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A Severe Mercy, Page 3

Sheldon Vanauken

  On New Year’s Day she came to Glenmerle. The pattern of the coming year was set: she and I together, and together at Glenmerle, which was to be the main setting for the deepening of our love. From that day forward there was to be no one else for either of us, although each of us was confronted with one difficult choice. Her moment of choice, a month later, was posed by a West Pointer who had taken her to Academy dances: he was flying in on the night we were to go to a college dance. My first impulse was to be generous— what was one evening? Then I had second thoughts. ‘Listen, Davy,’ I said. ‘If you go out. with him instead of us going to the dance, mightn’t we be sorry later? Not because you went out with him—that’s not important—but because, well, because that chapter of us wouldn’t happen. Like the New Year’s Eve we didn’t have. Still, you decide.’ We went to the dance. Much later, my very different choice came when my old flying comrade—we called ourselves the ‘Squadron’ and had won some fame among friends for reckless deeds in the air—urged me to go with him upon a very appealing aerial adventure in Arizona. It would have meant staying out of college for a year—and no Davy. I chose her. We later referred to these choices as the ‘Air Force Defeat’ and the ‘Squadron Defeat’.

  Not long after the New Year’s Day, I had to return to college: our times together must now be weekends and an occasional mid-week evening. At the college Bob and Don spread the tidings of my involvement, supported by the appearance on my desk of a quite lovely photograph of Davy. In the House whenever anyone became engaged or parted with his pin, they sang a traditional song that went: ‘There stood little Johnny (or Dicky)/With his hands tied behind him . . .’ After that dance—the one that was, after all, a chapter of us—they sang it for me. But long before that, just after the holidays, I worked my own ruin in the House. I was writing to Davy one night, despite the babble of several chaps in the room, and I was saying something about how, even in cities, glimpses of beauty were precious. But that last word, though correct, didn’t look right. ‘Bob,’ I said. ‘How do you spell “precious ”?’ I should have spelled it ‘preshus’ or even cut my tongue off. Instantly the hounds were in full cry. Did I know how to spell ‘adorable’? How about ‘angel’ or ‘cutie’? It took awhile to live that down. Years later people would gently inquire whether I were quite sure of the spelling of ‘precious’.

  All the same, though I hadn’t said so, she was indeed precious to me. The truth is, we were in love almost from the first, falling into love if not fallen on that first night: and I must try to tell how it was. We were hesitant to admit our love even to ourselves at first: it was too soon; one must be cool; one must be wary. The question was: could it be believed? It was like a letter announcing one’s in-heritance of a fortune from an unknown great-uncle. Some things take a good deal of believing. There was in both of us a kind of hesitant, incredulous wonder. Could this really be happening—this marvel? And yet in January one of us found something on falling in love that, with the appropriate pronouns, was just the way it was for both of us. A bit sentimental, perhaps, but then lovers are. It is quoted from memory, perhaps inaccurately, with thanks to the unknown author:

  To hold her in my arms against the twilight and be her comrade for ever—this was all I wanted so long as my life should last. . . And this, I told myself with a kind of wonder, this was what love was: this consecration, this curious uplifting, this sudden inexplicable joy, and this intolerable pain.

  What was happening was happening to us both. I believe it is always so, mutual and, at least at first, equally intense, if it is genuine inloveness. The actual thing—inloveness—requires some-thing like a spark leaping back and forth from one to the other becoming more intense every moment, love building up like voltage in a coil. Here there is no sound of one hand clapping. Un-reciprocated love is something else, not genuine inloveness, I think: perhaps it is infatuation and passion or, perhaps, potential inloveness. I believe that genuine inloveness is rather less common than the romantic novelists suggest. One who has never been in love might mistake either infatuation or a mixture of affection and sexual attraction for being in love. But when the ‘real thing’ happens, there is no doubt. A man in the jungle at night, as someone said, may suppose a hyena’s growl to be a lion’s; but when he hears the lion’s growl, he knows damn’ well it’s a lion. So with the genuine inloveness. So with Davy and me. A sudden glory.

  We were too overwhelmed by the glory—and we had too few evenings together—to spend much time with others. In town, when I got over from college, we had quiet little dinners in restaurants with small tables and shaded lamps. In one of them a gypsy girl played her violin among the tables. I arranged for her to come to ours when I signalled and play the ‘Humoresque’. When the moment came and she played it, I said to Davy in a low voice: ‘Now and always: The Humoresque means I love you.’ All our days whenever we chanced to hear it I said those words. Its meaning fixed, I had but to hum a few notes or whistle them for her to know.

  The place we most frequented in town, though, was my father’s club. There we could dine in moderate splendour. More important, one of its bars, open to ladies, was an utterly charming little wood-panelled room with a noble stone fireplace and lofty mantelpiece. On it was carved the words:

  Fires, Friends, and Books Decree

  Wisdom, Strength, and Covrtesy.

  The fire was there, in the colder months; we were friends as well as lovers; and there were even books, in cases set into the walls. In front of the fire two short red-leather sofas faced each other, and somehow they were always waiting for us. We must have spent hundreds of hours in that quiet pleasant room, sipping a whisky-and-soda, looking into the fire or each other’s eyes, talking about poetry and life and love. Talking, above all, about how love should endure: ‘O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out/Against the wrackful siege of battering days . . ?’ We were to raise the Shining Barrier to make it endure. The first time we came to the club we were so happy that we spoke of the evening as a ‘moment made eternity’—changing Browning’s ‘instant’ to the timeless ‘moment’of infinite duration. We were to speak of a thousand happy days and hours as moments made eternity.

  As winter yielded to early spring, we came again and again to Glenmerle. There was something tender and gentle about our love, something a little shy, that was like early spring. It was as though we couldn’t quite believe that it wouldn’t be snatched away. The time of the crocus. Pussywillow spring. In a letter she spoke of ‘the gentle awkward yearning I feel for you, just to touch your face’. Our love of course seemed to us a miracle. First love always does, the old, old story sung by the poets and sneered at by the wrinkled of heart. And yet it is a miracle, an unbelievable miracle, just as every springtime of the earth is a miracle. Here and now, in us and around us, the glory. So we wandered about Glenmerle, hand in hand, sensing the stir in the earth and in our hearts. One damp and misty day I came back from the house to meet her by the lily pond and heard her singing to herself the song from ‘Maytime’:

  Sweetheart, sweetheart,

  sweetheart, Will you love me ever? . . .

  In my room we read poetry, poems by Yeats and Shelley and Browning. We were touched by William Morris’s ‘April’ and Richard Le Gallienne’s ‘A Ballade-Catalogue of Lovely Things’. More often than not I was the one that said the poems, for anything metrical burned into my mind; and she played for me on the drawing-room piano.

  If we were caught up in love, we were no less caught up in beauty, the mystery of beauty. Essentially we were pagan, but it was a high paganism. We worshipped the spirits of earth and sky; we adored the mysteries of beauty and love. Early spring became full spring. The orchard was a sea of white blossoms where we drifted enraptured in starlight and sunlight. Sometimes we walked in the rain, and we pressed our faces into masses of damp cool lilacs. I picked little posies of Iily-of-the-valley to pin on to her blouse. However often it has happened to other lovers, it was to us the greatest glory we had ever known.

bsp; Long before the month it celebrates, I wrote for her the first poem of our endearing. It was as true as a poem could be. It said how it was and how it would be:


  The agèd winter fled away

  Before the bugles of the May, —

  And love, dear love, arose.

  But when spring’s glory goes

  The lilacs of our love shall stay,

  For ever Maytime sweet and gay, —

  Until the lilacs close

  Beneath the deathly snows.

  The second time we were together we began to talk of how we should do things if we should, just conceivably, marry. We had already discovered shared values the first night by the fire at the college. Now, a little while after the perilous skid to a kiss, I said with great casualness: ‘You know, Davy, when two people sort of, well, like each other, it’s always possible that—well, that, um, something might come of it. Like, um, getting married. So why don’t we sort of talk about it? I mean, how we might do things ?’ Davy gulped slightly and said with barely suppressed enthusiasm: ‘I think that would be very interesting. And we’d learn a lot about each other, too.’ So, half as a game, we did so.

  We considered what we supposed to be the standard problems of marriage: and solved the lot. In-laws, money, decision-making, children, jealousy. About in-laws, we said, the only possible thing was a completely united front, politely and firmly rejecting any sort of interference. And, of course, any ‘going home to mother’ — something that women were supposed to do rather a lot of—or, indeed, going to anybody with troubles must be, for us, unthinkable: it would be a confession of failure and, therefore, the end. Firm agreement. What next? Oh, money. Well, all money, wherever it comes from, must belong equally to both of us—ours. As to spending it—and this brought us to decision-making—we should decide everything of importance by discussion, discussion until agreement is reached. No laying down the law by anybody, ever. Now, children. How do you, um, feel about that? There were, we agreed — even then we saw it—too many people everywhere. Tentatively we said: no children. What else? Jealousy? That’s the worst wrecker of all. We agreed first that the only sort of marriage we should even be interested in would be one of such love that unfaithfulness would be impossible. Whether that sort of love would always be present we weren’t yet asking. What we did see was that jealousy is fear: it can corrode even if quite baseless. There was only one answer: total trust. And, we said, if that trust were ever violated, even the least bit, then a quick end; for trust could never be restored. But until then, however risky, the trust had to be total. By the end of the evening we felt we had been very wise, very penetrating. In a way we had been, though of course we didn’t appreciate the full complexity of the problems we settled so blithely. Still, most of those half-playful decisions were to hold through all the years, above all total trust, given and honoured.

  One night we left the club for our car, a nondescript coupé known as the Green Duck. We drove into the country in drumming rain, imagining the snug little car to be the cabin of an aircraft. Eventually we parked, or came in for a landing, in order to kiss each other a few hundred times before I took her back to the university. In an interlude we spoke further of that which might divide lover from lover. On that earlier occasion we had thought that children might. Now we considered possessions as divisive. We knew a woman who loved her house so much that her husband could never put his feet up or smoke in his own house. We condemned her to wander the earth homeless. Over-valued possessions, we decided, were a burden, possessing their owners. We decided to own nothing that we couldn’t be comfortable with—reproductions not originals, cheap bindings not rare editions. This idea of the burden of possessions we held to—and years later when we got our first glossy new car, we hit it severely with a hammer to make it comfortably dented.

  Quite early on, a few weeks after we met, we had our first quarrel. My mother was in hospital for a few days, and I took Davy to see her, leaving them for awhile so that they might get better acquainted. In due course I returned for her. As I got the Green Duck under-way, I said lightly, ‘Well, who said what ?’

  ‘Oh, secrets!’ she said, also lightly. ‘Women’s secrets. I’ ll never tell.’

  I knew quite well of course that nothing of the slightest importance had been said. But I felt obscurely that even trivial secrets were a wedge between us. Still lightly but with a hint of seriousness, I said:

  ‘Come on! You’ve got to tell me! That’s part of the united front.’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘We didn’t say one word about secrets.’ Her little chin was firm.

  ‘Davy!’ I said. ‘You know we meant no secrets. Tell me!’

  ‘No!’ she said. ‘We also said nobody was to lay down the law, didn’t we ?’

  ‘I’ m not laying down the law!’ I said. ‘It’s a law we agreed to. Tell me.’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ m not going to do it, and that’s all there is to it.’

  ‘You are going to do it!’ I said grimly. ‘We are not going to have secrets from each other.’ I paused. ‘Mind you,’ I added virtuously, ‘I’ d tell you. Come on!’


  ‘All right!’ I said, swinging the Duck violently around a corner. ‘I’ m heading for the university. If. . . you . . . don’t. . . tell . . . me .. . by the time we get there, I’ ll drop you and go. And I will NOT be back-ever!’

  I grew pale. She grew pale.

  Out of the corner of my eye I could see a stony profile. Out of the corner of her (beautiful) eye she could see a stony profile. We drove on in frightful silence.

  I thought of her heart-shaped face, now forsworn, almost. I slowed the car.

  Still, the car was moving. It was creeping into the university. I heard a little sound from her, like a small suppressed yelp. I gave her a hurried glance. There were tears on her cheek. Oh, God!

  In a rather broken voice I croaked a few notes of the Humoresque. She uttered a loud sob. I stopped the car. A young man went by on a bicycle.

  Davy said in a small voice: ‘All right, I’ ll tell you (sob). It’s nothing anyway.’ She told it, and of course it was nothing. As she did I got the Duck moving and headed it towards Glenmerle. She finished by saying: ‘I wouldn’t have told you, no matter what, if a little voice inside me hadn’t kept saying that you were right: we really shouldn’t have secrets from each other. But—would you have done it? Left? For ever ?’

  I thought for a moment, then said: ‘I meant to, you know. At least, till you sort of yelped. But—if I had gone, I’ d have come back. Probably tonight. To ask you if you wanted to talk about it. Because it was something we had to decide.’

  At Glenmerle I pulled the car off the drive in the park, and we went over to the bench by the lily pond. We looked at each other with wry grins. Then we kissed each other, a kiss that was pure bliss because of the peril and pain that had torn us. There would be other fights in future years—we were both strong-willed (and both Leo, for what that’s worth) — but always the reconciliation in each other’s arms would be such heaven that we wondered whether the joy wasn’t worth the agony. The heights and depths.

  It was a mild winter afternoon, this day of the crisis. A crow cawed in the distance. Encircling the glade were the trees of the park, their bare branches reaching upwards. In front of us was the round placid lily pond where once my little ships had sailed. We talked deeply, not about the already-settled matter of secrets but about justice between lovers and about how to make love endure. What emerged from our talk was nothing less, we believed, than the central ‘secret’ of enduring love: sharing.

  ‘Look,’ we said, ‘what is it that draws two people into closeness and love? Of course there’s the mystery of physical attraction, but beyond that it’s the things they share. We both love strawberries and ships and collies and poems and all beauty, and all those things bind us together. Those sharings just happened to be; but what we must do now is share everything. Everything! If one of us likes an
ything, there must be something to like in it—and the other one must find it. Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that it would be impossible— unthinkable—for either of us to suppose that we could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else. And our trust in each other will not only be based on love and loyalty but on the fact of a thousand sharings—a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.’

  Our enthusiasm grew as we talked. Total sharing, we felt, was the ultimate secret of a love that would last for ever. And of course we could learn to like anything if we wanted to. Through sharing we would not only make a bond of incredible friendship, but through sharing we would keep the magic of inloveness. And with every year, more and more depth. We would become as close as two human beings could become—closer perhaps than any two people had ever been. Whatever storms might come, whatever changes the years might bring, there would be the bedrock closeness of all our sharing. So we saw our way, horizon beyond horizon, ahead. And so it was to be. Gaily and seriously we sealed our compact with a handshake and then, suddenly, kissed each other.

  Now I reached into my pocket and brought forth a poem. In the awful silence of our crisis I had pictured it burning with a sad blue flame, but now the time was right for it. It embodied something she had written about bare branches and so was particularly ours, though in truth all I have ever written has grown out of the marriage of our minds and spirits. Now by the lily pond I read it to her: