The Oldest Talland – A Free Short Story in Full by Hugh Walpole


by Hugh Walpole


Mrs. Comber explained to Miss Salter that, although she had been living in Cornwall all these years, she was only now, during this stay at Rafiel, beginning truly to appreciate it.

‘You see, my dear, a school’s a school, and it does somehow rather take the edge off an appreciation of beauty having to keep the little boys clean and ordering the mutton, although I must say that our matron is a thoroughly capable woman–she comes from Marlborough, where she was for a term, but couldn’t endure it because–Well, I’m wandering from the subject–what I mean is that onedoes see things on a holiday that one hasn’t quite time for perhaps during term-time.’

Rafiel was all the more beautiful for the five days’ rain that had but now submerged and obscured it. It was incredible after the dirty grey that it had so recently presented that it could now, so transcendently, glitter and shine. Mrs. Comber had watched it first from the heights of Sea View Villa. From that point it lay huddled, packed together between the hills, with its boats drawn up in rows together inside its square little harbour. Seen thus on a fine day, it caught blue from the sea and green from the hills, and wrapped its slates and stones in reflected lights. From a height it was something that might at any moment be overwhelmed by the sea–something pretty but insignificant.

How different in the heart of it! Mrs. Comber, as she picked her way along the tiny cobbled streets, exclaimed at every step that she took. At first the place offered you a straight and somewhat dingy street, with nothing very different from other streets in other Cornish towns. One or two little shops suggested to the hungry visitor saffron buns, apples and peppermints, and for the untidy inhabitant there were bootlaces, buttons and pins. There was also a Methodist chapel.

But it was when the village had tumbled so far as the post office that it suddenly made up its mind that it would, from that moment, be as incredible, as haphazard, as beautiful as water, bricks and Nature would allow it to be. Three little streets went dancing into the sea, little streets with shapeless roofs, steps leading up to green-painted doorways that hung in mid-air, streets with cobbles and dark, mysterious caverns and bursting, bulging windows, and across these three little streets a river ran for no reason at all, except that it gave an opportunity for more hanging balconies and green-and-blue reflections of painted doors and shutters. And then the streets and the river were, in an instant, pulled up by the little harbour–a square, shimmering space of blue water–with all the brown and blue-masted boats riding upon it like hounds in leash, and the grey stone pier blocking it from the sea.

The whole village hangs over this blue square and is reflected in it; the sky is painted there, and also the hills. Every mood, every glory, every temper of the place is to be found there. Beyond the stone wall there is the Atlantic, with sharp, jagged rocks (they are called the Peaks) as gateways on either side. All of this is within the compass of five minutes; it is as ancient as it can be, as crooked and unexpected and childish. There are wilder seas here than anywhere on the English coast, save, perhaps, on the Land’s End, and the saffron buns, the buttons and the peppermints are very often in danger of being swept away altogether.

And meanwhile on the face of that little square harbour every mood of earth and sky is reflected.

Mrs. Comber took it, on her first vision of it, into the arms of her most extravagant enthusiasm. Her enthusiasms were always perfectly genuine affairs, for, although she always liked to have someone with whom they might be shared, she demanded no audience for their exhibition.

She nearly filled one of the three merry little streets, her cheeks blazing with excitement, a hard black hat slipping, it seemed, from her head, her hair threatening descent, her green skirt, short and showing thick square-toed shoes, her large, good-natured mouth and black, laughing eyes.

Full of health, good temper and colour she was, and she seemed to push back the street from her on both sides with her strong arms.

The natives looked at her, as they looked at all tourists, with a friendly indifference that was ready at any moment to develop into friendly attention if pounds, shillings and pence were in the air. The Rafiel citizens are not mercenary, but as most of them are supporting families on something approaching forty pounds a year, ‘tourists’ may often make considerable difference to personal comfort. Friendliness, moreover, is invited, and as, again, most of the aforesaid citizens have never in their lives penetrated farther into the heart of the world than St. Tryst, a town seven miles away (many of them have never seen a train), conversation with visitors is instructive and entertaining.

At the same time, be it understood, there is never intimacy.

Of these things Mrs. Comber knew nothing. You may be the wife of a schoolmaster in Cornwall for a number of years without knowing anything about Cornwall. The school had always swallowed up all possible backgrounds. This was the first time that Cornwall was considered for itself, and Mrs. Comber, in the burning joy of her enthusiasm, determined to take the inhabitants of Rafiel entirely to her heart.

