THREE WAYS HOME ROSE DEEPROSE SUPERSTITION CORNER GIPSY WAGGON THE MIRROR OF THE MONTHS SUMMER HOLIDAY SUSAN SPRAY SHEPHERDS IN SACKCLOTH THE END OF THE HOUSE OF ALARD JOANNA GODDEN ISLE OF THORNS SUSSEX GORSE THREE AGAINST THE WORLD THE TRAMPING METHODIST THE CHALLENGE TO SIRIUS STARBRACE TAMARISK TOWN SPELL LAND LITTLE ENGLAND GREEN APPLE HARVEST THE GEORGE AND THE CROWN JOANNA GODDEN MARRIED THE VILLAGE DOCTOR
Copyright, 1937, 1938, by Sheila Kaye-Smith Fry Printed in the United States of America
All rights in this book are reserved. It may not be used for dramatic, motion- or talking-picture purposes without written authorization from the holder of these rights. Nor may the book or part thereof be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission in writing. For information address. Harper & Brothers, 49 East 33rd Street, New York, N. Y.
|II.||The Praises of Obscurity|
|III.||The Pharisee Boy|
|V.||The Field of the Irises|
|VI.||A Wedding Morn|
|VII.||Mrs. Dengate in the News|
|VIII.||The Man Whom the Rocks Hated|
|IX.||Variations on a Theme|
|X.||The Old Farmhouse—New Style|
|XI.||Joanna Godden's Joy Ride|
The matter started with a young man walking up to Constable Bate as he stood outside the Feathers and saying in rather a hesitating voice:
"Excuse me, but something's wrong—I-I've no idea who I am."
"You're in Mockford, sir"—the Constable's mind had automatically substituted a pronoun more in accordance with probability.
"Yes, but—that isn't what—it's who I am that I want to know. I haven't the slightest idea."
"Oh, lost your memory?"
Contact was established, and the Constable became more alert. He looked at the young man critically and suspiciously. Any chance of a leg pull? Such a thing was not unknown in his five years' experience of a policeman's [Pg 2] life in Mockford. Or perhaps it was a crook. His thick, indefinite eyebrows drew down over a glance meant to search the very marrows of duplicity. But the young man continued to stare at him with a gaze of limpid if perplexed innocence. Not that that meant anything. Still, it was hard to see what game he could be up to. And he looked a gentleman—not shabby and not flash; a quiet, well-dressed sort of chap, with a voice that suggested the BBC to the Constable's somewhat limited experience—Eton and Harrow and all that.
"Can't you remember nothing at all?" he questioned.
"Not a thing. I feel as if I'd just woken up and found myself here."
"Do you think you've had an accident?"
"I don't know. I feel perfectly all right."
"You'd better come along with me to the station and we'll go into things. Maybe there's your name somewhere on your clothes."
The young man opened a pocket-book which seemed full of money.
"There's nothing here—no card or anything. I've looked."
"But we'll probably find your shirt marked or something—or there'll be a tailor's tag in your coat."
Though this was the first time that such a case had come within Bate's own experience he was not entirely without knowledge of the subject. His daily newspaper had provided him with more than one instance of lost identity, and other policemen had told him strange tales. He did not think that this young man would long remain a mystery. It was not as if he were some poor down-and-out belonging nowhere and to no one. His friends would [Pg 3] probably soon trace him if an inspection of his belongings did not, as was most probable, provide an immediate clue.
This latter field of inquiry proved, however, more barren than he had hoped. The young man's clothes turned out to be reach-me-downs, and bore no identification mark beyond the name of a large city firm of clothiers. They had evidently been worn some time, and it might be impossible to trace a sale. His shirt bore no laundry mark—which was encouraging in so far as it pointed to female care and supervision, but otherwise another check—and the only evidence provided was the letter D on a tape inside the collar.
Mr. Bate was disconcerted. He had somehow taken for granted that such an apparently well-dressed and well-founded young fellow would be labelled from head to foot when it came to an inspection of his underwear. Single man living in lodgings, he should think—possibly his washing done at home by the landlady. Evidently not so very well off, in spite of the money in his pockets, which came, when counted, to ten pounds, seven shillings and eightpence. Only a cheap wrist watch. Probably worked in a bank or an office. In which case, why had he come to Mockford? And how? He could not remember anything, but his boots were covered with dust as if he had walked a long way. And then all of a sudden, while the constable was thinking out all this and writing it down carefully in a note-book, the young man fell fainting on the floor.
"Hi!" cried Mr. Bate. "Hi! Look out, there! Amy!" His wife came running in from the next room, and the next minute his little boy Clarence was running [Pg 4] out for the doctor, who arrived just as the young man was beginning to recover consciousness.
A very slight examination was enough to show that the patient was suffering from hunger and exhaustion as well as loss of memory.
"Probably," said Dr. Faulkener, "he'll know more about himself when he's had a rest and a good sleep. He's done in—that's what's the matter. I'll run him round to the cottage hospital and have him put to bed in the private ward. But he'd best have a bite of something first, if Mrs. Bate has anything ready."
Mrs. Bate had an excellent rabbit stew just ready to be dished up for her husband's dinner, and the young man looked very much better when he had eaten a large amount of it and drunk some brandy. Then the doctor drove him to Mockford Cottage Hospital, just outside the village, where the only private ward was fortunately empty. By the time he was in bed it was only a little after one o'clock, but he slept till half-past nine the next morning.
The Matron's name at the Mockford Cottage Hospital was Miss Henderson. She was about forty years old, but looked older with her thick grey hair and rather squat figure. She took a great interest in this new sort of case, which provided a welcome change from the enlargements, deficiencies or mutilations of the human figure which mainly filled the beds of her two public wards. She, in common with Dr. Faulkener, and her two nurses Kent and Rogers, expected the [Pg 5] young man to wake from his long sleep with at least some memory of the events immediately preceding his appearance in Mockford, and she was surprised and disappointed to find that after he had been awake some hours and had eaten a hearty breakfast his mind was just as blank as it had been the day before.
"Do you think he's shamming?" she asked the doctor.
"No, I do not. For one thing, loss of memory is much more difficult to sham—at least over a long period—than most people imagine. For another he shows definite physical signs of shock."
"You think it's due to shock, then?"
"People don't lose their memories for no reason at all. There's generally a predisposing cause, and then some sudden shock or illness brings matters to a head."
"A mental shock?"
"Mental or physical. It may be something quite trivial—a narrow squeak on the road or even seeing someone else knocked down. He must have had a predisposition. . . . I should say he was a dreamy, sensitive type of fellow, and his general health doesn't seem too good—a bit run down, I should think."
"He was exhausted when he came here."
"He was. He must have walked miles, judging by his boots—and on an empty stomach, too. Nobody apparently saw him come into the village. Bate is making inquiries in Moorchester—at the station and the 'bus terminus; or it's possible he may be a Moorchester man."
"In which case his friends will soon trace him."
"Probably very soon."
"And what am I to do with him meanwhile?"[Pg 6]
"Keep him in bed, and see that he isn't disturbed or fussed in any way, and that he has plenty of nourishing food. There's not much else we can do. His memory will probably return as he gets stronger, but it may be a slow business."
"The relations may turn up first."
But if the young man's memory was slow—and it was very slow indeed, for a week went by without its returning—his relations were even slower. Not a soul arrived to inquire for him, not a letter came, nor a single telephone call. He might have been utterly alone in the world—without relatives or friends or employers. His photograph appeared in the daily press with the usual lost-memory story; but the only result was an inquiry from a woman in Macclesfield who thought he might be her husband who had disappeared twenty years ago.
He was a very good patient—quiet and grateful, inclined to appreciate all their care for him. Once he said:
"I really feel rather bad about all this. I must be costing you a lot. Suppose I can't ever pay you? That money in my pocket-book may be all I've got in the world."
They soothed him away from such gloomy ideas, but actually they were beginning to think that something of the kind might be possible. Certainly he could not have much of a position in life if he was to be allowed to fall out of it like this. He was obviously well educated and well bred, but that did not necessarily stand for much in 1937. His very condition, physical and mental, might be due to privation—to [Pg 7] financial anxiety. The time would come when they would have to think seriously of what he was costing the hospital—they might have to plan his future while he was still without a past.
Then suddenly there was a change.
It was Kent who announced it, running into the Matron's office in a most unprofessional manner.
"Matron! Matron! Will you come, please? He's begun to remember."
"What's all this? Pull yourself together, Kent! Whom are you talking about?"
"The lost-memory case. He's seen a photograph of someone he knows in the Tatler."
"Just now? Does he know who it is?"
"It's a woman. He seems very upset about her. Perhaps he was in love. . . ."
"That will do, Kent. I'll go and see him at once."
She rustled into the private ward, where she found the young man sitting up in bed with a heap of illustrated papers. He was holding one of them in both hands and Miss Henderson noticed that his body was shaking, while there was an excited flush on the face he turned towards her.
"I hear you've—"
"Matron, will you please look."
He thrust the page towards her, and she saw the photograph of a woman's head: a fashionable, elegant, well-set head. Underneath was printed: "Mrs. Simon Dexter, one of the hostesses at the United Orphanages Ball, who is shortly leaving for a visit to her mother's home near Charleston in the United States."[Pg 8]
"You know her?"
The young man leaned forward and said slowly:
"I am Simon Dexter."
For a moment the Matron did not speak. She was surprised. She was also slightly incredulous. It was surely impossible that this young man should belong to the fashionable world that is photographed for the illustrated weeklies. Neither his clothes nor his circumstances made such an idea conceivable. And if he was this woman's husband, how was it that she had so calmly let him drop out of her life? It seemed incredible—unless, indeed, they were separated—or divorced. . . . Then she remembered that Mrs. Dexter was proclaimed to be just starting for America—had probably spent the last week at sea. That might explain her own apparent indifference, though it did not account for anyone else's. She looked at the date of the paper—it was three months old.
"How long will your wife be in America?"
"For six weeks or two months. She goes to visit her mother every year. She never stays longer than that."
"Then she's probably back again now. This paper is three months old."
"Yes, I daresay she's back." He clasped and unclasped his hands, while his breath came unevenly. "Perhaps you could ring up and find out."
"Can you remember where she lives?—where you live?"
"Yes, yes, it's all coming back to me." The Matron saw tears in his eyes. "Lindridge Court, near Bethersden in Kent. Yes, that's it—a black and white house, with a paved court. And a pool—I can see it here," [Pg 9] he darkened his face with trembling hands. "Oh, it's beautiful."
"You must keep perfectly calm. Everything's going to be all right."
She hoped that it was, but there was a great deal still unexplained.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"About half-past three."
"Then you'll probably find her in if you ring up at once. She generally stops about in the garden most of the afternoon, and then goes out later in the car. You can easily get through to her—it's on the toll exchange. Bethersden 972. Please do it now—for I can't bear the suspense of waiting."
"I'll go at once, but don't on any account excite yourself, and please remember that there's a chance she may not be back from America."
"Oh yes, she'll be back. She never stays longer than two months, and she wouldn't have got my letter till she came home. . . . Yes, wait—I remember . . . I was expecting her home when I left it for her. Oh, God forgive me!"
He fell back on his pillows, covering his face. Evidently his state which had at first been almost pure excitement had now become one of sorrow and regret. The crisis which had laid him for a week unknown in Mockford Cottage Hospital must somehow be connected with this woman. His recovered hold on life was not going to bring relief and happiness all round. The Matron looked at him uneasily.
"Listen to me," she said. "You must keep absolutely calm, or you'll make yourself ill again. I'm going [Pg 10] immediately to ring up Lindridge Court, but you must promise me——"
"Can't I go to the 'phone myself?"
"No, the doctor wouldn't hear of it. You wouldn't be equal to a 'phone conversation as you are now. But I promise to get through to Mrs. Dexter."
"You must make her come. Tell her I'm ill, and tell her—tell her I—I'm sorry. But don't let her not come."
"She'll come, I'm sure."
"I'm not sure. You see I—I'd left her."
Miss Henderson's professional conscience had to fight hard with a natural instinct to ask questions; but natural instinct was accustomed to defeat, and she said in her usual voice of calm authority:
"Later on you can tell me anything you wish, but at present I want you to keep perfectly quiet while I go to the 'phone. I shan't be long, and I'll put the matter very strongly. You may be quite sure Mrs. Dexter will come."
She went off at once to the telephone in her office, looking in at the men's ward to send Kent to sit with him while she was away. On her return in about twenty minutes' time she was a good deal annoyed to find him pouring out his story into the nurse's pricked-up ears.
"You see it's all coming back to me bit by bit as if it was something I was reading—oh, Matron, will she come?"
"Yes, she'll come. You can go back to the ward now, Kent."
It was not till she actually heard Mrs. Dexter's voice on the 'phone that Miss Henderson's mind really assented to the idea that the young man had been talking rationally. She had half expected to find that no such number as Bethersden 972 existed and when she had at last found herself put through to it she had been fully prepared for her communication to be met with surprise and denial. Surprise she certainly detected in the voice at the other end of the line. Mrs. Dexter had been surprised to hear that her husband was in Mockford Cottage Hospital; she had thought him, she said, on his way to South Africa—he had left a fortnight ago. But she seemed perfectly to understand his plea for forgiveness, and promised to come to him immediately.
Actually she did not arrive till the next morning. She could not have reached the hospital before midnight, and the doctor absolutely refused to have his patient awake and excited at that hour, to say nothing of the rules of the establishment, every one of which would apparently be broken by such a visit. So Simon Dexter was given a sleeping tablet—till then unnecessary, for he had slept as he had eaten, remarkably well—and probably would not wake up till an hour or two before his wife's arrival.
The little nurse Kent could have done with a sleeping tablet too, for she was far too excited to sleep till nearly three in the morning. Rogers was on night duty, so it was just as well that excitement should keep [Pg 12] her awake. Miss Henderson slept the sleep of the just and the self-disciplined.
Until he was given his sedative and settled for the night Dexter had continued to remember, and as he remembered, to pour out his memories to anyone who would listen. It was his excitement and volubility that made the doctor anxious about him. Though memory had returned he was very far from normal—in fact there seemed something as psychopathic about his remembering as about his forgetting.
Memory seemed, too, distressingly bound up with regret. He had loved his wife, he obviously still loved her, but he had left her, choosing the occasion of her yearly visit to America for going away with a girl called, he said, Mona Etheridge. She was quite young, much younger than his wife, and had very fair hair like flax . . . he kept on repeating that it was like flax, and describing her face—her little pointed chin above her fur collar. The curious thing was that he seemed to remember nothing about her but her face. He had not the slightest idea what had become of her. She seemed to have completely vanished from his life and from his memory. Moreover, his only sentiment towards her appeared to be one of loathing. Presumably he had loved her or he would not have left his wife and his home for her, and yet every time he mentioned her it was with disgust and indignation. On the other hand, his feeling for his wife seemed to be entirely made up of love and sorrow, both faintly touched with the same indignation that coloured his attitude to the girl.
In fact his case still presented a number of unsolved [Pg 13] problems. Dr. Faulkener was as puzzled by him as ever. How was it that the owner of a big place like Lindridge Court could have slipped away even in his wife's absence without the slightest effort being made to trace him? What had happened to Mona Etheridge, and why had his memory failed him almost completely in respect of her? Why had she apparently lost all interest in him? The doctor hoped that Mrs. Dexter would be able to answer some of these questions when she came. Meanwhile he was another of those who could have done with some barbituric medicine.
Dexter, to everybody's relief, seemed a little calmer when he awoke; but for the first time since his coming he could eat no breakfast. Both the doctor and the Matron hoped that Mrs. Dexter would not delay her arrival.
She did not, and it had been arranged that she should be shown first of all into the Matron's office. Miss Henderson already knew her as a voice—an English voice, in spite of her mother's American home. In person she was small, elegant, and self-possessed, looking a good deal older than her photograph. She was certainly several years older than her husband, which might explain his infatuation for the flaxen-haired Mona Etheridge. She seemed tired and distressed, but her expression was that of a woman whom much unhappiness has built up rather than beaten down; her smile was remarkably sweet, and Miss Henderson did not think it necessary to warn her to deal tenderly with the patient, though she prepared her in some degree for what she would find.
"He's very much better now—in fact, very well [Pg 14] indeed as far as his bodily health goes—but mentally he's still not quite himself. We shall have to guard against all excitement and keep him very quiet for some time to come."
"I'm exceedingly grateful to you for all you've done for him. I suppose you've no idea whatever how he came to be in these parts."
"None whatever. He simply walked up one morning to our village policeman and said that he'd lost his memory, and until yesterday he couldn't remember a thing—didn't know who he was, where he lived, what relations he had or anything. Then yesterday he caught sight of your photograph in an old number of the Tatler. . . ."
"I've been in the United States till a fortnight ago, and he had to leave for South Africa just before I got back, so I'd no reason to suppose everything wasn't all right. I hadn't even begun to expect to hear from him."
So she wanted things covered up. She did not know that her husband had been babbling to everybody. Matron hoped that she would never know.
"But," Mrs. Dexter continued suddenly, "how is it that you couldn't find out who he was? Hadn't he any papers or letters on him? And his clothes . . . they were all marked."
"He had nothing at all that we could identify him by. All we found was a letter D on his shirt-collar. His suit was ready made too, so we couldn't trace him through the tailor. Please believe that we made every effort."
"Of course I believe it. But I really am extremely [Pg 15] surprised. It looks as if there must have been some foul play somewhere. I simply can't imagine my husband wearing ready-made clothes, and everything he had was marked."
"No doubt in time he'll be able to tell us what happened. But at present he can't remember anything that happened after his leaving home. It's quite usual in a case like this for later events to be forgotten while earlier ones are remembered. As he recovers he'll remember more and more, but I don't think we ought to press him in any way."
"No, I'll be very careful what I say to him."
"I expect you'd like to go in and see him now."
"Will it be all right for me to go now?"
"Perfectly. He's expecting you."
As she led the way to the private ward she could not help wondering just how much real happiness lay ahead of these two. Did his wife really want him back? There was a curious air of reluctance about her now, just as she had seemed to hear reluctance in her voice when she spoke on the telephone. Perhaps she had been relieved to come home and find him gone. Perhaps she had come to him now only out of pity. And perhaps when he remembered everything—why he had left her as well as the mere fact of his having done so—he might no longer wish to return. She had a growing feeling of anxiety for them both as she opened the door.
"Mr. Dexter—Mrs. Dexter is here."
"Oh, please may she come in?"
She stood aside for the wife to go into the room. She herself would not go in, though she had a glimpse [Pg 16] of him sitting up in bed and stretching out his arms to the woman as she entered. She heard him cry out "Evelyn!" in a new voice, then she shut the door and walked resolutely away.
Dr. Faulkener came out of the men's ward. It had been arranged that he should be at hand while Mrs. Dexter was with her husband.
"All right?" he queried.
"For the present."
"Best leave them together for a quarter of an hour. Then I'll go in and see how he's taking it and introduce myself."
He walked with her to the office and lit a cigarette.
"Queer game altogether. I wonder why he went off like that. It looks as if it's his conscience that's done all this to him."
"Yes. But there's a lot more that we don't know. She says that when he left her, all his clothes were marked."
"And that he's not the sort of man who would wear ready-made clothes, anyhow."
"I wonder what sort he is."
"It's very hard to tell with only half of him there, so to speak."
"He'll probably remember the rest in time, though whether he'll tell us or not is another matter."
"Doctor, he'd tell anything. By the way, she doesn't know we know—about his leaving her, I mean."
"Naturally I shan't refer to it."
"I wonder where that girl is—the blonde. . . . Come in." There had been a knock at the door.[Pg 17]
Mrs. Dexter came in. She looked deadly pale and sank into a chair.
"Has anything happened? Are you ill?"
The doctor went up to her.
"Is he all right?"
"Yes, yes—he's all right. But he's—that man's not my husband."
For a moment the doctor and the Matron were speechless. Then Miss Henderson went to her cupboard and poured out for Mrs. Dexter a dose of sal volatile.
"Keep quiet for a few moments and then tell us about it," said Dr. Faulkener.
The little woman recovered herself very quickly. She drank the sal volatile and wiped a few tears from her eyes.
"I can't understand it at all . . . Something very queer must have happened. You see, he's not my husband—but he thinks he is."
"You mean that he appeared to recognize you?"
"Yes, yes—and he seems to know me and everything that's happened."
"And have you no idea at all who he is?"
"Not the slightest . . . except that I think I have seen him before, somewhere—I can't remember where."
Dr. Faulkener stood tugging at his moustache.
"You don't think that he could have been pretending?" asked the Matron.
"Not consciously—I'm sure of it. And why should [Pg 18] he pretend? No, he seemed genuinely excited and delighted and sorry all at once—he simply couldn't have been acting a part."
"And what about him now?" asked the doctor.
"Oh, he still thinks I'm his wife. I thought that if I denied it there and then it might bring on a relapse. You see, I'm quite sure he isn't pretending. But I made an excuse to get out of the room—I said I'd promised to stay only three minutes, and it was awkward . . . I—I didn't know what to do. . . ."
She suddenly began to cry. Both the doctor and the Matron felt more sorry for her than they could say.
"You've behaved very kindly and generously," said Dr. Faulkener, "and I can only tell you how deeply I regret that you should have been brought all this way for nothing. But we believed his story to be genuine."
"Of course you did, you couldn't have acted differently. I simply can't understand how he's become possessed of his idea, and how it is he knows so much about me—private things that I thought nobody knew."
She covered her face with her hands, and for a moment they were all three silent. Then she suddenly looked up.
"I want to be frank with you, for I know you won't let what I say go further than this room. My husband has gone to South Africa with another woman. When I got home from the States I found a letter telling me this—telling me that he'd gone and that he wasn't coming back. I said nothing about it to anyone. My friends all think that he's gone on business. So how can this man know? And he knows the girl he's gone [Pg 19] with, too—a girl I used to think a friend of mine. He mentioned her name. . . ."
"Are you quite sure you can't remember who he is?"
"At the moment I can't. But I feel I've seen his face before—or somebody like him. It's all a mystery."
"One of the biggest mysteries I've known," said Dr. Faulkener. He began to walk agitatedly up and down the room, for he was beginning to see the effects and repercussions of this affair in their medical aspect. What was he to say to the young man? How was he to break the news to him that his newly recovered identity was only a delusion? What would be the effects of such a revelation?—probably a relapse into amnesia or a complete mental breakdown.
"If you could possibly remember who he is it would be the greatest help to us—and to him."
"I'm doing my best. But it's so difficult. You see I—I don't know where to look for him. All I know is that he's no one I've seen lately. Perhaps his name may come to me."
"If it does you'll let us know?" said Miss Henderson, conscious even while she was speaking that she had made an idiotic remark. But as she had only a minute before just stopped herself saying: "Are you quite sure he isn't your husband?" she took comfort from the thought that the situation was one on which it was almost impossible to comment rationally, and that she might easily have said something much worse.
"I wonder if you would be so very kind as to wait here while I go to have a look at him," said the doctor.[Pg 20]
"Certainly. I'll wait as long as you like, and if there's anything I can do to help. . . ."
"You're very good," he muttered as he went out of the room.
He found his patient calmer than he had expected, and for a moment he too wondered if he could possibly be acting a part. But if he were the deception was so useless and motiveless that it could only be regarded as another proof of abnormality. His manner when he spoke was convincing enough.
"When am I to see her again, doctor?"
"All in good time. I don't want you to be excited at all."
"I'm not excited. Not now I know that things are all right. But she looked tired—she ought to go and rest after her journey. I was horrified to see how tired she looked—and older somehow, though it's only three months since I saw her. I feel as if I could kick myself from here to John o' Groats."
"I certainly agree that she ought to have a rest. I'll try to persuade her to lie down and have a good sleep. And I think you ought to do the same."
"But mayn't I see her just for a minute first? She stayed such a short time—and it wasn't as if she were a stranger."
Dr. Faulkener scarcely knew what to say. He mumbled something like "I'll go and see what we can manage," and left the room, feeling that not only had he involved himself in the deception, but that he had taken it a stage further.
"You see," he said to Evelyn Dexter, "I simply can't at the moment tell him bluntly that you deny he's [Pg 21] your husband. For one thing, I doubt how his mind would take the shock, for another he wouldn't believe me. His enlightenment ought to come from you, and it ought to come gradually."
"If I could only put a name to him—the sound of his own name might do the trick."
"It might, and in time you ought to remember it."
"That's what we want—time."
She was silent a moment, and then she suddenly said what the doctor had hoped she might.
"Look here, I said I'd do what I could to help. Would it help at all if I stopped on here for a day or two and saw a good deal more of him?"
"It would help very much—immensely; if you feel equal to such an undertaking."
"Yes, why shouldn't I? I understand that the Matron has booked a room for me at the inn, and I came prepared to stay. I feel that if I had a long talk with him I would at least find out exactly how much and how little he knows about me, and I might get some clue as to who he is. Besides, if I do that he's sure to find out that he doesn't know me as well as he thinks, and in time I can let him down gently. . . ."
"I am exceedingly grateful to you. That is just what I'd like. He'll have to know all about things some day, and some day soon. But what I want to avoid in his present state is shock; later on it might be good for him, but not now. If you can only keep up the deception—if it doesn't hurt you too much. . . ."
"It's sure to hurt," she said quietly, "but it'll be interesting too. And I think I'm quite good at pretending. [Pg 22] This won't be the first time I've had to pretend."
It struck the doctor then, as it had struck the Matron earlier, that she was not altogether sorry that it was not her husband she had found at Mockford.
"I've told him that you need a rest, and I'm sure you do. But he's very anxious for another glimpse of you before you leave."
"I'll go in just for one minute. Then I'll have plenty of time to think out a plan before I come again."
"By the way, he thinks you've aged since he saw you last. That all points to your having known him some time ago."
"Yes, I'm sure it must have been a long time ago. He's no one I've seen recently." She stood up. "I think I'd like to go to my room. You're quite right—I really do need a rest."
"I'll run you round to the Feathers in my car, and then call for you latish in the afternoon. It would be as well, I think, for no one to know at present why you're here. Matron, make sure that your nurses don't talk."
"The only one who talks here," said Matron, "is the patient."
Evelyn Dexter had spent the last few years in a hard school, in which she had learned to take command of herself in more than one difficult situation. It was true that she had never met or imagined a situation quite like this, but on the other hand it was not as painful [Pg 23] as many she had lived through. Her feelings were not really engaged, beyond a general emotion of pity and interest. She neither loved nor hated the poor young man whose life had become so mysteriously involved with her own, so that he had no real power to make her suffer. But she felt under an obligation to find out who he was, and so set him on his way back to health and normal existence, because—strange, even ridiculous as it might seem—she must be in some way responsible for his condition.
She came back to the hospital at four o'clock and had tea with him. Then she sat by his bedside and talked==or rather let him talk—for more than an hour. One thing she specially noticed was that though he often spoke tenderly—called her darling, lovely, sweetheart, all the rest—he never attempted so much as to take her hand; he did not even ask for a kiss. Having no memories of physical intimacy to fall back on, that side of his impersonation was bound to fail—though if he had been deliberately acting a part he would certainly not have left out such an important aspect of it. As things were he did not seem to notice any deficiency. His confidence in his assumed personality seemed absolute, and she had to confess that it was in many ways extraordinarily convincing. His very talkativeness was Simon Dexter's, and he had besides a number of his mannerisms, tastes and expressions. He asked her if she could not manage to get him some Macedonia cigarettes. Simon had had a fancy for these ever since he had served on the Italian front during the war.
"It's a perverse taste, but I owe it to a perverse [Pg 24] time. Couldn't you 'phone Martin's, darling, and get some sent down by passenger train? Would it be such a monstrous bother?"
That might have been Simon speaking.
On the other hand there was a great deal which he did not get right. Simon's own private name for her had been Pusswoman, and he never once used it. Also Simon had lately developed an unpleasant habit of anatomical swearing, which he completely ignored. Nor did he seem really familiar with Lindridge Court, though he must have visited it. Every now and then she mentioned a name which he failed to recognize or started a trail which he did not follow. He was quite unperturbed by these incidents, seeming either not to notice them or if he did to put them down to his own imperfect recovery.
"In time I'll remember everything," he assured her lightly.
"Even who you are," she longed to say.
Then suddenly he said something that moved her inexpressibly.
"Oh, Evelyn . . . oh, my dear! It's wonderful to be starting again with you like this. We're going back, right back to the beginning—to the days of Yeaman's Hall."
She was astonished—she had not expected him to know anything of her American stepfather's home.
"Yes. Don't you remember that evening down by Goose Creek?"
"Which evening?"[Pg 25]
"The evening I proposed. Don't tell me you've forgotten it."
"No—no, of course I haven't."
Her hands began to shake, and she thrust them into her pockets.
"I'll never forget it, anyway—down on the edge of the swamp, with the pines dark against the red sky, and a red light on little Goose Creek, and you and I in the tall grasses . . . and a train wailing far away at the level crossing, just as I took you in my arms."
His manner suddenly changed and became agitated. He had flung out his arms as he spoke, and now he seemed to realize that they were empty.
"Evelyn, promise me. . . ."
"That you'll—oh, no, I shall never forget that red water—the Creek looked horrible as the darkness came, and I—and I—Evelyn . . . I feel so lonely."
He stretched out his hand to her, and she took it, patting it soothingly.
"There, there, everything's all right. Don't think of that time if it disturbs you. Let's talk of something else."
Her own thoughts were confused and agitated. How was it that he knew about that evening by Goose Creek?—how could he possibly know how Simon had proposed to her? It was all a mystery—there now seemed something occult and sinister in his knowledge. Yeaman's Hall—that evening down by the Creek. . . . She remembered how the train had wailed in the distance; even in Simon's arms there had been something chilling and ominous in that cry.[Pg 26]
She forced herself for a few minutes to talk of insignificant things—her room at the Feathers, the strange cooking of British inns, the nurses at the hospital—things which could bring about no clash in their minds. Then she said that she must leave him. Both the Matron and the doctor had made her promise not to stay more than two hours. He must not tire himself with talking—even to her.
He was reluctant to let her go. She thought he seemed less happy and easy than he had been in the morning. Evidently his memory of that evening at Goose Creek—if it was a memory—was not as happy as Simon's ought to have been. Perhaps something of his own personality was beginning to force its way through the other that had overlaid it. If only he would give her some real clue as to who he was. But so many people had come to Yeaman's Hall that even his knowledge of it did not really help her.
"My impression is," she said to Dr. Faulkener, "that he knows my husband much better than he knows me. He knows him well enough to give a very creditable imitation of him—he's even asked for his favourite cigarettes. And yet there's a lot missing. My idea is that he knew us both some time ago—he may have been a friend of Simon's before we married and not have seen me more than once or twice. But he's been to my mother's home in South Carolina. That's certain; but it doesn't help me much. So many people come there."
"It might give you a clue as to the time you met him. How long did you live there before you married?"
"Two or three years and I've been back there almost [Pg 27] every year since. My mother and my step-father are both very hospitable, and there have always been a great many English among their visitors."
"This young man is certainly English."
"Oh, certainly. I think he must have been a friend of my husband's and they may have visited us together, which would explain why I don't remember him. . . . I might be able to trace him through my husband. . . ."
She looked distressed.
"That mayn't be necessary. Another conversation may give you a clue. After all, this talk hasn't been entirely wasted."
"No, I suppose not. But the whole thing seems to me absolutely preposterous."
"It's certainly mysterious—first lost identity, then false identity. I've never heard of a case like it. If it doesn't resolve itself, I shall have to call in another opinion. Meanwhile, take my advice and don't look at it too much from the outside—don't keep on reminding yourself how extraordinary it is; just treat it as if it was something usual, a common form of illness. That is, of course, if you feel you can go on helping us."
"Oh yes, I'll go on. Until I know definitely I can be no use."
After all, the clue—the discovery which led to the lightening if not to the actual clearing up of the mystery—was provided not by her, but by the little Nurse Kent. She came in that night to report to Matron before going off duty.
"Mr. Dexter's just dropped off to sleep. He was a [Pg 28] bit late getting off—he seemed excited, so I let him have just half a dose as Doctor said."
"He shouldn't have been excited. Have you any idea what excited him?"
"Oh, nothing except seeing Mrs. Dexter, I suppose. She was with him rather a long time in the afternoon—or it may have been writing his letter."
"Did he write a letter?"
"Yes, I'd have asked you about it, only you'd just gone out, and I thought it wouldn't do him any harm—just a short note."
"You should have written it for him."
"He wouldn't let me. He was particularly anxious to write it himself."
"Where is it now?"
"I put it with the others, to go to the post."
"Good heavens, Kent! How could you do such a thing? The letter might provide. . . ." She remembered just in time that Kent knew nothing of the fresh twist the problem had taken. "It's the first letter he's written since his illness. Mrs. Dexter ought to have been told about it before it was posted."
"It hasn't been posted. He was too late for that, but I promised him it should go to-morrow."
"So it shall—when Mrs. Dexter's seen it. Will you bring it here at once."
Kent brought it—written on a piece of her own notepaper, and addressed in a sprawling, vigorous hand to:
Charles Ellison Deans, Esq., Lattenhazn Rectory, Kent
Matron slipped it into a drawer of her writing-desk, and the next morning showed it to Evelyn Dexter as soon as she arrived.
"Have you any idea who that is?"
Mrs. Dexter stared at the envelope.
"It's my husband's handwriting—or perhaps I should say a very good imitation of it."
"Is it indeed? Well, I need hardly tell you that our patient wrote it. But the name and address—do they help at all?"
She shook her head.
"I don't know. Charles Ellison Deans . . . Lattenham Rectory . . . Charlie Deans . . . wait, though, I do remember a Charlie Deans living not so very far from us at Bethersden."
"I think we shall have to open the letter."
"Wait a moment while I try to remember. It's all coming back to me. Poor little Charlie Deans. . . . Good heavens, Matron! I believe that's who he is!"
"Yes—I'm nearly sure he's Charlie Deans, a boy my husband used to know in the old days. I'm getting it now. Simon used to know him before we were married. He lived only a few miles from Bethersden, and he belonged to a cricket team my husband used to take about the country. Simon was very fond of him and took him on a trip to America, and brought him once or twice, I think, to Yeaman's Hall. That accounts. . . . Oh, yes, I remember him—rather a pale, moony youth, with very little to say for himself. We saw hardly anything of him after we were married and came back to Bethersden. I remember Simon used to complain of his deserting us. Then soon afterwards [Pg 30] his father died, and the whole family left Lattenham. He was very young then, of course—not more than twenty."
"Well, now we ought to be able to trace him, anyway. I shall have to give this letter to the police."
"Must you bring them into it?"
"They're in it already. Mr. Dexter—Mr. Deans—whoever he is—went to them in the first place. Besides, I don't see how we're to set about finding his relations without the police."
"No, I suppose they'll have to be told."
"And I shall open the letter," said Matron.
"Oh. . . ." She knew that the scruple was absurd, but she felt it all the same.
"It isn't as if it was an ordinary letter written by a patient. He didn't write it as himself, so to speak; and it may give us some information."
She tore the envelope and drew out two closely written sheets.
"Perhaps you had better read it first, Mrs. Dexter. It seems to be mainly about you."
Evelyn Dexter took it from her with a queer reluctance. It was silly to make all this fuss about a letter written by a man who did not know who he was or whom he was writing to. But her reluctance was not dispelled as she began to read, for she had not gone far before she discerned under the palimpsest, as it were, of Simon Dexter a secret which was no less a secret because it now must be betrayed.
"Dear Boy," the letter began, in a hand that was as good an imitation of Simon Dexter's as the writing on the envelope. [Pg 31] "I'm writing this from the Mockford Cottage Hospital where I've been for over a week. I can't remember how I came here, for I've been suffering from loss of memory and have forgotten everything that happened immediately before the accident or whatever it was that started the trouble. But I'm getting things back bit by bit, and Evelyn is with me. All's well now between her and me, so you needn't worry any more about us. I'm going to devote the rest of my life to her happiness, to try to atone to her for all I've done in the past to make her miserable. I want you to know this. Mona is gone for ever, I don't know what's become of her and I don't care. I know you will be happy to hear this, for all you want is Evelyn to be happy with me, since she could never have been happy with you.
"Dear boy, that was a vain hope. She could never have loved you, so I did not really take her from you, though I own at one time it seemed like it. I knew that I had the power to make her happy, and I know still that I have that power. So don't be unhappy about her any more, or think I'm unworthy of her. You will find your happiness again in thinking of hers.
"It's funny, but I never thought of you until this evening. We were talking about Yeaman's Hall, and that evening when you saw us down by the river. I suddenly felt worried about you, for I knew that your unhappiness had started at that very hour. I knew you had been glad to leave Lattenham, for you couldn't bear to see us together—not because you were envious, but because you thought I was making her unhappy. You were disappointed in me—I wasn't what you thought me. I had taken your girl and then I didn't seem to value her properly. So I'm writing this to say that all now is well. We shall now always be happy together, and what is more I hope that you and I will be friends again as we used to be. Let me know where you are. I want to see you. I'm sending this letter to Lattenham, as I expect the new people at the Rectory will know where to find you. Let me have your address, and we can meet in town. I expect [Pg 32] you would like to join the cricket team again. Everything shall be as it was before.
Evelyn handed back the letter to Miss Henderson.
"It's queer," she said. "It's Simon's handwriting, but it's not at all the sort of letter he'd ever write to anyone."
Matron read it slowly and then put it down.
"What an extraordinary. . . . I suppose you can understand it better than I can. . . . I certainly think the doctor ought to see it."
"Is he coming soon?"
"Yes, he ought to be here any time now. . . . Dear me, I'm afraid it's upset you."
"It has. I'd no idea he cared for me like that—not the slightest idea. Why, even now I can scarcely remember him."
"It may all be part of his delusion."
But Evelyn did not think so.
"There are a great many things," she said, "that I can't understand. I could swear that he'd never so much as seen that woman—Mona Etheridge. How is it that he knows anything about her? Some of the things he says explain certain things that baffled me yesterday. But I'm still quite bewildered."
"It's extraordinary how he keeps it up. Is all that writing exactly the same as your husband's?"
"It's a very good imitation, anyway. Of course I've no idea what his own was like."
"Well, we'll show it to the doctor before we do [Pg 33] anything about the police. I think I hear his car now—yes, there he is at the door."
Dr. Faulkener was a younger, more enterprising practitioner than is usually found in a small country town. He had come to Mockford frankly because he could not find a job anywhere else—times were bad and doctors only too plentiful. For the last few years he had felt himself sinking gradually below the horizon of his hospital achievement. Common ailments varied by a few motor accidents, panel patients crowding his consulting hours with symptoms that gave them hopes of diseases new to medical experience, but which were all too monotonously familiar to his, the constant prescribing of the usual drugs and liniments, all these were bringing him dangerously near to a groove, to a routine; more than once he had felt himself becoming the typical small town medico—thoroughly capable and experienced on certain narrow lines, but limited and unprogressive—over-worked, under-paid, tied to a petty social wheel.
A case like this one in the private ward, a case in which the body was not involved save through the mind, and which for its treatment must depend on all the newest resources of a new science, was a real stimulation and revival of his dulling medical ambitions. There had been a time when he had eagerly read the works of Jung, Freud, Rivers, Adler, Havelock Ellis and other pioneers, but of late he had not had time for reading, even if occasionally he might [Pg 34] think that the more obstinate ailments of some of his patients could find a cure on such lines. He had not time to look for remedies outside the British pharmacopoeia. But now he was forced to look for them, and the experience had done him good. The pioneers of the new science had come down from the shelf, from the neglected medical library, and it was in the light of their knowledge that he read Charlie Deans's letter to Charlie Deans.
"Well, what do you think of it, Doctor?" asked the Matron. "Of course this letter will be a great help to the police, but does it help us here?"
"It gives us at least a suggestion of the cause of all this."
"You mean his—feeling for me?" said Evelyn Dexter.
"Yes. In one way this letter is an obvious effort to reassure himself—his real self, Charlie Deans—that you are happy, that he need now no longer torment himself on that score. But that isn't quite all. It seems to me that he's trying to satisfy himself on another point. There's the last few lines, asking for his address and suggesting a meeting. He evidently wants his real self—Charlie Deans—to be on friendly terms again with your husband. 'Everything shall be as it was before.' The real purpose of the letter lies there, I think."
"Then you believe that, deep down, underneath, he knows who he really is?"
"He must know—subconsciously. But he has assumed this other personality because he thinks it will do certain things for him which he can't do for himself. And up to a point, he's right. He's your husband, you're happy again, and at the same time he and Simon [Pg 35] Dexter are on their old terms of friendship. The only drawback which he won't allow to trouble him is, of course, that the whole thing's a fantasy and has no real existence."
"But what are we to do about it? Is it likely to be a permanent state of affairs?"
"Oh, no, I think not. These fugues, as they are called, are only temporary."
"Then it's a thing that's happened before?"
"Yes, I've read of several cases—though never of one quite like this. The secondary personality is always assumed for a definite purpose, and this letter has given me a clue to the purpose in his case."
"But were still as far as ever from curing him—from bringing him back to his real self."
"Not as far as ever. A knowledge of the cause is the first step towards a cure."
"But how shall we go to work?—and if we should succeed in helping him find out that he isn't Simon Dexter, won't it just be putting him back into all his old misery? In that case the whole thing will simply start over again."
"Not necessarily. He probably had a shock of some kind that brought on a crisis. He didn't just drift into the condition we found him in. Also there is such a thing as psychological treatment. There are doctors who will undertake to rebuild his mind just as others rebuild the body. We shall have to put that before his relations."
"I suppose," said the Matron, "that the police will find it quite easy to trace his relations now they've got something to go on."[Pg 36]
"Oh, it shouldn't be difficult now, I should think. Do you happen to know, Mrs. Dexter, what sort of people he had?"
"I remember an elderly father, who died just before they left Lattenham; I believe the mother had been dead some years. But there was a sister, I think—I'm nearly sure there was a sister."
"It's odd she shouldn't have inquired after him," said the Matron—"made some effort to trace him after he disappeared. It doesn't look as if she could be very fond of him."
"I expect he'd been on his own for a number of years—ever since they left Lattenham, which must have been at least six or seven years ago. Perhaps when he sees her, doctor, he may remember who he really is."
"I'm sorry for him," said the Matron. "Poor young man, I expect he's had a lot of struggle and trouble in his life."
"More trouble than his mind would stand, anyway."
"And we're sending him back to it all again," said Evelyn.
"Not necessarily, as I've said before. What we must help him do is to face life as it is and make the best of it instead of running away from it and pretending that it's what he would like it to be. He certainly ought to have some constructive treatment when he comes out of this."
"And meanwhile, till his relations arrive, am I to carry on as before?"
"Not if it's painful to you. You've been the greatest possible help to us, but we've no right to detain you [Pg 37] any longer. You can easily make an excuse to go home for a few days. . . . Say there's something you must see to."
"And then not come back again."
"In a few days, I hope, we shall have found somebody belonging to him."
"I'll stay till they come," said Evelyn firmly. "I'd feel a skunk if I left him like that and never came back; and I may still be able to help a little."
"You're very kind and generous. After all, he has no claim on you."
"I wouldn't say that. You see, none of this would have happened but for me. Even though I'm not to blame, I feel responsible—and I'd like to see it through. Besides, there are some things I really want to know. My impression is that he's seen Simon since I have. Otherwise, how does he know he's left me? And how does he know anything about that girl he's gone with? I wonder. . . . Tell me, is it likely to do him any harm if I question him more closely than I've done up till now? I mean, hitherto, I've rather slid over the gaps in his story, feeling that it might upset him if I tried to probe them. But now, don't you think I might be a little more—more ruthless?"
"I think you might. There's no harm in making him look closely at his invention and see the weak spots. . . . Not that I suppose he'll acknowledge the weakness. His subconscious mind will find some explanation."
"Then how will he ever come out of it all?"
"Quite honestly, Mrs. Dexter, I don't know. Time and treatment may do something for him, but as I've never had a case like this in my experience I've no idea [Pg 38] exactly how he'll wake up, though I believe he's bound to do so before long."
Miss Henderson found herself toying with the idea of Charlie Deans living happily ever afterwards as Simon Dexter; but even the sentimental mist that had momentarily risen to cloud her faculties could not quite disguise the breakers on the coast of fairyland.
As Evelyn entered the ward she was at once reminded of the all-important failure in Charlie Deans's impersonation.
"Evelyn, dear, Evelyn. I'm so glad you've, come."
He raised her hand and kissed it tenderly and respectfully.
It was not in such a way that Simon would have greeted her. This was a boy's love—distant, delicate, a part of imagination and dream. He was carrying on his boyish dream of her as he had dreamed it at Yeaman's Hall. She did not think that his thoughts had ever come very close, that they had even attempted what Simon had seized.
"Well, how are you feeling?" she asked lightly. "What have you been doing since I saw you?"
"Oh, eating and sleeping mostly, like the hog I am. But I've written to Charlie."
"Charlie Deans. Talking to you yesterday about Yeaman's Hall made me think of him, and I'd like to see him again."
"Because I want to make things up to him. Evelyn, you know I treated him badly."
"In what way?"
"Well, he was in love with you for one thing. He told me so, and I laughed at him. I told him I wanted you for myself; and I took you from him—under his very nose."
"How under his nose?"
"Well he was there when I proposed to you. He'd come down to the creek for a bit of fishing, and he saw us together—he saw me take you in my arms . . . just as the train went by, wailing like that. . . ."
"How do you know he saw us?"
"He was behind a bush. I don't mean he was hiding, but he'd gone under one of those big bushes for the shade; he could see us quite plainly."
"But did you see him? You gave me no idea of it."
She watched him check, as it were, and stumble. He looked anxious, distressed, and immediately began to shuffle away from what he had said.
"Of course I didn't see him till afterwards, or I wouldn't have done it. He can't blame me for that. Nor can he blame me for loving you. Tell me, Evelyn, when do you think we shall be able to go home?"
"Yes. I want to get back and see all the apples ripe. You remember how lovely the orchards used to be between Lattenham and Lenham. And I'd like some cricket, too. It's ridiculous my stopping on here now I'm quite well."
"You'd better ask Dr. Faulkener about that."[Pg 40]
"I shall. This very day. I've missed two good cricket months, and I'm terribly out of practice."
She was determined to bring the conversation back to Charlie Deans.
"It's some years since you had the team, you know. I expect you'll find your old players scattered a bit. Have you any idea where Charlie is now?"
