Encounters (Bowen)/Daffodils

For works with similar titles, see Daffodils.
Encounters  (1923)  by Elizabeth Bowen


MISS MURCHESON stopped at the corner of the High Street to buy a bunch of daffodils from the flower-man. She counted out her money very carefully, pouring a little stream of coppers from her purse into the palm of her hand.

"———ninepence—ten—eleven—pence half-penny—a shilling! Thank you very much. Good afternoon."

A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer's, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.

To-day the houses seemed taller and farther apart; the street wider and full of a bright, clear light that cast no shadows and was never sunshine. Under archways and between the houses the distances had a curious transparency, as though they had been painted upon glass. Against the luminous and indeterminate sky the Abbey tower rose distinct and delicate.

Miss Murcheson, forgetting all confusion, was conscious of her wings. She paused again to hitch up the bundle of exercise books slithering down beneath her elbow, then took the dipping road as a bird swings down into the air. Her mouth was faintly acrid with spring dust and the scent of daffodils was in her nostrils. As she left the High Street further behind her, the traffic sounded as a faint and murmurous hum, striking here and there a tinkling note like wind-bells.

Under her detachment she was conscious of the houses, the houses and the houses. They were square, flat-faced and plaster-fronted, painted creams and greys and buffs; one, a purplish rose colour. Venetian shutters flat against the wall broadened the line of the windows, there were coloured fanlights over all the doors. Spiked railings before them shut off their little squares of grass or gravel from the road, and between the railings branches swung out to brush against her dress and recall her to the wonder of their budding loveliness.

Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if to-morrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as to-day. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained. She went slowly up the steps, fumbling for her latch-key.

The day's dinner still hung dank and heavy in the air of the little hall. She stood in the doorway, with that square of light and sound behind her, craving the protection and the comfort with which that dark entrance had so often received her. There was a sudden desolation in the emptiness of the house.

Quickly she entered the sitting-room and flung open the window, which set the muslin curtains swaying in the breeze and clanked the little pictures on the walls. The window embrasure was so deep that there was little light in the corners of the room; armchairs and cabinets were lurking in the dusk. The square of daylight by the window was blocked by a bamboo table groaning under an array of photographs. In her sweeping mood she deposed the photographs, thrust the table to one side, and pulled her chair up into the window. "I can't correct my essays in the dark," she asserted, though she had done so every evening of the year.

"How tight-laced you are, poor Columbines," she said, throwing away the paper and seeing how the bass cut deep into the fleshy stems. "You were brave above it all, but—there now!" She cut the bass and shook the flowers out into a vase. "I can't correct," she sighed, "with you all watching me. You are so terribly flippant!"

But what a curious coincidence: she had set her class to write an essay upon Daffodils! "You shall judge; I'll read them all out loud. They will amuse you." She dipped her pen in the red-ink pot with an anticipatory titter.

With a creak of wheels a young woman went by slowly, wheeling a perambulator. She leant heavily on the handle-bar, tilting the perambulator on its two back wheels, and staring up, wide-mouthed, at the windows.

"How nice to be so much interested," thought Miss Murcheson, pressing open the first exercise-book. "But I'm sure it can't be a good thing for the baby."

The essays lacked originality. Each paragraph sidled up self-consciously to openings for a suitable quotation, to rush each one through with a gasp of triumph.

"And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils."

"Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You fade away so soon."

She wondered if any of her class could weep for the departure of a daffodil. Mostly they had disclaimed responsibility for such weakness by the stern prefix, "As the poet says———." Flora Hopwood had, she remembered, introduced a "Quotation Dictionary," which must have been the round of her circle.

"I must forbid it. Why can't they see things for themselves, think them out? I don't believe they ever really see anything, just accept things on the authority of other people. I could make them believe anything. What a responsibility teaching is——— But is it? They'd believe me, but they wouldn't care. It wouldn't matter, really.

