Red Amber (Walpole)
By HUGH WALPOLE
ONCE upon a time there lived in the city of Polchester two old ladies—one was called Mrs. Sarah Hanney, and the other Miss Margaret Buck.
They were alive and active in the good old days, before Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, before Archdeacon Brandon's death, and the Sea Town scandals, and the Boer War, and the telephone and the reign of the silver screen. In those good days Polchester was as completely shut off, for many of its inhabitants, from the rest of the world as though it were a palm-tufted island in the middle of the African seas. Many of those inhabitants had never seen a train in their lives—Mrs. Sarah Hanney was one of these.
In spite of her being a widow—which implied, of course, an earlier experience of marriage—she was one of the least sophisticated of human beings. She had been nowhere save down Orange Street into the market-place of High Street and into the cathedral, and she may be said to have known no one save the late Mr. James Hanney, and not to have known him very well.
It was, perhaps, on account of his character that she had always lived so circumscribed a life. He had been a linen-draper, and his little shop had been at the corner of the market just before St. James's, where the hill runs down to Sea Town. Not a very good location, but he could never afford to move to a better.
He was a conceited and self-opinionated man, spare, with large spectacles, carroty side-whiskers, and a bald, shiny head. Things had never gone well with him. He was self-opinionated at the wrong times, obstinate when he should have been yielding, yielding when he should have been obstinate. He was a man with bitter grievances.
Mrs. Hanney's life had been no very happy one, but when he died, leaving her nothing but debts, in spite of his loss her condition could not have been said to have improved.
She had a relation who had made money by selling hats in Drymouth, and he very reluctantly gave her a small allowance. He wrote to her at times telling her how reluctant he was.
Mrs. Hanney was a small woman like a ripe strawberry. She was fond of dressing well, but had, of course, no opportunities. She was good-hearted, very quiet in her manner, and minded her own affairs. Those same affairs consisted in managing on the hat-maker's allowance, and this was no easy thing. She took a bed-sitting-room in a side-street off Orange Street, a side-street closed in as resolutely as though the other streets were, elderly relations protecting its virtue. You might have been in the very heart of a great city, for all that you saw, in Robin Street, of skies and fields and nibbling sheep. And this was a pity because Mrs. Hanney loved the open country.
The only other lodger in the little house in Robin Street was Miss Margaret Buck. These two ladies were "cared for" by Mrs. Pascoe, a very good woman, who loved the sound of the harmonium and was married to a railway-porter. She was so busy a person that the harmonium only truly had its fling of a Sunday.
Mrs. Hanney loved the harmonium, and Miss Buck did not.
Miss Buck was a thin, fair, tall, queer-looking woman. She resembled, although he comparison is unkind, a stick of rhubarb. Perhaps that is not unkind. There is something fresh and virginal about a stick of rhubarb. There was something fresh and virginal about Miss Buck. She was a very delicate woman, always suffering from colds in the head. Her eyes were for ever a-stream. She had also a weak heart. Her digestion was miserable. On the other hand, she was fond of good music, which was why she disliked the harmonium. Her voice was fresh and virginal, like everything else about her. She sang the dear old songs, like "Annie Laurie," "Robin Adair," and "Drink to me only."
She was very ladylike—she had connections in India. She was cultivated. She liked the books of Mrs. Lynn Linton, Mrs. Oliphant, and William Black. She confessed that she enjoyed a novel "once and again." She was very poor, depending entirely on a married brother for support. She sought economy in many ways, chiefly, I fear, by starving herself. She heated cocoa over a gas-ring in her room, and was especially fond of gingerbreads and preserved ginger.
It was natural enough that these two ladies, Mrs. Hanney and Miss Margaret Buck, being the only two lodgers in Mrs. Pascoe's house, should become well acquainted. They were not naturally suited to one another. True friendship depends so much upon what you have in your eye. For one it is a golden pin, for another a canary singing in a cage, for another a well-browned cutlet, for another the Book of Common Prayer. Miss Buck had culture and refinement, Mrs. Hanney only the desire to make two difficult ends meet. Culture and finance are worlds apart.
