As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a
horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths
of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her
back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.
The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which
would go on for five minutes or thereabouts if you did not stop it.
Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious and
contemptible self-pity, which usually seized upon her when it was
time to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head under
the bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears.
She struggled against her fatigue, however, and, according to her
custom, exhorted herself sharply in the second person plural. Come
on, Dorothy, up you get! No snoozing, please! Proverbs vi, 9. Then
she remembered that if the noise went on any longer it would wake
her father, and with a hurried movement she bounded out of bed,
seized the clock from the chest of drawers, and turned off the
alarm. It was kept on the chest of drawers precisely in order that
she should have to get out of bed to silence it. Still in darkness,
she knelt down at her bedside and repeated the Lord’s Prayer,
but rather distractedly, her feet being troubled by the cold.
It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning.
Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child of
the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype
Hill, Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt
her way downstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp
plaster, and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from
either side of the passage on the second floor she could hear the
antiphonal snoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all
work. With care—for the kitchen table had a nasty trick of
reaching out of the darkness and banging you on the
hip-bone—Dorothy felt her way into the kitchen, lighted the
candle on the mantelpiece, and, still aching with fatigue, knelt
down and raked the ashes out of the range.
The kitchen fire was a ‘beast’ to light. The chimney
was crooked and therefore perpetually half choked, and the fire,
before it would light, expected to be dosed with a cupful of
kerosene, like a drunkard’s morning nip of gin. Having set
the kettle to boil for her father’s shaving-water, Dorothy
went upstairs and turned on her bath. Ellen was still snoring, with
heavy youthful snores. She was a good hard-working servant once she
was awake, but she was one of those girls whom the Devil and all
his angels cannot get out of bed before seven in the morning.
Dorothy filled the bath as slowly as possible—the
splashing always woke her father if she turned on the tap too
fast—and stood for a moment regarding the pale, unappetizing
pool of water. Her body had gone goose-flesh all over. She detested
cold baths; it was for that very reason that she made it a rule to
take all her baths cold from April to November. Putting a tentative
hand into the water— and it was horribly cold—she drove
herself forward with her usual exhortations. Come on, Dorothy! In
you go! No funking, please! Then she stepped resolutely into the
bath, sat down and let the icy girdle of water slide up her body
and immerse her all except her hair, which she had twisted up
behind her head. The next moment she came to the surface gasping
and wriggling, and had no sooner got her breath back than she
remembered her ‘memo list’, which she had brought down
in her dressing-gown pocket and intended to read. She reached out
for it, and, leaning over the side of the bath, waist deep in icy
water, read through the ‘memo list’ by the light of the
candle on the chair.
7 oc. H.C.
Mrs T baby? Must visit.
BREAKFAST. Bacon. MUST ask father money. (P)
Ask Ellen what stuff kitchen father’s tonic NB. to ask about
stuff for curtains at Solepipe’s.
Visiting call on Mrs P cutting from Daily M angelica tea good for
rheumatism Mrs L’s cornplaster.
12 oc. Rehearsal Charles I. NB. to order 1/2 lb glue 1 pot
DINNER (crossed out) LUNCHEON . . . ?
Take round Parish Mag NB. Mrs F owes 3/6d.
4.30 pm Mothers’ U tea don’t forget 2 1/2 yards
Flowers for church NB. 1 tin Brasso.
SUPPER. Scrambled eggs.
Type Father’s sermon what about new ribbon typewriter?
NB. to fork between peas bindweed awful.
Dorothy got out of her bath, and as she dried herself with a
towel hardly bigger than a table napkin—they could never
afford decent- sized towels at the Rectory—her hair came
unpinned and fell down over her collar-bones in two heavy strands.
