Extracts from his works

 

 

Henry Williamson's fiction and non-fiction writings cover a multitude of subjects: powerful descriptions of the Great War; Georgeham and Devon recollections; tales of his children and Shallowford life; his farming years in Norfolk; humorous sketches of people; descriptions of countryside and landscapes; acute observations of animal and bird life; and memories of literary society.

In this section of the website we are compiling a selection of extracts that reflect HW's wide-ranging writings that have been chosen by members of the Society for others to enjoy. When we have a sufficient number, we will classify them by theme. We would be delighted if you send us your own favourite to add to the web page.

 

How to send your chosen extract:

      

Length: from 200 to 750 words.

Tell us the title of the book, the edition, and date of its publication.

Include your name and contact details.

  1. Ideally, if you are able, we would like you to email the extract as a Word file attachment, or include the text as part of your email. Give your email the title 'HW Favourite Extract', otherwise it might be rejected as spam! Send the email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
  2. Or, send a clean photocopy to T. Sackett, 7 Springfield Terrace, Bideford, Devon EX39 4AN.
 

3. Or, tell us where to find the passage. Give title, edition and date, plus the first and last sentences, and relevant page numbers.

Please note that all text extracts are copyright © The Henry Williamson Literary Estate

 

     From Dandelion Days (1922): All Life is Sunshine; The Blue of Heaven

     From The Dark Lantern (1952): Thomas Turney's Temper

     From The Golden Virgin (1957): Dinner with the Kingsmans

     From The Labouring Life (1932): Clitter Clatter and Flimflam; Star-Flights of Swifts

     From The Lone Swallows (1922): The Voice of the Corn

     From The Peregrine's Saga (1923): A Weed's Tale

     From Tales of Moorland and Estuary (1953): Bliddy Girt Rats

     From A Test to Destruction (1960): A Fleeting Friendship

 

 


 

 
The Blue of Heaven

 

Shining lines of ripples drew out slowly from the pointed wooden floats of the catamaran, the flat green leaves of the water-lilies seemed to be gliding slowly past. The Longpond lay silent in the summer morning; the sun-splashes in front, seen through the lashes of lids closed in dreamy contentment, were like glittering birds in flight. A wood pigeon was cooing in a fir tree on the distant shore, and a family of blue titmice wheezing and saying, chitter-chee, chitter-chee, as they flitted among the willows leaning out of the bank. So peaceful was the shining water, with the faint haze of the summer morning not yet cleared by the sun high over the beech trees: the blinding spiky sun into which the swallows flew and vanished. So far in the blue air were they flying that the boy sitting still on the cracked wooden seat above the two floats could hear no sound of their twittering. It must be like this after death, he thought, seeing the blue of heaven in the water beside him.

 

From the novel Dandelion Days, first published in 1922 (the second volume in The Flax of Dream sequence of four novels).

 

(Chosen by Richard Latham)

 


Back to top of page

 

The Voice of the Corn

 

The last labourer left the inn and the village slept. The walls of the cottages gleamed white under the dark thatch as the moonlight fell directly upon them. I was alone with the sapling wheat and all was still.

 

I was alone with the wheat that I loved. Moving over the field my feet were drenched in an instant by the dew. Lying at full length on the earth, I pressed my face among the sweet wistfulness of stalks, stained and glowing as with some lambent fire, pale, mysterious. On each pale flame-blade depended a small white light, a dew-drop in which the light of the moon was imprisoned. Each flag of wheat held the beauty of pure water, and within the sappy blades glowed the spirit of the earth in the spectral silence a voice spoke of its ancient lineage: of the slow horses that had strained to the wooden plough through the ages, scarring the glebe in long furrows that must be sown with corn; race after race of slow horses moving in jangling harness to the deep shouts of the heavy men. Generation after generation of men, bent with age and unceasing labour, plodding the earth, sowing the yellow grains that would produce a million million berries for mankind. Spring after spring, each with its glory of blue-winged swallows speeding, wheeling, falling through the azure, the cuckoo calling in the meadows and the lark-song shaking its silver earth chain as it strove to be free. Through all the sowings and the reapings for thousands of years the wheat had known that it was grown for man, and the soul of the wheat grew in the knowledge of its service. Lying there on the cool couch of the silver-flotten corn, with the soft earth under me, sweet with its scent of stored sunbeams, the beauty of the phantom wheat carried me away in a passion of sweet ecstasy. Faint as the sea-murmur within the shell, the voice of the corn came to the inward ear. Ever the same was the earth that it knew, the east washed with faint rosewater in the dayspring, the lark-flight loosened upon the bosom of the dawn wind, and the golden beams of the sun breasting the hills of the morning. It was but a moment since the wild men had goaded the sullen oxen, and with rude implements torn a living from the earth; all the great power of the wheat rested above the growing corn now, of kin to the grains beaten by oxen, and later, by the flails of the wretches who were ever hungry.

 

'Midsummer Night' from The Lone Swallows, first published in 1922. This was an early collection of HW's writings collected from newspapers, magazines and previously unpublished work.

 

(Chosen by Jim Green: 'I have deliberately chosen an early piece (dated 1919) but one which is characteristic of HW in all aspects – particularly in its sense of connection with the land and HW's ability to convey his feelings through simple imagery extended by imagination.')

 


Back to top of page

 

All Life is Sunshine


Willie sent the catamaran along with steady racing thrusts, and soon he had crossed the belt of water-lilies called the Sargasso Sea, and come to the shallow water before Heron's Island. The island was about a quarter of an acre in extent, with willows and alders growing on it. On the south-west side was a small stony beach strewn with sticks, feathers, shells of fresh-water mussels, and almost enclosed by sedges and reeds. A heron rose up flapping as the catamaran came round the south side; a flight-feather fell spinning and gliding under its long thin hanging legs.


'Good morning, old heron! Bags I your feather!' cried Willie to himself as gingerly he stepped on a float, and so to the beach. 'Many thanks, it will make a ripping float for roach.'


It was much nicer being alone, he thought, lying on his back on the dry beach stones, his coat and shirt flung off for the sun to burn his skin. He felt himself spreading into the sunshine, which seemed to suspend his body in its warm, yellow-red power beyond his shut eyes. The swallows must feel like that in the height of the sky, only they would feel themselves colourless, like the air. Ah, that was the best thing in life, to let yourself spread into the sunshine until you were part of it.


'But I am part of it!' he said aloud, and sat up, astonished by his thought. 'The sun makes all things out of itself, and therefore all life is sunshine!'


Delighted with this idea, he stood up, and began hurling stones into the water with all his might. Then fastening his braces round his waist, he pushed through the undergrowth of willows and wild parsnip to explore the island. Jack and he had landed there many times, but he had never yet looked at it carefully; he must make a map of it, putting in the mud-shoals and the sunken branches – no, a chart was the correct word. A chart with soundings, like that one he had seen in the parlour of the public-house on Hayling Island a fortnight before, when spending a holiday with his Aunt Ellen and his London cousins, while his father had gone to Ireland fishing.


The chart had been lined all over like the grain which stood out on the oak table at Skirr farmhouse after the hundreds of years of scrubbing, each line numbered with the depth of water in fathoms. And that steam pinnace, with its polished brass funnel, beside the floating pier at the North End of the Island, bringing the naval officers to play golf. What a glorious life, to be a naval officer! Plenty of time to go looking for nests in the Spring, and you could explore all the creeks along the coast if you wanted to. If you were a captain of a ship you could go away for weeks fishing in your pinnace, with no one to stop you. Lovely to be in the Navy.


During the first week of the holiday Willie and Phillip had been very keen to become sailors, after watching the searchlights of the battleships on night manoeuvres off Spithead, the flashes of the great guns beyond the Isle of Wight, and hearing the mighty reverberations tumbling in from the sea. He and Phillip had talked about running away to Portsmouth and joining the Royal Navy, for the war that one day would start between Germany and England. Glorious to fire the big guns and blow the tin-pot German Navy out of the sea!


Willie and his cousin had gone fishing in a small boat, and the day had been breezy, and both boys had been sick, and that had been the end of their plans for running away.


From the novel Dandelion Days, first published in 1922 (the second volume in The Flax of Dream sequence of four novels).


(Chosen by Robert Walker: 'Dandelion Days deals primarily with Willie's schooldays, as a day–pupil at a small independent school in the West Country. It is set in the summer of 1913, when Willie is already sixteen and his thoughts are turning towards adulthood: this represents part of the end of his childhood, which was to be so brutally truncated by the outbreak of the War.

'Henry's work falls into a number of different genres, but his two best known are as a nature writer and as a chronicler of events. This passage combines elements of both: first we have the heron and the Longpond, then the visit to Hayling and the foreshadowing of the War with the naval manoeuvres, putting Willie's narrow view into the broader context. The First World War was the pivotal event in the lives of Henry and his two alter egos, Willie and Phillip. It is interesting that in this passage, a year before the War started, both boys are shown as keen to fight the Germans, albeit in a naval context. Henry is probably not renowned as a humorous writer, and certainly not as a writer of comic material; yet his work is laced with a wry humour that underpins – and at times undermines – his characters' development. This passage ends with the cousins' deciding not to run away, because they are seasick on a boat trip off Hayling; Henry makes little of it, but the fact that their grand plan of joining the Royal Navy is stymied by so mundane a thing as seasickness raises a wry smile at the boys' expense.')



Back to top of page

 

A Weed's Tale


A rook flying over a thatched cottage to its elm-top colony had in beak a stick, found in a near field. Something became dislodged from the stick, and fell. It was a small seed. A swallow caught it as it passed, but finding it uneatable, he dropped it, and it continued to fall until it came to rest on the cap of a grey-beard man who was smoking outside the cottage. For several moments it remained there, while the old cottager puffed his clay pipe.

 

He removed his cap to scratch his head, and the brown seed completed its journey to the earth. It fell behind the rusty iron scraper fixed beside the threshold. Nothing interfered with it during the months of summer and autumn, and when the New Year came it had been washed by rain into a crevice between the cobblestones, and the mud from the boots of the old man had buried it three and a quarter inches from the light.


The name of the countryman was Joseph Rush, generally known in the Devon village as Uncle Joe, a widower, and pensioned railway porter living the last years of his life after hard and faithful service at Bristol. He was seventy-one years of age, and he lived entirely alone, doing his own cooking, washing, gardening and housework. His mind was simple; he made the same remark about the weather, his garden and the topical murder, every day. The brown seed that was buried by the scraper was a seed of Rumex sanguineus, or Bloody veined Dock, belonging to the Sorrel family, common weeds of the countryside.


An old man, a small boy and a weed, these are the characters of the story. The boy was born two years after the sorrel seed was dropped by the swallow.


'A Weed's Tale' from The Peregrine's Saga, first published in 1923. This was HW's second collection of stories, written during his early days in Devon, primarily published in magazines, and mainly about birds and animals.


(Chosen by Michael Barry)



Back to top of page

 

Dinner with the Kingsmans


'It was a marvellous dinner', he thought, looking round the table lit by tapers burning in Elizabethan holders of hand-wrought silver. Now he knew why he had felt that something was wrong with the Kingsmans, and the explanation was as sad as it was simple: he had taken for granted that all homes, or the people in them, were like his own. These people were kind, and because they were kind they were polite to one another. And they did not show their feelings or their spiritual bruises because they were not bruised. Even the death of their only son had not broken as it were their skins. Father Aloysius before they had gone into dinner had whispered to him that their son, their only child, had been shot down during the battle of Loos by the German airman Boelcke flying a Focker; so, said the priest, 'Let us not speak harshly of the mistakes or deficiencies of others. We are all pitiful in our errors, our lives are composed of joy and of Virgil's lacrimae rerum, "the tears of things".'


The dinner had begun with oxtail soup and with it the butler had three-quarter filled a small glass with dark red sweet wine, which somehow just suited the soup. On the decanter was a silver label, Madeira. Asked by Father Aloysius (dare he call him 'Lulu' wondered Phillip, and thought it better to keep his distance) what it was, Kingsman replied, 'Bual Solera, 1826'. After the soup came pink fish, which he thought was salmon; but Kingsman said it was sea-trout, which had been in the ice-house since last September. With this fish was a cold pale wine which made Phillip think of a sea-cave, by still water; they were allowed two three-quarter glasses only of this wine, which Kingsman said came from a Jesuit monastery on the banks of the Rhine, the Forster Jesuiten-garten. By the time his plate was taken away Phillip was no longer metaphorically sitting on his hands; he was soaring happily in this new world of grace and friendship. With the pheasant came two more three-quarter glasses of claret, Chateau Haut-Brion bottled, said Kingsman, before the Franco-Prussian war in 1862.


Now he knew why people talked about food and wine, which when matched and balanced had a wonderful effect on one of life at its best, without any feeling of being tight.


By the time the blackberry and apple pudding came in, with cream in a bowl dull yellow which he realised was gold, he floated in timeless happiness. What wonderful people he had met, owing to the war! Then, thinking of his own home – of the constriction of spirit there, of his mother's anxiety and fear of upsetting of his father, of his sister Mavis, who was not like other girls, but critical and never satisfied, and ashamed of him as she was of Father – he sighed, thinking that he had no right to be so happy. If only the others at home could know that such happiness was possible on earth . . .


Father Aloysius seemed to know what he was thinking, for after a glass of port to finish the dinner, with cobnuts and Cox's orange pippins, when they returned to the hall for coffee, he seated himself beside Phillip and during talk said that he had met both his mother and sister and that both held him in deep affection.

 

'My sister, Father?'


'You look surprised, Phillip. Your sister loves you dearly. Does that seem strange? I notice that your hands are usually clenched as though you are holding yourself in. This is a sign of nervous strain. Do forgive me if I am too personal.'


'I am very glad, Father. I like to find out the truth of things.'


'To know the truth of oneself takes courage. And what is so good about you, if you will allow me to say so, is that you are not bitter about others. But one must not be bitter about oneself. That leads to self-hate, which in the end splinters one and the splinters hurt others. Self-centredness, the Old Adam, has to die, you know, or change rather, before one can find spiritual freedom, which is the love of God.'


From The Golden Virgin, first published in 1957. This is the sixth volume in HW's series of fifteen novels forming A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. The series relates the fortunes of the Maddison family during the first half of the 20th century.


(Chosen by Rosalind Hardwicke)



Back to top of page

 

Clitter Clatter and Flimflam


This site lay against the hedge which was to have been the western boundary of the Proposed New Cemetery. Immediately the Parish Council wrote to the new landlord, protesting against 'the proposed new building'. No answers were received to their several letters; and the brick walls of Mon Repos arose thin with rapid growth.


'You'm making a mistake, midear,' said Bale the trapper and would-be wit, to the owner-builder as he passed by in his wind-ragged coat and stone-chafed leggings one morning, 'Mon Repos should be next door.' He indicated the grassy field of Netherhams beyond the hedge.


'A man must live somewhere,' replied the builder, tapping a brick into position.


'Aiy, and be buried somewhere, midear.'


The Parish Council considered this new move.


'Disgraceful, unlawful, the man has signed before witnesses, agreeing to arbitration, then he goes and sells a building-site within a hundred yards, almost a hundred inches, disgraceful, no public spirit,' muttered Mr Alford in daily conversation with Mr Taylor in the Lower House.


'Well, why don't you boogers in the Parish Council go and do something about the bliddy site, then?' cried Mr Taylor, at last. He had heard Mr Alford talking on the subject during, literally, more than a thousand middays. Mr Taylor removed his pipe and squirted violently but accurately into a sawdusty spittoon. Then rapidly swallowing half a pint, 'What do you boogers do tho'? You'm all talk, talk, talk, meanwhile us be gettin' older and older and soon us'll all be stiff as gurnets, and nowhere to be put when us be gone. Talkin' never got a man nowhere, you'm all alike, clitter clatter and flimflam, dravin' away like a proper ole local praicher, like the wind you be, and saying "disgraceful", "Should be stopped", "Where be the Country comin' to", "Tidden like it was in my young days" – Bah! if I'd my way I'd drown the lot of you like a litter of kittens!'


There was no real ill-feeling between the two men, but that was Alford's way, and the other way was Taylor's; and Alford, when he spoke in a roomful of men, always raised his voice until it became strident, but there was no heat or personal feeling in his words, just the habit of an unimaginative old man who for most of his life had been secretary to a body of excitable miners in South Wales.


Ill-feeling, however, caused many words and petty actions about the village.


One night an argument went on outside my cottage for more than half an hour between Charlie Tucker and Harry Zeale. Their voices, one deep and insistent, the other high and mewling, were going together most of the time. Neither apparently had any effect upon the other, for at the end of the half hour they concluded with the following dialogue:


'You said you were going vor do it, tho'!'


'No I didn't!'


'Yes you did!'


'No I didn't!'


'Yes you did!'


'You'm telling lies, that's what you be doing!'


'So be you telling lies!'


'You'm just a bliddy fule!'


'You'm a bliddy fule yourself!'


'Oh, I be a bliddy fule, be I?'


'Yes, you be a bliddy fule!'


'Aw, I ban't going to waste my time on your sort!'


'Nor be I on yours!'


Then the climax: Charlie Tucker leaning forward, and declaring as he snapped his fingers in the other's face, 'I don't give a flip for 'ee!'


'I don't give a flip for 'ee, neither!' retorted the other, snapping his fingers; and both turning round at the same moment, they walked away in opposite directions.


That the climax of what had been almost a violent quarrel was a derisive snapping of fingers may appear restrained conduct to some; but during the fifteen years I lived in the parish there had never been a fight or a blow struck in a quarrel. Only once did I hear of blows being struck, when a gang of youths and men encountered, as he returned from the inn at Cryde one dark night, a sporting, elderly, and very friendly visitor who owed money in the village. They tripped him up, kicked him as he struggled on the ground, cracking several teeth and nearly breaking an eyeball, among other abrasive injuries, then running away into the darkness. But usually the villagers were too peaceful or what may be the same thing, too fearful, to carry their dislikes or hates into action.


From 'Cemetery, or Burial Ground?' in The Labouring Life, first published in 1932. This collection of short stories and sketches was based on HW's years in the North Devon village of Georgeham.


(Chosen by John D. Fry: 'I absolutely enjoyed both the dialogue and dialect, not only in this passage, but in the whole of The Labouring Life.')



Back to top of page

 

Star-Flights of Swifts


At dimmit-light, or dimpsey as we say in Devon, the owls leave the loft, and float through the lopped elms of the churchyard to the meadows and cornfields beyond. At this hour the swifts are usually ringing in packs near the church tower, and espying the owls, they dash down and scream around them. The owls fly on, unheeding. They separate and go their ways to the sunset mice-runs.


Dusk settles over field and lane. The male swift begins to scream in a different way, and he harries his mate so closely that often I hear the clatter of wings striking wings. Almost fiercely he pursues her until suddenly she swerves, flutters at her nesting hole, and creeps down the brittle straw-tunnel to her long, narrow, pointed eggs.


Having hustled her inside, the male bird circles above the tower, calling other swifts. Venus has been visible over the sea an hour since, and the gulls are roosting on the ledges of the headland. The male swifts cry ceaselessly as they gather above the bats. The pack screams over the dim cottages, where in small windows upstairs gleam candlelight and oil-dip. The screams come down fainter to where I am lying on the grassy garden wall under the dark still mass of the elms. The birds climb towards the stars. The cries cease, and the night is quiet with the murmur of the stream and the gentle flutter of moths.


Where do the swifts fly? The owls float through the elms, skirring as they glide away pale in the midsummer sky still glowing with sea-quenched sunset. The swifts are far away, wheeling where Aldebaran and Vega shine without quiver in the unearthly air. Do they sleep as they glide? do they dream themselves into spirits of star-solitude as they ply their wings in alternate thrusts? do they play in the thin airs of their ranging, hurtling in pursuit of one another far above the glimmering Atlantic, falling down to the warmer earth as the stars shrink before the beams of sunrise? Frer-r-r go the wings by my open door; and the wild faint screaming draws my heart into the sky.


Written in 1923. 'Star-Flights of Swifts' from The Labouring Life, first published in 1932. This collection of short stories and sketches was based on HW's years in the North Devon village of Georgeham.


(Chosen by Terence Sackett: 'We all come to Henry Williamson's writings from different directions and for different reasons. I was drawn to the Georgeham books when I was very young. I think that this piece of early writing shows Henry at his best and his most lyrical. It confirms his extreme sensitivity to sights and sounds around him, his painstaking observation of the natural world, and his remarkable descriptive powers.')



Back to top of page

 

Bliddy Girt Rats


'Aiy, there be a lot of bliddy rats about the viels now. In a month or two, the boogers will be down in the barns and stacks. Hundred and thousands o' the bliddy things; why, t'other night I stood by the gate upalong and if one bliddy rat rinned over me boots, why, I tell 'ee midear, there was bliddy thousands! I kep still; I had me gun, too; I could have shut a score with each barrel, but I knew if I so much as kecked one of the boogers with me boot, t'others would have mobilized me.