Nevertheless, although for a long time Miss Buck was not aware of it, Mrs. Hanney had something else in her eye, and that something else was colour: colour of anything—colour of sunsets, colour of clothes, colour of shop windows, colour of harmonium, colour of two tomatoes on a plate, colour of beads, colour of a ribbon or two. In her own self Mrs. Hanney could not indulge this passion. Black is so much your cheapest wear. Will not one black bonnet last for ever? At any rate, it must. But Mrs. Hanney sometimes had flowers in her room—primroses and snowdrops in the spring season, a carnation or so and, once or twice a year, a rose.
She thought Miss Buck very beautiful because she liked to wear pale green. Miss Buck had two water-colours hanging on her wall that Mrs. Hanney adored, and she had her piece of red amber.
This piece of red amber was thick and solid, like a little box, and stood on Miss Buck's mantelpiece with a strength and independence that Mrs. Hanney could not sufficiently admire. And beautiful lights shot through it. It was four-cornered and square, but it had, stuck on to the top of it, acut out of lighter amber, thin gold colour like fragile glass, and there was something in the contrast between the thick deep blood colour of the block and the thin pale gold of the dragon that was to Mrs. Hanney supremely fascinating.
Sitting in the armchair in Miss Buck's room, Mrs. Hanney's eyes would grope up through their large spectacles until they found the red-gold on the mantelpiece, and then there they would stay.
"Yes," said Miss Buck between her genteel sneezes, "my brother brought me that from China. Very pretty, I think, and valuable too, I'm told. Real amber—a fine piece."
"I should like to visit China," said Mrs. Hanney.
"Well," said Miss Buck, her thin body swaying with her sneeze like a poplar in a driving wind, "I'm sure China is a nice place. Our missionaries are doing fine work there. I'm always expecting that Lucy to knock that bit of amber off the mantelpiece. I'll give her something if she breaks it!"
"Breaks it!" cried Mrs. Hanney, "Oh, no! Oh, no! That would be terrible. Why, Miss Buck, it is one of my chief pleasures coming in and looking at it. I think of it of a morning before I get up. It's very kind of you to let me."
"Yes, it's a pretty piece," said Miss Buck.
The thought of that beautiful thing lying smashed into a hundred pieces by the red, careless hands of Lucy, the maid-of-all-work, was too terrible to Mrs. Hanney. She had not very much to think about. This thought began now to dominate the others. The colour patterns that she saw—the sloping red roof beyond her window, the pink sheen upon her bedroom wallpaper if you laid your head a little to one side, the blue in two vases on her mantelpiece, a little dark red box on her table in which she kept buttons and thread—all these began to surrender to the deep blood-colour of the amber. The thing seemed to her alive—to know her and to recognise her when she came into the room.
One day, when Miss Buck was out, she picked it up and rested it in her hands. Until that morning she had never ventured to touch it. It was a cold, blustery, smoke-blowing March day. Primroses under the hedges, perhaps? Yes, and a glint on the wood-slipping streams, their waters ruffled like the rumpled grey feathers of a bird. These were not Mrs. Hanney's thoughts. Dear me, no! She thought that it had been bacon and tomatoes once again for breakfast, and that she must positively speak to Mrs. Pascoe about it, and about also how the wind whisked behind the wallpaper in her bedroom, like a man spying upon her as she dressed of a morning, and laughing at her. While these thoughts were occupying her, almost unconsciously she took down the piece of amber from the shelf, and as soon as her fingers felt its cool, sliding surface, she started. She had done something wicked, something she should not, something most certainly that would offend Miss Buck, should she know.
She looked out through Miss Buck's windows on to all the grey clouds hurrying along, as though some angelic housemaid were hurling out of celestial windows acres of unnecessary bedding. The bending chimneys tried to catch the bolsters and blankets as they passed. The sky was dirty and discontented. Mrs. Hanney's old, gnarled fingers passed lovingly again and again over the smooth surface.
She may be said to be in a trance. Someone has somewhere said that Romance is a state of hallucination—one of those easy statements that mean nothing at all. Well, Mrs. Hanney is now in a state of hallucination. She does not see the grey marble slab of Miss Buck's wallpaper, nor the gaping coal-scuttle, nor the rain now spinning spider webs on the window-pane. No, she feels the wind in her face, the ground is carpeted with golden primroses, the sun is setting in a blaze of amber splendour, she is twenty years of age and lovely.
"Oh, I didn't know it was you, Mrs. Hanney!"
This was Mrs. Pascoe. The piece of amber for a moment trembles—it had almost slipped—then it is back again on the mantelpiece.
