Read The Heat of the Day Online

Authors: Elizabeth Bowen

Tags: #Fiction - General, #Classic fiction

The Heat of the Day

Elizabeth Bowen The Heat of the Day

First published in 1948

To Charles Ritchie

Chapter 1

THAT Sunday, from six o'clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played. The season was late for an outdoor concert; already leaves were drifting on to the grass stage--here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying, and during the music some more fell. The open-air theatre, shelving below the level of the surrounding lawns, was walled by thickets and a few high trees; along the top ran a wattle fence with gates. Now the two gates stood open. The rows of chairs down the slope, facing the orchestra, still only filled up slowly. From here, from where it was being played at the base of this muffled hollow, the music could not travel far through the park--but hints of it that did escape were disturbing: from the mound, from the rose gardens, from the walks round the lakes, people were being slowly drawn to the theatre by the sensation that they were missing something. Many of them paused in the gateways doubtfully--all they had left behind was in sunshine, while this hollow which was the source of music was found to be also the source of dusk. War had made them idolise day and summer; night and autumn were enemies. And, at the start of the concert, this tarnished bosky theatre, in which no plays had been acted for some tirhe, held a feeling of sequestration, of emptiness the music had not had time to fill. It was not completely in shadow--here and there blades of sunset crossed it, firing branches through which they travelled, and lay along ranks of chairs and faces and hands. Gnats quivered; cigarette smoke dissolved. But the light was so low, so theatrical and so yellow that it was evident it would soon be gone. The incoming tide was evening. Glass-clear darkness, in which each leaf was defined, already formed in the thicket behind the orchestra and was the other element of the stage. The Sunday had been brilliant, without a stain of cloud. Now, the burning turquoise sky of the afternoon began to gain in transparency as it lost colour: from above the trees round the theatre there stole away not only colour but time. Music--the waltzes, the marches, the gay overtures--now began to command this hour-less place. The people lost their look of uncertainty. The heroic marches made them lift up their heads; recollections of opera moulded their faces into unconscious smiles, and during the waltzes women's eyes glittered with delicious tears about nothing. First note by note, drop by drop, then steadily, the music entered senses, nerves and fancies that had been parched. What first was a mirage strengthened into a universe, for the shabby Londoners and the exiled foreigners sitting in this worn glade in the middle of Regent's Park. This Sunday on which the sun set was the first Sunday of September 1942. Pairs of lovers, fatigued by their day alone with each other, were glad to enter this element not themselves: when their looks once more met, it was with refreshed love. Mothers tired by being mothers forgot their children as their children forgot them--one held her baby as though it had been a doll. Married couples who had sat down in apathetic closeness to one another could be seen to begin to draw a little apart, each recapturing some virginal inner dream. Such elderly people as had not been driven home by the disappearance of sun from the last chair fearlessly exposed their years to the dusk, in a lassitude they could have shown at no other time. These were the English. As for the foreigners, some were so intimate with the music that you could feel them anticipate every note; some sat with eyes closed; others, as though aroused by some unbearable movement inside the breast, glanced behind them or quickly up at the sky. Incredulity, as when waking up from a deep sleep, appeared once or twice in faces. But in most of them, as they continued to sit and listen, stoicism only intensified. A proportion of the listeners were solitary; and, of the solitary, those who came every Sunday, by habit, could be told from those who had come this Sunday by chance. Surprise at having stumbled upon the music was written on the faces of first-timers. For many, chiefly, the concert was the solution of where to be: one felt eased by this place where something was going on. To be sitting packed among other people was better than walking about alone. At the last moment, this crowned the day with meaning. For there had been moments, heightening towards the end, when the Sunday's beauty--for those with no ambition to cherish, no friend to turn to, no love to contemplate--drove its lack of meaning into the heart. There were those who had followed the others into the theatre automatically, and who asked nothing now they had sat down. You could observe one or two who remained locked in some unhearing obsession--for instance, an Englishman in civilian clothes who had placed himself towards the outside end of a row, halfway up the slope from the