A Wild Day

Looking up casually in the middle of writing a letter, Mrs. Miniver saw, through the back window of the drawing-room, something that she had never consciously seen before: the last leaf being blown from a tree. One moment it was there, on the highest bough of all, wagging wildly in the wind and the rain. The next moment it was whirling away across the roof tops, a forlorn ragged speck. The line of its flight was the arabesque at the end of a chapter, the final scroll under the death-warrant of summer. Once more the lime-tree stood bone-naked.

So that was that: and a good thing, too. At first, like most people, Mrs. Miniver had enjoyed the amazing spell of warm weather which had lasted throughout October and most of November. It had been pleasant and comforting; it had helped to heal the scars which the last fortnight of September had left behind. But later, as day after day broke close and windless, and night after night failed to bring any refreshing chill, she began to feel oddly uneasy. The year, now, seemed like an ageing woman whose smooth cheeks were the result, not of a heart perennially young, but of an assured income, a sound digestion, and a protective callousness of spirit. Out of those too-bright eyes there looked, now, not youthfulness, but infantilism; and the smile which accompanied the look was growing a little vacant.

Therefore, it had been a great relief when, a few days before, the weather had broken with a spectacular gale. The old beautiful painted aristocracy of the leaves, already tottering, had fallen in a night, overthrown by outward pressure and inward decadence. What remained were the essential masses of the tree, bare and sober, with a workaday beauty of their own. Through them, after a while, the sap would rise into a new aristocracy, which would flourish until it, too, had lost its freshness; and then fall. There is no other way, it seems, in a deciduous world. True evergreenness does not exist: the word is only another term for the ability to overlap the old with the new.

By the time she had finished her letter (which was a long one to Vin) the rain had nearly stopped, though the gale was as strong as ever. She put on a mackintosh and struggled up the square to the pillar-box. Outside the little newsagent's the evening paper placards were flapping under their wire grids like netted geese. The lower half of one of them had been folded upwards by the wind, hiding everything except the word "JEWS." Mrs. Miniver was conscious of an instantaneous mental wincing, and an almost instantaneous remorse for it. However long the horror continued, one must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter -- people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.

She turned down the next street towards the river. It was Nannie's day out and she was going to fetch the children from school. The Royal Hospital, with bare straining trees in front of it and black flying clouds behind, stood sombrely magnificent, a fitting backcloth for the latest tragedy of the world. And here, perhaps, she thought as she battled along St. Leonard's Terrace under the lee of the wall, was a clue to the uneasiness which she had felt at the lingering on of summer. All the associations of November, the traditional flotsam left upon its shore by the successive tides of history, went ill with halcyon weather. It was the wind-month, the blood-month, Brumaire, the month of darkness: its sign was the evil scorpion, who, when surrounded by a ring of fire, was said to sting itself and die of its own poison. It was ushered in by the Vigil of Saman, Lord of Death, by the witches and warlocks of Hallowe'en. A later tide had left a later mark -- the ritual bonfires of Guy Fawkes' Day, round which children still stood in primitive excitement, their innocent eyes reflecting unconsciously the twin flames of sadism and fire-worship. This year, down at Starlings, the farmer's children next door had made an extra large bonfire, and for the Guy's face they had used a mask representing the wicked Queen out of Disney's "Seven Dwarfs," which Joey Iggulsden had bought at the village shop. This blend of two nursery ideologies, three hundred years apart, had particularly appealed to Clem. It showed, he said, that children had an inborn knowledge that evil was evil, irrespective of time or place: but Vin said it only showed that Joey Iggulsden had a sense of humour. Anyway, it had been a grand bonfire, of a terrifying heat and redness. Mrs. Miniver had tried for a few moments to treat the scene as a reality, and had found herself wondering whether there was any cause or conviction in the world for which she would have the courage to go to the stake. She could think of several for which she would make the attempt: but, as the effigy lurched forward suddenly from the waist, with forked flames writhing out of its sleeves like burning fingers, and its painted leer crumpling up in the heat, she shuddered, and admitted humbly enough that she herself would probably recant at the crackling of the first twig.

However, nobody nowadays was burnt at the stake. The unfortunate ones of the world were subjected to a more lingering torment, and the fortunate ones were merely condemned to watch it from a front seat, unwilling tricoteuses at an execution they were powerless to prevent. The least they could do was not to turn away their eyes; for with such a picture stamped upon the retina of their memory they would not be able to lie easy until they had done their best to ensure that it could never happen again. But it was going to leave yet another ineffaceable watermark on the bleak shores of November.

When she reached the Embankment she met the full force of the gale, and exulted in it. Yes, this was the kind of weather that the events of the world called for: a wild, dark day, suitable for a wild, dark mood. From the two tall chimneys of the power station the smoke streamed out horizontally, a black banner and a white one. The river was at the three-quarter flood. It looked like a battlefield, water and wind meeting angrily in a thousand small hand-to-hand contests. But in an hour or so the tide would turn.

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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther