The Complete Short Stories of L.P. Hartley, Page 59L. P. Hartley
‘Yes, but how did you know?’
She looked towards my disorderly writing-desk, and smiling, shook her head.
‘I recognize the signs . . . Besides——’ she caught her husband’s eye and stopped.
While I was pouring out the drinks a sort of telepathic communication stirred in me.
‘Did you come out looking for a house?’ I ventured.
Again they exchanged glances.
‘In a way,’ the man said. ‘The agent told us——’
‘That there was a house on the river that might be for sale. We wondered if we could spot it.’
‘Was that why you stopped and hailed me?’
They both coloured.
‘No,’ he said. ‘We genuinely wanted to change places, for Sylvia was getting tired. My name is Harry,’ he said hastily. ‘Harry Marchmont. We’re not the impostors that perhaps we look! But we did just think——’
‘That this house was for sale?’
‘Well, I’m the owner of it,’ I said, ‘and I can assure you that it isn’t.’
I spoke more stiffly than I meant to, but one or two other people had been sent by agents to make the same inquiry. Why had it got about that I meant to sell the house? They blushed again, more deeply than before.
‘Oh, we are so sorry,’ Mrs. Marchmont said, while her husband made inarticulate noises of apology. ‘Of course there are several other houses by the river——’
‘But not owned by a writer,’ said I, giving their embarrassment no time to wear off, ‘and not quite on the river. They are cut off from it by a tow-path.’
‘I’m sure they’re not half so nice as this one,’ Mrs. Marchmont said. She drained her glass. ‘Now, Harry, we must be getting on our way, and not waste any more of Mr. . . . Mr. Minchin’s time.’
So they knew my name, too.
We were all on our feet, the smiles of good-bye stiffening our faces, when to my great surprise I heard myself saying:
‘But as you’re here, won’t you look over the house?’
In some confusion, protesting that they mustn’t, that it was an imposition, that they had already trespassed too much on my kindness, they agreed.
We made a tour of the house, and they professed themselves delighted with everything they saw. At first their comments were strictly those of sightseers. ‘Oh, what a lovely view! And that church tower between the trees on the hill! Has anybody painted it?’ But soon their reactions grew more personal, and sharpened by the excitement of possible possession. ‘This room would be perfect for a nursery, wouldn’t it? Just put bars across the windows and a little gate outside to shut off the staircase . . . Are you married, Mr. Minchin?’
I was used to this question from women who were strangers to me.
‘Do you live in this big house all alone?’
‘I’m overhoused, but several people live here; they help me in various ways, and I give them house-room. On the whole they seem contented.’
What uphill work it was, in these days, trying to run a private house! They were anachronisms, really. But the depression I sometimes felt about my domestic situation, which was so much easier than most people’s, came of having no one at hand to grumble to, no confidant. Whereas this couple——
Mrs. Marchmont was saying: ‘Of course we shouldn’t want to alter anything. A bathroom here or there, perhaps
‘My dear, you mustn’t talk like that. It’s Mr. Minchin’s house, and he doesn’t want to sell it.’
‘Of course not, Mr. Minchin, I was just day-dreaming. But what would you do with all your beautiful things?’
‘Supposing I sold it?’
‘There I go again,’ she said, all penitence. ‘Of course you must keep it—it’s such a perfect setting for them. We should only wreck it, shouldn’t we, Harry?’
Embarrassed, he mumbled something.
My beautiful things! They had seemed so once, when one by one I had collected them: but how seldom had the glow of acquisition lasted from one side of the counter to the other! How soon one took them all for granted! Whereas the possessions of the mind!—It was the onset of old age, no doubt: once I hadn’t felt that way. Nor would a young couple coming fresh to a place, with eyes and hearts alive to pretty things, feel that way, either.
We were back in my study.
‘Well, it has been a great experience,’ said Sylvia, the spokesman of the two, ‘a great privilege, and one we didn’t deserve. We ought to have been turned out on our ears. Instead, we’ve had a glimpse of Paradise.’
