and confidence to the other shelterers. In their own extremity it was good to have something to view with contempt.
The inspector said: “Going to leave
that key lying there all the night?”
“I tell you it isn’t mine !”
Stooping to pick it up twinged the inspector’s ankle and he gave a protesting “aah!” The youth jumped to his feet.
“Give it to me. It’s nothing to do with you.”
A strong hand thrust him back against the bench and, sick with fright, he watched the inspector turn the key this way and that.
“Funny, got a sort of home-made look.” “Then it is mine. A friend made it for a lark.”
“But you said—”
“I can’t remember little things like that in all this. Give it back.”
THE INSPECTOR returned the key, but his eyes stayed on the youth curiously.
Mr. Abbott said: “I daresay crime’s at a discount these days.”
The inspector rubbed his swollen ankle. “I wouldn’t say that. It’s surprising how they do adapt themselves in very difficult circumstances. Mind you, they’ve got to be pretty wide to get away with it.”
The youth was breathing between shut teeth. He thought: “If my lips get any drier they’ll crack.”
“The mistake most of them make is not giving us credit for as much sense as they’ve got—and a bit more. Take that last raid, when Jerry wopped it into the poorer quarter and whole streets were cleared out on account of U.E.B.’s.” “U.E.B.’s?” Penny repeated, astonished that she should want to know what he meant.
“Unexploded bombs. There’s always the foreign element, even now, and they’re the lot you’ve got to keep your eyes on. Well, our lieutenant doesn’t trust ’em to leave that district alone and sends along a couple of plains, dressed shabby, to see what’s going on. They turns into what was left of Prince of Wales’ Row about dawn and see two fellows sneaking through a broken door. Our chaps give ’em a friendly and ask what’s the lay. One of these half foreign blokes comes back with: ‘Gas meters, and very nice pickin’s too.’ Well, to cut a long story short, the upshot is they offered to show how to open ’em up —and does so. They hadn’t hardly got out the shillin’s when our sargeant drops the loafer and comes official. ‘You shown us how to open something up, boys,’ he says, ‘and now we’ll show you how to close something up with yourselves behind it.’ ”
The Inspector chuckled meatily and in time with the protesting coughs of a Bofor mounted in Castle Square. “Oh, yes, not one in a hundred gets away with it.” The youth had shrunk back against the wall, while a new and greater terror ran through him from toes to fingertips, for he remembered then he hadn’t used gloves when prizing open the office cash box. In an air raid, too, the landlady might have gone into his room and found the wax impression and seen the few steel filings in the grate which now, in his tortured imagination, had assumed the proportion of a mound. She might even have noticed
the scar on the mantelpiece paint where the vise had been screwed beneath the lamp bracket. Beside this accumulation of fears, the tribunal, service in the army, and the danger of bombs, were dwarfed to little things, and he saw the iron gates of the county jail wide open to receive him.
He smeared the sweat from his forehead and looked recklessly toward the entrance through which seeped and ran trickles of sooty water from the fire hoses. The blitz had moved to another quarter of the town and, in the half distance, was throbbing like a frightened heart. With any luck he could reach the office, return the money, and be back again, conscience free, in under ten minutes. All he needed was that extra spark of courage to take him out and it was born with the realization that there was a chance, and better than a chance, that the office had been struck by a bomb. If that mercy had been granted he would have money to burn and the evidence of his crime would be buried beneath the ashes.
AS THE other darted out the inspector 4A threw out a hand, but was too late, and slumped back, growling complainingly.
Mrs. Purdy said: “If ever I saw guilty conscience on a ’uman countenance, that boy ’ad it.” She turned to Penny: “If I ’ad a son like ’im it’s outside, not in, I’d be sitting tonight.”
Penny said: “Is that your son?” and nodded at a photograph, tacked to a crevice of the wall, which showed Cyril, his wife and children draped round a dustbin in a back-yard ensemble.
Mrs. Purdy inclined her head.
“That’s ’im, and there isn’t a better. On the night shift ’e is, and works like a black for all that ’is ches’ is too weak for ’im to make a soldier.” She consulted a battered alarm clock and smiled affectionately.
“ ’e’ll be along for ’is breckfirce, so per’aps you’ll meet ’im. Cyril ’is name is— Cyril Purdy,” and from the way she said it she might have been speaking a line of Keats.
Penny said: “I hope so,” and wondered if she meant it—wondered if she was really looking forward to the trifling contacts and incidents of another day.
Mr. Abbott touched her hand, which might have been an accident, but wasn’t. She did not withdraw it as earlier that night she would have done. Then she saw that the girl in the fox coatee was i looking, as a nurse looks, at the grocer whose face was very green.
“It’s the drink and not being used to it,” he muttered apologetically. “All this noise too.”
“Rest your head on my shoulder if you like,” she said.
“May I? Thenks. Sort of swimmy.”
The girl put an arm round him protectively.
“Yes, much. Funny how things wear off. I was so happy too with my wife and the boy arriving safe in Canada, but even that doesn’t seem as good as it did. All those thousands of miles away.” He gave a thin, staggering sigh. “We were always so near together, too. Still when you’re fond of anybody no sacrifice is too great. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“If you think so,” said the girl and ran her fingertips gently over the puzzled lines on his forehead.
“But don’t you?”
“What’s it matter what I think. Only time’ll show.”
Silence fell between them, and he drew in a little closer and presently murmured:
“Kind, that’s what you are. Makes all the difference.”
And Penny, listening, wondered how wise or foolish that married couple had been to seek security at such a risk in a world where none existed.
