Colonel Julian and Other Stories (5 page)

‘It's true, ain't it?'

‘Who said so? Who said it's true?'

‘It's true, ain't it?'

‘Who said so? Who said so?'

‘Everybody,' Emmett said. ‘Everybody. Who the hell do you think? Everybody! Everybody knows it. Everybody except Tom.'

‘You're a liar,' she said. ‘You know you're a liar. Nobody knows it. Nobody knows it. Unless you told them. I don't come from this district. I don't come from within a hundred miles of here. Nobody knows it unless you told them. Nobody knows who I am or where I come from or what I've done.'

‘That's jis' where you're wrong,' Emmett said. ‘I know. I made it my business to find out. And if y'ain't careful I'll make it my business to see as somebody else finds out.'

‘I'll murder you,' she said.

She was trembling now and the tears began to come into her eyes, driven by anger.

‘You tell him,' she said, ‘and I'll murder you.'

Her eyes were swollen by angry tears that did not fall, and Emmett, unable to look at them, did not speak.

‘I mean it,' she said. ‘You tell him and I'll murder you. I'll murder you. If anyone tells him I'll tell him myself.'

By late August the yard lay early in the evening under the shadow of the house, the outbuildings and the walnut tree. The sun lay on the empty wheat-field and on the patches of oat and barley stubble running by the dark strips of roots and potatoes. The damsons were getting ripe by the pond. In other summers they had been allowed to fall, dark purple skin split golden by wasps, to be lost in the water or among the grass and the big coffee-brown docks that were never cut down. The huge shadow of the walnut tree was lit up by the new stacks of yellow corn, and the heavy under-leaves were tangled with straws brushed off by branches from the waggons passing below.

But this year it would be different. The girl would gather the damsons, and the walnuts would be splashed. By the barn there were trees of elderberries bowed with purple bunches of fruit, and soon she would be making wine. Now that harvest was finished she could glean corn for the hens on the stubbles
and she could gather blackberries in the hedges of the root-field where they were already warm and ripe in the sun. As the days grew colder she would gather wood and light a fire in the new-papered parlour, where no fire had ever before been lit except perhaps once a year, and they would sit by it, she reading the paper aloud to him, until it was time at last to go to bed. They would sleep in her room because the bed was better and because there was an oil-lamp by which she could see to brush her hair. The movement of her body under her nightdress as she brushed her hair in the lamplight would be one of the things he had waited for all evening, and the blonde smooth colour of her hair, exactly like straw, would be only one of the many things about her that made up his happiness.

Already this year he thought the stack of wheat seemed larger than he could remember. As they finished topping it up he looked down from the stack and said to Emmett, on the waggon below, how much he wanted Edna to see it. ‘I reckon it's the biggest we ever had, Emmett,' he said.

‘New stacks allus look bigger,' Emmett said. ‘They ain't settled.'

‘Yeh, but this year the straw's longer. Look at that.' He suddenly whipped a loose straw out of a sheaf and held it for Emmett to see. ‘That's damn near a six-foot straw,' he said.

He came down off the stack with the straw still in his hands. He was twisting and plaiting it without thinking as he went into the house. ‘Edna,' he called. ‘Are y'about?' The kitchen was empty. He stood for a minute calling her. ‘I want you to come an' see the new stack. Are y'about?'

There was no answer. He went into the front parlour. It was empty and he stood calling her name at the foot of the stairs. The house was clean and neat and cool, and he went upstairs on the extreme tips of boot-toes, thinking of the dirt and straw on his feet. He called her name once or twice upstairs, but the rooms were empty and after a few moments he came down.

He stood in the kitchen again, not calling now, but simply wondering where she might be. He wanted her to see the stack; it seemed so large and good, to represent all the change and prosperity of the summer. A few straws had blown in and lay on the floor of the kitchen. He stooped to pick one up.

As he raised his eyes again he stopped. He saw now that there was an envelope propped up by the Valor stove. Very slowly he took it up in his hands, turning it over. His name was on the envelope. He slit it open at last with his fingers and took out the letter. It was written in pencil, rather faint and on thin paper. He did not move and did not really look at the writing.

It was only after a moment or two that he realized he could not read it. For a long time he stood staring at the pencil marks. He felt his heavy body go light and empty and his blood come thumping up into his cold throat.

After a long time he remembered Emmett. He went to the door with the letter in his hands and called Emmett to come across the yard. Emmett got off the waggon and came across the yard, shifty but not hurrying, spitting as he came.

‘Emmett, I got a letter. I can't make it out.'

‘Where's Edna?'

‘That's what I mean,' Tom said. ‘Edna ain't here.'

‘Ain't here?'

‘That's it,' Tom said. ‘That's what I mean. I don't know. You better read the letter.'

Emmett took the letter. He did not look up. His hands seemed stiff. Tom went into the kitchen and sat down at the table, and Emmett followed him and sat down too. For a few moments Emmett sat looking at the letter, turning over the sheet and reading the other side. His lower lip began to tremble as it always did in moments of excitement, and at last he spread the letter on the table, so that he could read it without raising his eyes.

‘It ain't very easy,' he said.

‘Easy? You can't read it you mean?'

‘No,' Emmett said. ‘No, it ain't that. I can read it.'

‘What is it then?'

‘She's gone,' Emmett said.

‘Gone?' he said. ‘Gone? Where's she gone?'

‘It don't say,' Emmett said. ‘She's just gone. Gone altogether. For good.'

‘For good?' he said. ‘What for? Why's she gone? What for? Don't she say?'

‘Yes,' Emmett said, ‘only it ain't easy.'

‘Easy? It's easy enough, ain't it? All I want to know is what it says.'

‘All right, all right,' Emmett said. ‘I'll tell you what it says, I'll tell you.'

He smoothed the letter flat against the table with his hands. He held his palms hard and flat on the wood, keeping his eyes lowered, not once looking up. His voice had a dry quality, rather low; but where his hair thinned above the temples his skin was wet with sweat. ‘It says, “Dear Tom.”'

‘Yeh?'

‘“Dear Tom,” it says, “I know this is not what you thought I should do. There is something I must tell you. I am going away from the farm and I am not coming back. There is something I have been doing.”' Emmett paused, not looking up. ‘“There is something I have been doing. A long time.”' He seemed to be speaking rather than reading, the words dry, disconnected. ‘“A long time. I have been taking the money Emmett has been paying for the milk. I took it and kept it——”' Emmett turned over the sheet, as if he were really reading, but his eyes were not on the paper, and again the words went on in the same dry disjointed way. ‘Well, that's about the drift on it,' Emmet said. ‘That's about it——'

He ceased the pretence of reading on an open syllable, his tongue dry and slightly hanging forward. He did not raise his small black eyes or his hands. His eyes were bulging as he tried to think what might happen if he were asked to read the letter again. They seemed fixed in terror as he tried in vain to remember the order of the words.

He was still sitting like that when Tom got up and went out of the kitchen. For some time he had not really listened; he had not looked at Emmett's eyes. His big brown-fleshed arms were heavy and loose, not swinging, by his side. He walked straight out of the house, across the yard and by the corn stack, not looking up, and then he stopped by the gate of the cornfield and stared across the land. The sun was very white on the empty stubble and a few clouds were gathering low down beyond the hedges of blackberry that were tangled like the walnut tree with blown strands of straw.

He stood there staring at the empty field, remembering things that had happened in the summer. He remembered the
pedestal table and the apples and the way the sun had browned her arms and face. He remembered the blue dress and the way she had looked without it and the movement of her body as she brushed her hair in the lamplight at nighttime. He remembered how she had painted the house and how honest she was and how he had trusted her.

He stood there for a long time. Once he turned as if to go back, and then changed his mind. His eyes were short-focused and full of trouble. The yard was dark with big evening shadows and the little farm seemed to have shrunk in the evening sun.

