Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Statue in the Block

A nice piece of Christmas Eve Gothic from Maxwell Gray's 1893 The Last Sentence. In this episode from the novel, the protagonist - the respected barrister Cecil Marlowe - isn't much enjoying a jolly village Christmas with upper-crust friends who include his fiancée Cynthia Brande. He's a worried man, as a secret from the past has caught up with him: his existing marriage to the Breton peasant Renée Kérouac. While he knows she has sought him out, having recognised her at an ice-skating party, he is unaware that she has been stalking the happy gathering from the garden, during the overnight blizzard.

Page 229: "Yet her glance did not blanch
from the torturing sight.... Should she
crash blindly through the window-pane and
shout the truth in their startled ears?"


A rich orange dawn began a clear, keen, blue Christmas Day, revealing a world of purest, sparkling white, azure-shadowed and carved and fretted into fairest fantastic shapes.

The two boys, wakened by the continued pealing of the bells, were astir before the last stars had faded, and busy breathing the rime from their window to see the marvellous spectacle of faery disclosing itself in the frosty sunrise, which they welcomed with exclamations of surprise and delight.

They stormed, half-dressed, into Cecil's room, the windows of which looked down on the silver firs; but he bid them go with an amiability that promised no fun. Then they rushed in to Dick, who vainly feigned slumber, and, after first snoring and then growling genially beneath the clothes, at last rose to the occasion and threw things at them till they retreated shouting. Next they danced in to Cynthia, who kissed their firm round cheeks and asked if they had said their prayers, after which she also rose to the occasion and sat up, flushed with sleep, and half-shrouded in her shining hair, to hear of the deep snow-fall and the strange fantasies of the drifts, the joyous tidings that no one could "tub" that morning because "every blessed pipe on the place is froze, Bob says," the despair of servants who could not get to stables and outhouses, the serious misfortune that the postman could not call with cards and parcels, and the delight of treasures discovered in their stockings. Thence they invaded the nursery, whence they were ejected with contumely, and so they pervaded the house, wishing everybody a merry Christmas, kissing the laughing maids under the mistletoe, teasing the men and hindering them in forlorn attempts to hew paths through the frozen drift, small spirits of innocent riot, whom nobody could seriously rebuke, least of all on Christmas Day, the children's day.

When Cecil, careworn and hollow-eyed, came down that morning, the first sight that met his eyes was the pleasant one of Cynthia, with the freshness of morning in her face and the sparkle of the exhilarating air in her eyes, standing at the hall-window, whence the Christmas firelight had streamed the night before, with her little brothers clinging to her, both talking at once.

"You did well to come home last night, Cecil," she said ; "the roads will be blocked to-day. But it must have been bitter work riding through that storm. And you look so tired!" — this with tenderest compassion.

"Bitter to sweet end," he replied, his face brightening all over at the tenderness in the sweet voice, though his breath caught in a sigh as he went on : "I am all right, being as hard as nails. But this vast whiteness is frightfully depressing. Nobody over ten likes snow."

"Oh, but I love it! Yet it is, not exactly sad, but most solemn — a purity that inspires awe."

Lady Susan, who had come up, agreed with her favourite as usual. "Yet it must always be in a measure sad to people who have seen many winters," she added ; "it means so much suffering. Presently we shall hear of sheep being dug out, frozen to death. And the poor birds! But the drift is lovely. What graceful shapes !"

" That under the firs is so curious," Cynthia added. "What is it like? A statue just beginning to take shape in the block, roughly but accurately sketched."

The outlines were really quite human, they all agreed, and the boys disputed if it were a woman or a man as they .went dancing in to breakfast. But none of them dreamed of the tragic secret shrouded in the white drift.

The capricious storm had poured the drift over the porch in a cascade that roofed it and fell over upon the lee side; the steps were buried deep, but the lay of the land was such that the greater part of the carriage-drive was swept to a soft thin carpet, pleasant to walk on.

After breakfast the belated and welcome postman reported the way practicable though difficult, and a pioneering party, including the two boys, having been sent on with shovels, the family started in a body for the church, which was about half a mile distant.

