It was the first time he had ever heard the clock strike ten at night. If he had been asleep and waked to hear the strokes, it would have been different, a small manageable fragment broken off the unknown hugeness of night, from somewhere in the middle. He would have been a little uneasy, perhaps, in his waking solitude, and, if he heard anyone stirring, would have found something legitimate to call out for, such as a drink of water. Only babies called out about nothing. The ten months which had passed of his fifth year felt like at least half his remembered life, and he was used to his responsibilities.
Tonight was unique. Tonight he had not been to sleep at all, and it was ten.
Seven o'clock was familiar and domesticated. With luck and good management, at seven his mother might still be sitting on the edge of his bed with an unfinished story. Eight was unusual, and associated with trouble: having been punished, or being sick. Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of the elephants: white on the map. He lay staring with round birdlike eyes at the dim lapping of light on the ceiling, incredulous of the journey he had made alone.
Outside a man passed the house, whistling. The noise had an absolute foreignness, like the note of a jungle bird. It had no link with humanity; it was simply a mysterious feature on the face of night. Somewhere, so far off that in the daytime one never heard it, a line of railway trucks was shunted together. The metallic clangs, melancholy with distance, not quite harsh and not quite musical, made a loose chain of sound, then stopped inconclusively, leaving the ear suspended and waiting.
If one sat up as long as an hour past bedtime, except on Christmas and birthdays, one would be ill. Laurie, who had had this explained to him many times and accepted it as incontrovertible fact, inferred from it that after three hours, one would probably die.
Separated from life by this vast stretch of solitude, he would not have been surprised to find himself dying any minute. But first an angel would come. Grannie, who had been in heaven for a year, was the only one personally known to him, so it would probably be she. Laurie didn't remember her very well, and thought she would have altered a good deal. She would pick him up out of bed (Grannie had had cold hands, he remembered), and fly with him out of the window, up to heaven. He looked at the space between the curtains. The sky was vast, empty, and quite black.
Last time he had seen Grannie she had been in bed, thin and yellow and absent, with a sweet sick smell. He pictured her thus, wearing her embroidered flannel nightgown with the addition of wings; then as a younger lady like the other angels, with long golden hair floating behind her and a thinner nightgown, just like all the rest. Neither of these pictures soothed, nor--and this was the worst-- wholly convinced him. In this enormous vacuum, he felt a crack open in the warm pearly shell of belief. He knew that dying was being fetched by the angels and taken to heaven; but, suddenly and terrifyingly, he could no longer feel it. What he felt was that it would simply grow darker, not only in the room, but also inside him; and that his mother would not be there.
A wave of despairing terror seized him. A known fact had become real to him for the first time, that sooner or later everyone died; not only old people like Grannie, but Laurie, Laurie Odell, I. He sat bolt upright in bed, a point of protesting, passionate identity in echoing space.
The room was
darker. He looked at the night-light, sitting in its saucer of water on the bedside cupboard. Was it really lower, or was he beginning to die? No; the flame was little and round, instead of long and pointed; it always got darker then. He craned over, and looked into the pool of clear wax cupped in the paper shell. It was deep and still, and through it, at the bottom, he could see a glittering square of tin. This was very interesting; it was also strange, and different, like everything else tonight. His especial things were on the cupboard-top beside it: the blue and gold cap from a broken fountain-pen of his father's, a knob of pink quartz which had been the head of one of his mother's hatpins once, a piece of green bottle smoothed and frosted by the sea, a big glass marble with a red and blue twist in its middle. He wasn't allowed them in bed since the quartz had slipped down while he slept and made a sore place on his leg. He remembered this; but everything was different tonight, lawless and wild; if he were dying, he must have at least one of them with him. The pen-cap was the newest and most dear; his father had given it him only a week before. With the desperate courage of an invested garrison making a sortie, he jumped out, snatched it up, and curled back again, still alive.
As a traveller beset with wild beasts and fighting a fever has no time to think about the causes that took him abroad, so Laurie had almost forgotten what it was that, aeons ago, had first kept sleep from him. "Tais-toi; voici l'enfant
." He still had the animal's ear whose vocabulary is in the pitch, not the words. The pent-up vehemence of his mother's caress, to herself a comfort and release, had been to him a great breach blasted in the walls of heaven, letting in the terrors of empty space. Something was going to happen. He did not expect to be told what it was, any more than a dog expects to know why the trunks are being got out, or for how long, or if he will be going. He had gone about dumbly, aching with secret fear and avoiding his father; for as surely as he knew that something was going to happen, he knew it was his father's fault. His mother, a fastidiously truthful woman, would have denied with the dignity of affronted innocence that she had given the child so much as a hint of her wrongs; but to him she seemed to have declared in the clearest language that he was her only solace and the last refuge of her violated trust.
During his approaches and retreats he had heard snatches of the conversations his presence had interrupted. He knew that his father had done something wicked while he was away from home. He was often away, covering things (it was not so very long since Laurie had first understood that his father was a newspaperman and not a kind of upholsterer). Laurie loved and admired, without respecting, his father. They were too often in trouble together, for making a mess without clearing up, or being late home from their joint expeditions. Laurie knew that his father had to obey his mother just as he had, under penalty of exile from love. Even though the exile was brief and symbolic, it was still the worst punishment he knew. Now that his father had committed some mysterious, unforgivable sin, he felt his own security still more vulnerable, and in the whole huge unknown world there was no relief for his fears, since she, the source of all safety, had appealed for protection even to him. Tonight, when she tucked him into bed, her face had looked as it had the day Grannie died; and he had listened dumb and uncaring to St. George and the Dragon, though it was his favorite tale; he knew that nothing was safe. Now, his fears confused with the stuff of bad dreams and frightening stories, he had gone so far into danger that he had forgotten how it all began.