Then something happened to prove that there is a credit side even in disaster. For the girl who had gone out to rescue her dog came back with a Scottie in her arms. You might have thought from the
welcome given her that she belonged to everybody. Even the chess players diverted their thoughts to smile a greeting.
Penny heard herself saying: “Oh, I’m so glad you’re back,” and added, anxiously: “He’s not hurt, is he?”
The girl shook her head, for she had been running and was out of breath. Her eyes were radiant and triumphant.
“No . . . Sorry . . . Bit puffed. Had to carry him ... all that broken glass about. Fine . . . aren’t you, Tam?”
Tam signified that everything was on the up and up by wagging a four-inch tail. He had forgotten the anxious period he had passed through before the arrival of his beloved mistress. From the small metal disc hanging from his collar, Penny saw that he belonged to the Tail-Waggers, as he had given proof. She thought how foolish she had been never to possess herself of the steady, unwavering devotion of a dog. Then, aware of the nearness of Mr. Abbott, she wondered if that wasn’t just what she did possess. For had he not come out into the dark on the night of her extremity to lift up her heart from the deeps into which it had fallen, and to prove in a score of subtle ways, and out of the perils into which all of them were thrown, how infinitely well worth having and holding is this brittle thread called Life?
TT WAS strange how, with this realiza-*■ tion, her soul’s barometer veered from a deep depression, through Change, and toward Fair; but even stranger was the sudden coming of fear with the desire to go on.
Until then she had felt outside that bit of the battle of Britain that shouted and threatened beyond the shelter walls. Rather, she had welcomed it and hoped that a merciful bomb would blot out remembrance. But, with the wish to live, came an honest fear of death and a resentment against the forces of destruction which, every moment, were drawing nearer and nearer.
The inspector’s remark that Jerry had finished with the centre of the city and was going to give them a taste of it was mal-inspired. Mr. Abbott suggested such remarks were better left unsaid, but Penny’s sole reaction was to start yawning, and being unable to stop. And so, while buildings were flung to right and left, and walls tottered and crumbled, and the floor of the shelter split from end to end like a broken dinner plate, she sat and gaped as if never in her life had she been so bored. It would be false to say that no one was afraid. You cannot loose the worst of man’s devising and meet it with indifference. There would be little honor in courage if fear must not be overcome. But of all that bracketed cross section of that city’s people, there was not one whose fear was not transcended by a stubborn fortitude.
The attack was too concentrated to ignore—it was too deliberate and had about it the senseless frenzy of a dictator’s speech. But though it might not be ignored, it was possible to prevent the mind from being wholly possessed by it; and Mr. Abbott hit on a way.
“This gentleman,” he said, looking toward Old Regular, “spoke a little while ago about simple things on which a hurrying world hardly wastes a thought. A doctor once told me that the best cure for an over-tired brain is to be found in the contemplation of something as simple as, say, a day-old chicken. How would it be if each of us searched our brains for the simplest thought we may have treasured there?”
He felt Penny’s rigid hand go supple and her fingers slid between his.
“I’ve always known you were nicer than anybody else could be.”
That was his happiest moment, but all he said was: “How about it?”
Mrs. Purdy set the ball rolling. She had to shut her eyes to remember the words, and after all nobody likes to be looked at when they’re saying poetry.
“I ’eard it on the wireless during the
Children’s Hour. I wish they’d be quiet for a minute and let me remember.” Everybody echoed the wish—for the same reason.
“Yes, I got it.” She swallowed and lifted up her chin. “It’s a bit of verse:
‘ ’Ow far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Will we find the stable door Lit by a star?’ ”
She stopped abruptly, guiltily almost, and added: “ ’Ark at me reciting!”
Tears sprang to Penny’s eyes and she hid them by putting her arms round Mrs. Purdy and kissing her, and while her head was buried she heard the sailor saying:
“. . . the fruit boats coming out from Colombo—catamarans they call ’em— coming out through the morning mist, loaded high with fruit.”
That was when the over-tired clergyman and two wardens brought in the youth. They did not know that he was dead until they saw his face by the lights of the shelter.
“We picked him up at the corner with a bundle of bank notes in his hand.”
They covered the body with a blanket and the clergyman knelt beside it and said a prayer which could not be heard through the noise outside. At its conclusion even the inspector said “Amen,” and afterward took possession of the notes for identification.
Cyril turned up just before the All Clear sounded, in time to be introduced.
“And you tell the young lady whether you left your bench or not,” said Mrs. Purdy, proudly.
“No one did.”
“Good, then ’ere’s your breckfirce.”
He was ready for it.
D ETWEEN the writhing fire hoses and ^ over the smoking debris of what had been a seemly street, Penny and Mr. Abbott walked toward the breaking day. The sailor was following the same direction and Mr. Abbott addressed him.
“I left a car downtown. If I still have it, can I give you a lift?”
The sailor pondered the offer. “I was making me way to Glasgow to look for a job at the docks, but with all this mess about I reckon I’ll stay ’ere and give the boys a hand clearing up.”
Mr. Abbott nodded. “Yes. I suppose one can’t build a new world without clearing away the old one.”
“That’s right, sir, and you don’t want to show the scars longer than you can ’elp.”
“No. Well, good luck.”
“Good luck, sir, and to the young lady.” Through the stark skeleton of a perished house the sun rose brave and undaunted. Very far away a cock crowed and the defiant bravura of his crowing seemed to carry the words “England can take it.”
It was treacherous going and Penny put her hand into Mr. Abbott’s as the surest way of solving a difficulty.
“It’s funny,” she said, “but I sort of feel we’ve won this war.”