Read The Bell Online

Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell (7 page)

BOOK: The Bell
' said Dora, more loudly than she had intended.
‘Sister Ursula says please would you mind covering your head? It's customary here.'
‘I haven't got anything!' said Dora, ready to burst into tears of embarrassment and vexation.
‘A hanky will do,' whispered Mrs Mark, smiling encouragement.
Dora fumbled in her pocket and found a small not very clean handkerchief which she laid on top of her head. Mrs Mark tiptoed away, and the nun looked back once more with amiable satisfaction.
Blushing violently, Dora stared ahead of her. She could see that Paul's expression had changed, but she dared not look at him. She clutched the back of the chair in front. The Latin mumbling went on. Dora became conscious that her skirt was intolerably tight and that a ladder was slowly spreading down one of her stockings. Her feet were hurting and she became suddenly aware that it is extremely uncomfortable to kneel with high-heeled shoes on. She began to look distractedly about the room. She could not see it as a chapel. It was a shabby derelict pitiable drawing-room, harbouring an alien rite, half sinister, half ludicrous. Dora drew a deep breath and rose to her feet. She whipped the idiotic handkerchief from her head and walked quietly to the door and out.
She found herself in a corridor which was unfamiliar, but after trying one or two doors discovered her way back to the stone-flagged hall which opened onto the balcony. She listened for sounds of pursuit but heard none. The hall was spacious, and devoid of decoration: no flowers, no pictures. An open fireplace with a stone carved chimney-piece was swept clean and filled with a heap of brown fir-cones. A green baize notice-board announced times of meals and services, and that there would shortly be a recital of Bach records. Dora hurried on and passed through the tall doorway onto the balcony.
She leaned on the balustrade between the pillars, looking down across the terrace to the lake. The sun had gone, but the western sky to her right was still full of a murky orange glow, glittering with a few feathers of pale cloud, against which a line of trees appeared black and jaggedly clear. She could also see the silhouette of a tower, which must belong to the Abbey. The lake too was glowing very slightly, darkened nearby to blackness, yet retaining here and there upon its surface a skin of almost phosphorescent light. Dora began to descend the steps.
She crossed the terrace and went down the further flight of shallow steps to the path. She paused here because her feet were hurting, took one shoe off, and caressed her foot. Her foot released felt so much better that Dora kicked the other shoe off at once. It fell into some long grass by the side of the steps. Dora tossed its fellow after it and began to run towards the lake. The steps were dry and still warm from the day's sunshine. The path between the yew trees was of clipped grass and slightly damp already with the dew.
At the edge of the water, fringed by reeds, was a little wooden landing-stage and a small rowing boat. The boat had the attentive tempting look that small rowing boats have. A single oar lay within it. Dora loved boats, though they made her nervous too since she could not swim. She resisted the temptation to get into the boat and glide upon the black glass of the lake. She walked instead a little way along the bank, walking now through the longish grass which tugged stickily at the hem of her skirt. The ground was becoming damp and marshy underfoot. The lake began to bend sharply away to the right and she dimly saw that there was another reach of water on the other side of the house, dividing it from the Abbey. She stood looking out into the darkness across the water and reflected that this was the first moment of quietness in her day. She stood so for a little while listening to the silence.
Suddenly a hand bell rang sharply and clearly from the other side. It rang urgently and vigorously shaken for nearly a minute. Then there was complete silence again. It sounded as if the ringer of the bell must be outside on the edge of the lake, so clearly did the high imperative sound reach Dora's ears. She turned and began to run quickly back toward the yew tree path. The bell alarmed her. She hurried panting up the slope and as she put her first foot onto the steps she remembered her shoes. She began to forage in the long grass at the side of the steps. The accursed shoes were not to be found. She looked up at the house, looming up dimly over her in the night sky. She stooped again to fumble helplessly in the grass. It was too dark to see anything. A light went on in the house, somewhere in the region of the balcony. Dora gave up her search and began to trail back across the terrace. The stones hurt her feet.
