Easily distracted

Easily distracted
Marianne von Werefkin (Russian / Swiss, 1860-1938), Mondnacht [Moonlit Night], 1909-10. Tempera and mixed media on paper laid on board.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The complex under the bed: The Cat Jumps by Elizabeth Bowen

“The Cat Jumps” by Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) is a story that has long eluded me.  Until last night, when I finally obtained a copy of Bowen’s collected stories.

The story has been anthologized by Cynthia Asquith, Robert Aickman, Edmund Crispin, Christine Bernard, Denys Val Baker, Mary Danby, Brad Leithauser. It is easy to see why: it is a story of uncommon wit, economy, and power.

It surpasses another “just moved in” story about the travails of new householders, “The Red Lodge” by H.R. Wakefield.  It also reminds me of that sophisticated house-warming party tale, “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein.




The Cat Jumps
Elizabeth Bowen
1929

AFTER THE BENTLEY murder, Rose Hill stood empty two years. Lawns mounted to meadows; white paint peeled from the balconies; the sun, looking more constantly, less fearfully in than sightseer’s eyes through the naked windows, bleached the floral wallpapers. The week after the execution Harold Bentley’s legatees had placed the house on the books of the principal agents, London and local. But though sunny, up to date, and convenient, though so delightfully situated over the Thames valley (above flood level), within easy reach of a golfcourse, Rose Hill, while frequently viewed, remained unpurchased. Dreadful associations apart, the privacy of the place had been violated; with its terraced garden, lily-pond and pergola cheerfully rose-encrusted, the public had been made too familiar. On the domestic scene too many eyes had burnt the impress of their horror. Moreover, that pearly bathroom, that bedroom with wide outlook over a loop of the Thames … ‘The Rose Hill Horror’: headlines flashed up at the very sound of the name. ‘Oh, no, dear!’ many wives had exclaimed, drawing their husbands hurriedly from the gate. ‘Come away!’ they had urged crumpling the agent’s order to view as though the house were advancing upon them. And husbands came away – with a backward glance at the garage. Funny to think a chap who was hanged had kept his car there.

The Harold Wrights, however, were not deterred. They had light, bright, shadowless, thoroughly disinfected minds. They believed that they disbelieved in most things but were unprejudiced; they enjoyed frank discussions. They dreaded nothing but inhibitions; they had no inhibitions. They were pious agnostics, earnest for social reform; they explained everything to their children, and were annoyed to find their children could not sleep at nights because they thought there was a complex under the bed. They knew all crime to be pathological, and read their murders only in scientific books. They had vita glass put into all their windows. No family, in fact, could have been more unlike the mistaken Harold Bentleys.

Rose Hill, from the first glance, suited the Wrights admirably. They were in search of a cheerful week-end house with a nice atmosphere, where their friends could join them for frank discussions, and their own and their friends’ children ‘run wild’ during the summer months. Harold Wright, who had a good head, got the agent to knock six hundred off the quoted price of the house. ‘That unfortunate affair,’ he murmured. Jocelyn commended his inspiration. Otherwise, they did not give the Bentleys another thought.

The Wrights had the floral wallpapers all stripped off and the walls cream-washed; they removed some disagreeably thick pink shades from the electricity and had the paint renewed inside and out. (The front of the house was bracketed over with balconies, like an overmantel.) Their bedroom mantelpiece, stained by the late Mrs Bentley’s cosmetics, had to be scrubbed with chemicals. Also, they had removed from the rock-garden Mrs Bentley’s little dog’s memorial tablet, with a quotation on it from Indian Love Lyrics. Jocelyn Wright, looking into the unfortunate bath – the bath, so square and opulent, with its surround of nacreous tiles – said, laughing lightly, she supposed anyone else would have had that bath changed. ‘Not that that would be possible,’ she added; ‘the bath’s built in … I’ve always wanted a built-in bath.’

Harold and Jocelyn turned from the bath to look down at the cheerful river shimmering under a spring haze. All the way down the slope cherry trees were in blossom. Life should be simplified for the Wrights; they were fortunate in their mentality.

