In the middle of the great frost she was in bed with influenza; and that was the time the bee man came from the next village to take the swarm that had been for years buried in the wall of her country house; deep under the leads roofing the flat platform of the balcony outside her bedroom window.
She lay staring out upon a mineral landscape; iron, ice, and stone. Powdered with a wraith of spectral blue, the chalky frost-fog stood, thickened in the upper air; and behind it a glassy disc stared back, livid, drained of heat, like a gas lamp turned down, forgotten, staring down uselessly, aghast, upon the impersonal shrouded objects and dark relics in an abandoned house. The silence was so absolute that it reversed itself and became in her ears continuous reverberation. Or was it the bees, still driving their soft throbbing dynamo, as mostly they did, day in, day out, all the year round?—all winter a subdued companionship of sound, a buried murmur; fiercer, louder, daily more insistent with the coming of the warm days; materializing then into that snarling, struggling, multiple-headed organism pinned as if by centripetal force upon the outside of the wall, and seeming to strive in vain to explode away from its centre and dispersed itself.
No. The bees were silent. As for the children, not one cry. They were in the garden somewhere: frost-struck perhaps like all the rest.
All at once, part of a ladder oscillated across the window space, became stationary. A pause; then a battered hat appeared, then a man’s head and shoulders. Spying her among the pillows, his face creased in a wide grin. He called cheerfully: ‘Good morning!’
She had lost her voice, and waved and smiled, pointing to her throat.
‘Feeling a bit rough? Ah, that’s a shame. There’s a lot of nasty colds and that about. Bed’s the best place this weather, if you ask me.’
He stepped up on to the little balcony, and stood framed full-length in the long sash window—a short, broad figure in a roll—collared khaki pull-over, with a twinkling blue small peasant’s eye in a thin lined face of elliptical structure, a comedian’s face, blurred in its angles and hollows by a day’s growth of beard.
‘Come to take that there swarm. Wrong weather to take a swarm. I don’t like the job on a day like this. Bad for ’em. Needs a mild spell. Still, it don’t look like breaking and I hadn’t nothink else on and you wanted the job done.’
His speech has a curious humming drawl, not altogether following the pattern of the local dialect: brisker, more positive. She saw that, separated by the frosty pane, they were to be day-long companions. The lady of the house, on her bed of sickness, presented him with no problems in etiquette. He experienced a simple pleasure in her society: someone to chat to on a long job.
‘I’ll fetch my mate up.’
He disappeared, and below in the garden he called: ‘George!’ Then an unintelligible burr of conversation, and up he came again, followed by a young workman with a bag of tools. George felt the embarrassment of the situation, and after one constricted glance through the window, addressed himself to his task and never looked towards her again. He was very young, and had one of those nobly modelled faces of working men; jaws, brows profoundly carved out, lips shutting clearly, salient cheekbone, sunk cheek, and in the deep cavities of the eye-sockets, eyes of extreme sadness. The sorrow is fixed, impersonal, expressing nothing but itself, like the eyes of animals or of portraits. This face was abstract, belonging equally to youth or age, turning up here and there, with an engine-driver’s cap on, or a soldier’s; topping mechanics’ overalls, lifting from the roadmender’s gang to gaze at her passing car. Each time she saw it, so incorrupted, she thought vaguely, romantically, it was enough to believe in. She had had a lot of leisure in her life to look at faces. She had friends with revolutionary ideas, and belonged to the Left Book Club.
‘Be a long job this,’ called the bee man. ‘Looks like they’ve got down very deep.’
A sense of terror overcame her, as if some dreaded explanatory physical operation of doubtful issue, and which she would be forced to witness, was about to take place. This growth was deep down in the body of the house. The waves of fever started to beat up again.
The men disappeared. She waited for the children to appear upon the ladder; and soon, there they were. John had taken the precaution of tucking his sister’s kilt into her bloomers. In his usual manner of rather disgusted patience, he indicated her footing for her. They pranced on the balcony; tapped on the pane peered in with faces of lunatic triumph, presenting themselves as the shock of her life.
‘A man’s come to do the bees!’
‘It’s perfectly safe,’ yelled John, in scorn, forestalling her. But voiceless, she could only nod, beam, roll her eyes.
‘Shall we get Jock up?’
Frantically she shook her head.
‘But he’s whining to come up,’ objected Jane, dismayed.
The hysterical clamour of a Cairn terrier phenomenally separated from his own rose up from below.
‘We’d better go down to him,’ said John wearily, acknowledging one more victory for silliness. ‘Here come the workmen anyway. We’d only be in their way. here—put your foot here, ass.’
