The man within, p.2
The Man Within, p.2Graham Greene
The pain cleared his brain with the suddenness of an unseen hand wrenching a curtain aside. He looked behind him and found himself staring into a heavy bearded face, over which three other candles sent a straying luminance.
‘But…’ he cried, and never knew what he meant to add. He backed away in disgust from the body where it lay in its unlidded and unvarnished coffin. He had never met death before so startlingly face to face. His mother he had never seen in death, for his father had huddled her quickly away in earth with a cross and a bunch of flowers, and his father had been killed in a running fight at sea and dropped unobtrusively over the side, while he was learning to decline oikia at his school in Devon. He was frightened and disgusted and sick and somehow ashamed. It was, he felt remotely, indecorous to broil thus over a coffin, even though the coffin were of unvarnished deal. His eyes searched a deepening darkness, flickering with gold points where the candles shone, until they found a face which seemed now white rather with weariness than serenity. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and then the lights were all extinguished.
OVER A TOPPLING pile of green vegetables two old women were twittering. They pecked at their words like sparrows for crumbs. ‘There was a fight, and one of the officers was killed.’ ‘They’ll hang for that. But three of them escaped.’ The vegetables began to grow and grow in size, cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, potatoes. ‘Three of them escaped, three of them escaped,’ one of the cauliflowers repeated. Then the whole pile fell to the ground, and Carlyon was walking towards him. ‘Have you heard this one?’ he said. ‘Three of them escaped, three of them escaped.’ He came nearer and nearer and his body grew in size, until it seemed as though it must burst like a swollen bladder. ‘Have you heard this one, Andrews?’ he said. Andrews became aware that somewhere behind a gun was being levelled, and he turned, but there were only two men, whose faces he could not see, laughing together. ‘Old Andrews, we won’t see his like again. Do you remember the time …’ ‘Oh, shut up, shut up,’ he called, ‘he was only a brute, I tell you. My father was a brute.’ ‘Ring a ring a roses,’ his father and Carlyon were dancing round him, holding hands. The ring got smaller and smaller and he could feel their breath, Carlyon’s cool and scentless, his father’s stale, tobacco-laden. He was gripped round the waist, and someone called out, ‘Three of them escaped.’ The arms began to drag him away. ‘I didn’t do it,’ he cried. ‘I didn’t do it.’ Tears ran down his cheeks. He struggled and struggled against the pulling arms.
He emerged slowly into a grey dispersing mist, cut by jagged edges. They grew towards his sight and became boxes, old trunks, dusty lumber. He found that he was lying upon a pile of sacking and there was a stale smell in the room of earthen mould. A pile of gardening implements leant up against one wall, and one upturned lidless trunk full of little shrivelled bulbs. At first he thought that he was in the potting shed of his home. Outside should be a lawn and a tall pine, and presently he would hear the shuffling footsteps of the gardener. The old man always dragged his left foot behind him, so that there was no regular cadence to his steps. They had to be counted like an owl’s – one twoooo – one twoooo. How it was that he came to be lying in the potting shed in the grey light of early morning Andrews did not question. He knew very well the unwisdom of questioning it – half indeed he was aware in what place he lay. I will play a little longer, he thought, and turned over and lay with his face to the wall, so that he might not notice the unfamiliar details of the room, shed, whatever it might be. Then he shut his eyes, because the wall he faced was stone and it should have been wood.
With his eyes shut all was well. He sniffed the warm scent of the mould comfortingly.
The old man would grumble at his presence, complain that he had shifted a hoe, a spade, a fork. Then as certainly as night closed day he would take up a box lid full of seeds, rattle the seeds back and forth with a noise like small quick hailstones and murmur, ‘Winkle dust’. Andrews screwed his eyes tighter, sniffed deeper. He remembered how the old man had been standing once beneath the pine at the end of the lawn. He was feeling his chin thoughtfully and staring up at the tapering dark slimness above him. ‘Three hundred years,’ he was saying slowly to himself, ‘three hundred years.’ Andrews had commented on the sweet elusive smell that came sifting through the air. ‘That’s age,’ said the old man, ‘that’s age.’ He spoke with such conviction that Andrews half expected to see him vanish himself into a faint perfume formed out of bulbs and damp turned earth. ‘They make coffins out of pines,’ the old man continued, ‘coffins, that’s why you get the smell sometimes where there ain’t no pines. Up through the ground you see.’
