The White Peacock/Part 3, Chapter 7
THE SCARP SLOPE
Leslie won the conservative victory in the general election which took place a year or so after my last visit to “Highclose.”
In the interim the Tempests had entertained a continuous stream of people. I heard occasionally from Lettie how she was busy, amused, or bored. She told me that George had thrown himself into the struggle on behalf of the candidate of the Labour Party; that she had not seen him, except in the streets, for a very long time.
When I went down to Eberwich in the March succeeding the election, I found several people staying with my sister. She had under her wing a young literary fellow who affected the “Doady” style—Dora Copperfield’s “Doady.” He had bunches of half-curly hair, and a romantic black cravat; he played the impulsive part, but was really as calculating as any man on the stock-exchange. It delighted Lettie to “mother” him. He was so shrewd as to be less than harmless. His fellow guests, a woman much experienced in music and an elderly man who was in the artistic world without being of it, were interesting for a time. Bubble after bubble of floating fancy and wit we blew with our breath in the evenings. I rose in the morning loathing the idea of more bubble-blowing.
I wandered around Nethermere, which had now forgotten me. The daffodils under the boat-house continued their golden laughter, and nodded to one another in gossip, as I watched them, never for a moment pausing to notice me. The yellow reflection of daffodils among the shadows of grey willow in the water trembled faintly as they told haunted tales in the gloom. I felt like a child left out of the group of my playmates. There was a wind running across Nethermere, and on the eager water blue and glistening grey shadows changed places swiftly. Along the shore the wild birds rose, flapping in expostulation as I passed, peewits mewing fiercely round my head, while two white swans lifted their glistening feathers till they looked like grand double water-lilies, laying back their orange beaks among the petals, and fronting me with haughty resentment, charging towards me insolently.
I wanted to be recognised by something. I said to myself that the dryads were looking out for me from the wood’s edge. But as I advanced they shrank, and glancing wistfully, turned back like pale flowers falling in the shadow of the forest. I was a stranger, an intruder. Among the bushes a twitter of lively birds exclaimed upon me. Finches went leaping past in bright flashes, and a robin sat and asked rudely: “Hello! Who are you?”
The brachen lay sere under the trees, broken and chavelled by the restless wild winds of the long winter.
The trees caught the wind in their tall netted twigs, and the young morning wind moaned at its captivity. As I trod the discarded oak-leaves and the bracken they uttered their last sharp gasps, pressed into oblivion. The wood was roofed with a wide young sobbing sound, and floored with a faint hiss like the intaking of the last breath. Between, was all the glad out-peeping of buds and anemone flowers and the rush of birds. I, wandering alone, felt them all, the anguish of the bracken fallen face-down in defeat, the careless dash of the birds, the sobbing of the young wind arrested in its haste, the trembling, expanding delight of the buds. I alone among them could hear the whole succession of chords.
The brooks talked on just the same, just as gladly, just as boisterously as they had done when I had netted small, glittering fish in the rest-pools. At Strelley Mill a servant girl in a white cap, and white apron-bands, came running out of the house with purple prayer-books, which she gave to the elder of two finicking girls who sat disconsolately with their black-silked mother in the governess cart at the gate, ready to go to church. Near Woodside there was barbed-wire along the path, and at the end of every riding it was tarred on the tree-trunks, “Private.”
I had done with the valley of Nethermere. The valley of Nethermere had cast me out many years before, while I had fondly believed it cherished me in memory.
I went along the road to Eberwich. The church bells were ringing boisterously, with the careless boisterousness of the brooks and the birds and the rollicking coltsfoots and celandines.
A few people were hastening blithely to service. Miners and other labouring men were passing in aimless gangs, walking nowhere in particular, so long as they reached a sufficiently distant public house.
I reached the ‘Hollies.’ It was much more spruce than it had been. The yard, however, and the stables, had again a somewhat abandoned air. I asked the maid for George.
“Oh, master’s not up yet,” she said, giving a little significant toss of her head, and smiling. I waited a moment.
“But he rung for a bottle of beer about ten minutes since, so I should think——” she emphasised the word with some ironical contempt, “—he won’t be very long,” she added, in tones which conveyed that she was not by any means sure. I asked for Meg.
“Oh, Missis is gone to church—and the children—But Miss Saxton is in, she might——”
“Emily!” I exclaimed.
The maid smiled.
“She’s in the drawing-room. She’s engaged, but perhaps if I tell her——”
“Yes, do,” said I, sure that Emily would receive me.
I found my old sweetheart sitting in a low chair by the fire, a man standing on the hearthrug pulling his moustache. Emily and I both felt a thrill of old delight at meeting.
“I can hardly believe it is really you,” she said, laughing me one of the old intimate looks. She had changed a great deal. She was very handsome, but she had now a new self-confidence, a fine, free indifference.
“Let me introduce you. Mr. Renshaw, Cyril. Tom, you know who it is you have heard me speak often enough of Cyril. I am going to marry Tom in three weeks’ time,” she said, laughing.
“The devil you are!” I exclaimed involuntarily.
“If he will have me,” she added, quite as a playful afterthought.
Tom was a well-built fair man, smoothly, almost delicately tanned. There was something soldierly in his bearing, something self-conscious in the way he bent his head and pulled his moustache, something charming and fresh in the way he laughed at Emily’s last preposterous speech.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” she retorted, arching her brows.
“Mr. Renshaw,” I said. “You have out-manœuvred me all unawares, quite indecently.”
“I am very sorry,” he said, giving one more twist to his moustache, then breaking into a loud, short laugh at his joke.
“Do you really feel cross?” said Emily to me, knitting her brows and smiling quaintly.
“I do!” I replied, with truthful emphasis.
She laughed, and laughed again, very much amused.
“It is such a joke,” she said. “To think you should feel cross, now, when it is—how long is it ago?”
“I will not count up,” said I.
“Are you not sorry for me?” I asked of Tom Renshaw.
He looked at me with his young blue eyes, eyes so bright, so naïvely inquisitive, so winsomely meditative. He did not know quite what to say, or how to take it.
“Very!” he replied in another short burst of laughter, quickly twisting his moustache again and looking down at his feet.
He was twenty-nine years old; had been a soldier in China for five years, was now farming his father’s farm at Papplewick, where Emily was schoolmistress. He had been at home eighteen months. His father was an old man of seventy who had had his right hand chopped to bits in the chopping machine. So they told me. I liked Tom for his handsome bearing, and his fresh, winsome way. He was exceedingly manly: that is to say he did not dream of questioning or analysing anything. All that came his way was ready labelled nice or nasty, good or bad. He did not imagine that anything could be other than just what it appeared to be:—and with this appearance, he was quite content. He looked up to Emily as one wiser, nobler, nearer to God than himself.
“I am a thousand years older than he,” she said to me, laughing. “Just as you are centuries older than I.”
“And you love him for his youth?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “For that and—he is wonderfully sagacious—and so gentle.”
“And I was never gentle, was I?” I said.
“No! As restless and as urgent as the wind,” she said, and I saw a last flicker of the old terror.
“Where is George?” I asked.
“In bed,” she replies briefly. “He’s recovering from one of his orgies. If I were Meg I would not live with him.”
“Is he so bad?” I asked.
“Bad!” she replied. “He’s disgusting, and I’m sure he’s dangerous. I’d have him removed to an inebriate’s home.”
“You’d have to persuade him to go,” said Tom, who had come into the room again. “He does have dreadful bouts, though! He’s killing himself, sure enough. I feel awfully sorry for the fellow.”
“It seems so contemptible to me,” said Emily, “to become enslaved to one of your likings till it makes a beast of you. Look what a spectacle he is for his children, and what a disgusting disgrace for his wife.”
“Well, if he can’t help it, he can’t, poor chap,” said Tom. “Though I do think a man should have more backbone.”
We heard heavy noises from the room above.
“He is getting up,” said Emily. “I suppose I’d better see if he’ll have any breakfast.” She waited, however. Presently the door opened, and there stood George with his hand on the knob, leaning, looking in.
“I thought I heard three voices,” he said, as if it freed him from a certain apprehension. He smiled. His waistcoat hung open over his woollen shirt, he wore no coat and was slipperless. His hair and his moustache were dishevelled, his face pale and stupid with sleep, his eyes small. He turned aside from our looks as from a bright light. His hand as I shook it was flaccid and chill.