Colonel Julian

Colonel julian lay in the sun. By pressing down his hands so that the bony knuckles touched the dusty hot lead of the balcony floor he could raise himself up just enough to look through the openings of the stone balustrade to where the deep ring of rhododendrons broke and revealed, across fields of oak-brown corn, the line of the sea.

The balcony was built above the portico of the house, facing southward. Beyond the rhododendrons, quite flowerless now, dark without that Indian glory the Colonel loved, he could see also his only gardener cutting with a horse-mower the wild outer fringe of lawn, and he could smell the sweet, light fragrance of it drying in the August heat. The terrace, the gardener, the horse and the sun were almost all that was left to him of his life before the war. Not, he often reflected, that they were very much good to him. He could no longer ride the horse, and the gardener was a witless sort of bounder who abused him to his face and raided his tobacco jar behind his back. That left him only the terrace, and, if he were lucky, the sun. All the rest had long since been given up to what he always called the young Air Force gentlemen. They had long ago invaded the solitude, broken the silence and recoloured, sometimes excitingly, the grey privacy of a house that was, anyway, too large for one old man. All that remained to him now was a single room above the stables, and, by a purely compassionate arrangement, the terrace in the sun. The young men filled all the rest of the place with their eating and drinking, their laughter and their language that he could never quite understand, and he in turn had lain for four years in the sun, whenever there was any sun, and watched the faces of them come and go.

He had not been very lucky with the sun since invasion day. The papers were saying that it was the worst summer for forty years. Cold gales had swept down from the north in June,
breaking the oats into shabby forlorn wreckage and burning the tender leaves of the limes. The Colonel, who felt the cold easily and bitterly, lit the gas-fire in his room in the evenings, or sat on the balcony with his overcoat on and read over and over again the invasion news in the papers. After the first few days there was little flying and he began to feel depressed by having to look so often at a sky without planes. It seemed as if the cloud was solid, unchanged by turns of wind, and dark over the whole world. Ten-tenths, the boys called it: which seemed a curious sort of arithmetical and more difficult way of saying complete, he thought.

But then he had no knowledge at all of the language of modern war; he had lost touch with its progress; at eighty-three he had fallen a long way behind. The young men who came and talked to him in the garden and even on the balcony talked to him constantly in a language which it seemed to him made no sense at all. He discovered in himself a depressing and uneasy ignorance as they talked of kites and pieces of cake, of a shaky do and a very curious situation in which they informed you that you had had it. The Colonel did not know where all this had sprung from. Language in his day had been rather a pompous affair, perhaps rather puerile, but he felt that at least you could understand it. He did not understand this other at all. He felt sometimes like a small boy left out in the cold, not yet initiated into the secret of the games of older boys.

And yet he liked talking to them. He liked it very much; perhaps more than he cared to say. On the few days when flying began again he found himself alone on the balcony all day in the sun, bored with the remote contents of newspapers, missing the immediate touch that he got from talking with men who perhaps only an hour before had been over the battlefield.

That also was a thing he could not get used to. In his day you went off to war after a series of stern farewells; you lived a life of monastic remoteness somewhere on a damnable plain in India, or you went to the northern hills and were cut off for some months at a time. Or if there were no war you went pig-hunting or you had furlough, and if you liked that sort of thing you arranged something unofficially pleasant in the way of
women. You needed the hide of a pig yourself not to be affected by all this, and you did in fact come back with that sort of hide, sun-brown or yellow and as harsh as rind. You looked like a soldier. But nowadays these young fellows flew out and put the fear of God into what they called a gaggle of wolfers or a bunch of tanks at four-thirty in the afternoon, and at seven they were lying in the hay with a young woman or drinking gin in the local bar. For some reason or other they hadn't any kind of soldierly look about them, either. He had looked almost in vain for a martial type. He sometimes saw instead a touch of almost feminine dreaminess about some of them. They were very quiet sometimes and had long-seeing eyes that seemed to be dreaming in planetary distances. They were boyishly hilarious and laughed fantastically behind quite impossibly unclipped moustaches. There was none of that heroic stuff at all.

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