Mrs. Hanney had been caught in a crime. But what crime? A crime to feel twenty? Well, perhaps. A crime, at any rate, that Mrs. Pascoe will never commit.
"Didn't know you was in here, Mrs. Hanney."
"Hardly knew I was meself, Mrs, Pascoe. Miss Buck is so friendly, in a way of speaking."
"And why shouldn't she be? There's a friendly atmosphere in this house, as I have often myself noticed. That's a handsome bit of joolery Miss Buck has there."
"Yes. Her brother brought it her from the East."
"I'm always telling Lucy that she's got to be extry careful with they foreign articles. 'Twice as brittle,' I say to her, 'as your home-made goods.' Break as soon as look at yer."
"Oh, it would be terrible"—Mrs. Hanney's hands clung together—"should anything happen to it! 'Tis the prettiest bit of colour I've seen in many a day. I like just to look at it. If it was broke, I don't know whatever I'd do."
"Why, Mrs. Hanney," said Mrs. Pascoe, looking at her curiously, "what a colour you're turning!"
"Oh, if anything were to happen like——" Mrs. Hanney looked at Mrs. Pascoe with wide, detached eyes.
And the next thing that happened was that Miss Buck was suddenly ill and had to take to her bed.
Miss Buck was not a good patient. From the very first she was certain that she was about to die. Something on her lung. Her cough was a disaster, her eyes piteous. She suffered. She was afraid of death. As she told Mrs. Hanney, dying wasn't for her as it was for others. There was no one on the other side to whose company she was greatly looking forward. Her mother and father were nothing much—as company, you understand. There had been someone—once—but he was not dead. Far from it. Married. With two children. "Might have been mine," said Miss Buck, "had things gone . . ."
She had the piece of amber brought in and put on the table near her where she could look at it. Mrs Hanney looked at it, too. Soon Miss Buck was too ill to care. It looked all blurred to her, she said. To Mrs. Hanney it grew clearer and clearer, burnt with a more living, more brilliant flame every minute of every hour.
"I know I'm going to die, dear," said Miss Buck for the thousandth time. "I feel it. One can always tell."
Slowly in Mrs. Hanney's heart there began to grow an animosity towards Miss Buck. This was strange, because Mrs. Hanney had never in her life before felt an animosity towards anyone. And Miss Buck had been very kind to her always. She admired, too, the pale green colours and the rhubarb figure. Nevertheless, dislike boiled up as she sat there staring at the bed, with its thin, unsatisfactory shape beneath the sheets, its watery eyes, its pale, querulous nose.
"Why don't she," thought Mrs. Hanney to herself, "up and fight this thing? She's simply lying down under it."
And suddenly she said so, in a voice so new and startling, so harsh and severe, that Miss Buck herself was amazed.
"If I was you, Miss Buck, I'd resist this illness of yours, instead of just lying down and letting it throttle you. You're not standing up to it—indeed you're not."
Miss Buck was so deeply startled that it brought on a fit of coughing. Then, as she lay there, drawing strangled breaths, little Mrs. Hanney wondered at herself that she could have been so cruel.
"I believe you want me to die," said Miss Buck at last. "I haven't a friend." Then she added surprisingly: "My own fault, no doubt. There's something in what you say. But the trouble with me, Mrs. Hanney, is that I don't rightly care whether I live or die. It don't make as much difference to me as it should. What am I, anyway, living or dead? Only an encumbrance."
Mrs. Hanney wanted to say no, that she wasn't an encumbrance to anybody, but the words stuck in her throat.
"It's about time for the doctor," she said, looking at the piece of amber. Miss Buck's eyes followed hers.
"You can have that piece if I go, Mrs. Hanney," she said. "I know you like it. I've seen you looking at it,"
After that Miss Buck got worse. She became very ill indeed. One night, when the green-shaded lamp beside her bed was burning low, and the strangest shapes were about the house—high elm-fingered figures dark above the roofs, white round patches of moonlight across the road like silver pieces, horses spectral against the lighter grey of the night-sky, witches riding broomstick in flitting cloud—Miss Buck leaned towards Mrs. Hanney and, holding the old lady's arm with a skinny finger, whispered—
"You can take that piece now, if you want it. I'm not going to live through to morning."