"Oh, I can easily find him. The people at the Rectory will know where he is and send my letter on. I particularly want him to play cricket again."
"Do you think he'll want to? Perhaps after what happened he'd rather not see you."
"But nothing's happened—nothing's happened. What makes you think that?"
He was becoming agitated, and her instinct was all for drawing back and soothing him with some quiet, non-committal conversation. But his very agitation seemed to show her that she was near some tender spot, some weak point in his defence, which must be broken through if he was to be restored to life and reality.
"Well, you yourself have just told me that he was upset by your marriage. . . ."
"Yes, yes; but that's all over now. Now he knows that we're happy together again."
"Does he know that?"
"He will when he gets my letter. When he knows we're happy together he'll be friends with me again. He hated me only because he thought I was making you unhappy. And when he finds out that I haven't really left you—that I've come back. . . ."
"It has never struck him, I suppose, that I could be happy without you?"[Pg 41]
He looked startled.
"But you aren't without me. I've come back, and everything's going to be as it was before."
She nerved herself for yet another thrust against his dinted armour.
"But what about Mona Etheridge?"
He suddenly flushed with anger.
"Her!—that woman! I pray God I never see her again."
"But have you no idea what's become of her?"
"None—and I don't want to know."
"But something must have happened," she said cruelly, "to make you feel like that. When I last saw you, before I went to America, you were madly in love with her."
"Was I then?"
"Yes, of course you were. Don't you remember that time I was ill?"
He was staring at her now like a frightened, bewildered child. She felt a brute to be forcing her questions, and yet the very fact that he had no real slickness of self-defence made her see the urgency of no-surrender.
"Listen to me," she said gently, leaning forward and speaking to the prisoner within. "You've remembered things that belong to many years ago, and one or two that belong to a few weeks ago. But before you're quite well you'll have to remember what happened just before you got ill."
"I don't want to remember. Why should I? Oh, do stop worrying me, Evelyn. There's no need to remember, [Pg 42] now you're happy again and I've written to Charlie."
"But perhaps your remembering will help you find Charlie Deans?"
"How could it? The letter will do that. He'll come at once."
"There's just a possibility the letter may not reach him, since you've sent it to an address that he's left so long. But I've a strong feeling, my dear, that you've seen him quite recently—probably only a short time before you became ill. Are you quite sure that you didn't meet him once when you were with Mona Etheridge?"
She had said it. She had run her sword through the weak spot in Simon Dexter's armour and pierced the quivering flesh of Charlie Deans. She saw his face turn pale, become drawn, and he sighed as if he had felt the wound.
"I saw him? . . . Did I?—yes, I did. He came up to me and said——"
"What did he say?"
A queer, obstinate, almost childish look came into his eyes.
"I don't remember."
"But, my dear, you must. It's absolutely essential if we're to find Charlie."
"I don't know that I want to find him."
"Oh, but you do. You've written to him on purpose to bring him back."
"That was before . . . that was before I began to remember—before I knew that I hate him."
"You hate him!"[Pg 43]
"Yes, he's a cad and a swine. Oh, Evelyn, don't make me remember! Don't let it come back!"
He leaned forward and seized both her hands. She could feel that he was trembling, and she had again to steel herself, to remind herself that this was the best, perhaps the only way of putting an end to a preposterous situation. If she could not bring him back to himself he would be left to the mercy of unsympathetic, half-estranged relations. He must have lived cut off from them for years, and now when they came, if she could not free him, they would find him bound hand and foot by a dream. Though he meant nothing to her as a man—no more than the shy, awkward, half-forgotten boy had meant at Yeaman's Hall—she felt his claim upon her as a human being, a human being whose life had been monstrously twisted up with hers.
"Listen, my dear," she said, "I want you to try to remember this, for my sake as well as your own. Why do you hate him? What was it he said to you?"
"It wasn't only what he said—it was the way he said it . . . sneering . . . he spoke sneeringly of you—with that little beast standing beside him."
"What little beast?"
"But . . ."
"Yes, she stood there grinning the whole time—grinning and listening. She was proud of having got him away from you."
"Oh. . . ."
"Yes, I can remember it all now—it's all coming back to me. It was the day after I'd left the works and [Pg 44] I'd walked as far as the pub at Shellover when he and the girl came in."
"You mean Simon and Mona Etheridge?"
"Yes—I hadn't seen him for at least three years, and at first I was pleased—I didn't know what to do with myself I was so pleased."
"Did you speak to him?"
"Of course I did, and then I saw something had happened—he was changed. 'Smatter of fact both he and the girl were a bit tight. When I asked after you—as I naturally did—he told me straight out he'd left you, and then he looked at me—oh God! . . ."
"Simon looked at you?"
"Yes—you'd think he was gloating. And the girl grinned. I tell you they were both tight. He said they were going to South Africa and that now was my chance to step into his shoes. . . ."
He stopped suddenly and a look of blank bewilderment came over his face.
"And what happened then?"
"I don't know . . . I seem to forget. He—I, that is—no, he . . . I mean myself. . . . You see, I'm not quite clear. . . . Oh, Evelyn, Evelyn, which is it?—who am I?"
He started up in bed and threw his arms round her.
"My sweet, you're mine—tell me that it's true that you're mine."
He held her, almost crushed her, so that she could feel his heart beating—his lips were close to her face. Now at the very last he was her lover . . . then suddenly his manner changed and seemed to dissolve into a gesture of childish helplessness. His arms relaxed and his head slid down to her breast. She felt her response [Pg 45] to him sink from startled excitement to almost motherly pity. Poor boy, poor child . . . she lifted her hand to stroke his hair, when he seemed to change again. She heard him gasp and felt his body shrink and withdraw. He slipped out of her arms as suddenly as he had come into them.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled awkwardly. "I've been making rather an ass of myself; but it's quite all right now."
She did not know what to say, for she was not sure whom she was speaking to—Charlie Deans or Simon Dexter. He too was silent. He seemed to have lost that fluidity of speech which had been so characteristically her husband's. He sat looking at her with great moony eyes in which embarrassment mixed with an ever-growing fear. She could have taken him in her arms again, if she had not known how little it would comfort him. He sat, looking at her, very red and confused. She saw that she had become a stranger.
"I say," he faltered. "I really am sorry. But I'm not feeling well, somehow. Do—do you think you could fetch somebody?"
"Yes, at once."
She went to the door, looking back at him as she opened it. He lay slumped in the bed, awkward, almost oafish, all his energy and brilliancy gone, changed for an ever-growing confusion.
It was not till very much later that she really understood what had brought back Charlie Deans. At first [Pg 46] she had thought it was the probing of her words, finding him at last under his disguise; but after a time she realized that he could have dodged that exposure just as he had dodged others. His inner self, determined on making the world as he would have it, would have found some way to evade her. But what he had been unable to stand against had been the shock of holding her in his arms. Then quite crudely, quite physically had been brought home to him the fact that she was a stranger, that he had never in his life been near her, never possessed her, never been her husband, never been Simon Dexter. Even the hidden deceiver had been unable to resist such an ultimate proof of remoteness.
She did not go near him again that day. Dr. Faulkener told her that he had not even asked for her. The doctor had found his patient disturbed and unhappy, but mentally clear, though, for the first time inclined to reticence. He gave him a sedative and after a few hours' sleep he was able to talk about himself more calmly, though still unwillingly. He could now remember the events that had led to his collapse.
He had given up his job on the clerical staff of a big motor works, and having saved a little money had decided to take a walking holiday before settling down to work again. Then, at some country hotel where he had stopped for a meal he had surprisingly fallen in with Dexter and the girl Etheridge. The shock of his idol's perfidy had been too much for him and a long period of amnesia had been followed by a desperate effort of his unconscious mind to adjust things to his liking. His brief performance as Simon Dexter now appeared to him as a dream, remembered as a dream is remembered, in flashes [Pg 47] and fragments, but with an embarrassing sense of actuality that made him turn himself away from it to the business of waking life.
Dr. Faulkener considered him cured in so far as his memory was concerned. Physically he still needed rest and mentally he needed rebuilding. The relations would see to that. Deans spoke of a sister actually married to a doctor and living somewhere in the north near Hexham. He had not seen her for a year and was not at all surprised that she had never been aware of his disappearance, but he would certainly be able to stay with her and her husband for a time, till he was fit to work again.
To Evelyn Dexter the arrangement did not sound inspiring.
"Poor boy! She can't be very fond of him or she'd see him more often."
"If he's been working in the south, and she lives in the north. . . ."
"Even so, it's odd that he should go off like that and disappear from his friends entirely for a fortnight without her knowing about it."
"She probably thought he was on holiday. Anyhow, I shouldn't think he was the sort of man to make close ties with anyone—he's very shy and awkward—quite different from what he was when he thought he was Simon Dexter."
"Would it be a good thing if I had him to stay at Lindridge Court?"
The doctor shook his head.
"I don't think he'd come for a moment and I doubt if it would help him much if he did. He seems to be acutely embarrassed by the little he remembers of what happened. [Pg 48] I think I'd let him get over it in new surroundings."
"But I feel I've a debt—that I owe him something for what he's suffered on my account and on Simon's. I wish I could do something that really would help him."
"You've already done that—you've helped him recover his memory—or rather his identity. I think you've fully paid him what you owe."
"If there's anything else I can do—of another sort—I don't know how his relations stand . . . but I'm quite well off. I mean, if there has to be any psychological treatment."
"Thank you," he said gravely. "I'll remember that if there's any difficulty. He's evidently a dreamy, introverted type, and apart from this thing that's happened a mental overhaul would do him all the good in the world."
"Do you know what he feels about Simon?"
"I am trying to make him talk about him, but it isn't easy. The thing to do is to make him face and accept the inevitable."
"Which is what we all find so difficult."
"Quite so; but mercifully we don't all try to get over the difficulty in the same way as Charlie Deans."
"I should like to say good-bye to him before I go back."
"Oh yes, you shall certainly do that. Though you'll find him a little self-conscious about you."
She did. He was painfully, if vaguely aware that he had made a fool of himself where she was concerned, and was doing his best to redress the balance.[Pg 49]
"Good-bye," he said stiffly. "And please forgive me for having made an ass of myself."
"You haven't at all. I've quite understood. And I want you to know—I want you to think of me as perfectly happy."
"Oh yes, I certainly will."
"But you know what I mean? You mustn't think of me as lonely and disappointed. I shall enjoy living my own life. And Simon must live his. We'll both be happier that way."
"Oh yes, quite—I quite see."
Now I understand, she thought to herself, why I can scarcely remember him at Yeaman's Hall. I wonder if he still thinks himself in love with me. I somehow believe I've cured him of that too. If I have, it's the only real good I've done him.
She wondered sadly what he would make of life, whether he would ever find as much happiness in it as he had found in his dream. When, about six months later, she heard from Dr. Faulkener that he had married the little Nurse Kent her heart rejoiced, though her mind felt a shock that was almost disillusion. Whatever treatment he had received must have been successful in so far as it had certainly brought him to earth. But he need not, she thought, have hit it with quite such a bump.
The public knows the story of the painter Gauguin and how he overthrew respectability, security and comfort, wife and children, all that is worth most to most men, in order to serve art and win fame. Most people probably feel that they ought to regard his conduct in this respect as admirable, since their artistic conscience tells them that it is admirable to love Art better than comfort and Fame better than obscurity. But some of us may have thought a little of the opposite adventure, and remember the young French poet who, having put the literary world of his day at his feet, suddenly kicked it aside, married and took to trade, deliberately working for his own oblivion.
Perhaps his story is not so rare as you imagine. Anyhow, I can give it a parallel in modern English life. I [Pg 51] know—or rather knew—an Englishman of our world to-day who turned deliberately out of the path of certain fame to seek and finally to win that gentle bride, Obscurity, whose praises he sang as other men have sung the praises of her rowdy, blowzy sister, Fame.
Do you remember Clement Bruce? You do not; but thirty years ago you would have known him and all about him if you had any claim to citizenship in the literary world. In those days we were all convinced that time would only add breadth and security to his reputation. The critics spoke of him as a Rising Star or a Coming Man, as they favoured romanticism, or realism in their style; indeed, some had gone so far as to say he had already Risen or Arrived. His work would stand, they said, the test of time; no doubt he had not yet given us his best, but when he had, that best would live with the best of other ages.
Bruce experimented in different styles. He was not one of those writers who plod conscientiously up and down the same lane; he was over the hills and far away with every book he wrote. Mainly a novelist, he had passing encounters with poetry and the stage, and in his novels alone there was a bewildering variety of style and subject as he moved from the sordid to the romantic, from the realistic to the fantastic, from cities to the soil. This variety, the fact that it was impossible to associate him with any definite type of work and thus impress the public imagination—which requires to be hit several times heavily in the same place before it will notice a man—may have enabled him to carry out successfully that which I am convinced was not the mere accident of circumstance but his own deliberate plan. If he had really [Pg 52] worn an impression on the mind of the general public, thirty years would not have been enough to rub it out. But he had failed to reach or rather to impress the man in the street, and the man in the studio and the man on the newspaper have notoriously short memories.
I knew Clement Bruce when he was at the height of his career—round about 1900. He had by then written some half-dozen novels, a book of verse and a couple of plays, which had been printed though never performed. His first books had appealed only to a small circle, but with every publication the circle had widened, and he had the distinction of having his early work continue selling quietly long after the time when by all the laws of fiction it ought to have been dead. All the leading publishers were anxious to get hold of him, for everyone said that his would be a solid reputation, independent of literary fads. His novel "Dust and Iron" was published in July, 1901, and had sold twenty thousand copies within six weeks of publication. This was his first really popular success, and in addition the reviewers hailed it as a work of genius. They had given the same greeting to most of his earlier stuff, but there was more conviction and less of mere enthusiasm about their present tone.
Naturally, I thought Bruce must be liking all this. In my capacity of reporter, as well as by virtue of my convenience as an unattached and socially minded man, I met him a great deal here and there. He had become a lion, not only in the dens of literature, but also among the hunters. You met him in the houses of established men of letters, as well as in houses whose distinction was social rather than literary. At the same time he lectured to literary clubs, and even went on a provincial lecture tour, [Pg 53] which won him immense favour among those Reading Societies attached to Nonconformist chapels, where lasting reputations are chiefly made. I thought him a lucky man, who had built his fame on the twin rock of literary merit and popular appreciation. Then one night he destroyed my illusions.
We had been together at some crush or other, I have forgotten where: all I remember is that it was a warm summer night and a few stars shone dimly above the roofs as we came out. We decided to walk home, or rather, I think, to take a walk together before we went home, as he lived appropriately in Chelsea and I lived in Bloomsbury, which was then far from being the fashionable quarter that poetry and politics have made it since. We walked along Park Lane on the park side of the road, and somehow we began talking about himself and his reputation. We had always been good friends but never particularly intimate, and this was the first and only occasion he confided in me. I do not know if he ever unburdened himself in the same way to anyone else; sometimes I think not, for his attitude towards his own fame was apparently unknown to anyone but myself. He had intimate friends, but one does not always choose intimate friends for confidences.
That night he told me that he was absolutely sick of the whole business. He hated London literary life, whether as lived in Chelsea or in Mayfair. He said the outlook was artificial, and that it was impossible for an artist living in an artistic environment and seeing life only in relation to art to have any real knowledge of what life really was.
"And it's life I want—not art. Art's no use except to [Pg 54] interpret life, and it's foolish to try to interpret a language one doesn't know."
"Why don't you go away into the country?" I suggested. "There's no need for you to stay in London now. Your reputation's made, you can take yourself off where you please. You're not like us poor sweats, forgotten at the end of a month's holiday. You're known all over the country—not only in a small London set."
"That's just it," he said bitterly, "I'm known all over the country. Wherever I live I shall be Clement Bruce, the well-known novelist. It will leak out in the remotest village that I can bury myself in. People who have never read my books will send for them to the nearest library. Even the tradespeople will become aware that I am different from themselves and their usual customers, that I belong to another genus of mankind—the literary gent. Simple people will expect me to 'put them into my books.' Ordinary human motives will never be credited to me. If I go anywhere at home or abroad the idea will be that I have gone to acquire copy or 'local colour.' Bah! If I were to marry, all literary London would be lost in conjecture as to how it would affect my art, and every enterprising newspaper editor would ask me for my views on married life, or on divorce, before I was back from my honeymoon. I tell you I'm sick of it! I want to live like an ordinary human being, and I can't."
"But surely you're not as famous as all that?" I remarked, taking the risks of candour.
"I am quite famous enough to be separate from my own kind. It requires only a small variation of type to create astonishment and curiosity in the rest of the species. The critics tell me I am a genius. I believe that [Pg 55] genius is a disease—a disease of the brain, only a chance variation of that disease which separates men from their fellows in prisons and asylums. Just vary the chemical ingredients to the smallest degree and instead of being Clement Bruce the famous novelist I am Bruce the murderer or 'poor Uncle Clement who had to be put away, you know—so very sad!' I'm separated, I tell you, I'm separated! I have to live with men like myself whose ideas and aims are conventionalized by art, or else I have to live with people who treat me as a strange and terrible phenomenon, as someone who can never be quite as they are. I tell you that sometimes I wish I could chuck it all up and be just a country grocer—a chap who never reads anything but the local paper and whose social centre is the pub and the Oddfellows' Society. He's a human being, and I'm not."
"I don't think you're speaking decently. You've got something that the country grocer hasn't, and you have—possibly, for I don't admit it—got to pay for it with something that he has. That's all."
"But I'd far rather have what he has than what I have."
"Then you are abnormal in other ways besides genius. What normal man would give up a reputation like yours for the life of the most humanly satisfied grocer in creation?—to say nothing of the money you earn. It isn't as if you were just the ordinary sort of novelist. The idea seems to be that you've got a reputation that will last—that after you're dead men and women will be reading your books—that your name will live long after all your contemporary grocers are buried and forgotten."
"That," said Bruce solemnly, "is the most dreadful thought of all. If I thought that when I died, or soon [Pg 56] after, I should be forgotten, then I believe I could bear it better. But I picture myself being read and remembered after I am gone. . . . I don't say I have reached that stage yet, but it's a probability and a fear that haunts me. To think of myself getting a specially increased sale on the new advertisement that my death will give me, of being read in editions that get cheaper and cheaper as my copyrights expire, of becoming at last perhaps a classic, bound in red leather and stuck on people's library shelves and never read, or bound in calf and given as prizes to poor little blighters who'd far rather have a set of tools! And then think of all the idiots spouting tosh on my centenary, and the dry-as-dust articles in the highbrow papers, and the controversy as to whether "Dust and Iron" was written in the spring of nineteen hundred and one or the autumn of nineteen hundred, and the statue put up to me in a London park, 'realistic' in plus fours or 'expressionist' with my head like a horse's and my feet turning into hoofs—God! I can't bear it. Don't you see that it separates me from them more and more? For my memory to remain among men after I am gone only makes me more and more unlike them, who lie down in comfortable obscurity in village churchyards and after a generation or two are forgotten.
I had heard him talk in this style before, though not on this subject. He occasionally liked to indulge in a purple patch of conversation, perhaps as an antidote for having to deny himself that happy outlet in his novels.
"I tell you," he continued, warming to his work, "that as men have been willing to sacrifice everything for fame, I sometimes feel I would sacrifice everything for obscurity. Obscurity! That's the real goal of the true [Pg 57] artist! Obscurity, which is twilight and firelight, where fame is an incandescent glare! Obscurity, which is the life I can share with my fellows instead of life that I must live apart from them, which is fame! Obscurity, which is the death I can die with my fellows instead of the death I must die apart from them and after which I must live again, which is fame! I tell you it's time that some poet sang an ode to Obscurity, that some adventurer risked everything for Obscurity. I tell you—oh well, never mind! It's no good telling you any more, for you won't understand."
I felt relieved that he did not intend to tell me any more as his voice had risen to heights incongruous with the empty London streets. Two passers-by turned to stare at us, even a taxi-driver looked round. My own love of obscurity was enough to make me change the conversation.
I did not see him again after that date, or rather in the light of subsequent events it would be safer to say that I don't know if I ever saw him again. The mood evidently remained with him for a day or two, for the next evening I had a letter from him in the same style as his speech. It began by apologizing for having made an ass of himself last night and then proceeded to repeat everything that, as an ass, he had said. There were patches in that letter of an even deeper purple than any in our recent conversation; he wrote two whole pages in praise of obscurity—evidently he was pleased with the idea. For some reason or other I kept the letter. I think I meant [Pg 58] to answer it and then didn't. Anyhow, I found it put away with some others in a drawer years later and then decided to keep it, for it was the only link with him I had.
I left London rather unexpectedly a couple of days after my talk with Bruce. Various events took place which are my own story. It is enough to say that I did not return to town, but left England altogether in another six weeks, and was in New Zealand and then in New South Wales until the spring of 1914, when I returned to London. I was anxious to join up old links, correspondence having as usual failed. Therefore I attempted to ring up quite a number of people, including Bruce. Twelve years make a big gap in one's social life—I found that most of my old acquaintances had left town or changed their addresses. Bruce's name was not in the telephone book, so I tried his publishers, who were also friends of mine. But they could tell me nothing about him, they did not know his address. He had, they understood, left England. He had not published anything with them or anybody for more than ten years, and such cheques as still fell due for his old work were paid direct into his bank. I was surprised. Certainly I had heard little or nothing of him while I was away, but I had not been among people or places where modern fiction is of much account. It seemed odd for him to have disappeared like this. I made some fruitless efforts to trace him. I wrote to him care of his bank, but received no reply—I made one or two inquiries among common acquaintances, but no one seemed to have heard anything of him for periods varying from nine to eleven years. Apparently in 1902 he had gone off to Italy, and thence to Austria [Pg 59] and Servia; but there was evidence that he had returned and rumours that he had settled in Scotland, also others that he had been seen in Cornwall. But there seemed to be no recent information and certainly there was but little interest. Nine years of total disappearance is quite enough to rub a man's name out of the conversation of literary London. "Oh, he's giving himself a rest"—"He was afraid of writing himself out"—had been given and received as ample explanation at the start; then even such eddies had ceased.
I could not help thinking that he had acted deliberately. He had really meant what he said to me that night in Park Lane. I had not forgotten it; it had impressed me even more than I thought at the time. My own absence from my usual haunts and the ease with which apparently I had fallen from all acquaintance there made me realize that what had merely happened to me Bruce might have achieved by deliberate purpose. Was he mad? Is the slaughtering of a man's own reputation—the violation of his will-to-live in the world of ideas—as sure a sign of a disordered brain as the slaughtering of his own body, of his will-to-live in the world of sensation? Was Bruce the felon of his own fame? And if so, how did he fare in the limbo whither he had sent himself? Having won Obscurity, did he find her the bride he had imagined? I longed to know, and wrote to him again at his bankers' address. But again he did not answer, and this time I was angry. I told myself that I wouldn't worry about him any more. He wanted me to forget him—well, forget him I would. And I did.
No doubt the outbreak of war in August helped me. I succeeded in getting out to France with the Durhams, [Pg 60] and apart from that the world in which I had known Bruce ceased to exist. The Arts no longer counted except in the primitive emotional forms which they took in music and poetry. For nearly five years it was as if the earth's axis shook, and one saw the Bronze Age coming back—and the Stone Age. Then the vibration ceased and everything flew back to where it had been before; poetry died, and fiction and the drama rose up again. But they rose with a new set of names. The last of Bruce's cheap editions had vanished from the bookstalls—during the scarcity of labour and paper his publishers had not thought it worth while to reprint him, and now he really was dead—felon of himself.
I thought that he must be dead in fact as well as in name. I could not imagine him still existing apart from the world he had lived in and the art he had served. For a time—yes—but not for so long. Perhaps he had been killed in the War. He was over age, it is true—ten years older than I—but still he might have done it. He might have joined up under his assumed name—for he must have chosen a name for his oblivion—and now be lying at the foot of one of those numberless crosses in Flanders, obscure in the common glory.
In the August of 1922 I went on a walking tour through Kent. I was hard up, and it seemed the best sort of holiday that could be had for my money. After I had begun it I wished I hadn't, for the weather was rainy, and terribly cold for the time of the year. Still I stuck to it, and one wretched and drizzling day I tramped [Pg 61] cross-country from Canterbury to Ashford, a distance, I suppose, of about twenty miles. I had been fool enough not to bring a map; I had trusted to signposts to help me, not reckoning with the economy of Rural District Councils. I wandered about in small lanes, with a continual wet mist driving between the hedges. There seemed to be no villages, only occasional farm-houses and groups of cottages where one could perhaps find a small shop, and perhaps not.
Towards dusk I stopped at one of these, to replenish my store of matches and to ask the way, as I was beginning to recognize the symptoms of being lost. It was one of those shops where you can buy everything from a pair of boots to a pound of biscuits. It looked cosy enough as I stepped in, out of the dusk and wet, and there was the flicker of firelight in the room beyond. No one was behind the counter, but as the little bell over the door buzzed loudly on my entrance, a woman came in from the back room and asked me what I wanted.
"A box of matches, please. And can you tell me the best way to Ashford?"
She picked the matches off the shelf, but seemed puzzled by the question.
"I dunno. Reckon it's some way yet. But I'll ask him."
She called into the back room—"Father!"
A man came in. He was of middle height, inclined to be bony; his hair was thin on the top and he wore a big walrus moustache. But the moment he came in I knew that he was Bruce.
I had not thought of him for years, but directly this man appeared I recognized him. It was not the sight of any special feature, the putting together of any memories. [Pg 62] It was just a complete emotional recognition, a complete awareness apart from detail. Then my general impression became confirmed by a dozen signs. There were his hands, chiefly—-for you cannot disguise hands, and in spite of a certain exterior coarseness the long nervous fingers remained, the fingers of the artist and thinker who was Clement Bruce.
"Father, this gentleman wants to know the best way to Ashford."
He fixed his light grey eyes upon me, and I prepared myself for his start. But it never came. Then suddenly I doubted, and the vividness of my first impression passed. His utter impassivity, his obvious lack of recognition in that first moment made me doubt. If he was Bruce he must recognize me, since I had changed but little, and if he recognized me surely he must be betrayed into some token of it, utterly unprepared as he was. But he never budged.
"If you go on to the cross-roads, you'll see Pope's Hall on the signpost," he said impassively, "go on from there to Boughton Malherbe, and three miles farther on you're on the high road from Maidstone to Ashford."
I stared at him again, to break his guard. The eyes were Bruce's—bluish-grey and curiously retracted; there was the irregular and bushy eyebrow that I remembered and the same long sensitive nose. The moustache of course was new, but that was obvious and easy to account for. I resolved to make him talk as much as possible.
"Perhaps I could get a bus on the high road?"
"There's one leaves Maidstone for Ashford every two hours or so. Lenham—where you strike the road—is about midway."[Pg 63]
I noticed that he did not speak with the drawl of the county; on the other hand I could not definitely recognize the voice as Bruce's, no doubt because I have not the same memory for voices as I have for faces and hands. He did not seem inclined to talk much, and I was rather at a loss how to prolong the situation. Then suddenly a thought struck me.
"Could you let me have a cup of tea?" I asked. "I've come from Canterbury and it seems I've a long way yet to go."
"Surelye," said the woman, who was Kent most certainly, "the kettle will be boiling in two minutes. Reckon you must be tired, having come so far."
I wondered if she was his wife. Apparently so, since they addressed each other as "Mother" and "Father." She seemed a nice comfortable thing, somewhere in her middle forties; I should say a small farmer's or shopkeeper's daughter. She asked me to come into the back room, while "Father" was banished to the kitchen.
I am reserved by nature, and the situation made speech doubly difficult, but I put on an air of faux bonhomme which, if he really was Bruce, must have given me away at once, and went and stood in the kitchen doorway while she boiled the kettle and he sat by the fire with a newspaper. I tried to work up the conversation on a personal note. I discussed the weather, the remoteness of the district; asked if they saw many people, if they had been long in the hamlet, if they found it lonely, if they had any family, and several more rather impertinent questions. The replies were quite naturally given. They found it lonely in winter, but now the buses were running between Ashford and Maidstone things weren't so [Pg 64] bad and they got about more. There were scarcely a dozen cottages in the hamlet, but Boughton Malherbe was only two miles away—that was where the children went to school. They had four children, the eldest of whom was thirteen; their name was Dunn, and he had come, he said, from the shires, though she had been born in Canterbury and had lived there till her marriage.
"Ever been in London?" I asked him indifferently.
"Oh, yes, I was born there. Spent a lot of my time there, too."
"In a shop? Did you get your experience there?"
"No, I didn't start shopkeeping till I came to these parts. I was clerk in a warehouse."
"Fight in the War?"
"No, I was over age and not very strong, so they wouldn't have me. I did a bit of Special Constable work for a time."
I was tried by the offensiveness of my own curiosity and resolved to bring the matter to an end. I asked him straight out: "Did you ever know a man called Clement Bruce?"
If he wasn't Bruce it would merely appear to him an idiotic question, such as a foolish and ill-mannered person like myself would be likely to ask. If he was Bruce surely he would be betrayed into some sign. But again he never budged.
"Clement Bruce?" he said. "I don't think so. I've met hundreds of people in my time but no one of that name, that I can remember. Where did he live?"
"In London," I said. "He was a writer. He wrote novels. I used to know him, and it struck me that you were rather like him."[Pg 65]
He shook his head. "I've never had anything to do with writers, they're not the kind of people I'd be likely to get on with. Trade's been my line all through."
I gave it up. I was now convinced that I had made a mistake—that this was not Bruce. If he was Bruce he must have carried the art of lying to a finer pitch than he had ever carried the art of fiction. Besides, he would have recognized me, unless indeed he had completely lost his memory; my unexpected appearance in his refuge would have taken him totally by surprise, and I could not imagine that he would have betrayed absolutely no sign or have seemed so totally unmoved by my presence or my questions.
My tea was ready and I went back into the little sitting-room and they shut the door. It was a perfectly ordinary room, such as one would expect to find at the back of a small village shop. The walls were papered with a heavily patterned paper, which did not prevent them being also covered with pictures and photographs and brackets. There were lace antimacassars on the chairs and a heavy green cloth on the centre table where also lay one or two books of the Sunday School prize sort. A small bamboo table stood in the window with an aspidistra upon it, filling the space between the Nottingham lace curtains; a green crinkly paper shade adorned the lamp that hung from the ceiling. It was all typical of modern cottage bad taste.
When I had drunk my tea, I got up and had a look round. You might say that the whole family history for the last fifteen years was on the wall in photographs—but I noticed significantly that there was nothing earlier than the Wedding Group in which he stood very stiff in [Pg 66] his blacks and buttonhole, with oiled forelock, drooping moustache and upright collar, beside his bride in her lace veil and orange blossom, with two smirking bridesmaids on either side of them. Then there was a photograph of him and his wife evidently taken on some pier during their honeymoon; then he stood behind her as she held her first baby; then she had another child in her arms with the first youngster at her side, and gradually the group enlarged to four children. I inspected other photographs. There was one of him taken with the rest of the Wesleyan choir on their Annual Outing, another of him with a prize marrow that he had exhibited in the local Flower Show, there was his certificate of membership of the Ancient Order of Druids. . . . Bruce must have been an even greater genius than I had thought if he had done the thing so completely—had so entirely lifted himself, not merely out of his profession, but out of his class, and taken such apparently firm root in new soil. The man as I had known him was incapable of it. He could not have lived this life for a year. This could not be he.
Then suddenly I stood still and almost gasped. I had come to what I thought was another framed certificate, but on closer inspection it proved to be an illuminated parchment, hanging in a plain dark frame between two reproductions of family orgies. It was evidently the work of some amateur in illumination, and impressively decorated with scrolling and gold work. It was headed
"THE PRAISES OF OBSCURITY"
I read it with a shudder in my spine.
"Obscurity is the true refuge of the true artist. Obscurity is twilight and firelight, while Fame is an incandescent glare. [Pg 67] Obscurity is the life I can share with my fellows, while Fame is the life I must live apart from them. Obscurity is the death I die with my fellows, while Fame is the death I die apart from them and after which I must live again—apart. Oh ye lovers of Fame! turn and seek Obscurity, for she is gentle where Fame is hard, and kind where he is cruel! She will give you love and goodwill where Fame will give you hate and envy. And you will sleep sweetly in her arms at the last."
I cannot pretend that I had remembered word for word Bruce's outburst of so long ago, but the gist of it had stuck in my memory owing to the fact that it was the last conversation we had had together. Also it had been further impressed upon me by the letter, which was, as I have said, an embellishment of the speech, just as the illumination appeared to be an embellishment of the letter. I was now quite decided. The man was Bruce. No other would have been likely to write the Praises of Obscurity, and this was Bruce's own language. Here, in this hidden Kentish hamlet, the name of which I did not yet know, he had found what in his heart he had desired and sought more than Fame—the life of an obscure country shopkeeper—the grocer he had once envied. . . .
I rang the bell as if to pay for my tea. The woman who called herself Mrs. Dunn came in. I wondered how much she knew. Had she helped him accomplish his adventure, or was her ignorance a part of it? I remarked as casually as I could:
"That's an interesting piece of illumination you have over there, Mrs. Dunn. I have never seen anything like it before. Where did you get it?"
She hesitated for a moment. She did not seem to remember. Then suddenly I saw Bruce behind her in the [Pg 68] doorway, looking over her shoulder. He was staring at me intently—and I seemed to see in his eyes a look of pleading—an entreaty that I would probe no further—that I would have mercy, and let him be. I felt myself falter in my intention, and the next moment he spoke.
"We got it at a sale. Don't you remember, Mother? Over at Souledge."
"Yes, maybe it was there. We bought a lot of pictures."
"Do you approve of the sentiments?" I could not refrain from asking her.
She seemed bewildered.
"Oh . . . I reckon we do. Not that I'm sure of having read it myself, the writing's too difficult!"
There was nothing more to be said. I paid for my tea and went.
By the time I had got to Ashford I had already begun to doubt that look in Bruce's eyes—the look that had silenced me. After all, it is foolish to judge by such appearances. He had probably only been staring out of ordinary curiosity, and I had read his curiosity into an appeal, being already predisposed by my own state of mind.
I have never been able to settle the matter. To this day I cannot feel sure that the man in the village shop was Bruce; on the other hand, I cannot feel sure that he was not Bruce. Of course I could have made further investigations, but I didn't care to. If he wasn't Bruce, then I was merely being impertinent. If he was . . . in that case I felt I was being something worse than impertinent. So I have left him there, in the hamlet of which I do not even know the name. Whether he is or is not Bruce, he is the man Bruce would have liked to be. Whether Bruce [Pg 69] could have lived like that for fifteen years is another matter. Apart from questions of fame and money, I find it difficult to believe that he could have existed so long outside the world where his soul lived—the world of thought and art, and achievement. And yet . . . after all, what in the end can life give us more than herself? The form may vary, but the essence is the same. Are the rewards of the artist and the grocer so very different? I don't know.
The kitchen at Ellenwhorne Farm was full of sunshine. It seemed to hold it like a tub. Beams, walls, and hearth were yellow with it, and the tints of the furniture, of the flowery cotton blinds, of the plates on the dresser, seemed to glow through it, as in those pictures which the artist first puts under a wash of yellow, at once softening and lighting up all other colours.
Bathed in the tranquil glimmer of the whole, Great-Aunt Hannah sat drowsing in her chair. She herself was like a piece of furniture, and Penson no more thought of speaking to her than of speaking to the dresser. He stood by the window, staring out idly at the slope of the home field, and at the kilns of the two Ellenwhorne Oasts, like bulgy steeples at the end of the barn. He wondered how long Mrs. Ades would be before she came back from asking her husband about the Surrey pullets. . . .
It was Penson's wife who supplied the word that was [Pg 71] to link up Great-Aunt Hannah for a few passing moments with the world from which she now sat remote, frilled and rosy in her beehive chair, with the strangely knowing smile of the over-old upon her face. Dora Penson came into the room with a breeze from the farmyard and a cheering clump of thick-soled shoes, scattering the dim, rather worn phantoms that were beginning to gather in the old room.
"Mrs. Ades not back?—Lord, what a time she's been! I've settled about those coops and seen the pig. I thought you and she would have finished long ago."
"She's got a job that wants talking over," said Penson glumly—"Ades will have to show her exactly how she can sell those pullets for twice as much as they're worth."
They naturally ignored Great-Aunt Hannah, discussing her relatives before her as they would have discussed them before the kitchen stove. "I detest Ades," said Mrs. Penson briskly. "I don't object so much to his wife—she's just a cheery, ordinary little swindle. But the man himself's a hypocrite. He was holding forth to me only yesterday about the mean tricks of farmers when they want to 'come it over' gentlemen small-holders. And now look at him, with that grey, solemn face of his . . . Pharisee!"
She rushed out the word a little inappropriately, for Ades was not the man to make long prayers, as a pretence or otherwise; but she had had a wearisome afternoon, bargaining for the needs of her little holding with those who seemed part of the soil on which she and Penson were strangers. An echo came droning unexpectedly from the beehive chair.[Pg 72]
"Pharisee . . . Pharisee . . . ever seen a Pharisee boy?"
The Pensons both stared, as if a voice had come from the kettle. They had always understood that Great-Aunt Hannah had reached those happy fields beyond the river of speech.
"Ever seen a Pharisee boy?"
She repeated the question directly to the young people. Evidently they had swum into her world, and for the moment they both felt rather draggled and breathless in the new atmosphere. A strange sense of shame was upon them, as if they were unworthy to tread these paths of Great-Aunt Hannah's feet. They were defiling them with their youth and activity, with their rowdy interest in a world which she had left long ago, and now kindly despised from the peace of her own country. Then once again the question came, a fragile token of herself borne over the dividing river on the cracked barque of her old voice.
"Ever seen a Pharisee boy?"
Mrs. Penson hastily nudged her husband. "She means fairy. That's what they call them here—used to call them in her day. No, ma'am, we've never seen a Pharisee."
"You wurn't here when the young Pharisee warked fur Faather?"
"No, Mrs. Pix." Great-Aunt Hannah's age had given her rank as a matron.
A sigh fluttered in the beehive chair. It stole like a wind across the gulf fixed between age and youth.
"Surelye, we had a young Pharisee warking fur Faather a dunnamany years agone. Sister Milly called up to me at the bedroom winder—'run araund to the best room, [Pg 73] Hannah, and see the valiant young chap as Faather has fetched in to the cows after old Munk.' And I ran and I looked, and I saw his curly head a-bending over the trough. I knew then he wurn't no common lad, for each hair of his head wur a-shining lik the sun, and under it I saw the points of his ears, sharp-pricked lik a hare's—you can always tell a Pharisee by his ears." Her voice hummed down into a silence that the Pensons felt themselves called upon to break.
"Did—did anyone else—did your sister know he was a Pharisee?"
They could not tell if the question reached her—probably not, for after a moment she continued:
"Some Pharisees have horns on their heads, but he had naun, and some have sheep's feet, but he had just the brown feet of a boy. If it hadn't bin fur his ears I'd never have known him fur a Pharisee—his ears and the way as he talked to the cows, just as if they wur his sisters. And they never guv better milk nor when he had 'em—coaxing and whistling—they knew who he wur, I reckon, fur cows have more know in such matters than us."
Great-Aunt Hannah sighed again, rather sadly this time, as if a shadow had fallen on her pleasant land.
"Reckon he wur valiant, reckon he wur präaper, my Pharisee boy. Fur he wur mine. I loved him—and when I looked into his face I saw them two dark pools in Brede Eye Wood. Then they'd swim together, and I'd go dazed like. I'd no sense to go loving a Pharisee. And one day he said: 'Come into the barn wud me, Mistress Hannah,' and I come and he kissed me there. And I looked in his eyes and they swum together and I wur drowned in them. . . . When I come out of that barn [Pg 74] he wur agone, and my faather and sister and all the folkses wur agone, and strangers there. Fur I shud have known as a Pharisee's kiss is fifty year—there I wur an oald body and no kin left, and the Pharisee boy wur gone. He aun't old, he's always young, and sometimes I hear him laughing behind the wood-stack."
Her head drooped towards the bib of her lilac apron. She shook it sadly, and then from her came the ghost, the echo, of a laugh faint as the rustling of straw.
At that moment Mrs. Ades bustled into the room. She glanced from Great-Aunt Hannah to the Pensons, and smiled broadly.
"She's been talking, has she? She doesn't often talk, but when she does she talks queer. She's been bad in her head ever since the beam of the Dutch barn fell on her fifty years ago. My grandad told me. Seemingly she went in with a young chap that was courting her, and the beam fell and knocked them both. He wasn't particular the worse, and went and married over at Bodiam. A tedious bad lot, he was, my grandad said, and I know he was for ever around here begging for old bottles and such-up to a year ago, when they put him into the Union. But grandad always said he'd wonderful ways with cows and women."
"The prisoner," read Mrs. Livyett, "was given a seat in the dock, and listened to the proceedings with an air of indifference. Only once did she display any emotion, and that was when her son, Albert, aged fourteen, told the court how his mother had once appeared to hide something when he came into the kitchen. She was making tea for his father, and he saw her slip a small bottle into her pocket. In answer to Sir Charles Winham, for the Crown, he stated that she seemed upset when he came in . . ."
Molly Livyett's eyes flew down the page, skipping from one paragraph to another. She sat in the last of the light, hunched childishly beneath the window in her blue and white cotton frock, her heels gathered up under her, her head bent over an apple which she munched [Pg 76] as she read. Though she munched and was dimly conscious of the voices of her children, playing in the field, her mind was far away at the Old Bailey, where a Streatham woman was being tried for murder.
Had she done it? She probably had, by the look of things. The husband's illness didn't seem natural, which of course it wasn't, for arsenic had been found in the body. The prisoner was proved to have bought some weed-killer, and he had been carrying on with another woman for six months. It certainly looked as if she had done it.
And who was to blame her? She had done only what lots of wives would do if they weren't afraid. Some women had guts; they didn't just go on as usual, pretending not to see things for the sake of the children. Perhaps it would be better if more women had guts . . . not that this one seemed any happier for what she had done, but at least somebody had paid, somebody had got what they deserved, instead of going off whistling and enjoying themselves as if there were no such things as cruelty and wickedness. . . .
Molly Livyett was staring over the top of the newspaper into the shadows that thickened round the fireplace. She sat in a queer stiff attitude, still holding the apple half-way to her mouth, as if her arms had frozen; a piece of apple lay unswallowed on her tongue.
It was odd how these murder trials gripped you—made you feel it was you yourself who had done it. You might have, of course; you had had just as much to put up with as this woman. But somehow you didn't feel you could have done quite the same. For one thing, you couldn't have hurt Pete—even though he had hurt you, you [Pg 77] couldn't hurt him, because you loved him. She probably hadn't loved her husband, or she couldn't have made him suffer what the newspapers said he had. Yet if she hadn't loved him, why had she minded him taking up with another woman? . . . Perhaps she had loved him once and love had turned to hate. They said love often turned to hate. Perhaps your love for Peter would some day turn to hate.
Would it make things easier if it did? It might—if you wanted to kill Pete . . . But you never would; and you simply couldn't understand why that woman had killed her husband instead of the other woman who had taken him from her. That other woman had broken up her home and spoiled her life, but her husband was only a victim like herself. She should have killed the other woman . . . then she and her husband could have been happy together again . . . as they used to be in the old days.
Her little girl's voice called her back into the darkening room.
"Mums, what is it? What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter. Why have you come in?"
"We're tired of playing—we want to go to bed."
This unnatural request showed her how late it must be. She had deliberately refused to look at the clock, afraid of what it might tell her.
"Very well, dear; come along. I'll put you to bed at once."
She took a hand of each, the little girl and the little boy, and led them upstairs into the big low room that faced the orchard. Here a beam of sunshine lingered [Pg 78] from the west, and in that warmth and redness the day once more stood still. She was able to pretend that the light was all round the house and let her children's voices chime her into a sort of content.
"What were you playing at in the field?"
"We were playing at dipping sheep, only we hadn't anything to play with but my teddy, and now he's all dirty from the ditch."
"What made you play at dipping sheep?"
"They're dipping them at the farm to-morrow. Mummy, may we go and see?"
"Oh, yes, I expect you may."
"Will you ask Daddy?"
"Yes, I'll ask him."
The swifts were wheeling and screaming against the sky, and the sunshine was only another clock . . . it had moved from the floor to the ceiling. . . . And now it was gone, leaving the tops of the apple trees to darken slowly in the wind. The birds were like shadows flying. . . .
"Mummy, don't look like that!"
What was the matter with the child?—or with herself, rather. She spoke sharply.
"Don't be so silly. I'm looking just as I always look. There now, you're ready for bed; get in while I finish Ralphe."
Thank goodness Ralphe was neither so observant nor so talkative as Pamela. But evidently some movement troubled the quiet pool of his mind, for he said suddenly:
"I don't want to go to bed before Dad comes in."
"Why, darling? You said you were sleepy."[Pg 79]
"But I want Dad to come and say good night to me. Where is he?"
"He's out, working late at the farm."
"He never used to be late."
"He has more work to do now."
She grew irritable.
"Don't ask so many questions, and get into bed at once. I'm busy."
He looked at her with a surprised pain that made her heart ache. But she would not comfort him, for fear that he might ask more questions. She tucked the bedclothes round them both, kissed them and went out of the room. She had hardly closed the door before she heard their voices murmuring.
Now she stood alone face to face with the darkness and emptiness of the house. Yes, she was angry with Pete all right, even though she didn't want to kill him. She looked through the darkness into the evening he had condemned her to—sitting there alone in the silent house, lighting the lamp and sewing under it, strolling at last into the kitchen and boiling herself an egg and making herself a cup of cocoa, just for fear that the hunger she had not felt all day might seize her in the night and wake her up to think.
Then, perhaps, he would come in. She would offer him supper, but he would say he'd had a bite of something at the farm. It was a full six weeks since she had asked him any questions and therefore six weeks since he had told her any lies. She knew where he had been and he knew she knew. . . . They knew too at the farm; oh, you bet [Pg 80] they did! They knew and the whole village knew that Peter Livyett was neglecting his wife and children and running after Clara Chance. She had already seen compassionate looks on some faces—on Dr. Seafield's and on the Vicar's and on Pearce's at the Farm; they were sorry for her because she had brought her husband into the country only to lose him there. And she had seen contemptuous looks on faces in the village; the farmers and cottagers of Churchsettle despised her because she was a foreigner and her husband was a foreigner running after another foreigner—all in fact behaving as you would expect foreigners to behave. . . . The villagers of Churchsettle were a damn lot of oafs. . . . But on the whole she preferred the contempt to the compassion; for contempt made you feel hard.
