The Man Within, p.3Graham Greene
A splash of water from an overfull pail interrupted her. Footsteps sounded almost at the threshold of the door. ‘You must invent things,’ she said. ‘What more is there? I must have forgotten –’
‘What shall I call you? Your name?’ Andrews whispered rapidly, as with a high squeak the latch of the door rose.
‘Elizabeth,’ she said, ‘Elizabeth.’
The door opened and it seemed incongruous after the panic the footsteps had evoked to see only an old woman with a pail of water which went slip slop over the brim and splashed upon the floor. She was a little stout old woman who gave the impression of being very tightly pulled together by a great number of buttons that strayed from their normal positions and peeped out from interstices and side turnings in her voluminous clothes. She had small eyes and very faint, almost indistinguishable eyebrows. Her hair was some of it white and some of it grey and through it wandered stray strands of very pale metallic gold which looked unnecessarily flippant on an old head. When she saw Andrews standing by the girl she put down the pail on the floor and preened her mouth to whistle until it appeared but one more addition to her collection of buttons. She did not actually whistle but hovered delicately upon the point, while her eyes, which changed from surprise to questioning and last to a somewhat sly amusement, seemed to whistle instead. Under her unembarrassed amused stare Andrews fidgeted and longed for his companion to speak.
At last the old woman, waiting no longer for an invitation, entered. Her eyes having taken in the pair of them were no longer interested. She placed the pail down on the stone floor and then with an old and very dirty rag began to scrub. She had cleaned but a small space when she found it necessary to pull aside the table on which the coffin lay, and this she did with a complete and to Andrews an amazing unconcern. Her eyes had taken in all they desired to see, but her thoughts remained amused. She suddenly chuckled and hastily beat the water in her pail and coughed to hide the sound.
The girl smiled towards Andrews and, with a small pout of the lips that said quite plainly, ‘now for it’, spoke. ‘This is my brother, Mrs Butler,’ she said.
The voice that came from the figure kneeling on the floor was startlingly unexpected. It consorted, not with the white or the grey hairs, but with the too metallic yellow strands. It was soft, almost young, just avoided beauty. It was like a pretty, sweet cake that had been soaked in port wine. It would have been lovely, if it had had the certainty of loveliness, but it was damped all through.
‘Well now, I didn’t know that you had a brother, Miss Elizabeth,’ it said.
‘He came a week ago when he heard Mr Jennings was dying,’ the girl went on.
‘And so a brother should.’ The old woman wrung out her cloth into the pail and sat back unexpectedly on her heels. Her eyes were not soft like her voice but as sharp as they were small. Both Andrews and the girl became conscious of their stiff, unreal attitudes, standing a little apart from each other waiting for nothing. ‘You had all the looks in your family, Miss Elizabeth,’ Mrs Butler said. ‘Your brother doesn’t look very strong – or perhaps he’s tired.’ A giggle began to form like a soap bubble in either eye. It grew under almost visible constraint, until at last she let it loose to bound gaily round the room. Then she soaked her cloth again and began to scrub furiously as though she would daunt that spirit of rude flippancy. ‘And what’s your name, sir, if you don’t think me rude?’
‘Why, the same as my sister’s,’ Andrews replied, trying to sound amused and at his ease.
‘I meant your Christian name, sir?’ she went on, making rapid progress across the floor.
‘Oh, Francis, of course. Hasn’t my sister spoken of me?’ In the space between a sentence and a sentence, he had had time to watch the sunlight mould the girl’s face, give lightness to its somewhat heavy lines, smooth its perplexity into peace. A dark Elizabeth, he thought, watching her hair, how strange. He began to enjoy himself, the burden of his fear had dropped away and left him in the middle of a childish game in which there was no harsh reality. ‘Elizabeth,’ he said, ‘have you never spoken of me to Mrs Butler? I take it very ill. I really do. And I away at sea imagining that you thought of me.’
‘Why, are you a sailor, sir?’ Mrs Butler said, not troubling to raise her eyes from the arc of floor in which her small fat arms swung. ‘I shouldn’t have thought it.’
‘But then I’m a bad sailor,’ he continued, his eyes on the sunlight or that part of it that lay across Elizabeth’s face. He was determined to make her smile. ‘When I heard how – he was dying, I left my ship. I thought my sister would want someone else beside you to protect her. You can’t imagine, Mrs Butler, how often I’ve read of you under the stars.’ He stopped. He had won his smile.
And yet now that he had won his smile, he was ill at ease. It reminded him, perhaps, of all hopeless and unattainable things – not desire then, for he was too weary for desire, but for civilization. Civilization meant for him the enjoyment of quiet – gardens and unboisterous meals, music and the singing in Exeter Cathedral. These things were unattainable because of Carlyon. Of the others he had no fear. They could not, he felt, escape from their environment – a rough, cursing, drinking life. He could escape from them in drawing-rooms, but in the middle of however quiet a tea, however peaceful the lazy shadows of the fire, however soft the talk, the door might open, Carlyon enter.
Mrs Butler cleaned on, her buttocks swaying rhythmically to the circular movement of her arms. He saw her suddenly as a hostile spy from reality, though it was not so that he would have phrased it. His fear was too sharp for abstractions. But unexpressed in conscious thought, he had felt of this house as of a cottage in a fairy-story. He had stumbled on it in a wood when blurred with sleep. It had given him shelter and a sense of mystery; it had not belonged to the world which he had known, the constant irritation and strain of the sea nor to the fear of the last few days. But Mrs Butler had come from the town that morning. In crannies of her ears still lurked the sounds from which he had fled, the waves, fishwives’ voices, rattle of carts, ‘Mackerel, fresh mackerel,’ gossip in the market, ‘Three of them escaped.’
Mrs Butler had left the door open and through it he could see clearly in sunlight that which, when he came, had been obscured by weariness and night. He had thought of this cottage as alone in the middle of a wood. Now he could see that it stood at the edge of a mere coppice. Above the trees like a blister was the down over which he had come. ‘What’s that?’ he said at a sound, unable to keep all sign of fear from his voice.
‘Why, it’s only a cart,’ the girl answered.
‘A cart?’ he cried and walked to a window. It was true. This cottage hidden, as he had thought, in a forest lay within a hundred yards of the high road. It was useless to tell himself that a high road was his safest place, that Carlyon, probably by now with a price upon his head, must equally fear the open. He was superstitious on the subject of Carlyon. He could not imagine Carlyon in hiding.
‘A sailor?’ said Mrs Butler, her eyes fixed on the floor. ‘There’s sailors and sailors. There’s some as don’t like these gaugers, but I say as ’ow they be only doin’ their duty. They be paid for it same as me on this floor. And they get the worst of it most every time. Look at Tuesday.’
‘What time’s this funeral?’ Andrews asked, turning his back on Mrs Butler with abrupt brutality. He was very conscious that behind his back she had raised an astonished head and was eyeing him with shrewd consideration. The girl he found had moved to the door and he followed her with a sense of relief, glad to leave behind, though only for a little, Mrs Butler’s curiosity and her pretty, damp voice. ‘What time’s this funeral?’ he repeated.
‘They’ll be fetching him,’ she said, ‘at eleven,’ and her simple sentence cleared away the last illusion of isolation. Time was here in the cottage. Clocks ticked and hands went round as everywhere else in the world. He had a sense of time rushing past him, rushing like a Gadarene swine to destruction. Time squeaked at him as it passe
‘Shall we be alone?’ he asked, his voice a mixture of longing and apprehension.
‘Alone,’ she repeated in a low voice, so that her voice might not reach through the splashing of a damp cloth to Mrs Butler’s ears. ‘No, we shan’t be alone. You don’t know these country people. I hate them,’ she added with unexpected intensity. ‘This is a show to them. They’ll flock to it, but I shan’t feed them. They’ll expect to be fed. They haven’t been near me since he died, and I’d have welcomed anyone for a bit of company in the evening. They never came when he was alive.’
‘What do you mean?’ he raised his voice in unthinking fear. ‘A crowd of them?’ He took hold of her wrist. ‘If you’ve planned this,’ he said.
‘Need you be a fool as well as a coward?’ she answered in an off-hand tired fashion. ‘Why should I plan anything? I’m not sufficiently interested in you.’ She released her hand and moved out of doors. ‘I don’t know why I’ve helped you as much as I have,’ she added with a small shrug.
He followed, still suspicious. He felt unreasonably grieved that this cottage was not the lonely woodland house which he had imagined. ‘Don’t take credit for that,’ he said. ‘I forced you to it.’
She did not look at him. Her hands were on her hips and she stared at the down over which he had come with a small wrinkle of perplexity. She seemed to be trying to puzzle out the reason behind her acts. ‘It was not fear,’ she said, but it was not to him that she replied. ‘It would be a fool who’d be afraid of you,’ she said and smiled as though at an amusing memory. ‘I suppose I was tired of being alone.’
‘AND THOUGH AFTER my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.’
The priest was tall and thin and stooping and he suffered from a running cold. He snuffled between each phrase as he took long, loping strides through the graveyard. It was a raw day and he appeared anxious to get through with a dreary business. Between every phrase he snuffled and at the end of every sentence he gave a hasty furtive wipe at his nose with a corner of his surplice that blew out in the wind like a banner. He strode, not concealing his hatred of the cold, but those that followed after, a large straying band of intense villagers, walked as slowly as he allowed them, seemed almost to hold him back by the flapping end of his surplice. They refused to be cheated of a funeral. Their cheeks and noses were scarlet and their eyes sparkled like frost and peered avariciously after the wooden coffin.
It means nothing to them at all, the girl thought with acidity, sonorous words floating with strange lightness for their bulk over her head. They were here because a funeral was something to see, because, when rightly managed, it meant beer and cakes and because the long eddy of words that gathered together at regular intervals to rise and burst in a great ninth phrase (‘Lord, let me know mine end and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live’) made them feel important. She would not give them beer and cakes, for she had been fond of the spirit that had inhabited the body carried before them. Yet because she had had no love for the body itself, which when she was small had beaten her and when she grew older had made strange crude gestures blindly towards her and repelled her, she felt unmoved. She was accustomed now to the absence of the cursing, unhappy, perplexed spirit. She had loved that with a quiet steady warmth. It had fed her and sheltered her and she was grateful, and when towards the end she had seen it putting up the best fight it was able against its own groping, sneering body, she had pitied it.
‘For I am a stranger with thee; and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen.’
Andrews stirred a little. They were the first words that had reached his consciousness since the fear of many persons had numbed his heart. He was afraid when the villagers had arrived, the women to inspect the corpse and the men to look in vain for beer. Each new face had been a stab of anxiety and when unrecognized a faint relief, until the steady, alternating currents of fear and comfort had lulled his mind asleep. He had been helped, turning his back on the chattering women, by the sight of the sea mist that poised itself for a moment on the top of the down over which he had come. Blown by a breeze behind, too faint to disperse it, it tottered for a moment drunkenly on the edge, and then fell in swathe after swathe into the valley. Its coming brought a sense of secrecy and of what he knew at heart was a false security. His unconsciousness held nothing but a dim irony and a perception of farce. He was the brother of the chief mourner, but the ceremony was to him only a solemn mummery. The man they put into the ground and for whom all these persons sang at intervals in a dreary whine was unknown to him and meant nothing more to him than the sudden sight of a bearded face and the dart of a falling golden star.
The girl – Elizabeth – his sister (it was hard to remember that she was his sister) had remained silent in the midst of a swiftly running current of voices. When the undertaker’s man had turned down the lid of the coffin there had been a little scurry of strange womenfolk to catch a last glimpse of the ‘deceased’. Then she had shown her one sign of feeling. She had turned to face them as though she would push them back and her mouth had twisted into an angry word which she did not speak. Then she gave a small gesture with her fingers addressed to herself. She stood aside and the undertaker’s man shut the coffin lid, casually as a man shuts a book. There was no air of finality about it, even when he drove in the nails. Andrews saw a little group of women whispering in a corner. They looked and whispered, and fear momentarily pierced his unconsciousness. He looked round him and imagined all faces turned towards him. The men disappointed of beer had nothing to do but talk and look curiously at the interior of the cottage, which they had never before entered. The women sniggered a little among themselves at the bareness and poked furtively at a chair here and a table there and made comments under their breath. Andrews thought that they were speaking of him. The men shuffled uneasily and stood massed together and fidgeted with their feet. They were annoyed with their wives for having brought them where there was no refreshment. Most of them had small farms and there was plenty of work they might have been doing. For want of other employment they looked cornerwise and carefully at the girl. They had seen her about many a time in the lanes but had been afraid to speak to her. There had been rumours – that she had been the dead man’s mistress, his natural child, a dozen contradictory tales, which united to put her outside the pale of ‘Good day’, comments on the weather or the crops, or even a nod of the head. Now death made her approachable and a little envied. They spoke of her slyly to each other in whispers, not so much to keep their comments from her as to keep them from their wives, comments on her appearance, on her potentialities as a bed-fellow, on the fun she may have afforded to the man now dead. Andrews thought that they spoke of him.
With an effort he pulled his will erect. He saw himself standing on one side, an obvious stranger, uninterested and apart. He called ‘Elizabeth’ with forced ease across the room. He had vague ideas of convincing them that he was her brother. She paid no attention, and he could think of no more to say. His will subsided slackly. (‘For I am a stranger with thee; and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.’)
Standing there in a misty graveyard beside the dark Elizabeth, Andrews felt his first flash of sympathy towards his father. Once his father had visited him at school. Andrews was in the gravel playground. It was in the interval between two lessons and he was hastily revising some Latin grammar. He had looked up and stared with amazement at the unexpected sight of his father, a tall, heavy man with a big beard clumsily dressed, crossing the gravel with the headmaster. The headmaster
Andrews did not know then what kept his father away from home for short and frequent periods of blessed peace. He never knew the cause of that particular unfortunate visit. Perhaps he was on his way to the coast and a sudden realization that his career must end sooner or later in death made him anxious to see his only idea of immortality. The voyage which followed must have reached its normal, successful end, for a few weeks later, when holidays fetched Andrews home, his father was there, dominant, easily aroused, as ready as ever with the whip, which he seemed to keep more for his family than for his hounds. A year later, while the child was at school and the father at sea, the mother died with the serene faithfulness of a completely broken will.
The shambling priest was reading the lesson in a meaningless drawl muffled by the mist and his increasing cold. The words meant no more to him than did the dead man. It was a mechanic ritual less conscious than the act of brushing teeth.
‘I speak this to your shame. But some men will say, how are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die.’
The Man Within by Graham Greene / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes