Ringstones

Sarban. Ringstones

I

The Reason why I, and not Piers Debourg, have undertaken to write the introduction and conclusion to Daphne Hazel's story is that I possess a typewriter and Piers Debourg does not At least, that is the reason Piers gave for not doing it and it seemed cogent until the ache in my shoulder−blades made me examine his argument more critically. The real reason, I now suspect, is that if I had not done it, neither of the other two would, and I was sufficiently interested to want to see the story properly finished off, though insufficiently experienced to foresee the labour of it and, in fact, the impossibility of it. I discovered too late that I could not write the conclusion of the story; but still, I have for my pains a copy of Daphne Hazel's manuscript (Piers has kept the original) and the rest may pass as annotations of the text.

I had arranged by letter to spend the last few weeks of the Long Vacation in Northumberland or walking on the Border with Piers Debourg. He met me at the station and we went up to his suburb on the trolley−bus.

As we turned into Northumberland Street the broad sunlight blazed on the gilt of the only landmark I have in Newcastle.

“It always seems to me,” said I, “one of the more whimsical eccentricities of the English character that this black, bleak city, this soul−constricting agglomeration of granite and grime, where the people seem to have been born with overcoats on their backs and Rechabitism in their hearts, should have erected for its tutelary deity a figure of Caligulan luxury: a naked, golden girl. I can never quite believe it. Does anyone else ever see it, I wonder? And yet once, I suppose, the design for it must have been passed by a sober and completely−clothed Board of Directors. How? I wonder. Did some mad journeyman of the Northern Goldsmiths' Company cast a spell on the Board and beguile them with a dream he had of the Emperor's workshops in Byzantium? Or did some incredible, top−hatted, dundrearied Director return from an Eastern tour haunted by the image of a goddess poised in a marble portico between golden sun and violet sea there where the light wave lisps Greece? Or was it a moralist who posed her there above the clock to say to thoughtless youth, “Behold, pleasure passeth but gold endureth”?

“Or Beauty escapes from the bonds of Time,” suggested Piers in a tone implying that he could fit you a moral to any fable from stock. “Hasn't it occurred to you that it might be the last wild nymph of Northumberland bagged by the Chairman after lunch on that memorable Twelfth of August in 1866?”

“I might question the strict accuracy of that 'bagged',” I said. “But there's one insuperable objection to nymphs in Northumberland, and that's your climate. If you insist on classical fauna I'll go so far as to allow you satyrs, because satyrs are comfortably accommodated with hair breeches, but I never saw a nymph that I'd call really adequately attired to stand up to your confounded nethering East wind.”

“They might have been migrants,” said Piers. “Summer visitors like swallows. Your objection wouldn't hold this summer. Northumberland's as hot as Arcady. In fact, why shouldn't they hibernate and only come out in exceptional summers? Wouldn't you say a sun like this might lure more than one sort of shy creature out of hiding?” He looked at me rather oddly and laughed. “That's a possible materialistic explanation which I put forward, not very seriously, to account for something curious I've got to show you.”

That stopped my speculations about the golden girl, but before I could find out what was on Piers's mind we had arrived at the stop near his house. He jumped up and clattered down the steps as the trolley−bus slowed down.

The Debourgs live in a tall old house in a quiet street not far from the Town Moor. In front it looks upon a tract of allotments which once, I believe, was a public garden or a cricket pitch or something less utilitarian than it is today; while behind, the windows of the house give on to an alleycat's heaven of higgledy−piggledy rooftops, outhouses and sheds: a labyrinth of blackened bricks and mortar, looking perhaps even more dreary under the September sunshine than it did under the thick cloud and grey curtains of rain that had veiled it for the whole of my last visit in the Easter Vacation. I had penetrated that labyrinth several times, for in the heart of it is a little square surrounded by tumbledown black stone cottages which Piers declares was once the village green, and in this square stands the Admiral Benbow. But I would never attempt to steer a course to

the Admiral, let alone away from him, without Piers for pilot.

We had a Northern High Tea which was protracted to something near the Southern dinner−time by cheerful conversation with Piers's mother and father; then, when Mrs. Debourg had turned down our not very insistent offer to help wash the pots, we went out and boarded the Admiral, where we found entertainment enough to delay us until supper time.

Our help in washing−up the supper things was not scorned, I remember. Or perhaps it was not noticed in time for objection to be made, for Piers's father had got fairly launched at the supper−table on tales of his boyhood in Connemara and was not to be interrupted by the mere trifles of domestic routine. So we all four moved into the kitchen and the pots were washed among us while we followed him through a long story about a joiner's apprentice, a corpse, a screwdriver, a top−hat and a stone jar of whisky.

It was late when Piers and I went upstairs, but we did not go straight to bed. We climbed a further flight to one of the little attic rooms under the roof which Piers uses as his own study. There we sat, as we have sat many an hour between a night and its morning in his rooms or mine at Christ's, smoking our pipes—I was going to say in a silence of mutual understanding, but Newcastle beer, unlike the quiescent gripe−water sold under that name in some parts of this realm, retains even in these times a certain independence of action, so the mutual understanding was not entirely silent. Still, it was inarticulate for a long time, until Piers remarked:

“You've heard me talk about Daphne Hazel?”

“I have then,” I replied. “Sorry, but I always begin to pick up the Celtic idiom after listening to your father for an hour or two. That's the weakness of your student of languages— always more attentive to the manner than the matter of a discourse. But what about her?” “She's a sane sort of person,” he observed. “You mean her lucid intervals come fairly close together? Well, that's a satisfactory condition, ain't it? What's remarkable about that? Except its rarity, of course.”

“You know she and I were good friends at school. We've written to each other at intervals all this last year while she's been at Towerton. She's training to be a gym−teacher. I hadn't heard from her for some time, though, until yesterday when I received a communication.” “Telepathic, telegraphic, or merely postal?” “Well, written, anyway, and sent by post.” “And that's shaken your faith in her sanity? Ah well Nothing's ever quite what it seems. But what are the exact grounds of certification?”

I remember that Piers took some time to reply. The little I knew about Daphne Hazel up to this time is soon told: Piers had mentioned her to me quite often in the two years I had known him. I had an impression of a lively, intelligent, level−headed girl who had taken with him a leading part in all the Sixth−Form activities at their school and been somewhat lonely when he, being a year older, went up to Cambridge and she stayed on another year at Whitehill Secondary School. I imagined that she must have been reckoned a clever girl: she seemed, from his talk, to have been as interested in books as he was; but she wanted to get out of the predestined academic grooves laid down for ninety per cent of Secondary School boys and girls who go on to the Higher School Certificate: I mean, a Training College, or a University if they're lucky, and then a job in an elementary or secondary school. She was unhappy at home: she wanted to get away and do something different and she thought she was doing it by getting a scholarship to Towerton Physical Training College. Piers obviously wished she had gone up to Cambridge.

“Oh, the oddity is slight enough,” he said. “It's not so much the things she writes about as that it's she who should write about them.”

That filled me with forebodings. But I know my duty when Piers begins to talk about literature.

“You mean that up to now you've assumed that she enjoyed the possession of what a plain man would call a healthy mind?”

“If you're that plain man, yes,” he said. “And another thing to bear in mind is that at a place like Towerton she's not likely to have come under influences that would encourage the germination of elvish fancies and eerie illusions. I take it that a Physical Training College is the sort of place where Mens Sana in Corpore Sano is inscribed in letters six foot high on the hygienically tiled walls of every well−ventilated cubicle; where a day that begins at six a.m. with, a cold shower and is divided equally between the gym and the playing−field with brief intervals for wholesome, balanced meals, leaves the body so drowsed with healthy exertion that the minute it tumbles into bed its tenant mind has no option but to draw the blinds likewise and slumber in a bli ...

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