The Red House/Chapter 7

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HOW had Yolande triumphantly justified her boast—her assertion, rather—that she could do for us what we could not do for ourselves. The only thing left us was to try and be grateful. I am almost sure that I succeeded. For the rest, we were extraordinarily comfortable; our domestic service approached perfection, and was, humanly speaking, assured. Bates, that excellent trained ferret, had dislodged the criminal rat which had been our tenant. Peace hovered above us with wide, white wings. But those wings were not permitted to fold themselves about us, because I had a great-aunt, my aunt George. I think I have had occasion to name her before, in connection with a certain patch-work quilt. She gave us the quilt and a pewter teapot on our marriage. She now, quite suddenly, announced that she was coming to see us. My aunt George is fidgety, inquisitive, interfering, unforgiving, and dictatorial. She is also generous, affectionate to such as will sue to her in forma pauperis, and is an excellent sick-nurse. We, being neither sick nor indigent, and finding our home-grown stock of affection sufficient for our humble needs, hastily intrenched ourselves against a long visit by inviting Yolande to occupy our one furnished spare room. Then we invited all the relations who, like the fairies at christenings, would make themselves disagreeable if they were not bidden to a family feast, and plunged headlong into the most exciting preparations for a house-warming. It was to be an evening party with a cold supper, because we could not expect Mary, single-handed, to serve up a hot dinner to a crowd of carping aunts and uncles. The enthusiasm with which we embarked on our labors was tinged, I think, in both of us, by a desire to show Yolande that we could at least deal masterly with a brief crisis, however little we might be able to organize permanent industries.

“The materials are unpromising,” said Chloe. “Aunts and uncles aren't the things exactly to make a party ‘go’—but Yolande shall see.”

“Mayn't we have any young couple?” I pleaded, wistfully.

“Of course! Not enough to drown the aunts and uncles, but just enough to remind them how superior they are to the follies of youth, and to incite them to show how much more cheerful they can be, in their maturity, than these restless— Oh, Len, I'm talking like a goody-goody book. Come on; let's make a list of who we'll ask, and what we will give them to eat, and who shall sit beside who, and then we'll decide where they're to eat it. We'll save up the peaches for the party. There are three hundred and twenty-six of them.”

It is delightful to have three hundred and twenty-six peaches of your very own. It is charming to make lists, especially on rather rough paper, with a B.B. pencil. It is also delightful to roam through a big house, your very, very own, and to decide in which of its many rooms you shall hear the health and happiness of your house toasted.

“It must be the drawing-room,” said Chloe, at last, “and we must have little tables, with candles and paper shades, like in a hotel, and everything carved on a sideboard.”

“We haven't a sideboard,” I said, feebly.

“Oh, we can make a sideboard in three minutes—those packing-cases Yolande's china came in. We'll make a big one while we're about it—a really impressive sideboard.”

We did make it-in something under three hours. Draped in the red liberty curtains hastily taken down from our bedroom, and covered with a fair white cloth, it was—being ten feet long and four feet high—positively crushing in its impressiveness.

We collected all the tables from the other rooms,—even the writing-table from the loafery was brought in—gate tables, Pembroke tables round tables, square tables, long narrow tables, our own tables, Mary's tables, and Mrs. Bates's tables. We selected the least leggy, and arranged our guests' name-cards. The question of wall decorations agitated us a good deal.

“If we took every pikky we've got out of all the other rooms,” Chloe said, “they'd hardly show in this great barn. There ought to be some idea—Oh, Len, of course! wreaths of evergreens right up high—oh!—and a frieze of pink muslin, and the evergreens in loops and swags. Delicious!”

It takes some time to make properly graduated loops and swags for a room forty feet by twenty-five, and it takes some material. The evergreens in our garden had not had such a pruning this many a year. But we did it; we thought of Yolande, and we did not flinch, though our fingers were blistered and our backs a weariness long before the wreaths were done. The pink muslin proved to be too ruinously expensive, but we bought a pink “lining paper” and pasted it up, and when we had nailed up the evergreens we felt that the result almost paid for our three days' hard labor.

Chloe fell into my arms in an ecstasy of mingled pride and exhaustion. “It's a dream,” she said, “an Italian palace! But, oh, I never want to touch box or yew or laurel again as long as I live! And we've only three days now! There'll hardly be time to cook anything.”