The thought of coffins jerked Andrews’ eyes open. He saw again the candle fall and the bearded face looking up at him. It was sheer chance that he had not placed his hand full on that dead stubble. Three years swept past; the present scratched at his nerves. He jumped up and looked round. How long had he slept? What had that girl been doing in the meanwhile? He had been a weak fool to collapse and a sentimental fool to dream into the past. The present called for brisk action if he was to bring himself to safe haven, but remembering all the circumstances of the last few weeks, he wondered with a sick lurch at the heart whether there was any haven to which Carlyon would not penetrate.
In the wall opposite was a window cobwebbed and dusty. By piling two of the boxes together he was able to reach it, and he calculated that he could just squeeze his body through the opening. He was afraid to break the glass, because of the noise the act would cause, and his fingers felt cautiously and timidly at the catch, which was almost welded to its position with the rust of many years. He began to pick at the rust with his nails and by small fractions of an inch he was able to move the catch. The tiny noises he made fretted at his nerves and the very need of caution made him careless. He stood on tiptoe, partly with excitement and a restlessness to be gone, partly that he might get a better purchase on the terribly reluctant catch. With a long drawn out squeak, it twisted and left the window free; at the same moment the noise of a door handle turning swung him round. He had hardly noticed the door of the room, so certain had he been that it was locked, until now when it opened and the girl stood there. Andrews felt acutely ridiculous balanced upon his boxes. Carefully and slowly, with his eyes fixed on her, he stepped down.
She laughed, but without amusement. ‘What were you doing up there?’ she asked. He felt furious with her at finding him in so ignominious a position.
‘I was trying to escape,’ he said.
‘Escape?’ she turned the word over on her lips as though it were a novel taste. ‘If you mean you wanted to go,’ she said, ‘there was the door, wasn’t there?’
‘Yes, and you with the gun,’ he snapped back.
‘Oh that gun,’ she laughed again, not scornfully this time but with a real merriment, ‘I haven’t an idea how to load it.’
He took a few steps towards her and looked less at her than at the open doorway behind her, which led, he saw, into the room of last night’s humiliation. He was certain that she was bluffing. She must have more than a coffin and a dead man in that room to give her the courage to face him so calmly – so impudently he styled it to himself. So he advanced a little way, widening his vision of that room beyond.
‘You mean that I can go?’ he asked.
‘I wouldn’t stop you,’ she answered. A note of anger was struggling with amusement in her voice and at last amusement won. ‘I didn’t invite you for the night.’
‘Don’t talk so much,’ he said angrily and flushed a little when she asked if he were listening for something. For he was listening intently and thought for a moment that he heard the squeak of a board and then again a man’s breathing. But he could not be sure. Suppose she had gone out during the night and found Carlyon…
‘Look here,’ he cried, unable to bear the suspense longer, ‘what have you done?’
‘Done?’ she said, ‘Done?’ He watched her suspiciously, hating that habit she had
‘Who have you fetched while I’ve been sleeping? I know your sort.’
‘You are a man, aren’t you?’ she said with sudden vehemence and was met with a purely mechanical leer and response, ‘Do you want me to prove it?’ It was as though the young man’s face were a mask to which small strings were attached. She had pulled one and the mouth had opened and the lips had twisted a little at one corner. She felt a brief wonder as to what string would work the eyes that remained watching her suspiciously, a little frightened, completely unresponsive to the lips. Andrews himself was not unaware of those strings that put his speech and mouth in servitude to others. Always a little too late he would try to recall his words, not through any shame in their purport – it would have been the same if they had been spoken in poetry, but because they had been dictated by another. So now that consciousness coming again a little too late made him try to cover up his previous words by others angrily spoken. ‘What do you mean anyway?’
