Three Stories By Walter de la Mare
Talk given at One-Day Conference on the Short Stories of Walter de la Mare at King's College, University of London, 7 November 1996
"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller…' With those words
Walter de la Mare immediately became a friend to my mind. I was twelve or so
when I encountered his poem, 'The Listeners', and he's been a mind-friend ever
since. 'Is there anybody there?' is the question so often implicit in his writing:
his question to the shadows, to the dim places where the ordinary blurs into
something else. I've been living in England for over forty years; I came here
because of English writing - I wanted to be in the place where it was done.
Although I'd read all of Dicken's novels and most of Trollope with great satisfaction,
it was stories of the supernatural and the strange and fantastic that irresistible
pulled me here: tales by such as A.E. Coppard, Arthur Quiller-Couch, M.R. James,
Oliver Onions, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Charles Williams; they
take my mind to the places where it likes to be, territories beyond the accepted
boundaries of reality.
My favourite kind of story is the smoky evocation at which de la Mare excels: with his perception of the perhaps, his attention to the whispers of the unseen and his recognition of those realities not always recognised, he spins invisible webs to catch the unspoken. His imagination is unique in the completeness of its realisation, its making real what he sees in his mind; whatever detail he offers - Miss Duveen's mulberry petticoats, white stockings, and spring-side boots; the immense coils of Miss Seaton's hair, the rings on her left hand and the small jet buttons on her bodice; or the 'grained massive black-leathered furniture' of the first-class waiting-room at Crewe - unerringly bring with them the person or the place of which they are parts.
The imaginative projection of which he was capable may or may not be shown in a little story told to me by his grandson, Giles de la Mare, which appears in True Ghost Stories of Our Own Time, compiled by Vivienne Rae-Ellis: Walter de la Mare and his son Richard were intending to look at antique shops one afternoon when a friend turned up unexpectedly. De la Mare didn't especially want to see this friend but felt he had to stay and talk, and so the antique-shop expedition was called off. That same afternoon two other friends went to a shop regularly visited by de la Mare (and here I quote Vivienne Rae-Ellis): '…while they were looking in the window the wife suddenly ran away from the shop in some sort of distress and her husband went after her and said, "what on earth's the matter?" And she said, "Well, I'm worried about Mr de la Mare because I could see a bureau through him…" Ms Ellis goes on to report that Giles de la Mare remembered his father telling him that the woman had seen the apparition of the poet in the shop heard later that her own mother had died that day. Perhaps the woman who saw him was especially tuned in at that particular time, but I prefer to think that it was de la Mare's uncanny ability to put himself in the places he saw in his mind that caused her to see him in the antique shop. I know that I'd not at all be surprised to encounter him even now, forty years after his death, in the railway station at Crewe.
Three of his short masterpieces are models of the magical art of causing the reader to know a great deal more that what is on the printed page: in 'Miss Duveen', 'Seaton's Aunt,' and 'Crewe' the words don't spell things out; they function as a developing solution - washing quietly over the white paper they cause a picture to appear in all its subtleties and shadings, its light and its shadow.
As I look at these stories now with the aim of introducing new readers to them I see that they differ structurally from other stories both modern and traditional. The old style of short story has a beginning, middle and end; the modern story is more likely to be episodic, boneless - a glimpse, a mood a close-up of an hour or two. De la Mare's stories have no apparent scaffolding - they are not so much held together by plot or narrative line as energised and made firm by their dynamics: there is in each of them an integrative action that gives them muscle and keeps them going in your mind after the narrative is finished. I thought it might be quite a clever thing to diagram these three things for you but when I came to do it I found that for me all three diagrams would be the same, a pattern of overlapping waves, like transmissions radiating from and to a number of points. Overlapping transmissions and receptions and endless permutations of states of being are what these stories are made of.
Everything works in a de la Mare story. The first line of 'Miss Duveen' is: 'I seldom had the company of children in my grandmother's house beside the river Wandle.' In the name Wandle we hear suggestions of wand and fondle and wander. Wands are used in magic; affection makes for fondling; feet wander, also minds. The story is about a magical affection that grows between a boy whose feet wander on stepping stones across the Wandle and a lady no longer young who is, in a fond and magical way, somewhat wandering in her wits.
