The White Peacock/Part 2, Chapter 1
STRANGE BLOSSOMS AND STRANGE NEW BUDDING
Winter lay a long time prostrate on the earth. The men in the mines of Tempest, Warrall and Co. came out on strike on a question of the re-arranging of the working system down below. The distress was not awful, for the men were on the whole wise and well-conditioned, but there was a dejection over the face of the country-side, and some suffered keenly. Everywhere, along the lanes and in the streets, loitered gangs of men, unoccupied and spiritless. Week after week went on, and the agents of the Miner’s Union held great meetings, and the ministers held prayer-meetings, but the strike continued. There was no rest. Always the crier’s bell was ringing in the street; always the servants of the company were delivering handbills, stating the case clearly, and always the people talked and filled the months with bitter, and then hopeless, resenting. Schools gave breakfasts, chapels gave soup, well-to-do people gave teas—the children enjoyed it. But we, who knew the faces of the old men and the privations of the women, breathed a cold, disheartening atmosphere of sorrow and trouble.
Determined poaching was carried on in the Squire’s woods and warrens. Annable defended his game heroically. One man was at home with a leg supposed to be wounded by a fall on the slippery roads—but really, by a man-trap in the woods. Then Annable caught two men, and they were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.
On both the lodge gates of Highclose—on our side and on the far Eberwich side—were posted notices that trespassers on the drive or in the grounds would be liable to punishment. These posters were soon mudded over, and fresh ones fixed.
The men loitering on the road by Nethermere, looked angrily at Lettie as she passed, in her black furs which Leslie had given her, and their remarks were pungent. She heard them, and they burned in her heart. From my mother she inherited democratic views, which she now proceeded to debate warmly with her lover.
Then she tried to talk to Leslie about the strike. He heard her with mild superiority, smiled, and said she did not know. Women jumped to conclusions at the first touch of feeling; men must look at a thing all round, then make a decision—nothing hasty and impetuous—careful, long-thought-out, correct decisions. Women could not be expected to understand these things, business was not for them; in fact, their mission was above business—etc., etc. Unfortunately Lettie was the wrong woman to treat thus.
“So!” said she, with a quiet, hopeless tone of finality.
“There now, you understand, don’t you, Minnehaha, my Laughing Water—So laugh again, darling, and don’t worry about these things. We will not talk about them any more, eh?”
“No more—that’s right—you are as wise as an angel. Come here—pooh, the wood is thick and lonely! Look, there is nobody in the world but us, and you are my heaven and earth!”
“Ah—if you are so cold—how cold you are!—it gives me little shivers when you look so—and I am always hot—Lettie!”
“You are cruel! Kiss me—now—No, I don’t want your cheek—kiss me yourself. Why don’t you say something?”
“What for? What’s the use of saying anything when there’s nothing immediate to say?”
“You are offended!”
“It feels like snow to-day,” she answered.
At last, however, winter began to gather her limbs, to rise, and drift with saddened garments northward.
The strike was over. The men had compromised. It was a gentle way of telling them they were beaten. But the strike was over.
The birds fluttered and dashed; the catkins on the hazel loosened their winter rigidity, and swung soft tassels. All through the day sounded long, sweet whistlings from the brushes; then later, loud, laughing shouts of bird triumph on every hand.
I remember a day when the breast of the hills was heaving in a last quick waking sigh, and the blue eyes of the waters opened bright. Across the infinite skies of March great rounded masses of cloud had sailed stately all day, domed with a white radiance, softened with faint, fleeting shadows as if companies of angels were gently sweeping past; adorned with resting, silken shadows like those of a full white breast. All day the clouds had moved on to their vast destination, and I had clung to the earth yearning and impatient. I took a brush and tried to paint them, then I raged at myself. I wished that in all the wild valley where cloud shadows were travelling like pilgrims, something would call me forth from my rooted loneliness. Through all the grandeur of the white and blue day, the poised cloud masses swung their slow flight, and left me unnoticed.
At evening, they were all gone, and the empty sky, like a blue bubble over us, swam on its pale bright rims.
Leslie came, and asked his betrothed to go out with him, under the darkening wonderful bubble. She bade me accompany her, and, to escape from myself, I went.
It was warm in the shelter of the wood and in the crouching hollows of the hills. But over the slanting shoulders of the hills the wind swept, whipping the redness into our faces.
“Get me some of those alder catkins, Leslie,” said Lettie, as we came down to the stream.
“Yes, those, where they hang over the brook. They are ruddy like new blood freshening under the skin. Look, tassels of crimson and gold!” She pointed to the dusty hazel catkins mingled with the alder on her bosom. Then she began to quote Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday.”
“I’m glad you came to take me a walk,” she continued—“Doesn’t Strelley Mill look pretty? Like a group of orange and scarlet fungi in a fairy picture. Do you know, I haven’t been, no, not for quite a long time. Shall we call now?”
“The daylight will be gone if we do. It is half past five—more! I saw him—the son—the other morning.”
“He was carting manure—I made haste by.”
“Did he speak to you—did you look at him?”
“No, he said nothing. I glanced at him—he’s just the same, brick colour—stolid. Mind that stone—it rocks. I’m glad you’ve got strong boots on.”
