FICTION

The Memory of a Sentimental Morning

drew Robert Squire back to Fennystone ... and the light-hearted Lucy. It seemed incredible — indeed slightly immoral —that she had married another man

RONALD R. SMITH February 15 1954
FICTION

The Memory of a Sentimental Morning

drew Robert Squire back to Fennystone ... and the light-hearted Lucy. It seemed incredible — indeed slightly immoral —that she had married another man

RONALD R. SMITH February 15 1954

The Memory of a Sentimental Morning

FICTION

drew Robert Squire back to Fennystone ... and the light-hearted Lucy. It seemed incredible — indeed slightly immoral —that she had married another man

RONALD R. SMITH

OUT OF A zinc-grey sky rain fell with oppressive resoluteness. Experienced, efficient rain such as probably fell on the twenty-first day of the Deluge, the promise of another nineteen days implicit in every drop. He tilted his head and squinted at the broken stream of water that trickled from the brim of his hat. During the nine years of his absence he had come to think of this narrow ancient English street —which had supplanted first a Roman and then a Danish street as a place of soft shadows and a picturesquely decadent sunset glow. It was romanticizing, which he deplored, but as it gave him pleasure he had continued to elaborate the engaging picture of the crazy, beamed and stuccoed fronts, smallpaned windows, jutting upper stories, leaning this way and that like two lines of tipsy burghers with here and there a Georgian house, erect, sober but tolerant. Now he saw nothing but patched, botched and ramshackle senility, apathetic under the rain, indifferent, to the returning native son.

He made a mocking face at it and lengthened his stride. Not, he was sure now, that the Turk’s

Head was going to turn out any better than the rest. But he remembered agreeably the long low cavernlike room with its adz-hewn timbers, the highly dramatic etching of Fountains Abbey by Moonlight hanging over the fireplace and the absurd boudoirstyle pink shades over the lights. He and Freeman and Scott and Micklethwaite and two or three others Freeman and Mick killed in the war; the rest, he was pretty certain, dispersed had spent many gaudy evenings in that room enthusiastically correcting the grosser errors of statesmen, dissecting poets and painters, bawling with laughter at the pretentions of established men of letters and finding considerable fault with the contemporary female. All with interjections from Bella, the barmaid. Bella, with the highbred nose and chin and the plump cheeks of a milkmaid; with her fondness for erud’te expressions which she used for comic effect : “If your metaphysical dogmas ever have any metaphysical pupmas I’d like to have one . . .

His trouser leg began to leak just below the right knee. All around him the patter and swash of water. Pounds of it in his raincoat and hat. .He could have taken a taxi at the station but he had preferred he who took great pains to avoid sentimentality-he had preferred to walk through the rain. He squelched on.

The air reeked of wet woolen clothing. Livid tubular lighting had taken the place of the pink shades; the Turk’s Head was full of evil-smelling, mauve-faced moribunds. He was glad to think that Bella would no longer be there.

“Why, if it isn’t Mr. Squire,” Bella said and offered him some whisky which he accepted. “I thought you’d gone to South Africa to live.

“No. My parents did.”

Bella was totally unchanged except that she was pale mauve and wore a pair oi glasses which gave her an air of slightly pained astonishment.

Was he coming back to the town to live? No, he was back to disillusion himself with the place once and for all, just for the week end. She’d bet he was

in London. She won her bet. He enquired if he could have a room for a couple of nights, declined the invitation to see Bessie about inspecting it, and asked her to take care of his small bag. He stood looking down into his whisky, wriggling his toes welly in his shoes. Bella, he noticed, was wearing a wedding ring.

“You’ll be married now, I expect,” Bella said.

No. He had been on the move too much since he left the army. South Africa for a little while, then Saigon, later Paris, finally London. He noted his own childish satisfaction in recounting his journeyings. How, he thought, travel narrows the mind.

