The Complete Short Stories of L.P. Hartley, Page 60L. P. Hartley
My heart sank, then soared.
‘So you won’t be settling in Warmwell?’
‘Not on your life, not on your life . . . Or ours,’ he added. ‘Excuse me—no offence intended.’
‘I’m sorry about that,’ I said. ‘But you know best.’ I saw that they were longing to be off, but didn’t quite know how to take their leave.
‘Let’s tip the water out of the boat,’ I suggested. ‘You’ll be more comfortable so.’
‘Don’t tip us out with it!’
‘You’ll have to debark first,’ I said.
‘We had forgotten that,’ he said shakily.
When the operation was completed, and they were settled in again, he suddenly said: ‘Would you accept this canoe as a memento, Mr. . . . Mr. . . . ?’
‘Minchin,’ put in his wife.
‘Minchin, of course.’
‘Most gratefully,’ I said.
‘I’ll have it sent to Paradise Paddock, then . . .’ He thought for a moment. ‘Happy days,’ he said. ‘Have a good time,’ said his wife, in an uncertain voice.
But they were already gone, and in a minute or two the darkness closed behind them.
I lingered by the river, trying to regain my faith in it, as one sometimes does with a friend after a quarrel. Mutely I apostrophized it. ‘You have let me down, you have let me down! What have you to say?’ But it was voiceless: the stealthy rustlings and stirring under the tree-laden banks were not meant for any ears, mine least of all. How vain to hope from nature a reciprocating mood, I thought—when suddenly, as though in answer to my thought, a V-shaped ripple stole along the river setting the water lapping at my feet, and after it a swan, a solitary swan. How changed she was! The anxious turning of the head from side to side, the questing, peering look, the jerky progress, that had lost its stately rhythm—they were quite unlike her; but most unlike was the little cry or call, louder than a moan, softer than a croak, that issued from her parted, yellow beak, which was so much less fearsome than his orange one.
She has never had to call for him before, I thought, and now he will not hear her.
There was nothing more to wait for; the air was turning cool; I had an irrational feeling that my clothes were wet. Stiffly I got up and climbed back to the house—my house, for it was mine after all: the swan had saved it for me. A moment’s doubt remained: would the switch work? It did, and showed me what was still my own.
SOMEONE IN THE LIFT
‘There’s someone coming down in the lift, Mummy!’
‘No, my darling, you’re wrong, there isn’t.’
‘But I can see him through the bars—a tall gentleman.’
‘You think you can, but it’s only a shadow. Now, you’ll see, the lift’s empty.’
And it always was.
This piece of dialogue, or variations of it, had been repeated at intervals ever since Mr. and Mrs. Maldon and their son Peter had arrived at the Brompton Court Hotel, where, owing to a domestic crisis, they were going to spend Christmas. New to hotel life, the little boy had never seen a lift before and he was fascinated by it. When either of his parents pressed the button to summon it he would take up his stand some distance away to watch it coming down.
The ground floor had a high ceiling so the lift was visible for some seconds before it touched floor level: and it was then, at its first appearance, that Peter saw the figure. It was always in the same place, facing him in the left-hand corner. He couldn’t see it plainly, of course, because of the double grille, the gate of the lift and the gate of the lift-shaft, both of which had to be firmly closed before the lift would work.
He had been told not to use the lift by himself—an unnecessary warning, because he connected the lift with the things that grown-up people did, and unlike most small boys he wasn’t over-anxious to share the privileges of his elders: he was content to wonder and admire. The lift appealed to him more as magic than as mechanism. Acceptance of magic made it possible for him to believe that the lift had an occupant when he first saw it, in spite of the demonstrable fact that when it came to rest, giving its fascinating click of finality, the occupant had disappeared.
‘If you don’t believe me, ask Daddy,’ his mother said.
Peter didn’t want to do this, and for two reasons, one of which was easier to explain than the other.
‘Daddy would say I was being silly,’ he said.
‘Oh no, he wouldn’t, he never says you’re silly.’
