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Title: The Tarn
Author: Hugh Walpole
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Language:  English
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Title: The Tarn
Author: Hugh Walpole

As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the
bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now
another, with his eyes, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his
thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of
the ease with which he could squeeze that throat, and the pleasure, the
triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.

The low, white-walled, white-ceilinged room was flooded with the mellow,
kindly Lakeland sun. October is a wonderful month in the English Lakes,
golden, rich, and perfumed, slow suns moving through apricot-tinted
skies to ruby evening glories; the shadows lie then thick about that
beautiful country, in dark purple patches, in long web-like patterns of
silver gauze, in thick splotches of amber and grey. The clouds pass in
galleons across the mountains, now veiling, now revealing, now
descending with ghost-like armies to the very breast of the plains,
suddenly rising to the softest of blue skies and lying thin in lazy
languorous colour.

Fenwick's cottage looked across to Low Fells; on his right, seen through
side windows, sprawled the hills above Ullswater.

Fenwick looked at Foster's back and felt suddenly sick, so that he sat
down, veiling his eyes for a moment with his hand. Foster had come up
there, come all the way from London, to explain. It was so like Foster
to want to explain, to want to put things right. For how many years had
he known Foster? Why, for twenty at least, and during all those years
Foster had been for ever determined to put things right with everybody.
He could never bear to be disliked; he hated that anyone should think
ill of him; he wanted everyone to be his friends. That was one reason,
perhaps, why Foster had got on so well, had prospered so in his career;
one reason, too, why Fenwick had not.

For Fenwick was the opposite of Foster in this. He did not want friends,
he certainly did not care that people should like him--that is people
for whom, for one reason or another, he had contempt--and he had
contempt for quite a number of people.

Fenwick looked at that long, thin, bending back and felt his knees
tremble. Soon Foster would turn round and that high, reedy voice would
pipe out something about the books. "What jolly books you have,
Fenwick!" How many, many times in the long watches of the night, when
Fenwick could not sleep, had he heard that pipe sounding close
there--yes, in the very shadows of his bed! And how many times had
Fenwick replied to it: "I hate you! You are the cause of my failure in
life! You have been in my way always. Always, always, always!
Patronizing and pretending, and in truth showing others what a poor
thing you thought me, how great a failure, how conceited a fool! I know.
You can hide nothing from me! I can hear you!"

For twenty years now Foster had been persistently in Fenwick's way.
There had been that affair, so long ago now, when Robins had wanted a
sub-editor for his wonderful review, the _Parthenon_, and Fenwick had
gone to see him and they had had a splendid talk. How magnificently
Fenwick had talked that day; with what enthusiasm he had shown Robins
(who was blinded by his own conceit, anyway) the kind of paper the
_Parthenon_ might be; how Robins had caught his own enthusiasm, how he
had pushed his fat body about the room, crying: "Yes, yes,
Fenwick--that's fine! That's fine indeed!"--and then how, after all,
Foster had got that job.

The paper had only lived for a year or so, it is true, but the
connection with it had brought Foster into prominence just as it might
have brought Fenwick!

Then, five years later, there was Fenwick's novel, _The Bitter
Aloe_--the novel upon which he had spent three years of blood-and-tears
endeavour--and then, in the very same week of publication, Foster brings
out _The Circus_, the novel that made his name; although, Heaven knows,
the thing was poor enough sentimental trash. You may say that one novel
cannot kill another--but can it not? Had not _The Circus_ appeared would
not that group of London know-alls--that conceited, limited, ignorant,
self-satisfied crowd, who nevertheless can do, by their talk, so much to
affect a book's good or evil fortunes--have talked about _The Bitter
Aloe_ and so forced it into prominence? As it was, the book was
stillborn and _The Circus_ went on its prancing, triumphant way.

After that there had been many occasions--some small, some big--and
always in one way or another that thin, scraggy body of Foster's was
interfering with Fenwick's happiness.

The thing had become, of course, an obsession with Fenwick. Hiding up
there in the heart of the Lakes, with no friends, almost no company, and
very little money, he was given too much to brooding over his failure.
He was a failure and it was not his own fault. How could it be his own
fault with his talents and his brilliance? It was the fault of modern
life and its lack of culture, the fault of the stupid material mess that
made up the intelligence of human beings--and the fault of Foster.

Always Fenwick hoped that Foster would keep away from him. He did not
know what he would not do did he see the man. And then one day, to his
amazement, he received a telegram:

_Passing through this way. May I stop with you Monday and
Tuesday?--Giles Foster._

Fenwick could scarcely believe his eyes, and then--from curiosity, from
cynical contempt, from some deeper, more mysterious motive that he dared
not analyse--he had telegraphed--_Come_.