A fury of egg-beating drove me forth. A man, I was assured, was worse than useless in matters of cuisine. The crisis was urgent; I forebore to complicate it by argument; but Soyer and his noble army of followers seemed to back up my insulted sex, as I walked down the garden-paths, whose breast-high weed growths, mown down by Jim in leisure moments, now permitted glimpses of low-hanging red and golden fruit and russet leaves. The hour was five—nominally tea-time—but what man worthy the name would thrust the need of boiling kettles on two ardent women strenuous in the compounding of sweets?

I walked softly in the tennis shoes to which a country life seduces the weaker brethren, and the path was still weed-grown enough to betray nothing of my drawing near to the biggest of the peach-trees on the red south wall. The espaliers connived at my approach by the shelter of their wide-spread arms. Thus it was that I came plump on a man, midway up my wall; his foot rested where a broken brick had been dislodged. He was handing up peaches—my peaches—reserved for the high destiny of auntal and avuncular palates—to a ruffian with a basket, who, in broad day, only one big garden's breadth from a policeman-ferret, sat astride my wall. Some one whistled—it was not I; a spring, a swear, and both villains vanished as if by magic into the paddock. I climbed the wall; they had disappeared in the nettle-coverts of our orchard; nor, when I threaded those coverts, could I run them to earth. It was a poor consolation to return, my feet soaked to the bone through my tennis shoes, to count the peaches and to find that the despicable outcasts had only taken fifteen out of the three hundred and twenty-six.

How age mellows one's views! As a boy I never could understand why farmers made such a fuss about a few apples or plums. Now, all the land-owner welled up within me, and I understood it all—with an understanding as full as it was bitter. I thought of netting, of man-traps, of a fierce bull-dog, of men with guns—myself and Jim by turns—incessantly patrolling my garden. All other crimes in the decalogue might, I felt, admit of some valid excuse, some reasonable explanation. But breaking the eighth commandment—and with peaches—my peaches—it was intolerable! I felt myself cut off once and forever from the communion of school-boys. Villon was now merely despicable to me.

I forebore to fling my heavy news among the eggs, but Yolande came that evening to occupy the spare room, and at dinner I judged the time ripe. My thrilling narrative fell, to my amazement, on inattentive ears. Chloe, whose horror and reprobation I had expected to exceed even my own, merely said, with what I could not persuade myself was a calmness assumed to temper my own agitation: “Oh, did they, dear? How horrid of them!” and absently pressed more fish on me.

I withdrew into a proud reserve. When, with a studied air of aloofness, I had carved the mutton, and Mary, having handed the plates and vegetables, left the room, Chloe laid down her fork, and with sparkling eyes turned to Yolande.

“Now,” she said, and there was just that suppressed fire about her that I had hoped to waken by my tale of the fruit-stealers—“now, I think we might tell him. You tell him, Yolande, because it's your doing, you clever, intelligent—”

“Spare me,” Yolande interrupted; “whatever my faults may be, I'm not intelligent. That's what the police always are when they can't find out the murderer.”

“Unintelligent as you are,” said I, “you'll perhaps be able to break the news gently. My nerves are unstrung by to-day's revelation of the cynical immorality of men with baskets.”

“Tell him, tell him,” urged Chloe, impatiently. “Len, you're like Nero, talking about unimportant things when— No, nothing's burning. Yolande, if you don't tell him I shall.”

“It's nothing,” said Yolande, nonchalantly, crumbling her bread and looking down so as to express indifference with her eyelashes—a very graceful accomplishment. “It's really nothing—only you gave me carte blanche as your land agent, and I've let the big cottage for you—not Prosser's—the one on the other side.”

“You have? Chloe, I know it seems the basest ingratitude to Yolande, but—think of Prosser, fairest of land agents, and tell me frankly, has he any references?”

“He simply bristles with them. His bank, Coutts's, and his father, a cotton-broker of absolute eminence, were enough for me.”

“But where did you catch him? The sons of cotton-brokers with balances at Coutts's are not found in every bush. How did you do it?”

C'est tout simple. I advertised. You never thought of that? No. Well, we all have our limitations. Chloe, if you let him throw bread at me I shall tell the tenant the house is unhealthy, and he won't take it. I advertised, he answered. I interviewed the bank and the cottonbroker,—incredibly eminent he really is; I saw it at once. The man himself is a man of action. The agreement, signed, lies warm at this moment against Chloe's heart.”

“It's in her Gladstone,” said Chloe.

“The man moves his furniture down this week, and there we are!”

“He's a journalist, or an author, or something,” said Chloe. “I expect he's awfully nice. Isn't she a genius?”

“The rent's a minor point, of course,” I said, humbly, “but if one might ask?”

“The rent?” Chloe jumped up from her chair and came round to me. “Oh, Len, what impossibly fortunate people we are! Guess the rent!”

“A hundred a year!” I said, promptly.

“Don't be horrid.” Chloe's disappointment was very pretty. “I thought you'd say twenty.”

“I didn't dare. What is it? Fifteen?”

“It's thirty-five!” cried my wife; and at that my generous heart could no longer forbear, and I toasted Yolande in bottled beer.

When the enthusiasm of a landlord had sobered in me somewhat, I led the talk back to my fruit-thief—to my secret soul still the most interesting possible topic, because he was my find; the tenant was merely Yolande's. And by skilful tactics I presently roused Yolande's sympathies. The tactics were quite simple. I asked her advice. At once the affair assumed in her eyes new proportions—a new complexion.

“I don't know,” she said, knitting her brows; “there must be same some way.”

“You see,” I said, “if one repaired the whole wall, there are ladders, and dark nights to set them up in. You can feel peaches in the dark. And broken bottles can be overcome by sacks of straw—”

“And all difficulties by a little thought,” she interrupted, with that superb air of finality which I equally and intensely admire and detest. “Well, I'll think about it.”

Yolande was not allowed to help at all in the organizing of the house-warming. An obedient execution of Chloe's orders was all that was permitted her. And when I saw the charming docility with which she carried these out, and her rigorous abstention from even the pointing of an uninvited finger at any pie of Chloe's, I confess that I was humbled and abashed, as in the presence of a soul greater than my own.

No one who has not given a party of the dimensions of ours can have the least idea of the Herculean labors involved. We all worked like galley-slaves, and on the morning before the party but little provision had been made save cakes, and the last batch of these were burned because Chloe, who had undertaken to watch their baking, had become all too deeply absorbed in the French cookery-book's recipe for soles à la Normande, a dish which we had neither the means nor the skill to prepare. She came into the hall where Yolande and I were washing the best dessert service,—for so large a party all plates must be requisitioned,—sank on to a chair, stuck out her feet straight before her—an attitude recognized in our code as indicating despair—and said:

“It's no use; you'd better send wires to put them all off. The beef is quite the wrong shape; the ham is nearly raw, I'm certain; and none of the things have come from the Stores. And now the cakes are burned!”

“Poor little King Alfred!” I said. “Never mind; we'll worry through somehow.”

Do I wrong Yolande, or did a gleam of satisfaction flash through the downcast lashes of eyes ostensibly busy with dish-washing? Did she really say to herself: “I told you so! You can't organize worth a cent, either of you”?

I hope not; I almost think not. But, after all, most of us are human, and why not Yolande?

Anyhow, if any stirring of the old Adam rose at that moment in Yolande, it was fought down in an instant, and she was imploring Chloe to tell her what to do—to let her run up to town for the Stores-things—anything, everything, rather than that Chloe should be worried and turn her hair gray before its time.

At this, the absolutely perfect psychological moment, a shadow fell on the red and white marble from a figure approaching the front door, and a soft voice said, “Mrs. Bates.”

“She doesn't live here,” said Yolande, courteously. She took the word, for Chloe, on the verge of tears, sat speechless. “She lives at the first cottage on the way to the station.”

“I know,” said the soft voice, betraying in its fourth word the charming accent of the dales. “I am Mrs. Bates, and your Mary was telling me you were having a party, and I thought short-handed as likely as not; if there was anything I could do—I lived as cook before I was married—”

The situation was saved, and it was Mrs. Bates who saved it—or, to be more accurate, it was Mary, who had drawn Mrs. Bates to our rescue. And—I saw it in Yolande's eyes, though perhaps it was not there—it was really Yolande who had saved the situation, since it was she who had saved to us Mary. Even if I did see it, I dare not grudge Yolande that fleeting triumph. Before the party was over— But let me, above all, tell my tale orderly.

For the rest of that day Mrs. Bates and Mary wrought, unaided, in the kitchen, for Chloe, in the abrupt reaction from despair, became suddenly enlightened as to a far more important matter than even food. She had nothing to wear, save yellow, which Aunt George could never abide, and pale blue, in which Uncle Bletherthwaite always remarked how washed-out she looked. So the rest of the day passed in washing, dyeing, and ironing her primrose-colored liberty silk.

The dye was pale pink, a brilliant scarlet, or a deep crimson, according to the measure of its dilution. Several minor articles were irrevocably ruined, and gallons of ruddy dye stood about the bath-room in pails, before the right shade of delicate pink was achieved in one of my best white silk ties. Then the primrose gown became rose-colored, and was rinsed and dried and ironed till it looked like a newly blown hollyhock blossom.

“I wish there was something more to do,” Chloe said, sighing; “it does seem such a pity to waste all this lovely dye.”

My cousin, an experimental chemist, had given me the dye, with the words: “The only thing is, it's such a pure, perfect color, your wife will want to dye everything in the house with it. Don't let her!”

Thus forewarned, I was firm, and I carried away the pails. Yolande followed me, begging that the dye might not be thrown away. She would find a use for it. So I put it in the tool-shed among the rakes and forks, the garden syringe, and the grass-cutter—the only place where I could feel sure that no uncle would kick it over inadvertently, no aunt absently sit down on it.

And now it was the day of the house-warming. It was a fine day, and, acting on a sudden inspiration, Yolande and I rode over to Blackheath on our bicycles, returning laden with light, enormous parcels. They were colored Chinese lanterns. We hung them from the trees near the house. And then, further inspired, I tore off for more, and we strung them on wires and made the house beautiful with them. The big drawing-room, with its evergreen garlands, its little white-draped tables, sparkling with borrowed glass and silver, its bowls of radiant dahlias, its tall green glasses of Japanese anemones, its pinkshaded candles, and over all the mellow glow of the many-colored lanterns, was a picture at which our hearts beat high with pride. The sideboard groaned (it really did groan, and that in no mere commonplace metaphorical way, but honestly, because it was, in its inmost heart, only packing-cases) beneath the weight of as fine a cold supper as any aunt could wish to see, any uncle wish to eat. Chloe's pink hollyhock gown was an exquisite success. Yolande's was like a white hollyhock bloom. All was ready. The first wheels crushed the gravel of our drive. The first uncle was relieved of his great-coat by my hands, the first aunt escorted by Chloe to “take off her things.” Aunts will not dispense with personal attendance in this ceremony. Gradually the hall filled. Ponderous uncles and portly aunts occupied the heavier chairs. Lean aunts and uncles stood conversing with frosty geniality. A great-uncle and a second-cousin who had not spoken for years—a family affair about a trust and an Australian gold-mine, nothing personally discreditable to either—sank their old feud and found out how much they still had in common, as they discussed in a wheezy undertone the extraordinary extravagance of their host and hostess—agreeing almost cordially in the opinion that we were living in a style far, far beyond our means. Cousins of every degree enthusiastically compared notes as to the difficulty of getting to our house. Three nice nieces and a manly nephew or two offered conventional amiabilities to their elders. We had furnished and adorned the hall, and no one, we felt, could look on its marble floor and wainscoted walls without feeling himself privileged in being allowed to take part in such a pageant, so admirably staged. My aunt George objected to the wainscot as dark and out of date, and said the marble floor was cold to the feet. My uncle Reginald agreed with her, but added handsomely that beggars mustn't be choosers, and no doubt we were wise not to waste our money on carpets. Altogether, everything was going splendidly.

When the gong sounded I think it was felt to be an extravagance. I remedied this as far as I could by telling Aunt George, as I gave her my arm, that the gong was a wedding-present to Chloe. And so it was, but I bought it.

We crowded into the big drawing-room. Even Aunt George admitted that it looked very nice—but not until I had asked her if it didn't. And then she said it would have looked better without those Christmas decorations! These were our loops and swags. I saw more than one uncle cast a glance at the foot of the sideboard as he passed, and I wondered in anguish whether the drapery had displaced itself and the naked packing-cases were disclosed to the shocked eyes of aunts. But I could not see. Yet the suspense was unbearable. Under pretext of turning down a lamp, I went to see. I must know the worst. The worst was a row—a long row—of gold-topped bottles.

I flashed reproachful glances at Chloe, and as I passed behind her chair, she murmured: “It's all right. Asti. The new tenant.”

It seemed to me, in my agitation, to be like the new tenant's cheek, and not at all like Chloe, but this was no time for anything but the duties of a host. I returned to Aunt George, who said, “I wish to goodness you wouldn't run about so!”

Mary and Mrs. Bates waited, and the waiting was excellent. So was the Chianti, which was all I had intended our wine-bill to run to. But the uncles looked at the gold-topped bottles, so did some of the cousins. The aunts looked away from them. So I said: “Aunt George, we've some very fine Italian sparkling wine here—a present. I should like you to try it.”