Of course there was always the possibility he would get over it, but not the same possibility there would have been with a lighter man. This was the first time he had ever looked away from her, though they had been married ten years and up till eighteen months ago had lived in London. The part she could not understand was why, when after all those years of faithfulness he had strayed, he should stray after such trash as Clara Chance. In London he must have seen dozens of her sort and never noticed them except with repulsion. Was it the incongruity of her surroundings that had cast a glamour over her?—sitting there in that lovely old farm house, scattering cigarette ash and trailing her gowns over its brick floors, rubbing her peroxide hair against its oaken beams, drinking her eternal whiskies under the sagging rose-arches of its neglected garden. . . . She liked the country, she said, and when somebody—nobody knew [Pg 81] who but you could guess what—had left her a little money she had bought old Potkiln and taken her queer, ugly life there. She pretended that she had always wanted to live in the country; but now that she was there she did not seem to know what to do with herself, except make a set at poor Pete. At first Molly had thought it funny, they both had—she had never dreamed that he could fall seriously for such stuff. But he had fallen, and now Molly and the children and the new life at Mayshaves were nothing but a background to a low common passion, whose redemption of constancy was the most damnable part of it.
Her anger had blazed up again, but now it had left Pete and burned Clara. Oh, if only it could really burn anyone but herself! The tears dribbled from the corners of her eyes; they were hot and salt, and felt as if they must scar her cheeks. All her mind and body seemed to be heat and flame. She could bear no more. She must do something. She would go up to the farm and ask for Pete. She would no longer accept the swindle of his working late. She would go up and ask for him, and if necessary follow him where he had gone. It was not likely that any good would come of it—any more good than had come of that Streatham woman's dealings with her husband—but at least something would be done, someone perhaps would smart.
Mayshaves cottage was only a quarter of a mile from Mayshaves Farm. Soon Milly Livyett was walking in the yard, looking for Pearce.
She found him, as she had expected, in the little section boarded off the cart-lodge, which he called his office. He [Pg 82] was busy with his accounts, and peered at her over the rims of his spectacles. Then he smiled. She had always liked Pearce from the moment she had first accepted him as her husband's oldest friend. It had seemed an ideal arrangement that they should go into partnership at Mayshaves; Pearce had experience of farming both in this country and in Canada, and the doctor had urged Pete to live an open-air life. Now, she supposed, Pearce knew as much about Clara Chance as she did—probably more.
"Good evening," she said. "Has Pete gone?"
"He left quite a little while ago, but I believe he said he was going round by the village."
"Yes—he told me he might play snooker at the George . . . but I came here on the chance. I thought I might walk over with him. I've been indoors all day."
"It's a pleasant evening for a walk—I wish I could offer myself instead of him, but I must get these wretched things finished to-night."
"Oh, I'll go and find him at the pub."
She spoke carelessly, and wondered if they were both lying or if only she was. She thought he looked a little hang-dog and conscious, after the manner of a man standing by another over something he doesn't quite approve of. He had always been a good friend to Pete, but he liked her too—she knew it.
"It's two miles," he said, "to Churchsettle."
She knew then that he was trying to detain her—to give Pete a chance.
"No, thanks awfully. But I don't think I'll go after him. I'll just take a stroll and then go home."
"I wish I could come with you; but if I don't finish [Pg 83] these accounts to-night I never shall. We're frightfully busy to-morrow; we start dipping, you know."
"Yes, the children told me."
"They're keen on the farm, those two. I hope they'll come and look on."
"I'm sure they'd love to help."
"Oh, I don't know about help. They're rather too little to have anything to do with sheep-dipping, except look on—and they're welcome to do that."
As he spoke his eye fell on a large tin drum on the floor close to his chair, and she saw the word Poison in red letters on a label pasted across it.
"Is that what you dip them in?"
"Yes, for the first dip. It's diluted, of course."
"What is it?"
"Oh . . . the same as weed-killer."
"Yes, you've got to have something pretty drastic for the first dip. The second one's only a wash."
"But isn't it dangerous?"
"One has to take precautions, of course—both for oneself and for the sheep. I've known a careless looker lose half his flock by making the mixture too strong."
"How much do you put in?"
"A teaspoonful to the gallon's safe enough. But of course some of the virtue's lost if you make it too weak."
"A teaspoonful to a gallon sounds almost nothing at all."
"Oh, a little of this stuff goes a long way, I assure you"—and Pearce laughed.
Molly laughed too. It suddenly struck her as very amusing that after all she had read in the paper about [Pg 84] that woman and all she had thought about Clara Chance she should have a drum of arsenic put under her nose like that.
As she walked away from Mayshaves her thoughts went back to the poison drum. If opportunity had been put in the Streatham woman's way as crudely as that, small wonder she had taken it. Nothing would be easier than to sneak a pinch of arsenic once the drum was opened, and it would be opened to-morrow for the sheep-dipping. She could go up to the farm with the children and slip away while everyone was busy. The drum would probably—certainly—still be there in Pearce's office, and as they used only such small quantities it was not likely to be empty the first day. Nor was Pearce likely to lock it up or hide it once it was open. He might put it on the shelf out of reach of ignorant or careless hands, but she did not expect more of his easy-going, unsuspicious nature than that. It would be the simplest thing in the world to take what she wanted—only a pinch would be enough. She could carry a little bottle in her pocket like the woman in the newspaper . . . or better still, her powder compact.
Her thoughts had run on so far that she was frightened directly she saw where they were taking her. How could she even for a moment and only in her imagination be such a fool as that woman? She had been thinking what she would do if she was a fool; and she was not a fool. Apart from other considerations—for after all, murder was murder even if you killed the person you hated instead of the person you loved—she knew that she could do herself no possible good by poisoning Clara Chance. [Pg 85] She would be found out immediately, as that other had been found out. When a strong, healthy woman dies suddenly in agony, suspicion is aroused at once; and when it is known that another woman's husband has been dangling after the murdered woman for months. . . . She shuddered. It would just be the Streatham murder story over again—gossip, suspicion, the funeral stopped by the coroner, and then her own arrest, imprisonment, trial and . . . Her imagination which had carried her so blithely to the crime sickened and failed before the punishment.
Besides, even if it would be easy to take the powder it would be difficult, if not impossible, to administer it. She was not likely ever again to have a meal with Clara or any chance of tampering with her food. It was true that there was no open breach between them and a certain smear of false friendliness still covered their doings, but it was several months since she had been to Potkiln and longer still since Clara had been to Mayshaves Cottage; and if she went round to-night and found her and Peter together, and there was a row—as she meant. . . .
No! the Streatham woman was a fool. She had acted without counting the cost—she had thought nothing of suspicion, talking neighbours, post-mortems or the fact that arsenic can be found in the body for a long time after death. She had been such a fool as almost to deserve what was coming to her. Molly Livyett was not going to risk her neck for Clara Chance. She would rather endure what she was enduring now, as she walked alone in the dark, thinking of her husband and that woman alone together at Potkiln. . . .
She had come to where the lane divided. One fork led [Pg 86] to Potkiln, the other to Mayshaves Cottage. She hesitated. She had set out determined to go to Potkiln and make a scene; she had promised herself that someone should smart. But now she found in herself a certain reluctance to tear off the dingy veil that had hidden her feelings for so long. If she made a scene the whole village would hear of it; whereas perhaps now they only guessed how much she knew. Perhaps even Pete still only guessed . . . men were often unbelievably dense where their vanities were concerned. Quite probably Clara still only guessed. It would be better—yes, certainly it would be better—if the thing did not become a quarrel and a scandal. Anyhow, she could wait. She took the road to Mayshaves.
Old Mrs. Lurgan was the only cheap help available in the neighbourhood of Churchsettle. The girls either did not care for service, or else they went into the towns. As a result Mrs. Lurgan was constantly in demand with housewives who would otherwise have despised her rather fumbling ministrations. Molly Livyett did not think much of her, but she could not do without her occasionally. She was useful if only for scrubbing the floors, and sometimes, when they were all going out, she would have a meal ready for their return.
So it was convenient that to-morrow happened to be her "day," as then Molly could quite easily go up to the farm with the children. Mrs. Lurgan came to Mayshaves Cottage every other Tuesday—hard facts and inflexible figures had compelled the Livyetts to decide they could keep clean on a fortnightly scrub.[Pg 87]
On Mondays she went to Potkiln, and on Thursdays and Saturdays as well—in fact she was up there almost every day for what she could get. Clara Chance had no need to skimp—she could have Mrs. Lurgan as often as she wanted.
It was therefore another mark on Molly Livyett's score against her when her aged handmaid, arriving late, announced that she could stay no more than an hour, as she had to get back to Mrs. Chance.
"She was taken awkward last night with her stomach, and I promised I'd look in and see her, as she can scarce move this morning."
"Couldn't you come back here afterwards? I was hoping you'd cook our dinner."
"I'd never do that step twice of a morning—'at that I couldn't! Two miles and a quarter it must be. No, when I finish up there I go home and rest."
"Then could you come to-morrow? You won't get anything done in an hour."
"I could come in for a bit after I've been to Mrs. Seafield's."
"Very well; that must do, then. I'll have to leave the children at the farm and come back here and cook the dinner."
"I'm sorry to put you to it, but I can't do no different; not with Mrs. Chance so tur'ble awkward—vomiting every five minutes, poor soul, and her such a nice lady."
Molly stared at her, searching for marks of irony on her walnut of a face. But there was none.
"An uncommon nice lady," she repeated, and Molly remembered hearing that Clara Chance paid her overtime in whisky.[Pg 88]
"Well, I'll expect you to-morrow, anyhow."
She left her scrubbing out the passage, while she dressed the children. They must wear their oldest clothes for the farm, and be careful not to stand too near the dipping.
"I shan't be able to stay with you, darlings, as I've got to go home and cook the dinner. But Daddy will be there, and he'll bring you back. Have you both got handkerchiefs? All right, then—just wait while I powder my nose."
They laughed to see her powdering her nose before going up to the farm; she did not as a rule use powder during the day, but a glance into the mirror made her decide that she could not go out with her face all moist and flushed from the kitchen fire. She shook out the little puff and powdered carefully, as if she was going to walk in the Fulham Road instead of in Mayshaves Lane. She was quite a time over it, as she used to be in the old days when they lived in London—powdering with unusual care before the glass, and then, as she used to do in London, slipping the little case into her pocket.
The next day she watched for Mrs. Lurgan.
"Well, how is she? Can you stay your full time?"
The old woman peered at her out of her dim blue eyes.
"She's tur'ble ordinary, but I reckon it'll do if I go to her in the evening. She don't take nothing but slops and tea. The doctor he says she's gastric."
"I expect she's got a chill."
"Gastric influence he says it is. He's given her a fine bottle of medicine what she takes three times a day. I go [Pg 89] in and give it to her. I've taken a sip myself, and I tell you it's fine medicine."
"It must be very tiring for you, having to go there so often."
"I'd do a lot to oblige that poor lady; and she don't want no work done now she's so ill. I just go and give her the medicine and any food she can take."
"Do you sleep there?"
"Deary no. In the evening I give her a cup of harry-root and her dose. Then I put her straight, poor dear, and I go home. She's a nice lady."
"Oh, yes, she's a nice lady. Then you'll be able to do all the floors to-day?"
"I'll do my best to do 'em anyways, but I can't make no promises. I'm old."
Molly left her, and settled down to her own work, which was mainly the preparation of the midday dinner. Pete always came home from the farm at midday, when he had an hour off. She always knew where he was, she reflected bitterly, until the evening, when the lies and deceits began. She wondered if he was going to Potkiln now that Clara was ill. He had been out late last night, as well as the night before.
"Mrs. Lurgan's been telling me that Clara has influenza," she remarked casually when the children had finished their dinner, and she and Pete were sitting alone over their gaspers and a pot of tea.
"Oh, yes—I heard it from Seafield."
She would not look at his face while he spoke, for fear that he should see her looking.
"She seems pretty bad."[Pg 90]
"Mrs. Lurgan would make the most of it. Seafield seemed quite happy about her."
"But it must be dreadful to lie there all alone, with no one to look after her but that half-witted old woman."
"Mrs. Lurgan's far from half-witted. I gather Clara finds her a great stand-by."
Her eyes shot up and looked into his. But all she saw were the long black lashes drooping over them. His eyelashes were curly and silky like a woman's; something in their curving shadow upon his cheek had always stirred her senses. To-day the sight of them went deeper than any sense, to a grave beneath the senses where her love for him lay in agony with her hate of Clara Chance. She found herself trembling and hurriedly looked away.
"Tell me," she said, "do you think you'll finish the dipping to-day?"
"To-morrow, I expect. But talking of dipping, there was a chap at the farm this morning who travels in insecticide poisons, and it appears he saw a bit of that murder trial that's on now—that Mrs. What's-her-name who's poisoned her husband. He was in court yesterday, and he says he understands that the defence mean to prove that she didn't buy that weed-killer for her own use, but passed on the tin unopened to a friend."
"Oh . . . she may get off then."
"I should think she's certain to if they can really prove that. I mean the buying of the weed-killer seems to be an important part of the evidence against her. Have you seen to-day's paper?"
She wondered why she had lied to him over so small a matter.[Pg 91]
"Nor have I. I might have a look at it before I go back."
"Shall you be late home to-night?"
"I dunno. Don't expect me back before eleven, because if I'm through early at the farm I'll go to the inn for a game of snooker."
"I might come up and join you there?"
"I shouldn't. It's a rough place at any time, and it gets worse in the evenings."
She saw his eyes fixed on her now and thought she read anxiety in them.
"Oh, all right then. But"—she said it suddenly against her judgment—"I do think I might go and have a look at poor Clara Chance."
This time there could be no mistake about his anxious glance, and his voice came hurriedly and sharply.
"There's no need at all for you to do that. She's got Mrs. Lurgan to look after her, and as I told you—as Seafield told me—she isn't really ill. He didn't seem to think it was anything more than a bilious attack."
"Still that may make one feel pretty wretched, and I can't agree with you about Mrs. Lurgan being a good nurse."
"Well, I don't want you to go. If she has 'flu you might catch it, and give it to the children as well as being ill yourself."
"But you say it's a bilious attack."
"You seem to have heard a different story. It may be 'flu and I won't have you risk it."
She fumbled with her reply. Now was the time to have things out with him—he had given her the chance. For a moment she desperately longed to beat down all this [Pg 92] thorny hedge of lies that had grown up between them—to beat it down, or at least to break through it and stand close to him once more, her husband . . . close enough to strike or to embrace, it made no difference, so long as they ceased to look at each other over a hedge. But she knew that if she chose this way she could not choose any other. That might have been the Streatham woman's choice—she might have chosen to break her way through the thorny hedge to her husband and then when she was close to him found that she must kill him. . . . No, it was better to have this hedge between them for a while longer, till she no longer carried anyone's death in her pocket.
That evening she waited, counting the hours after seven. He came in about half-past ten and she knew that he must have gone to Clara. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling where the darkness hung among the beams, a roof over the moonlight that flooded the room. She hoped he would get into bed without saying anything, as he was usually so glad to do. But to-night he stooped over her, staring at her to see if she was awake. She kept her eyes fast shut, but suddenly as she sensed him there above her and knew that he searched her face, a fear assailed her that she had not felt till then but which now would never leave her any more. She trembled, and opened her eyes.
"What is it, dear?"
"Oh, you're awake, are you?" he said roughly. "Tell me, what made you go to Clara's after what I said?"
She would have thought that her heart and breathing had stopped if she had not found herself able to speak.[Pg 93]
"I only went in to inquire after her—I was passing."
"Passing? . . ."
"Yes, I went for a walk this afternoon. Mrs. Lurgan was here with the children, and I thought it a good chance to get out."
"Well, there was no reason for you to go and see her after what I said."
She suddenly found herself able to think.
"It was because of what you'd said that I went. You said it was only a bilious attack." Then as feeling followed thought, she cried angrily:
"Why did you go, then?"
"You know that she's a particular friend of mine."
It was dreadful to hear him say that, so calmly and firmly, and to realize that he had decided to break down the hedge between them now, at this moment of all moments. . . . She mustn't let him do it. That hedge must stand up for a while longer; she could not bear to meet him yet.
She forced her voice into a tone something like his.
"Yes," she said clearly and kindly, "I know you're friends. That's why I took your word for it that it was only a bilious attack; I made sure that you'd know more about it than Mrs. Lurgan. I just looked in to ask how she was—to see if she wanted anything. I didn't know you'd be going to-night or I shouldn't have troubled. How—how did you find her?"
"Pretty much the same—not too bad."
He looked deflated. He had expected her to make a scene and wondered why she had not. Women were supposed to like scenes, and he was surprised to find her [Pg 94] waving aside his offer of a first-class row. He had not actually wanted one, but this evasion of it baffled him.
"Clara spoke to me," he said lamely; "she said she wanted you to know about us."
"I do know about you."
"She didn't think you could—at least, not everything—or you wouldn't have been to see her."
She was unable to speak, because for the first time she felt something other than fear. She remembered Clara Chance, lying there in bed, with her kimono, that strange coat of many colours, wrapped about her like a shawl, her hair with its golden stripes of dye, hanging round her unpowdered face. She had not expected that tawdry, blowzy disheartened lump of womanhood to flower into honesty like this. She had hated her for that very tawdriness and blowziness, for being so cheap as well as so dear; but now for a moment she ceased to hate her, and the stopping of her hatred was like the stopping of an engine—she felt herself come to a standstill like a machine that has run down.
"She doesn't think you know everything," continued Pete.
"I don't want to know everything." Fear was still the ruler of her being, and thus commanded she was able to speak. "Anyhow I don't want to discuss it now. I'm horribly tired and sleepy; let's go to sleep."
"You're a strange woman, Moll."
"Why?—because I don't want to sit up all night talking about Clara Chance? These things are better left alone."
"So I've always thought. But I didn't expect you would."
"Well, now you know, so you might let me be."[Pg 95]
She turned her face on the pillow towards the wall. She must end the conversation somehow.
"I will, but you must promise me one thing."
"Not to go and see her again."
"Because I don't like it. If you don't mind, I do. Promise me, Moll."
"Very well, I promise."
"She's perfectly all right, you know. Mrs. Lurgan goes there every morning, and does everything she requires; and she goes back in the evening, too. She came in just before I left, to give her her medicine and settle her for the night."
Molly said nothing. She stared at the wall and saw Clara Chance's medicine bottle. She saw it standing like a column of gold on the kitchen table. She had noticed it at once as she passed through the kitchen on her way upstairs—a new bottle, just come from the doctor's. Clara had even asked her if it had arrived—"Doctor Seafield said he'd be sending it round this afternoon, and I thought I heard his boy's bicycle, but I wasn't sure."
"Yes, it was there," she had answered. "Would you like me to go down and bring it up?"
"No, don't you bother. Mrs. Lurgan will bring it when she comes. I don't have another dose till bed-time—the last thing, you know, just to settle my stomach for the night."
She had sat a few minutes, chatting, but all the time she had been thinking of the medicine. She had started thinking of it the moment she had first seen it, thinking how it would be the best thing to use . . . on her way [Pg 96] to Potkiln she had thought of arrowroot or a cup of tea. But she could not see any arrowroot and the tea would have to be made on the bedroom fire which was the only fire in the house. The medicine would be best, for both Clara and Mrs. Lurgan had said it was strong medicine and the taste would disguise any alien saltiness. The bottle was unopened, but not sealed—it was just an ordinary, corked medicine bottle from the doctor's dispensary. When the time came for her to go it would be easy enough to take the cork out and shake in the powder from her vanity case. . . . What powder do you use, Mrs. Livyett? For a moment it seemed as if Clara had asked her that, but all she had asked was to be handed her own case, so that she could do up her face a little. . . . "I get a sight lying here in a sweat. . . ."
With an effort she dragged her thoughts away from Potkiln. She felt as if she had actually been there, as she turned her eyes from the wall and looked at Pete. He was still talking, anxiously and uncertainly. He did not know which way to take her. She seemed to want reassuring about Clara being alone more than she wanted reassuring about his being with Clara. Women were queer, but he had not known till now that Molly was as queer as this.
"I'm tired. Let's go to sleep," she said.
Her sleep, into which she fell with surprising suddenness, was first of all dark and deep, a sort of eternal night. But it could not have lasted long like that because it was only a little after midnight that she saw Clara Chance. At first the outlines of her face were dim—her mouth was bloated and twisted, and she murmured—"A queer, salty taste—that's what it has." Then she became more [Pg 97] distinct, with her striped yellow and brown hair falling about her. She said:
"You were surprised to find me so honest, but I always was an honest sort, and now, even when I know you've done for me, I'm going to go on being honest. I'll tell you some mistakes you made. First of all you shouldn't have come upstairs to see me. You could have slipped into the kitchen and put your powder into my medicine without my being any the wiser; if I'd heard anything I'd have thought it was the cat. But of course you coming up to see me startled me a bit, and I felt I ought to tell Pete and make him promise to let you know what we were to each other. I thought you were so kind; I couldn't bear to deceive you. And now of course when he finds out I've been poisoned he'll remember you were there, and no doubt he'll put two and two together. You've two chances over that—one chance is that he says nothing, and it's quite likely that he won't for the sake of the children, though how you can expect him ever to live with you after what he knows you've done passes my understanding. The other chance is that he'll never know I've been poisoned. Doctor Seafield isn't very sharp, and when I die to-morrow he'll just think it's the illness got worse. That's why you did it, of course. You knew I'd gastric trouble, and you saw your chance of finishing me without ever being found out. But you weren't clever enough for the job. There's another bad mistake you've made. You put poison into a full bottle. There's still plenty left, and if anyone should think of analysing it, then it will be found. That was very simple of you. You should have waited, and then poisoned the last dose. But you were in too much of a stew to wait—you wanted to get [Pg 98] me over and done with, so you didn't stop to think. Fool! Fool! Fool!"
Clara Chance's face seemed to swell with a great ugly light behind it . . . rays came from it—it burned. Molly heard herself shrieking as it burned her, and the light faded into darkness. The room was quite dark—she had somehow imagined that morning had come, but now she knew that it was still several hours off. Had she been dreaming? It was a queer dream in which her thoughts had come so lucidly, forming themselves on the lips of Clara Chance. She saw now what she had never seen while she was awake. She saw the mistakes that she had made, that would now undo her. Her fear waxed so great that her teeth chattered and she had to lay hold of the side of the bed to stop herself trembling and waking Pete.
Morning came at last, with a lovely rush of golden sunlight into the blue sky. She had watched it come through long hours, and now that at last it was there she felt exhausted with waiting. She also felt depressed; because all the time she had lain longing for it she had grown to think that its coming would bring relief. But of course it had brought no such thing; it had brought instead an increase of anxiety. To-day Peter would hear that Clara was dead, and then terrible things would happen—even if he did not suspect her they would still be terrible things. Somehow till then she had not pictured what his feelings would be; if she had thought at all she had imagined him just forgetting Clara and coming back all tenderly to his wife. But now she saw what a fool she had been not to imagine his grief and his despair, the [Pg 99] dreadful angry shock. . . . It was as Clara had said in the night—she did not think.
She was afraid of talking to Peter, so she rose without waking him, dressed and went downstairs. It was half-past six, and the morning newspaper lay on the doorstep—for the boy delivered it on his way back from meeting the newspaper train, which came in at five. She picked it up eagerly, and tore some of the pages in her anxiety to find the one she wanted. Somehow she felt that if she saw that things were going well with the Streatham woman they would go well with her. Yesterday she had been enormously encouraged by the news that the weed-killer had not been bought for the defendant's own use but for the use of a friend who had duly received it from her unopened. If that was the case Pete had said that she would probably get off. . . . Perhaps she was already acquitted? . . . Where was the report? There it was. Her eyes travelled down dark swimming columns of print. There was no headline telling of a verdict—she must find out what had happened.
She was too nervous to read attentively and had to force her gaze down the column more than once before she absorbed its contents. Then she saw that the defence's hope had failed. Mrs. Roper had broken down under cross-examination—it was not she who had opened the tin, though she would swear that nothing had been taken out of it. But only a tiny pinch would be enough . . . only a tiny pinch of white powder, such as a woman puts with a miniature puff in her flapjack or vanity case. . . .
Molly felt cold and stricken and almost personally injured. She had always said the woman was a fool, but [Pg 100] she had never expected anything so bad of her as this. Why had she gone out of her way to incriminate herself? She could have bought the tin for her own use, and having taken what she wanted, strewn the contents over her garden paths in token of necessity. Why had she introduced the complication of a friend? The answer was: because she had tried to be cleverer than she was able—like the woman who had poisoned Clara Chance.
She felt as if she had been let down by a confederate, and yet she found a measure of profit in the occasion. Her reading of the trial prompted her to take out her vanity case, knowing that probably one or two grains of powder might remain in it. She burned the puff in the kitchen fire, substituting a small twist of cotton-wool, as she had often seen women do when their puffs were lost or dirty. Then, she washed out the case at the sink, wiping it and rubbing it vigorously. There was nothing about it now that could possibly confirm suspicion. Her sad reading had done her good in that it had impressed her effectively with the law's searching ways and attention to detail. She began to feel a little strength and hope, though these left her as soon as she heard Peter's footsteps on the stairs.
She must wake and dress the children, prepare the breakfast, and write the fiery scroll of judgment all over with household commonplaces—tea, sugar, milk, bread, biscuits, bacon, soda, towels and soap.
The morning was like one of those little coves she had known long ago in Cornwall, twisting between high banks to an invisible sea. Far off she could hear the sea roaring and all her being moved towards it in an expectation [Pg 101] that now was dread. That invisible roaring sea was the dinner hour when Peter would come back. The little sheltered cove of the morning ended there—afterwards there was nothing but an empty stretch of stormy water, and perhaps shipwreck and drowning.
She would not let herself think of Peter's return, she would not even look at the clock. It might have been any time when she suddenly noticed a car pull up at the garden gate—the shambling old car they used at the farm. Was that Peter? Had the shock been so dreadful that he had been unable to walk home? But the man coming up the garden path was Pearce.
She knew at once that something had happened, though it was not what she had expected; she ran trembling to open the door.
"Good morning, Mrs. Livyett."
She tried to read his face, but the expression on it was new to her. He looked away from her while he spoke and his hands fumbled.
"I—I've come for Pete's things. He asked me to ask you to pack his bag— He—he has to go away."
"Away. . . ."
"Yes—he has to push off at once to catch his train—business, you know. He has to look at some stock for me. Here's a note."
She took it, staring at her hand to make sure that it did not tremble.
"Won't you come in?"
"Oh, thanks. . . . . I'll just sit here and wait for the bag. I don't suppose he wants much."
She saw then that his expression was one of embarrassment—only that. He was embarrassed by the part he had [Pg 102] been made to play, sorry for her and perhaps a little ashamed of Pete, but sorry for him too. She felt relieved, for obviously he suspected nothing; though the next moment she asked herself why she should have thought that he suspected anything. There was nothing in Clara Chance's death to rouse any suspicion. Even Peter probably did not suspect anything. . . . She must look and see. Directly she was upstairs she tore open his note.
"This is to tell you that Clara Chance is dead. After what happened between us last night"—(What had happened? She could not remember: her mind felt numb.)—"I feel it would be as well if I did not see you for a while. Pearce wants someone to go to Norwich Agricultural Show and buy a stallion for service here, so I said I'd go. I'll let you know where I go afterwards. Please pack my good suit as well as my shirts and things.
She read the letter twice and even then she did not know its import. What did he mean? Was he never coming back? He must be—he wouldn't desert his children like that, even if he would desert his wife. But he evidently meant to stay away some time. He was fed up with her—he could not bear to have her near him in his sorrow. Did he suspect anything? He must, or he would not be so angry. And yet how could he? He must be angry because of what had happened last night. But nothing had happened last night—nothing, nothing; if it had she could not remember it.
Mechanical with fright she packed his best suit, some shirts and collars and his night things. He must hate her or he would have come back to say good-bye. He must [Pg 103] suspect her. But he could not—Clara's death was perfectly natural. No one could suspect foul play, and she had spoken most carefully last night. . . . Carefully? she had spoken graciously. She had amazed Peter because she had refused to "have things out," refused to quarrel. How dared he talk about "what happened last night"? He was angry with her—that was all, and wanted to worry her and upset her by going away. Or perhaps it was just that he wanted to be alone till he had got over his loss. She was feeling calmer when she took down the bag to Pearce.
"Here it is. I hope there's everything he wants."
"Thanks very much. I don't suppose he'll be away long—the Show closes on Saturday."
"Oh, it'll do him good to get a change."
"Yes, I thought so. I—I mean, when he suggested going after the horse . . . but I should have thought of it earlier, so that he had more notice. . . ."
"That doesn't matter a bit. I'm sure he doesn't mind that."
He still stood looking at her anxiously and it struck her that it would seem odd if she did not mention Clara's death.
"I hear Mrs. Chance is dead."
"Yes—she died this morning. Doctor Seafield called and found her very bad—almost gone—and she died an hour later."
She hoped her face had not changed much. "Did—did he expect it to end like that?"
"No—in fact, he told me he thought her much better yesterday. But these things often take a sudden turn for the worse."[Pg 104]
"You've seen him, then?—Doctor Seafield."
"Yes, he came round—I mean, I met him in the drive. He told us—me that Mrs. Lurgan found her dying when she went in this morning. She must have been taken bad in the night, when nobody was there."
"She ought to have had someone sleeping in the house."
"Yes, of course; but she wouldn't even have Mrs. Lurgan. She was always alone—I don't think anyone ever went to see her much."
He evidently did not know that she had been; no one knew but Pete. No one was at all suspicious—she hadn't been so stupid as Clara had made out. . . . Then suddenly it occurred to her that it would have been better if she hadn't mentioned the death after all. She wasn't likely to have heard of it so quickly, alone here at Mayshaves cottage. Of course Peter had mentioned it in his note, but Pearce wasn't supposed to know that. Pearce believed that she did not know anything about Peter and Clara, or at least that Peter did not know she knew. . . . A mazed feeling of exhaustion came over her. Henceforward she would never know what to say or what not to say. She would never dare speak until she had read the mind of the person she was speaking to, and as she wouldn't be able to read everyone's mind, she would always go on making mistakes like this.
That afternoon she went into the town to do some shopping. She could not endure the thought of any more lonely hours in the house. Also at the back of her mind she had a feeling that if she went into the town she [Pg 105] might find out something that would help her. So she left the children playing in the meadow and took the 'bus in to Huddlestreet.
There was a cheap return ticket on market Thursdays and the 'bus was crowded. She had to nod to several women that she knew. This had not occurred to her when she set out, or she would not have gone, for she dreaded the thought of having to speak to people. However, she managed to avoid any actual conversation, sitting by herself in the front seat. But she felt that all the women behind her were whispering about her, wondering how glad she was that Clara Chance was dead. She could feel all their eyes boring into her back. It was lucky for her to have her husband's mistress die like this. Lucky? Was it only lucky? Now, you know she might have done something to help . . . some women did—that woman at Streatham for one. Perhaps Mrs. Livyett had done something very much the same.
In the town she bought an evening paper, and saw that the trial was nearing its end. The prosecuting counsel had made his speech, and to-morrow would come the speech for the defence and the judge's summing up—and perhaps the verdict. She would not hear till the day after to-morrow what had happened to the prisoner. How should she ever endure waiting so long? For in some curious way the prisoner's fate had become her own. She felt that if she was acquitted all would be well with Molly Livyett, but if she was condemned then the whole world would know that Molly Livyett had poisoned Clara Chance.
The women were talking about the trial in the 'bus on the way home. One or two of them had bought evening [Pg 106] papers and were reading bits of them aloud to the others. This time Molly could not escape into isolation on the front seat, for the only empty place was next to Mrs. Vine, a very talkative woman who kept the shop at Churchsettle.
"Seen the paper, Mrs. Livyett?"
"Yes. I've got the Argus."
She had been a fool to come out into the world like this. She might have known what would happen.
"How do you think it'll turn out?"
"That murder trial. I'm ready to bet a shilling the woman gets off."
"I'll take you," said a tall, thin, elderly woman who managed a small chicken-farm at the back of the village. "She'll be hanged for certain sure."
"And what makes you say that, Mrs. Bousted?"
"Well, it's all in the paper, Mrs. Vine. That lawyer who's against her put it most clear to my thinking. She didn't like her husband going after that gal, as none of us would, and she bought a tin of weed-killer made of arsenic, and he died of arsenic poisoning; so as far as I can see it's clear enough."
"But things in the law aren't the same as in life," said Mrs. Tickner, a farmer's wife from Fourmile Houses. "I marked that well when our case was on. There were we with proof that that fellow had swindled the Copthalls as well as us, and they wouldn't so much as let us mention it, and we had to hold our tongues and see the verdict given against us."
"Oh, we all know the law's queer," said Mrs. Bousted, "but it seems to me that the thing's proved against her [Pg 107] by the evidence that's out. No one needs to say any more or prove that she ever murdered anyone else."
"I can't think how she was such a fool as to use arsenic," said the thinner voice of Mrs. Lampen, the schoolmaster's wife; "everyone knows that it's a poison that can't be hidden even in the grave. I mean, even if the doctor doesn't suspect anything at the time the body can be dug up months afterwards and arsenic found in it."
"That's what happened here," said another woman; "at least the coroner stopped the funeral and had him opened."
"What made him think of that?"
"Oh, everyone was talking, and he'd had some anenomous letters. Didn't you read about it?"
"Can't say I did. Well I'm glad it was found out if it happened. I've no sympathy with poisoners."
"No, it's a mean way of killing anyone. And I can't think why she killed the man and not the woman. If I ever wanted to murder anyone it 'ud be the woman who'd stolen my man and not the man I wanted as bad as all that, if you take my meaning."
"She couldn't have wanted him. It was just revenge."
"We're all talking as if she were guilty, but she may get off to-morrow."
"She won't get off. Mark my words."
"I'm not so sure."
"If she was innocent why didn't she go into the witness box? It always tells against them if they don't. I say she's done it and I hope she's hanged. Are you getting out here, Mrs. Livyett? The Black Lion's nearer."
"I want . . . I have to give a message to Mrs. Lurgan."[Pg 108]
She was off the 'bus before she remembered that the Black Lion was nearer to Mrs. Lurgan too.
She watched the 'bus disappear, then turned off into the fields. She felt sick and faint, almost collapsing. Those dreadful women! Their tongues would kill her. Yes, perhaps they would actually kill her, as the tongues of women like them would have killed that poor thing at the Old Bailey. They were probably all talking about her now. They would talk and talk and perhaps write anonymous letters until the coroner heard about it. They were bound to suspect something, with Peter gone away like this. Oh Pete! Pete! why did you go and leave me all alone among those talking women? I did this to bring you back to me because I love you—I love you—and instead you've gone away and left me alone just when I need you most. They'll talk and talk until it gets round to the police, and even if Clara's buried they can dig her up and find the poison in her body.
She began to cry, weakly in self-pity. She could walk no farther, but setting down her parcels in the field she sank into a heap beside them and sobbed unrestrainedly. Her tears did her good; they seemed to relieve some of the throbbing anguish in her head. She noticed two silly sheep staring at her; they were like the women, only mercifully dumb. It was funny to see them stare like that, and, come to think of it, it was probably the first time they had seen a woman cry—it wasn't usual for a woman to lie in the corner of a field and sob and cry. Their fleeces were brown instead of white, and she realized that it was the colour in the dip . . . hastily scrambling her parcels together she got up and walked [Pg 109] away. But the next field was full of coloured sheep, all dipped and dyed in Clara Chance's death.
She did not dare go home till her face had recovered from her weeping, so she had to sit in the fields among the accusing sheep till her pocket mirror showed her that she was fit to appear before the children. They would be full of questions, of course—had been so at dinner-time; but she was not afraid of their questions, because they were content with her random answers: Oh yes, Daddy would soon be back. He had only gone to Norwich to look at some big horses. Yes, he was sure to bring them something home.
They loved their father and it was cruel to see them missing him like this; it had been better for them while he was running after Clara Chance. Even if he had sometimes been out at nights, they had at least seen something of him during the day, whereas now they saw nothing. Perhaps he would never come back—perhaps he would write to her telling her she had better arrange a separation. She would be left on some small allowance to struggle alone with her fatherless children. Oh, no, no, not that. Oh, Pete, come back! I did it to bring you back—come back!
That night between sleeping and waking Clara Chance came again. She said:
"You were a fool to use arsenic."
"Yes, but what else could I use?"
"Well, personally I think you needn't have used anything at all—things were better then than they are now. But if you had to poison me you needn't have been in such a damned hurry; you could have waited until you'd [Pg 110] found out something safer than arsenic. There are several things that are safer as well as less painful."
"But not so easily come by; besides, I had to act while you were ill. It's safer killing an ill person than a well one."
"But not with arsenic. You see it's still in me as you read in the evidence—in my stomach, in my liver, in my nails and my hair. If Doctor Seafield's suspicions were aroused he could find it to-morrow; and even after I'm buried, if those women talk. . . ."
"Oh, no, no! They won't talk."
"But they will talk. They'll talk about you as they talked about that other woman. They'll have noticed that you were uneasy while they were discussing the trial, and that you got out of the bus a stage too early. I tell you that if you want to commit a murder you must think of everything, and so far you've thought of nothing. . . ."
"Pete doesn't suspect me."
"He may or he may not. I don't know. But if he doesn't now he will when he comes back and hears the talk. You'd better pray that he never comes back."
"Oh, Clara, Clara, forgive me! Don't torture me like this."
"I'm not torturing you. It's your own heart that tells you these things—your own heart crying out with my voice. . . . I tried to act honestly by you because I was grateful to you for coming. I didn't know you'd come to kill me, to leave me to die alone in agony in the dark."
"Clara, forgive me."
She was certain now that someone was there—and she could see Clara's medicine bottle shining on the table. . . . [Pg 111] It seemed to light up all the room . . . then suddenly darkness fell and she woke in the dark.
The next night Clara was almost comforting. At first Molly had thought she would not come, for it was a long time before sleep was near enough for her voice to be heard. She lay wide awake, trembling at the thought of to-morrow's newspaper, which would tell her the result of the trial. Not a rumour had reached her all day. At one time she had actually thought of going into Huddlestreet again for an evening paper, but in spite of what Clara had said she was not such a fool as all that. Besides, she did not really want to know—she was afraid of knowing. She had not the courage or the strength to go into the town and buy a paper, even if to do so would not excite suspicion. She must wait for to-morrow's news.
It was while she lay awake thinking of these things that she knew that she wanted Clara to come. Listening to Clara was not so bad as lying here alone and wakeful in the dark with Peter's empty place beside her. She would not believe that Clara's voice was only the voice of her own heart; she felt sure that someone had been with her, someone who once thought of her kindly—who perhaps even thought of her kindly still. . . . Yes, she would believe that, for though Clara had begun by mocking and reproaching her she had changed during her last two visits—she was sorry for her now. She did not seem to bear her any grudge, but to understand and pity her. Clara could afford to pity her, for she was really the better off of the two.
"It isn't so bad," said Clara; "it isn't so bad being dead, especially when, like me, you die thinking kindly. I [Pg 112] thought kindly of you when I died, and I hoped Pete would be good to you. I hoped he hadn't told you too much so that you shouldn't worry about the past once I was safe out of the way. Of course I didn't know what you'd done and when I knew I hated you like hell. . . . But now I don't hate you any more. I'm sorry for you, for I'm better off than you are. I don't say that being dead is grand, especially when you're a woman who enjoyed her life as I did, but it's better than running away from your own shadow, or wandering in the fields where the very sheep accuse you, or lying awake at night with a man's empty place beside you, while your heart cries out for vengeance with my voice."
"Oh, Clara, don't! don't!—don't say things like that. They're worse than the things you said when you were angry."
"I can't help what I say, for I tell you I'm only speaking with your voice. If you think a thing I've got to say it, and you think I'm better off than you because I'm dead."
"I do—I wish I was dead like you."
"Nothing's easier. You've only got to sit still and let the women talk."
"Oh, no! no! no!"
Her own voice woke her, crying out in terror. She was panting with her face in the pillow—cowering with a rope round her neck . . . it was only the sheet that had got twisted. She sat up in bed, trembling and gulping the air, filling her lungs and wondering how she could ever have wanted to die. The room was full of light; thank heaven that morning had come! She would go downstairs and make herself a cup of tea.[Pg 113]
Lifting the blind, she saw that the sun had steeped the meadows in a new day. The trees, the hedges and the further green of the woods all seemed alight in themselves, burning with a green fire, giving light to the sun rather than taking light from it. The air and the earth smelled as if new-made. She turned from the window with a queer pain in her heart, and began huddling on her clothes almost without seeing them.
Downstairs she lit the kitchen fire and put the kettle on to boil.
"I took a kettle large and new, Fit for the deed I had to do."
The words came to her from some hidden place in her childhood, and she repeated them over and over again as she went about her work. At all costs she must not let herself think.
"My heart went hop, my heart went thump, I filled the kettle at the pump."
She heard a movement outside the door—a car was stopping . . . footsteps sounded on the brick path, then came a queer rustling sound. A newspaper being pushed under the door—the morning newspaper. She saw it lying on the mat, all except one corner which was still under the door.
STREATHAM MURDER: PRISONER SENTENCED TO DEATH
"Then someone came to me and said, 'The little fishes are in bed.' "I said to him, I said it plain, 'Then you must wake them up again.'"
Quick! Quick! she must remember some more.
"I said it very loud and clear. . . ."
She had forgotten the rest. No——
"I took a corkscrew from the shelf: I went to wake them up myself."
That was it. She would go and wake the children. It must be nearly time.
"And when I found the door was locked, I pulled and pushed and kicked and knocked. "And when I found the door was shut I tried to turn the handle, but——"
"Mummy, what are you saying?"
"It's only a funny poem, dear, that I used to know when I was a little girl."
"Go on with it. Say some more."
"I don't think there is any more."
"But there must be—it hasn't really ended."
"It ends like that in the book." ("Is that all?" Alice timidly asked. "That's all," said Humpty Dumpty. "Good-bye.")
"Well, I think that's sillay."
"Don't say 'sillay,' darling. Say 'silly.' And it's meant to be silly—funny, I mean."
A sudden exasperation seized her. How ignorant and foolish they were—just like animals, except that a dog would understand her better. A dog would know that she was in anguish and stay quietly beside her, whereas these two children scrambled and chattered and quarrelled, tormenting her with their questions.[Pg 115]
"Hurry up," she said; "hurry up and get dressed. I want us to have breakfast early."
"Because I'm going out."
She had suddenly made up her mind to go out. She must get away from her children. She saw now that she had lost them too, as well as Peter.
"Mayn't we come with you?"
"No; it's going to be a very hot day—you'd much better play in the garden."
"Where are you going, Mum?"
She opened her mouth to say "I don't know," but changed it into "Never you mind."
She must know what the women were saying. She must go where she could hear them talk—perhaps they would be talking in the shop . . . or the inn . . . though it was more likely that they would all be at home doing their housework. She might have to wait till next Thursday, for the cheap 'bus into Huddlestreet. . . . She could not possibly wait so long. She must know at once what they were saying about her. If only it was Mrs. Lurgan's "day"! She always knew what was being talked of in the village, could always be trusted to repeat the latest gossip. She would know what the other women were saying about the trial and about Clara Chance. After all, Molly had not seen her since Clara's death—she might have a lot to tell her about that. She had been the one who found Clara dying and sent for the doctor. . . . If only it was her "day"! But she would have longer to wait for that than for the Huddlestreet 'bus.
Then she remembered that in the undisturbed course of events Mrs. Lurgan would be going to Potkiln to-day; [Pg 116] that through Clara's death she had lost part of her employment and was probably at home this morning, unless somebody else had snapped her up. It might be worth while going round to her cottage and having a talk with her; she could easily make the excuse of wanting her for an extra day herself. She both dreaded and longed to talk to someone about Clara Chance.
Mrs. Lurgan's cottage was at the back of the village, separated from the main street by a row of gardens. By the time she reached it Molly had begun to hope that she would not find the old woman at home. As her mind passed out of the numbness of shock she realized that the thing which had frightened her so dreadfully had no real substance of danger. The Streatham poisoner's doom could not possibly involve her own, any more than her acquittal could have saved her. The connection between their fates was quite imaginary, existing only in the fever of her terrified mind. On the other hand she had her own needs, her own perils and emergencies. Talking to Mrs. Lurgan was not likely to be the best way of providing against these. At best it might distress her, at the worst it might betray her. . . . She hesitated outside the closed door. Had she still time to go before it was opened? Then suddenly the latch moved and she forced a smile.
"Good morning, Mrs. Lurgan."
"Good morning, mum."
It seemed as if the old woman was peering at her sharply.[Pg 117]
"I—I just called in to ask if perhaps you could manage to come to me on Monday."
"Step inside, won't you?"
Molly hesitated; fear, monstrously divided, pulling her two different ways.
"I don't know . . . thank you very much—I think I must be getting on."
"Just a minute while I look at my book. It's hot out there in the sun."
This was the first time Molly had ever been asked inside the cottage, and Mrs. Lurgan's urgency seemed to her unnatural. No doubt she wanted to talk—perhaps to question her. . . . She had better go away. Yet she had come for that very purpose—to talk. Here was her chance to find out what was being said about her in the village. And it would look odd and suspicious if she refused to come in.
"Thanks very much—just while you look at your book."
The little kitchen was clean, but untidy and rather dark. Mrs. Lurgan brought forward a chair.
"You look tired—at that you do!"
"It's a very hot day."
"It is, surelye. I feel the heat pretty bad myself. I'm old."
"I just called in for a moment to ask if you'd be able to come on Monday. I must start my jam-making, or the fruit will be over-ripe, and that doesn't give me much time to get round the house."
Mrs. Lurgan nodded and peered at her book. "I could come that day I reckon. It's one I used to give that poor creature. I've some days to spare now [Pg 118] that she's gone. I'd have been over there this morning if she hadn't died."
"Yes, I know."
"You've heard all about it, I reckon?"
"No, only that she's dead."
"Wasn't you surprised?"
"Yes, yes, dreadfully surprised. I—I thought she was getting better."
"So did we all. It didn't seem natural her dying sudden like that. She wasn't old like me."