And here the man was. And he had come--would you believe it?--to "put
things right". He had heard from Hamlin Eddis that Fenwick was hurt with
him, had some kind of grievance.

"I didn't like to feel that, old man, and so I thought I'd just stop by
and have it out with you, see what the matter was, and put it right."

Last night after supper Foster had tried to put it right. Eagerly, his
eyes like a good dog's who is asking for a bone that he knows he
thoroughly deserves, he had held out his hand and asked Fenwick to "say
what was up".

Fenwick simply had said that nothing was up; Hamlin Eddis was a damned

"Oh, I'm glad to hear that!" Foster had cried, springing up out of his
chair and putting his hand on Fenwick's shoulder. "I'm glad of that, old
man. I couldn't bear for us not to be friends. We've been friends so

Lord! How Fenwick hated him at that moment!


"What a jolly lot of books you have!" Foster turned round and looked at
Fenwick with eager, gratified eyes. "Every book here is interesting! I
like your arrangement of them, too, and those open bookshelves--it
always seems to me a shame to shut up books behind glass!"

Foster came forward and sat down quite close to his host. He even
reached forward and laid his hand on his host's knee. "Look here! I'm
mentioning it for the last time--positively! But I do want to make quite
certain. There _is_ nothing wrong between us, is there, old man? I know
you assured me last night, but I just want ..."

Fenwick looked at him and, surveying him, felt suddenly an exquisite
pleasure of hatred. He liked the touch of the man's hand on his knee; he
himself bent forward a little and, thinking how agreeable it would be to
push Foster's eyes in, deep, deep into his head, crunching them,
smashing them to purple, leaving the empty, staring, bloody sockets,

"Why, no. Of course not. I told you last night. What could there be?"

The hand gripped the knee a little more tightly.

"I _am_ so glad! That's splendid! Splendid! I hope you won't think me
ridiculous, but I've always had an affection for you ever since I can
remember. I've always wanted to known you better. I've admired your
talent so greatly. That novel of yours--the--the--the one about the

"_The Bitter Aloe?_"

"Ah yes, that was it. That was a splendid book. Pessimistic, of course,
but still fine. It ought to have done better. I remember thinking so at
the time."

"Yes, it ought to have done better."

"Your time will come, though. What I say is that good work always tells
in the end."

"Yes, my time will come."

The thin, piping voice went on:

"Now, I've had more success than I deserved. Oh yes, I have. You can't
deny it. I'm not falsely modest. I mean it. I've got some talent, of
course, but not so much as people say. And you! Why, you've got so
_much_ more than they acknowledge. You have, old man. You have indeed.
Only--I do hope you'll forgive my saying this--perhaps you haven't
advanced quite as you might have done. Living up here, shut away here,
closed in by all these mountains, in this wet climate--always
raining--why, you're out of things! You don't see people, don't talk and
discover what's really going on. Why, look at me!"

Fenwick turned round and looked at him.

"Now, I have half the year in London, where one gets the best of
everything, best talk, best music, best plays; and then I'm three months
abroad, Italy or Greece or somewhere, and then three months in the
country. Now, that's an ideal arrangement. You have everything that

Italy or Greece or somewhere!

Something turned in Fenwick's breast, grinding, grinding, grinding. How
he had longed, oh, how passionately, for just one week in Greeee, two
days in Sicily! Sometimes he had thought that he might run to it, but
when it had come to the actual counting of the pennies ... And how this
fool, this fat-head, this self-satisfied, conceited, patronizing ...

He got up, looking out at the golden sun.

"What do you say to a walk?" he suggested. "The sun will last for a good
hour yet."


As soon as the words were out of his lips he felt as though someone else
had said them for him. He even turned half round to see whether anyone
else were there. Ever since Foster's arrival on the evening before he
had been conscious of this sensation. A walk? Why should he take Foster
for a walk, show him his beloved country, point out those curves and
lines and hollows, the broad silver shield of Ullswater, the cloudy
purple hills hunched like blankets about the knees of some recumbent
giant? Why? It was as though he had turned round to someone behind him
and had said: "You have some further design in this."

They started out. The road sank abruptly to the lake, then the path ran
between trees at the water's edge. Across the lake tones of bright
yellow light, crocus-hued, rode upon the blue. The hills were dark.