"They're so horribly used to things. Nothing ever comes new to them that they haven't grown up with. They get their very feelings out of books. Nothing ever surprises or impresses them. When spring comes they get preoccupied, stare dreamily out of the windows. They're thinking out their new hats. Oh, if only I didn't know them quite so well, or knew them a little better!

"If I had a school of my own," she meditated, running her eyes down the pages and mechanically underlining spelling-mistakes, "I would make them think. I'd horrify them, if nothing better. But here—how ever can one, teaching at a High School? Miss Peterson would——

"They do like me. At least, one set does, I know. I'm rather a cult, they appreciate my Titian hair. They'd like me more, though, if I knew how to do it better, and knew better how to use my eyes. Their sentimentality embarrasses me. In a way they're so horribly mature, I feel at a disadvantage with them. If only they'd be a little more spontaneous. But spontaneity is beyond them at present. They're simply calves, after all, rather sophisticated calves."

She dreamed, and was awakened by familiar laughter. Nobody's laughter in particular, but surely it was the laughter of the High School? Three girls were passing with arms close linked, along the pavement underneath her window. She looked down on the expressive, tilted ovals of their sailor hats; then, on an impulse, smacked the window-sill to attract their attention. Instantly they turned up three pink faces of surprise, which broadened into smiles of recognition.

"Hullo, Miss Murcheson!"

"Hullo, children! Come in for a minute and talk to me. I'm all alone."

Millicent, Rosemary and Doris hesitated, eyeing one another, poised for flight. "Righto!" they agreed unanimously.

Miss Murcheson, all of a flutter, went round to open the front door. She looked back at the sitting-room as though she had never seen it before.

Why had she asked them in, those terrible girls whom she had scarcely spoken to? They would laugh at her, they would tell the others.

The room was full of them, of their curiosity and embarrassment and furtive laughter. She had never realised what large girls they were; how plump and well-developed. She felt them eyeing her stack of outraged relatives, the photographs she swept off on to a chair; their eyes flitted from the photographs to the daffodils, from the daffodils to the open, red-scored exercise books.

"Yes," she said, "your writings, I daresay. Do you recognise them? I was correcting 'Daffodils' and they made me dreary—sit down, won't you?—dreary. I wonder if any of you have ever used your senses; smelt, or seen things——— Oh, do sit down!"

She seemed to be shouting into a forest of thick bodies. They seated themselves along the edge of an ottoman in a bewildered row; this travestied their position in the class-room and made her feel, facing them, terribly official and instructive. She tried to shake this off.

"It's cruel, isn't it, to lie in wait for you like this and pull you in and lecture you about what you don't feel about daffodils!"

Her nervous laughter tinkled out into silence.

"It was a beastly subject," said someone, heavily.

"Beastly? Oh, Mill—Rosemary, have you never seen a daffodil?"

They giggled.

"No, but looked at one?" Her earnestness swept aside her embarrassment. "Not just heard about them—'Oh yes, daffodils: yellow flowers; spring, mother's vases, bulbs, borders, flashing past flower-shop windows'—but taken one up in your hands and felt it?"

How she was haranguing them!

"It's very difficult to be clever about things one's used to," said Millicent. "That's why history essays are so much easier. You tell us about things, and we just write them down."

"That's why you're so lazy; you're using my brains; just giving me back what I gave you again, a little bit the worse for the wear."

They looked hurt and uncomfortable.

Doris got up and walked over to the fire-place.

("Good," thought Miss Murcheson, "it will relieve the tension a bit if they will only begin to prowl.")

"What a pretty photograph. Miss Murcheson. Who is it? Not—not you?"

"Me?" said Miss Murcheson with amusement. "Yes. Why not? Does it surprise you, then?"

"You've got such a dinky hat on!" cried the girl, with naive astonishment.

The others crowded round her.

"You look so different," said Doris, still scrutinising the photograph. "Awfully happy, and prosperous, and—cocksure."

"Perhaps it was the hat!" suggested Millicent.