orchestra. On his left a Czech soldier, on his right a bareheaded woman wrapped in a coat, each spaced out from him by a vacant chair. This man's excessive stillness gave the effect not of abandon but of cryptic behaviour. He sat body bent forward, feet planted apart on the grass floor, elbows lodged on his knees, insistently thrusting the fist of his right hand against and into the open palm of his left. His hat was pulled forward over his eyes. The concentration with which he frowned at his hands showed the music to be no more than a running accompaniment to his fixed thought. Unmistakably he was waiting for something here: he would not change his position or go away until whatever it was had resolved itself. Sound, however, had become a necessary circumstance: having begun to think in it he could not think without it--whenever a number ended in a ripple of clapping he looked sharply up, with an air of outrage and dislocation, as though the lawn had shifted under his feet. He would turn his frown sharply on the conductor--who, facing round at the audience, bowing, let his baton slowly fall to rest at his side--as though to say: "What are you doing? Go _on__." Then, in the early minutes of every interval, he would cast about at his neighbours a baited look, as though blaming everyone else there. That recurrent look of his at first directly encountered no other eye. None the less it had begun to be noted, to be wondered at, then to be lain in wait for--it was at last to be trapped. His righthand neighbour opened her mouth abruptly. "That was number seven they've just played." He at once looked, distasteful, the other way. "Like to look at my programme?" "N'thanks," he said. Being accosted jerked him near enough to the surface to make him remember he had forgotten to smoke. He felt for his packet of cigarettes, lit one, let the match drop between his knees, then shifted one foot to stamp it out. All was done without looking her way again. In a voice quick with injury she continued: "All right, I just thought you might want to know." He replied by a pull on his cigarette and a prolonged gaze away past the Czech soldier. Behind the thicket, at the far end of the row, the last silent crackle of sunset was going on. "I was not just speaking to you--if that's what you thought." "Did I?" "Oh, you did!--now I'm sorry I spoke." "Right: then suppose we leave it at that." She watched him glance at his wrist watch, meanwhile feeling him calculate whether to move or not. But the orchestra, by coming to the alert, beginning to turn over their sheets of music, looked like beginning to play again--this hope of an end to further annoyance made him turn to look at the speaker, for the first time. He more than looked, he continued to look, he stared at this person, so disingenuous, of a so impassioning wish to be in the right. So strong had become his habit of mind that he saw no behaviour as being apart from motive, and any motive as worth examining twice. His and her eyes met with what was already familiarity; her pertinacity and his rudeness having created a sort of bond between them and brought them to the point of a small scene. He confronted a woman of about twenty-seven, with the roughened hair and still slightly upward expression of someone who has been lying flat on the grass. Her full, just not protuberant eyes looked pale in a face roughly burned by summer: into them the top light of the roofless theatre struck. Forehead, nose, cheekbones added no more than width. Her mouth was the only other feature not to dismiss; it was big; it was caked round the edges, the edges only, with what was left of lipstick, inside which clumsy falsified outline the lips turned outwards, exposed themselves--full, intimate, woundably thin-skinned, tenderly brown-pink as the underside of a new mushroom and, like the eyes once more, of a paleness in her sun-coarsened face. It was the lips which struck him and could have moved him, only that they did not. Halted and voluble, this could but be a mouth that blurted rather than spoke, a mouth incontinent and at the same time artless. She wore an imitation camelhair coat; the chill of dusk had made her turn up the collar and wrap the fullness over her crossed knees. One hand was lost in a pocket; the other, holding the programme by one of its corners across her lap, had a knocked knuckle; also from time to time the pads of the thumb and forefinger rasped on the yellow paper. Brown-and-white shoes, not bad, had been walked and worn out of shape; veins appeared in the naked arch of her foot, and the profuse softness of hair on her bare legs showed these to have been never pumiced or shaved. About her way of sitting, about as much of her body as her way of sitting could let be seen, there was a sort of clumsy not quite graceless pre-adolescent strength. The effect of her was, at the first glance, that of a predominating number of London girls of this summer when the idealisation of Russia was at its height--that of a flying try at the Soviet comrade type. Or at least, this seemed the effect she hoped to convey. But with her this had not been successful, or gone far enough--otherwise, why, in the look that met his, should the attempted frankness be so uncertain; and why should colour appear, uneasily burning, under the sunburn of her cheeks? Somewhere hardiness failed her. She had committed herself, by speaking, then by speaking again to him, to the being of something she never was: what crisis of egotism or loneliness had been reached by her in the musical fading light? Egotism could be the more likely; it had been her self not her sex that she had wished to assert. Their look at each other, across the chair between them, took a second or two. She, during it, faced a man of around thirty-eight-or-nine, in a grey suit, striped shirt, dark-blue tie and brown soft hat. His unconsciousness, which had been what had mainly drawn her, was now, like the frown with which he had sat through the music, gone; it was succeeded by a sort of narrow, somewhat routine alertness she did not like. His "interesting-ness"--had that been a lie of his profile's? No, not quite: now that she had him full-face a quite other curious trait appeared--one of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptibly higher than the other. This lag or inequality in his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice--being viewed then checked over again in the same moment. His forehead stayed in the hiding, his eyebrows deep in the shadow, of his pulled-down hat; his nose was bony; he wore a close-clipped little that-was-that moustache. The set of his lips--from between which he had with less than civil reluctance withdrawn the cigarette--bespoke the intention of adding nothing should he happen to have to speak again. This was a face with a gate behind it--a face that, in this photographic half-light, looked indoor and weathered at the same time; a face, if not without meaning, totally and forbiddingly without mood.... It could not be enough to say she was discountenanced; her eyes dropped, looking their last at those stained two of his fingers, holding the cigarette. "We haven't met before?" he finally said, with the air of having at any rate thought this over. "How do you mean, met?" "We don't, I mean, know each other?" "I don't know you," said she. "I don't even know who you are." "Then that settles that." (All the same, he seemed not quite certain.) "Why," she added, "_are__ you anyone special?" "Ha, ha, no. No, I'm sorry to say I'm not." "I do know one thing; I know I've never seen you about this park." "No, you wouldn't have." "You mean you don't ever come here? Of course, I should know you _now__. I don't ever forget a face: do you?" "I could," he said, after thought. "That must come from you thinking so hard, you hardly notice. All this band, and you hardly noticed a note?" "So, you thought I must want to know what the music was?" Lest this be too subtle, his tone was unkind enough to drive at least his will to unkindness home--it did: she withdrew from the pocket her other hand in order to, self-protectively, fold her arms. She could be felt to falter behind the barricade; and the programme, let go of by her as though incriminated, fluttered to the ground. She nudged her chin sideways into her turned-up collar, then could but complain: "You keep wanting to catch me out!" "You?" he threw back, with a nervy bitten-off yawn, one eye on the orchestra--what _was__ holding them up? "Because _I__ can't help what it sounds like; I speak the truth every time. Because I--" "--Oh, pipe down." He gave a jerk of the head. "They're off!" They were: having hung for just that instant more suspended the music now broke with a light crash. The audience let out a breath and settled into its attitudes on the chairs. Evening had gained on the theatre even in that mean-time; a more perceptible smell of it stole from under the thickets, rose from the trodden grass. Cigarettes would be soon to be seen to glow. On the stage, the musicians' grouped black seated bodies had fastened to them the faces and hands of ghosts. They were to continue to play till the clock in the distance struck--but for how long, how much longer, it was being wondered in the emptying ranks of chairs, would they be able to see their score? Louie Lewis--whose name, that evening, was to remain unasked--unfolded her arms to rewrap herself in her coat. She could not, she could never, leave it at that--accordingly, leaning over the empty place, she glumly said, _sotto voce__: "Going to think some more?" She had made that impossible. Had she not borne in on him, in her moron way, the absurdities to which thinking in public could expose one, the absurdity with which one exposed oneself? She had given him, the watcher, the enormity of the sense of having been watched. New, only he knew how new, to emotional thought, he now saw, at this first of his lapses, the whole of its danger--it made you _act__ the thinker. He could, now, do not

Other books

Runaways by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Games Frat Boys Play by Todd Gregory
The Princess Finds Her Match by de Borja, Suzette
Petrified by Barbara Nadel
Sadler's Birthday by Rose Tremain