The very way that Foster walked bespoke the man. He was always a little
ahead of you, pushing his long, thin body along with little eager jerks,
as though, did he not hurry, he would miss something that would be
immensely to his advantage. He talked, throwing words over his shoulder
to Fenwick as you throw crumbs of bread to a robin.

"Of course I was pleased. Who would not be? After all, it's a new prize.
They've only been awarding it for a year or two, but it's
gratifying--really gratifying--to secure it. When I opened the envelope
and found the cheque there--well, you could have knocked me down with a
feather. You could, indeed. Of course, a hundred pounds isn't much. But
it's the honour...."

Whither were they going? Their destiny was as certain as though they had
no free will. Free will? There is no free will. All is Fate. Fenwick
suddenly laughed aloud.

Foster stopped.

"Why, what is it?"

"What's what?"

"You laughed."

"Something amused me."

Foster slipped his arm through Fenwick's.

"It _is_ jolly to be walking along together like this, arm in arm,
friends. I'm a sentimental man. I won't deny it. What I say is that life
is short and one must love one's fellow-beings, or where is one? You
live too much alone, old man." He squeezed Fenwick's arm. "That's the
truth of it."

It was torture, exquisite, heavenly torture. It was wonderful to feel
that thin, bony arm pressing against his. Almost you could hear the
beating of that other heart. Wonderful to feel that arm and the
temptation to take it in your hands and to bend it and twist it and then
to hear the bones crack ... crack ... crack.... Wonderful to feel that
temptation rise through one's body like boiling water and yet not to
yield to it. For a moment Fenwick's hand touched Foster's. Then he drew
himself apart.

"We're at the village. This is the hotel where they all come in the
summer. We turn off at the right here. I'll show you my tarn."


"Your tarn?" asked Foster. "Forgive my ignorance, but what is a tarn

"A tarn is a miniature lake, a pool of water lying in the lap of the
hill. Very quiet, lovely, silent. Some of them are immensely deep."

"I should like to see that."

"It is some little distance--up a rough road. Do you mind?"

"Not a bit. I have long legs."

"Some of them are immensely deep--unfathomable--nobody touched the
bottom--but quiet, like glass, with shadows only------"

"Do you know, Fenwick, I have always been afraid of water--I've never
learnt to swim. I'm afraid to go out of my depth. Isn't that ridiculous?
But it is all because at my private school, years ago, when I was a
small boy, some big fellows took me and held me with my head under the
water and nearly drowned me. They did indeed. They went farther than
they meant to. I can see their faces."

Fenwick considered this. The picture leapt to his mind. He could see the
boys--large, strong fellows, probably--and this skinny thing like a
frog, their thick hands about his throat, his legs like grey sticks
kicking out of the water, their laughter, their sudden sense that
something was wrong, the skinny body all flaccid and still....

He drew a deep breath.

Foster was walking beside him now, not ahead of him, as though he were a
little afraid and needed reassurance. Indeed, the scene had changed.
Before and behind them stretched the uphill path, loose with shale and
stones. On their right, on a ridge at the foot of the hill, were some
quarries, almost deserted, but the more melancholy in the fading
afternoon because a little work still continued there; faint sounds came
from the gaunt listening chimneys, a stream of water ran and tumbled
angrily into a pool below, once and again a black silhouette, like a
question-mark, appeared against the darkening hill.

It was a little steep here, and Foster puffed and blew.

Fenwick hated him the-more for that. So thin and spare and still he
could not keep in condition! They stumbled, keeping below the quarry, on
the edge of the running water, now green, now a dirty white-grey,
pushing their way along the side of the hill.

Their faces were set now towards Helvellyn. It rounded the cup of hills,
closing in the base and then sprawling to the right.

"There's the tarn!" Fenwick exclaimed; and then added, "The sun's not
lasting as long as I had expected. It's growing dark already."

Foster stumbled and caught Fenwick's arm.

"This twilight makes the hills look strange--like living men. I can
scarcely see my way."

"We're alone here," Fenwick answered. "Don't you feel the stillness? The
men will have left the quarry now and gone home. There is no one in all
this place but ourselves. If you watch you will see a strange green
light steal down over the hills. It lasts for but a moment and then it
is dark.

"Ah, here is my tarn. Do you know how I love this place, Foster? It
seems to belong especially to me, just as much as all your work and your
glory and fame and success seem to belong to you. I have this and you
have that. Perhaps in the end we are even, after all. Yes....

"But I feel as though that piece of water belonged to me and I to it,
and as though we should never be separated--yes. ... Isn't it black?

