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The Godwits Fly

Chapter Twenty-Three — Absalom, My Son

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Chapter Twenty-Three
Absalom, My Son

John kept his nose buried in This Believing World until a shop assistant started to hang about with that look of ratlike inquiry and disdain which preceded, ‘Is there anything I can show you, sir?’ Then he closed the book, with an ostentatious yawn, and strolled away to the Poetry Counter. (For years he had had This Believing World in brown-paper covers on his shelf, but looking at it gave him his pretext.)

At the Poetry Counter, which looked unbrushed and obscure, and bore no large excitable placards in modern type, he made a few passes over the Augustan Series, and a nice set of Browning in vermilion leather covers. Then, stealthily, he slipped his hand down to the lowest shelf, where humble little books lay tethered in elastic slip-bands like ladies’ garters, old style, and drew one out. Its title was Stranger Face, and for the hundredth time he thought he had seldom seen a worse job of printing. Feeling the shop assistant's eye burn a little hole through his collar, he pretended to be glancing through the verses. When the coast was clear, he unfolded Stranger Face at its centre pages, and set it ostentatiously in the middle of the top shelf.

For a second he stood admiring his handiwork, then moved away; when he got as far as Travel and Biography, rage seized him as he saw the inquisitive assistant take down Stranger Face and thrust it out of sight in its garter. Half blind with temper and the cups of bad tea which were beginning to affect his sight, he lingered over Travel and Biography. Lowell Thomas—the world had come to a damned fine pass if it waited for Lowell Thomas to revolve it upon its axis. And this shop assistant!… Providentially, the inquisitive rat was summoned to another counter. John scurried back to Poetry, found Stranger Face, dusted it with clumsy gentleness, and set it back in star position. A hand touched him on the shoulder.

‘That's not the first time I've caught you at it. What do you think you're coming at?’

For a moment the ghost of his father entered into John. He roared, and the shop assistant wilted. His face looked as funny as if against page 224 his will he had performed a double back somersault. ‘What the devil do you mean?’ added John. ‘Do you take me for a pickpocket? The last time I come into your miserable establishment!…’ (Bluff, for he never purchased at this otiose plate-glassed place, only at the secondhand shops.) The assistant felt better when Mr Hansen, his departmental manager, popped briskly out of Atmosphere.

Mr Hansen was brisk. ‘What's all this? What's the trouble, sir? Simms, we can't have disturbances here. What have you been doing?’

‘This man’—John glared, and Simms amended it to ‘This gentleman. He keeps moving the books about, sir, on the Poetry Counter. He's done it at least half a dozen times, and when I put the books back in their proper order, he waits till my back's turned, then he deliberately interferes again.’ Simms began to feel that he was wronged. His voice trembled with indignation and hurt pride. ‘I ask you, sir, how I'm to keep stock of my own counters if I can't arrange the books without the public stepping in and interfering?’

‘What does he interfere with?’ Mr Hansen still believed, in a faded way, that the customer, even an escaping customer, is preferably right.

‘This little thing, sir.’ Stranger Face, paper-covered, dangled like a dead rat in Mr Simms's contemptuous paw. ‘Right middle top, he puts it, and centre pages full spread, with Wordsworth on the one side and Tennyson on the other.’

‘How can you expect to sell a book if you keep it under the counter, done up in a female's leg-band?’ snarled John.

Mr Hansen said gravely: ‘This, sir, is a local production. I'm afraid local productions don't do us much good. The public won't look at them.’ He swept wide, white hands, exonerating his shop, damning the public.

‘Can't you tell poetry when you read it? Local production—you're a local shop, aren't you? You live by local custom, don't you? Then what do you mean, letting snippets like him look down their noses? I suppose a poet's a poet, even if born in this country or in the middle of the Sahara desert.’

‘A very poor bit of book-production,’ sighed Mr Hansen.

John said stubbornly, ‘Well, read the verses, can't you? Surely if they're good, you can do something about it.’

‘As it happens, sir, I have read this book. And my opinion is’ (Mr Hansen's voice grew solemn, as if he were pronouncing on a vintage wine or a cigar) ‘that in spite of its unfavourable appearance, these verses are very creditable. Very creditable indeed. But the misfortune is, there's no sale for a book of the type.’