“You were engaged when you joined the army, weren’t you?” she Continued on page 42

ontinued on page 12

A Sentimental Morning

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 23

shouted from halfway down the bar.

“No, I was not,” he said untruthfully and he decided that even the rain would be better than this. People were looking at him with distaste, unless that was their normal expression on a wet day.

She came back to him, leaned her plump arms, which were flecked with fading freckles, on the bar. “1 thought you were engaged to that lovely Miss Livesy.”

One ought never to go back anywhere, for any reason whatsoever. He smiled sardonically. “Well, evidently I didn’t marry the lovely Miss Livesy.”

Bella was irritated too. 'Phis was not her idea of a cosy chat about old times. “Naturally I know that. She married Mr. Welby. A lovely man. With him, a joke if you want it but no sarcasm.”

It was ridiculous, after nine years, to feel callously betrayed. Grotesque, because he had not had a thought of Lucy Livesy in his head when he decided to make the visit. Or had he? But could he expect her to have devoted her life to embroidery or dog breeding simply because she hadn’t, married him? Most people, he felt, would say, no, he couldn’t. Very well, he couldn’t. She was right, to marry. But nobody would ever persuade him that she ought to have married Welby. The exemplary Welby, who always did the right thing in such a way that it aroused in you a strong prejudice in favor of the wrong thing. “I’m very glad to hear it,” he said smiling again. “An inestimable asset to any cultured household, Mr. Welby.”

“And good-looking too.” She was moving down the bar again as she spoke, out to shouting range. “A lot better-looking than you.”

“Oh, incommensurably.”

HE WAS thinking of a lovely sad autumn morning of mist and sun. He was with Lucy in her little car —how it had embittered him that she should have a sports car of her own when he had nothing but the old family horseless carriage which had the air of having strayed out? of a funeral procession and which, anyway, was never available when he wanted it. The cool wind had made her eyes bright with tears so that she seemed to be part of, to embody, the lovely sad morning. About four miles beyond Fennystone they had found that a section of two feet or more had fallen clean out. of the old stone humpbacked bridge over the Lidder. “Oh, she’ll jump that, won’t she?” Lucy said. He had grave doubts but he said: “Of course. Shall I take her over?” She was already reversing to get a take-off. “Not worth the trouble of changing seats.” The little car howled down the slope toward the bridge, snarling as she changed gear. Already his ears were full of the crack and rumble as a further section of the bridge collapsed under the impact of the car. As though he were standing apart, watching, he saw the car claw at the far, crumbling side of the gap and then slide squealing backward into the swift green water . . . The little car mounted the hump at speed. For a moment they were airborne. The rear tires rasped. They were over. Nothing had crumbled. Lucy said: “We’d better call at the

police station at Ecclesmoor and let them know about the bridge.”

Then they were sweeping up the far

side of the valley, through the belt of trees which were wreathed with gilded mist and cut by oblique shafts of sunlight. “Did you ever see anything more enchanting?” Lucy said. To reassert himself a little he remembered saying: “A trifle overdone, don’t you

think? Slightly trompe-Voeil." That was the day he and Lucy more or less decided that they completed each other. Now she was married to Welby. Had the poor girl not realized the scandalous immorality of allying herself with a man so triumphantly mediocre as Welby?

“V/ O IJ’LL be going to see them, 1 J. expect?” Bella said, returning. “Certainly not.”

“I know what you think Mr. Welby’s like. Well, lie’s not like that. He still comes in here now and then and he’s as nice as can be to everybody.”

Squire hurriedly drained his glass and began to button his raincoat.

“You’re soaked. It’s still raining. You’re surely not—”

“I’m one of those people who like the feel of the rain in their faces, Bella. We’ll continue our jolly reminiscing later perhaps, eh?” He thrust his way

through the heavy odor of the sheepfold toward the door.

It was a swing door and refused to swing. He pushed harder, petulantly. He took a pace back to get a better purchase and the door swung open in his face. The man pushing on the outside apologized and then said: “Why, good heavens, it’s Bob Squire.”