After an experimentary week-end, without guests or children, only one thing troubled them: a resolute stuffiness, upstairs and down – due presumably, to the house’s having been so long shut up – a smell of unsavoury habitation, of rich cigarette-smoke stale in the folds of unaired curtains, of scent spilled on unbrushed carpets, an alcoholic smell – persistent in their perhaps too sensitive nostrils after days of airing, doors and windows open, in rooms drenched thoroughly with sun and wind. They told each other it came from the parquet; they didn’t like it, somehow. They had the parquet taken up – at great expense – and put down plain oak floors.

In their practical way, the Wrights now set out to expel, live out, live down, almost (had the word had place in their vocabulary) to ‘lay’ the Bentley’s. Deferred by trouble over the parquet, their occupation of Rose Hill, which should have dated from mid-April, did not begin till the end of May. Throughout a week, Jocelyn had motored from town daily, so that the final installation of themselves and the children was able to coincide with their first week-end party – they asked down five of their friends to warm the house.

That first Friday, everything was auspicious; afternoon sky blue as the garden irises; later, a full moon pendent over the river; a night so warm that, after midnight, their enlightened friends, in pyjamas, could run on the blanched lawns in a state of high though rational excitement. Jane, Jacob and Janet, their admirably spaced-out children, kept awake by the moonlight, hailed their elders out of the nursery skylight. Jocelyn waved to them: they never had been repressed.

The girl Muriel Barker was found looking up the terraces at the house a shade doubtfully. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I do rather wonder they don’t feel … sometimes … you know what I mean?’

‘No,’ replied her companion, a young scientist.

Muriel sighed. ‘No one would mind if it had been just a short sharp shooting. But it was so … prolonged. It went on all over the house. Do you remember?’ she said timidly.

‘No,’ replied Mr Cartaret. ‘It didn’t interest me.’

‘Oh, nor me either!’ agreed Muriel quickly, but added: ‘How he must have hated her …’

The scientist, sleepy, yawned frankly and referred her to Krafft-Ebing. But Muriel, went to bed with Alice in Wonderland; she went to sleep with the lights on. She was not, as Jocelyn realized later, the sort of girl to have asked at all.

Next morning was overcast; in the afternoon it rained, suddenly and heavily – interrupting, for some, tennis, for others, a pleasant discussion, in a punt, on marriage under the Soviet. Defeated, they all rushed in. Jocelyn went round from room to room, shutting tightly the rain-lashed casements along the front of the house. These continued to rattle; the balconies creaked. An early dusk set in; an oppressive, almost visible moisture, up from the darkening river, pressed on the panes like a presence and slid through the house. The party gathered in the library, round an expansive but thinly burning fire. Harold circulated photographs of modern architecture; they discussed these tendencies. Then Mrs Monkhouse, sniffing, exclaimed: ‘Who uses “Trèfle Incarnat”?’

‘Now, who ever would —’ her hostess began scornfully. Then from the hall came a howl, scuffle, a thin shriek. They sat too still; in the dusky library Mr Cartaret laughed out loud. Harold Wright, indignantly throwing open the door, revealed Jane and Jacob rolling at the. foot of the stairs, biting each other, their faces dark with uninhibited passion. Bumping alternate heads against the foot of the banisters, they shrieked in concert.

‘Extraordinary,’ said Harold; ‘they’ve never done that before. They have always understood each other so well.’

‘I wouldn’t do that,’ advised Jocelyn, raising her voice slightly; ‘you’ll hurt your teeth. Other teeth won’t grow at once, you know.’

‘You should let them find that out for themselves,’ disapproved Edward Cartaret, taking up the New Statesman. Harold, in perplexity, shut the door on his children, who soon stunned each other to silence.

Meanwhile, Sara and Talbot Monkhouse, Muriel Barker and Theodora Smith, had drawn together over the fire in a tight little knot. Their voices twanged with excitement. By that shock, just now, something seemed to have been released. Even Cartaret gave them half his attention. They were discussing crime passionnel.