“Seeing that I usually wear them——”
She stood poised a moment on a large stone, the fresh spring brook hastening towards her, deepening, sidling round her.
“You won’t call and see them, then?” she asked.
“No. I like to hear the brook tinkling, don’t you?” he replied.
“Ah, yes—it’s full of music.”
“Shall we go on?” he said, impatient but submissive.
“I’ll catch up in a minute,” said I.
I went in and found Emily putting some bread into the oven.
“Come out for a walk,” said I.
“Now? Let me tell mother—I was longing——”
She ran and put on her long grey coat and her red tam-o-shanter. As we went down the yard, George called to me.
“I’ll come back,” I shouted.
He came to the crew-yard gate to see us off. When we came out onto the path, we saw Lettie standing on the top bar of the stile, balancing with her hand on Leslie’s head. She saw us, she saw George, and she waved to us. Leslie was looking up at her anxiously. She waved again, then we could hear her laughing, and telling him excitedly, to stand still, and steady her while she turned. She turned round, and leaped with a great flutter, like a big bird launching, down from the top of the stile to the ground and into his arms. Then we climbed the steep hillside—Sunny Bank, that had once shone yellow with wheat, and now waved black tattered ranks of thistles where the rabbits ran. We passed the little cottages in the hollow scooped out of the hill, and gained the highlands that look out over Leicestershire to Charnwood on the left, and away into the mountain knob of Derbyshire straight in front and towards the right.
The upper road is all grassy, fallen into long disuse. It used to lead from the Abbey to the Hall; but now it ends blindly on the hill-brow. Half way along is the old White House farm, with its green mounting steps mouldering outside. Ladies have mounted here and ridden towards the Vale of Belvoir—but now a labourer holds the farm.
We came to the quarries, and looked in at the lime-kilns.
“Let us go right into the wood out of the quarry,” said Leslie. “I have not been since I was a little lad.”
“It is trespassing,” said Emily.
“We don’t trespass,” he replied grandiloquently.
So we went along by the hurrying brook, which fell over little cascades in its haste, never looking once at the primroses that were glimmering all along its banks. We turned aside, and climbed the hill through the woods. Velvety green sprigs of dog-mercury were scattered on the red soil. We came to the top of a slope, where the wood thinned. As I talked to Emily I became dimly aware of a whiteness over the ground. She exclaimed with surprise, and I found that I was walking, in the first shades of twilight, over clumps of snowdrops. The hazels were thin, and only here and there an oak tree uprose. All the ground was white with snowdrops, like drops of manna scattered over the red earth, on the grey-green clusters of leaves. There was a deep little dell, sharp sloping like a cup, and white sprinkling of flowers all the way down, with white flowers showing pale among the first inpouring of shadow at the bottom. The earth was red and warm, pricked with the dark, succulent green of bluebell sheaths, and embroidered with grey-green clusters of spears, and many white flowerets. High above, above the light tracery of hazel, the weird oaks tangled in the sunset. Below, in the first shadows, drooped hosts of little white flowers, so silent and sad; it seemed like a holy communion of pure wild things, numberless, frail, and folded meekly in the evening light. Other flower companies are glad; stately barbaric hordes of bluebells, merry-headed cowslip groups, even light, tossing wood-anemones; but snowdrops are sad and mysterious. We have lost their meaning. They do not belong to us, who ravish them. The girls bent among them, touching them with their fingers, and symbolising the yearning which I felt. Folded in the twilight, these conquered flowerets are sad like forlorn little friends of dryads.
“What do they mean, do you think?” said Lettie in a low voice, as her white fingers touched the flowers, and her black furs fell on them.
“There are not so many this year,” said Leslie.
“They remind me of mistletoe, which is never ours, though we wear it,” said Emily to me.
“What do you think they say—what do they make you think, Cyril?” Lettie repeated.
“I don’t know. Emily says they belong to some old wild lost religion. They were the symbol of tears, perhaps, to some strange hearted Druid folk before us.”
“More than tears,” said Lettie. “More than tears, they are so still. Something out of an old religion, that we have lost. They make me feel afraid.”
“What should you have to fear?” asked Leslie.
“If I knew I shouldn’t fear,” she answered.
“Look at all the snowdrops”—they hung in dim, strange flecks among the dusky leaves—“look at them—closed up, retreating, powerless. They belong to some knowledge we have lost, that I have lost and that I need. I feel afraid. They seem like something in fate. Do you think, Cyril, we can lose things off the earth—like mastodons, and those old monstrosities—but things that matter—wisdom?”
“It is against my creed,” said I.
“I believe I have lost something,” said she.
“Come,” said Leslie, “don’t trouble with fancies. Come with me to the bottom of this cup, and see how strange it will be, with the sky marked with branches like a filigree lid.”
She rose and followed him down the steep side of the pit, crying, “Ah, you are treading on the flowers.”
“No,” said he, “I am being very careful.”
They sat down together on a fallen tree at the bottom. She leaned forward, her fingers wandering white among the shadowed grey spaces of leaves, plucking, as if it were a rite, flowers here and there. He could not see her face.
“Don’t you care for me?” he asked softly.
“You?”—she sat up and looked at him, and laughed strangely. “You do not seem real to me,” she replied, in a strange voice.
For some time they sat thus, both bowed and silent. Birds “skirred” off from the bushes, and Emily looked up with a great start as a quiet, sardonic voice said above us:
“A dove-cot, my eyes if it ain’t! It struck me I ’eered a cooin’, an’ ’ere’s th’ birds. Come on, sweet-hearts, it’s th’ wrong place for billin’ an’ cooin’, in th’ middle o’ these ’ere snowdrops. Let’s ’ave yer names, come on.”
“Clear off, you fool!” answered Leslie from below, jumping up in anger.
We all four turned and looked at the keeper. He stood in the rim of light, darkly; fine, powerful form, menacing us. He did not move, but like some malicious Pan looked down on us and said:
“Very pretty—pretty! Two—and two makes four. ’Tis true, two and two makes four. Come on, come on out o’ this ’ere bridal bed, an’ let’s ’ave a look at yer.”
“Can’t you use your eyes, you fool,” replied Leslie, standing up and helping Lettie with her furs. “At any rate you can see there are ladies here.”
“Very sorry, Sir! You can’t tell a lady from a woman at this distance at dusk. Who may you be, Sir?”
“Clear out! Come along, Lettie, you can’t stay here now.”
They climbed into the light.
“Oh, very sorry, Mr. Tempest—when yer look down on a man he never looks the same. I thought it was some young fools come here dallyin’——”
“Damn you—shut up!” exclaimed Leslie—“I beg your pardon, Lettie. Will you have my arm?”
They looked very elegant, the pair of them. Lettie was wearing a long coat which fitted close; she had a small hat whose feathers flushed straight back with her hair.
The keeper looked at them. Then, smiling, he went down the dell with great strides, and returned, saying, “Well, the lady might as well take her gloves.”
She took them from him, shrinking to Leslie. Then she started, and said :
“Let me fetch my flowers.”
She ran for the handful of snowdrops that lay among the roots of the trees. We all watched her.
“Sorry I made such a mistake—a lady!” said Annable. “But I’ve nearly forgot the sight o’ one—save the squire’s daughters, who are never out o’ nights.”
“I should think you never have seen many—unless—! Have you ever been a groom?”
“No groom but a bridegroom, Sir, and then I think I’d rather groom a horse than a lady, for I got well bit—if you will excuse me, Sir.”
“And you deserved it—no doubt.”
“I got it—an’ I wish you better luck, Sir. One’s more a man here in th’ wood, though, than in my lady’s parlour, it strikes me.”
“A lady’s parlour! “laughed Leslie, indulgent in his amusement at the facetious keeper.
“Oh, yes! ‘Will you walk into my parlour——’ ”
“You’re very smart for a keeper.”
“Oh, yes Sir—I was once a lady’s man. But I’d rather watch th’ rabbits an’ th’ birds; an’ it’s easier breeding brats in th’ Kennels than in th’ town.”
“They are yours, are they?” said I.
“You know ’em, do you. Sir? Aren’t they a lovely little litter?—aren’t they a pretty bag o’ ferrets?—natural as weasels—that’s what I said they should be—bred up like a bunch o’ young foxes, to run as they would.”
Emily had joined Lettie, and they kept aloof from the man they instinctively hated.
“They’ll get nicely trapped, one of these days,”said I.
“They’re natural—they can fend for themselves like wild beasts do,” he replied, grinning.
“You are not doing your duty, it strikes me,” put in Leslie sententiously.
The man laughed.
“Duties of parents!—tell me, I’ve need of it. I’ve nine—that is eight, and one not far off. She breeds well, the ow’d lass—one every two years—nine in fourteen years—done well, hasn’t she?”
“You’ve done pretty badly, I think.”
“I—why? It’s natural! When a man’s more than nature he’s a devil. Be a good animal, says I, whether it’s man or woman. You, Sir, a good natural male animal; the lady there—a female un—that’s proper—as long as yer enjoy it.”
“And what then?”
“Do as th’ animals do. I watch my brats—I let ’em grow. They’re beauties, they are—sound as a young ash pole, every one. They shan’t learn to dirty themselves wi’ smirking deviltry—not if I can help it. They can be like birds, or weasels, or vipers, or squirrels, so long as they ain’t human rot, that’s what I say.”
“It’s one way of looking at things,” said Leslie.
“Ay. Look at the women looking at us. I’m something between a bull and a couple of worms stuck together, I am. See that spink!” he raised his voice for the girls to hear. “Pretty, isn’t he? What for?—And what for do you wear a fancy vest and twist your moustache. Sir! What for, at the bottom! Ha—tell a woman not to come in a wood till she can look at natural things—she might see something—Good night. Sir.”
He marched off into the darkness.
“Coarse fellow, that,” said Leslie when he had rejoined Lettie, “but he’s a character.”
“He makes you shudder,” she replied. “But yet you are interested in him. I believe he has a history.”
“He seems to lack something,” said Emily.
“I thought him rather a fine fellow,” said I.
“Splendidly built fellow, but callous—no soul,” remarked Leslie, dismissing the question.
