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OIL UNDER THE WINDOW
The train ran, with that easy, lilting motion
peculiar to express trains, between banks blazing with masses of late-blooming
wild flowers. Birds, bees and butterflies, enticed from snug nests and hives by
the glorious autumn day, darted and swam and hovered over and among the flowers,
and every now and again a fat, lazy bumblebee sailed by the open windows, the
drone of its wings audible above the song of the train.
For the train, to Philip Lacy, was chanting a
little song of welcome, a continuous, reiterated, murmured paean of praise. He
sat huddled in a corner, a tall young man, dark-haired, and brown with the sun
of southern skies; his eyes were glued to the window, and his body was
motionless with ecstasy at what he saw. He was not conscious of his body. He did
not know he was sitting in a twisted and most uncomfortable attitude, and
incidentally creasing his well-cut tweed suit, he was totally unaware of the
other occupants of the carriage; he was all eyes and ears for the sights and
sounds that came to him through the window. He saw things magnified and in
detail. He heard the high breathless singing of birds, the rush and flutter of
many strong little wings, the industrious, unceasing buzzing of the bees, even
the humming of the telegraph wires just above the windows, as the music of the
spheres. And for his ears alone was the low, happy crooning of the train “You’re
home again— you’re home again—you’re home again—”
There was a warning whistle from the engine
ahead. The train flashed through a tunnel, the banks fell away, and the rolling
Devonshire countryside spread itself before his greedy gaze. For ten years he
had been away. Ten years! He had spent those years in travelling leisurely
through this land and then that. Life had been full and eventful. He had seen
and done many interesting and exciting things, and there had been no time for
regrets or longings. But now—now he was back in the country that was home.
He had landed at Plymouth, preferring to go
through the heart of his country by train, rather than round its coasts by boat,
though London was his first objective. Ten years. . . . He had been in many
countries during that time, and each country, so its inhabitants had earnestly
assured him, was God’s Own Country. Chiefly America, but that was merely because
the Americans had said so louder and more often than other peoples. He had no
quarrel with them. God had many countries, but England was His garden. How neat
and orderly and calm it was. And how clean! The greenness of its fields and
meadows! And the colour—the very houses seemed to fit into the landscape. Their
mellow red brick and thatched roofs were part of the scenery, not ugly
interruptions as were the wooden houses of other and younger countries. They had
grown there, as the trees had grown. The English trees! Glories of green and
gold and red in their autumn robes! Woods, copses, spinneys—names unknown out of
England—they were comfortable, sheltering things, temples of benevolent, homely
gods. The “bush” and forests of larger countries were—well, unhomely,
awe-inspiring. Musing thus, drunk with the delight of it all, some
half-forgotten, half-familiar sight would meet his eyes, and they would fill and
blur, and a lump would rise and stick in his throat. Only an exiled Englishman
can understand the feelings of Philip Lacy, as he sat in his corner that autumn
morning, speeding across the bosom of that fragrant land “You’re home
again—you’re home again—you’re home again—” sang the train. Philip’s lips moved.
“England!” he breathed. “England! Home!—Oh, God!”
As a country it had arrived. It was made and
finished. There was always something round the corner in England. You clambered
through bracken and fresh, green grass to the top of some rounded hill, and
there, just over the rise, nestling against the downslope was a little, old
wooden church, with a quiet little churchyard, where you lowered your voice and
walked tip-toe. Or you hastened to the corner of a country lane, turned it, and
there was a quaint little village, with a green, and an inn, and alas! yes,
petrol pumps, Or you paddled up a backwater, off a broad, placid river, and
there were ducks and moorhens and voles. quick, frightened little splashes, a
lazy twittering in shady trees, and an old, old mill-wheel. . . . Always
something round the corner. . . .
The train slid into Exeter, heaved a great
sigh of steam, and stood panting happily like some huge, contented dog.