‘Do you think,’ she said, ‘a man ever knows a woman’s sort? If I believed that,’ she added, ‘I’d…’ she looked at him with an amazed stare almost as though he had spoken the words. ‘You can go,’ she added, ‘there’s no one to stop you. Why should I want you to stay?’
That’s all very well, he thought. Is it bluff? The girl has plenty of nerve. It seemed unlikely after the way he had broken in the night before that she should not have tried to communicate with someone. And the whole neighbourhood just at present was riddled with runners and revenue men. He was uncertain how he stood with them, and he had no trust, like Carlyon, in his own elusiveness. However, she said he could go and she stood there waiting. What a devil the woman was – forcing him to make a move. He no longer wanted to escape and stumble blindly into an unknown countryside. He wanted to lie down with his face to the wall and drowse. But she was waiting and waiting and he had to move. He moved slowly and softly towards the door, treading suspiciously like a cat in a strange house. When he reached the doorway he flung back the door as far as it would go lest anyone should be hiding behind it, ready to pounce on his turned back. Behind him he heard a laugh and swung round again. He felt tired and harassed and in no mood for mockery. A wave of self-pity passed across his mind and he saw himself friendless and alone, chased by harsh enemies through an uninterested world. Sympathy is all I want, he said to himself. Old white-haired women with kind wrinkled eyes stooped towards him, large laps and comfortable breasts mocked him with their absence. Little pricking tears rose to his eyes. I know I am a coward and altogether despicable, he said to himself with heavy self-depreciation, trying without much hope to underbid his real character, I know I haven’t an ounce of courage, that if Carlyon appeared now I’d go down on my knees to him, but all I want is a little sympathy. I could be made into a man if anyone chose to be interested – if someone believed in me … But here his other self took a hand. He was, he knew, embarrassingly made up of two persons, the sentimental, bullying, desiring child and another more stern critic. If someone believed in me – but he did not believe in himself. Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, ‘Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?’
‘It’s easy for you to laugh,’ he said bitterly. But am I really bitter, the other part wondered. Am I play acting still? And if I am play acting, is it I who act or another who pulls the strings? But what a Pharisee the other part of him was. It never took control of his mouth and spoke its own words – hard, real, trustworthy. It only stood on one side and listened and taunted and questioned. So now it let his voice go on, genuine or play acting. ‘You don’t know what it feels like to be alone.’ Watching the face that still smiled at him, not with hostility but with almost a friendly mockery, he became frightened at an unintended reality in his own words. He was indeed alone. Perhaps that other part of him remained silent, not through self-righteousness, but because it had no words to speak. There was nothing in him but sentiment and fear and cowardice, nothing in him but negatives. How could anyone believe in him if he did not even exist?
He was surprised, deep in the maze in which he chased himself, when she answered him. ‘I’ve been alone, too, the last two nights. I don’t mind the daytime, but I get a bit scared at night now he’s dead.’ She nodded her head towards the room on the threshold of which he stood.
He looked across the room. The coffin still lay upon the kitchen table. The candles were no longer alight, but drooped in weary attitudes of self-depreciation.
‘Husband?’ he asked. She shook her head.
‘Not exactly. He brought me up though. I can’t remember my father. I was fond of him,’ she nodded her head again. ‘He was kind to me in his way. It’s a bit frightening being alone.’
It was as though she had forgotten the circumstances of Andrews’ coming. They faced each other. She also seemed alone in a somewhat dark wood. She also was frightened she said, but there was a courage that added to Andrews’ shame in the candid hand she appeared to stretch through the dark to his companionship.
‘It will be worse tonight,’ she said. ‘I have to bury him today.’
‘I should have thought,’ Andrews answered, remembering the stubble on which he had nearly placed his hand, ‘it would be less – frightening without a body in the house.’
‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘oh no,’ looking at him with puzzled eyes, ‘I wouldn’t be afraid of him.’ She came and stood in the doorway beside Andrews and looked across at the lidless coffin. ‘He must be terribly alone,’ she said, ‘but there’s the peace of God in his face. Come and look,’ she stepped across the room, and very reluctantly Andrews followed.
He could see little of the peace of which the girl had spoken in the face. The eyes were closed, and he had a sense drawn from the coarse strong skin of the lids that they must have been hard to shut. At any moment he felt the strain might become too great and the lids would turn up with a sudden click like a roller blind. Round the mouth were little cunning wrinkles that prowled outwards across the face in stealthy radiations. He looked at the girl to see if she were mocking him in her talk of God in connection with this bearded rapscallion, but she was looking down at the body with calm and passionless affection. He had a sudden inclination to say to her, ‘It’s you who have the peace of God, not he,’ but refrained. It would sound melodramatic and she would laugh at him the more. It was only to suit his own ends or his own self-pity that he allowed himself the pleasure of melodrama.
It was while he was regarding the face and the triumphant cunning of the lines, growingly conscious at the same time of the girl’s fixity of thought, like a firm comforting wall beside his own shifting waters, that he heard faint stumbling steps. It was fear that made his ears sufficiently acute, the girl behind him had not moved. He twisted his eyes up from the dead man and faced her again.
‘So you’ve been keeping me here?’ he said. He was only half aware of the foolishness of his accusation. One reasoning part of him told him that he had been with her since he woke at most a matter of minutes, but reason somehow had seemed lacking in this house since he entered it and had seen what should have been a frightened girl holding him with a calm gun between the yellow-tipped candles. And since he had come to consciousness again five or ten minutes before, he had lived over again a boy’s life in Devon and had stood, he told himself with a sudden rush of sentiment, between the cunning and yet clumsy earth and the purposeful courage of the spirit. These experiences could not be confined to the small measure of minutes, and so with a sense of real grievance he accused her. ‘You’ve been keeping me here?’
‘Keeping you?’ she said. ‘What do you mean?’ Suddenly the footsteps which had been very faint grew distinct in a stone shifting. Andrews’ mind pierced its maze of vague thinking in a flash of fear, and he half ran across the room to the door through which he had entered the night before. A sense of overwhelming desolation p
‘Don’t go out there,’ she called to him.
He hesitated with his hand upon the latch. The girl was feeling her cheek with the tips of her fingers. ‘It’s only the woman come to tidy the place,’ she said.
‘I mustn’t meet her,’ Andrews whispered, afraid that their voices would reach the path outside.
‘If you go out there,’ the girl said, ‘you’ll meet her. She’ll be coming from the well now. Better go back where you slept,’ and then as he moved across the room, ‘no.’ A slow flush crept from her neck across her face.
‘What’s the matter now?’ he asked angrily.
‘If she discovers you – hiding – she’ll think –’
‘God, you’re respectable,’ he said with a resentful amazement. It was as though the calm spirit that had watched the dead man had become tarnished by the latter’s own earthy cunning. Some yellow sunlight, clear and cold with frost, struck across the room from the window and fell across her face, belying the dull good sense of the words she spoke.
‘No, but you can’t,’ she said. ‘It’s not as if you were in any danger.’
He came close to her and put his hands upon her arms and pulled her close to him. ‘Listen to me,’ he said, ‘I am in danger. I’d rather kill that old woman whoever she is than be talked about in Shoreham. I’m a coward, do you see, and it would be easier to kill her than the man who’d be after me. Now will you let me hide?’ He loosened her and she pushed herself away from him. ‘There must be some other way,’ she said. She suddenly began to speak rapidly. ‘You are my brother, do you see? You arrived last week hearing that he was dying because you didn’t like me to be alone.’ She grimaced a little as though at a bad taste.
The Man Within by Graham Greene / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes