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Authors: Henry Williamson

It Was the Nightingale

BOOK: It Was the Nightingale
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IT WAS THE
NIGHTINGALE

HENRY WILLIAMSON

To
Eric and Kathleen Watkins

‘And every stone that lines my lonely way,

Sad tongueless nightingale without a wing,

Seems on the point of rising up to sing

And donning scarlet for its dusty grey!’

From
The Flaming Terrapin
,
by Roy Campbell

‘When Love, who sent, forgot to save,
The young, the beautiful, the brave’

 

From
The
Bride
of
Albydos
 
LORD BYRON
           

They had been married in January, and the winter was glorious at first, with snow falling to a depth of six to ten inches all over England; one of those seasons, which occur about every ten years, when Europe is scoured by winds from the North Cape to the Mediterranean; when strange birds, with staring eyes and feathers the hue of frost and fog, are driven far from their subarctic hunting grounds in search of food upon a white continent.

Such a snowfall had covered the West Country from the end of the month until the beginning of March, bringing hardship to farmers and labourers, death to old people, and joy to the independent young. But even they were wearied out by the thaw, which exposed the flattened fields and made every lane a waterbourne carrying away dead song birds to be scavenged by the daws and crows.

It had been dark in Valerian Cottage, all wood had long since become ash in the open hearth, so that the fumes of the American oil-stove, burning with a blue flame, had penetrated everywhere within the kitchen and the two small bedrooms.

Now the frosts were gone, the sun shone with heat, celandines and primroses broke along the hedge-bottoms and banks. By April all was forgotten, and when the swallows came back, Barley said, “Let's go and see mother, shall we?”

Irene lived in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. They had thought of going in February, to ski on the slopes above Laruns, but the hard weather had stopped them, while Phillip had wanted to write his war-book. He had made a sledge instead, an excuse to put off the start of the book, which had haunted him ever since she had known him.

Barley realised that it was a part of his life which he could never share with her, and while accepting this, or rather the fretful
perplexity which came between them whenever he thought about the war, it troubled her. Often at night she heard him sighing, he lying still lest he awaken her; she already awake, for it was as though she could feel his discord even in her sleep, but forbearing to touch him lest she come between him and his world of the dead which awaited resurrection. Mummy had gone through the same thing with Daddy when they lived in India, only with Daddy it had been thoughts of going home to England. Mummy had told her that the only thing to do was to wait for the moods to pass. With Daddy they had never passed, he had grown more and more irritable with Mummy; and now he was dead.

*

They set out in the third week of April for France; he wanted to see the battlefields of Picardy and Flanders on the way south. Having arranged for dog and cat to be boarded out—Rusty at the Ring of Bells, and Moggy with the Crangs next door—they headed north across Dartmoor on the motor-bicycle, she riding pillion, to the coast of the Severn Sea, to visit Aunt Dora at Lynmouth. They had gone on to Bristol, and so half-way across England to Gaultshire, where he wanted to see once more the woods and fields which he and his cousins had explored in boyhood.

Finding nothing there except change, they went on to the county town, arriving about midday. There was plenty of time; indeed time did not matter; and after a swim in the riverside baths, they had lunch at an inn patronised by farmers, where a good plate of mutton, followed by bread and cheese, could be got for a shilling. Gaultshire, he told her, was a great place for sheep, potatoes, and onions. Vegetables had been scarce, and therefore expensive, in South Devon where they lived; but here there was plenty, the crops had been got in before the hard weather.

Afterwards they wandered down to the cathedral. She saw two groups waiting outside, one of younger men, wearing velour and bowler hats, standing closely together; the other group, apart from the first, of elderly men talking among themselves in twos and threes and fours. They wore dark overcoats with blue velvet collars and silk hats, and appeared to be country gentlemen.

“Who are they, Phillip?”

She found that she was alone; he had turned round and was walking in the opposite direction. What could have happened? Then she remembered that he had gone to prison soon after the war, and so had never returned to any of the regimental reunions or annual dinners of old comrades. This must be something to do with the Gaultshire Regiment.

She went after him, to where he stood by a row of elms bordering the green.

“I don't want to see them!”

“But will it matter, after all this time?”