Mrs. Hanney took it. I'm not defending her. There is not much defence to be found for her. She did wait until Miss Buck had crawled over on to her side and hid her white face in her long, bony arms. Then she took it. She took it to her room. For months she had been trying to see what it would look like in her own room among her own things. She put it on her chest of drawers. Oh, the pretty! Oh, the pretty! There it was, lit by two candles, with the red stud-box near to it, shining and gleaming and glittering, and the gold dragon on top, like honey, like primrose, like sun of the early morning across a field of wheat. But it was the place where it was blood-red that Mrs. Hanney liked the best. There, in the heart of the thick, sturdy independence of it, there was this pool of liquid, quivering red. Alive, it seemed. Oh, surely alive, as it looked down upon that old crinkled, strawberry face, the pasty, snub nose, the watery eyes, the clasped and pleading hands! Oh, surely alive as it proceeded to devour the heart and soul of that old lady, to draw them into its own pool of liquid red-gold, to absorb them twice, and then to stare about for more that it might devour!
Oh, the pretty! Mrs. Hanney could not sleep all night, but lit a candle and lay there, watching.
She forgot about Miss Buck, and in the morning was quite startled to find that she was yet alive. She had certainly supposed that Miss Buck would die. She regarded the piece of amber with a new alarm in her eye. She stood there in her woollen dressing-gown, her grey hair tousled, her eyes questioning. She took it down from the chest of drawers and fondled it with her rough fingers. It was not quite so much hers as it had been the night before—then it had seemed absolutely hers. It had been as though Miss Buck were altogether dead. Now—well, Miss Buck was certain to die before the twenty-four hours were out.
Then Miss Buck began to get better. Her illness "took a turn." As Mrs. Pascoe so frequently remarked: "Whoever would of thought it, she with no more resistance in her than a chicken-bone!" The weather took a turn, too, at the same time, lovely warm, soft Spring days, the woods above the town shining with rivers and lakes of bluebells, and the cuckoo heard across the dimpling waters of the Pol.
The weather seemed to help Miss Buck. The warm sun poured into her room, and Mrs. Hanney, sitting there, could often discard her shawl.
Mrs. Hanney, looking upon her, hated her. What did she want to get well for? Who wanted her to get well? Why, she didn't even wish it herself! And think of all this trouble she had given—trouble to Mrs. Pascoe, trouble to Mrs. Hanney, trouble to Lucy, trouble to the doctor, and all for nothing! Why, even the Precentor had come in to see her one day, the Precentor of the cathedral itself, poor Mr. Ryle, who was always so anxious to be in well with everybody. And he said that Archdeacon Brandon himself had been asking about her, him with all the troubles of the diocese on his mind, to think of Miss Buck! And, after all, she hadn't died!
Mrs. Hanney sat there hour after hour in the stiff green chair, her shoulders hunched, staring resentfully. Miss Buck was conscious of her stare.
"I wish you wouldn't look at me so," Miss Buck weakly remarked.
"And that's all one gets——" began Mrs. Hanney.
Upon which Miss Buck shed tears—she was in that weak convalescent state. There was now terror in Mrs. Hanney's heart. The moment would surely arrive when Miss Buck would ask for the amber back again, and then what would Mrs. Hanney do? She could not live without it—no, she could not.
In your eye now that is all that is there. Only the amber. Once you saw Heaven and its glories, and again the food and the clothes of Mr. Hanney, and again primroses and the running brooks, and again a chop tenderly cooked, and a strange uncertain pain just above the left knee, but now only the quivering red and gold of that square of ruby—without it there is no life. Better dead. It is a question of Miss Buck dying or Mrs. Hanney.
The trouble with Miss Buck now was, as she became stronger, her heart. Her illness had strained her heart very severely. She must be extremely careful. Miss Buck felt the interest of this. She lay in a long chair, that kind Mrs. Combermen had lent to her, in front of her window, and watched the Spring sweep the country. The Precentor came again to see her, and actually Mrs. Sampson, the Dean's wife, brought her some magazines.
This was all, thought Mrs. Hanney savagely, because Miss Buck had once done some cathedral work. Ugh! Anyone could do church work had she a mind!
Mrs. Hanney slept now with the piece of amber in her hand. She could not go to sleep did she not have it. She knew every part of it now by heart. Small though it was, it had a varied personality. Here it was smooth, and then suddenly it slipped beneath the fingers into a groove, then it rose again until your hand touched a thin ridge over which it slipped into a little hollow of coolness. Mrs. Hanney held it against her cheek and so slept.
The blow fell.
