The White Peacock/Part 1, Chapter 5
THE SCENT OF BLOOD
The death of the man who was our father changed our lives. It was not that we suffered a great grief; the chief trouble was the unanswered crying of failure. But we were changed in our feelings and in our relations; there was a new consciousness, a new carefulness.
We had lived between the woods and the water all our lives, Lettie and I, and she had sought the bright notes in everything. She seemed to hear the water laughing, and the leaves tittering and giggling like young girls; the aspen fluttered like the draperies of a flirt, and the sound of the wood-pigeons was almost foolish in its sentimentality.
Lately, however, she had noticed again the cruel pitiful crying of a hedgehog caught in a gin, and she had noticed the traps for the fierce little murderers, traps walled in with a small fence of fir, and baited with the guts of a killed rabbit.
On an afternoon a short time after our visit to Cossethay, Lettie sat in the window seat. The sun clung to her hair, and kissed her with passionate splashes of colour brought from the vermilion, dying creeper outside. The sun loved Lettie, and was loath to leave her. She looked out over Nethermere to Highclose, vague in the September mist. Had it not been for the scarlet light on her face, I should have thought her look was sad and serious. She nestled up to the window, and leaned her head against the wooden shaft. Gradually she drooped into sleep. Then she became wonderfully childish again—it was the girl of seventeen sleeping there, with her full pouting lips slightly apart, and the breath coming lightly. I felt the old feeling of responsibility; I must protect her, and take care of her.
There was a crunch of the gravel. It was Leslie coming. He lifted his hat to her, thinking she was looking. He had that fine, lithe physique, suggestive of much animal vigour; his person was exceedingly attractive; one watched him move about, and felt pleasure. His face was less pleasing than his person. He was not handsome; his eyebrows were too light, his nose was large and ugly, and his forehead, though high and fair, was without dignity. But he had a frank, good-natured expression, and a fine, wholesome laugh.
He wondered why she did not move. As he came nearer he saw. Then he winked at me and came in. He tip-toed across the room to look at her. The sweet carelessness of her attitude, the appealing, half-pitiful girlishness of her face touched his responsive heart, and he leaned forward and kissed her cheek where already was a crimson stain of sunshine.
She roused half out of her sleep with a little, petulant “Oh!” as an awakened child. He sat down behind her, and gently drew her head against him, looking down at her with a tender, soothing smile. I thought she was going to fall asleep thus. But her eyelids quivered, and her eyes beneath them flickered into consciousness.
“Leslie!—oh!—Let me go!” she exclaimed, pushing him away. He loosed her, and rose, looking at her reproachfully. She shook her dress, and went quickly to the mirror to arrange her hair.
“You are mean!” she exclaimed, looking very flushed, vexed, and dishevelled.
He laughed indulgently, saying, “You shouldn’t go to sleep then and look so pretty. Who could help?”
“It is not nice!” she said, frowning with irritation.
“We are not ‘nice’—are we? I thought we were proud of our unconventionality. Why shouldn’t I kiss you?”
“Because it is a question of me, not of you alone.”
“Dear me, you are in a way!”
“Mother is coming.”
“Is she? You had better tell her.”
Mother was very fond of Leslie.
“Well, sir,” she said, “why are you frowning?”
He broke into a laugh.
“Lettie is scolding me for kissing her when she was playing ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ ”
“The conceit of the boy, to play Prince!” said my mother.
“Oh, but it appears I was sadly out of character,” he said ruefully.
Lettie laughed and forgave him.
“Well,” he said, looking at her, and smiling, “I came to ask you to go out.”
“It is a lovely afternoon,” said mother.
She glanced at him, and said:
“I feel dreadfully lazy.”
“Never mind!” he replied, “you’ll wake up. Go and put your hat on.”
He sounded impatient. She looked at him.
He seemed to be smiling peculiarly.
She lowered her eyes and went out of the room.
“She’ll come all right,” he said, to himself, and to me. “She likes to play you on a string.”
She must have heard him. When she came in again, drawing on her gloves, she said quietly:
“You come as well, Pat.”
He swung round and stared at her in angry amazement.
“I had rather stay and finish this sketch,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“No, but do come, there’s a dear.” She took the brush from my hand, and drew me from my chair. The blood flushed into his cheeks. He went quietly into the hall and brought my cap.
“All right!” he said angrily. “Women like to fancy themselves Napoleons.”
“They do, dear Iron Duke, they do,” she mocked.
“Yet, there’s a Waterloo in all their histories,” he said, since she had supplied him with the idea.
“Say Peterloo, my general, say Peterloo.”
“Ay, Peterloo,” he replied, with a splendid curl of the lip—“Easy conquests!”
“ ‘He came, he saw, he conquered,’ ” Lettie recited.
“Are you coming?” he said, getting more angry.
“When you bid me,” she replied, taking my arm.
We went through the wood, and through the dishevelled border-land to the high road, through the border-land that should have been park-like, but which was shaggy with loose grass and yellow mole-hills, ragged with gorse and bramble and briar, with wandering old thorn-trees, and a queer clump of Scotch firs.
On the highway the leaves were falling, and they chattered under our steps. The water was mild and blue, and the corn stood drowsily in “stook.”
We climbed the hill behind Highclose, and walked on along the upland, looking across towards the hills of arid Derbyshire, and seeing them not, because it was autumn. We came in sight of the head-stocks of the pit at Selsby, and of the ugly village standing blank and naked on the brow of the hill.
Lettie was in very high spirits. She laughed and joked continually. She picked bunches of hips and stuck them in her dress. Having got a thorn in her finger from a spray of blackberries, she went to Leslie to have it squeezed out. We were all quite gay as we turned off the high road and went along the bridle path, with the woods on our right, the high Strelley hills shutting in our small valley in front, and the fields and the common to the left. About half way down the lane we heard the slurr of the scythestone on the scythe. Lettie went to the hedge to see. It was George mowing the oats on the steep hillside where the machine could not go. His father was tying up the corn into sheaves.
Straightening his back, Mr. Saxton saw us, and called to us to come and help. We pushed through a gap in the hedge and went up to him.
“Now then,” said the father to me, “take that coat off,” and to Lettie: “Have you brought us a drink? No;—come, that sounds bad! Going a walk, I guess. You see what it is to get fat,” and he pulled a wry face as he bent over to tie the corn. He was a man beautifully ruddy and burly, in the prime of life.
“Show me, I’ll do some,” said Lettie.
“Nay,” he answered gently, “it would scratch your wrists and break your stays. Hark at my hands”—he rubbed them together—“like sandpaper!”
George had his back to us, and had not noticed us. He continued to mow. Leslie watched him.
“That’s a fine movement!” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” replied the father, rising very red in the face from the tying, “and our George enjoys a bit o’ mowing. It puts you in fine condition when you get over the first stiffness.”
We moved across to the standing corn. The sun being mild, George had thrown off his hat, and his black hair was moist and twisted into confused half-curls. Firmly planted, he swung with a beautiful rhythm from the waist. On the hip of his belted breeches hung the scythestone; his shirt, faded almost white, was torn just above the belt, and showed the muscles of his back playing like lights upon the white sand of a brook. There was something exceedingly attractive in the rhythmic body.
I spoke to him, and he turned round. He looked straight at Lettie with a flashing, betraying smile. He was remarkably handsome. He tried to say some words of greeting, then he bent down and gathered an armful of corn, and deliberately bound it up.
Like him, Lettie had found nothing to say. Leslie, however, remarked:
“I should think mowing is a nice exercise.”
“It is,” he replied, and continued, as Leslie picked up the scythe, “but it will make you sweat, and your hands will be sore.”
Leslie tossed his head a little, threw off his coat, and said briefly:
“How do you do it?” Without waiting for a reply he proceeded. George said nothing, but turned to Lettie.
“You are picturesque,” she said, a trifle awkwardly, “Quite fit for an Idyll.”
“And you?” he said.
She shrugged her shoulders, laughed, and turned to pick up a scarlet pimpernel.
“How do you bind the com?” she asked.