Here she was, staying at a dull pension, and her husband away on the golf links all day–why, of course, the only thing to do was to get to know the place and the people. Anything more attractive than the people were, too! How readily they all said ‘Good day,’ how pleasantly they smiled, how amiably they chattered with one another on their bright little doorsteps! As the sun shone and the cobbles glittered, and the sky was blue upon blue and then blue upon that again, Mrs. Comber could have kissed the old fishermen one by one, and the old ladies one after another.

As a matter of fact, the thing that she did do, in the heat of her enthusiasm, was to trample with one of her square-toed shoes upon a small and dirty girl, to send the little thing sprawling, to pick her up with a thousand exclamations, to kiss her dirty mouth, and to carry her, after explanations, back to her family.

Her family, as Fate would have it, was the Talland family.

The Tallands and the Tresennens divide Rafiel between them. They have so divided it ever since that legendary day when the first of the Tallands stood on one of the Peaks and flung rocks at the first of the Tresennens, who stood on the other of the Peaks and did his best to respond in kind.

Relations are outwardly friendly enough between the two families (there is very little bad temper in Rafiel), but through all the centuries there has been no intermarriage between them, and the rivalry is unremitting, never forgotten, never allowed to lapse.

At the head of the Tallands at this time there ruled an old lady of mythical age. She was so old that the next oldest inhabitant in Rafiel (and he was over ninety) was supposed to be a child to her. Nobody knew how old she was, and she was popularly supposed to have had no beginning; and it was expected that death would never succeed in catching her. As far as appearance went, there was nothing of her face to be seen except a sharp nose, a sharper chin, and two eyes sharper still. The nose and the chin met, and the eyes blazed. These blazing eyes stared at you from the blackness of a dark and low-roofed kitchen. Huddled amongst cushions she faced the world from her corner by the fireplace–faced the world and cursed the Tresennens.

The Talland stronghold was a crooked and uneasy house perched behind the post office, a little way up the hill, and resting there, as it seemed, on one foot, and leering down at the post office and the harbour with a wink and a snigger; with every wind it threatened collapse. The Tallands had lived there now for a very long time, and it had the advantage of being higher in position than the chief castle of the Tresennens, although the Tresennens, from their windows, could see everyone who went in and out of the Talland doorway.

Here in her dark corner old Mrs. Talland, like the most sinister and patient of spiders, had been sitting for years and years and years.

A long time ago–ten or fifteen years back, it might be–something had happened to the old lady’s throat, and her voice disappeared.

The family had at first looked on this event as an unmixed blessing, and some of the younger branches had suggested that the occasion ought to mark the end of the old lady’s rule. Little these youngsters knew. After the accident Mrs. Talland’s power was redoubled. Now that she could speak no more, her eyes, always fierce enough, had twice their former power. She attained a kind of mystical splendour that had been absent before, and, with the exception of her hard-faced youngest daughter, a maiden lady of some sixty years, who washed and fed her, the family trembled before her glance. Her eldest son, the greatest bully in Rafiel, quailed when she looked at him, and during these years of her rule the Tresennen family did not dare set their feet within a stone’s throw of the Talland house.

And it was of the Tresennen family that Mrs. Talland was always thinking. In the days of her youth–and the number of years ago that was only Mrs. Talland knew–she had been concerned in strange happenings up on the windy hill with old Mother Perith, happenings that were connected with broomsticks and wax dolls and fires and skulls and strange weeds from the hedges.

She had not forgotten anything that she had learnt then. Brooding there in her fireplace, she knew the things that she could do to the Tresennens, if she needed. But it was a long time now since she had called those powers to her aid. . . . Scornfully she thought to herself that the Tresennens could be kept in their proper place without any need for such assistance.

Fiercely, with furious determination, she bent her will to keeping herself free, independent from any assistance in this world or the next. Clergymen, visitors, doctors had forced upon her, from time to time, their officious presences. . . . She had sent them all packing. They had fled before her glance.

Let her once, her old heart fiercely determined, give in to anyone, and her power would be gone and the Tresennens triumph.

There in her stronghold she kept back the world. Then into the kitchen, noisily, with friendship shining about her and in and out of her, Mrs. Comber burst.

The Tresennens, from their windows, marked her entry.

