Good Reading : April 2006
BOOKBITE folio which he never let out of reach of his hand; the oldish couple opposite, speculating upon its contents, might have changed their opinion of him had they seen them. But no shadow of the dark weariness of things unlawful rested on Lawrence Storey; to know Augustine Marchant, to be illustrating his great poem, to have learnt from him that art and morality had no kinship, this was to plunge into a new realm of freedom and enlarging experience. Augustine Marchant’s poetry, he felt, had already taught his hand what his brain and heart knew nothing of. There was a dog-cart to meet him at the station, and in the scented June evening he was driven with a beating heart past meadows and hayfields to his destination. Mr Marchant, awaiting him in the hall, was at his most charming. ‘My dear fellow, are those the drawings? Come, let us lock them away at once in my safe! If you had brought me diamonds I should not be one quarter so concerned about thieves. And did you have a comfortable journey? I have had you put in the orange room; it is next to mine.There is no one else staying here, but there are a few people coming to dinner to meet you.’ There was only just time to dress for dinner, so that Lawrence did not get an opportunity to study his host until he saw him seated at the head of the table. Then he was immediately struck by the fact that he looked curiously ill. His face – ordinarily by no means attenu- ated – seemed to have fallen in, there were dark circles under his eyes, and the perturbed Lawrence, observing him as the meal progressed, thought that his manner, too, seemed strange and once 52 goodreading ı APRIL 2006 or twice quite absent-minded. And there was one moment when, though the lady on his right was addressing him, he sharply turned his head away and looked down at the side of his chair just as if he saw something on the floor.Then he apologised, saying he had a horror of cats, and that sometimes the tiresome creature from the stables … But after that he continued to entertain his guests in his own inimitable way, and, even to the shy Lawrence, the evening proved very pleasant. The three ensuing days were won- derful and exciting to the young artist – days of uninterrupted contact with a master mind which acknowledged, as the poet himself admitted, none of the petty barriers which man, for his own conven- ience, had set up between alleged right and wrong. Lawrence had learnt why his host did not look well; it was loss of sleep, the price exacted by inspiration. He had a new poetic drama shaping in his mind which would scale heights that he had not yet attempted. There was almost a touch of fever in the young man’s dreams tonight, his last night but one. He had several. First he was standing by the edge of a sort of mere, inexpressibly desolate and unfriendly, a place he had never seen in his life, which yet seemed in some way familiar; and something said to him: ‘You will never go away from here!’ He was alar med, and woke, but went to sleep again almost immediately, and this time was back, oddly enough, in the church where in his earliest years he had been taken to service by the aunt who had brought him up – a large church full of pitch-pine pews with narrow ledges for hymn-books, which ledges he used surreptitiously to lick during the long dull periods of occultation upon his knees. But most of all he remem- bered the window with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, on either side of an apple-tree round whose trunk was coiled a monstrous snake with a semi- human head. Lawrence had hated and dreaded that window, and because of it he would never go near an orchard and had no temptation to steal apples … Now he was back in that church again, staring at the window, lit up with some infernal glow from behind. He woke again, little short of terrified – he, a grown man! But again he went to sleep quite quickly. His third dream had for background, as sometimes happens in nightmares, the very room in which he lay. He dreamt that a door opened in the wall, and in the doorway, quite plain against the light from another room behind him, stood Augustine Marchant in his dressing-gown. He was looking down at something on the ground which Lawrence did not see, but his hand was pointing at Lawrence in the bed, and he was saying in a voice of command: ‘Go to him, do you hear? Go to him! Go to him! Am I not your master?’ And Lawrence, who could neither move nor utter a syllable, wondered uneasily what this could be which was thus commanded, but his attention was chiefly focused on Augustine Marchant’s face. After he had said these words several times, and apparently without result, a dreadful change came upon it, a look of the most unutterable despair. It seemed visibly to age and wither; he said, in a loud, penetrating whisper: ‘Is there no escape then?’ covered his ravaged face a moment with his hands, and then went back and softly closed the door. At that Lawrence woke; but in the morning he had forgotten all three dreams. The third and final instalment will appear in the May 2006 edition of gr. Couching at the Door by D(orothy) K(athleen) Broster first appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in December 1933, and was published in a collec- tion of short stories, Couching at the Door: Strange and Macabre Stories, in 1942. He dreamt that a door opened in the wall, and in the doorway, quite plain against the light from another room, stood Augustine Marchant in his dressing gown. He was looking down at something on the ground.