He took some long straws, cleaned them, and showed her the way to hold them. Instead of attending, she looked at his hands, big, hard, inflamed by the snaith of the scythe.
“I don’t think I could do it,” she said.
“No,” he replied quietly, and watched Leslie mowing. The latter, who was wonderfully ready at everything, was doing fairly well, but he had not the invincible sweep of the other, nor did he make the same crisp crunching music.
“I bet he’ll sweat,” said George.
“Don’t you?” she replied.
“A bit—but I’m not dressed up.”
“Do you know,” she said suddenly, “your arms tempt me to touch them. They are such a fine brown colour, and they look so hard.”
He held out one arm to her. She hesitated, then she swiftly put her finger tips on the smooth brown muscle, and drew them along. Quickly she hid her hand into the folds of her skirt, blushing.
He laughed a low, quiet laugh, at once pleasant and startling to hear.
“I wish I could work here,” she said, looking away at the standing corn, and the dim blue woods. He followed her look, and laughed quietly, with indulgent resignation.
“I do!” she said emphatically.
“You feel so fine,” he said, pushing his hand through his open shirt front, and gently rubbing the muscles of his side. “It’s a pleasure to work or to stand still. It’s a pleasure to yourself—your own physique.”
She looked at him, full at his physical beauty, as if he were some great firm bud of life.
Leslie came up, wiping his brow.
“Jove,” said he, “I do perspire.”
George picked up his coat and helped him into it; saying:
“You may take a chill.”
“It’s a jolly nice form of exercise,” said he.
George, who had been feeling one finger tip, now took out his pen-knife and proceeded to dig a thorn from his hand.
“What a hide you must have,” said Leslie.
Lettie said nothing, but she recoiled slightly.
The father, glad of an excuse to straighten his back and to chat, came to us.
“You’d soon had enough,” he said, laughing to Leslie.
George startled us with a sudden, “Holloa.” We turned, and saw a rabbit, which had burst from the corn, go coursing through the hedge, dodging and bounding the sheaves. The standing corn was a patch along the hill-side some fifty paces in length, and ten or so in width.
“I didn’t think there’d have been any in,” said the father, picking up a short rake, and going to the low wall of the corn. We all followed.
“Watch!” said the father, “if you see the heads of the corn shake!”
We prowled round the patch of corn.
“Hold! Look out!” shouted the father excitedly, and immediately after a rabbit broke from the cover.
“Ay—Ay—Ay,” was the shout, “turn him—turn him!” We set off full pelt. The bewildered little brute, scared by Leslie’s wild running and crying, turned from its course, and dodged across the hill, threading its terrified course through the maze of lying sheaves, spurting on in a painful zigzag, now bounding over an untied bundle of corn, now swerving from the sound of a shout. The little wretch was hard pressed; George rushed upon it. It darted into some fallen corn, but he had seen it, and had fallen on it. In an instant he was up again, and the little creature was dangling from his hand.
We returned, panting, sweating, our eyes flashing, to the edge of the standing corn. I heard Lettie calling, and turning round saw Emily and the two children entering the field as they passed from school.
“There’s another!” shouted Leslie.
I saw the oat-tops quiver. “Here! Here!” I yelled. The animal leaped out, and made for the hedge. George and Leslie, who were on that side, dashed off, turned him, and he coursed back our way. I headed him off to the father who swept in pursuit for a short distance, but who was too heavy for the work. The little beast made towards the gate, but this time Mollie, with her hat in her hand and her hair flying, whirled upon him, and she and the little fragile lad sent him back again. The rabbit was getting tired. It dodged the sheaves badly, running towards the top hedge. I went after it. If I could have let myself fall on it I could have caught it, but this was impossible to me, and I merely prevented its dashing through the hole into safety. It raced along the hedge bottom. George tore after it. As he was upon it, it darted into the hedge. He fell flat, and shot his hand into the gap. But it had escaped. He lay there, panting in great sobs, and looking at me with eyes in which excitement and exhaustion struggled like flickering light and darkness. When he could speak, he said, “Why didn’t you fall on top of it?”