'I'll tell 'ee, the government should do something 'bout rats. They'm all for taking your money, but what about ridding us of rats? Last winter I took ninety-three of the boogers one morning out of my gins tilled in one viel. Ninety-three! Then there was thousands of the bliddy critturs left in the rabbuts' buries. Aiy, thousands and thousands! Booger, I caught one and tarred it, a bliddy girt stag-rat, and I let'n go agen, hoping he'd drave the others. But still I couldn't keep no eggs or chickens or chicken food, they ate the bliddy lot. Fast as I'd trap a couple of hundred, the'd spring up agen. One night, I'll tell 'ee, midear, listen to this, I hear'd a bliddy great galloping about on the ceiling over me aid (head) and my missus zaid to me, It be like a cart and hoss passing overaid, whathever can it be, Jack. I zaid, 'Tis they bliddy rats up auver. I coudden get a wink of slape all night, back and 'vore the boggers was proper bliddy galloping, like a bliddy aerial durby it was up there. Aiy. But I'll tell 'ee what I did! I tilled a gin for the boogers, but coudden catch nought. One day, tho', I cornered one behind the cupboard, and a bliddy girt stag-rat 'twas, jimmering and chammering at me, clinging to the bliddy wall, just out of reach of my bliddy stick it was, and wan bliddy cat on the top of the cupboard, anither on the shelf, and a couple of bliddy dogs waiting below! I kept the booger pressed there agen the bliddy wall with me stick, I warn't going vor leave'n now I'd got'n, not if I stayed there all bliddy night, and the cat and the bliddy dogs biding there too. Missus fetched a long stick but the bliddy thing was bent, and wouldn't titch the stag-rat, which opened its mouth and showed its bliddy teeth to me, and jimmering and chammering it was, with the bliddy cats howling up above and the dogs a-roaring and a-bawling down below and me yelling at the missus to yett (heat) the bliddy poker in the vire, I'd burn the booger out if it wouldn't come out, cruelty or no cruelty. Of course I knowed if one of they inspectors for the abolition of cruelty to hanimals was to have comed along, I should have been in Town, but what about cruelty of the bliddy rats to me, unable to get a wink of slape with them tritting 'bout overhead like a bliddy hossrace? So missus yett up th' poker, and I pressed 'n into the rat, saying burn you booger, burn, and gor'darn! the withering thing burst into vlames and rinned down the wall and not a bliddy dog would titch it. Lucky the door was shut, else 'twould have rinned out and maybe set vire to me neighbour's ricks, for 'twas the selfsame bliddy rat I had tarred. I 'spose the ither rats had drove'n, because of the smell, and the booger had comed into my place. I tell 'ee, there's hundreds and thousands of rats in the viels today.'


'Incident of an Afternoon's Walk', from Tales of Moorland and Estuary, first published in 1953. HW's fourth collection of stories from his early years.


(Chosen by William Hickman)



Back to top of page

 

Thomas Turney's Temper


. . . Sarah, swallowing the saliva in her mouth and feeling a weakness in both chest and legs, turned to her husband reclining in a chair by the fire for a few moments' relaxation before going to bed, and said:


'Tom, I have something to tell you, but first will you give me your promise to try and keep calm?'


'Hey?' he exclaimed. 'Something to tell me. Well, what is it?'


Hetty, beside her Mamma on the sofa, closed her eyes.


'What are you trying to say, woman? What are you keeping me in suspense for? Is she ill? Has she seen the doctor? Why haven't I been told? For God's sake speak out, why can't you!'


'Tom, pray keep calm. The girl must not be upset in any way.'


'Who's upset her? I'm sitting here, aren't I? Come, out with it? What's the matter with Hetty? Are her lungs weak? Speak woman, speak!' he shouted.


'Tom,' said Sarah, 'pray be a little quieter, for Hetty's sake.'


Sarah's voice was weak; and her agitation, imperfectly concealed, had the effect on her husband of disturbing him the more. His overloaded stomach went sick.


Sarah hardly knew how to continue. She dared not say what she had to say; she dared not keep silent. God, come to my help, she thought wildly within her mind.


'What is the matter with your mother?' He sat up in the chair, and turned to Hetty. 'Why is she tormenting a man like this? Come, you have a tongue in your head, unlike this – this – this fool of a woman sitting here. Speak, my girl, speak!'


'Papa!' cried Hetty, seeing the tears running down her mother's face. 'Oh Mamma, oh Papa, I beg you, dearest Papa, not to continue so, please Papa!'