It was thick, fine, exceedingly pale hair, and it was perhaps as
well that her father had forbidden her to bob it, for it was her
only positive beauty. For the rest, she was a girl of middle
height, rather thin, but strong and shapely, and her face was her
weak point. It was a thin, blonde, unremarkable kind of face, with
pale eyes and a nose just a shade too long; if you looked closely
you could see crow’s feet round the eyes, and the mouth, when
it was in repose, looked tired. Not definitely a spinsterish face
as yet, but it certainly would be so in a few years’ time.
Nevertheless, strangers commonly took her to be several years
younger than her real age (she was not quite twenty-eight) because
of the expression of almost childish earnestness in her eyes. Her
left forearm was spotted with tiny red marks like insect bites.
Dorothy put on her nightdress again and cleaned her
teeth—plain water, of course; better not to use toothpaste
before H.C. After all, either you are fasting or you aren’t.
The R.C.s are quite right there—and, even as she did so,
suddenly faltered and stopped. She put her toothbrush down. A
deadly pang, an actual physical pang, had gone through her
She had remembered, with the ugly shock with which one remembers
something disagreeable for the first time in the morning, the bill
at Cargill’s, the butcher’s, which had been owing for
seven months. That dreadful bill—it might be nineteen pounds
or even twenty, and there was hardly the remotest hope of paying
it—was one of the chief torments of her life. At all hours of
the night or day it was waiting just round the corner of her
consciousness, ready to spring upon her and agonize her; and with
it came the memory of a score of lesser bills, mounting up to a
figure of which she dared not even think. Almost involuntarily she
began to pray, ‘Please God, let not Cargill send in his bill
again today!’ but the next moment she decided that this
prayer was worldly and blasphemous, and she asked forgiveness for
it. Then she put on her dressing- gown and ran down to the kitchen
in hopes of putting the bill out of mind.
The fire had gone out, as usual. Dorothy relaid it, dirtying her
hands with coal-dust, dosed it afresh with kerosene and hung about
anxiously until the kettle boiled. Father expected his shaving-
water to be ready at a quarter past six. Just seven minutes late,
Dorothy took the can upstairs and knocked at her father’s
‘Come in, come in!’ said a muffled, irritable
The room, heavily curtained, was stuffy, with a masculine smell.
The Rector had lighted the candle on his bed-table, and was lying
on his side, looking at his gold watch, which he had just drawn
from beneath his pillow. His hair was as white and thick as
thistledown. One dark bright eye glanced irritably over his
shoulder at Dorothy.
‘Good morning, father.’
‘I do wish, Dorothy,’ said the Rector
indistinctly—his voice always sounded muffled and senile
until he put his false teeth in— ‘you would make some
effort to get Ellen out of bed in the mornings. Or else be a little
more punctual yourself.’
‘I’m so sorry, Father. The kitchen fire kept going
‘Very well! Put it down on the dressing-table. Put it down
and draw those curtains.’
It was daylight now, but a dull, clouded morning. Dorothy
hastened up to her room and dressed herself with the lightning
speed which she found necessary six mornings out of seven. There
was only a tiny square of mirror in the room, and even that she did
not use. She simply hung her gold cross about her neck—plain
gold cross; no crucifixes, please!—twisted her hair into a
knot behind, stuck a number of hairpins rather sketchily into it,
and threw her clothes (grey jersey, threadbare Irish tweed coat and
skirt, stockings not quite matching the coat and skirt, and
much-worn brown shoes) on to herself in the space of about three
minutes. She had got to ‘do out’ the dining-room and
her father’s study before church, besides saying her prayers
in preparation for Holy Communion, which took her not less than
When she wheeled her bicycle out of the front gate the morning
was still overcast, and the grass sodden with heavy dew. Through
the mist that wreathed the hillside St Athelstan’s Church
loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling
funereally boom! boom! boom! Only one of the bells was now in
active use; the other seven had been unswung from their cage and
had lain silent these three years past, slowly splintering the
floor of the belfry beneath their weight. In the distance, from the
mists below, you could hear the offensive clatter of the bell in
the R.C. church—a nasty, cheap, tinny little thing which the
Rector of St Athelstan’s used to compare with a
Dorothy mounted her bicycle and rode swiftly up the hill,
leaning over her handlebars. The bridge of her thin nose was pink
in the morning cold. A redshank whistled overhead, invisible
against the clouded sky. Early in the morning my song shall rise to
Thee! Dorothy propped her bicycle against the lychgate, and,
finding her hands still grey with coal-dust, knelt down and
scrubbed them clean in the long wet grass between the graves. Then
the bell stopped ringing, and she jumped up and hastened into
church, just as Proggett, the sexton, in ragged cassock and vast
labourer’s boots, was clumping up the aisle to take his place
at the side altar.
The church was very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient
dust. It was a large church, much too large for its congregation,
and ruinous and more than half empty. The three narrow islands of
pews stretched barely half-way down the nave, and beyond them were
great wastes of bare stone floor in which a few worn inscriptions
marked the sites of ancient graves. The roof over the chancel was
sagging visibly; beside the Church Expenses box two fragments of
riddled beam explained mutely that this was due to that mortal foe
of Christendom, the death-watch beetle. The light filtered, pale-
coloured, through windows of anaemic glass. Through the open south
door you could see a ragged cypress and the boughs of a lime-tree,
greyish in the sunless air and swaying faintly.
As usual, there was only one other communicant—old Miss
Mayfill, of The Grange. The attendance at Holy Communion was so bad
that the Rector could not even get any boys to serve him, except on
Sunday mornings, when the boys liked showing off in front of the
congregation in their cassocks and surplices. Dorothy went into the
pew behind Miss Mayfill, and, in penance for some sin of yesterday,
pushed away the hassock and knelt on the bare stones. The service
was beginning. The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was
reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now
that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious,
aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of
aloofness, almost of contempt. ‘This is a valid
sacrament,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and it is my duty
to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest,
not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise
you.’ Proggett, the sexton, a man of forty with curly grey
hair and a red, harassed face, stood patiently by, uncomprehending
but reverent, fiddling with the little communion bell which was
lost in his huge red hands.
Dorothy pressed her fingers against her eyes. She had not yet
succeeded in concentrating her thoughts—indeed, the memory of
Cargill’s bill was still worrying her intermittently. The
prayers, which she knew by heart, were flowing through her head
unheeded. She raised her eyes for a moment, and they began
immediately to stray. First upwards, to the headless roof-angels on
whose necks you could still see the sawcuts of the Puritan
soldiers, then back again, to Miss Mayfill’s black,
quasi-pork-pie hat and tremulous jet ear-rings. Miss Mayfill wore a
long musty black overcoat, with a little collar of greasy-looking
astrakhan, which had been the same ever since Dorothy could
remember. It was of some very peculiar stuff, like watered silk but
coarser, with rivulets of black piping wandering all over it in no
discoverable pattern. It might even have been that legendary and
proverbial substance, black bombazine. Miss Mayfill was very old,
so old that no one remembered her as anything but an old woman. A
faint scent radiated from her—an ethereal scent, analysable
as eau-de-Cologne, mothballs, and a sub-flavour of gin.
Dorothy drew a long glass-headed pin from the lapel of her coat,
and furtively, under cover of Miss Mayfill’s back, pressed
the point against her forearm. Her flesh tingled apprehensively.
She made it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to
her prayers, to prick her arm hard enough to make blood come. It
was her chosen form of self-discipline, her guard against
irreverence and sacrilegious thoughts.
With the pin poised in readiness she managed for several moments
to pray more collectedly. Her father had turned one dark eye
disapprovingly upon Miss Mayfill, who was crossing herself at
intervals, a practice he disliked. A starling chattered outside.
With a shock Dorothy discovered that she was looking vaingloriously
at the pleats of her father’s surplice, which she herself had
sewn two years ago. She set her teeth and drove the pin an eighth
of an inch into her arm.