Squire sighed. Welby was dressed in a grey autumn overcoat, a rich foulard discreetly puffed under his chin, a dark grey hat. A few globules of rain sparkled elegantly on his shoulders. Not too handsome, the virile

pipe-smoking type, Squire thought derisively, the creation of one of our more refined right-thinking lady novelists. But he suddenly began to feel rather pathetic, hangdog, in his sodden clothes. Welby was shaking his hand with such warmth that it must have stirred the hearts of the spectators. It was annoying, humiliating even. Swiftly Squire decided to be cool, ironic, the disabused man of the world, delicately but unmistakably distant. But before he could act on the decision Welby was dragging him to the bar for a drink like a detective arresting

a rueful but impenitent pickpocket.

Later, in Welby’s car, splashing through the rain he pretended to be furious with himself for allowing Welby to take control like that. But he knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t have allowed it if he hadn’t wanted to. If Welby hadn’t turned up he would have contrived some way of seeing—merely seeing, of course, out of simple and natural curiosity—Lucy. What really did exasperate him was the inconsequent way Welby announced that he would have to go out for about an hour but that Lucy and he—Squire—would

have plenty to talk about, wouldn’t they? A minimum of good manners, if nothing else, surely demanded that Welby should have displayed at least a little jealousy of Lucy’s former fiancé.

Welby was informing Squire that Saigon was in French Indo-China. Squire felt that Welby’s conversation was unlikely to add anything to his mental development so he did not bother to listen. What were Lucy’s reactions going to be? What had Lucy become under the Welbian tutelage? A plump provincial housewife, a prod-

igy of housewifely lore, knowing instantly how to remove a coffee stain from a white linen tablecloth, an expert at transmuting the scraps left over from yesterday’s joint into an appetizing and nourishing dish sufficient for four people, a coveter of her neighbor’s new refrigerator . . .? Surely not, surely not . . . Through the smeared windscreen, through the veil of rain Squire could see the spire of the cathedral soaring up into the gloom, a portentous, upraised finger, which for six centuries had been superbly admonishing—with what success? - the sinful of the diocese. What had Lucy become? How would she behave when she saw him? There had been no brawl when the break came; soldiering, he had simply ceased to answer her letters . . .

WHY DID you stop writing to me?” Lucy said.

They had been alone together for almost twenty' minutes, sitting at either side of the bright shallow fire. Steam rose from t he bottoms of Squire’s trousers he had refused categorically to change into a pair of Welby’s flannels. They had both consistently addressed t heir observations to the fire as though it were an interpreter. They had dealt pretty exhaustively with the weather it was still raining and t hen broadened the subject to climates, French Indo-China, France, the north and south of England. And now abruptly Lucy asked: "Why did you

stop writing to me, Robert?”

She was plumper. But it was a maturing, a ripening, and becoming, very becoming. And she st ill had that sensitive tremulous movement of her lips immediately before she spoke so that if you know her intimately you knew whether what she was about to say would be grave or gay. Squire was almost certain that she had paled when she first recognized him. But the light in the hall had been so dim and Welby had flooded the confined space with so much hearty hospitality that they had all been floundering up to the chin in it and he could not be sure.

“Why, Robert?”

“It isn’t really easy to explain,” he said, looking into the fire. “Chiefly because the explanation is so absurdly simple. It lacks credibility.”

“You used not to doubt my ability to understand you.”

He looked up quickly but she was gazing down at. her hands clasped in her lap. Her wedding ring was concealed. Was it a subconscious gesture or an accident?

“I’ll try to explain,” he said.

The rumor had gone round the regiment that they were to be sent to North Africa and for no reason at all he had suddenly had the profound unshakable conviction that he was going to be killed on the desert. He smiled into the fire. “Don’t get the wrong idea about this. I didn’t, as you might suppose, certainly as I would have supposed myself, go around tragiceyed, white-faced, gnawing my fingernails. On the contrary life had never been so amusing. I felt liberated. Literally, for the first time in my life I felt free. No more problems. No more straining to see into the future. Simply one and only one — more bridge to cross. So, briefly, I anticipated the bridge-crossing and cut all my communications. I stopped writing letters. To everybody, Lucy.” He raised bis eyes. She had picked up a book and was running her forefinger along the fore edge. “I knew you wouldn’t understand,” he said.

“I do. But wasn’t it rather cruel?” “Ah, but you forget my condition. 1 was happy, granted. Life was intoxicatingly pleasant. But I was also dead,

to all intents and purposes a corpse. And what has a dead man to do with the living? It would have seemed sheer presumption for me to behave as though I were enduring flesh and blood like other people, sheer false pretense to go on acting as though I would eventually honor obligations to the living.”

Lucy did not speak. He tossed his cigarette into the fire, watched it writhe and burn. “Of course, I know now that I was behaving like an idiot. And it was not long before 1 realized it then. After 1 had had my second tank shot from under me 1 became convinced just as unshakably that at the price of eternal vigilance I could stay whole or wholish. And I was vigilant. Quite remarkably vigilant.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Of course it was too late then to do anything, the harm had been done. Not that it wits harm for you; quite the reverse, I can see that.”

Suddenly Squire had another conviction, immediate and horrible: that

his tale of intoxicating freedom and living corpses substantially true

sounded so comic that Lucy must be having difficulty in suppressing tin outburst of irreverent laughter. He looked up promptly.

Lucy was gripping the book in both bands. Her head was bent and her checks and ears had become quite pink. 'The corners of her mouth were curled up in what looked like the beginning of a smile. Squire recognized the symptom at once.

He got to his feet and crossed the room to confront a painting of a buxom young girl which hung above a low stack of bookshelves. It turned out to be a reproduction of Hogarth’s portrait of his sister. Curious taste, he thought, very odd indeed, when they could probably have got a Picasso reproduction of a woman with three eyes and a forearm a yard long for the same price. He wondered whose peculiar choice it was, Welby’s or Lucy’s. (Or rather that is what he set out to wonder; actually he was thinking and experiencing both discomfort and some relief at the thought that Lucy was about to start crying.

“I’m not going to cry, you know,” Lucy said shakily. “When you spoke of crossing bridges it made me think of that enchanting October morning and the broken bridge over the ladder —you remember?”

He continued to scrutinize the rounded chin and the pert nose of the sister of the father of the English school of painting. “Of course.”

“If I had cried it would have been over those two young people. They were rather nice, rather touching, weren’t they?”

He deserted Hogarth’s sister. Lucy spoke of the “young people” as though she were the oldest inhabitant. He did not feel at all inclined to take a sort of grandfatherly interest in his and Lucy’s younger selves. “You were. 1 was a bit of a prig.”

Her eyes were precariously dry, her voice trembled slightly. “No, you were not. You were so charmingly boyish and trying so hard to be mature.”

Squire returned to Hogarth’s sister, if the charming hoy, he thought, had been aware that she was harboring such outrageously disrespectful thoughts about him he would probably have strangled Lucy, put the body in a trunk and taken it to the left-luggage office at the railway station. Or thought seriously about it —not being much of a man of action.

“You know I’m terribly happy with John and Christopher,” she said. “It wasn’t that l wanted to cry about.”

was Welby, Christopher their thr:e-year-old SOfl. Squire took his

gftime lighting a cigarette. Once again, as when Welby had first announced that he was a father with fatuous pride, Squire considered, as though the event was the fruit of unbelievable skill and industry far beyond the range of ordinary men once again Squire was appalled at Lucy’s monstrous behavior in having a son. But he had not come to moralize, he was determined to he magnanimous.

“As soon as 1 saw you,” he said, “1 knew you had no need to cry about /hat."

It was debatable whether there was any reason to cry about anything. To all appearances, and fantastically enough, she was in fact happy with Welby. Another fact was that the Welbys of this world do, in many ways, make excellent husbands. But I’m far too reasonable, he thought. Far. I allow myself to be influenced too much by. mere facts. I must learn to indulge my prejudices more. Nevertheless, Lucy was happy with Welby. But only if I’m not there, he thought. Always with that proviso. I am a “disturbing* influence.” He derived satisfaction from the reflection.

He abandoned Hogarth’s sister, finally, for the last time, to find Lucy king into the fire. If this house, he thought, had been centrally heated this conversation simply couldn’t have taken place. He said: “1 don’t really understand why you should want to cry over that young couple, charming, very charming as one half of it was.”

He looked down at the tip of his cigarette as she slowly turned her face.

“Because they are gone, Robert. Gone as though they had never existed. Nothing remains of them.”

He nodded at the tip of his cigarette. In a modest way it was ingenious. It explained away her emotion and demonstrated her loyalty to the ineffable Welby. Ingenious but by no means true. A great deal of them remained. He decided to give himself the pleasure of proving it. He raised his eyes, half-smiling.

But when he met Lucy’s eyes he stopped smiling. And the automatic mechanism of his mockery was too slow to help him. He was moved

and deeply before it had time to come into action. He took an involuntary pace toward her, changed direction immediately and ended across the room at a low table tapping the ash from his cigarette into an inadequate ash tray. Her eyes had been bright with anxiety, with uncertainty of herself and quite candidly belied the words she had just spoken. Equally candidly they begged him to go. It was a disquieting tribute to his “disturbing influence.”

Chivalry had reared its ugly head and savaged him. Saddening. He straightened up. “They’re gone, yes.” He smiled. “And as far as the youngman is concerned I’m inclined to thank God. And now it’s time I was going too, Lucy.”

She paid him the compliment of not protesting, though his hag was on the hall stand and it had been understood that he would stay over the week end. Doubtless she would know how to deal with Welby.

In the hall she helped him on with his raincoat. “Oh, it’s so wet,” she said. “So wet.” She tried to persuade him to call a taxi. He preferred to walk, he said. Anybody, he thought, who allows himself to be reduced to this level of noble self-abnegation, of lofty altruism, deserves to get wet.

Her hand when he took it was cold. Her forehead was hot to his I ip« as he bent and kissed her lightly. “Goodby, Lucy.”

“Good-by, Robert,” she; whispered. Neither added anything.

(T WAS STILL raining steadily.

Long reflections zigzagged along the streaming roadway from the street lamps. As he walked he thought: Now she can go up to her room and have the cry we have discussed so extensively. And for a few days, perhaps as long as a week, feel delightfully tragic. Maybe for a couple of days even become pallid and lost' her appetite. When, no doubt, the ever-solicitous Welby will advise a course of digestive tablets which I hope earns him a sharp rebuke. At the end of a couple of weeks she will

be reflecting that I yielded to her plea to leave far too unprotestingly; within six —if she thinks of me at all—that I am an insensitive and unpredictable character only moderately bright. He sighed. But he felt a melancholy yet extremely agreeable little glow. Virtue rewarding itself, he thought, and realized that he must pull himself together. That sort of thing might be dangerously habit-forming.

He looked round alertly. Crossthatched by the rain, the light of a telephone booth caught his attention. It occurred to him that his urge to

walk in the rain was possibly morbid and had, in any case, been more than satisfied. He consulted his watch. He would have time for a meal and still be able to catch the ten-five south. Time for a leisurely meal even. With a half bottle of burgundy if they were prepared to grill him a steak.

He called a taxi. He would have liked to tell the man to hurry but it was against his principles to urge people to hurry because the glow had already gone and he had an achingly empty feeling. He was anxious to ind out if a steak would cure it. ★