“I couldn’t,” said I.
We returned again. The two children were peering into the thick corn also. We thought there was nothing more. George began to mow. As I walked round I caught sight of a rabbit skulking near the bottom comer of the patch. Its ears lay pressed against its back; I could see the palpitation of the heart under the brown fur, and I could see the shining dark eyes looking at me. I felt no pity for it, but still I could not actually hurt it. I beckoned to the father. He ran up, and aimed a blow with the rake. There was a sharp little cry which sent a hot pain through me as if I had been cut. But the rabbit ran out, and instantly I forgot the cry, and gave pursuit, fairly feeling my fingers stiffen to choke it. It was all lame. Leslie was upon it in a moment, and he almost pulled its head off in his excitement to kill it.
I looked up. The girls were at the gate, just turning away.
“There are no more,” said the father.
At that instant Mary shouted.
“There’s one down this hole.”
The hole was too small for George to get his hand in, so we dug it out with the rake handle. The stick went savagely down the hole, and there came a squeak.
“Mice!” said George, and as he said it the mother slid out. Somebody knocked her on the back, and the hole was opened out. Little mice seemed to swarm everywhere. It was like killing insects. We counted nine little ones lying dead.
“Poor brute,” said George, looking at the mother, “What a job she must have had rearing that lot!” He picked her up, handled her curiously and with pity. Then he said, “Well, I may as well finish this to-night!”
His father took another scythe from off the hedge, and together they soon laid the proud, quivering heads low. Leslie and I tied up as they mowed, and soon all was finished.
The beautiful day was flushing to die. Over in the west the mist was gathering bluer. The intense stillness was broken by the rhythmic hum of the engines at the distant coal-mine, as they drew up the last bantles of men. As we walked across the fields the tubes of stubble tinkled like dulcimers. The scent of the corn began to rise gently. The last cry of the pheasants came from the wood, and the little clouds of birds were gone.
I carried a scythe, and we walked, pleasantly weary, down the hill towards the farm. The children had gone home with the rabbits.
When we reached the mill, we found the girls just rising from the table. Emily began to carry away the used pots, and to set clean ones for us. She merely glanced at us and said her formal greeting. Lettie picked up a book that lay in the ingle seat, and went to the window. George dropped into a chair. He had flung off his coat, and had pushed back his hair. He rested his great brown arms on the table and was silent for a moment.
“Running like that,” he said to me, passing his hand over his eyes, “makes you more tired than a whole day’s work. I don’t think I shall do it again.”
“The sport’s exciting while it lasts,” said Leslie.
“It does you more harm than the rabbits do us good,” said Mrs. Saxton.
“Oh, I don’t know, mother,” drawled her son, “it’s a couple of shillings.”
“And a couple of days off your life.”
“What be that!” he replied, taking a piece of bread and butter, and biting a large piece from it.
“Pour us a drop of tea,” he said to Emily.
“I don’t know that I shall wait on such brutes,” she replied, relenting, and flourishing the teapot.
“Oh,” said he taking another piece of bread and butter, “I’m not all alone in my savageness this time.”
“Men are all brutes,” said Lettie, hotly, without looking up from her book.
“You can tame us,” said Leslie, in mighty good humour.
She did not reply. George began, in that deliberate voice that so annoyed Emily:
“It does make you mad, though, to touch the fur, and not be able to grab him”—he laughed quietly.
Emily moved off in disgust. Lettie opened her mouth sharply to speak, but remained silent.
“I don’t know,” said Leslie. “When it comes to killing it goes against the stomach.”
“If you can run,” said George, “you should be able to run to death. When your blood’s up, you don’t hang half way.”
“I think a man is horrible,” said Lettie, “who can tear the head off a little mite of a thing like a rabbit, after running it in torture over a field.”
“When he is nothing but a barbarian to begin with——” said Emily.
“If you began to run yourself—you’d be the same,” said George.
“Why, women are cruel enough,” said Leslie, with a glance at Lettie. “Yes,” he continued, “they’re cruel enough in their way”—another look, and a comical little smile.
