The Man Within, p.19Graham Greene
It was early in the afternoon when Elizabeth declared that she must go into the village and buy food. ‘I shall be gone at least an hour,’ she said and told him what he might do to occupy himself, what plates might be laid ready on the table, what corners swept. At first he tried to prevent her going and when she insisted that love was not enough for a young man to feed upon, he insisted that he must accompany her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘You must guard the fort. Besides,’ she looked at him with narrowed, faintly suspicious eyes, ‘if the neighbourhood knows that there’s a man sleeping here …’
He cursed the neighbourhood, for under its gaze her sanity always seemed to touch earth, to grow cautious, careful, respectable. He could not somehow square her courage and candour with respectability, and this he told her.
‘Do you want me to join the harlots?’ she said. ‘Haven’t I promised to give myself to you? But not tonight, not till we are married.’
‘How wise you are,’ he said in anger less against her than against his inability to value those things in which she had such faith. ‘Must I make a settlement also? You can’t love me if you have to wait till a form of words is mumbled over us. Or are you afraid that I shall desert you tomorrow and you’ll lose that precious respectability?’ A sense of his own injustice made him pelt her the more fiercely with his words.
‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘It’s not what you call respectability. It’s a belief in God. I can’t alter that for you. I’d leave you first.’
‘What has He done for you?’
Her candour was very evident to him in the manner in which she met his challenge. She did not sweep it aside in a vague rush of words, as some pious women would have done. She was silent, seeking an answer. He saw her eyes sweep the bare room in a pathetic quest. Up and down they peered, up and down, and at last with a faint note of apology she brought out the brief reply, ‘I am alive.’
‘Why so am I,’ he said. ‘But I’m not grateful.’
‘There was this morning,’ she said, ‘and the future.’
‘Don’t let’s pay gratitude in advance,’ he said.
‘But all the same,’ her chin tilted upwards, ‘I’ll do what I think is right.’ Without looking at him again she unhooked a basket from a nail in the wall and unbolted the door. With her back turned she said, ‘I love you, but if you can’t take my terms, you must go.’ She slammed the door behind her and ran quickly down the path towards the road.
It was a couple of hours before she returned, long enough for Andrews to think over his words, grow repentant, curse himself for spoiling this first rapturous time in quarrelling. He did what she had commanded and was more than ordinarily scrupulous in the fulfilment of the tasks, regarding them as a penance for his hasty words. He knew that Elizabeth would take more than half an hour to reach the village, and yet an hour had hardly gone before he began to grow anxious, to torture himself with the idea of a possible meeting between Elizabeth and his enemies on the road. It was useless to tell himself that no harm could come to her in broad daylight. He was haunted still by his first image of the cottage, when it had raised itself suddenly before him in the dark in apparent isolation.
Now that he had nothing with which to occupy himself he was restless, walked hither and thither in the room, began even to speak aloud to himself. ‘To let her go in anger,’ he said. ‘It was the act of a brute. Suppose that something should happen to her now before I can tell her how wrong I am. It was not respectability, it was holiness she showed.’ With his eyes on the place where the coffin had lain he began to address the spirit of Mr Jennings, not in any real belief that any portion of the dead man survived, but rather as an insurance against a very remote possibility. ‘Look after her,’ he implored, ‘if you can. You too loved her.’ It seemed to him that the spirit, if indeed it existed, had an unfair advantage in guardianship. It could travel with greater speed than the lagging flesh and to places where the body could not follow. Besides, Andrews thought with a whimsicality, partly sincere, he will have the ear of either God or the devil. The thought of Mr Jennings, however, and this play with the idea of immortality brought Andrews’ errant steps to an abrupt standstill. Mr Jennings in the flesh had sworn that no other than himself should touch Elizabeth, and he, Andrews, in the humility of his return had given the jealous spirit a promise which he had broken. Was a spirit now on the side of his enemies, he wondered, to rob him of the glorious prize he craved? There are no spirits, he told himself in scornful reassurance. He kicked with a childish petulance the leg of the table as though to put a daring seal on his disbelief, for the table now to him represented the open coffin which, as it might seem, had come between Elizabeth and him on their first meeting with a prompt, instinctive enmity.