In any context water heightens the effect, intensifying whatever mood it finds. In some mythologies water is the road of the dead; writing from Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, in In the Cave of the Children's Ghosts, speaks of 'the primitive idea of some communication, mysterious and awful, between the world of the waters and the world of the dead. It is always over the sea, after the Feast of Souls, that the spirits pass murmuring back to their dim realm in those elfish little ships of straw which are launched for them on the sixteenth day of the seventh moon.' 'Miss Duveen' is about the death of the heart, and the river that appears in the first line is always mystically present. On the first page it 'was lovely and youthful even although it had flowed on for ever, it seemed, between its green banks of osier and alder'. Arthur, the narrator, says, 'I heard more talking of its waters than any of the human tongue.' On the second page the river is joined by the rain on the day when Miss Duveen first speaks to Arthur:
It was raining, the raindrops falling softly into the unrippled water, making their great circles, and tapping on the motionless leaves above my head where I sat in shelter on the bank. But the sun wasshining whitely from behind a thin fleece of cloud, when Miss Duveen suddenly peeped in at me outof the greenery, the thin light upon her face, and eyed me sitting there for all the world as if she were a blackbird and I a snail.
We all know what blackbirds do with snails. But when Miss Duveen,
hoping for the shelter of his innocence, cracks Arthur open on the stone of
his solitude, it is she who will be consumed. And all through the story the
great river of time that bears all things away flows with the waters of the
Wandle, meticulously observed in all its changing moods.
The emotional dynamics of the story grow out of an interesting physical symmetry. We see the story through the eyes of the boy Arthur who lives in his grandmother's house on this side of the Wandle. The grandmother's garden slopes down to the water where it faces the garden of Willowlea, the house where Miss Duveen lives with her cousin, Miss Coppin, who knows best and thinks that 'too much company is not expedient for' Miss Duveen. The narrow river can be crossed by stepping-stones. On this side of the river, the house containing the unfriendly grandmother and the lonely boy; on the far side, the other house containing the unpleasant cousin and the lonely Miss Duveen. In their very first conversation across the water Miss Duveen says to Arthur, 'I know you Arthur, very well indeed. I have looked, I have watched; and now, please God, we need never be estranged… What is a little brawling brook to friends like you and me?… I am Miss Duveen, that's not, they say, quite the thing here', tapping here forehead. And she tells Arthur a great truth:
One thing, dear child, you may be astonished to hear, I learned only yesterday, and that is how exceedingly sad life is… You really can have no notion, child, how very sad I am myself at times.In the evening, when they all gather together, in their white raiment, up and up and up, I sit on the garden seat, on Miss Coppin's garden seat, and precisely in the middle (you'll be kind enough to remember that?) and my thoughts make sad.' She narrowed her eyes and shoulders. 'Yes and frightened, my Child! Why must I be so guarded? One angel - the greatest fool could see the wisdom of that. But billions! - with their eyes fixed shining, so very boldly on me. I never prayed for so many, dear friend.
Thus Miss Duveen who, in a pause in her long speech, 'leaned her
head questionably, like a starving bird in the snow.' What happens in 'Miss
Duveen' has the quality of real life: suddenly everything is different from
how it was five minutes ago because someone or something that we thought was
on the other side of the river is now inside us for ever.
To return to what Miss Duveen said at the outset of her astonishing monologue: 'And now, please God, we need never be estranged.' 'Estranged'! Interesting word that. One doesn't think of being estranged from a stranger - you be estranged from an old friend or from you wife or husband; to be estranged from a stranger implies a previous state of non-estrangement, or another place of being, perhaps, where no one is a stranger. Maybe Miss Duveen has never been a stranger, has always lived in that place in the heart where the broken birds sing.
'Child,' she calls Arthur: 'dear child' and 'my child'. Arthur's age is never given us but the boy I see in my mind is nine or ten perhaps, pale and lonely. We learn in the first paragraph that his mother and father are dead. 'My grandmother', he tells us, 'found no particular pleasure in my company'. Miss Duveen, on her side of the Wandle, is spoken to by her cousin, the perpetually angry Miss Coppin, 'as one might talk to a post'. Recognising a fellow prisoner of solitude, one not corrupted by grown-upness and the practical world, she opens her heart to him by slants and glimpses, hints and obliquities in their pitiful little assignations - her word - by the river Wandle. While her angels in their white raiment gather in her mind, she trusts Arthur with her story that she offers like bits of drowned and tear-stained letters plucked from time's uncaring river: a happy time in a white sunny rambling house, she no long remembers where; a father who rode a black horse; a mother walking in the garden in a crinolined gown; her elder sister Caroline who married Colonel Bute and was drowned, her eyes blue as the forget-me-not.