"Why, Mrs. Hanney," Miss Buck murmured (she spoke delicately now because she was an invalid, because her heart was bad, and because the Dean's wife had been to see her), "where's my piece—my piece of amber?"
"When you were very ill——" began Mrs. Hanney.
"Oh, yes, I remember. Said you could have it when I was gone. But I'm not gone yet. You're keeping it safe for me, I expect."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, that's good of you. I wonder whether you would mind bringing it to me. I shouldn't wonder whether a bit of colour wouldn't do me good."
Mrs. Hanney went and brought it. That night she didn't sleep, nor the night after, nor the night after that.
She was possessed. Why should she not admit it? She had longed once for a child in those days far back when she had been young with Mr. Hanney. A cousin of hers had allowed her little girl—chubby with red hair—to stay with the Hanneys for a day or two. In the same way then Mrs. Hanney had been possessed. After the little girl had gone, she had lain awake crying, and Mr. Hanney had said—— Never mind. That was all over. She was a lonely old woman, and must have her piece of fire to warm her breast—must have it—must.
Miss Buck became now afraid of Mrs. Hanney—she was always creeping around and staring. Miss Buck felt that Mrs. Hanney did not like her—knew, indeed, that she did not. But then, if she did not like her, why was she always around? Tell me that, Mrs. Pascoe? And Mrs. Pascoe said that she was silly. There was nothing wrong about Mrs. Hanney.
"Nothing wrong," said Miss Buck, staring at her wallpaper. "I just feel she don't like me."
"A sick woman's fancies," Mrs. Pascoe called them.
And, indeed, Miss Buck did not get well as quickly as she should—didn't make the right sort of progress. And that was such a wonderful Spring. The orchards were blushing with flowers, the birds sang for mad, and the sunsets from Miss Buck's window were a riot. It was Miss Buck's heart that was so queer, jumping like a live thing inside her and giving her so queer a pain, and whenever Mrs. Hanney came near her, the pain was twice as bad. You know what a sick woman's fancies can be? Well, then, that was the way Miss Buck soon came to feel about Mrs. Hanney. She saw her in the dark in bed, saw her twice her natural size and making faces at her. Funny old woman like a strawberry, with her bent shoulders, her groping fingers and her slip-slop slippers. Miss Buck hated to see her in the dark.
And the strange thing was that she never connected her creeping around with the red amber. Miss Buck had almost forgotten it. I dare say if Mrs. Hanney had asked for it, Miss Buck would have given it to her. She had never put the value on it that Mrs. Hanney did. It all depends on what you have in your eye. Miss Buck had Miss Buck in hers. But, of course, Mrs. Hanney did not know this. She was sure that Miss Buck would never let the piece out of her eye while she lived, and now, dying, would probably give it to somebody else. The trouble was that now Miss Buck was never out of her room, and so where the amber was, there was she, too.
"I hate her!" said Mrs. Hanney. "The nasty mean thing—I hate her!"
Then suddenly one evening Mrs. Hanney had a horrible vision of herself. She saw what a bad, wicked woman she was coming. She fell on her knees behind her bed. "God, help me! I've terrible thoughts and desires. I'm as good as a murderess! God, come down and help me!"
But God didn't come down.
Mrs. Hanney could live without it no longer. She would steal it.
She hoped Miss Buck was asleep. She pushed open the door. Miss Buck was sitting in front of her glass, brushing her hair by the light of a candle. Miss Buck in her night-dress was herself like a long tallow candle. She could not see the door through her mirror. Mrs. Hanney stole across the floor in her woollen dressing-gown. Miss Buck turned and saw her. With hair-brush raised, she screamed.
"Mrs. Hanney! Why, whatever——"
Mrs. Hanney advanced to her. "You let me have it now. I must have it! Do you hear! Give it me! Give it me!"
She caught Miss Buck's hair in her hand. The two women stared at one another. Miss Buck rose to her full height, turned grey under the candle-light, then crumpled like an empty pillow-case on the floor.
Miss Buck was dead. No doubt about it. Dead this time—dead of fright and a weak heart.
Mrs. Hanney saw that she was dead, picked up the red amber, clasped it to her thin breast, shuffled across the floor, went into her room, climbed a chair, placed the amber on the chest of drawers where it had been before, stood back, looked at it, climbed again and altered its position, sighed, then went to the head of the stairs and screamed down for help.