But at the Stroke of Midnight Summary
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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But at the Stroke of Midnight Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One ordinary Saturday, Mrs. Lucy Ridpath, from all appearances a typical routine-oriented housewife, leaves her home without informing her husband or anyone where she is going. Her husband Aston feels guilty that because of an “unlucky moment of inattention,” he failed to listen or attend to her, part of his practice of taking her for granted. His sister Vere advises him to call the police; otherwise, he might be suspected of murder.

Taking on the identity of Aurelia Lefanu, Lucy’s cousin, whose flightiness and adventurous personality “exert a powerful intoxicating influence on her,” Lucy sells her wedding ring and visits the Tate Gallery, where she meets a man working for an art publishing firm. He takes her home, marveling at her aplomb and uncalculating frankness. He plans to take her to Provence, to save her from the lunatic asylum from which he suspects she escaped, but she disappears as he is trying to secure her passport.

Lucy as Aurelia spends her time as an anonymous rider on the London buses. She sleeps in the King’s Cross Station waiting room and then finally gets Lancelot Fogg, a clergyman she meets at a funeral in Highgate Cemetery, to tell her where she can find a middle-aged hostel. The clergyman is awed at meeting a “spiritual woman” who strikes him as “exceedingly tranquil and trustful.”

Lucy’s stay with Miss Larke of St. Hilda’s Guesthouse leads to her projecting her Lucy-self onto a tomcat, allowing her to continue as Aurelia. “Since her adoption of Lucy [the cat], she had become so unshakably Aurelia that she could contemplate being Lucy, too, so far as being Lucy would further Aurelia’s designs.” She then sends two letters to Aston demanding fifty pounds, one promising to return and the other promising to stay away. This equivocal or ambiguous message accurately conveys the schizoid state of Aurelia-Lucy. Aston replies with chagrin because he does not want to live with Lucy again; he prefers a “manly solitude,” so he sends her four five-pound notes; Vere also replies, asking Lucy to stay...

(The entire section is 525 words.)