Their friendship reaches its peak in a furtive little tea in the absence of Miss Coppin and their gaunt maid-servant Ann. There is a saffron bun for Arthur, a grey pudding, and a plate of raspberries gathered, he suspects, from his grandmother's canes. In a later meeting she tells him of the gas that sings and roars all over the house while she is not allowed even one bracket of her own. She shows him, 'threaded on dingy tape, [a] tarnished locket' containing 'the miniature of a young, languid, fastidious- looking officer'. 'Miss Coppin, in great generosity, has left me this, ' she says. 'Some day, it may be, you, too, will love a gentle girl. I beseech you, keep your heart pure and true. This one could not.' Later, violently: 'Pray, pray, pray till the blood streams down your face!'
'All are opposed…The Autumn will divide us', she predicts. Summer passes into autumn and 'I begin to see,' says Arthur, 'we were ridiculous friends, especially as she came in now in ever dingier and absurder clothes.' He hides from Miss Duveen whenever he can. When the first ice appears in the garden his grandmother tells him that Miss Duveen's friends 'have been compelled to put her away.' Here is the last paragraph:
I'm thinking now of Big Things in literature. It must be about fifty years ago that I read War and Peace. I know there were big things in it. I remember vaguely a great battle - was it the Battle of Boridino? Was there a Prince Andrey lying wounded among the dead and was Bonaparte looking down at him? I'm not sure but I know it was a big thing. Much more clearly I remember Ahab on that fateful third day of the chase when he harpoons Moby Dick and is caught by the hissing harpoon line and dragged to his death; certainly that was big. Jean Valjean's flight through the sewers of Paris; Hans Kastorp, with bayonet fixed, running through the mud singing Der Lindenbaum while the shells explode around him - these are all Big, and the question arises: are they bigger that what happened to Miss Duveen? Of course not. There is only the mortal tragedy to talk about; doing it in multiples or on horseback doesn't make it more important. Arthur's innocence and perfidy and gallant Miss Duveen's defeat loom as tall as the Sack of Constantinople or anything else you care to mention, but you need to be as good as de la Mare to bring them out of the cobwebs and the shadows of that consciousness that lives in all of us.
But I now know the news, in spite of a vague sorrow, greatly relieved me. I should be at ease in the garden again, came the thought - no longer fear to look ridiculous and grow hot when our neighbours were mentioned, or be saddled with her company beside the stream
Now we come to 'Seaton's Aunt'. Miss Seaton is both a transmitter and a receiver, so again I see the action under the narrative as intersecting wave patterns going out and coming in.
'Seaton's Aunt' has a complimentary relationship to 'Miss Duveen'. Again the narrator recalls a boyhood encounter with the woman of the title; but where Miss Duveen is the victim of the shadows Seaton's Aunt is a shadowy aggressor. In Robert Graves's The White Goddess and in the work of other mythographers you can read of the triple aspect of women as perceived by ancient primitive males and recorded by modern scholarly ones: she is successively the maiden, the mother, and the hag. In Indian mythology Shiva's beautiful consort Parbati becomes Kali the destroyer with her necklace of skulls. The tendency of some female spiders and other creepy-crawlies to dine on rather than with their mates has done little to make us males feel more secure. On the other hand we have such remnants of old religion as the stone figure called Sheela-Na-Gig protecting us all by displaying her evil-averting pudenda on the corbal-table of Kilpeck Church and elsewhere. Men have been impressed by the power of women in one way and another ever since sex was invented but that is not my main theme here; it is sufficient to say that Miss Duveen, despite her age, is the vulnerable maiden; and Seaton's aunt is definitely at the other end of the spectrum, where Medusa lives.
In 'Miss Duveen' the lady of the title gave us such hints and glimpses as enabled us to extrapolate her history. In 'Seaton's Aunt' there is nothing so simple as that; it is completely a character-and-atmosphere story, the two so intermingled that it is impossible to separate them. The written narrative is mainly a framework within which the reader is led to endless speculation about this woman who is literature's most memorable creations. Poor Seaton! From the beginning his prospects don't seem too good. 'From a boy's point of view', says the narrator, 'he looked distastefully foreign with his yellowish skin, slow chocolate-coloured eyes, and lean weak figure. Merely for his looks he was treated by most of us true-blue Englishmen with condescension, hostility, or contempt.' Seaton, we fear, is destined to become a victim.
Withers, the narrator, is not at all a close friend of the unpopular Seaton but, full of gratitude for 'a whole pot of outlandish mulberry-coloured jelly that had been duplicated in [Seaton's] term's supplies', he promises to spend the next half-term holiday with him at his aunt's house.
Seaton's aunt is first seen from a distance:
…We were approaching the house, when Seaton suddenly came to a standstill. Indeed, I have always had the impression that he plucked at my sleeve. Something, at least, seemed to catch me back, as it were, as he cried, 'Look out, there she is!' She was standing at an upper window which opened wide on a hinge, and at first sight she looked an excessively tall and overwhelming figure. This, however, was mainly because the window reached all but to the floor of her bedroom. She was in reality rather an undersized woman, in spite of he long face and big head. She must of stood, I think, unusually still, with eyes fixed on us, though the impression may be due to Seaton's sudden warning and to my consciousness of the cautious and subdued air that had fallen on him at the sight of her. I know that without the least reason in the world I felt a kind of guiltiness, as if I had been 'caught'. There was a silvery star pattern sprinkled on her black silk dress, and even from the ground I could see the immense coils of her hair and the rings on her left hand which was held fingering the small jet buttons of her bodice. She watched our united advance without stirring, until, imperceptible, her eyes raised and lost themselves in the distance, so that it was out of an assumed reverie that she appeared suddenly to awaken to our presence beneath her when we drew close to the house.
'So this is your friend, Mr Smithers, I suppose?' she said, bobbing to me.
'Withers, aunt,' said Seaton. 'Its much the same,' she said, with eyes fixed on me.
'Come in, Mr Withers, and bring him along with you.'
lines are quite wonderful for the way in which they present to us this woman
of power. I doubt that many aunts have been introduced with the word, 'Look
out, there she is!' We must then look up to see her because she's above us at
an upper window. This window opens wide on a hinge, giving us a sense of her
freedom to transmit her physical vibrations. It is a bedroom window, so behind
her is the night and whatever it brings. Her eyes are fixed upon Seaton and
Withers, and Withers feels 'caught'. The silvery star pattern on her black silk
dress suggests witchery and the immense coils of her hair suggests snakes. After
fixing her eyes on the boys she assumes a false reverie from which she rouses
herself to greet Withers and Smithers. When corrected, she says, 'Its much the
same,' making it clear that any friend of Seaton's is an interchangeable entity.
Then she offhandedly tells Wither's, the guest, to bring Seaton, the host, along
Perhaps I'm belabouring the obvious but it's because I so admire what de la Mare does and doesn't do in those lines. A lesser writer might of said:
There was something sinister about the woman; the silvery star pattern on her black silk dress was suggestive of the occult, and the snaky coils of her hair, her hooded eyes and hieratic stillness gave her an air of supernatural power.
De la Mare doesn't do that; he offers no opinion: Seaton's warning,
'Look out there she is!' makes us brace ourselves for something special. Then
young Withers tells us what he sees, how he feels, and what was said. Having
had the journey by train, farm cart, and foot, then the village (where Seaton
stops to buy rat poison at the chemist's), then the outbuildings, the garden
and Seaton's tadpole pond, we now, with this new data, find in our minds the
whole atmosphere of the time and the place. With only that one clue about his
feeling caught, we ourselves experience, exactly and in great detail, Wither's
encounter with that house and that presence. To be able to do this, to refrain
from over-describing but to provide that information that enables the reader
to live the event, is the index of de la Mare's mastery.
Most of the action of the story is in Wither's three visits to the house of Seaton's aunt: the first is when Withers and Seaton are schoolmates; the second is when Seaton is engaged to be married; the third is after Seaton's untimely death. In each of these visits the aunt makes her appearance in a psychologically choreographed set piece in which the otherness of her reality dominates the scene. In 'Miss Duveen' there was the unpleasant and domineering cousin; here we have the step-aunt who is a physical oppressor. In both stories we are left with a feeling of the narrator's moral guilt: although drawn unwillingly into a strange alliance, he ought to have stood by the friend more staunchly than he did, even if ultimately it would have made no difference. Perhaps that's why both stories have such power - perhaps all of us recognise in ourselves some guilt, some regret for something in the past that we ought to have done and did not do.
There isn't a great deal of overt action in thus story. During a half-term holiday Withers goes unwillingly with Seaton to the house of Seaton's aunt who is not really his aunt but his mother's step-sister. The woman treats Seaton with contempt and Seaton lives in terror of her. He tells Withers, 'I know that what we see and hear is only the smallest fraction of what is. I know she lives quite out of this. She talks to you; but it's all make-believe.' He claims that his aunt is in league with the Devil, that she as good as killed his mother (although he doesn't say how), and that she constantly spies on him, listening to every thought he thinks. Furthermore he insists that the house is swarming with ghosts. 'She brings them in,' he says. Withers has strong doubts about all this, and that night Seaton gets him out of bed to show him that his aunt has not been asleep but was listening at the door. They go through the dark house to her bedroom:
Trapped in the room as the aunt returns, the boys hide in a cupboard until she falls asleep. In the morning 'in the mysterious fashion by which we learn each other's secret thoughts without a syllable said,' Withers knows that she has followed every word and movement of the night before.
Seaton, with immense caution, slowly pushed open a door, and we stood together, looking into a great poll of duskiness, out of which, lit by the feeble clearness of a nightlight, rose a vast bed. A heap of clothes lay on the floor; beside them two slippers dozed, with noses each to each, a foot or two apart. Somewhere a little clock ticked huskily. There was a close smell; lavender and eau de Cologne, mingled with the fragrance of ancient sachets, soap, and drugs. Yet it was a scent even more peculiarly compounded than that.
And the bed! I stared warily in; it was mounded gigantically, and it was empty.
In Wither's second visit, the occasion on which he meets Alice Outram, Seaton's fiancée, Miss Seaton, in dim lamplight and with the light of the moon on the keys, plays Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata, somehow satirising it, dragging 'out of the unwilling keys her grotesquerie of youth and love and beauty.' For an encore she does an hymn, A few More Years Shall Roll. Here are the words of the first verse, not given in the story:
A few more years shall roll,
A few more seasons come,
And we shall be with those that rest
Asleep within the tomb…
'She's a spider,' Seaton tells Wither's. 'She hates me… I'm as good as done. You wait.' Withers does wait, making his third visit on the spur of the moment after noticing that he's had no news of the wedding. He finds Miss Seaton there, now nearly blind, but no Seaton. Here follows part of their final conversation:
'You must find it very lonely, Miss Seaton, with Arthur away?'
'I was never lonely in my life', she said sourly. 'I don't look to flesh and blood for my company.When you've got to my age, Mr Smithers (which God forbid), you'll find life a very different affair from what you seem to think it is now. You won't seek company then, I'll be bound. It's thrust on you.' Her face edged round into the clear green light, and her eyes groped, as it were, over my vacant, disconcerted face. 'I dare say my nephew told you a good many taradiddles in his time. Oh, yes, a good many, eh? He always was a liar. What, now did he say of me? Tell me, now.' She leant forward as far as she could, trembling, with an intriguing smile.
'I think he is rather superstitious,' I said coldly, 'but, honestly, I have a very poor memory, Miss Seaton.'
Why?' she said. 'I haven't.'
'The engagement hasn't been broken off, I hope.' 'Well, between you and me,' she said, shrinking up and with an immensely confidential grimace,'it has'.
'I'm sure I'm very sorry to hear it. And where is Arthur?'
'Eh?' 'Where is Arthur?'
We faced each other mutely among the dead old bygone furniture. Past all my analysis was that large, flat, grey, cryptic countenance. And then, suddenly, our eyes for the first time really met. In some indescribable way out of thatthick-lidded obscurity a far small something stooped and looked out at me for a mere instant of time that seemed of almost intolerable protraction. Involuntarily I blinked and shook my head. She muttered something with great rapidity, but quite inarticulately; rose and hobbled to the door. I though I heard, mingled in broken mutterings, something about tea.
Withers never does
get a straight answer from the old woman. Not until he's on his way back to
the railway station does he learn at the local butcher's shop that Seaton had
died three months ago, just before the wedding was to take place.
Reading this story again I find myself wondering whether Miss Seaton was altogether an invention. She, rather than any idea or plot, is clearly the reason for the story, a personage so powerful that she simply could not remain untold. Did she actually exist or did she rise up out of de la Mare's imagination or perhaps a dream and demand to be put into words? I don't know, I've done no detective work. Certainly she's as real as anyone else I know - realer in her crepuscular tenure and permanence. Invested with the power of her unknown origins she drifts free of the story to become an independent entity of mythic nature, a nexus for all kinds of thoughts and glimmers moving through the lights and shadows, the dusks and small hours of the mind.
Seaton hinted to Withers that Miss Seaton would not be very pleased to meet those who would be waiting for her when she departed this world. Richard de la Mare, talking to Robert Robinson in a BBC radio interview, said that his father firmly believed in some sort of life after death. This theme is further developed in 'Crewe', the most technically complex of these three stories.
