The Last September
by Elizabeth Bowen

"Brilliant.... A successful combination of social comedy and private tragedy."--The Times Literary Supplement

"[Elizabeth Bowen] is one of the handful of great...novelists of this century." --The Washington Post

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    Chapter One

    About six o'clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out of a net of shadows down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency produced--arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor veil--an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors. They exclaimed, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor exclaimed and signalled: no one spoke yet. It was a moment of happiness, of perfection.

    In those days, girls wore crisp white skirts and transparent blouses clotted with white flowers; ribbons threaded through with a view to appearance, ap-peared over the shoulders. So that Lois stood at the top of the steps looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look, like other young girls, and clasping her elbows tightly behind her back tried hard to conceal her embarrassment. The dogs came pattering out from the hail and stood beside her; above, the large façade of the house stared coldly over its mounting lawns. She wished she could freeze the moment and keep it always. But as the car approached, as it stopped, she stooped down and patted one of the dogs.

    As the car drew up the Montmorencys unwound from their rugs. They stood shaking hands and laughing in the yellow theatrical sunshine. They had motored over from Carlow. Two toppling waves of excitement had crashed and mingled; for moments, everybody was inaudible. Mrs. Montmorency looked up the steps. "And this is the niece!" she exclaimed with delight. "Aren't we dusty!" she added, as Lois said nothing. "Aren't we too terribly dusty!" And a tired look came down at the back of her eyes at the thought of how dusty she was.

    "She's left school now," said Sir Richard proudly.

    "I don't think I should have known you," said Mr. Montmorency, who had not seen Lois since she was ten and evidently preferred children.

    "Oh, I think she's the image of Laura--"

    "--But we have tea waiting! Are you really sure,now, you've had tea?"

    "Danielstown's looking lovely, lovely. One sees more from the upper avenue--didn't you clear some trees?"

    "The wind had three of the ashes--You came quite safe? No trouble? Nobody at the crossroads? Nobody stopped you?"

    "And are you sure now about tea?" continued Lady Naylor. "After all that--look, it's coming up now. No, Francie, don't be ridiculous: come in now, both of you."

    They swept in; their exclamations, constricted suddenly, filling the hall. There was so much to say after twelve years; they all seemed powerless. Lois hesitated, went in after them and, as nobody noticed, came out again. The car with the luggage turned and went round to the back, deeply scoring the gravel. She yawned and looked out over the sweep to the lawn beyond, where little tufts of shadow pricked like reeds from water out of the flat gold light. Beyond the sunk fence six Kerry cows followed each other across with wading step and stood under a lime tree. All the way up the house the windows were open; light came diagonally from window to window through corner rooms. Two storeys up, she could have heard a curtain rustle, but the mansion piled itself up in silence over the Montmorencys' voices.

    She yawned with reaction. It was simply the Montmorencys who had come; whom, all day, one had been expecting. Yet she had been unable to read, had scattered unfinished letters over her table, done the flowers atrociously. Sweet peas had spun and trembled between her fingers from their very importance . . . "I apologise for the mauve sweet peas," she would have liked to be able to say to Mrs. Montmorency. "I don't care for mauve myself. I can't think why I ever picked them; there were plenty of others. But, as a matter of fact, I was nervous." And-- "Nervous?" she would wish Mr. Montmorency to ask her searchingly, "Why?" But she had her reserves, even in imagination; she would never tell him.

    But she had seen at once that Mr. Montmorency, who must be really so subtle, would not take the trouble to understand her.

    Her cousin Laurence had gone upstairs with a book when he heard the motor. Now she could hear him knocking out his pipe on a window sill. He leaned out further and asked pointing down, in a cautious whisper: "Are they all in?"

    She signalled a warning, nodding.

    "What are you doing?" he said.

    "I don't know. What are you doing?"

    "Nothing particular."

    "I thought I'd take the dogs down the beech walk."

    "Why?"

    "Oh, I just thought . ."

    "Come up and tell me about the Montmorencys."

    She signalled another warning: the Montmorencys were in the hall. To avoid the hall she had to go round to a side door and up the backstairs. These smelt of scrubbed wood, limewash, and the ducks already roasting for the Montmorencys' dinner. Pushing open a door at the top she let a gust of this through with her.

    "Duck," said Laurence, sniffing gratefully. It still surprised her that Laurence, who looked ethereal, should spend so much time when he was not being intellectual in talking and apparently in thinking about food. She supposed that this was because he had, as he had once said, no emotional life. "I live," he used to say, "from meal to meal." When she said, "Why?" he put up his hands and his eyebrows and made a gesture. When he did this in front of Gerald she felt uncomfortable. Soldiers did not talk about food, they ate it. They ate, in fact, rather more than Laurence, but always with a deprecating, absent look.

    Laurence had been reading in the ante-room, in one of a circle of not very comfortable shell-shaped chairs that no one took seriously. His room was a floor higher; it had not seemed worth while to go up. He had brought the wrong book and dared not go down for another; otherwise he would not have felt in need of her conversation. Personally, she liked the ante-room, though it wasn't the ideal place to read or talk. Four rooms opened off it, and at any moment a door might be opened, or blow open, sending a draught down one's neck. People passed through it continually, so that one kept having to look up and smile. Yet Lois always seemed to be talking there, standing with a knee on a chair because it was not worth while to sit down, and her life was very much complicated by not knowing how much of what she said had been overheard, or by whom, or how far it would go.

    The high windows were curtainless; tasselled fringes frayed the light at the top. The white sills--the shutters folded back in their frames--were blistered, as though the house had spent a day in the tropics. Exhausted by sunshine, the backs of the crimson chairs were a thin, light orange; a smell of camphor and animals drawn from skins on the floor in the glare of morning still hung like dust on the evening chill. Going through to her room at nights Lois often tripped with her toe in the jaws of a tiger; a false step at any time sent some great claw skidding over the polish. Pale regimental groups, reunions a generation ago of the family or neighbourhood, gave out from the walls a vague depression. There were two locked bookcases of which the keys had been lost, and a troop of ebony elephants brought back from India by someone she did not remember paraded along the tops of the bookcases.

    "Whow--whow--whow!" said Laurence, imitating her panting. "Why do you hurry like that?"

    "I suppose it's a habit," said Lois, confused.

    "What did you want?"

    "Well, I came to tell you about the Montmorencys."

    "Oh, all right; go on. Where are they?"

    "Having more tea; Aunt Myra made them . . Well, they arrived, as you probably heard, and it was all rather devastating. There was a good deal of emotion. And she would do nothing but say she was dusty, and of course she was dusty, so there was nothing for me to say."

    "So what did you say?"

    "And he said he would never have known me."

    "Honest, bluff sort of chap?"

    "Oh, no," said Lois and flushed, for really Laurence was too insulting. She laughed and glanced at her finger nails--the only part of one's person, she had observed, of which it was possible to be conscious socially. "Haven't you met him?"

    "I think I did once. I think I thought he was rather fatuous. But I was very young at the time--I mayn't have met him at all."

    "Isn't it extraordinary," said Lois confidentially, "the way one's nails grow--I mean, when one comes to think: yards and yards of inexhaustible nail coming out of one . . . As a matter of fact," she added, "I once rather had illusions about Mr. Montmorency--since I was ten. He came to stay with my mother and me when we were at Leamington. After dinner--I was allowed to sit up--Mother walked out of the house and left us. We were trying chickens at that time and I daresay she went out to shut them up and then simply stayed in the garden. Mr. Montmorency and I talked for some time, then he got solemn and went to sleep all in a moment. I sat and watched him in absolute fascination. You know the way men go to sleep after dinner? Well, that wasn't at all the way he did-- Then my mother came back, very much refreshed at having been away from us, and said I was a rather bad hostess, and woke Mr. Montmorency up. I have thought since, anyone might have said she was a rather bad hostess. But everything she did seemed so natural."

    "Oh, she was lovely," said Laurence, indifferent.

    "So you see he is really not bluff, or he wouldn't have gone to sleep in that perfectly simple, exposed way. He was melancholy and exhausted and wise, which I did appreciate as a child, when most visitors were so noisy at one."

    "Extraordinary," said Laurence, looking out of the window.

    Laurence was comfortable to talk to because of his indifference to every shade of her personality. With him, she felt committed by speech itself to a display of such unfathomable silliness that she might just as well come out--and did--with assertions surprising at times to herself. When he yawned, took a book up, said he was hungry or simply went away, she was not discountenanced. It was those tender, those receptive listeners to whom one felt afterwards sold and committed. It is true that when first she had met Laurence again she had wished to impress him as an intellectual girl. But an evening of signal failure when he had told her she should read less and more thoroughly and, on the whole he thought, talk less, had involved a certain rearrangement of attitude. She had reattained confidence, expanding under his disapproval.

    "It doesn't occur to you," he said with an air of sinister triumph, "that the Montmorencys may have come up the front stairs while you came up the back stairs and be both in that room, listening?"

    Unthinkable, but the very sound of the thing was a shock. Crimson, she ran to the door of the spare-room: struggling with unreason, knocked defiantly, rattled the handle. She went in, finally, with a sense of impertinence, for the new arrivals already were spiritually in possession.

    The Blue Room was of course empty; with no one to listen. The trunks had been carried up and set down, unstrapped, at the foot of the wide bed. The room smelt of bleaching cretonnes and ten days' emptiness; curtains in a draught from the door made a pale movement. Lois had put a vase of geraniums on the dressing-table; now she admired their cubes in delicate balance spraying against the light. And there was the festival air of those candles, virgin, with long white wicks. Two armchairs faced round intently into the empty grate with its paper fan--in them Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency would sit perhaps, to discuss the experiences of the day. More probably, they would talk in bed. One of the things Lois chiefly wanted to know about marriage was--how long it took one, sleeping with the same person every night, to outlive the temptation to talk well into the morning? There would be nothing illicit about nocturnal talking, as there had been at school; no one would be entitled to open a door sharply with: "Now go to sleep now, you two; that's enough for tonight," as had so often happened on her visits to friends. Would conversation, in the absence of these prohibitions, cease to interest? Lois had heard of couples who disturbed each other by breathing and preferred to occupy different rooms: no allowance was made for such couples at Danielstown. The Blue Room dressing-room furniture was marble-topped to allow for spills or breakages of a gentleman's bottles, and there was a virile bootrack for every possible kind of boot. Lois, doubtfully, had put moss-roses on Mr. Montmorency's table.

    "Didn't it occur to you," said Laurence, "that they couldn't possibly have gone through without my seeing them?"

    Lois came out and shut the door of the spare-room. "But panic," she said, "is beyond one. Things like that are so awful. I shall never forget discussing a Miss Elliot--a very musical woman--with Livvy or some-one, out here, and my dear, she was in there the whole time, and being English and honourable, began to rattle her chest of drawers. I could hardly look at her straight for the rest of the visit. However, she also covered herself with confusion, because she put all her vases of flowers outside her door at night, and Brigid fell over them bringing the morning tea. Aunt Myra was terribly irritated and talked about nursing-homes."

    "I shouldn't expect there will be anything so very hygienic about Mrs. Montmorency."

    "Damn," said Lois, looking disproportionately worried and moving off towards her own room suddenly. "I have got letters to finish." Speaking of Brigid had reminded her that there were letters on regimental note-paper lying about all over her room and that Brigid, who took an interest, would be likely to see them when she came up with the hot water. Not that they mattered really, but at the thought of the letters some people wrote her she did feel rather a fool.

    Laurence had pale blue, rather prominent eyes that moved slowly, though the rest of his movements were jerky. Looking up at her now with a not unaware kind of blandness he said: "Do tell me, what do you write about?"

    "Life in general."

    "You amaze me--now if I did write letters no one would read them if they were not intelligent. You must have the golden touch."

    "Naturally one is expected to be amusing."

    "And how many subalterns do you write to?"

    This was disconcerting, also, she felt strongly, irrelevant. If these young men wrote to her, they were unimportant; besides, she only answered every third letter. These young men, concrete, blocking her mental view by their extreme closeness, moved shadowless in a kind of social glare numbing to the imagination. Whereas Mr. Montmorency came out distinct from the rather rare gloom with which she invested her childhood, her feeling for him providing agreeable matter for introspection. However much he might loom and darken up to the close-up view, he would never be out of focus.

    "How many?" said Laurence again, picking up his book but still looking at her inexorably. The unkindest thing he had called her friend Livvy Thompson was--"a rather probable channel for the life-force," and really when he asked questions of this kind she did not know what he must think.

    But it was reticence as to a lack rather than as to a superabundance that produced her embarrassment.

    "Three--no two," she said coldly, "because one of them is a captain."

    Going into her room she shut the door. Laurence got up and walked round the ante-room. For the hundredth time he looked disparagingly along the backs of the books in the locked bookcases. Then he heard his aunt and Mrs. Montmorency beginning to come upstairs.


    (Excerpted from The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. Copyright © 1929 by Elizabeth Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, 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.)



     

     


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