Molly felt sick. She wished she hadn't come. Mrs. Lurgan would only frighten her more terribly than she was already frightened. There seemed to her as she sat there something sinister about the room, something ominously familiar. Looking round it she realized that a number of Clara's things were there. The darkness had so dimmed the colours of her Spanish shawl that she had not recognized it when she first came in. Now she saw it trailing over the back of a chair, on the seat of which were unmistakably two of Clara's hats, while on a little table close by stood a bottle of whisky.
Mrs. Lurgan followed her travelling gaze.
"Yes, those are her things. She gave them to me. I was with her when she died."
"I know. Mr. Pearce told me."
"Mrs. Bousted was saying as you'd heard of it from him. Mr. Livyett didn't come home at all then, before he left?"
A deep flush crept over Molly's cheeks. She was angry as well as frightened. What right had Mrs. Lurgan to speak to her in this way? She must suspect [Pg 119] her or she couldn't dare be so impertinent. The women were talking as she had feared, and their talk was no less insulting than it was perilous. But the next moment it occurred to her that they might suspect no more than Pete's infidelity, his passion for Clara Chance. They were all agog to know how he had borne the news of her death and what were his forsaken wife's reactions to it. The thought gave her courage to speak.
"Mr. Livyett had to go to Norwich Show for Mr. Pearce, and he hadn't time to come home first. Luckily I knew he was going the day before and had his bag packed ready for him. He had only to send for it."
She spoke with a struggling carelessness that failed obviously to deceive Mrs. Lurgan.
"It was what Mrs. Bousted said that made me wonder. Her Joe works at Mayshaves and he was there when Doctor Seafield brought round the news."
Molly could have bitten her tongue. With a little thought she might have avoided this display of herself as a liar. She should have guessed that Mrs. Lurgan would know more than she did about what happened at the farm. The women sat at home, but their eyes and ears were all over the district in the heads of their husbands, brothers and sons.
This conversation was only leading her into danger. She must put an end to it by going home.
"Thank you, Mrs. Lurgan. Then I'll expect you on Monday."
"Surelye. But don't you hurry off. You're looking tur'ble ordinary. I believe that poor thing's death is worrying you."[Pg 120]
"I didn't—I don't like to think of her dying alone."
"She wasn't alone. I was with her. As luck would have it I got there early that morning, and directly I saw her I knew as she was dying. I'd have gone for the doctor myself, but she begged and prayed me not to leave her; and then I saw Tom Pannell in the road and I shouted out of the window to him to go, while I stayed with her and held her poor hand. You've no idea of the state she was in, but I couldn't do nothing; for she was too weak for me to change her nightgown or the sheets. Besides, said I, since she's dyin' let her die in peace. When she's dead we'll have her clean enough."
Molly shuddered, but felt in a measure relieved. The old woman only wanted someone to listen to her, to hear all about her share in the drama of Clara's death. She wanted to unload the ghoulish contents of her mind and boast of her usefulness. It would be unwise to cross her by cutting her short.
"She thanked me for what I done," continued the old woman. "Lying there she said: 'You can have my whisky, Luggy, and you can have my shawl and anything else you fancy.' That was all she spoke, for she was almost gone."
"Did Doctor Seafield get there before the end?"
"Scarcely, as you might say—she was only just breathing. I reckon he was as surprised as anyone at her going like that. For she was getting better, all owing to his medicine. She'd said only the day before as that medicine was doing her a power of good—a valiant strong medicine it was. She'd finished a bottle of it [Pg 121] and had just started on another. I gave her the first dose out of it myself."
Molly began to talk at random.
"Doctor Seafield's a very clever doctor. He'd have pulled her round if anyone could. . . . I was surprised when I heard she'd gone. I was upset. For I liked her—I liked her very much."
"She told me you'd been around to see her the day before. She hadn't looked for it."
Once again Molly felt sick—this time so sick that she thought she might faint.
"Oh . . . she told you I'd been round there."
"Aye, she told me you'd come and she was sorter worried because she hadn't done better by you in some ways. But I told her you wasn't the sort to bear a grudge—not like that woman they're going to hang. I was sure as you weren't the sort to do like that, I told her—as I told the others."
"All the folk around here who are saying it was mighty queer as you should go to see poor Mrs. Chance the day before she died."
"Why—why should it be queer?"
"Well, it ain't my business to say."
Molly moistened her lips with her tongue, which felt swollen and stiff. Her throat seemed to have contracted and to be so dry and small that she could hardly force the words through it. She must get out of here before she was too ill to go. She stood up.
"There's always been a lot of gossip about Mrs. Chance, but I don't like listening to it. I really must go home now."[Pg 122]
"Oh, don't you hurry off, Mum. You look tur'ble awkward. Let me make you a cup of tea. I could do with a cup of tea myself."
"I really mustn't stay."
"It won't take more than a minute—the kettle's nearly boiling. You and me will have a nice cup of tea together."
"But I mustn't . . ."
"I shall be tur'ble sorry if you go, and I can't think what everyone 'ull say at my letting you walk out looking so awkward. They'll think it queer you wouldn't stop and have a nice cup of tea with me."
Molly sat down. Her legs had suddenly failed to support her.
"I—I should like some fresh air."
"Well, we can open the window. It's a long time since it was opened, but it still works. There you are!"
A heavy breath came through the screen of geraniums, bearing their scent on its heat. Molly held her hand to her head. She seemed to have left the world and to be living in a dream—a dark dream, smelling of geraniums. As in a nightmare she watched Mrs. Lurgan hobble across from the window to the hearth and push the kettle over the fire, and as in a nightmare heard her say:
"Don't 'ee worry, Mrs. Livyett. You can trust me. I don't listen to the talk. I tell 'em it's all nonsense."
"Who—what are they saying?"
"That you poisoned poor Mrs. Chance same as that creature poisoned her husband. It's those women—they've nothing to do but talk, and now the trial's over, they've [Pg 123] started on you. They say you had more sense than her, for you didn't kill your husband but the woman who'd come between you, and there seemed better sense in that. But I tell 'em it's all nonsense, whichever way it was, and I don't believe none of it. Mrs. Vine was in here this morning saying someone ought to go to Doctor Seafield; but I told her—now hold up, dearie! don't let yourself go. I'm coming."
She ran across the room to Molly, but was not in time to prevent her falling from her chair.
"There you are—that'll do you good."
Was it Clara who had spoken? And was that light the sunrise creeping through the bedroom blind? Clara, stay with me, comfort me, don't go . . . don't leave me alone to die.
"There, there; that's better."
She felt a coolness in her mouth—a coolness that seemed to pass into her head, driving the darkness away. She swallowed. A pleasant familiar taste lay upon her tongue. Once more the coolness came into her mouth, and she swallowed again, refreshed. Then she opened her eyes.
Mrs. Lurgan was bending over her.
"There, I knew it would do you good. Have another drop."
"No, thank you."
"Come, you should ought. There's plenty more. The bottle's nearly full. It's Mrs. Chance's, and I haven't touched any of it till now."
"No, I really don't need any more. It might make me drunk—it's so long since I tasted whisky."[Pg 124]
"Bless your innocence! that ain't whisky. That's her medicine—her fine strong medicine."
"Mrs. Chance's medicine. . . ." She sat up and tore open her collar.
"Yes, I took it back home with me along of the other things. I couldn't bear to see a fine bottle of medicine go to waste like that—only one dose she'd had out of it. I made sure it 'ud come in useful, and so it has. You look a heap better."
"You haven't given me Mrs. Chance's medicine!"
"Reckon I have, and why shouldn't I? It's fine doctor's medicine that nearly made her well, and might have saved her if I could have got any of it into her when she was dying. But she was past swallowing, poor dear—her teeth were kinder set together as if they was soldered and—sweet heaven! she's off again."
Molly's head fell back crashing on the floor. She felt something against her clenched teeth—Mrs. Lurgan was trying to make her swallow some more of the liquid. But her teeth were set together as if they were soldered, and the last thing she felt before she fainted right away was the medicine running out of the corners of her mouth.
In the summer of 1920 Josephine walked up the road from Mullion with her back to the sea. The wind blew from behind her, fanning the dust into the hedges, where it lay, a white powder over the wild rose. The road was white with dust, and looked dreary as it lifted slowly towards Penhale. It was always the same, when you came inland in Cornwall—all the beauty grew by the sea. Inland the roads were frowsy and adventureless; and yet she was always coming inland, leaving Sue to drowse on the beach and get the fine grey sand all over her skirts. In Sussex the beauty was not by the sea; things were reversed, and the coastline was banal and meretricious, while inland lay secrets and loveliness—little field-paths and wood-paths, and flowery slopes of meadows, and farms sunk deep in the thickets of their orchards. She began to wish she had gone to Sussex this year instead of to Cornwall. Yet even [Pg 126] now she was not sure that she could bear to be in Sussex.
She had not been there since 1916. Before the war she had lived there. To-day it was like a dream—living at Chiddingly, seeing Eric every day. There was something unreal about the way she had thought of him for so long as no more than Eileen's husband. Then just as she had suddenly seen him with changed eyes, while she was yet giddy with her discovery, before she had had time to plan or act, war had broken out and sliced her life in two. He had belonged to the part cut off, and had gone with it. She had told herself that she ought to be glad. Eileen was her friend.
Perhaps she might have grown to be really glad if it had not been for that day in the third summer of the war, when she had accidentally met him in town, and he had thought her looking pale and washed out, and finding she had a week-end off from the Government office where she worked, had asked her to come down to him and Eileen at Chiddingly. They were there just for his leave—packing up the place preparatory to a let. It had all been rather in confusion, and she was conscious of a strain between herself and Eileen. But she had loved seeing the old place, and on the Sunday Eric and she had walked out to a farm over by Golden Crouch and had tea there. That had been perfect—to her; she could not tell what he had felt about it, though from time to time a look in his eyes, an inflection of his voice had given her a delicious wound—a wound which she healed unwillingly with the medicine of her duty to Eileen.
That had been the end of it all. Six months later [Pg 127] he was reported wounded and missing. She had written to Eileen and offered her conventional sympathy, begged for news if any came. There had been none—at least, not up to the end of 1918, by which time Eileen had somehow drifted below her horizon. She had heard indirectly from the Sharps, three or four months before the Armistice, that nothing more had been heard of him. Then she had thought it better not to inquire again; better think that he was dead. . . . But how silly she was!—not even a word of love had passed between them. It had probably all been just her sentimental fancy. Sometimes she was ashamed of the tiny seed from which her life's harvest had sprung. Other women, with their substantial, full-grown romances, would laugh at her if they knew; they would see the beginnings of old maidenhood in her romantic reconstruction of an ordinary friendship. And yet she could not stamp the feeling out, or think it foolish or renounce its comfort in these grey, post-war years.
She had come to the twist of the road on the hillside, the corner where you catch your first or last glimpse of Mullion Church-town. She stood for a moment and looked back—the sea was a blue gash between the hills. The hum of a car on the road beyond the bend made her look behind her, and as she looked she caught sight of a slabbed Cornish stile, with a little footpath leading into some fields. Footpaths always attracted her—though in Cornwall she usually found them disappointing—there was always the chance that they might lead to some hidden farm or secret field that would remind her of home, and let her dream of the old days unhampered by that [Pg 128] green, hard outline which so often made thoughts of Sussex impossible.
Konk-honk. . . . Whoosh. . . .
The car was closer than she thought. It seemed to be upon her. She felt the swirl of it as it went by, and then she suddenly found herself standing on the slabs of the stile. For a moment she thought that it had struck her—she felt a dull pain as from a blow on her left shoulder, but almost instantly it had passed, and not troubling any more about it she stepped down on the footpath.
It ran on straight for a yard or two, and then turned suddenly to the right. She gave a start of surprise. Before her lay a field full of yellow irises massed, with a fleck of ragged robin, at the end of a wide blue pond which stretched the length of two or three fields to a distant farmhouse, half-hidden among trees. The hedges rose out of a foam of meadow-sweet, the scent of which puffed softly to her where she stood. Her eyes swam a little with the effect of sunshine dancing on yellow, green, white, and blue; but her heart was beating fast with joy. She had never thought that anything so beautiful, so peaceful, so homelike in its effect of flowers and water, could be hidden near the austerities of the Penhale road. It was queer that she had never noticed the pond . . . she looked back towards the road, but the high hedges hid it entirely, their green mass dazzling against the blue. Even the line of the Poldhu and Gunwalloe hills was wiped out, with the blue gash of the sea.
She sat down to rest on the fringe of the irises. She felt a little tired and shaken—it must be the scare [Pg 129] of that horrid car. This field reminded her of a field at home—a field near Golden Crouch. She must come again. She would come and bring Sue . . . she made a little unwilling grimace, and remembered rather gladly that Sue would not care for the field of the irises. She liked the sea, Polurrian and Poldhu, and a swim in Mullion Cove. There was no need to share with her this secret refuge, as she had already begun to call it in her heart.
But she would bring her back some irises. Feeling rested and refreshed, she scrambled to her feet and wandered off into the marshy ground, filling her arms with the big yellow flags. They had a dim, sweet, indefinite scent, reminding her of something, she could not tell what. For a moment she had a queer illusion, as of herself lying dead with an armful of sweet-scented lilies, but she put it from her with a little shiver, lifting her face thankfully to the sunshine.
She had come now to the edge of the pond, and saw that for several yards the water flowed over the grass. The green coolness was tenderly inviting to her feet, and she suddenly made up her mind to take off her shoes and wade. The sea had never tempted her so much as this still, green water, warm in the sun. Quickly taking off shoes and stockings, she stepped in, and felt the healing of the water creep up her legs, bringing a sweet peace to heart and brain. Under the soles of her feet the grass was like tender moss . . . she paddled about on the rim of the pond; a yard or two further on it seemed to slope into deep water, and she kept close to the banks, watching the dragon-flies dart to and fro among the irises, streaks [Pg 130] of green-blue light, while the butterflies, less subtle, poised in spots of yellow, and blue, and speckled red, on the curled petals of the flowers. Lifting her arm, she pulled down a bough of wild roses to her face, pressing her lips into the cool little flowers . . . they scattered over her face, falling on her breast, spattering on her skirt, and lying at last in a pale, scented scum on the water.
She looked up, and staring drowsily through the sunshine, saw that she was not alone in her refuge. A man was coming through the reeds at the far end of the pond, evidently to bathe, for the light struck back in whiteness from his shoulders above the tall reeds. He slid into the water, and she saw him strike out, with a silvery wake of bubbles behind him. He must have been a full furlong away at the deep end of the pond, yet he was near enough to give her an almost overwhelming sense of his happiness—of intense, clean, physical enjoyment. She seemed mysteriously to feel his joy in the ripples under him, stroking back from his arms, to share his pleasure in his strength and coolness and his firm, straight progress through the water. It was as if she swam herself—she who could only make a few uncertain strokes in Poldhu Bay. Standing there at the edge of the pond, among the flag reeds, in sheer delight, she clapped her hands.
He caught sight of her, and she was surprised to see him wave his arm, and then turn and scramble back into the reeds. For a minute or two he disappeared into the tangle of loosestrife, meadow-sweet, and dipping willow boughs that mixed with the irises at the far end of the pond; then, as she sat on the [Pg 131] short, turfy grass, pulling on her stockings, she heard a footstep crackling on some fallen twigs, and the next minute he was beside her, smiling down at her.
She stood up with only her hands and her smile speaking for her. Her heart was choking her with its thick beats. The joy was almost a pain in its uncertainty. Could this be? Was it true, was it possible, that her life had not been buried after all in a German grave, and now had come back to her in this entranced place.
He seemed curiously unflurried.
"I thought I saw you while I was bathing," he said. "Have you been here long?"
"No, I've only just come."
"I'm so glad."
His smile flashed out at her again—the good wide grin in his brown face. She saw that he was wearing those same old grass-stained flannels that Eileen had told him weren't fit to be seen, three years ago, at Chiddingly.
"Is Eileen here?"—the disturbing question must be asked.
"Oh, no, she hasn't come."
"And you," she breathed, feeling the air lightened. "I didn't know . . . the last I heard of you was that you were 'wounded and missing'—and up till last year the Sharps had had no news of you."
"That all seems very long ago," he said. "I'm afraid you were unhappy."
He knew, then—he had seen.
"But it's all over now; it's astonishing how soon one [Pg 132] forgets the things that don't matter. All that horrible time in Germany—sometimes I find it quite difficult to remember it, and soon you will, too."
"You'll tell me all about it, though?"
"Yes, I will—but not just yet; there are so many things I want to talk about first."
They were walking along the edge of the pond, towards the group of farm-buildings among the trees. The light was dipping and mellowing, raking softly over the water and the reeds. Josephine had an uneasy feeling about supper and Sue, but the next moment she drove it almost angrily away. She wasn't going to spoil this perfect time by worrying about Sue, who did not really care. Sue would sit down and have supper without her when she had got tired of waiting, and meanwhile it was possible that Eric would ask her to come and have supper with him at this place where he was staying. That would be an evening's complete atonement for the long sorrow of years. Of course, there was still Eileen—but Eileen seemed to matter very little to-day, to fade into the background with Sue, as someone who 'did not really care,' and therefore did not really matter.
"What a beautiful place this is," she said.
"Ah, but you should have seen it when the primroses were out."
"Were you here then?"
"Yes, rather—I've seen it in the autumn, too, with the bracken. Sometimes I go away, but I always come back."
"Are you stopping at that farm?"[Pg 133]
"Yes, it's a wonderful place. You must come and have supper with me there."
"Oh, I should love to. . . ."
They moved on over the short grass spiked with rushes. Their bodies seemed to swim through the yellow sunset.
"How long are you here for?" asked Josephine, after a silence.
"I don't know. I haven't thought about it yet."
"Will Eileen come and join you?" She was beginning to feel a little bewildered.
"Oh, no. I don't think you understand . . . Eileen and I will never see each other again."
"What! You've separated! But I always thought. . . ." She was a little scandalized by the levity with which he treated the subject.
"We never really belonged to each other, you know. She was a good sort, and I'm glad I . . . but there never was any real link between us, and we're much happier apart."
A flood of questions rose to her lips, but she could not let them pass. There were questions that she simply could not ask him.
"Good old Eileen," he continued. "I hope she'll be happy—she deserves it."
"You still think kindly of her, then?"
"Kindly! I should think I did!—and so she does of me."
"Yours seems to be the ideal separation—if you can imagine such a thing."
"Yes, I think it is," he assented cheerfully.
They were coming to the farm now, and she noticed [Pg 134] the unaccustomed flush of red tiles through the trees. Her heart warmed towards it after all the Cornish white and grey.
"You see," he continued, "Eileen and I never really mattered to each other. I was fond of her—she had got me in that queer way you can't explain. Perhaps we were fools to marry, but then I didn't know what the other thing was—I didn't know till I'd met you."
"Till you'd met me——"
"No. Almost directly I saw you, I knew. I knew then what it means to belong to a person. Eileen had just 'got' me—you 'belonged.' It's queer, and difficult to explain. But it's absolutely true. I knew it then for a fact—but I couldn't say anything to you because of Eileen . . . and I didn't know whether you cared or not."
"You didn't know?"
"Of course, I knew afterwards, but not then—besides, there was old Eileen. It was something of a fight, I can tell you, and I felt pretty sick . . . but I'm glad now."
"And have you been thinking of me all this time?" she could hardly say the words, she was like a woman in a dream.
"Of course I have, every moment. And now we're both free."
She did not understand him. The exact means by which he had broken free from Eileen still puzzled her, though he talked as if she ought to know all about the business. But she did not trouble much about this aspect of their revived friendship—the past and the future seemed both to have lost their significance. She [Pg 135] felt melted, poured, into the present minute. . . . Oh, was it a dream?—pray God it was not a dream. They had come into the yard now, and were walking up to the farm. It was an old red house, very like the farm at Golden Crouch, and yet not quite the same. It lacked the new brick gable she had deplored, and the shape was different, running out in wings. The tiles were mottled with lichen, and queer cresses and mosses grew down the hollows of the old roof. "Why!" she exclaimed, "it's just like a farm in Sussex—we might be back at Chiddingly."
"It's a fine place, isn't it?" said Eric, "and they make me jolly comfortable. There's Mrs. Bream; I'll tell her you're coming to supper." He called to a youngish, pleasant-faced woman who was taking in some washing, spread on bushes in the last of the sunshine.
"This is my friend, Mrs. Bream—the one I told you about. I met her in the iris field, and she's coming in to supper. I hope you've got something nice for us."
"Surelye," said Mrs. Bream, "there's a salad and strawberries."
Josephine touched his arm.
"She talks like the people at home—she doesn't sound a bit Cornish."
"She isn't Cornish; she comes from Sussex—she used to be at a farm down by Selmeston, you know, where the downs begin. I knew her a bit then, but not well. I'm awfully glad to have run across her now—she's a dear. She's got some decent little kids, too—they're in there, in the kitchen."
Josephine saw some small figures moving round a [Pg 136] lamp. There was no lamp in the room into which she followed Eric. A pleasant dusk hung over the table, dimly revealing the shapes of bowls and cups, of a cottage loaf and a great plate of strawberries.
She felt her heart grow large and warm as they sat down in the twilight. Through the windows showed the trees, and the pale sky washed with evening. The trees swung their branches to and fro across a single star. . . .
Eric piled her plate with salad, and cut her some bread.
"We won't have the lamp yet," he said, "it's so beautiful like this; and it's easier to talk. I've got such a lot to talk about that I don't know where to begin—all the things I never said then. You're the same, I expect."
"Yes," said Josephine, but she found herself unable to say them.
There was a hum of voices in the next room where the children were at supper. Suddenly she caught some words raised above the others.
"It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power"—at the same time she seemed to hear the echo of a woman's sobbing.
"What's that?" she cried sharply, gripping his arm.
"Nothing—don't look so scared. You've only overheard something—one does occasionally."
"But that poor thing crying—somehow it sounded like Sue."
"She isn't really unhappy—she's only crying because [Pg 137] she thinks it the proper thing to do. Come, don't think about them."
Comforted, she turned to her plate and began eating the salad she could not see in the twilight. The little light there was fell on Eric. He was drinking out of a large bowl of milk, and as he held it to his lips his sleeve fell back and she saw the drawing of a big scar on his arm.
"Is that where you were wounded?"
"Yes—one of the scars. Do you notice it much?"
"Not very much. Shall you always have it?"
"I suppose so."
"Does it ever hurt?"
He looked into her eyes.
"Come, you're getting scared again. You mustn't think about these things—they don't matter, and I've such a lot to say to you now I've got you for ever."
He held out to her lips the bowl from which he had drunk.
Sue could not stop crying, though she knew that her tears were out of all proportion to her grief, for she had not really cared for Josephine, not more than one usually cares for an occasional holiday companion. But it was dreadful to think of her being knocked out like that all in a moment by that car on the Penhale road.
"She had just nothing of a life, and now she's gone."
"Cheer up, dear," said her landlady; "she had a lovely funeral. I never saw such flowers."
An Easter day was slowly breaking over one of those squares in North Kensington which an ebbing prosperity has left derelict for many years. Strips of golden cloud lay across the sky behind the houses and a quickening light made the rare street lamps hang like dim fruit against the trees of the garden. From innumerable backyards came the cluck and croon of waking fowls, and every now and then the shrill note of a cock, sending a dream of farms to the sleeping country-born. The whole place was held in the dawn like a pearl, full of mysterious glows and a brooding dimness. It was the Square's moment—a moment in which it was almost a landscape of high cliffs and deep pools instead of a mere agglomeration of houses, pavements and lamp-posts zoning a few exiled [Pg 139] trees. The moment passed as the light grew, and revealed the faces of crumbling stucco, the waste paper that filled the gutters and drifted up the doorsteps, the sooty tanglewood of the garden where the grass grew rank and tall over the neglected paths and forgotten beds.
The dawn came in at the uncurtained window of a room set high in number seven Luna Square. It stroked the sleeping face of Ivy Skedmore, and she woke, for she was sleeping lightly. She started up, her mind full of whirling wheels, of a dream that was scarcely done. Her big round eyes went wildly round the room, and drew reassurance from the hanging strips of wall-paper, the walls that were so high that they soared into shadows under the ceiling, the cornices of plaster fruits and the matchboard partition which shut her off from the room where her parents and the children slept.
Ivy slept with the lodger, who went by the name of Miss Peach Grey, forgetting some Baptismal Maud or Mabel, and worked as a model at a small but aspiring dressmaker's. She was still asleep, and Ivy felt glad, for she did not want talk or company just yet. She wanted to feel herself alone, to gather some sort of strength with which to face the day. How many hours? Of course she had no watch or clock. On working days there was always the big buzzer at the paper works. But to-day was not a working day, and she suddenly huddled herself over her knees as she realized that there never would be another working day—no more rising in clammy dusks, no more dressing in the darkness, no more hastily drunken tea—[Pg 140]she could feel the hot catch of it now in her throat—gulped before she ran down the huge rickety flight, across the Square into Luna Street, past the waking shops to the tube station, and then with her worker's ticket into town, to the Oxford Street restaurant where she washed up dishes, all day, all day . . . smells of grease and cabbage water, the miserable roughness of her skin in the constant water, the unutterable weariness of her legs at her unresting stand before the sink . . . all day, all day. . . . No, never, never, never again.
She sprang out of bed, forgetting the slumbers of Peach which luckily were too deep to be disturbed. Her heart beat quickly and her pulses tingled with the realization of the new world she was making for herself by this marriage. She had escaped the tyranny of every-day and all day, that deadly grind of going out to work; and she had not done as so many girls did in marriage and merely exchanged paid labour for unpaid, the back-breaking toil of the workshop for the heart-breaking struggle of the home. From this day forward she would be easy and comfortable, she would sit in a parlour and sleep in a brass bed, she would have electric light, and bacon for breakfast, and a girl to help her sometimes in the house. She, Ivy Skedmore, nearly twenty-seven now, who had slaved at one ill-paid job after another ever since she had left school, and no prospect before her but toil till her life's end, had captured the heart of a childless widower, earning eight pounds a week as an electrician, and offering her a snug little flat full of undreamed-of luxuries.
How it had all happened she scarcely remembered [Pg 141] now. The first casual meeting at a friend's house, the next unsought encounter, the appointed tryst, later walks and excursions, the growth of expectation and the final settlement, all were merged together in an uncertain fog, in which stood many dark shapes she was wary of as she glanced back, so she glanced but seldom. The fog stretched all the way to the year she had left school. Before that it lightened, and she had neat clear memories of family progressions from house to house, of brothers' and sisters' births and deaths, of her work and play at school and in the streets. The Skedmores were regarded as one of the old families of the district, as though they had been driven, chiefly by internal expansion, to many changes of residence, they had never moved out of the withered squares and crescents of Royal Kensington, as she lies North and is forgotten by her own kingdom in the South.
Ivy knew nothing of East End slum tradition—of drab rows of houses and dreary pillars of tenements, which have never been anything but the homes of the poor. The houses she had always lived in—the house she lived in now—had been built with a very different intention. A tablet in the wall of Number One Lunar Square recorded how the first stone had been laid by the Hon. Mrs. Addleham in 1839. Enterprising Victorian speculators had planned a new district of wealth and fashion on the slopes behind the Notting Hill racecourse. They had designed squares and crescents and terraces, and planted trees and gardens. For a few sweet years, gay crinolines had swum over the pavements, elegant carriages had stood at front doors pillared with gleaming stucco, the music of the [Pg 142] waltz and the polka had sounded of a winter's night, and in the galleried churches Victorian ladies had prayed into their muffs and Victorian gentlemen into their top hats.
It was all gone now. For some reason or other the district had never really thriven. Those who wanted suburban air went to Putney and Tooting; those who wanted the town remained clustered round Mayfair and Belgravia. No one wanted to be either so far or so near as Paddington. So rents and glory fell. The houses which had once been so respectable and inviolate became disreputable and common. They sheltered two, three, four, five families. Even their floors and finally their rooms were divided. Their basements seethed. Strings of washing were run out, fowls clucked in their areas. Their back gardens became backyards, and their square gardens became jungles, the haunt of the sleeper-out and the unchartered lover.
When Ivy looked out of the window, she might, had she been so made, have seen the ghosts of the happy and respectable people who once had lived in Lunar Square and must have been vexed to haunt it by its present ways. But instead of ghosts she saw only one or two cats prowling among the rubbish in the gutter. The place was void and silent, alight, but without the sun. The dawn wind rustled to her through the trees, and she shivered.
Then she noticed a movement in the tanglewood of the Square garden. At first she thought it was the [Pg 143] wind, then that it was a pair of those unchartered lovers. But the next moment a man pushed his way up to the railings, and beckoned to her to come down.
She stood motionless. Her round eyes staring from under the shock of her hair. So it was Bill—so he had come over, though she'd never thought he'd do it. Bill . . . there was no matching him for cheek. There was nothing he'd stop at. She caught her breath. Bill . . . he might have left her alone. He was one of those dark shapes in the fog, and now he had come out to stand in the dawn of her wedding day. How dared he? How dared he, the swine! She clenched her hands fiercely and helplessly. What was she to do? She couldn't make him go. She couldn't shout to him across the silence of the Square. He was making signs to her. He was beckoning her down. His lips were forming her name. The window was shut and she could not hear distinctly, but she knew that he was calling her. He mustn't call her. He mustn't wake the place.
She opened the window very softly and put her head out. She made signs to him to go away, but he only grinned and shook his head.
"Come down," he called to her.
"I can't. Do go away. They'll hear you."
"I don't care. If you don't come down, I'll come up."
But she knew he could. The catch of the front door at number seven was a weak makeshift, and once he was in the house there were no keys between [Pg 144] him and her. She would have to go down. If she wanted peace and quiet and decorum on her wedding day she would have to go down. She could easily talk him into sense—she had done so many times. Then he would go, and she could get on with her business.
Ivy did not wear a nightgown. She had always done so until recently, but her couple were both worn out, and though she had bought three for her wedding, a pink and a blue and a mauve, everyone knows that it is unlucky to wear your wedding clothes before the wedding day. So for the last month she had slept in her vest and knickers, and dressing this morning was merely a matter of pulling on her old blue coat frock, thrusting a comb through the tousle of her bobbed hair, slipping her feet into her old black shoes with their worn soles and trodden-over heels. What a blessing it would be never to wear them again. Of late they had hurt her badly and they let in the wet. She thought of the comfortable new pair waiting for her feet.
New clothes, new shoes, new furniture, a comfortable home, a comfortable bed, light work, warm fires, good food. She thought of all these things as she ran down the staircase of number seven. The banisters had most of them gone for firewood, but the great and splendid width of the stairs allowed her to run without fear of falling. She dragged open the front door, and was out in a sudden snatch of cold.
The gate of the Square garden had long been pulled off its hinges, so she was soon treading through the high grass to where Bill waited for her, mercifully discreet, in a thicket of lilac.[Pg 145]
"Don't let anybody see us," she said wildly, as he grasped her.
"They can't see us here."
"But they might have. . . . Oh, Bill, how could you? You nearly got me into ever such a fix."
"Nonsense. Nobody'll wake up here for hours yet."
"Why did you come?"
"That's a pretty question. I came to see you."
"But why should you? I mean how dare you? You've no right to see me. I've done with you, Bill."
"Yes, so you told me once. But that's no reason why I shouldn't come to wish you luck on your wedding day."
"You know that's not why you've come."
"Of course it is; what else should it be?"
"Then why didn't you come at the proper time?"
"Because I'm going out for a day in Epping Forest. That's one reason, and another is you never asked me. If I come to your wedding I come by invite from the bride like a proper little gentleman. But I've a feeling the card went astray in the post."
"I didn't know you were back," she said sulkily. "I thought your ship didn't get in till the end of the month."
"So that's why you fixed to get married to-day."
"No, Mr. Smart, I'm getting married to-day because it's Easter Sunday."
"Is it reelly, Miss Clever? Well, we live and learn. And may I ask why you're in such a temper on your wedding morning. Haven't things been going as smooth as they ought?"
"Not since you came."[Pg 146]
"But I haven't been here half an hour, and that temper of yours has been brewing for days. I know my little Ivy."
She did not forbid his words so much as his hands which had come suddenly about her waist.
"Because if you've only come to wish me luck you've no right to—to mess me about."
"Oh, so that's it. You think it should be hands off because I've only come to pay you the compliments of the season. But suppose I told you that I'd come to give you one last chance of changing your mind before it's too late."
"It seems you can say nothing but 'don't.'"
"I—I can't bear it."
"Then I'll say 'don't.' Don't bear it, little girl."
Her hands flew up between them against his breast, but it was too late. His arms were round her and his mouth on hers, forcing back her head. The tears ran out of the corners of her eyes, but she made no resistance and no sound. She merely seemed to melt and fade and grow weak, and then suddenly to break, as love and sorrow smote her at once.
After that they talked more quietly together. She had tried at first to be angry, but she knew all the time her anger was unjust. She was vexed with herself [Pg 147] rather than with him—not for any moral failure, but for allowing the past to come and upset the present, now at the very last moment, when everything had seemed settled and she herself was ready for everything. The fire in her had suddenly died, and she was cold and abstracted as he talked on.
"You don't love this chap."
"Of course you don't. You know you don't. You love me—you've just shown me that."
"What d'you mean by you 'dunno'? I bet you do. I bet you wouldn't have kissed me like that if you hadn't loved me."
"Ivy, little Ivy, give yourself a chance. Give me a chance. You didn't, you know, last summer. There was I all burning for love of you, and you sent me away."
"I didn't—your ship sailed."
"But you could have given me your promise to take with me."
"What 'ud have been the good of it? You said yourself you couldn't marry for years."
"If you'd loved me you could have waited."
"That's just it—that's what I'm telling you the whole time. I don't love you."
"Yes, you do—you've shown me that. You do love me—but it's the waiting you can't manage. You're afraid of waiting. Well, I'll tell you something. You shan't wait. I'll chuck the sea and get a job ashore. I'm handy at most things and we could manage if [Pg 148] you didn't mind having a job of your own at the start. It was only as I didn't want you to have to work, and if I'd gone on I could have done better for myself and you too some day. But if waiting's all that's the matter, I tell you what I'll do. I can't do much now, for I've only three days' leave—on Wednesday we go to Middlesbrough to refit. But I'll make it my last voyage. We'll be back in September and I'll marry you then. I'll get a job in a garage—or maybe we could both go as caretakers somewhere. . . . I knew a chap in the Navy who got a thundering good job as porter in a block of flats . . . anyhow, we'll manage fine. So you go home, Ivy, and tell 'em the wedding's off."
Ivy did not speak. She was still thinking—thinking, as she always thought, in a series of pictures. She saw herself as she had been, going out with Bill last summer, pleased with the places he took her to on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes of an evening in the week when she was not too late or too tired. He had spent money freely, and done her well, and other girls had envied her. He had kissed her freely too, and asked her to marry him when he was better off. At present he was just an ordinary seaman on the Clio, one of a small steamship line plying between London and Sydney. Like her, he knew what it was to be out of a job, though, as he said, he was handy at most things—at too many, perhaps, she had criticized in her heart, and the reviving criticism gave her a new set of pictures, this time of the future. She saw herself standing in front of the sink—standing till September—another six months of early and weary [Pg 149] days, of roughened hands and greasy water, of aching legs. . . . She'd already started what the Square called various veins, and the dreaded threat of "bad legs" was upon her. . . . She had thought it all over and done with, done with in time, before the evil happened—another six months might bring it about, and she would have legs like those of so many women she knew, like her own mother's, aching and ulcerated, perpetually swathed in greasy bandages as one patent ointment was tried after another. . . . At the thought her mouth and nose wrinkled up adorably, and her pictures were destroyed by Bill's provoked kiss.
"Sweetheart, I've got a better idea. Come away with me now, so as you won't have to face them at home. I'll take you straight to Mother's, and you can stop along of her till I come back. You'll like it, you know. You and Mother always did get on together. You can go to work just as easy from there as from here, and give her something for your keep and save the rest."
Ivy laughed shortly. That showed the way he thought of things. "Save the rest"—as if there'd be any "rest." Bill was too cocksure by half. He saw things much too bright. He saw them married in September when most likely they wouldn't have a penny piece to do it on. He'd have spent all his money—he always did—and she wouldn't have managed to save any of hers. He'd have to get another job, and try and save on that . . not likely . . . more years of waiting, more years of working. Then there'd be more working after she was married—standing before the wash tub just as now she stood before the sink, standing over the kitchen [Pg 150] fire, always cleaning, always trying to manage on just too little. Bill's would be the sort of home in which there was never quite enough, because Bill's would be the sort of home in which there would always be periods of unemployment, lean weeks that would eat up any small fullness, lean weeks of struggle on the dole . . . she shivered again. She knew the dole, and so did he—it was failure to get work on land that had sent him to sea in the first place. Poor Bill . . . poor, darling adored Bill. For of course she adored him, loved him . . . ever so much . . . Oh God! That made another picture come. She had a picture of babies—babies coming year after year, wearing her out as she had seen so many women worn out, binding her yoke upon her without pity or rest. Ivy had no illusions about marriage in general, and, more remarkably, she had no illusions about marriage with Bill.
"Well, precious, what's it going to be?"
"Nothing," she jerked at him shortly.
"Ain't you coming with me?"
"No. And I'm not going to stop the marriage neither."
"Oh, yes, you are."
He tried to pull her close for another kiss, but she pushed him from her almost violently.
"No, I say. Stop pawing me about. I won't have it. Gawd! You ought to know better than to speak as you do, to me, as good as married. I tell you I've made up my mind and I know what I'm doing. You leave me alone."
"Very well, Miss Spitfire. If you want to be miserable [Pg 151] all your life, you're free and welcome, and maybe I've had a lucky escape."
"I shan't be miserable. I'd be miserable if I married you, but I'll be ever so happy if I marry Sid Hurley."
"Bah! He's older than your father."
"He ain't. He's only forty-six, and anyway, better be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."
"So that's it, is it?" His young face darkened, and at the same time his lip quivered childishly. She could not bear it. She turned from him with a little moan, and fought her way out of the bushes. He did not attempt to follow her as she rustled through the wilderness towards the gate. One or two sick flowers went down under her feet. Her coat-frock caught on a twig, tearing a shoddy seam. She cursed, and ran on. She wanted to forget. She wanted to blot out that picture of him standing there with his angry eyes and childish trembling mouth.
It was eight o'clock in the Square—very different from the eight o'clock of most days. Usually at eight o'clock the pavements echoed with the patter of girls' feet. From under the solemn porticos which long ago had sheltered the slow, swaying exits of crinolined ladies, tripped groups and strings of prettily dressed girls. No Victorian belle had looked smarter or sweeter than these in their stockings of sunburn silk, in their high-heeled shoes, in their big wrap coats and little close-fitting hats. It was incredible that they should emerge from these ruins of homes, that the muddle [Pg 152] of the common living and sleeping room should produce anything so fresh and delicate and gay. Yet out they came, on their way to the dressmaker, the hairdresser, the café, the drapery store, to spend the day waiting on elegance and learning from it their natural lesson of charm, to return at night with step less springy and eye less bright, and maybe mud on the high-heeled shoes (which often let in water) and spots and stains on the sunburn stockings (which often defeated the efforts of the wrap coat to protect its wearer from chills).
Ivy had never counted herself as a member of this society. She belonged to a smaller inferior troupe that set out an earlier, more unfashionable hour, and went to wait on necessity rather than on elegance. Yet it was she and not one of them who had been chosen to live in a four-roomed flat, to preside over the glories of a bathroom, a gas cooker and electric light, to run an eight-pound-a-week home in unimagined honour. They would marry men like Bill, and in five years become middle-aged slatterns, slaving in three-pound-a-week homes, that periodically would become twenty-four-and-sixpenny homes as prosperity ebbed and flowed over the district and the dole took the place of wages. Ivy Skedmore could pity them as she fled from passion to security, running across the empty square, and up the many steps of number seven to where the giant door stood unlatched.
It was lucky that the Sabbath was in the Square, or she and Bill would have been discovered and the story down all the streets by this time. But on Sunday no one ever thought of getting up before nine o'clock; [Pg 153] at nine-thirty the shops opened, and the market, and the streets were full of those who bought and sold fish and meat and vegetables that the main road shops had not been able to get rid of on Saturday night.
The Skedmores had not, on this occasion, left their shopping till Sunday morning, but had done it in superior fashion on Saturday afternoon. The wedding feast had shared their sleeping chamber, the more perishable parts bestowed for safety on the window-sill. As she passed her parents' door, Ivy was surprised to hear the sound of voices. She felt uneasy. Had they somehow discovered her absence? Had Peach woken up and gone in search of her to the main room? She decided to go in and find out the worst.
But she need not have alarmed herself. Her parents' early rising was due entirely to social reasons. To-day was their eldest daughter's wedding day, and they had already received one, or rather several wedding guests. A large woman, with a baby in her arms, was seated on one of the double beds that the room contained. Round her knees squirmed a mass of children, four of whom were her own, the other three being little Skedmores, arrayed only in their underclothing, as their wedding garments were for obvious reasons not to be taken out of the drawer till the last moment. On the other bed lay Mr. Skedmore, smoking a pipe while his wife struggled with the fire.
The room was big, and even now almost handsome, with its soaring walls and richly decorated cornice. Peach and Ivy's room was a mere slice cut off it, and much remained in the chief apartment to suggest the splendour of the rock out of which it was hewn. [Pg 154] It was crammed with furniture—two big beds, a big table and one or two smaller ones, a chiffonier, a chest of drawers, innumerable chairs, most of them decrepit, and a broken-backed sofa. The walls were gay with pictures, and ornaments and the family china and glass, for which there was no cupboard, adorned all available space. Clothes were everywhere—-they hung from hooks on the wall, they were rolled up in piles in corners, and eked out the blankets on the beds. The place in its litter and hugeness suggested a parish hall rather inefficiently stocked for a jumble sale. The Skedmores had many possessions, none of which was intact, unblemished or really serviceable, but all of which were loved, prized and hoarded till the day of final disintegration.
"Well, dearie," cried Mrs. Skedmore cheerily, lifting a blackened face out of the smoke, "and how are you this morning? I thought I'd leave you to have your sleep out."
"Thanks, mum, but I couldn't sleep late this morning."
"Of course she couldn't," the lady on the bed declared with cheeriness, "when it's her wedding day and all."
"A pity to waste a Sunday, though," said Mrs. Skedmore.
"What's that matter to her, marrying Sid Hurley? She may lay in bed all day if she likes."
"Of course she can—and will sometimes, I dessay. It'll all be ever so nice, I tell her."
"I bet she don't want to be told. Ivy, you're looking fine this morning."[Pg 155]
Ivy's cheeks were blazing and her eyes were bright.
"It's ever so kind of Mrs. Housego to come in and help us," said her mother. "I thought I'd got everything straight yesterday, but it's all gone and got messed up again. Drat this fire—it won't catch and I've gone and used up all the newspaper."
"Let me help you, dear," said Mrs. Housego, heaving from the bed. There was a flaw in the Skedmores' grate which involved desperate measures every morning with a threat of suffocation throughout the day.
"Try a drop of paraffin, dearie."
"There isn't any in the place."
"I'll try and find you some downstairs. Mrs. Spiller has some, I know, for I saw her bring it in yesterday."
"Don't you go chucking paraffin on the fire," shouted Mr. Skedrnore from his bed; "you got me fined a bob last year for setting fire to the chimbley—it'll be half a crown next time."
The matrons heaved and struggled amidst clouds of smoke. Finally one of Mrs. Housego's children found a piece of newspaper under the bed, and by holding this in front of the grate, a flame was persuaded to kindle and grow. By the time the paper had caught fire and whirled blazing up the chimney there was some chance of the kettle being boiled for a cup of tea.
"And we'll all be glad of that," said Mrs. Skedmore. "What you standing there for, Ivy, like a stuck pig? You'll be tired before you've gone through half to-day."
Ivy sat down upon the bed.
"Let's talk about the wedding," said Mrs. Housego. "How many are you expecting, dearie?"
"I've got food for ten besides ourselves. Mr. Hurley's mother 'ull be coming and his sister Grace. And then there's yourself, Mrs. Housego, and the Lockits and the Gaits and old Mr. Willard. We'll be a crowd, I tell you. But don't you worry—nobody shall go without. I've got salmon and crab and tongue and prawns, a lovely cake and some fancies and a vealanam pie, and two dozen of ale and dozen of Guinness for a start."
"Coo! listen to that. Ivy, your mother couldn't have done you prouder if it had been your funeral."
"Well, I didn't want Sid Hurley's people to think he was marrying dirt," said Mrs. Skedmore modestly.
"They won't think it after this. What a breakfast! What a treat! When I married, my mother didn't give us nothing but fish and chips and tea—not but what she didn't have to pawn her crocks to get that much. Pore Mother! Which reminds me. I've got my five-shilling parcel back, and it's got my best hat in it as well as the sheets, so I shan't look such a guy at your wedding, Ivy, after all."
"Are you coming to the church?"
"You betcher life—now I've got my hat. I'm all for the church, as I told the clergyman the other day. Why, I was as weak as a rat after Monty was born till I had my churching. I said to the nurse 'for mercy's sake, let me out. I know what's good for me.' And I did. She found me cleaning the windows the next [Pg 157] time she came. Now that Mrs. Winter at number three has never had herself churched nor her baby christened. I tell her the child won't ever be strong and healthy till it's done. And it don't cost nothing like being vaccinated, and you don't have to fuss about keeping the place clean afterwards. I tell you I'm all for the church."
"Well, I wish the church 'ud let us get married a bit earlier. They won't have us till a quarter-past twelve, which means nearly half the day gone."
"That doesn't matter to Ivy. She'll have more than the day for her holiday. Is he taking you away Ivy?"
"We're going down to Eastbourne till Tuesday."
"Did you ever, now! Eastbourne! I've heard that's a fashionable place. Ivy Skedmore, you're a lucky girl, as I've always said. Now, I believe I hear that kettle boiling. Let's have a nice cup of tea all round."
She went to the tea-making, while Mrs. Skedmore spread a piece of newspaper on the table and set out the heel of a loaf and some dissolving margarine.
"We don't want more than just a bite just now. There's plenty coming later."
"Only a cup of tea to freshen us all a bit. Ivy 'ull have to think about getting dressed soon."
"Oh, there's time enough. She might spoil her gown if she sat about in it."
"Is she having any bridesmaids?"
"Just our Nellie. We've got her a wreath of flowers. That's why I've done up her hair like that in rags. I thought maybe it 'ud curl."
"She'll look ever so sweet. Oh, it'll be a pretty [Pg 158] wedding, Mrs. Skedmore—quite like the ones you read about. Who else is getting married with Ivy?"