‘If there's no sale, can't you make one?’

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‘Well, sir, from the outside covers, it doesn't look good enough to recommend as a Christmas present. You know what I mean. There's nothing between the people who buy seven-and-sixpennies and the people who buy Christmas cards. Unless it's mottoes and little books of that sort.’ (Mr Hansen indicated a dishevelled counter, whose Little Flowers and Bright Wayside Thoughts were systematically pawed over by unhappy fabric gloves looking for Something between ninepence and one-and-six, please… yes, just that sort of little thing. Oh, is the corner a little bit bent? Oh, I see, it's reduced.)

‘The market is for cards and mottoes,’ said Mr Hansen, sombrely. ‘Look at the Augustan Series—beautiful little books, and yet I can't give them away. I estimate the entire poetry sales in this country as under three hundred, unless there's a made name or a very special appeal, and in the case of this little book, there is not. Of course, sir, you may tell me, when we get inside it's a different matter. But who gets inside? Who gets inside?’

Irrelevantly John thought of Jonah and the whale. He mumbled, ‘Well, it's good poetry, that's all. I bought half a dozen copies myself; why shouldn't others do the same?’ He turned his shabby back and walked away from them. His too-long navy coat made him look vaguely like somebody who has been kicked out of Holy Orders. The plate-glass door swung smoothly behind him. Mr Simms sniggered. Mr Hansen said a little severely, ‘A customer's a customer, whatever his tastes. You may leave one copy out.’

‘Top shelf, sir?’

‘Certainly not. Second top shelf.’

Stranger Face still dangled like a dead rat from Mr Simms's paw. It fell open as he moved it to second top shelf, and he beheld without seeing:

She stands an instant in the sun
Athwart her harsh land's red and green—
Hands of a serf, and warrior eyes
Of some flame-sceptred Irish queen.

One moment, still. A little sob
Shakes parted lips and straining breast,
As if she hears the feet of those
Who tread her own forsaken quest.

As if she does not care that life
Has reft the jewels from her hair—
But grieves that menial needs and base
Were those that left her palace bare.

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Then, with a strange and iron hand,
Destiny reaches forth, and grips
The ruined cities in her eyes,
The bitter beauty of her lips.1

Yes, thought John, shambling along the pavement, his thin unkempt hair giving him his usual wild look, probably Eliza's poems were good, since she said so; but he couldn't make head or tail of them himself. Poetry, like loving Peggy Lippincott all those years ago, was something that happened to you or it didn't, and it couldn't be helped.

Only Eliza should get a fair deal. Things shouldn't be so shabby. He remembered her as a plumpish little girl, declaiming Byron, without a thought in her head as to what that full-fledged poet had really meant. And yet…

There is none of Beauty's daughters
With a magic like to thee,
And like moonlight on the waters
Is thy sweet face to me.…2

An ultra-sophisticated poet could write that, a child could understand it, or an ageing man, against whose ink-spotted shiny navy serge the Iceland poppies in men's flower-barrows cocked their impudent little snooks. There was a language, then, which all could speak. Poetry had something to do with it and the far lines of music, and the unspeakable patience of the grave; and even machines, when people extracted themselves from thinking whorishly of machines as machines, and thought of them as the consummation of many tall woods, the stroking of the gentle breasts of many harvests. So the poet and the iron age of to-day crept together—one to make the clamouring iron hands, one to teach the iron hands that, even yet, they were the thought and means of flesh.

Sometimes Eliza bobbed in, quick and laughing, and sat swinging her legs from the kitchen table, her new-cut hair red-curly in the electric light. She had written a book, so he could give her a little place for pride: but intimacy? Something had gone wrong ages ago, and he was too befogged ever to set it right. The walls of Laloma, the Abode of Love, creaked and groaned with too many suppressed complaints. They were anguish.

He was an atheist, and Eliza was a girl, not a boy. But standing in the streaming chill sunlight, white clear and radiant on the oval of his sharp argumentative head, the words of the old King were in his mind.

‘O Absalom, my son, my son. Would God that I had died for thee, my son Absalom.’