They were kneeling again. It was the General Confession. Dorothy
recalled her eyes—wandering, alas! yet again, this time to
the stained-glass window on her right, designed by Sir Warde Tooke,
A.R.A., in 1851 and representing St Athelstan’s welcome at
the gate of heaven by Gabriel and a legion of angels all remarkably
like one another and the Prince Consort—and pressed the
pinpoint against a different part of her arm. She began to meditate
conscientiously upon the meaning of each phrase of the prayer, and
so brought her mind back to a more attentive state. But even so she
was all but obliged to use the pin again when Proggett tinkled the
bell in the middle of ‘Therefore with Angels and
Archangels’—being visited, as always, by a dreadful
temptation to begin laughing at that passage. It was because of a
story her father had told her once, of how when he was a little
boy, and serving the priest at the altar, the communion bell had a
screw-on clapper, which had come loose; and so the priest had said:
‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the
company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name; evermore
praising Thee, and saying, Screw it up, you little fat-head, screw
As the Rector finished the consecration Miss Mayfill began to
struggle to her feet with extreme difficulty and slowness, like
some disjointed wooden creature picking itself up by sections, and
disengaging at each movement a powerful whiff of mothballs. There
was an extraordinary creaking sound—from her stays,
presumably, but it was a noise as of bones grating against one
another. You could have imagined that there was only a dry skeleton
inside that black overcoat.
Dorothy remained on her feet a moment longer. Miss Mayfill was
creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could
barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help
her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly
large, loose, and wet. The underlip, pendulous with age, slobbered
forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow
as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark,
dewy moustache. It was not an appetizing mouth; not the kind of
mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.
Suddenly, spontaneously, as though the Devil himself had put it
there, the prayer slipped from Dorothy’s lips: O God, let me
not have to take the chalice after Miss Mayfill!
The next moment, in self-horror, she grasped the meaning of what
she had said, and wished that she had bitten her tongue in two
rather than utter that deadly blasphemy upon the altar steps. She
drew the pin again from her lapel and drove it into her arm so hard
that it was all she could do to suppress a cry of pain. Then she
stepped to the altar and knelt down meekly on Miss Mayfill’s
left, so as to make quite sure of taking the chalice after her.
Kneeling, with head bent and hands clasped against her knees,
she set herself swiftly to pray for forgiveness before her father
should reach her with the wafer. But the current of her thoughts
had been broken. Suddenly it was quite useless attempting to pray;
her lips moved, but there was neither heart nor meaning in her
prayers. She could hear Proggett’s boots shuffling and her
father’s clear low voice murmuring ‘Take and
eat’, she could see the worn strip of red carpet beneath her
knees, she could smell dust and eau-de-Cologne and mothballs; but
of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the purpose for which she had
come here, she was as though deprived of the power to think. A
deadly blankness had descended upon her mind. It seemed to her that
actually she COULD not pray. She struggled, collected her thoughts,
uttered mechanically the opening phrases of a prayer; but they were
useless, meaningless—nothing but the dead shells of words.
Her father was holding the wafer before her in his shapely, aged
hand. He held it between finger and thumb, fastidiously, somehow
distastefully, as though it had been a spoon of medicine. His eye
was upon Miss Mayfill, who was doubling herself up like a geometrid
caterpillar, with many creakings and crossing herself so
elaborately that one might have imagined that she was sketching a
series of braid frogs on the front of her coat. For several seconds
Dorothy hesitated and did not take the wafer. She dared not take
it. Better, far better to step down from the altar than to accept
the sacrament with such chaos in her heart!
Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open
south door. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds.
It struck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray of
leaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green,
greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as though
some jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant,
filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood of
joy ran through Dorothy’s heart. The flash of living colour
had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace
of mind, her love of God, her power to worship. Somehow, because of
the greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O all
ye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began to
pray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon her
tongue. She took the chalice from her father, and tasted with
repulsion, even with an added joy in this small act of self-
abasement, the wet imprint of Miss Mayfill’s lips on its