Mrs. Comber stood, smiling, in the doorway, holding tightly by the hand the youngest of the Tallands. Gathered in a little group by the fireplace were other Tallands, a number of them, and huddled amongst her cushions, with her hands shaking a little on her lap and her eyes flaming, was the oldest of them all. Behind her chair stood the gaunt, bony Janet Talland, whose duty it was to keep her mother clean and fed.

The room was very close, as it had every reason to be, because the street door was generally shut, and the little diamond-paned window never opened. The air was heavy with the odour of fish, dying geraniums, saffron buns and tobacco.

Mrs. Comber addressed herself to Miss Janet Talland.

‘I do hope I’m not in any way interrupting or interfering, but I was silly enough–careless, perhaps I ought to say–to knock over your little girl; at least, they tell me this is her home. And how I came to do it I can’t think, except that I was admiring your beautiful town and didn’t really notice where I was going, which is a silly trick that I really must try–‘ She broke off and patted the head of the youngest of the Tallands. ‘I don’t think I hurt you, dear, did I? She cried just a little at first, but it was more fright than anything else, being knocked down suddenly–‘

The Tallands had had strange tourists within their castle before, but never any tourist like this tourist. Mrs. Comber, so glowing with colour, so voluble, so eager, froze them into silence. Old Mrs. Talland leaned forward in her chair, and her dry fingers rattled together on her lap.

‘Come ‘ere, Annie,’ said Miss Janet Talland. ‘What be ‘ee at, gettin’ in the lady’s way?’

Annie disengaged herself from Mrs. Comber’s grasp and shuffled across the floor, whimpering.

‘I do hope–‘ began Mrs. Comber. She stopped because she was bewildered by the sudden, sweeping disappearance of most of the Talland family through the street-door. Only the old lady and her grim-faced daughter remained. ‘I do hope,’ went on Mrs. Comber, more cheerfully than ever, ‘that you won’t visit the accident on poor little Annie. It wasn’t in the least poor Annie’s fault. If I’d only looked where I was going–‘

It was then that Mrs. Comber noticed old Mrs. Talland. Nobody could have looked, to the outside observer, more helpless and ready for charity. ‘Here,’ said Mrs. Comber at once to herself, ‘is a person to do good to. Here is the very interest that I have been wanting.’

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ said Mrs. Comber gaily, ‘my just stopping a moment or two. I’m not interrupting you in anything, am I? Because just tell me if I am, and go on doing just the things that you’d do if I weren’t here. Make me at home, you know.’ She sat down in a chair by the fire quite close to Mrs. Talland.

The old woman leant forward still farther and stared at her. It was many months now since any visitor had braved her presence, but no visitor within her memory had braved her as this one did. The flaunting, highly coloured, bold-faced thing! Mrs. Talland always disliked seeing youth and vigour and energy–it made her feel old–but this noise and heartiness in one who was no longer young simply disgusted her. She would have liked to slap Mrs. Comber’s red cheeks. She looked up at her daughter. Why was Janet not sending the woman to the right-about, as she generally did? She was actually allowing her to sit there.

Janet had at first been taken aback by Mrs. Comber’s energy, and then, as the minutes passed, her slow brain began to move. She knew well enough the things that her mother was thinking. She knew how she must hate the impertinence of this woman. But also she knew that for many, many years now she had served the old woman and received no return for it, had served her faithfully and obeyed her in everything. In the woman’s heart, although she had not known it until now, for many years resentment had been growing. Supposing that she should disobey her now? A fierce, hot pleasure was in her breast at the thought of getting some revenge at last. Moreover, this woman, were she treated gently, would bring things into the house–jellies and fruits and custards. And oh, how the old tyrant would hate it!

‘Sit you down, ma’am,’ Janet said slowly. ‘You aren’t disturbing us, I assure ‘ee. Mother can’t tark–‘er speech is gone this many a year.’

‘Poor old woman! Poor old woman!’ said Mrs. Comber, her voice full of compassion.

‘But she ain’t deaf, all the same,’ said Miss Talland, fearful lest the tourist should drive her mother to some sudden frenzy. ”Er ‘earing’s arl right.’

Mrs. Comber was filled with the most genuine feelings of pity and tenderness. She hated anyone to be as feeble and desolate as this poor old lady. The room seemed to her dirty and uncared-for. And how terrible to be unable to speak and to be in the hands of that cruel-looking woman. Mrs. Comber felt that she would never sleep again did she not relieve in some way Mrs. Talland’s condition.