‘Of course, if that’s what they really want to discuss …’ thought Jocelyn. But it did seem unfortunate. Partly from an innocent desire to annoy her visitors, partly because the room felt awful – you would have thought fifty people had been there for a week – she went across and opened one of the windows, admitting a pounce of damp wind. They all turned, startled, to hear rain crash on the lead of an upstairs balcony. Muriel’s voice was left in forlorn solo: ‘Dragged herself … whining “Harold” …’

Harold Wright looked remarkably conscious. Jocelyn said brightly, ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ But, unfortunately, Harold, on almost the same breath, suggested: ‘Let’s leave that family alone, shall we?’ Their friends all felt they might not be asked again. Though they did feel, plaintively, that they had been being natural. However, they disowned Muriel, who, getting up abruptly, said she thought she’d like to go for a walk in the rain before dinner. Nobody accompanied her.

Later, overtaking Mrs Monkhouse on the stairs, Muriel confided: absolutely, she could not stand Edward Cartaret. She could hardly bear to be in the room with him. He seemed so … cruel. Cold-blooded? No, she meant cruel. Sara Monkhouse, going into Jocelyn’s room for a chat (at her entrance Jocelyn started violently), told Jocelyn that Muriel could not stand Edward, could hardly bear to be in a room with him. ‘Pity,’ said Jocelyn. ‘I had thought they might do for each other.’ Jocelyn and Sara agreed that Muriel was unrealized: what she ought to have was a baby. But when Sara, dressing, told Talbot Monkhouse that Muriel could not stand Edward, and Talbot said Muriel was unrealized, Sara was furious. The Monkhouses, who never did quarrel, quarrelled bitterly, and were late for dinner. They would have been later if the meal itself had not been delayed by an outburst of sex-antagonism between the nice Jacksons, a couple imported from London to run the house. Mrs Jackson, putting everything in the oven, had locked herself into her room.

‘Curious,’ said Harold; ‘the Jacksons’ relations to each other always seemed so modern. They have the most intelligent discussions.’

Theodora said she had been re-reading Shakespeare – this brought them point-blank up against Othello. Harold, with Titanic force, wrenched round the conversation to relativity: about this no one seemed to have anything to say but Edward Cartaret. And Muriel, who by some mischance had again been placed beside him, sat deathly, turning down her dark-rimmed eyes. In fact, on the intelligent sharp-featured faces all round the table something – perhaps simply a clearness – seemed to be lacking, as though these were wax faces for one fatal instant exposed to a furnace. Voices came out from some dark interiority; in each conversational interchange a mutual vote of no confidence was implicit. You would have said that each personality had been attacked by some kind of decomposition.

‘No moon tonight,’ complained Sara Monkhouse. Never mind, they would have a cosy evening; they would play paper games, Jocelyn promised.

‘If you can see,’ said Harold. ‘Something seems to be going wrong with the light.’

Did Harold think so? They had all noticed the light seemed to be losing quality, as though a film, smoke-like, were creeping over the bulbs. The light, thinning, darkening, seemed to contract round each lamp into a blurred aura. They had noticed, but, each with a proper dread of his own subjectivity, had not spoken.

‘Funny stuff, electricity,’ Harold said.

Mr Cartaret could not agree with him.

Though it was late, though they yawned and would not play paper games, they were reluctant to go to bed. You would have supposed a delightful evening. Jocelyn was not gratified.

The library stools, rugs and divans were strewn with Krafft-Ebing, Freud, Forel, Weiniger and the heterosexual volume of Havelock Ellis. (Harold had thought it right to install his reference library; his friends hated to discuss without basis.) The volumes were pressed open with paper-knives and small pieces of modern statuary; stooping from one to another, purposeful as a bee, Edward Cartaret read extracts aloud to Harold, to Talbot Monkhouse, and to Theodora Smith, who stitched gros point with resolution. At the far end of the library under a sallow drip from a group of electric candles, Mrs Monkhouse and Miss Barker shared an ottoman, spines pressed rigid against the wall. Tensely one spoke, one listened.