"I don't know for certain, except that there'll be young Spiller and Rose Chown—at last and not before it was time, to my way of thinking; and there'll be the gipsies."
"Those Lees—Tom and Dinah. I'm sorry about it, but it can't be helped."
"We've too many gipsies in these parts. My Jim was saying to me only yesterday as they've quite spoilt the barrer trade. They always seem to think of better things to take round on barrers than ordinary Christians."
"Talking of barters, Mr. Skedmore's thinking of a new job. There's a chap asked him to go shares in an ice-cream stall."
"Ice-cream's no good. People are mostly too cold these days to want it."
"Well, you can do chestnuts and baked potatoes in the winter."
"Yes, and tortusses in the spring. Don't I know it? Haven't I been through it all with my poor Jim? I tell him that's the way to keep our home about us—ha ha!" and she pulled out a handful of pawn tickets. "It ain't every woman who carries her home in her pocket."
"I hope you haven't too many things away, dear—nothing that's really wanted, I mean."
"Not now I've got my five-shilling parcel back. But I've not had a hat to me head nor a sheet to me bed [Pg 159] these six months, and all because my man wants to be his own master."
"Quite right too," growled Mr. Skedmore into his teacup. "It's a dog's life working for a boss. I'm all for being me own capitalist."
"He's getting quite red—Mr. Skedmore," said his wife proudly, "sings the Red Rag and all. But I'd rather he stayed at the works; then I know where I am. Even as it is, I'd have had a lot of things away if it hadn't been for Ivy's Mr. Hurley's kindness, getting everything back for us in time for the wedding."
"Did he reelly? Well, that's what I call generous and handsome. My Gawd! Ivy's in luck."
"Ivy!" cried her mother, "what are you staring at? Come away from that winder and take some notice of us all."
Ivy was looking down at the Square garden. She could see tracks in the grass, the spoor, as it were, of some wild animal escaped. Down in that garden a wild beast, sleek and lovely, had threatened her, had opened its jaws to devour Sid Hurley's meek head and prosperous home. But it was gone now. The garden lay empty, tossed by wind, while the Easter sun at last shone down on it over the housetops, spattering its undergrowth with dusty light—queer shifting spots and speckles, as if a beast really moved there. . . . Ivy turned away.
"Hullo everybody, I'm all right."
"Betcher life you are."[Pg 160]
The door had opened as she turned and Peach Grey had come in—a very different Peach from the tall girl who trod indifferently in the show-rooms of Madame Bertha. Her hair lay close under the shingle-cap in which she slept. She wore a shabby but still colourful wrapper, and an edge beneath it proclaimed the aristocracy of a lace-trimmed nightgown. Nevertheless Peach was not exactly your idea of a successful mannequin—even of a mannequin who is the only one employed by a small Queen's Road establishment, and has to take on occasionally the role of saleswoman, as pressure demands. Her voice was certainly different from what you would expect from those disdainful lips, and different from the voice in which she made occasional rare utterances while on duty. "This little dress would be very becoming to Moddom." "A model straight from our French house, Moddom." "The price is really quate ridiculous, Moddom, when you look at the material."
"A cup o' tea, Miss Grey."
"I don't mind if I do."
Peach sat down, and produced a packet of Gold Flakes from somewhere about her person.
"Have a fag, anybody?"
However, nobody smoked but Mr. Skedmore, who preferred his pipe. There was a subtle social distinction of which all were conscious between Peach and the others in the room. Her wages were in point of fact no more than Ivy's, but she worked in elegance for elegance, instead of in squalor for appetite, and the difference was appreciated. She sat with her kimono pulled modestly over her crossed knees, while Mrs. [Pg 161] Skedmore poured her out a cup of tea, which Ivy brought to her.
"Well, Ivy, you were up fine and early this morning?"
"How d'you mean?" blurted Ivy, taken unawares.
"Well I heard you go out, and it wasn't more'n half-past seven, for the church bells hadn't finished."
"How do you know? You were asleep."
"I heard you go out, I say, and I heard the bells too."
"I tell you I didn't go out—not till after eight. I didn't come in here till after eight, did I, Ma?"
"No, you didn't, dear. Mrs. Housego had been sitting with us a quarter of an hour before you came."
"There's bells at eight too," continued Ivy desperately. "What should I get up earlier for on a Sunday?"
"Oh, well, you didn't then," said Peach airily. She felt quite sure that Ivy had got up and gone out before half-past seven, but if she didn't want it mentioned she certainly was not going to give her away.
"Did you go to the pictures, Peach, last night?"
"I did. We went to see Claudette Colbert at the Pavilion."
"What was she like?" asked Ivy wistfully.
"Ever so nice."
"Ivy will be able to go to the pictures any day she chooses now," said Mrs. Skedmore. "The price of a seat won't be no object, and she loves the pictures."
"Well, if ever you get the chance, Ivy," said Peach, "go and see Claudette Colbert in 'Love Makes New.' It's ever such a beautiful picture."[Pg 162]
"What's it about?"
"Oh, about a girl in temptation. On one side there's a nice poor boy and on the other side a rich old chap, and she has to choose between them."
Ivy wished she hadn't asked.
"Who does she choose?" asked Mrs. Housego.
"Why, the boy, of course. But not till the end of the picture. The old chap brings her lovely pearls. I didn't half think I'd have married him in her place."
"And jilted your Algy?" rallied Mrs. Skedmore.
"Oh, the boy in the picture wasn't near so nice as Algy."
Here again Peach outraged your convention of a mannequin, who is always supposed to be superior and expensive in her love affairs, having been engaged for the last four years to a young salesman at Harrods, who might be able to afford to marry her in another four years' time.
"Well, I'm all for Romance," said Mrs. Housego. "Love in a cottage, that's what I like on the pictures. I pity the girl who sells herself for money."
"Lots of them do," said Mrs. Skedmore, shaking her head.
"But they always regrets it," said Mrs. Housego.
"And ends up old and grey, sitting in the empty nursery," said Mrs. Skedmore with a catch in her voice.
Ivy hung down her head, and her hands quivered and locked together, though she knew that her mother and Mrs. Housega were talking of another life than this, the Life of the pictures in which things happen [Pg 163] differently from in this life, and therefore, a life into which it is sometimes good to escape.
"Albie," said Mrs. Skedmore, "run down to Mrs. Spiller, and ask her kindly what time it is."
The youngest Skedmore emerged from beneath a bed, and trotted off. He came back with the alarming intelligence that it was a quarter-past ten.
"A quarter-past ten! Did you ever! And we haven't even begun to get things straight. Come, girls, make a start, or Sid 'ull be here and none of us ready."
"What time is he coming?"
"He said he'd be round with a keb at a quarter to twelve. Come, hustle, girls. Bless me! You'd never think I'd spring-cleaned this room all over yesterday."
"We can't do nothing, Ma, with the children here. Can't they go out for a bit?"
"Of course they can—no, they can't, for they ain't dressed, and they mustn't play in the street with their new clothes on."
"They can wear their old knickers and jerseys, just to run out. Mrs. Housego's Gertie 'ull look after them and see as they come back in time."
"I wan'er go to church," said Gertie.
"Did you ever!" cried her mother. "You'll have plenty of church later, when you go to see Ivy married."
"But I won't get a pictcher. I get a pictcher if I go to church now."
"I wan'er pictcher—I wan'er pictcher," chimed in the other little Housegos.[Pg 164]
"I wan'er pictcher," echoed the little Skedmores.
"Oh, let them go, Ma," cried Ivy impatiently, "they'll be out of the way, anyhow."
"The children's service begins at a quarter to ten," said Peach, "not much good their going at a quarter past."
But such distinction was more hair-splitting to the Skedmore conception of time. It being decided that the children were best out of the way, that church was safer than the street, and that they were more likely to return from it than from more thrilling and scattered pursuits, they were accordingly dispatched there, to add their arrival to the confusion at the end of the Children's Mass.
As soon as they were gone, Mrs. Housego and Mrs. Skedmore settled down to what they called euphemistically a "good clean." The crockery of the wedding feast was washed anew and would have to be washed again more than once in the course of the meal if the glasses and plates were to go round. A bunch of flowers, bought last night in Lunar Street Market, was dispersed among Mrs. Skedmore's vases. Pictures and ornaments were finally dusted, the hearth was cleaned, and the food spread out on the newly-washed tablecloth. In the midst of it all Mr. Skedmore shaved, with blasphemous interludes, and Ivy, in the next room, helped by Peach, put on the rose-coloured dress with the detachable cape, the nigger-brown straw hat, the silk stockings and suede shoes that formed the chief splendours of her wedding.
"Coo, Ivy, but you look ever so nice. You pay for dressing up, you do. I wish I had a chance with you at [Pg 165] Madame's. I could make you look sweet. But maybe you'll come some day. You'll be able to afford it, you know, once and again. I bet lots of the women who come to us don't have as much as eight pounds a week. But you're a lucky girl. I wish I had half your luck," and she sighed.
Evidently she was not looking at Ivy from the moral viewpoint of the pictures. She did not see her friend as "selling herself for money." And yet she knew all about Bill. She also knew all about life, and that a girl can't always afford to live up to the exalted moral standard set by the cinema—that she must occasionally move on a lower level, simply in order to avoid bad legs. . . . Ivy's chosen course suddenly appeared to her as absolutely sordid and humdrum. Not thus would Claudette Colbert or Katherine Hepburn or Grace Moore have chosen. The tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"Wotever's the matter, Ive?"
"I feel so bad about it all, Peach."
"Bad about wot?"
"Marrying Sid when I oughter be marrying Bill."
"Now, don't start all that nonsense over again. Why ever should you be marrying Bill? He's not got a penny and never will have."
"I could go on with my job."
"Yes, you could—till the kids came. And, what then? No, you forget it, Ive. It's no good. I wouldn't say that if he was like Algy, but he isn't. My own opinion is that he's not straight. Anyhow, I wouldn't trust him. Now there's nothing really exciting about Sid, but he's as straight as they're made. He won't let you down. He's good stuff."[Pg 166]
"Do you really think so?"
"Of course I think so, and so do you. You've only got the jim-jams at the last minute, the way most girls do."
Ivy wondered. Had she really only got the jim-jams? Or was this Conscience Roused At Last. The words seemed to flicker before her eyes, as if thrown on a screen. She went to the window and looked out—down at the garden where the sun-dappled shadows moved like some spotted beast. Suddenly she saw two figures come arm-in-arm round the corner of the Square. It was Bill and an unknown female, whom he led past the house. She was smartly dressed in green, with a hat to match, and her skirts displayed much silken leg. Bill's hand lay tenderly over the one he had pulled through his arm. He was bending towards her and talking eagerly, but as he passed the house, he looked up.
"Cad," shouted Ivy and brought Peach, who was kneeling to button a shoe, startled to her feet.
"What is it? Who? Oh!"
She looked out and saw Bill turning at the Square corner, to lead his lady back past the window that he wished to mock.
"Why, it's Bill. Who in the Lord's name has he got hold of now?"
"He's brought her to jeer at me. He's a cad. He's a ——"
"Shut up, Ivy. You don't want everyone to hear. Don't be a fool and give him his chance like that. Get away from the window," and she pulled her back into the room with such violence that she fell across the bed that filled up most of it.[Pg 167]
"There, what did I say?" continued Peach. "I told you he wasn't straight. He's a rotten sort of chap. You're well rid of him."
Ivy sobbed, stifling, into her pillow.
"Now, don't do that, or you'll spoil your face. Come and let me brush your dress."
"Has he gone?"
"Yes—now you're not looking out any more. He's cleared off," and Peach made an unladylike gesture of farewell. "Come, Ivy, and don't be a damn fool. You'll get yourself all crumpled. Sit up. That's right. Now, let me give you just a dust over with my powder. Yes, you must. You can't let everyone see you with a red nose and red eyes like that. They'll think you've been crying, and you've nothing to cry for. You're a lucky girl."
"If you say that again," said Ivy suddenly, "I shall scream."
"Well, then, I won't say it, but I'll think it all the same——"
A sudden clamour broke out in the next room.
"Girls! Girls!" shrieked Mrs. Skedmore. "Sid's come."
Doors flew open, footsteps thudded, voices questioned and screamed.
"Sid's come . . . the keb's here . . . the children ain't back. Wherever can they be? They've got to be dressed and Nellie to put on her bridesmaid's clothes and all."
In the midst of the uproar, Sid Hurley's step came quietly up the stairs.
"Hello, what's the matter? Where's Ivy?"
"Here I am, Sid."[Pg 168]
"Don't sound so sad, little girl. What's she been doing, Mrs. Skedmore? Is she tired?"
"No, but what am I to do, Sid? There's all the children out, heaven knows where."
"Well, if they can't be found, the wedding must go on without them. It's a quarter to twelve."
"But Nellie's to be bridesmaid. Oh, what shall we do? Ivy, you're dressed. Run down to the corner and——"
"No, no, Mrs. Skedmore, Ivy mustn't do any more running about this morning. Why, she's tired already, poor little girl," and he gently tucked back a piece of hair that had flown loose under her hat.
"Well, I'll go to the corner, dear, if you like," said Mrs. Housego. "I can call them, but heaven knows I can't chase after them, being the size I am."
"Stay where you are, ma'am," said Sid. "I'll see if I can find 'em, and if I find 'em, I bet I bring 'em too."
"There!" cried Mrs. Skedmore, "that's a man, dearie."
Peach too thought that it was. She nudged Ivy in the ribs.
"Wot price Clark Gable?" she whispered.
Meanwhile the finishing touches were put to Mr. Skedmore's tie and Mrs. Skedmore's toque. Mrs. Housego went downstairs to her own room, to put on the redeemed hat and await such of her family as the bridegroom should recover in the short time allowed him. His chief efforts were to be centered on Nellie Skedmore, but it was more than likely that the children had kept together.
So it proved. Just as the more trustworthy clocks in the Square pointed to twelve, Sid Hurley reappeared with a string of grubs. It appears that finding themselves [Pg 169] too late at church to receive the coveted pictures, they had gone on in hope to the Salvation Army School, where they had each been rewarded with a coloured text about the size of a postage stamp. Thus refreshed they had endured a certain amount of instruction, agreed that they had found the Lord, and started off home, stopping on the way to join in a game of house on the steps of the Parish Hall. This was not house as played in the nursery, but as played in the British Army; none of the players having any money, stakes were put up in the way of buttons, marbles, match boxes and similar treasures. The little Skedmores staked their texts and lost them, and it was in the midst of the ensuing battle that Sid Hurley arrived and dragged them away.
It was decided to concentrate entirely on Nellie, the others having no prominent part in the coming ceremony might scramble as they chose into the new jerseys and knickers laid out for them. But Nellie must be washed, combed, brushed and clothed in white frock with a blue sash, white stockings and shoes, with a wreath of daisies round her rag-curled hair. Nellie, though next in age to Ivy, was not yet twelve. She represented the other side of a gap which had been filled with a variety of births and deaths, as little Skedmores came into the world and left it in rapid succession. Three had not survived their birth more than a few weeks, one had died sensationally in a smallpox epidemic much written of in the newspapers, another, as if to show the utter contempt of Providence for the efforts of the Skedmores, had died of a "bad arm" caused by septic conditions after vaccination.
While Nellie was being dressed, Ivy and her bridegroom [Pg 170] sat together by the window, their conversation screened by the general uproar.
"Sure you're not tired, darling?"
She shook her head.
"I believe you are a bit."
"Why should I be? I've done nothing to-day."
"But it's all been exciting and trying for you. I'll be ever so glad when I've got you away all quiet by the seaside."
"What is it, dear?"
"Ivy, you're not unhappy, are you? You're not feeling—oh, my dear, tell me that you're glad."
"I am glad," said Ivy.
She suddenly knew that she was glad.
"I've only got the jim-jams at the last moment the way most girls have," she repeated firmly.
She suddenly knew that she had only got the jim-jams. That was what it was—what every girl had on her wedding day. There was nothing else—no regrets, no flight, no sorrow, no wild beasts in the garden. . . .
"There now!" said her mother. "She looks a pictcher."
"Boo hoo!" sobbed Nellie. "There's a pin sticking into me."
"There ain't. I tell you there's no pin. Now you behave. If it wasn't Ivy's wedding day you'd have been well tanned by your dad for the dance you've led us."
"We only went to the Salvations."[Pg 171]
"Well, it wasn't the Salvations who rolled you in the dirt and spoiled your only decent pair of drawers. Now don't you move till we all go out together. Albie, Georgie. . . . Oh, thank you, Peach. Now, is everybody ready? Ivy! We can't get far without you nor Sid either. You'll have plenty of time for spooning later. Now everybody go out. Dad, got the key? That's right. Lock the door after us. Now, Albie, if you start running. . . ."
Somehow or other they all got downstairs and were not too hopelessly involved with the emerging Housegos. There stood the cab, and somehow or other they all got into it. As they drove across the Square, before the windows became too fogged over to see out, Ivy looked her last into the garden. Nobody was there, neither a spotted beast nor a maddening, jeering boy, parading his new love to mock the old. She felt quite quiet now—quiet and not unhappy. The past was over and done with, and the future looked brighter than it had looked before the sun was up. It looked bright as well as comfortable . . . She glanced across at Sid, and remembered with a little creep of pride that Peach had compared him to Clark Gable. Not that he was really very like him, but he was certainly strong and kind . . . and Peach had also said he was "good stuff."
The cab stopped outside the church. They were not so very late after all, for though it was a quarter-past twelve, the Easter morning service was not yet over. The verger came out and told them to stay in the porch till it was finished. Looking in, Ivy could see dim figures and dim lights, and sniff the soft blue haze that reminded her of her childhood's Sundays. Church-going was either for the very old or for the very young—the [Pg 172] middle years were too crowded and too hard, and Saturday night ate up too much of Sunday morning. But perhaps she would go again now, for there would be leisure in her home, such as there had never been in her mother's, and as there would not be in Peach's when she married.
How smart Peach looked! Smarter than any of the brides. For Ivy's was not the only glory of that wedding day. No less than ten other brides were crowding with their retinues into that narrow porch, while their friends and neighbours covered the pavement outside.
"Bang! Crash! Bang! Terrumpry!"
The service was over and the organ had begun to play the congregation out. The various wedding parties made a rush for the entrance, but the verger and churchwardens held them back.
"Let the people out first."
Out the congregation came, dribbling a thin line through the brides and bridegrooms. In the vestry a tired clergyman was taking off his vestments and scrambling into a surplice for the approaching orgy.
"I wish you'd let me take them," said the new curate, who had not begun his day's work at five.
"My dear chap, you couldn't start with eleven couples at a time. You'd get 'em mixed. I'll polish them off in twenty minutes, and then thank the Lord for food, hot coffee, rest."
He disappeared into the church, where the verger had by this time marshalled the different couples and arranged them in a long row in front of the chancel. Those who had no bridesmaids stood in front of the pews, those who had the longest tail stood in the aisle. Ivy stood a [Pg 173] little way to the right, with Sid on one side and her father on the other, and Nell behind her, wedged against a pew and still complaining of a pin. She had time to look round her while they waited for the vicar. There stood the gipsies right at the end—her hat was full of feathers like a donah. Rose Chown actually had a white veil. There was swank for you! Especially after what people said—and Hilda Jimson . . . she didn't know Hilda was getting married. The other couples were strangers—two of them were quite middle-aged . . . getting married again . . . then it couldn't be so bad the first time. . . . She looked round shyly at Sid. Her jim-jams were all gone now—she supposed it had been just that, just like what every girl has before her wedding . . . no mistaking Peach for a bride now—she was right behind in one of the pews.
A great shuffle went through the lines. The clergyman had come in. He stood before them, turning over the pages of his book, eyeing meanwhile one of the bridegrooms who was a little drunk. Then he began to read:
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God. . . ."
Prospect Cottages, denying their own name, huddled obscurely off the Cackle Street of Warninghurst. The Cackle Street itself was a quiet offshoot of the neat, lively little High Street, where stood the Church and the School and the two shops and the four public houses. Prospect Cottages were obscure indeed, and number five was the last and obscurest of the row, with a yew tree growing against the windows and blotting it into a perpetual twilight.
The two newspaper men had some difficulty in finding it, and when at last they stood on its humble doorstep, they were both hot and thirsty—the 'bus which had brought them to Warninghurst from Poldham Station having set them down at the Grapes, from which they had walked an interminable dusty mile.[Pg 175]
"Whew!" said Turner, representing the Agglomerated Press.
"Do you think she'll let us have a drink?" asked Ellam of the Combined County Newspapers.
"We ought to have had one at the Grapes. But I hadn't this thirst on me then. She seems a long time answering the door. I'd better knock again."
"Perhaps she's out."
"Well, let's try."
He rapped more thunderously with his stick. This time there was a creaking sound on the stairs, and footsteps were heard coming down. Then the door opened an inch or two, and a woman's face looked round it.
She was about sixty years old, pale and vague-featured, with a man's cap askew on her wispy hair. The two newspaper men lifted their hats.
"May we come in for a moment? We represent important newspapers, and we've been sent to ask you for a special interview."
Mr. Turner presented his card, which she held up close to her eyes and read out slowly.
"Is that you, sir?"
"Yes, that's me. And this is Mr. Ellam of the Combined County Newspapers—Sussex Mercury, you know."
Mr. Ellam's card was duly inspected.
"Do you want these tickets back?"
"No, no. They're just to tell you who we are. Won't you let us come in and have a chat?"
Turner spoke brightly, as if humouring a child. He [Pg 176] had begun to wonder if she was "all there." In which case he might have some difficulty in getting the story. But Mrs. Dengate was merely wondering why two such fine gentlemen had come to see her, and whether it would be safe to let them in.
"I'm afraid the pläace is a bit in dishable. I never woke up at the proper time this morning—Mr. Dengate not being there, I suppose."
"That's it. We want to talk to you about Mr. Dengate. Perhaps you could spare us just a few minutes?"
Turner always felt a certain bashfulness in introducing the name of the corpse. But in this case the widow had obligingly done it herself, and without any apparent struggle.
"Do you want to know anything about Mr. Dengate?" she asked.
"Well, if you wouldn't mind giving us just a few particulars—telling us a bit about him."
She had opened the door, and they had walked straight into her dark and hot and untidy little kitchen. The wooden chairs looked more secure than the basket chair she offered, so they put her into it, settling their greater weight more uncomfortably on deal seats.
"This is Mr. Dengate's chair," she remarked; "he always sat here of an evening when his work was done."
The two young men looked sympathetically interested, but they must not let her linger over preliminaries and irrelevances, for their time was short, and their thirst was great.
"Have you a photograph of Mr. Dengate?" asked Ellam.
"Surelye. There was one he had took down at Brighton [Pg 177] only three years ago. I can find it in a minute—I've got it by me."
She rummaged in a work-box overflowing with strange possessions, and brought out a sticky-back of a gentleman in his shirt-sleeves, posed against a capstan with an indefinite-looking lady.
"Is that you with him?" asked Turner.
"Oh no, sir. He never took me to Brighton. I don't know rightly who that is. She hasn't come out very well, has she?"
"We could cut her out of the picture, and I think he'll reproduce all right. Can you let us have it?"
"What for, sir?"
"To put in the newspaper. And have you got one of yourself, Mrs. Dengate?"
"Me! I've got one Mrs. Peel took of me, just for fun like, only last week. But you'd never want that, would you, sir?"
"Show it to us, and if it's at all good, I'd certainly like to have it. The public is interested in you, Mrs. Dengate."
"In me, sir?"
"Yes, haven't you seen the newspapers?"
"I don't often see no papers, sir, and never at all since Mr. Dengate was took—or took himself maybe I should ought to say. Sometimes he'd give me a squint of his, but not often, for I ain't much of a scholar."
"Well, the papers this morning all had an account of Mr. Dengate's er—er—Mr. Dengate's sensational decease, and we understand you were a witness."
"I dunno about that, sir. But I found the body right enough. You know our back garden? Well, we've got [Pg 178] some fowls at the end, and some rabbits in the wood shed, and I was going down to take 'em their food, and when I got near the wood shed, I heard a horrible sort of sound, a sort of groaning, and I says that can't be the rabbits. . . ."
A loud knock at the door broke up the conversation, which had suddenly become animated. Mrs. Dengate's faded blue eye had kindled, and her speech had hurried out of its lifeless drawl, but the knock might have been a summons back into the old manner. She crept stealthily to the window, and peeped out between the geranium pots.
"It's the ladies," she murmured dejectedly, and went to the door.
"Good morning, Mrs. Dengate. May we come in for a few moments?"
The voice sounded at once commanding and commiserating. The newspaper men stood up as two women of the village ruling-class entered the room. They were both on the younger slopes of middle age, wore tweed clothes, and had kindly domineering faces. One of them set down a covered basket on the table.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know you had company, Mrs. Dengate."
She looked, not very amiably, at the newspapermen.
"They're gentlemen from the newspapers, ma'am—come to ask about Mr. Dengate."
"What do they want to know about him?"
Mrs. Dengate hesitated.
"All about him, ma'am."
"Well then," said the lady whom Turner in his heart called the Squiress, having decided that the other, whose [Pg 179] clothes were cheaper, was the parson's wife. "Well then, we've arrived just in time. I really think," she swung round terrifyingly on Ellam, "you might have spared this poor old thing."
Ellam muttered something about not having found Mrs. Dengate unwilling to give him the story. But his remarks were swept aside in the spate of her indignation.
"It's just what my husband says—the modern press is really getting past even ordinary decency. How would you like to have strangers come and pry into your misery—taking photographs of your private sorrows?" With a devouring glance at their cameras: "And then see it all served up in the papers the next morning? I really can't let this poor old lady be victimized like this, and I will ask you kindly to take your leave at once."
"I beg your pardon," said Turner, standing his ground, "but we have been sent by our papers to get hold of the story, and Mrs. Dengate hasn't so far hinted that she finds our visit unwelcome."
"Poor old thing, how can she? What do you expect? Thank goodness Mrs. Peel and I came along when we did. Will you please go at once?"
"We will go when Mrs. Dengate has answered just one or two more questions we have to ask."
"I can't allow even one. You've already worried her too much."
Turner was angry.
"Excuse me, madam, but I really can't take my dismissal from you. If Mrs. Dengate finds our presence unwelcome she has only to say so. But up till now she hasn't even hinted anything of the kind."
"Well, if you can't tell by her manner, poor old soul. . . . [Pg 180] Then she shall ask you to go," turning to the victim of publicity. "You tell them, dear. You want them to go—don't you?"
Mrs. Dengate lifted her head without speaking. She looked at the ladies, she looked at the two young men, and then at the covered basket.
"Yes, ma'am," she said in a crushed voice.
"You don't want to give them the 'story,' as they call it? You don't want to have everybody reading about you and poor Mr. Dengate in the paper to-morrow morning?"
"There! You hear her. She's not afraid to speak for herself now she's got somebody to stand up for her. Are you convinced at last that she doesn't want to tell you any more?"
Turner looked at Ellam, who nodded.
"Very well, then. I think I can write up the stuff from what I've got. You must realize, ladies, that this is a job like any other that has to be done."
"Oh, I daresay. But really I do feel that certain things ought to be sacred—a widow's grief. . . ."
They picked up their hats and she followed them to the door. Having gained her point, she now seemed anxious that they should part amicably—possibly fearing vaguely some vengeance of the printed word.
"It's only that I'm sorry for the poor old thing. She's been through a perfectly appalling time, and I want to spare her all I can. I managed to keep the papers away from her this morning, but of course I can't go on doing that . . . and I simply can't bear the thought of your dragging an account of this horror from her. Tell me, how much are you going to publish?"[Pg 181]
"I've no idea. It all depends on space and the sub-editor."
"I don't see why it shouldn't depend on decency"—and thinking it well to close the conversation on what she felt was an epigram, she hurriedly backed into the cottage and shut the door.
"Whew!" said Ellam.
"I shouldn't have gone," said Turner, "if I hadn't feared the old girl might be made to pay for it. It would have been a pity to put her on the wrong side of those two. And after all, we've got a photograph and something that we can write up—maybe with the help of a little gossip at the pub."
"It's only a back-page story, anyway," said Ellam, "from what I can gather so far, I don't see this in front."
"Well, I shall take a view of the cottage—the whole row, for it's too dark under this tree. Then thank heaven we can beat it for the Grapes. At present I'm not a man, but a thirst."
An hour later the world looked brighter. Ellam and Turner sat outside the Grapes, enjoying an after-luncheon smoke. The street lay quiet in the sunshine. Warninghurst was at its dinner, and the little houses seemed asleep. Now and then a low chuckling of fowls would come from some backyard, or a pigeon would start cooing on the russet slant of the tavern roof. But these sounds only served to emphasize the stillness, which had nothing oppressive or sinister about it, but seemed, on [Pg 182] the contrary, to be part of the noonday drench of sunshine on the street.
"Lord!" sighed Turner, "this is peace."
"How much longer have we got?" asked Ellam.
"Oh, the 'bus doesn't go for another hour."
They sat a few minutes more in comfortable silence. Then Ellam spoke again.
"Do you think we ought to go back?"
"To see the old girl. Those females will have cleared off by now."
"Possibly. But I don't think it's worth while our going back all that way in all this heat. We've got quite a lot of stuff from the people at this pub—more than we could ever have got out of her. After all, there are limits as to what one can ask a widow about her husband."
"He seems to have been a choice specimen."
"Highly choice—and highly sensational, both in his way of life and his way of leaving it."
"It'll be a good riddance for her."
"So one would think—but one never knows. It's curious what things can become habits and be missed when they're gone."
"But my own impression is that when those confounded women came in and stopped us she was just beginning to enjoy her first taste of publicity."
"Well, by all showing it would be a change. Apparently she's scarcely been out of her cottage for the last five years. . . . But do my eyes deceive me, or have we really encouraged her so much that she's venturing out to-day?"[Pg 183]
He pointed into the long distances of the street, where a single small figure showed black against the dust.
"By Jove! That's herself all right," said Ellam. "I wonder what she's after."
"No need to ask," said Turner, as the small figure vanished under the sign of the Red Lion.
"Huh! She's beginning to taste her freedom."
But the next minute Mrs. Dengate was back in the street, and hobbling swiftly towards them.
"I believe she's come after us."
"Why on earth should she?"
But so indeed she had. Directly she caught sight of the two young men at their table outside the Grapes, she came straight up to them, a little anxious figure, breathless with her long unaccustomed walk in the sun.
Turner pulled forward a chair.
"Good afternoon, ma'am."
"Good afternoon, sir. You'll excuse me coming after you like this, but I made sure as you'd have gone somewhere to take refreshment, seeing as the 'bus doesn't go till three. So I called in at the Red Lion, which was Mr. Dengate's pub, but they told me you'd gone to the Grapes."
"Well, what can we do for you?"
"Oh, nothing, sir, thank you kindly. I was only wondering if you'd heard all you wanted about Mr. Dengate?"
"It's extremely good of you to trouble about that. As it happens we've got practically all the information we need from the people at this inn."
Mrs. Dengate's face fell.
"And there ain't no more you want me to tell you?"[Pg 184]
She looked so disappointed, that Turner said hastily:
"Of course there is, and we'll be glad to hear it. I felt somehow that you didn't really want us to go this morning."
"Oh no, sir. Surelye I didn't, but I couldn't speak different, seeing as the ladies was there. They're kind ladies, and goodness knows what I'd do without them and the stuff they bring, and I git half-a-day's charing a week out of Mrs. Tracey. But they don't understand, sir. They've got ideas of their own, and they don't understand mine. So I just did wot they said, and when they'd gone I sarched around, and I found two more likenesses of Mr. Dengate—one when he was a choir boy wud the Wesleyans, and another of him driving off wud the Buffaloes for a day at Plumpton Races."
She pulled two yellowing photographs out of her apron pocket.
"But I can't find that snap of me that Mrs. Peel took, though I hunted around everywheres. I'm unaccountable sorry, because you wanted it, sir, and besides I'm not saying it wouldn't be good thing for me to have my likeness in the newsypapers at my time of life—not having been in before, as you might say—not even mentioned with the Band of Hope."
"Well, that needn't worry you. We have our cameras, and we can take one of you here."
Mrs. Dengate smiled rather wistfully.
"Yes, sir, I see as you have your cameras. But reckon it's like this. I'm not fit to be took in this old gown, and my hair all in dishable. I wonder if it would be troubling you very much just to step back wud me to the cottage? Then I could change into my best dress and hat, and you [Pg 185] could take a likeness of me outside the wood shed—me opening the wood shed door, like, just before I found Mr. Dengate. I'd like that to be in the papers, me wearing my best hat and dress too. Not that I was wearing 'em when I found Mr. Dengate, but you could never take me as I was then. I'd a piece of sacking tied over me, as often I git mucked wud the chicken meal, and even an old gown's worth säaving when you ain't got no other."
The two newspaper men exchanged glances and shook their heads.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Dengate," said Turner, "it's very good of you to make the offer and be willing to take such trouble on our behalf, but we really haven't time. The 'bus goes at three. We can take one or two splendid portraits of you in the inn garden, and it really doesn't matter in the least about your old gown."
"But there'd be plenty of time, sir. It wouldn't täake you more than ten minutes just to walk back wud me—and I'll have changed my things in no time, and I'd unaccountable like to have that picture took of me, sir."
To their consternation, they saw that her lip was actually quivering, and her dull grey eyes had grown suddenly bright with tears. Turner's ideas underwent a sudden revulsion.
"Very well, then. I'll come with you anyhow."
But Ellam too was on his feet.
"We can just do it," he said.
"Thank you kindly, sir. Thank you kindly, gentlemen, both of you. I've my heart set on having that picture took. And reckon I can tell you a lot of things you want to know about Mr. Dengate—things that nobody [Pg 186] else can have told you, seeing as they didn't find the body. It comforts me to talk about it all. The ladies don't understand. If I sit thinking about it I git all faint-hearted. But it comforts me to talk, and then afterwards I'll have the comfort of reading the words you've written about Mr. Dengate and me and looking at the pictures you've taken. To say nothing of being in the newsypapers for all folks to see—me who never got mentioned before, even when I went out wud the Band of Hope."
Mrs. Peel was gardening when the hearty sounding of her name made her look up and run to the gate.
"Hullo! Good morning, Mrs. Tracey."
"Good morning. I say, have you seen this?"
She unfolded a newspaper. "Would you have believed it possible?"
Mrs. Peel slipped off her gardening gloves, and took into her hands the Picture Post—chief organ of the Agglomerated Press. She gave it one look, and cried:
"That's what I say—the brutes. I never saw such a piece of heartless indecency. There's the poor old thing, actually dressed up in her Sunday best, standing outside the wood shed door. Read what it says—'Mrs. Dengate at the door of the wood shed, where she found her husband's body.' How ever could they have made her do it?"
"They can't have any human feelings."
The two women bent their heads together over the page scanning and skimming.[Pg 187]
A VILLAGE TRAGEDY FARM LABOURER'S SUICIDE Sensational details From our Special Correspondent
Mrs. Tracey suddenly crushed the Post into a ball, ignoring the fact that Mrs. Peel had not quite finished reading it.
"We must go round at once and see her. Someone may have shown her a copy. We must prepare her, or at least try and cheer her up a bit."
They set off for Prospect Cottages, where they found Mrs. Dengate hanging out her washing, and brooding over the newly-realized fact that Mr. Dengate's death would about halve her weekly labours at the wash-tub and clothes-line.
"Good morning, Mrs. Dengate. We just came round in case you've seen the papers. Has anybody shown you a copy of the Picture Post?"
"Well, then, if they do, don't you look at it."
"But you probably know they've put in something about you after all?"
"I suppose they came back after we'd gone?"
"Well, I'm most dreadfully sorry. If I'd had any sense I'd have made you come up with me to the Hall. I ought to have known those men would stop at nothing. But it can't be helped now. You must try and forget all about it."[Pg 188]
Mrs. Dengate held her head low, fearing lest these ladies might read upon her face her joy in those six copies of the Picture Post, sent her direct from the offices of the Agglomerated Press, and now lying hidden and precious, wrapped in a clean towel under her mattress.
It was the first year since he was a boy that Paul Cockett had not spent his summer holiday at Brighton. He had gone regularly to Brighton ever since 1910, when Gell had taken him there—old Gell who talked of "London by the sea." Now Gell had died in the spring of 1937—the last wave of the ebbing influenza epidemic had caught him—and Cockett said that he "couldn't fancy Brighton alone." He anxiously questioned the other men at the office—what did they recommend? Their inspirations ranged from Eastbourne to Hastings—they were old fellows. Then young Somervell had burst in—the man who had come back last year so brown—and suggested the Channel Islands.
"I was over there last summer—first Guernsey and then Jersey and then Sark. Sark's the finest, but I expect you'd enjoy Guernsey better," and he looked at Cockett's widening girth.[Pg 190]
The Channel Islands did not appeal to Cockett. They lay outside the radius of his experience, almost of his imagination, but he was dimly aware that they involved a long sea journey, and he hated the sea except as a convenient and picturesque boundary to a well-laid-out parade. However, young Somervell persisted with his recommendations, and Cockett was flattered. He liked to group himself with the young men, now, when all of him was on the increase except his teeth and his hair—he would rather be hailed as one of them in Guernsey than exchange dignified salutes with the seniors on the front at Hastings. He felt vaguely that if he followed Somervell's advice he would be linking himself with the younger men at Duff's, whereas if he refused it he was irrevocably grouped with the old stagers.
So an early morning in August saw him land in Guernsey, feeling sick but very thankful, and after breakfast he had revived enough to devote himself to the sacred rite of planning his fourteen days.
His zeal as a camp-follower of youth had led him into rashness. He had actually committed himself to a week in Sark. Somervell had gone there direct, with two other men. He spoke to them of Cockett as "an old sport" but was careful to take a room for him at the Dixcart Hotel, while he himself stopped at the Bel-Air.
"We don't want too much of him," he said, "but it'll be fun showing him round."
Somervell belonged to that not inconsiderable number of people who are place-mad. He would enthusiastically have shown his worst bore round any place that had touched his maniacal spot, so it was not such a rousing [Pg 191] compliment as Cockett took it to be when he found him awaiting the Guernsey boat at the Creux harbour.
"I thought if I came down we'd have time to go somewhere before lunch," said Somervell cheerfully; "you can have your things sent straight to the hotel, and we've just time to go to Derrible and back. You ought to see the Creux Derrible. Or we might go to Les Laches."
Cockett was ready for either. He had enjoyed his passage in the little tourist-crowded steamer, which reminded him pleasantly of Brighton.
So his luggage was handed over to the Dixcart porter, and he set off beside Somervell's swinging tread.
"Whew, I didn't like that," he remarked, as they came out of the tunnel that connects the Creux harbour with the Creux road.
"Like what?" asked Somervell.
"I dunno—that place; like a vault—like caves . . . it's the rocks, I think."
Somervell laughed, and then realized the other was mopping his forehead.
"Good heavens, man!—if you're going to feel like that about the tunnel . . . wait till you've seen the Creux Derrible, that's all."
With which threat he swung the pace up the road and across by La Forge to the high downs.
The blue sky bore the white streaks of a racing wind, and the same white streaks flashed and broke in the still deeper blue of the sea, against which the rocks showed pink and almost lucent with the sun. Cockett wondered how they were to get down into the bay, but he followed Somervell obediently, first through the heather and then [Pg 192] over the rough hot rocks, dropping and swinging down from slab to slab.
Just at the bottom there was a wilderness of piled rocks grown over with seaweed. These not only betrayed the feet, but seemed to Cockett peculiarly horrible by reason of their shape. Their tops were mostly round, and seaweed grew from the centre and fell down the sides like hair—they were round and brown and slimy, and with the hairy seaweed made Cockett think of the heads of drowned people. The fear that he experienced as he climbed over them was not only the fear of missing his foothold on their slipperiness—it seemed to be in some way a fear of themselves.
"Whew!" He gave his usual explanation of relief when he found himself on the sand. The tide was coming in, and Somervell said they must hurry if they wanted to see the Creux Derrible. Cockett did not particularly want to see it, but he hurried nevertheless and was properly amazed at its height and its solemn gape to the sky. Though so much more obviously terrific, it did not give him the same uncomfortable feeling as the rocks.
"I think we'll just have time to look at the other caves," said Somervell with a glance at the sea. "The tide comes up jolly quickly here—that's what makes it so exciting—but I don't suppose you'd mind getting your feet wet, would you?"
They accordingly went into the cave next to the Creux, a curious V-shaped cavern, consisting of two passages, one with a double entrance. The walls were slippery and black as an Ethiopian's skin, and underfoot were shallow, purplish pools.
"I hear they've got some fine caves at Hastings," [Pg 193] panted Cockett as he slithered along against the wall, for in spite of Somervell's happy surmise he had a real objection to wetting his feet.
His companion's snort of contempt found so many echoes that it seemed much more than Somervell who expressed an entirely low opinion of the Hastings caves.
"Used by smugglers and early Christians and the like," said Cockett. "Now you couldn't do much with smugglers and early Christians here. I guess the tide comes right in, judging by the wet."
"Guess it does—right up to the roof—and we'll be having it on us in a minute if you're not spry. Egad! I'd no idea it was so close, but it's always like that here."
They had come to the double entrance of the farther passage, and outside it was a wave, which suddenly dashed itself in two against the dividing rock, and plunged into the cavern in two separate, then mingling, streams of heavy green water that seemed to fill the whole cave with a cold, choking spindrift.
Cockett emitted a feeble squawk. He was carried right up against the wall, and then, as the wave ebbed, staggered forward into a snare of rocks and hissing, flowing channels.
"Hi! hurry out!" was Somervell's unnecessary advice. Cockett hurried desperately, but his feet were not accustomed to such casual going; he did nothing but flounder, and before he could get out another wave caught him. From a ledge outside the door Somervell saw it go in and swirl him round—then it drew out, and in the wake of it came Cockett, staggering and stumbling over the round, drowned heads of the rocks.[Pg 194]
Somervell laughed heartily till he caught sight of the elder man's face, with its purple cheeks and bulging eyes.
"I say, I'm awfully sorry. I'm afraid you've got wet."
"Take me out of this—take me out of this, I say."
"All right, come along—we shan't get another ducking. I hope that's an old suit."
Cockett could not speak as he sprinted across the small strip of sand remaining, and with Somervell's help scaled the rocks and the cliff and was up at last on the Derrible down among the blue scabious and the heather.
Then his face looked a degree less drawn, and he waved an arm tragically towards the bay where the waves were tumbling.
"Whew!" he said.
Somervell thought him rather ridiculous.
"I've had closer shaves than out. Even ten minutes later we could have got out."
"It was the feeling," said Cockett, "the feeling—the feeling that it was wanting to drown you."
"What was wanting to drown you?"
"I dunno—but I'd a sort of feeling as that place I was in was wanting to get me . . . it was trying for me . . . I can't bear those rocks."
"That's your first whiff of the Sark atmosphere. It's horribly sinister," said Somervell proudly and cheerfully. "It's what you call Malign—just that part of the island between tides, the forty feet or so where the seaweed is."
"Yes, it's where the seaweed is."
"Oh, other people have noticed it besides you—I feel it myself—appallingly. But I'm used to it now. Come along to the hotel—you'll be wanting to change your things."
Cockett not only wanted to change them but to pack [Pg 195] them up and go home again. However, he was ashamed of his desires and said nothing about them. That evening he watched rather regretfully the steamer start back for Guernsey.
He tried to whip up his enthusiasm for the island by studying the guide-book. Usually guide-books inspired and excited him—on holiday they were his staple literature. But this guide to Sark only stirred up his fears more darkly. He disliked the place-names, they were foreign and unfriendly—Pegane Bay, les Autelets, Moie Fano. But most unfriendly, almost terrible, he found the names of the rocks: "Demies, or rocks that uncover at half-tide," "Baveuse, or slobberer—a rock on which the sea is constantly breaking," "Dents, or teeth; dangerous reefs," "Moie, a steep rocky promontory, or detached islet," "Saignie, blood-red," "Grune, a name frequently given to rocks that are rather flat on top." The word Grune filled him for some reason with especial horror. All night long the names of these rocks, as the pirates of long ago had named them, jostled in his dreams with the experiences of the day—the horrible masses of seaweed that the rocks wore in Derrible Bay, the cave of the double entrance where the waves had drenched him, and the rocks had laid snares for his feet.
However, the next morning the sunlight came spilling into his room with all the reckless glory of Channel Island fine weather. His breakfast was good and substantial—the butter was yellow as gorse and fresh as falling rain. When Somervell's voice called to him outside the window he responded almost joyfully, and as they walked in the green sun-freckled shadows of the Dixcart valley, the terror seemed far away.[Pg 196]
"By George!" said Cockett, "what flowers!"
Somervell assented cheerfully, and held forth at great length on the seasons as Sark celebrated them with primroses and gorse and bluebells and thrift and foxgloves and heather. But he had not taken Cockett out to pick flowers. He bore him off to the Orgeries, so that he could see what the waves could do in Sark. Cockett they raged and roared and tore at the rocks below, and watched them respectfully from the top of the cliff, as slobbered and lathered over the great Baveuse out beyond the Petites Côtes. He felt rather as a man feels looking down into a den of bears, which cannot reach him, but would very much like to.
"We'll go to the Goulliot caves this evening," said Somervell, "the tide'll be right then, though you'll have to do a bit of wading."
It was extraordinary, he afterwards remarked to his two friends Smith and Mackintosh, what bad luck the old merchant seemed to have. The very first day he arrived he had got a nasty wetting and scare in Derrible, and then on the next day he had nearly skidded off the top of that rock in the Goulliot passage.
"If you chaps hadn't been with me, he'd have gone."
"He said his feet suddenly went from under him."
"So they well might—there was a lot of seaweed about; but he had rope—soled shoes—I told him to get 'em."
"He said he stubbed his toe against something, and began to slide."
"He said some mighty queer things altogether—he said he felt as if the rock was wanting to push him off."
Smith and Mackintosh laughed immoderately, but Somervell launched out on the subject of the Spirit of [Pg 197] Sark, using the words "malign" and "sinister" a great many times.
As for poor Cockett, he felt a broken man. He lay awake that night repeating and enlarging on his desire to take the Guernsey boat next day, till finally it became a resolution and was communicated to Somervell the next morning.