Thomas Turney drew a deep breath. His neck and face were flushed. His hands gripped the handles of the chair in which he sat so hard that the knuckles were yellow. He watched his wife's face with stony contempt. He breathed deeply again, and the grip of his fingers on the chair lessened.


'Very well,' he said. 'You have something to tell me. I will wait until you find your tongue.'


He waited, in a silence disturbed only by the noise of Sarah, held by Hetty, trying to subdue her weeping.


'Tom,' said Sarah, trying to smile, 'forgive me for being so silly, I am a silly creature, indeed. Tom, when you and I were young, we – we – loved each other dearly – Tom – did we not?'


'What has that got to do with what you have to say? Speak up, woman!'


'Everything, Tom. Hetty, our daughter Hetty, has loved long and truly, and she is no longer a child. She's a woman, Tom, with a woman's feelings.'


Now Thomas Turney was rising to a proper rage. After all he had done for them both, for all the family, to be treated like this!


'I think I know what you are prevaricating over! Well, let me tell you once and for all, that I shall never give my consent to Hetty marrying that niminipiminy fellow – what's 'is name – Richard Maddison!'


'Then Hetty will have to go her own way, Tom, without that consent.'


'What d'ye say, woman! You! You speak like that – to – me!' He got on his feet. 'How dare you tell me, in my own house, about my own daughter! She shall never be thrown away on the son of that filthy blackguard! Never, never, never! D'y' hear me? Not while I have breath in my body will I consent, or permit, my own daughter to throw herself away on that fellow! So let this be final! D'y' hear? I am master in my own house!'


'You cannot stop it, Tom, I tell you you cannot –'


'What?' he roared, flinging his arms about as he stood over her. 'Have you taken leave of your senses? I think you have! I think a doctor should examine your head! You dare to defy me, do you? Eh?' He turned on his daughter. 'Answer me, Hetty, have you been seeing that fellow?'


Hetty nodded, unable to speak.


At this moment Thomas Turney espied the volumes of Tennyson, which he had put behind a screen against the wall. Picking up the parcel, he tore it open, and let the leather-bound books drop on the floor. He kicked one across the room.


'This is what I foolishly procured for you, this rubbish!' He picked up another volume, and hurled it into the fire, watched by the tearful women. Then turning to Hetty he cried, deeply red of face and brow and neck,


'You – you – you ungrateful girl – you cheap – you – you –'


He wheeled round as though to leave the room; spun round again and shouted, 'Give me your promise – you shall not leave this room until I have your promise! – your solemn oath and promise! – never to see him again! Else, before God, I shall turn you out on the streets! D'y' hear me? What you want is a good thrashing, to bring you to your senses!'


Upstairs Sidney Cakebread heard the loud and angry voice of the Old Man. He was not yet undressed; with a word to Dorrie, he opened the door and listened. He heard Hetty crying in distress:


'Papa, please, Papa! Papa, I beg of you! I love him, Papa! Please don't be angry, Papa! Papa!' she shrieked, as he strode to her.


Closing the bedroom door behind him Sidney Cakebread ran down the stairs, feeling himself taut all over, but telling himself to keep calm, and on no account must he raise his voice.


Hetty cowered before her father's rage. Sarah cried out, 'Don't touch her, Tom, don't touch her! She is pregnant, Tom – Tom! –  Sidney!' she screamed. As her son-in-law entered the room her husband dashed his fist upon Hetty's head, and the girl fell on the carpet, to lie there twitching and foaming at the mouth, her eyes staring fixedly.


Sidney Cakebread went for the doctor, returning with him on foot a quarter of an hour later. Hetty, lying on the sofa, had not recovered consciousness. Thomas Turney, subdued and looking to be a man much older than his years, waited in the dining-room with Sidney while Sarah and the doctor, with Dorrie, were in the drawing-room.


Hetty recovered consciousness soon after midnight, and cried out for her mother.


From The Dark Lantern, first published in 1951. This was the first volume in HW's series of fifteen novels forming A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Beginning in 1893, The Dark Lantern tells the story of Richard Maddison and his courtship of Hetty.


(Chosen by Peter Lewis: 'It is October 1894. Thomas Turney, prosperous City merchant, arrives home at Maybury Lodge, Cross Aulton, on a Friday evening after a week's hard graft, bringing a fat goose to be cooked for the huge celebratory Victorian dinner and a parcel of volumes of Tennyson for his beloved daughter Hetty, 'a girl of the most beautiful and stead¬fast spirit', whose twenty-fourth birthday it is. Tom is not happy, for his hopes that his son Hughie would enter into and succeed in the family business have been dashed. Hetty and her devoted Mamma, Sarah, resolve to tell Tom that not only has Hetty married Richard Maddison against his express wish but is pregnant, a fact which can no longer be concealed. Fearful of his terrible temper they pick a quiet moment to approach him – there follows the most dramatic passage, I believe, in the whole of the Chronicle.')

 


Back to top of page

 

A Fleeting Friendship


Plymouth Hoe. Broad parade whereon walked or sat seemingly thousands of young officers, of all shapes, sizes and classes; one-third of them intent on trying to get to know the few score of girls in the summer weather. A boring, arid place, until an afternoon in Genoni's Café when a young junior subaltern across the table offered him [Phillip] a cigarette from a gold case. He explained that he was at Durnford Street hospital, that the case was a twenty-first birthday present from his mother. Thenceforward they met every afternoon outside the Theatre Royal.


It was a gay summer friendship by the sea, with nothing to check mutual liking. 'Gibbo', from Eastbourne, and 'Maddo', from south-east London, ate oysters and drank stout in Jones's Oyster Bar; they walked miles up and down Union Street, seeking interest and pleasure; joined the promenaders upon the broad asphalt of the Hoe, laughing and talking; visited Williams' and Goodbody's for tea, saw flicks at the Savoy, Gaiety, the Palladium, drawn by Charlie Chaplin or William Hart; they called, as time of return within walls drew near, at Nicholson's sawdust bar for crab sandwiches, the long bar of the Royal for sherry, the Poseda for Pimm's No. 1 stout, the Athenaeum where many midshipmen were to be seen; or descending to shadier, more attractive places, drank beer in the Golden Lion, the Post Office, the Corn Exchange, the Old Chapel, where port and madeira came from the wood at sixpence a dock glass. In one sailor's pub they were shown the skeleton of a baby in an ebony coffin over the counter – not a place to revisit, they agreed.


Gibbo sometimes stuck on a Charlie Chaplin moustache, while wearing an eyeglass with his usual languid manner. They were photographed together, Phillip with cap on one side of his head, a lieutenant's stars on his shoulder-straps, but no ribands on his left breast – thus keeping faith with the undistinguished dead.


It was a tremendous friendship while it lasted; and it lasted all their lives – in Phillip's memory. Soon they were to go their separate ways. In the meantime they met 'Lux', a young marine who had been at school with 'Gibbo'. The two men talked of Eton, and all Phillip could think to say was, 'Did you by any chance know a chap named Swayne?' Lux and Gibbo laughed lightly and replied, 'Oh Swayne! Ha-ha-ha, oh yes, we knew Swayne. Have you met Swayne?'


He told them all about the Algerian wine party.


'Oh yes, that sounds like Swayne, indeed yes,' and all three laughed gently, lightly, together.


Dear delightful Gibbo. One afternoon the sunshine seemed not to glitter. 'I shan't be seeing you tomorrow, Maddo, my dear. I'm being boarded, and go home by the afternoon train.'


A last toasted teacake at Genoni's, a last dozen oysters at Jones's, two final docks of dark brown sherry at the Old Chapel; and then the hand clasp, Gibbo saying calmly through his teeth, 'Well, all the best, Maddo. I suppose I'll be back in France this time next month.'


'I want to get back as soon as I can, Gibbo.'


'Pity we aren't in the same regiment, Maddo. It would be fun going over the top together.'


'Yes, indeed it would, Gibbo.'


'So long, Maddo.'


'So long, and all the best, Gibbo.'


So long – for ever.


From the novel A Test to Destruction, first published in 1960, being the eighth volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and which covers the last year of the Great War and the first months of peace.


(Chosen by John Gregory: 'In this short passage, only just over a page in length, HW paints an exquisite miniature portrait of this briefest of friendships – as were so many during the war – between Phillip Maddison and "Gibbo", who meet by chance when convalescing. In these few words HW perfectly captures and preserves a fragment of time, and the extract admirably illustrates, I think, the considerable achievement that was Henry's life-work: the re-creation of "ancient sunlight".')

Shopping Cart


 x 

Cart empty