At that moment (he had heard no footsteps) the latch was raised and Elizabeth entered. With a shamefaced grin Andrews drew back his foot, but Elizabeth had noticed nothing. He could see that she brought news. There was an excited flush on her face and her eyes sparkled.
‘News,’ she said, ‘such news. Can you guess?’ She put the basket down on the table and stood watching him with hands on hips.
He could not wait to hear the news however. Minutes, since she had left him, had taken on an exaggerated value. ‘Forgive me,’ he implored, ‘I was a fool and a brute. You were right. Be patient and try to teach me your holiness.’
‘Oh that,’ she said and with the words brushed the whole angry past to Lethe. ‘But I’ve news.’ Her eyes sparkled. ‘We’ve won. Wasn’t I right to stay here?’
The relief, the sudden cessation of anxiety and double fear, was too much for Andrews to believe. ‘Not caught?’ he asked.
‘No, but soon. They are on the run – and away from here. That man, what did you call him, Cockney Harry, has been seen near Chichester. And those men, who were acquitted, they are locked up again on a charge of smuggling. Only the half-wit has escaped.’
‘But I don’t understand. They were released. Why should they be running?’
‘Ah, there’s the triumph. Fresh evidence. They can’t try them again for murder, but smuggling’s another matter.’ Elizabeth too must have been afraid, for with excited relief she piled the words on one another. ‘They’ve found their ship.’
Andrews took a step forward. ‘Carlyon,’ he whispered, his voice dry with anxiety, a mad unreasoning anxiety for Carlyon’s safety.
‘They’ll catch him soon.’ Her easy, careless confidence jarred on him.
‘The Good Chance,’ he said softly. ‘He loved the ship. Now I’ve robbed him of it.’ He was silent for a moment picturing Carlyon and how he would receive the news. It would not be with tears or any loud grief. He knew that. He could see the rather too prominent chin jerked upwards, the low and too receding brow furrowed in puzzlement, while the brain sought some way of retrieving the devastating loss. Next, he knew, would come anger and the thought of revenge – punishment Carlyon would call it.
Elizabeth’s voice, the triumph gone, recalled his thoughts. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. He looked up and seeing her standing there so soon robbed of the exhilaration of her news a pity and tenderness quite alien to desire filled him. He wanted to touch her, but only as one would touch a child who was sad at some pleasure taken away. What after all was his friendship for Carlyon compared with this? Love Carlyon who dared to threaten this – child? Hate him rather.
‘I’m heavy footed,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I forgot that you’d been friends.’
‘No, no,’ he protested. ‘But this news is not good for us. Carlyon will be desperate. He wouldn’t harm a woman, but now that he’s lost his ship he’ll have no authority except his strength. I know Joe.’
‘But the man at Chichester ...’
‘One of them only. It may be a blind to decoy the officers away. Remember they meant to come here tonight. And look – it’s not as light as it was half an hour ago.’ He walked to the door and looked out. The down was golden in sunlight, but a shadow veiled its base and i
‘Come away from the door,’ Elizabeth said in a voice that trembled very slightly.
‘No danger,’ Andrews replied. ‘They wouldn’t trust to a shot. If it missed we’d be warned. No, they’ll try and creep up when it’s dark. How long before the dark?’
‘Two hours, perhaps, if we are lucky.’
‘There’s no luck where I am,’ Andrews said, looking out of the door. ‘There’s a wind driving clouds towards the sun. It will be dark long before two hours have passed.’
He walked slowly back and stood still in the centre of the room, watching Elizabeth but making no attempt to go to her. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘it’s possible that these men will get me.’ He spoke dully and apprehensively. ‘I’ve always left things too late, so I want to tell you now that I love you as I’ve never loved anyone or anything in the world before. Even myself. I was a blind fool this afternoon to quarrel in these few certain hours. I’m sorry. I think I’m beginning to understand. I’ll ask for you only when we’re married and that as a favour which I don’t deserve. You were right. You are holy. I don’t see how I can ever touch you without soiling you a little, but, my God,’ his voice became vehement and he took a step towards her, ‘I’ll serve you, how I’ll serve you.’
