Read The Bell Online

Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell (5 page)

BOOK: The Bell
Toby is trying to please his master, thought Dora. She took the last cigarette from her packet, and having peered inside several times to make sure that it was empty, threw the packet, after some indecision, out of the window, and caught a look of disapproval, immediately suppressed, on the face of the man opposite. She fumbled to tuck her blouse back into the top of her skirt. The afternoon seemed to be getting hotter.
‘And what a splendid subject!' said the man. ‘If you're an engineer you've got an honest trade that you can take with you anywhere in the world. It's the curse of modern life that people don't have real trades any more. A man is his work. In the old days we were all butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers, weren't we?'
‘Yes,' said Toby. For some time now he had been conscious of Dora's stare. An anxious smile came and went upon his prominent and, it occurred to Dora, admirably red lips. He moved his leg nervously and his foot touched hers. He jerked back and tucked his feet under the seat. Dora was amused.
‘That's one of the things we stand for,' said the man. ‘To bring dignity and significance back into life through work. Too many people hate their work nowadays. That's why arts and crafts are so important. Even hobbies are important. Have you any hobbies?'
Toby was reticent.
Dora noticed some children standing on the embankment and waving at the train. She waved back; and found herself smiling. She caught Toby's eye; he began to smile too, but quickly looked away. As she continued to watch him he began to blush. Dora was delighted.
‘A problem for our whole society,' the man was saying. ‘But meanwhile, we have our individual lives to live, haven't we? And heaven help liberalism if that sense of individual vocation is ever lost. One must never be frightened of being called a crank. After all, there's an example to set, a way of keeping the problem before people's eyes, symbolically as it were. Don't you agree?'
Toby agreed.
The train began to slow down. ‘Why, here we are in Oxford!' said the man. ‘Look, Toby, there's your city!'
He pointed, and everyone in the carriage turned to look at a line of towers, silvered by the heat into a sky pale with light. Dora was suddenly reminded of travelling with Paul in Italy. She had accompanied him once on a non-stop trip to consult some manuscript. Paul detested being abroad. So, on that occasion, did Dora: barren lands made invisible by the sun, and poor starving cats driven away from expensive restaurants by waiters with flapping napkins. She remembered the towers of cities seen always from railways stations, with their fine names, Perugia, Parma, Piacenza. A strange nostalgic pain woke within her for a moment. Oxford, in the summer haze, looked no less alien. She had never been there. Paul was a Cambridge man.
The train had stopped now, but the pair opposite made no move. ‘Yes, symbols are important,' said the man. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that all symbols have a sacramental aspect? We do not live by bread alone. You remember what I told you about the bell?'
‘Yes,' said Toby, showing interest. ‘Will it come before I go?'
‘Indeed it will,' said the man. ‘It should be with us in a fortnight. We've planned a little ceremony, a sort of christening, all very picturesque and traditional. The Bishop has been very kind and agreed to come over. You'll be one of the exhibits, you know - the first of the few, or rather of the many. We hope to have a lot of you young people visiting us at Imber.'
Dora got up abruptly and stumbled in the direction of the corridor. Her face was glowing and she put up one hand to hide it. Her cigarette fell on the floor and she abandoned it. The train began to move again.
She could not have mis-heard the name. These two must be going to Imber as well, they must be members of that mysterious community Paul had spoken of. Dora leaned on the rail in the corridor. She fingered in her handbag for more cigarettes, and found she had left them in her coat pocket. She could not go back for them now. Behind her she could still hear the voices of Toby and his mentor, and it seemed suddenly as if they must be talking about her. For a short time they had existed for her diversion, but now they would be set before her as judges. Her acquaintance with them in the railway carriage had been something slight and fragile but at least innocent. The sweetness of these ephemeral contacts was precious to Dora. But now it was merely the prelude to some far drearier knowledge. It occurred to her to wonder how much Paul had said about her at Imber and what he had said. Her imagination, reeling still at the notion that Paul had actually existed during the months of their separation, now came to grips with the idea that he had not existed alone. Perhaps it was known that she was coming today. Perhaps the sunburnt man, who now seemed to look like a clergyman, had been on the look-out for the sort of woman who might be Paul's wife. Perhaps he had noticed her trying to catch Toby's eye. However had Paul described her?
Dora had a powerful imagination, at least in what concerned herself. She had long since recognized it as dangerous, and her talent was to send it, as she could her memory, to sleep. Now thoroughly roused it tormented her with pictures. The reality of the scene she was about to enter unfolded before her in rows of faces arrayed in judgement; and it seemed to Dora that the accusation which she had been prepared to receive from Paul would now be directed against her by every member of the already hateful community. She closed her eyes in indignation and distress. Why had she not thought of this? She was stupid and could see only one thing at a time. Paul had become a multitude.
She looked at her watch and realized with a shock that the train was due to arrive at Pendelcote in less than twenty minutes. Her heart began to beat in pain and pleasure at the thought of seeing Paul. It was necessary to return to the carriage. She powdered her nose, tucked her untidy blouse back again into her skirt, settled her collar, and plunged back towards her seat, keeping her head well down. Toby and his friend were still talking, but Dora murmured quiet imprecations to herself inside her head so that their words should not reach her. She looked resolutely at the floor, seeing a pair of heavy boots, and Toby's feet in sandals. A little time passed and the pain at her heart became more extreme.
Then Dora noticed that there was a Red Admiral butterfly walking on the dusty floor underneath the seat opposite. Every other thought left her head. Anxiously she watched the butterfly. It fluttered a little, and began to move towards the window, dangerously close to the passengers' feet. Dora held her breath. She ought to do something. But what? She flushed with indecision and embarrassment. She could not lean forward in front of all those people and pick the butterfly up in her hand. They would think her silly. It was out of the question. The sunburnt man, evidently struck with the concentration of Dora's gaze, bent down and fumbled with his boot laces. Both seemed securely tied. He shifted his feet, narrowly missing the butterfly which was now walking into the open on the carriage floor.
‘Excuse me,' said Dora. She knelt down and gently scooped the creature into the palm of her hand, and covered it over with her other hand. She could feel it fluttering inside. Everyone stared. Dora blushed violently. Toby and his friend were looking at her in a friendly surprised way. Whatever should she do now? If she put the butterfly out of the window it would be sucked into the whirl-wind of the train and killed. Yet she could not just go on holding it, it would look too idiotic. She bowed her head, pretending to examine her captive.
The train was slowing down. With horror Dora realized that it must be Pendelcote. Toby and his companion were gathering their luggage together. Already the station was appearing. The other two were moving towards the door as the train jolted to a standstill. Dora stood up, her hands still cupped together. She must get herself out of the train. She quickly thrust one hand through the handles of her handbag and the canvas bag, and closed it again above the now quiescent butterfly. Then she began to totter towards the carriage door. People were beginning to get into the train. Dora backed her way out, pushing vigorously, keeping the butterfly cupped safely against her chest. She managed to get down the steep step on to the platform without falling, although her awkward shoes leaned over sideways at the heels. She righted herself and stood there looking round. She was on the open part of the platform and the sunlight rose from the glinting concrete and dazzled her eyes. For a moment she could see nothing. The train began to move slowly away.
Then with a deep shock she saw Paul coming towards her. His real presence glowed to her, striking her heart again, and she felt both afraid and glad to see him. He was a little changed, thinner and browned by the sun, and the blazing afternoon light revealed him to her in the splendour of his Southern look and his slightly Edwardian handsomeness. He was not smiling but looking at her very intently with a narrow stare of anxious suspicion. His dark moustache drooped with his sourly curving mouth. For a second Dora felt happy that she had done at least one thing to please him. She had come back. But the next instant, as he came up to her, all was anxiety and fear.
Paul was followed closely by Toby and his companion, who had evidently met him further down the platform. Dora could see them smiling at her over Paul's shoulder. She turned to him.
‘Well, Dora-'said Paul.
‘Hello,' said Dora.
Toby's companion said. ‘Well met! I do wish we'd known who you were. I'm afraid we quite left you out of the conversation! We travelled up with your wife, but we didn't realize it was her.'
‘May I introduce,' said Paul. ‘James Tayper Pace. And this is Toby Gashe. I've got your name right, I hope? My wife.'
They stood in a group together in the sun, their shadows intermingled. The other travellers had gone.
‘So very glad to meet you!' said James Tayper Pace.
‘Hello,' said Dora.
‘Where's your luggage?' said Paul.
‘My God!' said Dora. Her mouth flew open. She had left the suitcase on the train.
‘You left it on the train?' said Paul.
Dora nodded dumbly.
‘Typical, my dear,' said Paul. ‘Now let's go to the car.' He stopped. ‘Was my notebook in it?'
‘Yes,' said Dora. ‘I'm terribly sorry.'
‘You'll get it back,' said James. ‘Folk are honest.'
‘That's not my experience,' said Paul. His face was harshly closed. ‘Now come along. Why are you holding your hands like that?' he said to Dora. ‘Are you praying, or what?'
Dora had forgotten about the butterfly. She opened her hands now, holding the wrists together and opening the palms like a flower. The brilliantly coloured butterfly emerged. It circled round them for a moment and then fluttered across the sunlit platform and flew away into the distance. There was a moment's surprised silence.
‘You are full of novelties,' said Paul.
They followed him in the direction of the exit.
THE LAND-ROVER, DRIVEN FAST by Paul, sped along a green lane. The hedges, rotund with dusty foliage, bulged over the edge of the road and brushed the vehicle as it passed.
‘I hope you're comfortable there in front, Mrs Greenfield,' said James Tayper Pace. ‘I'm afraid this is not our most comfortable car.'
‘I'm fine,' said Dora. She glanced round and saw James smiling, hunched up and looking very big in the back of the Land-Rover. She could not see Toby, who was directly behind her. She was still completely stunned at having left Paul's notebook on the train. And his special Italian sun hat. She dared not look at Paul.
‘I tried to get the Hillman Minx,' said Paul, ‘but his Lordship still hasn't mended it.'
There was silence.
‘The train was punctual for once,' said James. ‘We should be just in time for Compline.'
The road was in shade and the late sun touched the great golden yellow shoulders of the elm trees, leaving the rest in a dark green shadow. Dora shook herself and tried to look at the scene. She saw it with the amazement of the habitual town-dweller to whom the countryside looks always a little unreal, too luxuriant and too sculptured and too green. She thought of far away London, and the friendly dirt and noise of the King's Road on a summer evening, when the doors of the pubs stand wide to the pavement. She shivered and drew her feet up beside her on the seat for company. Soon she would have to face all those strangers; and after that she would have to face Paul. She wished they might never arrive.
‘Nearly there now,' said James. ‘That's the wall of the estate we're just coming to. We follow it for about a mile before we reach the gates.'
An enormous stone wall appeared on the right of the car. Dora looked away to the left. The hedge ended, and she saw across a golden stubble field to a feathery copse. Beyond was a shallow blue line of distant hills. She felt it was her last glimpse of the outside world.
‘There's a fine view of the house when we turn in,' said James. ‘Can you see all right from where you are, Toby?'
‘Very well, thanks,' came Toby's voice from just behind Dora's head.
The Land-Rover slowed down. ‘The gates appear to be shut,' said Paul. ‘I left them open, but someone has obligingly shut them.' He stopped the car beside the wall, its wheels deep in the grass, and hooted the horn twice. Dora could see two immense globe-surmounted pillars and tall iron gates a little further on in the wall.
‘Don't hoot,' said James. ‘Toby will open the gates.'
‘Oh, yes!' said Toby, scrabbling hastily to get out of the car.
As he busied himself with the gates, lifting the huge pin out of its hole in the concrete, two sheets of newspaper blew out of the drive, one wrapping itself round his legs, and the other rearing and cavorting across the road. Paul, whose glance remained sternly ahead, not turning toward Dora, said, ‘I wish Brother Nicholas could be persuaded to make the place look less like a slum.'
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