“How do you come to be here, Cyril?” he said subduedly, faintly smiling.
“Will you have any breakfast?” Emily asked him coldly.
“I’ll have a bit if there’s any for me,” he replied.
“It has been waiting for you, long enough,” she answered. He turned and went with a dull thud of his stockinged feet across to the dining-room. Emily rang for the maid, I followed George, leaving the betrothed together. I found my host moving about the dining-room, looking behind the chairs and in the corners.
“I wonder where the devil my slippers are!” he muttered explanatorily. Meanwhile he continued his search. I noticed he did not ring the bell to have them found for him. Presently he came to the fire, spreading his hands over it. As he was smashing the slowly burning coal the maid came in with the tray. He desisted, and put the poker carefully down. While the maid spread his meal on one corner of the table, he looked in the fire, paying her no heed. When she had finished:
“It’s fried white-bait,” she said. “Shall you have that?”
He lifted his head and looked at the plate.
“Ay,” he said. “Have you brought the vinegar?”
Without answering, she took the cruet from the sideboard and set it on the table. As she was closing the door, she looked back to say:
“You’d better eat it now, while it’s hot.”
He took no notice, but sat looking in the fire.
“And how are you going on?” he asked me.
“I? Oh, very well! And you——?” “As you see,” he replied, turning his head on one side with a little gesture of irony.
“As I am very sorry to see,” I rejoined.
He sat forward with his elbows on his knees, tapping the back of his hand with one finger, in monotonous two-pulse like heart-beats.
“Aren’t you going to have breakfast?” I urged. The clock at that moment began to ring a sonorous twelve. He looked up at it with subdued irritation.
“Ay, I suppose so,” he answered me, when the clock had finished striking. He rose heavily and went to the table. As he poured out a cup of tea he spilled it on the cloth, and stood looking at the stain. It was still some time before he began to eat. He poured vinegar freely over the hot fish, and ate with an indifference that made eating ugly, pausing now and again to wipe the tea off his moustache, or to pick a bit of fish from off his knee.
“You are not married, I suppose?” he said in one of his pauses.
“No,” I replied. “I expect I shall have to be looking round.”
“You’re wiser not,” he replied, quiet and bitter.
A moment or two later the maid came in with a letter.
“This came this morning,” she said, as she laid it on the table beside him. He looked at it, then he said:
“You didn’t give me a knife for the marmalade.”
“Didn’t I?” she replied. “I thought you wouldn’t want it. You don’t as a rule.”
“And do you know where my slippers are?” he asked.
“They ought to be in their usual place.” She went and looked in the corner. “I suppose Miss Gertie’s put them somewhere. I’ll get you another pair.”
As he waited for her he read the letter. He read it twice, then he put it back in the envelope, quietly, without any change of expression. But he ate no more breakfast, even after the maid had brought the knife and his slippers, and though he had had but a few mouthfuls.
At half-past twelve there was an imperious woman’s voice in the house. Meg came to the door. As she entered the room, and saw me, she stood still. She sniffed, glanced at the table, and exclaimed, coming forward effusively:
“Well I never, Cyril! Who’d a thought of seeing you here this morning! How are you?”
She waited for the last of my words, then immediately she turned to George, and said:
“I must say you’re in a nice state for Cyril to see you! Have you finished?—if you have, Kate can take that tray out. It smells quite sickly. Have you finished?”
He did not answer, but drained his cup of tea and pushed it away with the back of his hand. Meg rang the bell, and having taken off her gloves, began to put the things on the tray, tipping the fragments of fish and bones from the edge of his plate to the middle with short, disgusted jerks of the fork. Her attitude and expression were of resentment and disgust. The maid came in.
“Clear the table Kate, and open the window. Have you opened the bedroom windows?”
“No’m—not yet,”—she glanced at George as if to say he had only been down a few minutes.
“Then do it when you have taken the tray,” said Meg.
“You don’t open this window,” said George churlishly. “It’s cold enough as it is.”
“You should put a coat on then if you’re starved,” replied Meg contemptuously. “It’s warm enough for those that have got any life in their blood. You do not find it cold, do you Cyril?”
“It is fresh this morning,” I replied.
“Of course it is, not cold at all. And I’m sure this room needs airing.”
The maid, however, folded the cloth and went out without approaching the windows.