“No,” assented Emily. “No soul—and among the snowdrops.”
Lettie was thoughtful, and I smiled.
It was a beautiful evening, still, with red, shaken clouds in the west. The moon in heaven was turning wistfully back to the east. Dark purple woods lay around us, painting out the distance. The near, wild, ruined land looked sad and strange under the pale afterglow. The turf path was fine and springy.
“Let us run!” said Lettie, and joining hands we raced wildly along, with a flutter and a breathless laughter, till we were happy and forgetful. When we stopped we exclaimed at once, “Hark!”
“A child!” said Lettie.
“At the Kennels,” said I.
We hurried forward. From the house came the mad yelling and yelping of children, and the wild hysterical shouting of a woman.
“Tha’ little devil—tha’ little devil—tha’ shanna—that tha’ shanna!” and this was accompanied by the hollow sound of blows, and a pandemonium of howling. We rushed in, and found the woman in a tousled frenzy belabouring a youngster with an enamelled pan. The lad was rolled up like a young hedgehog—the woman held him by the foot, and like a flail came the hollow utensil thudding on his shoulders and back. He lay in the firelight and howled, while scattered in various groups, with the leaping firelight twinkling over their tears and their open mouths, were the other children, crying too. The mother was in a state of hysteria; her hair streamed over her face, and her eyes were fixed in a stare of overwrought irritation. Up and down went her long arm like a windmill sail. I ran and held it. When she could hit no more, the woman dropped the pan from her nerveless hand, and staggered, trembling, to the squab. She looked desperately weary and fordone—she clasped and unclasped her hands continually. Emily hushed the children, while Lettie hushed the mother, holding her hard, cracked hands as she swayed to and fro. Gradually the mother became still, and sat staring in front of her; then aimlessly she began to finger the jewels on Lettie’s finger.
Emily was bathing the cheek of a little girl, who lifted up her voice and wept loudly when she saw the speck of blood on the cloth. But presently she became quiet too, and Emily could empty the water from the late instrument of castigation, and at last light the lamp.
I found Sam under the table in a little heap. I put out my hand for him, and he wriggled away, like a lizard, into the passage. After a while I saw him in a corner, lying whimpering with little savage cries of pain. I cut off his retreat and captured him, bearing him struggling into the kitchen. Then, weary with pain, he became passive.
We undressed him, and found his beautiful white body all discoloured with bruises. The mother began to sob again, with a chorus of babies. The girls tried to soothe the weeping, while I rubbed butter into the silent, wincing boy. Then his mother caught him in her arms, and kissed him passionately, and cried with abandon. The boy let himself be kissed—then he too began to sob, till his little body was all shaken. They folded themselves together, the poor dishevelled mother and the half-naked boy, and wept themselves still. Then she took him to bed, and the girls helped the other little ones into their night-gowns, and soon the house was still.
“I canna manage ’em, I canna,” said the mother mournfully. “They growin’ beyont me—I dunna know what to do wi’ ’em. An’ niver a’ ’and does ’e lift ter ’elp me—no—’e cares not a thing for me—not a thing—nowt but makes a mock an’ a sludge o’ me.”
“Ah, baby!” said Lettie, setting the bonny boy on his feet, and holding up his trailing nightgown behind him, “do you want to walk to your mother—go then—Ah!”
The child, a handsome little fellow of some sixteen months, toddled across to his mother, waving his hands as he went, and laughing, while his large hazel eyes glowed with pleasure. His mother caught him, pushed the silken brown hair back from his forehead, and laid his cheek against hers.
“Ah!” she said, “Tha’s got a funny Dad, tha’ has, not like another man, no, my duckie. ’E’s got no ’art ter care for nobody, ’e ’asna, ma pigeon—no,—lives like a stranger to his own flesh an’ blood.”
The girl with the wounded cheek had found comfort in Leslie. She was seated on his knee, looking at him with solemn blue eyes, her solemnity increased by the quaint round head, whose black hair was cut short.
“ ’S my chalk, yes it is, ’n our Sam says as it’s ’issen, an’ ’e ta’es it and marks it all gone, so I wouldna gie ’t ’im,”—she clutched in her fat little hand a piece of red chalk. “My Dad gen it me, ter mark my dolly’s face red, what’s on’y wood—I’ll show yer.”
She wriggled down, and holding up her trailing gown with one hand, trotted to a corner piled with a child’s rubbish, and hauled out a hideous carven caricature of a woman, and brought it to Leslie. The face of the object was streaked with red.
“ ’Ere sh’ is, my dolly, what my Dad make me—’er name’s Lady Mima.”
“Is it?” said Lettie, “and are these her cheeks? She’s not pretty, is she?”
“Um—sh’ is. My Dad says sh’ is—like a lady.”
“And he gave you her rouge, did he?”
“Rouge!” she nodded.
“And you wouldn’t let Sam have it?”
“No—an’ mi movver says, “Dun gie ’t ’im ’—’n ’e bite me.”
“What will your father say?”
“ ’E’d nobbut laugh,” put in the mother, “an’ say as a bite’s bett’r’n a kiss.”
“Brute!” said Leslie feelingly.
“No, but ’e never laid a finger on ’em—nor me neither. But ’e ’s not like another man—niver tells yer nowt. He’s more a stranger to me this day than ’e wor th’ day I first set eyes on ’im.”
“Where was that?” asked Lettie.
“When I wor a lass at th’ ’All—an’ ’im a new man come—fair a gentleman, an’ a, an’ a! An even now can read an’ talk like a gentleman—but ’e tells me nothing—Oh no—what am I in ’is eyes but a sludge bump?—’e ’s above me, ’e is, an’ above ’is own childer. God a-mercy, ’e ’ll be in in a minute. Come on ’ere!”
She hustled the children to bed, swept the litter into a corner, and began to lay the table. The cloth was spotless, and she put him a silver spoon in the saucer.
We had only just got out of the house when he drew near. I saw his massive figure in the doorway, and the big, prolific woman moved subserviently about the room.
“Hullo, Proserpine—had visitors?”
“I never axed ’em—they come in ’earin’ th’ childer cryin’. I never encouraged ’em——”
We hurried away into the night.
“Ah, it’s always the woman bears the burden,” said Lettie bitterly.
“If he’d helped her—wouldn’t she have been a fine woman now—splendid? But she’s dragged to bits. Men are brutes—and marriage just gives scope to them,” said Emily.
“Oh, you wouldn’t take that as a fair sample of marriage,” replied Leslie. “Think of you and me, Minnehaha.”
“Oh—I meant to tell you—what do you think of Greymede old vicarage for us?”
“It’s a lovely old place!” exclaimed Lettie, and we passed out of hearing.
We stumbled over the rough path. The moon was bright, and we stepped apprehensively on the shadows thrown from the trees, for they lay so black and substantial. Occasionally a moonbeam would trace out a suave white branch that the rabbits had gnawed quite bare in the hard winter. We came out of the woods into the full heavens. The northern sky was full of a gush of green light; in front, eclipsed Orion leaned over his bed, and the moon followed.
“When the northern lights are up,” said Emily, “I feel so strange—half eerie—they do fill you with awe, don’t they?”
“Yes,” said I, “they make you wonder, and look, and expect something.”
“What do you expect?” she said softly, and looked up, and saw me smiling, and she looked down again, biting her lips.
When we came to the parting of the roads, Emily begged them just to step into the mill—just for a moment—and Lettie consented.
The kitchen window was uncurtained, and the blind, as usual, was not drawn. We peeped in through the cords of budding honeysuckle. George and Alice were sitting at the table playing chess; the mother was mending a coat, and the father, as usual, was reading. Alice was talking quietly, and George was bent on the game. His arms lay on the table.
We made a noise at the door, and entered. George rose heavily, shook hands, and sat down again.
“Hullo, Lettie Beardsall, you are a stranger,” said Alice. “Are you so much engaged?”
“Ay—we don’t see much of her nowadays,” added the father in his jovial way.
“And isn’t she a toff, in her fine hat and furs and snowdrops. Look at her, George, you’ve never looked to see what a toff she is.”
He raised his eyes, and looked at her apparel and at her flowers, but not at her face:
“Ay, she is fine,” he said, and returned to the chess
“We have been gathering snowdrops,” said Lettie, fingering the flowers in her bosom.
“They are pretty—give me some, will you?” said Alice, holding out her hand. Lettie gave her the flowers.
“Check!” said George deliberately.
“Get out!” replied his opponent, “I’ve got some snowdrops—don’t they suit me, an innocent little soul like me? Lettie won’t wear them—she’s not meek and mild and innocent like me. Do you want some?”
“If you like—what for?”
“To make you pretty, of course, and to show you an innocent little meekling.”
“You’re in check,” he said.
“Where can you wear them?—there’s only your shirt. Aw!—there!”—she stuck a few flowers in his ruffled black hair—“Look, Lettie, isn’t he sweet?”
Lettie laughed with a strained little laugh:
“He’s like Bottom and the ass’s head,” she said.
“Then I’m Titania—don’t I make a lovely fairy queen. Bully Bottom?—and who’s jealous Oberon?”
“He reminds me of that man in Hedda Gabler—crowned with vine leaves—oh, yes, vine leaves,” said Emily.
“How’s your mare’s sprain, Mr. Tempest?” George asked, taking no notice of the flowers in his hair.
“Oh—she’ll soon be all right, thanks.”
“Ah—George told me about it,” put in the father, and he held Leslie in conversation.
“Am I in check, George?” said Alice, returning to the game. She knitted her brows and cogitated:
“Pooh!” she said, “that’s soon remedied!”—she moved her piece, and said triumphantly, “Now, Sir!”
He surveyed the game, and, with deliberation moved. Alice pounced on him; with a leap of her knight she called “check!”
“I didn’t see it—you may have the game now,” he said.
“Beaten, my boy!—don’t crow over a woman any more. Stale-mate—with flowers in your hair!”
He put his hand to his head, and felt among his hair, and threw the flowers on the table.
“Would you believe it!” said the mother, coming into the room from the dairy.
“What?” we all asked.
“Nickie Ben’s been and eaten the sile cloth. Yes ! When I went to wash it, there sat Nickie Ben gulping, and wiping the froth off his whiskers.”