"Don't be an ass," said the younger man. "Excuse me, Cockett, but really you'd be a fool if you left Sark before your week is up. Even a week isn't nearly time enough to see the island properly. It would be a shame to go back to a stuffy, sandy hole like Guernsey just because you've had a couple of small adventures—I tell you that sort of thing's always happening here, bound to, considering the nature of the place, and nobody minds."
"It isn't the things happening that I mind so much," said Cockett, "it's the way they happen."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I've a feeling—I know it sounds silly, but I can't help it—I've a feeling as if the rocks 'ated me."
Cockett had not dropped an aitch for twenty-five years.
"We all feel that," said Somervell, "it's the spirit of the place—sort of malign, you know—it was inhabited by pirates once, and you bet they did some horrid things."
"It isn't pirates I'm feeling, it's rocks."
"It's all the same thing. My ghost! You should go to some of the places here—I'd like to take you into Three Brothers Bay, or the Caverne des Lamentes . . . and the tide would be right for the Pot this afternoon; if you went down there. . . ."[Pg 198]
But Cockett was so frantic in his protestations that Somervell saw that any insistence would mean his decamping. So for a day he gave in to the old fellow, and took him for a walk on the cliffs.
Cockett liked the Grève de la Ville; its gentle slopes appealed to him, with the soft lap of dark green waters. The next morning when, to his relief, Somervell went out fishing in a boat mercifully too small to hold any addition to his party, the older man took a magazine and sat in one of the soft green elbows of the path that led down to the bay in comfortable curves. Cockett had brought his lunch, and he ate it in the simmering quiet and heat, and afterwards he had a bit of a doze—such as he used to have after dinner every day at Brighton.
He woke feeling refreshed and at peace with the world, though he was vaguely conscious of the memories of bad dreams, such as nearly always troubled his sleep in Sark. He stretched himself luxuriously in the warmth—what about a bit of exercise? He felt he needed it after sitting still for so long. He might toddle down and have a look at the bay.
The gentle slope of the green path invited him—this was not as other bays in Sark, of fierce and precipitous descent. Below in the curve of the shore he saw a haze of white shingle in the sun. Little puffs and bolsters of fog were now afloat between sky and sea, and their downy softness pleased him as he watched it against the fierce blues and pinks and greens of sea and rocks and sky. The last few yards of the track, when it became rubbed out in a desert of slabbing rock, brought back a little of his old alarm. But it vanished when he found himself on [Pg 199] the shingle, looking towards a high, arched rock at the southern end of the bay.
That must be the Gulls' Chapel. He had read about it in the guide-book—the name attracted him, and he felt he would like to have a look. It would be easy enough to reach—though he knew nothing about tides, and was indeed ignorant to the point of not knowing whether this one was coming in or going out. He set off round the bay and then stopped, for in front of him was a mass of those head-like rocks, drowned heads with their draggled hair close-packed together, and bringing him that indefinite yet violent sense of fear and evil. . . . He drew back, then suddenly felt ashamed of himself. He was a fool to be upset like this by a set of rocks; after all there were rocks at Brighton. He wanted to see the Gulls' Chapel, and he would never see anything in Sark if he was afraid of rocks. So he went forward, climbing slowly and carefully over the drowned heads. But he was not wearing his rope-soled shoes, and his feet slipped dangerously on the seaweed; also he soon realized that the tide was right up between him and the Gulls' Chapel—he could never get there. He had better go back. He turned about and then saw to his horror that one of those floating bolsters of fog had crept up behind him and had completely shrouded his retreat to the path and safety. Meanwhile he felt the horror grow, at once vague and fierce, spiritual yet vilely animal, something altogether strange and terrible to his experience. Then a ghastly thing happened—the sea ran suddenly in among the rocks in a long, bubbling slide of water, and all the seaweed on them lifted and floated round them . . . they seemed to be coming alive. . . .[Pg 200]
With a loud yell of undisguised animal fear, Cockett turned and ran to his only visible safety. The shingle and the path were cut off by fog, and it never once occurred to him to try to pierce that barrier—he knew instinctively that if he did so the rocks would get him. So he made straight for the cliff, where some winter watercourse had ploughed a funnel-shaped descent. He went sprawling and staggering over the rocks, till at last he had laid hold of the mixed earth and granite of the cliff, and was pulling himself up by toe-holds and finger-holds to the first tuft of green.
No one who knew anything of Sark would have attempted such an ascent. But Cockett was ignorant, and mortal fear was in him.
He reached the top of the cliff breathless, his clothes torn, his face purple, his eyes starting out of his head. But all physical pain and discomfort was swallowed up in one thought—he must leave Sark at once, this very day. If he stopped a day longer the rocks would get him—they had nearly got him then, and next time he would be unable to cheat them. Even the serene and comfortable Grève de la Ville had turned traitor. He could not bear any more of it—he must go.
He told as much, incoherently, to Somervell, Smith and Mackintosh at the Bel-Air. He went straight to their hotel, without changing or brushing his clothes, and tumbled out his story. They heard it with a mixture of impatience and delight and incredulity.
"The Grève de la Ville!" said Smith, "why, it's as safe as Margate sands."
"But I tell you it 'ates me—the rocks 'ate me—nothing's safe for me here."[Pg 201]
"It's the Spirit of Sark," said Somervell awefully.
"I'm going home—I'm going back to Guernsey, anyhow, to-night."
"You can't do that—the steamer left an hour ago."
"But I can hire a boat—you said there was a motorboat I could hire."
"Not to-night—no one will take you over to-night. There's a fog coming up, for one thing."
"To-morrow morning, then. I'll go the first thing tomorrow."
"Don't be an ass," said Somervell; "you'll regret it all your life if you don't stay a week. To-morrow I'm going to take you to Rouge Terrier, and the tide will be right, in the afternoon, for the Gorey Souffleur."
Cockett saw then that he would get no help from them, and driven by despair into cunning, he feinted. His defence collapsed, and the expedition to Rouge Terrier and the Gorey Souffleur was settled as to time and meeting-place. Then he set out dejectedly for his hotel. He knew that only his own exertions could save him from the murderous hate of the rocks.
At the Dixcart Hotel he made inquiries. They were afraid that Durand's motor-boat was booked next day—indeed, they knew it. But he might try Hamon.
So that evening Cockett walked up to La Collinette and then to La Ville, to interview prospective boatmen. It was August and fine weather, and booking was brisk. He could not find anyone to take him over. His anxiety was pathetic, as having been sent from Hamon to Carre, from Carre to Vibart, and from Vibart to de Carteret he still encountered failure. It almost seemed as if he would have to stop in that damned island till the Guernsey boat [Pg 202] left in the evening—and that would give the rocks time . . . de Carteret wondered whether the poor gentleman had urgent business or a dying relative. That was what made him suggest Brasseur—otherwise he would not have recommended Brasseur, who had only just come out of one of his bad times, and had not yet taken up fishing again. However, he could now be guaranteed sober for a fortnight, and de Carteret had no real qualms in pointing out his corrugated iron roof to the frenzied Cockett.
As Brasseur was usually drunk for half the month, his bookings were scanty for the other half. He readily promised his boat for the next morning. They had better start at eight—that would be right for the tide. So Cockett went home happy.
But the next morning brought fresh trouble. The waiter told him at his early breakfast that there was a lot of mist about, and that possibly the boatmen would refuse to cross.
"They must cross," said Cockett, "I must get over"—and tipped the waiter desperately, as if he thought that somehow his largess would react on Brasseur.
At a quarter to eight he was down at the harbour. The sea was a queer slate colour, with blue gaps to match the blue gaps in the sky. Long puffs and rolls of mist obscured the dim violet line of France, and trailed up towards the sun, streaking sky and sea impartially together.
"Eet is going to be very thick outside, saar," said Brasseur. "We will not cross just yet?"
"I must cross," said Cockett, "I can't wait. And"—bluffing in his desperation—"it's a beautiful morning. Only a little heat mist about."[Pg 203]
"Eet will not do, saar," continued Brasseur, "that fog—that come along when we get outside."
"Never mind"—Cockett was not afraid of fog or of sea.
"It cannot be done, saar."
Cockett turned furiously on him.
"I will pay you extra," he said. "I will pay you double, if you're afraid."
The last word was a bad word to use to Brasseur. His face darkened.
"Very well, saar, if you go, we go."
Some conversation took place in incomprehensible French between him and the other men. Then he beckoned to Cockett, who took up his portmanteau. One of the fishermen spoke to him just as he was going to embark.
"You had better not go, saar," he said, but Cockett pretended not to hear.
Half a dozen fishermen in blue jerseys stood on the harbour wall watching Brasseur's little motor-boat, l'Alouette, go chugging out of the basin into the open sea. Brasseur held the tiller, while a boy of about fifteen sat by the engine. A race of little waves was tumbling through the Goulet, as the Alouette swung her nose north-east, but the sea lay in calm streaks of slaty violet. There was no wind, and every cleft and ledge in the rocks stood out clearly—it was a lovely morning, Cockett told himself and Brasseur; he was too ignorant to miss the line of the French coast, or to notice that something like a great feather-bed lay where Jersey should have been.
It was only when he saw the toothed ridge of the Grande Moie disappearing into a fleece that he realized [Pg 204] the possibilities of the weather. Brasseur swore as he navigated the channel between the Moie and the coast; but the mist did not come any nearer. The Petite Moie was clear of it, but it was floating in wisps and strands outside the Grève de la Ville, veiling the tops of Noire Pierre and Dodon. Suddenly Cockett became frightened. He saw a fresh chance for the enemy.
"Are there any rocks about here?" he asked, "that we might run into?"
"Oh, my Gar! plenty of rocks," said Brasseur spitefully, "but we are not going to hit any."
Cockett gripped the handle of his portmanteau, and stared straight ahead. A little rug of mist fell over them, then fluttered away. Then suddenly a great curtain seemed to close, shutting out coast and sea and moies in one palpable and brine-scented whiteness. Brasseur swore again, as Guille, the boy, shut off the engine . . . the little boat drifted—there was a great lap-lapping of water all round them—Cockett's heart felt as cold and clammy as the fog. Then shapes began to loom out of the whiteness—they glided under the lea of the Noire Pierre, and at last the white darkness lifted, or rather passed over in a flutter of rags, and Cockett could see all the rocky tail of the Eperquerie hanging out behind the monster which was Sark.
Guille had restarted the engine, and the Alouette rushed gaily forward. The sun was shining on the sea, stroking with gold the tops of the little waves in the race. Cockett would have liked to ask his boatmen if they were out of danger now, but he knew that they were not on speaking terms. He had both injured and insulted Brasseur, and he could never explain his urgency.[Pg 205]
Damn! There was that mist again. It was coming in a wall from the end of the Eperquerie.
They were in it—Guille ought to stop the engine—no, let them get through quickly. . . . Crash!—and a feeling as of vast treachery as the solid things of the world disappeared . . . green . . . how strong to attack, how weak to support . . . air—just one breath which was half lost in spluttering . . . oh! how high they were flinging him, and drowning him as they flung . . . but here was something solid, here was the world once more. . . .
It was a very little world, just three feet by two and a half, but it seemed enormous to Cockett as he clung to it. He drew himself up on to it, so that even his feet were out of the water. He wanted to feel the whole of himself on dry land. Dry land was a euphemism for the top of the Moie Rouget. It was not dry, had never been dry. Nor was it land—it was just a cushion of seaweed on the top of a small rock submerged at all but very low tide. But for just that moment Cockett loved it more than Columbus had loved the whole continent of America.
He crouched there looking round him. The fog was everywhere—he could see nothing of Brasseur or the boat. They had vanished. Had both the men been drowned? He had heard no cries. Now all was silence except for the soft lap-lapping of the water against the rock. He clung to his rock as to a beloved thing, his fingers knotted into its oozy hair. To it he owed his life . . . if it had not been there. . . .
"Whew!" said Cockett.
A sudden great heave of green water over his feet. . . . There was no foam, no breaking of the wave, just [Pg 206] a huge green swell. Was the tide rising? He knew nothing about such things, but as the top of the rock was very wet and thickly grown with seaweed he gathered that it must be submerged for the greater part of each tide. In that case he was lost—he could not swim, and the thickness of the mist both veiled and muffled him. The rocks had not turned friendly after all, they were merely giving him a slow death instead of a quick one. His teeth began to chatter. There was another great swell of water—it lifted itself against the rock and with it lifted the seaweed, standing up straight beneath it like a forest under the sea, no longer the draggled weed of its waterless standing, but a thing alive, triumphant, mocking the thing which was to die.
Another heave, and this time the wave broke. The rock must be a Baveuse, or slobberer, patching the sea with a circle of white scum. Soon it would have slobbered him off into those thick green waves smooth as oil under the lee of the Bec du Nez. The tide was certainly rising, and the rock, which had been as a dead, exhausted thing, began to revive and come to life. The seaweed stood up and waved—he could see ranks and ranks of it on the ledges under water, here and there a lump of dull-coloured jelly became a glowing flower, little growths like toadstools made country dells of the hollows, and then the rock seemed to find a voice, it no longer just softly lapped with the sea; "glug-glug," sang the waters in its crannies, "glug-glug." The song became louder, it roared. "I've got you, Paul Cockett, I've got you. You thought you could run away from me, and all you've done is to run into me. Ha ha!—or rather, glug-glug!"
His hands were awash now, as he clung to its waving [Pg 207] and heaving mane. He had stopped his useless cries of help, and was praying—praying with all his might—to the god of the Brighton Pier. That pier, with its smooth dusty boards, its iron supports, its turnstile links with the solid ground, had become a god and a heaven to him as he clung to the mocking and vanishing Moie Rouget. Then suddenly, as if in answer to his prayer, an idea came to him.
"I must let go," he said to himself, "there's no good hanging on—it wants to drown me. I'd better trust to the sea; it's safer than this blasted rock, for it doesn't mean any 'arm."
He had heard that by holding oneself rigid one could float for a few minutes, indeed he had tried it in the safe shelter of a Brighton breakwater. He might be carried ashore (his ignorance was bliss), anyhow he wouldn't have to die on that rock, watching it come alive. . . .
With a fresh mutter of prayer he let go. He felt the seaweed clinging to his ankles as if it would hold him back, but the next minute he was floating off on a huge green swell, floating rigid on his back as he had intended. Spray and fog caked his lips . . . and then suddenly the sun was in his eyes, burning down out of a fiery blue sky. He twisted, struggled, and was under, swallowing water. . . .
There were boards under his head, wet wooden boards. . . . He must be on the Brighton Pier . . . in Heaven. No, it could not be Heaven, for the angels wore yachting caps, nor yet the Brighton Pier, for there sat Brasseur and the boy, drenched and chattering. He sighed deeply and someone gave him a drink of brandy. He saw the [Pg 208] words "Ste. Anne" painted in big black letters . . . then he realized that he was on a motor-boat, but not the Alouette. She was a big boat with a twin screw, and there must be about twelve people on board.
After he had answered various inquiries as to how he felt, he had some confused impression of explanations given. The Ste. Anne was a motor-boat from Jersey, which had strayed from her course to Guernsey in the fog. She had picked up Brasseur and Guille clinging to a spar of the smashed Alouette and they had cruised round looking for the passenger. They had almost given up the search when he floated out of the dense pillow of fog which smothered the Moie Rouget. The weather seemed clearer now to the north-west, and they ought to reach Guernsey in less than an hour, but they would first put him and his boatmen ashore at the Eperquerie landing.
The last remark alone stood clearly out of the hum in Cockett's head. He became frantic and begged the skipper to take him on to Guernsey.
"If I stop—they'll get me—they'll get me for certain," he roared.
The master of the Ste. Anne wondered what the Englishman had done to have the Sark connétables after him, but as he was not more inclined than most men to take the side of the law in its conflict with the individual, and as Cockett was now on his knees offering him all his worldly possessions, Mr. St. Helier of Azette readily agreed to take him over to St. Peter Port, after depositing a gibbering and frenzied Brasseur among sympathetic souls at the Eperquerie.
At St. Peter Port, Cockett, without luggage and with [Pg 209] his wet clothes dried on him, took the Southampton boat. He spent the last of his holiday in his own house at Lewisham, and when he went back to the office there was a coolness between him and Somervell. Indeed, Somervell made matters quite unpleasant by telling people that Cockett had run away from Sark in the early morning without paying his hotel bill. It was a great relief when, the following June, Somervell left Duff's for a better berth at Easterby Mortlock's. Cockett now definitely belongs to the "old fellows," but he does not go with them to Eastbourne or Hastings. He always spends his summer holiday inland; he says that he finds sea-air a little too bracing.
When Lucy Palmer was picked up after the accident and taken to St. George's Hospital, her bag was found to contain elevenpence in cash, a copy of Old Moore's Almanac for 1922, a rosary, and a photograph. Lucy Palmer herself was dead, and it fell on me as her only relation—though not a very near one—to sort her little affairs. These did not involve much beyond the payment of her week's rent and the arrangement of her funeral. In a very short time her traces were gone, except for that rather pathetic little handbag and its contents.
One or two people said it was strange that a sensible girl like Lucy should have carried about Old Moore's [Pg 211] Almanac, but I gathered that it was only another instance of her weakness for the undeserving poor—those disreputable-looking old men and blear-eyed women who hawk about such things as almanacs and scentless lavender, whom Lucy could never resist, though we had told her again and again that she was encouraging vice, and that it was people like her who were the bane of real charity, etc. etc. She used to say she couldn't help it, because they reminded her of her parents—which was incredible as well as disrespectful, her father having been a smart Leamington physician (who had merely failed to leave his daughter provided for at his unexpected death).
The elevenpence—a sixpence and five coppers—I deplored, because when I met her two days earlier she had assured me she had plenty of money, and I was sorry to see her, not only encouraging untruthfulness in other people, but practising it herself. The rosary was part of her religion. A lot of things had been real to her which are rather vague to most people. Like George Meredith, I approve of religion in women, and set the seal of my approval on Lucy's by paying for a Mass to be said for her in the little church among the garages at the back of Sloane Square—St. Mary-of-the-Mews she used to call it—where she had been a worshipper.
And now, last of all, for the photograph. This does not on the surface provide the sentimental clue to her story, for it was not the photograph of a person, but of a place. It was the photograph of a farmhouse, which perhaps did not look its best so taken, being a stern Tudor building with hard corners and sharp gables. [Pg 212] There were no surroundings to soften or distract—but I recognized it at once. It was Barline.
Two years ago—in a moment of confidence which had never since been recaptured between us—Lucy had told me what had happened to her at Barline; and, of course, I knew the place myself—I was rather friendly with Howard Martin at one time. I never knew there was anything up between him and Lucy—he was much too clever, and she much too quiet. I was surprised at her telling me that day, but women sometimes have these moments of expansion with men they don't love. I hadn't quite believed then what she had told me—it sounded far-fetched, somehow. I haven't got that place-feeling myself—give me flesh and blood, even if it is liable to be knocked down and killed at Hyde Park Corner. But this photograph made me almost believe—or why had she carried it about with her like that in her bag, the place that had taken him from her?
Of course, if ever one could have hesitated between a person and a place, that place would have been Barline. It lies in that corner of England which to me, perhaps by accident of birth, has most true and most ancient magic—that part of the south coast where Sussex and Kent flow together in the marshes by the mouth of the Rother. Rye and Winchelsea, the Ancient Towns, have been left behind, and all that remains of England is that flat green land which was once under the sea. Perhaps this is the secret of its appeal—it is new-born, not quite adult country, not quite used to us men and our ways.
I know this sounds nonsense, but when you come to think that long after the Normans were here those green miles between Rye and Broomhill were still the sea's bed, [Pg 213] still worn by the Channel tides, still with the castled ships sailing over them, that Camber Sands, in fact, are some hundreds of years younger than Cadborough cliffs— There, I said I could not understand that feeling for place, and you'll say I have it myself. Of course, I have it in a degree. What I can't understand is a woman having it—they're so much more concrete than we are; and yet perhaps it wasn't so much that Lucy had it as that she understood Howard's having it—and that's queer too.
Howard hadn't always lived at Barline, though it had belonged to his people for years, and he had been born there. He had returned about five years ago, and bought it back in a foolish and complicated manner. I don't know how many mortgages deep it was. The immense, rambling manor house had been long split up into cottages—he lived in one, and his workpeople lived in the others. He did a lot to improve his own place—stripped off the plaster, revealing the beautiful old beam-work, dug out a couple of Tudor fireplaces, and took out the modern windows, fitting casements with his own hands. You could see that he loved the place, but I didn't know how much. Lucy did.
"It was almost human to him, I think, Willoughby," she said, on that one occasion when I had her confidence. "He was always pottering around doing little things for it—you might almost say waiting on it. Every time I came there was something new—a shelf put up or a beam uncovered indoors, or a bit of roofing or paving out of doors. All his childhood's memories were mixed up in it—I think that had something to do with his feeling—and then after the Great War—you know he bought it directly [Pg 214] he was demobilized—he told me he had thought of it all the time he was in Flanders. He'd forgotten it somehow till then. But out in Flanders he began to think of it again, till it became a sort of obsession. Then he went and saw it when he had his leave, and after that—well, England simply was Barline."
"I'm glad he's got it, then."
"So am I."
"Do you think he'll do much with it?"
"Oh, he will in time. At present he's terribly handicapped for want of money. He can't even afford to live in it properly. Of course, he wants to make it into the manor house it used to be, but now it's all sliced up into cottages, and he and his labourers live together under one roof."
"That's economical, anyhow."
"Yes, but he wants Barline to be what it used to be when it was a manor of the Oxenbridges."
"How long d'you think it'll take him to do that?"
"He gave himself fifteen years, if he's clever; it's something to do with mortgages falling in. I never could understand mortgages."
I thought she looked a little sad, and I began to wonder what had happened during that March and April of a year ago, when she seemed to have learnt so much of Howard's ambition. She had gone to Rye to make sketches—a commission, I believe it was—and I had asked him to call on her and show her Barline.
"I suppose you're not going to Rye again this year?" I fished, rather clumsily.
"No; I've nothing to go for. I only went because of that order of Bright's."[Pg 215]
"But don't you want to see what Howard's made of Barline since last spring?"
"Willoughby," said Lucy, very quietly, "don't!"
I was ashamed of myself, for I had certainly been fishing, and had caught something which my cousin would have preferred should stay under the water. I don't know why I had never before suspected anything between her and Howard—perhaps because his references to her had always been so detached (and he was an expansive person), while she had never before spoken of him save as the amiable owner of a sketchable house, whose attentions had relieved the blank of a lonely and unseasonable visit to a dead-and-alive town. I was preparing to recapture my savoir-faire and cover my lapse, when she suddenly broke in upon me.
"I expect you've been wondering why I never married him?"
I hadn't—till the last five minutes; but I certainly had since then, so I nodded.
"Well, I'll tell you, Willoughby—we've always been such friends, and I think you ought to know. Besides, it'll do me good to tell someone—though I don't suppose you'll understand."
This challenged me.
"Why shouldn't I understand?"
"Because I don't think I quite understand myself," she replied disarmingly. "But I accept it—I see that he was right."
Then she told me her story.
It appears that Howard had called to see her very soon after her arrival in Rye. He had not found the society of his neighbourhood exactly stimulating, and was looking [Pg 216] forward to the chance of meeting a young woman who, on my assurance, had both brains and looks. I should not have assured every man this, for Lucy's intellect and appearance were not of that order which compels acknowledgment. She was pretty, with that kind of quiet prettiness which you notice most at the second glance, and in the same way she was clever, but not otherwise. However, I knew Howard's tastes—his dislike of the striking and emphatic—so I recommended Lucy to him with a certain amount of confidence.
I was right. He liked her at once, and showed his regard by offering her his most signal favour—an invitation to Barline. He was usually inclined to keep Barline in the background till he was quite sure if he liked you, but he offered it to Lucy at once. She came, and passed safely through the severe ordeal of her first visit. Howard was a terrible chap, and subjected us all to merciless tests in relation to Barline. You did not know you had failed till your invitations ceased. His standard was a high one—men who tried to sell him things on the strength of what they saw him without, and women who talked of lady-dogs, equally fell short of it.
Lucy triumphed, and was asked again—and it was on that second occasion that he told her that he loved her. It was quick work, but Howard's was a quick temperament, and Lucy had done everything right from the start. She continued to do right, too, even to the extent of falling in love with him herself. Poor little Lucy! It was the first time, I think, that she had fallen in love with a quiet, solid, non-intellectual chap like Howard—artists at the Good Intent had been more in her line up till then, though she had never cared for the species, and her [Pg 217] few affairs had been disappointing. Now she had something much more satisfactory—also Howard was the first man she had ever met who seemed in a position to marry her. He was not rich, and had heavy burdens on his back, but he had a home, he had roots, and, oh, how much she wanted both, poor little Lucy!
There is something dangerous about the love of a woman over thirty. It is dangerous because it is unadventurous. She no longer wants just glamour and excitement, which are easy enough to give her; but peace and quiet and settlement, which are very difficult. The "will to safety" grows on women with their years, and Lucy's life had encouraged the growth; alone from her teens, earning her living without much talent or training in an overcrowded market, no wonder she wanted peace and protection, however humble. I don't mean that she didn't love Howard Martin (she spent nearly five minutes trying to tell me how much she loved him), but that was the form her love took—marriage, and he never spoke of marriage.
At first she thought it was understood. Here was a man with a home and a secure, if small, income, who had told her he loved her—his love was bound to mean marriage; he wasn't like those boys at the Good Intent. But in a few days she saw that she must revise this idea. If he had meant to marry her he would have talked of it—made plans—but all he did was to see her every day and tell her that he loved her, in a voice which was beginning to grow rather sad. Every day she came to Barline, and either they sat in his study (with its ribbing of ship's timbers), beside the Tudor hearth, watching the logs split and burn with [Pg 218] a blue flame—she said the fire at Barline always burnt with a curious humming noise, as if there were a kettle on it—or else they walked together in the orchard, which was just breaking into blossom, or down by the Pannell Sewer among Howard's young lambs; and always he spoke love's language of kisses and broken words, but never said quite what she wanted to hear.
"Oh, don't think I'm mercenary, Willoughby! It isn't that I'm just out for marriage, but love takes me all the way there now. Whenever I thought of Howard I wanted to be with him always—wanted to do little, menial things for him—wanted to see him sitting at the other end of the breakfast-table, reading dull extracts from The Times—wanted to hear him say 'my wife' when he was talking to other people—wanted all I felt for him to be settled, established, acknowledged. Oh, I know it's dull, but I don't think it's mercenary!"
As time went on she began to wonder what was keeping him back. He was over thirty-five, he had enough money to support a wife, he had no relations or others dependent on him, and he loved her. There must be some obstacle. She made all sorts of conjectures, from the usual entanglement down to an early, secret marriage.
"Then I began to get worried. I felt I couldn't let things go on like this, leading nowhere. But I couldn't ask him. All I could do was to wait, knowing that in time he'd have to speak and tell me why he was not going to marry me. I didn't know how bad it would be when that time came."
She hid her face in her hands for a moment, and I [Pg 219] saw them trembling. I felt my cheeks growing hot with my indignation against Howard, and hoped she would not look up till it was gone; for I wanted to hear the rest. The next minute she dropped her hands, and evidently noticed nothing, for she continued:
"It was at the beginning of April, about four o'clock in the afternoon, and we were sitting in his study at Barline. The sun was pouring in, and shining on the hearthstones, putting out the fire—oh, I know that's a fallacy, you needn't interrupt, but it's a fallacy that always works, so it might as well be true. We were sitting there, and he said:
"'Well, Luce, what are we going to do about it?'
"Of course, I knew what he meant, so I didn't pretend not to. I said:
"'You mean about ourselves?'
"And he said: 'Yes, ourselves. You know I can't marry you, dear.'
"I didn't know it; I had only guessed it, which isn't the same thing. Knowing is much worse. For a moment I couldn't speak. I felt the tears filling my eyes, and then to my horror I was crying; I couldn't help myself; I was a fool.
"Of course, he was terribly upset—men always are when you cry. He was very sweet, though. He took me in his arms and said: 'Don't cry, little Luce, don't cry—I can't bear it. Oh, my dear, I thought you understood. I've been trying to tell you for so long.'
"Then I made up my mind that at least I'd know the reason why. You'll probably think me forward now, [Pg 220] as well as mercenary, but I wiped away my tears, and looked him in the face, and said:
"'Why can't you marry me, Howard?'
"He said nothing for a moment—I could hear the fire give a kind of sigh, and one of the logs shifted. Then he said:
"That was the reason he couldn't marry me, Willoughby."
"But"—I broke in—"I don't call that any reason at all. You were the very person for Barline—you loved it, you'd have been happy there. Surely he didn't doubt that?"
"No, of course he didn't, but that wasn't the difficulty. You see, his whole life was given to Barline and I could only come second. He'd made up his mind that he would make it again what it once was—the chief manor on the Rother Marshes. By degrees he'd get his workpeople out of the dwelling, and turn it into a manor house again; he'd pay off the mortgages, he'd buy back the land that had been sold to Crutch Farm and Pannell Farm, he'd make it what it was when the Oxenbridges used to live there. And if he married—oh, don't you see, it would do all that in completely, unless he married a rich wife. Of course, he said then he would never marry anyone as he couldn't marry me, but he'll change his mind about that. I don't mean that he'll marry for money—but where money is, like the man in Tennyson. Then he'll be able to buy back Barline—buy it back from all the people who have got little bits of it, make it the glorious place it used to be when King Edward [Pg 221] the First gave Hubert Oxenbridge the land that had just come out of the sea."
Her eyes were glowing—so were mine, but not with the same emotion.
"I never heard such nonsense," I exclaimed. "The chap could have married and done that, too. But even if he couldn't, what's Barline compared to ordinary human happiness? You'd be happier living with him in his slice of the dwelling-house than you'll either of you be when he's got his four hundred free acres and Tudor manor house with Miss Sadie Q. Vanderbogg's dollars."
"You don't understand," said Lucy.
"No—I don't. I don't understand how you could ever give him up to such an idea."
"I gave him up to Barline."
"That doesn't explain it."
"It does to me. Oh, Willoughby, directly I knew who my rival was, it was almost easy for me to let him go."
"Because I loved her too."
"Lucy, you're very nearly ridiculous."
"Not nearly, but quite. I know I am, and I don't really expect you to understand. But it's true—it's as I wrote to Howard: 'I can give you up to lovely Barline, for it is giving you up to life itself'; and it's as he wrote to me: 'People change and deceive us and fail us, but places never do—they're always the same.'"
"Then did you never see him again, since you both 'wrote'?"[Pg 222]
"No—not after that. It was better not. You see, he couldn't give me what I wanted and I couldn't take what he offered. I've got my religion, and of course I——" Lucy never could take up a superior attitude about her religion; she used to explain its prohibitions almost apologetically to us, whom I know she pitied for being without it. "Well, anyhow, it wouldn't have been right or fair for me to go on seeing him. Besides, he ought to marry some day—someone who'll be able to help him with Barline. I'd get in the way of that if I stood by."
"Now," I said, "I think you are being mercenary."
"Because I want Howard to have what he wants?"
"How do you know Barline is what he wants? He'll probably change his mind one day, and be bitterly sorry."
"If he were going to change he'd have changed before this—it happened over a year ago. Besides, I've seen enough of Howard, listened to him enough, to be quite sure that Barline is the big, lasting thing in his life, and that other things only come next, and for a time."
"Would you put a place before a person—before him?" I asked brutally.
"No—I wouldn't, but I can understand his doing it. In two months I had come to know Barline well enough to imagine, to understand. Oh, Willoughby, you can't think how dreadful it would have been if Howard and I had married, and one day I had seen that I had come between him and his place, and destroyed all his hopes for it. Oh, it's true what he said: 'People [Pg 223] change and fail us, but places never,' and if he'd failed the place——"
"I think it would have been an excellent thing, except that the man's too cold-blooded to deserve a wife. And you, Lucy, you're too sensitive, too suggestible; you've simply brought yourself by your sympathy to imagine that you understand what you don't—what no woman could, unless she were so detached as to be almost disembodied, which you aren't, my dear—so don't you think it."
I suppose it was my want of sympathy which checked her confidences. Anyhow, she said little more on the subject that time, and never alluded to it again. I made no attempt to revive it, for it made me furious to think of that man who had the inestimable offering of her love and swept it aside—for what? Four hundred acres of Sussex earth, so many tons of tiles and wood and stones. It was preposterous. I was furious with Howard, and furious with Lucy for saying she understood him.
That was two years ago—and Howard has not married his heiress, though I don't for a minute imagine he has kept faithful to Lucy's memory. Why should he? Lucy herself had at least one little affair since his—she didn't believe in memory worship. After all, most of us bury our dead more than once in a lifetime; indeed, most lives are like those pauper graveyards where one coffin is put in close above the other and there is no solid depth of earth.
But lovely Barline lives on still, unchanged through all these lives and deaths. Perhaps Howard and Lucy were right. But I won't say it for certain.
Maddox looked at the long line of poplar trees and sighed. An infinite relief was in his heart, and the day with its light clouds suddenly seemed brighter, as if the veil would part and show him the sun. Here at last was something he remembered, and the departed days began to flit back to him, bearing memories of an old red house with many windows, seen over a fence by a little boy who stood in an adventurous copse of rustling chestnut. . . . He leaned forward in the car and asked the driver to stop a moment. They halted at the end of the long avenue of poplar trees, just where the broken gate swung with its legend: "Palehouse."
This was it—here it was in the litter of his "orders to view."
"PALEHOUSE FARM. A fine old sixteenth-century house, perfectly restored and modernized. Three reception rooms. Seven bedrooms. Bathroom. Kitchen and offices. Charmingly laid out grounds, with tennis court and lily pond. Commodious farm buildings. Two cottages. In all 200 acres, mostly grass, but could be sold with less land. Five miles from town, shops and post office. . . ."
He need not worry about that, about any of it, really; for all he wanted was something he could remember—something of the past given back to him, to build a future with.[Pg 225]
He told the driver to go on, and the rattling Buick he had hired in Ashford clanked up the avenue. Memory changed, or rather failed him—he could not remember the poplar trees except as seen from the gate, nor could he remember ever having viewed the house from the front like this.
A huge wistaria vine hung over it, dripping a purple shower that obscured the windows. It was strange that he should never have seen it except from the chestnut copse.
Surely, since Palehouse was set next to Townhurst in the pattern of the Kentish weald, he would as a child have known the people there—his parents would have known them, he would have been taken to see them, he would not now, returning at forty-five to the countryside of his youth, be approaching it from a new and unremembered angle.
He stared at it intently, convinced that memory was only sleeping and would wake. But still it slept . . . only the sky awakened, suddenly plunging itself in light, as the sun broke through the western clouds and warmed the russet face of Palehouse into a deeper glow. Trees, grass and flowers, the slanting crimson of barn-roofs, the flat, opal mirrors of ponds woke into colour and life.
To Maddox, after his grey, gloomy day, it was a sudden revelation, a gesture and a welcome. He no longer tried to remember the past, but thrilled in the present moment and its conviction: "This is the place."
He alighted and rang the bell. A little girl opened it, dressed rather pathetically as a maid in an outgrown black frock at least six inches shorter than [Pg 226] her apron, with a queer little lettuce of a cap poised insecurely on her bobbed black hair.
"I have an order to view," said Maddox.
"Eh?" said the maiden.
"An order to view the house."
"I don't know anything about that."
"But it's for sale, isn't it?"
He had a sudden awful fear that the agents had been mistaken and that the place was either not on the market or already sold. The girl did nothing to dispel his fears. She stammered uncertainly:
"I dunno. I believe they've put it up."
"I've come from Messrs. Rich and Cleave. Here's my order to view."
At this juncture he became aware of a voice calling in an imperative whisper, "Doris! Doris!" It seemed to come from a room leading out of the little hall. "Doris! come here."
Doris took no notice, but continued to block the entrance. She seemed equally unimpressed by the order to view; Maddox, feeling that something further was required of him, put his hand in his pocket and drew out half a crown.
"Here, take this and show me round—that's a good girl," he said.
Doris's features crumpled into a queer yokelish grin, that seemed to register embarrassment rather than pleasure. She did not take the half-crown, but, muttering something quite incoherent, vanished from the door. At the same time the door of the adjoining room opened and a young woman came out.[Pg 227]
"Doris, where are you going? What is . . . oh, I beg your pardon. Do you want anything?"
"I have an order to view."
"Oh, do come in. I'm so sorry you've been kept waiting like this. But my maid is very inexperienced. I'm afraid she can't have understood what you wanted."
Maddox gazed in some curiosity at the mistress of such a maid.
He had seen so little of Englishwomen that he found it difficult to place her. In Tasmania she could well have been some farmer's or tradesman's daughter, with her young pretty face, her not very new or interesting clothes, her hair carefully dressed in a fashion that was passing away. But such a woman out there would invariably have opened the door herself—she would not have remained in the background, ineffectually prompting an incapable intermediary.
This was another aspect of that English gentility which had so exasperated him since his return to the old country—the spirit which had refined the farms into country houses, purged the pubs into hotels, and taken all the salt out of the Kentish speech he remembered rough and savorous on the lips of farmer and yokel alike.
"Would you be so kind as to let me see this house?" he said rather stiffly. "I know I've come rather late, but I've been wandering round all day looking at places, and I have to be back in town to-morrow."
Just as he had been trying to place her, he saw that she was now trying to place him. She looked at him rather anxiously, with wide puzzled eyes that were attractively clear. It struck him that her gentility was [Pg 228] imposed from without by some iron code of custom rather than a natural growth of her character. He warmed towards her a little.
"I am very sorry," he repeated.
"Oh, it's quite all right. I'll show you round. It's really more convenient now than in the morning. Would you like to look in here?"
She opened the door of the sitting-room behind her. It was like the others he had seen that day, crowded with characterless furniture, falsely refined; but over its trivial contents the old beams sagged in lovely age and grace, and between the curtains with their Balham-modernist design an oak-framed window stood open to western breezes and a shining row of willows beside a brook.
The rest of the house was the same—a cheap and shabby refinement standing out transiently against an enduring background of venerable beauty. He soon forgot the foreground and saw only the old beams, the huge fireplaces, the richly coloured plaster, the wide views.
The place was just what he wanted—old, roomy, airy, sunny, squarely set among tall trees and ancient meadows, next door to his old home, in the very heart of the country that he loved.
The strange thing was that he could not in any way remember it—from no room did he get any remembered view, either of a field or of a beam; and yet, surely, living at the next farm, he must sometimes have been inside it—his people must have known the people who were there, perhaps the parents of the girl who stood beside him now.[Pg 229]
"Tell me," he asked her, "have you lived here long?"
"All my life," she answered in an eager, friendly way, for they had grown friendly during their inspection together. She seemed now to belong more to the background, to the tiles and the plaster and the beams, rather than to the furniture.
"I wonder if my parents knew yours, for I was born at Townhurst. My name's Maddox."
"Maddox . . . I don't know—I can't remember."
"Oh, they must have died before you were born, and I've been out in Tasmania ever since. But perhaps your father was here before you—in which case . . . might I ask your name?"
"My name's Standen, and we've been here for a hundred years at least."
"Gosh!"—a hundred years seemed eternal to his Colonial measures—"then my people must have known yours. And I've heard the name—yes, I'm sure I've heard it; but I was only seven when I left, you know."
"That's a long way back to remember. I should think you had forgotten most things."
"Forgotten! Not I! I tell you I've been living on my memories for nearly forty years. I've been happy enough out there—when my parents died my uncle and aunt took charge of me and gave me a fine time and a first-class job—but I've always been determined that as soon as I got the chance I'd come home. Directly I got it I took it, though I could have made twice the money if I'd stayed out there another twenty years. But as long as I've got enough to buy myself a good place here and make it better—give the [Pg 230] rest of my life to it, something more than the last few years. . . ."
His eyes, glowing with delight, looked into hers and saw tears there. A new and painful thought came suddenly to him.
"So after a hundred years you're selling the place."
"We're obliged to. My father died last autumn and if we sell everything it'll only just pay the mortgage and his debts."
"Gosh! I'm sorry for that."
He looked so genuinely sorry that she lost the regret which had immediately followed her words. She had at first thought she had cheapened herself and the place by the avowal of her necessity, but in that blue, friendly gaze she seemed to read a sympathy that gave an added value to both.
"I'm sorry for that," he repeated, "though I'm the gainer. Do you know, I never thought you were the owner of the place? I made sure your father was somewhere about and you were just very kindly showing me round in his absence."
"I'm only part owner. He left it to me and my sister Lois."
"Oh, I see."
"I think I've just heard her come in. I'll go and call her, if you don't mind."
He minded a little; it seemed a pity to have a stranger in when they were just beginning to be friendly. He supposed he would have to go through all the formality and stiffness over again. He heard footsteps in the passage, and the next moment the door swung open and Miss Standen came in, followed [Pg 231] by a girl whose wild beauty gave him a sense of disturbance and unrest, almost as if it held a threat against him.
There was indeed something of the eagle in Lois Standen's face—an aquilinity of expression rather than of feature, if you excepted the piercing eyes. The other girl was pretty, in a wistful, elusive way; but this girl was beautiful, with rich colouring and a dark flashing air, which was all in herself and withdrew the eye from her cheap, shabby clothes.
She looked hastily at Maddox before she spoke, and her glance seemed to penetrate him and record him, making him feel that from now onwards he must occupy a definite if inferior place in her mind.
He began to stammer something—back in all his old uneasiness—but she swept his words aside.
"My sister tells me you've been looking over the place. It's in a simply dreadful state—there hasn't been anything done to it for years—but, of course, it wouldn't be going at such an absurdly low price it if was in proper condition."
"Oh, yes, of course; and personally I'd much rather have something that I can repair and improve myself . . . one has one's own fads, you know . . . what I want is something really old and unspoilt. . . ."
"This place isn't unspoilt—you'll have to dig through feet of solid wallpaper to get to some of the beams, and there are one or two old fireplaces hidden behind hideous marbles; it'll cost you a lot of money and time to get them out."
He felt almost affronted by her contemptuous indifference to the laws of salesmanship, but the next [Pg 232] moment he remembered that she and her sister were selling against their will, and doubtless it was in her character to be defiant where the other was resigned. Sympathy overcame annoyance.
"I understand that your family has been here for a great number of years."
"I believe it has—but I'm not much interested in these things."
"I'm interested because once I used to live next door."
"Yes, at Townhurst. I've been in Tasmania for the last thirty-eight years, and now I've come back to settle near my old home, as I've always planned to do."
"It's a pity Townhurst isn't for sale."
"I shall be happy enough here, I feel sure. This place seems just what I want. But for some reasons I wish it was Townhurst. Your sister tells me you will be sorry to leave here, and I don't wonder."
Her eyes contemptuously devoured his sympathy like dark, angry flames.
"Oh, Bella loves the place; I don't care about it—it's merely that it's inconvenient to me to leave just now."
He felt snubbed, and the affront made him speak ironically for almost the first time in his life.
"I'm sorry to put you to any inconvenience."
"If you don't, some one else will. Do you want to see the garden and the outside at all? If so, Bella will show you round."
He had opened his mouth to decline, but when [Pg 233] she offered him her sister's company he changed his mind. Bella's quieter, kinder ways would soothe a spirit that was becoming disturbed with a curious sense of enmity—as if the antagonism of Lois Standen were something more than the easy resentment of the moment, something charged with the bitterness of an old feud, a quarrel that belonged to the place itself and still lingered echoing in its ancient walls.
He had, of course, made up his mind to buy and the next few days in town were only a consolidation of his resolve, mixed with a strange uneasiness. The uneasiness was due, he told himself, to his pity for the sisters. For he pitied them both now; he forgave Lois her bitterness as long ago he had forgiven Bella that little false air of refinement.
Lois's bitterness, he told himself, had no deeper root in her character than Bella's gentility. Both had assumed a defensive armour against the cruelty of life. In his Ashford inn, the night after his visit, he had heard their story—a common story in these days of agricultural struggle and waste.
Their grandfather—who must have owned the place when the Maddoxes were at Townhurst—had made it fairly prosperous and raised it to the dignity of a small manor house. Then things had gone badly—his son, the girls' father, had not managed so well and had had more to contend with; and now, soon after his death, the whole estate of two hundred acres must be sold.[Pg 234]
It was impossible for them to carry on, with mortgages and inland revenue officials clamouring together for the old place's blood. Besides, two girls can't run a farm—neither of them had been bred to it; they had certainly better pack up and go. But the pity of it was—so he learned in the bar—that the highest price they could possibly hope to get for such a ramshackle place would only just pay off the debts and the mortgage. They would have no surplus to live on or even to start them in a new life.
In Ashford it was understood that they would have to live with relations in the North; which was hard lines on both of them—on Bella, because she loved the place and couldn't bear to leave it, on Lois because she was engaged to a young fellow in Brewster and Cobb's office, who wouldn't be able to marry her for another five years at least.
It was a sad story, and Maddox could not help feeling the villain of it, though he knew all the time that such a feeling was unreasonable, and that Lois had been perfectly right when she had said that if he didn't buy Palehouse somebody else must, so it made no difference. But he could not altogether rid himself of this feeling of guilt.
It was a feeling that had often troubled him before, for his reaction to life was mainly sensitive and romantic. He had spent twenty-five years on his uncle's sheep farm, working hard, secluded from the world, dreaming of the past, but even in such a life similar occasions had arisen, and he had often been able to soothe his conscience only by the most extreme exertions in sacrificial philanthropy. Now in this new [Pg 235] case, he saw that some equal exertion was required if he were ever to sleep peacefully in Palehouse, the place he loved.
He could not salve his tenderness by withdrawing from the bargain and letting some other man have the onus of turning the girls out. He loved the place too well to sacrifice it uselessly.
It alone, of all the various farms and estates he had inspected since his return, seemed to hold both past and future, with other more dim, tantalizing allurements. It was lovely, and he would make it lovelier—he would spend all his wealth and intelligence on it, both the house and the land should be reborn. And in that new birth he was determined that those others who loved it should have a share. He would plan for them as well as for it and for himself. In such thoughts his conscience began to find peace.
As a result, he was in high, hopeful spirits when he called at Palehouse five or six days later, and opened negotiations at once, in spite of some forbidding coldness on the part of Lois.