"Oh, Millicent! No, I'm sure Miss Murcheson was thinking about something nice."

"Or somebody."

"Oh, Doris, you are awful!"

They all giggled, and glanced apprehensively across at her.

She wondered why she was not more offended by them.

"As a matter of fact," she enlightened them, "that was because of daffodils. It just illustrates my point, curiously enough."

They were still absorbed.

"Oh, Miss Murcheson!"

"Miss Murcheson!"

"When was it taken?"

"Last Easter holidays. Nearly a year ago. At Seabrooke. By a friend of mine."

"Do-oo give me one!"

"———And me?"

"I'm afraid that's the only print I've got; and that's mother's."

"Were there more?"

"Yes, various people took them. You see, I haven't faced a real camera for years, so when I got these snaps they were scrambled for by people who'd been asking me for photos"

"People?" She was rising visibly in their estimation.

"Oh yes. Friends."

"Why daffodils?" reverted Rosemary.

"Somebody had just given me a great big bunch." She was impressed by their interest. "I wonder if daffodils will ever make any of you look like that."

"It all depends, you see," said Millicent, astutely. "Nobody has ever given us any. If they did perhaps———"

"Really?" said Miss Murcheson, with innocent concern. "Take all those, if they would really inspire you! No, dears, I'd like you to."

She gathered the daffodils together and lifted them, dripping, from the vase.

The girls retreated.

"Oh no, really, not your daffodils———"

"We don't mean———"

"Not your daffodils. Miss Murcheson. It wasn't that a bit."

Evidently a false move on her part. She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.

Doris had put away the photograph and stood with her back to the others, fingering the ornaments on the chimney-piece.

"There are lots of things," she said rapidly, "that you only feel because of people. That's the only reason things are there for, I think. You wouldn't notice them otherwise, or care about them. It's only sort of———" She stopped. Her ears glowed crimson underneath her hat.

"Association," they sighed, ponderously.

"That's exactly what's the matter," cried Miss Murcheson. "We've got all the nice, fresh, independent, outside things so smeared over with our sentimentalities and prejudices and—associations—that we can't see them anyhow but as part of ourselves. That's how you're—we're missing things and spoiling things for ourselves. You—we don't seem able to discover."

"Life," said Doris sententiously, "is a very big adventure. Of course we all see that."

The other two looked at her quickly. All three became suddenly hostile. She was encouraging them to outrage the decencies of conversation. It was bad form, this flagrant discussion of subjects only for their most secret and fervid whisperings.

To her, they were still unaccountable. She had not wished to probe.

"I don't think that's what I meant," she said a little flatly. "Of course your lives will be full of interesting things, and those will be your own affairs. Only, if I could be able, I'm always trying, to make you care about the little fine things you might pass over, that have such big roots underground.

"I should like you to be as happy as I've been, and as I'm going to be," she said impulsively. "I should love to watch you after you've left my form, going up and up the school, and getting bigger, and then, when you've left, going straight and clearly to the essential things."

The tassel of the blind cord tapped against the window-sill, through the rustling curtains they looked out on to the road.

They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year's daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.

"Won't you stay to tea?" she asked. "Oh, do. We'll picnic; boil the kettle on the gas-ring, and eat sticky buns—I've got a bag of sticky buns. We'll have a party in honour of the daffodils."

The prospect allured her, it would be a fantastic interlude.

They all got up.

"Doris and Millicent are coming to tea with me, Miss Murcheson. Mother's expecting us, thanks most awfully. Else we should have loved to."

"We should have loved to," echoed the others. "Thanks most awfully."

She felt a poignant disappointment and relief, as standing with her eyes on the daffodils, she heard the children clattering down the steps.

To-morrow they will be again impersonal; three pink moons in a firmament of faces.

The three, released, eyed one another with a common understanding.

"Miss Murcheson has never really lived," said Doris.

They linked arms again and sauntered down the road.