Meg had grown stouter, and there was a certain immovable confidence in her. She was authoritative, amiable, calm. She wore a handsome dress of dark green, and a toque with opulent ostrich feathers. As she moved about the room she seemed to dominate everything, particularly her husband, who sat ruffled and dejected, his waistcoat hanging loose over his shirt.
A girl entered. She was proud and mincing in her deportment. Her face was handsome, but too haughty for a child. She wore a white coat, with ermine tippet, muff, and hat. Her long brown hair hung twining down her back.
“Has dad only just had his breakfast?” she exclaimed in high censorious tones as she came in.
“He has!” replied Meg.
The girl looked at her father in calm, childish censure.
“And we have been to church, and come home to dinner,” she said, as she drew off her little white gloves. George watched her with ironical amusement.
“Hello!” said Meg, glancing at the opened letter which lay near his elbow. “Who is that from?”
He glanced round, having forgotten it. He took the envelope, doubled it and pushed it in his waistcoat pocket.
“It’s from William Housley,” he replied.
“Oh! And what has he to say?” she asked.
George turned his dark eyes at her.
“Nothing!” he said.
“Hm-Hm!” sneered Meg. “Funny letter, about nothing!”
“I suppose,” said the child, with her insolent, high-pitched superiority, “It’s some money that he doesn’t want us to know about.”
“That’s about it!” said Meg, giving a small laugh at the child’s perspicuity.
“So’s he can keep it for himself, that’s what it is,” continued the child, nodding her head in rebuke at him.
“I’ve no right to any money, have I?” asked the father sarcastically.
“No, you haven’t,” the child nodded her head at him dictatorially, “you haven’t, because you only put it in the fire.”
“You’ve got it wrong,” he sneered. “You mean it’s like giving a child fire to play with.”
“Um!—and it is, isn’t it Mam”— the small woman turned to her mother for corroboration. Meg had flushed at his sneer, when he quoted for the child its mother’s dictum.
“And you’re very naughty!” preached Gertie, turning her back disdainfully on her father.
“Is that what the parson’s been telling you?” he asked, a grain of amusement still in his bitterness.
“No it isn’t!” retorted the youngster. “If you want to know you should go and listen for yourself. Everybody that goes to church looks nice——” she glanced at her mother and at herself, pruning herself proudly, “—and God loves them,” she added. She assumed a sanctified expression, and continued after a little thought: “Because they look nice and are meek.”
“What!” exclaimed Meg, laughing, glancing with secret pride at me.
“Because they’re meek!” repeated Gertie, with a superior little smile of knowledge.
“You’re off the mark this time,” said George.
“No, I’m not, am I Mam? Isn’t it right Mam? ‘The meek shall inevit the erf’?”
Meg was too much amused to answer.
“The meek shall have herrings on earth,” mocked the father, also amused. His daughter looked dubiously at him. She smelled impropriety.
“It’s not, Mam, is it?” she asked, turning to her mother. Meg laughed.
“The meek shall have herrings on earth,” repeated George with soft banter.
“No it’s not Mam, is it?” cried the child in real distress.
“Tell your father he’s always teaching you something wrong,” answered Meg.
Then I said I must go. They pressed me to stay.
“Oh, yes—do stop to dinner,” suddenly pleaded the child, smoothing her wild ravels of curls after having drawn off her hat. She asked me again and again, with much earnestness.
“But why?” I asked.
“So’s you can talk to us this afternoon—an’ so’s Dad won’t be so disagreeable,” she replied plaintively, poking the black spots on her muff.
Meg moved nearer to her daughter with a little gesture of compassion.
“But,” said I, “I promised a lady I would be back for lunch, so I must. You have some more visitors, you know.”
“Oh, well!” she complained, “They go in another room, and Dad doesn’t care about them.”
“But come!” said I.
“Well, he’s just as dis’greeable when Auntie Emily’s here—he is with her an’ all.”
“You are having your character given away,” said Meg brutally, turning to him.
I bade them good-bye. He did me the honour of coming with me to the door. We could neither of us find a word to say, though we were both moved. When at last I held his hand and was looking at him as I said “Good-bye,” he looked back at me for the first time during our meeting. His eyes were heavy and as he lifted them to me, seemed to recoil in an agony of shame.