The Sound of His Horn

The Sound of His Horn
by Sarban

1952

* * *

1

"It's the terror that's unspeakable."

We all looked at Alan Querdilion. It was the first time he had spoken in the argument; almost the first time he had spoken since dinner. He had merely sat there smoking his pipe and looking from one speaker to the other with that look of mild wonder on his face which seemed to be habitual with him nowadays: a look that reminded me not so much of a child's innocence, as of the simpleness of a savage to whom the sound of your strange voice is a wonder distracting him from attention to the sense of what you are saying. After observing that look for three days I understood what his mother meant when she had said privately and sadly to me that the Germans had not released all of Alan from prison in 1945.

I had not seen Alan for nearly ten years, since the day in 1939 when he went off to join his ship as a lieutenant of the R.N.V.R. Perhaps one assumes too readily that time and a bitter war are great changers of character: later, I was astonished that I had been so little troubled to mark the change in Alan. Even that transformation from the buoyant, self-confident, gay young man of abounding energy, of such prowess in all sports, to this silent, inactive and wondering creature, had been but a part of the general flatness and fading of the world and the subduing of strength and spirits that England seemed to have suffered since 1939. It was easy to forget that Alan had not been like that before.

It was easy for the first three days of my visit to Thorsway--until Alan's mother spoke to me. Then, by very quietly and sadly asking me what was wrong with Alan, she forced me to recognise the change in him. It was as if she thought that I who had been his closest friend all through his school and university days would hold the key, or could pay the ransom of that part of his mind which was still held captive somewhere. That was how she put it: "They" had sent back his body, more or less sound, and so much of his wits as would carry him through the daily business of managing the small farm his father had left him, but they had kept the rest behind. What had they done to him? Or what had he done to himself during his four years in a prisoner of war camp?

I tried uncomfortably to evade the role of amateur psychiatrist that this confidence seemed to invite me to assume. I uttered some generalisations about war experience and the monotony of prison life--such commonplaces as my memories of conversations with a good number of other former prisoners of war suggested to me; and, besides, I added, perhaps unkindly, Alan was ten years older; she could not expect the boy in him to live for ever. She shook her head. "It's something more personal than that, and I'm sad mainly for Elizabeth's sake." I could but try to assure her half-heartedly that I did not notice so great a change in him.

Certainly the other people there in the drawing-room that particular winter evening seemed to take Alan's inaction or absence of mind for granted, and they had known him well before the war. I think they had no more expected him to intervene in the argument than I had.

There were the Hedleys and their daughter, Elizabeth. Major Hedley was an old neighbour of the Querdilions, retired now, and farming in Thorsway, like Alan. There was also Frank Rowan, Alan's cousin, who was a lecturer in economics at a northern university. Like myself he was spending a week of his vacation with them. These two had known Alan since he was a child. If they thought something was wrong with him they never breathed a word of it to me: they seemed to treat him as a simple, good-natured fellow, just the chap to make a reluctant tractor go or tinker with an ailing oil-engine, one who might astonish you by the agility with which he would shin up on to a barn roof or vault a five-barred gate, but not a man you'd ever expect to contribute anything to such an argument as we had that evening after dinner.

Yet his mother was right. That argument more than anything else showed me the change in him. He was not a fox-hunter, but he liked fox-hunters and he loved all exercises of bodily strength and skill. In pre-war days he had always subscribed to the Saxby Hunt, in whose country Thorsway lay, and if he did not hunt with them it was because he had always been a runner rather than a rider. He had been a notable cross-country man at Cambridge; a very good all-round athlete, but no horseman. In his country setting I thought of him as the descendant of a line of yeomen rather than squires, one of that old race of Lincolnshire farmers whose delight was in greyhounds rather than foxhounds, who took their long-dogs coursing over the windy wolds on foot. But country sports were in his blood. Had Frank attacked fox-hunting in the old days as he did this evening Alan would have been the first to sail into action in defence of it.

But now he had kept silence for an hour and a half while the others went at it hammer and tongs: Frank Rowan, in truculent mood retrospectively fighting the lost battle of the anti-fox-hunting Bill only recently then defeated in the House of Commons, was witty, bitter, provocative and, to my mind, something less than polite to his hostess and her neighbours when he stressed the moral and intellectual insufficiency of those who practised or approved blood-sports. Major Hedley combined the modesty of a good professional soldier with a countryman's knowledge of hunting; he defended the cause on his own well-known ground and steadily refused to be lured into regions where Frank might take him at a disadvantage with his weapons of philosophy and psychology.

Not so Elizabeth Hedley. And that was the strangest of all, that Alan was not moved to make at least some murmurs of support for her, or sketch some gesture of rescuing her from the tangle of self-contradictions and inconsistencies into which Frank, with wicked dialectic, led her. Her ardour would have fired a man far less susceptible to the influence of spirited young women than Alan had been in the old days; now it seemed merely to bewilder him, or--as I felt once or twice--to alarm him.