Then suddenly rescue came, a step on the stairs. It was his father's. In the relief of hearing it, he forgot all associations except the old one of laughing reassurance. He sat up in bed, but the feet passed, and when he called it was too late; they had gone on to the door of what had in the last few days become Daddy's Room. But he knew by the sound of the door that it hadn't shut properly. Suddenly he was filled with the conviction that all his terrors, like so many before, had been evolved out of his own head and could be dispersed for him, returning him to the eternal verities of warmth and safety. For this his father was better than anyone; he took things easily, and whether he decided to answer a question or not, never rebuked one for having asked it. The landing was dark outside; it took him a few minutes to drum up his courage. Then he jumped out of bed on the side nearest the night-light: a compact, hazel-eyed little boy, with the beautiful gold-red hair that darkens at the end of childhood, and the redhead's thin skin which stays for life, bleeding too quickly and showing sooner than others the stigmata of pain and of fatigue.
The passage perilous of the landing was relieved by the crack of light from the door at the other end. Laurie padded up to it, and looked in.
His father was packing. This was no new sight to Laurie, who had often helped pack; yet he knew, at once, that it was different. Not only had his father got down the big suitcase that he used only for going abroad, not only was every drawer open and the cupboard as well, but there was something different too about the way his father stood and moved. As Laurie looked, he took a file of papers out of a drawer, flipped it through, took out a few sheets, and tore up everything else the file contained. The pieces he threw down in a corner, on the floor, and simply left them there. Laurie had never in his life seen a grown person do this. He went in.
He was halfway across the room before his father noticed. He had picked up another file, and now turned with it in his hand. His face altered. There was something startled in it, shocked and strained. This frightened Laurie. He knew he was committing an enormity by being out of bed in the middle of the night; but he knew too that the look in his father's eyes was not adjusted to his offense. It was private and personal. It recalled the unknown fears of the day.
"Hello," said his father, staring at him. "What do you
want?" He spoke quite kindly; but the feeling of difference grew.
Laurie made the emergency known at once. "I can't go to sleep."
"Never mind." His father drew his thick dark brows together; his eyes glancing at his wristwatch looked narrow and blue. He said absently, "It's not eleven yet."
Laurie perceived that his father didn't think he would die. But this fear had dropped away of itself as soon as he entered the room. The fear which returned in its place had, for all its doubtful shape, a dreadful solidity.
"Daddy," he said in a tight, casual voice, "where are you going?"
"Now look," said his father quickly, "this is no time at all to be running all over the house. You'll catch cold. Straight back to bed now and not another word out of you. D'you hear?"
"Yes," said Laurie slowly. The cold was striking through his pink-striped flannel pajamas. He waited for his father to pick him up and carry him back to his own room. But his father stared at him in silence for several seconds, then said in a quick, different voice, "Away with you, now." He began to smile at Laurie, but that was worse, for the smile had something wrong with it. Suddenly his father turned away, and began throwing things into the suitcase from the bed.
At this moment the undertones, the gradual gathering of some days' uncomprehended dread, coalesced for Laurie into a terrible certainty. He didn't attempt to speak. The absolute impotence of childhood crushed him like the weight of the pyramids. His throat swelled; his face, squared like his father's under his mother's hair, grew crimson; the first silent tears burst out, followed by the first, most painful sob. The pressure rose in him, working toward the raging rebellious grief of the man-child who seeks in sound and fury for the strength of a man.
"Mother of God!" said his father. All other considerations swamped momentarily by dread of the approaching noise, he caught Laurie up into his arms, and smothered the convulsed face against his shoulder. The unfamiliar words and the rough gesture increased Laurie's panic. He tried to scream, and, when his father held him more tightly, fought him, rigid, seeking space to thrash about and open his lungs. Dimly sensing this need, his father slackened his grasp, which now felt firm and reassuring. Laurie's screams sank to sobs, to hiccups; he was quiet. Father and son gazed for a moment, with an equal anxious uncertainty, into one another's eyes. Laurie gulped softly, his throat swollen from crying; and his father's hard grip softened into tenderness. He freed one of his hands and began to ruffle Laurie's hair. "Sure," he said softly, "it's a terrible thing then, so it is."
The door opened wide. Laurie, looking over his father's shoulder, saw his mother standing on the threshold.
"Michael!" she said quietly. "Oh, how could you?"
Laurie's father said, "He woke up and came in."
There was a pause. Still held in his father's arms, Laurie looked around and saw his parents confronting one another. With a sense of profound shock, which altered the meaning of everything, he realized that his mother didn't believe his father was telling the truth.
So dreadful a misunderstanding couldn't last for more than a second. But, when he looked at his father's face, he perceived that his father was accepting it. In some larger, unknown way beyond Laurie's scope, the accusation had struck him home. He didn't argue. He just lowered Laurie gently down, and set him on his feet on the floor.
As the firm, warm, supporting strength withdrew, Laurie was seized with a panic sense of insecurity and loss. He rushed blindly forward, sobbing, into his mother's arms. Now all was familiar, immutable, sure. Cozily patted and smoothed, he pushed his wet cheek into her shoulder, and felt the final, absolute reassurance of her soft breast. Dimly he was aware of footsteps, and of a door shutting. When he looked up again his father had gone.
Excerpted from The Charioteer by Mary Renault. Copyright © 2003 by Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.