George laughed loudly and heartily. He laughed till he was tired. Lettie looked and wondered when he would be done.
“I imagined,” he gasped, “how he’d feel with half a yard of muslin creeping down his throttle.”
This laughter was most incongruous. He went off into another burst. Alice laughed too—it was easy to infect her with laughter. Then the father began—and in walked Nickie Ben, stepping disconsolately—we all roared again, till the rafters shook. Only Lettie looked impatiently for the end. George swept his bare arms across the table, and the scattered little flowers fell broken to the ground.
“Oh—what a shame!” exclaimed Lettie.
“What?” said he, looking round. “Your flowers? Do you feel sorry for them?—you’re too tender hearted; isn’t she, Cyril?”
“Always was—for dumb animals, and things,” said I.
“Don’t you wish you was a little dumb animal, Georgie?” said Alice.
He smiled, putting away the chess-men.
“Shall we go, dear?” said Lettie to Leslie.
“If you are ready,” he replied, rising with alacrity.
“I am tired,” she said plaintively.
He attended to her with little tender solicitations.
“Have we walked too far?” he asked.
“No, it’s not that. No—it’s the snowdrops, and the man, and the children—and everything. I feel just a bit exhausted.”
She kissed Alice, and Emily, and the mother.
“Good-night, Alice,” she said. “It’s not altogether my fault we’re strangers. You know—really—I’m just the same—really. Only you imagine, and then what can I do?”
She said farewell to George, and looked at him through a quiver of suppressed tears.
George was somewhat flushed with triumph over Lettie: She had gone home with tears shaken from her eyes unknown to her lover; at the farm George laughed with Alice.
We escorted Alice home to Eberwich—“Like a blooming little monkey dangling from two boughs,” as she put it, when we swung her along on our arms. We laughed and said many preposterous things. George wanted to kiss her at parting, but she tipped him under the chin and said, “Sweet!” as one does to a canary. Then she laughed with her tongue between her teeth, and ran indoors.
“She is a little devil,” said he.
We took the long way home by Greymede, and passed the dark schools.
“Come on,” said he, “let’s go in the ‘Ram Inn,’ and have a look at my cousin Meg.”
It was half past ten when he marched me across the road and into the sanded passage of the little inn. The place had been an important farm in the days of George’s grand-uncle, but since his decease it had declined, under the governance of the widow and a man-of-all-work. The old grand-aunt was propped and supported by a splendid grand-daughter. The near kin of Meg were all in California, so she, a bonny delightful girl of twenty-four, stayed near her grand-ma.
As we tramped grittily down the passage, the red head of Bill poked out of the bar, and he said as he recognised George:
“Good-ev’nin’—go forward—’er’s non abed yit.”
We went forward, and unlatched the kitchen door. The great-aunt was seated in her little, round-backed armchair, sipping her “night-cap.”
“Well, George, my lad!” she cried, in her querulous voice. “Tha’ niver says it’s thai, does ter? That’s com’n for summat, for sure, else what brings thee ter see me?”
“No,” he said. “Ah’n com ter see thee, nowt else. Wheer’s Meg?”
“Ah!—Ha—Ha—Ah!—Me, did ter say?—come ter see me?—Ha—wheer’s Meg!—an’ who’s this young gentleman?”
I was formally introduced, and shook the clammy corded hand of the old lady.
“Tha’ looks delikit,” she observed, shaking her cap and its scarlet geraniums sadly: “Cum now, sit thee down, an’ dunna look so long o’ th’ leg.”
I sat down on the sofa, on the cushions covered with blue and red checks. The room was very hot, and I stared about uncomfortably. The old lady sat peering at nothing, in reverie. She was a hard-visaged, bosomless dame, clad in thick black cloth-like armour, and wearing an immense twisted gold brooch in the lace at her neck.
We heard heavy, quick footsteps above.
“Er’s commin’,” remarked the old lady, rousing from her apathy. The footsteps came down-stairs—quickly, then cautiously round the bend. Meg appeared in the doorway. She started with surprise, saying:
“Well, I ’eered sumbody, but I never thought it was you.” More colour still flamed into her glossy cheeks, and she smiled in her fresh, frank way. I think I have never seen a woman who had more physical charm; there was a voluptuous fascination in her every outline and movement; one never listened to the words that came from her lips, one watched the ripe motion of those red fruits.
“Get ’em a drop o’ whiskey, Meg—you’ll ’a’e a drop?”
I declined firmly, but did not escape.
“Nay,” declared the old dame. “I s’ll ha’e none o’ thy no’s. Should ter like it ’ot?—Say th’ word, an’ tha’ ’as it.”
I did not say the word.
“Then gi’e ’im claret,” pronounced my hostess, “though it’s thin-bellied stuff ter to ter bed on”—and claret it was.
Meg went out again to see about closing. The grand-aunt sighed, and sighed again, for no perceptible reason but the whiskey.
“It’s well you’ve come ter see me now,” she moaned, “for you’ll none ’a’e a chance next time you come’n;—No—I’m all gone but my cap——” She shook that geraniumed erection, and I wondered what sardonic fate left it behind.