Philip wrenched his eyes away from the window,
and his tense body relaxed. The other occupants of the carriage got out. He was
conscious of a sense of relief at their departure; he hoped no fresh passenger
would enter, he wanted all this for himself. And then he remembered his mother’s
letter. It was in his inside breast pocket, he crackled it with his fingers, and
the remembrance of it brought a frown to his forehead. She—his mother—was glad
to hear he was home again—she herself was in the south of France—she thought it
was high time he settled down, she hoped he would marry Mary Colebrooke. Yes,
marry Mary Colebrooke. She had been hoping that for a good many years now. Mary
had grown into such a pretty girl, with such an eminently safe and sane outlook
on life. She was—nice. And Philip’s mother was a lady for whom the word “nice”
had a very special meaning, and not one to be used lightly.
Faintly he remembered Mary Colebrooke; a
leggy, rather quiet kid she had been in those days. She was an orphan, living
with her uncle, Sir Julius Rutter, and his sister, Lavinia. He remembered them,
too. Sir Julius was a masterful, flamboyant sort of person, a financier, or
something of the kind, in the city of London. And Lavinia, well, she was rather
like her name, old-world, faded, a vague, shadowy figure moving in the reflected
effulgence of her lord and brother. So Mary was now a grown woman! Safe and
sensible. . . . Somehow she sounded unattractive. Besides, he was in no hurry to
marry. A little later, yes, but just at present life was much too interesting.
First let him get his bearings, let him re-discover his native land.
On the platform was the bustle of departure.
The guard whistled, and waved his flag. The engine gave an answering toot. And
then, just as they were on the point of moving off, the carriage door was opened
violently and a woman stumbled rather than stepped into the compartment. Her
intrusion, as Philip felt it, had the effect of drawing his thoughts from
himself, and his eyes from the window whence they had strayed again. He saw she
was young, little more than a girl, well-dressed, neatly shod and gloved, and
undeniably pretty, though the powder on her white skin was a little too thick,
and the lipstick too vivid, for his fastidious taste. She sat bolt upright in
the corner opposite him, one slender hand resting on the suitcase on the seat
beside her, her eyes glued to the window. One quick, comprehensive glance she
had flashed him as she had recovered herself, then her anxious gaze had sought
the rapidly receding platform.
Despite himself Philip was interested, and a
little uneasy. For her eyes were anxious. There was a hunted look about her that
awoke the young man’s innate protective instinct, and he saw that, once in the
open country, those frightened eyes left the window, and fixed themselves, as if
fascinated by it, on the corridor. Frightened? She was scared to death. Her face
was absolutely colourless. In that unnatural pallor her too-scarlet mouth looked
oddly like a wound. Philip caught his breath. That anyone should be fearful in
this smiling land. . . . The train took up its happy little song “You’re home
again—you’re home again—you’re home again—” and settled down to its long run to
Salisbury. Gradually the slim, tense figure opposite him relaxed. His eyes again
sought the flying landscape, but he could not shake off that queer feeling of
uneasiness. And yet, as he endeavoured to persuade himself, this terrified girl
was no concern of his, and presumably she knew what she was about. But still the
question hammered at his brain, why was she so frightened? Was she the eloping
maiden? Erring wife? Or, fatuous query this, escaping from some—institution? One
thing was obvious, she feared pursuit.
The train sang through Devonshire, through a
corner of Somerset, into Wiltshire, and each succeeding mile, so it seemed to
Philip, shooting covert glances at her, brought her its measure of relief and
security. He saw that some of the colour had returned to her cheeks, that she
was sitting comfortably in her corner, and then he made an effort to put her out
of his thoughts while he concentrated on his own problem.
His mother wished him to marry Mary
Colebrooke. Philip’s mother counted for something in his life, and though the
days have long gone by when a man married to his parents’ desires, he always
endeavoured to respect his mother’s wishes. Actually the fulfillment of this one
rested with Mary herself. He could propose, of course, but she could reject him.
She had probably forgotten him, she certainly knew nothing of him as a man, and
he felt that, if she was a girl of any spirit, she would reject him. He thought
over this side of it. He could offer the girl his heart and fortune, and please
his mother, but—he smiled faintly as he considered ways and methods—the offer
might not prove attractive to the girl. The smile slowly grew to a broad grin.
Very well! He would propose and, providing Mary Colebrooke was not definitely
sub-human, she would turn him down. And that would be that!
A startled gasp brought him back with a jerk
to the other girl, this frightened creature opposite. Her terror had returned.
She held one clenched hand to her vivid mouth, and she was staring with
wide-open eyes at something out of the window. He followed her gaze. Away to the
south, flying in line with the train, and apparently at the same speed, was an
aeroplane. Just an aeroplane.
So they came to Salisbury.
Philip could keep up the conventional attitude
of polite detachment no longer. He had been in the Colonies, where they drink
tea morning, noon and night, and he felt that here was an urgent case. It was
early afternoon as yet, but it was not too early for him. He got to his feet as
they pulled into the station.
“Look here!” he said, and his concern made him
a trifle abrupt, “I don’t want to butt in, but you look absolutely done-up.
Frightened out of your life. Is—isn’t there anything I can do for you?”
The girl looked at him as if seeing him for
the first time, and as if his words had made no impression on her understanding.
Philip went on talking aimlessly, giving her time to pull herself together.
“I’ve been out of England so long I’ve
forgotten the etiquette of train-travelling. I believe this sort of thing isn’t
done, but I’m doing it. Everybody talks to everybody else in a compartment in
other countries, but here we just sit and glare at one another. . . .” Then
urgently, “I’m not trying to be fresh. Can’t you see? I want to help you.”
She was looking out of the window now, staring
with a strained attention at the busy platform, but she made answer.
“No—no—there’s nothing you can do for me. You
can’t help me. I must get to London. I’ve got to get to London. . . .” The
small, breathless voice died away.
A tea-wagon passed the window. Philip thrust
his head out, and called the attendant back.
“Oh, well,” he said, deliberately cheerful,
“you can have a cup of tea with me. I’m going to have a cup of tea. Two cups.
Probably three.” The tea-things were handed in, and he juggled with them. He
held out a cup. “Come on! Take it! . . . Sugar?”
She was still staring at the platform in a
dread of expectancy. She said suddenly, startlingly, “How long do we stay here?”
“How long?” echoed Philip. “I—hanged if I
know! About ten minutes, I believe.”
“Ten minutes!” she breathed. “God!”
Philip felt that more forceful measures were
“Look here!” he said again. “You seem to be
expecting somebody, somebody about as welcome as a pain in the neck. Do you
think I’m going to stand here and let something—well, unpleasant, happen to you,
and do nothing about it? Anybody that butts in here without invitation is going
to get a thick ear! . . . Now, dammit! drink that tea!”
“You?” said the girl, and stared at him
contemptuously. “Let him? You fool!”
It was Philip’s turn to stare. She turned her
eyes away, back to the bustling throng outside, she shrank back in the corner,
she said weakly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
She took the cup of tea.
“That’s all right,” he said briskly, and
busied himself with plates. “Forget it! And forget him, whoever he may be! . . .
Have one of these—these bun things.”
She took a tea-cake and made a sorry pretence
of eating it, but she drank the tea thankfully. “You’re awfully kind,” she
Philip poured himself a second cup. “Kind? No.
Just natural. Any other man would do the same. I could probably do a lot more,”
he added tentatively, “if I knew what it was all about.” Silence.
“No, no. Please, no.”
Philip selected a cake thoughtfully. “All
right, let it go! But there’s something you seem to have forgotten. If he comes
in here with the idea of doing any dirty work at the crossroads, he—well, he’s
got to account for me first.” He waved the cake. “Oh, I’m not being heroic. I’m
merely stating an obvious fact. I mean, I happen to be here.”
It was the queerest sound. Wonder was in it,
surprise, she had overlooked that; and, yes, relief; and also fear, but an
added, a new fear. He poured out the threatened third cup. “Station tea,” he murmured. “Look at it! The
spoon can stand up in it—”
He looked up to find her eyes fixed on him,
and he knew what the new fear was. She was afraid now for him.
Salisbury lay many miles behind them! They
were approaching London! London, the Mecca of all Colonials. The short afternoon
was drawing to a close, and the evening mist was rising from field and meadow.
The journey had been uneventful, and as the hours had passed without any
untoward incident the girl’s terror had left her, she had grown calmer, almost
cheerful, and had proved a most delightful companion. They had chatted
desultorily, for Philip had no great supply of small talk, and he had
deliberately avoided touching upon anything personal.
The straggling monster that was London loomed
up in the gathering dusk. Houses crept up to the sides of the track, the shining
metals spread, divided, and spread again to meet them. Warehouses and
bond-stores sprang, square, solid and blank, to meet Philip’s eyes, and faded
again. The air grew thicker, and the smell of smoke, deliciously reminiscent of
school holidays, crept into his nostrils.
Philip lay back in his corner, and sent his
thoughts on ahead. London! Dear, old, untidy city! Ten years since he had last
seen it. There were things about London that no Englishman could ever forget.
Whitehall, Bond Street, Kensington Gardens, by day; Piccadilly, the Embankment,
the Strand, by night. London by night! The surging well-dressed crowds, the
mysterious, romantic fogs, the reflection of thousands and thousands of lights
on shining pavements, the magnificently clean, brightly-illuminated shops,
restaurants and hotels, the flashing sky-signs, the dear old, imperturbable
London “cop,” and overhead the Pole Star and the Great Bear in place of the
Southern Cross. . . . The glamour of it all!
The train sped through stations, misty blurs
with rows of lights. Its speed slackened. It rocked over countless points, and
the words and tune of its song changed. The tune was brisker. Over and over and
over again the wheels were saying to Philip: “Here we are—here we are—here we
are—” He rose leisurely to his feet.
“Well,” he said to the girl, “we’re
practically there. And I’m about due for a wash. I’m going along to see if I can
get some of the grime of the journey off my hands and face.”
The terror that had been sleeping for the past
few hours leapt again into the girl’s face. She seemed about to speak, then,
thinking better of it, she made a vague gesture, a weary little gesture, with
one hand, and smiled faintly.
“It’s all right,” said Philip, reassuringly.
“I’ll only be gone a minute. I really do feel filthy, . . . Buck up! You’re
safe. You’re in London now. You excuse me?”
She nodded. “I’m going to take you wherever
you want to go when we get out,” he said, and left her.
He went down the corridor to the little
lavatory, and washed hastily. He could feel the brakes gripping under his feet.
He was there no longer than a minute and a half, and was stuffing the towel back
on to the rack when they pulled into Paddington. “Here—we—are—” said the train,
as he returned, “Here . . . we . . . are . . .” And, as the motion stopped, with
a final, thankful, emphatic puff of steam “There!”
“Back again,” said Philip, re-entering the
carriage. “London, after ten years. Wonder if I’ll be able to find my way about
. . .? Now then, let me yank that suitcase down for you.”
She neither moved nor spoke as he dragged her
suitcase from the rack above. She seemed supremely uninterested. “Funny!” he
thought. “Wish I’d a spot of whisky to give her.” A portion of his brain was
busy wrestling with a trivial little problem. It was almost involuntary, as the
striving of a man’s brain to remember a word or a name is involuntary, and often
annoying, when the man is intent on something else. This little corner of
Philip’s brain was trying to place a face, the face of the man who had been
waiting in the corridor outside for him to finish in the lavatory. “I’ve seen
that chap somewhere,” he mused. “Some old friend who’s forgotten me. I seem to
have forgotten him too.”
The suitcase was resting on the seat beside
the girl, but still she did not move. He looked at her closely. She was leaning,
almost crouching, against the upholstered back, and the terror in her eyes was
appalling. Philip caught his breath sharply, and bent over her. Then he seemed
to go suddenly cold. She was dead, quite dead. Just over her left breast the
dark hue of her tweed coat was changing. There was a little tear in the cloth,
and through the tear blood was slowly welling. Another little corner of his
brain grew irritatingly active. What was that phrase he had thought of earlier
in the morning? Long ago in the morning, before the girl had entered his
compartment? Somewhere—no, something, that was it—something round the corner.
Always something round the corner. . . .