Elizabeth was twenty-two, good-looking and lively. She had been born and brought up in Thorsway and had been a devoted admirer and companion of Alan's when she was a child of eleven or twelve before the war. Horses had been a passion with her all her life, and her conversation with me on the few occasions when I had met her during these three days in the village had been all of hunting, horse-shows, Pony Club meetings and the bringing up of foxhound puppies. She, if anyone, might have been expected to be distressed at the change in Alan. Yet, apparently, she had agreed to marry him soon after he came back from captivity, and no one but Mrs. Querdilion had given me the slightest hint that all was not well between them. There had not even been any suggestion of pity or protection in Elizabeth's behaviour towards Alan, as far as I could see: nothing of the solicitude such as a warm-hearted girl would have shown for him if he had come back from the wars crippled or blinded.

I say they were engaged, but I do not know that the engagement had ever been announced; I took it for granted from the way Major and Mrs. Hedley and Alan's mother spoke of the pair. It is true, I wondered a little why they were drawing out the engagement so long, though Elizabeth would have been only about eighteen when Alan came back, and no doubt her people preferred her to wait; but there seemed to me to be no reason why they should not have married during the last year.

Then, as I observed Elizabeth during the heat of this argument about fox-hunting, and saw the covert alarm in the gaze poor Alan turned on her as she retorted with brilliant indignation to Frank's attacks, I gave his mother credit for perceiving the truth. Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl's animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her, and I could guess that though others might take their engagement for granted neither he nor she did, for he had not had the courage to ask her. His mother knew that he would lose her if he did not pull himself together, and I found myself sharing her anxiety. They would be such a good match; Elizabeth would provide just that quickening and re-animating that Alan seemed to need; I refused to believe that he was so fundamentally changed in nature to be indifferent to her physical beauty; all he needed was some old friend to make him aware of the risk he was running through letting this acquired diffidence get the better of his real desires.... Before the argument was at an end I had accepted the role Mrs. Querdilion had designed for me.

The argument ended very unexpectedly. Frank, I am sure, was keeping up his end more for the amusement of provoking Elizabeth than because he was seriously opposed to fox-hunting. Their exchanges, as I have suggested, became very brisk and, to my mind, all but insulting, though I suppose they knew each other well enough to be able to box each other's ears verbally without real offence. Still, after a certain time, Frank began to extricate himself and, little by little, turned the argument to banter and joking until it had reached the point where he could say:

"Well, after all, nobody's improved on Oscar Wilde's definition of fox-hunting: The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable."

Then Alan took the pipe out of his mouth and said in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone:

"It's the terror that's unspeakable."

It was the apparent irrelevance of the observation and the abruptness of the transition to seriousness again that surprised us, as much as the fact of Alan's taking part in the argument at all. Frank and the Major looked blank, but Elizabeth, after an uncomprehending stare, said sharply, and with a just perceptible note of hostility in her voice:

"Terror? What terror?"

Alan leaned forward with his pipe clasped between his hands and frowned at the cat peacefully curled on the hearth-rug. He found it very difficult to say what he wanted, and we waited--we three men, at least, with a too obvious tolerance of his inarticulateness. The Major, amused now after his surprise, smiled encouragingly as one might to a child having difficulty with the beginning of a recitation.

"I mean," Alan said at last, still staring at the cat, "I mean it's the fear something feels when it's being hunted: that's what you can't describe; that's what's unspeakable. You can describe the people all right..."

Elizabeth had raised her brows and made her eyes very wide; her whole expression spoke of objection and challenge; I expected her to burst out with "Rubbish!" and assail him with the same vehement assertion she had fired off at Frank Rowan already a dozen times that evening; that a violent death is the natural end of all wild creatures, that it is the most merciful one, that animals have no imaginations to paint them the terrors of death before it comes--all the familiar contentions used by fox-hunters who are imprudent enough to defend their sport by attempting to put the fox in the witness-box. I was sure she was going to retort all that upon Alan, for the expressions of her face were as easy to read as a child's, but before the words had passed her lips her thoughts were quite evidently diverted suddenly into another and, it struck me, an entirely unfamiliar channel. The objection, the eagerness to retort disappeared from her face; she gazed steadily at Alan, whose attitude seemed to express a greater worry and uneasiness as he bent forward, averting his head from her, and I fancied I saw some such absorbed interest as might have been native to the cat between them come into her still round eyes. Impossible to tell then what discovery, what new interpretation of experience his words had opened to her. I could only guess that for her the subject of argument had suddenly changed from fox-hunting to Alan himself and that she divined that the fear he spoke of had in some strange way something to do with herself, and instinctively, with that new realisation she had become watchful, intent on maintaining the privacy of her thoughts. She waited for one of the others to speak.

But Mrs. Hedley was gathering herself together to depart. Alan got up and went silently out to put on the hall lights, and after we had seen the visitors off he took a lantern and went to see about some task in the yard.

Mrs. Querdilion said goodnight very soon, and Frank, after laughing and joking a little, pleased at his success in the argument and amused at Alan's odd intervention, took himself off to bed. Not having the habit of such early hours, I poured myself out some beer, turned off the lights in the sitting-room and drew the fire together.

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