Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

A Severe Mercy, Page 2

Sheldon Vanauken

  Since then the years had gone by, and he—had he not had what he chose that day in the meadow? He had had the love. And the joy—what joy it had been! And the sorrow. He had had—was having—all the sorrow there was. And yet, the joy was worth the pain. Even now he reaffirmed that long-past choice.

  Leaning there against the bridge railing in the deep still night, made only the more still by the faint murmurs and gurglings of the water beneath the bridge and the silent flashes of the fireflies, he thought of his childhood and youth in this place that was part of him, this place that lay about him so serene and lovely in the moon-light. It had been, beyond doubt, a place of accepted security. And a house of peace, peaceful and gay at the same time. His mother had gone through her days, cheerful and loving, a bit unworldly, one thought, until she suddenly and shrewdly and gently pointed out something that no one else had seen. His father, when he was home from the great world, was quiet and relaxed and amused — though capable of fearful sternness. His mother had always been quick to praise and admire; his father’s rare ‘Well done!’ had been a thing to treasure for days. A house of peace—now in the hushed night he could feel the immemorial peace that lay upon Glenmerle.

  It had been a house of honour, too. In those days one was not embarrassed—that strangest of embarrassments!—at the word, the word that had to be spelled in the English way with a ‘u’ to look right. Nor was there any embarrassment in the idea of being a gentleman. In these matters his mother and father had been completely at one; and, somehow, it seemed that they instilled what was honourable almost without speaking of it. He remembered his own code that he had made up when he was about twelve, a code of three points only: ‘Never betray a friend. Never betray beauty. Never betray the sword.’ By that last he had meant being brave when he was afraid. His father had had an old dress sword from army days in the study, and sometimes as a boy he had drawn it, just to hold it in his hand and see the long bright blade, his mind perhaps full of pictures from his reading of Sir Lancelot or Montrose. It came to him now in the night that his father, lawyer, soldier, and lover of his land, had been a very honourable gentleman. From where he stood he could see the windows of his father’s room as well as his mother’s, and he felt a surge of gratitude to them both, just for being what they were.

  Glenmerle, he thought, had been a place to come home to, home from Kentucky or Florida or England, home from schools and home from college. He pictured coming home from boarding school, perhaps for the Christmas holidays, perhaps with snow all about— the woods full of snow. It would be a winter dusk with the big blue spruce a-twinkle with tiny white lights like stars, the big car sweeping up the hill to the house. Then his mother’s cries of welcome and her kiss, his father’s handshake, and his brother grinning in the background. And of course, as always, the cheery fire in the drawing-room, and through the french doors the dining-room alight with preparations. Upstairs, waiting, would be his own room, just as he had left it. Heaven itself, he thought, would be—must be—a coming home.

  He sat down on the edge of the bridge, his legs dangling towards the silver-glinting water. All these thoughts and memories, so long in the telling, had, in fact, crowded through his mind with incredible swiftness. And even as he remembered his childhood, what was really filling his mind was Davy, Davy so loved, so dear, and now a sixmonth dead. It was she—she alone—that had brought him back to Glenmerle in the night, the girl he had loved here, the girl he had married and continued to love for a decade and a half until that winter dawn when she had blindly touched his face a last time and died with her hand in his. Since then grief, the immensity of loss, hadfilledhis life. And yet, amidst the tears and the pain, there was a curious hint of consolation in one thought: the thought that nothing now could mar the years of their love. As he had written to his friend, C. S. Lewis in England, the manuscript of their love had gone safe to the Printer.

  He wished for a moment that Lewis were here with him, just for an hour, here at Glenmerle sitting on the bridge above the stream. Lewis, he thought, would like Glenmerle; it was not, perhaps, so different from the house of the Wardrobe that led to Narnia. And Lewis understood so well, somehow, the nature of loss. Although he was so far away across the sea, Lewis had been his mainstay in this half-year of sounding the depths of grief. He it was who had said that Davy’s death was a severe mercy. A severe mercy—the phrase haunted him: a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love. For it had been death in love, not death of love. Love can die in many ways, most of them far more terrible than physical death; and if all natural love must die in one way or another, Davy’s death—he and she in love—was the death that hinted at springtime and rebirth. Sitting there on the rough wood of the bridge, he remembered his absolute knowing—something beyond faith or belief—in the moments after her death, in that suddenly empty room, that she still was. She had not ceased with that last light breath. She and he would meet again: ‘And with God be the rest!’ He prayed for a moment in the silent night, prayed for her wherever she might be; and for Lewis, too. In another year he would be sailing for England. That would be a coming home, also. England and Oxford. And he and Lewis would talk deeply and drink some beer and perhaps, as Lewis had written, get high.