In 'Crewe' we have atmosphere within atmospheres. The murky winter dusk envelops the first-class waiting room which contains its own obscurity within which we find the stranger speaking from the shadow-world that contains him. We have the Hesper plying the deeps with its mysteries in the depths of the country. Each of these atmospheric envelopes has an inside and an outside, a this side and an other side.
The opening paragraph of 'Crewe' immediately puts us on the inside of this envelope:
Having thus been put into the murky winter dusk at Crewe we now learn that there has been animated talk in the waiting room about newspaper reports of the last voyage of a ship called Hesper. Something mysterious has happened on board but we aren't told what it was. The name Hesper is not without resonances. The word refers to the west: hespreides is Venus as the evening star. To go west means to hop the twig, pop one's clog, hand in one's dinner pail, and so on. The hesperides were the nymphs who guarded the golden apples in their garden in the west. Even to those to whom the name is without meaning, there is still the sound of it like a whisper in the ear that hints of something out of the ordinary.
When murky winter dusk begins to settle over the railway station at Crewe its first-class waiting room grows steadily more stagnant. Particularly if one is alone in it. The long grimed windows do little more than sift the failing light that slopes in on them from the glass roof outside and is too feeble to penetrate into the recesses beyond. And the grained massive furniture becomes less and less inviting. It appears to have made for a scene of extreme and diabolical violence that one may hope will never occur. One can hardly at any rate imagine it to have been designed by a really good man!
Having established this westerly whisper in the dusk of the winter evening at Crewe, our narrator, weary of talk of the mysterious doings aboard the Hesper 'had decided to seek the lights and joys and coloured bottles of the refreshment room when a voice from out of the murk behind me suddenly broke the hush. It was an unusual voice, rapid, incoherent, and internal, like that of a man in a dream or under the influence of a drug.'
Now that we are set fair for a journey into the shadows, the owner of the voice shows his 'flat greyish face' and points us toward the western end of his story. 'Those gentlemen who have just left us,' he says, referring to the departed travellers who'd been talking about the Hesper, 'had no more notion of what they were talking about than an infant in the cradle.'
Now we can settle back in confident expectation as de la Mare gives us more visual data. The man who has broken the silence 'had shifted a little nearer and was now, his legs concealed, sitting on the extreme edge of his vast wooden sofa - a smallish man, but muffled up in a very respectable greatcoat at least two sizes too large for him, his hands thrust deep into its pockets.' In other words, this little man has got himself into something much too big for him.
'He continued to stare at me,' says our narrator. 'You don't have to go to sea for things like that,' he went on. 'And there's no need to argue about it if you do. Still it wasn't my place to interfere. They'll find out all right - all in good time. They go their ways.'
Now the stranger comes out of his obscure corner, warms 'his veined shrunken hands at the heap of smouldering cinders in the grate under the black marble fireplace,' and seats himself opposite the narrator who notes that he looks in need of a barber, medicine, and sleep, and fears that he might be about to solicit a small loan. If you think of the stranger as being played by Barry Fitzgerald in one of his seedier modes and without the Irish accent you won't be too far off.
The stranger's name is Blake, and now he tells of his time in the 'depps of the country'. Not the depps of the sea but the equally deep, as we shall see, depps of the country.
Blake tells the narrator that he has been a gentleman's servant: 'first boot-boy under a valet, then footman and helping at table, than pantry work and so on.' Blake's story is of course enlivened with many pragmatic observations, metaphysical insights, and interesting turns of phrase. He does not proceed along the straightest of lines but tends to meander between the hedgerows of his thought.
Blake's last situation was with the Reverend William Somers, MA. The staff consisted of himself, a young fellow of the name of George, and a woman who came in from the village to char and cook and so on. The Reverend 'had a nice fat living…about fifty pounds to the pigsty, with the vicarage thrown in.' The Reverend's will is mentioned early on. The Reverend 'liked things as they should be.' Good old furniture, good food, choice fruit in the garden, and no smoking in the house. 'An easy place,' says Blake, 'if you forgot how quiet it was - not a sound, no company, and not a soul to be seen. Fair prospects, too, if you could wait.' Blake was to be remembered in the will if still in the Reverend's service. If any of the staff 'went elsewhere, the one left was to have the lot.'
Speaking of death, Blake says, 'Who wants to go, I should like to ask. Early or late. And nothing known of what's on the other side?…What I say is, keep on this side of the tomb as long as you can. Don't meddle with that hole. Why? Because while some fine day you will have to go down into it, you can never be sure while you are here what mayn't come back out of it.' Blake is greatly concerned about meetings that might take place on the other side. Little by little we find out why. It is an exercise in involuntary disclosure. If you cut something out of paper with scissors you have the positive shape of what you've cut out and the negative shape of the hole in the paper. Blake, in his rambling discourse, offers such positive shapes of people and events as he saw them but all the while the negative shapes created at the same time shows us what he is.
When I haven't read this story for some time and I recall it, the first image I see in my mind is the scarecrow whose look so bothers Blake at a point in the story which we'll get to presently. Like the other two stories we've looked at, this one doesn't march down the road from the beginning to end and then out of sight and away - it circles continuously around those points fixed in the memory by de la Mare's art.
There they are in the depps in the country: the Reverend and Blake and George and the woman from the village and the gardener whom Blake now mentions for the first time when he says that he, Blake, is the only left of that whole establishment. The vicarage, Black says, was what they called haunted, and had even been 'exercised'. Apropos of haunting and spooky noises, Blake says, 'What's this voice of conscience that they talk about but something you needn't hear if you don't want to?'
Blake's story goes round and round as he stirs it with the spoon of his commentary, and random hints rise to the top like bits of meat in a stew, such remarks as 'And what about the further shore? It's my belief there's some kind of ferry plying on that river. And coming back depends on what you want to come back for.' The real story is told almost by default as more and more of Blake rises to the surface of the stew.
The trouble began, it seems, with the gardener, Mengus, spelled Menzies - 'ginger hair, scanty, and the same on his face, whiskers - and a stoop. He lived down at the lodge; and his widowed daughter kept house for him, with one little as fair as she was dark.' There were wrangles about Blake's picking fruit or a cucumber for the salad in the gardener's absence. Mengus seems to have got into a temper about that.
Blake, on his side, hospitably offering Mengus a drink now and then from his pantry, found that 'it came to become a kind of habit; and to be expected; which is always a bad condition of things.' Meanwhile the Reverend, unaware of the gathering of storm clouds, was growing feeble. Mengus, in the heat of a very dry August, begins to avail himself of ardent sprits through the open pantry window without being asked, while Blake watches him from behind the door. There are words between them, and one morning Blake comes down to find one of his best decanters 'smashed to smithereens on the stone floor…and out of revenge he (Mengus) filled the pantry with wasps by bringing in over-ripe plums.'
'And so things went from bad from worse..I had to call a halt to it,' says Blake. 'Then I thought of George; not compromising myself in any way, of course, in doing so.' Accordingly he says to that young man, 'George, a word in time save nine, but it would be better from you than from me.' George, who seems not quite to have both oars in the water, sees no flaws in this plan, and does as he is told.
After taking in this word in time Mengus ponders the situation, becomes a little cross, heightens his mood with ardent spirits, and confronts Blake. 'Where's that George?' he demands. 'Fetch him out, I say, and we'll finish it here and now.'
Blake, ever the voice of reason, replies, 'I don't want to meddle in anybody's quarrels. So long as George so does his work in this house as will satisfy my eye, I am not responsible for his actions in his off-time and out of bounds.'
Mengus comes off second best in that conversation and Blake notices that he was 'looking a bit pinched, and hollow under the eyes. Sleepness nights, perhaps.' He finds out later that Mengus was under strain because his grandson was ill.
That very evening Mengus waylays George by the stables and rearranges his face somewhat. That Reverend, noting George's condition, questions him closely, as a result of which Mengus is given the sack with a quarter's wages in lieu of notice. Mengus has another earnest talk with Blake in which he vows, come what may, here or hereafter, he'll get even with George. Then he goes out to the barn and hangs himself.
Blake now brings in the subject of cremation, remarking that after 'all the moisture in us [has] gone up in steam, what's left would scarcely turn the scales by a single hounce.' This leads to a consideration of the possibility of putting in a posthumous appearance:
If that's all there is to you and me, we shouldn't need much of the substantial for what you might call the mere sole look of things, if you follow me, if we chose or chanced to come back. When gone, I mean.
Just enough, I suppose, to be obnoxious, as the Reverend used to say, to the naked eye.
having has a stroke on the night of the inquest after the death of Mengus, is
fading fast, almost at death's door. He's thanked Blake for all he's done, saying
he won't forget it and using the word 'substantial'.
Now the house is quiet again but 'There was a strain, so to speak, as you went about your daily doings,' says Blake. 'A strain. And especially after dark. It may have been only in one's head. I can't say. But it was there…even George noticed it.'
Time passes and the story continues to circle with the slow stirrings of Blake's spoon. It's early September, and the stubble bleaching in the sun, when Blake notices a scarecrow in the middle of the cornfield that lies beyond the stream. Early September and nothing but stubble in the field and it didn't look like an old scarecrow. He doesn't recall seeing it before but how could he have missed it? He observes the scarecrow from several different positions. He looks at it through the Reverend's binoculars. 'It wasn't the first time I'd set eyes on the clothes,' he notes, 'though I couldn't have laid name to them. And there was something in the appearance of the thing, something in the way it bore itself up, so to speak, with its arms thrown up to the sky and its empty face, which wasn't what you'd expect of mere sticks and rags.' Also the air around it was 'sort of quivering.' George looks through the binoculars as well and shares Blake's misgivings. Blake says they must have a closer look some time. 'But not this afternoon. It's too late.'
It's taken Blake and de la Mare quite some time to get to this scarecrow that remains in my memory as the image around which the story revolves. To a lover of what is called the supernatural (which I insist is only part of the natural) the scarecrow is a strong satisfaction, absolutely top class, achieving its effect simply by offering such data as draw the reader a little further into the realm of the perhaps than one would ordinarily go. Like the horrible hopping creature in white that dodges among the trees in M.R. James's 'Casting the Runes' this image is unforgettable because who of us has not just such hopping things and scarecrows in the woods and stubble fields of the farther corners of the mind? Like Miss Duveen, like Seaton's aunt, the scarecrow draws to itself all manner of memories, moods, and random fancies circling in the shadows.
I've already said the story comes through Blake's maundering almost by default. The power of 'Crewe' comes from the amount of action the reader is provoked into, the compelling need to spoon those bits of meat out of the stew Blake's maddening circuitous monologue.
The morning after that first sighting the scarecrow isn't there. Blake brings in Occam's Razor: 'It's no good in this world, sir, putting reasons more far-fetched to a thing than are necessary to account for it.' Some farmer's lout, he tells himself, has moved it.
By now there are only Blake and George and the Reverend at the Vicarage. Blake doesn't go out at all the next day, but when, at the upper windows that evening in the light of the harvest moon, he picks up the binoculars he sees, before he uses the glasses, rapid movement that suddenly fixes itself into the scarecrow when he focuses on it.
That night there isn't much sleep and there are various unexplained sounds outside the house. the next night there are more noises and George puts his fears into words:
"Do you think, Mr Blake - you don't think he is come back again?'
"Who's, George, come back" I asked him.
"Why, what we looked at through the glasses at in the field,' he said. 'It had his look.'
men tell no tales', says Blake. 'Let alone scarecrows. All we've got to do is
just make sure.' He tells George to have a look round on the outside while he
has a search through on the in. George, remembering Mengus's threat to get even,
is reluctant but Blake prevails and out goes George into the night.
Blake doesn't move at all for a bit, sits on the bed feeling the weight of 'all that responsibility and not knowing what might happen next':
George, I hardly need tell you, did not make it through the night. He was found in the morning, 'cold for hours, and precious little to show why.'
Then presently what I heard was as though a voice had said something - very sharp and bitter; then said no more. Then came a moan, and then no more again. But by that time I was on my rounds inside the house, as I'd promised; and so, out of hearing; and when I got back to my bedroom again everything was still and quiet. And I took it of course that George had got back safe to his…
The Reverend having been in due course gathered to his fathers, Blake's share of the will, it seems, after the lawyers had done their work, wasn't anything much to boast about. 'I'm a free man, that's true,' he says. 'But for how long. Nobody can stay in this world here for ever, can he? And though in this world you may not have one iota of harm to blame yourself for to yourself, there may still be misunderstandings, and them that have been deceived by them waiting for you in the next. So when it comes to what the captain of the Hesper…'
He is interrupted by the porter who comes to put coals on the fire, the narrator's train arrives, and Blake is left behind in the winter evening at Crewe. Where he remains, a small person wearing something much too big for him.
There are many writers in this country who have fallen into undeserved obscurity. Often when I mention Walter de la Mare I'm astonished to find that the person I'm speaking to has never read anything of his. For myself, I find him so satisfying to me as a reader and so instructive to me as a writer that I can't help telling people about him. Today I've synopsised these three stories and offered what useful comments I could in the hope that old readers will want to enjoy them again and new readers will be drawn to discover on of England's national treasures.
* This essay appeared in issue no 1 of The Walter de la Mare Society Magazine, 1998. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.