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9: The Vision (part 2)

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Author Topic: 9: The Vision (part 2)  (Read 4 times)
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« on: February 11, 2023, 10:58:09 am »


Paul was alone now. He had only spoken once since he had been placed under the guard of Winston's two men in the Lodge kitchen; nor had he attempted to eat the dinner that was offered to him. He had tried, fruitlessly, to enter his old retreat. He had wanted to get away not only from the realities of the material world, but also from himself. But that escape, also, had been denied to him. He had been aware of a growing inertia, an increasing distaste for any kind of effort, physical or mental; and had wondered, without interest, if he were ill, if he were perhaps dying? Everything about him remained distastefully perceptible by his senses, and yet had an effect of being dulled and muffled. It was as if the screen of his flesh had been thickened; and though he was still compelled to know the common detail of life, he knew it all less intimately. Also, his consciousness of time seemed to be at fault. When the wheezy, painfully deliberate grandfather's clock had struck twelve, it had seemed to him that it would never finish its chime. The slowly accelerating whir that found its climax in the unmusical thud of the gong, had continued interminably, increasing its portent through long ages of waiting. The clock might have struck twenty or a thousand for all that Paul could reckon of its long agony. Even the younger of his two warders had looked round and made some comment on its being "Some clock."

And yet Paul had somehow missed the time between two and half-past three. He was sure that he had not been asleep. He had been sitting upright on a hard kitchen chair, and he did not believe that it would be possible for him to have slept in that position for an hour and a half without having known it when he awoke. Also, he had not returned to consciousness with any sense of a lost interval of time. He had heard the clock strike two and it seemed to him only a few minutes later that he had heard the quiet humming of more than one motor coming towards the Lodge from the direction of Oxford. They would not pass through the village, he had reflected, coming that way. Then he had looked at the clock and had been startled to find that it was half-past three.

His two warders had pricked their ears and had looked at each other when they had heard the cars, but they had not moved, otherwise, until Lord Winston came into the kitchen four or five minutes after the cars had stopped somewhere near the Lodge gates.

Winston had spoken to Paul first. "It's too late for you to help now," he had said, "but will you give me your word of honour to stay here till I come back?"

"I'll stay here," Paul agreed, and Winston had accepted that promise without any sign of hesitation. "Then you and Harrison had better come with us, sergeant," he had said. "You needn't wear your overcoats now." They had come down, Paul had discovered, wearing long civilian overcoats over their khaki.

After that he had been left alone.

Everything was amazingly still. He could hear no sound of any one moving in the house, and outside there was not a breath of wind. Now and again, far away, a sheep bleated; and sometimes a leaf from the great chestnut, just outside the open kitchen door, would fall, with a little restless tapping, from tier to tier of the dying foliage; otherwise there was no sound but the long, deliberate tick-tock of the old clock.

Presently the clock began making up its mind to strike four. After that tremendous ebullition was over, peace returned.

Paul stood at the open door and listened. All his sensibilities were absorbed in his power of hearing. He could distinguish, now, from among the distant sounds of animal life the plaintive bleating of a single sheep, which had probably worked itself through a gap into the wrong field, and was unable to find its way back again. He could also hear the rooks in the elms behind the Hall, and the sound of children's voices from the lane.

He shut his eyes and tried to concentrate his powers still further. He wanted to make his mind blank in order that he might increase his sensitivity, but when he did that, memories of the war began to surge through him, and for a moment or two he had the illusion of being again on duty at a listening post, and fancied that he could detect the furtive movements of men in the trenches and the hushed instructions of a low German voice. He dispelled that illusion by a deliberate attention to the complacent tick-tock of the satisfied clock in the room behind him.

The main cluster of cottages in the village, including Oliver's, was not more than half a mile away, but between it and him lay the sharp rise of a ridge of ground, covered with woods, which effectively cut off the sounds coming from that direction. All that he could hear was an occasional "tink! tink! tink!" the thin and delicate lees of the music made by a blacksmith's hammer and anvil.

Either Teddy Sharp or his father was still at work, then, Paul reflected. Yet Winston and his men had been gone, now, for over half an hour. Probably they had not taken the cars on into the village, but had separated and scattered. Winston would know from his father the kind of man he had to deal with in Jem Oliver, and would take precautions. No doubt he wanted to get him without losing any of his own men. If he had enough force he would surround the various places where the revolutionaries were likely to be found. He would have pretty full information on that point from Lord Fynemore. Most of them would be going home for tea about half-past four. Hardly any of the men worked later than that now. They had reverted to the labour of women for the milking and care of the cows.

The musical tink-tink of the distant forge had ceased now, but it did not follow that the worker, whoever he was, had been forcibly interrupted; he might have finished his job, or be taking a rest. But strain and concentrate as he would, Paul could hear no other sounds coming from the direction of the village.

It was five minutes to five---the clock in the kitchen had just "given warning" when the intense peace of the golden afternoon was suddenly violated by the sound of a single shot---a revolver shot, Paul judged it to be. He stiffened and shivered, but he did not open his eyes. All his soul seemed to be in his ears. He thought he heard what might have been the rough, confused noise of shouting, but after that there was an interval of silence, in which he became aware again of the insistent complaint of the lost sheep somewhere away in the Park.

Then, unheralded, came the sharp intrusion of the rifle-shots---two, close together---then perhaps half a dozen almost simultaneously, until they merged, as it seemed to Paul, into a continuous, irregular volley . . . into the crash of bursting shells . . . into the shrieks and oaths of wounded men . . . into the terrible unceasing tumult of hell . . . dominated strangely and horribly by the rising, threatening note of the whirring, clicking clock about to strike. . . .


Paul felt himself falling. All sound had ceased, and he was sinking slowly and interminably into a darkness that continually increased and thickened until it was as if he sank into a fog of motionless black smoke. Before him, faces, self-illuminated, as it seemed, flashed up and disappeared again. He saw the face of Lord Winston, blank with dismay, fixed in a perpetual stare of horrible amazement; and it was succeeded almost immediately by the face of Jem Oliver, contorted and transformed by a glare of rage and hatred; he appeared to be mouthing and struggling, mad with the bestial anger of frustrated desire, and he passed on into the darkness with the frenzied anxiety of one who desperately seeks some intense, impossible purpose. After that came other faces of men and women unknown to Paul; some that drifted, cynically indifferent, with an effect of patient contempt and endurance; some that were twisted and tormented with pain; and some that leered and grimaced with a gross, insatiable longing. But in all of them Paul recognised some aspect of himself, and yearned to deliver them from the horrors and tortures of this enshrouding, terrifying darkness.

And presently he realised that he was no longer falling, and that the blackness was dispersing, thinning out into the gloom of starless night, through which he could discern the movement of hurried, engrossed figures, intent and furtive, with white faces and evil, deliberate eyes---figures that slipped past him in a swift, preoccupied procession. And these, too, he longed to help, but he was powerless to approach them. They were absorbed by the interest of their own affairs, fulfilling their destiny, and indifferent to any interference.

And even as he yearned after them, the light grew and their aspect changed, till he found himself in a new place, among men and women who, instead of being hurried and intent, regarded each other and their surroundings with a half-critical complacence.

He would have stayed there, for at last he felt that he could come into touch with those about him, not fully nor directly, yet he realised that they, at least, were in some sense aware of him, and that he could, however imperfectly, communicate with them.

But he could not stay. The light was still increasing, bearing him up with it like a tide, up into the brightness of a winter noon into a place where he was surrounded with kind, earnest faces that exchanged glances of recognition with him. He had come, then, he believed, to the place of his own people, those with whom he had common interest, who would be willing to plunge back with him into the darkness and rescue the half-blind and the blind who groped among the hidden desires and purposes of misunderstanding, seeking an impossible happiness within the confines of their own small, uneasy world. Among these gentle, willing comrades of his new discovery, he could, he believed, find a means to the fulfilment of his anxious purpose; with them he could labour and rest, knowing the joys of hope, achievement, and love. They were ready to welcome him, and his spirit called to them to hold him back, to stay this immense expanding movement that seemed to threaten him with an enlargement too overwhelming, with a demand altogether too great as yet for his feeble powers of endurance.

And, indeed, it seemed to him that only during an instant flash of consciousness was he aware of the final brightness, and of the terrible ecstasy of his witness. Yet, as he fell back with awful speed into darkness and deeper darkness, he carried with him a flaming message of hope. Beyond any attainment of his own or of that of the brightest human spirit, help was coming; a new promise of strength and salvation to the failing humanity
of earth. For two thousand years the old spirit had laboured in distress, and not altogether without avail. But its endeavour was drooping and outworn, settling into a decline of energy, sinking into despair. Now, a new charge was to be given to men, a new dispensation, coming miraculously at the hour of failure. The message had been given to him in his instant knowledge of the outer brightness, and even as he fell into the ultimate blackness, his heart beat high with love and thanksgiving.

And while he still fell he stretched out his hand and grasped the post of the kitchen door, so that the earth pressed suddenly upwards against the soles of his feet; and as he opened his eyes, the great chestnut-tree, and the wide and golden distance of the Park, streamed upwards in a blurred torrent of mingled colour. He could hear far away the thin, plaintive bleating of a lost sheep, while behind him the tall kitchen clock ground out the last stroke of five and settled down again to the contented rhythm of its long, deliberate satisfaction with the passage of mortal time.


The glory was still beating in Paul's heart and shining from his eyes when Lord Fynemore returned to the Lodge half an hour later. He came hurriedly, stooping a little, and the drawn lines of his face were those of a man prematurely old.

Paul was standing at the gate looking out towards the sunset. With the wonder of his recent vision still enthroning him, it seemed to him possible that the Great Promise might be fulfilled that very night.

Lord Fynemore stumbled as he reached him, and, putting out his hand to save himself, clutched Paul's arm. "I must rest a moment," he said, in a low, breathless voice. "It's---it's all over---up there. Do you mind lending me your arm? There's been trouble, horrible trouble."

And at the first touch of his fellow-man, Paul's ecstasy was drained suddenly out of him. He had come back to a world of noise and anger and great pain. Whatever his splendid hope for the future, he had, for a time at least, to spend himself in the service of humanity.

"Is it too late for me to help?" he asked, as he supported Lord Fynemore into the little sitting-room of the Lodge.

Fynemore sank into a Windsor arm-chair, and dropped forward, his lips puffing out with each quick breath, as if he laboured for his life.

"Yes too late," he gasped, after a little interval. "Too late for you to help now. They've all been taken. The others have gone under guard to Buckingham. All loyalists there now."

He paused, but Paul did not prompt him to go on. He remembered quite clearly now the single revolver shot, followed by the reports of the rifles: two first, and then many; but his curiosity was overwhelmed by his tenderness for the spent figure in the chair.

For perhaps three or four minutes they sat there in silence before Fynemore looked up and said: "You were right again, Leaming. If we'd taken your advice . . ." His breath came more easily now, and he sat up more stiffly in his chair as he continued:

"They couldn't find them, to begin with. No, they hadn't been warned, it was just bad luck. And they came upon Oliver and half a dozen of the others unexpectedly, in the corner of the field by Simson's Close; and Oliver saw at once what was up and fired. Bradfield was there, the sergeant who was here just now. He told me. He said that his men were on the other side of the hedge and couldn't do anything for a minute or two. Oliver and his fellows ducked into the ditch, but it wasn't deep enough for a trench. They got them all, very soon. Oliver was killed outright and one of the others; and Sharp was hit in three places, and isn't likely to live. They got the others, those that weren't with Oliver, without any fighting. . . . "

He paused again, as if he had not finished, but his thoughts were not with his listener. His eyes gazed fixedly at something beyond the limits of physical vision.

"He looked so astonished," he murmured softly, "so horribly dismayed and astonished," and in his own face was reflected an image of the astonishment he had so recently and pitifully looked upon.

And still Paul asked no question, for, indeed, he guessed the truth. He had realised the stark omission in Fynemore's story, and he knew that one man, the leader, had gone on alone into that field of blood, and that it was he who had been the victim of Oliver's shot.

Paul thought then of the black darkness of hell, but when, in despair, he arose and looked out, he saw the glory of the western sky, and high up the brilliance of a single star, brighter than the radiance of the autumn sunset.

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