The room where the light was on opened directly onto the balcony, on the right side, through a pair of large glass double doors, which looked as if they had been recently put in, doubtless by the same vandal that had been active below. Dora could see that there were a lot of people gathered inside the lighted room. She did not dare to hesitate, but blundered quickly in, shielding her eyes as she did so.
Someone gripped her arm and led her further into the room. It was Mrs Mark, who said ‘Poor Dora, I'm so sorry we scared you away. I hope you didn't get lost out there in the garden?'
‘No, but I lost my shoes,' said Dora. Her feet felt very cold and wet now. She moved forward instinctively and sat on the edge of the table. People clustered about her.
‘You lost your
?' said Paul in a disapproving tone. He came and stood in front of her.
‘I kicked them off somewhere near the edge of the stone steps, the ones down to the path,' said Dora, ‘and then I couldn't find them.' The simplicity of this explanation gave her a curious comfort.
James Tayper Pace came forward and said, ‘Let a search party be organized! It shall consist of Toby and me, as we know Mrs Greenfield already. Flash lights will be distributed. Meanwhile Mrs Mark can do the introductions.'
‘I'll go too,' said Paul. Dora knew that he was always certain that he could find anything that she had lost. She hoped that he would find her shoes, and not one of the other two. It would put him in a better humour.
Swinging her cold wet legs in their torn and muddy stockings Dora fixed her gaze upon the one remaining familiar face, that of Mrs Mark. A lot of people stood before her, staring at her. She did not dare to look at them; yet everything was so awful now that she was almost past caring what anyone saw or thought.
‘You must meet our little group,' said Mrs Mark. ‘Toby has been introduced already.'
Dora continued to look at Mrs Mark, noticing how her rosy face, devoid of make-up, contrived to be shiny and downy at the same time, and how exceedingly long her plait of fair hair must be when it was unrolled. Mrs Mark wore a blue open-necked shirt and a brown cotton skirt above shaggy bare legs and canvas slippers.
‘This is Peter Topglass,' said Mrs Mark. A tall baldish man with spectacles swayed in a bow to Dora.
‘And this is Michael Meade, our leader.' A long-nosed man with pale floppy brown hair and blue eyes set too close together smiled a rather tired and anxious smile.
‘And this is Mark Strafford, with the beaver.' A large man with bushy hair and a ginger beard and a slightly sarcastic expression came forward to nod to Dora. He smelt strongly of disinfectant.
‘I am Mister Mrs Mark, if you see what I mean,' said Mark Strafford.
‘And this is Patchway, who is a tower of strength to us in the market-garden.' A dirty-looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging, gazed morosely at Dora.
‘And this is Father Bob Joyce, our Father Confessor.' The cassocked priest who had just come into the room bustled up to shake Dora's hand. He had a bulging face and eyes glittering with conviction. He smiled, revealing a dark mouth full of much-filled teeth, and then gave Dora a piercing look which made her feel shifty.
‘And this is Sister Ursula, the extern sister, who is our good liaison officer with the Abbey.'
Sister Ursula beamed at Dora. She had dark high-arching eyebrows and a commanding expression. Dora felt she would never forgive her for the handkerchief incident.
‘We are very glad to see you here,' said Sister Ursula. ‘We have remembered you in our prayers.'
Dora blushed with mingled indignation and embarrassment. She managed a smile.
‘And this,' said Mrs Mark, ‘is Catherine Fawley, our little saint, whom I'm sure you'll love as we all do.' Dora turned to look at the rather beautiful girl with the long face.
‘Hello,' said Dora.
‘Hello,' said Catherine Fawley.
Perhaps she was not really beautiful after all, Dora thought with relief. There was something timid and withdrawn in her face which prevented it from being dazzling. Her smile was warm yet somewhat secretive. Her large eyes, of a cold sea-grey colour, did not sustain Dora's stare. Dora still found her, in some undefined way, a little menacing.
‘Would you like a boiled egg or something?' said Mrs Mark. ‘We usually have high tea at six and just milk and biscuits after Compline.' She indicated a side table with mugs and a large biscuit tin in which Peter Topglass was now rummaging.
The group around Dora had broken up. Michael Meade could be seen, in converse with Mark Strafford, flashing a nervous smile of irregular teeth, his long hands darting about in Egyptian gestures. ‘No more Petit Beurre,' Peter Topglass was saying meditatively to himself in the background.
‘No egg, thank you,' said Dora. ‘I ate something on the train.'
‘A little milk then?'
‘No, thank you, nothing,' said Dora. She thought of the whisky bottles. They would be in South Wales by now.
James Tayper Pace came bursting back through the doors, crying ‘Eureka! Toby was the lucky one!'
Toby Gashe followed holding Dora's shoes by the heels, one in each hand. He lowered his eyes as he approached Dora and his dusky red cheeks burned a little redder. He presented to her the top of his round dark head as he gave her the shoes with an embarrassed little obeisance.
‘Oh, Toby, thank you so much!' said Dora.
Paul came in, his face wrinkled up with irritation.
‘Well sought, dear James and Toby,' said Father Bob Joyce. ‘There is more rejoicing over what is lost and found than over what has never gone astray.'
‘And now,' said James, ‘since Mrs Greenfield's shoes have been discovered, we can all go to bed.'
‘That notebook is irreplaceable,' said Paul. ‘It represents years of work. I was a fool to ask you to bring it.'
‘I'm terribly sorry,' said Dora. ‘I'm sure we'll get it back. I'll go to the station tomorrow.'
‘I ought to have telephoned at once,' said Paul, ‘only your antics put it out of my head. Why did you want to take your shoes off anyway?'
‘My feet hurt,' said Dora. ‘I told you that.'
They looked at each other in the austere light of a strong unshaded electric light bulb. Paul's room was on the first floor, with two large windows looking towards the Abbey side. It had been a grand bedroom in its time, with green panelling and a great mirror set in the wall. It was furnished now with two iron beds, two upright chairs, a large trestle table on which Paul had spread his books and papers, and a small pretty mahogany table which looked like a relic of former days. Paul's suitcase, open and half unpacked, stood in the corner. Two new but cheap mats were on the floor which otherwise was bare. The room echoed as they spoke.
Paul stood with one hand on his hip and stared at Dora. He could scan her in this way for a long time, frowning slightly, and this always frightened her. Yet at the same moment she knew that this was a manifestation of love, of that untiring and relentless love that Paul went on feeling for her, and which held her resentful, fascinated, ultimately grateful. She looked back at him, uneasy, yet admiring the solidity of him, full to the brim with his love and his work and all his certainty about life. She felt flimsy and ephemeral by comparison, as if she were merely a thought in his mind.
To end the stare she went up to him and shook him gently by the shoulders. ‘Paul, don't be cross.'
Paul moved away, not responding to her touch. ‘Only you', he said, ‘would be simple-minded enough, after betraying me in the way you have done, to paw me and say “Don't be cross”!' He imitated her, and then went to dig in his suitcase and pull out his neat black-and-white check sponge-bag.
‘Well, what can I say?' said Dora. ‘Here I am, anyway.'
‘Nor do I subscribe to the view', said Paul, ‘expressed just now by Father Bob, that the lost sheep is more to be rejoiced over. And if you are expecting me to rejoice you will be disappointed. Your escapades have diminished you permanently in my eyes.' He left the room.
Dora dejectedly opened her canvas bag. Her pyjamas were in the lost suitcase, but at least her toothbrush was here. She was deeply wounded by what Paul had said. How could he assess her like this because of something which had happened in the past? The past was never real for Dora. The notion that Paul might keep her past alive to torment her with, now occurred to her for the first time. She stopped thinking so as not to cry and went to open the two tall windows as wide as they would go. There were no curtains. The night was hot and swarming with stars. From this side of the house the lake seemed very near. It was dark yet somehow to be seen in a diffused radiance of starlight and the not yet risen moon. Other shapes lay beyond.
Paul entered the room again.
‘I haven't any pyjamas,' said Dora, ‘they were in the suitcase.'
‘You can have one of my shirts,' said Paul. ‘Here's one that's due to be laundered anyway.'
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