"It is one of the deep ones. No one has ever sounded it. Only Helvellyn
knows, and one day I fancy that it will take me, too, into its
confidence, will whisper its secrets------"

Foster sneezed.

"Very nice. Very beautiful, Fenwick. I like your tarn. Charming. And now
let's turn back. That is a difficult walk beneath the quarry. It's
chilly, too."

"Do you see that little jetty there?" Fenwick lecf Foster by the arm.
"Someone built that out into the water. He had a boat there, I suppose.
Come and look down. From the end of the little jetty it looks so deep
and the mountains seem to close round."

Fenwick took Foster's arm and led him to the end of the jetty. Indeed,
the water looked deep here. Deep and very black. Foster peered down,
then he looked up at the hills that did indeed seem to have gathered
close around him. He sneezed again.

"I've caught a cold, I am afraid. Let's turn homewards, Fenwick, or we
shall never find our way."

"Home, then," said Fenwick, and his hands closed about the thin, scraggy
neck. For the instant the head half turned, and two startled, strangely
childish eyes stared; then, with a push that was ludicrously simple, the
body was impelled forward, there was a sharp cry, a splash, a stir of
something white against the swiftly gathering dusk, again and then
again, then far-spreading ripples, then silence.


The silence extended. Having enwrapped the tarn, it spread as though
with finger on lip to the already quiescent hills. Fenwick shared in the
silence. He luxuriated in it. He did not move at all. He stood there
looking upon the inky water of the tarn, his arms folded, a man lost in
intensest thought. But he was not thinking. He was only conscious of a
warm, luxurious relief, a sensuous feeling that was not thought at all.

Foster was gone--that tiresome, prating, conceited, self-satisfied fool!
Gone, never to return. The tarn assured him of that. It stared back into
Fenwick's face approvingly as though it said: "You have done well--a
clean and necessary job. We have done it together, you and I. I am proud
of you."

He was proud of himself. At last he had done something definite with his
life. Thought, eager, active thought, was beginning now to flood his
brain. For all these years he had hung around in this place doing
nothing but cherish grievances, weak, backboneless--now at last there
was action. He drew himself up and looked at the hills. He was
proud--and he was cold. He was shivering. He turned up the collar of his
coat. Yes, there was that faint green light that always lingered in the
shadows of the hills for a brief moment before darkness came. It was
growing late. He had better return.

Shivering now so that his teeth chattered, he started off down the path,
and then was aware that he did not wish to leave the tarn. The tarn was
friendly--the only friend he had in all the world. As he stumbled along
in the dark this sense of loneliness grew. He was going home to an empty
house. There had been a guest in it last night. Who was it? Why, Foster,
of course--Foster with his silly laugh and amiable, mediocre eyes. Well,
Foster would not be there now. No, he never would be there again.

And Suddenly Fenwick started to run. He did not know why, except that,
now that he had left the tarn, he was lonely. He wished that he could
have stayed there all night, but because it was cold he could not, and
so now he was running so that he might be at home with the lights and
the familiar furniture--and all the things that he knew to reassure him.

As he ran the shale and stones scattered beneath his feet. They made a
tit-tattering noise under him, and someone else seemed to be running
too. He stopped, and the other runner also stopped. He breathed in the
silence. He was hot now. The perspiration was trickling down his cheeks.
He could feel a dribble of it down his back inside his shirt. His knees
were pounding. His heart was thumping. And all around him the hills were
so amazingly silent, now like india-rubber clouds that you could push in
or pull out as you do those india-rubber faces, grey against the night
sky of a crystal purple, upon whose surface, like the twinkling eyes of
boats at sea, stars were now appearing.

His knees steadied, his heart beat less fiercely, and he began to run
again. Suddenly he had turned the corner and was out at the hotel. Its
lamps were kindly and reassuring. He walked then quietly along the
lake-side path, and had it not been for the certainty that someone was
treading behind him he would have been comfortable and at his ease. He
stopped once or twice and looked back, and once he stopped and called
out, "Who's there?" Only the rustling trees answered.

He had the strangest fancy, but his brain was throbbing so fiercely that
he could not think, that it was the tarn that was following him, the
tarn slipping, sliding along the road, being with him so that he should
not be lonely. He could almost hear the tarn whisper in his ear: "We did
that together, and so I do not wish you to bear all the responsibility
yourself. I will stay with you, so that you are not lonely."

He climbed down the road towards home, and there were the lights of his
house. He heard the gate click behind him as though it were shutting him
in. He went into the sitting-room, lighted and ready. There were the
books that Foster had admired.

The old woman who looked after him appeared.

"Will you be having some tea, sir?"

