THE OPEN WINDOW


THE bungalow stood in some twenty acres. Three hundred yards away, across the field, ran the dense belt of woods—oak, chestnut, larch—that closed the view to the south, but kept the house so delightfully shut in. This belt, a hundred yards deep, with undergrowth of thick holly, formed a wall none could look over, the bungalow nestling, so to speak, within its encircling arm of leaves. A track meandered through it lengthwise, but there was no straight way across to the path that ran along its outer edge, linking the village to the church. Beyond it lay the common, wild with gorse and scattered pines, rising to the deep Sussex sky. . . .

The owners, imaginative folk, having lived there ten years without moving, were proud of The Wood: "It keeps us so private, you see. No one can look through at us. It's so protective." Wild horses could not have dragged them from this bit of rural England that was "so private . . . so protected by our belt of woods . . ." whose effect, indeed, pervaded even one's outlook upon life—the great life outside, beyond. The mind dwelt securely under that "protection." One's very ideas were screened and sheltered from the big winds that blow.

From the bungalow verandah it rose with fine dignity against the sky; no gleam pierced its impenetrable tangle. The crowding holly saw to that. The dogs hunted in it, the children picked firewood, the little pigs and chickens sometimes got lost in its depths, but its only real inhabitants were grey squirrels, a pair of wood-peckers, and a dozen screaming jays. And on windy nights it roared like the surf against some lonely island shores. . . . "It's the making of the place, we think"—the guests who came and went invariably in agreement. "Rather!" they said. "You're so nice and cosy behind it, aren't you? You can't see through." Then one adventurous and tactless fellow changed the formula, offering a new, upsetting point of view: "But you can't see through it anywhere, can you?"

"No—rather not," the owners assured him.

"Not even a bit of light—of sky—a glimpse of the horizon beyond?"

There was a silence. "What d'you mean?" they asked. His suggestion seemed almost rude. Then, shading his eyes with one hand, the fellow added the words that seemed so unnecessary: "I mean—you can't see—out!" And the fat was in the fire.

He didn't stay long, this adventurous guest, being, it seemed, of a roving disposition, an uncomfortable man accustomed to open spaces. "The wide seas and the mountains called him, And grey dawns saw his camp-fires in the rain" sort of person, who mentioned before he left that

Even the mighty winds that range the seas
In water-spouts, typhoons, and hurricanes
Begin by chasing leaves down window-panes.


An unsettling creature, on the whole, with his travel talk, and in his eyes that long-distance look which tells of great horizons, wild, free winds, and the mystery of stars in lonely places. Moreover, he was "uncomfortable" to his hosts, too, because, in their otherwise delightful bungalow, he had an air of being somehow caught, imprisoned, trapped, while it was not, they perceived, the walls and roof that did this, but the encircling wood they thought so protective and so nice. "You can't see out!" It was so unnecessary, but there it was. The seed was sown. . . .

There stole upon them gradually, insidiously, from that moment a strange new restlessness. For they were imaginative folk. It was queer but undeniable. Curse the fellow! "A bit of light," indeed! "A glimpse of the horizon," forsooth! . . . They hid it from one another; they scoffed openly, ignored, tried to hold firm against such disturbing, dangerous ideas. They fortified themselves by combined resistance. But—well, there it was! The seed grew horribly. Why did both lawn and garden seem darker now than formerly? Why did thought travel in odd moments far afield? Why did the husband sometimes surprise his wife with dreaming eyes, and she catch him once or twice with that new, that awful expression, which meant—only too plainly desire to escape? It was most upsetting. Those gaudy books, too, from the Library, illustrated, of course . . . and a faint suggestion—it was quite absurd!—that there was less air about, almost a hint of suffocation on windless days, as though the view from the south windows were now small, suddenly, and limited. "Did you order this, Maud?" fingering the yellow volume. "No, but I thought you might like to glance at it, dear." The Marquesas, she remembered, were at a safe distance, but the gipsies camped upon the common, with their gleaming fires, their tents, their sweet blue smoke, and the yellow gorse hung ever shining to an open sky. . . .

Imagination is a wicked phagocyte, whose poison works apace beneath dull skies. Leaden days suggest pictures of blue seas and golden sunsets to the heart. The trees turned red and yellow, the smoke of burning leaves hung over the lawn, the shortening days and slanting sunlight laid the melancholy of autumn over the quiet place. But some nights the winds were loose. . . . Once she heard him mumbling: "Even the mighty winds that range the seas. . . ." And then, one still November morning, very early, a sound on the paved garden below her window led to a full betrayal. For there he was, in pyjamas and dressing-gown, marking an arrow on the stones. She drew back, catching her breath a little. That arrow pointed south towards the wood. "Oh, I was just taking a line," he explained at breakfast. "If we cut a little vista—oh, the tiniest little slit, of course—our windows would look—er—further." She watched his face. "We should see a bit of sky, I mean."

"Something quite informal," she offered, "a mere track?"

"Oh, dear me, yes," he agreed; "the merest little tiny glade that would let the light through, you know."

They did it themselves; no workmen helped; they chopped the trees, uprooted the holly, made great bonfires that crackled and clothed the garden with a sweet blue gipsy smoke. Bit by bit light sprinkled and peeped in . . . and at last the great day came, a wild February morning with glad lengthening hours, when the sky was visible, the horizon beyond shone through. That night from the verandah they saw the gipsy fires gleam, they saw the moonlight's silver on the stems, and down the little vista thought travelled magically to mysterious, far horizons beneath other stars. In the daytime the south wind blew softly through, bringing her messages of blue seas, of flowers, of enchanted islands far away. . . .

It was dusk when they saw the figure come towards them down the little winding glade, his outline just discernible against the fading sunset. "You!" they exclaimed. "Why, where in the world did you drop from?" He explained that he was staying in the neighborhood. He looked about him. "But how splendid," he remarked casually. "It's twice the place it was. You can see out now! You've opened a window."

They begged him to stay the night. "We're off to Egypt," they explained, "in a few days." But he declined the offer. "My tent," he mentioned, "lies just out there," pointing through the glade towards the common, "I'm on the wander too. I must be pushing off. . . . But, I say—what a lovely place to—come back to!"

They watched his figure melting out into the darkening sky as he went silently down the glade, finally disappearing from view as though merged in the horizon.