‘Oh, but I am sorry!’ she cried, and her large black eyes were full of tenderness. ‘How dreadful not to be able to talk! I don’t know what I should do if such a thing were to happen to me. Although, perhaps,’ she went on, laughing gaily, ‘some people would say it was a good thing, because, you know, I do talk so much, too much; and it’s a trick I’ve tried to break myself of ever since I was a girl, and I’ve never been able to.’

Mrs. Talland’s hands rapped against each other in an agony. What was this horrible thing, and what, above all, was Janet about? It was then that, flinging a sharp glance at her daughter, she caught a first glimpse of the thoughts that were passing behind those cold eyes. Janet stood, gaunt and severe, with her hands folded in front of her, and about her mouth there lingered the suspicion of a grim smile.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it do be ‘ard for mother, for she was always one to love a good tark, and now she must sit there and listen, as you might say.’

‘Oh, dear, dear, I am sorry,’ said Mrs. Comber. She found it so difficult to force herself to remember that Mrs. Talland was not deaf as well as dumb. ‘But, really, Mrs. Talland, I want to do everything I can to help you.’ Here Mrs. Talland’s hands were more frantic than ever. ‘Yes, I will, indeed. If there’s anything I can do. Perhaps, Miss Talland, you can suggest–‘

‘Well,’ said Miss Talland slowly, ‘mother du have a likin’ to jellies and them soup squares, as you are so kindly askin’. The doctor ‘asn’t been in for a long time, but the last day ‘e was ‘ere I remember ‘is sayin’ that a drop o’ soup and a little jelly–‘

Surely about Mrs. Talland’s ears the world must have seemed, at that moment, to be tumbling. In her breast there was a fierce, dogged determination to fight to the bitter end, but it was the first rebellion that she had had to meet for many a long year. . . . And then from Janet–Janet, the most faithful of servants.

She did what she could with her face, striving to fling into her eyes all the hatred and loathing and disgust that was in her heart. Oh, if she could have spoken what things she would have said!

‘Well,’ continued Mrs. Comber amiably, ‘that’s very good of you, Miss Talland, to tell me the kind of thing. But do you really mean to tell me that the doctor hasn’t been here for a long time?’

‘No, that ‘e ‘asn’t.’ Miss Talland did not add that, owing to the plain speaking of the Talland family on his last visit, he had uttered a solemn vow never to cross their threshold again.

‘And he looks such a nice, kind man,’ said Mrs. Comber. ‘I really must speak to him, because a doctor can be such a help sometimes. I remember once when a little boy of mine was ill that I was in such trouble about him because he’d got a rash, but it might have been just from overeating himself in the hot weather. But our doctor was so clever about him. Really, if he hadn’t been there–well,’ she continued brightly, getting up from her chair, ‘I mustn’t trouble you any longer, Miss Talland. I’m sure you must have heaps to do, and I must be getting along. But I have enjoyed this talk so much. It is so nice getting to know you all. Good-bye, Mrs. Talland. Be assured that I will do everything for you that’s possible, and I’ll speak to the doctor about coming to see you. I’ll look in myself again in a little time. I’m so glad we’ve made one another’s acquaintance. Good-bye.’

Mrs. Comber shook hands with the unresponsive Janet, and was gone.

It must be confessed that, for a moment, as the two women faced one another, Janet’s courage forsook her. Mrs. Talland had not established her rule during all these years for nothing. The old woman’s eyes were living flames. As she sat up amongst her cushions her whole body was tense with hatred, horror, surprise, vindictive longing to get at someone and tear limb from limb.

Certainly, at that instant, those things that had belonged to Mother Perith many years ago might now have found themselves once more a home. Janet had often seen her mother look angry before, but she had never seen her anything like this. She faced her mother’s eyes–drew fire from them during a long moment, and then, slowly stealing back her gaze, she smiled. Mrs. Talland knew then that the moment had come that she had dreaded ever since she had lost her voice. Her rule was threatened.

But, worse than that, from the Tresennen windows, eyes–eager, mocking eyes–were watching. They had seen that woman come. They would see her come again.

It was well, at that moment, for Mrs. Comber that she was not within reach of Mrs. Talland’s long and grasping fingers.

Very shortly after this, Mrs. Comber, up at Sea View Villa, met the doctor, who had been invited in to bridge. She talked to him a great deal, and amongst other things she mentioned the Tallands.

