Home » I Will Keep Her Company by Rhys Davies. A Magnificent Horror Moment discussed by Dominic Kildare

MAGNIFICENT HORROR MOMENTS No 4

 

‘I Will Keep Her Company’

by RHYS DAVIES John & Maria Evans at their snowbound cottage in Wales

DOMINIC KILDARE on an episode of notable – and tragic –  horror

 

LIKE A PHARAOH…

RHYS Davies is a notable figure in that circle of story-writers from Wales who, in arguably a  golden era in the last century, contributed significantly to the short story’s consolidation as a literary form. 

Glyn Jones, Caradoc Evans and Arthur Machen (in the early decades of the century, at least) numbered among the others; poets Dylan Thomas and Alun Lewis also produced stories; Gwyn Thomas was another often busy at this particular coalface.

Davies (1901-1978), a grocer’s son, from the South Wales valley of Rhondda, lived much of his life away from his homeland, in a peripatetic existence. He often returned to Wales, however, in his fiction, writing someting like a hundred stories and twenty novels. In France he knew D.H.  Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence.  Later, in 1967, one of his stories, ‘The Chosen One’ won an Edgar Allan Poe award.

‘I Will Keep Her Company’ was published by The New Yorker in January 1964.

The history of the story isn’t my focus here. But I’m aware that the winter of 1963 was – in terms of snowfall and temperatures – one of Wales’s worst. Like that of 1947, which Davies references in the story, its severity is spoken of to this day.

In the story we meet an elderly man, John Evans,  snowbound  in  his remote cottage, cut off at the top  of a Welsh valley.

It is made clear that he is an independent-minded gentleman who, prior to the snowfall that has surrounded his cottage, has been resisting attempts to persuade him into a council care home.

A great slide of snow has now left him stopped-up in his cottage.

We become aware that his wife is also in the  house – upstairs. But, of her condition – although we may have our suspicions – we know little.

Snow

Unable to light a fire  – the height of the snow means  it is impossible for Evans to step from his door for fuel – the old man attempts to take a tray of something upstairs to his wife. This he drops to the staircase, and, eventually, he gives up the idea.

He enters the bedroom and goes to the four-poster where his wife lies, ‘Her eyes were compactly shut,’ Rhys Davies writes. ‘Yet her face bore an expression of prim vigour; still she looked alert in her withdrawal.’

The freezing Evans – ‘All he wanted was warmth’, Davies continues – sets about wrapping himself in various blankets. He seats himself in an armchair moved close to the bed.

Outside the womb – or tomb? – of the cottage, meanwhile, a rescue party, of a sort, is on its way.

A helicopter (it’s speculated at one point that Evans doesn’t know what the aircraft is) has already dropped a box of supplies. The gesture is useless. The thick wall of snow around the cottage means Evans cannot hope to claim the parcel.

Coming up the valley, behind a great snowplough, is a van carrying the redoubtable Nurse Baldock and local churchman Vicar Pryce.

Eventually, they reach what seems to be the cottage and, after a great deal of digging with spades (there is a sense here that they are not so much a rescue party, but, I suggest, diggers (robbers even) of an exhumation kind) they enter the cottage.

Gingerly, they make their way upstairs.

John Evans is found in his armchair, frozen to death.

As his would-be rescuers peel away his flannel wrappings, he sits ‘gazing out at them from his chair as though in mild surprise at this intrusion into his comfortable retreat. His deep-sunk blue eyes were frostily clear under arched white brows. He looked like one awakened from restorative slumber, an expression of judicious independence fixed on his spare face. His hands rested on his knees, like a Pharaoh.’

To ‘celebrate’ this as a Magnificent Horror Moment, in the wording of our series, may seem insensitive, given the very real difficulties faced by those in hostile weather, particularly the old. I am mindful of that.

Yet this is a fine piece of writing in an often powerful story.

Writing, simply expressed, gives this passage its power. And then we have that superb simile, ‘like a pharaoh’.

While at first glance it may seem incongruous, it’s one of those comparisons that, after a moment’s thought, seems so very right – showing Evans, who the authorities are so keen to remove, as independent, strangely magnificent, lordly.

The comparison also casts the reader’s mind in the direction of tombs.

Have not Nurse Baldock and Vicar Pryce been excavating their way into the hidden world of the cottage, like Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and team (albeit in a rather different clime) in Egypt?

Davies has been called a ‘Welsh Chekhov’.

This story certainly has a Chekhovian feel. 

Nurse Baldock is clearly concerned more with her own elevation as the doer of a good deed than the welfare of Mr Evans. She is notably keen to press home the importance of the council and what she refers to as the ‘State’ in looking after the old man (who, to her frustration, it seems, has been rather more intent on looking after himself).

Great play is made by Nurse Baldock of the attractons of a care home where we sense she has been hungry to place Mr Evans (and become matron). She is particularly proud of a diploma (hard won by her, of course).

Mrs Evans (her death having been known for several days) is placed in a coffin in the crowded van for the journey from the cottage back to apparent civilisation.

The corpse of Mr Evans, in a darkly absurd image, is placed on top of the coffin, still in his seated, deep-frozen, Pharaoh-like position.

As this odd party moves away, Rhys Davies observes of the cottage: ‘Already it had an air of not belonging to anyone.’

Appropriately, all of this has an echo of Chekhov’s own death: his coffin carried to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car normally used for transporting oysters.

The endings of Chekhov’s stories veer from closures that are intentionally perfunctory to those that are much more imagistic.

Hare

Here, Rhys Davies opts for the latter, and we see a hare achieve a flying leap, distant, beyond a bridge that crosses a frozen river.

In considering the animal, one can’t help but think of John Evans and his defiance: his Pharaoh spirit, free and unchained from the plans of the hectoring Nurse Baldock.

Davies’s story isn’t perfect, being over-long, in my view: the over-writing  (not huge, but significant) coming in the passages in the van to and from the cottage.

But it is probably among his best, ranking with another perhaps better-known tale, ‘Nightgown’, which concerns the life of a male-dominated coal-mining family.

His theme here of care and – importantly -dignity for the elderly is as relevant – and some may feel unresolved – as ever, nearly sixty years on.

Finally, and briefly, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s story ‘An Alpine Idyll’ (a peasant keeps his dead wife in a barn until  the snows permit him to bring her corpse down from their mountain home). 

 

Further reading

Rhys Davies A Writer’s Life by Meic Stephens (Parthian)

The Best of Rhys Davies (David and Charles)

‘An Alpine Idyll’ by Ernest Hemingway (Various)

 

DOMINIC KILDARE is a contributor to Horla, with interests in short fiction, history and the environment. 

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