He offered the full price they asked for house and land, though doubtless they would have expected some bargaining, some exchange of guineas for pounds—the house-agent had said as much. He was taking all the land, but he did not mean to farm intensively; he had had enough of farming—hops and sheep—and all he would aim at now was to keep the fields and woods in good condition. This meant that he would not have to keep a large staff, which led further to the probability that two of the four cottages would be empty.[Pg 236]
He would take the likeliest pair, knock them together and make one good little dwelling-house out of them. He would let it to appreciative tenants; now—beaming with hope and delight—would it be any satisfaction to them to live there? Agreeable neighbours were more important to him than any profit; they could pay what rent they liked—and since they both wanted, for whatever reason, to stay in the neighbourhood, it would be a kindness to him to justify his hobby by consenting to live in the house when he had reconditioned it.
"I shall put in heating and electricity, of course, as I meant to do here—add a bathroom . . . in fact, make it thoroughly comfortable while keeping all its character and charm. It's what I've always planned to do—away out there I've often thought of it—how I should love to modernize and beautify a real old house; and two old houses will be better than one."
He saw half the success of his plan in Bella's glowing eyes, but the other half was more obscure. Lois broke into her sister's eager exclamations of delight.
"It's very good of you, but we can't settle anything now. For one thing, I must consult my fiancé."
"He will surely want to keep you in the neighbourhood."
"There are other considerations besides that. And anyhow, you can be in no hurry for a decision."
Rather to his surprise, Maddox found that he was—in a very great hurry.
"I can't press the offer, of course. But I do hope you will accept it."[Pg 237]
"I'm sure we shall," said Bella; "it's only that there are one or two things. . . ." She broke off lamely.
When Maddox was gone she turned to Lois.
"Why don't you want to stay?"
"I do, you fool. But I don't want to bind myself to anything yet. Besides, what are we to live on?"
"He's paying the full price—though Rich and Cleave said we should never get it; that will give us something to start with, and then we can keep chickens or grow fruit——"
"And puddle on somehow till we're broke. I can see all that."
"I don't see that we need be broke, and, anyhow, it'll be better than going to live at Guisborough."
"But perhaps we can think of something better still."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure yet. That's why I want to talk to Harry."
That same evening Harry Spragge sat in the faded congestion of the drawing-room at Palehouse, talking to Lois. They sat on two narrow-waisted, short-legged chairs, pulled close before a small fire of coal and wood, their hands locked together on her lap, their eyes hungry and sad upon each other.
They had been engaged for nearly five years, since Lois left school at seventeen and it looked as if another five might have to run before they could be married. Spragge made barely enough in his subordinate [Pg 238] position to keep himself, and Lois had never had any hope from her father.
Poverty closed round them both and yet held them apart; their only hope was the unlikely one that Spragge, on qualifying, might be taken into the firm of Brewster and Cobb, small country-town solicitors, from whose peddling practice in sales and agreements and county-court actions they might hope for enough to keep them in a poverty that at least was shared.
Last autumn the threat of parting had fallen upon them. When Palehouse was sold the Standen girls would have to live with relations in Yorkshire, dependent prisoners. Even the scarce meetings that had in some way allayed the hunger of their love would be denied them then—unless Lois and Bella took advantage of Maddox's offer to rent them his reconditioned cottages.
"But of course you must," said Spragge. "There's nothing else to be thought of. The man sounds pretty mad, so let's get all we can out of his madness."
"Oh, I know he's sorry for us—if that's mad—and is trying to salve his conscience by finding some way to keep us here. Bella is delighted. She doesn't care where she lives or whose charity she accepts so long as she stays somewhere near Palehouse."
"And what about you?"
"Oh, I want to stay, of course. But it's nothing to do with the place."
Their lips met sadly over their linked hands, and their shoulders leaned together in the two little chairs.
"The trouble is," she continued, "that I don't know what we're to live on if we do stay. He's paying the [Pg 239] whole two thousand guineas, which no one ever dreamed of our getting, and we shall clear everything for just under two thousand pounds. That leaves us about a hundred pounds to go on with. Bella suggests that we should keep chickens or bees or grow fruit, but that won't bring in more than about tuppence. I don't suppose he'd ever turn us out for not paying the rent, but we can't live on air."
"It's a pity we can't get something on to the price."
"Oh, there's no chance of that. He knew what it was from the first, and no doubt thinks he's mighty generous to pay the whole of it."
"Can't we think of something that isn't included?—something that he wants, and then charge him pretty heavily for it in addition to the cost."
"That sounds like your sort of job, Harry. That's what solicitors are for, aren't they?"
"Well, I might do something. By the way, who's acting for him?"
"I don't know. He hasn't mentioned anybody."
"Then it mightn't be impossible to persuade him to let our firm act for both sides. It's sometimes done, you know."
"I know; but of course he may have a solicitor all the time, though I shouldn't think so. He seems rather a mutt in some ways."
"In many ways. He evidently parts easily."
"Yes, and he's got lots to part with I should say."
"A pity we can't have more of it."
"Perhaps we can if you're clever."
"I'll do my best, darling."[Pg 240]
They looked into each other's eyes and laughed, and spoke of very different things.
Maddox had no objection to Brewster and Cobb taking charge of his side of the contract. It saved trouble and expense, and it put something in the way, he gathered, of Lois's Harry. The young man, though his position was officially subordinate, seemed to do most of the work of that small, leather-smelling office in Ashford High Street, which the senior partner, Mr. Samuel Brewster, visited only occasionally, while his more active junior went round the district, arranging and superintending sales and attending to the business of outlying villages on market day.
The negotiations were not very swift. Spragge explained to Maddox that the sale of old places was always attended with a certain difficulty. Documents were ancient and titles obscure, and at present there was some hitch in the matter of the deed of purchase executed by Amos Standen in 1811.
One very interesting fact transpired and that was that Maddoxes had actually owned and occupied the house towards the end of the eighteenth century. They had not held it very long, but a certain William Maddox had lived there from 1782 to 1797, and his son had bought the adjoining property of Townhurst and built the existing house.
To Maddox there now seemed something definitely "meant" and miraculous in his purchase of Palehouse. He was actually about to occupy the home of his [Pg 241] ancestors, perhaps to revive an ancient name and heritage. He had always vaguely planned to marry on his return, though he was shy with women and unused to them, and now he saw how essential it was that there should be Maddoxes at Palehouse—no mere fifteen years' occupancy or even a hundred years', but a family revived and restored and rooted in the land of its fathers.
His enthusiasm would not allow him to wait for the completion of the agreement before beginning his improvements. He was all alight to occupy the house in its new glory. He found that neither Lois nor Bella objected to the arrival of a crowd of workmen who were to recondition house and cottages as quickly as possible.
He took rooms at the Smarden inn and brought down a London architect to superintend the changes. The whole house was to be put in thorough repair—even a casual inspection had revealed serious flaws in the structure, old age approaching decrepitude, a dying house. But he considered that the small sum he was paying—two thousand guineas seemed a ridiculous price to ask for a farmhouse and farmsteading and two hundred acres—would justify him in spending largely on reconstruction.
The architect acknowledged that the house could be restored if only enough money were spent on it, and Maddox was determined that Palehouse should rise out of its sickness and stand strong and beautiful for at least another three hundred years.
Lois watched him with a certain angry contempt; [Pg 242] his enthusiasm seemed to her ludicrous, a schoolboy extravagance that mocked her difficulties. But Bella was delighted and reverent. She had always wanted to save Palehouse from decay and had sometimes in dreamland executed plans and improvements which now seemed about to take place on earth. Maddox began to wear some of the glamour of a fairy prince, waving his wand over a dying house and broken barns and restoring them to health and integrity.
He appreciated her interest and soon found himself consulting her. She loved the place and knew what it should be, which changes would be improvements, which merely the spoiling of ancient beauties. Besides putting the house in repair he was bringing the electricity over from Smarden, sinking a semi-artesian well to increase the water-supply, putting in central heating and two more bathrooms. At the same time, stripped walls and torn-out fireplaces were revealing new treasures in the way of old oak and ancient hearths.
Palehouse would one day be a very different sort of home from the uncomfortable, draughty, shabby-genteel, collapsing place that had sheltered the dreams of Bella and the despairs of Lois for so many years.
"And I think it so charming of him to do just the same for the cottage," said Bella, "even though he's not going to live there himself."
"My dear girl," said her sister, "don't you worry. He'll get his money back."
"Not from us—he's asking only thirty pounds a year."
"And at the end of a year, mark my words, it'll all [Pg 243] be up for sale again—the cottage for two thousand, the farm for ten."
"Well, why not? He wants to make money like everyone else, I suppose."
"But he's not bought this place to make money. He means to live here."
"I'll never believe that a man like him—a bachelor of forty-five without apparently a single relative in the world—is going to live by himself in the wilds for the rest of his life, no matter how comfortable and beautiful he makes his house. He may think he is at the moment, but I tell you he isn't."
"But he was born here—he loves the place, and has always meant to come back."
"I daresay, and now, of course, everything's lovely, but I expect in a few months he'll be bored to death. He's just the sort of impulsive, expansive man who hates living alone."
"He may marry," said Bella.
"He's sure to if you ask me; but no one here—who's he to marry here?"
"He might find someone."
"Who?—the neighbourhood's a desert. You know we have no friends. I shouldn't want to stay here another month if it wasn't for Harry. No, I give Maddox a year at Palehouse and us a year at the cottage."
"He'd never turn us out—even if he goes himself. He's the last man to play us a trick like that, and I don't see why you should say such a thing."
"I don't take quite such a rosy view of him as [Pg 244] you do. He's a sentimentalist, and they're never to be trusted. I'd sooner trust the hard-headed, calculating sort who won't move a step without signing first on the dotted line."
"There's sure to be some sort of an agreement about our tenancy. Perhaps you'll trust that if you won't trust Mr. Maddox."
"Agreement! Why should there be an agreement? What does he care about agreements? Look at him now—rushing on before anything is signed, because he's too impatient to wait to do things properly. He deserves there to be some sort of hitch—something that'll prevent him ever having Palehouse at all, if there could be such a thing. And I tell you he's just the very man who'll change his mind; especially when he finds how much he could get for the place."
"I don't suppose he could get more than he's spent."
"Oh, yes, he could, with the boom there is in old houses at the present time. If we could have afforded to make the house look really ancient—take out all the modern windows and fireplaces, strip off the wallpaper and uncover all the beams—we could have got three times what we're getting now, even without putting it in repair. Hullo! What's that coming to the door?"
"It sounds like Harry's motor-bike."
"Harry! . . . No, it can't be Harry. Why should he come here now? He'd never come in business hours."
But as she spoke Harry walked into the room.
Both girls saw at once that something extraordinary must have happened.
"What is it, Harry?" asked Lois as he kissed her. "You don't usually come here during business hours."
"I've come on business."
"Oh, have you got the agreement?"
"Agreement be hanged! We're miles from that—if there ever is one, which there won't be as far as I can see."
"What do you mean?" cried Bella.
"Have you found out he's insolvent?" asked Lois.
"Insolvent? Not he—he's rolling, as far as I can judge. I could hardly get up to the door for the workmen."
"Then why can't there be an agreement? What's happened? What's going to happen? Don't make a mystery of it, darling."
"I'm not making the mystery—it's there. Or rather it's more dramatic than mysterious. I'll give you the facts at once. As you know, I've been going through every available deed and document relating to this place, and this morning I unearthed a lot of stuff of your grandfather's, including the will he made in 1872. He left everything to your father, on one condition—that the place was never to be sold to any descendant of William Maddox of Townhurst; because—I've made a copy of this part, and I'll read it to you—because . . .
'the said William Maddox has put forward an unjust claim to this estate, which claim was duly disallowed by the courts, and will, I know, use every effort to acquire the property by purchase at my death, having failed to acquire it during my [Pg 246] lifetime by litigation. I therefore bequeath it to my son Henry Standen on the understanding that should he or his heirs ever wish to dispose of it they shall not sell either to the said William Maddox or to any of his descendants.'
I left out some of the legal elaborations, but that's the plain sense of it, and washes out our friend."
"What relation is he to William Maddox?"
"Grandson, of course. His father was Benjamin Maddox, who had Townhurst after William, and died somewhere about 1896. You remember that we found out there had been Maddoxes at Palehouse towards the end of the eighteenth century. Well, apparently they thought they still had a claim to it when the Standens came in, and William Maddox actually went to the courts about it—and lost. No doubt there was a pretty good battle between him and your grandfather; hence the vindictiveness."
"Well, it sounds extraordinary," said Bella. "Not like real life, somehow."
She covered her face with her hands, trying to think clearly. She suddenly knew that if Maddox did not have Palehouse it would be a terrible thing.
"What can be done about it?" she asked. "Is the sale invalid?"
"Sale! There's been no sale. You'll have to give him his deposit money back, of course—he's paid that."
"And what about all this mess?" said Lois, looking round her. "He's practically gutted the place by this time. This is the only room they haven't been into yet."
"He's an absolute fool to have started before he'd signed the contract," said Harry, "but, of course, he [Pg 247] never imagined there could be such a hitch. Legally I suppose, he'll have to put everything back as it was, unless we come to some sort of an agreement with him."
"I certainly don't want anything 'put back,'" said Lois. "I don't want the old beams and fireplaces covered up, or the hot-water system taken out, or all that shoring and pointing work undone. He must already have added about a thousand pounds to the value of the house."
"But that's his money," said Bella. "I expect he can claim that."
"Indeed he can't, my dear girl," said Harry. "If a man's such a fool as to spend a thousand pounds on someone else's property he must expect to lose it, that's all."
"It seems very unjust."
"Not unjust at all," said Lois, "except to us. He's got to lose his money, but we've got to be left with all this mess, with everything begun and nothing finished. Even though he may have added to the value of the house, we can't possibly sell it as it is. We shall have somehow to put it in order and that'll cost us all the extra money we're likely to make."
"Couldn't Vidler and Boorman tinker it somehow?"
"I don't see how they can—with central heating half in, a bathroom half built and all that sort of thing. They could smooth the walls and lay the floors again, but they're only farm men and have no real knowledge of building, let alone plumbing and engineering. No, I think that after all he had better put everything [Pg 248] back as it was. It'll cost him almost as much as it would to finish, and he deserves it."
"Why not let him finish?" said Harry Spragge.
"He'll never do that—now he can't have the place. I don't suppose even he's fool enough for that."
"You haven't quite got my meaning, dear. I was not suggesting that we should take him into our confidence and throw ourselves on his generosity; but that we should let him—just go on."
"And not say a word about the will?"
"Not till things are in a more satisfactory condition. Then we can unearth it as a new discovery. No one at the office has seen it yet—old Brewster's away and Cobb's so busy with the spring fairs that he's been leaving everything to me."
"But surely the will was drawn up by someone in the firm—someone must know about it!"
"Why? It was made in 1872—even old Brewster wasn't in the business then. I expect his father drew it up; and I don't suppose it's been seen by anyone since your grandfather's death. When was that?—'75. No, I tell you, if this sale hadn't come along the whole thing would never have been heard of; and as it is, it's been heard of only by us three. We can let it stand by for as long as we like—till Maddox starts worrying over his contract, which isn't likely to be soon by the look of him."
"But we can't let him go on—spending money on the house when it can never be his," cried Bella indignantly.
"It sounds bad when you put it like that," said Harry, "but it isn't quite outside the law by starting [Pg 249] all this work before he'd signed the contract. He's put you and Lois to the greatest inconvenience by digging you up like this—it was extremely good-natured of you to let him begin before you'd sold the place and cleared out.
"But he doesn't want us to clear out—that's the whole point. He wants us to go and live in the Pond cottages when he's made a decent little house of them. It's his kindness to us that's made him hurry so."
"He needn't have started the house till he'd finished the cottages," said Lois coolly. "No, my dear; he's done all this because he's in a blamed hurry and he must pay for his hurry, that's all."
"He must have known he took a certain risk by beginning at once," said Spragge. "If he didn't know, I've no patience with him."
Bella found that she was fighting with tears. She prayed for steadiness, conscious of Lois's appraising eyes upon her.
"I know he's been rash—reckless . . . but it's because he loves the place. After all, it's the home of his ancestors as much as it is of ours . . . and he was born here—at Townhurst . . . he's watched this house day after day from Townhurst Wood—he's told me . . . how he used to stare at it when he was a little boy and wonder what it was like inside. Naturally he was in a hurry to come and live here—to make it everything he wants it to be."
"All that's very fine," said Lois, "but it doesn't make me want to be left with a half-gutted house and cottages."[Pg 250]
"Of course I see that he must pay for what he's done——"
"And he must also pay for putting it back to what it was before, or else for going on with it. One will cost him as much as the other, and I'd much rather he went on."
"If this place is made really decent," said Spragge, "it ought to fetch five or six thousand pounds instead of two."
There was an eager little silence, full of thoughts.
And then you and Lois can get married, thought Bella. Aloud she said: "If he should ever find out what you've done he could prosecute you."
"Why should he ever find out?" said Lois. "We're not going to do anything silly. We're not going to wait till the last lick of paint's on and then produce the will. We'll only let things get a little forrader—that's all; just so far that it'll cost more to go back than to go on. We'll offer to make some sort of gentlemanly arrangement with him, too—we aren't meaning to be crude about it. But we are going to take our chance—now he's given it to us. If he's as good-natured and charming as you make out, he'll be glad that we're going to make something out of his mistake."
"I daresay that if we went to him now and told him," said Harry, "he'd agree to go on—to make up for having been such a fool and put you and Lois to such inconvenience, to say nothing of your disappointment about the cottage."
"Then why don't you go to him now?"
"Because we're not wild and woolly Tasmanians, taking everything for granted."[Pg 251]
"Oh, do stop arguing, Bella," said Lois. "Don't you see that there's nothing else to be done? The man's a fool, and I don't see why he shouldn't pay for his folly. He's rich, and he can afford to pay. He's generous, and he won't mind paying. So why make such a fuss?" She stood up. "Come on, Harry, let's go outside. I can't hear myself think indoors with all this hammering."
She took his arm and they went out together. Left alone, Bella heard herself think desperately that she would have to choose between her sister and Maddox; but she had scarcely time to think before she knew whom she would choose.
She could appreciate, almost painfully, Lois's temptation—her point of view. Here she was, after years of denial and anxiety and recent months of sorrow, failure and hopelessness, suddenly confronted with a chance of ending all her troubles. Palehouse, restored to the full commercial value both of ancientness and of modernity—equipped impartially with sagging beams and bathrooms, open fireplaces and constant hot water, oak casements and electric light—would be a really valuable property, capable of bringing her in the thousands required for her marriage and establishment in life instead of the mere hundreds required for the payment of her father's debts.
All this had suddenly come her way through what she considered the reckless folly of a total stranger. Why should she hold her hand and refuse to let him pay for his mistake, when his payment would mean to her all the difference between poverty and riches, misery and happiness?[Pg 252]
It is true that she proposed to hold her hand a little longer than the law allowed, but here again she had her excuses, being in complicity with the law itself. For a moment Bella wondered if, had she been in Lois's situation, she could have acted differently. She had the grace to see that it was the difference in their situations which made the difference in their reactions—that gave her indignation where Lois had hope, sympathy where Lois had contempt, that made her sensitive where Lois was unscrupulous and anxious where she was bold.
If she had loved Harry Spragge instead of George Maddox. . . . That, she knew, was at the bottom of her indignation, rather than any sense of honesty or fair play. If anyone else had made the blunder, she would not in the least have minded seeing him pay for it—even in excess of what the law required.
But she could not bear the thought of Maddox being made to pay for the very recklessness of his love for Palehouse—the place where their hearts met. They were united in the place, their love for it had brought them together, and it seemed wicked and cruel that they must suffer for a love which was only just not their love of each other.
A sob crept up her throat. Whatever happened now, they would have to part. He could never live at Palehouse, and she and Lois would never live at the cottage. At whatever price, someone else would buy the place and she and her sister would have to leave it.
What could she do? Nothing—except put herself right with Maddox, and Maddox right with Palehouse. She saw now that she simply could not let [Pg 253] this monstrous deception go forward. He must be warned before he had spent any more money on the place, at all risks before he saw how beautiful and perfect it could be.
She felt a certain uneasiness in working against Lois—a lifetime's associations made that appear treachery even though it was her sister's treachery that she worked against—but if it came to choosing between Lois and Maddox. . . .
She saw now how deeply she loved him, since for his sake she could turn against Palehouse, for Lois was Palehouse, and all their childhood there. But once she had made up her mind she did not hesitate. Her sister would never speak to her again—well, no matter, for after this their ways parted certainly. And Lois would marry—whatever happened that would be, she would contrive something out of this chaos of a property left on her hands.
Perhaps if they had all been honest Maddox would have finished the work, in reparation of his folly—he might even finish it now, since she need not reveal the full dishonesty that had been plotted against him. . . . She would do what she could for Lois and Harry, because her heart's necessity had made her understand theirs. But she would not strain at more. Maddox was first with her and must come first. She wondered where she came with him; for much—for all—depended upon that.
She found him in the little wood at the corner of the pond below the cottages. It was thickly planted [Pg 254] with chestnut, and from among the long, glossy leaves he could gaze at Palehouse in much the same way as he used to gaze at it from Townhurst. He started as she came up to him, feeling that she caught him playing a childish game.
But her face made him forget his own concerns. It was set in a mask of sorrow that seemed to give it some of the aquiline beauty of Lois's; and to warm and melt that beauty into the simplicity he had come to look for and rest in there were two tears rolling down from the corners of her eyes.
"What is it? . . . What has happened?"
She told him. That is, she told him enough to show him that Palehouse could never be his. At first he could hardly believe her.
"But how . . . how could such a thing possibly have happened? Why didn't anyone know before? Where's Spragge? I must find him."
"Wait . . . don't go to him now."
"But there must be some mistake, and he only can explain——"
"He doesn't want you to know."
"Not want me to know! What do you mean?"
She tried to tell him though she could scarcely find the fumbling words to do so. But she must have been clearer than she thought, for at last he said: "I see."
Gazing at him, at first she noticed no change in his face; then she saw by his eyes how terribly he was hurt—there was a hurt look in them, such as she had sometimes seen in the eyes of a dog. Her pity rose and choked her. She burst into tears.[Pg 255]
"My dear! my dear! don't cry—I—I quite understand."
But she was so grief-stricken that she could not even feel comforted when his arms came round her. She could only sob out her misery and shame:
"I feel so wretched—so ashamed—that this should have happened—that they should have treated you in such a way after the way you've treated them. . . ."
"But they haven't treated me in any way yet, Spragge has only just discovered——"
"I know—but they mean to . . . it—it isn't Lois's fault—she wants the money. She—she wants to get married."
"I can understand that."
She felt his arms suddenly hold her more closely, and for the first time a faint sense of comfort crept into her misery.
"You're very good."
"It's you who are good. It's good of you to have warned me, and I can't think why you should have done so when it means so much to you as well as to Lois that things should go on."
"I couldn't bear that you should be treated so—so unfairly . . . your kindness. . . ."
Sobs broke up her voice again, and as he held her to him he knew that no abstract sense of justice and gratitude could have moved her to this.
"So you care for me more than for your sister?"
She did not answer, and he repeated: "Is that it?"
He thought he heard her murmur something; it [Pg 256] was not very clear, but he thought it sounded like "So much more."
"Then nothing else matters."
It was not till some time later that they found out that it did.
Wandering among the chestnut bushes, looking only into each other's eyes and hearts, nothing had seemed to matter but the growth of their love during that last month, unseen and unspoken, from that first moment of ease and friendship to this moment of stress and revelation. It was all wonderful enough to keep their thoughts even from Palehouse and its crisis. But after a while he said:
"I shall look for another place near here. There must be some farm or cottage that we can take and improve upon. We neither of us want to leave this neighbourhood."
"Not after the way it has treated you?"
"It has treated me very well," he said firmly. "It has given me a wife."
Bella's thoughts moved away a little.
"Lois will never forgive me," she said.
"Why not? We're not going to quarrel over this. I shall put the house in order and let her have it to do what she likes with. I was a fool to have started all this work without waiting for the contract to be signed, and the least I can do is to finish it. Of course it'll mean I shall have to be careful with the other place—not spend much on it—but I shan't mind about that now I know it will be your home as well as mine."
"Palehouse is partly mine," said Bella thoughtfully.[Pg 257]
"That's one reason why I want to make a good job of it."
Bella was silent for a moment, then she said:
"I've thought of a better job than that."
"What is it?"
"Well, Palehouse is half mine and half Lois's. I love it, and want to live in it—she doesn't. All she wants is the money. If she had that she wouldn't care about anything—she'd be quite glad for it all to belong to me."
"You're suggesting that we should buy her out?"
"It wouldn't cost very much more than finishing the house for her to sell and buying a new one for ourselves. All she wants is enough money to get married on . . . and then—don't you see?—when the house is mine there's nothing to prevent my husband living in it."
"My sweet! My clever sweet! But will the law, this will of your grandfather's, allow me to do that? Remember that my name's Maddox and so will yours be in a short time."
"That won't make any difference. The will only forbids the house to be sold to any descendant of William Maddox. As long as you don't mind it nominally belonging to me . . . there's nothing to prevent a Maddox living in it."
"Two Maddoxes living in it."
"Or a Maddox inheriting it at some future date—through his mother. Bella, how clever you've been!"
"Let's go and tell Lois," said Bella. "I want to get that over."[Pg 258]
"But you've said you don't think she'll mind."
"She won't mind my having the house as long as she has the money—but she'll probably be angry with me for having told you."
"Poor Lois! I think I know now why she's always disliked me."
"She never disliked you."
But he was not speaking so much of any personal dislike as of that strange enmity which had flashed between them when they first met, as if Standen had recognized Maddox before a word was spoken. That enmity had been a part of the place itself, an old contempt which now was purged. He did not think Lois would be angry long.
You could tell that Myra Pollitt was a self-sacrificing woman by the look of her eyes. They were large, wistful—pathetic and yet brave. Sometimes the bravery died out of them, and they brimmed with tears. Then her sympathetic friends would murmur of a stricken deer; others were less sympathetic. . . .
She had married a very simple man. He came of yeoman-farmer stock, though he had been born in London and educated at Harrow; he grew very straight out of the parent root, which once was deep in Kentish soil, and a certain part of his childhood had been [Pg 259] spent at an uncle's farm near Benenden, where he had strong attachments.
Goodness knows how he came to marry Myra. She was a great deal younger than he was, and you would not have expected him to attract a woman of her subtleties and tastes. She "painted a little" and had a studio in South Kensington, where he would go and sit for hours, and stare at her, and slowly crack his fingers in a way that would have maddened most girls. Doubtless it maddened Myra, for when he forgot himself, as he still occasionally did after marriage, that troubled, beseeching look would come into her eyes, and she would murmur—"Oh, Stephen . . ." in a gentle voice that made him start like a frightened animal, drop anything he was holding or upset anything that happened to be near.
The general opinion was that she made him an excellent wife. She managed so well. Their income was not large, for he had only a subordinate position in a firm of brokers, but she made it go as far as many a larger in less capable hands. Their home, a flat near Kensington Gardens, was completely charming. Myra's artistic tastes were combined with an appreciation of solid comfort. She was a good housekeeper and not in the least Bohemian, though she loved to entertain her friends and have them round her. She gave frequent delightful little dinners, less frequent cocktail parties, and every evening one or two friends would drop in for a chat and a drink.
Secretly they may have gone for her food and wine and cocktails, for her armchairs and fires, for her little heart-shaped face with its two great eyes that seemed [Pg 260] to grow larger as time charged them with more pathos. But ostensibly they went because "Myra needed brightening"; Pollitt was such a dull dog, with nothing to say, not an idea in his head. Sometimes he would fall asleep in his chair after dinner—"had a hard day in the city," was his murmur of excuse; but he might have kept awake for the poor little woman's sake.
The poor little woman . . . that was Myra Pollitt on a man's tongue. The women were not so sorry for her, and she did not take them so much into her confidence. There was a young architect who almost adored her—he would come to see her between tea and dinner, between others' going and coming, and she would tell him how hard her life had been, how she had had to struggle, how she was struggling still. But mostly her friends were young married couples—young husbands who delighted in her hospitality, young wives who spied out and copied her ways. She liked people who "did things"—who wrote, or painted, or designed, or composed, and though she had not succeeded in attaching even occasionally many celebrities, there was a sparkle about her table and round her electric fire which made poor old Pollitt often look a bigger fool than he was.
He had his own friends, of course—she always made a point of inviting them—but they were a dull lot, mostly of country origins and commercial occupations, awkward and ill at ease amongst so much brilliance. You could always tell Pollitt's friends from hers by their frumpy, huddled appearance—like a little knot of sheep, who know that they ought to be doing something that they are not, but have only a vague idea what it is.[Pg 261]
Then suddenly the news spread round the Pollitt circle that they had been left some money—a lot of money. An uncle—not the one who used to own the farm near Benenden, but one who had gone out to the States—was dead, and had left everything to Stephen. "How glorious for them"—"I'm so glad"—"Poor little woman, she really deserves a bit of luck. She's been so brave and managed so splendidly."
But when the Swaynes called on the Pollitts, and found Myra alone, it appeared that her good fortune was not wholly untempered.
"Yes, it's quite true. We shan't be poor any longer. The lawyers say there's thirty thousand pounds, at least. . . . But, my dears, a dreadful thing has happened. Nineveh is for sale."
The Swaynes stared, politely baffled.
"Little Nineveh, you know, near Benenden in Kent, where Stephen used to stay when he was a boy. It really is a most unfortunate coincidence that it should be for sale just at this moment."
"You mean that Stephen wants to buy it?"
"Yes, of course, he does. He adores the place, and he's behaving in the most extraordinary way about it. You'd think something religious had happened—its being up for sale now when he's got the money. He says he must have it, and we're going down this week-end to look at it."
"But why should he want to buy it?"
"He wants to live there."
"Myra, you'll never let him!"[Pg 262]
Her eyes grew larger, distending with an appeal of unshed tears.
"How can I stop him if he wants to?"
"You know you can. Stephen will never do anything that you don't like."
"Perhaps. . . . But how can I stand in his way over this? It's the thing he wants most in the world. He's been talking about it for days. He means to set up a model farm there. Apparently it's in a very bad condition now, but he says it only needs money spent on it . . . our money. . . ."
Her voice faltered.
"But, my dear, it's impossible. You can't go away and live in the country. You know you'd hate it."
"Yes, I should."
"Then you mustn't let him. Really, Myra, you would be mad to sacrifice yourself in this way—living in the depths of the country—a farmer's wife—you!" It was Ronald Swayne who spoke.
"Stephen will soon stop wanting it—they do," said Helen Swayne.
Myra shook her head and smiled bravely.
A few days later she and Stephen set out for Benenden. Leaving the main line at Robertsbridge, they embarked on the rural innocencies of the Rother Valley Railway. A little single line ran them through endless hop-gardens, past farms with crumpled red roofs and white-capped oast-houses, over a dim spread of marshes, where the distances were blue and the foreground [Pg 263] golden, till at last they came to Wittersham Road station—a lonely little platform on the edge of a marsh. Outside, a car was waiting to take them the remaining five miles to Benenden.
"Not very convenient for London," said Myra, wistfully.
"We shall have a car," said Stephen, "that will make it quite easy—we can drive to the junction. Myra dear, I promise you that if we come here you shall have everything you need—everything you want."
His eyes were glowing with an almost romantic rapture. It was twelve years since he had been home—as he still called this country in his secret heart. He looked for changes, and thankfully saw that they were few.
"Look, Myra—there's the millhouse, just as it used to be. Oh, my dear, isn't it all beautiful!"
"Yes," said Myra, "it's certainly very pretty country."
She spoke sedately, for while he was coming to life, warming and expanding into a personality that would have surprised and perplexed the visitors to Cromwell Mansions, she was slowly shrivelling and dying into something equally unrecognizable. She seldom spoke, and when she did it was in a lustreless voice; her body sagged in the rough, jolting little country car. Only her eyes maintained their quality; they stared ahead of her, yearning and brave.
At last Nineveh appeared, suddenly in the valley below them, sheltered to the north and east by gently rising woods, open to the south in a view that spread away to the marshes, with Sussex beyond them. It was [Pg 264] a marvellous position for a house. If only the house itself had been presentable, instead of a long, low, rambling place, red-and-black, dwarfed under an enormous roof that swept almost to the ground behind it. There was only a tiny flower garden, and the farm buildings—oast-houses and barns—stood right up close to the dwelling-house, flaunting its farmhood which might otherwise have been disguised.
Stephen became almost delirious as they approached it.
"Look at it, Myra. Isn't it a splendid place? I see they've tiled the thatched barn . . . well, that's really better. Do you see that window in the roof behind? That's where I used to sleep—looking out on the trees."
"Dear old Stephen," said Myra gently.
The house was empty, so they were able to go about it as they pleased. On the ground floor a narrow passage led straight from the front door, but it was easy to see that the walls were only partitions; the door had led originally into the main kitchen. This had an enormous beamed fireplace, and Myra suspected more beams behind the dingily florescent wallpaper. The parlour wallpaper was also uneven with mounds beneath, but the fireplace was a Victorian atrocity in grey marble.
"Stephen," said Myra. "I believe there's a lot of old oak in this house."
"Oh, yes, I'm pretty sure there is, darling. The main part of the building is at least three hundred years old, some of it older."
Myra went over to the atrocious fireplace and inspected it more closely.[Pg 265]
"I should think there was probably a genuine old hearth behind this."
"Most likely—though this has been here as long as I remember."
"If we came here, would you let me put it back to what it used to be? Take off the wallpaper and dig out the old fireplace?"
"Why, yes, my darling, of course I should. I love it as it is—for that's how it was when I came here as a kid—but you shall do everything you want and have everything you want."
"Dear old Steve," said Myra. "Let's go upstairs."
They went up and found the rest of the house very much the same—deplorable wallpapers, wood and marble mixed with or covering ancient, priceless stuff. There was a number of rambling bedrooms with sagging, beamed ceilings. They stood in Stephen's little attic and gazed out at the wood.
"There's no bathroom," said Myra.
"No, dear, we don't go in for such luxuries down here. For one thing, water's rather scarce and precious. But I'll tell you—if we come, you shall have a bathroom; we'll have one put in. There!"
Myra's eyes grew larger, until it seemed as if they must flow together like two convergent pools.
After inspecting the place thoroughly, inside and out, the Pollitts went off to luncheon at the Bull Inn, at Benenden. Neither of them talked much. They were both thinking. Stephen was thinking: Lord, how I love that place. It hasn't changed a bit! I believe I could make a good thing out of it. I've got capital to spend. If I spent a couple of thousand on the place—gates, hedges, [Pg 266] buildings—and gave it a thorough good start, I would make it pay in a year or two. It's been let go to pieces, but the land is good land. I've always wanted a farm, and to be farming Nineveh sounds almost too good to be true. But there's Myra . . . what about her? If she doesn't want to come here, I've no right to make her. She's so unselfish that I've no right to put upon her. Oh, I do hope she wants to come! I'm sure I could make her happy here. She'd soon find she had lots of interests, and I should see that she led a proper civilized life . . . a car and a bathroom . . . but I'm sure we'd both be better out of London. I hate that crowd—always coming to see what they can get out of us, and full of all sorts of idiotic talk and notions. Myra would be better without them. Those Swaynes . . . that Lake. . . .
Myra was thinking: the place is abominable now, but it has marvellous possibilities. If only it was thoroughly restored—all the old oak and old fireplaces dug out and exposed—it would be a real show place. And now we've got that money we can afford to buy some really good old furniture for it. . . . And we could enlarge the garden—take in the field in front of the house and that orchard piece; and we could put down a dancing floor in one of the barns. There's plenty of room for guests; we could have some jolly week-end parties—nowadays one need not be cut off if one lives within a reasonable distance of London. It might all be rather fun . . . and it would be nice to get away from the noise and the fogs. . . . I should like to knock the parlour and the dining-room together and [Pg 267] make one huge room—and, of course, the passage wall must be taken down and the kitchen made into an entrance lounge. . . .
"Well, old girl," said Stephen, "what do you think about it?"
"It's a bit out of the way, Stephen."
"I know, dear, but if we had a car. . . ."
"You wouldn't mind if I did up the house?"
"No, no, of course—you shall have everything you want. If you make this sacrifice for me—and I know it must be a sacrifice in many ways—I've no right to prevent you doing anything that's necessary for your comfort and happiness."
Myra smiled away the word happiness.
"Dear Stephen, all your life you've been pining to come back here, and I mustn't spoil your chance now you've got it. I don't matter. I've been very happy in our little London home, and I'd hoped that some time we might travel a bit—perhaps I've wanted to travel as much as you have wanted to come here. But, my dear"—smiling bravely—"it's your turn now. You must have what you want. You shall have it—my dear old Stephen."
"Does that mean you'll be happy?"
"My sweet, there's something more in life than happiness."
"But I don't like. . . ."
"You must like. I tell you, we're coming here. And—I promise you," she said, looking very brave, "that—I—will—be—happy."
Stephen looked as if, had they been alone, he would have fallen on his knees and kissed her feet.
A few days later she said to him:
"Ferdie Lake's coming round after dinner to-night, to discuss Nineveh."
"Lake!" mumbled Stephen, who did not like him; "why should he discuss Nineveh?"
"He's an architect, you know."
"But surely you don't need an architect for Nineveh?"
"My dear, of course we do. We can't just make the alterations haphazardly."
"There won't be so very much to alter. It'll be a fairly simple matter to strip the paper and plaster off the beams; and the little end room will easily make a bathroom—an ordinary contractor's job."
"Stephen, we'll ruin the whole thing if we don't have an architect to supervise it. Besides, it isn't really as simple as all that. At present, all the bedrooms lead out of one another—we shall have to make a passage or something."
"And the kitchen premises will want a lot of improvement if we're to have good servants. The servant problem is a very real one in the country, and I'm not used to doing my own housework."
"No, darling, of course not, and I shouldn't ask you."
He told himself that she must have her way in this, since she was sacrificing it in everything else. But it was a pity to engage Lake . . . he did not like Lake, and in his heart he knew that one of the reasons he felt so glad they were leaving town was that he would no longer find that elegant lounging figure in his drawing-room every evening or two, when he came home from the city.[Pg 269]
"Wouldn't it be better to have someone who wasn't a personal friend? . . . makes things awkward sometimes, you know."
"Oh, it won't with Ferdie—and, of course, he's perfect with old houses. He restored Lady Palling's place near Winchelsea, and made a magnificent job of it. There was an article in one of the papers about it."
Stephen grunted, and a nameless fear pricked into him. Nineveh . . . the dear old place, with its tarred weather-boarding and huge, red sprawl of a roof, with its sweet-smelling, untidy garden, with its dark, low rooms and garish wallpaper—the marble mantelpiece where Aunt Emma's photographs used to stand, and the shiny aspidistra on the little table before the window, peeping out between the lace flowers of the curtains. . . . Of course, he knew that it wasn't right—the mantelpiece and aspidistra part of it; but they belonged somehow, they were Nineveh as he had known it. He knew that they must go—it was just stupid sentiment, wanting to keep things as they used to be. Myra must uncover the old oak, and knock down the passage walls. But she must not change the place too much—make it smart and different. That would spoil it. And he did not trust Lake.
He trusted him still less when the evening's talk was over, ending in a plan to go down, all three, to Benenden, for the architect to make a survey.
"It sounds gorgeous, Myra. I believe you've found a gem."
"I didn't find it, Ferdie. It was Stephen's old home."
"Well, anyway, you've had the vision and intuition to see it as I bet Stephen never saw it."
No, Stephen never had seen it in the least as Myra [Pg 270] saw it. She stared at Ferdinand Lake, sprawling on her divan, as if she saw reflected in his eyes the house that he would make for her one day—full of old oak beams, king-posts, queen-posts, sailors, solignum, all sorts of things that Stephen knew nothing about, but of which they had talked animatedly the whole evening.
For the next few weeks they talked of nothing else. The visit to Benenden, though Stephen found it in many ways a trial, was productive in Lake of endless raptures.
"My dear Myra, it's a perfect peach of a house. I shall simply love restoring it for you. We've only to strip those walls to find treasures. And did you know that all the beams in the kitchen ceiling have chamfered ends? . . . And I tell you what we must do—we must take down the upstairs ceilings and let the rooms go right into the roof. It will be splendid."
Stephen's heart sank, but he felt restored by the new glow in Myra's eyes as she listened to Lake. After all, she was sacrificing a great deal to come with him to Nineveh, and he must not grudge her such compensations as she could find in this restoration of the house. Most of his objections were sentimental, stupid attachments to bad old ways. He could not—and should not—expect her to share them. The reconstruction would make her parting from London and her friends easier, and it would not cost him more than he could afford at present.
But he changed his mind about this when finally he saw Lake's plans—triumphantly produced in the midst [Pg 271] of one of Myra's parties. At first he could make nothing of them.
"Why, what's all this?" he stammered. "The house hasn't got a timbered front."
"That's just what it has got, my dear fellow," said Lake. "I made sure of that when I was down there. But it's been covered up all these years with that filthy weather-boarding."
That filthy weather-boarding . . . and he remembered the little black house with white eyes that had stared at him down the valley as he came up towards it from Skullsgate Wood. It had gleamed black and white and red in the sunset, and as he drew nearer he had seen in the frame of that white casement Ruth Pennell looking out at him and smiling. One evening he had gone straight to the pane and put his face against it, just where hers was leaning, and he had kissed the cold glass through which her lips showed like the petals of a flower under water. He had never come nearer to them than that . . . known anything more than that cold kiss of glass dividing them. . . .
"Specially made steel casements . . ." Lake was saying.
There was no good thinking about Ruth. She was dead and best forgotten. Tear off the front of the house, if it made him think of her, and reveal timber and plaster unknown to both of them.
"But won't it spoil the walls to expose them like this after having been covered so long? I expect they were covered because they were beginning to rot with the weather."
"Oh no; of course, they'll be all right. I shall paint [Pg 272] the beams with solignum; but that plaster really must be shown. I believe there's pargeting in places."
Besides the pargeting the new house would present other remarkable features. Stephen saw that Lake had put in no fewer than three bathrooms.
"What do we want three for?" he asked.
"Oh, my dear," said Myra, "we simply must have three—one for ourselves, one for the servants—or we shan't be able to get anyone decent—and one for the visitors."
"Can't the visitors share ours?"
"Not very well, as we have four guest rooms. . . . Oh, Helen, oh, Ronald, oh, Ferdie, Lionel, all you dears, what gorgeous parties we shall have! I shall simply live for the week-ends!"
"But there isn't enough water. It's a dry part of the country. Even with one bathroom we should have to be economical."
"Of course you will sink an artesian well," said Lake.
Stephen opened his mouth to say, "Of course I shall do no such thing," but thought better of it and desisted. The feeling of the party was against him. He would have to discuss things quietly with Myra when they were alone.
Meanwhile, he finished his inspection of the plans, which transformed Nineveh from a farm into a country house, containing no fewer than seven bedrooms, four reception rooms, three bathrooms, and ample quarters for the staff. One of the outbuildings had been incorporated to make the extra accommodation. "But I can't afford to lose that barn."
"My dear," said Myra, "we simply must have it—we've [Pg 273] no large room for dancing or badminton on wet Sundays."
That night, when everyone was gone, he spoke to her seriously.
"These plans are really no good at all. Lake must have lost his head."
"Oh, Stephen. . . ."
She gazed at him imploringly.
"They involve tearing Nineveh to pieces and spending thousands of pounds."
"Well, we've got thousands of pounds."
"But I can't possibly spend everything on the house. There's the barns and the land. If we turn the house into a thing that size, then it'll cost us a precious lot to live in."
"More than we can afford?"
"Certainly—if I am to farm the land as I intended."
"But I thought the lawyers said we should have thirty thousand pounds."
"Well, so we shall, but if we spend four or five thousand on the house, that leaves us only twenty-five, and the income on twenty-five thousand, that is about twelve hundred a year, won't be enough to keep up a place of that size and magnificence, to say nothing of the farm."
"Won't the farm pay for itself?"
"Not for several years perhaps, and it never will unless I spend a thumping lot on it at the start. I'd meant to lay out two thousand at least."[Pg 274]
"Stephen, how could anyone spend two thousand pounds on a farm?"
"Well, I shall have to stock it—buy new beasts and new implements—there's precious little there at present that's any use. And the cottages are in a shocking state. I shall have to repair them, to say nothing of the hedges and the gates and the soil. And I'd hoped to put up some model farm buildings, and keep a really good strain of cattle. . . . Oh, Myra, you've no idea of the things I'd planned for that place!"
"It's always been a sort of dream of mine . . . to go back there, and live there, and farm it really well."
"And exactly how much do you want me to give up so that you may realize your dream?"
"I don't want you to give up anything—you've given up too much already. But I don't think you quite understand. . . . Do you really want Nineveh to be like this? I know it needs doing up and all that; but you're changing it entirely."
"I'm only making it fit to live in. You must remember that I'm not used to living in the country. After all, we're not planning to do more than put in a few common necessities."
"Do you call three bathrooms a common necessity?"
"Yes, I do, if we're to have guests—and servants. I tell you, people won't come to us as either, unless we make them comfortable. The country's very difficult. . . ."
"Oh, my darling, it really isn't."
She bowed her head like a lovely flower upon its stalk. It hung for a moment, then she lifted it bravely.
"Very well, Stephen. I won't insist any more. We'll [Pg 275] tell Lake the plans are no good, since they're taking too much money from the farm. He must think of something else—much simpler. One bathroom will do quite well if we have only one spare room . . . and then it won't be so important to have good servants. I expect I can always get somebody to come in from the village . . . and we shan't need anywhere to dance, or so much sitting room. Oh yes, it will be better like that. Your dream must come true. I haven't any dreams—not now—so yours must come true."
"Oh, Myra, it couldn't if you weren't happy."
The house as she described it now sounded much more attractive to him than the house on Lake's plans; but he knew by her voice and by the brave effort of her smile that it was not attractive to her. She would hate it, and he had no right to make her live in it.
"Look here," he said, "we'll give up the whole thing."
"What do you mean?"
"My dearest, I don't think I quite realized till now the sacrifice you are making. I can't allow it. It wouldn't be right. If you can't live in the country without turning it into the town . . . I mean . . . I shouldn't care for. . . . Oh, no, how can I put it? But we'd much better give up the whole idea. I haven't completed the purchase yet. We can have a house in town."
"Stephen, I should be miserable. You really mustn't make all this fuss about my little sacrifice. It's my duty as a wife to follow you wherever you go, and you want to go to Nineveh. You would be happy nowhere else, and therefore, my darling, it's true to say that I should be happy nowhere else. We are going to Nineveh."[Pg 276]
"Then you must have it as you want it—you mustn't sacrifice anything more."