‘It’s odd you should say that,’ I said, ‘for “Paradise Paddock” is the name of the house.’
‘What an unusual name, and how appropriate! Thank you so much, Mr. Minchin. Now Harry——’
She held her hand out, and I said:
‘Just one more for the river?’
They laughed and Mr. Marchmont said: ‘There’s no law against being drunk in charge of a boat.’
We drank, and his wife said: ‘Here’s good luck, Mr. Minchin. You must never, never, never sell your house.’
The words struck my heart like a knell, and involuntarily I said:
‘Supposing I wanted to sell it, would you buy it?’
‘But you don’t want to sell it.’
‘But if I did?’
The tension in my feelings must have spread to the room: it seemed to listen for their answer.
‘If you did, we should be buyers,’ said Mr. Marchmont, quietly. ‘Provided, of course . . .’
‘That we could afford it,’ put in his wife.
I felt they could; you didn’t buy a canoe to give away if you were not well off.
‘But where would you put all your lovely things?’
‘They could go with the house.’
‘Do you really mean that?’ they asked me, almost in one breath.
‘I think I do, I think I do, I must have time to think,’ I babbled.
‘Of course you must, of course you must.’ They looked at me with extreme concern, as if I had been taken ill: but hope and joy sparkled in their eyes.
‘Imagine it,’ said Mrs. Marchmont, rapt, ecstatic, as if she saw a vision. ‘Imagine living here!’
More to gain time than for any other reason I said:
‘Another for the river!’
But this time they refused.
‘Two must be our limit.’
‘Telephone me from your hotel when you get back,’ I said, ‘and I’ll let you know, one way or the other.’
Their faces fell at the uncertainty, and my heart missed a beat. Could I draw back? Had I committed myself?
‘I’ll see you safely off the premises,’ I said.
At that they smiled, and I smiled with them. But whereas I smiled in relief, that I could put off, for the moment, my decision, they smiled because their minds were made up, and they thought mine was, too. Victory! Paradise Paddock was within their grasp. It was slipping out of mine; was that defeat?
Twilight was falling when I escorted them to the landing-stage.
‘Let me go first, the steps are a bit tricky here.’
When we were safely on the lawn I said:
‘You ring me up—or shall I ring you?’
‘Oh, we’ll ring you up,’ Mr. Marchmont said. ‘You see we don’t know when we shall be back.’
We had reached the second flight of steps, that led from the garden wall to the landing-stage.
‘Oh look, the boat is still here!’ cried Mrs. Marchmont.
‘Why,’ said her husband, ‘did you think it would have floated away?’
‘I have no faith in your knots,’ his wife replied.
We laughed at this, no doubt thinking of the marriage knot. I bent down to steady the canoe: its satin-smooth surface pleased my fingers: I had little or no experience of canoes. Mrs. Marchmont lowered herself into the back seat; he scrambled into the front one. The paddles dipped and gleamed.
‘But you are going the wrong way!’
They back-watered clumsily towards me.
‘We thought we’d see a little more of the river,’ he said.
‘You won’t find another house on it,’ I warned them.
‘We don’t want to! We don’t want to!’
‘When you come by again on your way back, give me a shout,’ I said, ‘and I’ll tell you what I’ve decided—if I’ve decided anything.’
‘Please let it be yes!’
They tried to wave; the frail craft lurched and teetered, and they were off. It was only as I saw them disappearing, their white-clad figures shining on the shadowed water, their busy paddles digging puddles in it, that I was reminded of the swans.
Back at my writing-table on the terrace a black mood settled on me. I had had many such, sometimes without cause; but this one had a cause: the house itself was accusing me. Every window was an eye that looked reproach, a speaking eye that said, ‘Why are you deserting me? You have been happy here, as happy as your temperament would let you be! It was love at first sight, wasn’t it? Didn’t you make your mind up, then and there, to buy me? And think of your joy when you took possessions—vacant possession as they called it, but it wasn’t vacant, for I was here and I am still here, the genius loci, your tutelary god! You wrote round to all your friends, “Paradise Paddock is its name, and a veritable paradise it is!” How have I failed you? Why have you changed?’