‘And these,’ thought Jocelyn, leaning back with her eyes shut between the two groups, ‘are the friends I liked to have in my life. Pellucid, sane …’

It was remarkable how much Muriel knew. Sara, very much shocked, edged up till their thighs touched. You would have thought the Harold Bentleys had been Muriel’s relatives. Surely, Sara attempted, in one’s large, bright world one did not think of these things? Practically, they did not exist! Surely Muriel should not … But Muriel looked at her strangely.

‘Did you know,’ she said, ‘that one of Mrs Bentley’s hands was found in the library?’

Sara, smiling a little awkwardly, licked her lip. ‘Oh,’ she said.

‘But the fingers were in the dining-room. He began there.’

‘Why isn’t he in Broadmoor?’

‘That defence failed. He didn’t really subscribe to it. He said having done what he wanted was worth anything.’

‘Oh!’

‘Yes, he was nearly lynched … She dragged herself upstairs. She couldn’t lock any doors – naturally. One maid – her maid – got shut into the house with them: he’d sent all the others away. For a long time everything seemed so quiet: the maid crept out and saw Harold Bentley sitting half-way upstairs, finishing a cigarette. All the lights were full on. He nodded to her and dropped the cigarette through the banisters. Then she saw the … the state of the hall. He went upstairs after Mrs Bentley, saying: ‘Lucinda!’ He looked into room after room, whistling; then he said ‘Here we are,’ and shut a door after him.

‘The maid fainted. When she came to, it was still going on, upstairs … Harold Bentley had locked all the garden doors; there were locks even on the french windows. The maid couldn’t get out. Everything she touched was … sticky. At last she broke a pane and got through. As she ran down the garden – the lights were on all over the house – she saw Harold Bentley moving about in the bathroom. She fell right over the edge of a terrace and one of the tradesmen picked her up next day.

‘Doesn’t it seem odd, Sara, to think of Jocelyn in that bath?’

Finishing her recital, Muriel turned on Sara an ecstatic and brooding look that made her almost beautiful. Sara fumbled with a cigarette; match after match failed her. ‘Muriel, you ought to see a specialist.’

Muriel held out her hand for a cigarette. ‘He put her heart in her hat-box. He said it belonged in there.’

‘You had no right to come here. It was most unfair on Jocelyn. Most … indelicate.’

Muriel, to whom the word was, properly, unfamiliar, eyed incredulously Sara’s lips.

‘How dared you come?’

‘I thought I might like it. I thought I ought to fulfil myself. I’d never had any experience of these things.’

‘Muriel …’

‘Besides, I wanted to meet Edward Cartaret. Several people said we were made for each other. Now, of course, I shall never marry. Look what comes of it … I must say, Sara, I wouldn’t be you or Jocelyn. Shut up all night with a man all alone – I don’t know how you dare sleep. I’ve arranged to sleep with Theodora, and we shall barricade the door. I noticed something about Edward Cartaret the moment I arrived: a kind of insane glitter. He is utterly pathological. He’s got instruments in his room, in that black bag. Yes, I looked. Did you notice the way he went on and on about cutting up that cat, and the way Talbot and Harold listened?’

Sara, looking furtively round the room, saw Mr Cartaret making passes over the head of Theodora Smith with a paper-knife. Both appeared to laugh heartily, but in silence.

‘Here we are,’ said Harold, showing his teeth, smiling.

He stood over Muriel with a siphon in one hand, glass in the other.

At this point Jocelyn, rising, said she, for one, intended to go to bed.

Jocelyn’s bedroom curtains swelled a little over the noisy window. The room was stuffy and – insupportable, so that she did not know where to turn. The house, fingered outwardly by the wind that dragged unceasingly past the walls, was, within, a solid silence: silence heavy as flesh. Jocelyn dropped her wrap to the floor, then watched how its feathered edges crept a little. A draught came in, under her bathroom door.

Jocelyn turned away in despair and hostility from the strained, pale woman looking at her from her oblong glass. She said aloud, ‘There is not fear’; then, within herself, heard this taken up: ‘But the death fear, that one is not there to relate! If the spirit, dismembered in agony, dies before the body! If the spirit, in the whole knowledge of its dissolution, drags from chamber to chamber, drops from plane to plane of awareness (as from knife to knife down an oubliette), shedding, receiving agony! Till, long afterwards, death, with its little pain, is established in the indifferent body.’ There was no comfort: death (now at every turn and instant claiming her) was, in its every possible manifestation, violent death: ultimately, she was to be given up to terror.

Undressing, shocked by the iteration of her reflected movements, she flung a towel over the glass. With what desperate eyes of appeal, at Sara’s door, she and Sara had looked at each other, clung with their looks – and parted. She could have sworn she heard Sara’s bolt slide softly to. But what then, subsequently, of Talbot? And what – she eyed her own bolt, so bright (and, for the late Mrs Bentley, so ineffective) – what of Harold?

‘It’s atavistic!’ she said aloud, in the dark-lit room, and, kicking her slippers away, got into bed. She took Erewhon from the rack, but lay rigid, listening. As though snatched by a movement, the towel slipped from the mirror beyond her bed-end. She faced the two eyes of an animal in extremity, eyes black, mindless. The clock struck two: she had been waiting an hour.

On the floor, her feathered wrap shivered again all over. She heard the other door of the bathroom very stealthily open, then shut. Harold moved in softly, heavily knocked against the side of the bath, and stood still. He was quietly whistling.

‘Why didn’t I understand? He must always have hated me. It’s tonight he’s been waiting for … He wanted this house. His look, as we went upstairs …’

She shrieked: ‘Harold!’

Harold, so softly whistling, remained behind the imperturbable door, remained quite still … ‘He’s listening for me …’ One pin-point of hope at the tunnel-end: to get to Sara, to Theodora, to Muriel. Unmasked, incautious, with a long tearing sound of displaced air, Jocelyn leapt from the bed to the door.

But her door had been locked from the outside.

With a strange rueful smile, like an actress, Jocelyn, skirting the foot of the two beds, approached the door of the bathroom. ‘At least I have still … my feet.’ For for some time the heavy body of Mrs Bentley, tenacious of life, had been dragging itself from room to room. ‘Harold!’ she said to the silence, face close to the door.

The door opened on Harold, looking more dreadfully at her than she had imagined. With a quick, vague movement he roused himself from his meditation. Therein he had assumed the entire burden of Harold Bentley. Forces he did not know of assembling darkly, he had faced for untold ages the imperturbable door to his wife’s room. She would be there, densely, smotheringly there. She lay like a great cat, always, over the mouth of his life.

The Harolds, superimposed on each other, stood searching the bedroom strangely. Taking a step forward, shutting the door behind him:

‘Here we are,’ said Harold.

Jocelyn went down heavily. Harold watched.

Harold Wright was appalled. Jocelyn had fainted: Jocelyn never had fainted before. He shook, he fanned, he applied restoratives. His perplexed thoughts fled to Sara – oh, Sara certainly. ‘Hi!’ he cried, ‘Sara!’ and successively fled from each to each of the locked doors. There was no way out.

Across the passage a door throbbed to the maniac drumming of Sara Monkhouse. She had been locked in. For Talbot, agonized with solicitude, it was equally impossible to emerge from his dressing-room. Further down the passage, Edward Cartaret, interested by this nocturnal manifestation, wrenched and rattled his door-handle in vain.

Muriel, on her silent way through the house to Theodora’s bedroom, had turned all the keys on the outside, impartially. She did not know which door might be Edward Cartaret’s. Muriel was a woman who took no chances.

 

First published 1929 in Shudders (Charles Scribner)

This version is from The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, 2006 Vintage Books

No comments:

Post a Comment