The melody of the bells, those eight clear-toned Cottesloe bells, of which the Marlowes as well as the villagers were so proud, filled the keen, exhilarating air; the snow sparkled in the frosty sunshine and made its peculiar indescribable sound, which is neither the English crunch nor the French crier, beneath their feet; the motionless trees, here bowed by great masses of drift, and there bearing foliage of soft fleece on every bough, the strange carvings and flutings and delicate feather-and-leaf-work cut with pure azure shadows in the white drift, were so beautiful; the white champaign contrasted with dark houses and trees, the half-buried village with ivied tower and purple smoke-spires, the long shadows and the dim blue horizon, were so bright, still, and serene, that it was impossible not to be cheered and uplifted in heart while stepping briskly along in the cloudless morning. The boys were like colts; Dick and his father merry; Cynthia was in what Lady Susan called one of her wild moods; even Cecil's heavy heart shook off its load, and his brow cleared as they set forth, passing within a stone's-throw of the silver firs and the strangely sculptured drift.

" The upper part is the best defined," Cynthia commented in passing; "I wonder if sculptors work in that way, from the head downward. "

"It reminds me of that prince in the 'Arabian Nights,'" Lady Susan added ; "from the waist downward he was marble beneath his robes, and no one knew why he never moved."

Cecil touched it as he passed, and Cynthia's dress brushed it; the children's laughter eddied round it, and the General plunged his stick into the outer part of it to measure its depth.

" It's the first time all my life long I ever digged myself to church," cried Hugh, shouldering his little spade, and dancing backward into a snow-wreath, whence he was not extracted without much mirth and involving others in his fall. Cynthia was still child enough to enter into the spirit of the boy's fun, and laughed pitilessly when, as they went through the gate, the General, after slyly returning a snowball she pretended to have given him by mistake, put on his severest face, and crying, "No more skylarking now, boys!" was silenced by the sudden plumping down of a mass of snow from the trees on his tall hat, which was ignominiously crushed over his nose.

"My dear Cynthia!" expostulated Lady Susan at last, when the united efforts of the family had extricated the head and restored something of its pristine shape to the hat; but Cynthia's laughter, which was one of her charms, continued to ring out with inextinguishable, helpless joyousness, as if a fountain of mirth within her had bubbled over, and rose up with more strength the more it was suppressed. It was the pure heart-whole laughter of a child; it seemed an echo of those clear- toned bells pealing from the tower; it deepened the healthy colour in her cheek and lips, and increased the lustre of her eyes. But it made Cecil sad.

"Let her laugh," the General said, himself bubbling over for pure sympathy ; "no woman out of her teens laughs like that!"

Cecil could not but smile for all his sickness of heart; he asked himself if she would ever again laugh like that, as they turned and entered the village, where lads were busy clearing the road, indulging in rough play and homely jokes, and being well pelted by small urchins; where sprigs of holly gleamed in cottage windows, and people were digging out paths and clearing drifts from blocked windows on one side of the road, the other being free ; where the dignified housekeeper from Cottesloe was sitting helpless and mournful in the middle of the trodden, slippery road, and other worthy folk were seen to be surprised by snow-blocks from invisible shovels and avalanches from unnoticed trees; where meetings were taking place and disasters being recounted, and the Cottesloe party saluted on every hand; where the forge was aglow and the anvil mingling its workaday clink with the Sunday sound of bells because of those frisky horses waiting outside to be roughed ; where concertinas were being played at cottage doors, mistletoe was worn, and flushed housewives were preparing Christmas dinners, much embarrassed by the general blockade of outhouses; and where the unaccustomed music of sledge-bells suddenly arose and drew every creature, cats and dogs not excepted, out to look at George Cople)'' driving a pair of bright-maned chestnuts in a gayly ornamented sledge up to the churchyard-gate.

"Come on, mates," cried Bob Ryall, stopping at a half-buried cottage, whence no smoke issued, and beginning to work with his shovel ; "who's a-going sneaking up the back stairs to heaven while poor old Granny Baker's snowed up?"

"Not Bob," commented General Marlowe. "If any man is let in without question at the front gate, 'twill be he. Now, Cynthia, if I see you giving away any more half-crowns, I shall issue a warrant against you for corrupting the village. As for my lady, she's past praying for."

It was a merry walk ; the two boys could scarcely calm down into decent composure inside the church, where the scent of evergreens and the shining red berries gave them a vague sense of relaxed discipline. Cecil looked from Cynthia's innocently sparkling face to their round cheeks, glowing above their round white collars, and long dormant chords, still further vibrated by the Christmas hymns and lessons, were touched within him.

He remembered that, not so very many years ago, he and Dick had been just such a rollicking pair as those lads; he remembered that a child had been born to him, and might, for all he knew, still be alive. All through the sermon he pondered upon ways of communicating with his wife, especially respecting this little child. He could not advertise, because of the publicity; the only feasible plan seemed to be to write to the Kérouacs or the Orleans school-mistress. A good thought had come to him in the night. His wife knew his full name at the date of his marriage, and had remarked upon his abbreviated signature: this knowledge would make a marriage void in English law; but French marriages are so terribly secure. As he made these, pious reflections, his eyes rested upon Cynthia's innocent face, now to proper gravity and reverence, when the contrast between her probable devout thoughts and his profane ones, together with the idea of what she would think if she knew that her affianced husband was planning how to get rid of a wife before marrying her, seemed so fiendishly grotesque that he nearly burst into a wild roar of wicked laughter.

The two young men took the boys home when the congregation divided in the Communion service. Then they yielded to the children's entreaties to help make a suggestive piece of drifted snow into a regular fortification all ready for a snow-ball fight It would be great fun, the little rogues thought, to shell the remainder of the party on their return from church from behind these bastions. Bob Ryall was easily pressed into the service, being always available for anything that needed a helping hand and having no exact duties of his own, beyond a general devotion to Cecil, whose part in the snow-works was chiefly that of adviser.

The business went merrily on, Richard and Bob, with their coats off, working hard with shovels, while Cecil, having lighted a cigar, stood in the porch and directed them, thinking of far different things and looking indifferently at the singular snowdrift, unconscious of the agony hushed beneath it, unconscious of the answer it contained to his ever- vexing problems. The sun drew keen little sparkles from the snow whenever it struck the angle of a crystal or a feathered bough, and here and there it was warm enough to produce icicles frozen before they grew long. The group of silver firs was especially rich in sparkle — a lovely thing traced in black and silver upon the singularly pure blue of a winter noon sky.

Cecil's glance rested wistfully upon it; natural beauty had lost its charm in the misery that gnawed at his heart. Even if he succeeded in gaining the divorce, how keep the marriage from Cynthia's knowledge? She would never marry a divorced man, however innocent, nor would she ever condone his denial of his wife — nor would his mother. It must never come to their knowledge. He stood above a volcano that might at any moment break out beneath his feet.

"Come, Cis, lend a hand!" cried Marmaduke, filling his tall Sunday hat with snow, and using it as a hod.

Cecil stepped rescue the hat and send the boy in for a more suitable one.

"Don't touch this drift again," he added, going up to the silver firs; "it is too pretty to be spoiled."

But he suddenly stopped in the act of smoothing over the hollow scooped by Marmie's destructive hand — his breath stopped; his heart stopped; his eyes were fixed stonily. Was it the blinding glare of sunlight upon the snow? Was it a delusion? He held his hand before his closed eyes for a moment, and then looked again. It was no delusion, but the sharp flash of silver in the sunshine.

He brushed the snow hastily away, and disclosed something black, on which the bright silver glittered — the bright silver image of a crucified man. He knew it at once, recognized the delicate artistic modelling, the graceful droop of the dying head — he had chosen it for its beauty as a suitable gift for his wife. He took it in a shaking hand ; the soft snow yielded ; the chaplet was easily detached from its bed. The silver links quivered like living things in that shaking clasp — quivered and became suddenly tense, held firmly by something beneath the snow.

Was it another hand? A nameless horror clutched at his heart; great drops started on his forehead; the blood beat furiously in his temples; the pure, cold snowdrift looked of a burning crimson and wavered before his eyes, so that it was some moments before he could discern the ivory white of a rigid hand bedded in the purer white of the snow — the hand linked to his not only by prayers and the sign of salvation, but by the golden fetters of marriage. It seemed as if he must send forth the shrill cry that rose in his quivering throat. Shuddering from head to foot, he kept it in, biting his trembling under lip till the blood came and fell, staining the snow with two drops like crimson tears.

- Maxwell Gray, The Last Sentence (1894 Lovell, Coryell edition, Internet Archive lastsentence00hencgoog).

See The Last Sentence - Albert Hencke illustrations at A Wren-like Note for further Albert Henke illustrations from the book.

- Ray

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