I couldn’t answer, and the voice went on, ‘I’ll tell you why you have turned against me—it’s for the same reason that you took to me. You fell in love with me and now you’ve fallen in love with them—that couple that were here a moment ago. You’d never set eyes on them before but they took your fancy, just as I did, and you thought: “I can identify myself with them! Their youth shall be my youth, their happiness my happiness, their children my children, their future mine!” Yes, grey-haired Mr. Minchin, you thought you could renew yourself in them, and lead vicariously the life you never led! But I’m not so fickle! I don’t want them and their squalling children, who will deafen me with their clamour and never listen to my voice as you did, till they came. I don’t want them, I tell you, and what’s more, I won’t have them!’
The voice of jealousy, no doubt, piercing what seemed a lifetime of sad, conflicting thoughts; but I had to heed it, for I could feel the house’s enmity like a cold air at my back, feel too the threat of imminent and lasting rupture that a quarrel with an old friend brings. I tried to stop my ears but still the voice droned on, painting my future life away from Paradise Paddock in hues as dark as my own thoughts, as dark as the shadows gathering on the river, where a patch of light under the low branches might have been a swan. And not only my future, but the house’s too. For the Marchmonts wouldn’t keep it, the voice told me. Was it likely that a whim, born of being in love, fostered by a fine evening and stimulated by two dry martinis (dry, mind you) for the river, would last? With the servant difficulty, and all those flights of stairs? Oh, no, mark my words, within a year, Paradise Paddock will again be on the market, and what then? A road-house, will it be, with the river-bank a lido? Or an old people’s home, an eventide home—fast falls the eventide! Or gutted and converted into flats—homes for the homeless, but not a home for you, you will have no home. That precious word will have no meaning for you. You have given your home up to the Marchmonts.
It was then I heard the beating of the swan’s wings, a unique sound, there is nothing like it, an aspirated gasping, as if the atmosphere itself was labouring to keep that mighty body airborne, fourteen pounds of bone and flesh and fathers, the heaviest living thing that flies. It chilled my blood, for to me it was the prelude to attack, the throbbing drone of the bombers before they loosed their bombs. I could see nothing on the shrouded river, but in my mind’s eye I could see it all—the long white wings skimming towards me, and between them the bottle-shaped fuselage of body tapering to the arrowy neck and head—and, the next moment, crisis!—the necessity to think and act only in self-defence, to lose myself in anger, in mindless hostility, just as it, the swan, had.
But of course it wasn’t me the bird was after: I was on dry land, out of harm’s way. Its quarry now would be another swan—had been, perhaps, for this swan was a killer. Two or three times I’d seen a drifting body, its neck once white gnawed bare by rats or fishes. And when I reported this to the Inspector of the R.S.P.C.A., hoping to enlist his aid against the river tyrant, he only said, ‘Yes, swans are like that.’
All this went through my mind, was driven into it by those powerful wing-beats, as if by a hammer.
When, a few seconds later, the sound ceased, the air was unburdened of its urgency, and so was I; I got up as easily as if no panic spell had bound me, and took a turn along the terrace. I was my own master again and the house beside me as sightless and as speechless as any other house. A respite, but only for a moment, and then I must decide, say yes or no, and not on grounds of sentiment or fantasy. Could I afford to keep the house? Not as it should be kept. Could the Marchmonts? Apparently they could. Should I find a buyer with more feeling for it and its genius loci (how that creature had bullied me!) than they had? No, I shouldn’t. Then wasn’t it more sensible to close with an offer which might not be repeated?
The answer must be yes.
I turned to my table on the terrace with my mind made up. Ignoring the foolscap that glimmered at me I let my elbows slide along the table and in a moment—I suppose it was the release from indecision—the darkness pressed down on my eyes and took me into it.
I dreamed and it was a dark dream, for the house was dark. I entered through the study door, but nowhere could I find the switch, and when at last I found it, it didn’t work. This seemed to reinforce the darkness; I dared not move for fear of falling over something, and then I knew the house was hostile to me, something or someone didn’t want me to come in. I was an outsider, but I couldn’t get out any more than I could get in, for I couldn’t tell where the door was. Where was I? If indoors, why did branches scrape against me? And what were these white flashes whirling round me, that clove the air like feathered scimitars? I tried to cry out but instead of my own voice I heard another, a jagged line of sound that struck against my ear and seemed to call my name. ‘Mr. Minchin! Mr. Minchin!’ The thin wail rose and fell. ‘Remember to say yes,’ I told myself. ‘Yes is what you want and what they want. Yes, yes, yes, yes’—I was still saying it when I reached the river wall.
The sounds had stopped by then. Who knew how long the Marchmonts had been calling? Perhaps a long time; perhaps, getting no reply, they had given me up and were making tracks for Warmwell.
No, they were there, at least two people were who surely must be they—my visitors of who knew how long ago? My mind told me that they must be, though my eyes denied it, denied that this drenched couple in clothes no longer white but water-grey and so transparent that the skin showed through them, could be the Marchmonts. But their clothes were more recognizable than they were, for not a look I could remember, and hardly any awareness of themselves, each other, or of me, showed in their faces. The water in the canoe seemed to worry them, it was ankle-deep and they could not keep their feet still.
‘You’ve had a spill,’ I said. ‘Come in and let me find you some dry clothes.’
Neither of them answered for a moment or two: Mrs. Marchmont was the first to find her tongue.
‘No, thank you, we’ll go on. We’re not cold really. We shall be dry by the time we get to Warmwell. We stopped here because . . . Why did we stop, Harry?’
‘Because we said we would,’ he answered in a voice of which the inflexions were quite out of his control. ‘Mr. . . . Mr. . . . was going to tell us something.’
‘Look, you’ve had a shock,’ I said, ‘a nasty experience. Do come in and I’ll give you something to warm you,’
‘We did have a nasty experience,’ he said in his lilting sing-song. ‘That’s why we . . . don’t want to stay. That damned bi
rd . . . it set about us——’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘I was afraid so.’
‘It got us in the water where the banks were high. I didn’t think we could climb out, with it thrashing around. It got on to her back, the great big bugger, and would have drowned her, but I was on the bank by that time and I bashed it. . . with the paddle, you know.’
‘Did you kill it?’ I asked.
‘I think so. Do you see her dress, how torn it is, and her skin, all in ribbons. We’ll have to see a doctor.’
I looked, and looked away.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but do stay now. I’ll call a doctor, if you like.’
He shook his head. ‘We don’t think the place is healthy for us, and we’d better be off, thanks all the same. And thanks for the drinks, too—what a big drink we nearly had! And thanks for everything. Now there was something we were going to tell you, or you were going to tell us, that’s why we stopped. For the life of me, I can’t think what it was.’
‘It was about this house,’ I said, ‘Paradise Paddock. I was going to say that I would sell it if you wanted it.’
He laughed and laughed.
‘Yes, that was it. What do you think, Sylvia, old girl?’
She shook her head and said, without looking up, and still twiddling her toes in the water, ‘I’m afraid I don’t want it now.’
‘Don’t think us rude, old chap,’ her husband said, with sudden earnestness, ‘but the fact is, we don’t like your house any more. We think it’s got a hoodoo on it. We don’t want any more swan-songs.’
‘I should feel the same,’ I said, ‘if I were you.’ They shivered a little and I shivered in concert.
‘No offence meant, if we say we think this place is a bit lousy.’
‘Of course not.’
‘You find that it suits you?’
‘Well, yes and no,’ I said. ‘It may suit me better now.’ I was wondering if the swan was really dead.
‘Well, thanks for all the drinks you gave us, thanks a lot.’
‘Don’t speak of it,’ I said.
‘We shall often think of you,’ said Mrs. Marchmont suddenly, ‘sitting and writing, with all your treasures round you.’