This was not quite true. Like all well-regulated modern fathers, Mr. Maldon was aware of the danger of offending a son of tender years: the psychological results might be regrettable. But Freud or no Freud, fathers are still fathers, and sometimes when Peter irritated him Mr. Maldon would let fly. Although he was fond of him, Peter’s private vision of his father was of someone more authoritative and awe-inspiring than a stranger, seeing them together, would have guessed.
The other reason, which Peter didn’t divulge, was more fantastic. He hadn’t asked his father because, when his father was with him, he couldn’t see the figure in the lift.
Mrs. Maldon remembered the conversation and told her husband of it. ‘The lift’s in a dark place,’ she said, ‘and I dare say he does see something, he’s so much nearer to the ground than we are. The bars may cast a shadow and make a sort of pattern that we can’t see. I don’t know if it’s frightening him, but you might have a word with him about it.’
At first Peter was more interested than frightened. Then he began to evolve a theory. If the figure only appeared in his father’s absence, didn’t it follow that the figure might be, could be, must be, his own father? In what region of his consciousness Peter believed this it would be hard to say; but for imaginative purposes he did believe it and the figure became for him ‘Daddy in the lift’. The thought of Daddy in the lift did frighten him, and the neighbourhood of the lift-shaft, in which he felt compelled to hang about, became a place of dread.
Christmas Day was drawing near and the hotel began to deck itself with evergreens. Suspended at the foot of the staircase, in front of the lift, was a bunch of mistletoe, and it was this that gave Mr. Maldon his idea.
As they were standing under it, waiting for the lift, he said to Peter:
‘Your mother tells me you’ve seen someone in the lift who isn’t there.’
His voice sounded more accusing than he meant it to, and Peter shrank.
‘Oh, not now,’ he said, truthfully enough. ‘Only sometimes.’
‘Your mother told me that you always saw it,’ his father said, again more sternly than he meant to. ‘And do you know who I think it may be?’
Caught by a gust of terror Peter cried, ‘Oh, please don’t tell me!’
‘Why, you silly boy,’ said his father reasonably. ‘Don’t you want to know?’
Ashamed of his cowardice, Peter said he did.
‘Why, it’s Father Christmas, of course!’
Relief surged through Peter.
‘But doesn’t Father Christmas come down the chimney?’ he asked.
‘That was in the old days. He doesn’t now. Now he takes the lift!’
Peter thought a moment.
‘Will you dress up as Father Christmas this year,’ he asked, ‘even though it’s an hotel?’
‘And come down in the lift?’
‘I shouldn’t wonder.’
After this Peter felt happier about the shadowy passenger behind the bars. Father Christmas couldn’t hurt anyone, even if he was (as Peter now believed him to be) his own father. Peter was only six but he could remember two Christmas Eves when his father had dressed up as Santa Claus and given him a delicious thrill. He could hardly wait for this one, when the apparition in the corner would at last become a reality.
Alas, two days before Christmas Day the lift broke down. On every floor it served, and there were five (six counting the basement), the forbidding notice ‘Out of Order’
dangled from the door-handle. Peter complained as loudly as anyone, though secretly, he couldn’t have told why, he was glad that the lift no longer functioned; and he didn’t mind climbing the four flights to his room, which opened out of his parents’ room but had its own door too. By using the stairs he met the workmen (he never knew on which floor they would be) and from them gleaned the latest news about the lift-crisis. They were working overtime, they told him, and were just as anxious as he to see the last of the job. Sometimes they even told each other to put a jerk into it. Always Peter asked them when they would be finished, and they always answered, ‘Christmas Eve at latest.’
Peter didn’t doubt this. To him the workmen were infallible, possessed of magic powers capable of suspending the ordinary laws that governed lifts. Look how they left the gates open, and shouted to each other up and down the awesome lift-shaft, paying as little attention to the other hotel visitors as if they didn’t exist! Only to Peter did they vouchsafe a word.
But Christmas Eve came, the morning passed, the afternoon passed, and still the lift didn’t go. The men were working with set faces and a controlled hurry in their movements; they didn’t even return Peter’s ‘Good night’ when he passed them on his way to bed. Bed! He had begged to be allowed to stay up this once for dinner; he knew he wouldn’t go to sleep, he said, till Father Christmas came. He lay awake, listening to the urgent voices of the men, wondering if each hammer-stroke would be the last; and then, just as the clamour was subsiding, he dropped off.
Dreaming, he felt adrift in time. Could it be midnight? No, because his parents had after all consented to his going down to dinner. Now was the time. Averting his eyes from the forbidden lift he stole downstairs. There was a clock in the hall, but it had stopped. In the dining-room there was another clock; but dared he go into the dining-room alone, with no one to guide him and everybody looking at him?
He ventured in, and there, at their table, which he couldn’t always pick out, he saw his mother. She saw him, too, and came towards him, threading her way between the tables as if they were just bits of furniture, not alien islands under hostile sway.
‘Darling,’ she said, ‘I couldn’t find you—nobody could, but here you are!’ She led him back and they sat down. ‘Daddy will be with us in a minute.’ The minutes passed; suddenly there was a crash. It seemed to come from within, from the kitchen perhaps. Smiles lit up the faces of the diners. A man at a near-by table laughed and said, ‘Something’s on the floor! Somebody’ll be for it!’ ‘What is it?’ whispered Peter, too excited to speak out loud. ‘Is anyone hurt?’ ‘Oh, no, darling, somebody’s dropped a tray, that’s all.’
To Peter it seemed an anti-climax, this paltry accident that had stolen the thunder of his father’s entry, for he didn’t doubt that his father would come in as Father Christmas. The suspense was unbearable. ‘Can I go into the hall and wait for him?’ His mother hesitated and then said yes.
The hall was deserted, even the porter was off duty. Would it be fair, Peter wondered, or would it be cheating and doing himself out of a surprise, if he waited for Father Christmas by the lift? Magic has its rules which mustn’t be disobeyed. But he was there now, at his old place in front of the lift; and the lift would come down if he pressed the button.
He knew he mustn’t, that it was forbidden, that his father would be angry if he did; yet he reached up and pressed it.
But nothing happened, the lift didn’t come, and why? Because some careless person had forgotten to shut the gates—‘monkeying with the lift’, his father called it. Perhaps the workmen had forgotten, in their hurry to get home. There was only one thing to do—find out on which floor the gates had been left open, and then shut them.
On their own floor it was, and in his dream it didn’t seem strange to Peter that the lift wasn’t there, blocking the black hole of the lift-shaft, though he daren’t look down it. The gates clicked to. Triumph possessed him, triumph lent him wings; he was back on the ground floor, with his finger on the button. A thrill of power such as he had never known ran through him when the machinery answered to his touch.
But what was this? The lift was coming up from below, not down from above, and there was something wrong with its roof—a jagged hole that let the light through. But the figure was there in its accustomed corner, and this time it hadn’t disappeared, it was still there, he could see it through the mazy criss-cross of the bars, a figure in a red robe with white fur edges, and wearing a red cowl on its head: his father, Father Christmas, Daddy in the lift. But why didn’t he look at Peter, and why was his white beard streaked with red?
The two grilles folded back when Peter pushed them. Toys were lying at his father’s feet, but he couldn’t touch them for they too were red, red and wet as the floor of the lift, red as the jag of lightning that tore through his brain. . . .
Edward Postgate was a one-woman man. Or perhaps it would be true to say, he was a man to whom one facial type appealed. He wasn’t singular in this, for most men have their favourite type. But he was singular in the fact that no other type, or even variation of his own type, seemed to attract him at all. Long before he married Mary Elmhirst, this type was enshrined in his consciousness and most of his friends knew what it was. Not because he told them; he was reserved about such matters, and his marriage, when it came, was a surprise. But the girl’s face was not a surprise, for anyone who had done examinations with him or played bridge with him, or sat with him at a committee or a board meeting, could not help knowing it. He was an inveterate doodler. Sometimes he covered the margin with abstract designs; sometimes with plumes and feathers (he was especially fond of drawing ostrich feathers), but most often it was a face, and it was always the same face, recognizably the same, from whatever angle he drew it. The back view was particularly characteristic, for the girl of his dreams, unlike girls in real life, always did her hair the same way—in a knob low down on her neck. Edward was enough of a draughtsman to be able to show that her hair was dark and shining, her eyes violet blue, her colouring red and white—almost a deep red on the high cheek-bones. Parted in the middle her hair swept round a broad forehead, and was drawn back, but not pulled back, to emphasize the slightly concave line that led from her cheek-bones to her small round chin. However many curves he gave her mouth, it was always a wide one, otherwise her nose, whose low arch made a curve that didn’t vary, might have looked too large.