With some idea of teaching death and darkness how to bear her likeness, he shut his eyes and held within his mind her image as she listened to him speak, chin raised, a slight flush upon her face, eyes flinching a little at the pain of happiness. He heard her answer him, words dropping with a soft, tender cooling touch, into the heat of his brain.
‘And I want you to know,’ she said, ‘that I’ve loved you or known it ever since I found the knife you had left. But I’m not holy. I’m ordinary like anyone else. I’m no fanatic. Only my heart wants to be good. But my body, this common, ordinary body, doesn’t care for that. It wants you, even though it’s frightened. But it must wait. Help me for just a few hours.’
Andrews opened his eyes at the mention of hours and glanced at the window behind him. ‘I want to hear one more thing,’ he said. ‘Say that you forgive me for bringing you into this mess.’
‘I’m glad,’ she said simply. ‘But if it wasn’t for me you’d never have gone to Lewes. Forgive me.’
‘I forgive you,’ Andrews said with a reluctant smile, ‘for making me do the only right thing I’ve ever done.’
They came across the floor to each other and for a while stood closely pressed together with no word said. Veil after veil of dusk was drawn across the room. A sudden creaking of the old table in the silence reminded them of evening oncoming. Andrews, whose whole attention had been fixed on memorizing the lines of Elizabeth’s face, the brow, the neck, the eyelashes, the chin, stepped back and turned with a nervous movement towards the window. ‘I never thought it would come so soon,’ he said, and both knew that he meant the dark. His heart was beating with an unpleasant insistence and his legs were weak about the knees. ‘Why did we stay?’ he asked with a sense of disillusionment, as though he had just discovered that his past courage was bravado merely.
‘Are you afraid?’ Elizabeth asked with reproach.
‘No, no,’ he protested. ‘It’s just this dusk. It came so suddenly. As though a hand had snuffed the light.’ He walked backwards and forwards in the room. Magic was no bedfellow for danger, he thought. They could not lie together.
‘I hate this waiting,’ he said slowly. ‘I wish they’d come,’ but inwardly he prayed desperately for courage and clutched the image of Elizabeth like a jewel to his heart. He saw that she was standing by the window looking out. He noted with surprise that her fingers were clenched fiercely upon her dress as though even upon her the waiting grew a strain.
He beat his hands together. ‘Of course there’s no use in worrying.’ His voice broke nervously. ‘It’s early evening. They won’t come yet.’ He saw her lean forward and press her face against the window pane. ‘Do you see anything?’ he cried.
‘No, nothing,’ she said, fingers still clenched, but speaking softly as she would speak to a child fearing the dark.
‘Then for God’s sake,’ Andrews said irritably, ‘don’t make sudden movements.’ It was extraordinary how consciousness of dark had robbed the room of magic, even of tenderness, and instead there was only fear and irritation. ‘We’ve been talking too long,’ he said, ‘instead of keeping watch.’
With her back still turned Elizabeth said slowly, ‘Too long? I thought a lifetime would not be long enough?’
‘I don’t mean that,’ he protested. ‘Oh, we’ll be lovers again soon, but now – we mustn’t waste time.’
She turned and regarded him with a kind of sorrowful tenderness. ‘Suppose we are wasting time now,’ she said, ‘we’ve had such a few hours with each other. We can’t tell how many more we shall have. Let these men go hang. Speak to me, take no notice of the dark. The dark is made for lovers. Speak to me. Don’t listen or watch any longer.’
‘Are you mad,’ Andrews said.
‘You said I was sane.’
Andrews suddenly sat down at the table and buried his face in his hands. Oh God, he prayed silently, if you are God give me courage. Don’t let me start all over again by betraying her. I thought I’d won out of this cowardice at last.
Elizabeth left the window and came to his side. He felt her fingers on his hair, twisting it, pulling it this way and that in a whimsical fashion. He heard her laugh. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it’s not worth it.’
He looked up at her and said in a voice trembling on the brink of complete uncontrol, ‘I’m afraid. I’m a coward.’
‘The old story,’ she said mockingly, but she was watching him with half-veiled nervous anxiety. ‘I know it’s untrue.’
‘It’s not. It’s not.’