They vanished. Insane noises of reunion uprose; then silence. She knew that Jane had made off, her purely subjective frivolous interest exhausted; but that John had taken up his post for the day, a scientific observer with ears of deepening carmine, waiting, under the influence of an inexpressive desire for co-operation, for a chance to steady the ladder, hand up a tool, or otherwise insinuate himself within the framework of the ritual.
Up came the bee man and his mate. They set to work to lift the leads. They communicate with each other in a low drone, bee-like, rising and sinking in a minor key, punctuated by an occasional deep-throated ‘Ah!’ Knocking, hammering, wrenching developed. Somebody should tell them she could not stand it. Nobody would. She rang for the curtains to be drawn, and when they were, she lay down flat and turned her face to the wall and sank into burning sleep.
She woke to the sound of John shouting through the door.
‘They’ve gone to have their lunch. He’s coming back this afternoon to take the swarm. Most of the roof’s off. I’ve seen the bees. If only you’d drawn back your curtains you could have too. I called you but you didn’t seem to hear. The cat’s brought in two more birds, a pigeon and a tit, but we saved them and we’re thawing them behind the boiler.’
Down the passage he went, stumping and whistling.
Three o’clock. The petrified day had hardened from hour to hour. But as light began to fail, there came a moment when the blue spirit drew closer, explored the tree-tops, bloomed against the ghostly pane; like a blue tide returning, invading the white caves, the unfructifying salt stones of the sea.
The ladder shook. He was there again, carrying a kind of lamp with a funnel from which poured black smoke.
‘Take a look,’ he called cheerfully. ‘It’s worth it. Don’t suppose you ever see nothink o’ the kind before.’
She rose from her bed, put on dressing-gown and shawl and stumbled to the window. With a showman’s flourish he flung off the back sacking—and what a sight was revealed! Atolls of pale honeycomb ridging the length and breadth of beam and lath, thrusting down in serrated blocks into the cavity; the vast atmosphere murmuring black swarm suddenly exposed, stirring resentful, helpless, transfixed in the icy air. A few of the more vigorous insects crawled out from the conglomeration, spun up into the air, fell back stupefied.
‘They’re more lively that you’d think for,’ said the bee man, thoughtful. She pointed to his face, upon which three or four bees were languidly creeping. He brushed them off with a chuckle. ‘They don’t hurt me. Been stung too often. Inoculated like.’
He broke off a piece of honeycomb and held it up. She wished so much to hold it in her hand that she forced herself to push down the window, receiving the air’s shock like a blow on the face; and took it from him. Frail, blond, brittle, delicate as coral in construction, weightless as a piece of dried sponge or seaweed.
‘Dry, see,’ said the bee man. ‘You won’t get much honey out of here. It’s all that wet last summer. If I’d ‘a’ taken this swarm a year ago, you’d ‘a’ got whole heap. You won’t get anythink to speak of out of here now.’
She saw now: the papery transparent aspect of these ethereal growths meant a world extinct. She shivered violently, her spirit overwhelmed by symbols of frustration. Her dream had been rich: of honey pouring bountifully out from beneath her roof tree, to be stored up in family jars, in pots and bowls, to spread on the bread and sweeten the puddings, and save herself a little longer from having to tell the children: No more sugar.
Too late! The sweet cheat gone.
‘It’s no weather to take a swarm,’ repeated the bee man. Dejectedly he waved the lamp over the bubbling glistening clumps, giving them a casual smoke-over. ‘Still, you wanted the job done.’
She wished to justify herself, to explain the necessity of dispossessing the bees, to say that she had been waiting for him since September; but she was dumb. She pushed up the window, put the honeycomb on her dressing-table, and tumbled heavily into bed again.
Her Enemy, so attentive since the outbreak of the war, whispered in her ear:
‘Just as I thought. Another sentimental illusion. Schemes to produce food by magic strokes of fortune. Life doesn’t arrange stories with happy endings any more, see? Never again. This source of energy whose living voice comforted you at dawn, at dusk, saying: We work for you. Our surplus is yours, there for the taking—vanished! You left it to accumulate, thinking: There’s time; thinking: when I will. You left it too late. What you took for the hum of growth and plenty is nothing, you see, but the buzz of an outworn machine running down. The workers have eaten up their fruits, there’s nothing left for you. It’s no use this time, my girl! Supplies are getting scarce for people like you. An end, soon, of getting more than their fair share for dwellers in country houses. Ripe gifts unearned out of traditional walls, no more. All the while your roof was being sealed up patiently, cunningly, with spreading plasters and waxy shrouds.’