"If I've made one sacrifice, I can make another, dear."
"No, you can't. I couldn't let you."
The argument continued this changed course for another five minutes or so, at the end of which Myra was forced to agree that Lake's plans should be accepted.
"It will be a lovely place, darling," said the husband, "and in the end I know I shall like it."
"And what about the farm?"
"Oh, I shall have to draw in my horns a bit, and then do more later. But we've the rest of our lives before us. And perhaps the house won't be as expensive as it looks."
The house was a great deal more expensive than it looked even on Lake's plans. By the time the weather-boarding had been removed, the beams and plaster treated and repaired, the wallpaper stripped from the inside, the ceilings demolished, partitions torn down, defective beams and posts replaced with their genuine equivalents in old oak, fireplaces dug out, new oak floors laid—where philistine farmers had put in deal—oak cupboards fitted, real old steel casements put in place of the white-rimmed glass, to say nothing of the three bathrooms, and the artesian well, and the new garden and the dancing floor in the barn . . . by the time all these things had been done, there was not much left out of six thousand pounds, and if they were to be able to afford to live at Nineveh at all in the style its new manifestation required, it was vain to think of spending more than a [Pg 277] hundred or two on the farm—repair a few fences and the more flagrant dilapidations of the farm buildings and cottages, buy a few cheap beasts and tools. It was not what he had hoped. But after all, it was something to live at Nineveh. He must concentrate his thankfulness on that.
It was some time before he was able so to concentrate it, for Lake's and Myra's plans were slow in materializing. They involved many delays while some special piece of old timber was searched for over the country. "We must have everything absolutely right," said Myra. "It would be a shame to spoil the place for want of a little care." And off she went with Lake to Rye, hunting for suitable oak; they made many of these expeditions together, and that vague jealousy which for so long had unworthily fretted Stephen, now smouldered almost into a flame.
Meanwhile she and her friends talked unceasingly about the house and all that was being done there. Of an evening nothing could be heard but the mysterious cant of their infatuation—"king-post . . . queen-post . . . solignum . . . sailor . . . chamfer . . . solignum . . . pargeting . . . dogs . . . solignum . . . solignum . . . solignum. . . ."
Listening in silence, only half understanding, Stephen almost hated Nineveh.
On the night before they left to live there, Myra gave her last party in the flat. The room was crowded; everybody talked and laughed and screamed. Young Swayne [Pg 278] stood behind an improvised bar and shook cocktails, an accomplishment which Stephen had never been able to learn. There were glasses and cigarette-ends everywhere. The air was insufferably close and hot, and altogether it was a mercy that they were going where this could never happen again.
"Here's to you, Myra! Bless you!" "Darling, it will be ghastly here without you." "Oh, how can you go and leave us? We shall miss you so terribly"—"and you will miss us and everything, my poor sweet. What a life for you!" "I really think you ought to be stopped by law. People like you shouldn't be allowed to live in the country"—"Myra buried"—"Myra lost."
Myra smiled bravely. She squeezed hands and turned away. She lifted her glass in silence, first to this dear friend and then to that. She smiled, and blinked, and smiled.
"Isn't Myra marvellous?" said Helen Swayne; "one never could guess how terribly she minds going."
"It really is rather a shame . . ." Stephen overheard Lionel Webber say.
Then as each at last came to say good-bye, there was a further chorus of how-we-shall-miss-you's, and however-shall-we-live-without-you's, and Myra's eyes had quite brimmed over when the last was gone.
They need not have made quite such a fuss, thought Stephen gloomily a fortnight later, when Nineveh was full for the house-warming party. As far as he could see exactly the same company was assembled. Lake, the Swaynes, the Webbers, and some undistinguished young man occupied the four spare-rooms, and the rest of the [Pg 279] mob was parked at the Bull in Benenden and the Swan in Iden Green. It did not look as if Myra's separation from her friends was to be either long or complete. The low-ceilinged room with its heavy solignum-stained beams and tiny diamond-paned windows was choked with people. Everybody talked and laughed and screamed. Young Swayne stood behind an improvised bar and shook cocktails. There were glasses and cigarette-ends everywhere. The air was insufferably close and hot.
Of course, one or two of Stephen's friends were there; the Hems from Palster, the Jenners from Crit Hall, the Boormans from Skullsgate, and some others. They all looked even more terrified than his London friends used to look, herded together like sheep.
"Stephen, old man, you've changed this place for certain," said Peter Hem; "I really never should have known it."
"We're standing in the kitchen passage, aren't we?" said Mrs. Boorman. "You've taken down the walls."
"I'd no idea it was such an old place," said Sam Jenner.
"It looks older than it is," said Stephen with a sudden bitterness. "It looks older than Adam and Eve."
"But how about that weather-boarding?" asked Boorman. "Were you altogether wise to take that down?"
"Well, the architect seemed to think it was all right, and Myra wanted it"—he had recovered himself. "You see," he continued, "she didn't really want to come here at all. She doesn't like the country. But for my sake she came, and I felt I had to do a little to make things easier for her. I couldn't let her sacrifice herself entirely."
"Oh, no, of course not," said Mrs. Boorman, "and I'm sure you've made it a very pretty place. But I never [Pg 280] should have known it. What are you doing about the farm?"
"I'm only patching that up till better times. All this has cost a lot."
"I bet it has," said Boorman. "It's a pity," he added tactlessly.
Myra fluttered up to him.
"Now do come into the next room and have some supper," she cried, overflowing in this happy hour with kindness towards her husband's stupid friends. Stephen, as he looked at her, felt rewarded and comforted. For her eyes had, for the moment, lost their appealing look. They looked smaller than he had ever seen them—for once they were unremarkable in her face, which seemed all satisfied mouth.
Before her marriage, Mrs. Robert Relph lived at Shermanreed Farm, in the village of Notlye. Every traveller by road from London to Eastbourne knows Notlye, for it stands about half-way down the journey, where the road running out of the shadows of Wych Cross sweeps over the brown bare spread of Ashdown Forest.
But probably the traveller has never seen Shermanreed, for it stands below the road, in the Underhill village. Most of the villages on Ashdown Forest have their Underhills—groups of cottages and a farm or two, sheltering in the hollow below the road, and reached by a little steep lane. Sometimes it looks as if part of the village had slipped off the hill and lain tumble-down in the valley. From the road you scarcely would see it, save for the tall blue pillars of wood smoke that rise from its chimneys.[Pg 282]
So Mrs. Relph had had dimmed for her the traffic of the Eastbourne road, where all day the lorries go thundering to the sea, and the small cars whisk past with a buzzing noise, and the big cars murmur and slide, and at night the glare of headlights flows suddenly over sleepers in their beds and scares them with dreams. But she was as modern as anything on the Eastbourne road, and could drive her own second-hand Morris car, or her father's Ford lorry, though what she loved better was a stronger hand to hold the wheel, so that she could lean her shoulder against a stronger shoulder. Best of all she loved her humble place in the side-car of Relph's motorcycle that summer when he came to Notlye and won her heart.
She was Margaret Vine in those days, and known in all the district for that same easy heart—so easily caught, so easily escaping. But Relph both caught her and held her differently. She was serious about him, almost stern. When he came she dropped her friendships with other boys—she cleaved to him only. At first the neighbours laughed, then they said it was time Mag Vine settled down, for she must be getting on now—nearly twenty-eight—and it wasn't every man who would take her, knowing the stories that went about. She was lucky to have found a good substantial chap like Relph, who was manager of a garage at Uckfield, just opened by a firm of motor engineers.
She met him at a friend's house soon after he first came, and not much later invited him, at his own request, to spend an evening at Shermanreed. She did not often bring her boys home. She would rather keep her friendships free of even so much supervision as her parents [Pg 283] dared offer. But every now and then a young man would appear and eat his supper in the shadow of the ferns on the dining-room table, and then sit listening to the gramophone or the radio in the gaily furnished parlour, before his motorcycle carried him off to ravish the stillness of the midnight lanes.
Though Shermanreed farmhouse was old in years, old in the fabric of its walls, old in its timbers taken from ships, old in the great red sprawl of its roof to the southwest, it was exceedingly new and modern in its ways. It was lit by electricity, and water was laid on from Uckfield, superseding the old well; meals were generally eaten in the dining-room instead of in the kitchen, and there was "jazz" cretonne on all the parlour chairs; there was also a wireless set and a gramophone. Thomas Vine's roots and hay travelled in lorries instead of in waggons, though he still used horses for ploughing on account of the smallness and steepness of the fields. Mrs. Vine belonged to a club in London, and often lunched there proudly when she took advantage of the cheap day trip from Uckfield for her shopping. Of the young folk, May worked at a bookseller's in Eastbourne, catching the 'bus daily at Thorney Island, Lettice was away in town, model and saleswoman at a big store, Margaret stayed at home, kept her father's accounts, and sometimes drove his lorries. There were no sons.
The only person in the house who was not modern and up to date was Grandmother Alce. She was Mrs. Vine's mother, so was entitled to the shelter of Shermanreed for her last years. Margaret always felt a certain awkwardness when she introduced her young men to Grannie and that was one of the reasons she seldom brought them [Pg 284] home. Grannie did not fit in with the life of Shermanreed—that noisy, anxious, hustled, hard-working life that they all led, from the farmer down to the chicken girl. She belonged rather to the old life of Shermanreed, which the farm knew long ago, when the London road had twisted past it down the hillside, and then up again by Old Forge, instead of running above it on the ridge in the Straight Mile; when there had been no houses at Mount Pleasant or Puddingcake, no buses to Uckfield or Eastbourne, when the farm hands had lived under their master's roof, or in the cottages at his gate, instead of bicycling every morning from Piltdown and Hungry Hatch while the cottages sheltered the rural eccentricities of week-enders. In those old days the walls of Shermanreed had stood much as they stand now; it was only the interior that had changed—flashed and lightened, become suddenly bright and urban and restless like those who lived in it.
Mrs. Alce lived mostly in the kitchen, which had changed least, which still had its carpetless brick floor and white-washed walls, though the big open fireplace had been filled up with a modern range. She still used the old broad speech, and many strange words. The master's speech was broad, but his words were just the few hundred that are used all over England, while his children's voices had been educated into a queer, high-pitched refinement.
When Mrs. Alce saw her grand-daughter's new lover, she said:
"Good evenun to you. You've come a gurt way from Uckfield."[Pg 285]
"Five minutes," said the young man proudly; "that isn't bad for three miles."
It was one of Grannie's drawbacks that she never could understand how little time it took nowadays to go from place to place. She still thought of journeys in terms of her youth. Three miles meant an hour's walk, or at best half an hour in the gig, and on a wet moonless night was certain adventure.
Nevertheless young Relph liked her. Margaret need not have been afraid. He found her queer, of course, but he was one of those rare young men who like old people and her "talk" amused him. The family soon found that it wasn't necessary to shut her up when she started on one of her long, rambling stories. Relph was genuinely entertained, and his sometimes flippant comments did not seem to reach her. He would lead her on to tell her favourites over and over again—and though the Vines might be bored by their repetition, they were compensatingly amused by the secret nudges, winks, and whispers with which he listened.
"Dat was de saum young woman I wur telling you of —her wot married Mus' Penfold over at Fairwarp. Misfortun' wur on her, fur 'tis a misfortun' to see the Pharisees dance. . . ."
"Then I ought to be lucky. I've seen a good few Pharisees in my day, but they weren't dancing folk. Chapel more their line. Ha ha!"
"She seed 'em at Thorney Island. 'Tis a bad pläace."
"We'd better let the 'bus know it ain't safe to stop there."
"No, it äunt säafe. Dey took a child wunst—her I'm telling you of. Hannah Penfold's. She wur a fool to bring [Pg 286] it dere. But she'd bin over to Duddleswell and her shoes wur all cut to pieces—maybe 'twur Pharisee's work—and she sat down to täake off her shoes, and when she looked araound de child wur gone."
"Smart work that."
"She come hollering trough de town, and all de folkses wur up wud lanterns sarching on de forest, but de Pharisees had gotten de child hid, and she couldn't do näun till she'd bin to de well."
"That's the wishing well," put in Margaret, pleased that her young man was appreciating the story; "it's just off the bottom of the drive, down by Nightingale Pit."
"Well, you can show it to me as we go out," he grinned at her meaningly. "Go on with your story, ma'am. Tell us about the wishing well. Is it good for anything besides wishing, and is it any good at that?"
"Surelye, 'tis good fur wishing—'tis a wishing well. But you must wish präaper."
"No one 'ud never wish anything improper, I hope, and I don't think. But how do you wish proper, ma'am?"
"Wud pins, surelye."
For a moment young Relph was taken aback and the Vines waited in vain for any facetious remark on pins.
"Wud pins präaperly bent and dropped in de water."
"And what on earth is that for?"
Mrs. Alce suddenly grew reluctant—she hesitated.
"Fur de old gentleman."
"What old gentleman?"
"Wot lives down de well."
"An old gentleman lives down the well, does he? That's [Pg 287] interesting. And what does he do down at the bottom of the well, may I ask?"
"Is he a Pharisee gentleman?"
"Who is he, then?"
"It must be deuced uncomfortable living at the bottom of a well. What does he want the pins for?"
She shook her head. Her mouth straightened with a mysterious knowledge.
"Why must you bend 'em, anyway?" he pressed.
"So as no one else can use 'em. Dey're his."
"Surelye. You give him wot no one but he can use—you spile it, so as no one else can use it."
"And then he does what you ask him? He grants your wish?"
"Well, I call all that mighty interesting, and cheap at the price. A packet of pins, and I might wish for a hundred pounds and get it. Come on, Margaret my dear, you said you'd show me the spot, and it's time I was going."
Down in the Nightingale Pit, Grannie's words were forgotten. On the way there Margaret had carelessly remarked that they "were all nonsense," and when they came to the Pit, which is the local name for a wooded hollow, they saw nothing but the welcome darkness under the trees. The gleam of the well went unnoticed, [Pg 288] and the Old Gentleman down at the bottom of it went untroubled by human wishes.
Nevertheless Margaret had her wish. For there in the Nightingale Pit, Relph asked her to be his wife, and the next day the news of her engagement was all over Notlye and away to Uckfield. One or two young men swore, and one or two laughed, and one—a silly one—cried. The women mostly smiled. Nearly everyone said they wished her well, and only some added that she didn't deserve it. For days she went flying about in the side-car of his motor-cycle, showing him proudly to her friends. Her manner was changed—so definitely that all noticed it, so subtly that none could describe it; she was softened, sweeter, and yet more gay, more lively, more ready to laugh and to cry—and sometimes she seemed afraid, as if her happiness was too great to bear.
Relph had no parents to whom he could show her, and his friends were scattered up and down the country. But he had a brother and his wife living at Coulsdon, and he wanted them to meet Margaret Vine. As Coulsdon was a south-western suburb, and Sidney Relph had a car, it seemed a good idea that they should all meet for dinner one night at East Grinstead.
"It'll be a nice run-out for Erna and me," wrote Sid, "we'd ask you here, but we're without a maid at present."
This sounded very grand, and Margaret was impressed. She dressed carefully for the meeting, in her white silk evening gown, which showed to advantage her lovely golden skin and hair. She was [Pg 289] all white and golden as she stood there in a drift of sunlight under the rafters of Shermanreed, before wrapping herself in a rather seedy old fur coat, and pulling down a leather cap over her short, curling hair.
They went in the Morris, Relph driving, so as to shelter her evening finery. It really seemed ridiculous to be wearing evening dress, for at seven o'clock in June the sun was still bright, raking the forest from the high west. The air was soft and gracious, full of scents of wild rose, springing fern and budding heather. Margaret knew that it would not be long before Robert backed the car off the road, and took her away to some hollow on the far slope, where they might snatch a few kisses from an evening of public restraint.
Neither had spoken of it, nevertheless it was agreed between them. He found a likely refuge on the hill below Wych Cross. She saw him smile as he ran the car on the grass, and switched off the engine. Soon he was holding her arm, to guide her feet, uncertain in their high, tottering heels, over the clumps and pits of the heather.
They crouched down in a little hollow sheltered by some screening firs. They could still hear the ceaseless racket of the road behind them—charabancs, lorries, two-seaters, tourers, limousines, motor-cycles, all on their noisy way to and fro between London and the sea. Before them the forest sloped purple and golden into a pool of fog, beyond which rose the Downs, like the shores of a distant land, while just at their feet was a little ring of short, untrodden [Pg 290] grass, sprinkled with toadstools. Robert noticed it almost as soon as their first kiss was over.
"Look at that, now. Ain't it queer?"
Margaret suddenly drew back her feet from the edge.
"That's a fairy ring."
"What! Your Grannie's old friends! I'd like to see 'em."
He noticed that she had spoken strangely. She was staring out over the forest, and then down at her feet.
"You don't believe in all that nonsense, do you, dear?"
"No, of course I don't."
She rose indignantly.
"Let's go and sit somewhere else."
He followed her with a grin, and they sat down in the heather about thirty yards away. She was frightened, he could see it, as she crept within the warmth and shelter of his arm. But when he would have teased her out of her mood, she turned angrily upon him and told him to hold his tongue.
As it happened, Margaret was angry with herself rather than with him. She couldn't make herself out at all. What had come over her, that she should suddenly feel afraid like this?—terribly, horribly afraid of the forest and its power. Even in their new refuge she could scarcely feel at ease. She strained her ears for the roar of civilization on the road; but instead she heard the creep of hidden creatures in the bracken, the sough among the firs of a wind that blew nowhere else, and brooding queerly over all a terrible [Pg 291] silence, which seemed to hold all these sounds—even the sounds upon the road—within itself, and yet remain unbroken.
"Let's go on," she said suddenly. "We ought to get to the Hotel before the others."
"We've plenty of time for that still," said Robert. "Let's stay here a bit longer. We've only just come."
"No, I want to go, I don't want to stay here. I'm frightened."
"Frightened? What are you frightened of, my lovely girl?"
His arm drew her closer, but she struggled away.
"Oh, I dunno. I dunno. Only I don't like this place. It's so big and lonesome."
He laughed, for his ears were thudding with the traffic on the road. But he realized that she was really frightened and unhappy, and his love was too deep for further ridicule.
"Very well then. Come away. Don't be frightened, my precious one. Maybe we can have a little time together at the inn."
"Oh yes, yes—that'll be much better."
She was plunging through the heather in her high-heeled shoes, caring for nothing but to reach the car and the roadside. He followed her, perplexed and tender. Then he thought: "She's her Grannie's grand-daughter." He was not angry, and only a little contemptuous. He liked a woman to have a few fears, though these, by gosh! were silly ones.
The sun was still shining when they came to East Grinstead, though only in a low flood between the houses. They stopped at the Foresters' Arms, and found [Pg 292] their friends already waiting there, having made the run in less time than they had expected. Sid Relph was boasting the prowess of his car—"fairly eats the road, she does—eats it up, the little beauty!" To Margaret he was very much the brother-in-law to-be, holding her hand and patting it, only just not venturing on a kiss. Mrs. Sid was more aloof, conscious no doubt of the superiority of her black London gown over Margaret's country white one. The two women eyed each other up and down, vaguely antagonistic. Margaret forgot all about her strange fears on the forest. She wondered only where Mrs. Sid had got her pearls—at Woolworth's, she supposed.
They all sat in the bar and had cocktails, becoming exceedingly light-hearted. The prowess, speed, economy and comfort of Sid's car increased through numerous anecdotes. Mrs. Sid described the horrors of a servantless household. Margaret's antagonism began to melt, and in the end they entered the coffee room arm in arm.
A table near the window had been reserved for them, and soon they were deep in study of the menu and the wine list. The Foresters' Arms had learned that the glory of a dinner is in proportion to the number of its courses. "Grape fruit, crème Celestin, sole Cardinal, vol-au-vents, roast duck, coupe tooty-frooty, Scotch woodcock, kaffee," read out Sid in the raftered dining-room where an earlier generation had sat down to sirloin of beef and apple pie. "They do you proud here, don't they?—eight courses. And remember the drinks are on me."
To drink they had sparkling Saumur, sweet and yellow. [Pg 293] It made them all happier still. Margaret Vine's dark mood had passed away. She was herself again—modern, pushful, proud and merry. She was almost what she used to be before she met Robert. She laughed and talked a great deal, and felt quite warmly towards Mrs. Sid, who asked to be called Erna.
"You must come with me when you want to buy your clothes—I know a wholesale place in the city. I got this little frock there. Don't you think it's rather sweet?"
"I think it's lovely."
"Yes, it really is. And I only paid three guineas . . . it 'ud have been five at any of the big stores. And these pearls of mine—I really must tell you. They come from Woolworth's—would you ever have thought it?"
"No—not for a moment."
"And I got some Channel joolry there too—pink brooch and necklace. . . ."
Her voice trailed out of Margaret's ears. She was staring ahead of her, through the wide, uncurtained window. Outside the sunset had faded, only a great fiery scar burned in the sky where it had been, and against it lumped the forest, heavy and dark, sinister, ragged with trees. She had never before seen it from East Grinstead, her concerns having hitherto been in the street, where the houses hid it from view. But here, through the wide western window of the Foresters' Arms, it seemed to threaten her, scowling and lowering. Her surroundings of chatter and light and good company faded away, and she was alone—a lost thing—lost on the forest, running blindly [Pg 294] through a great living darkness, that both smothered and pursued her. . . .
"What are you staring at, Mag?"
It was Robert's voice that called her out of her waking nightmare. A queer new inhibition made her hide her fears.
"Oh nothing—just the view."
"It's a nice view, isn't it?" said Mrs. Sid. "A sort of moor, that looks."
"That's Ashdown Forest."
"It 'ud look nice with snow on it. Does it get covered with snow in winter?"
"I've never seen it."
"That's a pity. It 'ud look ever so nice with snow, and some blue sky behind it. You get a good view of it from here."
"Do you mind, though, if we have the curtains drawn? I never like an uncurtained window after it's dark."
"Nor do I—makes you feel unhomely. Let's have the curtains drawn, Sid."
So the curtains were drawn, and the great black mass of the forest no longer haunted Margaret's eyes. But she could not quite forget it, even after her second glass of wine, or the glass of crème-de-menthe she drank with her coffee. She knew that it was out there waiting for her, and that she would have to go out to it that very night, and cross it in the darkness before she could find light and cosiness again. It was queer that it should disturb her so, though now, when she came to think of it, she could remember other occasions when she had felt afraid. Was [Pg 295] she getting a bit like Grannie? Had she always been a little bit like Grannie? She scorned the idea—Grannie was a queer, old-fashioned, out-of-date old thing, belonging to silly, dead old times, when farm people wore smocks and sunbonnets, and drove about in gigs, and went wishing to wishing wells. . . .
"Let's go and powder our noses."
They were rising from table and Mrs. Sid slipped her arm through Margaret's.
"We'll have to be getting home after this—it never does Sid any good to be up late; he has to be at the office by nine, you know."
They went upstairs to the little cloakroom on the first floor. Mrs. Sid produced powder and lipstick from her handbag, and for some time they chattered and compared. Coulsdon spread its tail and swaggered before Notlye. Margaret was both impressed, and emulous. At her request names and prices were written down, and soon the angry summons of waiting males could be heard coming from the hall.
"Hi! you girls—are you going to keep us here all night?"
"There they are, as usual," said Erna, "never knew a man who could wait half the time it takes a girl to make her face up. I think they're jealous—after all, it must be dull never doing anything to your face except shave it."
With shouts of "Coming!—keep your hair on!" they left the room. The passage was in darkness; that was why, perhaps, they took the wrong turning, and instead of finding themselves at the lighted stairhead, suddenly stopped confronted with a glass door [Pg 296] flung open on a balcony. It was a sort of roof-garden, above the dining-room, and the dark soft air blew in on them, heavy with pine scents. The sky had faded to a pale, star-pricked grey, and against it the forest lay inert, featureless, almost shapeless, like a beast taking rest.
Margaret stood back with a faint scream; then, nearly upsetting Erna, she turned and rushed past her to the stairs.
On the way home, at a treacherous bend of the climbing road, between Forest Row and Wych Cross, the Morris collided head-on with a returning Croydon bus. Margaret was thrown out, escaping sensationally with bruises and shock, but Relph was caught by the steering wheel and terribly injured. When at last they got him out, they thought he was dead, but he just breathed, though consciousness was gone. A passing car took him back to hospital at East Grinstead, while another bore poor frantic, sobbing Margaret over the forest down to Notlye and the refuge of Shermanreed.
Here the doctor was called and she was put to bed with a sleeping tablet. But outside the gates of sleep the cruel world was waiting, and late the next morning she had to pass through them and enter it. Bruised and aching as she was, she insisted on going out to the post office and telephoning herself to East Grinstead for news of Robert. They told her that he was just the same. Would he get better? [Pg 297] The far-off voice hesitated—"it hoped so." "But do you think he will?" "Well, he's strong and healthy—but he's been very badly hurt." "Is there a chance?" "Oh yes, of course there's a chance."
This was all the comfort she could get, and it had to last her for many days. She rang up again in the evening, but the news was just the same; the next day she was well enough to be driven over to East Grinstead, though her body still ached and her nerve was almost gone. At the hospital she was not allowed to see Robert, she was told he was still unconscious, and authority refused to make any pronouncement as to his recovery. One of the doctors, however, touched by her despair and not unaffected by her beauty, described to her all that was being done for the injured man. It seemed as if such skill and science must save him, and on the surface of her being Margaret was comforted by the doctor's words. But below the surface she was quite unimpressed; in her heart she believed neither in science nor in skill, but in dread powers of light and darkness, chance and fate and all sorts of supernatural interferences. . . . She had never been so aware of this before, because her heart had never been deeply touched before she met Robert Relph. Her mind had accepted the conventions of her day, had believed in a world of science and machinery, had forgotten the old beliefs of her people, whose world had been less self-sufficient, more deeply involved with other unknown worlds. But now her mind, with all its half-baked, half-assimilated ideas, seemed not to count [Pg 298] at all. All that counted was her heart-anguished, loving, fearing, and following a science of its own.
Her heart held only one idea, one image—her lover. Even her love for him was not separate, but a part of that image, just as her fear was a part, and her longing, and the torment that had once been hope. To those who saw her she seemed heavy, mazed and stupid, and they still spoke of "shock." They were all very kind. The whole village was full of sympathy and offers of help. Gladys Gates, the girl at the post office, told her that she could arrange for the hospital to call her up at any hour of the day or night, and Gladys would run down to Shermanreed with the message.
Days passed, with conditions unchanged. Then one evening when a rainy twilight hung above Notlye, and the smoke of the Underhill chimneys drifted low over the forest, Gladys Gates appeared breathless with the news that East Grinstead wanted Margaret Vine on the telephone. She had not waited to find out whether it was life or death, and poor Margaret suffered as she ran a dread so great that by the time she held the receiver to her ear it seemed the only organ that she had—she could neither speak nor see nor feel, she could only listen to the voice that held her doom.
The voice did not actually pass sentence of death, but it told her that "things," never very good, had taken a turn for the worse, and that the doctors were going to operate at once. The operation was an exceedingly grave one, but it was his only chance.
Margaret found that she had a tongue.[Pg 299]
"Was it a good chance?"
The voice—a nurse's voice, brisk and kindly—hesitated.
"Not a very good chance—still, a chance."
There was a meaningless spate of explanation flowing past dead ears. . . . Margaret Vine, in her neat modern clothes, with her shingled head and the telephone-receiver in her hand, was mentally on the level of some far-back grandmother who in her desperation sought spells against the Pharisees. She was aware, instinctively rather than by any assimilated words, that the nurse would ring her up when it was all over. Till then. . . .
She faltered away from the telephone, taking no notice of Gladys Gates and her inquiries. The post office at Notlye is not also the village shop, so Margaret had to cross the road to get what she wanted. Mercifully there was a lull in the passing stream of cars, or she would certainly have been knocked over, for she was blind. Blindly she entered the general shop, and put a penny on the counter.
"A packet of pins. . . ."
The twilight was nearly gone, lingering only in pale streaks of sky where the clouds had lifted from the forest horizons. A thin rain slanted from the west, making ghostly patterings on the trees that hung over the little lane. Margaret was not following the accustomed Farm drive back to Shermanreed; instead, she had taken the hollow way that goes down to the [Pg 300] Nightingale Pit. The ground was muddy, and there was an ominous sucking round her steps . . . pattering and sucking—feet and mouths . . . innumerable small forms of life seemed to be round her, terrifying her in the dark. But she plodded on, her mind set only on one idea—propitiation.
A turn of the lane brought her into the last failing light. Ahead of her a pale gleam hung under a cloud, above the forest, which lay swart and dark and threatening, muttering at her with a thousand small voices. The light and what it revealed were more terrifying than the darkness of ten yards back. She felt her legs bow under her, while her skin crept . . . but the blind urge drove her forward, would not let her sink. She must make her one great bid for Robert's life—nothing else was any good, could ever have been any good. His destiny and hers did not lie with science and skill, with doctors and nurses and instruments and anæsthetics, but with an Old Gentleman at the bottom of a well.
". . . A wishing well. But you must wish präaper —wud pins . . . präaperly bent and dropped in de water. . . ."
Grannie's voice seemed to come to her above all the muttering small voices of the leaves and the rain. When she had first heard it speak those words she had mocked, and now They were offended, and had persecuted her, and would do Robert to death if she did not humble herself before Them and offer Them what They asked.
It was so dark as she entered the Nightingale Pit, that she nearly fell over a stone. But luckily she was [Pg 301] wearing low-heeled shoes and just managed to keep her balance. For a moment she groped blindly, moving her hands along the damp bark of trees. Then as her eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness she was able to distinguish the hood of the well rising above a bit of ruined wall. With an occasional bump and stumble she reached it, and knelt down.
At first she could see nothing, and her hand swept round vainly for the rim. Suppose she dropped the pins into some wrong place. . . . Her teeth were chattering, and she could feel the wet grass through the knees of her stockings. Then suddenly, far down, she caught the glimmer of water, shining with some reflection of the sky above the trees. She had found the well—all she had to do was to throw in the pins, bend them and throw them in.
Her fingers fumbled madly in the dark. Every minute was precious, for Robert's journey between life and death could now be measured in minutes, and even now as he lay in the operating theatre They were leading him along it, nearer to the edge. . . . A sudden wild, despairing cry went through the Nightingale Pit. Margaret started to her feet and nearly dropped her precious pins. The cry drooled on and died, while another voice seemed to be uttering shrill queries from the hedge. The next minute she realized the actors in the tragedy—a rabbit, a weasel, and a suddenly-wakened bird, but already her heart was nearly suffocating her with its leaps. It was as if she had heard her lover's despairing cry as They pushed him over. . . .
The packet was open, the pins were in her hand. [Pg 302] She was bending them hurriedly with numb, wet fingers. Every now and then some fell with a thin little sound on the stones round the well. Präaperly wud bent pins . . . she cast them down on the pale glimmer that was the reflected sky, and saw eddies on the water, receiving them.
"Old Gentleman," she murmured, "Old Gentleman down in the well. Don't let Robert die. Grant my wish. Make him live. Look what I'm sending you. Make him live."
She had dropped in her last pin, präaperly bent, and suddenly a great peace fell upon her, a sense of security. Her sacrifice was accepted—not merely the ritual offering of the pins, but the underlying reality of her humble and repentant heart. The Old Gentleman had forgiven her blaspheming, and They—the Unnamed People—had forgiven her and would stay Their vengeance. From that minute she knew that Robert would get well.
The night was blacker than ever in the Nightingale Pit, but her way seemed full of light as she rose from the well, and found her way back to the lane. The tiny feet and tiny mouths were still there, pattering and sucking, and ahead of her the forest lay under the last gleam. But there was no longer that threat, that sense of enmity. The wind was friendly with promises, the rain was refreshment to her hot face, the wet earth softness to her tired feet. The woods were full of happy life, secure in sleep, the fields were full of hope, while the trees sighed comfort to her from above, and all the forest whispered with a tenderer voice.
The King George the Fourth at New Romney was a goodish sort of Farmers' Ordinary, but knew its own value and made no immodest attempts to rival the New Inn, where the cream of the market crowd ate their boiled beef and carrots on Tuesdays.
It was therefore something in the nature of a public humiliation to Joanna Godden to find on entering the statelier coffee-room that every table was occupied, huddled over with the broad shoulders of Vines, Furneses, Southlands, Cobbs and her other rivals on the marsh.
True, she was late—she had had a delicate business to transact with the farmer of Old Honey-child concerning a ram that had strayed from his innings into her fields at Ansdore and fathered some unauthorized lambs. She had emerged from it defeated, hot and flustered, conscious that her hat had been pushed [Pg 304] on one side in the dramatic urgencies of conversation, and that she badly wanted her dinner.
Now, though her hat was straight and some of the colour on her cheeks had died down, she felt her defeat consummated by the crowded dining-room, and those ungallant diners, not one of whom would rise to offer her his seat, though some nodded to her over their napkins, and some winked at each other, as if to say, "Here's Joanna Godden, who sets up to be master of a farm, same as if she was a man, being treated like a man and left standing."
For a moment she stood glaring at the ignoble company. Then she tossed head and hat at them, turned her back and walked out.
Where should she go?—for she must have her dinner. There was only the George, standing humble and withdrawn behind a row of copped or pollard beeches. It had a rustical look that she despised, but she walked in, having left word at the New Inn stables that Old Stuppenny was to call for her there when he brought round the trap for her homeward journey.
The modest dining-room had only one table at which sat a low couple of tenant farmers, Boorman of Abbots Court and Luck of Birdskitchen. Unlike their yeoman brethren at the New, they rose and bowed with a respectful "Good day, ma'am," at her entrance; but their homage could not wipe out their betters' indifference, and, with a careless nod, Joanna sat down.
She was late, and the principal dish—roast shoulder of lamb and onion sauce—was "off," which seemed to add to the tale of her humiliations. She accepted [Pg 305] the substitute of cold beef, and ordered a glass of ale.
There she sat, at a table with tenant farmers, eating yesterday's dinner . . . it was the kernel of the morning's bitterness.
The next moment she realized that a vague chugging sound which had vibrated in the back-ground of her life for the last few minutes had suddenly swelled to deafening proportions, a series of loud bangs bursting the dinner-time silence of New Romney's street. Both Boorman and Luck were on their feet rushing to the window.
"It must be one of them new ortymobbles."
Joanna, rising, could see over their shoulders a cloud of smoke, in the midst of which showed dimly the outline of a horseless carriage, shaking and jigging with interior convulsions. It was the first time Joanna had ever seen a motor-car, and the sight for a moment broke down the social barrier between her and her companions.
"Well, if that thing don't deserve what it gets from Providence!" she cried hotly.
The outlines of the car, so suggestive of a pair of sleek horses ahead, and then stopping short at a shaftless, smoking gulf, seemed to her impious. She could not share her neighbours' interest as to "how it was got to go."
"It isn't got to go at all—that's the whole trouble of it. Look, there's two men underneath it, trying to make it work."
For a few moments more all three of them stared in silence; then the two farmers, who had finished their [Pg 306] dinner, decided to view the portent from a closer range, and walked out. Joanna remained within, partly to finish her meal, partly because she felt her honour would be still further compromised if she associated herself with tenant farmery on such an expedition.
But she kept her eye on the window, none the less, and presently saw the smoke clear, while the banging and chugging abated into a silence that seemed by contrast to speak like doom.
Then two men emerged from under the car, and even in their state of grime she could recognize that they were master and servant. The master, indeed, was, in her opinion, a smart, well-turned-out young man, evidently a townsman, to judge by his suit of elaborate country clothes, such as are never worn in the country.
He disappeared into the inn, while his servant got to final grips with the now silent car.
Joanna wondered if he would come into the dining-room, though it was certainly beneath the contempt of such as he; but as time passed and he did not appear she gave up hope, which was suddenly restored by his entrance, cleaned and spruced and debonair, ushered by Mr. Nicols, the landlord.
"I'm afraid the joint is 'off' sir. It's market-day, and we've had quite a lot of people in. But there's some prime cold beef. . . ."
"I don't mind what I have as long as it doesn't take any time to prepare. I've got to be in Rye by three o'clock."
"You'll never be that, sir. It's gone two o'clock now, and Rye's twelve miles away."[Pg 307]
"My motor-car will do twenty miles an hour on these flat roads."
"You don't say so, sir. Well, it's justabout wunnerful the marvels we get these days. I'd never believe that anything 'ud go faster than my old hoss Charley, and we'd have to allow an hour and a half for his getting to Rye."
He took the stranger's order and left the room. The stranger glanced round, and saw that he must be seated at the table where Joanna Godden was gravely plying her knife and fork. He did not look sorry.
"You'll excuse me, won't you?" he said as he sat down; "but, as there's no other table, I'm afraid I must come here."
Joanna bowed in a stately fashion. She wanted to be impressive.
"Do you mind if I light a cigarette?"
"Do anything you like and pray don't think of me," she said graciously.
But the stranger did think of her, rather a lot. He viewed her, too, unobtrusively, while he smoked. She was in his idiom a damn fine woman, and there was a light and a fire about her, too, which was more than he usually associated with her type. There seemed to be, somehow, a warmth coming from her ruddy skin, and the hair that curled and flew from under her hat was like the flying anthers of the sun.
She was comfortable to watch after his long, jolting, stinking, dusty drive from Folkestone. He felt a kind of healing of his mind even before his beef and ale were set before him.
"Is this the only inn in this town?"[Pg 308]
He could not have asked a question more favourable to his wish to make her talk.
"Lord sakes! indeed it's not. The best inn here—and the only one fit to go to—is the New Inn. You'd have found it further up the street if your motor hadn't broke down."
"But I shouldn't have found you in it."
There was, unknown to him, a challenge in this statement which made Joanna ignore its gallantry.
"You wouldn't to-day for the only time there's been or I trust there's likely to be. I'd never have come to this place if the other hadn't been crowded out, thanks to my having been kept arguing. . . . Every single market-day but this I've been there, sitting along with yeoman farmers. This is a tenant-farmer place."
The stranger seemed determined to expose his ignorance.
"Are tenant farmers inferior to yeoman farmers?"
"Surelye! You'd never think a tenant of a place in the same class with a man who owns it."
"I see . . . and I take it that you are the wife, or the daughter, of a yeoman farmer."
"I'm nobody's wife, and certainly my father was as fine a yeoman as any on the Marsh. But I don't have to look back at him for where I stand. I'm a yeoman myself, and own my own farm of Little Ansdore, on Walland Marsh, between Brodnyx and Pedlinge. If you're going to Rye you'll pass the gate."
"Really. . . ."
The stranger was interested. At first he had been attracted, then amused; now he was something a little more than either.[Pg 309]
"Yes, indeed, and it's a finer place than when first I took it on. Folk said I'd never make anything of it, and I've had my ups and downs, but I reckon all my troubles are over now. I've a first-rate looker and some first-class sheep, and if there's fools as lets their rams come straying into my flock and then won't take the blame of it, well I can't help that and I don't care."
"And do you live quite alone?"
"No; I've my little sister with me—little Ellen. She's thirteen years younger than me, and more of a child to me than a sister."
She was ready enough to talk, feeling in sympathy with this stranger. He was not exactly handsome, though he had a decided air about him—a town air, which she half-despised, half-reverenced.
From her place she could see heads outside the window, watching the chauffeur working at the repair of his car. No doubt it was the first car that had ever been seen in New Romney, and folk were excited and curious and a little scared.
And all the time they were looking on in awe and wonder, the owner, the god of the car, was sitting at dinner with Joanna Godden, talking to her, asking her questions, telling her about himself.
His name was Leonard Parsons, and he was head of a big engineering firm, and, doubtless, thought Joanna, enormously rich. He lived in London, but had been spending the week-end in Folkestone, trying out his new De Dion Bouton.
Had she ever been driven in a motor-car? No, and [Pg 310] indeed she hadn't. Would she like to? Yes, and indeed she would.
She forgot that she disapproved of motoring and regarded a horseless carriage as an affront to Providence; she could only think how wonderful it would be to sit beside this stranger, dashing at twenty miles an hour along roads where others crawled on foot or trundled on wheels—conjuring up for herself an audience of Vines, Furneses, Southlands and all the yeomanry of the New Inn.
"Well, it appears that I'm going your way—I pass your gate. So why shouldn't I take you home? The car sounds as if she was running smoothly now."
"Reckon I've my own trap waiting, but——"
"Have you a driver?"
"Surelye; there's old Stuppenny. I've made him my groom now he's good for nothing else and bought him a fine purple coat to wear, as is seemly."
"Well, he can drive after you. You come along with me—I'll swear you'll enjoy it."
Joanna suddenly hesitated. Her first doubt had occurred.
"What about my clothes? I've got my best hat on, and though this gown ain't my best—seeing it was only made by that gal at Slinches, who don't really know French styles—it's a pretty good one, and I'd be sorry to have it spoiled."
"Then you must let me lend you a coat. I've a spare one in my grip. And we can fix a silk handkerchief over your hat."
She had pictured herself in the car with all her feathers flying, her hat burning like a torch on the top of [Pg 311] her head to signal her glorious progress. But she would have to abandon this idea if she wished to preserve its brave integrity of flame-coloured ostrich-tips and bronze chrysanthemums. After all, it had a way of getting rather suddenly and easily on one side. . . .
So she thanked him for his kind offer, and let him go out and fetch her a wide, silk handkerchief and long dust-coat. She arrayed herself in these, pleased to find that, after all, the former did not eclipse the glory of her hat entirely. As she adjusted it before the mirror over the mantelpiece she could see the crowd that had assembled outside the inn to gaze at the wonder.
The New Inn had emptied its dining company now, and on their way to the market-place they had been held up to stare at this astonishing sight—something shaped rather like a dog-cart, with a groom's seat behind, all thrumming and shaking with the mysterious power that was to take it horseless to Rye in less than an hour.
The engine was running smoothly now, or as smoothly as engines ever ran in 1899. Parsons hurried in.
"Are you ready, Miss Godden? We ought to be off."
"Yes, thank you. I'm fixed—and I've paid my bill."
The landlord hovered behind them as they walked out side by side like bride and bridegroom. Indeed, Joanna's feelings were not unlike those of a bride coming out of the door of a church in white satin and veil, walking beside the bridegroom who is the envy of all her friends and enemies.
For a moment she paused on the step and surveyed [Pg 312] the crowd. There they stood—Southlands, Vines, Pricketts and Furneses, all the yeomanry of the Marsh, who an hour ago had thrown her patronizing nods, now too astonished for any salutation. They were all goggling with open mouth and eyes, watching her being handed into the automobile, the rug being tucked round her by the dashing stranger, who the next minute took his seat at the wheel, the chauffeur, in his smart green uniform and peaked cap, jumping up behind them.
Crash! Bang! They were off in a petrol-reeking cloud that rolled behind them and made the spectators choke and stagger back.
For a moment Joanna felt she must fall out; for another moment that she would certainly be sick. But both terrors passed, leaving her thrilling and triumphant, clutching her hat as they bumped down New Romney's street towards the cross-roads.
Dogs and fowls seemed to be scattering in all directions—they passed red-faced farmers clutching at the heads of their plunging, kicking horses. The Marsh with the dykes and the willows went past in a scud of green through a whirl of dust. There was dust, dust everywhere. She felt it salty on her tongue, gritty in her teeth, smarting in her eyes.
It was impossible to talk and difficult to think. Not till they had gone as far as Brenzett cross-roads did she realize that she had entirely ignored old Stuppenny, who had waited with her trap outside the George, only to see his mistress rapt away from him like Elijah in a chariot and a cloud.
However, she reflected, he would in time have sense [Pg 313] enough to come after her and, anyway, she couldn't bother about him now.
All her thinking and being were given up to the ecstasy of the ride, to the sense of speed and power, and the still more glorious sense of being exalted above her neighbours, of having attained a degree of honour and felicity hitherto unknown by anyone on the Marsh.
No one would be able to look down on her any more after this; she would always be able to talk of what it was like to ride in a motor-car, or how the Marsh looked from a motor-car, or exactly how long it took to motor from New Romney to Ansdore.
The red and yellow roofs of Ansdore swam into sight through the dust, and she touched her companion's arm.
Spine, stomach and lungs, eyes, nose, ears and mouth were all a little weary of their new experience. But the glory would remain when her feet were once more on the ground. . . . Oh, how she hoped someone of Ansdore would be there to see her arrive—Mrs. Tolhurst or Milly Pump. . . .
She need not have troubled. When they were still nearly a mile away the noise of their coming had attracted the men from the fields and the women from the kitchen. As with a final roar and splutter the car pulled up at Ansdore's green gate, Joanna had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Tolhurst and Milly standing on the doorstep, while Wilson and Broadhurst hung over the yard fence.
Before such an audience Joanna must alight with sweeping dignity, and no puckish sprite of wickedness [Pg 314] caused her to trip in her descent. Parsons was already on the ground to offer her his hand.
"Well," she said, "I've enjoyed that."
"And so have I."
"I hope I haven't made you late on your journey."
"No, we're in excellent time"—he was helping her off with her borrowed coat "how am I to see you again?"
"I dunno when, if you're going back to London."
"Are you never in town?"
She shook her head. An hour ago she might have planned even such a mighty expedition for the sake of his voice and his air and his eyes. But now the man was lost in his machine. He no longer had an existence apart from the triumph he had given her. He had fulfilled his purpose and she did not care if she never saw him again.
He was a little offended by her indifference.
"Well, we must hope for a lucky chalice," he said lightly. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye. Thank ye and good-bye."
He was off, and when the noise of his going had died away and she could hear herself speak she turned to Mrs. Tolhurst.
"Well, Mrs. Tolhurst, and what did you think of that?"
"Surelye, miss, I never saw the like of it in all my days. Fancy it, now—you to be riding in an ortymobble. I never thought I should ever see such a sight."
"I quite enjoyed it," said Joanna grandly, "but don't say 'ortymobble,' Mrs. Tolhurst—it's 'ortomobeely.'"[Pg 315]
"I see, miss; and now if you'll take my advice, you'll come in and git some of the smuts off."
Joanna felt dashed for a moment, then realized that the worst would not have happened till they were some miles out of New Romney.
"Well, you'd better put on the kettle now, and I'll have a wash; and make me a cup of tea, that's a dear good woman, for my head's going round and round."
She found that her legs, her arms, her whole body, were shaking. There was a curious dinning noise in her head. She staggered into the kitchen and collapsed into the solitary armchair, lying back shaken, dazed and grimy, with a triumphant smile upon her lips.