As soon as I had said “a present,” I caught my wife's shocked glance, and knew the truth; she had bought the Asti on the strength of our new tenant. But the words were out; so, in a few moments, were the corks. The avuncular condemnation of Italian vintages was almost unanimous—but avuncular eyes sparkled, and a sort of soft current of cheerfulness passed round the room. At the round table at the other end where sat the nephews and nieces and the few young people whom we had asked to meet them, there was a low buzz of chattering and laughter. Yolande was at that table. She had insisted on it.

“Your uncle George always said,” my aunt George was saying, as she held out her glass to be refilled, “that no sparkling wine was worth the drinking except—” when a sudden rapping on the table left her with only time for a, “Well, I'm sure,” before a general silence abashed her into quiet.

Uncle Bletherthwaite rose heavily in his place. He made a speech. The Fates forbid that I should render it to you. It was of a studied temperateness; it dwelt on our blessings; expressed, tepidly, the pleasure he felt in seeing us at last (he repeated “at last,” and I knew he was thinking that it was eight months since he had dined with us) in our home and with our family (he looked at Yolande) gathered about us. It dwelt, and I thought at somewhat too great a length, on the good dinners he had eaten in this house in my uncle Thomas's days, and the good wine he had drunk (he looked disparagingly at the Asti); it ended by a formal hope that we and those now assembled round our board might long be spared (which I could see he didn't think likely), and with a wish that our new home might be a blessing to us. (Of course it was perfectly plain that, however much he might wish it, it appeared to him but too improbable.) He said, finally, and with a sigh, “I and your aunts and cousins and other relations, including, I am sure, those present who are not members of the family, drink to the prosperity of the Red House.”

The toast was drunk in the gloomiest silence—as to the memory of those who had fallen.

All the lights seemed to burn lower; there was an awkward pause. Chloe bit her lip and would not look at me.

Then suddenly there was another buzz from the youthful table, and our eldest nephew rose in his place.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began (adding by what was scarcely a happy after-thought, “and aunts and uncles”), “we have drunk to the old house, and now I want to call another toast—with your kind permission,” he said, catching the eye of an elderly cousin. “So fill your glasses, please—no heel-taps—bumpers, please! Here's to the jolliest aunt and uncle that ever were. The dearest and kindest and jolliest and best—Aunt Chloe and Uncle Len. Long life and happiness to them! God bless them! There!” It was his first speech, dear boy, and I think he hoped then that it might be his last. I saw his hand trembling as he lifted his glass. Then suddenly all the young people stood up; a momentary hesitation ended in the rustling rising of elder relatives, and through the rustle came the first words of the refrain, from the young table:

    “For they are jolly good fellows,
    For they are jolly good fellows,
    Oh, they are jolly good fellows,
    And so say all of us.”

Before the singing was over Aunt George was leading it in her high sweet old voice, and Uncle Bletherthwaite was thundering an irresponsible bass. I did not know where to look, and I believe Chloe nearly wept. I made some sort of speech—I don't know how. Having one's health drunk like that is a thing that doesn't happen often—thank goodness. So one feels it oddly.

The party “went” like wildfire after that. It was almost as delightful as if none of us had been related to each other at all. The tables were cleared, then with the help of nephews and the less frail among the cousins, cleared away bodily. Yolande sang to the guitar, and aunts nodded approval. A niece and a nephew danced a minuet, and cousins were mildly pleased. Then Yvonne and the prettiest niece danced a cachucha, and uncles were enchanted. Some one sang—an uncle, I think; some one sniffed—no doubt an aunt; and coffee was served at the absolutely right moment. Then shawls and hats were handed like refreshments, and we all trooped out into the garden by the moat to look at the moonlight and the Chinese lanterns, craftily lighted by Mrs. Bates while the cachucha was enchanting us. The night was warm as June. Groups of persons—all related, yet for the moment all at peace with each other—stood “beneath the dreaming garden trees.” Chloe and I glowed with a flush of successful hospitality.

Then suddenly, sharply, the silence of the night, with its soft embroidery of talking and laughter, was shattered—torn roughly asunder by a scream, and another scream, from the walled garden beyond the moat. Feminine cousins paled; male cousins spoke ejaculatorily of pistols; stout uncles breathed heavily of police. A few of us hastened towards the walled garden. At the door that leads to it from the moat garden we came face to face with two figures, a man and a woman, who staggered as they walked; both were in white, and both were stained on face and hands and garments with dark, ominous stains.

“Just our luck!” I murmured. “What an end to a family party!” For the light of a saffron-colored lantern showed us unmistakably that the stains were blood-red.

I flung an arm round the blood-stained woman to sustain her. And the woman was Yolande. And I heard my uncle Bletherthwaite murmur, “Well, I never!” as though he had foreseen the whole thing.