  He looked up at the house on the hill and thought again of Narnia. But Glenmerle itself, especially in the white pour of moonlight, was a place of magic, unearthly in its serene beauty. He remembered suddenly another summer night in this place, a night like this one. He and Davy, alone in the house, had put Mendelssohn’s Mid-summer Nighfs Dream on the record player at high volume, and, with all the casements of the study flung wide, they had gone out onto the lawn at the edge of the wood. Everything was blanched white in the moonlight except for deep pools of shadow, and there was the scent of roses in the air. They had held each other’s hands and danced and chased each other, smiling in the moonlight, and at last flung themselves down laughing beneath the great beech while the music sang around them. He chuckled at the memory, and then, in the instant, tears were burning in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. That was always the way of grief: laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.

  Almost from their first meeting they had been in love, deeply in love, and somehow sure of each other, too. They had been secretly married before the year was out, both of them still in their colleges. And he had brought her to Glenmerle from the first, her own family being far away. Glenmerle and love and springtime, the orchard a sea of blossoms and the lilacs massed near the house. Young love in springtime—banal perhaps to those who had never known it or whose love had failed, not to him. Nor to her. In those last days they had talked of Glenmerle, talked, indeed, of this very bridge where now he sat: they had often sat here together, wrapped at times in each other’s arms. And they had talked, there in the hospital, of dogs and trees and poems and adventures, and of how it had all been.

  From where he sat he could see the swimming pool in the hollow below the house. A breeze must have stirred its surface, for there were ripples in the moonpath that ran across its surface towards him. There by the pool one night, dreaming of the beckoning future, their special dream had been born: the dream of a rakish schooner sailing among far islands. The schooner was to be named Grey Goose—for the grey goose, if its mate is killed, flies on alone and never takes another. For a moment the wood of the bridge became a deck, heeling slightly in a sea-breeze, and the glint of the stream became the cold fire of phosphorescent waves.

  He and she had been much at Glenmerle: he had always been welcome to bring home whomever he would, bring them to a welcome and acceptance. And so on weekends and long vacations she had been there. She was utterly part of it. He remembered the summer when they had got up every morning in the dark in order to be, by the early summer dawn, out and walking with Laddie— he of the sad eyes and adventurous heart—following country roads and paths wherever they led, patting horses and making friends with dogs and stealing the odd apple from a roadside tree. Some-times the
y would walk as much as twenty miles, or ride even further, and then come home to dive into the pool, not bothering with suits, and eat an enormous breakfast. And there were the lazy afternoons of reading aloud and talking and maybe going out in the night to walk down to the bridge or the lily pond. Then they would come back to the house and say their goodnights and go to their rooms—but, later, when the house was all asleep, Davy would slip into his room, between the blue sheets.

  He imagined her in the house now, going softly into his room, only to find him gone. But she would know that he was out in the night, so she would steal down the stairs and across the drawing-room and out into the soft darkness, still in her nightgown. My God! was that—had he really seen a white figure whisk down the steps? Was she, this minute, walking soundlessly in the grass along the borders, down towards the bridge? He stood up, looking amongst the shrubbery for a flutter of white. For an instant he thought he smelled the fragrance of lilacs, and perhaps the delicate scent of the lilies-of-the-valley she loved. Then a little breeze touched his face, and he remembered that she was in the wind now. It was too late in the year for lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley anyway. And too late, always now, for her to come to him in the night.

  Once more he looked up the hill at the big comfortable house and the mighty beech above it, knowing that it was for the last time. Here at the bridge, where they had said those goodbyes so long ago, he was merely a ghost in the night. He picked up a pebble and chunked it into the bright water. Stepping off the bridge, he knelt and patted the grass, as he might have patted Laddie. Then he stood up and turned away and went back across the bridge, following the avenue past the dry lily pond and up the hill and out between the gateposts.


  The Shining Barrier (the Pagan Love)

  WE MET ANGRILY IN the dead of winter. I wanted my money back. Her job was to keep me from getting it. The scene was the photographic studio of a department store. I was probably cold and polite. She was charming but annoyed with me. She, in fact, won. On the counter between us lay a tinted miniature that had been badly done, though not by her. She, indeed, was an expert and would do it right. I left it with her and, quite possibly, stalked away.

  I was then in my third year of college, home for the Christmas holidays. The miniature was of a roommate at my school, years before, who had been drowned. I wondered why I had let myself be persuaded by her. Without perceiving that I was answering the question, I remembered her quite beautiful, wide-spaced eyes, snapping with anger.

  She was the daughter of a Methodist Episcopal clergyman in a small New Jersey town. She was of good family and had been to a good school in Vermont. But then the Reverend Staley Davis had died; and she, though able to finish school, had had to give up college plans. Sadly, she had gone to work in the studio of a big New York department store. But, hating New York, she had saved towards getting away from it and going to college. Now, though she was ten days my elder, she was a freshman, along with part-time work, in a small university far from New York.

  I drove home, about twenty miles, still thinking of her, sometimes crossly, sometimes not. That afternoon a friend, Don, who lived a few miles away at Beech Hill, rang up. We were old friends and, since his return from school in Switzerland, we had both gone to the same small, academically excellent men’s college, forty or fifty miles away. At the moment Don was having an idea. One of our close friends, Bob, was over at college, working and alone in the House. Why didn’t we, with some girls, including Bob’s girl, Mary, drive over? If Don had rung up a day later—or of course a day earlier—my sudden inspiration might not have come: now I thought rapidly of that girl’s lovely if angry eyes. And I had her name on a receipt somewhere, didn’t I? Yes, here it was: Jean Davis. And Don would be taking Margery, who just happened to be the personnel manager of that store, wouldn’t he? Ah, good. Listen, Don: something I’ d like you to do. Ring up Margery like a good chap and ask her to arrange . . .

  Thus it came about that on a mid-December night, with Don and Margery and an effervescent Mary in the back seat of Mother’s enormous car, I arrived in front of the white-columned House at the university where dwelt the lady of the angry eyes. An hour and a half later we reached our college town, where Bob, alerted to our coming, had made a fire in the big fireplace and welcomed us with enthusiasm. We had a drink or two, talked, danced a bit. And I discovered that Jean was called ‘Davy’ from her surname; it seemed, somehow, to fit her, now that her eyes were no longer angry.

  Then Davy and I found ourselves alone in front of the fire. Her eyes, I had not failed to observe, were indeed beautiful: long eyes, grey eyes with a hint of sea-green in certain lights. A wide brow and a small determined chin—a heart-shaped face. Rather suddenly, without previous reflection on the matter, it began to appear to me that heart-shaped faces were perhaps the best kind. She was not very tall, and I was; but now I wondered whether, after all, small girls were not more—well, more adorable, sort of. Especially when they had shining brown hair and low lovely voices and beauteous eyes.

  We talked and looked at each other by firelight, for I had switched out the lamps. She told me about a coasting voyage she had taken all by herself, just because she wanted to be on a ship and the sea. No girl who liked ships and the sea could be all bad. There had been a storm, and the passengers had run or been shoo’d below; but Jean had crept forward into the bows and crouched in a coil of line, wet and loving the spray and the plunging bow. This story appealed to me beyond words. Then we discovered that we both loved poetry; she capped one of my quotations. We grinned at each other, and were linked by metre. She wasn’t exactly a country-woman, but she liked dogs; and her family had a stone cottage, built by her father, at a lake in western New Jersey. Davy liked to paddle in a canoe along the wooded shores at night, listening to the owls. A girl who liked the sea and owls and dogs and poetry: Good heavens! a girl of girls! Then—then she said something about how beauty hurts. ‘What! You, too?’ I exclaimed, in effect. ‘You know that The pain of beauty? I thought I was the only one.’ Whether love was born that night, I cannot certainly say: friendship was.

  For once, at least, I listened more than I talked. And yet we both knew that everything—the sea and the owls, poems and beauty, and a sort of humour that was more a grin than a laugh—was making links between us. There was a growing excitement of discovery. I expect I talked about flying a bit, for I was very keen. And she was eager to fly. She was, indeed, an eager spirit. If any single word captures the essence of her—the mot juste for her, always—it is that: eager. Gay and sweet and eager. Straight, too. And valiant. That night, when very late we drove back to the city, the others sleeping in the back and she and I still eagerly talking, we had found a real closeness. Earlier I had said I would never kiss a girl unless it would really mean something. This was a bit of a challenge to Davy. Anyhow, it would have meant something.

  So the next time I did. But not, as she might have expected, in a scene of soft lights and music. Rather, when she proved that she was not one of the screechy girls I detested. The streets were icy. Perhaps I was driving a bit too fast. A major intersection as the lights changed against us—and a sheet of ice. We slid helplessly into the traffic. Buses thundered down upon us. Cars all but reared up on their hind wheels to avoid us. I snapped a glance at Davy. She caught it and grinned. I grinned happily back. We came gently up against the diagonally opposite kerb. A policeman with an old-fashioned look on his face strode towards us. I leaned quickly over and kissed her. Later, the ice being broken as it were, I kissed her lots more.

  Thus, rather improbably, began what I must call, judging by all others I’ ve known of, a rather remarkable love. Its remarkableness lay, not in our falling quite desperately in love—many have experienced that glory—but in what we made of that love. The pagan love made invulnerable by means of the Shining Barrier.

  We were together three times in that December. Sadly, a month-old commitment prevented her from coming with me to Don’s New Year�
��s Eve party. On the morning after that party, well after daybreak, Bob and I climbed out of Don’s car at the Glenmerle gate. We had gone somewhere else from Beech Hill and we were all sloshing with champagne. Bob, Don’s houseguest, was refusing to drive further with Don who had thrice gone to sleep at the wheel. Don drove obstinately off. Bob and I stood there talking a few minutes, cars looking curiously at us—white tie and tails in the bright morning; and then he, refusing breakfast, set off on foot for Beech Hill. Incidentally, he met Don’s mother rushing off to the scene of the wreck; they found Don, the silly owl, sitting gloomily on a fence waiting for the car to blow up, he having seen a wisp of steam from the smashed radiator. Meanwhile I trudged along the driveway, a few winter birds chirping in the park, thinking of Davy as I had all night. After a short sleep I rang her up just when she was hoping hard that I might; and I drove in to get her.