Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (1929) - Extracts

[ Bibl. details: The Last September [1929] (Harmonsworth: Penguin 1987). ]

‘First, she did not hear footsteps coming, and as she began to notice the displaced darkness thought what she dreaded was coming, was there within her - she was indeed clairvoyant, exposed to horror and going to see a ghost. Then steps, hard on the smooth earth; branches slipping against a trench-coat. The trench-coat rustled across the path ahead, to the swing of a steady walker. She stood by the holly immovable, blotted out in her black, and there passed within reach of her hand, with the rise and fall of a stride, a resolute profile, powerful as a thought. In gratitude for its fleshliness, she felt prompted to make some contact: not to be known seemed like a doom: extinction.
 “It’s a fine night,” she would have liked to observe; or, to engage his sympathies: “Up Dublin!” or even - since it was in her uncle’s demesne she was straining under a holly - boldly - “What do you want?”
 It must be because of Ireland he was in such a hurry; down from the mountains, making a short cut through their demesne. Here was something else that she could not share. She could not conceive of her country emotionally: it was a way of living, an abstract of several landscapes, or an oblique frayed island, moored at the north but with an air of being detached and washed out west from the British coast. Quite still, she let him go past in contemptuous unawareness. His intentions burnt on the dark an almost visible trail; he might well have been a murderer he seemed so inspired. The crowd of trees, straining up from passive disputed earth, each sucking up and exhaling the country’s essence - swallowed him finally. She thought: “Has he come for the guns?” A man in a trench-coat had passed without seeing her: that was what it amounted to.
  She ran back to tell, in excitement. Below, the house waited; vast on its west side, with thin yellow lines round the downstairs shutters. It had that excluded, sad, irrelevant look outsides of houses take in the dark. Inside, they would all be drawing up closer to one another, tricked by the half-revelation of lamplight. “Compassed about,” thought Lois, “by so great a cloud of witnesses ...” Chairs standing round dejectedly; upstairs, the confidently waiting beds; mirrors vacant and startling; books read and forgotten, contributing no more to life; dinner-table certain of its regular compulsion; the procession of elephants that throughout uncertain years had not broken file.
 But as Lois went up the steps breathlessly, her adventure began to diminish. It held ground for a moment as she saw the rug dropped in the hall by Mrs Montmorency sprawl like a body across the polish. Then confidence disappeared, in a waver of shadow, among the furniture. Conceivably, she had just surprised life at a significant angle in the shrubbery. But it was impossible to speak [34] of this. At a touch from Aunt Myra adventure became literary, to Uncle Richard it suggested an inconvenience; a glance from Mr Montmorency or Laurence would make her encounter sterile.
 But what seemed most probable was that they would not listen ... She lighted her candle and went up to bed - uncivilly, without saying good night to anyone. Her Uncle Richard, she afterwards heard, was obliged to sit up till twelve o’clock. He had not been told she was in, so did not think it right to lock up the house.’ (pp.33-34.)

[...]

‘Here, there were no more autumns, except for the trees. By next year light had possessed itself of the vacancy, still with surprise. Next year, the chestnuts and acorns pattered unheard on the avenues, that, filmed over with green already, should have been dull to the footsteps - but there were no footsteps. Leaves, tottering down the slope on the wind’s hesitation, banked formless, frightened, against the too clear form of the ruin.
 For in February, before those leaves had visibly budded, the death - execution, rather - of the three houses, Danielstown, Castle Trent, Mount Isabel, occurred in the same night. A fearful scarlet ate up the hard spring darkness; indeed, it seemed that an extra day, unreckoned, had come to abortive birth that these things might happen. It seemed, looking from cast to west at the sky tall with scarlet, that the country itself was burning, while to the north the neck of mountains before Mount Isabel was frightfully outlined. The roads in unnatural dusk ran dark with movement, secretive or terrified; not a tree, brushed pale by wind from the flames, not a cabin pressed in despair to the bosom of night, not a gate too starkly visible but had its place in the design of order and panic. At Danielstown, half-way up the avenue under the beeches, the thin iron gate twanged (missed its latch, remained swinging, aghast) as the last unlit car slid out with the executioners bland from accomplished duty. The sound of the last car widened, gave itself to the open and empty country and was demolished. Then the first wave of a silence that was to be ultimate flowed back, confident, to the steps. Above the steps, the door stood open hospitably upon a furnace. / Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for [in] the light from the sky they saw too distinctly.’ (p.206.)

 

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