‘Of course, it’s really no business of mine, doctor, but that poor old woman did look so uncared-for there, with only that grim, ugly woman to look after her. She looked as though she needed company so badly, and I thought, perhaps, if you were to go in and just give her a bright word–‘

‘I’m afraid bright words, Mrs. Comber,’ said the doctor, ‘are not things that the Talland family care for very much. Last time I was there they were so rude to me that I vowed I’d never go again. But still–I promise you–I’ll try once more.’

‘Of course,’ said Mrs. Comber, ‘they’re difficult.’

‘Just as though,’ the doctor said to his wife afterwards, ‘she’d been visiting Cornish fishermen all her days.’

In her own mind Mrs. Comber concluded that the doctor had been rough with the poor people, and, of course, they didn’t like that.

Nevertheless, the doctor kept his word and went, and, to his great surprise, was allowed by Janet to examine the old lady and to suggest medicines. Janet did not, indeed, say much to him during the visit; for the most part she remained, with her hands folded, grimly watching her mother, but the doctor was permitted to do what he would.

‘Really, Mrs. Comber,’ he said after his visit, ‘you’re a wonderful person. I don’t know what you’ve done to them, but a month ago it was as much as my life was worth to go inside their door.’

And Mrs. Comber was pleased. She now paid a visit every afternoon, and sat there sometimes for half an hour talking to Mrs. Talland. She did not in the least mind the fact that Mrs. Talland was unable to answer her. She liked to have someone to whom she might talk without interruption.

Then she brought the vicar’s wife, who brought tracts and left them on Mrs. Talland’s table. And from their windows the Tresennens watched it all. . . .

And Mrs. Comber was really happy, and spent much more than she could afford on jellies and soups and chickens.

The younger Tallands had watched these things with dumb, gasping amazement. They had always left the treatment of the head of the family in Janet’s capable hands. Janet had invariably good reasons for everything that she did, and it was to be supposed, therefore, that she had good reasons for what she did now. Slowly some inkling of the truth stole in upon them. Very, very slowly they understood.

Meanwhile, what old Mrs. Talland suffered no human being will ever know. She wrote desperately words on the slate that she was given for expressing her desires. But her old fingers were very shaky now.

‘Burn,’ ‘Woman,’ ‘Hate,’ ‘Hell,’ could be deciphered.

If eyes could have slain, Janet would long ago have been dead. When the washing, dressing and undressing periods arrived, Mrs. Talland would have bitten or strangled or torn her daughter had she been able, but Janet was a very strong woman.

Had only a week passed since this horrible creature’s first arrival? Already the other Tallands, the sons, the daughters-in-law, paid less attention to her. No longer did they come in with soft step ‘lest Granny should be sleepin’.’ They pretended not to hear her when she rattled her slate-pencil at them.

They did not often come to her now and amuse her with the gossip of the town.

She could do nothing–she could do nothing.

Her doom had come upon her.

At last the definite moment of defeat came. Little Annie, who had always, until now, been in the utmost terror of her great-grandmother, was left in charge whilst Janet was busily employed with shopping.

The girl looked at the old woman and then defiantly, if just a little timidly, began to whistle between her teeth in a way that she had always understood was abominable to an older person.

Mrs. Talland rattled her pencil against her slate.

Annie continued to whistle.

Mrs. Talland stamped with her foot (it was a very feeble tap); she clapped her hands together, gnashed her two teeth.

Annie paused a moment, her legs apart, facing the chair.

‘Shan’t!’ she said, and then, appalled by her daring, ran from the room.

The old woman was alone. Shaking from head to foot, she did what she had not done for many years: she got up from her chair. Leaning on her stick, she tottered to a drawer that was near. From this she extracted something, then tottered back to her place.

With her cap off her head, the cushions tumbling about her, muttering, she began to turn and twist the thing that she had in her hands. It was a piece of old, soiled, grimy wax.

Her brain was fiery with thoughts of that red-faced woman who had ruined her life.

She turned the wax, muttering.

But it would not twist; it was so hard and old. It fell from her nerveless fingers and lay amongst the ashes in the hearth. Her last resort was gone. The old world had faded, the old gods and devils had fled. There was a new order now, a new world.

The end of her life had come. Tired, thin tears trickled slowly down the dried furrows of her cheeks.

Twenty-four hours later she was dead.

‘Poor thing,’ said Mrs. Comber when she heard of the funeral. ‘But I’m glad that I did a little something to brighten her last hours.’

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