‘Lewes – the knife – your warning,’ she reminded him.
He brushed them on one side. ‘I’m afraid, terribly afraid. Suppose I fail you when they come, run away?’
‘You won’t. I tell you you are no coward. It’s a delusion you’ve been living under.’ She put her fingers under his chin and forced it up, so that she could watch his eyes. ‘You’ve proved your courage three times to me,’ she said slowly. ‘You’ll do it once more and then you’ll know and be at peace. You’ve wanted peace. That’s the way to it. Dear silly fool, you’ve worried always about your courage. That’s what was wrong.’
He shook his head, but she was obstinate, obstinate as though she were defending something on which she had put the whole of her own faith, and with a trace of fear, as though she were afraid to have it proved that she was mistaken. A sudden stiffening of her body frightened him. ‘Did you hear something?’ he whispered and the trembling in his voice reached his own consciousness and showed him in a flash of despair the gap which separated two moments divided by but minutes in time – the magic seconds when they had stood together as lovers, brave and equal, and now, fear, humiliation, inequality.
‘No,’ Elizabeth said, ‘I heard nothing. I only want to see how dark it gets. We must light a candle soon.’ She walked to the window and glanced outside. Then she turned quickly. Her fingers, but Andrews did not notice them, were clenched. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘We shall need water before tonight. You must go with a pail now before it is dangerous to the well. The pail is in the corner there. Bring it.’ Her voice was brisk and commanding and Andrews obeyed.
At the door, watching the night which grew outside like a dark flower opening rapid petals, she directed him. ‘Down that path,’ she said, ‘behind those trees. Two minutes’ walk, no more.’ Still examining the night she commanded, ‘Go now – now.’
He hesitated a moment and she turned on him fiercely. ‘Won’t you do even a small thing for me?’ she cried and pushed at him with her hands. Dumb, caught up by her command, he made a blind motion towards her, which she repelled. ‘A farewell for two minutes’ absence?’ she mocked. ‘I’ll kiss you when you return soon.’
HIS BODY A little bent by the weight of the water in the pail, Andrews turned to make his way back to the cottage. A sky curdled with dark, heavy clouds had forced the pace of night. In a crack above his head a single star shone fitfully with a pale radiance between the scurry of cloud. Quenched and returning with an almost even rhythm the glow was like the revolving lantern of a lighthouse and when unseen might have been shining on another tract of land in a different quarter of the earth. In the western sky a yellow glow rapidly fading illumined the lower edge of an aerial bank of grey, soiled snow. To the south-west shadow had now completely enveloped the down and extinguished in darkness the contempt of its heaving shoulder. A frosty bite in the air mingled with physical dread to drive Andrews into a long discomforted shudder.
The path to the well was some fifty yards in length and a bend hid the cottage from view. Still staggering uncertainly from his load Andrews turned the corner. ‘Unwise,’ he thought, seeing the door of the cottage standing open, and was amazed still further at the imprudence of a candle. From within it displayed the defenceless door by its golden glow that washed outwards and lipped along the path.
Andrews put down his pail and stepped backwards, with mouth dry and lungs that seemed barren of air. Into the diminishing radiance of the candle a large man had stepped with a blundering caution which told his name to Andrews, very familiar with Joe’s incongruous bulk. ‘O God,’ he prayed, ‘help me. He’ll find I’m not there and follow.’ Without waiting to see Joe enter the cottage Andrews ran. Only when he reached the well did the prick of conscience bring him to a halt. Elizabeth was alone in the cottage. ‘But she has the gun,’ he told himself and awaited for long seconds a shot which did not come. ‘Go back, go back, go back,’ heart told the flinching flesh, but that single reiterated message was ineffective beside the host of reasons that the fearing body had at its call. ‘They are looking for me, they will not hurt her,’ he told himself, and again, ‘Carlyon must be there. He’ll see that she’s safe,’ and last of all a feeling of irritation against the responsibility forced on him. It’s her fault,’ he told himself. ‘Why did she send me for water? Why did she leave the door open? She was asking for trouble. If she’d any thought for my safety, she’d have been more careful.’ After all if he ran back now what could he do? He was unarmed.
The Man Within by Graham Greene / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes