Authors: Richard Church
Just when we're safest, there's a sunset touch
Mrs. Winterbourne had three letters on the morning of her fiftieth birthday. Being a person who loved to savour life to the full, she did not immediately open them, but examined the handwriting on the envelopes. One was from Paris, and she recognised the sender, Dr. Batten, who had been in the East Surrey Regiment with her husband at the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915, and had come home on leave shortly after, to call on her and tell her some details about his fellow-officer's death, one amongst the fifty thousand in that ding-dong struggle which wiped out most of the young men from Limpsfield village, where she was still living in 1930.
The experiences of that battle, where poison-gas was again used, had affected Dr. Batten's outlook on life. After the war he had married a French woman, and settled in Paris with the determination to specialise in respiratory diseases. Once a year he wrote to his friend's widow. Now here was the fifteenth anniversary tribute.
Mrs. Winterbourne did not immediately open that letter. She knew it would be a polite repetition of its fourteen predecessors, carrying an invitation for her to come to Paris againâshe had been once, in the first dark days immediately after the war when grief swelled afresh and drove her like an autumn leaf up and down the confines of her small world. Since then she had resumed
control of herself and her destiny, as she thought, and anchored herself to the responsibility of bringing up her daughter Joan; a double responsibility now that the girl was fatherless.
The second letter was from Joan, twenty-five years old, and married to the man of her own choice, John Boys, a don at King's College, Cambridge, whom she had met while she was an undergraduate at Newnham, during a winter vacation with a climbing party in Switzerland.
It was the fact that the third letter was from this son-in-law, that made Mrs. Winterbourne pucker up her still pretty brows. She was perplexed. Why did the children, as she called them, write each under separate cover? It was as ominous as sleeping in different rooms. She attacked Joan's letter first.
“Dearest,” it began (habitually rather than emotionally), “a happy birthday, and I wish I could buy you the earth; but something is coming from The Stores by delivery van direct. If John were here I know he would include something intense, for he has always been more in love with you than with me. But he's not here. Immediately the students went down he was off as usual to harden his muscles and reinforce his iron will. He's walking in the rain along the Pennines I presume. I last saw him in studded boots and mossy flannel bags, with a rucksack containing a change of hair-shirt. He kissed the air somewhere about six inches from my carbolised face and with a wave of the hand was gone. I thank God I can't go because I have a good excuse. I'm devilling for my Professor, digging into the Middle Ages again, Court Rolls and all that. And he wants the fodder urgently, to get his book done before some American rival steals his thunder.
“I wish I didn't feel lonely here, in spite of the work. It makes me ashamed of myself, though I don't know why I should be. Marriage should not be a one-sided affair. But I'm not grumbling. After all, fidelity is something to be thankful for in this libidinous age. And that is John's
strongest suit. He's as faithful as Helvellyn, or The Rock of Ages. He could climb up his own constancy, and find it as formidable as the Matterhorn. It has its funny side. I mean the relationship, not the constancy. But I feel inclined to come home for a while, and to shut up the flat here in Cambridge, which is dreary in mid-winter after term finishes. It's the coldest place on earth; and I begin to feel I would like a touch of extravagant, Latin warmth for once in a while. Dear old Limpsfield; I think of it now, a blaze of December colour along Titsey woods and along the secret brooks. And the bracken on the Common! Mother, I wish sometimes I'd never grown up and left you, or wanted things, and a person, so much. However, I must get on with the job. I will ring you up when it is done, and I may fulfil my threat to descend on you.”
Mrs. Winterbourne read this through twice, and tapped it against her teeth, as though it were a coin to be tested. The puzzlement did not leave her brow. Obviously she was haunted by previous thoughts on the matter. This letter was a straw in the wind. She turned to the third.
“Dear Mary,” it said. She had absolutely refused, from the start of the marriage four years ago, to be called âMater' as John Boys had shyly tried to name her. And âMother' was a little too close for a man of nearly forty, a rocklike individual, son of the Church, devoted to his work as a physicist. Being shy, he was at first shocked that his mother-in-law should demand to be treated so unceremoniously. Being also inarticulate, he accepted gratefully.
“I'm taking a walk, to harden up a bit after term. The weather is just right for it; heavy rains against bouts of N.E. counter-blasts. Quite a struggle at times on the summits, with patches of fog. Not a soul about, except a shepherd here and there looking for strayed animals. One or two noble sunsets in spite of the inclemency. I wish young Joan were here; but she's losing heart lately. Working
too hard for old Watson. Can't you have a word with her? I've tried, but she just freezes when I jockey her. I'd like to talk to you about this sometime. She's been getting into a habit of biting lately. It's been going on all the year; and I can't understand why. We both have our work to do, and our lives are very full. Do you think it rankles that she got only a Second instead of the predicted First? If so, it wasn't my fault, for I did my best to keep her nose to the grindstone during her last year, after we had met on that climbing expedition in 1924. But she was so keen on getting married that she
live in the future, and day-dream about it instead of plugging away at the job in hand. She could have got that First without ropes! Well, I must push on. I'm writing this in a scruffy little hotel near Scafell, after an early breakfast. Rain still falling, and growing colder. Good hardening weather! Wish you were here, relieved from all your good works for a while. The wind on the heath, brother! Happy birthday to you. Joan is doing something at The Stores.”
The letter from Paris was opened last, and thoughtfully Mrs. Winterbourne first went to the window of her sittingroom, and looked across the woods. Rain was falling here too, steadily and musically, a quiet drumming on the roof of the old cottage, and a distant whispering among the bare twigs of the oaks and birches that stood around the clearing before the cottage. Suddenly she felt lonely. She would not allow herself to be disconsolate, however, and turned to Dr. Batten's annual. It was, as she expected, the usual quiet reminder from a remarkable man. She had not seen him for over ten years, and during that decade he had been working at pressure, a dedicated soul, supported by his wife, a woman of some property, and a nurse during the war. The invitation to visit them in Paris was repeated. What made Mrs. Winterbourne marvel was that so slender an acquaintance could be maintained, without more to feed it. Dr. Batten must have had close contact with hundreds of casualties during
that dreadful September in 1915, but he had remembered, and remembered with emotion, the occasion of her husband's death on the barbed wire so unexpectedly thrust up by the Germans on Hill 70 in the heat of the battle. The names of that fatal neighbourhood were stamped on her memory: Loos, Hulluch, CitÃ© St. Elie, Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, and the terrible Bois Hugo where the enfilading machine-gun fire drove back the 24th Division. Details were beginning to fade; but names stood like gravestones in the cemetery of the past. Among them lay her love, her marriage, Joan's father. There had hardly been time to explore his nature. Was it perpetuated in their daughter, the forthright, somewhat tempestuous young woman, given to great indignations and equally great recoils?
A fiftieth birthday spent alone, in familiar surroundings, is too ghost-ridden to be comfortable. Mrs. Winterbourne tried to busy herself, determined to throw off the depression that had settled over her after she had read the three letters, the only post that morning. Was she entirely forgotten by the rest of the world, the many acquaintances, the neighbours? What of the many people with whom she worked locally, and those in London, all of them fellow-folk in interests and matters of taste, members of the various societies working for peace, the several freedoms, the promotion of the arts and more enlightened gardening, a dozen activities in which she took part, with the intention of making the human family less bloody-minded and destructive? But no doubt all these good workers were more concerned with mankind as a whole, than with any single individual. She reflected modestly upon this, but it did her no good that day, and she had to confess to herself by the evening that the dear little cottage, the garden, the whole setting of her life for the past decade, were as unreal as a stage backcloth. A muggy drizzle fell after luncheon, and day faded out about three o'clock,
beaten down by the tiny hammers of the rain thudding on what few leaves still hung on the trees. “Why was I born in December?” she asked Milly, her cook, who lived in the village and came in daily, cycling over the common and down the hill to the cottage in the woods.
Milly had not been able to answer this question; but she looked curiously at her employer, with whom she had been on friendly terms, unbroken by a cloud, ever since taking the job ten years earlier. During that time, Milly had married; but she would not give up her post with Mrs. Winterbourne, and there had been no arrival of a family to force her to do so. The relationship was a cool one, but it was serene.
“You want a bit of a change,” she said. “I always say that as soon as you start thinking about yourself, something must be wrong. It doesn't
. Arthur got like that when he was away from work with shingles, and he properly got on my nerves. He began asking me questions about himself. It was uncanny, and I said so. I sent him off to his mother up North, and it did him a world of good. Just a change of scene, that's all you need. It's
, that's the danger.”
Milly's bracing remarks were effective, and Mrs. Winterbourne determined to take herself in hand. She was indeed surprised at her weakness, one quite out of character.
As though to draw her back to her more normal condition, the telephone rang soon after dark, the first sound to break the day-long silence indoors and out. She heard Joan's voice, distant, querulous.
“Is that you, Mother? Look, I think I'll come home to you for a few days. I've something I want to say, and I can't talk about it on the phone. Is that all right? Am I putting you out?”
Mary did some quick thinking, for her diary was on the desk in her dining-room: but she knew that not much was
happening, amongst her several committees, most meetings having been put off until after Christmas.