‘There’s that girl again!’ we sometimes said, and hardier spirits even said to Edward: ‘Why don’t you try another type for a change ?’ Whereat he would smile and sometimes scrunch the paper up. Many of us thought that he was in love with an ideal, a Dulcinea who, unlike Don Quixote’s, never had and never would exist in real life: she was an alibi for feelings that he only had on paper. Not that he avoided women’s society—he was attached to several, and they to him; but in his relations with them there was a marked absence of the obsessiveness that showed so clearly in the drawings; he scarcely seemed to prefer one to another, nor did any of them resemble, even remotely, the face he loved to contemplate.
Edward was a well-built, fair-skinned man, with pale-green hair and amber eyes—at least they said so, I couldn’t quite see it. To me he was self-coloured—not in the sense of being an egotist, he was anything but that—but he had no light and shade: he presented a uniform hue, the neutral hue of a good fellow. One didn’t have to like him first to find him likeable; he was likeable at once. Many a hostess finding herself a man short used to say, ‘Can’t we get hold of that miserable Edward?’—only to find that another hostess had got hold of him. In company he always seemed to be holding himself back, as if he had something he didn’t want to part with; it was the energy, I suppose, that he needed for his paper-mistress—his drawing-mistress, as we sometimes called her.
So his marriage, at the age of twenty-eight, came as a great surprise. Mary Elmhirst didn’t belong to any of the circles he frequented, he ran into her at some seaside town, and they were marrie
d almost at once. The match was suitable in every way; she was a doctor’s daughter, at once gay and serious-minded; he worked in the City. As a bachelor he had been a social asset and in continuous demand at parties. As a married man he didn’t exactly drop out, but he would go nowhere without his wife; he ceased being Edward, he became Edward and Mary, or perhaps Mary and Edward. In the social and every other sense he lived entirely for her, and it then became more than ever apparent how superficial his previous friendships had been. We accepted this with a smile and a shrug; a few tried, and one or two pretended to find, rifts in the Postgates’ matrimonial lute, but these were so obviously unfounded that they passed into a joke, a joke against the gossips. Happy the couple that has no history, but also the less interesting: Mary and Edward, whether meaning one or both of them, ceased to be names that came up much in conversation, and where they did, it was chiefly as types of conjugal felicity. Nothing more would happen to them except a child, and this, strangely enough, they did not have, though they were going to have one when five years later Mary Postgate was killed in a motor accident.
It was like a looking-glass being broken—the picture was no longer there, nor did the fragments that remained present any coherent pattern. What had happened to Edward? What was happening? What would happen? It was anybody’s guess, and meanwhile, after the letters of condolence sometimes easy to write but in this case next to impossible, we were in a state of suspense and bewilderment, unable when with Edward, or even apart from him, to decide whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was the more appropriate word. Did he prefer to see people, or not to see them? Was it better to refer to his loss, or not to refer to it? One felt that he, too, was dead, had died when all he stood for died; but he wasn’t, he was up and going about; and if we could find some definite mode or pattern of thinking and feeling about him, it might help him to find one for himself. Perhaps he had found one, but if so he didn’t disclose it. He withdrew further into his pre-marital reserve. That he was still attending to his business, and wasn’t actively ill, at any rate physically, was all we knew with certainty about him. After a while he began to move about a little socially, he returned to circulation; but he didn’t function as a person, he was like a clock that people still look at even though it has stopped.