The man within, p.8
The Man Within, p.8Graham Greene
‘Was your mother pale and lovely?’ Andrews asked, ‘with dark hair and quiet eyes?’
‘She was dark,’ Elizabeth said, ‘but plump and with a lot of colour in her cheeks.’
‘You have colour in your cheeks,’ Andrews said thoughtfully, not as though he were paying a compliment but as though he were dispassionately discussing an inanimate beauty, ‘but it is on a white background, like a flower fallen on snow.’
Elizabeth smiled a little, but paid no other attention to him. ‘Mr Jennings,’ she said, ‘bit his thumb-nail – a habit with him – and watched my mother suspiciously. “You’ll die one day,” he continued. “What will happen to this cottage then?” I watched my mother in a still fright, half expecting her to die there and then before my eyes. “It will be sold,” she said, “for the child here.” “Suppose,” Mr Jennings said, “you sell to me now,” and then, because he thought my mother was going to make some amazed comment, he continued very hurriedly, “I will give you your price, and you shall stay on here with your child as long as you like. You can invest the money to the child’s advantage. I am very comfortable here, and I don’t want the risk of being turned away when you die.” It was astonishing the quiet way in which he assumed that she would die first, although they were both much of an age. I don’t know whether he could see some trace of sickness in her which I could not see, but she died within the year. Of course, she had taken the offer.’
Something rather the reflection of sorrow than sorrow itself crossed Elizabeth’s face, and she went on with her story with an air of hurry and a somewhat forced abstraction. ‘He seemed hardly to notice that my mother was dead,’ she said. ‘I stayed and cooked his meals as my mother had done and swept the floors. For some weeks I was afraid that he would turn me out, but he never did. Every week he gave me money for the house, and I never had to touch what my mother left me. He no longer went to work and he would spend his time in long walks along the top of the downs or in sitting beside the fire reading the Bible. I don’t think he ever read it consecutively. He would open it at random and put his thumb on a passage. When what he found pleased him he would read on, and when it displeased him he would fling the book aside and go for another of his long walks, until he came back tired and weary looking like a beaten dog. He very seldom spoke to me.
‘It was a very lonely life for a child and one day I picked up my courage and asked whether I could go to school again. He wanted to know how much it would cost and when he found out how little it would be he sent me off and even gave me a note to the mistress, asking that they should pay particular attention to Scripture. From that time on he paid me more attention. I would read to him in the evening and sometimes even argue small theological points.’
‘What a strange, staid child you must have been,’ Andrews said.
‘Oh no,’ Elizabeth laughed protestingly. ‘I was like all children. There were times of rebellion, when I would disappear down into Shoreham to play with other children or go to an entertainment, a circus or a fair. At first he would not notice my absence, which was humiliating, but after I had begun my Bible readings he grew more particular and sometimes beat me. Sometimes, too, at meals I’d look up and find him watching me.’
Again Andrews felt that absurd twinge of jealousy. ‘How could he be satisfied with watching you through those years?’ he broke out.
‘I was a child,’ she said simply in final answer and then added slowly, ‘He was very much taken up with his soul.’
Andrews laughed harshly, remembering the little cunning lines around the mouth, the stubbly untidy beard, the coarse lids. ‘He must have had need,’ he said. He longed to be able to shatter any feeling of friendship or gratitude which Elizabeth might still feel for the dead man.
Her eyes sparkled and she raised her chin in a small belligerent gesture. ‘No one could have called him a Judas,’ she said.
Andrews knelt up on the floor with clenched fists. He was filled with a childish personal animosity for the dead man. ‘I have not a penny in the world,’ he said. ‘I ask you – what have I gained? Is this so much? But he – where did he get his money?’
‘I learned that later,’ Elizabeth said quietly, her voice falling like the touch of cool fingers on a hot, aching brow. ‘He had cheated his employers, that was all. One day I opened the Bible at random as usual and began to read. It was the parable of the unjust steward. I felt, though I was looking at the page and not at him, that he was listening with unusual intentness. When I reached the point where the steward calls his lord’s debtors and says to the first: How much dost thou owe my lord; and he says: a hundred barrels of oil; and the steward says: Take the bill and sit down quickly and write fifty; when I reached that point Mr Jennings – I never called him anything else – gave a sort of gasp of wonder. I looked up. He was staring at me with a mixture of fear and suspicion. “Does it say that there,” he asked, “or are you making it up?” “How could I make it up?” I said. “People gossip so,” he answered, “go on,” and he listened hard, sitting forward a little in the chair. When I read “And the Lord commended the unjust steward, for as much as he had done wisely,” he interrupted me again. “Do you hear that?” he said, and gave a sigh of satisfaction and relief. He watched me for a little with his eyes screwed up. “I’ve been worrying,” he said at last, “but that’s at an end. The Lord has commended me.”
‘I said, “But you are not the unjust steward,” and added with a trace of conceit, “and anyway this is a parable.”
‘Mr Jennings told me to close the Bible and put it away. “It’s no use talking,” he said, “you can’t get over Scripture. It’s strange,” he added. “I never thought I was doing right.”
‘He told me then, sure in the Lord’s approval, how he had earned the money on which he had retired. All the time that he was a clerk in the Customs he was in receipt of an income from certain seamen, who had not the courage to become regular smugglers. They would declare about three-quarters of the amount of spirit they carried, and Mr Jennings would check their cargo and turn a blind eye on what they had not declared. Can’t you imagine him,’ she said with a laugh, ‘picking his way delicately among the cases of spirit, noting carefully a certain proportion? But unlike the unjust steward for a hundred barrels he would write seventy-five, and if that particular captain’s payments to him were in arrears, he would even put down the full hundred as a warning. Then he would go home and open the Bible at random and read perhaps some terrifying prophecy of hell fire and be in a panic for hours. But after he had heard the parable of the unjust steward, he never asked me to read the Bible to him again and I never saw him open the Book. He was comforted and perhaps he feared to find a contradictory passage. He was cunning, I suppose, and wicked in his way, but he had a childish heart.’
‘Was he as blind as a child?’ Andrews asked. ‘Couldn’t he see that you were beautiful?’ He knelt with clenched fists before her with eyes half shut as though he were battered by contrary winds, by admiration, wonder, suspicion, jealousy, love. ‘Yes, I am in love,’ he said to himself, with sadness and not with exaltation. ‘But are you, are you, are you?’ the inner critic mocked him. ‘It’s just the old lusts. This is not Gretel. Would you sacrifice yourself for her? You know that you wouldn’t. You love yourself too dearly. You want to possess her, that is all.’ ‘Oh be quiet and let me think,’ he implored. ‘You are wrong. I am a coward. You cannot expect me to change my spots so soon. But this is not the old lust. There is something holy here,’ and as though exorcized the critic fell again into silence.
Elizabeth smiled wryly. ‘Am I beautiful?’ she asked, and then with a sudden, vehement bitterness, ‘If it’s beauty which makes men cease to be blind as children, I don’t want it. It only means unhappiness. He was unhappy at the end. One day a year ago – it was just before my eighteenth birthday – I rebelled more than usual against the loneliness of life here. I disappeared in the morning early before he got up and left his breakfast unmade. I didn’t return till
‘Do you mean,’ Andrews asked, ‘that you are not yet twenty?’
‘Do I look more?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Oh no, it’s not that,’ he said. ‘But you seem so wise – understanding. As if you knew as much as any woman who had ever been born and were yet not bitter about it.’
‘I have learned a lot in the last year,’ she replied. ‘Perhaps before I was rebellious, unwise, but wasn’t I younger?’ she asked with a sad laugh.
‘No, you don’t belong to any age,’ Andrews said.
‘Don’t I? I think I belonged to an age then – my own age. I was eighteen and frightened of him, but not with any clear idea of what he wanted. I held him off with tricks, played on his fear with quotations from the Bible, and when one day – or rather one night – he told me with a complete, and I think brutal, candour what he wanted me to do, I told him with equal directness that if he forced me to do it, I should leave him for ever. Oh, I had begun to grow up terribly quickly. You see, I traded on his desire for me and by my emphasis on the word “force”, gave him to understand, without another word said, that one day I might come to him voluntarily. And so I held him off, narrowly, always with a sense of danger, till he died.’
‘Then you won,’ Andrews commented with a sigh of relief which he did not trouble to hide.
‘And what a triumph!’ she said sadly not cynically. ‘He had been good to me, kept me in food and clothing from a child without any idea that one day I should be a woman. And when for the first time he wanted something from me in return more than mere cooking or Bible reading I refused. I showed my disgust and I think that at times it hurt him. And now he is dead, and what would it have mattered if I had given myself to him?’
‘Then there would have been two Judases in Sussex,’ Andrews said with a wry smile.
‘Would it have been a betrayal?’ she thought aloud. ‘It would have been turned to a good purpose, surely?’
Andrews put his head between his hands. ‘Yes,’ he said, in sullen sorrow, ‘there’s the difference.’
She watched him for a moment, puzzled, and then stretched out her hand in vehement protest. ‘But I didn’t mean that,’ she cried; ‘how could you think it?’ She hesitated. ‘I am your friend,’ she said.
The face which he raised to her was like that of one dazed and stunned by an unexampled good fortune. ‘If I could believe that…’ he murmured in halting, incredulous tones. With a sudden lightening of the spirit he put out his hand to touch her.
‘Your friend,’ she repeated warningly.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. My friend,’ and he dropped his hand to his side. ‘I don’t deserve even that.’ For the first time his words of self-humiliation were not repeated mockingly by the critic within. ‘If there was some way I could retrieve…’ he gave a small, hopeless gesture with his hands.
‘But is there none?’ she asked. ‘Couldn’t you come forward and deny all that you had written to the officers?’
‘I can’t unsay a man’s death,’ he said. ‘And if I were able, I don’t believe that I would do it. I can’t go back to that life – the sneers, the racket, that infernal sea, world without end. Even in the middle of this fear and flight, you’ve given me more peace than I’ve known since I left school.’
‘Well, if you can’t undo what you’ve done, follow it out to the end,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You were driven to the side of the law,’ she said. ‘Stay there. Go into the open and bear witness against the men they’ve caught. You have made yourself an informer, at least you can be an open one.’
‘But you don’t understand.’ He watched her with fascinated, imploring eyes. ‘The risk.’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘But that’s the very reason. Don’t you see that by all this nameless work of yours, this flight, you’ve made the whole pack of them, that mad boy, better men than you are.’
‘They were always that,’ he murmured sadly under his breath, his head bowed again so that he might not see her firelit enthusiastic eyes.
She leant forward excitedly towards him. ‘Which one of them,’ she asked, ‘if he was an informer would come forward in open court, make himself a marked man and bear the risk?’
He shook his head. ‘No man in his senses would.’ He hesitated and added slowly, dwelling on the name with that puzzling mixture of love and hatred, ‘Except Carlyon.’
‘Well then,’ she said, ‘go to Lewes, go to the Assizes, bear your witness and you will have shown yourself to have more courage than they.’
‘But I haven’t,’ he said.
‘You hesitate and hesitate and then you are lost,’ she replied. ‘Can’t you ever shut your eyes and leap?’
‘No, no,’ Andrews said. He got to his feet and moved restlessly about the room. ‘I can’t. You are trying to drive me and I won’t be driven.’
‘I’m not driving you. Why should I? Is there nothing in you which would welcome the open?’
‘You don’t understand,’ he cried with a sudden fury. His sentimental melodramatic self, which longed for deep-breasted maternal protection, stood with its back to the wall and uttered the old cry with a sharper despair. For he knew that something in him was answering the appeal, and he was afraid. ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ he said.
‘But think,’ she said, her eyes following him in all his movements, ‘to escape from this…’
He stopped suddenly and turned directly to her. ‘This!’ he said. ‘But this is Paradise.’ He came a little nearer. ‘If I was to stop hesitating and leap,’ he continued hurriedly, ‘I could do better than go to Lewes.’
‘Do better?’ she repeated with a light trace of mockery.
‘Why do you always repeat words like that?’ he said angrily. ‘It’s maddening. You sit there cool, collected, at peace. Oh, I’d hate you if I didn’t love you.’
‘You are crazy,’ she said.
He came nearer. ‘Suppose I take your advice,’ he spoke angrily, as though he did indeed hate her, ‘not to hesitate any longer. I want you. Why shouldn’t I have you?’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘Because you will always hesitate,’ she said. ‘I’ve tried. I give you up.’
‘That’s why I won’t touch you, is it?’ Andrews’ breath rose into a sob, as he felt his last defences crumbling, and over them straddling a new and terrifying future. ‘You are wrong. I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll go to Lewes.’ The word Lewes coming so out of his mouth frightened him. He struck one more hopeless blow against the threatening future. ‘Mind,’ he said, ‘I promise nothing else. I’ll go to Lewes and see. I don’t promise to go into court.’
Elizabeth gave a little sigh of weariness and rose from her chair. ‘You have a long walk before you tomorrow,’ she said. ‘You must sleep.’ She watched him and the faint suspicion in her glance pleased him. He took it as a sign that she was already partly convinced. He grew suddenly proud and confident in his decision and was happier than he had been for many years. ‘I will s
She went to the window and pulled the curtain across it ‘The fog has gone,’ she said. ‘The sky is quite clear and I can see six stars.’ She opened the little door beside the fire-place and stood on the bottom step of the small flight of stairs.
ANDREWS WOKE TO a surge of gold light. He lay for a little in unconsciousness of anything save warmth. Somewhere a long way outside his mind disturbing facts nibbled like a brood of mice. But he kept them on one side and with eyes fixed upon that golden stationary wave hypnotized himself into a vacancy of mind. Yet the mice must have continued their nibbling, for suddenly and overwhelmingly reality burst in upon his consciousness. I am leaving here, he thought, I have promised to go, and he thought of Lewes as a dark and terrifying enemy, lying in wait for him to trip him up and fling him backwards into death. But I need do no more than go to Lewes, he told himself. That is all I have promised. And he wondered, in that case, whether he could not break – evade he called it – his promise altogether. But then I can never come back, he said, and it seemed to him an overwhelming, an impossible loss to lose for ever Elizabeth – or rather the sound of her voice, which wrapped him in peace.
He got up and shook himself hopelessly, like a rumpled dog just escaped from a pond who knows his master intends to drive him back into the water many times more. I will go to Lewes, he thought, but I will leave again before the Assizes open. He tried to calculate what day of the month it was. He had dated his letter to the Shoreham Customs, he knew, on the third of February and a week passed before the betrayal was made absolute. On the night of the tenth they had tried to run a cargo, for the last time. Then this was the fourth day of his flight, and only a few days before the Assizes opened. He must not wait in Lewes long. Too many local people would come in to watch the smugglers’ fate – or triumph, as likely as not, with a local jury to try them. Every man is against me, he thought. None are on my side save outcasts and the hoard of strangers who will come from London. Judge, counsel, officers. Must I always stand alone on one side? And his heart protested against the necessity which drove him from his present shelter.
The Man Within by Graham Greene / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes