The Apple Tree: a short novel & several long storiesDaphne Du Maurier
The Apple Tree: a short novel & several long stories
Daphne Du Maurier
A collection of sinister and macabre short stories by Daphne du Maurier, including "The Birds" on which Hitchcock famously based his film of the same name.
Daphne du Maurier
The Apple Tree: a short novel & several long stories
THEY TOLD ME afterwards they had found nothing. No trace of anyone, living or dead. Maddened by anger, and I believe by fear, they had succeeded at last in breaking into those forbidden walls, dreaded and shunned through countless years — to be met by silence. Frustrated, bewildered, frightened, driven to fury at the sight of those empty cells, that bare court, the valley people resorted to the primitive methods that have served so many peasants through so many centuries: fire and destruction.
It was the only answer, I suppose, to something they did not understand. Then, their anger spent, they must have realised that nothing of any purpose had been destroyed. The smouldering and blackened walls that met their eyes in the starry, frozen dawn had cheated them in the end.
Search parties were sent out, of course. The more experienced climbers amongst them, undaunted by the bare rock of the mountain summit, covered the whole ridge, from north to south, from east to west, with no result.
And that is the end of the story. Nothing more is known.
Two men from the village helped me to carry Victor's body to the valley, and he was buried at the foot of Monte Verità. I think I envied him, at peace there. He had kept his dream.
As to myself, my old life claimed me again. The second war churned up the world once more. Today, approaching seventy, I have few illusions; yet often I think of Monte Verità and wonder what could have been the final answer.
I have three theories, but none of them may be true.
The first, and the most fantastic, is that Victor was right, after all, to hold to his belief that the inhabitants of Monte Verità had reached some strange state of immortality which gave them power when the hour of need arrived, so that, like the prophets of old, they vanished into the heavens. The ancient Greeks believed this of their gods, the Jews believed it of Elijah, the Christians of their Founder. Throughout the long history of religious superstition and credulity runs this ever-recurrent conviction that some persons attain such holiness and power that death can be overcome. This faith is strong in eastern countries, and in Africa; it is only to our sophisticated western eyes that the disappearance of things tangible, of persons of flesh and blood, seems impossible.
Religious teachers disagree when they try to show the difference between good and evil: what is a miracle to one becomes black magic to another. The good prophets have been stoned, but so have the witch-doctors. Blasphemy in one age becomes holy utterance in the next, and this day's heresy is tomorrow's credo.
I am no great thinker, and never have been. But this I do know, from my old climbing days: that in the mountains we come closest to whatever Being it is that rules our destiny. The great utterances of old were given from the mountain tops: it was always to the hills that the prophets climbed. The saints, the messiahs, were gathered to their fathers in the clouds. It is credible to me, in my more solemn moods, that the hand of magic reached down that night to Monte Verità and plucked those souls to safety.
Remember, I myself saw the full moon shining upon that mountain. I also, at midday, saw the sun. What I saw and heard and felt was not of this world. I think of the rock-face, with the moon upon it; I hear the chanting from the forbidden walls; I see the crevasse, cupped like a chalice between the twin peaks of the mountain; I hear the laughter; I see the bare bronzed arms outstretched to the sun.
When I remember these things, I believe in immortality…
Then — and this is perhaps because my climbing days are over, and the magic of the mountains loses its grip over old memories, as it does over old limbs — I remind myself that the eyes I looked into that last day on Monte Verità were the eyes of a living, breathing person, and the hands I touched were flesh.
Even the spoken words belonged to a human being. "Please do not concern yourself with us. We know what we must do." And then that final, tragic word, "Let Victor keep his dream."
So my second theory comes into being, and I see nightfall, and the stars, and the courage of that soul which chose the wisest way for itself and for the others; and awhile I returned to Victor, and the people from the valley gathered themselves together for the assault, the little band of believers, the last company of those seekers after Truth, climbed to that crevasse, between the peaks, and so were lost.
My third theory is one that comes to me in moods more cynical, more lonely, when, having dined well with friends who mean little to me, I take myself home to my apartment in New York. Looking from the window at the fantastic light and colour of my glittering fairy-world of fact that holds no tenderness, no quietude, I long suddenly for peace, for understanding. Then, I tell myself, perhaps the inhabitants of Monte Verità had long prepared themselves against departure, and when the moment came it found them ready, neither for immortality nor for death, but for the world of men and women. In stealth, in secret, they came down into the valley unobserved, and, mingling with the people, went their separate ways. I wonder, looking down from my apartment into the hub and hustle of my world, if some of them wander there, in the crowded streets and subways, and whether, if I went out and searched the passing faces, I should find such a one and have my answer.
Sometimes, when travelling, I have fancied to myself, in coming upon a stranger, that there is something exceptional in the turn of a head, in the expression of an eye, that is at once compelling and strange. I want to speak, and hold such a person instantly in conversation, but — possibly it is my fancy — it is as though some instinct warns them. A momentary pause, a hesitation, and they are gone. It might be in a train, or in some crowded thoroughfare, and for one brief moment I am aware of someone with more than earthly beauty and human grace, and I want to stretch out my hand and say, swiftly, softly, "Were you among those I saw on Monte Verità?" But there is never time. They vanish, they are gone, and I am alone again, with my third theory still unproven.
As I grow older — nearly seventy, as I have said, and memory shortens with the lengthening years — the story of Monte Verità becomes more dim to me, and more improbable, and because of this I have a great urge to write it down before memory fails me altogether. It may be that someone reading it will have the love of mountains that I had once, and so bring his own understanding to the tale, his own interpretation.
One word of warning. There are many mountain peaks in Europe, and countless numbers may bear the name of Monte Verità. They can be found in Switzerland, in France, in Spain, in Italy, in the Tyrol. I prefer to give no precise locality to mine. In these days, after two world wars, no mountain seems inaccessible. All can be climbed. None, with due caution, need be dangerous. My Monte Verità was never shunned because of diiliculties of height, of ice and snow. The track leading to the summit could be followed by anyone of sure and certain step, even in late autumn. No common danger kept the climber back, but awe and fear.
I have little doubt that today my Monte Verità has been plotted upon the map with all the others. There may be resting camps near the summit, even an hotel in the little village on the eastern slopes, and the tourist lifted to the twin peaks by electric cable. Even so, I like to think there can be no final desecration, that at midnight, when the full moon rises, the mountain face is still inviolate, unchanged, and that in winter, when snow and ice, great wind and drifting cloud m
ake the climb impassable to man, the rock-face of Monte Verità, her twin peaks lifted to the sun, stares down in silence and compassion upon a blinded world.
We were boys together, Victor and I. We were both at Marlborough, and went up to Cambridge the same year. In those days I was his greatest friend, and if we did not see so much of each other after we left the 'Varsity it was only because we moved in rather different worlds: my work took me much abroad, while he was busily employed running his own estate up in Shropshire. When we saw each other, we resumed our friendship without any sense of having grown apart.
My work was absorbing, so was his; but we had money enough, and leisure too, to indulge in our favourite pastime, which was climbing. The modern expert, with his equipment and his scientific training, would think our expeditions amateur in the extreme — I am talking of the idyllic days before the first world war — and, looking back on them, I suppose they were just that. Certainly there was nothing professional about the two young men who used to cling with hands and feet to those projecting rocks in Cumberland and Wales, and later, when some experience was gained, tried the more hazardous ascents in southern Europe.
In time we became less foolhardy and more weather-wise, and learnt to treat our mountains with respect — not as an enemy to be conquered, but as an ally to be won. We used to climb, Victor and I, from no desire for danger or because we wanted to add mountain peaks to our repertoire of achievement. We climbed from desire, because we loved the thing we won.
The moods of a mountain can be more varying, more swiftly-changing, than any woman's, bringing joy, and fear, and also great repose. The urge to climb will never be explained. In olden days, perhaps, it was a wish to reach the stars. Today, anyone so minded can buy a seat on a 'plane and feel himself master of the skies. Even so, he will no have rock under his feet, or air upon his face; nor will he know the silence that comes only on the hills.
The best hours of my life were spent, when I was young, upon the mountains. That urge to spill all energy, all thought, to be as nothing, blotted against the sky — we called it mountain fever, Victor and I. He used to recover from the experience more quickly than I did. He would look about him, methodical, careful, planning the descent, while I was lost in wonder, locked in a dream I could not understand. Endurance had been tested, the summit was ours, but something indefinable waited to be won. Always it was denied me, the experience I desired, and something seemed to tell me the fault was in myself But they were good days. The finest I have known…
One summer, shortly after I returned to London from a business trip to Canada, a letter arrived from Victor, written in tremendous spirits. He was engaged to be married. He was, in fact, to be married very soon. She was the loveliest girl he had ever seen, and would I be his best man? I wrote back, as one does on these occasions, expressing myself delighted and wishing him all the happiness in the world. A confirmed bachelor myself; I considered him yet another good friend lost, the best of all, bogged down in domesticity.
The bride-to-be was Welsh and lived just over the border from Victor's place in Shropshire. "And would you believe it," said Victor in a second letter, "she has never as much as set foot on Snowdon! I am going to take her education in hand." I could imagine nothing I should dislike more than trailing an inexperienced girl after me on any mountain.
A third letter announced Victor's arrival in London, and hers too, in all the bustle and preparation of the wedding. I invited both of them to luncheon. I don't know what I expected. Someone small, I think, and dark and stocky, with handsome eyes. Certainly not the beauty that came forward, putting out her hand to me and saying, "I am Anna."
In those days, before world war one, young women did not use make-up. Anna was free of lipstick, and her gold hair was rolled in great coils over her ears. I remember staring at her, at her incredible beauty, and Victor laughed, very pleased, and said, "What did I tell you?" We sat down to lunch, and the three of us were soon at ease and chatting comfortably. A certain reserve was part of her charm, but because she knew I was Victor's greatest friend I felt myself accepted, and liked into the bargain.
Victor certainly was lucky, I said to myself, and any doubt I might have felt about the marriage went on sight of her. Inevitably, with Victor and myself the conversation turned to mountains, and to climbing, before lunch was halfway through.
"So you are going to marry a man whose hobby is climbing mountains," I said to her, "and you've never even gone up your own Snowdon."
"No," she said, "no, I never have."
Some hesitation in her voice made me wonder. A little frown had come between those two very perfect eyes.
"Why?" I asked. "It's almost criminal to be Welsh, and know nothing of your highest mountain."
Victor interrupted. "Anna is scared," he said. "Every time I suggest an expedition she thinks out an excuse."
She turned to him swiftly. "No, Victor," she said, "it's not that. You just don't understand. I'm not afraid of climbing."
"What is it, then?" he said. He put out his hand and held hers on the table. I could see how devoted he was to her, and how happy they were likely to become. She looked across at me, feeling me, as it were, with her eyes, and suddenly I knew instinctively what she was going to say.
"Mountains are very demanding," she said. "You have to give everything. It's wiser, for someone like myself, to keep away."
I understood what she meant, at least I thought then that I did; but because Victor was in love with her, and she was in love with him, it seemed to me that nothing could be better than the fact that they might share the same hobby, once her initial awe was overcome.
"But that's splendid," I said, "you've got just the right approach to mountain climbing. Of course you have to give everything, but together you can achieve that. Victor won't let you attempt anything beyond you. He's more cautious than I am."
Anna smiled, and then withdrew her hand from Victor's on the table.
"You are both very obstinate," she said, "and you neither of you understand. I was born in the hills. I know what I mean."
And then some mutual friend of Victor's and my own came up to the table to be introduced, and there was no more talk of mountains.
They were married about six weeks later, and I have never seen a lovelier bride than Anna. Victor was pale with nerves, I remember well, and I thought what a responsibility lay on his shoulders, to make this girl happy for all time.
I saw much of her during the six weeks of their engagement, and, though Victor never realised it for one instant, came to love her as much as he did. It was not her natural charm, nor yet her beauty, but a strange blending of both, a kind of inner radiance, that drew me to her. My only fear for their future was that Victor might be a little too boisterous, too light-hearted and cheerful — his was a very open, simple nature — and that she might withdraw into herself because of it. Certainly they made a handsome pair as they drove off after the reception — given by an elderly aunt of Anna's, for her parents were dead — and I sentimentally looked forward to staying with them in Shropshire, and being godfather to the first child.
Business took me away shortly after the wedding, and it was not until the following December that I heard from Victor, asking me down for Christmas. I accepted gladly.
They had then been married about eight months. Victor looked fit and very happy, and Anna, it seemed to me, more beautiful than ever. It was hard to take my eyes off her. They gave me a great welcome, and I settled down to a peaceful week in Victor's fine old home, which I knew well from previous visits. The marriage was most definitely a success, that I could tell from the first. And if there appeared to be no heir on the way, there was plenty of time for that.
We walked about the estate, shot a little, read in the evenings, and were a most contented trio.
I noticed that Victor had adapted himself to Anna's quieter personality, though quiet, perhaps, is hardly the right definition for her gift of stillness. This stillness — for there is no other wo
rd for it — came from some depth within her and put a spell upon the whole house. It had always been a pleasant place in which to stay, with its lofty rambling rooms and mullioned windows; but now the peaceful atmosphere was somehow intensified and deepened, and it was as though every room had become impregnated with a strange brooding silence, to my mind quite remarkable, and much more than merely restful, as it had been before.
It is odd, but looking back to that Christmas week I can recollect nothing of the traditional festivity itself. I don't remember what we ate or drank, or whether we set foot inside the church, which surely we must have done, with Victor as the local squire. I can only remember the quite indescribable peace of the evenings, when the shutters had been fastened and we sat before the fire in the great hall. My business trip must have tired me more than I realised, for sitting there, in Victor and Anna's home, I had no desire to do anything but relax and give myself up to this blessed, healing silence.
The other change that had come upon the house, which I did not fully take in until I had been there a few days, was that it was much barer than it had been before. The multiple odds and ends, and the collection of furniture handed down from Victor's forebears, seemed to have disappeared. The big rooms were now sparse and the great hall, where we sat, had nothing in it but a long refectory table and the chairs before the open fire. It seemed very right that it should be so, yet, thinking about it, it was an odd change for a woman to make. The usual habit of a bride is to buy new curtains and carpets, to bring the feminine touch into a bachelor house. I ventured to remark upon it to Victor.
"Oh yes," he said, looking about him vaguely, "we have cleared out a lot of stuff. It was Anna's idea. She doesn't believe in possessions, you know. No, we didn't have a sale, or anything like that. We gave them all away."
The spare room allotted to me was the one I had always used in the past, and this was pretty much as it had been before. And I had the same old comforts — cans of hot water, early tea, biscuits by my bed, cigarette box filled, all the touches of a thoughtful hostess.