“An’ I’m forced ter say it, I s’ll be thankful to be gone,” she added, after a few sighs.
This weariness of the flesh was touching. The cruel truth is, however, that the old lady clung to life like a louse to a pig’s back. Dying, she faintly, but emphatically declared herself, “a bit better—a bit better. I s’ll be up to-morrow.”
“I should a gone before now,” she continued, “but for that blessed wench—I canna abear to think o’ leavin ’er—come drink up, my lad, drink up—nay, tha’ ’rt nobbut young yet, that’ ’rt none topped up wi’ a thimbleful.”
I took whiskey in preference to the acrid stuff.
“Ay,” resumed the grand-aunt. “I canna go in peace till ’er’s settled—an’ ’er’s that tickle o’ choosin’. Th’ right sort ’asn’t th’ gumption ter ax’ er.”
She sniffed, and turned scornfully to her glass. George grinned and looked conscious; as he swallowed a gulp of whiskey it crackled in his throat. The sound annoyed the old lady.
“Tha’ might be scar’d at summat,” she said. “Tha’ niver ’ad six drops o’ spunk in thee.”
She turned again with a sniff to her glass. He frowned with irritation, half filled his glass with liquor, and drank again.
“I dare bet as tha’ niver kissed a wench in thy life—not proper”—and she tossed the last drops of her toddy down her skinny throat.
Here Meg came along the passage.
“Come, gran’ma,” she said. “I’m sure it’s time as you was in bed—come on.”
“Sit thee down an’ drink a drop wi’s—it’s not ivry night as we ’a’e cumpny.”
“No, let me take you to bed—I’m sure you must be ready.”
“Sit thee down ’ere, I say, an’ get thee a drop o’ port. Come—no argy-bargyin’.”
Meg fetched more glasses and a decanter. I made a place for her between me and George. We all had port wine. Meg, naïve and unconscious, waited on us deliciously. Her cheeks gleamed like satin when she laughed, save when the dimples held the shadow. Her suave, tawny neck was bare and bewitching. She turned suddenly to George as he asked her a question, and they found their faces close together. He kissed her, and when she started back, jumped and kissed her neck with warmth.
“Là—là—dy—dà—là—dy—dà—dy—dà,” cried the old woman in delight, and she clutched her wine-glass.
“Come on—chink!” she cried, “all together—chink to him!”
We four chinked and drank. George poured wine in a tumbler, and drank it off. He was getting excited, and all the energy and passion that normally were bound down by his caution and self-instinct began to flame out.
“Here, aunt!” said he, lifting his tumbler, “here’s to what you want—you know!”
“I knowed tha’ wor as spunky as ony on’em,” she cried. “Tha’ nobbut wanted warmin’ up. I’ll see as you’re all right. It’s a bargain. Chink again, ivrybody.”
“A bargain,” said he before he put his lips to the glass.
“What bargain’s that?” said Meg.
The old lady laughed loudly and winked at George, who, with his lips wet with wine, got up and kissed Meg soundly, saying:
“There it is—that seals it.”
Meg wiped her face with her big pinafore, and seemed uncomfortable.
“Aren’t you comin’, gran’ma?” she pleaded.
“Eh, tha’ wants ter ’orry me off—what’s thai say, George—a deep un, isna ’er?”
“Dunna go, Aunt, dunna be hustled off.”
“Tush—Pish,” snorted the old lady. “Yah, tha’ ’rt a slow un, an’ no mistakes! Get a candle, Meg, I’m ready.”
Meg brought a brass bed-room candlestick. Bill brought in the money in a tin box, and delivered it into the hands of the old lady.
“Go thy ways to bed now, lad,” said she to the ugly, wizened serving-man. He sat in a corner and pulled off his boots.
“Come an’ kiss me good-night, George,” said the old woman—and as he did so she whispered in his ear, whereat he laughed loudly. She poured whiskey into her glass and called to the serving-man to drink it. Then, pulling herself up heavily, she leaned on Meg and went upstairs. She had been a big woman, one could see, but now her shapeless, broken figure looked pitiful beside Meg’s luxuriant form. We heard them slowly, laboriously climb the stairs. George sat pulling his moustache and half-smiling; his eyes were alight with that peculiar childish look they had when he was experiencing new and doubtful sensations. Then he poured himself more whiskey.
“I say, steady!” I admonished.
“What for!” he replied, indulging himself like a spoiled child and laughing.
Bill, who had sat for some time looking at the hole in his stocking, drained his glass, and with a sad “Good-night,” creaked off upstairs.
Presently Meg came down, and I rose and said we must be going.
“I’ll just come an’ lock the door after you,” said she, standing uneasily waiting.
George got up. He gripped the edge of the table to steady himself; then he got his balance, and, with his eyes on Meg, said:
“ ’Ere!” he nodded his head to her. “Come here, I want ter ax thee sumwhat.”
She looked at him, half-smiling, half doubtful. He put his arm round her and looking down into her eyes, with his face very close to hers, said:
“Let’s ha’e a kiss.”
Quite unresisting she yielded him her mouth, looking at him intently with her bright brown eyes. He kissed her, and pressed her closely to him.
“I’m going to marry thee,” he said.
“Go on!” she replied, softly, half glad, half doubtful.
“I am an’ all,” he repeated, pressing her more tightly to him.
I went down the passage, and stood in the open doorway looking out into the night. It seemed a long time. Then I heard the thin voice of the old woman at the top of the stairs:
“Meg! Meg! Send ’im off now. Come on!”
In the silence that followed there was a murmur of voices, and then they came into the passage.
“Good-night, my lad, good luck to thee!” cried the voice like a ghoul from upper regions.
He kissed his betrothed a rather hurried goodnight at the door.
“Good-night,” she replied, softly, watching him retreat. Then we heard her shoot the heavy bolts.
“You know,” he began, and he tried to clear his throat. His voice was husky and strangulated with excitement. He tried again:
“You know—she—she’s a clinker.”
I did not reply, but he took no notice.
“Damn!” he ejaculated. “What did I let her go for!”
We walked along in silence—his excitement abated somewhat.
“It’s the way she swings her body—an’ the curves as she stands. It’s when you look at her—you feel—you know.”
I suppose I knew, but it was unnecessary to say so.
“You know—if ever I dream in the night—of women—you know—it’s always Meg; she seems to look so soft, and to curve her body——”
Gradually his feet began to drag. When we came to the place where the colliery railway crossed the road, he stumbled, and pitched forward, only just recovering himself. I took hold of his arm.
“Good Lord, Cyril, am I drunk?” he said.
“Not quite,” said I.
“No,” he muttered, “couldn’t be.”
But his feet dragged again, and he began to stagger from side to side. I took hold of his arm. He murmured angrily—then, subsiding again, muttered, with slovenly articulation:
“I—I feel fit to drop with sleep.”
Along the dead, silent roadway, and through the uneven blackness of the wood, we lurched and stumbled. He was very heavy and difficult to direct. When at last we came to the brook we splashed straight through the water. I urged him to walk steadily and quietly across the yard. He did his best, and we made a fairly still entry into the farm. He dropped with all his weight on the sofa, and, leaning down, began to unfasten his leggings. In the midst of his fumblings he fell asleep, and I was afraid he would pitch forward on to his head. I took off his leggings and his wet boots and his collar. Then, as I was pushing and shaking him awake to get off his coat, I heard a creaking on the stairs, and my heart sank, for I thought it was his mother. But it was Emily, in her long white nightgown. She looked at us with great dark eyes of terror, and whispered: What’s the matter?”
I shook my head and looked at him. His head had dropped down on his chest again.
“Is he hurt?” she asked, her voice becoming audible, and dangerous. He lifted his head, and looked at her with heavy, angry eyes.
“George!” she said sharply, in bewilderment and fear. His eyes seemed to contract evilly.
“Is he drunk?” she whispered, shrinking away, and looking at me. “Have you made him drunk—you?”
I nodded. I too was angry.
“Oh, if mother gets up! I must get him to bed! Oh, how could you!”
This sibilant whispering irritated him, and me. I tugged at his coat. He snarled incoherently, and swore. She caught her breath. He looked at her sharply, and I was afraid he would wake himself into a rage.
“Go upstairs!” I whispered to her. She shook her head. I could see him taking heavy breaths, and the veins of his neck were swelling. I was furious at her disobedience.
“Go at once,” I said fiercely, and she went, still hesitating and looking back.
I had hauled off his coat and waistcoat, so I let him sink again into stupidity while I took off my boots. Then I got him to his feet, and, walking behind him, impelled him slowly upstairs. I lit a candle in his bedroom. There was no sound from the other rooms. So I undressed him, and got him in bed at last, somehow. I covered him up and put over him the calf-skin rug, because the night was cold. Almost immediately he began to breathe heavily. I dragged him over to his side, and pillowed his head comfortably. He looked like a tired boy, asleep.
I stood still, now I felt myself alone, and looked round. Up to the low roof rose the carven pillars of dark mahogany; there was a chair by the bed, and a little yellow chest of drawers by the windows, that was all the furniture, save the calf-skin rug on the floor. In the drawers I noticed a book. It was a copy of Omar Khayyam, that Lettie had given him in her Khayyam days, a little shilling book with coloured illustrations.
I blew out the candle, when I had looked at him again. As I crept on to the landing, Emily peeped from her room, whispering, “Is he in bed?”
I nodded, and whispered good-night. Then I went home, heavily.
After the evening at the farm, Lettie and Leslie drew closer together. They eddied unevenly down the little stream of courtship, jostling and drifting together and apart. He was unsatisfied and strove with every effort to bring her close to him, submissive. Gradually she yielded, and submitted to him. She folded round her and him the snug curtain of the present, and they sat like children playing a game behind the hangings of an old bed. She shut out all distant outlooks, as an Arab unfolds his tent and conquers the mystery and space of the desert. So she lived gleefully in a little tent of present pleasures and fancies.
Occasionally, only occasionally, she would peep from her tent into the out space. Then she sat poring over books, and nothing would be able to draw her away; or she sat in her room looking out of the window for hours together. She pleaded headaches; mother said liver; he, angry like a spoilt child denied his wish, declared it moodiness and perversity.