“Well,” said George, “what’s the good finicking! If you feel like doing a thing—you’d better do it.”
“Unless you haven’t courage,” said Emily, bitingly.
He looked up at her with dark eyes, suddenly full of anger.
“But,” said Lettie—she could not hold herself from asking, “Don’t you think it’s brutal, now—now that you do think—isn’t it degrading and mean to run the poor little things down?”
“Perhaps it is,” he replied, “but it wasn’t an hour ago.”
“You have no feeling,” she said bitterly.
He laughed deprecatingly, but said nothing.
We finished tea in silence, Lettie reading, Emily moving about the house. George got up and went out at the end. A moment or two after we heard him across the yard with the milk-buckets, singing: “The Ash Grove.”
“He doesn’t care a scrap for anything,” said Emily with accumulated bitterness. Lettie looked out of the window across the yard, thinking. She looked very glum.
After a while we went out also, before the light faded altogether from the pond. Emily took us into the lower garden to get some ripe plums. The old garden was very low. The soil was black. The cornbind and goosegrass were clutching at the ancient gooseberry bushes, which sprawled by the paths. The garden was not very productive, save of weeds, and perhaps, tremendous lank artichokes or swollen marrows. But at the bottom, where the end of the farm buildings rose high and grey, there was a plum-tree which had been crucified to the wall, and which had broken away and leaned forward from bondage. Now under the boughs were hidden great mist-bloomed, crimson treasures, splendid globes. I shook the old, ragged trunk, green, with even the fresh gum dulled over, and the treasures fell heavily, thudding down among the immense rhubarb leaves below. The girls laughed, and we divided the spoil, and turned back to the yard. We went down to the edge of the garden, which skirted the bottom pond, a pool chained in a heavy growth of weeds. It was moving with rats, the father had said. The rushes were thick below us; opposite, the great bank fronted us, with orchard trees climbing it like a hillside. The lower pond received the overflow from the upper by a tunnel from the deep black sluice.
Two rats ran into the black culvert at our approach. We sat on some piled, mossy stones, to watch. The rats came out again, ran a little way, stopped, ran again, listened, were reassured, and slid about freely, dragging their long naked tails. Soon six or seven grey beasts were playing round the mouth of the culvert, in the gloom. They sat and wiped their sharp faces, stroking their whiskers. Then one would give a little rush and a little squirm of excitement and would jump vertically into the air, alighting on four feet, running, sliding into the black shadow. One dropped with an ugly plop into the water, and swam toward us, the hoary imp, his sharp snout and his wicked little eyes moving at us. Lettie shuddered. I threw a stone into the dead pool, and frightened them all. But we had frightened ourselves more, so we hurried away, and stamped our feet in relief on the free pavement of the yard.
Leslie was looking for us. He had been inspecting the yard and the stock under Mr. Saxton’s supervision.
“Were you running away from me?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “I have been to fetch you a plum. Look!” And she showed him two in a leaf.
“They are too pretty to eat!” said he.
“You have not tasted yet,” she laughed.
“Come,” he said, offering her his arm. “Let us go up to the water.” She took his arm.
It was a splendid evening, with the light all thick and yellow lying on the smooth pond. Lettie made him lift her on to a leaning bough of willow. He sat with his head resting against her skirts. Emily and I moved on. We heard him murmur something, and her voice reply, gently, caressingly:
“No—let us be still—it is all so still—I love it best of all now.”
Emily and I talked, sitting at the base of the alders, a little way on. After an excitement, and in the evening, especially in autumn, one is inclined to, be sad and sentimental. We had forgotten that the darkness was weaving. I heard in the little distance Leslie’s voice begin to murmur like a flying beetle that comes not too near. Then, away down in the yard George began singing the old song, “I sowed the seeds of love.”
This interrupted the flight of Leslie’s voice, and as the singing came nearer, the hum of low words ceased. We went forward to meet George. Leslie sat up, clasping his knees, and did not speak. George came near, saying:
“The moon is going to rise.”
“Let me get down,” said Lettie, lifting her hands to him to help her. He, mistaking her wish, put his hands under her arms, and set her gently down, as one would a child. Leslie got up quickly, and seemed to hold himself separate, resenting the intrusion.
“I thought you were all four together,” said George quietly. Lettie turned quickly at the apology:
“So we were. So we are—five now. Is it there the moon will rise?”
“Yes—I like to see it come over the wood. It lifts slowly up to stare at you. I always think it wants to know something, and I always think I have something to answer, only I don’t know what it is,” said Emily.
Where the sky was pale in the east over the rim of wood came the forehead of the yellow moon. We stood and watched in silence. Then, as the great disc, nearly full, lifted and looked straight upon us, we were washed off our feet in a vague sea of moonlight. We stood with the light like water on our faces. Lettie was glad, a little bit exalted; Emily was passionately troubled; her lips were parted, almost beseeching; Leslie was frowning, oblivious, and George was thinking, and the terrible, immense moonbeams braided through his feeling. At length Leslie said softly, mistakenly:
“Come along, dear”—and he took her arm.
She let him lead her along the bank of the pond, and across the plank over the sluice.
“Do you know,” she said, as we were carefully descending the steep bank of the orchard, “I feel as if I wanted to laugh, or dance—something rather outrageous.”
“Surely not like that now,” Leslie replied in a low voice, feeling really hurt.
“I do though! I will race you to the bottom.”
“No, no, dear!” He held her back. When he came to the wicket leading on to the front lawns, he said something to her softly, as he held the gate.
I think he wanted to utter his half finished proposal, and so bind her.
She broke free, and, observing the long lawn which lay in grey shadow between the eastern and western glows, she cried:
“Polka!—a polka—one can dance a polka when the grass is smooth and short—even if there are some fallen leaves. Yes, yes—how jolly!”
She held out her hand to Leslie, but it was too great a shock to his mood. So she called to me, and there was a shade of anxiety in her voice, lest after all she should be caught in the toils of the night’s sentiment.
“Pat—you’ll dance with me—Leslie hates a polka.” I danced with her. I do not know the time when I could not polka—it seems innate in one’s feet, to dance that dance. We went flying round, hissing through the dead leaves. The night, the low hung yellow moon, the pallor of the west, the blue cloud of evening overhead went round and through the fantastic branches of the old laburnum, spinning a little madness. You cannot tire Lettie; her feet are wings that beat the air. When at last I stayed her she laughed as fresh as ever, as she bound her hair.
“There!” she said to Leslie, in tones of extreme satisfaction, “that was lovely. Do you come and dance now.”
“Not a polka,” said he, sadly, feeling the poetry in his heart insulted by the jigging measure.
“But one cannot dance anything else on wet grass, and through shuffling dead leaves. You, George?”
“Emily says I jump,” he replied.
“Come on—come on”—and in a moment they were bounding across the grass. After a few steps she fell in with him, and they spun round the grass. It was true, he leaped, sprang with large strides, carrying her with him. It was a tremendous, irresistible dancing. Emily and I must join, making an inner ring, Now and again there was a sense of something white flying near, and wild rustle of draperies, and a swish of disturbed leaves as they whirled past us. Long after we were tired they danced on.
At the end, he looked big, erect, nerved with triumph, and she was exhilarated like a Bacchante.
“Have you finished?” Leslie asked.
She knew she was safe from his question that day.
“Yes,” she panted. “You should have danced. Give me my hat, please. Do I look very disgraceful?”
He took her hat and gave it to her.
“Disgraceful?” he repeated.
“Oh, you are solemn to-night! What is it?”
“Yes, what is it?” he repeated ironically.
“It must be the moon. Now, is my hat straight? Tell me now—you’re not looking. Then put it level. Now then! Why, your hands are quite cold, and mine so hot! I feel so impish,” and she laughed.
“There—now I’m ready. Do you notice those little chrysanthemums trying to smell sadly; when the old moon is laughing and winking through those boughs. What business have they with their sadness!” She took a handful of petals and flung them into the air: “There—if they sigh they ask for sorrow—I like things to wink and look wild.”