Through half-closed eyes she watched him bending, peering here and there. Suddenly he whipped out of his knife, plunging his arm forward out of sight. A pause; then came up the knife, hand again, lifting a clot of thick yellow sticky stuff. Honey.
There it was, the richness, the substance. The knife carried a packed edge of crusted sugar, and as he held it up, the syrup began to drip down slow, gummy, amber-dark. Isled in the full attack of total winter there it hung, inviolable, a microcosm of summer, melting in sweet oils.
‘Honey!’ yelled John from below.
‘Now we’re all right,’ called back the bee man in a happy voice, as if released all at once from his own weight of disappointment. ‘Plenty here—right in the corner. Did you ever see anythink so artful? Near shave me not spotting it. Oh, we’ll get you some! Run and beg us a dish off Cook, Sonny, and I’ll dish you out a nice little lot for your tea.’
She heard the urgency of the start of her son’s boots. It was as if he ran away with her, ran through her, bursting all obstacles to be back with the dish before he had gone, to offer it where it required: his part in the serious task. This pure goodwill and disinterestedness of children, this concentration of spirit so entire that they seemed to fuse with and become the object, lifted her on a cool wave above her sickness, threw her up in a moment of absolute peace, as after love or childbirth, upon a white and abstract shore.
‘That’s a nice boy you’ve got,’ said the bee man, cutting, scraping busily. ‘Sensible. I’m ever so glad to see this honey. There’s one thing I do hate to see, and that’s a swarm starved.’
The words shocked her. Crawling death by infinitesimal stages. Not a question of no surplus, but of the bare necessities of life. Not making enough to live on. A whole community entombed, like miners trapped.
A scuffle below. John’s fluting voice came up:
‘Fine. Bring it up, Sonny.”
The largest meat platter from the kitchen dresser hove in sight.
‘Thanks, mate. Now we’ll get you a bit o’ somethink to sweeten you. Need it? What does your Mammy think, eh?’ he shouted with laughter.
Unable to cope with repartee of so personal a character, John cast her a wry self-conscious grin, and rapidly vanished.
Light was rapidly failing, but the rising moon arrested the descent of darkness. In the opaque bleached twilight his silhouette persisted on the pane, bending, straightening. He hummed and whistled. Now and then he spoke softly to the bees. ‘Run off, my girl, run off.’ Once he held up his hands to show her the insects clustering upon them.
‘They don’t worry me, the jokers. Just a sore of a tingle, like as if I’d rapped myself over the fingers with a hammer.’
He brushed them off and they fell down like a string of beads breaking. They smiled at one another. She closed her eyes.
Roused by a rap on the pane, she lay in confused alarm. The lower window ran up with a swift screech, and, heaving towards her over the still in the semi-darkness, she saw a phantasmagoric figure climb in and straightened itself up. A headless figure. Where the face should have been, nothing but swaying darkness. It’s the fever. Wait, and it will go away.
She found courage to switch on the lamp and saw the bee man. He was wearing a round hat with a long circular veil of thick gauze that hung to his shoulders.
Fishing up a fragment of voice she croaked:
‘Is that your hat for taking swarms?’
‘Oh him,’ he said laughing, removing it. ‘Forgot I had him on. Did I give you a scare?’
‘Stylish,’ she said.
‘Thought you’d like to know the job’s done. I’ve got ‘em down below there. Got you a nice trouble with the black-out, bother it.’ Then he moved over to the fireplace. ‘Your fire’s gorn right down. That’s why I come in. thought I’d make it up for you.’ He knelt down, riddled the ashes, and with his bruised, swollen, wax-stuck fingers piled on more coal. ‘That’ll be more cheerful soon. Ain’t you got nobody to see you then?’
‘Oh, yes,’ she whispered. ‘There’ll be somebody coming soon. I forgot to ring.’ She felt self-pity, and wanted to weep.
‘You do seem poorly. You need giving your chest a good rub with camphorated. I believe in that.’
In another few moments he would be rubbing her chest.
But he remained by the fire, looking thoughtfully round the room. ‘This is a nice old place. I knew it when I was a young lad, of course. The old Squire used to have us up for evening classes. Improve our minds. He was a great one for that.’ He chuckled. ‘Must be ten years since he died. I’m out o’ touch. Went out to Canada when I was seventeen. Twenty years ago that was. Never got a wife, nor a fortune, nor nothink.’ He chuckled again. ‘I’m glad I got back before this war. Back where I started—that’s where I am. Living with my married sister.’
‘Won’t you have a cup of tea?’
‘No, I’ll be off home, thanks all the same. I’d best get that swarm in. they’re in a bad way.’
‘Will they recover?’
‘Ah. I couldn’t say. It wasn’t no weather to take a swarm. And then it demoralizes ‘em like when you steals their honey. They sings a mournful song—even so mournful.’ He strode to the window. ‘Still, we’ll hope for the best. George’ll be up in the morning to put them leads right. Well, I’ll wish you goodnight. Hope you’ll be more yourself tomorrow.’ At the window he paused. ‘Well, there’s no call to go out that way, is there?’ he remarked. ‘Might as well go out like a Christian.’
He marched briskly across the room, opened her bedroom door, closed it quietly after him. She heard his light feet on the oak staircase, dying away.
She took her temperature and found it was lower: barely a hundred. He had done her good. Then she lay listening to the silence she had created. One performs acts of will, and in doing so one commits acts of negations and destruction. A portion of life is suppressed for ever. The image of the ruined balcony weighed upon her: torn out, exposed, violated, obscene as the photograph of a bombed house.
What an extraordinary day, what an odd meeting and parting. It seemed to her that her passive, dreaming, leisured life was nothing, in the last analysis, but a fluid element for receiving and preserving faint paradoxical images and symbols. They were all she ultimately remembered.
Somewhere in the garden a big branch snapped off and fell crackling down.
The children burst in, carrying plates of honey.
‘Not now, thanks. I can’t really swallow anything, not even delicious honey.’
‘It isn’t delicious. It’s beastly. It looks like seccotine and it tastes much too sweet. Ugh!’
It was certainly an unappetizing colour—almost brown; the thexture gluey. It had been there too long. She croaked:
‘You oughtn’t to be in this room. Where’s Mary? Don’t come near me.’
‘Oh, we shan’t catch your old ‘flu,’ said John, throwing himself negligently backwards over the arm of the sofa and writhing on the floor. ‘Look here, Mum, what on earth did you want to get rid of the poor blighters for? They never did any harm.’
‘Think what a maddening noise they made.’
‘We like the noise. If you can’t stand the hum of a wretched little bee, what’ll you do in an air-raid?’
‘You had a lovely day watching the bee man.’
‘I dare say.’
But now all was loss, satiety, disappointment.
‘Think how everybody got stung last summer. Poor Robert. And Mr. Fanshawe.’
‘Oh, your old visitors.’
What an entertainment the bees had been, a topic, a focusing point at week-ends. But from now on, of course, there would be no more week-end parties. It was time for the bees to go.
‘Remember Jane’s eye, all bandaged up for days.’
‘I remember that.’ Jane flushed, went solemn. ‘It didn’t ‘alf ‘urt.’
‘Your English!’ cried John, revolted.
‘I got not ‘alf off Pippy Didcock,’ said Jane, complacent. ‘They all says that. It’s Oxfordshire accident.’
She started to run up and down the room, kilt flying, hair bouncing, then stood still, her hand on her chest.
‘What’s the most important thing about a person?’ she said.
‘Dopey,’ said her brother. ‘What’s biting you?’
‘Don’t you know?’ said Jane. ‘Your heart. If it stops, you die. I can hear mine after that running.’
‘It won’t stop,’ said her mother.
‘It will some day,’ said John. ‘It might stop tonight. Reminds me—‘ He fished in his pocket and drew out a dark object. ‘I brought up this tit to give it a last chance by your fire. It was at the back of the boiler, but the cats would keep prowling about. They got the pigeon. It must have been stiff eating.’ He examined the tit. ‘It’s alive!’
He rushed with it to the fire and crouched down, holding it in his palms before the now leaping flames. ‘Its eyes opened. It’s fluttering.’
Jane came and knelt beside him.
‘Isn’t it a sweet little tiny bird?’
Suddenly it flew straight up out of his hands, dashed against the mantelpiece, fell down again upon the hearth-rug. They were all perfectly silent.
After a moment his hand went out to pick it up again. Then it flew straight into the fire, and started to roast, to whirr and cheep over the coals.
In a split second she was there, plunged in her hand, out again. Smell of burnt feathers, charred fragments flaking down. It was on the hearth-stone. Everybody stared.
Suddenly it revived, it began to stagger about. The tenacity of the life in its minute frame appalled her. Over the carpet it bounced, one wing burnt off, one leg shrivelled up under its breast, no tail; up and down, vigorously, round and about.
‘Is it going to be alive?’ said Jane.
‘Yes,’ said John coldly, heavily. ‘We can’t do anything about it now.’