"No, thank you, Annie."

"Will the other gentleman be wanting any?":

"No; the other gentleman is away for the night."

"Then there will be only one for supper?"

"Yes, only one for supper."

He sat in the corner of the sofa and fell instantly into a deep slumber.


He woke when the old woman tapped him on the shoulder and told him that
supper was served. The room was dark save for the jumping light of two
uncertain candles. Those two red candlesticks--how he hated them up
there on the mantelpiece! He had always hated them, and now they seemed
to him to have something of the quality of Foster's voice--that thin,
reedy, piping tone.

He was expecting at every moment that Foster would enter, and yet he
knew that he would not. He continued to turn his head towards the door,
but it was so dark there that you could not see. The whole room was dark
except just there by the fireplace, where the two candlesticks went
whining with their miserable twinkling plaint.

He went into the dining-room and sat down to his meal. But he could not
eat anything. It was odd--that place by the table where Foster's chair
should be. Odd, naked, and made a man feel lonely.

He got up once from the table and went to the window, opened it and
looked out. He listened for something, A trickle as of running water, a
stir, through the silence, as though some deep pool were filling to the
brim. A rustle in the trees, perhaps. An owl hooted; Sharply, as though
someone had spoken unexpectedly behind his shoulder, he closed the
windows and looked back, peering under his dark eyebrows into the room.

Later on he went up to his bed.


Had he been sleeping, or had he been lying lazily, as one does, half
dozing, half luxuriously not thinking? He was wide awake now, utterly
awake, and his heart was beating with apprehension. It was as though
someone had called him by name. He slept always with his window a little
open and the blind up. To-night the moonlight shadowed in sickly fashion
the objects in his room. It was not a flood of light nor yet a sharp
splash, silvering a square, a circle, throwing the rest into ebony
darkness. The ught was dim, a little green, perhaps, like the shadow
that comes over the hills just before dark.

He stared at the window, and it seemed to him that something moved
there. Within, or rather against, the green-grey light, something
silver-tinted glistened. Fenwick stared. It had the look, exactly, of
slipping water.

Slipping water! He listened, his head up, and it seemed to him that from
beyond the window he caught the stir of water, not running, but rather
welling up and up, gurgling with satisfaction as it filled and filled.

He sat up higher in bed, and then saw that down the wallpaper beneath
the window water was undoubtedly trickling. He could see it lurch to the
projecting wood of the sill, pause, and then slip, slither down the
incline. The odd thing was that it fell so silently.

Beyond the window there was that odd gurgle, but in the room itself
absolute silence. Whence could it come? He saw the line of silver rise
and fall as the stream on the window-ledge ebbed and flowed.

He must get up and close the window. He drew his legs above the sheets
and blankets and looked down.

He shrieked. The floor was covered with a shining film of water. It was
rising. As he looked it had covered half the short stumpy legs of the
bed. It rose without a wink, a bubble, a break! Over the sill it poured
now in a steady flow, but soundless. Fenwick sat up in the bed, the
clothes gathered up to his chin, his eyes blinking, the Adam's apple
throbbing like a throttle in his throat.

But he must do something, he must stop this. The water was now level
with the seats of the chairs, but still was soundless. Could he but
reach the door!

He put down his naked foot, then cried again. The water was icy cold.
Suddenly, leaning, staring at its dark, unbroken sheen, something seemed
to push him forward. He fell. His head, his face was under the icy
liquid; it seemed adhesive and, in the heart of its ice, hot like
melting wax. He struggled to his feet. The water was breast-high. He
screamed again and again. He could see the looking-glass, the row of
books, the picture of Drer's "Horse", aloof, impervious. He beat at the
water, and flakes of it seemed to cling to him like scales of fish,
clammy to his touch. He struggled, ploughing his way towards the door.

The water now was at his neck. Then something had caught him by the
ankle. Something held him. He struggled, crying: "Let me go! Let me go!
I tell you to let me go! I hate you! I hate you! I will not come down to
you! I will not------"

The water covered his mouth. He felt that someone pushed in his eyeballs
with bare knuckles. A cold hand reached up and caught his naked thigh.


In the morning the little maid knocked and, receiving no answer, came
in, as was her wont, with his shaving-water. What she saw made her
scream. She ran for the gardener.

They took the body with its staring, protruding eyes, its tongue
sticking out between the clenched teeth, and laid it on the bed.

The only sign of disorder was an overturned water-jug. A small pool of
water stained the carpet.

It was a lovely morning. A twig of ivy idly, in the little breeze,
tapped the pane.


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