“I saw the Duke, and Lord Satchville. They'll remember. Satchville knew the name of every officer who passed through the Third battalion.”

She asked a policeman what the occasion was.

“Depositing the old Colours of the R'g'ment, ma'm. Beg pardon, sir, haven't I seen you before?”

“It might have been my cousin, officer. He served with the ‘Mediators'.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Well, we must go to the cathedral, Barley, if we're not to be late. Good-day, officer.”

“Good-day, sir.”

*

When the groups had gone into the cathedral they entered by the west door and waited beside one of the massive cast-iron stoves against the wall.

Far away up the nave seated figures were facing the screen, behind which rose the organ loft with its sets of grey pipes. She moved beside him along the south wall, looking at the memorials and the tablets to the dead. They passed a white marble façade with a bronze palm-tree, above which hung a faded Union Jack crossed with a Lancer flag, only fragments of the dull colours of the silks remaining on the webbed frames. Egypt, time of General Gordon.

High above them, in silence and sun-shafts, rose the stone pillars supporting the vaulting of the roof. A bell tolled softly in that remoteness. It ceased, the silence came back. There were several people standing about in the side-aisle; the rows of dark seated figures would hardly notice them, if at all.

They came to a Crimea memorial; another of the Mutiny. She
touched his hand, affected by the very stones of the walls, the worn Jacobean gravestones paving the floor, with their near-obliterated names and coat-armour and carved Latin inscriptions. From these came a spirit of tranquillity, of reassurance, of the essential goodness of man which was the truth of God. All was well, she thought, with her father. Then looking up at Phillip's face, she saw him biting his lips to keep back emotion, his eyes opened wide to clear them of tears as the organ began to play Bach's
Jesu, Joy
of
Man
'
s
Desiring.

From an unseen wing of the cruciform church two files of boy choristers moved into view. They were dressed in white surplices over red cassocks, their hands were folded as they moved towards the choir stalls followed by the lay clerks. Behind the choir moved the Dean and members of the Chapter, and after these old men came the Bishop, flanked by his chaplains, wearing his mitre and cope of gold brocade. The General with his G.S.O.s, thought Phillip.

It was a chastening moment when the voices of the choristers soared up into the contained light of the stone-arched roof. He felt to be free of himself, to be sharing the feelings, still existing, of the men and women who had stood there through the centuries and bowed their heads to the truth of life; as he was now; as they were then. Life was of the same moment of Truth, from century to century; the Spirit was from everlasting to everlasting.

In that feeling it was neither strange nor ironic that the Colour Party marched up the aisle with fixed bayonets, corks on the points, to deliver the Colour to the Bishop, to receive the Benediction. Then the base of the staff was placed in a sconce on the wall; there to yield, in dusty Time, he thought, its silks and dyes to the summer airs which had made them, under God, the Spirit of flower and winged insect, the Spirit of Evolution, which also worked through the mind of Man.

*

They went on to Dover, leaving the Norton there and crossing by boat to Calais. Looking around before the slow train to Arras was due in, they passed a garage, and she got into conversation with the motor mechanic who was tuning a
voiturette
in a shed.

The vehicle was long and narrow, with disc wheels. It had a twin-cylinder, air-cooled engine driving two belts to the back-axle.
The two seats were placed tandem-fashion, the driver sitting at the back.

“À vendre,” said the mechanic, seeing their interest. “Bédélia, c'est bon marque, n'est ce pas? Tres vite!” There followed a conversation in French.

“What's he saying, Barley?”

“He says it won the Grand Prix des Cyclecars in 1920, and is in very good tune. He wants seven thousand francs.”

Phillip calculated. “About sixty quid. Too much. I've only got ten fivers on me.”

“I've got twenty pounds Mummy sent me.”

The mechanic was watching their faces. Then he spoke in French again.

“He says he would like to show you how to drive it. It takes two, one to drive, the other to shift the pulleys.”

“But I don't think we can afford it.”

“He says there is no obligation to buy, but he would like to show you how it works. It is the same Bédélia driven by M. Bourbeau, the designer, at an average speed of nearly seventy kilometres an hour for nearly four hours, during the Grand Prix at Amiens, when it won the race.”

Phillip got into the front seat, which was like a canvas deck-chair without the frame. The driver set the throttle, then running round to the back begun to push the cyclecar. Suddenly the engine roared and the mechanic flung himself sideways into the driver's seat behind Phillip.

They rattled up the cobbled street, heading for a road out of the town. From the horn, an affair of several brass whorls, came a series of high notes.

“En avance!” cried the driver, suddenly striking his passenger in the shoulder. Phillip thought this meant he was going open to up, and gripped the sides of the body; but the speed remained as before. The driver struck his shoulder again, while yelling into his ear and jerking about in his seat. Could he be getting into a rage? “Hoop! Hoop!” he cried, pointing over his passenger's shoulder into the cockpit, and making what appeared to be an exaggerated gesture of sawing wood.

“Ah, mon Dieu!” he exclaimed finally in resignation, as he closed the throttle and got out, to explain what was wanted. He pointed to a lever in the cockpit. “Comprennez? Eh bien,
regardez-vous maintenant!” He indicated the pulley on the near-side of the engine mainshaft. When he pushed the lever forward and to the left Phillip saw that the outer flange of the pulley opened, so that the belt hung loose upon it. Then going to the other side of the car, the mechanic pointed to the smaller off-side pulley, which was now engaging its belt.

“Regardez!”

He got back in his seat and with a jerk shifted it back, together with the back-axle, this movement taking up the slack of the belt which had been loose while the engine was driving the other pulley.

So that was it—the lever, pulled back and sideways, or forward and sideways, changed over the driving pulleys while the driver took up the belt slack, or loosened it, by moving the floating back-axle.

They started off again. This time the gear was successfully changed while Bédélia rushed over cobbled road to tarmac. They stopped beyond the crest at a buvette, and drank cognac.

“Six mille francs, m'sieur.”

“Ex bien, mon vieux!” replied Phillip, spreading his hands like the Frenchman of English newspaper cartoons. “C'est madame ma femme qui est le—la croupier—she has la banque—si vous comprennez?”

“Santé!”

Phillip looked more carefully at Bédélia. The belts were new, the tyres were not worn. It was a lovely horn, tightly curled. No oil dripped from the engine. The magneto looked clean.

From the nettles in the orchard beside the buvette came the notes of a nightingale. “Attendez, monsieur! Le rossignol!” He stared delightedly at the other's face. “Connaissez-vous ‘Le Rossignol', par Stravinsky?”

“C'est un auto?”

“Non, c'est un opéra.”

The mechanic shrugged his shoulders. They drove back, Phillip at the wheel.

“I've heard the first nightingale, Barley!”

“How lovely. They're always a few days earlier than the English birds. They'll be in full song in the Côte d'Or now.”

“Let's buy this 'bus, and go there by road! A thousand miles, what an adventure!”

“Let me do the bargaining.”

It was theirs for 5,500 francs. The mechanic filled the tank with
essence
, and put a spare tin of oil in the driver's cockpit, while Barley went to change the fivers into francs. The deal was concluded. One last thought as the mechanic prepared to push them off. What about a driving licence?

“Pfui! En avance! Bonne chance!”

Between trepidation and glee he steered for the high road across the down to Arras. It was tremendous fun down the straight road between poplars. Here he must stop on a slope, and look at Bédélia. Walking round her, examining the brake bands on the rear axle, feeling the tyres. No tool kit, or puncture outfit!

“We'll be able to get some at Arras, Phillip.”

Arras! How strange to get anything in Arras!

On down through the poplars lining the road, the engine pulling well on less than half-throttle. The corn in the fields on either side of the road was beginning to shine in the breeze which blew the curls of the adorable head in front.

After an hour's run they came to St. Omer, where she bought sausage, bread, butter, cheese, and a pot of apricot jam, while he went after a bottle of vin ordinaire and one small glass, for of course they must share everything.

They sat on the grass in the Jardin Public, opposite the Place Maréchal Foch.

“I don't recognise anything! But then we arrived at night and saw only the arc-lights in the autumn fog.” He sighed; with Barley beside him, the war was faded away almost to nothing. “Have some more wine?”

BOOK: It Was the Nightingale
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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